On the final day of the second exam, Danzo came to her.
It wasn't entirely unexpected, Sakura supposed. They'd foiled his efforts to kill him and remove Shukaku, and at this point the secret battle between them was more than personal. It was almost an honor to receive him; it meant that she had proven herself worthy of an audience. She had seen Danzo before, of course, at special Konoha events such as Tsunade's inauguration, but never before had she ever spoken with the man.
Danzo had waited until the time was right. Technically, those who completed the second exam were not allowed visitors until the exam was completely, but naturally these things did not stop the man. It was more than likely that at least one of the guards posted around the building was Root anyway.
Danzo announced himself with a light knock on their door, and it was Gaara who answered. The exchange that followed between them had been...admittedly a bit humorous to watch. Neither of them said a word, simply looking at each other with various glares and surly expressions until Gaara finally stepped back and allowed the man into the room. Danzo was alone, and perhaps that was the only reason that Gaara even allowed it. The boy had gained a bit of confidence with Sai's new seal, and had no doubt come to the conclusion that if Danzo tried anything, he could handle it.
But Sakura did not think that she would die that night. Now that she had passed the second phase, she was no longer in the 'kill' zone. Coming to murder her in her waiting room would draw an unwanted investigation. Danzo had wanted to take her out legally, without drawing any attention to Root or his manipulation of the foreign kage. He'd lost that opportunity, and as long as she was safe within Konoha's walls, it would be difficult for him to move against her again.
No, Danzo just wanted to talk. Sakura was certain of this.
He looked old, and with half his face and one of his arms completely bandaged, Sakura wondered at first how it was possible that such an unassuming man could keep reign over a group like Root. But within moments of his first words, Sakura realized that was the point. He had almost custom designed his look so as to appear unthreatening, to make people look the other way, but despite this his voice commanded presence. A Shadow Ruler indeed.
"Sakura Haruno." He said simply.
"Danzo Shimura." Sakura let herself reply.
They each sat across from each other in the room's lounge. Sakura noted that Sai watched from afar, but did not join them in the room. He was deathly afraid of his former leader, that much was apparent even from Sakura's peripheral glance.
Danzo was not here to kill her. But that did not mean he was not a man to be feared.
"It is my hope we may speak plainly with each other here." Danzo began. "I sent a dozen of my soldiers into the chuunin exams, and only one has returned to me. Clearly you have progressed as a shinobi far more than my reports have suggested." He reached into the folds of his robe, pulling forth a small brown folder. He opened it and began to read. "Sakura Haruno. You graduated from the Academy as the top kunoichi of your generation, second highest student overall. Perfect written exam scores, and above average grasp of Academy taijutsu and the basic three Academy jutsu. You were noted for having above average chakra control and were recommended for genjutsu training...a recommendation that was ignored by your superior officer." At this point, Danzo looked up to Sakura again, and their eyes met. Sakura wasn't surprised by the file; Academy records were available to anyone of chuunin rank or above. But why bring it up now?
"You were placed in a team with the last Uchiha and the Jinchuuriki boy." Danzo continued. "And while you were noted to have performed adequately on your team's...accidental A-ranked mission, and while you were allowed to take part in last year's chuunin exams, your development at that point...well, it was certainly subpar."
Sakura frowned. So he was just here to insult her, then?
"No defining jutsu or techniques. No distinct fighting style. No experience in a specialized field that would have suited you, such as tactics or infiltration. It was more than expected for the Uchiha heir and the Jinchuuriki to perform as well as they did. It was more than expected that you should fail while they succeeded. In fact, our system was designed as such."
That caused Sakura to blink in surprise. A system designed for her to fail? It didn't make sense. "Is it not the purpose of the Academy to push forward as many capable shinobi as are needed for the village?"
"You are correct. Most teams are concocted around a specialty, so that they may succeed and thrive under their jounin's tutelage. You can think of your own classmates as a fine example. Team Ten was put together naturally. The Yamanaka, Akimichi, and Nara clans have been working in tandem for generations. To separate them would be folly. They work excellently as an infiltration team, but also for specialized assault. Team Eight was put together as a tracking and reconnaissance team. The Byakugan's visual capability is almost unmatched. The Aburame clan beetles can be deployed in almost any situation without detection, and can be used to follow a designated prey over long distances. The Inuzuka clan...they speak for themselves. Those were just two of the teams designed under the Academy doctrine. Tell me then, Sakura, for what purpose was your team designed?"
"The two top shinobi with the bottom graduate. I was told it was meant to compose a team that would be able to make up for the weaker shinobi." Sakura swallowed as she considered her team. "Of course, in this particular case, the weaker shinobi was a Jinchuuriki. Once he came into his Bijuu's power, he could hardly be considered weak anymore."
"No, he could not." Danzo agreed. "As I said, a civilian girl partnered with the heir of a powerful clan and, essentially, a fountain of chakra. The Uchiha are well-rounded. Their genjutsu proficiency as well as their ability to mimic the techniques of their foes makes them suited for information gathering, but they are more often used for more powerful assault formations. A Jinchuuriki? A tool, a weapon for the village. A civilian girl?" He looked to Sakura again, and she averted her eyes, realizing now exactly what the man was implying.
"I was the weaker shinobi." She admitted. "But...it wasn't simply to make up for my deficit, was it?"
"No. That team, that composition...for you specifically, Sakura Haruno, it was a trial."
With that, Danzo stood, his arms folded in front of him. He began to pace as he spoke, and Sakura was given the impression then that this wasn't a conversation that Danzo was used to having. The man seemed almost...nervous.
"In every generation there is a graduate that is passed along to a team of titans. This graduate is often civilian born, with no unique skills of their own, but often holding some measure of untapped talent. Placed into such a situation, alongside shinobi that naturally hold skill that initially far surpasses their own, this graduate has two paths that they fall into. They can fail under the pressure of living up to their teammates' accomplishments, or they can find drive and push themselves to match their teammates' accomplishments." Danzo continued to pace as he began to list shinobi. "Your jounin commander was part of one such team. His teammate Rin Nohara was placed similarly alongside an Uchiha and the sole remaining member of the once prominent Hatake clan. She thrived and found success as a medical shinobi, able to keep her teammates alive whenever they were injured on missions. The Fourth Hokage, Minato Namikaze, is a fine example of succeeding in such an environment. His team also consisted of an Uchiha, as well as a Hyuga, and in spite of this it was Minato who caught the eye of his jounin commander and ended up studying extensively under him as his apprentice, until such time as he became a fine shinobi in his own right. Of the three Sannin, as you know them, a civilian born Jiraiya was placed alongside a member of the revered Senju clan and an orphaned prodigy, yet despite this he is known to be of equal strength to them today."
So many teams set up under this mindset, Sakura realized. Several of which produced legendary shinobi. This method had been thought out. A no-name civilian might have faded to obscurity in a specialized team. In this sort of team, a civilian had a chance to become great.
Though Sakura had to wonder how many of these crafted teams had ended in failure. Something Danzo had yet to address.
"Believe it or not, I, too, was in one such team." Danzo's voice pulled Sakura from her thoughts. "An Uchiha, and Akimichi, and me...my father was a shinobi, but not one of reputation. Yet here I stand today, a Konoha councilman and second in command over the village behind the Lady Tsunade. Our successes were gambles, but it was decided before my time that if that was what it took to produce legends, then it was a gamble our village was willing to take. And thus, we return to you." Danzo stopped pacing, turning to face Sakura again. "A no-name civilian girl who left the Academy without any skills to her name other than her mind and a talent for chakra control. When faced with the success of your teammates, you found the drive to reach for something greater than either of your teammates thought to reach. The Uchiha seeks revenge. The Jinchuuriki seeks the Hokage title. You seek to unite the shinobi world. You have taken the ambition to match your peers farther than any shinobi of your type has taken their own. It is unfortunate, truly, that such ambition is shrouded in naivety. You will not unite the shinobi world, Sakura Haruno. It will be impossible."
Sakura could not keep herself from standing up at this. "It's only impossible because people like you stand in my way." She retorted angrily. "If you hadn't been whispering in the ears of every Kage that arrived here, I might have had most the world united already."
"United, perhaps, but for how long? How long do you expect each village to keep to your treatise? Do you truly think Sand would stand for Plains to take up their land and not experience justice for their rebellion? Do you truly think Leaf and Stone could put aside the animosity of a hundred years of war? Do you think that Cloud has forgotten the Third War? That Mist can put aside their bloody history in search of peace?"
"I have to think that. I have to." Sakura insisted. "Because nobody else is thinking it. The only reason you think it's impossible is because you've never seen anyone try it. Maybe it won't happen in my lifetime. Maybe it won't happen for a hundred years. But as long as the world knows the option is there, peace will come."
They held each other's gaze for a while, and Sakura learned then just how it was that Danzo and Gaara could have an entire conversation with gaze alone. She held firm, and she could almost feel Danzo judging her then. He hadn't come here to lecture her, no, he had come here to see just what kind of person he was up against.
Danzo finally nodded, and Sakura felt the tension in the room break. "I see." He spoke. "Then as it is, Sakura Haruno, we have little more to discuss. I will be curious to see whose ambitions prove the greater."
He turned to leave then, stopping only as he reached the door. "That look in your eyes is very similar to someone I used to know."
"They used to call Hashirama Senju a fool for wanting to unite the warring shinobi clans into one villages. But whenever I saw the look in that man's eyes, I knew there was little he wasn't capable of. Then again…" Danzo chuckled. "He nearly lost it all at the hands of the man he considered his friend. His naivety could have led to Konoha's destruction." Danzo opened the door to leave then, saying only one more thing before leaving Sakura's sight.
"For your sake, I hope you are more prepared for the trials ahead."
In the end, ten teams did pass the second exam, meaning a total of thirty shinobi would move onto the next phase. Sakura and her team were herded with the others to a new building, and once she saw that the inside of said building was a large training field, Sakura knew that it was time for the exams to repeat themselves. There were still too many shinobi for the third, tournament phase of the exam: there would have to be preliminaries.
As the examinees were marched into the building, Sakura saw that there were, like before, upper levels where jounin senseis and Kage alike had gathered to watch the preliminaries took place. Despite the fact that some did not have teams that had qualified, all of the Kage had shown up to watch, and Sakura knew it was to keep an eye on her specifically. There would be no relying on Gaara or Sai to back her up here. This would be a one on one fight, and if she didn't shine, that was game over.
Her team had gotten several days of rest, which gave her an edge over a few of the teams. The Konoha rookies, of course, all looked ready for combat, as well as Lee's team, which had beaten the rookies by a full twenty hours. Sakura saw Fuu's team as well, alongside a somewhat familiar looking Iwa team that had skated in during the final hour. She caught a glimpse of six Suna headbands, and from there the two teams remaining hailed from Kusa and Konoha respectively. A fair spread of teams, and Sakura's team had bested most of them in completing the second phase. Many of these shinobi looked tired, and Sakura prayed to whatever god had seen fit to look after her in the exams that she would face one of the tired ones. She would take an easy match after all she'd been through the past few days.
Tsunade gave a speech, most of which Sakura was too nervous to pay attention too, and from there the participants were dismissed to the viewing stands. Then, a screen was brought forth at the front of the arena.
Names began to flicker across the screen as the program chose the first two fighters. Sakura heard both Naruto and Lee yelling in the distance, each wanting to be first into the frey. Sakura wasn't quite sure if she wanted to go first or last. She'd had a couple of days to prepare, so why not get it done quickly? If she was allowed to stew with her nerves, it would only be detrimental.
The screen halted, and Sakura's heart sank into her chest.
Sakura Haruno VS Rock Lee
Lee was one of the toughest fighters she'd ever met, and she'd seen what he was capable of when he'd faced Gaara last year. She wasn't going to be quick enough to keep up with his speed, and she didn't have Gaara's perfect defense. On top of that, how could she bring herself to put in her all against one of her best friends? It was different facing an enemy she didn't know, but a friend? Even when she'd faced Ino the previous year, there had been a part of her that had always held herself back.
She felt both Sai and Gaara reach out to squeeze her shoulder before she turned and began to make her way back down to the arena. Lee, of course, was whooping with joy at not only getting to go first, but at getting to face his 'eternal rival'. Sakura had wanted to see how she fared against Lee, but not here, not when the future of the neutrality pact was literally on the line.
She didn't even realize she'd made it below until she naturally came to a stop in front of Lee. The exam proctor stood between them, explaining the rules of the match before lifting his hand to prepare to announce the match's start. Sakura's hands balled into fists.
What was she supposed to do?
Lee spoke in a manner that was unusually serious, and his large eyes bored into her own with...not intensity, but something else, something Sakura couldn't identify.
"Please honor me by not holding back in this match."
"L-Lee-" Sakura stammered.
"I have come here today to see how I measure up to my new rival. I want to make sure that our match is one that will be talked about for months to come!" Lee shifted, settling into a stance. "When I first met you, Sakura, I wanted to impress you. I wanted you to see me as a shinobi of great skill and value. It is funny now that you have instead become a shinobi that has impressed me!"
Sakura felt her heart pound stronger in her chest. Lee was...was he really saying…?
"I want the people watching to see today that I am capable of standing on the same ground as the kunoichi who will unite the shinobi nations! Even if I do not make chuunin today, I want to prove myself to you as I once wanted to when we first met. So please, Sakura, do not hold anything back! Let us show them what we are capable of!"
Sakura understood it then. Lee wasn't thinking about the chuunin exams any longer. Lee had figured out what was at stake. He wasn't just telling her not to hold back.
He was telling her to put on a show.
A show that he was going to put on with her. And who knew about putting on a scene more than the 'Handsome Devil of the Leaf Village'?
Everything clicked into place, and Sakura felt herself focus. She settled into her own stance, falling into a familiar figure of Iwa taijutsu that Onoki had shown her months before.
"Alright, Lee." Sakura agreed. "Let's do this."
The proctor's hand flew downwards, signalling the start of the match. From there, Lee exploded forward.
A single hit from Lee would likely knock her unconscious, if not disable her. Defensive, for now, would be the key. The Iwa taijutsu was one that was meant to be integrated with the use of earth jutsu for a maximum defensive technique, and though Sakura had not had long to learn it, she had been a student of the Tsuchikage himself and she would not let him down. She thrust chakra through her front leg and stomped her foot into the ground, at the same time rushing through a set of hand signs. A thick wall of earth erupted in front of her, just in time to intercept Lee's thrusting kick. But Sakura didn't allow herself to stop there. She thought back to Lee's fight with Gaara, and she remembered that the boy was able to turn on a time in order to attack from multiple angles. She swept her foot around her in an arc, pumping forth chakra and flying through the hand signs again and again until there was a circle of earthen wall around her. That only left above, and she couldn't afford to let Lee hop into her earthen arena and make this a close quarters fight. Sakura quickly threw her hands to the ground and created a tunnel beneath her. She dove into it and sealed it behind her, and the filling earth pushed her forward to the other side of the arena. She resurfaced just in time to see Lee jumping over her walls, and an idea sprung in her mind. Lee had lost sight of her, and it would only be for a moment, but that gave her more than enough time to set herself up.
A few hand signs later, Sakura had generated four earth clones. Each of the clones went to a different corner of the room, drawing a 'kunai' and preparing for a scuffle. The real Sakura, however, created another tunnel that connected her back to the interior of the four walls she had made before. As Lee hopped out of the wall's boundaries, he would be greeted by the four clones, not knowing that the real Sakura had made her way back into her walled sanctuary. It was a fast-paced game of hide and seek, and if Lee found her too early, that was truly game over. Still, Sakura hoped that the clones would distract him long enough for her to make some quick preparations.
Despite his extravagant behavior, Lee wasn't an idiot. Once he'd figured out that the four Sakuras outside were all clones, he wouldn't just hop into her sanctuary again like he had before. That would just give Sakura an opportunity to perform the same trick again, hopefully wearing Lee out in the process. Since Lee wasn't an idiot, Sakura could assume that he would instead focus on break the wall down with his monstrous strength, that way she couldn't hide at all. Knowing that, Sakura could prepare. Unless Lee had suddenly found an interest in exploding tags, he would likely charge, taking a frontal assault against whichever wall was closest to him. All she had to do was keep track of where Lee was, and then time an offensive jutsu to hit right before his attack landed on her wall. She resorted to her sensing jutsu, which at first seemed like a potential dead end. Lee was a taijutsu user for a reason; his chakra reserves were miniscule. Her sensing jutsu barely picked up on him at all, and even then he was moving too fast for her to keep her eyes on him. However, Sakura found that she could sense the presence of her own clones, and that was the clue she needed to succeed. Two of her clones were already down, and her third was moving back and forth, trying to duck and weave its way around Lee's attack. It didn't last long, however, which meant that Lee would be making his way to the fourth clone, and once that one was done…
He would attack from that side.
Seconds passed, and Sakura forced herself to breathe. Fighting Lee was intense, and he only gotten faster since the last time she'd seen him fight. As her fourth clone dissipated, she knew that she would have less than a second to figure out the timing of her technique. She risked one more sensing burst to confirm Lee's location. He'd stopped briefly, but the last thing her jutsu picked up on was his small bit of chakra rushing towards her.
Sakura slapped her hands onto the ground and poured chakra, aiming for the other side of the wall in front of her. Behind the wall, an earthen pillar shot upwards, and Sakura knew it had hit when she saw Lee's somewhat limp form lifted into the air above the walls.
Sakura allowed herself a mental cheer at landing the hit, but the celebration didn't last long. Lee recovered quickly, twisting in midair and using Sakura's pillar as a push-off point to launch himself into Sakura's sanctuary. Exactly what she'd been hoping to avoid.
She narrowly dodged a kick from Lee, and from there she was suddenly caught in a whirlwind of fists and feet. Despite this, Sakura found that it wasn't impossible to dodge. Lee was definitely putting on a show of attacking her, but every now and then a punch was held back that might have knocked her out. Surely, Sakura thought, the Kage would be able to tell that Lee was holding back...but then she remembered that they were surrounded by earth. Every spectator's view of the spar would be obscured, which meant this was a moment for each of them to catch their breath and figure out what they were going to do next.
"Beneath you." Sakura spoke quietly, trying to mask it with her breathing. She saw Lee nod, and from there she put her next plan into motion. She ducked, slamming her hands down and generating several earth pillars around her. Lee had to jump high to avoid being hit, and as he expertly landed on top of one of the pillars, Sakura prepared another jutsu, one that Kakashi had been drilling into her since their time in Waterfall. She gathered chakra up into her mouth, letting the pressure build, until she expelled it into the form of a water bullet directly at Lee. Lee had to leap off of the pillar to dodge it, and instead of rejoining Sakura down below, he leapt backwards and out of the sanctuary.
From there, Sakura let herself take a page out of Gaara's book. It had worked against Hiroshi, and while she couldn't maneuver earth as well as Gaara moved sand, she could mimic the effect if she was smart. Her hands flew, and she allowed herself to create another pillar of earth, this time angling it towards the wall that stood between her and Lee. She made the pillar thicker than usual, and the result was that the pillar hit the solid wall and began to push it outwards towards Lee. Sakura thought Lee would simply dodge, but the wall hit true, pushing into Lee and eventually collapsing the wall on top of him.
Seconds passed, and Sakura took heaving breaths. Using so much earth jutsu in a short amount of time had already begun to drag on her reserves, and if the fight dragged on too much longer, she definitely wouldn't win it. It was no surprise to her when Lee crawled out of the rubble of her wall, and definitely not a surprise for Lee to push himself to his feet once again.
"You have indeed become a strong shinobi, Sakura." Lee commented, and Sakura noticed that he was also breathing heavily. "If this fight goes on for much longer, I am afraid that I will not be able to keep up with you."
It was a bluff, it had to be. Lee hadn't even removed his weights...but of course, there were only a few people in the room that knew about them.
"Still, I have never been one to give up! Sakura, you promised me you would not hold back, so I shall honor you by not holding back now!"
Lee took up a fighting stance again, but as his eyes met Sakura's, he winked.
This was going to be the end of the fight, and Lee was going to make sure it was a dramatic one.
He would go at her with a frontal charge, and knowing that, Sakura began to pump the rest of her chakra towards her legs. The instant she saw movement, she pushed herself into the air, letting the momentum of her jump carry her into a flip. From there, she let gravity carry her downward, and aimed an arcing kick towards where she had been a moment before. Lee reached the spot quickly, fist at the ready, but Sakura could see that the boy hesitated at the last second. He was giving her an opening.
Lee was giving her the win, and Sakura knew then and there that it would only dishonor him to hold back.
Her kick landed with the back of his head, sending him slamming into the ground with a crack that made her wince. She landed on her knees, looking admittedly desperate as she checked to make sure Lee hadn't been too severely injured by the kick. The boy was breathing, but his eyes were shut. Unconscious, or pretending to be.
"Thank you." She whispered to him, and she could have sworn she saw Lee's lips turn up in a small smile. She owed him one. No, she owed him a lot more than one. The Kage got a show of her strength, she was moving on to the next round, and it was all because of him.
The proctor called the match, and Sakura kept her head held high as she made her way back to the viewing stands. She would not let Lee's actions be in vain.
As she rejoined her teammates, each of them moved to congratulate her.
"You've made a proper mess of the arena." Sai commented. "Other shinobi will now have raised terrain to use to their advantage."
"You're part of those other shinobi." Sakura pointed out. "You can thank me for my contributions to your success any time."
"I won't thank you until I win. Hopefully I'll be matched with a shinobi within my skill level. I would hate to see myself paired up against one of the clan children." Sai answered, his gaze shifting to the Konoha rookies, who had all come to stand around her. "Though, if I'm against Brainless, I think I'll be okay."
"Hey, you'd better watch it." Naruto growled back. "I'll mess up your pretty boy face if I have to take you on down there."
"Messing up my face won't make yours look any better."
"Why you little-"
The boys continued to bicker as the next match began. An Iwa shinobi faced off against a Konoha shinobi, and the match was blatantly in Iwa's favor. The earth walls proved to be a vital bit of terrain for a shinobi of Earth country, and the match was over in a matter of minutes.
Three more matches passed. Gaara was drawn for the fourth match, paired up against a Suna shinobi that immediately surrendered upon the match's announcement. Gaara still had a reputation in his village, it seemed, and given what he had been like the year before, Sakura didn't blame the shinobi for not wanting to take Gaara on.
Fuu took on another Suna shinobi, beginning the match with a passionate declaration to Hinata about 'showing off her skills'. The opponent put up a decent fight, but there were few that could stand against the might of a trained Jinchuuriki. Similarly so, Naruto took down a Kusa shinobi, using a simple technique that Sakura understood to be 'fill the entire arena with clones and beat the shinobi down until they couldn't fight back anymore'. She knew Naruto had been training other techniques, so she smiled when she realized that Naruto was purposely keeping those techniques a secret for the true third phase of the exam.
The preliminaries weren't all in favor of Sakura's friends. Tenten hit a wall as she faced down a Kusa shinobi with a wicked proficiency in genjutsu, and Ino hit a bad matchup as she was faced off against Shino. Match after match passed, and Sakura could almost see Sai getting more tense as his name was passed over again and again. There was a much smaller pool of shinobi to pick from now, and of those, some formidable opponents still remained.
Those fears came to a head as Sai was finally called, on the second to last match. His opponent was none other than Neji Hyuuga.
Sai smiled pleasantly, and had only a single word to say.