When you fall, you have to either pick yourself up or get left behind. [One-Shot]
Everything else: Two Sakura drabbles that I wrote back in January, posted in my livejournal back in February, and forgot about. Found them again and decided to put them up as one story, as the second takes place not long after the first. Sakura and what might have gone through her mind when she decided to request Tsunade take her on as an apprentice.
PICKING YOURSELF UP
Sakura pushed back the curtains and unlatched the window. The day outside was beautiful, the sky an impossible blue and the breeze refreshing. It was one of those summer days that was perfect for swimming, or a picnic, or for training.
It made her vaguely ill.
"You look really weird," she said cheerfully, and pasted on a smile. It made her cheeks hurt and her eyes want to water. "You look just like a mummy, you know that?"
Something was mumbled in response, but it was too soft to hear. Or so she told herself - maybe she just didn't want to hear anything at all. She caught her fingers under the lip of the window pane, sliding it up until the latch caught again. The curtains fluttered against her arms, and the gentle wind blew in the scent of the orchard on the other side of the city. It mingled with the harsher smells of burnt wood that had yet to be blown away, despite the length of time that had passed since the Sandaime had died.
The trees must be in full bloom, she realized. How ironic.
Sakura hadn't explored the gentler parts of Konoha for a long time now. She had almost forgotten where the orchard was.
"Listen," she tried again. "The weather's good today, so I opened your window."
The presence of Shikamaru and the Godaime were silent at her back. She forced herself not to sigh. The silence hurt, the silence squeezed her bones and the hollows inside her ears; the silence wasn't /right/. He wasn't supposed to be this quiet.
Her fingers tightened on the edge of the window sill. She couldn't bring herself to say anything more.
".... I... I'll definitely keep my promise!" he blurted suddenly. And that made her un-wind, made some of the tension recede from between her shoulder blades. "It's a life-long promise!"
She stared down at the streets below the hospital window. The people down there walked briskly, without looking at their peers, no time to pause or chew the fat. There were things to be done, places to rebuild, people to mourn and bury. There was no longer any time for pleasantries.
This is the way it should be, she thought. That's the way you are; fall out of the bed and rip out those IV's and tell me hospitals are for wussies. Tell me how you're going to kick Sasuke's ass twice as hard now, for thinking he could leave and get away with it. Tell me about your ninja way and how it won't let you give up.
"It's alright, Naruto..."
"Sakura, he's only trying to - " Shikamaru started, more vehemence in his voice than normal, but he stopped abruptly. He was so laid back it was a wonder that there was something that could incite him into more than a casual interest in anything. The adrenaline had to be running high, though, even now. She could smell the stink of battle on him still; they had been back since late last night, but he hadn't even gone home to change or shower.
"Room 235," the nurse said, and pointed at the clipboard where they should sign.
"I'm going to see Chouji," Ino said as she scribbled her name. Chouji, not Sasuke. It felt like something in Sakura's chest was slowly crumbling to pieces. Everything was changing, so quickly, and she didn't know if she could keep up any more.
She wondered if Chouji was awake yet. Shikamaru had probably been with his team-mate all night.
That said something for her, didn't it?
"Like I said..." Naruto lifted his head, grinning his fool's grin, smile full of teeth and eyes squinted shut. It was a Cheshire cat's smile, brilliant and concealing. It made her want to cry just looking at it.
"I won't go back on my word," he said. "That's my ninja way."
He was sitting up straight on that narrow hospital bed, the over-washed hospital gown ready to slip off one shoulder. The bandages really did wrap him up like some kind of freak-show mummy, even his hands, all the way down his neck, and it made her wonder just how serious his wounds were. Had been. His hair stuck out from his skull in the worst case of bed-head she had ever seen on him.
There were still flakes of blood dried in his hair.
He looked ridiculous. And young. And a little like someone who had bitten off more than he could chew and damn near choked to death on it.
She wanted to cry at that smile, that painfully fake smile, but she was tired of crying. All she had been doing for the past few days was cry. She had cried when Sasuke left. She had cried when Naruto and Shikamaru and the other genins she had gone to school with for the past nine years had left to bring him back. She had woken up crying the night before, from a nightmare that found her in a hospital just like this with Naruto and Kiba and all the rest bloody and broken on their beds, and none of them would /open their eyes/.
Sakura was so. Tired. Of crying.
"Naruto..." she said, and pushed away from the window. The genin-turned-chuunin stared up at her with those tired, concerned, barely focused eyes, and the Godaime watched her with that hideously knowing expression, but she didn't look at either of them. The smile on her face hurt, but at least it wasn't fake. "Naruto, I'm sorry."
He stared at her, puzzled, a frown pulling at his lips and his eyes, but he said nothing when she walked across the room and placed her hand on the door.
/Maybe I just have to find my own ninja way, too/.
"I'm sorry... that I may make you wait a while," she clarified, and glanced back across the room. All three were watching, all three were silent, but the Godaime in her loose black kimono and her geta and with that broad forehead that looked nothing but attractive with that small tattoo in the middle... she watched with a smile hiding between her lips.
A glimmer of an idea, of hope, touched her, and Sakura tucked it away for further perusal later.
"Next time," she said, "we'll go together."
The Godaime lowered her face and smiled behind her curtain of hair.
Sakura folded her hands in her lap and tried to think small thoughts.
The main offices of Konoha were always busy, always rush-rush-rush, but at this time of night (ten o'clock; despite the things that needed done, few bureaucrats wanted to stay at work past their nine-to-five) they were strangely silent. Strangely empty. The pale linoleum floors and the white-washed walls echoed her every breath and shift in position. It reminded her of the time she had snuck into the hospital in the middle of the night, listening to Sasuke breathe and silently willing him to /please wake up/. Even the hard plastic chair felt the same.
The window on her right was round and split evenly by thin black bars. Through them she could easily see the rest of the city, the buildings glowing from the light of the moon above and the street lamps below and their own internal luminescence. Three stories up and she could easily see the devastation left from the attack during the chuunin exam. Two months and it hardly looked like any progress in rebuilding was being made - even though every able-bodied man, woman, and child was out there trying to raise Konoha from its knees. They were all building or cooking or healing or guarding or fulfilling missions; there was hardly any time for relaxation.
She wondered when her next mission would be. When she would be called in to do her duty for the city.
And then she remember that Kakashi had vanished after bringing Naruto back from the border. And a genin without a teacher - without a team - would be sent no where at all.
Sakura closed her eyes.
The alcove at the end of the hall provided some excellent acoustics; she could hear the faint murmur of voices from behind the Hokage's doorway, almost thirty feet away. With a little application of chakra, she could probably hear the conversation as loud as day... but she didn't dare. Perfect her control might be, but she knew she was no match for the Godaime. Even the smallest flare of chakra might attract her attention, and the last thing Sakura wanted to appear was a sneak.
That was why she was here, so late at night and trying not to fidget or fall asleep. It was a crazy thought that brought her here, a horribly crazy thought that was better suited to Naruto. Hell, even Naruto would probably call her crazy for thinking it.
But it felt like the only option she had left.
Sakura had promised Naruto that next time, they would bring Sasuke back together. But the promise had since turned to lead on her tongue; she knew she could never bring back Sasuke as she was. 'Next time'? What 'next time'? There would never be a 'next time' unless she could stand strong at Naruto's side instead of crying behind his shoulder.
She didn't fault Kakashi for focusing so individually on Sasuke towards the end. She didn't fault Naruto for finding that old ninja to individualize his own training. But she couldn't help but feel left behind; she knew her skills were meager in comparison, but there had to be something - anything! - that she could do to get stronger.
Surely the Hokage would know what she should do.
The door down the hall opened, and silently the ninja filed out. ANBU, all three of them; their painted masks were solemn and yet vaguely accusatory. None of them looked at her when they passed the niche she had secluded herself in - not directly, at least. No one could ever really see where a masked ANBU was looking.
But even when they were gone, Sakura found she could not bring herself to move. After all, what if her request was turned down? What if she was considered and found wanting? It was easier to sit and do nothing, because in sitting and ignoring her chancy, crazy idea she would never be turned down.
And if she didn't move, she'd never be accepted, either.
/Don't be a coward, Sakura/, she chastised. /Even if the Hokage cannot honor my request, she'll certainly know to whom I can turn/.
But she was so, so scared of falling short yet again.
The young ninja untwisted her fingers, rose to her feet. The doorway was only thirty feet down from the small waiting area, but each step seemed to take a painful eternity. She recognized that this was to be a turning point in her life, for better or worse, and it terrified her. For so long she had been able to depend on her static lifestyle, but the comfort and security of that life was quickly being stolen from her. She didn't know what to do anymore, every step was taken blind, her fingers feeling for something that would keep her from falling should she slip. She had no way to know where she was going anymore.
Her fingers trembled when she knocked on the worn oaken door jam.
"Come in," came the response, muffled by the thick wood of the door, and thankfully her hand was steady when she turned the knob.
The Hokage's office was large, edged with dark wood and draped in earth-tone rugs. The walls to either side of the door were actually floor-to-ceiling shelves, stuffed to bursting with scrolls and tomes and hastily folded parchment. It looked like her grandfather's study, in another country, on the other side of the continent; it even had the faint, musky old man smell, soaked into the wood and upholstery along with the bitter scent of pipe tobacco.
The Godaime's presence didn't fit in such a masculine room. But over there, half-hidden by a scroll, she could see a portrait of Konohamaru, taken when he entered the shinobi academy - ah, of course the Hokage seemed small and out of place here. The Sandaime's effects hadn't even been removed yet.
She missed the Sandaime, she realized. She had hardly known him, even though he had been more than patient in the times she had seen him interact with Naruto, and no one in the village had a bad thing to say about him. But he was gone; the Third Hokage, a symbol of the rock-hard, unyielding life that was suddenly falling down around her.
She had to do something to keep up, or else she would fall down with it.
"I have a request," Sakura said softly.
The Godaime raised her brows slightly, interlaced fingers half-hiding her face from where they were clasped before her. "What is it?" she asked genially. Behind her, through the broad picture window, the craggy faces of the four dead Hokage seemed to flank the only one still alive.
"Please..." Sakura licked her lips. Everything she wanted to say, everything she had sat down and planned to perfection, it all vanished the instant she knocked on the door.
Please, please, please don't say no.
"Please, make me your apprentice."
The Godaime stared at her, and she stared back, and the carved faces on the mountainside stared at them both. She was being judged, it felt, not only by the current Hokage but by the ones before her as well. It was sobering, and she wanted to cringe or hide from it, but Sakura forced herself to stand tall and not allow herself to be cowed by it. A ninja would die on her feet rather than live on her knees; she would accept disappointment head-on and face her short-comings rather than run from the knowledge.
It could frighten her - it would frighten her - but she would at least have the courage to face it unflinching.
The older woman's lips seemed to quirk up from behind the shadow of her hands.
"Haruno Sakura," she said quietly. "I've heard from Kakashi that you're intelligent, and that you have a strong spirit."
And that wasn't all he had told her, Sakura knew that. Had her teacher told the Godaime about how she couldn't keep up with the other two members of her team in even the simplest endurance training? That her reflexes had hardly improved even over the months that had passed since she graduated from the academy? That the only thing she had going for her was her precise control of chakra and her tendency to gather all the information that passed her, no matter how mundane or useless?
The Godaime lowered her hands, pressed her palms flat against the desk's lacquered surface. "All right," she said. Her lips really were quirked up in a smile. "But from now on, I won't go easy on you."
For a second, Sakura's heart seemed to stop. But only for a second; and when it started again, she thought that maybe - just maybe - things hadn't fallen apart as badly as she had thought.