One Step Closer

Fifty steps on the long path to becoming a true kunoichi. Sakura, from genin to beyond.

-

Air

Sakura is bent double over herself, gasping for breath, and trying desperately to ignore the feverish throbbing in her stomach.

"Eh, Sakura-chan, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have kicked so hard—" Naruto begins, looking thoroughly remorseful.

Through a stab of pain, she vaguely registers Sasuke looking away, disinterest written in every feature of his face.

Kakashi-sensei places a steadying hand on her back, easing her to her feet lightly. "Fine offensive moves, Sakura, but you really need to work on your defense a little more."

Sasuke looks directly at them for the first time in half an hour. Those dark eyes look right past her, at their slightly wary-looking sensei. "Kakashi, I want a spar."

Sakura allows Naruto to lead her to a soft patch of grass, where she sits down a little unsteadily. She watches Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke, every dodge and strike perfectly executed. Just as one would expect from two exemplary shinobi.

Her head falls again, and her green eyes focus determinedly at a spot on the grass – not from pain, this time, but from the vague, nagging sense of shame.

Apples

On her fifth try, Sakura's kunai thuds hard into the dead center of the target secured to the trunk of the apple tree.

"Good job," Kakashi-sensei calls encouragingly, taking a moment to look up from his orange book.

Sasuke walks past her, and without even seeming to consciously think about it, he pulls out his kunai and throws it, in a practiced spin, so that it neatly severs the stem of one of the apples, leaving the red fruit to fall to the grassy floor below.

The funny thing is, he doesn't even have to try to make her feel inferior.

In a fit of temper, Sakura throws her remaining kunai at the apple. It lands in the middle, splattering soft, yellow flesh all over the immediate vicinity.

Beginning

The true turning point in her life was not the day that she graduated from the Academy, or the day that Sasuke defected from Konoha.

The first time she looks at Tsunade-sama, the Godaime Hokage, she promptly goes to Tenten and asks her about everything that there is to know about Tsunade and her abilities.

Sakura walks home, later that night, and thinks that maybe, it's time that she reinvented herself.

Bugs

The first thing Sakura ever manages to heal is a fish. A single fish, and not even a big one at that. A little trout, one that wouldn't look too bad grilled and served with a wedge of lemon.

To top things off, she doesn't even heal it properly. Her chakra derails during the middle of the healing, and when a brightly blushing Sakura presents the fish to Tsunade-shisou, the fish flops about in a very odd manner.

Tsunade frowns and examines the fish closer. "Sakura, it appears that this fish has a…particularly active…tail end."

Sakura watches the fish's back half flop at twice the rate at the rest of his body miserably. "Yes, Tsunade-shisou."

The corners of the Godaime's mouth actually twitch, and she ruffles her apprentice's hair. "A minor bug, one that may be worked out with a sufficient amount of practice. Although, I have to admit that the results would be interesting if displayed in a few certain male jounin of our own species…"

Sakura can't help but laugh, as she throws her little trout in the water and watches it swim away.

Coffee

Her first all-night shift at the hospital happens after a squad of jounin return from an ill-fated mission to the Land of Mist. After six consecutive hours spent assisting surgery and tending to minor to moderate wounds, Sakura's apprentice coat is covered with blood, and she is slumped at the staff table, feeling more dead than she has ever felt to date.

"Sakura, Genma's slowly regaining consciousness. Would you please attend to him within the next fifteen minutes; he's due for another shot of morphine," Shizune says in a harried voice, poking her head out of the nearest checkup room.

Sakura nods, and Shizune gives her a weary smile, before returning to her own patient.

Sakura turns back to her welcome table, and before she can collapse again and enjoy the precious few minutes of break she has left, a large and very fragrant cup is thrust under her nose. She blinks, and looks up, cross-eyed, at Izumo, one of the Hokage's assistants. He smiles slightly, and nods toward the cup. "Better drink up, Sakura-chan, this stuff is going to save your life tonight…and every other night after it."

She takes a deep swig of the coffee, disregarding the heat.

A few minutes later, she slips into Genma's room, only to find Tsunade-sensei preparing the morphine. She nods toward her apprentice. "Ah, Sakura. You can finish it off; be sure not to give him too much."

Sakura takes the medication, positions the needle above Genma's arm with practiced accuracy, and punctures the skin, pumping the morphine right into the nearest vein.

"Good…now, Shizune will need some help dealing with Maito Gai, in the other room. He has a chest laceration that needs to be healed, as well as a few broken bones in his left leg and right arm—"

Later, as Sakura bends over a deep slash in the chest of her sensei's eternal rival and calls chakra to her hands, she takes a deep breath, and battles to keep the exhaustion at bay.

It's going to be a long night.

Dark

During her apprenticeship to Tsunade, Sakura discovers that several shinobi, particularly members of ANBU, have trained themselves to be able to see quite clearly in the dark.

Her newfound and rather stubborn desire not to be shown up by anybody rears its remarkably Naruto-shaped head, and the next morning, Sakura wakes up, ties a blindfold around her head, and attempts to find her way to Konoha's hospital using only four of her five senses, as well relying on pure memory.

Thanks to a sick twist of fate (and a rather sorry sense of blind direction), she ends up on the doorstep of Maito Gai's house, and as soon as the rather perplexed Green Beast opens his door and finds himself confronted with his greatest rival's former student, politely inquiring as to the whereabouts of Tsunade-sama, he takes pity on her and escorts her to the hospital.

When Sakura learns of her blunder, she is most ashamed, and would have banged her head against the wall fifty times had it not been for Shizune's timely intervention.

Even after years pass, Sakura's skills at night vision leave something to be desired, even though she practices weekly – causing no small amount of apprehension among her fellow shinobi. Shino had been most mortified when she showed up at the Aburame residence once, believing that he was Naruto, and demanding that he take her out for a bowl of ramen at once.

Despair

There are times when she misses Sasuke so much it is like a constant physical ache, one that no amounts of medical chakra can cure. Anger comes after the sadness, and when moods like this set on, she decimates entire training grounds at a time, crying as she punches down rotting trees.

Doors

After she begins her training in medical ninjutsu, Sakura feels like the world has been opened to her, hers to explore fully.

Before, she had felt it close on her – because she couldn't rely on pure strength to succeed in taijutsu; because her somewhat mediocre ninjutsu was always shadowed by her teammates' far superior skills.

Now, she learns how to direct chakra to her fists, using that elusive skill of chakra manipulation she does possess, and she smashes craters into the earth. The jutsu she learns now do not create impressive sheets of fire, or use the elements against an opponent. They still beating hearts; boil blood within the body of an enemy until the person dies an anguished death. They extract deadly poison from the body of an ally; mend bones and heal life-threatening wounds.

For the first time in her life as a shinobi, Sakura is truly happy.

Drink

His body is lying, broken and beaten on the ground, probably bleeding copiously beneath those black-and-red patterned robes. Blonde hair falls in disarray around him, matted with blood and dirt.

Her every instinct as a medic is to get down beside him and heal, dammit, but her eyes remain fixated on that Akatsuki cloak. The roles of medic and shinobi have never clashed within her as they are doing now.

Against every sensible fiber of her being, she kneels to the forest floor, beside the deadly missing-nin. One of his blue eyes fixates upon her, dilated with unspoken agony. His mouth moves a little, but he doesn't have the strength to speak.

She could stop his heart, right now. One more person in their bingo book struck out.

Sakura holds her hand out, and concentrates. A small pool of water appears in the hand, and tentatively, cautiously, she lowers it to the enemy's parched lips. "Drink. You'll need to get your strength up."

Duty

Her duty as a medic-nin is to heal her own injured. She can mend bones, extract poison, tend to severe internal injuries, and heal almost all external wounds.

When the situation calls for it, she uses these same skills to kill. A few hand signs can splinter every single bone in an enemy's body – a painful way to go. Rupture organs, stop hearts, create debilitating pain of every sort imaginable.

Sometimes, she has to give mercy. Sometimes, conventional shinobi ways of eliminating an enemy aren't as efficient – their bodies lie, slowly bleeding to death, from a long katana slash, or a kunai to the stomach or chest.

Sakura sits beside them, looks into their dying eyes. Some of them beg her to relieve them of their misery, some plead for their lives. Others' minds are too far gone in the way of pain, and when they look at her, they see their mothers, or sisters, wives, or cousins, not the enemy shinobi who is to be their angel of death.

She tries to make their last moments a little more bearable – tries to do it quickly, so they don't have to suffer for much longer.

She stops their hearts, and sometimes, she cries over their mutilated bodies.

Earth

Sakura has nightmares about blood-soaked earth. The sick color of the ground, the strange, unnatural stench, and the dampness of it underneath her fingers.

She always wakes up screaming.

End

It is a mercy that she tries to grant to every opponent she has to face – to end it quickly, and as painlessly as possible.

The fact that she sends people to their deaths not screaming with agony at feeling their blood boil within their body, but with a look of shocked surprise on their faces, as if not quite sure what has happened, does not weigh any easier on her conscience.

Fall

Sakura takes a deep breath and centers her chakra into her right fist, managing to concentrate even as she blocks one of Lee's kicks.

Through some miracle, she leaps to the side and manages to get her punch in under his guard, and she is close enough to register the surprise on his face when the seemingly light contact is enough to throw him off his feet and make him skid quite a distance on the grassy floor of the forest.

"Lee?" Sakura croaks, astounded.

Lee pulls himself up to his feet, and manages to flash a thumbs-up and bright grin. "You did it, Sakura-san!"

Newfound shinobi pride aside, Sakura squeals gleefully.

Fire

Listening to Tsunade-shisou speak about Konoha's legendary Will of Fire, Sakura's hand drifts up to the emblem on her forehead protector, and she smiles with pride.

Flexible

In one ill-fated attempt to use her own chakra as an internal aid during taijutsu, Sakura gets stuck in the middle of a back bend that had been intended to avoid Naruto's kunai.

It takes the combined efforts of Naruto and Hyuuga Neji to straighten her spine and bring her back into a standing position again. Neji actually blocks all of her tenketsu as a last resort, so that she collapses to the floor in a nerveless heap.

"Beats the permanent back bend, eh, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asks, as happily as if it had been his idea. (It was.)

Sakura glares evilly.

"Now that we've all learned our lesson in meddling with our own chakra while not possessed with the aid of the Byakugan—" Neji begins, a definitely smug tone to his voice.

Sakura cuts him off with another evil glare.

Nevertheless, she has never attempted to utilize a back bend in taijutsu ever again.

Flying

When Sakura had been a young girl, she had sat on the swings of the playground, watching the flocks of little birds high in the sky, wishing that she could fly with them.

The nearest thing she gets to that is six years later, when she first meets her genin team. During her first spar with Kakashi-sensei, she had failed to adequately block an incoming kick to the solar plexus.

…Resulting in her fairly sailing through the sky, before coming to a screeching halt against the back of a tree.

When she opens her eyes again, she sees her teammates and sensei clustered around her, wearing rather apprehensive expressions.

"Forgive me, Sakura," Kakashi says, courteously helping her to her feet. He scratches his cheek sheepishly. "I brought the teensiest hint of chakra to my feet."

Sakura groans.

(When she had envisioned flying, she certainly hadn't expected this.)

Food

Sakura tends to be a bit picky about her food at times, and is outspoken in her belief that mission rations are among the foulest substances known to man – along with Hyuuga Neji's attempts at making tea.

Rather than choking down her food and then combating the nausea, as her peers do, Sakura takes her food outside, nails it to the nearest available tree, and uses it for target practice. It makes an awful mess, but the satisfaction gained by seeing her assorted weapons buried dead-center in a clump of the cold, disgusting noodles is far greater than actually eating said noodles would bring her.

Foot

Sakura stares at the perfectly pedicured, crimson-painted toenails of the Godaime Hokage. "You have got to be kidding," she declares.

Tsunade snorts. "I am not. Massage, chakra-aided and otherwise, is one of the most crucial skills that any good medic-nin must know. And you need practice."

Sakura gives her shisou's foot a dumbfounded glance.

Tsunade wiggles her toes. "Any day now, Sakura. I'm not getting any younger, and my plantar fasciitis is acting up!"

Great. When she had asked for an apprenticeship to the legendary Godaime Hokage, this was most certainly not what she had in mind.

Grave

Sakura hates funerals more than anything in this world. By the time she is twenty-five, when she stops by the war memorial, she sees the names of fifteen comrades engraved into the black stone. She leaves flowers for everybody every day, and sometimes she talks to them, as if they are still there.

Thirteen years of life as a shinobi and as a medic-nin have left her with a paralyzing fear of death.

It's not that she's superstitious, but every time she's near a grave, whether it's the too-familiar war memorial, or a small, unmarked grave in the middle of a clearing, she feels a tingle of foreboding down her spine. How long? she wonders.

It's one of the many prices she has to pay for choosing to walk this road.

Green

Kakashi-sensei comments approvingly of how much her sparring skills have improved, and yet, it only takes one well-practiced feint and sweep of his foot for Sasuke to quite painfully reacquaint her face with the green, green grass.

One of her hands goes up to her throbbing head as Sasuke gives her a hand up; she glances at him with her green, green eyes, and, her crush aside, dreams of how satisfying it would be to see his head make contact with the green, green grass.

Head

Her fist snaps out and catches the man right on the jaw, and his head executes a one hundred eighty-degree twist, complete with a sickening crack. He falls to the floor and Shiranui Genma throws her right fist into the air and declares her the victor (her match had lasted ten seconds), and yet, all Sakura can do is stare at the twitching man on the floor, now being picked up and carried away by the grave-looking medics, and she wonders if victory will always come at this price.

Hollow

There are some times when she is gripped by pangs of crippling conscience, when she is tormented by the memories of mercy killings during the middle of the night, and when that happens, something remarkably like a panic attack is brought on, and she places her hand on her chest and tries to regulate her breathing, like the medic-she is, but no amount of healing can fix the hollowness inside.

Honor

Sakura has faced death countless times before, and even though it takes some excellent compartmentalizing skills not to let her fear show, she takes some reassurance in the knowledge that if she dies today, if this is the mission she will not return from, at least she would have died with honor.

Hope

It takes a special kind of shinobi to be an optimist as well, and sometimes Sakura wonders if she's lost that shining quality. But she smiles whenever she sees the little shoots of flowers break free of the snow, into the sun, and thinks that maybe there's still hope for her after all.

Light

Naruto tells her once that she has a way of lighting up his life, and she takes that compliment more to heart than all the times she has been told that she might surpass the Fifth Hokage.

Lost

At first Sakura feels lost, drifting around Konoha, alone, without her teammates, but she buries herself in complex medical scrolls, hoping that someday, they will help her find and help the people she holds dear.

Metal

She straps the brand-new katana on, feeling the blade against her back, and wonders if this is what it is to be truly powerful.

New

Sakura enjoys her newfound strength, her rapidly growing medical skill, her barely-shoulder-length hair, and her new forehead protector, tied around her head like a headband, embroidered onto the ribbon that Ino had given her so long ago. She buys new leather boots, finally puts on the gloves that Kakashi-sensei had given her for her birthday, looks into the mirror, and feels a thoroughly unfamiliar sensation.

Later, she is able to label it as the feeling of knowing that she can take on the world and win.

Old

Sakura drives herself to new heights every practice session, determined to rewrite everybody's memories of her, from the rather mediocre shinobi to the one who can now smash craters into the ground with ease.

Peace

Despite her temperament and her fighting style, Sakura enjoys peace and rejoices in Konoha's newfound peacetime – contrary to popular belief, she does not find inner peace in punching enemy shinobi through trees, thank you very much; and would much rather prefer gathering flowers, reading, or having a conversation with friends that does not center around kunai and who got what injuries during the last mission.

Poison

The first time Sakura realizes some of the less obvious benefits to being a medic-nin is after returning a whole and healthy Kazekage Gaara to the Sand, upon which a newly recovered and poison-free Kankurou thanks her with a kiss on the cheek, dinner, and a dozen red roses.

Pretty

Sakura thinks that maybe she's getting a little weird with age, but she now labels her katana among her collection of handbags, scarves, fancy makeup, and jewelry, within the favorite accessories category.

Rain

Tsunade doesn't see mere things like inclement weather as a reason to cease training; even though it is hard to get used to, the first few sessions, Sakura comes to love everything about it - the feeling of the mud squelching through her sandals as she spins through a form, inhaling the scent of wet grass, as well hearing the satisfying sound her kunai makes as it buries itself hilt-deep in the sodden bark of an old oak tree.

Regret

If she had been stronger, would she have been able to stop him from leaving?

Years later, the question still haunts her, and she trains harder still, for the day when they will meet again, so that she will be strong enough to clobber him into submission and drag him back home, where he belongs.

Roses

Once, when she is in a particularly depressive mood after a difficult mission, Sakura tells Naruto that he better put roses on her grave every week when she's dead.

Naruto smacks her upside the head and tells her to stop speaking nonsense.

Secret

Sakura usually gets underestimated because of her slight appearance and usually compassionate and friendly behavior; the people who have been on the receiving end of some of her hits usually ask her where she hides all that aggression.

She neglects to mention that, a lot of times, when she's in a fight, Inner Sakura just tends to hover a little closer to the surface than may be healthy.

Snakes

Maybe it's completely irrational, but after her first encounter with Orochimaru and Sasuke's defection from Konoha, Sakura takes a twisted joy in stabbing every snake she comes into contact with.

Snow

She races through the snow with Naruto and Sasuke, their feet crunching through the white ice, in a desperate attempt to see who will make it to the old oak tree first.

Solid

In comparison to the two of them, Sakura feels weak; however, when they stand together, shoulder-to-shoulder, weapons drawn and eyes glinting defiance, she has never felt the steady weight of true companionship stronger.

Spring

It always has been her favorite season, and, newfound determination to better herself aside, Sakura is happy when Tsunade declares that they may take the day off to enjoy the sight of the newly blooming cherry blossoms.

Stable

It's an idealism that Sakura has never quite grown out of; viewing her teachers as nearly invincible, ever-present human beings. Throughout her entire life as a shinobi, Tsunade-shisou or Kakashi-sensei has been there for her, as stable and unchanging as the dawn of a new day.

It says a lot about him that Hatake Kakashi can be bleeding copiously from a serious chest wound, and yet still manage to act cool.

"Really, Sakura, you should stop wasting your time with me and go about helping somebody who actually has a chance of living through this battle—"

Sakura rips the end of a bandage off from its roll with her teeth. Drops of his blood drench her hands and speckle her face as she begins to clean the wounds, feeling, with a heartbreaking kind of surrealism, his own heartbeat begin to slow beneath her hands.

She doesn't realize her tears are spotting his face and mingling with the blood on his chest until he stirs slightly, lifting his hand with an effort, so that it rests limply on her hand. "It's no use, Sakura."

"No," she grits out, compressing the wound, determined that she will save him, even if she has to stop the bleeding through sheer force of willpower. "You don't understand."

Kakashi never gets a chance to ask what he doesn't understand. It takes the combined efforts of Hyuuga Neji and Nara Shikamaru to drag the weeping Sakura off his body, as Naruto cradles the body of his former sensei, all the long road home.

Strange

She submits three formal petitions for resignation after this, and after each petition is firmly turned down, resorts to going to Tsunade's office in an attempt to rationally plead her case, but instead ends up sobbing helplessly that she's a pathetic failure and completely unfit to be a medic-nin.

After Tsunade succeeds in calming her apprentice down enough that the sobs have subsided to desolate hiccups, she takes the young woman by the shoulders, and calmly but firmly tells her that she is granting her two weeks of leave for mourning, after which she is expected to return to the hospital and her role as one of the best medical specialists in Konoha.

Sakura drifts past the old training grounds a lot that first week, hoping beyond all hope and reason that she will see her lazy former teacher lounging under the oak tree, buried in his Icha Icha Tactics, looking up as she approaches, and lifting a hand in greeting.

It is so strange to not have him around, her old source of stability.

It is even worse, the first time she visits him at the memorial. She brings roses, remembers that roses sometimes made him sneeze, and cries for an hour.

Sakura takes her first genin team a few months later, upon Tsunade's suggestion.

They always complain about her tardiness.

She refuses to explain herself to them, much to their frustration, but she thinks, with a bittersweet sensation in her chest, that Kakashi would have been proud.

Summer

Sakura nominates her genin for the chuunin exams the following summer, and after doing so, she spends hours sitting in the old training grounds (now her own, hers' and the three young genin), losing herself in the memories of that fateful summer, many years past.

Taboo

No team was assigned the number seven since Kakashi's. Everybody felt it was inauspicious.

However, Sakura insists, and as more or less every shinobi in the village knows, when Haruno Sakura insists, then things get done.

Haruno Sakura, jounin-sensei to Team Seven. She thinks that it has a nice ring to it.

Ugly

She has always prided herself on being a humane type of killer.

When she faces the missing-nin who had murdered Hatake Kakashi, she performs a jutsu that leaves him slowly oozing blood and bodily fluid throughout every one of his orifices, as his internal organs wither within him.

Sakura hears his screams of agony and watches dispassionately, thinking that she's never seen anything (or felt so) ugly in her life.

War

In her years as a shinobi, Sakura has seen so much war, too many deaths, felt too much pain, and lost too many people. She would give anything for peace.

Water

She walks across water for the first time, before Naruto and Sasuke can manage it, and catches them a large trout for dinner.

The look of surprised pride in her sensei's eyes is even more satisfying than the fried fish they eat for dinner that night.

Welcome

One of the most fulfilling moments in Sakura's life to date:

Coming face-to-face with Uchiha Sasuke for the first time in years, drawing her right fist back, and slamming it into his jaw.

She savors the stunned expression on that normally impassive face as he crashes through a tree and into a boulder, headfirst.

The other members of their team make their way to where he lies, struggling to get up, at their own pace. Sasuke, for his part, fights unconsciousness valiantly, his dark eyes fluttering as he looks up at her disbelievingly.

Sakura lifts her fists; inspects her slightly bruised knuckles dispassionately. "You're welcome."

Winter

The first winter that they are reunited as a team, after nearly twelve years, Sasuke spends wearing a straitjacket and tailed by ten ANBU guards, but looking oddly at peace, and Naruto is almost painfully exuberant.

Sasuke and Naruto actually go as far as to use their individual S-ranked jutsu in a competition to see who can make the biggest snowball. They end up with snowballs the size of small houses.

Sakura gives them each unimpressed looks, and then smashes each snowball with two fingers.

Naruto and Sasuke look dismayed, although the Uchiha smirks slightly upon seeing his ANBU guards covered with bits of snow.

"Things have changed," Naruto states a while later, with his usual penchant for major understatements.

Sasuke considers this. "You're a candidate for the Rokudaime Hokage, Sakura's a jounin-sensei now and one of, if not Konoha's best medic-nin, and I'm running around wearing a straitjacket and with my personal entourage of armed guards. Of course things have changed." He pauses, then adds, as an afterthought. "Dobe."

Sakura smiles slightly, looking up at the starry night sky. "Who would have thought?" That I would live to see them reunited again, that I didn't have to kill Sasuke, that Naruto and Sasuke didn't kill each other, that Sasuke would turn against Orochimaru…that we're even spending this winter together.

"Yeah, if somebody had told me twelve years ago that the idiot over there would be a future Hokage, I would have told them to get air holes drilled into their skull…"

Naruto takes advantage of Sasuke's defenseless and straitjacketed state to elbow him in the ribs.

Sakura sighs contentedly, and leans against the tree to gaze at the stars.

Despite everything that's changed, there's something intangible between them that's still the same. And there's a crushing, breathtaking kind of satisfaction, knowing that at least one thing that she's strived toward for the past years is finally a reality – and now they have their whole lives ahead of them, to grow and improve and live life to its fullest, like they should have. For the first time since they all separated, twelve years ago, for the first time, she truly feels like things are right again.

This is going to be a good winter.

Wood

Sakura is taking a leaf out of Rock Lee's book, pummeling the same tree trunk over and over again with her bare fists, until her knuckles are scraped raw and bloody. She continues to throw her punches, though, until she reaches a hundred count and Tsunade nods for her to stop.

The Godaime Hokage takes Sakura's hands in her own, gently healing the painful abrasions on her skin. At last, Sakura takes her curious eyes off the foreign chakra hovering above her own knuckles, and gazes toward her tree.

…After all that work, there is just the tiniest dent in the wood.

Sakura almost cries with the sheer frustration.

Tsunade, as cool as always, follows Sakura's gaze. She finishes the healing and inspects the dent in the wood, before prodding it curiously with her finger. "Curious."

Sakura almost wilts.

Tsunade turns back toward her, the soft light of sunset reflecting against her blonde hair, as she gives her new apprentice a rare smile. "One step closer, Sakura. One step closer."

¤

Reviews appreciated!