Far Behind
by Kira (mikilicious_babe@hotmail.com)

Author's Notes: Sakura deserves a little appreciation. Thus, this very short thing. Enjoy!

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My fingers are still shaking.

Hands shuddering with each faltering movement, she reached for the cloth resting against the forehead of her unconscious companion. The water turned warm more quickly for him than it did for Naruto. She wrung it out, arms still twitching, barely noticing when the water splashed and soaked up her clothing. The water in her canteen would be gone soon, never being enough for two people to share between them. But she soaked it again and returned it to the warm, feverish forehead.

Sasuke twitched involuntarily, a murmur of distress escaping his parted lips. She brushed her fingers through the long strands of black shielding his eyes. It was a comforting gesture her mother had always done when she would come home crying, burying her face into the worn apron and crying out all the horrible things the other children had called her.

She glanced upward, her eyes meeting the hollowed out innards of the tree she had sought refuge beneath with her two wounded companions. I miss Mom.

Clutching her hands into fists, she pressed her lower palms against her knees, squeezing her eyes shut as she willed her body to stop shaking. She had not been able to stop, not since that fear had first entered her, not since they had encountered that man.

It was pathetic. Only a coward would have done as she did, remain frozen in place as she had, done nothing to save Sasuke and Naruto. She had said such horrible things to Sasuke... but she was the one that had been running away. She was the coward.

She pressed the back of her fingers to Naruto's cheek. He had been able to recover more quickly than Sasuke. What he had endured was nothing like what Sasuke had. But whatever that was, she didn't know. Something was happening to him, something neither she nor Naruto could see. Something she did not think even Kakashi would have been able to recognize.

He tossed and turned uncontrollably. She touched his cheek briefly as she had done Naruto; still burning up. There was nothing she could do. She could only sit with them and hope that one of the other teams did not pick them off in such a weak moment as this.

She bowed her head. I shouldn't have come at all...

No one would have denied that she was unprepared to take the Chounin exam. Kakashi thought so, Sasuke thought so, even that pig Ino knew she was not ready. But instead she had listened to her own stubbornness, knowing that Sasuke and Naruto were stronger, knowing that she would be a burden to them, because she wanted to prove that she could.

But she had not yet done anything to prove her worth. She was still only a burden to them. Her being there meant only one thing to them -- they were a team of three and able to compete in the exam at all.

We're not a team of three. She lifted her head, brushing distractedly at a strand of hair that obstructed her vision.

It was a team of two. Sasuke and Naruto. They were the ones that everyone watched. Sasuke and Naruto were the ones that Kakashi was the most proud of, the ones that everyone at the academy expected great things from. Sasuke would dazzle them all with his inherited abilities as well as his natural talent, and though Naruto could be reckless and headstrong in his actions, he was talented. More talented than she was. What could she do? Only watch them, watch their backs so far ahead of her.

Sasuke and Naruto would become great ninjas someday, and she knew in her heart she would be left behind.

A pained moan from Sasuke brought her attention back to him. She pressed her palm to his forehead, beneath the already warm cloth. His murmurs, delusional words and nonsensical mutters, began to soften. He stilled beneath her touch.

I'm not much of a ninja, am I, Sasuke-kun? All I've ever done is chase after you.

She remembered when she had first seen the elusive Uchiha Sasuke. She had only been seven or eight years old; the exact age escaped her mind. Quiet, withdrawn Uchiha Sasuke. All the girls in the village talked about him. Dark and mysterious, they had all flocked to the strange boy, and he had rebuffed all of them.

He was alone when she first saw a glimpse of the popular boy, training alone in a field where no one could bother him. She had watched him go through his movements, shocked and amazed that someone of his age was as skilled as he was... when he had taken a wrong step and fallen to the ground hard on his knees.

You scrapped your knees and were bleeding... and I wanted to go help you, but you...

She had heard him curse, a strange sound to be heard from someone so young. It was a harsh curse followed by an equally harsh cry of frustration. He had dug his hands into the earth, tearing up grass and dirt alike, eyes clenched shut as he cursed softly.

Later that day she had seen him walking through the village, composed and silent Uchiha Sasuke once again. But all she could remember was that brief, unguarded moment she had seen and the raw feelings that had surfaced.

Shuddering, staring wide-eyed, sacrificing their scroll to the enemy, she had seen it again. And it frightened her to see him that way. Sasuke was the composed one, the one that held them together. But he was breaking.

"Hey, Sasuke-kun..." She spoke softly, her words going to deaf ears. "Did you know I grew out my hair for you?"

She lifted a hand, fingers brushing through a lock distractedly.

"I heard you liked girls with long hair. I guess everyone heard that... almost all of the girls in the village started to grow out their hair too. I don't know why I ever thought you would notice me over them..."

She smiled, a mirthless gesture. "I bet you don't even like girls with long hair. Maybe you like girls with short hair and blue eyes. I'm not really the one for you then, am I?"

Her fingers twisted into the lock of hair. She had always been concerned with making the marks, showing off in class, concerned with her appearance, of not appearing as less compared to Ino. Her marks had always been excellent, her understanding of all forms of martial arts perfection, her use of the skills brilliant.

But in real fights she froze and could do nothing. The academy never prepared for the inevitable true battles.

She lifted his hand from where it lay uselessly at his side. Her fingers laced through his. He shuddered under her touch, his fingers twitching against her own as another low moan of pain racked his body. She felt his grip tighten suddenly and abruptly, clinging to the only comfort he had.

"Sasuke-kun..." She squeezed his hand. "I'm here, you know... let me protect you guys this time, okay?"

The fingers around hers loosened. Can you hear me? He was quiet when she spoke to him, the strain in his body and the pain racking him almost seeming to ease.

"I'm not going to be second best to you guys anymore... you hear me, Naruto, Sasuke-kun?"

Even if that means losing you, Sasuke-kun.

Even if it means being alone.

I won't lose to either you.

I'll never watch your backs again.