It’s Just That Any One of Us Is Half Without Another One Is You – Chapter Four

In which the exam tournament gives everyone a chance to grow a little and tie up some loose ends. Action, Fluff, I-3

Sakura sat in the candidates’ balcony of the large, enclosed, Sand arena and waited for the next individual match to be announced, and tried to calm herself down by mentally reviewing the profiles of her possible opponents. Gai-san’s team had taken this season’s exam also, and included Hyuuga Neji, who seemed to have waited out the whole year to take the exam again with his teammates. She’d be in trouble against Neji, since she didn’t dare close with him and his field of vision made it almost impossible to hit him from a distance with her speed. The rest of that team, she thought she could handle. Two of the Sand teams had made it to the final part too, and one from Rain. Out of those teams, there were two people she thought she’d really have trouble with: the brown-haired woman from the team they’d met at the middle of the second round, and a thin red-haired boy from Hidden Rain. He had some kind of bloodline talent she’d caught a glimpse of on their way out of the fortress; she’d seen him dissolve and a sword pass through him, and then the red mist where he’d been reformed and he’d casually knocked the chuunin guard unconscious. She could think of ways to deal with that, but most of them depended on resources the arena didn’t have handy.

As for the woman… Sakura had a feeling she was what Sakura might be in another handful of years. But she wasn’t there yet.

Lee had already won against one of the other Rain genin, punching right through the other boy’s water barriers. Two Sand-nin from different teams had fought each other nearly to a standstill, blades against a taijutsu style Sakura had never seen before, heavy on ferocious kicks. Tenten had had a hard time, at first, against her opponent’s illusions, but had eventually overwhelmed him with a downright rain of lethal weaponry which had done Sakura’s heart good to watch. Her teammates, she thought wryly, had given her a taste for overkill. The dark-haired Sand woman had just finished wiping the arena with the third of the Rain team, whose wind-driven shuriken had been no match for her absolute precision and control with body replacement and wire-guided weapons. She’d won using only a technique of the very lowest level and she’d made it look easy. Sakura really hoped they were in different matches for the next round.

And, if only, please, she didn’t have to face her own team…

“Next match! Haruno Sakura against Raisu Kurosuke!”

The red-haired Rain genin bounced to his feet and trotted toward the stairs down to the arena.

Sakura stood very still for a moment, ruefully reflecting on the old advice to be careful what you wished for. But only a moment before her mind started ticking down the things she’d already thought about this opponent and presented a conclusion. Can’t cut, need to enclose; not wind, not earth, need water or fire; can’t create enough water to enclose or enough fire to ensure an effect; therefore… She turned briskly to Naruto. “Can I borrow your jacket? I promise I’ll have it cleaned really well after.”

Naruto looked mournfully at his bright orange sleeve before sighing and tugging the jacket off. “Sure, Sakura-chan.”

She stuffed her arms into the sleeves as she hurried down the stairs.

Her opponent squinted at her as she came out onto the sand. “Doesn’t that clash a little?”

Sakura’s face turned hot; all right, so orange didn’t exactly go with red or pink. She could just imagine what Ino would say. “This is a match, not a fashion show,” she snapped.

The examiner’s mouth was twitching as he tried to keep a straight face. “Begin!”

Sakura threw a kunai straight for Raisu’s center of mass and snapped the jacket off her shoulders. As he smirked and dissolved into that cloud of red mist she remembered she sprinted in close and swiped her extremely improvised net through the mist.

Or she would have except that the mist dodged, flying apart wildly. It took nearly thirty seconds for Raisu to come back together, well out of arm’s reach. Or jacket’s reach. “You’re good,” he said, eyes narrowed. “Okay, we do this the hard way, then.” He stalked toward her, solid all the way.

Sakura smiled tightly and tied the jacket around her waist to keep it handy.

He wasn’t any faster than her, she decided after a few exchanges, but he didn’t seem to notice shallow cuts; more disturbing, she couldn’t see that they were bleeding, which hers certainly were. It was time to try something more energetic, then. She used chakra to give her feet more grip on the shifting sand and slapped an explosive seal onto his arm, spinning away with only a scratch. Raisu cursed and dissolved again, mist flying apart with the explosion. It took him almost a minute to come back this time, and he was panting.

Sakura’s eyes narrowed in satisfaction and she flicked out a handful of tags, slapping a few onto her shuriken.

Raisu was trying to keep the distance open, now, and he had better aim than she did, but he didn’t seem to have the chakra control to raise his traction. Her arms were getting badly cut up but twice more she got an explosive tag close enough to make him dissolve, and each time he took longer to return. She was getting noticeably light-headed from blood loss, but she calculated that he would run out of strength first.

After the third note, he returned only to collapse to the sand on all fours and gasp, “Surrender…”

“Winner is Haruno Sakura!” the examiner announced, appearing beside them. “Do you require medical attention?” he asked Raisu more conversationally.

Raisu shook his head. “Just… rest,” he said raggedly.

The examiner hauled him up by an arm over his shoulder and off toward the stairs. It took Sakura a moment to follow them.

She’d won.

She collapsed beside her teammates and tugged off the jacket to hand back to Naruto. “Thanks,” she sighed. “That was just the thing.” She let her head fall against the bench back.

She could hear the Rain jounin scolding Raisu. “I told you you needed to work more on techniques that don’t rely on your bloodline. Ninjutsu practice first thing, when we get home.”

“Good job, Sakura-chan!” Naruto enthused, bouncing a little beside her. He fished a water bottle out of his pack and pressed it into her hand.

“Good thinking,” Sasuke said, more quietly, tugging on her shoulder to make her sit up so he could bandage her arm.

She drank and listened to the sounds of Neji demolishing one of the Sand genin, and couldn’t stop smiling.

She wasn’t smiling three matches later, when the second match of the second round came up as her against Fuunotora Chie. Who turned out to be the brown-haired woman. “Shit,” she muttered, hands checking her kunai and seal tags uncertainly as she stood.

“Just remember what I told you,” Kakashi-sensei murmured from behind his book, lounging on the bench behind theirs.

“What, that reading porn helps a person relax?” she snapped, sharp with nervousness. Kakashi’s eye crinkled up.

“That too, but I meant the part about finishing what you start.”

Sakura blinked, remembering a training session almost a year ago, after that mission with the bandit troupe. Kakashi-sensei had set Naruto and Sasuke to practicing defense with each other. Her, though, he’d set a different exercise: to punch into his palm, full force.

She’d thought she’d been doing all right until he’d made her slow down, move through every part of the strike until she stopped with her fist against his hand. “Now finish it,” he’d said. “You aren’t done with the blow yet; finish it.”

So she’d shoved a little more and suddenly realized that she’d never released her shoulder, hadn’t completed the shift in her stance, hadn’t, more importantly, completed the shift in her chakra. When she had, she’d felt a kind of openness she wasn’t familiar with in her taijutsu workouts—but did know from ninjutsu training, when she completed a set of hand seals and released a technique. Kakashi had smiled. “Yes. Like that. Do it again.”

For the first time, that day, she had broken a sparring post without chakra-armoring her fist first.

Sakura took a breath and let it out. All the way out. And then she nodded to her teacher and walked calmly down the stairs.

Fuunotora smiled at her faintly as they took their places on the sand. “It seems we’ve come around to our fight after all.”

Sakura bowed a little, silently, as the examiner called “Begin!”

Fuunotora’s hands flashed through seals and the sand at their feet twisted into a rope, whipping toward Sakura’s knees. The familiar tension of a fight quickened her thoughts, her eyes, her calculations. A chakra rope, she decided as she swapped herself for a stone behind Fuunotora, but taking form from the element around them rather than only Fuunotora’s chakra. Perhaps Fuunotora didn’t have chakra to spend creating a lot of some element either. All right, then. She wove her hands as quickly as she could through the seals for Dragon Burst; perhaps she couldn’t generate enough water to enclose Raisu, but she could make this sand a lot heavier. A layer of water fell over them and the rope singing around toward her slowed considerably; enough to dodge easily. Fuunotora dropped the technique and and they were both still for a moment, watching each other measuringly.

This time it was Sakura who attacked, feeding enough chakra to her feet to speed and steady her as she lunged in, kunai poised to slash. Fuunotora sprang over the line of her attack and tossed a seal onto the ground. The sand flashed startlingly hot under Sakura’s feet and steam hissed up all around them, turning Fuunotora into a shadow as she landed again.

Sakura didn’t often indulge in appreciating an opponent’s skill; in fact, she’d previously considered doing so a symptom of testosterone poisoning. But now she found herself grinning as her thoughts flashed faster and her hands came together in the Ram. Fuunotora fought with her brains, and that Sakura could appreciate.

Her sense of chakra bloomed outward, brushing against a sleek, poised coolness sliding up behind her shoulder, just slow enough to leave the mist undisturbed. Sakura dove for the sand, catching back a hiss at the lingering heat against her palm as she scythed a leg toward Fuunotora’s shins. Her shoe brushed fabric as Fuunotora dodged, and then she was twisting hard to evade the pattern of kunai coming toward her. Speed, her mind noted calmly, was almost equal, slightly in Fuunotora’s favor.

By the time they both regained their stances, the mist was fading, sucked away by the thirsty air and sand. They stilled, watching each other again, calculating, and Sakura felt a thrill of exhilaration as their hands came together in perfect unison, seal on seal, shaping illusion. She almost laughed as they completed it together, even though she knew her opponent was not, now, where Sakura’s eyes said she was.

The reverse was also true, after all. It would be a battle of skill against skill, to see who could control her chakra most finely, shape the illusion most unpredictably. “Right!” Sakura said, eyes gleaming, and was answered by a tiny smile from Fuunotora.

They stalked each other through the rough stone columns and sand, attack after attack, kunai and seal tags and delicate ninjutsu traps of quicksand or concentrated light, each trying to bracket where the other really was. Sakura’s breath was coming quick and her skin was tingling with awareness. She shaped a gust of wind to discharge towards her, and yes! there was a break, a swirl of air that nothing she could see should have caused, there, her opponent was there!

Her spear-hand met only emptiness, though, and understanding hit her mind like a hammer—it had been a counter-trap. She twisted, grabbing a shuriken since she was out of kunai, trying to regain her stance, trying to turn and meet what had to be coming…

Hands found her shoulders and blackness swept over her.

She came up out of the black slowly, muscles gradually feeling less leaden and more like they belonged to her, enough so, eventually, for her to lift a hand and rub her eyes open.

“Sakura-chan!” Naruto practically pounced on her. “You’re awake, are you okay?”

Sakura propped herself up on an elbow; she was lying on one of the benches at the rear of the balcony, with Naruto’s jacket folded under her head. “Yeah,” she mumbled. “Think so.” She sat up a little gingerly, but everything still seemed attached and working.

And Fuunotora was standing at the foot of the bench, with a fresh bandage across her shoulder.

“You came very close to winning that one; you’re fast and strong, as well as smart. You’ll be very good, if you keep going,” she said, dark eyes level. Sakura snorted, hearing the question buried in that cool statement. Considering how many kunoichi retired once they had kids, she supposed the question wasn’t entirely unjustified. Still.

“Of course I’m going to keep going. This is my work.” She smiled a bit wryly and waved a hand at Naruto, and Sasuke who was lurking behind him. “And this is my team, and I’m not leaving them.” Naruto beamed, and Sasuke looked away only to glance back at her, hidden and sidelong, and she sat back, satisfied.

Fuunotora was smiling too, faint and pleased. “Good.”

Okay, maybe the boys had a point about appreciating a good opponent.

“So did I miss any matches?” Sakura asked Naruto, as Fuunotora moved off to rejoin her own team at the balcony rail.

“You missed Neji and Lee, because that went kind of fast. Lee said that his honor demanded he fight Neji with everything he had, and he started opening up that Eight Gates move of his, and Neji got really pissed off at him and shut down his whole chakra system, one, two, three!” Naruto paused, thoughtfully. “Or one through sixty-four, I guess, since he had to hit all the chakra release points. And then he bawled Lee out for being an idiot and never thinking ahead, and said he should have used his taijutsu to break Neji’s footing, and they were going to train until Lee got it right if it killed him. And then Gai-sensei got all weepy about his students’ passionate teamwork, and he and Lee started coming up with how many times they were going to run around Suna backward, and Neji walked off in a huff.”

Sakura could totally see why and decided, not for the first time, that Kakashi wasn’t actually the most infuriating teacher they might have gotten.

“So now we’re just waiting on the last match to be announced,” Naruto finished, cheerfully.

Sakura nodded, but there was something nagging at the back of her mind. Tenten had fought the Sand genin with the taijutsu in the first match of round two. Then it had been her and Fuunotora. Then, apparently, Lee and Neji. That only left…

“Next match!” the examiner called. “Uzumaki Naruto versus Uchiha Sasuke!”

Sakura’s breath stopped as Naruto and Sasuke nodded, unsurprised, and made for the stairs. Memory fell on her like a collapsing wall, her horror and hideous feeling of helplessness as her teammates launched killing techniques at each other and didn’t even hear her when she tried to stop them. The smooth stone balcony under her feet was the hospital roof, the tension of the exam’s final part was the fear in the wake of the invasion and discovery of Uchiha Itachi in their very village. She stumbled to her feet and up to the rail, clutching it like a life-line.

Naruto and Sasuke walked out into the arena, facing each other, and Sakura’s hands clenched, white knuckled. Not again. Not again. They couldn’t do this again.

Naruto produced two Shadow Clones and held out a hand in what was recognizably the start of Rasengan… and waited.

Sasuke stared for a moment and then actually clapped a hand over his face in what Sakura had no trouble seeing was utter disbelief; Sasuke had always had trouble believing it when Naruto acted like himself yet again. Sakura felt her chest relaxing and her breath starting to even out again.

“You are such an idiot! When you have an advantage you use it, you don’t just stand around waiting!” Sasuke yelled, incensed.

“That wouldn’t do what it needs to do, though,” Naruto argued. “We didn’t do it right, last time. This time we’ll do it right, and it will work.”

“What will work?” Sasuke asked, sounding a little lost though Sakura would bet he was trying to sound exasperated. She’d never been sure if he understood just how transparent that pretense had become, this year.

Naruto waved his arms so that his own clones had to duck, most definitely exasperated. “Last time we fought was all wrong! It was like you thought I was him or something! Of course it didn’t work! But I’m not him, I’m me, and you’re you, and this time we’ll do it right.” He held out his hand again, chin up, giving Sasuke a challenging grin. “Come on. This time it will work.”

Sasuke stood staring at him for a long breath, and Sakura hoped, hand pressed to her lips, that no one else watching knew enough about them to understand what Naruto had just said. How much of his heart he’d just held out to Sasuke, open handed, daring Sasuke to match him. Daring Sasuke to fight him all out, not as enemies, not as a shadow of Itachi, but as friends. Boys, she thought, blinking back the prickle of water in her eyes. Finally Sasuke huffed out half of a laugh and ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Yeah, fine.” He set his feet and held down his own hand in the stance for Chidori, and suddenly the arena was ringing with the fierce surge of their chakra.

Chidori and Rasengan met in the middle of the arena and the air tore apart, and for one suspended moment the two concentrations of chakra strained against each other. And then the moment broke and both techniques slipped and careened into the arena walls.

“Are your teammates always this… vigorous?” Fuunotora asked, clutching the rail a little way down as the whole balcony shook.

“Pretty much, yeah,” Sakura admitted, mouth quirked. Down in the arena, Naruto and Sasuke were standing, locked hand to hand still. She thought Sasuke might just have smiled, just a little, before he blew fire right into Naruto’s face. Naruto yelped and rolled over the sand with no sense of control or dignity that Sakura could see, only to come up grinning and produce dozens on dozens of Shadow Clones. Sasuke’s eyes narrowed, and then he was weaving through the Narutos, spinning and sliding aside from each attack like a leaf on the wind, bursting one after another of them. It was a beautiful bit of work, right up until the end when he abandoned elegance and dove on the real Naruto and put him in a head lock. She couldn’t swear to it, but she thought he might have been giving Naruto a noogie when Naruto eeled around and threw Sasuke over his head.

Sakura buried her face in her hands and laughed, helplessly, feeling herself trembling in the wake of relief, of release of the fear she hadn’t realized she’d been holding onto this long and this hard.

“Something very bad happened between them, didn’t it?” Fuunotora asked from beside her, voice neutral.

Sakura took a few breaths to make her voice come out mostly steady. “I guess both Sand and Leaf know how that goes.” And truly, Sasuke’s crazed brooding last year had reminded Sakura more of Gaara than she really wanted to think too hard about. Watching a fellow shinobi lose himself was terrifying, and she’d come out of those mad months with far more sympathy for Temari and Kankurou. For Sand in general, really.

After a moment of silence, Fuunotora said, softer, almost inaudible over the crashes and explosions out in the arena, “I see.”

Out on the sand, Naruto and Sasuke were doing their best to beat each other into pulp, but only in the way she saw them do at least once a week at home. The arena was pitted with craters and littered with kunai and shards of rock by the time they paused, both of them panting for breath.

“Gotta work on that endurance training some more,” Naruto taunted.

Sasuke managed a snort. “And you need to work on that intelligence training some more.” He hauled himself upright and threw a fistful of kunai, which Naruto nimbly ducked, dancing aside from the trailing wires.

“Dragon Fire?” he scoffed. “I can blow that away.” He shaped the Rasengan again, fast and smooth Sakura had to admit, and stood cockily among the wires, waiting.

Sasuke’s mouth quirked just faintly. “Let’s see.”

“Oh boy,” Sakura murmured. She knew that expression.

And, indeed, instead of fire, it was the crackling brightness of lightning that grew in Sasuke’s hand. And for one critical moment, Naruto stood still, surprised.

He’d barely gotten out half of his howl of protest before lightning flashed down the wires and grounded into him with a brilliant flash and smell of scorching.

Too experienced with Naruto to leave anything to chance, Sasuke pounced on him and held a kunai to his throat. “Surrender.”

“Bastard,” Naruto groaned, smoking. “Yeah, yeah, okay fine.”

“He’s still conscious after that?” Fuunotora asked, startled.

“That’s Naruto.” Sakura told her wryly, getting up. “If this were just their own training match, they’d go another round after this.” She hurried to the top of the stairs to meet them as Sasuke hauled Naruto briskly up.

“That was so cheating,” Naruto was arguing.

“We’re ninja, you idiot,” Sasuke told him, disgusted, “there’s no such thing.”

Naruto pouted at him and Sakura rolled her eyes as she helped him over to a seat.

“Actually,” Kakashi-sensei put in, turning a page of his book, “both of you need to work on distance attacks. If you can adapt Rasengan and Chidori, that’s a good start.”

“Huh.” Naruto looked thoughtful. “Wonder if I could throw it…”

“Next match!” the examiner announced. “Hyuuga Neji against Uchiha Sasuke!”

Sasuke looked down at Naruto for a long moment and finally said, “Guess training against your crazy endurance is useful after all.” He turned and stalked back down the stairs, leaving Naruto to make faces at his back.

“Such a jerk,” Naruto muttered, but Sakura could hear the downright affection in the insult.

Facing a Hyuuga, Sasuke fell back on his fire techniques as Neji pursued him around the arena. Sakura sighed a little, resigned to the fact that Sasuke never would think to use small traps to mire an opponent’s feet in this kind of situation; she supposed she was lucky he was remembering to use wires to tangle Neji long enough for some of the flame strikes to get through.

“He’s gonna turn it around,” Naruto said, leaning over the rail beside her, eyes fixed on Sasuke. “You can tell. But how?”

“Heavenly Spin uses a lot of chakra,” Sakura said thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s trying to wear Neji down before he moves?”

“Oh! Yeah, that makes sense.” Naruto grinned fiercely. “Right… about… now!”

Neji sprinted for Sasuke again and this time, after two steps away, Sasuke stopped dead, spun in place down to one knee, and met Neji with one empty hand at guard and a kunai that glowed and crackled.

“Hey!” Sakura sat bolt upright. “I thought he couldn’t use Chidori more than three times in a day, still!” She was going to wring Sasuke’s neck if he wasn’t keeping her up to date on what he could do. Who was the mission strategist, here, after all?

Naruto was snickering. “He only hit me with half strength, you know. I’d have been a lot more fried otherwise.” He leaned his chin on his palms, smiling down at the arena.

Neji was down, tremors radiating from where the kunai had sunk in. “I surrender,” he growled out.

Sasuke thumped down cross legged on the sand, panting. “Good.”

Neji accepted a medic’s help up the stairs as the winner was announced, but then waved him off just as Naruto had. “He jarred my inner coils, but I can handle that just fine on my own given a little time. Good timing,” he added grudgingly to Sasuke, and limped over to his own team.

Sasuke sat heavily, elbows on his knees, head hanging. Naruto seemed not to notice, demanding, “So, what did you do? How did it work?”

Sakura stifled a laugh at Sasuke’s faint groan and took pity on him. “He waited until Neji’s chakra was too depleted to repel the lightning chakra, and used the kunai to channel it into Neji’s chakra system.” Sasuke nodded, and she added, “That was a good improvisation, using the weapon as a channel.”

“Got the idea from the wires,” Sasuke mumbled, eyes closed.

“Next Match! Fuunotora Chie against Matsumura Souji!”

Down in the arena, Fuunotora and the taijutsu specialist were facing off. After several long moments of staring at each other while the spectators started to shift and rustle, Matsumura lifted both his hands. “I forfeit,” he announced in a clear, carrying voice.

“Do you have a reason to offer?” the examiner asked after a startled moment.

“I am familiar with Chie-san’s skills. They are greater than mine. I don’t believe it’s necessary to demonstrate that again.” Matsumura nodded politely to the examiner and turned to make his way back up the stairs.

“In that case, I suppose we’ll continue straight to the final match,” the examiner concluded, brows still raised. “Final match! Fuunotora Chie against Uchiha Sasuke!”

Sakura hissed. “That bastard! He did that on purpose, so Sasuke wouldn’t have a chance to rest!”

“A display of good strategy, in the broader view,” Kakashi-sensei murmured, infuriatingly calm.

Sasuke heaved a deep breath and stood before Sakura could strangle their teacher. “All right.”

“It’ll be a lot like fighting me,” Sakura told him hastily. “Only worse.”

Sasuke’s mouth quirked. “Wish me luck, then.”

“You’re blushing.” Naruto nudged her, as Sasuke went back down the stairs.

“Oh, shut up,” she muttered, hands over her warm cheeks.

This match was drawn out. Sasuke, vaguely sensible for once, waited for Fuunotora to come to him, Sharingan active to pierce any illusion and track her ninjutsu. Fuunotora worked around the edges of his stance, opening little pits under his feet to make him shift, setting wire traps he had to use up attention and strength to undo, dodging his fire techniques and kunai alike. In the end it came down to Fuunotora’s chakra control, as Sakura had been afraid it would. When Sasuke finally sidestepped into one of her little pit traps to avoid her shuriken, Fuunotora snapped it closed again around his foot with an efficient reversal in a single hand seal and sprinted up behind him to slap her hand against his spine. Sasuke slumped unconscious and Fuunotora let him down to the sand.

“That was what she got you with, at the end,” Naruto said. “I, um, kind of freaked out a little when she did it the first time.”

Sakura followed his sidelong glance at a slightly scorched patch of stone and elbowed him gently. “Sap.”

“Well, how was I supposed to know it was just sleep?” he defended himself, indignant. “I mean, the spine! You can do all sorts of bad shit to someone that way!”

“Winner of the tournament! Fuunotora Chie of the Sand!” the examiner announced.

Naruto made a horrible face and Sakura found herself laughing. “It’s a better end than the last exam had,” she told him, inarguably. “Come on. Let’s get Sasuke up here to sleep it off while they decide who passed.”