Exertion n.

1. physical or mental effort
2. the application of a force, influence or quality


Exertion
Alcyone23


She was always the third wheel. The only girl. The only one without a signature jutsu. The only one without mass amounts of chakra. She had her exceptional chakra control, but it did little to set her apart from her far more visibly powerful teammates.

It was more than just a need to become stronger to chase after Sasuke that drove her to become Tsunade's apprentice, to endure the brutal and unforgiving training. It was a desire to overcome herself and finally step out of her teammate's ever lengthening shadows.

She passed the Chuunin exam with relative ease, rounding out Ino and Chouji's team. They worked well together, but there was no denying she was an outsider. She fought with Ino and gaped at the amounts Chouji ate. Asuma was an interesting figure, constantly challenging the three with questions and riddles only Shikamaru could solve. Despite how welcoming they were to her, they were their own group, with their own history, battles, laughter and scars.

When Tsunade appointed her to Chuunin level, it was a hollow victory. Her teacher's pride was a soothing salve, but Sakura could not help but look for the people that weren't there. Kakashi had a mission, Naruto was still with Jiraiya and Sasuke...

Surrounded by people, Sakura could not feel more alone.

When Naruto returned...it was like part of Konoha's very vibrancy returned. In battle, they could read each other's moves and react accordingly. Against their infamous teacher, Copy Ninja Kakashi, they managed to hold their own and, through a brilliant stroke of fortune, stole the bells.

She had her team back. And it was like it had never splintered. It was Kakashi and Naruto and she and Sasuke. The final member of their team lingered just out of reach, just out of sight, but always there.

When they found him, when she saw how beautiful he was, how strong he seemed... She decided she would become stronger still. She would bring him back to Konoha even if she had to gang up with Naruto and beat his ass in. He would come home.

The team would be back together and she would be an integral part of it and she would stand beside her amazing teammates and feel like she belonged.

*

It was shortly after Sasuke returned that Sakura began to notice the change in the team dynamics. Naruto and Sasuke had always been close. Best friends, she knew. While she and Naruto had grown close in that year without Sasuke, she could not hope to compete for the place the other occupied. And she was torn.

Sasuke was her first crush, the first boy she ever loved. She would have followed him to the ends of the world and, in so many different ways, she did.

Naruto started off as an annoying loudmouth who couldn't recognize rejection if it bit him in the ass. After those three years away, he was still an annoying loudmouth, but he was so much more handsome, so much stronger. He put himself through so much just to be able to challenge Sasuke in the end.

But their acts now...they were different.

It began simply. The trio was waiting for Kakashi whose lack of punctuality had only increased with age. His role as Hokage didn't help.

"He's cuddling his porn," Naruto declared, nodding his head wisely, arms crossed.

Sakura, kicking her legs from her position on a tree branch, rolled her eyes. Below her, leaning against the tree, Sasuke scoffed.

She kept a lookout for their wayward teacher while Naruto somehow drew Sasuke into a fight. Their fights were different. It was never addressed verbally, but it was obvious they had a mutual agreement never to use their signature jutsu against each other. She shook her head and left them to their scuffle. Although the first fights made her nervous, she had learned that they communicated better physically and, as long as the deadly jutsu didn't make an appearance, she had no reason to intervene and pound them both into the ground.

As she watched, however, she noticed something different. Their blows weren't sharp. They lingered just slightly too long on the other's body. Their faces were screwed in concentration and an emotion she could not identify. Their eyes were dark as they watched each other, trying to predict the next movement. It continued until Sasuke activated Sharingan and swept Naruto's legs out from under him. Sasuke kneeled over him, one hand to Naruto's throat. Naruto's arms rose. One closed around Sasuke's upper arm; the other clenched shut around his shirt.

If Sakura hadn't known they had been fighting, she might have assumed the pose meant something different. Kakashi, apparently, inferred erroneously.

"Now, boys," he said as he appeared in a poof of gray smoke against the tree, "be considerate. Sakura and I are present."

Naruto and Sasuke sprang apart.

"Kakashi-sensei, you pervert!" Naruto pointed. Sasuke simply rolled his eyes. While Kakashi gave them their mission (He liked giving out missions outside the mission room; apparently, "all shinobi need to be ready to act at any moment". Sakura thought he simply liked to screw with the administration process.), she caught the furious glare Sasuke drilled into the back of Naruto's head and Naruto pointedly ignoring the black-haired boy.

Sakura stopped kicking her legs.

*

She didn't have a crush on Sasuke anymore. She had chased after him during childhood, but she was certain she no longer wanted him as she had. He was her teammate and her dear friend and she would always love him, but she had no illusions that he would want her. He showed no interest in her. Most of the time, there was barely concealed disdain although he treated her better than he did most others.

It was a bitter pill to swallow, but she accepted it. The Sasuke she knew was gone. Too much had happened. Too much had affected them. But he would still be Sasuke to her. And she wanted to be there for him, for whatever he needed.

This, however, was something beyond her.

They were eating dinner in Sasuke's apartment. After bringing him back and during the time that he was under observation, Naruto and she had made it a tradition. And so, there was nothing surprising about Naruto gesticulating wildly, spraying most of his food over Sasuke's table. She tried to throw a spoon at the blond head. Naruto ducked exaggeratedly and dove behind Sasuke's chair.

His hand brushed Sasuke's wrist.

Sakura's laughter died in her throat. Sasuke tilted his head a fraction of a centimeter toward Naruto. The look of blatant hunger on his face made her lose the thread of conversation.

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto peered at her worriedly. Sasuke's face was impassive as he watched her closely.

Sakura forced a smile. "Sorry, Naruto. I started thinking about some things I have to do tomorrow. Now can you please sit down so we can eat?"

"Fine," Naruto replied emphatically. He threw himself into his chair with such force the chair fell over. Sakura laughed and tried to ignore the dark look Sasuke focused on her.

*

Naruto and Sasuke were coming late to their team meetings. Sometimes, they didn't appear at all. Kakashi only shrugged and assigned Sai and Yamato to fill in their spots. When she would next see them, they would both show signs of electric shock or would have marks as if of teeth and claws.

They continued arriving late, however.

Sometimes Sasuke walked in first. Others, Naruto skidded in minutes before Sasuke did. Rarely did they ever coincide. Any time she asked Sasuke or threatened Naruto, they would give her an excuse that steadily became as outlandish as Kakashi's. It got to the point that Kakashi actually appeared before they did. Twice. Whenever she tried to speak to Kakashi, he would give her an evasive answer—when he actually answered her.

She was starting to get seriously annoyed.

"Were you two fighting? Is that what it is?" Sakura backed Naruto into a corner. Sasuke had an unbeatable poker face, but Naruto wore his heart on his sleeves. She was certain she could get an answer out of him.

To her surprise, Naruto looked her in the eye and simply stated, "No."

"Then what is it?" she nearly exploded.

"I don't know what happened to him, but Konohamaru asked me to help him out. I did."

He was lying. She knew. This wasn't how it had been supposed to work out. She was supposed to be part of a team, their team. She wasn't supposed to be shoved again to the side, the only girl, kept out of the loop, out of the camaraderie the boys had.

This wasn't what she had hoped for.

*

"Naruto! Sasuke-kun!"

This time, she was running late. Sakura shook her head. Three steps later, she saw she should not have bothered. They weren't there.

Releasing an irritated sigh, she turned on her heel.

I'll find out what's going on.

Naruto's apartment was empty when she reached it. One look at the warzone inside and she promptly fled. Near Sasuke's apartment, she noticed a distinctive yellow head of hair disappearing around a corner. Between two slats of wood, she noticed Sasuke next to him.

"Na—" The call died in her throat. Sasuke shoved Naruto against a wall. His black eyes were narrowed. Panic gripped her. He was going to attack Naruto. He was going to hurt him. She prepared to jump over the fence. She'd knock out Sasuke before he tried to hurt them again.

Sasuke's lips crushed against Naruto's.

Sakura's hand fell limply off the fence.

Naruto was pressed against the wall, Sasuke's body keeping him trapped. He didn't push the dark-haired boy. Instead, his hand rose and threaded through Sasuke's hair.

Sakura remained frozen. Eyes wide, she played voyeur without any desire of doing so. She couldn't look away. She could only watch as Sasuke seemed to be trying to eat Naruto's lower lip and Naruto eagerly participated. Something tightened her airways, closed off her throat. It wasn't until she heard a low moan that she turned away.

She ran to her house and was gasping for breath when she arrived. It was when she threw herself into her bed that she realized what was restricting her breathing. A sob clawed up her throat and she surrendered to it.

*

Now that she knew, Sakura thought she was the biggest moron in the planet. It had been obvious. But she hadn't wanted to see.

It seemed like she wasn't over Sasuke as she had thought. And Naruto…Naruto was a blow of a very different kind. He was her best friend; he was her beloved teammate. More than once he had caught her eye, but her feelings for Sasuke were always that much stronger.

Naruto and Sasuke. Together. She felt ill.

She heard Naruto's voice at the door, asking for her. She screamed back that she didn't feel well. He almost broke down the door in worry, but Sasuke managed to convince him to return later. Naruto promised to bring back all sorts of herbs.

She was going to be sick.

It wasn't just the hurt of childhood dreams dashed. There was an edge of betrayal lining the pain. How long must it have been going on? Why hadn't they told her? Would they? Or was she, again, the third wheel? A medic without purpose in a team whose other members had no need for her?

She punched the wall. It shook, but did not break. She hadn't packed any of her superhuman strength behind it. She was angry, she was hurt, she wanted to shake them both. But then the tears came again and she had no idea why she was even crying anymore.

"I'm going to pound them both," she soothed herself. "I'll beat both their asses in."

*

"Sakura-chan? Are you okay?"

"Yes," she snapped. Naruto stepped back as if slapped.

"Uh, Sakura-chan, are you mad at me?"

"…No." She was angrier with herself.

"Come on, Sakura-chan, you're acting weird. Are you still sick? Didn't those herbs help?"

Sakura felt herself defrost a little. He looked like a small child, wide hopeful eyes peering at her.

"I'm not sick anymore. And those herbs did help. Thank you." And they had. She hadn't wanted to accept them, but when Naruto saw how pale she was, he had almost forced the tea he made with them down her throat. Sakura had punched him. She wasn't sure if it was the right hook or the tea or a combination of both, but she had immediately felt better.

That didn't mean she wasn't still a little miffed at him.

Naruto, though, smiled as he heard her softened tone and threw an arm around her shoulders. "Good! It's not Team Seven without you, Sakura-chan!"

The corners of Sakura's lips twitched upward. She let the statement wash over her like a balm.

*

Naruto and Sasuke weren't as careful anymore. More than once, she almost walked in on them making out. Once, she caught sight of Sasuke's hand slipping down the front of Naruto's pants. Training can wait, she convinced herself as she fled the training field.

Although there was absolutely no doubt in her mind (or Kakashi's or Yamato's or Sai's or, oddly enough, Shikamaru's) that Naruto and Sasuke were doing their version of dating, they still refused to tell her. Two months had already passed and she was deeply annoyed with both.

If they thought she was stupid, they had another thing coming. She had trained under Tsunade of the Sannin and her mentor had never taken kindly to secrets kept from her. Sakura was going to use them as target practice.

Those were her thoughts as the three walked down one of Konoha's smaller streets. It was a rare day off and they were shopping for new dinner plates for Naruto. Sakura had insisted when she grabbed one inside a cabinet and came away with only a quarter of it.

"This one!" Naruto picked up a plate and turned around for consideration.

"No," Sakura and Sasuke chorused.

"What? Why?" Naruto peered down at the plate. "It's perfect!"

"It's neon orange," Sakura answered.

"So?"

"No one is going to eat from a neon orange plate."

"I would!"

"Yes, well, you're strange."

"What?! Sakura-chan, that's low! Sasuke, tell her!"

"You're fucking weird."

"Sasuke!"

"I think this one might suit you better."

Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura turned to the man leering at them. He held a plate with a rainbow cutting across the middle.

"Huh?" He snickered. "This is a plate for fags."

Sasuke was silent. Naruto opened his mouth to yell at him.

Both blinked as the man suddenly flew away from them, smashing across three walls before crumpling into a ball inside a clothing store a few doors down.

Sakura relaxed her fist. Noticing several patrons gaping at her, she raised it again. "Any problems?"

Many quickly returned to their shopping. Some teenagers a short distance away whistled and clapped. When she turned around, Sasuke's face was clear of all emotion and Naruto was staring at her as if he had never seen her before.

"Well? Weren't we shopping?" Sakura arched an eyebrow at them. "And no, Naruto. Before you start up again, we are not getting that horrid orange plate."

*

She finished placing the new plates (a pretty green with an orange and red rim—it was all the orange that she and Sasuke allowed him to get) inside the cabinets and threw the old ones into the trash with a happy flick of her wrist. Sasuke sat at the table, one hand wrapped around a teacup. Naruto was fiddling with his hands.

"Something wrong?" Sakura asked him. She knew perfectly well what was wrong. She had to bite back a smile as she saw how nervous Naruto was.

Apparently, she could be quite the sadist when she wanted to be.

"Listen, Sakura-chan, about that asshole today—"

"What about him?"

"Well, it's just…"

"What is it?" She refused to help him. If he was going to confess, he could do so all by himself.

Yes, she was definitely a closet sadist.

"Well, uh, Sakura-chan…"

"We're going out," Sasuke cut in smoothly.

Naruto choked. "Don't blurt it out like that, you bas—"

"I knew."

Naruto almost turned blue. "What?" he gasped.

Sasuke smirked. "I told you so."

"Shut up, Sasuke-bastard!"

"You know that little space behind Sasuke's apartment? It's very public. As are training fields."

Naruto flushed scarlet while Sasuke snickered.

"Listen, Sakura-chan…" Naruto grabbed her hand. "I wasn't sure how to tell you. I didn't want to keep it a secret, but I didn't want to hurt because I know you like Sasuke."

"I don't like him." Sakura smiled. "I love him."

Naruto blanched.

"Just like I love you," she continued. "You're my best friends. You're my family. And I only want the best for you. And when necessary," she cracked her knuckles, "I'll put my strength to good use. Like today."

Naruto laughed. "Did you see his face? His feet went over his head!"

Sasuke smiled. Sakura giggled at Naruto's imitation.

It wasn't like she had imagined. It wasn't what she dreamed.

But she didn't feel like a third wheel anymore.