Disclaimer: All copyright belongs to the appropriate parties, in which I am not included.
What if Sakura had an epiphany in the Forest of Death and refused to be weak then rather than waiting until Sasuke left? See how one decision can change everything. Story begins during the month of training during the chunnin exams.
A/N to the A/N: Because it was causing so much confusion with readers and because I'm attempting to get my house in order, the first twenty-seven chapters were taken down and reposted under "Five Kingdoms for the Dead Original". For all my reviewers, I've saved your reviews elsewhere, so don't think that your time or your feedback have gone to waste. Thank you for being so patient with me, but I also have real life concerns to take care of. Hopefully you may see a new chapter soon.
A/N: I'd been gone for a long time and I was reading over this story, intending to write the next chapter, but I found that I couldn't get past the first few. This story was started a long time ago and I like to think my writing has grown since then—at the very least I hope I'm not so painfully lazy. I realized that while it got better in later chapters, in this first chapter I came dangerously close to the realm of making Sakura a MarySue. But a lot of people have generously supported this story, so I wanted to post it like this allowing my readers to decide whether this works as a more solid beginning, or if I should leave the original chapter posted. I don't think any apology can be made about my long absence, but I lost the inspiration I'd had and I realized I didn't know where this story was going. The tone for the rewrite is very different, as is my Sakura—she doesn't wait for Gai to save her from herself. And I did a little bit of review, and realized that Tsunade's style of taijutsu doesn't work the way I was describing it and I realized I was completing leaving Inner-Sakura out of the first chapters even though she plays a fundamental role later on.
Five Kingdoms for the Dead
Time for a Change!
Haruno Sakura kicked her feet idly against the rough concrete of the embankment that overlooked the river that wound through Konoha, half hoping to bruise her heels simply so she could feel something.
Sasuke-kun hadn't been at the hospital. She didn't know why she had expected him to be—he only had a month to prepare for the final stage of the chunnin exam. The memory of the events that had transpired in the Forest of Death flashed through her mind, but in the warm, bright heart of the city she loved, it almost seemed like a bad dream.
Tilting her head back, jade eyes narrowed against the sun, she let the breeze dishevel her butchered hair further. It had been her first great sacrifice as a ninja and utterly ineffectual. She had to be saved, for kami's sake, like some civilian. It wasn't too far from the truth.
Usually, it would be Inner-Sakura's place to say something, declare their superiority, but Inner-Sakura had gone still and silent since the match with Ino. She'd still needed to be saved, still needed Naruto-baka's shouting to throw off the Shintenshin jutsu. But she'd done it. Proving myself Ino's equal saved my pride as a kunoichi. But it had destroyed her pride as a shinobi.
Head still tilted back, Sakura gently blew her bangs out of her eyes, the fine candyfloss strands catching at the light. Kakashi-sensei was gone too. She hadn't noticed, until Naruto told her. It had been a brief conversation as he'd been busy evading Ebisu-sensei. She hadn't seen him since.
So what now?
That was the question, wasn't it? Sakura had come to a wall in her training. It was taller than she could climb, too long to walk around. And Kakashi-sensei had shut the door behind him when he left. Sakura wasn't any sort of prodigy and she'd never pretended to be—civilian children didn't get to be ninja prodigies.
If I wasn't there, would Kakashi-sensei notice? She silently asked her reflection in the water. Sasuke-kun…wouldn't.
Her legs felt heavy, she thought, the sun too warm against her hair. Ino was still training. Asuma-sensei was training his whole team, even though only one had made it into the finals. It won't be long before I'm not even Ino's equal anymore.
She was trapped by circumstance and by her own passive inability to do anything. Even to feel angry.
Sakura felt protected by her team. But it was the smothering kind of protection. They hadn't left her alone enough to force her to struggle to make her own way, like Naruto, but she hadn't been taught patiently and exclusively like Sasuke-kun. She didn't have connections with the clans. Didn't even know more than a handful of jounin. Even if I knew the questions, who am I supposed to ask?
So that left her here, on the embankment, staring down at the running water below and pretending she could see herself in it. A bird in a padded cage, thrashing its wings against the bars. A prettily colored songbird, freshly fledged, trying to fly with hawks.
Poor little Sakura-chan, she mocked her almost-reflection, who needs you?
As focused as she was, she almost fell from her perch when a familiar voice declared, "What a way to waste the flower of your youth! Flowers should be blooming in training fields, not wasting their days on walls!"
When she had finally regained her balance, both literal and metaphoric over Gai's Dramatic Entrance, she managed to compose a reply that sounded only slightly bitter. "Everyone else is training for the last round of the chunnin exams."
"And?" Gai demanded. "Surely that is not enough of a reason for you to be wilting here. Defeat is only the opportunity for improvement!"
Sakura was reminded suddenly of Lee. Anyone else would have given up—he'd been told from the very beginning he would never be a ninja, but he'd proved them wrong. Again and again, he'd triumphed over people who told him what he couldn't do. Even now he was struggling against his own body, the one that the medics said would never walk properly again. But Sakura was suddenly certain if anyone could overcome the wall of can't it was Rock Lee.
All he'd needed, she realized, was a teacher. Not to shove him over the wall, but to show him how to open the door.
"Gai-sensei," she asked hesitantly, because no matter what her stance on taijutsu or youth, she knew her courage wouldn't last, "would it be an imposition if I attended your training sessions? I…don't know where Kakashi-sensei is, really, but he didn't…." her voice trailed off. "Ah," Gai said, rubbing his hand thoughtfully across his square jaw, "I see your problem. But fear not!" He struck his Nice Guy pose, smiling widely. "It just so happens that I also have some time to spare."
Sakura had to blink to clear her vision from the accompanying teeth sparkle that accompanied the statement. "Isn't Hyuuga-san in the finals?"
"Ah, Neji. He and my youthful student Tenten are working together on some secret training." Gai winked at her. "And with Lee on bedrest and no missions while our guests are in town, it can be nothing but karmic destiny—when the student is ready, the teacher appears!"
Sakura felt a chill run down her spine and premonition that she'd just received far more than what she'd asked for.
"So, youthful student, what is it you have and what is it you lack?"
Everything didn't seem like an appropriate answer, so she started with what she had. "Chakra control," she said, suddenly bold. "I don't waste chakra with my jutsu." Primarily because she had little enough to spare, but that was beside the point. Sometimes it was the destination rather than the journey.
"Chakra control, eh? A valuable talent. But it is all about the application. You've done the tree climbing exercise with Kakashi?"
"Yes." I didn't fall, not once, but I didn't get to the top, either. I made it to where the branches split and then stopped. And I was so proud.
"What about water walking?"
Remembering how Kakashi-sensei had run across the water like it was a solid surface when he'd fought Zabuza in the Land of Waves, Sakura shook her head.
"Well, now is as good a time as any!" Gai declared, vaulting over the low concrete wall and onto the river, where he stood waiting for her.
Sakura looked dubiously at the flowing water, but she was sure that it could be done if he had asked her to do so. Her jade eyes narrowing, she accessed the exercise. It would be all about the flow of her chakra. Trees were steady. They grew slowly. But water was swift and changeable. She wouldn't simply be able to pool chakra into the soles of her feet. Glancing over at Gai, who was waiting patiently, smiling encouragingly at her, she thought it would be easier if she could practice in the shallows first.
But the reason why the embankment was here was because there wasn't a shore, the river running slow but deep. I've always been practicing in the shallows, Sakura realized. Guessing at the chakra, she gathered her courage, leaping from the wall.
The cool water swallowed her and she went under with a shriek. "Gah!" she gasped as her head broke the surface, her hair looking even more pitiful than normal. Paddling to stay afloat, she knew what had gone wrong. She hadn't adjusted to the chakra fluctuation in time. For a vibrant moment, she remembered feeling the water as solid as a sheet of glass under her, then falling through.
But I'm not beaten. I know how to do this now. Pooling chakra in the feet was something habitual, something a ninja learned to do quickly and instinctively with repetition. But chakra could be drawn to any part of the body. It was another of the things Sakura had never had trouble with.
Settling the chakra in her hands, she pulled herself out of the water. Dripping, still a little out of breath from the shock of the water, she stayed on her hands and knees. But she was on top of the water. Clenching her fists, she looked over at Gai-sensei, who hadn't moved to help her. He hadn't saved her. "I did it, Gai-sensei," she declared. "I did it!"
Inner-Sakura, who been so silent, punctuated the statement in her mind. CHA!
"See? The flower of youth was always there, waiting to be picked!"
"Yeah," she breathed, getting to her feet.
"So, Sakura-chan, are you ready for the plan of youth?"
She nodded curtly, still riding on the sheer feeling of accomplishment.
"Our time is short, but the fires of our youth burn high! I will teach you the highest of the ninja arts, taijutsu! At its heart, taijutsu is more than just a bunch of awesome moves. It is speed and stamina. And heart! Never forget heart. Chakra control is what you have. Somewhere is the distant sunset that is taijutsu. In this month, we will race with all the power of our youth to catch it!"
Even though she was soaked, her pink hair clinging unattractively to her face, a triumphant smile crossed her face and Sakura gave him a snappy salute. "Yes, Gai-sensei!"
His plan, as it unfolded, was to teach her the introductory katas and forms to five different schools of taijutsu. He didn't expect her to master them. He didn't even expect her to like most of what he'd begun calling their "Proof of a Youthful Heart Grand Taijutsu Five Nations Challenge." In the spirit of the chunnin exams, which stressed cooperation, he was picking a taijutsu style from each of the five major Shinobi Nations. She was reminded again just how awesome the jounin who had survived the attack of the Kyuubi were.
Sakura was building a close and personal relationship with regret. She was being equipped with weights that she was sure were going to make walking impossible and pull her arms out of her sockets in one of the many specialty stores in the village.
"Don't you think these are a little heavy?" She asked, trying hard not to sound like she was whining.
Gai-sensei waggled his finger at her. "Chakra control is your specialty. You have likely already discovered that cycling chakra through your muscles can augment their strength. What I'm asking of you is to do that continually."
"Continually?" she asked weakly.
"Yes! Only when we dig deep can we find our limits, and only then can you overcome those limits with the power of your youth!" This time Sakura didn't react when he struck a pose. The chunnin behind the counter only raised an eyebrow, which Sakura took to mean that Gai was a frequent customer.
The bell at the door rung and the shop attendant called out a greeting.
"Ah, hello Maru-kun," the familiar voice of the Hokage said.
Sakura peered at her village leader through the veil of her bangs, adjusting the weighted plates that covered her forearm like a bracer.
"Gai, Sakura-chan, good morning," he greeted as he saw them.
Gai-sensei immediately came to attention, returning the salutation with vigor. Sakura's greeting was polite and quiet, she a little in awe at being addressed so directly.
"This is quite an unusual combination," the Hokage observed. "Are you training?"
"Yes, Hokage-sama. I've taken over Sakura-chan's training for the duration of the chunnin exam, so that the blossom of her youth will not wither!" Gai announced.
The Hokage chuckled and stroked his beard. "That's good, good. Are you looking forward to your training, Sakura-chan? Taijutsu, I assume, since you're training with Gai."
With great flair, Gai-sensei recounted his "Proof of Youthful Heart Grand Taijutsu Five Nations Challenge" and Sakura blushed when the Hokage's brows rose at the name.
"A very ambitious training program," he said when Gai-sensei had finished. "But I should have expected nothing less from you, Gai."
The praise made Gai smile even more widely than before, and he brought his hand to his chin, nodding in self-satisfaction. "Well, it can all be attributed to the power of youth," he said.
That made the Hokage chuckle again. "Yes. The youth of Konoha are our most precious resource." He stroked his beard in consideration and to Sakura he almost appeared to be hesitating. "Sakura-chan, you are on Naruto-kun's team. Is he doing well?"
"Yes, sir," Sakura answered.
"Ah. I remember your fight in the second round. It was very impressive. You have the potential to become a very talented kunoichi."
Before Sakura could stop herself, she said, "I want to be a good shinobi."
The Hokage looked startled, but then his wrinkled face relaxed back into a smile. "I see. Sakura-chan, have you heard of my student?"
"Which? One of the legendary Sannin?"
"Yes. Specifically, the Slug Princess, Tsunade."
"And what have you heard of her?"
"She was medic-nin," Sakura replied, "and she had monstrous strength."
"Not inaccurate," he chuckled. "But the description always falls far short of the reality. Sakura-chan, how would you like to learn that same monstrous strength?"
Sakura froze, struck by the offer. "Really?"
"Really. I'm afraid I can't spare much time, but I think once a week we could meet. Your score on the first part of the chunnin exam was very impressive—you were one of few to receive a perfect score."
Sakura flushed under the praise.
"What I found more impressive was that you didn't find it necessary to cheat. Not all the jounin shared my opinion," and Sakura flinched, "but judicious use of knowledge, eliminating the need for ninja cunning, is not always a bad thing."
Sakura hunched her shoulders forward, knowing he wasn't really trying to criticize, but still feeling the sting. "I would be honored to learn anything you saw fit to teach me, Hokage-sama."
His eyes were kind as he looked at her. "The desire to acquire knowledge and to be prepared is not something to be ashamed of, Sakura-chan. Some ninja have a genius of improvisation. Others make careful planning look like the work of a moment. It is not a bad thing to be the latter."
Sakura nodded, not quite agreeing.
"This evening, report to the Hokage Tower when you have finished your training with Gai. You will undoubtedly find me at my desk, swamped with paperwork. Now, Maru-kun, the reason I came…"
Sakura stared determined at her feet, slowly releasing the tension that had built in her jaw and shoulders. She started when Gai-sensei clapped her on the shoulder. "You have received an invitation of youth!" he declared, pumping his fist. "So while we are filled with fire, let us proceed. To the training grounds!"
In the manner of one used to obeying commands Sakura tried to take a step and almost fell over. It was like someone had encased her feet with concrete. She could barely lift her legs, let alone dash forward into any sunsets.
"Hurry! We must not let the flames of our youth flicker!" Gai-sensei urged, "We must seize the flower of youth while it is still in bloom. Those weights are only equal to your body weight! They are the feathers with which you will fly."
Sakura suddenly knew what was meant by the term killing intent. Grinding her teeth together, she began circulating her chakra, taking her first, cautious step toward freedom.
By afternoon the fire of killing intent had turned to cold ash.
Murder's too good for him, cha. Inner-Sakura declared in a tired voice. Sakura had never known her other personality to be anything less than ready for action, but the constant chakra use was getting to them both. She had a headache, she couldn't feel her fingers, and she could've sworn she'd hear her knees creaking as she went through her assigned kata for the third time.
It was the hardest training she'd ever done, without exception. Break was apparently a foreign word. When she got tired, Gai-sensei only changed the exercise to something involving a different muscle group. Sweat made her red dress cling to the small of her back, her legs, and she could feel it running between her nonexistent breasts. Her hair, which had dried after her dip in the river, was plastered on her red, sweaty cheeks.
"Alright!" he declared, clapping her hands.
Sakura didn't even have the energy to drop to the ground. If she sat down, she might never get up again. "Geh," she said as she decided she didn't care. The worn grass felt wonderful.
"Not bad, not bad," he muttered to himself. "Your stamina, chakra reserves, and speed are all dismal," Gai-sensei told her and Sakura let her head drop roughly to the ground. "But now that we know where you are, we can move to where you want to be. Study the katas I taught you. I'll expect to see you tomorrow, with the fires of your youth stoked high!"
He disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Sakura rolled to her side, curling into herself.
We'll do better tomorrow, cha, Inner-Sakura declared. Inner-Sakura never knew doubt.
Sakura had no such stopgap. Gai-sensei is going to kill me. She was a paper ninja. She could calculate herself out of any situation, outwit any enemy—on paper. Sakura allowed her lashes to flutter closed and she breathed deeply, inhaling the scent of dust and grass, waiting until her lungs hurt to release the breath.
Her eyes came open. If I'm only a paper ninja, I'll be the best one. A month of taijutsu might kill me, but I'm a gennin now. That means I have access to the scroll archives.
Levering herself off the ground, she ambled in the direction of the village, planning as she went. Inner-Sakura, recovering far faster than her outer personality, kept up a commentary.
Noting how people were glancing at her, she brushed sweaty hair out of her eyes with a hand that still shook with chakra exhaustion. She could have went home and showered, but suddenly it seemed like she didn't have enough time. Approaching the building, she nodded at the chunnin guard who looked critically at her as she passed.
It was cooler inside, the humidity and temperature kept low in order to minimize damage to the scrolls. What was stored here was general access; rare scrolls were kept in vaults elsewhere or in clan libraries. She hesitated before she approached the desk. The jounin manning it had been taken off the active duty list after sustaining heavy injuries on a mission to Cloud and he'd never gotten over it. Sakura thought he effectively discouraged rowdy gennin from the archives, with his heavy, foreboding brows and the scarring across his face.
"Did you need something?" he asked repressively, glaring at a chunnin who was attempting to scamper away without being seen.
"Yes," Sakura said hesitantly. In her mind, she replayed the conversation she'd had after they'd first met Haku, about hunter-nin. "I'd like to look at the anatomy scrolls used to train hunter-nin."
The jounin's dark eyes narrowed, a frown firming his mouth. "What rank are you?" he demanded.
"Genin," Sakura admitted.
"And you want to look at scrolls meant for hunter-nin?"
"Yes," she replied, becoming more bold. The worst he could do was say no. Well, actually, worse-case scenario said he killed her for being impertinent, but she was ignoring that option.
He stared at her for a long time, assessing. She clenched her fists to stop the trembling in her muscles. She wasn't scared, just tired, but he might see it as fear.
"I have a few texts I'd recommend you look at before you try anything higher level," he said at last. "If you can prove to me you know what's in them, I'll help you look for anything you want."
Sakura nodded, satisfied with their compromise.
"This way," he commanded, his dark aspect never lightening.
She followed, flinching as he stopped suddenly. "If you disappear with that scroll Genma, I'm authorized by the Hokage to hunt you down."
A man with light brown hair cut to his jawline was sprawled in one of the uncomfortable wooden chairs, rolling a senbon from one side of his mouth to the other. "Yeah, yeah, Suzuki-san."
When they finally reached the area, Suzuki-san never even hesitated as he handed her several thin volumes. "I'll need your name for the register if you intend to leave the archives with these," he told her, volumes outstretched.
"Haruno Sakura," she said, taking them, her expression filling with determination. Glancing at the clock as the jounin walked away, she realized that she had at least an hour before evening would technically be here. Claiming one of the wooden tables for herself, she opened the pages, stiff with little use, and began to read.
By 19:00 she was at the Hokage's Tower, standing uncertainly outside his office, the one book she'd taken with her tucked under her arm. Raising her hand, she knocked.
"Enter," came the invitation.
The Hokage had his head bent over paperwork as she entered, neat stacks beside each elbow. "Ah, Sakura-chan," he greeted as he looked up. "How was your training?"
"Hard," she admitted.
"Good," he replied. "Training should always be difficult. How else would we learn? But I suppose you're not here to listen to an old man's ramblings. Shall we begin your lesson?"
"Very well. From what I've been able to see from my window, it's such a nice evening. Why don't we go down by the river?"
Sakura followed in the wake of the Hokage, head down, book clasped in front of her. He greeted almost everyone they passed, so it took them a long time to make it to the training grounds by the river. She glanced around. It was close to the training ground that Team Seven used, but she'd never been to it before.
"Ah, I see you brought a book. What is it about?" he asked her pleasantly as he turned to face her.
Sakura stumblingly tried to explain her idea.
"So you want to be precise with your taijutsu, the same way you would with your chakra. It's a good idea. A very good idea. Human beings," he said as he put his hands behind his back, "are fragile creatures. And the better you understand the human body, the more you learn to exploit that frailty. But knowledge of anatomy isn't simply useful for killing; it also teaches you how to not make mistakes that would leave a target dead when the objective is to capture them alive. In part, that is why there is such an emphasis on it in the training we give hunter-nin."
"But it will also allow you to understand how your own body works, to make it a more effective tool. Knowledge is a weapon as dangerous as any kunai. And knowledge," he said, "is why we are here. Pay attention, Sakura-chan, and I will tell you everything you need to be a good shinobi."
Sakura basked in the indulgent warmth of a bath after she returned home. Realizing she was in danger of drowning, she sat up straighter, but as soon as she relaxed she began to slide back down. For part of her session with the Hokage, she'd been so far past tired she'd begun to be exhilarated. But it had lasted only long enough to see her home and after a shower, a quick dinner her mother had left wrapped in the refrigerator for her, and now her bath, she wondered if death by drowning was such a bad way to go. At least everything wouldn't hurt so much.
Scowling, she rubbed her forearms, where the shifting of her weights had left red marks. She'd wrap her arms with bandages tomorrow, she decided, finally standing and letting the water out of the tub. Her mother and father had taken their own baths and went to bed long before she'd returned home.
It stung as she disinfected the scrapes she'd acquired, but there hadn't been too much live combat today. For her training with Gai-sensei, it had mostly been watching intently as he demonstrated the katas, then careful emulation as he forced her to run them through until she'd memorized every movement. With the Hokage, it had been meditation as he lectured her, building up high concentrations of chakra in targeted areas of her body, then redirecting it back into her chakra paths.
Tomorrow would be a very different experience. She'd train with Gai-sensei until well in the afternoon, then spend some time at the archives. After that Sakura planned to return to the training grounds, running through the basic meditation exercises the Hokage had shown her. She wouldn't be able to meet with him again until next week. Running a village apparently required a lot of paperwork, which was tripled with the arrival of foreign ninja, who needed to be hosted, entertained, and watched while they were in the village.
She didn't look up at the bathroom mirror as she walked down the hall and up the stairs to her bedroom. Sakura didn't think she could stand to look at herself yet. But soon, Inner-Sakura cheered, Soon.
Something had disturbed her dream about a pleasantly compliant Sasuke-kun. Muttering a muffled curse and realizing she fallen asleep face-down on her pillow, she raised herself up with her elbows and peered blearily at her clock. 4:30.
What in kami-sama's name is awake at 4:30? Inner-Sakura grumbled.
When she spotted the fearsome green beast perched on her window, she knew. "Gai-sensei," she groaned.
"Well, it looks like you need some lessons on being aware of your surroundings," he commented. "I was here for five minutes before you woke up."
Does that mean if we'd kept sleeping, you wouldn't have bothered us? Inner-Sakura replied nastily.
"What is it, Gai-sensei?" was what Sakura said aloud.
"Training, of course! If the sun is up, you are late. Be at the gates of Konoha in ten!" With that he disappeared from her window sill.
Sakura swore her joints were going to give out as she pried herself from the warmth of her bed. Stumbling downstairs, she washed her face, brushed her teeth, and felt only slightly more awake as she returned upstairs. Remembering to step lightly as her parents were still asleep she made her bed and then turned to rummage for her things. She'd been so tired she'd left her equipment on the floor where she'd shed it and she nearly broke her toes on her leg weights.
Pulling out her training dress she made a dismal prediction on how long the fabric would hold out if she started training seriously. But after shaking it a few times to rid it of the worst of the wrinkles and ignoring the fact that it smelled like stale sweat, she pulled it over her head. Her weights, which really looked and acted like bracers, went on next, after she wrapped her arms. Last was pulling back her hair, which she found it was barely long enough for. She imagined the effect was a rather boyish style, if it hadn't been for the color. Her body could certainly pass as a boy's. Nonexistent was the right term for her figure.
But that was neither here nor there, she thought as she leaped up into her window. It's strange. I should be miserable. I'm awake well before the sun and I'm in for an entire day of Gai-sensei. But I'm happy. For the first time in a long time, I'm really happy.
That marked the pattern of Sakura's days for the next four weeks, regular as clockwork. Most of the day with Gai-sensei, who spent less and less time teaching her and more time fighting her. Afternoon, after a late lunch, was spent reading through scrolls and books in the archives under the gaze of Suzuki-san. Sakura had always been able to memorize easily and as she spent more time at it, she learned how to read quickly, skimming redundant information, taking note of new ideas and references to other sources. And, once a week, she studied under the Hokage, whose title as "the Professor" was well earned. While he watched her struggle with the taijutsu style of Tsunade, he lectured her on whatever happened to be weighing on his mind—history, politics, sometimes even jutsu.
She sometimes wondered if, in the future, when someone yelled, "Now switch!" at her, she'd automatically fall into a new taijutsu style. That was often how Gai-sensei transitioned his instruction, right in the middle of a match. Silent Kill, the modified taijutsu equivalent to Zabuza's technique. Crane Dance, the style from Rain that used very formal, stylized "dances" to strike at nerve centers. Breath of Stone, the Earth style that focused almost absolutely on defense and counterstrike, using chakra to dissipate the force behind a blow across the body. Shifting Sands, from Wind country, the style most difficult to practice because it always used fatal force.
The last was her best style, as strange as it was, because it demanded absolute chakra control. If she wavered, the attack was a damaging to her as her opponent. But Sakura's control had only increased with her training with Gai-sensei's shadow clones. Shifting Sands was like the name implied, smooth, subtle, and as harsh as the desert region where it originated. Dodging wasn't simply throwing her body out of the way, it was being just enough not-there when the blow landed that she needed no recovery time. Attacking focused heavily on the legs, to a kunoichi's advantage, and an open palm rather than a closed fist.
It wasn't brute force like Tsunade's style. If she kicked a tree with her chakra focused in her legs, releasing it all in a burst, she could knock it down, ripping the trunk into two with the force of the blow. In Shifting Sands, she didn't just kick the tree down—the tree would quite literally explode, the bark where her foot touched left intact but everything else blown away in dangerous splinters. When used on Gai-sensei's clone, in the millisecond before they turned into smoke, the effect was not unlike one of the slasher movies she'd watched at Ino's house when her father was away on missions.
On the day of the final phase of the exam Sakura woke well before dawn, a now ingrained habit.
I can see this pissing us off in the very near future, Inner-Sakura growled. While Sakura had been able to pretend to be pleasant in the mornings, Inner-Sakura had made no such efforts. She was awake, aware, and furious about that fact.
But Sakura smiled, because it was a little victory. "Success is built on small things," she told her reflection, echoing the words of the Hokage. Snapping directly into awareness, being able to get out of bed and prepare to run laps around Konoha until her breath rasped in her lungs with a light heart, all of it couldn't have been done by the Sakura of four weeks ago.
Some of it had been hard. Some had come naturally, like it was waiting to be awakened, years of conditioning in the ninja academy finally coming to fruition. Carelessly dressing, because she'd have to change later, she leaped outside, chanting in her head the information from yesterday's scrolls as she ran. Her research had led her to strange explorations, guided in part by Suzuki-san, authorized by the Hokage. There was a box at the foot of her bed of old scrolls and scroll cases, weathered badly and some of the seals broken with age. The Hokage had allowed her to withdraw them from one of the vaults that were usually kept sealed.
"Harmless things, C-class jutsu mostly, but perhaps you will find them useful," he'd told her at the time as he glanced through the box. She'd been helping to clean the vault as part of the agreement to borrow things and her eyes had been red-rimmed from all the dust. That particular vault was the remnant of a very brief period of intense information suppression just after the founding of Konoha and the Hokage had been very liberal with allowing her to read the scrolls.
I need to return them soon, before Team Seven goes back on active duty, she reminded herself. Preservation was implied in the borrowing and she thought she might need Suzuki-san's help with a few of the badly water-damaged ones, to see if anything could be done to make them more legible.
When she felt she'd done enough and run another three laps for good measure, she returned to her house, debating on entering through the door or the window.
Ninjas always take the window! Inner-Sakura declared and Sakura followed her advice.
Showering quickly despite knowing she had hours before the event, she debated what to do when she saw her teammates today. Screw Kakashi-sensei, Inner-Sakura snarled. If he wants to know what we've been doing, he could have been here.
Okay, Sakura agreed. But what about Naruto and Sasuke-kun?
Inner-Sakura fell silent, which led Sakura to believe she was as confused about that as Sakura herself. Except Inner-Sakura was herself. Sort of. It was all very confusing.
Reaching for her shampoo, she snorted as she saw the label. She hadn't even known "Deciduous Forest" was a scent until two weeks ago when Gai-sensei, just to prove he could, put in ear-plugs, blind-folded himself, and tied his hands behind his back. He'd then proceeded to utterly thrash Sakura in their match. Sakura was half-certain he could just sense her, but he'd told her that her scent was a dead giveaway. So now even her deodorant was scent-blocking. Trees, she was told, didn't sweat.
Her hair was still ragged and looked like she'd cut it with a kunai, which admittedly had been what had happened. When she pulled it back into a ponytail centered at the back of her head it just looked spiky in the back, but there was no disguising her bangs. Bangs were useful. Sakura couldn't completely control her reactions yet and they helped to disguise her wide jade eyes, which she'd been told time and again were her most expressive feature.
Wonder if Kakashi-sensei's mouth is his most expressive feature? Inner-Sakura asked idly. Sakura snickered at the implication as she finished dressing. Her prediction that her dress wouldn't survive had been sadly accurate. Turned out loose red fabric was not kunai proof. Zipping up her new top over the chest bindings she felt were rather needless, she tugged the sleeveless deep green top into place. The style was similar to what the operatives of ANBU wore and the color flattered both her eyes and skin tone.
Vanity, thy name is Sakura, Inner-Sakura chided.
Take a hike, she commanded her other personality.
Oh, but it's so dark and empty in here, Inner-Sakura returned. I might be attacked or something.
Adjusting her collar in the mirror, Sakura realized she was about to enter into a war of insults with her split personality. Do you think something is wrong with us? She asked the persona she'd always thought of as her deepest and most secret self. Which was unsettlingly violent, but that was beside the point.
What do you mean?
At the exam, Ino said something about "two minds" or something. Which means you might not be…me.
Are you inferring that I'm a personality disorder?
You said it, not me.
…I don't know.
Deciding that if she was crazy it wasn't something to worry about in the here and now, she strapped on her kunai holster over her fitted shorts. Loose fabric was only for good ninja she'd learned, like long hair. And while Sakura thought she might no longer be a burden on her team, she wasn't nearly arrogant enough to pretend that she was a good shinobi. Metal and fabric scraped against wood as she picked up her forehead protector from her vanity, tying it loosely around her neck like she'd seen Hyuuga Hinata wearing it.
She'd been able to stop bandaging her arms after three weeks of the weights, which were the things she always put on last in the morning. Leg weights first, their matte black plates running the length of her shin, then her arm weights. She meant only to glance in the mirror, but then Inner-Sakura spoke up.
Wow, Sakura, dye your hair and you'll pass for a boy. And Sasuke-kun would still be prettier than you.
"Shut up," she growled out loud. Did everyone's self-consciousness grow a voice, or is that just me?
But she knew Inner-Sakura had a point. Ino's waist was small enough she could tie her forehead protector around it and Hinata-chan hadn't been hiding anything with that coat. Sakura wasn't fat, but she was solid through the torso, and her month of training had only made things worse. Now her sleeveless top exposed arms with visible lines of muscle and there was nothing dainty about her calves and thighs, which she'd built up long ago with all her running away.
"But I would be a damn good looking boy," she finally snarled at her reflection, disgusted with herself. She knew well enough that the extreme stress ninja training had on the body often delayed puberty, especially in females. If the Hokage's stories were anything to go by, Tsunade herself had been pretty flat-chested, and now her chest was often mentioned as one of her "legendary assets". Her problem was that she was surrounded by pretty, pretty men. Anyone would get a complex.
It was just dawn as she slipped downstairs, but her father was already awake, busy at the stove. She didn't speak to him, as he was about as amiable as Inner-Sakura this early, so she quietly set the table. Sakura hadn't actually seen her mother often during this month, as every hour had been devoted almost obsessively to training, but there was always dinner in the refrigerator when she came home, a bento waiting for the next day.
They ate in silence and when Sakura had finished the dishes, she slipped out the door. Her relationship with her parents was complex. Her father was distant, formal with her, spoke to her rarely. She'd never in her life addressed him as "tou-san." He wasn't native to Konoha, having immigrated during the last ninja war. She didn't know from where. When he'd married her mother, he'd married into her family, taking on her name and eventually taking over the Haruno business when her grandparents had declared their son-in-law competent. That was all Sakura knew of her father's history.
Her mother was a different case. Resentment of Sakura's chosen path and her own inability to bear a second child sometimes caused her to lash out at her daughter. She never apologized, but sometimes there were extra treats left on the counter. Her mother was a daughter whose husband had inherited over a natural son. There was always a hard look in her eyes when she returned from visiting Grandfather and Sakura would know he had complimented one of her cousins. It was she who had told Sakura, "Girls should always be neat and clean. When you play with boys, let them make the decisions."
Sakura loved her mother best from far away.
Striking out onto the streets of Konoha, Sakura watched her beloved city come slowly to life, vendors setting up stalls and competing for space to display their wares.
She was setting on the corner of a building, watching nobles trail through the streets in a sluggish procession to the stadium when she heard a familiar voice below.
Sakura smiled with delight as she saw Ino haggling with a jewelry vendor. Leaping from her vantage point and using the striped overhang of a stall selling baked goods to propel herself forward, she landed next to her friend and rival.
"I-no," she said teasingly, drawing her attention, "isn't it a little early to be showing off your pigheadedness?"
"Hey," Ino protested, "that's just mean. What about you? What's that billboard brow of yours doing up so early?"
"Me? Early? Have you checked the time lately? It's almost time to go if we don't to miss the opening ceremonies."
Ino cursed, leaving her bargaining, which made her angry. She stomped her way through the crowd easily, threading between people with the grace of a professional kunoichi.
"Say, Ino, didn't you get enough beauty sleep? I mean, you'd have to sleep as much as Shikamaru-kun to make any real difference, but still…" Sakura teased as she followed, laughing quietly.
Ino turned on her abruptly. "And you!" she accused.
"And me what?" Sakura prompted.
"You!" Ino jabbed a finger in her direction. "Where have you been? One hospital visit to see Sasuke-kun and Lee-san and then you disappear into thin air!"
"Isn't that what a ninja is supposed to do?" Sakura asked, being purposely oblique. The truth was she hadn't thought of anyone—not Ino, not Sasuke-kun, nor any of the Rookie Nine—during her training. It had possessed her entirely, but she felt not a shred of guilt. Until she became a shinobi worth noticing, she wasn't worthy of meeting them again.
She still wasn't a shinobi worth noticing, but now it would be flat out rude to ignore them and unlike Sasuke-kun or Naruto, being polite was something ingrained into Sakura. And she had missed them. Ino especially, because now they could be friends again, without their rivalry for Sasuke-kun's affections coming between them.
It was my fault, Sakura acknowledged as she looked at her friend. That was all in my head—it was me who forced him between us. Looking at the fabric-covered bun that hid her friend's shortened hair, Sakura felt regret. Ino always had such pretty hair.
Abruptly, so abruptly she startled the other girl, Sakura said, "I haven't been a very good friend Ino. But I'll be a better one. I promise."
Ino blinked her eyes slowly, then tilted her head and put a hand on one hip. "What are you talking about, forehead-girl? We're both going to be better friends, remember?"
A wide, genuine smile crossed Sakura's face. "Yeah, I got it, Ino-pig."
"Now if you're done being totally weird, let's go score some good seats."
Sakura was content to follow Ino as she navigated them through the crowd. Actually, it might have been a lie to say that she hadn't thought about any of her teammates. Naruto had been on her mind often enough, every time she found herself eating dirt and unsure if she could stand up again.
She'd had Inner-Sakura shout it at her often enough, If Naruto can get up from being beaten within an inch of his life, don't you think even you could do this? She'd taunted herself with his unfailing spirit and unarguable results until rage had given her the strength to get up again.
"Hey Sakura, are you even paying attention?" Ino asked, waving a hand in front of her face. They'd made it through the matches, from Naruto and Hyuuga Neji's epic showdown to Shikamaru-kun's match, which might have been the slowest paced ninja battle she'd ever seen. It hadn't stopped Ino from nearly screaming her ear off during it though.
"Yes," Sakura said without moving.
He should have been disqualified, Inner-Sakura said in a rather quiet voice.
Well, Sakura remarked in familiar exasperation, did you really expect him to lose to Naruto, even when it came to his entrance.
The cursed seal?
I don't know, but if they couldn't seal it, I don't think he'd be here.
"Hey." A voice greeted from behind them.
"Kakashi-sensei!" Sakura said, torn between happiness and frustration.
A/N: So, does this seem more plausible? I won't make any promises about updating, only to disappoint you later. I am a college student and finals are coming up, so there are about fifty pages of essays between me and summer. But I would like to thank everyone who supported Five Kingdoms, even though I'm a terribly unfaithful author. Review, if you would like, and tell me your opinions about the new version.
Breath of Stone (Earth): Technique that is based on strong defense. The user uses chakra in order to dissipate the force of a blow across the entire body, rather than allowing all the force to be kept at the impact site. This form emphasizes waiting for your enemy to attack first and waiting for them to expose their weaknesses rather than striking first.
Shifting Sands (Wind): Technique that emphasizes fluid, deadly movement. The user is required to have absolute control of their chakra, because each strike is only light, but chakra is released in specified patterns which can cause the target to dissolve or explode without ever breaking the skin touched. This form is low to the ground and utilizes the legs and a more open palm technique than other styles as well as being executed at superior speeds.
Silent Kill (Mist): Technique that strikes at fatal points in the body. Modified as a taijustsu form, but each blow is meant to be fatal. This style emphasizes silent movement, often used in conjunction with jutsu that blocks certain senses. This form is only used when the user is willing to kill an opponent rather than simply defeat them.
Closed Fist (Fire): Technique that uses chakra for super strength. Style and fluidity are abandoned for brute strength. Known for its unpredictability due to its chaotic forms, which emphasize doing as much damage as possible with regards to little else. The movements of this style are quick and jerky, and the approach is aggressive.
Crane Dance (Rain): Technique that uses a series of very formal approaches or 'dances'. The most remarkable feature of this taijutsu is the speed with which it is executed, because the style requires that the user strike at nerve centers in the opponent's body. This entails a very thorough knowledge of the human anatomy, similar to the Silent Kill technique.