A/N: This chapter is in thanks to Satoshii, who made me remember and start up my Naruto-writing gears again.
Building a Mountain
"Who are you?"
The sunlight streaming through the half-opened window made the room warm, and the off-white walls had a nice sort of glow to them. The air was thick with summer while the bugs hummed shrilly-dull in the background noise, and the bright green leaves of the trees cast shadows on pale skin that did not warm, did not move, did not color to be in synch with the branches to the buzz of the bugs as her breathing sped up by itself; he was nothing, and Sakura found that incredibly lonely.
"Who are you?" She asked again, and black lashes were long and closed, hiding dark-tunnel eyes on the face with pale skin that wouldn't warm wouldn't move wouldn't smile - he was completely out of place in the homey atmosphere, and the thought made an uncomfortable pain bloom in her chest.
Sakura was standing next to the bed, and her hand was hovering over that pale, pale face, close but not touching, never touching. And she could almost feel the coldness radiating off of him (and oh, Hinata, Kami, it was frightening).
He was nothing, or if he was something he sure wasn't much of anything. His face was gaunt, cheekbones almost hollow from malnutrition. They would fill out soon with proper vitamins and healthy food. During the surgery she could see the outline of his ribs from the front. His hair had been stringy and caked with things she would have honestly rather not known about, clothes torn and so, so pale and she wondered if he was drowning.
Sakura withdrew her hand and left the room hastily.
Sai was sitting on an old, worn park bench when she passed by - the looming trees overhead seemed content with letting their leaves rustle noisily to the breeze, and the air smelled like summer and warmth and home. She was initially going to keep walking, because though she didn't understand drawing very well she knew enough about concentration and didn't want to bother him, because an irritable Sai led to an even worse Sakura and didn't she know that, though she suspected Naruto knew that most of all.
However, Sai's sketch pad - well-worn, well-loved and looking more than a little ratty and tired sitting next to him - was unopened, and he was just sitting.
So the girl with pink hair who wasn't so much of a girl anymore, not anymore because she finished her first solo mission see see and she was strong now and and - and she wasn't going to let herself stumble down that path of thought again, so the girl with pink hair who wasn't so much of a girl anymore approached her teammate, her friend, and slid onto the opposite side of the bench.
Despite the fact that he did seem to enjoy socializing, Sai didn't appear to be inclined to today. Sakura's patience promptly buried itself after a few long moments and she spoke first.
"Hello, Sakura," the young man replied evenly after a moment, his voice still a pleasant yet empty sort of monotone, face and eyes still focusing somewhere in front of him.
"You're more polite than usual today," she commented, and Sakura took the moment to study the boy's profile carefully. He was a sort of art himself, she figured, though she wasn't very good with anything creative outside of logic and tactics. He was made of lines, she thought, lots of flowing lines, his dark eyes, the way his nose ran. He had a nice profile. If she hadn't known him so well he could have even been handsome.
But she did and there was something wrong with him, her friend, though at times it didn't always feel like it.
"The leaves swirl in a different twist today," he answered idly, which wasn't much of an answer at all but it was Sai. "They make me want to pour ink over them to drip down the tree and meet with the dirt to be eaten by the ants, mix with the soil and grow."
Sai was not-Sai today. Which fit perfectly, because she was not-Sakura and that was not-Sasuke lying on the bed untouched and unwarmed and gaunt and pale pale pale.
"You aren't drawing," she said for lack of anything better to say.
"I'm not," he agreed, and he didn't look at her and didn't move.
"Sasuke is in the hospital, and after he wakes up and Naruto hits him and I say he deserved it you should meet him," she said stupidly, and immediately knew it wasn't one of the best things to say. Sai's knuckles whitened as his grip on the black paintbrush tightened imperceptibly.
"If you want me to," he said calmly, because it was one of those not-right things to say from her to him, and then there was only the ratty sketchbook between them that shuffled quietly as the wind passed them.
Minutes passed in silence until Sakura tried, "you don't like him?"
Sai did not reply.
"You don't have to if you don't want to."
"You could give him a special nickname."
Only the trees answered as the wind made the leaves move noisily.
"Naruto and I will still be your friends."
This one finally made Sai jerk a little - and that was it, and she hit the target straight on and Sakura bravely surged forward.
"You think that we'll replace you with him."
His eyes were everywhere and anywhere except for where she was sitting. Sakura scooted closer.
"Friends don't do that. I don't know what crap you read in those stupid books, but friends care about each other and don't forget each other. And we stick together, and Sai is Sai."
He glanced at her for the first time. It was side-ways, not willing, but it happened and she was getting somewhere and it was suddenly such a nice day.
"Who else would I be?" He finally asked, and she smiled.
Sitting around in her messy room, lazing on the bed, watching the fan spin with a good book in her lap and the summer air drifting in from the window wasn't something Sakura did often, but wished she did more. It was nice. It felt so normal, so clean despite the gear and scrolls and weapons littering the floor, despite the fact that the book in her loose grip was a medical book. Just lying down on her crumpled white bed with her foot on the pillow and the radio buzzing in the background. That was nice.
The sudden disturbance made her jolt up and pop her spine rather painfully; Sakura eyed the man at the window while rubbing her back, relaxing again.
"Kakashi-sensei could have warned me," she groused, but the silver-haired man's lone eye crinkled in a smile and he waved it off with two fingers, a shadowed figure against the light.
"Hokage-sama sent me to get you," said the man. His lone eye slowly moved left, then right, then back to settle on his student. "That's funny. I always expected you to be a little neater than Naruto."
A snort passed from her flared nostrils and Sakura stood to stretch languidly, yawning. "You aren't one to talk at all, sensei." Sakura rubbed her eyes a little, carefully marking her place in the book she had already read, setting it on her nightstand. She dismissed the rest of the room as a lost cause, promising herself to clean up later, and instead turned her attention towards herself.
A honest laugh, good-natured and teasing, passed through her ears. Sakura pulled her sandal-boots on and when she turned, the window was empty.
There was always the hottest points of the day, during the summer, where Sakura would just enjoy being inside, away from the heat and the burn and the sweat and the dirt. And there were always the buildings that were so air-conditioned and cold that Sakura would long for the heat, because the cold sent up little goosebumps and froze little beads of sweat and if this was anything to her it was foreboding.
"Sakura-chan," Tsunade murmured and she waved her from her spot against the doorframe inside. The woman's desk was, predictably, covered with scattered paperwork, ink and pens and brushes and blank paper and filled paper amalgamating into one sore mess, the Hokage's office a mockery of what it once looked like. But that was okay, Sakura couldn't help but think. "Come on in."
Complying, Sakura moved from her spot in the doorway and picked her way across the floor, careful not to step on any papers, and sat down in front of her mentor with a slightly hesitant smile. "Kakashi-sensei told me shishou wanted to see me."
Tsunade yawned widely and loudly, setting down the brush that had been resting in her smooth, red-nailed fingers, leaving a perfect indentation on the pad of her thumb. The hand moved up to rub at the point where both eyes started briefly as the woman blinked and focused her hazel eyes in front of her. She smiled briefly in response, setting her elbows upon the table as her hands clasped.
"Yes. Sakura-chan, you've been the assigned doctor to comatose patient #826 Uchiha Sasuke since the boy's arrival." Tsunade leaned back in her worn chair, absently cracking her back by shifting, looking briefly out the window behind her before returning her gaze to Sakura, a slight smile that was half of a grin and half of a grimace playing at her lips, her lips that were painted red, that Sakura had come to associate with strength. "Why do think it was you?"
Sakura blinked, and she felt suddenly very lonely and small sitting in the chair that might as well have been a million kilometers away from the desk. She wasn't one to go with mild feelings often: in fact, Sakura remembered once hearing the saying, 'men think, women feel.' She had cut her hair to grow, and continued to cut it to be less of the little girl she once was. And ninjas weren't supposed to feel much at all, and only gut instincts in the heat of the mission were good to follow. Mild feelings were just emotions, and Sakura had once toyed with the idea of boying herself up to walk around the citizen's district of Konoha, with a wig of short brown hair and blue eyes and a bound chest with baggy clothes. Because she didn't know when Ino had stopped being a good enough rival, because Tsunade was one in a million.
And Sakura didn't want to be the third-wheel of Team Seven. When Sasuke would one day awaken, Sakura would join the race. She would be a new challenger, between the three of them, and that sounded a little unfriendly, a little unfeeling, but Sakura didn't want to be the one left behind. She would meet them one day, head on, and she would meet them on top of her own mountain. And she'd be damned if it wasn't higher than theirs. It would be. It could be a sort of obsession, if Sakura was honest with herself, but there it was: protecting her precious people was important, and not only did she have to be strong to do that, but in order to do that Sakura had to protect Sakura. That was definitely part of it, and she was beginning to see that.
"Because I need to grow," Sakura finally said.
Tsunade smiled, wide and open, laid back on the old black reclining office chair and facing the side window, the sunlight pouring over her profile as she laughed.
It was a nice day.
Clear sky, nearly nonexistant breeze, fresh grass and a lively sun. It was nice, it really was-
"I'll beat you to a pulp!"
Oh, Naruto. Sakura sighed internally. As a teenager, Naruto had been lively and often times still annoying; as a young man, he had retained that sort of dopiness that she was fond of, still overreacting, the same erratic behavior. She had almost forgotten him as a child. (Wow, no wonder no one ever felt bad for him...)
Sakura promptly ignored that rather vicious thought and kept her mouth shut, hidden in the foliage. A loud rumble, roughly seven feet to her right and perhaps four feet back, alerted her to the fact that she was the only one to have eaten. Idiots! It was important for a ninja to gain the required daily amount of nutrition in each food group, or at least to have something in their stomachs. But how would they know that?
The throwing stars whizzed past her ears - Sakura remembered a time when she would've flinched and dived, but now she stilled completely and blinked in retaliation before moving away; the throwing stars automatically gave away Sasuke's position, of course, and he realized too late. She had always seen him as far above herself, and it was so odd. He didn't know very much at all. Didn't - he didn't know anything, did he? He never would, never could, never-
Sakura focused and waited. She sensed Kakashi coming up from behind, and it seemed the man wasn't using very much effort with them. What a joke. Her ears prickled and her brain attempted to twitch her muscles and send goosebumps up all along her back in some sort of bizarre warning, but Sakura was twelve, she was no longer a high-ranking ninja, and kids always started somewhere, right? Children who obviously weren't prodigies wouldn't be ready for this. She wouldn't be ready for this until she was fourteen at the least, which is where her thoughts were when he tapped her shoulder lightly and she twirled around, playing the lost little girl - caught up in the genjutsu, and - there, there, such an easy genjutsu, so easily dispelled but she would wait - wait for it - there, dead Sasuke, dead Naruto, deadeadeadeadead and that was just a little frightening, but she pretended she didn't see it and opened her mouth to scream her heart out.
It actually felt pretty good, Sakura thought, as she pretended to panic until seeming to regain common sense and dispelling the genjutsu. Screaming. She felt a little lighter, it hurt a little less.
Waiting until Kakashi was truly out of her range, Sakura stretched and popped her knuckles, taking the chance to enjoy the moment. Her bird was fluttering somewhere around here, she knew, just out of sight and waiting for her call.
"New beginnings, yeah?"
A soft, distant chirp responded. Sakura smiled wryly.
"The sun is shining, Naruto is being an idiot, and I'm twelve. We'll see what happens."
Turning, she walked towards where the commotion seemed to be, and -
Sasuke glared at her. Sakura tried not to laugh openly at the boy as the only thing visible was his ruffled head, sticking up from the ground. Sakura slowly made her way towards him, taking care to not let out the smile threatening its way across her face. She looked at him for a moment. Sasuke was just a twelve-year-old boy, and she needed to remember that. Nothing less, nothing more.
After a moment of silence, Sakura tried her best to smile. "Need help?" Sasuke looked away, what she could've sworn to be a rather angry and embarrassed pink stain marring his cheeks, and took his irritated silence as a go-ahead.
And she dug him out, one clump of dirt at a time.
Sakura wasn't exactly one to be lax about things, but she was surprised with herself when she found she was taking the test as less of a rite of passage and more of a joke as she looked down at the bento Kakashi-sensei had provided them. Naruto's stomach grumbled loudly and exagerratedly behind her, and a twinge of humor set a smile on her face. Trying to look as disapproving as she could - despite being his would-be-best-friend (which sounded odd to her; maybe 'despite the fact she would one day be his best friend?' 'Despite one day being his would-be best friend? Sakura eventually abandoned the thought in favor of things that wouldn't give her a migraine), she didn't want the poor kid to get even more of a crush on her, seeing as it would be fairly awkward and she didn't really know how to handle the younger sets of genin anyway - Sakura turned to look at him as Sasuke's bashful face frowned and looked away as he thrust his own bento at the blonde.
"Your no good to us without your strength," Sasuke finally told the grass. Naruto seemed to have overheard.
"Sasuke-san is right," Sakura agreed, but made no move to feed the boy tied to the post herself, and opted to pop some chicken into her own mouth. Sasuke frowned, and it must have been painful for both boys, Sakura would later think in amusement; the Uchiha picked up some food with his chopsticks and fed the blonde, in a feat that would've had both gagging in embarrassment were it any other situation.
The clouds darkened overhead as the wind picked up, the genjutsu fairly realistic as Sakura allowed herself to be swept into it with her teammates. Kakashi appeared in a puff of smoke, almost towering over them, pretending - fairly realistically, Sakura would concede - to be angrier than an irritated, drunken Tsunade on a losing streak.
"You pass," and the storm cleared and the wind died and the sun shined. Naruto seemed genuinely surprised, and said as much in an ear-splitting yell. Kakashi scratched his head a bit and straightened up to a normal, lax position, hands tucked into his pockets, leaning back on a leg.
"But - why?!" Naruto finally exploded. Kakashi seemed to regard him with a critical eye, something Sakura didn't remember seeing often, but it relaxed and he looked above their heads.
Obito and Rin, Sakura thought. Isn't that right, Kakashi-sensei? Poor sensei. It happens, doesn't it? And it never stops hurting, either, or are you just flaying yourself with it, she wondered, and tried to keep quiet.
"...But... those who don't take care of their comrades... are lower than trash," the teacher stated bluntly. Sasuke's posture straightened a little. Newfound respect? Naruto seemed dazzled by the man. Sakura wondered if she had been like that, briefly, before standing and brushing her skirt off as they left-
And conveniently forgetting Naruto behind, until his outraged shouting brought about Sasuke being elected to jog back and untie the poor boy. Sakura shared a laugh with Kakashi-sensei, and she was being dazzled herself. New beginnings, and this was something wonderful, wasn't it? Her little bird slipped into her bag and the comforting presence sent warm waves across her body.
She could never live their lives.
But - they still had so much - they didn't know anything. Of course not. How could they? They were just children, and Naruto was so ready to be worth something that putting his life on the line didn't seem so bad when he shouted more or less the same thing to the Hokage and they were formally introduced to Tazuna. The Third believed in them, she knew as much, and Sakura remembered how it would turn out, but it didn't stop the small seed of worry for the little boys to bloom in her stomach.
And that was another thing. The Third - seeing someone she expected as quite dead could be counted as a sort of system shock. Sakura remembered in her younger years seeing him as almost some sort of divine being: the feelings she had of him being somehow omniscient hadn't worn off in all those years, she was surprised to find. His eyes were sunken and lined and kind, but they weren't old. She had uncomfortably hidden her hand by clasping it behind her back for the duration of the mission report and briefing - Sakura had forgotten to cover it with something, which she had made a mental reminder to do right away after leaving to pack her things.
Which led her to the now, sitting in her bedroom and staring at a red ribbon she remembered Ino to have given to her a long, long time ago - now only a few years ago, really - lying in her hands. She gave it back to Ino, didn't she? But why? It had been something stupid, Sakura thought. A silly rivalry, over a silly boy, no less, turning to a true competition until they ended it when they grew up a little. Did Ino want it back?
Sakura looked down at the little piece of red as the clay bird fluttered around the room, poking around and inspecting things, curious as a ferret and twice as willing to move things around and possibly dropping them. It was a gift, Sakura reasoned, and it was impolite to give them back. Pulling out some scissors from a drawer on her vanity, Sakura swiftly cut the ribbon into four seperate pieces. She tied each around her four seperate fingers to cover where the skin would catch from the little scar, satisfied when she flexed her hand and no light peeked out at any angle. Curiosity would have to wait, which was something of a bummer, seeing as she had been dying to really check it out, but their genin status had only been awarded two days ago. Sakura had given herself a day to take it all in, one rightly deserved, she thought, and that left little time to begin investigating the strange little 'problem' residing on her left hand. It would just have to wait until later, unfortunately.
Slowly picking up the bag she had gotten ready in an incredibly short amount of time and standing, the bed springs groaning from the removal of weight, Sakura tugged at her little red dress a little impatiently. Honestly, the thing was a hindrance to just moving, and it was going to annoy her quickly. Removing it and carefully hanging it up in her closet, Sakura rifled through the almost ridiculous amount of clothes she had had as a young girl - did she ever wear the purple sweater hanging in the back? How vain, how immature, how -
"Oh, I'm going to have a horrible time with this, aren't I?" Sighing so deep her chest could've popped a rib, Sakura finally opted to just cut the annoying little excuse for a kunoichi outfit into a shirt, pulling on some pants that ended at her calf and strapping her gear back on after. Her hair was possibly worse than the dress - it would get in her way too much. A quick ponytail worked well enough for that - she'd chop it off later. The headband resting on the top of her head hadn't been there for a long time, but she felt hesitant in pulling it down to her forehead. She had never promised Ino, Sakura realized. She would have done it the day she skidded into this existence, but she didn't.
It suddenly felt like something from her childhood was lost. She almost considered running out right that second to try to reenact it. It was something she and Ino had shared, and it was important, as little-girlish as that sounded. Sakura hadn't been an unfeeling person, even when - even after resigning and joining. It had always been important.
"A godawful, horrible time," Sakura eventually reiterated, rubbing the two spots where her eyes began closest to the bridge of her nose. She picked up her pack, whistling for Dei, and was heading down the stairs when the door opened and a voice called up.
"Sakura-chan? Honey, I just got back from the grocery-" Her mother stopped mid-sentence when she saw her daughter. Sakura still wasn't quite used to it, truth be told. Seeing her mother, and on a regular basis, no less; but it was nice, so Sakura mustered up a smile that wasn't as hard to come up with as she had expected.
"Mom, I'm going on my... first mission," which was true in the sense that it was a blatant lie to her consciousness, and she didn't really want to think which number this was, "I'll be with Kakashi-sensei and my team, and it's only a C-rank. I'll be gone for about two weeks."
Her mother set the paper bags settled in her arms down and swooped upon Sakura to envelop her in a hug. "My baby's first mission," she murmured into Sakura's hair (and it was warm and comforting and gods, how she had missed this, missed curling up into someone, missed her mother), "I'm proud, Sakura-chan."
Smiling (genuine, with a little bit of fakeness pasted on, too, and Sakura knew this because maybe this was where she had picked it up from), Rin Haruno pulled back from Sakura, who smiled in return.
"Be safe, okay?"
Sakura was kissed by her mother and as she left, she didn't hear the front door close until she was well away from the house.