Begun: June 29, 2004
Ended: June 30, 2004 (revised August 7, 2010)
Wordlessly the two nin nodded to one another. A third grabbed one of the several kunai stabbed into the door in the corner of the room. He pulled it roughly, throwing the door open with the force of the pull. Abruptly the silence was filled with a wet gurgling noise, soft but loud enough to draw the attention of the three already in the room. It ceased slowly, covered by the thick thud of the body sliding off of the slippery knives.
The original pair disregarded the body while the third pulled it into the room and then closed the door, pulling each weapon from the dead nin without bothering to clean them. The ninja bent over the cooling form and reached for the full head covering that masked hair and gender from sight. With a swift motion the covering was ripped away and the body jerked onto its back. Lifeless eyes stared, already covering with the hazy glaze of death.
His eyes were forgotten as the ninja above the lifeless body reached for the newly uncovered hitaete. A scrolling spiral rolled outward from the very center of the metalwork, decorated with a stem and a point. Together the marks created a beautifully stylized leaf, shiny and unmarred, even in the dim light of the room. One of the bloody kunai sliced cleanly through the silken wrap of the band and pulled it from the head of the dead Leaf nin. With a smirk, the Leaf marking was tossed into the air and promptly snatched by the closer of the pair.
"Still have doubts?" monotone broke the silence and the owner of the voice lifted the headband for inspection.
In response the last of the trio made a small sound of agitation from the back of the throat. "We'll mobilize before the next Chuunin exams."
Gravel-walking was always one of the more tedious exercises that Kurenai forced on her students; not because it forced them to heavily bandage their feet and not because sporadic shots of raking pain lanced through their appendages anyway. Sakura thought it trying, even as another sharp pebble bit into the flesh below the ball of her foot, because it should have been simple. It was easy enough to take one step after another. It was even elementary to distribute your weight evenly over your feet. The trick to the exercise was making sure that as you stepped, you led with your heel and allowed your ankles to absorb the impact.
Sakura did this somewhat slowly, even as she blinked away a drop of sweat from her eye. She wanted to sigh. She wanted to grunt or do something just to hear herself! She wanted to, but to do so would make a mockery of her torn haori and hakama, not to mention the tiny scratches and puncture wounds that speckled her body beneath the clothing. They were the reward for slight sounds made throughout the course of the day, courtesy of Kurenai, senbon, and the quick-to-crunch gravel beneath her feet. The kunoichi instructor had no mercy for her students and no patience for noise in the exercise. She had been only too eager to let one of the long needles fly if Sakura or her teammates breathed too loudly.
"So much for sighing," she thought as she prepared her left foot for a step. The transition of feet was just as important as one foot's landing. Too much force and she could upset the gravel beneath the already planted foot.
Another salty jewel of sweat rolled into her eye, and she blinked hard, her hand clenching as it came to her face to rub the irritated eye. She did not so much as gasp at the sudden burn. However, she did curse the sunny day and the total lack of wind. Wind would have masked some of their noise and cooled her skin, but if there had been a breath of it at sunrise, Kurenai would have chosen a different exercise for her students.
Sakura lifted her arm away from her body as her clenched hand drew away from her face slowly. "Don't rustle the clothing," the sixteen-year-old kunoichi told her arm forcefully. The helping limb came to a rest by her side and Sakura froze. From the corner of her eye she could see a head full of blonde hair eyeing her warily, not without a touch of consternation.
Sakura quirked her lips and a brow, daring Ino to say something about her actions. As risky as it had been to rub her face, it was over now, and there was no taking it back.
Ino simply shook her head, long hair held stationary in a thick bun on her head, and took another step forward. Her rolling movements were identical to Sakura's, from the way her foot flowed over the stone, to the carefully stilled arms at her sides. Ino seemed to float over the rock as if she had been born with wings. For her ego's momentary respite, Sakura noticed that Ino seemed to be just as worn and torn as she herself, and she could not stop a small smile that poked at the corners of her lips.
The exercise had been most difficult for Ino to master. Naturally loud and boisterous, and still so when not training or on a mission, Kurenai had forced her to master her voice and her movements. She had forced them all to do so, and no one had been surprised when Hinata was the most adept in practice.
Hyuuga Hinata, to Sakura's right, moved with grace and silence perfected with far more years of training than either she or Ino had. Sakura was sure that if she had wished, the girl could have walked across water without making a ripple. As mousy as she sometimes was, the girl rivaled their jounin instructor when it came to quiet. She could have given any of the Jounin in the village a run for their money in terms of stealth. Yet, for all of her expertise, she could not hide sporadic jerky movements from Sakura and Ino from time to time.
Sakura watched the ebon-haired girl step forward to stand evenly with her. Her tresses were kept perpetually bound- for training, she claimed, but there were many things about Hinata that Sakura had wondered for years. The quiet for example… The pink-haired kunoichi wondered if she were made to choose between enduring the training that made Hinata so efficient, or being as loud as Uzumaki Naruto, whether she would choose the former. There was sinking feeling in her stomach that for all of Hinata's efficiency and quiet, the Hyuugas did not hold a house that inspired peace of mind.
Creamy jade eyes darted back to the left as Ino took the lead of the trio. She watched and waited, hands clenched quietly at her side as she looked past Ino to the end of the walkway. Ages had passed since the first time they had gone through the exercise, three tries ago. Now she only wanted it to be over- another aspect of the test that Sakura was not fond of, a mighty test of patience.
At the end of the matte white gravel, were rocks a shade of brilliant red, positioned to create a line marking the end of the walk. Beyond were dirt and patches of lush grass. Grass that Sakura was going to dance on once she was off this cursed walk.
Ino's hand was in the air, fingers extended, with the back of the flat facing Sakura. The kunoichi crouched slowly, sensing Hinata bend as well, as she watched the blonde before her perform the same motion. "We're going to get it this time! We're going to make it!" Sakura told herself.
The first try had seen them make it only halfway before senbon had rained down on them, seemingly from all sides and they were forced to start over. The second had them near the end of the walk when a trip wire had been set off. It was sneaky and unfair, but Kurenai had expressed that battlegrounds were never fair and had sent them back to the beginning. The third time they had made it and had prepared to leap the rest of the way from the walk, when another shower of senbon had thrown them all loudly from the course.
Sakura's wrists, poised above her thighs, twitched and she felt a few of Kurenai's "stray" senbon slip into her fingers. If the woman thought they were going down this time, she was wrong- and suddenly Ino's hand twitched and they were in the air.
Silence surrounded the trio's jump, even as they sailed through the air toward the earth behind the line of red stones. The first senbon that brushed by her face, leaving a warm scratch in its path was all she needed. Tilting forward, she thrust her left hand forward as the ground rushed up to meet it. At landing, her fingers spread to absorb the impact before she tensed and pushed, launching her body once more into the air. It angled beautifully, or at least in her pride she thought it would have been beautiful, and nimbly twisted between many of the senbon. The rest were deflected as she descended to the ground feet first, with a soft rush of air, her right hand striking out like a viper, the senbon its fangs.
The kunoichi fell into a crouch as her torso, with her landing not as smooth as she had hoped, jilted forward, preparing to tip her entire being over. Her left hand shot out to the ground to steady her body, ready to feel soft dust and dirt beneath her fingers. The grass she suddenly wove through her fingers felt even better. It was not until the second rain of needles that Sakura felt she had missed something.
The oak's hard bark against her back left much to be desired. Her peach-colored hand shot up at once and wrenched five senbon from the shoulder of her haori where she was pinned to the tree. Grimacing, she looked left and saw that Hinata was in a similar position, only pinned to the ground. Ino was pinned as well, by Kurenai and the kunai she held pressed to the blonde's throat.
"That was very careless, girls," Kurenai spoke calmly, a flicker of disappointment on her face and gone again. "You should have checked the finish line itself for being a trap, goal or no…" Beneath her, Ino's chest was heaving. Sakura was not sure if it was from the effort or the adrenaline at being cornered by a jounin with a knife at her jugular. Either way, a grin lit Sakura's face when she realized that she could not hear the blonde's breath.
Kurenai seemed to share the sentiments, or maybe she just tired of crouching down over Ino's scratched face. She planted the knife back into a pouch at her back and took the girl's hand, pulling her swiftly to her feet. "Academy students could have perfected this formation by now," the jounin stated tartly, Kurenai's version of tartness. Her students had learned to pick up on the quiet woman's tendencies.
"What the crap?" Sakura thought inwardly, grimacing at the woman. "That critique's a little bit exaggerated, even for Kurenai." Wisely, she did not voice her opinion. The hand that had wiped at her eye earlier came up to the corner of her mouth where the senbon had flicked across her face. Still eyeing her teacher, she drug her hand over the tiny wound and then sighed, looking over to Hinata, who had freed herself from the earthen floor and was brushing off her backside.
She was prepared to stalk back to the beginning of the course when Kurenai held up a hand and Sakura gave pause. Ino, who had been rubbing at her throat anxiously, allowed her hand to drop and together the three waited for her orders.
"Go home. Get cleaned up. That's all for today."
To their credit, none cheered…
…And Sakura opened peridot eyes at the sound of Hinata's choking. She was not worried though, and even allowed herself a small chuckle. Before she had spaced out, Ino had been recounting one of her father's stories in the days of Ino-Shika-Chou. Hinata's bright red face made Sakura wonder which story it was. The next moment she was wondering how much Yamanaka Inoshi would appreciate his daughter and her innocent friends knowing such stories.
"What's the matter Sakura? You always laugh at that one!" Ino urged, her humored expression fading in disappointment.
"So it was that one," Sakura thought to herself, a small grin appearing on her face. She took a deep breath and allowed her back to curve gently as she relaxed into the comfortable booth of their favorite teahouse. "Sorry, I was just thinking…" Her grin grew as she released her teacup and set a fisted hand on the table. "Remember that horrible gravel training that we had to go through four years ago?"
Sakura was pleasantly gratified by Ino's disgusted expression. Hinata gave a comfortable smile at the blonde's antics. It seemed that they remembered it as fondly as she did.
"Silence by senbon?" Ino asked, though her expression told both other girls that she knew very well what Sakura was referencing. She sank back into her seat and slouched, as she was wont to do when only her teammates were present. "I thought some of those scratches were going to scar. Not to mention, I considered starting to wear my forehead protector as a neck guard! That was one of the hardest training sessions we ever did!"
"Only because you can't be quiet," Hinata teased gently, supporting her cylindrical teacup with both hands before taking a delicate sip. Sakura grinned and observed the quiet heiress. Back then, even she had been worried about Hinata's delicacy. During their first meetings, the kunoichi had been painfully shy and the one topic that she seldom spoke of, even now, was the one that Sakura speculated as the catalyst for most of her quirks- the Hyuuga family. Now, however, anyone who thought the girl all buttons and lace, an idea that her appearance and mannerisms fostered, would find themselves between in a rock and a hard place in facing her. Sakura sighed and nodded in agreement before reaching for one of the palm sized nikuman on the table. Ino frowned at the darker girl quirked an eyebrow as she too reached for a nikuman.
"I could deny that statement."
"But honesty is the best policy," Sakura retorted, coming to Hinata's defense before Ino could try to cow the girl. As much of an improvement as Hinata had made over the past few years, she could still be pressured into backing down from an argument by Ino. A slight blush lit Sakura's cheeks as she remembered that, though her attempts were not as numerous as Ino's, she was just as guilty of coercing her third teammate. "I take up for her too, though… And if it weren't for me, and Ino, she might still be the mouse she was when she became our teammate!" Sakura thought, trying to acquit herself. Thankfully, her expression did not let on any of her momentary guilt.
"Anyway, Kurenai used to really disturb me," the blonde spoke, a playful grin on her face that said more than her words that the woman no longer did. "Those red eyes, that quiet voice, all of those friggin' senbon!"
Hinata smiled and released her teacup, favoring her lap for her hands as she laughed gently. The sudden action drew her Ino's attention again and the latter pointedly said, "Don't laugh, Hinata! You used to scare me a bit too! Those white eyes, that quiet voice! …And let's not forget the jyuuken, shall we?" Ino's own blue eyes were growing steadily larger in mock panic and she grinned at Sakura.
Before either could say, anything, their petite teammate suggested, "Maybe five years has given you enough time to get used to the both of us, ne, Ino?" Ino reached out without hesitation and pulled Hinata into a one-armed hug, her grin warm and affectionate.
"Or maybe you'd rather have Maito Gai as an instructor?" From the sudden downturn of her lips, Ino was less than pleased with Sakura's suggestion. "Or Uzumaki Naruto as a teammate?"
"Maji!" was the girl's reply as she disengaged her arm from Hinata to cross both limbs over her chest, her back stiffening as she sat up straight. Sakura was not entirely sure whether the sudden indignation was feigned or genuine. Ino pouted prettily at her teammate and then eyed Sakura warily. "You certainly are being prickly today."
"Ee," was the reply as Sakura sank further against the back of the seat, exhaling a deep breath in one rush. Her eyes rolled upward, appearing agitated at the comment about being prickly. Hinata had not simply been making small talk at her earlier suggestion of getting used to each other. Five years of missions, as well as hard training with one of the best-trained genjutsu users in Konoha had given them plenty of time to learn each other's quirks and habits. More so, they knew each other. So when both girls began to giggle at Sakura, the pink-haired kunoichi was not offended, but gratified.
The sudden appearance of a fourth member to their party made all girls tense almost instantly. For their style of ninja training, tensing consisted of relaxing their facial features and sitting up straighter. Without a word, Sakura slid from her seat and joined the pair on the other side of the table. It was not an entirely uncomfortable squeeze, but shoulders were touching as the three crowded the seat. Kurenai took the now empty seat across from the trio. She was their teacher and mentor, and they respected her- they respected her position enough to defer to her, and though she had not asked for it in this informal atmosphere, propriety called for them to give up the seat for her comfort.
Ino, sitting in the center of the three, reached forward and handled an empty cup and the teapot gracefully, pulling back the long sleeve of her haori as she poured a now-lukewarm cup of tea for their mentor. As Ino poured, Sakura raised her eyes from their former submissive expression. Kurenai's gait had not been entirely lax upon assuming her seat. The set of her shoulders now, and the tension in her jaw as well as at the edge of her brow… Hinata shifted at the other end of the bench and Sakura knew that the Hyuuga felt it too.
The jounin's face was neutral, too neutral for such a place as this. As serious as Kurenai was, they were outside of training time and they had not been informed of any mission. Her pink brow crinkled ever so slightly as she tried to maintain a passive expression. Why did the other woman look so serious? Could they have gotten a bad evaluation on the last mission? At the thought, Sakura could not control the downward turn of her lips.
A few errors had occurred in escorting Takeuchi-sama's vassals from his main house to a summer house, not far from Konoha. There had been bandits that had made off with a horse at one point, but Sakura herself had pursued until the bandit had simply given up, cut the horses' back left tendon and left it. With no way to treat the horse during the mission, it was left to be put down, a memory that left Sakura feeling peculiarly queasy
Still, no lives had been lost, no money or jewels had been taken, and they had made relatively good time back to the summer house. Didn't that count as a successful mission?
"Is there a problem?" Kurenai asked, causing Sakura's head to shoot up in surprise. It embarrassed her to be caught off guard, but she recovered quickly, her face calm, if not as passive as she would have liked under Kurenai's intense ruby gaze.
She even allowed herself to smile slightly as she regarded the woman and asked, "Shouldn't I be asking that of you, sensei?"
Slightly presumptuous, and Kurenai knew it, but she only smiled. At Sakura's side, Ino's hand found her hip and gave it a tart pinch, not painful but not playful either. It seemed that the blond was not pleased with Sakura's actions, or maybe it was her attitude. Even so, Sakura felt the hand fall away as Kurenai gently nodded. Maybe it was petty, but Sakura could not resist the sudden urge to return Ino's pinch two-fold. The blond did not so much as flinch at the pain.
Her nod was small praise for Sakura's astuteness, but the younger kunoichi was nearly glowing as she released Ino's leg. As Kurenai took a sip of her tea and tested its flavor, Sakura felt the momentary pride vanish. If she was correct in her assumption that there was something wrong, then why wasn't Kurenai telling them what the problem was?
"In two days," Kurenai began as she returned her cup to the table gracefully. Sakura suddenly found herself, not for the first time, envious of the woman. Pale fingers fell away from the cup like water sliding over water and then they curled over the edge of the table in a nervous gesture. Even when tense, Kurenai was the epitome of everything that Sakura wanted herself to be- a graceful, subtle woman with the strength to protect herself, to protect those who she loved. "Yondaime will be making an announcement to change the course of missions from here on."
"An announcement from the Fourth himself, hmm?" Sakura wondered quietly, trying to mimic Kurenai's unnatural grace as she reached for her teacup. "Definitely important, but why do I get the feeling that this is bad?" Pale green eyes alighted on her teacher, who had not released her grip on the table.
"Who's the target audience?" Ino asked solemnly, all traces of her flighty manner gone. There was no delay in the answer.
Sakura was glad that is was Hinata who asked, "What kind of announcement?" The sinking feeling in her stomach was turning into a knot of tension that she could not dispel. "An announcement that affects everyone, to affect all missions from here on out. Still too vague! What's going on?" Later, she would wish to have never known.
"Effective immediately, all three-man teams are to be disbanded and restructured. Each team will have new members, new instructors, and contain shinobi and kunoichi."
The bomb dropped.
The expressions on the faces of Kunoichi Team A would have been comical if not for the fact that each girl looked like she was on the verge of fainting. Kurenai pressed, advancing on the silence, "For the first time in Konoha's history, Shinobi and Kunoichi will join the same teams and train under the same instructor."
The bomb exploded.