AN: No crossover, no power-ups, just trying to write an interesting story. This is actually kind of where I thought the manga was going until they decided to break the fourth wall and make Inner Sakura some kind of split personality or something.

- Divergence not covered directly in the story: Kabuto decides not to randomly out himself as a spy after the prelims.

- Otherwise, everything from before the time-skip is canon. Post time-skip stuff will be incorporated to the extent it satisfies two of: (a) making sense; (b) being cool; or (c) fitting the plot.

Any and all reviews appreciated.


Sakura knew she had fallen into a trap before her foot touched the ground. A brief flash of triumph had shown on Ino's face when she had leapt forward, an unusual lapse of control in a kunoichi who prided herself on gathering information from her enemies rather than giving it away. On the other hand, the revelation came too late for Sakura to avoid landing on the blonde hair scattered about the arena floor, and a little bit of gloating was hardly out of character for Ino at all.

Sakura was able to wrench her foot around for an awkward landing that avoided all but three of the strands of hair on the ground, but she could tell that her efforts would not be enough. Her foot was immediately locked in place, and she could feel foreign chakra working its way up her body and removing her control of it bit by bit. Her momentum carried her left foot forward to land astride two more pieces of the blonde spider web laid out across the arena.

Sakura immediately brought her hands together to perform the replacement technique, but the foreign chakra finished racing up her body and froze her in place with her hands still inches apart. With her feet splayed out unnaturally and her hands still apart, she could be a very lifelike statue of an incompetent kunoichi.

Had she the freedom to do so, Sakura would have been weeping in anger and frustration. Years of training, all of her work to step out of the shadow of Ino Yamanaka and pursue her own path, and she was taken down so easily by some secret technique? Sakura at times had a hard time believing that Sasuke would ever be interested in a clanless nobody like her; she knew for certain that he would never fall for an incompetent clanless nobody. She had tried to prove herself in the Forest of Death by defending her unconscious teammates, and in the end had had to be saved by Sasuke. She had hoped to prove herself in her fight against Ino, but instead had succumbed to an easy defeat. Sakura wanted to rage at the heavens about the injustice of it all, but instead was forced to stand quietly and wait for Ino to finish her off.

"I told you you had no chance against me!" Ino crowed triumphantly, before launching into an extended soliloquoy on the subject of her superiority.

Only the technique locking her in place kept Sakura from furrowing her brows in confusion. Ino liked to talk, but in combat she usually operated with clinical efficiency. It was unlike her to prioritize taunting over victory, unless... Sakura was thankful that the trap she was in forced her to keep a straight face when she realized what was going on. Ino hadn't moved since Sakura was trapped, and she had the slight tic under her right eye that only showed when she was really straining herself. Keeping Sakura under control must be more difficult than Sakura had realized, and the talking was likely a cover for the time Ino needed to set up her next move. Sakura felt hope blossom that she might still have a shot at pulling out a victory.

The foreign chakra in her system prevented Sakura from moving her body, but it didn't do anything to her own chakra. She experimentally gathered her chakra as if she were preparing to climb a tree and directed a portion of it at her right toe, one of the points of origin of the entrapment technique. Nothing happened, and Sakura gradually increased the amount of chakra she was putting into it. After a moment there was a flickering sensation, and then the foreign chakra poured in as strongly as ever. Sakura reduced the amount of chakra she was channeling, and found that there was a specific point where the trap was neutralized at her toe.

Sakura quickly sent the same amount of chakra to both feet, only to find that only the strand of hair at her toe remained neutralized. She would have groaned out loud if she could as she realized that this was going to be more like picking a lock than climbing a tree-each individual strand of hair was apparently going to require a precise level of chakra to be applied to it that would vary from point to point.

Fortunately, Sakura was good at picking locks and excellent at controlling chakra. She started a miniscule amount of chakra swirling about both feet and gradually increased it, making a mental note of when each strand of hair was neutralized. That done, she carefully split her concentration between each foot and maintained the proper level of chakra at each point to cancel the trap. She felt control of her body return to her just as Ino finished up her big speech.

"Why should I bother knocking you out, when I can just have you give up instead?" Ino asked, bringing her hands up in a targeting pose after she finished making hand signs. "Shintenshin no Jutsu!"

Sakura dove to the side as Ino's body fell to the ground. Standing up, Sakura confirmed that her body was still under her own control and had to stifle a sigh of relief. The operation of the mind-body transfer technique was something of an open secret within Konoha. Ino's spirit would be transferred at high speed towards her indicated target, but then would only be able to move at a slow walking pace. It was the greatest tool of infilitration known to the Elemental Nations, but used in combat against a mobile opponent it was a glorified suicide technique.

Sakura jogged briskly around the net of blonde laid out on the arena floor and approached Ino's prone form. She grabbed Ino by her shortened hair and drew her head back before drawing the flat of a kunai across her opponent's throat.

"Winner: Haruno Sakura." The proctor announced quietly, jumping down to the floor to make sure that Ino would recover properly from her final technique.

Sakura released a breath she hadn't realized she was holding as she stood up. She was filled with a quiet sense of pride as she realized she had done it. She, the no-name pink-haired billboard brow, beat Ino Yamanaka in a fight and was going to the finals of the chuunin exam. She was going to have a chance to prove herself in front of Sasuke and in front of everybody in Konoha.

The crowd remained silent, of course. A group of ninja observers was hardly likely to break into applause, but Sakura liked to imagine that as she stood there in the arena, they began to regard her with a certain amount of respect. A respect that-her internal thoughts were interrupted by a shout from above.

"Hey hey, Sakura, I knew you could do it! That was way cooler than that bastard Sasuke! Team Seven all the way!"

Sakura buried her face in her hands, reminded that no moment in her life was so perfect that it couldn't be ruined by her blonde-haired teammate.


"This is awesome, our whole team is going to be promoted for sure!" Naruto announced, scampering around the room Team 7 had commandeered for their post-exam meeting. "You have to teach us some awesome techniques now, sensei!"

Sakura couldn't see Kakashi's expression behind the mask, but she was pretty sure he was smiling. As well he should be, with three students in the finals of the chuunin exam. Sakura wasn't sure exactly what jounin-senseis were expected to accomplish, but having three rookies promoted on their first year had to be pretty rare.

"Well, there's a bit of a problem there." Kakashi said, looking around the room to see that he had his team's attention. Sakura was politely attentive, as always, and Sasuke, though a little wobbly on his feet after his stay in the hospital, was also focused on his sensei.

"Naruto, do you remember the tournament matchups?"

"I'm fighting that bastard Neji! And then, um..." Naruto said, furrowing his brow in concentration. Sakura decided to break in and move things along.

"And then you would fight the winner of the match between Temari and Gaara." Sakura said. "On the other side of the bracket, Sasuke will fight Shikamaru and I will fight Dosu. If we both win, the winner of the fight between us fights the winner of the match between Shino and Kankuro."

"Exactly." Kakashi said, nodding his head in approval. "I can't really train all three of you together since you're so likely to fight each other. I'll be spending this month training Sasuke since there are some things he can only learn from me."

Kakashi paused for a moment to tap the forehead protector covering his Sharingan eye before continuing. "I've arranged a teacher for you and Sakura while I'm gone. You don't have to worry so much about keeping techniques secret from each other since you'd only meet in the finals."

Kakashi looked back as a silhouette of a man appeared in the doorway. "And here he is now. Naruto, Sakura, you're in good hands. I'll see you in a month!"

With that, Kakashi took Sasuke by the shoulder and disappeared in a puff of smoke before his students could object. That hardly prevented Naruto from voicing his displeasure as he saw who his substitute sensei would be.

"What? I'm not taking lessons from some perv-" Naruto's complaint was cut off as the man yanked him into the corner for a whispered conversation out of Sakura's earshot.

With the ease of long practice, Sakura forced down her embarassment at Naruto's behavior and focused on the man in front of her. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, somewhat younger than Kakashi, although that impression could come from the way his jet black hair contrasted with the wild shock of grey hair on Kakashi's head. He was tall, with the slender build so common among Konoha shinobi. Sakura figured he was more likely to be a versatile expert in ninjutsu than a taijutsu powerhouse, although of course appearances could be deceiving. With the sunglasses and the overall air of professional competence he had carried about him as he entered the room, he gave every indication of being a dangerous man.

That impression was undercut somewhat by the frantic argument he was currently engaged in with Naruto, but Sakura wasn't inclined to weigh that too heavily. Naruto had a way of getting under anybody's skin.

The squabbling pair came to some kind of resolution, and Naruto came marching over to stand shoulder to shoulder with Sakura. Sakura could tell from his folded arms and petulant expression that Naruto wasn't happy, but she figured that even he wouldn't want to immediately alienate his only source of training in the month before the final exams. From what she had seen, Neji was an extremely skilled fighter; she didn't think Naruto had much of a chance even with a month of training, but she was certain he would have no chance in a fight agains the Hyuuga boy today. As to her own fight, Sakura was trying not to think about it, and as her temporary instructor made his way forward to introduce himself, she did her best to shove her worries into the back of her mind.

"Hello there! My name is Ebisu," the man said, before pausing to push his sunglasses back up his nose. "I am a special jounin who specializes in training other ninja. I have the honor of being the personal tutor for the grandson of the Hokage, and for the next thirty days I will be teaching you."

He paused in his speech to give the two members of team seven a searching look. Sakura found herself straightening her shoulders and hoping he wouldn't be disappointed with her.

"I know you've both had a long day, so the intense training won't really start until tomorrow." He continued. "But we don't really have any time to waste before the exam, so I'd like to spend the rest of the day getting a sense of your skills."


Sakura wasn't sure what to expect as she and Naruto followed their temporary instructor onto training ground thirty-nine. Located adjacent to the public baths, the training ground was relatively small and featureless. The cleared area was only broken up by a few trees, and a small pond that was fed by some of the same hot springs that were utilized by the baths. It didn't really offer enough room for a knock-down drag-out fight, and Sakura was actually pretty grateful for that. After making her way through the Forest of Death in the morning and fighting Ino that afternoon, the last thing she wanted to see was for her sensei to pull out some stupid bell to fight over.

Fighting seemed to be the last thing on Ebisu's mind as he strode out into the middle of the clearing before turning to his students. "Now, we will begin work on... a chakra control exercise!"

"What!" Naruto shouted, outraged. "I thought you wanted to see what I can do? You're just afraid to fight me and my super-awesome techniques!"

"Naruto." Ebisu interrupted. Somewhat to Sakura's surprise, the blonde quieted down. "I've seen you fight. I've seen your... techniques. What I want to see now is how you learn."

Sakura was touched by his sincerity, and even Naruto looked at Ebisu with something like respect as he continued to speak. "Besides, I think you'll find this exercise quite rewarding."

Finished with his speech, Ebisu turned his back on his students and walked forward, towards the pond... and on top of it. Both Sakura and Naruto watched with wide eyes as he stood and faced them from the center of the pond, just as solidly as if he were standing on solid ground.

"Water-walking is similar to tree-climbing in that you channel chakra to your feet, but the difference is that you must constantly adjust the chakra level you use to match up with the change in the water under your feet. The trick is to get a feel for the water rather than just learning to send some pre-determined amount of chakra to your feet." Ebisu smiled at them. "Sakura, with your impressive performance against the Yamanaka Body Bind, you shouldn't have any trouble with this."

Sakura was heartened by his praise, but Naruto was the first person to try the technique. With a cry of "I'll get this right away, believe it!" he charged forward to the pond, gathered up enough chakra that Sakura could feel it from thirty feet away, and stepped out onto the water. Much to her surprise, his right foot stayed above the pool. However, as he stepped forward his foot slipped out from under him, and Naruto plunged face first into the water.

"Ah! Hot!" Naruto exclaimed as he scrambled back up to shore.

Ignoring the byplay between her teacher and her teammate, Sakura circled around to the other side of the pool of water, considering this new technique. It was nice that Ebisu thought she would be able to do this, but she still wasn't the kind of ninja to jump right into things, especially in a situation like this. She didn't bring any swimwear to change into, and she didn't fancy a damp walk home. Cautiously, she channeled chakra to her right foot and placed it on the water.

She felt some resistance as her foot touched the pool, and gradually shifted her weight onto it. When her foot started to sink down, she quickly channeled more chakra into it until it rested calmly on the water once again. She let out a soft hum of satisfaction when she stood normally, one foot on water and one foot on the land.

Deciding there was nothing for it now but to take the (hopefully) figurative plunge, Sakura brought her left foot around, sending a similar amount of chakra into it and nodding in satisfaction when she stood completely on the water. Keeping her attention focused on her feet, Sakura noticed that there was a type of feedback that reminded her of the feedback she felt trying to escape from Ino's trap. As the water ebbed and flowed beneath her feet she felt her footing start to destabilize a couple of times, but by shifting her chakra output in the way that felt right she found that she was able to maintain her position on top of the water.

After a couple of minutes Sakura felt comfortable enough to take a few experimental steps on the water, and finally jumped up in the air triumphantly, maintaining her footing on the landing.

"I did it!" Sakura exclaimed, finally looking up, only to find that no eyes were on her. Instead, Naruto was on the far side of the training ground, engaged in a furious argument with a white-haired man while Ebisu lay sprawled on the ground nearby.

As Sakura watched, the white-haired man seemed to grow tired of the argument, and leapt onto the back of a-toad?-that had appeared in a puff of smoke. The toad high-tailed it out of the training ground, with Naruto in hot pursuit.

Sakura blinked a couple of times and pinched her arm, but the scene before her remained unchanged. Finally, she decided that whatever was going on, Naruto was more likely to be embarassed than seriously hurt chasing the toad-man around Konoha, and she really ought to look after her teacher. Suiting action to thoughts, she walked over to where Ebisu lay face first on the ground. Rolling him over onto his back, she was pleased to find that he was conscious, although he definitely looked like he had been on the wrong end of a beating.

"Oh, Sakura... meet me for training tomorrow at nine o'clock at training ground nineteen." Ebisu said, coughing. "Also, your first assignment... is to carry me to the hospital."

With his message successfully completed, Ebisu let go of whatever reserve of strength had kept him going and passed out. Sakura folded her arms across her chest and sighed. This exam was definitely not going the way she had hoped.


Sakura entered training ground nineteen the next day carrying five practice kunai, ten practice shuriken, and a healthy dose of righteous fury. She kept her anger in check until she could confirm her suspicions with Ebisu.

"Sakura, right on time. I'm glad your sensei hasn't rubbed off on you too much." Ebisu said, smiling at her. "We can get started right away, since Naruto has found a new instructor."

"The Toad Sage Jiraiya?" Sakura asked.

"Just so." Ebisu replied, regarding her seriously over her sunglasses. Sakura took his silence as an invitation to continue.

"There aren't that many white-haired ninja who can summon toads, you know." She said. "Which means that you should have recognized him right away, and that you would never have gotten into a fight with one of the Legendary Three... unless it was a setup."

"Hm." Ebisu replied, non-commitally. "Kakashi did say you were the smart one."

"So this whole time the plan is that Sasuke gets trained by Sharingan Kakashi, Naruto gets tutored by the legendary Jiraiya, and I get lessons from... you." Sakura said, anger entering her voice. "What the hell?"

"Sakura, you wound me," Ebisu said, placing his hand over his heart. "You should know, the greatest ninja isn't necessarily the greatest teacher. I am the personal tutor for the Hokage's grandson, after all."

"That would be great if I had to fight some academy brat, but I have to fight Dosu!" Sakura said, some fear apparent in her voice despite her best efforts to keep her voice steady. "The guy punched out an Akimichi Meat Tank in the preliminaries, how am I supposed to beat that?"

"Tch, and here I thought you showed some promise in looking underneath the underneath." Ebisu said, still calm. "You shouldn't be asking yourself how tough the honorable grandson is in a fight... you should be asking how I was able to secure the position as his tutor.

"I'm trying to introduce something new here, a ninja as a teaching specialist. Besides the honorable grandson, I have had as my students three individuals who failed the ANBU entrance exam." Ebisu continued, pausing to push his sunglasses up his nose. "I can't tell you their names because all three are now active-duty ANBU."

Sakura stayed silent, not fully convinced but also not willing to further antagonize her only source of training for the next month.

"However tough Dosu may be, I assure you that he wouldn't measure up to the average ANBU examiner." Ebisu said. "Now, are you ready to train or do you have any other complaints?"


Three hours later Sakura was flat on her back, trying to catch her breath. Her lungs were burning, her heart felt like it was going to beat out of her chest, and her muscle cramps had muscle cramps.

It had become clear early on that Ebisu was not going to spend a month teaching her some kind of advanced ninjutsu. Instead, the morning had been a combination of Sakura's least favorite moments at the academy. He had her spend the morning running, jumping, performing pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, and basically exhausting herself.

When they'd taken a break for ninjutsu practice Ebisu kept the academy style focus. He had her perform the basic three techniques, over and over and over again, until Sakura started fumbling them from lack of chakra. Then it was back to physical exercise.

At this moment her temporary teacher stood over her, his smiling face barely visible from where she had collapsed. "Ready for your lunch break?"

"G'way..." Sakura didn't have the breathe to tell Ebisu exactly how she was feeling, but he seemed to get the idea, as he unsealed a bottle of water from a scroll on his belt and offered it to her to drink. Somewhat to her surprise, once she had finished the drink her cramping started to subside, and she felt like she might actually be able to walk back to the village for lunch.

"It's a mineral supplement, designed to let the hard working kunoichi keep working hard." Ebisu explained. "You should probably pick up your own at some point."

With that, he turned and walked off the training field. Sakura scrambled to her feet, stifling a pained groan as she did so, and followed him as best she could. Fortunately, the training ground they had chosen was not too far from Konoha's restaurant district, and they soon found themselves in front of one of the Akimichi's barbeque joints. Ebisu led Sakura inside and purchased access to the all-you-can-eat buffet for both of them.

Sakura took advantage of the buffet to put together a salad that she was looking forward to digging into before Ebisu dumped a plateful of meat on top of it.

"Hey! I can't eat that stuff, I'm on a diet." She exclaimed indignantly.

"You need to eat to keep up your energy." Ebisu said, smiling indulgently. "If you're that worried about it, we can up the intensity of the exercise in the afternoon to help burn off the calories."

"No, no need for that." Sakura decided that discretion was the better part of valor on this point. Besides, she was pretty hungry.

Ebisu was content to allow Sakura to eat for a while, or at least aware enough to know that Sakura wouldn't pay attention to him until she had finished inhaling about half of her meal. Eventually she slowed down as her body's demand for nutrients quieted to a dull roar, and Ebisu began peppering her with theoretical questions.

Small group tactics, chakra theory, explosive tag load-Ebisu hit all of the major areas of ninja book learning. Fortunately for Sakura, his questions weren't any harder than the questions from the written portion of the exam, and she hadn't needed to cheat to finish those. She was pretty confident that she was doing well at the impromptu quiz when Ebisu leaned forward and pulled her forehead protector down over her eyes. When she protested and made to push it up on her forehead he leaned forward and held her hands flat on the table.

"Last question for lunch time, Sakura... how many forehead protectors are in this restaurant?"

Sakura's mind raced as she tried to piece together a mental picture of the restaurant. The barbeque restaurant was a popular destination for ninja and civilian alike, as it was known for providing large quantities of pretty good food for pretty good prices. She could feel beads of sweat forming on her forehead as she tried to combine her memories of walking in the door, heading through the buffet, walking to their booth, and surveying the room as she ate. Finally she was ready to give Ebisu his answer just as she heard the jingling of the entry bell.


"Close, but not quite. You missed two." Ebisu said, releasing her hands. Sakura made no move to remove her impromptu blindfold.

"There's you, me, the two in the booth behind us, six sitting in the corner, and two at the bar." Sakura explained.

"You forgot the two at the table by the door." Ebisu replied.

"They were finishing up when you pulled down my hitaite, and I heard them leave after you asked the question." Sakura said.

"Hmm. Not bad." Ebisu said, something like respect in his tone. "But you really should answer the question right away."


After a six days of training, Sakura was walking home from her session with Ebisu with... well, she didn't have enough energy to have a spring in her step, but she was feeling pretty good. Ebisu had kept up the furious pace of training, and each day she had found herself able to do a little bit more, and finish her tasks a little bit faster. She was still not sure how she was going to win her fight, but she was at least confident that she was getting some good training out of the exam. Sakura was planning what to do with her upcoming day off when a familiar voice interrupted her thoughts.

"Hey hey, Sakura, how are you doing?" Sakura turned to see a familiar orange ball of energy headed her way. She smiled, happy to see one of her teammates for the first time in a while.

"I just finished training, so I'm feeling pretty good." Sakura replied. A thought crossed her mind, and she stopped to think for a moment. She hadn't had a chance to talk to anybody her age much this week, and she was curious about what training with a legendary ninja was like... even if finding out was going to be troublesome. "Actually, I was about to get dinner, if you want to come along?"

"Awesome! It'll be like a-" Naruto began, before Sakura interrupted him with a bop to the back of the head.

"It'll be like two friends catching up over a meal." She instructed him firmly. "Don't push it."

"Yeah, yeah." Naruto grumbled. His natural exuberance couldn't remain suppressed for long, though, and he was soon scampering ahead of Sakura, jabbering on in stream of consciousness mode about perverts, training, and sometimes both. Somehow the two of them wound up settling down to eat at Naruto's favorite ramen stand.

"... and anyways, I'm going to be summoning some really strong toads next week, they'll help me kick Neji's butt for sure!" Naruto said, before pausing to catch his breath, giving Sakura an opportunity to get a word in.

"That's-wait, he let you sign the toad contract?" Sakura asked, shocked. They learned in the academy about summons animals, of course, but summoning contracts were quite rare, and access to them jealously guarded. If Jiraiya had allowed Naruto to summon the toads, it indicated that he was interested in more than a one-month training commitment.

"Yeah, my name's right under the Fourth Hokage, just like my face is going to be right next to him on the mountain." Naruto said, puffing out his chest, before deflating slightly and scratching the back of his head. "Just as soon as I figure out how to summon something besides those stupid tadpoles."

The two teammates lapsed into a companionable silence for a while as they tucked into their meals. Sakura usually would avoid such greasy food, but she had decided to take Ebisu's advice to heart and put her diet on hold for a while. After a moment Naruto seemed to realize that he had been monopolizing the conversation thus far.

"Ne, Sakura, what has that closet pervert been teaching you?" He asked.

"Mostly a lot of physical training and focusing on the basics." Sakura replied, overlooking the insult to her temporary sensei. She had long since realized that Naruto seemed to regard all the males of Konoha as perverts for some reason. Sometimes she was inclined to agree, but unfortunately she wasn't in a position to beat the love of pornography out of the ninja of the leaf... yet.

"That sounds really boring." Naruto replied.

"Hey! Well, it kind of is. I think I'm getting stronger, but I don't know how I'm going to win my fight." Sakura said.

"You'll figure something out." Naruto said, always the optimist. "You were the smartest person in our class. Well, except for Shikamaru. And maybe Shino, that guy seemed like he was really sharp. And-"

"Thanks, Naruto." Sakura interrupted before Naruto could cross the line from a backhanded compliment to outright insult. She started to comment on his confidence in her, but held back when he suddenly glared over his shoulder.

"You." Naruto said. Sakura hadn't heard such outright contempt from her teammate before. She was confused until she turned to see the grey-haired medic that they had befriended during the earlier stage of the exam.

"Yes, me." Kabuto said, raising his hands as if in surrender. "I just wanted to congratulate both of you on making the finals."

"Well, it just goes to show what you can accomplish when you don't quit." Naruto replied.

"Yeah, I wanted to talk to you about that," Kabuto said, "but I only just got out of the hospital."

"Wait, what?" Naruto asked, his kind-hearted nature overcoming his anger.

"Well, before we met up with you my team got into a pretty rough fight. I was able to heal up the surface wounds, but I couldn't really do anything for the internal bleeding." Kabuto explained, looking slightly sheepish. "They said if I had waited any longer to see a real medic I probably would have died."

"Wait," Sakura jumped in, "if you were so badly hurt why did you keep going?"

"Even with his life in danger, he didn't quit on his team." Naruto interrupted, totally won over. "I knew you had the will of fire!"

"It wasn't really that noble," Kabuto said, scratching the back of his head and settling into a seat at their table. "I just didn't want to take the stupid exam again. I was hoping there wouldn't be a preliminary round this year."

Sakura nodded in acknowledgement, then decided to take advantage of Kabuto's presence. "Any advice for the finals?"

"I can definitely tell you what not to do." Kabuto said, spreading his hands helplessly. "Seriously though, you guys should be fine.

"Naruto, I've heard that Jiraiya is a little eccentric, but he knows what he's doing when it comes to training." Kabuto continued. "And Sakura, I heard you talking a little bit before, it sounds like your sensei knows what the judges are looking for. It doesn't really matter if you win your fights, just that you impress the judges."

"So I don't even need to win one fight?" Sakura asked, feeling a sense of relief. From what she had seen from her opponent in the Forest of Death and the preliminaries, she had a feeling that all of her training so far only had her in the foothills of the mountain she would need to climb to beat him.

"Yes. I won a match in the finals once, and didn't get promoted, while one of my teammates lost his only fight and made chuunin. Although..." Kabuto hesitated, hesitant to broach an unpleasant topic. "You're still in the arena with somebody from another village, it's a little risky to trust your safety to their sense of restraint."

"Hey, don't talk like that. Sakura is going to wipe the floor with that mummy!" Naruto announced. For some reason, the certainty in Naruto's tone made Sakura feel a little more confident, even though she knew Naruto had no real basis for his statement.

"Yeah, I'm not going to give up just like that." Sakura said, trying to project some confidence.

"Sure, sure." Kabuto said, although from the understanding expression in his eyes Sakura didn't think she had fooled him at all. "You know, Sakura, your chakra control is probably good enough that you could learn some medical techniques. I could show you some tricks before the exam, if you like."

Looking into Kabuto's friendly face, Sakura felt a reassuring sense of companionship. It was good to know that, when it came down to it, Konoha ninja could look to each other for a helping hand.