At twelve Sakura is book smart. Her hands are smooth and unmarked, her hair long and pink like a princess. Like a girl, because that is all she is. Iruka-sensei tells her once, before she graduates, that she is by far the cleverest student he'd ever taught, but the more time she spends with Team 7, the more she realizes there is so much she fails to understand.
At twelve, Sakura begins to see that book smart does not make a fighter. Reciting the theory behind element-based jutsu will not save her life- because what good is the theory when her team mates are down and her sensei has disappeared and everything is up to her now?
Sakura is clever, but at twelve she is still just a girl who believes in fairy tales and happily ever-afters. Despite her sensible personality she is still immature; her rivalry with Ino can attest to that. She wants Sasuke to notice her; respect doesn't enter her head because she cares more about looking pretty than she does about looking capable. At twelve, Sakura is a girl before she is a kunoichi with all that entails. It is only when her hair litters the moist smelling ground, the sharp kunai clutched tightly in her hand that this begins to change.
Thirteen and Sakura is anxious. Her mother hates her hair and the slow shift in her priorities. She watches her team mates and the ever growing distance between their abilities and hers with an unease she cannot explain. Naruto is becoming more than a loudmouthed idiot, just as Sasuke is becoming more than the cute boy who keeps saving her. Thirteen- and she begins to see that Sasuke is the one who could do with being saved. The two boys fight- but its different suddenly and Naruto can't see it, but Sakura can. Team 7 has always been dysfunctional but the dynamic is changing into something ugly. But Sakura is thirteen and she can't voice her half formed fears. She'd like to reach out to Sasuke and drag the light back in but she doesn't know how. And the crack in the unstable foundation grows. Sakura is thirteen, with a normal childhood and civilian roots and she begins to feel the disadvantage of being ordinary. Years later she will confide in Kakashi that "its lonely, knowing things." By then she knows he will understand.
Sakura is thirteen when Team 7 falls apart but despite her lack of progress she's mastered the only lesson her sensei ever taught her; to look underneath the underneath.
Sakura is thirteen when she wants to be more than her age.
At fourteen Sakura is growing.
Idle fantasies of damsels in distress give way to training day after day until she can break the hard ground in half with a single punch. Her hands are mottled with scars and broken skin, but that's okay, because its progress. She doesn't want to be a Princess anymore. Princesses are helpless.
Her book smarts are finally utilized when she cracks open medical textbook after medical textbook and the theory she learns saves the lives of people around her. At fourteen Sakura is teamless, but she is also finding her footing. Ino comes back into her life- bringing Shikamaru and Chouji with her on occasion. Both girls have swallowed their pride because they are each the sister the other never had and they need each other.
At fourteen Sakura thinks less about the size of her forehead and more about the accuracy of her aim. She misses Naruto but she doesn't worry for him like she does for Sasuke. People think she blames herself but Sakura isn't foolish enough to assume anything she did had any impact on her team's decisions at all. At fourteen she is a lot less self-centred and immature than she was at twelve, but she still has some way to go. The possibilities are endless. She is clever and monstrously strong. Her perfect chakra control means she can master any technique she chooses to learn as long as she tries hard enough.
When Sakura is fourteen her heart is bruised, not broken. Still, it is she and she alone that patches herself back up.
At fifteen, Naruto comes back and Sakura is terrified. She doesn't want to slip back into the role of standing on the sidelines. But she's missed him, so she's happy too and it's a complicated mix of feelings that threatens to engulf her. At fifteen, she becomes a member of Team Kakashi, but Tsunade tells her that her apprenticeship will continue because she is invaluable to her. She's never been invaluable before.
Fifteen is the year Sakura gets kissed and its not Sasuke but she doesn't enjoy it any less. She flushes, because she's happy and keeps this bubble of joy close to her chest, liking the feel of a secret. Fifteen and Sakura bleeds, but Sasori is dead and she watches Naruto's face carefully, because his opinion is one of the few that matters to her these days. She is rewarded by the blaze of faith in his eyes, the knowledge that here is a boy who believes in her. At last, they are equals.
Fifteen and Sai comes along- and here is another damaged soul for her to look after. She thinks this time that she's equal to it, because that is what she does. Sakura fixes people. Fifteen and Sasuke tries to kill them all- and Naruto is devastated. He's still chasing the past- but the team mate they loved is different now. She knows some day it is a truth he will have to face up to. Sakura already has; she's spent years speculating, late at night, alone, just what Sound and Orochimaru have turned Sasuke into. The puzzle pieces have changed to form a new picture and he is a piece that no longer seems to fit.
Sakura is fifteen when she realizes that despite her proficiency as a medic-nin there are some things that she will never be able to fix.
Sakura is sixteen.
She moves out of her mother's house to a small apartment near the hospital and her transformation into kunoichi is complete. She has found herself, but to Mrs Haruno, her little girl, her darling daughter has disappeared inside the ninja. Sakura is sixteen when she is defined by her abilities rather than her dreams, her belief in happy-ever-afters nothing more than a fond memory. She's killed enough people to know that they don't always come true.
Sakura is sixteen and Konoha is destroyed. Her mentor is in a coma and her best friend is a hero; she herself dreams of burning buildings and streets soaked with blood. She saves what she can, desperately trying to hold and keep the cusp of life in her hands. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't and she hates the Akatsuki for what they've done. She thinks quietly to herself that she's going to kill them all, one by one, as painfully as she possibly can. Sakura is sixteen when she first gets a taste of the blood lust that has propelled Sasuke forwards almost all his life. She knows it is something Naruto has never truly felt (her friend is better than that) and the part of Sakura that isn't silently screaming is ashamed. She thought she was better than that too. But Naruto has always been special that way; he sees the best in people and brings it to the surface. Sakura sees the worst. She is sixteen when her home turns to dust, her mentor is as good as dead and her mother cannot stand her. She is alone with her hatred and for the first time she and Sasuke have something substantial in common.
Sakura is sixteen when she forgets what it feels like to cry.
Seventeen and Sakura is scarred. She counts them in front of the mirror sometimes, remembering all the close calls, the almost fatal stabs and gashes that sent her blood spraying through the air. "Careless" Neji tells her once, watching her knit her skin back together and he might be right. Sakura tries not to think about the implications of carelessness for fear of what she might find.
Seventeen and Konoha is rebuilt but it will never be the same. She will always remember how easily the fabric of her world- the centre- was all torn down. Danzou is made Hokage and she is disgusted.
Seventeen and Sasuke comes back. He's older and more beautiful than ever, with his new team in tow, all feral damaged fighters looking for someone to take it out on. Its her duty to protect the village but she hates Danzou so she lets them get past her when the fight breaks out. No one will notice the difference.
Kakashi is made Hokage and Sasuke is pardoned after a long trial. Naruto is overjoyed and Sai is almost nervous and she can't feel anything. Sakura is seventeen and she's had enough of fixing people. They want to be a team again, she thinks but the puzzle pieces no longer fit together. Sakura is seventeen and she's angry and scared and hurt. She doesn't want to lose her best friend to Sasuke because he has always been Naruto's favourite. He was hers once, too. She thinks she might fall in love with Sasuke again, if she's not careful- and she doesn't trust him. She's spent so long worrying he'd lose himself to darkness that she hasn't had a chance to be angry.
When she is seventeen, Sakura allows herself the luxury of being selfish. Its not that she was left on a cold stone bench in the dark or that he chose vengeance over her. Its not. When Sakura is seventeen she is mad at how much Sasuke hurt Naruto in every possible way and then just waltzed back into her best friend's heart without apology. She's mad at Naruto for letting him.
They want to be a team again, she knows, but what about Sai? He's more than a substitute.
What about her?
Sakura is seventeen and she can't go back. Everything has changed; there is no Team 7, not anymore and she resents them trying to squash her back into the role of the bystander. Sakura is seventeen and she needs to punish someone for the past.
At eighteen, Sakura leaves. Its her turn, she reasons to Kakashi, the others left ages ago. Let her have a go.
She's sick of hospitals and battlefields truth be told. She's sick to her stomach of life and the messy, horrific affair it turns out to be when there's bloodbloodblood everywhere and shallow breathing, thin cries- and death. Sakura is both- she saves life and she ends it. At eighteen Sakura is both ends of the spectrum and she can't wash the blood off either way. The line has blurred and who decides who lives and dies? What right does she have to do so? At eighteen, Sakura looks back to herself as a twelve year old and years for that peace of mind; that righteous moral code she thought she'd never forget. That spoilt child did at least know right from wrong. At twelve, Sakura was nothing more than a girl but things were simpler then. At eighteen, Sakura is lost.
Naruto has the Kyuubi and Sasuke is an Avenger, but Sakura is becoming a different sort of monster altogether. She avoids them both as much as she can. Sakura is eighteen and most of the time she is drunk. Or trying to be. Tsunade made sure her apprentice could handle her alcohol well. She thinks maybe she could try to find a way to wake her up.
Sakura needs someone to confide in. She's lonely and confused and probably, she realizes, going mad. Her shishou would understand. She always did.
At eighteen Sakura is unstable and Kakashi can see this. It is for this reason that he lets her go, fleeing Konoha as the sun slowly rises and stops Naruto and Sasuke chasing after her.
Sakura needs something- love? faith? closure?- the boys don't understand, he knows but Kakashi lost his own team mates once upon a time. He understands what Sakura has yet to figure out.
At eighteen, Sakura needs to recover her heart and forgive herself for losing it.
Sakura reaches her nineteenth birthday. She's in Sand, under the hot dry sun helping to reform Suna's medical system; there's nothing but building and healing and teaching for her to do. Sakura remembers how to laugh and cry in the same day, startling Gaara who's become used to her quiet, serious presence. Sakura remembers what it is like to help people- and that's why she became a ninja. She's not a princess-but she is giving people happy endings and middles and beginnings in a system that isn't perfect, but works.
Away from death, Sakura remembers what it means to live. Away from Konoha- and all her hatred- she finds the girl inside her for the first time since she was thirteen and forgives herself for throwing that part away so completely. She vows to let her mother see her daughter in her again. She remembers why she loves Sasuke and Naruto more than she hates them and knows for once, they are the ones waiting for her to return. She holds the cards in that.
At nineteen, Sakura is fitting herself into a new puzzle piece. Things have changed and they'll change again until the pieces of team 7, different as they've become, learnt to fit again.
Sakura is both a girl and kunoichi. She is twenty. Sakura is ready to go home.