The wagon rolls lazily along the dirt road, the uneven ground catching its wheels and causing the carriage to shake periodically, jarring Sakura and her book. It is fairly annoying, but Sakura has been going with her parents on these merchant trips for as long as she can remember. Her body naturally adjusts to any abrupt motions at this point. Her mind stays absorbed in her book and she is only vaguely aware of the outside world.
She may only be five years old, but she already knows she finds books much more interesting than most anything else. More comforting, too. Sakura isn’t very good with people. Or, more precisely, other children her age. Adults tend to find her precocious and fawn over her. She often leaves merchant stalls with a bit of free candy in her pocket.
Civilian adults like her, at least.
Sakura’s eyes unconsciously look away from the book balanced on her raised legs to glance behind the cart. The man her parents hired to protect their merchant group walks steadily in the wake of the small caravan. His students are ahead of Sakura’s wagon, it being the last of the three.
The man – a jounin, Sakura knows the teacher of teams are called – is not particularly distinct. Dark haired, dark eyed, and lightly tanned. His stride is almost lackadaisical, though she knows he is on constant alert. He has sharp eyes, for all his slumped posture.
At the beginning of the journey Sakura had tried speaking with him. She approaches shuffling and letting out a small “hello”, peaking through her pink lashes. While the man responds in kind, it is quite clear that he has no interest in talking to her (or in her, in general).
Sakura is only five years old, but she is very keen to other people’s body language. One too many failed attempts at making friends in the park has led her to be able to discern the signs of when someone is disinterested in or disdainful of her. Eyes tracking of to the side, shoulders slouched, mouth lacking any upwards tilt. Worse; when eyes are trained too closely, shoulders at attention, and mouth set scornfully.
Shinobi don’t tend to be as telling with their body language, especially the adult ones, but they also don’t tend to be as controlled around children. At least in Sakura’s experience. She hasn’t actually been around that many ninja outside of when her parents hire them for protection. Her parents don’t like her to be around ninja very much, and live firmly in the civilian quarter besides.
Sakura has always found ninja interesting. That’s a bit of a given, considering just about every kid in Konoha thinks ninja are cool. Ninja are strong, have awesome jutsu, and fight to keep everyone safe.
The thing Sakura likes the most, though, is how confident they are.
Ninja walk with their chin raised and shoulders set. When they move the crowd parts for them, consciously or unconsciously, and they take it simply as a given. They always seem like they know what they’re doing and have an unshakable certainty in their actions. Even the genin – really just big kids – carry themselves with a certain pride. Maybe it comes with the forehead protector? Some secret jutsu the Hokage puts on them that gives all of his ninja confidence to fight for the village? Sakura doesn’t know enough about ninja techniques to be sure.
All she knows is that she wants that. Sakura isn’t confident. Her forehead is too big and her pink hair sticks out too much. She’s too quiet and she’s weird. When she tries to think of the perfect thing to say to make people like her, she always takes too much time and her tongue gets all tied up. Adults think it’s cute and laugh about her being shy and pat her on the head, but other kids just make fun of her.
And it’s not cute. It’s frustrating. She wants to be able to say what she wants whenever she wants to say it. She also wants for people to like her and invite her to play tag or ninja. To smile at her and have sleepovers and maybe even talk about books with her – if they like books too. Or maybe they’ll let her tell them about whatever she is reading and they’ll smile and say that it’s super cool!
But Sakura isn’t confident and her mouth won’t work and she knows her eyes list down and her shoulders turn in and she bites her lips. That’s not how to get people to get to like her and listen to her. She knows that. It makes her want to scream but she bites her lips again because even adults don’t like that.
She’s been trying to figure out what works. What makes other girls likable. Her mama says that girls should be ladylike and as pretty and dazzling as a flower (“like cherry blossoms!”). Sakura thinks this has merit, since other girls always wear pretty dresses with nice, bright colors. They smile and play, but exclaim over getting dirty and are never as loud as the boys.
Sakura thinks she can make that work – she does like pretty things, if not as much as books. Pretty girls are always confident in their own way, if not the same way as shinobi. Her mama is confident and can say what she wants too, even if Sakura doesn’t think growing up to never do anything that could be construed as “boyish” (fun things) sounds appealing. She could talk softly and get people to quiet down to listen to her, even if learning to scream sounds much more satisfying.
It’s something that Sakura can do. She has even bought books about proper comportment and ladylike virtues. It can get her what she wants; people liking her and listening to her (even if-)
But that’s not what Sakura is reading about right now (and thinking about it sometimes makes her want to scream)
Right now, Sakura is reading a book about marine biology. Sakura is reading about marine biology because she is going to see the ocean for the first time. She’s really excited! She’s a bit disappointed that her book is pretty basic, since for all that she’s smart, she doesn’t know a lot of the kanji that goes along with the topic and cross-referencing on the road with a dictionary never turns out well. Still, the book her papa bought her has very detailed pictures and interesting information underneath them.
She likes the colorful fishes and thinks starfish are especially pretty. The sharks, however, are her favorite. They remind her of shinobi. Of fierceness and pride and confidence. She thinks she’d be super scared if she ever saw one in person – her eyes trace the outline of jagged teeth and linger over the factoid about their seeming neverending supply – but the idea of sharks compels her more than repels. An apex predator that commands attention and respect, even from humans.
(She wants to be like that)
Eventually it gets too dark for Sakura to read and they’re stopping to camp anyway. Sakura hops off of the back of her wagon and walks up to her parents. Her mother smooths her hand over her pink hair and plucks the book from her grasp with an admonishment to eat something.
She gets a bit of jerky to chew on since they have to wait for the kid ninjas to get back with firewood for their campfire. The jounin stands lackadaisically and directs one of the kids around the camp. He hisses somethings about his teacher being a lazy bum, but does as ordered. Her parent’s workers also help the kid ninja, so it doesn’t take too long.
Soon enough camp is completely put together and Sakura eats dinner next to the crackling fire. She nods off to sleep against her papa’s shoulder. She wakes up the next day and everything repeats.
The day after that, they finally reach the ocean. For once, Sakura willingly drops her book and takes off excitedly to the water. She gives the ninja kids a scare, and a barked order from their teacher leads the girl with pretty yellow hair to catch her up and bring her back to the caravan. She only just stops herself from glaring at her.
Her parents chide her and tell her it isn’t the time to get wet or enjoy the ocean. They can’t stay travelling right next to the ocean either, since the beach gets too sandy for the wagons’ wheels. As predicted, the path diverges back into the woods. Sakura can only catch glimpses of water through the trees.
A couple hours later, however, the ocean seems to reach further inland than it did before, since they come through a patch of trees only for sparkling water to appear to their left. Sakura is pretty sure she read somewhere that this is called an “inlet”. She’s about to hop off of her wagon to ask her parents if she could play in the water around here, but doesn’t quite get the chance.
Facing backwards, Sakura can’t see what’s happening at the front of the caravan, but she can see the jounin tense and suddenly dart passed her with a shout of alarm.
There’s suddenly a commotion ahead of them and the sound of something crashing through trees. Then there’s the sound of rushing water and broken things and Sakura is flying through the air; the ground whizzing passed her stunned eyes.
She lands in some bushes and little sparks of heat race over her arms. She looks and sees blood welling from little cuts, but is too startled to even shed a tear. She mechanically tries to disentangle herself from the bushes. This doesn’t turn out to be too difficult since foliage isn’t as dense this far south of Hi no Kuni.
She falls to the ground between two bushes, noting that it’s pretty damp considering that it hasn’t rained. She tries to wipe away the blood on her arms but only ends up smearing it and lets it be. Still a bit shocked at the abrupt change in circumstances, she looks up dumbly towards where the caravan had been previously.
Sakura’s not altogether surprised to see it’s no longer there, everything considered. The area is a bit smashed up. It seems like water may have washed through there, explaining the damp ground. Some of the trees to the right of her are even uprooted. Her carriage is in a broken slump where the forest meets the path. She can’t see the other two wagons or any of the people she was travelling with and figures they must have been pushed further into the trees.
But this isn’t actually all that important at the moment, since the inlet clearing isn’t actually empty.
Two figures stand in the clearing. They both exude an aura of readiness that marks them immediately as shinobi. It helps than they have obviously been fighting, with an altogether nondescript man gripping an axe desperately in both hands and bleeding sluggishly from one arm.
Perhaps nondescript is uncharitable. It’s hard to do anything but pale in comparison to the man with his heels in the water standing across from him.
Or should she say the Shark Man.
His skin is blue. His spiky hair is an even darker blue. He looks big even this far away from him; he must be to wield the truly giant, peculiarly shaped, dark sword in his hands. He looks as sharply predatory as a shark smelling blood in the water, and she is infinitely relieved he isn’t looking at her like that. He looks as great and terrible as an ancient ocean predator come to walk the land, and should rightly strike terror in the hearts of those that cross him. He’s not even looking at her and her heart is pounding and she is shaking.
In front of her is a shark, and she realizes something.
Sakura was wrong. She’s not scared; she’s fascinated. Mesmerized. In awe.
She’s shaking because this is power like she’s never seen before, there’s some kind of weird pressure in the air, the caravan is scattered, and she’s alone and doesn’t know where her parents or the Leaf ninja are. She doesn’t know if this feeling in her heart is terror or excitement.
She doesn’t dislike it.
The Shark Man moves and the water moves with him, bends to him, as if he controls the forces of nature as easy as breathing. He grins, sharp teeth glinting, beady eyes scrunching with genuine enjoyment, and swings his (scaled?) sword. The sound of rushing water fills her ears as a wave crashes towards his opponent. A minor tsunami summoned at his will.
The water passes between Sakura and the sun and throws her into shadow.
Or, or, the sun glints through the water, twinkling prettily, but it is something in the water that eclipses the sun.
The other ninja moves as if to dodge the wall of rushing wave, but his eyes are on the Shark Man and not on the water, and Sakura can’t help but think him a lost cause.
The shadow in the water twists with sinuous grace, tail snaking furiously behind it, and it is suddenly darting forward just as the other man goes airborne. Then it’s no longer a shadow as the white underside of its grey nose passes through the water and then there’s teeth, dozens and dozens of razor sharp teeth in a great gaping chasm of a mouth and then there’s red because Sakura knew that other guy was a lost cause because he’s already caught midair in that half a second – snatched up as the creature whips forward in a fantastic display of raw sinewy power – and then both disappear as the tail whirls again, fins almost wings in the air, and changes their momentum to meet a second wave of water beneath them and they’re gone.
It could not have lasted more than a few seconds – maybe less somehow, somehow – but the image is seared behind Sakura’s eyes and in her brain and it feels like she has experienced something important and she knows, and she knows-
The Shark Man waves his hand casually and the wave disperses, crashes to the ground with the water rushing so far that it hits Sakura and she sputters a bit but she can’t even remember a moment later if it was cold and she doesn’t even blink from her stare. The man is still grinning and doesn’t look a bit surprised. As if winning was a forgone conclusion. He lets out a deep, almost barking laugh and she knows he could scream, or yell, or say absolutely anything he wants to. He is confidence personified.
(She wants to be like that)
She wants to be like That.
Sakura doesn’t know if she makes a sound or maybe he already knew she’s there (he probably knew she was there already; he’s that kind of person, that kind of shinobi), but then she is looking directly into his eyes and oh
It is terrifying to look into the eyes of a shark.
He says something, and she recognizes his tone to be somewhere between mocking and teasing, but there is buzzing in her ears and she is shaking but she somehow works her way from her knees to her legs. She even takes a step forward then, feet splashing through the water that hadn’t yet receded back into the ocean.
She steps again and his eyes crinkle in a way that is confused or bemused or something but Sakura can’t read him properly right now because she has to focus entirely on herself to even move. She desperately, desperately needs to say something but she knows the words never come to her when she really needs to get something right and her mouth is open but no sound, no sound and the Shark Man is about to say something and she’ll miss her chance like always, but then, then
“I want to be like you!”
She yells it. Screams it. Her voice is pitchy and wobbly because she’s still shaking, but she did it. She said what she needed to say, and maybe it’s not exactly perfect but she thinks it conveys what she’s thinking well enough.
But she also kind of cut him off and that’s rude and she wants him to like her. And a more distant part of her acknowledges - her brain working on multiple implications and ramifications to her actions at once - he is immeasurably dangerous (and she is immeasurably not) and she should not make him angry.
“I’m sorry I didn’t hear what you said before, Ninja-san. I didn’t mean to speak over you,” Sakura amends moments later. Her mama has drilled her in politeness well enough that her voice is even less wobbly!
Shark Man looks at her, quiet, and Sakura is sure that his expression is confusion, befuddlement, now that she has said what she needed to say and has room to look. He is still staring at her strangely when he says, “Well, that’s not what I expected to hear from a small scrap of pink fluff. Though less fluffy now – more drowned kitten. You’ve got a weird head there, kid, sayin’ something like that to someone like me after seein’ something like that.”
She’s not sure what he means because “That- that was everything! Sharks don’t- don’t have to worry about anything because they’re cool and strong and can do and say whatever they want! They’re never afraid or shy or get lost between their head and body. They- they just do it. And, Mr. Shark Man, both you and your shark friend are the strongest, most con- confident thing ever!”
She stutters and is frustrated because this time what she wants to say is more complicated and she doesn’t think it’s coming out right. Shark Man is everything Sakura wants right there in front of her, and she tries to think of another way to explain it.
Her short hair is plastered to her face and neck and she grabs a piece in her fist as she says, “You’re blue and, and I’m pink! But no one cares you’re blue because you’re you! No one would say you’re weird or have a big forehead, because you’re strong and wouldn’t be afraid to do something back and- I bet you wouldn’t even care!”
Sakura gasps in a breath and she thinks this is the most she may have ever talked ever. She stills her legs, just realizing they had continued moving as she talked. She’s now only a few lengths from Shark Man and he’s huge. He’s taller than anyone she has ever seen. The shadow he casts falls only just short of her. This close, she sees he looks like he even has gills and that’s super cool because that means he can probably breathe under water. His sword, definitely scaled and more dark blue than black up close, ripples a bit on his back and Sakura doesn’t think he moved it.
A rumbling laugh startles her out of her observation and Shark Man looks more amused now than anything, “Well you’re right one thing, kid. People’s opinions don’t matter much to me, and most people are smart enough to keep them to themselves at this point.”
He takes a moment to observe her and Sakura can feel her eyes going wide, trying to take as much in as possible. She’s only shaking a little now and her breath catches in her throat because she doesn’t think anything in her life has made her felt this much before, and Sakura feels a lot.
“So you wanna be like me, huh,” he says and leans down a little, despite the fact that he still towers over her, “Then you’ve got a long way to go, kid. Only the strongest of shinobi can be on my level. You’ve gotta be the strongest, deadliest kind of killer to match a shark. You think you can do that?”
And Sakura doesn’t really like words like deadly and killer, but he’s talking to her and not saying she’s way too weak or small or girly to be something like him, so, “Yes! I can work really hard! I’ll be as strong as a shark!”
Shark Man leans back up with another laugh and says, “You’re a riot! Konoha clearly doesn’t breed kids with any common sense, but you’ve definitely got some spirit. Why don’t you come find me when you become an elite shinobi and you can give me a good fight – it’ll be your final test.”
And Sakura promises, “One day- one day I’ll become the strongest shinobi ever and I’ll beat you!”
Sun glints off his teeth as he smirks and says, “I’ll hold you to that. Seems it’s time for you to go now though, little fishy.”
And Sakura is suddenly not looking at Shark Man anymore because she’s been swept up in a set of wiry arms.
“What a crazy little kid! Who goes towards someone who looks like that?!”
Then it’s still again and she looks up into the youthful face of one of the genin. He’s the one with curly black hair and dark pretty eyes (but redder now?) and porcelain skin like the doll her papa got her from Suna, and normally Sakura would admire him a bit because she does like pretty things; but in this moment, there is only displeasure in her soul.
She socks him in the eye, “It’s rude to interrupt a conversation!”
The boy curses, and Sakura thinks with vindictive pleasure that she’ll tell her mom on him because they’re not allowed to do that in front of her. Her attention is arrested from plans of vengeance, however, by the sound of now familiar laughter. She twists her head to the right and spots the now more distant Shark Man. She also notes that the teacher of the boy holding her stands between them and the other ninja. He is more outwardly alert than she has ever seen.
“Tch, no need to be so tense. I don’t have any interest in your bunch of whelps or a merchant caravan. I doubt any of you could give me more entertainment than the little pink fishy has, anyway.”
Sakura can’t help but preen a bit at this statement, although neither the boy holding her nor the jounin look particularly impressed.
He says, “Unfortunately, I don’t feel too comfortable taking you at your word.”
Shark Man scoffs (good naturedly?) and says, “Well I guess at least some of you tree huggers have a sense of self preservation. I’ve already done what I need to, so I’ll leave you to corral you baby ninja.”
So saying, he turns on his heel and sets off (walking across!!) the water. He tosses back over his shoulder, “Don’t forget your promise, little pink fishy!”
Sakura raises her arms and waves them frantically at his back, “I won’t, Mr. Shark Man!”
Then in a blur of movement, he’s gone.
The clearing is still. Now that the focus of her entire attention has left, Sakura realizes that she can hear sounds from the forest. That must be the rest of her caravan. She should probably check on her parents and make sure they’re okay.
And let them know that she absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt, is going to become the best shinobi ever.
“What the heck did you promise that dangerous Mist ninja, you crazy menace!” the boy holding her shakes her a little. He hasn’t let her go despite his eye already swelling from her punch.
I, Sakura thinks grimly, taking in the unsatisfactory damage she caused, have a long way to go
“That’s nothing that a baby ninja needs to know,” she huffs and turns up her nose (inwardly thrilled because her voice is working!).
The boy’s face twists in extreme annoyance and looks to be contemplating shaking her rather harder than before. But then Sakura hears her mother wailing for her and threatening the ninja they hired within an inch of their lives, declaring they’d face the might of the merchant coalition and ruin their families. Then the boy’s face is decidedly pale and he begins to hold her with the utmost care.
The jounin groans and his entire being seems to slump, “what a pain. This is why I hate kids.”
What follows next is absolute chaos. Her parents are not pleased with anything, her mama clutching her the entire way back to the Leaf because most of their goods have been damaged beyond repair and both of them are snarling for compensation for the “shoddy job”. But Sakura’s not paying attention for most of it.
Sakura has a goal. Sakura can see how to get what she wants, has seen what she wants in vivid color, and can feel success on her tongue and it tastes like salt and copper. There’s something burning in her chest and she thinks that maybe now she knows what “the will of fire” is. Sakura knows what she wants, and she will stop at nothing to get it. She can almost scream with the thought of it.
(Wait for me Shark Man – here I come!)