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Sakura was crouched on one of the massive walls circling Konoha, or rather the side of one, when a green blur flew past her and nearly knocked her off her perch. Shaking her head in annoyance, she readjusted her position and looked at the rapidly receding dot of green. She had no clue who – or what – it was, but it certainly was rude to blast past like that and not even say sorry. Turning around, she carefully cycled chakra to her back in order to stick it to the wall, leaving her hands and legs free. The book had told her that while channeling chakra to different parts of your body was very much possible, most shinobi never learned beyond their hands and feet. On top of being harder, it was also supposed to help her perform jutsu and/or chakra manipulation with every part of her body as well as increase her reserves, so here she was hanging off the Konoha wall looking like a dead ant. She sniffed and brought her hands up into a basic Earth sign, which she discovered was her affinity when she went to the shinobi supply store this morning to pick up refills for all the stuff she’d lost in Wave as well as some more practical clothing for the shinobi lifestyle – some fitted, grey pants that went to her calf, and several form-fitting long-sleeve shirts that were a muted, almost black purple. She also got a few mesh shirts to layer, strong enough to block most kunai, but not too heavy or inflexible.

Taking a breath, she mentally split the chakra in her core, letting half of it subconsciously fuel the drain in her back from sticking to the wall (which she learned was actually a form of resonance, in which individuals synced their frequencies to inanimate objects to briefly fuse them together) and bringing the other half into her palms. There, she practiced rapidly cycling, expanding, and compressing her chakra. She smugly noted that even with one night’s meditation, her chakra seemed not only more malleable, but also slightly larger. The other half wasn’t just resting – she also sent it into the wall, expanding her perception of the vibrations that the large object was picking up. She could feel the minuscule touches of various small animals and birds alighting on the wall before taking off again, someone at one of the nearby gates leaning on the wall and some sort of rhythmic… cough? Oh, laughter. She frowned as something furiously approached from all the way down the wall, coming closer steadily. She opened her eyes and flipped up onto the beaten path of the top of the wall, settling onto the balls of her feet as she shaded her eyes and gazed into the distance. A large dust cloud was chasing whatever was manically approaching – running – in her direction. As it got closer, she saw that it was the same green disturbance that had nearly knocked her off in the first place. She was a little nervous at the prospect of standing in its way, but if it was a Konoha shinobi, they would know better than to run over a fellow nin… Right?

Not wanting to take any chances, Sakura cautiously assessed the blur as it came ever closer. When it was almost close enough for her to pick out details (blackhairaBOWLCUTwhatarethoseEYEBROWS) she shoved a hand forward and yelled with her gifted lungs:

“STOP!” she bellowed loud enough for nearby trees to empty themselves of their resident birds. The green thing screeched to a halt barely a meter away, the cloud of dust doing no such thing and enveloping them both. As Sakura squinted through the debris, she made out a boy, not much older than her, sporting the most obnoxious green bodysuit she’d ever seen and orange leg warmers. He was panting, flushed but not exhausted, which was terrifying considering the fact that Sakura was pretty sure he had run at least two laps of Konoha before she stopped him. He straightened up and stared at her, and Sakura could’ve sworn she saw stars start to form in his black pupils.

“You are such a beautiful, delicate flower! Allow me to introduce myself! I am Rock Lee, soon-to-be the Second Beautiful Wild Green Beast of Konoha! Please introduce yourself to me so that I may know your name!” He spoke rapidly and with a strange amount of purpose. Sakura eyed him warily. While it was flattering to be described as a ‘beautiful, delicate flower,’ it was also a little condescending. There couldn’t be much harm in just talking to this ‘Lee’ character, though.

“I’m Haruno Sakura.” She said curtly. She eyed his leg warmers, and thought a bit more about his… Unusual training methods. “Do you specialize in taijutsu?”

His eyes practically lit up at the mention. Bingo.

“Yes! Gai-senpai is my sensei, and I too, endeavor to one day be a master of taijutsu!”

Sakura’s eyebrows rose. His sensei was a taijutsu master? Looks like she struck gold here.

“Could you introduce me to him? I’ve been looking for a sensei to speak to about taijutsu and physical conditioning.” Sakura requested politely, making eye contact with Lee’s strangely intense and yet well-meaning gaze. He wiped the sweat from his forehead with one of the bright orange arm warmers he also had on, giving Sakura the opportunity to examine his VERY toned arm muscles under the bodysuit, and glanced at the sun.

“Gai-sensei will not be done with his own training till at least dinner, but you are welcome to meet us at 7 at Training Ground 2.” He informed her. Matters about his sensei over, he then beamed at her. “Will you accompany me, fair maiden, on a date before then?”

“Er…” Sakura glanced helplessly at him. Again, flattering but really awkward. “I’m sorry Lee, I don’t really have time to go on dates. I’m focusing on training.”

“YOSH!” Lee hollered. “I am inspired by your dedication to your training! Like you, I will renew my determination to become stronger!”

That being said, he nodded farewell, then took off at a dead sprint along the wall, rapidly disappearing into the distance. Sakura was envious of his speed, and of his spirit. God only knows how his teammates put up with his exuberant amount of energy. She hadn’t ever seen him in the Academy, so he must’ve been out of her year. Maybe he was already a chunin? It didn’t seem likely that other genin would be as hardworking as him – they were mostly complacent. Noting the time and location of the meeting, she settled back onto the side of the wall to continue her meditation. After seeing him several more times, and waving each time, she glanced up at the sun and decided to make a stop by Ino’s place before dinner. Sakura leapt down from the wall, wincing a bit when she realized how much of her reserves she’d used on exercises today. As she leapt from rooftop to rooftop, though, she realized how much her control had improved. She could feel how little chakra she had to use to enhance her jumps, and felt a little sheepish about how much she had been wasting before. Then she shuddered – if she was wasting a lot of chakra on inefficiencies, she didn’t even want to imagine how much Naruto wasted. Even before she started the exercises, she had always had a sense of other peoples’ chakra. Naruto’s saturated the air around him, constantly leaking out of his body because of how much he had. She doubted he even knew that it was happening. Not for the first time, she felt envious of how easily jutsu came to Sasuke and Naruto. Sniffing a bit, she hopped from building to building, reasoning that her control was bounds and leaps ahead of theirs, and there’s a lot more she could accomplish than some sparkly and wasteful jutsu. That being said, she made a mental note to check out the D-Rank in the Jutsu section of the library to see if she could find something flashy and potentially useful for herself as an indulgence. It’s the least she deserved.

Landing gracefully in front of the Yamanaka Flowers storefront, she peered in the windows to see if Ino was working the counter. Thankfully, she was, sitting on a stool and staring off into the distance, twirling a pencil between her fingers. A strand of hair fell into her face and she irritatedly brushed it behind her ear. Sakura smiled fondly and slipped in through the front door, which let loose a light tinkling of bells. Ino glanced over, surprise written on her face.

“Forehead? What are you doing here?” She tried for hostile, but just fell back into confusion. Sakura smiled at the nickname – most people considered it rude, but after a few years it was pretty endearing.

“Coming to see you, what else?” She teased. “It’s been forever. I wanted to see how you were.” Ino scrunched her face up and eyed Sakura suspiciously. After a few seconds, she seemed to decide that there wasn’t any kind of deceit going on.

“I’ve been alright… My team has just been doing D-Ranks almost every day and some ‘teamwork exercises’ when we’re not busy.” She grouched. Eying Sakura, she opened up a bit more. “and I’m so SICK of that lazy ass Shikamaru… How hard can it be to just finish a few exercises? We always catch him sneaking away to go cloud-watching… I swear he’ll be the death of me.”

Sakura hummed a bit. She wasn’t especially close to either Shikamaru or Chouji in the Academy, but she knew Ino had to be placed on the team she got because of some family dynasty. It was refreshing to talk to someone that wasn’t on Team 7, was seemingly unaffected by all the new and terrifying things that had been coming into Sakura’s life. She didn’t want to be condescending, but it was endearing how… Fresh Ino still seemed. She still had her childhood.

“Honestly, that sounds kind of nice.” She admitted. Ino raised an eyebrow. “We just got back from a really traumatizing C-Rank to Wave Country that got way out of hand.”

Ino immediately glared suspiciously.

“Is this why you came here? To brag?” She huffed, staring down her nose at Sakura. “Honestly, Forehead, I thought you were actually being nice.”

Sakura shook her head in frustration and grabbed Ino’s arm.

“Ino… It’s not like that. I swear.” She looked in her eyes, trying to convey the emotions that were still churning inside her, leftover from Wave. “It was terrible. Really bad. We all could’ve died. I didn’t come here to brag. I came here… for help.”

Ino softened immediately, placing one of her own hands over Sakura.

“Oh. Sorry then.” She muttered from under her bangs. Sakura sighed.

“You know I don’t care about all that Sasuke stuff anymore, okay?” At Ino’s inquisitive glance, she continued. “I don’t want some stupid crush to get in the way of my survival… Or my friendships.”

Ino curled her fingers into Sakura’s. She looked almost relieved.

“Good. I was kind of sick of the whole ‘rivals’ thing anyway.” She waved her other hand and stuck her nose up in fake-arrogance. “As if I’d want someone like you as a rival anyway.”

Sakura honest-to-god squawked, and the noise startled both her and Ino into childish laughter. Wiping her eyes, she smiled ear-to-ear.

“It’s good to be like this again. I missed it.” She tugged Ino’s hand, pulling her off the stool she was perched on. “Let’s talk over early dinner. We can get barbecue.”

Ino easily went along, letting herself be pulled. She turned her head, sending her long blonde hair sailing over her shoulder, and shouted towards the back room.

“Kaa-san! I’m heading out for dinner!” There wasn’t a reply, but Ino turned around, satisfied with her effort, and skipped out the front door, pulling Sakura behind her. “Let’s get dango after, I’ve been craving it all day.”

Dinner was over much quicker than expected. Sakura had worried that their friendship would be different somehow, ruined by their time apart, but she shouldn’t have feared – the two had slipped right back into it without a splash. They wandered from snack place to snack place, gossiping about everyone in the Konoha 9, the bowl-cut boy Sakura had seen earlier that day (“Oh! I think he’s in Team Gai… I’ve heard of them from my dad”), and training. By 7, Sakura had heard more than she ever cared for about Shikamaru’s bad habits, Chouji’s constant snacking, and their sensei’s bad habit of sneaking off for a smoke during training. She turned to Ino.

“This has been really great.” She said seriously. Ino glanced at her, taken aback by her strange demeanor. “I’m really glad we got our friendship back. It really wasn’t worth throwing away.”

“Duh, Forehead.” Ino smiled and bumped shoulders with Sakura. “Don’t worry about it. Dango?”

She held the skewer up to Sakura’s face. Sakura chuckled softly.

“No thanks, I’m way too full. I have a meeting about now, though, so I’ll see you some other time?”

“Don’t be a stranger.” Ino unexpectedly drew Sakura into a hug, surrounding the both of them in the cloud of her platinum hair. Then she turned and skipped off in the direction of home, waving the snack. Sakura snorted softly. Only Ino could actually skip and not look ridiculous doing it. Glancing up at a nearby building, she gathered chakra and leap up onto the roof. Consulting her mental map of Konohagakure, she headed off in the direction of Training Ground 2. While it wasn’t far at all, all the sweets made her feel sluggish. As it came into view, she noticed that standing next to Lee was an… Older version of himself. Her eyebrow twitched. And here she thought Lee was uniquely cursed in terms of fashion sense. It seems he had learned it from someone else.

Standing behind Lee were two more people, a girl with long brown hair tied up in two buns, an array of sealing scrolls arranged on her belt. The other was definitely a Hyuuga – he had the distinctively pale eyes. His long, glossy black hair laid straight down his back. He was the only one who glanced up as she approached, and she was struck by his direct, emotionless gaze. She landed a little bit in front of Lee, and put on her most charming smile. No one batted an eye – even the ones who weren’t Hyuuga probably sensed her approach.

Gai-sensei turned to smile at her. His teeth were almost unrealistically bright and square.

“Ah, this is the youthful student that Lee-kun informed me about just now!” He shouted. Sakura winced a little bit at the volume. She nodded her head and kept up her smile.

“Yes, I am Haruno Sakura, currently on Team 7. I was hoping to be able to receive some tutelage in taijutsu or physical conditioning, since my team is not meeting for a while. I hope that’s not too much trouble.”

“Never apologize for your desire to learn!” Gai bellowed. He looked at Lee, and the two shared a tearful gaze. “What a beautiful thing it is, to encounter one such as yourself who so possesses a drive and desire like my Lee-kun! It is truly heartwarming!”

Sakura glanced over at Lee’s two teammates, who seemed to take this turn of events without a batting an eyelash. The girl looked sympathetically at Sakura, mouthing I’m sorry visibly. Sakura raised an eyebrow. So this was normal? She looked at Hyuuga, who was trying very hard (and succeeding) at looking completely disinterested. Wow, he and Sasuke had a lot in common. He glanced at Sakura, and she was taken aback by the utter disdain in his eyes. What crawled up his asshole and died? As far as she knew, she’d never even met the guy. There was no reason for such a hateful gaze. She hurriedly looked back at Gai. He wiped a single tear away, before clearing his throat and speaking.

“Of course, I would be happy to offer some tutelage in the art of taijutsu, and also assign a proper conditioning regimen. I would not want to impose on your own team training, however.”

“Oh, that won’t be a problem. We’re not meeting till next week, and Kakashi-sensei doesn’t usually assign us anything so I’ll have time even after then.” Sakura sheepishly admitted, thinking back (a little bitterly) on how little Kakashi had taught them outside of Wave. Gai’s (thick, bushy, terrifying) eyebrows flew up on his forehead.

“KAKASHI-sensei? Could it be that my new, youthful student is the genin of Kakashi, my Eternal Rival?”

“I… Yes?” Sakura didn’t know how to respond. She couldn’t really envision Kakashi agreeing to enter some rivalship with this eccentric green man, though it’s totally possible that the rivalry was one-sided. Still, should she tread carefully? Did Gai-sensei hate Kakashi? Unexpectedly, his eyes filled up with tears again.

“It warms my heart to see one of Kakashi’s hip young students coming to seek additional training! I cannot be outdone! Lee! You, too, must embark on extra training in order to surpass Kakashi’s students!” He completely neglected the girl and the Hyuuga, focusing his intense gaze and shout on Lee, who stood ramrod straight and shouted in response: “HAI! Sensei!”

“Come here every day at 5 in the morning – I’ll run you through a severe gauntlet through the next week, then assign you long-term physical conditioning for your own practice.” Gai turned back to Sakura and blessed her with another blinding smile. Sakura blanched. 5 in the morning? Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea, after all… She shook her head. This is what she wanted. Brutal, soul-crushing training. Or had she forgotten the utter feeling of fear and shame that she experienced in Wave? She never wanted that again. Steeling her resolve, she nodded in acknowledgment. “Before you go, please meet my wonderful genin team. This is Lee, as you know, and these two are Tenten and Neji.”

Sakura politely smiled at the two, receiving in return a smile from Tenten and a disinterested grunt from Neji. What was his problem? She already had to deal with one brooding genius clan kid or whatever, she did not need a second one in her life. She politely refrained from frowning at him, but it was close. She bowed to Gai-sensei, then to his team.

“Thank you very much for your generous offer.” She politely dipped her head towards Gai. Glancing at the team, who were for all intents and purpose, three opposite personalities, she added: “I hope to see you all around.”

With that, she turned on her heel and leap back up to the rooftop that she descended from, making her careful way home. Konoha truly was filled with all kinds of strange and powerful people, the more powerful, the more eccentric. She scoffed to herself. Just getting to Jounin probably required going through some severe trauma, so it made sense. Were there any ninja therapists? She’d have to imagine that it would be a necessity, if not at least common. She marked that on one of her mental to-do lists: Figure out if there are therapists, and maybe get one?

Sleep came easy that night, even though she slept early. She did have an appointment at 5, after all. If only she knew how bad it was going to be, she would’ve cherished every last second even more.

 

**

 

Waking at 4:30, she sleepily ran a brush through her shoulder-length hair, brushed her teeth, ate a quick breakfast, and was out the door by 4:50. The brisk Spring air, not yet fully developing into the warmer Summer mornings, was refreshing on her face. She brought nothing but a water bottle and the clothes on her body, which were some standard-grade shinobi active wear. Making it to the training ground with seconds to spare, she landed in front of Gai-sensei, who was doing stretches alongside Lee. She nodded at both of them, unsurprised to see Lee there. He was, after all, the type of guy who seemed like he’d regularly do training at the crack of dawn. Gai gave her a blinding smile.

“My youthful student!” He yelled. Sakura swore she could see the sound waves exiting his body and traveling across the landscape, a ripple in the crisp morning air. Looks like this would be a staple. “Today, you will be joining Lee-kun and I on our morning run. We will each do 10 laps of Konohagakure before we begin stretches and katas, then move into light sparring.”

Sakura instantly paled. Of course, she had seen Lee running laps but… She hadn’t really expected that she would join him. What sane person would? Ten laps of Konoha? The very, very large town of Konoha? Gai-sensei grinned, seemingly unaware of her sudden dread.

“Of course, because this is physical conditioning, I would ask that you refrain from using chakra.” He added. If Sakura could have physically paled further, she would’ve. Chakra was the only thing keeping her frail body in working condition. As it was, without chakra, she didn't even know if she could run a single mile. She steeled herself. She would do this. It was necessary. Trying to still her trembling hands, she gave a nod much firmer than she felt. In the few minutes before they began, she carefully emulated the stretches that Gai and Lee were doing. She was much more flexible than them, probably due to her overt lack of muscles, but she could feel what she had loosening up and warming. Good, they were ready to be pulverized.

By 10, she had passed out twice. Sakura had never, ever, passed out before. Come close to peeing herself in a battle? Yeah. Almost died? Pretty much. Passed out? Nope. So that’s a new achievement, kind of. By halfway through her first lap, when she passed out for the first time, Gai-sensei had taken pity on her and allowed her a marginal use of chakra, though he warned that as she got stronger and faster he would take her off again. The chakra surging through her limbs like a minty boost let her complete her first lap, and her second, but then she hit empty again halfway through her third. Her blisters had blisters. Her skin felt like it was made of sweat. She literally could not feel her legs. She developed a brand new and searing sense of appreciation for Lee’s practically effortless laps around her, barely out of breath. Feeling like she was at death’s door, she blacked out immediately after crossing the starting line on her fourth lap.

As she blearily came back to consciousness to the sight of two identical concerned faces, Gai decided to move onto katas and forgo her remaining 6 laps, though he warned she would have to make it up in the future. Sakura almost sobbed in combined gratitude and horror. She drank some water as Gai brought her some enhanced rations – somewhere between normal food and a soldier pill, it was supposed to help her recover faster. After they finished their brief break, Sakura struggled to her feet, feeling like a toddler just learning to walk, and tried to pay attention as Gai started showing her the katas for a Southern Fire Country style taijutsu. It kind of reminded Sakura of the Academy style, but much more advanced. It had lots of fluid motions, but was also pretty simple and easy to build upon, probably a good place to start for a beginner like her.

She forced her creaking joints to obey her as she obediently settled into the katas, wincing at the pull on her extremely sore muscles. Surprisingly, the rations seem to have already worked, at least a little bit, because she felt a lot more sure on her feet than a few minutes ago. She went through the stances one-by-one under Gai’s watchful eye, every now and then increasing the speed that she moved through the katas. It took an hour or two of excruciatingly detailed stances that always got handily corrected by Gai the second she was a millimeter out of place, but she felt relatively confident in her memory of each individual stance.

That all changed when Lee attacked her out of nowhere. She hadn’t even noticed that he wasn’t at training with her, but she sure noticed when he leap at her and side-kicked her into next Monday. Good Lord, why was there so much force? It felt like an elephant falling on her, horizontally. She really only was conscious that it happened once she was midair, and then she was concerned about how she was going to land. The answer, probably? Badly. Thankfully, her fall was immediately neutralized by something tall and green, which was probably Gai. She tried to thank him, but promptly croaked. Her ribs were bruised to all hell.

He set her down on her two unsteady (but functional) feet, and turned to look disapprovingly at Lee. His impressive eyebrows drew down together like two caterpillars meeting each other.

“Lee, we have talked about control before.” He admonished, still managing to sound exuberant somehow. Lee hung his head.

“I apologize, sensei!” He turned to Sakura, giving her a truly mournful look. “Sakura! I apologize to you as well! It was careless of me to invest too much force in that kick, knowing you were unprepared! I was supposed to surprise you, but I did not regulate my kick!”

Sakura rubbed her rapidly-developing, full-torso bruise, but gave him a rueful smile.

“Don’t worry about it Lee, I’ve definitely had worse. I just have to worker harder, is all.” She ran her hands through her hair. “So I assume sparring is going to happen now?”

She tried not to sound too glum. It meant their training was two-thirds through for the day. She was so far past despair that even the smallest hope could motivate her. Never mind the thought that she had to get through sparring with Lee or Gai-sensei, or god forbid, both of them, in order to get to the part of the day where she could collapse in her home and sleep for 16 hours. Gai gave her one of his trademark smiles.

“My youthful student! It is so heartening to see you still so eager to train. You and Lee will do controlled spars for several minutes at a time as I referee and correct your stances. Try to keep in mind the stances I have just taught you, making them instinct is all part of the learning.” Having finished his instruction, he walked over to Lee and had a short conversation with him before adjusting something on his arm and leg warmers. Sakura wandered over, curious about what was happening.

“What are you doing, sensei?” She asked. Up close, she could see that Gai was fiddling with some sort of paper seal under Lee’s leg warmer. There was some ink, it looked like a seal – it glowed bright blue as Gai adjusted it with his chakra, presumably, then faded back to black as he tugged the leg warmer back up. Lee beamed at her.

“Gai-sensei is making my weights heavier!” He announced. Sakura frowned. Lee ran laps around the village, and kicked her to hell and back without announcing his presence… While wearing weights? It wasn’t that surprising considering Gai-sensei’s training routine. She supposed if she had been doing that kind of training for years, as it seemed Lee had, she’d be crazy jacked too. She could only be the tiniest bit of glad that it would slow Lee down, even marginally, as they sparred.

Not that that was saying much – he was nearly as fast, almost too fast to see. She had to strain her eyes just to catch a blur of which direction he approached from. Thankfully, the style that Gai had taught her that day was a smooth, flowing style that often favored dodges over blocks, allowing her to handily step out of the way or redirect Lee’s kicks, leaving the earth or nearby trees to bear the full brunt of his force. Attacking was much harder. Even though she’d been practicing kata, Sakura hadn’t really ever… Tried to hurt someone in combat. It was theoretically possible, especially as she trained, but the imagined visceral sensation of jamming a fist or foot into someone else’s body wasn’t a pleasant one.

“Stop!” Gai called. Lee blurred to a stop in front of her, breathing slightly heavy. He gave her an enthusiastic thumbs up. Sakura rubbed the few bruises she had received from glancing blows, but was proud of the fact that she didn’t take any directly. “Both of you, very good. Lee, you are adjusting to your new weights admirably. Sakura, he didn’t land a full hit once, very good.”

Sakura swelled at the praise. It wasn’t the first time, but having a jounin sensei say that she was doing “very good” was an amazing feeling. She knew Gai wasn’t one to mince words, either. He wouldn’t say anything overtly rude, but he also wouldn’t praise someone for no reason. She knew she had earned it with her literal sweat and tears today.

“Sakura, I sense some hesitancy with retaliation. Is there an issue?” He asked. Sakura winced a little bit.

“It’s not really an issue, it’s just…” She glanced at Lee, hoping not to be embarrassed. “I’ve never really done intense spars, my team usually pulls punches. I’ve never really hit anyone before.”

Gai gazed down at her, his eyes softening a bit. He crouched down so that he was looking up at her.

“There is nothing to be ashamed about, Sakura. We’ll get you there, but I admire the fact that you do not have a senseless attitude of rage, as so many young shinobi have. I suspect you already know this, but this power you want to gain – it must be in service to your friends, family, and the village, never your own greed or hatred. I admire you.”

Sakura blushed, feeling put on the spot by all the nice things Gai was saying. He seemed serious, forgoing his usual loud persona. She nodded once, and he smiled and leapt to his full height.

“Good! Let my two youthful students continue their sparring until lunch!” Sakura settled into a relaxed neutral stance, able to flow into attack or defense in an instant, her hands up. Lee flashed her a smile and settled into his own stance. Gai stood a bit further back, his hand up.

 

“Begin!”