Summary: The Jounin Exams have finally arrived; signaling the start of what could be the biggest trial in their lives. Will they have what it takes to continue on their idle, pseudo-romantic relationship and make it out alive? Sasuke/Sakura.

Pairings: Sasuke/Sakura

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto, at all. All the characters belong to Kishimoto Masashi-sensei. The only thing in this story that is mine will be the OCs and the plot itself.

Appraisal of the Diamond
Chapter Three – Stage One

In room 407 of the Academy, some one hundred Chuunin were waiting, their gazes flitting from one fellow shinobi to another. The tension during Chuunin Exams was high, but it was incomparable to the fear that emanated from the Jounin hopefuls in the room.

Some were talking to friends, trying to calm their nerves as they waited for the arrival of the proctor. Others were busy talking quietly to themselves, perhaps to review what they knew about being a shinobi and what it took to become a Jounin. The more arrogant in the group were acting so confident that even the quietest among them wanted to shout to make them shut up.

But nothing scared the Chuunin in the room more than anything opening, be it the door or the window. Whenever it happened, everything suddenly ceased, their nervous gazes looking around for the source of the sound. When they saw it was another fellow Chuunin, the unusual noise they created filled up the room once more.

Outside, a raven haired shinobi fiddled with the door knob, trying to get it to open without hurting the one who was leaning against the door's frame. He didn't really care if the shinobi at the other side got hurt but it was too early to start a fight. The Jounin on guard watched him with an amused expression, artfully hidden in order to seem serious.

When he finally got the door to open, with much persistence and kicking the door, he stepped through the frame and into the somewhat crowded room. He was met with all sorts of expressions: anxiety, nervousness, ferocity, and the most amusing of all, to him at least, fear.

Most of them were probably staring at the long sword that was strapped against his back, something he usually left at his house since he had no need for it. Others were staring at his face, likely at his staggering similarity with an S-Class criminal shinobi they had heard about. And as he walked, there was something else that added to why he had suddenly become the object of everyone's attention, the red and white fan emblazoned on his back.

The frown on his face grew deeper as he approached a pink haired Chuunin, annoyance and frustration starting to appear on his face. Leaning his hand on the table, he supported himself as he looked down at the female, his look both condescending and desirable.

"Damn it Sakura! You could have opened the door," he hissed, his eyes flickering between red and black. She had seen it happen more often than usual lately, most likely because of the Jounin Exams they were going to participate in.

"You've always liked the fancy entrances, even in the Chuunin Exams of five years ago," commented Sakura, an amused gleam in her eyes. "I wanted to see how exasperated you looked when you couldn't open the door, Sasuke-kun."

The Uchiha snorted, slumping into the seat beside her, as he looked around. Sizing up his opponents was something he always did, not necessarily over or underestimating them. He was simply trying to see what kind of abilities each shinobi around him held.

As Sasuke continued to look around, his onyx colored eyes registering the features of those who looked to be strong opponents, a blonde kunoichi approached him. The hitai-ate around her waist bore the symbol of the Sand.

"You are Uchiha Sasuke-san, correct?" asked the kunoichi, her long hair separated and tied into two long tails. Rust red bands kept her hair in place, the honey blonde tresses resting against her crimson red, off shoulder sweater. Under the sweater was a simple black razor back and to match the black and red cloth that covered her upper body, she wore a pair of dark khaki cropped pants.

"What of it?" drawled Sasuke lazily, looking up at the female. When she handed him a piece of paper, the characters on it elegant and neat, he figured it was from Gaara. "Two things, is this from Gaara and who are you?" She flinched at the informal tone Sasuke used to refer to the Kazekage.

"Yes, that is from Gaara-sama," she replied curtly, her blue eyes darkening slightly as she glowered at him. There was no way the Godaime Kazekage could personally know this Leaf Chuunin enough to want a personally written message delivered to him. "And I'm Takamura Aoi, a Chuunin from the Sand."

"Tell him that I accept and that he had better be ready when the time comes. He started this," spoke Sasuke, trying to hide his rising anticipation. Aoi narrowed her eyes as she nodded, an annoyed look on her face. Without another word, she turned around and left, the two long pigtails flapping rhythmically against her back.

"What did Gaara-san say?" asked Sakura, looking at her former teammate. She had a feeling she knew what was written on the letter but she had to ask anyway. She wanted to make sure that her suspicions were wrong, no matter how little the chances were.

"It'll take place some time after the Jounin Exams if I become a Jounin. He's already working on making sure Tsunade will allow this mock fight," he explained leaning back against the chair with a satisfied smirk. Sakura flinched at the familiarity at which he talked about the Godaime Hokage as her spirits sunk. This was going to happen and with the nature of Uchiha Sasuke, he would do anything and everything possible to become a Jounin.

One Hour Later

The Chuunin were getting restless as the second hand ticked by. Each motion it made felt like an eternity for the Chuunin who just wanted to get the waiting over and done with. A few more minutes usually weren't a big deal while waiting but the longer they had to wait, the more anxious the Chuunin became.

The proctor arrived when they least expected it, most of them too immersed in their own thoughts to realize that their exam would start the moment the proctor finished explaining what they were to do. When they did look up, they jumped slightly in their seat, their eyes widening in fear. To some of the non-Konoha Chuunin, he was incredibly familiar, the same first exam proctor five years ago in Konoha, Morino Ibiki.

"To your seats," spoke Ibiki, his voice loud and commanding. The Chuunin stood up and shuffled, making their way to the seats that had been assigned to them. Before entering the room, they had already picked out a seat number from the Jounin standing guard outside.

Ibiki let out an invisible smile, his dark irises taking in the sight of the one hundred and eight Chuunin before him. His gaze hardened when it landed on the somewhat smug Uchiha, his own dark eyes sharpening and engaging into a staring contest with the Jounin. The long sword on his back seemed to make the Chuunin's presence even bigger to Ibiki.

"This exam requires your wit and ability to work under heavy time pressure on a crucial decoding the scroll in front of you," explained Ibiki, unfurling something that looked like a mission statement. "The scenario is that your comrades managed to send you that scroll with a message that you must decode, giving you directions on where to start and how to get there. You have two hours to decode because it will take you thirty minutes to get to the starting point of the next part of this exam, the Labyrinth Forest. At the end of the two hours, you will be quickly led out of this room into the Labyrinth Forest where one of one hundred and eight Jounin will escort you to your starting point. From there to the center of the Forest, you have five hours using only the directions you have decoded."

"Can we opt to continue decoding the message even past the two hours?" asked Sasuke without bothering to even be acknowledged. Ibiki eyed him with much interest. Knowing the Uchiha prodigy, he would finish decoding it within the two hours, he would find a way. His ploy was brilliant. It would cause some of the Chuunin to relax even a little bit, giving him a better chance of being part of the group of Chuunin who would finish the first part in the room.

"Yes, you can remain here until you finish decoding the message," answered Ibiki, playing along to Sasuke's little mind game. Being an expert at Interrogation, he enjoyed planting thoughts into the minds of the ninja in order to confuse. "However, you will not be given any extra time. You will be reducing the time you have in order to navigate your way around the forest. The average time it takes even the most skilled Konoha Jounin to get to the center of the forest is about five hours. It's your choice to either risk getting lost or having a complete map and being unable to make it in time."

"What if we enter the Labyrinth Forest but have run out of time in order to get to the center?" asked a honey blonde Chuunin, her blue eyes sharp and crystal clear. Sasuke remembered the voice. It was Takamura Aoi, the one who had given him the message from Gaara. "What then? Will we be left to die?"

"The Konoha Jounin who guided you to your respective gates will pick you up at the end of the five hour time limit. Whenever a Chuunin reaches the Tower, the Jounin escort will be informed that there will be no need to pick up a Chuunin from within the forest," replied Ibiki, his dark eyes showing his contempt. He would have preferred to keep the mind games up but that eased the tensions of those who were there. Even if they failed, though they would do everything not to, they would not die. "If there are no more questions, you will begin your tests right… now."

After his last word, everyone picked up the writing instrument provided, unfurled the scroll, and hunched over their desks, trying to solve their message. Each message was unique, the Labyrinth Forest having a total of one hundred and twenty separate gates, but they weren't assured of that. All they knew now was that one of the most dangerous games they would ever gamble their lives upon for sheer rank and prestige had just begun.

Almost Two Hours Later

Ibiki let a sadistic smile appear on his face as the haunting silence in the room grew even more haunting. Any time he would be asked to proctor the Chuunin and the rare Jounin Exams, he jumped at the chance. The thrill was simply exhilarating.

While he could walk around and breathe down their necks as he loomed over them, the Chuunin were jittery and jumpy. They couldn't screw up this chance, adding to their already long list of reasons to be nervous. What disappointed the Konoha Jounin, however, was that there were a few who refused to be affected by the tension in the air. This year, there were three, perhaps four, Chuunin who were unaffected.

Uchiha Sasuke was predictable, having turned into a rogue ninja once in his life, only to be captured and brought back to Konoha. It took him a little over a year in order to regain back his status. He took the Chuunin Exams in the Mist a few weeks later and passed it with ease. Truly he was a boy born with talent.

There was also that girl who had questioned him, the focus seen in her eyes never wavering. It seemed like she had a lot to bet on, more than just the usual things a Chuunin risked while trying to become a Jounin. She seemed to have the dedication and determination that a Jounin needed.

Lastly, there was a second girl, someone he didn't recognize, which was surprising. Almost all the time, when Sand Nin came to Konoha for a mission of some sort, they went through him in order to get to the Godaime. He never remembered seeing her before but she held a strange calmness that almost sent chills down his spine. Almost.

Looking at the clock, Ibiki counted down how many seconds were left. There were about fifteen but he wouldn't mention that to them until the time was actually over. He wanted to see if anyone would jump in their seats and if anyone had actually finished the exam. He bet only a handful would have, considering they were allowed to stay behind had they not finished.

"Time's up. Everyone who has finished and wishes to be escorted to the Labyrinth Forest roll up your scrolls, bring your decoded message, and exit the room. A Jounin will be waiting outside in order to bring you there," announced Ibiki, his voice as static as ever. When he finished speaking, a somewhat amused gleam showed in his eyes.

A little over half stood up, most of them almost pushing and shoving against each other to get to the door first. A number from the rest who had remained looked to be almost finishing, just double checking that their decoded message sounded reasonable.

The Jounin watched as the Chuunin went outside, almost automatically being greeted by one of the other Konoha Jounin who would lead them to their gate. Most of the Chuunin who passed through the doors of the classroom felt a chill run down their spine, almost afraid of the intensity and power that each Jounin exuded. The more confident ones shrugged it off, focusing on their singular goal of becoming like them, in both rank and power.

When Sasuke passed, Ibiki eyed him warily, the older shinobi swearing he saw redness in the Uchiha's eyes. The long sword strapped against his back added to the already big amount of intimidation Sasuke could send out with a mere look.

"I should have expected you to finish early," spoke the Jounin who would be his escort. Sasuke almost laughed at the irony at who it was. It was Aya, the Jounin who had trained Sakura hard for the past year for the Jounin Exams.

"And I wonder why it's you," replied Sasuke, walking ahead of the blonde Jounin. He knew the way to Area 53, of course he did. It was on the way to going to the forest where he used to beg his older brother to teach him to control his shuriken throwing. He could never forget that path, just as he could never forgive his brother for slaughtering their Clan.

At Area 53

"You're going to do fine, Sakura," reassured Kakashi, walking side-by-side his charge for the day. He wondered why he had been assigned to her, knowing the level of friendship that they had. Still, he wasn't one to complain about it. In fact, he was almost delighted.

"I'm not worried," she replied, trying to hide the nervousness in her voice. Of course she was worried. Though she had gone through so many harrowing experiences, most of the time, someone was there with her or she had a reason to continue on. Now, she was all alone and doing it for herself. There was no outside factor to keep her going.

"Now you know what to do. The minute you step into that forest, I'm sure all your worries will vanish. The only thing that'll be on your mind is to get out of there alive," spoke Kakashi sagely, one of the few times that he actually did. The green-eyed Chuunin looked at him, a curious expression on her face. "And prove your worth. Isn't that why you're doing all this?"

"Kakashi-sensei!" half-shouted Sakura as she punched him in the arm. The silver-haired Jounin winced slightly, amazed at how Sakura had grown so similar to the Godaime. They were both beautiful in their own right, graceful, and dependable in battle. He wouldn't be surprised if Sakura would eventually grow stronger than Tsunade, being initially inclined and adept at Genjutsu. It was a talent that escaped the current Hokage.

Stopping, he watched as Sakura made her way towards the wrought iron fence that enclosed the forest. He wondered why she was so much bigger, so much taller than he last saw her. Blinking, an invisible smile placed itself on his face, hidden beneath the mask that shielded him from the rest of the world. It seemed that she grew up without him realizing it. He knew she wouldn't stay that little girl forever, but, he wondered why he wanted her to.

"Sakura?" he spoke, pocketing his hands further into his pants. The young Chuunin stopped and turned her head, looking over her shoulder with a curious expression on her face. "Ah, I… Never mind. Just promise me to do well in this Exam alright?" A sheepish grin made itself visible as he scratched his head.

"You know, Sensei, saying that makes you sound so old," replied Sakura with a laugh, a bright look in her eyes. Hearing that, Kakashi protested, saying he was just looking out for her like a Jounin instructor should! "I know, I know. It's just that, coming from you, it sounds funny. You just never seemed the type to say these kinds of things. It's Naruto who does that."

Turning around once more, the Chuunin made her way to the gate, her hand resting on the handle that she would enter in a matter of moments. She did not need to wait for a signal to enter the maze that rested within. There was no instruction for that.

"Sakura," spoke Kakashi, stopping her once more. The Chuunin didn't bother to look back; having a feeling her Sensei didn't want her to see his expression. "I… I'm sorry. I'm sorry for all the times I never saw you as a strong kunoichi, favoring Sasuke, then Naruto, then you. I just saw myself inside of him, that's all. I saw my teammates inside of you all: Naruto like Obito and you like Rin."

"I know Sensei, I know," she replied, opening the gate and walking inside. As she inched closer towards the inner part of the forest, she began to speed up, at first walking, then running, then finally jumping up to a nearby strong limb and jumping from one tree to the next. All the while, stray tears escaped as she fought to keep her vision clear. Now was not the time to remember a weak Sakura, so weak it even made her cry. Now was the time to push forward and move on.

Tsuzuku…

Bah. I love you guys way too much to stop. And besides, I wouldn't have been able to forgive myself if I wasn't able to finish the Vision Trilogy. I'll still push on as planned and I'll try to update as often but I'm not making any promises. I'm just going to do the best I can.

The last part, when they were walking to Area 53, was something I didn't expect to write. Still, I find it a nice addition to the plot, about how Kakashi is suddenly surprised with Sakura's growth as a kunoichi.

It's not that he doesn't realize that Sakura it's strong, more like he doesn't want to see it. I think the relationship between Kakashi and Sakura is more like siblings, Kakashi being a protective (but not overprotective) and concerned older brother while Sakura being the appreciative younger sister. Again, don't think that I'm making Kakashi seem like he's totally blind to Sakura's growth. Think of it like parents getting ready to let their children go in their lives. It's imminent and impending but they try to stall it from becoming reality as long as they can.

And, as I've explained earlier in the story, as I view things, Kakashi prefers to train/teach Sasuke, then Naruto, then Sakura. Even canon seems to support this line of thought (see how Kakashi taught Sasuke the Chidori and when Naruto had asked him to train him for the third match, Kakashi said he was going to teach Sasuke so he couldn't). It's not that Kakashi totally neglected Sakura (probably he did but not to an extent that she was lagging so far behind the other two) but he couldn't teach her. She was adept in Genjutsu and less on being a fighter. I think he finds himself at fault for not trying to find a way to teach her more.

Plus, if you've read part two, you'll understand why I described Sakura possibly being even stronger than the Godaime herself (in due time), who is supposedly one of the strongest ninja in the entire village.

Thanks for reading my explanation and I am truly and terribly sorry for the long wait I made you guys go under. I'll have to reread AotD, possibly even PPV to refresh my memory on what's happened so far and what I've written about but I'll do my best to catch up and offer more AotD for you guys.

Also, if you guys have the time, would you mind also hopping over to my other pet project called Two to Tango? It's a SasuSaku, as usual, and it deals with underworldly folklore.

Summary: He is in need of a constant source of blood and she is in need of a constant source of dreams. When two unlikely childhood friends meet, the stone is set rolling for their plans of vengeance: him against his brother and her against her mother.

Hope you guys will enjoy it as much as AotD and it'd be great if you'd read it as faithfully too!

Next Chapter: Chapter Four – Stage Two

Chapter Preview: Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu. Breathing out a large ball of fire, Sasuke watched as yet another giant animal within the forest found itself victim of the specialty of the Uchiha Clan: Katon Jutsu. The roasted carcass fell down with a heavy thud as the young Chuunin continued making his way towards the center of the forest.

"I wonder how Sakura's doing…" he mumbled to himself, deftly avoiding the traps set by the other Konoha Jounin in advance. A sudden mental image of his rosette haired former teammate found its way to his mind, breaking his concentration momentarily as he missed the next limb and began to fall.