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The Most Dangerous Game

Part 1: Death Chapter 1- Mortality

Stranded in the open

Dried out tears of sorrow

Lacking all emotion

Staring down the barrel waiting for the

Final gates to open

To a new tomorrow

Moving with the motion

Following the light that sets me free

Sets me free

Warriyo - Mortals (feat. Laura Brehm)

Chapter 1: Mortality

The hanami season had come and gone; the civilians of Konoha busied themselves clearing away the quickly drying petals of the cherry blossom, when just two weeks prior, they were in full bloom and enjoyed by every citizen.

Yet on the ground they laid; stomped upon by the various carts, animal hooves and human feet. No one spared them a second glance. That was the tragic fate of the short-lived flower.

Their human personification leaned against the wooden pole of the bridge that hovered over the thin stream. More cherry blossom petals littered the clear water, seemingly staining it a permanent pink

The atmosphere was peaceful, yet the continuously active mind of one Haruno Sakura was anything but. She couldn’t stop recalling her utterly pathetic contribution to her latest mission; one that nearly took Naruto’s life.

I was foolish enough to not have faith in Naruto. I actually believed he was dead, and I ruined his chance to sneak attack Arashi.

A trio of laughing children ran by her, yet Sakura was still deep within her musings.

Even that girl, Sasame, was able to help Naruto escape from Arashi by distracting him long enough. All I could do was cry out for Naruto, pathetically trying to stand up to Arashi and prevent him from killing Sasame. She snorted. I don’t know how I managed to survive this long.

Our intelligence got us out of trouble many times, her inner voice added.

Sakura scowled. And what good is my intelligence if I can’t match my enemy’s physical prowess? I’ve relied on Naruto and Sasuke-kun to protect me and look how that ended up. Sasuke-kun left the village, and Naruto thinks I can’t protect myself.

An elderly couple that Sakura recognized as her neighbors walked by and saluted her. She half-heartedly waved back at them, before she embraced the previous silence.

What are you most bitter about? Her inner voice eventually asked.

I… Sakura started. She clenched her teeth for a moment as she reared in her chaotic emotions that wanted to burst. I resent being the weak member of a team full of powerhouses. I resent Iruka-sensei and the Third Hokage for putting me in Team 7 in the first place. I resent Kakashi-sensei for not giving me the same attention that he gave to the boys. I resent the fact that my own teammates see me as a burden. I resent the fact that Sasuke-kun threw my heart away like it was garbage! She paused, and tears glistened in her emerald eyes. I resent myself for not fulfilling my promise to my boys.

Suddenly, Sakura felt exhausted and had to fight the urge to sit down. There were still civilians walking around, and she wanted to give the impression that she was a strong, dedicated Konoha kunoichi.

It’s been two months since Sasuke-kun left the village, and five months since the second part of the Chunin exams. You pledged that you would get stronger.

I did, Sakura confirmed.

So why haven’t you improved?

I… Sakura hesitated. I’m lost.

How so? Her inner asked.

I don’t know where to start. I’m weak in just about every physical element of being a shinobi. I’m supposedly a genjutsu type, yet I can’t even conjure up anything beyond what was taught at the academy. I have literally no muscle mass; in fact, I’m actually underweight according to that grouchy nurse at the hospital. My stamina’s ridiculously low. Shall I go on? She ended sarcastically.

I’ve got the picture. Her inner voice replied. Would you like to hear my suggestion, since apparently your genius mind couldn’t come up with the idea alone?

Sakura grumbled to herself. By all means, do proceed.

You should write down a list of what are your current strengths, your weaknesses, and what skills you’d like to have. Afterwards, you can set up goals for yourself, a deadline so to speak, as to when you’d want to have mastered a skill. You can even try to look for tutors since Kakashi-sensei seemingly went MIA these past few weeks.

Sakura’s mood sobered. Tsunade-sama placed all capable Jounin in the active duty roster. Ever since the attempted invasion by Sound and Wind, Konoha’s been desperately needing every abled member for high-risk missions. We can’t afford to appear weak in the eyes of the other Great Nations.

True enough, and yet rumor has it that Jiraiya-sama plans on taking Naruto on his travels to train him.

Sakura froze.

A pleasant breeze teased her recently cut hair and spread the sweet aroma of the dying cherry blossoms.

Earth to Sakura. Have you been living under a rock lately?

The rosette scowled once more. I swear, you’re just as annoying as Ino sometimes.

I’ll pretend that you didn’t say that. So, will you at least consider my suggestion?

Sakura breathed in deeply, and at last focused on her surroundings.

She noticed another group of kids playing a game of shinobi and samurai, with the “shinobi” defeating their foes in a dramatic series of moves that in the battlefield would make no sense.

Sakura stared at them intently and remembered the brief period in time when her reason for becoming a kunoichi had nothing to do with Sasuke.

The images of her teammates walking ahead of her invaded her mind once more. This time, though, the two boys stopped and looked back. Naruto gave her his signature smile and a thumbs up. Sasuke placed a hand on his right hip and smirked, with an expression that seemingly said, “what are you waiting for?”

She glanced down at the river into the determined reflection staring back up at her.

She nodded. I’ll do it.

After a pleasant dinner with her parents, Sakura sat at her desk with a blank scroll in front of her.

She quickly got to work and grimaced at the length of her weaknesses written down.

Don’t get demoralized. Her inner voice encouraged. Move on to your strengths.

Right. Sakura pinched her cheek and began to write once more.

She set the quill down and raised the scroll up to examine her words.

“My current strengths are: intelligence and photographic memory, chakra control, apparent compatibility for genjutsu, and… that’s about it.” She deflated at the glaring difference in length between both lists.

Every powerful shinobi in history had a beginning. They didn’t become skillful overnight; they had to train extremely hard every day for years on end.

I know, yet I still can’t think of them as ever being as pathetically weak as I am. Sakura stated gloomily.

Whining isn’t going to get you anywhere, her inner voice rebuked. Now, write down what skills you wish to develop.

Sakura shook her head and cleared her mind of any negativity.

She took a moment to make her decision, before she began to write again. The current list was even shorter than that of her strengths.

She sweat-dropped at the reality of her lists.

Even her inner voice seemed speechless for a moment. …well, there’s always room to add more.

With a snap, Sakura rolled up the scroll, and placed it on her bookshelf. I think I’ll call it for the night.

Please do. At least I can convince myself that your lack of inspiration is due to a lack of sleep.

Sakura scowled, yet offered no reply.

She performed her nightly routine before she crawled into her bed.

A thoughtfulness settled over her, and she found herself glancing out the window into the night sky.

Sasuke-kun, are you looking up at the sky just like I am right now?

A pang filled her heart at the memory of his abandonment of not only the village, but also of their team.

Shame soon followed as she remembered how she demanded Naruto to bring back their dark-haired teammate, no matter the cost. She didn’t see the broken expression on his face, but later on upon her reflections, she realized the burden that she had unwantedly placed on his shoulders.

An inner picture of their team filled her mind. They were sharing lunch, and for the first time, Sakura had felt like they were completely in-tune with one another. Naruto was smiling and obnoxiously loud as always, their sensei had his nose stuck in the pages of his perverted book, and Sasuke seemed content.

That memory was one of Sakura’s most precious, and she took comfort in how it accompanied her to the dream world.

Sakura stood nervously in front of the classroom she had come to view as her second home. Six years of her life were spent in that room, learning all that she believed that she needed to know about being a kunoichi, and yet barely began to scratch the surface.

The rosette made sure to arrive once the students were gone, yet she couldn’t help but hesitate in speaking with Iruka.

The Chunin was a kind, understanding and welcoming man, and it were those very traits that made Sakura almost back down from talking to him. She feared that her frustration would get the best of her and she’d end up hurting him with her brash comments.

Don’t back down from this, her inner voice warned. Before you can improve, you need to understand why you were placed in Team 7 in the first place.

Sakura nodded, and without a second thought, slid open the classroom door.

Nostalgia warmed her soul, and for a moment, she wished that she could go back in time to her academy days. Back then, her view of the shinobi world was romanticized, and she was blissfully ignorant to the realities of it.

It seemed just like yesterday that Sakura was last here, prepared to hand in the latest assignment.

Iruka was sitting at his desk, steadily going through the tall pile of papers in front of him.

Sakura couldn’t help but smile at the familiarity, and her earlier trepidation melted away.

The Chunin looked up and smiled at her. “Sakura-chan. What a pleasant surprise to see you here.”

Sakura bowed. “Hello, Iruka-sensei. I came to ask you a question.”

Said person cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? Go ahead.”

At odds with her earlier behavior, Sakura cut to the chase. “Iruka-sensei, why was I placed in Team 7?

The man blinked in surprise, before contemplation appeared in his eyes. “I take it that you want the “no-nonsense” version?”

Sakura nodded, her facial expression serious.

“I’ll be blunt. It’s true that you were the top kunoichi of your graduating class in terms of intelligence and written assignments, however, your physical performance was average at best. Sometimes even below.”

Sakura couldn’t help but wince.

A kind expression warmed Iruka’s eyes. “That being said, your intelligence and vast amount of knowledge was an irreplaceable advantage your team possessed. Yes, Naruto has an insane amount of chakra and is known for defeating his enemies by being unpredictable, yet it’s that same unpredictability that doesn’t mesh well with a team who can’t read his mind. As with Sasuke, he had a good balance between intelligence and physical prowess, yet his arrogance often blinded him to the facts hidden behind implications, and he had a hard time accepting having to work with you and Naruto. Not to mention that the two boys got along as well as one can blend oil and water.”

Sakura cocked an eyebrow, unimpressed. “So, I’m the pan in which they swirl around?”

Iruka let out a brief chuckle. “You are the glue that kept the team together. From what Kakashi-senpai told me, you were able to get the boys to stop arguing long enough to get them to work together.”

Sakura glanced away. “More like I used to. I couldn’t stop Sasuke-kun from leaving the village.”

The Chunin hummed thoughtfully. “It’s a shame that Sasuke left the village to pursue such a dark path, yet you can’t blame yourself for the decision he made. If you really want to help him, you can do so by supporting him and bringing him back into the light.”

On cue, Sakura took out the scroll from her weapon’s pouch, and placed it on Iruka’s desk.

The man looked at it curiously. “What is this?” He asked.

“There are three lists that I wrote last night. One mentions my weaknesses, another my strengths, and the last are the skills I wish to develop.”

Intrigue brightened the man’s eyes, and he opened the scroll.

He patiently read through everything, and Sakura felt the nervousness creep up again.

After some time, he placed the scroll down, and offered the rosette a kind smile. “You’ve placed a lot of thought into this, haven’t you?”

Timidly, the Genin nodded.

“If more shinobi were as organized and as in-tuned with their nature as you are with your own, the Yamanaka clinics wouldn’t be so packed.”

Sakura could only blink dumbly at his response.

Her former sensei sighed. “What I meant to say is that you’re completely aware of who you are as a person and are willing to make changes to improve your persona. Not everyone can readily admit, much less to themselves, that they’re flawed and can always better themselves.”

Sakura shrugged, and absent-mindedly rubbed her left shoulder. “I’m a visual learner. I wrote the lists to try to come up with a training plan to improve my skills as a kunoichi.”

“Very wise of you, Sakura. I can already tell you that you have a rare, but powerful asset on your side.”

Sakura glanced at him in excitement. “I do?”

The man nodded. “Yes. Your chakra control is among some of the best that I’ve ever seen. In fact, it’s better than the junior med-nin currently working at the hospital.”

The rosette’s face turned the same shade as her hair. “Now you’re just exaggerating.”

Iruka met her gaze with a serious expression. “You know that I don’t sugar-coast things. Sakura-chan, you have a rare gift in your chakra control. There are countless possibilities that you have, and they’re only limited by your imagination. With your proficiency and intelligence, I could see you becoming a medical ninja.”

Sakura stared at him flabbergasted. “A medical ninja?”

“Indeed, Sakura-chan. Field medics are in high demand, and our forces are in severe need of them.

The Genin pondered upon his suggestion, until the man moved on to the next point.

“As for your genjutsu compatibility, I’d be more than happy to ask Kurenai-senpai if she has time to train you. I can also lend you a library card that’ll give you Chunin level access to every scroll and book they have.”

Sakura’s face lit up at the prospect of learning. “Really? I’d appreciate that very much.”

“Anything for the brightest student of her generation.” Iruka glanced down at the scroll and frowned. “I noticed that you didn’t include any desire to learn element techniques.”

Sakura frowned as well. “I don’t know what my element affinity is. I never took the test.”

Iruka gawked at her. “Kakashi-senpai never tested you?”

Bitterness filled the kunoichi. “No. Apparently, he tested Sasuke-kun since he taught him the Chidori.”

Her former academy teacher leaned back in his seat and pinched his nose. “That man is unbelievable” He muttered to himself.

Suddenly, he stood up, and walked over to a cabinet by the large windows. He opened it, and took out a beige cylinder, and made his way back to Sakura.

He opened the lid and took out a thin sheet of beige paper. “This is a special paper that when coated in chakra, it’ll react depending on the element affinity of the user.”

Sakura eagerly took the paper, and without hesitation, she sent a short wave of her chakra through it.

Immediately, the paper crumbled, before it became drenched.

Sakura stared at it in shock.

A boyish grin brightened Iruka’s face. “What do you know? You’ve got two element affinities. I’ll have to ask around to see if there are any other Jonin with enough time to spare to aid you in your training.”

The Genin was still speechless. She could only blink dumbly at the soaked piece of paper in her hand. “I’ve got two, just like Sasuke-kun.” She muttered to herself, not realizing that she spoke out loud.

Iruka hummed in affirmation. “Indeed. Had your team remained complete, the three of you would have complemented each other incredibly well. Sasuke’s fire and lightening natures, Naruto’s wind, and your earth and water natures.”

“Fire is vulnerable to water, which is vulnerable to lightening, which in turn is vulnerable to wind, and that to earth, and the circle is completed by fire once again.”

The Chunin scratched his chin. “I can see you’re not much of an optimist,” he murmured to himself. He glanced at the girl. “How about you look at it this way? Naruto’s wind could fuel Sasuke’s fire. Sasuke’s lightening nature would be a deadly combination with your water-style ninjutsu. Lastly, your earth techniques and Naruto’s wind ninjutsu would force your enemies to be on the defensive from two fronts.”

Sakura cocked her head to the side in thoughtfulness. “I never thought of it that way.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter now, sensei. Our team’s broken.”

The Chunin gave her an understanding look. “It is now, but I have faith that the three of you will be reunited in the future.” He leaned back against his desk and looked out of the window. “I always believed that Naruto had a great destiny ahead of him. As I’ve watched you grow up and mature during your time in Team 7, I believe that you too have an important role to play in the years to come.”

Sakura raised an eyebrow. “You sound like a fortune-teller, sensei.” She teased.

The man laughed. “Maybe, but my gut tells me that I’m right.” His expression turned serious once more. “I’m serious, though. You should consider becoming a medical ninja. I’m certain that you’ll find yourself to be a natural in it. Heck, I’ll bet that even Tsunade-sama herself would be impressed that she’d take you under her wing.”

Sakura took a step back in shock. “Tsunade-sama take me in as her apprentice? I’d have better luck trying to catch Kakashi-sensei without his mask on.”

Iruka shrugged. “You’ll never know until you ask.”

Suddenly, the door opened, and a brown-haired boy with bangs covering half his face peaked through. “Excuse me, Iruka-sensei. I need some help with my homework.”

A kind smile blessed the man’s face. “Of course, Jirou. Come in.”

With permission granted, the young boy stepped in and hopped down the steps until he stopped in front of the pair.

Taking the cue, Sakura bowed once more to her former sensei. “Thank you, sir. I appreciate your help.”

The man smiled. “Anytime, Sakura-chan. My classroom’s always open if you ever need more guidance.”

Sakura smiled back. “I’ll take up your offer.” She looked down at the boy. “Nice to meet you, Jirou.”

The boy grinned toothily at her. “Nice to meet you too, nee-chan!”

With that, Sakura walked up the stairs and left the classroom.

As she left the academy, Iruka’s words of encouragement echoed in her mind.

Do I really have what it takes to become a medical ninja?

There’s only one way to find out, her inner voice replied. Go sign up, or better yet, beg Tsunade-sama to take you in as her apprentice.

You and Iruka-sensei make it sound so easy. You clearly don’t know how Tsunade-sama is. Not to mention that she’s the new Hokage. She probably won’t have time to train anyone.

Apparently, you don’t know her either. Asking her won’t kill you, her inner voice replied sarcastically.

“Alright, I’m going,” Sakura grumbled, before she changed her course to head towards the Hokage Tower.

Sakura had easily counted the patterns in the floor tiles a total of seventeen times since she arrived at the Hokage Tower.

Since her request for a meeting with the Hokage wasn’t deemed as urgent, she was left in the breakroom, waiting for her turn. By the position of the sun, Sakura calculated that she’d been waiting a total of four hours.

After the second hour, the secretary entered for a cup of tea. Upon seeing the rosette, the secretary smiled at her sheepishly. “I’d get comfortable if I were you. You’ll be waiting a while.”

Sakura let out a bored sigh and kicked her legs together.

She glanced out of the window and saw the same bird nest occupied by the same number of hungry chicks as it had five minutes before.

She nearly jumped up when the door opened, and the secretary peeked her head through. “The Hokage is ready to see you, Genin-san.”

Anxious, Sakura swiftly got up from her seat and left the room. She followed the secretary up the steps that lead to the Hokage’s office.

Her anxiety increased as they stood outside of the door, and awaited permission to pass.

“Enter,” a smooth voice called out.

The pair stepped inside of the sealed room until they stood five feet from the wooden desk. They bowed low.

“Hokage-sama, I present to you Haruno Sakura: a Genin placed on Team 7, under the guidance of Hatake Kakashi.”

“Thank you, Akane-san. You may leave.”

The secretary straightened her posture and left the room.

Silence filled the room, and Sakura almost wished that Naruto was there to diffuse the situation with his loud, yet bubbly personality.

“What can I do for you, Haruno Sakura?”

The rosette straightened her posture and took a moment to study her new Hokage.

The woman was even more beautiful in person than what rumors implied. She had a youthful face, despite being in her early fifties. What caught Sakura’s attention the most were the Sannin’s eyes that held immense power of will just by looking into them.

The rosette strengthened her resolve and spoke. “Tsunade-sama, I’ve come here to request you to allow me to become your apprentice.”

Silence filled the room as the Hokage stared at her mutely.

Dread began to fill Sakura’s stomach, yet she forced herself to keep her gaze locked on the woman in front of her.

At last, Tsunade spoke. “You waited four hours just to ask me that? You could have always applied with the medical ninja at the hospital.”

“That’s true, Tsunade-sama, but you’re the best in your field. And I only want to be trained by the best.”

The blonde cocked an eyebrow. “Why is that? What makes you think you deserve to be trained by me?”

Disheartened by the woman’s coldness, Sakura dropped her gaze to the ground. Once more, the mental image of her teammates calling her to them invaded her mind, and her resolve ignited once more.

She looked up into honey eyes. “For too long, I’ve only been a burden to my teammates. I want to catch up to them and prove to them that I deserve to be a part of Team 7. Most importantly, I want to be able to protect them, just like they’ve protected me countless times over.” She closed her eyes. “Our sensei taught us that those who disobey the rules are trash, however, those that abandon their comrades are worse than trash. I refuse to be a kunoichi who turns her back on people that need her!”

Silence once more filled the room, yet Sakura stood her ground.

After what felt like an eternity, Tsunade shifted her position to a more comfortable one. “Hatake spoke highly of you, in particular your intelligence and chakra control.”

Sakura blinked in surprise. Sensei did that?

“I’ve briefly looked into your academy records. On paper, you’re the master, yet when it comes to physical prowess, you’re greatly behind.”

The rosette nodded in agreement. “I know, Tsunade-sama. That’s why I’m going to dedicate my time into improving myself to become a better kunoichi. I refuse to be left behind once more.”

The Slug Sannin hummed in approval. “Good to hear, though it’s easier said than done.” Her expression turned serious. “I’ll give you a month, Haruno, to learn the basics of medical ninjutsu. If you pass the test, I’ll personally train you myself.”

Sakura’s jaw dropped.

“That being said, I’m a very busy person, and I don’t want to waste my time on someone who won’t take the shinobi business seriously.”

“I won’t waste your time, Tsunade-sama. You won’t regret it.”

The blonde woman cocked an eyebrow. “We’ll see about that.”

She stood up abruptly. “Pay attention, for this is your first lesson. You must memorize these three clauses of being a medical ninja. Clause 1: ‘No medic ninja shall ever stop medical treatment until the lives of their party members have come to an end.’ Clause 2: ‘No medic ninja shall ever stand on the front lines.’ Clause 3: ’No medic ninja shall ever die until they are the last of their platoon.’” Her eyes glazed over for a moment. “As a medical ninja, you’ll come into the most intimate contact with death. You’ll know it better than you would a lover, and it’ll accompany you everywhere. This career will certainly make you question about your own mortality. Once you get it, there’s no turning back.”

With widened eyes, Sakura immediately stored the new information into her mind’s memory files.

“One month, Haruno.” Tsunade repeated. “If you’re serious about this career path, head over to the hospital and speak with Hirotoshi-san. He’ll lend you the necessary books.”

Sakura bowed low. “Thank you for this opportunity, Tsunade-sama.”

Said person waved her off and sat back down. “Good luck, Haruno.”

Feeling giddy, Sakura almost skipped out of the office with how high her spirit was. This is my chance, and I won’t ruin it!

You got that right, her inner voice commented. If you screw this up, I’ll never forgive you.

Sakura inwardly rolled her eyes. We’re the same person, so if I screw up, that means you’d have screwed up too.

Schematics, her inner voice denied. Just get going. We can’t afford to waste any time.

The rosette grumbled to herself, but quickly made her way to the hospital.

Eagerness mixed with anxiety filled Sakura as she stood in front of the Hokage. She spent the entire month memorizing the thick books given to her by Hirotoshi, the medical ninja in charge of the program.

So far, Sakura had managed to answer every single question perfectly, yet she didn’t dare let her guard down.

“What flora has the ability to take form of a target’s enemy, as well as provide medicinal properties?”

“The Jofuku flower, Tsunade-sama.”

“What’s the risk of using the Three Colored Pills?”

Sakura adopted her lecture mode. “The pills forcibly convert the body’s fat reserves into chakra, which gives the user a tremendous power boost. The consequence is the emaciation of the user. It’s said that after the third pill, death is imminent.”

Tsunade allowed an amused smirk to grace her ageless face. “Very good. You’ve managed to recall every information from the books. Your photographic memory will be useful in this career.”

Sakura smiled timidly. “I aspire to learn everything that I can.”

“Good to hear. Memorization, however, is not what I’m interested in. I want you to be the best in your field, to make diagnosis and heal wounds like second nature.”

Sakura nodded.

The Hokage stood up. “Congratulations, Haruno Sakura. From this day forth, your life will no longer be the same.” A predatory gaze passed through her eyes. “I’ll be putting you through hell.”

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