Happy New Year!
As always, this chapter was brought to you by Team Outback (Razamataz22 and Kakarot Son).
"So are you ready?"
"I'm more than ready ero-sennin!"
"That's what I want to hear! And what about you?"
"I am looking forward to the competition."
"Not quite the answer I was looking for but good enough. Now come on you two, we've got a little way to travel before we get there."
Sakura rummaged through the pouch she carried upon her waist, double checking that she had brought the necessary supplies to last the entirety of the exams. Undoubtedly there would be some item that she would run out of, but that was to be expected when fighting for one's life in front of a live audience. Noting that everything was as it was meant to be, she raised her wrist up and brushed away the beads of perspiration that had begun to form on her brow. It wasn't overly hot by any means but the sun still hung high in the sky and there were very few clouds to provide singular moments of reprieve.
Stretching her shoulders, her arms raised high above her head, Sakura couldn't help but contemplate the changes that had happened in a single year. She could still remember the day when her team had been unfairly expelled from the previous exams. Had the instructors actually done what they were meant to do, there was no telling just where her life would currently be taking her. If they had still been within the Konoha exams then there would have been no chance in hell that she would have fought for her very life in the heart of the desert and learned of her teammate's greatest secret.
Lowering her arms, the pink haired Chunin hopefully looked over her shoulder to where her temporary team were currently residing. She hadn't minded working alongside Kiba and Shino despite the fact that the insect user was socially awkward to some extent. Kiba now even trusted her to take Akamaru for walks if the Inuzuka clan member had business to take care of. Unfortunately it had taken some manner of time for the puppy to warm up to her, informing its master on more than one occasion that Sakura smelled of snakes, no doubt a side effect from having spent so much time with Anko.
Sakura had managed to learn a lot from the snake mistress alongside her temporary team leader, Kurenai. While she may have only spent time on missions with the female Jonin it was clear that the instructor was pleased to not spend entire missions with an all boy team. She would even spend some nights by the fire teaching Sakura basic Genjutsu, stuff that would buy her a second or two so she could administer a poison to her target or escape. Of course though this was nothing compared to the training that Anko pushed her through on a daily basis.
Upon learning that Sakura's taijutsu skills were nothing more than academy standard, Anko immediately sought to change that by teaching Sakura her own individual fighting style built around lighting quick strikes and swiftness of foot. Of course that meant learning the style from Anko, who was quite thorough in her beliefs that in order to gain speed you must run your fastest away from venomous cobras that wanted nothing more than to kill you.
Sakura shuddered at the memories.
"You okay?" asked Ino, noticing the small shudder in her friend's figure.
"I'm fine," said Sakura, brushing the blonde off.
"Well hurry up then, we're gonna head off. According to sensei we've still got a couple of hours left to travel," stated Ino as she walked back to where the rest of the procession was currently resting.
Sakura looked at where the teams were located and knew that this was going to be an interesting situation above all else. While she would be reunited with both of her teammates, upon arrival there had had to be a bit of adjusting amongst the teams to accommodate for the fact that several of the group had already had the promotion.
With both of her teammates already having become Chunin, Tenten had had to join up with Ino and Chouji in order to take part in the exam, filling in for the spot usually reserved for Shikamaru (not that the Nara would complain about having to stay in Konoha). Sakura herself would be replaced once Hinata met up with them and the pink-haired girl couldn't help but wonder how the Hyuuga girl may have advanced during her time with Jiraiya.
There were also a couple of older groups and while Sakura had met them from time to time she didn't truly pay that much attention to who was who, having been kept under Anko's thumb for so long. She however just wondered whether or not she had caught up at all to her two teammates. Sometimes she and Sasuke had caught up on random occasions and they would exchange pleasantries (which was more than she had hoped for) and tell each other about how they were improving before parting their separate ways.
Sasuke himself wasn't journeying alongside the rest of the hopefuls, having spent the last week amongst his summons, stating that when the time came to fight alongside one another that their teamwork would be unparalleled. On this journey Sakura had absently looked towards the sky, expecting to see the shadow of a falcon swoop overhead before delivering the Uchiha boy for the exams.
Then there was Naruto.
Given that the unpredictable was his forte, Sakura had no real idea as to what the blond may have learned - provided that he learned anything at all. Having been part of the team which had originally tracked down Jiraiya, she was well aware of the sage's tendencies to wander about, chasing after research. Hopefully with Hinata there the white haired shinobi would curb his enthusiasm for chasing after every woman in sight, but she somehow doubted that the Hyuga heiress would be able to stop Jiraiya if the man was desperate enough. With the purple-haired Genin present however, Sakura figured that during times where Jiraiya popped out for a while she and Naruto would at least be able to use their time productively.
Or at least she hoped so.
"You coming Sakura?" called out Kurenai, snapping the pink-haired Genin back to reality. With a spring in her step it took merely a couple of seconds to catch up with the rest of the group to continue their journey towards Kumo.
"So…" started Tenten as Sakura walked by her side. "Whatcha thinking about?"
Sakura tilted her head slightly to see the gentle smile that graced Tenten's face, one which the pink-haired Genin was unable to decipher from time to time. Sakura was very much aware that Tenten had spent much more time with Sasuke than she had ever since Sasuke had started training with Gai. She had no idea whether or not Tenten harboured feelings for Sasuke but still couldn't help but feel somewhat jealous to the fact that the weapons expert nearly saw him on a daily basis, while she was lucky to see him once a fortnight.
"Everything," answered Sakura as she turned her gaze forward.
"Don't worry, it'll be fine, I'm sure we're all gonna ace this exam," said Tenten optimistically, hoping more than anything to become Chunin, just so that Gai didn't preach about her lack of youth, shuddering involuntarily at the thought.
"Yeah, I guess we will."
Sasuke didn't flinch, his eyes wide open and observant, as he flew through the air at breakneck speeds. As always, his Sharingan was active so that he could take in every single little detail - no matter how frivolous or useless it seemed.
If his last experience had taught him anything, he would need any and every advantage he could possibly hope to get during the exams.
He wasn't sure exactly what the layout of the exam was going to be and while Kakashi had advised him that the third exam traditionally was a fighting tournament, Sasuke wasn't prepared to take any chances; if he had to cheat his way past a complicated exam, he would. If he had to slice the throats of his opponents in a deadly forest in order to better his own odds, he would. If he needed to show no mercy in the face of his own friends, he would.
Anything, as long as it meant that he would be one of the next Genin to receive a flak jacket.
Countless hours had been used to build him to this point. Days would melt into weeks, his only method of keeping track of the date being his teachers' words. He had pushed through all so much during his training, barely resting and forcing himself to the limit on a daily basis. Undoubtedly, the only way he wasn't going to pass this exam would be if either of his teammates pulled him down with them.
He had more faith in them than that though.
While he hadn't really spent much time with Sakura over the past year, he was well aware of the fact that she had indeed improved in her abilities. Every now and again he would hear from Kurenai that Sakura had gone and learned a new genjutsu or was out training with Anko. He tried to keep his emotions as far away from the training field as possible but he couldn't help but be happy that his teammate was doing her best.
The other teammate, however, he had no clue of.
One day whilst training with Sarutobi personally he had gone out of his way to ask the Sandaime Hokage whether or not he had heard from Jiraiya or not in regards to Naruto's progress. He received no affirmative answer which either meant that Sarutobi had indeed heard nothing or the answer he was searching for would not have been the one given. He knew though that Naruto wouldn't slouch in his training and hopefully with one of the Sannin teaching him he could perhaps succeed in his dream, much like how Sasuke would fulfil his desire.
"We are approaching the destination," announced the summoned falcon as it began to descend, a small smirk forming on Sasuke's face.
It was time.
Brushing some foliage away from her face, Hinata continued on the difficult path they were taking towards their destination. As opposed to taking the path several miles to the East, the group had decided that going through scrubland was one last little bit of training before the beginning of the exams. Unlike the previous Chunin exams she had taken part in, Hinata was feeling much more confident with her abilities now. While she had wondered how she would continue her Jyuken training without the aide of her household, it was quite surprising to learn that Jiraiya himself had an understanding of the style. Upon asking where he had learned it from she became mildly disgusted by the fact that the Sage had learned by peeking over the compound walls to do some 'research' and just so happened to watch an advanced training session amongst clan members.
While his descriptions had been barren at times, it wasn't too difficult for Hinata to understand the gist of what he was saying and apply it to her own technique. She knew though that once she returned home she would be able to fine tune what her temporary teacher had drilled into her routine. Other than that she had actually taken some time to actually study some manner of Fuuinjutsu, having taken a liking to the rarely found abilities that the sage could teach her. Despite the grace in her brushstrokes she was nowhere near as capable with the techniques as Naruto was, the blonde having picked up the ancient art like a sponge to water.
Hinata had watched Naruto progress through this training trip like nothing else, driven beyond any comprehension to push himself to the absolute limit. On a number of occasions Jiraiya had tried to run off and leave Naruto with little more than a scroll to study off of and every now and again he was successful in that endeavour. With her help, however, Naruto was able to quickly plow through the homework that had been assigned for him by the time that Jiraiya returned. Somehow she got the feeling that if Naruto had tried to study from a scroll himself Jiraiya would return to either find the blonde asleep or banging his head against a tree in frustration.
More than anything though she had been happy to spend time with Naruto and watch him progress steadily piece by piece. She had been frightened at one stage when Jiraiya had asked Naruto to tap into the power of the Kyuubi sealed inside of him, knowing first hand what surges of power could do for one's mindset. Hinata couldn't be more pleased however to find that even with the demonic red chakra circling all around him there was very little difference in Naruto himself, who seemed just as good as normal. Jiraiya would later explain that this would alter depending on how much chakra Naruto leeched off of the fox and would warn the blond to never lose his head in a critical situation.
There had also been a couple of intimate moments between the two of them during restful periods that the thoughts of were still able to create a small blush upon Hinata's features. Of course she was always careful however to activate her Byakugan from time to time to ensure that they weren't being spied on by the white haired sage. She knew though that if she ever picked up one of the perverts books there was a faint possibility she would recognise one of the characters escapades from an event that happened in real life. If this ever were to be the case there was no doubt that there would be hell to pay.
"Are you okay?" asked Naruto, noticing that Hinata had slowed down slightly.
"Yea, sorry, was just thinking of some things," said Hinata as she snapped back to reality.
"You better be alright, we're here," announced Jiraiya which caused a broad smile to spread across his pupils' faces.
"So the dobe still hasn't shown up then?" asked Sasuke, an impatient scowl imprinted upon his face. He himself had - in typical Kakashi fashion - been a little late, but it was still nevertheless frustrating to know that he'd still have to wait a little longer. At first everybody had done their best to implement some manner of small talk out of the Uchiha, but like usual he was cold in his demeanor to everybody other than the one person there he could trust above all else.
"You could act a little more excited to be around us again for once," sighed Sakura as she brushed a strand of hair from her eyes, tucking it safely behind her ear. "God knows nobody ever sees you except for Gai's team, and even then you're training like a machine."
"Hmph," muttered Sasuke, acknowledging that her words had a degree of truth to them as he looked elsewhere. "Do you think he slacked off with Jiraiya and Hinata surrounding him?"
"They could be very big distractions, but this is Naruto," said Sakura. "Even if he tried to slack off, he'd get sick of that after an hour because his attention span is so low."
"Glad you think of me in such a way," stated Naruto as he burst onto the scene as if out of thin air, startling many of the other Konoha Genin present. His teammates however had almost expected the blond to arrive at the mere mention of his name. Like them he had done a little bit of growing since they had last seen them as well with a bit more definition to his muscles, most likely due to Jiraiya giving him a steady diet. "So what did I miss?"
"Nothing," stated Sasuke, showing that in no way had his personality changed since Naruto had last laid eyes on him. Looking over Naruto's shoulder he could see Jiraiya, now in discussions with the other senseis and also that Hinata had now rejoined her team.
"Nice to see you too teme," said Naruto jokingly, causing Sasuke's lips to twitch upwards for the barest of moments. "So you two ready for this?"
"You better believe it," said Sakura as she pumped her fist.
"If you slow us down, dobe..."
"I know, I know," said Naruto, brushing off whatever it was that Sasuke was about to say. He looked towards the ominous gates that they would shortly be walking through towards the competition that would be charging at. He then turned back to his team with a cheeky smile upon his face. "Don't worry though, you haven't seen nothing yet."
The sequel, 'Trials and Forthcomings' is now live. If you've enjoyed this story, make sure to head on over and find out what happens next.
Again, we at Team Dragon Star would like to thank you for all the support you've blessed us with for the duration of this story. It has been an incredible ride.