XXXVI: Strength


"Hey, Mama," Sarada called out, sitting on the living room couch, holding a book in her hands.

"Yes, Sarada?" Sakura responded, stepping in from another room in the house.

Sarada flipped a page, reading the first couple of lines before speaking. "How come you never told me about how amazing Grandpa Kakashi is?"

"Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura questioned. "What do you mean?"

"He was the youngest jonin in the history of the Hidden Leaf," Sarada said, lowering her book. "When he was the same age that I am today he was already one of the best shinobi in the village!"

Sakura brought a hand up to her chin, considering this line of thought for a moment. "I guess. Well, I suppose if I were to rank all the shinobi I've ever come across on pure skill, he'd probably come out on top."

"You think Grandpa Kakashi is stronger than Naruto-sensei?" Sarada asked.

"Oh no," Sakura replied, waving the notion away. "Naruto has him beat in terms of power, but it seems like Kakashi-sensei is good at any skill you could want out of a shinobi. Ninjutsu, taijutsu, genjutsu, tracking, strategy. Hell, if he showed up at the hospital one day and said he'd been brushing up on his medical ninjutsu, I'd probably see how he'd do in the surgery room."

"But why didn't you ever tell me?" Sarada asked.

"How could I?!" Sakura exclaimed. "It's always so cute when you call him Grandpa!"

Sarada blushed. "I didn't understand how important the Hokage was when I was a kid."

"Yeah," Sakura said, sighing. "I was kind of sad when you stopped calling Naruto Uncle."

Sarada's blush intensified. "Well, Lord Seventh's inauguration was the first time I realized how important the Hokage is to everyone in the village."

"What's got you so riled up anyway?" Sakura asked, walking over to her daughter. "You've never been one to talk about how great ninja are."

Sakura made to grab the book in Sarada's hands, but her daughter pulled it away. "Come on, let me see it," the Uchiha matriarch said.

Sarada relented, holding up the book so Sakura could see the cover.

"'Great Stone Faces: A History of the Hokage,'" Sakura read aloud. "Is this what's got you going?"

"Yeah," Sarada said, laughing nervously. "I figured that since I want to be Hokage, I should read up on past Hokage."

"I see," Sakura commented. "Well, I'm glad you're doing some research. Still, you do realize that I'm a pretty good resource when it comes to this stuff, right? I've trained under two of the Hokage and was teammates with a third."

Sarada laid her book down on the couch. "I know, Mama. But...I don't know. I think that would be weird."

"What's weird?" Sakura asked, brow raised. "The Hokage are people too, you know."

Sarada stood up and began walking out of the room. "I get it, Mama. I've got to get going, we have a training session with Naruto-sensei today."

"Oh, alright then," Sakura replied.

Sarada went to her room and packed up her supplies. Taking one last chance to take inventory and make sure she wasn't leaving anything behind, a thought came to the young Uchiha. Returning to the living room, she took the book from where she had left it on the couch and stuffed it into her bag.

Standing on top of a tree, Sarada watched her teammates below, training with the Hokage. More accurately, it was a shadow clone of the Hokage, but Sarada didn't mind. She knew that Naruto was a busy person and furthermore that her eyes could not see the difference.

After completing some basic exercises, Naruto had introduced the genin to a new challenge, with the aim of reaching the top of a tall tree without using your hands. The Hokage had demonstrated how to use chakra on the bottom of the foot to climb vertical surfaces, proving that it could be done. Still, Naruto had shown himself to be very poor at explaining the theory or the mechanics behind it, frustrating his students. Sarada had, through a combination of experimentation and observation with her Sharingan, managed to figure it out and make her way to the top of the tallest tree she could find. Her teammates, on the other hand, had no such luck and were continuing to struggle with the exercise. Deciding that she'd spent enough time up there, Sarada made her way down from the tree top.

"Oh, Sarada," Naruto said as his student reached the ground. "I see you've done it. Want to help your teammates?"

"Actually, I've a library book I've been using for research," Sarada replied, pointing at her bag, which sat on a nearby bench. "I'd like to finish it up before I have to return it."

"Alright," Naruto said, nodding. "Hey, Ronin," he called out, turning his attention to the boy. "You've got to feel the chakra in your soles!"

"What the hell does that mean?!" Ronin yelled back, standing up after his most recent failed attempt.

Sarada walked away, ignoring Naruto's poor explanations and Ronin's cries that they weren't good enough. Sitting on the bench, Sarada pulled her book out and opened it.

"Let's see," Sarada said to herself, leafing through pages. "Which Hokage will we learn about today?" She stopped on the profile of the Fourth Hokage. Reading through the list of the Yellow Flash's achievements, Sarada's eyes grew steadily wider and wider.

"The only shinobi ever to have a flee-on-sight order ever placed on them by a foreign power," Sarada read out loud. "How would someone ever accomplish something like that?"

"Hey, are you reading 'Great Stone Faces?'" someone asked just outside of Sarada's vision.

"Ah!" Sarada yelled, recoiling and dropping the book from her hands.

"Oh, sorry," Natsuko said, leaning over and picking up the book. "I was just stopping for some water and saw you reading."

Sarada studied her teammate. She was not acting like the same happy go lucky girl Sarada had gone to the Academy with, but neither was she the broken child who'd come home from their first mission. "Yeah, I am," Sarada finally answered the initial question, taking the book from Natsuko.

"That's pretty cool," Natsuko commented, reaching into her bag and grabbing a bottle of water. "I remember some of the boys in our class used to pass around a copy of that book. We could sit around and talk about how amazing the Hokage were for hours."

Sarada slapped herself on the forehead. She couldn't believe that she had fallen into the same trap as those ninja-fans she had always hated, always fawning over the achievements of past shinobi, talking about how cool they were. Here she was, so enamored with what the Hokage had accomplished that she couldn't see past it. Where had her objectivity gone?

"Say, have you already completed the exercise?" Natsuko asked, breaking Sarada from her thoughts.

"Um, yeah," the young Uchiha answered.

"Great!" Natsuko responded. "Do you think you could help out? Give me some tips?" She pointed over her shoulder at her tree, marked only about a third of the way up.

"Are you sure?" Sarada queried. "I would have thought that this isn't cool enough for you."

Natsuko's head dipped to the side, obviously confused by this line of thinking. "I mean, it's what Naruto-sensei said, isn't it? Shinobi are those who endure. Naruto-sensei and every other great ninja must have been like us once, right? Just students learning the basics. They only got to be cool by working hard, so I'll do the same." She gave a thumbs up and a smile, not a big one, but a smile none the less.

Sarada turned 'Great Stone Faces' over in her hands. "Look at you, showing me up."

"Sorry, what was that?" Natsuko asked, holding her hand to her ear. "I couldn't make out what you were saying."

"Nothing," Sarada said, putting the book back in her bag. "I'll help you."

"Awesome!" Natsuko exclaimed. She put her water bottle down and ran back to her tree.

Sarada got up and followed her, activating her Sharingan as her teammate began her latest climb. Natsuko dashed up the trunk, chakra gushing from her feet, coming out in uneven bunches. The girl only made it about a third of the way up before slipping and losing her momentum. Sarada glanced over at Naruto, who was still trying to demonstrate the technique to Ronin. In contrast to the huge amounts of chakra that Natsuko was using, there was only a small but steady amount coming from Naruto's feet.

"Hey, Natsuko," Sarada said, kneeling down next to the girl. "I think you're using too much chakra."

"You think so?" Natsuko replied.

Sarada nodded. "I was comparing your technique with Naruto sensei's using my Sharingan. He was using a lost less chakra and I think it has more to do with using a constant, steady amount than just lots of energy."

"Oh, OK!" Natsuko exclaimed. Closing her eyes, the genin refocused her chakra and began climbing up the tree once more. While it still wasn't an exact match to Naruto, Sarada noticed, it was still a lot better than her previous attempt. Natsuko managed to make it two thirds of the way up the tree, doubling her previous record, before falling back down to Earth.

"Thanks, Sarada!" Natsuko yelled, holding out her hand for a high-five. "I think I'll be able to get this down soon!"

Sarada paused, unsure what to make of the moment. But then she smiled and reciprocated Natsuko's appeal for a high-five. "Go for it," she said as their hands met.

"Yeah!" Natsuko yelled as she charged up the tree again.

Smiling, Sarada took her leave. She approached Ronin and Naruto to see what she could do with them.

"Hey, Sarada," her sensei said. "You think you can help me explain this to Ronin? I can't seem to get through to him."

Ronin threw his hands in the air. "Great, the prodigy gets a prodigy to try and explain it. Why don't you go get someone who had to actually work to get where they're at? Maybe they can actually explain it in decipherable way!"

"Hey!" Sarada yelled, pushing Ronin in the shoulder. "You have no idea how hard any of us have had to work!"

Ronin shoved her back. "We don't all get to inherit Kekkai Genkai, Uchiha." He turned to Naruto. "And we don't all get to be Jinchuriki."

"Listen," Naruto said with a calm gravitas that demanded both of his student's attention and silence. "It isn't about whether someone has a Kekkai Genkai, comes from a famous clan, or any other kind of advantage. It's about how you use what you got, and just because someone has certain advantages doesn't mean they aren't suffering or struggling in other ways."

Sarada was taken aback by her sensei's words. Not because of what he said, but because of his face as he was saying it. He had the look of someone for whom suffering and struggle was more than an abstract concept.

"Whatever," Ronin said, turning around and walking away. Sarada moved to follow him.

"Let him go," Naruto cautioned, holding Sarada by the shoulder. "Give him some space to cool down."

"OK," Sarada conceded. "Hey, can I head home?"

"Well," Naruto said, thinking it through. "Go ahead, you've already finished the exercise."

Sarada nodded before heading off to get her stuff. "Thank you, sensei."

"No problem," Naruto replied, moving to check on Natsuko.

While she was gathering her materials, Sarada's hand brushed up against the book in her bag. She pulled it out and looked at the cover. "Hokage are people too, huh?"

Sarada was laying on the couch when she heard the front door open. "Mama, is that you?"

"Yes," the response came. A few moments later Sakura came into the Uchiha family's living room. "Hm? You're not reading your book? Way you were engrossed with it this morning, I would have thought you'd have your nose in it still."

"No, I returned it to the library," Sarada said.

"Oh, OK," Sakura replied. "Any reason why?"

"I just...felt I wasn't getting what I wanted out of it," Sarada answered. "Hey, Mama?" she added, sitting up.

"Yes, Sarada?" Sakura responded.

"Can you tell me about Naruto-sensei growing up?" Sarada asked. "I know he was an orphan there anything more?"

Sakura sat down next to her daughter. "Sure! Tell me what you want to know."

"Well," Sarada began, "was it...hard for him? Did he suffer a lot?"

"Yeah, I guess," Sakura replied, suddenly nervous. "I mean, we all did, in our own ways."

"Mama, stop," Sarada said.

"Stop what?" Sakura asked.

Sarada sighed. "Whenever you, or Aunt Ino, or any of your other friends are talking about the past, there are always parts you gloss over."

Sakura paused for a moment. "I guess that there are certain things that we've tried to protect you guys from. I think we just never wanted you to be burdened by the past in the same way we were. Where are you getting this from anyway?"

"One of my teammates, Ronin," Sarada began. "He's really smart, but he hates anyone who has an 'unfair advantage.' Things like coming from a famous clan or having a Kekkai Genkai. Today he said that Naruto-sensei couldn't teach him properly because he's a prodigy who had the advantage of being a Jinchuriki."

"I see," Sakura said. "That is harsh."

"But Naruto-sensei said something," Sarada continued. "Something about how just because someone has certain advantages doesn't mean they don't suffer or struggle. The way he said it, I couldn't help but think that there was something more behind that, and that maybe he was talking about himself."

Sakura placed her hand on her daughter's back. "Knowing Naruto, he was probably talking about people other than himself, but I'd say the same applies to him."

"Really?" Sarada asked. "Please, tell me. Because I think you were right, the Hokage are people. And if I want to become one, I need to understand them as people."

Sakura took a deep breath. "Have you ever seen Naruto's Nine-Tails chakra?"

"Yes," Sarada answered.

"How did it feel to you?" Sakura asked.

Sarada thought back to her first mission with Team Naruto. "It felt warm. Comforting. Like it didn't matter what happened, because Naruto-sensei would make sure things turned out OK."

"That sounds about right," Sakura replied before her expression become more downcast. "Except it wasn't always like that."

Sarada watched her mother with bated breath, at a loss for words.

"It only became like that after Naruto learned to control the Nine-Tails' power," Sakura continued. "Whenever he tried to use it before that it would lash out at everyone, friend or foe. Even worse, the fox would try to take control of Naruto and harm him."

"I see," Sarada finally said. "That sounds...really terrible."

"I know that might be hard for you to understand," Sakura said. "For your generation the Nine-Tails is a kind of guardian spirit dwelling inside the Hokage, and I suppose it is. But it only became like that because Naruto worked incredibly hard for it."

"At least he had you and all his other friends to help him," Sarada commented, trying to offer a smile. "Right, Mama?"

"Yes, eventually," Sakura replied.

"Eventually?" Sarada questioned.

Sakura averted her eyes, clearly thinking of uncomfortable memories. "People in the village hated Naruto, they just saw him as another form of the Nine-Tails that had rampaged through the village. They were afraid of him too, because they thought that at any moment the Fox might return to wreck havoc. So he was ostracized by most of the adults in the village. The Third Hokage ordered that no one speak about the Nine-Tails being sealed in Naruto, hoping that younger people like us would be able to befriend him without fear. But that didn't stop our parents and other adults from treating him with suspicion or trying to keep us away from him. Pretty soon we were ostracizing Naruto like the adults were."

Feelings of guilt began welling up in Sarada, in part for making her mother recall a difficult time in her life, but also for not realizing what her parents' generation had gone through. "I'm sure that you made it up for him later, though, right?" Sarada offered.

"When we were in the Academy I wanted nothing to do with Naruto. I thought he was an annoying failure, so of course everyone ignored him. Even when we became teammates I continued to distance myself from him," Sakura admitted. "But even then, the more time went on the more we became friends." Sakura clenched her fist, a look of remembered determination on her face. "When I finally learned everything about what Naruto had gone through, I swore that I would support him from that point on."

Sakura relaxed, putting her hand on her daughter's head and mussing her hair. "I think all of our friends came to the same conclusion themselves. But it went both ways, we supported Naruto, but Naruto had to endure for himself and become stronger, and in the end we relied on him too."

Sarada sat quietly, trying to absorb all of this information.

Pulling herself closer, Sakura looked Sarada in the eye. "If there's one lesson I want you to learn from this, it's this. Find a good group of friends and endure all of life's hardships together. It will make you stronger, for yourself and for each other."

Sarada laid in bed, staring up at the ceiling as she thought about the previous few hours. After her mother had told her about Naruto's trials as a Jinchuriki, she had gone on to tell other stories she knew about the Hokage. Lord Sixth, Lord Third, Lady Fifth, all of the Hokage really, had suffered tremendously throughout their lives. Lost friends and loved ones, prized students turned traitor, tragedies they could not prevent. And yet, at the end of each story, they would stand up, find the strength to continue and fight for everything they cared about. This was what that book had missed, so lost in the great accomplishments of the Hokage that it could not see the real people underneath.

Shinobi are those who endure. Naruto-sensei had said that, and Natsuko had echoed those words earlier that day. They endure and become stronger for it, and then use that strength to support everyone around them. Sarada stretched out her arm. "Strength," she said to herself, closing her hand as if she were trying to physically grasp the concept itself. Yes, strength, that was what she needed to become Hokage. Strength for herself, strength for others. Unbending, unyielding strength.