Spoilers: Up to chapter 445
A/N: I dedicate this to everyone who has appreciated Sakura's growth. I only wish that this'll keep being canon-compliant even years from now. You hear that, Kishimoto? Good, good. Song belongs to The Killers. Pending edits.

The Gloves And Her
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I'm on my knees looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancers?

When Sakura is 12 years old, she prides herself in having the softest hands in the Academy, even softer than Ino's. She spends her nights imagining the look in Sasuke's eyes when she will touch his face with her soft hands; in her dream, he softly brings his hands around her smaller one, smiles, and raises it to his lips. Sakura is 12 years old and only wants to please the boy of her life. She paints her fingernails green, and the colour sticks with her.

The first time she talks to Naruto it's because of her nail colour. She doesn't pay him attention when he tells her he likes the green of her eyes much better, and ignores him completely when he promises his first law as Hokage will be to give her unlimited access to green nail polish. Her eyes are instead focused on Sasuke; she keeps her chin in her hand, pretty nails and soft hands in full sight, and begs him to notice them, notice her. He doesn't.

Although she's felt the cold touch of a kunai in her hands, it's never felt as frightening as the day they are attacked on their first mission. As she stands guard in front of their contractor, and waits for the incoming slaughter, she can't help but risk a glance at her nails; they're green, and pretty, and her hands are soft, but as far as hands go, they're useless.

The day it becomes obvious is the day Sasuke leaves. When she wakes up on the bench, desolate and lonely, the first thing she sees as she opens her eyes are her soft hands. Later, when she's managed to pull a promise of a lifetime from Naruto's foolish mouth (and heart, and soul), she stands at the gates of Konoha and watches his back as he runs after the boy she loves and couldn't help. Her hands are still soft, but the nail polish is gone.

It's a start.

The first time Sakura wears gloves is not in battle, but in the hospital ward. Her gloves are made of white rubber, and they stick to her skin. Tsunade barks in her ear that she can't help anyone if she'll continue to tremble like a sissy, and Sakura tenses up and puts her hands above her patient's chest. He dies five minutes later. Sakura's hands are covered in blood, and she can feel it seeping into her skin even with the gloves on her hands. She's silent and horrified at the power medic-nins have in the palms of their hands, and disgusted, disappointed, at the lack of power she still has. Tsunade pats her head softly, and tells her that her mission from then on is to not lose another life.

The next time she's in the hospital ward, she saves a man from dying of blood loss. Her hands are still covered in rubber gloves, and it still takes a while to rub the blood off them when the operation is over. It continues this way for a few weeks.

Sakura's hands start to show signs of work-out after Tsunade takes her under her tutellage. She works herself to the bone every day, trying to prove herself worthy to her new mentor, to make her proud of having taken her on (and with a smug revenge against the mentors that never gave her this sort of chance). The day she realises her hands are calloused from trying to break stone with her bare fists, Sakura cries; she's proud of every little imperfection, because it's her way of evolving from useless to useful.

At the hospital, she still wears gloves, although Tsunade moves her to another ward. She learns how to make powerful poisons, and how to concoct antidotes in the span of an hour. Tsunade tells her an hour is not enough; Sakura spends a week locked up inside the laboratories, asking the other medics for help. They test her constantly, giving her poisons every day, each more complicated and deadly than the last; by the end of the weak, Sakura's hands are red and itchy, the skin irritated from all the chemicals. It takes her only ten minutes to figure out antidotes to even the most powerful poisons.

On her fourteenth birthday, Tsunade sends her on a mission with a squad of Jounin, to test out her theory that medic-nins are vital in any team. It's Sakura's first mission without her team. As the rest of the team huddles around the fire, she keeps to herself. She pretends that instead of the quiet sounds of sleeping, she's hearing Naruto's boisterous voice and Sasuke's annoyed complaints, and Kakashi's mellow scolding, and the flickering of a warm camp fire. She rubs her hands, the pads of her fingers running over scars and callouses she's acquired while training and working at the hospital, and wishes for a moment that they were soft again; that she were thirteen, and her team were complete and with her.

That morning, her new, temporary team is ambushed.

Sakura has no gloves when she grabs the kunai in her hands again; in the second before she throws it at one of the enemies' shoulder, she feels small and insignificant again, but notices that her nails are chipped and dirty, and her hands look old and world-wary. The fight lasts long, the rogue-nins attacking them being more skilled than her team. In the end, though, they manage to end up on top; Sakura's fist cracks the ground and causes the enemies to lose their balance, and it's all her teammates need to end the fight.

One of her teammates, a pretty woman with soft-looking hands, has a sword though her shoulder. She's losing blood fast, and Sakura takes her aside and puts her bare hands to the injured area. Her chakra is steady, as is the blood flow. It takes her longer than usual to heal her; she can't stop staring at her hands, covered in her teammate's blood.

On her second mission with the Jounin team, Sakura returns to Konoha with a kunai through her hand. Tsunade has Shizune hold her down on the operation table, and has Sakura bite into a piece of cloth as the older woman pulls the kunai out of her hand with a sharp and calculated movements. Sakura spends a week out of service, her right hand wrapped up in white bandages that keep getting red every hour or so when she makes a sudden movement. At the end of the week, Tsunade takes off the bandages, and shows Sakura her healed hand. There is a vertical scar in the middle of her palm, and the same identical scar on the back of her hand; Tsunade tells her that even though the injury had been significant, with enough training, Sakura will recover her dexterity.

The next day, she buys her first pair of fighting gloves; they're black, and cover her hands perfectly, as if they were meant to be there. Her scar is no longer visible, and the callouses are hidden too. Her hands look strange, misleading; anyone who didn't know her or trained with her would think that she's the same as before, and that she's wearing the gloves to protect her hands from getting roughened. When she takes the gloves off at night, she looks at her hands, and thanks them for growing with her as she grows more powerful.

By the end of the month, Sakura has the ability to crush large boulders with only a poke of her finger. She keeps wearing the gloves.

By the time she's fifteen and Naruto returns to the village, Sakura has fifteen pairs of gloves at home, and no bottle of nail polish. The day she hears that Naruto is back, she takes off her gloves, in hopes that he will notice how her hands have changed. Naruto doesn't say a thing; she remembers briefly, while they're enjoying the first bowl of ramen together after so many years, that he had once promised her a lifetime supply of green nail polish. The memory amuses her, but she doesn't bring his attention to it.

The day they leave for Suna, Sakura puts on her gloves, and doesn't take them off until they're back in Konoha. At her return, she has a few more scars, and a few more reasons to keep fighting and growing.

The day they return from Orochimaru's base, after dinner with the team is over and done with, Sakura spends the night sitting on her bed looking at her gloved hands. No matter how much she has grown, she is still useless when it comes to anything concerning Sasuke. That night, she makes a promise to herself: she won't take off the gloves until she's strong enough, and brings Sasuke back.

When Pain invades Konoha, Sakura feels all the responsibilities fall on her shoulders, and her hands. She heals patient after patient in the hospital, and feels true despair when the building collapses around them. For a moment, she feels useless again.

She heals Hinata, and gives orders; her hands are tired, weak, but she keeps pressing on. Once Naruto is gone, Sakura tends to the injured, organizes the medics into a squad, and saves less lives than those she loses. Tsunade tells her it's to be expected of war. Sakura doesn't expect it to hurt that much.

When Naruto returns, she's waiting for him at the gates. The moment she sees him, she's running, and running, until her arms are around his neck and she's holding on tight. The moment of silence passes quickly, and Sakura pulls back to glare at her friend. Her fist connects with his cheek as she shouts at him; she tells him that she's strong now too, and she hates being left behind while he goes and fights and she fears for his life and feels useless. She tells him that if he ever does it again, she'll break every bone in his body. Naruto gives her a tired smile, and pulls her hand away from his shirt slowly. His big hands cover her smaller one, and he raise it to his lips. He doesn't say anything, but Sakura understands all those things he wants to say, and can't. She can feel the warmth of his lips even through the fabric of her gloves; it's the first time she wishes she didn't have them on.

When Sakura is seventeen, she witnesses three amazing things.

The first is in summer. Konoha has just been rebuilt, and the streets are full and brimming with people who have learnt to heal from the blow their village had dealt with a few months back. Sakura is instructing the guards at the gate on their new schedule, when a cold wind brushes over her. When she turns around, she sees a team of three approaching her village, although she is unconcerned as far as the two strangers go. When she starts running, it's not to throw her arms around his shoulders; her fist connects with his jaw hard enough to throw him into a tree fifty feet behind him. Five minutes later, it takes Naruto's strong arms to restrain her from pummelling their estranged teammate into the ground. She snaps and shouts at him; Sasuke takes it with the grace a writer accepts critique from insignificant connoisseurs.

The second is a few hours later. She finds out later that the reason Sasuke has returned is because it has been brought to his attention that Konoha is no longer being ruled by the decisions the Council members take. With no reason for revenge, and no Madara to cover his eyes and whisper him lies, Sasuke has the epiphany of the century; he realises that every thing Itachi did at the end of his life was done to ensure that he would have nothing left to avenge, and he would be free to return to Konoha and resume his life as moderately normal as he could. For a genius, Naruto tells him, you sure are slow.

The third is when Naruto is made Hokage. After the ceremony, she barely sees him for five minutes before he is locked inside his office and made to solve all the village's problems. Five messengers are sent that day from Konoha to their allied countries. It's also the day that Sasuke and his new team are judged, the former for treason and allying himself with the Akatsuki. Fortunately for Sasuke, though, he has connections in the Hokage tower. Unfortunately for Sasuke, said connections are still a bit resentful for all these years of trouble and stupid actions. The last living Uchiha is placed under house arrest for a year; to make things worse—or funnier, as he says—Naruto gives him a job as an instructor at the academy. A year of educating the new generation, the base against which Konoha leans, will hopefully teach him of new things worth living for, and give him new reasons to stay.

The day Sakura finally takes off her gloves, it's not her who pulls them off. According to the promise she made to herself, she shouldn't take them off, because she wasn't the one to bring Sasuke back. He brought himself back.

Naruto tells her that even though she didn't physically drag him back—although that would've been kind of hot—she helped rebuild Konoha as it was now, and it was that change that brought him back. They're both alone on Team 7's training grounds; it's night and everything around them is covered in a thick layer of silence. Sakura's head is resting against Naruto's shoulder, their backs leaning against the tree behind them.

The silence washes over them, and Sakura looks at her hands in her lap. How they have grown. How they've changed. She marvels at it, at how time and hard work can change a person from insignificant and useless, to the Hokage's right hand.

"Remember when we were little and you climbed up this tree in a few seconds on the first try?" Naruto asks, breaking the silence.

Sakura pulls her head away from his shoulder, and wonders briefly if he's been having the same epiphanies as her. Or maybe, if he's known it all along. "You were the only one to cheer for me," she says, looking up at the tree in question, her eyes stopping at a branch. Five years ago, she'd sat on that branch, proud of her achievement and waiting to hear Sasuke's praise; he had only looked disappointed—of himself, not of her—and she had felt her pride melt away. Now she thinks that maybe if she had paid more attention to the one cheering for her, she would have grown a lot faster.

Another minute passes, and she feels a large hand covering her right hand. When she looks down, it's to see Naruto pull her hand in his, and gently take off her glove. "Maybe you can stop living for him, now," he murmurs, and brings her hand up to his lips. The kiss is pressed directly against the scar of her hand. She doesn't answer him, but guesses that maybe she could try.

From the moment he left, she's been training hard to become someone who could be useful, who could help, who could save them both. She realises now that after all these years, she's forgotten how to live for herself, and has perfected the art of living for her team. Naruto draws her attention back to him when he brushes his thumb over the scar, making her shiver slightly. She doesn't speak, instead content with watching him as he pulls something out of his pocket.

"Don't think I've forgotten," he tells her, finally looking up at her to grin as he shows her a bottle of green nail polish. Sakura is so stunned that she doesn't even think of reacting in any other way except continue to watch him ; as if she's seeing him for the first time, only she's not, only she is. He opens the bottle, and delicately paints the fingernails of her right hand a bright green. "There," he says while finishing the job, "Now there's balance."

Her eyes settle on her hand again. All the scars and callouses of a kunoichi that can hold her own in a battle, and the grace that a simple layer of nail polish can give it. Being the smart girl she is, she realises that maybe it's time to stop blaming her uselessness in the past on her hands. Even though right now, her hands look delicate, she knows that in battle, they are deadly. All these years of blaming her failures on beauty products, when the only one to blame was herself. With her epiphany, she realises that she can allow this balance that Naruto has created.

He blows air against her nails to dry the polish, and Sakura's heart beats faster. "Help me keep it," she tells him, pulling her hand out of his grasp to touch his cheek. "Help me keep it." Her plea is nonsensical, but Naruto understands, anyway. It occurs to her that he will understand her always.

He pulls her other glove off, and applies nail polish, before raising it to his lips and pressing a kiss against her wrist. She rests her forehead against his shoulder, and lets him entwine their fingers together.

"You have beautiful hands, Sakura-chan," he whispers, saying it as if he's telling her something else. Something that she would've wished, years ago, to hear from Sasuke's mouth. Like he's telling her he loves her, and will keep doing it, no matter how she is, or how her hands are. She understands.

Tightening her hold gently, Sakura looks down at their hands. And doesn't let go.