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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.

Chapter Text

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!”