A/N: As always, I appreciate hearing what worked for you, what didn't work, and why.

ooOoo

Sakura opened her eyes to see that her vision was still filled with white. She began to worry for a moment that she was still on the battlefield until her nose was assaulted by the familiar tang of the antiseptics used in Konoha's hospital. Taking a deep breath, Sakura calmed down and did her best to assess her situation. She wasn't in any pain, which was either a good sign or a very bad sign. She attempted to sit up to make a visual check of her extremities, and began to panic once more when she found herself unable to move.

"Ah, careful there, Sakura." She heard Kabuto's familiar voice, and felt a cool sensation on the back of her neck. She sat up and saw Kabuto stepping back, the glow of medical chakra around his hand fading away as he did so. She was on one of the hospital's new medical tables, and a quick check of the room showed that Kakashi was the only other person there. Sakura felt a brief flash of disappointment at Sasuke's absence, followed by concern about his health.

"What-" Sakura coughed, clearing her throat before she continued. "What happened?"

"Well, I'd say you've learned a valuable lesson about taunting your enemies." Kakashi said, while Sakura gratefully accepted a glass of water from Kabuto. "But I won't be sure until the next time you're in that situation."

"I didn't expect him to blow himself up." Sakura protested.

"The key to survival in this business is to expect the unexpected." Kakashi replied.

"Tsch, fine." Sakura said, waving away the criticism. "But seriously, what happened? Is Sasuke ok? Am I ok?"

"If I may?" Kabuto asked, continuing after Kakashi gave him a nod. "Sakura, you were brought here suffering from serious injuries consistent with extreme concussive force. Fortunately Kakashi got you here quickly, and the Hokage herself participated in your healing. It has now been two days since the operation-you have been fine physically since the it was complete, but you needed to rest and recover. As to your teammate-"

"Sasuke is out training." Kakashi said.

Sakura couldn't quite keep a frown off of her face. It would have been nice if Sasuke had been considerate enough to check in on her at the hospital. She would never be-and never had been-so callous when a teammate was recovering from an injury. With an effort she put the emotion aside for now and focused on finding out how the mission had concluded.

"But what happened with the fight after the explosion? Did we win?" She asked.

Kakashi paused before replying, casting a meaningful glance at Kabuto. The medic nodded at him before excusing himself and leaving the room.

"Really, sensei?" Sakura asked. "He's the Hokage's apprentice."

"Still, the best way to keep a secret is by not telling it to other people." Kakashi said. "I hope you never have to learn that lesson the hard way... As to the rest of the battle, there's not much to tell. After Takao blew himself up, the blonde guy took off."

"He got away?" Sakura asked.

"Heh, not exactly. Actually, if he stuck around, we probably all would have died." Kakashi said. "He pretty much dictated the entire course of our fight, and when he decided he felt like leaving there wasn't much I could do about it. It's kind of embarassing, really."

Kakashi undercut the severity of his admission when he concluded by pulling out one of his little orange books and flipping it open to a bookmarked page. There was a moment of silence, broken only by the occasional giggle, before Sakura ran out of patience.

"What the hell? Who was that guy?" She asked.

"That," Kakashi said, somehow managing to produce a serious and sober tone without looking up from his book, "is a good question. The Hokage will be explaining some things to you in our briefing tomorrow."

ooOoo

"Akatsuki." Tsunade said, sighing. "It's a group of missing ninja that have been underbidding the major villages for mid-level missions over the last few years."

"The villages just let that happen?" Sasuke asked, obviously skeptical.

Sakura, Sasuke, and Kakashi were gathered in front of Tsunade's desk in the Hokage's office. Sasuke had hardly acknowledged Sakura's presence when she entered the office, and she had responded by pointedly fixing her attention away from her teammate. Tsunade looked weary under the Hokage's hat, likely due to her insistence on maintaining an active medical practice while also managing Konoha.

"Even for a major village, taking out a group of S-rank ninja is no easy feat." Tsunade explained. "Besides, groups like that usually wind up collapsing under the weight of their own egos."

"Groups like this?" Sakura asked, alarmed. It was bad enough to run into a single S-rank ninja. The idea that there could be multiple groups of them running around the elemental countries was a little terrifying.

"Sure, this isn't the first time a bunch of powerful ninja thought they could band together and change the world. Tokei-dai, Aoi Taiyou, Niwatori no Kyoudai... they all wound up taking themselves out soon enough." Tsunade said. "In the meantime, if Akatsuki wants to hire out pairs of S-rank nin for the price of a team of chunin, it's no real problem for us. But now this guy is stirring up trouble in Grass Country..."

"It could have been a personal project." Kakashi said. "There was no sign of a partner, and powerful ninja do start to develop their own little quirks and obsessions."

"Maybe." Tsunade replied. "But to me this means that either Akatsuki as a whole is trying to destabilize one of our allies, or the infighting within the group could provoke another major Shinobi World War. What a pain in the ass."

Tsunade turned and looked longingly at the sake service set on the shelf behind her, before shaking her head and reaching into a drawer beneath her desk. She pulled out a form and wrote on it briefly, signing it with a flourish and handing it over to Kakashi.

"But that's a problem for another day." Tsunade continued. "In the mean time, I am accepting Kakashi's suggestion that he be transferred away from the jutsu theft squad for the time being."

Sakura rocked back, shocked at the idea that they were losing their leader. Before she could gather her thoughts and voice her complaints, Sasuke spoke up.

"We barely survived our last mission, do you expect us to do better without Kakashi in charge?"

"Believe it or not, I send out many teams that are able to accomplish their missions even without Sharingan Kakashi around." Tsunade replied. "As chunin of Konoha you have to be able to perform in the field even without your teacher there to hold your hand."

"I have been watching you progress over these last few months," Kakashi spoke up, his tone unusually serious, "and I'm confident you can handle yourselves."

He paused for a moment in thought, before flashing them a smile and a thumbs up. "Just don't pick any fights with S-rank ninja, and you should be fine."

"But, a two man team," Sakura said, finally recovering from her shock and latching on to any argument she could make against that move, "that would be dangerously under strength."

"We will of course be adding a third member to lead your team." Tsunade said. "He's transferring over from ANBU, so I expect things to continue running smoothly."

Tsunade gestured towards the door, and a black-haired shinobi walked into the room. Sakura was surprised to see that he was around the same age as she and Sasuke. He had pale skin, and delicate features. Something about his placid demeanor and friendly expression set off warning bells in the back of her mind.

"My name is Sai." He said, before smiling and bowing in their direction. Sakura noted that both actions conformed precisely to the rules of etiquette, and both were performed in a rather mechanical fashion. "Please treat me kindly."

ooOoo

Sakura followed Sasuke after they were dismissed from the briefing. Her taciturn teammate didn't say anything to her or do anything to acknowledge her presence. They traveled together in silence until Sakura moved to follow him into the Uchiha district, at which point she found herself in a face to face confrontation.

"What are you doing?" He asked.

"We need to talk." Sakura said. She was tired of tiptoeing around Sasuke and his moods. Confronting him now might make things worse in the short run, but she just couldn't stand the current situation any longer.

"We have nothing to talk about." Sasuke said. His expression may as well have been carved from stone, but Sakura could tell from the tension in his stance that Sasuke was agitated.

"This is exactly what we have to talk about!" Sakura exclaimed. "You're so angry all the time."

Sasuke said nothing, and did not move from his position. Sakura gave up on waiting for him to explain himself after a moment.

"I've been nothing but nice to you. I even stopped asking you out for dates." She said. "And still you give me the cold shoulder. It doesn't make sense."

Sasuke snorted at her statement, and Sakura glared at him in response.

"Well?" She asked. "You want to explain to me what's going on?"

"As if you don't know." Sasuke said, shaking his head. He seemed to lose interest in keeping Sakura out of his neighborhood, and turned to walk farther into the district. Sakura followed behind, unwilling to let this go.

As she followed him, Sakura took a look around. She had, of course, heard of the Uchiha district-the area of Konoha set aside for the use of the Uchiha clan, and now occupied only by its last surviving member-but it was something different to see in person. She could almost feel the weight of tradition pressing down on her from all sides. If Sasuke had grown up in this kind of environment, she could understand why he was so driven. For the first time, Sakura was grateful that her father was nothing more than a successful baker and her mother a happy housewife. She had always been resentful of the advantages enjoyed by the clan kids, but walking through the silent neighborhood made her appreciate the cheerful memories of her civilian childhood.

Sasuke led her to a training ground, where he settled into a simple round of target practice, ignoring her presence. After he had been at it for five minutes Sakura came to the conclusion that he really was just going to wait for her to go away. She had other plans.

"Are you going to explain this to me?" Sakura asked. "I have no idea what I did that made you so mad."

Sasuke paused in his throwing practice, turning to glare at her. Sakura met his gaze calmly, refusing to look away. After a moment he seemed to come to a decision. He looked over her should into the distance as he began to speak.

"You remember my ambition?" He asked.

"Yes," Sakura said, nodding. "To rebuild your clan and kill a certain man."

"The man I must kill," Sasuke continued, "murdered my entire family. In skill, he stands as far above Kakashi as Kakashi is above us."

Sakura chewed her lip as she processed his words. Training to kill such an opponent would be the work of a lifetime.

"Maybe... maybe you should rebuild your clan, first," Sakura said, blushing slightly and looking down at her hands, "then worry about revenge."

"The man could return at any time-I won't be safe until he's dead." Sasuke said, and then his expression hardened. "Even if that weren't an issue, I will not have any of my children born under the same sun that shines on that man."

Sakura shivered slightly at the expression on Sasuke's face. Gone was the sullen anger he had borne towards her over the last few months. Now she was seeing the pure determination and resolve that had driven him to the top of the class, chasing a phantom. It was a humbling thing to witness-unfortunately, it still didn't answer her question.

"But what does this have to do with me?" She asked.

Sasuke snapped out of his distraction and fixed her with an angry glare before continuing. "Given my situation, the usual path of development was too slow. That's why I decided to train under somebody who was more willing to... push the envelope."

"Orochimaru." Sakura whispered, shocked as she put it together.

"Exactly." Sasuke said, nodding. "He is obsessed with the sharingan, and with finding new bodies to take over for his own use. He would train me, working to make me strong enough to serve as his ultimate host, while I tried to become even stronger. At some point he would be satisfied with his efforts and try to take my body. At the end of that day, one of us would be an S-ranked ninja, and the other would be dead."

Sasuke paused for a moment, lost in thought. Sakura stared at him in horror as she tried to decipher what he had been thinking.

"That plan..." She said, unsure how to continue.

"That plan, of course," Sasuke interrupted, "was blown to hell when you kept me from leaving Konoha."

"That plan was insane!" Sakura said. "The chances of failure... the chance of death..."

"To be a shinobi is to walk with death." Sasuke said. "You know this. I knew the odds when I made my choice. It was the only way to reach a level where I could hope to succeed in time to... but it doesn't matter now. You took that choice away from me."

"Good!" Sakura exclaimed. "What, did you expect me to apologize? I took a crazy choice away from you, and I'm proud of it. Even if you aren't quite as strong as you could be, you're alive, and sane. And you have teammates! Who says you have to fight this man on your own?"

Sasuke laughed at that, a cold, derisive laughter that sent a chill down Sakura's spine.

"Teammates?" sasuke asked. "In a fight with that man, you'd be nothing more than a hostage. I would need more than a glorified decoy to help me-"

Sakura's hand flashed out to slap Sasuke across the face almost without conscious thought. He leaned back out of reach, then stepped forward into a quick two punch combination. Sakura dodged to the side of the first punch, and deflected the follow-up. She replied with a knee strike aimed at Sasuke's stomach, which he recovered in time to catch in both arms, before shoving her away from him.

Sakura recovered her balance and paused to take stock of the situation. Her training with Kakashi had apparently been of more use than she had realized at the time-although Sasuke was still faster than her, she was now able to see and react to his movements-unfortunately, Sasuke was still faster, stronger, and had a longer reach than she did.

Sakura acted to remedy one of those problems as Sasuke attacked with a roundhouse kick. She bent over backwards to avoid his attack, placing her hands against the ground as she did so. When she straightened back up, she was holding a staff overhead that she brought down towards Sasuke in a mighty chop.

Sasuke caught the attack on both arms, grunting at the impact. When Sakura flexed her chakra through the staff to send the end of it whipping down towards him, Sasuke moved his head to the side almost before it began to move. Starting in surprise, she glanced up and saw that he had activated the sharingan. The momentary pause was all the opening he needed to press the attack.

Despite the advantage of having a weapon against an unarmed opponent, Sakura was immediately put on the defensive. Her every attack was anticipated and led to a stinging counterattack, while even a purely defensive posture allowed Sasuke to sneak in the occasional body blow. Finally, Sakura backpedaled away from his latest combination and opened up some distance before putting a last ditch plan into action.

Sakura swung the staff down into an uppercut, a strike patently incompatible with the length of the weapon. As she had hoped, Sasuke anticipated the opening that would be created when the staff struck the ground and moved to take advantage. That left him wide open when the staff smoothly passed through the ground-aided by her chakra, and came up between his legs in a vicious strike. At the last second Sasuke was able to bend his leg slightly and absorb most of the force of the blow on his inner thigh, but she saw an unmistakable shudder of pain race through his body on impact.

Sakura's moment of triumph was short lived, as Sasuke responed by drawing a kunai and advancing towards her with blood in his eye. She was as shocked as he was when both of them were suddenly taken to the ground by an unknown attacker. Sakura looked up from her position flat on her back to see that she was pinned to the ground by a dog made out of... ink? A glance to the side showed that Sasuke was in a similar predicament.

"Now, now, is this any way for teammates to treat each other?" Sai asked, drawing her attention to where he stood, on the edge of the training ground. He was smiling, but his eyes were as flat and cold as ever. "Surely we should all be friends?"

Sasuke responded by spitting a fireball directly up at the wolf pinning him to the ground, standing as it dissolved into a shower of ink. Sakura followed suit, dragging a palm covered in medical chakra across the wolf's neck. She stood up and watched as Sasuke marched forward to glare at Sai.

"I treat people how I want." Sasuke said. "Don't think you're better than me because you landed one cheap shot."

"Don't worry Sasuke," Sai said, his smile unchanging, "that's not why I think I'm better than you."

Their new teammate disappeared in a puff of smoke before either of them could say anything in response.

"Bastard." Sasuke muttered.

Sakura couldn't help it. After the emotional roller coaster she had been through today, seeing Sasuke pout-there really wasn't any other word for it-pushed her over the edge. She began to giggle, then chuckle, and finally bent over laughing.

"What-" Sasuke asked, but Sakura held up her hand as she got the giggles under control.

"You... Naruto..." Was all she was able to get out, but she could see that Sasuke understood what she was getting at.

"I," he said, putting on his most stoic air, "am nothing like that idiot."

Seeing the small but genuine smile that appeared on Sasuke's face after his declaration made Sakura feel like everything was going to be all right.

ooOoo

Sakura showed up at the Uchiha compound bright and early the next day. While Sasuke wasn't exactly pleased to see her, he did hear her out on her proposal that they train together. The fight they had just had showed, to her mind at least, that they were evenly matched enough to learn from sparring from each other. Sakura wasn't sure if Sasuke agreed with her, or if he just figured that she wouldn't leave without a fight one way or the other. Either way, a new tradition of morning spars was born that left Sakura with some bumps and bruises and a much better feeling about her team.

Sakura also spent a significant amount of time training on her own, focused primarily on her chakra control. It was her one area of real strength, so she wanted to get the most benefit out of it that she could. She really wanted to eliminate that last hand sign from the replacement technique, but even she couldn't stay focused on a single technique for more than an hour or so at a time. The rest of the time she spent refining her earth based techniques and working on producing fire natured chakra.

Sakura had mastered many techniques that allowed her to misdirect opponents, but very few that would let her put an opponent down. What was worse, her direct combat techniques were very short range, which was a dangerous place to be with people like Rock Lee running around. Also, while she didn't share Naruto's obsession with explosions, it would be cool to be able to spit fireballs at people.

Sasuke proved surprisingly helpful as a sparring partner. Though he still wasn't particularly nice, he was no longer so thoroughly cold and stand-offish. He offered advice when he saw something she could improve on, and he had a depth of experience with weapons that made him a particularly valuable asset in developing her "transforming weapon style" of fighting built around shaping weapons with earth chakra. Of course, his sharingan eyes let him anticipate changes to her weapons before they happened, giving him a major advantage in their spars. Sasuke claimed it let her simulate fighting against a much faster opponent, but Sakura suspected he just liked to rack up decisive victories.

Over the course of the month they built up, not exactly a friendship, but a level of cameraderie that had been sorely lacking during their time on the jutsu theft squad. Sakura was even able to finagle a couple of fire techniques out of Sasuke, though the endeavor ultimately proved a little depressing. Even at a fairly efficient conversion ratio, producing a decent size grand fireball drained most of her chakra capacity. She could crank out a second one, but the effort would leave her pretty much unconscious on her feet. Sasuke, on the other hand, could throw them around like kunai.

Rather than dwell on her lack of chakra, however, Sakura focused on turning her chakra control into a practical advantage. She treasured the memory of the first time she turned the tables on Sasuke by using a seal-free replacement, turning certain defeat into overwhelming victory. Although Sasuke didn't repeat the mistake of ignoring the tell-tall chakra flare of an incoming replacement because her hands were full, Sakura knew that anybody who she met in real combat would not get a similar chance to learn from their mistakes.

All in all, it was a much more cheerful pair of Team 7 alumni that met up with their new commander to leave on their mission. Sakura was a little worried about the loss in combat power they suffered with Kakashi's departure, but she was also hopeful about their new leader. Sai seemed relatively composed and normal, and she was curious what it would be like to work under somebody who wasn't as eccentric as her jounin sensei.

ooOoo

Hideki Ishida ran through the fields of Grass Country. He hoped he was running toward Amegakure and not toward the unforgiving mountains of Iwagakure, but at the moment he was more focused on what he was running from than what he was running to.

Hideki never was much of a planner. A brilliant technique developer and solid tactical mind, yes, but not a real long term thinker. His impulsive nature had lead him into an affair with his teammate's wife and then, when he was caught, with a dead friend and a line across his forehead protector. Ever since then he lived from day to day, mostly working to keep as much space as possible between himself and people who were trying to kill him. Right now that meant running as hard as he could away from the team of Rock ninja on his tail.

His running briefly came to an end as he broke through a line of trees that concealed a steep dropoff into a deep ravine. He felt a moment of shock as he flew through the air, landing in an uncontrolled tumble that a judicious application of chakra turned into a controlled tumble just as he reached level ground.

A quick look around showed that the situation was grim. The steep sides of the ravine were no obstacle to anybody who had mastered the tree climbing exercise, but the bare dirt of the slopes offered no protection for a ninja on the run. Hideki's options were further reduced when a pair of black-clad figures landed on the floor of the ravine in front of him and squared up for a fight. It looked like he was done running.

ooOoo

Up above, hidden behind the trees at the edge of the ravine, a trio of Konoha nin watched the fight going on below. Sakura had a look of open fascination on her face as she strained to take in the action below. Sai's expression was as bland as ever. Sasuke's expression was similarly blank, but the whirling tomoe of his activated sharingan betrayed his interest in the battle taking place.

"I wasn't sure we could pull it off," Sakura said, voice pitched low to avoid any chance of being overheard, "but it's a lot more fun to watch new techniques when they aren't aimed at me."

The technique theft squad had run across Hideki Ishida's camp site several days earlier, surprisingly close to the border with Rock Country. Rather than launch a straightforward attack, Sai had Sakura and Sasuke shadow their quarry while he went off on his own. It took him two days to find a team of Rock hunter ninja, at which point they put their plan into effect.

Sakura and Sasuke transformed into reasonable facsimiles of the Rock team Sai described, and began chasing Hideki. In the mean time, Sai transformed into a copy of the missing nin and lead the Rock team a merry chase. Working out the timing for the meetup had been tricky, but in Sakura's opinion the whole effort was worth it to be able to watch their quarry go all out without having to put herself in harm's way.

Sai grunted in acknowledgement of the compliment, and the trio resumed watching the fight in silence. Sakura had at first found Sai's all business all the time attitude a refreshing change from Kakashi's antics, and although it was starting to wear on her a little bit, it was nice to know that he was completely focused on accomplishing their mission. Down below the missing nin was weaving through a barrage of kunai and shuriken, launching a mud bullet that collided with a log left behind by a Rock nin's substitution technique. Sakura was surprised when the log burst into flame.

"Was that a multi-element technique?" She asked. "I didn't think Ishida had a bloodline."

"Not a bloodline." Sasuke commented without taking his eyes off the battle. "It's some kind of super-heated mud technique. I can copy it."

The trio continued to watch as the fight drew to a close. Somewhat to Sakura's surprise, the Rock nin were able to subdue the missing nin without killing him.

Sai stood up once the fight ended, then stepped forward. He looked like he was about to leap down into the ravine, but checked himself and turned to address his team.

"Well, that was fun." Sai said. "Time to go kill them all."

Sai spoke with the same tone of voice most people would use in ordering groceries, so it took a moment for Sakura to realize what he had said. When the penny dropped, she bit back a surprised yelp and instead grabbed Sai by the collar and yanked him towards her.

"What? Are you crazy?" She asked, her voice quiet but intense. "Killing missing nin is one thing, but we can't just start slaughtering Rock ninja."

"We have no choice." Sai replied, unruffled. "Once they interrogate the target they will learn that they have been tricked, which will increase the chance that Rock will deduce our existence. Secrecy is our primary objective."

"They never saw us." Sakura replied. "They won't know-"

"They don't have to know." Sasuke interrupted. "Remember what Kakashi taught us: a suspicious enemy is a dangerous enemy."

Sakura chewed her lip, frustrated. It was one thing to kill a hardened criminal, it was something else entirely to kill a ninja in good standing with another village, a ninja who had never done anything wrong other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Looking past Sai, she saw that the Rock team had moved up out of the ravine, setting up camp on the other side. It looked like they were getting ready for a field interrogation.

"We don't really need to kill all of them... just prevent them from conducting an interrogation, right?" Sakura asked. "And make sure they never see you guys?"

"What are you getting at?" Sai asked. He had been around Sakura long enough to learn that her ideas were worth hearing out.

"I'm thinking we can finally take advantage of all those stupid rumors Kakashi has been spreading." Sakura replied. "Can you draw something that flies?"

ooOoo

Learning to fight in the forest forced ninja of the Leaf to develop the habit of looking up. Rock ninja, trained in their mountain home, developed a stronger habit of checking the ground below. Of course, in the relatively open grassland in which the Rock team was making camp, even the most paranoid ninja wouldn't spend much time watching out for aerial assaults. At least, that was what they would tell the review board.

A thin whistling sound from above was the only warning, and before any of the Rock nin could react there was a tremendous crash. The nin in charge of interrogation was thrown back by the force of the impact, and a cloud of dust rose up around the location of their prisoner. After a moment the dust cleared to reveal a pink haired girl with a Konoha forehead protector, crouched over the body of the ill-fated Hideki Ishida. She stood and tossed off a cheerful salute before melting into the ground.

Across the ravine, Sakura smiled, pleasantly surprised at the durability of her clone. She hadn't expected it to hold together long enough to make it underground before dispersing, and she didn't envy the Rock ninja the task of figuring out exactly what had happened.

ooOoo

Back in the village, Sakura found herself thrust into the unfamiliar role of public speaking shortly after their return. She had been fascinated by the multi-element technique ever since Sasuke demonstrated it for the first time, using half of his chakra to create a ball about the size of his fist. She still remembered the fierce pride she felt when she finally cracked the secret of the technique. What caught her by surprise was the enthusiastic reaction of the Hokage when the reported in, which ultimately led to this gathering.

Sakura stood in the center of Team Seven's usual training ground, facing a loose gathering of ninja. She recognized the examiner from the second round of the chuunin exam, and of course, Kakashi and the Hokage, but the other four observers were people she did not know. Considering that attendance at this little gathering was only by invitation of the Hokage, they were likely pretty high up in the village hierarchy.

She took a deep breath to settle her nerves as she surveyed the group before her one more time. Kakashi gave her a wink as her glance passed over his face, which she decided to take as a sign to begin.

"As you all know, we were fortunate enough to run across a Rock hunter team subduing a missing nin." Sakura said. Several of the members of her audience quirked up the side of their mouths in appreciation, the ninja equivalent of polite laughter. "The first thing I wanted to show you guys was the capture technique they used, if I could have a volunteer?"

"I'll help you out." Anko announced, skipping forward. She clutched her hands together at the waist and fluttered her eyelashes at Sakura. "Please treat me kindly, professor."

Sakura pushed down with the ease of long practice the flash of jealousy aroused by the effect of Anko's pose on her... assets. Clearing her throat, she kept her tone professional.

"It's really a variant on some techniques we've seen before." Sakura said. Forming a hand seal, she channeled a significant amount of chakra into the ground, liquefying the ground beneath Anko's feet. The special jounin only sank into the ground about half an inch before she channeled chakra into her feet, stabilizing her footing.

"I have to say, this doesn't seem too dangerous, prof-oof" Anko said, rudely interrupted by the dirt that leapt up off the ground, encasing her in a sphere of earth. After a moment, her head popped out of the prison, but it was clear that Sakura was in control.

"As you can see, once the user has super-saturated the ground with their chakra, it allows them to use earth techniques with unusual speed." Sakura said, smiling sweetly at her test subject. "Depending on how much chakra your opponent has to spare, they could turn the whole battlefield into one big booby trap, so be careful."

Sakura formed another hand seal, and the sphere of earth receded, leaving Anko standing free on solid ground once more. She was also perfectly clean, which Sakura took some pride in both as a demonstration of her kind nature and of her perfect chakra control.

"This next technique is the reason you're all here. We picked it up from the missing nin, who must have been some kind of genius." Sakura said. "For this one, I'll use the straw dummy."

The technique still required every bit of control Sakura could muster, so she formed the full series of six hand seals before spitting a ball of mud at the dummy. Her audience looked unmoved until the dummy burst into flame, causing more than a few raised eyebrows.

"As you can see, it's a poor man's combined element technique. The advantage is that no bloodline is required to perform it." Sakura said. "In theory, it could also allow for any combination of elements to be fused together. The disadvantage is that the chakra control requirements are pretty extreme."

"Hey, hey, show me those hand signs again. I bet I can pull it off." Anko interjected. "My teachers always said I had a talent for setting things on fire."

Sakura kept her face composed as she demonstrated the hand signs and instructed Anko to channel both earth and fire chakra simultaneously. If she felt a warm glow of satisfaction when the technique blew up a few feet from Anko's face, she kept it well hidden. Besides, she couldn't help feeling some sympathy for the special jounin, when she had experienced the same thing during the first week she spent trying to piece the technique together.

"Hey! What's the trick?" Anko asked indignantly as she wheeled to face Sakura.

"What direction was the earth chakra spinning?" Sakura asked.

Anko looked puzzled by the question, as well she might. The process of combining physical and spiritual energies imparted a natural spin to the resulting chakra. The direction of the spin was as inherent to a given ninja as their eye color, and was usually considered about that relevant to performing a technique. Sure, when you were creating a spinning chakra construct it was easier to get it moving along with the natural spin of your chakra, but a heated mud ball was nobody's idea of a drilling technique.

"My chakra naturally rotates clockwise." Anko said after her momentary pause.

"Well, then all you need to do is get some fire chakra that's rotating counter-clockwise." Sakura said.

She could feel the added intensity in the observation of the watching crowd, and watched as Anko focused her gaze on her face, looking for any sign of deception. After a moment, an expression that Sakura might almost interpret as respect appeared in her eyes.

"So how do you get your chakra spinning in two different directions at the same time?" Anko asked.

Sakura let a small smile appear on her face as she replied.

"Practice."

ooOoo