Knowing that killing intent was essentially a knock-off version of the very real experience of being on the verge of death didn’t mean that it didn’t feel fucking terrible. Sakura remembered it well – it wasn’t so much as her mouth was dry but that moisture had seemed to disappear. To say her knees locked would be an understatement. The only reason she hadn’t shit herself was because her whole body was too tense to move even a millimeter. That’s how it had felt, her alone in the mist except for some old civilian, so she couldn’t even imagine how it must’ve felt to be in the midst of combat, fighting for your very life as a masked nin hopped from mirror to mirror. What she could imagine, could feel viscerally to this moment, was the intense, sour emotion of shame. She had done nothing. Could not even have moved if she wanted to, frozen in place until Kakashi-sensei finished up his battle and the mist began to dissipate. None of them looked at her – Naruto, with his strange markings exaggerated and darker than normal, Kakashi, with his arm through some boy’s chest, even Zabuza, pinned in place by several dogs, collapsed behind the boy. The world felt excruciatingly far away. She wanted to shout. I’m here too! But it would be foolhardy and useless, selfish. Maybe it was better that she was hidden, in the back with the civilian. She could keep him safe.
The taste of that lie rotted under her tongue. Fight or flight – those were her two options. Except flight wasn’t an option – she felt it in her bones. She burned, but not with fear, at least not anymore. It was anger. She was angry at herself, angry at the academy for failing to teach her anything that was useful in the field, angry at Kakashi for his easygoing manner, angry at Naruto and even Sasuke for being chosen by fate somehow (that thought made her recoil: how was Sasuke’s life in any way enviable?), angry at fate itself for giving her a civilian family, a weak body, even pink hair – as if laughing at the very notion of her being a shinobi. On the silent walk back to Konoha, that anger turned ever inwards because she couldn’t find any other outlet for it. How could she blame her teachers, her teammates, even fate? The only thing that was in reach was herself. She would start there. Once she had done right by herself, then she could blame others if they continued to fail her. But she needed to start with herself.
At the gates, Kakashi-sensei released them, one careless eye checking over his genin. If he noticed anything different about Sakura, he didn’t mention it.
“You have a week to recover. Meet at our usual Training Ground seven days from now.” As soon as he finished speaking, he disappeared in an instant, leaves swirling up into the air he displaced. Sasuke and Naruto each turned and headed their own ways with nary a glance behind. Sakura usually would’ve been burned by Sasuke’s easy disregard, but now she couldn’t find it in her to care. What value was a crush? An infatuation? After the experiences they went through in Wave, she couldn’t see the point of such a frivolous waste of time. Not while her literal life was in danger, not to mention others’. She stood there and watched their backs recede into the distance. Later, she thought to herself. All that will have to come later.
People had called her a paper ninja, and for good reason. Her memory and chakra control may be above average, but she had almost no other skills to speak of. The academy had taught her to their woefully inadequate standards of taijutsu, kunai-wielding, and basic genjutsu, but this mission had showed her exactly how useful those skills had been. One thing that they couldn’t take away, though, was her ability to plan. She was no Nara, but she definitely had a knack for developing plans based on all known variables. So that’s what she did. After a quick stop at home (the lights were out, both her parents were probably on a merchant trip) to shower, change, and stow her travel kit, she headed straight for the library with a notebook and a pencil case at her side. It was just past midday – there was plenty of time to do research.
As soon as she arrived, she set up camp in the shinobi section. There were a few people milling around, but no one paid any attention to her. Staring at her open notebook, she began formulating a long-term plan for herself. It was time to be brutally honest about her own capabilities. She was short and skinny. She had almost no chakra to speak of, but good control. Her physical combat skills were laughable, as was her genjutsu. Where to start? She tapped her pencil against the desk and concentrated. Playing to her strengths would be easy, but likely to turn her into a one-trick pony. Focusing on her weaknesses (she winced, since most of the list was made up of weaknesses) would make her more balanced, but she would lack a specialty. She considered how many hours a day she would have. This week would be all hers, but once Team 7 started meeting again, she would probably have less than half the day for her own training. Well, there was the long amounts of time that the team waited for Kakashi-sensei to arrive… For some reason, Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura always ended up arriving at the assigned time, just to wait two or three hours. It wouldn’t be good to completely blow it off by going somewhere else and doing her own training, but maybe that time could be better used. She started sketching out a schedule for herself.
Physical conditioning, first of all. Proficiency over flashiness – she had seen many a time how Kakashi-sensei could easily redirect Sasuke, Naruto, AND her just with his easy movements and a kunai in hand. A sword or flashy technique would do nothing for her if she couldn’t move around with a certain level of ease. She stopped right after that. How would physical conditioning… Go? Yes, she could pull out books and find out about all the best exercises, but she could also overwork and seriously injure herself if she wasn’t careful. Eyeing her first bullet point critically, she considered if she could find some outside help. Most teams trained out in the open, using public (at least to shinobi) training grounds. Team 7, after all, never made an effort to quiet themselves down or hide away. Ergo, she could seek out a more specialized team that used taijutsu or were speed-based in order to ask for training. She didn’t have much to offer in return though… Her best bet was probably scouting around first and seeing if there was something they wanted or if she could skate by with watching their practices and learning some techniques.
That done, she thought a little longer-term about her own body. Although she still had some growing to done, the bulk of it (mainly height-wise) was probably already done. Her arms weren’t particularly long, and she would never be as tall as many of the male shinobi. She needed something to extend her reach… A sword, long or short, seemed a little unbalanced to her. Maybe something she could wear on her hands? She noted that down. That extra bit of reach could definitely help her against men especially, and adding a bit of cutting force never hurt. Speaking of physical traits, she had to do something about her hair. In terms of practicality, it was very low on the list. All throughout Wave, especially with the humidity over there, it had been constantly in her face. She also wrote down Haircut?
That was mostly it for the physical stuff. Ok, now onto her one strength – chakra control. There were a few avenues she could go down: genjutsu was one of them, medical jutsu was another. Both required precise chakra control, and could have devastating effects if applied correct. Or at least, theoretically. If medical jutsu could fix wounds, Sakura had to imagine it could also create some pretty nasty ones. Normal ninjutsu was almost out of the question, at least for now. They would drain her reserves far too quickly, but hopefully that would change as she started conditioning her body. Frowning her paper, she added meditation next to physical conditioning, so as to balance her natural energies for her chakra. She would definitely need to do some research on that. It was pretty much time to start on that research. She rolled her neck, loosening it up after being hunched over the desk. Then she headed towards the stacks to pull the most relevant books. She picked out a survey of taijutsu styles, a similar one on the types of weaponry available in Fire Country, then moved over to the Jutsu section to find ones on the basics of genjutsu and medical jutsu. Then she headed over to the Chakra section to pull several books about the properties and use of chakra, and chakra-centered meditation. It was about to be a long afternoon of skimming.
Several hours later, Sakura could feel the early onset of a headache. She couldn’t even be angry about it, though – she had gained an amazing wealth of information in the short time. She felt an inordinate fondness for the library – there was just so much knowledge stored in the books and scrolls, it was kind of appalling how many shinobi never came in here. There was so much to learn outside of the beaten path. Although she hadn’t chosen a specific style to learn, the taijutsu book had taught her so much about the construction and development of specific styles. For example, many clans had their own signature style – that would explain why Sasuke was so fluid and unlike both Naruto and herself in his katas. They also were designed to emphasize certain characteristics or skills, which is why jounin often learned more than one for use in different situations. The advice it had for smaller practitioners was clear – less was definitely more. The less muscle mass, height, and reach you had, the better you should learn the basics of not only striking but also blocking and dodging, so as to reduce the amount of energy you wasted in motion. Dodging minimally would not only help you reduce energy, but also give you a better vantage point to retaliate. In the case of leaning to the side versus jumping across the field to get away, there was a very clear correct way to do things, even if it was more frightening and required more control. Sakura took diligent notes on basics, if not the katas – she had really taken a liking to the more fluid styles in the book, ones that emphasized redirection of energy instead of matching it with equal force. As for kenjutsu, it was also a hugely helpful book, but she didn’t necessarily feel a connection with any of the ones displayed in the book. The closest she had come was when she saw a pair of ornate knuckle-dusters that a certain noble son had commissioned, but it didn’t give her the reach that she wanted. She resolved to continue research on this front.
She now had a good grounding in the theoretical knowledge of genjutsu and medical jutsu, but both books cautioned the reader against trying anything themselves without oversight – genjutsu could easily turn against its user and trap them in their own illusions, and medical jutsu could literally blow up in your hands if you got the frequency wrong. Either way, she would start with the basic exercises of manipulating her chakra before seeking out tutors to help her figure out the actual practical part of the two arts.
The chakra books were the most informative of them all. There was tons of information about affinity, the technical aspects of accessing, molding, and using chakra, frequencies, and how to improve control. She was buzzing with excitement to try some of the meditation techniques tonight. It seemed strange to her that as good as her control was, she never did many of the things the books recommended, such as accessing her chakra core, feeling her tenketsu, or circulating her chakra. The closest she had come to the latter was when she had to do the tree-walking and water-walking exercises in Wave, though she had pretty much given up the second she had gotten them, waiting for Sasuke’s praise which never came. She sighed. That feeling that people experienced when they thought about their younger self, that overwhelming embarrassment and wow I was really like that huh hit her in full force again, though it was about the person she was barely a handful of days ago. Nothing like almost dying to make her completely turn on her head, though that might not be a bad thing. She shuddered to think what kind of person she would’ve become if a near-death experience hadn’t been enough to totally motivate her into becoming a shinboi before she or someone she cared about died.
After a quick trip to the barber’s to get an almost brutally utilitarian lob, Sakura went home to cook herself dinner. The lob wasn’t that bad, actually. Removing her long hair made her whole face (including her forehead) not seem as thin and long, kind of rounding out her features. The lack of weight kept throwing her off, though. Every time she turned her head she expected that familiar weight to accompany the motion, but nothing would follow. It was nice, in a way. It made her feel lighter, though her body was still dead-tired from traveling.
Standing at the stove, she came to a conundrum. For as long as she could remember, she’d been restricting what she could eat. Not overtly, of course, her mom would’ve thrown a fit if she knew her prepubescent daughter was already dieting. It was just… avoiding certain foods, sometimes saying she was full even though she wasn’t. The book on taijutsu had been very clear – a good diet is paramount to a shinobi’s lifestyle. It would take raw fuel, calories, to sustain her body as it went through brutal training. Yet she hesitated. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to train… It was just that her life was changing, drastically. Had already changed. She felt a little bit lost, alone at home, without even a single person to talk it through with. She checked the calendar, and frowned when she saw that her parents had marked that they wouldn’t be back from Kiri until next week. Perhaps she should go see Ino tomorrow, see how she’s doing. With a pang, Sakura realized she was lonely. It wasn’t like Sasuke and Naruto were especially good company, and she had been with them for the last few weeks. Even before then, she didn’t see many people from her yeargroup ever since they graduated from the Academy. With her casting-aside of her crush of Sasuke, she also started to miss Ino with a fierce intensity. Who let some brooding emo get between them? Hadn’t Ino been her first friend? Mind made up, she decided to stop by the Yamanaka flower shop at some point during her scouting tomorrow. She opened the fridge and glanced at the contents critically. If she was going to train, she was going to do it right. There was no half-assing life or death.
She didn’t realize how good she would feel. Mealtimes made her nervous in the past, because it was almost guaranteed that she would be left hungry. Now that she realized it didn’t have to be that way, eating food was glorious. She felt warmed from the inside out, full and content. She had cooked herself some simple pork and rice, with a side of vegetables, and devoured it all in several minutes. After her travel, after Wave, it was better than almost any other sensation in the world. After quickly washing and keeping the dishes, she retreated to her room to gather her notes on meditation and sit on the floor. Settling into a comfortable lotus on her bed, Sakura started consciously slowing her breathing and focusing inwards. The books cautioned that different personalities often manifested chakra as different sensations – the Inuzuka, for example, almost always experienced it as a smell, and the Aburame as a sensation. Most clan-less shinobi defaulted to visualization, often saw a glowing light-blue ball that hovered above the navel. Sakura was started when something started to come into focus, but it wasn’t necessarily any sort of physical sensation. A sense of being started to sharpen, its location being right in the middle of her ribcage. She could feel the outlines of it, gently pulsing in and out, with the wisps dissipating into the rest of her body. It was modestly-sized, by no means taking up all the space in her body. She slowed her breathing even more and started to follow the wisps. They dispersed into her extremities, diffusing and filling her limbs with a soft blue sensation. Out of curiosity, she consciously tried to gather the wisps back to the core, and was knocked breathless by the utter sense of weakness that suffused her limbs. Sakura winced. Guess that was the real effect of eating so little – her body must have been subconsciously supplementing all of her limbs, which would explain her strangely powerful punches.
She relaxed her core, breathing easier as the chakra whooshed back into her limbs. Slowly, she began to lightly draw the chakra and release it again, nowhere as abruptly as the first time, just breathing in time with her chakra. When she was satisfied with the results, she started cycling the chakra in her body in a counterclockwise direction, creating something akin to a small hurricane in her core. Gently, she ceased the motion only to twist it in the opposite direction, rotating it slowly clockwise. She practiced this several times, trying to ignore the strange spine-chilling sensation that swept through her body every time she reversed the polarity. One thing the books had told her that she had never heard before was that chakra itself had a polarity that affected which side of the body was better suited to using chakra. Many people relied on their dominant side, developing a clockwise or counterclockwise rhythm to their chakra core, often becoming much weaker on their non-dominant hand with chakra manipulation. Sakura frowned at the information, and having decided on a knuckle-based dual-weapon fighting style, decided to make sure that never happened to her.
Opening her eyes, Sakura blinked at the clock on her bedside table. It had gotten late without her even realizing it. She felt strangely exhausted from the meditation, but it wasn’t physical. Guess that’s what the books meant when they said meditation and chakra usage was a drain on the spiritual side, not necessarily the physical. Taking a deep breath, Sakura slowly shifted into a resting position on her bed. This was the first day of her new life. But it wasn’t the last, and it wouldn’t be for a long, long time if she had her way.