"It's not true that nothing can hurt me. Nothing can kill me."

Tsunade, the Iron Princess, to her teammates on more than one occasion

-O-

"The way I see it, I've already won," Tenten told Sasuke as they clattered down the stairs.

He frowned. "How so?"

"You beat both my teammates. If I win this fight, I can hold it over them for the rest of our careers. If I lose, well, I still got the farthest in the tournament out of all three of us." Tenten laughed. "It's a wonderful day today."

"We're two of the four best ninja in this tournament," Sasuke said, thoughts elsewhere. "That's quite something."

"It's good to know that, win or lose, we have something to be proud of."

Sasuke nodded. "I want to meet Sakura in the finals, though, so don't expect me to go easy."

"I'll be trying my hardest too," Tenten said. "I have too much pride as a ninja for anything else."

Sasuke felt an honest smile steal across his face.

They walked out of the stairwell and onto the arena floor, where the proctor ordered them into position. "You know the rules already," he said. "Let's begin."

The arena was unchanged for the most part, but parts of the grass had been torn up where Temari's wind techniques cut into the arena soil. The pool of water near the middle was untouched – perhaps even a little fuller due to the rain – and the fleck of forest still huddled against the arena wall.

And then Sasuke's leisurely inspection was interrupted as Tenten whipped out two handfuls of shuriken and hurled them at him. He channeled a burst of chakra to his eyes, and his Sharingan swirled to life. Kunai in hand, he blocked the first two shuriken and moved off to the side to avoid the rest. He wished he still had his staff, and regretted not bringing a spare.

"So that's the Sharingan," Tenten said, eyeing Sasuke. "It's beautiful. I'm looking forward to seeing it in action."

Before Sasuke had the chance to reply, she brought out her scroll again. He knew what to expect from her fight against Ino. Dozens of weapons – all different shapes and sizes, all with their own weird and wacky flight paths – converged on his position.

Sasuke grabbed the first weapon out of the air – a short sword that lacked a crossguard – and batted away the next few attacks. As he cartwheeled back and away from a pair of spears, his empty hand picked up a small scythe off the ground. Wielding the pair of borrowed weapons, he defended himself from the onslaught of pointed death.

The cheers from the crowd were getting louder as they watched the spectacle. Sasuke gritted his teeth as he fought to keep up with Tenten; she could throw faster and harder than anyone he'd ever met, and she was deadly accurate on top of that.

Wind chakra wreathed his arms as he wove a glittering web of steel, fending off the endless attacks. Sasuke darted left and right, twisting and contorting to let weapons pass within a hair's breadth of his body. And it wasn't enough. He was at his limit, muscles creaking with strain, and she kept upping the pace.

A single kunai broke past his guard. Sasuke leant forwards at the last second and it bounced off his headband rather than slicing through his cheek. His breath rasped in and out. If this went on much longer, his tournament was ending here and now. His Sharingan picked out a brief lull in the storm of blades, and he tossed his weapons down and raced through the hand seals for his wind technique.

Rather than a narrow blade with a wider current carrying it forward, Sasuke sent a wall of wind sweeping towards Tenten. Kunai and shuriken were picked up and hurled back at her, while heavier weapons were knocked off course and sent harmlessly tumbling to the earth. Sasuke bent over, hands on his knees, panting.

He watched Tenten back away, impossibly fleet of foot. The knives carried by the wind fell short and the gust itself barely mussed up her hair by the time it caught her. Sasuke stood and scooped up a fallen spear. It was the closest thing to a staff he was likely to find.

That was the fourth fight where he'd used that wind technique, and he still didn't know what it was called. The foe he'd stolen it from hadn't mentioned it, and the Hokage had been frustratingly vague when Sasuke asked what techniques he'd been taught. Names are imprecise things was all Sasuke had been told.

The Hokage was probably right, but Sasuke decided there and then that he was naming his wind technique anyway. Perhaps calling the Miracle Breath would be suitable. Itt had saved him many times over, after all, so he wanted to show some gratitude.

Dozens of larger and hundreds of smaller weapons littered the arena floor, but Tenten didn't look worried. Just how much of an armoury was she carrying around with her? She tucked her scroll away again.

Sasuke swore as she pulled out a second scroll and formed another hand seal.

A cloud of chakra smoke enveloped her and out strode six clones. Sasuke relaxed as he realised that with his Sharingan he could spot the real Tenten. Besides, the clones would only be useful if Tenten intended to close with him and fight hand-to-hand, which meant that Sasuke could fight back. The situation was looking better by the moment.

Waves of thin rain, carried by the breeze, lashed at Sasuke as he stood and waited for Tenten to approach. Each of her clones drew a different illusory weapon, but Tenten herself pulled out a pair of short wooden sticks with cross grips. Sasuke recognised them as tonfas, but he knew nothing about how they were used. He hoped his Sharingan would cover up for that lack of experience; Tenten would certainly know how to fight with and against a spear or staff.

Tenten and her clones crossed paths again and again as they raced at Sasuke. The display was dizzying, and if it weren't for his ability to literally see the chakra animating her copies, he would have lost track of the real Tenten already. Phantom swords, clubs and spears menaced him as the group drew closer. Tenten still held the same tonfas, though.

Ignoring the clones, Sasuke ran at her, spear couched at his side. Its tip had been blunted, so he felt safe in ramming Tenten with it. It was hard to read her stance, even with the Sharingan, due to the strange weapons she held, but Sasuke figured he could take her anyway.

A flick of one of her wooden sticks deflected the spearpoint and with her other hand she rammed a wooden point into his stomach. Sasuke doubled over, wheezing for breath, and she hooked his leg, sending him tumbling to the ground. He rolled out of the way as she drove her foot down at his head; it landed an inch from his nose.

Sasuke kicked up at her and Tenten slipped around the blow. It gave him enough of an opening to spring back onto his feet, leaning on the spear for support. The steel spear point and then the wooden butt lashed out at Tenten's face, but she batted both aside. Sasuke's limbs and weapon were sheathed in wind chakra, but even with his elemental manipulation he struggled to keep up with her. He jabbed with the speartip, slashed at her legs with the blunt end and even tried to kick her. Tenten's weapons spun in her hands, and despite the Sharingan helping Sasuke predict where she would move, he couldn't break her guard. She was too fast, too skilled, too hard to read.

It took a hard blow to Sasuke's upper thigh and another across his ribs for him to admit that getting up close and personal with Tenten was a mistake.

He thought he was getting a grip on her fighting style, the range of her weapons, how fast she could hit and block, and then she dropped the tonfas and unsealed a short scythe. He flinched as she cut a shallow but painful gash across his cheek. Sasuke had blocked her weapon half a foot from his face, but then she twisted the handle of the scythe and sent the blade flicking out and across.

They fought in near silence for another half-minute. Tenten kept trapping his spear with the curved blade of her scythe, and then disengaging with quick pokes and slashes that drew beads of blood where Sasuke couldn't get out the way fast enough.

He was simply outmatched; as long as Tenten had such an overwhelming advantage in weaponry, Sasuke would never find an opening. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the different ninja tools, and her ability to pick half a dozen perfect counters to his spear, meant there was nothing he could do.

Unless.

Sasuke snapped the wooden haft over his knee. Tenten might know how to handle his spear, but she wasn't the only one who could switch weapons.

Armed with two shorter batons, he tried to overwhelm her, striking high and low in turns. Both splintered sticks hammered at her face and chest but she escaped injury by inches, every time. Her scythe was in three places at once until at last she dropped it to tangle with his legs.

He got free of the obstruction just in time to duck a weighted chain that Tenten swung at his head. The new weapon was unfamiliar again. A series of pitted iron links let Tenten cover a wide arc when defending; the solid lump of lead on the end promised a swift end to the fight if it connected anywhere on his body.

They circled one another. Sasuke's probing attacks met with little success, but he was able to keep clear of her returning blows. The windup that the chain required made it easy to predict with the Sharingan. After a few failures, Tenten switched weapons again.

Her scroll produced a long-handled warhammer with a narrow head in a puff of chakra smoke, and Sasuke eyed it warily. It was too heavy to block. Soon Sasuke was scrambling away from each of her swings, and she took ruthless advantage of it. One narrow miss sent chips of rock flying against Sasuke's legs, covering them with tiny cuts.

Sasuke needed to change things up, and fast. A quick glance over his shoulder showed that he was close to the pool of water near the middle of the arena, and he retreated towards it. Tenten didn't let up the pressure one bit. Going by the grin on her face, she was enjoying herself.

"You're very good at this, for an amateur," she told him. "I don't get a workout like this very often."

"Thanks," Sasuke panted, too out of breath for a longer answer.

Tenten's warhammer missed his nose by less than an inch, and Sasuke felt the wind of its passing. As he stumbled away he slipped a smoke bomb out of his weapons pouch. The pool was a dozen steps away. Time to set his plan in motion.

The next time Sasuke dodged the warhammer's swing, he crushed the smoke bomb in his hand. It felt gritty and a bit greasy. As the cloud of smoke flooded out, it whispered over his skin, and a faint chemical tang filled his nostrils.

He didn't have long. The smoke cloud was big, perhaps eight paces wide and three paces high. Sasuke flung himself to the ground and heard a barrage of hurled steel pass over his head. Beside him, a long spur of rock bordered the edge of the pond. Four hand seals sufficed to throw a lungful of fire in return. But he wasn't aiming for Tenten.

The fireball splashed into the pool with a sound like a wagon load of gravel falling onto a tin roof. Superheated steam rolled up and out. In the cold air, it settled into a fog bank that shrouded the pool and surroundings.

Sasuke crawled out of the smoke cloud, but he still couldn't see further than the end of his nose. Gently patting his way forward let him find the water's edge. He dipped a careful finger into the pool. The water level had dropped, but not as much as he'd expected, and the surface of the pond was hot but bearable. Sasuke slipped in, careful to avoid making any noise.

A sliver of his rapidly-depleting chakra reserves set a clone at the water's edge. Sasuke submerged himself in the muddy hole, leaving only his eyes and nose peeking out. The bait had been set. Now he had to wait.

The pause was a nice change of pace. Sasuke let his muscles relax a little. He didn't expect Tenten to charge headlong into a fog bank she couldn't see through, so until the mist dispersed, he could lower his guard.

A minute's delay felt like an hour, and soon his back and legs were sore from the tension they were under. He regretted the size of the fireball he'd used. A smaller technique would have meant less of a wait, and used less chakra as well. His reserves weren't quite running out yet, but the round against Neji had been exhausting and there'd be another fight for him after this one. If he won, anyway.

The mist was thinning, just a touch, and then all of a sudden it turned ethereal and Sasuke could see clean through to the other side of the arena. He held his breath and tucked his nose underwater as well, so only his eyes were visible. The clone still stood by the shallows, wielding a pair of kunai. It looked around, scanning for movement.

Tenten came out of nowhere and leapt at it from behind. Sasuke had to move fast. The instant she touched the clone, it would disperse, and he'd lose the element of surprise. Anything less than a perfect ambush would fail to beat her.

Sasuke burst from the water, spray flying everywhere, and tackled Tenten before she could reach her target.

His fist aimed for her face and his knee was ready for a follow up strike to the belly. She turned but it was too slow, much too slow, and he made contact with her – and fell through her.

Tenten's body burst into a cloud of chakra smoke and Sasuke had a moment to see how foolish he'd been before he was moving as fast as he could, a bare half-step ahead of a laughing Tenten. She swung her warhammer like it was a reed and if not for a lightning-quick roll to the side, Sasuke's thigh bone would have been shattered into a dozen pieces.

They danced back and forth at the water's edge. The same long boulder that Sasuke had laid beside now served as a tripping hazard. Tenten kept trying to pin Sasuke up against the pond, and he tried to slip past her, to no avail.

Something had to be done. The rocky spur caught the heel of Sasuke's sandal again and in a flash of inspiration, he used the replacement technique. Sasuke ended up back in the dirt at the water's edge, watching Tenten swing her warhammer into a huge chunk of stone.

The rock exploded into dust and gravel, but the force of the blow – entirely unexpected – jarred the warhammer out of Tenten's hands.

For a second they both froze, stunned at the unexpected development.

Sasuke leapt back to his feet. This was a miracle in the truest sense of the word – unplanned and coming at the perfect moment – and he would exploit it to the hilt. New strength flowed through him as he struck at Tenten, buoyed on by the ease with which he could predict her movements now.

Tenten's sheer variety of weapons had overloaded Sasuke's Sharingan, but her taijutsu was much less impressive. She used some sort of chakra string technique to pull a dropped sword to her hand, but as it came close, he grabbed it by the hilt and then tossed it over his shoulder. Tenten reached for her scroll but Sasuke knocked it out of her grasp. There was an empty patch of grass behind her, without any fallen weapons from earlier, and he shepherded her back into it.

Tenten pulled out another scroll but in the split second that her hands were occupied, Sasuke rushed her and threw her on her back. The air went out of her with a great whoosh, and he sat astride her stomach, pinning her arms to her sides. His kunai was at her throat.

"The winner of the match is Sasuke Uchiha!" the proctor called.

Sasuke tried to calm his racing heart. The reversal had been so fast and sudden that he couldn't quite believe he'd won.

"Are you going to let me up?" Tenten asked after a second, arching an eyebrow, and he flushed and climbed off her. He offered an outstretched hand and pulled her to her feet.

The stadium was going wild again. Sasuke supposed they'd put on quite a show. Whatever else happened, the Hokage would be pleased. The Leaf looked mighty. Sasuke supposed he deserved a fair bit of credit for that, but then again, so did Tenten.

"You had me dead to rights for most of that fight," Sasuke admitted, not looking at her.

Tenten started returning her weapons to the scroll in her hands. "Hey, you earned your victory. I look forward to seeing the last two fights without stressing over them." She smiled, and Sasuke realised with a start that she wasn't upset.

Part of him was insanely, irrationally, jealous. Sasuke couldn't remember the last time he'd relaxed and enjoyed his life. Tenten was more cheerful about her loss than he was about his victory, and her attitude hadn't stopped her from fighting him to a standstill.

"You're amazing with all that gear. How can you handle so many different weapons so well?" Sasuke asked.

"Practice, that's all," Tenten said, grinning. "That and two lunatic team-mates, plus an even crazier teacher."

"I know exactly what you mean."

-O-

Sakura checked her equipment for the third time. Sasuke's fight had been terrifying – so many times, she thought he was going to be injured or worse – but it had given her a chance to recover some of her reserves. She was far from relaxed, despite changing into a clean and dry outfit.

Gaara had spent the whole fight staring at Sasuke with hunger in his eyes. He was the only competitor who was younger and shorter than Sakura, but despite his weak build and the exhaustion written across his face, there was something restless about him. And wherever he went, the faint scent of blood followed. His brother was cowering at the opposite end of the competitors' box, shooting nervous looks at Gaara. If that wasn't a warning sign, Sakura didn't know what was.

She stood up, ready to head down to the arena, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her. "I'd wait just a moment," Ino said, nodding at where Gaara had stalked into the stairwell. She sounded deadly serious. "Give him some space."

Once Gaara had thirty seconds' head start, Ino released her shoulder and Sakura strode forward. Temari was waiting next to the stairs and stopped her again. "If things start going wrong, it's better to surrender early," she murmured to Sakura. "He doesn't mean to hurt people, it's just… he can get carried away, sometimes."

As she trailed off, Sakura swallowed. It might be some sort of mind game, but Temari looked too earnest for that. And Sakura figured she was a pretty good judge of character; she'd developed a rapport with the Sand ninja, and this felt like real concern.

"I'll bear that in mind."

The stairwell was darker than Sakura remembered, and the walls bore down on her. She wondered whether surrendering might be the smarter move. Gaara's sand had looked dangerous, and there was no glory in dying in front of a crowd of foreigners.

But Sakura hadn't become a ninja to make the smart moves. Her hand reached for the long-healed notch in her ear, a reminder of the first real fight she'd been in. She joined the Academy and fought so hard to graduate because she wanted to prove herself, to her friend and to her love. Ino and Sasuke were both watching.

So were some others who'd become dear to her. Naruto and Kakashi would understand if she surrendered – they might not even think any less of her – but neither of them would give up, and so she couldn't either.

To become as strong as she wanted, needed, Sakura's path led straight through the most dangerous new Chunin from Sunagakure.

She walked out into the light on the arena floor. The rain had stopped and sunshine was breaking through the clouds.

"Shall we?" she asked.

Gaara stared at her with those hungry eyes. "Your death will feed us."

Despite herself, Sakura shivered. His voice was empty of all emotion.

"Alright, you know the rules, let's start," the proctor said.

As soon as the match began, Sakura leapt away, kunai in hand. Until she knew more about Gaara's techniques she wasn't going to get close to him. As a steady stream of sand flowed out of his gourd and crept over the ground, reaching for her, she backed off even further.

Gaara stared her down as more and more sand poured out, more than the gourd should have been able to hold. Sakura hurled her kunai at him but an arm made of sand lunged across his face and caught it. She scowled.

He hadn't moved. Even his arms were still crossed.

Cursing, Sakura pulled out a handful of shuriken. With the distance between them, it was child's play to hit her target. Four shuriken flew straight for Gaara's face, while three looped around to the right and came in at a high angle. Appendages of sand blocked all of them. When his eyes were covered by the protective sand, Sakura hurled another two shuriken at his legs. The sand interposed itself without Gaara ever seeing them.

Either Gaara had enhanced senses, or the sand was somehow able to detect threats for him and move on its own. Both options made things harder for her.

Long tendrils of sand extended outwards, heading for Sakura's position. She ran a few steps to the side and watched the sand move – the end continued flowing at her after she stopped, but the sand which had already been placed hadn't moved. Overall it reminded her of a snake.

Sakura stood her ground as the sand approached. She was a hundred feet away from Gaara, and it had taken a good while to reach her. If memory served, it had moved faster when Gaara had been threatening Kankuro. Perhaps he was tired, or else saving energy for his next fight?

Sandy tentacles reached for Sakura and she danced out of the way. Heavy ropes of sand slammed into the ground around her. The sand was fast, but she could still duck and dodge, if only barely. Was this the threat that had forced Team Eight and Team Ten to surrender their tokens in the Chunin Exams? It hardly seemed possible.

A smaller blast of sand, coming out of nowhere, hit Sakura in the chest and knocked her backwards. She scrambled to her feet. It felt a lot like a punch, and the grains of sand left behind were trying to restrict her breathing. Angrily, she swept them off her clothes.

There was still a steady stream of sand coming out of Gaara's gourd, but the amount on the field wasn't increasing any more. The same mass that had struck at her earlier moved close again, but he must be planning something else as well.

Sakura took a closer look at the grass around Gaara. If she squinted, she could see faint movement on the ground, almost as though– she kicked at the dirt under her feet and flinched at the spray of sand. A thin layer of it was spreading, hidden under the grass. Gaara had already coated a chunk of the arena without her noticing. His cold green eyes met hers and he inclined his head.

...That was worse than the indifference he'd been showing earlier, Sakura decided.

Anywhere with sand on the ground was dangerous. She didn't want to find out whether Gaara intended to snare Sakura so that a followup attack could finish her off, or he was hiding a larger quantity of sand under the thin surface layer. A clear patch of grass, free of sand, to her left provided an escape route. Sakura sprang over to it, clearing the sandy patches in a single leap.

Gaara was a smarter foe than she'd realised. His slow attack had distracted her while he prepared a trap. And now she had to plan her next move; at least she was in relative safety.

Or so she'd thought.

Pillars of sand rose up out of concealment around her. Rather than hiding amongst the grass, they had been buried underground and now burst out to surround Sakura. Gaara watched with dead eyes as they wove an ever-tightening net.

Try as she might, Sakura couldn't see a way out. Even jumping again wasn't an option; the pillars were too tall. There was no escape. As the sand closed in around her, the last of the sunlight disappeared. It felt a lot like being trapped in a tomb. She drew a deep breath and raced through the hand seals for the Chidori like her life depended on it.

Perhaps it did.

A malevolent aura surrounded and permeated the sand as it grabbed her feet. Sakura heard the crackle of electricity as a surge of chakra blew through her arm and almost drove her to her knees. Cold white light from her hand was the only illumination in the rapidly-shrinking cocoon of sand. A loose bundle of lightning took shape, swelling with each heartbeat. Sweat beaded on Sakura's brow from the strain, and she knew she couldn't hold the technique for long. The gritty hold that the sand had on her legs was getting stronger, and more sand was climbing up her body. It felt alive, and Sakura could almost taste its hatred and bloodlust at the back of her throat.

Sakura plunged her unfinished Chidori into the ground, ripping through everything in the way. Swathes of sand fell off her as she swept her arm out, tearing apart the tomb that was enveloping her. Lightning beats Earth, Sakura remembered with a grim smile.

Once she was fully free, Sakura made sure to put some distance between her and the rest of the sand, hacking through obstacles with great swings of her arm. The lightning in her hand faded as she cut the chakra flow, panting from the strain. Despite the lightning that had been coursing through it, the mass of sand that had trapped her was already forming up for a new attack. Whatever Gaara was using to move his sand was strong.

Gaara looked shocked as he watched her gather herself. Things might not have gone well, but at least Sakura was alive and kicking. And she had a much better idea of how Gaara fought; it was the first step towards an eventual victory.

Sakura planned her next steps. She would have to break through Gaara's defenses, and then deliver a fight-ending blow, before she ran out of chakra or got caught again. Her legs still ached from the sand tomb; if he'd seized her hands before she could channel any lightning, it would have ended poorly for her.

She sprang to attention as Gaara moved for the first time. He formed slow, precise hand seals and the sand around him flew at Sakura in pellets, each no larger than a kunai. She dodged and wove between the attacks, wondering why he didn't throw shuriken instead and save chakra. Perhaps he lacked the upper body strength.

Still, Gaara was slower than her, and so was his sand. Unless he was holding back, Sakura only needed to get in close and she could take him down. Her lightning chakra could pierce his defences. There were gaps in the thin coating of sand he'd placed down, and Sakura started plotting her approach.

Sakura felt a tiny tremor. At her feet, the earth was shifting as something pushed at it from below.

She only had a split second to react as arms of sand burst out of the ground all around her. Sakura threw herself into a sideways roll, and the spot where she'd been standing was impaled by half a dozen spears of sand. It was all she could do to keep half a step ahead of the grasping tendrils. Her blood sang in her veins. She felt horror at how close she'd come to death, and wild joy at surviving another attack.

Gaara must have sent his sand to burrow underground and attack her from underneath. Sakura vowed he wouldn't catch her with the same trick again.

As if to spite her, the sand chasing her started piling up into a wall. It swept across the arena floor, gathering speed and curling at the top like a cresting wave. Sakura glanced over her shoulder. It was shepherding her towards another deceptively clear patch of grass, no doubt with more sand lying in wait to stab her.

Scenarios raced through her mind until she found something that would let her survive and maybe win. Sakura took a deep breath. She needed her timing to be perfect; a single second either way could spell disaster.

Sakura leapt up and over the wave of sand as it reached her. In mid-air, her hands were already channeling trace amounts of raw lightning chakra. When she landed, a brief pulse of undirected lightning flowed out of her feet and into the earth.

The thin carpet of sand around her was rendered inert for a moment. It wasn't long, but it was enough.

Gaara hadn't moved since the beginning of the fight. Not a single hair was out of place, and he wasn't even breathing heavily. Unless he was very good at bluffing, he wasn't going to run out of chakra any time soon. Even if there were no other tricks up his sleeves, he could wear Sakura out and corner her.

Time to change the game.

She took her time as she performed the hand seals, feeling the technique come together in her hand. When Kakashi first showed it to her, she had seen it for what it was – a desire to pierce, to hammer through the very firmament and anyone who was standing in the way. Sakura held onto that thought.

Chakra was physical and spiritual energy working in concert. She needed her mind – her soul, for lack of a better word – to be in harmony with the technique she was preparing. Sakura let her anger and fear coalesce and harden, until her ears rang with the force of her rage. She didn't want to win any more. She wanted to make Gaara hurt.

As the ball of lightning formed for the second time, Sakura felt something was different. The chakra was focused beyond anything she'd managed before: dense, bright and sharp. It sucked up huge amounts of chakra, almost bringing her to her knees, and then it stabilised. The flood of chakra became a trickle. This, then, was the finished Chidori. She looked down at her hand and smiled.

A wave of sand rushed outwards from Gaara's position again, ten feet tall. Sakura knew she could flee, but this was her moment, and she was going to enjoy it. Chidori ready at her side, stable and shining, Sakura charged straight for Gaara. Her sandals kicked up drops of water with every step. The sand grew closer and closer, and she timed her strike. The Chidori sliced a hole in the wall of sand and Sakura blasted through, skidding to a halt on an empty patch of grass.

The excited chatter of the crowd grew louder. Sakura glanced at the faces watching. The civilians were on their feet, and even some of the ninja looked impressed. Naruto was cheering at the top of his lungs.

Sakura grit her teeth and stared at her foe.

The fight played out in her head. Gaara was sending out more waves and tendrils of sand, but there were gaps she could slip through, or holes she could cut with the Chidori. Once she got closer, he could bring his sand to bear and grab her, but an illusion would offset that. Gaara wasn't immune to them, and whatever animated his sand for him was fast but dumb. Sakura could probably trick her way into close range, if she tried a few times.

And then she would…

Sakura stopped, lightning roiling in her hand. Was she really planning to kill the Kazekage's son, while he watched from the sidelines, to reach the next round of an exhibition tournament?

She wanted to reach the finals, she really did. But if she kept fighting now, she would guarantee only one chunin walking out of the arena. Her foe wasn't going to back down, not in front of all these people and his own father. The realisation was a bucket of cold water thrown over the fire that filled her.

The anger faded out of her and she let the Chidori fade away. "I'm not going to fight you," she told Gaara.

He looked like he'd been slapped. For the first time in the fight, uncontrolled emotion spilled across his face, twisting it into something inhuman. Spittle sprayed from his lips as he shouted. "We'll kill you! We'll spill your blood and feast on your bones," he screeched. The wave of sand that Sakura had broken was starting to move again as Gaara sent more chakra into it.

Sakura shook her head. "No, you won't. I surrender."

She turned and left as the proctor announced the results to an angry crowd. Gaara's sand moved restlessly but didn't strike at her again, though for a moment she was worried it might. The walk back up to the contestants' box was long and lonely.

Somewhere behind her, Gaara was arguing with the proctor. Sakura put him out of her mind. Gaara would have to wait for Sasuke to come down and fight him next. It was bitter, missing the final, and the weight of her decision was starting to register. At least she'd been able to complete the Chidori. She doubted any of the spectators would underestimate her in the future.

"Wow Sakura, that was amazing!" Naruto shouted as she reached the top of the stairs. "You're so cool and strong." Sasuke was sitting nearby, deep in thought as he stared at the sand-covered arena.

But there was only one member of Team Seven that Sakura needed to hear from. Kakashi held her gaze for a moment and tilted his head the slightest bit. It was as clear a message as he ever gave. I think you made the right decision, it said. Sakura nodded back and some of the tension faded from his shoulders.

She almost flinched as Temari and Kankuro came up to her, standing much closer than she would have liked, but neither of them had weapons out.

"I'm glad you're both alright," Temari said. There was a tightness in her face that was new, perhaps from seeing her brother in real danger. "Thanks for not hurting him."

Sakura patted her on the shoulder. "I don't know what kind of support there is in Sunagakure for him, but he needs a lot of it, and soon."

"Will Sasuke surrender as well?" Temari asked, biting her lip.

"No," Sakura answered. "No, Sasuke has zero give in him. He'll win, or die trying."

"Back in Sunagakure, nobody would dare to challenge Gaara like that," Kankuro said softly. "I don't know how he's going to handle it. And I don't know what Sasuke would have to do to beat him."