Pig and Pepper
memories are just the way you laid them
dragging the waters
till the depths give up their dead
Sakura shivered, wrapping her arms around her torso, her fingers clasping into the familiar material of her shirt. Beneath the muted thudding of her heart, she thought she could feel something like composure settle into her at the touch. Almost hesitantly, she shifted lightly until the side of her shoulder brushed against Sasuke's. He didn't pull away, all of his focus set determinably onto the Chuunin instructor some ways ahead of them. She caught a sliver of his profile in the dark, morning gloom: wary and resolute. It was the same expression he'd worn when Naruto walked away from them—she didn't know what it meant.
Her eyes followed the slope of his nose and then to the trees behind them. She'd never seen trees this tall; thick, towering stalks that took to the sky, spiraling pillars for the castle of leaves some distance into the clouds.
She stepped closer to the boy by her side, something ominous crawling up her neck. She felt as if she could feel a set of eyes upon her, but when her gaze darted about the crowd, there was nothing to see but the mutinous group of Gennin around her, guffawing and whining and wiggling and complaining loudly. She was apparently not the only one who thought it was taking an unnecessary amount of time to get into this place.
Sakura had never thought herself as particularly observant; she was a ninja, but she could acknowledge that her true strengths would always lie in academia. And yet, she appeared to be the only one of her teammates who felt this restless unease, disquiet settling into her as they waited in the gloom.
"Sasuke-kun," She murmured, sending a sharp glance to the boy by her side.
"What?" He returned, absent, his attention still focused on Anko. She yelled outrageously at a balking Gennin in the front row. He yelled back. She threw her sandal at him.
"I don't…" She swallowed, her hands trailing down her sides to clasp the bottom of her shirt. "I think…"
"What?" He asked again, finally turning towards her. He studied her face closely. "Do you want to opt out?"
"I—what?" She blinked. Why would he—? But the hollow noise in her ears had dissipated, leaving the world cold and full of noise once again. Anko was hollering into the crowd; she'd picked her sandal up from where it had bounced off of the Gennin's head, strutting about and listing off instructions for… participation forms. And if you didn't want to sign them, then you could get the fuck out, what kind of exam do you take this for? Oh.
"No." She replied, not blind to the way his shoulders relaxed in relief. "I just—do you feel like someone's watching us?"
He shrugged. "It wouldn't surprise me."
She cast a look around again, hesitant. "I guess that's true." She agreed, slowly. That guy with the outrageous eyebrows had been watching her since she stepped into the exams. But while that was creepy, it wasn't disconcerting.
She stirred out of her reverie; Sasuke pivoted slightly on his foot, looking back at her. In front of him, Sai was already making for the tents propped up along the side of the arena, along with a sea of other Gennin. She shook her head. Maybe it was nothing.
It became fairly clear once she made it into the booth that she was essentially waiving off liability for her death. As if her life insurance policy wasn't already void forever. Sasuke did not appear to be all that invested in the fine print—Sai did not appear to have read it at all. She was marginally relieved to see that some of the other Gennin seemed to show a little more hesitation. There was a bleach-blonde boy with two large and slow looking teammates, raging about legalities. Anko was fairly quick to haul him out of there.
She bit her lip, and penned her name down as quickly as possible.
Some distance above her, a young ANBU crouched low on his branch, watching her unwaveringly.
He scowled when her ROOT companion caught his gaze, smiling ineffectually up at him and presenting him with a tiny wave. Yamato was right; there was something totally unnerving about that dude. And Yamato did not appear to be the only ANBU with an unadulterated distaste for ROOT. His companions by his side had spend a large duration of their time in hysterics over Gennin hairstyles—and the rest of it loudly pronouncing their dislike of ROOT. Perhaps even more concerning; Kyuubi had dropped his determined neutrality on everything in Konoha to express his utter displeasure at the young boy that had taken Naruto's place on Team Seven.
Rustling behind him; Yugao plummeted out of the trees, flipping upright as she landed next to Naruto.
He glanced towards her. "Anything interesting?"
"Not particularly." She replied, and behind her rigorous professionalism Naruto was fairly sure he could hear no small amount of consternation.
Towa and Koga made noncommittal noises of agreement. Everyone assigned to the second exam seemed to have come to the consensus that the duration of the test would stand to be a complete and utter waste of time. Training Ground number forty-four was set up to be ideal for forceful takeover mission training. The tower at its center had no easily accessible windows or doors, but had been abandoned as a favorite ANBU training facility due to its obvious route to the tower. If one followed the river long enough, the tower would be in sight in approximately forty minutes. Twenty five if you were Towa, who had found a short cut through a couple broken logs and under a bridge or two. For Gennin, the given time would probably be just perfect.
He drifted off for a moment or two as the proceedings below dragged on by like molasses, listing slightly against his knees.
Koga snorted beside him. "This is ridiculous." He pointed out. "We're supposed to be out doing cool shit, y'know? That's why I became ANBU in the first place!"
"That's a pathetic reason." Yugao noted. "I became ANBU because I wanted to protect my village and prove my worth."
"I joined because of mission pay." Towa added.
"I joined because I didn't have much of a choice." Naruto shrugged.
Yugao huffed and crossed her arms, standing up in one fluid, graceful motion, tilting her head back. "I excuse Naruto." The boy smiled from behind his mask. "You two bumbling idiots, however, disappoint me. Those are sorry excuses."
Naruto wanted to point out that no one was laboring under the impression that Towa and Koga were stellar examples of ANBU and Konoha Jounin at large, but decided against it, because when he thought on it, he couldn't come up with any legitimate example of a particularly stellar ninja. All the Jounin he knew had some kind of idiosyncrasy that varied from mildly eccentric to downright alarming. Yamato, perhaps. He had his quirks, but he also happened to be the universal moral barometer for everyone in the black-ops.
"They're moving." Towa informed, somewhat needlessly. A stampede of Gennin had the same effect on the forest as a stampede of elephants—and double the noise.
Naruto sighed, getting to his feet. At his side, Yugao turned into her speaker, belting out orders to the other ANBU squadrons in the forest.
She cut the feed off sharply. "Alright. Rendezvous at fourteen-hundred with Team Aoi."
With that, Yugao ducked into the forestry. Koga and Towa followed sedately, looking like they'd prefer to have someone physically haul them in there. Naruto paused, turning back to study the ground below. Sakura's illuminated shock of pink hair caught his attention, and for a brief moment he wistfully stared down at his former team. The moment was gone as quick as it came, and then he was fixing his mask upon his face and darting into the trees after his fellow ANBU.
Once inside the deep, almost sentient forest, their team split in two. Captain Tenzou was already out scouting alone; Towa and Koga would take the right perimeter and meet up with him on the other side. Yugao and Naruto would take the right. The whole forest—if navigated correctly—could be easily spanned in the course of an hour. He shook his head with wonder. If he wasn't up in the canopy, but down below with the rest of the Gennin, could he have even hoped to make it in that duration?
"We're doing a sweep of the route Taichou already scouted." Yugao clarified, directing a vague hand wave to the right side of the forest. "To keep a particular eye on some of the Gennin. We're not to interfere, of course—doubly so with our own."
At this, she grumbled. "The last thing we need is for some idiotic fool to accuse Konoha of foul play."
They took off into the trees, Naruto unabashedly attentive. "Does that happen a lot?" He asked, rather leadingly.
Yugao looked at him; impassive mask turning the movement into something owlish, marginally surprised with his sudden, invested interest. She wondered if he was actually showing an aptitude for politics, or perhaps more likely, concern over his friends taking the exam some miles below them.
"I suppose not." She conceded, tactfully. "But all the same, we shouldn't interfere. No matter what you see, it's best not to get involved."
"Are there any rules that Gennin have to follow?"
She shook her head. "Not particularly, no."
And then, elucidating, "The exams are meant to simulate real Shinobi experiences. There certainly aren't any jurisdictions on missions, and exams are meant to replicate that unrestricted situation. That, in no small part, is why the only real rule that's enforced is complete acknowledgment of death or serious injury in the exam."
His stomach twisted itself into knots at the very idea.
"Why are the Chuunin exams so much harder than the other ones?" He asked, despite himself.
"Well, it's not that they're harder," She reasoned, as they rounded a sharp corner. Beneath them, he was almost positive he heard Kiba curse inexplicably about a wild zombie-plant chasing him down. "But that the ninja who take them are simply more inexperienced. You were thinking of taking these exams once; what did you think they would be like?"
Naruto shrugged. In all frankness, he hadn't ever thought too much about the Chuunin examinations. He had always figured he'd rise up the ranks and be Hokage, without sorting out the details. Obviously promotion was one of the 'needless details'. However, seeing as though he had bypassed them altogether anyway, he supposed he wasn't so remiss to brush through them after all.
"I don't really know." He confessed. "I always figured they'd be tough...I definitely didn't think it was such a big deal."
She chuckled mirthfully. "They're a main attraction. People come from all around the five countries to watch and participate. They certainly don't make such a show of the Jounin exams, or the ANBU, for that matter." This was common shinobi knowledge, of course. Naruto could be so clueless at times.
Two days in, and nothing of great significance happened below. They met up with Tenzou some hours into the second day—and to the surprise of no one but Naruto they found the man lounging against the side of a cozy hut sprawling out of an enormous branch. Naruto had never seen trees so tall, nor had he ever seen a seen so arresting; the canopy unfurled around them endlessly; the sunshine a glorious, scorching white light; the black silhouette of birds as the flocks flittered in and out of the trees. But the foliage clung so densely, the light never made it to the ground, beneath them the forest floor lay shrouded in clotting dark heat. The contrast did not go unnoticed by him.
The very branch they landed was as wide as a street, Yamato's Mokuton hut squatting pleasantly along the width of it.
Apparently Yamato's ability to arbitrarily create houses on missions was a bit of a legend in ANBU, another reason he was so highly sought out as a captain.
And Naruto could see why—he'd rather stay in a log cabin than the forest floor any day.
The two joined him for a brief moment of respite, bathing in the warm, filtered sunlight as if they hadn't felt it in ages. Well, not entirely inaccurate. Even a few feet below the light already began to thin.
"It'll become nothing short of a legend, I'm sure." Yugao appraised; a light, lilting cheer coloring her voice as they stepped inside to survey the wooden furniture. "I remember the hut you build near Kumo was, too."
"Ah," Yamato rubbed his chin. "Good piece of work there."
He threw them a winsome grin. "Maybe they'll make this into the new ANBU headquarters for the forest."
"I hope not. This should be our secret!" Naruto shouted, utterly charmed by the possibility of making a house with Jutsu. Captain Yamato was simply amazing.
Yamato doubled over in laughter, as Yugao berated him halfheartedly for inflating the man's already inflated ego.
Some time later, the two laboriously made to finish their second round of scouting—the process made significantly more difficult with both he and Yugao unwilling to leave the diffused warmth. It was with a laudable lack of enthusiasm that the two dove back into the forest, making for their route.
Yugao's demeanor had loosened considerably after their rendezvous with their captain, probably in no small part due to the sunlight and hammock she'd commandeered in the hut. They stopped sporadically to guffaw over the incredibly awkward hairstyles of some of the Gennin blow, and for the arbitrary and occasional lesson on cool plants. Yugao was certainly well-versed in all the foliage native to the forest; Naruto noticed, not for the first time, that she was very well-traveled. He wondered on the places she'd been to, all the things she'd seen.
They paused again to take a closer look at the team from Sunagakure.
Naruto leaned against the trunk of the large pine they'd dropped onto, as Yugao murmured quietly into her mouthpiece, reporting back with her observations. He remembered their encounter in the desert clearly; that strange frisson that had overcome him. Something embroiled and conflicted. Kyuubi stirred restlessly in his mind, and it sharply reminded Naruto that the fox had schemes of his own.
"What are you so pleased about?" He asked, uneasy and litigious for no real reason he could discern. His skin was crawling; a wroth and violent energy singing the air around him.
"Pleased?" Kyuubi echoed, almost absently. "No, there is nothing to be pleased about. Shukaku is the smallest part… I am not interested over his gaumless Jinchuriki."
Naruto frowned, rubbing lightly against the tattoo on his shoulder. The feeling would leave him; lingering beneath his skin. From this vantage, the branches gave way to the clearing below. The redheaded Gennin ripped apart his opponents, violent whips of sand cleaving through flesh and blood, the entirety of the forest floor bathed in red. Yugao stood rigid next to him, pausing almost unnoticeably in her report at the sight of it. Or, perhaps more likely the smell.
"Then what has you so…" He paused. "Invested?" Kyuubi rarely showed any significant avidity for anything; and even rarer were things that caught his attention that boded well for Naruto.
"I sense a powerful chakra in the air… Something of great significance will happen today; of this I am sure of."
Like that wasn't ominous.
Bewilderment flooded his face as confusion reeled inside him, festering at the bottom of his stomach as the wet feeling of dread slid down his back.
"What do you mean by that?"
"Hm?" Kyuub chuckled. "Wouldn't you like to know?"
His amiable temperament soured with the demon's rather unyielding prophecy. What the hell was that supposed to mean? If anything, he felt even worse. He'd figured from the way his companions anguished loudly over the mission that it would be an enormous and tedious waste of time; instead he'd found himself having a wondrous time with his team, relishing in the light camaraderie without the weight and worry of usual ANBU missions. Though they protested vocally and continuously, Naruto was fairly sure the rest of his team was feeling something of the same.
He diverged his attention below; all good humor had fled him.
The demon had been uncharacteristically reticent for the majority of the exams—and his brief resurfacing was a painful and stark reminder that Naruto shouldn't be off gallivanting in the trees at all; he should be down there, fighting for his promotion and possibly his life.
He'd had a brief and scintillating moment in which he'd thought he'd actually belonged here at all.
"Sorry." He rubbed warily at his forehead. "What were you saying?"
"That redhead…" She murmured. "We saw him in Suna, no?"
"Yeah." He agreed, feeling hollow and out of sorts, equilibrium slipping through his fingers. What was it? The smell? The proximity to another Jinchuuriki? He felt as if it had to be some sort of preconcerted scheme of the fox.
Yugao muttered into her earpiece. She turned to Naruto once more. "Konoha should watch for that one."
He nodded absently. His hackles raised abruptly, and he shot to his feet. He grabbed for Yugao. She turned, surprised, "Naruto—"
The redhead stirred amidst his shifting sand, head suddenly snapping up to a branch far above him. His sea green eyes narrowed as he studied the empty branch. Mother had been growling about something above there, yet he saw nothing.
"Nothing is there," He placated the demon to no avail, as it continued to whimper.
Yugao gently removed herself from Naruto's grip, cursing silently to herself. That Gennin had almost gotten the drop on her. She scowled. She should have counted for the demon's honed senses—she'd been on a team with Kyuubi long enough to remember that, surely. Her brow furrowed, as she peered below once more. The redhead had turned back around, sauntering forward with what appeared to be two very traumatized teammates. She didn't blame them.
"We should move out," She observed, quiet "Regroup with Towa and Koga before the sun sets—
She pivoted slightly, taken aback when the forest behind her was devoid of her blonde companion.
"Naruto?" She called to the darkness, puzzled.
The saffron-haired boy in question was currently tearing through the forestry at an alarming rate, heedless of whatever unfortunate foliage found its way into his path. It'd come to him unexpectedly—a scent lingering in the wind that filled him nostalgia. He knew this blood. He'd shed enough of it to remember it by smell alone, to remember who it belonged to. He raced off into the canopy, searching for its owner. Basterd he may be, but Sasuke was a friend nonetheless. It had taken Yugao's kind coaxing—much to his embarrassment— for him to finally be able to admit this aloud. But it was true.
The blood was getting closer, no longer a faint trail dwindling between the honey-scented flowers and mossy undertones of the forest, but so thick that even a human could be able to smell its vile stench. His pace quickened, as his heart thrummed in his chest, pounding against his rib cage, seemingly shattering against his lungs and veins and spreading its acidulous glass through his blood, cutting him even to his numbing fingertips—
Yugao caught him by the arm, wrenching him backwards. Her eyes were livid and bright behid her mask.
"What do you think you're doing?" She hissed, cutting him off. "Trying to get yourself killed? Or spotted?"
"No!" He gaspedquickly. "I was just—" He motioned fervently towards the other direction. "My team, they're—
"I'm aware." Yugao sighed, releasing him. "I don't need demonic senses to smell it from here."
Naruto deliberated, feeling caught between a rock and a hard place. The earth lay as a dizzying drop beneath, and the dark canopy above endless and obscured; and in this tiny, diminutive infinity he knew he had to make a choice. Light scattered between them, a thick, besotted veil; speckling down her mask until he could see the wide chestnut of her eyes.
The moment broke as he tugged himself away. "I have to find them."
"Don't." She commanded. "They're in the middle of an exam, Naruto. To aid them would immediately disqualify all three; do you want that?"
"No." Rationally, he could see the logic in her words. Something compelled him onwards anyway. "Yugao, they're—
"They knew what they signed up for when the took this test." She reminded, apathetic.
He shook his head. "But… it's not…"
She wouldn't understand. Perhaps more importantly, he wouldn't know how to explain it to her. But he felt it—some significant, climacteric end; or worse, a prophetic anthem of doomed advent—whatever it was, he knew he had to go.
"I'm sorry, Yugao-chan." He said, and she seemed taken aback at his familiarity with her. He'd only ever called one girl 'chan', and that was Sakura. Even then, he didn't anymore. "But I have to do this."
Startled, the ANBU had one hand unsheathing her wakizashi. "Do what, Naruto?" Her voice was deceptively calm, edged with deep-set panic.
He unclasped his mask and threw it at her face, causing the woman's immediate reflex to come in. She caught it inches away from her own, fox marks staring down at her; the canopy behind it could be seen from the spaces of its eyes. With surprise, she pulled it out of her face to see her young comrade darting into the trees below, nothing but a blur.
Sakura held her breath, eyes widening, a glossy, restless movements in their grave sockets. It happened so fast, so utterly surprising that it was slow enough for her eyes to remember every movement in perspicuous detail, as if she was the Uchiha of her team.
Sasuke had evolved his Sharingan, but there was no great celebration to remark upon it—rather, a futile and violent struggle for their lives.
Not even two hours ago it'd seemed as if all her fears had been a simple case of paranoia; aside from humidity, the forest did not appear to have any legitimate causes for concern. Perhaps they'd simply picked the best path, or perhaps they'd just gotten lucky, but nothing of great difficulty had befallen them. Sakura spent most of the journey lit with nerves, not even sparing an irritated glance for their newest companion.
The gaping hole Naruto had left in his two teammates only grew even more obvious with Sai's poor attempt to fit the space. He was unnerving, to say the least. He also managed to spend more time with Sasuke than Sakura did, which was saying something, because Sakura went very out of her way to spend time with the Uchiha. Sasuke didn't seem too pleased with both, and if the Uchiha was used to being truthful with himself, he'd admit to wishing a bit that Naruto was back on their team. At least that way he was one hundred percent sure his other teammate wasn't also trying to hit on him. Because with Sai, it was hard to tell. His smiles seemed fake, and his words—even more papery.
A couple times, she thought she'd heard Naruto's voice in the forest, and she had to remind herself to keep focused on the reality at hand. Perhaps it was the part of her missing the blonde, capitalizing on her hysteria and making her hallucinate. She missed Naruto. Sai was creepy. And possibly a love rival. She'd rather have an annoying loud mouth in love with her then a stalker like Sai who liked Sasuke.
And maybe even on some level, Sakura was aware that his feelings as well went beyond unnatural. It wasn't affection that kept his eyes unwavering from Sasuke's, but it was that look in his eyes when he saw the boy's Sharingan. Captivated, almost. But certainly not surprised, like he should have been. He was surely around their age, and hadn't been quite old enough to see a Sharingan before the clan was wiped off. Yet he seemed used to the gentle swirl of the tomoe amidst their world of red, as if he had seen it clearly in his life time, long enough to study its slow swim.
Of course, Sai was the least of her problems now.
They had run into trouble.
Well, it could be said they had run into a lot of the trouble. A couple plants trying to eat them, a couple teams trying to get them. Nothing a good breath of fire or a Sasuke-ass kicking couldn't handle. It seemed more generic than anything, and certainly allayed Sakura's fears about the second exam. But the grass woman had been different. If, in fact, it was a woman at all.
The Kusa-nin had taken one side glance at Sai, before her eyes had narrowed and she had immediately darted towards him, taking him out almost immediately while she and Sasuke fruitlessly tried to help, only to be held off by Kage Bunshin—which was a Konoha technique. Even more of a cause for concern. By then, Sai had already been incapacitated, limp on the forest floor.
Even if she didn't like the creep, it was horrifying to see him looking so lifeless, leg bent at an awkward angle and ink-animal scrolls sprawled around him, not even used yet.
"Useless little ROOT." The woman licked her bloodied fingers, tutting with disappointment.
Her eyes slid towards Sasuke, stalk still in the middle of the clearing. Her sword swung lazily in her hand.
Sakura could tell already; she was no mere Gennin.
"I wonder what he was doing so close to you?" She murmured, demure, tilting her head towards Sasuke.
She moved like lightning—her speed was as amazing as it was alarming—and Sakura didn't even have time to throw a kunai before she stepped in front of the Uchiha, bloody hands roving over his pale, porcelain face. He recoiled, but her fingers drew painful indents in his cheeks, rooting him in place as she obsessively studied his eyes.
"No doubt that pretty little Sharingan of yours," If possible, the woman had bent closer, until her sickly yellow eyes were mere inches away from the Uchiha clan's legacy. "I'm sure Danzou would love to add this to his collection."
However, neither of the two were paying much attention to what she was saying, more interested in the sword she drew behind her back.
"Sasuke!" Sakura warned. "She has a sword! Behind her!"
She darted towards him, but the woman disappeared again. Sakura whipped around, catching the sword in front of her just in time. It was an awkward angle, and the woman kicked her kunai our of her hands, throwing her to the ground.
"Pathetic." The woman drawled, kicking the pink-haired Gennin out of the way, and diverting her full attention once more towards the Uchiha.
Orochimaru appraised the boy in front of him, something like satisfaction playing upon his lips. Yes, he would do just fine. Young, and strong and guileless—a perfect vessel ripe for taking. Already, he had anger, and hate… but he didn't use them. His smile curled in full. That would not take much effort to rectify.
It was better this way.
Those of weak mind and body were easier to possess then those of strong will and health. He played around a bit with the boy, surely as his Kage Bunshin did to Anko some miles away. Predictably, the woman had rushed headlong into battle without much thought otherwise. Pity, he'd chosen such a waste for his first study. And now that he'd caught her she couldn't call for help—not like there was any, he'd already killed off the team of ANBU that were wandering around the forest. Trust Sarutobi to only assign a single ANBU team. The man was too trusting of the Gennin in this exam... and more importantly, of those who could pose as weak little Gennin.
The snake Sannin tossed off the prodigy's futile attempts to swipe at him, sending him tousling into the dirt as the boy tried to save his female teammate.
The dark haired genius struggled to get up, as the Sannin watched him carefully. His Sharingan was beautiful; the utmost perfection of the Uchiha clan. No matter that he hadn't been strong enough to possess Itachi's, his brother's would do just fine. In fact, it was better this way—the weaker they were, the easier it would be to take them away. He hardly wanted another bout with the Mangekyou, waking up with his limbs rendered useless.
He heard a rustling behind him, and hissed with no small amount of annoyance.
Sasuke's teammate was pitiful, but she always seemed to struggle back to her feet. There was some fight to that one—unfortunately, will without talent was rarely compelling.
This time, however, the teammate in question was not the pink haired girl.
"Orochimaru, aren't you?" The boy growled lowly, pressing his Wakizashi to his throat. "The Sannin."
"So you noticed?" He licked his teeth. A challenge. How exciting.
"I could smell snakes from miles away." The sword cut skin. "This body...it smells of rotting flesh. It's dead, isn't it?"
The Otokage ducked out of the hold, darting out of the way to face his opponent properly. He met the sight with no small amount of surprise; a small, young boy no older than Sasuke stood before him, armed to the teeth. A leviathan energy crawled upon the ground around him; effervescent and resilient. His brows rose when he took in the armor—ANBU, then. It wasn't the overwhelming chakra that gave him away, nor was it the armor, but his stern features, illuminated, unyielding blue eyes and lemon colored hair. All given to him by the Fourth Hokage.
"Oh, isn't this a surprise." He purred. "Uzumaki Naruto…"