Has it really been since October? *cringe* But, as you see, I am going to complete this story, and I promise I'll finish it before Kishi finishes the manga (that shouldn't be too hard, right?) Enjoy and thank you all for the heart-warming reviews.
Sakura sat on the edge of the tatami and reached for her clothes, careful to make as little noise as possible. Not only did she want to avoid waking up anyone in the adjacent rooms, but Sasuke was sleeping as well. She wasn't sure how to proceed, faced with this situation, and it seemed for the better to slip away before he woke from his light slumber.
It was the first time that she had actually spent the entire night with him. The few times they had been together since the evening on the training grounds had always ended quite quickly – one might almost say abruptly, Sakura thought. They both pretended to have somewhere else to be, or something else to do, to avoid any sort of talk that might get in the way of their arrangement.
Tonight had been different, though. They had started with their usual struggle – rushed, uncompromising, and so electrifying that the release came like a punch in the gut. But then as Sakura had stood from the bed, her forehead slick with sweat and her cheeks blazing, Sasuke had pulled her down to him again. He hadn't had enough, yet this time he went more slowly, indulging in every movement, his body sliding against hers with agonizing persistence.
They hadn't stopped until he was exhausted and she was sore and completely drained of energy. Then he'd let himself fall back on the pillow, and had drifted off to sleep.
She looked back at him over her shoulder. Once again, the sight of his face, so peaceful and blank, troubled her. He looked like the young boy she used to know. He looked like what that young boy would be now if he hadn't decided to leave. And yet… it wouldn't really have been Sasuke if he'd simply sat on his hands and waited for the storm to pass. That choice was part of who he was. And she loved him, unbearably so, in spite of it.
She put her nightshirt back on and glanced out the window. The clouds were tinged with pink. She groaned at the thought of all the precious sleep she'd missed. They were leaving the inn today and she wouldn't get a chance to squeeze in some rest today. Perhaps one or two hours before everyone else woke up…
"Are you leaving?"
Sakura turned to see Sasuke looking at her. It was if he hadn't been asleep at all.
"It's almost morning. I have to go back to my room."
"You'll be even more tired if you go sleep now," he said blankly. "You should stay awake and get on with the day."
"Maybe I will. But I still have to go."
He took her wrist and tried to draw her back in bed, but she wrenched herself free. "Stop that."
His lips curled in a slight smirk. "I didn't know you were in such a hurry to get away from me. That's not the impression I got when you asked me to -"
"I'm going now," she snapped, blushing. "Anyway, what do you care if I'm in a hurry or not? You got what you wanted, right?"
His arm snaked around her waist and she felt his lips brush the nape of her neck enticingly. The familiar tug built up inside of her, defying her exhaustion. He was right, it would be silly to go to bed now... All she had to do was let him do what he wanted and…
"I said, stop that!"
Shaking her thoughts away, Sakura rose from the tatami and headed towards the door. Sasuke sat up straight, giving a small grunt.
"Fine. Go on, then. Tonight will come soon enough."
"You seriously expect me to come warm your sleeping bag in front of everyone? As far as I'm concerned, this – whatever it is – in on hold until we finish the exams. Or better yet, indefinitely."
"Whatever you say," he replied nonchalantly. "Don't expect me to believe you, though."
She felt a burst of fury at his words. "Because you think no one could ever replace you, is that it? Wake up, Sasuke. This is nothing else here but sex."
He glared at her. "You're lying, Sakura."
"And what if I am? It's all the same to you. And to be honest, I'm done with caring myself."
She opened the door without another glance at him and bolted out in the corridor, overcome with the urge to punch something. Now she remembered why they avoided talking at all costs – he made her so mad she could hardly see straight. How dare he demand so much of her, without giving anything in return?
But she was also furious against herself. It was her own fault if she had gotten herself into this mess. She hadn't been able to control her desire for him, nor her feelings. And worst of all, she hadn't been able to crush that last smudge of hope that he would finally reciprocate them. She had thought she would be strong enough to handle him, and she had been terribly wrong.
As soon as she was in her own room, Sakura sat on her tatami, confused and weary. She needed to clear her thoughts before the exam or it would be a disaster. Closing her eyes, she tried to focus her mind on Tsunade, and the advice she had given her over the years. Then her thoughts inexplicably switched to Kakashi. Her two sensei, though they were both powerful ninjas, had very little in common. Yet there was something they shared, something important – they kept their heads cool in the face of danger and their thoughts collected.
How did one manage to achieve this? Try as she might, this was always something that gave her great difficulty. And now Sasuke was showing her just how much she failed to stay calm in a difficult situation…
She'd have to go talk to him, she decided, closing her eyes. She would act adult and tell him there was no need for all this anger between them… They could hold each other in mutual respect, if nothing else…
The sound of footsteps outside her door woke Sakura with a jolt. It felt as if she had been asleep for no longer than five minutes, but her room was now fully lit by the morning sun.
"Oh crap, I must be late…"
She scrambled up, her head heavy and aching. But there was no time to dwell on that. Everyone was getting ready to leave.
"I hope all of you have had a good night's sleep."
Sakura nearly groaned at the irony of Yamato's words, but kept her mouth shut. She and Hinata were standing a little further away from Naruto and Sasuke. Naruto wouldn't have looked any more impatient if Yamato had been announcing the start of a ramen-eating contest.
The entire group of contestants had been gathered at the border of a forest adjacent to the town. The trees were rather sparse and lean, and the sunlight filtered through the bristling leaves. In fact, it looked more like a forest where one would take a nice pleasant walk on a day off than the dark, dense woods full of wild things they had been left in for their chunin exams. The only unusual thing, Sakura noted, was the tall red wooden portal at the edge of the trees. She wondered if a temple had once stood there.
"You will be split up into four groups, departing every half hour. One person in the group will be given a map that will guide to your final destination. This destination must be reached within three days, or you will not be able to pass the second stage of the exam."
"Does it matter which group arrives first?" someone asked.
"No. And before you ask, the person holding the map has absolutely no interest in leaving the rest of the group behind. It will not be easier for him or her to reach the destination, nor will it guarantee any sort of success during the second stage. In fact, you might find it will be quite the opposite."
Another ninja spoke up. "You mean we're not competing against each other at all?"
A murmur of surprise and disapproval rippled through the crowd.
Yamato simply smiled. "No. But do not underestimate the task at hand – these are jonin exams, after all, and a great many of you will fail."
Sakura tightened her gloved fists. She would not be one of these, no matter what it took. To her right, Naruto was starting to look a bit dejected that there would be no fight, at least not in the first phase. Sasuke was still and concentrated, as usual.
"If anyone wishes to forfeit, he or she need only voice their wish out loud, and measures will be taken for their evacuation."
This was getting more and more puzzling. How would the instructors know where they were? And how could they reach them on time, if they were three days' walk away?
"As soon as you pass the portal, consider the exam as started. Good luck to everyone."
Sakura watched carefully as the members of the first group were called and started walking into the forest. Nothing out of the ordinary happened as they passed the portal, and she was slightly relieved. It didn't manage to fully reassure her, however.
"Second group," a female instructor called. "Konohagakure, Kusagakure and Moyagakure."
Sakura shared a glance with Hinata and they both joined the dozen or so ninjas that were waiting to leave.
"Here's your map," the instructor said, handing it to Jiro Yaguchi, the young man from Grass whom they had met at the entrance of the village. "Second group, you may go."
Sakura took a deep breath and followed Jiro's lead into the forest.
After an hour or so of walking, Sakura still didn't notice anything out of the ordinary amongst the trees. She had been expecting an attack or a trap, but she supposed the examinors wanted them to go further into the forest before putting them into the test.
The ninjas made their way on the small dirt path in silence, on their guards. Since there was nothing in particular to look at around them, Sakura started to observe the people around her. Naruto was walking next to her, and his expression was still, but tense. As for Sasuke, she could tell he was on edge simply by the way he was walking, a little further in front of her.
"Are we sure this is the right way?" Naruto asked all of a sudden, breaking the silence.
Jiro stopped and threw him a cold glance over his shoulder. "There's only one path. What other way would there be?"
"Let's see the map," Sasuke said.
Jiro hesitated, but confronted with Sasuke's impassive glare, he relented. Sakura craned her neck to see the map. It was a schematic plan of the forest, with one steady line linking the red gate to an opening marked with a cross.
"So that's our destination…" Hinata murmured.
Naruto shook his head. "This looks too easy. There must be a catch somewhere."
"I agree," a girl from Moyagakure, the Hidden Haze Village, said. "I think we should stop for a moment and talk it over."
Jiro grabbed the map back. "What, and lose time? This isn't an orientation test. We're bound to get ambushed along the way by dangerous enemies."
Sakura bit her lip. "I hate to say it, but Jiro's probably right. We should get moving."
"Well, if you think so…" Sasuke muttered, refusing to meet her eye.
Naruto crossed his arms in front of his chest. "I don't see why we should do anything until everyone agrees."
"How about I make you agree?" one of Jiro's companions replied, waving a fist in front of his face.
"Stop it!" Hinata cried. "This isn't getting us anywhere. Let's just move on until we have a good reason to do otherwise."
The group reluctantly started again. Sakura watched with interest as Naruto stayed solidly into place, looking at them with a stubborn pout.
Hinata tugged on his arm, gently but firmly. "Come on, Naruto. Save your energy for when you'll really need it. You know we won't go anywhere without you."
He seemed mollified for a moment, then finally gave a big shrug and followed her. Sakura smiled, then her gaze landed on Sasuke. He was watching the scene as well, but it was impossible to guess what he was thinking.
For a while, the march continued as before, uneventfully. Sakura had let her thoughts drift away when she stumbled into the person in front of her, who had stopped dead. Jiro had halted suddenly, and was peering at the map in confusion.
Sakura quickly saw why. They were at a crossroad, with another path crossing the first one diagonally.
"This path wasn't on the map," Jiro said.
Naruto snorted. "So? Let's just keep going forward, like we decided."
"He said it wasn't," Sasuke pointed out. "But it is now."
Indeed, the diagonal path was inked on the paper, just like the first, and it too was linked to a cross.
"How is this possible? Why are there two different destinations?" a ninja from the Haze asked.
Sakura could sense the tension growing, and tried to keep her head cool. "It's obvious we're caught in some sort of genjustu."
"The path could be an illusion," Hinata said. "Byakugan!"
She observed the surroundings for a moment, but frowned in confusion as her eyes went back to normal. "Not a trace of chakra anywhere. Genjustu requires huge amounts of chakra, especially if you're going to put a dozen people under the same spell."
"This is all your fault!" Naruto shouted at Jiro. "I told you we should have stopped and taken a decision together!"
The arguments started again and quickly escaladed into a fight between a ninja from the Grass and another from the Haze. Once they were separated, the group came to the shaky decision to keep going along the same path as before.
"I just don't understand how we're supposed to figure out which path will take us to the right destination," Sakura told Hinata in a low voice. "There aren't any indications we can use, and our skills are useless."
"Perhaps if we could have a general view of the forest? Sai's ability would really come in handy here…"
"Good idea!" Naruto exclaimed. "No need for a giant bird, I'll go check it out myself!"
He leaped on the branch of the nearest tree, quickly climbing to the top, then creating a chain of clones to get a better view beyond the canopy. When he finally came down, Sakura saw at once that something was wrong.
"Naruto, was is it?" Hinata asked anxiously.
"I – I can't believe it. I didn't see anything but the forest – for miles and miles all around, right to the horizon. There's nothing else. It's like we're the middle of a sea of trees."
"But… that's impossible!"
Sakura's throat tightened. The sun still filtered through the trees, but the forest itself, she now noticed, was absolutely silent – not the rustle of a leaf or the chirp of a bird. And for the first time since they left, she understood that the danger they were facing, although invisible to their eyes, was as terrible as all the enemies she had fought before.