"Truth is not relative, our understanding of it is."
by Blue Jeans
When Sakura finally had an intimate meeting with Death, it was not in the same way either Naruto or Sasuke had, and it certainly wasn't while she was Kakashi's student. She doesn't learn it by making a decision on a bridge, out of misunderstanding and desperation, ready to throw away her innocence and nearly succeeding. She doesn't learn it by witnessing something precious torn from her by someone she loved while she stood hopelessly by. Sakura learned this reality beneath her Shishou's uncompromising stare as a life bled out from beneath her desperate, useless fingers. Death, it pried that life from her grasps, right out of the heart in her hands. She had been holding onto that organ all the way until the end, even after it had shuddered to a rest.
Forever, suddenly, seemed like a long time to not exist.
The memory of her earlier excitement at this simple surgery was now a burden to bear. It had been her fourth one and she had been nothing if not confident. Sakura never failed, her record was impeccable, though any surgery she did participate in still managed to make her heart flutter with anticipation. She had basked in the feeling, not even minding the fact that it was her fourth. If she had been more superstitious, maybe she would have taken a hint.
She learned quickly in that room, how similar the feeling of death was from when a fish or a rabbit or an animal died, though none of those previous experiences and failures had prepared her for the real thing. The almost apathetic realization terrified her a little, its familiarity nothing she wanted to be acquainted with and the emptiness of the aftermath made her feel like a stranger inside her own skin. And though Sakura never fantasized about the first time she'd have to kill another human being, she had at least believed, unquestioningly in her youth, that this type of experience would happen on a battle-field or in the silent shadows of an assassination. It would also most likely occur during an A-ranked mission.
A mission when she was at least a Jounin.
How practical the belief had been or how she would react to it and who would comfort her when it happened, all of those little unspoken details and expectations fell to pieces when it finally happened. In the end, did these things make a difference? However, what definitely did not happen was that Tsunade did not reassure her. There was a hint of pity in those familiar eyes when her teacher looked away, but Sakura could not decipher what that look had meant. She had assumed that it was Tsunade's way of hiding her disappointment. After all, it was Shizune who chased her dazed and frazzled form down the hospital corridors, clutching her shoulders while Sakura watched the other's mouth move in front of her blankly. She didn't hear a word of it, but did that even matter? Words could not change what had happened.
And even if her large-sized brain insisted that she wasn't at fault, it only sounded like false reassurances.
Incompetence cost you the lives of your comrades on the field, she already knew that intimately as a shinobi. But it just wasn't the same when patients died on you in a hospital. It was not the same as being on a battle-field, sleep-deprived and driven by fear, knowing at any moment that a compromise of your own life could mean the death of your team. It was the feel of someone's muscles becoming lax and giving in on an operating table, safe at the heart of Konoha, with no real reason to why the operation did not go perfectly. It was when healing and making her patients whole again was so close an achievement that Sakura could almost taste the blood on her lips, the realization of that reality at the tip of her tongue.
The expectation was what was hardest to let go of. Life ended beneath her fingers and circulation stopped forever when she had thought she had all the time in the world to fix what was wrong. This made it hard for Sakura to believe that the cause was anything else than her not being fast enough or strong enough or skilled enough and no amount of intellectualizing it made these facts feel any less factual.
She should have been able to heal him. This belief plagued her again and again as she staggered out of the small surgery room that once had been heaven to her. Even worse, another part of her called this a weakness, the part of her that acted and sounded like Sasuke, the shadow of her past. She should be able to handle this disappointment, it insisted. All that time spent on herb-lore and chakra, the endless nights of medical ninjutsu scrolls, piled with the knowledge of the human-body, always read over twice and inspected a third, until her brain shuts her down at her desk because she wouldn't leave it for the bed. After all of that, was she supposed to just take it with a smile? Oh, sorry, but those skills of a medic-nin I've worked so hard to acquire just wasn't good enough for this one to live through, while better luck next time!
Sakura felt cheated.
The finality of this made her sick to her stomach, too. Dry heaves were trying to work its way up her diaphragm as she fought back the nausea. Not that she had anything in her to expel since she hadn't really eaten in the last thirteen hours. And god, did she have to be the one to tell the parents...? She couldn't do it. Couldn't just stand there and make it sound like death was a routine and that her heart was made of stone. She also couldn't sit by them and grieve with them because it wasn't her place and she didn't have the right.
She was a coward. Naruto would be ashamed of her if he knew she was in this dilemma and Sasuke would be more so than Naruto because he had been right all along, she really was weak. Her blond teammate hadn't even returned yet and they weren't even ready to go after Sasuke, how could she fail now? How could she fail like this? But the accusations racing through her brain couldn't make her focus on the world outside, couldn't push her to confront what she really was avoiding since she ran away from her responsibilities.
But she had known him and that had been the most painful thing of all.
How could she forget this boy who looked like Sasuke and acted like Naruto? How could she forget the smile he gave her while Shizune quizzed her on his pre-operation conditions and the treatment to expect? How could she forget his familiar dreams of protecting Konoha and the trust he gave to her so easily? If any of her boys could look so care-free... had a chance to be this happy... And inside, Sakura had vowed to protect that light that Sasuke never smiled with and Naruto always hid behind.
"It's alright. We'll have you all patched up before you know it!" The assurance had come so easily to assuage those fears that she had witnessed on his face. She had been so sure before the surgery and now those words were lies. It was a promise she could not keep.
Sakura felt like scum. She finally understood then how Naruto must have felt when he failed to keep his promise to her about bringing Sasuke back. When he had looked so forlorn in that recovery room, had she ever really understood the pain he felt or was it only her own that she had been clinging to all this time? The failure of not keeping a promise was the most painful thing she had ever experienced up to now, but Naruto had to face her in the aftermath of his failure too.
All this time, Naruto had always been alone, Sakura realized. All this time, she had been so sure he didn't understand anything when it was her who understood so little, who had always been the most naive. She knew now that this feeling was even worse than when Sasuke had left her. It was worse than when Naruto and Kakashi had soon took off in the aftermath. Even though the other two had not abandoned her, even though she tried not to think about it, she had felt like the one who was left behind. Even then she had not, at the time, thought that such a sharp anguish or that lingering misery could ever sting her as sharply as Sasuke's betrayal. And, in this dark corner of discovery, she knew at last why Naruto was running after Sasuke so hard.
She had been wrong then too...
"Snap out of it, Sakura," Tsunade's voice boomed suddenly into her ears, leaving them ringing. The sharp stinging feeling of a slap spread across her left cheek. The white wall of the hospital hallway swam into view as she stared at it blankly. For a moment, the pain was enough to pull her out of her thoughts. Her inner self was almost annoyed enough to comment that Tsunade-shishou probably pulled a muscle in Sakura's neck with that forceful blow, but then she remembered. She remembered that her epiphany about Naruto came only after the death of a child. The blood of the boy's stained her hospital uniform red with left-over blood, his left-over memories of existence. Her earlier anger evaporated immediately when she realized how silly it was that she was getting annoyed about getting slapped when she deserved far worse.
A boy was dead because she wasn't good enough. And was this a prelude of things to come?
"He knew the operation was a risk, just like his parents, Sakura. We made no guarantees that it would be a success. You did more than what was expected when you tried to revive him." Tsunade spoke heatedly at the defeated slump of her student's form. This look made Tsunade feel all the more helpless after such a tragic operation, and when Tsunade felt helpless she got angry. At that moment, the Godaime wished for sake and was annoyed all the more because there wasn't any such thing near at hand.
"I know... I can't... I still failed him." Sakura answered brokenly, miserably. There was now the taste of her own blood in her mouth, almost making the situation too real for Sakura to handle. She wished silently then that Tsunade had not lessened the impact of that slap. "I promised him I'd make him whole. I promised and I failed." She confessed, unable to keep that fact to herself any longer.
For a brief moment, her shishou paused at this. "Then that's one mistake you'll know never to repeat again," Tsunade eventually said unsympathetically, tone weary but sure. "These things happen, Sakura." This time it is Tsunade's fingers wrapping around Sakura's useless arms as her teacher pulled her up from the wall to face her, or tried to. There was gentleness in that gaze that made Sakura ache when she finally looked up. She hated that look. Mercy was not something Sakura deserved and pity was not anything she wanted. But Tsunade always had more than just compassion to give. The Godaime was her teacher first, after all. "As a medic-nin, you must never react like that on the battle-field. Do you understand, Sakura? If you got that depressed every-time you are unable to help a teammate, you will put yourself and the rest of the team in danger, as well."
"I know that," Sakura bit out immediately, her green eyes burning with indignation and helpless rage.
"Do you really?" Tsunade demanded.
"Tsunade-sama?" Shizune broke in hesitantly, as if to say that the comment was too harsh. Ton-ton hid behind the other's legs and was strangely quiet in the somber atmosphere. This time, Sakura heard Shizune's voice, but Sakura ducked her head down low now that her earlier anger had vanished. She did not want to be protected from the truth either. She knew she was probably being ungrateful, but Sakura was sick of being always considered the weak one. "This is the first patient she lost! The first one is always the hardest for every medic."
Sakura did not see Tsunade shake her head at her assistant nor did she face Tsunade's glare. "She doesn't have time for that. After all, she'll only lose more in the future, anyway."
Sakura froze at this statement. Fear paralyzing her form. "Wh-what?"
"A shinobi's life isn't a fairytale, Sakura, and you know this perfectly well. You are a kunoichi and this is the path you have chosen. You are also not just any type of kunoichi either, but a medic-nin. You have known and now you can finally understand that we don't live in a perfect world and that means you won't always have the means to do your job or the skills to fight off death. Your enemies will be numerous in your life-time and your teammates will sometimes die. That is the fact of being a medic-nin and we cannot afford to deny it to be anything less than what it is. We are sent out to prevent death where we can, Sakura, but we are not gods. We cannot do more than what is within the range of our skills and our capabilities."
Naruto... Kakashi... Sasuke... Sakura had a brief flash of their faces and their fading voices roared in her ears. If she ever failed them it would be their blood staining her hands and their dreams ending in a flash. Could she do it knowing this? Would she be able to handle such a truth if she failed them too, someday?
"I won't let my comrades die!"
"I'm going to become the Hokage in my own way!"
"There is a man I must kill."
"Will you give up now?" Tsunade asked Sakura's frozen form. "Now that you have tasted death," Tsunade said louder, "what will you do, Sakura?"
"Was it hopeless?" Sakura asked at last. "Was there anything else I could have done to save him?"
"Was it your fault? Is that what you want to know?" Tsunade asked. "That's a stupid question."
"No surgery guarantees 100 percent success, and anyone who believes that is a fool." Tsunade cut in to Sakura's protests. Shizune looked away at this, perhaps remembering her first time with a failed patient as well. "If I had said that it was hopeless, that he would have died anyway, even if we operated, would that have made a difference? Would you have tried less or given him over to someone else? Would you have given up or refused to help if you had known that the numbers was 1 percent and not 50 or foresaw the future for what it is now? And if I had said that you made a mistake, that it was your fault that caused his death, would that take away the pain of his passing? Would his death have had more or less meaning? Tell me, Sakura, would it have saved him?" Sakura looked up at her teacher and was unable to answer because none of her answers were things that she could accept at the moment. What she felt and what she knew warred inside her and being right just wasn't enough to take away the burn of her failure.
"You know the answer to those questions, Sakura." Tsunade said softly, reading her student with a practiced eye. "Whatever I say won't convince you of what you already know, even if it were the truth. Feeling sorry for yourself won't change what has happened. And here I thought you had already learned that lesson." Sakura stared sharply ahead, eyes turned passed Tsunade's ear and shoulder, her mind racing through Tsunade's words and turning it over and over. This time there was no doubt in her mind about the disappointment in her shishou's voice. "Take a week off, Sakura," her mentor sighed tiredly when Sakura remained still and silent and unresponsive. "I want you to come up with your own answers if you are not satisfied with what you have now and what I have given you. If you are not ready in a week, don't bother to show up as my apprentice. I don't have time to waste on the weak-minded."
"Shishou!" Sakura and Shizune shared a look at finding themselves both protesting out-loud at the same time. Sakura shook her head at her sempai before straightening to face her teacher, finally snapped out of her trance. "I-I can't afford a week off, Tsunade-shishou." Not with Naruto and Sasuke still so far ahead of her. Sakura did not need to say the words. They all knew what she meant. What she feared more than anything was to be left behind again, staring after her teammates' backs. More than death or pain or fate of what was to come, Sakura feared letting her friends down a second time.
"I can't afford to waste mine or Shizune's time when you're like this, either." Tsunade replied evenly while Shizune looked away again, mouth grimly shut. "If you want to train, if you want to be stronger, then don't look at me like you have lost your will to fight. This is the conclusion of today's lessons."
Without waiting for her reply, Tsunade turned to go. Whatever looks her teacher shot Shizune, the other was not given a choice to linger. Sakura remained there, eyes wide and unseeing. Emotions burned their way through her chest and cramped her stomach. Guilt gave way to fear and self-doubt. What would she do now? If Tsunade gave up on her, how would she ever be able to catch up to Naruto or Sasuke? How would she be of any help if she was still so weak?
Down two corridors and Sakura found herself just as quickly pressed up to the wall. There, Tsunade was standing over the grieving parents. It was her job, Sakura realized, a job that Sakura had dreaded but still her responsibility. More than anything though, this showed how close Sakura was to losing everything if she didn't pull herself together. Tsunade and Shizune must both have known she was there to witness this, while the shame of her failure weighed even more heavily than ever before. Her eyes shifted over to the hunched figure of the boy's mother, unexpectedly drawn...
In that moment, all of Sakura's fears were silenced in the face of the grief she had caused. How could she be so self-centered when a child had died due to her own inabilities? She had felt him die. Why was she only thinking about herself when it was someone else's dreams that had ended that day - crushed dreams that ended other dreams?
Without anyone noticing, Sakura turned the other way and slipped out from one of the side exits. The sobs of a mother's heartbreak echoed after Sakura even as she put the hospital far behind her. She really didn't have the guts to face what would happen next. In the two years that Naruto and Sasuke had left her, since Kakashi's reassignment to long-term missions at his own request, she had been alone up until now. There was no one she could go to for answers or anyone to reassure her that she wasn't in the wrong. Other than Tsunade and Shizune - neither of whom she could seek comfort in for this - she had no one else who would be able to relate or that she could rely on in these types of situations. Her parents would never be able to understand and talking to them would only make her feel worse. She wasn't close enough to any of the rookie nine to want to share such a private and vulnerable moment with...
Sakura realized then that this was just going to have to be something that she'd pull through on her own.