24 Sep 2020 2 Comments
They stopped for a few hours overnight, taking refuge inside a crevice that slashed down a sandstone monolith. Tired to her bones, Sakura sat down hard on the cold desert floor. She let her head fall back against the rock wall.
Barely visibly beyond the top of the fissure, the night sky was reduced to a thin river of stars. It seemed so far away, streaming far above the darkness that engulfed them. Sakura watched it, eyelids growing heavy, even as she told herself sleep would certainly elude her in a such an exposed, desolate place….
What felt like a moment later, Sasuke was grazing her foot with his fingertips to wake her without startling her. She opened her eyes and looked straight at him. He waited, letting her have a moment to remember where she was. Sakura blinked. The desert. The mission. She remembered. If she didn’t rouse with the first sounds of disturbed breathing, then she knew, as he must have, that she was more tired than she realized.
Satisfied she was fully awake, Sasuke nodded to Kakashi. With the slightest flick of his chin in acknowledgement, Kakashi turned back to his watch from the opening of the crevice.
Beyond his shadowed shape was a sea of cold, blue sand. It raced away from where he stood, crossing an enormous flat valley only to wash up against more sandstone outcroppings. Where the ground met the cliffs, the shadows were as deep blue as the ocean. But the morning sun was already burnishing the cliff tops to a warm gold.
Soon there would be no escape from the sun and the heat, no matter where they were. But right now, the shade was still an oasis.
A cool breeze stirred Kakashi’s hair. He turned back to face his students. The pastel light softened his edges and made him look younger than his white hair sometimes made him seem.
He wasn’t that much older than them, after all. Maybe not even a decade. But when Sakura first met him, she thought he was very old. She attributed it to his shock of white hair. But now she knew it was who he was, not his hair. He’d seen a lot, and been through more than he’d ever let on. More than most.
It still amazed her that after living through so much, he’d come back to the village to teach others. He could have been anywhere. But he was at the academy to help bring up the next generation of shinobi. It may have been his most challenging assignment yet.
Guiding kids, teaching them and chaperoning them, just keeping them alive, must have been much more complicated than the black-and-white outcome of a mission scroll. Missions came to an end, for better or for worse. But, as Kakashi always reminded them, teams were forever. And why he chose the three of them mystified her for years. But she saw his wisdom now.
Perceptive as always, Kakashi had seen what Team 7 could be, even when they didn’t see it themselves. Somehow he understood their separate abilities could fit together and become their biggest asset. Eventually. It was tough — he was tough — but he didn’t give up on them. Now they really did move as one—
“Ready team? We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today—“
They nodded and stood. The softness was gone. Blue light clung to Kakashi’s edges, but he was tense and ready to go. So they were too.
They traveled west, winding around enormous wind-rounded cliffs that rose up like toys abandoned in a giant sandbox.
Out in the open, heat clung to their backs, and the cloudless blue sky offered no shade. They crossed wider and wider expanses of sun-baked ground before the darting into the cool cover of ever-shrinking boulders. And then, there was no more shade. The rising dunes of the vast Wind Country desert opened up before them in great golden waves. It was a sea of sand.
Kakashi glanced back down their line, and they nodded back. They would follow him anywhere. And he knew it. No words needed to be spoken. They were all thinking the same thing.
Crossing out into the open space in a dark streak, they traveled in each other’s footsteps, obscuring their numbers. We move as one.
With the horizon shimmering in front of Sakura’s eyes, her mind drifted. They worked so well together, it was like they could read each other’s minds. It wasn’t always that way. Other teams figured it out so much sooner, but not them….
Konoha’s shinobi academy changed Sakura’s young life. She thrived there. She fit in. She belonged. And when it was time for her to change years and transition from normal classes to the last year, which was dedicated to shinobi training, she was ready to display her talent without hesitation. She was comfortable showing her chakra now, even though she still didn’t know much more about it than when she started. But she could summon the glowing green light whenever she wanted, and Iruka promised her that was enough.
At the front of the class, they each had to show what they’d learned before they could move on to the next grade. Sakura waited behind Lee for her turn to demonstrate.
She and Lee were the only students in several years who did not come from ninja clans.
It was an unspoken rule that clan students were given automatic entrance to the school. Even clan members without a developed skill were still allowed to participate in the academy in the hopes that their talents would awaken. They studied forms and learned to throw blades…all the basics of ninja training.
But before the last year, they had to prove they could control their chakra, in any manner they chose. This was the cut-off. Either they passed or they were held back till they mastered it, which at that point was unlikely. It was a nice way of encouraging them to find another path.
But for non-clan students the bar was much higher. The student had to perform a known technique or be a stand-out in some area.
Lee had been working for months with Guy on his signature move — the eight-gated chakra. Sakura, however, had no technique. In front of her, Lee fidgeted nervously. But she was calm.
Lee was called to the front of class. He made a lot of noise, swinging his arms and pumping his fists. His face became distorted with the immense amount of energy he was using. A single ball of yellow chakra popped onto the center of his forehead. He shook his sweaty bangs and crossed his eyes to see it. While it wasn’t even the first ‘gate’ of Guy’s technique, it was a start. And it was enough. The teacher nodded, impressed, and waved him over to stand with the rest.
Then he motioned for Sakura to come forward. He picked up the pen from his clipboard, frowned a little at something that must have been written there, and mouthed the words “pink hair.”
He looked up at Sakura, and she knew what was coming next, before he even asked. It had been said to her in one way or another since the day the first nins came to her house.
Sakura shook her head.
‘No clan,’ was a polite way of saying she was different. That they didn’t know what to do with her. There was no family at home to teach her or support her. They didn’t know where her skill came from, if it could be measured and used, or if it would even last through her academy years.
It meant she was a risk. They never let her forget, even when they didn’t mean to put her down.
“You may begin,” he said as he scribbled on his pad. When he looked up, Sakura hand was already open, revealing a vibrant green pool of light.
“Oh! I see….”
The man was deeply surprised, but she knew he’d be. She had come to expect this. It was the same response every time anyone saw it.
He leaned closer to inspect it. Little drops of chakra were oozing down through her fingers, turning her whole hand into a luminous ball of light. If she held it long enough, the chakra would begin to slide off the back of her hand in big fat drops.
“It’s very bright—“
“Brightest in the class,” she said immediately. It was true. She knew hers was the brightest. She just didn’t know what that meant, if it even meant anything—
“‘Brightest—’” he said as he jotted that fact down next to her name.
Sakura extinguished the green light, but she didn’t leave. Whenever anyone spoke to her about her chakra, there was always one last question….
“And, uh, about your parents…. You’re sure that… I mean, that is to say…There’s no one else in your family with your skill?“
This was a polite was of asking if she were secretly someone else’s child.
“No one else. Only me.”
She was just an anomaly. Like her pink hair.
The teacher shrugged. “Huh. Well, then…yeah. That’ll do!” He pointed with his pen for Sakura to join the line of others.
And then it was over. Sakura was admitted into her last year with absolutely no fanfare, just like a normal kid. No one looked at her to laugh or be afraid or impressed. In fact, Lee was the only one who seemed to be really trying his hardest for this test.
There were several Hyuugas up next, one after the other, girls and boys. The rest were pointed over after quick demonstrations.
Sasuke Uchiha waited alone. The teacher trailed his pen down the board. “Uchiha, you’re last on the list.” The teacher didn’t need a demonstration. He didn’t even seem to want to look at him. “You can join the rest,” he said with a single nod.
Sasuke scowled. But after a moment he got slowly up and walked over. The whole class waited, including the teacher.
Sasuke was different. Sakura stayed away from him. But then, everyone did. People seemed to either pity him or be afraid of him. Or both. Sakura could never tell which. But no one wanted to be around him. She’d heard once that something bad had happened to him, and it seemed like people were afraid they were going to catch it too.
“Okay,” the teacher said finally, turning to the group. “This will be your academy class from now on.”
A smiling man with a clipboard appeared at the doorway. He grinned so big it was easy to see he was genuinely pleased to be there. But the students didn’t see that at first. They were too busy staring at him. A vicious scar crossed the center of his face, over his nose and into both cheeks. It was healed to a soft pink, so it must have been long ago. But they couldn’t tear their eyes away.
On any other shinobi, that scar would be the mark of a ferocious warrior. It would be a sign for all to see that this was someone to fear. Indeed, they would be taught that later on. Scars meant someone had seen battle or strife. And if it was bad enough to mark them on the outside, then it most certainly changed them on the inside as well. Their job as shinobis would be to determine if they were altered for good or bad, if they were now friend or foe.
But these young students knew none of this yet.
“Hello class,” he bowed respectfully to them. They bobbed their heads back, never taking their eyes from his scar. “My name is Iruka, and I will be your teacher from now on. Have you had fun so far at academy?”
They nodded in silent unison.
“Good, good. Well then I promise this will be your best year yet.”
He looked at each one of them like he meant it. Then he smiled again. It was brilliant, warm and welcoming. It stretched up the mark on his face, made happy wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and immediately won them over.
“Ready to get started?” The uncertainty on their faces was replaced with wide-eyed anticipation. “Great! Now come down so I can learn each of your names and tell you some of the fun things we have planned—
Chattering excitedly, they scrambled from their seats and clustered around him, all talking at the same time. Each was already feeling that this was going to be a very different kind of class.
With Iruka as their teacher, they began to spread their wings. Sakura too. He encouraged her to try harder and experience different things in academy. Maybe even consider a tool or weapon she might channel her energy into.
It was a fun time for all of them. Only in these classes did they get to see up-close demonstrations of techniques and hear stories of the powerful clans that made up Konoha. After that, their world expanded beyond the safety of Konoha’s walls when they learned of the equal-parts awesome and terrifying powers they might encounter in the other nations. The weapons, the techniques and legends, rumors and realities of secret techniques held by clans and countries. How they were guarded and traded, hidden and unmasked. Their heads were full of fear, amazement and adventure. Those days seemed like a never-ending discovery.
Sakura would later learn that Iruka’s tendency toward openness was rare, even among shinobi. During that year, with the genin exams looming at the end and the inevitable exposure to outside shinobi bearing down on them, they were also taught the importance of secrecy. It could save your life, or the life of your teammate.
It never occurred to Sakura not to keep her classmates’ skills a secret. Over time, she had come to realize that even though she didn’t quite understand Ino’s mind power or how Shikamaru’s shadow casting worked or where, exactly, the bugs resided in Shino’s fatigues, she was proud of their skills. She was proud they belonged to Konoha. And she would keep their secrets too. They all would. Learning about each other bonded them to one another.
All but one. Sasuke Uchiha.
He sat silently apart from the rest, alone and uninterested.
Time had not changed him. He spoke to no one, and no one spoke to him. Because of that, only the teachers addressed him. He wasn’t exactly friendly with them either; he only responded with a sharp nod or one-word answers. So they pretty much left him alone, too.
On the playground, Sakura always went along with the Ino and the other girls who thought he was cute. But secretly, she wasn’t so sure about him. And the few snide looks he had directed at her made her think he didn’t have much interest in her either.
Sakura didn’t care. She was too busy working to find a niche for her skill. Her chakra still just dripped off her hand. And none of the tools or techniques called to her. She didn’t have a penchant for weapons like TenTen or a knack for taijutsu like Lee.
“Chakra is something to be combined,” Iruka would remind her when he stopped to inspect her glowing hands during class practice time. “Chakra should be pushed into another object, like a weapon. Or,” he’d always add with a wink, “a body!”
Iruka’s oddly dark humor was common among shinobis, she’d come to learn, especially the more seasoned ones. It was like the more they’d seen and lived through, the weirder their sense of humor became.
But one day after repeating that joke, Iruka stopped himself, considering a new thought. “You know…maybe we’ve been going about this all wrong, Sakura. Maybe you’re actually a healer of some type.” He frowned and rubbed his chin. “But I’ve never heard of any students admitted at the hospital. You would have to be older, at least. Or get special permission from the Kage. Or maybe we could arrange something—“
But Sakura was no longer listening. She didn’t want to be separated from her classmates. She fit in here. And being the youngest in a hospital training room full of adult civilians would surely mean the end of her shinobi career. Besides, she really, really liked throwing kunai at the target tied to the tree. Whatever he was thinking, she wasn’t interested.
She decided to try harder at channeling her chakra into objects, like the others were doing. She worked extra hard, studied diligently for the tests and was soon getting the best marks in the class. She had made admirable improvements in her taijutsu and could make her chakra take the form of many objects…although getting it to stay there was another matter. It still dripped off her hand like water if she lost her concentration.
Sakura sometimes caught Iruka’s quizzical frown, but he never corrected her. Yet it was enough for Sakura to understand that she was still doing it wrong. And all the straight As, solid kicks and bullseyes in target practice could not make up for it.
So, without telling anyone, she started to concentrate only on the green light in her hand. She was determined to make her work like all the other students.
Her chakra came easily. It always had. But that was the problem. She thought everyone could just open their eyes and there it was, glowing and ready, without any effort. She knew now they couldn’t.
At academy, Sakura learned it worked differently for everyone else. Chakra didn’t just fall off of them like it did for her. Ino focused hers in a triangle, Shikamaru slid his into a shadow, Choji held his breath and blew up his belly. TenTen pushed hers into her weapons, and Shino combined his with his bugs to create massive waves of them on command.
After several months, even with all her concentration and visualizing, she could tighten hers closer to her hand, but that was about it. Now instead of holding it in her hand like water scooped from a bucket, she could keep it one side. It glowed there, stuck to her palm in a thick layer, like pressing her hand into wet paint.
It worked. Sort of.
She could activate it when she held the grip of a dummy wooden weapon, just like she saw everyone else do, but she only succeeded in making it glow. She wasn’t connected to it at a deeper level like Iruka told her she should be. When she removed her hand, the chakra ran off like water, fading away between her skin and the wood.
It wasn’t until a field medic came to speak to the class about healing and chakra that she began to see it differently.
Iruka spoke to the black-haired woman at the edge of the class. He was pointing out students, and lingered on Ino, Sakura and a group of Hyuuga of girls. The woman’s gaze landed on Sakura, and she smiled, nodding at her while Iruka spoke, and Sakura was sure he was telling her about her strange chakra—
The woman came to the front of the class and introduced herself as Aki from the Hyuuga clan. She too had come through academy, but her abilities were better suited for medical work. So she stayed in the village to help heal.
They instantly understood. She was one of the ones who came through the academy but didn’t graduate to become a shinobi. At least, not the kind that left the village.
But she was pretty and kind, and nodded deferentially to the other Hyuuga students in the class, and so they all instantly liked her.
“Iruka asked me to come speak about chakra, about healing, and about different things you can do with it than just throwing weapons.” She never looked at Sakura but Sakura still shifted uncomfortably in her seat, feeling like she was speaking just to her.
“Hinata-san, could you come up and give a demonstration please?”
Sakura turned to see the girl named Hinata — another pretty, pale-eyed, dark-haired Hyuuga girl — who was looking around in surprise.
Aki nodded encouragingly.
Sakura didn’t know Hinata. She was very quiet and kept to her own clan, of which there were many in the school. But Sakura thought, at the moment, Hinata looked very much the way she felt. She was glad it wasn’t her being forced to go up there.
Hinata went to the front and held out her hand, palm forward, to the class. Aki turned to the rest of the students. “Hyuugas have a unique chakra signature which makes it good for healing. See if you can figure out what it is—“ She nodded at Hinata to continue.
Hinata concentrated on her fingertips and slowly they were engulfed in a blue flame. It hovered and licked at her palm, growing brighter and surrounding her wrist, then back up her forearm.
“Fire,” was echoed softly several times around the classroom.
Aki nodded. “That’s right. Fire.”
“This translates very well to healing. That’s why many Hyuuga opt for a career in the healing arts rather than the shinobi arts.” They all nodded.
“But that doesn’t mean you can use it as a shinobi. To heal yourself or your teammates, or just to increase your control.” This time, she glanced at Sakura. Sakura nodded, certain that Iruka had told her of her problems.
“Hinata may I demonstrate on you?”
Hinata nodded, happier to be helping instead of the focus of attention.
“This is the basic healing form. The chakra glove.” She raised her hand to show that it was cloaked in a thin blue light, like a luminous glove. “Now everyone give it a try.”
Sakura’s lifted her hand, lighting it up without even trying. She pictured it as a glove. To her amazement, it responded. It looked like a giant green mitten, but it was a start.
After a few moments, all the students had copied her more or less precisely.
Aki nodded at them all. “Good. Just watch now,” she said. She took her blue hand and softly pressed it onto Hinata’s forearm, letting the blue light wrap around the back like a glowing cuff.
Hinata smiled, surprised. “It feels warm!”
Aki nodded with a smile and turned to the class. “If Hinata had a wound, my chakra would help hers to heal it. It’s thin, just enough to wrap around the surface. You don’t want to use too much, cause it might burn. But just enough to feel the wound under your hand and begin to heal it.” She smiled at Hinata as she removed her hand. “Now…. Who wants to give it a try?”
No one raised their hands. Sakura thought about it, but she was too nervous to do it on her own.
Aki looked as if she expected that. “How about this: Who has any cuts or bruises?”
A bunch of boys enthusiastically shot their hands up. “Oo-oo! I do! I do!”
She waved them down to one side of the class. “Ok, you’ll be on the ‘wounded’ side.”
They were thrilled, jostling each other on the way down and showing off their ‘wounds,’ most of which amounted to nothing more than scraped knees and splinters.
“On the other side we’ll have our ‘healers.’” The rest of the class of boys and girls filed to the other side. She raised her voice above the excited students. “Healers will heal the wounded, then both will switch sides and go to the back of the opposite line. That way everyone has a chance to try out both. Okay?”
The students nodded their understanding. Aki stood in the middle and presided over the first pair, watching each one to make sure they did it right and wouldn’t hurt each other. They all did about as well as was expected, with some of the girls doing a particularly good job getting the chakra to wrap around the arm. Aki gave nods of approval to Sakura, Ino, Hinata and a few others.
None of the wounds were healed. But none of the students were getting chakra burns. So she felt comfortable enough to break them up into pairs all over the classroom, then stepped back to let them figure it out.
Aki and Iruka leaned against the wall, watching and talking, while the kids laughed and interacted. Some had a hard time getting their chakra to bend and wrap. Others took to it naturally. Iruka noticed that even Sasuke had relaxed a little bit to concentrate on this challenge. He tipped his head to speak quietly to Aki while he nodded toward the Uchiha approvingly.
“Ok! Change partners again,” Aki said cheerfully. “Remember, one heals. Then switch!”
A loud “Ow!” sounded in unison from a pair of rowdy boys.
Iruka frowned deeply and went over, saying, “Not at the same time, you two! No wonder you burned yourselves!”
Several kids laughed, but a boy on the other side of the room grabbed his arm suddenly and exclaimed, “It’s gone! My cut— It’s gone…. ” He looked up into Sakura’s surprised face. “You healed me! Like, for real!!”
Sakura shrugged, but everyone was hovering around the boy, wanting to see the smooth skin of his arm too.
Sakura didn’t do anything special, just let her chakra slip around his arm, like Aki said. She felt the torn skin in the space under her fingers. In her mind, she simply smoothed it out. It was…easy.
Iruka and Aki came over to inspect it. Aki nodded, then took the boys arm, engulfed it in blue energy — “Oo, it’s warm,” the boy said. “Hers was cool.” — then looked up at Sakura and smiled. “Good job! You healed it!”
The boy pulled his arm free to show it off to the crowd of other students.
Aki laughed at the boy, but turned back to Sakura. “So, did someone teach you?”
Sakura shook her head, bracing herself for the inevitable questions about her upbringing. But the questions never came.
“Well then, you definitely have a talent for it,” Aki said with a big smile. “Great job!”
Behind Aki’s shoulder, Iruka beamed and gave her a big thumb’s up. Sakura smiled back, feeling the heat rise to her cheeks and giving away just how pleased she really was.
“Mine’s gone too!” Almost immediately, another student chimed in. “Mine too! Well, uh, mostly….”
Aki and the crowd of kids left to go inspect the others. More kids were beginning to have success healing as well, with Ino and Hinata and a few other Hyuuga girls among them.
Sakura was left alone at the back, opening and closing her hand, watching the light come and go like a giant firefly. She smiled, happy to find a technique that seemed to fit her.
From the edge of the classroom, Iruka grinned at the controlled chaos of the whole room.
When there was a break, Iruka said to Aki, “Thank you for helping out! This has been so successful, we might want to include it every year!”
Aki nodded heartily, before her name was called again to inspect more ‘healed’ arms. A moment later, Iruka darted out to intervene between boys who were trying to inflict new injuries on each other just to be healed again.
The students who showed ability were invited to the hospital to shadow Aki and see what she did there, and the idea of a shared class was hatched. After that, Sakura, Ino and several others spent a few afternoons a week learning some basic field medic techniques, while the other students deepened their weapons skills back at the classroom.
Sakura quickly discovered she was very good at healing. She didn’t have to try at it either, it just worked for her.
But back at academy, she still was faced with the same problem. She may have smiled and told her classmates that she could infuse objects with her chakra just like they did….but it was a lie. She still couldn’t.
After learning the most basic healing technique, however — simply thinning her chakra to cover the whole wounded area like a bandage — she thought it might be able to help her on the shinobi side too.
Sakura quietly studied her classmates’ skills with the same methodical attention she’d used at the hospital and that she applied to every new challenge. She watched what they were doing, absorbed everything she could learn, then tried to copy back what she’d seen.
Other students could move their energy through the metal or merge it with shadow, making it come alive for them. But when Sakura tried to push her chakra into these objects, it never worked. They were still just lifeless and dull.
Everyone around her had the hang of it. Even Lee, who was the most like her out of the whole class, was busy trying to unlock the second gate of Guy’s technique in his spare time. They were all working on named techniques with clear-cut steps and levels—
Sakura didn’t have any of that.
She cut her eyes to TenTen. At first she thought they might be similar, with her chakra abilities but no clan to speak of. But now she realized they were different too.
TenTen flung out a scroll, summoned a kunai and gripped it hard. That’s when Sakura saw it: TenTen’s red chakra rippling out at the edge, illuminating the weapon for a moment. One day they would be taught to hide those marks, but right now, Iruka wanted to see them.
Sakura breathed in and tried again. The weapon in her hand was still impenetrable, but this time, instead of pushing her chakra into it, she applied what she’d learned at the hospital.
She breathed out, closed her eyes, pictured the shape in her mind, and stretched her chakra thinner than she ever had, until it completely covered the surface of the kunai. She felt it when it wrapped back around and connected back to itself. It worked.
She opened her eyes. Her chakra glimmered at the edge of the kunai. It didn’t drip off. As long as she concentrated, it held the shape. She smiled, pleased that she’d finally done that at least. It was a first step. She’d get the feel for it later.
Sakura looked up, catching Sasuke Uchiha’s dark eyes as he turned away. Her smile dimmed until she saw Ino striding toward her.
“Sakura-chan you’re doing it! I knew you’d get it eventually!”
“Well…I’m only just starting to get the hang of it—”
“And I’m not the only one who’s noticed how hard you’ve been trying.” Her voice dropped to a sing-song whisper. “Sasuke-kun’s been watching you too!”
Sakura looked over at the boy’s back. “Uh, really?”
“He’s the cutest boy in school,” Ino continued excitedly. “I’ve made a list, and he’s at the top! But you’ll have to fight me for him,” she laughed. “And them too!” The older class girls were looking from Sasuke to Sakura and back again.
Sakura didn’t believe her friend, but from then on, she did notice Sasuke watching her whenever she tried to make her chakra perform the way she saw the others do it.
She told herself that maybe it was like Ino said, that he wanted to help her but he was just painfully shy. Or that he was coming up with ways to talk to her. Ino would gush romantic ideas to Sakura on the playground. Sakura ignored them. But she liked the attention. It made her feel a little set apart, when everyone else seemed so special and amazing to her.
It wasn’t until one afternoon when she caught the black-haired boy watching her that a new realization dawned. He wasn’t admiring her, as Ino always teased. She met his eyes, only for a second. But it was long enough to see the unmistakeable, blood-red glow of a sharingan — the frightening justu that she’d only heard about in whispers — swirling back into blackness. He looked at the glowing green weapon in her hands, then his mouth twisted into a scowl and he turned away.
Sakura swallowed hard. The green faded from the weapon. She wasn’t sure if he’d seen her or not…. She looked at her hand, flickering the green light there. She hadn’t done anything wrong. She was still figuring it out. They all were. Hers was just taking a little longer, that’s all—
Iruka called the class back inside.
Sakura walked in at the back. Sasuke was ahead of her. He looked up when he went in acknowledging another nin at the door, an older man with white hair. Sakura glanced up, watching him. At first she thought he was very old, but maybe he wasn’t as old as his hair made it seem. He face was still smooth and young looking, and he grinned at a few of them with one eye peeking out from behind a rakishly tilted headband.
The words “copy” and “ninja” where whispered through the line, but Sakura didn’t know what that meant except that it was about this man who was chatting with their teacher. It added to his mystique. He tracked Sasuke across the room and up to his desk. Sasuke knew it. He flopped into his chair, propped his hands in front of his mouth and sunk his head, looking out angrily at the man.
Sakura looked back, surprised at the disrespect. But the man only smiled. As she passed, she heard Iruka say, “Well, I guess you have a nose for those ‘odd ones,’” he scanned down a list of names with a frown, “but still, that wouldn’t be my first choice—”
The man turned suddenly and looked directly into Sakura’s staring face. He smiled down at her. Embarrassed, she nodded politely and hurried to her seat.
The rest of their conversation was lost in scraping chairs and slapping of books and pencils. Sakura took her seat too.
Iruka introduced the visitor. Kakashi, the great Copy Ninja, was there to speak about life as a shinobi, about teams, tests and expectations. And lastly, he was there to talk about what happened if you defected….
Kakashi stepped up to the desk. Without a word, he slipped a headband from his back pocket and placed it on the desk, unfolding it to reveal the sliver badge of Konoha with a deep gouge through the middle. Beside it, he placed a thick book with the large red letters “B I N G O” across the top, above a grainy photo with a big “X” over the face. He did it slowly and in complete silence, as if waiting for everyone to get a good look.
After a few moments, Kakashi looked up, taking in the whole class and smiled big. “Ohayo class!” They politely responded in unison. Sakura was beginning to think he was nothing like the fearsome ninja he was supposed to be.
“Soon, you will be breaking up into teams. But first, I want to talk to about how serious it is, about what can go wrong, and—” He smiled briefly. “To let you know that you still have time to back out if you want to. Understand?”
The students nodded dully.
He cut his eyes up, scanning them all, nodding with them. “Good, good….” He smiled brightly, but this time, Sakura had the creeping feeling there was something dangerous behind his expression….
“Well then, let’s begin! How many of you are going to be on a team, go on secret missions far from Konoha, and make a name for yourself among the great nations—” Lots of hands shot up.
“And how many hope to be called up for C-rank missions? B-rank? A-rank?” Lots of hands waved in the air. “Well, what about S-Rank?”
Hands dropped and whispers of “S-Rank?” “Is that a real thing?” ricocheted around. Then the hands of some of the rowdiest boys went up, followed by several others who didn’t want to miss out on that adventure.
“Right,” Kakashi said. “And how many would like to be the type of shinobi that stay in the village and protect it from outsiders by fighting, say, from atop the village walls….”
Hands were raised, but not so high in the air and not with such force of certainty. Sakura considered this option. They were of a middle range of skills, and she was thinking that she’d probably be safer in this group than with the more boisterous ones—
Kakashi nodded solemnly, as if those questions mattered deeply to him.
Sakura was just beginning to inch her hand up when Kakashi began speaking again.
“Let me tell you a few little stories then….”
Hours later, the trap the he’d set for them with his smiles and innocent-sounding questions and ‘little stories’ had been sprung.
For Sakura and the rest of the class, the lecture had unraveled into a terrifying nightmare of scenarios, capped off by the threats of pain and kinds of deaths you could expect if you defected or wound up in the pages of the Bingo book.
The room was silent with shock.
Kakashi picked up the headband and Bingo book.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” His voice was a bored monotone. “No shinobi ever gets to stay in the village while everyone else is out fighting for their lives. So if that’s your plan…. Uh, well, you need to get a different plan. You won’t make it long outside the walls.”
Sakura looked at her fingers, nervously twisted around each other, and was suddenly glad she hadn’t raised her hand.
Kakashi rolled on the balls of his feet and looked around. “So…. Any questions? No?”
He grinned brightly, apparently delighted by the sound of sniffling coming from every corner of the room.
“Good! And just remember, if any of this stuff scared you, even just a little bit,” Kakashi’s voice dropped dangerously. “Don’t. Come. Back.”
Someone openly started crying in the back row. It set off a chain reaction of tears.
Iruka darted forward nervously, “Uh, alright class. Thank our lecturer—“
A half-sobbed chorus of “Thank you,” was all that could be managed.
Iruka patted students on the shoulder as they exited, saying “Don’t worry!” and “You’ll do fine!” and “Team selection tomorrow! Don’t be late!”
Sakura crept out, avoiding both Kakashi’s peering gaze and Iruka’s bolstering words. She was shaken to her core.
The next morning, Sakura cried into her breakfast. Her mother walked in, wrung her hands once at the sight of her daughter’s tear-stained face, then walked out again.
Sakura didn’t move.
For her mother, this was the last straw. She came back in, concern clear on her face and pulled a chair up next to her daughter.
“Sakura-chan, I’m afraid this is too hard on you.” She patted her hand where it rested on the table. “You know, you don’t have to go back if you don’t want to.” Her voice turned firm “I don’t care what the Kage wants, it’s your choice….”
Sakura looked down at her uneaten food and seriously considered quitting. She nodded tearfully along with her mother’s soothing words—
“Maybe— Maybe you can put all this behind you.” Her tone was hopeful, trying to find something to cheer her daughter. “And…. And you can just go back to your old school and pick up where you left off. Think how much they will have missed you—“
Sakura blinked, her tears drying quickly. She didn’t hear the rest. She couldn’t go back; she’d come too far. And there was so much more to learn. Sakura knew then she had to return to the shinobi academy. She wasn’t going to let one dumb speech scare her, was she? She wasn’t just going to give up now, was she…?
She gulped down her fear, reassured her mother and somehow made it all the way to the academy building. There, she wiped her sweaty palms on the front of her dress, wrapped her cold fingers around the door knob and jerked it open only to find a deathly quiet classroom. The seats were empty.
She had the momentary panic of being caught in a bad dream—
Iruka clapped once. “Our second student! Marvelous! Didn’t expect it would be you, Haruno-san, but you are always surprising us. Take your seat—“
Sakura was numb. She turned, moving automatically to where he pointed. Three rows up, at the back, sat the first student. Sasuke.
He scowled from behind his folded hands, unhappy at the attention, but angry and defiant nonetheless. She looked away, suddenly remembering that he looked the same yesterday. While everyone shuddered with fear, cried or ran out to the safety of their homes. Sasuke was unmoved. He was almost…angry.
Then she remembered something Ino said. Sasuke’s brother was a rogue. That he’d done horrible things to their clan. Her mom and dad would never say. But she overheard someone in the flower shop say the cursed clan, and the rogue son, and all were dead except one. Sasuke.
Ino had made it sound terribly romantic. But now it sounded gruesome. And Sasuke sat at the back of the class, still defiant. He didn’t show a bit of emotion yesterday. And he didn’t today.
Sakura realized there were worse things to be afraid of than speeches.
She folded her hands, took a breath and waited for what came next. And, just because she could, she closed her eyes and imagined running the gloves of chakra over her hands till she could feel the light surrounding them like cool water.
“Only two?!” Sakura opened her eyes. Kakashi was back, beaming up at them.
Iruka laughed. “You’ve outdone yourself this year, Kakashi. But I have to admit,” Iruka looked at a paper with a set of lists on it, tapping a group of three, “maybe your instincts are right.”
Sakura realized then that the speech was meant to scare them. Maybe even weed out anyone who didn’t believe in themselves. It was, like many things in the shinobi world, a trick.
She scraped her desk with her fingernail. If she’d given up this morning, then she would have never known it was a trick. She wondered if the other kids thought that same thing, then she realized that no, they probably didn’t. They had parents who were shinobis, who would have known what Kakashi was up to and told them not to give up.
At the front of the class, Kakashi stood with a bemused smile. “I think I got a lot more to cry this year.”
Iruka nodded. “Several more than last year. Adding the ‘Bingo Book’ was a stroke of genius.”
Kakashi laughed loudly and was about to elaborate, but more kids were filing in.
Behind them, more adult nins came in, Kurenai, Asuma and Guy, among them. They nodded to each other. Kakashi’s easy-going attitude faded as more people arrived. He folded his arms over his chest, looking more and more like the fearsome shinobi he was supposed to be.
Iruka’s eyes traveled up and down his list, nodding. “Yes. Yes. Well, that’s a surprise. His parents won’t be happy about that….” Finally he looked up. “It’s time to separate into teams. After this, these will be your leaders and your partners.”
He began reading. Kids started trickling down from the desks to stand with the men and women at the front. The student side of the room was emptying out, and the front filling up.
Kakashi stepped forward, looking bored. “Next up,” Iruka read from the bottom of the list, “Team 7 with Kakashi.”
Iruka read to himself, “a new candidate, from Anbu…. He will meet you on the field, and….”
“Uchiha, Sasuke—“ there was a scrape of chair and he descended down the steps, unimpressed.
Sakura watched him, realizing what Kakashi and Iruka had been talking about. That’s who Kakashi had picked. Sasuke. The ‘odd one.’
Sakura looked around nervously. There was no one left. It was just her. Alone.
Panicked thoughts began to churn. She wasn’t good enough. They didn’t know what to do with her. They’d figured out that she didn’t know how to control her chakra like everyone else—
“And Haruno, Sakura. Team 7…with Kakashi.” There were a few gasps. She rose without thinking and looked up to see the great copy ninja, face as hard as steel and terrifying. Sasuke looked mad.
Sakura came down the steps in a daze as Iruka announced over her head, “Alright class dismissed. Best of luck in your new teams!”
Kakashi looked down at them, not impressed. He spoke to a few other leaders and Sakura took the opportunity to speak quietly to Iruka.
“Uh, is there a mistake, sensei, because I don’t know if I—”
Suddenly, Kakashi cut across her in his sternest voice. “He is no longer your sensei, Haruno. I am. And I don’t make mistakes.”
Kakashi turned to leave. Sasuke shot her the meanest glare he could for getting off on the wrong foot. Iruka gave her a little look of sympathy, but nodded for her to go with them. It was indeed correct.
The rest of the groups bounded out of the classroom, excited. But only Sakura was sick with nervousness. She had only dared to hope to be a village shinobi. Like one that stayed in the village. But Kakashi…he was different. He was fierce. He had his own page in the Bingo book. In a moment, she felt like she’d been catapulted over the wall and out into a world she was in no way prepared for.
Outside, walking behind the group toward the training pitches, Sakura admitted to herself that this was going to be hard. Harder than she’d ever imagined. She was beginning to think about where she was just a few hours before, crying into her cereal. If she gave up now, she could just go back…go home, not face the terrible things that Kakashi said—
Kakashi cut a look down at her as if she’d said it out loud. He seemed to read it on her face. “You know, if this is not what you expected, you can still back out. Do it now, while you have the chance—“
Sakura nervously fidgeted with the edge of her dress. Was that what she wanted? She still didn’t know. But she’d come this far— Her green eyes peered up at Kakashi, trying to decipher if this was another trick.
He waited patiently.
She would try. She wouldn’t give up. Not yet. She gulped down her fear, gave a wobbly smile and avoided the answer. “N-No sensei. It’s just— It’s nice to meet you. That’s all!”
Sasuke tsked audibly. Kakashi frowned at the sound, but was distracted by someone standing in the road ahead.
“Ah, there he is.” An extremely pale boy was waiting for them ahead. He wore shinobi garb, but he looked extremely uncomfortable. Sakura was surprised. He was their age, but she’d never seen him before. “And you’re right, Haruno. Introductions are in order,” then added, more to himself, “I always forget that part.”
The unlikely trio and their lanky sensei ended up in a nearby park.
“Alright, tell me a bit about yourselves.” The friendly voice was back. But it made Sakura even more nervous. No one spoke. Sakura looked at them, no one looked back. “Haruno, you want to go first?”
“Oh right. I forgot. How does he do it….” He remembered. His face brightened. “Tell me three things about yourself! Your name, your goal as a shinobi and your dream!”
Sasuke rolled his eyes. “Iruka already did this with us—“
“I know!” Kakashi snapped before plastering on a smile. “I know. But I’m supposed to do this kind of teamwork too. Not just jump right into the bell test, like I want to,” he muttered the last bit under his breath. “So back to the three things—“
“I’m Sai,” the pale boy spoke, startling them all. “My goal is to excel as shinobi in the service of the Leaf, and my dream is to die in the service of the Root.”
Sakura had never heard of a place called ‘Root’ before.
Kakashi sighed. “As expected. Maybe we can shake that up a little bit though.” Sai looked slightly concerned, the only emotion that had flitted across his empty face.
Kakashi looked at Sasuke, who sat between them, expecting an answer. Sasuke scowled, but he obeyed, saying it all quickly. “Sasuke. Get revenge. Restore my clan.” He looked away, refusing to elaborate.
Sakura sat silently, watching them both. So these were to be her teammates. She wondered what Ino would think. They were nothing like her team, her friends Shikamaru and Choji. Sakura suddenly understood why Iruka called these two the ‘odd ones.’ They were certainly odd—
Sakura cleared her throat. “My name is Sakura. My goal as a shinobi is….” Her mouth crumpled into a thoughtful frown. She tugged on a blade of grass brushing her ankle where they sat. She didn’t know. And she didn’t want to sound weak in front of this shinobi and the rest of them. She cleared her throat. “And my dream is….” Her voice trailed off. She shrugged. She realized didn’t have a dream.
Kakashi didn’t seem to care. “Right. Now that that’s out of the way. We’ll meet up at dawn on the bridge for our bell test. It will determine where I place you in the group, your skill level, what we should work on. That sort of thing. No worries. It’s a breeze.” His light voice dropped suddenly. “But don’t eat!” Then he smiled big. “Later!” He flipped his hand for a wave and disappeared.
The boy named Sai turned and left immediately. Sasuke watched him go, glaring daggers at his back. Then he turned on Sakura.
“You should quit.”
“You heard me. You should quit. Before he figures out that you’re useless as a ninja. That you can’t even use your chakra right.”
Her mouth turned into a snarl, her hand into a fist. “You can’t tell me what to do—“
“Oh yeah, what are you going to do? Punch me? With that?!” He pointed at her fist, and she looked down, seeing in fact how small and pale it really was. Her grip loosened, as did her confidence.
Sasuke narrowed his eyes. “You know you don’t belong here. You should quit now.”
Before she could come up with a response, something mean or cutting, or at least sarcastic like Ino would have immediately thought up, Sasuke walked off, leaving her standing there.
That night, she thought about what Sasuke said. She didn’t have to think long. There was no ninja trick here. Sasuke was just mean. She may not be great, but she’d worked too hard to let someone like him tell her what she could or could not do.
The next morning, Sakura was on the bridge at dawn. She was second to Sasuke, who sneered at her and shook his head. She turned away stubbornly and set her jaw. She’d already heard his opinion. She didn’t have to look at him. Sai walked up right behind them. He was quiet and cold, formal and uncomfortable all at the same time.
Sasuke turned his simmering anger on the newcomer. “So you’re from Root….”
“So what do you do?”
Sai didn’t answer.
“They send you here for me then? To take me out? Or recruit me?” Sasuke nodded as he spoke, as if hearing the answers in his head. Sai looked from Sakura to Sasuke, confused. “Huh. So just to watch over me then? Keep me in line? Yeah, ok, I see.” Sasuke settled back against the rail with a smug look on his face.
Sai just blinked at Sasuke as if he was speaking another language.
The sun was casting deep shadows across the bridge by the time Kakashi strolled up. He was wiping his hands on a napkin from the ramen stall, smacking his lips a little as if he’d just walked from a full lunch. He yawned, pocketing the napkin, but not before he made sure everyone got a good look at the logo.
“Been waiting here long? Oh right, we were meeting at dawn. Guess I forgot to let you know that time had changed.” Kakashi laughed and scratched the back of his head. “But since you all are here, let’s go ahead out to the training pitch. At least I can get a nap while you take your test.”
Sakura thought for sure this guy was crazy. Sasuke was thunderously mad. And Sai walked silently behind them, all emotion scrubbed from his face.
The training fields were expansive and empty. The afternoon sun drove most nins inside. Not them.
Kakashi turned to them, serious again. “This test is about teamwork.” He flicked two bells at his waistband. “You must retrieve these bells. One per student. Before sundown. That’s all. Off you go—” He bent his knees to lunge into a flash step, fingers raised in front of him.
Neither Sasuke nor Sai spoke, so Sakura spoke up quickly, pointing out the obvious. “Wait! Kakashi-sensei, there are only two bells. Does that mean, only two teammates can get them, or….”
Sasuke smirked meanly at her. Kakashi smiled. “That’s right Sakura. Very quick observation. Yes. Only two students will pass. The other will be sent back to the academy. Good luck!” Then he was gone.
Sasuke laughed. “Well, I guess we know who’s going back. Not me and certainly not the robot over there.” Sai’s face was blank. Sasuke smirked. “Good luck. I’m going to get my bell!”
Sai watched him leave then worked out the odds on his fingertips. “Our task has been set before us—“ Then he leapt to the canopy too, going the opposite direction.
Sakura was alone. She stood still, thinking. The test was about teamwork. Yet there was only one bell. She started to walk toward the treeline, processing it all in her mind.
That meant either two passed and moved ahead, knowing one was going to be sent back to academy, or they all failed. Sakura rattled through her options, just like the newcomer had, but there was no solution. Every scenario had one or all of them going back. There was no way to get the bell and keep the team intact—
A soft pop sounded up the trail in front of her, startling her. It was Sasuke… or was it? Maybe it was a clone…. They’d seen demonstrations, but she didn’t think anyone in her class could make them. Yet. But Sasuke was so far ahead of everyone else, maybe he’d done this as well—
“Sakura, help me—“ He slumped toward her. Knife handles stuck out of his back at all angles. He looked up into her face again, pleading. His eyes were crazed.
It was shocking and almost tragic to see someone so confident cut down so soon into their first trial. He cried her name again for help, and she instantly forgot all her anger towards him.
“Sa-Sasuke-kun—” She reached out instinctively to help him. He fell forward, collapsing into her outstretched arms. One hand, however was curling around behind him, pulling a dagger out of his back.
“Sakura,” his voice morphed deeper, “Sakura….” He was getting heavier, holding her arm tighter. His eyes were spinning. “What’s the matter…?” His mouth was a wide gash with teeth as pointy as the kunai that he was pulling around, brandishing up at her. He laughed maniacally. “Can’t defend yourself? Afraid I’ll tell?”
Sakura screamed and struggle against him. “Sasuke, no!!”
Panicking, she completely forgot her academy training. She didn’t grab her kunai to block him. She didn’t engage in taijutsu to disable him. She didn’t scan her surroundings to outrun him.
She shut her eyes, pushed back and swung blindly at his face. By sheer luck she clobbered him on the head. It was all reflex.
His jaw cracked and his body toppled over, knocking her backwards to the forest floor and slamming her head against a fallen limb—
Sasuke’s body disappeared in a poof. Sakura was alone, unmoving in a pile of leaves.
A shadowy figure stepped from behind the tree. He still held his book open with his thumb, but it was forgotten. This girl…. She was surprising….
Kakashi relied on his instincts for most things. And they were usually right.
But only time would tell if he’d made the right choice picking her for Team 7. At the moment, it didn’t look so promising. Genjutsu strippped away your soul, laying bare your innermost fears to prey on you. So what stopped her then? Could she really not defend herself? Or was it the crush on her teammate that held her back? Perhaps that was the only reason she’d gotten this far….
Well, time would tell, he laughed softly to himself. After this, however, he’d be surprised if she showed up again—
Sakura groaned, moved a leg and raised a hand slowly to the back of her head. Kakashi held up two fingers and flash-stepped soundlessly to his next ‘victim.’
Remembering everything suddenly, Sakura jumped up out of the leaves, grabbed her kunai and swung it around her. But she was alone. She winced at the knot growing at the back of her head, and the giant scrape up the back of her calf. The dress and low shoes she’d always worn for class were poorly suited to running through the woods. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously…. If these woods were even real….
“Kai,” she said softly, repeating the one genjutsu technique she’d read about in class. They’d never practiced it. They’d never needed to. “Kai,” she nervously said again, looking around. Nothing changed.
She decided it must be real. And the pain radiating from the back of her head and her leg were also very real.
At least no one saw this embarrassing test, which it clearly was. She had probably walked right into a trap. It made her feel terrible, like some part of her had been exposed.
There was another blood-curdling scream from far off in the woods. That one really sounded like Sasuke. But it might be another trap. Sakura looked around warily. She walked slowly, kunai out in front of her, scouring for assailants. The purpose of the test was forgotten.
She walked for hours more, searching through the trees for anyone, for more traps or scares. But she never saw any. At one point, when the sun was coming in long slants through the trunks, there was another cry. It was higher, unfamiliar sounding. Must have been the new guy, Sid…Sam…Sad….?
Ropes of black vine-looking things fell from the branches. She approached the leaves where they fell, but whatever it had been had turned to black spatters all over the leaves.
She picked up a leaf, examining the fat drop of black that was oozing off the bottom. Not blood. She touched the substance, rolled it between her thumb and forefinger, smelling it. Paint?
She put the leaf quietly back down on the ground and crept away, not wanting to get caught up by whatever had snared what’s-his-name.
The sun had just dipped below the horizon when Sakura came out of the woods. She hadn’t completed the test, but she had no light. It was too dangerous to stay longer.
She walked out to the field to see Kakashi standing there, leaning against a target post. The two black-haired boys were sitting, sweaty and tired, but not as dirty and bloodied as she was.
Both of them had bells.
“And there’s the third!” Kakashi snapped his book shut, looking fresh and relaxed. “Alright, as you can see, the bell test is now over. So let’s go over where everyone went wrong.”
Kakashi pulled out a long strip of paper and began reading from one side.
“Sasuke…. You fell for the trap in the tree hollow in the forest course, but evaded the paper tags and sleeping darts. So, you got points for those. But you let the genjutsu of Itachi distract you from your purpose and ultimately caused your ‘death.’ Or so you thought.” He looked up at Sasuke, peering over the paper, voice suddenly stern. “It was an easy genjutsu. You should have seen through it immediately. But your anger blinded you to the obvious.”
Sasuke jutted his chin out. The bell jangled in his hand.
Kakashi looked down the page. “Sai….”
“Sai!” Sakura exclaimed, suddenly remembering his name.
“What?” Kakashi was confused.
Sakura shook her head. “Nothing. Please continue.”
“Sai…. You avoided all the traps in the canopy course, as expected. And you laid an excellent network of realistic things to communicate back what was around you. However, you neglected to take into account that someone like me can tell the difference between a live creature and a re-animated one. So, instead of being a concealment it turned into a dead giveaway.”
Sai said nothing. He didn’t turn away. He stood emotionless and accepted his fate.
Kakashi shifted his gaze to Sakura. He turned the paper over. The notes on her took up the whole back side.
“Sakura, Sakura,” he began with a sigh. Sasuke snickered once. “So, to start, you entered into the forest distracted. You followed the path—” he flicked a cold gaze at her. “Always the most dangerous route for a shinobi.” He looked back to the list. “Then you went for a stroll, managed to miss the paper tags, the fallen tree trap and the sunken pit….” He flicked another gaze at her surprised face — “although I think that was completely by accident” — then back down again. “Ah yes, and then it all went wrong when you fell for the genjutsu of Sasuke-kun.”
Sakura blushed deeply and looked away, mortified. Sasuke made a noise of disgust.
“And then, distracted by your crush, you couldn’t fight back—“
Kakashi was going to leave it there, but seeing Sasuke’s scorn, he added, “properly.” Sakura didn’t fight back at all. And that was a problem. But she didn’t need that added to her burden. It was going to be sizable enough.
“And touching, smelling, an unknown substance when enemy nins are around? It’s certain death. Any number of poisons take the form of ink as a disguise—“
“Ink?” Sakura repeated, shocked. “How was I supposed to know—“
Kakashi scanned the rest of the list and sighed again. “Anyway, there’s more. But it doesn’t matter. You all failed. Report back to academy tomorrow—“
“What?!” Sasuke was outraged, shaking the bell in his fist. Even Sai was standing, looking sharp. “We passed the test! We got the bells! Send her back,” Sasuke pointed savagely at Sakura. “She’s the one who failed. She couldn’t even find you! We made it past the traps, survived your attacks, and both got a bell. All on our own! We passed!”
Kakashi was thoughtful. “Yes, I suppose your sleep genjutsu was a notch above a beginner level sharingan jutsu, and Sai’s ink spiders were deft in removing the bell without a sound—“
Sasuke was livid, on the edge of exploding. Even so much that disrespecting a teacher, captain and feared ninja in his own right might be a good idea.
“Maybe for you,” he snarled, “but if you had managed to steal two sharingans instead of just one then you might have seen it coming—“
Sakura gasped. Sai’s alert look fixed on Sasuke. Kakashi merely tipped his head and considered the young man for a moment.
Sakura broke the tension, her nervous thoughts spilling out in a tumble to defuse the situation. “I-I don’t understand…. If there were only two bells, how were we ever supposed to succeed? We were never going to pass as a ‘team.’”
Sasuke turned to her, vicious. “You figured that out, finally? You were never going to pass. We were. What can you do that we can’t—“
Sakura fired back, anger rising. “I don’t know what he does,” she pointed at Sai. “And neither do you! I couldn’t even remember his name!”
Sasuke scoffed. Kakashi looked flat. This honesty did not impress him.
“How were we supposed to pass—“
Sasuke got in her face. “You were never supposed to—“
“But Konoha’s structure is a three-man cell. Not two man—”
“Two bells, that means he failed you before you began, Sakura—“
“Enough!” Kakashi’s angry voice startled them into silence. “You all failed the bell test,” he said coldly. “Report to Iruka tomorrow morning. You will be repeating your last year until you get it right.”
He turned, shoving the book in his back pocket and started walking away.
As soon as Kakashi was out of earshot, Sasuke rounded on Sakura. “Why did you even have to come out here and ruin it for me? Everyone knows you can’t use chakra! And if he’s so smart,” he thumbed at the white-haired nin stalking across the open field, “why did he even pick you?!”
Sakura ignored him, making him even angrier.
“You should’ve never made it this far,” Sasuke went on, getting closer to her face. “But you were just…there. The last one one in the room— No one wanted you for their team. He didn’t even want you, but he had to take you to make it three— And now you’ve ruined it for all of us!!”
Sakura ignored him, shutting his voice out, even as he closed in. She was replaying Kakashi’s words.
The bell test. They failed. They failed a test they could never pass. Then maybe…. Maybe that wasn’t the right test….
What did he say, at the beginning….
She looked down, wracking her brain to remember. Sasuke’s angry face was directly in front of hers, but she didn’t hear him.
Something was wrong about all this…. The bells, the bells….
She popped her head up suddenly, eyes shining with the answer. Startled, Sasuke pulled back.
The bells were a lie!
“I figured it out,” she breathed. “Wait,” she yelled. “I figured it out!” She dashed around Sasuke and took off after the lanky white-haired nin. If he heard her, he didn’t stop.
Sasuke cursed, “What are you doing—“ But he ran after her anyway.
Kakashi was already halfway was across the pitch. She sprinted after him, calling his name, then came to a stop, heaving. The pain at her calf was forgotten. The two boys followed close behind, panting too.
Kakashi turned finally but didn’t say a word.
“Ka-Ka—“ She gulped in air. “Kakashi-sensei, I figured it out.” His face was a stern mask, but she wasn’t afraid. “We took the wrong test. That’s why we failed.”
“Continue,” he said quietly.
“You told us, at the very beginning, the test was about teamwork. But you called it “The Bell Test.” We’d even heard about it, in academy. Iruka-sensei told us how hard it would be. But, the bells…are a lie.” Sasuke tried to laugh, but it came out sounding uncertain. “We could never pass the bell test because there was never a way to get the bells and remain a team. And you said from the beginning the test was about how we worked together as a team. But we failed completely. We were never a team. Not once.”
Sasuke stared at her in disbelief, then at Kakashi, then back again. Sai was watching them both as well.
Only Kakashi seem unmoved by this fanciful theory, until his face cracked into a wide grin. He leaned over, grabbing Sakura’s shoulder and shaking it. “Good job Haruno! Always surprising us! You figured out the first lesson of Team Kakashi! Never forget to look ‘underneath the underneath!’”
Sakura was confused, as were the others. But Kakashi was laughing, so they laughed along nervously too.
Kakashi turned to leave again. “See you tomorrow. Same spot. Same time.” His gleeful voice carried over his shoulder. “We’ve got some more team-building exercises to do!” Then he waved his hand once in farewell and was gone in a pop.
They stood alone on the pitch, blinking at the empty space. Dark shadows stretched across the grass.
Sakura had a moment to take in her victory. For all their power, those two couldn’t figure out Kakashi’s trick. But she did. She proved that she had what it took, when it counted—
Sai said nothing, his face an emotionless mask. Whether he was grateful or angry, she did not know. He just turned and left.
Sasuke looked across at Sakura. There were no thanks, no kind words. Nothing. He stared at her, his mouth fixed in a flat line. Finally when he spoke, there was a challenge in his voice.
“So you figured out his stupid trick. It doesn’t matter. You still don’t belong here. This isn’t your world.”
She shook her head, but he didn’t stop.
“You’re not a shinobi, you’re just a civilian. Everybody knows it. Even he knows it.” Sasuke thumbed in the direction Kakashi disappeared. “Kakashi picked you cause you’re an oddball. Cause you don’t fit in—
“ME!?” she shrieked. “You and Sai don’t fit in! You both are the weird ones! I’m the normal one! I come from a normal home, I have a normal family and—“
She stopped suddenly. Wounded shock flickered over Sasuke’s face before his features settled back into dark defensiveness.
She realized how it sounded. Sakura didn’t mean to be cruel. Even to him.
She took a breath. “Besides, I’m not the only one in class who doesn’t know what their background is. There’s Lee, and he’s not…weird….” Her voice thinned. She looked down. “Well….”
Lee was a little…intense, what with his green jumpsuit, orange leg warmers and overzealous dedication to bettering himself.
“Okay, so maybe Lee is a little weird.”
Sasuke scoffed, and Sakura was just thinking that at least they agreed on something—
But anger still simmered in Sasuke’s eyes. “If I were you,” he said quietly, “I wouldn’t come back tomorrow. You were lucky today. But your luck will run out.” He pointed at her, delivering it like a command, “Give up now, before you get yourself killed—“
All of Sakura’s pent-up frustration and self doubt boiled over. She unleashed it in one explosive yell. “I’m not giving up!” Shocked, Sasuke shut his mouth. “I’m not ever giving up!!”
Her voice echoed off the trees. She was glad to hear it come back to her. Even if she didn’t come from a “clan” like all the rest or have good teammates or even ninja parents to tell her to keep going, then she’d just tell it to herself.
Even if it all went wrong, even if she made all bad choices, she was not backing down. She would keep going, no matter what. She wanted this life, all of it. Enough to fight for it.
She panted, fists at her side, daring Sasuke to fight her.
Finally, as if he’d worn himself out from fighting everything around him, Sasuke backed down. He looked again like the sullen school boy she’d always seen him as. “Whatever,” he muttered, and turned to go.
The shadowy figure lurking within earshot at the edge of the field, smiled at this development. Jamming his hands in his pockets, Kakashi strode off, whistling into the cool night air. He knew he’d made the right choice when he picked her.
To be continued….