After dodging a dozen civilian paper pushers and a cadre of ANBU guards, Sakura finally arrived at her destination. Opening the office door, she steeled her nerves only to find an unoccupied desk. Frowning, she looked over to find Shizune at a desk of her own to the side.
"May I help you, Sakura-chan?" asked Tsunade's aide and longtime apprentice.
"Ah, sorry to be a bother," she apologized. Looking the office as if her Hokage may materialize out of thin air at any moment, she clarified, "I was hoping to ask a favor of Tsunade-sama."
"Tsunade-sama just," muttered Shizune, making a face Sakura couldn't interpret, "stepped out on some business. Can I take a message?"
"No, that's okay," Sakura said, bundle of nerves spilling into her system once again. Her plan had fallen apart, it seemed, and she wanted nothing more than to vanish from sight. "When will she be back in?"
Shizune mulled it over. "Not for a few hours. Maybe try again tomorrow?"
'Ah, built-in procrastination.' "Okay then. Thank you!"
The genin disappeared from the room before Shizune had the chance to reply. If nothing else, Sakura though to herself, Kakashi-sensei has me well-versed in avoiding genuine human contact.
Navigating her way through the maze that was the Administrative Division of the Academy, Sakura found that she was, in fact, unsuccessfully navigating the Administrative Division of the Academy. Realizing she was going the opposite direction from where she was supposed to, Sakura turned on her heel and came face-to-abdomen with a willowy shinobi with orange hair and a strangely familiar face. To his right stood what Sakura could only assume to be an Aburame, judging from the facemask that covered the upper half of his face, save for his hair.
Ignoring her stuttering apology, the willowy man posed a question. "You are genin Haruno Sakura of Team 7?"
"Um, yes. I'm really sorry. I was just trying to—"
"Come with me," ordered the shinobi, walking forward without waiting for her response.
She swallowed hard and did as she was told, hoping to avoid getting into more trouble than she was already. Following the pair of shinobi along the winding hallways, they all finally arrived at a door labeled 'Restricted Access ANBU Personnel Only.' The willowy shinobi pricked his thumb and pressed it to the door, apparently activating some seal, as it slid open. The entranceway was guarded by two ANBU guards in their daunting masks, and there appeared to a be a receptionist whose face looked as if it had been wiped of all emotion.
The receptionist glanced up to see who it was, nodded, and turned his attention back to the paperwork on his desk. At this point, Sakura was beginning to wonder if this was more than just a reprimanding – maybe Shizune had sent these two to take her to Lady Tsunade? If that was the case, neither of her guides confirmed it, remaining passive as ever while she followed them through a door to the right of the room, which led to a stairway. The odd trio took the stairs leading down and walked down what Sakura figured to be the longest corridor she had ever seen. Ignoring all doors to the sides, they kept making their way down until they arrived an entranceway.
The Aburame opened the door, allowing Sakura and the willowy man to enter, shutting the door behind as he followed. The shadowy room they walked into was eerie in a such a way that all of her danger senses as kunoichi screamed at her to draw a kunai or withdraw as quickly as possible. The closest thing that had felt like this was when she and the others had been in Zabuza's Hidden Mist Jutsu. She could only hope that the figure at the desk in the center of the room was her Hokage and not a menacing shinobi with pointy teeth.
To her surprise, it was instead a village elder behind the desk. She'd seen him around the village at special events often enough, and the Academy had been sure to make it known to students who the elders were. His bandaged eye and the sling for his right arm marked him as easily recognizable, that and the crisscross scar on his chin.
"Do you know who I am, Haruno Sakura? Where you are?" asked the man. His voice was neither quiet nor loud, but he spoke with authority, somehow making the words sound more like commands than questions. Somehow her eerie feeling from earlier hadn't quite dissipated.
"Yes, Shimura-sama. I saw a sign on a door earlier that said this area was for ANBU personnel," she admitted in a not-so-self assured voice.
The man's impassive stare seemed to pierce through her as he spoke again, "As you said, my name is Shimura Danzo. This is indeed the heart of ANBU in which you stand."
Sakura didn't know exactly what she was supposed to say in response, so she just nodded her head dumbly, waiting to be prompted or filled in at Shimura's leisure.
"Your remaining team member seems to have been taken as an apprentice. Given that the Uchiha boy fled away to Orochimaru, that leaves your Team 7 at an uneasy status. Can I assume that you were approaching the Hokage in order to find a new role to fill?"
"I was hoping to become her apprentice," confessed the pink-haired girl. It was a little surprising that Shimura-sama had known her intention, though he wouldn't be a village elder if the man weren't savvy. She hesitated and then added, "Naruto and Sasuke are both leagues ahead of me. I don't want to just watch from behind any longer."
The stare she received in return made Sakura wonder if she had said the wrong thing, and not for the first time she was questioning why she had been brought here at all.
"There are those of us who must lead from the front as figureheads, true," said the man, "But then there are those of us who do our parts in the dark, unseen by all, yet vital all the same. That does not mean that we must 'be behind,' however."
Sakura suddenly became very still, sure that her mind must be playing tricks on her. Surely the apparent leader of ANBU wasn't implying that she could be ANBU material – the same kunoichi who had defaulted to asking Naruto to bring back Sasuke because she wasn't strong enough to do it herself?
She faltered, trying to voice her thoughts, but it seemed that the Shimura-sama had already seen through her.
"While Uzumaki and Uchiha certainly have the most apparent potential of your generation, there are areas in which they are severely deficient. It also occurs to me that many capable shinobi are often overlooked simply because they are positioned so near flashy counterparts."
"Shimura-sama, are you offering to place me into ANBU?" she asked quietly, uncertain as to why he had chosen her. Or that it was an offer she particularly wanted to accept.
"Bluntly put, no. While the potential is there, you are far beneath the set standards."
Relief and disappointment flooded her system all at once.
"However," said the man, "I believe relegating you to genin work any longer would be a waste of your talents. There are individuals in this part of the facility that who while not full ANBU members themselves, are affiliated with the group. The receptionist at the front, if you remember."
Sakura nodded, and he continued. "You will still be required to undergo some of the tests and training. Allowing someone in who couldn't be trusted to safeguard information would be foolish, and while not gaining full membership, we still require a certain degree of martial prowess, regardless of the position offered. Should you prove capable and progress adequately, a promotion will be in order. If you accept, Fu and Torune will take you in for some preliminary questions and paperwork. If not, this meeting will not be spoken of again."
The twelve year old stared for a long while at the elder in front of her. She knew the offer was not without its risks – ANBU work, even if she wasn't going to be admitted as a full member just yet, was dangerous. If she turned this down now and left, Lady Tsunade would still be there tomorrow, and she could request apprenticeship like she had planned. But the offer she had now was real, concrete – if she refused now, this chance wouldn't be waiting on her tomorrow – and apprenticeship under the Hokage wasn't a sure thing. She thought of Naruto and Sasuke, the power they had shown and how far and fast they had left her behind. Their backs were they only thing she could see – so lifting up her head the words leapt from her mouth before she had a chance to keep them to herself.
Sweat dripped from everywhere as Sakura's forehead collided with the table at which she was seated. "Your thoughts are too erratic. And your fortitude is still severely lacking. Are you certain you possess the ability to be affiliated with ANBU?"
Fu's question, as always, was blunt and emotionless – merely a straightforward approach, not one of ill will. She was far too exhausted to give a proper response, regardless, so all he got was her panting instead.
"We begin again in fifteen minutes," he informed. "Try to be up to standard."
Sakura lacked the ability to groan aloud so she did so internally the best she could. It hadn't been quite four weeks since she accepted Shimura-sama's offer, and the trials she was still going through had proven to be more than she was prepared to take on. Sakura was smart and though Kakashi-sensei hadn't done much in the way of training her in techniques, he had driven the fundamentals of a shinobi into her –so much so that she was proud to say that she had gotten by on her wits and mastery of the basics where Naruto and Sasuke had gotten by on power and raw talent. What's more – her chakra control was second to none of the Rookie Nine. However, the sheer hard-hitting strenuousness of the ANBU tests strained and broke her again and again. And she got to go home at the end of the day – she couldn't imagine what the full-on recruits must go through, being subjected to living in the facility every day.
Each day she was given a packet of information to memorize quickly and efficiently that she would have to reproduce to a designated individual at the end of the week. Meanwhile, each day until said time, she would endure interrogation techniques of all sorts or subtle use of genjutsu aimed at getting her to give up said information. This was in conjunction with the early morning, grueling physical training she underwent with some of the fulltime recruits – it had almost begun to be the favorite part of her days, which was saying something. She didn't think that would be the case if she ever went through the real thing and had to undergo early morning, mid-day, and evening physical training.
For now, though, she was being subjected to Yamanaka techniques. As it stood, Yamanakas couldn't actually covertly read minds. They did have a technique that allowed telepathic communication, but it required some form of consent of the subjects in its preparation. However, they could crawl around in someone's head, break down mental barriers, and inhabit someone's body until they were on the cusp of insanity until said subject was incoherent enough to drunkenly let down their guard enough to establish a telepathic link. Though at that point, to be honest, most would probably break down and confess whatever they knew anyway.
Considering her own considerable mental prowess, the first time Sakura sat through a session with Fu, she expected to perform quite well. That was not the case. Despite being the top kunoichi in Sakura's class and future Yamanaka heir, Ino was not at the pinnacle of the Yamanaka just yet, much less of the level of one who was an ANBU member. In short, Fu's mental assault made Sakura and Ino's duel in the Chunin exams seem like the child's play it apparently had been. To be honest, she wasn't even sure why she was having to go through it – it wasn't like anyone outside of the Yamanaka knew how to conduct their techniques within Konoha, much less outside of it.
Regardless though, no matter how battered or exhausted she may be, Sakura wouldn't quit. She was a member of Team 7 at heart, and when they finally all reunited and got Sasuke back, she would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all of them.
She didn't even notice that Fu had entered and taken the seat across from her. The clinical shinobi didn't bother to inform her his assault was about to begin, it just laid into her like a tidal wave. The mind ninjutsu he was using was comparable to a genjutsu, albeit with a virtually none of the subtlety or illusion.
The goal was to withstand the assault and give nothing, but if she were to slip, what she gave should be meaningless garbage with no relation to her 'intel.' Another interrogator had advised her to pick one thing to fixate on in order to distract herself from her situation and make it harder on the interrogator. A few weeks back she had resorted using kunoichi lessons she had received on flowers and plants which had been virtually useless during her time on assault-class team. She had since thought better of it, given that most of those classes used flowers native to Konoha and instead set to memorizing a particularly dry text chronicling the Clan War era.
The problem was not inherently that her focus material was dry and uninteresting – that described the vast majority of Academy coursework and she had been at the top of her class in theoretical work, thank you very much. The problem came when trying to focus on said material when a relentless Yamanaka was doing the psychic equivalent of brain surgery with a rusty hacksaw and a dull kunai with no painkillers whatsoever.
She was halfway through a description of one of the Nidaime's more clever battle maneuvers when her train of thought split into two – one leading her toward her secret intel. During this divergence, the head-splitting migraine that came on when Fu attacked came clearly into focus. Redoubling her focus, she plodded on, trying to reorder her thoughts
Sense of time dulled as seconds turned into minutes, and Sakura noticed that at some point she had begun reciting something aloud. On the off chance that what was being said was actually not the intelligence report she continued to just think about Clan War history, lest her mind wander where it wasn't supposed to even further.
An eternity later, pain lanced through Sakura's skull, tearing an animalistic shriek from her lips. Shaking from raw nerves and dry heaving, she noticed she had collapsed onto the floor, albeit without the presence of another person slithering around in her mind. Glancing up, she found an orange haired Yamanaka peering down at her.
"Your fortitude is still poor, but incoherent babblings about Senju Tobirama aside, you've protected the report you were given. Recover quickly and depart."
'I'm not even going to be a full member; why am I learning how to use this?'
The katana was surprisingly light as she swung it, but her opponent dodged it like she was swinging it in slow motion regardless. She jerked back, anticipating a counterstrike. A flash of steel from her opponent proved her instincts to be true as she parried with her own blade. The figure in front of her wasn't as large as some of the others in the program, but then it didn't take much to out-size Sakura. Keeping that in mind, she couldn't muscle her way out of this – which meant she had to end it quickly, relying on speed and quick wittedness.
The pink-haired girl shoved back and then rushed forward again, mirroring her opponent. Twitching her arm to feint a strike, she sidestepped and nearly caught an elbow to the face for her trouble. Backpedaling, her opponent advanced madly, and she was barely able to keep up with the rapid blows sent her way. Between the leverage and the strength of them, Sakura was caught off balance and the strike from a blunted katana sent her careening to the floor.
The featureless mask worn by all recruits stared down at her in the darkened room.
"Recruits. Return to the line," growled the baritone voice of Jaguar. Their instructor's mask and title was befitting – he was swift, stealthy and utterly lethal. And for the past month, he had been drilling the art of kenjutsu into her new group. The three months before this one had been all focused on that as well, though that group had advanced past that stage, and now she was up against a fresh group.
Regardless, Sakura was way out of her depth – not that she hadn't been before, but she desperately needed some one-on-one instruction. Unfortunately, she just didn't have the time. Ever since she was cleared to start official work, she had been assigned a handler and given work to be done in the facility.
It was mostly codes to be deciphered and reports to be analyzed and worked into presentable intelligence. Sakura was fairly certain that Konoha already had a department that handled this sort of thing, but maybe it had to be processed here to streamline things? Or maybe it was an issue of domain?
Either way, she did her work in a closet of an office, only allowed out at certain times – most of which were designated training sessions like this one. Apparently Shimura-sama had been serious when he mentioned her possible moving up in the ranks. The down side of that meant that Sakura had no free time – she had even been moved into an ANBU dormitory. It was exhausting, at least on normal missions with –
"Number Fifty-Three, is there a problem?" came a low voice.
Sakura snapped to, only to find Jaguar only a few feet away. They were the only two in the room; apparently the session was over.
"My apologies," she managed to squeak out. "I'll be going now."
Jaguar cocked his head. "I said you were to follow me to your next assignment, Fifty-Three."
"Oh," she said, nervously biting her lip behind the mask. "I see."
Without another word, Jaguar turned on his heel, and Sakura followed him down the winding corridors of the facility. It was a separate branch that was connected to the Academy section via underground corridors – Sakura wondered how far it all went or if other organizations in Konoha had anything like it.
Eventually the pair arrived in what appeared to be an ANBU changing room, just in time to find woman about to remove her cat mask. From what Sakura could tell, she appeared to be a full-fledged member. She sported the signature tattoo on her left arm; though instead of keeping her katana on her back, she had it strapped to her left leg along with a large compliment kunai on the opposite leg. Other than that, the only thing that distinguished her was her thick white hair, which she was only partially successful at holding back with a rope.
Jaguar cocked his head at the woman, to which she clucked her tongue. "You're late. I told you that I had an appointment with the Hokage."
"Personal business. Irrelevant," remarked Jaguar in an unimpressed manner. Hardening his voice further he added, "I trust you've read the file."
"Of course," scoffed the woman. "Command has been saying I'd have a student to train for months now. I've put off my personal business in the meantime. And now when I've finally decided to go through with it, you saddle me with a mediocre genin that didn't cut it for a full induction?
Sakura struggled to stop from either averting her eyes in shame or bristling in defiance. Next to her, however, Jaguar stepped forward, speaking once more. "These orders come straight from Shimura-sama. Is this a display of insubordination?"
"No," came the response. "Of course not."
Jaguar nodded, turning to Sakura. "From now on, instead of meeting with the training group, you will meet with Ocelot, who will be your personal trainer."
The pinkette braced herself, cutting off the anxiety spike before it could take hold of her – something she had gotten adept at during her 'meetings' with Fu. Letting herself go icy, she gave a curt not. "Yes, Jaguar-sensei."
Jaguar subsequently withdrew, presumably to give the pair to acquaint themselves with one another. The atmosphere thereafter was fairly tense, though Sakura had long since been broken in to difficult mentors. After a few moments, however, she relented. "Orders?"
"Nothing for today," replied Ocelot. "Meet me in Training Room 12 tomorrow. You're dismissed."
Sakura opened her mouth to ask where the training room was but thought better of it. ANBU seemed to loathe such small questions even more than the average shinobi. No wonder Kakashi-sensei had been such a pain in the ass. Turning on her heel, she promptly exited, hoping to avoid annoying her new teacher any more than she already had.