Actions

Work Header

A Study in Survival

Chapter Text

There is fire. There is light. She is bloody wounds knitting closed as an afterthought, cold, meticulous and precise sacrifices of chakra for each hit, and the jarring impact of her fist shattering against a goddess' face.

The impact destroys the ground around them for miles.

She is rage, and desperation, and there is a yawning chasm of grief in her, as wide as the world is empty, that she refuses to let consume her.

There is a battle that is a war, an endless fight with an enemy that never tires, and she is alone.

Sakura doesn't remember much of what happens. She has been awake and engaged with Kaguya or her forces for days and weeks. Sleep is rare, stolen moments; each scrap and spare bit of chakra is ruthlessly hoarded and used as efficiently as possible.

She feels stripped down to the bones, ragged with all excess parts of her shorn away. Sakura survives. She fights. She bleeds. She survives.

Another cataclysmic exchange of blows. Around them the earth tries to shake apart. Localized earthquakes and tsunamis herald their blows; what's left of the topography of the planet flattens and crumbles in their wake.

Sakura is tired, though she can't afford to be. Every cell screams in her, a razor sharp focus and intellect bent on living. The beat of her heart in her breast is a desperate thing, a furious and urgent thing, the blood in her ears the only sound she can hear.

It is amidst the usual ache of overextended muscles, the mint-burn of healing, and the push and pull of attack and retreat, bestow damage and receive it, that something changes. Sakura has been a thorn in Kaguya's side for countless hours and sunsets, a snarling wolf that disappears just far enough to lick its wounds, gather resources, and slam back into the melee with a reckless abandon.

Sakura has been trying to kill an immortal for so long that it's all her body knows, and she expects this to be no different, though each hit, each jutsu, each glancing touch of her hand or weapon does devastating damage to the world around them because she refuses to give up hope.

It is a wild thing, a snarling thing, behind the breath in her lungs and the constant drought of her chakra system begging for rest, for replenishment. Her hope is more savage than Naruto's was, the constant belief that he could change the world; her hope is more ragged than Sasuke's was, the child's certainty that if he devotes himself to his goal he can fix things.

Her hope is more enduring than Sai's was, a fragile, just-born realization that life can be marvelous, that love can exist, that there is good in the world, and laughter, and beauty.

Sakura's hope is a bonedeep, feral warsong, a thrumming that gets her through the days, and the nights, that moves her body like a puppet on a string, that lets her heal and kill and force her body past its limits. It's a bulldog's jaws clamped tight on her goal, all thoughts set aside for neverending action, deliberation, movement; it's gravity, and the smiles she won't let herself forget, the dreams and ambitions of everyone she can remember wrapped tight but never safe in the core of her, every precious memory burned one at a time to keep it alive.

Sakura's hope is all she's got left.

So while she hasn't lessened her efforts to murder the being responsible for the destruction of all she loves-- if anything, it's the opposite, eclipsing her old limitations with every encounter, every waking moment, inching millimeter by bloody millimeter closer to her goal with each breath in her body-- she is a being of observations, of rationalization, of cool and collected deductions, lightning-fast assessments and reactions half the reason she's still breathing, and nothing in the encounter has led her to believe something has changed.

Sakura jerks back her fist in surprise, not quick enough to pull the punch but able to change the angle so that it slides past her opponent. In a quarter-beat she's a mile away, still high in the sky.

A mile is nothing.

Sakura turns mid-flight, eyes on Kaguya, feeling the change as it lurches through her body. Probably someone else might not have noticed, but no one else is alive; Sakura is aware of every iota of chakra in her body, and Sakura notices the moment it alters.

There's a new pathway where there wasn't before, like a jutsu half-forgotten, and chakra wants to curl out of her tenketsu, twist in just the right way to-- Sakura doesn't know, and has to stop the quicksilver flash of thought as a wave of Kaguya's hand sends black desolation winging toward her.

Sakura dodges, nimbly, tossing a shuriken that expands outward into a swarm, a flock of thousands, uses the moment's distraction to throw herself from a surviving peak to a valley far in the distance.

Her only saving grace is that Kaguya can't sense chakra, not when it's ruthlessly surpressed with Sakura's perfect control-- though the goddess is more than willing to burn the countryside to ash, destroy any cover, and force Sakura out.

She's learned to rest while running, take solace in the comparatively less exhausting labor of crossing ground faster than the winds of a rasenshuriken.

Kaguya can't-- or hasn't, at least-- used genjutsu on her. Perhaps she senses the futility of it; Sakura can sense the intrusion of foreign chakra on her system the instant it occurs, obvious as a drop of ink on a pristine scroll.

This isn't that; this chakra is hers and hers alone.

The sweep of white is her only warning, so fast her eyes can't resolve it into a shape; she doesn't wait for them to, moving back as far as a single leap can take her on instinct. It was a swipe of Kaguya's arm, her senses tell her later, but in the intervening time Sakura has ducked and parried three blows and flipped over a lake, its water rising on on either side of them like a welcoming hug.

Sakura punches the lakebed, lets house-sized boulders rise as asteroids, dances between them for a blink's cover before Kaguya obliterates them with a thought, not even rubble remaining. The skin on Sakura's arms informs her of the heat, even from her new distance. She's behind the goddess now, though-- not that it matters to her sight.

Merely, she's opposite Kaguya's direction of attention for a single moment, and in their battles that's an opening, forcefully torn.

It's a sweeping kick, a dynamic entry that flows into a springboard flip to get away, because any hit that doesn't connect is a liability. Any second of close combat is too long already, Sakura knows, and ruthlessly stifles the frustration in her throat as the move carries her away.

Away, away, away, the endless flight from an enemy too dangerous to engage, and too dangerous not to.

A bright flare of chakra from within her, yin and yang twisting without conscious direction, and it would be terrifying, this loss of control, if it wasn't infuriating. Sakura can't afford any moment of distraction.

She usually engages Kaguya until she only has the energy left for a desperate flight, a retreat to think on what she learned about her enemy during the most recent clash, painstakingly pieced together from the smallest of tells.

She might not have a choice, this time, though each moment of combat is precious, every encounter another chance to learn and capitalize on a weakness, build a strategy up from atoms, and--

Parry, parry, dodge; Sakura slips medical ninjutsu into her enemy's flesh, feels it catch beneath the skin, but where it should absolutely wreck the seemingly human biology, Kaguya shows no reaction.

Sakura keeps her curse contained to gritted teeth, reaches deep and pulls chakra into her hands. She doesn't have the luxury of handsigns, hasn't for longer than she can remember, so each jutsu has to be utterly mastered before she dares use it.

The upside is that she doesn't have any distractions.

It's water molecules slammed into each other, a tsunami raging out, and Sakura uses it to disengage.

She has to figure out what the utter fuck is going on with her chakra before it gets her killed.

The ball of water had been easier than normal, a prison called from the displaced lake, but before she's even ten miles away Kaguya has evaporated it. A rush of seared air, so hot there's not even steam, hits Sakura's back like a shove from a giant.

It spins her and she goes with it, knowing better to have her back to her enemy even as her skin erupts in burns, a line drawn of red drawn over her and erased just as smoothly by her own chakra in a countering wave. Her armor's lost but it did little, anyway.

A blur, and there's nothing to step off of; Sakura replaces herself with a piece of rubble in the distance, replaces again with one of her weapons from before, far enough away that her chakra rips out of her, a sudden void.

The same weird lurch as before occurs, infinitely more disastrous, and Sakura uses precious seconds reaching inward, a step she doesn't have to do ever, trying to isolate the cause.

It's elusive and Sakura would snarl if she wasn't taking to the trees with as little sound as possible, shoving down her chakra with an iron fist.

The hiccuping aberration refuses to be silenced. A frisson of fear lances through her, shock and dismay as a monsoon of wind tears at the forest, ripping trees out of the ground and into pieces. She leaps from trunk to trunk in the sudden tornado, dodging limbs suddenly as fast and dangerous as arrows from Sasuke's Susano'o, really snarling this time when one comes at her at such an angle that she has no choice but to slam her fist through it, giving away her position.

She has to dodge and weave, chakra still suppressed but for that little, disobedient curl directly in the center, and when she multitasks slinging a massive oak opposite the wind-- causing it to crash into its fellows with a sound like ten-thousand exploding tags--

now there's an idea--

and racing to the top of the atmosphere to get over the wall, she pokes at it, a stab of will.

Cooperate!

Instead it comes unraveled, a flower unfurling, and Sakura has just a moment to panic before the winds kick up, slamming her back down to the ground from the seven miles up.

She leaves a crater, leaves the crater barely after it's formed, narrowly dodging the fist dropped into the center of it after her.

The crater is suddenly four times as massive, force delivered with such speed that the landscape is just changed around them, the sound barrier breaking too fast to make noise.

Reinforcing and then still having to heal her spine, in the space between breaths, had taken approximately half of her chakra reserves, but while one part of her mind is cataloging reserves grimly, most of it is still reeling from the golden glow that is sweeping through her, that refuses to be tamped down, that is out of her control.

Fear quickens her breath, and Sakura rips a spear of a stick out of her shoulder, pressing one hand to the place where it impaled her. There's a feeling rising in her that begs to be a sound, a pulsing, a quickening, and she has no idea what it is, has no time to process as she runs for her life, dodging and weaving.

Kaguya has taken the displaced trees in her windstorm and is guiding them at the ground with a single gesture, each huge as only Fire Country trees get-- had they really journeyed so far east, again? The landscapes are mostly unrecognizable, all familiar manmade landmarks destroyed.

Sakura is forced to bob and weave, dart back and channel her dead teammate, be as unpredictable as possible because Kaguya isn't throwing trees at her so much as where she guesses Sakura will be.

Where such strength should shatter the trees upon impact with the earth, they're sticking in the ground like oversized arrows instead, and Sakura has precious thought to spare deducing how-- obviously, reinforced with chakra-- and how she can turn this around, use it as an advantage--

Maybe catch and redirect one?--

Too late, Sakura realizes this too could be a distraction, just as Kaguya puts a knife-hand through her gut and smiles, beautiful and serene.

Of course she hadn't needed to be physically directing the projectiles, huge though they were.

Sakura's muscles are suffused with deadly memory, though, and hadn't required conscious thought to react; nor had the sudden pain caught her off guard. Her arm had whipped around, tan skin brought to bear in a fierce lariat--

No time to remember Bee's smile next to Naruto's, so happy and sure--

-- even as her head whipped forward, one hard-headed jinchuuriki's move against another, back when the bijuu existed, when any village stood at all.

It's unexpected enough that Kaguya takes it, a forehead to the face, and Sakura smiles grimly through blood as she throws herself off the arm through her chest.

Healing it is something she does without a thought-- or really, isn't even something she does. The healing process starts on its own, fueled by her chakra. She could stop it, it's still under her control, but no command had to be given to begin it.

Thanks to the heatwave earlier, there's not even any fabric to get stuck in the wound, or stuck in newly healed flesh.

Sakura would love to capitalize on her enemy's moment of distraction, the sheer unpredictability of the headbutt that actually worked--

Her love for Naruto rears up like a wildfire, burning her inside out, so fierce an ache that it would unmake her if she were any less used to it, if she hadn't cried out all her tears back when the nights had numbers and the days had names--

-- but so big a wound leaves her with near-dregs of chakra left, just a little more than experience has taught she needs to escape.

It grates at her to leave Kaguya injured and as vulnerable as she ever gets, but-- it grated the first dozen times, too.

Sakura pushes on, ignoring the hurts she can't waste chakra to heal, as well as the blurred quality her vision takes, lines and spots erupting. That hasn't happened in a while-- either she's lower on chakra than her body can handle, right now, or--

She's just focused on real, true escape, fleeing with all the strength and speed she has, when the singed hair on the back of her neck bristles.

It's barely a warning, but it's enough.

Pushing off hard against the ground, Sakura hits the clouds again, arrowing through them even as-- yes, Kaguya slams air in the direction, dispersing the moisture in the air to either side of the horizon.

Sakura is already falling back down, using shaky wind manipulation to speed her flight, fist cocked back and slamming hard into the goddess' face.

Too late, she realizes that in the heat of the battle, deep in the familiar motions of retreat, distract, hit and run-- she'd reached for as much chakra as she could spare. She has perfect chakra control, a precise accounting of how much chakra she has within her at any given moment.

Never before has some of her chakra been off limits.

This chakra, burning gold, had come as readily to her pull as any.

The strange mix of yin and yang, erupted into being of its own accord, rushes to her toes and through her throat and up her arm, but it's too late, she has tolive.

Sakura slams her fist forward with a manic yell, has a split second to register the expression of pure shock on Kaguya's face as the punch connects--

And keeps connecting.

Sakura punches a hole in the space-time continuum.

Or at least, that's what she registers later.

In the moment, it's just a tear in reality, a sudden feeling of give to the air itself, which her fist carries her body through.

There's blackness, a kaleidoscope of color-- dizzying, rushing.

Gravity is suddenly different, pulling her every which way and no way at all, nothing and everything turbulent around her.

The golden chakra is singing through her, warm and wild and choking her, destroying all thought.

It threatens to destroy all sense of self, and that's when Sakura gets over her fear to push back. There's a spasm in the air, in the crowded void of creation, and a surge of-- something.

Sakura struggles for breath, only to discover there's no air.

A sense of urgency overcomes her, the mindless and frenzied struggle for survival, as she claws at her throat, forces her heart rate slower to preserve air, as desperation wicks away all thought.

Sakura has been alone for days and weeks and months, the last alive in a world torn asunder, and through it all hope has sustained her.

Endless and enduring, Sakura's hope is a snarling thing, a calculated predator, a living, breathing monster in her breast that demands survival, precision in all things, self-awareness, and burns a vigil of memories of her lost loves to force her into the best version of herself that she could be.

The vortex widens, or tightens, and Sakura refuses to let this kill her when nothing and no one else has managed, when there's still air in her lungs-- even if her vision is closing in, a blackness creeping in from the edges--

Or is that the tunnel?

A lurch, sickening and final, and spinning, dizzying wind.

It stops.

Sakura breathes.

 

 

Chapter Text

The world rights itself all at once. One moment, she's weightless and hurtling through dense nothing. The next, she's jerked to stillness so suddenly her head's still spinning.

She has a body again.

Gravity exists.

She can't move.

Sakura-- doesn't scream. It's a habit born of years as a shinobi, even before silence was imperative at the world's end.

It’s a near thing.

She can move, it's just-- different. Her chakra isn't low so much as unformed. The pool itself is tiny, badly done, and there's physical energy left lazily uncombined. It takes a second, some frustration, and three false starts to get clumsy control over the flow of it.

Immediately, the fog over her senses clears a little, though things are still muggy. She hasn't moved, frantically working to restore her chakra network to something resembling sense.

It feels oddly like her central nervous system was restarted and she's having to reconnect with each part of her body-- or at least her chakra system and reconnecting her tenketsu.

Her cells and muscles are still quivering as she leashes them, imposing iron control on her weirdly recalcitrant body. She won’t settle for anything less.

Finally, everything settles in like usual with what feels like an audible snap.

One breath, then another, and her hair brushes against her shoulders, longer than it’s been in nearly a decade.

Sakura goes as still as she's able.

Instead of grass around her, a canyon or clear-cut ground or a cave, she’s indoors-- not a novelty so much as an impossibility. A room with four walls. The pastel of it is horribly familiar.

Sakura tosses off her thick duvet restlessly, numb with disbelief.

She runs a hand through her hair, only to startle and yank it in front of her face, heart beating fast as a rabbit's. It's small. And shaking.

She can still taste the ash in her mouth, but there are four walls around her.

Moonlight slants through the window, curtains pulled back, the first fingers of dawn reaching purple through the glass.

The walls are pink, three shades off from white because-- because her mother thought it was clever.

This room burned even before Konoha did, though-- destroyed and never rebuilt after Sound's invasion. Before Kaguya, before the war, before Pein, even. Different levels of impossible, tangible before her.

Four walls, and beyond it a village. It's impossible, but somehow real, no trace of foreign chakra in her system and her breath caught baldly in her throat.

She can see it, as her body moves on autopilot, soundless footsteps carrying her to the windowsill. It’s like a mirage in the desert, streetlamps and the dark silhouette of buildings, stretching into the distance, even the occasional shadowed flicker of a masked ANBU jumping from one rooftop to another. Chakra signatures break the gentle night like candles in the dark, and her senses, spreading out across the village, drink them all in.

She doesn't realize she's backing up until her knees brush against the bed again, a tiny thing to match her tiny form, all of eleven years old.

Perhaps most worrisome of all: if this is a dream, she's not sure she wants to wake up.

Finally, it's too much. Claustrophobic, she throws the window open. It doesn't want to rise. She has to force it.

Her chest is tight. The first wave of air through the window has her stumbling, a foot trying to perch on the sill and launch her into the village proper, but too short to manage.

Sakura's reach isn't what she's used to. Panic claws at her, even as she tries to reason, to shove it down. There's no room for panic, not with the emotions that swell like a high tide. Leaves and street food are scents on the wind, achingly familiar.

It smells like dew on grass, a stillness that Sakura finds horrifically precious, dry eyes burning. She hasn't cried in so long that she's forgotten how. One hand pressed over her heart and the other clenched white-knuckled over the wood of the windowsill, Sakura closes her eyes and lets her senses drift from light to light, humans like fireflies in her mind's eye.

They're everywhere, all around, easily thousands. In every direction lights blaze, fiercely alive.

She's not alone.

Chakra signatures she familiarized herself with over the course of years are smaller and relaxed, though no less recognizable, and it aches to be so near them.

Names try to form and she let's them, attaching names of the dead to their lights-- some closer than others.

It’s strange to think of her parents as alive. Stranger still to consider, on the heels of that thought, all the ghosts now breathing in the village.

That there’s a village still standing at all.

Breath escapes Sakura's tight throat, shaky and cracked.

So many people.

All of them hers.

It takes less effort than Sakura might have assumed to pull herself from the window, when the sun rises in full.

She doesn't try to reign in her chakra sense. For so long she was alone, the only light lit, and the abundance now surrounding her is a welcome warmth-- compared to the empty blackness, her chakra senses still reaching out like the phantom movement from an amputated limb, they're blinding. (A sky full of stars.)

Sakura is eleven years old.

She knows because her hair is long, her head band stretched around her forehead. She'd only worn it to bed the one time, just after receiving it, and the breathless nerves make that night one she remembers, through a haze of time and change.

As a child, she had been so naively excited.

Sakura flexes, feeling the extent of her child self's muscle tone. It is barely above a civilian's equivalent, which seems grossly irresponsible, ability to enhance them with chakra or not. Orange light shines through the glass once she reluctantly shuts the window, surprised it doesn't shatter. Her skin is pale, unscarred.

She's woefully unarmed.

Where would she--?

Sakura rolls her eyes at her own ridiculousness, turns to her closet. There, under the hung outfits, are carefully arranged shuriken, kunai and shoes.

It's been a very, very long time since Sakura has used brand new weapons. She'd scavenged where she could, looting the corpses of her fallen comrades-- because everyone alive was a comrade, at that point in the war-- of steel and armor, scrolls and rations.

There are no rations in her mother's closet.

There are civilians sleeping in the same house as her, peaceful as infants, alive as they haven't been in almost ten years, though it felt like much longer.

Half her life with them, half without, and she's mostly unnerved by their sudden return to life.

Sakura knows what day it is, though she's not letting herself think about it, and if her hands don't falter as she dresses-- shoes, honestly-- it's only because of her rigid self control. She doesn't creep so much as walk carefully through the house, shadows catching on every wall. The modest furniture seems like a relic of a time long past, an anachronism-- except she's the one out of time.

The sun rises shining and lovely over a village nestled between towering trees. There's no rubble, not one building destroyed; this is the golden age between the Kyuubi's attack and Orochimaru's.

Walking up the wall of her old house feels like shedding a skin she wasn't ready to lose, her long hair and small body a strange nakedness.

There's a small amount of resistance as she channels chakra to the bottom of her feet-- her shoes. It causes a wobble to her step that's more astonishing than waking up in her younger body.

The control is there. She knows how to move her chakra. Her pathways are just clumsy with disuse. That will have to change immediately.

Her breath catches again, sharp and sudden.

The roof under her feet seems stupidly fragile, a dwelling of mere wood. All around her is an illusion of structure. Any chunin could wreck a house with a handful of jutsu, elements brought to bear.

She's seen the village reduced to scrap wood and rubble not just once but twice now.

The illusion is that the village exists, at all, as a structure instead of a people. Konoha is Tsunade's tired smile, laughter jumping from one jonin to another after a mission, chunin complaining at the gate, nine rookies in over their heads and blowing away their predecessors.

The village is an ideal Sai sketches idly, Ino's voice drifting merrily through the streets, Shikamaru's raised in lazy complaint. It's Choji's warm laugh, Kiba's ridiculous challenges, Lee walking on his hands. It's Kakashi reading porn, Yamato relaxing in a sunbeam, Shizune humming as she files paperwork, and Naruto is its beating heart.

Standing on one rooftop, Sakura looks out at all of them, burning splendid colours with the sunrise. Her village is standing and its villagers are alive.

Looking out at it, laid out before her eyes, she tries to call up disbelief or denial and finds hard reason instead.

Something happened, some jutsu gone wrong, a mix of yin and yang chakra in just the right proportions that she's been thrown back in time. Naruto's father couldn't have done it on purpose, or the Nidaime before him, and the reality of it is so much that Sakura can't even wrap her thoughts around it properly, a concept too big to rationalize.

She's gone back in time.

Alive, alive, everyone is alive.

The song of it is fierce in her, the sound of a village waking below louder and more hopeful than anything she's heard in an age.

She has no idea how it happened, but Sakura can't dismiss what's in front of her. She's eleven years old. Her precious people are alive and well. It's seven years before the fourth shinobi war.

There's a Konoha headband across her forehead and she's got a child's reserve of chakra, tiny but full to the brim. This body has never been pushed for months on end with little sleep, squeezed every last drop of chakra out in a desperate chase. It's new, and fresh, and so is her career as a ninja.

Tomorrow, she could wake up in her real body, nearly a decade older with the scars to prove it, but today-- today she has somewhere to go, and someone to be.

How often has she wished she could rewrite history?

 

Chapter Text

The morning seems fragile, a scene of spun sugar.

It smells like dew and dawn.

When Sakura shakily takes the steps to the academy, thinking the kids, the kids, we have to keep them--

She remembers thick smoke and coughing, blood and yelling. It was early enough in the war that they were worried about non-combatants and casualties. Early enough that there was some concept of an after; the notion soon faded to 'we can rebuild' to 'we can repopulate' to Sakura alone, striving for survival.

Architecture stands around her; people swarm within.

Stepping into the building seems absurd. She does it anyway. It feels like a fever dream, like her head wants to spin though her senses are fine.

Students mill about, faces she can't name for certain but recognizes all the same, future genin and chunin she'll go on border patrols with, will heal or give routine examinations to in the hospital.

They blur into a background hum of noise as her eyes catch a familiar form, gilded hair waving like a banner as she turns. She's laughing.

Funny, Sakura thinks, as if from far away. She hadn't thought she'd be able to tune out so many people and sounds, used as she is to anything alive being food or an enemy, hyper-aware and vigilant.

Ino looks up, looks around and her gaze lands on Sakura.

Sakura stares, helplessly.

Before the other girl can so much as open her mouth, Sakura's moved, urgency at her heels, and she doesn't remember making the decision to lunge forward, barely registers anything between them.

She buries her face in soft skin and softer hair, arms thrown around her best friend, breathing as deep as she's able.

A tentative hand goes to her own hair, stops just short of touching her. It’s a long curtain of pink that she’d just left alone, tired of deciding what to do with it.

"Sakura?" Ino asks, stunned breathless.

It takes all her strength to pull away. Luckily, words slide into place; she tastes apologies and laughter, confessions and words too big for her younger mouth, swallows around them and says what she must, instead.

"It's been fun, playing pretend with you," She says, though it takes reaching through years and the haze of childhood innocence to remember the silliness of their academy days.

Fingers rub into her shoulders, Ino pushing her back a little. There's a lull as Sakura tries to memorize her features with an aching desperation that she hopes doesn't translate into her features, or her voice.

"After this, we're genin proper-- soldiers of the Leaf. You're going to be part of Ino-Shika-Cho, and likely to get C-ranks faster than whoever my team is. Don't you dare die fighting bandits of all things, do you hear me? We've got to be chunin together."

Ino looks stunned for a long second that stretches between them.

"We're not going to see each other for a while, with missions," Ino realizes out loud.

She follows that thought to it's natural conclusion with a grimace. Her father is head of the Analysis Division of Intelligence. She knows the statistics intimately, as Sakura had known only abstractly the first time around.

Sakura holds her shoulders tight.

"Don't you forget about me, clan heir."

Ino snorts, a trace of their rivalry appearing at last, though it's muted with seriousness. She smiles.

"It wasn't just a game, you know. We had fun, and it was a good distraction while we learned, but I'm going to trounce you at the chunin exams. You stay alive, too."

Sakura's knees are weak. Ino is alive.

She doesn't have it in her to play up some kiddy fight for Sasuke 's affections, of all things, no matter how deluded they had been and how real it had become the first time they were genin.

Sakura takes a deep breath and feels her own smile form, easy as anything. How can she not? It's Ino and she's breathing , not covered in dirt and blood and trying to smile anyway.

Sakura intends to keep her that way.

Ino links her arm through Sakura's, grinning.

"Maaaa," She complains, rolling her eyes. "I guess I knew I'd be on a team with Shikamaru and Choji-- we've been training for it, for like, literally forever-- but I could always hope, you know?"

Sakura smiles at her.

They walk into the classroom just in time to see--

Well, the first thing Sakura notices is Naruto's chakra, an easy weight on the room that fades into a background hum, impossible not to feel but easy enough for everyone to stop noticing, after so many years as classmates.

Walking into the wall of it, feeling it settle on her skin, is like breathing clean air instead of smoke, taking the first breath free of blood and pain after a broken rib. Naruto is alive and even more than with Ino, an important but not integral part of her soul, it feels like a ragged hole in her is filled to see him hale and whole.

The second thing, though, is Tobio turning around and inadvertently shoving Naruto into Sasuke. Naruto had been, for some heartwarmingly stupid and nostalgic reason, crouching on the desk in front of Sasuke.

When their faces collide into the kiss of the ages, Sakura barks out a laugh, shocking her own self but also unable to stop.

Beside her, Ino is outraged.

"No!" she yells, force of habit catching her up in the motions. "Damn it-- Sakura, stop laughing!"

Sakura, who has felt that her voice should have been hoarse all day, throat sore with disuse of weeks and months, hasn't laughed in longer than she can remember. To do it now is like shedding a skin, like throwing off the heavy weights of grief-- if only for a moment.

The cackling joy of her boys alive and young couples with the surreal absurdness of seeing the people who fought and died with her being so young and unblooded. The future she just stepped out of seems impossibly far away-- until now it had been the other way around, this time of her life so untouchably far away from the horror of the present.

It's a backwards reflection, jarring, and the culmination is that Sakura laughs until she can't breathe, holding her aching stomach as Sasuke and Naruto belatedly spring apart, red faced and spluttering-- both of them, even.

Naruto wipes his mouth with exaggerated disgust, like he wouldn't bleed and die for the boy in front of him, like he wouldn't traipse countries and continents or end wars-- start wars-- to be by his side.

Sakura laughs until it hurts, until tears dot the corners of her eyes.

Only then does she manage to stop, bringing a finger to the salt-water with hesitant wonder.

She'd thought she'd cried her last tear sometime after she lost her last friend, carried the corpse of Kiri shinobi in harried flight, hating and cursing that she hadn't had time to heal him and didn't still, carrying him for hours and hours of frustrated grief because-- surely-- she'd be able to stop soon, to do chest compressions, restart his heart, surely it hadn't been too long--

He'd been the last.

And then she'd been.

Sakura stares at the moisture beaded on her fingertip, touched.

Her next inhale is a touch ragged.

Tears of grief had been beyond her for so long, dried up from overuse and the chorus of the endless, uncountable dead.

Now, though--

Now she's in a room of children with her comrade's faces, innocent and unlined. Beyond them lies a village untouched, filled with warriors.

She has a miracle of a second chance and Ino beside her, loudly lamenting missed opportunities. Sasuke and Naruto sit amicably next to each other when Iruka angrily calls them to their seats.

Somehow-- somehow--

Of all the things she'd thought lost, now returned, tears of laughter seem the most impossible.

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

She’s carrying the lunch boxes, which leaves Naruto free to burst through the door like so much chakra under too-tight skin and shove his face into Sasuke’s space.

He barrels into it with such speed and surety that Sasuke barely has time to startle when Naruto grabs his hand with almost comedic levels of concentration drawing his brows taut.

“What do I feel like, teme?” He insists, loudly, by which time Sasuke does finally manage to bristle like a cat.

“What do you—what are you doing?” He hisses, making as if to jerk the hand back. Naruto stubbornly refuses, following the motion until they’re chest to chest and Sasuke drops his elbow as if burned to recreate some distance.

He looks so young it hurts, a punch to the gut that twists and twists. He’d looked young as he died, too, in one moment smirking and cocksure as he kept up with Naruto with laughable ease, and in another impaled.

“My chakra!” Naruto yells, as if Sasuke is being particularly dense. “What does it feel like!”

It’s not even a question and Sasuke winces at the volume, so close.

“Idiot,” Sasuke says, irritation and embarrassment coloring a bold swipe from ear to ear, “Why are you touching me, I can feel your chakra from across a room.”

It’s no question, more long-suffering dismissal.

(His jaw had loosed in surprise, unsure until he wasn’t, until fear licked the years from his face in seconds and his eyes had widened, so scared and young, in that moment, the boy she’d once wished for so fiercely returned in all the worst ways--)

“Oh.” Naruto looks at their joined hands, still raised between their faces. His nose scrunches. “No! The special way. You’ve got to know what my chakra feels like so if anyone tries to be me, you’re not fooled.”

Sasuke makes a horrified noise and, miracle of miracles, looks at Sakura over blonde hair.

“Is this somehow your fault?”

His voice is deeper, which seems absurd. As an adult—well. Cold builds behind her teeth, races down her spine.

She never saw either of them as adults.

Child soldiers til the last.

“Hey, don’t ignore me!” Naruto shakes their hands. “Here—”

Shaken out of her memory (the last times she saw either of them, the most recent time before this one), Sakura starts forward as if to stop him.

“Naruto, you really don’t have the control for—”

Too late, bright blue coronas their fingers.

Sakura pauses, notes with some detachment the way her hair keeps moving, a curtain of frailest pink. It flutters back to her shoulders and—

She lowers her hand, previously raised as if to yank Naruto back.

Well.

She can heal chakra burns.

“Dobe—!” Sasuke had started, equally alarmed, but falling quiet far sooner. Naruto obviously hadn’t headed either warning and it’s not like he wasn’t already in position.

Sasuke’s expression had fallen slack immediately, lips parting as his jaw fell a little. He failed to jerk or shout in sudden pain.

(Blood bubbled over his lips, dark and arterial, surprise morphing to fear and helplessness, a child’s fear--)

After a long moment when nobody breathes, he blinks rapidly.

“Oh.” He says, shocked soft. He doesn’t tear his eyes away.

Naruto’s eyes are shut tight.

Sakura moves to flank them, chakra sense thrown wide to encompass the building. She’ll know if anybody so much as breathes ill intent.

“What does he feel like?” She asks, careful enough. It tastes like ashes until she swallows. This is a new thing, a new start.

It’s rewriting a future where he’d looked at her, lost and confused with a long spike of prehensile hair shoved into his rib cage.

“I.” Sasuke swallows. He looks struck dumb. His lashes flutter. “I’m not.”

“Think,” Sakura cajoles, voice low. Teaching helps. Fixing helps. “Make connections. Find something recognizable.”

“There’s so much.” Sasuke breathes. “How--?”

“Pull back a little.” She instructs, rolls her eyes when he hisses. “Do it. It won’t be as overwhelming with distance.”

Probably.

Frowning, Sasuke says, “Okay. It’s—”

His eyes fall shut.

He tilts his head, concentrating.

Heartbeats pass.

(He’d listened to her. It feels like sunlight on her skin, the bright hope of dawn, like a new day where anything is possible.)

“It’s like—a storm.” Finally, Sasuke’s breath fans out, loud in the quiet room. “Once you get past the fact that it’s everywhere and all around, and warm—it’s like a stormfront. The warm air of a summer storm.”

He opens his eyes.

Sakura smiles at his immediate frown.

Sasuke nudges Naruto with his elbow.

“Hey,” He calls, no louder than usual. “Stop it, come on.”

Naruto opens his eyes slowly.

He turns to Sakura, who most have something approving on her face, because he breaks out into a huge grin.

“I did it!” He crows.

“Yes.” Sasuke says, flat. “Let me go.”

“No!” Naruto says, adamant. “It’s your turn. My turn. Whatever.”

Sasuke’s brow furrows and then his eyes widen.

“What? No!”

“What, yes!” Naruto says, voice high pitched to imitate. “We’ve got to know for missions and stuff!”

He looks to Sakura, pleadingly.

“Three-man squads have to be familiar with each other’s chakra signatures.” She recites, the words wooden on her tongue, dragging up the words from two lifetimes ago.

She pushes away thoughts of wearing Naruto-and-Kurama’s chakra like a second skin, of Sasuke and Naruto blending techniques together easier than seasoned partners without a second’s hesitation, despite three years of separation and no prior practice, or even a moment to get a feel for each other’s chakra.

They hadn’t needed it.

Sasuke huffs and his face is almost entirely red, now.

Indignant. Embarrassed. She’d feel older but with the way they’d always been so huffy and immature with each other, there’s not much difference between this Sasuke and the one she’d fought shoulder to shoulder with.

(Except there is, there is; he’s alive and he listens and he’s a blank slate of unformed opinions, a chance for change where, if she’d had time to form expectations, she would have expected anything but.)

Naruto’s freckled cheeks are dusted with pink under his tan, from the prolonged eye contact he refuses to break. He doesn’t loosen his grip at all.

(This time, he will not let go!)

Sasuke still looks uncomfortable, tense even when he forces his eyes closed and starts breathing rhythmically.

Naruto looks expectant right up until he jolts, thirty seconds later, and then stares at their joined hands with wide eyes.

“Campfires,” He blurts in a quiet, surprised voice. He blinks, briefly. Doesn’t shake his head, though it looks like he wants to. “Campfires. Um, smoke? But like. Spicy. Um, um.”

“Makes sense,” Sakura allows, taking deep breaths herself. “Uchiha are known for their fire jutsu.”

Itachi. Obito. Madara.

Sasuke twitched slightly.

Uchiha are known for their fire jutsu.

Sakura knows better, though.

“Look deeper.” She commands.

“Deeper?” Naruto asks.

A smile plays on her lips. She can have this, she can teach. Arm them for a war before its teeth ever break the horizon.

“Close your eyes, Naruto.”

“Oh!” His brow furrows, then smooths out as he complies. So trusting.

It’s barely anything, really, but Sakura will grab onto it with both hands. There’s room here, more than she’d dared hope for. She can make this work.

“Oh!” Naruto exclaims, tilting his head to the side. His eyelids are dusky in the shadows beside the window. “It’s like a knife!”

Bullshit.

Sakura blinks, then darts forward and grabs Sasuke’s free hand in both of hers.

She can’t control his chakra, of course, but he barely frowns before channeling it properly so she can feel it.

Her first thought is: Naruto’s right, because it is very warm, but Naruto’s usually right and she tucks the thought away with long practice. Now that he’s said it, she can’t get the thought of campfires out of her head, the easy-going peacetime fires that burned without much worry for enemy discovery.

It brought to mind unexpected memories of comrades laughing in a circle around one; not exactly carefree, but cutting through the dark.

Sasuke’s chakra tasted as much like fire as lightning, one coming more readily than the other due to stringent use rather than anything innate. It was usually jonin who trained a second element into conjunction with their natural one. Team seven lived to break down expectations.

Fire came to mind first, when chakra rolled through his palm and into hers. There was lightning, though—the fire crackled. It sparked, and tattered embers lifted into full stormclouds, roiling and waiting. It was impatient, but muted. Untapped.

Nowhere was the cutting knife of wind chakra.

“How is it like a knife,” Sakura mutters, eyes closed.

“It’s—you know. Sharp and spinny. Ready to move. Waiting and then it hits!”

Ready to—

“Potential energy,” Sakura realizes with a sigh. “Naruto, it’s lightning.”

“No, it’s not.” Then he backtracks. “I mean, Sakura-chan, it could be.”

Not that he’s prevaricating her, as in she could be right; but that his chakra spoke of something that could be lightning, maybe. Like it’s the thunder before.

“No, Naruto,” She says, teaching. “My chakra felt like grass, right? But chakra is only five natures—wind, water, fire, lightning, earth. So grass would be…?”

“Earth!” Naruto grins, dazzling smile audible. She nods.

“And yours?”

“Well, um. A storm, right? So that’s like, rain—”

“Wind.” Sasuke mutters, keeping his eyes closed as well. They’re all holding hands in a half-lit room, three sets of eyes closed.

A heady pulse of what could have been, what will be, rises like hysteria from her lungs.  She fights not to hold too tightly.

“But storms are water,” Naruto protests.

“Dobe,” Sasuke snorts.

“No, he’s right. You described it that way for a reason. Naruto, flare your chakra again.”

Sasuke doesn’t know enough about what’s coming to protest, or even brace himself. Naruto nods, determined, and a half second later blue light plays through her eyelids.

Both her boys gasp and she would bet the payment from all their D-ranks combined that they’re both horribly pink.

Sakura curls her free hand around Naruto’s and hears the hitch in his breath when she threads her chakra firmly through his again, letting it bleed around the edges to blend better.

Sasuke makes a noise like he’s strangled.

Sakura tunes him out.

Naruto’s chakra is everywhere. It’s impossible to walk into a room with him and not know it, the steady pressure, but now it’s in her lungs and pressing in her throat.

(Pushing chakra into someone is one thing, but them pushing back—he pushes and she pushes and their chakra mixes and slides and curls together, and it’s like raw nerves dancing and blood slipping through her fingers and emotions so intense she--)

With her eyes closed it’s a little like standing on a cliff in a windstorm and a lot like drowning with air.

That—drowning. Why drowning? Obviously because it’s pressing in so much, saturating the air she struggles breathes. Again, though—

There’s the touch of humidity, of wetness.

Blood rattling in a cut throat--

No.

It’s a hint, an afterthought to the way there’s definitely warm air, where the air around Naruto, when his chakra lights him up, just is warm, moving currents, but.

“Wind.” Naruto says, and she nods.

“But a little water too.” This time it’s Sasuke, surprised. Gruff.

The push and pull of Sasuke’s chakra to hers feels like fire licking down her esophagus, like drawing lightning to her spine.

It doesn’t hurt.

It’s—banked. Soft. The chakra itself is warm even as it crackles, warm and staticky between their palms, invisible and trapped under their skin as their fingers twine.

“You’ve got fire and lightning,” Naruto tells him, sure of himself. He must be, if he feels the same from their joined hands. “And Sakura-chan’s got earth.”

It sits for a moment, between them and on their shoulders. Chakra flows from hand to hand and the connection is—alive. It’s coiled and warm on one side, breath and rain on her other. There’s a give and a take and a blending that catches in her throat like a blade.

“Hey!” Naruto picks up on it last, of course, and shouts to the world when he does, “Between us we’ve got all five! That’s gotta be cool, right?”

“That’s… really rare, I know that much.” Sasuke mutters, and from another building a bell tolls. He untangles their hands with economic movements, easier than he could be for all that it’s the kinesthetic equivalent to a cleared throat.

Sakura opens her eyes to see Naruto doing the same. He looks down at his hands, face going through a series of emotions too fast to catch.

The sunlight slants in, the window giving a view of the courtyard where students are traipsing back into the main academy building. The classroom that Sasuke had picked was in disuse and he hadn’t bothered flicking the light on.

“We should go.” It’s decisive, though she knows its next to useless.

A handful of hours isn’t enough to change something a week or more in motion.

If Kakashi shows up before two in the afternoon, she’ll eat her forehead protector.

Chapter Text

“They’re late.” Growls the would-be boy genius. It’s hard to see anything particularly special about him, framed as he is by Sakura’s perfect chakra control, Naruto’s unflinching victories. Their whole generation burned through all expectations, so why was he treated so differently?

Sakura inhales spring air, tastes potential, lets bubbles of ironic mirth fizz on her tongue like the imported drinks Ino had thrust into her hands as a child.

“He sure is.” She stretches her arms out behind, tucks one ankle under the other. “What are we going to do about it?”

Naruto pounces immediately—helpful, even if he hasn’t had time to come up with a real solution to offer.

“Let’s set a trap!” Initiative. Drive.

“Idiot,” Sasuke scoffs, zero hesitation. “What would that do?”

“If they’re this late and can’t even dodge a genin trap, they have no business teaching the next Hokate, ‘ttebeyo!”

The tic is like losing a finger; shocking, numbing, distantly painful. Distracting. Sakura breathes through it, perfectly level.

Seven in, seven out. Seven in front of her to hold.

Both turn to her, expectant.

“How can we use this time productively?” She forces out, shaking it off. It clings and she isn’t even sure what’s painful about it, where the grief begins or ends. Mapping out the edges only makes it grow.

“Well…” Naruto puzzles slowly. His head tilts, catlike. He wets his lips. “We’re supposed to stay here and wait,” He offers.

Like an outstretched hand, Sasuke takes it.

“So either we stay here. Or.”

The ‘Or’ is like a statement of its own, punctuated heavy between them. An offer, full of possibilities.

“Don’t get caught leaving.” Part of Sakura insists that walls are life’s funniest joke; as she speaks she flexes her knuckles.

“But what would we do?” Naruto blinks at her.

“What do we need?” She counters.

“We weren’t a team, earlier.” Sasuke says, careful. “We don’t know anything about our teacher. We don’t know… how to fight together.”

He talks like the words are sour in his mouth, but not unpleasant.

“The academy curriculum focused on individual progress—student versus student.” Sakura agrees.

“But Konoha is famous for its teamwork.” Sasuke frowns into his clasped hands. “It’s unusual—almost unheard of—for Konoha nin to work alone. Two-man cells are the minimum.”

And three-man cells are the standard. It sits between them. There’s a reason genin teams are composed of three novices and a master.

“So… now’s when we learn it?” Naruto waves a hand. “All the teamwork?”

Sakura imagines them on either side of her, older and in-synch, given all the time they were robbed of. At her level, compensating for each other’s weaknesses, and complementing each other’s strengths.

Devastating.

Spirits and gods, she wants. Her hands clench hard into fists. Her throat is too tight to speak, so it’s good that Sasuke handles it.

“Yes.” He says shortly. “From a jonin.”

His face says clearly what he thinks of that. Naruto, next to them, is tense and uncomfortable at the idea of working together, too. He’s spent a long decade reaching out, trying his damndest, and having every single offered hand get slapped away. It’s a miracle he never quit reaching.

She thinks of Gaara, and lets her eyes wander back to Sasuke.

He’s thinking of power, but Sakura can hardly fault him. She is, too. But she can see it, hazy and almost-formed: shoulder-to-shoulder, the dark of the world pushed back by unstoppable light.

A murky future, not even clear in her mind’s eye. The kind of shining glimpse you kill and spill blood and fight for.

He doesn’t have the image in mind of the three of them strong together. She knows that. He is thinking of teamwork as a means to power, though, and it’s a handhold, a grip she can use.

He has no idea, but that’s okay. It’ll be more than obvious soon.

“But what if we get a sucky jonin?” Naruto’s brow furrows. “They’re already late. What if they’re always late? What if we don’t learn anything!?”

Horror creeps into his voice, and a paler version into Sakura’s skin.

What if? Then: Sasuke will leave the village, a traitor; Naruto will turn as a sunflower in the direction of his light, stunting his own growth to follow; and Sakura will fall to her knees, a beggar, before the strongest woman in the world.

Or they would have.

“Then we teach ourselves.” She doesn’t recognize her own voice.

It comes as if from underwater, muddled even to her own ears. This is a turning point, a crossroads. She still feels like a dreamer walking—dissociative, her training whispers, though hours poring over thick scrolls with advanced jargon proved useless when there was nobody left to heal.

Her body is small and her hair is long, but her mind keeps flinching. This feels more like an elaborate, dangerous distraction than anything, like she’ll wake up with her face pressed into the bark of a tree and adrenaline sharp in her veins, cursing stupid, stupid!

It’s real, though. Every time her eyes unfocus, her guard comes down, she sees walls around her, hears talking and it’s still unexpected enough to make her reflexively grab her chakra, yanking it to a standstill.

There’s no genjutsu.

Her words appeal to Sasuke, independent seeker of strength. They appeal to Naruto, who has had to claw every bit of knowledge, win every hurdle up to this point, painfully alone. Here are two who haven’t had anyone; and herself, having lost everyone, still wild-eyed and disbelieving by turn.

Naruto sucks in air and stares at her, looking between them. They know each other—have known each other—from years of shared classes and living in the same village, but this is different. This is a pact to stand strong (together) when life would let them falter, not just one hand held out but two; support, on either side, swathed in bold defiance.

This is chakra shared in the dark, softly forbidden; the promise of priorities, team-focused; loyal heretics challenging every bit of the status quo.

Sakura cleared her throat.

“Mission objective?” She challenged, and this throat never went without speech for weeks and months. Her voice should not be gruff, but her eyes sting.

Black and blonde heads bend to chaos. Naruto ruffled through his pockets until he produced an old, worn leaf of paper. On it he wrote “1.”

“What’s our main goal?” He asked openly, looking up with the pen on his lip.

(He paused for input instead of blundering through and it shouldn’t be surprising, it shouldn’t, but Sakura still kicks herself for how a single ounce of attention has led to this. Of course he would do everything himself. Why ask and wait if nobody listened?)

“Let’s prioritize recon on our teacher.” Sasuke asserted, eying either of them for objections. Naruto shrugged, jotted that down.

“And then is… we need strategy, right? For teamwork.”

Sakura nodded, taking the abstract to the realistic with ease of practice. How quaint, to have time to form a game plan like this. And without lives hanging in the balance, too.

“Safe to plan for three against one.” She opened both palms. “How can three fresh genin take on a jonin?”

“Cheat.” Naruto said, immediately.

Sasuke snorted.

“We’re already cheating.” He dropped one hand, leaving the other to prop up his chin, and started counting on his fingers. “What can we, specifically, do? What do each of us bring to the table?”

Sakura felt the wisp of chakra against her chest, sage chakra stored as a folded flower, and folded down the strength of herself to match.

“The academy three.” She licked her teeth, considering. “Shunshin.”

Well, probably, anyway.

Sasuke’s eyebrow darted up, some level of impressed. She did not bare her teeth at him.

“My aim is shit, though.” She admits instead. The rapid deaging ensured it.

“That’s okay, Sakura-chan!” Naruto assured. “We’ll help!”

“Idiot. You’re just as bad.” Sasuke said. Then: “I’ve got the basic three, above average taijutsu, and the Uchiha grand fire ball.”

“Oh!” Both turned to the blonde exclamation. “I can make clones now!”

And the universe trembled, Sakura thought, unable to help a small grin.

“You mean without them wobbling all over the place and falling apart?” Sasuke had no pity.

“No!” Naruto protested. “Like, solid clones! Real ones!”

“The shadow clone technique?” Sakura asked, just to see him nod, eager.

And then the spark of an idea, daring. She blew it into flames.

“I’ve read about it.” She has, too. “It’s supposed to be monstrously dangerous. High-level jonin rarely make more than one, because of the chakra cost.”

“Hm. How many can you make?” Sasuke asked, catching on. It wasn’t exactly a secret that Naruto had more chakra than he knew what to do with.

Naruto rubbed the back of his neck.

“I dunno. Fifty?”

Sasuke choked, tried to recover by coughing.

“And,” Naruto volunteered, “I’ve got trap stuff! Smoke bombs, exploding tags, trip wires.”

“Not enough to take down a jonin, but good for distractions,” Sasuke observed, only a little begrudging. He almost had his breath back.

Naruto beamed.

“Okay,” he laughed. “Priority one: find out everything we can about the jonin assigned to Team Seven.”

He waited, but they only nodded. A touch of red stole into his cheeks.

“Um. Priority two: combine…” He wrote as he spoke. “our talents… into a strategy… tailored… just for them.”

Sasuke leaned over, snorted.

“You wrote: ‘Kick his ass’.”

“I’m not wrong.” Naruto set his jaw stubbornly and Sakura laughed, surprising herself.

“Whatever.” Sasuke shrugged it off, donning a game face. “Where do we start?”

“Well, I figured we could just raid the academy file room.” Naruto scratched his nose.

They stared at him.

“Have you… done that before?” Sasuke looked painfully unsurprised, but still disbelieving. Sakura imagined the young troublemaker of her childhood—not hard, with his whiskered self right in front of her—with no jutsu to his name, somehow getting into heavily guarded restricted spaces.

She could see it.

She could see it disturbingly well, actually.

“Yeah, of course. I changed my ninja picture back to the sage paint one, like, three times before they gave up trying to fix it.” He laughed again, proud.

“Naruto…” Sakura began, pieces sliding into place slowly. It’s something she hasn’t thought about in years, if at all. “How did you learn the shadow clone technique? It’s only recorded in the Forbidden Scroll, the village’s record of secret techniques, written by the Second Hokage and under twenty-four-seven guard in the Hokage’s library.”

She’d always figured someone—some jonin, somehow—had taught him, though now that she thought about it, who could have? Who would have?

Disturbingly, Naruto doesn’t contradict her.

He blinks at her, nods.

“How did you ever see it? Did the Hokage show you?” She pressed. It didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, not really, but the lack of knowledge itched like a fully solved puzzle with one piece missing.

He’d died, bled out, and suddenly there were no more opportunities for questions. It happened often: back when there were pockets of resistance, when there was some hope for victory and rebuilding, when there was time between battle to regroup and laugh and live, because they had to-- every time she’d turned to share some observation, or joke, or idea with him, and found only empty silence, the wound of her grief ached somehow more raw.

“No, of course not.” The baby-faced Naruto of the present says, and she shakes, tries to tune back into the here and now. He laughed. “I just took it. It’s… a long story.”

He strokes the back of his hair, sheepish.

Just took it, rings through the room and Sakura’s ears. And yeah, sure, in their older years he got away with starting wars, but as a child?

From a crumbling wasteland to a thriving civilization, with social cues and rules, to the young jinchuuriki who flips everything on its head and laughs at the established order of things. It’s jarring.

“You just ‘took’ the forbidden scroll of Konoha?” Sasuke sounds strangled. At least she’s not alone.

Oblivious to either of their disbelief, Naruto scoffs.

“What, like it’s hard?”

True to his word, Naruto is in and out of the file room with none the wiser. It is two parts sneaking, one part familiarity, and three parts masterfully timed distraction. Even Sasuke is impressed.

While teachers swarm like a kicked hive, trying to get the glitter off, Naruto effortlessly maneuvers through the clear spots in the paint.

“Hey guys!” he whisper-shouts, waving the folder. He shuts the door behind him. “So get this—our teacher is some guy named Hatake Kakashi.”

But there the door doesn’t close all the way, and Sakura is tensed with the precursor to movement before she remembers anything: not the weapons at her pouch, not her size, not the past or any such animal as ‘consequences.’ Chakra floods her system because Naruto is tiny but alive and there is someone at his back

And then she stops. They’re in the village. Not in danger. It would have come to her eventually, probably after she’d splattered an attacker’s insides against the wall, but instead it hits her all at once.

It’s Kakashi-sensei, and that stills the rage in her.

It disappears as swiftly as it’d come, but the tightness of her throat doesn’t ease. The adrenaline ebbs like a tide and leaves her shaking, just a little. Right, it’s from the adrenaline. Not the man leaning so-casually in the doorway before them.

“That’s right,” he says, teasing and playful in a mocking way. “And you three…”

His eyes sweep over them, taking in the way Sakura had been ready to move without thinking about it, the folder in Naruto’s raised hand.

“Well, I’m not impressed. Meet me on the roof in two minutes.” He disappears, three or four leaves fluttering to the ground in his wake, and Sasuke huffs.

“What a dick.”

Naruto laughs, startled. He goes to the window.

She swallows, breathes. Tries to ignore the way her eyes sting, utterly useless. A wealth of emotions had surged in her, completely involuntary. She doesn’t have time to unpack all that, and certainly not within the given time limit, so she throws the whole suitcase out.

“We didn’t get to work on teamwork.” She complains, and if her breathing is still shaky, well. It’s never stopped her before.

“Let’s just keep an eye out for opportunities to work together.” Sasuke sighs.

“Let’s find a way to gang up on this asshole and take him out.” Naruto half-agrees, half-corrects, one foot on the sill and Sasuke rolls his eyes as he pushes the blonde out of the way and out of the building. Naruto yelps but lands, like a cat, on his feet.

Sakura hops out after them, light on her feet despite the fact that her legs are at least a foot shorter than they ought to be. It means every step, every leap, takes careful thought and it’s exhausting, honestly.

She’s not used to working against her instincts, honed to a razor’s edge and often the only thing keeping her alive, keeping her going.

“Let’s kick his ass.” Sakura agrees, thinking of bells and books and shoddy, shoddy teamwork.

Her boys laugh and snarl and she thinks, then, of shoulder blades to shoulder blades and darkness flinching against strength unwavering.

They scale the building as fast as they can, skilled fingers finding hand-holds on the brick and wood. Sakura slips, once, and a tan hand darts down to grab her wrist before she can save herself with chakra by accident.

Naruto has done this before and it shows, but he’s too eager, showing off—he overestimates himself and goes for a grip just out of reach. It’s Sasuke who snatches his sleeve, restores his balance, and Naruto shoots him a quick grin of thanks.

It’s been longer than two minutes by the time they lever themselves over the roof, probably, but Kakashi is still there. He doesn’t have his book out, eyeing them with sharp disdain, and it’s uncomfortable—for Sakura, at least—to see such disinterest in a familiar, important face.

He was wrong, though. The first time around, he was wrong, and Sakura has the perfect opportunity to beat it into his pretty face.

Her Kakashi had lived with the regret of failing Team Seven, until he hadn’t.

This time he wouldn’t get the chance.

“Well, let’s introduce ourselves, shall we?”

 

 

Chapter Text

Déjà vu permeates the air of the rooftop, painted golden by the falling sun. It’s far off the horizon yet. Was it gold last time, cast with firelight in her memories?

Kakashi across them is so young. Looking at him feels like wandering around in her too young skin. God help them, he’s barely older than she is.

“You first.” Naruto challenges, loud and scoffing. Sasuke looks similarly unimpressed, both waiting to be wowed by the man supposed to take them to new heights. He won’t, though.

She doesn’t know what Kakashi’s motivations were the first time, can’t imagine foisting a team off on a Jonin that truly doesn’t want one. It’s a recipe for disaster. It’s not happiness that she feels, seeing him. Trust, yes. Fondness, yes. He’s alive and he’s hers. But she’d near worshipped the man at one point and he hadn’t lived up to it, at all.

He’s supposed to make them better. Make them strong. He won’t, though. If anything, they became strong in spite of him.

Maybe it was too much to put on one broken man. Maybe he should have done better. Maybe he will, this time, if Sakura has to drag competence out of him with both hands.

Assessing pale green eyes watched his every move from between the boys, all expression gone from her face. Watching. Wary.

It was familiar in a way Kakashi couldn’t place.

Unsettling, to see such from a pastel little girl.

“Who, me?” He gives a halfassed spiel, watching for their reactions. The dark haired one looks to the girl, radiating disbelief. She huffs, amused if anything. The blonde—the blonde so like his father, yet his mother in every word and action, so loud—complains at the top of his lungs.

Finally, he decides to do it better.

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto, ‘ttebayo! I’m going to be the next hokage! I like ramen and, and, making traps! I’m good at it, ‘ttebayo!”

Sasuke scoffs.

“Uchiha Sasuke. I’m going to become strong enough to kill…” Indecision spikes in his features. ‘My brother?’ No. ‘Itachi’, far too painful. A name he’s likely never used, preferring instead epithets that died that night. “.. someone.” He finishes, lamely.

“I don’t like much of anything. My hobby is training.”

The pink haired girl picks it up, considering for a moment with her head cocked sideways. Something in her expression raises all the hairs on the back of Kakashi’s neck.

“I… am Haruno Sakura.” She says, measured, oddly intense. “What I like… is not relevant. I’ll get to know my team as we grow together, on missions. I have perfect chakra control. My team… Team Seven… is going to become the strongest three-man frontal assault squad in history.”

Cool determination in burning crystal eyes and such a surety to her words that Kakashi frowns, caught off guard.

“Yeah!” Naruto pumps his fist into the air. “Nothing can stop us, ‘ttebayo!”

Sasuke rolls his eyes at the antics, but a smile curls up one corner of his lips. Stupid, he’s clearly thinking, but already it’s almost fond.

Kakashi is pinned in place by the familiarity, the ghosts he can see. One hyperactive knucklehead, determined to be recognized. One brunette, quiet and not shy with his disdain. The last, too calm by far, the eyes of a wolf looking out of her face—eyes no genin should have. None of them nervous, none of them worried. And unlike his team, they’re not trying to kill each other.

Prior to this meeting, he would have pegged the avenger as the little ‘Kakashi’ of this team, the little girl ‘the peace-keeping medic unfortunately bad at keeping the peace’. Their dynamics are wrong and he’s not prepared to deal with them.

The girl, especially, is not what he expected. There's something achingly familiar about her, an air of child soldier that she shouldn't be wearing, yet. He thinks of how they discontinued the practice of early graduation after the Uchiha Massacre; thinks of what he'd have done, a child prodigy, in the wake of Itachi's disaster. Kept his head down, probably. Waited.

It's too soon to say if this is that kind of situation, though. His paranoia is getting to him. Strange eyes don't make a smart kid a genius.

He's seen a lot of kids in the Hokage's long line of attempts to saddle him with genin.

None have impressed him overmuch.

All of them had failed in the end.

Still, this bunch is... disquieting. For the first time, he'd come in with specific expectations, and they're being destroyed one by one. 

“When’s our first mission?” The Uchiha asks, straight to the point but surprisingly affable. There’s no cutting disdain, no superiority. Only calm efficiency.

“Will there be team training first?” Naruto demands, looking at either teammate before bearing down on Kakashi. The girl is silent, watching him.

He shoves the ghosts aside, longing for the memorial stone, and pulls up a dramatic air. They’re children, so he’ll humor them. Anything to get this over and done with.

“Well, first is the real test, of course. That academy nonsense? It’s the bare minimum. To see if you’re truly ready to act as a three man cell, each Jonin tests their teams personally. Fail… and you get sent right back to the academy.” He smiles through the threat, ready for explosions of denial and outrage.

Instead they look at each other, something unspoken sparking between them. Unexpectedly, it’s Naruto who grins back at him, not indignant at all. If anything, his expression is the picture of at ease. He leans back with his palms on the steps, as unworried as possible.

“Alright.” He says, somehow the mouthpiece. “What do we need to know?”

The brunette snorts, not even bothering to try to hide it.

Kakashi ignores their weirdness. Kids are weird. Sadly, this isn’t his first rodeo.

“First, the time and the place. Meet me tomorrow at the Nakano river, at zero seven hundred sharp.” He holds up another finger. “Second, make sure not to eat anything beforehand. Training this intense will have you throwing up anything in your stomach.”

Confusion caught the Uchiha’s brow; the blonde started to open his mouth but the girl shushed both of them. Curiouser and curiouser.

Kakashi smiled with his eye.

“Third, don’t forget to have fun!”

He vanishes in an obnoxious puff of smoke.

Sasuke scoffs.

“Oh we are going to have the most fun.” He mutters. “Please tell me it’s a fight. It must be, right? A combat assessment?”

“Probably.” Sakura cracks her knuckles, familiar. Grounding. Tries to not to get lost in the swirl of possibilities swimming around them.

“We’re not really going to not eat, are we?” Naruto asks, a mishmash of negatives. It takes a second to parse and by then he’s off again. “Cuz we’ve trained hard before and that’s just dumb, right? If anything we should wake up earlier to eat, so that the food’s all digested and stuff!”

“Correct.” Sakura observes dryly. Inspiration strikes. “In fact, going by today, there’s a chance he might be late again. We should bring lunch as well. If he bothered to warn us, he’s probably hoping we’ll be hungry. If he’s really late on top of that…”

“We’ll be off our game.” Sasuke allowed. “Weak, hungry, irritable…”

“I’ll bring lunch!” Naruto volunteered.

“No ramen.” The other two chorused.

“I will not bring lunch!”

“I’ve got it.” Sakura assured, and for a painful moment wondered if that’s a thing her parents would do. Maybe? She’d never asked them before. If nothing else she could buy them lunch, again.

“You shouldn’t eat ramen tonight, either.” Sasuke eyed their third teammate with something a hair warmer than disdain. Exasperation, maybe. “You’ll need all your strength tomorrow so you don’t drag us down.”

Naruto puffed up his chest. Then deflated a moment later.

“I don’t know how to make much else, and people don’t like to sell me fresh ingredients.” He admits, quiet and grimacing. He scuffs a rock with the toe of his shoe.

For a moment, rage burns across Sakura like a flash flood. She reigns it in, takes a few deep breaths in time to see surprise at home on Sasuke’s face.

“Is that because most of the village hates you?” He asks, before Sakura can think of something better to step in with.

Mutely, scowling, Naruto nods. He looks so young, clothed in a tattered jumpsuit. Sakura loves the village more than most but she’s not blind to its mistakes and this is one of the greatest. Actually, here are two of its greatest mistakes.

Across from her Sasuke and Naruto embody every wrong choice the Leaf has ever made.

“That’s so stupid.” Sakura says, unamused. “My parents run a shop. You can buy food there until you’re hokage.”

Naruto’s head snaps up, eyes wide, negative emotions wiped off his tanned face.

“Or you can henge into me,” Sasuke proposes, frowning. “The shopkeepers fall all over themselves trying to give me discounts. Just don’t talk and you can pull it off.”

Naruto’s blue eyes look close to watering and for a moment, despite her love for it, Sakura could burn the whole village down.

Sakura can’t remember if her parents got over their reflexive dislike of Naruto, but if it comes down to it, she’s not afraid to get her own place. As a genin, she’s legally an adult. Moreover, there are sparsely-furnished shinobi barracks available for a pittance she could take advantage of, small apartments for people who don’t want to maintain a house, or take long missions more often than not and can’t justify the leases.

“Eat dinner at my house.” She says, abruptly. “Both of you.”

Better to figure out now if she’ll need accommodations elsewhere. A small part of her-- some small voice that must have been in this body when she moved in, because almost all useless musings had been burned out of her during the war-- insisted that her parents should love her more than they hated anyone.

The two orphans exchange looks, something passing between them. But Sakura has been an orphan, too. She powers over both burgeoning excuses.

“Don’t make that face, it’s a good idea. We’ll never agree on somewhere to eat out and we need to come up with a few simple strategies for tomorrow. The more familiar we are with each other’s strengths, the better we can cover for each other’s weaknesses, the harder we can kick Kakashi’s ass.”

Against the speed of her strike and the logic behind it, the two can do little but grudgingly agree. They walk back through the academy building slowly. Odd. That day so long ago, this day repeated, was their last time there.

After attending daily for years, it hadn’t really occurred to her the first time around how she’d never see it again. The classroom, at least—she’d seen the mission desk often enough. The academy building and the non-classified-classified file rooms were married with the Hokage’s office, crawling with ANBU and security.

It made Naruto’s casual pilfering of the Hokage’s library that much more unreasonable. Then again, isn’t this all unreasonable? Such childish worries and thoughts, genin teams and missions and learning jutsu.

At some point the world had become so fragile. Sakura’s not sure when. The illusion of a village stretches around them as the boys follow her outside the building, follow her home. Hey, mom, dad, can I keep them?

She and Kaguya had destroyed more in moments, split seconds of clash enough to rend the earth below, to tear apart the landscape like it was built of paper instead of earth, toothpicks instead of great oaks.

Konoha would last seconds, maybe. Even now Sakura’s eyes were tracking all the movement of the people around her, smoothing down instinctive flinches. It was weird to walk instead of fly, weird to leave her chakra unmasked. It seemed downright stupid, suicidal even, to stop watching for a goddess in white to come down in her peripheral vision and try to kill her, the last iota of resistance in a broken world. The last drop of chakra unreclaimed.

This world is fragile, but real. Enough people pretend a group of buildings is invincible and it’s easy to believe it is. Even after the Kyuubi, people started to believe it again within years. Even in the future, people had forgotten Pein soon enough. The idea of the village endured, stronger than buildings.

Hell, she couldn’t even blame them.

Even years after the fall of every village, Konoha burned strong in her. The idea of it would never die as long as she breathed. And she’d fight for it.

Even now, she’d fight for it.

They walk through the streets in no particular hurry, exchanging no particular words. Each has a lot on their mind and by silent agreement, they’re waiting until they can once more bend their heads together, to discuss their plans.

Her parents, who she hasn’t seen or spoken to in so long. The house she’d woken up to this morning, dazed and still at war. Each step brings them closer.

Sakura loves her parents almost absently. Her father came from a line of shopkeepers and her mother was a genin for a handful of years before quietly retiring, unable to promote to chunin and unwilling to take the exams over and over.

There are little things about them—things that she’s forgotten since they died, constantly moving forward with no time to look back and remember-- that rush back as she takes the familiar route home. She’s still disassociating. Still too short. Moving on instinct, no time to plan. Going through motions that seem impossible and hilarious by turn.

She’s laughed so much this afternoon because everything just seemed so absurd, when it wasn’t heart wrenching. Was she really here? Was this really happening?

Glimpses of consequences darted like fireflies on the horizon, things she wanted and encouraged, but even with two dead boys walking alive behind her, she’s unable to really stop and process.

Part of her doesn’t want to. Stopping is dangerous. Moving forward is all that’s kept her alive. Another part recognizes that everything, all this-- it’ll catch up to her eventually. And then she’ll have to deal with everything.

She isn’t looking forward to it. With easy grace, she pushes her worries aside. Action only. One foot in front of the other.

Soon enough, her house comes into view and she angles her body accordingly. The boys follow her lead. From there it’s muscle memory, once again dreamlike. Dizzying in its oddness and familiarity, the ghost of doing this a thousand times.

She knocks twice on the door frame as she opens it, slipping off her shoes.

“I’m home!”

“Sakura!” Her father calls, pleased and jovial. That’s right—her mother often stayed to close up the shop, while her father went home early to cook dinner. She hated cooking. Sakura got that from her.

“I brought my team!” She announces, chin high. He pokes his head out of the kitchen to see her and them in equal measure, arms full, stirring something in a big bowl.

“How exciting!” She hasn’t managed to relax in her own skin, too war-hardened to melt under the childish notion that everything will be alright, her dad’s here, but the situation puts some of her at ease. It’s hard not to stare at a face that had long gone fuzzy in her memories.

She summons the confidence of her younger self, the unbending spine of her teen years, the unstoppable force she’d become at the end of the world.

“This is Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke.” She announces, walking into the kitchen and picking up a stirring spoon at the stove. Dinner is about half done and she stirs what needs stirring without thinking about it too hard. Then, she gathers plates from the cabinet—the step her father always forgets—and deposits them in the arms of an incredibly uncomfortable blonde.

“Naruto, you set the table. Sasuke, silverware’s in the drawer over there.” She points, and doesn’t give anyone time to be uncomfortable. If her father has any opinions about the village pariah, he says nothing. She can’t remember what she used to come home saying about either boy, but none of it was how she feels about them now.

“Dad, we’ve got a team test tomorrow,” She says as her mother walks in, when dinner is being served by their combined hands. “Do you think you could make bento lunches for us?”

“Sure thing, sweetheart. I think there’s enough rice left over from dinner. Any food allergies?” He addresses the boys themselves. Both respond in the negative, stunningly shy. Or at least quite quiet. They’d get used to it.

Something in her shoulders had relaxed at her father’s easy acceptance.

She had two whole parents—not enough for three people, not when six was the magic number, but she had two and that was more than enough to share.

“Oh, is this Sakura’s team?” Her mother exclaimed, entering the room, clearly having overheard. “I remember my team’s Jonin test.”

Instantly the complete attention of the boys is on her, despite trying to pretend they’re not interested. Despite trying to keep their heads down and avoid attention—Naruto in particular.

Sakura’s mom smiles knowingly. But first they have dinner. First they eat, and then her mom tells what she remembers—so different from the bell test, but still educational in its own way—and after dinner they gather around the low table in the living room and plan.

It's frustrating. They disagree a lot, especially at first. They throw out ideas that can't work, ideas that Sakura knows won't work, and make countermeasures within countermeasures for when their Jonin opponent inevitably outwits them at every turn. They bank on him underestimating them. They bank on him trying to trip them up, to test their resolve, to pit them against each other. They come up with everything they can think of with their meager assortment of skills and, in them, Sakura can see the drive for each to improve, because when they throw all their skills into a pile, the pile is lacking. They're going to be better, do better, impress the shit out of this Jonin and then milk him for every technique he's got.

For Sakura, who knows the moniker "Kakashi of a Thousand Jutsu", this declaration is particularly ironic and satisfying. 

At a certain point, the boys have to leave—supplies waiting at their own homes, necessary for the test awaiting them—but Sakura can see that changing. Can imagine her room spilling over with weapons and seal tags in a way she’d never imagined in the other timeline. Clothes spilling out of her closet, too many to fit properly, in different styles and themes.

Tonight they leave, tired from socializing and wracking their brains for strategy, but tomorrow they might not—soon, heads of black and yellow might fall to mattress with hers, limbs crooked and tangled, close like a real team. Close like Ino-Shika-Cho in a warcamp, collapsed in a pile before a fire; close like Hinata and Shino and Kiba cuddled around Akamaru; close like they’d never gotten a chance to be, torn apart too early.

Surprisingly she wants, despite the raw feeling spread across her skin. Despite the struggle she has to step into too-small pajamas that somehow fit anyway, despite the oddness of sleeping in a bed, of sleeping indoors. Despite the odd not-grief that soaks her heart when her mother and father give her hugs, press kisses to her forehead. Despite the oddness, the itchy wrongness of not being a woman grown and fighting tooth and nail for every inch of life, all kinds of messed up, and unable to stop for even a moment.

Somehow, despite everything, she looks forward to tomorrow. It’s a new feeling. It’s something she might have known, maybe, the last time she was this age. Something she lost without noticing.

It settles under her skin, something fluttery and strong, something thudding and not-wrong; it’s the wolf with bared teeth, the hope that burned her alive. It’s warm and it lulls her to sleep, mind still exhausted from an ongoing war that this little body has never known.

Sakura counts stars stretched out through the village, head touching down to the soft pillow, and finds easy sleep for the first time in much too long.