Sakura took a deep breath. The smell of Land of Fire native trees and wet grass assaulted her senses and the familiarity of it calmed the wild rush of her head. It didn't take long for the utter despair of the situation to come back to her, the full force of it crashing against her chest and taking her breath away in the worst possible way.
It had been a relatively normal day.
Her mom had asked her to go grocery shopping after breakfast and her feet made the unconscious decision to go by the training grounds out of habit. Before she knew it, the memorial stone was reflecting the sun in her eyes and she couldn't breathe.
She fell to her knees in the middle of training ground 3 and trid to get air back in her lungs but ended up choking on it instead. She didn't know when it happened, but suddenly her hands were on the soft soil beneath her and her back was hunched, her body shaking so much that she couldn't tell how she didn't just fall apart from it.
She didn't get how her joints were still attached, how she didn't just turn into a pile of limbs right there on the cool floor.
For the first time in her life, she was upset but didn't cry.
She was lying, though, because her whole world had turned upside down and left her without a place to stand, she had passed upset about three corners back but, still, she couldn't cry. She could, it seemed, dry heave against the grass and choke on her spit.
She was alone.
She was completely, utterly alone. Team Seven would never be again. Naruto had left to study under a Sannin, Sasuke had left Konoha—Sasuke had defected Konoha for the traitor Sannin and oh, shit did that make him a missing nin? Would she have to go after him and face him like an enemy—and Team Seven was over.
Kakashi-sensei—no. She couldn't call him that anymore.
Sakura wasn't stupid. She knew now that he'd been placed in charge of her team because of the boys, so that he could mold them to his fighting style and so that Konoha could have the perfect attack team. Now that it was only her left, it made no sense to stay a team. She wasn't a melee fighter, she didn't have good chakra reserves for flashy ninjutsu.
She wasn't good at anything.
All the talking she did at the Chunin Exams of being a real ninja, of not being left behind anymore. Hacking her hair off to prove a point. The big revelation she had and absolutely nothing to show for it.
Nothing changed. She was still the one being left behind.
Unbidden, her mind started its usual runthrough of why, where, how it usually did when she was trying to figure something out.
The last few weeks flashed through her mind's eye. She had barely done any training. Kakashi—Hatake-san, she supposed he was from now on. He'd always used a peculiar method of pushing D-Ranks on top of them to teach. She could see why he did that now. He'd been since the beginning trying to desperately make a team out of them. Trying to ingrain the teamwork into their habits so that maybe, maybe it would be enough to make Sasuke stay.
Sakura could see now that he had been absolutely, completely unequipped to handle them. It wasn't his fault, she knew logically, but bitter resentment still settled like a knot on the back of her throat.
It was the same resentment that she felt towards herself, in a way. She had done everything for Sasuke-kun. She had tried again and again to make him like her and when that turned out to be almost impossible, she tried even harder just to make him happy.
Sakura felt the image she had in her head, the one with the carefree young boy smiling at his nii-san, break into a thousand pieces. For years she thought she could bring that boy back, she thought she could be the reason he smiled like that again, but now she knew better.
It was silly to think she could ever be enough to make him stay. If Kakashi-sensei hadn't been able to, if Naruto hadn't been able to, she stood no chance against the darkness inside of him.
Thinking of Naruto made a chill go down her spine, another wave of nausea hitting her fast because fuck—and she had never uttered that word before, not even thought it to herself, but she felt it was justified because they had almost killed each other.
They had almost killed her too but that seemed a bit inconsequential. She would have been just collateral damage in that fight but those two? They were purposefully aiming deadly jutsu at each other, all because of a feud no one had noticed was getting out of control.
It was weird, thinking badly of Sasuke-kun, but she couldn't help how analytically her mind was going through the past six months of her life.
Sasuke was jealous.
He was jealous and he was insecure and he was so freaking entitled. He was angry at Naruto—no matter that Naruto was the closest thing he had to a brother now—because he thought that he was the one who was supposed to be the strongest. Because he had a mission in life to get revenge on his nii-san and he was wrong.
Her heart bled for the childhood he lost and for the horrible things he had to see but he was still wrong and she could finally admit it.
Unexpectedly, knowing this and admitting it to herself took a weight out of her shoulders. She thought for a very long time that Sasuke could do no wrong. That he would avenge—and only now she stopped to think that it meant killing, actually murdering his own brother—and that he would come back happy and eager to start a family with her. She'd thought that it was her role to be there for him and only now, after she had been left completely alone could she see how wrong it all was.
Another wave of nausea forced her forehead to the ground. She knew what happened to ninja whose team disbanded. They would sometimes be carted around to fill in any spot if they were good enough but, for the most part, ninja who didn't have a squad, especially gennin or those who didn't have a clan backing them up, would become paper ninja. Lost in the archives or, if they were lucky enough, the mission assignment desk.
She didn't want that. She wanted to stand side by side with the Rookie 9, she wanted to be strong, she wanted to protect.
Sakura took a few deep breaths, her lungs finally filling properly, before she leaned back and crossed her legs beneath her. The memorial stone was still reflecting sunlight but this time she let her eyes trace the characters on the stone and she thought.
Sakura thought and she planned and she analysed because contrary to what despair had led her to think she was good at something. She had been the first of her class in written exams, she had known all the questions on the first task of the Chunin Exams, she was smart.
She couldn't sit and wallow. Crying and whining had contributed absolutely nothing in keeping the boys safe. It was a good thing that the tears hadn't come to her in her little breakdown because she had to get used to it.
From now on, she wouldn't cry anymore.
A flash of green crossed her thoughts and she remembered Lee. She remembered his stupid bets against himself and how he couldn't use chakra and it was like she was hit by an epiphany. Lee was strong. Lee was stronger and faster than anyone she'd ever seen that wasn't a Jounin.
Granted, he was no match for Gaara at the end but he still managed to crack his armour and hold his own for quite some time considering Gaara had a monster inside him.
Lee did it all by training.
It wasn't the kind of training that Sakura usually did with Team Seven where they spared or practiced kunai throwing until they were tired and went their separate ways. It was the kind of training that the only excuse for stopping was when you collapsed or passed out.
Sakura tried hard to think back on one afternoon that she left as sweaty and exhausted as the boys and couldn't. Whenever she started getting tired, she would stop, lay down on her sensei's back and watch the world go up and down with each push up he did.
There would be no more sensei for her to laze about with, no more bickering between Naruto and Sasuke-kun to distract her from training. Sakura was alone now and she had to up her game immediately if she planned on standing side by side with the boys.
She had to focus on her strengths, she decided.
Sakura knew she wasn't exactly proficient in taijutsu like Sasuke-kun was but she had held her own against Ino, right? And Ino was the top kunoichi of their class, she had trained for years with her clan, that had to mean something. It was likely that she had some kind of predisposition for hand to hand combat if her instincts had guided her so well in that fight.
She had excellent chakra control, if Hatake-san was to be believed. She had managed to master the tree climbing exercise her first try while the boys struggled the whole night for it. She was good at that.
An effervescent kind of energy sizzled through her veins. It was the same feeling she got when she was reading a book and there was just a few chapters left that she had to finish before dawn, it was determination settling in her bones and she knew she wouldn't give up easily.
Naruto will be gone from the village for some time, years if she had to guess and Sakura will use that time to become the best version of her she could be. She had to do it.
She will stand next to Naruto as equals when he came back and they both will get Sasuke and bring him back to Konoha by force if necessary.
Sakura got up and didn't bother brushing the dirt from her dress. She had a feeling she was about to get even dirtier.
She looked at the memorial stone one last time, memorizing the characters without even realizing she was doing it. It will serve from that moment on as a reminder of her determination. She wouldn't let Naruto and Sasuke join the names carved on the stone.
That was her nindo.
Her first stop was the hospital. She knew Lee was being kept there for observation after he overexerted himself during the rescue mission and she needed his help.
Sakura didn't know any jounin that had the time to help her with a new taijutsu training regimen, didn't see much of any jounin at the village, to be honest. They were all in high demand nowadays, Konoha had to show to the other villages that they were still strong.
It was all a farce, she knew. Konoha was barely making ends meet with all the reconstruction going on. It was a miracle that Tsunade-hime had accepted the post. Konoha was in shambles and in desperate need of money, it was a tough time to take on the mantle.
By the time Sakura got to Konoha's General, the sun was already high up in the sky and the streets were buzzing with people. The sounds of construction were all around her and the loud hammering was giving her a headache.
She had just reached the entrance when Lee bustled out of the double doors, thumb up in the air and teeth glinting in a way that made Sakura check herself for any genjutsu.
"Yosh! It's a beautiful day to go back to training!" He shouted to the skys.
"Lee!" A girl with twin dark buns on top of her head came up behind him and put him on a chokehold. Sakura remembered her to be his teammate. "Tsunade-sama said you shouldn't go doing anything strenuous for the next month!"
Sakura was pretty sure the way she was choking him was considered strenuous but decided against pointing it out. Instead, she stepped forward and made her presence known.
"Ano, Lee-san?" She put on her best friendly smile and let Inner scoff at their antics at the back of her mind.
"Sakura-san!" Lee finally got himself of the girl's hold and beamed at her. "This morning just got twice as beautiful!"
"Eh, sure?" Sakura cringed at her own response but couldn't think of anything better to say. "I need to ask you something."
"Anything for the most beautiful flower in the village!" Lee grinned encouragingly at her and Sakura could swear there was a rainbow behind him for a moment.
"I wanted to know if you had any tips for how to enhance my taijutsu skills," Sakura fiddled awkwardly with her hands for a moment. "I don't have the best chakra reserves and, well, I really admired the way you overcome your own… difficulties."
Sakura forced herself to meet his eyes and was taken aback by the tears she saw there.
"Ah, Lee-san, I didn't mean to offend you!" She waved her hands in front of her a bit desperately. "Gomen!"
"You could never offend me, beautiful Sakura-san!" The older boy stepped forward and grabbed her hands, tears streaming down his face. "I am most honored that Sakura-san thinks so highly of me! This is truly the best of days! From now on, I will make it my mission to help you achieve mastery of the taijutsu arts! Come with me now! We will begin training immediately!"
And then he was running back the way she came. Sakura stood there, completely dumbstruck before her body finally caught up and she forced herself to move after him.
"Chotto matte! Lee-san!"
Sakura heard footsteps behind her before the girl upped her pace to run besides her.
"The beautiful Sakura-san, huh?" She sent her an appraising look. "I'm Tenten. Nice to meet you officially."
"Just Sakura is fine," Sakura laughed embarrassed. "Yoroshiku."
"Heard you managed to tie with the best kunoichi in your year during the exams. I wish I hadn't been in the hospital for that fight. It's always refreshing seeing an all girls fight, you know?"
Sakura supposed she could see where the girl was coming from. Kunoichi ratio in the academy was about pretty much the same as boys but very few of them graduated and even fewer made it past genin. It was good to see strong females fighting. Having one of those for Hokage was a huge thing.
"It was a pity that you and that girl from Suna weren't a good match," Sakura offered. "It was clear that you have a lot of skill."
Tenten grinned at her and shot her two thumbs up, reminding Sakura so much of Lee that she had to laugh.
By the time they reached training ground 12, Lee was already doing some one-armed pushups.
"Sakura-san!" He jumped to his feet. "Let's spar!"
And then a fist was coming straight to her face.
Sakura didn't have any time to do anything but dodge and that's what she did. She dropped low and let his arm sail past her as a squeak escaped her lips. In the next second, however, Lee brought his leg up and kicked her faster than she could blink. She skidded along the forest floor, her ribs already aching.
For a while they kept at it, Lee moving faster than she could comprehend and Sakura falling back on her basic Academy katas to either block or dodge. She managed to get a few punches in but it was almost humiliating how easily he countered them, as if she wasn't giving her all.
"Yosh!" Lee stopped suddenly and bowed the reconciliation sign and she readily retributed before promptly falling to the ground in exhaustion. "Your basics are strong as expected, Sakura-san!"
Sakura managed to grumble a reply from the heap she made on the ground but he didn't seem put off by her surliness.
"You lack any originality in your attacks, your speed and stamina are both those expected of Academy students and you should definitely improve your strength," he said this all with a beam on his face.
Sakura gaped at him, not really expecting him to be so blunt in his criticism and Tenten burst out laughing from her position beneath the shade of a tree. Sakura felt her cheeks burn and Inner let out a string of expletives in the back of her mind.
"Don't worry, Sakura-san! If you work hard like I know you will, I can guarantee that in in a month, you'll be in a place where you can easily beat Ino-san!"
It was odd. Hearing someone express such belief in her was so new and it felt so… good that for a moment Sakura could only look at his blindingly green form with wide eyes. It wasn't too long before the biggest smile she could remember giving someone stretched her lips.
She would do this. She would work hard at whatever he taught her and she wouldn't complain once. Lee believed in her.
"I will not disappoint you, Lee-san!"
Lee and Tenten were both looking at her with matching pinks on their cheeks but Sakura didn't have any time to ponder at that because Lee quickly composed himself and gave her a thumbs up.
"Yosh! The Youth shines bright with you, Sakura-san!" His teeth sparkled. "Every morning for the first week, you will run twenty laps around this training ground. After that, you will do a hundred sit-ups, fifty push-ups, a hundred-and-fifty squats and two minutes of planking!"
Lee kept on exclaiming her training regimen for a while and it was all Sakura could do not to let her mouth gape open. That was a lot. But if Lee thought she could do it, then she was going to prove him right.
By the time she did all the training with Lee doing at least four times as much of every exercise she did, she was exhausted. Ready-to-collapse tired and it was glorious. She felt so accomplished, she could barely contain herself.
Tenten had stopped her own weapons practice some time ago to go get them some food and the three of them sat around the little containers beneath the shade of a tree on the edge of the training grounds. Sakura was hungrier than she'd even been and not a single thought was given to her diet.
Who cared about carbs, anyway. She was starving.
They didn't talk for a while, simply enjoying their food in contented silence. Lee kept cutting leaves in half whenever one fell, Tenten swirled a short sword around with one hand and Sakura just kept wolfing everything down without even taking a breath.
"Is that a tantou?" She cocked her head at Tenten.
"Yep," the girl smiled at her and gave the sword hilt first for Sakura to give a try. "I can teach you how to use it if you want."
"Really?" Sakura stared wide-eyed at the girl as a sudden wave of gratitude washed through her. Who'd have thought that Team Guy was so helpful?
"Yeah, sure! You are taking the next Chunin Exams, right? We could train together until then!"
"Thank you, Tenten," Sakura smiled at her. "I don't know how I can repay you."
"No need." Tenten waved her hand around, dismissing the idea. "The guys can be a bit too much at times. It'll be nice to train with you."
Sakura went home that night completely exhausted. The sweat was still drying on her skin even as the sky had turned dark blue hours ago and her legs were shaking so bad she had no idea how she managed to walk to the civilian district.
She was on her threshold when she remembered her kaa-san had asked her to buy the groceries.
These first few chapters were initially posted without these A/N because I suck but I needed to make some things clear! First of all, thank you all for reading and if you guys could leave a review and tell me what you think, I'll be eternally grateful! Second, this fic is going to deal with difficult and delicate themes such as violence, gore, mental health issues (PTSD, paranoia, etc) and borderline underage. I say borderline because, like Sakura says in later chapters, she's already considered an adult even if she is still young. Anything explicit will only happen when she's a bit older, though, so not to worry. Third, I'd just like for you guys to keep in mind that although Naruto is supposed to be a kind of children show, the fact remains that they are child soldiers. This fic is about that innocence lost at such young ages. That being said, no matter how dark this fic may get in the future, it will have a happy ending.
This story is also posted on AO3 and is currently much more advanced there but I'll post some new chapters here very soon. However, when this story reaches a certain point in which sexual contents will be explicit, I'll only post there because I'm scared FFN will delete me if I post it here. Also, there are some rants and insights over there on the first four chapters that won't make an appearance here, so if you'd like to read some of my metas, they'll be there.
Hit me up on tumblr (I'm s-scorpiusmlfy over there) if you'd like :)
Thank you all for reading!