One of the most important techniques a shinobi could learn was the art of misdirection. Which now led Sakura to a very important question: could she still call it misdirection if it was accidental?
She'd made it through her exit hole in what was probably some sort of record, sealing it behind her, brushing the dirt off her pants, and gone about five feet before a jounin had landed nearby. To her credit, she'd stayed calm, only hesitating to make a mental note of which direction would probably be the best to make an escape. The jounin had taken a step towards her, and then…
He'd asked if she'd seen anything suspicious nearby.
To which she innocently replied that of course she hadn't, but if there was something going on she would be more than happy to help. That prompted the jounin to dismiss her and send her on her way, leaving Sakura behind with a quick leap to the trees. Sakura took a moment to breathe. She felt anxiety shaking its way into her hands and feet, and the weight of the small scroll she'd hidden in her waist-pack seemed to grow with every passing second. She exhaled and began to walk.
The unfortunate implication of the conversation was that clearly none of the village's jounin thought her strong enough to warrant a threat, or any suspicion. The fortunate implication of the conversation was the exact same realization. By distinguishing herself as someone who followed the rules and wasn't particularly talented, she'd essentially made herself invisible. Because of her own incompetence, she'd gotten away with breaking into a high security building and stealing one of the valuable scrolls within. It was kind of funny, now that she thought about it. She'd accomplished in a week what the village had been certain nobody could do.
Maybe there was something to brashly running into a situation after all. Sakura made a mental note not to yell at Naruto so much for…well, being Naruto.
There were only two loose ends she needed to worry about. The first was out of her control; if the jounin she'd met ever thought to question what she'd been doing in the woods outside the archive, she was certain suspicion would fall on her immediately. Game over. Nothing she could do about that, so essentially this was a test of just how good at beating the odds she was compared to the rest of Team Seven. It was possible her luck was abysmal just to balance out the other two, but she could hope for otherwise. The second loose end was Konohamaru, and Sakura hoped that his little pranking incident was far enough in the past that no one would think to associate it. It wasn't the first time the kid had caused havoc, and it wouldn't be the last. That was what she was counting on.
So, with both loose ends out of her control, that left only one course of action to be done immediately, and that was to take a look at the scroll she'd filched.
Oh, and eat, of course. There was a strong possibility that was important.
Thankfully, her parents had never been the type to ask questions. The life of a shinobi was always going to be full of secrets, something they'd resigned themselves to once Sakura had been accepted as a genin. She'd never be able to tell them everything about her job. So, when she got home, she received a greeting from her mother and father and nothing more than that, allowing her to head straight to the kitchen for a bite and then straight to her bed for some much-needed sleep.
Sakura woke up more than half a day later. (She'd probably never slept so well in her life.) She was almost hesitant to open her eyes, afraid that she'd find a jounin squad waiting in her room to arrest her. There were only her books, however, and the only eyes staring at her were those from the pictures on her wall of Team Seven. She let her eyes linger on the photographs. The first one had been from when they'd first been assigned on a team together. She and Kakashi'd had the decency to smile, at least, but Naruto and Sasuke were both sulking for one reason or another. Usually she would scoff at the picture, but today she couldn't help but smile.
"Alright, you two." She said aloud as she reached for her pouch. "Today's the day I'm going to start catching up with the both of you. I'm not going to be left behind anymore."
She didn't even hesitate to open the scroll, eagerly peering at the contents within. Her eyes glanced over the hand signs and descriptions once, twice, a third time…
These…these were all sensing jutsu!
Sakura groaned out loud. Of all the scrolls that had been in that archive, she picked the one that didn't have anything offensive at all! This wouldn't help her show up Sasuke's Chidori or Naruto's new Rasengan. Oh, but she'd be really good at finding them in the woods if they happened to get lost. In a fit of anger, she threw the scroll against her bedroom wall, watching it bounce and unravel on the floor in front of her. She'd gone through all that damn work for such a stupid scroll. It would be stupid to try and go back for another one, right?
She allowed herself to grump all through breakfast and all through getting ready for the day. The scroll remained on the floor, and Sakura had to tell herself not to step on it as she made her way around her room.
Eventually, she returned to sitting on her bed, staring at the scroll at her feet. She'd been gone a couple days, so it would probably be wise to report to Tsunade and let her know that her 'vacation' had ended. But…she was also recovering from a couple days of starvation and sleep deprivation. She could probably afford to take another day for herself. And even if this scroll didn't have the flashy, powerful jutsu she'd been hoping for, it would probably still be good to learn what she could from it, right?
Sakura let herself groan again before scooping the scroll off the floor. If she could do anything, it was read, and damn it all, she was going to make sure her stunt had been worth the effort.
Chakra was a unique blend of one's physical and spiritual energies. This was Shinobi 101. The more a shinobi trained their body, and the more they practiced jutsu, the more their chakra would develop, and the more powerful jutsu they'd be able to perform.
(Sakura figured she could use this as an excuse for practicing these stupid sensing jutsu over and over again. It was technically training, right?)
The first and foremost technique among the sensing branch of jutsu was being able to detect the presence of chakra to begin with. It didn't tell you anything about the chakra; it was more like asking if someone who could use chakra was present nearby. This jutsu was easy enough to practice, especially here in the village where she could gauge its success near instantly. The immediate problem was that Sakura's current sensory range was a spectacular five meters, and if that's how close she had to be to detect a chakra user, that essentially made the technique useless.
But, she had to give herself some credit. The first time she'd tried the technique, her range had been a measly two meters. She'd doubled her range in a morning of practice, and if she continued to double it every half day, why, she'd be able to sense the entirety of Konoha after a week of practice!
Ha. She wished it worked like that.
The improvement did give her some hope, however. This rudimentary jutsu barely required any chakra at all to use, which meant she could practice frequently, and if she kept getting better this quickly, she could advance to the more complicated sensory jutsus in no time. She'd become the best damn sensing shinobi the village had ever seen. Sure, she wouldn't be able to do anything to an enemy after she'd sense them, but hey, she'd know where they were!
So, Sakura continued to practice, making her way through the village and quietly figuring out where every nearby shinobi was. It was inevitable, she supposed, that she would run into some familiar faces along the way. Her concentration was broken by an extremely loud voice penetrating her ear drums.
"SAKURA! OVER HERE!"
Sakura winced, looking over to see a familiar green-suited shinobi waving at her from a nearby booth. The rest of Team Guy were busy eating, no doubt having settled after a mission of some sorts. Despite being startled, Sakura gave Lee a warm smile as she made her way over to him.
"Hey Lee. Long day?"
"More like a long week." Lee's teammate, Tenten, commented. "Tsunade's having us run messages to Suna so we can establish which routes are the quickest. And this one…" She jabbed at Lee. "Wants to break a world record running there."
"There is hardly a point to establish a quickest route if you are not trying to get there as quick as possible!" Lee countered. "It is not my fault if you are unable to keep up. That only means that you require more training!"
"Oh, give me a break…" Tenten sighed into her meal. Sakura couldn't help but chuckle at this. Lee was always the same old Lee, even after everything. He couldn't even use jutsu, but he'd still become formidable enough that other shinobi couldn't hope to keep up with him. If he could do that, well, she could perfect her own new jutsu. She just had to train as hard as he did, if that was even possible.
She froze, an idea suddenly sparking in her mind.
"It sounds like you could use someone to wear Lee out a bit." Sakura spoke up. "Maybe someone to train with him?"
Tenten looked shocked at the suggestion, but before she could reply, Lee began to shout over her.
"Sakura, do you mean to say that you would want to train with me?" She could almost see the hearts appearing in the boy's eyes. She knew Lee had a crush on her, and she wasn't trying to take advantage of that, but Lee was the best taijutsu user that she knew well enough to ask for help. She had to train her body as well as practice her jutsu if she wanted to get better, and even if it was probably going to kill her, training with Lee was going to be the best way to do that. She gave Lee a nod.
"Yeah. I…well, I'm trying to get stronger, you see, and I figure training in taijutsu is a good place to- "
"Then we shall train together, and we'll make you the best fighter in the whole village! After me and Gai-sensei, of course!" Lee stood up, already raring to go, before being pulled back down by Tenten.
"At least eat your lunch first, and we have to report to Tsunade after this. Train with Sakura later."
"But the spark of youth waits for no one, Tenten! Sakura's ready to train, so we must begin immediately!"
"Actually, I could probably stand to wait until tomorrow. I'm practicing a new jutsu today." Sakura piped up. "Maybe we could start in the morning, before I do missions for the day?"
"So it shall be, Sakura! Be ready bright and early for the best training of your life!"
Bright and early. That she could do. She gave Lee her word that she would be up to train before heading back off into the village for more practice sensing. By the time she returned home, almost completely drained of chakra, she'd increased her range to a full ten meters. It was enough to make her feel good about herself, something she hadn't managed to feel since…
Well, it had been a while.
The next morning, her pride turned into immediate regret.
Lee trained hard. There was no other way of putting it. He set goals for himself that Sakura was certain no human was capable of reaching, and when he inevitably did not reach said goal, he 'repented' by immediately assigning himself another one. At first, it seemed rather ridiculous. Sakura knew she couldn't hope to keep up, let alone even come close to making any of the goals, and after the first fifteen minutes of push-ups, sit-ups, running, jumping, punching, kicking…she felt as though her body was going to just quit without any say from herself.
But…this wasn't meant to be a one-day fix. She wasn't going to get stronger after just one session with Lee, and Lee hadn't gotten this strong after just one day of practice either. He'd pushed himself this hard every day until his body had gotten capable of getting closer to meeting these absurd goals, and Sakura had seen the results. Strong, fast, with reflexes quicker than anyone…she could be like that if she trained like this every day. It would take years to reach Lee's level, but any sort of improvement she could take before Naruto got back was something that would help when they went to find Sasuke again.
So, Sakura pushed herself, harder than she'd ever pushed herself before. Sure, it took her half an hour to get through Lee's one hundred assigned pushups, and sure, her shins were bruised purple from kicking at a practice dummy for so long, but this was just step one, she kept telling herself. This was just step one.
Less difficult was explaining to Tsunade why she looked so exhausted after half a week of vacation time. All she had to do was mention Lee's involvement, and that was enough to dismiss the questioning entirely. With that, it was back to mundane missions, and the start of a routine. Early morning taijutsu training with Lee, missions, then afternoon jutsu training. Her sensory range wasn't improving at the rate she'd hoped, but it was improving, enough so that she'd allow herself to move onto more complicated ones soon enough.
A week passed, and then, just as Sakura was beginning to hit a rhythm, a bomb dropped, in the form of an announcement from Tsunade.
"I've decided that it is not beneficial for you to be working solo missions any longer." Tsunade told her. "We need you to be part of a team again so you can help out with more important missions. I'm going to be assigning you to a new team, starting tomorrow."
Sakura's heart seemed to sink into her stomach. As far as she stood, one thing was abundantly clear. She was Team Seven, not some addition to some strange team she'd probably never met before. She could not allow herself to be put on another team.
She gritted her teeth and voiced her acceptance to Tsunade, but deep down her mind was beginning to plan.
It was time to do something stupid again.