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Sakura has a room full of clothing.

There are the pretty, fashionable ones she can no longer show off because they have gone out of style. There is the pink sweater, the black pants - hidden in the back are two gloriously slinky dresses she bought but never wore; courage is not something that can be said to define Sakura. There are even little bits of her first feather boa around. Her usual genin suit is both flexible and curvy, a perfected piece over long years of experimentation. She is quite proud to have bested Ino-pig on seven counts of sartorial events.

But after meeting Naruto and Sasuke, she throws out all of her clothing and buys her genin suit in bulk, hoping to prove that she is as dedicated to the ninja art as they are, hoping that they will notice she wasn't one of those flighty has-beens whose only purpose in the ninja academy was to catch a husband, that she could choose pink to soften her steely skill, black to hide her scars, and even cut the hair she had proudly grown since the rumor about long-haired girls came about.

Gravity proves to be a clear bell.

Sasuke and Naruto cannot escape from each other's gazes.

 


 

Sakura knows she is not the most powerful genin freshly graduated from the academy. It is only proven to be hard fact when she faints at the face of a bloodied Sasuke, where she only crosses kunai once with Zabuza and in the end, all she's good for is to sit on Kakashi's back as he does one-fingered pushups. She is weight; proper weight, weight that adds a splash of femininity and color to an otherwise depressing group, but she's weight nonetheless.

Her hands wrap bandages around heavy bruises and ghastly wounds, but Sakura does not complain because she knows that if she does not, someone else will, and she wants to zealously hold on to what little space there is for her.

The clothing once bought in bulk is still absently ordered from the store; they now have her specific size on file since she buys so many – Sakura is one of their best customers. There is no hassle in trying to please her with newer, more whimsical designs.

She starts adding tiny cherry blossoms to the labels of her clothing.

They fade as they go through repeated washings; when the last one loses its color, she knows it's time to throw them away. Her scissors go snip, snip, snip through the old – but not that old – fabric and Sakura's first project is a patchwork quilt which doesn't quite seem to have an ending.

 


 

As the chuunin exam draws near, Sakura wonders more than once whether she should cut or at least trim her hair; nothing is more distracting in a life and death battle than the theatrically flowing column of hair that flutters in the wind, but when she seats herself in the barber's seat, she does a characteristic nose flip and runs out of the shop, her mother shouting anxiously after her. It is her hair after all, and she thinks frantically that her worries about it being a bothersome detail in battle must be wrought from her overactive analytical mind.

While Sakura does not cry, her Inner Self later taunts her for caving like a badly made currant cake.

She curses that she is not a better ninja.

 


 

It says something about the terrible hunger in her when the merest crumbs of approval from Sasuke grasp her heart like ice and she can do nothing but bask in the grudging warmth and the sudden shining of the day. The Chuunin exams are no longer so frightening, Naruto is no longer so annoying, and even the knowledge that she is still dangerously unsuited to the task no longer eats as much as it did when there was no sun, no moon, and only the quietness of night to accompany her.

Perhaps three was better than two after all. Perhaps she wasn't the third wheel in this impossibly intense rivalry.

Perhaps Sakura could be teammate rather than a pretty princess in pink.

But then, how would that explain the lack of scars?

 


 

Her eyes hurt so much, but she cannot close them, she cannot give up, she cannot let go of the kunai clutched in her hand so hard that her fingernails bleed and dry. Sasuke and Naruto depend on her for the moment, and she feels a perverted rush of power and uneasy pride, but it dies quickly as she finds herself at the mercy of their enemies and is forced to watch her unconscious teammates come closer to death than a white-as-snow boy.

It is all about choices and the strategically right moment; for Sakura, no time is better than the present.

She defies convention and lets her kunai sing and it rushes through air, hair, and with it, goes her foolish pride as a ninja. It is not the overwhelming fight for justice or her desperate need to be their protector.

It just was the only thing Sakura could do.

 


 

Sakura loves Ino-pig very much.

The flower-shop girl is like the sister Sakura never wanted. Their fight is all about the past; memories of teasing and tears are melded together until Sakura forgets that this is part of the examination for Chuunin status and only savors the fact that she is now on the same level as Ino-pig, the same girl who had stood out to protect her and anchored Sakura to humiliation and split her into Inner and Outer Sakura.

With the fight spanning so long, it is natural for it to grow restless; everyone knows their skills are evenly matched and for either to lose to the other at what seemed to be a crucial point would ruin the precarious balance that has wavered on the precipice for years.

There is no telling what will happen after the match. And unconsciously, she does the unspeakable. Sakura holds back all the slightest bit and there is no Inner Sakura screaming for her to beat Ino-pig up, because Outer Sakura has silenced Inner Sakura and it is for a loss, as the two end in a draw.

Sakura feels Kakashi-sensei lifting her away from the match, and she sees Inner Sakura disappointed and fading away. Ino-pig's relationship with her is somewhat restored to the before-Sasuke era. She knows this and there is a moment of intense, unwavering pleasure as Sakura remembers soft hands brushing the dirty strands of pink hair from an unusually large forehead.

It is why Sakura loves Ino and hates Ino with a passion usually reserved for Sasuke.

 


 

There is ninja and then there is something beyond it.

Sasuke and Naruto are beyond it.

Sakura finds herself lonely in a group of three, and not long, because the three splinter jaggedly into sharp pieces. Kakashi spends all of his time attempting to heal Sasuke's old wounds which have long scabbed over and are now in anarchy with the curse seal. The seal threatens the delicate, straining balance which once kept the last Konoha Uchicha on a leash.

Sakura practices her smiles in the mirror every night, if only to reassure Naruto right before his big fights and to welcome him home from his training trips that leave her alone at her empty home; her parents are busy helping with organizing the last events for the chuunin exam. It begs to be a huge draw.

With Kakashi gone, with Sasuke gone, with Naruto gone, it is obvious that Sakura was left behind again.

The smiles seem to hurt.

 


 

Sakura whistles through the air after Sasuke and Gaara and the rest of the Sand genin.

It is another mission, given by her impossibly kind Kakashi-sensei who spilled blood in a wet puddle to protect her. She sees his silver hair splashed with crimson and invariably, Sakura feels the survivors guilt; there is hatred for the fact that she could not bloody her own hands and had to cower while leaving her sensei, another man, to save the day. There is nothing more Sakura hates and her hands run and knot restlessly at her genin suit.

His not-quite-smile flashes through her mind, and she hates that Ino-pig couldn't go.

 


 

The rain is unending. She knows that it is proper to cry at the Hokage's funeral, but she cannot bring herself to feel anything other than the numbing knowledge that she, once again, was dead weight. She'd been rendered useless and furthermore, she'd provided an incentive for Naruto and Sasuke to endanger their selves in an attempt to protect her.

Kakashi-sensei had sent her after Sasuke and Gaara, had allowed her to lead the team responsible for making sure nothing would come to harm of Sasuke.

Naruto had been the one to save the day as she bled unconscious.

She'd ruined another genin suit, but she'd gone snip, snip, snip and there was an additional stain to her patchwork quilt, a piece of cotton ripped by the flying sand. It was a testament to her attempt.

Whether because of cowardice or lack of room, Sakura is standing at the edge of the crowd, though her relationship to Naruto compels her to be standing next to him.

But she is not.

And Hokage's grandson – what is his name? – is crying.

 


 

The white walls of the hospital have grown to irritate Sakura, who above anything else loves color. She cannot stand the dull, hateful lack that has become all the too familiar as she waits for Sasuke to wake up from his feverish nightmare. She knows only what Naruto could get out coherently, and that is enough. She had not spent her time in books to not know about the Uchiha Clan massacre and the ensuing pursuit of Uchiha Itachi, an S-class villain who could never be caught.

Naruto has left in pursuit of training; she hears him furtively tell her that Itachi is looking for him. Kakashi-sensei is recovering from the near-fatal encounter with Itachi. Sakura is alone by Sasuke's side; it is not enough.

Sasuke is dying inside and Sakura knows this.

 


 

There is a hidden art to slicing apples, and while Sakura is no expert on it, there are bowls and bowls of apples at home which testify to her practice. The peel comes off in one long string of red and she always takes a moment to admire it before slicing the fruit into equal pieces.

She offers the apples to Sasuke with hope and love and everything she else she could package in and he knocks them away.

It is synonymous to failure, and Sakura feels the last threads of their team slip away as the apple connects with the floor with a wet thud.

 


 

Watching three parts of a whole rip violently apart as rivalry becomes something else, and Sakura cannot believe her eyes at what she's being forced to bear witness to. Sasuke and Naruto are constantly at each others throats, but she's always believed it to be at least grudgingly friendly.

But to see Sasuke snarl, Naruto glare, she finds herself attacked by a sense of terrible irony. They are no longer students of the academy, but their irrational hatred for the other stems from the most childish of memories and the bitter taint of weakness is woven into their relationship. Her patchwork quilt sits quietly in her room, and she suddenly realizes that she has two new pieces for it.

Sakura tries to stop them, but they can no longer hear her voice. Their anger triples and she does the only thing she knows; with no thought to the aftermath, she throws herself in between them. She hears them try to stop, but instinctively, she knows that they will not stop in time.

But as always, intervention comes.

The dust clears, and it is Kakashi-sensei with his uncanny sense of timing. Inner Sakura screams for her to stop crying and to do something. But there is nothing left to do as Sasuke takes off, as Naruto stares dully at his hands in wonder; had he really wanted to kill Sasuke? So many lines have been crossed and she can hardly bear the tinge of regret in Jiraiya's voice.

She looks up as Kakashi lands lightly, silently in front of her. He smiles – as reassuring as a kunai in her hand – and his gloved finger ruffles her pink hair. She wonders how Kakashi could be so nice.

 


 

Sakura bolts out of bed and dresses frantically in her genin suit. Two old ones are sitting by the patchwork quilt and she has yet to go snip, snip, snip. One came from before Sasuke was cursed by the seal, and she can't quite bear to destroy it.

There is something terrifying in the air, and with a frantic fear born on the wings of knowledge, she races for the edge of the village.

Sasuke is there. And as her eyes take in his pack and the long-denied resolution on his face, terror bubbles up. It is not the terror for Sasuke as a boy or for him as Sasuke but for the fact that he is her teammate and teammates look out for each other, right?

It was the first lesson Kakashi-sensei taught them.

But Sasuke, the one who'd first broken ranks to give Naruto his bento now has forgotten that faraway afternoon and is telling Sakura with that smirk of his that he's leaving, that he can never be like her and Naruto, and that there is nothing here for him anymore. Inner Sakura wants her to swear at him, to tell him to fuck off and orders her to say things about bullshit and annoying self-pity. But Outer Sakura takes no heed and sobs out her love and devotion and in the end; all she's left with is the lingering bruise on the back of her neck and the knowledge that Team Seven is as good as dead.

 


 

Sakura owns many genin suits. They all look the same and they all have tiny cherry blossoms sewn into the labels so she'd know which ones had arrived first and which ones later. Her patchwork quilt was a mass of red and black, and it's dirty enough to make her mother ask Sakura to throw it away.

But she doesn't. The dirty, ragged quilt is the only thing keeping her sane and it burns when her eyes water from perpetually staring at the horizon. She wishes Kakashi-sensei could be there to reassure her, but he is forced away by the requirements of being a Jounin in a devastated Hidden Leaf village.

Ino-pig is also worried and when Lee runs after them, Tenten joins her and Ino.

They are always left behind.


 

Her leg moves up in a hissing arc, and though it has only been a few hours since a ragtag team of genin left the village in search of their missing classmate (no, Sasuke) she is already there in an attempt to train by herself. The Hokage has been protested against; people say that they are too young and though the Hyuuga heir is a genius, why should he and everyone else risk their lives to bring back the petulant survivor of the Uchiha massacre?

Inner Sakura is vicious in her fury, but it is too cold to argue. In the uneven heat of her house, she instead escapes into the lush emptiness and trains so intensely the sweat pours off her in buckets and the barren emptiness inside of her subsides. Sakura ignores the smiling monster threatening to escape and Inner Sakura wrestles the fiend into submission.

Her genin suit falls away from her in tatters. She prepares another one.

 


 

There is a growling and it comes not from an animal but from the petulant whining of her stomach. She has not eaten all day but she ignores her mother's worried words and refuses to be held.

Five people have been sent by the Hokage to ask if she is well, and she forces herself to smile and reassure them because what right did she have in monopolizing all the depression in the world?

But with Ino-pig, there is little reason to pretend, and when they decide to clash, their weapons clang in time with the beating of their hearts. Blood is drawn, but it is like a lancet; the pain is drained out of her. There is nothing to be said, but they battle long into the after hours of evening. The ninja in her shrieks, and she decides to fully trim her hair next time.

Sakura suddenly realizes the lure of battle to Naruto and Sasuke.

It unsettles her.

 


 

The cold metal of her kunai is pressed masterfully against her thigh. It is skillfully hidden, and she hopes that it will come into use instead of being stuck as an ornament. But she thinks that is terribly selfish, when there are so many who would die for peace and an end to days filled with violence.

Sakura cannot help but think of Haku.

She is on a complicated mission involving gangs and robbers; whatever genin available are sent on the D-level missions, but her experience with Zabuza, Gaara and her notable ability to see through illusions has landed her on a B-level mission along with several unrecognizable Chuunin.

Her blood sings. It is waiting for Sasuke and Naruto's return.

She is always waiting.

 


 

A shout rises from the edge of the village. Sakura sprints as if the hell hounds were nipping at her heels, and she sees a bedraggled group stagger from the edge of the forest. Her nails press into the palm of her hands and the jagged edges draw blood. She is dimly aware of Ino and Tenten rushing past her, but all she can focus on is that they're back, they're back, they're back and Sakura shuts her eyes tightly. She cannot tell how many figures are there.

A newly-bought genin suit tingles with released chakra and her suddenly light legs push her into the air.

Sakura flies and it is only when she lands in front of the returned group that she opens her green, green eyes and smiles.

It still hurts.