Actions

Work Header

bite me and see, said the fly to the spider

Chapter Text

The whispers follow her from the second she steps through the village gates, slivers of half-heard conversations wrapping themselves around her skinny ankles and tugging until she isn’t sure she’ll make it to the Hokage tower on her own two feet.

She feels Kichi-sensei’s hand hovering over the space between her shoulder blades and draws courage from his steady presence.

Her left arm is definitely broken and she’s pretty sure at least two of her ribs are cracked, but nothing life-threatening.

She’s sure she’ll find time to hate herself for that once the shock wears off and the trauma really sets in. For now, she stares blankly at the dirt ground moving below her.

A masked shinobi meets them just outside the Hokage tower and he silently escorts them across the bustling lobby, up several flights of stairs, and finally through a set of large double doors that open into a massive office.

Sakura keeps her eyes trained on her feet, heart pounding and eyes stinging.

“Kichi, welcome back.”

Minato Uzumaki’s voice is smooth, deep, and unnervingly kind. Sakura watches Kichi-sensei’s feet shift just the slightest bit.

“Hokage-sama.”

It is silent for a moment before a heavy sigh sounds from behind the large, cluttered desk. “Tell me what happened, please.”

It doesn’t sound like an order, but Kichi-sensei straightens all the same. Sakura resigns herself to listening to her sensei recount their mission from beginning to end, shame burning under her skin. She shrinks in on herself, shoulders hunching and spine bowing with every word, and she can’t help but think that if she herself can hardly bear to listen to the mission report, it must be infinitely more difficult for Kichi-sensei to give it.

“—only a few hours from the village and I sent my summons in hope that help would arrive in time. Unfortunately, after our attempted retreat, they trailed us and caught us in a pincer move. We were outnumbered and the ambush had come after we had already completed our mission. Sakura, Akemi, and Yuji were tired, and chakra drained. When the attack came, I focused on creating a rock shield to hold off most of the missing-nin, but—”

Sakura squeezes her eyes shut when Kichi-sensei’s voice abruptly gives out. He clears his throat and continues, but there is a noticeable shake with every word.

“But by the time I had determined a way out, both Akemi and Yuji had been hit with a katon jutsu and were already beyond saving. I grabbed Sakura and shunshinned us away. The ANBU squad arrived shortly after.”

The Hokage is quiet, and Sakura is afraid to open her eyes and see his wrath. He has never struck her as a violent or aggressive sort of man, but Sakura knows that this is not a typical situation. Half of her team is dead. It is a failure worthy of punishment.

“Sakura.”

Her shoulders twitch, but otherwise she does not move.

“Hai, H-Hokage-sama.”

There’s the scrape of a chair, light footsteps, the rushing of blood in her ears. A warm hand tips her chin up and she is staring into the blue blue blue of the Hokage’s eyes. He doesn’t look angry, but somehow that makes her feel worse.

He’s going to ask her what happened and then she is going to have to confess that she froze when the enemy-nin fell upon them like the plague. She is going to have to explain how every piece of tactical training she ever learned in the Academy and in training sessions with Kichi-sensei abandoned her the moment she saw the sun reflect off the first kunai flung in her direction.

Sakura inhales and the acrid scent of roasting human flesh invades her nostrils. Akemi has stopped twitching and there is a senbon needle sticking out of his throat and the skin around his eyes have simmered away to nothing. And the heat—oh god the heat—coming off of Yuji’s flailing body dissolves the cold, clammy sweat that has gathered on her forehead and trickled down her neck. He’s pleading for her, for Kichi-sensei, for anyone to make it stop, and she doesn’t know how to help, doesn’t know how to do anything, why isn’t she moving why can’t she remember why won’t he stop screaming—

“Sakura, breathe.”

Large hands envelop her face and she’s brought sharply back to the Hokage’s office, and oh—she’s hyperventilating.

Sakura forces herself to focus on the Hokage’s calm face, harsh breathes rattling her lungs. Absently she realizes that there is a masked man firmly holding the wrist of her unbroken arm where she has tightly gripped a kunai. She doesn’t remember when she grabbed it, nor where she grabbed it from.

“Sakura-chan, take a deep breath.” She obeys. “Where are you hurt?”

She blinks. She licks her lips.

“What?”

“Can you tell me where you are hurt, Sakura-chan?” He smiles warmly, kindly.

Her grip loosens and the ANBU ninja swiftly slips the kunai from her palm and carefully releases her wrist.

Sakura slowly holds out her arm where her broken radius pokes a bump halfway down her forearm and has begun to color dark purple and blue. The Hokage frowns and asks her if he can look at her stomach. She nods, her vision blurring. Her body must have finally caught up to her distressed state, tears beginning to slip in a steady stream down her cheeks. He lifts the hem of her shirt to reveal four semi-deep incisions, probably caused by a few shuriken she hadn’t managed to dodge.

The Hokage calls one of the two ANBU guarding his office over and orders him to retrieve a medic. He disappears in a flicker.

Sakura has begun to hiccup from her quiet sobs, and with every uneven breath, her broken ribs jerk painfully, making it harder and harder to breath. A wave of panic surges in her chest, and her legs begin to shake from exhaustion.

“I—I don’t—I can’t—” The panic increases with every thought that she can’t seem to vocalize.

Minato studies her for a moment, sympathy and concern tensing his handsome features. He releases her face but puts a heavy hand on her small shoulder.

“Tiger-san.”

The ANBU shinobi who had taken her kunai steps forward once again and wordlessly kneels before her. Confused, Sakura looks to the Hokage, but the masked man gently turns her face to his and she is startled to see ruby-red eyes staring at her from behind white porcelain.

Abruptly, the world turns fuzzy, then dim, then dark.

Chapter Text

The grass hasn’t even grown back over Akemi and Yuji’s graves when Sakura gets reassigned to a new genin team.

Team 7’s token female quit after one week of training, and the males of the team have been looking for a fourth teammate for the last month. When the Hokage visited her hospital room and asked if she would like to continue her shinobi career or return to civilian life, Sakura had answered before she could fully process his question.

Now, she thinks she should have asked for more time.

One week in and she already understands why the other girl walked away. Her new sensei is always late and is never without his porn novels. Sakura remembers Naruto and Sasuke from her years in the Academy, but even then, the three had never truly run in the same circles. Sakura ashamedly remembers her obsessive crush on her dark-haired teammate from those years, and a deep guilt claws at her stomach.

Perhaps, if she hadn’t been so distracted by a stupid boy who didn’t even know who she was, she would have retained more of her training from the Academy. Maybe then she wouldn’t have frozen under the first sign of real danger. Maybe she would still be with her first team.

Familiar anxiety wells up in her throat as she silently stands on the side of training ground three with her new teammates, waiting for her new sensei.

How could the Hokage trust her to be on a team with his own son after her failure? How could she possibly be placed with the son of the Uchiha clan’s main branch? She can’t keep up, and she can’t protect them, let alone herself.

She’s only alive because of sheer, dumb luck. She shouldn’t be here.

“Were you transferred from Team 5?”

Sakura jumps and turns to see dark eyes narrowed at her. A grimace twists Sasuke’s lips and his dark brows scrunch together in scrutiny.

“Yes, I was.” She doesn’t like the way he runs his eyes from her dusty toes to the top of her pink head with an air of disappointment. “Why?”

“My father said yesterday that he’s going to talk to the Hokage about having a member of Team Expendables added to my team since he thinks it’s unacceptable and disrespectful to our family.”

Sakura flinches violently at the pseudo-name given to her previous team.

She’s heard whispers about how Team 5 was set up to fail, about how it was purposefully built from the few civilians left in the Academy—about how Kichi-sensei wasn’t ready to lead a genin team. But never has someone actually expressed this sentiment to her face, and Sakura feels her skin tingle with the tell-tale sign of her rage and embarrassment crashing together.

“Oi, what are you talking about, teme? Who’s ‘Team Expensible?’”

“Expendable, baka,” Sasuke sneers, “I’m talking about that team that failed their mission and came back with only one of their genin. Didn’t you hear about it?”

“Don’t call me an idiot, idiot!”

“Then quit being an—"

“We didn’t fail.” Her voice sounds foreign to her own ears.

Sasuke and Naruto stop arguing and exchange a glance before facing her fully.

“But…” Naruto’s nose twitches. “I thought your two teammates got set on fire or something like that, right?”

Something pinches tightly in her chest.

“We completed our mission. We didn’t fail.”

Sasuke scoffs. “Half your team died, I’d hardly call that a success.”

When Sakura’s senses come back to her, she’s breathing hard and her knuckles ache. Sasuke is sprawled on the dirt ground, pushing himself up onto one elbow, and Naruto is yelling in her face.

And it is to this lovely scene that Kakashi finds himself poofing into.

He doesn’t get paid enough to deal with this shit.

Chapter Text

After the memorial service when Akemi and Yuji’s remains were first buried in the ground, Sakura had avoided the Konoha cemetery.

It isn’t until two months later, when Team 7 has returned from their fifth mission, that she visits again.

She’s come straight from the gates of the village, muscles aching and joints cracking. When she winds her way through the sea of epitaphs and finally stumbles upon the two little graves at the back of the cemetery, Sakura lets out a breath that she has been holding since the day they died.

Her sore thighs protest when she kneels before their graves and folds her hands in her lap.

“Hi, Akemi-kun. Hi, Yuji-kun.”

Something just a little empty begins to yawn in her chest.

She doesn’t know where to begin, and she’s not even sure Akemi and Yuji are here to listen to her anyways, but Sakura relaxes her shoulders and resolves to start from the beginning.

She tells them about her meeting with the Hokage, about her panic attack and how embarrassed she was afterwards. She talks a little bit about the shinobi (which she had later been told was an Uchiha) that put her to sleep, and how looking at those red eyes felt slightly like floating. She tells them about waking up in the hospital with her arm mostly healed and her parents asleep in the chair beside her bed. She tells them that Kichi-sensei visited her just before she was supposed to be released, and that he somehow looked fifteen years older since the last time she had seen him. His typically joyful countenance had wasted away and left behind a quiet, solemn man.

Sakura talks about her new team. At first, she thinks that she won’t, because Akemi and Yuji might be upset with her for replacing them. But then she remembers Akemi’s dry wit and Yuji’s bubbling laugh, and she knows that it’s silly to think anyone could ever replace them.

So, she explains in vivid detail what the past few months have been like with her new teammates. She recounts their first meeting, their first fight, their first mission, their first bell test. When she begins her retelling of their mission to Wave that was nearly the end of herself and her second team, she becomes animated, eager to tell the spirits of her first teammates how much she has grown.

“I’ve never been more afraid in my life. But ever since our mission, I’ve been working really, really hard to be a real ninja, and this time, I didn’t freeze. Even though Zabuza and Haku were scary, and Tazuna was panicking, I tried my best to help Naruto and Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei, and I swear to you, this time I made a difference. I know I did.”

She’s breathing hard and her cheeks are flushed when she finishes her story, but she needs them to know that she misses them—that she hasn’t forgotten them.

“Naruto reminds me a lot of you, Yuji-kun, but mostly because he always eats like a starving animal and gets food all over himself. He’s annoying and too loud, but I think he’s starting to really see me as his teammate, not just a civilian. And Sasuke…I don’t know what he thinks of me. I don’t think Akemi-kun would have gotten along with him at all. You’re both too stubborn. But if nothing else, I think he respects me more after we had to protect Tazuna together. Maybe it wasn’t out of choice, but at least he trusts me to have his back.”

It hits her suddenly then—that somehow and sometime over the last two months, she’s come to think of Naruto and Sasuke as something like…friends.

The dull gray headstones of Akemi and Yuji stare up at her, unaccusatory and without judgement.

“I think…” Her voice is barely a thought in the wind, more for herself than the ghosts surrounding her. “I think that I can do it right this time.”

Chapter Text

They grow.

The next year is a whirlwind of adventure, and if Sakura has learned anything, it is that when you are on a team with the nine-tails jinchuuriki and the Uchiha clan son, trouble will always find you.

They complete more missions. They pass their second bell test. They eat ramen together. They fight a lot. They learn how to walk-up trees (“woah, how did you get up there so fast, Sakura-chan?). They sign up for the Chunin Exams. They train early in the morning. They train late at night. They laugh and argue and beat the shit out of each other on a regular basis.

And then—it happens without warning and in the blink of an eye—Sasuke is infected with hate.

Literally, he has bite marks in his neck and inky hate spilling out from the wound.

Sakura panics, but she is alone and her boys are as motionless as the dead, and she cannot possibly save them all.

There was no academy pop quiz with the multiple-choice question of ‘what do you do when your teammate has been bitten vampire-style by a pedophiliac woman (man?) in the woods?’ And even if there was, Sakura doesn’t know if there would even be one right answer.

So, she goes with her instinct and charges forward, flinging her remaining shuriken at the snake ninja. The first misses by a mile, but the next two strike home, imbedding themselves in her (fuck, his?) peeling skin.

Sakura shakes with anticipation because—yes, I hit him, yes, I am still a ninja, yes, my aim is true—but when the grotesquely cracking face turns laughing eyes on her and proceeds to melt into the tree trunk beneath it, her victory falls flat.

It gives her one last mocking laugh before disappearing completely, and Sakura is left in the awful stillness of the choking forest with Sasuke and Naruto lying limp around her. She scrambles to the closest of her two teammates—Sasuke—and pushes twitching fingers to the thin skin of his wrist. His heartbeat stutters sluggishly back at her, and she nearly sobs in relief.

She is in the midst of debating how to wake them up when three foreign chakra signatures spike in the near distance.

Without a second thought, Sakura is hauling Sasuke over one shoulder and Naruto over the other and shoving the last dregs of her chakra into the aching soles of her feet.

Her eyes sting against the wind, breaths coming in sharp inhales that feel like knives dragging down her dry throat, but it is not enough—she will not let it be enough—to stop her.

Drunk on the adrenaline bottled in her veins, Sakura flies from branch to trunk to tree to branch, her skinny legs and narrow shoulders trembling under the dead weight of her (when did they become hers, she wonders) boys. And the chakras are gaining and her lungs are tearing and her muscles are screaming and she has only ever felt this terrified-hunted-desperate one other time in her short, miserable life, but this time, it does not shut her down—no—it only fuels her will to gogogo and she has never felt so alive

The tip of her sandaled foot catches on an insidious tree limb and she goes crashing through the foilage, pale arms clutching instinctively at her precious cargo. She is falling—they are falling—and she is failing. She cannot. She promised. She swore. She will sell her soul if it means her redemption.

In an instant, quicker than she has ever been in her entire life, the hand supporting Naruto shoots out and an invisible string (‘i’m only teaching you guys this because my nii-san said i need to be a better teammate’) attaches itself like a final prayer to the blurry trunk of a nearby tree. One, two, three heart-stopping moments pass before the string goes taut and Sakura’s arm is nearly yanked clean out of its socket from the whiplash.

Her flimsy chakra strand snaps under the pressure, but it is just enough to stall their momentum, and when Sakura’s back squarely meets the solid ground below, it results in only gasps of stolen breath and not a broken spine. There is a ringing in her ears and an immediate soreness in her tailbone, but the chakra signatures are nearly upon them and she cannot afford to wait for her pathetic body to gather itself.

Instead, she rolls painfully to her hands and knees and searches desperately for safety. Her wide, raw eyes catch on the hidden space between the roots of a large tree, and then she is wrapping her small hands around the wrists of her two boys and tugging.

Stiff twigs dig deep into the tense meat of her back as she scrambles further and further into the tree’s sanctuary. Her arms are pinned underneath her boys, elbows scraping against the winding roots. Sasuke’s greasy hair sticks to the sweat of her neck, his breath pooling hotly in the hollow of her throat from where his face is pressed to her collarbone. Naruto’s forehead indents itself against her throbbing temple, and she merely squeezes them closer to her, scrawny biceps protesting.

The signatures are coming closer and closer and the savage panic in her bones has her stilling the air in her lungs and pressing down hard on her final drops of chakra. Closer and closer still, and she refuses to look and it cannot all have been for nothing and why is she always the last resort—

The chakras are abruptly upon them—and then, they steadily pass on, neither stopping nor slowing as they fade farther and farther away.

For the first time in what feels like weeks and months and years, Sakura lets the tension melt from her body.

They are not even remotely safe, and she is still the only member of Team 7 awake, and Sasuke still has that black thing branded across his skin, but—

But they are alive, but she did not fail, but there will be no funeral.

And if she cries in the solemn silence of her success, there is no one awake to see.

Chapter Text

“You cut your hair.”

It is the first thing that Kakashi-sensei says when he greets them at the tower. For some reason, the note of surprise in his voice fills her with pride. It is short lived, however, when the three of them are immediately shuffled to separate medic rooms to be looked over and healed.

When a medic grabs Naruto’s shoulder to steer him towards the makeshift medic tents, Sakura is not able to stop herself in time.

Her tired, knife-sharp eyes see malice where there is none, and something purely broken clicks into place in her half-delusional mind.

Before any of them can blink, she has—almost too calmly—slipped a chipped kunai from the folds of her skirts and sliced it across the skin of the medic’s bare wrist. There is a moment of horrified shock from her teammates, and then the medic is yelling and her boys are fighting and Kakashi-sensei is moving faster than she can track—and then all is black.

When she comes to, it is to the bleached white walls of the medical huts and the intensely assessing eyes of her most surly teammate.

She is one exhale away from asking where the rest of their team is when he cuts her off.

“You called me Akemi.”

Sakura stills, jaw slackening momentarily before immediately clenching down hard. “What?”

His obsidian eyes are almost earnest in their severity and he does not look away.

“You called me Akemi when we were in the forest, when I was barely conscious.” He says it as if that is enough context for her to understand what he means by it.

“No, I didn’t.”

She lies. Because of course she did. Because of course, in the midst of her most desperate, teeth-shattering moments when she believed that he wouldn’t make it—believed he was slipping out of her pleading reach—of course she called him by a different boy’s name.

Sasuke downright glares, long bangs brushing along the soft skin of his cheeks. “Yes, you did. You didn’t know I could hear you, and you sounded nearly insane, but you did. I remember.”

She does not respond, because she does not know what he wants her to say. Instead, she merely stares back at him, both teammates standing at the edge of a yawning impasse that neither are sure how to breach.

He is the first to try.

“Who’s Akemi?”

“Who was Akemi.” She corrects him and almost doesn’t feel the sting of her own words.

Sasuke blinks. “Who was Akemi?”

The ease at which the name rolls off his tongue, the half-indifferent air permeating his aristocratic features, the bland curiosity coloring his tone—it is all that and more that finally splits open the pulsing ball of rage lodged in her throat, releasing the mean and ugly and vindictive part of her that she has been denying for so long.

“He was expendable.” It comes out sharp and old and bleeding with all of her hate, and he—Sasuke flinches.

Over the last year, she has grown to care about this boy, to love him and wish safety for him, but their earned bond does not erase the bitterness steeping her soul. She has not forgotten the weeks spent ignoring his superior sniffs and cutting glances. She has not yet forgiven him for his petty assumptions and his ‘i don’t need help from a civilian.’

So, she watches with unrestrained contempt as he shifts in his seat, lashes fluttering as he averts his gaze.

Some part of her begs for her to fix this hostile silence, to tell him to forget it, to reassure him that she is okay, and she knows he didn’t mean all those biting things that he said. The louder part of her holds even tighter to her anger and pain, a sick kind of glee settling over her as she takes in his fidgety movements and subdued demeanor.

She does not take it back.

But that small, childlike part of her does manage to pull on the reins of her ire, halting it in its tracks. Sakura shifts her half-lidded gaze from his waning form and onto the ceiling above her, a clear dismissal in the action.

Sasuke is anything but dismissible, and though he remains quieter after her sharp retort, he still trains her with an indignant look. Sucking in a breath through his clenched teeth, he leans forward and puts his hand beside hers on the bedsheets—not quite touching, but close enough for her to feel the tingle of his proximity dance along her skin.

“My brother,” he stares hard at the back of her hand, “he told me that I should apologize to you—for being rude that first day we met.”

She does look at him now, eyes wide with something like uncertainty.

Sasuke swallows thickly but pushes on. “He told me that one day, when I experience death for myself, I will understand the consequences of how I treated you. It made me angry. He talked as if I was a child—like you were somehow more adult than me because you knew people who died. It made me feel stupid. So, I lied and told him that I would apologize the next time I saw you.”

Slowly—hesitantly—he raises his eyes to meet hers. She bites her tongue at the naked discomfort and shame that she sees there.

“But when we were in that damn forest…every time you or Naruto got hurt, or were even close to getting hurt…” His lips screw up, eyebrows scrunching to nearly meet in the middle.

A picture of Sasuke’s livid form covered in hateful black markings and nearly glowing with the hot-red of his chakra flashes unbidden in her mind, and Sakura finally gives in to the urge to grab his hand. The second her skin meets his, Sasuke’s cold fingers are clenching around her own stubby ones, hard enough to pop the knuckles in her last two digits.

“I’m sorry, Sakura. I know it’s late, and I know it doesn’t really fix anything, but I’m sorry.”

She hates herself a little for it, but she starts to cry, wiping messily at her nose with the back of her free hand.

“It’s okay, Sasuke. It’s okay.”

When Naruto and Kakashi-sensei walk in a few minutes later, neither comment on the red rimming of their eyes, or the thick quality to their voices.

Chapter Text

Just before Ino’s Body Switch Technique fully takes over, Sakura catches a glimpse of Kakashi-sensei’s face.

He looks…expectant.

As if this is the outcome that he has always predicted—as if there was never even a flicker of doubt in his mind that the painfully-average civilian would eventually submit to the sickeningly clan-established Yamanaka. The lines of his face (what she can see of it) are slack, his one eye half-lidded in an emotion just near enough to impatience, like he’s reading one of his stupid porn novels for the hundredth time and just wants to skip through the dull bits to get to the good part.

When Sakura feels her body root itself into the ground—feels the foreign itch of another person’s conscience making itself at fucking home in her own head—she only has to think of Kakashi-sensei’s bored face. And something within her snaps.

The indignant rage bubbling in the pit of her stomach makes it all too easy to simply shove that blonde bitch right out of her head and onto her ass. But it isn’t enough.

Because she’s so fucking tired of this. So sick of the dismissive glances and disgruntled looks that people give her when she deigns to stand among her two infamous teammates and her legendary sensei as a scrawny, pink-haired, no-name girl.

She wants them to remember her. If she’s to be labelled expendable, then she’ll go down in a blaze of fucking glory, because fuck them for putting a ceiling over her head before she could even step into the goddamn house.

And no amount of bruised knuckles or chakra-depletion is going to stop her. Slow her down? Yes. But stop her? Never.

So, she listens to that age-old pull of killkillkillwinwinwin that every human is born with, and launches herself at Ino before the other girl can even begin to stand.

It is—there is no other word for it—absolutely vicious. Sakura slams the hard edges of her fists into Ino’s perfectly pale cheeks over and over and over again, her bony knees digging into the ground on either side of the blonde’s hips. There is blood flecking itself across the column of Ino’s throat, coating the space between Sakura’s fingers until they are slick with red. This isn’t a match between two kunoichis; it’s an ultimatum.

Vaguely, Sakura hears voices yelling around her—feels meaty hands yanking at her shoulders—but she manages to get another one, two punches in before they successfully pull her off. Someone shoves her face-first into the dusty arena floor, arms pinned awkwardly at the small of her back.

She can see Ino from where her cheek is pressed bruisingly into the ground. The other girl is spitting out blood and medics are bustling around her, but her vivid blue eyes are staring right at Sakura.

It is only a few seconds, but Sakura drinks it in—the purple puffiness of her two eyes, the split skin of her cheekbones, the newfound wariness in her pupils—and then Asuma-san’s back is blocking her view.

Sakura begins to thrash, because her ribs are cutting into the ground and her lungs can’t seem to feed enough oxygen to her brain, but the hands holding her down remain firm. Finally, she lifts her chin and cranes her neck back, spine protesting at the severe angle.

Kakashi-sensei’s hard grey eyes stare back at her. He doesn’t look bored anymore.

Later, after she has been isolated from her teammates and placed in a medic room—god, she hates these white walls—Kakashi finally speaks to her.

“You will forfeit your next match.”

Her head snaps up, because of all the things she expected him to say, that was not one of them. “What?”

His lanky form is leaning against the door to the room, arms crossed over his broad chest. “You will forfeit your next match, Sakura.”

“But I won. Why would I forfeit?”

Despite his casual stance, there is a dangerous rigidity to his aura. “No, Sakura. That was not a win—that was a dirty fistfight in the back of an elementary school playground.”

She can’t quite stop herself from shouting. “I won! Fair and square!”

“Sakura, you just showed every person in that arena—every village—that you don’t give two shits about turning on one of your own. That wasn’t a display of technique or ability, it was a straight up betrayal to your own training and the name of your village.”

Something ugly and infinitely more angry tints her vision red. “Oh, so just because I use my fists instead of some fucking kekkei genkai, I’m a weak and dishonorable ninja?”

She knows that he hears the truth pulsing in her words because his eyes narrow just the slightest bit, and his shoulders straighten up.

“It’s not about how you did it, Sakura. It’s about why you did it. You will forfeit because you do not deserve to fight among ninja if you do not understand the rules of being one.”

Sakura bites her tongue hard enough to bleed. “I thought there were no rules in the ninja world.”

“You were going to kill her, Sakura.”

That shuts her up, because she knows that it’s true. The heady justification she’d felt as her fists imbedded themselves repeatedly into Ino’s skin had been overwhelming to the point of blindness.

Kakashi merely slants a coolly disapproving look at her. “I’ve been a shinobi since I could walk. I know a loose cannon when I see one.”

She clenches her jaw and studies her hands folded in her lap.

“To let you fight in the next round would be a disservice on my part, because it will only teach you that success depends on your emotional motivation rather than your skill. Emotion is important, but not to the point that it becomes uncontrollable.”

A few angry tears slip over her cheeks, and she swipes frustratedly at them. She doesn’t know what to say, because she prizes logic over all, and his reasoning is sound.

When his large hand comes down to rest against the top of her head, she jumps.

His one eye is softer now, more like the man she is used to seeing.

“For what it’s worth, I am proud of you, Sakura.” He ruffles her hair gently and a few strands stick to her wet cheeks. “I’ve never seen anyone break out of the Yamanaka Body Switch Technique before, let alone a genin. That alone should prove that you are capable of accomplishing great things if you hone your abilities.”

Another tear sneaks its way from the corner of her eye down to her chin. She doesn’t bother to wipe it away.

“Rest up. Naruto’s match is coming up soon, and he’ll be upset if you aren’t there to support.”

When the door shuts behind him, Sakura attempts to picture herself standing before her team, her classmates, and her Hokage, and raising a hand in voluntary surrender.

It leaves a bitter taste in her mouth.

Chapter Text

She walks into the arena when they call her name and turns to face her opponent.

He’s a Sound ninja (of fucking course) with a wicked curl to his lips and a hard edge in his dark brown eyes. Bigger, taller, meaner. Clutched in his right hand is a long scythe, its blade glinting in the light. He leers at her, mouth twisting in a crude replication of a grin, clearly waiting for her to make the first move.

“Nice dress. Real hardcore of you.”

Sakura grits her teeth and her fingers curl into tight fists at her sides.

She looks up in the stands at Kakashi-sensei. He nods once and fixes her with a look that tells her to just hurry up and do what needs to be done. Beside him, Sasuke and Naruto can hardly sit still. They already know of her predetermined plan to forfeit, and she can barely stomach the grimaces that screw up both of their faces.

Believe me, it wasn’t my idea.

She clenches her jaw and prepares to raise her hand in surrender when something pulls at the corner of her vision.

The Hokage sits in full garb, calm blue eyes steadily meeting her green ones. His mentor, Sarutobi, stands like a stone statue beside him.

It hits her, suddenly, that this is one of the first times that the Hokage’s attention has been on her—and solely her—since before she had been reassigned to Team 7. And it is to the event of her giving up before the fight has even begun.

Though his gaze holds only gentle understanding, something stirs within her, an odd mix of guilt and reverence that pushes and pulls at her squishy innards.

It squirms its way from the space behind her navel, all the way up her spine, over her collarbones and into her ears. And it whispers, ‘this is the man that trusted you with his son, that gave you a fresh start.’

Unbidden, her gaze flicks to a stern, strong-jawed man sitting a few rows away from the Kage platform. His posture is rigid, expression disdainful—an older echo of someone she already knows.

She’s never met Sasuke’s family before, but somehow, she recognizes without a doubt that this is his father.

‘My father said yesterday that he’s going to talk to the Hokage about having a member of Team Expendables added to my team since he thinks it’s unacceptable and disrespectful to our family.’

And finally, the swirling resentment and fury that has been aimlessly knocking around in the shell of her ribcage for god-knows-how-long finds a firm foundation to stand on.

Sakura looks the head of the Uchiha clan dead in the eyes, blinks, and then charges full speed at the Sound nin.

Honed. That’s what Kakashi-sensei had said. So, if he wants honed, she’ll focus all her pent-up aggression into a knife-point sharp enough to drill its way through her opponent’s cocky sneer.

When they collide, it is with his scythe scraping against her kunai. Sakura uses the momentum of his swing to deflect it into the ground before she ducks and rolls to the side. He hardly even stumbles, already adjusting the scythe in a deadly arc aimed right for her stomach.

She forms the handseals for a body substitution jutsu and his blade slices into a dry log. She whips three shuriken in rapid succession at his prone back, and then ram-snake-tiger two replicas of herself are sprinting beside her.

When she looks again, the Sound nin has dodged her shuriken and is grinning at the clone to her right.

“Decided to play, did you? Well then, come to daddy.”

He eliminates the first clone with an easy kick to its ribs. Sakura grits her teeth, and when he begins to engage the second clone, she adjusts to stick as closely as possible to its back.

The Sound nin almost lazily punches through the clone’s head, but when it poofs out of existence, the real Sakura is waiting and ready. Before he can retract his fist, Sakura lifts her arm and slices the unforgiving edge of her kunai along the outside of his forearm, deep enough to sever some of the tendons controlling his hand.

He grunts in pain and instinctively slams the blunt end of his scythe into her open side.

She flies across the arena with the force, abdominals spasming with the impact. She manages to flip over just before she hits the ground, sliding backwards on hands and feet before coming to a stop.

Several yards away from her, her opponent stares, bewildered, as his bloodied hand fails to obey his commands. It remains limp, only some of his fingers twitching in pathetic attempts to function properly. He glares at her, irritation and pain glittering in his eyes.

“Fine. I’ll just have to kick your ass with one hand tied behind my back, Pinkie.”

Unoriginal, she thinks, just before he makes several hand signs and a massive column of fire erupts from the ground and carves a deadly path towards her.

In all honestly, it isn’t a difficult attack to evade. The pillar is only about as wide as Kakashi-sensei’s shoulders, and while it moves fast, it carries on in a straight and steady course, making it easily predictable.

However, the second the flames begin to lick themselves into existence, Sakura’s mind abruptly leaves the arena and awakens in the middle of a too-dark forest surrounded by a dozen foreign ninja with a human bonfire scorching the ground in front of her.

The pitch-black smoke wafts into her nostrils, and she’s overwhelmed with a terrible nausea that spins her head and mixes the contents of her stomach. Akemi and Yuji’s screams are echoing in the hollow space between her ears, and no matter what her subconscious is telling herself, the sight is too real, too vivid, too soon for her to break out of this almost-reality.

The air around her is getting hotter and hotter and more stifling with every passing second and Sakura can’t stop the panic that is amassing with every rapid heartbeat and she doesn’t care whether it’s real or not because it happened and it is happening and who’s to say that it won’t happen again—

“Sakura, move!”

And it is Naruto—of course it is Naruto—who blows right past the stubborn walls of trauma and fear that she has carefully nurtured and yanks her out by the metaphorical scruff of her neck.

A burst of chakra to her feet and she is launching herself away from the fire, the edges of her dress singed as it just barely skims by. Without giving herself a second to think, to recover, she fists a kunai in each hand and moves, faster than she ever has before in her life, because she will not give him the opportunity to throw another wall of fire at her again. She cannot afford to let herself process the grief inside of her, or she won’t get up again.

All she can hear is Kakashi’s voice in her head chanting honehonehone and everything that makes her Sakura empties out of her head, while everything that makes her Kunoichi remains.

He is stronger than her, and his limbs are longer, making it hard to weave around his hits. His scythe is an unfortunate disadvantage for her, every swing bringing her mere centimeters away from death. But she is faster, and she clings to that fact with every fiber of her being.

A knee slamming into her hip, an elbow clipping the underside of her jaw, a gash from the business end of his weapon. It keeps her moving, keeps her in a constant state of desperation, and she knows that she will not last much longer. Her stamina is tiring and her chakra is beginning to dissipate and she’s lost her last two kunai somewhere in the chaos of it all.

But she can hear Naruto—and now Sasuke—screaming her name, pushing her forward, and she forces herself to block out the weariness and focus on finding an opening.

The Sound nin ducks under her outstretched foot, and then he is bending down, sweeping her feet right out from under her. It is almost ironic that she ends up with her back to the floor and his weight pinning her down—ironic because now she understands how Ino must have felt. And the panic follows quickly once his thick fingers wind around her small throat.

He’s abandoned his scythe somewhere far out of her reach since his one hand is still unresponsive, instead opting for choking her out while he’s got her down.

His good hand is vice-like, and black spots start to dance at the edge of her vision. Any minute now, and the proctor is going to call the match and declare him the winner.

She is going to lose.

She stares up into his narrowed, too-wild eyes and decides that if she’s going to lose, she at least wants to leave her mark on that ugly mug of his.

Without hoping for anything more than a last-ditch shot of defiance, Sakura shoves at the inside of his elbow until it folds with a jerk, forcing his upper body just the tiniest bit closer to her—and then she slams her fist into the side of face.

When he goes flying off of her—choking grip ripped from her throat and leaving a score of trickling scratches down one side—and into the arena wall ten feet away from them, Sakura cannot do anything other than suck in heaving gulps of air and stare in shock.

He lands on the ground at the base of the wall with a dull thud, a wet groan escaping through his clenched teeth.

Sakura knows that this is her opening, that this is where she should end it, but her limbs won’t move, and her chakra is suddenly completely tapped out. Exhaustion whites out part of her vision, and she realizes that her hand is most likely broken, what with the shooting pains running persistently up and down her arm.

She consoles herself with the fact that her opponent isn’t standing up either, merely rolling onto his side and clutching at his face.

The arena around her is deathly silent except for a few loud whoops and hollers that she knows belong to Naruto.

The proctor finally steps in, voice a little bemused. “This match is a tie. Both participants are disqualified from the final rounds.”

When Kakashi-sensei jumps down from the railing and gathers her carefully in his arms—to take her to the damn med-bay again, she’s sure—he studies her with an inscrutable look that she can’t quite interpret.

She’s seconds away from asking him if he’s mad at her for ignoring his orders to forfeit the match, but her body chooses that exact moment to inconveniently shut down, and the world around her goes dark.

Chapter Text

Sasuke is doomed.

For that matter, they’re all doomed.

The genjutsu had settled over Sakura’s skin like a sticky layer of sweat, and she’d dispelled it almost as soon as it had begun.

Guy-san is the first to notice that the Hokage and Sarutobi-sama are engaging in a vicious fight with another Kage—no—it’s that pale, slimy hermaphrodite from the forest, the one who bit Sasuke. Sakura feels her spine stiffen as Naruto’s father deflects a kunai from Orochimaru (that’s his name, apparently) with ease, the space between the two figures practically crackling with tension. The snake nin only grins and says something that she can’t hear, slanted eyes laughing.

Sasuke is double doomed.

Before she can think twice, Sakura is shouting a warning to Sasuke, realizing her mistake mere seconds after her call rings off the walls of the arena. Two Sound nin are charging straight for her, and just when she manages to slip a kunai from her holster with a surprisingly steady hand, there’s a gray blur and the two nin are ricocheting into the stands, unconscious.

When Kakashi lands beside her (she still hasn’t gotten the chance to ask if he’s mad at her) she already knows what he wants. She only nods, and he spares just a second to watch her shake Naruto from his forced slumber before he’s taking off again, a barely-there “be safe” floating on the wind between them.

Their fight with Gaara is, for lack of a better word, disgustingly embarrassing.

Not that there should be room for such things as pride and embarrassment in the middle of a foreign coup d’état and a death match with an actual demonic host—but the embarrassment is present all the same.

Because they are throwing absolutely everything that they have in their metaphorical and literal arsenal of combat, and Gaara is hardly even breaking a sweat.

Sasuke is barely able to stand on his own two feet, energy drained and skin inked black (her hackles rise just from the reminder of what that insane snake-man did to her teammate) from his fight with Gaara before they arrived. Naruto himself is still weakened from his match with Neji, and Sakura doesn’t have the faintest idea of how to beat this demonic thing that’s proven himself to be way out of their league.

But when Gaara launches himself at the three of them—eyes crazed and body deformed—she acts on instinct, all half-baked strategies abandoning her.

He’s fast, faster than even Orochimaru was (why do their enemies always have to one up each other?), and his claws are coming closer and closer, but she is determined, and all her fear has left her in the face of Gaara’s hell.

His gaze meets hers with a bloodlust she’s never seen before, but she only tucks her chin, grips her kunai, and positions herself to cover as much of Sasuke’s prone body as possible.

Time slows and the world fades around her until all she can see is the glint of his fangs and the blur of his sand slicing through the air towards her. If she lets Gaara kill Sasuke, she will never be able to prove herself to his father, to his stupid fucking clan and their stupid fucking prejudices, and it sucks so much that she is going to sacrifice her life over something as dumb as elitism, but still, she does not back down.

She is not afraid to die, not anymore. She only regrets that this gruesome image will be the last thing she sees.

He is upon her, and her heart is pounding in her ribcage and she cannot hear anything over the rush of her own blood in her ears and—a long arm is suddenly curling around her waist and Sakura is quite literally being yanked out of death’s claws.

They land on a nearby tree branch, and Sakura looks up to see a masked shinobi holding her firmly to his side. He gently—too-gently for the occasion, in all honesty—sets her down and she turns to see that a second masked shinobi is already dumping both Naruto and Sasuke onto the branch beside her.

Without another word, they disappear before her eyes. It takes her a moment to realize that, no, they did not actually disappear—they simply moved so fast that they appeared to vanish from sight.

And the ensuing fight continues in a haze of violence and chaos. The ANBU ninjas bombard Gaara’s possessed body with attacks Sakura did not even know existed, but it only serves to anger the demon within him to the point of no return.

His body convulses under the impact of two immensely large katon fireballs, and his form is hidden by smoke for a few, tense moments. But when the smoke finally dissipates, it reveals a massive, muddy raccoon with eyes like miniature suns.

Several more ANBU seem to appear out of thin air, but suddenly their prowess seems like child’s play compared to the monster that Gaara has summoned.

And then, after several minutes have passed with them watching helplessly on as every attack proves desperately futile—Sakura feels Naruto abruptly stiffen beside her. She and Sasuke both turn to look at him, eyeing his rigid form and stricken expression with wariness. They exchange a quick glance.

“Naruto, are you—”

“I know how to stop him.”

Sakura stares, flabbergasted, but the conviction in his voice, in his eyes, in his whole being is something that she cannot ignore.

“What are you talking about, Dead Last?”

It is a testament to his tunnel vision that Naruto doesn’t even rise to the bait of Sasuke’s antagonistic nickname.

“I can stop him. You guys need to get back.”

Sakura splutters, irritated that he won’t explain any further, and pissed that he expects them to just hide like cowards while he does all the work. She can tell by Sasuke’s pinched brows that he feels the same way, but before either of them can even begin to lay into their numbskull teammate, Naruto is biting into the tip of his thumb and slamming his palm into the branch beneath them.

“Summoning jutsu!”

The entire earth shakes, and Sakura latches onto Sasuke’s shoulders as he grunts in pain and nearly plummets to the ground.

There’s a giant toad staring down at them, and from atop its leathery head—

“Sakura-chan, get Teme out of here! Gamabunta and I will handle this.” He flashes them a blinding smile and an entirely too-optimistic thumbs up.

“Fuck off, kid. I’m not in the mood to play games with you.” The toad chews on the huge pipe sticking out of his mouth, voice so low that it reverberates through Sakura’s ribs.

Naruto proceeds to throw a temper tantrum, punching at the toad’s head and ‘this isn’t a stupid game, you big piece of lard’ and ‘can’t you see this is life and death’ and ‘get off your shitty ass and do something for once.’

And while it probably isn’t the most effective way to get an oversized, talking toad to help you in a brawl, Naruto somehow manages to wrangle the toad onto his side.

Which is just exactly the kind of thing that Naruto excels at.

When they leap into battle with Shukaku and Gaara, Sakura is forced to haul Sasuke onto her back and shuttle him to a tree farther away from the wreckage.

He begins to protest, cheeks flaring red with the indecency of it all, but Sakura snaps at him to shut up and let her focus or they’ll both get crushed under a stupid tree, and he quiets down.

By the time Naruto unlocks the power of the Nine-Tails Fox, she and Sasuke are a good half-mile away.

“Sakura, put me down.”

She obeys, but only because he’s been unusually complacent throughout the whole ride and she doesn’t want him to get too riled up. She picks a nice, sturdy looking tree and kneels down so that he can slide off of her sweaty back. Her dress is clinging to her skin uncomfortably, and she’s pretty sure she has a blister the size of a coin on her ankle, but since her priorities are more geared towards making sure her teammates and best friends (the term spawns in her head before she can really consider it) don’t die in this completely insane showdown against literal demons, she merely smears at the sweat on her forehead with the back of her arm and checks Sasuke’s erratic pulse.

He impatiently bats away her hands. “I’m fine. We need to help Naruto.”

Sakura resists the urge to laugh, stuffing the grating sound back down before it can escape her parched throat. “No offense, Sasuke, but I’m pretty sure we’d just get in his way.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes and is beginning to argue back when suddenly the ground shakes violently and they look up to see the One-Tail Beast dissolving back into itself, an unidentifiable ANBU nin with a wind-whipped ponytail standing before it.

And, as Gaara begins to fall—body limp—they watch as Naruto leaps after him, outstretched arms managing to wrap themselves around Gaara’s comatose form seconds before they disappear into the foliage.

Gamabunta and Kurama disappear in twin clouds, and the figures of a dozen ANBU shinobi follow after the two boys.

Sakura exchanges a weary glance with Sasuke before they tiredly stand back up. She turns to offer him his back, but Sasuke grunts.

“The seal is starting to recede. I can make it there on my own.”

She can see the trembling in his legs and the stubborn clench of his jaw, but she knows that trying to get Sasuke to do anything he doesn’t want to do is an S-rank mission all on its own. So, she only nods skeptically and follows closely behind him.

They are less than fifty feet from the clearing where Naruto and Gaara landed when Sasuke inhales sharply and falters. Sakura, having been only a step behind him the whole journey, slams into his back with an oof and the momentum sweeps them towards the floor.

For the second time that day, Sakura feels a strong tug around her middle as her descent to imminent splattering is halted. A calm, smooth voice interrupts the pounding of her heart.

“Did I not already tell you to avoid using the seal at all costs, Sasuke?” His Tiger mask glints eerily in the mid-afternoon sun, and Sakura cannot help but feel as if she has seen it before.

Sasuke adopts a look of confusion as he stares up at the ANBU who’d saved them before his delicate features light up in recognition.

“Nii—”

“I understand that the situation was an emergency, but that curse mark is far more dangerous than you seem to believe. If you cannot learn to control it, it will consume you.”
Sasuke starts to protest, but the ninja only tilts his head towards her teammate and then Sasuke is slumping against the ANBU’s arm, unconscious.

Sakura’s eyes widen and she grits her teeth, beginning to thrash where she’s pinned to the ninja’s side.

“What did you do to Sasuke? Let go of me!”

He promptly releases her, and she backs away hastily, brows drawn in suspicion.

The shinobi seems to assess her from behind his porcelain mask, and she balls up her fists, desperately wishing she had chakra to spare.

“Sasuke is only resting. I did not, nor would I ever, harm him.”

Sure enough, the black markings staining Sasuke’s skin begin to recede, wadding themselves back up into the seal on his neck.

Startled, Sakura returns her gaze to the larger shinobi. She squints at the dark spaces of his mask, and when a glint of red flashes back at her, she suddenly understands.

“You’re Sasuke’s brother. You’re Itachi.”

It is a half-guess, a shot in the dark, but he does not deny it and her gut tells her that she is right.

Instead of directly answering, he pauses, and then inclines his head to her. “Thank you for protecting him. Sasuke is lucky to have such formidable teammates.”

Her first instinct says that he is making fun of her, having just had her ass saved by him twice, but—call her crazy—the energy radiating from behind his unsettling mask is almost…domestically sincere.

Sakura isn’t sure how to respond, but it doesn’t matter, because she doesn’t get the chance to.

A second ANBU with unruly hair—the one who’d grabbed Sasuke and Naruto earlier—lands next to them, shoulders rigid and tone urgent.

“Taichou. It’s Sarutobi-sama.”

Sasuke’s brother (most likely, at least) gives a curt nod and then carefully deposits Sasuke’s body onto the ground beside her, his aura already shifting back into a dreadfully intimidating current. She blinks, and the two ninjas are gone, leaving her with the unresponsive bodies of both her boys.

When all of this is over, Sakura decides that she is going to go home and take the world’s longest bubble bath—and fuck anyone who tries to stop her.

Chapter Text

There is a village-wide funeral held for the great Hiruzen Sarutobi. It is grand and beautiful and terribly sorrowful—all things that Sakura would expect of a funeral for a past Hokage and hero of their Village.

Minato-sama is sallow and grave, but Naruto—Naruto is the debris left after a raging storm.

He is wilted and stricken and so so so unlike the Naruto that she has come to know and love. The blue of his eyes has dulled into an ashy gray and there is a wildness about him that warns of either chest-rattling sobs or inexplicably sharp laughter. She would know.

They are all dressed in black yukatas, though Sakura’s is considerably cheaper than her teammates. The last time she’d worn it had been at Akemi and Yuji’s funerals and it’s become almost disgracefully ill-fitted for her now taller, bulkier frame.

She tries not to think about that.

When Minato finishes his moving eulogy to his former mentor, and proceeds to honor the dozens of Konoha citizens and ninjas who died in the Crush, Sakura feels Naruto’s hand blindly searching for hers.

She does not hesitate to wrap her fingers around his as tightly as she can, and when his shoulders begin to shake with his sobs, she looks over to see that Sasuke has done the same.

They stand like that, silently linked together in the presence of unimaginable pain, long after people begin to file out of the graveyard. There are heavy clouds beginning to cycle into the sky overhead, and Sakura could almost laugh at the cliché-ness of it all.

And finally, it is the Hokage, a few ANBU guards, Kakashi-sensei, and the children of Team 7.

The Hokage manages to get one step in towards their bedraggled group before Naruto is ripping away from his teammates and plunging into the open arms of his father. Sakura has never seen the Hokage’s ocean-blue eyes so heartbroken before, and she forces herself to look away from the bittersweet scene, feeling like an unwelcome intruder.

She meets Sasuke’s eyes and he only blinks numbly at her, long and slow.

Abruptly, Sakura realizes that this may very well be the first time that Sasuke has ever experienced death. A selfish part of her wants to know if he finally understands, but the part of her who aches at his empty expression doesn’t need to ask.

Kakashi’s palms land heavily on their heads, and they turn to look up at him. His one steel-gray eye meets her unflinching gaze.

“I believe it’s time we all went home, don’t you think?” His voice is light and airy, but Sakura knows when she’s been dismissed.

She isn’t upset. Kakashi and Sasuke have always had a unique sort of bond, and she knows that her dark-haired teammate will need a kind of support that she cannot offer in the upcoming moments of sinking grief. He will need a proper punching bag, and she is too tired to stand in without losing grip of her own emotions.

She begins to turn away, but Kakashi gently stops her with a warm hand on her shoulder.

He levels her with a look that is somehow both concerned and removed. Without even attempting to decipher his expression, Sakura already knows what he’s asking.

Will you be alright?

She blinks back at him, and the softening of his dark grey eyes lets her know that he understands.

Yes. It’s nothing new.

She wonders when he became so easy to read. Kakashi only tilts his head to the side and lowers his brows.

I’ll check up on you after I get Sasuke-chan home. Don’t try to tell me otherwise.

She wonders when she became so easy to read.

Sakura just nods and briefly touches Sasuke’s rigid back, valiantly attempting to ignore the wet, raspy sobs of their blonde teammate as she makes her way home.

The streets of Konoha are eerily solemn as its residents begin to pack themselves away to assuage the sting of loss that they all have been left with. Everywhere she looks, Sakura sees broken things; broken windows, broken walls, broken people. But when she catches sight of Ichiraku—counter snapped in half and stools crushed under heavy ceiling beams—that is when Sakura truly understands just how different things will be from this moment on.

When she finally reaches her home (she thanks every god she can name that it, and her parents, survived the ambush with minimal damage) Sakura is startled to see a familiar shade of bleach-blonde hair awaiting her arrival.

“Ino.”

The other girl’s head whips up, face slackening. “Sakura…”

They size each other up, and Sakura doesn’t need Ino’s mind-fucking techniques to know that her rival is remembering their last meeting. Her fingers twitch with the memory of washing away the other girl’s warm blood.

The space between them is suffocating, sucking out the last bit of energy and patience and frustration that Sakura has. What she is left with is a tired kind of remorse that yearns for understanding—for peace.

“Ino, I—”

“I didn’t know how to talk to you, after what happened.”

The blonde’s words are rushed, nearly unintelligible, and Sakura stills, her apology frozen in the gap between her tongue and the backs of her teeth.

Ino’s expression is uncomfortably vulnerable, and there are already tears pooling at the corners of her eyes. She studies Sakura’s frozen features for a tense moment before she inhales harshly through her nose and squares her small shoulders.

“You were different, after what happened—a different Sakura than I remembered, and I didn’t know you anymore. I didn’t know how to talk to you. I wanted to. I swear. I wanted to see if you were okay, or ask if you needed someone to cry with, but I just—I—I was afraid. I was scared that you would be too different, and that I wouldn’t be able to help you. I was afraid because I didn’t know what to do. So, I didn’t talk to you at all.”

Sakura cannot breathe, because she realizes that Ino isn’t talking about their exam match— realizes with a late sort of clarity why she has been so irrationally angry at her former best friend for the last year—and it has nothing to do with Sasuke.

She bites her tongue with enough force to bleed and savors the sharply bitter taste as it seeps over her white, white teeth.

Ino does not flinch away, long lashes clumping together with her tears.

“But I should have at least tried. I’m sorry.” Her pink, bow-shaped lips twist unprettily, dimple sinking into the soft skin of her cheek. “I came home after the invasion and everything was just so fucked. And I had my parents and my teammates, but so many other people were just gone, and I kept thinking that the last thing I’d said to you before the invasion—before the stupid Chunin exams—was how weak and ugly I thought you were, how much better off I was without you as my friend. And I realized that I would hate myself for the rest of my life if you had died and those were my last words to you.”

She hiccups, blue eyes swollen and bloodshot. “I’m so sorry, Sakura. I’m really, really sorry.”

She begins to choke on a sob, and opens her mouth to apologize again, but Sakura is already there, skinny arms wrapping themselves almost aggressively around Ino’s shaking form and fingers digging painfully into the flesh of her back.

It feels good, to hold someone after so long of watching them from afar. It feels like no time has passed at all.

Once they manage to get their ugly crying down to a few soggy sniffles, Sakura pulls away to rub at her flushed cheeks.

“I’m sorry I attacked you during our match and broke your nose.”

Ino laughs wetly and knocks her forehead against Sakura’s. “All’s fair in a fight. And don’t worry, it healed up nicely.” She flashes her a watery grin. “I never would have forgiven you if you’d ruined my beautiful nose.”

“I never would’ve forgiven myself either. After all, it’s what makes you look like such a pig.”

Ino mock scoffs, but she can’t quite keep down the smile that continues to bloom across her face, and Sakura cannot help smiling back.

It feels good, to know that she is worth apologizing for.

Chapter Text

There’s someone tapping on her window.

Sakura looks up from the textbook open before her.

She blinks rapidly, tired eyes adjusting after hours of scanning over pages and pages of black and white print.

Kakashi-sensei’s masked face greets her from the other side of the glass and she slides out of her chair to unlock the latch for him. The promise he’d made at the funeral a few days ago to visit her echoes in her mind. He’s later than she thought he’d be, but then again, that’s just like him.

“Yo.” He settles onto the windowsill, long legs dangling over the side with his heels resting on the wooden panels of her bedroom floor.

Sakura sits back in her desk chair, angling it to face her visitor. “Is something wrong, Sensei?”

Kakashi leans his shoulder against the side of her window frame and studies her carefully. “You tell me.”

She shakes her head, pink locks tickling the sensitive skin of her neck. “I’m fine. I mean, I’m tired, what with all the village repairs and stuff, but I’m okay.”

He nods and runs a hand through his unruly hair. “I came here to make sure you were alright, but I also wanted to ask you something.”

Sakura cocks her head in question.

“How do you feel about your last match at the exams?”

She swallows, suddenly uncomfortable. Eyes flicking uncertainly to the side, Sakura bites down on her tongue before beginning to reply. “About that, I—”

“You don’t have to apologize, Sakura.”

She looks up, bewildered. “What?”

Kakashi sighs and crosses his arms over his chest. “Don’t apologize. Because if you apologize to me, you’ll be erasing the importance of what you did. And I don’t want that to be erased.”

Sakura can only stare, not quite believing he’s being honest with her.

“I mean it, Sakura.” He breathes out through his nose, his mask twitching with the force of his exhale. “You did well, and I’m—I am proud of you.”

Her blood is pounding in her ears and she has an odd sense of vertigo tilting her internal axis. She tries valiantly not to let that show on her face.

“You managed to fight with your head and your heart, and I was wrong to think that you weren’t ready. I’m proud to be your teacher.” He looks a little constipated as he says it, but he holds her gaze steadily nonetheless, and she knows that’s his way of proving that he isn’t just bullshitting her.

Sakura nearly laughs, a bizarre impulse that she can’t quite explain. Instead, she smiles hesitantly and gives a small, barely-there nod.

Kakashi clears his throat and uncrosses his arms. “But, I wanted to ask what you thought of the match.”

Sakura bites her lip, allowing the previously charged moment to fall away and letting her emotionally unequipped sensei off the hook. “I don’t know. I just didn’t want to lose. And I wanted you to know that I was capable of controlling myself.”

Kakashi hums thoughtfully. “Well, technically you didn’t lose, and you did accomplish a good balance between your emotions and your reason. What did you think of your final hit?”

A little confused by his line of questioning, Sakura just shrugs noncommittally. “I didn’t really think anything of it, other than that it hurt like hell. Why? Was I supposed to?”

He scrutinizes her for a minute, gray eyes calculating, as if he is watching for her to slip up and give something important away. She doesn’t know if he finds it, because in the next moment, he is back to being her nonchalant, too-cool sensei.

“Not particularly. Just curious.” She watches as his eyes skim over her neat room, landing on the book spread out on her desk. “What are you reading?”

Sakura hesitates for just a moment too long, then shrugs. “Medical ninjutsu.”

Kakashi’s eyebrows lift in surprise and he pushes off the window to sit up fully. “Really?”

“Yeah.” She inhales, trying to find the right words.

He only waits patiently, elbows coming to rest on the tops of his knees. When she does start, he’s listening intently.

“Everything that’s happened in the last few weeks—the last few years…I keep just wanting to undo it all, to make it all go away. I mean, I was sad before, but now everyone is sad, and I just want to erase all the pain. And then, I realized that there is a way for me to erase pain. Maybe not all the time, and definitely not the pain that’s already happened, but in the future…”

Her fingers drift to the thin pages of the Introductory Guide to Medical Ninjutsu book, thumb stroking the worn edges.

“Maybe I could have helped save people after the invasion, instead of just standing around like some kind of lost puppy. Maybe, if I’d known how to heal people, I—” Her voice gives out and her teeth click when she clenches her jaw shut.

“Sakura.” Kakashi’s voice is deep and awkward, but somehow, more empathetic than she’s ever heard it before. It puts her on edge. “It’s not your fault.”

She snaps her gaze up to him, her lungs constricting painfully around her heart. “I know that.”

He looks at her a bit sadly and shakes his head. “No, I don’t think you do.”

She doesn’t think she’s breathing. “What’s not my fault?”

“All of it.” He looks at her long and hard and steady. “None of it was your fault, Sakura. You don’t have to pay penance for the evils of other men. That’s not your responsibility.”

There’s something in her that yearns for the truth in his words, reaches desperately out for it, but her ribs seem to turn to stone, caging it in before it can even scratch the surface of his absolution. Her mind feels like it’s shutting down, suffocating the emotion that is coiling just under her veneer, a careful apathy smoothing over its tantrum.

“I know.”

Kakashi must sense the shift in her, because he straightens the slightest bit, piercing eyes attempting to spot the chink in her armor. He will not find it, not this time.

So, he breaks their stare, posture sinking back with a resigned slope to his broad shoulders.

“I hope so, Sakura-chan.” He stands, suddenly looking much older than he did before. “Or you’ll waste years of your life trying to punish yourself for things you cannot change.”

He lifts himself through her open window, head turning for a final glance and a fleeting wave. “Ja ne, my favorite student. Try to get some rest.”

And then he’s gone, and she is left staring at her pale pink curtains shifting in the evening breeze, feeling altogether numb and helpless to change it.

But she cannot accept his mercy. Not when she does not believe that she deserves it.

She turns her chair until she’s fixed in the exact same position that she had been before Kakashi had interrupted her, and hunches over the thick tome.

And if the words become blurry from the aching moisture in her eyes, no one is there to see.

Chapter Text

Eight days.

It has been eight days since Sakura has seen either of her rowdy teammates. The peace, the serenity, the fucking silence that is left in their absence squirms beneath her skin. So, she guzzles her bitter green tea, hunches in the yellow light of her desk lamp, and scribbles inky notes until her fingers begin to cramp.

During the day, she regularly joins the mass of ninja and civilians who wake at the first wink of dawn to repair the village. At first, things had been chaotic, most volunteers unsure of where to begin, where they were needed, what to fix first. Ten people would be gathered around a job meant for three, or three would struggle with one meant for ten. But now, a calm rhythm has set over the people, their priorities settled and stark grief beginning to wane as their hands work and work and work.

Today, Sakura finds herself grouped among a few quiet civilians who diligently begin to clear the debris from the ransacked Ichiraku stand. She offers up a wave and a muted smile to Teuchi-san, who merely nods and asks her to help the other workers remove the large wooden beam that sits damningly on the crushed countertop.

Just as she and the four other volunteers—a pair on each side—begin to lift the heavy beam, one of the two men across from her grunts and stumbles, his partner gasping with the added weight. Sakura has just enough time to realize that the beam is going to fall and shatter his foot when there is a blur, two pale hands, and suddenly—she blinks.

Sasuke easily stabilizes the beam, allowing the two men to regain their bearings. His beautiful features are dull, or as close to dull as an Uchiha can look, and he slowly lifts his obsidian eyes to meet hers.

Sakura sighs quietly, a world of relief in that single breath, and her teammate blinks back.

They work.

The hours tick by, and as the stand becomes steadily cleaner, the pile of debris and trash just outside the ramen stand continues to grow. They work in silence, stopping occasionally to smear the sweat and grime from their foreheads or share a glass of refreshing water provided by Teuchi-san.

It is during one of these water breaks, the two of them sitting side by side on some of the surviving stools, that Sasuke breaks their easy stillness.

“We had a funeral at the compound the other day. We buried seven clan members.” He lifts his chipped glass and swallows down half the water in one gulp. “My—my uncle…”

He stops for a moment, but Sakura understands.

“When I was a kid, Itachi and I would always go over to Shisui’s house, especially when our parents were away on missions or clan business. Oji-san would always be there. He was a retired shinobi, put out of commission after some psycho tried to steal his sharingan before Shisui was even born.”

Sakura stares down at her lap, index finger absently tracing the rim of her glass. Sasuke’s eyes follow the motion, round and round.

“He used to make us onigiri and joke about being the only Uchiha househusband.” His voice wobbles a little, but he doesn’t cry. “He was my favorite.”

She doesn’t touch him, because she knows that despite the vulnerable moment, he’s still the same prickly Uchiha idespisehugs Sasuke. But she does swallow thickly, breathe harshly through her nose and ask, “How did he die?”

His dark brows pull in, but his back straightens into something surer than before, something like pride.

“They say he was guiding all the children to a shelter when an enemy nin hit him with an exploding tag. He grabbed the bastard, shunshinned to an empty house, and they both went down. But he saved all the kids.”

“Sounds like one hell of a shinobi.”

An echo of a smile flits across his chapped lips and Sasuke nods. “Yeah. Yeah, he was.”

She bumps her shoulder into his (it’s not a hug, so he doesn’t complain), polishes off the last of her water, and they get back to work.

It is two hours later, and they have just finished sweeping out the last of the woodchips and plaster and nails littering the floor when their third teammate pushes past one of the tattered restaurant norens and steps inside.

Sakura and Sasuke both freeze, brooms in hand. Naruto’s eyes are blood-shot and his hair is limp and stringy. Sakura could swear his whisker-scars look more faded than usual.

She doesn’t know what to say, where to start. Sasuke is easier, because mostly, she just waits until he finishes wrestling with his emotional constipation and talks to her first. With Naruto, it’s different. She isn’t used to this sad, gloomy thing that has inhabited the body of her sunshine teammate.

She doesn’t know what to expect, but of all things, she most definitely is not ready for Uchiha iamalonewolfgoddamnit Sasuke to be the first person to make a move.

Sasuke takes five steps forward until he is standing before their golden-haired teammate. From her viewpoint, Sakura can only make out half of Naruto’s face from around the back of Sasuke’s head. But something on Sasuke’s face must do the trick, because the line of his mouth crumples into something heartbreaking, and he swipes the back of his sleeve across his too-bright, blue eyes.

Sasuke reaches out and hands him his broom. Naruto sniffles a bit and takes it.

They work.

And afterwards, when the floors have been mopped, the stools have been set, and the counter has been rebuilt, they sit in a line and slurp down bowl after bowl of hot ramen that Teuchi slides down to them.

They survive.

Chapter Text

The night air pokes and prods at her pale skin, cold fingers prying the last remnants of her dream from her consciousness with unforgiving force.

She’d left her bedroom window open when she’d slipped away, and Sakura distantly hopes her parents won’t notice her mysterious absence. Considering they both have been retired ninja for over ten years now and no longer rely on the over-worked paranoia of their senses, her concern quickly dismisses itself.

The entire village is deathly quiet, the chirps of lonely crickets ringing faintly off the walls of nearby buildings. Overhead, the moon is hardly a sliver in the sky—a shy voyeur to her midnight march, unwilling to gift her its light as a companion.

Even the heavens have decided to abandon her.

It is only when her feet coax her through the cemetery gates, past rows and rows of tombstones, and into the little back corner of the graveyard, that Sakura finally feels the first sting of tears.

She sinks to her knees before her first two teammates and wraps trembling arms around her waist, spine bowing until her forehead presses into the damp grass. Snot begins to accumulate at the tip of her nose and spittle flecks from her lips and into the dirt below with every violent sob, but she does nothing to regain the loss of her dignity.

There is no one to watch her here, and quite frankly, she wouldn’t care if there was.

Sakura is no stranger to nightmares. She thinks—rather accurately—that no ninja is. The dysfunctional shadows of vivid red and terrified screams that plague her unconscious are sickening and often propel her into excruciating moments of panic. She is used to the sensation of bolting upright in bed with her sweat-soaked sheets tangled around her skinny ankles—used to the savage fear that leaves her gasping for relief.

But that is not how she woke up tonight.

Tonight, she’d opened her eyes almost peacefully, heart pulsing lazily and lips curling into a terribly genuine smile. Tonight, she’d woken from a dream so beautiful, it had temporarily erased her reality.

It had been a team dinner, complete with rambunctious wrestling, the smell of burning rice, and her uncontrollable giggles. It had been a team dinner, but it wasn’t with Team 7.

If she closes her eyes and digs the tips of her fingers into her ears, she can still hear Yuji’s indignant hollering and Akemi’s poorly concealed laughs as if she is still dreaming. As if they are still here.

It was a beautiful dream, a perfect dream—and that is what makes it so much worse than any bloody nightmare she’s ever had.

Her nightmares are honest. They are grounded in reality—in her reality—and that is why she respects them. But this dream, this fantasy—it mocks her with its could-would-should haves. It taunts her and teases her and kisses her with a want that she cannot quench.

And for one sorely beautiful moment, when she’d first woken up, she’d forgotten what it was like to be Left Behind.

Slowly, Sakura straightens from her crumpled pose, teeth rattling on every inhale. She crawls towards the space between Akemi and Yuji’s headstones and lowers herself onto her side, curling inward until she can rest the salty skin of her cheek on her forearm.

She swallows and squeezes her eyes shut, bitterly remembering that she is not merely Left Behind, but—as of tomorrow morning—she is Left Behind Twice.

“My Tou-san and Nii-san said I need to learn how to control the Cursed Seal, so I’m leaving to train with Kakashi-sensei. I don’t know when we’ll be back.”

“Sakura-chan, Sakura-chan! Ero-sennin is going to be my totally badass, new sensei! We’re gonna go on adventures and learn cool-ass fighting shit, and when I get back, I’ll finally be ready to be the next Hokage!”

“Don’t forget that you’re my favorite student, Sakura-chan. I’ll miss you.”

Sasuke and Kakashi had left over two days ago (i bet i’ll be taller than you the next time i see you!), while Naruto is to depart with the Toad Sannin before noon tomorrow (today, she corrects), so Sakura supposes she is currently only Left Behind One And A Half.

She wonders at the fact that after all her hard work, she still is only expendable.

When she falls asleep—right there in the middle of her dead teammates resting places—Sakura does not dream at all. It is a welcome relief.

She wakes again to the odd feeling of being watched, but when she blearily lifts her head, green eyes squinting against the early morning sun, there’s no one besides herself in the cemetery.

Sakura unfurls from her fetal position, back protesting sharply at her movements after having been in a fixed position for such a prolonged amount of time. She grunts, swallowing against the sour taste of stale spit in her mouth. Her eyelids are crusted over from crying, and her brain is determined to exit her body by repeatedly throwing itself against the walls of her skull, but she merely stands, brushes off her skirt, and begins the long trek back towards her house.

She sneaks back in through her bedroom window, takes a scalding hot shower to scrub the morning dew from her skin, and throws on a clean dress and leggings.
Her reflection in the mirror betrays nothing besides the dark circles beneath her eyes.

And when she sees Naruto off at the village gates later in the morning—his golden hair nearly as bright as his naivety—Sakura’s smile doesn’t even twitch.

Chapter Text

The Hokage’s office is almost exactly the same as the last time Sakura had seen it.

His desk is just as large and just as messy. Even the ANBU guards standing oh-so-spookily in the corners look almost familiar (athough, Sakura thinks that may just be because of their matching uniforms and monochrome masks).

The Hokage himself looks just as youthful and kind and gentle as before, despite the weary lines beginning to etch creases at the edge of his eyes and the upturned sides of his mouth.

“Sakura, please have a seat.”

She tries to remind herself that this is Konoha’s infamously deadly Yellow Flash—not just the father of her teammate who she has seen on multiple occasions puttering around his home kitchen in a white and pink, lace apron. She blinks hard, attempting to once again separate Naruto’s entirely-too-domestic dad from her respectfully feared and esteemed Hokage, but the image sticks stubbornly in her head.

Sakura does not know why she has been summoned to his office, a dull sort of anxiety beginning to churn in the greedy pit of her stomach. She calmly and slowly takes a seat on the other side of his desk anyways.

His eyes are crisp and scarily observant as they meet hers, and she tries not to flinch away from the familiarity of them. If she tilts her head, and squints the slightest bit, it’s almost like she’s looking at Naruto from the future.

“How are you doing, Sakura?”

Her eyebrows scrunch together in confusion, and her answer comes out sounding more like a question. “I’m well, Hokage-sama.”

He only looks thoughtfully at her, clasped hands coming to rest atop the many scrolls laid before him. “You are an exceptionally intelligent kunoichi, Sakura, so I will not lie to you.”

Immediately, there are nervous pins and needles invading her tense muscles, and she cannot help but wonder what bad news he is about to deliver to her.

He fixes her with an almost apologetic gaze, and this time, she fidgets uncontrollably under its weight. “I was concerned about how you would handle the absence of your teammates, especially after the regrettable tragedy of your first team. So, I had one of my ANBU guards monitor you for a few days after their departure.”

Acutely, Sakura feels every individual joint in her body lock in place. Her eyes automatically dart towards the two guards stationed behind Minato, a peculiar sense of betrayal turning her fingers cold.

“While it was done out of concern for your safety, I do apologize for the intrusion on your privacy and ask that you may forgive me.”

Sakura does not know whether the option to deny her Hokage forgiveness is in fact available to her, but he says the words so genuinely and heartfelt that it feels like—in the most bizarre way—he truly is asking her and that she really does have a choice.

So, she turns her attention back to his earnestly patient face, and nods almost mechanically. “I understand, Hokage-sama.”

“Thank you, Sakura.” He smiles gently at her, and the cold clamp on her intestines begins to relax. “That being said, it has been brought to my attention that you have been exhibiting mostly healthy coping mechanisms despite the emotional stress you have been under, and I wanted to personally check in to make sure you are alright.”

She would have relaxed fully if not for the 'mostly' that sticks out of his seemingly positive statement with a pointed knowledge. All too effortlessly, her mind conjures up the uncomfortable feeling of eyes on her back as she’d left the cemetery the morning of Naruto and Jiraiya’s send-off, and a resigned sort of embarrassment twists the vertebrae of her spine.

But she’ll be damned if she allows herself to be babied after how hard she’s worked to earn the respect and acknowledgment of her fellow ninjas.

Instead, she forces the shards of her spine to unlock, plants her small feet flat on the floor beneath her, and levels a serene smile at the Yondaime—teeth and all.

“I appreciate your concern, Hokage-sama, but I’m afraid that it has been misplaced. I truly am doing well, and while I miss my teammates, every day is a little easier.”

It is not quite a lie—more of a half-truth. Because sure, she occasionally feels the hollow bite of Naruto and Sasuke and Kakashi’s absence, and yes, sometimes there is a red red rage that consumes her when she remembers that she has been Left Behind, and okay, maybe she has found herself in the midst of slightly self-destructive tendencies as a result of those two things—but really, she is alive and breathing, and she has her incredibly patient parents and her renewed friendship with Ino, and so what if they didn’t want her. She will adjust—she’ll manage. Her life does not have to end just because Team 7 did.

Minato studies her with eyes that miss nothing, and she knows that he knows that she is partially bluffing, but something on her face—in the hard set of her jaw—must have convinced him, because he merely quirks the corner of his mouth up in the most real smile from him that she has seen yet, and sits back in his chair.

“Good.” He picks out one small scroll from among the dozens littering his desk and unfolds it. “The other reason I have summoned you here today is because I have a proposition for you.”

She blinks and leans forward in her chair. “A proposition?”

“Yes. Kakashi was actually the one to bring it to my attention. He did not have time to work out the details before he left the village, but he ensured that I would see that his idea would not go forgotten in his absence. And I admit, I think it will prove to be well-worth his investment.”

There is a tiny, secret part of her that thaws with the revelation that her sensei did not fully cast her aside—that he did not leave the village disappointed in her for being average in all the ways that counted in the ninja world.

“What is the proposition, Hokage-sama?”

He smiles, and hands her the scroll. She reaches over the vast expanse of his cluttered desk and plucks it from his fingertips.

In broad handwriting that borders on illegible, Sakura reads:

“Minato—

You and your stupid council members have been a pain in my ass since the day I left. But Konoha is still my home, and I despise those who would hurt it more than I despise the bad memories that await me there.

Yes. I will come back to aid with the repairs. I’m sorry I couldn’t make it to Sensei’s funeral. I’m going to miss the old man. We all will.

As for your second question, isn’t it enough that you’re making me come back? Rather presumptuous of you to ask me a second favor, you brat. All I can say is we’ll see. If this supposed spitfire proves herself worthy, I’ll consider taking her in.

–Tsunade”

Chapter Text

The Slug Princess is a force to be reckoned with, Sakura decides.

Their first meeting is tumultuous, to say the least.

For starters, the busty Sannin arrives at Minato’s office halfway drunk, her cheeks dusted pink and her pigtails nearly falling out. As if that isn’t enough to prove that Sakura has her work cut out for her, this woman seems to have already made up her mind about how inferior Sakura is as a kunoichi.

When Tsunade enters the Hokage’s office—twenty minutes later than Sakura herself—she immediately casts Sakura an appraising look, lips twisting in an expression that speaks vaguely of disgust.

“Small. Skinny. Pale.”

Sakura bristles, jaw setting, but she holds her tongue, determined not to ruin this opportunity.

Minato only raises an electric-yellow eyebrow. “Welcome back, Tsunade-san.”

The older blonde scoffs. “Oh, come off it, Minato. We all know why I’m here.” She crosses her arms, cleavage deepening, and trains a challenging eye to Sakura. “So, you’re what I have to work with.”

Sakura nearly snarls but manages to keep herself in check.

“You don’t look all that special. In fact, the only thing standout about you so far is your ridiculous hair.” She tilts her head condescendingly. “Why the hell should I pay you anymore attention than I already have?”

Her insides are burning, and suddenly she needs to show this woman that she’s more than what she looks like—needs to bite the bait and hold on for dear life.

When Sakura speaks, it comes out sounding calmer than she’d expected. “Why the hell should I want you as a sensei?” She drags her sharp green eyes from the woman’s toes upupup to the diamond on her forehead. “All I see is a washed-up drunkard with a bad attitude. Why would I want to be anything like you?”

The Sannin studies her for a moment with eyes like twin ice chips, pink mouth pursing. And then, she smiles with the feral glint of teeth.

“Who says you’ll be anything like me?”

Sakura returns a smile of her own, sickly sweet and reeking of defiance. “Who says I won’t?”

Tsunade regards her for a moment, long lashes sweeping across the tops of her cheeks as she blinks slowly. She turns to Minato, the corner of her mouth curling up just the tiniest bit.

“I’ll start on her once I’ve checked in with the hospital and assessed the damage. Not before.”

Minato smiles pleasantly, hands folded over one another on the desk before him. “Excellent.”

“And you’re going to have to promote her. I’m not going to be seen training a genin, Minato.”

Minato quirks his head in thought, but nods after a moment. “Done. I’ll tell the current Chief of the Hospital to prepare for your arrival.”

Tsunade merely flaps a hand dismissively. “Don’t bother. I’d rather take him by surprise and see what I’m up against. Kami knows what the hell has happened to that hospital since I left.”

Their Hokage nods and reaches to make note of something on a nearby scroll. “Very well. I look forward to your report.”

Tsunade inclines her head and turns, stopping before Sakura. She smirks, a dangerous light brightening her honey-colored eyes.

“As for you, don’t expect me to go easy on you just because you’re a smartass. If I’m going to be training you, I’m going to do it right.” She tilts her head to the side, sizing her up. “Meet me at noon on Training Ground Four in three days. Don’t show up if you’re scared.”

Sakura narrows her eyes and squares her shoulders. “I’m not.”

The Sannin only grins and takes her leave, a strange sort of satisfaction saturating her aura.

From behind the Hokage’s desk, Sakura hears the rustling of papers and a weary sigh. When she turns back to look at him, he’s pulling out a thick flak jacket from underneath his desk and sporting a tired smile.

“I was planning on promoting you anyways, but I suppose sooner is better than later. Congratulations, Sakura-chan, and good luck.”

As she accepts the vest and rubs the rough fabric against her fingers, Sakura can’t help but feel as if she’s just passed some sort of test.

Chapter Text

“Oi, brat.”

Sakura rolls her eyes and lifts her glowing hand from the deep gash on her leg. “Yes, Shishou?”

A few feet away from her, Tsunade lies sprawled out on the Training Ground grass, one arm slung lazily over her face to block out the bright sun overhead. Sakura eyes her relaxed appearance, and then looks down at her own grimy, sweat-slicked self and resists the urge to throw a clump of dirt at the older woman.

Tsunade peers at her from under her arm and glares. “I never said you could stop healing yourself.” Once Sakura begrudgingly returns to mending the tissue of her thigh, Tsunade hums and continues to sunbathe. “As I was saying. Talk to me about your Chunin Exams. I never did ask you about them.”

Sakura wrinkles her nose and focuses on sanitizing the last layer of her dermis. “Why do you wanna hear about the Exams? That was ages ago.”

“Because I wasn’t there to see them. And because a little birdy told me a very interesting tidbit of information about one of your matches.”

“What did this ‘little birdy’ tell you?”

“That you broke out of the Yamanaka Body Switch Technique without the use of any kind of kekkei genkai or justu.”

Sakura pauses for a millisecond, but then goes back to healing her leg. “What of it?”

At this, Tsunade finally sits up, leaning her weight back onto her palms. “What of it? Sakura, no one has ever broken out of the Body Switch Technique. At least not anyone on record.”

The skin of her thigh looks as good as new, so Sakura releases her healing chakra and finally looks up at her sensei. “Well, I don’t know how I did it.”

The blonde snorts. “Of course you don’t. No one knows how you did it, not even Inoichi, who I may or may not have cornered and interrogated in the jounin headquarters yesterday. That’s why I want you to tell me about it.”

Her pink brows furrow, the skin of her sweaty forehead creasing. “I really don’t know, Shishou. I just got…really angry. Everything else sort of melted away, and all I could think of was how pissed I was that someone else was inside my head. So, I made her leave.”

Tsunade is quiet for a moment. Her golden-eyes deep in thought. And then finally, “You’re a genjutsu type.”

Sakura blinks. “Yes.”

Her mentor nods, as if to herself, and then abruptly stands. “C’mon.”

The pink-haired chunin scrambles to her feet and jogs to catch up to the Sannin. “Shishou?”

“You’re far more intelligent than most of the numbskulls I come across in our shinobi ranks, even the ANBU ones. So far, you’ve kept pace with everything I’ve been throwing at you, but I’m not a genjutsu type, and I don’t have much experience in mental head games. However, I do know someone who is exceptional at both, and he owes me a couple favors.”

Twenty minutes later, Sakura finds herself at the opposite end of Konoha, standing before a massive brick building. There are two Uchiha police members stationed at the front doors, their uniforms crisp and expressions guarded. Tsunade hardly even spares them a glance as she walks straight into the building, and neither of the men attempt to stop her.

Thoroughly confused, Sakura fingers the edges of her pink and black training shirt and sticks as closely to her mentor as possible.

They wind their way down a series of halls and up several flights of stairs—Tsunade occasionally returning a greeting or two from various ninja—until they reach a sturdy, metal door with a plaque that reads “Head of Torture and Interrogation.” Sakura wonders if she might have sassed her teacher one too many times and starts formulating an apology.

Tsunade reaches up and slams her palm to its cold surface. “Open up, Morino.”

After a few moments of anticipation, the door swings open to reveal a tall, gruff looking man. The fluorescent lights above illuminate the scars on his face, harsh shadows making his already terrifying countenance look even more severe. Sakura briefly recalls him proctoring part of their chunin exams, but the realization is quickly replaced by her sudden spike of anxiety.

His pitch-black eyes narrow in scrutiny at the two of them, his gaze flicking briefly to Sakura’s (undoubtedly horrified) face before returning to Tsunade. “Senju. The fuck do you want?”

“Is that any way to greet an old friend after ignoring her return for three months?”

He barks out a sound that might be a laugh—but Sakura isn’t willing to bet on it. “Clearly, you remembered where my office was. Didn’t think you needed a goddamn invite and an RSVP to drop in on your own.”

Tsunade grins and then pushes her way into his incredibly spartan office. Ibiki takes exactly one step to the side and stares down his nose at Sakura as she nervously squeezes herself through the narrow space, desperately trying not to accidentally touch him.

Once he’s shut the door behind them, the stony man crosses his arms and huffs. “What the fuck do you want? I’m busy.”

Tsunade only cocks her head to the side and proceeds to sit in his chair, kicking her feet up on the edge of his near-empty desk.

“God, Morino. This chair is like a cement brick. Would it kill you to invest in some leather?”

He levels her with a dead pan stare. “I have a job to do, Senju. Tell me what you want or get the fuck out of my office.”

Unfazed, her sensei only reaches over to tilt a mug on his desk towards her, and upon seeing it is only non-alcoholic coffee, she grunts and shoves it away. Finally, she turns to look at Sakura.

“This is my apprentice, Haruno Sakura.”

Ibiki only raises one sort-of-there, might-have-been-burnt-off-at-one-point eyebrow at Sakura’s uncomfortable figure as she stands awkwardly to the side. “And?”

“She’s the one from the Chunin Exams. The one that overthrew the Yamanaka.”

Recognition seems to spark in his soulless eyes, and he finally drops the intimidating posture, shoving his scarred hands into his pockets. “Hn. And what’s wrong with her?”

Sakura blinks, and then glares. But then, she recalls her blind rampage on Ino, her two infamous teams, and the fact that her genin sensei was Hatake Kakashi—and she holds her tongue.

“Nothing’s wrong with her, Ibiki.” Tsunade pushes against the desk with one foot until the chair is tipped onto its back legs. “But I want you to teach her some basic genjutsu—maybe poke around in her head a little. Like I said, nothing’s necessarily wrong with her, but there is something odd about her. I want to know exactly what I’m working with here, because it would be a damn shame for me not to utilize all of her potential.”

It’s difficult to figure out exactly what he’s thinking behind his beady eyes and weather-worn frown lines, but Sakura attempts to hold his gaze all the same. He drags a slow, calculating look from her sandaled feet (she struggles not to curl her ‘Sea-Foam Green’ painted toes) to her oily pink hair with an expression so neutral she feels like she’s being appraised by a corpse.

She tries not to look like she’s waiting with bated breath—the way she truly is, because if Tsunade-shishou has this man’s approval then she wants his approval—but has a sneaking suspicion that she doesn’t quite succeed.

Ibiki crosses his arms and exhales. Sakura nearly wrinkles her nose at the stale cigarette smell that carries on his breath.

“Alright.”

She swallows, wondering if it’s possible to develop a stress ulcer at the tender age of thirteen-and-a-half-years-old. She makes a mental note to ask Tsunade later.

“Wonderful.” Her Shishou grins and slides her feet off his desk. “What days do you want custody of the kid?”

His eyelids spasm, like he’s desperately holding back a dramatic eyeroll, and ignores her sensei in favor of directing a half-assed glare to Sakura. “Mondays and Tuesdays at seven.”

“In the morning?” Somehow, she manages to ask the question and not sound too whiney.

He snorts all the same. She takes that as a yes.

“Now quit being a massive fucking pain in my ass and get out of my office, Senju.”

Chapter Text

She’s almost late.

Her alarm had gone off at the wrong time that morning (well, she may have just snoozed it in her sleep one too many times), she hadn’t been able to find her hitai-ate for a solid fifteen minutes, and then halfway into sprinting across town, she’d realized (too late) that her shoe had come untied mid-run.

Now, two minutes before seven o’clock, Sakura hunches over her knees in front of Ibiki-sensei’s door, breaths coming in adrenaline-induced pants, and one glowing hand frantically swiping over the scrapes on her legs from her not-at-all-embarrassing-and-thank-god-no-one-was-awake-to-see tumble. She grits her teeth at the torn and bloodied fabric on her knees and hips, briefly lamenting the destruction of her favorite black leggings.

Sakura drags her arm over her damp forehead, stifles her labored breathing, and raises a fist to knock on the door.

It opens before her knuckles can even touch the faded wood. She straightens and her hand shoots back down to her side.

“Good morning, Ibiki-sensei.”

He’s dressed in exactly the same clothes as when she and Tsunade had burst in last time, and the same frown curves his thin lips.

“You’re late.”

Her eyes dart over his shoulder to the ancient looking clock hanging on his wall. The hands are pointed at 7:04. She squints. Shit. She could have sworn she would make it just in the nick of time.

“I—I apologize, Sensei. It won’t happen again.”

He maintains the glare for a moment before finally opening the door wider and letting her step inside.

“Sit.”

She does, settling into the cheap plastic chair across from his desk. He leisurely takes a seat in his own chair, arms crossed.

“You’re a chunin.”

“Hai, Sensei.” She fidgets in her seat.

“You don’t have any teammates.”

Sakura nearly flinches but manages to stifle her reaction. She knew going into this that it wouldn’t be easy, so she resolves to hunker down and survive the impending interrogation. “I do. Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto. They’re currently on an extended mission.”

“Together? Without you?”

“Not together. Separate missions, but both extended. Sensei.” She tacks on the honorific a second too late.

He scrutinizes her for three long moments, then reaches over to pour a glass of amber whiskey. Sakura blinks, unsure of why he would need a drink so early in the morning, but quickly shrugs the thought away. It’s not like Shishou is the only ninja with an alcoholic crutch.

Ibiki takes a sip of the drink and then sets it back down on a glass coaster. “Hatake was your genin sensei?”

“Hai, Sensei.”

“But not your only genin sensei.”

She pauses. “No, Sensei.”

He lifts his chin to prod her and she steels herself.

“I was originally assigned to Team 5, but both my teammates were killed in action early in our career. My first sensei was Okatsuka Kichi.”

“Ah, Okatsuka.” Ibiki takes another sip. “And, where is Hatake?”

“Accompanying Uchiha Sasuke on his mission out of the village.”

He takes another sip. “Lie.”

Sakura twitches. “Excuse me?”

Ibiki taps a rhythm on the top of his desk with three of his thick, scarred fingers. “You lied.”

“No, I didn’t. Kakashi-sensei is mentoring Sasuke.”

“He is not. Hatake is back in the village as of two days ago.”

Sakura shakes her head, unsure how to oppose the frightening man without appearing disrespectful. “I—”

“Yo, Sakura-chan.”

The heavy metal door to Ibiki’s office swings open with a clang, and Sakura reels back in her seat as Kakashi strolls in. Her tongue suddenly feels too big for her mouth, eyes frozen on his lax frame. He shuts the door behind him and leans one shoulder against the wall.

Kakashi’s gaze slides from Sakura to Ibiki and he nods once. “I see you’ve already replaced me.”

Utterly floored, Sakura only gapes, jaw working furiously though no sound makes it out. She stares hard at her former sensei, because why—why would he be back, and why didn’t he tell her before? Why was he here—here in Konoha, here in Ibiki’s office?

Ibiki grunts something and Kakashi responds with a drawl, but it all fades into white noise, because amidst her flurry of questions and confusion and hurt—Sakura notices something odd.

She can’t pinpoint what exactly is wrong, but something about the way Kakashi-sensei is standing, his pose, or maybe it’s his aura—it’s all just…off.

Sakura slows, forcing her breaths to come in and out evenly, forces herself to focus. She looks around Ibiki-sensei’s office.

His door. It’s metal now, but she knows that when she arrived earlier this morning, it had been wooden. The clock on his wall wasn’t there the first time Sakura had been here with Tsunade-shishou. In fact, the plastic chair facing Ibiki’s desk hadn’t been there either. She looks and looks and looks, cataloguing every minute detail she had glanced over before, and by the time she’s finished her slow examination, a dead weight has settled into the pit of her stomach.

Her fingers feel stiff as she forms the necessary hand seals and her voice is no more than a soft exhale as she says, “Kai.”

When the genjutsu finishes dissolving, Sakura finds herself sitting in a cold metal chair in the middle of an empty interrogation room.

There is no Kakashi, no glass of whiskey, and there are no rips in her favorite black leggings.

Across from her, Ibiki stands with a clinically assessing look freezing her in place.

“Welcome back, Haruno.”

Sakura’s eyes begin to burn and she swallows hard, chin tilting so that he cannot see the shamed tears threatening to sear tracks in the skin of her flaming cheeks.

She keeps her stare resolutely trained on his sandaled feet. Vaguely, she notices that his pants are different from the ones he had worn in the genjutsu. It only makes her feel worse.

Ibiki’s tone is neutral as he continues over her mortified silence. “Thirty-six minutes and seventeen seconds.”

Her teeth cut into the tip of her tongue.

“In that time, I could have done any number of things to you, your loved ones, or the Village.”

Her brain has begun to pound viciously, blood pulsing against her skull.

“I may have designed a moderately complicated genjutsu, but there was no small amount of fail-safes to encourage your success. You may be clever with medical ninjutsu and possess an oddly unique control of your chakra, but you are no prodigy.”

The itchy feeling of shame is not enough to silence her, and she whips her head up to glare resentfully up at him. “I never claimed to be one.”

Ibiki only studies her calmly. “No, you did not. But Tsunade has. Maybe not verbatim, but I do not make a habit of taking time out of my day just to train chunin. I chose to train you because Tsunade’s approval is not easily given, and any apprentice of hers must be one of exceptional abilities. You are talented, Haruno, and hard working. Do not mistake me for saying that you are not. But the human mind is complicated, and you are not equipped to face it. Not yet.”

She wants to throw a tantrum, to yell and scream and demand that he take it back. She wants to prove herself to him, to Tsunade, to herself, to anyone who will fucking listen—but another part of her deflates, because maybe he is right, and maybe she should just stick to one lane, hunker down and be a decent medic nin and forget that she ever wanted to be something more.

Sakura can feel the defeat beginning to overtake the righteous anger, and her shoulders begin to curl in on themselves, spine bowing minutely in disappointment. She fixes her watery, red-rimmed eyes on her callused hands fisted in her lap.

The floor. The tiles on the floor.

She stares hard, blinking the blurriness from her vision. Right there, three inches from her left foot—the lines separating the grey tiles on the floor look almost fuzzy. A moment later, the line wavers, and she knows.

“Kai.”

This time, dismissing the genjutsu feels less like watching color drain out of the world around her and more like waking from a too-short nap.

She’s in Ibiki’s office, sitting on the floor and propped up awkwardly against the far wall. The ground beneath her feels more solid than it had before, the air a little more crisp than it had been a minute ago.

Ibiki looks up when she stirs from where he appears to have been going over paperwork. He raises one gloved hand to remove the thin reading glasses perched on the thick bridge of his nose and merely watches her regain her bearings.

Sakura pushes herself into a more comfortable position and looks around hard, just to make sure that this is all real and not another fucking illusion.

Her new sensei glances at a small clock sitting on the edge of his desk, then looks back at her and nods.

“Slower on the uptake, but overall, nicely done, Haruno.” He slides his glasses back on and returns his attention to the papers on his desk. “Tomorrow morning, seven o’clock. Don’t be late.”