Though her eyes never left the makeshift graves they'd dug for Zabuza and Haku, and her ears dimly registered Naruto's sobs somewhere to her right, Sakura's mind wasn't focused on the tragedy before her, but rather, on the events that had led up to it.
It was clear from the moment they'd left the Village and been ambushed by the two rogue ninja that, despite having been in the Academy for the last six years and despite having prepared diligently for becoming a ninja, Sakura was nowhere near ready for what the life of a ninja entailed outside of the safety and comfort of Konohagakure. As her mind wondered to the appearance of the Demon Brothers, she cursed her inattention to her surroundings: she had prided herself on her intelligence, something she had always used against Ino when the blonde had insulted her forehead or less developed figure, but then she had failed to connect the most basic of dots. And it wasn’t even that she hadn’t noticed the glaringly conspicuous puddle, nor that she wasn’t aware that concealment jutsu like the one utilised by the Demon Brothers existed – they had, after all, been on the Academy syllabus. It was that she had dismissed the first lone puddle since they’d left Konoha when it hadn’t rained for over a week in favour of admiring the grace and comfort with which Sasuke-kun had walked despite the fact that he too had never been outside the Village before.
Her eyes strayed to her crush, to the slight rips in his shirt from where Haku’s senbon had pierced, the scratches on his face and uncovered forearms. She had gotten to hold him after he’d escaped Haku’s dome of mirrors, and her heart had done somersaults despite his damaged condition and the fact that he was barely conscious; those things had mattered little in her mind less than three hours ago, but now, in retrospect, she felt little more than shame.
Because in order to hold Sasuke-kun, she had abandoned her post at Tazuna-san’s side. If Zabuza had sent even one clone after his target, Sakura would’ve singlehandedly failed their mission, reducing Kakashi-sensei’s poor condition gained protecting them and Sasuke-kun’s transformation into a pin cushion to naught.
And then even Naruto, idiotic, loudmouthed, dead-last Naruto had managed to save the day, while she had failed to even attempt to land a single blow on any of their opponents.
Though her confidence and pride in herself as a kunoichi had grown since meeting Ino and being put on a team with Naruto, in light of the recent events, she couldn’t help but think that said pride was misplaced. Because the only reason Kakashi-sensei or Sasuke-kun had even so much as looked her way during the fights on the bridge was to make sure she was still alive, and that she had protected their charge. Because they didn’t trust her skill. Because she was a liability. Because even Sasuke-kun and Naruto had managed to cooperate and free their sensei during their first clash with Zabuza, despite being vastly outmatched by the missing-nin’s skill and experience and sheer readiness to kill.
While Sakura? Sakura had stayed within the safety of the shore, a meagre kunai drawn while her teammates and sensei were doing the work of legends.
She had never felt as useless as she had in during the last week.
And with that thought in mind, an idea bloomed, a small flame determination gently warming her insides: she would get Sasuke-kun to notice her, but not in the way as he had today. Not as something he needed to protect, because he knew she couldn’t protect herself. She was beginning to loathe the girl who had spread the rumour that Sasuke-kun’s preferred type of girl was one with long hair, pretty, slim, confident, and all the adjectives Ino used to constantly rant on about; because she had ensured that she ticked every single metaphorical box, yet the most she had ever received in terms of acknowledgement had been “Hn. Annoying.”
Because Sasuke-kun didn’t need a fangirl in Team 7. He didn’t need someone shouting encouragement and telling him how amazing he was. Because his willingness to challenge a ninja whom he’d known nothing about apart from his loyalty to a renowned missing-nin to a one-on-one had shown that Sasuke-kun was more than aware of his prodigious skill and ability.
What Sasuke-kun needed, she realised, with startling clarity and conviction, what had allowed him to cooperate with Naruto as if they had been teammates for years, was someone whom he could trust. And Naruto, for all of his ignorance to the basic things like chakra and alliances and first-year Academy material, had proven incredibly resilient, determined and most of all trustworthy.
In other words, everything that Sakura was not.
“Hey, hey, Sakura-chan!! Are you alright?” and Sakura became aware of a hand being waved in front of her face, and Naruto’s concerned blue eyes were a lot closer than they should’ve been seeing as they were walking-
Wait. They were walking?
It seemed that in her musings, they had left the graves and were making their way back to Konoha, and a quick look around assured her that they had left the Land of Waves behind a long time ago.
Exactly how long was I out of it?
Then, she realised that Naruto was still waiting for an answer, and she forced a small smile, waving him off. “I’m fine, Naruto, don’t worry.” Due to their proximity, she couldn’t have missed the way the blonde’s eyes lit up when she answered his question and didn’t berate him to mind his own business.
Had I really been that horrible?
But Naruto had grown in her eyes over the course of the mission; he was still annoying in her eyes, still too loud and obnoxious and she found the fact that he kept asking her out discomfiting, but then again, he had been dependable during the time when she had faltered. And, if she were honest with herself, she couldn’t begrudge him doing the same thing as she did to Sasuke-kun every day without sounding like the biggest hypocrite ever, so gritting her teeth and swallowing her pride, she took the first step towards her self-appointed task.
“Hey, um, Naruto?” she called out, hating how her voice faltered as if unused to addressing the blonde like a normal person instead of shouting his name with ire. When his attention snapped to her, as if seemingly as disbelieving that she was willingly talking to him as she was, she soldiered on. “Good job, um, back there, with those, you know, those bandits.” And she screwed her eyes shut, cursing herself for messing up the simplest compliment ever, but when only silence greeted her words, she carefully pried one eye open, finding that Naruto was all but glowing at the praise, a thousand-watt smile on his face.
“Believe it, Sakura-chan! I’m one step closer to being Hokage!”
If he sensed her discomfort, he didn’t comment, and for once, she found herself grateful. Grateful to Naruto, she mused, who would’ve thought. And as he sped to the front of the formation to walk beside Sasuke-kun, leaving her yet again alone with her thoughts, another idea came to mind.
I won’t just become a teammate for Sasuke-kun. Team 7 is a three-man squad. And Naruto… if Sasuke-kun trusts him, and is willing to work with him, then I will, too. And… I’ll be a better teammate to both. Someone both of them can trust, can rely on.
And then, her mind briefly drifting back to the fourth year in the Academy, when they studied the Will of Fire and what drives each ninja to be the best they can be, Sakura recalled a particular word, and she cast her eyes to the sky, the flickering flame of determination in her gut burning marginally brighter.
I will not be a liability to my teammates. I will not watch their backs as they race ahead, nor watch their battles from the sidelines. I will stand beside them, and I will be someone they can depend on to fight their battles with them. I will never let them get hurt protecting me ever again, for I will train until I will not need protection. That is my nindo.
Sakura’s mother had once remarked that once her daughter set her mind on something, she was stubborn as a mule and could not be discouraged easily. At the time, Sakura had bristled, for the qualities of a mule were far from the graceful and feminine persona she’d been aiming for to please Sasuke-kun. But now, she could sort of understand where her mother was coming from; she just slightly doubted that her mother, who was so in favour of her pursuing Sasuke-kun, but so against her chosen career path, would appreciate the new outlet Sakura’s mulish qualities had focused on: becoming a better shinobi, a better teammate.
For the duration of their journey back to Konoha, Sakura had worked out rough sketches of a plan for the next few weeks. She had always been a paper-ninja, a thinker rather than a doer, preferring to think or talk her way out of a troublesome situation than to fight her way out, which set her apart from her teammates.
For over four hours, she had used every iota of that paper-ninja quality to figure out how she would go about getting closer to her nindo. So far, she had the first couple of steps:
She had originally been sorted as a genjutsu type, yet she remembered how easily ensnared she was in Kakashi’s jutsu that he’d subjected her to during the bell test. She didn’t consider that overly alarming at the time, but with her new outlook, that vulnerability simply would not do. Her first stop was therefore in the library, as every Academy student was told that there were simple D and C-rank jutsu available to genin, though more advanced techniques became available as you moved up in the ranks. Despite that, Sakura had to guiltily acknowledge that she had not bothered to take advantage of her Village’s resources until she had been physically shown the proof of her own inadequacy.
The second was something she’d only discovered during this mission – and probably the only thing Kakashi-sensei had actually taught her, if she were to be honest and a bit bitter – her natural predisposition for chakra control. But even then, even when she found that what her teammates struggled with came to her as easy as breathing, she did not reach for the limits – she stopped on the first available branch instead of going to the very top of the tree, and she found that an apt metaphor for how all of her kunoichi training thus far had gone: putting just enough effort to get by, but nothing more, nothing out of the ordinary.
When they arrived in Konoha, she had only stopped at home only long enough to drop her mission pack and take a quick shower, so she quickly found herself on the steps leading to the library. And suddenly, she realised that the disappointment and shame at her abysmal skill was gradually being replaced by excitement. Steeling herself, she pushed the door open, the flame of determination that had settled in her heart burning bright.
No more ‘weak’ Sakura. She promised herself, and walked in.