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One Hundred Days
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter 6: Heaven and Earth

Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me, strange though that may seem. Instead it is Kishimoto Masashi's creation. However, the text of this fanfic is mine, and may not be used without permission. Also, lions.

Day Thirty-six

"So it was Orochimaru," Hojo said quietly, "and not Akatsuki after all." He stared into his almost untouched cup of tea as though it held some secret. "You didn't tell me that snake was involved."

"I didn't know," Jiraiya said as he took a sip of his own tea. The two legendary ninja were in Hojo's private chambers. Jiraiya grimaced as he set his cup down. "Not for certain, anyway. I had no idea he'd try something so bold."

"Tsunade-hime and you should have dealt with him long ago," Hojo said.

"It isn't so simple," Jiraiya said. "It's really hard to say for sure at our level, but I think he's stronger than me, stronger than Tsunade, stronger than you. Even with all three of us, it wouldn't be an easy fight. Tsunade and I fought him a few months ago, and we weren't able to kill him." Jiraiya frowned. "Tsunade and I were handicapped, but he was crippled. I don't think the outcome would change if we fought again."

"I heard of that battle, even here," Hojo said. "There's already a half-dozen bards trying to add their new verses to the 'Tale of the Sannin.'"

Jiraiya groaned. "Don't mention that turgid abomination," he said.

Hojo laughed briefly, but then his face turned serious. "I'm glad Orochimaru isn't my problem. I shudder to think of what kind of situation we'd be in if he was still with Akatsuki."

"We're very lucky," Jiraiya said, "and not just for that. If it hadn't been for that falling out, I might not have heard of Akatsuki until it was too late." He laughed bitterly. "I hate to say it, but sometimes I have to thank the gods for Uchiha Itachi."

"I've heard something worrisome," Hojo said, "for you at least."

"About Itachi?" Jiraiya asked.

"No," Hojo said. "I received a messenger bird from the village last night. An ambassador from the Valley is in the Rock Village, expecting an emissary from the Sound to discuss peace."

"Already?" Jiraiya asked. "So the war with the Hill Country was a feint. Can you do anything to upset Orochimaru's timetable?"

"I've already done more than I should," Hojo said. "Most of the world applauded when the Sound took the Leaf down a notch. That includes the Earth Country." He sighed. "I owe that snake for what he did here, though. I'll delay the talks as much as possible."

"Thank you," Jiraiya said quietly. "What will happen to the Sound we captured?"

"The Tsuchikage will probably give them back to Orochimaru as a sign of good faith," Hojo said.

Jiraiya sighed. "There's nothing to be done, I suppose."

"Who was that kid who got away?" Hojo asked.

"Yakushi Kabuto," Jiraiya said. "He was Orochimaru's spymaster in the Leaf Village. He's a medical ninja and very strong for his age. He fought against Tsunade and survived, and that's a feat, even though Tsunade was out of practice. Kakashi-kun says he's at the same level as him, and I've seen no reason to disbelieve him."

"Sharingan Kakashi?" Hojo asked. When Jiraiya nodded, he sighed. "Where did this kid come from?"

"I wish I knew," Jiraiya said. "As a Leaf genin, he was rather poor. He must have been hiding his true strength, but I have no idea where he got his training."

"Speaking of medical ninja," Hojo said, "I just read the latest report from the infirmary. Kamizuru Jibachi was dead when he was found. Kamizuru Kurobachi died on the operating table. Kamizuru Suzumebachi is in critical condition and has burnt out her chakra circulatory system. If she survives, she'll never be a ninja again, not even if you brought Tsunade-hime here." Hojo's voice was dark.

"It was a war, Hojo," Jiraiya said. "I'm not proud of luring the Kamizuru to their destruction, but could you say you would have done any differently had the opportunity presented itself to remove the Aburame?"

Hojo looked away. "No, damn it, and that's why I hate it." He shook his head. "Uzumaki Naruto remains in stable condition, but has yet to awaken."

"It may be a while," Jiraiya said. "And your students?"

"Fine," Hojo answered. "Humbled, but fine." He paused. "What will you do, Jiraiya?"

"As soon as possible," Jiraiya answered, "I'm going to take Naruto to Lightning Country. Straight to the Cloud Village, if I can manage it."

"I see," Hojo answered after a moment. "Calling in another favor?"

"Yes," Jiraiya answered. "If I'd known Naruto was capable of that sort of manifestation, I would have taken him to her immediately, instead of coming here." Jiraiya grimaced. "I know that seal inside and out. The Kyuubi's chakra can leak through, but nothing like that should even be possible."

"Is the seal weakening?" Hojo asked.

"I intend to find out," Jiraiya answered. "I might have to leave Naruto behind to do some research, but where we're going I don't think Akatsuki would risk attacking. Not yet, anyway."

"I will arrange for traveling papers," Hojo said. "You will be mercenaries who just finished a contract with the Rock, looking for more work."

"Thank you," Jiraiya said. "I would do it myself, but that would attract the wrong sort of attention."

Hojo rose. "Jiraiya," he said simply.

"Yes?" Jiraiya asked.

"I beg you," Hojo said. "I believe I know what that boy might mean to you, but if it looks like the Kyuubi will break loose, for the sake of the world kill the boy before that can happen."

The long march had not been at all relaxing, even though in other circumstances Sakura might have enjoyed a hike through the forested hills east of the Leaf Village. They had not stopped for dinner, nor had they halted when the sun sank below the horizon. Around midnight, the chuunin leading Sakura's team had vanished briefly, and they had been "attacked" by four other ninja to test their reactions. Now, just after dawn, they had reached their destination.

A low, new-looking chain fence stood atop the next hill, stretching out of sight both to the left and right. The sixteen teams that had made it to the second exam formed up in front of a gate, labeled with the number one. Morino Ibiki leaned nonchalantly against the gate as the genin arrived and were lined up, straightening once all this was complete.

"I suppose I should introduce myself," he said. "I am Morino Ibiki, and as you should have deduced by now I am the examiner for the second part of the Chuunin Exam. I will now explain the rules for the second exam. No questions will be accepted." There was some grumbling at that among the genin. "Silence!" Ibiki said. "I will only explain this once.

"This exam is a test of survival and combat skills," Ibiki continued. "It takes the form of a battle for control of these scrolls." He held up a white scroll. "The Heaven Scroll." He replaced it with a dark scroll. "The Earth Scroll." He slipped the scroll back into a pocket. "Behind me is the Hidden Village of the Leaf's newest large scale training ground. It is a fifteen kilometer wide circle, and at the center lies a fortress once used for interrogation and detention of prisoners. To proceed to the third exam, your team must bring one Heaven Scroll and one Earth Scroll to the center courtyard of that fortress on the fifth day of the exam."

"That's it?" a Sand genin asked.

Ibiki grinned. "It won't be that simple. There are eight Heaven Scrolls and eight Earth Scrolls hidden in the training ground." Sakura frowned. That made things at the same time more difficult and easier than last time. You had to find both scrolls, but it would be possible to finish the exam without getting into any fights. Ibiki continued, "Each team will be given a map of the training ground showing the location of one scroll. There will be one other team given the same map."

That meant that half the scrolls would be on a map, Sakura figured quickly, leaving half completely hidden. Assuming an even mix of Heaven and Earth in the revealed scrolls, only a quarter of the teams could pass if no one found a scroll on their own. If all the scrolls were found, half of the sixteen teams would be able to pass. In either case, the half of the teams that could get their assigned scroll would have an immense advantage.

Ibiki was not done. "I will now explain the conditions for failure. If you do not bring a Heaven and an Earth scroll to the center courtyard of the fortress by noon on the fifth day of the exam, your team will be failed. If any members of a team are killed or unable to make it to the center courtyard by that time, the remaining members will be failed. If you leave the training area at any time, your team will be failed. If you open either a Heaven or Earth scroll, your team will be failed. If you attempt to enter the fortress before the fifth day, your team will failed."

So it wasn't possible to finish early. Sakura nodded to herself. Even if you found a Heaven and an Earth scroll without fighting, you would have to protect yourself from the other teams for the duration of the exam. There was no easy way through this exam. Sakura smiled slightly. It was only to be expected, and this time she was ready. She patted the kunai sheathed on her leg and opened her pouch of ninja tools, double-checking her stores of equipment. It was lucky she'd gathered most of it before the three o'clock meeting yesterday, though she thought longingly of the heavy pack of food and spare equipment that was sitting in Naruto's apartment At least all the other teams were in the same situation.

"I'm going to give you one piece of advice," Ibiki said. "This exam can be a matter of life and death. I suggest you treat it that way." The special jounin raised a hand. "Chuunin, take your assigned teams to their entrance gates. The second part of the Chuunin Selection Exam will commence in precisely one hour!"

A bit over half an hour later, Sakura and her team were sitting in front of a gate labeled nine, pouring over the map they had been given. As expected, it showed only the broad terrain features - the large lake about halfway between their gate and the fortress, some of the larger hills, and the few clearings of any significant size. It wasn't that different from the Forest of Death, in terrain at least. The scroll they had been informed of - the map made no note of what type it was - lay not far into the training ground, about equidistant from gate nine and the gate to its left.

"That'll be where the other team comes from," Ino said. "It wouldn't be fair any other way."

"Morino-sensei doesn't seem to be the type to care about fairness," Sakura commented.

"In that case, we'll have an advantage," Chouji rumbled, "but if Shikamaru were here he'd say that we should plan for the worst case."

After a moment, Sakura nodded. "Right," she said. "Let's assume it's a race to the scroll right from the start."

"We aren't built for speed," Ino said. "We can't guarantee we'll win a race. They might have the scroll before we even get halfway there."

"If the other team is that much faster than us," Sakura said, "there's not much we can do." She clicked her tongue. "This is vexing. If we knew who the other team was, there's so much more we could plan."

"I don't suppose you could tell us anything, Examiner-san?" Ino asked the chuunin who was leaning against the gate.

The examiner laughed. "It's more than my job is worth," he said. "I think you three can work something out, though. I certainly hope so. I've got half my pay from this whole exam riding on you passing this part."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Ino said, "but why?"

"Because that's how Shikamaru-kun bet," the examiner answered. He laughed suddenly. "Don't tell anyone about the betting pool, please," he said. "It's sort of an open secret, but if Ibiki-sama knew about it officially, he'd have to do something unpleasant."

"At least he isn't Mitarashi-sensei," Sakura said dryly, and the chuunin shuddered theatrically.

Ino snapped her fingers. "That's it!" she said. "That's what's been bothering me!"

"What?" Chouji asked.

"That Ren girl," Ino explained. "She said her teacher was Mitarashi-sensei, and I couldn't remember where I heard that name before."

"That's an odd coincidence," Chouji said. Sakura glanced away.

"You know something?" Ino asked.

Sakura sighed. "The Mist team's jounin teacher is Mitarashi Kimi, our Mitarashi-sensei's older sister." Even the chuunin gazed curiously at her. "It's a long story, and it isn't mine to tell," Sakura finished.

The chuunin sighed as he looked up into the air, eyes focusing on a speck hovering over the forested hills. "It's almost time," he said, stepping away from the gate and pulling out a key. "Get ready, you three, and good luck."

Ino reached into her pouch, pulling out two small, black bundles. "Sakura," she said, tossing one to her. "You're the fastest of us."

Sakura gazed curiously at the radio headset. "How'd you get these?" The electronic devices were not standard equipment and were extremely expensive, particularly compared to a genin's pay.

"My dad loaned them to me," Ino said. "I was only able to get the one pair, though, and you better not lose that one. If you do, I'm making you pay for it."

Sakura nodded. "You want me to scout and find the other team," she said.

"Bingo," Ino replied as she put on her radio. Sakura followed suit, then tested to make sure the earpiece was firmly attached before tapping the microphone by her mouth.

Ino winced, reaching up to adjust the volume on her headset. "It definitely works," she said. Now it was Sakura's turn to frantically adjust the volume.

The chuunin suddenly unlocked the gate, stepping aside. "Begin," he said dryly, and before the word had faded the three genin had passed him in a blur of motion. Smiling, he shut the gate behind them and relocked it. His hands formed a single seal. "Release!" There was a puff of smoke, and Mitarashi Anko smiled at the gate. "Don't let me down, Sakura-chan," she said.

"Did you have fun?" Morino Ibiki said as he walked out from behind a tree.

Anko grinned. "You're lucky I'm in a good mood, or I'd remind you why I warn people not to sneak up on me."

"Should I tell you how many rules you just broke?" Ibiki asked dryly. "I'm going to have to send a chuunin to make sure that snake you summoned doesn't interfere."

Anko pouted. "It won't," she promised. "If I wanted to interfere, I'd have summoned some big ones like I do when I'm running this exam. That little one's just so I can watch the fun."

"I figured as much," Ibiki said. "I'll let it pass on one condition."

"Oh?" Anko asked.

"You have to share," he said, smiling slightly. "There's one of the Third's old seeing-glasses in one of the towers of the detention center, and I'm sure you can figure out how to link whatever you're getting from the snake to that."

Anko grinned. "Deal," she said.

Ibiki nodded. He turned to walk away, then paused. "You didn't do anything permanent to Hijiri-kun, I hope," he said.

Anko snorted. "He'll have the world's biggest hangover when he wakes up today, and a formal reprimand when I get back to the village, but that's all."

"Good," Ibiki said, before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

Five minutes into the second exam, Sakura split from her teammates, jumping from tree to tree on a route that would presumably intercept the other team heading for their scroll. That is, if all their assumptions were accurate. Sakura hated trying to act on this little information, but there wasn't really any choice. Ino and Chouji were heading as quickly as they could toward the scroll's location, and they were depending on her to tell them what they needed to do.

"Remember," Ino said over the radio, "the range on these things isn't very good. Don't go too far afield."

Sakura rolled her eyes. "I know, Ino-pig," she whispered into her microphone. "I went to the same classes as you." Setting Ino's annoying mothering aside, Sakura began to consider precisely how she would find the other team. She was faster than Ino and Chouji, yes, but she wasn't that fast in the grand scheme of things. A speedy team could be at the scroll before she ever crossed their path.

"I'm an idiot," Sakura muttered to herself, stopping suddenly.

"What's that?" Ino said, and Sakura groaned as she realized she'd forgotten the headset was on.

"Nothing," she said as she seated herself on the branch she had stopped on, sitting cross-legged and rapidly taking off her weights. There wasn't any point in handicapping herself here. Sakura lay the weights carefully on the branch, then stood again. When she leapt to the next tree, she almost missed, not realizing how much farther she could jump without the weights. Within a minute, though, she had adjusted and was marveling at how much faster she could move unhindered.

Still, she was concerned about finding the other team. With no data on the other team's speed, she had no way to know where along their presumed path to start looking. She could miss them entirely if she guessed wrong. If only there was someway she could be in more than one place at once. Some useful way, she corrected herself. The replication technique let her be in several places at once, but the replications only lasted a few moments and couldn't travel far from her real self.

It was best to assume that the other team was fast, Sakura decided as she changed the angle of her approach. If she overestimated their speed, a slow team would still eventually reach her. If she underestimated it, they would be at the scroll before she realized her mistake. She wished she'd thought to ask Asuma if he knew any tracking techniques she could learn.

She shook her head, her smooth motion through the trees never stopping. There wasn't any point in thinking that way. It was too late to wish for that kind of thing. She had the skills she had, and she would have to do the best she could with them. Tracking hadn't been her best skill in the academy, but she hadn't flunked those classes either. She stopped suddenly, her eyes flicking to the ground.

A clear footprint was visible in a muddy patch at the foot of her current tree. An amateur mistake, but not unthinkable if the other team was concentrating on speed. The other team was ahead of her, then. She would have to slow down and keep an eye out for traps now. Already Sakura's green eyes were flicking about, searching for any sign of them.

"Ino," she said quietly. "Where are you?"

"About halfway," her rival's voice came back. "What's happening?"

"The other team is ahead of me," Sakura said. "They're going to reach the scroll first." Ino cursed. "Hurry up," Sakura continued. "If I can I'll try to slow them down." With that, Sakura began to move again, following the other team's path. Fortunately, they were too much in a hurry for traps, and they weren't that fast. Sakura was able to close the distance with them rapidly, and she was only a few moments behind when they entered the clearing the map said should hold a scroll.

It was difficult for Sakura to keep quiet when she got her first clear glimpse of the other genin team. What were the odds that her teams would keep running into this batch? Team Seven had fought this team twice, once in the last Chuunin Exam and once in the Tea Country. Sakura's eyes narrowed as she studied the three white-clad Rain genin searching the clearing below her hidden perch in a high tree branch.     They weren't that strong, but they were strong enough that she couldn't take on all three by herself. She'd have to fight a delaying action, then. Sakura smiled to herself. She had no problem coming up with a plan. Maybe if the opportunity presented itself she'd thank the Rain genin for giving it to her. Sakura carefully began to draw up as much chakra as she could. She was going to need it.

Below, the Rain team had found the scroll at the bottom of a puddle that was much deeper than it seemed. Sakura only caught a glimpse of the white Heaven Scroll, but she carefully noted which Rain ninja had it. That information would come in handy. The Rain genin briefly argued amongst themselves over whether it was a good idea to wait and ambush the other team heading for the scroll, but decided against it.

As they left the clearing, Sakura formed the last seal for the technique she had been preparing all the while. She sighed in relief as the Rain genin's path on the forest floor began to curve around, back toward the clearing. She'd performed this technique in practice several times, but this was the first time she'd used it for real.

The Rain genin stopped suddenly, even before they'd completed one full circuit. "Genjutsu," one hissed, and Sakura frowned. She'd been hoping the technique would keep them traveling in circles for much longer. She'd have to move to the riskier part of the plan, then. "Hurry, Ino," she whispered into her microphone. Without waiting for a reply, she leapt to another tree, her hands racing through familiar seals as she moved.

Moments later, several Sakura walked out of the woods surrounding the enemy team, encircling them. "You again," one of the Rain ninja said, laughing slightly. "Where're the other two?" he continued. "You can't beat us by yourself."

None of the Sakura answered. Instead one slowly pulled out a kunai and deliberately tossed it at the speaker. He laughed. "Trying to beat us at our own game?" he said as he sidestepped the kunai. Then the real kunai, coming from another direction, hit him in the arm, and he cursed.

"Care to guess which kunai will be real this time?" one Sakura asked as they all pulled out kunai. The wounded Rain ninja pulled Sakura's kunai out of his arm, hurling it at another Sakura, who just leaned aside, letting it fly into the underbrush. As one, the circle of Sakura released their weapons. A real kunai plunged through one Rain ninja's chest, passing through him as though he wasn't there at all.

Unearthly laughter filled the air as the three Rain ninja blurred, becoming dozens. "There's three of us and only one of you," one said. "Using cheap versions of our own tricks won't let you beat us."

Still in the trees, the real Sakura frowned. She remembered this technique from the last time, and she'd studied some scrolls with a few details on it. Unlike normal replications, the ones created by the Haze Replication Technique didn't disperse when hit. The disadvantages were that the technique was more difficult to perform and that the replications had to be guided much like her Perfect Replication Technique, rather than being able to act on their own like an ordinary or shadow replication. That meant, thankfully, that the Rain ninja would have to stay in the area to direct the haze clones.

Sakura still had to find the real ones, though, or she would soon be in a bad situation. The only advantage she had was that they hadn't seemed to realize that she was only trying to delay them until Ino and Chouji could arrive. She had wounded one of them, so she searched for any sign of blood. She quickly found a short trail of crimson on the forest floor that vanished only a foot or so after it started. Were the Rain ninja underground like six months ago? She'd need to find a way to lure them out.

Keeping the Perfect Replication Technique active was a waste of her limited chakra. She couldn't make the fake clones act like they were physical when she didn't know which attacks were real. Even as the fake Rain ninja began to hurl kunai to hide the actual attack, Sakura let her technique drop. The Rain ninja below froze, adjusting to this sudden change.

"Running away?" came a Rain ninja's voice, but Sakura ignored it. That one moment of frozen surprise had given her what she needed to know. She pulled out another kunai, then reached into her pouch for an explosive tag, the most powerful she had. After carefully wrapping the tag around the hilt, she hurled the kunai into the center of the horde of strange clones.

The explosion shook the forest, but when the smoke cleared there was only a crater surrounded by completely unaffected clones, with no sign of the real Rain ninja. Sakura grimaced. They must have realized she had noticed the arms sticking out from the ground to attack and moved before she could capitalize on it. She resisted the urge to curse as she realized the alternative - that they had deliberately feigned that moment of frozen surprise to lure her into revealing her position.

"Now we know where you are, little Leaf," a Rain ninja said as the clones - and presumably the real ninja as well, to best capitalize on her mistake - began to circle around the tree Sakura was hidden in, before she could move away. "You should have run when you had the chance."

"We're here." Sakura almost started at the unexpected sound of Ino's voice. "Can you do something to whittle down the replications?"

Sakura thought quickly, then smiled. The scrolls she had read said that the Haze Replication Technique, though not quite a true water element technique, manipulated water vapor to create the clones. That meant that she might have a counter. She wasn't certain, but it was better than any other option. She formed seals. "Mist Concealment Technique!" she shouted, channeling as much chakra as she could.

Below her, most of the Rain ninja began to twist and deform, coils of thick gray mist pouring out of their bodies. There was something struggling against Sakura's technique, keeping the mist from escaping entirely and forming an obscuring carpet, but that was actually for the best. The three Rain ninja who weren't half-dissolved into mist were clearly visible.

Chouji, bulked up to impressive size, rolled into them, bowling them over and smashing one up against a tree. The stocky ninja stopped rolling, pinning that ninja with one massive hand. The other two started to run, but before they could reach cover Ino's voice shouted, "Paralysis Technique!" One enemy ninja stopped in his tracks. The haze clones vanished, and with them the mist Sakura had been creating began to fade.

Sakura smiled as she jumped to the forest floor in front of the last enemy, forming a seal in one hand. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" The Rain ninja danced back, avoiding the tendrils of flame that sprouted from Sakura's other hand. Sakura struck out, driving the Rain ninja back. Then one of Chouji's gigantic hands slammed the white-clad ninja into the ground. He didn't rise.

Ino panted as she emerged from the underbrush, still holding the last seal for the Paralysis Technique. "What now?" she said.

Sakura glanced and confirmed her guess that Chouji had knocked the ninja he'd pushed against the tree unconscious as well, then turned to the ninja trapped by Ino's technique. She raised her hand, positioning the tips of her flames mere inches from the captured ninja's chest. "The Heaven Scroll," she said simply. "You were carrying it, I believe."

The Rain ninja managed to nod against the force of Ino's technique. "Take it," he choked out, one hand twitching as it pointed at where he had hidden the scroll. Sakura released her technique - and not a moment too soon, as it was difficult for her to keep the Claw of the Fire Dragon active for long in the best of times. She quickly searched the frozen ninja, then nodded as she stepped back, holding the prize in her hands.

Then Chouji's fist sent the last Rain ninja to join his teammates in slumber. "That wasn't too bad," he said. Ino just sighed as she relaxed, releasing the seal she'd been holding.

"Only because they were too stupid to realize that I had teammates coming or plain overconfident in thinking they could beat us all," Sakura said as she sat down, exhaustion overtaking her. She'd used up way too much chakra in that fight. "If they'd just run instead of trying to play with me, we'd be in a bad situation."

"We can't rest here," Ino said after a moment. "They might wake up any minute. Let's get moving."

"Where to?" Sakura asked.

"I guess toward the center," Chouji commented. "That's where we can probably find the other teams that have a scroll."

After a moment, Sakura nodded, forcing herself to rise. "I'll scout ahead for ambushes and traps, then," she said. "We might as well take advantage of these headsets."

"Will you be okay?" Ino asked.

Sakura's eyes were hard. "I'll have to be, won't I?"

Inuzuka Kiba was, rightfully he felt, feeling very confident as his team moved silently through the forest toward the scroll for which they'd been given the location. He'd been worried that the second exam would prove radically different; he'd heard of exams where it had taken the form of a series of three-on-three matches in a small, heavily trapped arena. While he was confident his team could make it through such an exam, it didn't play to their strengths quite as much as this format.

The changes from the last exam actually made things easier for them. If there was any team that could find one of the hidden scrolls, it was his. Between Shino's bugs, Hinata's Byakugan, and Akamaru and his noses, there wasn't much that could escape their notice. Those same advantages would serve them well in avoiding other teams until the fifth day once they had both scrolls. It was hard to ambush a team that would know you were coming long before you knew they were there, after all.

Kiba grinned to himself as he followed Shino, landing lightly on the next tree branch. Yes, the second exam wasn't going to be any more difficult than last year's. He wondered idly whether enough teams would pass that there would need to be another preliminary round. Probably not, he judged. There weren't as many teams that had made it to the second exam, after all. Seven teams had passed last time, out of a possible thirteen. Only eight teams could pass this time, and that was only if all the scrolls were found. The real number would probably be smaller than that.

Akamaru whined softly from his perch on Kiba's shoulder, and Kiba stopped moving. "You sure?" he asked.

Hinata landed beside him on the branch. "Is something wrong, Kiba-kun?" Shino paused on the branch ahead, glancing back at his teammates.

After listening to Akamaru a few moments longer, Kiba nodded to himself. "Akamaru says that some ninja stopped here about a day ago. It smells like that to me, too." Now what was that about? It would have been before the exam had begun, so it couldn't be another team. Kiba smiled as the answer occurred to him.

"Hinata," Shino said sharply.

The kunoichi nodded. "Right," she said as she formed a seal. "Byakugan!" Her eyes scanned the surrounding forest, taking in every detail. "There," she concluded after a moment, pointing down at a patch of grass near the foot of the tree she and Kiba stood on.

Kiba leapt down to the ground, landing smoothly beside the grass. Now that he looked at it closely, he could easily tell that it had been disturbed. He brushed it aside, revealing the small hole that had been dug there. Grinning triumphantly, he pulled out a small, dark scroll. "One Earth Scroll," he declared. "We're halfway there!"

Hinata smiled softly, but Shino just jumped to a branch on the next tree over. "Let's move," he stated, and a moment later his teammates were once again following him. Well used to Shino's techniques, they were able to spot the bugs slowly creeping out from under his jacket and flying into the air. More importantly, they knew what it meant. They were getting close to where Shino expected trouble to start.

Despite this, they reached where the scroll they had been assigned was supposed to be easily enough, without any sign of another team reaching their keen senses. Again, Hinata's Byakugan proved invaluable in locating the scroll, positioned in the crown of a short tree. It was with some disappointment that Kiba stared at the scroll once it had been retrieved.

"An Earth Scroll," Shino said quietly, accepting the scroll. Barely visible in his pockets, one of his hands twitched slightly. Kiba and Hinata knew instantly what he meant, but they showed no sign.

Kiba knelt, setting Akamaru down. "Good boy," he said. "It's been a pretty productive day thanks to you." Hinata smiled as she drew near, kneeling beside him and petting the dog. Shino wandered off, seemingly lost in thought.

Then almost a dozen kunai struck his teammates, one even pinning Akamaru to the ground. A male voice cursed loudly when there were three puffs of smoke, revealing the two logs and one branch that had actually been hit. Shino stood still, seemingly unconcerned.

"Piercing Fang!" Kiba's voice rang out. Letting out another curse, the ninja leapt from his perch in a nearby tree to dodge the oncoming Leaf ninja, pulling out a kunai as he landed. It didn't avail him, as Hinata was waiting for him a few steps behind his landing point. A single Gentle Fist strike to his back, and the enemy ninja stumbled forward, falling to his knees.

Shino walked over to him and Kiba jumped down to stand beside his teammate. Shino gazed without concern at the fallen foe's Waterfall forehead protector. After a moment, Kiba pulled out a kunai and placed it at the enemy's neck.

"We have your teammate," Shino declared, staring off into the forest. "Come out where we can see you."

For several seconds the forest was still, then the other two Waterfall ninja, a boy and a girl, stepped into sight. The kunoichi held a naginata ready as she glared at her fallen teammate. "Since when did you let a single hit knock you out of a fight, Ikkei-kun?" she asked.

Ikkei grinned nervously, his eyes never leaving the kunai at his throat. "It wasn't a normal hit, Maya," he said dryly.

"We're here," the other male Waterfall ninja said, his blue eyes cold as his hand hovered over what was no doubt a hidden weapon. "What do you want?" As though prompted by his words, Maya fell into a fighting stance, though a mostly defensive one.

"We want to be able to search for the Heaven Scroll without being unnecessarily delayed," Shino responded. "We have you at a disadvantage, but not an insurmountable one." He pulled out the Earth Scroll his team had just acquired. "This is yours."

"What?" Maya asked, startled.

The other free Waterfall ninja's eyes narrowed. "Why?"

Kiba smiled. "Well, the Leaf and the Waterfall are allies."

"Everyone here's an ally, except for the Mist," the Waterfall ninja responded.

Ikkei laughed nervously. "Don't try and talk them out of it, Arata," he said.

"Don't be an idiot, Ikkei-kun," Maya answered.

"Hinata," Shino said, and the Leaf kunoichi briefly pulled out the other Earth Scroll.

"I see," Arata said after a moment. He nodded, and Maya's naginata vanished in a puff of smoke.

Shino nodded back at him, placing his Earth Scroll on the ground. He nodded once as Hinata walked over to him. In one smooth motion, Kiba released Ikkei, leaping backward to land besides his teammates. At a gesture from Arata, Ikkei walked over to the Earth Scroll, picking it up and carefully making sure it was real. When Ikkei nodded, the Waterfall ninja relaxed.

"Thank you," Maya said after a moment.

Shino just nodded. "You owe us," he stated simply, and then the Leaf team vanished.

Day Thirty-seven

Ino, Sakura, and Chouji had not encountered any other enemy teams for the remainder of the first day. Chouji knew that this was a good thing, for while he had still been in fairly good shape though already somewhat famished, between the long night march, the race for the scroll, and the brief fight Ino and Sakura had been in no condition for another battle. Chouji was actually a little surprised that Sakura had been able to perform the scouting duties she'd assigned herself. His temporary teammate had fought the longest of the three of them, but despite clearly being exhausted had not let up until the three had stopped for the night. Where had she gotten the stamina from?

By mutual, unspoken agreement, Chouji and Ino had split what should have been Sakura's watch in the middle of the night. This had caused a small argument when the pink-haired girl had awoken in the morning. Sakura had been furious, insisting that she wasn't going to be a burden and that she could hold her own weight. It hadn't been until Ino had angrily pointed out that her rival had traveled almost twice as far as the other two members of the team because of her scouting and had therefore needed more rest - though not in such polite words - that Sakura had backed down.

As he followed Ino through the trees, Chouji idly wondered why that had touched such a nerve with his temporary teammate. Had he been the one in need of extra rest, he'd have been the first to suggest that solution. It was only common sense. It wasn't like Sakura hadn't done anything yesterday; quite to the contrary she'd contributed the most of the three of them. Yet it seemed that Sakura was so unreasonably scared of not living up to their expectations that she hadn't been able to see that.

With an unusual flash of insight, Chouji thought of who Sakura's teammates had been, and realized that it might not be Ino and his expectations she was afraid of not meeting. Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto had, one as a matter of course and one despite all expectations, become two of the most exceptional genin of their generation. Chouji hadn't known Sakura - or any of the girls for that matter - well in the academy, but even then he had noticed that Sakura had a very competitive spirit. Her daily feuds with Ino had proved that. What was it like, for someone like that to be with teammates like that? He smiled slightly as he glanced at Ino. Probably even worse than someone like Ino being stuck with Shikamaru and him.

"What's so funny?" Ino asked, glancing back at Chouji, who just shrugged. Ino sighed. "I hope Forehead isn't going to burn herself out," she said. "She won't do us a damn bit of good if she doesn't pace herself."

Chouji didn't bother to comment. Ino was completely transparent, sometimes, though he'd never quite been able to figure out how she could care so much about someone who she clearly couldn't stand. It wasn't worth pointing out to her just how obvious it was that she was worried about her rival, though. The results of that would be loud and, as Shikamaru would say, troublesome.

Ino turned her microphone on. "Sakura," she whispered, just loudly enough that Chouji could make it out. "I think we're about to come up on that stream you mentioned. Come on back and let's figure out what we're going to do next." Though Chouji couldn't hear Sakura's response, it must have been affirmative, since Ino didn't say anything else.

The pair reached the stream in question less than a minute later, pausing on a high branch overhanging the water. Chouji took advantage of the break to pull out one of his carefully rationed bags of potato chips, silently and swiftly consuming precisely one quarter of the bag before returning it to his pouch. As he looked up from his snack he frowned. Mist was beginning to gather over the water below, and the weather was wrong for that.

As the mist began to thicken and unnaturally rise high in the air towards the two ninja's perch, Chouji stood, glancing at Ino. The kunoichi nodded. "Mist Concealment Technique. Forehead better not be playing at something." Her hand rested easily on the hilt of a kunai.

Moments before the mist became impenetrable, the two Leaf ninja sensed a figure hurling itself at them. Ino and Chouji separated to dodge the oncoming attacker, who landed lightly on the branch. Then a male voice shouted from another tree, "Suicide Water Replication Technique!" The figure crouched between them pulsed briefly, then exploded into a gigantic blast of water. The force knocked Chouji and Ino from their perches, sending them plummeting to the water below.

Chouji reacted quickly. "Partial Multi-Size Technique!" he roared. One of his arms swelled, reaching out to grab a thick branch protruding from a tree on the other side of the river. With incredible strength, he swung himself around in midair before retracting his arm, planning to land on the branch. Then he saw the Mist ninja kneeling on a higher branch on the same tree.

Grinning widely, Aoki Saburo pulled out a small canister about the size of a scroll container. With one fast motion he hurled it at Chouji. His hands raced through seals. "Suiton: Water Explosive Technique!" Moments before hitting Chouji, the canister exploded into another blast of water, knocking Chouji away.

Ino, who had safely landed on a branch underneath the one she'd been knocked from, shouted, "Chouji!" She leapt into the air, reaching into her pouch for wire.

Before she could do any more, a lithe figure interposed herself, one hand held out while the other formed a familiar one-handed seal. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Eyes widening, Ino was forced to use the wire to pull herself out of the way, rather than rescuing her teammate. Despite this, a tendril of flame struck Ino's side, eliciting a scream of pain and knocking her off course. Shimano Ren rebounded off of a tree trunk and struck again, this time severing the wire Ino was using to guide her path. The Leaf kunoichi flew off, plummeting into the carpet of mist below.

Meanwhile, Chouji had recovered his senses and again used his Partial Multi-Size Technique to arrest his fall and launch himself into the air. He didn't have time to consider Ino's plight as he flew at Saburo, forming seals. "Multi-Size Technique!" Saburo's eyes widened as the Leaf ninja suddenly became much larger. Reconsidering his position, the Mist ninja leapt away.

Chouji hit the branch, which barely resisted his momentum before breaking. He grabbed at another branch, which also snapped. Rather than release his technique, Chouji let himself crash through the branches, slowing his descent as best he could. When he landed by the riverbank, a particularly sturdy branch held like a club in one hand, the earth shook. A moment later, the two Mist ninja landed, much more lightly, in front of him.

The grin hadn't left Saburo's face. "Let's do this," he said, his hand resting on another canister of water.

"Saburo," he teammate said coldly. "He's trying to keep us busy until Sakura-san arrives. The other girl must have their scroll." She took a step forward. "You're the better tracker. Go after her, and I'll hold him off." After a moment, Saburo nodded, tensing to leap away.

"It won't be so easy," Chouji roared, hurling his unwieldy club like a spear at the male Mist ninja.

"Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Ren's flames swept the improvised missile out of the air, breaking it in two and sending the smoldering halves crashing to the ground. "Go, Saburo," she said, releasing her technique.

Before the other male ninja could move, Chouji's arms and legs retracted themselves into his over-sized clothing, barely visible wisps of chakra replaced them. His head vanished next, but his roar of "Human Bullet Tank!" was clearly audible as he began to roll.

Ren's eyes widened. "Go!" she shouted again, and Saburo finally complied. She quickly traced a line in the earth with her foot before leaping backward, her hands forming through seals. "Katon: Fire Dragon Barrier!" Fire burst from the earth along the line her foot had traveled, briefly forming draconic shapes before becoming a towering inferno.

Chouji's roll stopped instantly as he reversed direction, his once again extended arms and legs throwing up huge clouds of dust as he skidded backward, away from the flames. "Odd to see a Mist ninja using fire element techniques," he commented. That she shared one of those techniques with Sakura was even odder, but that was a question for another time. There were more pressing matters to be dealt with now.

The flames Ren had summoned vanished, leaving only scorched earth to show that they had been there. The kunoichi was breathing heavily, and she didn't say anything in response. Clearly that technique had used up a not inconsiderable amount of her chakra. Despite this, a kunai was in her hand, and she was ready to fight.

Chouji's massive hands formed a giant seal. He'd show her a fire element technique, and if he was lucky he'd burn away some of this mist, also. He inhaled deeply, filling his over-sized lungs with air. "Katon: Fireball Technique!"

Ino acted quickly as she fell through the thick mist. In the distance she could hear the sound of Chouji fighting, but she had no time to consider it. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she pulled another metal wire out, rapidly tying it around the hilt of a kunai. With pinpoint accuracy she hurled the weapon at a massive tree trunk, barely visible through the shroud of mist. Almost instantly, her fall halted, becoming a rapid swing toward the tree. The wire cut at her hands, but Ino ignored the pain, shifting her weight so that she landed lightly on a low branch.

She could no longer hear the sounds of battle, and with the mist she wasn't certain just where she was relative to where she had been mere moments ago. Cursing softly, she turned on her microphone. "Sakura," she whispered, "where the hell are you?"

She could hear Sakura breathing heavily. "I'm a little busy, Ino-pig," she muttered softly.

"I don't care," Ino replied, barely able to keep her voice quiet. "We just got ambushed by two of those Mist!"

"Well, I'm taking care of number three. So shut up and do your part." Her rival's voice was very strained. Whatever was going on, it seemed Midori - that had been the other Mist kunoichi's name, Ino recalled - was giving Sakura a hard time. Ino turned her microphone off. Once all this was over, she'd give Forehead an earful about just how worthless her scouting had turned out to be, but not now. Sakura didn't need that just now, clearly.

Not that Ino had the time to waste berating her rival at the moment, either. It was hard to tell in the mist, but she thought she could see someone moving through the trees above, and he wasn't anything close to the right body type to be Chouji. Ino silently leapt from her perch to the ground, her hands flickering as she created replications. Neither Ren nor Saburo had seemed a pushover. She needed to distract whichever it was so that she could attack from ambush.

Ino's replications moved openly and loudly as they split from the real Ino's path. Even as Ino dove into a patch of underbrush, a kunai struck one replication. Ino couldn't see the puff of white smoke through the mist, but she knew it meant her foe was drawing close. Her hands filled with shuriken as she waited. A moment later, Aoki Saburo leapt into her field of vision, and the shuriken flew.

Moments before they would have hit, Saburo's form exploded into a burst of water. Ino's eyes widened as she heard a soft thud behind her, but she didn't waste time being shocked. She instantly sprung from her hiding place and whirled around, a kunai in her hands. Saburo grinned at her. "I haven't got any problem with you," he said lightly. "Hand over your scroll, and I'll let you go."

Ino snorted at the offer, throwing her weapon at the Mist ninja. She knew he would dodge it, but it freed her hands, which raced through familiar seals. "Paralysis -"

Before she could complete the technique, Saburo charged, forcing her to abandon it and back away. She blocked his first, wild punch, but her counterattack was effortlessly deflected. Saburo's leg swept out, trying to knock her off her feet. Ino leapt away, reaching for shuriken. Saburo pressed his attack and didn't give her enough time to retrieve a weapon, launching into a rapid sequence of attacks that Ino needed both hands free to fend off.

Unexpectedly, Saburo leapt away, his hands forming seals. After a split-second of thought, Ino drew a kunai and charged, slicing at the Mist ninja's face. Surprised at her sudden aggression, Saburo stumbled backward, abandoning whatever technique he had been about to use. A kunai of his own appeared in his hands, and he grinned again as he briefly locked blades with Ino. "Not bad," he commented. "Not as good as Ren-chan, but not bad." Then he forced Ino's kunai from her hand with a sudden, violent strike.

Ino jumped away, reaching for another kunai. Saburo tensed to follow, then suddenly leapt backward. Instants later, a kunai hit the ground where he'd been standing. Both ninja's eyes followed the trajectory back up into a nearby tree, but the mist hid whoever had interfered. A calculating look appeared in Saburo's eyes, and with a blur of motion he vanished into the fog.

Ino allowed herself a single deep breath. "Sakura?" she asked. "Is that you?"

"No," a male voice said. Its owner leapt down to stand in front of Ino, though at enough of a distance that it clearly wasn't an attack. Ino's eyes narrowed as she studied the Waterfall ninja. Wasn't he the one who had given Sakura that delightful message from Naruto? What had his name been?

Two figures, a boy and a girl, landed beside him. "I thought," the Waterfall kunoichi said, "that we were just going to watch, Arata."

The first Waterfall ninja grinned sheepishly. "Sorry, Maya," he said, "but she looked like she could use the help." Ino backed away from the trio. Even if they weren't making any hostile moves yet, she couldn't trust anyone but her own team here. Sakura would kill her if she let down her guard and these three took the Heaven Scroll. Arata noticed her slow retreat, and smiled. "No need to worry," he said. "We already have both scrolls." He paused. "You're Haruno Sakura's teammate, right?"

Ino nodded. "Yes," she said. She stopped retreating, but she didn't relax, her eyes flicking about as she searched for escape routes.

"I'm Hiraki Arata," the Waterfall ninja said. He gestured at his male teammate. "This is Chiba Ikkei."    

"Yuhara Maya," the Waterfall kunoichi said, before Arata could introduce her.

Ino nodded slowly. "Yamanaka Ino," she said.

"Well, Ino-san," Arata said. "You want our help taking care of those Mist?"

"Arata!" Ikkei protested. "We shouldn't -"

"Why would you help us?" Ino asked before he could finish. It didn't make any sense. If they already had both scrolls, they'd gain nothing by going after the team from the Mist.

Arata shrugged. "We sort of owe the Leaf a favor," he said.

"Oh, just admit it," Maya said, rolling her eyes. "You just think that Sakura girl is cute."

Ikkei grinned. "Jealous, Maya-chan?"

Maya glared at him. "Shut up, Ikkei-kun," she growled, slightly unrolling a scroll held in a special sheath on her hip. Her hand lightly touched the characters written there, and a moment later she held a naginata. "Out of the way, Yamanaka-san," she said.

Ino didn't wait, jumping to one side. "What are you -"

The Waterfall kunoichi ignored the question as the way she held her polearm changed subtly. "The Third Stance: Calling the Wind!" she declared as she struck at the air in front of her. While the winds that resulted were nothing compared to the fan attacks of the Sand ninja Temari, they were far greater than the strike should have produced. The cloak of mist before her shuddered, then parted, blown away by the force of the winds. As though this had severed some critical link, the Mist Concealment Technique began to fade away. Moments later, Ino could see fire in the distance and barely make out the massive figure that had produced it.

"Chouji," she breathed, not waiting for the Waterfall ninja before racing away to join up with her teammate.

Behind her, Arata grinned. "What are we waiting for?" he asked. Ikkei sighed, but a moment later all three Waterfall ninja were following Ino.

Sakura paused as she landed lightly on a low tree branch, her eyes flicking over the ground below. She'd passed this way once before as she'd scouted ahead of Ino and Chouji. Now she was heading back to check on her teammates, but something seemed off. She couldn't quite place it, but a nagging instinct told her that something was wrong. What was it?

"Sakura." The pink-haired kunoichi almost started at the sound of her rival's voice coming from her headset. "I think we're about to come up on that stream you mentioned. Come on back and let's figure out what we're going to do next."

Sakura turned on her microphone. "I'm already on my way," she whispered. "Be careful." Turning the microphone back off, she again studied the ground below. Frowning slightly, she leapt down, silently landing in a crouch. This was it, she realized. The dirt was too smooth. Somebody had erased the signs of his or her passage through here since the last time she'd passed this way.

Almost instantly, Sakura leapt away again, but she didn't pause as she landed on her target branch, jumping again to a higher one. Was it just coincidence that someone's path had crossed hers, or was someone waiting in ambush? Sakura's gaze swept the nearby trees, searching for some evidence either way. Was that a flicker of movement in the distance? Sakura's hand snaked into her pouch, retrieving shuriken as she cautiously drew near.

Shortly afterward, Sakura frowned. She was well hidden in a high branch, looking down at another kunoichi on the ground below - a girl she recognized. She was the other female on Ren's team. "Midori's the one you should look out for," Ren had told her. Why? Sakura studied the girl beneath her carefully for some clue.

Long black hair flowed freely down her back, which was turned to Sakura. Midori wore the same - or at least an outfit similar to the same - gray sweat suit she had worn during the confrontation at the village gates. Sakura couldn't see any visible weapons, but it was almost certain that Midori had plenty of shuriken and kunai ready. Neji had said that she was a doujutsu user, Sakura remembered. She'd have to be careful not to look into the other girl's eyes.

After briefly scanning the surrounding area in search of Ren or Saburo and finding nothing, Sakura's free hand reached for her headset. She'd have to tell Ino and Chouji about this. Before she could complete the motion, Sakura flung herself to one side, narrowly dodging the kunai that came flying out of the woods as the Midori below vanished in a puff of smoke.

Sakura cursed as she futilely threw her readied shuriken back along the kunai's flight path. The Midori she'd been watching was just a replication. Sakura jumped to another branch as she searched for the real Midori. Where was she hiding? Another kunai came flying from another tree, and this time Sakura had enough warning to draw one of her own kunai and parry the oncoming weapon. Catching sight of a flash of gray cloth, she loosed her blade. It flew straight and true, and there was another burst of smoke. This time a small piece of deadwood fell away from the smoke, the kunai sticking firmly out of it.

"Replacement Technique," Sakura muttered as she moved, drawing another kunai. Midori was making a fool of her. Where was she now? As though in answer to Sakura's question, the branch she was standing on shuddered as someone landed behind her. Sakura barely had time to whirl around and parry Midori's first kunai strike.

The other kunoichi smiled. "Such luck," she said, "that the team whose trail we found was yours." Her smile widened. "And even more luck that I chose to be the one to circle around and wait for the scout to return."

"I don't know what you think," Sakura said, keeping her eyes carefully on Midori's body and not on her face, "but Ren-san and I agreed that there would be no hard feelings from our match."

Midori laughed. "You think this is about Ren?" The sudden tensing of her legs gave Sakura just enough warning that another attack was coming. Sakura darted forward, causing Midori's strike to go wide and only score a glancing blow to Sakura's shoulder. Sakura's own kunai plunged into Midori's chest.

Sakura's eyes widened slightly, then Midori dissolved into water. "Water Replication," Sakura breathed, her eyes narrowing again as she searched once more for the real Midori.

Midori's mocking laughter echoed through the trees. "So you know of that technique, do you?" Sakura leapt to another branch instants before a storm of kunai hit where she had been standing.

Sakura's headset crackled into life. "Sakura," Ino said, "where the hell are you?"

"I'm a little busy, Ino-pig," Sakura muttered softly into her microphone. She jumped to another tree, still unable to see any sign of Midori.

"I don't care," Ino's reply came. "We just got ambushed by two of those Mist!"

Another kunai came flying at Sakura, who parried and jumped to tree it had apparently come from. No matter how she searched, she couldn't find the real Midori. "Well, I'm taking care of number three," she told Ino irritably. "So shut up and do your part." Pausing slightly, Sakura turned her microphone off. She almost frowned, but carefully kept her face smooth. Was that a slight flicker of movement?

A moment later, yet another kunai came from that direction. Sakura waited several seconds before reacting, dropping down to the branch below. Midori was using genjutsu to cloak herself. No wonder it was so difficult to find the real her. Sakura remembered what she had read of genjutsu cloaking techniques. With enough time, they could be seen through, particularly if the user was moving. If she could buy herself enough time, she could deal with this. "If this isn't about Ren," Sakura asked suddenly as she moved to another tree, "what is this about? We never met before last week."

"You have no idea," Midori said, "how much trouble your appearance caused Mitarashi-sensei and Ren." Sakura didn't wait for an attack, moving again while keeping a careful eye on the direction the voice had come from. There - another flicker of movement!

Sakura didn't let any sign of what she had noticed into her voice as she feigned weakness, clutching at her lightly wounded shoulder. "What do you mean?"

"Mitarashi-sensei hadn't expected her sister to have somehow found a student, but she had planned for that anyway." Midori laughed. "Except for one thing."

Sakura was certain that she could now just barely make out the outline of Midori's figure. "Is this a riddle?" she asked when it became apparent Midori was waiting for an answer.

"It was," Midori said, jumping to another tree herself. It took all of Sakura's control not to follow Midori's motion with her eyes. "I suppose I should get a straight answer from you before I finish you off. Since there's certainly no one around but the two of us, there's no reason for you to lie."

Sakura wasn't able to keep the confusion from her voice. "What in the world are you talking about?"

Midori laughed. "I suppose that gives me the answer," she said, "but Ren would want me to make sure." She paused deliberately before continuing. "Haruno Sakura," she said slowly, "are you or are you not an agent of the Hidden Mist?"

Sakura froze, moments before she would have leapt to a branch giving her a better angle of attack. "What?!"

Midori did move to another tree, one very close to Sakura's. Sakura could tell from the slight distortions in the air and flickers of motion that she was pulling out a weapon. "I didn't think so," Midori said as she prepared to throw. "It's over."

Sakura moved first, the shuriken she'd been surreptitiously readying flying with perfect accuracy at the cloaked Mist kunoichi. Sakura followed her weapons, her kunai ready to strike. The cloaking genjutsu dissolving, Midori flipped backward, avoiding both the shuriken and Sakura's attack, and landed in a crouch where the branch met the tree's trunk.

"You have good eyes," Midori said, "but that's only to be expected from another member of the Haruno Clan." She smiled as she raised her gaze, and twin pairs of emerald eyes met. Sakura froze, unable to look away. Midori's smile widened. "It's over," she repeated as her hands formed a single seal. "Haruno Ninpou: Gaze of Torment."

Sakura's world exploded into pain. She screamed as she stumbled forward, every motion sending new waves of of fiery pain through her. Her vision blurred as she fell from the tree branch - thankfully a low one. The sensation of her heavy landing was amplified a thousand times, feeling like she'd fallen from much higher. Whenever she tried to move, she screamed again from the crippling agony that raced through her. Somewhere, in a corner of her mind, she knew that this was only genjutsu, but it did her no good. What did it matter if the pain was caused by nothing real? It felt the same as true pain, if not even worse.

Midori landed lightly on the ground beside Sakura. "It's a shame," she commented as began to search Sakura for any scrolls, "that Ren made me promise not to kill you." Her every touch set Sakura's skin aflame with more pain, and it was all she could do to keep from passing out. Eventually, Midori satisfied herself that Sakura was not carrying either a Heaven or an Earth scroll, and she stepped away, sighing. "I suppose now I just have to wait until Saburo and Ren are done with your teammates."

As though summoned by Midori's words, Ino's voice sounded in Sakura's ear. "Sakura. Are you there?" A moment later, Ino spoke again. "Sakura?"

With tremendous effort, Sakura managed to fight against the pain every movement caused and turn on her microphone. "Here," she gasped out quietly, though it turned into a muffled scream. Midori glanced at her and smiled, seemingly not noticing that Sakura had said anything intelligible.

"Sakura!" Ino said. "What's happening? Where are you?" Sakura tried to answer her rival, but all that emerged from her mouth were pained moans. Midori laughed, and it was obvious that Ino had heard the sound by the tone of her voice when she next spoke. "Sakura. If you can form seals, form these seals exactly when I tell you to." A moment later, Ino slowly began to recite an unfamiliar list of seals. Painstakingly, Sakura turned her body to hide her hands from Midori and followed Ino's instructions. It seemed as though Sakura could feel Ino grin as she finished the list of seals and said the name of the technique. "Body-Sharing Technique!"

An instant later, a familiar foreign presence lifted Sakura's head, carefully looking around. In her mind, Sakura whimpered from the pain, but Ino apparently felt none of it. Midori glanced curiously at Sakura. "Did you finally pass out?" she asked.

Ino made Sakura's body leap up, punching the stunned Midori in the face. As Midori stumbled back, Sakura mentally screamed in unimaginable pain. "What's wrong with you, Forehead?" Ino mumbled softly with Sakura's voice. "You aren't hurt."

Midori shakily stared at Sakura. "How did you counter my technique?" she asked as she rubbed at a spot of blood on her lip.

Ino forced a smirk onto Sakura's lips. "That's for me to know and you to find out," she said, running Sakura's hands quickly through seals. "Paralysis Technique!" Midori froze, unable to move. Ino laughed as she held the final seal. "Now I just need to wait for the others to catch up."

An instant later, two figures leapt down from the trees to stand beside Midori. "What did you do to Midori?" Saburo demanded as Ren carefully examined her teammate.

Not waiting for Ren to figure out how to disrupt the technique, Ino made Sakura's hands release the seal they were holding and leapt backward, drawing Sakura's last kunai. She cursed as she studied the three Mist ninja. Midori shook herself, drawing another kunai of her own.

Before any more violence could occur, there was a massive blur of motion. Chouji, swollen to huge size, appeared between the Mist team and Sakura's body. Ino's body was slung over one shoulder. Ino formed a seal with Sakura's hands, whispering, "Release." Instantly, Ino stirred, freeing herself from Chouji's grasp and leaping down to the ground. Once more in control of her body, Sakura collapsed, still unable to move from the pain that swept through her.

She was still able to notice the three Waterfall ninja that appeared behind the Mist team. From their stances, they were obviously not cooperating with the Mist, and they soon joined Ino and Chouji in surrounding the trio.

Saburo's eyes flicked between the five. "Ren-chan," he said firmly.

Ren nodded, racing through seals before grasping her teammates' hands. "Shadow Smoke Evasion!" she shouted. There were three massive plumes of thick black smoke, and when they faded the Mist were gone. Sighing, Chouji returned to his normal size.

No longer able to hold it in, Sakura screamed again, drawing the attention of all five of the remaining ninja. "Sakura," Ino said as she raced forward. "What's wrong?"    

One of the Waterfall, a kunoichi, followed her. "It looks like some sort of genjutsu," she commented as the naginata she held vanished in a puff of smoke. Her hands formed a single seal, then she laid them on Sakura's side. "Release!"

Blessed relief passed through Sakura's body as the pain instantly vanished. Panting, Sakura looked up at the Waterfall kunoichi. "Thank you," she said, then hesitated, not knowing her name.

"Yuhara Maya," she answered smoothly. She stood. "We saved your girlfriend, Arata," she said. Sakura followed her gaze to see the ninja who had given her Naruto's message grinning sheepishly. "There's no reason to stick around any longer."

"You are jealous," the third Waterfall ninja commented.

"Didn't I tell you to shut up, Ikkei-kun?" Maya asked dangerously. "Let's go." Arata shrugged apologetically at Sakura, then all three Waterfall ninja vanished in a blur of motion.

Day Thirty-eight

It had been very lucky for Sakura's team that they had not encountered any more teams as they had searched for a hiding place to rest and recover in. Sakura herself had been almost completely out of it, half-dazed by the aftereffects of Midori's painful genjutsu. Chouji had burned through a vast amount of chakra, and though he had been quickly recovering he would not have been able to fight at full strength. Ino had been the least affected of the team, but she would not have been enough to make up for her two teammates' weakness had another hostile encounter occurred.

When they had found the small cave - barely worthy of the name - at the bottom of a low hill, they had quickly set up a watch schedule and set to resting without further conversation. After a restful, uneventful night, all three were feeling much better, and the time had come to discuss yesterday's events.

"What the hell were you doing, Forehead?" Ino demanded. "You were supposed to be scouting so we wouldn't be ambushed like that!"

"Ino," Chouji rumbled, but Sakura shook her head.

"Ino's right," she said softly, glancing at the ground. "I'm sorry."

As perhaps nothing else could, Sakura's unexpected apology almost instantly deflated Ino's rage. "Sakura? What happened?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Sakura asked. "I did a poor job of hiding my tracks. The Mist team found them, and Ren and Saburo followed them back to you while Midori waited in ambush for me."

"That's not what I meant, Sakura!" Ino snapped. "What happened between you and that Midori girl? You haven't been acting like yourself."

Sakura blinked slowly. "What happened on your end?" she asked after a moment. "How did those Waterfall get involved?"

Ino and Chouji traded a look, and then Chouji spoke. "The Mist used Mist Concealment Technique to obscure their approach. The boy - Saburo?" Sakura nodded slightly, and Chouji continued. "He used some sort of exploding replication to separate us. Then they figured out that Ino had our scroll and he went after her while Ren kept me busy." After a moment, he added, "Did you know that Ren knew Claw of the Fire Dragon?"

Sakura nodded. "It's a Mitarashi Clan technique," she said quietly.

Ino blinked. "Then how did you -" She cut off suddenly. "You got that psycho Mitarashi Anko to teach it to you?" she asked.

Sakura nodded. "Didn't I tell you?" she asked, then she shook her head. "I guess not."

Chouji frowned. "Now I remember Asuma-sensei saying that, when you showed it to him."

Ino blinked. "Oh yeah." She paused. "Anyway, after I got separated from Chouji, I ran into the Waterfall ninja. They decided to help, though I'm not sure why." She shrugged. "The rest is kind of obvious."

"What about the technique you used on Sakura?" Chouji asked. "I didn't know you could do that, Ino."

"I wasn't certain either," she replied. "It's a variation on the Mind-Body Switch Technique my dad showed me right before the exam started. It works instantly, but only if the target can hear me. I need the target's cooperation for it, though." Ino grinned sheepishly. "I really didn't know whether it would work over the radio but it was worth a try." Her face turned serious as she looked at her rival. "You've heard our stories, Sakura. Now it's your turn. What happened with Midori?"

For a while, Sakura didn't say anything, then she shrugged slowly. "We fought," she said flatly, looking away from Ino's gaze. "I lost. That's all.""

Ino stared unbelievingly at Sakura for a moment. "That's a load of bull," Ino finally said. "I know it, even Chouji probably knows it, and you know we know it." Chouji didn't say anything. "Am I going to have to beat this story out of you? Spill it."

"Fine," Sakura growled. "Midori's name," she said, "is apparently Haruno Midori."

Ino and Chouji were silent. Then, Chouji spoke. "Some of your family left the Leaf and joined the Mist?" he guessed.

"I don't know!" Sakura answered, frustrated. "The other way around, I think," she continued, clenching her fists. "I never even knew there were any other Haruno but my mother and me!" She sighed. "Damn it," she said quietly, and for a long while neither Ino nor Chouji could find the words to speak.

Eventually, Chouji said, "We should get moving."

It was Sakura who responded first, standing. "You're right. We still need to find an Earth Scroll." Her voice was flat and hard, and Ino gazed worriedly at her rival.

"Are you okay?" Ino asked after a moment.

"I'll have to be," Sakura answered. "I have no intention of failing here."

Ino nodded slowly. "All right," she said as she rose. "Let's stick together today."

"Fine," Sakura answered curtly, and the three set off. They were nearing where on their map a large lake was shown, and the terrain was beginning to become less of a forest and more of a range of hills. There were still plenty of trees, though, and Sakura quickly moved to the treetops, leaving Ino and Chouji on the ground. Unlike before, though, she only carefully shadowed her teammates' movements rather than ranging afield to scout.

As her team slowly made its way toward the center of the training area, Sakura considered the painful knot of conflicting emotions Midori's revelation had created. Slowly, deliberately, she took them all and locked them away in a tiny corner of her mind. With them she imprisoned the questions that she wanted to ask her mother, the worries that had been raised, and everything else related to the matter. She had no time for such concerns now. She had spoken truly to Ino before. She would not fail here. She could not fail here. That was all that mattered now. All else was only distraction, and distraction could be deadly.

"I expect you to participate, and I expect you to improve your performance over your showing last time," the Hokage had told her a little more than a month ago. Sakura would meet the Hokage's expectation. She had no other choice. This was the path she had set for herself, perhaps the first time in her life she had made such a decision. She would see it through to the end, no matter what.

For the first time since her fight with Midori, a slight smile crossed her face. "I not going to take back my words," she whispered, remembering the seemingly countless times she had heard that from Naruto's lips. "That's my way of the ninja." Was it truly hers as well?

On the ground below, Ino glanced up at her. "Did you say something, Sakura?" she asked.

Sakura shook her head. "Nothing." She paused, then shook her head again. "Nothing," she repeated.

Ino frowned, trading a glance with Chouji. "All right," she replied, and the other two ninja sped ahead, letting Sakura fall behind. It was almost a minute later, by which point Sakura was beginning to wonder whether she was imagining things, that they sprung the ambush.

"Fuuton: Breakthrough Technique!" a male voice called out. A massive, sudden windstorm burst into existence. Chouji was pushed back by the force of the winds, raising an arm to shield his face. Ino struggled for a moment, but was ultimately flung backward into a tree trunk. She slumped to the ground, and did not rise.

Three Sand genin, at least five years older than Sakura and her team, emerged from the underbrush. One nonchalantly stuck out one arm. "Expanding Chain Technique!" he shouted, four long whips of metal chains sprouting from underneath the sleeve of his shirt. They flew through the air, wrapping around Chouji before he could react. Though the stocky ninja struggled, he was not able to free himself.

One of the Sand ninja laughed, looking almost directly at Sakura's hidden perch as he readied a kunai. "We know you're up there somewhere, little Leaf. Come out before we decide to do something unpleasant." Sakura weighed her options, and a few moments later she leapt down to stand before the three Sand ninja. "Good girl," the Sand ninja said, though he didn't put up his weapon. The ninja holding Chouji's chains laughed.

The third Sand ninja reacted entirely differently, freezing momentarily and backing away nervously. The chain user glanced back at his frightened teammate. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Didn't you listen to Tenma-kun?" the terrified ninja asked as he backed away. "She's the one they say beat Gaara!" Sakura resisted the urge to blink as she remembered Rock Lee's easily misinterpreted comments to another Sand team before the first exam. It seemed that the tale had grown in the spreading.

The chain user's eyes widened. "What?" he asked.

The other Sand ninja laughed. "A little girl like that? Beat Gaara?" He laughed again, but it seemed a little forced. "Ridiculous." None the less, he backed away slightly, his drawn kunai shifting into a defensive condition.

Sakura's mind raced. How would someone who could defeat Gaara of the Desert act in this situation? An arrogant sneer appeared on her face as two more Sakura appeared, one on either side of the first. "Now, now," she asked mockingly, "where did all that fighting spirit go?" All three Sakura formed a seal with one hand, sprouting claws of fire on the other. "I was hoping we could have some fun," she continued. Her voice made it more than clear that she meant only one person would be having fun, and that person would not be wearing a Sand forehead protector. The Sand ninja stirred, all their attention divided between watching the fearsome sight before them and searching for escape routes.

This distraction gave Chouji the chance he needed. With a sudden grunt, he forced his hands together, forming a seal. "Multi-Size Technique!" he roared, and as he grew the chains around him shattered. The chain user stumbled backward, falling to the ground. A moment later, Ino's replication, still slumped against a tree, vanished in a puff of white smoke. Three kunai flew from out of the surrounding trees, each one landing at a Sand ninja's feet.

"No need to get excited," the Sand ninja who had first recognized Sakura said as he nervously glanced about. He slowly reached into a pocket. "We'll just give you our scroll without a fight, okay? Just let us go!" He began to pull out a scroll, and Sakura had to resist the urge to sigh as she saw the pale color of a Heaven Scroll.

"We don't need your scroll," one Sakura said, moving her hand slightly. Her flames flicked through the air, almost reaching the Sand ninja. "Get out of our sight."

"Thank you!" the chain user said as he rose, obviously marveling at his team's good fortune. A moment later, the three Sand ninja were gone. A few moments after that, the three Sakura vanished without even a puff of smoke, and the real Sakura leapt out of another tree. Chouji shrank back to his normal size, and Ino emerged from another hiding place.

"That was good acting," she said, laughing. "You should let Lee-san take you on a date after all this is over, Forehead."

Sakura smiled slightly. "Maybe," she answered.

"We could have won anyway," Chouji commented, grinning widely. "They never even noticed that you two were really hiding. It's too bad that they didn't have an Earth Scroll."

Sakura's smile vanished. While the easy victory did wonders to raise her spirits, they weren't any closer to passing this exam. They only had until noon on the day after tomorrow to find an Earth Scroll. They couldn't afford to waste any more time. "Let's get moving," she said. "We've still got a long ways to go before we can stop for the night."

"Right," Ino said. "It's my turn to take point," she continued, leaping to a tree without waiting for Sakura to comment. Sakura sighed, but then she smiled. "Chouji?" she asked.

He nodded. "Let's go."

Though they searched for signs as they traveled, the three found no hint of another team's presence until they reached the shore of the large lake near the central fortress as night began to fall. After carefully scouring the area for any other teams, they selected a campsite. Sakura busied herself preparing a small fire as Chouji fished and Ino kept an eye out for any approaching ninja. Sakura actually hoped the fire she was about to start attracted a team. That would be another chance at an Earth Scroll. Kneeling in front of the sticks and leaves she had gathered, Sakura formed a seal.

"Yo," Inuzuka Kiba said from directly behind her.

In an instant, Sakura stood on the other side of the unlit fire, facing him with a kunai in her hands. "Kiba-san," she said flatly. Aburame Shino and Hyuuga Hinata stood on either side of their teammate. "What do you want?" Chouji had already noticed the confrontation and was racing back to shore.

Kiba doubled over, laughing, almost dislodging Akamaru from his perch on his shoulder. "You should have seen the way you jumped," he said.

"Kiba-kun," Hinata said softly.

Kiba sighed and straightened. "Yeah, yeah." He glanced at Chouji, who was drawing near. "You can calm down," he said. "We already have both of the scrolls we need. You've got nothing to worry about from us." Chouji slowed slightly, but he didn't stop until he stood next to Sakura.

Ino landed lightly on her other side. "Sorry, Sakura, Chouji," she said. "I have no idea how they got past me."

"You use your eyes too much," Shino said simply, and Ino frowned.

"H- How are you doing?" Hinata asked.

"We have one scroll," Chouji answered.

Kiba grinned. "Maybe we should be worried about you three," he said lightly. Sakura frowned.

"This is a good campsite," Shino volunteered, glancing about.

"And?" Ino asked suspiciously.

"We can share," Hinata said quietly.

Kiba nodded. "If you guys still need a scroll, you're going to have a tough day tomorrow. It won't be easy for us, either. We'll all be able to sleep better with extra backup close at hand."

Sakura's team traded glances, but after a moment Ino nodded. "That sounds fine," she said.

Shino glanced about. "We will camp there," he said, pointing to a cluster of trees by the shore. It was far enough away to be a distinct campsite, but close enough that an attack on either would surely alert the other team. "You can camp here," he continued.

Sakura nodded. It made sense. The distance gave both teams a little bit of needed privacy, without sacrificing the advantage of having allies nearby. "All right," she agreed for her team, and neither of her teammates protested. A thought wormed its way into the back of Sakura's mind, and she forced it back for the moment. Now was not the time for that.

It was much later, after the sun had finished setting and the two teams had returned to their separate campsites after a shared dinner, that Sakura let the thought surface again. She and her teammates had finished agreeing on their watch schedule for the night. Before Ino and Chouji could break away from their huddle, Sakura gestured for them to stay put a moment longer.

When she spoke, she carefully pitched her voice so low that her teammates had to lean even closer to hear her. "They say they have an Earth Scroll," she said simply. "We need one." There was no need to spell out what she was implying.

"Are you serious, Sakura?" Ino hissed, almost as softly.

"They're our friends," Chouji agreed.

"Would you fight one of them if you were matched with them in the next exam?" Sakura asked, having already pondered this same objection.

"Of course," Ino said, blinking. "What does that -"

"How is this any different?" Sakura interrupted. "This is an exam, just like the third exam. It's not like we're going to really be trying to hurt them. We just want their Earth Scroll."

"But still," Chouji said.

"I don't like it very much either," Sakura admitted, "but we only have one more full day to get an Earth Scroll. There's no guarantee we'll even see another team, much less one with an Earth Scroll. We know that they have one." Her face was hard. "I'm not going to fail here."

Ino and Chouji traded a look. "They're strong. We'll need a good plan," Chouji said after a moment.

Sakura smiled grimly. "I have one."

Day Thirty-nine

The night passed uneventfully, though Sakura still had trouble sleeping. Despite her words, she had misgivings about the course of action she had proposed. She didn't the idea of fighting not only other Leaf ninja, but her classmates. Still, that was just part of the second exam, wasn't it? Except for the Mist, nobody here would be a real enemy outside of it under normal circumstances. The rules of the exam pitted them against each other regardless.

Setting that issue aside, the other three members of the so-called "Rookie Nine" presented a formidable challenge. Inuzuka Kiba was strong, Sakura knew. Even if he was the same as six months ago, he would be difficult to defeat, and he had certainly gotten stronger since then. Chouji had assured his teammates that he could fight on even ground with him, though. Sakura was glad for that, for she didn't think Ino or she could claim that.

Hyuuga Hinata was another difficulty. While Sakura doubted Hinata's actual strength was much higher than her own, she knew the Hyuuga heir was a bad match-up for her in a fair fight. Sakura didn't trust that her genjutsu could withstand the Byakugan's scrutiny. The Gentle Fist made using close-range attacks worse than futile. Ranged attacks might be just as useless, if Hinata had mastered her clan's absolute defense. It was up to Ino's mental attacks to defeat her.

That left Aburame Shino for Sakura. The bug user was something of a cipher - none of her team had seen him fight, save for that one lopsided match in the last exams, and he had been a loner in the academy. He had consistently ranked near the top of the class, though, and Sakura knew Shino was smart - possibly smarter than herself or even Shikamaru. No, Aburame Shino would not be easy to defeat, either, but of the three she judged she had the best chance against him in a straight fight.

If all went well, though, there would be no need to face any of the three in a straight fight. Sakura would never have suggested attacking them if she hadn't thought they could avoid a three-on-three brawl. There was no doubt in her mind that, if she was some hypothetical third party, that she would bet on Kiba, Hinata, and Shino in that sort of fight. Her own team might be able to pull out a victory, but Sakura judged the odds would be against it.

Sakura glanced at her teammates, shaking her head to clear it of her musings. The time for that sort of thinking was over, and the time for action had come. "Are you ready?" she asked.

Chouji nodded. "Yes."

"I still don't like this," Ino muttered.

"We don't have to do it," Sakura said after a moment. "I just think it's our best shot at the scroll we need."

"I know," Ino said. "I don't have to like it, though."

"You don't," Chouji, surprisingly, said, "but you need to do your part without hesitating. We'll only get one shot at this."

"I know," Ino repeated. "I'll do it."

Sakura nodded. "Let's go, then," she said, and the three ninja parted ways. Sakura headed for the other team's campsite, taking no effort to hide her approach. Kiba was sitting on a log in plain sight, petting Akamaru.

"Yo," he said with a wave as Sakura neared. "What's up?"

Sakura glanced about, not finding either of Kiba's teammates. "Are Hinata and Shino around?" she asked.

Kiba shrugged. "They're scouting to make sure nobody's set up an ambush for us overnight. They should be back in a minute. Why?"

Sakura forced herself to smile. "We have a little proposition for you three," she said.

Kiba grimaced. "If it's what I think it is, the answer is no. The three of us thought about it last night, but we won't help you guys get the second scroll. We don't want to risk contact with any other teams if we can help it."

Sakura shook her head. "Of course not," she said. "That's not what I want to ask."

"What do you want to ask, then?" Kiba responded.

Before Sakura could reply, Shino and Hinata returned. "Here's the deal," Sakura said a little while later. "It's been four days since any of us have had a bath. I'm sure Kiba could smell us from a mile away." Kiba grinned briefly at this. "Since we have this nice lake here and extra people to use as guards, we'd like to take advantage of it." Sakura gestured back toward her team's campsite. "Ino and I found a nice little spot for bathing past where we're camped. I figure you guys can keep watch while we girls take a bath, and then we can return the favor." She smiled slightly. "The way the numbers work out, there'll always be three people on guard. That's enough to match an enemy team."

Kiba shrugged. "I don't see the harm, but I don't think I really need a bath."

"You do," Shino said flatly and Hinata smiled softly.

Kiba rolled his eyes. "Fine," he said.

Sakura grabbed Hinata's hand. "Come on," she said. "I'll show you the way." Hinata didn't struggle as she was led away from her teammates. The place that Sakura took the Hyuuga heir to was, indeed, a good spot for bathing. Here, the lake jutted out into the surrounding land, creating a small pool cloaked on three sides by thick undergrowth and rocks.     Hinata smiled as she took in the location. "Where is Ino-san?" she asked after a moment.

Sakura shrugged. "She's coming," she said. Sakura took off her green jacket, making a mental note to switch to heavier red jacket she had retrieved from her house once the exam was over. It was already starting to get too cold for the lighter jacket. After a moment, Hinata followed suit, turning her back to Sakura modestly and pulling her gray sweatshirt over her head.

That was when Sakura struck, grappling Hinata from behind. Somehow, she anticipated Sakura's first attack, stumbling forward and out of Sakura's grasp. Cursing, Sakura swept out with her leg, knocking the Hyuuga heir off her feet. Before Hinata could recover, Sakura jumped on top of her. The two wrestled briefly, but Hinata was still hindered by her half-removed sweatshirt, and Sakura quickly gained the upper hand.

"Now, Ino!" Sakura said harshly, and Hinata stiffened, then relaxed, no longer struggling against her attacker. Sakura didn't relax her grip. "Ino?" she asked.

"Mockingbird," Hinata replied calmly. "It's me." Sakura released her, and Hinata pulled her sweatshirt back down. Hinata tried to rise, then fell back down.

"Are you okay, Ino?" Sakura asked as she rose herself.

"It's these eyes," Ino said with Hinata's voice. "They're even weirder from the inside. It's making me a little dizzy." She closed Hinata's silver eyes briefly, then reopened them. She stood. "I think I'm getting used to it. I wonder whether I could activate the Byakugan if I knew how."

"I don't see why not," Sakura responded after a moment, "but now's not time to worry about that."

Ino nodded Hinata's head. "I know," she said. She began to pat all over Hinata's body, searching for any hidden scrolls. After a moment, she pulled out a Heaven Scroll. "Damn it," she cursed as she returned the scroll to its hiding spot. Sakura had to resist the urge to shudder at hearing so uncharacteristic a phrase come from Hinata's lips. Ino's technique creeped her out. Ino sighed. "I guess we go to Plan B," she said.

"We should wait a while longer," Sakura said. "We're supposed to be taking a bath."

Ino shrugged. "They're boys. They're probably already wondering what's taking us so long."

"Not quite yet," Sakura disagreed, rolling her eyes. "Give them another thirty seconds, at least."

It was actually two minutes later when Ino walked up, still in Hinata's body, to the three boys, Sakura trailing after her. Shino sat over by himself, while Kiba and Chouji were chatting quietly. Kiba looked up as Ino approached. "Done already, Hinata?" he asked.

Ino nodded. "Yes," she said quietly. Shino stood up.

"All right, then," Kiba said as he started to head toward the bathing spot. "I guess we should get started." He paused as he neared Ino.

"I- is something wrong, Kiba-kun?" Ino asked.

Kiba slugged her. Hinata's body flew away, landing with a heavy thud. "What are you doing, Kiba?" Sakura demanded.

"You two smell like you were in a fight, not a bath," Kiba growled. "I remember Yamanaka's technique from the last exams."

Behind Kiba, Chouji rapidly formed seals. "Multi-Size Technique!" he roared.

Kiba leaped away, turning to face the giant ninja in midair. "Akamaru!" he snapped out as he landed in a half-crouch, forming seals of his own. His dog jumped on to Kiba's back as he formed the final seal. "Beast-Man Replication!" Kiba yelled, and a moment later Akamaru was replaced by a second Kiba.

Shino began to stretch out his arms, only to freeze as he felt the cold prick of a kunai on the back of his neck. "I wouldn't move," the second Sakura standing behind him said sweetly, "if I were you. I wouldn't let any bugs out, either."

Perhaps Shino's eyes flicked back to glance at the pink-haired kunoichi, but Sakura couldn't tell through his dark sunglasses. "You wouldn't kill me," he stated.

"No," Sakura responded, "but this seemed the best way to demonstrate that I had the drop on you. If you try anything, you'll be hurting. I'd prefer to not have to do that."

"Dual Piercing Fang!" one Kiba shouted, and both started to spin as they charged Chouji. The spinning attacks pummeled the giant ninja, and he stumbled backward, unable to block all the strikes. As the two Kiba leaped away, landing in a half-crouch on opposite sides of Chouji, they grinned. "You're going to regret messing with us!"

Chouji formed seals, inhaling deeply. "Katon: Fireball Technique!" The massive ball of flame he breathed out flew toward one Kiba, who barely managed to leap out of the way.

The other Kiba tensed, preparing to jump on Chouji's over-sized back. "Not so fast," the first Sakura said. "Katon: Claw of the Fire Dragon!" Flames sprouting from her hand, she charged, and that Kiba was forced to leap out of the way, spoiling his attack.

The other Kiba snarled. "Piercing Fang!" he roared, but this time, faced with only one attacker, Chouji was able to swat the attack aside. That Kiba smashed into the ground, but a moment later he rolled to his feet.

The Kiba facing Sakura grinned as he studied his opponent. "I've seen that technique," he said. "When all this is over, you'll have to tell me how come you and that Ren girl both know it, but for now let's just see if you can really fight me." He grinned. "Piercing Fang!" Somehow, Sakura got out of the way of his spinning attack, but Kiba just as easily dodged her fiery claws when she counterattacked.

Shino glanced between the Sakura fighting Kiba and the Sakura at his back. "I know what you're thinking," the Sakura behind him said. "You're wondering which one is real." She smiled. "Maybe we both are."

"You don't have the chakra for the Shadow Replication Technique," Shino said, "but Kurenai-sensei said you knew a genjutsu replication technique, one that could even fool the sense of touch. You are only genjutsu."

"Oh?" Sakura asked, her kunai pressing more firmly on Shino's neck. "Care to bet?"

"You could not sneak on me like that," he said simply. "My bugs would have warned me."

"Perhaps I know a cloaking genjutsu also," Sakura commented. "You'll only get one chance to guess. I wouldn't risk it."

"Perhaps," Shino said, frowning.

Chouji and the Kiba he was fighting seemed to be evenly matched. Both were taking hits, but nothing that would put them out of the fight. If their duel continued uninterrupted, it would come down to simple endurance. It was hard to say, but Sakura guessed that Chouji had the advantage there. Hinata's body lay still, and Sakura wasn't certain who would be in control when it moved again.

The Kiba fighting the second Sakura laughed as she dodged another Piercing Fang. "You're faster than I thought, Haruno," he said, "but unless you've got a good trick up your sleeve I'm going to hit eventually. Then it'll be over."

Sakura smiled at him. "You shouldn't have boasted so much before," she said as she reached back into her pouch. "You made me think about what I would do if I had to fight you in a preliminary match. The answer came to me when I remembered the last exams."

"Oh?" Kiba asked.

"It wasn't easy to get the right ingredients so quickly," Sakura said, "but Shizune-sama was willing to help me." Her smile turned into a grin as she pulled out a small smoke bomb. "I call it the Uzumaki Naruto Special."

Kiba's eyes widened as she threw the bomb at her feet and the two ninja were engulfed in yellow, foul-smelling fumes. Even the other Kiba, well away from the smoke, froze, covering his nose. Taking advantage of this, Chouji landed a heavy hit. That Kiba collapsed, and in a puff of white smoke vanished and was replaced by Akamaru. The dog whimpered once, but lay still. Breathing heavily, Chouji returned to his normal size.

"That was the real one, then," Shino said, glancing at the Sakura behind him.

"Are you certain?" she asked.

"It doesn't matter," Shino said. A cloud of bugs exploded into being from beneath Sakura, engulfing her. She vanished. A moment later, Shino staggered, his hands grabbing at the kunai that had embedded itself in his side.

"Actually," Sakura said as she emerged from behind a tree, "they were both genjutsu."

Kiba charged out of the slowly dissolving cloud of yellow fumes. His eyes quickly found Sakura. "You'll pay for that," he growled. Shino pulled the kunai out from his side, a massive cloud of bugs pouring out from under his jacket.

Ino appeared in a blur of motion, kneeling beside Hinata and pulling out a kunai. "Both of you, freeze," she stated. Almost instantly, the bugs whirled about in mid-air, flying back to Shino, who turned to face the new arrival.

"You wouldn't," Kiba growled.

"No," Ino said as she pulled out the Heaven Scroll Hinata was carrying and pointed her weapon at it, "but I would destroy this."

"I see," Shino said, and the cloud of bugs surrounding him began to retreat into his jacket. "You want our Earth Scroll, and will return our Heaven Scroll to us unharmed if you get it."

"Precisely," Ino said. "You'll be better off than if you fight us and lose."

"We might just fight you and win," Kiba responded.

Ino laughed. "Maybe," she said, "but do you want to risk it? Sakura and I are mostly fresh, and Chouji's not hurt that bad." Chouji, still panting, forced himself to straighten, his hands inching toward forming a seal.

Kiba snarled at Ino, but he didn't charge. "I'll remember this," he said.

"It's an exam," Sakura stated. "It's every team for themselves. We would have had to fight each other in the next exam anyway." She sighed. "We don't want to fight you any more than we have to. Please give us the scroll."

After a long moment, Shino nodded, pulling out a dark scroll. "You win," he said, placing it on the ground and backing away to stand beside Kiba.

"Sakura," Ino snapped. The pink-haired kunoichi carefully approached and examined the scroll. She nodded as she picked up the Earth Scroll, and Ino breathed a sigh of relief, dropping the Heaven Scroll and backing away from Hinata. Sakura and Chouji quickly raced to stand beside her. "Um," Ino said, "I'm sorry about this, really. I hope you manage to get another Earth Scroll."

Kiba let out a bark of laughter. "We had a spare, but we already gave it up."

"Oh," Ino said.

After a moment, Chouji said, "Good luck." Then the three victorious ninja vanished.

As he had expected, Hyuuga Neji had not been challenged once during the second exam so far. He knew that he was one of the best genin of his generation, and he knew that his teammates were almost as exceptional, though the chances of him saying as much were minimal. He had inherited the Hyuuga Clan's bloodline more strongly than any in living memory. Rock Lee, while perhaps still not quite up to full strength after his injuries of six months ago and the long period of inactivity that had followed, was a taijutsu specialist that few genin could even follow with their eyes, much less fight with on even ground. Tenten's skill with ranged weapons had long since passed chuunin-level. In combination, their abilities presented an insurmountable challenge to the competition.

They had never even seen the team that had been given the location of the same scroll as them. Rock Lee had raced ahead of his teammates, retrieved the scroll, and returned to them within the first ten minutes of the exam. Neji almost felt sorry for that other team, who had no doubt wasted much time trying to find that scroll. They must have had a tough time, but so far as Neji's team was concerned they might as well have been given the scroll from the start like six months ago.

Acquiring the second scroll later that day had at least been mildly interesting. One of the Grass team that they had ambushed had used a scroll to summon a bear cub which had kept Lee briefly occupied. Another had used an interesting technique to make the grass snare Neji's feet, preventing him momentarily from using the Heavenly Spin. It hadn't helped the Grass ninja, as Tenten's attacks had held the enemy trio at bay until Neji and Lee had dealt with their separate problems. The remainder of the fight had been dull and exceedingly humiliating for the Grass team, and at the end of it Neji's team held both of the scrolls they needed.

After that, the exam had become excruciating for Neji. It had been wise for the three of them to find a good hiding place and hole up in it, but Neji had not realized just what that implied. He had been forced to spend days of enforced idleness trapped in close proximity to Lee and his absurd training routines. At first Tenten had tried to humor their teammate, but by the end of the exam's second day she had more than had enough. On the third day, she had really gotten cranky, and Neji had feared more than once that he would be forced to intervene before Tenten turned her admirable weapon skills on their enthusiastic teammate.

It had been a great relief that today they had decided to move closer to the fortress in the center of the training ground. The need to travel swiftly and silently had prevented Lee from getting on Tenten or his nerves nearly as much, and once they had even had a non-trivial time getting past a Rain team searching for foes to ambush without being spotted. The few other teams they had noticed had never even had a chance of finding them, though.

Some part of Neji knew that, somewhere in this training ground, there had to be at least one team with skills that would provide an interesting battle. There wasn't much chance of that battle occurring, though. Any team with that sort of skill would already have the Heaven and Earth scrolls. They would have no reason to seek to fight Neji's team, just as there was no rational reason for his team to seek out them.

The team that Neji was currently observing through the thick trees with his Byakugan was definitely not one of those teams. They looked tired and beaten, and there was no sign of a scroll on them, but Neji had to give them at least a little credit. From the looks of things, they hadn't given up yet. There wasn't much chance of them succeeding, but they were going to grasp at that chance with all their strength. Neji had learned to appreciate that.

"Who is it?" Tenten asked him, and Neji let his eyes relax before answering.

"The rookies," he said. There was no need to qualify the statement. Only one of the three teams of rookies from the Leaf that had attempted to emulate the last exam's "Rookie Nine" had even made it past the first exam. There would not be a repeat of that unprecedented upset.

"Oh?" Lee asked, raising one of his mighty eyebrows. "How are they doing?"

Neji shook his head. "Not well. It looks like they haven't got any scrolls yet."

"That's a shame," Lee said.

Tenten snorted. "It's only to be expected. There's a reason everyone was surprised last time." She laughed. "It's pretty amazing that they're still moving, actually. It's only because of what happened before that anyone thought they might go further."

"They can still do it," Lee protested. "There's almost a full day left."

Neji frowned. "Not easily. To get both scrolls in less than a day, so late in the exam when only the strongest teams still carry scrolls? That would be… interesting, even for us."

Lee's eyes glowed. "A worthy challenge," he agreed, and he and his rival traded a look.

Tenten glanced between her teammates. "You two are not thinking what I think you're thinking," she declared. "That would be pure insanity!"

Neji smirked. "We won't do their fighting for them," he said. "They should have to prove that they deserve to be in the third exam." Lee nodded in agreement. "That doesn't mean we can't help them, though," Neji continued. "We can give them some advice, point them in them in the direction of the right teams to target."

Lee nodded again. "It is our duty as their sempai!"

Tenten sighed. "Idiots," she said. "Fine. At least it'll increase my chances of getting an easy match."

Day Forty

Sakura awoke with a start as Ino began to shake her. Groaning, Sakura sat up, and Ino looked at her worriedly. "Are you okay, Sakura?" she asked. "You were tossing and turning like crazy."

Sakura rubbed her eyes. "I'm fine," she managed to say after a moment. "Just bad dreams." She had been back in the Forest of Death, faced again with the team from Sound. That wasn't unusual, though it had been a while since she'd relived that fight in her sleep. What was different was how the fight had turned out. The dream was already turning into scattered fragments as she fully awoke, but she remembered swatting the kunoichi Kin aside with a Claw of the Fire Dragon. She remembered Zaku pleading for his arms to be spared just as he had in reality, but in her dream it had been her that he had begged, not Sasuke. Sakura shook her head, trying to chase the wisps of the disturbing dream from her mind.

"Are you sure?" Ino asked. "You don't look fine."

"I'm fine, Ino-pig," Sakura responded. "What time is it?" she asked, glancing at the still-sleeping Chouji.

"I would have had to wake you up soon anyway," Ino said. "It's almost dawn."

"Let's go ahead and get moving, then," Sakura said. "It definitely won't be easy getting to the fortress."

Ino nodded. "All right," she said, and she busied herself waking Chouji.

Sakura rubbed at her eyes once more. Every team that didn't already have both scrolls would be waiting near the fortress, trying to get what they needed. It would be a difficult gauntlet to run, no doubt the reason the rules had been set up to encourage it. Sakura doubted her team had the raw strength to just force their way through. They would need to use stealth and speed. That was their only hope.

A few hours later, they were lying on their bellies, peering over the peak of a hill at the stone walls of the fortress. It stood on another, higher hill, and the forest, already thinning in this area, had been cut away for a good distance from the walls. There wasn't any cover to be found, and Sakura could make out gray-uniformed figures patrolling the tops of the walls. "Somehow," she muttered, "I guess they aren't going to just let us past." It made sense to have to get past the chuunin examiners as a final test.

The gates of the fortress stood invitingly open. "Should we just run for them?" Chouji asked quietly.

Ino shook her head. "Even if the chuunin don't try to stop us somehow, that'll be where every team is watching. It'll be safer to just go up the walls."

Sakura studied the wall segment closest to them. "We'll need to distract that guard, then," she said. "From the looks of things, there's probably an outer courtyard, then an inner wall surrounding the keep and the central courtyard."

Ino nodded. "If we get into a long fight on the outer wall, we'll just attract too much attention."

It seemed as though someone had the same idea as them, as three older Leaf genin broke from concealment not far away, charging the fortress walls. A hail of kunai came down from the fortress, and the genin were forced to retreat. As they vanished back into the trees, Sakura could hear the sounds of fighting. It looked as though some other teams had moved to ambush the team that apparently had both scrolls. There was only really going to be one shot at penetrating the fortress. If they retreated, they'd get ambushed just like that team had been.

Sakura traded a look with her teammates. "I think there's enough moisture in the air that I can use the Mist Concealment Technique," she said. "We might be able to make the walls."

"Those are chuunin up there," Chouji rumbled. "They'll know what Mist Concealment Technique means, and they'll be waiting at the top."

"So we use it as a distraction," Ino replied. "We send replications through the mist and we come at the walls from another angle."

"It might work," Sakura said. "We'll have to be fast, though." She could probably do it and so could Ino. Chouji, though, might have more trouble. She glanced at him, and he nodded.

"I know," he said, searching through his pouch. He pulled out three small pills. "I've been saving these in case we needed them if we got attacked when we were exhausted."

"Soldier pills," Ino said, her eyes narrowing.

Chouji nodded. "We've been lucky enough to not need them until now," he said. "Be careful, though," he cautioned. "You'll have double your normal chakra while they last, but you'll be paying for it when they wear off." He grimaced. "I know more than enough about that."

Ino's eyes narrowed further. "This won't cause a relapse or something, will it?" she asked, worry clear in her voice.

Chouji shook his head. "These aren't anywhere near as powerful as the ones I used on that mission. They're just ordinary soldier pills." He handed one to each of his teammates, then tossed his own into his mouth, biting down on it.

Sakura followed suit, grimacing at the awful taste. Even as she swallowed, though, she could feel her chakra swelling. After looking to make sure that Ino was ready, Sakura formed seals. "Mist Concealment Technique," she breathed, and she marveled briefly at how little chakra it seemed to consume now. She directed the mist to spread toward the wall, and was rewarded as she saw the chuunin atop it scramble to position themselves.

All three genin summoned replications, sending them charging through the mist. The chuunin guarding the fortress began to throw kunai, as though they could see the replications. "Now," Ino growled, standing.

Sakura stood as well, channeling chakra to her legs as she began to run. Ino and Chouji easily kept pace with her as the yards between them and the walls fell away rapidly. They were halfway there before the chuunin noted them running alongside the mist. With most of the guards on this segment out of position, they were met by only an easily dodged handful of kunai instead of a massive onslaught.

The trio didn't slow when they reached the fortress, running straight up the walls like they were horizontal. As soon as they reached the top, they jumped, landing lightly in the courtyard below. Unfortunately, they landed right in front of another chuunin. For what could have been a fatal instant, they froze in surprise.

The chuunin didn't strike, instead holding out a hand. "Heaven Scroll and Earth Scroll, please," she asked.

Ino shook her head. "We're supposed to take them to the inner courtyard," she stated. Sakura blinked. If Ino's guess that this was a final test was right, Morino Ibiki was evil indeed.

The chuunin smiled, relaxing. "Correct," she said. She gestured at an open gateway behind her. "Right over there," she said.

Cautiously, fearing some further test, Sakura made her way there, followed by her teammates. As soon as they passed through the gate, another chuunin stuck out his hand. "Scrolls, please," he said. This time Ino gave up the Heaven Scroll she was carrying without hesitation. A moment later, Sakura followed suit. The chuunin inspected the scrolls carefully, then grinned. "Congratulations," he said, standing aside.

There were already two teams waiting in the inner courtyard, sitting together near the gates of the central keep. One was a team that Sakura had expected to pass - Hyuuga Neji, Rock Lee, and Tenten. Neji was the first to notice the newcomers, and he nodded. The other five genin sitting near him looked up and saw Sakura's team.

"Damn," Uzuki Ami snarled. "They passed."

"I told you, Ami-san," Rock Lee said.

Ino shook her head as she stared at the three rookies. "It must have taken a miracle for them to pass," she muttered.

Sakura just rolled her eyes. "They aren't worth worrying about," she said as she followed Chouji, who had begun to walk over to the cluster of genin. After a moment, Ino nodded and followed as well. Fortunately, Ami didn't try to provoke a fight, but she did send more then a few glares in Sakura and Ino's direction. Surprisingly, Mitokado Fuki shrugged apologetically at them when Ami wasn't looking, and Sakura was forced to revise her opinion of the girl she had always thought of as little more than Ami's crony.

Standing between the nine genin and the open gates of the inner keep was a cluster of adults. Tsunade was there - for once even wearing the full formal red and white robes of the Hokage. Shizune, as always, stood by her teacher's side. The three head examiners were there, of course, and for a moment Sakura thought that they were giving her team odd looks. She shrugged that aside as Asuma walked out of the gates, led by a gray-uniformed chuunin. He grinned at the team he had sponsored before walking over to stand beside Gai and a female jounin Sakura didn't recognize - presumably Ami's teacher.

There wasn't much discussion among the genin as they waited to see who else would show up. The next to arrive were the Waterfall Team that had helped Sakura, Ino, and Chouji fight the team from the Mist. Hiraki Arata waved at them, but the Waterfall ninja seated themselves slightly apart from the nine Leaf genin. It was almost another hour before the next team - the Mist team themselves - arrived and seated themselves, away from both the Waterfall and the Leaf.

Sakura held her breath as Mitarashi Kimi was led out of the keep, but the Mist jounin didn't even glance at Anko, instead simply standing beside the other teachers as though it was perfectly normal for her to be there. Sakura let out a sigh of relief. That could have been messy, she thought as she glanced at the Mist team. For an instant, her eyes met Midori's, and she yanked hers away. Midori chuckled cruelly, but Ren laid a hand on her shoulder and she quieted.

"She's a nasty one, isn't she?" Ino muttered. Sakura just nodded, forcing herself not to think about the emotions that Midori raised in her. She was definitely going to have to work up the courage to try to talk to her mother again.

The remaining time crawled, but finally noon arrived with no more teams entering the inner courtyard. Sakura glanced about. Five teams had passed, or fifteen people. That was fewer than last time. Was it low enough that there wouldn't be a preliminary round before the third exam proper? Sakura hoped so. The soldier pill she'd taken was already wearing off, and she felt incredibly weary. She didn't feel up to a tough fight now.

The gates to the outer courtyard slammed shut, and Morino Ibiki stepped forward out of the crowd of adults standing in front of the genin. Slowly, they all stood. "This concludes the second part of the Chuunin Selection Exam," Ibiki said. "My congratulations on passing." Sakura felt muscles she hadn't known were tense relaxing. She'd made it. Now she just needed to win one match. "Now," Morino Ibiki began.

Anko jumped in front of him. "Now it is time for the third exam!" she declared cheerfully.

Ibiki stepped out from behind her, sighing. "Now," he repeated, "Hokage-sama will explain the third exam."

Anko just laughed. "Sorry," she said. "I've just been so bored waiting."

"Should I let you give the speech?" Tsunade asked dryly as she stepped forward. Anko shook her head, and Tsunade began. Sakura didn't pay much attention, as she'd heard much the same speech six months ago. She noted with mild amusement that Tsunade didn't mention that the exam was supposed to be a replacement for war between the allied nations. It would have been in poor taste, after all, given what had happened last time. "The third exam," Tsunade finished, "will commence in thirty days."

Sakura breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no preliminaries, it seemed. In one sense, that meant that she had already surpassed her previous performance, but she wouldn't be satisfied until she had won a match. She suspected that Tsunade would not be satisfied until then, either.

Tsunade stepped aside after finishing her speech, and Anko stepped forward again. During the speech, Ibiki had gotten a wooden box from somewhere. "Ibiki-san here," Anko said, "will be taking that box around. Please draw a number from it, so we can arrange the matches for the third exam."

When her turn came, Sakura drew the number seven. Glancing at her teammates she saw that Ino was five and Chouji was eleven. If the numbers meant what Sakura thought they did, she wouldn't be fighting either of her teammates in the first round. Once everyone had drawn, Shiranui Genma stepped forward, holding a clipboard and a pen. "Everyone," he said, "please call out your numbers in order."

"One," Hyuuga Neji said after a moment, and the rest of the genin followed suit, ending with Rock Lee calling out fifteen. Sakura guessed that this meant that pair of rivals would only be able to meet each other in the finals.

Genma nodded in satisfaction. "These are the match-ups for the third part of the Chuunin Selection Exam." He turned the clipboard around, and Sakura's eyes narrowed as she sought out her own name. Then they widened as she saw the name of her opponent.

"Uzuki Ami," Sakura breathed to herself. She glanced at the next bracket over, seeing Ino's name. Her rival would be fighting Shimano Ren, she noted. If both of them won, she would get her rematch in the second round. She glanced at Ino. "You better not lose to Ren-san, Ino-pig," she stated.

Ino grinned. "I've got no intention of losing to anyone, Forehead," she returned. Chouji sighed.

Sakura's eyes skimmed the remainder of the match-ups. Rock Lee was fighting Chiba Ikkei, who had to be the other boy on the Waterfall team. Chouji was matched against Tenten. Neji was lucky enough to get a free pass to the second round. Sakura frowned as she noticed something. Neji would face the winner of a match between Mitokado Fuki and a Mizuno Midori.

Sakura glanced at Midori, who didn't notice her scrutiny. Something was odd there. Midori had all but said that she was a Haruno. Why would her official entry into the exam say otherwise? Sakura sighed. She didn't like the idea, but she was clearly going to have to tell someone, probably Tsunade, about this. Anything odd like that with the Mist was certainly a reason for concern.

"All right!" Anko shouted loudly, attracting all the genin's attention. "Work hard for the next month, little ones, so that we can all get a good show!" She grinned. "That's it! You're done for now!"

The genin began to mutter among themselves as their jounin teachers walked over. "Congratulations," Asuma said as he looked at his team. "All three of you did well." Before any of them could say anything, he laid a hand on Sakura's shoulder. "Sakura-kun," he said, "Hokage-sama wants to talk to you."

Sakura glanced around and saw that Tsunade had already vanished into the keep, but that Shizune was standing by the open gates, looking at her. "All right," Sakura said after a moment, and she left her teammates - or rather, now her former teammates - behind.

Shizune nodded as she approached. "Right this way, Sakura-chan," she said, leading her to a small room. Shizune didn't enter, shutting the door after Sakura. Inside, Tsunade sat at a small desk piled with papers. It seemed as though even here, the Hokage couldn't escape paperwork.

"Haruno-kun," Tsunade said, then paused as though she was searching for words.

Sakura stiffened as Tsunade said her name. If she didn't tell her now, she'd never work up the courage to say it. "Hokage-sama," Sakura said, "may I say something first?" Tsunade nodded after a moment. "It's about Midori-san, from the Mist."

Tsunade frowned, searching through the papers on her desk and pulling one out. "Mizuno Midori?" she asked.

Sakura nodded. "During the second exam, we fought," she said. "Midori-san told me that she…" Sakura trailed off, swallowing nervously. "That she was a member of a Haruno Clan," she finished.

Tsunade blinked. "Haruno?" she asked frowning. "I guess," she began, before cutting off suddenly. "What do you know about your family?" she asked Sakura.

"I know my mother wasn't from the Leaf Village originally," Sakura answered. "My father was a Leaf ninja who died in the Kyuubi attack. They're the only other Haruno I've ever known about."

"I see," Tsunade said, frowning. "I'll have to look into this. Thank you for letting me know." She sighed. "I wish I could reward you with better news."

Sakura's eyes widened. "Hokage-sama?"

"We haven't been able to confirm all the details yet," Tsunade said softly, "but Hatake Kakashi is missing in action and presumed dead."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) I believe I've mentioned that I'm not going to try and make things match up with Part 2 of the manga. So just because he shows up there doesn't mean those reports of Kakashi's death are wrong. Just thought I'd get that out of the way.

2) Here are the complete match-ups for the first round of the third exam:

Hyuuga Neji byes
"Mizuno" Midori fights Mitokado Fuki
Shimano Ren fights Yamanaka Ino
Uzuki Ami fights Haruno Sakura
Aoki Saburo fights Yuhara Maya
Tenten fights Akimichi Chouji
Hiraki Arata fights Inuzuka Shinta
Chiba Ikkei fights Rock Lee

The brackets are in that order, so Neji will fight the winner of Midori vs. Fuki in the second round, and the winner of that fight will fight the winner out of Ren, Ino, Ami, and Sakura in the semi-finals, and so forth. Feel free to make predictions for who will beat who. If someone manages to correctly predict the entire tournament, I might have to work out some sort of prize.

3) As always, I welcome all comments!

4) Next time, in One Hundred Days Chapter Seven, After the Battle: Sakura begins her training for the third exam, and the next stage of Naruto's journey begins.

Draft Started: January 23, 2006
Draft Finished: February 8, 2006
Draft Released: February 9, 2006
Final Released: February 12, 2006