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A Study in Survival

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The teams form without much fanfare. Sakura remembers goofing off with Ino the first time around; can’t bring herself to recreate that level of nonsense. She does, however, smile at her friend and wave after the assignments.

It’s only after, with the newly-minted genin heading into the sun-dappled courtyard for lunch, that Sakura gets an opportunity to change something. Her hair is long and ticklish against her arms, the warmth of the morning seeping into her shoulders the longer she stands in direct sun. Still, she makes no move toward the shade, walking along the path easily.

Sasuke had bolted directly after they were released. She considers going after him, oddly tetchy about one of them being out of sight. Naruto isn’t where she can see him, either, but that’s okay because--

“Hey, Sakura! Since we’re the same group, I was thinking we could have lunch and get to know each other!”

-- she could sense the ocean of his chakra a mile away.

Looking at him hurts, but Sakura turns around. How could she not? He’s alive, he’s breathing; he’s twelve.

Naruto’s eyes are closed in that dumb fox grin he favored when they were younger. He’s short, clumsy and ten times as eager to please than he will be in the future. His skin is several shades paler than she’s used to.

(Though not nearly as pale as it was last time she saw him, and she has to shake off the memory that superimposes itself over his young face: older and desperate and coughing blood around a smile.)

She remembers the day he came back from the training trip with Jiraiya, still obnoxious and blonde but seemingly unaware of how much he’d changed-- or how much he would continue to change in the coming months.

It’s almost-- easier. Seeing this pint sized version of her best friend. The loud and.. Loud.. version of him. She thinks if she were put face-to-face with the friend she’d lost, bleeding and smiling and taking all the light in the world with him when he died--

Well.

Seeing the younger version is quaint. Nostalgic.

(None of the differences matter. Her eyes are more wet than they were a moment ago, and his chakra feels more like light-rain-with-the-sun-shining than a-hurricane-and-a-star, but it’s so close she can hardly care. Behind her ribs her heart is beating faster.)

Nothing has ever been harder than not pulling him into a hug. Her fingers itch with the urge.

“Yeah, sure.” She smiles, indulgent. It’s a familiar expression. “We can go get lunches and drag Sasuke into socializing.”

It feels absurd, Sasuke being so young and generally available. She breathes through it.

“Aw, do we have to bring--”

“Don’t push your luck, Naruto.” She chides. He grumbles but acquiesces easily enough. She wonders how much of that response was habit for him, over-dramatic and bold. Notice me .

Sakura buys all three of them lunch with her meagre pocket change. On the way there and back, Naruto rattles on about how cool he is and, when she fails to stop him, how excited he is to be on her team.

When they get back to the academy grounds, he says: “Ugh, where even is Sasuke, anyway?”

It’s the work of a moment to turn her head in the direction of fire-and-ozone; she doesn’t even have to search it out. Sasuke is eating alone in an empty room, easily visible from the second-story window he’s leaning on.

“Do you want to learn something cool?” She asks, fully expecting a bit of resistance. Naruto, at this age, learning ?

“Yeah! You’re so smart, Sakura!” He pumps a fist in the air, immediately ready to go despite the non-sequitur.

She’s clearly underestimated his dedication. It’s a little uncomfortable, this hero-worship-crush; in the future it’d be based more on mutual respect and a bit of healthy fear. Even the tone of his admiration is young.

“Okay.” She laughs, focusing on the here and now. “What does Sasuke feel like, to you?”

He frowns hard at the mention of their teammate, obviously displeased. She gets the strangest urge to giggle. Irony, probably.

“Whadda’ you mean?”

“Hm.” She takes a moment. Then she grabs his hand, both of them too small. “What do I feel like?”

“Soft.” Naruto blurts instantly. His face is as red as a tomato. He’s not breathing.

Oh. Right.

His crush is stupidly endearing. She resists the urge to cry easily enough, but the feeling is still there, lodged in her throat. Sakura breathes.

She channels chakra into her hand; not letting it pool there, as the precursor to a jutsu, but pushing more into circulation than usually runs through. The skin there immediately warms.

“Reach out-- what do I feel like?”

There are barely words for this, let alone the right words to get through to Naruto, of all people. He learns by doing.

Naruto squints heavily at their hands. She channels even more chakra. It’s not wasteful, doing this-- she’s not expending it, nor breaking up the normal flow-- but it will get tiring after a while.

“Oh!” Naruto announces, surprised. He’s all wide eyes and happiness. “It’s like--” She feels his own energy shyly reach out and would have flinched from shock if it weren’t so familiar.

Well, that’s one way to do it.

At least it’s not visible. She looks to their hands, too. Though the heat of his hand in hers is evident, there’s not enough chakra to break into the visible spectrum-- which she’s seen, for the record, Naruto manage just by concentrating hard.

It doesn’t burn, either. Both of these are likely because he’s doing it completely by accident, of course. Naruto doesn’t have the chakra control to purposefully exude it like this. There are-- or will be, and when will she stop tripping over that?-- a lot of blackened tree trunks in Wave country to prove it.

“It’s like grass,” Naruto finishes a second later. His nose scrunches up, but the loud defense doesn’t come. Sakura threads her chakra through his, letting it push into his tenketsu before pulling it back-- the equivalent to having her blood do loop-de-loops above her skin before landing back in her veins and rejoining the circulatory system, she supposes.

He shuts up quick, fascinated. “That’s-- Sakura that’s so weird! ” He yells.

“Grass and what else?” She presses, keeping it up.

A very controlled push and pull, threading gently. Steadily.

It’s stupidly intimate to be doing this. Even knowing that they’ll develop incredibly close bonds as a team, someday soon, it’s-- intimate.

“I--” his face is red again. Redder? Twelve-year-old Naruto had spluttered an awful lot, so she tries not to think she’s broken him. He takes a deep breath, lets his eyes slip closed to concentrate.

The sun catches on his eyelashes, eyelids, cheeks. Gold on gold on gold.

( Alive, alive, alive. )

“Mint, maybe?” His brow furrows. “Like mint and grass and new-things.”

She realizes she hasn’t been breathing, kicks herself, and smiles winningly.

“Very good.” She praises, and if she weren’t so focused she might have missed the way his eyes shoot open, jaw falling slack.

Her heart hurts a little more.

“Okay, so what does Sasuke feel like?”

“I don’t hold hands with Sasuke!” Naruto crows, looking very much like he’d wanted to leap away theatrically, only to remember they were holding hands at the last second.

Two steps forward, three steps back.

A voice in her, wry, wants to make a joke.

(One day you’ll do more than that.)

“Well, you’ll have to at some point. Knowing your teammates chakra is important. You have to be able to find each other when you need to, and know immediately if we’re, say, an imposter.”

“I’d know if it was the real you right away, Sakura!” He assures boldly.

She finds herself smiling again, swings their joined hands.

“You will,” She agrees. “Because you know what my chakra feels like, now.”

Deciding that’s more than enough for today, Sakura gives up.

“Sasuke’s over there,” She nods to his position.

“Well, he’s already eating a rice ball so clearly --”

“Come on, Naruto,” She cuts him off, struggling not to laugh--again-- and doing a bit of balancing with the bentos.

“What do you-- oh!

Sakura leaps with chakra-enhanced legs, tugging Naruto with her onto a rooftop. Running toward Sasuke with him is as familiar as breathing.

Their team is new, but not fragile. Their bonds haven’t formed yet, not really, but it’s not because they don’t fit, or can’t. They’re puzzle pieces that haven’t gotten close enough to touch, and the distance is the only thing stopping them from fitting together perfectly, edges matching up into a greater whole so smoothly it’ll be hard to tell where one piece stops and another begins.

They fit , her boys and her; team seven with actual teamwork is all strengths and no weaknesses.

Sakura was a surgeon, once upon a time. She’ll cut away the distance between them with immaculate precision, break it down until they can come together with nothing between them.

This time, they’ll survive .

(If she has to burn down the whole damn world all over again, her boys will survive.)

It’s not like anything can stop them.

She takes a breath, crosses a threshold, Naruto’s blustering loud behind her, hand snug in hers.

Well.

The corner of lip tilts up, a small thing, a private thing. She can laugh inside her head, at the craziness of it all. At how complicated tenses suddenly are.

Nothing will be able to stop them.

She will make sure of it.

Baby steps.