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Teacher and Student

By Eddy Fettig


Teacher and Student

The pounding reverberated through her skull like so many punches and kicks endured over the years. A wild herd of elephants assaulted her ears, flashing her mind through a battering of sensations, all which involved physical pain in about every place possible.

5:35, 5:36, 5:37, 5:38...Oh, shit, whoops!

"All right! That's enough, guys!"

The squeaking of sneakers against floorboards chugged to a steady stop like a tired train at the station, wheezing out steam from a few dozen mouths. She rose from her chair, clapping her hands together a few times. She approached the group of panting tweenage males.

"Good job, boys, way to keep up that hustle."

With palms clasped, a devious grin spread across her face.

"Now that we're all warmed up, it's time for some dodgeball!"

A blend of hoops, hollers, whines, and groans echoed across the pale walls. It pleased her ears.

"Let's go! Line up, boys!" she commanded with vigor.

A straight formation was eventually molded into place from the clumps of children, some still gasping for breath. She began to carefully separate them into teams, gaging their physical attributes as best she could to ensure as even a match-up as possible. Fair and square, even-steven...At least as quantifiably as the naked eye could distinguish.

It was a long, drawn-out battle of rubber and bruises, and the teacher held no preference in victor. Inevitably, one team wore down the other, leaving only a handful of thuggish and athletic boys on her left, chuckling as they weaved around the feeble attempts that the lone, skinny excuse for a young man eked out on her right. His efforts at throwing dodgeballs were fruitless. Eventually, he stopped trying to throw and simply dodged. This seemed to work out fine enough for a couple of minutes, at least. But the boys all grew restless. From both sides, the taunts and jeering all quickly rose to proportions that grated her nerves.

Fuckin' boys...Always the same.

Cupping her hands around her mouth, she bellowed out, "Kenji, what're ya doin'? You're never gonna win just running around! Stand your ground!"

The petrified boy stared at her in disbelief, narrowly dodged a throw, then re-established his stare.

"B-but...Kasugano-Sensei, there are too many of them!"

"SO?" the word exploded from her mouth as she tossed her arms out to her sides.

The student wobbled his way around another volley of balls, skittering across unmanned balls as if they were land mines.

"If you never fight back," the teacher scowled, "what's the point in even dodging?"

The boy was clearly not very pleased with his teacher's 'support' and defiantly froze in place, stamping his foot down. His otherwise statued form twitched as a stray throw slammed against the wall behind him, inches away from his shoulder. His eyes glared rebelliously at his teacher, whose brows furrowed with frustration in response.

Damnit. Not exactly what I was hoping to see here...

Her brown fiery eyes ignited with determination as she conjured up a lesson on the spot. A chef in the kitchen of her mind tossed together the ingredients that happened to be sitting on the counter top and chucked them all into a stew. Sakura Kasugano believed in the "Trial by Fire" school of thought. Her opinion dictated that at this moment, Kenji was still only in the frying pan, and that she ought to change that.

A flurry of five dodgeballs battered the space Kenji stood within. A couple smashed into his lanky frame and bounced off. He endured the blows with as much pride as he could muster through the groans from his team. Miss Kasugano's gaze finally tore itself from Kenji as she approached the center of the field.

"OK! All right, all right. That was good, guys. Let's try this again, but mix the teams up a bit."

Those eyes of hers twinkled a mischievous twinkle as a smirk found its way on her face. When the teams were rearranged this time, there was a suspicious balance issue in terms of physical size. Chuckles and snickers spilled from one team, while whimpers oozed from the other. Miss Kasugano lined up the balls across the center line with her feet carefully, her demeanor cheery and seemingly oblivious to the disproportionate teams.

"Uhhh--" a meek voice wavered. "Kasugano-Sensei?"

In her most courteous tone, the teacher responded to the student, "Yes, Toshi? What's wrong?"

"Erm, eh, it's just..." He seemed to be struggling with the concept of bringing to light an error, but a fellow student jabbed him in the rib with his elbow. "Are you sure these teams are fair, Sensei?"

She glanced at the boys on the opposing side: butch, thick, lean, muscular. Back on the side where the protests originated, they were skinny, scrawny, and pudgy. With one index finger thoughtfully resting on her lips, she hummed an exaggerated "Hmmmmm" before nonchalantly shrugging and coyly announced, "Nope, same number on each team, I don't see the problem."

With her palms on her hips, she gave Kenji a sly look, observing his lowered head and flushed cheeks.

"All right, boys, let's remember to keep it clean!"

She took to her seat on the side of the gym and watched as the balls whizzed by. She followed their hurtling masses, calmly staring as they seemed to burst into flames upon leaving the students' hands, only to lose their fire upon impact. With her chin in her palm, she sighed in longing, acknowledging her desire as it manifested itself around her.

Why can't I throw them like everyone else? Why won't he teach me?

When she came to from her introspective disappointment, she noticed there were still about a dozen students on one team and only two on the other. One of them was Kenji, naturally.

"C'mon boys, you can do it!" she cried with the utmost exuberance.

~~~ "Are you crazy?"

The question was whispered into her ear. Her hair was matted, bangs clinging to her face. She ignored the inquiry from her side, focused on the figured before her.

"You fucking perverts," she seethed through grit teeth, ignoring her friend's fear. A sharp slap to her arm snapped her attention, the girl beside her cowering from behind.

"Sakura, come on...Let's just get outta here while we can," the petrified voice whimpered with urgency, nearly drowned out by the pattering rain.

Sakura's eyes burned with rage, only disconcerting her friend further. She wiped her drenched hair out of her eyes.

"Fine, Kei. You wanna let these bastards get away with it?" It was difficult to notice at first, but Kei could see that rain wasn't the only liquid streaming down Sakura's face. "Then run," Sakura concluded briskly. "I wouldn't blame you," she added with a stroke a sympathy, as the two young men before them cracked snide remarks.

"Aw, isn't that so cute?" the tall, lanky one sneered. "Little cupcake doesn't seem to approve of our extra-curricular activities..." He smirked, cocking his thick-rimmed glasses up over the bridge of his nose.

Sakura's fists tightened and her teeth ground against each other in defiance.

"Cut the bullshit," she growled. "I saw what you creeps did to that girl, and you're not gonna get away with it." As Sakura's arms stiffened, Kei could practically feel the tension of the situation dripping all over her, mixed in with the rain.

"That an invitation?" jeered the bulkier boy. He smeared rain from his face, his dull eyes eager.

"I don't think this is a game you want play, Miss," Lanky advised with a sniffle. "Why don't you young ladies run home? It's getting late, and unsavory things can happen to lovely young women in place like--"

"Which you've already demonstrated, you asshole!" Sakura snarled. Kei squeaked in fright and tugged on Sakura's arm.

"Sakura! What are you doing?" she snapped urgently. Sakura jerked her arm free and replied with her gaze still locked on the two suspicious figures.

"I'm not gonna let these bastards act like nothing happened! You saw what they did to that girl and they were about to do it to you before I showed up."

"The longer you linger here," Lanky observed, "the more your beautifully aggressive spirit reveals itself."

"Sakura, huh?" Bulky mused at her name. "You look like a flower that's ready to bloom to me." He nodded to his companion who shrugged in agreement.

"Ugh," Sakura groaned. "You guys are real creepers, aren't you?"

Without warning, she lunged forward, delivering a swift kick to Lanky's groin, causing him to double over onto the muddy pavement. Bulky immediately seized her by the arm, and in her attempts to break free she only faltered, her converse shoes sliding along the slick parking lot. Kei shrieked and darted forth, smacking Bulky haphazardly on the head. He tossed Sakura to the ground, grabbing Kei's wet mop of hair and tugging her toward him.

Having recovered the air that had just been knocked out of her, Sakura rose to a sitting position, her cargo pants soaked with water and mud. She took note of Lanky's huddled form crying on the ground, and Kei's cries threw her bearings back at her like a brick. She scrambled to her feet.

"Don't you dare touch her, you fff--ah!"

Her left leg had gotten stuck on something, forcing her forward momentum downward. Her hands stung from scraping against the pavement, but better off her hands getting a scraping than her face. Her thick mess of hair hung over her face, heavy with rain, as she gazed at her own stunned face in the blurry reflection of a rippling puddle. She saw fear in her eyes, and she wasn't going to tolerate it.

She felt a tug on her leg and thrashed at it, but it stuck to her ankle. She spun her head around to see a teary-eyed Lanky, still hunched on the ground, his skinny arm stretched out to her foot. She huffed at him and struggled to smash her right foot into his grasping hand. A few solid kicks freed her left foot, and she was back on her feet with some effort. With Bulky's hands all over Kei, his side was wide open, leaving Sakura with a perfect bull charge opportunity.

Sakura's face crushed itself into Bulky's jacket, her arms wrapped around him. The impact loosened Kei from his grip, leaving her to stand dumbfounded in the rain, dazed, as Sakura and her foe crashed to the ground.

With her opponent momentarily dazed, Sakura whiffed him in the jaw, bruising both his face and her knuckles.

"Run!" she commended Kei, who might as well have been a tormented statue in that moment. The call didn't seem to awaken her at first, and as Lanky stumbled to his feet, Sakura amended her request. "Now!" Kei's head briefly shook about as she came to.

"But you--"

"Do it!" Sakura roared, dropping her knee into Bulky's groin. That had seemed effective before, and this was not a fair fight, so Sakura had no intention of being fair about it. She cocked her head back up, whipping wet hair from her face. The two friends stared at each other for a moment that lasted too long for either's tastes. Sakura's eyes burned with a type of fury Kei had never known existed within her, conveying a thirst Kei could not comprehend. Sakura, in turn, could see the fear in Kei's eyes: fear not only for her own well being. Kei didn't want to see Sakura hurt, but she was also afraid of what Sakura might do next.

Damnit, Kei, get outta here! This is my mess.

As she watched Kei spin around and flee, Sakura was somewhat relieved. She was a smart girl, she'd get help. And she didn't intend on Kei getting dragged into a fist fight, nor did she want her friend to see her like this. It was like a drug had just been pumped straight into her bloodstream. Weeks of watching these pricks harass young woman at school and idly standing by had come to an end. Each blow she delivered down into the butch boy's face was empowering, every strike more satisfying than the last.

Sweat drizzled down her face with the raindrops. Adrenaline had become her sweet nectar. Blood from Bulky's nose splashed onto her fists in the moment she cracked it.

That one was for Kei, Douchebag.

Sakura's precious few seconds of glory were put on hold when she was overcome with excruciating pain from her left side. Before she could determine the cause, her head starting ringing as pain flooded in. The sound of the rain quieted, the image of her half-conscious battery victim blurred, and then everything suddenly felt much colder and damp.

The next thing she was aware of was a bizarre tingling sensation, noticeably warm amidst the sogginess elsewhere. When she realized where this tingling was coming from, she managed to muster enough strength to squirm away from it. Her hearing had been given back to her at this point, allowing her to hear the almost whiny tone of her assailant.

"My, still has some fight in her even after that."

Glancing at the pleasured face of the spectacled man, Sakura let her head flop back onto the stone ground. She was sprawled on her back, and she could hear Lanky's raspy breath just above her and his hands pinned her down.

Try it, you fucker. Just try it.

She felt his chest press against hers, his hands tighten around her wrists, and his mouth wrap around her neck. Then she felt his ear between her teeth as she gnawed away, promptly shoving the shocked boy off of her. She dragged herself away, clambering to get off her back. At this point, she realized that her pants were halfway off, which lent an explanation to that uncomfortable tingling from before.

"Fucking bitch bit me!" screamed Lanky, holding the side of his head as blood trickled through his fingertips. Sakura tugged up her soggy pants and buckled them before wobbling to her feet and delivering a pointed kick of disgust at the boy who'd been fondling her.

Standing after that didn't work out as well as she would've liked. At this point, here legs were rubber, her hands were on fire, and her head was pulsing.

"Yeh, bwoke mah dam noze, too!" Bulky groaned.

Still struggling to stand, Sakura felt her heart skip a beat at that sound. Bulky's voice had come from behind her. She instinctively charged, fist flying, but before she knew it, her hand was being crushed within the fat fingers of the butch brute. Sakura grunted, suppressing the pain her bones being unnaturally wedged toward one another, and attempted to land a punch with the other arm into his abdomen. This attempt was smacked down with a swift strike, shooting tingling waves up Sakura's shoulder. She flung her foot into his shin, with no result other than a snort. Still keeping her right wrist locked in, Bulky firmly wrapped his free hand around her neck and gave it a threatening squeeze.

"Paybeck's a bidge," he chuckled, tightening his grip and watching her eyes widen, her mouth open as it gasped. The next few seconds were full of thrashing and lacking of air. As Sakura felt her rubbery legs buckle in on themselves, she was knocked hard in the stomach and let go, allowed to plummet into a heap, face first. She could barely make out the sounds of yelling and some kind of commotion. She wasn't incurring and further injuries, so she was fine just chilling out and letting whatever was happening happen.

"Sakura...You idiot."

Kei's voice woke her up to the sight of her friend's concerned face staring down. Rain drops flew straight at her, but Kei's head was shielding her own, the thick brown hair matted overhead like an umbrella.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura could make out flashing red and blue lights. Out of the corner of her ear, the crackle of a radio. Out of the corner of her heart, a passion to recreate that rush of adrenaline. Out of the corner of her soul, the will to pursue that passion, the drive to shape it into something solid.

"That was dangerous," Kei scowled, eyes welling up. "Don't ever do that again.

Sakura huffed out a few dazed coughs, her stomach gradually regaining feeling.

"That wasn't a fair fight," she choked out with a half-hearted grin.

Kei's frown was chipped away to reveal a relieved smile.

~~~ "No...That wasn't fair at all, Sakura."

"Yea, we got creamed out there! Totally not cool..."

Sakura shrugged with a wink.

"Sometimes life's just 'not cool,'" she retorted, deepening her voice into a mocking tone at the end. "So what? You don't quit just because it's not fair."

Kenji frowned bitterly, crossing his arms.

"Kasugano-Sensei," he whined, "If you know you're gonna lose, what's the point?" His colleagues supported him with gestures and "Yea"'s.

Sakura sighed and let a couple of laughs spill out, trying to revert her mind back a few years. She placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and shared a sympathetic smile with him.

"What's the point in starting something unless you're gonna finish it, hm?" She ruffled his hair a bit. "There's still a point when you lose if you take something from it. A loss is only a loss if you choose not to take that something."

The boy growled a bit and his worn comrades fell silent. The sounds of boys freely playing their own sports or just goofing off served as an interlude to their conversation.

"What am I supposed to take away from that?" Kenji demanded to know.

"Yea, we got floored!" "Totally." "Decimated, man!" "--freakin' inhumane!"

"Whoa, whoa, hey!" Sakura protested, pushing her palms out to lower their pitchforks. "Before you go blaming me, think about it." She tapped her forehead with an index finger. "Did you even try to win? Did you try to throw any balls at them, or were ya just running around like headless chickens?"

Defensive walls crumbled into bricks of humility. Sakura continued, trying to rebuild towers from the fallen bricks.

"Ya gotta work with what you've got, guys. Some times even your best isn't good enough, but if you're never giving it your best shot, then you've got no right blaming your loss on me."

"Let me guess," Kenji sighed with an eye roll. "That's what you had to do, right?" His words were soaked in a dreary matter-of-fact tone. "To become a World Warrior?"

Sakura curtly nodded and poked at his head.

"You're a sharp one, Kiddo! You work hard at what you care about. That's what everyone does. Simple as that. When I was your age I was horrible at math." She scratched her chin for a moment, pondering her phrasing. "Nevermind, I still am," she mused. "Point is, I can't blame that on my math teachers. I never applied myself."

"Yea, yea," Kenji grumbled. "Duh."

"Hey, don't go givin' me that attitude, Kenji," Sakura snapped sternly, her patience like a balancing act that had just slipped off the tight rope. "I'm your Sensei, and I'm trying to teach you a lesson here!"

"No, you're not!" Kenji exploded. "You're just the substitute teacher! You can try to copy Taka-Sensei all you want, but that doesn't make you a good teacher like he is!" With that outburst expelled, the young man fled to the locker room, leaving the other boys speechless.

"Did he really just say that to Kasugano-Sensei?" one of them whispered incredulously. Sakura's eyes burned with indignation.

~~~ How dare that little punk talk to me like that!

"That so, huh? Well, you watch: I'll be just as great as he is some day!"

Sakura stomped off in disgust, her arms as tense as steel.

"Why don't you prove it?" jeered the taunter amidst the hustle of the hallway. "Whaddya gonna do, your little ballerina spin?"

At that, Sakura's converse sneaker squeaked to a stop on the tiled floor as other students passed her by. She clenched her fists an retraced her steps to the soccer player standing by the water fountain. His puffed out chest, intense eyes, and million dollar smile almost made her misstep, but that bastard just mocked her prowess right in the hall for all to hear, and she wasn't gonna stand that -- especially if she had an audience.

By the time she had reached him, she had assumed an almost disturbing smile, candy-coated with girlish charm. She fluttered her eyes a bit and giggled.

"You're not trying to hit on me, are you?" she asked, lathering her words in strawberry-scented soap.

She firmly grabbed the collar of the boy's uniform and pulled his face down to her level. "Kano-kun?"

Clearly this was not the kind of reaction he had been expecting, given his wide, petrified eyes and agape jaw. Just as clear was the fact that Sakura was right in her assumption, based on how red his cheeks had become at their close encounter. He merely stammered, aghast by the question. Sakura pushed him against the wall he'd been leaning against, her entire demeanor reverting from chocolate back into iron.

"Because," she forced the conversation onward, tugging upwards on the cuff of his shirt, "if you ARE, then you ought to know that I hate boys who've got nothing but hot air..." She let go of his uniform and took a drink from the water fountain. Kano said not a word, noticing how the otherwise bustling hallway around them had screeched to a halt, all eyes on them. Wiping water from her face with her wrist, Sakura glowered at him again and his heart skipped another beat -- this out of fear for his own safety.

"What was it you said I did?" Sakura ever-so-sweetly snapped, crossing arms over her chest. She cocked an eyebrow. "A ballerina spin?"

Any butterflies present in Kano's stomach had promptly withered and died.

"It's called the Shunpukyaku!"

As she finished her proclamation, she spun her body around, lashing out her leg in mid leap, whipping the boy's shoulder and careening him sideways into the water fountain. The resulting 'clang' startled the high school students around them, and even a hall monitor was dumb-founded. Gasps and murmurs spilled across the lockers as Sakura curtly pranced away from her admirer, who (barely) stood, corrected. She bathed in the respect and fear.

"Sakura!" a foul whisper slapped her.


Kei's face flashed with disapproval and disappointment. She smacked Sakura in the back of head without warning, which resulted in a violent flinch.

"Ow! What the hell?" Sakura whined, pressing her palm into the spot she was whacked.

"Don't you 'what the hell' me, Kasugano," Kei growled with the ferocity of a cougar. "What was all that about?"

It was at this moment that guilt finally set itself in.

"I was--" she began, pointing in the direction of where her offense took place.

"You were what?" Kei barked, jabbing a finger into Sakura's shoulder like a blade. "Defending your honor? Proving yourself?" She tore her glare from Sakura's reddening face. "All you proved is that you're a thick-headed brute!" A suppressed groan of irritation was forced from her lips as Kei tossed her arms up in futility, stalking off.


But before Sakura could squeeze in any kind of apology, she was cut off from behind.

"Miss Kasugano!" Sakura could feel her spine tingle at the sound.

"Nah, it's cool Ruzena-Sensei," coughed out the victim of Sakura's rage, stumbling to get himself off the ground. "Seriously, I'm good."

"That's quite fine, child," the stern tone of Ms. Ruzena dismissed. "Just be glad it's not you for a change."

Sakura shrunk under the glowering form of Ms. Ruzena, her ice-cold eyes shielded by thin-rimmed glasses and a dark blue set of formal business attire. She drifted towards Sakura like a phantom out for revenge.

"That's the third time this month, young lady -- if it's even proper to call you that." Her freezing grip latched around Sakura's arm, sucking away any satisfaction she had been left over after Kei's attack. Ruzena dragged her off through the still stunned student body, scowling as she cocked her glasses over the bridge of her nose.

~~~ "I've had enough of your attitude!"

She pushed off the assailant, freeing her arm and in turn grabbing their. The boy struggled against her restraint, but quickly relaxed when he realized how futile his attempts were.

"Ya done now?" Sakura blurted, giving him the stare of an impatient parent, eyes dulled.

"You're hurting me," he whimpered angrily with a tug.

She released his arm, which he jerked back into his own possession, rubbing it gingerly.

"So what happened?" She taed her foot rapidly, glancing back and forth between the two boys, their quarrel interrupted. The boy who had not required physical force started.

"Kasugano-Sensei, he was mocking my family."

She directed her eyes to the other one, awaiting his defense.

"That true?"

He shrugged apathetically.

"What'd they ever do to you to deserve trash talk?" Sakura probed.

"His sister's a friggin' prick--"

"Is this his sister, right here?" Sakura verbally jabbed, gesturing to the brother in question. She received no response, merely an embarrassed gloom. "That's what I thought," Sakura briskly concluded. "If you have a problem with his sister, take it up with her." She poked the other kid in the arm.

"And you," she grumbled, "This doesn't sound like it was your fight. Besides, you should never start a fight you can't finish." This one's head drooped in shame as well. Sakura slapped them both on the back, easing them together.

"Sounds like you two don't actually have an issue with each other, then, eh? Now make up."

They both bowed to one another and muttered their apologies, then promptly scurried their separate ways down the hallway.

Sakura sighed, stretching out her arms as she made her way to the gym teacher's office. She filled out her paperwork, left her notes on the teacher's desk, and picked up her backpack. Slinging one strap over her shoulder, she tossed room's key around a couple of times as she left the room, locking it behind her.

Soooo boring...But at least the kids are fun. Well, usually.

A quick trip to the bathroom to take the wind breaker jacket off her t-shirt, and she was about ready to head home. She flushed her face with some water and dried it briskly, then fished around in her backpack for a long white band of cloth. She tucked her bangs up and slipped it around her forehead like a glove. Tightening the band felt like taking a wide yawn when waking in the morning and stretching: relaxing, habitual, natural.

~~~ My head is complete.

"Wow...Oh my God." She squeaked at the last word, her voice bubbling with disbelief. She rubbed the cloth on her head as if polishing a mystical relic. Undoing and retightening it, she giggled with excitement.

"Does it look good on me?" she asked with the widest of grins, eyes squinted shut. Her friend scratched the side of her head, unsure as to how to respond.

"I'm not sure I'd say it looks 'good,'" she replied with a chuckle. Her tone was warm but sprinkled with disappointment. "It does look very...'you,' though," she added, trying to be supportive.

"You should keep it."

Both girls when bug-eyed at the notion.

"No way," Sakura whispered in awe, fawning the flowing bands affectionately. "Are you for real?"

The hulk of a man before them belted out a hearty laugh.

"Of course!" he replied. "You said you wanted something to remember me by, didn't you?"

Sakura's face was practically glowing red with appreciation as she nodded vigorously.

"Ohhh, thankyou-thankyou-thankyou!" she squealed, slamming the bruised goliath with a hug. He seemed confused as to how to respond, as if hugging were an unknown gesture to him, and simply pat her on the head with his gigantic hand a few times.

Kei rolled her eyes, as she knew right then and there that the headband was hardly ever going to come off and it looked ridiculous. But she couldn't help but smile at the sight of her battered friend embracing the attention of her idol, equally battered and worn. She knew that this was the solidifying moment. Sakura was going to be a fighter. As much as it frustrated and scared her, that's just how things were going to be, weren't they?

"Thank you so much, Ryu-San!" Sakura continued to exude gratitude. "I'll take good care of it and keep training hard so some day I can kick lots of ass! Just like you!"

Ryu smiled in admiration of her youthful spirit, reflecting on his own regrets. He wished he could go back to such an age and do things differently. But at least he could rest assured that there were others who weren't making his mistakes.

"That sounds great, Sakura. Remember not to narrow yourself in training. Keep an open mind to different fighting techniques. There's always more to learn."

She nodded solemnly at his advise as he slapped her on the back, slinging his sack over his shoulder.

No shoes, living with nothing but a gi and a sleeping bag...Living life one fight to the next. Damn, he's so hardcore!

"I'm sure we'll meet again if you continue on the warrior's path," Ryu mused, bowing slightly. She clasped a fist in her palm and and reciprocating, bending as low as she could.


"Until that day, farewell." And with that, the lone wolf strode off through the crowds of fighting enthusiasts, fending off fans as best he could.

Sakura spun around like a whirlwind to exchange glances with Kei, eyes about to pop out of her skull.

"Can you believe it?" she shrilled, fists clenched before her.

Kei was very happy for her friend, but was also disconcerted. While Sakura's eyes radiated with joy, Kei found it hard to keep her eyes off of the tears in her fighting gi, the bruises lining her legs, the cuts on her arms. Wasn't she in pain? And weren't these small-fry fights, organized and regulated? What could happen in a serious fight, in the wrong place with the wrong opponent? The idea petrified her.

~~~ "Are you sure about this, Sakura?" she pleaded.

Sakura flipped her pack's strap over her shoulder and secured it over her back, running her fingers across the white cloth bands dangling from her head.

"Of course I'm sure, Hinata," she insisted, raising an eyebrow. "I mean, why wouldn't I be?"

"I don't know," muttered Sakura's old companion. She bore a similar white headband, but was dressed as a student in contrast to Sakura's bright red t-shirt and sweatpants. "Well, it's just..." she trailed off again.

Sakura slowed to a stop in front of the school, now suspicious.

"What?" she asked, her tone unnerved.

"Your teaching style," Hinata mumbled, twiddling her fingers together, "You're really sure you want to change it like this?"

Sakura huffed with impatience and cocked a hand on her hip.

Of course I do! What the hell? Why is everyone on my case for trying to actually TEACH them something for a change?

"What's wrong with my style?" she pressed. "I've been trying something new this week, I just got sick of the same old crap, you know? I want to leave them with something they're learn from, something that'll stick."

Hinata's reserved frustration trickled out.

"So you want to let the big kids slaughter the little ones? What kind of lesson is that? What is that supposed to teach them?"

Sakura let her hand drop, arms swaying slightly. She sighed, tilting her head up.

"I was trying to teach them that they can't just go through life blaming their faults on others," she defended, palm up and she waved it around.

"Sakura, I get what you're trying to do here," Hinata explained, sighing through her nose. "But I think you're overdoing it a little...After all, you're just the substitute teacher."

Sakura's mouth went slack jawed.

"What's that supposed to mean?" she murmured, taken aback. "I thought you'd be supportive of not half-assing things here!"

Hinata's face twisted into a nervous grimace for a moment before she tried to quell the conversation.

"No, no, I am! I want you to do that, just...I-I don't really know if going to that extreme is such a good idea." She shrugged her eyes gazing about the student body around them as they exited the school.

"I mean, I heard some students bad-mouthing you today at lunch, and--"

"Are you for real?" Sakura grumbled, slapping her forehead. "Ugh! What the hell?"

"Well," Hinata sputtered, "What do you expect when you do something like that? It's very out of the ordinary."

Sakura's hand slid from her forehead down to her face.

"Fuckin' figures," she growled to herself.

"I know you're just trying to help, Sakura, but you can't expect your students to bend to your teaching. You have to accommodate to THEM to make sure they're learning. Don't you think?"

Hinata ruffled Sakura's hair as a means of squeezing encouragement out of her own words.

~~~ "You'll get the hang of it in time. It takes practice."

"Urgh!" Sakura huffed, tightening her arms as she forced the energy through palms into blue flames. The flames rippled down her arms, bursting from her hands. Her fingers tickled as the force pushed itself out, licking at her affectionately as it made its exit like a dog getting ready to hunt for its master. If it were a dog it might as well have been a lazy terrier as opposed to a keen German Sheppard. The fire that flowed out of her palms was large, glorious -- as big as she had been hoping for -- and it crawled through the air at a snail's pace for merely a second or two before disintegrating into nothing more than a wisp.

Sakura whimpered, sagging her aching arms down in self-disgust, completely distraught.

"Are you sure about that, Kei?" she whined. "I've been trying to do this for weeks, and that shitty little excuse for a Hadoken is all I've got..."

Kei sighed in compliance, shrugging it off.

"Fine. Then why waste more time on it?" That would have been just as well in her opinion.

Sakura flicked her wrists loosely, her hands stinging with pain from all of the energy she had been forcing through them.

"I'm never gonna make it if I quit!" she insisted with a wince.

"I guess not," Kei conceded, her head sagging to the side in despair. "But why do you care so much about this thing? You could be focusing on other stuff...Like kicking, or punching, stuff you're better at."

Sakura, ignoring the question, struggled to put out another fireball, but nothing came. She strained and stretched, to the point where her head ached. She suddenly realized that Kei was right next to her, supporting her by the shoulder.

"Are you OK?" Kei demanded, the questioned peppered with anxiety. She tossed Sakura's weight up so it was more firmly leaning on her own.

"Mm," Sakura hummed, her head pulsing. She had meant to say something more complex but 'Mm' was about all her dazed mind could muster.

What the hell...?

Kei knelt down, allowing Sakura to rest on her knees. Sakura stared at her grass-stained jeans, noticing the hole in the left knee that hadn't been there that morning when she had put them on.

"You're gonna kill yourself like this," Kei insisted, shaking her head. "Take a break already! There's a difference between quitting and knowing when to rest!"

Sakura, panting for air, slammed her fist into the grass of her lawn.

What a fucking loser am I? I can't even PRACTICE without wearing myself out. How am I supposed to keep it together when I'm taking body blows?

"I'm never going to be a REAL fighter, am I?" she groaned. Kei was conflicted by this idea. On the one hand, there were few things she wanted more than to see Sakura give up on this foolish kid's dream and stay safe, stick to more traditional hobbies. Hobbies she, too, could participate in with her. But as she watched discouraged tears of frustration trickle from Sakura's cheeks, she realized that Sakura's passion and joy was, in fact, one of those few things.

"Sakura," she murmured, tilting her best friend's head up to face her own. "Get a grip. You're just having an off day! You've been at it for hours." She spoke with firm compassion. Sakura shook her head and hurriedly brushed aside the dampness that clung to her face.

"Yea," she mumbled. She wobbled to her feet, her legs like rubber. "Yea," she repeated with more conviction. She found herself slipping to her side, and Kei caught her. "No, you're totally right," she insisted with a nod. "I just need to take a break here. Yea..."

Kei rubbed her back as they trudged across the Kasugano lawn to the front porch.

~~~ "You really need to stop overdoing it so much..."

Sakura sighed at the comment, drumming her fingers impatiently on the table, her chin resting nonchalantly on her palm. She attempted to rationalize.

"OK, I know I can take things too far sometimes," she admitted, taking a gulp of chai in mid-thought. "But," she continued, taking another sip, "I don't see what I did wrong here. I'm just trying to teach them something that they'll remember for a change." She spilled out a long, breathy sigh, setting her mug down and lifting her head from her palm.

"Every other day we just do the same shit over and OVER. These classes could be so much more. Especially gym class."

"Sakura" interrupted the firm-willed but compassionate Kei from across the table. "I get it. What you're going for with these kids. But you can't use your classes as a place to take--" She fumbled hand through the air as she word-searched. "--your own personal vendettas with the world out on people." Kei could see Sakura's face about to burst in defense, but she pressed on, maintaining control of the conversation. "If you're going to be a teacher, you have to work with your students to get them to work with you. Simple as that. You can't make everything so personal."

Sakura raised up an index finger and barely managed a syllable.

"I don't--I don't wanna hear it," Kei shut her down, tone rising. "You make EVERYTHING personal. And that's not, like, a bad thing, really," she clarified. "But as a teacher, you have to acknowledge that the student is just that: a student. Not a project to be fixed, not a family member. You have to lend them the choice and control they own over their own lives."

Sakura stubbornly drank the rest of her chai as Kei finished her thought, her eyes sparking indignantly.

"Even if they don't always make the choices you think are best, you have to let them go, Sakura." Kei slurped from her tea, carefully observing the bubbling anger in her friend's face. That twitch of the eyebrow, that ever-so-slight curve at the edge of her mouth...Kei knew these subtle gestures inside and out, and in this case, it meant anger. "You have to let them own their mistakes."

"Yea, just like me becoming a fighter, right?" Sakura grumbled, eyes fixated into the abyss of her empty mug. Kei's face froze up as the ever-present point of contention hobbed aboard an elephant and charged into the cafe, making its presence in the room clearly established.

"That's how look at it, isn't it?" Sakura went on, unable to bring her aggravated glance to Kei's. "It's just some mistake you're waiting for me to "learn" from, grow up from. Right?" She shot a glare up at Kei for but only a moment, and when she noticed her friend was now not looking at her, she quickly turned away, staring out of the window pane, her face blushing pink with all kinds of emotions mixed together. "So you just let it go, you roll your fucking eyes and shrug it off, even though you think I'm some idiot who's just gonna get herself killed doing this."

Kei's heart sank at Sakura's bitter attitude. It was like her friend was taking her love and twisting its shield into a sword with which to stab herself. Kei placed a comforting hand on Sakura's trembling fist, still wrapped around her mug. She could see those dark brown eyes blazing with frustration.

"Listen. You're all into fighting. And that's who you are. I like you. But I don't like that PART of you sometimes, OK?" she bluntly admitted, her eyes wandering away again to avoid the guilt she was confronting. "But I LOVE you," she specified. "And that's more important than what I like or don't like. But I don't like seeing you get hurt. And I don't like worrying that something serious could happen." Kei's eyes found their way back to Sakura's disgruntled face, relieved to see that those fiery eyes had been extinguished into pools of sympathy, at least.

"I don't like wondering if what YOU love so much -- this street fighting -- will some day take away the friend that I love away from me."

They endured a moment or two of silent reflection.

I guess that makes sense...It's kind of my own fault for being so reckless about it, isn't it? Maybe if I wasn't such a nutjob about it she wouldn't worry so much.

"Sometimes I DO think you're an idiot," Kei picked with a wink. "I mean, hell, I put up with you wearing that retarded headband everywhere you go, right?"

Sakura found her face unwillingly bending into a smile. She shook her head, face still flushed, and rubbed her forehead.

~~~ "Sakura, you're my best friend. I will always support you in your passions."

Sakura stared at the card in gratitude, running her finger down over the vertically hand-written ink as if to feel the love from the characters through her fingertips. Kei's name was scribbled casually on its own to the left, near the bottom. Before letting her gaze fixate itself on the package, Sakura proudly set the card on her dresser beside a photo of herself and Kei from their first day of high school. Their heads were pressed together, eyes wide and bright, toothy grins plastered on their faces.

It was hard for Sakura to believe that it had been nearly four years since that day. She and Kei had changed so much over that time. Despite that, friends like Kei and Hinata were still in her life and she hoped they would remain constantly there in the years to come. She pawed at the package, a simple white box wrapped in a maroon bow.

"Happy 18th Birthday, Sakura-San!" was scrawled on the ribbon. A cute, round-faced depiction of Sakura was portrayed in chibi form, its comically hand-drawn fist throwing a punch on the side of the box. Sakura slid the ribbon off, popped the boxtop, and gasped with delight at what she uncovered: two shiny red sparring gloves. Chuckling with delight, she immediately slipped them on. They felt so much nicer than the ones she was always borrowing from the school gym. She threw some quick practice swings through the air to get a feel for their weight. Satisfied with them, she went to place them back in the box when she noticed a scrap of paper inside. She carefully scooped it up.

"I figure that if you're going to be crazy and get yourself hurt, you might as well protect yourself with something nicer than those cruddy brown ones from the school! Red's more your color, don't you think?"

Sakura smiled in spite of her friend. Kei didn't seem to go a day without worrying about her, did she?

~~~ "Some things never change, I guess..."

Kei was almost snorting in laughter but managed to get the phrase out. She slapped her hands over her mouth, eyes almost bursting with tears. "Oh my God," she gasped. "Really? REALLY? You're such a klutz as always, Sakura..."

Sakura couldn't help but crack an embarrassed smile as she slowly picked herself up off the ground, her jeans dam with chai and water. Upon returning with a refill, she hadn't noticed the freshly mopped tile floor on her way back. Her converse shoes took to the washed tile like wet soap to the hand, leaving her on her rear and chai all over her t-shirt and jeans.

She rose to her feet, nearly slipped again, and regained her balance. Having escaped the danger zone, she flicked sticky liquid from her hands, fumbling for napkins.

"Don't help me out or anything," she sarcastically prodded. Kei, still giggling and gasping for breath, got up from their booth and found her way over. Other cafe customers had mostly diverted their attention back to themselves as a worker had shown up to re-mop the floor with a heavy sigh.

"Sorry 'bout that!" Sakura sheepishly apologized, rubbing the back of her head with blushed cheeks but receiving no response. Kei carefully tended to Sakura's clothes with some napkins as she absent-mindedly awaited some kind of answer. Her mind was snapped back to Kei when she spoke.

"Wow, Sakura...You spend years training in precise martial arts combat," she laughed, "but a slippery floor will beat you every time, you big klutz."

Sakura really couldn't deny it. Even in the heat of battle she messed things up -- but only on occasion, of course. She would just roll with it, though. For her, fighting was something meant to be made up on the spot. When she fought, she wasn't a composer for an orchestra so much as a jazz soloist in a never ending jam session. Sakura swatted Kei's hand away when she felt her buttocks getting wiped. Kei chuckled and ruffled her friend's hair playfully.

"What are you, my mom?" Sakura griped in jest.

"Well, SOMEONE'S got to be. When you act like a child," Kei teased, matter-of-factly, "you're going to get treated like one."

Sakura rolled her eyes and snickered. She jabbed Kei on the arm as she picked up her pack from their table.

"I couldn't ask for a better surrogate mom, then," she admitted with a grin.

~~~ "Someone has to keep you in line, Sakura!"

She tugged against the arms restraining her. Her eyes remained locked on her foe's, burning with the fury to beat the blond girl's face in.

"Sakura!" shouted the girl holding her. "What the hell is wrong with you? Calm down!"

Sakura was too swept up in the her desire to continue her scrap that the words went in one ear and flew out the other. The blond girl she was fixated on snarled back, blood trickling off her lip.

"You wanna go?" Sakura growled, breaking free of her captor.

"Sakura!" Kei screamed, starting to lose hope in the situation now that her grip had been tossed off, but the scrapper went on.

"'Cuz we can finish this later if now's not a good time," Sakura insisted, her tone spiced with threat. She spit a gob of blood onto the pavement before the blond girl's feet. Wiping her mouth with her wrist, she kept her glare fixated on her rival's.

"Now's just as good a time as any, Sakura-San," the girl with the red school uniform insisted.

Her servant, dressed in all black, handed her a handkerchief with nonchalance and she dabbed at her bloodied lip with dainty pats. The rotund young man fidgeted a bit.

"Actually, Kanzuki-Sama, your father is expect--"

"Silence!" she hissed at him, swatting the air in his direction.

"Sakura, forget Karin, you idiots had your fun, now let's--"

"You're the one who seems to have a baby sitter ready to take you home for beddy-bye," Karin jeered, strutting out to face Sakura more directly. She flicked disheveled, curly bangs from her face. The two of them refused to break their stares away.

"You have a fucking bodyguard," Sakura snapped incredulously. "Shut up."

Karin's cocky smirk melted into an irritated scowl as Ishizaki, the young man in black, piped up.

"Um, I'm more of a servant, not really a bod--"

"Well, he sure beats your little guttertrash mongrel," Karin sniped, casting a snooty glance Kei's way. Kei stomped a foot and bit her tongue.

"Don't you fucking talk about my best friend like that, you little bitch," Sakura seethed, pointing a defiant finger. While Kei was flattered by her defensiveness, she didn't enjoy Sakura finding a decent excuse to continue her cat fight.

"Sakura, it's fine, I don't care," Kei urged, huffing over to the two hissing felines. "Just stop, OK? Let's GO," she tugged at Sakura's arm again, only to be batted off.

When Sakura had turned to make this gesture, Karin pounced, slamming her knee into Sakura's stomach and pushing her back. Kei, who had been nearly thrown to the ground by the combined force of both girls, scrambled to her friend, reaching out yet again, only to be thrown off once more. Karin laughed proudly at her own deceptive tactic, curious as to how her rival would react.

A few coughs and gasps later, Sakura was bull-charging Karin and the two were back at it. Kei felt her intestines crawl at the situation.

"Every damned time, you two," she growled in anguish.

Sakura had just pushed her off like she was some nuisance. As she observed every punch thrown, every kick, every dodge, she saw that glint in Sakura's eyes that always tainted her heart with fear. That thirst for impact, that raging energy that she was always afraid would burst outward. Kei couldn't quite define it properly or place a name to it, but it terrified her whenever it hinted at its existence through her being. It was this seemingly alien entity inside her that made Kei just as afraid of Sakura hurting others from this fighting as Sakura getting hurt herself.

Kei and Ishizaki, Karin's servant, exchanged exasperated glances and the two amateur martial artists shouted and screamed and laid into one another further. With their hands grappled together, each struggling to maintain dominance over the other's momentum, they both were locked into a standstill when a digitized tone rang out from behind Karin. Still clenching each other's fingers, both girls' heads swiveled carefully to Ishizaki, who sheepishly raised up the blaring cell phone. A small chain with a plastic unicorn dangled from its end. Karin's cheeks flushed pink while Sakura smirked, her eyes narrowing at the sight.

"It's, um...It's your father, Kanzuki-Sama," Ishizaki muttered fearfully. Karin's eyes widened in a state of frustration as she spun her head back to see Sakura's grin slowly cracking wider. The phone began to ring again, and after a moment where it seemed her head would explode from the temper contained within, Karin bluntly pushed Sakura off, breaking their grapple.

"We'll settle this later, Kasugano," she threatened in a mutter, marching indignantly to her phone as Ishizaki shrunk at her presence.

Sakura dusted off her school uniform, the smile completely opened wide at this point.

"Who's on a leash, again?" she taunted, receiving no response as Karin cleared her throat. The girl answered the phone with as much sugar poured on her tone as she could muster.


"Thought so," Sakura self-righteously huffed, wiping her bloodied lip with her wrist. Kei interrupted her victory-by-default with a slap in the back of the head. Sakura howled in pain and clutched her bruise, now shaken up with fresh pain. Kai yanked her by the arm and practically dragged her through the empty parking lot.

"Oh, sorry, was that a bruise I hit?" Kei grumbled, lathering things up with extra sarcasm. "Maybe if you hadn't picked a fight--"

"She's my fuckin' rival!" Sakura interjected. "What did you expect?"

Kei rolled her eyes and continued to pull Sakura along. They passed by that infamous sign -- Tamagawa Minami High School -- and continued out of the school's lot into the main street.

"That's no excuse!" she scolded. "You two are rabid dogs or something!"

Sakura huffed, tugging her arm free from Kei's grip and crossing it with her other around her chest.

"You wouldn't understand," Sakura dismissed, tightening her sparring glove around her hand.

"Oh, right, because I don't get a thrill out of bloodshed, right?" Kei bitterly countered. She seemed better equipped at trading blows with words, and it pissed Sakura off to no end in cases like this.

"Oh, ya know, no, you're right, Sakura," she continued, stalking alongside her friend, who avoided her disheartening stare. "I DON'T understand. I just don't. Ever. I try and I try and I freaking TRY, but I can't for the life of me figure it out. You say it's just part of who you are, Sakura, but what good has it been bringing you?" Kei was clearly at her wit's end, and her eyes were starting to well up with burning hot tears.

Sakura had been reverted to a stoic stance of silence, unsure of how to respond. Kei continued, thrashing her arms around.

"Ever since you got into this stupid fucking street fighting crap it's's like that's all that matters anymore!"

A swell of regret swept over Sakura, creating a dire urge to express that this was not the case, but Kei was already rolling on without her.

"I've tried so hard to be patient with you -- SO hard -- I really have. But you don't seem to give a damn how I feel, do you?" Kei was starting to bat away at those red hot tears of anger now.

"Do you know what it's like to always be sitting on the sidelines, watching you get yourself into trouble, over and over? Being asked by teachers why such a good little student like myself wastes my time on the class bully? Seeing my best friend get herself needlessly hurt, watching her turn into some...some raving lunatic obsessed with punching people for no good reason?"

Whatever Sakura might have wanted to say in her defense was dropped at that last part.

"Wh-what?" she murmured, stupefied.

Kei sighed a loud, angry huff and tugged on the loose, hanging ends of Sakura's headband.

"This! You're always wearing this!" she grumbled, as if it were some offensive symbol. "All of the time! And these!" She grabbed Sakura's hand, scraped knuckles and all, and jabbed a finger at the padded sparring glove of bright red. "These, too!" she cried, tossing Sakura's arm down. She rubbed her forehead as if the very discussion was giving her a headache.

"You dress like you're looking for a fight ALL the time! Every day! Why? Why do you pick stupid fights with everyone you can?"

Sakura, her defense shattered, was nearing tears herself. Her best friend, verbally assaulting her like this...she had no strategy to combat it, no way of seeing hits coming, no idea how to block it at all. The two glared at each other for a tense moment, water about ready to burst from from their faces. The question was never asked, but Sakura could see it in Kei's eyes: What's wrong with you? That question burned in her gut, a terrible bout of pain worse than any heartburn she had endured.

"I-I...I just-it's...Kind of, it's kind of...I don't know!" she conceded. "It's just, ya know, like...who I am! It's what I love!"

Kei shook her head in disgust at the comment.

"To the point where you act like I don't exist!"

"N-no!" Sakura insisted. It had finally clicked.

Oh my God! DUR, Sakura! You retard. Don't you love HER?

"My ass!" Kei hissed. "Over and over, this happens. Every time, I ask you to stop, to use your-your fucking head for once," she smacked her own skull, "to just have some damned self control, but no!" Her piercing glare continued to penetrate Sakura's brain, who shrunk like a dog getting scolded for pissing on the floor. And she knew what Kei would say if she pointed this feeling out: Don't act like an animal, then!

She turned her head away, clutching at the unsettling pain in her stomach as Kei's berating continued.

"I follow you around to all of your childish bullcrap fighting and you growl and slobber all over like you have rabies--" There was the animal comparison again. "--and act like I'm a ghost! And don't EVEN say it doesn't happen," she commanded, leaning in, "because it JUST did a few minutes ago!" She thrust a finger down the street back at their high school.

There was another stare, the flames now frozen over into solidified anguish and frustration. Both pairs of eyes conveyed the kind of hurt and disappointment and anger that can only come from years of camaraderie being shaken. Sakura couldn't think of anything to say at the moment that she felt would appease Kei without being a fabrication. She couldn't bear to keep enduring her piercing gaze, so she started to walk ahead, water drizzling down her face.

How could she say that? After all this time? Is that really what she thinks of me? Just some fucking retarded thug dyke or something?

Kei was somewhat taken aback by the reaction and scrambled to catch up. She was starting to regret having gone as far as she did, though she had meant everything she'd said. She latched a hand on her friend's shoulder to halt her movement.

"Sakura," she insisted, trying to quell down the fury in her tone. "I'm talking to you!"

Sakura violently jerked her hand off once again, glaring at Kei with shielded fear.

"No!" she cried. "You're just-just yelling at me and-and bitching about what a fucking idiot I am!" She was struggling, but her face was finally starting to contort into a frown. "I thought you understood how important this is to me!"

Kei sighed, acknowledging her point, and ran her head through her thick hair as she contemplated.

"Listen, I'm sorry if it seems like I'm just yelling at you, Sakura, but you need to get over this stupid crush on Ryu and grow up!" Sakura seemed to wince at the comment, her shoulders raised defensively as she absorbed the rest. "We're halfway through high school now! We've only got a couple more years left and then we're out in the real world! And it seems like all you're doing is picking fights with everyone willing to take a beating. You're being childish and I'm sick of watching you do it to yourself."

Kei waited for an answer and received nothing but a quivering lip and balled up fists.

"I know it's important to you, this street fighting stuff, but some times I worry--"

"Fine! OK? Geez, I get it already!" Sakura exploded, haphazardly ripping her sparring gloves off and throwing them to the sidewalk at Kei's feet before twisting around, her back now turned. A few passers-by were giving them funny looks, which was starting to make Sakura feel self-conscious. She could take a fist to the face with no problem but some unkind words and she was crying like a child. She was just as pissed off at herself as she was Kei, who jumped when Sakura threw the gloves.

"You said you'd support me," Sakura bitterly reminded. "Sounds more like you've been...I don't fucking know. Waiting for me to grow up or something." She started sniffling as her reality of the situation seemed to crumble around her, revealing what felt like some second reality. Had she just been lying this whole time? Feigning approval under the assumption that it would all go away, like it was some "phase" to be outgrown?

Kei couldn't stand facing Sakura's back and forced her way in front, while Sakura tried to swivel away again, arm pressed into her face. Kei's heart sank as she detected the snivels and sobs through the cut and bruised arm.

"Eh-everyone else t-treats me like-like I'm some wah-wannabe. N-no matter how fucking h-hard I try, they just..." She gasped and coughed against her tears. "You're one of the few people," she sighed out, regaining control of herself, "that I always thought would have faith in me..." Her face was still a melted puddle of distress that she was trying to hide, and Kei's was pretty gooey with regret.

"Oh, Sakura," Kei murmured, her voice cracking with remorse. "Of course I do." She leaned against her sniffling companion, embracing her in a hug. "But it's just...hard, all of the stuff I just talked about. And I just worry about you so much."

"Well, stop it!" Sakura pleaded, half-joking and half-serious. "I know I'm gonna get hurt, I can take a beating in case you haven't noticed." Kei pulled back and observed the scrapes and various injuries that speckled her friend's body.

"It's more than that," Kei muttered thoughtfully. She bent down to scoop the sparring gloves off the ground like the precious treasure they were. "There's just a lotta stuff about you I just don't understand anymore. She took one of Sakura's flopping arms and slipped a glove over it with care.

"Heh, yea, same here," Sakura chuckled, dabbing at her eyes with her free hand and smiling half-heartedly.

Kei carefully veiled the other hand in red a moment later, snickering as Sakura twitched in pain from the friction. She grasped Sakura's now padded knuckles and rapped them together. She cocked her head to the side and smirked coyly.

~~~ "I guess we'll never see eye-to-eye, huh?"

"I guess not, Kasugano-Sensei," grumbled the boy.

Sakura winked with a wide grin and a giggle seeped out. She ruffled the kid's hair and gave him a slap on the back.

"I'm sorry I was so hard on you, Kenji."

"I'm sorry I disrespected you, Sensei."

"It's all right, Kiddo," the teacher assured, waving her hand off toward the group of boys who clamored around with their handheld gaming systems. They waved back timidly.

"But let's make a deal," Sakura suggested, still gazing at the other kids. She turned to face Kenji and gave him a sly half grin, poking his shoulder. "You put in more effort during class, and I'll take it easier on ya."

Kenji rubbed the back of his neck, face flushed. What kind of teacher was she, making deals with her students? Wasn't she just supposed to take charge?

"Y-yea, sure. That sounds good, Kasugano-Sensei."

"Then we have a deal!" Sakura proclaimed, proudly folding her arms across her chest. "That was all, Kenji," she dismissed. "I'll see you in class." She nodded her head off in the direction of the boy's friends.

"Sensei," Kenji muttered, tightening his backpack.


"I know Taka-Sensei is sick, and I hope he gets better...But if we end up needing a new teacher to take his place..."

"I guess I'd probably need to take things a little more seriously!" Sakura laughed in spite of herself.

"But...not TOO seriously...right?" Kenji prodded.

"Pff!" Sakura tossed her arm, shaking her head. Frowning in exaggeration, she deepened her voice, bellowing, "100 push-ups! 30 laps! No mercy!" and immediately burst into a snicker, oddly leaving the boy's question unanswered.

Some of Kenji's friend's had made their way over, muttering to each other.

"Kasugano-Sensei!" one of them called out amidst the bustle of the Taiyo High School students being set free for the day.

"You're so cool, Sakura-San!""I can't believe you just called her that!""I can't believe she teaches at OUR school!"

Sakura cracked flattered grin.

"Thanks guys, but it's no big, I just needed a job, and--"

"You know him, right?""Well, duh, 'course she does.""Yea, she's fought him before and everything!""She like, learned how to fight from him, right?""No, stupid. She just copied him."

"Wait, wait, what?" Sakura interrupted their frenzy.

"Ryu-San!" they chimed together.

~~~ "You know him, don't you?"

"Hm...Ryu...Ah, right!" he triumphantly raised an index finger in realization of her question. "Of course I know that guy! We've trained together, fought side-by-side, waged wars with fists and feet of fury, split the earth and heavens in our wake. Of course I know Ryu."

"Omigod, really?" squeaked the eager girl clothed in jeans and a pink t-shirt with a monkey face.

"Yea, yea," murmured the main in the pink robes.

"Do you know where I could find him?" the girl demanded, clasping her hands together.

"Ah, well," the cleft-chinned man spurted out, stealing a moment of silence to coordinate his answer. "Ryu, I mean...He's a lone wolf, right? Always traveling the world and stuff...Takes that whole 'World Warrior' title to the next level, ya know? You never know where's gonna show."

"Except when there's a new tournament, right?" the over-excited Sakura proposed. The man in pink scratched his abnormally large chin at the thought.

"Well, yea, sure, then he's not as hard to find, I guess, but it'll be a while before the next one..."

"But when there is one, you'll hear about it?" Sakura was wide-eyed, strung along on baited breath.

"You kidding? Dan Hibiki never backs down from a tournament."

Sakura's gloved hands pumped a few times through the air.

"Me, neither! I'm sure I'm good enough to make it into the next one!"

Dan laughed, shaking his head.

"Uh, you're a little young there, Champ. You've gotta be 18 to enter the World Warrior tournament. But I like the spirit you've got there."

Sakura's excitement was extinguished, her arms sagging, but only for an instant.

"Ya think I'll ever get in a couple years from now when I'm old enough? You've seen me fight!"

"Eh, well, you've got spunk, Girlie," the ponytailed man admitted. "I can see a burning strength inside you. With proper training under the right martial arts, you could even rival me some day."

Sakura clearly caught on at this point how his voice seemed to constantly exude a sense of superiority. She'd at first been fooled by this, but had long since learned to see through his cocky mannerisms. All the same, she'd heard through the grapevine that this man knew Ryu-San. Networking was bound to get her somewhere right?

"But," Dan hesitated, wagging his finger, "you'd need to be trained in the ways of Saikyo to have any hope of being true World Warrior."

Sakura absent-mindedly pulled out her cell phone from her pocket when it vibrated and glanced at the screen.

"Saikyo?" she wondered aloud, skeptical.

[Where are you? Are you going to be late?]

"You've never heard of Saikyo?" Dan exploded, enraged at the thought, slapping his face. "And you call yourself a fighter?" He was practically steaming.

"Uhhh...huh?" Sakura murmured, punching keys into her phone while keeping her eyes on the crazy man in pink.

[Yea. Checkin out dojo. Like you said.]

"Saikyo is only the single-greatest form of combat to grace the planet!" Dan cried out proudly, flexing his arms. "Thousands of warriors strive to master its secrets!"

Sakura scratched her nose and she clicked another button.


"Huh." She stuffed her phone back in her pocket, glancing around the dimly lit wooden room. "Thennn how come there's no one here?" she inquired, finding the whole thing suspicious.

Dan's proud pose jerked into indignation.

"Eh-It-It's a pretty exclusive club here, Kid!"

Sakura shrugged, inspecting the lifeless building. There was a wilted plant sitting in a pot in the corner.

"What's it take to get in?" she asked, lifting an eyebrow but bold and determined nevertheless.

Dan huffed air through his nostrils and regained his composure.

"Only those who prove to me that they are worthy of studying the ways of my father's teachings can become my students."

Sakura strutted up to him, her eyes squinting with suspicion. She jabbed her finger into his sternum, practically piercing his gi.

"Haven't I already done that?" she asked. "I remember you." A quirky squeak accented her 'I.' "You're that weirdo who keeps challenging me to fights and races and all that crap. And I kick your ass every time. Like a couple of weeks ago on my way home from school and you ended up in the garbage dumpster..."

"A noble showdown, indeed," Dan mused solemnly. "You lacked technique -- and style, I mean, who in their right mind uses trash as a weapon? But you were a worthy opponent, nonetheless."

"You didn't even attack me," Sakura amended, her voice now a dulled dagger. "You just shrieked and ran around. And didn't I break your arm?"

Dan eagerly flashed his chunky bicep.

"I'm a warrior, Sakura. I've endured enough hardships where a mere flesh wound barely affects me."

There was a moment of unsettling silence and the bulging of arm muscles before Sakura's eyes elicited a response: "Riiiiiight."

"And how could you forget the might Dan Hibiki, anyway?" He thumbed his chest, glowing. "I've been testing your will, your patience, your endurance, determination, see if you had what it takes."

"What it takes to do what?" Sakura asked, shrugging.

"Er, eh...What...What it takes. Ya know. What it takes. And it seems that maybe you do! I just decided."

Sakura was carefully considering the situation. If this guy had connections to Ryu, and his own dojo, maybe it wouldn't be so bad to stick with him for a while. Even if he was a cocky ass and a pushover. Besides, maybe she could learn a thing or two, right? Maybe? In either case, she would have a place to focus her energies on, like Kei had suggested.

"You really need to look into a dojo, Sakura," she had advised. "Promise me you will. I just know it'll help you control yourself better. It'll just work out better for both of us, and for all of the poor guys you beat up on at school!"

While Sakura had insisted that the whole appeal of street fighting was the unpredictability of it all, she couldn't deny that she could do with less spontaneous detention-inducing scraps and more formal training. She was seriously questioning how "formal" this training with be with this Hibiki character, but just having a real place to practice, and an adult supervisor to her fighting would be beneficial. And maybe his strange and gullible nature could even prove to benefit them both.

"Well, then...would you be able to teach me how to use the Hadoken technique properly?" she wondered.

If he's really trained with Ryu-San, maybe he knows how to do it...But then again, I dunno, I mean, he's pretty...well...Yea. Different.

"Ha!" Dan scoffed. "Of course! I've mastered the Hadoken technique with a single hand!"

Sakura's jaw dropped.

No. Fucking. Way.

"Wow," she whispered, shocked at the idea. "You serious? You can really shoot Hadokens from ONE HAND?" Her eyes squinted, seeing through his talk. "For real? Even Ryu-San can't do that..."

Doubt clung to the dust drifting in the air of the musty dojo for a moment as Dan stared her down.

"Show me," she concluded, calling his bluff.

Dan's resolute determination faltered for a moment before he stole his composure back from this grubby girl's hands.

"It's harder than it looks, ya know," he cautioned, pulling back his arm. Sakura inched closer, carefully observing his posture.

"Ya might wanna stand back, Kid," he warned with a nod. "Don't wanna burn your face off or anything."

Sakura ignored his request, thoughtfully resting an elbow on in one hand and an index finger over her lips.

"Witness the might...of the Saikyo Gadoken!"

Dan's bulky palm thrust forth with a bold strike. A baseball-sized flame of puke green spouted out, flew a few feet, and wisped away.

"Uhhh..." Sakura scratched the side of her head, trying to make sense of what she'd just witnessed as Dan's dramatic pose remained. "Oh. You can shoot...'Hadokens,'" she wiggled air quotes with her fingers. "That's uh..." Dan's beaming confidence wavered and Sakura felt a pang of guilt, recalling the countless times her efforts at martial arts had been ridiculed and mocked.

"No, it's...that's...great," she insisted, clearly uncertain of the words coming out of her mouth. "I've...never seen anyone do that before. Yea." She raised her own hand and flexed her fingers, trying to imagine how the flow of chi worked like that, expelled through one hand.

"That's the power of Saikyo, the Hibiki family art!" Dan proclaimed. "I can see it in your eyes -- you want to learn its secrets, too, huh?"

Sakura balled her hand into a fist, then drilled it forth, inadvertently nailing Dan in the ribs. When had he gotten that close? He choked and sputtered, stumbling back. Sakura squeaked with embarrassment, fretfully cupping her hand over her mouth.

"Oh, geez, frick, I'm sorry!"

"The element of surprise," Dan coughed out, waggling a finger at her. "It seems that's a lesson I won't need to teach..."

He caught her breath, then flashed her a frighteningly bright grin and a thumbs-up.

"I like your spunk, Kid," he concluded. "You've got what it takes. I can see the fire in your eyes. I can see it coming over you -- I can feel it all around you!"

Sakura cocked an eyebrow and couldn't help but smirk.

"Er, yea...People tell me that all the time."

Clearly, this Dan character was flashy, arrogant, delusional, and didn't seem to know what the hell he was doing. But he was determined and passionate, and Sakura had to respect that.

"I'll take it upon myself to give you the proper training you need," Dan decided, slapping his fist into his palm.

"Proper training?" Sakura muttered, her insides lurching at the idea of actually training under the eccentric man.

"You see, Girlie, you're like a sharp...pointy lump of coal," Dan observed, his face trying to wrap itself around his own metaphor.

"How can it be lumpy AND pointy at th--"

"You lack refinement!" Dan rattled on. "I will crush you with discipline into the mighty diamond that rests within!"

Hm. Well, he has a good point. A little discipline could probably do me some good, right?

"The Road to Saikyo is a long, winding road," Dan informed Sakura, beginning to pace about the room. "With lots of hairpin turns and twists. And probably some backroads and maybe a couple of bridges."

Sakura's phone started to jiggle in her pocket again, she so slipped it out of her pocket and flipped it open. Dan's rambling faded into the background of her mind.

[So when you're done, we ARE meeting for tea at the usual place, right?]

"--with fancy arcs and stuff, like they've got in those American cities."

[Yea, totally! I'll catch you there in a few.]

"--maybe we'll pass a couple of lemonade stands on the way. Pink lemonade, of course.


"You like pink lemonade, right?"


"Oh, uh, yea. Totally," Sakura absent-mindedly replied, stuffing her phone away.

"Good," Dan responded with a resolute nod. "We'll have to get some at some point."

"Well, I guess I'll stop by tomorrow after school," Sakura insisted. "And we can start training right away!"

"I suppose you're worthy to be inducted into the study of the Saikyo arts," Dan muttered, attempting to regain control of the conversation despite having already told her he'd let her join his dojo.

~~~ "I admire your passion, Kid."

Sakura nodded vigorously at the praise.

"But," Ryu continued, "I still have much to learn myself. I cannot take on a student yet. There is a dark force within that I must learn to control before I am able to properly teach a pupil."

"Wh--" Sakura spat out in desperation, fumbling for words. "But-but you're a World Warrior! I don't--" she froze up, her hands trembling. "I came all this way, I've been training so hard, I spent this whole summer trying to find you, so that..." she trailed off, her face flushing, eyes welling up.

"Why won't you teach me yet?" she demanded, shaking her head in disbelief. "What else do I have to do to prove that I'm ready?" Her voice cracked and she signed in exasperation.

"Sakura," Ryu muttered with a sigh. He seemed confused as to how to proceed.

"I've waited for years now, practicing and everything! I've been trying to learn things on my own, but, just...URGH!" She thrashed her arms, then mashed them onto the sides of her head in aggravation.

"I can't fucking DO anything right!" she groaned. "I don't wanna be stuck as some stupid wannabe, I want to be a great fighter some day! I can't do that if no one teaches me!" Her eyes were wide with despair.

"Are you sure about that?" Ryu asked, setting down the sack that had been slung on his shoulder. "You seem to have come a long way down the warrior's path all on your own."

Sakura's cheeks were bubbling pink with disappointment, but Ryu had just tossed in a spoonful of pride to her emotional stew.

"Why do you think that is?" he coyly wondered, easing an answer out of her.

"Beeeeeecause I love to fight?" Sakura guessed with a shrug, stuffing her hands in her sweatpants pockets. Oh, she knew this was the answer he was looking for, but she didn't want to look too full of herself.

"Haha, exactly," Ryu confirmed, slapping her on the back. She stiffened as her body took in the unintentionally strong blow.

"You're going to fight whether you have a teacher or not," Ryu pointed out. "Your passion comes out in your technique -- you don't fight to win, you fight because you love to. And I've never seen anyone fight quite the same way you do."

Sakura's face felt warm as cloves of respect, slices of determination, and more grains of pride were swirled into her boiling stew.

"I-well, yea," she sputtered. "I mean, like, totally. I just, ya know, keep fighting, and-and training, so that I can be strong enough to learn how to fight for real--to be a champion some day. Like you, Ryu-San."

"It takes a lot of hard work to get this far," Ryu cautioned. "It's not some game--it's a discipline."

Sakura grunted with solemn resolve, balling up her fists, eyes squinting in all the seriousness she could produce.

"I know. I'm ready for it."

Ryu smiled an empathetic smile, and a ladleful of worry was dumped into Sakura's heart.

"I'm sure you are," he agreed. "Sometimes we're ready before our destinies are..."

He slung his bag back over his shoulder and paused for a moment in thought.

"W-wait, you're leaving already?" Sakura pressed, her stew starting to boil over.

"Of course," Ryu replied calmly. "I must continue my journey, continue my training."

Sakura bit her lip and stared him down, desperation shooting from her eyes like lasers.

"Wh-b-but what about MY training?" she demanded, struggling to keep her voice from trembling.

"We all travel our own roads before they join together," Ryu noted with a thoughtful nod.

Ohhhh, come on! Are you fucking kidding me? Don't gimme that bullshit poetry, Ryu!

Sakura fizzed out an indignant huff, rubbing her forehead as if that would somehow ease the pain in her mind.

"What? But-um...Wh-what about when you're on the same road as someone else, and-and you're just...asking them to slow down for a minute?"

Ryu sighed and exhausted breath and stroked his chin for a moment. He was a man who dealt with fists and feet, not quips and comments. He stared into Sakura's watering eyes, her frustration dripping out. As tough as she may have acted, he knew she was still just a teenage girl. This included all manner of odd behaviors he couldn't possibly understand.

The chef in her mind's kitchen was in a wild panic, dumping in any spice it thought might tame the wild stew, but the liquid still found its way seeping out through her eyes.

"Our roads might cross," Ryu explained. "And some day I'm sure they will run parallel for a time." He began to peel his left hand's fighting glove off. "But you travel a different road than I do, Sakura." He dropped the glove to his side, flexing his fingers.

"I've been training super hard," Sakura assured, grasping at straws, hoping if she picked the right one it would miraculously change his mind. "I-I joined a dojo, and I've been fighting all kinds of people, so that I could learn about different techniques, like-like you said, aaaaaand I just graduated from high school, so now I'm old enough to join the World Warrior tournament, even! But I'm not strong enough yet!"

Sakura gasped to recover from her verbal barrage.

Ryu slipped the second glove off. He peered behind the curtain of her disparaging glare and saw the fires that were boiling that stew. Their normally bright red and orange flames were licking out shades of purple. That dark desire for power -- the very thing he himself was trying to control -- was revealing itself through that fearful, contorted face.

"You won't know whether you're strong enough or not until you try entering," Ryu advised.

Damnit, Ryu! Stop making up excuses! I need you! I can't do this all by myself anymore! I'm sick of it!

Sakura grit her teeth, fumbling to tear her own sparring gloves off to follow Ryu's example. He was going to at least give her a fight before he left, wasn't he?

"I'm not at strong as you are!" she cried, clutching the sides of her head. "I can't even--"

"Sakura," Ryu grabbed her arms in his massive hands and cast them down to her sides. "Stop."

The heat on the stove was switched off in an instant, leaving the stew to simmer and settle down.

"You're letting yourself be consumed by that drive for power," he warned. "It's the same struggle I face and I will not let what happened him...happen to you."

Sakura was trembling again, crippled by disapproval, trying to work out who he was talking about.

"I cannot teach you until I have driven this darkness to a place were I can control it."

Small rivulets were still trickling down Sakura's cheeks as she stared up at his brooding glare. He was afraid, and that made her even more so.

"And you," he placed his huge palm on her head. "You need to do the same if you're going to be my pupil when I'm ready."

Sakura sniffled and brusquely rubbed her face. She paused, skeptically glared at Ryu with narrowed eyes. She shoves his hand off her head.

"Ryu-San," she mumbled, "Do you WANT to be my teacher? Or not?"

Ryu crossed his arms around his statue-like chest in stern frustration.

"Of course," he assured, shaking his head at her doubt. She crossed her arms, too, at his example, shuffling around to avoid eye contact.

"I'm sorry," she managed, grinding her palm into her forehead. "I know," she sighed, "I'm just being a stupid PMS-y girl. I know, OK?"

Ryu cracked a grin and shrugged.

"You can't win them all, Kiddo," he chuckled.

She smirked and half-heartedly giggled at his dry humor.

"But what am I supposed to do until then?" she pleaded, tossing out her arms. "I'm done with high school hell. I've been training hard for two years straight. I just want to be a real fighter now!"

"I'm not stopping you!" Ryu pointed out. "Just because I was trained young doesn't mean everyone needs to be. Besides, you will find your own style if you learn on your own for a while longer."

Ryu stuck out his arm, elbow bent, palm open, in some kind of welcoming gesture.

"Let's make a deal," he offered. "As long as you keep up your training, when I finish my own...I promise that I will be your Sensei."

Sakura palmed her chin, still unsure of how much he truly meant it.

"You PROMISE?" she insisted, slowly working through the words.

Ryu nodded, smiling in spite of her suspicions.

"You might be waiting a long while," he warned her. "But if you're really serious about this, I swear I'll train you. When we're BOTH ready."

"OK, then!" Sakura smashed her palm into his, trying to squeeze his concrete fingers with all of her strength. Sakura's stew was now a muddy mess, some ingredients half cooked, others burnt to hell. Throwing in some stalks of hope wasn't going to quite save it. Ryu noticed this through her determined eyes and felt it'd be best to dump out the whole thing and start off fresh.

"Before I go," he suggested, "why don't you teach me what you've learned since last time?"

Sakura grinned toothily, tightening her headband. She tightened her sparring gloves around her fingers as Ryu kicked his own out of the way. She admired their bright red surfaces for a moment.

I wouldn't be here if it weren't for you.

She pumped her fist and stared down her idol with resolute confidence.

"Take your shot, Kiddo," Ryu welcomed with a flick of the wrist.

Sakura grinned a wide, mischievous smile and nodded, preparing her fists.


She darted forward in an instant, fist pulled back and ready to strike, like a poised wild cat. Her punch was blocked by an arm. She followed through with a kick toward the shin that was sidestepped.

That emotional stew was pouring its way out through her arms and legs, dripping out of her elbows and knees and seeping through her skin, thinned out by sweat and adrenaline. The concoction flowed outward in a fierce torrent upon her opponent.

Her punches kept getting blocked, kicks weaved around, grapples reversed. A blow struck her shoulder, another smacked her shin, but she persevered with little reaction. While most strikes didn't make their marks, the few that did made it all worthwhile. In that instant, the fight was all that mattered, a massive release, each single motion cleansing.

A knee to the stomach brought her to the ground, gasping for breath.

~~~ "You've definitely gotten better since last time," panted her opponent.

Grasping her stomach as tension lurched in her abdomen, she glanced up at her sweat-ridden rival, the long, flowing bands of white flicking around in the breeze.

A hand encapsulated in a bright red sparring glove extended itself down to her collapsed form. She wiped her hair from her face, smirking at the childish grin that glowed back at her, still offering a hand.

"That's three in a row, Karin," Sakura taunted as Karin accepted her hand. Sakura tugged the fallen girl to her feet, hunching her over her shoulder. "All that corporate bullshit is rusting you up, eh?" she laughed, shaking Karin around a bit in jest.

Karin winced, sucking in air between grit teeth as she took the abrasion.

"Oh, heh!" Sakura sheepishly squeaked at Karin's grimace. "Sorry!"

"You goin' soft on us, Karin?" Kei teased, making her way up to them. "Sakura kicked your ass pretty bad today..."

Karin limped along, huffing at Kei's taunts.

"I'm quite painfully aware," she groaned.

"Haha, get it?" Sakura jested to Kei. "PAINFULLY aware?"

Kei gave Sakura one of those looks that begged the question: Really? Did you just say that? with cocked eyebrow and all.

Karin hissed in agony as her ankle fumbled across the pavement of the parking lot.

"Ohhh, don't be such a baby," Kei scowled with a grin. "I've seen you take far worse. You just need to practice more, get back in shape!"

"Some of us have more important lives to lead," Karin explained tersely. "Unlike Miss Kasugano here," she slapped her fist into Sakura's bruised bosom with a smirk, returning the spoonful of hurt she'd just be fed moments before. "we can't all completely obsess ourselves with fighting."

As she fidgeted around in pain while still trying to support the weight on her shoulder, Sakura knew that Karin's cocky ridicule was, at least in this case, a compliment and concession of respect.

"I guess that's why I'm a World Warrior, isn't it?" Sakura pointed out, beaming.

"I guess so," Karin grumbled.

"Hey, hey, now," Sakura insisted, catching the discouraged tone Karin had taken on. "You're just in a funk, Karin. All this paperwork and leading your father's's getting to ya! You need to unwind. Relax! Go with the flow!"

"Yea, you could make it, too, some day," Kei agreed. "Just try not to go around asking for trouble like this one." She gestured toward Sakura with a nod of the head.

"Oh, I'm sure it's too late for that," Karin decided with a laugh.

"So where are we goin', here?" Sakura asked, despite continuing to lead the group away from the high school parking lot. Despite being well out of the age of school, Karin and Sakura liked to spar in that old parking lot for nostalgia's sake.

"To get liquor," Karin groaned as a white limo rolled into the lot.

"Ah, there he is! There's old Ishizaki!" Kei greeted with a wave. The driver waved back as he rolled up to them. His window slid down and he gave them a nervous smile.

"Ah, hello. I-I see that Lady Kanzuki-Sama didn't fare as well in her sparring this week, hm?"

"She did just fine," Sakura assured, proudly pointing out some bruises and cuts that dotted her body. It was like she was showing Karin's score card.

"There's always next time, Kasugano," Karin slyly warned, squeezing Sakura from the side. Sakura tensed up to return the friendly gesture, letting her friend enter the vehicle.

As Karin grunted, settling herself in, she glanced at them with squinted eyes. Both girls knew what that look meant with Karin: booze-time.

"You girls are certain you don't have time to wind down?" Karin checked.

"Haha, believe me, I'd love to," Sakura told her regretfully. "But I can't today. I've another commitment."

"I see," Karin nodded, intrigued. "That's a shame. Very well, Kasugano. If you end up having time, give me a call."

"I'm gonna be teaching soon, Karin," Sakura pointed out, rubbing the back of her neck. "Full time. Remember? I'm not gonna have time to stay out and party."

"Oh!" Karin's eyes lit up. "That's right! I forgot!" She hobbled out of the car to envelope her friend in another hug. Both girls tightened up, wincing in pain as their sore muscles ached.

"Wow, you guys," Kei murmured, picking on them. Shaking her head slowly, hands on her hips, she walked over and gave Karin a hug herself. Karin wasn't normally one to dish out affection but these two had stuck around with her despite her attitude, so she owed them props for that.

"I forgot to congratulate you, Sensei," Karin said, emphasizing the last word with a bit of a mock.

Kei rubbed Sakura's shoulder as Karin limped back to her limo seat.

"Yep," she starts teaching full time next week!" Kei proudly proclaimed.

"That soon, eh, Kasugano?" Karin mused.

Sakura scratched the back of her head again, embarrassed by the whole thing.

"Ha, eh, yea, uh...I mean, like, I guess it's no big. It's Taiyo High, so not where I went to school, but I mean...I kinda had a bad rep there, ya know?"

"You're nervous, aren't you?" Karin probed with a warm smile of encouragement. "You'll do just fine."

"Ah, w-well, yea, I guess. Kinda. Like, I've been a sub for so long, and all that, but I-I dunno for sure if I can really be a good teacher for reals, ya know?"

Karin wiped some blood from her cheek and chuckled.

"Just keep your fists under control and I'm sure you'll be fine."

"Yea, you'll do great, Sakura," Kei seconded.

"Kanzuki-Sama, we're going to be late for your conference," Ishizaki muttered.

"I know, I know," Karin growled to herself. "Thank you, Ishizaki, you're right." She turned to her friends, closing her door and sliding down the window. "The business world calls, ladies. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!"

And with that, the white limo pulled out. Leaving Sakura and Kei to their own devices. They went back towards the school, making their way to the field out back.

"Damn, that girl tore a hold in my sweats!" Sakura laughed, glancing down at her bright blue pants. "Geez, Karin, these are my favorite exercising clothes!" At least her red jersey was left relatively in tact.

"What did you expect, ya idiot?" Kei incredulously asked. "Why'd you wear those clothes today?"

"I wanted to look all cool for the kids," Sakura murmured. Kei just snickered.

"Only you, Sakura, wouldn't think to bring a change of clothes..."

As the grassy field came into view, a small patch of high schoolers were clamoring in a group at the baseball diamond. They hadn't noticed the two ladies' presence yet.

"So how do ya think Karin goes to all of her business meetings all beat up like that?" Sakura wondered.

"Well, she probably changes into stuffy business suits that cover everything up and has makeup people fix her face. The woman's rich, she probably has, like, five people buzzing around her like bees or something, putting on makeup and fixing her hair and--"

"Blech," Sakura grunted. "I can't even imagine that. Why would you put powder and oil and shit all over your face like that?"

Kei's eyes widened in slight offense.

"Um," she cleared her throat, "SOME of us ladies like to look our best now and again, and--"


One of the kids roared the name, which elicited a scattering of cheers and calls from the seven or eight kids huddled together. They clapped and stamped their feet as the two women strode over.

Kei turned to her friend, bemused.

"Wow. Kids sure like you, huh?"

"Uh, yea, they sure seem to, huh?" Sakura's face was pink and she shrugged. It made her insides glow to be respected by these kids, but she did her best to be humble about it. "I've been teaching them on the weekends for a month or so now. Can't wait to introduce you to 'em!"

"Hey, who's that?"

"Yea, who's your friend, Sakura-Chan?"

"Dude, she's like, way older than you, don't call her that."

"Hello, Chitose-San!"

Kei waved a dainty, embarrassed wave blindly, unsure as to who knew her last name or why.

"Oh! Uh, hello, everyone!"

"All right, guys," Sakura began, pulling her sweatpants up, ignoring the fresh hole in the knee. She tugged down on her red jersey and tightened the shoelaces on her converse sneakers. Slapping her hands on Kei's shoulders, she announced, "This is my best friend, Chitose-San. She's not a fighter, but I love her, anyway. Treat her with respect. She's just here to see what you guys are learning."

Kei sheepishly waved again, eyes squinted shut and a nervous smile crawling across her face.

"Geez, they're just kids, Kei, it's fine, RELAX," Sakura whispered, patting her on the back and admiring the green T-shirt Kei had worn for the occasion: it depicted a monkey punching a dragon in the face.

A flurry of "Hello's," "Hi's," "Chitose-San's" spilled forth for a moment before Sakura marched to the group, their ranks spreading out and forming a semicircle around her.

"All right, guys, it's been a few weeks and I know you're gettin' antsy, so today, we're finally gonna start workin' on what I know you've been waiting for."

"Aw, YES!" one whispered to himself, shaking his arms with excitement.

"Now, you're gonna have to bear with me on this one, people, 'cuz it takes a lot of time and practice. I don't even have the thing nailed down myself. So don't get too down about it if it takes a while. It's tough stuff!"

"Oh oh oh we're finally starting those today?"


"Man, this is gonna be SO COOL."

Sakura tightened the white headband, shaking her hair around to a more comfortable position, the thick brunette bangs flopping over the white cloth. She pounded her fist into her palm eagerly.

"Today we're gonna start learning the Hadoken technique."

After the burst of excitement swept over them, Sakura nodded and flicked her wrists a few times to loosen them up.

"Now, Hadokens are all about focus and concentration.. You've gotta force the chi out through your hands, using your fingers as the control to keep the energy going straight. I'll show you guys a few and then we'll start--"

"SHINKUU HADOKEN!" a kid cried. "Show us the Shinkuu Hadoken!"

"Yea, yea, that big-ass fireball! Show us how it's done, Kasugano-Sensei!"

Sakura ran her hands through her hair and turned to Kei, who was covering her mouth to prevent laughter from erupting.

"They're more obsessed with this stuff than you ever were," she joked at her friend, who made efforts to settle them down. She still found trouble believing that Sakura, who was still waiting for Ryu to properly train her, was out here on her Sunday afternoons, teaching kids how to fight. Maybe she'd finally moved on and realized what both Kei and Ryu had been trying to tell her about herself all along.

"What are you waiting for?" Kei asked. "Aren't ya gonna show 'em how it's done?"

Sakura smiled at her friend, and the two exchanged glances. Now that she had seen these hypothetical kids for the real people they were, seeing Sakura as a teacher wasn't as crazy as she had once believed it to be.

"Come ON, Kasugano-Sensei, we wanna see how strong you are!"

"All right, all right, Kiddo!" Sakura quelled the fireball-minded boy. "It's just that the Shinkuu Hadoken takes a lotta juice, you don't just whip it outta nowhere, ya know?"

She took a deep breath and loosened her wrists out. Turning away from the kids, she jerked her head to the head.

"Ya MIGHT wanna back up, Kei. This could get dangerous..."

Kei grinned and jogged over to her friend, smacking her in the back of the head on her way through.

"Ow! Hey, what--"

"Just 'cuz."

Sakura shook it off with a smile, rubbing her sparring gloves, and reeled her arms back, muscles tight, body hunched over.

This one's for you, Kei.

Her mind burned as the fires rushed from her chest to her arms, flooding through her arteries out to the palms, the energy bursting through her fingers as she straightened them out, pushing the bright blue flames through her skin. The seething hot manifestation of her own soul, burning with vibrant energy, cascaded upward into the air.

Ha. Nailed it.

Cheers and hollers rang out as the bright blue flames blasted into the sky.

"Teach us! I wanna do that!""Wow!""How does she DO that?""Woo! Yea! That's Kasugano-Sensei for ya!""Could I really learn how to do that, too?"

Sakura shook her wrists, azure embers still spitting from her fingertips, and grinned at her audience.

"That takes a lot of practice, guys...But if you stick with it, I'll show you how it's done."

Kei crossed her arms and slowly shook her head in admiration of the young woman before her. The bright red padded gloves were a bit worn and rough. The bright white headband wrapped around her head flapped in the afternoon wind, the ends a bit tattered and a few threads loose. The flames in Sakura's eyes were just as determined as ever.

Look at you, Sakura. Forging your own path.

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