A Single Step – Ch 6 Preview

Sakura dragged the back of her dirty glove across her forehead and blew back a few locks of hair.

She smiled toothily at the mess in front of her. Plumes of dust clouded the training field…or what used to be the training field. But she could still hear Tsunade’s praise from far beyond the wreckage.

“Excellent, Sakura! Excellent.”

Sakura leapt nimbly over the fragmented ground to where they stood. She had intentionally left a small circle of land untouched. It now rose in a lone spire over the destruction. Sakura dropped out of the dust cloud and landed in a controlled squat at the feet of Tsunade, Shizune and Kakashi.

She stood and dusted herself off as if she had just come in from the store, then smiled proudly at her three teachers, mentors friends. She couldn’t help it. It was an official viewing of the product of her training, and today she’d outdone herself.

And they beamed back at her.

“I couldn’t have done it better myself,” Tsunade said warmly. Shizune chimed in that Sakura “would be filling Tsunade-sama’s shoes in no time!”

Kakashi laughed nervously. “I-I don’t know that the village can handle two such women.”

Tsunade and Shizune laughed with him. They hadn’t missed his look of terror when Sakura started chewing up the earth with her fists.

Sakura bowed deeply. “Thank you. I feel like I’ve come so far.”

The past two-and-a-half years had been a period of remarkable growth for Sakura. Under Kakashi’s tutorship she had become an excellent shinobi. And under Tsunade’s mentorship she had become a stellar medic. Both of those skills set her apart from almost every other nin in Konoha. But as if to gild her accomplishments, Tsunade also taught her how to channel her chakra into a whirlwind of destruction.

Her fingers could heal wounds, reconnecting torn tissue and ligaments with a featherlight touch. But her fists could pinpoint a sleeping fissure in the ground and jolt it awake with a single blow, tearing a crack through the earth like a lightning bolt in any direction she chose.

She was a force to be reckoned with. And everyone knew it.

The dust clouds around them had settled enough for Sakura to feel the sun warm on her shoulders. Tsunade smiled proudly, and Sakura felt it in her bones.

“There is nothing more I can teach you,” Tsunade said, amber eyes shining with earnestness. “There is always more to learn, but that is for you to experience. And nothing can make a teacher prouder than to see her student take to wing.”

“Hai, Tsunade-sama.” Sakura bowed again, feeling the emotion that her teacher rarely showed.

“Now, can you take us down from here,” she asked, her lips hooking into a smirk at the veiled opportunity for another display of prowess that was sure to rattle Kakashi.

Sakura grinned and raised her hands in front of her to concentrate her chakra. Kakashi tipped his head, the question clear in his eyes, wondering what she was about to do—

Sakura slammed her heel down into the earthen platform and sent it plummeting. The edges of Tsunade’s green coat ruffled around her and Shizune gripped Ton-Ton a little tighter, but neither flinched.

Kakakshi, however, squealed in wide-eyed panic. Sakura kept her gaze pinned on Kakashi, even as her hair flipped around her face and the ground ruptured and reformed beneath them in a series of controlled cascades that brought them hurtling back to the ground.

The dais of land settled onto the crumbled training field, now significantly lower, puffing another cloud of dust around it as it came to rest.

Kakashi coughed. “I think it scared Ton-Ton,” he muttered, coughing again to cover the feminine laughter that had erupted around him.

Walking back through Konoha’s sun-drenched streets, Sakura couldn’t have wiped the smile off her face if she tried.

A band of genin skittered by and shouted breathless hellos. An anbu corps nodded respectfully as they passed.

The flattery of being noticed was not lost on her. It happened often. Iruka would have her demonstrate for the classes the power of chakra when wielded by an expert. The chubby round faces, awash in the green glow from her hands, would light up at the thought that maybe one day they could be like her.

Her classmates would often ask her to accompany them on missions as a fourth member. She brought chakra prowess and medical expertise to the squad.

And even the anbu had taken notice. More than once she had been tapped to provide back-up on their secretive missions, waiting in the shadows in case someone was hurt. And it had been worth it. The first time out she saved the life of a nin who otherwise wouldn’t have made it back.

She was so popular in fact, Tsunade was considering assigning her a team to train as med-nins to accompany every group that went out. A bona fide medic corp. Shinobis with benefits, Tsunade had laughingly said. And Sakura beamed with pride. Now she divided her time between the training field and the hospital.

Everything was going her way. She turned into a shaded lane on instinct, her feet beating the path of an old short cut. Her shinobi life had turned out like she hoped it would. Better, in fact—

“Ohayo Sakura! Care for a bite to eat?”

Sakura stumbled, an awful realization crashing down on her with the sound of that voice. It was a voice from her past. Glancing around, she knew exactly was, on a narrow little side road she never took now. And for good reason.

Ichiraku’s Ramen Stand was tucked down a lane between two bigger buildings, hidden like an old wound that would never quite heal. She never went this way. Never went anywhere near it, if it could be helped.

But she didn’t want old Teuchi to know that.

The old man peered beyond the fabric flaps, his forehead wrinkling with a hope. He looked older. Had it really been two years since she’d seen him last? Or was it closer to three?

Sakura ignored the knot in her stomach and forced the bright smile to back to her face. “I wish I could, Teuchi-san, but I don’t have time today.”

He nodded as if he knew the answer. Sakura instantly felt guilty.

“Any news?”

The wind picked up. A swirl of road dust rose into the air. And suddenly it was three years ago. And she was sobbing at the counter, not knowing why she was there, but feeling like she needed to be around something that was Naruto’s. It was a moment of weakness. She knew she was looking for someone who would never be there again.

But Teuchi pushed a steaming bowl of ramen in front of her. “Here. Eat. It’ll make you feel better. On the house.” Then he bustled off to wait on other customers.

So she ate and she cried. And it did make her feel a little better.

When she was nearly done, Teuchi came back by. “See? Feel better?”

She nodded, wiping her face. She didn’t want to appear ungrateful.

“He’ll come back Sakura. You’ll see. All his life he’s done the stupidest thing imaginable.” Sakura laughed. “But he turned out to be an alright kid. His heart’s in the right place.”

Teuchi stopped to wipe the counter. “He sure has made a mess of things again,” he said quietly. “But he’ll figure it out for himself. Then he’ll be right back here eating me out of ramen! Just like before!” Sakura looked up to find Teuchi dashing tears away from his eyes. “You’ll see, Sakura. He’s a knucklehead, but eventually he’ll come to his senses.” Sakura smiled through her tears. It felt good to hear someone still believe in Naruto. It helped her to believe too.

But years later, standing in front of the old ramen shop with it’s faded little flags, she found she wished she could tell him something. Anything. Even if it was just a lie. Teuchi was so kind. He still believed in Naruto.

She shook her head slowly. “No. No news.”

He frowned, nodded his head and wiped the counter.

Sakura looked at the ground. Her long, curving shadow stretched away from her. She was so different than she was just a few years ago. Older and taller, stronger and more confident. She had even chopped off her long hair to prove to herself every time she looked in the mirror that the past was behind her. She didn’t just see things differently now. She was different.

“He’ll be back! You’ll see! Don’t give up hope!”

Sakura forced another smile but it felt more like a grimace. She nodded, wishing she didn’t see his eyes shining with unshed tears. Wishing she didn’t have to lie.

More customers went in so she was mercifully spared a response. She quickly waved farewell instead.

Turning out of the narrow lane, Sakura swore she’d never to go down there again.

She was different. And she no longer believed.

Naruto and Sasuke had been gone for so long without a word. A sign. Anything. She had abandoned hope for Sasuke in the first few months. His stubborn persistence was near legendary. He didn’t intend to come back, and she believed him.

But it took a lot longer to let go of Naruto. And perhaps she never did. It still stung just to hear his name. She still felt so betrayed.

Let Teuchi and anyone else believe what they wanted. But they weren’t there that night, they didn’t hear what was said. She did, and she didn’t forget it. She didn’t want to. She used it to grow stronger.

Sakura knew she wasn’t useless or a bad teammate or a dead weight. And she never was. They were just selfish, stupid children.

And if she had it to do over again, she’d beat them senseless.

Sakura pounded her fist into her palm, feeling better, regaining purpose in her stride. This was her life now. The one she had chosen. She had responsibilities and people who depended on her. And she had wasted enough time thinking about the ones who ran away from their lives.

She turned down a sunlit street toward the hospital and let those old concerns just float away, forgotten.