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godhood is just like girlhood

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No one expects anything from civilian-born shinobi.

 

In theory — in the Academy, you had jumped at every chance you'd got your greedy little hands on to prove yourself. You had aced every written exam they let you touch. You had performed well in practical ones, your ninjutsu was backed by practically perfect chakra control, and your taijutsu skills had been soft but not bad.

 

Low stamina, below average chakra reserves — an unavoidable weakness of all civilian-bred shinobi, a bit boy crazed, but still, you had graduated with high marks. Not high for a civilian. High for even clan kids. You weren't the top kunoichi in your class — Ino had taken that title — but you had gotten closer to it than girls like you were supposed to.

 

(You swell with the kind of pride your mother calls unladylike when you remember that. There is a part of you that craves status and power and all the violent glory that comes with it. You've tried to kill it but it's always there, wrapped under your skin and pressed into your bones.)

 

Unable to even get close to a bell, unable to detect the genjutsu you'd been put in, and almost too selfish to share with Naruto but Kakashi-sensei had passed you in the end. You, Naruto, and Sasuke-kun were the first team Kakashi-sensei had ever passed. That had to mean something. You had to have some sort of reason to be a shinobi now, some potential to be great that maybe you never even noticed.

 

(Maybe something Ino saw?)

 

The kunai is trembling in your grip. Breathe, Sakura, you tell yourself. You are not a killer but you are prepared to die for this stupid, drunken bridge builder. Your heart burns between your ribs because you hate him but it's your mission to protect him with your life. This is all you have to give, to prove that you are more than just a silly civilian girl.

 

You're going to be ripped to shreds by claws you can't see straight. Your sensei is dead, Naruto is useless, Sasuke-kun is the only one of you competent enough to do anything, and a scared twelve-year-old girl is all that stands between Tazuna-san and a shallow grave. Your fighting skills are okay at best, these shinobi were strong enough to tear your sensei into pieces, and all you have is a measly little kunai you can't hold steady.

 

The only logical ending to this situation is you dying and the only logical reason for your death is that your mother was right and you are not cut out to be a shinobi.

 

(She'd clicked her tongue disapprovingly when you asked to be enrolled in the academy and said, "nice girls aren't shinobi, Sakura. You're a nice girl.")

 

You're too scared to even be sad about that and then — oh. Sasuke-kun is in front of you, prepared to kill because you can't. A part of you tells you you should be happy that Sasuke-kun is risking his life for yours but the rest of you is crumpling under the realization that he doesn't even trust you to die right —

 

Kakashi-sensei has both attackers by the neck. He's alive and apologizing to Naruto and praising Sasuke-kun and you feel so stupid. You never feel stupid. Not like this. "Sakura did good too," he hums it like an afterthought. Like that's all you are in comparison to Naruto and Sasuke-kun.

 

(There's no potential to be seen, you realize. There is a reason no one expects anything from civilian-born shinobi.)

 

Sasuke-kun wasn't risking his life for yours. He was thinking of Tazuna-san, of the mission, and of how pathetic he knows you are. He saw you shake in the wind with a flimsy tool you are not at all prepared to use and he knew you would fail the mission if he didn't intervene.

 

You are weak. You are small. You are pathetic.

 

The only comforting thought you have now is that at least Naruto did less than you. It's ironic. A little bit sad too. You wasted all those years looking down on him for goofing off in class and being such an idiot and now you realize you're just barely better than him. He was dead last in everything and you're just barely scraping by. Your grades mean nothing. You have no point of contention.

 

Kakashi-sensei has been talking this whole time you've been drowning in this miserable line of thought. He's saying something you only half hear about Naruto's hand and the poison in your attackers' claws and how Tazuna-san isn't supposed to have shinobi after him. About how that puddle — the one you saw, the one you ignored because it was nothing — was how he knew you were about to be ambushed.

 

It's like something deep inside you curls up to die.

 

You're not even smart. You were supposed to at least have brains. You were supposed to be the common sense to relieve Naruto's stupidity and Sasuke-kun's arrogance.

 

Maybe you're even worse than Naruto.

 

"This mission should have been a B-rank," sensei drawls, "I'm sure you had some noble reason to lie, but the problem is, Tazuna-san, we are now operating outside of our duties. Faulty information is deadly, you know." His visible eye spares you a glance, as though offering to let you run away now.

 

You're a nice girl, who does as she's told when she's told so, naturally, you take his offer immediately. "Sensei, we're not ready for this mission, so let's quit! We need medicine for Naruto's hand anyway, a medic should look at it. He could die!" Your voice comes out much more logical and sound than you feel. You barely even feel guilty for disguising your cowardice as concern. It's not entirely a lie anyway. Naruto really could die and even if you don't like him, you don't want him dead.

 

Kakashi-sensei's expression doesn't change as he hums in Naruto's direction, toying with what you've said. "Maa, this might be too much," he agrees, glancing up at the sky, "Sakura-chan has a point, we should probably return to the village. For Naruto's sake."

 

Your stomach drops. It wasn't a real way out. He was baiting you to push Naruto into doing something. He knew you were weak enough to want to go back. He saw through all your faux bravado. Those were his expectations of a civilian-born shinobi, and you met them perfectly.

 

Naruto buries his kunai deep in his hand before anyone can speak. You can barely see it with his back turned to you but somehow that's even worse. His blood is gushing out of the wound and you swear he's twisting the blade even deeper.

 

"Why am I always so different!?" He yells, his knuckles turning a sickly white.

 

"Wha — Naruto, what are you doing?" You choke out.

 

It's like he doesn't even hear you. "I should be getting stronger ev'ry day! After all our missions, after all my training! Every damn day I work so hard!" He growls, low in his throat. His grip on the kunai gets even tighter with each word out of his mouth, "I'm not gonna need saving again! I'm not gonna be scared and try to run again! I won't ever lose to Sasuke! I swear it on the pain in my left hand! With this kunai, I'll protect the old man!" Turning around brazenly, he grits his teeth hard. "We're continuing the mission."

 

There's a beat, and your head is so dizzy from watching. Your pulse is inexplicably screaming in your ears in the absence of Naruto's voice. Part of you almost admires him for it. It was so, so stupid, but that kind of ambition is so...

 

Kakashi-sensei reminds Naruto that, "while getting the poison out of your system is good, blood loss can kill you."

 

Naturally, Naruto freaks out.

 

Naturally, you berate him for it.

 

(And you choke on the newfound knowledge that Naruto is a better shinobi than you.)

 

 

You tell yourself it will be different now that you're actually in the Land of Waves. You tell yourself last time was a fluke — that it was nothing but first fight jitters. You tell yourself Naruto couldn't possibly be above you because if he was, he would've had the grades to back it up.

 

You're not weak. You're not small. You're not pathetic.

 

It takes twenty-two minutes for you to be proven wrong.

 

The facts are scattered around your head: Momochi Zabuza, a missing-nin, Jounin level, on par with Kakashi-sensei, here to kill you all. This time, you're sure you will die. That sheer terror is aching somewhere in your throat, behind your pulse and your logic and your bravado.

 

Kakashi-sensei orders you all to guard Tazuna-san in manji formation. He swears he'll handle it and even as you recognize that he has the Sharingan in one eye — something he most definitely should not have — all you can think that you are going to die.

 

Your thirteenth birthday is in two days and you are staring death in the eye. You're not even doing it bravely. Of everything you learned in the Academy, you never learned how to be brave.

 

They cannot make you something you aren’t.

 

The mist is swallowing you whole. Kakashi-sensei is explaining, calmly and logically, why you feel so certain that you'll die like that makes it better. He tells you about Zabuza's perfected killing technique and how he is going to be first targeted to make killing the rest of you easier. "Be careful," he adds once he's done, "I can't use the Sharingan perfectly so you have to watch out for yourselves as well."

 

"Eight choices," Zabuza is toying with you now like a child playing with his meal, "liver, lungs, spine, subclavian vein, neck vein, brain... which one should I go after?"

 

Mentally placing each point on your own body, you swallow the bile rising in your throat. You can feel Sasuke-kun trembling beside you and it only hallows you out even more. You don't try to steady your shaking legs this time. Instead, you hope to God that Naruto is at least holding up after his promise.

 

The three of you need to protect Tazuna-san. You need to complete your mission. You begged for a chance at this mission. Now it's your duty and if you all die...

 

"Sasuke, there's no need to worry," Kakashi-sensei smiles charmingly beneath his mask, "I'll protect you all. Even if it kills me — I won't let my comrades fall."

 

You believe him. You believe him. You believe him until Zabuza is behind you, ready to bring his blade down through your body like it's nothing.

 

Kakashi-sensei shoves you all out of the way into safety. Swiftly, he stabs Zabuza without remorse and — oh, it's a water clone. And so is Kakashi-sensei? You're too frightened to rationalize any of this. All you know is you, Naruto, and Sasuke-kun are somehow all alive. You hadn't realized you weren't breathing until now.

 

You barely process the fact before Kakashi-sensei is suddenly prisoner to Zabuza.

 

Zabuza, the man laughing at you all. Like this whole fight is a joke and all any of you are is a punchline. This is all meaningless to him. Killing you will be like squashing a bug.

 

"Wearing hitai-ate... acting like shinobi... ha, a real ninja is someone who has come close to death so many times, it doesn't faze him. When you brats are good enough to be in my bingo book, then you can call yourselves shinobi. But now? To call children like you shinobi is a joke," he chuckles, his words too scathing for his even tone.

 

He's right. You're not a shinobi, you're barely even a Genin. You're useless. Nothing but dead weight.

 

Even as his clone disappears into his mist, Zabuza sees right through all your bravado and all your lying. He sees what you really are, no matter how much you wish he didn't.

 

His clone knocks Naruto's hitai-ate clean off, as though he doesn't even deserve to wear it. As though none of you deserve to wear them.

 

When Kakashi-sensei yells at you all to run and you consider it, you know that you don't deserve to wear your hitai-ate. As much emphasis as your sensei has put on teamwork, as clearly as you thought you had understood him, you still want to run and leave him to die. To complete the mission or... or so you'll live?

 

Naruto doesn't let you find out. He's up again, ranting about how he won't run away and then — he charges at Zabuza, head on and teeth bared. You think you scream after him, lecture him maybe, but it happens too fast for you to know.

 

You don't see it until he's getting up after being knocked down again. His hitai-ate. Was it really so important to him?

 

"Hey! You eyebrow-less freak," he growls, his grip on it tightening, "put this in your bingo book. The man who'll become Hokage..." Naruto picks now to smile, stupid as ever, and puts his hitai-ate back where it belongs, "his name is Uzumaki Naruto!"

 

Something churns in your gut. You don't want to name it but it's burning your whole body up.

 

(It's a mixture of envy that nice girls aren't supposed to feel and admiration that must be misplaced, because you would never admire someone like Naruto.)

 

"Sasuke, listen up," Naruto says, eyes still locked on where Zabuza has Kakashi-sensei trapped.

 

"What is it?" Sasuke-kun asks, his voice calm.

 

Naruto looks back to Sasuke-kun with a weird determination that somehow matches the situation but looks completely wrong on his dumb, goofy face, "I have a plan."

 

You barely hear Sasuke-kun scoff over the pounding in your head. A plan. Naruto of all people has a plan, one that he's not even trying to include you on. The heat in your stomach intensifies and you realize that despite everything you've ever been told about how you're supposed to feel and behave, you're angry. Furious even. Your own comrades are willing to just leave you out of the loop like this, in the heat of battle. They have so little faith in you that they would —

 

"What are you doing!?" Kakashi-sensei. Maybe he'll reprimand Naruto and Sasuke-kun for being so willing to leave you out like this. "Run away! This fight ended the moment I was caught! The mission is to protect Tazuna-san, did you forget that!?"

 

There are more pressing issues than your hurt feelings. You'd almost forgotten.

 

"Well, this is my fault. I can't tell you not to fight for your sensei now, I guess. I'm sorry then, fight as much as you want," Tazuna-san is talking to Naruto and Sasuke-kun. He says it in your general direction but you can see it in how doesn't meet your eyes. He looks right past you at them like you aren't even there.

 

You're a nice girl. You do as you're told, so, even without them saying it, you place yourself in front of Tazuna-san, kunai drawn as though you'd be able to do anything with it. You're one more body for Zabuza to cut down. This is all you can do and if you don't do it, all you are is a burden to the mission. 

 

(More so than you are now.)

 

 

After the fight is over and you have done nothing but watch with hungry, terrified eyes, you offer to lug Kakashi-sensei to Tazuna-san's house. Naruto and Sasuke-kun both look at you like you're insane.

 

"Ne, ne, Sakura-chan, you can't carry him!" Naruto gapes, "it's not right to make a girl carry a fat-ass like Kakashi-sensei! I'll do it, dattebayo!"

 

"Naruto's right," Sasuke-kun grunts, "you'd just drop him anyways, let us do it."

 

You want to snap back at them. You want to snarl and tell them that if they can do the fighting, the least you can do is carry Kakashi-sensei. You want to scream at them for looking down on you so much. There are a dozen things you want to do right now—

 

"Oh, um, okay, Sasuke-kun..." You don't do any of them. Not even a little bit. Not even at all.

 

Later, you'll ask yourself why and the only answer you find you can give is that you weren't supposed to, because you're a nice girl. Even if you felt mean and angry and savage. Even if those feelings are still clawing at your insides to find a way out. Everyone has always told you what a nice girl you are. You can't disappoint them now.

 

(Not even if it disappoints you.)

 

 

When sensei wakes up, he tells you that Zabuza is still alive and that tracker-nin wasn't a tracker-nin at all. The logical response is for him to train you all more before they can strike again. Somehow, him saying that makes you feel more ashamed than if he'd singled you out.

 

You do better than Naruto and Sasuke-kun both in the no-hands tree climbing exercise and, for a moment, you feel on top of the world. Even if it seems little, it's something you do better than them. Much better, it seems by the abysmal progress Naruto has made and the tiny fraction Sasuke-kun has climbed by the time they all notice you've climbed to the top already. You're bruiseless and pristine as you look down at them and giggle.

 

"Maa? It seems the one with the best chakra control is the kunoichi," sensei chirps.

 

You should be happy. It's praise — the first real bit of it you've gotten from him too. Something in you sinks anyway. Before you even notice Sasuke-kun bow his head in frustration at the fact that you did better than him — and, really, is it so freaking hard for him to accept that you could be better than him at something? Shouldn't your teammate be happy for you? — you can't help but burn.

 

Kunoichi.

 

Kakashi-sensei had singled out that you were a kunoichi. He couldn't have just praised you for being better. He had to tie into it that you were better than them and a girl. Like you weren't supposed to be better than them.

 

Oh.

 

You weren't supposed to be better than them. Not just because you're the weak one, the one who couldn't do anything to help save sensei, because they're boys and you're not. Your nails dig into your palm. How had you forgotten? You were never supposed to be better than boys at something. For the sake of their egos and for the dynamic between men and women, you were supposed to be just a little bit worse. A little bit weaker, a little bit smaller, a little bit lesser.

 

("Boys are fragile, Sakura, sometimes... sometimes you have to let them win. Even if you're better than them, you have to be considerate of them, okay?" An expectant look.

 

You weren't allowed to disagree.

 

"Okay, kaa-san, I'll be nice to them.")

 

You bow your head as Kakashi-sensei twists your accomplishment into nothing but a reason for Naruto and Sasuke-kun to improve. That's all your accomplishments will ever be; fuel to their fires. Watching them both psyche themselves up to do better than you had, you wonder if maybe that's all you'll ever be.

 

You know that you were put onto Team 7 as a buffer for them. You were the middle grounds between Sasuke-kun's top marks and Naruto's place as dead last, the bit of extra weight to keep the scale from tipping. All things to help them out and to make training them easier for Kakashi-sensei.

 

So where does that put you? As an afterthought to Sasuke-kun's genius and Naruto's stupidity? As just someone to fill out the need for a three man squad? As their moral support?

 

Had the Hokage even spared you a thought when putting Team 7 together?

 

Had he done the same to every kunoichi? Were you all just buffers for the boys? Were Ino and Hinata being reduced to the same status as you, or did the Hokage actually care about them since they both came from respected clans?

 

"Maa, Sakura-chan, could you go guard Tazuna-san?" He asks with a smile and you want nothing more than to punch it off of him.

 

You don't. You can't.

 

 

A man touches you while you're escorting Tazuna-san around town. You see red, so you kick his face in.

 

 

You see Zabuza again shortly after Naruto and Sasuke-kun have both managed to climb their trees. Naruto is still out cold from exhausting himself. Sasuke-kun is here to take on the fake tracker-nin. Kakashi handles Zabuza.

 

Despite both threats being kept busy, you're instructed to guard Tazuna-san. "From what?" you want to ask. Instead, you draw your kunai like you’re prepared to use it. Another thin lie.

 

When the fight goes wrong, all you can do is hurl a kunai at the ice mirrors the fake tracker-nin — Haku, you think his name is — has trapped Sasuke-kun in. It does nothing at worst. It poses a mild inconvenience for the enemy at best. A bitter reflection of what you've done for this mission.

 

Before you can even reflect on that, Naruto is there. Kakashi-sensei doesn't ask him to protect Tazuna-san with you so, once again, Naruto is doing more than you. He's reckless and idiotic as ever but he's at least taking some initiative. You can't help but envy him and Sasuke-kun right now. They're bleeding and being battered but they're doing something. Anything. Even if it seems futile.

 

Your envy dies with Sasuke-kun.

 

Naruto punches Haku through his own kekkei genkai for it. And you? You tremble. You shake so bad Tazuna-san feels sorry for you and takes your hand in his. He tells you he'll go over to Sasuke-kun's corpse with you so you won't be disobeying your sensei. Your legs move without you telling them to, finding Sasuke-kun through the haze of this all.

 

The sight of him makes you fall to your knees. He's bloodied and ruined and cold. Like ice. The feeling of how cold he is hurts. You don't know why it's hurting you when he's the one who died. The one who can never do anything again. Never get his revenge. Never restore his clan. Never do anything he wanted to. He's never even going to get to turn thirteen now. The realization of how young he is, how young you all are, breaks your heart.

 

Zabuza was right. You're all just kids.

 

"Don't mind me, Sakura," Tazuna-san says gently, "you — you should let it out and cry."

 

Shinobi aren't supposed to cry.

 

"I... in the Academy, I always scored 100% on my exams..." saying it makes you feel numb, "I memorized over a thousand shinobi sayings... I always wrote the correct answer — always..." you let a breathy little laugh out at that. You can't believe it now. Someone as pathetic as you did so well in theory. "There was a test question once: 'write down shinobi saying #25,' so I answered as usual," your voice doesn't break. Your voice stays as even as it can be right now.

 

You don't. You can feel the tears burning at your eyes and you can't blink them back. There is no being strong now. You aren't a shinobi. You may wear the hitai-ate and be on a three-man — two-man, now—squad and go on missions but you're certain now that it's not that Naruto is a better shinobi than you, or that Sasuke-kun used to be a better shinobi than you. It's that you simply aren't. You're a kunoichi. You're fragile and vulnerable and too emotional and not cut out to be a shinobi.

 

All you'll ever be is a silly little civilian girl playing pretend.

 

The realization makes your breath catch. You hiccup through shinobi saying #25, "no matter what the situation..." you can't breathe. You can't breathe and neither can Sasuke-kun — your crush, your friend, your comrade. "A shinobi must keep their emotions on the inside..." you don't know how you've fallen apart so fast and you can't even berate yourself for it. This hurts too much. It hurts more than anything you've ever known. "You must make the mission your top priority a — and you must never show tears."

 

Your eyes bleed tears.

 

You sob until the fight is over and the enemy is dead and the entire town has shown up to fight back. You sob until Sasuke-kun wakes up. You sob in vain.

 

All that your sobbing does is prove to everyone, to you and to your sensei and to your comrades, that you are not a shinobi.

 

You are weak. You are small. You are pathetic.

 

 

The last thing you'd wanted upon arriving home was to be asked if you wanted to take part in the Chūnin Exams. All you want is to hide in your room and never come out and face your comrades again. You couldn't swallow your shame the whole trip back to the village. You might choke on it.

 

You don't want to choke on it. You want to get better. Stronger.

 

You're a fast learner. You start with genjutsu like Kakashi-sensei said you might be good at. You check out books on taijutsu and genjutsu and you devour them. Then you head to the training grounds.

 

You know that you're weak. You know that you don't have a kekkei genkai or crazy chakra reserves or a big dream in life. You know that you come from generations of civilians and that nobody expects you to achieve higher than Chūnin rank, if even that. You know that your parents believe in you even less than your team does. You know that not even Iruka-sensei has ever believed you'll do more than be a paper ninja. You know this won't change any of that and you know that it won't catch you up to Naruto or Sasuke-kun and that nice girls like you aren't supposed to get strong anyway.

 

Your mother has told you a million times that boys don't like muscles on girls.

 

This time, none of that stops you. This time, you don't even care what boys like or want from you. For the first time, this is about you as a person, not a future wife or Naruto and Sasuke-kun's cheerleader. This is about you.

 

(You wonder briefly how you've gone thirteen years without it once being about you.)

 

Determined to make every second of training count, you take a deep breath and think. What do you know that you're good at it and what do you need to improve at?

 

You take a deep breath and dive into fixing yourself. You hit harder than you look like you should and, while you've been either too scared to act on them or you'd be disobeying orders if you did, you do have good instincts. More than that, you're smart, a natural strategist, and you've been told how good your chakra control is since you were in the Academy.

 

But you're not as strong as your teammates, you don't know more than the standard Academy jutsus, and you fall back too much on theory and form instead of trusting your gut. You know that. That's what gives you the idea.

 

The first chakra infused punch you try dents the training log. You've punched those things a lot while you were blowing off steam that you weren't supposed to harbor but never in your life have you dented one. It's better than any hint of praise you've ever gotten from Iruka-sensei or Kakashi-sensei or anyone who was supposed to be molding you into a shinobi.

 

The second makes the dent a bit bigger. Then the third and the fourth and the fifth.

 

The sixth punch turns your dent into a hole.

 

You stop by the twentieth punch, not wanting to get any more splinters in your knuckles and decide to invest in gloves.

 

 

When the time comes, you find yourself running to the spot you, Naruto, and Sasuke-kun agreed to meet up at. If either of them notice your gloves or the bags under your eyes, they don't comment on them. The indifference stings but you don't blame them. You were useless before your last mission and you're useless now.

 

 

You're so busy curling and uncurling your fists to adjust to the feeling of your gloves that you don't even catch the genjutsu around the door.

 

Sasuke-kun knows this. You're sure he does because you've always been so annoying about when you know something everyone else doesn't, but he still smirks with some misplaced pride as he nods to you and says, "Sakura, you must have noticed it first, right? You're easily the sharpest person on our team, after all."

 

With a slight giggle, you smile cutely like you know you're supposed to because you're a girl and it's what your mother tells you to do and agree, "of course, even Naruto could tell you this is only the second floor!"

 

Naruto catches the insult but hums along anyway, "mm, it was obvious, 'ttebayo."

 

One of the boys who'd been guarding the door weighs this exchange. He takes a step closer, something in him itching for violence. "Not bad but still, all you did was see through it!"

 

It happens like this:

 

He goes for a kick, hard and fast. Sasuke-kun does the same. Some boy, barely older than you is between them in an instant, catching both of their legs midair. A boy you know was on the ground just seconds ago.

 

This time, your fingers curl instinctively, a shudder jolting down your spine. You can't believe how fast he is. You are wildly unprepared for this but you are starving for a chance to prove that you are more. A boy like this could be that chance.

 

His team doesn't share your awe. A long haired boy with white eyes — a Hyūga, you're sure — scoffs irritably. "What happened to the plan? You're the one who said we shouldn't draw attention to ourselves." His scowl is jarringly similar to Sasuke-kun's.

 

"Well..." the first boy flushes, glancing at you.

 

Their team's kunoichi buries her head in her palms at this. "Oh no," her groan contradicts the soft smile on her lips as she shakes her head.

 

He walks up to you more boldly than you're entirely comfortable with. You wonder if maybe he sees the bags under your eyes or the fresh bruises littering your arms for what they are. For an exhilarating moment, you let yourself believe he thinks of you as real competition.

 

"My name is Rock Lee. Yours is Sakura, right?"

 

Trying to keep the anticipation off your face, you nod.

 

"Please be my girlfriend! I'll protect you until I die!"

 

Your whole body burns. Why would he ever see you as competition? You're a girl. A weak, useless girl who's spent too much time trying to look good and not enough time training to be better. He sees you the same way Naruto and Sasuke-kun and Kakashi-sensei and everyone does — as something to be protected and kept away from all the glory of violence.

 

The knowledge that that's what you've been makes you reject him. Harshly. You're mean and vicious and it feels good. Your mother would reprimand you if she found out but somehow, that makes it all the more satisfying. You haven't been this happy since Kakashi-sensei passed you all.

 

Smiling, you take Naruto and Sasuke-kun's hands in yours and you pull them to the real third floor.

 

 

Rock Lee hits on you again. Then he fights Sasuke-kun.

 

He wins, and it shakes you to your core.

 

 

You get a good thirty seconds to take in the competition before Ino jumps Sasuke-kun. She gushes over him with her arms wrapped around his neck before she notices. "Eh? Forehead, since when do you wear gloves? What do you even need them for?"

 

Naruto glances down at your hands like he hadn't even realized you were wearing gloves until Ino said that. Sasuke-kun doesn't react. You burn a little less, knowing Sasuke-kun noticed. Naruto is just unobservant.

 

"I need them so I don't hurt my hands punching your ugly face in, Ino-pig," you growl back.

 

"Wha — who's punching whose face in, Billboard Brow!? You couldn't beat me if you tried!"

 

That shouldn't be over the unspoken line you and Ino have. She's probably said much worse to you and you've probably said much worse right back. But somehow, maybe because she's right or maybe because of everything that's happened, Ino saying that is worse than every nasty thing the two of you have ever said to each other. It burns at you in a way her making fun of the size of your forehead or even the color of your hair never has. In the same way being told you would just drop Kakashi-sensei had.

 

Thankfully, the rest of Ino's team, Shikamaru and Chōji, interrupt before you can actually throw a punch at her. Just like everyone else (everyone but Ino, at least), they're not interested in you in the slightest.

 

Neither is Kiba, or Shino, or even Hinata.

 

Neither is the annoying older boy, Kabuto-san, who's failed six times who walks up to you all to tell you to shut up.

 

Neither are the Sound-nin who throw a punch at him that he dodges that still messes him up.

 

(Your mother would ask what you expected.)

 

 

The first exam is a written one and you're almost excited because theory is where you have always excelled.

 

Except there are way too many rules for this test and one of them is that you're being graded as a team and you know Naruto will drag you and Sasuke-kun down. Even worse, the questions are difficult even for you and you're being watched by twenty-something Chūnin with eyes like hawks prying for anyone dumb enough to get caught cheating.

 

You take a second to pray that Naruto won't try to cheat and get points docked off and then your wrist is twisting out answers. It's hard but you manage and you know you're right. You've never been wrong on a test before.

 

The tenth question is straight out of hell.

 

If you can't answer it correctly, you're a Genin for life, but if you opt to not answer it, your entire team fails. You have faith that you and Sasuke-kun can both answer it and you could live with being a Genin for life if by some horrible fluke, you get it wrong. You would rather that than let your team down.

 

But what about Naruto?

 

If he doesn't answer it right, could he ever even become Hokage like he's always going on about?

 

The thought makes your heart ache for him. Becoming Hokage — becoming somebody the people in this village respect —  means everything to Naruto. You've seen that look in his eyes when he talks about it. It's like nothing else could ever matter more to him.

 

Your hands are trembling just thinking about it. Even worse than when you held that kunai in front of Tazuna-san. You can't let Naruto lose that dream of his. He has to achieve it. There's no other option for Naruto and... and you don't think you could ever accept anyone else as your next Hokage.

 

Look at you, getting all worked up over Naruto. He was always such a nuisance to you, always saying insensitive things and managing to treat you like glass while he did it too. Even in the Academy you'd never liked him. He was a beacon for trouble. He'd been funny though. He was loud and brash — still is — but he'd made you laugh more times than you care to admit.

 

And now you can see him shaking. But he's not raising his hand to opt out of the question. He's willing to throw his dream away, for the sake of the team.

 

You can't let him do that to himself.

 

Before you can raise your hand to quit for him though, he slams down on the desk and goes on one of his stupid speeches about how he's never going to give up, no matter how bad the odds are and how even if he does fail, he'll still be the Hokage somehow.

 

It makes you wanna cry a little bit, actually. You had no idea you cared about him like this.

 

People stop raising their hands to quit. The proctor ends the test and tells you that decision you all just made was the tenth question, and that staying was the right answer.

 

He says you were supposed to cheat. That the questions were meant to be too hard for any Genin to answer on their own, forcing you to figure out who had the answers and how you could gather the intel.

 

You wonder if that means you're the only Genin here who answered them all on your own. You wonder if Sasuke-kun used his Sharingan to cheat or if Naruto even answered a single question besides the final one. It occurs to you that, for the first time since tree climbing, you might have done the best out of your squad.

 

You go into the second exam, with an even crazier proctor, swelling with the kind of pride your mother calls unladylike. The part of you that craves status and power and the glory of violence roars. You don't try to kill it this time.

 

 

It starts like this:

 

Naruto tries to pee in front of you like you aren't a girl so you thump him and make him go into the bushes to pee. He comes back talking about how he wrote his name in it.

 

You're too grossed out to realize it's not him.

 

Sasuke-kun does and so he engages in combat immediately. By the time he's explained it's an imposter, not Naruto, it's too late for you to inject yourself into the fight. You stand there watching, reduced to your usual role of cheerleader. Here you are, burning up without a fire extinguisher in sight. You were dumb enough to let yourself think you might be better now and you're still on the sidelines with hungry, terrified eyes.

 

It gets worse like this:

 

Sasuke-kun comes up with a password for you and Naruto to remember — Naruto can't because the boy has the attention span of a goldfish — so you can verify you're the real you. Some Grass-nin overhears and uses a henge to disguise herself as Naruto. Sasuke-kun knows it's not Naruto because Naruto could never have memorized the password so Sasuke-kun engages immediately. The Grass-nin uses some sort of genjutsu to show you how your death will look and taste and feel. You both freeze. Sasuke-kun stabs himself, grabs you, and runs. You know now that this is nothing like when you fought Zabuza.

 

Naruto charges in, alive, alive, alive — you think your heart starts beating again. He slams his fist into Sasuke-kun's face for being a coward and trying to bargain your scroll for your lives. Almost immediately afterwards, he's knocked out and thrown like nothing even though you know he is so much more than nothing. You manage to do something and save him from falling to his death with a kunai. And then, for you think the first time in your life, you yell at Sasuke-kun for being such a coward because Naruto was right.

 

But the Grass-nin turns out to not be a Grass-nin. He's Orochimaru, one of the Legendary Sannin, and you can't even be mad at yourself for not doing anything because he's one of the Legendary Sannin and there's no way you or Sasuke-kun or Naruto or even Kakashi-sensei could take him head on like this. You're only alive right now because Orochimaru wanted you alive.

 

And then you're mad at yourself again because Sasuke-kun is writhing in pain after Orochimaru sinks his teeth into the crook of his neck and Naruto is out cold and you couldn't do anything to save them.

 

Naturally, because you still aren't a shinobi, you cry for them both.

 

 

You're beyond exhausted. You've been up for at least thirty hours straight now and the whole time you've been setting up traps to protect your boys and doing everything you can to ease the pain Sasuke-kun is in and to try to wake him and Naruto up. You have no time to rest and restore your chakra reserves. Your bones are brick and your body is almost limp but you can't take a nap or go find food until at least one of them wakes up.

 

You don't even have the energy to be mad at yourself for letting this happen. You do, however, have the energy to hurl a kunai at a squirrel that gets too close to your decoy trap.

 

Then you feel your eyelids fall shut. And they won't open. Or you're too tired to open them. Not until — "what kind of lookout are you? You're half asleep."

 

You twist around, kunai drawn and eyes blinking into a hazy awareness, in a heartbeat.

 

"Calm down, girl, we don't care about you. Just wake Sasuke-kun up for us. We want to fight him." The Sound-nin. Orochimaru had warned you they would come for Sasuke-kun. The thought twists your hands into jagged fists. If they think you'd just hand him over, they're dead wrong.

 

(Kakashi-sensei's voice rings in your ears, "those who would leave their comrades behind are worse than scum.")

 

"Like I would ever," you growl, "why does Orochimaru want you to fight him anyway!? And what are those bruises on his neck!?"

 

Their eyes widen like they hadn't known about Sasuke-kun's condition. It only makes you burn more. These goddamn savages don't get to play innocent when your teammates are hurt like this.

 

"You... you sick people did this to him and now you want to fight him while he's injured!? Don't you have any integrity!? I — I won't let you lay a hand on Sasuke-kun!" Or Naruto, you promise yourself.

 

You're starting to realize just how much you actually care about these boys.

 

(Enough to die for them?)

 

One of the Sound-nin laughs at you. "Now that you've run your mouth, we won't be letting you go either. Dosu, Kin, I'll kill this girl before we kill Sasuke."

 

Your teeth grit and you hold your kunai even tighter. It's trembling in your grip but it's not from fear. You're so angry it's sending ripples through you. You won't let them lay a single hand on either of your boys. You may not be a shinobi, you may not even be strong, but you are not scum and you will not let your comrades die. Not today or any other day.

 

(In a heartbeat.)

 

"Zaku, don't be so reckless," the one with gauze around his face tsks.

 

A blanch. "Huh? Why not?"

 

"She's not as clever as she thinks, grass would only be in this area if she moved it to disguise a trap. Don't you know, girl?" The way he says that, says that you're a girl, makes your blood boil. "Booby traps are pointless if they're not well hidden. We'll go over it then."

 

The three of them jump into the air like you'd figured any good shinobi would.

 

You cut through the rope you'd strung the log up on. It comes rushing down at them.

 

"Huh, you thought about that then. No matter," he says coolly, blowing the giant log to pieces, "you'd think someone with so little talent would work harder. Don't you know that someone like you needs to work ten times harder to win against people like us?"

 

(Painfully, you hear your mother's voice, berating you for your dreams. "Nice girls like you shouldn't become shinobi, Sakura, what good would you even be at it? Fighting all those boys... even the other girls would be stronger than you.")

 

There are tears in your eyes, threatening to spill out, and your knuckles are turning white beneath your gloves.

 

You're useless. You're still useless. You're always going to be useless. Naruto and Sasuke-kun would've been better off if you'd never even tried to become a shinobi, then they'd have someone actually competent on their team to protect them right now, or maybe even someone who wouldn't have let it get to this in the first place. Someone like Ino, someone who manages to be both a kunoichi and a shinobi, a girl and a warrior, without one lessening the other.

 

They deserve so much better than what you can give them.

 

"Leaf hurricane!"

 

Lee.

 

"In that case, you guys should also work harder!" It's Lee. He's standing here to protect you and your boys because you can't and you don't know if you should feel grateful for it or be angry that you look like you need protecting.

 

"Who are you?" Dosu growls.

 

"The handsome devil of the Hidden Leaf, Rock Lee!" He says it with such conviction that you almost believe him.

 

"Wh — why are you here, Lee-san?" You want him to say anything but "so I can protect you." You want him to say he's here to help you fight them because he knows you couldn't possibly take three shinobi on at once. You want him to believe that you aren't weak, even if you know you are.

 

He doesn't.

 

He tells you that he will always appear if you're in trouble. He doesn't say "to protect you" but you know that he means it because not once in your life has a boy ever believed you don't need to be protected. Not once in your goddamn life has a boy ever believed you were equal to them and even though a part of you is relieved he's here because you know you're no match for these Sound-nin, it's making you seethe.

 

You thank him anyways.

 

"I said it before, Sakura-san, I will protect you until I die."

 

You wish boys knew when they should just shut up.

 

Determined to do something in this, no matter how small, you chuck a kunai at that Dosu guy. He dodges it comfortably and you're sure Lee-san thinks you're even more useless than he did before now.

 

"Sakura-san, it's okay, you're exhausted. You should rest while I handle this. I will be fine, do not worry about me!" He says it as reassuringly as Kakashi-sensei had promised not to let you die. It only makes your shoulders tense as you watch him use that move he'd tried to use on Sasuke-kun when they'd sparred. You're tired and angry and scared and now you're in complete and total awe. You hadn't realized just how strong he was.

 

He's not strong enough.

 

Zaku manages to break Dosu's fall just in time to save him.

 

"Haa, what a terrifying technique... even with this soft dirt to break my fall... he almost killed me," Dosu muses, "what a shame it's my turn now."

 

He rushes at Lee-san and you remember how he'd done the same to Kabuto-san. How even though Kabuto-san had dodged the blow, he'd still hit the ground in agony.

 

"Your moves may be fast but at the speed of sound, ours are even faster. This will show you that no amount of hard work can ever surpass talent," Dosu's voice comes out lower and throatier than it had before. It's almost at the pitch of Zabuza's voice. You suppress a shudder at the memory of it.

 

Lee-san coughs up bile. He's in no condition to keep fighting these guys and once more, it's all your fault. Because you're too weak and too slow and not smart enough, another person is hurt. You're still just getting in the way and getting everyone else hurt.

 

"You see, there's a little trick to my blows that makes dodging them ineffective," Dosu looks pleased with himself as he holds his arm up to give you both a good look at the metal bit of what you'd assumed was just armor. "It's sound, even if you dodge the blow, the sound will get you. Tell me, do you know what sound actually is?"

 

You do. "It's vibrations... to hear sound means your ear is catching the vibrations of the air..."

 

He gives you a sickening grin. It's almost a leer. "Well, well, give the girl a prize. She's of some use after all. Boy, do you know what happens when the human ear drum hears sound over 150 MHz? It breaks. And when it breaks, the sound travels deeper in the ear, to the inner membrane. When that's damaged, you lose your balance. Your body won't move properly for a while, so we can kill the girl and Sasuke-kun now."

 

Zaku laughs, "lame old taijutsu won't help you with us. That's not fair actually, you were doing alright enough, I suppose. You did make me use my jutsu before you failed."

 

It's a good thing boys like to talk so much. The longer those two explain their own techniques to Lee-san, the longer you have to recover your chakra reserves. Maybe then... maybe you can do something. If Lee's taijutsu skills weren't enough to beat these guys, you know that yours definitely won't be, but you might be able to get them in some sort of genjutsu.

 

You haven't tried anything big yet, and this is probably the worst situation for you to try but you need to do something. You just need a little more chakra first.

 

Dosu charges, going for you. Lee-san manages to get up in time to intervene and for a second you think maybe everything will be okay after all. The second ends fast and Lee-san is on the ground writhing. Dosu doesn't even acknowledge him again before turning back to you.

 

You bite back a curse as you hurl some kunai at him, wishing your chakra reserves were a little bigger or that you'd started taking training seriously sooner.

 

He blocks them so easily it's pathetic.

 

You are weak. You are small. You are pathetic.

 

(You remember how all you'd done on that mission was stand back and guard Tazuna-san from nothing. How Zabuza had seen through you so easily. How your mother had asked you to reconsider your career choice when you'd gotten back from the Land of Waves. How much money you spent on these new gloves to protect your fists while you fought.)

 

You might never be strong. Your movements are still awkward. You're not at all a fluid fighter. You don't stand a chance against one of these guys, let alone all three of them. You know all of that, but you also know that you're the only thing standing between them and killing your comrade.

 

In a choice between letting them kill Sasuke-kun and dying, you will always pick dying. You're sure of it.

 

"Dodge this!" You snarl, letting loose four shuriken.

 

Zaku is in front of Dosu in a second and he's blowing them back at you in less than that. Your forearms bleed from blocking them. And then the girl, the one who'd been doing nothing — just like you — is looming behind you. She grips your too long, too silky hair angrily, like she wants to rip it out of your scalp by the roots. Her hands don't shake. They don't even tremble.

 

"Your hair is so soft," she snarls, "I bet you spend more time taking care of it than you do training. Of course a bitch like you would make kunoichi look weak, you're too busy trying to look good to actually be a shinobi." She tugs harshly at your hair and you let out a pathetic whimper. "Hey Zaku, let's kill that Sasuke boy in front of her since her boy crazy ass cares so much about him."

 

No. You can't let them just kill Sasuke-kun. You can't sit by and watch that happen but — you can't move. You're frozen. Just like you'd been during the fight with Zabuza and with the Naruto imposter and with Orochimaru and with everyone.

 

You feel your hand curl into a fist limply. You feel your whole body trembling. You feel yourself crying like always.

 

(Faintly, you remember being eight and sobbing into your knees because Ami and her friends wouldn't leave you alone about your forehead, even now that you were wearing Ino's ribbon. You hadn't even realized Ino was with you until she'd started lecturing you. "You have to stop being such a crybaby, Sakura! Those guys are only gonna pick on you more if you keep crying like this, jeez!")

 

You realize that now you're thirteen and still sobbing because somebody is picking on you. You realize that in five fucking years, not a goddamn thing has changed. You still rely on people to defend you. You still curl up into nothing and cry when things go wrong. You still just submit when people tell you to. You're still chasing after everyone you admire — Ino, Sasuke-kun, Lee-san, even Naruto.

 

It's been five years and you're still a flower that's waiting to bloom.

 

It's time you fucking bloomed.

 

("A flower can't grow if it's surrounded by weeds because the weed absorbs nutrients it needs to flourish.")

 

You're always lecturing Naruto like you know better when he's the one always saving you. You're always saying you love Sasuke-kun when you can't even protect him. You're always pretending to be a shinobi when you know you're not.

 

"Don't you learn? That kunai won't work on me, bitch," the girl snorts.

 

"It's not for you," you snarl.

 

And then you slice through your hair like it's nothing. Your hair is nothing. Your hair is nothing. You are not your hair. You are so much more than anyone ever told you you could be.

 

(You already know what your mother will say. You already know this isn't ladylike and that it's going to make you look ugly.)

 

Her grip comes undone as you pull forward, the strands you missed ripping from your scalp like weeds being uprooted. You don't even feel the pain of it as you rise to your feet. You rise from your greatest shame. You rise from your own ashes. You rise in place of a girl who was so caved in on herself no one could ever pick her up.

 

Your hitai-ate has hit the ground and you're surrounded by the mess your hair made. Its ridiculous shade of pink clashes almost violently against the dirt beneath you. Your eyes are still red and puffy from crying. You've never been pretty while you cried. You are ugly and messy and scared out of your mind. In this moment, you are everything you've been told not to be.

 

(You don't fucking care anymore.)

 

This time, your teammates are going to be the ones watching you fight.

 

Your pride is an ugly thing that your mother taught you to beat down into submission, the same way she taught you to submit to boys. You are done listening. You are not a nice girl. You are mean and angry and savage. You are not faking your goddamn bravado this time.

 

"What are you waiting for Kin!? Kill that bitch!"

 

She charges at you, wild and reckless and completely underestimating you.

 

The substitution jutsu is basic and easy and will only make them think even less of you. You need them to think less of you, so you're quick to throw a few kunai Zaku's way. He deflects them right back at you like last time and you use the substitution jutsu once more.

 

"So predictable!" He sneers, getting ready to take your above attack.

 

As deliberately as you can, you make the hand sign for it one last time. He chucks some kunai at you and before he even sees them hit you, he's looking around for where your next attack is coming from.

 

You almost smile through the pain before you draw a fist back. You send as much chakra as you can manage into it like the ugliest kiss goodnight your mother ever gave you.

 

He realizes a second too late to dodge but a second early enough to raise his arm up in front of his face. You swear you hear a crunch as your first connects with his forearm. And then you bite down — hard.

 

It's not a lot, you know that, but it's something to buy Sasuke-kun some time to wake up at least. If — when he does, you're going to scream at him to take Naruto and run. You're going to tell him to get them both out of here so they can live. You know that without you, they'll be disqualified from this exam but at least they'd live. If any of you are going to live, it should be them.

 

This is not noble thinking. You would rather die in the violent glory and soothe an appetite you've been denied your whole life than live as a civilian-born kunoichi no one will ever expect anything from. You would rather make your sensei proud than reaffirm his belief that all you are is a girl made from nothing. You are a monster of a girl who loves viciously and wholly and with no remorse.

 

Zaku's screaming breaks your train of thought. He's furious — spitting and punching your head with his free arm. "Let go of me, you bitch!" He doesn't stop screaming that word. He's punching wildly, getting the top of your head mostly but he lands a few around your eye.

 

You think you're crying again. You're not. You're just bleeding.

 

It hurts. It hurts so fucking much but you can't stop. You won't stop, not when you finally started fighting back.

 

You are not weak. You are not small. You are not pathetic.

 

"Dosu, get this crazy bitch off of me!"

 

You hate that word. This time, you're going to show him why he should keep his damn mouth shut. Quickly, you push every ounce of chakra you can to your jaws and then you bite down even harder than before.

 

He punches you off of him and you feel flesh come with you. Zaku howls.

 

Spluttering, you spit his skin out of your mouth. You smile at him in the aftermath. You're bruised and bloody and your teeth must be stained red but it's the most charming smile you have. Fuck you, it screams.

 

Before you can even see what he's going to do to you for that, Ino's team is in front of you.

 

"Ino..." you start.

 

She growls lowly. "Sakura, how many times do I have to say it: I won't lose to you!" She's shaking a little. Not much but it's the most you've ever seen her tremble. "You're my rival and that means I can't let you have all the glory!"

 

"What are you two even thinking!? We're gonna die if we fight these guys — Shikamaru, let go of my scarf!"

 

"Yeah right, moron. This sucks but if Ino is fighting, we have to too, it's a drag but we can't just leave our teammate."

 

You'd been staring so intently at Ino you'd almost forgotten about Chōji and Shikamaru.

 

"Hah, sorry about involving you guys but we're a team so it's only expected!" You wonder what it must be like to have our teammates think of you as enough of an equal to do what you say like Ino does. You resolve to find out once all of this is over and you and your team come out of it alive.

 

"Whatever, Ino, we'll make it through, I guess," Shikamaru sighs.

 

It happens like this: 

 

Zaku calls Chōji fat. It escalates fast and violently. For once, nobody instructs you into the background. Instead, Ino barks at you to get up and help them fight. Shikamaru blanches at that and Ino thumps him over the head, ranting about how you're her rival and that means you're her equal.

 

You almost cry.

 

It ends like this:

 

Lee-san's team shows up to help out of anger at what the Sound-nin did to him. The Hyūga boy calls off their attack at the last second because Sasuke-kun wakes up with marks all over his body and his chakra so potent it consumes him. Sasuke-kun sees how battered and bruised you are and decides to break Zaku's arms for it.

 

You really do cry.

 

Not because you're scared — even though you are, you cry out of anger.

 

"I'm not some poor little girl you need to protect all the time, Sasuke-kun!" You scream, engulfing him in the scaredest hug of your life, "you and Naruto and Kakashi-sensei all — you all forget that Team 7 is a three-man squad! You're always telling to stay in the background, to do nothing, and then you're surprised when I'm not strong! How the fuck am I supposed to get stronger if you're always protecting me! Just stop already! Please stop," your voice breaks and then the marks are retreating.

 

You don't stop crying.

 

You hadn't realized how angry you really were. You've always internalized it, directed all that rage at yourself for being weak. Until now, you hadn't even thought it was at them for letting you be weak. You hadn't realized how much it meant to you that even though Ino protected you, she still let you fight your own fights. Even when you were kids, she'd given you the ribbon, and she'd helped to defend you from bullies but she always left it up to you to be strong on your own.

 

You're crying so hard, you don't even realize the Sound-nin are gone until Ino's team is rushing back over to you. And then Naruto is up and talking some nonsense about Orochimaru and —

 

"Sakura-chan! Gah, what happened to your hair!? Did that jerk do that to you!? I'll cut his hair off!"

 

"Oh, no, Naruto, don't worry, okay? I did it myself," you try to force yourself to laugh a little, "it — it was getting in my way so I had to cut it."

 

He nods like he believes you. "Ne, ne, that makes sense. But — why are you crying, Sakura-chan? Did Sasuke say something to you — I'll kill him, what did you do to Sakura-chan, you bastard!?"

 

Ino answers for you, "back off, Naruto, Sasuke-kun didn't do anything! Forehead was just protecting you idiots and she got hurt, that's all! Jeez, what's up with all these questions anyways? Be grateful she saved you!"

 

"Eh!? Sakura-chan saved us? Whoa, that's so cool!" He turns to you with that ridiculous grin he's always got, "I always knew you were awesome, Sakura-chan! Dattebayo! Hey, why's bushy brows here too?"

 

You thump Naruto for that. "Don't be rude to Lee-san! You should be thanking him! Actually, I should be thanking him."

 

You're torn between bowing like a nice girl and hugging him so you do half of both. "Thank you, Lee-san," you say, "without your help, I never could have done that."

 

Ino drags you away before he can respond. "Forehead, I need to fix your hair for you," she interjects. She takes your hand in hers firmly. Her hand doesn't shake and neither does yours. Hers lingers in yours before they part ways once you're at what she decides is a suitable distance from everyone else.

 

Vaguely, you resent that she lets go at all.

 

She doesn't speak at first, opting to silently run her fingers through the choppy cut of your hair instead. Somehow it isn't an uncomfortable silence as she begins evening out your hair with a kunai.

 

The proximity of her kunai to your neck should be unsettling. The hairs on the back of your neck should be standing. Instead, you relax into her fleeting touches. You may be a shinobi but this is Ino and even now, even while you're rivals instead of friends, Ino is the most comforting person in the world for you. She would never do anything to actually hurt you. You know that. You've always known that.

 

"Hey," she murmurs, "you were really brave, Sakura. Not that I expected any less from my rival, of course."

 

You laugh softly, "you were brave too, Ino."

 

"Maybe, but your teammates sound like they suck worse than mine after all. Do they really never let you fight?" She combs her fingers through your hair again, getting the bits she's trimmed out.

 

"Not really... our sensei even spars with me during training so they won't hurt me," you admit.

 

"Seriously? That's so stupid, jeez, what kind of sensei is he?"

 

You chew your lip at that. "Well, he's not a bad sensei. I don't think he knows what to do with me. He seems like he's bad at dealing with girls."

 

Ino's hand comes down harder than necessary when she wipes the hair off the back off your neck. "That's no excuse! He should be training you just as hard as he trains them! Men sure are dumb when it comes to women," she rants, "honestly, Sakura, you should tell them off."

 

The conversation ends there and you take to listening to how yours and Ino's breathing is matched up. You wonder if she knows that Sasuke-kun isn't your crush now. You wonder if Sasuke-kun is still her crush too. You don't know why your heart is racing at the thought but you do know that everything is going to start changing now.

 

You hope to God it will be for the better.

 

 

Later, at night, Sasuke-kun looks at you sharply out of nowhere. "Sakura," he says, "...I'm sorry."

 

You've never heard him apologize to anyone before. You smile, teary-eyed. "Thank you, Sasuke —" you stop yourself. Things are different now. You want to be his friend, not just a starry-eyed girl chasing after him.

 

You swear he smiles just the tiniest bit at you.

 

Naruto looks feverishly back and forth at the two of you. "Huh? Seriously, what did I miss!? Sakura-chan, bastard, what happened while I was out!?"

 

Sasuke tsks and pulls the fish away from the fire. He hands it to Naruto. "None of your business," he says, "...if we run into another team, make sure Sakura gets to fight too."

 

Naruto gawks even more at you both. You take a moment to memorize the sight; the three of you under the stars with wide-eyes and burning ambition. Things are different now. Better.

 

"I love you guys," you murmur.

 

They stare at you in an embarrassed silence. Your heart is somewhere on your sleeve and you're wearing it with all your vicious pride so you sit there and you wait.

 

"I, uh, you're okay," Sasuke mumbles back.

 

Naruto thumps his back heartily. "I love you too, Sakura-chan!"

 

You're still burning, but it's tamer now.