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Five Petals

Chapter Text

i. This is not supposed to be happening.

Sakura had expected many things when Sasuke was assigned to her team. She'd expected daring rescues and escapes, Sasuke to be sweeping her off her feet with how effortless he made everything seem, him protecting her whenever she was put in harm's way.

Their most daring escape yet came of Sasuke stabbing himself in the thigh.

This is not supposed to be happening. All of Sakura's images of her teammates aren't supposed to be crashing down around her.

She watches Sasuke fight the strange snake woman who had put Naruto out of commission with a single strike to the stomach, following them as best she can through the trees, but a part of her feels miles away as her mind struggles to put together what she's seen.

Naruto had once again proved himself to be brave and true despite everything the world– and she– had thought about him, fighting and refusing to give up, standing firm where Sasuke had stepped back. Perfect hero and prodigy Sasuke had nearly– No. There was no 'nearly' about it. He'd given up. He'd surrendered. He'd surrendered for all of them, and balked in the face of danger until she'd screamed at him to go back into the fight.

And then there's her.

She'd called Sasuke a coward, but is she any better? All she's done is stand on the sidelines, weeping and screaming. Perfect student with a gift for genjutsu, smart and talented with all the potential in the world, once in a generation mind Sakura Haruno had stood by and watched while her teammates handled everything.

She tenses and readies a cry as she spots the substitution a second before Sasuke, but it dies in her throat when the packets of black powder ignite and she finally notices Sasuke's web of wires. Had he been setting this up the whole time? Why didn't she notice that? She's supposed to be observant. She's supposed to be intelligent. But she didn't notice Sasuke leading the snake woman on a deliberate path and weaving an intricate trap.

For a second she convinces herself it was genjutsu that hid it from her but that's no excuse– Sasuke's genjutsu technique dips just slightly below average, if she didn't sense it before now that only proved that she was nowhere as good as she thought.

She feels the heat from the dragon flame but she can't be happy for Sasuke when her mind is still spinning. What good was she this whole time? What good has she ever been? What is she good for when all she does is stare at Sasuke and Naruto's backs while they thunder ahead?

She clenches her fist tight and bounds down to Sasuke's side– She can't find out if she doesn't start moving.

Her voice comes out in a pale imitation of cheer as she stops next to Sasuke; "You did it… You okay? Don't worry, it's all over."

Even before the snake woman stirs Sakura doesn't quite believe that.

She hears the wire snap and feels the familiar crushing grip of the jutsu that had stunned them back at the fight's beginning as she stumbles forward onto her knees. This time her brain gets to work immediately– not a Leaf form of genjutsu, most likely tricks the subject's fight or flight response, forces you to freeze in the face of imaginary danger. Evidently the snake woman wasn't in the mood to invent a danger this time.

Sasuke forces the words out of his throat; "No… Impossible–!"

The snake woman moves in one swift leap to a branch several yards away. Sakura can see now that her face has been severely burned– So severely that the skin is peeling away. She can see a small corner of unmarred, pure white flesh through a hole in the skin, and a golden eye. It feels familiar, like a photograph from a textbook, or a torn-out page hastily tucked away in the back cover of an academy yearbook in a dusty storeroom.

Her voice shifts down into that of a man's as she speaks; "Such mastery of the Sharingan at so young an age, you're a true Uchiha after all… Yes, you'll do nicely."

All Sasuke can do is choke out a roar as he tries desperately to move, to fight against the jutsu like he had before, but he had much more stamina and chakra back then.

The woman? The man? The ninja continues on like they're talking to themselves; "You are definitely his brother. If anything, your eyes are even keener than Itachi's."

That name, that cursed name that Sakura suddenly stopped hearing the morning after the Uchiha Clan's population went down to one, gives Sasuke strength enough to shout, "Who are you– What do you want?!"

They chuckle, tossing the Heaven scroll like it's a ball; "My name is Orochimaru… But as to what I want, that will have to wait until we meet again," green flame starts to spread across the Heaven scroll, taking bites out of it until it's fully consumed, "which won't happen until you finish this test with the best score of all."

The words tumble dumbly out of Sakura's mouth; "The scroll–!"

Orochimaru doesn't even acknowledge her; "First, you'll have to defeat the Hidden Sound ninja who serve me–" Sakura's mortally wounded pride won't let that stand.

So she barks, "I have no idea what you're talking about, but if you've finished why don't you just beat it?! If we never meet again it'll be too soon!"

His voice comes out in a slither; "Oh, he and I will meet again…" His hands form a seal and his neck shoots upwards as it extends, head looping through the air towards Sasuke with his mouth open wide in a horrible grin.

The world slows down around her as Sakura's mind works at a breakneck pace. This is genjutsu binding her, her strength, especially when she's seen it before. She's seen how Sasuke broke its hold when it was far stronger and applied with far greater care. And now Sakura has something she's never had before– Something to prove to herself.

So she bites down on the side of her tongue, hard enough that she immediately tastes blood. She shoves herself up and she runs blindly forward with none of the grace she'd like but all the passion, all the fury and speed she has to spare. Her vision narrows down to a single point– Sasuke.

Several things happen all at once in less than a minute's time.

Sakura's elbow slams into Sasuke's side from an angle he doesn't anticipate, sending him tumbling end over end off the branch.

Sasuke rights himself just a second too late and without checking where he's going to land– When he does his knee twists, he feels a lightning bolt of pain shoot from his sole to his head, his leg gives out.

And Orochimaru's teeth sink down to the gum in Sakura's shoulder.

He rips them out with a ferocity and urgency he never would've used on sweet and soft little Sasuke, but he's too late. A small black flower, five petals all pointing out from an empty heart, blossoms between the holes where his fangs had been. Sakura's knees buckle immediately and she pitches forward, swooning off the branch. He prays that she'll land head first and save him a whole mess of time and trouble, but bright and brilliant little Sasuke breaks into a limping sprint and catches her in the nick of time.

He glares up at Orochimaru, Sharingan burning, bad leg and unconscious girl in his arms all that's keeping him from leaping up and tearing his teeth out of his mouth.

Orochimaru retreats into the shadows with a sneer and knowledge he would be the first to gain– Do not turn your back on Sakura Haruno.

This isn't supposed to be happening.

That's all Sasuke can think as the adrenaline peters out and he sets about the agonizing task of collecting his team. It's a task that shouldn't be agonizing, but thanks to Sakura's split-second decision he has to climb back up to Naruto by carefully channeling what remains of his chakra into his good foot and the arm not holding her. Between the pace and the pain it's enough to make Sasuke fall into a running narration of profanity as he inches up to Naruto.

He wants to blame Sakura. He wants to call her stupid and foolish and impulsive, and when he caught her he almost did. But the words had died in his throat when he noticed she was breathing short, shallow breaths, eyes barely open and glazed over, her temperature spiking up to dangerous levels in the seconds between Orochimaru biting her and Sasuke catching her. She keeps twitching, fidgeting, making pained sounds, but never rousing.

Whatever's happening to her would've been happening to him if she hadn't done something. And considering he'd been the one Orochimaru was aiming for, who knows what could've happened if he'd hit his mark.

The thought leaves Sasuke feeling very cold.

Naruto is also unconscious and shows no signs of waking, not even after Sasuke succumbs to his frustration and slaps him. Twice. Hard. With both hands occupied by people in critical condition and a leg that only hurts worse the longer he keeps trying and failing not to put weight on it Sasuke is forced to carefully navigate the interweaving branches down to the forest floor, and settles for rolling Naruto and Sakura into the first hollow in a tree he can find. Despite how his wounded pride is growling and snarling at him to find Orochimaru and strangle him with his own tongue, his wounded knee is telling him that this is as far as he's getting.

Sasuke regrets paying only the barest amount of attention when medic ninja came into the Academy to teach them basic field medicine, because after staring at Sakura and Naruto for five minutes of silence he has to admit that he has no idea what to do for them. He doesn't even know what to do for himself. He rifles through Naruto and Sakura's packs and the medical supplies they have on them are limited to the bare minimum necessary to plug up bleeding cuts, nothing he can use to wrap up a sprained (or worse) knee.

All he can find for Sakura's fever is some rags and a small canister of water which he clumsily uses to get a rag wet and put on Sakura's forehead like he remembered his mother doing for him when he was sick. And Naruto's problem is the polar opposite– he's ice cold, sleeping so soundly that he almost looks dead. Sasuke's checked his pulse four times now, it's so sluggish he almost misses it each time. Whatever Orochimaru did to him with that strike goes far beyond the reach of Sasuke's half-remembered knowledge of field medicine.

Sasuke leans back against the roots sheltering his team. The sun set quite a while ago now, his chakra reserves are slowly coming back, he could go out and look for food or help– Sasuke tries to stand and this time his leg doesn't even let him start to put weight on it. He comes tumbling back down into the dirt before he can even get halfway out of the hollow.

And for a moment, Sasuke just sits there, staring ahead into space, thinking about how it's been a very long time since he's felt quite this helpless.

He shuffles back out of sight. Carefully, humbly, Sasuke makes the handsigns for a very basic genjutsu– one that should make the hollow look empty to the naked eye. A part of him wonders why he's bothering. Sakura would've done it better.

Sasuke Uchiha, alone in the dark, takes a shuddering breath in, and waits.

This is not supposed to be happening.

Orochimaru had planned this for years– years! Every step of this coup and his personal project to find a new, perfect host had been orchestrated with such precision and accuracy it had even scared him a little, and then of course this happens! He has to talk himself down as his body sinks into the trunk of the great tree, the moonlight making his exposed flesh look positively ghostly, as he stews and simmers in impotent rage.

It's just his luck, isn't it? He runs through hundreds of worthless candidates, Itachi proves himself too willful to be taken, Kimimaro is too frail, and perfect Sasuke is yanked from his grasp by some clanless child of civilians who would die before the night was through. Nothing else for it– Sasuke will have to be taken by force. The girl has a one in a hundred chance of living, but he'll have Sound ninja kill her quickly and take her body back for study; if there was anything interesting about the poor clanless fool it was that her particular curse would further his research.

She should be proud. It's probably the most honor her family will ever receive.

He feels Anko's presence before she touches down on the branch and greets her through gritted teeth, "Not that I don't appreciate you coming to welcome me home, Anko, but let's keep it short. Sensei has had a very difficult day and is in no mood for games."

Anko bares her teeth in a fierce grin; "Good, neither am I."

Ordinarily he'd toy with her, set up a substitution for her to throw around to get her confidence up before bringing it down again, but he's in no mood. He melts into the tree as she tosses the senbon she'd primed in her off hand, distantly hearing them clatter against the wood as he quickly slithers around to rise up behind her. With a single half-seal, he reaches out and takes hold of her curse mark, freezing her in place and forcing a pained groan out from her gritted teeth. Anko's hand flies up to her neck, already doubling over as the pain shoots through her like lightning.

Orochimaru glares at her back as she falls to her knees; "I have no more patience for upstart little girls trying to be more than they are, Anko. Perhaps I should've learned that lesson better with you."

She meets his eyes over her shoulder, still burning defiant despite her complete disadvantage; "Why are you here?! Did you come back to assassinate Lord Hokage?!"

Orochimaru can't help but snort at how pedestrian that question is; "Of course not– I don't have nearly the manpower to do something like that. In fact, I'd come here looking for more, but my plans have been thrown slightly off course. There was an absolutely wonderful boy I had my eye on; I'd even had the same gift I gave you all ready to give to him. But it's been wasted on one of his friends– a girl of absolutely no consequence who'll likely die before morning."

Anko has the unmitigated gall to actually smirk up at him through the pain; "Yeah? Don't count her out yet. I survived, didn't I?"

Orochimaru disguises the jolt of shock that shoots up his spine by stomping on Anko's back with one foot, shoving her face down into the bark of the tree and sending another shot of pain through her curse mark for good measure. Anko cries out, her yowl like that of a cat with its tail caught in a mousetrap.

Anko's a filthy, defiant little stray, but she's also right. She had been even less than Sasuke's little pink hanger-on: a war orphan no one would lay claim to, because everyone had looked her over and seen nothing of any worth to claim. The only thing even he'd seen was that if Anko died in the experimentation process no one would come looking for her. But she'd survived. Out of ten test subjects, many more healthy and promising than her, she'd clawed and scratched through and come out better.

He can not afford to let the same thing happen to Sakura.

So instead he just smirks, forcing mirth and easiness into his voice as he drawls, "But why would I want another worthless castoff when I can instead have the Sharingan?"

Now that gets the fear of Heaven in Anko's eyes as they go wide and her breath catches on that name. Good. That's the look he wants to see in all his pupils' eyes.

He leans casually over, resting an elbow on the knee propped up by Anko's back; "By the way– Three genin from my village are taking part in this exam. It would be an awful shame if the exams were cancelled before they could prove themselves, wouldn't it? It would just crush them, and well… I don't know what I would do if you took away my fun. Keep that in mind, won't you, Anko my dear?"

With that, he takes his foot off her back and turns on his heel, stalking off into the darkness.

This is not supposed to be happening. And he's going to make sure it doesn't go any further.

Chapter Text

ii. Sasuke’s honestly not sure how much sleep he ended up getting that night. It was more than none at all, he knows that much from all the times he started nodding off and shook himself back to consciousness, but definitely not enough to matter. He’s hungry, he’s exhausted, both are leading to his chakra regenerating at a sluggish pace, and his teammates still haven’t woken. The most he’d been able to do was keep switching between the two rags he’d been using to keep Sakura’s fever down, but the water in the canister is running low.

The pain in his knee has come down to a consistent ache, but experimentally putting pressure on it turns that ache so sharp he doubts he could stand. Sasuke’s throat feels agonizingly dry. He’d been trying to worry mostly about his teammates (for once) so he wouldn’t contemplate exactly how bad it could get if he left his knee like this.

His reflexes, however, are perfectly fine he finds as the rustling of a bush and a dart of brown in the corner of his eye lead to him palming and throwing a kunai in its path before he can stop himself. His sharingan flashes, then sputters out, just in time for him to catch that he’d nearly skewered a squirrel. A tiny one, too.

Sasuke presses his face into his hands and groans, “I’m losing my mind.”

“Do you think he noticed the explosive tag?”

“Not likely– Look at him. He’s fading fast. What a waste of good Uchiha blood.”

“So it’s time to strike.”

“Soon. Just let him sweat for a little bit longer, and we’ll have him right where we want him.”

The paper the ninja stuck to his back is burning now and the squirrel runs and runs and runs as if the speed alone will put the fire out or tear the paper from his back. This forest was always a risk, foraging here was always dangerous, but usually in the way he expected, like from the tired boy. He knew how to avoid kunai and shuriken. But ninja knew how to catch squirrels when they needed them.

And now he’s being caught again, a hand covered in bandages that melt into a deep green grabbing him firmly but not crushingly out of the air. He squirms and squeaks and writhes to get out, but stops when the ninja’s other hand swiftly plucks the paper off his back and shakes it hard enough to put out the fire.

The world finally slows down and the squirrel considers the boy that caught him. Head fur cut into a straight line over his big round eyes and mouth in that friendly shape humans like; he opens his hand for the squirrel to sit in and escape should he choose.

“There, you’re safe now,” he says, “Who did this to you, little fellow?”

It doesn’t take too advanced a mind to know this human is sweet.

So he tells him of the ninja with the foreign smell who plucked him off the ground and put the tag on his back. He tells of how they sent him running at a tired boy guarding a sleeping girl with pink fur. When he mentions her the sweet ninja’s whole face changes, making the shapes humans made when they didn’t like what they were hearing.

“Please, little friend– can you show me the way there?”

The squirrel considers.

And he does.

Sasuke wants to think he’s finally passed out and having a nightmare when the three Sound genin drop into the clearing, but he knows he’s nowhere near lucky enough for that. Sasuke reads them quickly as he scrambles to cover as much of the tree hollow as he can– one hunched over with his face covered in bandages, one with spiky hair casually sitting on a big rock, and their female member with hair down past her waist.

“Not much of a lookout if you’re falling asleep on the job,” Bandage Face growls, one eye locked on him, “At least you don’t have to worry anymore now that we’ve found you.”

Spiky Hair one holds out a hand; “We’ll make this nice and simple– Let us take the girl, and you and Blondie get to live to see thirteen. Sound fair?”

Sasuke can only bring the Sharingan up for a brief, he hopes to Heaven intimidating, crimson flash as he hisses through gritted teeth, “No. Get lost before I make you get lost.”

The girl’s laugh sounds like a broken, tinny bell; “Don’t get cute, Uchiha– Right now you quite literally don’t have a leg to stand on. Be smart. It’ll be no big loss if you let us take her. We could even give you our scroll to sweeten the pot.”

Spiky Hair glares over at the girl; “Really, Kin? Do you wanna give him our wallets too if he says no to that?

Kin rolls her eyes; “Get over yourself, Zaku– It’s not like we can’t find some other soft Leaf genin to kill.”

Bandage Face narrows an eye at Zaku; “Remember our orders. She’s priority number one.”

Zaku’s glare hardens, but he shoves his hand in his pants pocket and growls, “Got it, Dosu.”

For a moment he’s not proud of, Sasuke pauses and considers how well he and Naruto could get on without Sakura. In theory, they could do fine. Between them both there’s enough power and skill to beat back other genin or the beasts of the forest, and with them back to one scroll they’d no longer be at a disadvantage against their competition. In theory, they could pass this leg of the exams.

But in practice he knows exactly what would happen. Naruto would wake up and lose his temper with him for letting Sakura go to her death and run off to save her. Sasuke would try to chase after him but never catch up on a bad leg. Best case, time would run out and they’d fail. Worst case, Naruto would get torn to shreds by the Sound genin and Sasuke would get eaten by a giant forest snake.

Surrender isn’t an option this time.

He digs in his heels and bares his teeth; “The only way I’m moving from this spot is if you drag me away.”

Dosu’s eye narrows in a grin; “That can definitely be arranged.”

They all leap at him at once, and with his chakra all but bottomed out Sasuke knows he only has one chance at stopping them, even if just in their tracks. His hands fly through the signs, he draws in enough air to fill his lungs twice over, and–

Fire Style– Fireball Jutsu!

At this close Sasuke’s vision is filled with bright blazing orange, like he’s staring into the sun. He can feel the fire singing the tips of his hair, his elbows below his armguards, even his knees, but he doesn’t care. He just keeps pushing, pushing pushing pushing until his lungs are empty and he can’t possibly make any more fire and he keeps pushing.

He pushes until the fire pushes back.

With a loud blast of noise and wind the flames come rushing around Sasuke and he barely gets his arms up in time to save his face. He feels bursts of lancing pain as licks of flame scorch through his shirt and across his legs but the wind as it keeps battering him puts them out before they can spread and destroy his clothes.

The wind stops and Sasuke brings his arms down– thankfully he hasn’t started a forest fire, everything’s too green for that, but bits of vegetation are smoldering on the edge of the clearing. Zaku stands directly across from Sasuke with a cocky grin, hands open wide to reveal a hole in each palm. So that’s where the wind came from. Kin and Dosu stand on each flank, not even a dusting of soot on either one.

“Some genius,” Zaku barks, “You’re just a run-of-the-mill dumb brute getting by on clan privilege! The family name won’t do crap for you here, princess.”

He doesn’t even have enough chakra to activate the Sharingan for half a second. Sasuke’s jaw tenses and he draws a kunai– Orochimaru had wanted him to begin with, right? Well if they wanted Sakura, they’d have to kill him to get her. One way or another he’d use his dying breath to tell Orochimaru to screw himself, and Itachi would know where to find him in Hell.

A blur of deep green, deeper than the whole forest, screams “Leaf Hurricane!” as it strikes each Sound genin hard in the chest and sends them slamming into trees and bushes on the clearing edge.

Sasuke’s mouth is smiling before he can tell it to stop and he’s letting out a hoarse, giddy, breath of a laugh; “No fucking way.”

Lee lands and immediately glares over his shoulder; “Do not think I came for you, Uchiha,” his eyes fall on Sakura, just behind him, “I made a promise, and I will keep it no matter the cost.”

Sasuke notices the squirrel perched quite comfortably on Lee’s shoulder and he nearly laughs again.

Lee leans down to gently let the squirrel dismount, and as he gets closer he murmurs to Sasuke, “What has happened to her?”

Sasuke shakes his head; “I don’t know.”

Lee purses his lips, large brows furrowing at the news (or lack thereof), before he fixes Sasuke with a stare that pins him to the spot; “I know you are exhausted, but she needs us now more than ever. I will fight– Please, hold the line as best you can.”

The fire of Uchiha Pride is easy to stoke, hard to soothe. It feels like measly sparks coming from nearly dead coals in the face of Lee’s dark, honest eyes, brimming with emotion that should be beyond Lee’s thirteen years. Sasuke doesn’t like to remember the life Itachi destroyed, but the only other time he’s seen eyes like that is when his father looked at his mother.

He respects it. But oddly, he doesn’t like it.

So he scoffs, “Make sure not to embarrass yourself in front of her.”

Lee bares his teeth in the sort of grin he imagines macaques use to intimidate rivals; “Oh… Sasuke Uchiha, I do not like you.”

He fluidly straightens up into a fighting stance, his back to Sasuke and the Sound genin where he’d been standing two days ago. Sasuke almost pities them.

Dosu is the first to stand, stalking forward and pulling his long sleeve back to reveal an arm guard filled with holes; “Zaku, Kin, you can have Sasuke. This one’s mine.”

He charges the tree hollow again, and Sasuke expects Lee to meet him in the middle with a strike. Lee does something quite different. Lee shoves his hand elbow deep into the dirt and wrenches up without even a grunt of effort an entire tree root, knocking Zaku off balance as he upends the soil while placing cover between him and the Sound ninja.

“I am positive there is some sort of trick to your attack! Therefore, I will not waste my time trying to dodge it,” Lee declares, “After all, I have seen your jutsu before!”

Lee takes advantage of their cover to slow down. Continuing the trend of doing things Sasuke doesn’t expect him to, he starts unwinding the bandages on his hands until he has a length of loose linen about a foot long each in each hand.

He spares one last glance over his shoulder at Sasuke; “This next jutsu places an incredible strain on my body, so please, be ready for the worst.”

Sasuke’s eyes go wide as he snaps, “Are you serious?! We’re no good to Sakura if we’re both broken! Why are you taking some stupid risk?!”

Lee looks away; “Because I am only permitted to use this jutsu under one specific circumstance– When it is to protect someone precious. I am not surprised you do not understand.”

Dosu comes wheeling around the root and Lee moves so fast Sasuke would need his Sharingan to track him. In a breath he’s in front of Dosu, foot slamming upward into his chin. Dosu goes flying up into the air, almost high enough to hit the first branch of the great trees above. Lee moves in another imperceptible flash and this time appears behind Dosu, bandages moving as if possessed to wrap tight around him and bind them together. Lee loops his arms around Dosu and crushes him close as he flips them both around to fall headfirst towards the forest floor.

And then, as if none of this was enough, Lee starts to spin.

“Take this! Primary Lotus!

Sasuke notices Zaku finish a round of handsigns and shove his hands into the dirt a second too late. The ground rises to meet them in a burst, sending Lee flying off on a diagonal while Dosu lands heavily up to his waist in the soil. Lee lands on his feet in front of the tree hollow, but wobbles unsteadily as he tries to push himself upright.

Sasuke resists every urge to say he told him so.

“I’ll expect a ‘thank you’ later,” Zaku snickers as Dosu extracts himself from the dirt, shaking off the impact.

“Don’t give yourself too much credit,” Dosu grouses, slowly turning back to face Lee, “That jutsu nearly took me out even with your rescue…” he pulls his sleeve back again, “But now it’s my turn.”

Dosu charges and swipes at Lee’s middle, but as Lee dodges the apparatus on his arm pulses and lets out a low tone that for a second makes Sasuke feel like vomiting, while Lee nearly falls on his ass trying just to stop moving.

For a second Dosu’s voice wobbles in Sasuke’s ears; “You’re fast, I’ll give you that much. But you’re not faster than the speed of sound.”

Of course. They’re Sound ninja. Of course they use sound.

Lee pitches forward and down to one knee as he fails to regain equilibrium and fails the fight against nausea, retching onto the dirt. A trickle of blood comes running down from one ear along the line of his jaw.

Dosu’s laugh scrapes at Sasuke’s already thin restraint; “I don’t need to hit you with my fists– I can hit you with the power of sound.”

“Old fashioned Taijutsu’s not worth much when you’re too dizzy to stand,” Zaku cuts in, pushing air in threatening jets out of the holes in his hands, “Face it, Eyebrows– you’re up against the jutsu of the future.”

Dosu skirts around Lee, bringing his arm up for another swipe; “Your turn now, Uchiha!”

Sasuke’s grip on his kunai is white knuckled as he pushes himself up on his good leg and braces for Dosu’s strike, but Lee comes wheeling in between them with a cry of “Leaf Hurricane!” he can’t even finish through another bout of nausea. Dosu lets out another grating laugh and brings his arm around for another strike, one Lee blocks, but Dosu’s amplifier lets out a high pitched whine that sends Lee crumpling to the ground, clutching his ear as more blood gushes forth.

Sasuke’s own shout surprises him; “He’s already down, leave him alone!”

Dosu’s eye slowly slides to Sasuke, and the bandages over his mouth bend with a concealed smirk; “Ah, right– I’d forgotten about you.”

Now his Uchiha Pride is burning bright and hot, and Sasuke brings his kunai up to point at him in challenge; “I won’t let you make that mistake again.”

“This looks really bad, guys– We should get out of here!”

“You’re underselling it, Choji. Naruto and Sakura are out, Lee’s not far from out himself, and Sasuke’s looking… Jeez, I didn’t know Sasuke could look that bad. So? What do you want to do, Ino?”

“Wh– Why are you asking me?!

“Aren’t you madly in love with him? I thought you’d want to keep him from getting killed.”

“I– I mean– That is, I…”

“Oh, right, I forgot. There’s absolutely no way Sasuke could lose a fight. Your words, right? You ready to stand by them?”

What do you want me to do?! Jump out there and get myself killed?! If Sasuke can’t handle them what the Hell makes you think we can?”

Sasuke grabs a fistful of shuriken in his off hand and lobs them at Dosu as he starts running. Zaku comes sprinting in before Sasuke gets too close, shooting out a blast of air to reverse their trajectory. Sasuke dives into a roll, just barely skirts underneath the tips of the shuriken and the force of the air– he comes out close enough to swipe at Zaku’s ribs with his kunai but too slow to make contact before Zaku can pivot out of his reach.

Sasuke stays low to the ground and lunges again– he bridges three inches of distance before a hand grabs the back of his headband at the knot.

Fuck, he forgot there were three of them.

Kin’s other hand takes a fistful of his high collar and she physically lifts him off the ground, swinging him around and tossing him like a discus with a great roar of effort. Sasuke smashes face first into the boulder opposite the tree hollow, his nose breaking on impact. As he bounces off and hits the ground, a part of Sasuke’s brain absently takes note of how he no longer feels the familiar weight of his headband pressing on his forehead.

He rolls to a stop and opens one eye just in time to see Kin twirling his headband by one untied end, strolling up to him with a wicked grin. Sasuke growls like a feral dog and has almost pushed himself up to his good knee when Kin reaches him and stomps on the bad one. He screams and swipes blindly at Kin with the hand he realizes too late is no longer holding a kunai. Her free hand catches his wrist in an ironclad grip.

She holds his headband above her head, looking for all the world like the academy upperclassmen that would take Naruto’s goggles and make him chase them all over the village to get them back; “You want this that bad, Uchiha? Come on, you’ll have to work for it!”

If Sasuke had any chakra left he would be spitting fire as he growls, “I’ll kill you, I’ll fucking kill you–!”

She steps easily over him, rearranging herself so she has a foot on his shoulder and is pulling back on his outstretched arm, tossing his headband into the bushes so she can hold his forearm with both hands; “Sure you will, princess.”

And then she yanks. Sasuke feels his joint pop out of the socket and there’s no other way to describe the sound he makes than a wail as it comes surging from his throat, louder and louder for every second Kin keeps pulling, scratching his throat raw as it claws its way out. She tosses him by the forearm back towards Zaku, who stops Sasuke’s roll with another stomp to his bad knee. Sasuke’s able to take one glance at it and see it’s becoming very purple before Zaku stomps again.

And, just for good measure, he does it one last time as hard as he can. Sasuke feels something crack then stops feeling anything in his knee at all. His cry makes his own ears ring, and there’s no denying the tears that are cutting clean streaks through the dirt on his face.

Lee is staring at him, pure horror in his big black eyes. Sasuke finally finds a reason to be glad Sakura and Naruto are unconscious– he’s not sure he could live with the shame of them seeing him like this.

Zaku grabs Sasuke by the hair and lifts him up so he can grin in his face; “Awh, our princess is so pretty when she cries, isn’t she?”

Screw it, he’s dying anyway.

Sasuke spits in his face.

Zaku doesn’t miss a beat, his face immediately twisting into a scowl and his free fist coming up to punch Sasuke square in the eye. Sasuke doesn’t have room to reel back with Zaku holding his hair so he almost leans into it as Zaku keeps punching him, likely for no other reason than to guarantee his eye will swell shut. Once he’s blackened his eye to his satisfaction, Zaku lets go of Sasuke’s hair and hits him with a blast of air to the chest just hard enough to send him tumbling into the root Lee unearthed.

He slides bonelessly down to the dirt, his good arm trapped beneath his side.

“Screw it, I don’t give a shit anymore what the boss wants,” Zaku shouts, pointing both palms right at Sasuke, “I’m gonna kill this little fucker!”

All Sasuke can think is, Finally.

There’s no way Sasuke could ever lose.

Ino had taken that for granted.

He’d seemed completely unbeatable in academy sparring sessions, mopping the floor with the likes of Naruto, Kiba, even her own teammates Shikamaru and Choji without even breaking a sweat or that cool, disinterested look.

This was perhaps the rawest way possible for Ino to learn that academy sparring was miles away from a real fight.

Shikamaru’s eyes are wide and he looks caught between leaping into the fray or away into the forest as he hisses, “This is about to get really ugly.”

Choji is shaking, past the point of stress eating, his appetite gone in the face of Sasuke’s blood painting the ground.

Somehow, all Ino can do is remember the first time she met Sasuke.

They’d been so small, too small for the academy and probably too small for the meeting of the clans they’d been brought to. He’d looked ridiculous in the little kimono and hakama he was wearing, matching his brother and father and yet looking like a tiny version of his mother with much spikier hair instead. Ino’s not sure why she judged– she probably didn’t look much more dignified in her own tiny kimono.

Due to alphabetical seating instead of prestige seating the Yamanaka and the Uchiha were closer together than they would usually be, so Sasuke was able to see her quite easily by just leaning over and looking down the line of clan representatives.

He’d smiled, the expression dimpling his little chubby cheeks, and waved at her. Her face had started burning as she waved back.

His older brother had gently pushed him back into sitting up straight, nodded at her in a polite but firm suggestion that she do the same, and Ino had left the clan meeting holding her father’s hand with a skip in her step because she was sure she was going to marry that sweet boy in the silly little hakama.

After a while Sasuke had stopped smiling and Ino had forgotten why she’d started crushing on him in the first place, the feelings dwarfed by her own sense of competition. But right here in this forest Ino’s brows furrow and she clenches her hands into fists, because she is sure that she’s not going to let that sweet boy in the silly little hakama die.

Sasuke’s vision blurs and he’s convinced that he’s finally fallen asleep and started dreaming, because now the three dumbasses from Team 10 are standing between him and the Sound genin. All Sasuke can do is blink sluggishly, taking in the whole scene; Nara is holding Akimichi’s scarf like a leash, Akamichi isn't even on his feet, and Yamanaka is standing tall between them, hands curled into white-knuckled fists at her sides.

So Sasuke just slurs, “No fucking way.”

“Yeah, that’s about how I’m feeling too,” Nara scoffs, a wry grin on his face.

Yamanaka smiles over her shoulder at him and something stirs weakly at the back of his mind, like a half-remembered dream; “Don’t worry, Sasuke. We’re not gonna let them get any closer.”

If Sasuke were in less pain and had any more faith left to spare, he would’ve remembered his manners and said Thank you.

As it stands, he just laughs like a drunkard and says, “Good luck.”

Chapter Text

iii. Darkness.



She’s not sure how long she’s been here, writhing in the dark and the hurt and the heat, listening to the two voices scream and whisper and argue and bargain.

“Come now child, won’t it be so easy to just slip away?”

Like hell it will be! I’ll take your power and use it to punch your teeth in!

“All you’ve done is drag those two down, leaving them will be a blessing.”

You know what sounds like a blessing to me? Coming out of this, being stronger, and tearing everything to shreds!

“You’ve done nothing. You are nothing. Do the world a favor and become nothing in the purest way you can.”

Tough shit– You’ve made me more than that!

The voices fought and snarled and scratched at each other until the familiar and the foreign suddenly started merging into one. They started agreeing. The old, the suppressed, the willful, saw the benefit in a compromise. The new, the sinister, the calculating, saw a use for her.

And then it was just one voice, caught between young and old, male and female, brash and reserved, musing out loud to her.

“Come on sweetie, don’t you want to wake up? Who knows how those two are getting on without you? They need you. They’d never admit it, but you’re what holds them together.”

The heat starts to die down. The pain starts to fade. The darkness starts to brighten. Because the voice has a point.

“Come on, think of it like this– With all this power, you’ll be on their level! Hell, you might be better than them. They’ll be watching your back now after all of this! Isn’t that what you want, Sweetie?”

Her vision starts to come back to her in blurry slices as her eyes try with all their strength to open– Ino, Shika, Cho, running through their clan’s techniques and showing off against these three people in foreign clothes and unfamiliar headbands, but quickly being pushed into a corner since they didn’t account for the sheer ruthlessness of their opponents– and she tries to move, but can only wiggle her fingers by inches.

“Just say yes, Sweetie– You don’t have to be nothing anymore. No more clanless child of civilians. You can be a legend with power like this. Power like this saves the world. Power like this gets its face carved in a mountainside. Power like this can demolish mountains. Just say yes, Sweetie…”

She forces her eyes open, one more time, searching for one important thingand she finds it, leaning battered and broken against a pulled up root.

Nose broken and bloodied.

Knee bent wrong, bruising past purple.

Arm limp, shoulder jutting out square instead of round.

Eyes black, no Sharingan, no chakra.

Sakura’s eyes shoot open wide and she lets the heat fill her from toe to crown as she growls, “Yes. Hell yes. Give it to me, NOW.

Sasuke had to admit it– Shikamaru, Ino and Choji could’ve gone the distance. They had fairly fine-tuned control over their clans’ signature techniques, though they’d yet to make them their own, and as always the Ino-Shika-Cho combination was built from the ground up to work together like magic when the right strategy was pushing it forward.

It was a shame that the right strategy is exactly what they didn’t have.

They’d leapt in half-cocked with no real idea of how to drive the Sound genin back beyond “overwhelm them until they give up”, and had made the fatal assumption that they cared what happened to their teammates. Now Shikamaru was at his limit, Choji was reeling from one perfectly timed hit, and Ino was stuck in a body no one was going to protect.

Sasuke swallowed hard and looked over to Lee– he was still on the ground, recovering poorly from the Primary Lotus and the relentless attack on his inner ear. Sasuke still couldn’t feel his left leg, and any relief that numbness gave him was replaced with the stabbing pain from his dislocated shoulder, broken nose, and black eye. He was still so low on chakra he was next to useless, and he hadn’t heard movement from the tree hollow since this whole fight began.

There was nothing left but to hope for death or a miracle.

Zaku grins a predatory grin as he crows, “Did you really think you could beat us? Face it, you Leaf ninja are just a bunch of hacks!”

Dosu’s smirk is evident under his bandages as he adds, “From a second-rate village.”

“Huh, that’s pretty tough talk. I guess that makes your village third-rate.”

Everyone's eyes fly up to the branches, and Sasuke can’t believe that they actually got the miracle.

Neji Hyuuga stands proud and defiant above the fray with the third clanless member of the team crouched at his side, her dark eyes immediately finding Lee and lighting up with concern. His arms are crossed over his chest and he looks down upon the Sound ninja like they’re little more than a pair of rats in some Hyuuga estate storeroom.

Neji glares down his nose at them; “I wonder if any of you amateurs are ready to take on the real thing.”

Since Sasuke is still convinced he might die here, he allows himself a moment to think that Neji is incredibly cool.

But since he still has a reputation to uphold in the event he lives, Sasuke just mutters, “About time you got here.”

Neji’s eyes settle on Lee as he lies in the dirt; “And I see one of you decided to work over our teammate…” he grits his teeth in a snarl and the veins around his eyes bulge outward as the Byakugan activates, “Who wants to admit to that?!

Now that gets the Sound genin to freeze, and Sasuke’s not above smirking in a sick sense of triumph; the Hyuuga were the Uchiha’s only rivals once the Senju all but disappeared, he’d been told and shown in great detail what they could do. Sasuke’s going to enjoy seeing Neji dismantle the Sound ninja piece by bloody piece.

All thought of that disappears from Sasuke’s mind as a rush of pressure hits him and hits him hard.

The hair on the back of his neck stands up on end, and he isn’t alone– everyone in the clearing suddenly freezes, tensing up, gasping, shivering from head to toe, and all eyes shoot to the tree hollow. Sasuke turns to look with his whole body.

For half a second, when all he saw was Sakura standing tall with her eyes wide open, Sasuke could only think it was another miracle.

But then he sees the rest.

Thousands of tiny black petals have exploded outward from the flower on her shoulder and spread across her body, covering just over half of it. Sakura had never had more than an average amount of chakra to her name, but now it’s quite literally overflowing, swirling around her in a sickly green cyclone and sloughing off her in pulses of heat and energy with so much force it cuts lines in the ground. She stands slightly hunched over, arms hanging loose, looking up from a downturned face like an animal about to lunge.

But more than any of that, Sasuke can’t look away from her eyes.

They’re open wide enough to hurt, and the one thing he can see in them is a deep and twisting malice, an anger that’s festering and rotting and threatening to poison everything it touches.

He sees it in the mirror on the worst days.

Neji’s voice comes in choked horror from the treetops, “What in the world–?!

Kin’s voice carries Ino’s shaky, “S-sakura…?”

Shikamaru thinks fast and starts dragging Ino’s body to the bushes, shouting, “Get out of there, Ino! Now!” Ino doesn’t move. She doesn’t even look like she heard him. She’s just staring ahead, frozen, a look of uncharacteristic fear distorting Kin’s features.

Sakura’s eyes turn to Sasuke, and for a brief flicker there’s the worry he’s used to from Sakura before the anger covers it up again and she growls, “Tell me who did this, Sasuke.”

A thousand different words fight to get out of Sasuke’s mouth, shoving and pushing and scratching, and all that ends up escaping is, “Sakura… What in the…?”

Something like recognition sparks in her eyes, and her mouth pulls from one side up into a bizarre parody of a smile; “Don’t worry, Sasuke. I’m stronger now. I can protect you…” the Not A Smile widens into an angry, primate grin, “So just tell me who the Hell it was.”

Sasuke’s throat dries up, and no matter how much he wants to speak all that comes out are hoarse breaths.

One singular thought crawls into his brain, word by agonizing word: This is no miracle.

Sasuke’s shocked back into the present by Zaku sneering, “I’m the one who roughed up your princess, sweetheart! What’re you gonna do about it?!”

Sakura’s eyes snap to him and her chakra flares up around her, sending another pulse of pressure across the clearing. The black petals flash a magma red as they creep further across her body, covering another inch of her skin, and those bared teeth fall open as she lets out a long, furious breath. Sasuke turns to look at the Sound genin– Dosu is slowly backing up, exposed eye wide open in naked fear. Kin, Ino, both are too shocked to move. And Zaku is pure arrogance, readying his hands for a blast of air.

“Come on Dosu,” Zaku laughs like a blood-drunk hyena, “Don’t tell me you’ve chickened out!”

Dosu reaches out to Zaku but all he can do is shout, “Zaku, no! You don’t understand–!”

Zaku shouts over him; “Watch this! I’ll take all three of them out in one shot! Super-sonic Slicing Wave!

The rush of sound and wind is deafening, but Sasuke doesn’t have time to feel it before Sakura’s grabbing his collar in one hand and Naruto’s in the other. He feels another pulse of chakra, the very singular feeling of jutsu cast without a hand sign, before Sakura darts at a breakneck speed around the Sound genin to the other side of the clearing. Sasuke nearly gets whiplash from the sudden start and stop, and when the sound and fury of Zaku’s attack finally dies down all that remains where Team 7 had stood is a storm of pink petals.

Zaku doesn’t even have time to whirl around before Sakura’s behind him, slamming an elbow into the base of his neck. Sakura’s taijutsu and physical strength had always been, quite frankly, terrible– but that blow sends Zaku spinning through the air and into Dosu, knocking them both over. As they pick themselves up, Sakura savors the moment, that horrible Not A Smile stretching her mouth into a misshapen scar of teeth.

“Come on, boys,” she warbles, “You gave everyone else such a thrashing– Don’t tell me you all lost to this!

Zaku takes her bait like clockwork, throwing his hands up again as he roars, “Come here and say that to my face you little bitch!

Sasuke’s vision blurs and Sakura is in Zaku’s striking range; “Careful what you wish for.”

She swings wide with her right fist but this one is just slow enough for Zaku to strafe around her, avoiding the blow. He fakes around to her left, she turns to follow, and Zaku jukes back to the right with a hand wide open and going right for her head. Sasuke’s mind cooks up a horrible image of Sakura’s skull being blown clean apart by compressed air and he starts to call out, but Zaku’s already grabbed her long, silky hair and wrapped it tight around his fist.

He yanks it back and jeers right in her ear, “Gotcha! If you spent as much time on your taijutsu as you do on this hair I wouldn’t be about to blow your head off.”

He mashes his palm against the back of her head and a wave of sound explodes out into Sakura. With a violent shudder her body bursts into yet more pink petals, but Sasuke notices one other thing– hair. Countless strands of Sakura’s long hair fly into the air all around Zaku’s hand, and when Sakura materializes behind him she’s holding a kunai in her right hand, her hair chopped messily short just above the nape of her neck. Her headband slides off and clatters to the ground.

Before Sasuke can process that Sakura’s hand shoots out and buries itself in Zaku’s hair at the crown of his head, pulling back hard so his chin points at the sky and he lets out a strangled screech.

She positions the point of her kunai as close to Zaku’s pale neck as she can get and hisses, “You talk too much.”

And she brings the kunai down.

Ino lets out an ear-piercing scream in Kin’s voice, Zaku tries but the sound is wet and choked and cuts off completely as Sakura shoves the kunai as deep as it’ll go. Blood shoots out in a jet of crimson and when she lets his head go Zaku crumples to the ground, landing on his back, staring up at the sky.

The blood covers Zaku’s neck and dribbles onto the ground. Sakura stands next to him with her back straight, her face calm. Sasuke blinks and for that second of darkness he’s eight years old again in his parents’ bedroom face to face with Itachi, moonlight streaming in and making the blood look as black as his family’s hair. His eyes are wet with tears when he opens them again.

Sakura’s eyes slowly shift from Zaku to Kin, Ino, now with her hands covering her mouth as she shakes violently. Sakura’s mouth pulls into that Not A Smile once again.

“One down, two to go.”

Things come to Sasuke in shaking flashes as Sakura advances on Kin, on Ino, on them both.

Glimpses of her in the academy library as he cut through it, deep in books because she couldn’t rely on raw talent or a clan name to make her more than a chunin that peaks at twelve and does C-rank missions for the rest of her life.

Glancing from the corner of his eye at her staring at him when she should’ve been staring at the board during lectures, spring green eyes searching for the moment he would return her gaze so she could blush and hurriedly look away and smile to herself like she’d won her own private game. How she’d done that even when they were newly minted genin and introducing themselves to their sensei.

The view of her in the trees above, having mastered the fine chakra control necessary to get up there easily, kicking her legs back and forth and sticking her tongue out at them because for the first time she’d actually beaten them– and the brief thought of how impressive that was before he squashed it down.

The sound of Sakura sobbing as she held him in an embrace that pressed on Haku’s needles, the sound deep and forlorn like the wailing howls of a cat that had lost its kittens to a rushing river– a sound of complete, inconsolable anguish. Two thoughts, in quick succession. First, that the sound was beautifully honest. Second, that he never wanted to hear it again.

Her moaning with regret as they left the first exam that of course the goal had been to cheat all along– she couldn’t believe she’d wasted her time just answering the questions, sure they hadn’t been that hard but she couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid as to miss the point– and wondering how she could possibly think she was stupid.

In that moment, Sasuke realizes he knows Sakura far better than he thought.

And now he’s pushing his shoulder back into place, shoving himself to his feet, scrambling forward on limping legs and throwing himself at her back, tearing his voice out of his throat; “Sakura!

Sasuke is not graceful. Not perfect. He can’t be anymore.

His arms wrap around her but his momentum sends them both crashing to the ground, neither able to catch themselves. They twist and land on their sides, both scraping their cheeks on the dirt. Sakura writhes like a fish on a line and wrenches one arm out of his grasp to prop herself up, to glare down at him with eyes wide and teeth bared.

Sasuke couldn’t know what he looked like when he met her eyes but Sakura would see the look on his face behind her eyelids for years to come.

“Don’t do this,” he rasps, voice thick, “This isn’t you.”

It’s not quite instant. There’s a moment that feels like a year where she just stares down at him, eyes wide, body trembling. Then her chakra rushes up around her like a storm, nearly forcing Sasuke off, and the petals race back to their center, leaving her skin clear. She wriggles out of his arms so she can get up onto her knees, eyes darting from one injury to another, pure in their worry.

She’s Sakura again, fretting and babbling “I’m so sorry Sasuke, I don’t know what I–” in a voice that cracks and crumbles around sobs. It’s kind of annoying. But it’s annoying in that way Sakura always is; it’s common, simple, uncomplicated. It’s the kind of annoying that could only come from a girl who’d never had to worry about anything bigger than if her crush liked her back before her journey to the Land of Waves. So it’s the kind of annoying that makes him smile.

Dosu clears his throat and in an instant Sasuke is back in the Forest of Death with enemies bearing down on his team. He props himself up and cranes his neck to look around Sakura– Dosu has drawn back to the edge of the clearing, Zaku over one shoulder and an unconscious Kin near his feet. He’s holding his scroll out for them all to see.

“Clearly we underestimated you, Haruno,” he rumbles, placing the scroll neatly down on the ground, “A trade– the scroll for our lives.”

Sasuke’s mouth screws up into a frown and he’s about to shout the thousand questions on the back of his tongue, but when he sees Sakura’s face they get caught behind his teeth.

First: Her eyes slide between Sasuke and Dosu, as if she still doesn’t believe someone’s afraid of her strength.

Second: Her eyes settle on Dosu and they burn. She clenches her jaw and her fingers dig into the dirt and she looks ready to pounce.

Third: Her eyes slide closed.

“Deal,” she growls, “Get the Hell out of here.”

Dosu grabs Kin by the scruff and disappears into the treetops.

“We can’t tell Naruto about this.”

Sakura’s voice makes Sasuke jump. She’d been quiet since the Sound genin disappeared and their classmates came spilling into the clearing, busying themselves with Naruto and Lee. Sakura had just stared at her hands, softly shaking with pursed lips and wide eyes. He’d sat at her side– He wasn’t good with words unless they were mocking, and he remembered enough of his manners to say nothing at all if he couldn’t say anything nice in moments like this.

Now she was fixing him with an intense stare as she continued, “He’s already gonna make a huge scene after seeing what we’ve been through– We don’t need to give him any more to worry about. Especially since we don’t know what this thing is.”

Sasuke frowns, a hand drifting towards the mark before he realizes it’s moving; “How long can we keep it from him? Something might set it off again and…”

She fiercely shakes her head, taking his hand in a vice grip and pressing it to the ground; “We can’t let that happen. Not again. I’m not– I won’t–“ her voice catches and tears flood her eyes. She blinks hard so they won’t fall, but it doesn’t quite work.

Sakura’s voice falls into a whisper, “You know what the scariest part was? I wasn’t… It wasn’t like I was trapped, just watching. I knew what I was doing. I was thinking things like, ‘Oh now I can finally use that genjutsu I read about, I’ve never had enough chakra to do it myself’. I was proud. It was so easy to just… let loose. I felt strong and brave and…”

Sasuke squeezes her hand; “There’s always a catch to crap like this– You’re too smart to fall for something too good to be true.”

She laughs, but it’s a pale shadow of laughter, her eyes still focused on the dirt; “For being so smart, I’ve been feeling pretty stupid lately.”

Sasuke’s at a loss for words once again as Sakura solemnly takes a kunai and makes a shallow cut above her mark, pulling out bandages to wrap over her whole shoulder. The blood seeps in convincingly enough, and she binds it tight so she won’t bleed out or get an infection from a ruse. He hadn’t known there were multiple ways of feeling helpless, but today was proving to be very educational.

Ino’s voice breaks through the tension as she strolls over in a stiff-legged attempt at being casual; “Hey, Forehead! Want me to even up your hair? You’re looking pretty scraggly after the job you did on yourself.”

Sakura’s hand ghosts around the ragged edge of her hair, looking almost like she forgot she cut it. Then she slowly shakes her head.

“No, I’ll keep it like this,” she mumbles, running a hand through her long bangs, “It’s better if I remember.”

Ino pursed her lips, putting her hands on her hips and shifting from foot to foot, obviously trying to find some words to say but not coming up with anything.

Sakura saves her by asking, “But could you take a look at Sasuke? You’re better at field medicine than I am and he… He really needs it,” she smiles at him and gives him a pat on the shoulder she obviously meant to be reassuring, “I’ll go see how Lee’s doing, and… Thanks, Sasuke. For everything.”

Sasuke watches Sakura leave, but his eyes can’t linger on her for long as Ino settles down heavily in front of him, obscuring his whole field of vision as she leans in close and starts prodding at his face. He finds it’s a lot easier to remember her name now that he essentially saved her life.

“Black eye, broken nose, pretty standard,” Ino starts her running commentary, “Dislocated shoulder, also do-able, but– Oh my God Sasuke what the hell happened to your knee?!”

Sasuke’s not sure what she wants to hear exactly, so he just starts from the top; “I landed wrong falling from one of the higher branches to the forest floor. It probably twisted–“

“How high up?”


Ino glares at him as she feels his knee; “How high up did you fall from?”

Sasuke furrows his brow in thought; “… Twelve meters, give or take?”

Ino’s eyes go wide; “Sasuke. At best you tore a ligament. At best. If that Sound jackass didn’t break it while stomping on it you for sure broke it falling.”

Sasuke just stares at her; “… Oh.”

Ino runs a hand through her hair as she groans, “Okay, so you obviously didn’t splint it or wrap it up, and the only classes you got less than a hundred percent in were the medical ninjutsu classes so I know you didn’t use any on yourself… Did you at least keep your weight off it?”

Sasuke slowly shakes his head. Ino stares at him, jaw on the floor, long enough for him to get uncomfortable. More uncomfortable, anyway.

But then she smiles and shakes her head; “You’re kinda hopeless, huh?”

It doesn’t sound like an insult. Not even an accusation. She almost sounds delighted, like a child let in on a secret.

So he shrugs; “I guess.”

Ino returns to his face, to the things she can easily fix by setting his nose and splinting it straight or giving him a disposable icepack for his black eye and telling him to try his best to do ten minutes on, ten minutes off. He likes her scolding him far better than he likes her fawning over him, he decides.

She grows quiet as she wraps his arm tight to his side with another disposable icepack pressed to it, looking past him as she performs the repetitive action. He’s about to tell her she’s maybe wrapping it too tight when she speaks up again.

“What happened to Sakura?”

On instinct Sasuke lies; “What do you mean?”

She scowls at him and tightens the wrap on purpose, enough to make him wince; “You know damn well what I mean. She’s never been that fast. She’s never had that much chakra. She’s never been that…” Terrifying. Ino doesn’t say the word but they both hear it.

Her eyes are hard for a precious moment, but they soften with a heavy sigh; “Look. Me and Sakura… We’re not exactly friends anymore but I don’t hate her. I’ve never hated her. It’s like you and Naruto.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes; “How is it like that?

Ino just arches a brow at him; “I guess you’re clueless as well as hopeless. A rivalry isn’t about hate– It’s about pushing each other. You don’t push at people you don’t care about. If you don’t care you ignore them. I know you know all about that.”

He frowns because he’s not going to let her see him grimace.

Sasuke mutters under his breath, “I don’t know what happened to Sakura. We had a run in with another ninja and he left that mark on her shoulder and I guess it lets her… do all of that. He’d meant to leave it on me but she…”

Ino’s smile was wry and small; “She took the hit for you, huh?”

He nods, feeling as clueless and hopeless as she’d determined he was.

Ino glances over her shoulder at Sakura before looking back to him; “People are going to start asking questions. If it’s not my team or Lee’s, it’ll be your sensei, or the exam proctors, or worse. Are you ready for that?”

“It’ll only be a secret until we know what to do next,” Sasuke bristles, gritting his teeth, “For now, we’re just getting through this leg of the exam. It’s called the survival portion for a reason– There’s nothing to do for it but survive.”

Ino shrugs, closing her eyes in a tacit gesture of surrender; “It’s your call– Or, I guess, it’s hers. You’re just her teammate, you’re along for the ride.”

She fixes him with a hard stare as she stands up; “I’m not leaving, I’m just going to see if I can find some sturdy sticks for a splint, but… Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid before I get a chance to beat the tar out of her.”

Sasuke smirks, more with his eyes than his mouth; “I’ll try, but I’ve got my hands full enough with Naruto. He does enough stupid crap for all of us.”

Ino rolls her eyes and walks past him over to the bushes to start foraging for splint material, while Sasuke’s eyes find Sakura like a magnet pulling to metal. She’s found Lee and is speaking to him in a soft voice– his female teammate managed to rouse him, but he’s still quite sensitive to loud noises after the damage done to his ear.

Speaking of loud noises, Sasuke winces as he hears Naruto bellow, “SASUKE WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU?!

The blur of orange and blue comes skidding in, almost tumbling end over end as he tries to land on his knees at Sasuke’s side. His blue eyes search him up and down but keep going back to his knee– Sasuke imagines he’ll have to get used to those kinds of looks, at least for a little while.

Naruto’s been talking the entire time Sasuke’s been thinking; “And what happened to Sakura’s hair?! Did you guys beat the snake lady or is she still out there?! And how’d Bushy Brows get so messed up?! How long have I been out?! Wh–“

Shikamaru silences Naruto, at least for the moment, by throwing a heavy clod of dirt at the back of his head and snapping, “Could you shut your mouth for five seconds? Everyone here’s had more than enough excitement for a lifetime, try to read the room.”

Naruto, to his credit, does bring the volume down by a few decibels as he snaps back at Shikamaru, “That’s another thing, why are you guys even here?

“They came to help us,” Sasuke sighed, leaning back on his free hand, “Let’s try and run through the rest of your questions in order– I encountered some trouble, you should ask Sakura why she cut her hair because I don’t know, the Grass ninja is gone, Lee tried to help us and also got into trouble, and you’ve been out for nine hours.”

Naruto’s eyes somehow find a way to go even wider, and they look from Sasuke to Sakura and back again before he asks, “Was… Sakura also out?”

Sasuke pauses, long enough that he imagines everyone else in the clearing knows he’s about to twist the truth just a bit.

And he replies, “Yeah. She got knocked out in the fight with the Grass ninja.”

Naruto grimaces, his thoughts spilling out of his mouth in that uncurated way they always do, “No wonder you look like shit, you must’ve stayed up all night,” and his face splits into that sunny grin, “You were totally lost without us!”

Sasuke cuffs Naruto on the side of the head with a snort; “Don’t get smug– I’m not the one who overslept and missed two whole fights.”

Naruto’s about to fire back when a voice beside them clears their throat; “Sasuke.”

Sasuke turns and right at his eye level is his headband. He follows the arm holding it up to Neji, staring down at him with a kind of perfect calm Sasuke envies.

“You should keep better track of this,” Neji says as Sasuke hesitantly takes the headband back.

Sasuke swallows hard, running his thumb over the leaf insignia; “I… What happened to Lee, I should’ve–“

Neji shakes his head; “Don’t apologize. Can you imagine how Lee would be ranting about disgrace and how much he would hate owing you something if you actually did save him? Trust me, he’s far better off with Sakura as his hero.”

Sasuke thinks for a moment Naruto’s eyes might pop out of his head; “Sakura saved you guys? Seriously?

Neji’s intense white eyes alight on Sasuke’s, asking a silent question.

Which Sasuke answers by shrugging with his good shoulder and simply saying, “You shouldn’t underestimate her. She might surprise you.”

Chapter Text

iv. Kabuto strolls into the tower and hears his master’s voice ring out; “So, what’s the verdict?”

He smirks; “They’re an interesting group– If I had to guess, they only took so long to pass because of Sasuke’s injuries. After all, a ninja can’t jump through the trees if his knee is broken,” Kabuto winces, “I will admit, I did tell them I knew a little bit about medical ninjutsu so they’d let me take a look. With all the beating it took and the low level of treatment it’s received, I think he’s going to retain some permanent damage. If you still want his body, that might be an issue.”

Orochimaru waves it off; “We’ve dealt with worse.”

Kabuto nods; “Very well. He was able to compensate well for it– He still had chakra, and you don’t need to leap into the fray to use the Sharingan or a fireball. In their last engagement he could’ve taken their opponents out easily if not for Naruto’s overconfidence. Now he’s an interesting beast. It seems like his chakra repository grows with every time he taps into the Nine Tails’ well, which is good for a kid who refuses to give up.”

Orochimaru’s gold eyes meet his; “Tell me about Sakura.”

Kabuto blinks once; “The girl?”

“She has a name, but yes, the girl.”

Kabuto blinks twice; “… Well, she’s covered her whole shoulder in bandages so I don’t know how her curse mark is progressing, but the few times she used genjutsu she seemed like she was in pain. It’s actually helped her stamina, surprisingly. Honestly, I’m not sure what we’re looking for with her. We drew up detailed models for how the curse mark could affect Sasuke, and I’m not sure what we could do for Sakura beyond comparing her with Anko’s growth pattern. She’s… Well, she’s nothing.”

Orochimaru grins that serpentine grin and hisses, “What she is, Kabuto, is the perfect bait.

It has been a trying week, to say the very least.

Though Sasuke’s injuries have agreed with Sakura and Naruto keeping him on the sidelines and making sure he gets plenty of rest, his pride has not. As the three of them walk through the doors into the tower, Naruto striding forward like he doesn’t have a care in the world and Sakura having to limp at his pace due to the curse mark flaring whenever she used more than a thimbleful of chakra, Sasuke just hopes that there are medics in there more qualified than Kabuto.

The words potentially permanent damage and Kabuto’s painful wince as he re-splinted Sasuke’s knee echo in his mind and he has to shake his head to get them to leave. He was a genin like them, he said he’d never been properly certified, he had to be wrong. Sasuke needed him to be wrong.

Sakura sees the deep line forming between his brows and puts a hand on his shoulder. He lets her keep it there as Naruto squalls about the empty room they’ve walked out into.

Sakura rolls her eyes at all of Naruto’s ruckus; “Bring it down a notch, Naruto. It’s obvious what comes next– Just look up there.”

She points to the framed writing at the head of the room, mounted far above their reach– If qualities of Heaven are your desire, acquire wisdom to take your mind higher. If Earthly qualities are what you lack, train your body and prepare to attack. When Heaven and Earth are open together, the pairless path will become righteous forever. This … is the secret way that guides us from this place together.

Sasuke smirks up at the poem; “I think I know where we can find that missing word.”

Naruto turns to him wide-eyed and grouses, “Are you sure? Remember what could’ve happened last time we tried to open the scroll?”

Sasuke glares over at him with gritted teeth; “First, I thought I said we weren’t going to mention that ever again. Second, if there’s anywhere we’re supposed to open these scrolls, it’s in here.”

Sakura nods and adds, “We got both of them and made it here fair and square. We’ve earned the right to open them… But one of us should probably stand back. Just in case.”

Sasuke swipes the Heaven scroll before Sakura can tell him not to move his bad arm too much– besides, all he has to do for this is hold one end of the scroll. Naruto palms the Earth scroll and tentatively makes ready to open it.

He locks eyes with Sasuke; “We’ll do it together, on three.”

Sasuke nods to Sakura; “Count us down.”

She steps back with a grimace, counting for every step; “One… Two… Three!

Sasuke and Naruto tear the scrolls open so fast that Sasuke tweaks his shoulder just a bit, both of them looking away on reflex before slowly turning to read them. On the inside is just the character for person.

Sakura from her distance cocks her head to the side; “What does that mean?”

Naruto shrugs like he always does, with the entire upper half of his body; “You’ve got me.”

For a moment, Sasuke also stares at the scroll, mind completely blank. But then his eyes move from the central character to all the writing around it, set in a very particular pattern. And his eyes go wide.

Sasuke flings the scroll across the room as the center point begins to swell and smoke starts to leak out, shouting louder than he probably needed to, “GET RID OF THE SCROLL NARUTO!

Naruto was already throwing it before Sasuke told him to, chucking it against the far wall with a yelp of panic. Miraculously they both land in a perfect cross with the two main symbols overlapping before the bulges explode into a cloud of light gray smoke that fills the room. Sasuke’s an Uchiha, he’s been breathing in smoke since before the academy, but Sakura and Naruto are hacking up a lung after a couple breaths. Sasuke’s Sharingan whirls to life and he gets into as best a fighting stance as he can manage– he’s almost glad Naruto and Sakura aren’t on their guard. He’s been spoiling for a fight.

So you can imagine the mixture of complicated emotions that come bubbling up when the smoke clears and his academy teacher Iruka is smiling affably at them.

The smile nearly falls as his warm brown eyes actually take in Team 7, but he manages to keep it around a strained voice as he says, “Long time no see, you three look… bad.”

Naruto lets out a surprised huff of a laugh; “I mean, we feel bad. Sasuke here’s feeling the worst!”

That earns Naruto a slap to the back of the head and a shout from Sakura to watch his mouth.

Sakura shakes her head and brings her eyes back to the matter at hand; “What are you doing here, Iruka-sensei? Why’d the scrolls summon you?

Iruka’s voice is hurried as he drifts over to the team and starts fretting over their injuries– so, once again, Sasuke gets crowded; “The chunin are supposed to welcome the passing genin to the tower and I was randomly selected and how did all of this happen?

Sakura’s already explaining, or at least reciting the script they’d rehearsed that included no references to Orochimaru at all, fretting in harmony with Iruka; “Sasuke took a hard landing on his leg so that’s the part that’s worst off, though his shoulder is–“

Sasuke pushes out of Iruka’s range with an annoyed grunt of, “I’m fine! I’m a ninja and ninja get wounded! It’s called the Forest of Death for a reason right?! We’re here and we passed, didn’t we?! So stop crowding me and say your piece!”

There’s a long, deathly silent moment of his teammates and his teacher just staring at him, eyes wide. Sakura’s especially bite into him– not because they’re sharp and angry, like Naruto’s are for Sasuke shouting at his beloved teacher and crush, but because they’re just as soft and concerned as they always are.

So he runs a hand through his hair and huffs, “Sorry, I just… it’s been a rough week.”

Iruka’s smile has some of that old warmth Sasuke remembers from when he’d reach out and Sasuke would push his hand away. The other academy teachers left the brilliant but broken little boy alone, but Iruka had always tried. Sasuke somehow feels worse.

Iruka fishes a watch out of his pocket; “Well thankfully that week’s ended on a good note– You all just barely passed.”

He takes them through the poem on the wall, how it’s meant to represent the duties and diligence of a Chunin, and how the survival exam was meant as a mock-mission simulating a long and dangerous journey in the field where danger came at them from all fronts and they had sensitive material they couldn’t look at. Sasuke can see Sakura smirking just a little bit as Iruka lays it all out– a surefire sign that she’d guessed this from moment one and was delighted to be proved right. Once again, annoying. But it makes him smile in rhyme with hers.

When he finishes going through his script of things he’s bound by tradition to tell them, Iruka’s smile wavers at the edges and he brings a hand to his mouth; “You three… Please be careful in the third exam. Especially you, Sasuke, your injuries–“

Naruto, as always, barges right in; “Iruka-sensei, we stopped being students when we got these headbands. And it’s like Sasuke said– We’re ninja now, ninja get hurt and they survive. We’re not kids anymore, so don’t you worry, we passed the second exam and we’re gonna pass the third! Just you watch!”

It’s everything Sasuke can do to keep his smile down to a small, understated, restrained smirk.

Iruka is quiet for a long time before he beams at his students; “You’re right, Naruto, I’m sorry about that.”

Naruto just lets out his goofy cackle of a laugh.

Despite Naruto’s speech, Iruka still recommends Sasuke see the tower’s medical staff before meeting up with the other genin– he makes the very salient point that sure, ninja get hurt and survive, but they also go straight to the hospital if they come back from a mission limping. To Sakura’s brief surprise, Sasuke agrees. But then she remembers Kabuto offering to take a look, prodding at Sasuke’s knee with chakra-coated fingers (prodding hard and getting no reaction), and grimacing as he said there might be permanent damage.

Sasuke wants a second opinion. There’s no way he could want anything else.

All the candidates filter out into a massive arena with catwalks for viewing up above and a massive sculpture of two hands forming the ram sign at the head of the room. All the chunin who greeted the teams and their jonin teachers stand in orderly rows by the sculpture, alongside the exam proctors and the Third Hokage himself. Kakashi catches Sakura’s eye and gives her a lazy two-fingered salute. After five days without him, Sakura finds herself smiling wide and giving him a little wave in return. Naruto, of course, waves with his whole arm and calls “Hey Kakashi-sensei!” so loud it echoes throughout the whole cavernous room.

As the genin line up Sakura looks around– only six teams out of twenty six managed to pass, which was still more than she’d estimated back when they all walked through that chain link fence. She looks them all over, taking careful inventory– There are the big coats of Team 8, the lackadaisical attitude of Team 10, the clean silhouettes of Team Gai, the plain black of Kabuto's team, and the menacing presence of the Sand genin. Sakura furrows her brow– she was sure the Sound team that ambushed them would pass, if they were good enough to put Sasuke through all that pain and suffering they had to be good enough to bounce back from what she did and make it to the tower…

A thought passes through her head as her eyes ghost over the empty spot where Sasuke should be– not really a thought, actually, but a memory. Anko's voice telling them that they would only pass if a full team made it to the center of the forest.

Sakura's heart drops into her shoes.

Oh no. No no no no no.

She clutches her stomach, she’s sure her face is turning the same color as her eyes, and Sakura goes very cold as she tries so hard to rationalize.

He’s just too injured to fight and they’ve disqualified him, he dropped out after what happened, he disappeared when Dosu and Kin weren’t looking, he was an enemy and this is your job Sakura this is what ninja do now pull yourself together and don’t throw up all over the damn floor–!

“S-sakura? Are you alright?” Hinata’s gentle voice sounds like a firecracker going off in Sakura’s ear as she whirls around to face her, eyes wide in panic. Poor Hinata nearly bumps into one of the other genin as she jumps at the shock.

But quickly she softens and leans in, whispering, “Did something… happen? Out in the forest?”

Sakura quickly shakes her head and plasters on a smile; “No, no, no no no. I’m alright. We’re all alright. Naruto’s alright.”

Hinata’s cheeks light up, but she has the presence of mind to ignore Sakura’s poke at her crush, instead looking at the hole in the ranks between her and Naruto; “Where’s Sasuke? Did he… Did he have to drop out, or…?”

Sakura lets out a short bewildered laugh; “What? No, he’d never drop out. He’s just checking in with the medics– You know how it is, you do most of the fighting, you get most of the injuries! He’ll be here soon.”

Hinata purses her lips, pushing her fingers together like she always does when she’s nervous; “I-I hope so, I think the proctor’s about to–“

Anko’s voice, amplified by a microphone headset, cuts Hinata off; “Now that we’re all here, let me first congratulate all of you on passing. Lord Hokage’s going to explain the third exam, so don’t let me catch you chatting instead of listening!”

The Hokage steps forward and launches into one of his infamously long speeches– first, explaining the Chunin Exams’ purpose as a proxy battle for allied countries so they wouldn’t destroy each other’s military power on a whim, as well as to show the pride and prestige of the nation so those in the position to hire ninja could get a look at what country they’d want to pull from in the future. Nothing new to Sakura– unlike Naruto who was stage-muttering questions to Lee, she’d paid attention in History.

Gaara’s voice slithers out in a rasp, “Any test at any stake is fine. I can handle whatever you throw at me, so just get to the point.”

Sakura frowns, looking over at his back; his shoulders are tense and his arms are crossed as tightly as he can manage. He’s not like Sasuke or Neji, quiet thanks to confidence. He’s a tightly wound spring threatening to burst loose at any second. She sincerely hopes she’s nowhere nearby when he does.

The Hokage glares pointedly at Gaara, but clears his throat; “Very well then, I–“

One of the jonin, a sickly looking man with deep bags under his eyes, bows his head as he interrupts the hokage; “My Lord, before that, please allow me to speak first– as proctor of the third exam.”

The Hokage simply nods; “Go ahead, Hayate.”

Hayate turns to the assembled genin; “Before we begin,” he cuts himself off by coughing up a storm into his hand. Sakura grimaces and hopes that they caught him on a bad day. If not, she had no idea how someone so sickly could make Jonin.

When he finally finishes, he continues as if nothing happened, “Due to more of you passing than we expected, we’re going to have to hold a preliminary round before the third exam to thin out the ranks,” the genin erupt into rumbles of discontent and outright shouts of “No way!” and “That’s not fair!” and Sakura isn’t ashamed to admit she’s part of them– They all passed, and she can at least be sure her team got their scrolls… somewhat fairly. They all deserved to be continue onward, even if it made things take a bit longer.

Hayate, to his credit, fields their complaints well, projecting his voice so he’s speaking just over them, “I understand how you’re feeling, but like Lord Hokage said, a lot of important dignitaries will be coming in to watch the exams and we can’t waste their time. They’re here for the best of the best. Besides, we only have a limited amount of time for these exams, so we have to speed things up. So if any of you aren’t feeling like you’re in top physical condition, now’s the time to drop out,” appropriately enough, Hayate starts coughing again, and keeps going for a good minute before calming down, “We’ll be starting the exams immediately.”

The rumble of the genin protesting the decision goes quiet in her ears as Sakura’s eyes go wide and Naruto immediately whirls around to meet her gaze. For once he remembers how to be quiet, mouthing Where’s Sasuke?!

She can only shrug– if he still wasn’t back that was going to be a problem. He can’t have dropped out, even she knew his pride was all-consuming. Had the medics forced him to stay behind? Oh that would not go over well. Even in his injured state Sakura’s not sure anyone could force Sasuke to do anything.

Hayate, ever so helpfully, adds, “Oh yeah, who goes forward is gonna be determined through one-on-one Sudden Death rounds of combat. So if that’s not your speed now’s the time to hop off.”

Sakura’s heart drops into her stomach. Well. If that’s what they’re doing now she’s hoping to Heaven that Sasuke does have the common sense to drop out. She grits her teeth as she feels a sharp, stabbing pain in her shoulder– right where the mark is– and digs her nails into her palms. Clutching at it over and over again will just get people wondering. She’s been getting better at it, keeping her reaction to a minimum even though the pain makes her want to cry.

Her taijutsu’s still pretty poor, but if she uses any chakra the mark could start spreading again. She can’t drop out, because then Team 7 will be down to one representative. She frowns and stares boldly forward– There’s no going back now.

She can feel eyes on her, from the Jonin to Ino just a couple steps away. In fact, she’s been staring at her since they got here, her blue eyes burning holes in Sakura’s bandages. Ino’s footsteps echo loud in Sakura’s ears as she crosses the distance between them.

“Hey, Sakura,” she whispers, low and harsh, “You sure you should still be here?”

Sakura blinks once, twice, then finds the wherewithal to pull up a grin; “Afraid you’ll lose if we have to fight, Pig?”

Ino’s eyes narrow and she jabs an accusing finger at her shoulder; “You know what I’m talking about! What happens to you if you lose it like you did in the forest?! What happens to your opponent?

Sakura feels like her soul is floating above her body, watching this all happen, and all she can do is stammer; “Y-you don’t know what you’re talking about, Ino–“

“The Hell I don’t!” she snaps, getting in Sakura’s face, “I saw the whole thing! Me, Shikamaru, Choji, and Lee’s whole team too! We didn’t ask questions because you’d been through enough and we needed to find scrolls– The jonin aren’t gonna cut you that slack.”

She puts her hand ever so slightly up, hovering around her shoulder threateningly; “Either you own up and withdraw, or I tell them.”

Sakura’s holding her breath, eyes wide, face pale. She glances around– Naruto, staring at them with a thoughtful frown as he tries to put the pieces together, Kakashi on the podium studying her with his one eye narrowed, Anko conversing in harsh whispers with Ibiki and the Hokage while her eyes keep darting back to Sakura, looks of concern from Hinata and Iruka, too many too many eyes all focused on her–

And that voice is back, hers but not, whispering, You make her put that hand down, Sweetie, and why not break her wrist while you’re at it? You’re strong enough. She’s still weak. Show her her place–

Kabuto raises his hand and all eyes go to him as he, so affably it’s almost annoying, says, “Yeah, you got me. I’m out.”

Naruto’s jaw immediately falls to the floor and he starts shouting to Kabuto about not giving up, bringing all eyes and ears away from Sakura; even Ino’s, for a precious moment. So Sakura has time to close her eyes, take a deep breath in, hold it, and push it back out. Her mind is clear, just for that moment.

And when she opens her eyes, she says, “Ino.”

The force in Sakura’s voice shocks Ino back into paying attention to her while Naruto carries on with Kabuto, keeping everyone else’s eyes away from them.

Sakura squares her shoulders and meets Ino’s gaze; “I made a choice back in the Forest. I’m not going to let Naruto and Sasuke keep running ahead of me anymore. And I’m not going to let this mark make me lose sight of who I am ever again. I can and I will do both. This is my life and my fate, not yours. So drop it.

Ino stares at her a while longer, hand still poised to rise, eyes boring into her with a mixture of anger, pride, and… something that looks almost like fear. But she finally scowls and clenches her hand into a fist, cuffing Sakura just a bit too hard on her bandaged shoulder.

“If you don’t keep your shit together, I promise I’ll make you regret it,” Ino hisses before stalking back to stand in line with her team, ignoring all concerned murmurs from Shikamaru and Choji in favor of glaring hard at the ceiling.

A cough from Hayate brings Sakura back into the moment, where Kabuto has left the room and Naruto’s back to looking at her in confusion, and Hayate is asking if anyone else wants to quit. No one responds. Sakura glances over her shoulder at the door– at this rate they might just disqualify Sasuke for not showing up.

Hayate folds his arms behind his back; “Alright, we’ll begin the preliminary round. Once again, this isn’t sparring– You’ll be fighting at full strength. Due to the odd number, we’ll have to have eight normal matches and one of you will be selected at random to fight a second time against the one remaining candidate,” anticipating the groaning he’s about to hear, Hayate adds, “That, I’ll grant you, is not fair but it’s the best we can do on short notice. There are no rules– You’ll fight until one of you dies, concedes, or physically can’t keep going anymore. As proctor I have the authority to intervene if a match seems hopeless so you don’t all die here. Now, it’s time to determine the first matchup.”

Anko mutters something into her headset and right on cue one of the large panels on the far wall slides up to reveal a large screen; Sakura can’t help her jaw dropping open. The biggest televisions she’s seen around the village were at best sixteen inches, that had to be as long as two of her, maybe longer. And there are three more of them on either side of an even larger panel, taking up a third of the wall. The part of her that's just a twelve year old girl, no more or less, briefly wonders what it would be like to watch a movie on that.

“The matchups will be determined at random, and their names displayed on the screens up above,” Hayate explained, “That’s all there is to explain– Let’s begin.”

Sakura feels her guts twist into knots then untie themselves again as a bright yellow ‘vs’ flashes to life in the middle of the screen, and above and below like displays on a slot machine the screen cycles through all the names on the roster. It truly is random– she could be the first match, and she could go up against Gaara or Neji or even Naruto. Her hand drifts to her mark on instinct. Keeping her shit together would be quite a bit harder against any of them. The names finally start to slow their rotation, as if they’re programmed with suspense in mind, before stopping on two of them that make Sakura’s stomach do a somersault.




Sakura covers her mouth and stares at the very very empty spot in front of her, whispering, “Oh shit.”

Naruto slaps both hands over his face and groans, “That dumbass!

Hayate, like nothing in the world is wrong, calls, “Those whose names have been selected, step forward.”

Yoroi very smugly does. Sasuke quite obviously does not.

Hayate’s eyes narrow as he surveys the genin; “Is Sasuke here?”

Iruka speaks up so Sakura and Naruto don’t have to; “I recommended he see the tower medics before coming here, if he hasn’t made it by now…”

“But we haven’t heard from the infirmary,” Kakashi points out, folding his arms over his chest, “We don’t know if he’s medically cleared or not.”

“We’re running on a tight schedule,” Hayate sighs, “If he doesn’t show up in the next five minutes, we’ll have to disqualif–“

The door at the back of the room slams open; “I’m here!

Sakura whirls around and for the three seconds that she’s turning she is absolutely elated. But then she sees Sasuke.

The only thing keeping him from doubling over as he pants is his hand on the doorframe, while the other one braces against his left thigh. His splint is gone but his knee still looks like it’s covered in one big, yellow-black bruise, and as he walks further into the room she can tell he’s trying very hard not to limp. His arm is unwrapped, but he’s taking great care not to move it as he walks. Sasuke shoves his way through the crowd to stand beside Yoroi, jaw clenched so tightly Sakura knows for a fact he’s biting his tongue to keep from wincing in pain.

She sees Kakashi drag his hand down his face and she almost wants to do the same.

Hayate slowly blinks as he looks Sasuke up and down; “And you’re sure you’re in fighting shape.”

“I was cleared to fight,” Sasuke snarls, “The only problem is how this tower’s laid out, it took me forever to find my way back.”

That was such an obvious lie it physically hurt Sakura to hear it.

Hayate swallows so hard it makes him cough again; “Okay… The two of you have been chosen for the first match. Are there any objections?”

Yoroi is definitely smirking under the bandanna covering his face as he says, “Oh absolutely not.”

“No,” Sasuke snaps, “Let’s get on with it.”

Sakura looks between Kakashi and Naruto and both of them look just as bewildered as her. Ino and Lee’s teams are also looking at him in complete bafflement. It seemed she wasn’t the only one who never thought Sasuke could be this arrogant.

Or… maybe that isn’t all. There’s a wild look in his eyes, almost hungry, and he’s shifting from foot to foot not from pain but anticipation. His fingers are twitching, his eyes are darting around, he can’t sit still. Almost like Naruto. He’s looking at Yoroi like he has something to prove.

“Uh… Alright then,” Hayate says, taking a big step back, “Let’s start the first match. Everyone else, please clear the area and go to the upper level.”

Sakura catches him by the shoulder just before she heads up to the catwalk, whispering, “What happened?”

Sasuke meets her eyes and his Sharingan are blazing as he growls, “They told me I was in no shape to compete. They were going to disqualify me, because I’d just lose immediately if I tried to fight. I’m gonna show them that I don’t lose.”

Sasuke loses.

He loses very well, it’s a magnificent showing of ninjutsu since Sasuke can’t really do much else in his current state. Phoenix Flowers, Dragon Flames, even the signature Uchiha Fireball all light up the room and threaten to burn off the spectators’ hair. He also uses some genjutsu, though that’s mostly to cover his ass in those rare times he has no choice but to change his position and just tell his screaming leg to suck it up– once he learns Yoroi can drain his chakra, Sasuke starts having to do that a little more often. But it doesn’t take his opponent very long at all to pinpoint Sasuke’s bad arm and bad leg, close the distance, and work them until his screams start sounding like an animal being slaughtered and the proctor calls the match off.

It’s slightly less humiliating than Kakashi having to come down and physically stop Yoroi from killing him, but only slightly.

Kakashi does appear beside him when the medics are called down to bring him to the infirmary, but that’s just to whisper harshly, “You’re beaten, Sasuke. You were beaten the second you decided to fight on one leg and one arm. Don’t take it out on them.”

And Sasuke is sufficiently shamed into cooperating. Besides, he can already hear one of the medical ninja hurriedly whispering to the proctor that Sasuke was not cleared and he absolutely should not have been fighting at all, and that’s just another nail in his coffin at this point. The medics won’t let him walk, mostly because he can’t, and Sasuke has to quickly do the mental math of what at this point is worse: being stretchered out, or having to lean on Kakashi as he tries to keep one last shred of his dignity by staying upright on his way out of here.

He opts for the stretcher.

Just about the only positive thing Sasuke can think as he’s carted back to the infirmary he’d spent so much concentrated effort wheedling his way out of is that at least it was on the record that he lost instead of being disqualified. Or at least it would be until it was retroactively marked that he was not cleared for competition and was disqualified on those grounds instead.

Sasuke shuts his eyes tight, half so he won’t have to see Kakashi following them at a leisurely pace and half to be alone with his thoughts. It couldn’t even be Neji, or Gaara, or even Naruto, could it? In keeping with Sasuke’s luck it had to be some no-name, someone who no one’s hopes were riding on, with no clan to speak of. Sasuke hadn’t even been in this to become chunin– he’d been here to test his strength, to see how far he could go, to see what he was worth.

He supposes this answers that question. And he bites his tongue hard enough to taste blood.

Sasuke doesn’t open his eyes until he’s being gently dumped out into a cot in the infirmary and the attending medical ninja, a severe Hyuuga woman in her fifties with a long scar down the left side of her face, is settling down and going through the signs for the Mystical Palm Jutsu.

“Any particular reason you didn’t use that on him when he first came in?” Kakashi wonders, leaning against the wall.

She glares at him and shoots back, “You should know that– Heaven knows I fixed you up enough times when you were too young for a full course.”

Kakashi smiles under his mask; “Consider this a teaching moment for his benefit, Hakumei-sensei.”

'Hakumei' shakes her head, clicking her tongue; “Honestly the little dumbass could probably use it.”

So she meets Sasuke’s eyes out of the corner of hers as she continues, “Kids your age unless there’s a life-threatening emergency we do it in multiple treatments. Mystical Palm Jutsu’s overwhelming for a body unaccustomed to it, especially one that’s still growing. Best case, one of your injuries heals wrong and you’re stuck with something we’d need to do surgery to fix. Worst case, we overload your circulation and you die.”

When she stops on his knee she leaves it feeling pleasantly numb, moving next to his shoulder and his face; “Also, it’s fucking hard, so not everyone can learn it. I’ll bet even your Sharingan could only get it halfway right. I’m only one in the tower who knows it, and because they assumed you’d stay put the residents down here didn’t call me.”

The second the soft green glow on her palms goes out she thwaps Sasuke on the forehead with the back of her hand– thankfully, not the one with a wedding ring on it– and reprimands, “We could have made sure there wasn’t any permanent damage if you’d just stayed here and let us start working! Now…” she sighs, closing her eyes and running a hand through her hair as the the wind finally goes out of her sails, “We’ll see what the hospital can do for you. I don’t think you’re quite at the level where you have to start looking for another career, but that leg probably won’t ever work the same.”

Sasuke feels as though he’s trying to talk around a lump in his throat the size of his fist, so all he says is, “… Oh.”

Kakashi speaks up again; “Do you think you could get him well enough to watch the other preliminary matches?”

Hakumei scratches the back of her head as she thinks, then shrugs; “I can get him in a proper sling and a splint and give him a crutch, he can get up there fine,” she shoots Sasuke another glare, this one with a bit less fire, “Just make sure you don’t stand up the whole time. If I hear you didn’t sit down even once I’m gonna make damn sure you get the meanest physical therapist the hospital has on staff, you hear me?”

Sasuke just nods dumbly. Hakumei excuses herself to find those supplies, leaving the two of them alone in a silence that feels like it lasts a lifetime.

“So,” Kakashi remarks, settling down casually next to Sasuke and opening up his book, “Want to tell me what happened in the Forest?”

Sasuke’s eyes narrow, and once again he lies on instinct; “Nothing.”

“That’s a lie,” Kakashi says in a sing-song voice, turning another page of Icha-Icha, “I can tell that on top of being dislocated you’ve got a chip on that shoulder. Something happened. Something that didn’t just hurt your body– it hurt your pride.”

“And how the hell would you know?” Sasuke snarls, turning as much of his body as he can still move as away from Kakashi as he can get it.

Sasuke hears the book snap shut, and Kakashi’s voice pitches down in that way Sasuke’s heart both reaches desperately out to and violently rejects all at once; “How do I ever know anything about you, Sasuke? Because I was a prideful little jerk who never felt good enough but hated it when other people were better than me when I was twelve years old.”

Kakashi reaches out and puts his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. Sasuke reflexively flinches out of his reach, and his teacher just sighs.

“I know exactly what it looks like when you’ve been beaten down,” Kakashi continues, voice softer now, “When the world seems like it’s hellbent on proving to you that you’re not strong enough and never will be, and just will not let up until it’s pushed you over the edge. I’ve been there, over and over again. And I’ve come really, really close to going over that edge. I want to make sure you never get that close. So tell me what happened to you… And to Sakura.”

Sasuke shoves himself into sitting up, eyes wide as he frantically asks, “How do you–?!”

“You never let her touch you before,” Kakashi answers simply. Sasuke doubts that's the whole answer, but it's the most damning piece of evidence.

Sasuke remembers his own words, distantly, as if from the bottom of a deep lake: It’ll only be a secret until we know what to do next.

He has no idea what to do next. But Kakashi might.

Sasuke hangs his head as he begins, “We were ambushed by ninja from the Hidden Grass…”

Chapter Text

v. Sakura, in all honesty, did not expect Sasuke to come back from the infirmary. But just after Kankuro finishes his fight against Misumi Sasuke comes hobbling up the stairs on a crutch with Kakashi strategically walking just a couple steps behind him in case he falls.

Naruto is sprinting over to meet them before Sakura can weigh the pros and cons of running over there herself, so she’s right on his heels, apologizing to everyone they bump into along the way. When Sakura meets them in the middle and smiles at Sasuke she’s at first not surprised that he doesn’t return it. But the way moving his eyes to meet hers seems like it takes all the strength in his body doesn’t bode well.

“So? How’d it go?” Naruto asks, grinning and folding his arms behind his head like nothing in the world is wrong.

Kakashi glances pointedly down at Sasuke, who closes his eyes with a deep sigh. That gets Naruto’s grin to fall.

“It’s… not great,” Sasuke replies, plucking the words out one at a time with care, “I’ll mostly recover. But it’ll take some time.”

Naruto winces; “Yeesh, what’d they really tell you? You look like your cat died.”

Sakura glares at Naruto and is scolding before she can stop herself; “Don’t pry, Naruto, if he doesn’t want to talk that’s up to–“

Sasuke, to her shock, interrupts her; “They didn’t tell me I was gonna have to stop being a ninja or anything like that. Just that… I might have some trouble with my leg. Probably permanent trouble. Like I said, it’s not great.”

In a flash Naruto is suddenly twice as concerned as Sakura; “Then what the Hell are we doing standing up?! Come on, there’s a railing we can see through, sit your ass down!”

Sakura didn’t know there was a way to carefully shove someone but once again Naruto surprises her by doing just that to Sasuke, pushing him down into sitting with with his legs dangling over the edge of the catwalk. Sasuke doesn’t object to the shoving, just to that he’s so close to the edge– “You saw how big my fireballs can get, I don’t want someone burning my legs off, dumbass!”– and Naruto pushes him back to the wall before settling down next to him and stretching out his legs so no one will miss Sasuke’s splinted knee and step on it on accident.

Sakura can’t help smiling– It’s clumsy and not at all subtle, but the way Naruto cares about people really isn’t anything but charming.

Kakashi clears his throat, stepping over Naruto and Sasuke’s legs to stand at Sakura’s side; “There’s something we need to talk about.”

Probably just for emphasis, he lightly taps the bandages on her shoulder.

Sakura reaches out and grips the railing so she won’t betray anything on her face, knuckles already turning white as she brings her voice down; “Oh. Okay. So… you know about that.”

He nods, putting his hands in his pockets as he begins, “I’ll be frank with you: That mark can still kill you if you lose control of it. Ordinarily I’d recommend you rely on Taijutsu for the preliminaries so your chakra use doesn’t aggravate it, but given your strengths don’t lie there I don’t think that’s the best idea. So long as your match isn’t up next, I do have an idea–“

Hayate coughs quite loudly, a surefire sign that he’s about to speak; “Alright, now that the arena’s clear again it’s time for the next match.”  

Same as before– The screen lights up, the names start cycling, the names roll to a stop.




Sakura turns back to Kakashi, who’s still staring at the screen, his one exposed eye wider than she’s ever seen it.

“Are you alright, sensei?” she asks.

“I’m terrified, actually,” he replies, his voice sounding like it’s coming from miles away.

Sakura swallows hard; “Yeah, me too.”

Kakashi levels her with an intense gaze; “Sakura, if you lose control of the curse mark I will have to come in and stop the fight. It’s up to you not to let it get to that point, understand?”

Sakura nods, her head feeling a thousand pounds heavier. She carefully makes her way down the catwalk to the stairs and nearly doesn’t notice Ino falling in step behind her.

“‘This is my life and my fate so stay out of it’,” Ino mutters, her voice a mocking imitation of Sakura’s, “Well now it is my life on the line, Forehead. I am done cutting you slack.”

Sakura’s jaw clenches and she ignores the stabbing pain in her shoulder; “I’ve had enough of your slack to last a lifetime, Pig.”

Ino makes a choice the second her name flashes up on the display– She’s going to end this fight as quickly as possible. This isn’t about a clueless boy who decides to fight on a broken knee or becoming the fastest a Yamanaka has made chunin in peacetime, it’s pure survival.

She drafts a strategy as she walks down the stairs and really wishes she had time to run it by Shikamaru. The end goal is to mind transfer herself into Sakura as quickly as possible and force her to surrender– Yamanaka chunin bragged about that tactic all the time from their exam days, it counted mostly just on the basis of it being damn hard to get your opponent still enough to land the jutsu and the proctor respecting that. Hayate seems like a soft touch, he’ll definitely go for it. But if she can possess Sakura without anyone finding out, that’ll be even better.

She stops near the proctor and turns to Sakura. That dumb round face and giant forehead, Sakura hardly looks any different than she did when they were academy students learning flower arrangement. If Ino squints she can replace that headband with the ribbon she gave her and it’s like they’re eight years old again. Her resolve starts to peter out; Oh Heaven knows she can’t do this, Sakura’s just Sakura, this can’t–

Ino almost misses Sakura untying her headband. Thanks to her long bangs there’s a bit of drama in them falling forward, shadowing her eyes. Then she ties it around her forehead and looks back up to meet Ino’s gaze, eyes hard as diamonds.

She can hear Sakura’s teammates loudly and not so loudly wondering why in the world she did that, but Ino knows. She remembers everything about that moment, from the chill of the wind to the smell of the flowers in that meadow behind the academy and most importantly Sakura’s words.

“I won’t wear this headband on my forehead until I can call myself a true shinobi.”

Ino grits her teeth. Alright then, no pulled punches.

Hayate’s voice rings out through the arena; “Begin.”

Everyone has a plan when they first start a fight. Ino realizes this doesn’t count for shit the second Sakura sprints forward, socks her in the stomach, and slams her clasped hands down hard on the back of her neck.

Ino recovers quick, turning her downward momentum to her advantage by diving to grab Sakura’s leg, pulling it out from under her and knocking her to the ground. She keeps a hold on it as she pivots up to her feet, wrenching it the wrong way to twist Sakura’s knee. Sakura bites down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming and instead grabs for her pack of tools, tossing shuriken, senbon and kunai every which way but loose. For half a second Ino thinks she’s getting desperate until Sakura’s free foot smashes into Ino’s chest and the shock makes her let go.

Ino reels out of range and Sakura is quick to start moving, skittering around low to the ground like a bug as she quickly locates her shuriken, scoops them up and tosses them at Ino again. She’s able to dodge them but Ino knows that hitting her’s just a bonus, making sure she can’t regain her balance is the grand plan.

Something sparks in Ino’s mind– she can use that.

Ino makes sure to stagger just out of Sakura’s reach, timing her dodges and forming one hand sign per step. They’re random signs, but not too random; Sakura’s enough of a bookworm she’ll know Ino’s bullshitting if it doesn’t look real enough. Just as she’s making the ram sign she sees the perfect opening, and stops moving long enough for Sakura to get close.

Sakura finally closes the distance and hits Ino with a palm thrust to the sternum, knocking her down to her knees. Just as Ino predicted, Sakura looms over her with her hands clasped again, poising them to strike right down on the top of Ino’s head.

Ino throws up the Mind Transfer Jutsu’s hand sign, lining it up so Sakura’s face is right in the frame and lets it loose. The last thing she sees before the brief blackout of the transfer is Sakura’s eyes going wide…

When Ino’s vision comes back, she is not staring down at the crown of her own head, her hands poised above her ready for a surrender.

She is instead looking down at the arena from where Shikamaru is standing.

Ino immediately swears out loud, drawing a jump from Choji and Asuma, as she tries to figure out what happened at a lightning pace. She looks back to her match and it doesn’t take much effort to figure out– Sakura is running around behind Ino’s body while a static, illusory version of Sakura stands right where Ino had last seen her. From where she is, perfectly aligned with Sakura, she can see her hands aren’t clasped for a blow– they’re forming a hand sign, the last one for the Dancing Petal Illusion Jutsu Sakura used back in the Forest.

The Forest.

Ino immediately laces Shikamaru’s fingers to release the jutsu. Sakura just used chakra. Chakra. If she doesn’t get back to her body right now–

For a few seconds, everything is black.

When she comes back to her body her first instinct is to lunge forward, run, leap out of Sakura’s range but just as the illusion explodes into petals Ino is yanked backwards by Sakura wrapping part of Ino’s ponytail around her hand. Oh no no no no NO this is how that Zaku kid died no no no NOT AGAIN– Ino lets out a terrified shriek as she palms a kunai in her shaking hand and drags it through her ponytail. She tears out of Sakura’s grasp at a full sprint, leaving her hair behind.

She takes the risk of looking over her shoulder and immediately wishes she hadn’t. Blazing petals are swirling up and out from under Sakura’s bandages onto her neck and up to her chin, even moving towards her eye, and Sakura is chasing after her at a breakneck pace with her mouth open in a snarl. Ino feels a wave of pressure hit her feet as chakra bursts out from Sakura’s soles, giving her a burst of speed that lets her catch up to her and catch her like an animal, grabbing her face and covering it with her whole hand.

Ino’s flight and fight responses have both failed so she freezes in place like a fainting goat. She’s only distantly aware of her team shouting to her to get a grip or Sasuke screaming for Sakura to stop and pull herself together, she’s back in the forest trapped in a body no one is coming to help frozen and frightened and this is Sakura Forehead Billboard Brow Sweet Little Bud Who Hasn’t Blossomed she can’t have just killed someone she can’t she can’t she can’t and now she’s bearing down on her like an enemy because she is an enemy she wears an enemy’s face and she’s going to kill her she’s going to kill her and leave her for the animals in the forest and–

“Now’s your chance, Ino, MOVE!” Shikamaru’s voice shocks Ino back to reality, where Sakura has taken her hand off her face and is biting down on her lip hard enough to draw blood as the petals recede back beneath the bandage. For a second, Ino can’t even believe it– it’d been near, so fucking near, but Sakura had gotten her shit back together and beat it back.

And the next second Sakura is surging towards Ino ready to throw a punch and Ino remembers she’s in a battle.

She forces her legs to move and runs in to throw a left hook of her own, but by the time she’s letting hers fly Sakura’s is already halfway there, and Ino knows she’s too late.

The world slows down as Sakura’s fist comes sailing through the air towards Ino’s face. Before she even feels the impact Ino can feel the electric, moment-before-a-lightning-strike-air of a burst of chakra far larger than it needs to be zooming down Sakura’s arm towards her knuckles and soon into Ino’s nose. So that’s how she’d fought it off. She’d used her fine-tuned chakra control to push all the chakra feeding the curse mark out into this blow.

Well I’ll be goddamned, the bud is finally blooming, Ino thinks to herself.

It’s the last thing she thinks before the chakra and the punch hit her square in the center of her face and she blacks out.

Sakura squirms as goosebumps rise along her skin, chattering, “N-not to tell you how to do your job–“

“Too late,” Anko grumbles.

“But is it really necessary for my top to be off?” Sakura wonders.

“Trust me kiddo, if it wasn’t your sensei over there would actually be doing this instead of backseat sealing,” Anko grouses as she draws in some of the last elements of the seal, “But it’s a bad look for a dude who’s nearly thirty to be toolin’ around with a topless twelve year old girl, so if I messed up the parts going over your boobs we’ll never know.”

“Well-spoken as always, Anko,” Kakashi remarks from the pillar he’s leaning against. Sakura tries and fails to hold in a snorting chuckle. Anko frowns– Shit, she really is just a kid, isn’t she? Even in this cold dark room surrounded by an elaborate seal made in blood meant to keep a dangerous criminal from manipulating her through his brand on her skin, Sakura could still giggle like an academy student.

In a way, this is worse than Orochimaru actually getting his fangs in Sasuke. Sasuke’s innocence was already gone. Sakura still had at least a piece of hers to lose.

Anko finishes off the last character before standing up straight and looking over to Kakashi; “We good to go?”

Kakashi goes around the circle, playing very well at being disinterested and casual while surveying every character and every kunai placement like a hawk. Anko knows it’s not for her benefit– It’s to make sure Sakura’s huffing with annoyance instead of shivering with fear.

“Eh, looks good enough to me,” he says with a too-loose shrug as he comes back around behind Sakura.

She rolls her eyes; “Please take this seriously, sensei.”

“Trust me, Sakura, I’m as serious as a heart attack,” he replies with a fake smile in his voice, stepping back, “Go ahead, Anko.”

“Here goes nothing,” hand signs are easy to remember, so she flies through those like lightning, “Curse sealing!

She presses her palm to the curse mark and there’s a flash of bright light before Sakura tenses up and lets out a shrill cry of pain. The scrolling lines of text come slithering across the floor inward toward the curse mark, crawling up along Sakura’s body and settling around the mark in a circle as the five petals flash that magma red, trying to get out but not succeeding. Eventually they settle back into their original shape and Sakura’s scream peters out. She slumps forward, nearly falling and just barely catching herself before her face hits the cold stone floor.

Anko can’t help smiling as she kneels down next to Sakura; “There, that should keep you feeling human for a while. Now, listen carefully– That thing’ll keep the curse mark from acting up, but it’s only as strong as you are. If your will falters for even a second, that seal will break, and–“

And Sakura’s eyes finally glaze over and she loses the fight against passing all the way out, landing cheek first on the stone.

And she’s gone,” Anko sighs, “Well, at least she heard the important bits.” Kakashi has crossed the distance between them and is shrugging out of his flak jacket, draping it over Sakura. In her sleep she instinctually draws it tighter around herself, and Kakashi’s one dark eye crinkles at the corner with a real smile.

She grins at him, cheeky; “Awwww, so you don’t play favorites after all!”

“Oh no, I just play Least Favorites,” Kakashi replies.

A voice that turns Anko’s blood to ice rings out from the darkness; “How charitable of you– You’ve grown into a fine teacher, Kakashi.”

Orochimaru appears like a ghost from the shadows, his chalk white skin the only contrast against his dark hair and fatigues– the Sound jonin, of COURSE it had been him– and his grin wide, yet still not quite reaching his eyes. Exactly as she remembers him.

Anko leaps to her feet, snakes already writhing out of her sleeve; “You have some fucking nerve you son of a bitch–!

Kakashi grabs her roughly by the shoulder; “Don’t. If a fight breaks out right now we’re not the ones in danger– Sakura is.”

Anko’s breath catches in her throat. Damn it, he was fucking right. They were the only line of defense between that girl and the monster that wanted to take her away. They were everything Anko wished she’d had when Orochimaru came bearing down on her.

So she draws back the snakes and shifts into a defensive position; “If you take one step closer I’ll use your blood to paint the walls.”

Orochimaru’s eyebrows arch and he lets out an amused hum; “That would give this place some nice color, it’s fairly drab in here as is.”

Kakashi’s eye narrows; “Why so interested in your mistake, Orochimaru?”

Orochimaru gasps theatrically, putting a hand to his chest as he looks to Anko; “Anko, you tattled on our private conversation? I’d be hurt if it wasn’t so predictable. But if you must know,” this time his grin reaches his eyes and it’s all the worse for it, “I plan on turning my mistake into a miracle. I’d say that you don’t get to become a Legendary Sannin without learning how to make the best of a bad situation but we all know Tsunade and Jiraiya are notoriously bad at that.”

Anko can’t help cocking her head to the side; “You’re giving up on the Sharingan?”

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat, my dear,” Orochimaru replies through an airy laugh, “The Sharingan’s too lovely to pass up– Kakashi knows all about that. But Sakura is also something quite useful: A blank canvas. She holds infinite possibility, perfect for molding into whatever shape I need. Just like you, Anko.”

She remembers his pretty words, his assurances that she could be whatever she wanted to be because she wasn’t held back by clan expectation or limited by a bloodline technique forcing her into one style of fighting, how the curse mark would give her the raw power she always lacked so she could finally be something, and it’s all Anko can do to not be sick.

He turns on his heel, walking away from them as he says, “I don’t need to take you from her. She’ll come to me when she’s finally sick of being treated like dirt.”

Orochimaru walks until he’s almost entirely shrouded in darkness before he stops; “Oh, my, I just had a thought,” he turns back to them, tapping his chin as he thinks like a child imitating what he sees on television, “Sasuke and Naruto have grown rather attached to Sakura lately, haven’t they? It’s only natural, they’re her teammates after all, but I wonder… What would happen if she were to leave? What would they do?”

He shrugs, grin back en force; “Oh well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Good luck with the rest of the exam!”

And he melts into the dark, leaving Kakashi and Anko alone with a passed out girl and far too much to think about.

Sasuke had been frantically discussing Sakura’s match with Lee and Naruto and very much not sitting down when Kakashi appears behind the three of them, missing his flak jacket. The shock nearly sends Sasuke pitching over the railing but Lee and Naruto just barely catch him and help him whirl around to face Kakashi. Sasuke almost can’t hear himself in the chorus of the three of them asking Kakashi variations on “Is Sakura alright?!” and “Where is she?!”

“One at a time, you three,” Kakashi says, putting his hands up in a warding gesture, “Sakura is perfectly fine. She’s sleeping soundly in the infirmary, a respectful distance from Ino because we don’t know quite how she’s going to take defeat once she wakes up.”

Sasuke purses his lips– Thanks to that curse mark scare her bed’s likely surrounded by ANBU black ops, but Kakashi’s not going to say as much in front of Naruto and Lee.

Kakashi’s hand falls on Sasuke’s shoulder and while Sasuke flinches he lets him keep it there; “She’s going to be alright. Just relax and watch the rest of the matches– You might learn something.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, shrugging Kakashi’s hand off now just for the sake of it; “Should I just keep my Sharingan on the whole time, ‘take notes’?”

“I mean sure, if you want to add ‘needing glasses’ on top of all your other health issues,” Kakashi replies, casual as anything.

Sasuke’s about to shrug that off before he blinks and turns back to Kakashi with a quizzical look; “Wait, what?”

“An inactive sharingan eye is more susceptible to the lens deforming under stress, and the Sharingan itself used even casually can cause deterioration in the eye,” he leans down, taps his headband where it covers his eye, and Sasuke doesn’t have to see the grin on Kakashi’s face to know that it’s shit-eating, “Why do you think I keep this bad boy covered all the time?”

Sasuke just stares at him for a moment before eloquently responding, “Oh. Well,” and turning back to the railing.

He doesn’t get much peace as he tries to watch Temari and Tenten’s match. He can feel Naruto staring at him, eyes nearly all the way shut he’s squinting so hard. Sasuke just frowns– whatever it is, he has no interest in answering it, so he just ignores it and hopes it’ll go away.

That tactic rarely works with Naruto, and it doesn’t work this time as Naruto leans over to try and get into Sasuke’s field of vision, asking, “What did happen when I was knocked out?”

Sasuke just stares ahead as he answers a question with a question; “Why do you want to know?”

Naruto holds up one finger; “One: You care a lot more about Sakura than you used to.”

Sasuke couldn’t help but turn to Naruto and blink in confusion. Did he? He didn’t feel like he did… Though if Kakashi’s observations in the infirmary were any indication, he’s probably a poor judge of that.

Naruto holds up another finger and Sasuke nearly jumps as Naruto starts, “Two: I don’t know if it was just me but I saw a weird mark on Sakura’s–“

“It is only natural Sasuke would be more attached to Sakura after his ordeal in the Forest,” Lee cuts in, saving Sasuke’s skin, “He went without food, water and sleep to watch over her, and fought with all his strength to protect her! It was really truly admirable!”

Sasuke can’t help arching a brow as he leans on his crutch and turns to Lee; “I thought you said you Did Not Like me?”

Lee’s smile is probably as close to a smirk as he can manage; “I am still not so sure if I do. But I certainly respect you after seeing your fighting spirit and everything you have done for Sakura. However, please remember– When it comes to her heart, I will not lose to you.”

Sasuke just shakes his head and turns back to the fight; “How about we focus on your teammate?”

The rest of the preliminaries pass in a flurry of action that Sasuke is both exhausted by and surprised went so fast when it all finally comes to an end; Tenten puts on a damn fine show but Temari handily dispatches her, Naruto manages to beat Kiba in the most unimpressive yet classically Naruto way possible and the next two matches…

How does he even begin to describe the next two matches?

First, Hinata Hyuuga versus Neji Hyuuga. Neji, the older genin whose skill and poise Sasuke couldn’t help but admire, and Hinata, the girl his age he knew from memories of Uchiha and Hyuuga rubbing shoulders that are faded but not unpleasant. Neji brutalizes Hinata, striking with a level of cruelty Sasuke hadn’t imagined possible, nearly killing her because she deigned to imply he was projecting his issues onto her. And Hinata, Hinata who’s fighting to become stronger and see what she’s worth, Hinata keeps fighting even in the face of certain defeat and keeps getting back up.

Sasuke doesn’t speak much as the fight goes along and Naruto shouts encouragements to Hinata and everyone else murmurs about how she’s certainly going to lose. He just thinks of all the time he spent admiring Neji, all the times they’ve been compared, and starts to wonder if that was time wasted. He sees Hinata pick herself up, barely able to stand, and his knee aches.

And second, Gaara versus Rock Lee. The battle which all others would be compared against for years to come. Lee is absolutely magnificent, his taijutsu immaculate, his speed unmatchable. Sasuke actually does activate his Sharingan, not to take notes but just to see every single moment of Lee’s perfect form– Naruto has to keep him from falling over the railing he’s leaning so far, trying to get as close to the action as he can. But Gaara…

Gaara is beyond human. Beyond possibility. Nothing in the world could’ve prepared Lee for Gaara. Oh Lee does as well as he possibly could against him, but that’s like saying Lee did as well as he could against a typhoon. Gaara even behaves like something unnatural, something more or perhaps less than human– he does not move, he only acts. Lee pushes and pushes and pushes. He pushes so hard he destroys the arena floor. And when he cannot push anymore, when opening the gates puts him past the point of no return and Gaara has crushed his arm and leg and Lee isn’t even conscious, he stands up. And pushes.

A thought begins to form in Sasuke’s head.

Maybe, he thinks, Maybe this is what strength looks like.

Lee may never like Sasuke. But Sasuke’s not ashamed to admit he admires Lee. And it becomes quite a bit harder for Sasuke to feel sorry for himself when he hears that Lee’s injuries mean his days as a shinobi are over.

Sasuke doesn’t remember the last two matches very well. He knows Choji lost to Shino and Yoroi fought and lost an additional round against Shikamaru. The Hokage explains to the finalists that the final exam will be in one month so they have time to train and dignitaries have time to arrive, and he lays out the bracket via random draw.

Sasuke nearly throws up when Sakura is matched against Gaara.

Naruto immediately starts trying to negotiate (or Sasuke supposes a better term is ‘yell until someone gives up’), desperately trying to take Sakura’s place, but the Hokage and the proctors stand firm. Sasuke can hear Kakashi swear under his breath behind him. With Naruto pitted against Neji and Sasuke out of commission, their luck could hardly be worse.

Due to the nature of Sasuke’s injuries making the trip from his home to the hospital unfeasible, Kakashi and Hakumei already set him up a room in the hospital. All the others who lost in the preliminaries have been moved there as well– Sasuke’s dreading seeing what happens when Lee wakes up. But there’s a silver lining; despite the high security, Kakashi tells him that he can sneak Sasuke into Sakura’s room once she wakes up, though his motives aren’t entirely unselfish.

“I think she’ll take the news better if she hears it from you,” Kakashi remarks in a tired whisper. Sasuke’s not about to disagree.

Sasuke has to wait in his room until Sakura wakes up, and Naruto stays with him until visiting hours are over, rambling about all the half-baked strategies he has in mind to beat Neji. Sasuke does try to give some advice, but mostly ends up being talked over, so he settles for the usual– making fun of Naruto until Naruto tries to jump him and the nurses have to pull them apart. It’s definitely not good for Sasuke’s health. But it makes him feel normal, so he doesn’t care.

Sakura doesn’t wake up until around the middle of the night, at which time Hakumei lets him in with a warm smile and a whisper of, “Don’t get too crazy in there, Romeo. You both need your rest.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes probably a lot harder than he needs to, hobbling over to the chair near Sakura’s bed. She’s already turned to look at him, eyes half open but somehow bright with excitement. It’s only when he sits down that he realizes he’s smiling, just a little bit.

He’s not sure how to start, so he just says, “Good morning.”

Sakura frowns; “It’s dark out.”

“It’s a minute or so after midnight, so technically it’s morning,” Sasuke replies, shrugging his good shoulder. That gets a soft snicker out of her.

“What’d I miss?” she asks, slowly shifting so she’s propped up on one elbow.

Sasuke could go through the whole thing beat by beat. In fact, he wants nothing more. He wants to tell her about how he’d never seen a technique like Temari’s, how Shikamaru astounded him with that simple but brilliant strategy, Naruto’s ridiculous victory, Hinata’s courage, Lee’s tragedy, all of it.

But what ends up coming out of his mouth in a sheepish rush is, “You’re fighting Gaara in the third exam.”

Sakura first just stares at him, jaw falling open. She blinks, slowly at first then rapidly.

Then her eyes slide closed and she mutters, “Fuck.

Sasuke can’t help it. He’s laughing. He’s doing all he can to keep it quiet and make it stop but he can’t, after everything that’s happened in the last week all he can do is double over laughing like an academy student hearing his first dirty joke. And soon Sakura’s joining him, unable to keep upright on one arm and flopping back down to the bed, throwing her arm over her eyes and just giggling helplessly.

For that moment, for the first time in far too long, Sasuke finally feels like he’s just a kid.

Chapter Text

vi. While Kakashi details his position to her, Kurenai stares at him in silence. Anko just makes sure her mouth is full of dango at any given moment and avoids looking at Kurenai’s intense red eyes. Back when there were more of them to go around people accused the Sharingan of being creepy, but honestly the Yuhi have them beat because their eyes are like that all the time.

“Sakura’s chakra nature is Earth, so her learning the Chidori is right out,” Kakashi explains, leaning back in the cheap hospital cafeteria chair, “If she’s going to have even a ghost of a chance against Gaara she’s going to need to hone her strengths, and her main talent lies in Genjutsu. Naturally, Kurenai, you’re a perfect fit for her.”

Kurenai just slits her eyes in a glare; “I hope you haven’t forgotten that I also have a genin to train for the third exam.”

Kakashi’s mask shifts in such a way that Anko’s sure he’s smiling, but it quite literally doesn’t reach his eye; “I haven’t. In fact, I was so interested in that I asked how Shibi’s taking the news and learned he plans on giving Shino special training in secret techniques he, with all due respect, doesn’t want his jonin sensei learning the ins and outs of. Just in case.”

Kurenai doesn’t say anything, just drumming her fingers on the table– the only thing between her and Kakashi’s very punchable face.

Anko loudly swallows her bite of dango before piping up, “Then why am I here? My genjutsu’s shit.”

The look Kakashi sends her way is quite a bit more serious; “Since you have personal experience with Sakura’s condition, I thought you’d be best suited to help her train her will to get through it. As I’ve explained already, Sakura wouldn’t benefit from what I can teach her. I’m asking the two of you for a favor– one I will pay back.”

Kurenai and Anko share a look that says one thing they both understand clear as daylight: Is this guy fucking serious?

So Anko’s the first to answer, shrugging as she says, “I really don’t know what you want from me, Kakashi. I’m a special jonin for a reason– ‘not suited for instructing genin’, it’s written in my file in big red letters. Besides, everything I know I learned from Orochimaru. I thought we were trying to stop her from becoming a littler, pinker me?”

Kurenai leans forward, mouth hidden behind steepled fingers so all Kakashi can see are her piercing scarlet eyes; “Are you avoiding training Sakura because you’re not suited to it, or because she looks like Rin?”

Kakashi goes completely still.

Anko’s jaw drops open into a grin, eyes wide and darting between Kurenai and Kakashi as she laughs, “Oh ho ho DAMN, right for the gut huh?! You do not fuck around, Yuhi!”

Kurenai keeps going like Anko didn’t even say anything; “It’s not really your fault that you ended up with your late teacher’s son, the last Uchiha, and a girl who looks too much like Rin. It is your fault that you’re avoiding Naruto and Sakura in favor of doting on Sasuke, especially when they need just as much help and guidance as he does. Kakashi, it’s this simple– They are children. You’re an adult. Naruto doesn’t have anyone else and Sakura only has her mother. They need you.”

Saying Kakashi is staring at Kurenai doesn’t feel quite right. It’s more like he’s staring past her, or through her. Anko winces– with all these low blows she sincerely hopes Asuma knows how not to make Kurenai mad at this point.

Kurenai’s face softens as she sighs; “Honestly I wouldn’t be opposed to helping Sakura. But I’m not going to enable you. I’ll only train her if you train her as well. I can lessen your load, I won’t take the whole thing.”

Anko nods, leaning back to prop her feet up on the table; “Yeah like, if you can do that I’ll try to keep an eye on Sakura and talk to her every now and again, but I’m not a counselor, I’m not a teacher, and on top of that Lord Hokage wants me planning countermeasures for if our uninvited guest decides to make trouble. Your girl is your responsibility, Kakashi.”

Kakashi finally moves, nodding ever so slightly– for himself, not for them.

He meets their eyes; “That can work.”

The hospital discharges Sakura the morning after the preliminaries, and Sasuke finds himself wishing she could stay just a little bit longer. That wish stems almost entirely from the absolute misery that is Lee waking up and being given the news.

Sasuke doesn’t see it firsthand because he doesn’t need to– There’s suddenly a commotion from several rooms down the hall, a sound like shouting and things being knocked over, Hakumei is suddenly called away from giving Sasuke his physical therapy itinerary because “The boy needs to be restrained” and she runs like the devil to get there, he hears voices rising– Lee’s, Gai’s, every orderly and nurse brought into the room– before suddenly cutting off. Even when things calm down Hakumei doesn’t come back. Sasuke creeps out of his room, as stealthy as he can be while bound to a crutch, and walks until he comes to a stop outside Lee’s still-open door.

Lee’s face is pressed into Gai’s shoulder as he shakes with sobs, one intact arm wrapped around him and hand grasping his flak jacket tight enough he might tear it. Gai has him in an embrace that’s tight, but Sasuke imagines it would be tighter if Lee was in better shape, weeping as quietly as he can into his student’s hair. Hakumei is standing off to the side, hands in her white coat’s pockets, staring past the two of them out the window with a bone-deep weariness in everything from the set of her shoulders to the the way her head droops every so slightly.

Sasuke’s not sure why, but he’s suddenly turning as fast as he can and racing away, not just back to his room but all the way down the stairs and out to the courtyard garden. And then he just… wanders. He hobbles along the paths, looking at the trees, thinking about how warm it is outside even for early July, trying to identify the birds by call, before he finds himself beside the hospital pond.

He’s not alone out here.

Hinata is sitting on one of the benches nearby, all prim and proper posture that comes with good breeding despite the fact that she’s connected to an IV drip and is crying. She somehow manages to do that aristocratically too, keeping her sobs restrained to tiny, uneven breaths and hiccups while her tears run down her cheeks in even lines.

Sasuke hasn’t held a conversation longer than “May I borrow a pencil please” with Hinata since they were five years old, so he just stands there wondering if he should stay or go until she looks up and he’s pinned to the spot by her white eyes rimmed in red.

“D-did you hear,” she whispers, barely audible her voice is so weak, “W-what they told… What they said to Lee?”

Sasuke just nods as he comes over to Hinata and sits down on the bench beside her. As he settles down on the stone he quickly realizes Hinata’s not quite sobbing, more just trying to breathe when her condition demands she be wearing an oxygen mask. She probably stopped sobbing a while ago.

Hinata has a remarkable talent for talking just as Sasuke’s wondering what he should say, murmuring, “It’s just… Lee worked so hard. I-I remember seeing him on the training grounds until dark, even though… No matter what any of the other kids said about him he never gave up, a-and Gai was always supporting him, a-and he was trying so hard and–!”

She has to stop, taking deep, rapid breaths as she clutches at her chest. Sasuke’s Sharingan springs to life on instinct as he tenses up– with a frown and a shake of his head he blinks it away. It’s not the Byakugan, he can’t see through her chest to see if she’s in danger of having another heart attack. He can’t do anything for her except watch.

Hinata’s breathing calms down, though it still catches and stutters, and when she looks to him her eyes are full of tears again; “It’s not fair.”

Sasuke likes to think he’s become something of an expert on unfair circumstances, so when he says, “Yeah, it’s not,” he imagines that carries some weight.

Hinata nods again, and the two of them sit in silence for a while, watching the koi in the pond swim around and around in lazy circles.

Then Hinata suddenly blurts out, “I’m sorry about your family.”

For a good minute all Sasuke can do is stare at her, wide eyed, brows furrowed, jaw hanging slightly open.

Just as he’s about to ask her where that came from, she answers his question; “We stopped talking in the Academy, a-and then the… the incident happened and you stopped talking to anyone a-and there was just never a good time to say it but I always… I’m so sorry. Your mom was nice. Ita– Your b– … Your mom was so nice.”

Sasuke’s not sure what to say.

So he opens his mouth and says the first thing that comes to mind; “Thanks… I’m sorry about your family, too.”

Hinata is quiet. Sasuke has half a second to think she took that as an insult before she smiles ever so slightly.

Things progress with quite a bit less drama from there on out. The first two weeks of Sasuke’s stay fall into a fairly regular routine of Mystical Palm treatments, physical therapy that makes him regret ever calling Kakashi a hardass when it came to training, and bumming around the hospital garden because he’s still in no shape to walk all the way to his apartment and back every day.

Sasuke thinks that seems like a good challenge and way to rehabilitate his body without getting too wild with it, but Hakumei thinks he’s a “stupid little punk who got himself in this mess and still thinks he knows better than the trained medical professionals” so he doesn’t push it. Much. It’s not long before the only three genin left over from the chunin exams still in the hospital are Sasuke, Hinata, and Lee, and the three of them end up seeing quite a lot of each other.

For Hinata and Sasuke, it’s generally pleasant. They tend to end up in the cafeteria at the same time and take their lunches together or find each other while both meandering around the garden and turn their separate walks into one, making understated conversation. Between Hinata’s shyness and Sasuke’s ungraceful way with words that’s really the best they can do. But they improve with their conditions. Hinata gains the strength and the comfort to talk about how things have changed in the Hyuuga household since Sasuke stopped being dragged there to fritter the time away while their fathers talked. Sasuke relaxes and tells her about the missions he's taken with Team 7, both mundane and exceptional.

Out of necessity Sasuke has become very good at identifying crushes– one day he asks Hinata why she doesn’t fawn over and invade Naruto’s personal space like the academy girls always did for him, and she turns the same color as the tomato Sasuke’s eating before forgetting how to speak entirely. It’s the funniest thing Sasuke’s seen in years.

Sasuke’s run-ins with Lee are decidedly less pleasant. For the first week, any time Sasuke sees Lee it’s generally in glimpses taken while passing his room. He seems to barely move unless he is physically moved, preferring to stare either out the window or at the wall with a blank, defeated look on his face. Sasuke hates it. He hates seeing Lee, bundle of obnoxious energy and passion, completely drained of both. It shouldn’t even be possible.

But it somehow gets worse, because the next week Lee transitions from “depression” to “angry denial”.

Lee attacks his physical therapy like a man possessed, which Sasuke has a front row seat to since their appointments are at the same time in the same area of the hospital. Lee pushes himself far harder than even his therapist recommends and tries to argue for more time, more intense therapy, more more more. And when they won’t give him more he starts taking matters into his own hands, trying to train on his own time, sneaking out of his room and being found collapsed somewhere else in the hospital.

“It’s almost impressive how far he gets sometimes,” Hakumei grumbles over her paperwork one night as Sasuke joins her in the on-call room (he rarely sleeps all the way through the night and eventually she just puts him to work helping her take down patient notes instead of letting him wander the halls like a ghost), “But I swear, the kid’s gonna end up killing himself if he keeps on like this. He refuses to engage when the counselor meets with him, he doesn’t even listen when his teacher visits and tries to talk some sense into him… I have no goddamn idea what to do with this kid.”

Sasuke, being a preteen boy with a history of dealing poorly with injury himself, doesn’t imagine he can give much in the way of valuable advice. He simply nods as he copies Hakumei’s notes down in his impeccable (the words of many an academy teacher, not him) handwriting.

Things come to a head at the end of Sasuke’s second week when he’s taking a walk with Hinata through the hospital garden. As they’re coming out towards the pond Sasuke’s the first to hear him, Lee’s voice straining around his attempts to count whatever exercise it is he’s trying to do, and Sasuke for a second can only be impressed with the fact he’s gotten to a hundred and eighty nine of them. But then Hinata is gasping and running as best she can despite her trouble breathing and Sasuke is swearing and hobbling along behind her.

Lee is a pathetic sight. Sasuke’s not one for kind words already and even he can’t think of anything nicer to say as Lee struggles to complete a pushup on one set of broken toes with an arm in a sling. His face is ashen and soaked in sweat as his body shudders all over, quite obviously biting the inside of his cheek to try and work through the no doubt immense amount of pain he’s in.

And on top of all that he’s muttering to himself like a madman; “Two hundred pushups, that was the deal! If you cannot finish them it is one hundred leg squats, so come on! Here we go! One hundred ninety–!”

Hinata steps closer, hands folded over her chest as she tries to talk around her labored breathing; “L-lee, you shouldn’t be out here! Y-you have– You have to stop, why are you–?!”

Lee carries on, pointedly ignoring Hinata; “One hundred… ninety one…!”

Sasuke frowns and lets out a frustrated grunt before walking up beside Hinata; “Lee, come on, knock it off.”

“P-please, Lee, we– We’re all worried about you,” Hinata reaches out to touch Lee’s shoulder, to try and draw his attention to them.

She gets his attention alright. Lee’s head whips around to meet Hinata’s eyes as he snaps, “Keep away from me! Please! Got to… finish my training…”

There’s tears in Hinata’s eyes as Lee struggles through several more pushups, groaning out once again to himself as if Hinata and Sasuke didn’t even exist, “Do not count me out… I am not through yet…!”

Sasuke shuts his eyes tight and growls through gritted teeth, “Hinata. Go get a nurse.”

She looks up to him, eyes wide and hands shaking; “A-are you sure? I-I–!”

The Sharingan turns on by itself as Sasuke meets her eyes, gaze intense; “Just go already.”

Hinata doesn’t need much more convincing. She runs as fast as her damaged organs can take her back up the way they came.

Sasuke’s not quite proud of what he does next. He uses his crutch to flip Lee onto his back– stopping his movement without hurting his already ruined arm and leg, yes, but not the most dignified way to do it. Lee flails like an overturned turtle and Sasuke has to step on Lee’s stomach with his good leg to make sure he doesn’t move too much. He thinks, distantly, that from the outside this whole situation probably looks ridiculous.

Lee shouting from the ground brings Sasuke back into the moment; “Get off of me! Let me go!

Sasuke, through gritted teeth, retorts, “Not gonna happen– You've screwed yourself up enough for one day.”

Lee glares up at him, eyes burning with so much anger Sasuke almost doesn’t recognize them; “What makes you think you know better?! You are going to recover one day! You get to keep being a ninja! You have no right to talk down to me!”

“I’m trying to keep you from dying, dumbass,” Sasuke shoots back, trying and mostly failing to keep his temper in check, “I get how you’re feeling–“

Wrong choice of words.

Lee grabs at Sasuke’s calf and tries to wrench him off, bitter tears spilling from his eyes as he snarls, “No you do not! There is no way you ever could! You are an Uchiha, a genius, born with every advantage! You do not know what it is like to have nothing!”

Something in Sasuke snaps.

He throws his crutch to the ground, grabs Lee by the front of his hospital-issue shirt as he falls to one knee, and yells in his face, “THE HELL I DON’T! I USED TO HAVE PARENTS!

That gets Lee to freeze, but Sasuke wants to keep yelling, so he does; “Don’t you dare tell me I don’t know how it feels to lose the most important thing in your life! It’s like having your guts torn out and thrown into a river! It hurts and it hurts and it never stops hurting! Even if I kill Itachi, even if I avenge the clan and restore it, I don’t… I don’t think it’ll ever stop…”

Sasuke almost forgets Lee is there. He’s never said this out loud. It’s been skirting around in the depths of his mind, gnawing at him whenever he thinks about Itachi and vengeance and everything that’s been keeping him going, but now that his own strength has been judged and found wanting it’s too hard to ignore. Itachi needs to die. He knows he does. The Uchiha need to flourish again. He’s certain they do. But the hole in his heart is too wide, too deep, too empty; he’s not sure anything in the world can fill it.

Sasuke’s eyes burn and his throat aches and he hates that he’s crying in front of Lee, but Lee still has tear tracks on his face, so he considers them even.

“And… even if it never stops,” Sasuke sighs, letting Lee go and sitting down heavily in the dirt, “You can’t go making it worse. It’s just stupid.”

Lee is silent for a long time before he asks, “Your clan… Do you miss them?”

Sasuke, to his own surprise, laughs; “All the time. Even though I was there and I saw it happen it… sometimes doesn’t feel real, you know? Like I’ll catch myself walking towards the Uchiha District instead of my apartment when I’m going home, or I have dreams where they’re all still alive then wake up and for a few minutes think ‘ah shit I overslept, Dad’s gonna kill me’ before I remember it wasn’t real or…”

Sasuke leans back on his good arm; “You wanna know the most fucked up thing that happens? I sometimes miss Itachi. I’ll forget for a second that he’s the reason this all happened and I just miss my brother, and when I remember, it just… Do you remember how it felt when Gaara crushed your arm and leg? It feels like that. Every single time.”

Lee scooches over to sit next to Sasuke and says in a soft voice, “My parents died when the Nine Tails attacked. I knew nothing about them, except that they were Shinobi. When I started, I simply wanted to know why they decided to live and die the way they did, I wanted to understand…” Lee starts to well up again, “And I do. It is more than fighting. It is pride, in our village and in ourselves. Yes, we may not always do what is right, but we are always protecting those we love, and there is something noble in that… I cannot imagine a life where I do not do that anymore.”

Sasuke smirks, cuffing Lee on the uninjured shoulder; “You’re too good to be true, you know that?”

Lee grins; “I suppose I am, because there is another reason– I have too many unfinished fights.”

Sasuke just laughs as he spots Hinata coming back up the path with a nurse in tow; “Knew there was a catch.”

Despite the short courses over a long period of time, the Mystical Palm Jutsu is still so potent that Sasuke is (apparently) recovering twice as fast as it would take him to with only mundane medicine. By the end of his second week he’s able to use his formerly bad arm for most normal activity, though his shoulder doesn’t quite agree with his secret arm-wrestling matches with Lee so Sasuke imagines it will still be a good few weeks before he can use it for combat. Hakumei also clears him to start putting some weight on his bad leg, but only while wearing a brace, and never for very long.

“Might as well say right now, get used to the brace,” Hakumei says as she fits it on him, “You’ll probably need a less intense one to manage pain even when you’re well enough to jump through trees.”

Sasuke’s been coming to terms with the permanence of his injury– seeing Lee’s predicament firsthand is very good for developing perspective. Still, the concept of needing a brace forever makes Sasuke go quiet and do a lot of staring into space for the rest of that day. He’s so caught up in his own thoughts he doesn’t catch his stare getting so intense that the Sharingan turns on as he’s getting another round of Mystical Palm treatments.

It occurs to Sasuke later that day as he’s doing his daily bit of wandering through the hospital gardens that he probably copied the Mystical Palm Jutsu. He wonders if Hakumei is right about even his Sharingan needing a couple chances to get it right, and as fate would have it he comes across a bird lying on the ground, wing broken.

Sasuke’s Sharingan spins to life and his hand glows with a light blue-green chakra as he gently presses it to the broken wing. The bird instantly dies from a heart-attack. Once Sasuke stops staring down at it, eyes wide in shock, he checks the wing and finds it had started knitting itself back together.

Not perfect, but promising.

Over that weekend Sasuke starts experimenting with the Mystical Palm Jutsu, falling into a rhythm– cover his Sharingan with a genjutsu during the day’s course of treatment, then at the end of the day in his room fish a kunai out of his gear in the wardrobe and practice by giving himself small puncture wounds and trying to heal them.

He’s aware of the irresponsibility of this tactic, if anyone finds out he’ll probably be considered a suicide risk and lose all his gear for good, but he’s not going to find birds with broken wings every day and he’s not stupid enough to experiment on his knee or his fellow genin, so this is the best option. It doesn’t take him long before he can heal a small pinprick without a scar, but longer cuts come out only half-healed or stay open. Sasuke quickly learns that getting frustrated and trying to force the wounds shut tends to result in his heart rate spiking and the cut just oozing more blood. He starts wearing his arm guards again and if anyone notices they don’t say anything.

That Monday, for the first time since he was admitted, Kakashi stops by. Sasuke hides his urge to ask Kakashi why he’s been ignoring him by instead incessantly asking about Sakura’s training and their plan against Gaara. Kakashi deflects his questions in his typical way, with vague answers and lame changes of subject, and Sasuke finds himself wolfing down stale hospital omusubi while glaring across the cafeteria table at him while he’s no doubt smirking under his mask.

And Sasuke chokes on that omusubi when Kakashi remarks, “You know, there’s better ways to practice the chakra control you need for Mystical Palm Jutsu than making yourself look like you have a drug problem.”

Once he’s done coughing up the rice, Sasuke sputters, “How–?!”

“Hakumei,” Kakashi replies, definitely smirking now, “You really should know better than to think you can hide anything from a Hyuuga. You’re just lucky she came to me before putting you on Suicide Watch just to teach you a lesson.”

Sasuke stares at him, eyes wide; “She wouldn’t.”

Kakashi just keeps smirking; “She absolutely would. She’s a brilliant doctor but she’s worse with kids than I am.”

Sasuke’s first urge is to tell Kakashi he’s not that bad, but he swallows it and instead asks, “Well do you have any better ideas? Believe it or not I don’t like experimenting on myself.”

Kakashi leans closer, resting his cheek on his hand, and asks, “How would you like to learn how to use the Lightning Blade?”

Sasuke would like it to be officially known that his jaw absolutely did not drop.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner; “It’ll help with your chakra control, but it can get a bit messy. Sakura’s busy these days, but we’ll see if she can give you any advice. I’m training her every other day, so I can get you out of here on the days I’m not training her. This all sound good?”

Yes,” Sasuke forcefully replies before catching himself and making himself lean back, “I mean… You sure you’re gonna have time to train Naruto if you start training me?”

Kakashi lets out a sort of surprised laugh before he answers; “Well, I had intended to start training Naruto right about now after sending him off with someone to help him fix up his fundamentals, but he somehow managed to stumble into someone who’ll teach him better than I ever could, so here I am.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes– his mile-wide competitive streak wants to ask about Naruto’s new teacher, but he gets the feeling Kakashi’s going to get very vague if he asks, so he keeps it to himself and listens with rapt attention as Kakashi lays out how this new schedule is going to work. Sasuke privately admits to himself that while the Chidori is tantalizing in its power and spectacle, he’s mostly itching to get out of the hospital. He was starting to develop Cabin Fever, and the “track marks” on his arm were just his most obvious symptom. Hakumei signs off on the plan when they bring it to her, citing that Sasuke was starting to get “squirrelly” as reason enough to let him go.

The training ground Kakashi brings him to when they start is a lot closer to the hospital than Sasuke expected it to be. It makes sense– if there’s an accident in training the hospital’s where you want to go first– but he does feel a bit condescended to considering he’s getting better at walking further and further on his crutch and can put slightly more weight on his injured leg every day. When he brings this up Kakashi dares Sasuke to run from one end of the training ground to another. Sasuke blanches and Kakashi laughs.

“Yeah, there’s a reason we’re starting out just holding the Chidori,” Kakashi says, coming in and quickly ruffling his hair before Sasuke can push him away, “It’s going to take you a while longer before you’re up to running with it.”

One of the first things that Sasuke thinks of as he and Kakashi get to work is that chakra natures should’ve been covered in the academy. The second is that trying to make and hold pure lightning is perhaps a better education in the exact flaws of his chakra control and the limits of his Sharingan than trying to heal the broken wings of birds– his control is imprecise, and to push so much power into one place and keep it there, precision is a must. Sasuke starts out essentially creating small lightning bombs that leave minor burns on his palm the second after they explode, but Kakashi tells him it's a fairly good start and Sasuke does an alright job using his other hand to heal the charred skin.

Kakashi trains him every other day from sunrise to sundown, at which point he takes Sasuke to a random restaurant in walking distance for dinner because he remembers all his stints in the hospital and he’s not going to let Sasuke’s taste buds atrophy from eating that food all the time. Sasuke probably enjoys that part the most. At least he does until a rogue element tips the scales in favor of the training itself– Sakura starts showing up.

When she first pops up at the training ground Sasuke’s just stunned to see her again, not just because he didn’t expect it but because she looks quite a bit different. She did clean up her new hairstyle a bit, but that mostly just comes from brushing it– it’s still as short in the back and long in the front as before– and has taken to wearing a long-sleeved black shirt made of breathable but strong material under her usual dress to cover up the mark as well as black gloves that almost match Kakashi’s. There’s some new but healing scars on her calves, and whenever she shows up she generally has a small bandage or two on her face, but when she does she’s positively glowing.

She’s never there for particularly long– Her genjutsu training with Kurenai has progressed to Sakura having to spend whole days keeping Kurenai from catching her by throwing her off her trail with techniques she’s learned, so she’ll come too close to Sakura’s liking and she’ll have to sprint off. But while she’s there she’s pure encouragement, cheering Sasuke on and giving him advice on chakra control that’s a bit more academic than Kakashi’s. Sasuke imagines once she’s a Jonin any genin would be lucky to have her because her advice alongside Kakashi’s helps him move quite a bit faster than he thought he would, going up from creating tiny explosions to being able to hold the Chidori for a minute.

When they have a second, Sasuke tries to ask Sakura what her strategy against Gaara’s going to be. Her eyes light up and she almost tells him before she catches herself and grins at him instead.

“Sorry, but I’m gonna have to keep that a secret for now,” she says, almost apologetic, “I want it to be a surprise for everyone.”

Sasuke doesn’t push it, but he doesn’t hide his frown as he gets back to training– he's always hated surprises.

Sasuke’s off days at the hospital aren’t too different than they used to be, except that Naruto is visiting quite a bit more often. Every few days he would pop in to see how Sasuke is doing, but now Sasuke can count on him to be there any day he’s not training with Kakashi after sundown, because apparently Naruto needs someone to vent to. The sum total of his visits tends to be them sitting in the cafeteria, Sasuke eating and Naruto rambling about how his training is going nowhere and the pervy sage isn’t teaching him shit and he’s probably just tricking him with this whole toad summoning business and who needs chakra control anyway he’s been getting on just fine without it and damn this hospital makes crappy ramen so Sasuke had better get better soon so he can do this at Ichiraku not the hospital.

Naruto’s ramblings make very little sense, especially the parts where he talks about a perverted sage teaching him to control his chakra by summoning frogs. Sasuke at first privately assumes Naruto is lying. Then he publically assumes Naruto is lying and they have to be thrown into the hall because there’s no fighting in the cafeteria.

It’s nine days before the final exam when Team 7 finally gets together for the first time since the preliminaries. Naruto has just come into the lobby and Sasuke meets him there because he can track Naruto like clockwork when the door opens on Naruto’s heels, Kakashi and Sakura walking through it, Sakura with some fresh bandages on her face as well as a brilliant smile and Kakashi’s headband not quite covering his Sharingan as much as it usually does.

Sasuke blinks in surprise and is about to ask why they’re here when Naruto shouts over him; “Kakashi-sensei! Sakura! It’s been forever, what are you doing here?”

Sakura rolls her eyes; “It’s been three weeks, Naruto, calm down.”

Kakashi, surprisingly, is the one to actually answer a question straight out; “Sakura’s been doing so well in her training that we finished up early today, so we thought we’d find the two of you and treat you to dinner. Like you said, it’s been forever.”

Sakura and Kakashi spare a private, mirthful glance as Naruto’s excitement ratchets up another notch and he starts begging that they go to Ichiraku, and Sasuke is sure they’re up to something. It’s probably not anything bad, but Sasuke hates surprises.

Nevertheless, he shrugs; “It’s not like we had anything better to do.”

Kakashi tells the three of them to get a head start since he has something to take care of here, and as the three of them make their way out Sasuke looks over his shoulder to see Kakashi start talking to one of the receptionists in hushed tones. Also suspicious.

Naruto and Sakura chatter across Sasuke as their walk on either side of him to Ichiraku– if they’re bothered by having to walk slower to keep up with him, they don’t say so, though Sakura does check in with him every couple minutes to see if he’s alright. It’s annoying, but it’s proof she hasn’t changed too much, so he only minds it a little bit. Sasuke expected Kakashi to surreptitiously meet them there via jumping across rooftops, but to his surprise he actually catches up with them and walks the rest of the way at street level, easily joining Naruto and Sakura's conversation. Sasuke’s content just making the occasional comment; like Naruto said, it’s been forever.

It’s also been forever since Sasuke had ramen, and he thankfully remembers he likes Tonkatsu ramen just in time before Naruto tries to order for him and make it the nastiest thing Teuchi and Ayame can whip up. It’s a lot easier for Sasuke to stay quiet and listen when he has the excuse of his mouth being full of noodles.

“So Sakura, you gotta tell me,” Naruto says across Kakashi, “What’s the big strategy for taking out Gaara? Are you gonna use more cool genjutsu? That one you used against Ino was sweet, do you think he’d fall for it?”

Apparently Kakashi had been training Sakura in how to answer questions without actually answering them; “I have been learning more genjutsu, but my training’s been pretty broad. Kakashi-sensei’s been drilling me in ninjutsu and taijutsu too, and he’s an absolute slave driver.”

Kakashi just grins; “Sunup to sundown, every other day.”

Naruto frowns, bouncing his leg as he asks, “Yeah yeah but… What are you gonna do? Lee went in hard with taijutsu and that didn’t work, and that sand can block almost anything so who knows about ninjutsu, are you sure you’re ready for this Sakura?”

Sakura frowns and shuts her eyes as she replies, “Naruto, I’ve been training every day, and I have nine more days. I’m going to be fine.”

Naruto grimaces; “I mean, I guess, but I saw what happened to Lee, and–“

Sakura’s jaw clenches tight and she cuts Naruto off; “So what’s your strategy against Neji? I heard he did a number on Hinata, how are you going to deal with that?

Naruto is immediately on the defensive; “Oh, uh, well, I-I’ve got that all figured out! Yeah, it’s all covered! Been plannin’ since day one and ironing out the kinks and uuuhhhh I think I’ve got it all situated! Yeah! Neji won’t know what hit him, believe it!”

Sakura smiles over at him, sickly sweet; “Really! Then you won’t mind telling me what it is?”

Naruto starts to sweat, and not from the heat of his ramen; “Right, right! Right… Well that’s… uh… it’s, uh, uuuhhhhhhhhh a surprise! Yep! A big surprise! Just watch closely during the match and I’ll blow your socks right off!”

Sakura just laughs as she pins her bangs back and takes a long slurp of ramen noodles; Sasuke also finds himself chuckling, just a little bit. Naruto manages to sheepishly scarf his whole bowl down before ordering seconds.

Kakashi leans down to stage-whisper to Sakura, “I think now’s as good a time as any to give it to him.”

Sakura perks up and nods enthusiastically; “Oh yeah, right! Do you have it?”

Kakashi just fishes around in his vest before handing Sakura a long (over eight inches if Sasuke had to guess) box wrapped in blue and red paper. She spins on her seat and holds it out to Sasuke, grin wide and cheeks rosy.

“Happy Birthday, Sasuke!” she chirps.

It takes Sasuke a couple seconds to process it. Is it his birthday? He looks to the calendar on the Ichiraku kitchen wall: July 23rd. Shit, it is. When was the last time he got a birthday gift? It had to be before–

Naruto shouting breaks Sasuke out of his reverie; “WHAT?! SASUKE IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN TELL ME?! Aw man and Sakura got you a present– I don’t have anything!”

Sasuke takes the box out of Sakura’s hands, holding it gingerly like it’s made of glass; “I… I forgot all about it.”

Naruto’s voice of course finds a way to be even louder; “YOU FORGOT YOUR OWN BIRTHDAY?!

Kakashi takes that moment to slide some papers down the bar to Sasuke; “Since we’re doing this, you can have my gift too.”

Sasuke sets the box down carefully next to his ramen and picks up the papers. His brow furrows; these are hospital discharge papers– oh. There’s his name, right at the top. He rifles hurriedly through them– he’ll have to come back once a month for a couple more months for checkups and there’s a list of exercises he’s to do on his own to keep up his physical therapy, but for all intents and purposes he’s out.

Sasuke looks up just in time to see Kakashi smiling with his eye; “You’re a free man now, Sasuke.”

Teuchi smiles a warm, grandfatherly smile as he says, “Well, if it’s your birthday Sasuke, then your orders are on the house, all you can eat! Though that’s probably happier news for your sensei than you.”

“I’m suddenly wishing it was Naruto’s birthday,” Kakashi mutters, looking through his wallet.

Naruto lets out a frustrated yell; “Damn it, you guys did that just to show me up! Well just you watch, I’m gonna get Sasuke a late birthday gift and it’s gonna be way better than yours, believe it!

Sasuke feels warm. He hasn’t felt this warm in a very long time.

There’s a lot he wants to say, but all that comes out is, “Thank you.”

Sasuke doesn’t have Naruto’s bottomless pit of a stomach so he only eats the one bowl of ramen, but Ayame gives him some free daifuku for dessert. Sasuke would usually just give them all to Sakura, but he finds himself eating half of one while staring back at Ayame’s expectant smile. Sakura has to go home before her mom starts to worry so she breaks off from them early, waving until she’s out of sight. Kakashi and Naruto walk Sasuke home– Kakashi jokes about Naruto and Sasuke having a sleepover, but Naruto wrinkles his nose at that and makes some untrue remarks about Sasuke’s grooming and laundry habits. Sasuke's not in too much of a daze to shoot back that he doesn't want Naruto stinking up his apartment either.

As they leave him at his door, Naruto calls over his shoulder, “Remember jackass, I’m definitely getting you a birthday present, whether you want one or not! Believe it!”

Sasuke waits until he’s all the way inside and sitting on his bed to unwrap Sakura’s present, and even then he takes a moment to just admire the wrapping paper. He looks for where she’s taped it at the seams and carefully undoes the tape, trying to tear as little as possible, but that’s how he always opens presents. He places the wrapping paper on his nightstand and takes the lid off the box.

Inside is an absolutely beautiful tantō knife in a deep blue wooden sheathe with a samegawa-wrapped hilt. Sasuke takes it in his hands like it’s a newborn baby bird and carefully draws it– the blade is sharpened to a razor edge and shines in the moonlight, with a notare hamon sweeping gracefully along the bladed edge. And as if this blade wasn’t perfect enough, he turns to look at the base of the pommel and he sees the Uchiha crest emblazoned in it.

It’s only now that Sasuke notices the note sitting beneath where the knife had been in the box, written in Sakura’s crisp handwriting on a small piece of card stock. Sasuke carefully, reverently sets the tantō down beside him and picks up the note.


I’ve hopefully said this before by the time you read this but, Happy Birthday! I wasn’t sure what to get you since you don’t really have hobbies you talk about, so I got you something you can use. I can’t imagine you’ve had many good birthdays in the past five years– and I’m sorry if that just dredged up bad memories, oops. Nevertheless, I wanted to make this birthday a good one for you, and I hope I can make all the ones to come good too.

Love, Sakura

Sasuke reads the note over and over again for a good two minutes.

Then he sets one hand on his injured knee, and soft cyan chakra glows brief and bright from his palm. Sasuke knows one thing for certain– He wants to get back out on the field. He wants to go back to doing missions again, even if they’re just D-ranks pulling weeds and rescuing lost cats.

Like Naruto said– It's been forever. And forever is too long.

Chapter Text

vii. It’s during her third week of training when Sakura speaks to Gaara for the first time.

Usually after a long day of training with Kakashi or Kurenai she drags herself home, shoves her face full of food so she won’t have to answer her mother’s questions about her training, pulls her carcass up the stairs and passes out the second she touches her bed. She thought nothing short of her house catching fire could wake her before dawn. A conspicuous thump on her roof proves her wrong.

Sakura is up and out of her bed before she can convince herself it’s none of her business, suddenly glad she fell asleep in her gear as she grabs a kunai on instinct. Her time with Kurenai shows its efficacy as she comes up to her balcony and quickly casts two genjutsu– one to mask the sound of her sliding glass door she opens it, another to make her “invisible” by reflecting the her surroundings over her body (she’s learned that it’s not much help if she moves too quickly).

Just as she starts creeping out her door and starts tracing the perimeter of her balcony counterclockwise, her visitor drops down right in the middle of it. And Sakura has to bite her own tongue to keep from gasping, because Gaara of the Desert is crouching in the middle of her balcony.

He doesn’t appear to have seen her, but as he slowly brings himself up to stand at his full height his dark-ringed eyes slowly scan back and forth from one end of Sakura’s room to another. There’s only one reason he’s here– He’s looking for her. And if he doesn’t find her…

A jolt of cold fear lances up Sakura’s spine. She suddenly remembers the day she came home from the hospital in stark clarity– her mom had hugged her so tight it hurt when she came through the door since Kakashi had told her just enough to worry her, and Sakura had lied to her for the first time in her life about exactly what had happened while her mom had nervously futzed with her dull pink, nearly brown hair. Sakura had caught up on her chores and the neighborhood gossip, she’d helped her mother cook dinner, they’d watched an old favorite movie that made them laugh so hard they cried, Sakura had fallen asleep on the couch and woken up tucked in bed.

Gaara starts to carefully move towards her door. Sakura doesn’t even think as she darts around to block his path.

Sakura releases the genjutsu, melting back into full view and staring him down; “It’s rude to go into a girl’s room without asking.”

Gaara blinks rapidly, probably the only sign Sakura was going to get that she surprised him; “… Are you really that arrogant? You could’ve lived if you’d stayed hidden.”

Sakura shrugs; “Yeah, I could’ve. But then you would’ve gone downstairs looking for me and found my mom. I’m not going to risk you hurting her.”

Sakura imagines if Gaara had eyebrows they’d be furrowing right now; “Why does she matter? You’re the one in striking range.”

As if to prove that point, sand comes creeping out of Gaara’s gourd in a slow stream, twisting onto the ground and around Sakura’s feet. She stands her ground despite the block of ice that flash-freezes in her stomach, mind playing all her imaginings of how Lee’s battle with Gaara had gone so disastrously wrong she’d cooked up as Kakashi had told her the risks ahead. If she couldn’t face it now, she’d never face it during the exam, and then she’d be dead for certain.

Assuming he doesn’t just kill her right here.

Sakura cocks her head to the side like this is any other boy in her life asking her a stupid question; “She matters because she’s my mother and I love her? I’ll bet you don’t have friends, but you probably have family– You have to understand that much.”

His face twists into a scowl as he quite plainly says, “No, I don’t. I don’t understand any of you people… You least of all.”

He retracts the sand and stalks closer to her, Sakura taking a step back for every one he takes forward until she’s back across the threshold of her sliding glass door and he’s just on the other side. Sakura could slam it in his face, but any sudden moves feel like they could provoke him. It’s like dealing with a frightened horse. Gaara almost mirrors her in how he cocks his head to the side, eyes moving from her feet to her hair as he studies her. He leans in closer and she leans away.

“What… are you?” he finally asks.

The question is so completely out of left field that Sakura can’t help a startled chuckle, but that makes Gaara lean back and blink rapidly again so she quickly stifles it.

“Uh… I’m a person? A shinobi? A kunoichi? I really don’t know what answer you’re looking for,” Sakura replies.

Gaara shakes his head, eyes narrow now; “You are… nothing. No clan, no tailed beast, no handicap. You live in a civilian house, in a civilian neighborhood. You should be nothing. But you made it this far, so you can’t be. So. What are you?”

Sakura just stares at him, jaw hanging open. If this was any other boy (except maybe Sasuke) she’d already be shouting at him, punching him so hard he flew off her balcony, but since this is Gaara she can only stare.

Let him know exactly who you are, Sweetie.

The voice barely needs to convince her.

Sakura squares her shoulders and looks Gaara in the eye; “I’m everything you said. My mom’s family is civilian– sometimes ninja pop up, my aunt was one, my great-grandma was one, but most of the time they’re just civilians. So is my dad’s, but I’m not the best person to ask about him. I’m clanless, nobody sealed a tailed beast in me, and I’m pretty capable of doing most things a shinobi should be able to do. I’m also top of my graduating class in the Academy, a member of Team 7, Tsubaki Haruno’s daughter, and a ninja loyal to my village. That’s what I am. And I’m going to be a lot more.”

Gaara stares at her for a minute or two before sneering and turning away, stalking towards the edge of her balcony; “Disappointing. Killing you will barely be worth the trouble. It will prove nothing.”

Sakura takes a step back over the threshold of her door, teeth grit, eyes slit into a glare; “I’m not going to roll over and die, Gaara! I’m going to beat you!”

Gaara spares her one last look over his shoulder, ice blue eyes paralyzing in their gaze; “You will try.”

He disappears in a rush of sand.

It’s the day before the final exam when Sasuke speaks to Gaara for the first time.

Sasuke’s at the hospital to visit Lee, but thanks to the receptionists who have become very used to him he learns that Naruto was admitted three days prior. Apparently he’d been found beside the giant footprint right outside the hospital door, asleep with a doofy grin on his face, and hadn’t woken up since. He wasn’t comatose– They knew that for a fact because he had been snoring so loud people had been asking if there was construction happening in that wing.

Sasuke has to admit, privately, that maybe Naruto wasn’t lying about being trained to summon toads.

Sasuke comes into the room to find Shikamaru already at Naruto’s bedside, playing shogi against himself. For a couple seconds they just stare at each other.

Sasuke breaks the silence; “Hey.”

Shikamaru raises an eyebrow; “Hi.”

Sasuke nods towards Naruto; “How is he?”

Shikamaru shrugs; “Sleeping like a log.”

Sasuke nods again, pursing his lips; “Right…”

There’s another long silence before Shikamaru asks, “You play shogi?”

All the time against Itachi, which he always lost; “Not much these days.”

Shikamaru wags his head towards the board; “Wanna play?”

He does; “Not really.”

Shikamaru shrugs; “Alright, just as well, I’d probably beat you anyway–“

Sasuke is pulling up a chair and settling down across from Shikamaru with a scowl on his face; “Set up the damn board.”

Shikamaru smirks as he does; “No cheating, Sharingan Boy.”

They’re ten minutes deep into a game he’s losing when Sasuke notices it. The sand in the hourglass has stopped moving. Shikamaru notices it a fraction of a second later, and the two of them lock eyes across the board.

Sasuke knows– this can only be one person’s doing; “That’s weird.”

Shikamaru nods– if it is him, they need to tread carefully; “Maybe they just forgot to wind it.”

Naruto starts to stir and they go back to their game like nothing’s wrong– They don’t even need to talk around that problem. Naruto knowing and making a production out of everything would turn it from “potential disaster” into “actual disaster”, so they pretend like everything’s normal.

Naruto rolls over to look at them through bleary eyes and Shikamaru grins over at him; “Look who’s back in the world of the living.”

Sasuke grimaces; “There goes my quiet afternoon.”

Naruto rubs at his eyes, yawning, “Shikamaru? Sasuke? Where is this?”

“The hospital, dumbass,” Sasuke replies, shrugging, “You’ve been out for three days.”

Naruto’s eyes go wide and Sasuke’s squeeze shut. Wrong choice of words.

Naruto’s up and grabbing both of their collars as he shouts right into their ears; “ARE YOU SERIOUS THREE DAYS?! WHEN’S THE FINAL EXAM?!”

Shikamaru barely manages to choke out, “It’s tomorrow–!”


“Calm down, kid, get a grip!” Shikamaru snaps as he tries to wrench out of Naruto’s grip.

“He doesn’t know what the Hell you’re talking about Naruto,” Sasuke snaps, physically pulling Naruto off of him. Naruto turns to shout at him, but his eyes immediately catch where Sasuke has his tantō fastened at his hip and they switch from burning with anger to sparkling with awe.

“Holy crap Sasuke where did you get that?” Naruto asks, letting go of Shikamaru and crawling over to get a better look.

“I wanted to know about that too, now that you mention it,” Shikamaru remarks, leaning back in his chair, “Looks fancy– Is that an old Uchiha heirloom?”

Sasuke feels the smile on the very edge of his lips as he replies, “Actually, this was a birthday present from Sakura. I have no idea how she paid for it, but I’m not complaining.”

Naruto groans and throws his head back so hard he falls onto his back; “Of course she got you something super fancy! How the hell am I supposed to top that?!”

Shikamaru snorts; “Of course she got you a weapon. Do you have any hobbies?”

Sasuke frowns; “Why would I tell you about them?”

Naruto snickers; “I’ll bet they’re old man stuff like building ships in bottles or collecting stamps.”

Shikamaru just blinks at Naruto; “What’s so bad about those?”

Naruto cackles, “Oh my GOD you guys are secretly sixty years old! How did you get so boring?!

Sasuke’s smart remark is drowned out by Naruto’s stomach growling like an angry tiger, and Sasuke quickly changes gears; “Holy shit Naruto, is part of your training starving yourself?

“Screw you, I’ve been sleeping for three days! I can’t eat when I’m asleep!” Naruto shoots back, clutching his stomach self-consciously.

“Good thing I’m here,” Shikamaru says as he picks up a fruit basket from under the shogi table and sets it on Naruto’s bed, “I brought these for Choji, but the doctors say he can’t eat it so you might as well dig in.”

Sasuke turns to Shikamaru with a quirked eyebrow as Naruto immediately picks out an apple; “Why’s Choji here? Training accident?”

“He wishes,” Shikamaru replies, “Asuma’s been taking him out to barbecue after every day of training and all those short ribs caught up with him. It’s just indigestion– super bad indigestion, sure, but still indigestion.”

Sasuke shakes his head with a sigh; “Of course that’s it.”

He perks up as Naruto starts snickering beside them; “Hey, guys, I have a great idea– Let’s take this into Choji’s room and eat it in front of him!”

Shikamaru stares at Naruto blankly; “Naruto, that is needlessly cruel,” then he smirks, “I’m in.”

Sasuke shrugs; “Shogi was getting boring anyway.”

As Naruto finds his shoes Sasuke packs up the shogi board and makes sure to glance at the hourglass. It still hasn’t moved. He and Shikamaru exchange looks while Naruto’s back is turned. It’s a bad sign. But they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.

They come out into the hallway, Shikamaru leading the way to Choji, and Naruto folds his arms behind his head as he looks over at Sasuke; “You’re walkin’ a lot faster than you were back on your birthday. Do you even need that crutch anymore?”

Sasuke tenses for a hot second and has to talk himself down– Naruto doesn’t know about what you’ve been doing, even if he did he won’t tell anyone, calm the fuck down Sasuke you’re just making yourself look even more suspicious.

So he rolls his eyes and elbows Naruto in the ribs, shooting back, “Yeah, I need it to whack you if you keep being annoying. I’m not gonna have my knife’s first blood be yours.”

Naruto sticks his tongue out like they’re still in the academy; “Good luck hurting me with that, that wood doesn’t even look that heavy–“

“Girls girls you’re both pretty,” Shikamaru grouses from in front of them, “I’d really like to actually make it to Choji’s room and not get thrown out of the hospital.”

That gets Sasuke and Naruto to behave. For now.

They pass Sasuke’s old room and it dawns on him why he came here in the first place. He’s about to broach the subject of popping in to see Lee when they pass right by his door, and Sasuke gets a glimpse inside. Lee’s resting in bed and he has a visitor looming over him.

Sasuke has to bite his tongue to keep from swearing out loud, because that visitor is Gaara.

This time when Sasuke elbows Naruto in the side it’s enough to hurt him and Naruto almost yelps before Sasuke slaps his hand over his mouth and points insistently at the doorway. Naruto and Shikamaru follow his arm and both freeze, eyes going wide. Shikamaru immediately makes the standard Leaf shinobi hand signals for What’s the plan? Naruto insistently punches his own open palm– the standard Naruto hand signal for GO IN THERE AND BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF HIM.

Sasuke chews on his lip as he struggles to think of a plan, keeping an eye on Gaara from the corner of his eye– good news is Gaara hasn’t spotted them. Bad news is that Gaara is starting to clutch at his own head and hunch over and make pained noises so he needs to think of one fast.

Sasuke takes his hand off Naruto’s mouth and points to Shikamaru before going through the hand signs for Shadow Possession Jutsu then pointing to Gaara. He then points to himself and Naruto and uses both hands to mime them flanking him. Shikamaru looks to Naruto, who just shrugs, and once again makes the standard Naruto hand signal for Go in there and beat the shit out of him. Shikamaru rolls his eyes and nods to Sasuke, creeping forward on silent feet. Naruto and Sasuke wait on bated breath, eyes darting between Shikamaru as he tries to line himself up with Gaara’s back and Gaara as the noises he’s making become less pained more crazed.

The cork falls from Gaara’s gourd and sand starts spilling out, quickly reaching for Lee as Gaara thrusts one hand out, prepared to clench it into a cruel fist.

Sasuke’s Sharingan springs to life as he harshly whispers, “Now!

Shikamaru’s hands fly through the signs and his shadow slides across the floor like it’s made of ice. Sasuke’s dropped his crutch and is racing in, Naruto following his lead and going around Shikamaru’s other side. Sasuke skids to a halt on Gaara’s right, drawing his tantō and brandishing it with an unpracticed hand. Shikamaru’s shadow connects and Gaara freezes, allowing Naruto to wheel around from the other side and clock Gaara with a right hook.

“The Hell do you think you’re doing in here you bastard?!” Naruto shouts as he brings his fist back and drops into his slouched, almost animalistic fighting stance. Sasuke’s eyes flicker down to Lee– if Naruto’s voice didn’t wake him then he must be under some anesthesia from a surgical procedure. Sasuke knows there’s no way he could sleep through Naruto’s squalling.

Shikamaru recoils from the blow in perfect sync with Gaara, bringing a hand up to his cheek as he snaps, “Watch it, Naruto! If you hit him you hit me!”

Naruto winces; “Right, sorry.”

Instead of a bruise on Gaara’s cheek it cracks and grains of sand drip like blood. He’s eyeing the three Leaf genin with a calm, masklike expression on his face, like he hadn’t just been having some sort of mental breakdown.

Sasuke slits his eyes in a glare as he says, “You’re surrounded and outnumbered– Tell us what you’re doing here or else.”

Gaara turns to Sasuke and examines him with his eerie pale blue eyes before his upper lip curls in a sneer; “What happened to you?”

Sasuke can only blink; “What?”

“When these exams began I saw your eyes,” Gaara hisses, “They were full of hatred. It’s what drove you… You were just like me. But now… you’re burying it. Have you really gotten so weak that you’ve given up?”

Sasuke takes a sharp breath in through his clenched teeth, his Sharingan starts spinning, and his blade is almost at Gaara’s throat when Shikamaru shouts, “Sasuke stop!

He stops.

He’s so close, an errant twitch could have steel meeting sand, but Sasuke holds his blade there in his white-knuckled grip as he shakes all over, jaw clenched so tight his teeth might break. He looks at Gaara’s infuriatingly calm face and all he can see through the red filter of his Sharingan is Itachi.

Tell me why you’re here,” Sasuke growls, his own voice feeling like sandpaper against his throat.

Gaara’s eyes sweep from Sasuke down to Lee as he answers simply, “I was going to kill him.”

“Are you serious?!” Shikamaru exclaims, voice painted in a thick glaze of disgust, “Crippling him wasn’t enough? Are you that mad he managed to land a hit on you in front of everyone?!”

Gaara’s eyes narrow, the most expression he can make while Shikamaru controls his body; “I don’t see why it has to be so complicated. I just want to kill him, that’s all.”

Sasuke manages to get back some of his composure as he spits, “It’s never that simple.”

“You’re sick in the head, you know that?!” Naruto shouts, widening his stance so he blocks even more of Lee from Gaara’s sight.

“If you don’t get out of my way I’ll kill all three of you, too,” Gaara says, almost sounding polite despite the slithering undertone of his voice.

Shikamaru puts on a pretty good fake smirk despite the sweat running down the side of his face; “Did you not hear Sasuke before? You’re outmanned, and after this month of nonstop training I’m pretty damn sure you’re outgunned too. Not to mention we’re in the middle of a shinobi hospital– Even if you did get past us you’d be found out and hunted down in seconds. Just be smart and walk away.”

Now that Gaara’s said it it’s all that Sasuke can think about– boiling just under the surface of Gaara’s armor is the same kind of toxic hate that drove Sasuke and is still simmering in a lump caught right in his throat. Sasuke’s is just for one person. Gaara’s is much, much larger. Shikamaru’s bluff is a good way to buy time but nothing short of death is going to make Gaara stop.

Sasuke would put a lot more stock in that thought if it wasn’t taking all of his willpower not to slaughter Gaara himself.

“This is your last warning,” Gaara rasps, “If you want to live, get out of my way.”

Naruto snorts, all bravado as he shouts back, “And this is your last warning, stop running your mouth and leave Lee alone if you don’t want all your bones broken!”

Shikamaru finds himself the only voice of reason in the room; “Cool it, Naruto! We don’t wanna go there! This guy is nuts, he fights like a demon!”

Naruto’s grin takes on a bizarre edge as he barks, “Ha, sure he can fight like a demon, but I’ve got the real thing inside me! We’ll see who wins against that!

Sasuke completely forgets Gaara, Lee, and even Shikamaru.

His eyes go wide and he brings his blade down and he’s suddenly putting together dozens of pieces of evidence he hadn’t even known were evidence.

The scars on Naruto’s cheeks certainly do look like whiskers, it was always odd how adults– even reasonable ones like his own mother– would look at him with such a burning hatred when Naruto’s greatest crime was minor vandalism, he did remember thinking it sucked for Naruto that his birthday was the same day as the Nine Tails’ attack, it was strange how the history books never mentioned who the third Jinchuuriki for the Nine Tails was since the second had unfortunately passed away, he has foggy memories of as he lay in critical condition from Haku’s attack Naruto’s eyes turning red–

Oh god damn it he is a fucking idiot.

He looks to Shikamaru, who’s showing clearly on his face that he’s thinking much the same thing. But when he looks to Gaara…

His face is blank. But his eyes have changed. There’s something in them like… excitement.

“I see,” Gaara murmurs, “You’re like me then.”

Now it’s Naruto’s turn to freeze; “Huh?”

Evidently, Gaara is all too happy to explain; “I’ve been killing since the day I was born. To ensure the Sand Village’s might my father used his ninjutsu to infuse me with a sand spirit while I was still in the womb– It killed the woman who gave birth to me and I was born a monster. Its name is Shukaku.”

Everyone in the room is reeling but none more than Naruto. All his bravado is gone and he’s just staring at Gaara now, caught between horror and a sort of dawning realization. He looks like he’s going to be sick.

“Who the Hell would do that to a baby?!” Shikamaru blurts out, but he already knows the answer– the same sort of people who’d done it to Naruto.

“I guess we can rule you having a loving family right out,” Sasuke mutters, gathering all his resolve to ignore how his palms are sweating and his knee is begging him to take his weight off it and go find his crutch. He doesn’t need this right now.

Gaara’s mouth twists into a bizarre, carnival mirror reflection of a smile; “You’re right, Sasuke. My family is one bound together by hate. My father has sent countless assassins after me– I’m not his son, I’m his experiment gone horribly wrong, and it’s his duty as Kazekage to dispatch threats to the village. The village I was supposed to protect. I had failed in the mission assigned to me at birth and lost my purpose… what point is there in living without one? Existing with no reason? It’s the same as being dead.

Sasuke is starting to feel very cold.

“I found my own answer, eventually,” Gaara continues, almost like he’s talking to himself, “It was death that gave me life, and it is death that sustains me, that proves I exist. I live only for myself, I love only myself, and so long as there are people for me to kill I will never disappear.”

Life is taken and in doing so life is given. If he dies the pain will die with him and everything will be born again.

It makes sense. Sasuke hates that it makes sense.

Naruto takes a step back, away from Gaara. All his fear and disgust and sympathy might as well be written in red ink all over his skin.

Shikamaru turns to him, well in a panic by now; “Hey! Where are you going?! Sasuke’s already checked out I can’t lose you too!”

Sand surges up around Gaara and blasts outward, knocking Sasuke into the wall and Naruto to the ground. The shock is enough that Shikamaru’s concentration falters for a second, and that second is all it takes for the Shadow Possession Jutsu to sputter out like a weak flame. Sasuke’s shoulder and leg cry out but he can’t afford to listen to them as the sand roars in his ears and Shikamaru shouts for both him and Naruto to get it together. All he can hear is one thought, louder than anything else as Gaara’s sand surges towards them.

There is no way they can beat him.

“Alright, that’s enough.”

The deep and authoritative voice makes everyone stop in their tracks and look towards the door– even Gaara’s sand abruptly comes to a halt and drops down to the ground. Sasuke had never expected to be relieved to see Might Guy, but today is just full of surprises, and the feeling washes over Sasuke like a wave as Guy stands in the doorway and stares down at Gaara with a stern look in his eyes.

“Save it for tomorrow, boys, that’s when the real competition starts” he says as he strides into the room, “You’re just wasting it today, is that what you want?”

Out of nowhere Gaara cringes and clutches his head, making those same crazed, agonized groans of pain from before the three Leaf genin had caught him. His sand races back into his gourd and it takes him nearly thirty seconds to regain the bare minimum of composure necessary to drag himself out of the room, glaring through slitted eyes at them while one hand stays buried in his short red hair.

He only pauses at the door, leaning on it with his free hand, and glaring daggers over his shoulder at them all; “It doesn’t matter when– I will kill you. All of you.”

Sasuke doesn’t sleep much that night. And by Sasuke’s standards “not much” equals “not at all”. He eats a pitifully small breakfast, dresses in street clothes, sends a short jolt of healing chakra through his knee, brushes his teeth and keeps his eyes locked on the dark bags underneath them, which do not make him feel any better.

He walks to the stadium, leaning heavier on his crutch than he has to. It’s been quite a while since he’s had this singular feeling of being alone in a crowd, especially one as raucous as the one the Final Exam Festival has drawn. When had it stopped?

He climbs the arena stairs and finds a seat– not too close to the front and not so far he can’t see. People are still filtering in and the proceedings aren’t due to start for another twenty minutes at least, so Sasuke’s trying to think of something to fill time so he’s not alone with his thoughts when he hears a familiar pair of voices squawking back and forth at each other as they filter in.

Sasuke turns just in time to catch a glimpse of Naruto waving at him as he walks into the seating area; “Hey there, Jackass! How’d you beat us here on a bad leg?”

Naruto indeed has not come in alone– he and Kiba are flanking Hinata, who is doing a very poor job of hiding her delight. Sasuke smirks at her and raises an eyebrow. She turns tomato red and Sasuke can’t hold back a snicker.

“Since when do you three hang out?” Sasuke asks as they filter down to his row, Hinata and Kiba settling down next to him.

Kiba snorts and Akamaru whuffs; “Since Orange Juice here got lost on his way to the arena and ran into Hinata waiting for me. Forget about us– Since when are you and Hinata friends? She told me you guys hung out in the hospital, what's that about?”

Hinata frowns slightly as she softly reprimands Kiba; “I-I already told you, Sasuke and I used to spend time together when we were little. We were… We’re catching up.”

Sasuke’s still amazed she remembers that far back. But she doesn’t need to forget the happier parts of her childhood.

Sasuke’s about to drift off when Naruto grins at him and gestures with his thumb towards the cheap seats; “Hey, come with me– I wanna talk to you about somethin’.”

Sasuke tenses. Is it Gaara? Sakura? Whatever it is, Naruto can’t say in front of Kiba and Hinata– anything he wants to keep secret is probably worth keeping under wraps.

Sasuke nods; “Alright. Save my seat, Hinata?”

She purses her lips, pressing her fingers together; “O-okay, don’t be too long.”

Naruto takes Sasuke by the shoulder and all but drags him away as he calls, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back before you know it!”

They go up past the cheap seats and into the tunnels connecting ground level to the stands, not stopping until Naruto’s dragged them into an alcove for a service stairwell and Sasuke physically pushes him off; “Alright, what is it?”

Naruto doesn’t answer with words. He instead answers by shoving something in Sasuke’s face so fast and so close that he can’t tell what it is without pulling back. It’s… a bracelet. A pretty nice looking bracelet made out of dark blue stone beads, but still a bracelet.

“Yeah yeah, I know it’s not as nice and expensive as Sakura’s present but Sakura doesn’t need to pay rent and buy all her own groceries,” Naruto says, taking Sasuke’s free hand and shoving the bracelet past it to rest comfortably on his wrist, “The lady at the store said these stones are good for healing and can help chakra flow, and you only wear blue or white or black so they fit with the rest of your crappy clothes.”

Sasuke tries to frown around a building smile; “And you’re sure she wasn’t scamming you.”

Naruto blinks at him, uncomprehending; “Nah, she seemed like she knew her stuff. She had a white lab coat and everything.”

Sasuke lets out a soft laugh through his nose as he looks over the bracelet. The stones have been polished to an almost mirror sheen and their weight isn’t cumbersome. It doesn’t even look half bad. He could get used to wearing it.

He nods; “I like it.”

Naruto's grin sticks around for a second more before his face drops into an oddly pensive expression, and he says, “Good… Okay, so I’m just gonna say this, and I’m only gonna say it once, and then we’ll go back to calling each other Jackass and Loser and we don’t have to talk about this ever again, alright? You got it?”

Sasuke quirks an eyebrow; “Yeah? I got it?”

Naruto nods, jaw set, eyes resolute; “I saw how Gaara shook you up, so I wanted to give you that because we’re not him. We’re lucky, because we don’t have to be. We have our team and our friends and our village and he doesn’t have anyone. And he’s wrong. Sasuke, you're one of the strongest guys I know. Because you… you care– You care about Sakura and Kakashi and Lee and Hinata and even me. You care about people and you don’t give up. That’s what makes you Sasuke, not your family or your eyes or killing the guy who hurt you. That’s what makes you strong.”

Sasuke’s throat aches as he murmurs, “My brother. It was my brother who hurt me. He killed our clan. All of them. Even our parents.”

Naruto jolts back, eyes wide and jaw hanging open.

Sasuke’s shrug is weak but his smile strong; “You told me about your demon, even if you didn’t mean to. Thought you should know the name of mine… Thanks, Naruto. For what it’s worth, you’re one of the strongest guys I know, too.”

Naruto grins wide and holds his fist up. Sasuke just stares at it, eyebrow raised.

Naruto groans and grabs Sasuke’s hand, forming it into a fist and forcefully bumping it into his; “See? That’s a fist bump! How have you never seen one? You are SO BAD at being normal!”

Sasuke snorts and cuffs Naruto on the shoulder; “Are you serious? You’re the furthest thing from normal, loser!”

Naruto sticks his tongue out at Sasuke; “Nuh-uh, Jackass! If we got into a normal contest I’d beat you by a million points, believe it!

“Worry about the actual contest, dumbass,” Sasuke laughs, taking Naruto by the shoulder and spinning him to face the corridor, pushing him out, “Get going! You’re gonna be late and they’ll disqualify you!”

Shit you’re right! I gotta go, see you later!” Naruto shouts, tearing off down the hall and nearly disappearing before he stops, turning to call over his shoulder, “Let’s promise! We’re not gonna let Sakura die! If Gaara gets out of control we’ll help her! Believe it!”

And Sasuke, to his complete and utter shock and mortification, calls back, “Believe it!”

The second Naruto runs out of sight Sasuke buries his face in his palms and groans so loud they can hear it all the way in the Sand Village. He schleps back out into the stands and down to his seat, where Ino and Choji have settled in on the other side and greet him brightly.

“Jeez, what’s eating you?” Ino asks, lightly shoving him, “You look like someone told you your dog ran away.”

Sasuke just sighs, “Naruto is a terrible influence.”

Sakura pauses so suddenly at the arena gate that Kakashi runs into her back.

She whirls around and looks up at him with her big green eyes wide, her whole body trembling; “I can’t do this, sensei.”

Kakashi cocks his head to the side; “You know if you’re going to get cold feet you could at least have the decency to have said something earlier.”

Sakura carries on like she didn’t hear him, rambling as she runs a hand through her bangs, “Who knows if any training is enough to take on Gaara? A-and I’m not like Naruto or Sasuke, I don’t have any trick up my sleeve, at least not one I can use, and no one’s here to see me they’ll probably all be going up to use the bathroom during my match, and–!”

“Breathe, Sakura,” Kakashi says, using the calm, gentle voice he usually reserves for Sasuke, “You’re going to be fine. You’ve been training every day and you’ve grown so much– We can’t guarantee victory. But we can at least guarantee that you don’t go down without giving as good as you get. And besides, Naruto, Sasuke, your mom and I are all going to be watching and cheering you on. You can do this. That’s a promise.”

Sakura shuts her eyes, taking a deep breath in, holding it, and letting it out. Kakashi puts a hand on her shoulder and waits.

You’ve got this, Sweetie– You’ll make Gaara feel every ounce of pain he’s ever inflicted on others.

When she opens her eyes again they shine like the edge of a blade; “I’m not going to let him kill me. And I’ll get him back for Lee. If I beat Gaara… I don’t care if I lose after that. That’s enough.”

Kakashi smirks, eye crinkling at the corner; “I know I usually advocate for setting reasonable goals but I have to remind you that if you did win the whole thing it would be great for my reputation–“

Sakura laughs as she kicks at his shin and he easily leans out of the way. It’s a familiar game– Sakura knows she’s swift enough to hit him and he knows he could get her back twice as hard. It’s between her soft kick and his slow dodge where affection lies.

Sakura turns on her heel, bangs flowing with her like water, beaming; “Come on, let’s go. I’ve never been late for anything in my life and I’m not going to ruin that record here.”

She walks proudly into the arena, not late and not early, perfectly on time as the rest of the competitors filter down into the center of the arena. Naruto catches her eye and waves to her with both arms, so there’s really nothing she can do for him but smile and walk over to stand with Shikamaru between them, in order of who's fighting when. Her sharp eyes catch that they have a new proctor, a lazy looking man with a senbon resting between his teeth. Shikamaru and Naruto are muttering about that next to her when the proctor snaps at them to shut up and shape up for the crowd.

The stands are packed, but at this height to Sakura they’re little more than a roiling mass of loud color. She’s sure if she concentrated she could pick out Sasuke or Ino or her mom, but it’s probably better if she doesn’t know where they are. She squares her shoulders and stands up straight, posture perfect and eyes facing boldly forward. She's going to make them proud. She's going to prove herself. And she's going to wipe the floor with Gaara.

“Alright,” the proctor says, turning towards the Kage’s box, “Let’s get this party started.”

Chapter Text

viii. As the proctor goes over the tournament bracket for the audience's benefit Sasuke has to wince on behalf of Shikamaru– his match was dropped right in between Neji's and Gaara's, doomed to be the bathroom break fight. Shikamaru’s smart and Temari’s fan techniques are intriguing, but if the rumblings of the people in the stands around him are any indication no one’s here to see them. More than Sakura or Naruto Sasuke hears his own name making its way around the crowd.

“You’re serious? The Uchiha’s not in this?”

“Read the program, he’s not on there.”

“No way! My friend who taught him at the Academy said he was a prodigy, how’d he get knocked out?!”

“Hey, Neji and Gaara are tough, maybe he fought one of them in the preliminaries–“

“Didn’t you hear? Gaara permanently crippled his opponent and Neji fought his cousin– Uchiha’s sitting over there, he doesn’t look ‘permanently crippled’ to me.”

Sasuke doesn’t realize he’s grinding his teeth until a familiar voice remarks from the aisle, “That’s the easiest way to wear down enamel, you know.”

He turns to see Kakashi, smiling at him from behind the mask, and Sasuke mutters, “It’s either that or I start fighting everyone in this arena.”

“That’d be interesting to see, but let’s try to find a middle ground,” Kakashi laughs.

The exam starts off strong– Naruto and Neji’s match brings the crowd to their feet, though Sasuke misses most of it because the stress of watching Naruto and Neji fight is enough to make Hinata start relapsing. He looks to Kakashi, eyes wide and desperate. Kakashi takes a moment, likely weighing the pros and cons of Sasuke’s first real trial for his Mystical Palm Jutsu being Hinata, before finally nodding.

As Sasuke guides Hinata out of the stands and up the stairs Kakashi follows them close behind, murmuring to Sasuke, “Don’t overdo it– Keep it to short bursts, and let her breathe. The trouble’s in her heart. We don’t want to make things worse.”

Sasuke keeps one hand on Hinata’s wrist to feel her pulse as the other heals her, pausing any time he feels her heart rate go up even by one beat– He’s learned to use his Sharingan and leading lines of chakra to feel out the problem areas and focus on them. He can’t bring Hinata back to one hundred percent, but he can at least stop this relapse. Reasonable goals, Sasuke; Kakashi had said it over and over again as he hacked away at the Chidori and now he’s saying it for him, which he hates only slightly less than the fact he parroted Naruto’s catchphrase.

When he finishes, Hinata smiles at him with a slightly wry edge to it, whispering around labored breaths, “Did you… copy that… when we were in… the hospital?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes; “Like there was anything more interesting to do there.”

Kakashi asks Hinata if she’d like to rest here just a little bit longer or see the medics, and she vehemently refuses– Win or lose, she needs to be there for Naruto. Sasuke and Kakashi exchange amused glances behind her back. At least, they do until Kakashi’s eye looks just over his head and suddenly narrows. Sasuke follows his gaze and his eyes meet the blank stare of an ANBU mask.

“What are the ANBU Black Ops doing here?” Sasuke hisses to Kakashi as they proceed carefully down behind Hinata.

“There’s three options I can think of,” Kakashi murmurs, “Security against Gaara, security against Orochimaru, or that’s an enemy posing as ANBU. Let’s hope for the former two.”

They come back just in time to see Naruto draw on a bright orange chakra source so powerful it sends a wave of wind through the crowd as it surges up around him. Neji and Naruto throw themselves at each other with so much force it craters the ground, and Naruto wins the day with a move so smart Sasuke’s standing up along with Hinata as she forgets her shyness long enough to cheer for him.

Naruto earns a standing ovation and receives it with ample enthusiasm and absolutely no grace. It’s hard to see Neji’s face in detail from this high up and Sasuke can’t hear anything too clearly over the roar of the crowd, but he almost looks thoughtful as he’s stretchered out.

Shikamaru and Temari are indeed the bathroom break match, though that’s no fault of theirs– In fact, it’s an absolutely brilliant showcase of tactics as they move around each other in an elaborate dance of strategy and counterstrategy that eventually gets the crowd on the edge of their seats. Shikamaru gets Temari dead to rights via an excellent use of the terrain (and his own shirt)… then forfeits.

Sasuke laughs under the raucous boos from the crowd and is certain that for irony’s sake Shikamaru’s going to make Chunin.

But all the laughter dries up, because now it’s Sakura’s turn.

There’s a thick, smothering tension surrounding them all as Sakura takes the field– Ino is chewing her nails with fear in her eyes (though of who, Sasuke couldn’t say), Kakashi is completely motionless, Hinata is pressing her fingertips together while chewing her lip, Akamaru is whining high and sharp, and even Gai and Lee can’t lighten the mood as they come in just in time to see the match start.

Sasuke’s grip tightens on his crutch and he whispers, “Don’t you dare lose, Sakura.”

The proctor brings his hand down like a flag; “Begin!”

He leaps back and Sakura immediately leaps in, chucking a handful of shuriken to cover herself as she sprints towards Gaara. A bank of sand comes in to catch them, another one rushing underneath it to grab Sakura’s leg. The second it hits she explodes into petals, the scenery flickers and drops away just behind them to reveal the real thing as she dives between the two banks of sand, rolling and coming up with a kunai in hand, slashing for Gaara’s throat. A jet of sand grabs her wrist and the rest comes surging to meet it, wrapping around Sakura like a cocoon.

Gaara clenches his fist and the sand collapses inward. Sakura does not explode into a rain of blood but a shower of petals.

Sasuke’s eyes go wide; “What–?! That wasn’t a petal illusion that was solid he grabbed that how did–?!”

Kakashi’s voice has that musical lilt it always has when he’s amused; “Turn your Sharingan on. Don’t want you missing anything.”

Sasuke’s eyes blaze red and there Sakura is, an outline covered by the same Invisibile Cloak Jutsu she’d used to find her opening as she rolls around Gaara’s feet and comes up behind him.

“Was– That clone had a shadow, how did Sakura learn how to use Shadow Clone Jutsu?!” Sasuke exclaims, eyes darting from her to Kakashi and back.

“She reads a lot of books,” a rich feminine voice replies from beside Kakashi. Another cloak of chakra drops to reveal Kurenai, smiling warmly down at the genin. Kakashi nods to her in acknowledgement while Kiba and Hinata jump at the sudden appearance of their sensei.

“Sakura has quite a lot of theoretical knowledge and a strategic mind, but she’s frightfully average when it comes to her chakra well,” she continues, “That’s why her control is so precise– If you only have so much, you learn how to make it last. When it came to teaching her how to apply those jutsu she’d read about, we made sure she knew how to do it wisely. Sakura’s not like Naruto, she can’t create a whole army of herself. But she does know how to make one Shadow Clone at a time– and how to make that clone count.”

The chakra coating Sakura’s body races down into her fist and it collides with Gaara’s cheek as he whirls towards her, sending him skidding backward and cracking all the armor on the left side of his face.

Lee’s the first one to call out, beaming bright as sunlight; “Incredible! Sakura’s taijutsu has improved tenfold, I am so proud of her!”

“Sh-she has improved, b-but maybe… maybe not as much as you’re thinking,” Hinata remarks, and Sasuke turns to see she’s activated the Byakugan as she watches the battle with her brows pensively knit, “She channeled chakra into the blow and targeted a weaker part of the armor. I don’t think she got as strong or as fast as you in just a month, Lee.”

Kakashi shrugs; “That was never the plan– There wasn’t time, we had to work with what was already there. Besides, there’s no way Sakura would win by pretending to be Lee.”

Standard clones radiate out from Sakura in a staggered circle and rush Gaara, each covered by a Petal Illusion that bursts into a cloud of pink when Gaara’s sand jolts up to hit it. Every time half of them are destroyed Sakura takes another step back and sends another wave of clones and illusions to crash against the rising tide of Gaara’s sand.

Sasuke doesn’t see what she’s doing until she’s hidden in the shade of the arena wall and the leftover petals from the illusions as they’re pushed around by the force of Gaara’s sand forms a veil, obscuring visibility and coalescing back into illusions that run out from the blushing storm only to hit more sand. All the sand and petals in the air obscure how the clones and illusions don’t kick up dust or cast a shadow and Sasuke can see Gaara’s mouth drawing into a scowl as his eyes dart from clone to clone, illusion to illusion, trying to pick out the real thing.

He looks back to the real thing, and Sakura’s hands are flying through a sequence of signs he doesn’t recognize. Dog Snake Monkey Ox Tiger. She dissolves out of sight like mist on the wind.

Kakashi lets out a low whistle; “So she’s going for the kill right away?”

Kurenai is glowing with pride, hands on her hips; “Of course she is– It’s the mark of any good genjutsu specialist. If a fight lasts longer than five minutes you’ve lost.”

“Or she’s trying to make all the chakra she’s using up count for something,” Ino mutters around her nails as she chews them down as far as they’ll go, eyes narrowed into slits.

Roots burst out of the ground and wrap tight around Gaara, squeezing him hard enough to make his eyes go painfully wide and force a gasp out of his lungs. More roots come soaring up and twisting onto themselves to create a gnarled dead tree that grows around Gaara like a cage. His sand lashes about in a blind panic, searching frantically for the attacker, and Gaara writhes like a trapped rat in the tree’s iron grip.

Just above Gaara the tree’s bark ripples so subtly Sasuke’s sure only he and Hinata notice it before Sakura’s torso melts out of the tree, looming above him with a kunai in one hand. Sasuke can only gape at the spectacle before him– first Shadow Clone Jutsu, now Binding Death Tree; how many books on Jonin-level techniques is Sakura reading?

Gaara finally catches sight of her a moment too late and Sakura’s other hand grabs his hair, wrenching his head back and exposing his throat as she primes her kunai to strike.

“No! She is just going to hit the sand armor!” Lee exclaims, lurching forward and Gai gently holding him back.

Kakashi smirks; “Just watch.”

A pulse of lime green chakra comes out of Sakura’s hand, washes over Gaara’s hair and down into his armor. There’s an agonizing pause… and a layer of sand an inch thick explodes off of Gaara, exposing his pale flesh to the sun. Sasuke is audibly gasping and leaping to his feet. Of course, of course, of course of course of course! Sakura’s chakra nature is Earth and her control is surgically precise, she pulled the armor off of him! Gaara’s eyes are wide and he’s watching the sand hit the ground, mouth hanging open.

And Sasuke is cheering with all the passion in the world and none of the shame, “Take the bastard out, Sakura!

Sakura takes half a second to grin before thrusting the kunai down towards Gaara’s carotid artery. That’s a half a second too long. Gaara bares his teeth as his sand finally gets a bead on her and arcs upwards with dizzying speed and zero coordination to slam into Sakura’s chest.

The force sends her flying several yards away and breaks her concentration on the genjutsu, the tree dissolving like mist and freeing Gaara to move of his own power for the first time this match as he skitters back to put even more distance between himself and Sakura. The sand follows at his heels like a devoted puppy.

“I can’t fucking believe it! How could Forehead blow her only chance like this?! Now Gaara’s gonna pop her like a grape!” Ino wails, hands burying in her hair. Hinata clasps her hands over her chest to keep them from covering her eyes.

Gaara makes a single hand sign, the most Sasuke’s ever seen him make, and all his sand pools around him before it starts building up a thick, spherical shield. Sakura shakes her head to get her bearings just in time to see it and swears under her breath. She pushes chakra into her hands and feet and sprints across the arena, desperately trying to get to the shield before Gaara completely closes it.

She comes so close, there’s only a foot between her and the shield and she’s priming her hands to grab it and tear it open again when spikes of sand shoot out from the bubble. Sakura’s Earth chakra can only dissolve two of the spikes and she has to double back, pivoting around to backpedal out of range. It’s all the time Gaara needs to close the shield completely.

“Does he plan on squatting in there the whole fight?! What a coward!” Kiba snarls over Akamaru’s frightened whining.

A whorl of sand breaks off from the main shield, spinning up six inches above the dome and coalescing into one brown eye that swivels around to focus on Sakura.

Sasuke’s eyes narrow and he mutters, “No… He’s preparing something.”

Kurenai clicks her tongue, shaking her head; “She overextended herself– with the Binding Death Tree Jutsu exhausted she’s too low on options.”

Kakashi smirks over his shoulder at her; “Spoken like a true genjutsu specialist. This isn’t an assassination– It’s a fight. The real test starts once your first strategy fails. We’re going to find out right now if Sakura’s ready to make Chunin.”

Sakura bites down hard on her lower lip to keep from grinding her teeth in frustration; she palms a kunai, coats it with chakra and tosses it at the bubble of sand. It clatters off like she’d thrown it at a stone, her probing lance of chakra managing to go through a foot of solid sand before dissolving. She turns her gaze up to the eyeball and is tempted to make the sort of gesture that will let Gaara know exactly how she’s feeling…

When a thought occurs to her. Two, in fact.

That’s just one eyeball, meaning Gaara sacrificed his depth perception in order to see her.

And the amount of sand required to make a shell that thick means Gaara’s definitely not wasting any on his armor.

She grins, wide and ferocious. Absolutely protected her ass– he’s left himself absolutely open.

Sakura had meant to leave this fight with her chakra well at seventy five percent, but the feat of knocking out invincible Gaara of the Desert in the first round is worth bringing that goal down to fifty (but no lower– she still wants to put up a good fight against Kankuro or Shino even if she doesn’t win).

Step one is easy– Sakura runs through the hand signs without even thinking, Ram Snake Tiger, and unleashes a bevy of clones covered by Petal Illusions to slam into the bubble, backing up to the point where the eye can no longer see her from a birds-eye view while her clones every time they explode against the sand spikes that rush out to greet them send the chakra used to make them flowing back into the sand, gauging its thickness.

Just as Sakura thought: It’s thinner around the base, leaving a foot of room for Gaara to sit on the ground. Sakura has a window of a foot and a half.

Step two will take her down to sixty percent– While the eye is swiveling from one of her normal clones to another Sakura summons a Shadow Clone and has it stand in front of her, perfectly mimicking her stance, before casting another Invisible Cloak on herself. The Shadow Clone follows her directions, casting a Minor Illusion Jutsu to make it look like she’s gathering metric tons of harsh green chakra in her hands before dashing around towards the back of the bubble. The eye hones in on the clone and follows her.

Finally, step three– Sakura says a prayer as she runs through the hand signs, draws a kunai, and dives into the ground. She surges forward, using her chakra to shove the dirt back and away.

If her eyeballed measurements of the distance are even a fraction of a centimeter off, she’s dead. If she’s too slow when she comes up out of the ground, she’s dead. If she can’t make the one, maybe two hits she has while in there count, she is absolutely dead.

Not a damn thing for it– she’s within her foot and a half window. She brandishes her kunai and breaches up and out of the earth.

Earth Style– Rending Drill Fang!

In the darkness Sakura just barely sees the tip of her kunai clip the bottom of Gaara’s jaw so she digs in as she comes rocketing up, slicing across his face from the corner of his jaw to the corner of his forehead before she hits the top of this bubble shoulders first and has to catch herself to avoid falling in Gaara’s lap.

This space is barely big enough for Gaara, let alone the two of them– she needs to kill him and kill him quick before she suffocates. Her eyes take a second to adjust and she sees Gaara, hands shocked out of a seal, eyes so wide they’re about to bulge out of his head, shuddering all over like he’s been dropped in ice water.

Sakura finds his carotid artery and starts to thrust her kunai down just as Gaara’s hands shoot out and close around her throat.

Hinata’s gasp and shriek of “SAKURA!” comes a half-second before the sand shell falls in an unceremonious heap to reveal Gaara, face split by a bleeding line from jaw to forehead, bearing down on Sakura with his hands closed tight around her throat as he lets out an incoherent scream of rage, fear, and something animalistic that shakes Sasuke to his core.

Sakura gasps for air and flails her blade wildly towards his neck, only to miss and bury the blade in his upper arm. Gaara just squeezes tighter and screams even louder.

Sasuke almost doesn’t notice the white feathers falling gently across his vision. His Sharingan just barely saves him– the feathers are pure chakra, and when they alight on the crowd anyone they touch pitches forward, dead asleep in their seat. His vision starts to tunnel and he just barely brings his hands together to release the genjutsu.

Just in time to see all hell break loose.

There’s an explosion of dark smoke from the Kages’ box so thick Sasuke can’t see through it. The ANBU operatives leap from their seats and rush to the head of the stadium. Gaara’s siblings vault over the railing of the competitors’ box down into the arena and wrench Gaara off of Sakura. Sasuke can just barely make out the bright red of the Hokage’s hat as he appears in the grasp of the Kazekage atop the box roof, but he doesn’t see it for long before sheets of swirling darkness rise up around them to create an opaque barrier– one of the ANBU throws themselves against and bounces back covered in fire. As Kakashi Gai and Kurenai start to run towards the fight, the ANBU that had caught Sasuke’s eye earlier appears at the bottom of the stairs, four Sound ninja leaping from the stands to flank him and block the jonin’s path.

“W-what–?! What’s happening?!” Hinata exclaims, shocking Sasuke– of course, her Byakugan was active for the fight, of course she’d break the genjutsu.

Before anyone can tell her, there’s a distant but incredibly loud crash. Sasuke’s mind is working at triple speed; to be that loud but that far away it has to be the wall. Something’s happened to the wall. Something has damaged or broken the Leaf Village’s seven-story high five foot thick stone wall.

Sasuke feels like a damn idiot for ever worrying about the chunin exams.

Sakura can finally breathe again as Gaara’s much stronger siblings tear him off of her and for a moment she just lets herself flop to the ground, taking big, grateful gulps of air. But then she notices the lack of movement in the stands, the smoke and barrier overtop of the Kages’ box, the loud, distant crash. Sakura rolls up to her knees, back to the world of the living and in an absolute panic.

“Stop it Gaara!” Temari cries, holding fast despite Gaara’s violent thrashing.

Gaara speaks but it’s not to her; “I have to, I must, kill her, kill her, kill her kill her KILL HER–!

Kankuro’s strong arms keep Gaara from struggling out of his grasp, growling through gritted teeth, “It’s not worth it, Gaara! We don’t have time for this!”

“He’s right, remember our mission!” Temari pleads.

Gaara tears his arm out of her grip and points his hand, poised to clench into a fist, at Sakura; “Out of my way, let me GO!

Their sensei drops in between Sakura and the Sand genin, shouting over his shoulder, “What the Hell are you three doing?! The operation’s already underway!”

Gaara drops to his knees like a bag of rocks and clutches at his head, making pained groans. The proctor appears a foot in front of Sakura, standing protectively in the way so Sakura has to crane her neck around him to see her erstwhile opponent.

Sakura finally finds her voice as she starts to pick herself up off the ground; “What’s going on?! Why won’t anyone tell me?!”

Gaara is doubled over now and Temari follows his every move, eyes focused on where Sakura’s kunai is still sticking out of Gaara’s arm; “This is bad, the blade is in down to the hilt– And he’s almost completely drained of chakra!”

Kankuro’s eyes go wide; “But what about using that–?!”

Temari shakes her head; “It’s impossible.”

Their sensei’s voice drips with contempt; “You idiot, this is what you get for transforming before we got the signal!”

Kankuro’s voice is rising as nervous sweat warps his face paint; “Well what do we do now?! We need Gaara for this– What the Hell is Plan B?!”

That gets their sensei to pause, taking a breath, and getting back some of his composure; “There is no Plan B. Gaara’s our ace in the hole– You two will just need to get him out of here, see to his wounds, and once he’s in better shape proceed with the plan.”

Kankuro and Temari don’t need to be told twice, Kankuro picking up Gaara and the three of them leaping over the arena wall. Now it’s just Sakura, the proctor, and the Sand jonin. She slowly gets to her feet, never taking her eyes off of where Gaara and his siblings had disappeared.

“Let me guess,” the proctor drawls around the senbon in his teeth, “Orochimaru’s either pulling the strings or footing the bill.”

Sakura’s curse mark throbs painfully at the sound of that name and she only barely holds in a gasp.

The jonin smirks; “Don’t know, don’t care. It’s just you and me right now– Let’s have some fun.”

Sakura stands up straight and stares intensely at the proctor; “Sir– Requesting permission to pursue and take down Gaara.”

He smirks at her over his shoulder; “Already acting like it’s wartime. You’ll make a damn fine chunin, Sakura. Permission granted and use of deadly force authorized. Stop them, no matter what it takes.”

Sakura nods with a quick “Yes sir!” before she sprints after Gaara. One way or another, she’s finishing their match.

Sasuke barely has time to process the fact that Sakura has left the arena and Orochimaru is holding the Hokage hostage before the stands erupt into combat, Sound ninja throwing themselves at the Leaf jonin with reckless abandon.

They crash against Kakashi, Gai and Kurenai like waves into rocks– Kurenai hits them with anything from simple petal illusions to get them into striking range to genjutsu that hits their inner ear and throws them off balance, falling and knocking themselves out. Gai’s strikes are hard enough to break bones and send Sound ninja flying out of the stands and all the way to the arena floor. Kakashi is pure grace and finesse, deflecting and cutting down Sound ninja with no wasted movement. Sasuke almost gets lost in watching them before a shuriken whizzes past his ear and he realizes he needs to get his head in the game.

Sasuke takes Hinata by the shoulder and pushes her down, instructing her via hand signals to follow him as he starts crawling towards the far side of the stands. Negotiating around people’s legs is a pain, but less painful than another errant shuriken hitting Sasuke’s throat. Hinata has crested over the hill of initial shock and is completely silent as she follows close behind. They don’t stop until Sasuke hears Kakashi say their names, loud and forceful.

He pokes his head up just enough for Kakashi to see him; “What is it?”

Kakashi looks over his shoulder to lock eyes with Sasuke, gaze intense; “Go find Naruto, Shikamaru and Shino. If they’re asleep, break the genjutsu on them. Tell Naruto that we’re finally getting another mission– An A-Rank. You’re going to track Sakura down and stop her, then await further orders.”

“Both of you be smart and be careful,” Kurenai calls from her own battle not far away, “You’re still injured, if you don’t think you can keep up fall back and wait the danger out somewhere safe– There’s no point in bravery if it just gets you killed.”

“Y-you’re sending us off alone?!” Hinata exclaims, popping up beside Sasuke and immediately coming back down as Kakashi grabs a Sound ninja flying at him and tosses them behind him, the body sailing too close to the genins’ heads.

Kurenai smiles; “Not quite.”

Sasuke’s furrowing his eyebrows, eyes sweeping over the crowd just as he notices the front of Kiba’s jacket start to wriggle. Akamaru’s little wet nose pokes out and he takes some experimental sniffs before carefully crawling out and dropping to the floor, running over to hop into Hinata’s lap.

“Normally I’d send one of my own ninja hounds with you, but we don’t have that kind of time,” Kakashi says, “Akamaru can track Sakura’s scent. Now go, both of you!”

Sasuke frowns hard and shouts, “Don’t you dare die here!” before racing off with Hinata and Akamaru close behind. They make it up the stands and into the tunnels and quite literally run into Naruto and Shikamaru halfway to the competitors’ box as they come around a corner. Shino is trailing behind them, almost out of sight.

Naruto backpedals and looks at Sasuke with something close to genuine fear in his eyes; “Sasuke–?! What the hell’s going on?”

“Not sure about that myself,” Sasuke replies, “But I know one thing– We’ve got a new mission.”

Chapter Text

ix. Shikamaru opens his eyes and places his hands flat on his knees; “Alright, here’s the plan.”

The group of harried genin and one ninja hound look up from their muttered conversations, all eyes on him. Shikamaru sees Sasuke’s eyes, still blazing with the Sharingan, and his hand on his injured knee pulsing every couple seconds with blue-green healing chakra– oh this is going to be a total drag.

Shikamaru sighs as he begins, “Hinata, Sasuke, you’re gonna go scope out a safe location and signal us when you find it; we’ll have one of Shino’s bugs ride with you so you don’t have to throw up a flare. Naruto, Shino, Akamaru, you’re with me to find and stop Sakura. We’ll signal Sasuke and Hinata and circle back around to where they’ve set up. Hit me with your objections.”

“You are not benching me,” Sasuke snarls, tomoe starting to ever so slightly spin around his pupils, “I’m going after Sakura, whether it’s ‘according to plan’ or not.”

Shikamaru breaths in through gritted teeth, pinching the bridge of his nose and remembering exactly why Team 7 was so irritating; “Sasuke. Your leg is literally in a brace right now. And even if you could move at the pace we need Hinata needs someone to cover her if your safe zone isn’t so safe. Sorry Hinata, but your condition’s way more precarious than Sasuke’s, you need someone with you when you’re under stress like this. Especially someone who can apparently heal.”

“I’m fine,” Sasuke snaps, “I made it all the way here without my crutch didn’t I? I can keep up– If you’re so worried about Hinata you go with her.”

Shikamaru just glares at him; “I remember what happened the last time you tried to fight while insisting you were ‘fine’. No one’s gonna be able to stop the fight before you get killed this time. Whatever you’re trying to prove, drop it. We don’t have time for Uchiha Pride.”

Naruto raises his hand like he’s an academy student; “Actually… maybe he should come after Sakura.”

Shikamaru raises an eyebrow; “… Make your argument.”

Naruto rubs the back of his neck; “If Sakura’s really set on taking out Gaara, Sasuke might be the only person she listens to– she definitely won’t listen to me. And…” Naruto purses his lips, eyes falling to the concrete, “Something’s been weird about Sakura since the Forest of Death. I don’t know what it is, no one will tell me. But…” he locks eyes with Sasuke, “Sasuke knows what. He knows how to handle it.”

Shikamaru whirls to look at Sasuke, eyes wide; “Are you seriously telling me that you guys still haven’t told Naruto?!”

Sasuke looks away; “He’d just make a scene–“

“This is life and fucking death, Sasuke,” Shikamaru cuts him off, “Even if she had whatever the Hell that thing is under control in the arena she could lose it at any point! For fuck’s sake Sasuke she almost killed Ino! Twice!”

“Oh so now you’re concerned about Gaara?!” Sasuke shouts, “Remember what he said to us in the hospital?! He’s willing to kill us! He was trying to strangle Sakura with his bare hands! If she loses it on Gaara then he deserves it!”

Shikamaru is nearly on his feet now; “And then who’s next?! Temari and Kankuro?! Us if we get too close and she thinks we’re trying to stop her?!”

Sasuke is on his feet; “She’s not some kind of wild animal! She’s–!”

ENOUGH!” Hinata’s voice rings out louder than they’ve ever heard it and echoes through the stone corridors. The boys can only gape at her as she coughs on the heels of her outburst, looking from each other to her and back again. Naruto scooches even closer to her side, hovering around her with naked concern on his face. Sasuke slowly comes back down and tries to reach out to heal Hinata, but she shakes her head, putting a hand up to stop him. He sits uselessly by, just staring at her as she finally calms down. Akamaru lets out a whine, nuzzling at her leg.

Hinata wipes her bloody palm on her jacket like it’s not worth twice as much as Shikamaru’s house, and says in a steady voice, “We don’t have time for this. If Sasuke went with me he’d be a liability– He’s too upset about Sakura and he can’t back down from a fight. Also, Shikamaru, you’re low on chakra while Sasuke still has most of his, so you wouldn’t be good for much fighting. You can come with me and relay any tactics to Shino through one of his bugs. Naruto and Sasuke may not remember the strategy but Shino definitely will. Is that alright with everyone?”

The boys exchange sheepish glances before Shikamaru mutters, “Yeah… sorry Hinata.”

Hinata nods, getting gingerly to her feet as she adds, “And Sasuke, please tell Naruto what you’ve been keeping from him. There shouldn’t be secrets between teammates.”

One of Shino’s bugs crawls out from his sleeve and onto his fingertip; He gently places the bug on Shikamaru’s shoulder and he can just barely make out that Shino’s making eye contact with him behind his shades as he rumbles, “Be careful with her. If she’s crushed, I will know about it.”

Shikamaru just grimaces; “Yeah yeah, I’ve got it. I’ll be a perfect gentleman.”

Hinata gently picks up Akamaru and hands him to Sasuke, since her first two attempts of handing him to Shino or Naruto resulted in him growling like a small motor; “P-please, look after each other. Kiba will be devastated if anything happens to Akamaru.”

Sasuke struggles through trying to hold a dog for a couple seconds (has he seriously never held a dog before what is WRONG with this kid), settling on cradling him like a baby before Akamaru just lets out a frustrated whuff and jumps up to perch on Sasuke’s head.

Naruto nods, resolve burning in his eyes; “Hinata, Shikamaru… Good luck. I swear, we’ll keep Sakura from doing anything too stupid– Believe it.”

Shikamaru just sighs, remembering the good old days when he thought Sakura was the smart one on this team, before he realized they were all headstrong idiots who just kept enabling each other. What a fucking drag.

Shino is largely uninterested in everything Sasuke’s telling Naruto about Sakura’s curse mark, so while they follow Akamaru as he sniffs Sakura out through the forest Shino makes sure to leave insect scouts behind them to watch their backs. They’re simple creatures, but not so simple that they can’t follow commands, and he leaves them with the parameter that they’re to report back the second any human crosses through their field of vision.

Shino spares a glance to Sasuke and Naruto– Sasuke talked a big game about being able to keep up on his injured leg, but he’s making sure to either catch a branch like he’s swinging off monkey bars with the arm that didn’t have a shoulder dislocated recently or hop on his unbraced leg when he has to push off a branch with his feet.

It’s impressive how well he’s learned to compensate in so short a time. But Shino has to wonder how long he can sustain it.

His precautions bear fruit a lot sooner than Shino would’ve liked, and he interrupts the conversation; “We’re being followed.”

Naruto looks to him, blue eyes wide; “What?! How– Right, bugs. How many are there?!”

Shino pauses to make sure he has his numbers right before answering; “Nine of them, all of them Sound. Considering they’re following three twelve year olds and a dog instead of contributing to the larger invasion, likely they’re after Sasuke or Sakura specifically. We’re probably dealing with Jonin level ninja, Chunin if we’re lucky.”

Sasuke clicks his tongue, glaring eyes their normal black so the Sharingan doesn’t siphon away all his chakra; “We don’t have time to set up a counter-ambush. The only option is for someone to stay behind and buy time.”

Shino stops on the next branch he hits; “Alright then, I won’t be long. Remember, if Akamaru starts whining that means you’re close.”

Naruto tumbles to a halt, nearly bowling into Akamaru as he tries to stop on a nearby branch, turning around to look at Shino with pure shock on his face; “Wait a minute Shino! That’s nine Jonin coming after you! There’s no way–!

“I’m the only one here who’s barely used any chakra today,” Shino cuts in, “And technically speaking, I outnumber them. I’m going to be fine, Naruto. I’ll throw them off our trail and catch up to you, so just get going already.”

Shino wishes he was actually as confident as he’s making himself sound. He’s never taken on this many opponents by himself, even in optimal terrain where he can send them on wild goose chases while subtly draining their chakra. They’re moving fast and tracking them with deadly efficiency. At this stage he’s certain his colony isn’t big enough to reliably distract nine opponents. Statistics had never been the math class he excelled in, but he doesn’t need to know that much of it to know his odds are incredibly poor.

But there’s no other choice– Sakura will only respond to Sasuke, and Naruto despite his unskilled approach has the raw power to at least delay a monster like Gaara. Neither of them has the patience or the restraint to do anything but slam headlong into these nine ninja and die instantly. It has to be him.

Akamaru’s letting out a high pitched whine, canine face contorted in a strange echo of human concern. Shino smiles behind his collar; and all this time he thought Akamaru didn’t like him. That’ll be a nice thought to take with him if he dies.

“Look after them, Akamaru,” Shino adds, “Bite them if they do anything stupid… No, wait, you’ll be biting them constantly. Bite them if they try to do something too stupid to recover from.”

Akamaru’s tail doesn’t come out from between his legs, but it does start wagging.

Naruto sets his shoulders and nods; “Remember, you promised! If you don’t come back, I’ll never forgive you! Believe it!”

The two genin and one dog leap off and Shino wonders when he ever promised Naruto anything.

He shakes his head and leaps up into the treetops– there’s work to do. He left females behind as scouts and had them attach to the nine ninja as they passed, so it doesn’t take him long to get a sketch of their position. Eight of them are traveling close together in a horseshoe formation just below the canopy while the ninth is several yards behind them up in the leaves, level with Shino. A contingency plan in case of a counterambush. He’ll have to separate him from the pack first.

It’s a simple matter to make an insect clone and send it on a course to just barely pass the ninth Sound ninja, but whether or not he’ll take the bait is quite a bit more complicated. They’re gaining quick– No time to think of another plan. Shino sends out the clone.

The clone passes the straggler and there’s a tense heartbeat of a moment where all Shino can do is wait, barely breathing.

The straggler stops and the main squad pauses a half-second later. Then they scatter.

Shino bites his lower lip– Plan A is a bust. If he had to guess, they’ve gotten wise to his delay tactic, if not the details of it. Time to be a bit more direct. Shino keeps his focus on the clone and orders it to slow down, little by little, before losing its shape and wheeling back around to mob the straggler. There’s another deadly pause before the bugs start filling up with chakra and he hears a blood-curdling scream. He feels the swarm make an abrupt drop to the forest floor, and two of the eight remaining Sound ninja go running towards the straggler.

Shino maybe has a minute before the two of them make it there and burn off a sizable portion of his colony, so he leaps straight to the swarm. He manages to make it in time to recall them– the straggler is still in shock from so large a chunk of his chakra being taken in so short a time, so Shino has time to toss a shuriken and slice his carotid artery wide open.

He does not have enough time to do that and hide again before the two members of the Sound squad make it there, look down at their fallen teammate, then look up and immediately spot him.

One of them narrows his eyes; “So this is the one they left behind. Kabuto give us a file on him?”

The other shakes his head; “No, but I’ve got a handle on the Leaf clans– Dark glasses, big coat, creepy, no doubt he’s an Aburame brat. Their thing is bugs, so–“

Shino doesn’t let him finish, throwing a volley of shuriken before he leaps back into the canopy. He can hear them deflecting the projectiles and swearing at him before they leap up into the trees, hot on his tail. He plots his course carefully, making sure to cross the line of sight of the other six Sound ninja and throw a shuriken for each one he passes to goad them into giving chase. Shino’s mission is simple: Keep them from following Sasuke and Naruto. Scattered like they are one could easily pick up on their trail and tell the others– they can’t do that if they’re all chasing him down.

Once he confirms they’re all on his tail, Shino starts looking for a clearing to drop down into. Death’s basically a certainty at this point, and he’s oddly at peace with it; Kurenai taught them how to kill and in doing so taught them how to die. Her words echo in his mind: The best way to go is in service to your comrades and your village, and while taking your enemy down with you.

Shino sends a bug away to meet Sasuke and Naruto and show them the way back to Hinata and Shikamaru– there’d be no point in this death if he left his comrades stranded.

He lands on the far side of the clearing and pivots around to stand and face his opponents, all seven of them landing on the opposite side and glaring down their noses at him.

Shino’s eyes narrow– Seven? He counts a second time, a third, reaches out to the eighth female beetle, and she’s… gone. Shino’s mind is racing as his swarm rises up and out of his sleeves, floating around him like angry storm clouds. Did the eighth man crush her? Is he hiding up in the trees right now? Did he find Naruto and Sasuke’s trail? Kiba is going to kill him in the afterlife if one of them catches up and harms even one hair on Akamaru’s head.

Shino steels himself; he’s gonna try his best to live, because he is not going to die a failure.  

One of the men on the side sneers, “Too bad, little bug boy, we’re gonna crush you like one of your pe– aaUGH–!!

Something long, thick and green wraps around his neck and yanks him up into the trees. Shino hears an unmistakable snap and the body falls back down like a broken toy. Before the six remaining ninja can even react two more snakes, these ones white as snow and as long as the ninja are tall come racing out from the shadows and constrict around two more, one coiling up to squeeze down on his victim’s neck until it snaps while the other bites down so hard on his victim’s throat that not only are both carotid arteries cut wide open but the windpipe is crushed.

Now that there are only three, Shino finally gets a look at exactly who’s come to his rescue as she slinks just a tiny bit out of the shadows. Wild hair pulled into something that might’ve started life as a bun. A long tan coat over mesh armor. Pale brown eyes and a wicked smirk.

Of all people, Shino could not in a million years have expected the proctor of the second exam Anko Mitarashi to be his hero.

She throws two handfuls of senbon with pinpoint accuracy, all four of each finding their marks in the necks of two of the Sound ninja. The last one spots her and whirls around, a kunai at the ready to tear into her. He strikes and Anko ducks easily under it, kiting around him as another dark green snake comes slithering out of her sleeve. Anko kicks his legs out from under him and the snake grabs him as he falls, wrapping up around his torso so its mouth is open and waiting right at his throat. Shino can only stare– “special Jonin” doesn’t seem like enough for her. She’s an absolute artist.

The Sound ninja writhes in Anko’s grasp, eyes wide in terror; “Why are you doing this?! You served Lord Orochimaru too–!”

Her eyes narrow and she hisses, “You answered your own question, genius– I’m not gonna let him hurt any more little girls. Now do me a favor and die.”

The snake buries its fangs in the ninja’s neck and tears his throat clean open. He falls limp to the ground among his fellows and the snake shakes its head to get the blood off before slithering back up Anko’s sleeve and out of sight. When she looks back to Shino, that big grin that reminds him far too much of Naruto is shining at him like the sun and Shino’s quite glad he wears sunglasses now.

“You did some damn fine work here kid,” Anko says, coming over to give him a friendly punch on the shoulder, “Now let’s see if we can catch up to those hotheaded friends of yours– They’ll need you if they’re gonna get Sakura to your safe zone. Last one to them’s a rotten egg!”

With that, she leaps into the trees, and Shino has no choice but to desperately try and keep up with her.

Sakura has to give those genin from Rain some credit, the Sly Mind Affect Jutsu was perfect for pursuing enemies through the forest– especially when those enemies are extremely frazzled and don’t have home field advantage. Kankuro and Temari have been jumping along the same circuitous path for almost five minutes now, Gaara draped over Temari’s shoulder not quite unconscious but definitely unresponsive.

The siblings have already started sniping at each other, Kankuro grumbling about how the forest can’t be this big and Temari snapping at him to stay on task. All Sakura needs is another minute– they’ll definitely be irritable and tired enough for her to start picking them off.

Temari stops on a sturdy branch; “Kankuro, wait. Look–“ and she rests her hand on the trunk, right below three streaks of red, “I marked this tree with some of Gaara’s blood two minutes ago. We’ve passed it three times.”

Kankuro lets out a frustrated growl; “This is why I fucking hate forests, I can’t believe we got lost–!

Temari narrows her eyes and forms a one-handed seal; “We didn’t get lost. A certain pink nuisance who specializes in genjutsu made us lost.”

Sakura feels a wave of pressure from Temari as she releases the genjutsu and frowns, biting her lip. Right, she forgot– Temari is clever. Alright, picking them off is going to have to start now. But she’s only barely giving Temari any more than she’s already earned.

Sakura makes sure she’s hidden behind a tree trunk and an Invisible Cloak Jutsu as she calls out, “You’ve found out that much! Do you think you can find me next? I can hide in the forest and run you ragged with genjutsu until you’re too tired to hold onto Gaara anymore or you can try and find me right now– Your call!”

Temari frowns, brows knitted in thought, before she gingerly passes Gaara off to Kankuro; “Keep running. I’ll handle her.”

“You’re seriously giving in?! She’s taunting you like a schoolkid, Temari,” Kankuro exclaims, though he takes Gaara regardless.

Temari just smirks, taking her fan off her back; “If she thinks genjutsu’s enough to beat me she’s in for a rude awakening.”

Realization flickers in Kankuro’s eyes and he nods just once before leaping off with Gaara. Sakura has at best a half second to think that maybe she got overconfident before a gust of wind slices clean through the tree trunk right above her head.

Sakura doesn’t even care about the fact that running and leaping this fast is definitely going to distort the edges of her Invisible Cloak and instead just dives off the branch as another gust of cutting wind comes right for her, catching a branch lower down and rolling behind another tree trunk. Sakura looks around the trunk and drops a Petal Illusion, fully visible to Temari– Sakura can also give Temari that she’s quick on the trigger, she only has a window of three seconds to jump to another branch before another gust cuts that trunk to pieces.

She leaps to another tree and then another, each one felled by Temari the second she catches sight of Sakura on it, and Sakura only barely gathers the presence of mind to have an exposed clone jump to another one while she stays cloaked and goes in a different direction so she can hunker down and catch her breath. It’s difficult to do so when the simple force of Temari’s fan pushes the air straight out of her lungs.

The wind stops and she glances over her shoulder– Temari is readying her fan for another barrage, eyes scanning the forest around her like a jeweler inspects a gem for flaws. Sakura frowns; Temari’s strategy is almost insultingly simple, but for someone from Sand in terrain like this it makes perfect sense. If Sakura’s going to keep hiding behind cover, then Temari will get rid of all her cover. The second Sakura’s forced into the open is the second Temari closes the distance and the second she’s lost.

Or at least it is if Sakura keeps trying to go around and up.

Sakura leaves a trail of Petal Illusions behind her as she starts leaping to lower and lower branches. She makes sure to jump up every now and again so her pattern isn’t so obvious, but sometimes it’s out of necessity because Sakura’s getting to the level where Temari is felling entire trees and they don’t always fall in the direction she expects. When Sakura finally touches down on the forest floor Temari has created a clearing full of logs with a ring of dirt near the remaining trees’ roots, her perch standing alone in the center. Sakura drops her Invisible Cloak and glares defiantly up at her opponent, who smirks at her in triumph.

“Nowhere left to hide,” Temari chuckles, readying her fan, “Hope you’ve done your praying, kid– This is your last chance.”

The genjutsu is a simple one, and easily hidden behind the signs she needs for her ninjutsu– all it does is alter Temari’s perception ever so slightly, making her think that Sakura’s standing just a little bit farther away than she actually is. Temari leaps onto her fan and summons a gust of wind to send her flying down towards Sakura, surfing on the air with all the grace of a falcon and twice the speed. Sakura’s window is rapidly closing as Temari cuts through the air towards her and her hands race through the signs: Ram Tiger Snake Dog Rat Ox Horse Rabbit Tiger Boar Snake.

Temari is ten feet away as the crow flies and closing in fast. Sakura falls to one knee and slaps her hands flat on the ground– Earth Style! Practice Brick Jutsu!

The simple earthen wall shoots out of the ground at a diagonal and Temari flies face first into the top. She’s knocked out of the sky, her and her fan falling in an unconscious heap on the logs she’s left in her wake.

Sakura pauses, not to savor the victory but to simply catch her breath. She’s at thirty-five percent chakra capacity now, give or take five percent– if she’s fast and makes it count she can take Gaara down and still have enough left over to make an escape, but everything has to go exactly right. Nothing ever goes exactly right.

The voice doesn’t speak but Sakura feels it, and she growls “Shut up” as she leaps into the trees.

Kankuro almost doesn’t notice it when Gaara finally starts stirring again. His soft grunts of pain and discomfort are drowned out by the wind rushing in Kankuro’s ears, so he feels Gaara come back to the world of the living when he starts squirming in his grasp.

“Yeah yeah, welcome back you little goblin,” Kankuro grumbles around his own panting. Temari better get back here soon because despite being bigger than her he has much less patience for Gaara, and therefore much less patience with how heavy all his sand makes him.

Gaara’s first words to him are the ever so grateful, “Put me down, Kankuro.”

In order to make himself feel better about the ridiculous disaster their mission has become, Kankuro briefly entertains the thought of dropping Gaara right here and the little jerk plummeting to the ground like a stone. The tiny part of his mind that speaks in his half-remembered idea of his mother’s voice will absolutely not let that happen, but it’s a lovely thought.

“Not a chance,” Kankuro growls back, “Your face is split wide open and there’s a kunai sticking out of your arm, I’m getting you out of here and getting you medical attention before anythi–!

Gaara’s arm slams into Kankuro’s stomach and he goes flying into the nearest tree trunk, gasping as the impact knocks the wind out of him. Gaara comes to a clumsy halt on a branch a couple yards ahead and Kankuro has to use chakra strings to catch and reel himself back up before hitting the forest floor. Gaara shouldn’t hit this hard– either he’d been doing taijutsu training in secret or Temari was wrong about the transformation failing completely. At this point Kankuro’s not sure which one he wants to be true.

And when he pulls himself back onto the branch, he realizes that’s not even the worst case scenario, because Sakura Haruno managed to catch up with them and is standing on a branch ten feet away. Oh fuck, Temari, where–?! If this little pink nightmare killed his sister Kankuro’s not going to let Gaara have the chance, he’ll murder her himself.

“I am authorized to kill you, Gaara,” Sakura declares, “If you surrender and let me take you back to the village to be detained and tried for your part in the invasion, I won’t have to.”

Kankuro can’t hold in a bewildered laugh– What the fuck is this girl?! She talks like an Academy student playing Shinobi but was totally willing to kill Gaara before, and right after beating Temari in record time she’s hesitating? The pieces come together in a flash; she’s clanless, completely ordinary, at twelve her chakra pool is gonna be worthless next to Gaara’s, and she’s been using a helluva lot of chakra. Kankuro grins, two parts arrogant one part nervous. She’s reaching her limit. This’ll be over before you can say ‘Sand Coffin’.

Instead of gagging her smart mouth with sand, Gaara lets out another pained groan and clutches at his right eye. With no provocation whatsoever, the sand armor on his left side starts to crack, spiderwebbing up and around the break in the armor where his giant gash has been left open to the world. Kankuro freezes, grin falling into pure terror– Temari was wrong, Gaara is still transforming. And if that glazed over look in his eyes is any indication he’s going to hurtle into that form with reckless abandon.

“Come on Gaara, keep it together! Remember the mission!” Kankuro yells even though he knows it’ll fall on deaf ears.

“Doesn’t make sense, doesn’t make sense none of this makes any sense,” Gaara rasps, scraping his nails against the sand armor, “How did you make me bleed?! You’re a pitiful and soft little creature that’s been coddled and smothered by love and you wounded me?! HOW?! You have no purpose, your life has no value, it’s nothing! I will not have my existence ended by nothing! I WILL NOT ALLOW IT!

Kankuro just stares in mute horror as the sand from Gaara’s gourd starts fusing into his sand armor, morphing and changing into the dark-veined left arm, eye, and ear of Shukaku. It’s of course just a second too late that Kankuro realizes exactly why Gaara’s lost it– This is these exams and the Leaf village’s softhearted yet strongarmed genin chipping away at Gaara’s fragile internal logic, the twisted framework he’d built up to try and understand the world, and Sakura making him bleed is just her taking that and breaking it over her knee.

Suddenly he pities the little pink nightmare.

Gaara leaps with a swiftness unfitting of how gargantuan and heavy the growth on the left side of his body is, lunging straight for Sakura– She’s barely fast enough to jump above the impact, but the giant claw closes around the branch and snaps it like a twig, giving Sakura nowhere to land. She lets herself plummet towards the ground and grabs a branch as she falls, swinging from it to another tree as Gaara follows her and in an attempt to grab her leaves five gouges, a foot deep each, in the trunk.

They’re enough to fell the tree, which kicks up a giant cloud of dust as it hits the floor below. When the dust clears, Gaara is hanging from another tree by Shukaku’s arm and Sakura has hidden herself from sight.

Gaara is screaming now, saliva dripping from his misshapen mouth like a rabid dog; “Go on, Sakura Haruno! Scurry and hide like the vermin you are! It makes no difference, I will tear down this whole forest to find you! There’s nowhere in the world that’s safe from me!

Kankuro spots the hint of pink poking out behind a nearby tree trunk a fraction of a second before Gaara does. Gaara lets out a screech of “Found you!” and Sakura sprints out from behind the tree, but Gaara pounces on her a second too late. She explodes in a puff of smoke the instant Gaara makes contact and comes running out onto the branch Gaara had leapt from, throwing a bevy of shuriken at his unarmored side.

He pivots around and catches them with Shukaku’s arm, letting them sink into the sand before it spits them back out at ludicrous speeds. They cut the branches they hit clean in half and when they slam back into Sakura they knock her clean off the branch– another puff of smoke, another clone.

Gaara’s laugh is a twisted parody of the sound; “I thought you were going to kill me, Sakura Haruno! Was that all talk?! Why do you you keep running–?!

Gaara falters and grips at his head yet again, letting out another pained screech, before he starts leaping around and indiscriminately tearing down trees, screaming for Sakura to come out. Kankuro wants to run, wants to flee as far as he can and leave Gaara behind forever, but can only sit there and stare in horror. It’s been like that their whole lives and it’s not about to change now. Kankuro accept a long time ago he was going to be stuck with Gaara until he died– he just didn’t think that it would be so soon.

Something draws his eye– not a flash of pink, but a bright green glow that’s nearly blinding. Sakura comes out onto a branch behind Gaara, five yards away, with chakra coating her forearms and writhing like flames. She’s glaring at Gaara, teeth bared, slouched over like an animal. It echoes her burst of ferocity from the preliminaries, the part of her fight where she’d seemed like a completely different person. Where had this girl been hiding?

Sakura leaps from the branch, sailing through the air straight towards Gaara’s transformed arm, and Kankuro finds his voice a half second too late; “WATCH OUT, GAARA–!

Gaara whirls around and brings his arm up to block, but that’s the exact wrong move, because Sakura grabs one of the claws and her chakra surges through the sand, lighting up the black veins. She lets out a great roar of effort and yanks the claw with her as she flies past Gaara, tearing his arm clean down the middle up to his shoulder and pulling an agonized scream out of him.

Kankuro shakes his head, mouth moving and voice coming out without his consent; “No… no, no no no how the fuck did she wound him again?!

Sakura lets go of the claw and nearly misses her landing on a nearby branch while Gaara lands with a heavy thunk on a branch a yard or two down. There’s a moment of deathly stillness as Sakura gulps in air and shakes all over, while Gaara lies unresponsive in a puddle of bloodstained sand. And just as Sakura turns to marvel at her handiwork, Gaara twitches and the sand starts to reform back into Shukaku’s left side.

“Oh you’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Sakura breathes as Gaara pushes himself up onto his haunches.

Something in Gaara’s face twists, and when his voice comes out it’s almost soft; “I see now… I misjudged you, Sakura Haruno.”

For a blessed second Kankuro dares to hope Gaara’s come out the other side of this deep dark tunnel he’s going through, but as Shukaku’s tail starts to form from the gourd he knows he’s wrong; “You make sense now. Your eyes burn because you’re trying to prove that your life is worth something, consequences be damned. You could care less about your village, your friends, even your family– My life is a trophy, your ultimate proof of the validity of your existence. You are like me, Sakura Haruno! Now come at me with everything you have! Let’s prove whose life is worth more!”

And Sakura is just staring at him, eyes very wide, skin very pale, lips very blue. She’s nearly at full-on Chakra Exhaustion– that was all she had.

Gaara wraps his tail and arm around the branch and pulls back until the sand is straining like a rubber band under the tension– then lets go. He launches himself straight up into Sakura and in her state even she knows there’s no dodging. She just brings her arms up and braces for an impact that sends her flying through three branches and slamming back-first so hard into a tree’s trunk that she burrows a foot deep into it.

Gaara lands on a branch two yards away and taunts, “Where is your drive, Sakura Haruno?! We’re just getting started, don’t want to disappoint me do you?! Stand up and fight!

Sakura spills out of the tree trunk, catching herself so she’s on hands and knees on a branch, face obscured by her long bangs. For a moment, she just stays like that, breathing heavy– And then bright green chakra explodes up her left arm and her head whips around to face Gaara. Black markings in the shape of tiny flower petals cover the left side of her face and her eyes are wild as they zero in on Gaara.

She shoves herself up so she’s only barely standing, arms dragging on the bark near her feet, and shouts, “FINE! LET’S FUCKING GO!

She and Gaara leap at each other at the exact same time, but Gaara swings at her with Shukaku’s arm and Sakura has to awkwardly adjust her position in midair so it doesn't knock her out of the sky. Whatever big blow she was planning turns into her tapping Gaara’s shoulder and all the chakra on her arm going out in a second. Gaara lands on his feet and Sakura lands in a heap, twitching as she lies helpless on the branch.

There’s a pregnant pause before Shukaku’s arm dissolves at the shoulder and drops off of Gaara like a lizard shedding itself of its tail. Gaara screams but it’s not out of pain– it’s a war cry. Sand creeps down his right arm instead to form another massive claw.

Gaara pivots around and pounces towards Sakura. She doesn’t move to dodge, doesn’t even try. Either she’s accepted death, or she’s lost the strength necessary to avoid it. Kankuro closes his eyes and looks away with a wince– he can’t watch.

Kankuro does not hear the sound of sand wrapping around Sakura and crushing her until she’s just a rain of blood.

He instead hears a hearty THWAK! and Gaara yowling in pain, then the distinctive sound he’s gotten quite familiar with of a body hitting a tree.

Kankuro opens his eyes to see Naruto standing on a branch just in front of Sakura, teeth grinding as he glares at Gaara, while Sasuke and the Inuzuka’s little dog crouch protectively over her.

And all Kankuro can say is, “No fucking way.”

Chapter Text

x. Sasuke gingerly pushes back one of Sakura’s bangs and swears through his teeth when he sees the petals blooming across her skin. He activates his Sharingan– he can’t see her chakra pathways like a byakugan would let him, but he doesn’t need to. All the chakra in her body is pulsing out from the curse mark, the rest of her drained dry.

“She’s in a bad way, Naruto,” Sasuke calls, “We need to hurry!“

Naruto’s not even listening, just staring at the hulking mass of sand and blood hunched over on the branch across from them; “Sasuke… Who the Hell is this?!”

Sasuke glances to Akamaru, who’s whining at such a high pitch he’d be inaudible if he tried to go higher; “There’s no one else it can be but Gaara.”

Gaara cocks his head slowly to the side, one blue eye squinting; “You two… You’re the ones I didn’t kill that day…”

Naruto sucks in a sharp breath and Sasuke bites down on his lower lip. The last thing he needs is to remember that day, how even while he was trapped they’d been at his mercy, and that wasn’t even him at full power. Sasuke puts a pin in his fear– he’ll come back to it, right now he needs to focus, he needs to examine his enemy, he doesn’t have time to be afraid.

Despite the giant, bestial arm, Gaara’s right side has gone through Hell. Thanks to the cut across his face blood is running down into his eye and he needs to blink rapidly to force it out. The handle of Sakura’s kunai is still sticking out of his upper arm and his sand has warped around it, careful not to get any in the wound– if Sasuke had to guess the sand armor ends right around where the cut on his face begins.

They can use that.

Naruto wheels around; “Grab Sakura, we have to go now–!

The second Naruto takes his eyes off of him Gaara dives off the branch, flying right at Sakura with his gigantic claws spread wide open and his teeth bared like he’s going to tear Sakura’s throat out with them. Sasuke’s body is moving before he can tell it how, sliding in front of Sakura and stopping in a stance wide enough to cover her.

Mind racing, Sharingan spinning, Sasuke has less than a minute to react. Which he realizes in a flash as he sees Gaara’s exposed right flank is exactly how much time he needs. He sends chakra surging down his own right arm, as much as he can call up in less than a minute– it’s more than he needs, as always, but this time he knows what to do with the excess. The lion’s share turns into a coat of sparking lightning, and the fraction that remains glows a blue-green that’s nearly overpowered by the Chidori.

The second Gaara’s in striking range Sasuke pushes off with both legs and buries his hand into Gaara’s side. The Chidori slices through the sand armor like butter and the impact pulls an animalistic shriek from Gaara’s throat as he convulses from the small-scale electrocution and his pulse skyrocketing. He plummets abruptly downward like a stone, smashing clean through several branches before his tail wraps around a tree trunk and stops his descent. Gaara just hangs there twitching, mouth wide open, blue eye rolled so far back it’s nearly all white.

Sasuke overshot his own jump and just barely catches himself with his bad arm on a nearby branch, biting down on his tongue to keep from swearing out loud at the pain in his shoulder, before pulling himself up and jumping back to Sakura’s side. His knee protests at the hard landing and Sasuke has to stifle another swear.

“What did you do?!” Kankuro shouts from where he’s been cowering this whole time.

“He’ll be fine,” Sasuke snaps, throwing Sakura over one shoulder and turning to Naruto, “He’ll probably only be out for thirty seconds, and that’s if we’re lucky– Let’s get a move on!”

Shukaku’s arm shoots out and slams through where the branch connects to the trunk. As Sasuke’s feet fall out from under him he has a second to think he really should know better about tempting fate by now.

Then he’s falling, so fast and so hard he doesn’t have time to do anything but pull Sakura off his shoulder so he’s shielding her with his body. Sasuke feels the branches snap against his back before he hears them until he slams into a branch so sturdy he gives when it won’t, letting out all the air in his lungs in a loud gasp as he goes bouncing off in another direction. He keeps his arms locked tight around Sakura– if she’s hurt he’s failed his mission, and he will not fail again.

Sasuke lands awkwardly on his side, bouncing once and nearly letting Sakura go, but just barely managing to keep a grip on her as he rolls to a stop.

Down on the forest floor it’s eerie how quiet it is, and even though he knows he probably doesn’t have a moment Sasuke takes one to learn how to breathe again. It’s as he’s getting his breath back that he feels Sakura weakly squirm against his grip and loosens it just enough that she pushes back and he can see her face. Her petal-covered cheeks are streaked with tears and the look in her eyes is both unreadable and far too familiar.

She tries to push against him before seizing up, rasping through clenched teeth; “Why? I’m supposed to be stronger now, I’m supposed to be protecting you, why are you still coming to my rescue?!”

Sasuke knows that feeling. That completely helpless, worthless feeling, of thinking you were good enough and being proven wrong. Of your pride being taken and torn to pieces, burned, and spit upon to put out the flames. What would he have wanted to hear? What does Sakura need to hear?

… What would Kakashi say?

The words come in a halting, stilted cadence as he thinks over each one; “Sometimes… Sometimes we’re not as strong as we think we are. And we might be wrong about what it is to be strong. It’s okay. We’re still genin. This is how we learn.”

Sakura does not start feeling better. Instead her eyes well up with tears again and she lets her head drop onto his shoulder as her body shakes with tiny sobs. Wrong choice of words. Sasuke bites his lip to keep from scowling too hard. He should’ve just said something ridiculous and saccharine like Naruto would’ve, something about how he rescued her because teammates help each other and turning your back on your friends makes you worse than trash and–

Sasuke tenses when he realizes Gaara isn’t crashing through the trees to land on top of them and kill them.

He lets Sakura go and sits up, just in time to see Akamaru jump down several branches to land beside them, tail wagging as he sniffs intently at Sakura. Sasuke spares the dog a smile before turning his attention back up to the branches above. He can’t see through the leaves, but he can still hear Naruto and Gaara clear enough to know what they’re saying.

Gaara’s back in full force, growling, “Who are these two to you?! Why risk your life against me to protect them?!”

There’s a pause before Naruto shoots back with quite enough rage but not enough drive, “What kind of question is that?! They’re my friends! If you try to lay another grain of sand on them I’ll pulverize you, believe it!”

“Come on and try it then!” Gaara’s screaming challenge is answered by a war cry from Naruto and a whack!– too thick to be one of Naruto’s blows.

He hears Naruto swear under his heavy, labored breath, then mutter, “Got no choice… Gotta protect them…”

Gaara’s laugh is dark and warped; “And that’s exactly why you’re going to die. As long as you fight for the sake of others you’ll stay stuck where you are, down in the muck. There can be only one winner, only one existence proven– Forget your friends and fight for yourself!”

Sasuke can picture Naruto grinding his teeth; “You’re talking pretty big, but don’t forget who wounded you! Who landed that first hit on you in years! Sasuke, Sakura, Lee, they all fight for the village and for each other! You sure as Hell weren’t stronger than them!”

Gaara’s laugh this time is raspier, less assured; “You think you know them so well. There’s no way to ever truly know someone else’s heart– There’s no point in even trying. Let trivial feelings like friendship and loyalty cloud your focus and you’ll die.”

“Yeah yeah, keep yapping while you still have a mouth to yap with! I’m about to shut you up once and for all!”

All Sasuke has are the sounds of battle, but they don’t sound very promising. He frowns hard, clenching his hands into white-knuckled fists. What is Naruto doing up there?! He has half a mind to go up there himself and take over this battle, but stabs of pain from his shoulder and knee set him straight before he can. He shakes his head– time to think like a Shinobi.

He turns to Akamaru and whispers, “Can you get up there and see what’s going on? When you come back just tell me if Naruto’s winning.”

The little dog nods and hops back up the branches without hesitation. He’s gone for maybe twenty seconds before he comes back down and vigorously shakes his head. Sasuke swears under his breath. Fuck thinking like a Shinobi– Time to rush in there like an idiot.

“Keep Sakura safe,” Sasuke growls, shoving so much chakra into his feet they start glowing, “I’m going in. I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

He leaps up into the trees with so much force he craters the ground behind him.

Sasuke flies like a rocket back up into the canopy just in time to see hear the BOOM and see the telltale dark gray smoke of a paper bomb– Naruto comes tumbling end over end out of the smoke and Sasuke kicks off a tree with his bad leg to change his trajectory. He tackles Naruto in midair and soars until his feet hit a branch and he forces out enough chakra to stick their whole bodies to it. Naruto drops to the bark with a yelp and Sasuke falls to one knee with a hiss.

He’s pushed it too far, his knee is nearly numb from the pain and his shoulder might’ve been dislocated again from when he slammed into Naruto. He whips around to see his teammate’s handiwork; if he didn’t take Gaara down with whatever the Hell that maneuver was Sasuke is going to scream.

When the smoke clears, the guise of Shukaku is melting back into normal sand on its left side and Gaara is struggling to stay upright, warbling to himself, “He attacked the base of the tail where the defense is weakest… He didn’t wound me, but the sand couldn’t absorb the impact…”

Despite that the sand is already starting to reconstitute itself, and when Sasuke looks to Naruto he sees that same cocktail of fear, disgust, and sympathy from their meeting at the hospital. But now there’s something else, something that overpowers all the other feelings.


And something in Sasuke absolutely hates seeing it in Naruto’s eyes.

So Sasuke grabs Naruto by the collar and screams in his face, “GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER UZUMAKI! Sakura needs to get the Hell out of here before she gets any worse, so either you let me buy you time to get her back to Shikamaru and Hinata or you get your head out of your ass and fight! I had to sit by and watch as I lost everything once, and I swear to God if you make me do that again I will follow you to Hell, drag you back, and kill you again!”

Sasuke drops Naruto’s collar and catches his breath, leaning on his good leg. Naruto just stares at him for what feels like an eternity.

His blue eyes spark to life; “I get it now.”

Sasuke furrows his eyebrows; “You get what?”

Naruto pushes himself to his feet; “Gaara’s no different than I am, with the exact same sadness and loneliness. He didn’t fight for anyone, while I was up here worrying about protecting you and Sakura and… And for a second there I thought maybe he was strong, stronger than you or me or anyone else, because he didn’t care about anyone. I let him get under my skin. I already knew better– That’s not what real strength is. If you just fight for yourself you’ll never be strong, not ever!”

Naruto presses his hands into a seal and lets out another war cry as chakra rushes up around him like a burning wildfire, so strong and so bright Sasuke has to shield his eyes.

There’s a burst of white smoke, and suddenly the forest has become an orange grove as clones of Naruto appear on every surface they can cover. Sasuke can’t help a twinge of disbelief and something much uglier as he looks around at the sheer volume of clones– Intellectually he knew Naruto was strong, that the chakra of a Tailed Beast would make him even stronger, but this was further than he’d ever thought Naruto could reach.

But he doesn’t have time to be jealous. There’s a mission to complete.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to keep you waiting,” Naruto crows as he points at Gaara, “Get ready for an original jutsu straight from my ninja handbook!”

Sasuke snorts, “So I can assume you’ve got this?”

Naruto grins over his shoulder; “You know it! You and Sakura get going– I’ll catch up in no time! Believe it!”

Sasuke just smirks; “At this point how can I not?”

He drops back down to the forest floor and scoops up Sakura, breaking out into as full a sprint he can manage on one good leg. He feels an impact hard enough to shake the ground and nearly stumbles but catches himself– He has to keep running, has to get Sakura to safety, has to complete his mission because he is not a failure.

That single-minded drive keeps Sasuke from noticing the pain in his leg, but it also leads to him nearly cutting Shino’s throat open with a hastily-palmed kunai as he runs straight into him.

Shino grabs his arm with a swarm of bugs; “Calm down– It’s just me. And I’m not alone.”

“Howdy kids,” the jolly voice of the second exam proctor chirps as she lands beside Shino, “You playing nice?”

Sasuke can only blink; “Why are you here?”

Anko just pulls the collar of her long coat back to show a small black spot that Sasuke almost mistakes for a bruise before he sees the shape is far too similar to three tomoe; “Because I’ve got a vested interest in keeping your girl out of Orochimaru’s hands. Speaking of, I see she didn’t take our warnings seriously.”

Sakura fidgets in Sasuke’s grasp; “I didn’t have a choice, Gaara would’ve–!”

“Calm down, Honey, I’m just foolin’,” Anko sighs as she plucks Sakura out of Sasuke’s grip to carry her bridal style, “Come on, let’s find your friends. And don’t get any ideas about breaking off to join Naruto in playing hero, trust me I will know about them.”

The slight edge to her grin tells Sasuke there’s really not much room for him to argue.

When they reach the deep-forest clearing Hinata and Shikamaru set up in Sasuke throws dignity and his image to the wind to collapse face first into the dirt. Shino settles down next to him cross-legged and Shikamaru comes over to nudge him with his shoe.

Shikamaru clicks his tongue; “Jeez, chasing Sakura must’ve really taken it out of you.”

Sasuke rolls so he’s on his side, catching a glimpse of Anko as she gently sets Sakura down, and asks, “Is she going to be alright?”

Anko just smiles; “She’s gonna be just fine, Romeo. You can relax.”

Sasuke immediately pushes himself up, trying to get to his feet despite the fact that one leg keeps giving out; “Can’t, have to go back, Naruto’s–“

Another earth-shaking impact, one that knocks Shikamaru and Hinata both onto their butts. A shadow passes over the clearing and Sasuke finds himself scooching back with his fellow genin to get a good view of what’s blocking out the sun past the trees.

It’s a frog.

A gigantic frog.

A gigantic bright orange frog with a pipe in its mouth and a scar across its eye facing down a gigantic tanuki made of sand.

On second thought, maybe Naruto would be fine without Sasuke’s help.

Still, he can’t help but breathe, “How in the world– How did Naruto learn how to do that?

Shikamaru and Hinata turn to him with wide eyes; “NARUTO did that?!”

Hinata turns back towards the fight, beaming from ear to ear, white eyes positively sparkling; “A-amazing– He’s gotten so strong! I didn’t… I had no idea you could summon creatures that big!”

Shikamaru’s smirking now, leaning forward on his knees to watch the show; “Who knew he had it in him?”

Sasuke can only shrug one shoulder; “Whoever trained him, I guess.”

A fight of this scale rocks the ground with every blow and threatens to fell the whole forest, but the genin can’t look away from the sheer spectacle of it all. For a long moment Sasuke’s caught between feeling deeply inadequate and just screaming his lungs out cheering for Naruto, and the latter wins the day the second Shikamaru and Hinata decide to start loudly (or in Hinata’s case “loudly”) rooting for his teammate.

Despite the battle of titans above Sasuke’s eyes keep flickering to Sakura, who almost looks asleep except for how her eyes twitch in time with the back and forth rhythm of the duel.

The battle ends in the grandest way possible, with Naruto transforming the toad into the Nine Tailed Fox– it’s enough to even make Anko swear out loud as she gapes at the battle above.

No power in the world could’ve kept Sasuke from running to Naruto the second Shukaku dissolves and the great toad disappears.

When Sasuke finds them, Naruto and Gaara are lying on the ground, so spent all Naruto can move is his head as he turns to look at him. Despite that there’s a long, scuffed trail behind him– the pieces aren’t hard to put together. He crawled towards Gaara with his chin. His headband is gone and blood is flowing from a cut on his forehead– there’s an identical one on Gaara. And Gaara… he’s just staring up at the pieces of blue sky peeking out through green leaves.

It doesn’t take him long to find Naruto’s headband in the bushes, and when he limps over to Naruto again he kneels at his side and holds it out for him to see; “You should keep better track of this.”

Naruto looks up to him, blue eyes wide and brimming with tears; “Sakura, is she–?”

“She’s going to be fine,” Sasuke replies, “It’s all over. Now stop squirming so I can heal you.”

Naruto slowly looks between Sasuke and Gaara before he turns his gaze up to Sasuke; “Can you heal him first?”

Sasuke almost asks why. But then he remembers how Naruto had cried, had mourned Haku and Zabuza despite everything, and he doesn’t need to.

He doesn’t even get an inch away from Naruto before Gaara’s siblings touch down in front of him. Despite how Temari is exhausted and sporting a broken nose and Kankuro had never seemed like he cared that much about his brother, they both crouch protectively in front of him.

Gaara’s voice is so soft it’s almost inaudible; “That’s enough… It’s over…”

Kankuro opens his mouth to protest, but the sight of Gaara’s face more relaxed than it’s likely ever been makes him stop.

And he murmurs instead, “Alright then.”

There’s a long moment where Gaara just stares at the two boys from the Leaf village. Naruto Uzumaki and Sasuke Uchiha. Naruto finally lost consciousness, but Sasuke is gazing back, eyes focused on him and Kankuro as Gaara leans heavy on his brother’s shoulder.

Gaara remembers when he first saw Sasuke’s eyes. They were akin to two pits, so deep they were bottomless, two inescapable black holes that consumed anything that got too close. There was hatred in them, rage, and a loneliness few people could survive.

But now those eyes are looking at three enemy ninja, and they aren’t seeing enemies anymore. They’re seeing a family, one that had been on the brink of shattering, but had a chance to pull itself together again.

And those eyes are so full of longing it’s painful to look at.

They disappear into the trees. Gaara starts to understand as he slowly, carefully turns everything over in his mind. Naruto had to build his family from the ground up. Sasuke had his taken and ached every day it wasn’t there.

Gaara has a chance. It’s more than they ever had.

So he whispers, “Temari… Kankuro… I’m sorry…”

Kabuto presses down hard on Orochimaru’s wrist; “Do you feel that?”

Orochimaru hisses through gritted teeth; “For the last damn time, Kabuto, no.

“Then I’m afraid the situation is about as dire as it looks,” Kabuto sighs, “It’s beyond my skill level… You’re going to need another body a lot sooner than we thought.”

Orochimaru clicks his tongue; “It might go deeper than that– Sarutobi used the Reaper Death Seal, who knows if switching bodies would ever be enough…”

Kabuto is quiet for a moment before he looks Orochimaru in the eye; “We need a second opinion. You know who from.”

Orochimaru’s face is unreadable; “I do. And in the meantime… Just in case… We need to speed things up with Sakura.”

Kabuto nods; “As you wish.”

Chapter Text

xi. Sasuke didn’t learn that the Hokage had died until twenty four hours after it happened. But in hindsight it was obvious that it had.

When he’d regrouped with the others, dragging Naruto behind him with his good arm, Anko had gotten some kind of message on her radio headset that had made her barely hold in a gasp. Then she’d pasted on a grin and apologized, saying they’d have to hide out here a little while longer while everyone else cleaned up in the village proper– but the civilians had all been evacuated and casualties were looking low, so there was no need to worry.

Sasuke had been suspicious at the time, but had dropped it when it was time for them to come back. When he’d seen the extent of the property damage, especially around the stadium, he’d thought that’s what Anko was trying to hide from them. The hospital had been abuzz with activity, to the point where some emergency procedures for critically injured chunin (likely stationed at where they’d broken through the wall) were happening right in the lobby, and that just cemented Sasuke’s theory. Besides, he didn’t have time to think on it further– he was busy making sure that the hospital staff didn’t keep him too far from his teammates for too long.

Sakura was out of his control, at least for a while; Anko had to take her to a secure part of the hospital so no straggler Sound agents swiped her while they were treating her Curse Mark. So Sasuke stuck to Naruto’s side, and since they were just standard wounded that wasn’t too hard. Hakumei came to treat them both, and while she chided Sasuke for pushing himself she couldn’t help but let out a low whistle when she saw the work he’d been doing.

“This isn’t half bad for being self taught with sloppy chakra control,” Hakumei had said around a wry grin as she worked on his knee herself, “We could make a decent medic out of you.”

He hadn’t been sure how to respond to that, so he’d just shrugged.

They’d set Naruto up in a room for the night thanks to the toll that fight took on him, and while Hakumei said Sasuke could go home he’d insisted on staying with Naruto, keeping watch over him as a parade of people came in and out of the room to check on them both. Kakashi was first, and Sasuke had been about to ask him for details about what had happened in the village before he spotted Sakura in his arms. Which, in hindsight, was the perfect way to distract Sasuke.

Kakashi had laid her down in the empty bed across from Naruto’s, placing Sasuke squarely between them, and turned to Sasuke with a tired smile crinkling the corner of his eye; “We’ve got the mark back under control. She’ll be alright. I’d tell you to go home, but I get the feeling that won’t take.”

Sasuke had shrugged, this time with a smile; “Got it in one.”

Kakashi had laughed before sitting down on Sakura’s bed, his voice pitching down and softening as he continued, “I talked to Anko and the others– You really stepped up out there when Sakura and Naruto needed you.”

Sasuke’s smile had become more of a wince; “Well, I mean… I’ve already gotten practice with it.”

And really, what else could he have done? Sakura had trained her skill to the point where she could duel with Gaara and make a decent dent in his perfect defense, Naruto apparently had insane amounts of raw power bubbling just under the surface that he could call to help him summon giant toads, what else could Sasuke do in the face of that? He’d lost out on a month of training. His grasp of the Chidori was only enough to stun Gaara for a fraction of a minute. What else was Sasuke good for these days? What was he even worth–

Kakashi reached out and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze; “Putting your friends first, trusting them to handle what you can’t, pushing yourself to your limit to keep them safe, knowing when to back down… Sasuke, even some seasoned jonin can’t do that. A ninja’s worth isn’t measured in how many lives they take. It’s measured in how many they save, how many they can protect. That’s how I measure it, anyway. I just wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you. You’re growing into a fine ninja, Sasuke, and an even better young man.”

Sasuke remembered feeling warm. He remembered his hands shaking and his eyes burning and suddenly feeling so so tired but so… warm. He’d choked out a “Thank you” while making sure his bangs hid his eyes and when Kakashi ruffled his hair he leaned into the comfortable pressure.

It’s hard for Sasuke to remember exactly who came through after that, mostly because there were so many of them– he did remember Kurenai since Sakura was as much her student now as she was Kakashi’s, Iruka who fretted over Naruto until Sasuke told him he was going to be okay, Sakura’s mother Tsubaki who did the same for Sakura before she started fretting over Sasuke too (which felt strange but not unpleasant), Teuchi and Ayame popping in to give Sasuke the ramen they’d intended for Naruto if he’d been awake, almost all of the other Leaf rookie genin (even Lee who was nearly tripping all over himself to see if Sakura was okay), Anko who had intended to give him some dango but ended up eating it herself when Sasuke told her he didn’t like sweets, and Hakumei one last time to give Sasuke some blankets since he definitely wasn’t going home tonight.

In hindsight, Sasuke realizes that not a single one of the adults mentioned any details about how the battle with the Sound and Sand invaders had gone beyond a vague “we won”. They were intensely focused on how Sasuke and his teammates were doing, how their mission had gone, to the point where there was no room for any other talk.

Sasuke remembers having a dream. But as he thinks about it now, it settles with a bone-chilling weight in his stomach that it was probably real. He remembers in the middle of the night seeing the same ANBU who blocked Kakashi’s path to the Hokage standing over Sakura’s bed, unreadable mask examining her in silence.

Then he’d turned to Sasuke and said in a soft, familiar voice, “You know there’s nothing you can do, right? She will go with Orochimaru. Not tonight. But soon.”

Sasuke remembers slurring, half-asleep, “You won’t take her. I won’t let you.”

There was a smirk in the ANBU’s voice; “Now I don’t remember saying he’d take her. What recourse do you have if she goes under her own power? What will you do then, Sasuke?”

And Sasuke doesn’t remember even hesitating for a moment; “I’d bring her back.”

The ANBU removed their mask, and Sasuke had decided right then he was dreaming, because now Kabuto was smirking down at him; “Good answer.”

He’d fallen back asleep.

When he wakes the next morning, Naruto and Sakura are already stirring; in twenty minutes or so when they’re all awake Kakashi comes back in, somber now, to tell them what happened to the Hokage. And suddenly, in hindsight, everything makes sense.

It’s only once the Sand Village has rooted out the extent of Orochimaru’s manipulations and offered their complete surrender that the Leaf Village finally holds a funeral. Taking time to grieve had been too much of a risk with the possibility of another strike looming over them. The memorial is ostensibly for everyone who died in the invasion, but even the children know it’s really for the Hokage. And honestly, Sakura’s certain that it could never be any other way, no matter how many other casualties there were.

She feels far away as she dresses herself in black and bids her mother goodbye so she can go and meet Sasuke and Naruto in their usual alleyway, like she’s a puppeteer moving her own strings. It’s not grief she feels, not quite. It hardly feels real. The Third Hokage had been unique among the Kage of the five great nations, and even among the previous ranks of Hokage, just because he was always… there.

Even in his first term after the Second had passed he tried to stay down to Earth, to make himself familiar to the people. That’s why he’d been pressed to retake the position after the Fourth had passed in the Ninetails’ Attack, he was a comforting and familiar face when that’s what the Leaf village had needed most. There had been no distance between him and the people– even Sakura had known him since the academy. He hadn’t been Lord Hokage back then, he’d just been Old Man Third who would come in for boring guest lectures and visit the girls when they were learning how to arrange flowers. She remembered working together with Ino to make him a bouquet and he’d accepted it with a wide smile and some comment about how it’d brighten up his office.

He was old, she knew that– older than most ninja ever got to be. And one day he would’ve gone no matter how peaceful the Leaf Village stayed. But it should’ve been like he’d wanted all along– there’d be a Fifth Hokage watching over the village, he would’ve been long retired, and it would’ve been reported once the Sarutobi Clan had time to privately grieve that he’d gone in his sleep. It was supposed to be the kind of death you expected, the kind where you just shrugged your shoulders and said, “He’s in a better place now.”

It wasn’t supposed to be now. It wasn’t supposed to be this.

As she places her flower on the altar and distantly hears Konohamaru weeping into Iruka’s shoulder, she knows what she feels is a drop in a vast ocean. But she’ll miss Old Man Third all the same.

Team 7 goes for post-funeral ramen and talks about literally anything else as they eat. With the sun out and her stomach full it’s easy to do. But clouds roll past the setting sun as she walks Sasuke home– he’s back on a crutch thanks to how he pushed himself going after her. Trying to think about that makes her stomach twist in a way she’s not sure how to define, so she tries not to. The Hokage is farther away, it’s easier, it doesn’t make that voice start whispering.

So she asks Sasuke, “Did you ever talk to the Hokage much?”

She doesn’t expect him to answer, but manages not to jump when he does; “More when I was younger. He set me up in my apartment when… You know when. I think a social worker was supposed to check on me for that first year or two but he did instead. I thought he was pitying me and I hated it. I said as much, and… He didn’t come see me anymore. But he’d still try to talk to me when he came by the academy. I didn’t talk back.”

Sasuke suddenly stops, brows furrowing hard as he stares intently at the ground– Not angry, not frustrated, just like he’s trying to put something together. Sakura waits at his side, eyes darting from his face to the crutch in his right hand, just in case he starts wobbling.

When he speaks again it’s at a murmur, like he’d forgotten she was here, “He… wasn’t pitying me. That wasn’t pity. It was… He looked sad I guess, but,” Sasuke suddenly turns to her, eyes alight with a questioning spark, “That didn’t seem like all. That wouldn’t be all, would it?”

Sakura frowns for a moment as she turns it over herself, before shrugging; “I don’t know what else it would be. I mean… Your family did so much for the village, and some of the elders were probably old enough to be friends or war buddies… maybe he was just sad. Or he was beating himself up over… all that happening on his watch?”

Sasuke nods, shifting weight back onto his crutch as he starts up towards his house again; “Yeah… Guilt seems about right.”

It’s properly dark by the time they make it to the building, and Sakura stays with Sasuke all the way into the elevator and to his front door. As he’s caught between fumbling with his keys and keeping his balance on his crutch Sasuke pauses and turns to her, an eyebrow raised; “Wait– How far is your house from here?”

Sakura blinks a couple times in surprise; “Uhm, well I live downtown, so I think that’s–“

Sasuke interrupts her mental math; “That’s really far, Sakura– And it’s late. Are you really going to walk all that way back by yourself?”

Sakura really, really misses the time when that little voice in the back of her head would, in the face of what a twelve year old lovesick girl could only call an invitation, scream and celebrate as Sakura externally gaped and blushed. As it stood she was still gaping and blushing, but the way her stomach was tying itself up in knots wasn’t pleasant, wasn’t out of excitement and anticipation for being alone with Sasuke. And the voice in the back of her head was instead hissing that he was patronizing her because of course he was, since she’d proved herself to still be weak because it’s like he said she was never strong she was just a fuckup who charged in half-cocked with a stupid, impossible idea of being important and worth something–

Sakura’s voice comes out terse and clipped; “I’ll be fine, I can walk a mile by myself. Goodnight, Sasuke.”

Sakura takes the stairs down to the street and takes the Even Longer Way home so she can stew in her thoughts. She pushes straight past her mom without a word when she comes in the front door, going straight up to her room and out onto the balcony. She curls up on the stone bench and thinks back to when Gaara had dropped down in front of her, to how she’d thought she was ready, how she’d thought she’d had a chance

But before her thoughts go any further, her mom is sliding the door open, blankets over one arm, two steaming mugs in her other hand, and a smile on her face. Without a word she comes over, presses the mug of what is now obviously hot chocolate into her hands, wraps one of the blankets around her shoulders, and sits down next to her.

“So,” she says as she tucks the blanket around her lap and blows on the hot chocolate, “Wanna talk about it?”

Sakura tenses up, and all she can think is that she can’t tell her everything. If she knew about the curse mark her mom would never sleep again, she’d beg her to stop being a shinobi, she’d faint right there– no, there was no way. But… Sakura stares at the hot chocolate, the warmth spreading from her hands on the mug down into the rest of her. She doesn’t have to lie. She just doesn’t have to tell her everything.

So she says in a trembling voice, “There’s just… so much. I-I thought I was stronger, I thought I could be as good as Naruto and Sasuke and I wouldn’t drag them down anymore, but… I almost died, and I put my teammates in danger, and Sasuke pushed himself and got himself hurt saving me again and Naruto saved the day again and it’s just– Nothing ever changes, none of my training meant anything I was just the useless girl again and… Maybe that’s all I’m ever gonna be.”

Her mom takes a long sip of her hot chocolate, the kind that lets Sakura know she’s thinking long and hard about what she’s going to say next. She hates awkward silence, and if she has to deal with them she at least likes to give an excuse.

When she brings the mug down from her mouth she smiles over at Sakura and puts a hand on her knee; “Sakura, honey, do you remember the day your dad left? After I’d helped him box up all his things we watched him go, all the way down the street until we couldn’t see him anymore. You were in tears the whole time but you were so quiet, you didn’t say a word until he was out of sight. Then you took my hand, and I’ll never forget what you said– “You can cry too now Mommy, it’s okay. We can both cry.” And I knew right then that you were stronger than I’d ever thought you’d be."

Sakura's jaw drops ever so slight open, and she hides it by taking a sip of her hot chocolate as her mom goes on; "I knew that when you got hit, you’d take the time you needed to cry, but then you’d get right back up again. And you always did. When the kids at the academy would make fun of you for your forehead I told you that you didn’t have to stay, that there’d be no shame in leaving, but you wouldn’t even dream of it. After what happened in the Land of Waves you cried all night, but the next morning you still went out to meet your team.”

Her mom puts an arm around her shoulders and draws her in close; “It’s okay to fail, sweetheart. It’s okay to not be ready. It’s the only way you learn– smart girl like you, I’ll bet you’re already thinking of ways that Gaara kid won’t get by you again. They might treat you like a full grown soldier, but don’t forget that you’re still a kid. You’re still my kid. And under this roof none of those stupid shinobi rules apply– Go ahead and cry. Cry and get scared and get frustrated and do everything they won’t let you do. And when you’ve done it all you need and you’re ready to face the world again you go ahead and face it. I’ll always be here for you when you need to come back.”

And Sakura, with her face buried in her mom’s shoulder, finally lets herself cry.

The Sand Village isn’t the only threat lurking around the Leaf Village, waiting on bated breath to take advantage of their weakness, so genin aren’t being sent out of the village until the Feudal Lord and the emergency committee of jonin nominate and elect a candidate for Fifth Hokage. And since so many of their senseis are on that committee the only missions genin can get are low-cost D ranks helping rebuild.

That’s how Sasuke finds himself replacing roof tiles on an apartment building downtown while most of the other Leaf rookies flit around the surrounding structures, mixing cement, hammering nails, and talking instead of working. Even Hinata’s contributing, though thanks to her recovery’s steady if not speedy pace she’s mostly just fetching and grabbing, as well as using her Byakugan to see which parts of the buildings need the most urgent attention.

So when noon rolls around and Choji’s growling stomach and whining about how hungry he is starts to grate on his ears Sasuke rolls his eyes and turns to Hinata as he says, “If we don’t break for lunch soon he’s gonna get even worse. Can you go get us some food? Take my wallet– Naruto, you go with her. With how much she’s gonna need to get she’ll need someone to help her carry it all.”

Naruto just shrugs and says “Sure” while Hinata chokes on her own agreement and nearly drops Sasuke’s wallet. Her mouth snaps shut as her cheeks light up and she stares at Sasuke, eyes wide and brows drawn in. He just smirks back at her.

Sakura hops onto the roof as she adds, “I’ll go around to everyone and see what they want; I’ll come too, to see how much each thing costs so they can pay Sasuke back–“

Hinata activates her Byakugan and stammers, “A-actually, Sakura, you should stay– I just noticed, that… the part of the roof Sasuke’s working on is looking weak, y-you could use some Earth style to fix it up!”

Sakura blinks, but shrugs, and as everyone comes over to her to give her lunch orders to take down Sasuke shoots a questioning glance at Hinata. She just beams back at him, looking far cheekier than Sasuke thought she could, before taking Sakura’s list and heading off down the street with Naruto.

Sakura settles down beside him, channeling her lime green chakra into the stone roof, and smiles as she looks at Hinata and Naruto head off; “They could be cute. Honestly I just hope they work out so Naruto will lay off me,” she arches a brow at Sasuke, smirk playful in a way that makes Sasuke’s mouth oddly dry, “But since when do you care about that kind of thing? Last I checked you could care less about your own love life, let alone Naruto’s.”

Sasuke looks back down at the roof as he places another tile; “It’s just annoying to watch Hinata futz around him without doing anything.”

Ino’s laugh hits Sasuke’s other side as she comes over with a fresh bucket of mortar; “We’re annoying because we’re direct, Hinata’s annoying because she won’t make a move– There’s just no pleasing you, is there?”

Sasuke shrugs, shoulders tight, mouth screwed into a frown; “It’s all a hassle, but you guys are at least doing something.”

Sakura’s face turns the same color as her dress and Ino’s grin is blinding as she crows, “Really now? Can I get that in writing? There’s some academy bets that would win me!”

“Ino, I think they need some of that mortar on the other side of the roof,” Sakura mutters, chakra pulsing in uneven bursts as she sloppily mends the cracks in the wall.

The smile on Ino’s face immediately drops, and her voice is harsh as she shoots back, “They look fine to me.”

When Sakura and Ino had fought and bickered over him in the academy it had been annoying. But it had been simple. Now he was just a channel for the deeply complicated something that sat between them now, the conduit for this oppressive and thick atmosphere that made every breath Sasuke took feel like a Herculean effort. These girls used to be annoying, back before one had nearly killed the other. Twice. He can’t believe he misses annoying.

As it stands, he lamely utters, “I’ll take it over to them,” and makes his way over to the other side of the roof as fast as he can with his (improving, but still unpleasant) limp.

He sets the bucket of mortar down next to Tenten and she smirks without looking at him; “Scared of getting cooties from those icky girls?”

“I can handle that,” Sasuke murmurs, setting a tile next to where Tenten’s working, “But things are different with them now.”

“And you don’t like ‘different’,” Tenten finishes for him, scooping out some mortar, “Yeah, I’m starting to see that boys aren’t good with ‘different’. Especially boys with big chips on their shoulders.”

Sasuke’s eyes drift to Neji on the next building over, Byakugan active as he quietly directs Shikamaru around the weak spots in the roof. Lee, Sasuke knows all about. But Neji he learned from Naruto since he’d missed part of the fight healing Hinata. All he could think as he listened was that he didn’t know for certain if the Uchiha had done anything like that to their branch families, and that left him feeling very cold in that way he still wasn’t sure how to classify.

“They’re adjusting pretty well all things considered,” Tenten remarks, bringing Sasuke back to the present just in time to keep from hitting his finger instead of the nail in the tile, “I mean, I’m not gonna stop worrying about Lee, but Neji… I think this ‘different’ will be good for him. He used to think ‘different’ was impossible, after all.”

She pauses in her work and looks over at him, eyes thoughtful; “Sakura and Ino… I hope their ‘different’ doesn’t get any worse. But who knows how much that hope is worth.”

They continue to work in a silence that’s not quite comfortable, but not oppressive, until Naruto and Hinata come back with lunch. From how much Hinata hands over to Choji and how much less is missing from Sasuke’s wallet than he thought there’d be he can only think she paid for at least half of this herself (he’s seen how little can fit in Naruto’s frog wallet). He makes sure he’s looking her in the eye when he takes the drugstore omusubi from her and says “Thank you” so she knows it’s not just for the food. The tiny smile on her face tells him she got it.

The Leaf rookies end up sitting in a circle on the roof as they eat, Hinata next to Naruto and Sasuke smushed between Naruto and Sakura. Neji’s as far from Hinata as he can be and Ino makes sure Shikamaru and Choji are between her and Sakura, but the way Naruto and Kiba thunder over everyone else and the girls chatter across the circle and Choji’s eating like this could be his last meal is enough to push those elephants to the most distant corner of the room.

Between trading jabs with Naruto about their respective lunches, answering Shikamaru’s and Shino’s questions about his training with the Chidori, and swapping private jokes with Sakura and Hinata, Sasuke thinks that this is… nice. He finds himself wishing Lee could be up there with them. Any pain in his knee or his shoulder feel far away under the rays of warm sunlight.

Naruto elbows him in the side, grinning from ear to ear; “What’s got you smiling, jackass?”

The bracelet on Sasuke’s right wrist glints in the sunlight and Sasuke just snickers, “None of your business, dumbass.”

This isn’t how he’d wanted to see the village again.

Ideally he’d never wanted to see the village again. But he’d grown used to the idea of what he wanted and what needed to be done being miles apart, and should he have to come back he’d have liked it to be like he remembered it, or at least close.

The wall had suffered the most damage, but the stadium and downtown were close seconds. Asuka Nara’s drugstore had its roof entirely caved in, the bar ANBU agents would always collect in after the worst operations is partially burned down, and the front of the bookstore is entirely scorched. The crack in Lord Sarutobi’s face on the mountain is an echo of the greatest loss the village suffered.

But there are some silver linings. The academy is still standing and even now students and teachers are repairing what was damaged. Home… home is still intact, a benefit to being placed as far from the city center as they could possibly afford. Everywhere in the village even with the state his eyes are in he can see people rebuilding, from civilians helping each other put their neighborhoods back together to a group of genin taking a break on a rooftop from repairing an apartment building near the main street.

This, he thinks, is what the Will of Fire should mean.

His partner’s voice rouses him from his own private reverie; “Well, it survived. But barely. The damage is extensive.”

He finds himself speaking without thought; “Not long ago it was at the height of its glory. Look at it now…”

He can feel his partner’s eyes on him, curious; “Hm… You sound almost sad. Don’t tell me you still have feelings for your old home.”

Despite the mocking tone he knows his partner wouldn’t begrudge him if he told the truth. That’s why he likes him. But none of this farce is for him. It’s not for their leader or their targets or for any ninja who comes at them with grand ideas of bringing them to justice. It’s for himself. Because if he breaks character for even a moment he’s not sure he could ever go back into it again.

So Itachi Uchiha lies, “No. None.”

Chapter Text

xii. Sakura and Kurenai always met at tea shops or dango stands, mostly due to Sakura’s own sweet tooth, before training. Kurenai would take her through the day’s lesson plan over their snacks while Sakura told her what she’d like to focus on, then they’d head off to the training ground. Sakura and Kurenai both were creatures of habit so their routine was set in stone by this point.

Which is why today as she turns the corner and the tea shop comes into view it takes Sakura a fraction of a second to realize something is wrong.

Kurenai usually waits for her inside, but today she’s standing just outside the entrance. She usually meets Sakura alone, but she’s currently caught in hushed, tense conversation with Asuma at her side and Kakashi as he leans against the entryway in an unconvincing show of being relaxed. Sakura tries to look past them at the other patrons in the tea house, but the moment she blinks the table just behind the jonin is empty. She knits her brow into a frown as she pushes herself from a brisk walk to a jog.

Kurenai notices Sakura as she comes into earshot and turns to her with a smile that’s frayed at the edges; “Oh, Sakura, you made it.”

Sakura’s eyes dart between the three jonin as she asks; “Is something wrong? What were you guys talking about?”

Asuma snorts, but it’s with a forced kind of mirth; “Getting right to the point without screwing around? Kakashi are you sure she’s your student?”

Kurenai’s smile turns apologetic as she puts a gentle hand on Sakura’s shoulder; “I’m sorry, but Kakashi’s told Asuma and I about something pressing we need to take care of right away. I hate to cancel on you, but–“

Sakura forces her own smile as she stiffly waves it off; “No, no, it’s okay– The village is spread thin, I get it.”

Kurenai gives her shoulder a pat; “Thank you for understanding, Sakura,” she turns to Asuma, face deadly serious again, “Let’s go.”

The two of them disappear, so fast they might as well have teleported, and Sakura’s alone with Kakashi. Her eyes drift back to the empty table just behind the noren where she’d thought she’d seen someone. There’s a pair of still-steaming teacups and barely touched dango sitting on the table. She narrows her eyes– Someone had definitely been there, but how had they gotten away in the literal blink of an eye? It couldn’t have been genjutsu, she would’ve felt it, would’ve seen it…

Kakashi interrupts her thoughts, leaning down to smile at her; “Kurenai might be busy, but I’m free. Wanna head out to the usual training ground? I’m meeting Sasuke there, we can work on taijutsu today.”

Sakura rolls her eyes playfully as she starts down the street, sighing, “Fine, I guess you’ll do.”

Kakashi laughs as he falls in step with her, “I really need to talk to your mother more when she’s not beside herself with worry because I know you did not get that smart mouth from me.”

Sakura kicks too slow at his shin and he dodges just slow enough, and as they walk and talk she almost forgets that something might be wrong. She remembers again when they’re nearly to the training ground and Kakashi stops dead in his tracks. Sakura turns to him and for the second before he realizes she’s looking his dark eye is sharp and narrow, like it is in battle. She hates seeing it like that.

He knows she does, because the instant he notices her noticing him his eye closes and he rubs at the back of his neck; “I hate to make this a running theme, Sakura, but you’re gonna have to go ahead without me. Something’s come up. Make sure Sasuke doesn’t overdo it today, and–“

“Sensei, what aren’t you telling me?” Sakura cuts in, glaring hard and fierce up at him. His breathing stops for an overwhelming second and his eye flickers down to her left shoulder. She clenches her fist so hard her knuckles go white under her gloves.

He puts his hand over her curse mark as he brings his voice down; “Sakura, if I could tell you, I promise that I would. But this requires jonin level clearance, and–“

He’s lying. He’s lying right to her face and he thinks he can get away with it, like she’s still some silly little girl and not a ninja who’s taken a life and scarred Gaara of the Desert’s face and could take him on right here right now if that’s what she wanted because he’s right to be scared of the Curse Mark he has no idea what

Sakura bites down hard on the side of her tongue. The voice isn’t even a voice anymore. It’s just her. Maybe it’s always been her.

She forces out a harsh breath; “Whatever. Just go.”

Sakura doesn’t even stay to watch him go, turning on her heel and stomping the rest of the way to the training ground. Kakashi at least wasn’t lying about Sasuke already being there, stretching his good leg when he looks up and notices her. In her current mood all Sakura can look at is the brace covering his left knee.

Sasuke’s brow furrows; “What are you doing here? Where’s Kakashi?”

Sakura crosses her arms over her chest, blowing one of her long bangs out of her face as she snaps back, “Don’t ask me. Kurenai cancelled on training with me and Kakashi said he’d take over but ran off when we were almost here. Something’s wrong but they wouldn’t tell me what.

Sasuke narrows his eyes, looking just slightly past her– the telltale sign that he’s thinking hard about what she said as he mutters, “That’s becoming a running theme.”

It’s almost amazing how much hearing Sasuke echo Kakashi without a thought lightens Sakura’s mood. It’s cute in a way she’d never thought Sasuke could be until she’d handed him his birthday gift and seen the awe on his face. Her eyes drift to his hip and the knife is still fastened proudly at his side, Uchiha crest on the pommel shining in the sun. Sakura takes this moment to bask in the feeling of (still, miraculously) being in love with Sasuke Uchiha. It makes her feel normal.

So she puts her hands on her hips and sighs, “Well, their loss– We can get on just fine without them. So, how about we do some work on chakra control?”

And they do train, first focusing on taijutsu and second on chakra control. Even while obviously favoring his right side Sasuke still puts her through her paces, Sharingan flickering on and off as he flows between moves “borrowed” from Lee and the Hyuuga and ones he’d learned the old fashioned way. He’s starting to develop a style, close to all three but not quite any of them, focused on hard, targeted strikes and smooth, quick footwork. He’s also been learning some knife techniques– Sakura’s fast enough now to keep her gift from drawing her own blood, but he’s still able to slice some hair off the tip of her bangs, which is enough to make her hastily pin them back when they finally break to switch focus.

Sasuke asks her why she still hasn’t cut them to match the rest of her hair. She just shrugs and lets out an uneven laugh, saying “Oh, you know,” because she knows he doesn’t and will chalk it up to being A Girl Thing. Her hair’s supposed to be a reminder of consequences, a warning to Not Go There ever again. She’s not sure it’s working.

Chakra control is next because it’s less physically taxing but also far more likely to make Sasuke cut the session short on account of frustration. They mostly try walking on the practice stream set in this training ground for that specific purpose, though Sasuke ends up nearly soaked within minutes. His method of compensating for chakra overflow by channelling it elsewhere works fine enough on still water but with an active current the chakra output needs to constantly shift to match the changing surface; it had even taken Sakura a session or two to grasp the theory behind it. Sasuke was never one for theory. There was a reason she’d beaten him in every written exam.

And predictably enough they finish a good half hour early due to Sasuke, after an impressive but ultimately failed attempt at staying on the surface of the running stream, taking an agitated swig of water from his canteen and grumbling, “Let’s stop for today. I wanted to see Lee and Hakumei in the hospital, I should probably get there early.”

Sakura lets him have his excuse; “Alright. You mind me tagging along? I want to see how Lee’s doing too.”

Sasuke shrugs; “Do whatever you want.”

Sakura rolls her eyes and makes sure to bump him with her shoulder as she falls in step beside him. He shoots a glare over at her but the side of his mouth twitches up before he pushes it stubbornly back down again. As they stroll towards the hospital Sakura makes small talk and Sasuke actually makes an effort to respond, even if it’s just a low hum to let her know he heard her. She savors every single one.

Things are normal when they come to the hospital. Even with several weeks between them and the invasion of the village the place is still abuzz with activity, and Sasuke and Sakura actually have to wait in line to talk to the receptionists since so many people are here ahead of them. But their concerns are mundane, and when Sakura and Sasuke ask about Hakumei and Lee they get the answers they expect- she’s with a patient, he’s in the middle of physical therapy- and are in the middle of wondering whether they should wait out here or seek them out anyway when things promptly stop being normal.

The first thing Sakura hears is Kurenai’s voice over the sound of the doors clattering open; “We have an emergency!

She barely gets time to take in the fact that Kakashi is hanging barely conscious between Asuma and Gai’s shoulders as they barrel through the waiting room on Kurenai’s heels. The jonin don’t even notice her and Sasuke standing and staring agape as they push their way in and a cloud of nurses and orderlies hide them from view, spiriting Kakashi away and leaving everyone in the dust. For a second, all Sasuke and Sakura can do is stand and stare.

Sasuke is the first to speak in a stilted, wavering voice; “W-what… Was that–?!”

“That was Kakashi-sensei…” Sakura picks up, mind rattling and racing and bouncing off the walls of her skull as she tries to put together all the clues that things were off today together into a coherent whole. She slowly shakes her head. There’s not enough information. She needs to learn more.

Sakura steps behind Sasuke and her hands start flying through signs; “Stay out here and look worried, I’m going in after them.”

Sasuke immediately frowns; “What?! No, I’m coming with you–!”

Sasuke, you are not stealthy and not discreet,” Sakura hisses through her teeth, “I’ll be quick and I’ll tell you everything I learn once I’m back. Just trust me for five minutes.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes, then lets out a harsh breath; “Five minutes. That’s all you get.”

She nudges him with her elbow before running down the hall under the cover of an invisible cloak. Sasuke’s eyes follow her for a moment before he goes over to the nearest nurse and starts making a scene by loudly demanding answers he knows she doesn’t have. Sakura smiles as she ducks into an empty room and trades her invisible cloak for a transformation into a nurse– “reliable” is a good fit on Sasuke.

Sakura gets her head back in the game by coming out into the hall and following the sounds of commotion to a room on the second floor, arriving just on the heels of Hakumei and blending in with the other frazzled nurses who hang around on the edges of the room. Gai and Asuma gently deposit Kakashi on the bed and Kurenai hovers around him, running her hands through her hair. At first glance, aside from being soaking wet, nothing seems outwardly wrong with Kakashi. There’s no blood, no bruising, nothing. But his eyes are glazed over and barely open, his breathing erratic, and the only movement he can seem to muster is the barest twitch of his fingers.

Sakura has seen Kakashi weakened before by exhaustion. This is different. All Sakura can think of is the deep dark pit of burning pain she’d fallen into every time she’d gambled with the curse mark and her blood freezes to ice in her veins.

Hakumei storms up to the bed, batting Gai and Asuma away as she kneels at Kakashi’s side; “Alright where’s the fucking fire? The way you three were running like headless chickens I thought I’d find this idiot on the brink of death again.”

Kurenai shakes her head, absently fiddling with her hair; “Honestly he might be, we don’t know what’s happening to him we just know he–“ she cuts herself off and her eyes dart around the room before settling on her fellow jonin. Asuma and Gai look to each other before shaking their heads.

Sakura bites her lip. Looks like Kakashi wasn’t lying about “jonin-level clearance”.

Hakumei’s still focused on Kakashi, activating her Byakugan and immediately furrowing her brow; “Oh my God what is wrong with his chakra flow?”

She looks up and notices the looks the jonin are exchanging before she shakes her head and barks over her shoulder at the nurses and orderlies, “All of you, out. Now. This is apparently above your pay grade.”

They all start to shuffle out around Sakura and she has no choice but to go with the flow, Hakumei shutting the door right on her heels. Sakura sticks with the herd until they start to disperse, slowing down and eventually turning around to head back to the door. As soon as no more eyes are on her she throws up another invisible cloak and presses her ear to the door– the conversation is indistinct, vague, too muffled for this kind of door. Kurenai’s genjutsu would’ve been the perfect deterrent to anyone but Sakura, least of all because she’d taught her the exact same technique.

She bites the inside of her cheek– Kurenai’s an expert, if Sakura breaks the genjutsu she’ll know immediately. But that’s under ideal circumstances, and Kurenai’s mental state had seemed less than ideal. Sakura could maybe catch a minute or two of the conversation before Kurenai realizes what happened.

Sakura forms a basic seal and reaches out with her chakra. It’s a risk she’ll happily take.

The second she breaks the jutsu she hears the tail end of Hakumei’s sentence; “– because the chakra in his brain and eyes is doing some weird shit I haven’t seen in a pretty specific amount of years so remember that I technically outrank you and spill it.”

“Okay, okay, no need for that,” Asuma cuts in, “We were gonna tell you, but it’s some pretty sensitive shit– National security risk sensitive.”

“We ran into Itachi Uchiha,” Kurenai hisses, likely through gritted teeth, “Kisame Hoshigaki was with him. Kakashi said they were part of something called the Akatsuki with seven other members… And that they were here looking to take Naruto. We tried to hold them off, but Itachi… He did something to Kakashi, probably with his Sharingan since Kakashi told us not to look at his eyes, but that’s all we know.”

Gai’s voice is far more subdued than usual as he adds, “They ran off when I showed up to assist. The ANBU Black Ops should be on their trail but who knows if they’ll actually catch them. At the moment, Kakashi is the priority.”

Hakumei is silent for a moment before her voice comes out in a low, horrified whisper, “… It’s the Mangekyou Sharingan. It has to be. This is always what it looked like. The kind of damage this does to the brain is– We don’t have anyone here who can fix it. I can’t even fix it. The only person who could was Tsunade and nobody’s heard from her in years.”

“Well isn’t that fucking perfect,” Asuma grumbles in harmony with the click of a lighter.

Someone starts to move– Sakura can’t tell if they’re pacing or going to another part of the room– as Hakumei speaks up again; “I can put him under so he’s not in any pain while we wait on a solution, but that could be just as bad as leaving him, depending on how long that takes.”

Just as Gai seems to start to speak again the door comes flying open, pushing Sakura off it and into the wall. The impact breaks her concentration and the cloak falls away, just in time for Sakura to lock eyes with Kurenai as she glares at her from the doorway. Sakura freezes. It’s all she can do to keep a hold on her transformation.

Kurenai stalks toward her as she growls, “Who the hell are you?

Sakura has very few options, and all of them are bad. She picks the first one that comes to mind.

Earth Style– Hidden Mole Jutsu!

The concrete floor beneath Sakura’s feet dissolves into fine sand and she plummets straight down to the first floor, just barely catching herself in a roll and running blindly in the direction she sincerely hopes is the waiting room as she lets her transformation fall, letting the puff of smoke act as a temporary smokescreen. She wheels around a corner and nearly knocks Sasuke over– of course he was gonna come after her, he’s surprisingly predictable, but in this specific situation that’s a godsend. She grabs his arm and yelps out a quick “RUN!” as she keeps sprinting.

“What the Hell happened?!” Sasuke shouts as Sakura picks out a bright green exit sign and tries to ignore the third set of footsteps gaining on them.

“I’ll explain in a second for now just run!” she shrieks back, throwing a hasty Practice Brick wall up to block off the hallway behind them as she runs shoulder first through the exit door. From there Sakura makes them run exactly like she would run from Kurenai in the latter days of her training, rapidly and in zigzagging patterns that crisscross on top of each other with petal illusions dropped whenever her feet touch a roof. Sasuke keeps up surprisingly well despite how he winces every tine he accidentally lands on his bad leg.

After a good two minutes they finally land, boneless and exhausted, under a thick grove of trees vaguely near the Academy. For a long second Sakura just savors the shade on her back and cool grass on her face. She’s down to fifty percent in chakra reserves already and as she turns to Sasuke she can see him rubbing at his braced knee while sucking in labored breaths through clenched teeth.

“Okay,” Sasuke pants, “Will you now tell me what the Hell happened?!”

Sakura pulls herself up onto her knees; “Kurenai caught me eavesdropping– I was disguised, so if they caught me they would’ve just thrown me to T&I so… I panicked.”

Sasuke leans over and cuffs her on the back of the head; “You should’ve just dropped it, they wouldn’t have killed you for being worried about Kakashi.”

She elbows him in the side again; “I know what I should’ve done but after what I heard I was–“

“What did you hear?” Sasuke leans in as he asks, eyes sharp and attentive again.

Sakura pauses. In that pause it settles on Sakura like a stone weight exactly who Itachi Uchiha was– who he is. Who he absolutely has to be.

If she tells Sasuke, there’s no way they’re not going after Naruto, regardless of what shape they’re in. If she lies to him, he’ll know. And if he finds out what, who, she lied to him about… She closes her eyes and lets out a long sigh. There’s no other choice.

“Itachi Uchiha came back to the village,” Sakura says, keeping her voice slow and measured like she’s trying to calm a spooked horse, “He was looking for Naruto. The jonin fought him, and Kakashi was hit with something called the Mangekyou Sharingan. Itachi apparently ran when Gai showed up, and ANBU’s on his trail.”

For what feels like an eternity Sasuke simply stares at her, eyes wide, mouth pressed into a tight line, jaw clenched so hard Sakura thinks he might break all his teeth.

Then he’s up on his feet and damn near sprinting to the treeline, and Sakura swears as she pushes herself up and goes racing after him; “Sasuke wait–!

“Don’t try to stop me Sakura,” Sasuke growls, and it’s the same boy who called her annoying and said he was only living to kill a certain person again and she almost does as he says.

But she’s not that girl anymore. So she doesn’t.

Sasuke be reasonable, ANBU is after him and if he evades them there’s no way we can catch him,” Sakura snaps, doubling her pace as they come out onto the path beside that familiar stone bench.

“If he finds Naruto that’s a death sentence for him,” Sasuke mutters, like she’s not even here, “There’s no way he’s letting Naruto go, three jonin won’t throw him off.”

“He wasn’t working alone Sasuke, there was someone else with him,” Sakura insists, reaching out for his shoulder, “If Kakashi got taken down–!”

Sasuke whirls around and his Sharingan is blazing as he shouts back at her, “He killed everyone, Sakura! Our parents, our grandparents, he killed children! Kids even younger than I was! He deserves to die, don’t you dare say he doesn’t!”

Sakura grabs him by the shoulders and forces chakra into her hands so he can’t break her hold; “Just listen to me for two seconds! You said it yourself Sasuke, if Itachi finds Naruto he’s dead! We’re both weaker than Naruto right now– If we go after him and try to pick a straight fight we’ll die too!”

Sasuke squirms in her grip but his eyes are drifting towards the ground; “If you distract him, if you get Naruto out of there first then maybe–“

“Then maybe you die,” Sakura cuts in, “Sasuke, look me in the eye. Breathe. Push out everything else, just think about your skill level right now, and be honest: Could you kill Itachi?”

Sasuke tries one more time to wrench out of her grip before he takes a deep breath, in through his nose, out through his mouth. He bites down hard on the inside of his lower lip as his red eyes meet her green, and Sakura does everything she can to not break eye contact.

Then he closes his eyes, lets out a long hiss of a sigh, and growls, “No.”

Sakura lets the chakra flow back into the rest of her body as she says, “Look– We aren’t going to just sit back and do nothing. But we’re protecting Naruto before we’re doing anything else. Understand?”

Sasuke opens his eyes again as he says, “Fine,” through a glare that doesn’t convince her at all.

Sakura takes her hands off Sasuke’s shoulders with a sigh that’s as relieved as she can manage; “Alright, from what the jonin said it didn’t sound like Itachi found Naruto. Where would Naruto be right around now?”

Both of their eyes flick up towards the sun. It’s almost exactly noon.

They look back to each other as Sasuke says, “That’s not even a question.”

Ichiraku isn’t far, even closer when you bypass streets altogether, and in seconds they’re pushing through the noren as Sasuke barks, “Old man! Has Naruto stopped in today?!”

The sudden shock nearly makes Teuchi spill boiling hot ramen broth all over Ayame, but he recovers in time to answer, “Hold on now– He did, but wh–?”

Sakura is up at the counter and leaning in as she exclaims, “Do you know where he went when he left?!”

“W-well Master Jiraiya came by while he was here,” Ayame stammers, concern painted all over her face, “They headed off somewhere together–“

“Where to?!” Sasuke demands, right up next to Sakura now.

“I only heard them mention that outpost town a little ways South from here, Shukuba Town,” Teuchi replied, brow furrowed now, “But what is this about?

“Naruto’s in danger now who is Jiraiya?!” Sakura presses.

Teuchi’s whole demeanor changes in half a second, brow smoothing out as he crosses his arms over his chest– evidently, they should’ve lead with that; “He’s one of the Three Legendary Sannin, a big old fella with a head of white hair. I’d tell you that Naruto’s safe with him, but you’re his team– I won’t tell you not to look out for him. Just be careful with whatever you’re running off to.”

Ayame reaches over the counter and puts a hand on Sakura’s shoulder; “Don’t do anything reckless, please.”

Sakura smiles, but makes a point to only say, “Thank you, we’ll be going now.”

Because with how Sasuke’s eyes are burning as they go tearing out of the village gates Sakura knows that’s something she can’t promise.

Naruto Uzumaki is many things– well maybe not many things, even he’ll admit he’s not that complex a guy, more like several things– but one thing he certainly is not is “patient”.

He certainly has very little patience for pervy old sages who talk all big about bringing him along on some adventure and teaching him some secret technique that’ll put the Chidori to shame then when rubber actually hits the road sticking him in a hotel room while he goes off to get laid.

But the siren song of a technique that could make Kakashi regret ignoring him is a powerful and tempting one, so Naruto actually makes it through an admirable seven and a half minutes of sitting around working on his chakra control before something distracts him. To be fair it’s a knock on the door, and Naruto likes to think he has at least enough manners not to leave someone hanging if they want something. Besides, it could be the pervy sage back from striking out– of course Naruto hops off one of the beds and strolls over to the door.

The first thought that occurs to Naruto as he opens the door and looks up at the pair of eyes boring a hole in his skull is, That’s not the Pervy Sage.

This person is a good head and a half taller than him, with most of his body hidden by a black cloak covered in red clouds. What Naruto can see is black hair framing his face with symmetrical bangs, a scratched-through Leaf headband, and two Sharingan ringed with dark shadows and deep, stress-born creases that don’t fit in the individual’s otherwise young face.

Naruto is several things, and while one of those things isn’t “book smart enough to beat Sakura or Sasuke on written exams”, “stupid” isn’t one of those things either.

Naruto knows what happened to the Uchiha. He knows who did it. And he knows this man looks far too much like the one other Uchiha Naruto’s met for him to be anyone else.

“You’re Itachi Uchiha…” Naruto says without his own permission.

“Well that saves us the burden of introductions,” a strangely smooth voice remarks as an even taller man in the same uniform with wild hair, pale blue skin and beady eyes comes strolling in to stand beside Itachi, blocking off the whole doorway, “Though I must say, it’s hard to believe a child like this is holding in the Nine-tailed Fox.”

They know about the Nine-tails. What Naruto only suspected was a dangerous situation has definitively become one. Naruto starts to slide one foot backwards and Itachi’s eyes zero in on it– running to the window is not an option.

Itachi’s voice is like a bolt of black silk as he says, “Naruto, you’re coming with us."

Rapid footsteps sound from down the hall. Kisame and Itachi’s heads swivel on a dime towards them. Naruto hears a harsh, high gasp, and then something hitting the wall.

Then Sakura’s voice cries, “Earth Style– Practice Brick Jutsu!

Naruto can’t even finish shouting her name as a thick wall of concrete comes crackling out of the left side of the doorframe and surges across it, filling the door and blocking the way. Naruto can hear voices, first Itachi’s partner, and then… Sasuke.

He’s trapped in here alone. And they’re trapped out there with Itachi.

Naruto has felt helpless before. And he hates it.

So he grits his teeth, lets out a roar, and slams his fist into the wall.

Chapter Text

xiii. Shukuba Town is not particularly big, but it is densely packed and full of activity. The second Sakura and Sasuke come skidding onto its main thoroughfare she is deeply appreciative of the fact that there’s two of them here to cover all this ground.

She turns to Sasuke, eyes sharp; “You take the left side of the street I’ll take the right– The second one of us gets a lead we regroup, we are not going in alone. Understand?”

Sasuke’s jaw tenses and his eyes are like onyx daggers but he mutters, “Sure, fine,” and Sakura knows she has to find Naruto first.

Without another word they each start tearing down their side of the street, dipping into every hotel they see to ask the front desk if a goofy-looking blond genin traveling with a big old guy with white hair has checked in. It’s just as Sakura is considering changing strategies that she comes into a surprisingly nice lobby with fountains in the front and hits paydirt.

“Come to think of it someone like that did check in just a little bit ago,” the woman at the front desk remarks, flipping through the guestbook, “There was a blond boy in orange with a Leaf headband and a white-haired middle-aged guy. The older guy rented the room then sent the kid up ahead since one of the working girls was calling his name–“

“What was the room number?!” Sakura cuts in, leaning in so close she’s nearly nose to nose with the receptionist.

The receptionist’s eyes shoot from the guestbook to Sakura’s headband before she gulps and stammers, “H-here, the boy’s in this one.”

She shows Sakura the book and points to the room number– 305. Sakura nods quickly and turns on her heel, running back out to the street, eyes peeled for Sasuke. They’ve kept a pretty even pace, so he’s coming out of the hotel right across the way as she calls out.

“Naruto’s in here! Come on!” Sakura shouts, and Sasuke’s at her side in the blink of an eye, nearly pushing past her.

She catches his shoulder to slow him down as she hisses through her teeth, “There’s two sets of stairs on either side of the building, you take left, I’ll take right. The room number is 305 so I think that’s the third floor–“

Enough I get it, let’s just go!” Sasuke snaps, darting with his uneven stride to the left staircase and disappearing up it. Sakura swears under her breath and charges up the right. If only this was just a mission to protect Naruto, that would be so much easier. At this point she’s given up all hope of preventing Sasuke from doing something stupid and reckless– now it’s just a matter of catching him when he tries.

Thanks to his limp Sakura’s faster than Sasuke even with a head start– she makes it to the third floor first, and she’s not alone in the hall. Staring down the fifth door on her right are two men in black cloaks covered in red clouds, one with a gigantic sword on his back and the other with piercing red eyes. The door is open and at this angle she can see orange, yellow, and blue– just enough of each to know exactly who she’s looking at. Her footsteps draw the attention of both men and Sakura reads the shorter one in a second: Black hair, scratched-through Leaf headband, Sharingan.

That’s all she needs to see.

Sakura’s hands race through the signs and she slaps them on the wall as she shouts, “Earth Style– Practice Brick Jutsu!

Her chakra surges through the concrete to the doorframe and the wall shoots out to cover it, not leaving a single gap for even light to come through. Sakura can hear Naruto shout her name from behind it– She has maybe two minutes before the knucklehead breaks through to try and help. She’s about to tell him to run, but the two men turn to face her fully and Sakura’s tongue turns to lead. She stops so suddenly she nearly trips over her own feet. It’s like encountering Zabuza or Orochimaru all over again– she only needs to look at them to know how wildly outclassed she is.

She needs to run. She needs to fight. She needs to get her shit together because if she doesn’t her whole team is going to die right here and now.

The tall blue one– Kisame, she has to guess– steps towards her, hand going to the hilt of his sword; “Well isn’t this just adorable, it’s a rescue mission. Are you his teammate, little flower? Or are you just an admirer?

Sakura almost has the beginnings of a plan in mind before Sasuke’s voice rings out; “Itachi Uchiha!

There he is at the end of the hall, staring Itachi down. Smoldering in Sasuke’s eyes is that same deep black hate Sakura remembers boiling in the pit of her stomach when she’d yanked Zaku’s head back and shoved the kunai clean through his throat. He’s ready to kill, no matter the cost. Sakura’s stomach churns and twists. She can’t let him do it. She won’t.

Itachi speaks, his voice far softer than it has any right to be; “It’s been a long time, Sasuke.”

Sasuke's Sharingan blazes to life, and a sharp-toothed grin spreads across Kisame’s face as he catches sight of it; “Well now, the plot thickens. Care to introduce us?”

“He’s my younger brother,” Itachi replies, his voice teetering between “infuriatingly casual” and “deceptively blank”.

Interesting,” Kisame remarks, grin only stretching wider, “So the rumors of the Uchiha Clan being completely wiped out were greatly exaggerated.”

“This is what I’ve spent my whole life preparing for,” Sasuke shouts, drawing all eyes back to him as the Chidori explodes to life in his palm, “I’m going to end this nightmare right here and now, Itachi Uchiha! Get ready to die!

Sasuke’s off like a shot towards Itachi and Sakura has to think twice as fast– easier to do with Sasuke's bad leg. They can’t make contact, she won’t let them. An idea forms like the crack of a whip and Sakura’s making the hand seals on instinct– Rabbit Boar Rat Horse Tiger– before slamming her hands onto the floor in front of her and channelling as much chakra as it takes for her to take hold of both the floor beneath the Uchiha brothers’ feet and the second floor below that.

The second Sasuke gets too close Sakura cries, “I’m sorry, Sasuke! Earth Style– Ground Splitting Jutsu!

The floor breaks apart in a jagged hole right underneath Sasuke and Itachi. They both go plummeting down and the floor below that breaks again, dropping them both on the ground level– hopefully. She can’t see anything through the cloud of dust and rubble she kicked up and all she can hear is Sasuke’s surprised shout and the Chidori’s chirping suddenly cutting off. She pitches forward on hands and knees and it’s all she can do not to heave right onto the floor. This is what she’d been afraid of– she’s becoming far too familiar with Chakra Exhaustion, and nausea is an early warning sign. If she’s lucky she has fifteen percent left to work with. Better use it wisely.

Sakura starts to pull herself up, supporting herself on the wall, as she calls out, “N-Naruto, get going! Find Jiraiya! We’ll try to catch up–!”

She’s cut off by the side of Kisame’s sword slamming into her stomach.

All the wind goes out of her at once. She’s sent flying, slamming back-first into the stairwell door and nearly breaking it off its hinges with the force of the impact. As she falls in a boneless heap to the floor she tries to tally up what’s broken– she counts several ribs and maybe her collarbone, but more than any of that she’s suddenly deathly cold, shivering all over as she tries and fails to pick herself up. Her brain has become a wild bird caught in a too-small room, beating at the walls as she desperately tries to figure out how getting hit by a sword took that last bit of chakra she had.

Kisame clicks his tongue; “Now look what you’ve done, you’ve gone and disappointed Samehada– they were hoping to eat up so much more chakra from you. What were you thinking, little flower, coming into a fight with two grown-ups with so little chakra to spare?”

The sword eats chakra. Sakura shoves all the warnings from Anko and Kakashi far afield to reach out and grasp the five burning petals on her shoulder. It’s not even a bargain anymore, there’s no voice to gamble with as it wheedles her to take control of her gift. The heat and pain bloom throughout her body, overpowering the cold as petals come crawling out and onto her skin like ants. Unsteadily, Sakura pushes herself up and locks eyes with Kisame, teeth grit, eyes wide.

Something like pity flickers across his face.

“Now that’s a shame,” Kisame sighs, “For a second there I thought you might’ve been smart.”

Sakura may have had a plan at some point. But when those words hit her ears it shatters like glass and she starts running towards Kisame with a howling war cry tearing its way out of her throat.

She leaps at him and he smacks her out of the sky with a backhanded swing, sending her bouncing off the wall and down onto the ground. He scoops her up off the ground with the tip of the sword, flipping her up into the air just to smack her down again. The impact forces breath that isn’t there from her lungs as the sword swallows chakra faster than the curse mark can generate it and the weight of the gigantic weapon pins her down. Sakura struggles uselessly as Kisame shakes his head, tut-tutting her like she’s a child having a tantrum.

Even the curse mark can’t overpower the piercing pain as Kisame slams Samehada down flat on her back, bouncing her against the ground one more time. She tries to breathe and it comes in ragged, wet wheezes that send jolts of pain spiderwebbing across her entire body– trying to take a deeper breath sends her into fits of coughing up blood. One of her ribs has to be puncturing her lung. Sakura’s head is spinning, her vision swimming, Kisame a blur of blue and black above her.

He takes the sword off her back and her heart is beating out of her chest as she tries to move, to even twitch, but her mind is outpacing her body as Kisame raises his sword up for one last strike.

“You know, I’m usually not the type for mercy,” he muses, “But for someone doomed to Orochimaru’s clutches, I’ll make an exception.”

If Sasuke learned anything from the Chunin Exams, it’s that it’s better to land on your back than your feet.

And land on his back he does as he comes down in a shower of rubble in the center of the hotel lobby, sending the receptionist and several guests screaming out of the way. He’s winded from the impact and his gasps for air end up with him sucking in dust, eyes shutting on instinct as he coughs it all out and wrenches himself to his feet. He doesn’t have time for this, he has to find Itachi again, has to kill him right now before he loses his chance.

Sasuke forces his eyes open as the dust starts to clear and whirls around wildly, Sharingan spinning like windmills. Itachi didn’t land anywhere near him. He’s gone. That can’t be right, there was nowhere for him to go, he can’t have used genjutsu to hide his Sharingan would see it where did he go–?!

Sasuke’s chain of thought is broken by a glass-breaking scream from Sakura.

His head whips up and around to the edge of the holes she made in the floor and he sees her, curse mark painting her skin, knocked out of the air by Kisame’s gigantic sword, bouncing off a wall and onto the ground just for him to pick her up and slam her down again with the giant blade. The angle is bad and he can’t see her anymore, she’s hidden behind the edge of the floor and Kisame’s coat, but he sees him bring the sword up and slam it down again, drawing another choked cry from Sakura.

He brings the sword up, as high as he can in the cramped quarters; “You know, I’m usually not the type for mercy, but for someone doomed to Orochimaru’s clutches I’ll make an exception.”

And Sasuke is moving before he can tell his body to stop.

His knee screeches under the effort of Sasuke shoving chakra into his feet and leaping up to the edge of the hole in the second floor and he knows this next jump won’t get him close enough even as he pivots and starts to build the lightning chakra, starting in his throat and moving towards his shoulder like Kakashi taught him.

But maybe he doesn’t need to.

Sasuke draws his tantō and reminds himself at breakneck speed what he tells himself during every practice run he’s ever taken the weapon through– it’s an extension of your hand.

Sasuke’s chakra goes in two directions, to his feet until they’re glowing bright enough to blind, and down his arm in lightning blue and healing teal. He springs off the break in the floor, shooting towards Kisame’s back with a rocket’s tail of chakra sailing behind him. Sasuke doesn’t have enough distance for his hand to hit Kisame, but he has just enough to jab the tip of his blade into Kisame’s back. That’s enough contact for Sasuke to send the Mystical Palm Chidori shooting down through his hand, into the hilt and along the blade.

Sasuke would never know how lucky he got that day– Not because Kisame’s back was turned, but because his chakra nature is water.

Kisame lets out a bloodcurdling shriek as he convulses wildly, eyes rolling back in his head and foam spraying from his mouth as the bolts of electric chakra go running through his own chakra network like a lightning bolt hitting the ocean. His muscles contracting and relaxing in rapid succession force him to let go of Samehada, sending the blade plunging down the way Sasuke had gone– and the way Sasuke is about to go as his momentum runs out.

Sasuke’s sudden spike downwards yanks the knife out of Kisame’s back and he has to grab onto the broken ledge with one hand to keep from falling all the way back down again. He’s about to pull himself up when the stone wall covering Naruto’s door explodes outward, Naruto leaping through it fist-first. The orange Nine-tails chakra swirls around him, the air boiling around it, and Naruto roars like a lion as he tackles Kisame. Naruto’s adrenaline and chakra plus Kisame still being mid-seizure allow the much smaller boy to grab him with both arms and physically throw him across the gap in the floor and Naruto goes bounding after him, only sparing Sasuke a second glance once he’s across.

“What’s up, jackass?! Where’s your brother?!” Naruto calls, eyes darting between Sasuke and Kisame, bouncing on his heels in his low stance just in case he starts moving again.

Sasuke finally pulls himself up onto the third floor as he calls back, “Don’t know, but we gotta prioritize! I don’t think that took him out!”

Kisame stirs under his own power again just at that moment. He pushes himself up and comes shambling to his feet, bowed nearly all the way over as he locks eyes with Sasuke. The fractal lines of burned flesh spreading around his face are still smoking and the foam at his mouth makes him look rabid as he pants, mouth hanging open to reveal two rows of serrated teeth. Sasuke can only gape back at him– the Chidori is supposed to kill. That just pissed him off.

K-k-k-kill you,” he slurs, hatred sloughing off of him in waves, “Little ssssshITS, gonna kill you b-b-bOTH!

He lunges at them and Naruto and Sasuke have no choice but to leap in to meet him.

Itachi is much better at falling than his brother. It’s not any fault of Sasuke’s– Itachi’s just had more practice.

The second the floor drops out from under them Itachi pushes back off the chunk of stone nearest to his feet and manages to leap back from the next hole that opens up while Sasuke nosedives through that one as well. He rolls to a stop a foot away and immediately throws up a Greater Invisibility jutsu, smoothing out the lines and distortions common to a basic Invisible Cloak for just a minute. He uses that and the cloud of dust to dart out of Sasuke’s line of sight, heading towards the right-side stairwell.

He sprints through the door and shuts it behind him so he can lean heavy on it, not to catch his breath but to regain his composure. He’s supposed to be better-trained than this, he’s supposed to be able to see the brother who will kill him one day, the brother he’s doing all of this for, and keep it together. He is ANBU Black Ops. His mask is never supposed to come off.

But Itachi also thought that the day of the massacre. And he had wept onto the sword that would murder his parents instead. He was only thirteen then. And he’s only eighteen now. Itachi bites down hard on his lip, drawing blood and squeezing his eyes shut tight to keep the tears from falling as he shudders all over.

He inhales deeply, filling his lungs until they burn under the strain before letting out a breath laced in Uchiha smoke. He needs to find the Nine-tails, and he needs to find him now before he’s forced to do anything to Sasuke. Now’s not the time. There’s so much more they both need to do.

He opens his eyes and the emotionless murderer who cares only for his own power is back. He darts up the stairs to find the door to the third floor bent nearly all the way in. It's barely been a minute and he's already missed too much of the fight. Itachi pulls the door open in time to see his partner– face covered in smoking lightning-strike scars and Samehada nowhere to be seen– lunging for Sasuke and a newly freed Naruto.

They meet him on the other side of the gap in the floor but even severely injured and without Samehada his partner puts the two genin on the backstep, siphoning off bits of their chakra with his own two hands with every blow and forcing them closer and closer to the edge of the hole. There’s nothing they can do but block and slowly inch their way backward, desperately trying to get out of his range without provoking a bigger attack. Sasuke’s braced knee is starting to buckle.

But all that gets pushed aside when he sees motion from the floor several yards in front of him. The girl, what was her name was it even in the intel, is dragging herself up. Her breathing is coming in harsh and short, and when she glances at him over her shoulder her skin is covered in tiny black petals– Orochimaru’s handiwork. Itachi’s eyes narrow; if Orochimaru got close to this team then why didn’t he take the chance to take Sasuke? He doesn’t have much longer to mull that over as the girl comes stalking down the hall towards him, gaze so heavy and piercing it would pin a lesser man to the ground. Diseased green chakra starts to spin around her like a maelstrom, cutting into the walls and the floor.

“You… this is all your fault,” she growls, “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you and I’ll end this!

She breaks into a shambling run that shouldn’t be as fast as it is and Itachi has to dart in to meet her, palm thrust hitting her in the lung he hopes isn’t punctured. It knocks her off balance and he uses the opening to grab her by the throat, slamming her down onto the ground and pinning her there as she writhes like a snake in his grasp. She snarls, grabs a kunai to swipe at his eyes, kicks at any part of him her feet can reach and Itachi knows she won’t stop unless he makes her stop.

He looks her right in the eye and activates the Tsukuyomi.



Sakura is no longer on her back but on her stomach, a knee pinning her to the floor and her hair is long again as it pulls her head upright and forces her to look ahead.

“Don’t blink.”

On the other side of a gap she thought was six feet wide but seems as vast as the Valley of the End the same man pinning her down has Sasuke and Naruto each strung up on posts, tied down with chain.

He begins with Naruto, using a rusted blade to slice his belly open. Naruto’s scream is her scream as Itachi winds his intestine around his arm and yanks on it, twists it, shoves it back in just to tear it out again, never letting it come free. He uses the jagged blade to pierce and sever everything in Naruto’s body cavity, pulling each one out and tossing it aside once he’s finished. He pours the acid from Naruto’s stomach on his foot so he can feel it. He crushes both kidneys under his heel. He holds Naruto’s beating heart in his hand just to show him he can.

Sakura feels each pain in harmony with him, belly crying out in agony with every organ ruptured, and she begs for mercy from someone who will give her none. She does not even get to feel the same release of death that Naruto does as Itachi crushes his heart in his bare hand.

“Don’t bore me with your crocodile tears. Why cry for a nuisance? If you cared for him you would’ve protected him.”

Sasuke is next. Sasuke is last. Sasuke is everything.

And Sasuke is worse, because all the rusted blade does is cut. He cuts the same spot on his chest, methodically, exactly, and the pain adds and adds on top of itself as he carves it out. Sakura twists and squirms in Itachi’s grip as she wails for the pain to stop, for him to let them go, for Kakashi, for her mother, even for the father that abandoned her.

“Of course you want someone to save you. Why would you change? Everything you did in pursuit of your own vanity was never going to amount to a single thing.”

Itachi carves. And carves. And carves, deep into their chests, for three long days that feel like three long years in this fraction of a second. The same spot. The same rusted, jagged edge. He makes a cavern in Sasuke’s chest that threatens to cave in but never does.

Under the red moon in the red sky time becomes meaningless. Everything becomes meaningless. Her fight, her friends, the very concept of Sakura Haruno loses all meaning. Who is she? Where is she? Why does she hurt so much? And why won’t it stop?!

“It will not stop because you cannot stop it. You’re still too young, too weak. Maybe one day you could have broken this, but you’re out of time. Goodbye, Sakura Haruno.”



Sakura goes limp, her eyes shivering as the Tsukuyomi fills her senses, and for yet another moment he can’t afford Itachi pauses just to look at her. She’s so young.

He bites down on the side of his tongue– She's exactly as old as he was. That's old enough.

He stands to his full height and calls out to Kisame, “Focus on taking the Nine-tails, we need him alive–!”

The door to the left stairwell comes crashing open, and an older man's voice shouts, “I LEAVE YOU ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES!

The man in the doorway’s mane of white hair leaves no room for error– Jiraiya is staring down this absolute disaster of a scene, eyes coasting over Kisame and Naruto and locking in on Itachi's sharingan across the six-foot gap in the floor. Itachi swears under his breath. They’re out of time.

“It was seven minutes! And they started it!” Naruto shoots back on instinct.

“I don’t care who started it, I’m finishing it!

Jiraiya runs through the hand signs so fast Itachi wouldn’t be able to track them without his Sharingan active before slamming his hands palm-first on the ground; “Ninja Art: Toad Mouth Trap!

Bright pink flesh comes growing out of the walls, out and down around corners and underneath Itachi’s feet. He starts to sink into it, flesh trying to grow over his foot and trap him in place, but he doesn’t have time for that. In one swift motion he breaks the still-weak flesh trying to trap him and goes sprinting forward, leaping only as far across the gap as he needs to grab the collar of Kisame’s cloak. The both of them go crashing down through the quickly closing gaps in the flesh, just barely missing them and making an uncomfortably soft landing in the lobby.

Itachi catches sight of the Samehada’s handle poking out from the carpet of muscle and pulls it out of the floor with one hand as he uses the other to drape Kisame properly over his shoulder– he’d been putting up a good fight, but the devastating electrocution he suffered through is taking it's toll on him and the much taller man sags heavy against Itachi’s side as the adrenaline starts to peter out. With his bearings gathered Itachi turns his eyes towards the front entrance just as the toad’s flesh covers it over.

Nothing else for it.

Itachi makes a break straight ahead and focuses hard on the wall of flesh ahead of him– black fire comes blossoming out from the center of his vision, burning a hole clean through the material just large enough for Itachi and his cargo to go leaping through. He lands in the middle of the crowded street to gasps from the populace but at this point Itachi could not care less if he tried. After Tsukuyomi and Amaterasu both in a row he can barely see, his vision a mess of blurry colors and blood red. He picks a direction and jumps for it, hoping he’s at roof level.

It turns out to be the exact wrong direction, because he hears a loud and familiar shout of “STOP RIGHT THERE CRIMINAL SCUM!” as a blur of green, orange, black, but mostly green comes flying at him, head on.

Itachi does not have time for this. He's not too proud to run from Might Guy twice in the same day.

He sucks in more air than he can carry and blows.

Fire Style– Fireball Jutsu!

Orange engulfs Itachi’s field of view and he drops like a stone, falling from roof level back to the street. That won’t kill Might Guy, but Itachi hasn’t used that move to actually try and kill anyone since he was a genin. It’s always served him better as a diversion, anyway. Itachi keeps running, keeps pushing, keeps leaping up then dropping down, he runs and he runs and he runs until he’s deep in the forests he was trained to disappear in and even then he only slows down enough to try and look for something vaguely resembling a cave.

He barrels into it, as deep into the dark as he can, before pitching forward onto his knees. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes until he sees stars. Once he takes them away and opens his eyes his vision is still fuzzy at the edges, but serviceable. Good. He’s no use to Kisame blind.

Itachi turns to his partner, propping him up against the cave wall. Kisame says nothing as Itachi unbuttons his cloak, forces him to shrug out of it so he can use the deeply inadequate medical supplies he carries to see about even starting to treat what his brother did. He ends up having to take Kisame’s shirt and headband off him to get a clearer view of the full extent of the scarring. As Itachi’s eyes run over the lightning bolt pattern radiating out from the center of Kisame’s back across his entire upper body Itachi has to wonder if Sasuke made a lucky guess about his partner’s chakra nature, or if he’s just grown stronger than Itachi could’ve possibly hoped.

Kisame’s voice comes out in an amused rasp, “Gotta say, Itachi, you really had me fooled for a while there.”

Itachi freezes. He doesn’t even breathe as he stares at Kisame and waits for him to continue. He can’t make a move, can’t say a word, can’t do anything until he knows for certain what Kisame means. He would hate to have to kill Kisame if his cover was blown.

Kisame’s hand lands palm down on the top of his head; “Leaving your kid brother alive, hauling me out of there when I was dead weight… You’re a soft touch after all.”

Itachi lets out a long, relieved sigh, and sets about cleaning Kisame’s wounds. Kisame’s hand runs through his bangs and down to his ponytail, threading his fingers through it and absently playing with his hair. Itachi chalks that up to the potential brain damage. But it does feel nice, so while he won’t mention it again, he won’t forget it.

Due to the nature of his fighting style Gai has become familiar with pain, to the point where he can usually ignore it entirely. But there’s nothing like getting hit head on with a fireball to get one’s self reacquainted with it.

Even weighed down by his partner Itachi was quick on the draw, and though Gai had blocked the worst of it that still meant his forearms were an angry red mess of freshly burnt skin. The fireball was so grand in its scale that when he’d finally made it out of its blast radius he’d lost any advantage he had in catching Itachi on the run– make no mistake, he had still given chase in the direction he thought they were going, but that quickly proved itself fruitless.

With a sigh around a wince, Gai decides to retrace Itachi’s steps back into Shukuba Town instead.

It’s not hard to find the aftermath of Itachi’s battle– a hotel’s front entrance burned clean open, the interior covered in a quickly-receding layer of flesh, and two six foot wide holes in the second and third floor are more than proof enough of a battle. More than that, Gai finds Itachi’s target. Naruto and Jiraiya are on the third floor along with the other two members of Team 7, Naruto with barely a scratch and Sasuke covered in dust and rubble while Sakura…

Oh, Sakura.

She’s lying in the middle of the hallway like a broken toy, blood leaking from her mouth and breath rattling, eyes staring half-lidded up at the ceiling as she twitches weakly. As Gai stares down at her he can only think of Kakashi back in the village, reduced to this by his encounter with Itachi. Kakashi was a grown man. Sakura was just a girl, even younger than his Lee.

There were those who mourned Itachi’s betrayal. In that moment Gai knew he would never do the same. Anyone who would do this to a child is no one Gai would want to call comrade.

Jiraiya is holding Sasuke back as he thrashes desperately toward her; “Let me go, let me go I can help her I can heal her I’m the only one who can let me go–!

Stop Sasuke, you’ll just make it worse,” Jiraiya hisses and Sasuke starts to wrench even harder, held back only by his knee buckling under the strain and even then he’s still pulling himself towards her. Naruto is frozen, eyes darting between everyone in the hall, mouth hanging open wordlessly.

Gai shakes his head at Jiraiya’s clumsy attempt at dealing with children, and steps in.

He comes around between Sasuke and Sakura, kneeling down to Sasuke’s level, and says in a low voice, “Sasuke, Sakura’s injuries are mostly internal and all would be tricky even for experienced medical corps at their most calm. You’re too close to this and you’re not ready. What she needs right now from you is to believe in her as they work on her back in the village. I know you can do that.”

Sasuke’s eyes stay focused on Sakura as the fight drains out of him. Slowly, he nods. Despite how much the boy looks like he desperately needs it, Gai knows it would be overstepping to hug him. He puts a hand on his shoulder instead, one he shrugs off on reflex.

“Sakura is gonna be okay, right?” Naruto wonders, voice just a hair too loud to be a mumble.

Gai and Jiraiya stare silently down at her for far too long.

Jiraiya takes the bullet for them both and answers, “Physically, yeah. Ninja come back from worse than this all the time. But… mentally…”

Naruto and Sasuke both look to him with desperate worry painted all over their faces; “What do you mean?”

Gai doesn’t want to explain this. They shouldn’t have to know about this kind of pain, this kind of cruelty. But their teacher and their friend are both under it’s effects. The truth will come one way or another.

“Itachi put her through something called the Tsukuyomi,” Gai explains, “A kind of genjutsu exclusive to the Sharingan that puts the victim through an illusion more real than reality. In half a second it can put them through a lifetime of torture– The mental damage that does has killed people before. Sakura and Kakashi were lucky to even survive.”

Naruto’s eyes are wild with a mixture of rage and fear as he shouts, “What?! He got Kakashi-sensei too?! What the Hell are we waiting for, if he’s after me then let’s go and get him! I’m not gonna wait around–!”

“Don’t be stupid,” Jiraiya barks, Naruto flinching at the sound, “If they weren’t trying to take you alive Itachi could’ve killed you the second he made eye-contact! Half your team is down, this is over.”

Naruto grinds his teeth; “Bullshit, Sasuke absolutely ruined the blue guy–!”

“The Chidori’s supposed to kill,” Sasuke whispers, drawing all eyes to him as he stares at Sakura, “Even after a hit that hard… He got up. He fought us. He was taking off bits of our chakra with every hit…”

Sasuke reaches out, brushing one of Sakura’s bangs off her face, and Gai almost can’t hear him murmur, “This is my fault.”

Naruto’s bravado burns away and he’s left only staring at his two friends, helpless. Gai’s throat aches. They need something to hope for.

“We need a supreme medical specialist to fix what was done to their minds,” he says, trying to sound more confident than he feels, “A master of healing jutsu. And we need one soon.”

Miraculously, Jiraiya smirks; “Well it’s a good thing the woman you mean is exactly who we’re looking for.”

All eyes turn to Jiraiya, even Sasuke’s, wide in shock.

Even though he hoped for it Gai hardly thought there was actually a chance of finding her again; “Her? You mean–?!”

Jiraiya’s smirk turns to a lopsided grin; “Exactly. The third Legendary Sannin, the Slug Princess herself, Lady Tsunade.”

“Are you sure you can find her?! No one’s been able to track her down in decades,” Gai says, desperately trying to keep his own hopes down.

Jiraiya’s shrug is too easy; “I know her better than I know myself– I know exactly where to find her.”

Gai finally lets his enthusiasm burst forth; “FANTASTIC! Then I’ll leave everything to you, Master Jiraiya! I’ll bring Sakura home to the medical corps, and Sasuke–“

“Take me with you,” Sasuke says, gaze intense as he comes up to his feet and looks Jiraiya in the eye, “If this Tsunade’s a master healer, I want to meet her.”

Jiraiya just raises an unimpressed eyebrow; “Really. And how do you think that’s gonna go down?”

“If she can fix something like the Tsukuyomi I wanna learn how,” Sasuke fires back, black eyes burning with a new kind of fire, “I’m not going to let this happen again. Ever.”

Gai frowns, large brows knitting together; “Sasuke, you’re–“

Jiraiya cuts in with a shockingly casual, “You know what? Screw it, fine. Hope you’re good traveling with what you’ve got on your back, kid, because we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Gai turns to him, large brows flying all the way up behind his straight bangs; “You’re serious?!

Another too-easy shrug from Jiraiya; “I know one thing about Uchiha for sure, and it's that they're all stubborn little assholes– If you try to force him to go home he’s just gonna do something even dumber once he's back there. Besides, I think he’s gonna get a rude awakening when he actually meets Tsunade.”

“I’m still here, you know,” Sasuke snaps.

“Trust me, I’m aware,” Jiraiya grouses.

Naruto's looking between Jiraiya and Sasuke with his whole body, a storm of different emotions all over his face; "Wait, what?! Is this really happening?"

Jiraiya nods before jabbing a thumb towards the broken doorway of his erstwhile hotel room; “Get your things– Looks like we’re heading out sooner than I hoped.”

Gai collects Sakura carefully in his arms; “You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

Jiraiya just sighs, “Absolutely not. But what the Hell else is new?”

Chapter Text

xiv. Before they part ways Gai asks Sasuke if he’d like to heal the burns on his arms through a smile Sasuke would consider patronizing if it wasn’t coming from one of the most genuine human beings on the planet. Regardless, he imagines he only asked to get Sasuke’s morale back up. Sasuke’s hands and chakra control are still shaky and while the wounds are healed it isn’t with any particular grace and he leaves significant scarring on his forearms. So Sasuke’s morale does not improve.

Actually hitting the road does a slightly better job of that– Watching the hills roll past is simple, as mindless as putting one foot in front of the other. But Naruto asking what the Akatsuki want with him brings him back down to Earth.

Sasuke tries to look like he’s not listening as he listens in, but he’s not sure he did a very good job of that. His gut twists and clenches as Jiraiya lays out how they’re after the power lurking inside of Naruto, the deep well of dark chakra that is the Nine Tails, which somehow doesn’t make either of them feel any better. Naruto, at least, can put on a smile and pretend to be positive as he chatters about needing to get stronger fast so he can take them on.

Sasuke’s never been very good at pretending.

So he changes the subject; “This Tsunade we’re looking for– She should be about the same age as you, right Old Man?”

Jiraiya loudly rolls his eyes; “Surprise surprise, the kid knows basic math but not basic manners. Yeah, that’s right, but don’t keep your eyes peeled for a middle-aged lady. Tsunade’s about as vain as she is proud so she’ll be using jutsu to make herself look more like she did in her twenties.”

Naruto’s face screws up like he just ate something sour; “She really wastes a bunch of chakra all day long to make herself look good?”

“Not just for that,” Jiraiya snorts, “She’s a notorious gambler, known far and wide as The Legendary Sucker since she’s a notoriously bad gambler– It’s in her best interest not to look like herself, that way everyone she owes can’t track her down. Still want her to be your teacher, Uchiha?”

Sasuke just glares back up at him; “What matters is her skill– She could be an alcoholic and I’d still want to learn what she knows.”

Jiraiya grimaces; “With an attitude like that no wonder Kakashi is always worrying about you.”

“So how the hell are we supposed to find someone who’s always skipping town? You do have a plan to find her, right?” Naruto wonders, craning his neck around so he can look Jiraiya in the eye.

Jiraiya just shrugs; “Let’s just say we’re playing it by ear– Besides, downtime on the road means time for you to train and get stronger, right?”

“We’ll come up with something, we have to,” Sasuke snaps, “We can’t go home without her.”

Naruto glares over his shoulder at Sasuke; “You know if you’re gonna be here you could try to be less of a dick, Sasuke.”

That makes Sasuke pause a bit– That Naruto didn’t call him ‘jackass’ is a bad sign. Anyone in a better headspace would probably leave that alone or apologize and actually try to be ‘less of a dick’.

Sasuke is not in a good headspace; “Don’t mind me, this trip’s all about you right? It’ll be like I’m not even here.”

Naruto evidently is not in a good headspace either; “What’s with you?! We just got out of a fight, why are you trying to pick another one?

Sasuke’s grin is sharp and his laugh is harsh; “Think of it like I’m measuring your abilities! Gotta see what we’re working with before my brother comes back for Round 2 with you!”

Naruto gets up in his face, growling like the beast in his belly, “Are you fucking serious?! Your brother wants the stupid fox not me! Are you jealous that everything’s not all about you for once or–!”

Jiraiya grabs the backs of their heads and clonks their foreheads together.

“Okay that’s enough,” Jiraiya cuts in, shoving the two of them apart and situating himself as a buffer between the boys, “If the two of you can’t say anything nice you can’t say anything at all– We’re gonna be spending days on the road, in town, in hotel rooms together, and this is gonna be a disaster if we can’t at least tolerate each other. If you pull this shit again I am turning this expedition around, got it?

Sasuke and Naruto both mumble, “Got it,” but Sasuke’s mind is miles away as he mulls over a single word Naruto said.


He circles around it as they make it to a mid-sized town built into a pit, as Jiraiya sends him ahead to find them a hotel, as he finally buys some supplies for the rest of the journey, as he ignores the festival in the streets to go sit in their hotel room and stare at the wall.

Sasuke likes to think he’s become a bit better at recognizing his own feelings.

At the moment, he really hates that he has, because here alone in a dark empty room Sasuke can’t deny that he is jealous.

Not of Naruto’s power– it’s hard to be jealous of that when Naruto didn’t earn it, when without it Naruto would likely be about as strong as Sasuke is right now. But of the fact that because of that power Itachi wants nothing to do with him.

Sasuke leans back against the wall, shutting his eyes tight; it’s like nothing’s changed at all. Even after everything Itachi’s done, after everything Sasuke’s learned, he’s still a little kid desperately trying to get his older brother’s attention and getting poked in the forehead with a sad “Sorry Sasuke– maybe next time” for his troubles.

Only now that’s getting people hurt. That’s getting Sakura hurt.

He sees her broken body behind his eyelids, hears her choked breaths in the silence.

There’s no one around to see, no one around to hear. But Sasuke still can’t let himself cry, no matter how much he wants to.

Tsubaki Haruno should not be as familiar with the hospital as she’s become.

This time around when she walks through the front doors she putters around the lobby for nearly ten minutes, moving from excuse to distraction so she won’t have to ask the receptionists what room her daughter’s in. She’ll give Gai one thing, when he delivered the news to her he was very clear about what had happened, which is more than she can say for the other times she’s gotten word about her daughter being hospitalized. Maybe she’s selfish, maybe she’s a coward, but seeing her daughter– her only daughter, her baby– in the state he described…

Her stomach twists. She doesn’t know how much more of this she can take.

But Sakura needs her, so she drags herself to the front desk and up the stairs to her room. Tsubaki nearly doesn’t open the door, nearly turns tail and runs, but she clenches her jaw and breathes in deep before sliding it open.

Some of the tension drains out of her, because there’s a distraction sitting right between Sakura and the second bed in her room. There’s a dark-haired woman with Yuhi red eyes settled in the center of the room, frowning hard and tapping her foot incessantly as she scratches away at a clipboard. From the way she’s dressed she certainly doesn’t look like a medic.

The woman notices her before Tsubaki can speak, and her smile is strained as she meets her eye; “Oh, you’re Sakura’s mother right? I’m Kurenai Yuhi, I don’t know if she’s told you but I’ve been–“

Tsubaki nods loosely as she shuffles into the room and pulls up another stool; “She has, yes, you’ve been tutoring her in genjutsu. We’ve never met before now so I didn’t recognize you.”

Kurenai smiles around a wince as her eyes flicker over to Sakura and Tsubaki follows her gaze. It seems they were able to heal the worst of Sakura’s physical injuries, but she’s still hooked up to an oxygen mask and IV drip, and those alone make her look so small and frail as she sleeps like the dead. Gai had told her the genjutsu that hit Sakura was intense, so damaging they had to put her under like she was going in for surgery just so she wouldn’t be in any more pain while they searched for someone who could help her.

The hospital room suddenly feels unimaginably big, and Tsubaki feels incredibly, pathetically small.

Kurenai’s voice, slow and unsteady, brings Tsubaki back to the moment; “I… We were supposed to train this morning. But there was an emergency, and I… I fought the same man that ended up hurting her. Kakashi and I both couldn’t beat him, and she must have overheard us at the hospital and– I don’t know if she wanted to avenge Kakashi or protect Naruto or keep Sasuke from doing something stupid but I could’ve done more, I could’ve stopped her, I could’ve stopped him and… I’m so sorry, Mrs. Haruno. This is on us.”

Tsubaki’s brow furrows– both from being called ‘Missus’ and the sudden mention of Sakura’s actual sensei; “I’m sorry, what happened to Kakashi?”

Kurenai doesn’t respond with words. She instead just gestures with the clipboard to the bed on her other side, opposite Sakura, with her mouth pressed into a tight line. Tsubaki’s follows the gesture– Kakashi is right there, as dead to the world as Sakura. No wonder she didn’t notice him, he’s barely moving, barely breathing. Tsubaki’s hands clench into fists in her lap. She should’ve known he’d had something to do with this. He always does.

Kurenai taps the end of her pen on the clipboard; “I didn’t want to leave either of them alone just yet, so I decided to make myself busy updating Kakashi’s emergency contacts. He has some, technically, but they’re all…”

She just turns the clipboard around for Tsubaki to read the names she’s crossed out. Minato Namikaze. Obito Uchiha. Rin–

Tsubaki closes her eyes with a wry smile and mutters, “She just won’t let me hate him, will she?”

Kurenai tilts her head slightly to one side; “She?”

Tsubaki points to the name, written in that messy handwriting she’d always said was proof medicine was her calling; “My sister. My maiden name was Nohara.”

Kurenai blinks rapidly, her eyes shifting between the clipboard and Tsubaki– She can see her doing the math in her head, everyone always does. That she and Rin were born six years apart isn’t so strange, especially not for civilians. What makes Kurenai’s eyes eventually go wide and fill with a mixture of pity and genuine sorrow is the much smaller gap in time: the year between Rin’s death and Sakura’s birth.

“I’m… surprised you enrolled Sakura in the academy,” Kurenai mumbles, suddenly incapable of making eye contact.

It’s nothing Tsubaki’s not used to, so she shrugs; “Trust me, it wasn’t what I wanted. Her father went and did it behind my back, because Sakura was begging to go and he thought having a ninja in the family would be… advantageous. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back and got us the divorce. But the paperwork was all submitted, and I told Sakura so many times that she could drop out if she really wanted to, but she never did.”

Kurenai looks over to Kakashi, lips pursed; “Still… I don’t know if I could trust Kakashi with my child’s safety if I were in your position…”

“Are you kidding? I don’t trust him,” Tsubaki chuckles, “Especially not after the Chunin exams. But I’m a civilian– There’s nothing I can do about it. And…”

Her eyes drift back to her sister’s name and linger for a moment before she closes them with a sigh; “Rin never hated him. Not once. Not for a single moment. And Sakura… Well, I’ll just say, I didn’t know how much she’d missed her dad until Kakashi started training her one-on-one.”

She looks Kurenai in the eye; “So, for their sake, I’ve chosen not to hate him. I don’t approve of him, I don’t even know if I like him, but hating him… It’s just not worth it. They’ll keep loving him no matter what I think.”

Kurenai smiles, soft and a bit sad, but real; “I can see where Sakura gets her strength from.”

Tsubaki just smirks; “That’s a two-way street– I’d be lost without her.”

Kurenai nods, resolute; “Then let’s pray for her to get better soon.”

While he’s training Naruto Jiraiya keeps Sasuke busy by giving him a photo of Tsunade to take around the town’s bars and gambling halls and ask anyone if she’s seen her. Sasuke thinks that’s an incredibly rudimentary method of information gathering. He almost says so, but remembers the fading bruise behind his headband and keeps it to himself.

Before he sets off, Sasuke takes a moment to examine the photograph– for being thirty years old it’s in good condition, hardly faded and only slightly creased from having been folded once or twice. Despite how soft her features are Tsunade’s expression is serious, determined, and her gaze is piercing even through a photograph. Sasuke squints at the light indigo rhombus in the center of her forehead. It’s familiar, in the same way a lot of half-remembered Uchiha gossip and information learned for written academy exams then promptly forgotten is familiar.

Sasuke shrugs, reasoning he can ask her about it in person, before starting his mission.

It takes weeks.

Two weeks, to be fair, but that’s still longer than Sasuke wanted to stay in one place getting absolutely nowhere.

The only consolation he has as he comes back every evening from a day of people either telling him to get lost or saying they’re so sorry but they haven’t seen that woman in their life maybe try the tavern down the street dear (like he’s not a trained shinobi who saw battle during an invasion by a foreign power) is that Naruto and Jiraiya don’t seem to be having a good time of it either.

Naruto comes in even later than Sasuke does, grousing about the pain in his hands and wrists and needing to sleep with cold compresses on them to even sleep at all, while Jiraiya comes in long after they’ve fallen asleep and only wakes up around midday, reeking of alcohol to the point where no matter how many windows Sasuke opens the smell has been permanently absorbed into the tatami.

Now that he thinks about it maybe Jiraiya’s having too good a time.

“What’s Jiraiya actually teaching you, anyway?” Sasuke asks one morning over breakfast.

Naruto picks at his tray as he replies, “It’s called the Rasengan, basically a big spinning ball of chakra in your hand that you hit people with– Kinda like the Chidori but with way more steps involved, and way stronger, believe it. Like the first bit of the training was using just my chakra to pop a water balloon, I had to use a stream of chakra to spin the water around until it exploded. And right now he’s making me try and blow up rubber balls of air the same way!”

Sasuke just blinks, eyes wide; “That is some… precise chakra control.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Naruto exclaims, throwing his free hand in the air, “First I needed to learn how to spin my chakra in multiple directions at once! Now I have to put out more chakra and make it denser! It’s damn near impossible, believe it!”

“Where’s Sakura when we need her,” Sasuke grumbles around a bite of food, “Everything I know about chakra control I learned from her, she’d be able to figure that thing out in seconds.”

Naruto frowns hard at the tabletop; “Well… I mean… We know exactly where she is.”

A heavy silence settles over them and doesn’t lift until both of them finish breakfast and go their separate ways.

The Rasengan sticks in Sasuke’s mind for the rest of the day as he does his usual unsuccessful round of asking after Tsunade. The Chidori is perfect for someone with his naturally imprecise chakra control, it runs on the same principles as walking up trees and along water. But to create a concentrated sphere of spiraling chakra, that kind of precision could perfectly mend broken bones and internal injuries easily… Sasuke buys a water balloon and a rubber ball and heads to the outskirts of town.

Sasuke doesn’t pop the water balloon, but he does nearly start a forest fire out of frustration and come back to the hotel after Jiraiya, so that’s something.

He tries several more times over a few more nights, but eventually comes to the conclusion that maybe he’s coming at this from the wrong angle. Naruto is specifically trying to make a spinning ball of chakra– Sasuke doesn’t need to do that. He needs to mend internal injuries, not just keep them from getting worse like his knee or Hinata’s heart, he needs to fix broken bones the day they’ve been broken… Sasuke stares at his pinky toe on his good foot for a long time.

Breaking your toe on purpose, Sasuke finds, is a lot harder than it looks.

Once it’s broken, as the toe starts to turn purple Sasuke takes a hold of it with his fingers, feels for the break, and activates his Sharingan. He visualizes his own chakra network as he sends chakra down through his arm, straining to keep the chakra to a thin, concentrated stream– just enough to heal his toe and only his toe. The chakra moves slowly, deliberately, but he’s able to regulate the amount and keep it within the established parameters. Sasuke holds his breath as he feels the bone knit back together, watches the skin fade back to its normal pale color as the bruising fades.

Hie takes his hand away and wiggles his toes– good as new.

Sasuke’s swell of pride at a job well done is quickly staunched by a familiar voice behind him muttering, “Fuckin’– If this is what you’re like without a teacher then maybe Tsunade should take you under her wing.”

Sasuke doesn’t turn around. He just bites down hard on his lower lip as Jiraiya’s heavy footsteps come through the grass up behind him. There’s a long pause before Sasuke feels a hard thwap! to the back of his head.

Jiraiya crouches down next to Sasuke, glaring hard at him; “Look, Uchiha, Like it or not I’m responsible for you right now. If you do shit like this and it goes wrong– and it absolutely will– that’s on me. If I catch you pulling this again I will send you right back to the village, you hear me?”

Sasuke keeps his lip pinned between his teeth as he nods so he won’t say what he’s thinking out loud– Alright, then you won’t catch me.

Sasuke expects Jiraiya to go away. He doesn’t. He gives Sasuke an appraising look, rubs his chin, then smirks. Sasuke tenses– that’s bad. That’s very bad.

Jiraiya settles down, sitting next to Sasuke and turning toward the glow from the city; “You know, maybe Tsunade’s perfect for you– She used to do crap like that all the time.”

Sasuke’s brow furrows; “She did? Why?

Jiraiya shrugs; “Why are you doing it? She didn’t have a teacher. Medical ninjutsu and field medics were a thing certainly, but remember that Tsunade invented the Medical Corps. We didn’t have a standardized training program for medical ninja, if she wanted to learn she’d have to leave the team and apprentice herself specifically under someone at the hospital, keeping her completely out of the field until she was made an equivalent rank to chunin.”

Sasuke snorts; “And let me guess, she didn’t think she could leave you and Orochimaru alone for five minutes without you turning on each other.”

Jiraiya raises an eyebrow; “How do you figure that?”

“Sakura’s been out of the picture for barely a week and a half and look at me and Naruto,” Sasuke mutters, “I figure a lot of three-man teams are the same.”

Jiraiya doesn’t confirm or deny that, just shaking his head with a wry smile; “Either way, once she got enough clout to force Sarutobi to reallocate the resources for a Medical Corps she came up with the standard method of learning Mystical Palm jutsu on fish and other specimens before you ever touch a human being– she was constantly showing recruits all the scars from when her tests on herself went sideways so they’d know exactly what could happen if they tried doing as she did and not as she said.”

Sasuke grimaces; “Should I expect that when I meet her?”

Jiraiya just cuffs him, much softer this time, on the shoulder; “That’ll only be if she agrees to train you– One thing at a time, Uchiha.”

Sasuke, to his credit, shifts his focus when he trains during the night and wee hours of the morning– If he can’t apply that level of precision and control to healing, maybe he can apply it to the chidori instead. After a night he’s able to consistently reproduce the chidori-tantō technique he used on Kisame, concentrating the lightning chakra into a steady stream conducted down the blade, before trying to refine the edge of the chidori itself.

He doesn’t make too much progress in honing the chidori’s cutting edge, but he can hold it and run with it for a longer time and farther distance and brings himself up to three bursts per day, so it’s not a total loss.

And when they hit the two week mark, Sasuke is asking after Tsunade in a bar when, after striking out, he hears a man chuckle, “I know exactly who you’re talkin’ about, kiddo.”

Sasuke turns to the man, only distinctive by the self-satisfied grin on his face, holding the picture out to him; “You’re sure? It was this woman?”

He gives the picture a quick glance before nodding, swirling his drink as he replies, “Yep, that’s the broad. And I can tell you exactly where she is.”

Sasuke smirks, other hand ghosting over his wallet; “I’d buy you a drink, but since I’m underage I’ll just be straight up and ask how much you want for that.”

The man snorts; “You’re good, kid– I made out like a bandit not too long ago thanks to your lady.”

Sasuke grimaces, muttering almost to himself, “I guess they don’t call her a ‘Legendary Sucker’ for nothing.”

“Her losses were pilin’ up, so she went lookin’ for a change of scenery,” he continues, “Headed to Tanzaku Town, a few miles South of here. Better head out quick– If that losing streak of hers catches up she might go running from there, too.”

They head out the next afternoon.

“Hey you! Another round over here!”

Shizune grimaces, wringing her hands as she clutches Tonton tight; “Milady, it’s late, we should be going…”

Tsunade just glares over at her; “Whose winnings are we spending, yours or mine? I’m a grown woman and if I want to drink until I pass out in a gutter at three in the morning that’s my right.”

Shizune looks away with that kicked-puppy expression, and Tsunade just focuses on her cup of sake. Orochimaru gave her a lot to think about, too much– Is it really so bad that she wants to get blitzed off her ass so she doesn’t have to do that for an evening? That round had better get here quickly, Tsunade’s falling deep into the valley of a night of hard drinking where she’s not about to black out but just drunk enough that the alcohol is reminding her that it’s called a depressive for a reason.

Tsunade frowns at her sake; how in the Hell did Orochimaru manage to look surprisingly good and also like complete shit at the same time? He’d looked just like he had when she’d last seen him, who knows how many years ago now– she knows he’s not cheating, there’s no diamond in the center of his forehead. Maybe those snakes in Ryuichi Cave taught him how to shed his skin. If he can do that… maybe he really could bring Dan and Nawaki back to life… Great-Uncle Tobirama could do something like that, but he’d outlawed the technique for a reason

But she’s starting to forget what their voices sounded like.

She hears an employee call out “Welcome!” and a young, grating voice shout about a decibel higher than the ambient noise in the room, “If we’re just getting food why not go somewhere real like a ramen shop or something?”

And Tsunade freezes when another voice she hasn’t heard in years replies, “I swear to– Did Kakashi teach you anything? This is exactly the sort of place where you can pick up information, especially on someone like Tsunade.”

It suddenly occurs to Tsunade that not only is her table directly across from the door, but Jiraiya is definitely tall enough to see over the divider giving the table the illusion of privacy. She draws her shoulders in and glances up towards the door– Jiraiya apparently has a lot more self-confidence than her and Orochimaru since he’s taken those years right on the chin, but she could still pick him out of a crowd. What’s more surprising than how he has and hasn’t changed is his entourage. Two Leaf genin are milling about on either side of him, one in orange the spitting image of the late Fourth Hokage, one in blue who could hardly look more Uchiha if he tried.

Tsunade only has a second of puzzling over why the Hell Jiraiya’s traveling with children before his eyes alight on her.

He looks at her.

She looks at him.

And he looks at her.

And she looks at him.

And he looks at her.

And she looks at him.

And Jiraiya shouts for the entire fucking town to hear, “Tsunade?!

She leaps to her feet so she can yell right back over the divider, “Jiraiya?! What the– Why are you here?!”

Jiraiya strolls on over to the table like it hasn’t been over a decade and Tsunade doesn’t want to send him flying through several walls; “Finally, I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Shoulda known you’d be in here…”

The two genin’s eyes dart between her, Jiraiya, and each other before they come running (or limping slightly, in the Uchiha’s case) after him. This is a “seat yourself” sort of place, so they’re well within their rights to squeeze into the other bench across from her and Shizune. As the mini-Minato calls to a server to order some tavern food, she looks pointedly towards him before raising a questioning eyebrow towards Jiraiya. Jiraiya pulls out a pen, scribbles something on a napkin and pushes it over to her before either genin notice.

Yes, he’s Minato and Kushina’s boy. He doesn’t know. Don’t say anything– It’s better that way.

Tsunade rolls her eyes, but folds up the napkin and shoves it in her pocket. Ignorance really is bliss, she supposes.

The Uchiha clears his throat, drawing her eyes to him; “You already know Jiraiya, but I’ll introduce us– My name is Sasuke Uchiha, heir to the Uchiha clan. This is Naruto Uzumaki, my teammate and Jiraiya’s… apprentice, I guess? We’re honored to m–” Naruto reaches over and grabs Sasuke in a headlock that looks just a hair shy of friendly– “Ow!

Naruto jeers right into his teammate’s ear, “What’s with you, jackass? Where’d you learn manners? Or are you just suckin’ up ‘cause she’s got a great ra–” Sasuke repays him with an elbow to the ribs– “aaaAAOW!

Years come and go but preteen boys will absolutely never change.

Tsunade leans hard on her hand, looking down her nose at Sasuke; “Why are the Uchiha letting their heir run around with an old pervert looking for me?

A hush falls over the table.

Tsunade shuts her eyes so she won’t have to see all the awkward glances being traded back and forth around her. This is what she gets for avoiding word about the village at all costs, even (and especially) when Shizune tries to tell her about it. She’d only learned about the Nine Tails’ attack and Minato’s death because news like that crosses national borders and was the only thing anyone would talk about for at least a week after it happened. The Uchiha… nobody likes talking about the Uchiha. Especially not in the Leaf village.

Sasuke’s the one who finally speaks up; “The Uchiha Clan is… I’m the only one left.”

Tsunade opens her eyes but avoids looking at the kid; “I see. My condolences.”

He just nods; “Thank you.”

The sake and food comes mercifully soon and everyone falls into an awkward, uncomfortable silence justified only by the fact that their mouths are full. Shizune has the worst poker face at the table, squirming in her seat and chewing on her lower lip, not even touching the food or alcohol. It’s only slightly worse than any given time Tsunade’s losing.

Tsunade puts away another cup of sake, letting out a long sigh; “This day just keeps getting longer… Didn’t know I was signing up for a fuckin’ reunion.”

Jiraiya refills her cup before tipping back his own, his stony gaze never leaving her face; “So you did meet with Orochimaru. What happened?”

Shizune, of course, gasps slightly before glancing nervously over to her. Sasuke and Naruto both tense up, Sasuke’s eyes dropping to the tabletop and Naruto’s zeroing in on his teammate. So they know who he is, too. And from how Sasuke’s shivering, they know him well.

Tsunade likes to think her poker face is fairly decent, so she just shrugs as she pulls a deck of carts from her blouse; “Not much– We said hello and went on our way.”

Tsunade starts to shuffle the deck, and Jiraiya hands his unfinished plate of kebabs to Naruto. The boy proves he’s Kushina’s son by digging in while still staring her down with a suspicious glare. Sasuke’s more focused on the cards. She wonders if he’ll turn those Sharingan on and help Jiraiya cheat– Every Uchiha she’s ever gambled with used those eyes to cheat, one hundred percent of the time. Even Great-Uncle Madara cheated when she was little and playing against him for sweets. He would never tolerate an Uchiha losing to a Senju, regardless of the stakes.

So Tsunade only deals Jiraiya in; “Well then, why are you looking for me?”

“I’ll cut right to the chase,” Jiraiya states, serious as a heart attack as he looks right past his hand at her, “Tsunade, the Leaf village in its wisdom has come to the decision to name you the Fifth Hokage.”

Tsunade nearly drops her cards. Naruto actually chokes on some fish. Sasuke and Shizune both go wide-eyed and look between her and Jiraiya, and Tsunade reasons that cheating wouldn’t help Sasuke very much– his poker face is just as bad as Shizune’s, maybe a little worse. Once Naruto works through the choking (with help from Sasuke smacking him just a bit too hard on the back) he levels her with a look she can only describe as pure outrage.

Tsunade schools herself back into a disinterested smirk as she looks through her hand.

Jiraiya doesn’t blink; “You did hear about the Third Hokage, didn’t you?”

Tsunade shrugs; “It came up when Orochimaru and I were exchanging pleasantries– He told me he was the one who did the deed.”

Naruto’s bellowing hits a piercing pitch, making her wince; “Wait a minute you’re saying Orochimaru killed the old man?! Who is this Orochimaru guy anyway, I know he’s the one who hurt Sakura but–!”

Sasuke elbows him again, the motion clipped and stiff, as he hisses, “He’s one of the Legendary Sannin, like those two, now keep it down–”

Naruto does not keep it down; “But they’re all from the Leaf village, why would he wanna kill the Hokage?!”

Sasuke glares up at him; “Why would he want to put a curse mark on me and torment Sakura? Because he’s an evil son of a bitch, end of story–!”

Naruto stands up in the booth so he can shout past Sasuke over to Jiraiya; “And you know this guy murdered the Hokage, right?! What have you done about it?!”

Sasuke’s about to snap at Naruto again before he pauses, then turns to Jiraiya; “Wait a minute, he’s got a point why hasn’t anything been done? Why did they send you to find Tsunade instead of having you track down Orochimaru? You’re a Sannin he was part of your team it should be your responsibility–”

Naruto shouts over him as he points over at Tsunade; “And what’s the deal about her being the Fifth Hokage?!

“Both of you, sit down and shut the Hell up,” Jiraiya growls.

“Absolutely not, I–!” Naruto’s cut off by Sasuke grabbing his wrist.

Sasuke mutters, “We’re not finished. We’re just pulling back temporarily.”

That gets Naruto to sit back down, but the fire in his eyes just burns even hotter. Tsunade can feel the air around them heating up right alongside it– It doesn’t take a lot of mental math for her to realize, between the charge in the air, who his mother was, and the scars on his cheeks, exactly where the Nine Tails went.


Jiraiya swaps out three of the cards in his hand; “I’ll say it once again– The Leaf Village has made its decision. They’ve chosen you to be the Fifth Hokage. So… What’s your answer? Do you accept it, Tsunade?”

Tsunade shuts her eyes– it does nothing to mitigate the feeling of four sets of eyes all focused on her, weighing on her like a ton of concrete. She thinks back to Orochimaru’s offer, his arms for her family. And once he had his arms again, the village that’s begging for her to come back and lead it would go up in flames. There’s no question. That she’d even consider selling them out, that doing so is looking more and more appealing as the night rolls forward, disqualifies her right off the bat.

She tastes something sour on the back of her tongue– That village, their wars that just begot more wars, it killed them both. It killed her grandfather and great-uncle and her sensei. She’s not letting it kill her, too.

Tsunade discards her entire hand; “I decline.”

Shizune, the genin boys, even Tonton all look to her in shock, but Jiraiya just smirks; “Now when was the last time I heard you say that… Oh right, that’s the answer I got the first and last time I asked you out.”

Naruto lets out a loud, frustrated groan; “Will someone tell me what the Hell is going on?! First you told me we’re looking for her so she can heal Sakura and Kakashi-sensei, and NOW you’re springing all this Hokage bullcrap on me, and she just goes and refuses?! What’s even happening right now?!”

“Keep your shirt on,” Jiraiya cuts in, “She knows she can’t refuse. There’s no one else who can take the position– She almost singlehandedly made sure the Leaf won the Second Great Shinobi War, thanks to her unrivaled skill as a warrior and a healer. Not only that, she’s the granddaughter of the First Hokage. There’s no one alive with that sort of skill, clout, and heritage. Once she accepts, and she will, she’ll have to come back to the village and heal the rest of your team. Two birds, one stone.”

Oh she will, will she? Tsunade’s starting to remember in very clear detail why she resolved to never, ever, absolutely ever in her life until she dies, give this Chauvinist toad a single inch.

She clicks her tongue as she draws a new hand; “Sloppy sloppy, Jiraiya– Your standards for apprentices have fallen pretty drastically. This one’s a loudmouth fool, without even the barest understanding of what it takes to be a shinobi, let alone Hokage.”

The air heats up another few degrees as Naruto bristles, shoving Sasuke closer to Jiraiya as he leans in over the table; “Hey!”

Jiraiya turns his grimace into a wry grin; “Come on now, don’t be unfair– That’s a standard next to no one can live up to. Minato was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, all but born to be Hokage– The people loved him, the brass loved him, the ladies especially loved him. Someone like that only comes around once in a few generations.”

Naruto’s brow furrows and he whispers to Sasuke, “Was the Fourth Hokage’s name Minato?”

Sasuke just gapes at him before wondering, “Did you seriously not read a single page of our history textbook?”

Tsunade scowls at her cards as she slowly unfurls her hand; “And what good did all of that do him? Oh he was talented, he was strong and charismatic, treated Kushina like a queen and would’ve been an amazing father but what did he do instead? He threw his life away, decided to die for his village instead of live for his child.”

Jiraiya grits his teeth, clenches his jaw, but Tsunade’s not interested in him. She’s interested in Sasuke, who’s staring hard at the side of Naruto’s face as the boy fumes, looking as though he’s starting to put together a puzzle with a million moving pieces. So the Uchiha is clever. From her experience with the clan, she knows that clever doesn’t always mean smart.

She sneers over her hand; “Face it– he gambled with his life and he lost. That’s a bet even I wouldn’t take. My grandfather and great-uncle lost that bet, gave their lives to protect the village, and look at where it is now– It’s so fragile they think I’m the one who can fix it.”

Jiraiya narrows his eyes; “You’ve changed, Tsunade– The woman I knew never would’ve said things like this, especially not out loud.”

The woman he knew hadn’t had her heart torn out, shoved back in, then torn back out again only to be thrown in the mud by the village he’s trying so hard to preserve. Honestly, it’s rich that Jiraiya can claim to have ever known her at all, especially when his eyes are even still lingering south of her collarbone.

“Don’t forget, technically I’m older than you,” she snickers, “The years have done their number on me… Oh, right, let’s not forget about Sarutobi-sensei. He tried to be a hero at his age and what did it get him? A death that doomed the village instead of saving it. Out of all of them I’d expect him to know better.”

Naruto is shaking in his seat now, grinding his teeth, and she’s sure there’s a vein popping out behind that headband. The heat in the room is stifling now and she’s sure Naruto’s canine teeth look sharper than they did two seconds ago. She’s playing with fire. But she stopped giving a fuck about getting burned a long time ago.

She unfurls her full hand– nearly a royal flush, if not for one stubborn Four of Spades.

Tsunade sets down her cards and sighs, “Playing at Hokage… Count me out. That’s a fool’s game.”

“That does it–!” There’s a clatter of dishes and Naruto nearly vaults all the way over the table before Jiraiya grabs the back of his jacket and Sasuke grabs his leg, both of them wrenching him just far enough away that he can’t touch her.

Fantastic, we’re definitely getting kicked out now,” Sasuke grouses as he tries not to get kicked in the face.

“Let it go, Naruto, people are staring,” Jiraiya snaps.

“Like Hell am I gonna let her sit there and make fun of the old man,” Naruto yells, nearly pulling out of their grip, “I don’t care if she’s an old lady, I’ll knock her fuckin’ teeth in!”

The kid wants to fight her. Physically, with his hands. Tsunade is just drunk enough to find that hilarious.

She stands up with one foot on the table, getting in the kid’s face; “Are you challenging me, little boy? You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that. Alright then– Let’s take this outside!”

Tsunade tells Naruto she’ll only need a single finger to defeat him. For a second, Sasuke thinks she’s bluffing.

He learns in a few seconds more that she absolutely isn’t.

She disarms the raging mad Naruto with one stroke and sends him flying halfway down the street with a single flick to the forehead, the blow leaving a nasty bruise that he won’t be able to cover all the way up even with his headband. Sasuke thinks he probably should be concerned about Naruto but all he can do is look on in complete and total awe. Tsunade is nothing like he expected her to be– She’s better.

When Naruto tells her that to be Hokage is his dream that gives her a microsecond of pause, enough that Naruto gets in close enough to nearly hit her with an incomplete Rasengan– nearly. It’s just as Sasuke’s trying to take in the swirling sphere of chakra that Tsunade strikes the ground with that single finger and rocks the earth beneath his feet, creating a fissure that nearly splits the street in two. The sudden break catches Naruto’s foot and all he does is leave a spiraling scar in the ground before the force of the Rasengan blows him back again.

Sasuke only realizes he whispered, “Holy– She’s amazing,” out loud when he catches Jiraiya snort out of the corner of his eye.

As Shizune helps Naruto out of the crevice Tsunade turns on Jiraiya and shouts, “Are you serious? You’re teaching him the Rasengan but you’re not–!”

Jiraiya cuts her off, voice hurried and terse, “Well of course I am, I’m his teacher why wouldn’t I teach him one of my strongest jutsu?”

Sasuke’s brow furrows. There it is again. The physical resemblance between the handsome and tragic young Hokage and the fuckup who slept during lectures about him is starting to feel like less and less of a coincidence.

“You said it yourself, Minato was a once in a lifetime talent,” Tsunade snaps, a cold fire in her eyes, “No matter who he is, this kid is not Minato and he’s not you, there’s absolutely no way he can ever master the Rasengan! You’re wasting your time and his, filling his head with false hopes and wild ideas, making him think he could actually be Hokage someday–!”

Naruto scrambles to his feet and nearly falls back over again as he shouts, “I’ll show you who’s wasting time! Gimme just three days and I’ll have the Rasengan down flat, believe it!

Sasuke rubs at his temple as he groans, “Naruto you have a concussion just drop it and–“

And Tsunade actually laughs; “Don’t tease a gambler, kid! I might just hold you to it!”

Sasuke blinks rapidly– Wait, what?

Naruto snorts, “I said it and I meant it, and I never go back on my word! That’s my ninja way, believe it!”

No. No no no no no this isn’t going to happen.

Tsunade smirks; “Fine then, let’s make it a bet. I’ll give you one week– If you master the Rasengan by then I’ll admit I was wrong and that you’re worthy of becoming Hokage. I’ll even throw in my necklace.”

“Are you serious?!” Sasuke exclaims.

“I don’t know if she is,” Jiraiya replies, “That necklace belonged to the First Hokage, that thing’s worth at least as much as three gold mines and the mountains on top of them– If she’s giving away that thing for a bet with a twelve year old she must be black-out drunk by this point.”

Naruto, unfortunately, overheard that appraisal, and after salivating for a couple seconds calls back, “Lady, you’ve got yourself a bet!”

How. How in the Hell. How in the Hell did Naruto of all fucking people manage to get this woman to bet her most valuable possession after fifteen minutes and Sasuke’s barely been able to get one word in edgewise?! He wants to go over there and punch him right in his big stupid bruise until his skull fractures.

Tsunade grins as she tosses Naruto’s fat frog wallet up in the air with one hand– wait, when did she lift that off of him?! Sasuke should’ve had his Sharingan active.

“Alright, but if you lose you have to admit I was right, and I get all the money in Froggy here,” Tsunade chuckles as she tosses it back to Naruto.

Her assistant comes up to her, desperately begging her to reconsider, but Tsunade just blows her off as she heads up the street. That’s it, he is not letting Naruto hog all the spotlight and leave him in the dust, not tonight.

Sasuke runs after her; “Hey! Wait!”

Tsunade stops and lazily swivels back around, looking him up and down with a raised eyebrow; “I was wondering why you were even here, Uchiha. Go ahead kid, say your piece.”

Sasuke is bad with words, especially under pressure, so he just blurts out, “I want you to teach me medical ninjutsu. I don’t care if you’re Hokage or not, I don’t even care if you come back to the village, I need to know what you know. Whatever it takes to be your apprentice I’ll do it, I just need to learn how to heal better than I already can– I need to be good enough to fix the worst kinds of wounds.”

Tsunade stares him down for nearly a minute before her eyes flick downward and she points low; “How’d that happen?”

Sasuke blinks in confusion before following her eyes and her finger to his braced knee; “My leg?”

“Kid your age shouldn’t need something like that,” she drawls, resting her hands on her hips, “What’s the story?”

Sasuke stares at her. He considers. Refusing would kill his chances of learning from her right here and now. Lying or telling a half truth would cripple them.

So he takes a deep breath, and tells the truth; “I broke it during the Chunin exams. I didn’t know enough to fix it, and the enemy took advantage of it and made it worse. It added up until the damage was permanent. I can walk, I can even run, but I’m going to be in pain for the rest of my life because I couldn’t fix myself.”

Tsunade’s eyes narrow; “Yeah, no, I’m not training you.”

Sasuke’s eyes go wide and he exclaims, “What? Why not?!”

“Same reason I got out of the game myself,” she replies, “To be a medic you have to put others first. And I’m a selfish bitch. You didn’t start on this road to help people, you got in it for yourself. You’re exactly the kind of brat I’d turn away from the medical corps all the time during the war.”

Something cold and heavy settles in Sasuke’s stomach. He wants to tell her she’s wrong, but all he can think of is how helpless he’d felt in the Forest of Death, and how he’d felt that same helplessness every time he just barely wasn’t good enough to heal a wound or win a fight or even make it home to his apartment without pausing to grit his teeth over the pain in his bad leg… how it was the same helpless feeling he'd been drowning in for weeks after the massacre.

He can’t stop running from that feeling, chasing down the hope that maybe, one day, he won’t ever have to feel like that again. There was nothing selfless in that.

Tsunade turns on her high heel and waves him off as she adds, “And let’s not forget that Grandpa Senju killed Great-Grandaddy Uchiha. We wouldn’t want them rolling in their graves.”

Sasuke can only watch as she strides away, her assistant and pig pausing only to shoot him apologetic glances before following on her heels. He stares down the long, empty street for what feels like forever before Jiraiya roughly pats his back, literally smacking him back to the world of the living.

“Come on, kid,” he mutters, “Let’s get going.”

Sasuke looks up at him, asking around the ache in his throat, “You knew she’d shoot me down, didn’t you?”

“Like I said, I know her better than I know myself,” Jiraiya replies as he steers them away, “And I know she thrives on playing hard to get.”

Sasuke feels like he’s in a daze, and he ends up back at their hotel without remembering the walk there. Jiraiya sends him up after Naruto, and Sasuke walks right past him as he heads into the room despite Naruto squalling in his ear. He sits down on one of the beds and stares out the window at the night sky.

She’d humored Naruto with a fight and a bet, even if she knew he’d lose both.

She’d turned him away without a second glance.

A lump of heavy, roiling, bitter something is coagulating deep in the pit of Sasuke’s stomach, and it festers with every moment Sasuke stays awake to stare at the moon.

Kabuto comes into the darkness of Orochimaru’s chambers, face unreadable; “I’ve received some interesting news from our scouts in Tanzaku Town. Jiraiya’s come looking for Tsunade, and he’s not alone. He’s brought Naruto… as well as Sasuke.”

Orochimaru had been glaring at the space just beside Kabuto’s head until that name hit his ears. He sits up, ramrod straight, and stares Kabuto down with eyes so wide they burn.

“You’re sure?!” he hisses, leaning in as Kabuto closes the distance.

Kabuto nods; “I double and triple checked– A stroke of luck like this can’t be left to chance. He’s within our grasp. What do you want to do? We could change our strategy and go for him instead of taking this chance on Tsunade.”

Orochimaru frowns hard, gazing into the middle distance as he thinks.

This is the perfect chance to fix his own mistake, to get back what had been stolen from him, to finally put his plans back on schedule. He’d wanted to see the Sakura option through to the end but the thought of the Sharingan makes him salivate, sends his heart racing with excitement at the sheer possibility, and it’s close enough to reach out and pluck it off the vine…

But he can’t reach out and grab it. The Reaper Death Seal attacked his soul, not just his body– they’d done all they could to research his condition but they still don’t know for certain how deep this damage goes. These are his arms, the instruments of his dream, he can’t afford to take a chance on them…

And then, Orochimaru gets an idea. An awful idea. Orochimaru gets a wonderful, awful idea.

A grin splits his face and he answers, “I think we’re quite capable of multitasking.”

Chapter Text

xv. Shizune raps loud and hard three times on the hotel door. She shifts from foot to foot, worrying her lower lip with her teeth, staring hard at the door in some vain hope that doing so will make it open. To release some energy she knocks twice more before she hears Naruto’s unnaturally loud voice grousing towards the doorway.

Her nerves get the better of her and she opens the door just as Naruto’s reaching out to grab the knob; “I know it’s late, I’m sorry, but I have to talk to you.”

Naruto just blinks at her, and it dawns on Shizune that he probably doesn’t even recognize her– his eyes were locked on Tsunade from the moment they met, and Shizune is good at fading into the background. But as she glances just past him she ends up meeting Sasuke’s gaze as he looks over his shoulder, brows furrowing, trying to pick her face out of a metaphorical crowd.

Naruto finally just glares at her and snaps, “Look lady, I wanna get a good night’s sleep, I gotta start training in the morning–”

“That’s why I’m here,” Shizune cuts in, stepping just slightly into the doorway, “I can’t let you go into this without knowing something important about the necklace, and Lady Tsunade.”

Naruto snorts and rolls his eyes, like he expects Tsunade to be hidden around a corner listening in; “I could care less about that crazy old bat–”

“Mind your tongue! You have no right to–! You don’t know anything about her!” Shizune exclaims, forcing herself across the threshold and into the room. As Naruto backs up, eyes wide, in a second she realizes how young he is. Was she ever that young? What is she doing, shouting at a child like this? She’s grown up a lot since she left, more than she should have– she has to be the adult when she’s with Tsunade, so she has to be the adult now, too.

She takes a deep breath and sighs, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have yelled.”

“What were you saying about Tsunade?” Sasuke’s voice nearly makes Shizune jump. He’s turned around, bad leg hanging off the bed and leaning on his good knee as he looks at her.

She takes another deep breath; “Tsunade wasn’t always… like that… She used to be kind and selfless and dedicated to the village, but… she’s changed. Ever since…”

Can she really tell them? Nawaki must have looked as young to Tsunade then as these boys look to her right now. They’ve grown up knowing peace, how can she tell them that they’re likely as not to die young and tragic? And Dan… Her throat aches. Tsunade forgets it, Shizune forgets it sometimes herself, but she loved him too.

“Since what?”

Should she tell them? Even with Dan, this isn’t her story. This isn’t her pain to lay bare. She can’t do that to Tsunade. It wouldn’t be fair, wouldn’t be right.

“Come on already, since what?

Shizune swallows hard; “Since the day that she… lost all that she had. Dreams, hopes… Everything. The only thing she had left was the necklace… Please understand, that necklace is more than expensive, it’s precious. It matters more to Tsunade than life, it shouldn’t be gambled away on a whim!”

Naruto frowns and replies, “Look, a bet’s a bet. She’s older than everyone in this room, if she wants to put her precious crap up for grabs that’s on her, not me.”

Screw it. Subtlety isn’t working.

Shizune glares at him as she snaps, “That’s not the point! It won’t accept anyone else wearing it! If anyone but Tsunade puts the necklace on they die!

That gets Naruto to back up another step, eyes going wide. Sasuke, however, leans even further forward. The fluorescent light is dancing in his dark eyes with an intelligence and curiosity that gives her pause. Whether Tsunade was right about him being selfish, Shizune couldn’t say. But there’s more going on here than just a scared child running from pain.

And Sasuke proves that by asking, “Who did she lose?”

Naruto blinks rapidly, wonders loudly what Sasuke is talking about, but Shizune just stares at him, mouth agape. After a long moment, she takes a deep breath, and answers.

She tells them about Nawaki, about how he was sweet and bright and everything anyone could’ve hoped for. How Tsunade had given him the necklace to spur on his dream of becoming Hokage and he’d died within a day. And with a tremble in her voice she tells them about Dan, how he had been the light of so many lives, how Tsunade had put all her hopes on him before the necklace doomed him, too. Naruto listens with an expression that is surprisingly unreadable for a boy she’d thought to have a one track mind. Sasuke shows his every thought on his face, mouth twitching down into a frown. He understands. Thinking more about it, Shizune’s not sure why she thought he wouldn’t.

“So that was it,” she finishes as Naruto avoids her attempts to meet his eye, “That was what happened, and she… She hasn’t been the same. Living with pain like that changes you, makes you say and do things you’ll regret… And it’s hard to come back from it.”

Naruto says nothing. He stands there for a moment before striding forward and pushing past Shizune, putting on his sandals and opening the door to the hotel room.

“Where are you going?”

“Out,” he replies, voice rough, “I gotta start training.”

He shuts the door without another word.

Shizune stares after him, shoulders slowly sinking, and she has no idea what she’s more afraid of– Naruto winning, or losing.

She nearly turns around to leave herself before Sasuke’s voice rings out again; “Wait! Don’t go just yet!”

She turns around and Sasuke is pushing himself carefully to his feet. Shizune remembers his limp and instead walks further into the room, sitting on the bed opposite him. He says nothing and neither does she– Shizune remembers enough about Uchiha pride to know better.

“What is it?” she asks, pulling her legs up so she can sit cross-legged.

Sasuke settles back down on the mattress and pauses to consider her before he asks, “How did you get Tsunade to let you come with her? Are you just her assistant, or…?”

Shizune smiles and replies, “Well, to answer your second question first, no I’m not just her assistant. I was her apprentice at one point. I’m going to assume that’s all you meant.”

Sasuke furrows his brow; “What else would I–?”

Evidently Sasuke hasn’t been traveling with Jiraiya for long, because he only now takes her meaning and flushes a bright red, “No. No no no. No that’s– That’s all. Nothing else. I mean, if there is– Nope.”

Shizune can’t help laughing; “I may have to disappoint you, though, because she actually did the lion’s share of my training before we left the village. You see, Dan was my uncle. Tsunade would come over to see him when I was a genin, and I just thought she was amazing. I wanted to be just like her, so I begged her to teach me what she knew until she would. And then… Dan passed away. When she left the village, I knew she shouldn’t be alone, so… I followed her. And I didn’t stop, even when she tried to make me go away. After a while, she stopped trying.”

Sasuke purses his lips, thinking for a moment; “Did she train you at all after you left the village?”

Shizune shakes her head; “No. After a certain point in medical ninjutsu you need to get elbow deep in the messy reality of medicine to learn how to handle it, and Tsunade… After Dan, whenever she sees blood she freezes up. I have no doubt that’s part of why she refused to train you.”

Sasuke flinches slightly, but says nothing.

“I… It was unfair of Tsunade to make assumptions like that about you,” Shizune slowly says, bringing her hands together in her lap and fiddling with her fingers, “I’m sure she was wrong–”

Sasuke shakes his head; “No. No she wasn’t.”

Shizune falls silent. She tries not to look at his face, but her eyes keep pulling to his braced knee instead.

Sasuke closes his eyes and says, “But it’s like she said– She’s selfish, too. And neither of us are gonna stop being selfish by just sitting around and feeling sorry for ourselves. Something has to change.”

For a moment, all she can do is stare. It’s after a moment that she notices she’s started to smile.

Shizune pushes off the bed, smoothing out her skirt; “You should get some rest. We can’t have you falling into every medic’s bad habit just yet.”

Sasuke quirks an eyebrow, following her to the door with his eyes; “What’s that?”

Shizune spares him one last glance over her shoulder; “Forgetting to take care of yourself. Good night, Sasuke.”

Lee has always liked to keep to a consistent schedule, no matter what circumstances he’s found himself in.

So when he finishes physical therapy he heads off towards Sakura and Kakashi’s hospital room for a visit no longer than fifteen minutes, as he has every day since Gai told him what happened. Lee keeps his mind full of what he wants to say to Sakura so he doesn’t dwell on the step-thump-step-thump that his footsteps have become.

Sakura is easy to focus on, easy to structure his day around, far easier than his own predicament. That may be unfair. It may be selfish. But at the moment, Lee is content to take what he can. At this time Sakura’s mother is working and their friends are out on missions, so Lee has Sakura’s room to himself– He gives Kakashi a small bow, for courtesy’s sake.

“Good afternoon, Sir,” Lee murmurs, low and polite, “Gai-sensei should be here at the usual time. Do not worry, I will be gone by then. Please, hang in there.”

Kakashi continues to lie silently still. Lee bows to him one more time, for good measure, before turning back to Sakura. He smiles down at her, bright despite her ashen skin, shallow breathing, and twitching eyelids. There’s a stool at her bedside already, one the nurses never move for long.

Lee carefully lowers himself down onto it as he starts; “Hello, Sakura. Not much has changed for me since yesterday, but I will tell you about today…”

Lee manages to fill up nearly ten minutes with idle chatter, about the birds he’d seen from his room and the particulars of his physical therapy and things the nurses had told him while making small talk and anything at all that came to mind. Since he all but lived here Lee was good at picking out those rare things that broke up the routine. He’s not sure if Sakura would’ve actually found any of this interesting, but that’s the benefit of a captive audience. He talks, and talks, and talks some more, and just as he’s starting to flounder for anything else to say there’s a slight clatter at the door.

Lee looks over his shoulder and into the wide blue eyes of Ino Yamanaka.

Ino stares at him for a moment, frozen, jaw on the floor, before she stammers, “Oh, uh, sorry about that Lee, I– I didn’t have anything important– I’ll just give you some privacy.”

Lee pushes himself up off the stool and shakes his head; “No, do not worry, it is perfectly fine. Sakura is your friend, you should have some time with her.”

Ino’s mouth presses into a line, her brows draw together. Silence fills the room like mud.

Ino runs a hand through her bangs as she comes closer; “I… You like Sakura, right? That’s what I’ve heard, anyway.”

Lee doesn’t fight the flush that comes to his cheeks at the pointed question; “I do have feelings for her, that is true.”

Ino makes eye contact; “Why?”

Lee blinks once, twice, three times quite rapidly as he tries to process the question; “What do you mean?”

Ino lets out a huff that tosses her bangs briefly out of her eyes; “Why do you like her? I mean, you weren’t in any of our Academy classes, she didn’t even know you before the Chunin exams– Is this another Naruto thing? You like her just because she likes Sasuke and you want to be better than him? Or is it just because you think she’s pretty or you like girls with pink hair or what?

Lee opens his mouth but no sound comes out. After a second he closes it. Opens it again. Nothing.

The moment he finds even a handful of words, Lee forces himself to speak; “It is shameful to admit, but perhaps that is part of it. When I met her I did not know her well. But as I have learned more about Sakura my feelings have not faded, so I want to believe they are deeper than that.”

Ino closes her eyes, the line between her brows growing deeper; “Really. You don’t just like her still you like her more. After seeing her turn into a monster and start killing people you still like her. Is this a guy thing? Are guys just really into murder?”

It’s Lee’s turn to stare at Ino, saying nothing, studying her. A taijutsu specialist needs to know how to read the body of another; Ino’s carrying tension in every part of hers, biting down on the inside of her cheek, drumming her fingers on her hips incessantly. She has all the makings of someone who wants to fight, or someone who wants to run.

Lee speaks, slowly; “Excuse me, Ino, but… Is something wrong?”

She doesn’t open her eyes. But her mouth quirks up into an frail smirk.

“Yeah, yeah something probably is,” she mutters, crossing her arms over her chest, “I mean, Sakura going nuts has you and Sasuke smitten with her but me– I’m– I…”

Ino swallows hard and finally opens her eyes.

“I was her best friend once,” Ino whispers, “I knew everything about her. And when we stopped being friends that meant I knew how to really hurt her. But now… Everything I knew about her is wrong. I don’t know where we stand anymore. Honestly… I think she left me behind a long time ago. And I don’t know what that means for me.”

Lee glances over his shoulder at Sakura, sleeping sound as the dead in the hospital bed; “So why did you come to see her?”

Ino follows his gaze. She’s quiet for a long time, and Lee waits quietly with her.

“It’s kinda fucked up, but,” Ino snickers, pushing some hair behind her ear only for it to fall forward again as she turns back to Lee, “I think after I heard how badly she got hurt I decided that maybe… Maybe if I saw her like this I’d stop being scared of her.”

It takes only one look for him to know that it didn’t work. Lee wants to reach out to her. He doesn’t, because if he did he’d lose grip on his crutch and fall over.

“I cannot pretend that I know what to say,” Lee says, “But if you want to talk more about it, I will listen.”

Ino, for a hearbeat, stares at him wide-eyed and open-mouthed. But she shoves her mouth into a grin before too long.

She takes him by the shoulder and starts leading him out of the room; “Yeah, I think I do. Come on, I don’t think Sakura wants to hear any more of my bitching.”

Lee forgets to tell Sakura goodbye as they leave her alone.


She gulps loud enough that the next town over hears it; “Y-yes, ma’am?”

“Would you happen to have an idea as to what the Uchiha brat thinks he’s doing here?”

His dark brows furrow hard; “I can speak for myself, I’m here because–”

“Yeah yeah hold your horses kiddo. I need to prove a hypothesis first.”

Shizune is sweating buckets, her grip on Tonton threatening to crush the poor thing; “N-no, absolutely not, I have no idea why he’s here ma’am!”

That’s all Tsunade needs to start putting the pieces together as she, Shizune, and Sasuke Uchiha are standing in the middle of the road in front of her hotel forcing foot traffic to shuffle around them. Why Sasuke’s here isn’t the question; how he’s here, how he even knows where to look for her and how he bounced back from her admittedly low blow within twelve hours, that’s the question Shizune’s frantic fidgeting is answering loud and clear.

Tsunade closes her eyes and tilts her head back as she groans out loud; “You are never gonna stop being a meddling little shit, are you?”

Shizune’s voice takes on a bit of an edge as she replies, “Well… It’s worked out pretty well for you so far, hasn’t it?”

Tsunade shoots Shizune a cutting glare; “Don’t push it.”

Shizune shuts up, right on cue for Sasuke cut in; “I’m not giving up– I want to learn from you, and I’m not taking no for an answer.”

Last night was a terrible night to get drunk. Her hangover headache is quickly turning into a migraine. She brings a hand up, thumb rubbing at her temple and index finger touching her seal, releasing a drop of chakra to numb the pain. Tsunade’s not petty enough to deny that she’d needed Shizune right after Dan, but Sasuke is everything she doesn’t need exactly when she needs it least.

She cracks open an eye… She could flick him through three buildings and call it a day. That would do wonders for her bad mood. It would also mean she could never come back to this town.

Instead of saying anything more to the kid, she spins on her heel and starts walking down the street, eyes forward, hands loose at her side. Shizune starts to follow with a little, surprised jump, and Tonton oinks loudly to be put down so she can walk with them. Shizune ignores her. Tsunade can hear Sasuke mutter a swear under his breath and his uneven stride scuff the dirt as he half-jogs to follow her.

“Didn’t you hear me?! I’m not leaving!” Sasuke all but yelps, following as close to Tsunade’s heels as his bad leg will allow.

“What’s that sound, Shizune?” Tsunade wonders loudly, looking pointedly over at her assistant as Shizune curls in on herself, head nearly inside her shoulders, “Sounds like an annoying bug buzzing around or something like that– maybe if we ignore it for long enough it’ll just go away on its own.

Shizune glares at her before turning her eyes toward the main road. Tsunade thinks Tonton might be glaring too, but it’s more than likely her enmity is equally split between Tsunade and Shizune.

Sasuke growls out another foul word or three, but his loping footfalls keep doggedly tracing hers as she makes her way along the road and looks for gambling halls that haven’t turned her away yet. She finds one specializing in Blackjack and steps confidently through the noren, smirking as she undoes the straps on her sandals. That smirk dies the second Sasuke walks through without even hesitating, sitting down gingerly to worm his own shoes off.

“Does this place have an age limit, Shizune?” Tsunade wonders with a lazy look over her shoulder to Shizune, also shucking off her shoes and giving Tonton a much-needed opportunity to stretch her legs.

Shizune blinks a few times before a wary little smile comes to her lips; “Well it might, but ninja of any level are counted as adults under Fire Country Law. I don’t think even a thirteen year old genin would get turned away if he walked in confidently enough.”

Tsunade clenches her jaw– well, now she knows whose side Shizune is really on.

Sasuke’s allowed in on the grace of his headband and walking in like he owns the place. Apparently the Uchiha were around long enough to teach him how to properly hold his chin high and look down his nose since he does it like a professional. Tsunade finds it increasingly difficult to ignore him as she gets some chips, crosses the room to a blackjack table, sits down, and Sasuke sits several chairs over with a healthy stack of his own chips.

The dealer gives him a bemused look as he shuffles the deck; “Breaking those ninja prohibitions already?”

Sasuke just shrugs one shoulder; “What can I say? It’s hard out there.”

The first few hands go poorly for them both. Sasuke has a much better poker face than Tsunade initially gave him credit for, but not even a blank expression can hide the fact that he only had an academic knowledge of how the game is supposed to work before he sat down. Despite his best efforts, a little knot starts to form between his eyebrows. Tsunade, meanwhile, is relishing her luck’s sudden downswing. It’s a good omen.

Three hands go by before Sasuke pushes slightly back from the table. He stares at his cards, the look on his face enigmatic, before he stands up and looks over his shoulder to Shizune; “Could you save my seat for a minute?”

Shizune and Tsunade’s puzzled blinks come in perfect unison, but Shizune stammers out a quick assent before sitting down. Sasuke ambles out of the main hall and the two of them share a questioning look, but no words. Tonton is too busy sniffing around the bottom of the table for anything interesting or tasty to give her opinion.

True to his word, Sasuke comes loping back in after a minute. Tsunade doesn’t groan out loud when she catches sight of his eyes, but she does roll her own so hard they threaten to pop right out. The genjutsu covering his eyes is good enough for civilians this far out from any hidden village– it proves to be as much when the dealer deals him right back in without a word– but Tsunade only needs to glance at him from the corner of her eye to see the barest tint of red behind the charcoal gray. Even if his genjutsu had been flawless Tsunade can still track how his eyes move in quick jerks between the cards being dealt and the deck as he counts them, and she definitely notices how far away he’s holding his hand. Thirteen years old and he’s already farsighted. The Uchiha continue to be a mess.

Tsunade’s so busy thinking about Sasuke’s deteriorating vision it takes her a moment to realize that while Sasuke is counting cards, he’s not necessarily doing any better at the game. He starts winning about as many hands as he loses, but that’s just enough to break even. Right as she’s wondering what his game is, when Tsunade next hits she ends up with a perfect 21.

Her lip curls in a sneer; Oh this is adorable. Who else but a thirteen year old kid from a privileged family could think the way to prove he’s not selfish is to cheat on someone else’s behalf? Not a goddamn thing about this family has changed since Madara.

After a hand or two more, Sasuke waves Shizune over. She leans down and he whispers in her ear– Whatever he said makes her furrow her brow and give him an incredulous look, but she nods regardless before collecting Tonton in her arms.

She leans down to whisper to Tsunade, “I’m going to take Tonton on a little walk outside, let me know–”

Tsunade doesn’t look up from her hand; “Don’t lie to me, you’re terrible at it. Just don’t go too far.”

Shizune blinks rapidly before her features screw up into a scowl and she stalks outside. It briefly occurs to Tsunade that maybe she’s being a bit too short with Shizune for next to no reason. It’s a thought she’s far too irritated to entertain, so she doesn’t.

To make things worse, the second Shizune leaves is the second Tsunade’s luck takes a dramatic turn for the better. Tsunade wins back all the chips she’s lost and then some within three hands, and brings everyone else down to near bankruptcy in the fourth. The other gamblers at the table start grumbling to themselves that it’s not worth it as they collect their chips and slink away. All Tsunade can do is glower from the corner of her eye at Sasuke, whose face has gone back to blank.

The dealer takes his break, putting a little paper sign on the table dissuading anyone new from sitting down, and Tsunade finally turns to level her gaze on Sasuke; “So along with pride being a cheater runs in the family too?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes; “I was trying to prove a point.”

“What point was that,” she scoffs, “That using your Sharingan to count cards in Blackjack is fine as long as you’re not helping yourself win?”

He shakes his head; “That there’s no such thing as luck.”

Tsunade frowns, steepling her hands in front of her mouth; “Really. The kid from the unluckiest clan in the world doesn’t believe in luck.”

“Bad luck didn’t make me an orphan,” Sasuke replies flatly, “There’s no such thing as omens or curses or luck that makes bad things happen on a whim. Everything happens because somewhere along the way someone makes a choice. I decided that I was going to help you win, so I counted cards and asked Shizune to leave when that wasn’t working.”

Tsunade arches a pale brow; “And why did you do that?

Sasuke just stares back at her, unimpressed; “Your poker face is fine– Hers is terrible. She starts biting her nails down to the cuticle every time your hand looks remotely bad and celebrating every time it looks good. Everyone else at the table doesn’t have to read you because they can read her instead. Don’t tell me you didn’t know that.”

It takes more willpower than she’d like for Tsunade to keep her face smooth and impassive when all she wants is to let her jaw hang open like an idiot. Intellectually Tsunade knew Shizune had a terrible poker face. Connecting the dots between her many losses and the fact that she had someone standing behind her broadcasting every card in her hand had been a bridge she’d never thought to cross. Something cold settles at the base of her spine and lets her know that she doesn’t want to unpack that– if only because the smug brat so obviously does.

Tsunade stands up, half to go cash in her chips and half to sneer down her nose at Sasuke; “You can talk a big game about there being no such thing as luck in a Blackjack hall, sure, but I’d like to see you say as much to a slot machine– Without your Sharingan.”

Sasuke just smirks back up at her; “Is that a bet?”

Oh what the Hell– If she loses it’s a good omen, if she wins she’ll turn a profit; “You win, you get my winnings on top of what you get from the slot machine. I win, I get whatever’s left on you.”

Sasuke holds his hand out for her to shake; “Deal.”

She makes sure to keep the grip just shy of bone-crushing when she returns it.

Tsunade said Sasuke couldn’t use his Sharingan while he used the slot machine. She’d said nothing about just having it up while he walked around looking for a machine to sit down at.

Sasuke pushes himself to keep several steps ahead of her and not turn his head too much in either direction. So long as she can’t see his eyes she can’t see through his genjutsu. Under ideal circumstances Sasuke would’ve copied the motion of a jackpot winner’s pull just to be safe, but as it is Sasuke instead makes sure to catch every single symbol on the reels and where they are in the rotation. The timing of a jackpot pull isn’t hard to extrapolate from there.

He makes sure to turn his Sharingan off several paces before he finds an open machine and sits down. He takes a minute to examine the machine, makes a show of thinking very hard about what he’s going to do next, before putting in his coin and bringing the machine to life. As he waits, calculating the timing in his head, he can feel Tsunade and Shizune’s eyes on him. Shizune is fidgeting and worrying as always while Tsunade’s gaze bores holes in the side of his skull.

He takes a deep breath– in– he grabs the lever, and after a pause, he pulls it down– out.  




Shizune can’t help a delighted, surprised little whoop as the jackpot comes pouring out, but when Sasuke turns to smirk at Tsunade she’s simply glaring at him.

All she says is, “Double or nothing at the roulette hall,” before turning on her heel and stalking to the door. Sasuke has little choice but to hastily gather his winnings and follow behind her.

And the rest of the day proceeds in much the same way– After Sasuke tracks the ball’s trajectory and wins at roulette, Tsunade tells him double or nothing at pachinko. After he copies a winning pachinko player’s movements and reproduces them perfectly, Tsunade insists on double or nothing in mahjong. After mahjong is baccarat, chō-han, pai gow, and even a lottery scratch card that Sasuke doesn’t even bother to try and cheat. It’s not like he has the byakugan, after all.

It’s as Sasuke’s in the middle of scratching off the last number, revealing it to be a losing card, that Tsunade grabs him by the collar and hauls him off the street into a back alley. It happens so fast all Sasuke can do is let out a strangled yelp as he drops the card. Shizune starts to run in after them, but Tsunade shoots a glare over her shoulder that stops Shizune in her tracks.

Tsunade drops Sasuke on his feet halfway down the alley and before he can get a word in edgewise she tweaks his nose. Hard. Behind the pain Sasuke feels a surge of chakra flow up to his eyes, and with a snap like a shock of static his genjutsu drops, revealing the Sharingan.

Sasuke rubs at his nose as Tsunade pulls her hand back; “What the–?!”

She cuts him off, snapping, “What the yourself, you little shit! You’ve been siphoning off chakra all day with those things just to cheat! What is the matter with you?!”

Sasuke frowns up at her; “What do you care about my chakra?”

“I don’t I care that you’ve been screwing me out of my money,” she growls back, eyes cutting into him like amber daggers. She’s lying, he doesn’t need any dōjutsu to see that, but she’s pissed, so Sasuke doesn’t call her on it.

“I was never going to take any of it,” Sasuke mutters, “Like I said, I was proving a point. There’s no such thing as luck.”

Tsunade snorts; “There you go again with that. Why is proving that going to make me train you? Why is cheating to make sure you win over and over again gonna make me think you’re not selfish? Walk me through that logic, kid.”

Sasuke hesitates. There’s no way in Hell him telling the truth will go well– Telling Tsunade he knows all her baggage, that Shizune told him everything about how she’d let herself become a victim of fate and circumstance, would end in him and Shizune both flying through a building.

Before he can come up with a lie, Tsunade folds her arms over her chest and asks, “Can you at least try to explain why you don’t even think about trying to win without cheating? Have you even thought about why? Do you even know?

Sasuke hadn’t thought about it. So he takes a minute and does just that.

Once his minute is up, he looks Tsunade in the eye; “If I’m doing something, I don’t want to do it half-assed. I have the Sharingan, and unless someone plucks my eyes out it’s not going away. So long as I have it, if I don’t use it when using it could be the difference between winning and losing, then I might as well have given up.”

Tsunade’s glare takes on a thoughtful edge; “And what are ‘winning and losing’ to you? What does that mean?”

Sasuke takes another long moment to turn that over in his mind. He thinks of running through the forest with Sakura over one shoulder, hearing the sounds of Naruto and Gaara clashing far behind him, and telling himself over and over again not to turn back until Sakura was safe. He thinks of Naruto crawling on his chin, determined to see the mission through to the very end if he had to. He thinks of Kakashi ruffling his hair.

And Sasuke replies, “Whether I win or lose is the difference between life and death.”

Tsunade stares at him for a long moment before she sighs and leans forward, pressing her thumbs into his temples; “Not always, kid.”

There’s a pulse of warmth, then soothing cold. Sasuke’s view of Tsunade’s face, close enough it’s starting to blur around the edges, slowly sharpens into total clarity.

She takes her hands off the sides of his head, then tweaks his nose again; “I’m still not training you– I’m no good at teaching, Shizune probably told you that much. But I can give you one lesson: a medic’s no good to his squad if he can’t see any of them. I’m not saying don’t use the Sharingan. But if you use it for everything you’ll go blind before you’re twenty.”

She turns on her heel and waves over her shoulder; “Take it easy, kid.”

Sasuke nearly follows her before he glances upwards. The moon sits high in the sky, high enough that if he wants to get any sleep Sasuke ought to get back to the hotel. He’s made good enough progress for the first day to justify that much.

Chapter Text

xvi. Sasuke shows up again the next morning. He expects Tsunade to be even angrier than she was the previous day, but instead she greets him with a simple raised eyebrow and a smirk she probably wants to look more wry and sarcastic than it actually does.

“So this is really the plan,” she drawls, putting one hand on her hip, “Follow me around and pester me until I give in.”

Sasuke shrugs; “Naruto’s busy training to win your unwinnable bet and I don’t think I want to know what Jiraiya’s doing– This is as good a way to kill a week’s time as any.”

She sighs long and loud, but gestures for him to follow as she turns down the road; “Do whatever you want, but if you’re gonna try gambling again I’m sending you six feet underground the hard way if I catch you cheating, understand?”

Considering Sasuke had to pass the fissure she left in the street every time he walked over here, he definitely did.

Tsunade does a very poor job of ignoring him. At first she keeps it to terse responses to his attempts at conversation and thwacking him on the back of the head if she thought he was about to activate the Sharingan at the roulette table, but about halfway through the week she starts making conversation by suddenly asking him questions after long bouts of thoughtful silence.

The first Sasuke nearly doesn’t hear over the cacophony of the pachinko parlor they’re in; “How much do you actually know about the Uchiha clan’s history?”

Sasuke blinks a few times in surprise, then a few times more as he searches his memory; “Honestly, not very much. We fought the Senju, then helped found the village, Madara betrayed the village, the Second Hokage made us in charge of the police force, and details from before or since I guess weren’t important enough to put in history books or anyone in the clan to tell me. I mean, I was eight when… Yeah.”

Tsunade smiles a bitter smile; “‘Madara betrayed the village’– Yeah, he’d been reduced down to that footnote by the time I was your age, too. He hadn’t even died that long ago, I still remembered being carried on his hip, but everyone was trying to pretend he never existed.”

Sasuke tries and failes to keep his mouth from dropping open; “You knew Madara Uchiha?”

She shrugs, her tiny smile starting to grow; “I mean, as well as you know anything that happened when you were a toddler– Ninja have kids young but not that young. Grandpa would tell stories about him, when it was just us. He told me all the time about how I’d tried to play five-card-draw for some sweets when Madara was looking after me and he’d cheated to win. Against a two year old.”

Sasuke’s not sure what he’s having a harder time imagining– that Tsunade was ever that young, or Madara, his clan’s patriarch spoken of in whispers fearful and reverent alike, cheating in a card game against a two year old child. He tries to imagine Madara, the traitor, the bogeyman, the second of two massive edifices on either side of a waterfall, carrying a toddler on his hip. Much like every time he’d tried to imagine Madara before seeing an image of the man, Sasuke can only imagine his own father carrying him.

Why?” Sasuke wonders, brows furrowed so hard he’s certain they’ve merged into one.

Tsunade shrugs; “Who knows? He was an Uchiha, it was probably pride. My great uncle had a theory about it, but he’s the one who shoved you all in a corner and made you cops, so he’s probably just a little bit biased.”

The Second Hokage. Nobody had talked about him in the Uchiha compound, not if they could help it. Any mentions of him were brief, terse, and never complimentary. And textbooks said little more about him, as he was one of the only Hokage who’d ruled from the shadows, making no effort to ingratiate himself to the people.

Sasuke can’t help the jolt of curiosity that courses through him– he grabs it and runs with it; “What did he think?”

Tsunade stares long and hard at the flashing pachinko display before she turns to look him in the eye; “He called it the Curse of Hatred. He would say that Uchiha are caring people who love deeply, but don’t tend to show it much until it was too late. Whenever what they loved was threatened or taken, that love turns to hatred, and spurred them to desperate and evil acts first for vengeance and then for power. He’d point to how the Sharingan tends to develop in the face of intense loss or grief. I would say that maybe his view of the Uchiha is skewed because he spent his formative years killing them during the Warring States period, but he didn’t like it when I did.”

Sasuke stares into the middle distance, eyes going out of focus as he turns over every piece of that.

Sasuke only realizes he’s speaking when he’s halfway through his statement; “I mean… There were people in the clan who were like that, I guess, but there were so many more who were open and kind and– I had relatives who would embarrass me with kisses and pinching my cheeks and all that kind of crap, there were so many more of them than people like my father. And I– What does he expect people to do when the people they love are threatened? Did he really think the Senju were better?

Tsunade shoots him a level look; “Of course he did, Sasuke. And so did everyone else, back then– I’ll bet you the Uchiha are heroes now, because no one wants to speak ill of the dead, but before that… Well, you were shoved out to the edge of the village for a reason.”

Tsunade’s eyes drift back to the pachinko machine that’s long since stopped its frenzy of activity; “How do you justify something like that? How do you go back to a village that treats you that way and not just… take a mission on the other side of the world and never come back?”

Sasuke frowns, watching Tsunade load the balls back into the machine as he collects his thoughts. There are quite a lot to collect, so Tsunade goes through several rounds before he thinks he has an answer.

He wonders, almost to himself, “I mean… What changes if you run away?”

Tsunade looks over at him, and for a brief moment she can’t mask pure surprise. She smooths it over into something wry and distant quickly enough, but Sasuke won’t forget that moment.

She finally stands up from her stool; “Fair point.”

They leave the conversation there, and Sasuke returns to the hotel that night to lie awake and stare at the moon, wondering if the Second Hokage wasn’t entirely wrong.

Another time, they’re walking down a side-street when Tsunade suddenly stops and turns, peering curiously down at him; “How much medical ninjutsu have you already learned?”

Sasuke, for a second, can’t even speak– He can’t have won her over that easily, there’s no way, she has to have some ulterior motive, there’s no way

Suddenly Tsunade is in his face, snapping her fingers next to his ear; “Sasuke. When someone asks a question you oughta answer it.”

Sasuke forces himself to do just that; “I mean, not a lot, I guess. I just know Mystical Palm Jutsu–”

“Hold on,” Tsunade cuts in, holding a hand up, “There’s no way I heard a thirteen year old kid fresh out of the academy tell me he learned Mystical Palm. Wanna repeat that for me?”

Sasuke frowns and, instead of repeating himself, just holds up one hand. His Sharingan flashes to life as the teal chakra coats his palm, and Tsunade has another brief moment of total shock making her eyes go painfully wide before they dart over to his eyes and narrow down into the irritation and disappointment Sasuke’s become accustomed to.

“No wonder your eyes were so screwed up, you cheated your way into medical ninjutsu,” she sighs, pinching the bridge of her nose, “God save the poor medic who has to break you of that habit.”

Sasuke’s frown turns into a proper scowl; “I couldn’t cheat my way into it. I had to see it multiple times to copy it, and even then I’ve had to practice–”

Tsunade covers her face with her hand and lets out a muffled groan; “Do I want to know what you’ve been practicing on?”

Sasuke can’t help something of a smirk; “Well, since you were also a medic with no one to teach you once, you already know.”

Tsunade doesn’t take her hand off her face, but Sasuke can see her brows knit together in a frown; “Great, good to know that Jiraiya still doesn’t value my privacy,” she drags her hand down her face and finally looks at Sasuke again, “So, how bad’s the damage? What’ve you done to yourself?”

Sasuke, once again, does not respond with words. He pulls off his arm guards to show her the small puncture-marks and thin white scars, and picks up his foot to wiggle his still-stiff toe. Tsunade surveys it all with an increasingly bemused expression, the side of her mouth pulling into another gentle smirk once she gets down to his toe.

“Well I’ll be damned, you actually were kinda smart about it,” Tsunade muses through a chuckle, “I can’t say I ever was.”

Sasuke can’t keep his eyes from going wide; “This is smart? … What does stupid look like?”

Tsunade grins and pulls up the bottom of her shirt by way of explanation. Cutting across her abdomen at a diagonal is a gnarled, ropy mess of scar tissue, unevenly healed– out near the edge the scar is smooth and silver, but near the center it’s as dark and rumpled as it would look if she’d gotten wounded last week. Sasuke feels his stomach turn over and has to fight to keep his lunch where it is.

“Yep, I decided that a big nasty ‘intestines-popping-out’ wound was the perfect testing ground,” Tsunade chuckles as she lets go of her shirt and it falls back over the scar, “I couldn’t bend over forwards for a week, but that wasn’t so bad– Meant Jiraiya couldn’t get any peeks at my ass.”

Sasuke furrows his brow thoughtfully, eyes still focused on where her scar had been; “Why do you still have it?”

Tsunade blinks a few times; “Because it’s a scar?

“I know it is,” Sasuke huffs, “But if what people say about your skill level is true, you could get rid of it altogether. Why don’t you?”

Tsunade stares into the middle distance, her hand coming up to absently clutch at her necklace. She’s quiet for a moment perhaps longer than that question deserves.

“Well,” she sighs, “The best way to discourage behavior is to keep the consequences in mind. Not much better way to do that then to carry them on your body, right?”

Sasuke stares at her hand, closed around the necklace, and has a feeling she’s not talking about the scar anymore.

He pulls his mouth into a smirk; “You sell yourself short as a teacher.”

Tsunade’s turned on her heel and is heading towards the main street again; “How do you figure that?”

Sasuke shudders as he replies, “After seeing that, I’m definitely practicing on fish from now on.”

Sasuke’s honestly not sure how much he means that, but it makes Tsunade snort out a little laugh, so he’s certainly going to try.

And yet another time, the last evening before the week is up, they’re sitting in the tavern where they met and Tsunade asks in a low, rough voice, “What did Shizune tell you about me?”

Sasuke freezes up and Tsunade rolls her eyes, swirling the sake in her cup; “Nobody’s in trouble if you spill it. Shizune’s a grown woman, it’s not like I can ground her or anything.”

Even so, Sasuke still takes his time before answering. He stares at his hands, laced together in front of him on the table, as he tries to put the words together before they leave his mouth. Thinking before he speaks isn’t a skill he has a lot of practice with.

The words come out slowly, like drips of water from a long since turned off faucet; “She told me about Nawaki and Dan. And the necklace. And your problem with blood.”

Tsunade takes a sip of her sake, then grumbles, “Should’ve asked what she didn’t tell you, then.”

“… She didn’t tell me what Orochimaru wants from you,” Sasuke murmurs, staring hard at the tabletop.

Tsunade is quiet. She focuses intently on the action of drinking her sake, refilling her cup, draining it dry again, repeat. It doesn’t seem to be getting her all that drunk, but Sasuke supposes that isn’t actually the point right now.

He almost jumps when she breaks the silence; “If you really want to know, I’ll need an answer from you first.”

Sasuke frowns, but nods; “Fine.”

Tsunade sets down her sake and looks him in the eye, face smooth and impassive; “Why do you want me to train you?”

Sasuke has to fight to keep from cocking his head to the side; “I’ve already told you why, I want to know what you know–”

Tsunade’s glare pierces through him, pinning him to his seat; “And why do you want to know it? Why are you reaching so high so soon? There’s always a reason– Is it your leg?”

Sasuke feels the dull throb in his knee, the pinch of his brace, and shakes his head; “No. I’m keeping my knee the way it is. It hurts, but I can still run. I can still jump through trees. I can still fight. I’m keeping it as a reminder of what happens when I fail.”

Tsunade glowers over her sip of sake; “There’s a difference between a reminder and a burden. I wouldn’t have kept my scar if it weighed me down.”

Sasuke shrugs with one shoulder; “Yeah, it doesn’t. But the necklace does, and you’re still wearing it.”

Tsunade absently winds her fingers around the necklace’s chain, eyes drifting to look at a spot over Sasuke’s head; “Well, I might not be for much longer.”

Sasuke forcefully swallows the bitter taste that rises up in the back of his throat at the mention of Naruto– There’s reason he’s been focusing all his attention on Tsunade. It keeps that ugly dark something from rising any further up, keeps it confined to the pit of his stomach.

“I’m here because my teammate is suffering,” Sasuke states, voice as steady and resolute as he can force it to be, “She was hurt. Bad. Physically and mentally. And… It was my fault. To keep me from doing something stupid, she put herself in harm’s way. I have to make it up to her. I have to make sure it never happens again.”

Tsunade snorts around a wry smirk, “Should’ve known– There’s always a girl.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes as he fidgets in place; “You got your answer. Now I want mine– What did Orochimaru want?”

Tsunade pauses, her fingers dancing over the gem hanging below her collarbone, expression distant; “Sarutobi… Did something to him during their fight. Orochimaru lost the use of his arms, completely. They’re starting to mortify. If he doesn’t get them fixed, they’ll need to be amputated.”

The pieces start to click together, and Sasuke’s eyes go wide; “He wants you to fix them… There’s no way he’d ask you to do something like that for free, that’s too big. What did he offer you?”

Tsunade doesn’t answer. She just threads her fingers around the necklace’s chain, staring through him. The only emotion on her face is a weariness that betrays how old she actually is under all the chakra. Sasuke’s eyes slide between them both, and two more pieces click together.

Sasuke swallows hard; “Are you going to do it? When do you have to give him your answer?”

Tsunade finally looks him in the eye as she simply replies, “Tomorrow morning.”

Sasuke’s mouth falls open, his voice coming out soft and quavering; “That’s when the bet with Naruto ends.”

Tsunade nods, her eyes crinkling slightly at the corners in the ghost of a smile; “I’ve been keeping an eye on him, y’know– Out by that waterfall a little ways out of town, he’s been training day and night… He might actually pull it off.”

Tsunade may be smiling, but Sasuke is using all his willpower to keep his face frozen, to keep his hands from clenching into fists, to keep from trembling all over. The roiling mass of something comes lurching up, and Sasuke could hardly stop it if he wanted to.

Of course. Of fucking course. Not a damn thing he was doing mattered, no matter how many times Tsunade seemed like she was coming around. It was always about Naruto. She’d just been wasting time, waiting for the week to be up, waiting on Naruto to do the impossible so she’d know what to do next. He’d just been a distraction.

Rage is settling into every space it can fill and Sasuke can’t parse out where to point it– At Tsunade for leaving everything up to chance and fate so she won’t have to make a choice and take responsibility, at himself for being so stupid as to think he could make a difference, at Orochimaru for manipulating Tsunade’s grief, or at Naruto for that inexplicable ability he has to make everyone else’s efforts trivial and meaningless.

What Sasuke knows for certain is that he wants to hit something. Preferably something that can hit back.

Sasuke stands up from the table and hisses through gritted teeth, “Excuse me,” before storming out of the tavern.


Sasuke didn’t have to shout– Naruto’s only a few yards away, lying flat on his back in front of one of many trees he’s ruined with spiraling scars in this tiny river valley. Sasuke wants to make his presence known and felt. Naruto, a panting heap on the ground with hands covered in fresh burns and layer of filth on him that can only come from having trained for a week straight, cracks open one eye at the sound. When it lands on Sasuke they both shoot open and Naruto does a lightning fast kip-up into his low stance. Good to know he’s about as happy to see Sasuke as Sasuke is to see him.

Naruto’s lip lifts in a snarl and he snaps, “The Hell do you want–?!”

Sasuke has made his presence known. He makes it felt by shoving chakra into the soles of his feet and dashing in to sock Naruto square in the jaw.

Naruto slams back first into the scarred tree and bounces right back off it to throw a punch Sasuke swerves around; “What the fuck is your problem?!

“Oh shut the fuck up, you’ve got one too,” Sasuke cuts back as Naruto dodges a low kick, “I want to kick your ass, so I am! I know you want to fight me, so fight!

Naruto responds by growling low in his throat and tackling Sasuke’s bad leg. He can feel the pain all the way up in his teeth as Naruto knocks him to the ground, traps his leg with his own and forces his leg to straighten against his will. His tendons feel like they've burst into flames– Sasuke swears out loud and thrashes against Naruto’s hold, kicking at him with his free leg and slamming fists and elbows into him. Naruto holds fast, adrenaline, exhaustion, and anger coming together to leave him with the keen tactical mind of an angry badger.

Sasuke swears one last time before twisting his back as far as he can and biting down hard on Naruto’s ankle. The shock makes Naruto let out a shriek of “MotherFUCKER–!” and loosen his grip, enough for Sasuke to kick him in the chin and wriggle out of his grasp. Sasuke gets back up to his feet and activates the Sharingan just in time for Naruto to grab a handful of dirt and throw it at his eyes. It comes too fast for Sasuke to avoid it– his eyes shut on instinct and he feels the wind get slammed out of his lungs as Naruto hurtles shoulder-first into his stomach. They both go crashing back down to the ground and Naruto pins Sasuke down; he gets his eyes open just in time to see Naruto, straddling his stomach, rear back and slam a first right into Sasuke’s nose.

Naruto gets a good few seconds of pummeling him on the ground like an academy bully before Sasuke finally gets his bearings; he hits Naruto with a palm thrust to the sternum, sending a burst of healing chakra along behind the impact. Naruto wobbles from the sudden spike of his pulse and Sasuke rolls out from under him, scrambling to his feet and using his brief window to get far enough that Naruto can’t throw another handful of dirt in his eyes.

“What was the point of all this training if you’re just gonna fight like a wild animal,” Sasuke spits, “You haven’t grown up at all!”

Naruto comes up onto his haunches and lunges at him again; “I haven’t grown up?! You’re the one who’s acting like a fucking kid! Your brother tries to kidnap me and nearly kills Sakura and you’re just jealous no one’s paying attention to you anymore!”

Sasuke uses Hyuuga footwork to swerve around Naruto, striking for him again and missing by a hair; “And why should people be paying attention to you instead?! What did you do to earn any of it?! All anyone cares about is that stupid fox!”

Naruto throws another punch as he snarls, “Oh fuck you! I’ve been out here every day, every night, working my ass off! You’re the one that won the fucking lottery with eyes that let you copy any jutsu and do it perfectly– What the hell have you ever worked for?!”

Sasuke manges to get a grip on Naruto’s collar and wrenches him in range so he can knee him in the chest; “I worked to be able to run again! I’ve worked to learn how to heal people! I can make a difference, all you want is to one-up an old lady!”

Naruto pulls out of Sasuke’s grip and slams his headband into Sasuke’s nose, the metal edge cutting into the bridge; “Don’t you fucking lie to my face, jackass! You don’t want to help people, you want to help yourself! Sakura took the mother of all bullets for you and all you care about is getting rid of your own guilt!”

Sasuke rears back and slams the sole of his foot into Naruto’s gut, sending him staggering back; “You wanna talk guilt?! I saved Sakura’s life when Kisame was about to kill her! Where the Hell were you?

Naruto pulls himself up to stand up straight so he can shout, “Behind a goddamn wall, where she TRAPPED ME! Because she came to save me! All you cared about was your stupid revenge!”

Sasuke’s eyes are burning now, his throat aches and his voice comes out thick as he screams, “HE KILLED OUR FUCKING PARENTS! WHAT THE HELL WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?!

Naruto’s pupils lengthen out to slits and the night air is suddenly boiling hot as he roars, “OH I’LL SHOW YOU WHAT THE FUCK I WOULD’VE DONE!”

Naruto holds one hand out, badly burned palm out, and starts to gather chakra. He uses his other hand to start pulling it into a ball as it starts to spin, glowing brighter and hotter as it speeds up. Naruto springs towards him– Sasuke lets out a war cry and gathers lightning chakra in his chest, thrusting it all down his arm and into his hand. He shoves all the excess chakra into his feet to give him a burst of speed as he charges in to meet Naruto head on.

Naruto leaps into the air when he’s only a few yards away, the imperfect Rasengan’s light leaving an arcing trail behind him as he flies toward Sasuke and starts coming down through the air right towards Sasuke’s head. Sasuke keeps charging and swings his arm up on a collision course with Naruto's ribs.

Sasuke sees Naruto’s face, starkly lit in the bright blue light from the Chidori and Rasengan. He sees the light playing off the beads on his bracelet, the one Naruto had shoved in his face as a birthday present Sasuke had never asked for. That Naruto had given him before telling him how much he respected Sasuke. That Naruto had given him before making him promise they would protect Sakura.

One thought crystalizes, order in the perfect chaos of Sasuke’s mind: I can’t do this.

Sasuke grabs his own wrist with his other hand and forces it away. The chidori hits the dirt with a resounding crash and sends dirt clods and dust flying up in a jagged line as Sasuke’s momentum keeps him going. He forces his hand to stay down, forces himself to keep going, until the light dies out and the strength leaves his legs. He collapses in a pile of jelly-like bones and aching muscle, takes heaving breaths that make his lungs burn with strain, keeps his eyes square on the ground. He waits out the adrenaline and starts to shake. Only then does he pick himself up and look over his shoulder for Naruto.

Only one hand, planted in the center of a spiral scar in the ground, is keeping Naruto propped up and able to claim he’s not lying in the dirt. That spiral scar is right where Sasuke’s feet had been a second or two before he’d changed course. Naruto stares at the groove in the dirt, eyes wide, mouth agape, before he lets his arm buckle, the rest of his body falling with it. Sasuke only has a second to see his face before he presses it into the ground, but a second is all he needs to identify the emotion twisting his features.


Sasuke lets out a sigh and hobbles over to Naruto’s side. He flops down near his head, and neither of them say a word, letting the sound of the waterfall and night birds fill the deep, heavy silence between them.

Sasuke bends first; “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for getting Sakura hurt. I’m sorry for being petty and jealous and… I don’t know if we were friends, or are friends, but if we are, or were, I’ve probably also been a pretty shitty friend. I’m sorry. For all of it.”

Naruto doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. When he finally turns his head to look at Sasuke, he’s smiling. Sasuke doesn’t know what to do with that.

Naruto rasps around panting breaths, “Sasuke. I gave you a birthday present that I bought with my food money. We’re friends– Believe it.”

Naruto holds the smile for maybe a second before his face crumples, tears cutting crooked lines through the layer of dirt on his face; “I should've grabbed Sakura and ran. Why did I fight that stupid fish guy? That was stupid. I was so stupid.”

Sasuke shook his head; “There’s no way I could beat Itachi– Sakura said as much. I shouldn’t have challenged him. We should’ve just gotten you out. I was being stupid.”

Naruto lets out a choked laugh; “We’re the biggest idiots in the village.”

Sasuke nods, a smile finally crossing his face; “There’s no one dumber than us in the whole country.”

He takes one of Naruto’s hands and turns it over– The burns had already been bad, and that last attempt at the Rasengan had just made them worse. It’s a mess of raw-meat pink and charcoal black in swirling circular patterns across Naruto's palms. Sasuke calls up soothing cyan chakra and it washes over the burned area, his hand shaking ever so slightly and leaving tiny scars in the wake of his work. It’s better than nothing.

“Everything you said about me is true,” Sasuke murmurs, staring intently at Naruto’s hand so he won’t have to look at his face, “I’m selfish. I’m selfish and I drag everyone down along with me. But I… I’m trying not to be. That might be the only way for me to get stronger. What do you think?”

Sasuke turns to look at Naruto. Naruto is looking at nothing. He’s finally passed out, eyes shut and mouth hanging open. If he were any more relaxed he’d be snoring. Sasuke snorts out a brief laugh and moves on to Naruto’s other hand.

He hears the shifting of rocks and a sharp gasp, then Shizune’s voice calling out, “Sasuke! Naruto! What happened?!”

Sasuke turns and Shizune is racing over to them, heeled sandals causing her to trip and stumble a few times on the rough terrain. She falls to her knees at Sasuke’s side and frets over him and Naruto both, shifting between the two of them with a harried energy that’s a bit overwhelming after the excitement of the past few minutes.

Sasuke speaks over Shizune’s fretting; “Were you watching us the whole time?”

Shizune turns to him, blinks rapidly; “What? No! I just got here, what happened?! Naruto’s hands are a mess, you’re both filthy, what did you both get into?!”

Sasuke just grins, lopsided and tired; “I’ll tell you as we walk. Help me carry him?”

Finally. Finally, the moment is right. They’d been tailing the kid for days, waiting for the moment to snatch him, but he’d either been right next to Tsunade or under Jiraiya’s watch or just staying up all night like the creepy little fucker he was. But now it’s the middle of the night, he’s alone, he’s exhausted, and he’s walking back to the hotel through the side streets. He’s all but begging to be kidnapped.

Even so, Gin Tsuchi opts to post up in the trees just on the other side of the fence, in direct contrast to Yoroi standing just within a dark alleyway. Kin had the guts to work their genjutsu out in the open, but Gin never did. That’s why she’d gone to the chunin exams and he hadn’t. That’s why she’d died, and for the moment, he’s still alive. And if he wants to stay that way, he needs to make sure Sasuke never sees him or the senbon. He’d stabbed them in the fence long before Sasuke was even within line of sight, placing them under the shadow of the tree– even darker now, in the middle of the night. If all goes well, Sasuke won’t know what hit him.

Gin fidgets in his perch and blows some long dark hair out of his eyes– Yeah right, all never goes well.

He watches Sasuke limp down the side street, eyes half open, and holds his breath. His eyes keep darting to Yoroi; he’s nearly invisible, all in black in the deep shadows of the alleyway. Sasuke passes the alleyway and Gin nearly doesn’t see the tiny nod from Yoroi– if it wasn’t for the barest glint of setting moonlight off his dark glasses Gin would’ve missed his cue entirely. But he doesn’t.

He pulls on the three strings in his hand, jingling the bells ever so slightly.

Sasuke stops in his tracks, brow furrowing, before he suddenly lurches forward. He’s likely seeing double right about now as the genjutsu dances on his inner ear, and in a few moments more he won’t be able to walk straight. Yoroi creeps out of the alleyway on silent feet. His features are covered, but Gin is sure he’s grinning beneath his mask. He raises his hands up, laces them together, ready to bring them down hard on the back of Sasuke’s neck…

And then he opens his big, arrogant mouth; “Not the ‘round two’ I was hoping for, but at least it’ll be fast.”

Gin grits his teeth in a grimace as Sasuke proves his reaction time to be much faster than either of them anticipated, whirling around and instead taking Yoroi’s double axe handle to the forehead.

The force of the blow sends Sasuke staggering backward, out of Yoroi’s reach, and Gin frantically rings the bells again. Sasuke sways like a drunkard as the sound hits his ears. Yoroi closes the distance, wrapping his fingers around Sasuke’s throat and lifting him up. But instead of chokeslamming him straight down Yoroi flings him further down the alleyway, putting two yards of distance between him and Sasuke. Gin bites down hard on his lower lip– he knew it was a bad idea for them to send someone who’d already beaten Sasuke once, he’s overconfident, he doesn’t realize how much can change in two months.

Sasuke drags himself back up to his feet and shuts his eyes tight, paying no mind to Yoroi’s advance. When he opens them again, it’s the bright blood red of the Sharingan.

Gin gasps and swears under his breath– The genjutsu is auditory, but that’s not the problem. With the Sharingan his eyes will be sharp enough to see the thin shapes of the senbon and wire, even in the darkness. Right on cue Sasuke looks over his shoulder, eyes locking on the senbon. He hastily grabs a handful of shuriken from the pack on his waist and throws them at Yoroi, giving him cover to scramble towards the senbon. Gin swears out loud this time; he doesn’t care if Sasuke hears him, he needs to yank the senbon free of the fence and get the hell out of here before–

It’s too late. Sasuke’s hand closes around one of the wires.

Bright blue lightning chakra comes surging up the string from Sasuke’s hand and hits Gin– The shock isn’t enough to kill, but it sends him into convulsions so violent he lets go of the strings and falls out of the tree. He smacks his head on the ground and now its his turn for his vision to swim as the genjutsu falls and Sasuke regains his bearings, shaking his head once to clear it before turning away.

Gin can only watch the rest happen in a helpless daze. Sasuke darts back in and kicks Yoroi up into the air, before flickering like a shadow and appearing behind his back. He keeps kicking Yoroi higher and higher, knocking him around like a pinball, before finally appearing above him and slamming his good leg down into Yoroi’s stomach. Yoroi plummets back down and hits the ground so hard it craters– the impact shakes Gin out of his daze, but when Yoroi hits there’s a sickening crack and he goes limp.

Sasuke lands heavy on his good leg and pushes up with a wince, striding over to Gin with murder in his eyes. Gin tries to scramble away on the heels of his hands, but even with his bad leg Sasuke’s faster. He grabs Gin by the throat and pushes him up against the fence.

The impact shoves the words out of his mouth; “J-just fucking kill me! Please! Get it over with already!”

Sasuke quirks an eyebrow; “You want me to kill you?”

“It’ll be better than what Orochimaru does to me if he finds out I failed,” he babbles, nigh-incoherent, “He told me what happened to Kin and Dosu, I-I’m not gonna go that way, I’m not! Just kill me, have some fucking mercy!”

Sasuke narrows his eyes, tomoe drifting around his pupil like sharks circling a wounded seal; “Not yet. You’re going to tell me what you know about Orochimaru and Tsunade’s deal first.”

“What?! They don’t tell me about that shi–!” Sasuke squeezes down hard on Gin’s windpipe, turning his exclamation into a wheeze, “Okay! Okay okay okay just let go!

Sasuke’s grip loosens in time with Gin’s lips; “I-I dunno a lot, he was gonna bring back her boyfriend and kid brother or something, they’re supposed to meet at dawn at Tanzaku Castle, I swear I don’t know anything else, now please just fuckin’ kill me already please!

Sasuke stares him down for long enough that Gin knows he’s considering it. Then his hand opens and Gin drops to the ground.

“Go to the Leaf Village, do it fast while Orochimaru’s preoccupied,” Sasuke mutters, “Tell them you’re surrendering in exchange for asylum. Tell them everything you know and you’ll be protected.”

Sasuke stalks away into the night. The adrenaline filters out of his system, and Gin starts giggling uncontrollably. The laughter is one part wry, two parts manic. The kid’s so fucking naiive– there’s nowhere to hide in the Leaf village. The place is still jam-packed with Sound spies, so is every other hidden village. There’s nowhere to hide.

Gin has a feeling Orochimaru would find some irony in him crushing the false tooth in the back of his jaw. His body starts to convulse as the cyanide seeps into his system, his mouth starts to fill with blood, saliva, and vomit, and all Gin can think before he passes out and suffocates is that this is still a far better way to go than any death Orochimaru would've given him.

 The smart thing to do would have been to turn his ass right back around, tell Shizune everything, find Jiraiya, and hunker down somewhere Orochimaru couldn't find him or Naruto. Sasuke knows that. He’s tired, he’s sore, his chakra reserves are at best half full thanks to the blows Yoroi managed to land siphoning it away, he’s a high-value target that could make a fight more complicated and risky than it needs to be– He’d be a liability on the battlefield. Sasuke knows this, too.

And he’s leaping across rooftops towards the castle anyway.

In the slowly brightening dawn he pushes himself forward, ignoring every cry from his aching, strained muscles and landing hard on his good leg so his bad one can’t trip him up. He’s breathing in harsh wheezes like a horse pulling a train and doesn’t allow himself to slow down, to stop, to look anywhere but dead ahead at the castle as it comes closer and closer. In the dawn light the white walls look pale gold. On any other morning it would be beautiful.

Sasuke lands on the tiled roof with a clatter and finally pauses to steady himself. He takes another normal step and the tiles shift noisily under his feet– he swears under his breath and drops down into a tactical crawl. He runs through a few hand signs, and his perception dims– sounds grow muffled, and world grows just a bit darker, like a cloud had passed over the sun. No wonder they call it Invisible Cloak Jutsu, Sasuke feels like he’s crawling under a heavy down blanket as he creeps across the roof.

He turns his head as far as he can to either side as he crawls, looking for anything out of the ordinary, and he quickly finds it– A pair of figures, hazy from the distance in the soft morning light. Sasuke inches towards them, forcing himself to take deep breaths. In, he pulls forward with his right arm. Out, he pulls forward with his left. If that’s who he thinks it is, he can’t risk them discovering him before he has a chance to do anything. For once in his life, Sasuke Uchiha has to be patient. And for once in his life, it pays off– Sasuke crawls until he’s lying parallel to the two figures, and neither one has noticed him…

Sasuke’s breath catches in his windpipe. Right below him, beside a demolished section of the castle wall, stand two of the legendary sannin. Tsunade’s red-rimmed eyes are heavy-lidded, the look on her face one of blank resignation as she regards the other figure over several yards of distance. The man across from her with his long dark hair, reptilian gold eyes, and hands wrapped entirely in bandages, can only be Orochimaru.

Sasuke stares at Tsunade's face and his mind fits the last two pieces of the puzzle together– She’s going to do it.

He leaps to his feet, drops his genjutsu and shouts at the top of his lungs, “WAIT!

Sasuke’s voice draws both sets of eyes up to his perch, and he does his best to stand tall while he still has the high ground.

Tsunade’s eyes are wide enough to hurt, her posture corpse-stiff, and her voice coming out in a whisper, “Sasuke…” she forces herself to glare and shouts up at him, “You can’t leave me alone for five minutes, you little shit?!

Orochimaru couldn’t care less about Tsunade’s performance. His mouth falls open into a wide grin, needle-fangs glinting in the morning light. He looks seconds away from salivating.

When he speaks it’s with an almost musical lilt; “Good morning, Sasuke! It seems your good breeding has paid off, it’s so polite of you to just waltz right up instead of making me chase you down.”

Sasuke hops carefully down to the ground and bites down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from wincing as pain lances up his bad leg. He strides forward, purposeful, and comes to a stop between Orochimaru and Tsunade. He stares down Orochimaru, the first good look he’s gotten at him– with his arms hanging limp by his sides, the thin sheen of sweat on his pallid skin, and the deep circles under his eyes, Sasuke reasons that Orochimaru shouldn’t be intimidating. But his eyes keep drawing back to his teeth, long and sharp. What would it have felt like, to be bitten, to have those fangs sink deep into his flesh and brand him? His mind keeps pulling back to Sakura, how she’d lain in feverish agony for nine hours to keep him from having to do the same, and his stomach feels like it’s collapsing in on itself.

Orochimaru would have to unhinge his jaw to grin any wider; “To what do we owe the pleasure, Sasuke?”

Sasuke can feel his hands shaking but he doesn’t have time for fear; “I came to make a deal. I want you to give Tsunade what you promised her and release the cursed seal you put on Sakura. In exchange…” he has to take a deep breath, in through his nose out through his mouth, to keep his voice from trembling, “I’ll go with you. And you can do whatever it is you wanted to do with me back in the Forest of Death. If you hold up your end of the bargain… I won’t put up a fight.”

Tsunade’s voice from behind him comes out in a horrified whisper; “Sasuke, what the–?!”

Orochimaru meanwhile is staring at him, naked shock plastered all over his face; “… Really? Really? That’s not rhetorical I need confirmation it cannot be this easy.”

Sasuke balls his hands up into white-knuckled fists; “I give you my word, as a Leaf shinobi and heir to the Uchiha Clan. If you give Tsunade what she wants and free my friend, my life is yours.”

Orochimaru is grinning again, and he lets his head loll to the side as he wonders, “Sweet little Sakura I understand, you do so adore your pretty little flower, but what profit is there for you in enabling an old slug queen?

“Because I know what you were offering,” Sasuke replies, slowly, “And I don’t think she’s wrong to want her family back.”

Tsunade’s grip on Sasuke’s shoulder is strong but warm, her hand soft from years of healing chakra washing over it; “That’s enough, Sasuke.”

Sasuke turns to her, mouth open to protest, but the words die before they hit even the back of his tongue. Tsunade is smiling down at him, eyes glistening with unshed tears. She gently moves him behind her and he can’t take his eyes off her for even a moment as she plants herself resolutely between him and Orochimaru.

“I was almost going to do it, you know,” she says, voice straining around the lump in her throat, “Even though I knew you would never give up your dream of destroying the village, even though I knew Nawaki and Dan would never want this… The thought of being able to hold them in my arms again, even for a moment…” her breath hitches, caught on a sob she can’t choke all the way down, “But things have changed. Thanks to another two boys with more heart than brains, I finally remembered more than how they died. I remembered how they lived. They lived their lives full of love for the village and love for others, and if I’m going to carry this grief with me until I die I can also carry their dream with me, and I can keep them alive in my heart.”

Orochimaru just sneers in the face of Tsunade’s declaration; “That’s all very touching, but if neither of us will yield then we’re officially at an impasse. I’m afraid you’ve given me no choice but to do things the hard way.”

Tsunade wipes at her eyes, and her voice evens out as she says, “Sasuke, listen closely. If you want to be a medic, there’s four rules you need to obey no matter what. First– No medic shall ever stop treatment until their whole team has fallen. Second– No medic shall ever stand on the front lines. Third– No medic shall ever die until they’re the last man standing. And Fourth…”

She turns to him with a smile and points with her thumb to the rhombus in the center of her forehead; “Any medic who masters the Strength of a Hundred Seal can ignore the first three rules.”

There’s a gust of wind, stronger than any storm, and faster than Sasuke’s eyes can track Tsunade is no longer in front of him. She’s in the air, plummeting straight down, leg poised to slam down on the top of Orochimaru’s skull. Orochimaru waits until the last possible moment before he blurs out of sight and Tsunade’s leg makes contact with the ground.

The ground breaks.

It splits into giant shards of earth, buckling under the force of the blow and flying up into the air. The foundations of the nearby walls all but dissolve, the rest of the wall crumbling with them. The shockwave knocks Sasuke off his feet and onto his ass– Orochimaru lands almost delicately on the roof the nearby castle wall, wobbling as he braces against the tremors left in Tsunade’s wake. Tsunade moves with a fluidity that nearly seems casual as she rises up to her full height, doffing her jacket and letting it fly wherever the wind will take it.

“Come on, Orochimaru,” she calls, the tone of it just a hair shy of playful, “Don’t tell me you’re too chicken to fight a girl!

Orochimaru’s grin is wild and the cackle that comes from his mouth pure glee; “You haven’t missed a step, have you, Tsunade? It’s so interesting that we’ve never fought before!”

“Then get down here and fight!” Tsunade shouts as she darts forward again, fist connecting with the wall and shattering it under Orochimaru’s feet.

Tsunade is fast but Orochimaru is faster, blurring again before landing heavy in a tree just on the other side of the wall– once again he wobbles upon landing, unable to use his arms to steady himself, and Tsunade doesn’t give him an inch. She’s over to the tree in an instant, wrapping her arms around the trunk in a bear hug. She doesn’t even let out a token grunt of effort before she’s wrenched it out of the ground, roots and all. She spins around twice, swinging the tree in giant circles, before letting it go flying over the far wall. Orochimaru manages to kick off it, but lets himself fly in the same direction, disappearing over the wall and out into the surrounding plains.

“Oh no you don’t,” Tsunade growls. She doesn’t run. She doesn’t jump. She just strides forward, kicking the far wall and making it yield to her, the structure bursting outward in a hail of stone to create an exit six feet wide.

She spares one last glance over her shoulder; “Stay here.”

Sasuke just stares back at her, eyes wide, mouth hanging open. He’s certain he knew how to speak at some point, but he’s completely forgotten every word in the common tongue.

Tsunade nods and turns back to the field, stalking out towards the fallen tree and distant shape of Orochimaru.

Sasuke doesn’t even wait one minute before he’s scrambling to his feet and following on her heels.

Chapter Text

xvii. It’s not the devastation at the scene that lets Kabuto know the deal went sour. Oh no, he’d figured that out the second he felt the earth rumble under his feet and saw clouds of dust and dirt nearly eclipse the castle. He’d pushed his pace up to double time when the tree went flying.

He lands on one of the still-standing walls and surveys the damage– cratering and blown-out structures on this scale are usually the result of explosions, but even without the telltale scorch marks Kabuto knows better. He saw what Tsunade could do in a fit of random rage. This destruction is calculated. Which in one respect is helpful, as it leaves an easily-followed trail. In another respect, he’d better get on following it right now if he wants to keep Tsunade from tearing Orochimaru’s arms off.

Kabuto curses under his breath as he drops down from the wall and dashes out towards the plains; he would’ve preferred to approach under the cover of genjutsu, but out in this wide-open space there’s no point. Besides, he’s running far behind schedule thanks to having to move the bodies of Gin and Yoroi. He should’ve just grabbed Sasuke himself, had this whole farce over and done with in an evening.

Kabuto nearly trips over his own feet when right on cue he catches a shape running ahead of him– a predominantly dark blue shape, with a red and white fan embroidered on its back.

“Finally, something salvageable,” he hisses to himself before darting forward, shoving a tiny burst of chakra into his feet with every footfall to increase his momentum.

He knew stealth would be the price to pay for speed and his suspicions prove correct as Sasuke stops in his tracks and whirls around, eyes wide and Sharingan spinning. Kabuto’s moving so fast he doesn’t have time for a precision strike– he grabs Sasuke by the face just as it’s starting to twist in confusion and slams him down, dragging him through in the dirt. His momentum betrays him and he loses his grip on Sasuke, both of them spinning out and away from each other. Sasuke tries to push himself up but Kabuto needs him down and down fast if he’s going to grab Sasuke and escape with Orochimaru before Tsunade crushes anything important.

He coats his hand in chakra, hones it to a razor’s edge, and darts in– He dashes right past Sasuke, tapping his left thigh with a feather-light touch, but that’s all it takes. The chakra scalpel reaches far below the surface and severs a tendon. Before he even knows what’s going on Sasuke lets out a sharp cry and his bad leg buckles bonelessly beneath him. He manages to catch himself again and grits his teeth against the pain.

Kabuto frowns; “Now that I think about it, you’re probably used to maneuvering with that leg as dead weight. I’ll go for the right next time.”

With the shock out of his system fury quickly replaces it as Sasuke snarls, “Like Hell you will!”

Sasuke comes in low and pushes up into Kabuto’s face, drawing the tantō from his belt and slashing for his throat. Kabuto doesn’t have time to grab a kunai to parry it and has to use his chakra-coated hand instead– the blade digs into his palm and the sudden jolt of pain breaks his concentration, the chakra’s sharp edge dissolving out into the air. Sasuke’s tomoe whirl and he throws two punches stolen straight from Rock Lee, one Kabuto ducks under and the other slamming right into his nose. His glasses shatter with the force of the impact and he goes staggering back, Sasuke following on his heels as his hand opens from a fist into a Hyuuga palm thrust.

Just as Kabuto is wondering what the Hell that’s going to do without a Byakugan the hand disappears in a blaze of teal chakra that slams right into his sternum. Kabuto’s pulse skyrockets and his vision tunnels, his mind briefly going blank at the hands of a tactic he’d used many times. He would’ve passed out if Sasuke didn’t grab him by the collar and sock him in the stomach, the pain forcing him back into the moment. He gathers chakra around two fingers and taps them against the arm grabbing his collar– Sasuke lets out another strangled cry as his hand spasms and Kabuto’s able to pull away.

Kabuto backpedals on unsteady legs as he tries to force his pulse to calm down, desperate to get some distance between them but unsure what to do with it when he does. Sasuke may be surprisingly deadly up close, but so is Kabuto, and Sasuke’s bound to try getting in even closer now that Kabuto’s severely hampered his ability to form hand signs. He needs to pull this fight closer to Orochimaru, get a numbers advantage, do anything to keep this from becoming a fair fight. He tosses kunai and shuriken to goad Sasuke into following at a safe distance while he retraces Tsunade’s path of broken ground further out into the field.

He can only hope Orochimaru is having better luck than he is.

Tsunade’s fist makes contact with Orochimaru’s cheek and he only has a few seconds to feel the crunch of his cheekbone breaking before he goes flying.

Without his arms he doesn’t have the balance necessary to change his position in midair and lands hard on his shoulder, skipping along the ground like a stone over calm water before finally rolling to a stop several hundred feet away. He may not be in the best shape of his life, but neither is Tsunade– while she catches her breath he can stagger up to his feet. His vision blurs but that’s not an issue. He’s had worse than this when he’s drunk. The spots dancing across it, however, are doing nothing to help his increasingly sour mood.

There’s a boulder nearby and Orochimaru runs up it with a trivial effort of chakra to get a better look out over the plains. Tsunade is advancing towards him, but she’s not what catches his eye. Behind her he can make out two dark shapes, one topped with a shock of pale gray hair and the other dragging a leg behind it.

“What on Earth took him so long?!” Orochimaru spits.

He calculates distances in a matter of seconds. He can get to Kabuto, maybe even with time to spare before Sasuke closes in on him, but Tsunade is still faster. And if he heads for Kabuto he’ll be going towards her, giving her yet another chance to send him flying even farther away. If he could just use his fucking arms this wouldn’t be a problem–

He grits his teeth and forces himself to breathe. No time for focusing on what he can’t do. He still has options… In fact, he has the perfect option, if he can play it just right.

Orochimaru leaps down from the boulder and charges straight for Tsunade. She doesn’t flinch, letting out a piercing war cry as she thunders towards him. Tsunade never flinched, never drew away, and at least for a moment she almost seems like the same woman he fought beside all those years ago.

But the only predictable thing about people is that they change.

Orochimaru’s mouth drops open into a wide grin and he unhinges his jaw– Kusanagi’s blade slides out, leaving only the hilt still in his throat. Tsunade sees its glint in the pale sunlight. Her eyes go wide and her steps falter.

She’s flinched. That would be enough for some, but Orochimaru doesn’t leave anything up to chance. His neck shoots out, looping through the air, and in the opening she created he stabs straight for Tsunade’s chest. She lets out a high gasp and muscle memory takes over. She moves to parry, forgetting that she doesn’t have a blade of her own, and Kusanagi leaves long, clean slices stuttering diagonally across her palms and forearms.

Blood, bright and wet, spurts out from her radial and ulnar arteries.

Tsunade’s breath catches. Her eyes watch the spray of the blood, as if Orochimaru isn’t even there, and she loses her footing. Tsunade collapses to her knees, shaking like a leaf as she stares in naked terror at the blood running down her arms, dripping from her elbows onto the grass. Orochimaru can’t help it; he pauses, just to stare down at her, the woman he still knows better than he knows himself. He shakes his head, clicks his tongue.

He swallows Kusanagi and sighs, “The timing is never quite right for us, is it, Tsunade? Our ships will have to pass each other this night too.”

That’s all the time he can afford to waste. He’s off like a shot towards Kabuto once again, but as he crosses the distance he starts to think even that was too much– three more shapes are making their way across the plains from the demolished castle. And one is a blinding shade of orange.

He shouts, “Stop toying with Sasuke and grab him, Kabuto! We’re running out of time!”

Kabuto starts to shout back, “It is not that easy!” before he’s forced to pivot, parrying Sasuke’s tantō with a kunai as he tries to strike at Kabuto’s flank. Kabuto’s free hand flares sharp blue and Sasuke twists away, the blow grazing his already limp leg. Kabuto manages to sever a tendon in the knee and the leg goes completely limp, knee bending almost all the way backward. Sasuke can’t keep himself from falling heavy to the ground in the face of that.

It’s the perfect opening. Orochimaru’s neck stretches hard and fast, his head shooting for the closest patch of Sasuke’s skin he can reach with his fangs primed and ready to bite down. Finally everything is getting back on schedule–

Instead of flesh Orochimaru tastes steel. Sasuke strikes for his open mouth with his tantō and he’s forced to bite down on the blade to keep it from cutting into his cheeks or tongue. Sasuke pushes hard with his blade, Orochimaru’s teeth scrape painfully against it as he clamps down harder to keep it still. While he’s pinned in place, testing his strength against Sasuke’s, Orochimaru can see Kabuto from the corner of his eyes frantically unwinding the bandages on his arm with one hand and biting down hard on his free thumb.

Orochimaru flexes the muscles in his throat and Kusanagi comes shooting back up, clashing against Sasuke’s blade and knocking him away. Sasuke reels back, eyes wide and tomoe cartwheeling, and only barely manages to parry and riposte Orochimaru’s next strike. Orochimaru’s long, nimble neck loops easily around Sasuke’s stabbing thrust and he slashes for his spasming right arm. Sasuke has to turn his entire body to block the blow, and even still there’s so much more of Kusanagi’s blade that he can’t avoid a shallow cut across his cheek.

Orochimaru laughs, the sound wet and stretched around the sword in his throat; “Impressive as always, Sasuke, but I’m afraid there’s not much contest when you bring a knife to a sword fight!”

Sasuke’s eyes dart just past him before coming back to glare at him; “What did you do to Tsunade?!”

Orochimaru lets out another hissing chuckle; “Nothing she won’t survive. The only thing keeping her frozen there is her own fear and weakness. She was a poor choice of mentor–”

And that was a poor choice of words. Sasuke’s face twists with rage as cyan chakra surges down his spasming arm, forcing the spasms to stop, and he’s making hand signs faster than Orochimaru can track them. He only realizes what Sasuke’s doing when he puts one hand up to his mouth and takes a deep breath in. Orochimaru starts to reel his head back as fast as he can pull it. He’s been burned by Uchiha fire before, he is not letting it happen again.

He doesn’t have a choice– He’s fast but breath is faster, and the air ignites in a sphere of heat and light. It burns through the grass down to the soil and catches the side of Orochimaru’s face, igniting the edges of his hair and burning away the skin on his broken cheek. As the fire dissipates Orochimaru sees a form come flying through it and a sandaled heel connects with his eye.

Naruto’s voice slams into his eardrums at the same time his foot slams into his face; “LEAVE SASUKE ALONE YOU GROSS OLD SNAKE!

Orochimaru finally pulls his head all the way back to his shoulders, just in time to see Naruto land in a low crouch in front of Sasuke. Jiraiya isn’t far behind him and neither is Tsunade’s plain little assistant. Jiraiya lands somewhat unsteadily but draws up to his full height so he can more effectively glare down his nose at Orochimaru; Shizune kneels at Sasuke’s side as the boy lurches forward, retching up all the nothing in his stomach.

Naruto’s confidence quickly turns to confusion as his eyes dart all around the battlefield; “Wait a minute, what’s wrong with Sasuke?! And what’s Kabuto doing here? Why’s Tsunade just sitting over there? Wh–?”

“One question at a time, Naruto,” Sasuke coughs, “How many fucking times does shit like this have to happen before–” he cuts himself off by retching again.

Shizune’s voice comes out fast and clipped as she gives Sasuke a quick field examination; “Someone’s used a Chakra Scalpel to sever several muscles in Sasuke’s left leg and right arm, and he’s nearing Chakra Exhaustion– Nausea’s an early warning sign.”

Jiraiya’s voice is hard and authoritative; “Naruto, Sasuke, get over to Tsunade and get her head back in the game. Shizune, Four Eyes over there is all yours. Orochimaru is mine.

“Am I now,” Orochimaru calls, “I think you’re going to have to learn how to share, Jiraiya!”

Kabuto drags a streak of his blood across the summoning calligraphy on Orochimaru’s arm and in a loud puff white smoke engulfs them both. He feels the great snake appear under his feet and rear up through the smoke, its head towering several stories above the battlefield. The second snake slithers out of the smoke and goes straight for Shizune, putting her on the backstep as she fires poisoned needles at it’s wide-open mouth. Kabuto is nowhere to be seen.

“Good, he’s finally fighting seriously,” Orochimaru mutters just as Jiraiya appears behind him, clinging to the snake’s back and glaring at him with death in his eyes, “I suppose it’s time I do the same.”

Kabuto crawls out from the smoke, a simple but perfectly executed Invisible Cloak jutsu layered over him as he brings himself up into a crouch. His vision is blurry at a distance, but he doesn’t need precision to see the bright orange and dark blue of Naruto and Sasuke sprinting and hobbling over to Tsunade, just as Jiraiya ordered them to. He follows their path, keeping close enough to hear them speak.

“Come on Sasuke, what’s wrong with the old lady?!”

“I don’t know now come on!

Naruto doubles back and grabs Sasuke under the shoulder, all but carrying him the rest of the way to Tsunade. Sasuke lurches out of his grasp and shuffles around to kneel in front of Tsunade, grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her. She blinks rapidly, trying to keep her eyes focused on Sasuke and not the blood splattered around her on the grass.

“Tsunade, snap out of it, we need you!” Sasuke hisses as he shakes her.

Tsunade’s voice comes out soft, unsteady; “I thought… I thought I told you to stay behind…”

“You can kick my ass later,” he mutters, taking her forearms and placing them in his lap as he coats his hands with healing chakra, “You need to kick Orochimaru’s ass now.”

Kabuto scoffs to himself– If he didn’t already know it’d be easy to guess that was the only medical ninjutsu he knew, considering how Sasuke treats Mystical Palm like a cheap parlor trick to pull out whenever he wants to impress someone. Just like a gifted rich kid to want to skip over all the hard, bone-breaking work it takes to actually properly learn medicine. If he ever learns how to use something as refined as a chakra scalpel Kabuto will eat his sandals.

Naruto’s head suddenly jerks around to look over his shoulder, right at Kabuto. It finally occurs to him that while he was glaring down his nose at Sasuke he’d scoffed out loud. He drops the cloak, and Naruto doesn’t immediately jump into a defensive stance. He instead stares at him, head tilted to one side, brows furrowed in pure, honest confusion.

Naruto wonders out loud, “No seriously, what are you doing here, Kabuto? Why aren’t you back in the Leaf village?”

Kabuto crosses the distance in a flash and grabs Naruto by the collar; “I’m betraying you, you little fool.”

Naruto only has time to widen his eyes before Kabuto throws him towards a boulder and he slams right into it, falling to the ground with a gasp as the impact knocks the wind out of him. Sasuke pushes himself up to his one good knee, gritting his teeth and blocking Tsunade with his body. Kabuto just shakes his head– Sasuke may be strong, but he has all the composure of a raging bull just about as much chakra. This won’t be hard.

“Tsunade’s teaching you well already,” Kabuto snickers, gesturing to Tsunade with his bleeding thumb, “You’re cowering like a professional.”

Sasuke’s face contorts into another livid snarl and he forces himself up to his feet; “If you don’t shut your mouth–!”

Tsunade starts to speak, choking out only, “Sasuke, don’t,” but Kabuto makes sure to shout over her, “Oh please, tell me what you’re going to do with one leg and no chakra. Face it, you’re spent.”

Kabuto adjusts his shattered glasses and twists the knife one last time; “Don’t put up a fight, Sasuke– Follow your clan’s example.”

Sasuke’s eyes go wide, his tomoe spin so fast they’re a black blur in a red sky. Kabuto grins, sharpening a chakra scalpel around one hand– hook line and sinker. Sasuke lets out an incoherent war cry, lurching towards Kabuto surprisingly fast on one leg. He throws a punch and Kabuto weaves around it, one hand grabbing Sasuke by the back of the collar while the other taps him on the right hip before taking a handful of his shorts. He tosses Sasuke back behind him, sending him flying several yards before he comes rolling to a stop. He hisses in pain, hands clutching at his right hip, his right leg twitching violently but not moving.

“I’d tell you to stay put until I’m done, but I don’t think you have much of a choice,” Kabuto calls over his shoulder, “Don’t worry, I won’t be long.”

He turns back to Tsunade. The once proud Sannin’s eyes are darting frantically around the battlefield, never settling in one place for long as the fear in her eyes solidifies into something more concrete. Good. She should be scared of Orochimaru, of him. Her eyes finally zero in on Kabuto as he comes closer and she starts to crawl away on the heels of her hands and feet, but she’s still fighting off catatonia– there is no way she can outpace him. Kabuto keeps walking at a leisurely pace. He has all the time in the world.

A shrill voice breaks the silence; “STEP OFF, CREEP!

All Kabuto has time to think before a sandal slams into the side of his face is, Evidently not.

Naruto’s kick sends him spinning but Kabuto catches himself in time to see the orange nuisance land ten feet away before another Naruto comes barreling in from the same direction. He has just enough time to get into a defensive stance but not enough to gather chakra– Kabuto manages to grab Naruto’s shoulder when he gets in striking range, forcefully redirecting his punch away from his gut. He grabs the opposing arm before hooking one leg around one of Naruto’s and forcing him to the ground.

He tries to pin him down and start gathering chakra but Naruto thrashes wildly– he smacks his hard metal headband right into Kabuto’s chest, forcing a harsh gasp out of him, then with sharpening teeth he clamps down on Kabuto’s upper arm. Now it’s Kabuto’s turn to thrash. Pure instinct takes over, the primal desire to get something that is biting him to please stop doing that making him let go of Naruto’s body and instead grab his head. He’s so busy using his arms to try and wrench Naruto off he completely forgets about his legs and Naruto manages to untangle them before slamming his knee into Kabuto’s groin.

Kabuto was trained well enough to not immediately fall into the fetal position, but he curls in on himself slightly as Naruto scrambles away. His clone comes racing in and helps him up, drags them both to stand in front of Tsunade, then backs off as the real Naruto turns a feral growl Kabuto’s way.

“That’s it, asshole,” Naruto hisses as he holds one hand out to his side, chakra pulsing down it in such high quantities Kabuto can feel the heat of it sloughing off Naruto in waves, “I’m gonna shut you up for good, believe it!”

Naruto brings his other hand in and starts forcing the chakra in his hand into a loose sphere. For half a second, Kabuto nearly panics– But then he realizes how slowly Naruto’s gathering the chakra, how loose the bundle is, how hard he’s gritting his teeth to keep his concentration. This isn’t the Fourth Hokage, this is a child playing at being his father. Kabuto has all the time in the world.

He gets to his feet and prepares two more chakra scalpels, one on each hand, while he gets into another counter stance. Naruto sprints towards him long before the Rasengan is ready, chakra spooling off behind him like loose threads from a sweater. This time Kabuto dodges inward, grabbing Naruto around the shoulders and the waist, slicing any muscles and chakra paths he grazes along the way. The imperfect Rasengan sputters and coughs, blinking out as Kabuto hip-tosses Naruto in a circle and chucks him back to where he started. Naruto needs his clone to pull him up and steady him to be able to stand at all.

Kabuto clicks his tongue against his teeth; “Too slow, Naruto, far too slow.”

Behind him Tsunade’s hand clutches at her necklace, her expression pained. Good. She brought this on everyone. She should keep her eyes wide open and see what she’s wrought.

Kabuto stalks forward and grins, the expression twisted; “All that work, and in the end you’re just a victim of bad luck.”

There’s a sound like the cries of a thousand sparrows and a sharp pain in Kabuto’s side that blossoms across his entire body, forcing him into violent convulsions and shoving a scream out of his lungs as the lightning burns across them. His eyes roll into the back of his head and he only notices he’s foaming at the mouth when he starts to come back to consciousness. His head lolls forward, falling at the perfect angle to see the tip of Sasuke’s knife sticking out the front of his belly. Sasuke’s other hand, stiff and awkward, fists itself in Kabuto’s ponytail to keep him in place and keep himself upright.

Sasuke’s voice is rough and ragged, slinking out around harsh breaths; “There is no. Such thing. As luck.”

And then he screams the only two words that could make this worse: “NOW, NARUTO!

Kabuto’s head snaps up and there Naruto is, holding one hand out to his side, the shadow clone forming the maelstrom of chakra pouring down his arm into a highly compressed ball of chakra spinning faster than thought. Kabuto still has an opening, he can still dodge, Naruto’s a yard away he has to move– the second he tries to twist his torso there’s another sharp pain in his side and he looks frantically down. The only blood around the wound is on the knife. Everything else around it is perfect, unmarred flesh.

The crazy little shit had healed the wound seconds after making it, sealing the blade inside Kabuto’s torso. If he moved, the blade moved and dug into his organs. If he took it out, he opened a brand new wound that pierced all the way through his body and would definitely lead to him bleeding out. If he stayed where he was, Naruto was going to hit him with the Rasengan. And even if he did somehow turn around, Sasuke is right there behind him.

He’s trapped.

So he does the only thing a cornered rat can do: Get ready to bite the cat.

Naruto roars long and loud to announce his charge. The seconds stretch out in front of Kabuto like miles of empty road as he gathers what chakra he still has in his left hand and his core. He sharpens the chakra on his hand out into a scalpel and overlays the image of the chakra network on Naruto’s swift-approaching body in his mind. As the wind, heat and light from the spinning chakra orb threatens to overwhelm him, Kabuto focuses hard on Naruto’s heart, on the single intersection between dozens of chakra pathways that sits right on top of it.

The Rasengan hits his stomach and Kabuto slices for Naruto’s heart.

They connect at the exact same time and Kabuto doesn’t have the mental capacity to care that he might not have cut that as clean as he could have because it feels like Naruto’s drilling straight through his stomach with a tornado. The force of the blow sends him and Sasuke both skidding backward ten yards, their feet digging a trench in the dirt, and they slam so hard into the nearby boulder that it buckles and craters. Sasuke doesn’t lose his grip on the knife even as he slams back-first into stone, but it jostles the blade and sends harsh, biting pain surging up and down Kabuto’s body. It disrupts Kabuto’s concentration and he nearly drops the healing chakra working frantically to lessen the damage done by the Rasengan.

There’s going to be a scar, and for some reason that’s the thought that makes Kabuto finally snap.

The dust clears and he doesn’t let Sasuke catch his breath, slamming an elbow back into his nose and knocking his head back against the rock. The shock forces Sasuke to finally let go of the tantō’s hit and Kabuto staggers out of his grip; he only sticks around long enough to see Naruto spit up a gout of blood and fall backward. Kabuto only manages to get around to the other side of the boulder before hacking up blood and falling to one knee.

He curls up against the stone, breathing fast and hard. With one swift yank he pulls the tantō out and redirects a fresh surge of chakra to everywhere it touched while he tosses the blade out into the grass. He can’t afford to think of anything else but healing, focusing all his chakra into his core. The battle raging around him will have to wait its damn turn.

Sasuke scrambles on hands and knees toward Naruto, heart leaping up into his throat with every beat. Tsunade manages to get there first and presses one ear to Naruto’s chest.

Sasuke makes it to Naruto’s other side and Tsunade mutters, “Something’s wrong with his heart, I can’t tell exactly what through his clothes– Sasuke, unzip his jacket.”

His hands are shaking but he complies, pulling Naruto’s jacket open as Tsunade coats two fingers in chakra and sharpens the edge. She slices down along his shirt, using one hand to hold her wrist steady, then dulls the chakra’s edge before placing her fingers on his chest. Her eyes open in wide, unadulterated terror.

Tsunade’s voice comes out in a warble; “The muscles around his heart have been torn to shreds! How did he– It had to have been while the Rasengan was–”

Sasuke blurts out, “Can you fix him?!”

For longer than they can afford Tsunade stares down at Naruto, eyes wide, shoulders drawn in. With her younger guise Sasuke could almost believe she was a terrified rookie medic and not a legendary sannin. The fear in her eyes is painfully human.

Both of them are shocked out of their own heads when one of Naruto’s hands weakly rises up from his side, fingers grazing Tsunade’s necklace before dropping back to the grass. Their eyes dart up to Naruto’s face– His eyes are barely open, but there’s a ghost of a smile on his bloodstained lips.

“See? I won the bet,” Naruto slurs, eyelids dropping close, “Shoulda never looked down on me… believe it…”

Tsunade is silent for a moment longer, mouth agape. She shuts it into a soft, brilliant smile; she takes off her necklace and gently works it around Naruto’s neck. Then she meets Sasuke’s eyes. The resolution in her gaze is warm and stable like the earth beneath their feet.

“Yes, Sasuke,” she replies, “I can fix him.”

A whistle slices through the air and Sasuke’s eyes lock in on its source– Orochimaru is sailing through the air, Kusanagi unsheathed from his throat, honing in on all three of them. Sasuke’s body moves before he can tell it how, scrambling to block Naruto’s body with his own and jostling Tsunade out of the way. It startles her into looking over one shoulder and she moves too fast for Sasuke to stop her. She shoves him back and he goes toppling over, then turns to face Orochimaru, hands moving to parry without a blade and–

Blood splatters across Sasuke’s face. The tip of Kusanagi hovers two inches from his nose, sticking out from between Tsunade’s shoulder blades.

And Sasuke is eight years old again. He’s home, standing in the doorway to his parents’ bedroom, their blood staining the tatami black, Itachi standing over them with a sword at his side. He knows what these things mean but he can’t understand. He’s caught between wanting to scream and wanting to throw up. Tears are running hot down his cheeks. It’s all happening again. It’s going to happen again and again and again and it’s never going to end, not until he finally dies with them.

Sasuke is frozen. Sasuke is mute. Sasuke can do nothing but gaze in terror at what Orochimaru has wrought.

The sword slides out of Tsunade’s chest as Orochimaru sheathes it in his throat. Tsunade falls to one knee, giving Sasuke a brief look at Orochimaru’s face. His eyes are wide, mouth still hanging open. He looks… horrified.

Orochimaru comes down to meet her and hisses, “Tsunade, you’re the one person I don’t want to kill. Listen to me, if Uzumaki is allowed to live, it will mean more trouble than you can possibly imagine. Get out of my way. Please.”

“Go fuck yourself,” she chokes out, the sound wet and thick.

Orochimaru grits his teeth; “Why?! If the Akatsuki get their hands on this child, even if they don’t, he’s dangerous!

Tsunade shakes her head; “You’re not killing or taking either of these kids. That’s final.”

Orochimaru rears up, too fast for anyone to track; “Fine, I’ll cut through you if I have to!”

Kusanagi flashes up and out of his throat and towards Tsunade once more. She doesn’t even flinch, letting it slice a long, deep channel from her shoulder to her hip. Orochimaru neck stretches to try and loop around her but she twists to block Sasuke and Naruto with her back. The blade cuts a jagged line dangerously close to her spine and Tsunade lets out a harsh cry– her blouse is more red than gray, the sickly-sweet smell of blood overpowering anything else in the air.

Orochimaru falters again– his voice comes out in what can only be described as a panicked yelp; “What’s the point of this, Tsunade?! He isn’t Nawaki! They’re whelps you don’t know from a village that stole everything you ever cared about! This is a senseless waste–!

Tsunade’s heel comes spinning around and cracks him across the jaw.

Orochimaru corkscrews through the air, landing in a tangled heap. When he lands he has to reach up and re-hinge his jaw with a loud, bone-scraping snap. Sasuke’s eyes dart from him back to Tsunade. She’s standing tall, back straight as a pine, as curling black lines unfurl from the spot on her forehead where her rhombus seal used to be.

“Fine, you want a reason? I’ll give you a reason,” Tsunade snarls, “Because I’ve been chosen as the Fifth goddamn Hokage. These kids are under my protection. And I am not dying until I turn that village into something worth dying for.”

Orochimaru’s words rumble out of his throat, raw and furious; “Look at your wounds, Tsunade! I don’t think you have much choice in the matter!”

She grins, wolfish; “Don’t I?”

Tsunade laces her hands together in the tiger sign and chakra pulses out along her body; the lines scrawl off her forehead, around her entire body. Jets of steam trace the lines of her wounds, the flesh sealing itself closed, smooth and perfect. Only blood and torn clothing proves that Orochimaru did anything at all.

Tsunade throws her arms out wide and calls, “Go ahead, Orochimaru! Try to kill me! Stab me with Kusanagi, feed me to Manda, do your absolute worst– There’s nothing you can do that I can’t recover from!”

Orochimaru gawks at Tsunade in silence. After a moment or two more he closes his mouth, a manic giggle coming through his clenched teeth.

Then he turns on his heel and starts sprinting as hard as he can in the other direction. Kabuto finally comes out from behind his boulder to limp just a few steps behind him.

Jiraiya’s voice rings out from the clean other side of the battlefield; “Tsunade! Summon Katsuyu! We have to cut him off before he gets away again!”

Tsunade dabs her finger in some of her still-wet blood and starts to drag it down one arm, but stops and instead turns back to Naruto and Sasuke.

She kneels down and looks him in the eye; “I don’t know where Shizune is or what shape she’s in, so I need you to keep Naruto stabilized while we’re fighting Orochimaru. Understand?”

Sasuke’s brain feels paralyzed; “What?”

Tsunade grabs Sasuke’s face in both hands; “Sasuke! Listen to me! Naruto needs you to get a grip or he’s going to die! You need to keep his heart pumping and his chakra flowing until I’ve handled Orochimaru and can take over! Understand?

Sasuke can’t even form complete sentences anymore; “I- I don’t, I don’t know- He–”

Tsunade smooths his hair out of his face and states, “Sasuke, this is the job. You’re never going to be ready for what the battlefield throws at you. You just have to do it, because if you don’t people die. I can help you start, but after that it’s up to you. Do you understand me?

Sasuke has no other choice but to nod.

Tsunade places his hands on Naruto’s chest before folding her own over his. He can feel her chakra moving, feel her gently urging his and Naruto’s to follow as it flows through the severed chakra pathways and squeezes around Naruto’s heart, forcing it to beat. Sasuke copies her movements and feels out the network with his own leading lines of chakra to get a sense for how it moves throughout the body. Tsunade’s chakra flow is clean and effortless, following the paths of the network as if it was flowing naturally through her own body, squeezing in perfect time with the pulsing of chakra.

Sasuke’s control has never been that fine, even on its best days. But it’s going to have to be now.

Sasuke concentrates hard on the flow of chakra, the rhythm of heartbeat, his focus so intense that he doesn’t notice when Tsunade’s hands leave his. He doesn’t notice the giant slug, snake, and frog appear in the middle of the field, facing each other down in a scene out of legend. He notices when their strikes shake the ground but can only think about compensating for the shivers created in his chakra flow.

He doesn’t notice Shizune and a slightly smaller slug come near, guarding Sasuke and Naruto from any collateral damage. He doesn’t notice his hands shaking, his eyelids growing heavier, his lips turning blue.

Sasuke closes his eyes, turns off his Sharingan, feels nothing outside his chakra and what’s directly underneath his palms. He doesn’t open them again until he feels Tsunade’s hands again, soft and warm, close over top of his.

He drags his gaze up to Tsunade– the rhombus is back in place in the center of her forehead. His vision is swimming so he can’t be sure, but she seems like she might be smiling.

“It’s okay Sasuke, it’s okay,” he hears her say through a thick bank of fog, “You can stop now, it’s okay.”

His tongue feels like it’s made of felt; “Orochimaru, is he–?”

Tsunade’s hands come up to his shoulders and Sasuke’s eyes slide shut again. He falls forward and his face presses into something soft that smells like sweat, blood, and soap.

He feels a hand on the back of his head, stroking his hair; “He’s gone, I promise. You’re safe, you’re both safe. You did great, Sasuke, I’m so proud of you…”

That’s the last thing Sasuke hears before he finally passes out.

If any lesser medic were fixing Naruto’s shredded heart muscles or the many severed tendons in Sasuke’s leg, they would need total quiet, total darkness, half a day of preparation and a small army of other medics to help them concentrate on the process. Tsunade, in contrast, makes casual conversation while performing the procedures.

“You know, me and Sasuke, we’re not selfish,” she muses, soft teal chakra flowing from her palms into Sasuke’s thigh, “We’re self-centered.”

Jiraiya raises an eyebrow from where he sits at her side. He’s tired, sore, and sweaty enough that he’s taken off his headband and untied his hair. Shizune is busy stabilizing Naruto after Tsunade’s surgical work on his heart muscles and chakra pathways, so she’s in no position to lose it if he ribs her mistress a bit.

So he smirks and drawls, “Is there any real difference besides semantics?”

Tsunade snorts, “Yeah, actually. If you’re selfish, morals bend around you. Things are good if they’re good for you and they’re bad if they’re not what you wanted. But being self-centered means you think you’re the cause of every single problem, and you’re the only one who can fix them, since you created them in the first place.”

“So what you’re telling me,” Jiraiya remarks, smirk pulling into a grin, “Is that you’re actually a perfect choice for Hokage.”

She laughs, the first genuine laugh he’s heard from her in more than a decade; “I guess so– Grandpa thought that way too. So did Sarutobi. Minato… Well, you’d know better than I would.”

Jiraiya frowns, speaking as he thinks it through; “Minato wasn’t really concerned with why things happened, all told. When problems arose, he just knew they had to get fixed. And if he thought he could do it, he would.”

He’s staring hard at Naruto, he knows he is, but he’s too tired to try and hide it; “The kid’s a lot like him.”

Tsunade turns to him with a level look; “You’re going to have to tell him. Better you than anyone else at this point.”

Jiraiya lets out a long, heavy sigh; “I know.”

She finishes her work on Sasuke, her chakra flickering out. Her hands start to shake a bit, not tremors of nerves but simple exhaustion. They look thinner, somehow, the joints knobbier, some veins more prominent than before. Jiraiya follows her arms up to her face. He expects to be more shocked at what Tsunade really looks like than he actually is. She’s aged well, still beautiful with lines around her eyes and at the corners of her mouth, the muscles in her arms still strong and supple. She’s just Tsunade, the Tsunade he loves, but painted with a brush made from her experience and wisdom.

If anything, he loves her more like this.

She leans against his side and he pulls her as close as she’ll ever let him be. After years wondering if she was even alive, it’s more than enough.

“You know… When I first saw Orochimaru,” Tsunade murmurs, “I was happy. For half a second, I just… I thought I’d never see him again. I thought the last I’d hear of him was Shizune telling me more news from home, that some ANBU had tracked him down to the ass-end of the continent and assassinated him. But there he was…”

She scrubs at her eyes; “Fucking listen to me, I’m fifty-one years old but seeing Orochimaru turned me into a twelve year old kid again. What is wrong with me?

Jiraiya presses his cheek into Tsunade’s hair and he whispers, “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong with you.”

Tsunade shudders with sobs. Jiraiya stops fighting the tears. The remnants of Team Sarutobi cling to each other and finally take time to mourn all they’ve lost.

Orochimaru hasn’t said a single word to Kabuto since they fled the battlefield, using Manda as the most ill-advised meat shield possible. Kabuto has told him that they might not be able to procure enough sacrifices to appease Manda for that slight. He’s told him that the summoning itself was unwise, because if Manda learned of Orochimaru’s weakness he’d no doubt betray them. Kabuto has told him that without Tsunade’s help they’ll have to move him to a new body, and soon.

Orochimaru hasn’t responded to anything. He’s simply stalked ahead of Kabuto, trudging to the darkest, deepest chambers of their current hideout in order to sit alone and stare at a wall.

Kabuto knows these moods well. Generally they tend to come at the end of long, fruitless experimentation that leaves Orochimaru questioning his own goals, and they end the second Orochimaru indulges his particular vice. That being alcohol, and quite a lot of it– the Sannin don’t do anything by halves. If one of them is going to break the prohibition against gambling and the other the prohibition against loose women, the last one has to pick up the slack with enough cheap saké to intoxicate a small country.

But now he can’t so much as open a bottle on his own, let alone drown himself in it.

Kabuto leans in the doorway, gazing at his master. The man he sees sitting curled up in the dark feels like a completely different person than the one who’d taken him under his wing so long ago. Kabuto’s hand drifts down to his midsection. He feels the scar tissue beneath his shirt, the long sweeping lines of the Rasengan, the wiggling contours like the markings on a topographic map from the Chidori, and the tight knot from where the knife had pierced his side.

Kabuto speaks, his voice as easy and casual as he can make it; “What was it like, seeing your old teammates after so long?”

Nothing from Orochimaru.

He keeps going, crossing his arms over his chest; “It must have been strange, at the very least. Jiraiya didn’t seem to phase you very much, but Tsunade… You were very patient with her. I knew Sasuke could distract you, but I didn’t expect Tsunade to do the same.”

Still nothing. Orochimaru doesn’t even move.

Kabuto turns slightly away, leaning his head back against the doorframe; “I researched what she was like in her prime. Beautiful, strong, ruthless to her enemies and kind to her friends, heiress to Senju glory… She broke quite a lot of hearts when she settled for Kato.”

Orochimaru finally moves– Only his eyes, flicking up to glare at Kabuto; “Are you quite done?”

Kabuto turns, blinking in feigned surprise; “Really? Was I actually on to something?”

Orochimaru doesn’t respond with words. He gets to his feet and walks forward, unflinchingly, straight towards Kabuto. Orochimaru bears down on him, stopping only when they’re nearly nose to nose, gold eyes boring into his.

Kabuto just arches an eyebrow; “Well? Was I?”

“Our window to take Sasuke is closing,” Orochimaru rasps, dodging the subject with all the grace of a drunk staggering away from an oncoming train, “We have to play our last card. I want Sakura. I want her now. And if Sasuke doesn’t come chasing after her, there will be Hell to pay. Do I make myself clear?

Kabuto lets Orochimaru’s words hang in the air for far longer than they deserve.

He inclines his head in the barest imitation of a bow; “Crystal, my lord.”

Sasuke doesn't wake up until eleven the next morning.

The sun streams warm through the window, and Sasuke blearily nuzzles into the pillow instead of making a move to get up. He'd just dreamed of a battle, long and arduous, where Naruto and Tsunade both had brushes with death. The dream was absolutely exhausting. He needs another nap to recover from it.

A gentle hand touches his shoulder and a feminine voice says, "Sasuke, it's time to get up."

Oh, this makes more sense– he's obviously still eight years old, and Tuesday is Pop Quiz Day at the Academy, so Sasuke screws his eyes shut and slurs, "Five more minutes, Mom…"

Tsunade's laugh is almost a cackle; "Aw, Shizune, I think you've been adopted!"

Sasuke's eyes open wide and he shoots up into a sitting position. Tsunade is sitting on the opposite bed, a wide grin on her face, while Shizune kneels bashfully at his bedside. What little he brought with him has been packed up and set neatly at the foot of his bed, where Tonton is sitting and happily sniffing at his feet. Sasuke looks back over to Tsunade and takes stock of her. Her blouse is a different shade of gray, and there's no necklace sitting on her collar.

"That all really happened," Sasuke murmurs, words dropping off his tongue like pebbles, "We actually made it out of that… Is Naruto alright?"

Shizune beams at him; "Yes, all thanks to you," and before Sasuke can insist that Tsunade probably did the hard work Shizune's thrown her arms around him in a hug that makes him freeze up on reflex, "You did so well, Sasuke, if you weren't keeping him stable I don't know if we could've done anything."

Sasuke turns his eyes up to the ceiling so he won't have to look at anyone; "Uh… thanks."

Tsunade's voice cuts in like a sobering blast of cold water; "You also disobeyed my direct orders to stay put, and broke all four rules of the Medical Corps seconds after learning them."

Shizune reluctantly lets him go so they can share a wary, sheepish glance. Both of them brace for Tsunade to hit them with a verbal strike as bone-breaking as any physical blow.

"Which is why your first day as my apprentice will consist of looking after Tonton," Tsunade continues, voice warm, "And when we get back to the village, unless Team 7 is away on a mission or your sensei bribes me with gifts you'll have to spend one hour every day organizing my paperwork until I think you've learned your lesson. Seem fair?"

Sasuke blinks owlishly, mouth opening and closing a few times as he tries to remember how language works. Tsunade waits patiently, brow quirked in amusement.

Eventually, Sasuke shuts his mouth and nods; "Yeah, yeah that's fair."

"Excellent," she says as she gets to her feet and dusts off her pants, "Now get your ass out of bed. Naruto and Jiraiya are waiting on us, after we meet up we're going straight home. Double time, Uchiha!"

Sasuke grabs his things and the pig and lopes out as fast as he can behind her. Tonton is a lot heavier and more unwieldy than he thought, so after a minute he just lets her trot at his feet. When the two parts of the group meet up at Tanzaku Town's gate, Naruto surprises Sasuke by pulling him into a tight hug. It's not long– they're thirteen year old boys, of course it isn't– but it's very warm.

"Thank you," Naruto mutters into Sasuke's ear, voice thick.

Sasuke brings an arm around to squeeze Naruto back; "Don't worry about it."

Naruto pushes off after a second or two more and holds his fist out for Sasuke to bump his own against, a gesture of affection they both are far more comfortable with. Jiraiya rolls his eyes with a wry smirk while Naruto, once he notices Tsunade a few steps back from them, scowls so hard Sasuke thinks his face might get stuck like that.

"So is she seriously taking the Hokage job? I thought the pervy sage was just ribbing me," Naruto grouses, crossing his arms tight over his chest.

Sasuke frowns; "Yeah, she is. What's the problem?"

Naruto grimaces; "I mean sure she's strong and good at medical ninjutsu and stuff, but come on, the Hokage's supposed to be kind and wise and selfless and no offense but she's kind of mean and short-tempered and greedy and–"

Tsunade's suddenly at Sasuke's side, a sickly sweet smile on her face; "So Naruto, you want to be Hokage, right?"

Naruto blinks a few times before puffing out his chest like he always does when this subject comes up; "Of course I do! That's what this whole bet was about, right? I'm gonna be Sixth Hokage before you can blink, believe it!"

Tsunade grins; "My my, you seem to have thought out your entire career trajectory in meticulous detail! Tell me, what are your thoughts on the village's tax code? Do you think it needs any reforms?"

Naruto's face goes as white as it always would on Pop Quiz Day at the Academy; "Huh?"

Tsunade taps a finger to her chin as she continues, "Oh yeah, and there's also the matter of payroll– I hear Jonin have been complaining that their pensions aren't anywhere near enough to provide for their families in the event of their untimely death, that's gonna be a hot-ticket issue even long after I'm out of office."

Naruto is deflating like a balloon with microscopic holes poked in it; "I-it is?"

She sucks in breath through her teeth as she winces; "There's also quite a lot of talk about overhauling our Social Security system, since the current generation of ninja is far larger than the previous and thanks to the relative peace we'll probably have more ninja living to reap retirement benefits, and then there's the issue of how to adjust that for civilians and–"

Jiraiya lets out a wheezing laugh, struggling to talk around it; "Please, Tsunade, you're gonna kill the poor kid without even touching him!"

Naruto indeed does somewhat resemble an embalmed corpse as he stares into space, a deep terror in his eyes. Sasuke can't help snickering, but Tonton oinks up at him to remind him to be nice to his friend. He stops laughing but does not stop smiling. Tsunade walks up to the stunned Naruto and slips his headband off– she brings him back to the land of the living by pressing a quick kiss to his forehead.

While Naruto blinks the sight back into his eyes, Tsunade chuckles, "You've got a lot to learn, but if this past week has taught me anything, it's that you're a fast learner. You're a special kid, Naruto. You'll grow up into fine young man who definitely knows what taxes are."

Naruto bristles a bit, but his cheeks are pink and his mouth turns up rebelliously at the corners; "I-I know what they are! I just… don't know how they work…"

Tsunade waves Sasuke over; “Get your butt in here too, kid.”

Sasuke blinks in surprise before carefully walking to stand even with Naruto. Tsunade leans in with a smile, reaching around to untie his headband before giving his forehead an appraising look. Sasuke’s brow furrows, and just as he’s about to ask her what she’s doing she pokes it dead center with two fingers. It sends a jolt straight down to his heart, a lump forming in his throat.

Tsunade snickers, “Yep, that thing’s just big enough that one of these,” she points to the Strength of a Hundred Seal on her own forehead, “will look right at home. Hope you’re ready to make Great-Granddad roll in his grave.”

Sasuke feels warm. So warm he feels like he’ll burst into flames. The hole Itachi left in his heart is still there, it will always be there, but something feels like it’s blossoming around it, through it, not filling the hole but making certain his heart isn’t empty. It feels more full than it’s ever been. There’s so much Sasuke wants to say, wants to shout from the highest mountain he can find, wants to sing.

But none of it would mean nearly as much as the simple, “Thank you,” he says instead through budding tears.

Tsunade just grins; “We’ll make a damn fine medic out of you, Sasuke Uchiha.”

And Sasuke nods with a determined, “Yes Ma’am,” because now he knows he wants her to be right.

There is a visitor Tsubaki doesn’t recognize in Sakura’s room.

By this point, this isn’t new. She takes stock of this one the same as any other. He’s a man in his late sixties, with a shock of dark hair poking out above bandages covering his forehead and right eye and a cross-shaped scar on his chin. His right arm is hidden within his black, floor-length robe and his left leans heavy on a cane. He’d been staring intently down at Kakashi’s bed before his eye flickers up to her, far too quick. Tsubaki freezes in the doorway, the way she does whenever any ninja above Jonin rank actually look at her.

“My apologies,” he says in a voice that sounds like it’s been eroded by centuries of rainfall, “I came to look in on Kakashi. I did not mean to intrude on your visit to your daughter, Miss Haruno.”

She blinks rapidly, taking one hesitant step into the room; “It’s no trouble, but… You have me at a disadvantage. You apparently know me, but you are…?”

He inclines his head to her, lower than he has to; “You may call me Danzo– I’ve been acting as a consultant to the Hokage’s council.”

Well. That would explain the hairs on the back of her neck standing at attention.

She bows from the waist; “Then I should get out of your way, I don’t want to trouble you any further, Sir.”

“There’s no need,” Danzo replies, tone somewhat vague but neutral enough for Tsubaki to assume he isn’t upset with her, “Kakashi is merely an old subordinate of mine. Sakura is your daughter. I should be the one leaving.”

Tsubaki shakes her head, perhaps with more vigor than is necessary; “Please, if Kakashi is important to you I wouldn’t want to cut your time with him short.”

Danzo’s mouth pulls into a smirk, the simple motion taking quite a bit of effort from a face unused to it; “I suppose ‘important’ is a way to put it, yes. He has a way of… monopolizing people’s attention.”

Tsubaki can’t help the bitter little frown, and Danzo catches it instantly with a soft breath of a laugh; “Ah, you know exactly what I mean.”

“He isn’t a bad person,” she quickly replies, pushing some hair behind one ear, “He’s just… careless, I guess.”

Danzo nods, eye drifting over to Sakura; “From what I hear of your daughter, she’s anything but.”

Tsubaki blinks rapidly in surprise; “Really?”

“Her name has been drifting around the chambers of government,” Danzo replies, “In all this idle time the results of the Chunin Exams are finally being evaluated. Nothing is guaranteed, but your daughter seems to be among those being considered for promotion. Her showing was quite impressive– Most focus on her duel against Gaara, but what I find most interesting are her results on the written exams.”

Tsubaki can’t help the swell of pride and frission of nerves in her chest; “I mean, Sakura’s always been very good with tests, I don’t think she ever brought home a failing grade…”

“Most assuredly, but that’s downplaying her accomplishment,” Danzo counters, “The written exam was designed to be unfair, impossible to complete through intellect alone, so that it would encourage cheating.”

Danzo turns to face Tsubaki completely and looks her in the eye; “Miss Haruno, your daughter got a perfect score, and she did not so much as glance at another candidate’s paper. That implies genius levels of intellect, and heroic levels of integrity.”

Tsubaki’s eyes are wider than the moon; “… Oh.

“In my opinion, Miss Haruno, your daughter will be one of the finest ninja we’ve ever seen,” Danzo concludes with a decisive nod, “You should be proud.”

Tsubaki’s heart fills with warmth as she blinks away some brimming tears; “I promise you, Sir, I am.”

He smiles and it looks even more stiff and strange on his harsh face; “I’ll be taking my leave now. Have a good day, Miss Haruno.”

He leaves the room and Tsubaki sits down to talk to her daughter, blissfully unaware of exactly who had just made her dance right into the palm of his hand.

Chapter Text

xviii. Becoming Hokage takes quite a bit longer than Sasuke thought it did.

It most likely is a faster process when the Hokage in question doesn’t have to reinstate her Leaf Village citizenship and membership within the shinobi ranks, go through an extensive interview process so T&I can determine if she’s been Compromised, formally present herself to the Council the Clan Heads the ANBU and all the rest of the Jonin, send her respects to the Daimyo through a messenger that won’t return with a reply until the next week, and then wait around while VIPs are called in, the festivities are organized, and the ceremonial haori is custom-tailored because nobody actually thought the Hokage would show up until she walked through the gate.

It gets to the point where Sasuke starts to worry she’ll never get around to healing Sakura and Kakashi until one afternoon she interrupts him while he’s organizing her paperwork, grousing that Naruto is all the way up her ass about the issue and it’s time to make him shut up.

Sasuke would’ve gone without her grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and carrying him like a kitten by the scruff. When he finally wriggles out of her grasp and says so she says he needs to wear shirts with less ‘ridiculously large collars perfect for grabbing’. Her words, not his.

Naruto meets them on the street and chatters in his ear for most of the walk– he does a lot of complaining about the fact that Tsunade hasn’t been inaugurated yet, which when Sasuke outlines everything that had been leading up to the inauguration he exchanges for staring in mute horror. Sasuke wonders how many other energetic young genin desperate to become Hokage also had those dreams ruthlessly cut down by the sword of Bureaucracy. Naruto manages to shake himself back to normal and crow about how it won’t be like that when he’s inaugurated. Sasuke starts counting the days until even Naruto has to face the painfully banal nature of reality.

It’s like spinning a roulette wheel these days, walking into the hospital lobby. Everyone Sasuke knows has an equal chance of being there. Today they startle Guy and Hakumei out of conversation as they walk through the door.

Tsunade’s eyes alight on Hakumei and she lets out a loud, barking laugh; “Hakumei Hyuuga, you son of a bitch!”

Guy jolts back like Tsunade just slapped him but Hakumei cackles, “Slug Queen! What took you so damn long?!”

The two of them meet in the middle of the lobby, trading strong grips that turn into the two of them pulling each other into a hug so quick and brusque it’s nearly masculine.

Sasuke smirks a bit; “Somehow I’m not surprised you two know each other.”

“Pfft, know each other, that’s an understatement,” Hakumei snorts, hooking a thumb in Tsunade’s direction, “Me and Queenie here used to be at each other’s throats about everything. If we couldn’t beat the other to learning a technique first we’d damn near kill ourselves trying to make sure we were the one doing it better.”

“Which you had no excuse for,” Tsunade cuts in, narrowing her eyes in a playful glare, “Miss ‘What’s the point of being on a Genin team’.”

Hakumei elbows her in the ribs; “Screw you, if your teammates weren’t disasters you would’ve taken an apprenticeship too.”

Tsunade says nothing in her teammates’ defense; “We had to start working together when we figured out that with my chakra control and Hakumei’s Byakugan we made a crack surgical tag-team. When the two of us were working we didn’t see a single death on the operating table.”

Hakumei glances over her shoulder at Guy just in time to see him perk up at those words, a shimmer of hope lighting up his deep black eyes.

She turns back to Tsunade, elbowing her more insistently this time right on her scar; “Out of curiosity how long until we lose you to the Hokage’s office?”

Tsunade shrugs; “Two weeks, give or take. Why? Got a case for me?”

Hakumei’s grin is fierce in a way that makes her look thirty years younger; “I got a case for us. Our favorite kind– High risk, high reward.”

Tsunade smirks, mischievous; “No wonder you’re the one who managed to actually lock a guy down, you always know just what to say,” Tsunade abruptly starts walking deeper into the hospital, “You can fill me in while the brats here lead me to my first two appointments.”

Sasuke and Naruto have to scramble ahead of the two medics and one Jonin, leading the way through the hospital while Guy resists the urge to talk over Hakumei about Lee’s condition and mostly succeeds.

Naruto leans in and manages to do a good job of whispering, “Hey, if she can actually get Bushy Brows all fixed up do you think she could fix your knee, too?”

Sasuke shrugs; “I mean when they first diagnosed me they said the damage was permanent. That’s not a word medics throw around lightly.”

Naruto rolls his eyes; “She’s the best in the world, right? Why wouldn’t she be able to heal you?”

Sasuke pushes the thought to the back as he mutters, “We’ll see, I guess.”

Sasuke has to stop and take a deep breath when they open the door to Sakura and Kakashi’s hospital room. They look like shadows, thin and still in the pouring sunlight. Sasuke doesn’t move until he sees them take two shuddering breaths, each. He feels Tsunade’s hand settle on his shoulder and give it a squeeze. He nods and shuffles forward, giving everyone in their party room to filter inside.

Tsunade hooks one ankle around the leg of the ever-present stool and scoots it up next to Kakashi’s bed; “Alright, Shizune pulled their files for me, but I’d like to give them my own exam just in case. Sasuke, watch carefully– without the Sharingan. Turn that thing on even once and you’re back on Tonton Duty. Hakumei, other side of the bed. I’ll tell you if I need a better look at something.”

“Listen to you, bossy as always,” Hakumei snickers while complying anyway, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“You know what we would tell the men,” Tsunade snorts, “‘Bossy’ just means I get shit done.”

The two women get to work and Sasuke makes a concentrated effort to focus simply on them. Tsunade gives Kakashi’s body a cursory exam, mostly just to test his reflex responses. They’re nonexistent thanks to the drugs keeping him under. She and Hakumei spend far more time up at his head, with Tsunade instructing Hakumei to get a better look at the chakra pathways in his brain and check for damage.

Sasuke hears from the corner of his ear Naruto whispering from the corner of his mouth, “Hey, Bushier Brow-sensei, what are they doing? The genjutsu got in his head but that’s not… literal, right?”

Sasuke can hear the soft smile in Guy’s voice; “It is and it isn’t. Chakra points and pathways are sensitive. That’s why the Gentle Fist is so lethal, those parts of us aren’t used to being attacked. They don’t have any defenses. Meanwhile, psychology may seem like something abstract, but it’s all in your head– quite literally! To simplify, when something traumatic happens to the mind the brain physically changes in response. The chakra pathways that run around and along it are forced to change along with it, which can damage them. Not irreparably, but noticeably enough that skilled medics like Lady Tsunade and Doctor Hyuuga can use them to figure out the exact nature of the psychological damage.”

Hakumei shoots him a grin; “Someone’s been attending our seminars on his off days, hasn’t he?”

Gai stands up just a little bit straighter, voice brimming with a pride devoid of arrogance; “Absolutely! Even a specialist should be well-rounded!”

Tsunade quickly finishes her exam before wheeling the stool across the room, spinning with a practiced grace to face Sakura. Hakumei follows her at a professional clip. Sasuke has to take a deep breath and count to three before he can follow them.

Sakura’s examination is far more thorough as Tsunade investigates how her broken bones and punctured lung mended. Tsunade takes a moment to check the chakra points on Sakura’s arms, shaking her head and pointing out to Sasuke clusters of tiny, faded bruises that almost look like freckles– a less dramatic but useful signifier that someone’s used too much chakra in too little time and strained their chakra points.

The physical damage on its own has healed fine, but Hakumei and Tsunade give her body one last check to see the condition of her muscles after having spent so much time in a drug-induced coma. Nothing’s atrophied just yet thanks to the attentions of the nurses and on-call medics, but she’ll need physical therapy to get some strength and coordination back. They move on to her head; the second Tsunade sends probing chakra into her forehead she spits a venomous swear out from between gritted teeth.

“Couldn’t go easy on a thirteen year old kid, could he,” she whispers before raising her voice, “Hakumei, get a look at her chakra pathways. Let me know if the damage is the same as what we saw on Kakashi.”

The veins raise up on Hakumei’s temples and she sucks in a sharp breath; “It’s… The patterns are the same, but the damage itself is more intense. They almost look like they’ve been burned.

Tsunade sighs, “And with how vulnerable a developing brain is I doubt what I do for her will be enough on its own. She’ll need counseling, and lots of it.”

Hakumei nods; “Should we get her up first?”

Tsunade chews on her lower lip before shaking her head; “I’ll need more time to get her up, and time is chakra. Kakashi first.”

Tsunade glances at Sasuke, brows furrowed as she turns something over, before she smiles; “We’re turning this into a teaching moment. You can get Sakura started for me– Just use some basic Mystical Palm, hands on the top of her head. Focus just on her chakra network. You have permission to use your Sharingan.”

It takes Sasuke nearly thirty seconds to process the words. His throat suddenly feels like sandpaper. He bites down on the inside of his lip to drag himself back into the moment. This is just training, same as anything he’d done with Kakashi. He can handle training.

“Alright,” Sasuke rasps.

Tsunade winks at him before she rolls away. Sasuke turns to Sakura, kneeling down at her bedside, chakra covering his palms and flooding into his eyes. A red film falls over the world. He can’t see the specific chakra paths but he can track the flow, and true to Hakumei’s assessment the chakra in Sakura’s brain is less flowing, more overflowing, like the village rivers during the Spring monsoons.

With a long breath in through his nose Sasuke sends chakra down, through the points on her forehead and scalp, searching for the pathways. He finds them full of holes and broken links. Tsunade’s assigned him readings on anatomy to get him up to speed on the basics he skipped right over, so Sasuke has a rudimentary but serviceable knowledge of how the chakra pathways are supposed to look, enough to send healing chakra through the routes. He starts mending holes and bridging gaps.

Once he’s found his rhythm Sasuke exhales through his mouth and closes his eyes, turning the Sharingan off. It doesn’t require total, isolating focus like it did the first time, but the voices around him sound like they’re coming from the room across the hall. He can hear Tsunade’s voice speaking a list of instructions, a hoarse grumble, Guy and Naruto’s elated shouts, Hakumei’s harsh reprisal for all the noise they’re making, but he doesn’t understand a word of it. He only opens his eyes once he’s certain he’s repaired the breaks and breaches in Sakura’s chakra pathways, just in time to see Tsunade lean around to get his attention.

She wags her chin toward Kakashi’s bed; “He’s asking for you. I’ll take it from here.”

Sasuke turns to look over his shoulder; Guy and Naruto are crowding him, Naruto trying to fill him in on everything he missed and Guy giving his rival friendly advice for his rehabilitation process, but Kakashi’s mismatched eyes are locked on Sasuke. The mask and his disheveled hair make it hard for Sasuke to figure out what emotion Kakashi is feeling in specific. His gaze is intense. It’s the sort of look Sasuke’s used to receiving when he’s in trouble.

Sasuke marches stiffly over and settles down on one knee; “Hey.”

Kakashi bobs his head in a shallow nod; “Hey. You okay?”

Sasuke’s mouth twitches at one corner, the best he can manage where smiles are concerned; “I’m fine.”

Kakashi is quiet, taking Sasuke in. Sasuke doesn’t meet his eyes.

Kakashi murmurs, “You know who put me here, don’t you?”

Sasuke swallows and it feels like hundreds of tiny shards of glass are digging into his flesh; “Yeah.”

Kakashi’s sigh is long and deep, but not surprised; “Did you go after him?”

“I did,” Sasuke coughs, staring at a loose thread on the edge of the hospital blanket, “That’s why Sakura’s here.”

Silence settles like a thick fog and Sasuke forces himself to keep staring at the loose thread. He imagines pulling it and unravelling the whole thing. He thinks he hears Kakashi say his name but is far too fixated on imagining re-knitting the blanket into a slightly different blanket.

Kakashi’s hand gently nudges his shoulder; “Sasuke, look at me. Please.”

He doesn’t want to, he can’t describe in words how much he doesn’t want to, but the fact that Kakashi said ‘please’ makes him look up on shocked reflex. Kakashi’s eyes are crinkling at the corners, the only way Sasuke can ever tell he’s really smiling.

“You’re not in trouble,” he says around something like a laugh, “I’m not going to lecture you. I’m not angry. I’m not even disappointed, since it seems like you’ve been making up for what happened with interest.”

Sasuke stares at Kakashi like he just read him a treatise on trigonometry in a dead language; “I… But…”

Kakashi just reaches out and ruffles Sasuke’s hair, and in that moment Sasuke realizes with a pain in his throat just how much he missed him. He doesn’t cry. He doesn’t hug Kakashi tight enough to crush him. He’s not ready for that yet. Sasuke leans hard into the touch and how Kakashi pauses and blinks a few times, eyes going slightly wide, is enough for Sasuke to know the message has been received.

“You’re fine, Sasuke,” Kakashi murmurs, “You’re doing just fine.”

Kakashi takes his hand off Sasuke’s head and he glances over toward the foot of the bed. Naruto’s standing with his arms loose at his sides, watching with an oddly thoughtful look. Guy, meanwhile, has a hand covering the bottom of his face. His eyes look far away and… sad. There is something deeply, fundamentally wrong with the idea of Guy being sad.

All eyes are drawn to a soft groan and Tsunade’s voice, gentle as you please; “Good morning, Sakura.”

Sasuke’s stood up and turned around fast enough to give himself whiplash. Hakumei is helping Sakura sit up, propping up pillows to cushion her and supporting her head while Sakura gets the hang of how necks are supposed to work. Sakura looks groggy. He’s seen her like this before, every morning at the Academy and while waiting for Kakashi to meet them for the day’s mission, because Sakura is not an early riser by nature but refuses to oversleep because she’s never been late to anything in her life.

Sakura licks at her chapped lips and looks slowly around, voice coming out just as dry and cracked; “How long…?”

Sasuke’s drifting over as Tsunade replies, “You’ve been out for three weeks. Your physical injuries were severe, and your psychological injuries were even worse. We’ll work out the particulars soon, but for the moment just know you’ll be saddled with a lot of therapy, physical and otherwise, before we’ll be comfortable discharging you.”

Sakura’s eyes finally focus on something when she catches sight of Sasuke, just over Tsunade’s shoulder; “… Okay.”

Tsunade turns to Sasuke with a raised eyebrow; “I believe you had something you wanted to say?”

Sasuke tastes sour shame on the back of his tongue, feels every eye on him like a burning welt on his skin. He can’t be a coward right now. He can’t be selfish. This is not about him.

He extracts the words one at a time; “I’m sorry. I was an idiot who didn’t listen to you and if I had you wouldn’t be here. I won’t let it happen again. I promise.”

Sakura doesn’t say anything for a few moments. She blinks once, twice, three times, slow and heavy. Sasuke waits for her to process the words, waits for her to finally scowl at him and say that sorry isn’t good enough, say that she never wants to see him again, and turn away.

She doesn’t.

Sakura smiles, reaches out with one weak hand and Sasuke moves closer. Her hand closes around his, touch delicate and subtle like everything she does.

“Thank you,” she murmurs.

It’s unseasonably warm, even for a Fire Country Autumn. Sasuke’s not sure how nobody else in the room seems to notice it. He’s also not sure why they’re all staring at him in various states of awe or amusement. Sasuke feels that sour tang again and he wants to tell Sakura he doesn’t deserve that, that she should give him the silent treatment for a month at least, but bites the inside of his cheek. This is not about him. If she wants to forgive him that’s her choice to make, not his.

Sasuke awkwardly pats the knife on his hip and words start to fall out of his mouth in an unsightly dribble; “I mean, even though you weren’t there you still kind of protected us. If I didn’t have this knife we probably would’ve died more than once… but I mean, I almost lost it. I kind of… left it inside someone. He pulled it out and tossed it, though, so that’s good. Kind of.”

“Guy, I need you to do something for me,” Kakashi croaks, nearly making Sasuke leap out of his skin, “Please pull these courtesy curtains closed around me so I don’t have to see anymore of that.”

Guy, in his patented Guy way, replies in the most unhelpful fashion possible; “Kakashi I am surprised at you! How could you discourage your students from pursuing the greatest form of Youth’s flowering, the throes of young love?! It’s not only healing for Sakura, but for everyone witnessing it, including you, and furthermore–!”

Tsunade stands up, purposefully making her stool clatter with the motion; “We’ll get you your own room. Hakumei, Naruto, Guy, how about you show me this Lee kid? Sasuke, keep Sakura company.”

Everyone files out of the room– Hakumei only pausing to draw the courtesy curtain around a grateful Kakashi– and Sasuke finds himself bizarrely alone with Sakura. Sasuke's pretty sure it’s a bad thing that his first feeling is an overwhelming urge to either sprint out the door or leap out the window.

His fingers twitch in her grip and he clears his throat; “Do you want me to go find your mom and tell her you’re awake? She’ll probably want to see you…”

Sakura shakes her head, her smile curling into a slight smirk; “No… Stay. Tell me more about how you nearly lost my very expensive gift.”

Sasuke snorts; “Feeling better already, huh?”

He settles down on the stool Tsunade vacated and Sakura flops back against her pillows, laughing softly, “Now that you’re here, absolutely.”

“I appreciate how seriously you’re taking Lee’s case,” Hakumei says around a sip of saké, “But I don’t think the kid would fault you for partying tonight instead of studying.”

Tsunade waves absently to the room with her free hand, the other holding a heavily dog-eared medical journal; “What do you mean? This is partying. We’ve got saké and everything.”

Sasuke looks up from marking any instance of ‘spine’ or ‘spinal’ in the pile of medical journals as tall as he is; “I don’t get how drinking while we research is supposed to help.”

“Usually I would agree,” Shizune remarks in a small voice, “But for some of these case files it’s practically a necessity. The things some jutsu can do to a spinal cord…”

The Hokage’s Residence is a far cry from the cramped barracks or freezing tents Hakumei remembers doing all her best research in. The living room is warm and spacious, with a view of the entire village and the forests beyond. Sasuke and Shizune do the busywork at a dining table made from mahogany, in chairs the First Hokage grew himself. Tsunade is sprawled across a sofa covered in velvet made from real silk, a gift from the Daimyo of Earth Country to her great-uncle. Hakumei herself is sitting on a rug woven in the Wind Country by nomadic tribes with oral histories that spoke of a time before the Sage of Six Paths and called the veracity of his existence into question.

Hakumei supposes this is what getting old and selling out looks like. She takes another sip and concludes that selling out gets a bad rap.

“Besides, unless we find some miracle cure this surgery requires a lot of prep time and a lot of recovery time,” Tsunade continues, flipping a page, “And in ten days I’m not gonna have enough time to keep up with either, let alone getting this fifty percent chance up to fifty-eight percent or better. So we multitask. You think better when you’re drinking.”

Hakumei grins; “And you drink better when you’re thinking.”

The two of them drop into harmonized snickers at the old, stupid joke, and Shizune and Sasuke roll their eyes.

Sasuke’s dark brows furrow; “What specifically makes this procedure so risky?”

“Mostly it’s the fact that we’re picking a lot of very tiny foreign objects out of the spine,” Shizune replies, “Usually for bone fragments we have medical ninjutsu to dissolve them, but if they’re embedded in more bone… I think you can see what the risk there is. This surgery takes precision and concentration, and one’s focus naturally starts to ebb if they’ve been working on something non-stop for hours so…”

“Point is,” Tsunade cuts in, “If we slip up even once, at best Lee becomes quadriplegic.”

Sasuke goes back to marking in silence for a few seconds before he starts thinking out loud; “There’s no way to simplify the work itself probably, but if you could make the work less risky with some kind of safety net…” Sasuke looks up, turning his chair to face Tsunade, “What was that thing you were doing during the fight with Orochimaru? That thing that let you heal any damage as soon as you took it?”

Tsunade frowns; “Creation Rebirth, but I can only use it because I’ve been storing up chakra for thirty years. I do have a version that I can transfer to other people, but that takes even more chakra and is designed for the battlefield. It would heal him too rapidly. Any incision we made would close as we’re making it.”

Hakumei drums her fingers on the floor as she thinks the proposition over; “Well we don’t need thirty years-worth of chakra, just enough for several hours, right? And if we’re using less it’ll go a bit slower, not too slow but slow enough that it’s covering our ass if we slip up instead of undoing our work as soon as we do it.”

Tsunade slowly sits up; “There is something, it’s supposed to be for guarding against big attacks, concentrating healing chakra in the area almost like a shield… Shizune, do you know what I’m thinking of?”

Shizune pulls a big encyclopedia of medical jutsu closer to her, flipping quickly through the pages; “It’s gone by a few names but ‘pre-healing jutsu’ and ‘cellular activation’ are the most common,” Shizune hands the book to Sasuke to hand to Tsunade, “It takes up the top half of page fifty four.”

Tsunade’s grin unfolds, she starts looking between the encyclopedia and the documents; “Sasuke, keep looking for spines but also keep an eye out for this jutsu. Shizune, look for anything like it in the case files. If we’re the first people to try this and it works we’re writing a paper and you are definitely getting credited as co-authors.”

“We better be, we’re doing three quarters of the research here,” Hakumei snorts.

Tsunade isn’t listening to her, she’s muttering under her breath about when to budget time for testing this in a controlled environment if they can’t find any data in the documents. A part of Hakumei remembers why she was convinced Tsunade and Orochimaru were going to somehow make it work and live happily ever after, conjures memories of the two of them in the hospital labs talking excitedly over microscopes, and she swallows them down before the nostalgia makes her sick.

She grins over at Sasuke instead; “With how she’s attacking this that damage in your knee is looking a lot less permanent.”

Sasuke blinks; “What?”

Hakumei shrugs, loose thanks to the saké; “When I diagnosed you I was convinced I’d never see this bitch again. But here she is, and she’s basically adopted you. You could be back to how you were before all the damage by tomorrow.”

Sasuke bites the inside of his cheek. He looks far more conflicted than the prospect of being free of his brace should warrant.

Shizune saves him with a laugh, “It’s more like he adopted her. And I think he needs some time to process that– It’s a big change, isn’t it?”

Sasuke nods, the motion shallow; “Yeah, it is.”

He gets back to work without another word.

Naruto has noticed something. Sakura is not okay.

She stares too hard at the shadows in the corner of her hospital room. Every time he and Sasuke visit she has to choke down a shocked little gasp with this look on her face like she thought they were never coming back, even though they come at the same time every day. Her hair is growing out in ragged waves that she’s refused to let anyone cut. The circles under her eyes are dark against her too-pale skin, making her look more like Itachi than Sasuke does.

Naruto’s not sure if nobody else has noticed or if everyone is just waiting for her to say something, but the bottom line is that even with Tsunade’s help Sakura is nowhere near back to normal.

She does a very good job of trying to be okay, though. She’s doing it right now, smiling and making casual conversation with him and Sasuke while her mother braids her bangs so they wrap around her head like a crown, sitting where her headband usually does. Naruto doesn’t even try to hide how fixated he is on watching her work, on how easy Sakura’s mom makes the intricate weaving seem, how she can do it without looking.

They’re all crowded in the Haruno home’s tiny living room (technically Sasuke is in the tiny kitchen but they’re only separated by a counter), getting ready for the festivities surrounding Grandma Tsunade’s inauguration. Any Shinobi that wasn’t on the other side of the continent or stationed on the wall was called back home and given the day off to enjoy the ceremonies and festival that’ll be running well into the night. Sakura’s mom had run into them in the hospital lobby the week before and asked, jokingly at the time, if they’d be wearing yukata to the festival. When they’d told her they didn’t own any, she’d determined right there she would alter a couple her ex-husband left behind to fit them and hadn’t left them much room to argue.

Sakura’s mom plucks a few locks of hair out of the braid to fall artfully in Sakura’s face, then beams; “I wish I had a camera, the three of you look wonderful!”

Sakura pushes unsteadily to her feet, her mom supporting her; “We should get going, I wanted to say hi to Ino before her family’s stall gets overrun with customers.”

Her mom gives her a serious look, lowering her voice; “Don’t push yourself too hard. There’s no harm in sitting down if you’re tired, or–”

Sakura smiles, a smile that would fool anyone who didn’t know her as well as Naruto does; “You know I won’t, Mom. I’m not like certain other people in the room who keep ending up back on crutches.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes with a soft chuff of, “Oh shut up,” and comes around to take Sakura’s arm from her mom without being asked. Sakura leans on him like it’s the most natural thing in the world for her to do.

Naruto drowns out his own complicated feelings at that sight by shouting, “Come on we’re burnin’ daylight! If we don’t get going now all the food lines are gonna be huge when we get there!”

Sakura’s mom starts collecting some folded garments and bolts of silk; “I’ll be helping at Grandma Nohara’s stall if you want to say hello. Don’t any of you stay out too late, alright?”

They all chorus back a round of ‘Alright’s and ‘Bye’s before filing out the door. Kakashi is right where they left him, leaning right next to the doorframe in his normal uniform. For some reason Kakashi doesn’t like being around Sakura’s mom for too long and really doesn’t like being in her house. It’s probably because of all the bad news he’s had to give in that tiny living room over the past month and a half.

Kakashi’s eye settles on Sakura’s braid as they all start walking, a smile warping his mask; “I was wondering what was taking so long.”

Sakura rolls her eyes; “My mom insisted, said she missed being able to play with my hair when all of it was long and the back’s still not long enough for her to do anything.”

Kakashi nods; “It looks good. It was worth the wait.”

Naruto adds on, enthusiastically, “Yeah, your mom’s some kind of genius with hair, believe it! How did she even learn how to do that?”

Sakura shrugs as her cheeks start to flush with pride; “According to my grandma, you practice on your little sister every night whether she likes it or not. That’s why I can’t braid– Only child.”

Naruto cocks his head to one side; “You and Ino never braided each other’s hair?”

Sakura snorts out a laugh; “Oh no, definitely not. By the time our hair was long enough for braids we were deep in the weeds fighting over Sasuke,” and she elbows him a bit for emphasis.

Sasuke stumbles a bit at the sudden impact, blinking rapidly; “What? What is it?”

“Jeez, we’ve only been walkin’ for a few minutes and you’ve already zoned out,” Naruto grouses, folding his arms behind his head, “I know you don’t sleep much but did you pull an all-nighter this time?”

Sasuke scowls at him, but it’s long since lost any venom it would’ve had; “I was thinking, that’s all. I’m not surprised you don’t know what that looks like.”

Naruto Uzumaki, pinnacle of maturity and composure, blows a raspberry in response.

Sakura’s pale brows furrow as she looks to Sasuke; “What’s on your mind?”

The real evidence of how things have changed between Sasuke and Sakura isn’t that he actually tells her. It’s that he only pauses for a second instead of twenty minutes before he does.

“I was thinking about my knee,” Sasuke replies, “A lot of people have been talking about how Tsunade could repair it now that she’s back. And I mean, I had to watch Lee’s surgery, I know she could. She made that look like it was easy. My knee wouldn’t be anywhere near that hard. I wouldn’t have to be in a wheelchair for a week then on crutches for another, the recovery would maybe take a day.”

“So? What’s the problem?” Naruto wonders.

Sasuke purses his lips, staring off into the middle distance. The thing Naruto’s been most surprised to learn about Sasuke is how much of his rude, prickly behavior is the result of being criminally bad with words, especially when he doesn’t have time to think them over. Naruto and Sakura give him as much time as he needs.

“When people talk about it,” he answers, slow and methodical, “They talk about me going ‘back to normal’. Like fixing this will make me how I was before I broke it. And I don’t want to go back to that. I don’t want to forget what I learned.”

Sakura tightens her grip on his arm; “Sasuke. This isn’t like my hair. You’ve adapted, but the pain keeps you from ever being as fast as you used to be. And it’s something your enemies can take advantage of if they work your knee.”

Naruto winces hard as he remembers doing just that.

Sakura leans in, whispering just at the edge of Naruto’s hearing, “The point is, there’s a difference between reminding yourself and punishing yourself. You have the Sharingan and are being taught by two legendary war heroes. You have so many advantages and this is the only thing holding you back. Coming into battle with a handicap is–”

Sasuke elbows her back, smile wry but soft; “Okay, I get it. I’ll think more about it, just stop spitting on my ear.”

Sakura snickers out loud; “I was not spitting on your ear! I do not spit when I talk!”

Sasuke’s grins are rare, but not for Sakura; “Whatever you need to tell yourself.”

The two of them fall into conversation (mostly Sakura talking and Sasuke replying with monosyllables or hums of acknowledgement) like Naruto and Kakashi aren’t even there. Naruto doesn’t try to but in, just watching them, and Kakashi watches him watching them with an inquisitive tilt to his head. They make it to the main festival thoroughfare and Naruto lets Sasuke and Sakura leave him behind, giving them a vague assurance that he’s gonna go get some food while they head over to the Yamanaka family’s stall.

Kakashi leans down closer; “Ramen for your thoughts? On me– It’s a party, after all.”

It takes Naruto a second longer than usual to say yes, mostly because he’s shocked that Kakashi is actually paying attention to him.

Ichiraku always takes over the area just outside the shop on festival days, setting up patio seating for overflow customers. Teuchi and Ayame are already busy, but they had Naruto’s usual order made and set-aside because apparently he’s become that predictable. Naruto certainly isn’t complaining. Kakashi does just a little bit since he’ll have to wait for his ramen while Naruto gets to eat right away.

As they settle down at one of the outside tables and Naruto fills his mouth with noodles, Kakashi remarks casual as you please, “Sasuke and Sakura have gotten a lot closer lately, haven’t they?”

Naruto slurps thoughtfully. He can understand his own feelings pretty well, but he isn’t so good at defining them with words.

He still gives it his best try; “I guess so. I thought I wasn’t gonna be their third wheel anymore, since Sasuke and me have our own stuff only we know like how Sasuke and Sakura had the curse mark. But I still am. It’s different. They’re different.”

Kakashi leans his cheek on one hand; “Different how?”

Naruto frowns, pushing the egg around with his chopsticks; “Well I mean… That’s kinda the weird part. Because I think I know, but if I’m right then it doesn’t make any sense. I should be a lot angrier if I’m right.”

Kakashi’s brow furrows a bit; “Why’s that?”

Naruto answers with his mouth full; “I ‘unno, I just feel like I should be. I was all the time in the Academy when Sakura would fawn over Sasuke but now… He likes her back. I never thought he would, at least not until she moved on or something.”

Kakashi smiles beneath his mask; “Well, don’t let it get you too down– I also lost out to an Uchiha in that department when I was your age.”

Naruto has enough table manners to swallow his food before letting his jaw drop; “What?! No way! You’re too much like Sasuke, girls had to be all over you! I don’t believe you for a second!

Kakashi’s eye drifts up as his voice takes on a thoughtful lilt; “I doubt it– I wasn’t in the academy long enough to develop a following.”

Naruto groans, polishing off his ramen; “Way to humble-brag, Sensei.”

Kakashi’s voice is somewhere between wistful and didactic; “Naruto, I became a genin while I still had most of my baby teeth. Every time I see a kid come out of the Academy older than I did is a small miracle.”

Naruto isn’t sure he understands what that means, but from the way Kakashi’s staring off past him Naruto thinks better of asking for clarification.

Kakashi shakes his head with a sigh; “I don’t think my food’s getting here any time soon. Go ahead and see the rest of the festival. If I die of starvation here let Sasuke know he’s inheriting my dogs.”

“Yeah right, you just don’t want me to get a peek at your face when you eat,” Naruto snorts, standing up anyway, “Who gets your books when you die?”

Kakashi smiles again; “I put a special seal on the inside cover of every one– When I die they all burst into flames and burn down my apartment with them, leaving no evidence.”

Naruto lets out a crowing laugh; “Nice! Seeya later, Sensei!”

And the universe proves him right as Ayame brings out Kakashi’s ramen the minute Naruto turns his back.

Naruto strolls around the main thoroughfare and it occurs to him that this is the first festival he’s actually attended. He’s been near ones the village has held in the past, but when he was too little to do much about how people treated him he got chased away from every stall he tried to visit and when he was big enough to do something he got chased away because he’d stolen or vandalized something. He can buy things now. He has friends he can spend the festival with now.

Naruto has to pause for just a second to take in how much he’s changed, too.

Naruto’s shocked out of his thoughts by Kiba’s voice, louder than anything Naruto can manage; “YO, ORANGE JULIUS!

He whirls toward the sound; Teams 8, 10, Guy, and the rest of his own are coming down the way in a cluster big enough they’re blocking traffic. About half in Yukata, half in street clothes, and Lee in a hospital-issue wheelchair for the first week of his recovery, the group are a loud and colorful disruption. Naruto couldn’t be happier to see them. He barrels into the group and they’re off.

Shikamaru, Choji, and Kiba wheedle Naruto over yakitori for details about his trip out of the village and what the soon-to-be Fifth Hokage is actually like (Naruto tries to be honest about how much of a crabapple she is but Tenten and Sasuke get very angry when he does so he changes the subject).

Sasuke talks taijutsu with Lee and Neji while Naruto and Shino somehow end up competing to see who can actually manage to catch a goldfish at the goldfish-scooping stall without spending more than five-hundred ryo (Naruto wins and names his fish Sushi, something Shikamaru thinks is hilarious and Lee thinks is needlessly cruel).

Everyone, multiple times, has to keep Lee from getting out of his wheelchair and walking on his hands (Sasuke lectures him on how they just fixed his spine and if he stresses it with that kind of balancing act he could wreck it all over again, which makes Tenten and Neji exchange private smiles and makes Ino stare at Sasuke like he’s grown a second head).

Hinata manages to win a big-ticket prize from a ring toss stall and gives the large stuffed animal to a little girl who’d been staring at it in wonder (Naruto catches Ino and Tenten ribbing her for not giving it to him and he just says he wouldn’t want it and she was smart to give it to someone who did– He has no idea why this makes Hinata turn bright red and Tenten laugh very hard).

Naruto overhears a lot of conversations he’s not supposed to (Neji asking Tenten if he actually deserves to be out with everyone like nothing happened during the Chunin exams, Ino lamenting to Lee as she perches on the back of his chair that she feels like everything is changing around her while she’s standing still, Choji confiding in Shikamaru about feeling like he isn’t taken seriously).

Tenten drags all the girls into a photo booth, but Hinata manages to escape just as the second picture is taken (She’s a blur of white and deep violet half-obscuring Sakura and when they see it Shino and Neji both are reduced to helpless giggles they try very hard to choke down, which just makes them laugh even harder).

Ino comes sprinting back from the bathroom at one point, all but screaming that she totally saw Asuma and Kurenai making out and Teams 8 and 10 react like children learning their parents actually kiss (Lee innocently makes things even more awkward with his insistence that it’s completely natural, their sensei are adults, why he’s met many of the women Guy has dated and they’re all lovely people– at about that point Ino just took the back of his chair and started sprinting down the street).

And Naruto realizes as he pitches in a few ryo for Takoyaki that he wasn’t even gone for too long, but he’s missed them all so much.

The inauguration itself is scheduled for sunset. As the last rays of sunlight hide behind the trees the Leaf Twelve filter towards the spectators’ area, just at the base of the Hokage Tower, and the group is slowly drawn in different directions. First is Sasuke, who catches Shizune frantically waving to him and says he’ll catch up with them after the inauguration. Sakura leaves right after he does, muttering in a small voice that she should find her mom, and Team Guy is plucked out from under their noses by Guy himself energetically letting them know he saved them all seats. Ino, Shikamaru, Choji, Kiba, and Shino are all sniffed out (literally in Kiba’s case) by their parents and dragged to where the rest of their clans are.

Before Naruto knows it it’s just him and Hinata and a half-eaten plate of takoyaki in Naruto’s left hand.

Naruto turns to Hinata; “I’m gonna go find Kakashi-sensei, wanna watch it with us?”

Hinata perks up, eyes wide, cheeks flushed, and Naruto doesn’t need to be particularly smart to see that she’d want nothing more in the world than that. But she purses her lips, presses her index fingers together, and opens her mouth to stammer something–

A deep, cold voice cuts at Naruto’s ears; “Hinata.”

Hinata gasps, eyes going wide, and on reflex her hand shoots out to grab Naruto’s sleeve in a vice grip. Naruto doesn’t know whose voice that is and he doesn’t care. Hinata is trembling. She’s terrified. He pulls his sleeve out of her grip so he can replace it with his hand and he turns them both around.

The man staring down at them is tall and severe, with long dark hair and ice-white eyes. He looks enough like both Hinata and Neji that it’s not hard to guess who he is. There’s a little girl at his side that looks a lot like Hinata did when she was that little, dressed in a yukata more reserved in print and color than childrens’ styles ever are. Hiashi Hyuuga’s hard stare slides off his daughter and onto Naruto, melting into pure puzzlement.

“Mister Uzumaki,” he says with a bow that’s really more of a glorified nod.

Naruto, not sure how to respond to one of the most powerful men in the village addressing him, returns the gesture; “Mister Hyuuga.”

Hiashi’s eyes flicker back over to Hinata, features hardening once more; “You need not stay with the clan, but you will come with me to greet the Wind Country Daimyo. At once.”

Naruto nods; “Alright, let’s go. Where is he?”

Hinata’s face is now a deep puce, the hand in his soaked with sweat. Hiashi once again shoots him a puzzled look, but Naruto is already craning his neck to look around. He spots a collection of nearly palatial palanquins at the extreme Eastern edge of the crowd, five of them emblazoned with the symbol of the great Elemental Nations and a few more modest structures with the symbols of smaller countries. Naruto starts heading over, nearly dragging the dazed Hinata behind him. Hiashi has no choice but to power-walk to keep in step with him.

“If you insist on being here at least let me introduce you,” he huffs, “It would significantly harm your ambitions towards the Hokage’s office if you caused a diplomatic incident in your first conversation with the daimyo.”

Naruto raises an eyebrow; “How do you know I want to be Hokage?”

Hiashi smiles with only his mouth; “Your voice carries.”

There’s an abrupt shift in the crowd when Naruto gets close to the palanquins, both in features and in wealth. The village elite pay their respects to the VIPs, who receive them while surrounded by guards from their hidden villages. The shinobi from Mist are as pale as Zabuza and Haku, some with a pallor nearly as blue as Kisame’s and razor sharp teeth– they couldn’t be more different from the robust and swarthy ninja from Cloud. The Rock ninja have a curious habit of wearing uniforms that leave one arm exposed, and the Fire Country’s dignitary is surrounded by Jonin Naruto doesn’t recognize, with ANBU probably planted nearby.

Naruto’s eyes slide back to the Wind palanquin’s guards– there are only five of them, but there’s something familiar about the two standing out in front. They’re probably just chunin since they only look a few years older than him. As he gets closer he can pick out more distinctive features, the girl’s blonde hair pulled back into four tails, the boy in a full black outfit with purple face paint–

Hinata’s face goes white, but Naruto brightens up and waves (carefully, because he’s still holding takoyaki); “Hey you guys! Long time no see!”

Kankuro and Temari stare at Naruto in complete, slack-jawed shock. They don’t say a thing as Naruto and the Hyuugas come closer, not even when they stop right in front of them.

Hiashi sneers down his nose at them; “The boy greeted you, didn’t he? It would be rude to leave him hanging.”

Temari’s the first one to blink herself back to the world, shooting Hiashi a quick glare before looking back to Naruto; “I… Yeah, it’s been a long time.”

Kankuro shoots Temari a look; “It hasn’t even been a month, Temari,” the smile he turns to Naruto is a bit strained, but he’s making an effort, “Good to see you too, kid. You gonna finish that takoyaki?”

Two well-wishers come out of the palanquin, giving the Wind Daimyo– a heavyset man with immaculately kept facial hair in a headdress that somewhat resembles a fan– a clear line of sight on the party. His pinched face unfolds into a smile when he sees Hiashi, who returns it with another smile that’s pure formality.

“Hiashi, so good to see you again,” he laughs, “And I see you brought your lovely daughters!”

Hiashi bows from the waist, “You insisted, last time we spoke,” he puts a hand on the back of Hanabi’s head, “This is my youngest, Hanabi,” and he gestures to Hinata as she schools her features into something that looks at least neutral, “And my heir, Hinata.”

He shoots her a pointed look, making Hinata stiffen. Naruto squeezes her hand and she manages to relax, ever so slightly.

She bows before Hanabi can, ironing out her voice into something pleasant; “It’s a pleasure to meet you, your Grace. I’m humbled to hear you asked after me and my sister.”

Naruto and Hiashi both glance at Hinata in naked surprise, but the Daimyo chortles, “Such a way with flattery! You’re lucky to have her as a successor, I think she has a bright future ahead of her in diplomacy.”

Hinata smiles, the expression wobbly at the edges but bright enough to convey good tidings; “I should also introduce our guest. This is Naruto Uzumaki, the village’s Jinchuuriki.”

The Daimyo’s eyebrows shoot up and Hinata brings her arm around to push on Naruto’s back, nudging him into bowing low; “It’s, uh, good to meet you, your Grace.”

When he comes back up the Daimyo is all but beaming; “What a charming coincidence,” he raps his knuckles on the latticed wood wall behind him, “Gaara, come up here, would you?”

Hinata stops breathing. Footsteps come crunching hesitantly through the grass, and Gaara rounds the palanquin. Naruto expected him to look exactly the same, give or take a change in outfit like his siblings. He nearly drops his takoyaki when he sees the long, thin scar running from the edge of Gaara’s jaw all the way across his face and straight through the love character carved into his forehead. He’d nearly forgotten all about the fight before his and Gaara’s showdown in the woods, how Sakura had drawn blood from Gaara for the first time.

The Daimyo speaks like Gaara and Naruto aren’t staring wide-eyed and frozen at each other; “Gaara, the Leaf Village’s Jinchuuriki has come to pay his respects! I hear the two of you met during the Chunin Exams, is that true?”

Gaara swallows hard; “… Yes.”

The shock filters out of Naruto’s system and he grins; “Yeah, definitely! Hey, Your Grace, is it cool if me and Gaara go around back and catch up a bit? It’s been forever!

The Daimyo’s laugh bubbles with surprise; “Well of course it is, who am I to get in the way of old friends? Just don’t go too far! Now, Hiashi…”

Naruto doesn’t stick around long enough to hear the rest, strolling over to pull Gaara back the way they came. The surface of Gaara’s gourd ripples when Naruto takes him by the shoulder, but nothing reaches out to grab him.

When they reach the back of the palanquin Naruto turns to grin full-force at Gaara; “What are the odds, huh? Can’t believe the brass actually let you back in the village!”

Gaara crosses his arms over his chest tightly and avoids Naruto’s eyes; “It was… not our idea. I’m not comfortable here either. I promise we have nothing planned and I won’t… hurt anyone. I’m going to stay back here the whole time and no one will have to see me.”

Naruto’s grin drops and he furrows his eyebrows; “What? No, Gaara I’m not– Gaara, I’m happy to see you.”

Gaara’s eyes slowly slide to his, widening by a fraction of a fraction of a centimeter; “… Why?”

Naruto rolls his eyes with his whole head; “‘Cause I thought your village would like, kill you or put you in prison for life or something! You did bad stuff but you should get a chance to make up for it, especially when like half of it was their fault for being dicks and putting a demon in you and all that crap.”

Gaara’s mouth twitches at one corner; “… Oh… That’s very… open-minded.”

Naruto just stares at him; “… You’re having a real hard time learning how to be nice, aren’t you?”

Gaara does not nod or shake his head, but his fingers tense on his arms and the top layer of his gourd ripples again. He’d better leave that thing outside if he ever wants to play poker.

Naruto cocks his head to one side; “So wait, if you didn’t wanna be here, and the Leaf brass didn’t want you here, then why are you here?”

Gaara looks away; “My siblings and I are heirs to our late father’s position as Kazekage. Temari is first in line. But the council is deliberating on appointing her and she and Kankuro aren’t interested in the position, so the village is in limbo. If we had a Kazekage, they would’ve come to the inauguration as a show of good faith. The three of us were the closest thing they had.”

Naruto’s eyes go wide; “What? I thought a Kage got elected or chosen by the Daimyo, how are you in line for it?”

One of Gaara’s shoulders twitches, not quite a shrug; “That’s how it’s done here. In most other villages the Kage is, if not in law in practice, a hereditary position.”

Naruto’s eyes are nearly bugging out of his head; “No way! So you could be Kazekage tomorrow?! That is so not fair!”

Gaara’s shrug is stiff, half because he’s not used to doing it and half because of the heavy weight on his back; “I won’t be made Kazekage.”

Naruto furrows his eyebrows; “Why not? You’re eligible, if your brother and sister turn it down the job should have to go to you. Why wouldn’t it?”

Gaara stares at him for a long moment before he speaks like he’s explaining something to a child, “I am guilty of multiple murders that I only could have committed through use of the demonic creature sealed inside me.”

To be fair, that hadn’t actually occurred to Naruto until right now.

Gaara’s grip tightens on his arms; “The Council has made up its mind about me. And I don’t disagree with them.”

Naruto just blinks; “Then prove them wrong. Prove yourself wrong.”

Garra’s brow furrows, warping his scar; “How?”

Naruto shrugs; “Be a good person who protects people and cares about them and doesn’t kill them?”

Gaara’s mouth twitches again, almost resembling a smirk; “You make that sound easy.”

“I mean, it should be,” Naruto remarks, “At least I think it should. It isn’t always, not even a lot of the time, but I think trying to be good counts for something, doesn’t it? You might never change their minds, you might never become Kazekage, but you’ll still be helping people. There’ll still be more people who are alive and happy. That might add up one day. I dunno to what, but… It’ll add up.”

Gaara slowly tilts his head, a fraction of a degree; “… You’re not nearly as sure of yourself as I thought.”

Naruto gulps; “Is that bad?”

Gaara’s face does something very strange. One corner of his mouth moves up and stays that way. It’s a valiant attempt at a smile.

He replies, “It’s… human.”

Naruto smiles a bit, the effort worth more than the result; “I’ll take it.”

Hinata pokes her head around the side of the palanquin, voice hardly a whisper; “N-Naruto, the ceremony’s starting in two minutes.”

Naruto nearly leaps out of his skin; “Shit! I gotta go get a good view but– Did you eat yet? Here, take these, share ‘em with your brother n’ sister,” he hands the takoyaki to a bewildered Gaara before reaching into his kinchaku, “And– What’s the water situation in Sand?”

Gaara’s face smooths over into a neutral mask; “We have water, Naruto.”

“Good, then you’re adopting this guy,” Naruto quickly adds, shoving Sushi’s bag into Gaara’s other hand, “His name is Sushi, the goldfish scooping stall guy also gave me some food for him but I think I dropped it so you’ll probably have to get some later. Take care of him! Don’t kill any more people! Bye!

Naruto nearly leaves Hinata in the dust as he scrambles to find an open spot in the crowd, central enough to get a good view and far enough back that he won’t have to crane his neck too far, but he manages to slow down and she manages to catch up.

Naruto lets out a hard breath through his nose; “I’m starting to feel like I don’t know anything about being Hokage.”

Hinata frowns, tiny and concerned; “W-why do you say that?”

“I ‘unno, I mean,” Naruto answers as he spots a patch of open grass and starts heading toward it, “I’ve been thinking a lot about it, with all this going on. And hearing a lot about it too. It’s wrapped up in a lot of stuff I don’t really get and just… never really thought about. I never thought about Daimyos liking me or tax reform or councils or anything like that before.”

“W-well, I imagine… Probably the First Hokage thought the same way,” Hinata remarks, smoothing out her yukata’s skirt as they finally come to a stop, “H-he hadn’t– He didn’t want the position, he’d recommended Madara Uchiha for it, but the people elected him instead.”

Naruto’s eyebrows shoot up; “He did? I thought Madara was evil, why did he want him to be the Hokage?”

Hinata stares at him for a long minute before she replies, “Naruto, did you– d-did you not read our history textbooks? This was– This– W-we went over it on the first day of Academy classes.”

Naruto grimaces; “Uh… Yeah, I… failed History.”

Hinata doesn’t groan or roll her eyes or put her hand to her temple or pinch the bridge of her nose. She covers her mouth with her hand and lets out a tiny, hiccuping giggle.

“W-well, he did,” Hinata answers, “M-Madara and Hashirama… T-the First Hokage, he was friends with Madara. He trusted him, even if no one else in the village did. P-people would– The village would ask him why he kept Madara around, and well, people remembered and wrote down the answer.”

Hinata straightens up, eyes focusing on the First Hokage’s likeness on the mountain, and recites, “The Hokage doesn’t need to be an expert on everything. He just needs to surround himself with the smartest people he can find and figure out which of their ideas are the best.”

Hinata’s shoulders relax and she meets Naruto’s eyes for the first time in forever; “Y-you know a lot of smart people, Naruto. You have a lot of good friends. We’ll help you figure out what taxes are.”

Naruto can’t help laughing as he tries to shoot back, “I know what taxes are! I just don’t know what I gotta change about them! I failed Accounting, too!”

Hinata starts to laugh, but a hush falls over the crowd as all eyes draw to the roof of the Hokage Tower. The ceremony has begun.

Tsunade strides out, nearly to the edge of the roof, resplendent in a deep green yukata covered in designs of trees in full blossom. At her back are the Leaf Village council, Shizune, and Jiraiya– Shizune has dressed up for the occasion but the pervy sage is the same as he always has been, including the lazy smirk on his features. Shizune holds the ceremonial hokage’s haori and Jiraiya holds the helm, twirling it lazily around until the one female member of the council glares at him.

Tsunade stops and turns, kneeling with her back to the crowd. On the back of her yukata is a symbol embroidered in gold thread– to Naruto it looks like a double-sided trident, but when he asks Hinata what it is she whispers back that it’s the Senju clan crest. Two members of the council, the old woman with her hair elaborately piled up on her head and the man with spectacles, take the helm and haori from Shizune and Jiraiya and step closer to Tsunade.

The old woman speaks first; “We come here on this day to appoint our newest Hokage, the Fifth of their name. If there are any objections, speak now or forever hold your peace.”

No one would dare speak. Not today.

The old woman nods; “Tsunade Senju, born August 2nd in the year Nine-Hundred Forty Eight, daughter of Munemasa Senju, granddaughter of Hashirama Senju, you come to us today not as one who would rule but as one who would serve and protect. Do you swear, upon the blood of your clan, to support and defend the Will of Fire against all enemies, without and within?”

Tsunade’s voice is clear, ringing out like a bell; “I do.”

“Do you swear that you will bear true faith and allegiance to the village?”

“I do.”

“Do you swear that you take this obligation freely, without any reservation or evasion?”

“I do.”

“Do you swear that when your time is at its end, you will well and faithfully pass down the title you are about to receive?”

“I do.”

There is a pause that feels like it lasts a century.

“Then I declare, beneath the eyes of the Sage of Six Paths who watches from Heaven, and the eyes of all Hokage who have come before,” the old woman places the helm on Tsunade’s head as the bespectacled man drapes the haori around her shoulders, “That you may address the people of the Leaf Village as the Fifth Hokage.”

There’s a round of polite applause as Tsunade stands and turns. The haori flutters around her in the early evening wind, the helm covering her face in shadow, and she takes a moment to survey the crowd in silence.

Then she removes the helm, and her voice rings out across the village; “I am no one’s idea of perfect. Like my grandfather, my great-uncle, and my teacher, I am human. I won’t stand up here and pretend that I never turned my back on this village. Because I did. I won’t stand up here and pretend that I’m the most qualified person for the job. Because I’m not. I won’t stand up here and pretend that this village has always been perfect, or just, or right. Because it hasn’t. I lost people I loved to wars this village started, to policies this village put into place, to behaviors this village encouraged. This village gave me scars that will never fade.”

The atmosphere is stifling as Naruto waits on baited breath for Tsunade to continue.

“But,” she mercifully does, “I came to a realization. A village, a collection of buildings inside a wall, an insignia on a metal plate, a uniform… These things don’t have a will. A system, a government, these things don’t breathe, don’t see, don’t think. This village has power, but only the power we give it. And a village cannot change unless the people within it make it change. I come before you now to promise, on my life, that I will fight with every piece of my soul– not for a village, for a piece of land with a wall around it, but for all of you. I will fight for your right to live, and not just live but live well, free from all the pain I had to endure to get to this point. I will fight to make my grandfather’s dream of a world where no children have to die in battle a reality. And I swear on his memory, I will fight beside you as we forge a brighter future, for ourselves, for our children, for everyone who watches from Heaven. I vow to lead and protect you all as your Fifth Hokage!”

The moment her speech ends, at the top of the Hokage cliffs a single point, impossibly small at this distance, ignites in flame. The flame spreads in sheets, so large and so bright that only a forest could feed it (but there aren’t any trees at the top of the mountain, how–?), until a single word is spelled out in fire:

The crowd erupts into surprised, delighted applause and cheers– and not simply for the show. There’s a charge of excitement that ripples in nervous loops through the air, like the moment before a miracle. Naruto stares at the fire, trying to figure out how so much of it got up there so fast. There’s no trees, maybe they placed some oil, but it all spread out from one little point, how–?

Sasuke isn’t on the roof with Tsunade. He’s not in the crowd with them.

Naruto tallies up every place that Sasuke isn’t, and zeroes in on the only spot he could possibly be.

He stares up at Tsunade, framed in Uchiha flames dwarfed only by the burning will she holds in her heart. Naruto can only imagine what she’s seeing as she stares down at the ocean of people she promised to fight for. He can only imagine what Sasuke sees, high atop the Hokage cliffs, wreathed in fire to light the darkness. He can probably see the entire village. Maybe he can see the whole world.

Naruto would like to see that.

Hinata’s fingers close around his hand again and he looks over to her. She meets his gaze with a smile that holds more warmth and light than the fire on the cliff. In its light her hair is a deep, endless black, and her pale eyes the vermillion of the setting sun.

Naruto has noticed something. Hinata is very, very pretty.

“That’s gonna be you up there someday,” Hinata whispers.

Naruto’s face heats up and he returns her smile, wide and gleaming; “Someday soon. Believe it.”

Hinata just squeezes his hand; “I always did.”

Chapter Text

xix. “Alright, that’s Team Six,” Tsunade sighs, flipping the folder closed, “Providing numbers still work like I think they do, Team Seven should be next.”

Danzo’s voice stabs through the air like a spear; “Do remember to be objective, Lady Hokage.”

Tsunade smiles sweetly while cracking her knuckles one finger at a time; “Please, I have people to do that for me. Proctors, please take me through Team Seven’s results and give your recommendations.”

As the proctors flip through their notes Tsunade stretches out her back, swallowing a yawn. Now that she’s officially Hokage that means it’s time to get caught up on all the real work, and that means being cooped up in the only conference room in the Hokage Tower with no windows (Danzo’s insistence, for security reasons) for two-going-on-five hours straight (Danzo’s insistence, so that they can get this task over and done with now and move on to more pressing matters) evaluating the results of the Chunin Exams and debating which kids to promote with not only the proctors who were actually there but their Jonin teachers and the Clan Heads and the Hokage’s Council (three guesses whose insistence that was and the first two don’t count).

Tsunade desperately wishes she had something stronger than tea to help her through this, but at this point she’ll take what she can get.

Ibiki’s the first to speak up; “First is Naruto Uzumaki. Uzumaki got a perfect score on the written exam,” Tsunade nearly drops her tea, “by not answering a single question on it,” Tsunade nearly snorts her tea as she laughs into it.

“I’ve got one question,” she coughs, “Is that because he’s a genius, or because he’s an idiot?”

“Idiot,” Ibiki replies immediately, “He spent the forty-five minutes before the tenth question doubled over having a panic attack, and when Hinata Hyuuga offered to let him cheat off her paper,” Tsunade spies Hiashi Hyuuga’s upper lip lifting in disgust, “he refused. However, though he’s an idiot he’s an exceptionally charismatic idiot– When we posed the tenth question he screamed that he doesn’t give up, and that inspired everyone still left to stay put. More people passed because of him than anything else. I don’t think he has the critical thinking skills to be a Chunin, but he certainly has the leadership ability and the integrity we like to see.”

“Screaming loudly enough to inspire a group of children counts as ‘leadership’ these days, that explains quite a bit,” Danzo mutters a hair above his breath.

“This whole team kinda sagged in the second exam,” Anko picks up as she leans back in her chair, heels on the long table, “They took all five days to get a scroll and make it to the center– Literally, they got there with twenty minutes left. Naruto made out better than his teammates when it came to injuries, but from what the kids themselves said that’s ‘cause he didn’t do a lot of fighting until the last night. He does deserve a bit of slack for the extenuating circumstances his team slammed right into, but it was still a pretty poor showing. I don’t think the kid has the endurance or the strategic mind a Chunin needs.”

Genma takes a minute to line up his own notes and Hayate’s before he says his piece; “Yeah, third verse is the same as the first here. Kid’s got a lot of raw power and picked up some interesting techniques, but he has a nasty habit of just throwing himself straight at the enemy and only thinking of a more intelligent strategy when he’s forced into a corner– if Neji hadn’t been stuck in his own head and Naruto came at him like this he would’ve been wiped out. He has perseverance and strength, but he can’t lean on that forever.”

Tsunade nods; “Fair, fair. Kakashi, do you have anything to add?”

Kakashi shrugs; “Nope. Naruto needs more time to develop a sense of discipline and diversify his strategies. He’s not ready to make Chunin, not by a long shot.”

Tsunade pauses, eyes sweeping over the table to see if anyone is going to pop in with an objection or unhelpful comment. No one does. It’s a bit disheartening, but she knows Naruto needs more time to cook. She doesn’t push it.

“Alright, Naruto Uzumaki will remain a Genin,” she states, “Let’s move on to Sakura Haruno.”

All whispered conversation ceases.

There’s a pregnant pause before Ibiki clears his throat; “Say whatever you want about the girl, she’s extremely intelligent. She got a perfect score on the exam. Without cheating.”

“All that implies is that you made the test too easy,” Mitokado spits, adjusting his spectacles.

Ibiki doesn’t respond, but Shikaku Nara does, leveling a completely neutral look on the elderly councilor; “Sir, Ibiki didn’t write that test. I did.”

Mitokado glares at him, but says nothing. Tsunade will give the old hawk one thing– he knows when he’s put his foot in his mouth there’s no sense in choking on it.

“However, she has trouble with practically applying that intelligence,” Ibiki continues as if Mitokado hadn’t spoken, “She was too focused on the written test itself. She didn’t cheat because she didn’t think to cheat. She seems to have trouble breaking out of the mindset of a student and instead thinking like a soldier. Personally, I think experience is the best teacher and would promote her just to take away any crutches she’s still leaning on, but I’ll leave the final decision to you, Ma’am.”

All eyes drift to Anko. Tsunade becomes very aware, suddenly, of how stuffy and humid a windowless room in a Fire Country September can be.

Anko takes her feet off the table with a sigh, scooting her chair all the way up to the table; “Okay, gonna put a disclaimer on this: I’m not an objective voice when it comes to this girl. During my exam Orochimaru got his fangs in her. Pretty much everyone in here is briefed on what that means, so I won’t go over it again. From the information Sasuke Uchiha provided, we know Orochimaru was going for him and she came in with the save. I like the loyalty and selflessness, but it was a reckless move that put her team in danger and contributed to their late arrival at the tower. From what I’ve seen outside my exam she could make a good Chunin, but… I recommend against promoting her until after the curse mark has been permanently dealt with.”

Genma’s voice cuts in like the blade of a sword; “I respectfully disagree with the assessments of both of my colleagues. During the preliminary rounds Sakura showed she could use her incredibly precise chakra control to get a handle on her curse mark, and in the third exam she showed not only an aptitude for battlefield strategy but also for thinking on her feet, performing Jonin-level genjutsu and changing her strategy immediately after the first one failed. She managed to make Gaara bleed. And when the invasion hit she showed discipline, asking permission to pursue the Sand ninja so she could bring them into custody. Most importantly, she showed that she learned from her mistakes in the first two exams and worked to correct them. She’s ready to be a Chunin. That’s my recommendation, Ma’am.”

Tsunade drums her fingers on the table, but before she can say anything Danzo’s voice pierces the air; “With all due respect, Jonin Shiranui, nothing could be further from the truth.”

There’s a brief rumble of surprise among the assembled ninja. Even Mitokado and Utatane sit up straight and share a brief, shocked glance. Tsunade narrows her eyes and starts cracking the knuckles on her other hand, finger by finger.

Danzo waits for the noise to settle down into a whisper, then continues, “Sakura Haruno has shown herself in all her engagements to be reckless and immature. The girl sends herself hurtling past Chakra Exhaustion on a regular basis–”

Hiashi scoffs, “What do you expect? She’s clanless, no doubt she has little chakra to work with at all,” and it sends a murmur of assent through the more conservative clan heads.

Danzo pays him no mind; “– showing a severe lack of forethought. And when she does run out of chakra, she consistently abuses the Curse Mark to gain more, showing a lack of discipline. The girl has a narrow, myopic view of the world and her place within it. She prioritizes her teammates and herself over the safety of the village–”

“Now hold on,” Kurenai cuts in, leaning over the table, “That’s a baseless accusation!”

“I assure you, Jonin Yuhi, it is not,” Danzo replies, almost sounding bored, “I have read her reports and debriefings on her recent engagements. When asked why she used her curse mark against Gaara during the invasion the only reason she could give was because she wanted to ensure her victory. When asked why she pursued Itachi Uchiha she simply said it was to keep her teammates alive at any cost. She knows who Orochimaru is and what he is capable of, yet flirts with becoming his pawn for reasons as petty as this. She is willing to exchange the entire village for personal glory or the lives of two people.”

Tsunade catches the head of the Sarutobi clan whispering to the head of the Yuhi clan, “As if Orochimaru would have any use for a clanless child.”

Kakashi’s voice comes out in a ragged snarl; “Danzo, she’s thirteen years old. She’s a kid–

“I’m afraid under Fire Country and Leaf Village law, Kakashi, any individual holding a Shinobi rank is an adult,” Danzo counters, “They are given the privileges and responsibilities of adulthood, and one of these responsibilities is putting the village ahead of everything else. That is what this all comes down to: Sakura Haruno does not act in a manner fitting an adult or a Chunin. This would simply mean she needs more training under normal circumstances. But under her unique circumstances, she would be a liability if given the independence of a Chunin.”

Utatane nods and adds, “Mitokado and I agree. The girl is not ready, and the village is not secure. To promote her now would be irresponsible.”

Tsunade steeples her fingers in front of her mouth. She gazes at Sakura’s picture on her file; it hasn’t been updated since her ninja registration in January, two months before she’d turn thirteen. She still has long silky hair, a brilliant smile, and round, pink cheeks.

Tsunade eyes shift down the table; “Before I decide, Kurenai, Kakashi, I want to hear your recommendations.”

Mitokado adjusts his glasses and angles a sour frown her way; “Deliberately seeking out biased opinions now, Lady Hokage?”

“Seeking out expert opinions, Councilor,” she replies coolly, “The fact of the matter is that Danzo may have done his research on Sakura, but he has simply read about her. Kurenai and Kakashi trained her. They know her strengths and weaknesses inside and out. They have more information than anyone else at the table. You would trust Sarutobi to give everyone a fair assessment of me. I trust them to do the same for their student.”

Tsunade knows no one in the world would give a less fair assessment of her, and so do Mitokado and Utatane. But Sarutobi is dead. And you do not speak ill of the dead. You especially do not speak ill of the dead in front of the head of their clan. Tsunade knows how the game is played.

Kurenai and Kakashi share a long look across the table.

Kurenai closes her eyes and murmurs, “Unfortunately, even though I think Danzo’s assessments of Sakura were uncharitable… I don’t think they were wrong. Sakura is very concerned with her teammates. They take up a lot of her attention and can distract her from the bigger picture. She is not a liability, but she does need more time to grow, and more than anything what she needs right now is guidance. Giving her the independence of a Chunin would be antithetical to that at this stage. So, at the moment, I can’t in good conscience recommend she be promoted.”

Kakashi takes quite a bit longer to answer. His hands are folded tight in front of his face, almost like he’s praying.

He lowers them to the table with a long sigh; “Sakura… We can’t avoid the fact that she’s the child of civilians. She didn’t grow up with the same pressures and expectations as the rest of her classmates. She got to be a child for far longer than any of them. That’s made her inquisitive, passionate, and kind. It’s also made her self-conscious, reckless, and vulnerable. More than anything, Sakura is aware of all her faults, and overcompensates for them. Sakura’s not ready to be a Chunin. Not yet.”

Tsunade spares the little girl in the file one last look.

She turns the page; “In light of all the points presented, I have decided that Sakura Haruno will remain a Genin. Let’s move on to Sasuke Uchiha.”

Sakura Haruno is not alright.

Every time she goes to sleep, the sky turns red, the ground turns black, and her hair is long. The dreams are so crisp and clear she’s leapt awake ready to attack whatever hapless nurse woke her. She sees Itachi Uchiha in every dark corner, in every crowd, in every single night terror. His voice is always there, repeating itself, echoing and reverberating and merging with every other disruptive voice she keeps locked in the back of her mind.

The perfunctory hospital counseling mostly just serves to make sure she doesn’t kill herself, but it does come with more sessions of medical ninjutsu. It doesn’t remove the scars– it can’t, not without risking serious brain damage. All it does is blur the edges, make everything vague and out of focus. She doesn’t see the rusted blade or Naruto’s heart being crushed but she feels pain, terror, shame, and a profound feeling of being small and helpless.

No, Sakura is not alright. But that isn’t anyone else’s business, now is it?

She works diligently at her physical therapy, building her physical strength and coordination back up with a smile on her face. She attends her counseling sessions and tells the counselor that she’s doing well but not too well, that every day makes it a little easier to bear, that really her mother and her friends supporting her is what’s getting her through this. She gets discharged from the hospital and starts training again with a spring in her step. She tells Kurenai over tea and dango that she feels like they’ve just scraped the surface of genjutsu and really the incident just made her want to be better so she’ll never fall for something like that again (that, at least, is true). She goes on C and D ranks with Team 7 and agrees with Naruto and Sasuke that she’s also a bit underwhelmed when they’ve been up against so much bigger. She watches movies with her mom and gets ramen with her friends and brushes her hair and cleans her room and pretends to be alright, because that’s what she’s always done and it’s better for everyone this way.

Now that things seem as close to normal as they’re going to get, the gossip has shifted from who’s totally into who to who’s got the best shot of being promoted to Chunin. In the chaos that followed them Sakura had all but forgotten what the exams had actually been for. But more surprising is her place among the top contenders.

“If anyone’s getting promoted,” Tenten had said over a Saturday lunch with just the female members of the Leaf 12, “I think everyone who got to the Third Exam has a good shot. I don’t think Naruto or Neji are gonna get promoted mostly because a lot of their fight was just the two of them proving that they’re impulsive and get wrapped up in their own drama, so that just leaves you, Shikamaru, and Shino. Between the three of you I think you’ve each got a fifty-fifty shot at best, maybe a little less for Shino since we didn’t get to see him actually fight. All three of you could be promoted.”

Hinata and Ino had objected– Hinata claiming that Naruto had done very well and Ino claiming that promoting someone as lazy as Shikamaru was a national security risk– but Sakura had stared at her food and dwelled on the thought. She hadn’t been sure if she’d wanted to be promoted (it would mean leaving her team, and she felt the most like herself when she was with them). That had come when she’d told her her mother about it over dinner, and instead of wilting like she always did when Sakura talked Shinobi business at the table she’d brightened up instead.

“I think your friend is onto something, honey,” she’d replied, smiling as she took their plates into the kitchen, “I got to talking with an old commander of Kakashi’s, he was visiting while the two of you were out, that does a lot of work with the Council. Apparently your name’s going around the tower.”

Sakura’s eyes had gone wide; “It has? What have people been saying?”

Her mother had turned on the sink and rolled up her sleeves; “That you could be one of the finest ninja the village has ever seen. Can you believe that? I knew you were brilliant, and it sounds like the brass know that too!”

It had taken Sakura a moment to realize she was smiling too; “I guess so.”

After that Sakura redoubles her efforts– she begs Kakashi for more ninjutsu and taijutsu training in the morning, she spars long into the afternoon with Naruto, she studies long into the night with Sasuke (genjutsu for her, anatomy and biochemistry for Sasuke), she fills every waking minute with work. If she’s going to make Chunin, she’s going to be the best Chunin the Leaf Village has ever seen. She hears a rumor that this year their teachers will have a say in their promotion, so she shows her commitment to growing and learning from her mistakes by training voraciously with Kurenai and Kakashi.

As Sakura tries to be better, she starts to feel better. Maybe it’s the endorphins from all the exercise she’s getting. Maybe it’s because she never gives her brain too much time to rest with the constant activity. Maybe the counseling is actually working. All she knows is that she’s laughing at Kakashi’s dumb jokes, watching awestruck when Kurenai demonstrates genjutsu with expert grace, feeling the warmth pool in her chest when she glances at Sasuke from the corner of her eye.

Sakura is going to be alright. Because a Chunin has to be alright, and she is going to be a Chunin.

The day before Shikamaru’s birthday (Sakura remembers everyone in their class’ birthdays without fail), Kakashi has them meet not at their usual bridge or alleyway but at Training Ground 3, where they’d taken the bell test and first come together as a team. Sakura’s heart is beating out of her chest– this has to be a sign, bringing them back to where it all began so they can mark a turning point in their team. It’s happening. It’s happening. She laughs at Naruto’s grousing about Kakashi’s punctuality and makes small talk with Sasuke and pretends like her palms aren’t sweating beneath her gloves.

Kakashi appears, late as always, and tells them since they don’t have a mission today they’re doing some basic training for a few hours. Sakura barely hears it. She’s listening for one word and one word only.

“Oh yeah, one last thing before we start,” Kakashi mentions, “We’re breaking early because we’ve been invited to lunch by Team Ten– Apparently Shikamaru’s made Chunin, so they’re celebrating with barbecue. Not sure why, but I get the feeling that was Choji’s idea.”

Sakura’s extremities feel like they’ve fallen asleep. Her fingers and toes tingle, going very cold.

Naruto’s eyes bug out and he sits straight up; “WHAT?! Shikamaru made Chunin?! That’s insane, who else got promoted?!”

Kakashi pretends to think, looking up and away, before shrugging; “He was the only one. Really, a lot of the brass were calling for none of you to be promoted since the exams were cut short, but…”

Kakashi’s voice fades out. Everything sounds like television static in Sakura’s ears. She thinks Sasuke asks her if she’s okay and she tries to make herself smile and say she’s fine. It’s hard to do that when she feels like she’s floating a yard behind her body.

Training begins. Sakura’s chakra control wavers in the middle of sparring and she falls in the river. Kakashi turns it into a teaching moment, teaching Sasuke a simple Fire Style technique to dry her off, then immediately sends her home– she doesn’t look well. She thinks she says she’s fine again. Kakashi leans in and says she can tell him if something’s wrong. She says she’s fine. Again.

Sakura goes home.

The house is empty. Sasuke dried her off, but river water is full of moss and muck, so Sakura decides to take a bath. She heads upstairs. She gets some clean clothes to change into. She heads into the bathroom. She sets her clean clothes down outside the door. She closes the door. She turns around and looks at herself in the mirror.

She looks at herself in the mirror.

She looks at herself in the mirror.

She looks at herself in the mirror.

She’s been looking at herself in the mirror for ten minutes. Her hair has grown out. It’s almost long enough for someone to grab it and use it to hold her head in place and make her watch. The circles under her eyes are deep and dark, the lines from the corners of her eyes dark in the harsh light.

Itachi is staring at her from the mirror.

His voice, her voice, Orochimaru’s voice, all and none slither and slide around the tiny room, “Don’t bore me with your crocodile tears. Why cry for a nuisance? If you cared for him you would’ve protected him of course you want someone to save you why would you change everythingyoudidinpursuitofyourownvanitywasnevergoingtoamounttoasinglethingWILLNOTSTOPYOUCANTSTOPITSTILLTOOYOUNGTOOWEAKTOOYOUNGTOOWEAKTOOYOUNGTOOWEAKTOOYOUNGTOOWEAKOUTOFTIMEOUTOFTIMEOUTOFTIME–

Sakura lets out a harsh, throaty scream (anger and fear bubbling and boiling together and she’ll show you who’s young and WEAK–) and throws a kunai at the mirror. The tip scratches the surface and bounces off, falling onto the tiled floor with a clatter. Sakura is Sakura in the mirror.

Her hair is too long. She needs to remember what that girl in the forest, the girl who was strong enough to terrify the strongest boys she knew, had done. She grabs her hair (barely enough to pull into a tiny ponytail) in a fist, grabs the fallen kunai, and chops it off. She cuts her bangs so they fall to her collarbone, as long as they were back when she’d had the guts to kill. The locks of her hair look like flower petals on the tile floor.

Sakura runs the bath as hot as it will go, curls into a ball in the water, and sobs her throat raw.

Different people have different responses to frustration. Her mother would take walks up and down the street. Rin would shut herself in her room and study aggressively. Tsubaki cleans.

She keeps her voice a few decibels louder than the running water as she scrubs dishes with intent; “I can’t believe this! You work so hard and go through so much in that exam and they just give the promotion to some kid who fell asleep in all your classes?!”

Sakura mumbles from the sofa, “Shikamaru’s actually really smart, Mom.”

“So are you,” she shoots back, “You’re smarter, you apply yourself and this is what you get in return! Nara Clan, of course it’s the Nara Clan, Shikaku talks big about being more ‘open-minded’ than his father but what does that count for?”

Sakura’s fingers tense on her folded arms and she frowns at the coffee table; “It’s not like that, Mom, it's… It’s whatever, Mom. It doesn’t matter.”

“It absolutely matters, this is your career we’re talking about,” Tsubaki exclaims, nearly dropping a plate, “Sakura, if you don’t speak up about little things then when big things happen–!”

“'People will walk all over you with the big things' I know Mom, I know, you’ve told me a million times,” Sakura grumbles, pulling her legs up onto the sofa, “I don’t know why you’re so mad. You should be happy. You always get upset when I’m in danger, I’m safer as a Genin. This is fine.”

Tsubaki sets down the dish and turns the water off; “Normally I would be, especially after the past two months, but…”

Tsubaki pads into the living room and takes her customary place on the sofa, across from Sakura. In her pajamas, curled up into her corner of the couch, refusing to meet her eyes, Sakura looks so young. She looks like she’s pouting because Tsubaki tried to nudge her towards withdrawing from the Academy, again. How could the village see her as anything other than a child? Tsubaki doesn’t understand.

Tsubaki sighs, “I promised to support you and your dreams, no matter what. And I’ve seen how hard you work every day, I know how you’re trying. To see all your hard work go to waste in favor of lifting up kids who already have every advantage is… frustrating. Especially since your Aunt Rin had to jump through all the same hoops twenty years ago.”

Sakura blinks rapidly before turning just her head to look at her; “She did? You never told me that.”

Tsubaki leans against the arm of the sofa with a bitter little smile; “No, I didn’t. I didn’t want to discourage you, and more importantly Rin wouldn’t want me to discourage you. It definitely was worse back then– They made Rin take an entrance exam to prove that she actually did have chakra and that we weren’t shoving her in the academy because we wanted to leech off a Shinobi’s paycheck. When she made Chunin one of the proctors said to her face that they only promoted her because it was wartime and they needed all hands on deck. She would grin and bear it but someone had to get angry, so…”

Tsubaki shrugs, chuckling, “I suppose old habits die hard.”

Sakura’s quiet for a while, one hand coming down to futz with a loose thread at the hem of her pajama pants. Tsubaki will have to remember to cut that later.

She uncurls and scoots closer to Tsubaki, murmuring, “Someone might’ve spoke up against me but it wouldn’t be Shikamaru’s Dad. Don’t take this out on him or Shikamaru.”

Tsubaki puts her arm around Sakura and pulls her into a loose but warm hug; “Okay, honey. I won’t.”


Kakashi snaps his book shut; “Yes, Sakura?”

Sakura seems very preoccupied with adjusting her gloves; “What’s the normal promotion rate for the Chunin Exams?”

Kakashi glances over to Sasuke and Naruto– they’re busy with their glorious and dignified mission of scrubbing graffiti off the back of the movie theater, and too concerned with affectionately sniping at each other to hear much of anything.

Still, he plays it casually to start; “Short answer? There kind of isn’t one. The Chunin exams’ pass-rate is dependent on how many teams apply, whether or not we’re at war, how many Genin we have kicking around, all kinds of extenuating circumstances. Basically, the statistics are all jacked up.”

Sakura’s mouth twitches in a tiny smile before she forces a hard breath out through her nose; “That doesn’t sound right to me, I mean– Look at our class, the village has a surplus of Genin thanks to the decade of peace, we just got attacked and are short-staffed as a result, so for only one person to get promoted–”

Kakashi arches an eyebrow and cuts in, “Sakura, you did know I’m legally not allowed to tell you why you didn’t get promoted before you decided to start fishing for answers, right?”

Her mouth snaps shut.

Kakashi smiles and nudges her gently with his elbow; “Come on, I know Naruto and Sasuke can be annoying, but is spending another year with us that bad?”

Sakura shrugs, shoulders bunched in tight; “I mean, how much of that year are we actually going to get? Sasuke spends half the week with Lady Tsunade as it is, and Naruto’s started dipping out just as often because Master Jiraiya needs to borrow him, soon Team Seven will just be you and me…”

Kakashi’s glad for the mask, Sakura doesn’t need to see that he’s just as bothered by that idea as she is. He’d just gotten his team back, he was finally coming over the hill on this whole “being a teacher” thing, but already they’re being pulled in different directions. And if it did come down to just him and Sakura, Kakashi’s not sure he can give her all the support she needs all by himself.

He puts on a smile anyway; “That wouldn’t be so bad, would it? You’re always begging to learn more ninjutsu from me– If it was just the two of us I’d actually have the time to teach you.”

Sakura twitches one shoulder in a shrug and stays quiet for a few seconds, before finally she meets his eyes; “Can you give me anything? The broadest possible hint? I just want to know something instead of nothing.”

Kakashi sighs theatrically, “If you must know, in the broadest possible strokes, we decided that you all needed more time to learn.”

Sakura stares hard at him, jaw clenched tight– she’s no doubt trying to decode that answer to try and find every single specific reason she’s still a Genin.

He expects her to storm over to Naruto and Sasuke in a huff, but instead she puts on a perky smile; “I should help make sure we actually finish the mission before sunset.”

Sakura trots over to her teammates and Kakashi narrows his eyes, watching her go. He doesn’t like to think about how much she resembles her aunt, but right now it’s unavoidable.

Because whenever Rin smiled like that, it meant she was absolutely furious.

“Oh no. No way. No goddamn fucking way in Hell.”

“Would you care to be specific, Tayuya, or are we going to endure several more expletives before that happens?”

“Shut the fuck up Jirobo, look at that skinny little bitch– Ain’t no goddamn way that’s who Orochimaru wants!”

“Tayuya, the only other girl with pink hair in this village is you. Do you wanna double-check the info card?”

I’ve read the damn info card Sakon! I know that this is the target, but there is no fucking way Orochimaru wants her as his next body!”

“So what are you really saying?”

“I think Kabuto is fucking with us. Or he’s not telling us everything, I don’t fucking know, something is wrong here.”

“So what do we do about it, hmm? Do we tell Kabuto to his face that he’s a liar and a schemer and, most importantly, we’re not going to follow orders and complete our mission?

“Fuck no Kidomaru, that’s stupid–!”

“Exactly. So keep your trap shut. We have a mission, and we’re seeing it through. End of story.”

Sakura takes the long way home. The very long way home. The “going in the complete opposite direction”-way home.

She’s too busy staring at her feet to see where she’s going and too busy grinding her teeth to care.

Kakashi had been so full of shit it was leaking out from behind his mask, what kind of idiot does he think she is?! She doesn’t ‘need more time to learn’, she’s learned plenty. She knows what this is. Her shoulder burns and throbs and Sakura scratches incessantly at it– it’s this. It’s always this. Kakashi is so fucking terrified of the mark, so are Anko and Kurenai, so is the entire village brass. She’s not a genin to these people, not a ninja, she’s a rabid mutt they’re trying to muzzle and keep on a leash. How long before they stop letting her leave the village? How long before they quarantine her? How long before they put her down?

Sakura stops when she finds herself in front of the Memorial Stone.

She stares at her reflection in the black stone and catches the fire in her eyes, the boiling outrage, the deep black hate. Between her hair and her eyes, Sakura is closer now than she’d ever been to that moment in the Forest of Death.

Of course they’re scared of her. She was scared of her, too. She’s still not sure she isn’t.

Sakura sinks down on her heels and runs her fingers along the names carved into the stone surface, closing her eyes and navigating entirely by touch. She finds her aunt’s name. Mom and Grandma give spare, anecdotal information about what she was like as a young ninja, like Sakura is right now. Sakura doesn’t know who her teammates were on her Genin team, doesn’t know what she faced in her Chunin exams, doesn’t know what sorts of jutsu she specialized in. All she knows are a few dates– when she graduated from the Academy, when she made Chunin, and when she died.

There were pictures in their family album to show her the first two (one where her fifteen-year-old mother is holding up rabbit ears behind her nine-year-old aunt’s head, one where her seventeen-year-old mother is giving her eleven-year-old aunt a noogie), and Sakura figured out the third from where in the album Rin disappears.

When she’d asked how Rin died, all her mother had done was say in a thick voice, “She died protecting the village,” before excusing herself from the room.

Sakura is now one year older than her aunt. Could she die to protect the village? Could she fight until her last breath for it? Could she sacrifice herself for it? She knows she can kill. She came very close to death. But she did that for Sasuke, for Naruto, for Kakashi. The village is too big. And no matter how much she hated to admit it, hated to feel like it, Sakura is still so small.

Sakura presses her forehead to the name and whispers, “I wish you were here. I wish you could tell me what to do.”

There’s a rustle in the trees, the sound of feet hitting ground; “I see, you’re looking for guidance.”

Sakura whirls up and around, rising to a ready stance in the snap of a finger.

Scattered on and around the three wooden posts are four ninja, perhaps a year older than she is, and each is bizarre– the boy in the center seems to have a second head, the boy crouching atop one of the posts has six arms, the boy standing off to one side is tall and heavyset with his hair shaved into what she can only call three separate mohawks, and the lone girl has hair an even richer pink than Sakura’s.

Each is dressed near identically to Orochimaru, and if that wasn’t enough of a clue to divine their loyalties, the six-armed boy is wearing a Sound headband that glints in the dying sunlight.

The two-headed boy grins and spreads his arms out wide; “Good news, Sakura Haruno– We would be happy to provide just that.”

Chapter Text

xx. Sakura starts pooling chakra in the soles of her feet, snarling, “I don’t know what a bunch of terrorists could possibly teach me.”

“Some manners, evidently,” the heavyset boy grumbles under his breath.

“True, it’s impolite to make accusations when you can’t even put a name to the charge,” the two-headed boy agrees, “We’ll make introductions quickly, since you seem to be feeling impatient today.”

He gestures to himself, “You may call me Sakon, and my comrades are,” then to the boy with six arms, “Kidomaru,” the heavyset boy, “Jirobo,” the lone girl, “and Tayuya. We are known as the Sound Four.”

Sakura quirks an eyebrow; “Creative name.”

Tayuya snorts, leaning against one of the posts; “More creative than naming a pink-haired girl Sakura.”

Sakura’s eyes flicker back toward the Memorial Stone before she glares back at the Sound 4; “I’m not interested in anything you’re offering. Stand aside.”

Kidomaru lets out a low whistle; “Yep, I think you’re right Jirobo, she could stand for an etiquette lesson.”

Sakon’s grin spreads across his face like a plague; “Indeed– Let’s beat some into her!”

Sakon moves lightning quick but Sakura’s just barely able to dart around him thanks to the chakra she’d preemptively shoved in her feet, falling into a roll and as she comes up she casts a simple genjutsu, one that’ll make the Sound 4 think she’s just a few inches behind where she actually is and give her more room to run. Sakon doesn’t let up, dashing on her heels and reaching out to grab “her” collar but his hand passes right through the genjutsu and closes around air.

He rolls his eyes and calls over his shoulder, “Tayuya! Dissonant note!”

Tayuya whips a flute out from nowhere and blows into it hard. The note is harsh and unpleasant and Sakura’s genjutsu shatters like glass when it hits. Sakura just keeps sprinting for the natural cover of the forest while her mind works triple time– she’s a SOUND ninja of course she uses SOUND-based techniques she probably knows her genjutsu too if she could break mine so easily fuck I haven’t really covered sonic genjutsu in any detail yet but I can break it if I hear it there’s no time not to be sure now RUN!

Sakon’s voice is clear and commanding; “Kidomaru! Don’t let her get home-field advantage! Immobilize, don’t kill!”

Sakura glances over her shoulder to see Kidomaru leap up and spit out a white glob, firing right for her feet. Sakura leaps and forms seals at the same time, rushing through the signs for Hidden Mole jutsu and diving into the ground like water. She digs forward and down– if she can’t hide in the forest she’ll go deep enough underground that they can’t pull her out. Via the magnetic forces all around her Sakura feels Jirobo walking at a leisurely pace, stopping right where she’d dove down.

Then, with one foot, he stomps.

Chakra and seismic waves thunder through the soil toward her and slam right into Sakura, sending her shooting up through the earth at a forty-five degree angle. She comes flying out into the air in a geyser of dirt, and as she spins through the air she manages to get her bearings. She’s flying over the trees, this is what she wants, she just has to fall in the forest before anyone can try and pull her back towards the open field. Right on cue Sakura catches sight of Kidomaru springing up into the air, filling his cheeks with more of that white goop. She waits until the second he rears back to spit, then begs the Sage to please let this work before forming the snake seal.

Earth Style– Weighted Boulder Jutsu!

Gravity hits Sakura’s chest like a hammer and she plummets straight down, clean through all the branches between her and the forest floor, cratering the ground when she hits and sending up a giant plume of dust. She immediately breaks the jutsu and forces herself to kip up, scrambling to run deeper into the forest. Great, instead of hiding in the forest they now have an incredibly easy starting point to track her from.

Her hands are shaking but Sakura keeps running, fingers a blur as she sends clones and Petal Illusions over those clones spreading out from her in a wave, fanning out through the trees to hopefully throw the Sound 4 off her track. Sakura then drops an Invisible Cloak over herself (just to make them work a little bit harder) and books it deeper into the trees.

She hears Sakon’s mocking laughter from the forest canopy; “Running away? Really? A four-on-one ambush should be nothing to any Shinobi worth her salt! But what can we expect from a third rate shinobi from a third rate village?

There’s another dissonant note from the flute and Sakura feels half her petal illusions break, and Tayuya’s voice follows it; “Typical Leaf genjutsu, fragile and simplistic. You’ve got promise, but you’re not going to learn anything by staying here, playing ninja like a little girl! You’re squandering your potential!”

Sakura might think that herself, might hear the darkest voices in the back of her mind say the same, but she doesn’t give a fuck what these jackasses think. They’re terrorists, enemies of the state, enemies of her and everyone she cares about. Their words slide off of her like water off a duck’s back and Sakura shoves chakra into her feet, forcing herself to move faster by bouncing between tree trunks.

Sakon keeps jeering as his voice draws closer, “You need to face reality, Sakura! You’re clanless, the child of a civilian, you are nothing to these people! With us, with Orochimaru, you’ll find strength and glory! And you’ll be smart enough to see when you’re being lead right into a trap!

Right at the end of his sentence Jirobo comes rocketing up from the ground, directly in front of Sakura, and he hits her with a palm thrust right to the stomach.

Sakura goes flying clean through every single tree between here and the river.

Sakura frantically opens every single chakra point, covering herself in a coating of chakra so that when she hits the river instead of sinking into it she goes skipping across it like a stone. She rolls to a stop and hears four sets of feet splash down in a circle around her.

“Look at her,” Tayuya spits, “I told you she’s not what Orochimaru would want, just shove her head underwater and let’s go home!

Sakon’s voice comes through gritted teeth; “We. Have. Orders. We can’t take her by force and we can’t kill her… But what’s a little waterboarding between friends?”

Sakon reaches down and grabs Sakura’s hair.

Sakura grabs hold of the Cursed Seal and roars, “LET GO!

Sickly green chakra comes off her in a burst of force, slamming into the Sound 4 and sending them all tumbling backwards. Sakura channels that chakra down into the water around her, racing through the hand seals tiger snake rat snake tiger and stomping one foot on the river’s surface to get the chakra moving.

Water Style– Water Wall!

The water surges up in an arc underneath each member of the Sound 4, crashing over them like a wave. Tayuya’s chakra control falters and she ends up pushed into the river, Kidomaru diving down to grab her, while Jirobo and Sakon disappear within the wave. Sakura keeps the wall up, never relenting, tells herself not to stop pushing until she can be sure they’ve all drowned.

Sakon comes rocketing out of the wave, skin covered in spots like a leopard, and his hand closes around her throat. He knocks her off her feet and when her shoulders hit the river he forces her head beneath the water– Sakura immediately starts thrashing, starts scratching at Sakon’s arm, feels petals burning further across her body than they’ve ever gone before as water surges into her lungs. She’s stronger like this but so is he. It’s like fighting against a statue.

Sakon pulls her out and cackles, “Did you think you were the only one who got a gift? Don’t forget, Sakura, it’s called a curse mark for a reason! Keep using it whenever someone grabs at your hair and it’ll degrade that weak body and brilliant mind of yours!”

Before she can contemplate the implications of that Sakon shoves her head back beneath the water and Sakura can only hold her breath for a few seconds before the hand around her windpipe squeezes and forces her to gasp, taking in more water. Sakon pulls her back up, just in time for her to see the rest of the Sound 4 closing in on them, soaked to the bone and absolutely furious. A black pattern scrawls across each of their faces, arrows for Jirobo, swirls for Kidomaru, jagged lines for Tayuya.

Sakon’s fingers bruise her neck as he growls, “What is your purpose, Sakura Haruno?! Is it really to stay in this backwater village and hide behind your friends?! It’s a simple exchange, Sakura– Your freedom for power and a purpose! What’s it going to be, Sakura?! Us, or them?!”

Sakura tries to say “Go to Hell” but with her windpipe nearly crushed all that comes out is “ggkkkhhhtthhhhh–!!

Tayuya’s screaming in Sakon’s ear for him to just go ahead and kill her, Kidomaru is shouting back that they have a mission, Sakon is still asking her what it’s going to be, but behind all of that Sakura’s ears pick up a sound that’s out of place.

The rustling of paper.

Dozens of hawks come flying out of the surrounding trees and swarm the Sound 4. Sakon’s grip breaks as he brings an arm up to strike at them as they try to claw and peck at his eyeballs, and in the moment Sakura has before she hits the water she gets a good look at the creatures– no, not creatures, illustrations? The hawks screech and fly and rake like the real thing but they’re clearly drawn from ink, their flesh paper, their forms shifting strangely when they move like they’re being replaced with a drawing of the same creature from a different angle. Jirobo manages to bat one away and it bursts into ink.

Sakura’s back slaps against the water and a hand shoots out, grabbing her wrist and pulling her under the surface– this time Sakura actually manages to take a deep breath and hold it. She’s dragged down until she’s face to face with an ANBU mask, a tiger she thinks, and anything else distinctive about the individual is hidden beneath a large black cloak. They press a finger to their “lips” and start swimming downriver. They’re still holding Sakura’s wrist so she has little choice but to follow. With her curse mark she doesn’t even need to form the hand-signs– she covers them both with a Greater Invisibility Jutsu and drops two Petal Illusions a few yards behind them.

It’s only when they’re a kilometer away that Sakura feels a kunai pierce and break the illusions, and she finally relaxes.

After swimming for a few more minutes the ANBU drags them both onto the riverbank and Sakura shakes herself off like a wet dog. They’re near the outskirts of town– the only landmarks Sakura can pick out in the dusk light are the Naka Shrine and some broken walls marking the Uchiha District. She turns to her rescuer as they shed their cloak and shake it out; they don’t appear to be that much older than her, and they’re not wearing a standard ANBU uniform. Their outfit should by all rights be very nondescript considering the predominant colors are black and gray, but they ruin that by having one long sleeve and one short sleeve as well as an exposed midriff. Their skin is so pale it’s nearly see-through.

They tilt their head slightly to one side as they regard their cloak, then remark in a smooth voice, “Interesting. It actually is completely waterproof.”

Regardless, they still take a small backpack off their back and check through it. From what Sakura can see it seems to be filled with scrolls, ink, and brushes– usually the tools of a Fuinjutsu specialist, but apparently more diverse than they seem if those birds were their work. The river water didn’t ruin anything so they close up the backpack again with a nod and put their cloak back on.

They then turn to Sakura; “We’re expected elsewhere, Miss Haruno. Do you need time to turn your Curse Mark back off?”

Sakura blinks the water out of her eyelashes and shakes her head; “No, just give me a second.”

She closes her eyes and concentrates on the cursed chakra, on every single petal on her skin, and pushes it back into the five petals on her shoulder. Just for good measure Sakura uses her own chakra to perform the simple Fire Style technique Kakashi demonstrated to dry herself off.

“Good, and if you could place another genjutsu on us before we leave that would be helpful,” the ANBU remarks, “We wouldn’t want to be followed.”

Sakura frowns a bit as she runs through the hand signs regardless; “Where are we going?”

They tilt their head even further to one side and simply reply, “To meet someone.”

Sakura rolls her eyes– that’s likely the clearest answer she’ll get out of this ANBU (if they even are ANBU but at least they’re being polite about their trap instead of just trying to beat the crap out of her). The genjutsu is intricate, but subtle, and uses deceptively little chakra– all it does is make them both seem incredibly uninteresting, and as they dart across rooftops into the heart of the village all eyes slide off the strange shadows and back to their own business. When they have to drop to street level traffic parts around them without thought; Sakura walks straight past Ino and her erstwhile rival doesn’t give them a second look.

The ANBU takes her all the way to the Hokage mountain and tests the limits of her genjutsu by having them climb it, and Sakura is so glad that it’s getting dark, otherwise two kids walking straight up the mountain towards the First Hokage’s head would be impossible for any genjutsu to obscure. They snake up around the First Hokage’s chin, up to his ear, and the ANBU perches in the shell of the ear to knock on the hollow in a distinctive pattern before quite literally whispering into it.

The stone slides away to reveal stairs heading down into a deep darkness. The ANBU moves aside and gestures toward the staircase. She doesn’t want to turn her back on them, she’s still not sure they’re actually ANBU, but it’s hard to believe any foreign spy would be able to set up an ambush location inside the Hokage Mountain.

Sakura takes a deep breath and descends into the abyss.

Kabuto feigns interest in his voice but not on his face as the Sound 4 report in over the radio; “Really, she did… Are you sure an ANBU took her? … Birds made out of ink, fascinating… I see…”

Kabuto pauses for a long minute; “No, continue with your mission. You are to wait for Sakura until midnight. If she doesn’t leave with you by then, you’re to return… No, I’ll inform Lord Orochimaru personally about the ANBU. It’s better if we make preparations for that sort of eventuality on our end… Good luck. Don’t get caught.”

Kabuto turns off the radio and returns his attention to the tube. Between the two liquids within he watches the clearer, bluer fluid struggle to differentiate itself from the bright green, forming into shapes that resemble lungs, a ribcage, a spine, a skull, flesh to cover the bones, a tongue to fill the mouth, and bright violet eyes.

The collection of parts speaks in a gurgle; “You’re a liar.”

“Interesting, you’re perfectly capable of sight and hearing even when completely liquefied,” Kabuto remarks with a smirk, jotting down a note, “But not speech.”

“You’re not gonna tell Orochimaru a damn thing,” it continues to burble, “Maybe you should watch what you say when you think no one’s listening.”

Kabuto’s smile is pure sweetness; “Oh really? Do you have something you want to tell Orochimaru, Suigetsu?”

The vague, watery face twists in terror before the pieces of Suigetsu melt back into water, spinning together with the bright green liquid. Kabuto grins and writes down a few more notes. Suigetsu knows what’s good for him, and crossing Kabuto never is.

Orochimaru did teach him one thing– Fear is a fantastic motivator.

Sakura’s jaw drops the second she steps out of the stairwell.

The chamber before her seems to go on forever, above and below, with cold metal walls covered in massive pipes. Large wooden beams criss-cross the room, as well as bridges like the one she’s standing on. The room feels like a natural cavern or some kind of massive temple, there’s a sort of reverence in how still the air is. As she looks around she finally notices that she and her ANBU guide aren’t alone in the room. There’s an old man, perhaps the Third Hokage’s age, leaning on a cane in the center of the bridge.

He looks to her with the one eye he has uncovered and nods in her direction; “Good Evening, Miss Haruno. I’ve been expecting you for some time now. Please, come closer.”

Sakura glances over her shoulder at her ANBU escort. This bridge is very narrow, and they don’t seem like they’re going to budge, so Sakura shuffles forward until she’s about a yard away from the old man. He looks like the sort of person who was handsome in his youth, but stress made him age faster and harder than he should’ve. At the very least he still has all his hair, and none of it’s gone gray.

Sakura chews on her bottom lip as she avoids meeting eyes with the old man; “Uh, is this… ANBU headquarters?”

He looks away from her, considering her question; “… Yes and no, I suppose. We are part of ANBU, a necessary part, but it is similarly necessary that next to no one know we exist.”

Sakura’s eyes go wide and her skin goes pale. Her curse mark prickles and burns beneath her sleeve.

Her voice shakes as she asks, “Am I about to die?”

The old man stares at her for a few seconds, eye going slightly wider. Then he looks away and lets out a noise Sakura thinks for a moment is some sort of cough before she sees the small quirk at the edge of his mouth. He’s laughing. And he apparently hasn’t laughed in quite a while because he is very bad at laughing.

Once he recovers, he shakes his head; “I can see why you’d think so, but no, Miss Haruno. That would be a waste of your prodigious talents.”

Sakura relaxes a bit, feels a slight warmth in her chest from the compliment, but furrows her brow; “Then… What am I doing here?”

Danzo nods; “I have neglected to properly introduce us,” he gestures with his cane to the room, “We are Root. Our duty is to carry out missions so secret and so sensitive that they cannot even be trusted to the standard ANBU troops,” he then bows to her, “I am the head of this organization. You may call me Danzo.”

Sakura is at a complete loss for words, so she simply returns his bow and tries keep her jaw from dropping back open again. She feels like she’s going to wake up from a fever dream, there just can’t be any way she’s standing in the hub of the Leaf Village’s most clandestine organization because its leader wanted to personally speak with her. He couldn’t be interested in a cursed, clanless child. There was no way.

Danzo straightens up, all business; “I have called you here because you, Miss Haruno, find yourself in an advantageous position. Ever since the attack on the village Root has been trying to divine a way to get someone behind Orochimaru’s lines to report information back and, when the time is right, put an end to him. But unfortunately Orochimaru was once one of us and is familiar with our methods of infiltration, as well as our few veterans who would be strong enough to assassinate him.”

Sakura’s palms start to sweat; “So you want me to do it.”

“As I said, you are in an advantageous position,” Danzo replies, “You carry his curse, and he wants you at his side. To do this would carry great risk, and it would be very, very deep cover. You would have to act in front of friends and family as a traitor. You would have to act as an ally to a monstrous individual, who could ask many unsavory things of you to prove your loyalty. I do not ask this of you lightly. You are young, and were not trained for this kind of work, so I understand if you do not think yourself suitable for the mission. You are free to refuse, and will be allowed to leave alive. We have more sophisticated ways of keeping our secrecy than silencing you permanently.”

Sakura purses her lips, eyes drifting down to her feet as she rubs at her curse mark; “I… I’m… This is a lot to take in, I… I think you’re overestimating how much Orochimaru actually wants me, he was going for Sasuke in the Forest of Death, I just pushed Sasuke out of the way and it was too late for him to stop, and I– If I went by myself I’d have nothing to offer Orochimaru, I’m clanless, I don’t have a kekkei genkai, I’m just… me.”

She can hear the ANBU behind her tilting his head to one side; “That is an odd thing to say, Miss Haruno. If Orochimaru didn’t want you to join him, why would he have instructed the Sound 4 to subdue you and not kill you, or take you by force?”

Sakura opens her mouth, but she doesn’t have a rebuttal. That is odd. Tayuya had wanted to kill her, but that had seemed more like a personal issue, maybe even something as base as simple jealousy.

Danzo briefly looks about as surprised as he’s probably capable of looking, before nodding once more; “You also sell yourself quite short, Sakura. I was present when your Chunin Exams results were evaluated– You were one of only two candidates seriously considered for promotion. You have a genius level intellect, chakra control on par with that of a jonin, a gift for strategy and a level of discipline and integrity that is rare even among our village’s heroes, this was apparent to everyone. And your lack of a kekkei genkai is not nearly the detriment you make it out to be– If anything, it means you have more choices available to you than any of your peers. You can be whatever you desire. And I imagine as far as Orochimaru is concerned, you can be anything he desires.”

Sakura stares wide-eyed at the old man, emotions a roiling mess in her gut; “But… If that’s all true, if everyone thought that, then… Why didn’t I get promoted?”

Danzo picks up his cane and taps the end against her shoulder, right on the curse mark; “Simply put? You were considered a flight risk by those who cared for you, and those who didn’t overlooked you entirely. They saw you as exactly what you called yourself– A cursed, clanless child with nothing to give. That is not what I see. And I imagine it is not what Orochimaru sees either.”

Sakura is reeling. She worries she’ll lose her balance and fall off the bridge. She’s angry her teachers and proctors held her back yet understands they only did it because they were afraid of losing her and is furious that the clan heads would overlook her like that but could she blame them really and she’s filling with a kind of pride at how her work is finally being acknowledged and valued but does it have to be by Orochimaru does it have to mean leaving home behind does it have to mean pretending to be a traitor to her friends her family everything–?

Danzo’s hand replaces his cane, patting her shoulder somewhat stiffly; “Take your time, Sakura. I know how much this is for someone so young to handle.”

There’s a sound of rustling paper and the chirping of a small songbird. Sakura and Danzo both look over her shoulder to the ANBU behind her, who’s holding their hand out for a paper songbird to perch upon. The ANBU brings the bird up to their ear, listens to it chirp for a few moments, then with a shake of their hand turns it back into a slip of paper.

“I apologize, Sir, Miss Haruno,” they cut in, “But we may not have much time at all. I left that bird to spy on the Sound 4– I’ve been informed that they have orders to wait for Sakura until midnight before returning back to the Land of Sound. Our window could be closing.”

Danzo’s face shifts into a minuscule frown; “I think you may be right,” his gaze turns back to Sakura, “Then I must ask you for your answer now.”

Sakura’s eyes shift to the darkness below the bridge. The sheer depth of it is almost incomprehensible. If she fell off this bridge, would Sakura fall forever? Would she never see light again? Would she ever hit the ground?

Sakura’s vision blurs with tears; “I’m so… scared, of him but also what he did to me, I don’t– Every time I use the curse mark I feel like I’m slipping into something I can’t pull myself back out of, a-and I just– I-I just get– I’m terrified, I don’t want to be a monster like Orochimaru and Itachi, and if I leave, if I go to Orochimaru, I don’t know, I– I feel like I could go over the deep end, and I–!”

Danzo gently cups her chin, and his voice is warm, grandfatherly; “Sakura. I know who you are. I know the things you have done, that you have gone through. And I know that every single thing you have done, that you have endured, that you have given up, it has all been for love. You love so deeply and completely that it threatens to consume you, threatens to burst out from you. And that is why I trust you with this mission. Because at your core is something strong and incorruptible. Nothing done in the name of pure, true love is monstrous, Sakura.”

Sakura could cry. Sakura could sob, wildly and uncontrollably, and hug Danzo so tight he broke. His words coalesce into a white-hot point of warmth, igniting a fire in her breast, and Sakura thinks that maybe this is why they call it the Will of Fire because this feeling inside her rivals the sun.

Sakura Haruno knows who she is. Finally, miraculously, she knows exactly who she is and what she’s meant to do.

(is this what aunt rin felt right before the end?)

Sakura stands up straight and looks Danzo in the eyes; “I’ll do it. I’ll go. I’ll report back, I’ll take out Orochimaru, and I’ll come home.”

Danzo’s smile is a tiny, atrophied thing. Sakura feels all the more special for being allowed to see it.

He pats the top of her head; “You will come home a hero, Sakura Haruno.”

He straightens up and schools his face back into something professional; “This mission is S-rank, and it is top secret. You must tell no one the truth of it. Make certain no one witnesses your departure, and that you leave with everything you will need by midnight. Your handler stands right behind you,” he gestures to the ANBU, “His codename for the purposes of this mission shall be Sai, and he shall be your one and only link back to the village. Once you have made it to the Land of Sound you have two weeks to send proof of your survival and successful infiltration back. Once given you will have a month to secure your position before you are to start sending regular intelligence reports back to the village. This will not be as simple as sending a messenger hawk– Orochimaru is far too clever for that to slip past him. Sai would ordinarily brief you on standard Root procedure, but as I’ve told you, Orochimaru is familiar with that procedure. You will have to think on your feet.”

Danzo’s expression turns grave; “There is one last thing we must consider. In the event that Orochimaru is simply using you as bait for Sasuke, which is not impossible, you must do everything in your power to make certain Sasuke does not fall into his hands. That will spell disaster, not only for the two of you, but for our entire village. Do you understand?”

Sakura nods, resolute; “Absolutely, Sir. I’ll take my leave now, if that’s alright.”

“Permission granted,” Danzo replies, “Good luck, Sakura. May the Sage of Six Paths guide you and keep you.”

Sakura nearly laughs– he really is an old man, no one under the age of fifty says that old adage anymore. She turns on her heel and marches back the way she’d come, eyes and heart blazing with purpose.

It’s going to hurt, leaving. But Sakura Haruno knows who she is now.

And she knows she’s not someone who’ll leave without saying goodbye.

The minute Sakura disappears up the stairs and Sai removes his mask Danzo’s face falls back into its normal expression, a sort of empty half-frown that’s been stuck there since the First Shinobi World War.

Emotions are a liability, a hindrance. However, though he tells his Root agents that they are also unpredictable, that is not always true. It’s not even often true. Sakura’s emotions had been easy to predict. As had her mother’s. And loathe as he was to even pretend to be a kindly, grandfatherly old man to anyone but his actual grandchildren, Danzo had to admit that sometimes one did catch more flies with honey than vinegar. And Sakura was an incredibly critical fly to catch.

He turns and starts walking deeper into Root, the tap tap tap-ing of his cane echoing within the cavernous chamber. He needs to wash the taste of all that false sentiment out of his mouth.

Danzo hears Sai’s voice from a few paces behind him; “Permission to speak freely, sir?”

Now that was a shame. Hearing that was always an early warning sign that an agent needed to be terminated, and Sai had been doing so well. Danzo makes a mental note to schedule that assassination for some point in the near future.

Regardless, he replies, “Granted.”

Sai pauses for a moment, Danzo hears him swallow, then asks, “I don’t quite understand why we’re bothering with Sakura Haruno. She will make a poor spy for Orochimaru’s operation, considering he’ll more than likely kill her if she doesn’t bring Sasuke to the Sound Village along with her. This seems like a waste of resources.”

Danzo is quiet for a moment.

Then he turns to Sai with a confused expression; “What do you mean? We never recruited her. We’ve never even spoken to Sakura Haruno. I don’t know where she could’ve heard my name– Must have been when I spoke to her mother in passing. The girl ran away of her own accord, because she was tired of being looked down upon by the Leaf Village establishment. Which is something of a shame, I suppose– Sasuke Uchiha is overly fond of her. He’ll likely go running after the poor girl, putting his valuable bloodline at risk, potentially snuffing it out if all goes poorly,” he shakes his head and clicks his tongue, “And even more unfortunate for our Fifth Hokage, letting two promising young Genin die and losing the last loyal set of Sharingan within her first month in office. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Daimyo calls for her removal, if all indeed does go poorly.”

There had been the smallest of creases between Sai’s eyebrows, but it smooths out, and he nods; “I see. When do you hypothesize Sasuke Uchiha’s eyes will be stolen by enterprising ninja from a rival village?”

Danzo turns and starts to leave as he answers, “These are very talented shinobi– It will likely be right before the body is cremated.”

Sai falls in step behind him; “You have keen instincts, Sir.”

Tsubaki is nearly asleep on the couch when she hears Sakura in the entryway; “Mom, I’m home!”

She blinks and rubs at one eye, looking between Sakura as she pads quietly into the living room and the program on the television; “Welcome home, honey. Your mission run late?”

“Yeah, it’s a lot harder than it seems to clean spray paint off concrete,” she replies, stretching her arms up over her head, “And we got dinner afterwards so I’m gonna go straight to bed, if that’s okay.”

Tsubaki nods, adjusting the blanket on her lap; “Yeah, I’ll probably be up behind you soon. Goodnight.”

Sakura yawns out a “Goodnight” of her own, but pauses at the foot of the stairs and shoots her a thoughtful look over one shoulder; “Hey, Mom? Can I ask you a question?”

Tsubaki sits up a little straighter; “Sure, go right ahead.”

Sakura tilts her head to one side; “Have you ever thought about getting remarried?”

Tsubaki’s brow furrows just a bit– She knows Sakura misses her father, misses the idea of a father, and Tsubaki has had a few fairweather boyfriends since the divorce, but they’ve never really talked about anything like this. Tsubaki had Sakura young, they’d almost grown up together they were so close. But maybe up until now that had been too personal, even for them.

She answers honestly, “Not in specific, I suppose, but the idea has crossed my mind. I do… think about it. Sometimes. Why? What’s the occasion?”

Sakura brings a hand up to run through one of her bangs; “I was just thinking about how… Well, I’m not gonna live here forever, you know, and when I get married I’ll move out and you’ll be here by yourself and… I dunno, I guess I was just worrying about you being lonely.”

Tsubaki rocks back like Sakura had shoved her, then smirks mischievously; “You’re thinking about getting married? Should I be more suspicious of those late night study dates with Sasuke?

Sakura blushes from the roots of her hair to her collar bones and immediately turns away with a splutter, “Oh my GOD Mom NO Sasuke is being a perfect gentleman–!

“No wonder you’re considering marriage then,” Tsubaki teases, “Tell me everything, has he asked you out on a real date yet?”

Sakura is sprinting up the stairs on shinobi-silent feet, shouting behind her, “I am not talking about this it is too late in the evening! Goodnight Mom! I love you!”

Tsubaki calls, “I love you too! Don’t stay up too late,” through a bubbling laugh. She curls up again, a smile on her face; she’d thought it was just a preteen infatuation, but Sakura really might have something special with Sasuke if she’s not gossiping about him anymore (if Tsubaki tried to count all the times Sakura came back from the academy gushing about how Sasuke had almost kind of but not really paid attention to her she’d run out of fingers and toes). And Sasuke seems like he might be a good kid. She should let Sakura know he’s welcome to dinner whenever he wants, it’d be good for him to have a home-cooked meal he didn’t have to make himself.

Tsubaki drifts off into thoughts of the future. She won’t notice that she never heard Sakura’s door open or close, or the petals in the hall when she heads up to bed. In the morning they’ll dissipate into chakra, leaving no trace.

Kakashi comes out of the izakaya he’d gotten “dinner” in and closes his eye as he stretches, yawning behind his mask. It’s official– he’s gotten old. Only ten in the evening and he’s already about to fall asleep on his feet. He didn’t even drink all that much (to be fair his ‘all that much’ is quite a bit different than it is for a normal person with normal problems, but those are in short supply in a hidden village anyway). When he’s finished his stretch and opened his eye, he’s surprised to see Sakura weaving through the minimal foot traffic to get over to him from the other side of the street.

Sakura comes to a stop in front of him and smiles sheepishly; “Hi, Kakashi-sensei.”

He puts a hand on one hip and quirks his eyebrow down at her; “‘Hi’ yourself. Does your mother know you’re out this late?”

Sakura rolls her eyes, but doesn’t try to kick at his shin– this must be serious; “Yeah, of course she does, I told her where I was going,” (no surprise– Sakura tells her mother everything), “I just…”

Sakura sighs and runs a hand through one of her bangs, looking at the dirt road instead of his face; “I was kind of… short with you during our mission today, and I ran off without saying goodbye when we turned it in and… I was being childish. I wanted to say I’m sorry.”

For a second or two, Kakashi can only blink in wide-eyed bewilderment.

He shakes his head with a smile, turning to head down the road toward his apartment; “You don’t need to apologize, Sakura. You think I didn’t know how much you were looking forward to making Chunin? It’d be strange if you weren’t upset.”

Her smile is more of a wince as she falls in step beside him, keeping about a foot of remorseful distance between them; “Still, I feel bad. None of that was your fault, you know? I mean, you put us up for the exam, you wouldn’t have done that if you didn’t think we had a chance.”

Kakashi looks up and away as he drawls, “Don’t give me too much credit, I might’ve just been trying to get rid of you so I could get some peace and quiet.”

Sakura snickers and kicks at his shin. He dodges easily. There’s his girl.

“For what it’s worth, kiddo,” he remarks as they fall back in step, “I still think you could make Chunin next year. You just need a little more time to cook. If you went out there unprepared and something happened, that’d be on us, not you. I’ve given your mom enough bad news. She deserves a rest, at least for another month.”

Sakura almost looks wistful as she nods, eyes going out of focus; “Yeah… Yeah, she deserves better.”

Kakashi stops as they come to his building, right at the foot of the stairs; “Well, this is me. Hustle on home, Sakura– Like I said, your mom needs a rest. Don’t worry her staying out too late.”

Sakura smiles up at him with a nod; “Okay, goodnight Sensei.”

He spares her another smile and makes it halfway up before Sakura suddenly blurts out, “Oh wait! Wait! I actually wanted to ask you a question real fast!”

Kakashi stops, frowns slightly, but turns around; “Sure, shoot.”

Sakura chews on her lower lip, eyes briefly darting away, before she schools her face back into something determined and asks, “When you were a young ninja, like in the Academy, or when you were my age, did you… Did you know a kunoichi named Rin Nohara?”

His heart stops.

He knew this question would come sooner or later, and he is far too tired to give her everything. But… He can give her the truth about this. Not everything, but nothing untrue.

He crosses his arms over his chest, leans on the stair railing, and sighs, “Yeah. Yeah, I did. She… She was on my genin team.”

Sakura’s eyes briefly light up, and he can see every question she’s ever had about her aunt nearly bubble up to the surface, but then she quickly reads him. She’s good at doing that, better than she should be. She’s way too much like Rin and Tsubaki. They see right through him, always could.

She fiddles with one bang as she thinks, then asks, “It’s getting late, I won’t keep you too much longer, but… I do want to know… What was she like? Just, as a person?”

Kakashi closes his eye, and replies in a voice he is begging to stay steady, “She was the kindest person I’ve ever known. She was driven, brave, and selfless. She had a passion for her work and wanted nothing more than to use her abilities as a shinobi to help people. So,” he opens his eye and smiles down at Sakura, “She was a lot like you.”

Sakura’s green eyes are beading with tears, and she has to shut them tight to keep any from falling.

She rasps out in a thick voice, “Goodnight, Sensei. And… Thank you.”

She scurries off and Kakashi turns around, heading up the stairs before he can see where she goes. He unlocks his door, checks all his seals, and slinks inside. In the darkness of his apartment he unties his headband, pulls down his mask, and tiptoes over to his bed. He sits on the side, looking over to the two photos on his nightstand– his team, and his kids, looking so much alike.

He picks up his team photo, thumb running over Rin’s face, and whispers to her, “You’d be so proud of her… Hell, you probably already are.”

The wind blows the pale pink petals at the foot of his apartment stairs down the street, into the night, never to be seen again.

Naruto’s slurped down his second bowl of the night when he hears Sakura ask from behind him, “Almost done?”

He nearly jumps and spills what’s left all over himself. Naruto spins around on his stool to see Sakura leaning under the noren, smiling apologetically with her hands folded behind her back.

“Jeez, don’t sneak up on me like that,” Naruto gripes around a smile, because Sakura’s hard to be mad at, “Yeah I’m almost done, but come on, sit down! I’ll treat you!”

Sakura winces and puts a hand on her belly; “Ugh, sorry but no thanks– I somehow got roped into barbecue with Team Ten for dinner and it got competitive, I don’t think I’m gonna be able to eat for the next two weeks. But I’m on my way home if you wanna walk with me!”

Sakura wants to walk home with him? A month or two ago that would’ve sent him shooting into the stratosphere. Now… Well it’s still great, Sakura’s great, but now it’s just… a normal kind of great.

Still he beams and replies, “You bet I do! Lemme pay real quick and I’ll be right out, believe it!”

As he does, Ayame leans over the counter with a conspiratorial smile and whispers, “Opportunities like this don’t come around every day, Naruto! Seize the moment!”

Naruto chokes down a blush and grumbles something he thinks is supposed to be “Oh shut up” before popping out onto the street. Sakura’s waiting right outside, and they fall in step as they walk in the direction of both their homes. Naruto’s is closer, so he fills up the time with as much small talk as he can manage. Sakura listens attentively, interjecting with questions and comments and light teasing. She doesn’t once call him an idiot or even threaten to hit him.

Which is nice, but definitely weird.

She seems like she’s on her best behavior, with the way she has her hands folded behind her back and smiles at him like she’d smiled on their team picture. It’s not fake, it’s just not natural. Adding this and how she’s been ever since she woke back up… Naruto starts to get a bit worried. And Naruto doesn’t keep things to himself.

So when they make it to his place he stops in front of his door and asks, “Hey, Sakura? Are you okay? Like, really okay?”

Sakura blinks a few times, eyes wide a tiny bit nervous; “Uhm… Why do you ask?”

She didn’t say ‘yes’.

Naruto frowns and replies, “You’ve kinda been… weird for a while. The whole curse mark thing I got after Sasuke told me everything, but this has been since Grandma Tsunade woke you up. You don’t seem like you’re okay. And you can tell me if you’re not, we’re friends. I’ll keep any secret you want me to, believe it.”

Sakura stares at him wide-eyed for a few seconds longer. She presses her lips together, so tight they nearly disappear. A snort bursts out from her nose, then suddenly she’s giggling so hard her cheeks flush, tears bead in the corners of her eyes, and she has to clutch her belly to keep from falling over.

Naruto nearly panics; “Shit! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to–! Don’t cry! Or laugh! Or–!”

Sakura brings a hand up, waving vaguely, and manages to catch her breath enough to wheeze, “No, no, it’s okay, I’m– I’m laughing at myself, Naruto, it’s okay, I’m fine!”

She straightens up, wiping the tears from her eyes, as she explains breathlessly, “I’m just laughing because, well… I’ve noticed you staring, but I thought it was because me and Sasuke have gotten closer, I didn’t think for a second you were worried about me. I guess I wasn’t giving you enough credit, huh?”

Naruto scratches at the back of his neck, his face turning a mottled red as he looks away; “Well… I mean… That’s not… not why I’ve been staring…”

Sakura smiles with a kind of fondness he never thought he’d see from anyone but Iruka; “It’s okay, Naruto. I know you… care about me. In more ways than one. It means a lot that you’re looking out for me, really. And me and Sasuke, well–”

“I’m rooting for you guys,” Naruto blurts out, fist-pumping on reflex, “It’s okay if you don’t like like me, Sakura! I mean it! You’re both my best friends, I want you to be happy! Believe it!”

Sakura has to blink away more tears, covering her mouth with one hand as she replies, “Thank you, Naruto. For everything. You’re… You’re my best friend, too.”

She bids him a quick goodbye, saying she needs to get home before her mom kills her for being out so late, and Naruto waves until she’s completely out of sight. He unlocks his door with a smile, gets ready for bed with a smile, snuggles under the covers with a smile. He catches their team picture out of the corner of his eye and he couldn’t stop smiling if he wanted to at that point.

Sakura’s going to be okay. Sasuke’s going to be okay. They’re all going to be okay. Things are looking up. Naruto falls asleep with the thought that tomorrow is going to be awesome spiraling around his head.

The petals linger at the bottom of Naruto’s building before the wind finally carries them away.

“Hey, uh, Ino?”

Ino is shocked out of counting the money in the register, head whipping upright to see the unexpected ‘customer’. Sakura is standing in the center of the store, just before closing, looking incredibly sheepish with her hands behind her back and her refusal to meet her gaze. Sakura knows better than to come in right before closing. She wants something.

Ino frowns as she goes back to counting the ryo; “Yeah, what’s up Forehead?”

Sakura winces a bit at the nickname, but asks, “Do you have time to talk?”

Ino frowns. She lets Sakura hang for longer than she needs to, fidgeting in place.

“Yeah, sure,” she finally relents, “Just let me finish closing, we’ll talk outside. Neutral ground, public space, y’know how it goes.”

Sakura flinches at those words, but nods; “Yeah, okay.”

Ino takes her time closing and Sakura stays out of her way, watching her with a nervous energy that seems to just build and build as Ino takes things to the back and turns off lights. It’s a tiny store, so there’s only so much puttering about she can actually justify, and she eventually has to head to the front door. She goes ahead of Sakura and holds the door for her, something that Sakura thanks her for in a tiny voice. Ino flips the open sign to closed, locks the door, resets the seal, and starts strolling down the street in the direction of home.

Sakura falls in step with her and Ino sighs, “Alright, Forehead. You wanted to talk, let’s talk.”

Sakura purses her lips, futzes with one bang, then after what feels like a year of silence she blurts out, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for– I’m sorry for what happened in the Forest of Death, for losing it during our fight in the Exams, for just dropping you because we both liked Sasuke, for…”

Sakura sighs, letting her eyes slide closed; “For just kind of being a shitty friend, I guess. You were so nice to me when we first met and I just… I didn’t respect that. I didn’t pay that back or forward. I really should’ve.”

Ino stops in her tracks and stares at Sakura. She has no idea where to start with all of that.

She decides, after a minute, that the beginning is a very good place to start; “Why did you drop me? Like… What was the point of that?”

Sakura breaths out a weak laugh; “It’s hard to say now, it feels so long ago, but… I dunno. I guess I just thought that’s what you did. You couldn’t like the same boy and still be friends, that just didn’t make any sense to me back then.”

Ino stares at her for a while more, then just snorts, “That’s fucking stupid.”

A surprised laugh bubbles out of Sakura; “Isn’t it?! It’s so dumb! And this is just me guessing, I’ll bet the real reason in the moment was even dumber!”

Ino cracks a smirk; “Definitely.”

As Sakura tries to stop laughing, Ino thinks that maybe things could be different. She takes stock of Sakura, of her messy hair, her dark sleeves, her gloves, the faded scars on her calves. She’s a different girl now. Ino feels the same, and that’s still terrifying, that still makes her feel like she’s running in slow motion.

But that, at least, isn’t Sakura’s fault.

Ino shrugs one shoulder; “We were kids. Kids are stupid. The curse mark stuff… I’ll deal with it. Just gimme some more time, alright?”

Sakura smiles, pure gratitude; “Alright. All the time you need.”

Ino nods before leaning in, Sakura leaning away on reflex; “And if you ever go nuts on me again I swear to god that forehead is gonna be one giant bruise even Sasuke can’t heal, understand me?”

Sakura takes a step back and grins; “Perfectly. Thank you, Ino.”

Ino nods and turns on her heel, waving over one shoulder; “See you around, Forehead.”

Ino doesn’t see her fall into petals, and neither does anyone else on the quiet, empty street.

Sasuke can’t sleep. Which is a statement on par with saying ‘the sky is blue’ or ‘the sun rises in the East and sets in the West’.

He’d tried cramming in more studying, but re-learned like he always does when he tries this that he completely forgets how to read between the hours of ten in the evening and six in the morning. So he takes a walk instead. His knee bitches and moans, but it always does, and the brace muffles it as he puts it back on and starts his lope. He’ll head to the gate and back. The route’s long enough both ways to tire him out, short enough that he can do it without much complaint from his knee or falling asleep on the ground.

Sasuke likes the village at night. Everyone goes to bed and closes up shop at eight o’clock on average, ten o’clock at the latest, and it turns into a different world. A quieter, smaller world. Even after the incident Sasuke’s always felt safer at night (at least, he does when he remembers to avoid the Uchiha District).

The only company he has are cats and night birds, and he gets to be alone with his thoughts. Usually that’s something he wants to avoid, but when he walks the familiar streets in the dark his thoughts turn softer. He wonders where the sparrows and hawks go when they sleep. He wonders how many of the cats he passes belong to someone. He wonders how many stars there are. He wonders what the sky looks like in countries he’s never visited. He wonders about what’s on the other side of the oceans.

And tonight he wonders who’s sitting on the stone bench.

In any other city he’d assume it was a beggar. If it was two months ago he’d walk right past without looking at them.

But here, now, he slows his stride and takes them in. A person, a girl, his age or a bit older, sitting with her hands in her lap as she looks up at the stars, messy light hair–

His brows furrow and he stops at the edge of the bench; “Sakura?”

Sakura blinks rapidly and jumps a tiny bit before turning to smile up at him; “Hey. Couldn’t sleep?”

He slowly shakes his head, mouth pulling into a frown; “… No.”

She shrugs, smile somewhat remorseful; “Yeah, me either. It’s…” she pushes hair behind her ear and Sasuke notices that her sleeve doesn’t make any noise as it rubs at her elbow, her hair doesn’t rustle as she tucks it back, “Medical ninjutsu can’t really take away what Itachi did, not without brain damage, so…”

She cuts herself off with another eerily silent shrug.

Sasuke stares at her for a long minute, then asks, “Where are you really?

Sakura freezes. Like this he can see the tiny flickers around her edges, imperceptible to anyone without even a passive Sharingan. When she’s still she’s completely still, like a video on pause. She’d been sure to make her genjutsu pretend to breathe before the jig was up. She now knows better.

She finally purses her lips, looking away; “Can’t get anything past you, can I… I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you that.”

Sasuke takes a few steps forward and sits down on the other end of the bench. It’s a strange, funhouse reflection of their past. The poetry of it makes him nervous.

“Why can’t you tell me? Sakura, what’s going on, what are you doing?” Sasuke asks, voice slowly rising as the tension starts building in his gut.

Sakura forces out a sigh with no breath; “I’m… I can’t tell you that, either. I want to, but I can’t.”

Sasuke starts to grind his teeth; “What are you talking about what do you mean you can’t?!

Sakura looks him in the eye and she looks so deeply, intensely sorry that he chokes on his next words; “Sasuke. Please don’t get mad. Not tonight, okay? Let’s just… talk, like we always do. About training, or what Tsunade’s having you study, or how ridiculous Naruto and Kakashi are, just… normal stuff, please?”

Sasuke bites the inside of his lower lip as he considers that. Why would she want– No, why does she need him to make small talk? She’s asking like a starving woman asking for food, or…

Like a prisoner on death row asking for their last meal.

“You’re leaving,” Sasuke whispers in a rush, “You’re leaving the village.”

Sakura hangs her head and breathes out hard through her nose; “Damn it.

He scoots closer, leaving only a foot between him and the projection; “Why?! You know Orochimaru’s just going to–! H-He’s not–! This is insane, Sakura! You’re smarter than this what are you doing?!

Sakura frowns hard at that last part and Sasuke flinches– fuck that wasn’t good, why’d he say it like that, he sounds like a prick

Sakura looks him in the eye and huffs, “I dunno Sasuke, maybe it’s because I’m constantly surrounded by kids from great and powerful clans who are getting attention and privileges lavished on them and when I work my ass off to catch up I still get ignored?! I don’t have a future here, Sasuke! Even if I train with Kakashi and Kurenai every day, learn everything they know, I’m still never going to reach the same heights you and Naruto are rocketing straight towards! The village will always just see a clanless civilian child with nothing to give! What’s the point busting my ass to make sure I can walk side by side with you two when the village will always shove me down and force me to watch your backs disappear?!”

Sasuke has no answer for that.

He thinks Sakura is exceptional. He always has. Even before he really started seeing her he knew she’d amount to something. But what does his opinion matter against decades of tradition? What does what he thinks matter against what the whole world thinks? Their world is tiny, a handful of villages scattered across part of a continent between two oceans they’ve never seen the other side of, but that’s where all the power is. That’s the tiny piece of the world that tells the rest of the world how to live, what to think, what to feel. In the face of that… Why did Sakura not leave sooner?

The answer comes in a snap. Her mom.

“Sakura, your mom is going to… You can’t leave her, Sakura,” Sasuke sputters, running a hand through his hair, “Your whole family is here, they love you and you’re just going to– You can’t leave them, Sakura, they’d lose it if you left, you can’t.”

Sakura stands from the bench, smoothing her illusory skirt; “They’ll live.”

Sasuke pushes himself up and wobbles from the sudden speed; “No they won’t! Losing you will crush them, Sakura! If you leave you’ll be a rogue ninja, a criminal! If you ever come back it’ll be in chains or worse! Your mom– You– You would break her heart, Sakura, hers, and– all your friends, Sakura! They’re not just a bunch of spoiled rich kids, Sakura, they care about you, they’ve been worried sick about you and if you left you’d wreck them! Do you really think Naruto would just get over you leaving?! That Kakashi would?! That I would?!

Sakura freezes again, that uncanny pause, with her back to him. She stays like that for a full thirty seconds.

Her shoulders shake in a little laugh as she turns to smile at him; “I thought I annoyed you.”

“You don’t,” Sasuke replies, faster than he’d planned, “You… used to. But you don’t anymore.”

Sakura stares at him, smile still in place as her brows furrow. She’s trying to figure him out, reading him like she reads her genjutsu textbooks, with care and attention. It always feels strange, to be considered so deeply.

Her face softens, and when she speaks her voice is something fragile and hopeful; “Sasuke… why do you want me to stay?”

“Because I–!”

It’s like putting in the final piece of a puzzle as vast as the ocean.

Everything comes into focus, every single instance of his chest clenching tight when she’d wept and his mouth going dry when she’d smiled and his heart leaping when she’d triumphed and it dropping to his feet when she was hurt. It slams into him like a tidal wave, bowling him over and dragging him down to the depths of the sea. It’s amazing. It’s terrifying. It’s making his stomach turn and his throat close and his breath come in gasps and all Sasuke wants to do is tell her, shout everything running around in his mind so loud that everyone in every nation hears it, so Orochimaru hears it and knows there will be hell to pay if he touches a single hair on Sakura’s head.

But Sasuke Uchiha is, unfortunately, just a thirteen year old boy who is staring down his first love with all the pressure of her disappearing bearing down on him like a sword hovering over his throat.

And Sasuke Uchiha has never been good with words.

So what comes shaking, scrambling, crawling out of Sasuke’s mouth is, “Because I can’t lose you too.”

Sakura’s eyes drift to the cobblestones and her smile falls.

Wrong choice of words.

The sword plunges through Sasuke’s throat and he can’t choose any better ones.

She lets out a tiny little laugh, and murmurs, “I know. I’m sorry. I didn’t want to put you through anything like that again and… I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry for hurting you, I promise I never wanted to…”

Sakura takes a step back, Sasuke takes a step forward.

Her voice wavers and she covers her eyes; “I only wanted to make you happy. I’d dreamed, you know, of how happy we could be, but I know we– I can’t–!”

Sakura shuts her eyes tight, covers her mouth, breathes deep. Sasuke is frozen. His mind is a dissonant chorus of no no no no no’s slamming against each other to create pure, paralyzing chaos. Her knife feels so heavy on his hip. Sakura takes a deep breath, holds it for a few seconds, then takes her hand off her mouth as she releases it and opens her eyes.

Sakura’s smile is heartbreakingly beautiful, her voice soft but resolute; “I love you, Sasuke Uchiha. I always will. We’ll see each other again– That’s a promise.”

She takes another step backward and Sasuke lets out a strangled “Sakura wait, NO–!” as he sprints toward her.

He knows she’s not there but he reaches out for her anyway and his hand passes straight through her. Her body erupts into pink petals that fall in a shower around him and with his momentum and stiff leg Sasuke trips on a cobblestone. He falls in a heap among the petals and lets himself lie there on the ground. Sakura’s nowhere nearby. He’s too late.

The petals touch his skin and his eyelids grow heavier, too heavy, it’s another genjutsu but he doesn’t even bother trying to break it.

He lets his eyes slide shut and embraces the dark, because he’s far too tired to cry.

The last illusion falls to pieces, and Sakura stands up from her seat. These benches near the gate are for family, friends, teams, all waiting for ninja to come home from long missions away.

Sakura wonders if anyone will be waiting for her here when she comes home.

She draws an Invisible Cloak around her like a security blanket, finding a thimbleful of comfort in how the sounds around her fall to a muffle and everything loses its color. She adjusts her backpack, checks her sandals, and walks right out the front gate without anyone in the guardhouse even bothering to look her way.

Once she’s a few meters out she drops it again. Four sets of feet fall in step behind her.

“What changed your mind?” Sakon asks, smug.

Sakura just shrugs; “Personal reasons.”

Sakura walks away into the night.

Chapter Text

xxi. Tsunade wakes up face first in her paperwork, a crisp knock stabbing at her ears.

She shoves herself into sitting up, yawning, “Come in,” as the individuals on the other side of the door go ahead and do that anyway. She shoots a glare at where Tonton is snoring on a pile of mission reports– lucky little shit gets to sleep in.

Kotetsu and Izumo elbow their way inside, Kotetsu loaded down with a stack of books and documents far taller than he is while Izumo– Tsunade has to do a double take, because there’s no goddamn way Izumo is carrying Sasuke like a potato sack over one shoulder. She rubs her eyes, blinks rapidly to force her eyes to adjust to the harsh light of her office, but Sasuke is still there.

“Any particular reason you brought my apprentice along with all the documents I asked for?” Tsunade wonders, feeling her muscles complain at the sudden movement as she stands from her seat.

Izumo sets Sasuke down against the side of her desk; “We found him asleep on the ground, a little ways out from the gate. Figured you’d want to lecture him for that when he woke up.”

Tsunade lets her eyes slide shut as she sighs, “I swear this kid is gonna make me go gray. Thanks for the help, you’re dismissed.”

Kotetsu and Izumo take their leave with polite bows, and Tsunade waits until they’ve left to strafe around her desk in time with the alarm bells sounding in her head. Sasuke wouldn’t just fall asleep on his feet– no wonder those two were still Chunin. Tsunade kneels down in front of him and checks his pulse, checks his breathing, both come back as normal for someone in a naturally-attained deep sleep so she opens one of his eyes to find his pupil dilated as wide as it can physically go.

She presses her hand to Sasuke’s forehead, using leading lines of chakra to look for any genjutsu and smacks straight into a fog of it. It’s structured similarly to the Temple of Nirvana Jutsu, but though it’s a decent imitation it’s inexpertly woven– likely a first-time attempt. Tsunade looks for the loose threads such an attempt always leaves on the edges and pulls. With great care Tsunade unspools the genjutsu, and once she’s finished Sasuke finally stirs, blinking slow and heavy.

Tsunade takes him firmly by the shoulders and says in a low, urgent tone, “Sasuke, can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”

Sasuke takes a minute, eyes roaming around the office before finally landing on her. Realization starts to dawn on his features and his dark eyes light up with tears, pooling and spilling over the edge.

He opens his mouth and his voice comes out in a creaking whisper, “Sakura left.”

Tsunade tenses up, but forces herself to stay calm as she asks, “Where did she go, Sasuke?”

Sasuke swallows hard and replies, “To Orochimaru.”

Though she tells Sasuke he doesn’t need to tell her everything right now he babbles through all of it, even the parts of it Tsunade already knew. After a certain point she can tell he’s just talking to keep himself from sobbing, and she knows he’s still got his pride to think of, so she lets him keep trying until he ultimately fails and falls into incoherence. She squeezes his shoulders and tells him to breathe, in through the nose, hold it, out through the mouth, slowly. The kid desperately needs a hug but she won’t force one on him. Tonton hops off her pile of mission reports to snuffle around Sasuke in concern. It takes a while, but he finally settles down.

Tsunade stands up and paces the room; “If Sakura left at ten last night then she has a seven hour lead. The Land of Sound is a three-day journey at an easy pace, a day and a half if you really push it and don’t make any stops. And this is assuming she’s alone. Staying behind to say goodbye doesn’t really speak to someone in a hurry, but we can’t take any chances.”

Tsunade closes her eyes and darts through some hand signs, weaving a genjutsu and cloaking the office in it. If anyone’s listening in all they’ll hear is muffled, inconsequential small talk.

She turns to Sasuke; “Sharingan on– Do a sweep of the roof around the windows, check for anyone cloaked looking in.”

Sasuke frowns, but does as she asks, and after walking the perimeter of the room and checking every which way, he reports, “No, there’s no one.”

She pinches the bridge of her nose and lets out a harsh sigh; “Alright then… We’re gonna play this shady.”

Sasuke furrows his eyebrows; “Wait, what do you mean?”

Tsunade multitasks, pulling out the form for a B-Rank mission and filling out parts of it while she answers, “Orochimaru’s involvement and the fact that getting Sakura back could involve crossing national borders makes this automatically an A-Rank, but I can’t just give an A-Rank like this to the first ninja I see. Technically this mission would require a Jonin leading and at least four Chunin– If we wanted to be especially thorough we’d need more than one Jonin."

Tsunade wrinkles her nose; "But with the kind of gravity and urgency this requires combined with the fact that we currently have only the bare minimum of Jonin required to protect the village in the village, I’d have to convene an emergency meeting with the Council and the Jonin Commander and put reallocating the resources to a vote. And if I brought this to the Council they’d all sneer down their noses at me because they don’t think Sakura’s worth the trouble– at best they’d recommend some ANBU assassins to take her out before she can get halfway to Orochimaru. Best case scenario, I could badger Shikaku into reassigning some Jonin and Chunin that are already on their way back from some other A-Rank.”

Sasuke sputters, “That would take hours!

Tsunade snorts, “Try days, kiddo. Sakura would be dead by the time I actually sent a qualified team after her, so like I said, we’re playing this shady,” Tsunade turns around and hands him the paperwork, as well as a pen and pencil, “Sign your name in ink and write down in pencil the names of any qualified Genin whose handwriting you think you can fake, and if you can fake Shikamaru’s slot it into the Chunin bracket. Once you have that filled in I want you out of here and over to the Nara Compound, as fast as possible. You and Shikamaru have half an hour to gather a team of qualified Genin and head Sakura off. Shikamaru’s in command, listen to him.”

Tsunade busies herself jotting down a note explaining all of this, then hands it to Sasuke; “Give this to him when you get there, it’ll be faster than explaining it yourself and more secure. Officially, this mission is basic border patrol– the story is going to be that you ran into Sakura along the way. If she’s alone we’ll blame Genjutsu mind control and if she’s with Sound shinobi we’ll say she was kidnapped. I’ll send Kakashi along three hours after you leave, citing an urgent call for backup from your squad. And if anyone catches onto this before I can process all the paperwork, we claim you all ran off on your own after finding out Sakura left and I grant you leniency in your punishments because of the extenuating circumstances.”

The second Sasuke finishes his forgery work Tsunade pokes him in the center of the forehead; “Now go get your headband and get out of here– Take Tonton with you in case of an emergency. Got it?”

Sasuke blurts out a quick “Yes ma’am” and vaults out one of her windows, Tonton oinking along behind him.

Tsunade watches him go, and when he disappears she lets out a long sigh. She doesn’t feel very much like her grandfather or her teacher. Playing it shady… that was her great uncle’s legacy.

But on the other hand, he’s also the only Hokage who actually got anything done.

The only thing Shikamaru can say when he sees Sasuke and Tonton standing in his genkan at five in the morning is, “When I said I wanted bacon this isn’t what I meant.”

The fact that Sasuke doesn’t even roll his eyes at the bad, sleepily-delivered joke is proof enough that he’s not here on a social call, and the note from the Fifth Hokage Sasuke shoves in his face just confirms it. As Shikamaru deciphers Tsunade’s classically terrible medic handwriting he feels his stomach sink deeper and deeper into his sandals. Any remaining illusions he had of Sakura being the level-headed, strategic member of Team 7 go sinking down with it.

He tosses the note back to Sasuke; “I’ll get my gear– We’ll split up to cover more ground, I’ll grab Choji, Naruto, Ino, and Kiba. You get the Hyuugas, Tenten, and Lee. We’ll meet at the gate at five-thirty sharp. If you don’t make it we leave without you. Fair?”

Sasuke’s frown deepens; “We’re really taking a squad of ten people?

“We’re taking a squad of nine exceptionally talented Genin who’ve been training together since they were six,” Shikamaru corrects him as he turns on his heel, “Put a Chunin who’s only been Chunin for a week at the lead and I’d say that’s about equivalent to two and a half below-average Jonin.”

In truth, Shikamaru just knows these people far better than he’d like– Ino Lee and Naruto will never speak to him again if they’re kept in the dark about this, Team Guy have been working together for a year compared to the two-going-on-three months they’ve known the rest of the Leaf 12 and will function better with two of them at least in this squad, Hinata may not be as skilled in combat as Neji but two Byakugan can’t hurt where someone with Sakura’s genjutsu talent is concerned, Shino’s a bust since he’s off on clan business and won’t be back until midafternoon, and there’s no point even trying to force Sasuke to stay behind. Nobody forces Sasuke into anything.

And if he’s being quite honest, he’s not sure he could even think about pulling a mission this important and this sudden off without people he knows better than he knows himself by his side.

Still Shikamaru grumbles as he shrugs into his flak jacket, “This is gonna be a drag and a fuckin’ half.”

Choji, Ino and Kiba are easy– the Akamichi and Yamanaka Compounds are right next door and the Inuzuka Compound is only a few more blocks down the street. He sneaks into Choji and Ino’s houses through the same holes under the fences he’d been using for years and it only takes one pebble to each of their windows to get them to come sneaking out in full gear. Kiba’s even easier, because Shikamaru literally runs right into him as he’s starting his and Akamaru’s morning walk.

Ino seems to go through all five stages of grief as Shikamaru details the mission, from wide-eyed anger to clenched-jaw acceptance in the course of five minutes. Choji tries to talk to her but she makes a noise Shikamaru confused for Akamaru and he thinks better of it. She does take some of the chips he offers her and chews them so violently Shikamaru starts to worry about shrapnel.

Kiba power-walks a bit to keep from being stuck next to Ino and mutters in Shikamaru’s ear, “Level with me dude, did you ever expect something like this from Sakura?”

Shikamaru’s sigh is long and hard; “If by like this you mean ‘something stupid and reckless’, then yeah. If you mean ‘actively commit a crime against the village’, then not in a million years.”

Kiba blinks a few times, looks over his shoulder to check if Ino’s listening, then leans in even closer and whispers, “So you buy her as a traitor?”

Shikamaru shoves his hands in his pockets and simply replies, “All I’m gonna say is that something about this doesn’t smell right, but I can’t figure out what stinks in specific.”

Kiba grins but it doesn’t reach his eyes; “Then I better keep my nose to the ground.”

Naruto takes the news with all the grace and quiet solemnity of a train crash. How the Hell he can manage that level of volume this early in the morning Shikamaru doesn’t know and doesn’t care– he just tells Naruto to get his shit together and get ready to hustle. The kid can definitely do that, and does it in a rush of coiled-spring tension. If Shikamaru’s concerned about anyone compromising this mission it’s Naruto. He’s a bad listener at the best of times and too close to this, and unlike Sasuke he doesn’t really have any specific skill that makes him invaluable to the mission; where Sasuke can see straight through any genjutsu Sakura tries to use to cover her tracks, Naruto’s impulsive nature, simple mind and the fact that Sakura knows him so well is a guarantee that she’ll be able to play him like a shamisen.

But if Naruto and Sasuke have one thing in common, it’s that neither of them can be forced to do anything. At least this way Shikamaru can plan around his impulses.

It’s twenty after five by the time Naruto’s ready to go so the five them sprint for the gate. Shikamaru spies Sasuke and his group dashing up the opposite way, Sasuke leading the pack but white in the face from the pain in his knee. Lee flags at the back– he’s far enough out from his surgery that he’s in fighting shape, but the injury set him back two months in terms of training. Shikamaru hopes to the Sage he’s just being an idiot and still wearing his weights because if that’s his real speed this is gonna be ten times more of a drag than he was originally counting on.

Shikamaru’s eyes scan over everyone and all that comes to mind is an inventory of their many, many injuries.

When everyone comes to a stop Shikamaru puts his hands on his hips and says in his best impression of his mom, “Alright, before we go I just got one question– Is everyone who’s here absolutely sure they should be?”

Everyone jolts a bit before exchanging confused glances and shooting him affronted looks.

Shikamaru keeps his tone level and his face blank; “We’re keeping the worst in mind here– You all could be in for thirty-six non-stop hours of travel on foot at your fastest possible pace. If Sakura’s not alone we could be going up against resistance that outclasses you by a factor of three at the least. And the quarry we’re chasing is prepared to betray this village to it’s greatest enemy, so we have to assume she’d be willing to kill every single one of us. That’s the job. If you don’t think your body, mind, or heart are up to it then turn around and go home.”

Doubt settles over them all like a shroud. Shikamaru waits.

Hinata puts her hand over her heart, closes her eyes, and takes a few deep breaths. When she opens her eyes again they’re hard as steel. Tonton makes a few concerned oinking noises up at Sasuke, but he doesn’t move or flinch. Ino… Ino is trembling so much that stillness is impossible. Her face is pale, her eyes wide, her mouth pressed into a frightened line.

She starts to back up, but the second she does Lee is at her side; Shikamaru blinks rapidly– He thought Choji would be the one to try and talk her down.

“Ino,” Lee murmurs, nearly inaudible, “I know you are afraid. But I also know you will never forgive yourself if you give in to your fear.”

Ino curls closer to him and hisses through her teeth, “I know, damn it I know that but–! What good am I gonna be on this kind of mission?!”

Lee puts his hands on her shoulders and leans in so close their foreheads are nearly touching; “You are intelligent and resourceful, Ino. You will find a way to help the team and save Sakura. That is a promise.”

Ino shuts her eyes tight and forces a breath out through her nose, then gently cuffs Lee on the side of the head; “I’m holding you to that, Caterpillar Brows.”

Lee beams wide before stepping back, and Ino stands up straight; she shoots Shikamaru a challenging glare and he just puts his hands up in a gesture of concession– There’s no doing this without her. He’d known that from the beginning, she just needed time to come around to it herself. Shikamaru’s eyes glide over the group one last time. They all meet his gaze, unbowed and unblinking.

Shikamaru nods, mouth quirking into a loose smirk; “That’s what I like to see. Alright, this is how we’re doing it– Kiba, Akamaru, Tonton, you three are at the front following scent trails and checking for traps. Neji, you’re at the back scanning ahead and behind with your Byakugan. Between them we’re moving in two columns, one on the left and one on the right with a yard between."

Shikamaru gestures to his friends as he says their names; "Left column in order from front to back is Sasuke, Me, Tenten and Ino. Right column is Hinata, Naruto, Lee, and Choji. Sasuke and Hinata, your job is to scan for genjutsu every minute. Middle ranks are responding to threats from all directions and back ranks are holding the line. We don’t have time for objections, so just remember that I’m the Chunin here and suck it up. One last thing…”

Alright, time for the impassioned speech to get the troops motivated. He can barely motivate himself most of the time. What a fucking drag.

Shikamaru takes a deep breath, holds it, then sighs, “I’m not gonna lie and say me and Sakura were close, and I know about half of you could probably say the same. But that doesn’t really matter. Sakura Haruno is one of us. She’s a citizen of the Leaf Village and the Land of Fire. She’s a human being who’s in the process of making the biggest mistake of her life, and we’re the only line of defense she’s got against herself. That’s enough for me to put my life on the line for her. That’s enough for me to put my life on the line for all of you. I don’t take that responsibility lightly. I trust all of you to do the same.”

There’s a beat of silence, then Ino grins wide and puts her hands on her hips; “Well, what are we waiting for? Let’s go, Lazybones!”

Shikamaru shakes his head as they get into formation; “I just can’t get any respect around here, can I?”

Kiba had been skeptical of Tonton’s tracking abilities, he’s far more familiar with how dog noses work than pig snouts, but she’s more than pulling her weight– if it weren’t for her less-than-ideal feet for leaping through trees Kiba’s sure she’d be slightly ahead of him and Akamaru right now.

Sakura’s scent is still strong, but he picks up four other scents flanking it within minutes of leaving the village. The trail takes them quickly off the main road and into the forest. Makes sense for a Leaf Ninja, with their training taking main roads is slower than jumping through trees and ten times more dangerous. And it’s at least twice as hard to track you by scent when you’re competing with the territorial markings of animals and the myriad plants at different stages of their growth cycles letting off all sorts of pollen.

Kiba bites the side of his tongue. Sakura’s too smart to not have that in mind. Shit’s gonna get a lot more complicated in not a lot of time.

It comes even quicker than Kiba thought. The scent trail veers off into a clearing, and once there he, Akamaru and Tonton all have to stop and sniff around the clearing’s border for a second before Kiba lets out a groan.

“Shikamaru, we’ve got a problem,” Kiba calls as the rest of the team lands in their staggered columns. Neji, Sasuke and Hinata take up positions around the clearing perimeter with reflexive ease, Neji and Hinata perfectly positioned to cancel out each other’s blindspots.

Shikamaru ambles up to his side, eyes flicking between him and the ground as he tries to search for footprints; “Let me guess– The scent trail’s split.”

“Yeah,” Kiba sighs through gritted teeth, “The trail was going North, but now it’s split four ways,” Kiba points out each path as it’s mentioned, “West, East, Northwest, Northeast.”

Akamaru comes bounding up and Kiba crouches down to hear his report, translating as he listens, “Tonton and Akamaru smell a different person accompanying Sakura’s scent on each trail, but Sakura’s scent is a part of each one.”

Shikamaru nods; “Alright, classic ‘clone holding a scrap of clothing’ gambit. Which one’s got the strongest Sakura smell?”

Kiba grimaces; “If I knew that we’d be following that trail. But Akamaru and Tonton can’t even figure that out. Each trail’s got an equal amount of Sakura smell– We can’t be sure which one it is.”

“So what, do we split up or somethin’?” Naruto calls, crossing his arms tight over his chest.

“Of course we don’t,” Ino snaps back, thwacking him sharply on one shoulder, “That’s how you get picked off and killed!”

Shikamaru paces the clearing, hand to his chin. He heads over to Sasuke and mutters in his ear– Anyone else wouldn’t be able to make it out, but Kiba hears better than most. Shikamaru’s asking Sasuke to do a sweep of the clearing with his Sharingan, looking for any genjutsu that might be covering footprints or the tiny, imperceptible remnants of covered-over tracks. Sasuke nods and does his own sweep with those uncanny scarlet eyes. Even though Kiba’s own sensei has eyes that red all the time there’s always something about the Sharingan that makes Kiba’s hackles shoot right up.

Sasuke shakes his head; “No genjutsu, and whoever covered their tracks is damn good at it. There are traces, but nothing concrete enough to work with.”

Shikamaru pinches the spot between his eyebrows; “Tenten, I need a map of the Shinobi trails in this prefecture and the topography.”

“Comin’ right up, Boss,” she chirps, reaching into her pack without even looking and pulling out a scroll. She unspools it and taps two different seals with the barest effort of chakra, the requested maps falling right out and into her waiting hand.

The two of them crouch in the middle of the clearing, Tenten explaining some of her own annotations as Shikamaru pores over the maps. The rest of the group closes ranks around them, facing toward the forest and staying on guard.

Shikamaru is silent as he makes notes of his own on the map (with Tenten’s express permission), then says, “Alright, I’ve got a plan.”

Everyone takes turns craning their necks over their shoulders as Shikmaru starts talking details; “Since they only split up four ways and our trackers have only picked up four other scents we can assume that the lowest possible amount of people with Sakura is four. These are Sound ninja, so we can assume the terrain they’re most used to traveling are wetlands and open plain. It’s not advantageous for them to actually be far apart, otherwise there’s no one they trust to cover their ass if they get lost or run into trouble. And comparing trails and topography the two who went directly East and West if they want to stay close together and actually get to the Land of Sound before the world ends will eventually have to loop back in on the northward path. So the only trails worth pursuing are the ones heading Northwest and Northeast.”

Hinata presses her fingertips together and stammers, “S-so we have to– We’re going to have to split up anyway?”

Shikamaru folds up the maps and hands them to Tenten; “That’s the bad news, yeah. But it’s not as bad as it could be– We’re only splitting the platoon in half, one Byakugan per squad. For the Northwest trail Sasuke and Tonton are taking point, with me in second position, Lee in third position, Naruto in fourth position and Hinata on the rear. Northeast trail is gonna be Kiba and Akamaru on point, second position Ino, third position Tenten, fourth position Choji, rearguard Neji. Tenten, we’re gonna need two flares per squad– signal if something goes wrong.”

Tenten unspools another scroll and taps another seal– what look like four much smaller scrolls come tumbling out, and she passes them to Sasuke, Hinata, Kiba and Neji. Kiba feels the thrum of sealed chakra as he takes the flare in his palm. Standard Leaf flares do give off light, but not very much. They don’t shoot off into the sky, because the dense canopy would block it off. What they instead do is send out a blast of compressed chakra for a mile in every direction, not enough to do serious harm to anyone but enough to raise the hairs on the back of even a genin fresh from the academy’s neck.

Ino frowns as the rest of the platoon rearranges itself into the two squads; “Wait, Shikamaru, you’re sure you don’t want me or Choji with you?”

Shikamaru gets in close to her and whispers too low for the rest of the platoon to hear, but Kiba hears just fine, “What I want isn’t the problem. I need to be near Naruto and Sasuke. If they fly off the handle I can stop them, by force if I have to.”

Ino rolls her eyes with a little snort and whispers back, “They’re still absolutely hopeless, huh?”

Shikamaru smirks; “Oh no, Sasuke’s worse than hopeless now.”

Kiba frowns over at Hinata, who catches his gaze. She smiles a tight little smile and nods. Somehow he can hear the stuttering I-I’ll be– I’m going to be fine, Kiba without her having to open her mouth. He nods back to her and narrows his focus down to the Northeast scent trail, taking point. Akamaru settles on his right, keeping the Eastern scent trail on his nose.

Shikamaru gives the silent hand signal and Akamaru lets out a fierce bark. Kiba sets off, full speed ahead, Akamaru already a yard ahead of him.

The scent grows stronger at an unprecedented rate. Kiba scrunches up his nose as he tries to pick the trail apart– Akamaru can do it naturally, but no matter what they do the Inuzuka are always gonna be human. Kiba growls to Akamaru, who lets out a whuff in response.

Kiba translates over his shoulder, “Akamaru’s having a hard time picking the two Sakura scents apart– The East trail is already looping back in on the Northeast trail!”

Tenten’s eyes narrow as they dart around the trees; “Do you think they caught onto us?”

The universe doesn’t answer that with words. It answers with a boulder the size of Kiba rocketing through the air from the East and slamming right into Ino’s side.

Ino goes spinning away into the trees and Choji’s in the middle of calling her name when a boulder twice his size comes flying towards him from the same direction. Choji has enough warning to turn and catch it, but the momentum and mass of the rock sends him crashing into the darkness in exactly the same way. Kiba and Neji stare for another second in slack-jawed shock, but Tenten is already kicking off a nearby tree trunk and pivoting West.

“Neji! Pick your jaw up off the floor and get us eyes on where they landed!” Tenten shouts, her voice forcing Neji and Kiba to follow her lead.

Neji’s veins pop out around his eyes and he inhales sharply; “Kiba! Behind you, look out f–!”

Kiba whirls around with his teeth bared as a white projectile comes sailing back towards them. Kiba makes ready to bat it out of the sky and is completely unprepared for the projectile unfurling out into a long net of what looks like a spider’s silk– he’s even less prepared for how it hits Akamaru instead of him. In Kiba’s half-second of shock the sticky net wraps around Akamaru and yanks him up and away. Akamaru’s yelping cuts off the instant he disappears from Kiba’s line of sight.

Kiba stops thinking entirely.

He lets out a roar and bounds forward, chakra pooling in his hands and feet as he leaps on all fours through the branches. Akamaru is his, his dog, his partner, packmate, brother, his his HIS. Kiba narrows his entire world down to Akamaru’s scent, vision, sight, all other senses receding to the back of his mind. Fuck Sakura, fuck Ino and Choji, fuck everything, he is getting his fucking dog back and tearing out the throat of whoever just took him with his teeth.

Just as he’s so close to the scent it nearly becomes a taste Kiba finally gets a look at his quarry– four ninja in weird-looking gear, with one near the center holding with one of his three sets of arms a large wooden barrel covered in seals and in one of his four other hands a wriggling white bundle that can’t be anything other than Akamaru.

The six-armed ninja lets out a sharp whistle and his three companions turn on their heels, leaping back towards Kiba with various ninja tools brandished and ready. Kiba lets out another roar of challenge, kicking off the nearest tree trunk and whirling through the air towards the largest of the three ninja with tooth and claw bared. He strikes for the ninja and the second his nails make contact with his flesh it explodes in a flurry of pale pink flower petals. They touch his skin, dissolving into chakra that seeps into his skin; his eyelids start to droop but he shakes himself to try and keep the drowsiness from setting in–

The six-armed ninja lets out a crowing laugh; “I don’t think so, kid! You’re a dangerous dog, and you’ve gotta be put down!”

He chews something up and pulls two thick golden threads from his mouth– they harden into barbed sickles and he tosses them out towards the remaining two ninja. He pierces right through them and they burst into a veritable petal blizzard, enveloping Kiba in a haze of pink. This time Kiba doesn’t even get a moment to fight before the hostile chakra sinks into his skin.

Kiba blacks out.


He comes to five seconds later when he lands back-first on the forest floor, the wind coming out of him in one loud gasp.

The first thing he lays eyes on is the six-armed ninja, several feet up, raising the barrel over his head before chucking it straight at him. Kiba’s able to get his arms up to disperse some of the impact but when the barrel hits there’s a burst of white smoke, and for a split second Sakura is lying on top of him, as limp as a corpse.

As if things weren’t horrific enough, Sakura’s form melts into a heavy mud that covers him up to his chin.

Kiba tries to dig his way out, flailing and thrashing against the mud, but it hardens over top of him, solid as a brick wall. The six-armed ninja lands at the foot of a nearby tree, the bundle of white spider-silk that contains the still-wriggling Akamaru in his uppermost right hand.

“Gotta hand it to the pink freak,” the six-armed ninja jeers through a twisting grin, “Her little human shell game is turning out to be a lot more fun than I thought it’d be!”

Before he can gloat any further there’s a high, sharp whistling, and a kunai comes sailing in with a comet’s tail of chakra trailing behind it, clipping the ninja’s fingers and slicing the bundle of spider’s silk wide open. Akamaru comes tumbling out and Tenten comes backflipping down from the treetops, a bo staff primed and ready to smack right down on the crown of the ninja’s head. He whirls around and catches the bo with his upper set of arms, the middle set pulling more of his gold webbing from his mouth to form a pair of rudimentary daggers he thrusts towards Tenten’s ribs. She takes a hand off the bo to form half a hand sign and the bo disappears into a cloud of white smoke– she pulls two kunai from seemingly nowhere and blocks both of the ninja’s strikes as she falls to the ground.

Neji’s scent suddenly comes racing toward Kiba’s flank– he comes out from behind a nearby tree and with a flicker of his Byakugan over Kiba’s mud casing he strikes it with the heel of his hand. Chakra floods into the mud and it softens in an instant, allowing Kiba to finally dig his way out. Akamaru comes bounding up to him and leaps into his jacket. Kiba zips him in as tight as he can bear.

Neji hauls Kiba to his feet by his hood and hisses, “Go! Meet back up with the other squad!”

Kiba blinks rapidly; “What?! Hell no, I got us into this mess I’m getting us out!”

Neji is about to give a harsh rebuttal when a glob of more white silk comes flying his way. He pivots with a wide circular motion of his feet– with a sweep of his hand and a burst of chakra Neji cuts right through the silk, sending it flying apart into tiny, useless threads.

“We’ve been set up,” Neji snaps, “Sakura’s not with him or Ino and Choji's opponent– You’ll be more helpful to the others than to us, now just go!

There really isn’t time to argue.

“Don’t you dare die on us,” Kiba growls.

Neji smirks anemically back at him; “No promises.”

Akamaru lets out a nervous little whuff, and Kiba knows his time is up. Neji rushes back into the fight and Kiba rushes away.

Chapter Text

xxii. Shinobi training can prepare you for a lot of things. Ino didn’t expect a boulder the size of a person flying at Mach 4 and ready to smash everything on the right side of her body into pulp to be one of them.

She just barely catches sight of the giant projectile from the corner of her eye and has a split second to react. Ino opens all the chakra points on the right side of her body and coats it in a messy shield of Earth chakra. When the boulder hits, instead of crushing her flat it reacts like the opposite pole of a magnet and they both go flying away from each other.

Good News: None of Ino’s bones are broken.

Bad News: She’s now spinning through the air like a corkscrew with absolutely no control over how and where she’s going to land.

So it’s really more like none of her bones are broken yet.

Ino finally hits the ground and bounces and rolls until she hits a tree in a tiny opening in the forest, not big enough to be called a clearing until a boulder twice the size as the one that nearly hit her comes crashing through several more trees, felling them all. Ino shakes her head to clear her vision and sees Choji clutching one end of the boulder, spinning wildly along with it. With a loud grunt of effort Choji shifts his weight and the trajectory of the boulder– his heels hit the ground and dig deep trenches as the momentum keeps pushing him back, only stopping when Choji’s back hits a tree.

Ino can only see his legs and one arm peeking around the edge of the boulder, but that’s enough for her to spy him digging around in his pocket and taking out a familiar glass case. He opens the topmost compartment, his arm disappears behind the boulder, and then with another grunt and a burst of chakra Choji throws the boulder back the way it came.

Ino struggles to her feet and shouts over the sound of yet more trees falling, “Choji are you nuts?! We haven’t even seen who we’re fighting and you’re already popping those pills?!”

Choji scowls and shoots back, “They threw boulders at us, Ino! I think I’m well within my rights to at least pop one!”

Ino’s about to give another rebuttal before a rustle in the leaves draws her eyes skyward. Three ninja, all in strange gear that marks them as unmistakably Sound, leap from the canopy and soar right for them. Ino’s quicker on the draw than Choji, palming three kunai and throwing one at each– the second the blades hit their bodies they explode into a torrent of pink petals, obscuring visibility.

Ino swears out loud, but her tongue turns to lead when one of the petals lands on her upper arm and dissolves into chakra. Her mind fills with fog and her eyelids start to droop. Of course Sakura wouldn’t just use one genjutsu when she could layer them. Unfortunately for Sakura genjutsu target the mind, and Ino’s been learning how to protect her mind since she was three. She bites down hard on her tongue, enough to taste blood, and forces her hands into a seal as she breaks the genjutsu with an effort of chakra.

Ino’s attention is drawn in two directions– to her left, where Choji has fallen like a stone under the effects of the genjutsu, and beneath her with a rumbling in the ground.

What petals are left go scattering with the force of their real opponent, a boy older than them and taller and broader than even Choji, bursting out of the ground right in front of Ino. Ino doesn’t even have a split second this time– he hits her with a palm thrust to the stomach and she slams back into the tree trunk she’d just peeled herself off of, hard enough to crater it and send splinters flying everywhere. As she’s gasping to get her breath back she sees him reach beneath the ground, pull up a wooden barrel with a purple rope tied around it and throw it at her. She doesn’t even have time to block.

The barrel hits her and implodes in a burst of white smoke. Ino sucks in a harsh breath and bites her lip to keep from screaming– Sakura is lying limp across her lap, eyes wide and glassy, staring at nothing. Holy fuck holy fucking fuck did he transform Sakura’s corpse and THROW IT AT HER LIKE A FUCKING BALL– before that thought can gain more traction than it deserves the body melts into mud and nothing in the world could keep Ino from screaming bloody murder at that. The mud creeps around her and hardens faster than she can process. Ino struggles against it but it’s like struggling against concrete.

The ninja stares at her for a second before giving her a shallow nod; “You should know the name of who’s going to kill you. I am Jirobo of the Sound 4. Stay put while I deal with your friend and I’ll make your death quick.”

Considering she can barely move, Ino doesn’t have a choice.

Jirobo turns on his heel and stalks over to Choji, still unconscious a yard away. He wraps both arms around Choji’s midsection and lifts him, belly to his back, with all the effort a child expends to lift a stuffed animal. He heaves him up and falls backward, bridging his arms and legs, slamming Choji shoulder-first into the ground. The impact shakes the ground and snaps Choji back to consciousness with a loud cry. Jirobo rolls his legs to get back into a standing position, heaving Choji up to try and suplex him a second time but Choji throws an elbow back at his nose. Under normal circumstances, that might’ve given Jirobo a black eye at best. After eating the Spinach pill, that blow breaks Jirobo’s cheekbone with a sickening crunch.

The sudden pain forces Jirobo to let go of Choji’s midsection and he kicks off of him, falling into a roll that gets him two feet of distance to pivot around and face Jirobo head on. Choji grabs Jirobo by the purple rope belt and his collar and throws him across the clearing, making it even wider as Jirobo’s body shoots clear through three tree trunks and sends them all crashing down in random directions. Choji takes advantage of Jirobo picking himself up off the ground to pull out two ropes with kunai tied along them and drape them over his torso in an ‘X’.

He forms the ram sign and briefly meets Ino’s gaze as he shouts, “I’ve got him! Get out of here!”

Before Ino can think of anything to shout back Choji’s body transforms in a puff of white smoke, turning into a ball and rolling at breakneck speed right for Jirobo, spikes glinting in the sun. Jirobo gets to his feet just in time to see Choji coming for him and braces himself– it’s like watching someone get hit by a train. They both go flying through more and more trees, cutting a corridor through the forest and leaving Ino in the dust.

With Jirobo’s eyes no longer on her Ino focuses on the mud covering her from toe to throat. She can feel chakra pulsing through it, reinforcing the mud shell and keeping her arms trapped at her sides. Ino wants to thrash and scream, but reminds herself that she’s better-trained than that. She forces herself to shut her eyes, breathe deep, and think.

An image flashes through her mind like a lightning strike: Her sloppy Earth chakra shield that had just barely saved her life.

Ino opens every single chakra point on her body and sends a rush of Earth chakra surging out of her. It runs into the mud covering her– the material flies off of her in a spray, splattering out in a circle, and Ino scrambles up to her feet. Her eyes dart down the path Choji cut. He told her to run, but fuck that, Team Ten sticks together. She looks over the way they’d come and suddenly remembers that it’s not just her and Choji on this mission. Tenten, Neji and Kiba just saw them get knocked out of the sky by a couple of rocks. They’re probably coming to help.

That can’t happen. Sakura’s not here, they need to stay on the trail, they can’t waste time with them. But she’s not leaving Choji to tell them, she doesn’t have a hawk– Ino hears more crashing and Choji’s startled cry from the corner of her ear.

She only has one option to get a message to them, and fast.

Ino’s never used Mind Transmission Jutsu before. But fuck it, it’s gonna have to work.

She forms the ram symbol and thinks, harder and louder than ever before, in the general direction of her squad: “SAKURA’S NOT HERE. GO.

Every chakra point on her forehead opens at once as a surge of chakra shoots out of it, carrying her thoughts at lightning speed far afield. Ino blacks out for a split second, where she feels something like water splashing against a wall and hears the faint, echoed voices of Tenten and Neji exclaiming something in surprise.

Her vision comes back and she laughs breathlessly, “Ha ha, take that! It fuckin worked!

Ino’s victory is short lived as Jirobo appears at the edge of her vision, uproots another tree and swings the trunk right into her, literally knocking her out of her sandals.

Ino doesn’t fly far– Jirobo slams the tree onto her to knock her down to the ground and kill her momentum. Ino lets out a wheezy cough and tries to tally up how many of her ribs are broken as she struggles up onto hands and knees, but Jirobo doesn’t give her time. A shadow blots out the sun and she looks up to see Jirobo, skin covered in a black arrow pattern that’s far too familiar, holding an oblong boulder the size of a building over his head. Choji’s nowhere to be found.

Jirobo’s mouth twists and he snarls, “You didn’t stay put. This is gonna hurt now! Earth Style– Sphere of Graves!

Jirobo throws the sphere directly at her and Ino’s instincts take over. With a yelp she drops onto her stomach, flattening herself against the ground and shutting her eyes tight. The bottom of the rock scrapes the backs of her arms and legs nearly raw, but that’s not the worst of it– everywhere the rock touches Ino feels it siphoning off her chakra, and she’s never had much to lose.

It sails past her and sends yet more trees flying like kindling branches. When Ino pops back up to her feet Jirobo advances on her, she tries to run for the closest treeline but the clearing is now a gaping hole and Jirobo closes the distance between them easily. Ino throws up a hasty Practice Brick barrier and Jirobo punches straight through it, his fist connecting with her nose and smashing it flat. As he pulls his fist back Ino feels him pull yet more of her chakra with it. She’s starting to feel nauseous.

Ino falls back onto her elbows and heels and she hears Jirobo sneer, “What a disappointment. I didn’t want to be stuck picking off the weak links of the pack, but we all have a role to play. Yours just happens to be the sacrifice whose death helps your friends escape.”

Ino grits her teeth in a snarl and palms a kunai, rearing back to strike at Jirobo when she hear’s Choji scream, “BACK OFF, ASSHOLE!

One of Choji’s fists, five times its usual size, breaks through from the corner of Ino’s vision and barrels straight into Jirobo’s side. Jirobo goes the way of his Sphere of Graves, flying down the path of broken trees and out of sight. Choji sprints to her side and helps her up with the hand that’s not as big as her whole body, and when Ino touches him she feels his chakra buzzing around him like a cloak of static electricity.

Ino’s scowl is laced with worry as she exclaims, her voice nasal and flat thanks to her broken nose, “Really?! The Curry pill too?! Choji, you’re going to–!”

Choji’s jaw is set tight and he stares her down without blinking; “He hurt you! You’re crazy if you think I’m gonna let him get away with that!”

Ino stares at him, and he doesn’t give her any time to argue before sprinting down the path Jirobo cleared, stretching out his legs with every stride so he can cover more distance. When he’s within a dozen feet his arm elongates and his gigantic fist goes flying for Jirobo’s head, but he’s lost the element of surprise. Jirobo catches Choji’s hand with a low growl, swinging Choji in circles around his head by his long arm.

But before Jirobo can let go Choji’s hand and arm start to shrink, the momentum pulling Choji back in towards Jirobo too fast for him to counter. Choji pools all his chakra in his opposite hand as he rears back for another punch, his fist swelling until it’s nearly the size of a small house, and he bellows a wordless war cry as he slams it headfirst into Jirobo. Chakra pulses out and over Choji’s entire body, the rest of it growing to the size of a mountain so his massive fist is proportional. The force of his punch creates a deep crater in the ground, wide enough to make a new lake during the rainy season, and Ino expects Choji’s fist making contact with the ground to result in a horrible pop and a burst of blood. She expects they’ll have to peel Jirobo’s remains off the ground with a spatula.

What instead happens is that Choji stops just short of the ground. A shadow, indistinct from this far away but definitely still the size of a normal human, lifts him up by his gigantic fist, and flings him away. Choji goes tumbling through the air, spinning up and up and up until in a burst of white smoke the Super Expansion Jutsu fails and Choji starts plummeting down from fifty feet in the air.

Jirobo stalks forward, agonizingly slow, allowing Ino to get a good look at him and nearly bite her tongue at the shock of his new form. His hair has grown out into a long mane with locks like fire, and his skin has turned a deep, bloody red. All over his face, shoulders, and forehead are warts and prominent veins, making his skin look like a topographic map of a mountain range. His eyes are a bright gold surrounded by black sclerae, his teeth and long and sharp enough to tear through flesh, and he’s drooling like a rabid dog as he ignores her entirely. Ino follows his eyes– they’re locked right on Choji.

He’s going to catch him. He’s going to catch him and drain the rest of his chakra and beat his body into an unrecognizable pulp.

And all she can do is remember the first time she met Choji.

They had been just small enough for the academy, their first week of classes. It didn’t matter to the other kids that Choji’s clan was one of the pillars of he village, it didn’t matter that he was sweet and kind and cared about everyone, all that mattered to them was that he was fat. Girls and boys alike would titter behind his back and throw things and leave nasty surprises in his shoe locker.

Ino didn’t know that at the time. She’d just walked out to the playground and seen three boys and a girl in a circle around a plump little boy, jeering some song they’d made up just to insult him. Ino doesn’t remember the words. She remembers the plump little boy curled up in a ball, eyes shut tight, covering his ears, rocking back and forth.

And she remembers picking up a dirt clod and throwing it at one of the boys, screaming, “LEAVE HIM ALONE!”

Ino comes back to the present halfway through the hand signs and slaps her hands on the ground– it’s not a dirt clod, but it’ll do.

A Practice Brick barrier comes shooting out from the ground at a diagonal and hits Jirobo in the stomach. The force stops him in his tracks, making him flinch like someone poked him. Hurting him wasn’t the point. His eyes swiveling to lock on her and a furious roar bubbling out from his gaping maw was.

Ino’s hands are moving at a pace she can barely track and she throws up a dozen more practice bricks, one after another between her and Jirobo. With another animalistic roar he starts charging, shoulder first, straight through the bricks. They tear like wet paper and his speed and strength makes the ten yards between them feel like an inch. While Ino still has walls between them she drops a simple clone to stand exactly where she was and starts running around and behind her trail of broken walls. Jirobo has the peripheral vision of a rampaging bull, she skirts around him no problem.

Choji hits the ground and Ino makes her clone shout, “Choji! Pin him!”

Choji sputters out a “Wait, what?!” and Jirobo smashes through the last practice brick, hand closing around her clone’s head and clamping down so hard it bursts into white smoke. As Jirobo whirls on his heel to snarl at her Ino skids to a halt at the end of her bricks, right where Jirobo had started his charge, and partitions the last of her chakra– one half goes down into her bare feet and surges through the rubble, latching onto Jirobo’s soles and pinning them to the spot for a precious second. The other half coalesces in her brain, right at the front.

She yells at the top of her lungs as she forms a frame with her fingers around Jirobo’s face; “PIN! NOW!”

Choji’s hands grow to twice their size and clamp down around Jirobo’s stomach and chest. Jirobo bucks against Choji’s hold, his feet sucking up Ino’s chakra, giving him an extra boost of strength, but Choji holds fast, pulling Jirobo tight against himself. Ino has no doubt that Jirobo is absorbing Choji’s chakra– her window isn’t just tiny, it’s micro-fucking-scopic.

Ino’s hands are shaking, Jirobo is thrashing in Choji’s grip, but fuck it this has to work.

Ino fires at will. Everything goes black.


Ino’s vision fades in and the first thing she sees is herself, dropping limp and useless to the ground.

The first thing she feels is chakra. More chakra than she could ever conceive of having in her entire body no matter how powerful she gets is surging through her, pumping endlessly from a spot somewhere on her back and running through her chakra pathways like a torrent. It fills her and she’s heady with it– Ino wants to say it’s like being drunk, but to compare this feeling to alcohol would be a pathetic comparison, like comparing a genin to the First Hokage simply because they were both ninja.

There’s a euphoria that comes with every surge of it, with the pure strength that permeates through every part of her down to her soul. With every beat of her heart she feels a surge of wild joy, of boundless confidence and righteous anger. She wants to wrench out of the arms holding her back and rip them off the body they belong to. She wants to beat that body to death with those arms. She wants to run through the forest on all fours, she wants to hunt and kill with her bare hands, wants to taste blood and crush bone.

And she pulls all of that into one coherent thought: No wonder Sakura is addicted to this.

She forces herself, forces Jirobo, forces them both, to take deep breaths and relax. She tries to reach out for the curse mark but she has no idea how Sakura did it, how she found the exact origin point for the chakra’s flow and sent it right back where it came from. Like this, in this monstrous form, the curse is both in one place and all over the place– it’s on every inch of skin, every fiber of muscle, every cell.

Fuck it, this’ll just have to do.

Choji’s voice in her ear is wobbling with worry; “Ino? Are you in there?”

“Yeah, I’m here,” Ino replies in Jirobo’s gruff voice, “You can let go now.”

Choji pauses for an achingly long second, but releases her and takes a step back; “Alright, so, what happens now? I don’t think we can do the whole ‘make them tie themselves up then just leave them’ gambit with this guy.”

“Yeah, we can’t. So we’re doing something else,” Ino turns to face Choji and spreads Jirobo’s arms out wide, “Choji. I want you to hit me as hard as you can.”

Choji stares at her like she’d just spoken a foreign language; “You fucking what?!

Ino grits Jirobo’s teeth and snarls, “You heard what I said! I want you to beat the shit out of me! I don’t know how long I can hold onto this body and like this he’s not gonna fight back or guard against you or absorb your chakra! Do as much damage as you can, just please give me a chance to get back before it goes too far!”

Choji’s shivering, slowly shaking his head; “I-I don’t– Ino it’s still you, you’re my friend, I can’t–!”

Ino clenches Jirobo's jaw; “I get it, Choji, I know you. That’s why I trust you to not beat me to death. I know you can do this. And I know… I know that this is all I can do. So please. Do it.”

Choji forces his mouth to close, pursing his lips into a tight line, his large fists shaking violently.

Ino feels her consciousness shake, as though something’s beating at a door she has her back up against; “Come on, we don’t have all day–!”

Choji’s fist connects with Jirobo’s face and all Ino can think is So that’s what having your jaw broken feels like.

Jirobo’s body goes tumbling away and Choji doesn’t let up. He slams another massive fist into Jirobo’s face, the angle of impact sending the body crashing down to the ground, and Choji still does not let up. He straddles Jirobo and slams fists and elbows and even the metal of his headband into the body’s face, collar, shoulders, chest. Ino can see her body from the corner of her eye seizing on the ground with every impact.

Choji hits her with a vicious jab to the forehead and her vision swims, she can barely hear him ask, “Is that enough?!”

She shakes Jirobo’s head, voice coming out in a slur thanks to his broken jaw, “Keep going, he’s tougher than I thought, keep going!”

Choji makes a choked sound in the back of his throat and responds with a ferocious strike to the throat that nearly crushes her windpipe. Choji picks up Jirobo’s body and Ino resists her every instinct as he slams it back down into the ground, following the throw by pounding relentlessly on both of Jirobo’s eyes until they’ve swollen shut and Ino can’t see anymore. She marks time by broken bones. The first Choji can actually break are the fingers on Jirobo’s right hand, and from there it just gets easier. Choji doesn’t get creative. He just slams his fists into either arm in a staggered heartbeat rhythm, using pure brute force.

Once both arms have been rendered unusable she hears Choji speaks again, voice high and frantic, “Can I stop?! Please, Ino, you have to– Can I stop, please?!

Jirobo’s voice comes out in a ragged cough, “No. Legs.”

Choji’s voice breaks as he pleads, “Ino please, I’m hurting you too, I don’t want to–!”

She tries to growl but it just comes out as another rolling cough; “Legs!”

Choji lets out a strangled sound and Ino feels her shinbone crack.

The pain turns into a haze that encompasses her entire body, like being set on fire or engulfed in freezing water. She doesn’t go numb, she just loses the ability to comprehend a world where she isn’t in constant, agonizing pain. Ino bites Jirobo’s tongue to keep his, her, their instincts out of this– She can’t accidentally absorb Choji’s chakra, can’t try to roll away, can’t do anything that would compromise this. She presses her back against the door of Jirobo’s mind as his consciousness howls wildly, ramming at her hold.

She’ll die before she lets Jirobo hurt Choji ever again.

Ino can hear Choji sobbing now, “Please, please tell me to stop, please, I don’t want to do this anymore Ino, please–!

She rasps out a weak, “Okay.”

Ino can’t move Jirobo’s arms to make a hand seal, but she doesn’t need to. She just stops fighting to keep Jirobo’s consciousness in check. The last sensation Ino feels before everything goes black is a rush of air and claws grabbing for her.


The second she feels Choji’s weight disappear Ino knows she’s back in her own body. She hears a gurgling roar from Jirobo and an answering scream from Choji. There’s a shockwave of chakra that washes over her. She hears a loud, wet crunch and a bloodcurdling yowl. She feels the ground shake and crack one last time.

Skinny arms gingerly lift her off the ground and Ino feels the aura of chakra around her vibrating at the frequency of a hummingbird’s wings, hears Choji whispering around sobs that she’s gonna be okay, he’s gonna fix this, he’s so sorry–

She manages to force through her broken jaw, “I di’n’t wan you t’take th’ Chili pill… ‘m sorry…”

She feels Choji’s cheek against her hair and feels the sting of his tears in her open wounds; “I’m gonna get you home, you’ll be okay, we’re going home–”

She tries to struggle against his grasp but it’s more like a twitch; “Sakura–!”

Ino feels a soft pressure against the top of her head, almost like when her dad would kiss her hair before putting her to bed; “They’ll find her, I promise, we gotta go home, gotta save you now…”

Ino stays conscious only long enough to feel Choji take off at lightning speed. The hum of his chakra lulls her into a peaceful sleep.

Tenten’s reflexes are quick but these jackasses are quicker. Just as she’s turning on her heel to pursue Choji and Ino a net of what looks like spiderweb comes flying out of the darkness, wrapping around Akamaru and yanking him up and away.

Her eyes go wide as she hears a low growl bubble out from Kiba’s throat and she exclaims, “No wait, Kiba, it’s a trap DON’T–!

Kiba roars at the top of his lungs and goes on all fours. He leaps on hands and feet into the darkness after his dog. Tenten swears out loud, but before she can even think about which way she’s gonna go next another glob of spiderweb comes flying for her. She’s leaping back and slashing for it with a kunai on instinct, but the kunai sinks into the spiderweb like gum and the bundle hits her in the stomach. Her back hits a tree trunk and the bundle of webbing explodes outward, threads falling over her like a net made of iron cables.

She hears a grunt and another impact– Neji comes tumbling into a nearby tree, another bundle of webbing unfurling and covering him from neck to ankle.

Tenten struggles against the hold of the web and grunts, “I can’t get to my scrolls like this, Neji! Get a look, what are we dealing with?!”

Nobody is more surprised than Tenten herself when Neji actually listens to her. Thanks to Naruto forcibly removing Neji’s head from his ass that’s been happening more and more often. Neji takes a deep breath to center himself before the Byakugan sweep over the webs carpeting them both. In the meantime Tenten forces herself to take a cue from him and breathe deep. Panicking won’t help anyone, herself least of all.

Neji’s mouth twitches at one corner; “I see. This’ll be simple, then.”

There’s a vibration in the air as chakra comes surging out from all of Neji’s chakra points at once, sending the webbing flying off him in a burst of thread. He darts over to Tenten and releases her with two surgically precise strikes that send chakra flowing at a dissonant frequency through the webbing, forcing it to fall apart and let her go. The shock of it nearly makes Tenten pitch over forward, but Neji catches her elbow and steadies her.

Tenten nods in a few quick jerks; “So these threads are made from chakra?”

“It acts as a base for the structures, yes,” Neji replies, “Helps make them stronger. So, which way are we going? What are we handling first?”

Tenten bites at the skin around her thumbnail as she mutters, “We should probably split up. Kiba’s on his own and facing down whatever made these spiderwebs by himself so you should go to him, I’ll go get Ino and Choji.”

Neji stares at her incredulously; “We just got split up and you want to split up even further? That’s obviously the play here, Tenten, keep us apart and pick us off one by one.”

Tenten rubs at her temple; “Look, we don’t have time to argue. We’ve got two enemies, there’s two of us. Let’s just–”

There’s a hum in the air before a bundle of chakra comes soaring in and splashes over the two of them like water. Tenten braces for some kind of attack, but instead she hears a voice, loud and piercing:


Tenten finds herself shouting out loud, “Ino?!”

“Where did–?!” Neji looks frantically around, then swears under his breath, “Damn it, she’s out of my range.”

Tenten turns to him with a frown; “Do we take her word on this?”

Neji bites his lower lip; “We don’t have time not to. She and Choji are teammates, they can protect each other better than we can protect them. Kiba needs us, let’s go!”

At this point they really don’t have time to argue. Tenten pushes off the branch and goes leaping after Kiba, tracking him by the deep gouges his nails left in the branches. She doesn’t have to do it for long– there’s a burst of pink petals and a sound of shock from Kiba that gets cut off abruptly as he drops like a stone to the forest floor. Tenten can just barely make out a six-armed form jumping down after him, a wooden barrel hoisted over its head.

She pauses and Neji lands next to her, hissing through her teeth, “I can’t see to the floor, get me a visual.”

Neji’s brow furrows for a moment, then he reports, “Kiba’s stuck to the ground with chakra-enhanced mud. The six-armed guy is holding a bundle of webbing with Akamaru inside it. Sakura isn't here.”

Tenten pulls out a scroll and summons her bo; “Standard play, one on hostages and one on the enemy?”

Neji nods, pulling out a Kunai and sending chakra surging up along the hilt to coat the blade; “I’ll handle hostages. Go on my signal and keep the enemy pinned down– If he gets out to long range, discourage him.”

Tenten nods and holds her breath, watching Neji as he waits. Everything is absolutely still.

Neji’s arm flies out like a striking cobra and the kunai goes sailing down into the clearing, clipping the six-armed ninja’s fingers and cutting straight through the bundle holding Akamaru. Tenten only waits half a heartbeat before leaping down after it, following its glowing trail straight to their target. She springs off a branch into a flip and strikes right for the crown of the six-armed boy’s head with the tip of her staff. He whirls around with practiced reflex and catches the bo with his upper set of arms while his middle set reaches up to his mouth, pulling two thick strings of gold webbing out of it. They harden into a pair of rudimentary daggers, and one pair of his arms tries to wrench the bo out of her grip while the other pair stabs for her ribs.

Tenten takes a hand off the bo and forms half a hand seal– with a tiny surge of chakra she dismisses the bo in a burst of white smoke, using the momentary cover to draw two kunai and block the daggers as she falls. She spies Neji darting towards Kiba from the corner of her eye and pushes hard against the six-armed boy as he tries to bear down on her, the muscles in his arms rippling from the effort. His lower set of arms flash up to his mouth and drag out another pair of gold daggers that he thrusts toward her belly. This time Tenten’s ready for them, knocking his middle set of arms up and away before slashing down and parrying the lower set of arms.

But she completely misses his upper set of arms slashing for her eyes.

Tenten moves on instinct, shutting her eyes tight and tucking her chin in, catching the blow on her headband’s plate and forcing the daggers to slice in juddering lines up along the crown of her head. The cuts are shallow, but they drag right through her buns and sever the hair ties, sending her hair falling in a ragged curtain around her face. Tenten stumbles backward and frantically shoves her hair up and out of her eyes, ignoring the stinging pain in her scalp as she forces herself to look up. The six-armed ninja is leaping up and out of her reach, skittering up the trunk of the nearest tree and making a beeline for the canopy.

Tenten grits her teeth and snarls as she pulls two scrolls from her pack, “Neji! We’ve got a runner!”

The six-armed ninja spits a glob of white webbing toward Neji, but with a sweep of his hand and a burst of chakra Neji cuts right through the silk, sending it flying apart into tiny, useless threads. He shares a few parting words with the now-freed Kiba before they bolt in opposite directions.

Neji goes racing to the trunk and up it without a second’s pause. Tenten tracks him with her eyes as she drapes the scrolls around her like bandoliers, pulling a bow from the first seal on one and a bundle of four arrows from another. She clenches two of the arrows between her teeth and nocks the other two, aiming for the six-armed ninja and willing her hands not to shake. Neji’s running in to try and hit him at an incredibly close range, if her aim isn’t true she could put out one of those Byakugan for good.

The six-armed ninja whirls on his heel, spitting up another huge globule of white webbing from his mouth. With a flick of his wrist Neji breaks it down, but while that has Neji’s attention Tenten spots the lower set of arms each pulling another gold dagger from nowhere, priming to stab at Neji’s belly. Tenten looses her arrows and they strike true– one knocks the dagger out of the lower right hand, the other clips a knuckle on the lower left and forces him to drop the dagger in shock. She’ll give the ninja one thing, he doesn’t take the bait. He keeps his eyes focused on Neji, and when he moves to hit him with a palm thrust he brings all six arms up to block. As if that’ll do him any good.

Eight trigrams! Sixty-four palms!

Tenten’s not sure what it looks like from the inside, but whenever she sees the flurry of blows all she can compare it to is a meteor shower. Dozens of blows, bright and hard as a falling star, crash into the six-armed ninja. He spins and twirls away with every impact and Neji twists counter-clockwise to complement his movement, like they’re a pair of dancers in a routine so practiced it’s become muscle memory, spiraling around and around each other in infinite circles. It’s a thing of absolute beauty.

The last strike sends the six-armed ninja flying for several yards, punching a hole straight through a tree trunk and landing in a heap. Tenten grins around the arrows in her teeth.

And then the ninja shudders from head to toe, coughs a few times, and groans, “Ow.”

Tenten’s jaw drops and her arrows fall to the ground.

There’s no way. There’s no goddamn way. That was point blank, Neji was focused, every single one of this fucker’s organs should be shutting down at once. What the Hell kind of stunt had he pulled–?!

He peels himself off the branch, and for half a second it looks like the top layer of his skin is cracking and flaking off. But even though she didn’t catch it in the moment she knows this tactic– just like Gaara, the metal webbing comes sloughing off of the six-armed ninja in chunks an inch thick. The plate covering his face falls off in one massive chunk and reveals a shit-eating grin.

Neji frowns and mutters, “So it doesn’t just come out of your mouth.”

The six-armed ninja forces a chuckle through his teeth; “Any sweat gland’ll do in a pinch.”

Neji opens his mouth to say something more but the six-armed ninja abruptly leaps to one side and falls from the branch. Tenten chokes on a swear and scrambles to grab her arrows off the ground, nocking and firing in one hasty motion. One arrow goes wide and the other smacks into another chakra-enforced line of white web flying from the ninja’s wrist and wrapping around another tree like a grappling hook. He uses his momentum and swings up into the canopy several yards away, disappearing from view.

Neji and Tenten move like cogs in a machine, Neji leaping down and Tenten darting to the center of the cramped clearing, stopping only when they’re back to back.

Tenten’s eyes shift around from tree to tree; “Should I stick to the bow and arrow?”

She feels Neji shake his head; “Switch back to the staff if you can. He wants us on the defensive, and we want to be on the defensive– It’s the only way to learn more.”

Tenten dismisses the bow and arrow and taps another seal on the scroll draped around her, drawing the bo from its depths. She and Neji slowly pivot in circles, Neji scanning all over with his Byakugan and Tenten staring down the spot directly in front of her. She’s right on top of Neji’s blind spot. He can see everything around this little cone, but this is all hers. She clenches her jaw and grips her staff with white knuckles.

The tiniest rustle in the leaves directly in her line of sight is all the warning gets before a kunai comes flying right for the spot between her eyes. Tenten whirls the staff out ahead of her and knocks the kunai out of the sky, only noticing when it falls to the ground in a clatter that there’s an exploding tag affixed to the back.

Just as Tenten’s about to shout a warning Neji cuts her off; “Get down! Rotation incoming!”

Tenten hits the deck, presses her face to the ground and shuts her eyes tight. She’s only been inside a Rotation once when she wasn’t prepared for it, and that’s as many times as she ever wants to do that. There’s a howl of wind and chakra buzzes around her like a flock of locusts– the perfect sphere of chakra cuts beneath the ground and hollows it out beneath their feet. The projectiles hitting the chakra might as well be hailstones on a stone roof for all the chance they have of getting past Neji.

Once the wail of wind and chakra comes to a stop Tenten forces her eyes open and shoves herself up to one knee, just in time for Neji to hand her the tagged Kunai and point nearly directly above them. Tenten spins to her feet and throws the kunai exactly where Neji’s pointing. She hears it cut through leaves and land with a loud thunk in some tree’s trunk, as well as the faintest gasp. She grins– fucking found you, Spider Boy.

But before Tenten can pull out another long-range weapon, there’s a rustle in the leaves, and Spider Boy bursts forth. He swings down to a slightly lower branch, out in the open, and stops to hang upside-down by his feet. The shit-eating grin is still out in full force, but now instead of armor covering his skin there are swirling black designs that radiate out from a single point. Just like Sakura.

He throws the upper set of arms out wide as the middle makes hand seals and the lower weaves a small web; “Congrats, kids! You’ve earned the right to know who’s gonna kill you! The name’s Kidomaru, and I hate to break up a perfect couple, but I’m afraid I’m gonna need the lady out of the way for a while.”

The middle set of hands presses down on the web woven by the lower set– a burst of white smoke covers the canopy, and if Tenten didn’t know what Kidomaru was attempting before she sure as hell knows now. She dismisses the bo and pulls a hammer as tall as she is and twice as heavy from the scrolls.

Before the smoke clears Tenten hears Neji suck in a sharp breath and whisper, “Oh fuck.”

Her head jerks straight up and her eyes go wide. Above them is a spiderweb spanning the entire clearing, with a massive spider at its heart. It’s large enough that Kidomaru fits comfortably on its back with room to spare, its black, hairy body streaked with orange markings and its many eyes glowing red in what little light pierces through the forest canopy. Tenten feels her stomach lurch. Giant snakes are fine. Giant bears are fine. But a giant spider reaches out and grabs hold of an animal instinct that tells her to turn tail and run as fast as she can.

To make matters grosser the giant spider’s cephalothorax pulses and ripples before a gigantic bundle of silk comes oozing out of it, filling a space nearly as large as the spider itself. The bundle writhes and Tenten’s stomach flips and twists. Kidomaru swings back up into the trees, dragging a kunai across the bundle as he passes by it and sending a rain of baby spiders (each the size of a dinner plate) plummeting towards the two of them.

Tenten grits her teeth and snarls, “Get back here, you cowardly piece of shit!”

Tenten sprints to the edge of the clearing and up the nearest tree, pivoting around to leap after Kidomaru– the spider’s an obvious diversion and she’s not gonna let him disappear again, not–!

The spider lets out a teeth-curling hiss and springs off the web. It moves faster than something that huge has any right to, launching itself at Tenten and giving her a half-second window to try and get out of the way of its massive mandibles. She tries to jump up and out of the way but the mandibles catch her ankle and clamp down with a crunch. Splitting pain draws a scream from her lungs before the spider’s momentum dragging her out of the clearing cuts it off. Tenten thinks she can hear Neji shout after her but that quickly disappears.

Tenten is flapping around in the spider’s jaws like a flag in the wind but grits her teeth and forces herself to focus. She tightens her grip on the handle of the hammer and swings for the spider but she’s the moving target in this equation, there’s no getting a clear bead on it. The only steady point is her ankle, a beacon of pain pinched between steel-strong jaws. Tenten follows her instinct and shoves the handle of the hammer down toward the mandible. Tenten bites her tongue against the pain when she wedges the handle between the mandible and her shattered ankle– with a loud cry she wrenches the hammer to one side and forces the spider’s mandibles open.

Her body goes flying backward. The spider pulls off an impressive U-turn and Tenten throws the hammer towards one of its legs– she’s moving too fast to see if it hit. Tenten goes bouncing between tree trunks like a pachinko ball and tumbles end over end into a narrow clearing, landing on her side. For a second all she can do is gasp and shudder, spitting up blood when she tries to pull air back into her lungs. Tenten takes that moment to pin her lower lip between her teeth and let out a sharp whine, pain filling her like water fills a glass.

After a second to regain her composure Tenten first pats herself down– god damn it, of course the scrolls she draped over her torso went flying off into the forest. She has a few more general purpose weapon scrolls but she can’t make a habit out of this. She fishes around and pulls bandages from her pack to wrap a quick, tight field dressing around her ankle.

She’s taping it off when she hears the spider’s hiss and tenses up– Tenten whirls toward it fast as she can, but with her ankle it’s not fast enough. There’s a sound like a hose spraying gelatin and webbing fills the gaps between the trees, dense and intricate like handmade lace at a pace no human could match. Tenten doesn’t have time to get to her feet before she’s penned in, webs blocking every path. She looks up and sees the spider sitting comfortably at the center of a web thirty feet up, watching her with all six of its beady eyes.

Before Tenten can think of something clever to snarl up at the creature, it’s cephalothorax starts to pulse. Tenten’s eyes go wide and she’s pulling out a scroll as baby spiders come down like hailstones. She pulls a naginata from the scroll and starts to whirl in wide circles– she copies Neji’s footwork and slices through the air, cutting the baby spiders down with arcing strikes, but she’s not Neji. She has far more blindspots. The Law of Large Numbers fucks her again and several get past her her reach, latching on with all eight legs and biting through her shirt with their mandibles. They hit her chain mail and keep chewing until they hit flesh. Tenten drops her naginata in a panic and starts tearing at the little spiders with her bare hands, screaming obscenities as she throws them across the clearing. They smack against dirt and wood and burst into clouds of white smoke.

And just as Tenten finally throws the last one off of her, she hears the telltale squelching of the great spider’s cephalothorax.

Tenten lets out a loud, frustrated roar as she pulls out another scroll– usually she’d leap into the air for this, but on her leg there’s no goddamn way. She unspools it and spins it around her like a dancer’s ribbon, releasing every weapon held within with a burst of chakra to send them flying blade-first in all directions. The tides of flesh and steel meet and produce a bank of blinding smoke but all Tenten can think about is her chakra reserves and how many scrolls are still in her pack.

When the smoke clears and Tenten lets go of her scroll, letting it flutter away from her into the wind, she surveys the scene. Every single tree is stuck like a pincushion with everything from kunai to katana, odd-colored blood stains the dirt, and that giant spider is still staring down at her with only an errant shuriken stuck into its abdomen.

The spider is wearing her down. It knows what it did to her ankle, it knows she can’t meet it all the way up there, and its supply of baby spiders has to be nearly infinite if it thinks it can outlast her in this game of throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Tenten had no idea that a spider could be smug, but you learn something new every day.

Tenten wipes the blood from her mouth and growls, “Stupid piece of shit summon, I swear to–!”

And it finally hits her.

She’s been going about this all wrong. She’s fighting this thing like it’s just a normal giant animal, but it’s not. It’s a summon, and she should know better than anyone else that anything that’s been summoned forth can be sent back.

Tenten grins wide and crows, “Oh you have fucked up royal, Spider Boy!”

It’s cephalothorax starts to pulse, Tenten pulls out two more scrolls. It’s spinneret starts to widen, Tenten unspools them both as far as they’ll go. And when the next blizzard of spiders comes Tenten uses all her brute strength and a burst of chakra in each hand to throw the two scrolls up into the air, spiraling around each other like DNA. She breaks every seal, firing weaponry she’d had to beg borrow and steal to get out into the aether. Much of it is going to end up lost in the forest, never to be seen again. But the rest hit the baby spiders and envelop the clearing in another smokescreen.

And that’s exactly what Tenten wants.

She drops to one knee and rummages around until she finds her sealing kit, layering her four blank scrolls on top of each other in a pair of overlapping crosses, lining their ends up with the webbed-up gaps in the trees. She’s in such a hurry to open her ink bottle she nearly spills it, but catches it just in time. In the middle of the chaos her brush strokes are perfect, her calculations exact– this jutsu is pure theory, entirely experimentation she’s never been able to implement in a real fight or on a test subject less amenable than Guy-sensei’s tortoise, but it’s going to work.

Not because it has to, but because she’s Guo “Tenten” Tiāntáng, and she’s fucking brilliant.

Tenten waits until her scrolls fall to the ground and the smokescreen clears. She spits a glob of blood into the center of the formula and slaps both palms down on top of it.

And she screams over the din of her weapons falling in a ringing clatter around her, “Ninja Art: Summon Expulsion Jutsu! Go back to Hell you son of a bitch!”

Chakra pours out from Tenten in a tidal wave, more than she’s ever used at one time. The formula goes scrawling along the ground and up the webbing, following the network of interlacing threads and meeting in the center of the web, right beneath the spider. The summon has perhaps a second to start scrambling, but chakra is faster, and it envelops the giant spider like a coffin. With a primal scream and one final push, Tenten feels a vacuum sensation like being pulled into space, so violent that it nearly rips her up into the air. The spider starts to judder in place, shaking at the center of its own localized earthquake.

There’s a loud pop, and the creature leaves the way it arrived– in a burst of white smoke, taking its webbing with it.

Tenten stares up at where the spider once was, eyes wide, grin even wider.

She opens her mouth, pitches over forward, and vomits the entire contents of her stomach out onto the dirt.

Tenten comes up panting and gasping. With shaking hands she uncaps her canteen and quickly rinses out her mouth– she’s never barreled headfirst into Chakra Exhaustion like that before. The battle’s not won yet, she needs to regroup with Neji, and she’s hoping to the Sage that he managed to find a way to bait Kidomaru into close quarters combat because Tenten has one normal scroll and three emergency scrolls left in her pack, and nowhere near enough chakra to use them all.

Tenten nearly stands before she remembers her ankle. With a roll of her eyes and a muttered curse Tenten ambles on hands and knees out of the clearing before dropping to her stomach, crawling through the underbrush on her belly. Tenten’s tracking abilities are nothing to write home about, but they serve her well enough to divine a trail of broken brush, scuffed footprints, and harsh breathing in the stillness of the forest. That last one forces Tenten to drag herself as quickly as she can, ignoring the protests from her battered body as the adrenaline starts to peter out.

Tenten hears him before she sees him, Neji’s voice coming in a rough cough; “Tenten?”

For a moment, she pauses. Tenten maneuvers herself carefully so she’s even with a tree, then pulls herself up on one knee, body hidden entirely behind the trunk. She bites down hard on her lip to keep from gasping.

Leaning against the tree across from her, barely a foot away, is Neji– or rather, what’s left of Neji. His hair is hanging limp, headband abandoned somewhere in the undergrowth, and he’s leaning hard against the tree as every other breath turns into a bloody cough. There are dozens of rough kunai formed from bright gold metal sticking out of his back, blood turning his shirt from beige to deep red. Tenten’s in just enough shock to think that with all those weapons sticking out of his back he kind of looks like a hedgehog. A hedgehog that’s been batted around by a cat for an hour straight with no reprieve.

As much as the base of her brain is screaming at her to go to him, Tenten instead whispers, “What’s my full name?”

Neji doesn’t even flinch– identity checks were his idea, after all– but his voice comes out in a winded rush; “Guo Tiāntáng. Your father is Guo Luoyang, your mother is Guo Zhelan. You have five siblings, Shuren Ming Zexi Wuying and Xue, Shuren got married in July and you were a bridesmaid. You caught the bouquet and everyone teased you about you marrying me young because I got you pregnant or something. Your turn.”

Tenten can’t help a grin; “Your mother’s name was Enkō Hyuuga, and she died when you were ten. You always wanted siblings, but Hinata’s close enough. I made out with you for hours after I snuck out of Shuren’s wedding–”

Neji proves he’s the real thing by shutting his eyes tight, what little blood he has left tinting his cheeks pink; “Okay, I think we’re both who we say we are.”

Tenten swallows her urge to laugh; “I took out the spider, he probably felt it. Gonna guess he’s still hounding you?”

Neji doesn’t have the strength to scowl so he settles for a grimace, gesturing weakly toward his back; “He’s figured out where my blind spot is. He tried pinning me down in the clearing with these, but once I started running…” Neji’s hand drifts up to a wound on his shoulder, perfectly circular and deceptively small. It’s an arrow wound, and from where it is Tenten can only reason that the arrow that made it punched clean through.

Tenten spits another gob of blood onto the ground, hissing through her teeth; “Fuck, if I hadn’t been guarding your back he wouldn’t have guessed–!”

Neji’s head twitches in a bare attempt at shaking it; “No point in that kind of talk right now. I’m nearly out of Chakra, and from the looks of things you are too. I have no doubt he knows exactly where I am. We need to end this now.

Tenten blows some hair out of her eyes; “Neither of us can go leaping into the trees after him so you’re gonna need to tell me where he is, I can get my longbow out and–”

Neji frowns; “He’s making sure to stay in my blind spot, I can’t get you an accurate location. You’ll miss, he’ll realize you’re with me, and he’ll make short work of us both. He’s been gathering information with every attack, and we can’t give him any more.”

Tenten frowns hard at him; “Then what do we do?!

Neji closes his eyes; “I have… a plan.”

Neji tells her the plan.

Tenten’s hand shoots out and she thwaps him on the back of the head, hissing, “That’s the stupidest plan I’ve ever heard!”

Neji just glares at her; “If you have a better idea I’m all ears.”

Tenten’s jaw is clenched so tight she feels like she’s going to atomize her teeth. She shakes her head and pulls out a bright red scroll, marked with gold ink so she knows it’s only for emergencies, and starts crawling on her stomach once again.

Once she’s at the position Neji indicated, at a forty-five degree angle to him with a clear view of the forest from all directions, she carefully unspools scroll, laying it flat on the ground. Tenten siphons off a tiny bit of chakra, weaving it over top of her like a net, creating the image of normal, undisturbed undergrowth that she knows wouldn’t stand up to close scrutiny and makes her stomach lurch.

Tenten presses her hands to the seal, and in a concealed burst of white smoke the weapon that had cost her the most effort, dignity, and ryo to obtain appears beneath her hands.

The cannon is beautiful, immaculately kept and forged in the shape of a roaring dragon, and the cannonballs sit in a neat row at its side. As she loads the cannon with shaking hands and pulls out her matches all Tenten can think is that even if this does start a forest fire that’ll at least smoke out Kidomaru for the others to find and take down. She carefully tilts the cannon up to a five degree elevation.

She waits.

God, she fucking hates the waiting.

It’s the one thing about being their long ranged fighter that she absolutely can’t stand. Lee and Neji send her up and away, to watch from afar with her longbow or a bevy of kunai, and she can only react if something’s about to go horribly wrong. Or if it already has.

Tenten’s eyes flick between the forest ahead of her cannon’s muzzle and Neji. He reaches up behind him with one arm to start pulling the kunai out– something she’d usually scream at him for, but this is the plan. She has to trust the plan. That’s what Team Guy does. No charging in half-cocked, no squabbling, no glory-hogging. The plan is everything. It keeps Neji and Lee from getting in each other’s way. It keeps her where she can do the most good. It keeps Guy from having to bail them out.

Everything’s going to be fine. The plan will work. Everything’s going to be fine.

Neji pulls out the last kunai and turns, leaning his heavily wounded back against the tree trunk.

In the silence of the forest, Tenten hears a sound like the twanging of a shamisen string.

Neji whirls around on one graceful heel. The arrow is almost too fast to track, but it’s still an arrow– better yet, it’s made from that same bright gold material, and it has a thread stuck to the very end. The head is more of a drill than a stabbing point, and Tenten quickly sees why when it bores straight through the trunk and punches right through Neji, entering under his pectoral muscle and exiting his lower back. The arrow keeps going, hitting the ground and digging a trench as it thunders forward, the thread dragging Neji along with it. Tenten bites down so hard on her lower lip to keep from screaming she draws blood.

When the dust clears, Neji is pinned to a tree like a butterfly in a collection, the arrow piercing it and ending deep underground.

For a moment, Neji is limp and still.

Then, around a hacking cough, he shouts, “He’s within fifty meters!”

He grabs the thread connected to the arrow with one hand and sends the last of his chakra soaring up the line. Adrenaline kicks in and Tenten adjusts the cannon’s trajectory with one hand while lighting the fuse with the other. The fuse burns down in an agonizing few seconds– the sound of the cannon firing is deafening, the recoil sends the massive artillery unit slamming back into Tenten’s chest hard enough to knock the wind out of her, but she could care less. Her eyes are wide and focused on the forest.

She waits.

Through the sounds of branches breaking and birds flying away in a terrified flurry, she hears a heavy, wet thump.

Tenten runs through her calculations in her mind as she throws away every pretension of stealth she was still holding onto, limping through the underbrush at a steady trot. She makes a beeline for where her cannonball should’ve hit at the top of its arc.

Lying on a system of tangled roots directly below that spot is Kidomaru, with a hole the size of a particularly large fist punched clean through his chest.

Tenten nudges the body with her uninjured foot and it doesn’t burst into smoke, melt into mud or water, or bust into flames. She rolls it into the undergrowth and limps back the way she came, ears still ringing.

She finds Neji still pinned to the tree, breathing in shallow, short bursts. The fact that he can even do that much is heartening– it's proof the arrow didn't pierce his lung. With one last burst of chakra from his palm Neji squeezes down on the thread, snapping it, and getting rid of the one thing keeping him standing upright. Tenten lets out a sharp yelp and scrambles in, catching Neji before he can fall flat on his face.

As she rearranges him, he mutters into her shoulder, “You can’t… carry… me and a… cannon.”

Tenten shakes her head; “You’re worth more.”

She feels him smile against her skin; “That’s… demonstrably… untrue.”

Tenten pulls Neji onto one shoulder and starts to limp on her good leg, forcing her voice into something casual; “You know what? We did our best. We beat someone way stronger than us. We deserve something special when we get home. Let’s finally go out on a date.”

Neji tries to laugh, the sound wet and blocked; “We’ve been on dates.”

Tenten wrinkles her nose; “Going for meals after training doesn’t count and you know it. Besides, every time we do we just end up at Ichiraku or Yakiniku Q, the same old places we go with all our third-wheeling friends. We’re going out somewhere special that we’ve never been before. Gimme some ideas here.”

Neji’s eyelids are fluttering, and he answers in a slur, “I can hardly give… recommendations for… places I’ve never been.”

Tenten jostles him a bit to try and keep him alert, a nervous waver in her voice; “Come on, humor me. There’s gotta be places you’ve always wanted to try, right? Talk to me, tell me about them.”

Either he’s playing along or is too exhausted to notice; “There is… a place… It’s near where you live, I think it’s run by some refugees from Mist… We’ve never taken a mission in the Land of Water… I’ve been curious about their food…”

Tenten plasters on a smile; “Oh yeah, I walk by that place all the time! Apparently it’s kinda pricey because they gotta import some ingredients that are in everything because they’re real common in the Land of Water, but this far inland it’s hard to get them.”

Neji frowns thinly; “On second thought… I think… I believe they eat a lot of… seafood there… Seafood this far inland is usually… a bad idea…”

Tenten rolls her eyes; “Oh please, you’re just being cheap–”

And Tenten desperately keeps talking, most of it meaningless, but it keeps them both conscious. She just has to get home. If she gets home, everything will be fine.

Everything will be fine.

Everything will be fine.

Chapter Text

xxiii. The sun has nearly set by the time Shibi and Shino crest the last hill and the village gates finally come into view. Shino’s body language doesn’t shift, but Shibi can detect minute changes in his son’s colony. They stop scrambling around at random, their wingbeats slow down, all their activity slows and the hum they give off drops to a lower, sweeter frequency. The boy is glad to be home. Shibi’s colony harmonizes with Shino’s. It always does when he sees the gates, no matter how short the mission.

Shibi doesn’t get a chance to say so before there’s a sonic boom that shakes the forest and an aftershock of chakra. A figure comes rocketing out of the trees like a runaway train, trips over a bump in the road and spins through the air before rolling down the hill. Shibi blinks a few times to try and get his bearings, but Shino’s running after them and he has little choice but to follow.

Shino moves so fast he has to skid down the hill to get to the figure’s side. Shibi stays a few paces back so he can read them quickly– wild tawny hair, a rail thin build, and a long white scarf. Shibi nearly stops. There’s no way this is Choji, and if it is something is terribly wrong. Shino turns the boy over. He’s curled around the broken, bent figure of Ino Yamanaka. Her limp extremities have turned a nasty purple-red, both her eyes are blackened, and her jaw is swollen on one side. Her breathing is coming in shallow flutters.

Far more than something is terribly wrong.

Shibi kneels down at their sides; “What’s happened, Choji? Where’s the rest of your team?”

Choji doesn’t seem to see either Shino or Shibi, feet scrambling to find purchase on the dirt as he whispers, “Hospital, hospital, gotta get Ino to the hospital, I’ll save her, gotta go home, gotta save her now–”

Shibi takes Choji by the shoulder and pulls him so he’s sitting up, looking him in the eye; “Choji. You’re just outside the village. We can take Ino and you to the hospital from here. It’s alright now, you’re alright.”

Choji blinks, bleary-eyed, a few times before he gingerly hands Ino to Shibi; “You gotta– She’s hurt real bad, you gotta get her there first, I–” Choji’s eyes fill with tears– “It’s my fault, I did this, it’s my fault–!”

Shino drapes one of Choji’s arms over his shoulders and starts dragging him the rest of the way to the gates; “What’s your fault, Choji? What happened?

Choji tells them in fragments as the two Aburame rush him and his teammate to the hospital. Shibi’s able to piece together there was a mission to retrieve a missing Sakura Haruno that took almost every friend Shino has out of the village, and they’d run into heavy resistance along the way. The details melt into quiet, shaking sobs when Choji tries to describe how exactly Ino got injured. Shibi asks questions, but Shino listens in absolute silence. His colony start scrambling at his chakra pathways, the frequency ratcheting up into something high and anxious.

Shibi knows where this is going.

When they reach the front doors of the hospital, Shibi turns to Shino and simply says, “Go.”

Shino stiffens; “What do you–?”

“You can’t hide anything from me, Son,” Shibi sighs, “If I don’t let you go, you’ll sneak away when my back is turned. Go. I can get Ino and Choji the help they need. Your friends out there are the ones who need you.”

Shino’s colony is practically singing.

“Thank you, Dad,” he murmurs, “I’ll try not to be long.”

He turns on his heel and starts sprinting the way he came.

Shibi drapes one of Choji’s arms over one of his shoulders and makes his way into the lobby– He seems to have ruined one of the few quiet days at the hospital, as all the nurses, orderlies, and interns zero in on the two heavily-injured Genin and sprint to their sides. It’s as Shibi’s in the middle of relaying everything he knows about their condition and trying to keep up with the race to the emergency room that he notices the Fifth Hokage herself falling in step with the procession. Her eyes are wide and her lips are pressed into a tight line as she listens.

Only when the two Genin disappear into an empty surgical theater does she let out a long sigh and whisper, “Fuck.”

Shibi turns to her, eyes narrowing behind his sunglasses; “It wasn’t supposed to be this bad, was it?”

Tsunade shakes her head, running a hand through her bangs; “No, I knew it could be, but– I didn’t think it’d get this bad this soon. I really wanted to wait before I had to send in backup…”

Shibi nods; “Tell me what I can do to help.”

Tsunade worries her lower lip with her teeth for a few moments, then turns on her heel and strides back towards the hospital doors; “Find Kakashi and bring him to me. I need to call in a favor from some of our guests.”

Oink oink!

It takes Sasuke a few seconds, but he’s able to translate, “I think Tonton’s saying we’re almost on top of Sakura’s scent!”

Fuckin’ finally,” Naruto snarls, and Hinata can’t help but agree with him beneath her labored breaths. Leaping through treetops used to be so much easier than this. Now it feels like her heart is caught in a cage too small for it whenever it beats, and it’s beating far too rapidly.

“Focus up, guys,” Shikamaru cuts in, voice stern, “This is the hard part now, we’re fighting in low light so we gotta play this smart–”

A harsh, discordant note cuts him off. Naruto’s hands fly to his ears with a swear. Tonton squeals, loud and shrill– she misses her next branch and plummets toward the forest floor before Sasuke leaps in. He grabs her out of the air and tucks her tight under one arm. There’s a rustling of leaves and a creaking of branches, like three great eagles just took flight and are cutting through the canopy straight for them.

Shikamaru grinds out a swear and hisses, “Hinata! Eyes! Now!”

“R-right!” Chakra rushes up to her eyes and her vision expands out in a pulse. Three chakra silhouettes are closing in on them, one on each flank and one coming up from below, ninety feet back and gaining. Up above and a hundred feet back a real person is lurking in the canopy, leering down with something held up to their mouth.

Hinata calls out, “W-we– C-clones or genjutsu are coming at us fast! There’s someone up in the trees behind them!”

Sasuke shouts over his shoulder to Shikamaru, “Double time?”

Shikamaru nods as he lets out a burst of chakra from the soles of his feet, giving him a boost; “Double time! Hinata, the person moving or still?”

Hinata can’t answer right away– First she needs to send a jolt of chakra to her feet to keep up with the rest of the squad, then she needs to point her attention in two different directions at once as she moves forward and looks backward. How in the world older Hyuuga can do this for longer than a few seconds at a time is still a mystery to her. On top of her shortness of breath, Hinata’s starting to get nauseous.

After a quick glance back, she reports, “They’re sitting still!”

Shikamaru is silent for a few breaths before he asks, “Sasuke, where’s Sakura’s scent coming from, behind or ahead?”

Tonton snorts and snuffles before oinking up to Sasuke, who translates, “The scent’s stronger ahead, but she thinks we might’ve–!”

“Then that’s where she’s gotta be,” Naruto interrupts, “They’re obviously trying to keep us from catching up, believe it!”

“Not so sure I do,” Shikamaru mutters, “There’s–”

Another sharp, dissonant note that rattles Hinata’s brain in her skull. This time the whole squad lets out a cry, hands flying up to their ears, throwing everyone off course and off balance. Hinata’s barely able to catch herself with a leading line of chakra magnetizing her feet to the nearest branch. The boys don’t land anywhere near as gracefully, Naruto slamming side-first into a tree trunk and Sasuke almost falling to a lower branch. Everyone follows the same instinct, crouching low and taking deep breaths.

The leaves are still rustling, branches still creaking, the noise and its sources growing closer by the second. Hinata forces her focus backward– the silhouettes are sixty feet back now, and the figure in the trees is creeping ever so slowly behind them.

Naruto hisses through grit teeth, “The Hell’s that sound?!

“Perhaps ninjutsu or genjutsu,” Lee murmurs, eyes darting around to map out the darkening forest, “It feels similar to what I experienced in the Forest of Death, but… I am not sure exactly what it is doing.”

Shikamaru glances over to Sasuke; “Any insight?”

Sasuke stares at him for a few seconds before glowering and pointing at his eyes; “I can’t see sound.

Shikamaru briefly grimaces; “Then we’re flying blind… Alright, stick to the path– there’s a break in the trees around a ravine in fifteen or so meters. We’re gonna drag them out into the open.”

Hinata’s brow furrows; “W-we’re– So we’re running?”

“As a Chunin, I’m obligated to say we’re relocating to a more strategically advantageous position,” Shikamaru snorts before his expression smooths back to professional, “Now move it!

They move it, Naruto and Sasuke pulling back to the head of their line and cutting straight through the trees. Hinata has to keep her hands out to either side of herself, touching the tree trunks to make sure she isn’t thrown off course as she directs her focus behind and below her. There’s another stabbing note and the rustling sounds right below Hinata grow louder– she forces her focus down just in time to see one of the silhouettes come racing up towards her feet.

Hinata lets out a yelp and dives forward. The silhouette bursts through the leaves, its fingers a hair’s-breadth from touching her heel. Hinata grabs a branch and swings to another. She ‘glances’ back and finally gets a good look at what’s really chasing them.

The construct in the shape of a young man with six arms is made from pure chakra, with no network of its own meant to flow through imitation limbs. But it’s not quite a flat image– the body is given the illusion of substance by being packed tight with tiny bundles of Yin chakra, barely held back by a shell so fragile it would break the second it touched anything with enough force.

She focuses forward, kicking off of tree trunks and swinging from branches to get closer to her squad; “Th-they’re genjutsu! Don’t let them touch you, they’re built like– It’s like they’re bombs, they’re full of littler, stronger genjutsu!”

Shikamaru shoots an incredulous look over his shoulder at her; “They’re what?

“I know what she means,” Sasuke calls back, “Sakura hit me with something like that when she left the village! Don’t touch them, they’ll knock you out if they make contact!”

With another flute sting, Hinata catches out of the ‘corner’ of her eye the other two illusions banking around to flank Lee. She doesn’t have time to shout a warning. They each leap out from behind a tree trunk and dart towards Lee. Lee is faster. He leaps straight up, grabbing a high up branch and swinging all the way around it before letting go. His momentum sends him soaring past Shikamaru. He lands a yard ahead of him and pays that boost forward, darting through the trees with a speed Hinata hasn’t seen since the exams.

“Keep going! We are almost there!” Lee calls, pulling ahead.

There’s a warbling, spinning note. Hinata’s vision spins with it. Her stomach lurches, her left foot trips over her right. Hinata doesn’t realize she’s falling towards the forest floor until Shikamaru’s hand closes around her wrist, and for a moment she’s dangling from his grip, legs kicking out into nothing.

With a grunt of effort and a jolt of chakra through his arm, Shikamaru tosses her ahead. She tumbles through the air, end over end, before Lee grabs her hood. He sets her down on a branch beside him, sparing her a quick, encouraging smile before he leaps ahead. Hinata can see the break in the trees, see past it to the open ravine. She races forward. She’s trained for the forest, but right now it feels claustrophobic, like each tree makes up the bars of a cage.

Hinata breaks through the treeline, Lee just ahead of her, Shikamaru on her heels, and the full moon rising above. She takes a deep breath, savoring the fresh air in her lungs as she leaps over the, deep, narrow canyon.

Any relief she felt is stifled by Shikamaru letting out a swear and snarling, “God damn it, where the Hell are Sasuke and Naruto?! Alright, we’re posting up on the other side of the ravine. Keep moving–!”

It happens so fast you’d miss it if you blinked.

The three illusory forms slam straight into Shikamaru, one after another, bursting into petals on impact. The flurry of petals hides Shikamaru for only a second– his unconscious body goes plummeting down, disappearing below the canyon’s edge. Hinata lets out a yelp and doubles back, stumbling to a clumsy stop at the lip of the canyon. She looks frantically around. Lee has landed at her side, but Naruto and Sasuke are nowhere to be found. The ravine is too deep for her to see Shikamaru.

Hinata runs her hands through her hair as she sputters, “W-we have to go– W-we have to help him, where are Naruto and– What are they doing?!

Lee puts a strong hand on her shoulder and says in a low voice, “They are following Sakura’s scent. Go after them. I will try to cut this person off before they can catch up.”

Hinata’s eyes are as wide as they can go; “B-but Shikamaru–! He fell really far and–!”

“And I will help him, but I cannot do that with someone kiting me around in circles with genjutsu,” Lee cuts in, dark eyes meeting her pale gaze, “Hinata, Naruto and Sasuke are out of control. You need to help them regain their heads. Go.

Hinata takes a breath so deep it hurts her chest, but nods; “P-please don’t be… Don’t be long.”

Lee shoots her a grin and a silent thumbs-up before leaping back across the canyon and disappearing into the trees.

Hinata takes a few more breaths, trying and failing to will her heart to beat slower, before turning on her heel and rushing into the forest. Sasuke and Naruto blink into view at the edge of her Byakugan’s radius. They’re leaping into a small clearing, barely fifteen feet across. She can see Sasuke making hand signs, see fire chakra moving up from his stomach to his mouth, and the fire chakra disappearing behind her sight. Hinata bites her lip and kicks off tree trunks, traveling in a serpentine path towards her remaining squadmates.

The closer she gets, the more comes popping into view– She sees three more illusions just as they burst into petals of Yin chakra. The petals are quickly burned away by Sasuke’s fire, neutralizing the threat in an instant. On the ground she sees a mud clone in the shape of a boy with two heads with a barrel-shaped mud construct tied to its back, just as Naruto’s heel is connecting with the side of its head. The clone and it’s cargo go flying, slamming into a tree. The impact disrupts the chakra giving the mud it’s shape. Hinata arrives in the small clearing just in time to see them both melt into mud.

Sasuke lands in the center of the clearing as Naruto stalks around the perimeter, growling, “Where is she?! Tonton has the scent, right?! She’s supposed to be here,” he takes notice of Hinata, but his mood does not improve, “There’s gotta be another one of these assholes hiding in the trees, right?! Hinata, look around!”

Hinata jolts back a bit, but nods. She scans the trees with her Byakugan, making sure to walk the perimeter of the clearing just to be sure. Sasuke isn’t paying attention to either one of them, instead setting Tonton down and letting her sniff around the mud.

After a few moments, Hinata turns the Byakugan off and shakes her head; “I-if they– Th-there’s no one, no one nearby anyway…”

Naruto runs a hand through his hair with an annoyed grunt as he turns to Sasuke; “What’s Tonton saying?! Where’s her scent going now?!”

Sasuke doesn’t respond. He’s staring wide-eyed down at Tonton as the little pig sniffs around in frantic circles. After circling around a few times, she starts oinking up at Sasuke, distress evident on her face.

Sasuke’s voice comes out in a slow stream; “Tonton is saying… Sakura’s scent isn’t… Sakura’s scent was never here.

Naruto jolts back; “What?! That’s bullshit, then what the Hell were we following all this way?!”

Sasuke’s look of blank shock suddenly morphs into seething rage, and he slams the side of his fist into a tree trunk; “Sakura played us like a damn shamisen! The visual genjutsu were cover, not for her but for the olfactory genjutsu!

Naruto’s jaw drops open; “Ol-whatery?

“It means smell, dumbass,” Sasuke snaps, whirling to level his bright red glare on Naruto, “She used genjutsu to fake her own scent!

Naruto stares, open-mouthed, for a moment before he grabs fistfuls of his hair and shouts, “Then what the fuck was the point of bringing these stupid animals?! Why’d we put you in the front when you can’t see smell?! This is bullshit!

Sasuke’s knuckles are bleached white, a vein popping out on his neck; “Don’t put this on Tonton or on me! Shikamaru underestimated Sakura, you all did, that’s why she left!

Naruto’s pupils suddenly shift into long slits and the night air ratchets up a degree; “You’re blaming us?! Who was the one always calling her annoying, jackass?! You don’t get to–!”

Hinata balls her hands into fists and shouts, “BOTH OF YOU STOP IT!

Sasuke and Naruto’s mouths snap shut. They both whirl around to stare at her, eyes wide and faces pale. Tonton’s ears flatten and she shrinks behind Sasuke’s legs, letting out soft, nervous oinks.

Hinata takes another deep breath and hisses through her teeth, “You’re not mad at each other. You’re mad that Sakura’s actually treating you like a threat. I understand that, but now isn’t the time. If she’s treating you like a threat, you have to do the same.”

Sasuke and Naruto’s eyes drop to the dirt as they mutter in stilted unison, “Sorry…”

Hinata’s resolve wavers– those hangdog expressions remind her in an instant exactly what they’re going through. If it were Shino or Kiba they were running after, she can’t guarantee she wouldn’t be going just as crazy.

Kurenai’s voice plays in her mind, and Hinata quotes it out loud; “The only apology worth making is doing better. So we’re going to do better.”

Sasuke looks up at her with a weak smirk; “Alright, then lead the way.”


Kimimaro’s heard of a torture method that’s quite popular in the Land of Water.


It consists of restraining someone, putting their head under a consistent and slow drip of water, then leaving them until they break.


Kimimaro can’t claim to know how well the visual and tactile aspects of that torture work.


But if the sound is anything like the sound of his IV…


He can attest to the constant, unending, never-changing sound of water dripping…


Being absolutely insufferable.

Kimimaro flexes his fingers at his side and takes deep breaths. There’s not much beyond his own body he can use to distract himself from the darkness and the near-silence. These are the moments when he wonders why they’re delaying the inevitable. He might as well be dead already– this room at the very least is more comfortable than a casket. Orochimaru might still need him, but that ‘might’ is becoming slimmer and slimmer as the days pass.

The constant dripping is interrupted by a bubbling sound. Kimimaro tenses up. His instincts are screaming at him to draw a blade and leap to his feet, but that’s more than his body can manage on a moment’s notice. It’s also not particularly wise when he’s hooked up to countless tubes through countless needles.

The bubbling coalesces into a wet, burbling voice; “Hey, you awake?”

Kimimaro takes a rasping breath; “Who are you?”

“Doesn’t matter,” the voice gurgles, “I don’t have a lot of time and neither do you, so listen up. Kabuto’s playing your old teammates and Orochimaru for suckers and you’re the only one who can mess up his plans.”

“What…? No, that doesn’t… I don’t believe you.”

The bubbling intensifies; “We don’t have time for this! Orochimaru’s reached the end of his current body–”

What? What happened, why did he–?”

“– and a new one’s on the way, but Kabuto’s trying to pull a bait and switch–”

“Kabuto is absolutely loyal to Lord Orochimaru, he wouldn’t–”

“– he’s got everyone convinced the body they’re carrying is the one Orochimaru wants when it’s really someone chasing that body–”

“Wait, I’m confused, who has the body? What does this–?”

“–and both of them aren’t even at the border yet so no matter what body actually ends up here it’s not gonna make it in time!”

Kimimaro falls silent.

“Orochimaru trusts you, if you go tell him what I just told you then we can get him and Kabuto at each other’s throats and they’ll tear this whole bunker down around themselves just to drop it on the other’s head, and we’ll finally be free! Come on, let’s go!”

Kimimaro isn’t listening, he’s far too busy trying to sort the truth from the lies. Kabuto wouldn’t betray Orochimaru, that’s an impossibility, he’s the one who taught Kimimaro everything he knows about unconditional loyalty. But… The best lies are twisted truths. Could Orochimaru be waiting desperately on a new body? Kimimaro hasn’t seen him at all since he left for the Chunin exams, and Kabuto has dodged all his questions during routine exams. It could be possible.

Could that body be delayed as the Sound Four run into resistance? The Sound Four aren’t what they were without him, Sakon is hardly a leader. Kabuto told him two days ago he’d be missing two of Kimimaro’s daily exams since he had to coordinate a mission abroad, he could be directing the Sound 4. And few understand Orochimaru’s purpose. Those who care for the body could be trying to get it back. It could be possible.

If it’s a lie, then all Kimimaro has to do is just keep lying on his deathbed, waiting for the reaper to take him.

But if it’s true, then he’s lying here while Orochimaru suffers. If it’s true, then Kimimaro would be sitting back while Orochimaru is forced to transfer into some lesser vessel, not the prize he’d been seeking in the Leaf village. If it’s true…

If it’s true, then Orochimaru needs him.

Kimimaro whispers, “What direction are they coming from?”

There’s a confused bubble from his IV; “What? I dunno, Northeast? What other direction do you go to get from Leaf to Sound?”

Kimimaro lets out a rattling sigh as he slowly sits up, needles and tubes popping out of his back; “Sloppy and predictable, but time is of the essence, so I can’t blame them.”

“Wait, what are you–?! Are you actually gonna help Orochimaru?! We have a golden opportunity to be free, you can’t–!”

Kimimaro removes the blindfold from his eyes and plucks the remaining needles from his skin; “I understand my purpose now. If I cannot be Lord Orochimaru’s vessel, then I will lay down my life to bring the vessel to him.”

Kimimaro turns to his IV and sees a scowling mouth connected to a line of blue fluid mixing with the green, snaking down the tube, into the greater tank of IV fluid, and up into the pipes in the ceiling. If he survives the trip home, he’ll need to make Kabuto aware of that.

The mouth lets out a frustrated growl; “Should’ve known you were too brainwashed. Have fun dying for your replacement, jackass.”

Suigetsu dissolves his mouth and sends his body racing back up into the pipes. Like he always does when he goes on these excursions, he can’t fight the frustration that comes from these pipes being a closed system full of confusing currents that clash against each other in the dark. Kabuto has to have redone the entire water system just to make sure Suigetsu not only couldn’t escape through it, but every time he used it to get around the bunker not only would he get lost but he’d get nauseous. He wouldn’t put it past that smug bastard.

Suigetsu forces himself to count down from ten– it won’t help anyone if Kabuto finds him still bubbling with rage.

Ten, nine, eight… Maybe this isn’t so bad. Silver linings, Suigetsu, remember what Mangetsu was always saying about silver linings.

Seven, six, five… So Kimimaro won’t rat on Kabuto, that sucks, but he is about to go and get the vessel from the Sound 4…

Four, three, two… A vessel Kimimaro’s never seen. A vessel Kimimaro knows nothing about, beyond the Curse Mark procedure. A vessel Kimimaro will assume is in the custody of the Sound 4, since he only bought half of Suigetsu’s story…


Suigetsu’s body flows back into his tank, and for half a second he manifests a grin. Kabuto’s plan may be going right on schedule, but Kimimaro’s about to throw Orochimaru’s right off the rails. And Suigetsu’s more than fine with that.

The one thing no one ever gives Lee enough credit for is that he pays very, very close attention.

While the rest of his squad were focusing on the illusions, thinking with their eyes, Lee was thinking with his ears. Every time that flute had sounded, Lee had fought through the disorienting effects, dodged the illusions, focused purely on the sound of the instrument. He had done it all with one goal in mind. It was all to pinpoint where the flute player was.

And as Lee crashes through the canopy, coming face to face with a pink-haired, flute-playing Sound ninja, he can’t help a grin at being right.

Her eyes go wide, and Lee whips his body around to kick for her jaw. But that leg was recently rebuilt from the ground up, and today she’s as quick as he is. She brings her arms up to take the brunt of the blow. Lee still knocks her off the branch, sending her flying for the forest floor at a forty-five-degree angle. The girl grabs a branch with both hands and starts to swing away. Lee plunges down heel-first, snapping the branch. The girl falls mid-swing.

She’s able to change her trajectory enough to stick her chakra-infused feet to a nearby tree trunk, kicking off of it and taking a serpentine path back towards the canopy. Her back is to him, but Lee doesn’t need to see her mouth to know she’s bringing the flute up to it. He grits his teeth and shoves an extra burst of chakra into his feet, closing the distance. His hand shoots out and grabs a fistful of the girl’s hair. He yanks her head away from her flute, grabs her shoulder with his other hand, and uses his leverage to slam his knee into her spine.

She lets out a loud scream of “FUCK” and flails wildly at the impact. One elbow gets lucky, crashing into Lee’s nose. He expected her to be strong. He did not expect her to be strong enough to break his nose in one strike. The shock makes him loosen his grip for a fraction of a second. That’s all she needs. The girl wrenches out of his grasp and disappears into the canopy. Lee shakes his head to clear it, then takes a moment to listen.

Rustling leaves and breaking branches betray her. She’s heading Northwest.

Lee leaps after her and calls, “Running is foolish, Sound Ninja! I know these lands better than you do, and I will find you, that is a promise!”

A harsh laugh echoes back towards him; “I don’t need to get away from you for long, Eyebrows– Just need to make a little space!”

Lee’s rebuttal is cut off by the sound of her flute– instead of a quick sting, this is a complex melody. Lee braces for genjutsu to start warping his senses, but it never comes. His stomach twists. That’s even worse. He pushes himself to leap at double-time. Whatever this song is for, whatever it does, he knows he has to stop her from finishing it. He knows it like he knows to breathe and to blink. The sound grows closer, louder, and just as Lee is certain he’s right on top of it, the melody reaches it’s crescendo.

There’s a burst of white smoke. A gigantic metal club comes swinging through it, aiming right for Lee’s head.

Lee has no choice but to bring up his shin (the one that hadn’t just been pieced back together) and take the blow on his weights, the only armor he has. The blow still sends him plummeting straight to the forest floor. Lee hits the dirt so hard he craters it. Lee coughs up dirt and grass. He nearly picks himself up, but then the dust clears. He sees exactly what sent him flying.

Three giants, easily half as tall as any of these trees, glower down at Lee from their perches. At least, Lee imagines they’re glowering. Each has their face covered– one behind hair, one behind a blindfold, and one behind bandages. The club-wielding, long-haired ogre wears a jumpsuit similar to his own. The blind-folded ogre is shirtless, bald with scars on its head, with thorn-like weapons tied to each arm. The last, the bandaged ogre, is bandaged from head to waist with needles pinned to it’s head. The girl is perched on a branch just above her ogres, grinning down at him. Zigging and zagging across her skin are jagged lines, similar to the petals that covered Sakura.

“Jirobo always nags me about my manners, so let’s try being polite,” she sneers, “I’m Tayuya, and these are my boys, the Doki. You’ll be fighting them, not me. Have at him, boys!”

Tayuya leaps back into the leaves. The second she disappears there’s a note from her flute and the Doki descend on Lee. He’s able to roll out of the way of an earth-shaking strike from the club-wielding ogre only to have to leap away from the blindfolded ogre’s fist as it swings for him. It hits the tree just behind him, splitting the trunk. Lee jukes around their blows, so focused on the advancing guard he only notices the bandaged ogre about to fall on top of him when he blocks the spare bits of moonlight. It’s a close shave– close enough that one of the needles in the creature’s head scratches Lee’s cheek.

He needs to get some distance. There’s nowhere to run in these cramped quarters. He swerves through trees, backing up through the forest, but it’s like running from logging equipment. As Lee swerves around a blow from the blindfolded ogre there’s a spinning refrain from Tayuya’s flute. It’s massive jaws fall open, and a spectral worm with a human mouth comes spiraling out of it’s mouth. Lee is stunned by the disgusting sight for a fraction of a second. That’s all it takes.

The worm darts out and chomps down on Lee’s elbow. The second it’s teeth sink in Lee feels his chakra being siphoned, pulled down his arm and into the worm. Lee’s instincts take over. He wrenches his arm out from the worm’s jaws, blood pouring from the punctures. Tayuya plays a sequence of notes and the Doki drop to all fours. Each opens their mouth to release another worm. They all come surging for Lee.

Lee needs a distraction for these chakra leeches and he needs it yesterday. If he were any other ninja he’d just fire off a ninjutsu and hope they chased after the chakra in that, but–

But he does have the next best thing.

Lee bites the inside of his cheek. He shoves a hand into his tool pouch and wrenches out a Leaf Village flare. With a silent ‘Thank you’ to Tenten for sharing, Lee breaks the flare over his knee. The blast of Chakra explodes out from the flare with a muted flash. Immediately the worms surge towards the chakra in the air before Tayuya can play a note to get them back on track.

This is Lee’s shot. He turns on his heel and sprints. He doesn’t slow down, not until he sees a sliver of moonlight breaking through two tree trunks.

Lee tumbles into a small clearing. He presses his back to one of the trees, holds his breath, and listens. He can faintly hear the crashing of the Doki, the whine of Tayuya’s flute. They’re meters away, but gaining. Fast. He needs to come up with a plan faster. Lee closes his eyes. He can’t chance the Gates, not yet. He was able to track Tayuya before, but in the dark with these ogres coming after him he won’t be able to focus so purely on the sound of her flute. And he’s not as fast, not as fluid, not as strong as he was two months ago. The quickest solution would be to fight them head on, but without the Gates he can’t hit as hard as those monsters…

Or can he?

Lee’s eyes go wide. He drops to the ground, tearing off his shinguards and taking off his weights. He unspools the wrappings around each hand and wraps them around his weights, creating a pair of makeshift flails. He picks them up and gives them a few experimental spins. The linen is holding for now. He’ll have to work fast to make sure they don’t tear at an inopportune time. But he knew that much already.

Lee walks to the middle of the clearing, turns, and waits.

The Doki come crashing through the trees, and Lee darts away. He’s not as fast as he was, but he outclasses these creatures by a country mile. Lee is a dark green blur in a dark forest, and the Doki swing in large, slow arcs as they try to track him. He can hear Tayuya’s flute struggling to keep up with him and the Doki struggle to keep up with her. Lee darts around the clearing’s perimeter, stopping only long enough at each tree for the Doki to get a lock on the tree. With every missed swing they knock down another tree, bringing more and more full moonlight into the forest.

Once the clearing is thirty feet across, Lee finally strikes. He kicks off a tree, flying in an arc across the clearing, and swings with his weights for the bandaged ogre. They slam into the creature with a crunch, denting the side of it’s ribcage. Before it has time to register what’s happening Lee brings the weights around and smashes them into it’s sides. Lee batters the creature, bouncing it between the two flails, knocking it onto it’s back. He takes the weights into each hand, leaps to the creature’s head, and brings them both down.

The creature’s head collapses. Blood and brain matter paint the soil.

Lee doesn’t have time to savor his victory. As soon as the summon explodes into white smoke, Lee has to use that smokescreen to avoid a strike from the club-wielding ogre. He rolls out from the smoke and darts in serpentine motions away from the club-wielding ogre, drawing it closer and closer to the blindfolded ogre. He draws them closer and closer together, waiting until the moment before both are about to strike him before darting to the side. They hit each other, and as they recoil from the blow Lee rebounds off a nearby felled tree, kicks off a standing tree, and swings for the heads of both creatures.

The weights connect with the back of each Doki’s skull. Their skulls collide with the sound of shattering bone and splattering brain.

They disappear in a burst of smoke, and Lee takes a few heaving breaths. He turns on his heel, looking and listening for Tayuya. Her flute has gone silent, but he can hear the telltale sound of rustling leaves and cracking branches making it’s way towards the clearing. He’ll have to make even quicker work of her.

Tayuya’s voice comes slithering out of the trees a moment before she does; “Well, look at you. You’ve got some brains after all.”

Lee nearly leaps out of his skin. Tayuya is perched at the edge of the clearing, but she is not the girl that disappeared into the trees seconds prior. Her skin is a deathly gray-brown, her eyes a bright yellow framed in black. Her hair has grown past her thighs, and atop her head are several gnarled horns framing her face like a crown. She stares down at him now with a predatory sneer, the moonlight glinting off teeth sharp enough to tear through flesh.

“Alright, asshole,” she hisses, “Time for Round 2.”

This is going to be a long night.

Shikamaru’s eyes creak open like the shutters of an abandoned house.

He can tell from the sliver of starry sky between a pair of tall, dark walls that he’s fallen to the bottom of the ravine, but he could probably have figured that out from how sore he is. Shikamaru multitasks, opening up his flak jacket to check for bruised ribs while taking stock of the stars to note the time. Most of his ribs are, indeed, bruised, and the sky’s indicating that he’s at least been unconscious for less than half an hour.

He lets out a painful sigh. No bones about it, this is his own fault. Splitting up the team, that was mistake number one. Mistake number two was letting the darkness, the sound genjutsu, and how amped up Sasuke and Naruto were get to him. Mistake number three was letting everyone break formation, but that was really more an offshoot of mistake number two.

His first ever mission as a chunin and it was already shaping up to be a resounding failure. What an absolute drag.

Shikamaru sits up and starts examining the rest of his injuries. His left elbow’s sprained, same for his right ankle. That means climbing or jumping out of this canyon isn’t an option, not unless he wants to be like Sasuke and aggravate his injuries. No, it’s best to follow the river’s flow for now. When you’re lost in the wilderness that’s the first rule for survival. The basics are what he needs right now.

Shikamaru pulls himself to his feet, leans heavy against the canyon wall, and follows the river. Progress is slow when you’re keeping your weight off one foot, but steady. Shikamaru’s able to reason that the river is flowing Southeast, so it’ll eventually feed into the river flowing from the Valley of the End. He’s definitely going to need to find an earlier branching point, by the time he gets all the way to that river everyone in his team will be dead and Sakura will be in the Sound Village. He could find some way to travel via the river once it gets deeper, but that might take even longer–

Shikamaru’s snapped out of his thoughts by a voice grousing, “Are we seriously going to spend this entire mission just sitting here?

Shikamaru lets his instincts take over, diving behind a large stalagmite and pressing his back flat to the rock. He takes a breath. That voice was coming from nearby. He wishes he could use his kunai like a mirror to get a reflection, but the moon’s in the wrong spot and at the wrong angle for him to have any light to do it with. Shikamaru swallows hard and peeks ever so slightly out from behind the rock.

Sitting a few yards downriver is a large wooden barrel with a purple rope tied around the middle of it. Sitting atop the barrel is a young man dressed in typical Sound uniform, shaggy silver hair covering one eye and an identical head sprouting from the back of his neck. He’s drumming his fingers on his knee, the other hand propping up his chin. He looks positively bored.

Before Shikamaru can dissect any of that information, he hears the boy reply, seemingly to himself if the voice is any indication, “We need to be patient. She’s no good to Orochimaru in an incomplete state. Besides… she’s making good time, all things considered.”

The head facing away from Shikamaru bobs ever so slightly as it speaks; “Yeah, what’s the deal with that? I thought she was some clanless civilian kid. How is she ripening up this fast?”

Shikamaru ignores how uncomfortable the word ‘ripening’ in this context in favor of listening to the front head’s reply; “If I had to guess, Kabuto did mention her exceptional chakra control. That could have something to do with it.”

Shikamaru grits his teeth. Of course it was his luck to stumble onto Sakura while he was alone in a death funnel. If she's been sitting here the entire time, going completely unnoticed by Tonton and Akamaru, Shikamaru has to guess there's been a genjutsu covering Sakura's real scent this whole time. Unless he remembered to bring a flare of his own there’s no way he can signal for help. The only choice he has is stealth. There’s not even a sliver of moonlit ground in this ravine, so if he wants to use his tried and true technique he’s gonna need to make some light. And that’s risky as all Hell.

Before Shikamaru’s plan can get any further than that, the boy suddenly sits up straight. Both heads jerk up towards the top of the canyon. There’s a distant rustle of leaves and scuffing of sole on dirt. In an instant, another silhouette comes plunging down to alight on top of the barrel. The two-headed boy scrambles off the barrel, turning to face the figure with his front head. This figure also appears to be a boy, only a few years older than Shikamaru, with pale hair, pale skin, and a sickly look. Long sleeves hide his hands, and the large purple rope around his middle marks him as decidedly Sound.

The two headed boy stammers, “Wh-what the–?! Kimimaro, what are you–?! You’re in no state to be–!”

“You were taking too long,” ‘Kimimaro’ states flatly, hopping off the barrel, “I’ll take it from here.”

“Like Hell you will, you’re at death’s door,” the back head spits, “We’ll come with you, you need backup!”

Kimimaro’s mouth twitches at one corner; “No, I don’t think you will. I don’t need backup from someone who hasn’t even realized he’s being watched.”

Shikamaru’s blood freezes in his veins. His reflexes are fast but the two-headed boy’s are faster, the back head snapping up and locking eyes with Shikamaru right as he’s pulling his head back behind the rock. Shikamaru purses his lips. He’s not getting out of here with Sakura. He’s maybe not even getting out of here with his life. But if his hypothesis about Sakura’s scent is correct, there’s one thing he can do.

Shikamaru runs through the hand signs and creates a basic clone, sending the sacrificial lamb limping as fast as it can back the way he came with a few tools and some basic instructions. He drags himself back to the canyon wall– from this vantage point he can see the two-headed boy sprinting after the clone. Kimimaro is in the process of hopping off the barrel, but the second he lands he has to bring up one of his long sleeves to cough into it. This is his only shot.

Shikamaru pulls a Sasuke and runs on his injured ankle straight for the barrel. His hand touches the side and he can feel the telltale static shock of chakra coating the barrel, exactly enough for a concealing genjutsu. Shikamaru forms half a seal and breaks it with an effort of chakra. The burst of chakra immediately draws Kimimaro’s attention, the boy whipping around to glare down his nose at him.

Kimimaro opens his mouth, but Shikamaru grins and cuts him off; “Don’t you worry about me– I know when I’m outmatched. Go ahead and run off with her, it’s not like she’s my teammate.”

Kimimaro’s eyes narrow; “What did you do?

Shikamaru shrugs; “Broadcasted who you’ve got and where they’re going to a radius of about, oh, I dunno, seven miles at least, three thousand miles at most. Good luck with the rest of my team, buddy.”

Kimimaro processes that information for a moment before his expression smoothes over; “Then I hope you feel secure in your decision to doom your friends.”

He lifts the barrel effortlessly and leaps away, kicking off the ravine walls and disappearing over the canyon lip. Shikamaru swallows his anxiety– he has to compartmentalize. For the sake of his own sanity he chooses to believe that was a bluff. He reaches into his pack and rifles around. No flare, but there is a matchbook. Plan B’s still on track. The two-headed boy has just turned on his heel, the front head’s gaze following Kimimaro’s trajectory.

He’s not getting out of here anywhere near that easy.

Shikamaru opens the matchbook and strikes the whole book against the canyon wall, shoving an effort of Fire chakra down his arm with the motion. The matchbook blossoms into a blaze of flame far bigger than it could ever attain naturally, threatening to burn the skin off Shikamaru’s fingertips, but that’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make. The matches light up a thirty foot radius, catching both himself and the two-headed boy in the area. Shikamaru drops the matchbook onto the ground behind him and makes the Rat seal. His shadow races across the ground and grabs a hold of the two-headed boy’s feet.

He freezes in place, eyes darting between Shikamaru, the shadow, and the matchbook, before sneering, “This can’t be the entire plan. That matchbook’s going to burn down to nothing in seconds.”

Shikamaru just shrugs; “Call me desperate. I’ve got two sprained bits on me, at this point I’ll settle for just delaying you. This entire mission’s a bust anyway.”

The two-headed boy grins; “Considering you’re rescuing someone who doesn’t want to be rescued, I’d have to agree. Your mission was doomed from the start.”

Shikamaru can’t fight a scowl; “Yeah, y’see, that’s the thing about friends– You can’t just let them do whatever they want. Because people are idiots, and they sometimes wanna do really stupid shit. So you stop them. That’s the difference between loving someone and enabling them.”

The two-headed boy’s grin twists in an odd way; “Please– even I know that much. I’m not an idiot.”

Shikamaru finally lets his own grin loose; “Then you should know I’ve been stalling, and you should’ve taken that bait I threw out.”

The boy’s visible eye goes wide. His head whips around behind him to see Shikamaru’s clone planting the last of four explosive tags– two on either wall at hand height, two up near the lip hanging off of kunai. And all of them have burned down to their last scrap of paper.

It’s just before the explosion, just as Shikamaru’s breaking the jutsu and the boy is turning to him with murder in his eyes, that he notices he only has one head.

An explosion rocks the ravine, but Shikamaru can’t enjoy the sight of falling rocks and a plan coming together when a hand is fisting itself in his ponytail. Shikamaru wrenches out of that grip, the hand only taking his hairtie, but as he whirls on his heel he only gets to see the mirror image of the two headed boy covered in leopard-like spots for a split second before he grabs him by the collar and changes. In the dying light of the matches Shikamaru can see his skin turn from pale to red, his features sharpen and elongate, his eyes turning gold with black sclerae. A horn sprouts from his forehead, and before Shikamaru can process that this mirror image rears back and headbutts Shikamaru.

He makes contact with the base of the horn, the hardest part of the skull. Shikamaru sees stars. The mirror image lets go of Shikamaru’s shirt and he goes tumbling out of his grip, falling onto his back.

The mirror image rolls his neck, looks to the pile of rubble and calls, “You alright, Sakon?”

Shikamaru wants to make a smart remark about how of course he’s not, but of course the rubble starts to move. A similarly demonic figure comes crawling out of the rocks, a hard, armor-like chitin covering his right arm and leg.

“I’ve certainly been better,” 'Sakon' grouses, “You couldn’t have grabbed him before that trap went off, Ukon? I barely had time to switch forms.”

‘Ukon’ shrugs, strolling around to pick up the matchbook; “Ends and means, Sakon,” he throws the matchbook into the river, putting out the fire with a loud hiss, “Ends and means.”

Shikamaru shuts his eyes and lets out a long sigh from between clenched teeth. What a fucking drag.

Kiba sniffs the air, frowning hard. This can’t be right, there’s no way that Sakura’s scent just stopped. Honestly, he’d lost it a while ago, but Akamaru had kept on the Northeast path anyway. He had to hope Akamaru was smelling something he wasn’t. Because if not, they were flying blind and alone after literally nothing.

It’s just as that thought’s starting to seep in and Kiba’s processing the implications of being lost in the woods this close to the border with a hostile nation that a scent hits his nose, strong and real and close. It smells like cherries, soap, and sweat. It’s Sakura, through and through.

“You smelling that too, Akamaru?” Kiba calls, and Akamaru barks out an affirmative. Kiba sends more chakra to his hands and feet, moving double-time. He takes a deep breath, breaking down the scents surrounding Sakura.

First, he smells wood. Rich wood, the kind of wood someone would use to age wine in a cellar for hundreds of years. Second, he smells a combination of bleach, antiseptic, marrow, and chakra. A shudder runs down his spine and Akamaru starts to whine, high and sharp.

“We can’t take that guy, can we? Not by ourselves,” Kiba remarks, looking to Akamaru.

Akamaru shakes his head. Kiba frowns, biting his lip. He won’t turn back. That’s not an option, not now not ever. But he’s not gonna run in like Naruto and get himself killed, that’s also not an option…

He pulls the flare Tenten gave him from his tool pouch. This could attract as much negative attention as positive, but fuck it, it’s an idea.

Kiba breaks the flare over his knee. Chakra bursts out in a mile radius. Kiba speeds up and Akamaru lets out a hunting howl as they follow their quarry into the dark.

Sasuke looks up at her with a weak smirk; “Alright, then lead the way.”

Just as Hinata’s wondering how in the Hell she’s supposed to do that, two things hit her at once– a tremor beneath her feet, and the distinctive static charge of a Leaf Village flare coming from a point slightly more East than Northeast. Naruto and Sasuke’s heads whip around every which way, trying to track the source of both. Tonton’s sniffing in the direction of the chakra pulse with a renewed fervor.

Hinata’s mind works fast. That flare has to be from the other squad, and if Tonton’s sniffing that way…

Hinata scurries over to Tonton and asks, “What are you smelling, girl?”

She looks up and starts insistently oinking at Hinata, who does her best to interpret it. She has trouble with Akamaru on the best of days, but that’s not going to hold her back. She listens, carefully and quietly.

Once she’s certain she’s heard her right, Hinata pops back up to her feet and declares, “Tonton’s getting Sakura’s scent again, in the direction of that flare! Come on, let’s head that way!”

Naruto grins, wide and fierce; “What are we waiting for?! Let’s go!”

They race into the darkness, Hinata taking point.

Chapter Text

xxiv. Tayuya grins, predatory and wide; “My turn now, Eyebrows. Let’s make this a party.”

She brings her flute to her lips. Lee bites down a mild swear and takes off in a dead sprint. He’s not faster than sound.

The notes hit Lee’s ears and his knees buckle. He goes skidding to a stop in the dirt, landing heavy on hands and knees before his arms splay out wide. There are chains around them now, but they’ve always been there, but they just appeared from thin air, but they’re pulling Lee’s arms so hard they’re straining to stay attached. Lee’s head whips this way and that to see what trees they’ve attached themselves to. The chains melt into the trees, which melt into each other, which melt into steel bars and spikes.

It’s genjutsu, it has to be, a tiny part of Lee’s brain insists. The rest of it is screaming with pain as his shoulders pop from their sockets. That’s the problem with having no talent for genjutsu– you also don’t have any talent for breaking it.

Lee’s flesh starts to melt from the bone, sloughing to the ground and wriggling in the dirt. The meat from Lee’s arm starts to twist, shift, and coagulate. The bone of his arms dissolves and the flesh grows scales. His muscles are now a cobra, rearing up and flaring it’s hood. It strikes, and at the last possible second the genjutsu falls away. The cobra is Tayuya’s palm, thrusting for his sternum.

Lee doesn’t have time to block. He takes the full force of the blow in the center of his chest. Nothing breaks, but Lee is sent flying end-over-end. He soars out of the clearing, crashing through branches and bouncing off tree trunks. All he can do is keep a tight grip on his weights. They pinwheel around him, smashing anything in their way. Lee hits the dirt and skips like a stone. He skids to a stop and takes a second to lie in the dirt, eyes wide, hands shaking. It hurts to breathe.

He doesn’t have time for this. Lee takes this brief moment of lucidity to tie the linen strips connected to his weights around his hands, knotting them tight. The second he’s finished, Tayuya starts to play.

The dull blue-black of a forest at night melts into bright, kaleidoscope color. The trees with their pomegranate red trunks and cyan-into-yellow-into-magenta leaves twist, stretch, slithering and slaloming around each other like a pit of mating snakes. The earth shifts and bobs beneath Lee’s feet like a boat in rough water. A pair of ripe lemon yellow eyes sprout from a nearby branch and peer curiously down at him. Lee swings wildly with one of his weights. The branch flows out of the way and comes back down.

“What a curious little creature,” the tree remarks, an imperious lilt to it’s garbled voice, “A ninja that cannot do ninjutsu? What a charming paradox!”

A gecko crawls out from beneath a log, one half of it black, the other white, and it chortles, “Oh make no mistake, this is no ninja! This is a broken doll, head together by bubblegum and dreams!”

Lee tries to shout a rebuttal, but his words come out as bright pink bubbles. When they pop, they release a scale of notes in minor key.

A set of bright green bubbles float above Lee’s head, popping to release Tayuya’s voice, a word at a time; “Eyebrows, you are an absolute gift!

A stampede of footsteps shakes the ground. Lee whirls around. Tayuya, her hair a pink-to-purple-to-red and thirty feet long, comes running out from behind every tree, each and every one of her rearing back to throw a right cross. Lee clenches the muscles in his core and swings with his weights in a wide circle. They punch holes straight through the line of Tayuyas, and each blow away into puffs of colored mist.

The music stops. The colors snap back to darkness. Tayuya’s real, physical heel connects with the back of Lee’s head.

He has no idea if the stars he’s seeing, the feeling of careening in a corkscrew through the forest, is real or fake. All he knows is that seconds later he’s lying in the dirt, staring at the roots of a tree. Every joint in his arms feels like the lightest tug could pull them all out of their sockets. Lee wants to curl up into a ball and cry for the next twenty years.

Tayuya starts to play.

Lee rockets up to his feet and starts sprinting away from the sound.

He can’t fight her alone, not like this, he has to go, has to go, has to get help, has to run before she starts turning his own senses against him again. He races through the forest, pure instinct driving him forward. He trips over roots and runs headfirst into branches. He starts swinging his weights out in front of him, clearing a path to the tree line. Fresh air tastes like heaven, but there’s only a brief break in the forest before more trees clog the landscape. He can lose her in there, he just has to keep going, keep running. Lee sprints ahead.

His foot hits empty air.

Lee’s eyes go wide and he bites down hard on the inside of his cheek. His vision clears. Where he’d last seen solid ground is now the deep, dark ravine Shikamaru had fallen into not even fifteen minutes before. Lee tries to throw himself back, but the weights tied to his right hand pull him sharply down. He yelps out loud, frantically shoving as much chakra as he can grab hold of down his left leg. He falls until he’s all the way upside down, the weights pulling him towards oblivion, his left foot and almost all his remaining chakra his only tether to life. And he has a lot less than he’d thought.

Tayuya’s snickering accompanies footsteps heading right for him; “Yeah, the flashy stuff’s fun, but these are the real killers. I honestly thought that’d get you to jump to your death!”

The gears of Lee’s brain are grinding against each other. His right shoulder’s dislocated. His ankle’s twisted at a painful angle. With only one foot secured to the canyon wall he has next to no leverage against the weights. The ravine is narrow enough to jump across, but he can’t do it like this. If he lets himself fall… His only option is to throw himself back the way he came, right into Tayuya’s path.

He grits his teeth and swings his weights around, using their momentum to help himself pivot so he’s facing up. He swings them again, up to the lip of the canyon, and uses that momentum to pull himself up and over. He pops right in front of Tayuya, inches away from her hand as it grabs for his face. She’s too close to dodge. Lee squeezes his eyes shut.

Tayuya’s hand has almost closed around his skull when three hands grab Lee– one on each wrist and one taking a hold of his collar.

The hands whisk him up and out of Tayuya’s grasp, pulling a yelp from his throat. The linen attached to Lee’s right bundle of weights tears in two. Lee goes flying across the ravine, over the bank of open ground, and up into the canopy. Lee flies through branch and leaf until his back hits a hard wooden surface. His head whips up. Three eyes and a sharp-toothed mouth stare back down at him through shaggy hair.

Lee starts to swing for it, but a distantly familiar voice snaps from nearby, “Oi! Crow’s expensive to maintain, don’t go smashing his head in!”

Lee’s eyes dart to the source. The young man’s black garb renders him nearly invisible, but dappled bits of moonlight illuminate his painted face, Sand headband, and wry grin. The faint, flickering luminescence of chakra strings pulls the puppet cradling Lee back to his side.

Lee blinks, bleary-eyed; “You’re… real?”

Kankuro looks over to Crow and snickers, “Depends on who you’re asking.”

As Sakon comes shambling out of the rubble and Ukon sneers down at him, Shikamaru does what he does best. He thinks.

Though an outside observer would assume as much, it’s not like Shikamaru has no options right now. It’s just that all his options suck.

Option One would be to stall these guys until the moon is high enough in the sky to actually shine into this ravine, then choke them out with their own shadows. He probably doesn’t have to explain why that one’s bad. Option Two would be running. Less bad on the face of it, but worse when one considered his injuries, the narrow terrain, the fact that his hair is in his face, and that leaving his team to die would be a hell of a way to end his first ever mission as a Chunin. Option Three would be to try fighting without the use of his clan’s signature technique. The injuries and terrain also factor into making that one a bad idea, as well as the fact that it would be bad for his clan’s brand, and we simply cannot have that.

Shikamaru purses his lips. Being sarcastic at himself isn’t anywhere near as good for his nerves as being sarcastic at other people.

… There’s an idea there.

Shikamaru looks up to the stars and wonders out loud, “You know, weird time for me to think of it, but I just realized I don’t actually know what Orochimaru wants Sakura for.”

Ukon rolls his eyes; “Oh please– This isn’t a movie. You’re not going to get us to spill the ‘evil plan’ just by making conversation.”

Shikamaru waves them off; “Nah nah, don’t worry about me, I’m talking to myself. Just thinkin’ about how it doesn’t, like… make sense that he’d want her, you know?”

Ukon shakes his head; “Let’s just finish him, Sakon. His voice is starting to grate on my nerves.”

Sakon doesn’t reply. His brow has furrowed, his eye narrowed. He’s staring down at Shikamaru with an expression somewhere between ‘annoyed’ and ‘puzzled’. That’s where Shikamaru thrives.

So he keeps talking; “Think about it, what does Sakura have to offer really? She’s smart and she’s got a lot of potential but Orochimaru doesn’t really strike me as the type to see past the surface. He’s a collector of rare and weird things,” he gestures loosely towards the twins, “like you guys. I read about him, guy was banished because he just had to figure out why the First Hokage was a freak of nature, and he wanted his own freak just like him. Why would a guy interested in freaks want a tailor’s daughter?”

Sakon grits his teeth and stomps on Shikamaru’s sprained elbow; “It’s not our place to question! Orochimaru wants her, so we bring her! End of discussion! You’re right Ukon, he’s talked too much! Let’s end him!”

Now Ukon’s brow is furrowed, and he mutters, “But… Remember what was on the info card? She is just some ordinary girl. Why would Orochimaru want that? He can’t just want some normal little girl for his new body, that doesn’t make sense.”

Sakon pinches the bridge of his nose and groans, “What did I just say? That’s not. Our. Place! Orochimaru ordered her brought to him, he ordered her curse mark brought to Stage 2, that’s all we need to care about!”

“But did he,” Ukon shoots back, turning to look Sakon in the eye, “We got that order from Kabuto, we’ve been getting all our orders from Kabuto! He’s just been saying what Orochimaru wants, we don’t know!

Sakon throws his hands out to his sides as he exclaims, “Why the Hell would she have a Curse Mark if Orochimaru didn’t want her body?!”

Shikamaru, for a moment, can only gawk. He didn’t expect that to actually get him anywhere.

He blinks himself back into the moment. He’s only made himself the tiniest of openings– they’re still standing directly above him, pinning one of his arms. Shikamaru shuts his eyes and searches around for his clone. When nothing comes up, Shikamaru bites down a curse. Poor guy probably got crushed in the rockslide. So he’s got no backup. Not great, but he can still work with that. He just needs Sakon to step off his arm.

Shikamaru cuts back into the conversation; “You got me– Why take her body when a body with the Sharingan is basically glued to her hip?”

Sakon and Ukon fall silent. For a split second, Shikamaru’s certain he’s fucked up.

Then Ukon snarls and slams his fist into the canyon wall; “God damn it, god damn it that’s it! She’s a mistake!

Sakon jolts back slightly, his heel rocking on Shikmaru’s elbow and sending a jolt of pain up his arm; “What the Hell do you mean she’s a mistake?!

“Her teammate’s one of the last Uchiha,” Ukon fires back, “He must have been going for him and gotten her by mistake!”

Sakon looks away; “You don’t know that. None of us know that. We can’t go making assumptions.”

Ukon grabs Sakon’s collar and drags him closer, leaving him with only his toes on Shikamaru’s arm; “The Hell we can’t! He wants to master every single jutsu, why wouldn’t he want the Sharingan?! Tayuya’s been saying the exact same thing since we got the mission, she was right! We’ve been set up!”

Sakon wrenches out of Ukon’s grasp, rolling back onto Shikamaru’s elbow; “What does it matter?! What do we even do about it?! It’s our word against Kabuto’s! He probably has snakes all over the route back to Sound, he’ll send assassins to silence us before we can cross the border!”

Ukon takes Sakon by the shoulders and leans in close, whispering, “I’ll tell you what we do: We grab Uchiha. We’ve still got the time and the strength to do it. We take him, get ahead of Kimimaro and Sakura, get back to Sound first. If we bring Orochimaru the Sharingan, that’s not just a ‘job well done’. That’s a bargaining chip. We can barter for our freedom, Sakon! What’s the point of us if he has Uchiha? We can finally get these brands off our backs!”

Shikamaru almost loses track of his plan as he looks at the twin brothers, staring at each other with a spark of faint hope in their eyes. These kids are barely older than him…

Shikamaru blows a lock of hair out of his eyes and clenches his jaw tight. He’ll have time for empathy when he’s out of this mess.

Sakon stares into Ukon’s eyes for a few seconds longer before he turns on his heel and stalks towards the rubble; “I need to think. Keep him pinned.”

Not gonna happen. Shikamaru’s right hand flies into one of the pockets of his flak jacket and comes back out with a flash bomb. He throws it directly in Ukon’s face. The last thing Shikamaru sees before he rolls away from the flash is his yellow eye go wide and his mouth begin to form the word “FUCK!” The canyon lights up, impossibly bright. Shikamaru shuts his eyes. He can feel Ukon’s hand clawing at his ankle, but he keeps rolling.

Shikamaru rolls on his side until he hits the river. He tucks his hands over his head and neck and lets the rapids carry him downstream at breakneck speed. He keeps his eyes shut tight and holds his breath. Only when he can’t feel the riverbed scraping at his back does he bother opening his eyes. His last explosive stunt cut the river off from it’s source, he won’t be able to maintain this pace for long. Shikamaru waits out the current. The second it starts to slow he reaches for the bank– the river’s still narrow, so it’s not far. He drags his hand along the riverbank, slowing himself down until he can grab hold of it.

Shikamaru drags himself out of the water with a loud gasp, finally taking air into his burning lungs. He pushes his drenched hair out of his eyes and looks around. Good News: No sign of Sakon or Ukon. Bad News: The ravine still hasn’t widened out, and there’s still no moonlight. Shikamaru multitasks, using a simple Fire Style technique to dry himself off while he maps out this part of the canyon. The bottom of the canyon’s about the same width as the last area he was in, but the top is slightly narrower, with great big overhangs of rock nearly blotting out the night sky. The river’s much wider, too, but that isn’t going to matter. The water level is rapidly decreasing, thanks to him.

Shikamaru arches a brow, then shrugs; “If at first you don’t succeed…”

Shikamaru runs through the hand signs and a pair of clones appear on either side of him. He rifles through his pack and checks his explosive tags. Six of the ten he had left are dry enough to work, damp enough that it’ll take longer than average. Under normal circumstances, not great. Tonight, he can live with it. He hands the clones each three tags, some twine, his last two shuriken and his last two kunai.

“You guys know the drill,” Shikamaru mutters, “One at hand level, one midway up, one up on the overhangs… Don’t give me that look, I know it’s not a great plan.”

The clones leap off to do as they’re bade. Shikamaru calculates angles and volume as he slowly backs out of the blast radius. He backs up ninety feet, keeping close to the canyon wall. He bites the inside of his lip, and waits. His eyes slide along the row of explosive tags, down to the riverbank. Any second now, they’ll come out of the darkness ten meters down. The tags will go off.

There’s the sound of movement in the water. Shikamaru’s eyes zero in on the tip of a bright red horn, poking up out of the river.

A horn. Just one. Where the Hell is the other one?!

His eyes go wide and he swears under his breath. He reaches for his tool pouch on instinct, realizing a second too late that there’s nothing there. Sakon has breached the river. He rolls up onto the bank, eye quickly taking stock of Shikamaru’s position and the placement of the tags, before sprinting to stand even with Shikamaru on the other side of the river. He bites into his thumb, and out of nowhere Shikamaru feels a sharp pain in his gut

Sakon makes the snake seal and calls, “Now, Ukon!”

Shikamaru’s mind is reeling, eyes darting every which way, but it all turns into blind panic when he feels his back start to stretch. He can feel fingers, palms, wrists, whole arms growing from his back. It’s every growing pain he’s ever felt all folded into one horrific moment. He feels the hands make the snake seal in perfect concert with Sakon before slapping them flat on the canyon wall. And as if things couldn’t get worse, Ukon’s head sprouts out of Shikamaru’s left shoulder.

Ukon and Sakon call out in unison, “Summoning– Rashomon!

In a burst of white smoke the sky disappears. In the sudden, complete darkness, Shikamaru can’t make out any features of what they’ve summoned. It just looks like a pure black slab, mounted to the walls just beneath the mid-level bombs and tilting down towards the canyon. The bombs go off. The rubble that was supposed to block the canyon, supposed to buy Shikamaru more time to run to somewhere with moonlight, goes rolling down the summon like a ramp. It pours in behind him, blocking him off from the rest of the canyon. Sakon and Ukon wait until all the rocks have fallen, until the Earth stops shaking, until the last pebble has rolled to a stop, before they dismiss the summon.

One of Ukon’s arms slides up and around so now it’s sprouting out of Shikamaru’s chest, reaching up for his throat; “Congratulations, chunin. You’re trapped in here with us, now.”

Shikamaru’s mouth is working faster than his brain; “When did you–?”

“When I grabbed your ankle,” Ukon snickers, “Let me guess– You thought I could only hitch a ride with my brother? Don’t worry, you’re not the first to make that mistake.”

Shikamaru’s brain starts to catch up. Only now does the moonlight hit his eyes. Plan B was a bust but Plan C– force the canyon to widen and let in more moonlight– miraculously fell into place. Shikamaru starts to bring his hands together to form the rat seal, but Ukon's other arm sprouts from his hip and grabs his arm, holding it in a white-knuckled grip.

He clicks his tongue against his teeth; “Nah, you’re not trying anything funny on my watch. Sorry, chunin– This is Checkmate, and I’m gonna enjoy every second of it.”

There’s a whistle in the air. Shikamaru sees Ukon’s arm fly off his hip, a clean cut, before he feels the pain and hears Ukon scream in his ear. Shikamaru follows the trajectory. There’s no blade buried in the stone.

He grins, just as the feminine voice he never expected to hear again drawls, “Your head’s next if you don’t cut whatever this is out, Freak.”

Shikamaru looks up. Temari is perched atop the wall of rubble, her fan open wide and a night breeze rustling her four tails of hair. Her smirk is smooth and self-assured. She hasn’t changed a bit.

Ukon snarls up at her, “Who the Hell are you?!

Temari’s smirk widens out into a grin; “Backup.”

“Alright, give me the lowdown,” Kankuro mutters, “The whole ‘flute music bad’ thing I’ve got, what else is she bringing to the table?”

Lee blinks a few times before sputtering, “No, no, I am not– Shikamaru, he fell into the ravine a few meters away, he needs your help far more than I do, I can–!”

Kankuro waves him off; “No, yeah, we know. Temari’s got him. I’ve got you. Now chop chop, I need details. We’re burning moonlight.”

Lee swallows hard; “She… She uses the flute to perform genjutsu, powerful genjutsu that likely use up a lot of chakra. This transformation has made her quite strong physically as well. She has been–”

“– Using the genjutsu to stop you in place so she can kick the shit out of you,” Kankuro cuts in, “Basic tactic for anyone who can mix it up with both gen and taijutsu. Alright Jumpsuit, keep your head on a swivel. I need to think.”

Lee frowns, but is apparently above grumbling under his breath. He moves to Kankuro’s back, eyes scanning the trees, and Kankuro puts a hand to his temple. He taps his fingers on his skull as he thinks. Easiest solution to this problem is to plug his and Lee’s ears, but that’s as good as blinding them both. But considering that girl was able to make Lee take up cliff diving with a little flute music, it’s more than a necessity.

His eyes flicker over to Lee. He’s still alert and on guard, but with what Tayuya’s been putting him through the kid’s more than likely near his limit. Using the weights as a weapon was smart, he saw how much damage they could do to a stone floor. Curse or no curse, one strike would likely put Tayuya out of commission.

So they’ve gotta win this fight in one blow while cutting off their one useful sense. Great. Easily do-able. No pressure there. He starts reeling Crow in, chakra strings barely visible in the low light…

Kankuro’s eyes go wide. Of course.

Kankuro smacks Lee’s back to draw his attention; “I’ve got something.”

Lee’s brows furrow, but he turns to face Kankuro; “I am listening.”

“Yeah, you’re gonna need to stop doing that,” Kankuro begins, rifling around in his tool pouch and pulling out a roll of gauze, “Tear off some of this, ball it up, and make some earplugs. Fill that cavity as much as you can. After that you’re gonna need to hop a little ways Northeast and post up above this tiny clearing with a big lump of mud on one of the trees. If this works, Flute Girl’s gonna run right in there in… let’s say somewhere between two and five minutes. The second you have a clear shot, take it. That weight’s gotta drop right on her. One hit, she’s out. Get me?”

Lee starts tearing off lengths of gauze, but fixes Kankuro with a suspicious look; “What will you be doing?”

Kankuro grins; “Using a fuckton of chakra and putting my incredibly expensive and difficult to replace puppets in harm’s way to help a kid I barely know get a girl who tried to kill my siblings to come back home, that’s what.”

Lee winces, but purses his lips and nods. He finishes making his earplugs and puts them in. He gives Kankuro a weak smile and a thumb’s up before darting Northeast.

Kankuro plugs his own ears, unspools the bandages securing Black Ant to his back with a pittance of chakra and draws him around to hang beside Crow. He stares down the two puppets, making calculations in his mind. This isn’t gonna cover a huge area, but it’ll do. Kankuro drops a simple genjutsu on the puppets– just a soft blur, making them difficult to identify from afar in the dark.

Kankuro whispers, “Time for work, boys.”

He leaps forward and sends the puppets back. They go weaving up, down, around tree trunks and through branches. He moves opposite to them, the chakra strings zigging and zagging and looping around anything in their path. Kankuro makes sure to move himself and his puppets around the kill zone in a wide circle, around and around and around until the chakra points in the tips of his fingers are starting to ache. Once he’s gone as far from his puppets as he can go, once the chakra threads are pulled so tight they’ve nearly snapped, Kankuro stops at the base of a tree. He goes down on his knees. He closes his eyes. He waits.

Kankuro doesn’t hear it when Tayuya starts to play. He feels it. The sound waves hit the furthest edge of the web of chakra threads, the vibration weak. She’s coming from the Southwest, several meters away and gaining. The threads she’s hit connect to Crow. He could get the drop on her right now…

No. Patience. She’s still moving. She just needs to come a little closer…

The vibrations get stronger and stronger, closer and closer, until they’re coming out in a circle right beneath the threads. Now. Kankuro takes his left set of fingers through the precise motions necessary to open Crow’s mouth and fire off a volley of poisoned senbon. He feels the vibration of them passing the strings but he doesn’t know if they hit her. It doesn’t matter. That wasn’t the point. The sound waves abruptly focus in the direction of Crow. Time to move.

He starts reeling Crow in, making the puppet leap back along the path it took. The vibrations grow fainter, going in the opposite direction of Crow, but they don’t disappear. They hit the strings on the opposite side of the web, heading towards Black Ant. Black Ant doesn’t have a lot of projectiles, but he has enough to keep her from getting too close. Kankuro waits until the vibrations are perpendicular to Black Ant, with Black Ant further out than Tayuya. He flexes his fingers on his right hand. Another sharp, passing tremor in the web. The melodic vibration darts in and away.

It’s like a dance, with Kankuro leading and Tayuya forced to follow. Around and around she goes, the vibration of her song against the strings moving deeper and deeper. She’s a fly in his web– and like any creature about to be eaten, she starts lashing out.

She’s halfway to the kill zone when Kankuro feels the vibrations hit the chakra strings with a harsh, grating force. He bites the side of his tongue, clenching his jaw tight. She can’t see the strings, she’s only guessing the frequency that would disrupt his chakra flow, but god damn did she come close. Probably did her research on Sand for when that ‘alliance’ with Sound would inevitably break bad. The problem isn’t the note. The problem is that she’s stopped playing.

Crow is the closest one to her. That’s a minor blessing, he supposes. That’ll make what comes next slightly easier.

He lets out a harsh breath through his nose and mutters, “Alright, let’s play Offense.”

He brings Crow swooping down towards where he assumes she is, firing off kunai. The strings closer to the center waver as something passes by, quick and frantic. He brings Crow up and has him dive towards that motion. On Crow’s heels the motion continues, skittering further in.

He can’t keep this up forever. Sooner than later, she’ll figure out he’s flying blind. He has to call his own bluff. Kankuro brings Black Ant towards them with no regard for what’s in the puppet’s way. That’s plenty of broken branches and rustling leaves, more than enough to announce his presence. The melodic vibrations start up again, wavering and wobbling, the notes intentionally faltering and wrong as they back away from the puppets.

Kankuro locks on to the source. He brings his right hand down in a swiping motion, feels Black Ant dive towards the target. The vibrations fade out for a terrifying second. Kankuro doesn’t blink. He sends Crow diving for the same spot, unsheathing the blades on it’s arms. The vibrations start up again, a hair’s breadth from the clearing. Kankuro almost pulls Black Ant and Crow up and away.

The next note hits the threads. It’s like nails scraping up his bones.

The threads don’t exactly snap. It’s more like a razor is shaving away at them, grinding them down to nothing. It’s an immensely uncomfortable feeling, but it does leave Kankuro with a half-second window before his puppets drop like stones.

He swings wide with both arms. Crow and Black Ant go swinging like pendulums right for the source of the vibration. The strings snap before they hit. Kankuro is blind in the dark.

His eyes snap open. He leaps to his feet and races towards the clearing. Before he’s even halfway there, he hears a pair of screams cut off by a sound he’s very familiar with. You never forget what the sound of a human body being crushed sounds like. Kankuro slows his run to a jog.

He finds Crow and Black Ant at the edge of the clearing, fallen in a line. At the end of that line is the body of a girl, with a set of weights wrapped in linen sitting in the slush of meat and bone that was her head. Rock Lee is the last man standing in this fight, eyes wide, body shaking.

Lee falls hard to one knee. His breath heaves. All he can do is stare at the mess that is Tayuya’s head. Kankuro walks over to his side and takes a long look at the carnage before settling down, cross-legged.

“That your first?” Kankuro asks, gesturing to the sight before them.

Lee nods.

Kankuro lets out a long sigh, then remarks, “I’m not gonna give you the whole ‘it gets easier’ spiel… Mostly because I don’t actually think it does. If my brother wasn’t really ‘used to it’, I don’t think anyone is.”

Lee’s brows furrow as he murmurs, “Your brother… Gaara…?”

Kankuro nods; “Yup. He’s… He hasn’t changed, not all the way yet, but he’s changing…” he tenses up a bit and lets out a nervous chuckle, “Don’t get me wrong though– I’m not trying to get you to forgive him or anything, spirits no, how do you ever forgive someone for doing something like that to you? I’m just… I dunno, honestly. Guess I’m just making conversation.”

Lee stares at nothing; “I had thought… I had thought your brother had taken my future from me. But here it is again. So… Who knows…”

Kankuro’s eyes go wide for a second, but he quickly looks away and gives Lee a soft punch on the arm; “Only do it if you want to. No matter what anyone says, that’s who forgiveness is for. Not them, not the world. You. Got it?”

Lee nods, slowly, heavily, before falling backwards. His eyes are shut before he hits the ground.

Kankuro snorts and starts drawing his puppets back towards them; “Alright guys, time to pull your weight.”

Crow picks Lee up in his segmented arms. Kankuro and his puppets start the long walk back to Leaf.

“As I was saying, cut this shit out,” Temari growls, taking her fan in both hands, “I won’t ask a third time.”

Ukon twists his mouth into a painful sneer; “You don’t want to do that.”

Temari looks up and to the right as she pretends to think; “Hmmmm… Yeah, yeah I’m pretty sure I do.”

“This technique breaks me down to a cellular level,” Ukon snarls, “If you killed me my cells would stay in his system, and like a transplanted organ I’d fester and attract the attention of his immune system and his chakra. They’d tear his body apart to get me out. The Hokage is a once in a lifetime medical genius, but even she can’t do surgery on the level of proteins. It’s all or nothing.”

Temari stares him down for a long moment before meeting Shikamaru’s eyes; “Do you believe that?”

Shikamaru shrugs his uncolonized shoulder; “I sure as Hell don’t wanna risk it if it’s true.”

“So long as I’m in here, I can take over his body piece by piece until it’s my own,” Ukon hisses, "Face it, Sand, I'm holding all the cards."

"Yeah, you were," Shikamaru cuts in, forming the rat seal, "Until you let go of my arm."

Shikamaru's shadow races out from him, across the dry part of the riverbed, and hooks on to Sakon's feet. Ukon's in the process of sprouting another arm to stop him but Shikamaru's hands are faster. He runs through dragon tiger rat faster than he can track. The shadow winds up and around Sakon's body, binding his arms to his sides. A hand settles around his throat, squeezing down. Sakon lets out a choked yelp.

Ukon's eyes go wide; "You little–!"

"I can make that thing choke the life out of him faster than you can destroy all my cells," Shikamaru snarls, "We call that Cross-Check, asshole."

Temari's smirking again, a glint in her eyes; "You might have all the cards, but cards don't mean much in chess."

Ukon swallows hard, eyes swinging from his brother to Temari and back, before spitting, "A deal, then. We're at an impasse. Let's negotiate."

“This should be good,” Temari sighs, rolling her eyes.

Shikamaru scowls at her; “Maybe be a little less flippant with my life, Temari?”

“I’m offering a truce,” Ukon continues, “I step out of him. He goes back to you. You let my brother and I go, we let you go. You go back to the Leaf Village and we go back to Sound. Fair?”

Temari doesn’t answer. Her eyes swing from Ukon to Sakon to Shikamaru and back again, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. Her fingers drum out a staccato rhythm on the base of her fan.

“Decide quickly,” Ukon jeers, hand reaching up to grip lightly at Shikamaru’s throat, “Every second you dawdle means I take up more and more real estate in his body.”

Shikamaru shouldn't bluff– it's taking a huge amount of his chakra to hold Sakon as tightly as he is– but he squeezes down just a bit harder. Sakon's strangled cry is all the intimidation he needs. A bead of sweat rolls down Ukon's temple.

Temari arches a brow and looks Shikamaru in the eye; "How's that sound to you?"

Shikamaru can't help a smirk; "Fine with me. Standard hostage procedure– Nobody makes a move until both are completely out of harm's way. That means you," he wags his head towards Ukon, "get at least two yards away from me before I let Sakon go. Can you live with that?"

Ukon spits a swear in some hinterland dialect of the Common tongue Shikamaru can only vaguely understand before grinding out, "Deal. I'm going to step out– If she so much as twitches–!"

Temari groans and puts her hands up, letting her fan drop to the ground in a clatter; "We get it, you're strong and can kill Shikamaru without breaking a sweat. Let's get on with it, shall we?"

Ukon slowly draws out of Shikamaru's body, a singularly disturbing feeling that defies metaphor and simile no matter how many Shikamaru tries to cook up. Shikamaru turns, turning Sakon with him, to watch Ukon walk backwards with his eyes locked on Temari. He doesn't stop walking until he's exactly two yards away, down to the centimeter.

Ukon's lip lifts in a sneer; "Your turn now, chunin."

Shikamaru purses his lips. In this split second, he has plenty of options. It's just that all of them suck.

Option One, uphold his part of the bargain. These are Sound ninja, terrorists from a village that spits in the face of all the rules and conventions of ninja warfare, the chances of Sakon attacking him the second he lets go are fifty-fifty at best. Option Two, kill Sakon right now. He puts a stain on the Leaf village's reputation for treating captives with (relative) respect and obeying the rules and conventions of warfare and screws over someone who was willing to go along with those rules up to this p–

There's a whistle on the wind.

Ukon's eye goes wide in the second before his head is blown off his shoulders, a clean cut straight through his neck. The body crumples to the ground and the head rolls into the stagnant water pooling downriver. Shikamaru can't even form a coherent thought before he hears Sakon let out the scream of a deer whose fawn was carried off by wolves. His eyes dart to the surviving twin. Despite being bound from ankle to neck he's straining against his bonds, thrashing at the shadow. Shikamaru can feel him moving. How is he that strong?! No one can–

Temari's voice is harsh on his ears; "If you don't finish him, I will!"

Shikamaru's reflexes work faster than his brain. The shadow hand squeezes down on Sakon's throat with the main strength of Shikamaru's chakra reserves. There's a crunch, a sputtering sound, and the slow, antique-bellows-wheeze of the last breath being forcibly squeezed from someone's lungs.

The silence is deafening.

Shikamaru draws his shadow back. He takes deep breaths, and on the third exhale he has to double over and dry-heave. He distantly hears Temari hop down from the rubble and start using yet more wind blades to dismember the bodies, like he's at the bottom of a lake. He watches her use a simple Earth style technique to dig shallow graves, fill them up, and cover them back over with a practiced hand.

Once she's done, she looks over her shoulder and says, "You're welcome."

Shikamaru narrows his eyes and replies dryly, "Yeah, thanks for the save. There definitely weren't a million better ways we could've gotten out of that."

Temari turns away; "There weren't, and you know it. And that's not what I meant."

Shikamaru's brow furrows; "What should I be thanking you for, then?"

Temari's posture is stiff, and her voice comes out clipped and hard; "For putting another war crime on Sand's head instead of Leaf."

Shikamaru's shoulders sink. He stares at her back for a long moment.

"When all your options suck, you don't just have to take one," he mutters, "You can look for others."

Temari finally looks back at him. Her smile is small, thin, and weary. It's only now that he realizes just how much older than him she is.

She closes the distance between them and offers him a hand; "Spoken like someone who's never had to choose between eating locusts or nothing at all."

Shikamaru takes it; "Fair enough."

Chapter Text

xxv. Kimimaro has barely cleared the tree line when the barrel explodes.

The force throws him further into the open plain, and he rolls through the grass before coming to a stop on his back. A plume of plum-black smoke drifts through the air, blocking the moon and stars. A form comes arcing out of it, bouncing as it hits the ground and rolling to land a few yards away. Kimimaro sees, for a fraction of a fraction of a moment, gray skin and long hair.

Both retract. The smoke blows away with the night wind. The girl turns, hiding the torn back of her dress, and looks wildly around. The petals are still creeping back towards their source, and her eyes are still a bright, luminescent gold. They alight on him and she quickly crawls on hands and knees to his side.

She gently nudges his shoulder; “Are you okay?”

Kimimaro bites down a bitter smirk and just replies, “Relatively speaking, yes,” before getting to one knee and taking her elbow to help her up, “We have to keep moving. There are people on your tail from the Leaf Village, tracking by scent. If we push we can get to the current bunker by morning.”

The girl’s lips are pursed, her brows furrowed; “Should you be pushing? You look… sick.”

Now Kimimaro can’t help the harsh cough of a laugh that bubbles out of his throat; “Am I that obvious? Yes, I’m ill. Quite ill. But that doesn’t matter– If I’m going to die, I want it to be in service to Lord Orochimaru,” he takes the girl’s hand in a tight grip, looking her in the eye, “He needs you. If you don’t get there by morning… I need to make sure you get to him, even if it’s the last thing I do.”

The girl bites her lip, eyes dropping to the grass as she thinks, before she asks, “Do you know how many are after us?”

Kimimaro shakes his head; “I’ve only seen one, a Chunin I believe from the Nara clan.”

“And you said they were tracking by scent,” she mutters under her breath, pausing for another moment before meeting his gaze, “If I’m right, I know who’s after me. I know how to shake them. And I know you want to sacrifice yourself for Orochimaru, but I don’t want to run you to death, that’s just… It’s not right.”

Kimimaro frowns. He examines her under the light of the moon. This girl is… not what he expected. There’s nothing obviously strange about her, if that circle on the front of her dress is a clan crest it’s not a clan he knows, and under the moonlight he can’t tell what color her hair is beyond ‘pale’…

It’s not his place to question Orochimaru’s judgement.

He sighs through his nose; “Well then, what do you have in mind?”

She smiles slightly, and it’s a perfectly ordinary expression in these extraordinary circumstances; “First of all, I’m gonna need to know how to get where we’re going.”

What’s left of the Leaf platoon comes tumbling through the trees from two different directions. Hinata gasps out loud at the sight of Kiba and Akamaru across the stretch of grass. They both look worn down, as nearly twenty hours of constant travel will do to you, but neither are injured. Thank goodness. The small relief in the midst of this trainwreck of a mission fills her with a jolt of newfound energy– a jolt that fizzles out the second she looks out to the open plain.

On the upside, the barrel (hopefully) holding Sakura is right there in the open. On the downside, it’s not alone. The young man sitting in front of it, legs crossed and eyes closed as if meditating, is excessively pale and thin with a strange glyph on his sternum. His white hair hangs past his chin and his clothes hang loose on his skinny frame. Even the purple rope around his waist can’t be tied tight enough not to sag. Hinata knows she should turn her Byakugan back on, but she does not want to see what’s on the inside if he looks like this on the outside.

She can’t contemplate the young man for long, as all the boys around her start talking over each other all at once.

Kiba grins his fierce grin and calls out, “Good, you guys are here! Sakura’s in that barrel– Let’s take her and go home!”

Sasuke and Naruto aren’t paying attention to him, eyes locked on the young man, and Sasuke shouts, “You! Step away from the barrel!”

Naruto’s hands are already halfway into the sign for Multi Shadow Clone Jutsu as he yells, loudest of them all, “If you don’t let Sakura out of that barrel right now we’re gonna paint the walls with you! Step off, now!

Hinata can’t help a sigh. They’d been doing so well. Regardless, she shifts into her ready stance. She isn’t in the mood for negotiation either.

Sasuke and Hinata both activate their dojutsu at the same time, and if their harmonized gasps are any indication, they see the exact same thing. The barrel is worse than empty. It’s a construct, mud held together with chakra and covered over with a thin shell of Yin chakra– a simple visual genjutsu, taking advantage of the low light to be even simpler. But if Kiba’s saying Sakura’s in the barrel…

Hinata calls over to Kiba, “What are you and Akamaru smelling right now?”

Kiba frowns and sniffs the air a few times; “Sakura, the barrel, some hospital-smell that’s probably Slim here, you guys and grass pollen. Gonna guess my nose is being duped?”

Tonton oinks a few times from near Sasuke’s feet, and he glances over to Hinata as he hisses through his teeth, “Unless she’s hiding nearby that’s two olfactory genjutsu. She knows it’s us.”

“She should’ve known better than to try tricking your eyes,” Naruto scoffs, “Alright Weirdo, cough it up! Where’d she go?!”

The young man speaks slowly, voice smooth and dry; “It’s not a trick. It’s a message.”

Sasuke’s lip lifts in a light sneer; “Really. And what’s it supposed to say?”

“The usual thing the edge of a map says to keep foolhardy travelers from going too far into the unknown,” the young man replies as he rises gracefully to his feet, “‘Turn back’, ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here’, ‘here there be monsters’– take your pick.”

Kiba’s barking laugh soothes the tremble in Hinata’s hands, helps her pretend this is just another mission; “And you’re supposed to be the monster?”

The young man smiles, the expression as pale as his skin; “What do you think?”

Naruto’s grin is starting to brighten, a ferocious kind of confidence coming off of him in waves; “I think it’s five on one, and you look like you’ll keel over if a light breeze hits you! We won’t even need my clones to take you down, believe it!”

The young man dips his head in a mocking half-bow; “Very well then. You may call me Kimimaro for as long as you still draw breath. Let us begin.”

With a flash of movement Kimimaro hooks his leg around the false barrel and kicks it right at Hinata. It’s going faster than her reflexes can catch, but Sasuke is faster than her. His Sharingan spins. The hard roundhouse kick he uses to send the barrel flying off towards the trees is borrowed straight from Lee. The Sharingan blinks out as he darts towards Kimimaro, then back to life as moves his feet in a wide circular motion and strikes with an open palm right for Kimimaro’s sternum.

Sasuke is fast. Kimimaro is faster.

Hinata sees what’s happening beneath Kimimaro’s skin and her stomach lurches. Chakra surges along his arm, and from the cluster of bones in his wrist a spike comes piercing through his flesh. He grabs it with his other hand and draws it out, the bone growing longer and longer until it’s the length of a sword. He blocks Sasuke’s strike with the long spike of bone, swatting his hand away and knocking Sasuke off balance in one smooth motion.

Kimimaro throws the bone sword in the air. His arms lash out and grab Sasuke, hip-tossing him into Kiba as he lunges for his right flank. The two boys go tumbling away, but Kimimaro’s attention is already elsewhere. He strikes blindly to his left and hits Naruto in the throat with a brutal chop, stopping his charge dead. He grabs Naruto’s collar and flings him towards a second Kiba. The two forms collide in a burst of white smoke. Naruto is gone, but Akamaru falls back into the grass in his regular, canine form with a yelp.

Kimimaro’s bone sword comes falling back down. He catches it just in time to swing it around and catch the real Naruto across the gut as he attempts to jump him from behind. Naruto goes hurtling end over end, landing in a heap by Kiba and Sasuke.

All of this before Hinata has even started to move.

Kimimaro’s eyes zero in on her and he cocks his head to one side; “A Hyuuga… I’ve never faced the Gentle Fist before. This should prove interesting.”

Hinata’s heart is racing faster than thought, sending shots of pain through her chest with every off-beat. Her breath is coming in rapid gasps. She wants to stand firm, wants to find that well of resolve she tapped into against Neji, but that was before Neji himself put her in this condition. The old, cowardly urges growl in her father’s voice that the only way she gets out of this fight is in an urn. Her left foot starts creeping rebelliously backward.

Naruto’s voice is like a bullhorn; “You brought this on yourself, asshole!”

White smoke blankets the grass in a burst of chakra. When the night breeze clears it, clones of Naruto have turned the area into a field of poppies. The clones surge towards Kimimaro, who stares at them with a cool disinterest. The first one that gets within range suffers the bone sword going straight through it’s gut. Kimimaro doesn’t even bother to watch it explode, moving onto the next clone, and the next, and the next. They break against him like waves against a rocky shore. Hinata can still see him through the cloud of white smoke as he takes down clone after clone. He moves with all the grace and precision of a dancer, allowing nothing to break his focus.

She needs to regroup with the others. Hinata shifts her focus, looking around in the crowd for Sasuke, Kiba, Akamaru, Tonton and the real Naruto’s chakra signatures. It seems they all had the same idea. They’ve all dropped low, creeping through the grass towards the outer edge of the clone mob. Hinata drops onto her belly and leopard crawls through the grass, weaving around the legs of Naruto’s many clones. If Kimimaro has proved anything, it’s that he’s sharp. Any false move, anything that reveals her as a spot of white and purple in the sea of orange, he’ll see it. She takes deep breaths, forcing herself to calm down as much as she can.

After what feels like an age but was probably only seconds, Hinata breaks through the crowd. The boys are a second ahead of her, and Kiba beckons her over to them with his whole arm. Hinata pops up into a crouch and creeps the rest of the way, dropping to one knee and completing the circle.

“Okay, this guy’s serious,” Kiba whispers, “He hits like a train.”

“Yeah, he’s tearing though my clones like they’re nothing,” Naruto hisses, eyes darting between them and the ever-thinning crowd, “We gotta think of something and we gotta think of it fast, if we keep trying to wear this guy down we’re gonna lose Sakura’s trail, believe it!”

Sasuke bites the inside of his cheek; “We could use the clones as cover to escape but that’s not worth much if that olfactory genjutsu’s still up. We’d just be running blind until he got through the last of the clones and caught up.”

Hinata frowns before looking to Kiba; “C-could you– D-do you think… Now that you and Akamaru know there’s a genjutsu, could you sniff it out and break it?”

Kiba’s brow furrows and he looks to Akamaru, who cocks his head to one side with a low whine; “I mean, we could give it a shot.”

She looks to Sasuke next; “H-how is… Is your knee still feeling alright?”

Sasuke looks down and away; “It’ll hold.”

Hinata purses her lips as she struggles to say, “A-alright… Then… I have… Naruto, Sasuke, w-we’ll break the genjutsu. Tonton can lead you two after Sakura, and we… We’ll stay behind with the clones and… draw his attention.”

Sasuke and Naruto simply nod, but Kiba’s eyes go wide and he snaps, “Are you serious?! Our platoon’s already been split up enough, if we split up again that’s just asking for trouble!”

Hinata shakes her head; “T-this is– It’s not… It’s the only thing that makes sense. Sakura won’t listen to us, and Kimimaro wants to fight me. If we use the clones as cover, w-we can… We’ll make this work.”

Sasuke reaches into his pocket and pulls out Tenten’s flare, handing it to Kiba; “Be careful. The second things get bad, make a break for the village.”

Naruto elbows him with a grin; “Come on, jackass, this is Hinata we’re talking about! She’ll be fine, believe it! Now Kiba–”

Hinata relishes in the feeling of her heartbeat speeding up for entirely safe reasons while Kiba shoves Naruto and mutters, “Shut the fuck up, do you want me to break this genjutsu or not?!”

Naruto rolls his eyes; “Fine fine, get on with it! We’ve gotta get going!”

Kiba grumbles something more under his breath before closing his eyes and forming half a seal with his right hand. He sniffs the air, taking long, deep breaths. Sasuke and Naruto both exchange glances and raised eyebrows. Hinata just watches. With her Byakugan she sees Kiba channeling chakra into his nose, stimulating it to work with the precision that comes naturally to a canine. From the ‘corner’ of her eye she can see Akamaru and Tonton doing much the same.

After an agonizingly long six seconds, Kiba’s eyes snap open and he whispers, “Release!”

There’s a wave of chakra and the telltale static snap of a genjutsu falling, something that can’t be heard but can be felt in the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Hinata sees Kimimaro pause through the crowd of Naruto’s clones. He stands up straight and looks this way and that, nearly missing the next volley of clones jumping in for an attack. Nearly.

Hinata turns her attention back to Sasuke and Naruto, hissing through grit teeth, “He felt that too! Go!

They don’t need to be told twice. Both run in opposite directions around the buffer of clones, keeping as low as they can without slowing themselves down. Kiba gives her a soft shove, drawing her attention. He makes a few quick hand-signals, conveying a simple message– We take the front, you take the back. Hinata gulps, nods, and hops up to start moving through the clones. She keeps her head down so her black hair doesn’t stick out in the sea of orange and blue and keeps her eye on her teammates.

As Sasuke and Naruto close in on the tree line, Kiba transforms Akamaru into a clone of himself. They move in perfect sync, each strafing through what clones are left to line up with Kimimaro’s left and right flank. They crouch low, waiting, watching. Hinata keeps creeping along the outer rim of the clone field. Sasuke and Naruto are still a good fifteen meters from the forest. Kimimaro almost turns towards them, but two clones strike at his back and he pivots to swat them down.

Fang over Fang!

Kiba and Akamaru are whirling blurs in the low light of the moon. They each strike for his unguarded back. Kimimaro’s eyes go wide, but Hinata sees his reflexes kick into gear. Chakra floods into his back, saturating his ribs, spine, and shoulder blades. The ribs extend backwards. The knobs on the vertebrae shoot up and out. Spikes of bone burst out of Kimimaro’s back to greet Kiba and Akamaru. Some of the spikes break on impact, but far louder than shattering bone are Kiba and Akamaru’s screams of pain. The clashing momentum sends them both flying backward, and when they land Hinata can see gashes across their faces, hands, and arms.

They don’t let it phase them. As the bone retracts into Kimimaro’s back the two of them retreat into the clones. Kimimaro spins on his heel, eyes tracking where Kiba disappeared to, but before he can get a good bead on where he went two more clones leap out, one throwing a punch for his face and the other aiming to kick him in the spine.

Kimimaro hasn’t even started his counterattack when there’s another cry of “Fang over Fang!” He’s faster this time, but only just. Kimimaro’s hands lash out, grabbing one clone by the collar and the other by the ankle. He spins in a circle and throws the clones. They both hit Kiba and Akamaru right as they break through the clone field, stopping their momentum in it’s tracks and destroying both clones. Still no hesitation. Kiba and Akamaru dive back into cover.

Kimimaro’s eyes narrow; “I suppose it falls to me to break you of this bad habit.”

He rolls his shoulders, and Hinata has to shield her eyes as a bright bloom of a sickly purple chakra explodes from his chest. It creeps up and around his body in straight, geometric lines, suffusing his body with it and passively generating more as his body leeches it away. And leech it does. Hinata has the snap of a finger to see him open all his chakra points, to see small spikes grow off of any bone close to the surface, before they all fire off at once.

Look out!

Hinata’s not hit by a volley of sharp shrapnel, but by an orange weight. One of Naruto’s clones tackles her, taking the brunt of the spikes and bursting into smoke before they hit the ground. The rest tear through the remaining clones, popping them like balloons. Kiba and Akamaru both hit the ground, but they do it quite a bit slower than the clone that saved Hinata. They both yelp at the sharp, stabbing pain as bone spikes clip their legs. Hinata falls back-first into the grass, mercifully unharmed, but too frightened to move. She breathes in sharp, quick stabs.

Kimimaro isn’t taking any more time to breathe. He darts so quickly through the dispersing smoke that he cuts a clean line in his wake, stopping right above the Kiba-shaped Akamaru. He spins the bone sword in one hand as he brings it up, point aligned with the base of his skull.

Hinata pushes herself up onto her hands and shouts, “Akamaru! Above you!”

Akamaru’s already flipping around onto his back before she’s finished saying his name. He reads the situation in the blink of an eye and acts just as fast. He spits a glob of blood right into Kimimaro’s eye, making him flinch with a grunt of shock. In that half-second of distraction Akamaru’s already dropped his Kiba shape with an effort of chakra. Kimimaro strikes for him, half-blind. He’s a much smaller target now. Akamaru dashes between his legs, disappearing into the taller grass.

Kimimaro brings a hand up to wipe the blood out of his eye, glaring at Hinata all the while; “Congratulations, Miss Hyuuga. You’ve bought them ten more seconds of breath.”

From the corner of her eye Hinata sees Kiba going through some familiar hand signs, and she chances a smirk; “That’s all they’re going to need.”

Transformation! Two-headed Wolf!

Chakra and smoke burst from the spot where Kiba and Akamaru were seconds before. The ground shakes as four enormous paws hit the ground. The massive canine shakes like it’s just come out of the water, dispersing the last of the smoke. A white wolf with two heads looms above Kimimaro, red eyes near-glowing in the moonlight.

Kimimaro stares up at it. His eyes are wide, his mouth hanging half-open, his arms limp at his side. The wolf bares both sets of razor sharp teeth, and Hinata feels it’s harmonized growls in the soles of her feet.

The massive wolf bounces back on it’s heels, putting a few meters between it and Kimimaro, before sprinting right back towards him. Kimimaro starts jogging backward, brandishing his sword like it isn’t outnumbered by every fang in both of the wolf’s mouths. The wolf keeps sprinting, building up speed, before it leaps in the air and starts spinning.

Now Kimimaro starts running.

He shows his training by running in a serpentine pattern, never staying on one path for longer than a second. The blur of silvery white hits the ground where Kimimaro had been and kicks up clouds of dirt and grass, leaving a crater three feet deep in it’s wake. It bounces along Kimimaro’s path, tracing his steps perfectly. Hinata grins to herself– they’re tracking him through Akamaru’s blood on his sleeve! Good boy!

Suddenly, Kimimaro switches direction. He starts running right at Hinata. He’s going at a dead sprint, green eyes laser focused on her. Hinata springs to her feet and starts to swerve out of his path, but he just changes course to match her. He’s faster than her. Hinata starts to bring her hands up, starts to channel chakra to them, starts to get into her stance. But it’s all for nothing. Kimimaro gets three feet away from her before he swerves suddenly, running away at a right angle.

The giant wolf is nowhere near as nimble. It stops spinning in midair and uses it’s tail to land awkwardly on it’s left legs, missing Hinata by less than a foot. It scrambles to put distance between itself and her, stumbling in clumsy circles. Hinata bites her lip. That technique doesn’t just leave them dizzy, it leaves them exhausted and low on chakra. Kimimaro’s trying to take advantage of that somehow, but she can’t tell how. They need to drop that form, they need to regroup and come up with something else.

Hinata’s mind always outpaces her tongue. She doesn’t have time to call out to the wolf. It’s already sprinting, springing, spinning. She swings her focus around to Kimimaro. He’s not moving. He’s staring the spinning form down. Hinata whirls on her heel and starts running towards him. Kiba and Akamaru are faster than her. And Kimimaro’s reflexes are faster than them.

Every chakra point on his body opens at once. A layer of bone grows just beneath his skin, an inch thick. And out from that come shooting dozens and dozens of needle-sharp spikes. Kimimaro crosses his arms in front of his face. The two-headed wolf slams heads-first at mach speed into a brick wall covered in spikes.

There’s a burst of smoke and blood.

Hinata wishes she couldn’t see through it.

Breaking the transformation kills some of Kiba and Akamaru’s momentum, but not enough of it. The only saving grace is that the spinning motion spreads the damage out evenly, keeping the spikes from piercing or severing anything important. It doesn’t keep them from shredding Kiba’s face down to his chest, and Akamaru’s… everything. They both crumple to the ground covered in inch-deep gashes, blood obscuring their features. They’re breathing, but they’re not moving.

Hinata can’t even scream.

Kimimaro’s bones retract. He turns from the downed forms of Kiba and Akamaru. His eyes lock onto her.

He bows slightly at the waist and holds out his free hand, as if she’s to take it; “May I have this dance, Miss Hyuuga?”

Hinata’s heart almost stops. Kiba and Akamaru are in no shape to get up. Anyone else who could help is either too far away, or… indisposed. Her eyes are aching from how long she’s been using her Byakugan. She has no backup, and no one is coming to rescue her.

There’s something oddly freeing about that.

Hinata feels a wobbly smile come to her lips, and in a fit of pique she mimes a curtsy; “Only one. I have other dance partners waiting for me.”

He shifts with liquid grace into a fencing stance, pointing the tip of the bone directly at her; “I won’t keep you long.”

Hinata takes a deep breath, draws chakra into her palms, and darts out. She thrusts a palm at his sternum. Kimimaro parries Hinata’s first strike with his bone sword and flows into a riposte, one Hinata dodges by a centimeter. He stabs for her throat, forcing her to parry and pushing her further away. Hinata shifts her backward momentum to one side, sweeping around to his left flank. She strikes for his ribs. Chakra flows through his body to meet her and spikes shoot out of his side, almost piercing her hand. Hinata pulls back. Kimimaro thrusts the bone sword in.

Hinata leans out of the way, but only gets far enough to keep the blade from stabbing. It cuts a deep gash along her cheekbone, the pain forcing Hinata to jolt back. Kimimaro brings up his free hand and cursed chakra flows up to his fingers, splitting the skin on the tips. The distal phalanges shoot out towards her like bullets of bone. Hinata drops. She rolls backwards, the little bones flying over her head.

The moment she pops up, eyes focusing on the chakra in Kimimaro’s hands as it reforms the phalanges and heals the wounds on his fingertips, Hinata connects the dots.

She shifts into her defensive stance and starts strafing around Kimimaro, mind working all the while. He’s forcing her further and further back, not even bothering to bait her like he did Kiba and Akamaru. He knows enough about the Gentle Fist to know a Hyuuga by sight, so he has to know how it works. And he has to know she’s realized how his bone technique works. If she’s able to hit any of his chakra points and shut them down, that’s an area he can’t send chakra to or release chakra from. That’s bone he can’t shape.

And if she hits that curse mark and blocks it off, Kimimaro’s stuck with his own chakra reserves.

Hinata’s smirk widens out into a grin. Kind of him to give her a big, glowing weak spot to aim for.

She whirls back in. She jukes to the left, striking with two fingers for his eye. The bone blade flashes up to block her. Her right hand swings around and down. She’s inches from the curse mark when Kimimaro’s bones react. His ribs come jutting out. Spiked tips jab into her arm like claws and stop her strike in it’s tracks. Instinct makes her yank her arm back, tearing fissures down to her wrist. As Hinata pulls her right arm back and Kimimaro swats her left away, his free palm splits open. Another bone blade shoots out of the wound and Kimimaro wraps his hand around the hilt.

He shifts his stance, one bone sword held out and the other held above his head, with practiced ease; “It’s not going to be anywhere near that easy.”

Hinata grits her teeth. Instead of responding with words, she darts back in and throws two diversionary strikes that he easily parries before dropping down and sweeping a kick at his legs. Kimimaro somersaults over the blow and over her. Hinata can’t let him make up the distance. She twirls up and around, darting in as he lands and striking for his momentarily open back.

He blind-blocks with his left-hand blade, spinning on his heel and thrusting the right-hand blade towards Hinata’s gut. She swerves away, but the point still clips her ribs. Kimimaro twirls the left-hand blade around so the blade is pointing away from her and jabs the hilt into the bottom of her chin. Hinata’s teeth clack together painfully, some chipping with the impact as it rattles her skull.

She stumbles backward and Kimimaro takes advantage of her dazed state, following on her heels with both bone swords held hilt-forward. He bashes them both into her temples. Her Byakugan sputters out and her vision spins. Kimimaro doesn’t let up. He twirls the swords twice more before swinging the left-hand blade around and cracking her across the jaw. Hinata feels a molar come loose and fly out of her mouth as she cries out in pain. He twirls the swords around and around, the ghost of a smirk playing on the corner of his mouth. He toys with her for just long enough for some of her sense to come back.

When he strikes with the hilt of the right-hand blade, Hinata’s reflexes kick in. Her hands come up to block her face. She catches the hilt in both hands. This is her opening. She opens the chakra points on her palms and sends a surge of chakra down the hilt. Kimimaro’s eyes go wide and he lets go of the blade, leaping back like it’s boiling hot. He dropped it before her chakra could reach him, but she still has the blade. Hinata redirects that chakra back into her arms, giving her the strength to lob the sword back at Kimimaro like a javelin. His eyes somehow go even wider, and he brings his other blade up to parry. He keeps the blade from skewering his eye, but it still cuts a deep gash from the corner of his eye to the back of his skull.

Kimimaro falls into a defensive stance. Hinata falls to one knee.

Coughs wrack her body from toe to throat, blood coming up with every rapid heartbeat and splattering across the grass. Her chest feels like it’s three sizes too small for her heart. She can barely see Kimimaro relaxing, shooting her a look far too understanding to be piteous, through her blurred and strained vision.

“I see,” Kimimaro murmurs, “You’re also fighting a war on two fronts.”

The veins on her temple bulge as Hinata meets his eyes and growls, “I’m nothing like you.”

And in the split second when her byakugan turns back on, she sees Kiba and Akamaru getting up. Kiba meets her eye and holds a finger to his lips.

Hinata keeps quiet by talking; “Y-your village is… I-it’s not a village, you’re terrorists b-being– being used by a criminal!”

The pity leaves Kimimaro’s eyes and his lip lifts in a sneer; “Really. You think you can sit in judgement, Hyuuga? Your village profits from wars and your clan used genocide as a stepping stone to greater power. I fight for something, for someone, while you languish on a mountain of corpses.”

Hinata’s hands ball into fists around the long grass as she sputters, “W-we didn’t–! The Hyuuga had nothing to do with the Uchiha Massacre! That was Itachi!”

“Ah, I must be mistaken then, some other clan with a powerful dōjutsu must have filled the power vacuum they left behind,” Kimimaro muses, idly twirling his sword, “You may not have killed the Uchiha, but you did use their bodies as rungs on a ladder to climb to greater power. Every powerful clan is the same. If they don’t kill, they scheme. And if they don’t scheme, they get killed by a clan who will.”

Hinata grits her teeth, grinds their chipped edges, and surreptitiously shifts her focus to Kiba. He’s dragged himself up onto his feet. Akamaru is wobbling up to join him, leaning against Kiba’s shin. Kiba reaches into his coat pocket and, slow enough to be silent, draws the flare Sasuke left him. With his other hand, he holds up three fingers.


Hinata shoves a breath out, hard through her nose, and snaps up at Kimimaro, “And wh-what– What about your clan?! Y-you have– I-I’ve never seen a technique like that, it’s a kekkei genkai, right?! Was your clan any better than mine?!”

Kimimaro scoffs; “Hardly. If anything, they were worse. They killed for no other reason than to prove they could.”


Hinata pushes herself up to her feet and shoots back, “Then how can you sit in judgement of me?! You come from bad stock, too!”

Kimimaro narrows his eyes, mouth twisting into a scowl; “Like I said, Hyuuga– I fight for something, someone. I’m not an insecure whelp trying to prove myself to an uncaring world. I know my worth.”


Kiba breaks his flare over his knee. Kimimaro is knocked briefly off balance by the sudden surge of chakra hitting his back. It won’t be enough. Hinata’s hand darts into her jacket and comes out with her own flare. With a grunt of effort, Hinata breaks the flare in her hands. The chakra buffeting him from both sides sends Kimimaro stumbling backward, dropping the bone sword as he staggers. Kiba’s hand flashes in and out of the Tiger seal, the last of his chakra flooding into Akamaru. There’s a burst of smoke. Two Kibas come running out of it, each one grabbing Kimimaro by the arm and clamping down. Kimimaro shakes his head to clear it, quickly reading the situation. Bone starts to ripple under his skin.

Kiba meets Hinata’s eyes and shouts, “Now!

Hinata takes a deep breath. She blocks out the world, imagining only a dark void surrounding her and Kimimaro. She pictures the Eight Trigrams Symbol beneath her feet.

Kimimaro’s eyes go wide.

Hinata sprints in; “Two palms!

Chakra follows her strikes in arcs, like the tail of a comet. Bone spikes rise up to meet her. Hinata lets one pierce through her palm and breaks the other one, prodding the chakra point at it’s base.

Four palms!

Two more strikes, aiming for his neck and his right shoulder. His bones prioritize defending his neck, piercing her left wrist.

Eight palms!

Four strikes. She’s faster than him now, and spikes only rise to block half her blows.

Sixteen palms!

Eight strikes. His bones shred her arms while she peppers his torso with bruises.

Thirty-two palms!

Sixteen strikes. He rattles in Kiba and Akamaru’s grip but the two of them hold fast, heels digging into the ground. Kimimaro’s jaw is clenched tight enough to chip his teeth. Hinata’s vision has tunneled down to his curse mark, glowing like a star in the center of his chest.

She’s never pulled the full combination off before. Time to make it count.

Sixty-four palms!

She aims all thirty-two strikes for the curse mark. Kimimaro lets out a scream. What bones he can still reach come jabbing out of him at harsh angles, gnarled and sharp. They tear into Hinata’s arms, face, throat, torso. She doesn’t care. Any chakra point she can reach, she hits. Any chakra she has she sends flooding into his. She spins and whirls, building up centripetal force so she can send it all crashing into him like a meteor hitting the surface of the earth. Her last strike sends Kimimaro flying backward, Kiba and Akamaru still holding onto his arms with what strength they have left.

She doesn’t wait to see him land. The instant he’s out of her reach Hinata drops to hands and knees, heaving blood onto the grass. Her Byakugan fizzles, sputters, and dies.

Once all that’s going to come out of her has made it’s way out, Hinata stays where she is, breathing in hitching gasps. Her heart is beating faster than she can track. Sending Sasuke away was a bad idea, her heart and lungs feel like they’re both about to implode.

Hinata’s call to Akamaru and Kiba to get up so they can run is cut off by them both screaming bloody murder.

Her head whips up. She chokes on a cry. Kiba and Akamaru are strewn across the ground like broken toys, Akamaru reverted to his canine form, Kiba now with a jagged bone spike three feet long and six inches thick rammed diagonally through his gut. Standing between them, crouched so low its hands scrape the ground, is a patchwork creature Hinata can only assume was Kimimaro.

Blotches of his skin have turned a dark gray. Sections of his hair are shaggier, longer, darker. Cruel spines of bone come jutting out of these patches, as does a long, thrashing tail. He looks up and fixes her with a glare from one yellow eye.

“Fine,” he rasps, “No more dancing.”

Hinata doesn’t see him move. In between heartbeats he’s above her. She flails back on her heels. He rears back and bone comes spiraling out from his arm, forming a massive, spiraling spearpoint that covers it hand to elbow. He shoots forward, thrusting the spearpoint for her head. She’s spent. All she can do is scream.

The bone spike stops a centimeter from Hinata’s eye.

In an instant, all of Kimimaro’s limbs have been encased in… sand. Sand that’s defying gravity as it streams around her to grasp Kimimaro.

Gaara’s voice, rough as the desert sand, drones from behind her, “That is more than enough of that.”

Shino knows what’s coming miles before he sees it.

He’s sent more of his colony ahead than he should’ve, and everything they smell, see, feel, it all comes back to him. He picks up his friends’ trail in seconds and follows it doggedly until he gets to the clearing where it splits. The colony fans out around him in a wide circle, tasting everything their feet touch. After a few seconds Shino picks up a faint scent of cherries, soap, and sweat. It’s an old scent, faint, faded, and covered over by the smell of Yin chakra. The genjutsu is complicated, made for a complicated nose instead of simple chemoreceptors.

He smirks behind his collar. Of course Sakura counted him out. She’ll regret it.

He flicks his wrist in the direction of the scent trail and murmurs to his colony, “Go.”

They coalesce back into a dark cloud of buzzing wings and shining carapaces, then zoom on ahead. Shino waits until they’re two yards away before racing along on their heels. He can feel the rest of the colony scrambling at his insides, wings beating frantically. He breathes as even as he can to calm them, but he knows it won’t work. Their moods feed into each other. If he’s nervous, so are they.

“It’s going to be alright,” he murmurs.

There’s a burst of searing, stabbing pain in the front of his skull.

Shino lets out a loud cry at the sudden shock. The insects inside him buzz around in a thousand panicked directions. He loses his footing on the branch he’d just landed on and plunges towards the forest floor. Shino pulls enough of himself together to reach out and grab a branch, but it snaps in his grip. Shino lands hard on his back and bounces, rolling a few feet before coming to a stop against a root.

His mind is racing in time with the thousands of little legs inside his body. He reaches out with his senses and gets nothing back. He swallows hard, his throat suddenly lined with sandpaper. Something up ahead just killed nearly a quarter of his colony in one fell swoop.

He doesn’t have time to consider what before he hears the rustling of paper and the squawking of birds. He scuttles up to his feet and whirls on his heel. Over a dozen hawks– no, not hawks, drawings of hawks– come diving down from the canopy. Shino ducks into a roll. Their beaks clip his collar and the back of his head, but don’t leave any marks. As soon as they’ve passed him they swoop around again for another strike. This time Shino isn’t as lucky. He swerves under the main force of the hawks, but six sets of claws catch his scalp.

Shino blinks the blood out of his eyes as it comes dripping down his forehead. The hawks are circling overhead now. The cacophony of paper wings and avian shrieks is drowning out Shino’s thoughts. He bites his lip and forces himself to take deep breat