Chapter Nine (Part two): Tested
By the time the preliminaries started, only one more team had made it to the tower. This team belonged to none other then Kabuto. Sakura so dearly wanted to punch and demolish the slimy bastard until not even his adequate medical abilities would be sufficient to piece him back together. Even as he was walking away from the exams, Sakura had to scrounge up ever ounce of her self control not to chase after the man and beat him silly.
Unfortunately, Sakura was quite used to being placed in situations where she could not act as she would like to. Thus, she had come up with the simple conclusion that time travel was more exhausting, both mentally and physically, than one should be required to tolerate.
"Are you sure that you want to compete, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked in a hushed tone. Sakura appreciated that he at least spoke discretely, seeing as they were standing amongst their competition and before the Hokage. However, she didn't appreciate the insinuation that she might not be up to par in the coming matches. Even if she knew better, knew her own strength and even what Naruto truly believed of her abilities, the comment stung something awful.
Sakura didn't reply at all, she just waited for the examiner to speak. Before the exams had even begun, Sakura had asked the Hokage to have matches read before the preliminaries to give her at least some warning of how things might be different this time around. Now, Sakura would find out if the Hokage would keep to his word.
This rounds examiner, Genma, another of her requests, spoke, "Due to the excess number of participants which made it to this portion of the examination, this year we will be hosting a preliminary round. The matches will proceed as follows, Uzumaki Naruto vs. Sabaku No Temari." Sakura watched as Naruto nearly bounced out of his skin and as Temari tightened her hold on her fan. The blonde female was itching for a match and she could care less who she fought.
A part of Sakura had hoped that things would play out exactly as they had the first time. Then at least she would have the chance to intervene accordingly to the predictable events. Even as she had hoped feverishly for this to be the case, Sakura knew that such an outcome had never been possible.
Less participants had made it to this round then when she had first been a genin. Therefore, the draw for the matches would logically be different. Regardless, the part of her that was not a hardened kunoichi, the part that was nothing more than a woman, had hoped logic would be wrong.
"Second will be the match between participants Tenten and Nara Shikamaru." Neither Tenten of Shikamaru reacted much. Shikamaru obviously thought that the match would be troublesome, however, neither felt the uncertainty of going against someone whom would be aiming for the kill, not a knock out. That reassurance was not the byproduct of luck instead was the reason that Sakura could not know whom would be paired against whom. The question remained if Sakura's teammates knew that they had picked off participants of other counties not out of random encounters but of purposeful intervention.
Genma continued, "Third, Sabaku No Kankuro vs. Haruno Sakura." Sakura blinked, processes that piece of information. However, she took a hesitant look at Kankuro, as was expected of her. He was grinning, expecting an easy match and she fought to roll her eyes. Genma continued to speak dispassionately, "Fourth is Hyuga Neji vs. Akimichi Choji followed by Rock Lee vs. Sabaku No Gaara." Sakura bit back a groan, she had hoped that match would never play out this time. "Then, our last match will be Yamanaka Ino vs. Uchiha Sasuke." Sasuke looked bored, Ino looked as if she had just been told that her hair had turned green.
"At this time, everyone whom are not the fighters of the first match will be asked to join with their sensei's on the upper landings."
"Good luck Naruto and be careful." Sakura voiced sincerely, lightly placing her hand on his shoulder and offering a gentle squeeze.
"Of course Sakura-chan! Are you going to watch my match?"
Sakura decided against mentioning that everyone would be sticking around for a while. "Of course, I wouldn't miss it for the world. Make us proud Naruto." She didn't wait for him to say anything, and she didn't watch as he bounced further into the arena. Instead, she walked with Sasuke onto the upper level of the arena. Unanimously, they moved in the direction away from where Lee and his Sensei were shooting out various good guy poses. Kakashi was waiting for them at the furthest distance from is 'rival' as possible.
Even with Kakashi present as a more tempting target than herself, Sakura was careful to stand with Sasuke between her and where the look-a-likes stood in the distance. "Go Naruto!" She screamed, cheering him on before the match even started. Discreetly, she stole a look at Ino. The blonde still looked like she had encountered death for the first time and Sakura's heart went out to her.
A part of Sakura really wished that it weren't necessary to distance herself from her once best friend. Only the reassurance that it wouldn't be forever kept her mood from plummeting. The next step would be distancing herself from her parents. Although, with how easily that had come pass in her own time, she regrettably did not see this as a difficult task to overcome.
Those whom bore witness to the match watched as Naruto executed plan after plan successfully. None of the blonde's plans should have worked but Sakura knew without a doubt that Naruto would always be the one to make the impossible, possible.
As is was, the shadow clone jutsu proved to be Naruto's greatest weapon against the female, as she had limited direction with her weapon of choice. As Temari skillfully dispatched dozens of clones and the many to follow, she was eventually taken by surprise by a team of clones which approached without warning from her left. With Temari's fan separated from her, Naruto was quickly able to take down the female with a more extensive use of ninjutsu and clumsy tai jutsu.
Baring his own injuries from the match, Naruto approached the defeated women with and outstretched hand and good grace. "Really great match. I don't think I've ever fought someone like you before. It was really fun!"
Temari might have been surprised with her opponent, but his team was not. Bragging and beating on his opponent wasn't Naruto's style or even something he could perceive. Sakura had always known this, but the first time that she really took notice to this characteristic had been when she had witnessed his raw outrage at Neji's treatment of Hinata as they fought for the first time.
"I'm going to go grab another pair of gloves. Let Naruto know I'm proud of him." Sasuke may or may not have been willing to pass on the message but Sakura could always reiterate the point to Naruto later. What she could not do at a later time was follow the shadow that was retreating in the perpendicular corridor.
No one noticed her sneaking into the corridor that would not lead to the holding room they had been in previously. Sakura could tell be the distinctive lack of eyes boring into her retreating form. Any qualified Shinobi knows how to read their instincts and Sakura was no exception to this rule.
She walked carefully but casually, grateful that she was familiar with the layout of this building. Familiar enough to know that the man, for the shadow indicated such, that she was following was leading her into a dead end.
He knew that she was their following his trail and what's more, he was using it to either ambush or gain an audience with her. Either way it was likely that he would underestimate her, but she did not like that she did not know who this man was. Even had she known his identity she would never have relied on the supposed underestimation of her skills. On her person were various weapons and in her arsenal and impressive array of jutsus ready for her to command. No, she was not worried but Sakura was very much intrigued which could very well be just as dangerous.
When she reached the door that he had entered though, the one with only this one entrance and with windows that did not open, Sakura used a remarkable small amount of chakra to tease the lock and determine it's state. The door was very clearly unlocked.
Sakura took but a moment to pull on a pair of fresh gloves which had been located in her thigh holder and not in her pack back where they had been held prior to the preliminaries. With clothed palms she entered the storage room with senses on high alert.
He was located with his back to her when she pushed through the door and closed it behind her. She was not fooled by his outwardly trusting demeanor. He was just as ready to defend himself as she. Part of her had expected that he had been the stranger. Morino Ibiki was well attuned to reading others and gathering information of little or great consequence and she had certainly left her clues.
So she didn't say anything to him as she studied his coiled muscles which lay beneath his long trench coat. Her eyes barely glanced at his skull cap which covered the scars she could diagram out without a thought. Sakura didn't spend a second on trying to figure out why he was there. She knew, he knew and he knew that she knew. All that was left was for something to be discussed between them. This was a conversation that the Hokage, Sarutobi, did not wish to occur. Which was why it was happening when many eyes were aware of his location and the great leader was not in a position to slip away and interfere.
Morino turned away from the window and shifted until is back was to the wall. He did study her. He took in her genin build and the barely detectable strength hidden beneath vulnerable deceivingly soft skin. His eyes swept over her pink hair and her proudly displayed forehead protector. He noticed what should be perceived as the telling lack of calluses on her displayed fingers. However, these were not attributes which he judged her by. Morino Ibiki was a man of much more intelligence than that and it was in her eyes which he searched for answers.
He had noticed of course her actions during the testing period. Had followed her movements during her teams participation in the forest. The interrogator had looked into her supposed history with the Hokage, had read every file which so much as mentioned her name. He had studied her as she waited for the newest stage of the exams and had studied those that had interacted with her and more importantly how they had interacted with her. None of what he found had matched up with what he knew, no matter how cleverly the false answers had been planted.
This stand off between these two terribly loyal Shinobi was remarkable and the air nearly crackled with anticipation of some great secret being revealed, of a new road being opened, new opportunities, of change. Which made the entire conversation remarkably anticlimactic.
"Oh dear. I do believe that I have drawn entirely too much attention to myself. But I dare not speak a word to you dear interrogator. You scare me entirely too much to do so and I dare not go against my Hokage's orders. Perhaps you best search for your answers there." With those teasing and quite leading words, she turned and left the trusted Shinobi of the leaf in the storage room with only the knowledge that there was something to know. Something which she wanted him to know but would need to come from the Hokage's mouth. Sakura very much wanted him in their confidence and be it the wish of the Hokage or not, Ibiki was a man quite skilled at his job and with any hint of direction, he would find his answers.
The missing part of team seven met with her fellow participates with only minutes to spare before her match. On her face was the perfect image of a worried genin trying very desperately to mask her worry.
"Quickly," Naruto persisted, "you're match is starting." He announced all but pushing her towards the stairs that would lead her down into the arena. She allowed his careful force and persistence until she was walking alone on the packed dirt of the indoor arena to stand opposite her opponent. Kankuro of the Sand village, who happened to be watching her with a grin.
Her neck jerked as she tilted her head to the side in an obvious move of surveying him. "I'm surprised Pinkie," Kankuro taunted, "I thought you ran."
"Nah, not my style." She responded lightly with a confidence that was somehow came across as being completely unrelated to her Shinobi abilities and instead seemed to be nothing more than tactic. "I was getting my gloves." She remarked precisely, raising up her hand to proudly display the soft leather of said gloves.
"How cute," the elder sand brother remarked as they both ignored the fact that their match had officially begun, "a kunoichi worried about fashion."
"Says the boy in make up." She replied in a sing song voice.
This started the fight, "It's face paint!" Kankuro yelled as he charged rashly at his pink haired appointment.
The pair clashed in a dance of tai jutsu for only enough time for Kankuro to determine it was not this way that he might beat the deceptively innocent and girly ninja.
"Time to get serious." He declared dramatically as he pulled back and put distance between them. Ideally, Sakura would have liked to beat him before he pulled out his puppets. She would not have had to display more of her skills. However, he pulled back much to early and it would have been even more suspicious to down one of the more skilled genin so quickly. No she would need to play this like she was a brain that got lucky with her matching. He would fall just as quickly. He needed to, she was not recovered enough from her last mistake to let the match play out for too long.
She danced around his puppets attacks, careful to delay her movements to appear as if she was just getting out of the way in time. Sakura was also careful to let her face show a surprised relief. This continued for a short while before the perfect moment occurred and her hand snapped out to grab the Chakra strings under Kankuro's control. Both his puppet and he stilled completely as her medical chakra coursed through the chakra strings of his creations and moving through his body to temperately paralyze him.
Sakura started her dialog, the bragging right of a proud genin. "You know, I met a Sand Shinobi once. He was retired and just passing though but he spent a nice bit of time at the library. I like the library. I spent at lot of time there too and he became very interested in me when he saw be practicing one day. He taught me a thing or two about controlling chakra. Did you know that the chakra strings needed to control a puppet are only as strong as the user's ability to regulate their chakra output. Many people aren't sensitive enough to pick up on irregularities. But me, I'm quite sensitive to chakra fluctuations. And did you know, that irregularities can give your opponent an opening to overpower you're control of your chakra strings and use the pathway in the opposite directions?
At the moment my chakra is entering your pathways and has paralyzed your physical body and has destroyed any and all control you have over this puppet of yours." She explained gesturing to the collapsed wooden figure. "You have lost Kankuro of the Sand." Sakura announced clearly as she sent a jolt of chakra in to his system and the surprised ninja collapsed unconscious onto the ground quite similarly as his puppet. As he fell, she was careful to make it look like a great deal of her strength went into pulling of that tactic, even if it had only taken manipulation of chakra and none of her own.