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Sakura’s wanted to be a doctor for as long as she can remember.

Almost all the good parts of her childhood had consisted of sitting in the city square with her mother, gaping up at the huge screens as news reports, commercials, and movie trailers rolled across the display in dazzling colours.

Part of her awe had been at the screens themselves. They didn’t have a tv at home.

“Can we get one, mama?” she’d been so hopeful as she turned her attention from the bright lights to her mother’s face.

Even then, she’d sported cheeks a fraction too sunken, eyes with dark, heavy bags beneath them, blonde hair, long and lank.

“They cost a lot of money, my love.”

Even then, her voice had been warm and full of love.

“Oh,” Sakura had turned her gaze back to the screens. “How do we get more money, mama?”

Her mother had laughed – a soft, pretty sound that never failed to make Sakura feel warm, even when their apartment got so cold in winter that their breath fogged between them as they huddled on their lone futon.

“We work for it,” the woman sighed, weary.

“But,” Sakura cocked her head, frowning, “you already work a lot.”

“I’m a waitress, love,” her mother had bopped her on the nose fondly, “to make that kind of money, I’d have to be a – a doctor, or a lawyer, or something fancy like that.”

Sakura had wanted to ask why her mother wasn’t a doctor or a lawyer, if that’s all it would take to have a lot of money. But the woman was sporting that far away look again, the ones she got when Sakura asked after the papa she could barely remember, so she had held her tongue.

Money, she had thought, four and tiny. Doctor.

.

When she gets a little older, she realises that they’re poor. It’s in the little things, really. Well, in the big things, too, but she doesn’t notice them till later.

Her shoes are all second hand, slightly too big or too small, with holes and scuff marks and odd stains.

The dress she wears to school is the same cut of material as the curtains in the classroom. Ami laughs at her for a week, getting half the class involved because – look, Haruno’s wearing the curtain!

When she goes home, she notes that she, too, has the curtains that they have in class. Except instead of going down to the floor, her curtains are cut at the windowsill.

Next are her school supplies.

“Sa-chan,” her mother addresses her with a smile, “this is your special book.”

She hands Sakura a book that looks a little frayed around the edges. It seems to be missing a few pages.

“You have to be very careful about what you write in here,” her mother says gently, “try to remember as much as you can, okay?”

Sakura nods gravely.

“That’s my clever girl,” her mother pats her head with weathered hands, and dons her old, patchy jacket.

“Mum’s heading to work,” she chirps, “be a good girl and don’t unlock the door for anyone.”

Sakura nods again, “Bye, mama!”

Her mother works at a café in the mornings, so Sakura gets dropped to school very early.

Most days she doesn’t have lunch. Sometimes she worries about what people will say if they notice she’s not eating, so she packs a thermos, with some hot water – okay, sometimes it’s lukewarm – and a tea bag that’s been used three or four times.

When the quiet Aburame boy asks about it, she tells him that it’s soup. No one else asks.

Her mother gets off work about half an hour after Sakura’s school day finishes, so she picks her up late. Not that Sakura minds, she usually spends that time reading in the library.

Doctor

Noun

  1. a person who is qualified to treat people who are ill
  2. a person who holds the highest university degree

Sakura wonders which one her mother had meant. She doesn’t know what a university is, but she does know what ill means. Their neighbour two doors down – Ito-san – she’s ill. Sakura can hear her coughing through their paper-thin walls most nights, and it’s a terrible, wet sound.

She supposes she could deal with ill people. It’s her who helps Ito-san carry her groceries up the seven flights of stairs it takes to get to their floor, after all. Sometimes the weathered woman slips her a few berries as a treat, a thank-you.

Once, she even gave her a mandarin. Sakura had hoarded it for weeks, hiding it in the unused drawer of their sparse fridge, right at the back. On Christmas day she pulls it out and presents it to her mama with a, “Merry Christmas!”

Her mother’s first reaction is to scold her.

“Did you steal it?” she had scowled, holding Sakura’s wrist in a vice grip.

“No! No, I swear – mama, Ito-san gave it to me when I helped her with groceries. I promise!”

Her mother had levelled her with sharp, green eyes, grip not faltering in the slightest.

“Are you lying to me, Sakura?”

She had shaken her head so furiously that her neck cracked.

A slow, uneven sigh.

“Alright. I believe you.”

By the time she released Sakura, the mandarin was a little squished. It was a bit wrinkled, small, but still vibrant and orange.

It’s the first year Sakura ever unwraps something at Christmas. She feels giddy, watching as her mother splits it in half and hands her the slightly shrivelled fruit. It had been part sour and part sickly-sweet, but it’s the best thing she’s ever eaten on Christmas day.

After school, they rush home and her mother whips up something to eat. Usually it’s rice, or instant noodles. Sometimes she takes out frozen dumplings. There’s usually miso soup. If they’re lucky, they might have some fish, though sometimes it tastes funny.

Sakura never comments on it though, not with her stomach grumbling and still half-empty by the time she goes to bed.

She doesn’t have many friends. None of the other kids look like her, which isn’t too hard considering her colouring. None of them have too-small shoes, or old, patchy clothes. All of them have clean hair that smells nice. Sakura’s hair is coarse and dry, and lank all the time.

The only kid who braves her oddness is Aburame Shino. He doesn’t quite fit in either, though it’s not because he’s poor like Sakura. He’s quiet and reserved, and when he speaks it sounds funny. She never comments, though. Not when he lets her look at the extracurricular textbooks she’s never had a chance to read.

Sakura quietly tells him that one day she’ll get a job and work real hard so she can buy all the textbooks she needs to be a doctor and make sure there is hot water for her mum when it’s her turn to shower.

He doesn’t respond to her or acknowledge that he’s heard her. But he doesn’t mock her either, so she supposes that’s better than nothing.

.

Sakura has a lot of time to spend alone. They live in a little studio apartment, just them two. They sleep on a shared futon, and only have hot water sometimes. The taps are leaky and there’s no air conditioning or heating, but the lock on the door works so Sakura supposes it’s not so bad. 

She brings home books from the library, anything she can find about ‘biology’. It’s confusing and she can only strain her eyes at the fine print in books for so long before she gets restless.

One day, she braves the world beyond her locked door without her mother. They live in an apartment block in a not-so-nice part of town. Most buildings look old or dirty, but they’re not too bad. At first she only does a short walk around her block.

Her curiosity gets the best of her, though, when she notices a dingy gym on the next block.

She peers at it from the street as the sky begins to darken, wondering what’s within. A sweaty woman exits and shoos her away, which is probably for the best.

But she asks her mother to take her there, and so they stop by on the way back from school the next day.

Sakura gapes at the muscled men and women working out or sparring in the run-down facility. Her mother inquires about lessons or some sort. Sakura’s six, and can see her mother’s face fall when the trainer recites the prices. 

She doesn’t bother her mother again. But sometimes after school when her mother is at work, she sneaks to that run down, well used gym. She climbs the wall besides it’s big old windows, and stands atop it to lean against the window frame.

Sakura peers in, watching them with avid attention to detail. When she goes home she pushes their tiny table to the corner, and stacks their folded futon atop it. And then she imitates the moves she’s seen, punching and kicking and keeping her fists up.

Months pass.

Sometimes becomes three times a week.

Three times a week becomes every day.

Her mother doesn’t seem to notice her blatant disregard of her one firm rule.

And then –

“Are you not tired of watching?”

Sakura starts hard enough to almost fall from her precarious position. Stomach churning, even as she steadies herself, she looks down to her left and blanches at the sight of an old man.

“Get down, girl.”

Sakura stays very still, perched atop the wall like a little bird. The sky is still light, and there are people still milling about, but it’s dark between the wall and the gym, and upon closer inspection, this man looks strong.

She wonders if he’s a good climber as she tries to remember whether she can run around the perimeter of the gym atop the wall to make a run for it.

“I’ve had enough of your spying,” the man grouses, voice deep and gravelly, “get inside.”

Inside? Like, inside the gym?

Sakura opens her mouth to say no, and then stops. There are other adults inside. If she goes, this man won’t hurt her, right?

“I’m Jirou,” he grunts, “I’ll train ya if you stop gawking at all my clients.”

She wobbles carefully along the top of the wall until she’s past the front of the gym, and then nimbly climbs down. The man clicks his tongue in annoyance before heading inside.

Wringing her hands in her dangerously frayed top, Sakura follows.

.

Ito-san gets really sick when Sakura is nine. Her coughing turns into desperate wheezing, bad enough that Sakura’s mother goes to the payphone a block away and spends their laundry money on calling an ambulance. By the time they arrive, Ito-san’s wheezing has stopped.

Sakura watches, wide-eyed, as the paramedics wheel her neighbour’s still, silent form from the room.

“Where are they taking her, mama?”

Her mother, staring absently with distant eyes, had only said, “Away.”

That night, Sakura lies in the futon beside her mother, and stares up at the ceiling. If she was a doctor, would she have been able to help Ito-san? She feels silly now, for all the time she spends at Jirou-sensei’s gym instead of studying.

Maybe Ito-san would have stopped being ill if Sakura had just –

She sighs, listening to the slow, deep breaths of her mother. Without hacking coughs, or loud wheezes, she doesn’t think she’ll be able to sleep.

It’s too quiet.

.

When Sakura is seventeen, she transfers to a high school in a nice part of the city. It’s a good school – one of the best in Tokyo. Most of its students gain spots at prestigious universities, which had been its most attractive quality.

The school fees? That was its least.

It’s far enough from home that she and her mother spend weeks finding Sakura an apartment on their meagre budget. It’s still about forty minutes from the school, but it’s better than a three-hour commute. By the time she paid transport fees she may as well be covering rent.

 The apartment they settle on looks miraculously like their home.

Except this one is smaller. It’s about five metres long and five metres wide. There’s a tiny kitchen, her own bathroom. No furniture, but she has a sleeping bag. She has a window that doesn’t have curtains or blinds, or even a fly screen.

The shower fluctuates between hot and cold seemingly at random, but the electricity is consistent.

Her mother has sent a bag of rice along with her, and just enough cash to last her a month, maybe more if she skips a few meals here and there.

It’s better than nothing.

Her first day at Konoha High is daunting. Somehow Jirou-sensei had been able to get his hands on a set of uniforms for her. Some of them are slightly faded and ill-fitting, but she’ll take what she can get.

Still, it’s a struggle not to feel self-conscious as they sit in their assigned seats. Sakura forcibly reminds herself that this is it. She either makes it here, or she doesn’t.

She can’t waste this opportunity.

So, she ignores that the entire grade has had the whole previous year to get to know each other and decides that it doesn’t really matter if no one speaks to her or not. She’s got bigger things to focus on.

Well, that’s until a stunning blonde girl takes the seat in front of her with a grin, and says, “Hey, I’m Ino!”

.

Her uniform is too showy. The navy skirt stops above mid thigh, with a short-sleeved button up t-shirt to be tucked into it. A dark red bow to go with it, and a navy blazer.

Sakura takes to wearing a pair of dark tights even though the dress code allows for shin-high white socks. Surprisingly her teachers and classmates don’t mention it.

Ino is nice, friendly, popular. She doesn’t comment on Sakura’s faded blazer, the frayed ends of her skirt. She does comment, however, on the single rice ball she has for lunch.

“Oh, you’re dieting, too?”

Sakura blinks at her uncomprehendingly. Ino is frowning down at her own neatly packed bento.

“Maybe I packed too much. If you can last a whole day on that then I can too!”

She watches, frozen, as Ino takes a bite of an egg roll and then gives the rest of her bento to a boy named Chouji.

You’ve got it wrong, she wants to say, I’m not-

“That’s why your figure is so great! You’re super diligent, Sakura-chan!”

Deciding not to speak at risk of laughing manically, Sakura turns her attention back to her chemistry textbook and refocuses.

A week into classes, a loud blond boy turns to her with a sunny grin.

“You’re Haruno-san, right?”

Under the full attention of his positivity, Sakura is rendered momentarily speechless. She nods.

“I’m Namikaze Naruto, believe it,” his eyes are very, very blue, and very, very bright.

“Nice to meet you,” she says woodenly, uncomfortable even though the rest of the class seems to be paying them no mind as they pack their things for the day.

“Nice ta meet you too! Hey, so we have a class group chat, but no one has your number to add you in.”

Her stomach plummets.

“We keep each other updated on exams, set up study dates, all that,” he extends his phone – it’s one of those new ones with a big glass screen. His case is orange, and when he holds it up, she can see little frogs printed along the back.

“I’ll add you to it!”

Sakura swallows, shuts her book, and shoves it into her bag.

“I, uh. I don’t have a phone, Namikaze-kun.”

“Eh?” he blinks at her and everything in her torso seizes at his momentary silence.

And then – “Wow, Haruno! You must be super studious and focused!”

Sakura can only smile and nod as she makes her swift exit. She’s got places to be, after all.

.

“…the mitochondria – Ino-chan, are you even listening?”

Sakura waves a hand before the absent blue eyed gaze of the girl she’s attempting to study with.

“Hm?” Ino blinks out of her daydream, a small smile on her glossy lips. “Oh. Sorry Sakura-chan, I was just-”

She looks over to another table in the study hall, where Naruto is studying along with three other teenage boys. One she knows is Nara Shikamaru, a brilliant but somewhat lazy boy who infuriates their teacher to no end by taking frequent naps during lecture time. Akimichi Chouji is there too, kind and friendly, not the most academically gifted, but a hard worker.

Last to make their group is the famed Uchiha Sasuke. Top of their grade, a star athlete, perhaps the most coveted boy in school – even someone as amazing as Ino vies for his attention.

Sakura notes his crisp, perfect uniform. His clean, spiky hair and his shiny, unscuffed shoes. The balanced lunches he brings, packed with quality ingredients and care. The watch that peeks out from his blazer cuff occasionally. The black car that drops him to school every morning and is there at three-oh-seven to collect him in the afternoon.

He’s nauseatingly wealthy and it shows. 

“Focus,” Sakura murmurs to Ino, “our placement exams are coming up.”

The blonde grumbles to herself as she returns her gaze to the notes before her. Sakura continues studying, trying to ignore the throbbing of her left shoulder and the scrapes along her arms. Her second-hand uniform does her no favours, itching and tugging on her tentatively scabbed skin.

But she’s a thousand yen up, which means her mother won’t be evicted. Not this month, at least.

.

“I think we should all go take a study break,” Naruto sighs as he leans back in his seat, stretching.

Sakura looks to him curiously. Their entire class has stayed back after school to partake in a study session with permission from their homeroom teacher, Hatake-sensei, to use the room.

“Sounds good to me,” Chouji yawns, “let’s do Yakiniku!”

“Yakiniku?” the murmured word was only meant for Sakura’s own ears, but in the silence of the classroom it’s louder than intended. “Uh, what’s that?”

“It’s barbecue!” Kiba yells from the back of the class.

“You’ve never had Yakiniku?” Chouji sounds offended. “Blasphemy!

Sakura shifts uncomfortably as too many eyes shift in their direction.

“We… I could never really…” Sakura trails off, suddenly embarrassed.

So she’s never had fast food, or eaten at a restaurant. What of it?

As more and more eyes turn in her direction, she finds herself swallowing down anger.

“No,” she says firmly, “I haven’t.”

Belatedly, she realises how harsh it sounds when the rest of the class’ heads whip up to face her.

It feels like a dirty secret.

“Don’t you know it’s rude to ask a girl about her diet?” Ino butts in, scowling, “Sakura-chan is so dedicated-”

Sakura’s never been ashamed of having nothing before. But this – this is cutting it close. She stands, the sound of her chair scraping against the floor unbearably loud. She swings her bag on to her shoulder, and leaves.

If her fists are clenched so tightly at her sides that her nails cut into her palms, that’s her business.

“Haruno-chan, wait!”

She stops in the hall outside, and she can almost hear the gears turning in Naruto’s head.

“You’ve never had Yakiniku before – would you like to try it? Come with us!”

Maybe in another world, if the single five thousand yen note in her wallet wasn’t the only cash she had to last the rest of the month, Sakura might have said yes.

But right now, she has two weeks to go, half a cup of rice left, and –

She breathes through her rising panic and shakes her head.

“Sorry Namikaze-kun,” she says without turning around, “I’ve got to study.”

.

Sakura frowns down at the equation before her, trying to cut it down in her head and minimise the use of paper. Her lead pencil has been used to its last nub, so she’s resorted to doing maths in pen.

It makes it harder to go through every step of the equation when she no longer has the opportunity to rub it out and use the same page over and over again.

“…season 2 to come out!”

Kiba’s talking to Sasuke in a small break between their many, many exams.

“I’m looking forward to it, too.” She can count on her hands the number of times she’s heard the black-haired teen speak in the six week’s she’s been at Konoha high.

“What about you, Haruno-san?” Kiba has turned to her, breaking her concentration momentarily. After regaining it, she writes down her final answer to the equation before looking to the next one.

“Pardon?” she asks, starting to work silently on the next one.

“Game of Daimyo,” Kiba is almost buzzing with excitement in the corner of her eye, “Did ya catch the rerun of it on channel forty-four these past few weeks? What do you think of it?”

“I dunno,” she murmurs absently, mind whirring with numbers and formula, “never seen it.”

“What?” Sasuke’s confusion tries to push into her focus, but Sakura's mantra of doctor, doctor, doctor pushes back. “Why?”

“Never had a tv,” she replies offhandedly, jotting down her answer just as the bell rings to signal the beginning of their next exam.

“Ah, shit!”

The three of them make a break for the correct classroom and arrive in the nick of time.

.

Sakura is not having a good day. She’s got three days till she gets paid for her newspaper runs, she’s all out of miso and only has plain white rice left. Again.

Her shower has been fucking up the past couple days, exclusively spurting freezing water. Her favourite (and only) jumper has a hole in it from when she’d tripped over her table on her way to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Somehow, it gets worse.

Sakura frowns down at her bruised knuckles, glad for once that her blazer is a fraction too big on her. It will just barely cover them.

Their results are handed out first thing in the morning.

Sakura comes first in Maths, Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Japanese.

Uchiha Sasuke comes first in English, Physical Education, and Legal studies.

The other electives don’t really matter to her. Sakura’s name is listed as second in English, Physical Ed and Legal. But that’s not good enough.

Sakura needs to be indisputably the best.

She can feel someone staring – well, glaring at the side of her face. She turns her head left, and locks eyes with the boy who’s taken complete victory from her.

He’s scowling, handsome face twisted into something fierce.

She only stares back blankly, even though a part of her wants to bare her teeth and glare right back.

After school Sakura spots a familiar face on her walk to the station. She really does scowl now, bruised fists clenching at her sides.

“Hello gorgeous.”

She doesn’t know the man’s real name, but he’d gone by ‘Tendou’ last night. He stands at least six foot tall, and the way he looms over her is already pissing her off.

“What do you want?” she grouses, hyperaware that there’s an alleyway only a few metres away, and that they’re not on a busy road.

“Aw, sweetheart, don’t be like that. You were disqualified for a reason.”

“Fuck you,” she spits, “you won on a technicality, asshole.”

“Aw,” the buff brunette pouts mockingly, “are you desperate for the reward, honey?”

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of cash, waving it teasingly. The annoying thing is – yes. She is desperate. Her rent is coming up and the money from her pre-dawn newspaper runs can barely cover her meagre groceries.

“If you come with me, I can show you another way to make some quick cash,” he smiles, and she wants to punch it off his face. “You won’t even have to work that hard for it, promise.”

He steps closer to her and she doesn’t back away. Instead, she subtly squares her shoulders, and re-distributes her weight carefully.

“Oho?” his smile turns into a smirk, just as oily and seedy as his tone, “Want to go another round, sweetheart?”

“Fuck off,” she manages to get out through gritted teeth. How dare he taunt her like this, god –

His large hand darts out and closes around her forearm in a painfully tight hold. Sakura reacts without thinking. She strikes at his wrist with her free hand as she tears her arm from his hold. Her elbow darts up and nails him in the chest, forcing him to take a step back.

“Don’t touch me,” she warns, adrenaline pumping.

“Ah,” he rubs at his chest, “that hurt, honey. Come now-” he makes to lunge for her and she twists as she steps into his space, tugging his arm to her chest before she bends at the knees and throws him over her shoulder.

He hits the pavement hard, and she keeps his arm locked at an uncomfortable angle as her scuffed school shoe presses at his throat.

“I said,” she snarls, “don’t fucking touch me-”

“Haruno, what the fuck-

She jerks her head left, spots a sleek black car with the back window rolled down. From it's depths, Uchiha Sasuke is staring at her like she’s grown another head.

Tendou tears from her grip, lunging at her from the ground. She spins, kicks him soundly across the face, and dances back a few steps.

“Haruno, get in.”

She doesn’t look at him, eyes trained on the man before her as he groans and stumbles to his feet, but he sounds – panicked. She drops her backpack to the ground.

“Haruno,” his voice is strangled as Tendou rubs at his jaw, blood trailing from his split lip.

“Get in the car!”

Tendou charges, and it’s like they’re back in the cage. Sakura side steps, slips him the cross, and kicks her right leg at his calves as she drives his shoulder down into the ground. She goes with him too, feeling her blazer tear as she strains to apply pressure to the hold.

“Approach me again,” she grunts as he wheezes for breath, “I dare you.”

And then she lets go, standing as he coughs and wheezes on the ground.

When she looks left again, Sasuke is still there, his driver pulled up to the curb. He’s gaping at her. A part of her is amused at how stupid he looks.

“What, Uchiha?”

He snaps his mouth shut, blinking rapidly, and then opens it to say, “Get in.”

Frowning, but deciding not to argue, she snatches her bag off the pavement and looks at Sasuke expectantly. He shoves the door open and then scoots over.

Sakura climbs in, grumbling as she realises she’s torn her blazer under her arm and down her right side. It’s fixable, but she’s dangerously low on thread.

“You’re bleeding.”

Sakura shuts the door and tries not to gawk at the car’s interior. She’s never been in one before, but this one – well, it seems like it’s expensive as far as cars go.

“Huh?” she didn’t think he got a hit in.

Sasuke points to her legs, and she curses as she realises she’s torn her leggings beyond repair.

“Does it hurt?” he asks, staring at her bloody knees and shins.

“Not really,” she huffs, frowning as she tries to remember whether she has enough money to get another pair. She won’t, according to her quick calculation. Not until she picks up another tournament.

“Um – you can let me down here,” she doesn’t know where she is, and it doesn’t really matter. She’ll find a dollar store somewhere.

Besides, Sasuke is staring at her again with his dark, unreadable eyes, and she doesn’t want him to see.

Not the tattered uniform or the bruises and scrapes or her too-coarse hair or –

She takes a deep breath.

She doesn’t want him to see anything.

“But Haruno-”

“Here’s fine,” she doesn’t leave room for argument, exiting the car as soon as it rolls to a smooth stop.

She’s got to hurry if she wants to find a pair of leggings.

In the end she buys gauze and bandages instead, because her knees refuse to stop bleeding and she really doesn’t want to scrub blood from her shoes or her tatami, stained and stale as it already is.

.

It’s Sunday night. Sakura has found a ring to fight in, and even though it’s dirty, she has little choice. Her rent is due in three days. Some fighters have metal knuckle rings, and she spots more than a few knives strapped to legs and tucked into boots.

Some of the fights in her old neighbourhood were dirty, but Sakura only ever fought in them once she’d observed their usual fighters for weeks.

She doesn’t have the luxury of going in knowing her opponents today, but she tries not to panic.

Today’s fight is a melee.

Sakura knows as soon as it’s started that she might’ve bitten off a bit more than she could chew.

These people aren’t small city fighters. They’re weekly champions in the sky rise-city, experienced and crafty.

Sakura wants to be a doctor. She’ll learn how to fix people eventually. But before that, she needs to do this, to fight them. Tuitions don’t pay themselves.

Someone clips her on the shoulder, and she crashes into the cage hard enough that welts in the shape of a grid appear on her arm.

She barely dodges as a knife is thrown at her, hearing the tear of fabric as it catches on her singlet and rips a hole in its side.

Her shoulder is throbbing, but she keeps fighting.

She takes out two opponents, gets grazed just above her knee by a thrown knife, and has her forearm grabbed in a crushing grip as she’s slammed into another opponent.

Somehow, she makes it to the top four out of thirty.

And then there’s chaos in the crowd because the cops have showed up and fucking hell, can Sakura catch a break? 

She runs, as do the rest of the able-bodied fighters, and hides in a nearby alleyway until she thinks the coast is clear.

When she finally gets back to the spot, the owner hands her twelve thousand yen and tells her to piss off.

She’s tired and hurting, but it’s enough to make the rest of her rent. Not much else she can ask for.

At least she won’t have to cover a bruised face or a split lip like all those times in middle school.

.

“Come on, Sakura-chan,” Ino tugs her by the hand up the stairs that lead to the mansion before them, “we’re gonna be late to study group!”

It’s been five weeks since her car ride with Sasuke, and he acts like it never happened, except for the staring in class, which she ignores.

“Hello girls,” greets a beautiful woman with dark, long hair. It sits straight, shiny and elegant, like everything else in the entrance of the house they’ve stepped into.

“Hi Uchiha-san!” Ino bows neatly, “Thank you for having us.”

“Thank you for having us,” Sakura is quick to follow, trying to get her awe under control before she makes a fool of herself. The ceilings are high, and a grand staircase sits to the left of them.

Beneath the curve of it rests a large piano, sleek and black. It’s beautiful.

“Do you play, dear?” Sasuke’s mother asks as she leads them through an arched entranceway into another part of the building.

“No,” Sakura curses her ineloquence, but finds she can’t bring herself to say more. Not when the room they’ve just stepped in to looks like a library with a grand wooden table surrounded by stylish, comfy-looking chairs.

Naruto and Sasuke are going over chemistry notes while Shikamaru explains RNA to Kiba and Chouji. Sakura stares at the multitude of books lining the walls of yet another high-ceilinged room. Huge windows span along the left of the room, looking out over a courtyard.

Sakura notes that there’s a fountain – a fucking fountain – at it’s centre.

“I’ll leave you to it,” Uchiha-san says, “Lunch is in an hour.”

Sakura manages to refocus, easily going over their maths homework before Sasuke summarises their Legal studies course so far. A strange tension sits between them as they battle for the top position in every subject.

But Sakura has decided to use him for all he’s worth, scanning his neat, lengthy notes in order to make her own rather sparse ones. She’s never needed excessive words to get her point across. Before she knows it, they’re being called for lunch, and Sasuke leads them to another huge room.

Natural light filters in through the skylights and the huge glass wall that curves around what must be the back of the house. Outside Sakura spots a tennis court, a pool that looks straight out of a travel agent resort brochure, and a pretty walkway lined with perfect rose bushes that extends out of sight.

“This looks great, thanks Mikoto-oba!” Naruto’s voice jolts her out of her trance.

On the large marble dining table sits – food.

They take their seats, everyone chattering about the upcoming tennis match Sasuke will be partaking in against one of his frequent opponents.

Sakura is really doing her best not to cry.

She hasn’t seen this much food in – well, ever. For five minutes she stares at the multitude of dishes, drinking it in just in case it’s all a joke, cautious that someone might pop out any moment to snatch it away.

That doesn’t happen.

“Are you feeling alright, Haruno-chan?” Comes the tentative question from the boy opposite her.

“I’m fine thanks, Chouji-kun,” she smiles, and hopes it doesn’t wobble as Uchiha Mikoto tuts and fills her plate.

It’s the most she’s eaten in her life.

She lets herself enjoy this big house, the food and snacks, the study room and the grounds that she can see from the windows. She spends perhaps a little too long in their bathroom, gaping at the stonework, the huge shower and bath, even the shiny taps.

When she leaves, she takes the long way home. Catches the bus to the city, walks through the cosmopolitan shopping centres and the lively market streets until she’s in her familiar dingy neighbourhood.

She shuts the door of her five-by-five apartment, sets her bag down.

And then she sits on her old, stained tatami, and stares out her rickety balcony doors.

She wonders what her life might’ve been like if she’d been born rich. Well, not even rich. Just not poor.

It makes her feel bitter and ugly, so she stops.

“Doctor,” she says it like a prayer, “you’ll be a doctor.”

She doesn’t care about the huge house, or the beautiful furniture, or even the huge grounds. They’re not what she’s envious of.

One day, she promises herself, I’ll make mama a lunch like that, and it won’t make even the smallest dent in my funds.

.

In August, Hatake-sensei announces the annual Konoha Dance, as well as the five-thousand-yen entry fee.

Sakura dismisses it from her mind without thought, and plans out her study sessions for the rest of the semester while the girls in her class talk about their dresses, boys, dates, and other things Sakura finds it hard to focus on.

If she’s honest, she sparsely gives it any thought in the weeks leading up to it.

Until Uchiha Sasuke approaches her after school one day, just outside the gates.  It's three-oh-nine. The black car is waiting for him, but he doesn’t seem rushed.

“Haruno.”

She blinks up at him, trying to remember whether she has enough money on her to get the train home, or whether she has to jog the trip.

“Go to the dance with me.”

Sakura short circuits for a second.

“What,” her voice is flat.

“Go to the dance with me,” he repeats, completely composed and serious.

Sakura thinks about her mother’s old dress, out of fashion by at least ten years, three sizes too big for her, tucked into the tiny dresser back home.

Sakura thinks about the bruises on her arms from her most recent cage fight.

Sakura thinks about this pretty, pretty boy with his huge house and his brand-new everything, and says –

.

“You turned down the Uchiha Sasuke?” Ino’s voice is painfully shrill, and Sakura winces as she tries to refocus on the biology textbook before her.

“He’s not a celebrity, Ino-chan,” Sakura sighs, though privately she thinks she would have turned even a celebrity down.

“He practically is round these parts, Sa-ku-ra!” the blonde snatches her textbook from her hands and Sakura pouts.

“Why did you say no?” This, at least, is spoken softly. Ino still looks mad, but she’s finally considerate of the fact that they’re sitting in the library.

Sakura mulls over it for a moment.

“He’s, well – him.”

Ino’s brow twitches.

“And I’m…”

She looks down at herself. At her thrice-repaired blazer, her stupid stockings and her stupid old shoes and –

“…me,” she finishes dully. She reaches out to take her textbook back, setting it before her without a word of complaint from Ino.

The blonde only stares at her for a few long seconds before she pulls out her phone to do something.

The kids at this school aren’t like her. Not all of them are rich like Sasuke, or even Ino. But none of them are like her. She’d recognise the burning hunger in their faces, the hunger she sees in the mirror every morning, instantly.

Doctor. I’ll be a doctor.

.

Sakura’s knees feel shaky. No breath can quite satiate her burning need for air, and she can feel blood trailing down the side of her face from a cut on her brow.

Fuck.

Still, she brings her fists up, keeps her chin down, and dodges the strikes sent her way. As she makes to counterattack, her left knee buckles. As she goes down, a fist strikes through the air where her head had once been. Though her muscles feel like lead, she swipes the legs out from under her opponent, and then they’re grappling.

Sakura gets him in an arm bar, taking his fist to her aching ribs as she goes.

She secures her hold on his forearm, steadies herself, and thrusts up slowly. He yelps, but refuses to tap out, trying to wriggle from her hold.

Grunting, she thrusts higher and higher, and her opponent thrashes harder and harder, and then –

His arm breaks, and the crowd goes wild.

Sakura wins thirty-thousand-ryo, and as she leaves the dodgy bar she thinks it was definitely a better way to spend her night than at a dance.

“Haruno!”

She whips around, startled, still in the alleyway that houses the entrance to the bar.

Behind her stands Uchiha Sasuke, and behind him are two dark haired men. Both look remarkably like him. One has pin-straight hair in a low ponytail, stoic and looking rather bored.

The other has curls cropped close to his head. He’s also grinning like a maniac.

“What are you doing here?” she demands, feeling exposed.

She’s still in her bloodied singlet and the second – or was it third – hand sports tights from one of the women at Jirou-sensei’s gym.

“Wow, Sasucakes,” the curly haired one is laughing, “this is your crush?”

Sakura blinks in confusion at the word while Sasuke spins to punch the man in the shoulder.

“Shut up, Shisui!”

She exchanges looks with the long haired one, who now has an air of long-suffering about him.

“Careful, cousin, you saw how she broke that Dosu boy’s arm like a fuckin’ twig! Ohoho, does that excite you, you scoundrel-”

Without waiting for them to stop arguing, Sakura turns and runs. She doesn’t know why her first response is flight when it's usually fight. She especially doesn’t know why Sasuke’s in her shitty part of town, walking out of the shitty fucking bar after her stupid, shitty fight.

She makes it to her building, sprints up the stairs, and doesn’t stop until she’s outside her door, panting. She lets her back settle against it, and tries to calm herself. There’s a light breeze this high up, and for once she’s grateful for the cheap outdoor motel setup they have going.

Shit, is he going to tell everyone now? Will the school find out? Oh god, will she be expelled?

Movement down the hall, and she watches as Sasuke skids around the corner and stops, panting.

For a moment they do nothing but stare.

Her apartment complex is cheap enough that the landlord doesn’t bother with any outdoor lighting.

But in the pale light of the moon, she can make out his dark eyes, the firm set to his sharp jaw.

“Sakura,” he gasps, like he hasn’t just chased her home like a psycho.

“Sasuke,” she huffs, like she hasn’t just brawled her way into thirty-thousand-yen.

He straightens, steps closer.

Sakura squares her shoulders.

“You. Uh, you fight good.”

The snort tears from her gracelessly, and she doesn’t have it in her to be embarrassed about it.

“I know.” She replies, quirking a brow. She winces, regretting it immediately when it pulls at her stinging cut.

Sasuke steps forward, reaches for her. His hand stops, half a centimetre from her face.

It hangs there for a moment, and in the dark she can just make out the line of his jaw. She wonders if he’s blushing, too. Wonders if he can feel the heat of her cheek against his palm.

She turns quickly, and fumbles getting her key into the lock. When she finally steps in, he wordlessly steps in behind her.

She flicks on the light.

Embarrassment, hot and churning sweeps over her.

She knows what he’s seeing. Her plain, bare walls, the old droning fridge. The single mug she uses for everything, sitting beside the sink. The one pot that she makes use of, empty on the stove.

Everything is immaculately cleaned because she’s been taught to take care of her things with utmost care. Her sewing kit is in the kitchen cupboard, mostly well stocked, and her schoolbook is set neatly atop her tiny dressing table against the back wall.

“Come in,” she murmurs weakly, making for her first aid kit in an attempt to ignore his frozen form.

“I’ll do it,” he says as she pulls it from it’s hiding spot.

They sit on her stupid, stained tatami at her tiny table. She fills her mug with water and sets it before him, hoping he won’t notice she doesn’t have one herself.

“Is this why you didn’t come to Yakiniku? Or the dance?” Sasuke asks bluntly, tearing open a disinfectant wipe. There’s no malice in his tone.

She keeps her eyes on the mug.

“Yeah,” she says, voice husky.

Sasuke goes silent again, seemingly at a loss.

“Don’t tread around me like I’m gonna break,” she intones flatly. “I’m not.”

He reaches out and wipes carefully at the cut.  

Sakura winces.

“Where’s your family?” 

“Mum’s at home, three hours away,” she answers. “Don’t know my dad.”

It’s a part of her life that most people cringe at.

This is no exception.

She twiddles her thumbs as he roots around for butterfly bandages.  

“So, you’re not in the group chat because-”

“Never had a phone,” she interrupts him. “Don’t get your pop culture references because I don’t have a tv or internet. Didn’t know what Yakiniku was because I’ve never eaten out of my own home, with the exception of my old gym.”

She’s silent for a moment as he carefully peels the cover off the bandages.

“That lunch at your house, I could hardly believe my eyes,” she smiles wryly, “I kept thinking someone was going to pop out and snatch my food away, or tell me it would be getting billed home.”

Her smile fades.

“Never known what it’s like to have enough to eat,” she shrugs, “it’s nice, I guess.” 

When she looks up Sasuke’s face is twisted. He looks constipated.

“I can’t fail at Konoha High. I can't. I  need to become a doctor.” She hopes he can’t hear the desperation in her tone.

Sasuke is staring at her with those dark, striking eyes.

“But the other part is-” she cuts herself off and meets their eyes, “sometimes when mum had a day off, we’d go into the nice part of the city. Couldn’t afford anything, but we would go to the city square and stare up at the big screens.”

She averts her gaze to her bruised hands, smiling fondly at the memory.

“They’d be showing the stupidest things. Commercials, movie trailers, the news.”

She looks up, at her dank, watermarked ceiling and her weak fluorescent lights.

“As a kid with nothing, you learn not to want much. Not to ask for anything.”

The light flickers weakly. Sakura smiles to herself.

“It was the first thing I ever wanted.”

Sasuke is scowling again, gaze focused wholly on her.

“I’ll be a doctor,” despite the embarrassment she feels better as she drops her gaze to meet his. “I’ll get my mum out of that shitty neighbourhood, and I’ll buy us all the food we could ever want. Our tv will be huge.”

His jaw tenses sharply, and for a moment she’s hypnotised by the bob of his adam’s apple. He reaches out and secures the bandage. If his fingers brush along her face for a moment too long, neither of them comment.

“How’d you find me, anyway?” she asks, watching his face carefully.

“Uh,” he blushes, and it’s so cute she finds herself grinning. “Well, my cousin Shisui – that curly haired bastard – mentioned he bets on this pink-haired girl at the underground bar he goes to. I, uh. Figured it was you.”

“Hm.” She levels him with a cold stare, “Tell anyone else and I’ll break more than just your arm, got it?”

He blinks at her, and she lets her threat hang in the air for a second.

“You know,” he says, smirking slightly, “that quiet, studious act you have going at school is kinda boring.”

She rolls her eyes. “I stay quiet so I don’t start swinging. It takes a lot of patience.”

He barks out a laugh, and for a moment she’s captivated by it.

"For someone who is so dead set on being a doctor, you're pretty alright with beating people's asses." 

Sakura snorts, "They deserve it! I'll have time to work on my bedside manner later."

“You’re definitely better like this.” He sounds different. Softer.

When he looks at her, he’s smiling so genuinely that she’s left speechless for a moment.

“I’d love to see you sock the idiot in his dumb face just once.”

“Psh,” Sakura crosses her arms, “I don’t want to be expelled.”

“I’ll give you fifty-thousand-yen.”

“Done.”

They dissolve into laughter, and Sakura wonders if this is what it’s like to have a real friend. Someone who knows she’s nothing but the quick words from her mouth, the brain behind her huge forehead, the fists she’ll readily swing.

“If I get in trouble you better bail me out!”

He rolls his eyes, and says, “Keep beating me in Japanese and I’ll get you kicked out myself.”

“Hey!” she punches him in the arm. “Don’t be a hater!”

He’s laughing again, though, so she doesn’t think he’s serious.

Shaking her head, she runs a hand through her hair, “I need to be top of the class at school. I'm getting into Konoha U no matter what.”

At this, he narrows his eyes.

There’s still a smile fighting to be on his lips as he says, “I’m not going to go easy on you, Haruno.”

She grins.

“Wouldn’t dream of it, Uchiha.”

It’s only after he leaves, picked up by his older brother and cousin, that she realises he’d skipped the dance, too.

She falls asleep with a smile on her face.

.

On Monday she arrives at her desk. Sitting atop it is a bento-box.

She unwraps it suspiciously, sweeping the chattery classroom for the culprit. Her classmates are all busy discussing the Dance and its subsequent drama that they don’t pay her any attention.

Sakura pulls the lid off the bento and stills.

Inside is a perfectly packed lunch. Two rice balls – two! – god, is that fried chicken? Cherry tomatoes, cut into cute bunny shapes, pickled vegetables, rolled omelette, edamame.

Busy gaping at the meal, it takes her a minute to notice the note taped to the underside of the lid.

She opens it warily. Fifty-thousand-yen falls into her lap.

Sock the idiot in the face for me.

P.S My brother made an extra box. Not me.