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Kill Your Heroes

Chapter Text

This Is The End

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter One-

Baptism or What Lurks Under Bridges

Sakura shadowed Tazuna through the decrepit settlement, feeling disgusted and being ashamed by that disgust. Everything was worn and dirty, from the buildings to the people, and there was a small, alarmed voice in her head shrilling, Don't touch anything!

It was silly, because she'd done her fair share—more than her fair share, she sometimes thought—of crawling belly-down in questionable smelling mud, but this wasn't a survival exercise. People lived here every day of their lives, bargaining for vegetables she wouldn't have thrown away without first putting on gloves at home. It wasn't quite squalor, as there was evidence of effort to keep things maintained and having once been prosperous, but it was a tired effort, as wilted as the tops of the carrots on offer.

The farmland here was poor, the rivers and winds carrying too much salt for much but the mangroves and buttonwoods to flourish. Once the rivers had offered up fish, the buttonwood a high-grade charcoal, and the pines further inland tar and resin that had been used in local shipbuilding and repair as well as being shipped elsewhere, but when Gatō had come, he'd razed the harbors. Now only his ships could travel freely, crippling the trade that had sustained the islands.

Most of the families that lived here, the ones that hadn't been able or willing to smuggle themselves elsewhere, were making do with what they could coax into growing and the fish they could no longer sell.

It was enough to survive, but it was a life absent of luxury or fiscal security.

It was Sakura's first real brush with poverty and she really, really didn't like it. Not the sight of it, nor the smell of it, strong enough to make her want to crinkle her nose up in distaste. Damp and fish and tar—nothing at all like home. But she persevered. Mostly.

She kept an eye of the children, who'd paused in their play to stare at her. She didn't have much spending money on her, their operating funds doled at the discretion of their jounin-sensei while they were on a mission, but ninja tools were a temptation even to village children who had plenty of actual toys.

As they approached the worksite, Sakura trailed even further behind the bridge-builder. She felt awkward standing on the periphery, but she couldn't exactly help out either, because it was well beyond her current skills to both help and keep a watchful eye on their surroundings. And even if she'd been able to, all her training at the Academy had only prepared her for demolishing bridges, not building them. Even that had been limited to a brief mention, as apparently their instructors didn't think adding a working knowledge of serious explosives alongside the myriad of bladed objects was a wise decision.

So she just sort of hovered, grinding one sandaled foot against the concrete while she eyed their surroundings. They'd covered guard duty quite a bit in class, as it was one of the jobs most often hired out to ninja, but she'd expected a jounin-sensei to be there and instruct her while she was in the field. It was one thing to have run through test scenarios within the grounds of the Academy and sometimes in and around the familiar streets of Konoha, but another entirely to actually be guarding someone.

Technically, she wasn't supposed to be eligible for solo guard duty until she made chunin or met certain requirements as a genin and received authorization to do so. But Kakashi-sensei was their field commander, so she couldn't exactly argue with him. And, really, when she hadn't had time to think it through, she'd been flattered.

Now, however, she was mostly bored. This was her second day of this, but even though it was only morning, she was having flashbacks to how the day before had dragged on and on, the building team working from first light to dusk in order to make as much progress as possible. It meant even taking her midday meal here on the bridge and resigned herself to few and abbreviated bathroom breaks. The only enemy she'd been asked to confront was sleepiness, but she didn't know whether to be grateful for that or not.

Tazuna apparently hadn't been completely trusting of Kakashi-sensei's less than impressive endorsement of Sakura as a bodyguard, so her pouch contained not only her standard ninja tools but also a few magnesium flares that were bright enough to be seen even through dense fog. Apparently, the residents carried them in case of emergency while fishing and they did have a certain telltale odor that she hoped wouldn't take up permanent residence in her bag. It was bad enough this town reeked like fish, what would Sasuke-kun think if she did?

He might finally notice something, at least, that sour, mood-killing logical part of her brain prompted.

As she rushed to reassure herself otherwise—because Sakura had never not achieved something she'd worked hard for and she'd never worked as hard for something as she did for Sasuke-kun—she did a perimeter sweep. She walked the bridge, peering down into the water, brow creasing as she considered how easy it might be for someone to approach in the heavy fog that wouldn't burn away until well into the day. But it wasn't like she could scale down the bridge's supports and take a look around.

Except, she recollected suddenly, she could. It wasn't a tree, true, but the principle would be the same. It might even be easier, since it wouldn't have the same faint buzz of interference as a living tree. Neither Naruto or Sasuke-kun had said anything about it, but given how much more trouble they were having, she had her first real challenge to her assumption that Sasuke-kun had chakra control much finer and more developed than her own.

She'd never really been better than Sasuke-kun at anything before, except speaking in keigo, and she didn't really know how she felt about that.

The cry of a passing bird disturbed her reverie and she shook free of her Sasuke-kun crowded thoughts, turning away from her view of the water.

It would be fine.

Except she hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder. With the view as perfectly obscured as it was and with the supports of the bridge so vulnerable, her mind couldn't help but recall the easy, effortless way that the two jounin had used the surface of the water as their battlefield. Kakashi-sensei had been certain Zabuza would be too injured to be a threat, but there had been that willowy hunter-nin-that-wasn't.  And Gatō was a rich man who'd already sent one other team to attack them while they were on the road. Rumors said he traveled with bodyguards as well and brought out his thugs whenever the townspeople began to show signs of rallying themselves.

No, a lack of personnel wasn't his problem.

A cold breeze swept in off the water and made her shiver, though not at the temperature. Sakura suddenly felt very vulnerable and no longer too reassured by Kakashi-sensei's judgment. Now that the possibility had reared its head, she was compelled to check.

It was just like the monsters she'd been convinced had lived under her bed as a child. Her parents were completely undistinguished but absolutely dedicated ninja and after her Baba had passed away, she'd spent many, many nights where she was the only one home. So it had fallen to her to check, as she'd found it impossible to sleep otherwise.

This was the same kind of feeling, like something had reached into her chest and was squeezing. But she couldn't turn away, not now. Part of it was because of that old childhood terror, that if she turned her back something terrible might happen, part of it was that this was her responsibility, given to her by Kakashi-sensei. Sakura didn't shirk tasks assigned to her by her superiors. It just wasn't in her character, even if she approached said task with a deep feeling of trepidation.

She scurried over to Tazuna to explain what she was doing, so he wouldn't worry if she disappeared—but really, who was looking after who here?—and then she steeled herself to her task. At least with the tree, she'd had the advantage of starting at the bottom. The water looked very solid and very far below from her vantage point.

But just like the tree-climbing, it came easily to her.  The worst part was that despite her feet's ability to defy gravity, her hair and dress wanted to succumb to it, so she had to ignore one and wrestle with the other as she scouted underneath the bridge. Her face burned from more than just the blood rushing to her head. It wasn't as if she wasn't wearing shorts underneath, but still.

She decided that tomorrow, since Sasuke-kun wouldn't see her anyway, she would wear something a little more suited to lurking under bridges and change before they returned to Tazuna's home.

Not that there was anything particularly interesting to see underneath. Her paranoia turned out to be just that and she was left feeling both sheepish and a little light-headed.

But when she set out with Tazuna the next day, she wore a dark tank top beneath her dress she'd never intended to see the light of day. She'd only packed it because she'd heard the mornings in the Land of Waves would be damp and cool and she very firmly believed in layering for warmth. Sasuke-kun didn't seem the type to find shivering cute and no matter what Ino said about shivering burning calories, there were some lines she wouldn't cross.

When they had nearly reached the bridge she ducked behind a building to quickly shuck her dress, folding it carefully and stowing it in her pack. When she emerged, Tazuna had finished giving directions to his crew. As she approached him, she rubbed her hands up and down her exposed arms to generate warmth.

"So, keepin’ us safe again today?" Tazuna asked in her in that way of his, his tone straddling the border between gruff teasing and outright grouchiness. She smiled hesitantly at him, because she honestly wasn't sure which it was.

"Yes, sir," she replied.

"Well, get to it then," he said, waving her off. She stifled the urge to salute him sarcastically and walked off her perimeter. She glanced askance at barrels of something—she'd guess tar by the smell—that had cropped up overnight, along with coils of cotton and rope. She suddenly recalled a conversation she hadn't paid much attention to yesterday; several of the men on the crew would be leaving in the afternoon, to help other members of the community do some repair and maintenance on their shabby little fishing boats before storm season arrived. Tazuna had been irritated, but grumbled something about understanding the need to eat.

When she was satisfied that no one had sabotaged the bridge during the night or set any traps detectable by genin-senses, she gathered herself, pulled her hair up into a knot, and took that first unnerving step off the top of the bridge. Her stomach seemed convinced for a moment she would fall, she would fall and drown in that mist-covered water, she would die and never get even one date with Sasuke-kun.

But she didn't fall and she would win a date with Sasuke-kun.

That determined, she took the steps that left her in a world where there was solid concrete beneath her feet, but there was a sea where the sky should have been. Plunging beneath the fog was like walking into a cloud and would have been terrifyingly disorienting if she hadn't had a strong sense of direction. She was certain there was a technique to avoid her blood draining down into her brain, but for now she had to be satisfied with walking quickly toward the pillars situated roughly in the midpoint of the current stretch of bridge, where she could at least be properly upright if she perched on the support beams.

It was the ink she noticed first. Chakra-imbued ink, the kind ninja used. And this ink, she understood in an instant as she glimpsed the pair of shinobi kneeling at the center of the construct fiddling with something, was meant to amplify and direct an explosion.

The fist around her heart seemed to squeeze tight and Sakura couldn't breathe for a long moment, couldn't think, almost didn't have presence of mind enough to keep her feet firmly planted on the underbelly of the bridge. But then one of them glanced up, his gaze catching hers.

Dusky lilac hair framed a handsome face, but there was nothing attractive about his expression. As he uncoiled from his crouch, she saw that there couldn't have been much difference in their age, but the impassive thing that slumbered in those eyes of silver wasn't anything that she'd seen in the eyes of any of her classmates.

Almost before she'd noticed him move, he had knives in his hands. Not kunai, knives. They were a design foreign to her with a strange slight curve to the blades, held in a reverse grip at a 45 degree angle to his wrists. She'd seen that grip demonstrated once, though it wasn't part of the standard Academy curriculum. The forward movement would leave a gaping slash, the backstroke would rip flesh more messily.

Her strange paralysis evaporated and all she could think of was the need to get away, get to somewhere where she could set off her flares, where she wasn't at risk any minute of falling.

Sakura sprinted for the edge of the bridge, but she couldn't forget that to misstep was to die, could not lose that single point of contact that kept her from the hungry waters below. That made her slower than she might have been and he almost caught her, surging forward in a powerful bound. It was the sudden absence of pounding footsteps that alerted her to her danger; she did not dodge so much as jerk her body roughly to one side, one hand slapping down against the bridge to keep her balance. She avoided a killing blow, but the blade caught at the edge of her lip and opened up a hot line along her cheek.

Adrenalin lent her the speed to stay ahead of the second knife, though the margin was narrow enough that she could feel the blade bite shallowly into her calf as she managed to flip herself around the edge of the bridge and fling herself upward. Her eyes took in her surroundings in an instant and though escape was her overriding thought, others intruded, more by habit than by design. If it weren't for years of conditioning, nothing would have filtered through her panic.  

As it was, the sight of Tazuna stopped her plans for flight, because he and the others were working steadily at the end of the bridge and the shinobi chasing her wasn't the only threat. Her feet were already moving as her mind desperately sought out something like a plan. Nothing came, but her body moved, running towards town because that was the direction she'd been facing. Her hand fumbled in her pouch for a flare, but a sharp blade rasping over the back of her hand made her drop it, leaving it to skitter uselessly across the bridge.

Her hunter still hadn't spoken a single word and somehow his silent, relentless pursuit was almost worse than any taunt he could have made. It made her achingly aware of the fear that rode as a tight knot in her chest, drawing tighter. She had neither Sasuke-kun's speed nor Naruto's stamina—at any moment, the chemicals flushing through her veins wouldn't be enough to spur her forward.

She lurched suddenly toward the tar barrels, not even thinking, just reacting, and she somehow managed to lift one and pitch it at her pursuer. He was so close as she turned he didn't have room to dodge, just space enough to cross his arms and protect his face. Maybe it was the way her chakra was flaring erratically, maybe it was something else, but the barrel gave with a crunch, tar—heavy, stiff, the heat of the sun not having given it much viscosity yet, but still enough to smear and stick—coating his arms and front.

There was no conscious thought to it, nothing that could be called a plan, but she saw hesitation, she fumbled for another flare, and then—

Magnesium burned at several thousand degrees and could not be extinguished by water, from which it could draw oxygen, which was why these kinds of flares were used only in emergencies and even then with extreme caution on wooden vessels.

The flashpoint of tar was much lower than that.

She'd wanted to hurt him, wanted to keep him from hurting her, but...

It was a nightmare, this black, boiling stuff eating into his flesh, his clothes catching fire, the smell of scorching skin, the scream that twisted his lips, the knives that were drawing toward her with a heavy sense of inevitability regardless of any of those things. She managed to catch his wrists, ignoring the heat that scalded her palms, squeezing so tight she swore she could feel her own bones creak.  

He was screaming, but she could hardly hear him, just feel the weight and strength of his body driving his knives on a terrible path. They descended like twin fangs, intent to pay her back in kind for the pain. All that terrible indifference had burned away from those silver eyes and a wild light had replaced it, his features so twisted he hardly even looked human any longer.

Whatever miraculous strength she'd had before was gone; now her muscles trembled and she knew that she couldn't hold him off until he died. They had told her that someone would die in fire; they had not warned her that it might take this long.

But this one thing she remembered from the Academy. She let one arm go limp, side-stepping the knife as his momentum pulled him forward, using that moment to switch the grip on his wrist and drive his other knife on a grating trail in past flesh and bone. He fell forward, still burning, still screaming, still dying, and it was with a terrified, wretched whimper that she scooped up the knife not buried under the corpse.

She didn't think to set off another flare for Kakashi-sensei, didn't even in that moment really intend to deal with the other shinobi. Little flecks of boiling tar had leapt to her and like pork frying in a pan, the boiling grease of a human inferno had painted splotches on her shirt. Little flames were trying to gain purchase in the material and they weren't having much success, as the fabric had been treated, but there wasn't enough room for reason when the memory of the burning man was so close.  

She was on fire and all she could think about was extinguishing it. Sakura nearly threw herself over the edge of the bridge, recalling only in the last moment in her panic that a fall from this height might finish what her silver-eyed hunter had started. She kept seeing those eyes, kept watching his skin boil, even while her eyes could barely focus enough to make out a pillar. She slid more than climbed, her chakra still uncertain, and plunged deep into the cold water.

It only replaced one kind of panic with another, because for a moment she couldn't remember how to swim, almost gasped and drowned herself, but the first touch of water against her teeth was enough to have her sputtering and thrashing toward the surface. It was not a pretty swim and it was only luck that kept her from cutting herself on the knife she had a deathgrip on. She reached the pillar, clinging to it desperately.

Someone save me, she had space enough to think. Please, someone save me. But there was no shout of reassurance, no hint of rescue, just a pattern like an ugly black spiderweb stretched across the underbelly of the bridge. And another enemy.

She was already coming down hard off her adrenaline high, her muscles quaking, her hair falling down around her face. The cut on her face and on the back of her hand screamed at the saltwater and she was still seeing white suns.

But there wasn't anyone else.

Just Sakura.

Chapter Text

Sakura clutched at the pillar, her eyes trained on the shinobi high above. She didn't know if she could avoid thrown kunai from this position. She didn't know if she'd be able to see thrown kunai. Sakura had closed her eyes instinctively at the first flare of the magnesium, but opened them again just as instinctively in time to meet her enemy's final attack.

A still-smoldering enemy that she'd left unnervingly close to other flammable objects, but she couldn't think of that. She could barely keep herself together here. Some part of her was relieved when the shinobi who'd continued so carefully mapping out the pattern that would destroy the bridge and everyone on it sneered, turning his back on her in a blatant display of disregard.

Sakura honestly wanted nothing more than to keep cowering at the waterline, but beyond the white light of corneal flash burns, she saw a man burning. Her hands shook, but the solid weight of his knife in her hand grounded her. She couldn't let that happen to Tazuna and the others. The fear was great, but the fear of surviving the explosion she would have essentially allowed to happen was greater. Not by much, but enough. 

She misjudged when she started her ascent up the pillar, her foot coming down on water not nearly as solid as the column and she barked the skin of one knee and just to the side of one eyebrow. It burned as the saltwater seeped into them, but she ground her teeth together and sprinted upward. If she wheezed, so what? It wasn't as if her approach would be any surprise anyway and she didn't know enough about demolitions to judge from this distance whether he was using a mechanical timer or a chakra-pulse type fuse, or how close he was to finishing the inked pattern that would assure that the bridge and everyone on it would be nothing more than rubble and a memory. If he finished before she reached him, if that happened...

She shunted away that train of thought.

She didn't know how to disarm explosives any more than she knew how to set them.

She dug into her pouch for kunai, flinging them at her enemy. Her hands had been shaking, but the cool, familiar feel of the metal loops beneath her fingers brought back the endless conditioning of the Academy. She hadn't understood the countless hours of what seemed like mindless practice then, but now she did. Now it didn't matter that her target was a person rather than a painted target. Her body knew this, even if her mind lagged behind.

But this target reacted, deflecting her kunai with one of his own. She had some sense that he wasn't nearly as fast as Kakashi-sensei or Zabuza, but that offered her no reassurance. He didn't have to be jounin-level to be better than Sakura, especially at this moment. The white flashes had faded somewhat, but she was still seeing odd shadow-lights. She fended off his retaliatory kunai with the knife, but though it sat naturally in her hand, the hilt made for hands not much larger than her own, she was awkward in its use. Sakura had adopted the reverse grip naturally, the hilt and blade formed in such a way as to encourage it, but she'd never defended with a weapon in that position before.

One of his kunai rasped along the flat of the blade and traced a shallow path along her arm and she had to shift herself dramatically to keep from allowing it to continue into the mass of her body. Somehow, though, she couldn't make herself release the weapon she'd snatched up so thoughtlessly. But the exchange of kunai stopped as the gap between them closed, each readying for the other. Sakura simply charged in, but her opponent slipped a scroll from his equipment pouch. And when he unsealed it, it was a weapon unlike anything she'd ever seen.

As tall as he was, it was some kind of warclub, made of what almost looked like a young tree, the rootball at the end made into a mess of sharpened points and serrated blades driven into the wood. It was not a graceful weapon. It was not a proper ninja weapon, wasn't even a weapon most street thugs might have been satisfied with. But it gave him even more of an advantage in reach and skin, bone, and muscle had a surprising lack of regard for craftsmanship when faced with enough force. And those blades looked sharp as razors, with a sick, well-oiled gleam.

The wood was stained a deep, bloody brown.

"Hurry it up, girlie," her opponent grunted, "I don't have all day."

Sakura wished she thought she was skilled enough to play for time. As it was, it took everything she had to continue a battle she didn't want to be fighting, all of her will to keep her feet moving forward. Those few, tense seconds when they'd thought Kakashi-sensei was dead had been bad enough. This was worse.

Maybe it was because she was alone. She'd expected Sasuke-kun to win, somehow, no matter what had happened to their jounin-sensei, but she...

But thinking stopped as he made his first swing, letting it run out through his hand until he held it like a bat. It was even longer than she'd thought and she stumbled awkwardly to one side, because if she forgot herself and leaped, that would be the end of it. Like swatting a fly. Even if she somehow managed to block, he was heavier and leverage was on his side. She needed to shift this battle elsewhere.

Especially as she wasn't certain how much longer she could keep her feet firmly adhered to the underside of the bridge. Would he follow? That was the thought uppermost in her mind as she tried to keep out of range, being pushed back without much difficulty on his part. His fighting style was as ugly as his weapon, wide swings turning to wild thrusts, but in this battleground and against Sakura, it was proving effective.

She chanced a glance behind her, which revealed she'd lost more ground than she'd thought. She was almost at the edge of the bridge, the hook and cable of the dormant lattice boom crane dangling tantalizing far away.

Maybe...

Her mind was clouded with too much panic to produce something coherent enough to be called a plan, which insinuated more steps and clearer intentions. But she needed to change the battleground. She just needed to survive doing it.

She had a lot more shuriken than kunai and none of them would do her any good if she died here, so she used her supply freely, trying to aim for his feet as they continued their swift, awkward dance. She irritated him, she saw that clearly, and when she finally—with a swift twist of her wrist at the last second and coming dangerously within his range—sent a line of shuriken thudding home, she infuriated him. As he reached down to tug them out, she didn't allow herself to be baited in, instead turning, sprinting, and taking the greatest leap of faith she'd ever attempted.

She caught the cable with her free hand and twisted her feet around it. She was immediately glad she'd only had one open hand, because the cable was steel, cutting remorselessly even past her weapon calluses. Using her chakra rather than her grip strength, she slithered upward, her enemy choosing to come up over the side of the bridge and ascend the crane in a series of leaps rather than duplicate her own jump.

Sakura had only seconds to catch her breath before they met in combat along the length of the crane's jib. They were both more agile now, something that Sakura felt a deep sense of regret about, when she had the space to feel anything at all.

And then it happened.

Sakura was tired, her chakra not flowing as effortlessly as it had when the fight began, and there was a moment when her balance was precarious and her control slipped. She barely managed to catch at one of the bars before she fell and she dangled precariously, her one point of contact a hand that was slick with her own blood. Her arm trembled as she fought against gravity and the weight of her own body. No sparring match at the Academy had prepared her for this. There had always been the safety net of surrender; now there was only a choice about whether or not to let go.

Her opponent seemed eager to hurry her decision. He sneered at her and ground one foot down on her hand, which already had been thoroughly abraded by its encounter with the cable. Sakura screamed, the pain enough to override exhaustion and create an instantaneous reflex. She drove the knife through his ankle.

"You bitch!" he cursed her, shifting his weight to bring that club down, but she'd already used the  momentum caused by her movement to swing herself close enough to grab his other foot with her newly free hand. Her grip was solid around his ankle and she yanked it toward her with everything she had left. His entire weight was on that leg and he was just off-balance enough for his foot to slide forward that necessary inch into thin air. Weight and gravity took over where her strength ended and his pelvis met the unyielding steel bar with a solid crunch. He almost pulled her down with him, but she used his trapped body to claw her way up until she was crouched atop the jib. His legs had tangled awkwardly, putting the knife back within reach.

Sakura took it. And without any more hesitation, fear spurring her to new quickness, she ended the fight. Once, twice because fear had made her clumsy and she'd misjudged the first stoke, and then it was over. At first she could only stay there and tremble, braced almost as awkwardly as he was tangled, because she couldn't trust her chakra any more, but then she'd had enough.

She wanted these last minutes of her life to have never happened, she wanted to be home and finding herself waking up from a terrible dream, she wanted it to be one of those rare occasions when her parents were home too, but she had to settle for getting down, for getting the workers off this bridge in case she hadn't made it in time and somewhere beneath her feet was a fuse already lit. Sakura moved with excessive care, trying to move quickly without falling, until her world was a rhythm of moving her feet and hands from one brace to the next.

When her sandaled feet encountered concrete, it felt very strange. Surreal, really.

As she stumbled back toward the work crew, she noticed they'd dumped sand on the other shinobi and soaked it before it could spread. Somehow that made her stare, because it hadn't occurred to her that the civilians might make themselves useful.

Tazuna whistled when he saw her battered form and Sakura winced. If she looked half as bad as she felt, she didn't want Sasuke-kun to see her until sometime well after they'd returned to the village. He turned and called over to another worker, "Masa-kun, why don't you get the first aid kit." He thrust his thumb over his shoulder at the sandy mound of the other ninja's body. "If you want, we can take care of him, but your sensei'll probably want to have a look at him, eh?"

"I guess—I mean, yes," Sakura said, fumbling with the simply affirmative. Proper protocols seemed so far away. "But we need to get off the bridge. Now. They were setting explosives and I don't know enough about them to disarm it if he managed to set it."

Shock crossed Tazuna's features, but it was very brief. He seemed almost less surprised than she had been. In short order, he'd mustered his crew and they'd retreated to a distance Sakura thought was safe while they waited for Kakashi-sensei to arrive. She hadn't noticed, but they'd sent up the flare she'd dropped. And he wasn't as oblivious to his surroundings as she was.

"Ah, over here, Masa-kun," Tazuna called. "No point in waiting to get you cleaned up a little,” he said to her. “Have a little consideration for those who have to clean your blood off the street."

One of the crew members came forward and she allowed herself to be led out of the way, borrowing space on the bench in someone's scraggly front garden. The first aid kit looked more like a repurposed toolkit than anything she was accustomed to and Masa grinned at her. "Sorry. We're a little low-tech when it comes to something short of an emergency. Clean rags to stop the bleeding, alcohol to disinfect, some coldpacks. If it needs more than that, it usually means an immediate trip to the clinic anyway. Anything feel like it might need stitches?" he asked as he coaxed her to sit.

It was a little closer to a collapse, the knife clattering to the road as she finally forced her fingers to let go. She had a flash, instant but overwhelming, of silver eyes creased in rage and pain. She shuddered.

"Cold?" Masa asked. He was perhaps twice her age, with a kind face.

Sakura shook her head. "No," she croaked.

She sat still as Masa tried to carefully shift her hair out of her face, but it was sticking and pulling at her cuts and abrasions. Her headband simply wasn't enough to keep it back after her dip in the sea. Masa tugged free the material that had been binding his own hair out of the way, one of those oversized, fringed things she could never decide if it was a kerchief or a scarf and associated heavily with desert campaigns. Shemagh? Something like that. This one was white, with a simple black gridwork. She noted absently that his revealed hair was a muddy brown, chin length, and raggedly cut. "Go ahead and tie your hair back with it," he coaxed. "It was clean when I put it on this morning."

Sakura managed to undo the knot of her forehead protector, replacing her ineffective ribbon with the far more effective shemagh. Though Masa had to knot it for her. After fumbling at it and getting in his way, she just sat quietly with her hands tucked in her lap, holding a bundle of rags against the back of her bleeding hand. It wasn't deep, but as was the case with head wounds, there wasn't a lot of flesh to protect the veins and it had been bleeding freely. She was so miserable and sick to her stomach she hardly noticed when he turned his attention to her face.

Until he prodded at the cut at the corner of her lip. "Ah, this might scar, " he said. "You might need stitches, too. I'll take you to the clinic when we've finished here. But you're young enough that even if it does, it will fade."

Sakura had a feeling that the idea of scarring on her face was something she ought to care about, but the longer she sat still, the more exhaustion pressed down on her. And the more she felt that, if she turned her head, those fierce silver eyes would be watched her. Hunting her. Thinking that he was dead was no comfort, because that brought on a different kind of terror.

So she didn't look.

Didn't do much of anything, didn't think much of anything, until she heard the murmur of the crowd that heralded Kakashi-sensei's arrival. Before she could even spot him, Tazuna was explaining the situation in a loud, carrying voice. Kakashi-sensei's answer was brief, crisp and then he was gone again and Sakura was left in suspense with everyone else. It seemed a long, long wait, but then there was a cheerful report off, "All clear!"

"Good, then let's get back to work," Tazuna said. Most of the crewmembers shuffled back to the jobsite, though Masa stayed with her. She flinched when Kakashi's hand came down in that familiar, condescending headpat.

Sakura hunched her shoulders forward. "Kakashi-sensei, you're late," she accused. Now that he was here, it was almost a sob.

"Ah," Kakashi-sensei acknowledged. "Sorry about that, Sakura-chan."

She huddled closer, drawing in her knees as she sucked in uneven, ragged breaths. She didn't want to cry. Shinobi mustn't. But with the warm, solid weight of Kakashi's hand resting on top her head, it was proving really, really hard. Someone approached them and she didn't bother to look up, but the soft rasp of something being placed on the ground made her glance at it out of habit.

She kept looking out of horror. Why would anyone think I would want that?

It was the twin to the knife she'd used. But its steel was discolored from the heat, the nylon cord that had wrapped the hilt melted, tar spackling the exposed metal on the hilt. And it was still smeared with the blood of the first man she'd ever killed.

Tentatively, she reached out, fingers ghosting over the melted and burned wreck of cord. She turned, Kakashi-sensei's hand falling away. The workers had unearthed her first victim from his grave of wet sand and her gaze skittered away from even the faint glimpse she'd see from this distance, but her eyes caught elsewhere.

The morning sun finally burned hot enough to boil away the clouds, turning the sky a fierce red-orange, and there in that fiery sky, cast in dramatic silhouette at near the apex of crane—like some kind of gory flag shifting slightly in the breeze—was the twisted body of the second.

Sakura wept.

Chapter Text

Crying didn't bring any kind of relief, not like sobbing into Ino's arms or her mother's might have, just a sense of being watched, judged, and found wanting.

She wasn't crying loudly. Sakura had immediately stifled her sobs into something like harsh, ragged breathing in the way only those children who've learned that crying only attracts more bullies can, swiping furiously at her cheeks with the base of her palms. She had a sense, not necessarily backed by auditory evidence, that the civilians were whispering about her.

That same sense told her that Kakashi-sensei was regarding her with disappointment, so she struggled to stop and she was careful not to meet his gaze. But stopping seemed beyond her. It wasn't until her nose started running in earnest that her tears began to taper off and she could rummage in her kit for a tissue, unfolding herself from where she'd pulled her knees tight to her chest.

 She found one, of course, because Sakura had trained herself to be the kind of girl who never left home without a packet of tissues and a tube of lip gloss. Not even Ino could make a runny nose attractive.

When she'd cleaned herself up as best she could, the back of her hand still sluggishly dribbling blood and the cut on her face bleeding more freely, she stared down at the hand the tissue was clenched in.

"Kakashi-sensei, I—," the words all seemed to catch in her throat. She both wanted and didn't want to talk about what happened. Part of her thought that it would be better to have Kakashi-sensei tell her that everything would be fine, the other part insisted that he wouldn't understand what she was feeling, the painfully acute mix of guilt and relief.

And it hurt to talk, not just emotionally, but physically—the wounds which had hurt even in the midst of the fight suddenly seemed much worse now. 

As her hand came up instinctively to the cut on her face, she noticed that Kakashi-sensei wasn't looming over her as she expected. Instead, he was crouching. Not close enough to crowd her, but close enough to be comforting, somehow. Kakashi-sensei was not necessarily cold, at least not outside of that battle with Zabuza, in which he'd seemed like an almost entirely different person, but he was not a warm person either.

"Sakura-chan," he said, almost gentle, "why don't you go with this nice young man and get those treated?" His hands ghosted up toward his face, then flicked toward her to indicate her own wounds. "They look like they hurt. I'll take care of things here for now. We'll talk later, ne?"

Sakura nodded shakily and managed to get to her feet, even though her legs trembled and she had a horrible moment where she thought she would collapse to the ground. She saved face by pretending she'd meant to snatch up the knives, but when she found them in her hands, she didn't know what to do with them. She wanted to pitch them to them ground with a screech and go wash her hands, because both were tacky and one was warm, and she wanted to be sick, but instead she just clutched them tighter. If she didn't want to lose to Ino, she at least couldn't be sick in public. Not only her pride as a ninja, but her pride as a woman was at stake.

So, taking a deep breath, which did nothing to calm her when it only brought the stench of tar and melted plastic, Sakura allowed herself to be led to the clinic. The doctor was a stocky middle-aged woman who was promptly horrified at her appearance. That just made Sakura feel worse even before the doctor produced needle and thread, but the pinch and sting of having everything cleaned and disinfected helped distract her from replaying what had just happened in her mind.

Sakura had listened to all the lessons about compartmentalization and rationalization and all the other coping techniques they'd need as shinobi in the field. She watched the same films, been shown the same pictures, had attended the same demonstrations as the rest of her class. She'd thought she was prepared.

No one had ever asked Sakura if she wanted to be a ninja, but she'd never wanted to be anything else, either.

It was just what her family did. They weren't like the big clans: the Senju, the Hyuuga, or the Uchiha. Neither side had ever fared well in wars, so they were a small family—her father had lost all three siblings and her mother had once had a sister who'd survived the brunt of the fighting only to have her body declared irretrievable after a botched mopping up mission—and they didn't have any distinctive techniques, but they were loyal soldiers of the village.

Until now, she'd thought she was ready for this. That she knew what being a shinobi meant.

What it meant to take someone else's life. To risk her own life. Again and again and again. She couldn't decide which had been worse, the fight itself or the resolution. She still felt the terror of being chased by a stronger opponent, someone who would ruthlessly cut her down if he could catch her, but she could also feel the heat of the fire beating against her skin.

She shuddered and earned a rebuke from the doctor for her trouble. Sakura worked to keep still after that, but what should have been easy with the exhaustion weighing her down became a trial. It was as if sitting still gave the memories time to catch up. She shoved them away, tried to replace them with her favorite fantasies about Sasuke-kun, but they seeped back in, far more sharp-edged and vivid.

It was accusing silver eyes that haunted her rather than the dark ones she'd spent so much time hoping to turn her way.

But at last it was over.

The cut from the edge of her lips along her cheek had required stitches and though it presently had a bandage covering it, she was very self-conscious about it, prodding the edges of the bandage as she stared at herself in the mirror. The scrape along her eyebrow had been left uncovered and it was an ugly field of developing scabs, but it made something pinch inside her chest to know that her smile would be accented for years with a scar.

The doctor had found a hair tie for her, to replace Masa's shemagh, and she ran the well-worn but—as he'd promised—clean fabric through her hands. She'd used to do the same this with Ino's ribbon, winding and twisting it in her fingers over and over. Once, it had been comforting.

Once, the worst thing in her life were playground bullies.

Sakura eventually gathered herself enough to emerge from the little bathroom where she'd combed out her hair and tried to offer the scarf back to Masa with her thanks. But he grinned at her as he took it from her hands and looped it playfully around her neck. "A token of appreciation, for saving all of us today," he said.

"Here, fold it like this," he suggested and with deft hands, he refolded and tied it so that it formed a high ridge in front of her face.  "And there you have it. It might make that a little less noticeable until it heals. It would be better if the fabric was newer, but I still think it looks cute."

Sakura blinked at him, then turned so she could see herself in the mirror. It wasn't high enough to obscure it completely unless she ducked her head, but it did present a kind of visual barrier that diverted focus from the bandage. And for some reason, that lightened her spirits, but what really, almost unreasonably seemed to ease the pressure was the earnest, freely given gratitude in Masa's voice.

She'd known that she'd killed people today.

It had almost escaped her that she had also saved them.

She would never remember exactly what she said to Masa, but whatever it was, she doubted it really conveyed her appreciation.

Until that moment, Haruno Sakura had been a kunoichi by happenstance.

Now she had…something.

It wasn't as fully fleshed out as Sasuke-kun's driven ambition, it wasn't as loud or overpowering as Naruto's 'ninja way', but it was the first fledging sprout of a reason to do more than simply be. It wasn't a life-changing revelation, not something so big and overwhelming as that, not great enough to wash away all the fear and horror that still clung to her, but it was enough to temper it. It was enough to give her space to breathe again for the moment.

It was enough to take her back to the bridge. It was even enough to see her through the rest of the day. It helped that Tazuna and his work crew had recovered admirably. With everyone else acting as if it were business as usual, it was easier to go through the motions as well. Part of her was grateful for this, while another part wanted the whole world to be as shaken as she was. But the latter was weaker and, with a touch to Masa's shemagh for reassurance, she found that the sun still traveled across the sky at the same pace it had this morning.

Eventually, it dipped toward the horizon and Tazuna and the others began to gather up their tools. And Sakura spoke to Kakashi-sensei for the first time since she'd returned from the clinic. "Why...why did it take you so long?" she asked in a low voice.

Kakashi turned his head to glance down at her. "I had to deal with some annoyances on the road. Gatō apparently didn't want to take any chances with survivors making it home."

Sakura made a soft, awkward sound of acknowledgement and then fell silent again. That was fair, she conceded when they'd made it almost back to Tazuna's home. Kakashi-sensei was a jounin, not omnipotent.

But the closer they came to the house, the more nervous she grew. Her hand kept creeping up to check the fold of the scarf and she began to drag her feet. Despite everything, she didn't want Sasuke-kun to see her like this. She hardly even liked him to see her when she was all flushed and sweaty from practice. Sakura had worked hard never to show him anything but her very best, most composed self.

Now not only was she filthy, her hair volume-less and lank, but Naruto was bound to ask questions. And if there was ever a double-edged quality, it was that he didn't know when to quit. Sakura couldn't think of a single moment in her life when she'd less felt like talking to anyone, let alone the blond irritation.

But when they came inside, after she'd dithered outside until Kakashi-sensei gave her a significant glance, she discovered that both of the boys had wolfed down an early dinner and basically collapsed. So there weren't any questions, just worried looks from Tsunami and curious ones from her son, and silence in the room she was sharing with her teammates. Judging by how little Sasuke-kun stirred when she came in after she'd had a chance to shower, both had been exploring their limits.

That was something she understood.

But even with a physical tiredness that was the equal of most anything she'd ever felt, she wasn't prepared to sleep. So she sat very quietly instead, cleaning the knives that had somehow come home with her. One was easy. She had all sorts of theoretical knowledge on how to get blood out or off of almost anything. The other was...more trying. In lots of ways.

In the end, she cut away the cord that had once bound the hilt and rubbed it down with a rag generously saturated with mineral spirits, which she had to borrow from Tsunami. There was nothing that could be done about the discoloration.

She was still staring at it when Kakashi-sensei came in the room, rubbing at his hair with a towel. He paused for a moment, but said nothing before settling himself comfortably in the doorway that led out onto the narrow veranda, pulling out that battered book of his.

For once, she didn't mind. Something in her had come to associate it with an absence of real danger.

It was only then that she noticed just how hard it was to keep her eyelids from drifting shut. And how her whole body seemed to be swaying forward when she wasn't paying particular attention.

She settled in to her futon, but she couldn't bring herself to complete the nightly ritual she'd carried out almost religiously from the moment she'd had an opportunity to spend a night in the same room as Sasuke-kun. Mouthing Good night, Sasuke-kun was a giddy little guilty pleasure that made her feel as if her day had gone well, no matter what had happened in it. One day, she was going to say it out loud. And one day, Sasuke-kun was going to say it back.

But today was different. She was, somehow, different. So she drifted off to sleep in silence.


Night terror was a word she'd heard, once or twice. And Sakura, like everyone, had had nightmares in her life. She'd thought she might have nightmares after today.

She hadn't expected for sheer fright to rip her up out of sleep, her heart galloping in her chest, her throat muscles seized so tight she couldn't force the scream building in her chest out. Sakura felt like she was burning beneath the heavy blanket, but when she tossed it off, the sudden chill bit at her like a knife. She was disoriented in the darkness of a room that was still strange to her, and she kept seeing movement where there wasn't any.

Sakura didn't reach for a kunai after she'd thrown off the blanket. That simple motion had seemed to exhaust her ability to act; all that was left was to set there and shiver. The room seemed so cold, but then, she'd been burning. Sweet dreams faded like cotton candy on the tongue, but this one dogged her with brutal persistence. This time, the chase had lasted longer. Those silver eyes had pushed her until she'd felt like her lungs would burst, until her throat burned from desperate gasps for air, until her whole side was a twisted cramp like a kunai digging into her side. And she'd just...given up, when she could take no more. Collapsed to the ground on her knees, sobbing. And then he'd come.

Step by ominous step, each sound unnaturally loud. And this time, it had been her that had burned.

It was only a dream didn't have its usual effect. She could only crouch there on her knees and elbows, fingers digging into her hair as her quick, shallow breathing made her lightheaded. She thought she was going to pass out, but then a hand came down gently on her head.

A familiar, warm hand.

"Sakura-chan." That was all. He didn't offer her any more words of comfort than that, but it was enough to stop her from hyperventilating. And he sat with her while the panic eased, until she'd recovered enough to lay back down and curl into an exhausted pillbug position.

He had to do it twice more before morning came, but if she woke either Naruto or Sasuke-kun, they never spoke. By her third episode, it was a far less violent awakening and the terror-induced paralysis had shifted to an urgent need to move.

Though her body complained of being badly rested, that impulse didn't disappear with the sunlight. It made her jittery, so much so that she was clumsy as a child with her chopsticks. It made her really glad that Sasuke-kun had been absent when she'd finally woken for the last time and Naruto was still snoring so loudly he was audible throughout the house.

When she'd finished eating, she looked over at Kakashi-sensei. His visible eye crinkled up in that familiar crescent. "You're with me today, Sakura," he said cheerfully. "Guard duty for the two of us."

Sakura brightened at that, though some part of her had known that now that Gatō had made it clear he wasn't going to wait for Zabuza to recover, Kakashi-sensei wouldn't be able to entrust her with Tazuna's safety any longer. But hearing him say it was reassuring. She shuffled off to get ready to leave with only the faintest edge of trepidation.

The knives were left beneath her pillow. She didn't have sheathes for them and they were too long for her standard kit. And she wasn't certain if she even wanted to ever use them again. But when she considered simply throwing them away, she couldn't do it. It was stupid, because they were only metal. And memories.

She'd had no such reservations about her tank top. It had been unceremoniously tossed into the burnable garbage and her red dress, which had been spared the fight, was once again her garment of choice. With Kakashi-sensei there, she doubted she would find herself walking upside-down beneath the bridge any longer. Masa's kindly given scarf looked a little strange with it, in a way it hadn't with the tank top, but she wore it regardless.

Night seemed far away, Kakashi-sensei was there, and Sasuke-kun hadn't seen her. And when they arrived at the bridge, it was almost as if it had never happened. The bodies were long gone and they'd cleaned up the worst of the mess of tar and sand yesterday.

Still, a restlessness plagued her as they patrolled the area. She kept expecting shinobi to coalesce out of the mist.

Kakashi-sensei must have noted her restlessness, because once he was satisfied enough to let the work crew onto the bridge to begin their day, he motioned to her to follow. She was surprised when he doubled back from the leading edge of the construction to the shore, where he led her down to the shoreline. They'd reinforced the area with large rocks before beginning construction, but it was easy enough for them to leap from rock to rock. With a new understanding of how her chakra could be used, not even the ones that had a developing layer of sludge were that treacherous.

Kakashi-sensei smiled at her when she met him at the bottom, where the sea was lapping gently at the rocks.  "It'll probably be a little tedious for you today, if you were just doing guard duty. So, today, we're going to move on to lesson number two on basic ninja modes of movement. Water walking. You have all day and plenty of water," he said with an expansive gesture towards the sea. His smile deepened. "I'm sure you already know the theory. And if you don't, you can probably guess. All that's left is practice." 

Chapter Text

Water walking came to Sakura as instinctively as tree climbing. Perhaps it was because her chakra was weaker than Naruto's or Sasuke-kun's, but after only partial submersions—she'd been cautious enough use her new skills to cling to a rock while she got the feel of it—she began to understand how to interface her chakra with the natural flow of water to firm it beneath her feet.

By late morning she was strolling cautiously further out into the sea, where the spray wasn't as bad and she didn't have to account for the rolling wavelets. Though she was still taking care, it didn't take so much concentration as to prevent her from scowling down at her dress. It was soaked from the waist down and the panels of wet fabric kept slapping at her legs and clinging.

It had been a present from her parents and an expensive one at that. And when it wasn't sopping wet and she wasn't expecting it to defy gravity, it had been a much-loved garment. It was cute and distinctive, combining the feminine with the practical. Or so she'd thought.

Maybe if I have it cut down into a top? She considered that possibility and decided that might be the best course. She'd liked the way the way the skirt had helped to take attention from the fact she didn't have hips to speak of yet, so if she bought a shorter overskirt...

Her thoughts trailed off. Usually the thought of shopping would have eked away the restless irritation that had been building as she dealt with her dress's limitations, but today it remained a hard, stubborn knot in her chest.

She turned her gaze back to the shore and found she'd come further than she'd thought. Though water walking was more taxing than a stroll in her yard, it wasn't so chakra-intensive she was in any danger of having to swim back for hours yet. But there was—it was hard to explain, even to herself—a fierce need to move.

Changing the way her chakra was keeping the water a solid surface beneath her feet, she allowed it to gain a consistency less like flooring and more like mud. Shifting her weight forward, the water welled behind her heels like nature's own sprinter's blocks. There was a moment where she firmed the surface tension and then she was off like a bird that had caught sight of a cat. She ignored her breathing in favor of turning her attention to her feet, in not only keeping the water firm, but in also getting that perfect angle to build her momentum. In throwing all her weight forward against what was essentially an endless series of starting blocks, she was suddenly going faster than she'd ever managed on land. The rocks came up quicker than she anticipated, the steep slope of them like someone had dropped a wall in her path, but a sudden fit of daring meant she didn't slow.

Instead she used momentum rather than chakra to scale it as high as she could and at the very apex, she succumbed to l’appel du vide. She shoved off, giving it everything she had so she'd be clear of the rocks. Everything, including chakra.

It was instinctive, thoughtless. Bad.

Because suddenly she was flying blindly backward in a much higher arc than she'd planned and surprise and more than a little fear slowed her reactions. She didn't flip herself over in time, so she came down with hands outstretched rather than landing feet-first. Sakura panicked, focusing so much on making the water solid that she didn't even consider that without a working knowledge of how to reinforce her wrists with chakra, the impact was going to be much worse than if she'd simply turned it into a dive.

The first hand to come down gave with an ugly twinge and she toppled sideways, the water rushing up to meet her like a slap from the hand of a god. The impact drove all the breath from her lungs and when she gasped desperately for air, she inhaled water instead. Some sense of self-preservation managed to pierce the cloud of drowning! that occupied the higher centers of her brain. She thrashed gracelessly to the surface, coughing violently and it was only after several minutes of treading water awkwardly that she remembered she'd mastered water walking.

She dragged herself out of the water, wincing as her wrist protested. Her entire side felt like it was going to bruise. Sakura was still occupied in retching up the rest of the water when she became aware of Kakashi-sensei. Or, rather, Kakashi-sensei's sandaled feet, which appeared in her currently limited line of vision and were as a matter of course connected to the rest of him.

"While an impressive display of aerial acrobatics, Sakura-chan," he drawled, "you might have been getting ahead of yourself a little there. Is your wrist alright?"

Sakura flexed her fingers, then tightened them into a fist. She was aware that she was lucky—she could have broken it. Instead, she was left with what felt like nothing more than a painful sprain. "Yes, sensei," she whispered. She drew herself slowly to her feet, good hand clasped over her aching wrist.

She chanced a glance up from under her lashes at Kakashi-sensei, bracing herself for a scolding. But his expression didn't hint at anger. If anything, he looked a little bemused. She was still adjusting to his ability to be so expressive with so little of his face visible, but she didn't think she was misinterpreting it.

Seeing her attention on him, he chuckled and ran his hand through his peculiar silver hair.  "It was some very impressive chakra control. Even at the end, though you might not think so. But let's get you to the clinic. You might have pulled your stitches."

Sakura tentatively reached up to check her bandage and her fingers came away a watery pink. "I wasn't supposed to get it wet," she said blankly, only now recalling that admonishment.

"Ah," Kakashi-sensei said in acknowledgement. "Well, there is a long tradition among shinobi of doing things against medical advice."

Sakura nodded dumbly and began the stiff, uncomfortable walk to the clinic. She was somewhat surprised to find Kakashi-sensei accompanying her, but the clinic was much closer than Tazuna-san's home and by this point, Gatō would know that the bridgebuilder was no longer being guarded by a single genin.

"There at the end," Kakashi-sensei said casually, "do you remember what you did?"

"Used chakra," Sakura muttered.

"Correct," he replied with audible amusement. "But do you remember how you used it?"

Sakura was made newly aware of how sore her face was as she considered it. She remembered the impulse, but any specifics had been lost in the wash of fear that followed. Sakura shook her head.

"Ah. Well."

Sakura glanced over at him. "...did I do something wrong, Kakashi-sensei?" To her, the answer was clearly yes, but she was still waiting for his criticism.

"More unexpected than wrong. We'll work on it. Even with your landing, I think it's safe to say you've got the basics of water walking down. Naruto and Sasuke will be jealous, ne?"

Sakura winced, remembering that brief flash of antagonism from both boys when Kakashi-sensei had used her example to bait them. She didn't care what Naruto thought about her. But she cared deeply what Sasuke-kun thought. She didn't want to be his rival. She wanted to be his girlfriend. Kakashi-sensei apparently interpreted her less than friendly glance correctly, for he held up his hands in appeasement. "Mah, mah, no need to look so unfriendly."

They lapsed into an uncomfortable silence. Or, at least, Sakura felt uncomfortable. Kakashi-sensei was reading again, which made it hard to gauge his mood.

That was not the case for the doctor, who was naturally outraged. Sakura just hunkered down and waited it out. It wasn't as if she wanted worse scarring or complications, but the acid tongue she might have turned on Naruto and the other idiots her own age just sort of withered in the face of adult anger. So it was a thoroughly miserable Sakura that exited the clinic, holding an ice pack to her wrist. It was only a sprain and a relatively minor one at that, but it was yet another discomfort added to a growing list.

It and the shock were bad enough that nausea lay curled like a sleeping snake in her belly. Not enough to actually throw up, just enough to make her feel miserable.

And she was soaked again.

Sakura struggled not to cry.

She'd cried after—well, after, and that had been bad enough. Crying just because she didn't feel well was something babies did. So she gritted her teeth and spent the rest of the day stalking patterns beneath the bridge, blaming any dampness on her cheeks from the spray. She'd tried jogging, but while she didn't have any visible bruises forming yet, she'd hit the water hard enough that it hurt. Movement kept her muscles from stiffening and gave her something to do that wasn't reliving those long moments in the air. The anticipation of impact had been eerily reminiscent of the day before—that same hyper-awareness of time, each second long and distinct, like the heartbeat thudding in her ears. The world had shrunk to a tiny sphere of I don't want to die, the fear louder than any other sound.

Sakura clutched at her upper arm with her good hand and walked faster.

The day eventually burned itself out and she could go back to Tazuna's. Sakura was both eager to be away from the bridge and dreading the moment when she would be expected to sleep. The only thing that made the prospect of oncoming night tolerable was Sasuke-kun and she was in almost as sorry a state today as she was yesterday.

But Sasuke-kun wasn't there. Neither was Naruto. Neither had returned for dinner, which was enough cause for concern that Kakashi-sensei went to check on them, only to report that they'd almost mastered the tree climbing exercise and to let them be.

With a sourness that had never before marred her thoughts on Sasuke-kun, she wondered why he was taking so long to master something that was far less difficult than his fire ninjutsu.

Once she'd helped Tsunami do the dishes from their evening meal and showered, taking care not to get the bandage on her face wet, there was nothing to do but sit with Kakashi-sensei in their shared room and begin the long, tedious process of cleaning and oiling her weapons since they'd taken just as much of a soaking as she had.

Her mood grew darker with the sky. But it wasn't until Kakashi-sensei said offhandedly, "If you polish that kunai any more, you'll be able to use it for a signal mirror," that she'd been mindlessly working on the same kunai for the better part of an hour.

She set it carefully on the ground in front of her, staring down at its sharp-edged, practical form. "Kakashi-sensei, have you ever thought...about why you're a shinobi?"

Kakashi-sensei made a thoughtful noise, which he followed with a long silence. Sakura was beginning to think he wouldn't answer, when he finally spoke. "No. But I don't know how to be anything else, so it's not a particularly difficult question."

Sakura mulled that answer, which was about as unsatisfying as every other response he'd ever given about himself. "Does it...does it get better? The fear?" she clarified.

He sighed very softly and put his book away. "For some, yes. For others...no. It doesn't. There isn't any sort of rulebook or protocol for that, Sakura-chan. How you deal with the fear is something you decide yourself."

She drew her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them.  "What if...," she said in a low whisper, "what if there are more of them next time? What if they're stronger than I am? I can't stop thinking about it. Can't stop dreaming about it," she said, voice breaking.

"Sakura," Kakashi-sensei said, his voice firm without being harsh, "stand up."

Confused, Sakura did as she was told, following him obediently outside. The moon was just cresting the treeline, full and heavy, casting long shadows that turned the familiar landscape into something strange and alien. When he'd led her away from the house, stopping at the edge of the forest, he turned to face her. It might have been intentional or it might have been coincidence, but a bold slash of shadow obscured the visible portion of his face, erasing most of his expression.

And in that moment, Kakashi-senpai seemed just as strange and alien as the rest of the landscape.

 "Sakura, have you ever thought about why you were assigned to this squad?" he asked in an echo of her earlier question.

"Iruka-sensei said it had to do with our grades," Sakura answered hesitantly. Or, more specifically, Sasuke-kun and Naruto's grades. She couldn't remember if hers had even been implied in that discussion. Usually she had excellent recall, but that day had contained several very distressing incidents.

"And the other squads, were they also assigned using that criteria?"

Sakura hesitated, because she'd never considered it, but it couldn't be. Most scores were publicly announced in order to encourage competition, but Sasuke-kun had been the only shinobi to have such high scores in almost every area and Naruto had been, well, Naruto. Everyone else had fallen into a more normal range, performing well in some areas and worse in others. "No?"

She'd made it a question. Kakashi-sensei's answer was more straightforward. "No. Every squad, including those who failed and were sent back to the Academy, were carefully assessed and selected in order to meet a need of the village. Asuma's team will specialize in intelligence. Their placement was almost guaranteed, given how successful past squads formed from their families have been. Kurenai's team will specialize in tracking. Now," and there was a slightly mocking edge to the word, "what do you think Team Seven's designation is?"

Sakura flinched, but considered her teammates, not just as she'd known them in the Academy, but what she'd learned about them since. Her eyes flicked over to the man who'd been designated as their sensei. Something uncomfortable settled in her chest and she felt even more isolated than the events had of the last few days had managed to make her feel. Because if she left herself out of the equation, it was obvious.

"Combat," she said softly. "Team Seven is a combat squad. But I—"

He lifted one hand in a sharp gesture that severed the uncertain trail of her words. In the harsh moonlight, he was a stranger, a sharp, slim curve like an unfriendly smile. "You," he said, "were assessed to be a genjutsu type. Even in the Academy, you should have been aware that they're rarer than either the ninjutsu or taijutsu type. Were you ever curious why you weren't assigned to someone like Kurenai?"

Sakura shook her head. She'd been assigned to a squad with Sasuke-kun, which had been her goal. Why would she have questioned that?

"Ah." It was a sharp, weighty syllable. "Did you know that tree climbing used to be taught in the Academy? Now it's not even discussed as a theoretical technique, to keep over-confident students from trying it unsupervised, but once it was used to measure a student's aptitude for controlling their chakra. Chakra capacity is relatively easy to gauge, while control is much harder to assess. It is only once a student is capable of tree-walking that they were considered to have the control necessary to learn a wide range of functional jutsu. Can you guess why this might have been important?"

Sakura wasn't used to not having the answers a teacher demanded of her. It unsettled her, made her nervous. But she could only shake her head.

"Because war is a beast with an undiscerning diet and every village struggles to feed it. Once, candidates with advanced chakra control were shunted into classes designed to see them on the field as soon as possible. Think of it," and his voice was light and sharp, "as a race to manufacture weapons. Not all the potential in the world is useful if can’t couldn't be utilized, so those students who could mould their chakra were put on the frontlines to buy more time to train those whose chakra systems stabilized later.

“Sasuke has middling chakra control. What you're seeing in his training is very close to the average. You, on the other hand, could tree climb after a single demonstration. You learned to water walk in a single morning. You," and this time the pronoun stabbed at her, "would have found yourself on a battlefield far, far sooner than eleven if you had been born in time to see that last war. Sooner than either Sasuke or Naruto. You would not have been ready, but if you had survived, your reward would be a field promotion to chunin. And then there wouldn't ever be a jounin-sensei there to save you."

Sakura was trembling. She clenched her fists and tried to breathe through her mouth, but it didn't help. It was as if the ominous, terrible weight of Kakashi-sensei's words were weighing her down like stones pressing on her chest, each sentence bringing it closer to collapsing beneath the strain.

"That is what real fear is, Sakura," he said.

And like the sun coming out from behind stormclouds, Kakashi-sensei stepped forward into the moonlight and all that terrible pressure vanished. She collapsed, gasping and flinched back from his hand when he extended it to her. But he only brought it down in that familiar head-pat. "You already know what it feels like. If you want to fight it, it does help if the skill-gap favors you. This time, our enemies are mostly thugs who were never ninja or missing-nin who, for one reason or another, never made it past genin rank. That means that on the whole, they're undisciplined. Which will make them more susceptible to what I'm about to teach you."

"Wh-what?"

"How to turn fear into a weapon. And the reason no combat squad was ever formed without a genjutsu-type in it. You don't have enough chakra or experience yet to make use of a lot of jutsu, but the Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu should be well within your abilities. It's the same jutsu I used against you the day of the bell test."

Sakura cringed as the image of a bloodied and broken Sasuke-kun flickered across her memory.

"An expert can use it to intensify the body's natural reaction to fear until your opponent hyperventilates. You aren't strong enough to cause anyone to collapse, but if you're outnumbered, it will give you time to get away. And then," he said more affectionately, "sensei can come rushing in to save you."

Sakura wished she could go back to the time when she would have wholeheartedly believed that.

But what he was offering was much better than nothing. So she focused all her considerable skills of analysis and memorization on this one jutsu, painstaking repeating the handsigns that Kakashi-sensei demonstrated to her until she could link them into a smooth chain. It was only then she cautiously began to channel chakra, committing to memory the way each sign helped to direct and manipulate it. It was harder than the water walking, slightly less intuitive, but by the time the moon was staring down at them from where it had crested in the sky, she was rewarded with her first flicker of something.

It was like a haze that had given her the briefest impression of a crumpled form in front of Kakashi-sensei before he dispelled it with a single handsign. "Good job, Sakura-chan," he congratulated her. "It's your first time seeing the ghost."

"The ghost?" she had quizzically, letting her hands fall to the sides. She felt a sense of satisfaction that was more peaceful than triumphant, but also like she would need another shower before she crawled back into her futon and collapsed. Even being as careful as possible with her chakra, she'd spent a lot on failed attempts. And it had been a long set of days.

"It's what genjutsu specialists call the image they see when they use a genjutsu. It's a reflection of what your opponent is seeing, superimposed over the real environment. It would be dangerous if you couldn't see both, ne?" Kakashi-sensei grinned at her.

And her answering smile might have been a bit tremulous, but it was present. She didn't think she was so tired that she wouldn't dream, nor did she think that the dreams would vanish, but she thought she had courage enough now to make it through the night. Maybe not tomorrow, or the nights that would come after, but tonight Kakashi-sensei would keep her safe from everything but her dreams. And those she had to learn to face herself.

She woke only twice, briefly, before drifting back into exhausted slumber. She never even noticed when Sasuke returned, smug and fresh from the triumph of mastering the tree climbing exercise. 

Chapter Text

Sakura was very stiff when she rose from her futon, but it was more inconvenient than actively painful. Between her stitches and scabs, the faint twinge of her wrist as she'd pushed herself upright was more minor than the indescribable sound of Naruto's snoring.

She'd woken sometime before dawn, not quite rested but fairly certain she was incapable of falling back asleep. Especially as someone seemed to have installed a sawmill in the room while she'd been sleeping. So she'd lain there, staring at the wall and watching as the quality of light slowly shifted. She was somewhat resentful of the fact that Naruto's body, splayed out in ungainly fashion, prevented her from rolling over to pass the time by staring at Sasuke-kun. She usually slept in the middle, but as she'd went to sleep alone except for Kakashi-sensei, she'd dragged her futon closer to the wall before collapsing into it. She hadn't even noticed when the others had come in, though when she'd woken in the night she was pretty certain that Naruto hadn't been there. So he'd come in very late, which was good for the sleep quality of everyone else.

Sakura had battled restlessness for what was probably the better part of an hour before her need to move overcame the desire to pretend that there wasn't another day at the bridge waiting for her. It was more the need to use the restroom that decided her than anything else. And since she was up, she ran through her morning routine, which made her feel reasonably human again, especially when she stepped outside on the veranda after she'd finished dressing and spent some time stretching.

By the time she came back inside, Tsunami was up and fixing breakfast and Kakashi-sensei was sprawled at the table. Openly reading porn so early in the morning at someone else's house made her want to smack him, but she was distracted by the other person at the table.

It had only been a few days, but now it seemed like it had been much longer since she'd last seen Sasuke-kun. She was so excited that she almost forgot such things as the rough patch of scabbing next to her eyebrow or the bandage covering her stitches, but when Sasuke-kun glanced over at her and his eyes widened, it all came rushing back.

She ducked her chin, hiding behind the barrier of the shemagh, which was proving itself to be a much more useful article of clothing than her red dress.

"Good morning, Sasuke-kun," she mumbled into the cloth as she took her seat. And immediately regretted it, because she could have went to help Tsunami, which wouldn't have left her open to Sasuke-kun's scrutiny.

His open surprise soon vanished as he mastered his expression, but it was still there in the tone of his voice as he asked, "Did something happen, Sakura?"

She blushed a little that he cared to ask and opened her mouth to tell him—

No words came. She was surprised and tried again, but even as she searched, there was absolutely nothing about that day she wanted to tell him. Because to tell him would be to relive it and she did that enough in dreams. Sakura did not want to bring that fear, that blood and death and pain, into this room. Not where they ate their meals. Not in a well-worn house with a family that loved each other deeply, one of whom was looking to her curiously and one that looked on knowingly.

"It's nothing," she said faintly. "I was just...clumsy."

Sasuke-kun didn't look like he believed her, but it wasn't in his character to have an argument over the breakfast table over someone else's wellbeing.

Though a not-too-deeply buried part of her wanted him to.

Instead she had to settle for glancing over at Kakashi-sensei, who gave her an encouraging, eye-creasing smile. "So," he began, redirecting the attention at the table toward himself, "I think we should let Naruto sleep in, but I think it's about time you joined us on guard duty, Sasuke." 


Sasuke-kun was here, but so was the fog.

It was heavier than usual, but that seemed to please Tazuna. She discovered why when they reached the bridge and found the rest of the crew already assembled. They were all grinning and elbowing each other like boys with a secret, which made Sakura curious, despite the fog putting her on edge. One hand crept up to clutch at her upper arm and her breathing grew a little shallower, but she told herself that it was silly to panic while Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke-kun were here. She even almost believed it.

While Kakashi-sensei went to sweep the bridge, she and Sasuke-kun were left to wait with the others. Masa took the opportunity to approach them. She saw he'd replaced his scarf, his rough-cut brown hair now kept back by a more colorful shemagh in blue and black.

"G'morning, Sakura-chan," he said, grinning at her. "And Sakura-chan's friend."

Sakura automatically returned the greeting, while Sasuke-kun grunted a reply. "What's everyone so excited about?" she asked.

Masa's grin widened. "Today's delivery day and we've got a good, heavy fog, which means we don't have to rush as much."

"Delivery day?"

Just then, Kakashi-sensei gave the all clear.

 "Come on," Masa said, "you'll see." He and the others moved forward, laughing softly and pulling on gloves. Rather than moving to their usual jobs, two of them immediately went to work getting the sometimes-contrary engine of the crane running smoothly, while the others clustered near one edge of the bridge. Masa waved them over and Sakura went, Sasuke-kun trailing silently behind.

When she reached the edge, she glanced down, expecting to see fog-shrouded sea, and was surprised to see instead a large barge sitting very low in the water. Its crew was moving with practiced industry in stripping tarps from materials for the bridge. She didn't recognize most of them, but Masa leaned over and explained that their bridge was a continuous multi-span beam bridge, which they were building one span at a time. As this last span had been finished successfully, they would have to construct new cofferdams to build the next set of piers.

They already had the sheet piling and other equipment for the cofferdams hidden in warehouses, but the barge was bringing in new rebar, cement and aggregate, as well as the prestressed concrete beams that needed to be cast offsite. All of it had to be smuggled in from the mainland, which not only put them at risk of discovery by Gatō, but slowed the building process considerably.

Sakura listened politely, if not particularly attentively, but it was a subject that Masa was obviously knowledgeable about.  When she commented on it, he laughed, but he was soon hailed away by one of his crewmates and Sakura was left alone with Sasuke-kun.

She could think of many, many scenarios in which being left alone with Sasuke-kun was a lot more appealing. Ones that didn't involve a heavy fogbank that her imagination kept conjuring movement in. And where Sasuke-kun wasn't eyeing her suspiciously every time her hand flinched toward her kunai pouch. She ducked her chin beneath the barrier of her shemagh and laced her fingers together, though doing the latter made her heart race in ways that had nothing to do with Sasuke-kun's presence.

It wasn't this bad yesterday, she thought desperately to herself. But yesterday hadn't been so foggy and they hadn't been smuggling supplies in right under Gatō's nose.

"And this is why they couldn't afford to commission the village properly," Kakshi-sensei's low, mellow voice observed. "Smuggling tends to be expensive and building a bridge this size isn't cheap to begin with."

Sakura nodded and Sasuke-kun made that characteristic hn of acknowledgement. And that was the end of conversation for a time, because somehow she couldn't bring herself to try to inveigle Sasuke-kun into discussion. Every topic that she thought might interest him just sort of fell flat even while she was trying to frame it in her mind. It might have been because she kept getting distracted, because she wasn't quite capable enough to keep track of all the movement around her and sound half-way witty. Her kunoichi class teachers would have been very disappointed.

More rebar and cement than she'd ever seen in her life had already been unloaded onto the bridge and whisked away to be secured elsewhere, the barge rising up out of the water as several tons of material were removed. It was impressively efficient, even from the perspective of a ninja, and Sakura was beginning to think that it would all go smoothly when the fog began to thicken.

Unnaturally quickly.

Her hand dipped into her pouch for a kunai even before she heard Kakashi-sensei's controlled demand. "Everyone off the bridge," he ordered, loud enough to be heard but without even a hint of the panic she was feeling. "Except you, Tazuna. You should stay close."

The crane operator, who'd hoisted one of the huge prestressed concrete beams about halfway up, hovered uncertainly for a moment before Kakashi-sensei told him sharply to leave it. And he did, sprinting away toward the shore, the fog swallowing him as it continued to thicken.

Soon, it was thick enough that it gave a feeling of complete isolation, liked they'd been stranded on an island with an unfriendly barrier sea. She couldn't tell if the muffling quality of the fog was psychological or a component of the jutsu, but the sounds of the settlement had vanished. Her grip on her kunai tightened and she had a strange, irrelevant wish that it was the knife. It had already proven itself, which might have made her feel like she'd already proven herself.

Not that it would have offered much comfort. She might be unnerved by the cloaking properties of natural fog, might forever associate it with glancing down over the side of a bridge and making a decision that would change her life forever, but this kind of fog...

This kind of fog heralded a demon.

And when he came, it was from the direction of the shore, cutting off any easy retreat back to land. This bridge, which she had already learned was a brutal battleground, would be the stage on which this little human drama was decided.

Sakura shuddered, her palm clammy against the wrapped hilt of her kunai, but she shifted her center of gravity so she'd be better prepared to meet a strike.

"Sorry to have kept you waiting, Kakashi," Zabuza's voice said, piercing the watchful silence. "I see you've still got those brats with you. Still trembling, poor thing."

At first, Sakura thought he was talking about her, but it was her breathing that was too rapid, not her hand that was unsteady. It was only when Sasuke-kun shifted that she remembered Zabuza taunting him at their first meeting.

And then Zabuza was there, all around them, but on Kakashi-sensei's word, Sasuke cut them all down. Her heart fluttered a little in something other than fear at Sasuke-kun's display of raw skill, which was nothing at all like the crude, vicious battle she'd engaged in only days ago. It was like comparing the powerful flight of an eagle to the ungainly path of a bumblebee. Fresh pride at being on Sasuke-kun's team flooded her, but it was washed away with a fit of nervous worry when Zabuza marked him out as a target to the false hunter-nin that accompanied him.

But she did what she was supposed to and held her ground next to Tazuna as two distinct battles formed. Even when it was clear that that gap of skill Kakashi-sensei had talked about was in the ninja named Haku's favor.

"Is he gonna be alright?" Tazuna asked her in a low voice.

"He's my teammate," Sakura whispered, voice tight with suppressed emotion. "I have to trust him." And it was a hard thing to do, but all her training at the Academy clearly indicated her role in this scenario. It was Tazuna whom they'd been paid to protect. If he was hit by a stray kunai from either battle, if he died, the outcome of either of these battles would become irrelevant. Not just from a mission failure perspective, but she'd come to understand in these last few days that it was his knowledge and determination that were just as important in getting this bridge built as all the materials put together. If he died, it was Gatō's win.

So she kept herself watchful, because the Demon of the Mist and Kakashi-sensei were matched too evenly. If Zabuza managed to entrap him again, even if only briefly, he would cut through her to get to Tazuna. Sakura knew her duty, had no wish for Tazuna dead and these people left under Gatō's thumb, but it was equally the deep-rooted sense of self-preservation that made her hyper-aware of her surroundings.

And it was paranoia, that sense of being hunted that haunted her with quicksilver eyes, that made her suspect attack from everywhere. It was an almost unsustainable level of tension, broken only once at Naruto's arrival—welcome as it was, given Sasuke-kun's difficulties, he still somehow managed to make it obnoxious—but she was wound too tightly to trust the turn of battle.

When shadows began to resolve into an entire crowd of people at the end of the bridge, there was a moment self-satisfied recognition—she had expected the worst and it had happened and there was a strange kind of relief in that—before she was forced to confront the reality that Gatō hadn't trusted that this grudge match wouldn't end the same way the first encounter had.

And she was in a terrible position from which to admire his determination to have things sort themselves out his way. Haku and his bloodline limit had closed the escape to land, Kakashi-sensei and Zabuza's fierce battle would make maneuvering around them on the bridge almost impossible, and now there were more thugs and missing-nin than were easily counted gathered at the end of the bridge like a pack of predatory animals waiting to scent weakness.

She had only seconds to decide what she was going to do and her only certainty was that she didn't want to be trapped on the bridge. And she couldn't leave Tazuna. She could retreat beneath the bridge and make for the shore from there, but Tazuna was at least twice her weight and height, maybe more. If they died from a fall from the underside of the bridge because she had no practice at all carrying a load that heavy while upside-down and clinging tenaciously with her chakra, that would be better than being stabbed to death, but it wasn't the kind of better she was hoping for.

She needed to remove herself and Tazuna from the field. Sakura understood Kakashi-sensei's decision to keep him there, preventing Zabuza from sending his hunter after him while he stalled Team Seven, but that had changed with the arrival of Gatō's men. And if she couldn't go under, she would have to go down. If she could bear Tazuna's weight long enough to stop them from falling, she might be able to get them to the barge. If they hadn't boarded it. Even if they had, she could have Tazuna tread water near one of the piers. Surely not all of them would be able to water walk.

The only difficulty there lay in an entire crowd of hostiles between herself and her goal, because at the moment a ninja from the Bloody Mist was between them and the nearest pier in the other direction, but imprinted on her memory were Kakashi-sensei's words. They were only thugs and genin who'd left their villages.

Some part of her mind insisted that she was only a genin and there was only one of her and there was no way that this could work, but if there were other choices, she couldn't see them.

"Stay close to me," she told Tazuna in a voice made fierce by fear. Sheathing her kunai, she took one long breath, risked squeezing her eyes closed for just a moment, because she didn't want to be here, wanted to pretend she was somewhere else where she'd never even heard of Gatō. And then she opened her eyes. Because she was here.

Her fingers flexed easily through the sequence of seals that she'd painstaking committed to memory. Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu.  On the last seal of the sequence, she felt a heavy, sick sense of doubt plague her—there were so many—but then she felt the enormous draw on her chakra. She watched as eyes lost focus and jaws went slack, the better part of the crowd caught within the grasp of her technique.

When the first man screamed, she grabbed Tazuna's wrist and bolted forward with the older man in tow. She hadn't caught everyone, but she'd caused chaos enough to give her a few precious seconds. Some of those aware were concerned about their comrades, some about a trap that they couldn't see, but Sakura didn't care. When she was close enough, she risked drawing close to the rail to look for the barge. But all that met her eyes was empty water where the barge had been and a gleaming yacht that couldn't belong to anyone but Gatō.

She stumbled and almost came to a full stop, but she was less than ten steps from the nearest enemy. Her eyes caught on the concrete beam, still suspended in midair.

If...

Sakura swept Tazuna up across her shoulders with a grunt of effort before he had time to protest. His weight limited her badly, but somehow she made it up on the rail and she threw herself forward into a sprint. If she wobbled, she would fall, but somehow her feet kept to the narrow path. One of the thugs lunged toward her and might have grabbed her if he hadn't had to shove several men still caught up her genjutsu to the side. But then, all too soon, she ran out of bridge.

Throwing herself off was every bit as bad as the first time she'd done it. But she'd judged the arc correctly and her feet came down on the concrete beam with a satisfying and somewhat painful smack. Momentum carried her forward and she had to throw out a hand and use the steel cable—something that tore at her palm again—to keep herself on track, even while the beam itself pivoted on the axis provided by the cable. Their weight was enough to cause the beam to shift, so that she was first running up a hill, then launching herself from the bottom edge of a steep slope.

She leapt like she had from the rocks just yesterday, shoving with her chakra at the same time she jumped. And it worked. She still didn't really understand what she was doing, was only operating on the memory of a single accident, but she was suddenly flying.

But that was only a split second's delusion, as it became very clear that she was falling and it was going to hurt, and there were two men leaning against the rail at the bow of the yacht and her path was going to take them soaring over their heads and oh god it was going to hurt. She stabbed a kunai into the sail as they swept past it, hoping desperately to shed some momentum, but her kunai was sharp enough and they were heavy enough that it wasn't until the double reinforced edges that it seemed to help at all. They still slammed into the deck with enough force that chakra gripping with her feet only spilled her forward and introduced her knees painfully to the deck and her nose impacted with only slightly less force and Tazuna's weight kept going even though she'd stopped. She lost her grip on Tazuna and he spilled forward with a wheezing grunt.

Sakura whimpered as she shoved herself up, but there was no time to count her bruises, just enough to blink away the disorientation of being slammed face-first against a hard surface. And as she raised her head, knowing that she had to get up, that there were two enemies behind her, she saw another man emerge from the pilothouse.

There was blood from her nose seeping into her mouth, tears spilling from her eyes from more than the pain, and her single, overwhelming thought was I don't want to die.

Chapter Text

Somehow Sakura got herself upright, the first two steps an agony in her knees that relaxed just a fraction as she yanked a gasping Tazuna to his feet. She set her weight against his and he stumbled forward and she snapped at him, "Keep going," setting him in the direction of the pilothouse opposite the way the third enemy she'd spotted was coming around.

The urgency wasn't lost on him and he lurched forward, smoothing out into a run that still seeming teeth-grindingly slow as he caught his breath. Sakura didn't dare look back, but she didn't need to. She could hear their footsteps, hard and heavy against the deck, far too close for comfort.

She'd gotten a glance at them as they'd flown over, one a great, thick-necked bull of a man, more fat than muscle, with heavy mane of hair. His companion had been more wiry, his hair—a deep shade of green—pulled back into a long ponytail. The latter had worn a sword, but she couldn't remember any visible weaponry on the former.

Her shoulders were tense with the anticipation of a kunai, but it never came. Projectile weapons like kunai and shuriken apparently took too much dexterity and practice for the like of this little contingent of Gatō's thugs, or maybe they just didn't favor them, but there were three of them and she'd be just as dead if one of them managed to bash her head hard enough against the windows of the pilothouse.

It was the footsteps of the fat man that gained on her first, strangely enough, and she felt her heart shudder as something caught at the tips of her hair.

Grasping hands.

She'd come even with the mast and now she caught it with both hands, using it to shift directions far more quickly than he could. Her momentum swung her out of reach and the way she'd shoved off meant that she could swing her legs up and plant them solidly in his back. She'd meant to do something else then, something that didn't commit her entirely to the strike with another pursuer only feet away, but one hand was slick with blood from where the cable had torn into her hand, the other was slick with nervous sweat, and one wrist was weaker than it should have been.

The mast slid from beneath her fingers and she came down on top of her enemy. He went to shove himself up, but she leapt forward, twisting her fingers in his hair and brought his face down against the deck with all the strength of desperation.

Once, twice, he went limp, three---and there was suddenly a cold weight on her shoulder that made her release her victim instantly. Very slowly, carefully, she turned her head until her peripheral vision brought into focus exactly what she'd feared.

The blade wasn't well-maintained. It was freckled with rust and dull enough it would have earned him a tongue-lashing at the Academy, but here in the real world, she was learning that it didn't take perfectly maintained weapons to kill someone.

"I think," he said in a tone heavy with menace, "that's enough of that, you little bitch." The sword was resting on her shoulder, angled slightly so that the tip was over the region of her sternum. For now, the edge was straight down, like a dog with its teeth resting lightly against the skin, but it wouldn't take any time at all to twist his and take off her head. Even as she thought that, he put a little more pressure on the blade and it parted the fabric of her dress and bit into her skin.

Her eyes flicked reflexively to Tazuna.

She'd hoped—she didn't even know what she'd hoped, but Tazuna was poised with his back against the rail, almost as if he'd intended to jump and take his chances in the water. But he hadn't made it and if he'd been any slower at getting his hand up, the wire currently pulled taut around his neck would have killed him. It was being wound up with agonizing slowness by a man whose grin was a clear testament that he wasn't entirely disappointed by these few seconds more of pain and fear.

He wasn't watching her at all.

And Sakura knew what she had to do. There was an instant where she did not want to, where she absolutely did not want to be the hero, because she was a shinobi and shinobi heroes ended up with their names carved on lonely stone, but training, conscience, something spurred her forward.

Her hand dipped toward her kunai pouch and before her captor could do more than snarl a single syllable and press down harder on his sword, two kunai were sent on an unerring path straight into the other man's ribs, a third flying wide. Tazuna didn't hesitate, shoving forward with one hand to loosen the wire, the other fist flying forward with work-hardened strength to smash into his attacker's face. The man crumpled.

Sakura saw none of this.

She didn't even have time to see if her aim was true. Instead, almost as soon as she'd released—she wasn't good enough to blind throw, even at that distance—she'd let herself fall back, the angle of her collarbone keeping the sword from being easily turned to her throat. If he'd been putting less pressure downward, if he'd turned the sword more initially, or thought to disengage, she'd have been dead. As it was, he tore up a flap of skin and flesh as the sword grated across bone, but as soon as she judged the angle good enough, Sakura launched herself backwards into him.

He flung his arms wide as he stumbled back and as soon as Sakura could scramble forward out of reach, she turned on him, kunai in each hand. He snarled and lunged forward and Sakura went to dodge, her feet tangling on the legs of the unconscious man.

She fell heavily, one kunai skittering away and only barely shoved herself out of range of a powerful overhead swing that would have split her back open like a rotted log. Her hands smacked against the angled plane of the pilothouse windows and she spun herself to the side, eyes barely catching the flash of steel that was the evidence of another thrust.

Her breathing was ragged, her knees burned, and she was absolutely certain that she couldn't keep up this pace, but somehow the terrible dance continued as she used the mast to avoid the next stroke, the steel ringing out with an ugly tone that marked it as badly forged.

As if that mattered.

It grew harder to dodge as she grew more tired, until one thrust almost connected, the blade whistling between her arm and ribs. What came next was instinctive. She clamped her arm down hard, trapping the blade flat and almost harmless in its stillness. It cut, but the blade was dull enough that without real force behind it, it did not cut deeply.

She wretched herself and the sword to one side, tearing it from her enemy's hands. As he lunged forward, she took her one kunai and drove it deep, which left her inside the circle of his arms like some mockery of an embrace. Shifting her weight, setting herself low, ignoring his hands, which tried to pull it back out, and she gave everything she had into driving the kunai up. She trembled as she took on more of his weight, the blade sinking in deeper, ripping as it went.

Liquid far more rank and fouler than blood ran down the handle of her kunai, traveled the path of her forearms, dripped off her elbows. Stomach wounds weren't instantly fatal, but they were extremely painful. Which only meant that while his struggles were weak, it seemed to take a very long time for his weight to drape itself limply across her.

Some part of her was aware she should have pulled away sooner, dealt with the third man still there, but she was very, very tired. She'd committed almost everything she had to that one strike. So it was that she stumbled ungracefully back, letting him fall to the deck with a dull, meaty thud.

Sakura was slow to regain her balance and every breath brought with it a smell that made her want to retch, but she finally turned to see what was next. And she had to blink twice to understand that what was next wasn't going to be a fight, because Tazuna had tied up the third man with his own wire and left him to bleed while he'd sheltered in the pilothouse. He waved vigorously at her through the glass, then gestured for her to come inside.

Sakura nodded slowly, but before she went, she checked the pulse of the heavier man who'd been the first enemy down. His pulse was very sluggish but present, so she cut up his shirt into makeshift bindings and left him where he lay. About midway to the pilothouse, she was suddenly struck with the impression that the deck was vibrating, but as they drew away from the bridge, she understood that it wasn't her imagination. For all that it had sails, this yacht also had a motor.

Tazuna grinned at her as she came inside the pilothouse. "Trust Gatō not to let a little thing like favorable winds get in his way," he crowed. Then he frowned. "Kid, you look like you're either going to fall over or throw up. Sit down."

Sakura did so gratefully, but that only gave her the opportunity to see exactly how nasty the sword wound over her collarbone was. There was a ragged flap of skin where it was basically filleted, perhaps two inches wide at the collarbone and tapering to a shallower gash down over the inner side of her right breast. And the whole thing was bleeding freely, which might have explained why she felt so sick. It made her even more sick to look at it and when she first touched it, to try and stop the bleeding, she spilled the contents off her stomach across the gleaming hardwood. Tazuna didn't even flinch, just glanced worriedly at her while he piloted them away from the bridge, eventually coming to dock at the harbor.

"Can you make it?" Tazuna asked her, leaning down with his hands on his thighs.

Sakura nodded, not taking her hand from where it was holding a scavenged wad of material in place. The pain was bad, but not impossible. She felt less likely to faint and she'd finished with her dry heaves before Tazuna had left to moor the yacht. So she carefully came to her feet, trying not to jostle anything. Her badly bruised knees had stiffened a little while she sat, so her gait was awkward, but she made it to land and somehow, as slow and hobbling as the journey was, they eventually returned to the bridge to find that the situation had been decidedly resolved in their favor.

Sasuke-kun looked battered, but Sakura was deeply relieved to find that everyone had survived. Naruto was looking unusually melancholy, but he brightened when he happened to glance over and notice her approach.

"Sakura-chan!" he said, galloping toward her, his expression going from pleased to worried to something else entirely as he came closer. His nose wrinkled up. "Ugh, what's that smell?" he complained. "Did you fall into a sewer?"

Some part of her knew he didn't mean anything by it. It was just Naruto's way to blurt out almost every thought in his head at the instant it occurred to him and even she knew what she smelt like. But there was something absolutely filthy crusted up her arms and she was worn raw and now, finally, it was safe to feel. The flashpoint of her temper exploded and it was only when Kakashi-sensei's hand settled over her wrist like a shackle and he said sharply, "Sakura," that she realized she had been about to hit Naruto. Not like she usually struck at him, but a real, true blow.

Sakura sagged in Kakashi-sensei's grip and the tears began to spill over, turning quickly into gasping sobs because she couldn't breathe through her nose at all.

She was dimly aware of Naruto sort of fluttering uselessly, going "Eh, eh, Sakura-chan? I'm sorry, I didn't mean it like that," and rambling on and on until Kakashi-sensei intervened.

"Naruto, give us some space," he ordered and the blond genin reluctantly complied. Kakashi-sensei stepped in front of her, providing a kind of shield she was grateful for, because though most of the crowd was occupied in dealing with Gatō's goons, who had apparently surrendered, Gatō himself nowhere in sight, or in a self-congratulatory sort of mood, she felt like people were staring. "How bad is it, Sakura-chan?" Kakashi-sensei asked her gently.

"My nose," she said, "and here," she brought the hand that wasn't clutching at her makeshift bandage up to cover the other one.

Kakashi-sensei reached forward very slowly and pulled down her scarf, necessary because she'd tucked her chin into the hollow of her throat. Sakura still shied away a little at the contact. "You definitely broke it," Kakashi-sensei confirmed. "Luckily, we're somewhere where we can have it set well and you'll be good as new soon. Let's see the other one."

Sakura tried to pull the cloth away, but the clotting blood made it pull flesh too, which started the whole thing to bleeding again. Kakashi-sensei frowned, glancing over his shoulder at something. "Sakura, I need to stay here until all of Gatō's men are secured. If I send Sasuke and Naruto with you, do you think you can make it to the clinic?"

Sakura stared down at her feet, where her toenail polish was so chipped and cracked. Compared to everywhere else, it didn't look too bad, though there was still discomfort from two very hard landings that seemed to increase and reverberate with every step. "...yes."

"That's a good girl," Kakashi-sensei said, putting one hand very, very gently on her head. "The doctor's here, so I'll send her to meet the three of you. Naruto will be okay, I think, but make sure Sasuke lets himself be examined."

Sakura made a vague noise of agreement before turning and sort of shambling in the right direction. Before she'd gone far she paused and turned back. "There's three on the yacht. Gatō's men, " she clarified. "Two were alive. One...isn't."

Kakashi-sensei nodded and, feeling reassured that Tazuna and those men were no longer her responsibility, Sakura began the long, painful second leg of her journey. Coming up from the harbor had been bad. It was worse now that Naruto jogged up alongside her, shooting her looks that mingled worry and curiosity. Out of the corner of her eye, she could make out Sasuke-kun trailing slightly behind, but her world had become an increasingly narrow tunnel that eventually went entirely dark. Her last sensation was pitching forward toward the road and arms that caught her none-too-gently.

Chapter Text

When Sakura woke—a sharp, painful moment where she gained awareness suddenly, heart pounding, but every limb too heavy to move—she found herself in the clinic. Someone had changed her out of her clothes into a loose-fitting shirt and shorts she didn't remember owning, and given how much better she smelled, had probably helped her to clean up as well. She was propped comfortably semi-upright, someone having taken a great deal of care with the arrangement of her pillows. Her fingers tentatively traveled up toward her collarbone, a sense of morbid curiosity driving them, but a noise distracted her.

She glanced to the left to find Kakashi-sensei slouching comfortably in a chair, his ever-present novel open. Sakura had a moment's curiosity, likely attributable the languid and distant feeling that probably indicated strong pain medication, whether it was the same book he was always reading or a series. But the thought drifted away as he spoke.

"I wouldn't go prodding that, Sakura-chan. The doctor promised to skin me if you pulled these stitches. We'll have the medic-nin look at it when we get back to the village. They'll likely say the wound on your face is cosmetic and the village won't pay for or arrange treatment in that case, but scarring that might compromise your performance is something they take very seriously. So just bear with it for now, ne?"

Sakura let her hands fall back into her lap, although the desire to investigate it was still strong. Although, she thought, given that the last time I looked at it and touched it, I threw up, it might be for the best to leave it alone.

She silently contemplated her hands for a long moment, her sprained wrist freshly re-wrapped, the other palm bandaged where she'd torn it on the cable. Sakura had gotten blisters and bruises before, skinned her knuckles during training, but these were her first major injuries.

And they were so ugly. That seemed like it shouldn't matter, but it did. All of the teachers in her kunoichi classes—well, they hadn't all been glamorous and sensual, but none of them had scarring. Even though her hair was as long as Ino's, it was so much rougher no matter what sort of products she used. She'd already been at a disadvantage due to her wide forehead and utter lack of specialization. Now she might as well just concede defeat. Sasuke-kun would never—

"Was Sasuke-kun...was Sasuke-kun alright?" she asked, suddenly reminded of how battered he'd looked. That was also a first, to have that untouchable image so badly disabused.

Kakashi-sensei tilted his head toward the screen to his light. "Sasuke's sleeping off his fight. Nothing nearly as bad as you. Chakra exhaustion, mostly, and some muscle soreness and minor bruising from the senbon, so give him two or three days and he should be right as rain."

Sakura relaxed fractionally at that news, but Kakashi-sensei set her on edge again just as quickly. Without looking over at her, he said, "Ne, Sakura-cha, you know that you're required to speak to someone after making your first kill. Whether it's me or one of the counselors."

Sakura's hands clenched over the thin cover, turning it into a mass of wrinkles in her lap. Wrinkles she set out to meticulously smooth as she relaxed her grip. "...yes," she said very softly.

"I was going to let you decide," Kakashi-sensei said, "when you were ready. But after the last battle on the bridge...well, with that kind of reckless courage, I couldn't guarantee that given time you wouldn't simply smile your way through your interview. You almost gave sensei a heart attack for a moment there."

Sakura flinched like she'd been slapped, because while she didn't know if she could bear to tell a stranger about those desperate battles, courage really hadn't played any part in it. "...I was afraid, Kakashi-sensei."

"I know. But whatever you might think, that's not something to be ashamed of. It takes a certain amount of wisdom to recognize that there are some fights that you simply can't win. And it's bravery to take action regardless. You didn't freeze or wait for me to save you. And if you a coward, you wouldn't have taken Tazuna with you," he pointed out. "Wouldn't it have been much easier to escape on your own?"

Sakura still refused to look at him. "I didn't trust you to save me," she admitted, not without guilt.

She was startled when Kakashi-sensei chuckled. "Recognizing that your jounin-sensei is human too is a normal step in growing up. You just sort of stumbled upon it a little bit earlier than most. And, to be fair, I might have been a little heavy-handed in our last discussion. I all but told you not to depend on me in the same conversation that I said I'd come rushing in to save you. Full marks on your execution of the genjutsu, though."

That admission made Sakura glance over at him, but he only flipped a page. That was both irritating and comforting, in the sense that now she knew what a fully intent Kakashi-sensei was like, she wasn't certain she ever wanted to draw his full attention ever again. So she turned her own attention back to her hands, which had worried her covers back into a mess. This time, instead of smoothing them out, she just stared blankly at them.

Kakashi-sensei seemed to take that as an invitation.

"I'm sure you got plenty of lectures in the Academy about the difference between personal initiative and acting under orders. One reflects on you, the other on the village. You're accountable for one and the Hokage for the other. Provided that your behavior falls within the guidelines of the shinobi code of conduct and the action you've taken falls under the parameters of your mission, there isn't a law court in Hi no Kuni that would uphold any charge against you. But," and there was a slight pause and a soft rustle as he finally shut his book, "that doesn't change the fact that there's no law powerful enough to let you escape the judgment of your own conscience. Or one that will spare you the judgment of others." There was an old, heavy bitterness there. "Some people solve it by marrying their conscience to their orders. Others learn not to care. And others will always care too much. But let me say this, Sakura-chan. On this mission, you have done nothing to be ashamed of."   

That calm, direct pronouncement seemed to break some sort resolve in her. She was all but shouting as she said, "I set a man on fire. Covered him in tar and then set him on fire. And his screams—I can still hear them in my dreams. But even that didn't stop him. He just kept coming. Like he was some sort of monster, his flesh all bubbling and peeling and he's just coming, and the fire won't go out, and he was going to kill me, and kami-sama, I can still see his eyes. And I...I killed him. And his partner. And the man on the yacht."

She turned angrily toward Kakashi-sensei, ignoring the way that twisting made the wound across her collarbone ache. Made everything ache and burn.

But he was only regarding her thoughtfully. "You killed them because they were trying to kill you. And Tazuna, who hadn't done anything worse than stand in the way of one man's greed. And maybe there was some relief when they were dead, but you didn’t set out to do it because you found joy or pleasure in it. None of that makes you a bad person, Sakura."

"But, the fire—." Even now she thought she could smell it, tar and grease and cooking meat, and a brief wave of imaginary heat beat against her skin. 

"Even a lot of jounin dislike using fire as anything but a distraction," Kakashi interrupted her. "It's not a very clean way to kill, or honestly a very effective one without a very strong jutsu or special preparation, but you worked with what you had. Again, there is no shame in that. I don't think any less of you for having done it.

“But if you'd let them kill everyone on that bridge, that would have made you trash. Sometimes, we have to make choices we don't like, but I think that you made the right choice. And now, hopefully, we've earned enough of a reprieve for you to make another choice. While a part of me applauds your willingness to fling yourself from high places with a less than optimal understanding of chakra manipulation, I think we can do something about that," he said, eye crinkling up in that familiar, faintly condescending amusement of his.

"It might help," he offered in a much softer voice, "with the dreams." 

Very, very slowly, Sakura nodded. She hadn't until that moment realized she was crying again, but when she went to wipe her tears away, she flinched.

"Broken nose," Kakashi-sensei reminded her. "Some of the swelling has gone down, but it'll still be very tender. Looks like you're also going to get to sleep in for the next few days."

Then he cocked his head, visible pupil sliding toward the screen he'd indicated earlier. "It's not very nice to eavesdrop, Sasuke. Especially when you should be sleeping." His voice had undergone a complete toneshift, much harder and sharper than when he'd been addressing Sakura.

Sakura froze and an expectant silence filled the room, broken when Sasuke-kun—still looking very battered, but nowhere near as exhausted—shuffled around the screen. His eyes slid accusingly from Kakashi-sensei over to Sakura, who ducked her head and wished for her shemagh. Unfortunately, it had probably gone the way of the rest of her clothing, which she suspected meant that it had been trashed.

"What are you talking about?" he demanded roughly. "What happened?"

When both Sakura and Kakashi-sensei were silent, his eyes narrowed. "I woke up when I heard Sakura yelling about setting someone on fire," he accused. "You can't pretend that that's nothing."

Kakashi-sensei eyed him for a long moment, then his gaze slid over to Sakura in an expression she couldn't read, before flipping his book back open in a clear indication that he intended to ignore him. But he didn't leave.

Sasuke-kun's stare proved ineffective against the formidable barrier of Kakashi-sensei's ability to overlook things he found irritating, so he was left only with one target. Despite Sasuke-kun's strength and having been matched with him in sparring practice a time or two, Sakura had never felt threatened in his presence. But the world was a different place today, because now she found Sasuke-kun's gaze invasive and unwelcome.

"Sakura," he said in a tone that was an unspoken demand.

And, for the first time, Sakura considered denying him something he wanted.

Somehow, though, what Kakashi-sensei had said came to the forefront of her mind. That if she waited, she'd lie with a smile. She still didn't believe that was true, but she might believe that with every day that passed, it would get harder to talk about. And she knew she didn't want to go through her entire life without ever speaking about it. 

"The other day, when I was guarding Tazuna," she began awkwardly, finding it strange that so little time had passed, "Gatō had two of his men try to blow up the bridge and everyone on it." Sasuke-kun's eyes widened, but she was in no mood to enjoy having his attention. "I...I stopped them."

Her gaze dropped back to her lap. "The first one....he...there were barrels of tar waiting to be taken down to the harbor and I just...I was only thinking of running, of keeping him away, until Kakashi-sensei could come, but then he was there and I threw one of them at him. The tar got all over." Little red, shiny specks where she'd been burned littered her arms and had eaten holes in her clothing. "And then I used the flare. I didn't think, really, just...I wanted him to stop and the flare...."

She swallowed heavily. "The burning magnesium ignited the tar. But he kept coming. So when he tried to stab me, I turned one of his knives against him. I kept the other one. That's what I used to...to kill his partner. I kept thinking today that I wanted it. That it would have been useful. Slashing edge, instead of stabbing.

“Today, when I saw the mercenaries, I knew that we couldn't stay on the bridge. So I took Tazuna. I meant to escape to the barge, but the smugglers must have...the only thing there was Gatō's yacht. I don't even know why he thought he had to leave men to guard it, except maybe he meant to watch the battle and then leave the rest of his goons behind to do the clean-up while he did...something else. I don't know. There were three of them. One of them, he had a sword—," her hand ghosted up toward her collarbone, but she grasped her upper arm instead,  "And I...I stopped them from killing Tazuna. After—after, Tazuna started the motor and he piloted us over to the harbor. You know the rest after that."

It was very rough. If it had been a mock mission report she'd turned in at the Academy, she would have been scored down for the lack of clarity and detail. But it was all that she could bear and she was very careful not to look at Sasuke-kun.

But after the silence dragged on, something in her managed to pluck up her courage and glance at him from under the cover her eyelashes. She found him glaring at Kakashi-sensei. "You knew," he ground out accusingly, "and you still made her go out on guard duty with you. Without bothering to mention it."

Kakashi-sensei's answering look was very cool, bordering on unfriendly. "Yes. And Sakura did just fine. If it had been you, would you have expected me to pull you from duty? Sensei doubts that you would have. Neither you nor Naruto had finished your training, so there wasn't any pressing need to worry either of you. Sakura did better with time to sort things out on her own, without having to worry about her teammates."

Sasuke's dark eyes turned to her, something telling her that he expected her to refute Kakashi-sensei. But as bad as going back out to the bridge had been, when she imagined staying behind, it was worse. Because Naruto was incapable of just leaving things be and because it would have been like talking about the battle. Every day she stayed inside the house, sheltered and protected, it would only get harder when she would finally have to step outside again. And though she had a few cherished dreams left, part of her would forever be anchored in the reality that a time would have come when she would have had to leave.

There was no part of her that had enjoyed these last few days. None of that rush of victory that had accompanied sparring at the Academy, just a profound sense of relief that she had been the one to survive. She did not want to do it again. But she would.

The reasons were a tangled morass that even she didn't fully understand. The disappointment of her parents if she quit now. The loss of face she'd suffer when Ino heard. The simple fact that if she wasn't a shinobi, she'd never see Sasuke-kun again. And, most of all, the feeling that it was far too late to escape. The nightmares were already a part of her. Even if she left now, walked away into the fog and never looked back, they would only chase her for the rest of her life.

But if she stayed, there would be people who might make it easier, just a little. Civilians like Masa and Tazuna. Her teammates. And, just occasionally, Kakashi-sensei.

"I...," she swallowed again, easing some of the pressure in her throat. "Did I do well, Sasuke-kun?"

Surprise was briefly writ large on his face, before his habitual expression swallowed it. "Aa," he conceded after a long pause.

Her smile was weak, but present. Kakashi-sensei's was more apparent as he stood and stretched. "Well, I suppose I'll go check and make certain Naruto hasn't gotten into any trouble. He was throwing a fit when Sasuke caught you and then pretty much collapsed on top of you. The doc had to run off an entire squad of Naruto clones before she could treat either of you."

Sakura glanced over at Sasuke-kun to find a blush dusted the high ridge of his cheekbones, the tips of his ears flushed pink.

"Because of the way things turned out, the doc's doing everything pro bono, so as soon as the two of you can make it back to Tazuna's without collapsing along the way, we'll be waiting. Naruto and I will handle things until then."  And then he was gone in a whirl of smoke and leaves, leaving her alone with Sasuke-kun.

She was used to a feeling of excitement whenever circumstances conspired to leave them by themselves, but now she almost wished for the familiar sight of his back while he walked away. She felt bad and probably looked much worse. But instead he drew a little closer, fixing her with an unnerving stare. "Why didn't you say something at breakfast this morning?"

Sakura turned her face away, staring at Kakashi-sensei's vacated chair. "I didn't want to talk about it," she admitted softly.

That drew a noise of frustration, but he thankfully subsided. "...it must hurt," he offered awkwardly after another long pause.

Sakura made a low sound of agreement.  

"...I wish he wouldn't have told you about me catching you and then collapsing," he muttered. "All that idiot has going for him is stamina."

That made her giggle, which she immediately regretted, but she managed to once again control the urge to investigate her stitches. But it drew Sasuke's attention to it. "How bad is it?" he demanded.

She made to shrug with her good shoulder, but had to turn it into a gesture made with her hands. Everything seemed to pull at it. "Kakashi-sensei took off before telling me how many stitches it took. But I think the doctor gave me a lot of pain medication, because it doesn't hurt nearly as much as it did."

There was another grunt of acknowledgement. "If you want to go back to sleep for a while," Sasuke-kun offered, "I'll wake you up before it gets so dark that it'll be hard walking back to Tazuna's."

Sakura's tremulous smile firmed a little at that. "...I think," she said after a long pause to consider, "that I'd rather go now, while I feel relatively alert but the pain medication hasn't started to wear off."

It wouldn't occur to her until much later, but that slow journey back was the first time she'd ever managed to convince Sasuke-kun to walk her home. 

Chapter Text

When they returned to Tazuna's home, they found Naruto waiting for them—or rather, for Sakura—like an eager puppy. His eyes were shining and his expression was animated as he danced from foot to foot. "Tazuna said that the two of you hijacked Gatō's yacht!" he exclaimed almost the instant they'd come in the door, Sakura still in the process of very delicately trying to remove her sandals.

If she'd been less used to Naruto, she might have lost her balance, but she was both tired and growing accustomed to his antics. So instead she only stared at him for a long moment before she slipped the sandal the rest of the way off, aligning them neatly in the genkan.

"I mean, me and Sasuke were busy with Haku," and there was a noticeable dip in his enthusiasm there that she found strange, "so I didn't see, but Tazuna said when you saw that crowd of mercenaries you used some sort of awesome jutsu on them that made them freeze up, then, whoosh, you just took off running, threw him over your shoulder and jumped off the bridge."

He was bouncing up and down on the balls of his feet by this point, while Sakura was trying hard not to relive those moments when she'd had just enough time while flying to decide how much falling was going to hurt.

He swept his hand through the air in sharp diagonal gesture, really into his storytelling by this point. "And then you charge down this beam and leap from it onto the deck of the yacht, where you and Tazuna take on three goons before sailing off in triumph!"

It was a lot more heroic-sounding when Naruto told it than the actual event. The implicit praise left a bitter taste in her mouth, but she still felt a little residual guilt for trying to hit him earlier in the day. So she only shifted so that one hand clutched at her other arm, which had the advantage of controlling the fine trembling of her hands. "It's not—you or Sasuke-kun wouldn't have had any trouble."

And that, she realized with a strange sense of almost alienation from her body, was very close to the truth. Maybe the leap from the bridge and then from the beam to the yacht wouldn't have gone as well for either of them—that was chakra manipulation and mathematics—but if they'd gotten to the yacht, it would have gone very differently. In her mind, she could still see Sasuke-kun cutting down Zabuza's water-clones, quick and breathtaking as a flash of lightning. Naruto, less skilled, but more tenacious, with dozens of shadow-clones at his command that could be cut down without ever leaving scars.

Just as in that moment when Kakashi-sensei had prompted her into a realization of the team's specialization, she was struck with a feeling that she didn't belong. She'd fought men who were thugs, who might not even have been missing-nin, and she was left with flashbacks and nightmares and scars. Sasuke-kun and Naruto had faced down real missing-nin without displaying even a fraction of her clumsy desperation.

They'd wanted to win a fight.

Sakura had just been determined not to die.

She had a sudden, unsettling premonition of her future, Kakashi-sensei's words from that night searing across her mind. Surviving brought more battles. More battles and more difficult ones. Because they wouldn't be genin forever. One day, they would be sent on missions like these as a matter of course, not just because of a less-than-truthful commission.

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked her with concern, making her realize she'd gone silent and still. Sasuke-kun was looking at her as well.

Habit was a powerful thing, even in the face of world-shaking events. An instant, false smile replaced her slack expression. "Sorry, I'm a little tired."

With a spluttered apology, Naruto scrambled back out of the way and let her come inside the house. But at that moment, not even the prospect of being confined to the house with Sasuke-kun could brighten her spirits. Because she was starting to understand that this wasn't some sort of horrific training exercise where she could close her eyes and wait for it to all be over. It was her life. And like it or not, she had to live it.

That was what surviving meant.


That night, it wasn't only her nightmares that woke her. She'd wondered blearily why she was awake, because there weren't any of those clinging remnants of terror, when the soft noises she heard resolved themselves into something more like speech, though it was too low for her to make out individual words. But from the footfalls, it was Naruto that Kakashi-sensei ushered outside.

And when she turned over to make herself more comfortable, she found herself catching Sasuke-kun's gaze before he rolled over and stoically pretended sleep.


Kakashi-sensei opted to stay in the Land of Waves until construction of the bridge was finished, something that was greatly helped along by the fact that the government of the land of Waves had seized Gatō's assets. Despite all his efforts to assure it was never completed, Gatō's ill-gotten gains were going to pay for the construction of the bridge. The only disappointment was that they wouldn't be able to keep all of it—they would eventually have to return at least part of the funds that belonged to his legitimate corporation, but they were spitefully drawing out the bureaucratic process.   

Though Gatō himself had died on the bridge at Zabuza's hand, he'd brought in a lot of mercenaries who had grown used to the easy pickings and who hadn't been at that battle. They were being slowly transferred to the mainland, but Team Seven was still serving guard duty on a rotational basis.

Kakashi-sensei took the afternoon shift, which Sakura joined him on when he pronounced her fit enough for light duty—after two days of miserable fever, which had left her totally unable to enjoy her time with Sasuke-kun—and they generally relieved Sasuke-kun and Naruto at whatever point Kakashi-sensei pronounced was midday.

But afternoon was actually the relaxing part of the day, because while he set Sasuke-kun and Naruto on their way with instructions to spar, the results of which he evaluated when they returned Tazuna home at the end of the day, her mornings were graced with Kakashi-sensei's partial attention.

Which, for someone who'd never experienced much of it, turned out to be plenty,

"What Sasuke needs most is practice and Naruto learns best by repetition," he told her as they faced each other in a grassy meadow not far from Tazuna's house. It was not long before dawn and the world was cast in grey light that was less ominous than the last time they'd had a talk like this, though it helped that Kakashi-sensei was far less intense this time as well.

"Pairing them makes good sense for both their learning styles. You, on the other hand, are a genjutsu-type, which comes hand-in-hand with a high intelligence. And you can't come within twenty feet of the Academy as a potential jounin-sensei without hearing the instructors complain about how hard it is to get genjutsu-types engaged in class exercises. Your learning style is just different. Ninjutsu- and taijutsu-types learn best with their bodies, but that busy little brain of yours makes your attention wander if it isn't suitably occupied. Give you a diagram and a demonstration and you learn things easily, so during basic drills you tend to pay more attention to that cute shinobi in the second row than your forms. And, worst of all, you're smart enough to figure out the least amount of effort you can put into anything and still be praised for it."

Sakura blushed at the accuracy of that assessment. Drill, when they weren't doing new maneuvers or anything particularly difficult, had been something she'd done with minimal effort and concentration. And she had spent a lot of time eyeing Sasuke-kun during it.

But then Kakashi-sensei was speaking again and unlike her exercises in the Academy, she gave him her full attention. "I don't want you to take away from this that drill is unimportant. Because it is. Building muscle memory can save your life in combat situations. But it's a poor fit for you, so we're going to try things a little differently in your training. And now that we have some sensei-and-Sakura time, we can continue where we left off. Movement."

"Just movement?" Sakura asked hesitantly. 

"Your taijutsu style is textbook Academy standard," Kakashi-sensei replied flatly. "Frankly speaking, it's like off the rack clothing. Because it's been designed to fit everyone, it doesn't fit anyone well, though it'd be just fine if you weren't in a combat squad. And if you were male, it might work regardless if we put enough effort into it. But your strength isn't ever going to be in height, reach, or weight. Your advantage is going to be in chakra manipulation, so it's a little bit pointless to teach you anything new until we find your limits there." Then he smiled, glancing over at her. "Also, I think it's a little bit early in the healing process to think about any intense taijutsu training."

Sakura allowed herself a cautious sigh of relief at that, but then another thought occurred to her. "And genjutsu?" she prodded.

Kakashi-sensei made a thoughtful sounding hum. "I'll make you a deal, Sakura-chan. If you have enough energy left to have trouble sleeping at night, I'll teach you a genjutsu. But," he said, holding up a finger, "only one per week. The rest of the time, you can distract yourself by considering how they might be applied in the field. Knowing one jutsu and knowing how and when to use it is more valuable than ten you don't."

She nodded and her eyes fell to the large sack at Kakashi-sensei's side. "What's that, sensei?"

"Training tools. But before we get to them, let's see if we can't teach you how to jump from high places without doing any permanent damage to your joints, ne? It's sort of a pity that we're out of the village. I think you're one of the few who'd actually benefit from some of the reference texts. But no help for that. I'll just explain as we go along."

Unlike her teachers at the Academy, Kakashi-sensei wasn't quick to praise her. Though it wasn't that he was quick to scold or correct, either. It was mostly that he would explain briefly what he wanted her to do, demonstrate it once, and then leave her to untangle the particulars on her own while he napped nearby. It was the least "guided" set of guided exercises she'd ever participated in.

At first she was resentful of this approach, until success taught her that the overly detailed lectures of her former teachers were a crutch she didn't need. And, some part of her acknowledged, given how he'd collapsed before and how often he was awake in the night with his students, maybe the extra sleep was a good idea if things went sour.

She found quickly that working through each chakra manipulation on her own was far more rewarding than being hand-fed every single thing, which had been an enormous source of her frustration with Naruto in the Academy. She'd always mastered things like this quickly, which made it irritating to have to wait for the teachers to coach the slowest students through the exercises over and over. Her patience would quickly be spent and her mind would wander to other, more appealing things, like how perfect Sasuke-kun's profile was.

Not here. As soon as she'd suitably mastered one thing, Kakashi-sensei foisted another on her. Having mastered leaping from limb to limb very quickly, she moved on to leaping from heights with more caution. Her recent experience was riding her heavily and her slightly cautious approach to learning physical things made her work her way up to more extreme heights gradually.

But as the heights increased, she grew more uneasy, making simple mistakes that made her land harder or more awkwardly than she should have. She lost confidence with each of them and a sick feeling grew in her stomach. After one particularly bad landing, she crouched down and wrapped her arms around her legs, cradling her chin on her knees.

This isn't working, she thought to herself. Soon she'd really screw it up, get herself hurt again, and then where would she be?

But she was already taking all the precautions she could think of and working under the most controlled conditions she could manage. And still she was afraid and a part of her mind, a very small part, separate from that fear knew it was the reason she kept faltering.

Closing her eyes, she tried to imagine what Kakashi-sensei might do to help her.

And then sighed, because "help" and "Kakashi-sensei" still sounded a lot like antonyms, especially when it came to coaxing her through her personal fears. So she turned her imagination on her teammates, being stonewalled again when it came to Sasuke-kun. If Sasuke-kun was afraid, she doubted he would ever admit it. And he'd probably find some way to push it to the side and perform perfectly regardless.

That left only Naruto.

But while she had a good idea what Naruto might do, she didn't know if she could scrape together enough courage to do it.

Or if it was even a good idea.

Because Naruto would find the tallest tree around and pitch himself from the top, consequences  and fears be damned.  

But if she could make it and do it without getting hurt, anything else on this island would be a shorter jump. And, compared to the trees at home, there was nothing that grew here that was overwhelmingly tall. Somewhere deep in the recesses of her memory, she could vaguely remember lectures about overcoming fear by confronting it directly, even though she didn't know if it should be applied to flinging herself from high places. 

Even though a part of her knew it was stupid, stupid, she dragged herself to her feet and forced herself forward, trepidation growing with each step. But pride pushed against a desire for the fear to just be over and almost before she knew what she was doing, she scaled a likely looking tree and balanced herself on the very tip, having learned during their branch leaping session how to infuse chakra into surfaces that wouldn't normally support her weight. And before sense could catch up, she jumped.

Sakura choked on her scream on the way down, branches rushing by slapping at her exposed arms, but she was too concerned with the ground rushing up to meet her feet. Bad idea was the loudest fragment of thought rushing through her mind, but it was whipped away quicker than the limbs.

Instead, everything became about chakra. In those long, painful seconds, she'd never been so sharply aware of it. Not the ease with which it could flow and ebb, shift and change, nor the sheer possibility inherit in it. It should seem impossible that this thing inside her could break mountains, conjure fire, shape the very air, but if it couldn't, she was about to get a very visceral definition of the term comminuted fracture, which was another broken fragment of thought that rocketed around in her head.

Her heart seemed to be falling at a different rate than the rest of her, as it seemed lodged in her throat, and her breakfast was struggling to shove its way past it. But as long as the fall felt, it was over quickly, her trembling fingers touching softly against the prickly blanket of pine needles that blanketed the forest floor. She'd been crouching lightly, dispersing the force of impact through her body just as Kakashi-sensei had shown her, but she toppled forward onto her knees and breathed in great, gasping breaths.

Kakashi-sensei landed next to her without even disturbing the pine needles at his feet. "Ahh...Sakura-chan?"

She managed to out a somewhat strangled noise of acknowledgement.

There was a long pause, as if Kakashi-sensei couldn't decide quite what to say to her. "...did you have a nice fall?"

"That—that was terrible, Kakashi-sensei!" she gasped.

"Mah, mah," he said. "You landed safely. But what were you trying to do?"

She made a stumbling explanation, which had Kakashi-sensei staring skeptically down at her. "...and did it work?"

"No," she said very firmly. Then, "....maybe."

That earned her a head-pat, which was beginning to make her feel like a favorite pet rather than a favored student. It hadn't escaped her that Kakashi-sensei only did it to her habitually.

"...want to try it again?" he asked.


When she'd gotten falling down to an art that no longer fazed her, which took her the better part of a week and left her with just enough restlessness near the end to earn her the Magen: Kokoni Arazu no Jutsu—which Kakashi-sensei had introduced rather unimpressively as the weakest of the environment genjutsu—they moved on to something else.

Running.

But nothing so passé as assigning her laps. This morning found them on the veranda, the faint light of morning just enough for her to read the topographical map he'd weighted with stones, that curious bag back at his side again.

"So," Kakashi-sensei said, tapping one of the smooth stones idly against the map, "rules. No climbing trees, no weapons, you'll need water walking, so that's allowed. No forfeit accepted. Your task is to get from here," he said, pointing to where Tazuna's house was, to another point not quite all the way across the cluster of islets, but close, "to here."

"That's it?" Sakura asked quizzically as she tried to memorize the map. "Do I have a time limit?"

"Not a time limit as such, but...." Kakashi-sensei's voice trailed off. "Well, I guess you might call it incentive to give it your best, ne?" He wasn't looking at her, but his tone of voice had shifted dangerously and Sakura had to fight off a shiver. "Here, go stand across the yard. Wait until I give you the signal."

Now wary, her heart thumping just that little bit quicker in her chest, Sakura did as she was told. The peaceful atmosphere had vanished, replaced instead by that kind of ominous stillness right before a storm breaks. There was no particular reason why she should feel like something terrible was about to happen, but already her palms felt sweaty and her breathing was uneven.

Kakashi-sensei bit his thumb, hands shifting through handsigns so quickly none of them registered, but when he slapped his hand down against the wood, she couldn't fail to miss the three dogs that remained when the smoke cleared. "After five minutes," he said calmly, as if there wasn't an enormous bulldog glowering at her from just behind his shoulder, "I'll send Shiba, Urushi, and Bull after you. And Sakura? They do bite. Now, go."

She bolted.

Chapter Text

For all that farm crops wouldn't grow, there was enough undergrowth along the edge of Tazuna's yard to set her shins to stinging as she bolted into the trees.

Sakura had no particular fear of dogs, nor did she think that Kakashi-sensei would intentionally hurt her outside of training. But none of that seemed relevant beneath the sudden, crushing tide of fear. It left no room for thoughts like why, and barely enough space for her to remember she had somewhere she was running to, her mind dominated by what she was running from.

Every tall weed lashing at her leg became the first press of teeth, every breeze that rustled branches the noise of pursuit. She'd gone a half-dozen yards before she even gathered herself enough to correct her heading.

She ran like she'd run on the bridge, like she'd run on the deck, without regard to how mottled her skin might get or how much she might sweat or how she looked. She just ran.

While that might have been for the better, some of the things that her instructors at the Academy had tried fruitlessly to drill into them until they were automatic were lost as well. Her posture was loose and sloppy, her pace without concern for stamina, and because of the discomfort caused by breathing through her still-tender nose, she was soon gasping air desperately through her mouth.

When they'd done sprints in the Academy, she'd had a pretty good sense of timing, of knowing within a fairly close margin how fast she'd gone before the instructor called it. But her sense of time faded, reduced to the heavy thunder of her heartbeat. She couldn't measure how far she'd gone when he loosed the dogs.

There was no barking in the distance to warn her.

And because they'd reached heavier pine stands, where the underbrush thinned out, there wasn't even the noise of that bulldog's massive body coming through the undergrowth.

What she got instead was a hair-raising chorus of snarls that didn't sound nearly far enough away for comfort. She thought she'd already reached the limits of adrenaline-induced speed, but somehow she spurred herself faster, stumbling and half-sliding down a muddy bank as she finally reached the edge of the large main isle. Her foot caught on one of the exposed mangrove roots in her hurry and she lurched forward, managing to catch herself before she fell, but the movement pulled at her healing chest wound.

It burned, as did her still bruised knees, which she'd had less trouble with when she was strengthening them with chakra during her tree climbing and leaping exercises. That thought somehow penetrated the haze of panic that was clouding her mind and she sprinted forward with fresh, chakra-enhanced speed. It let her draw further from the dogs, their snarling turning now to open barking. It was not the full-throated baying of hounds, but it was close enough to keep sprinting forward with all her might despite the growing stitch in her side.

She was running faster than she ever had before and even if the terrain had been familiar, the speed at which she was moving would have made some things harder to track regardless. Leafy branches seemed to whip out of nowhere and she caught a faceful of spiderweb, resident intact. It seemed to burn and she clawed at it, trying to get it off, get it off and her shoulder caught the trunk of a tree.

The force of it whirled her around, her shoulder aching, but she managed to both crush her passenger and get herself turned back around without falling.

It cost her. Sakura lost all the space she'd gained between herself and the dogs, one of the smaller ones darting forward, teeth just missing the hem of her dress, her heel nearly clocking him in the jaw as she pushed her body back into motion.

She used chakra and she was slowly getting better at it, only almost pitching herself into another tree before she was running again. Her perception of the world had tightened until it contained only trees and land and dogs and a destination that always seemed so far away.

But some part of her recognized if she kept going, kept running, she would reach it. That spurred her across several more uninhabited islets even though her throat was beginning to really hurt and her side was cramping up, but as they grew smaller and some part of her began to think, I can do this, a line of kunai rocketed into the dirt near her feet.

They were so close that they kicked debris into her open-toed sandals. Sakura was run almost ragged by this point. She hadn't thought she'd have the energy to be frightened any further, but she was proven wrong as she stumbled backward, landing hard on her butt.  Her eyes automatically darted up along the path of their flight, where she caught the briefest flash of movement.

Before she could decide whether it was Kakashi-sensei or not, she caught sight of another kunai. She barely managed to jerk her arm out of the way before it could be pinned to the ground. Somehow she got herself up and moving again, but now, rather than carving as straight a line as the growth would allow her, she found herself playing a treacherous kind of game that had her ducking around trees and dodging awkwardly. She couldn't just run anymore, the kunai and the fear of being struck by them forcing her to keep a wary eye above, where she could just catch flashes of movement before more kunai were sent flying her way.

Her stamina was flagging badly and she was almost stumbling forward rather than running by the time she reached her target point. As she came to a stop at the crest of the tiny islet, the first thing she did was double over and empty her stomach of everything she'd eaten for breakfast and most of what she'd had for dinner. She had somehow gotten filthy, she hurt everywhere, and there was sweat dripping into her eyes and off the tip of her nose.

She didn't even have enough energy to glare at Kakashi-sensei when he arrived looking distinctly unruffled, just enough to shamble away from the mess she'd made and then sort of collapse to the ground.

"Ah, Sakura, you'll cramp up like that. You might want to walk around a little to cool down."

As it turned out, she did have the energy to glare, even as she struggled back to her feet, but she wasn't alone in her discontent. His ninken were regarding him grumpily as well.

"This was just mean, Kakashi," the tan one said from where he sat.

"Uh-huh," the grey-furred one with the mohawk agreed. "Chasing genin is not cool at all, bossman."

The giant bulldog made a whuffling sound that Sakura interpreted as agreement.

"Now, everyone," Kakashi-sensei scolded them, eye-crinkling smile in place, "you make it sound like there wasn't a point to this exercise."

Sakura was still wheezing, so she demanded, And? by the weight of her stare.

Kakashi-sensei fished a stopwatch from his pocket. "You beat your best run time in the Academy quite handily. I needed a baseline with you giving it your all, so..."

"Couldn't you...have just...told me...?"

"Mm. I could have," he acknowledged, "but I wanted you to show me something not even you thought you could do. We're going to work until you can do at least this much without ever breaking a sweat."

Sakura's stare was incredulous now. "You—," she broke off and shook her head. "You threw kunai at me!" she accused.

"Not kunai. Just pinecones," Kakashi-sensei said, smile deepening.  "That's what was in that bag. A practical application of the genjutsu you learned this week. It can make something harmless look like something dangerous. And it can make something dangerous look harmless. But," and his tone shifted more toward lecture-mode, "it's very weak. If you weren't already panicking, you might have noticed. You have to scene-set for that particular genjutsu if you don't want your opponent to realize at an awkward moment what's really happening. If you'd managed to think through your fear and tried a simple kai, you might have managed to break the first genjutsu I used. Very simple emotional manipulation. Also very common. But you'll have plenty of time to think about that.

“You and my ninken will be working together in the mornings—though I promise it won't be a hair-raising a chase as this morning. Let's see, as incentive—ah, I'll repeal the 'no muddy paws' and 'no kisses' rule for you, Sakura."

That earned the attention of his ninken, whose ears perked, tails giving a cautious wag. "So you're gonna let us run loose?" the grey-furred one demanded.

"You got it," Kakashi-sensei agreed.

Sakura frowned, not at all certain she liked this arrangement, but the fear of the chase was something that ran deep in her now. She'd suffer it if it meant being able to outrun the things that pursued her. Her breathing was easing somewhat, which gave her space to ask, "Won't summoning your ninken use up a lot of chakra? Because, they're summons, right?"

"Ah," Kakashi-sensei said as he exchanged the stopwatch for his book, "not really, no. At least not in the way you're probably thinking. Most people use summons as the catch-all term. You covered summons contracts in the Academy, right? So you know the scrolls are rare and the vast majority are in the possession of major clans. They represent ancient pacts with groups of very powerful creatures that can live dozens of human lifetimes and attain massive size. And their chakra stores aren't anything to scoff at, either. The contract isn't necessarily exclusive—just limited by the generosity of the scroll's owner, basically.

“My ninken are personal summons or contracted animals. I raised them all. The only different between them and the Inuzaka ninken is that I don't typically bring them out in the field with me. They spend a lot of time lounging in my apartment or playing around in the village, not some otherworld. They'll live about as long as I will and while they have plenty of chakra to be good ninja companions, they aren't say, in the league of any of the summons of the Legendary Three. Our contract is exclusive and non-transferrable. The only chakra I spend is what it takes to get them here. With the right preparation and some cooperation, you could do the same thing to a human."

Sakura made a thoughtful noise, risking a closer look at his dogs now that she didn't feel like she was in danger of being torn to shreds by them.

But Kakashi-sensei wasn't finished speaking. "Your dodging is sloppy," he reported conversationally. "You basically throw yourself out of the way, which takes you a lot of energy to recover from. You don't have the stamina for that. And even if you did, there's no point in not correcting bad habits since we're basically starting from scratch regardless. And your form, well, not something I would have given you good marks for in the Academy. Even if you're scared to death, you should have done it so often it's automatic. The pack knows what a proper form should look like, so I'm sure they'll give plenty of pointers." 


The addition of cute, furry animals to her new running regime did not make it particularly more pleasant. Considering that it was conducted just after dawn and she wasn't allowed breakfast until afterwards, she didn't know what would.  

None of them were afraid to offer criticism, which was almost harder to take coming from a dog, and they all seemed to think it was particularly fun to tackle her into puddles, rivers, and occasionally trees. Their muddy pawprints stained, their nails scratched, and she found herself the target of wet, sloppy kisses that were gross.

It did not make her run as fast as thinking they'd pull her down and eat her, but it pushed her much harder than any of her Academy practices ever had. After all, she suddenly had eight sharp-eyed dogs focused on her training, which made shirking a practical impossibility.

Pakkun, for all that he was the smallest of the eight, turned out to be the de facto leader in Kakashi-sensei's absence. He was patient, knowledgeable, and not above setting up punishment games that usually turned out in his favor. Tsunami had willingly loaned her the basin that she used to handwash clothes in, but Sakura had avoided explaining that she'd underperformed on one of Pakkun's training goals and was about to sacrifice her own shampoo and conditioner to give a dog a bath.

I hope human shampoo damages your fur, she'd thought spitefully as she lathered him up. It hadn't. Pakkun had told her sagely that her rough hair was evidence of a bad diet and lack of vital nutrients and that she should eat more balanced and plentiful meals. When he'd recommended his own supplement plan to her, she'd considered drowning him.

Her "rewards," such as they were, were usually in his favor too. Being offered the chance to touch the pad of his paw—which turned out, unfairly enough, to be softer and smoother than her own feet—didn't seem like something the Sakura who'd never seen Wave country would have felt was at all equal to the misery of several hours of intensive training.

The current Sakura who had just had a vague hope that one day it would be easier.

Though she was hardly ever alone, she felt more isolated from her team than ever. Her training started before the others woke, she breakfasted after they left, she barely saw them at shiftchange, and even in the evenings, when she would have been content to watch Kakashi-sensei coach her teammates after she'd helped Tsunami with the dishes, Kakashi-sensei left her with chakra control exercises that she usually fell asleep in the middle of. 

But bridge construction continued regardless of her feelings or nagging sense of exhaustion.

And one day, when construction was almost finished, Kakashi-sensei dropped in about midway through her morning training session. The ninken greeted him eagerly and Sakura took the reprieve as a chance to lace her hands behind her head so she could breathe more freely. When Kakashi-sensei had pacified everyone with a perfunctory headpat, he turned to her. His expression was sober and Sakura felt a jolt of alarm, hands falling to her side.

He sighed and scratched at the back of his neck. "Your second enemy from the barge. The heavy-set one. He died this morning."

"What—what do you mean?" Sakura asked, instinctively taking a step back, as if his words were something that she could and should escape.

"Head wounds can be tricky. He just never woke up, that's all. He went into cardiac arrest this morning and couldn't be revived. I wanted to tell you now, because it'll be in the report when we return to the village."

Sakura stared at him, then her gaze dropped to her feet. Her muddy, aching feet, her toes a tracework of scratches.  She tried to focus on that, but tears came regardless. She swiped at them with the back of her hand and told herself that she needed to stop this. It could have as easily been her, lying on that deck. Both of them had made a choice and he'd paid for his and she for hers. That was all.

It didn't stop her from crying, but it kept her from sobbing, which was better than she'd managed before. And unlike Kakashi-sensei, who just stood to one side, the ninken crowded around her, pressing warm heads against the palms of her hands and generally made a nuisance of themselves as several of them competed to comfort her.  

Finally, after long minutes, the tears dried up and she could face Kakashi-sensei again. "Al-alright," she managed thickly. "And the other?" Something in her couldn't help but ask.

"He'll live. Blood loss and a collapsed lung. He's already been transferred to the mainland."

Sakura made a noise of acknowledgement. When Kakashi-sensei didn't make any move to leave, she just regarded him quietly, one hand drifting up to clutch at her upper arm. He was scrutinizing her very carefully, which made her uncomfortable. She twisted one sandaled foot against the ground.

"...the pack's told me you've gotten better at augmenting your movements with chakra. Of course, that doesn't excuse you from the regular kind of training either, because just how much you can augment depends upon what's there to being with, but you already know that you're much more advanced with your chakra control than most ninja your age. It should be just enough to show you this. Unlike the other two, when I tell you you're not ready to use it in combat, I expect you to respect my judgment. Is that understood?" he asked her gravely.

"Yes, Kakashi-sensei," she replied.

He nodded, then abruptly, in a movement so fact she didn't even see him move, he was behind her and all that was left in his place was a cloud of smoke and whirling leaves. "So far as chakra-augmented speed goes," he said as she whirled around, "the Shunsin no Jutsu is the apex of it. Movement so fast that it appears to the normal human eye to be teleportation."

Sakura's hands twitched, then clenched as he explained the theory behind it and the string of handsigns she'd need to use to help her focus her chakra. She wasn't strengthening any single muscle group, but rather her entire muscular and circulatory system, and not just in the tempered way she'd practiced.

"Now, just a step or two," Kakashi-sensei cautioned her. "To get the feel of it. You won't be able to actually use the Shunshin without practice, but this will be movement much faster than you're used to."

It took her several attempts for her speed of movement to satisfy Kakashi-sensei, but when it worked, she had a feeling more like displacement than movement, as if she'd left her heart behind when she'd stepped forward. Her hands shook a little as she unlaced her fingers from the handsign. Part of it was a sudden feeling of increased exhaustion—she'd failed her first attempts simply because she hadn't invested enough chakra in it.

"Good, good," Kakashi-sensei praised her. "Now," he said, "try to use it to follow me." He led her in an incredibly quick start-stop pattern that drained her more with every shift, until she was blindly following him. He'd increased the distance of each flicker until they stood perhaps ten feet apart.

Ten feet didn't seem like such a great distance.

Until she was moving far faster than she could see.

Kakashi-sensei stepped back and she stepped forward—and suddenly it was only the iron bar of his arm keeping her from a tree. His other hand, index and middle finger held stiffly extended, came to rest at her throat. "Now, here's the disclaimer. Your chakra control is very good. But you're not good enough yet to learn to channel chakra to your eyes. They're much more sensitive to chakra disturbance than anything else, so if you're not careful, you'll blind yourself. And if you're moving faster than you can see and understand, an enemy is just going to stand still and let you impale yourself on a kunai. I wanted you to know what you're walking towards, Sakura-chan, but you're not there yet."


The bridge was at last complete, their time in Wave over. And it would bear Naruto's name.

But that was alright. While Tazuna spoke to Naruto and Kakashi-sensei, she was waved over by Masa and a milling knot of other workers. "Here," he said, pressing something into her hand, which turned out to be a neatly wrapped package. As she unwrapped it, a new shemagh spilled into her hands, this one not nearly as plain as the first, the pattern in a red that was vivid against white. "It won't last as long as a bridge," he said with a wry smile, "but it'll serve as a reminder that we remember who was there when there wasn't anybody around to hear any speeches. Who kept us alive so that we could build the bridge at all."

Sakura's hands tightened on the fabric. "Thank you," she managed, more earnest in those two words in this moment than she'd ever been before.

Masa grinned more widely and another of the workers—Jiro, she remembered—clapped her on the shoulder. "Don't be a stranger," he said, "come back when you're old enough and we'll buy you a drink to celebrate properly."

Sakura could only nod. And feel that, somehow, all her pain hadn't been for nothing.

 

Chapter Text

She'd left with the ambition of spending time with Sasuke-kun.

She was returning with scars and the knives of a dead man and memories of combat, which made her feel like a stranger in her own home.

So it was that Sakura was very subdued as they headed to the mission office to be debriefed, even though Naruto was so excited that only Kakashi-sensei's none-too-discreet grip on his collar kept him from rushing ahead and announcing to all and sundry that he was Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage, and they'd already started naming bridges after him, believe it!

Sasuke-kun was just characteristically aloof, but judging by the force he'd put into thrusting his hands in his pockets, it was taking most of his self-control not to smack Naruto. Naruto hadn't really made an effort to rub it in specifically, that he'd come out far the better of his two teammates, but he'd done so much gloating in general and expounded at length about his grand plans for fame and Hokage-dom that he'd even earned a rebuke from Kakashi-sensei to "tone it down."

Sakura's stitches had been removed back in Wave, so the scar at the edge of her mouth was plainly visible. It had healed well, considering, and if it hadn't been on her face, she wouldn't have made much of a fuss about the thin pink line. But it felt like a brand, something that everyone could look at, read, and know things about her that she didn't want to share.

And, well, she was also a preteen girl who'd invested a lot of time and effort into her looks. Even if it didn't have such damaging memories associated with it, she wouldn't have liked to have people staring.

So Sakura was overly conscious of the scar, careful to keep her head down, hiding beneath the barrier of her shemagh.

It, at least, was something she didn't regret and she ran her fingers over the edge of it for comfort as they came inside the mission office. The Hokage himself was present again in the general missions room, just as he'd been the day they'd been issued the mission, though that was far from being always the case. Sakura couldn't have said if it bad luck or by design, but she shifted uneasily under the knowing, weighted gaze that swept over them, to land with fond indulgence on Naruto, who hadn't even waited for an acknowledgement to begin regaling everyone present with his version of the story.

Her eyes traveled to the right of the Hokage, to find Iruka-sensei on duty as well, while the other chunin sitting to the left was a stranger to her.

Her hand came up to clutch at her arm even as Naruto began to embellish his tale with broad gestures and sound effects. Her grip grew tighter as he came to her part, or at least the one that he knew, which made the attention of the chunin and the Hokage focus on her briefly. She tucked her chin in tighter and glanced away, turned her unmarked cheek toward them.

The Hokage must have found his retelling of events amusing, because he let him continue without interruption until it came to the point where he was just re-emphasizing that he was destined for greatness because there was already a bridge bearing his name.

"Well, it sounds like you had a very interesting time," the Sandaime said. "I expect that there's a much less exciting version of things in your report, Kakashi?"

"Aa," Kakashi-sensei agreed, unearthing a scroll and a packet from his pouch and handing it over to the Sandaime, who unrolled it in a practiced motion. They stood in relative patience and with varying levels of silence as he read through it, his expression inscrutable. "I see," he said at last. "Well, it was unfortunate that things turned out as they did. And, Kakashi, you were perhaps a little remiss in failing to update the village on the mission requiring reclassification. No one worried because you said you might keep your genin out for training, but I think this might have been a little excessive. Even if they sent along enough funds to pay the difference, you might have assumed that I would be a little hesitant in allowing genin to participate in an A-class mission."

"Hey, that's not fair gramps!" Naruto protested. "Weren't you listening? We did just fine!"

Sarutobi-sama sighed. "Regardless, this village has standards that will be adhered to. All of you will be paid as if this were an A-ranked mission and that's how it will go on your records, but don't expect that you'll be intentionally assigned any more missions like this until you're a proper rank. Now," and he clasped his hands over Kakashi-sensei's report, "I expect your own reports to be handed in no later than two days from now. I imagine you're all looking forward to seeing your beds again, so I won't keep you from it. Though I'm going to borrow a minute of your sensei's time. And Sakura-chan, if you could stay behind as well."

Sakura stared at the floor as Naruto glanced over at her curiously. "Why's Sakura-chan gotta stay behind?" he demanded.

He was rewarded by Kakashi-sensei's fist coming down on his head somewhat less-than-gently. "I think that's enough blatant disrespect for today," he said wryly. "Shoo."

Naruto scowled up at Kakashi-sensei but did as he was told, while Sasuke-kun had walked away without a second glance when the Hokage had dismissed them.

Both the chunin were casting sideways glances at the Hokage, obviously wondering the same thing as Naruto but too respectful to outright demand answers.

"Sakura-chan, your sensei reports that even though this was your first mission outside the village, during the course of the mission you killed four men while defending the bridgebuilder."

Sakura wished that Iruka-sensei's surprise wasn't so obvious, the way he jerked his head around to stare at the Hokage before turning back to her, eyes still wide. Even the other chunin looked a little unnerved. "Yes, sir," she answered quietly.

"He also reports that he has already spoken to you about the experience, but I have some knowledge of what Kakashi considers adequately dealing with bothersome things like emotions. We do have counselors available for you, if you need them."

Sakura drew in a deep, unsteady breath, but she met the Hokage's gaze squarely. "I understand, sir."

She had no intention of seeking them out. Perhaps if they'd returned immediately to the village, back when the nightmares were at their worst and she was newer to them, she might have. But she could sleep more or less through the night now, even if it worked best when she was weighted down by exhaustion, and she couldn't imagine letting a stranger prod at her personal fears.

She was a little surprised when the Hokage rose, the two chunin rising with him. Tucking his hands inside his sleeves, Sarutobi inclined his head, the two chunin bowing more deeply from the waist. "The village thanks you for your service, Haruno Sakura," the Hokage told her gravely, the chunin rising only when he'd finished speaking. "Though I am sorry that it had to come so early in your career."

Sakura could only nod around a knot of complicated emotions, bowing to the Hokage before leaving Kakashi-sensei to face an actual debriefing. She didn't know whether or not he'd be reprimanded for his actions, but for the moment she was only glad she'd only had to revisit Wave in a written report. And that report was already finished, though she'd been too eager in her escape to hand it in.

She made her way home instead, using the rooftop paths for the very first time. Once, she'd thought it would make her feel like a "real" ninja, but after Wave, it seemed like less of a milestone than it once had. Though it was a strange sort of feeling, to soar above the crowded streets and see her home from a different point of view.

Sakura stopped at her neighbor's home before actually returning to her own. Miwa-san—who'd been her mother's close friend in the Academy and remained so once they graduated—had promised to housesit and collect the mail while Sakura was away. Sakura had long since learned to view her as a kind of aunt, given that she'd looked after her while her parents were away after her Baba had passed. She allowed herself to be briefly enveloped in a hug before pulling away and offering an excuse to avoid being invited to dinner. Miwa-san's two young sons, when combined, had about the same amount of tact as Naruto and Sakura had no desire to answer a lot of questions, not even for a homecooked meal.

She let herself in to the empty house with a sigh of relief, shuffling curiously through the mail. When she found a letter from her mother, she ripped it open eagerly, photos spilling out. Sakura laughed at the pictures of her mother posing with hawk chicks small enough to fit in her cupped hands, her habitual serious expression nowhere to be seen. She was grinning widely at the camera, the lines bracketing her mouth less noticeable, making her look years younger.

 Sakura suddenly missed her mother fiercely, as she hadn't for a long time. Her mother was a career chunin who handled the messenger birds that formed one of the major communication networks both in the village and outside it, so it wasn't as if she lived in fear of a message announcing that her mother had died in combat. But her specialty was breeding and training the fierce, powerful hawks that saw the most use in inter-village and border communications, which meant that most of her time was spent at one of the border stations.

It wasn't as if it was a particularly unusual story. Being a shinobi meant being willing to accommodate the needs of the village and while Haruno Mebuki was occasionally transferred back to the central aviary in the village proper, she shared that rotation with several other ninja just as eager to see their families again. When Sakura had been very young, she'd taken a position that she hadn't enjoyed nearly as much in order to be with her daughter, but once Sakura had been old enough to enroll in the Academy, she'd returned to her former position. Sakura had been left primarily in the care of her father's mother, who'd lived with them for as long as she could remember, and after she'd died there'd been Miwa-san.

So it wasn't as if this was something new or unexpected, but there was a strange sense of betrayal lurking in the corners of her mind. Her parents had always carefully made time for the major events in her life and she was filled with a sense that this shouldn't have been any different. As if, somehow, her mother should have sensed that something was amiss and been waiting for her, ready to—

Even Sakura didn't know how to finish that sentence. Make everything alright again, maybe. Not to ask questions, but not to not ask questions. Some impossible thing was what she wanted of her mother.

But her mother wasn't here and, judging by the content of her letter, might not be home again until the new year. And even if she didn't have some vague recollection of the details of A-class missions having to be sent using some method other than regular post, and requiring some sort of permission besides, it wasn't something she wanted to say in writing. I killed a man today, mother....

Not when she finally understood why her parents had been both proud and worried when Kakashi-sensei had been introduced to them as her teacher.

She would have settled for her father’s reassuring presence, but Haruno Kizashi's jovial, charismatic nature and ability to project an air of "harmless civilian" served him well in his career in intelligence-gathering, which meant that while he didn't have a permanent posting like her mother, he came and went with little notice. He might be home tomorrow or he might reappear with gifts and a profuse apology months later.

Like her mother, he was also a career chunin, his missions running less in the vein of plots to overthrow the daimyo and more in the way of confirming or denying the extramarital habits of wealthy people, which to hear him tell it, could be more dangerous than you'd expect. But, so far at least, he'd always come home safe and sound. 

But he wasn't here now.

So, without parents' arms to throw herself into, Sakura spent the rest of the day catching up on the domestic tasks she usually resented. But somehow, something so utterly everyday as vacuuming seemed to ground her a little. She was in the village and that meant a certain measure of safety. Not permanent, not absolute, because there would be missions that would take her away from it again, but it was hard to imagine being attacked by anything worse than errant insect life in the halls that had been familiar to her since childhood.

She slept easier that night than she had in weeks, even though she found the silence a little unnerving after having shared a room with so many others for so long.


She dropped off her remaining qipao dresses to be cut down and freshly tailored early the next morning, then spent the next several hours finding a perfect, shorter-but-not-too-short overskirt to wear over her shorts, as well as tall boots to protect her much-abused shins. Running laps in the Academy yard hadn't really prepared her for the reality of running briers, which Pakkun insisted built dexterity.

Once she saw the price of a good pair, she was glad for the latest addition to her bank account, because she had one last stop even when she'd accomplished all the shopping she meant to do that day. Clutching the paper that contained directions in Kakashi-sensei's surprisingly neat handwriting, Sakura navigated streets slightly more unfamiliar to her. Many of the smaller retailers of shinobi goods and specialized services didn't even allow Academy students inside and with the ongoing cold war between Ino and herself, there hadn't been much reason to window-shop alone.

But she finally reached her destination, shifting her packages uncomfortably and reflecting that it might have been wiser to come here first.

The storefront, such as it is, wasn't one that would have attracted her attention on its own. For one, there weren't windows with goods on display, just a sign above the door that identified it as being a place of business. And it wasn't a descriptive name, either. Just 'Hasekura', almost as plain as one that might have identified a residence.

As Sakura cautiously opened the door, a bell jingled, but there was no immediate cry of welcome, which made her very hesitant about going further in. But there was plenty to see, even from where she lingered in front of the door. Lighted glass display cases housed fine leatherwork, while a more prosaic line of sheathes and pouches and complicated harness systems were on display along the walls.

It wasn't a very large store, nor did it have much in the way of decoration; "utilitarian" seemed to be the guiding principle.

She wasn't made to wait very long, as a man emerged from a door in the back of the shop, sweeping aside the unadorned blue noren. He was about half a head taller than Kakashi-sensei, with a head of disheveled ruddy brown hair, a square jaw with rough stubble on his chin, and a solid build. He was not what she'd expected.

"You look lost, kiddo," he observed. "What can I do for you?"

His voice was just as rough as he looked. "Um, my sensei told me come here and follow your advice," she explained awkwardly.

"And who is your sensei?"

"Hatake Kakashi."

His eyes widened faintly in recognition, then his face settled into less neutral lines. As they were pleased lines, it made him slightly less intimidating. "Ah. Did more work with his father than Kakashi, but alright. Show me what you've got."

Sakura blinked at his directness, before glancing down at her bags and, coming to a quick decision, leaning them against one of the display cases. She kept only one with her. She'd carried it out of the house this morning and kept it close to her all day, as the knives she'd brought with her out of Wave were too long to fit in her usual kit.

She'd wrapped them in an old towel to keep them from destroying the bag and as her fingers brushed over the cold metal edges as she freed them, Sakura had to repress a shudder. But then they were swept out of her hand as the man -- she supposed he must be Hasekura-san -- looked them over.

At his clearly dubious look at the discolored one, she said, "Kakashi-sensei said it was probably mostly cosmetic." Not quite certain what to do with the empty bag, she laid it across her other things. And then shuffled them awkwardly as she waited for Hasekura-san to finish his inspection.

"I assume these hilts were wrapped. I can replace that, no problem—nylon cording might be best," he murmured to himself. 

She nearly jumped back when he crouched suddenly, laying the knives to one side and fishing measuring tape, pad, and pencil from his pocket. "Hold still," he said curtly and Sakura, used to obeying instructions, did as she was told. "You're displaying better judgment than most with these," he told her as he took measurements with a brisk, impersonal efficiency.  "You don't want anything longer than this, not unless you get significantly taller. And I wouldn't recommend anything with more curve."

"...um, why?" she asked cautiously.

He sat down his tools and took up her knives, flipping them deftly so that they were hilt-up, then held them so that they were pressed against the outside of her thighs, something possible only because she'd shed her kunai pouches for the day's shopping trip. The tip of the blade came to just above her knee, while the hilt hit below the widest point of her hips.

"The thing about knives is that you can't keep them in your hands forever. So you've either got to seal them or sheathe them and the thing about scrolls is that they're a few seconds more work than having them in your hand. Once you get to swords and bigger things, you sometimes get fools convinced that bigger is better and you end up having to sheathe them on your back."

"...and that's bad?"

"As a samurai in armor? Maybe not, depending on how fast you can get that thing off your back, and here’s to hoping your opponent waits for you to do it. As a shinobi? Your spine bends. That blade won't. And if you aren't using chakra, it's going to be secured at two points, top and bottom. Imagine trying to do a forward roll like that. So you lose a lot of flexibility. Same thing with a horizontal sheathe at the waist. You have that overhang, which will catch on things when you least want it to. But these are just about perfect. See how neatly they set flush without overlapping anywhere you need to bend? That's what you want. I can make you a rig for these, no problem. Integrated kunai and shuriken storage too."

He quoted her a price that was actually lower than she was expecting and he must have read her surprise in her features. His hand came down on a knee and he let out a gusty sigh as he shoved himself to his feet. "I'm selling you your everyday rig, not the one you'd wear while guarding the daimyo. It's not going to be handtooled leather. In fact, it's not going to be any kind of leather. I don't recommend leather for field use, even though I'll make exceptions if you're doing guard duty somewhere where you need to impress some nobles. Leather makes you sweat, for one, and it's hard to maintain for another. If you don't watch, it'll mold and it'll make your blades rust. I use nylon, which is much faster and easier to work, though I'll reinforce where the tip rests and the lip of the sheathe. And it's easy for you to clean, too. It will wear out, because you ninja are hell on your equipment regardless on how rugged I make it, so I get a lot of repeat customers. No point in driving them away by charging more than fair price. So, you in, kiddo? Because if you say yes now, I can have them done in time to test out before the exams."

"Exams?" Sakura asked blankly.

"Chunin exams," Hasekura-san explained. "I figured that'd be the reason Kakashi was sending you here alone, rather than bringing you here in his own damn time. So, yes or no?"

The answer, of course, was yes.     

Chapter Text

Sakura was in the middle of a dream where she was being slowly suffocated by a remorseless, faceless opponent when some part of her mind registered that the pressure on her chest was real. That alarmed her enough to drive her up out of sleep, eyes going wide and then narrowing as she squinted into the grey light of early dawn.

She didn't have to look very hard. Pakkun was right there, his rump planted solidly on her sternum, staring at her expectantly. A very strange sound, somewhere between a noise of surprise and a groan, escaped her. Geck was probably the closest phonetic equivalent.

"Don't be like that, Sakura," he said. "Especially since you got to wake up to this face."

This time, it was no mistaking that it was a groan and Pakkun had to scramble over her side as she rolled over onto her belly, laying still for a moment with her face buried in her pillow. The sharp immediacy of the dream was fading. Unlike some of her nightmares, it would probably be almost forgotten by the time she finished washing her face.

Giving her best impression of a cat stretching, Sakura managed to escape the last grasping fingers of sleep before she tossed the covers over Pakkun and stepped out of bed. Where she almost tripped over Guruko, who wagged his tail without lifting his head.

"How did all of you even get in here?" she asked the room at large. She'd suspected yesterday's respite wouldn't last, so she wasn't outright surprised, but she'd thought Kakashi-sensei would give her more warning.

"We're ninja too, you know," Urushi answered. "If it needs done, we'll find a way to do it."

Shiba snickered. "Like letting bossman open the door for us."

Akino sighed noisily. "Some mysteries are better left unexplained," he said bitingly to Shiba.

Who immediately maintained that manipulating Hatake Kakashi was a trick worthy of praise. She left them to their low-voiced squabbling, instead running through her much-abbreviated morning routine. Sakura had realized on about day two of Kakashi-sensei's 'walking the dogs' training that it was pointless to put much effort into getting dressed the first time, because it was all going to be a ruin after a few hours anyway. Although she hadn't submitted to the inevitable until the second week in.

But now she washed her face, brushed her teeth, pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail, and made another hazardous trip back across her room to rummage in her closet without even pausing to consider lip gloss or refreshing her nail polish. She'd never thought she would see a time when she was grateful that she wouldn't see Sasuke-kun, but she'd gladly forfeit a good chunk of her mission pay if he never saw her after the ninken had finished with her.

Sakura ended up in civvies that she thought might survive the outing, a three-fourth sleeve top paired with charcoal grey capris that tucked neatly into her new boots.

Seeing her dressed, her pack of escorts rose, yawning and stretching and complaining, but all their tails were wagging as they herded her toward one of the wooded training areas. Well, except Pakkun, who was pretending wounded dignity. Though he unbent enough to inform her gruffly that Kakashi-sensei would meet her at the hospital later that morning, which meant that they'd have to end their session early. His promise that they'd put extra effort into the time they had seemed foreboding.

And she was right.

By the end of the morning, his wounded dignity had recovered and Sakura had lost almost all of hers. She'd been body-checked hard by Bull during a full-out sprint, which had sent her stumbling sideways, which would have been fine except that Shiba happened to be running there. He'd yelped, she'd tumbled, and in the end Sakura had ended up shoulder-deep in a scummy, mosquito infested pond. So one of her arms was now smeared with mud all the way up to her elbow where she'd caught herself and part of her shirt now reeked of eau du stagnant pond water.

She'd worried that she'd hurt Shiba, but aside from an inability to look at her without snickering, he seemed fine.

On the other hand, the scar down her chest was itching. She thought it was mostly physiological, having double-checked for remaining wigglers and nymphs among the sludge—she was really beginning to suspect they'd passed that particular pond on purpose—but that didn't stop it from ratcheting from irritating to all-consuming need as she tried to ignore it. When she couldn't take it any longer, she tugged the collar of her shirt away from it and scratched the section that ran over her collarbone very gingerly with her pinkie.

It was a much wider scar than the one on her face, rougher and redder, though now it only ached at the end of practice and when it was about to rain. She still turned her head to the side to avoid looking at it directly.

That was her only excuse for overlooking the approaching group, because even though her muscles felt like overcooked noodles, she would have had enough energy to make a desperate flight.

As it was, she flinched violently when a familiar voice called out loudly, "Sakura, is that you?"

Sakura hadn't worn her shemagh, because it was still so new that it would be a shame to get it dirty, but she suddenly felt very naked without it as she hastily tugged her collar back into place. But judging by the way Ino was gaping, it was too late for anything but damage control. As her eyes slid away from Ino, she discovered that Shikamaru's brows were raised incrementally, but she couldn't otherwise interpret his expression. And Asuma-sensei was openly surprised. She felt a brief flash of gratitude that Chouji had apparently been determined to finish his bag of chips before reaching the practice field, because he seemed more confused at the reactions of his teammates than anything else. Realizing that she still had her hand clenched over her shoulder, she let it drop to her side.

"And who else would I be, pig?" Sakura snapped defensively.

She immediately felt a little guilty when Ino bristled, but her embarrassment at having been seen overrode it. It wasn't just the scars, though those were bad enough. She was filthy and she smelled and her future was full of mornings where she was harried by dogs and missions where she or someone else stood to die.

And Ino...

Ino was pretty even without artifice. She was the Yamanaka on a team tailored to make the best use of her talents, which wouldn't ever leave her stranded on a battlefield.

Unfair, Sakura thought spitefully, before guilt made her flinch away from that thought. Whatever they were now, Ino had been her best friend through a very rough portion of her life. And what she'd gone through in Wave wasn't something she would wish on anyone.

Her hand had crept up until she was clutching at her upper arm again, lost in her own thoughts, when she realized that Ino was peering at her with concern. She was a lot closer than she had been, probably having stomped closer to give Sakura a piece of her mind. She'd always been like that.  

"Sakura," Ino said slowly, "those scars..."

And there was the question she'd braced herself against from the moment she'd recognized the voice as Ino's. She still flinched, regardless.

If it had been just the two of them, she might have answered more honestly, but even though Shikamaru and Chouji were Ino's close childhood friends, Sakura only knew them as classmates. Asuma-sensei was as good as a stranger to her. So she shrugged, the show of bravado very brittle, but it was the best she could do. "Sorry," she said curtly, "I have something I need to do."

And with that flimsy excuse, she bolted.


Sakura had gone home, showered and dressed with a lot more care than she had that morning, and still found herself twenty minutes earlier than Kakashi-sensei. Usually waiting on him wasn't actively annoying, as it gave her time to try and make conversation with Sasuke-kun, but being late to an actual appointment set her nerves on edge.

Well, technically they weren't late yet, but Sakura had always been the type to arrive a little early, so that she never looked rushed or frazzled, and because she was the kind of student and daughter that was sensitive to adult approval. Inconveniencing hospital personnel registered to her as a very bad idea, but Kakashi-sensei arrived at the last minute and filled out the necessary paperwork with a nonchalance that made her want to shout at him. But they were in public and he was her teacher, so she didn't. It helped that the nurse was regarding him with a kind of amused, knowing tolerance.

But as they were led down a hallway, all her irritation was washed away by nervous anticipation. She fidgeted with her hands as the waited atop the examination table, but luckily, or perhaps as a result of their last-minute appearance, they weren't made to wait long.

The woman who slid the door open was average in height, pretty enough in the normal way of things, with long blonde hair pulled back into a low ponytail, but her smile was kind enough to put Sakura at ease.

"I'm Honda Kotone and I'll be your medic-nin today, Sakura-chan," she said as she entered the room. "You can call me by my first name, I don't mind. I hear you had a little bit too much excitement on your last mission. From what I see here," she glanced down at the clipboard she held in one hand, "it seems like you might be more comfortable if your sensei waited out in reception. Unless you'd prefer he stay?"

Sakura shook her head and Kakashi-sensei sent her a little wave as he shambled out the door, book in hand. She supposed he'd be happy enough to sit and read while he waited.

She glanced back up at her medic-nin, who was regarding the now closed door with the same sort of amusement the nurse had displayed. "That man," she said finally, shaking her head as she turned back to Sakura. "Well," she said, "shall we take a look?"

Even if she was a medical professional and a woman besides, there was something a little awkward about taking off her shirt in front of a stranger. It would have been one thing in a public bath, but it was acutely embarrassing to have anyone stare at her when she was taking her clothes off. Even if her eyes were clearly fixed on the scar.

The woman made a thoughtful noise as she drew closer, setting her clipboard aside as her hand began to glow with green chakra. Sakura was distracted from her embarrassment by the unfamiliar jutsu. They'd been taught in the Academy that it was very rare for chakra to have a visible manifestation that wasn't an elemental one.

Seeing her interest, the medic-nin explained. "This is the most basic and flexible of the medical jutsu. You can use it both as a diagnostic tool, like I'm going to now, or to heal."

Sakura tried to sit very still as Kotone-sensei ran her hand the length of the scar. She hummed thoughtfully, before saying, "Your doctor didn't do a bad job of it, considering she probably doesn't have a lot of experience with these sorts of injuries. A few sessions and we'll have it good as new." Sakura was surprised when her hand came up to brush across the scar at the corner of her mouth. "Same with this one."

Sakura blinked, before blurting, "Kakashi-sensei said that the village wouldn't pay to have the one on my face treated."

"Considering that your sensei is Hatake Kakashi, I don't think he was being intentionally mean," Kotone-sensei said as she pulled a wheeled stool up next to the table. "Back when it was still possible to make him sit still long enough to treat him while he's still conscious—and you have no idea how surprised I was that he actually accompanied you in here in the first place—that was the policy. Tsunade-sama's medic program was still in its early years, so there weren't as many medics and those we did have had to focus on getting shinobi back in the field as soon as possible. There wasn't really the time or excess chakra to spare for cosmetic procedures, but nowadays Konohagakure sees the value in having shinobi that don't look like they eat small children for breakfast. You might say it's part of our ‘brand’," she said with a laugh. "And for kunoichi especially, we feel that there's no such thing as a cosmetic scar. If for some reason you cannot use a transformation jutsu on a mission, people find scarring on men tremendously less suspicious than on a woman. We do try to talk the shinobi into attending the additional healing sessions, but occasionally they decide a particular scar is 'heroic' or 'manly' and we have to leave it at that."

She rolled her eyes, making her opinion of that clear. "So, to make a long story short, yes, the village will treat that scar. But while I can take care of this one starting today and have it cleared up in a few sessions, we have a specialist who does facial and burn scarring. Facial skin is especially prone to discoloration after healing and you'll spend a lot more of your life with it uncovered than anything else, so we turn it over to someone with a really light touch. And while I'll have them make you an appointment, you probably won't get in to see her until after the exams are finished. So you'll have to live with it a little longer, alright?"

As Sakura had expected to live with it for the rest of her life, it was more than alright.


Her scar—already noticeably less red and raised—felt a little strange, but Sakura was in higher spirits than had been usual for her these past weeks as she trailed behind Kakashi-sensei to their normal training ground. The matter with Ino kept threatening to break her mood, but she managed to shove it aside for the moment.

But there was something else on her mind and she took the opportunity to ask Kakashi-sensei about it while they were somewhere where the boys wouldn't hear.

"Kakashi-sensei?"

"Aa?" he asked without glancing over at her. Sakura might have been embarrassed to be seen with someone reading porn in public—or she would have been, if anyone had paid Kakashi-sensei any attention—but she couldn't help but be a little jealous of the awareness that let him read and walk through the busy streets of Konoha without bumping into anything or anyone. 

"The chunin exams...are we going to participate in them?"

She doubted it, as she was under the impression that most genin remained genin for a much longer period of time than they'd been together, but Kakashi-sensei had also allowed them to stay in Wave after he'd known about Zabuza. What that said about his expectations for them scared Sakura if she thought about it too much.

Kakashi-sensei made a thoughtful humming noise. "Sensei is still considering it, so you hold off on discussing it with the boys. There's a little something we need to test first."

"What?"

"You'll see," was his answer.

Sakura battled complicated feelings about the possibility of being entered into the chunin exams all the way to the red bridge that had somehow become the unofficial 'waiting on Kakashi-sensei' location for Team Seven. Both the boys looked surprised to see them.

"Eh?!" Naruto exclaimed. "Kakashi-sensei's kinda on time! What is this?!"

Kakashi-sensei sighed theatrically. "Nothing I do ever makes you happy, does it?"

"You sometimes make me wake up really early and then show up really late," Naruto replied with a scowl.

"Ah, I do, do I?" Kakashi-sensei said, his tone as bland as if it would never occur to him that they'd find it irritating.

"You do!" Naruto confirmed, hands coming up to clutch at the air. "I could still be sleeping or at least learning cool jutsu, but nooo, you just make me wait with this bastard," he said, thrusting both hands toward Sasuke-kun, whose own scowl deepened.

"Idiot," Sasuke-kun muttered, not quite under his breath.

Kakashi-sensei intervened before that could start a whole new round of arguments. "Maa, maa, let's all be friendly now. There's something a little different we're going to address in training this afternoon."

Naruto tilted his head to one side. "...you aren't talking about teaching us a new jutsu, are you?" he asked skeptically.

"Not really, no. It's more a teamwork exercise."

"Do we gotta?" Naruto whined. "We did just fine before."

"Yes. Though this is primarily an exercise for Sasuke and Sakura."

Sakura brightened at this news, stealing a glance at Sasuke-kun to see what he thought of it. His expression hadn't changed much from earlier, but she comforted herself with the knowledge it was Naruto he was displeased with, not her. As if sensing her gaze, his eyes turned toward her and some of the severity disappeared from his expression.

There was never any need for the other members of Team Seven to demand explanations, as Naruto had the market cornered. "Why the two of them?" he whined and he sounded a little hurt by his exclusion. Sakura was more eager for the chance to work with Sasuke-kun than she was prepared to feel empathy for him, especially as the boys had spent most of their time in Wave sparring when they hadn't been coordinating their abilities in actual battles. So far, they'd been more a team of two, with Kakashi-sensei and Sakura acting independently.

But what Kakashi-sensei said next slaughtered her eagerness.

"Because at the core of Uchiha-style ninjutsu is the Katon. And I doubt he'd be generous enough to learn to fight without it."

His words might have been for Naruto, but his single eye was fixed on Sakura. 

It was the first time she'd ever wished that Sasuke-kun was somewhere, anywhere else than right beside her.

Chapter Text

Sakura stared at Kakashi-sensei, silently begging him to change his mind, but his smile was as relentless as the summer sun. Naruto was darting looks between them, obviously confused and Sasuke-kun shifted uncomfortably, but her focus was on Kakashi-sensei. "I told you that even jounin don't like using fire," he told her conversationally. "But traditionally the Uchiha haven't been among that number. Sasuke's Katon techniques are extremely advanced for his age and it would be a pity to ask him to give it up, wouldn't you say?"

Sakura was shaking, both hands snaking up to grasp her upper arms. "...what's the exercise?" she asked in a strangled voice.

"Sakura-chan? Kakashi-sensei? What the heck is going on?" Naruto demanded. But he was ignored.

Her fear ratcheted higher as Kakashi-sensei formed familiar handseals, slow enough for her to follow them easily. At his side, three ferocious, sneering shinobi materialized and her throat seized tight, her hands dropping instinctively to her kunai pouch though she knew they were illusory. Sasuke was faster, his hands running through a series of seals so quickly she couldn't follow them, but when they slammed together in the final tiger seal, she knew what was coming.

He inhaled deeply, his eyes dark and focused, and when he exhaled, an enormous writhing sun in miniature roared into existence before it spun forward in an inevitable collision course with the enemy-nin. She recognized the Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu. She also recognized that if the enemy-nin were quick, they could have avoided the technique, which was predictable in its path and only as quick in its travel as a well-thrown kunai.

But they didn't.

Some part of her knew that it was only genjutsu, not even a particularly subtle one, but her memory supplied the stink of it, the sound of it, and she could only watch them burn in mute horror. And the Sasuke-kun in the illusion was not nearly as affected as she was. He looked to her, satisfied as a cat having caught a mouse, and fire gleamed in his dark eyes.

She did scream when someone grabbed her arms hard enough to bruise, their nails digging into her skin. "Stop it, Kakashi!" Sasuke demanded, though the strength of his grip had already broken the illusion. "Whatever you're showing her, stop."

Kakashi-sensei's voice was even in response, though as Sakura had wrenched herself away from Sasuke-kun and sunk into a crouch, hands clutching at her head as she tried desperately to shove the image away, he could have been shouting and she would have hardly cared. She kept seeing the illusory Sasuke-kun's smirk of triumph, something so familiar from dozens of taijutsu bouts at the Academy, so strange and different when partnered with the scene the genjutsu had shown her.

"I'm not doing it out of cruelty. There's going to come a point in your career when she's going to have to come to terms with your ninjutsu. Better here and now, without real enemies to take advantage of her distraction, rather than later. Though I have faith in Sakura's ability to work through fear in live combat."

Sakura was unmoved by the compliment, because she didn't find much admirable in a determination not to die, nor was she enjoying this particular moment enough to have room for much vanity.

"Sakura..."

She jerked away from Sasuke-kun's reaching hand, taking deep, gasping breaths. "Fine," she said tightly. "I'm fine." A smile was beyond her, but she repeated the mantra once more. "I'm fine."

Sasuke-kun frowned at her, but she didn't think he'd contradict her. "No," he said, to her surprise. "You're not. But I don't think what Kakashi did helped. What was the point of that?" he demanded of Kakashi-sensei.

"The point is this: after seeing that, how well can the two of you cooperate with each other? How much do you really trust one another? With you and Naruto, you've sparred and argued, but you're still able to work together effectively when it really counts. Are you and Sakura capable of the same thing?"

Sasuke-kun looked like he wanted to make a harsh retort, but as he glanced over at Sakura, he subsided. "What do you want us to do?" he asked gruffly instead.

"Sakura, you're right-handed, and Sasuke favors his left if given a choice, so let's do this. Hold hands."

"...what?" Sasuke-kun asked sharply. "Why should we?"

"Go on," Kakashi-sensei urged.

Sasuke-kun's put-upon sigh was an indication of his surrender, but Sakura felt no giddy excitement as he caught her hand in his own. His own palm was warm and dry, hers clammy. She found it embarrassing, but mostly it was just uncomfortable, as some part of her acknowledged that this should be something she enjoyed, while the rest of her worked to keep from pulling away. Was her attraction to him really so weak as to falter when confronted with an image of him setting people on fire?

She'd known he was fire-natured. She'd heard about the Uchiha ninjutsu, seen him use it. But she'd failed to acknowledge what that meant.

So the fluttering of her heart when Kakashi-sensei bound their hands together with a strip of dark cloth had everything to do with feeling trapped, rather than titillated.

"The exercise is simple. Or it would be, if you were working alone or could coordinate your movements well. We've done part of this one before, Sakura. I'm going to give you a destination. The two of you will have to work together to get there without 'dying'. If I get in a clean hit with these," he walked over to the posts that he'd once tied Naruto to and hoisted a bag, "you're dead and you'll come back here and try again. Die five times and you'll fail the exercise."

"What are 'these'?" Sasuke-kun asked suspiciously.

"This time it's rubber balls coated in red chalk," Kakashi-sensei replied cheerfully. "Don't worry. They'll leave some nasty bruises, but they probably won't break anything. Rules—well, I don't have to tell you no ninjutsu. No weapons. The goal is to dodge, not deflect. Any questions? No? Then, you're aiming for the northeast border of the training ground, where there's a split elm with a pink ribbon tied to one trunk and a blue ribbon tied to the other. When you've got both ribbons, you'll be safe."

In theory, it wasn't very different from the exercises she'd run in the mornings on Wave.  

In practice, it was a different beast entirely.

Sakura had several weeks of training in escaping multiple pursuers, in anticipating the points at which Kakashi-sensei would choose to attack, and in tracking a course while in full flight. Her stamina and her ability to dodge was more honed than it had ever been. And Sasuke-kun was, well, Sasuke-kun. It should have been easy.

It wasn't.

They 'died' twice in quick succession, neither time precisely the fault of one or the other, but simply because they were working at odds rather than together. Once while they were still attempting to adjust to running together—even though they were almost the same height, stride length had been less of a problem then Sakura's instinct to settle into the pace she'd learned she could maintain and Sasuke's desire to press them into a slightly faster one—and then because they tried to dodge in different directions, which had resulting in some stumbling that might have been funny if she'd been the one watching.

As it was, her shoulder was still a little sore. "This isn't working," Sasuke-kun muttered as he pulled them both in behind the shelter of a massive tree. "We'll have to...call it, or something, whenever we notice Kakashi."

Sakura wasn't used to such uncertainty from Sasuke-kun, but she nodded without really looking over at him. She knew she wasn't really helping, keeping more space between than she usually would, but every time she drew close, she thought she smelled smoke. Whether it was real or a product of her overactive imagination, it didn't matter. It was just making the exercise more difficult.

So she left Sasuke-kun to lead, but even though he was taking this very seriously now, his Sharingan activated, and Sakura was using her time with Kakashi-sensei to maximize her own usefulness—he wasn't actually trying to kill them, after all, so he almost always broadcast his location in a way they'd notice if they were paying attention—but though they made it farther than any other attempt, Sasuke-kun ended up with another red splotch smeared across his shirt.

"I'm not deaf, you know," Kakashi-sensei called down dryly from his position in the trees.

Sasuke-kun scowled up at him and they trudged back to the starting point in silence.

If it had been before Wave, Sakura had little doubt she probably would have been exhausted by this point. The distance he'd assigned them for their course wasn't insignificant and, if you compiled their attempts, they'd more than run it once already. But now, she'd only worked past the first wall of discomfort, and she was ready for their next attempt. She finally snuck a glance over at Sasuke-kun, easily reading his frustration, then down at their linked hands.

What if...?

She made herself sidle closer to Sasuke-kun. Who immediately noticed the lack of distance, his eyes turning toward her though he didn't move his head.

"This is just a suggestion, but," she said in a low voice, "what if we use pressure?"

"Hn?"

"What if we shift our hands so our fingers are interlaced? That would be five points of contact. What if we assigned a direction to each finger? Like, forward for the index finger, back for the pinky, left for the middle finger, right for the ring finger, and down for the thumb?"

Sasuke-kun was quiet for so long she was beginning to think he disliked the idea and would prefer to pretend they weren't holding hands at all. "That might work," he breathed at last. "Practice on the way back?" And he shifted his hand so that her fingers were laced with hers.

Her heart seemed to skip a beat and it wasn't entirely because the boy she liked was holding her hand in a way that felt much more personal than the passive grip they'd had before. It was also because Uchiha Sasuke, best shinobi of their graduating class, had agreed to her plan.

And because that scent wasn't only in her imagination. Sasuke-kun did smell faintly of smoke.  

She shoved it aside, concentrating instead on cooperating with Sasuke-kun, because it would be embarrassing if she was the one to mistake the directions, given that she'd been the one to assign them.

This time, when Kakashi-sensei gave them the signal, they moved off in almost perfect unison. Sasuke-kun seemed a little surprised when she began augmenting her own speed with chakra now that they were on their second-to-last life, matching the pace he'd been trying to set earlier, but he fell in readily enough. And her pressure system worked, their determination making them both hyper-attentive to the signals being sent by the other. It wasn't pretty, nothing like what either of them would have been able to manage on their own, but it was functional.

It got them to the elm. And it won them their blue ribbon, but Sakura knew all about last-second ambushes and Kakashi-sensei. The moment she met Sasuke-kun's eyes, bright with triumph and dark as night, she knew what was about to happen.

"No—!"

He'd already ripped the ribbon free, revealing the paper seal that had had been cleverly disguised beneath it. It activated, triggering nearby traps that had been hidden so thoroughly that he hadn't spotted them with his Sharingan. And without it, he didn't have the reaction time to keep from being hit.

But Sakura had moved almost before she'd choked out her abbreviated warning. She chose to ignore that his look of self-satisfaction, of self-assured triumph, was a mirror of the one Kakashi-sensei had shown them in the genjutsu. One day, that might be real. And she would deal with it then, would have to decide whether she'd been more horrified at the act itself or that she'd done it or if the lingering trauma was caused by some mixture of those factors and other things. But today was not that day. Today, Sasuke-kun was her teammate.

Their bound hands made it awkward to do anything but throw herself forward, wrapping her free hand tightly around Sasuke-kun's torso. She used everything she'd learned about chakra manipulation, shoving them away from the tree so quickly the world became streaks of color, one dark splotch that made her tighten her grip almost certainly Kakashi-sensei. She'd thrown them up in an arc that would land her feet-first on the other elm trunk, but she was entirely vulnerable in midair.

And when her feet smacked solidly down on the other trunk without either of them being bludgeoned, she understood that this was what Kakashi-sensei had wanted. They hadn't won. They were being allowed to pass the test.

She snatched up the ribbon regardless, flinging them out of the way of another round of traps. Maybe one improbable day, she'd be good enough to win outright against Kakashi-sensei. But for now, she'd take his approval.

Provided, she thought with dismay, seeing how quickly Sasuke-kun was to put her at arm's length, Sasuke-kun was still speaking to her after she'd effectively manhandled him.   


Sakura had an audience as she stood in front of the mirror, wearing all the pieces of her new outfit together for the first time. She'd made good progress on breaking in her boots, but she'd buffed them back to a dress shine to get the full effect. Her overskirt was shorter and of significantly less fabric than her dress had been, a shade of purple-tinted pink that made the panels look almost like the squared petals of a flower. Her dresses had been cut down into sleeveless vests and she wore her shemagh, which she'd finally become adept at tying.

Her hair had been swept back out of the way into a loose, low ponytail, her forehead protector still in its usual place at the top of her head.

And, as Hasekura-san had promised, her knives sat comfortably flush on the outside of her thighs, with built-in storage for her kunai and shuriken. He'd worked some light padding into the panels that sat against her leg, for long-term wear comfort, and as it was a full rig, he'd explained that it would be easy to add and remove attachments as needed at her beltline. It made her feel very much an adult.

Normally that would a very good, empowering kind of thing. But at this moment, in these circumstances, she was uncertain that an adult was something she wanted to be. Tomorrow was the registration deadline for the chunin exams. Which meant today was Kakashi-sensei's last chance to announce to the boys that they were taking the test, if he'd decided they were ready.

Her fingers stretched out, as if to brush against the mirror, but she drew them back before she left fingerprints. "So, what do you think?"" she asked her audience, turning to face them.

Tails wagged in a kind of quiet applause, though as Guruko's eyes were closed, she didn't know how genuine all of it was. She was struck by a sudden nostalgia for her friendship with Ino. The first time she'd worn her new qipao dress, it had been Ino sitting on her bed, applauding her modeling.

She liked the ninken, strange as that was after what they put her through on a regular basis, but it just wasn't the same.

So, with a sigh, she took their compliments as the best she was going to get and let herself and the pack out of the house. They soon wondered off, to do whatever it was they intended to do for the day, and Sakura did the same. Without an appointment to meet up with Team Seven until much later and with her rivalry with Ino leaving a gaping hole in her time where their friendship had been, Sakura just sort of drifted.  She window shopped for a while, but just looking wasn't as much fun on her own, and it was too early to eat, so she was actually sort of grateful when she heard a familiar voice.

Though when she discovered Naruto playing ninja with Academy students, she didn't know whether that was the proper emotional response.

And the implication that she was his girlfriend was entirely uncalled for. She would have let it pass by, because she was a genin now and genin didn't get into fights with Academy students, but when Naruto blushed, scratched at the back of his neck, and said, "You think so?", that was entirely too much. Him she could smack upside the head.

A sharp glance at the others was enough to send them running, which wasn't a bad thing until the loudest and noisiest of the bunch slammed into someone else.

And that someone else was wearing a forehead protector with a symbol she'd only seen in textbooks. He was also very uncharitable about the whole thing, which she could understand, to an extent. Not quite to the extent where it was acceptable to hoist Konohamaru into the air like that, though.

Naruto was widening his stance and clearly threatening to escalate the situation with his body language, even if he hadn't said anything beyond his demand the stranger put Konohamaru down. Sakura, however, did not want the situation to become any worse than it already was, especially as she had a good idea why Suna ninja would be allowed to wander the streets freely. Intervillage incidents were bad, regardless of which village it was with.

So she bowed instead. "I'm very sorry," she apologized, her sincerity increased by her nervousness. Because while they were probably genin candidates for the exam, both of them were older than Naruto and her. But the older boy wasn't prepared to be appeased so easily.

While he was sneering at them, Sakura was searching for the right words to fix the situation, being careful to keep her hands clear of her knives. Because once weapons came into play, or even anything like real violence, it would be very, very difficult to get anyone to willingly back down. Well, at least that was her experience with Naruto and Sasuke-kun. She'd be more than willing to solve things with words.

But Sasuke-kun intervened before she could think of anything. And, just as she'd thought, the stranger was ready to meet Sasuke's rock with something else, though, luckily, she never discovered what it was.

As a third stranger, this one a younger redhead, joined the others, she had a moment's doubt whether it was really lucky. Because when he clearly controlled his teammates through fear, she didn't want to know what he'd be like if they met him in the exams.

But she bit her lip and didn't interfere as he demanded Sasuke-kun's name and Sasuke-kun received in return the name of Suna no Gaara. Let Naruto demand their attention. She would be happy if those intense, unsettling green eyes never fixed on her.

No one said a word about her new outfit.


Sakura hung back as the boys demanded answers from Kakashi-sensei. And if it was dismay she felt at the affirmative answer, she tried to hide it well. Because, after all they'd gone through together, she didn't want to be the one holding their team back. Naruto would whine, which she'd find irritating but bearable, but after their teamwork exercise and perhaps before that, she couldn't bear to disappoint Sasuke-kun. And he was clearly intent on their participation.

So she swallowed down her own reservations.

And if she waited until the next morning to fill out the paperwork, choosing instead to spend her evening obsessively checking her equipment and then spending several hours pressed into the corner of her room, the blanket from her bed draped around her shoulders as she tried to reason through what tomorrow would bring, there was no one else home to know.

By the time she woke up the next morning, she'd regained some composure and perspective. It was only a test, designed to measure their suitability for promotion. Their mission in Wave had been an aberration, one she shouldn't use as a measure for what was actually expected of them at this point in their career. She'd convinced herself that it would be much closer to their Academy exercises than the kind of action they'd seen on the bridge. The conditions, after all, would be controlled and the entrants would be monitored and it wouldn't make much sense to lose genin during the exam.

Especially the genin that belonged to foreign villages, like the Suna-nin they'd run into yesterday. She could imagine that might become a major point of contention, if it was all that common for their shinobi to die while within the walls of other villages.

And, upon consideration, when she'd told her parents about Kakashi-sensei's bell test, they'd told her stories about their own graduation exams.  Her parents were chunin and if the exam was really so awful, she thought that would have been the moment for them to mention it. And most of the ninja in the village were chunin, even those that held noncombat positions.

So it had to be something that even those shinobi destined to work in the codebreaking office or in the aviary, like her mother, could pass.

So it wasn't confidence that they would necessarily win promotion that accompanied her out the door, but confidence about the nature of the exam. Regardless of what had happened after her graduation, she still remembered what it was like to do well at the Academy. If they asked her to do something like that, she had faith enough in her own skills to not be the one who held the team back.

And, judging by the expressions and body language of her teammates, both of them shared that opinion.

At first, nothing occurred to shake Sakura's certainty. Even if she'd been so unobservant as to miss the fact that the ground floor had been clearly labeled and they hadn't climbed enough flights to make it to the third floor, she'd sensed the use of genjutsu almost before she cleared the stairs.

The written exam that followed that bolstered her confidence magnificently, because while she found the questions challenging, they weren't so difficult as to cause her to think she'd gotten any wrong.

 And if being told that none of that mattered at all, so long as they opted to stay in the exam as so dramatically evidence by Naruto, tore at her pride, it was nothing to what happened next.

The Forest of the Death was bad enough on its own.

But what found them there changed them forever.

Chapter Text

Sakura had seen flesh bubble and melt like wax beneath fire before, but she'd never, not even in the wild dreams that followed her first real battle, imagined that someone could just...peel it away, like the damaged skin of an orange. It was strangely fascinating, like most truly horrific things were, and she couldn't have looked away even if she hadn't been so acutely aware it was a bad idea. Sakura knew with utmost certainty she'd revisit this scene in nightmares for years to come.

It had begun with a wind.

She was beginning to suspect that there would come a point in her life where she wouldn't trust any breeze strong enough to raise a cloud of dust or a whirl of leaves without strong evidence that the whole forest was effected, but as this had been a localized event strong enough to raze a path clear of grass and small rocks, she'd been absolutely certain that it was on purpose.

At the first strong gust, she'd immediately taken cover. She'd noted Sasuke-kun, stretched belly-down in the cover of brush, but she'd felt the sting of ryō-sized rocks and had retreated behind the root of one of the behemoth trees that populated the entire forest. Before they'd been allowed to enter the Forest of Death, she'd been under the impression that the area was a forested mountain. She'd had no idea that the swell on the horizon was owed not to dirt and rock, but to trees whose branches you could hold an Academy drill practice on.

So it wasn't so much a root she sheltered behind so much as a thick wooden wall, albeit one with a heavy layer of moss growing on it. It was only when she heard the wind die down that she scurried up the side of her shelter and peeked over, careful to keep close to the tree and minimize her profile. Where they'd been standing only moments ago looked like a blade had sheared a path down the center of the clearing, and she was doubly glad of the protection and vantage the huge moss-covered tree offered.

But even from her new height, she couldn't see Naruto. She hadn't thought the wind had been that strong, but the woods were very dense, which was part of what made navigating them so difficult. It was possible he was somewhere close by, her view simply obstructed. If nothing else, she'd learned to respect his durability. He had a fool's luck and she had to trust that meant that he hadn't been seriously injured.

Sakura thought for a moment her belief was confirmed as Naruto came out of the settling dust, but she stayed where she was. They were taught henge in the Academy not only because it was a useful jutsu, but also because it was very difficult to detect even by high-level ninja. And she'd lost track of Naruto entirely in the brief chaos. She thought it was Naruto, but she also thought it was suspicious that someone would waste the chakra on such an impressive ninjutsu without attempting to remove at least one of them from the field of battle. Testing for chunin or not, no one in this Forest should have the kind of chakra to use it so frivolously.

It could just be an idiot showing off, but she thought there wasn't any harm in letting Sasuke-kun be the one to confront Naruto. If she thought she could circle around behind without being noticed, she might have tried, but she had less than perfect confidence in her abilities.

That was in no little part due to certain ninken, who were either going to give a complex or make her the greatest ninja who ever spent her childhood being literally hounded.

So Sakura stayed where she was, muscles tense, while Sasuke called out a challenge.

And she was surprised at how quickly Sasuke-kun determined Naruto was a fake, flinging a kunai at him. It was the way he dodged that decided her, not his knowledge of the password.  

The phrase wasn't long and almost rhymed, and they'd spent a long time honing their memory at the Academy, or at least the kunoichi classes had, so she'd thought Naruto was finally buckling down enough to memorize it seriously. How could he expect to receive and carry messages so confidential they couldn't be written down otherwise? Or even recall complex directions without consulting an incriminating map? She'd had an instant's thought it might have made up, at least a little, for how he'd made it through the first portion on sheer bravado.

 Apparently Sasuke didn't share her opinion. And that was a good thing.

"You're a clever one," not-Naruto drawled. "Why don't you ask your friend to come out from where she's lurking? I wonder if you'd accuse her of the same thing. Are you burdened by dimwits or is this one just a special case?"

"Come on out, Sakura," Sasuke-kun commanded.

Sakura did as she was told, sidling closer to Sasuke, who demanded the password from her without ever looking at her. And she, of course, recited it effortlessly back at him.

"And that isn't suspicious?" the stranger wearing Naruto's face asked.

"No. It'd be suspicious if Sakura couldn't recall the password word-for-word. Naruto's too much of an idiot to manage it," Sasuke-kun replied, not hiding his disdain for both the stranger and his teammate. "In his case, it wasn't so much a password as a trap for anyone who might be eavesdropping. And you stumbled right into it."

Sakura wanted to allow this pre-match gloating to lull her into the same sense of fighting for points that she'd enjoyed at the Academy, but the dank, heavy atmosphere of the forest and the blatant aggression of the foreign shinobi that they'd shared the waiting room with kept her on edge. As did the thought that they'd all registered in teams of three, one of theirs was missing, and they had no idea where the stranger's teammates were. Sakura did not want to find herself the victim of being outflanked, whether the stranger was playing for points or blood. All her battles thus far had been won because she'd managed to face every opponent one-on-one. The one time she'd tried for more, on the deck of Gatō's yacht, she'd almost gotten herself killed.

So she let Sasuke-kun handle the conversation.

"I'm impressed. You haven't dropped your guard at all, have you?" the stranger said, Naruto's image wavering and fading.

Sakura was struck first by just how ugly the woman who replaced him was. Her skin was sallow, her eyes had dark bruising beneath them, and her lips were so thin as to be practically nonexistent. And she hadn't tried to correct any of it with cosmetics. But worse than that was what she wore. Sakura wouldn't have guessed there was a woman on the planet who'd emphasize an already non-existent waist with a thick rope tied in a strange sort of bow. Combined with the drab, unflattering clothing, if it hadn't been for the feminine mode of speech, Sakura would have guessed 'man' before 'woman'. And an unfashionable one at that.  

Civilian women could get away with doing what they liked concerning their looks, but kunoichi were trained well before puberty how to flatter and enhance their assets. That was one course she was almost certain the boys had no equivalent for. She couldn't imagine Sasuke-kun sitting through lectures and practical exercises on the production—almost like it was a play, with props and costumes and lines, the markers that differentiated docile housewife from whore and everything in between—of masculinity, as she had femininity.

Though, there was no law anywhere that said a man couldn't use feminine speech.

And, man or woman, it didn't matter. Kunai killed, no matter what hands wielded them.

The stranger had been talking as she wrestled with the irrelevant matter of gender and she'd listened to the words, even if she hadn't been focusing on them. "This promises to be very entertaining." Making an elaborate production out of drawing her own scroll out of a pouch, the Kusa-nin made certain they got a good look at the companion character to their own Heaven scroll. "You'd love to get your hands on our Earth scroll, wouldn't you?" she taunted, before she did something that almost made Sakura gag. She swallowed it whole.

Disgusted, Sakura added at least minor body manipulation to the list of the shinobi's skills.

Strange as it was, Sakura wished they'd stop drawing this out. It wasn't like the situation with the Suna-nin. There wasn't going to be any apologies and everyone going their own way. This was just scraping her nerves raw, making her so jumpy that it was going to go beyond honing her reflexes and make her clumsy instead. Once, she remembered being good at this kind of psychological warfare. Not as good as Ino, but then again, no one was. It was a dim, faraway memory now.

But she didn't have the courage to be the one who struck the first blow, so she stayed quiet, willing to follow Sasuke-kun's lead. And, judging by his expression, he was almost as eager to begin the battle as she was, though their reasons were probably very different.

That was when the world went wrong.

She thought she remembered killing intent. She'd thought Zabuza was as bad as it could get.

She'd been wrong.

Sakura had only caught the edge of Zabuza's killing intent. All those times Kakashi-sensei had driven fear into her mind, it was a needle thrusting and this, this was a wedge driven by a sledgehammer. It tore her open like a rotten stump, exposed all her weaknesses, her insecurities, and ripped her apart with a vivid, immersive vision of her own death. The whole world seemed to be washed in shades of crimson pain.

She hadn't realized she'd collapsed to her knees, but she found herself there, trembling violently. It was like those earliest nightmares, where her fear was so great it was a kind of paralysis. She couldn't move, couldn't scream. Just sit and shiver, her breathing quick and gasping, the kind that led to fainting.

It was Sasuke's violent retching that brought her back to herself.

She was always alone in the nightmares. Always. Or as alone as a relentless enemy and encroaching death would ever let her be.

The paralysis of terror wasn't the only thing that followed her into waking. More than that came the chase. She'd run and run and run until daylight broke the cycle and even then not escape that restless need. If their enemy had taken a single step forward, had drawn a kunai, she would have bolted. Bolted without a single thought for Sasuke-kun or Naruto or anything else. It was that kind of overwhelming.

But as she watched Sasuke-kun struggle to pull himself into an unbalanced half-crouch, she realized she couldn't run, not like that. Because she had never seen this expression on him before, his wild, desperate eyes not focusing on his opponent, but seeking her out. Beyond the crushing pressure of the fear of her own death, something tugged at her heart. Sasuke-kun...

What she couldn't know was that Sasuke, in his relentless pursuit of perfection, had created for himself an unexpected weakness. He'd built himself up to never run and because the fear was too great to advance, he could only stand there and quiver.

But she'd been here before.

It was not a comfortable place, it was not a pretty one, it was not the one she wanted to live in, but she'd died dozens of deaths in dreams. In fire, in water, in pain that had lasted longer than the brief, harsh death of a kunai driven deep.

She was getting a little light-headed from her breathing, but she didn't slow it. She knew she needed a plan. Needed to do something more than attack or run blindly. But her cleverness was failing her, stymied by a wall of skill. She could not attack and hope to win, but she didn't know if just running would be enough. Not when their opponent could use abilities like this without any sign of preparation or strain. Whoever, whatever this Kusa-nin was, she wasn't a chunin exam candidate.

Inaction was also death and between going forward and falling back, she would choose retreat. Choice alone wasn't enough, but unless Sasuke-kun came to himself quickly, it might have to be. She didn't think she could carry Sasuke-kun fast enough to escape, not without something to keep the enemy-nin busy. And she doubted her genjutsu would cause this one to do more than blink.

She was drawn from her desperate, fruitless planning by Sasuke's slow struggle to draw a kunai and straighten into something like his usual stance. She'd never seen him fight so hard to achieve so little.

"Very good," the woman praised him. "What happens now?"

Sakura watched their enemy draw two kunai, holding them tauntingly loose by the loops. "Don't worry, I'll make it quick. But I don't have to tell you that, do I? You've seen it with your own eyes. But I must say, how...disappointing."

Sakura saw the enemy draw her arm back. Saw Sasuke-kun, still held firmly in the grip of his fear.

And all her half-formed plans, so painfully reasoned through the press of terror smothering her, vanished.

Her hand darted to her kunai pouch, her wrist snapping out in a perfect release while her legs drove her to the side from where she'd crouched, her shoulder coming up beneath Sasuke-kun's ribs hard enough for a pained wheeze to escape, but she dug her fingers into the back of his shirt and straightened enough to fling herself forward into a sprint.

"So the prey isn't so defenseless, after all," her opponent called after them, the sound of metal against metal telling her she'd parried her kunai.

She didn't stop to make conversation, just ran, using chakra and the odd, slanted trunks to take great hurtling leaps. Sakura's back was tense with the anticipation of a kunai thrown in return, but none came. It wasn't luck, she didn't think when she had room to think about anything but angle and output and kami-sama, what do I do if—, but it was part of the same reason that shinobi had stopped to make conversation before attacking.

Whatever she wanted, she wanted to do it face to face.

She didn't retreat too far, part of her aware that Naruto was somewhere, that that ninja had done something to him, the other reason being that she couldn't outrun their enemy with Sasuke-kun bouncing against her shoulder like a sack of rice.

Sakura expected him to angrily shove away when she crouched down, expected him to assume that extra edge of gruffness that he used to cover his very rare embarrassment, but he just sort of slumped to the ground, eyes still too wide and too wild to even pretend at composure. He was more mobile than he had been, the pain of her bony shoulder jabbing him in the ribs maybe enough to loose the hold of the genjutsu, but he wasn't free of it.

Probably because it wasn't entirely a genjutsu, Sakura thought as she hovered worriedly. Their opponent was simply that terrifying. "Sasuke—," he slapped a hand against her mouth before she could say anything more, his grasp on his kunai tightening.

"We have to get out of here," he whispered desperately. "We have to move."

That was what he said, but he didn't rise to lead the way as he always had before. She caught a flicker of movement in her peripheral vision and she felt her own eyes widen as she took in the sheer scope of the creature staring unblinking back at her with silent menace.

She'd been in survival class mode since they'd passed beneath the first branches of the Forest of Death, so her mind provided information without conscious effort. So beyond the immediate, oh kami-sama, that's a giant snake, there was a stream of information. They lived in a forested, temperate climate. Snakes were a fact of her life and Sakura hadn't thought she'd had any particular fear of them. But, then again, she'd never met one whose head was almost as large as her bedroom.

As she ducked away from Sasuke-kun's hand, she registered, non-native, judging by the shape of the head, nonvenomous, likely constrictor type, but that was all she had time for as she leapt and the snake struck at her with blinding speed. Its teeth were matched rows of backwards curved white pillars that led down into the darkness of its throat, two rows on the lower jaw, and four along the roof of its mouth. And as that mouth closed around her, the thought that she'd guessed correctly about it being a constrictor wasn't any kind of comfort.  

But she didn't have time for self-congratulation or regret. She'd drawn kunai as she jumped from the tree and now she used them to anchor herself against the forward momentum that would have had her in the back of its throat. She drove them deep into the roof of its mouth, swinging her feet up so that she could latch onto the ridged ceiling with chakra. Which worked for the moment before it registered the pain and then she was a rock being shaken in a wooden box, except this box had nails driven in it with the pointed ends exposed and the rock was flimsy and fleshy.

It was whipping its head about violently, trying to dislodge her, its size actually a hindrance because she was too small to be forced down its maw by the powerful muscles in its throat. She tried to hold herself in place, but while her arms and legs were safely away from teeth, she wasn't strong enough to hold her core completely steady. Her shirt caught on the tip of one and in her distraction, the next sudden shift saw more than fabric caught. 

She swallowed a shriek and stifled the instant urge to rip away, closing her eyes so that she could pretend she wasn't in something's mouth, and waited for the right moment. It came when the snake threw back its head, nearly two-thirds of its massive body rocketing upward, perfectly perpendicular to the ground. Sakura let go and for a moment she was in terrifying freefall, her back to the waiting throat and with no good way to judge distance in the dark, but for just a moment the jaws opened, sunlight spilled in, and she drove in a second set of kunai. This time she was far enough back that she only need to worry about the teeth if the snake dropped its head and she fell forward, but she'd had enough of this. It wasn't nearly as damp as she would have thought, but there was an unnerving smell and her side was warm and sticky and aching.

She shoved off from the roof and landed awkwardly across the presently vertical space at the base of the mouth, just at the back of the tongue. She'd lost her footing and had to channel chakra through her hip instead, but she was sprawled next to her target area and that would have to be good enough. Sakura had tried to remember if she'd been taught anything of snake anatomy, but all she could remember at the moment were irrelevant facts about organ size increase during digestion and it wouldn't help at all if its heart could expand up to forty percent with a large meal. But the brain was protected by bone, the spine by flesh and distance, so that left the front of the throat.

This time, she unsheathed one her knives, longer and better suited for cutting than any kunai. She flipped it so that the curve was angled as if she had a fang of her own and with all her weight and chakra, both hands firm on the hilt, she plunged it down and then tore them through the flesh like she was trying to plow a field. Blood spurted up, soaking her hands, her front, her face, but she only re-dug the trench, the unprotected flesh parting gratifyingly beneath her well-sharpened blade. She worked with frantic energy and because she was no longer dangling, its struggling became less painful and more simply the sensation she'd left her stomach some twenty feet behind.  

Then she saw daylight and she followed it, using her knife and her free hand to part the way, slithering free of the writhing mass of snake like some particularly monstrous birth. She hoped it was residual nerve function, but even it wasn't, animals weren't like humans. In the face of devastating injury, they would back down and flee.

Standing unsteadily, she was surprised to glimpse Sasuke-kun. Her sense of time and distance, constrained by the dark interior of a snake's mouth, had made the brief struggle last much longer and cover much more distance than it had. Her breathing settling a little from its ragged pace, she leaped back up the trunk to rejoin him and it wasn't until she went to sweep her bangs away from where they were sticking to her cheeks that she fully realized just how covered in gore she was, her knife still clenched in one hand in a white-knuckled grip.

So it was that she thought Sasuke-kun's look was for her, but when he gritted out, "Behind—," she turned to see something bubbling up out of the snake's head.  

Their fight wasn't nearly finished yet.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Like some sort of terrible warble, the snake's skin swelled and parted to reveal the Kusa-nin, who didn't look at all upset at the turn of events.

Sakura couldn't say the same. Because she'd really, really hoped that the enormous snake, while she hadn't recognized it as a native species, had simply happened to live in these behemoth, oversized trees. That it hadn’t been a summoned animal.

Because that meant they had no chance at all.

Though she'd been sweaty and warm from her struggle inside the snake, Sakura felt a chill sweep through her.

I don't want to die. Not for a chunin exam, not at the hands of this Kusa-nin, not before she had her first kiss, went on her first date, or any of the hundred other things normal, stupid things she was supposed to be able to do before she died.

Her grip on her knife was so tight that her fingers tingled from lack of circulation and she eased her grip a little.

No ninja lived forever, but she'd thought she would die for a better reason than this strange encounter. The Kusa-nin had never even made clear what it was she wanted. And she certainly hadn't thought she'd die in one of Konohagakure's practice fields.

Where were the proctors who were supposed to be monitoring this exam? she thought with a deep sense of abandonment and betrayal. How can she just summon something like that here and no one sense a thing? Surely they could have enlisted the Hyūga clan to help keep track of the candidates in the forest, if for no other reason than to make certain that the foreign-nin didn't leave the zone and attempt to infiltrate the village proper.

This was the bridge all over again. Even Sasuke-kun, as he was now, provided her with no feeling of reassurance that everything was alright, that things would be taken care of as they should be.

At least Sasuke-kun didn't look as stiff as he had earlier. He didn't look normal by any stretch of the imagination, but she thought she could trust that he would at least move if the Kusa-nin attacked.

"I sense your fear and desperation," the woman below them crooned, "The prey must never let down its guard, not even for a moment, in the presence of its predator. Although your friend's little fangs are unexpectedly sharp, mine are sharper." And then she was coming towards them and Sakura upgraded minor body manipulation to major body manipulation, because she slithered up toward them fast and agile as a real snake, her whole body flexing to conform to the shape of the tree.

Sakura crouched, shifting her grip on her knife and leaving her other hand free for now, trying for some flash of inspiration that would allow her to use the environment against her opponent. None came, but Naruto did.

Sakura was just a little bit relieved, but Sasuke-kun obviously felt that he was just one more person coming to die.

And when the Kusa-nin agreed, that was enough to set Naruto off. "You've been picking on my friends and I don't like that," he declared, as if they were six and on Academy grounds rather than standing over the cooling corpse of one of the largest summoned animals Sakura had ever even heard of. "Slither on back into your hole, snake lady."

Sakura hadn't even noticed that Sasuke-kun's Sharingan was activated until his eyes faded to black. Reaching into his pouch, he withdrew their scroll, turning it so that the Heaven character was clearly displayed. "Here," he offered, his voice steady and determined, "you can have it."

"Say what?!" Naruto shouted indignantly. "No way we're just going to hand the scroll over to the enemy. What's wrong with you?!"

 "Stay out of it!" Sasuke-kun snarled at Naruto without so much as glancing at him.

"Very wise, very sensible," the Kusa-nin said, reaching out a hand as Sasuke-kun threw the scroll in a lazy arc. An arc that was intercepted by Naruto, who shoved the scroll forcefully into his own pouch and turned to glare at Sasuke-kun. He turned his back on the Kusa-nin as he stalked toward them on the branch.

"Stop playing the damn hero," Sasuke-kun growled, "just stay out of it and leave it to me."

Naruto's response to that was to punch him full in the face and Sasuke-kun stumbled back. "You idiot," Sasuke-kun hissed, "you don't know what you're doing!"

Naruto was breathing heavily, from emotion rather than exhaustion, and he yelled back, " I may not know the password, but I know who I am. You're the one I'm not so sure about. How do we know you're who you say you are? Surrendering, giving up the scroll, when did Sasuke become a coward?! You keep saying I don't understand what's going on, but I do. You've choked, that's what it is."

Sakura had never wanted to hit Naruto so much in her life. If she smacked him atop the head now, he'd go facefirst down against the tree and he'd do it so hard he'd bounce, she was that mad. She could have shook him until his teeth rattled, because did he think that sheer determination was all it took? If that was it, no one would ever die.

She was so angry that she wanted to let him face the snake alone when the Kusa-nin summoned another one, because he'd created an impossible situation. If he refused to retreat, unless they abandoned him, none of them were going to escape.

Kakashi-sensei, there should be a subclause that exempts us from being trash when it involves idiots who're going to get all of us killed.

"Get a clue, Naruto!" she barked as she dashed past him, his eyes widening incrementally as he took in her appearance, "This exam isn't worth dying for! I won't die for your pride or a stupid scroll or so that you can be the big damn hero. Whether she looks like an okama or not, she's not someone you can beat just by getting up again when you're knocked down!"

This time there was still branch beneath her as she came upon the snake and she dodged just enough to the side that the wind of its passing raised the fine hairs on her arm. As the tip of its head came even with her to her left, she flipped her knife into her left hand with the open edge of the curve toward her back, set her right hand against the hilt and drove it in as deep as she could, the knife scraping against the bone of its skull, the curve of the blade keeping it from catching or breaking. Her forward momentum and the snake's conspired to open a deep, gaping wound that trailed from its nostrils to the point where it slipped from the branch to fall down, down, down to the forest floor far beneath them.

She was so angry so she trembling as she turned to face their opponent once again. "That wasn't a very nice thing to say," the woman chided her. "Implying that I'm not very pretty isn't any way to make friends."

But Sakura was done talking. She'd put the woman between herself and her teammates, which would have meant something with another enemy, but now her desperate lunge forward was made only with a hope to rejoin the others, yank Naruto away by his collar if necessary, and get as far from this woman as her skills would take her.

Without any evidence that this was difficult, that these enormous snakes cost her any more effort than a thrown kunai, she summoned another one and Sakura was forced to leap aside or be crushed under the weight of its manifestation. Before she could make it back up to the branch, it struck at the boys and it was Naruto who stopped it.

Her gratitude fell flat when he just taunted Sasuke-kun, calling him a scaredy-cat in reflection of Sasuke-kun's earlier insult to him. Part of her went serves him right when the woman dismissed the summon and her tongue darted out quicker than the snake itself had moved, drawing Naruto back to her. She didn't see what sort of jutsu she used on Naruto, but she clearly saw the moment when she lifted him up as if he weighed nothing and tossed him aside. When he bounced off the tree's bark limply and began to fall, her hand darted to her kunai pouch and her throw drove it deep through his loose jacket and into the tree.

A shudder made its way down her spine as the Kusa-nin glanced down at her. "You're proving to be quite the vexing little prey, aren't you? There you are, all trembling, but you're the only one covered in the blood of your slain enemies. How very interesting."

"Sasuke-kun!" she shouted up at her teammate, ignoring the clear ploy to draw her into another conversation. She meant it as encouragement to take up his original plan. He was closer to Naruto and stronger than she was. He could have taken the opportunity to throw Naruto over his shoulder, toss the woman the scroll retrieved from Naruto's kit, and attempt to make a clean escape.

He took it as something else, jerking to awareness of himself like he'd been slapped, and the battle that followed was conducted at speeds she almost couldn't follow with her eyes. But she did see the moment when the Kusa-nin dodged Sasuke-kun's kunai by shifting her head only an incremental fraction and she understood, this is why Kakashi-sensei called my dodging sloppy. It moved so quickly over so much territory that she caught up to them only at the end of it, when they'd looped back around almost to where they'd begun and he had the woman bound to a tree. She suspected what would come next before he used the Katon: Ryūka no Jutsu.

His aim, her mind registered dimly, was off, the fire searing a hole through the tree trunk just above and to the right of the enemy-nin. And she only screamed the once, shrill and high and cut short quickly.

It was, she thought as she drew nearly abreast with Sasuke-kun, somehow...too clean, almost. Because it wasn't natural fire, it hadn't scorched the bark much outside the target zone, but none of the woman's clothes had caught fire and while her skin on her forehead had drooped and melted, it wasn't blackened or burnt.

"Get back," she snapped, reaching forward instinctively to snatch at Sasuke-kun's collar, but the woman was quicker.

Sasuke-kun had let the wire go slack, so there was nothing to stop her hands from running through seals, her whole neck elongating as she struck out at Sasuke-kun, burying her teeth deep into his neck. Sakura turned her grab into a strike, but the woman pulled away with a satisfied smirk.

Sasuke-kun collapsed to his knees, clutching at his neck, which wasn't bleeding freely like it should have been. His small, half-smothered noises of pain tugged at her more than screaming might have and she crouched beside him helplessly, her eyes still fixed on their enemy. The melted mess of face had obscured one eye and the woman reached up and tore the sagging flesh away, revealing much paler skin beneath. A striking eye, unnervingly intelligent and amused, its piercing gold skillfully emphasized with deep purple.

Caught by that gaze, she almost didn't notice that the symbol he wore had changed from that of Kusagakure to the single note that she'd only seen once before.

"What did you do to Sasuke-kun?" she demanded.

The voice that answered her was far lower and somehow more menacing for the fact that he—and it was certainly a he—retained that playful edge. "I just gave him a little parting gift. I think you'll find it very...useful, when it comes time to face my team. I'm sure he'll like it. Very soon, I think Sasuke will seek me out. He'll desire my power." He tilted his head, as if in consideration. "I wonder, if you would tell me why you didn't think I was dead, when Sasuke so clearly thought so and was relieved for it?"

"It's not my first time setting people on fire," Sakura answered in a low voice.

She was further unnerved to see that answer made him smile. "Ah. I'll keep that in mind. I wouldn't linger here, if I were you. I told my team to pay you a visit and it's a bad place to receive guests." And then he was gone and Sasuke-kun was all but whimpering next to her, so she tucked her knife away and knelt properly beside him, reaching forward with the intention of checking his wound.

She didn't expect him to collapse into her, still making those pitiful noises, his skin so hot she could feel it even through the barrier of her clothes. Though the timing was completely inappropriate, her heart seized, especially when her hands came up automatically to draw him closer to her. Her hand cradled the back of his head and found his hair so very fine and downy-soft and as his body sprawled across her lap, his head was pressed against her sternum. It was a strange, powerfully mixed feeling, partly very maternal, like she was cradling a hurting child to her chest, partly that of a girl very close to the object of her desire.

It was his scent that anchored her, because beneath that smoky smell that always lingered, he smelled like sweat and fear.

She glanced helplessly behind her, but Naruto remained pinned to the tree where she'd left him, his jacket still holding for the moment.

Sakura was alone again.

Chapter Text

Sakura retrieved Naruto after a brief inspection of the somewhat ragged bite marks in Sasuke-kun's neck convinced her that they were less worrying than the dark blotches pooled like ink beneath his skin, forming some kind of seal. Or at least that was her best guess. Fuinjutsu was leagues beyond Academy material, so she had to accept that whatever purpose it was meant to serve, she could only take away from it that he'd wanted Sasuke-kun alive and all she could do was wait it out.

If she handled Naruto more roughly than was strictly called for because she was more than half-convinced this was his fault, even if Sakura knew logically that their escape was unlikely from the moment that man decided that Sasuke-kun was his 'prey,' she was still angry enough at him that she didn't feel a shred of guilt.

She dropped him unceremoniously to the branch where she'd left Sasuke-kun, grimly considering what needed done and what she was capable of doing. She needed to get them out of this forest. Sakura didn't care if they forfeited this exam. She didn't care how upset her teammates might be. They could still be angry with her in another six months, when they'd be eligible to take the exam again.

But that was only what she wanted. Unless a proctor intervened, or something else occurred, the chances of reaching safety without encountering the Oto-nin team were dismal. It was a large forest, yes, but someone like that wouldn't promise a visit from his team without being certain that it would occur.

Not when she was absolutely certain that the man they'd met was Orochimaru, because how many people in the world could possibly be able to summon giant snakes so easily? There was a part of her that wanted to know why he needed Sasuke-kun at all, and another that wondered why he'd left Naruto and her alive and not just taken him when he'd collapsed.

But the reasons didn't matter at this moment, just surviving until there was a safer time to worry about those things.

So what she needed to do was retreat to somewhere more defensible than this, somewhere where she could wait for Naruto to regain consciousness. Their chances still wouldn't be good, but they'd be better. She hadn't noticed any blood on him that hadn't come from where she'd touched him and his temperature and color were much better than Sasuke-kun's, so after attempting to a standard genjutsu dispel in case it was a subtle one she couldn't sense failed, she left him be.

Sakura was mightily proud of herself for not kicking him in the side to test that theory.

That reminded her that she still needed to bind up the wound in her own side, which didn't take her very long. She just swabbed it down with an antiseptic towelette and pressed a bandage firmly over it. Because she hadn't torn away, it was a fairly clean puncture and the pain, compared to Wave, was hardly worth mentioning. If her arms ached from holding herself up inside the snake, that too could be ignored. 

First aid finished, she tucked her trash back in her pouch and considered the next pressing issue, which was one of logistics.

There were two of the boys and only one of her. And she was fairly certain they both happened to outweigh her. She'd carried Tazuna before, who probably weighed as much as both of them combined, but that had been for a short distance, just like when'd she'd snatched Sasuke-kun. And even if she managed the weight itself, there were still two of them.

Sakura kneaded her temples—probably smearing more blood across her face as she did so though she'd scrubbed her hands with her towelette—as she considered the issue. It wasn't possible in the normal course of things for one girl to be capable of carrying that kind of burden.

But, she realized as she stared at their battlefield, it's not as if the normal rules apply. I can leap over twenty feet from a standstill. It's not as if I don't know how to augment and reinforce my muscles and joints with chakra. There shouldn't be anything to stop me from doing that continually. That's the whole theory behind the Shunshin no Jutsu. Kakashi-sensei said I wasn't ready for that, but while that kind of speed would be useful, I just need a little more strength.  

That much she thought she might be able to do.

As for her other issue, she found her solution in taking a great deal of pleasure cutting the arms off Naruto's jacket, as he was the only one with fabric to spare. She had wire in her kit, but she didn't keep any kind of rope. She tied the resultant strips into three different lengths.

She crossed Naruto's arms across his chest and used the shortest of her lengths to tie his forearms together, forming a loop which she dragged over her head. That left Naruto draped down her back and she pulled his knees forward, tying him into a piggyback position that she further secured by the last length, which she looped under his arms, drawing the length between them and over her own shoulders, pulled it down under her own arms and tying it behind her back. By the time she was done, her shoulder joints felt mildly abused, but Naruto was as secure as she could make him.

She'd been careful to try this close enough to Sasuke-kun that she wouldn't have to kneel and then rise again with Naruto's weight on her back and she gathered Sasuke-kun up far more carefully than she had her blond teammate. As he lay quiescent in her arms, she experienced a brief flash of jealousy. She wanted Sasuke-kun to be carrying her hime-style and taking responsibility for getting all of them out of this forest alive.

There was only one good thing about this, she thought as she stood up carefully. Sasuke-kun's weight balanced out Naruto's, so she didn't have to worry about leaning forward or back to counterbalance. And they weren't as heavy as she'd feared, but she could feel it as a steady drain on her chakra.

If they'd ever taught a lecture at the Academy about going to ground with your teammates unconscious, Sakura had somehow missed it, though at just this moment it seemed like an awfully practical lecture to have. But she had sat through lectures on defensible positions and though their practicals hadn't been conducted in forests quite like these, she had some idea what she was looking for.

Almost forty minutes of making toward the Tower later, where there were guaranteed to be adults whereas the borders of the zone were probably less well-patrolled, she found what she was looking for.

Large branches that had broken out of treetops and caught on their way down, somehow tenuously held in place without any guarantee of staying there, were called widowmakers for good reason. Sometimes it was whole treetops, ripped free in especially violent storms. At other times, it could refer to whole trees, twisted or broken midway up the trunk and not yet come down.

With these behemoth trees, even branches were the size of the normal tree trunks and when Sakura caught sight of an immense branch suspended by what seemed a very tenuous, fraying little section and the unsteady support of some nearby branches, she had a flash of inspiration.

It was a deathtrap waiting to happen.

And it was just what Sakura needed.

She kept a wary eye on the branch as she came beneath it, flinching every time the wind made it creak, but she didn't have time to waste on fear. One of the trees almost directly below it had heavy curtains of moss growing up its roots and she carefully pulled them up and away without tearing them. A kunai was not a shovel, but it was the best thing she had to work with and she set to it with an industriousness born of fear.

Luck seemed be slightly on her side in this instance, for she hadn't done much digging when she collapsed a wall of earth and discovered some sort of animal den. Its entrance was from the other side of the root, which was why she hadn't noticed it to begin with, but it lessened her need to dig considerably. It seemed abandoned, with no fresh tracks leading in, which was why she felt fairly confident in stowing her teammates inside once she'd widened the entrance on her side enough. She sealed it back when she managed to shove both of them inside, restoring the moss to as much of an undisturbed position as possible, counting on the animal's entrance to provide fresh air. Sake hoped that neither of them woke up and panicked, thinking that they'd been buried alive, but she didn't have much time to spare for their feelings.

She made her way into the trees next, using Sasuke-kun's wire and blasting powder to rig a deadfall on a scale she'd never imagined it could be done. And when she was finished, she layered the Magen: Kokoni Arazu no Jutsu over it, so that to anyone not paying much attention or to anyone insensitive to genjutsu, it looked like a normal branch.

Most of her quick-and-dirty trap knowledge relied on using young saplings to fling kunai or shuriken or pull tight snares, but these trees were so enormous and well-established that there wasn't enough light or water for much underbrush. This sort of environment, or really any sort of environment, was why Doton users were considered the trapmasters of the ninja world. She didn't have enough time to dig pitfalls by hand, so she crossed that off her mental list, alongside anything that required complex seals or blasting powder or much in the way of equipment.

So, minefield was out. She wasn't certain she would have been able to stomach the results, regardless. Shrapnel damage was an ugly thing, even in photographs, and having seen the result of fire, she didn't know if she was frightened enough to do such a thing with premeditation.

In the moment, to save herself, she might do anything, but there was a vast gulf between that and setting out to do something as likely to maim as kill outright. What would she do if they survived the initial blast? Would she have enough composure to finish what she'd started? And if the answer to that was yes, how much would she have to pay for it in her nightmares later?

She didn't take too much time to consider what-ifs, though. Just enough time for a deep, stabbing feeling of regret on how limited her equipment was. She'd already lost four kunai inside the first snake and she couldn't raid her teammates' supplies entirely, so even a clever system of trip wires hidden in the grass that would pull tight wire at throat level was costly in terms of supplies. She limited herself to only those points of ingress that would be difficult for her to keep under surveillance. In the other places, she rigged devices more aimed toward alerting her to anyone's approach than causing harm, all of which were done with scavenged materials.

And when that was finished, all she had left to do was wait. And worry.

As that waiting dragged on and on and she found herself twitched at insect noises, she had a brief thought that she suddenly understood why Kakashi-sensei dragged that nasty book everywhere. It wasn't the preparation that was the worst thing. It was the waiting, where her imagination was free to invent all sorts of terrible things, that was proving to be the hardest obstacle to overcome.

Because, now, she had time to consider just what she was staying to face. Time to lose her nerve, to consider abandoning her teammates. If it was just her, she knew that she'd probably make to the Tower.

She'd live on, without having to endure the pain she was certain was coming.

But, she thought as she dropped her head into her hands, if she ran now, that would be it. She'd be the trash Kakashi-sensei had talked about.

At the same time, she really, really did not want to be here.  

Those two conflicting emotions were pressing so hard on her that she was almost glad when something tripped one of her alerts and she raised her head to see three shinobi stride into the clearing.

She recognized them from registration, but the notes on their hitai-ate would have given them away regardless. Sakura didn't say anything, just stood and waited to see how they would proceed. She remembered how Kabuto had fared against them, so she wasn't about to risk herself in a head-on attack.

They seemed somehow surprised to see her. Of course, she had a good idea that she looked like an escapee from a splatter film, blood drying in her hair and turning it into a stiff-spiked mess, making her clothes stink like a slaughterhouse, and itching as it flaked from her skin.

It was the bandaged ninja with the strange gait who moved into the clearing first, and demanded gruffly, "Girl, where's Sasuke?"

Sakura shrugged, relieving some of the tension and stiffness in her shoulders from where she'd been sitting and anticipating this fight.

His single eye narrowed. "I'm not in the mood to play games with you, girl. Get Sasuke. He's the only reason we're in this village. Or is he too much a coward to come out and fight? Got himself a girl protecting him?"

That earned him a dirty look from his female teammate, but Sakura acknowledged that had either Naruto or Sasuke-kun been conscious, that sort of taunt would have brought Naruto out of hiding and at least primed Sasuke-kun to reveal himself.

"Sorry to disappoint," Sakura said curtly. "But apparently Orochimaru's 'presents' cut two ways."

She was interested to see Dosu's eye narrow at the mention of Orochimaru's name.

"What do you mean by that?" the one in the middle demanded. Dosu? Yes, something like that. And the one to his left was Zaku, and their kunoichi was Kin.

"Does it matter? Maybe the sound of us killing his girlfriend here will be enough to flush him out of hiding," Zaku sneered.

 Given how he'd looked when she'd walled them up, Zaku could have tortured her for days without achieving that.

"Maybe she'd be more willing to talk if we roughed her up a little?" Kin suggested and that made a smirk break across Zaku's face.

So she wasn't surprised when the three of them leapt toward her. Her substitution was as quick as certain knowledge that no one was coming to help her could make it and before they could even look up, she'd already slammed her hands together in the final seal for the Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu.

Chapter Text

Sakura struck as soon as she saw the ghost, the hilt of her kunai impacting with a sickening crack just behind Dosu's temple.

He crumbled instantly and she began to pivot toward Zaku next, but Kin's hand was already slapping down on his shoulder and she was regretting the seconds she'd thought to save pulling the stabbing end of her kunai free.

The blast of air hit her like a wall and she wasn't entirely certain the creak from her ribs was a product of her imagination, but she skidded back some twenty feet from the force of the blow, digging the fingers of her open hand into the turf and using chakra to keep herself from being sent tumbling.

To break free that easily, she's either a genjutsu specialist or they're ridiculously overqualified to become chunin. Probably both, Sakura thought to herself as she just avoided another blast, the wind ruffling her hair. And one's got a weapon I can feel but can't see.

Her body was trembling from the fear and the frustration, but she forced her breathing to slow from its quick, erratic pace. She wasn't going fresh into this battle. Sakura didn't need to compound that.

Not when she was facing two enemies who were the subordinates of Orochimaru. If she was facing Zaku alone, she'd feel more confident in being able to test the limits of his ability without getting critically injured, but there was also Kin to consider. And as she dodged another blast, this one carrying kunai in it, and found herself sprouting a shoulder full of senbon needles for her trouble, she spared enough time for a single, vile thought that encompassed Orochimaru, the proctors, and Naruto.

Then she didn't have any more time to spare.

They were both rushing her, and while that gave them both space to mock her freely, it took every lesson that Kakashi-sensei and the ninken had painfully inscribed into her mind and muscles to just keep herself from further injury. The senbon burned and pulled every time she moved her arm, but she'd only managed to pluck out the most painful, though action was working the others loose.   

"God, this is annoying," Kin snarled as Sakura twisted herself out of the way of another barrage of senbon, one passing so close to her right eye she'd swear she'd felt it brush against her eyelashes, and she had to shove through a wall of almost in my EYE! to not freeze up. "What good are you when you won't even scream? We're here for Sasuke, not to waste time playing with the likes of you."

Need something to change the field. If it stays like this, I'm going to make a mistake. And that will be it, she thought with gritted teeth. I just need to--

The sound of bells jerked her full attention back to the external battlefield as she flipped backwards, well behind the line where a group of senbon, bells still tingling merrily, divided the battlefield.

"What, just going to keep running away?" Zaku taunted. "Man, I knew Konoha-nin were pathetic, but that's just sad. You can take care of her, Kin. I'll see if I can't find our prey. No way does a Konoha-nin just leave her teammates. He's gotta be around here somewhere." He glanced over to where his teammate still lay unconscious. "If Dosu doesn't wake up soon, he's gone to miss out on all the glory."

Kin shrugged, in a 'it's his problem, not mine' sort of fashion, fresh senbon already splayed like spines in her hand. Sakura had two kunai in hand and she darted forward, ducking beneath the jangling group of senbon in her attempt to get at Kin.

She saw the shadow wave.

She had only a split-second to decide and as she felt the senbon go deep, burning as they pierced skin and her movement tore muscle, she had a moment's regret, but she gritted her teeth and shoved herself forward. As she pressed onward regardless, she heard the previously still bells jingle and she braced herself for another attack.

It was only when her stumble wasn't a single misstep that she could right, but like the first signs of a stroke, a terrible inability to move her body like she ought to be able to, that she had the first premonition of Kin's real ability. She couldn't get her eyes to focus, seeing double, triple, more, and it was difficult to even stay upright.

Sakura almost fell, caught herself awkwardly with one hand, and her stomach lurched. Bile spattered across the ground and the back of her hand. Kin's laughter seemed to chase her as she made a retreat that followed a drunkard's path, weaving and tripping, but urged on by desperation to a quickness that meant she saw the world as a series of multiple afterimages, worse than any feverdream. But she kept at it, pushing herself up again and again as she almost fell.

Until she stumbled in such a way that she couldn't recover from, over a protruding root that her genjutsu-addled senses missed. She cried out heavily as she landed and again as Kin's blunt nails left trails down her scalp, closing over her ponytail. "Under all that blood, your hair's softer than mine," Kin said in a tone full of disgust. "You must be so proud of it," she sneered, yanking hard. Sakura curled forward like she trying to pull away and Kin turned into a movement of her violence, pressing her head down until she was driving her forehead into the grass.

Her hands hidden by her body, Sakura formed the familiar handsign for concentration.

Genjutsu, kai, Sakura thought to herself as she forcibly interrupted her chakra. The nausea and disorientation disappeared instantly and what was left was Kin, doing nothing more than the bullies at the Academy had done. Must not have had anyone to pull her hair, she thought nastily. Hurts less when you're pulling all of it.

She levered herself up, even as Kin tried to press her head back down, and saw that despite or rather because of Kin's efforts, her broken-wing gambit had worked.

Sakura's hand closed firmly around the wrist of the hand clutching at her hair and she lunged forward, her free hand dropping her kunai to stiff-arm the wire hidden in the grass.

The wire above her head, almost indistinguishable from spider silk as it swayed in the breeze, suddenly whined with tension as it was pulled tight enough to play pizzicato on. 

And from where Kin was standing, tight enough to slit her throat, if she'd been incrementally slower at bringing up a kunai up to keep the wire from slicing into her skin.

The black-haired kunoichi was cursing aloud as she tried to hold it steady, the kunai itself pressed uncomfortable tight against her neck, and Sakura was silently cursing well-honed reflexes, but that didn't stop her from spinning her body up into a kick and catching the hilt of the kunai with the base of her heel, driving it straight up into soft flesh.

Kin had managed to shift back, just as little, as Sakura's kick had meant she'd shifted her grip on Kin's arm. Her hand on the hilt changed the angle unfavorably and Kin had tilted her head back by reflex, so though Sakura felt the resistance of bone, the kunai scraped along the outside of her jawbone rather than going up into that defenseless triangle between jaw and neck.

Bleeding freely, Kin dropped the kunai, hand coming up to check the severity of the wound, while the other dipped into her pouch. 

As soon as her foot touched back down, Sakura hooked one foot behind Kin's knees and jerked hard enough that the other girl fell heavily. Sakura drew one of her knives as she pounced, angling for the liver, managing to drive it perhaps half an inch before Kin landed a ringing blow upside her ear that snapped her head to the side and toppled her off the other girl.

She managed to recover her feet before Kin could reverse the situation, struggling hard not to clutch at her ear like Kin was the neck wound.

It was difficult not just because of the pain, which was bad enough, but also because a faint, tinny noise was all she could hear out of it. She tried hard not be set off-balance by that, either physically or emotionally, but it would be so, so easy to just run away now. It hurts, it hurts, was throbbing in her ear, the burning of senbon, the soreness of overworked muscles. 

Her grip tightened as Kin brought another handful of senbon up to her face and sneered at her through them. "I'm going to make you pay for this," she promised.

Sakura tensed, but before either of them could make any move toward the other, a voice from just behind Kin interrupted. "Just so you know, I'm taking this," a cheerful voice interrupted and Kin half-turned on one heel, to reveal a ninja who couldn't have been more than two foot from her. 'This' was a scroll, being waggled idly in one hand.

The ninja would have been cute in almost any other setting, with the soft-angled features that would always make him look years younger than his real age. His hair was in purposeful disorder, his fringe kept out of his face on the right by two yellow star barrettes that would have appealed to Sakura when she was about eight, the hair itself a light brown with a strangely purple tint to it, his eyes a shade of yellow.

His clothing built on that image of childishness that he'd reinforced with his manner of speech, his shirtsleeves long enough to obscure his hands almost entirely. "I took it off that fellow over there," he continued blithely, using the scroll to point to Dosu, "as he didn't look like he needed it. Just so you're not wondering where it went later."

"You—," Kin said, darting forward, but he plucked a long knife from a horizontal sheathe behind his back as he tucked the scroll away. He dodged her strike, opening up a slice on her arm when she overextended herself slightly. It wasn't a very long cut, but Kin's eyes widened and then she screamed.

The easy smile never failed as Kin backed away from him, her breath coming as high-pitched pants, like little smothered screams. Her steps were unsteady and she'd gone pale, the first beads of sweat forming on her brow. Sakura got her first good look at his knife then and found it strange and cruel looking, with full, deep serration along the length of the blade. There seemed to be some sort of decorative pattern etched into the blade, but she couldn't make it out and she wasn't about to risk getting closer.

"Kin, what the hell—" Zaku demanded as he dropped down from where he'd been surveying the nearby area, but he cut himself off when he saw someone else had joined the field.

"Got—our—scroll," Kin managed to pant, "your—turn," and then she retreated, almost collapsing against a tree at the far edge of the clearing as she emptied her stomach.

Zaku's eyes narrowed as he glared at the interloper. "What village are you from? Shouldn't you be with your team, not butting in on other people's battles?"

The stranger shrugged. "Does my village matter? No one's friends in this forest. And as for my team, well," and there was a strange look in his eye for all that his tone never lost its lightness, "the sandman came and took them all away, so I really, really wanted to hurt somebody. And when I came upon you bunch trying to take down prey too big for you, I couldn't resist. That's okay, right, onee-san?" he asked, directing the question to Sakura.  That he asked in the same tone a child might ask for a cookie was unnerving, but she dipped her head in assent. Better one questionable ally than yet another enemy.

Zaku took it as a challenge, because this time the blast from those holes in his hands was much, much more powerful, digging a furrow as it went. But while Sakura leapt aside, the stranger didn't move, but before the air-blade could touch him, he'd sheathed his knife, his hands flowing through signs, and he made a sharp gesture with his mouth, like a dog barking.

She couldn't see it with her eyes, but the evidence—dust and grass blown away by a collision of wind fronts, suggested wind-nature ninjutsu.

Zaku scowled, but it was movement from Dosu's previously still body that worried her. The stranger followed the direction of her gaze. "No preferences, nee-san, one pain's as good as another," he said with an offhand salute, strolling lackadaisically toward the bandaged Oto-nin. She tried to shove that strange, brittle hardness in his eyes out of her mind, because Zaku was coming.

She wondered bitterly if those tunnels required far less chakra than regular nature manipulations and just how deep his equipment pouches ran, because he wasn't offering her opportunities to close and showed no signs of the exhaustion she was feeling. And without closing, she had no way to end this battle in her favor, just desperately maintain the stalemate.

He'd come down out of the trees, at least, and a thought came to Sakura.

She had explosive notes in her pouch and a reluctance to use them, but the thought was heavy in her mind that if she'd struck harder, faster, more decisively, then she'd have one more death on her conscience, but one less fear driving her. And she discovered that this was one line she was willing to blur, if it meant survival. Whether that was admirable or not, she didn't know, but she did know that the only thought in her head wasn't one of regret, but a focus on watch my left, not my right.

She never looked up, not once, relying entirely on her memory, as she made a calculated retreat. She tried to keep track of everyone and everything in the clearing, but found it beyond her skill, so did what she could to make her next attacks count, because timing was going to be everything.

Kunai, tags slapped hastily on their handle, blasted dirt into the air, concealing the flight of one kunai that did not fly with its fellows. A second, heavier wave forced him back and covered the noise of lesser explosions overhead and she rushed in, to give him no space to pay attention to anything but her. Something, though, must have alerted him to the danger, for at the last possible second, almost too late, he looked up.

It was enough to save his life, but the massive trunk still clipped his shoulder, several tons of wood crashing down and tearing it free from the joint, breaking the collarbone and driving him to his knees.

When the trunk hit the ground, it did so with a low, powerful sound and a rumble that shook the earth.

"Oh, not bad," a voice commented at her shoulder and she glanced over to find their interloper looking on with an air of distinct satisfaction.

Both of them jerked when a sudden, ominous aura suddenly pervaded the clearing, a forerunner to an eruption of purple-tinted chakra. Sakura stilled, her heart beating loud in her ears, as she took note of just where that chakra was coming from. "Sasuke-kun," she said, voice breaking on the second syllable of his name.

"Who?"

"My teammate."

Brows pitched upward in question, he followed her gaze. "Your teammate," he repeated with an intonation whose blandness spoke for itself. "In that case, I'm going to feel free to leave, nee-san. It was fun to play, but it seems like your teammate's in a snit. Here, nee-san," he said, pressing something into the palm of her hand. "A present, for being a good sport about the scroll."

She didn't even glance down to see what it was. "The scroll didn't matter to me," she said bitterly. "You could have had ours, if you'd liked. Thanks, for helping."

A soft huff of laughter. "I don't think you really needed it, but the opportunity was too good to miss. If I couldn't touch the Suna-nin, the arrogant Oto-nin were good enough. And I just needed the one scroll," he said. "It's the principle of the thing. If my teammates died for the mission, I could at least finish it, promotion or not."

With that enigmatic statement, he was gone and Sasuke-kun crested the trunk of the tree like a demon from some deep hell, his eyes gone red with Sharingan and markings like black flames crawling across his skin. He moved strangely, not quite a stagger, but as if he wasn't in full control of his body either.

He surveyed the battleground, Zaku still on his knees, clutching at a shoulder than sat far lower than it should have, Dosu panting from his brief bout against the stranger, shaking his head every so often like he couldn't get himself to focus, and Kin still making those terribly pained noises, tears streaming freely down her cheeks as her arm swelled, the edges of the wound turning blue.

But Sakura was also breathing heavily, senbon still caught in her flesh, the shallow gashes of kunai she hadn't quite dodged trickling blood, and her whole body felt like a bruise from Zaku's attacks.

This was apparently enough to offend Sasuke-kun, because his eyes swept over the Oto-nin like a hawk looking over rabbits staked out as bait. "They hurt you," he observed in a low, steady voice, his feet carrying him surely down the trunk to where Zaku was and the other boy struggled to his feet.

Sakura didn't even see Sasuke-kun move, but suddenly he was behind Zaku and he had him on his knees, his good arm twisted back in a suppression hold. "I should make this part of a matching pair for that," he said, twisting the arm back and up until it cracked and Zaku screamed. 

The self-satisfied smirk that twisted Sasuke-kun's lips was just like the one he'd worn in the genjutsu Kakashi-sensei had shown her. She trembled as those black flames slithered across Sasuke's pale skin, flinching as he twisted Zaku's arm further simply because he could. She listened to him talk about power, and being an avenger, and a man he'd do anything to kill.

She wanted to stop him, wanted to pull him away, but Sakura was afraid to touch him.

"Sasuke!" she said sharply and his head came up, his gaze meeting her own. His eyes were wild again, but this time not with fear.  "Sasuke, stop this. They're finished. It's over. We...we've won," she said, the last word bitter on her tongue.

She didn't like the way Sasuke regarded her, but he let Zaku go, only to pin the ninja with his foot when he would have stood. "He hurt you, Sakura," Sasuke told her. "You shouldn't feel sorry for him."

Sakura hadn't, not until this moment, and it was less that she felt overwhelming pity for the enemy shinobi and more that she was disturbed by Sasuke's actions. He wasn't that stranger she might never see again. He was someone she'd thought she'd known. Someone she'd trusted. She took tiny steps forward, until she was standing at Zaku's head and she drew him up roughly by his collar, Sasuke moving his foot so she could, and Zaku struggling to gain his own footing. "Go," she ordered Zaku curtly and for once all his trash-talk seemed to have evaporated. 

Sasuke's eyes said he didn't like allowing them to retreat and Sakura hurriedly tugged free the last of Kin's senbon, letting them fall to her feet. And then, mastering herself, she hugged him tentatively, making a gentle shackle of her arms. "Please," she whispered, "let them go."

Sakura didn't know if she'd regret sparing them, but some deep instinct told her she'd regret it more if she set Sasuke on them while he was like this. She'd feared his abilities, once, but this was the first time she'd feared Sasuke himself. This wasn't her teammate, this boy who talked about power regardless of price and looked at the ugly marks seething across his skin like they were some kind of revelation.

Orochimaru had said Sasuke would seek him out.

She'd never expected the boy she'd adored to be swayed so easily, but even as the marks retreated, she still couldn't make herself feel at ease around him.  

As she buried her face in the crook of his neck, she just wanted Sasuke-kun back.

Chapter Text

They'd retrieved Naruto in a tense, awkward kind of silence and Sakura had busied her hands with scavenging all the sebon and kunai that littered the field before the two of them had relocated to another location that Sasuke had deemed 'good enough.' Exhausted and hurting, her fear of the nightmares tamped down by sheer physical misery, Sakura had been grateful when Sasuke had broken that silence by gruffly offering to keep watch while she slept.

She woke very stiff and disoriented, to find herself guarded by two of Naruto's shadow clones.

By the time Naruto and Sasuke returned, there was only one survivor, the other proving that it was quite possible to dispel a clone through blunt force trauma to the head.

She was furious, because she still couldn't hear out of one ear, her body had already begun liberally purpling with bruising before she'd curled up miserably, the wound in her side felt hot and swollen, and she'd fought through pain and fear for them and they'd gone and done something like this. The knowledge that her deafness was likely only a perforated eardrum, a common enough injury in the Academy and nothing that medic-nins couldn't treat, same as her other injuries, didn't make them any less real or frightening in the present. 

While she'd slept, the pair of them had slunk off to acquire another scroll. And, judging by their expressions, they had been successful and thought that somehow made it better.

One of the most infamous nin that ever worn a Konoha hitai-ate was targeting Sasuke and they were still taking the exam.

Naruto might have strutted up like a little bantam game cock ready to crow, but he quailed at Sakura's expression, shrinking behind Sasuke. Who looked wary, but stood his ground. "Sakura," he said. He tossed a scroll to her, bearing the Earth designation. "Here. Keep it safe. We're pressing on to the tower."

Sakura choked on all the things she wanted to shout at him, because this was the first real gesture of trust he'd ever extended to her. It didn't make her anger vanish, but he'd ruined her momentum and it suddenly became awkward to snarl and rage at him.

But awkward or not, compared to facing the Oto-nin, facing Orochimaru, upsetting Sasuke suddenly seemed so much less dire than it had back in the Academy. Once, she'd have done almost anything if she'd thought it would please Sasuke. She'd have never anticipated as she saw his many faces, learned his moods, worked at his side, what she felt for him would evolve into something that was both less and more. Seeing his pain and vulnerability made her feel strangely possessive and privileged, but when he'd stopped trying to run and turned to fight an enemy despite an overwhelming difference in experience and power over something that didn't really matter, not like the lives of civilians or teammates—that had been the first time she'd ever thought Uchiha Sasuke could also be a fool.

"If we make it through to the tower," she asked, "what do you intend to do?"

"Huh?" Naruto asked, shuffling from behind Sasuke now that it seemed she wasn't going to be yelling at them. "What do you mean, Sakura-chan? Of course we're going to make to the third round and give 'em what for!" he said, thumping one fisted hand into the palm of the other.

"Oh?" Sakura said snidely. "Maybe I should stop hitting you so hard, because you seem to be overlooking the Sannin targeting Sasuke."

"Sannin?" he repeated blankly. "Where?"

Part of her had been afraid that his response would be along the lines of "San-what?," but it looked like the Legendary Three had merited more attention than chakra. If he wasn't so resilient, there were times when Sakura would have filed Naruto in the 'too dumb to live' box.  

"O-ro-chi-ma-ru.," Sakura replied, sounding out each of the syllables distinctly with the special kind of disdain only teenagers were capable of. "Or did you forget the giant snakes?"

"It doesn't matter," Sasuke said, interrupting Naruto's response. "Once we reach the tower, this phase of the exam will and we'll be surrounded by jounin and proctors. He won't try anything there."

"What if he won't have to? And there's still the third phase," she said, trying to temper her tone and not quite managing it. "We don't know what that seal does, Sasuke. I think it would be better if we forfeited and you went into protective custody—."

Her teeth clicked together as his eyes narrowed, for a moment a perfect reflection of the moment before he'd stepped forward and smirked as he broke Zaku's arm and then gave it a twist just to hear him scream. There was a...something there that hadn't been before. She didn't know if it was danger, or cruelty, or anger, but it spoke to her lizard-brain, made her want to go quiet and still and bristle in preparedness to bite back when he struck.

Some of this must have shown on her face, because it was Sasuke who flinched and looked away. "You're telling me to run. I won't. It's fine," he said stiffly. "You shouldn't say anything about it. It's not like the jounin are blind. If it's really that dangerous, Kakashi will do something to interfere."

If she'd been the one marked, that wouldn't have been said with either resentment or certainty. Because she didn't mind being saved and because she'd learned that Kakashi-sensei could be counted on to appear only when you least wanted to see him or didn't particularly need him.

And he was really big on consequences being their own lessons.

Unless he thought Orochimaru himself was about to erupt through that seal, Kakashi-sensei would leave them to learn from their own mistakes.

Sometimes, she wished that their jounin-sensei expected less of them.

Sakura maintained a disapproving silence for most of their journey to the tower, which wasn't nearly as harrowing after surviving the giant snakes and Oto-nin. With Naruto and Sasuke competing with each other like they were in a points match at the Academy and eager to make up for the fact that both of them had hardly played a part in the last two battles, she lapsed into something like her old position, but instead of screaming for help when an Ame-nin tried to grab her, she almost severed his fingers.

They did make the tower, one of the last teams to do so, and by that time her suspicion about the unsanitary conditions of a snake's mouth and sub-standard follow-up had developed into a certainty of infection. But if Sasuke was pretending to not be living on the edge of exhaustion, she could pretend as well.

She'd done well enough, having found being partially deaf useful as Naruto nattered on about acquiring the Earth scroll, which apparently involved reckless bravery and the assistance of Kabuto, the silver-haired nin she'd suspected of being a hidden proctor from the moment she'd seen his ninja data cards. Personnel files weren't that classified, at least at the genin level, but foreign villages didn't like anyone accruing and analyzing data on their ninja, let alone dispensing it freely. And where had he gotten his information, if he was just a genin? Some of their fellow examinees, like Gaara, hadn't competed in the exams before, so even Kabuto's previous attempts at the test shouldn't have given him that kind of knowledge.

But, if he was a hidden proctor, why would he help Sasuke and Naruto?

Unless, of course, he had the same sense of humor as Kakashi-sensei and would blithely announce that they'd failed just when they'd thought they'd won for accepting assistance.

Their late arrival meant there was little time for recovery, just the call to form up. Anko, their head proctor, seemed to be just as enthusiastic in heaping abuse on their heads as they formed ranks according to their time of arrival rather than village affiliation as she had when she'd sent them into the forest.

After they'd done a roll call, she scowled down at them. "What's this?" she sneered. "I didn't expect this many of you maggots to be starin' up at me when we made it here. Some of you probably already know, but there's been a joint decision by village leaders to make this last phase an exhibition match. Show our clients a little of what they're paying for. We wanted to showcase our best and brightest, but it looks like they'll just have to settle for not falling asleep. We don't have enough open slots for all of you, so we're going to have to do some major culling before any of you get any bright ideas about making chunin. So hang tight ladies, while we decide who we're going to feed to the Inuzuka dogs. And, maggots? I hear you taking this opportunity to share a little gossip, you're gonna be waiting with your face on the floor and my foot making you eat it. Got that?"

 There was a ragged chorus of affirmative answers.

"I said, you got that?" she roared.

This time, they managed something more like what she apparently considered a proper response, because she turned on her heel, trench coat flaring dramatically. 

For a long moment, there was only utter silence, but then it was punctuated by the rustle of clothing as someone shifted restlessly, someone else coughed. Sakura didn't know how long or if someone would work up enough courage to defy Anko's orders, but she took the opportunity to sneak looks at the jounin instructors ranged along the balcony. Most of them had clustered in group according to village, murmuring to each other in low voices and looking over the assembled genin.

Though Kakashi-sensei had no sense of either camaraderie or urgency, leaning against the wall and giving his book his full attention, the green-clad jounin next to him was apparently undeterred and holding a one-way conversation. She felt her eyebrow twitch. There was no way that particularly appalling fashion statement was a coincidence—she was almost certain this man was Rock Lee's jounin-sensei.

Her eyes swept over other groups, until she came to another figure who apparently didn't care for the company. And she felt a chill sweep over her, prickling her scalp and catching at her breathing. The sound note symbol was her first clue, but she might have guessed regardless.

There was that same sense of gender ambiguity—handsome woman? pretty man?—coupled with those too intense eyes. The lips might smile, but it was those eyes that promised to eat you alive. Flak jackets, though his was a slightly more flattering design and color than the Konoha standard, always minimized the differences usually so obvious in their casual uniforms. But in this case it was mostly the jawline that leant him a certain femininity—most men didn't have that perfectly tapered 'v'. Otherwise, he might have been the kind of refined ikemen that fell within her strike zone. 

He looked nothing at all like he had in the forest, but his eyes caught hers and his lips quirked up. Sakura was nowhere near as skilled at reading lips as Ino, who'd turned a hobby for gathering gossip into a useful skill, but she was almost certain he'd said, Am I pretty now?

Sakura shuddered hard enough that she drew looks, but she fisted her hands and reminded herself to breathe. It would have been better, she thought, if he looked even slightly worried about being caught here. Instead, he still had space to taunt a genin who was surprised to have been left alive from their first encounter. He was playing games.

Given the stories, he had more than enough battle experience to judge the situation; that he wasn't worried about the Hokage and over two dozen jounin was so deeply unnerving to it was the same kind of crushing pressure that his killing intent had carried. And, somehow, she didn't think it was just a facade.

This paralyzed as the fear in the forest hadn't, because the consequences of her actions in this room would be magnified by all the people in it. It wasn't just her life at stake. It wasn't even her squad's life at stake. If she revealed him, tried to interfere in whatever game he was playing, she had no doubt his reprisal would be instant and bloody. How many of the genin, standing here with no idea of the snake in their midst, would die? How many of the jounin-sensei would die in defense of their students? It looked like a large room, but if Orochimaru summoned one of his snakes, how many would be crushed even in its death throes?

The choice was like a razor-sharp kunai held to her neck. Keep silent, be complicit, and save lives, or open her mouth and condemn everyone. What seemed like the right thing, the proud thing, might not be the 'good' thing for all these people, who might not be involved in his plot.

Whatever he wanted, it had to do with Sasuke. Maybe, she thought with a sudden flash of insight, he's testing Sasuke—and that seal—again. After all, the first time... The first time should have left the Oto-nin team out of the running, but if they were here, they were all either as resilient as Naruto or operating on the kind of loyalty that made zealots into martyrs.

She came to a decision then. Even to protect her teammate, she wasn't prepared for the kind of collateral damage that trying to draw attention to his real identity might cause. She wasn't even assured of success.

She wanted to believe that the Hokage and the jounin already knew about him, that for some reason—maybe the same reason she wasn't—they weren't interfering, but her faith in the omnipotence of adults had died in Wave, even if she'd survived.

He was watching her. And he was enjoying her agony.  

Sakura bit her tongue and tore her eyes away from Orochimaru's, focusing her eyes in the middle distance just above Sasuke's left shoulder, trying to swallow down her nausea. She'd never had to make a decision like this before. She shouldn't have to make a decision like this. She was a genin. Her choices should have to do with what to have for breakfast, and hairstyles, and what pair of shoes she wanted to save up to buy. Choices that, if she screwed them up, only affected her.

She knew that was only wishful thinking, because she'd just come from a hard lesson on how the actions of one member of the team had repercussions for the whole squad, but she'd come to a limited acceptance of the choices she'd made concerning her path in life.

If only life would stop making it so damn hard.

Anko returned. "Now," she drawled, "if it was up to me, we'd halve the time and make you run it again, and see who's standing then. But Hokage-sama has decided it's faster to give you a little taste of what you're going to get. Preliminary elimination matches. Half of you are going to be out on your asses by the time this is over," she said, jerking her thumb across her throat in unmistakable threat.

"Alright maggots, last chance. Surrender now or count yourself willing to be left on the floor in pieces. This one's on your own heads, so don't be looking at your teammates."

Sakura was tired, and afraid, and her ambition to become chunin in her first year out of the Academy had been crushed beneath the weight of reality. And Sasuke and Naruto would be free to do whatever it was they wanted.

Her hand trembled a little with the very small weight of regret and shame, but she began to raise it and declare herself out of the exam. Except Sasuke, like he had eyes in the back of his head, snatched her hand without turning and clutched it tight enough her imagination supplied the sound of bones creaking.

"Don't run away now," he said in a low voice. "We've come this far. We've got to finish it."

Chapter Text

The time to surrender passed her by almost without notice as she wrestled with Sasuke's motive for catching her hand and Anko's contemptuous, "Alright, maggots, clear the floor," washed through her like the shock of bitterly cold water.

She wanted to call out wait, but social conditioning pressed down on her almost as hard as her teammate's grip. There was shame and embarrassment waiting there, whereas before it would have been a tactical retreat. And her old pride, which she'd thought trampled by exhaustion and pain and reality, was present enough that she couldn't muster the courage pull a Naruto and demand that Anko let her leave, go home, take a nap and let her teammates face the rest of the exam on their own.

She didn't know if he was really brave, or just oblivious, but whichever it was, she wasn't. And there would be another chance soon enough. It wasn't hard to lose a fight.

Still, she yanked her hand free of Sasuke's grip and stalked up one of the stairways to where she'd marked Kakashi-sensei earlier. Sakura was careful to not even glance toward Orochimaru, though she had the unsettling sensation of being watched, the fine hairs on her neck prickling. Just paranoia, she told herself. If he looked in their direction, it would be Sasuke he'd be staring at. She was just dross.  

Kakashi-sensei glanced at her and his brow rose, but he didn't otherwise react. She didn't know why she'd expected anything different—he'd had plenty of time to take in the blood-spattered view. Naruto and his need for attention soon turned Kakashi-sensei's gaze elsewhere and Sakura listened in grim silence as Anko gleefully outlined the rules, which were pretty much the same as the Forest.

No whining if you ended up dead.

If she clenched her jaw any tighter, her molars were going to crack. Sakura let her arms, which had been crossed tightly across her chest, fall limply to her sides. She sidled closer to Kakashi-sensei, ignoring the proctor announcing the first match. Tenten—the kunoichi from Rock Lee's team—and Yoroi Akadō. She didn't need to watch. She had no intentions of competing in the third section of the exam and she'd had a bellyful of fighting in these days in the Forest.

Catching Kakashi-sensei's attention, she mouthed Bathroom? and he tilted his head toward one of the doors. "Turn left when you hit the junction. And don't leave this floor."

His tone was serious and Saskura nodded, accepting it for the warning it was. You didn't build a tower in the middle of a lethal forest for the scenery; you did it because whatever purpose the tower served when not in use in the exams, it needed the clear keep away that the Forest of Death and its inhabitants provided.

Most of the spectators, their attention fixed on the match, didn't even notice as she slunk out the door. And she didn't much care about the ones who did.

She found the bathroom just where Kakashi-sensei had said it would be, and after taking care of business, she spent long minutes at the sink scrubbing blood and mud from her skin. Sakura felt anger like a tight, hard knot behind her breastbone as she watched the water swirl down the drain, as dirty as she felt. The water was shockingly cold against her flushed face and when she pulled up her vest to check on what was beginning to feel like a second heartbeat, she flinched when she tugged at the corner of the bandage. Better, she decided after a moment, to let sleeping dogs lie if you don't have any way of putting them down again. There was nothing she could do for her hair, the blood having set as stiff and unflatteringly as overly-liberal gel. And her clothes were a mess—she'd either have to burn them or expend a lot of effort to get them clean.

It was a real pity that they'd been so expensive, because she'd really have preferred the burning option.

If I survive this match, Sakura thought, plucking at the stained fabric of her vest, I am going to thank my mother for doing my laundry for so many years.

When she couldn't find anything else to straighten or tidy and she was only wasting water, she took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and made to return to the arena. And nearly barreled someone as she flung open the door and stepped through it with a certainty she didn't feel. Luckily, the near-victim was quick on his feet, dancing back out of the way in a movement that seemed somehow playful, hands help up in mock-surrender. "Ah," he said, recognition breaking across his face. "Onee-san. You made it to the party after all."

Sakura bit her lip to keep back a biting comment about his definition of parties. "Thanks again for what you did back there," she said instead, because it was the boy from the forest. It came out a little strained, because she was exhausted and bloody and he was wearing those star-shaped barrettes and those too-long sleeves and looking like he'd strolled out of the Academy after a session with a lecturer with a sense of humor.  

He shrugged it off. "Just took advantage, is all. Going back to watch the fights?"

Sakura nodded.

"Mind if I come along? The jounin processing forms for my teammates recommended the view. There's apparently a ton of paperwork involved in retrieving and removing bodies," he said lightly. "Though they're more bits, from what I saw of what the Sandman left behind." There was a that hard, brittle look in his eyes again, at odds with the lightness of his voice. "Silly of them, you know, to try something like that while I was scouting. But I got back in time to watch the climax of the show. A little more bloody than yours, nee-san. That reminds me, did you use my present?"

Sakura had almost forgotten about the little container, which she'd tucked away in favor of dealing with Sasuke and hadn't had time to think about since. She fished it out of her pack and was relieved to find it hadn't broken or leaked, the amber substance still safely behind the container walls.  "I don't even know what it is," she confessed. "Or your name," she said with a frown.

"Umehara Fū. Yours, onee-san?"

"Haruno Sakura."

He grinned. "See, there is such a thing as serendipity. What I gave you—it's venom. Black mamba. Sometimes you pick out things you think suit people and there's all different ways of killing in the world, so I thought I'd give you something that matched your style. You're clean in your strikes. You don't play around, don't cut just to see someone bleed. So I thought it suited you." Fū unsheathed his own knife and laughed when Sakura tensed. "No need to fear, nee-san. Just look." And she did, because his knife was just as cruel and strange up close as the first time she'd glimpsed it. Long, broad, with that deep, hooked serration she'd noticed before, it was more designed to tear than slash.

Despite herself, she moved a little closer. "What are those grooves?" she asked. They traced from the hilt to the tip of each serrated edge, almost like...

Almost like a snake's fangs.

"They deliver the venom payload," he explained, confirming her suspicions. "Venom has to enter the bloodstream to be effective—provided you don't have ulcers or open sores in your mouth, you can drink the stuff. But you lose potency smearing it on a blade. So there are channels engraved in the metal and they're sealed with a very thin clear polymer. I'd explain the delivery system, but that's a secret," he said teasingly. "I call it Reciprocity. Do you have a name for yours?"

Sakura shook her head slowly, hand coming to rest on the hilt of the damaged knife. "No. They're...they're just tools. Like the blades you'd use to cut brush or rice, just...people, instead."

Fū made a thoughtful humming noise deep in his throat. "Cold," he said, "very cold. They might feel unloved like that."

Sakura had no intention of naming the knives she'd taken from the body of a dead man. "That poison you used—what was it?"

He grinned disarmingly, looking startlingly young again. "The secret behind the name Reciprocity. The venom I gave you is extremely lethal, but almost painless. Nuerotoxin, cardiotoxin. Mostly tingling in your fingers and progressive paralysis until your heart stops. Useful, but not much fun. What I use doesn't kill, just causes pain so extreme that it's debilitating. Pain for pain. I'll admit the source is a little less glamorous—the stonefish doesn't look like much, but stepping on it isn't a mistake you make more than once unless you're too stupid to live. And that's all I have for show-and-tell today, onee-san."

Fū sheathed the knife smoothly, then shuffled around behind Sakura so he could shoo her onward, back toward the fights. Sakura protested being herded, but it didn't dissuade him at all, just made his eyes gleam with mischief as they emerged back onto the balcony just in time to see Rock Lee prove that his taijutsu was more than a match for the eerily familiar body manipulation used by Misumi. It didn't matter that the purple-clad genin seemed boneless in his flexibility; Lee's sheer speed made watching the match like watching a wasp kill a caterpillar.

Sakura watched with admiration mingled with envy, because there was a smoothness and grace to his movements that she couldn't match even when she wasn't five days in to a survival test. Perfect balance, excellent control, clear experience was in his every blow. Some part of her wondered what she looked like when she fought, given that all she seemed to do in training was run away from the ninken and avoid Kakashi-sensei's projectile of the day.

She glanced over, once, to where her teammates were standing, and found that knot behind her breastbone tightened. Naruto would have gotten them killed in the encounter with Orochimaru. Sasuke wouldn't respect her decision to surrender.

In that moment, Sakura felt nothing but resentment for her team.

So she turned away, taking the opportunity to glance over at the posted results for the matches she'd missed. Tenten had won her match and Shikamaru had won the one that followed against Kin. Then the next match was announced, which turned out to be the very definition of the term 'grudge'. It was clear, despite a last-minute rally on Hinata's part, who was going to be the victor of that particular match. Sakura nearly choked on her anger as Naruto cheered her onward into cardiac arrest, Neji's deft and vicious mastery of their shared style not something that could be overcome by something as trite as Naruto's never-say-die philosophy. 

Her fingers clenched around the railing, which gave a metallic creak of protest that had Fū glancing over at her. She relaxed her grip, unclenched her jaw, and pretended that her increasingly instinctive use of chakra hadn't left indentions of her fingers in a steel rail.

But his curiosity turned to something else as two new names blinked into life on the display. Dosu no longer looked disoriented, though any subtlety of expression was lost behind his extensive bandages, but his opponent was the redhead from Suna that had been so unnerving during their brief encounter.

It didn't help that Fū sucked in a breath and murmured, "Enter Sandman."

What came next would be something that would be forever etched on her memory, because if there was an imbalance in skill between Neji and Hinata, the distance between Gaara and Dosu was a chasm. Dosu was not an incapable ninja, she admitted grudgingly as she watched him press forward, confident in his ninjutsu, but Gaara—Gaara was a monster. He never moved, never seemed to breathe, hardly seemed to blink. Just stood there, sand dampening all Dosu's sound-waves, and then all that sand reached out like the hand of a god and crushed Dosu. There was a short, short scream, then blood was seeping through the sand, the crowd so silent she almost imagined she heard it dripping to the floor.

Gaara didn't preen or gloat. He just...released the lump of twisted flesh and broken bone to floor with a wet-sounding thump and walked away, rejoining his team as if this was just another exercise at the Academy. As if he hadn't just slaughtered someone without ever lifting a hand.

What made it bad was that not a flinch of surprise was displayed by his teammates or his jounin-sensei, although she thought it might be disgust that twisted the kunoichi's lips into a grimace. But not like someone seeing someone terrible, like a housewife catching sight of a dirty floor.  

What made it worse was that Sakura's name was the next to be illuminated on the board. And her opponent was that kunoichi from Sand, who looked so composedly on the thing that until a minute ago had been a person.

They had to wait for them to clean the floor and even when it was pronounced fit for use, there was a fine layer bloody sand that they'd need to wash from the concrete later. Some part of her brain wondered if they had drains built into this floor for just this circumstance.

The rest of her mind was considering what it might mean to lose to this kunoichi. 

The sand made a sound beneath her boots as she walked to take her place in the center of the floor, like a scritching, like something ugly crawling beneath the loam. Temari—that was her name—didn't have the smooth, glossy prettiness of a Konohagakure kunoichi. She was hard, sharp, prickly, like the foliage native to Suna, which might have been its own kind of beauty.

What it told Sakura was that this was someone else who also survived and that this battle would be like the bridge, like the Forest. And when Temari smirked, Sakura let any thought of losing intentionally slip away. She didn't know if she could win, but she wasn't going to end up like Dosu. And if that meant that Temari had to die, well, she could live with that.   

Chapter Text

Temari opened her mouth and Sakura unsheathed her knives as the proctor's hand fell, darting forward before the final syllable fell silent. Temari's eyes widened slightly at Sakura's speed, but her blades never touched skin. In the time it took to cover the scant feet between them, the other kunoichi somehow managed to wedge that unwieldy length of metal she'd been wearing on her back between herself and Sakura. It was wide enough and long enough to protect her core and Sakura snarled in frustration, because that familiar litany of larynx, spine, lungs, liver, jugular, subclavian artery, kidneys, heart  might have been a to-do list like grocery shopping for Zabuza, but if her first strike failed, she would have to really work for her victory.

And she was just so damn tired.

A strange, shrieking snarl escaped her as she threw herself forward, hands pressed briefly together as her image flickered and splintered, producing three versions of Sakura. Temari's lips twisted into a fierce, competitive grimace as she flipped her fan open and swept it parallel to the floor in a waist-high sweep. Sheering winds extended the reach of sharpened steel ribs and that invisible blade tore through all the visible Sakura-clones, but the real one—invisible beneath genjustu—slid beneath the blow, managing to unbalance Temari as her foot impacted her ankle.

Sakura cursed herself, because she'd meant to sweep both her feet, but concrete was not conductive to sliding. The skin between her boots and shorts throbbed as the wound in her side screamed, but she ignored it as she tried to prize open Temari's defenses.

Launching herself up from the floor, she thought she could take advantage of any counterattack Temari might make, but counter to her expectations, Temari turned her stumble into a retreat.

More cautious than her teammate, Sakura registered, more dependent on distance to keep the advantage. Dependence on her wind ninjutsu, rather than hand-to-hand skill.

Sakura couldn't know it wasn't lack of skill, only reasonable caution. Temari was no fool—she'd seen Sakura when she'd come in, seen how quick she was to pull her knives, and came to the correct conclusion. This wasn't an opponent she'd let close on her.

Temari sent another gust of wind roaring toward Sakura and Sakura imagined it was like trying to stand against a hurricane blast. Little bits of dirt, grit, and debris scoured her skin and only tenacity and chakra manipulation kept her upright. Her eyes watered, and it burned to breathe, but she only tucked in her chin, sheathed a knife, and pulled her shemagh up over her nose, using chakra to keep it in place rather than freeing a hand to retie it.

Then her knife was in her hand and she was advancing like a thirteen-year cicada cycle, slow and ponderous, but inevitable. It was almost as bad as fighting beneath the bridge had been, because there was no point at which it was safe to have both feet off the floor. And that was more than just inconvenient when Temari's next blast of shearing wind was suddenly full of whirling shuriken that buzzed like enraged hornets.

She had a microsecond to decide to hold ground, which would mean choosing what hits to take, or to fall back.

Sakura chose to hold, contorting her body in such a way as to minimize her profile, the sharp bark of metal against metal marking the shuriken she struck out of the air. The rest dealt her only glancing wounds, which given their speed and sharpness, hardly hurt at all. Sakura lunged forward in the silent wake of the wind, Temari's eyes widening as she slammed her fan shut, using it to block Sakura's strikes.

And Sakura, with her double knives, had to swallow down a curse as their battle became a kind of high-stakes dance with a lightning-fast tempo. One good blow to the fan would be enough to ruin the edge of her knife forever. One good strike would be enough to end Temari forever.

She pressed harder, one of her knives catching a glancing blow on the flat that sent it spinning out of her hand. Sakura roared, empty hand curling into a fist and slamming against the barrier of the fan. The metal screeched in protest, buckling, but her hand was on fire with the dozen tiny breaks of a boxer's fracture. Temari's eyes widened in incredulous disbelief, but kept up her defense as Sakura tried to press the advantage. In her determination to keep going despite the pain, she overlooked her own defense and a hard kick in the gut from Temari sent her staggering back and she couldn't recover in time to keep herself from being clipped by another gust. It tore open a long gash on her arm, but these days Sakura had new standards for pain.

So she just sheathed her knives and folded her fingers into an increasingly familiar set of signs, feeling the pulse of chakra that marked the hook of the Hell-Viewing jutsu setting deep. As Temari's eyes caught on the ghost—a woman—Sakura's hands folded the second genjutsu, which rendered her invisible again because she too was an item in the environment, her hand unerringly traveling to Fū's gift, uncapping it and ever-so-carefully watching death drip onto the discolored steel of her remaining knife.

It took only moments, the container capped again and tucked away, then she was sprinting forward, edging into that place where she was moving so fast she couldn't see.

Perhaps she'd grown overconfident in the Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu. Kakashi-sensei had warned her once that the genjutsu provoked fear and horror and that some people reacted to that very differently. But there were dead men between that statement and this battle, men who'd frozen up and ceded that one necessary second. Temari, somehow sensing her invisible rush, looked directly at her, her eyes wet with tears but burning in rage.

Sakura's only comfort as the wide metal bat of Temari's folded fan impacted against her skull was that she'd flipped her wrist around in time, opening a wide laceration down the other kunoichi's arm as she drew her weapon back for a second blow.

If I'm dead, she thought fuzzily, so is she.


Kakashi had internally winced at the sound of that long length of steel impacting his student's skull and he could only hope that second blow across her back hadn't shattered vertebrae. The Suna kunoichi sneered down at her, then took two steps back and glared expectantly at the proctor.

He obligingly called the match, medics swarming toward Sakura and Kakashi stood up from his slouch against the wall, making his way down into the pit to make certain that his student would still be his student after some time with the medic-nin.

One of the medics glanced up at him as he drew close. "What exactly have you been teaching your students, Hatake?" he demanded.

Kakashi had memorized the faces, if not the names, of all the medical personnel in the village, the better to elude them, so he wasn't surprised to recognize him. But he was surprised to recognize the expression on his face, which was one which normally only escaped when he thought Kakashi had done something terminally stupid on an ANBU mission.

"I have no idea what you mean," he said blithely.

"I mean your student is well on her way to a nice case of sepsis, so I have no idea what business you thought she had entering this match to start with. But I suppose you might be glad to know that aside from that and the nasty wound in her side that started it, a perforated eardrum, some major fractures in her hand, bone bruising across her shoulder blades, and a concussion, there's nothing much wrong with her."

"...well, that's comforting to know," Kakashi said after a significant pause, recalling how Sasuke had grabbed Sakura's hand. He suppressed a sigh and wondered bleakly if his team had been this much of a burden to Minato. Doubtful, he decided as he watched the medics load Sakura onto a stretcher.

"Is Sakura-chan going to be okay?" Naruto asked anxiously as he returned to the balcony.

Kakashi let his eyes trail over to Sasuke, who was listening intently and trying to disguise it by keeping his eyes on the pit. "Unless I miss my guess," he said lightly, taking into consideration her decision to stand with a foreign-nin, "she's going to be very angry, but otherwise she's going to make a full recovery."

Naruto's brows drew together. "You mean about losing the fight? I mean, that was kind of—"

Kakashi held up a hand to forestall hearing whatever Naruto thought of the fight. "We're going to talk about this later," he told both of his students. "For now, concentrate on your matches."

The next match saw Ino turn Zaku's need to gloat into a trap, his monologue as he held her by hair with his one functional arm more than enough time for her to snatch control of his body. The spirit of a Yamanaka might move slowly and only in straight lines, but at point blank range? It was a matter of seconds to have his body surrender.

Sasuke's name came up next in the draw, against Inuzuka Kiba, which wouldn't have worried him in the normal course of things. Except that the ugly chakra that crawled out of a seal and spilled across Sasuke's skin wasn't anywhere near the normal course, nor was Sasuke's grudging agreement to seal it.

And because he was Hatake Kakashi and his life sometimes felt like some tragic farce, Orochimaru himself stepped out of the shadows. And wanted to talk.

It was like trying to tap dance in a mine field, talking with one of the most notorious ninja to have ever worn the Leaf. A ninja who apparently had less than perfectly altruistic intentions toward one of his students.

He'd known that having the last Uchiha on his team would mean protecting him and his kekkei-genkai from those who'd like to possess it; he just hadn't anticipated that it was something that the first major threat would come from one of the Sannin.

Kakashi didn't let himself relax when Orochimaru turned to leave, so he didn't tense when he paused and halfway turned back to him, those eerie yellow eyes focused on him again. "Haruno Sakura—she is a genjutsu type?"

"Why should it matter?" Kakashi countered warily.

A swift smile. "Curiosity. One shouldn't overlook unexpected treasures simply because they aren't what you set out to find. I expect it will be a difficult path for her. After all, so few role models to follow. So little you can teach her. So many other demands on your time. I wonder if anyone has told her that the two most recent genjutsu types of any note that this village has produced were Uchiha Itachi and myself? No?" he asked when Kakashi kept silent. "All ore is ugly. It only matters whether it's worth the effort to refine. If you can't be bothered, you should find someone who can."

"You?" Kakashi asked tightly.

That prompted that low, unsettling chuckle. "Not me. Some animals are too dangerous to raise."

And with that he was gone and Kakashi was left to wonder just what had happened in that Forest.

He scrubbed a hand through his hair and made his way back to the pit, crossing paths with the foreign-nin who'd been standing with Sakura. The boy, hands hidden by his too-long sleeves, was trying unsuccessfully to stifle his laughter. He glanced up at Kakashi as he passed and for the second time that day, he met citrine eyes. He pulled his hands away from his mouth long enough to say, "Onee-san bit her," before he dissolved into another fit of sniggering and disappeared down the hall. 

He emerged onto the balcony just in time to hear the Suna-nin yelling for a medic. Their kunoichi, the one who'd been Sakura's opponent not more than twenty minutes ago, had lost the ability to talk and was swiftly losing consciousness.

Poison was the diagnosis of the attendant medic-nin, who swept her out of the arena to the murmurs of the watching crowd.

Just what the hell happened in that Forest? It that was the thought that occupied him throughout the rest of the exam, leaving him with just enough presence of mind to desultorily congratulate Naruto on his victory against Chouji and watch as Shino undermined the Suna puppetmaster's technique by the very simple, practical measure of setting his kikaichū to feast on the chakra strings needed to manipulate the puppets and then setting them to devour chakra from the fingers up. By the time he was shoulder-deep in writhing beetles, the Suna-nin had conceded the match.

Kakashi waited impatiently for the match-up for the next section to be announced and almost the instant they were finished, he herded his genin to the room the medic-nin had placed Sakura for treatment. It seemed like it was time for a discussion.

And if he had to make them sit vigil at Sakura's bedside until she was ready to participate in it, well, he was a little put out with all of them at the moment.

Chapter Text

Kakashi kept silent until Naruto was all but squirming in his seat, while Sasuke attempted to give some impression of alertness rather than wrung-out exhaustion.

"Ne, ne, Kakashi-sensei, can I—"

He cut Naruto off. "No."

"But I—"

"No, Naruto. Teuchi's business won't collapse if you don't get celebratory ramen. Instead, why don't you tell me a story," he prompted, keeping his tone that lightly mocking, unreadable calm that had served him well since his father had fallen from grace. Untouchable, it said without saying, Indifferent. And mostly it was the truth—he'd stopped investing himself in people at the same time he'd stopped believing that heroes were infallible.

Unfortunately, this team was different. He owed Minato and he'd promised Sarutobi and the ninken were awfully fond of Sakura.

Just thinking of it made him tired.

"...a story, sensei?" Naruto asked incredulously.

Even Sasuke darted a disbelieving glance at him.

"Yes, a story. Unless it actually was raining blood while I wasn't looking and Sakura just happened to be caught in a sudden shower. In which case, feel free to keep silent. And, yes, Naruto, that is sarcasm. I'm not willing to wait for a written report—the two of you are going to tell me what happened in the Forest."

Naruto and Sasuke shared a glance and it was unsurprisingly his blond charge who took the lead, Sasuke only interrupting when Naruto got carried away. Or when he'd been absent. And he'd been absent for things that made it difficult to keep up his expression of neutrality—and when Naruto re-entered the story, he stopped trying.

"Naruto," he interrupted the blond, sounding out the syllables of his name with exacting preciseness, "What made you think it was a good idea to charge ahead when your enemy is clearly more powerful than you are?"

"Even if Sasuke'd given him the scroll, he wouldn't have let us go anyway," Naruto protested indignantly.

"I didn't ask about the scroll, Naruto. Sasuke could have burnt the scroll himself or pitched it, I don't care—I want to know why you thought it was acceptable to stay and fight at all."

Naruto had that kicked-dog look, the one that said he didn't understand what he was being scolded for, but Kakashi was in no mood to spare his feelings. "We couldn't—we couldn't just run! I'm not a scaredy-cat," Naruto said, looking inexplicably betrayed. "And who knows if we could've even made it anyway."

Kakashi's voice was hard, as sharp-edged as his kunai, when he spoke again. "Naruto, there is a fine line between being a hero and being the fool who got everyone slaughtered because he couldn't tell the difference between a battle worth fighting and one that was over before it ever started. And you crossed it. There are reasons to fight losing battles, but you didn't have any of them. You weren't holding the line, you weren't making some noble martyr sacrifice for the cause, you weren't protecting anyone. Frankly, I don't even know what you were doing.

“Was it a pride thing? Here was your best opportunity for some one-upmanship Sasuke and you just couldn't resist driving it home that you were brave enough to fight and he wasn't? Explain it to me, so I can tell you to never do it again. Those that abandon their teammates are trash, Naruto, but a person who makes their teammates decide between abandoning them or facing a fight that's too much for them to handle? That's something worse than trash. I want you to think about how you'd have felt if Sakura died, or Sasuke, just because you thought you could go toe-to-toe with someone who you should have recognized as a major threat."

A gamut of emotions had run across Naruto's expressive features—indignation, anger, guilt—and his eyes looked suspiciously shiny as he stared down at his clenched hands. Kakashi didn't feel even reflexive guilt. Thanks to the Kyūbi's regenerative properties, it was impossible that pain would teach Naruto caution—it was easy to be fearless when even fractured bones healed within the day—but it was likely that if he wasn't set right now, he'd assume that his teammates could take just as much punishment as he did with as little consequence. And Kakashi knew where that would lead.  Courage had its place, but he knew exactly what overconfidence could cost a team.

It was a measure of how seriously they were taking this that Sasuke wasn't smirking at Naruto, was instead staring very steadily at the rail of Sakura's hospital bed.

He considered what he might say to him that he hadn't said already, but if Sasuke didn't already realize that Orochimaru was bad news—and that probably needed to be in blazing capital letters—it would take more than just words to change his mind. But if he couldn't address Orocimaru, he could address the other issue.

"So, Sasuke," and he was satisfied to see the genin in question flinch almost imperceptibly, "is there a reason that you wouldn't let Sakura forfeit?'

Sasuke wouldn't meet his eyes and he mumbled his response.

"What was that?"

"Because I thought she could do it," Sasuke repeated, his words edged in irritation that likely came from embarrassment if the faint flush at the tips of his ears is anything to go by. "And I didn't want to go into it with just the dead-last."

"You didn't know she was hurt?"

Sasuke hesitated, then, "I didn't think she was hurt that badly. She didn't say anything. When we were at the Academy, you could always hear Sakura and Ino complaining if they got too roughed up during practical."

"And you didn't think that she might have matured since then?" Kakashi asked dryly.

Sasuke scowled and dropped his gaze. "Not that much," he grumbled. "She was always trying to get my attention. She should have said something."

Kakashi remembered, vaguely, that the same someone who'd told him that there was a phase when girls would be more interested in boys than in training had also told him that that was the same time they started keeping secrets and while they would outgrow the boys, they'd never outgrow the secrets.

He was beginning to believe them. 

"I'll give you one very good piece of advice about women, Sasuke—what they say out loud is only about thirty percent of the message. I like that you have confidence in Sakura's skills, but you might want to put a little bit more trust in her judgment. Especially as it relates to her own body."

Naruto was staring at Sasuke. "Wait, you stopped her from forfeiting? Back when scary-lady-in-the-fishnet-stockings was giving the give-up-now speech?"

"So?" Sasuke retorted.

Naruto's brows furrowed. "I don't think Sakura should have given up then either, but it's kinda weird that you would even care."

"She's my teammate," Sasuke replied defensively.

"I'm your teammate."

"You're an idiot."

"Stop squabbling," Kakashi chided them.

He was met with obedience and recalcitrant expressions, but both of them seemed subdued.

Naruto rubbed at the back of his head in an awkward gesture, then asked, "Hey, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Yes?"

"Did Sakura-chan, I mean, did she mean to y'know, poison Temari?"

"How do you 'accidentally' poison someone?" Sasuke muttered scathingly.

Let some people near a kitchen and you can find out, Kakashi thought, but kept it to himself. He didn't want to break the tone of this conversation, not when Naruto was taking it seriously. Kakashi considered downplaying the poisoning, but decided that enough was enough. This was like Sakura and fire, all over again—if he didn't acclimate them now to the idea that their female teammate was their equal, it might burn them in live combat.

They might be stronger physically, though Sakura was rapidly gaining ground, and would always be her better when it came to raw chakra, but she'd learned a very different lesson on that bridge than her two teammates. It put her in a very different place, emotionally and developmentally.

That thought made him feel faintly guilty, but it wasn't a fresh, cutting guilt, just a resurgence of the old regret that poisoned everything. Just another person he'd failed to protect. There was a private memorial in his mind, one that he revisited in spirit when his body couldn't be at the one carved in unforgiving stone.

"Naruto, what did you think of Sakura's battle?"

Naruto hesitated, which told Kakashi that he hadn't been completely oblivious to the change in Sakura's behavior. For himself, the moment he'd seen her expression, he'd known exactly what was in store for the other chunin candidate. And given what the kunoichi's teammate had done, he didn't know that he'd have reacted any differently.

"Uh, well, it was more...aggressive than Sakura-chan usually is," Naruto said at last. "I mean, the proctor's all 'Begin' and Sakura's all like swoosh and she's got those knives out—where did she get those knives, anyhow?—and she, um, looked kinda scary. Kinda like she wanted to kill Temari," he ventured hesitantly.

"There's no 'kinda'. If we hadn't had medical staff on-site, Temari would have died," Kakashi said flatly, deftly ignoring the question about the knives.

He could see the struggle on Naruto's face as he tried to reconcile his 'Sakura-chan' with someone who would make that kind of decision. Sasuke's expression was harder to read. "...maybe she didn't know how bad the poison was?" Naruto ventured hopefully. "She was the one saying it was just a test. Sakura-chan wouldn't kill someone for that."

"Not for a test, but when someone's teammate slaughters someone in broad daylight for a test and your opponent doesn't flinch, that might be a good indication that she doesn't share your values system. And Sakura wasn't willing to die for a test either."

"She could have forfeited," Sasuke remarked.

"She could have. If she'd been thinking clearly, she might have, but from what the medic-nin told me, her fever was already bad going into the fight. When it's life-or-death, a kind of tunnel vision that only accepts one outcome isn't that unusual. Sakura wasn't going to die, so Temari had to." A harder edge crept into his voice. "And, failing that, she was going to make certain no one survived."

"...why?" Sasuke asked after a long, charged moment. "That's not like Sakura at all."

"It is like Sakura, just not the Sakura you remember from the Academy. Which she hasn't been. Not for a while. The two of you need to recognize that."


Pain medication was good in the sense that without it the bruises the medic-nin had left to heal in their own good time throbbed enough to make her miserable, bad in the sense that it made thinking difficult, like her brain was functioning at half-speed.

Just fast enough to understand she was in trouble, not fast enough to produce excuses. But, grumpy and defensive, she didn't feel much like giving them either. She'd woken to only Kakashi-sensei in the room, though he'd remarked wryly that he'd made Sasuke and Naruto stay until Naruto had almost taken out some very expensive medical equipment when he'd toppled out of his chair.

That was fine with Sakura. She didn't want them here, anyway. Her fingers clutched at the thin blanket as she tried to swallow down her anger.

"Poison is something new for you," Kakashi-sensei said in that light, leading way he had. "They managed to save her, in case you're wondering."

Sakura frowned, filled with a very peculiar dichotomy of feeling. One part of her was relieved, because the fight was over and no one had died. That part felt a little guilty, because in retrospect it was clearer that Temari hadn't intended to turn the match into a duel to the death. She'd had the chance and hadn't taken it, even though she'd still been caught in Sakura's genjutsu when she'd dealt that final blow.

The rest of her was afraid. If it had ended with the match, it would have been one thing. But she'd used Fū's gift and Temari had survived. Now there was a primal part of her brain insisting that leaving enemies alive was a very, very bad thing and her world would not be safe and right again until she fixed the problem.

Her hands trembled on her covers and her blood pressure spiked on her monitor, neither of which she noticed until Kakashi-sensei's voice cut through the tightening spiral of her thoughts. "Sakura. Calm down."

Her eyes met his one, hers wide and panicked, his narrow with intensity. "Kakashi-sensei," she gasped through the tightness in her chest, "what do I do?"

"Do? About what?"

"Temari. What if she—"

He held up a hand to forestall her. "Stop. I think I know where you're going with that. And you need to stop. Take a deep breath."

She did as he instructed and her trembling quieted a little.

"Temari is from Suna. And Suna, in our line of work, is synonymous with poison. It helps that every third animal and second plant in their territory is poisonous, which they've used to their advantage in the past and will continue to in the future. Her teammate is a puppetmaster whose every needle, blade, and odd projectile doesn't see the field without a good coating of something unpleasant. It also means she's unlikely to hold a grudge about your use of it—from the sound of it, she was more upset with herself for not noticing it immediately."

Sakura's brows furrowed, trying to understand this alien point of view. "How long did it take for her to notice it?"

"A little less than twenty minutes. Venom doesn't work as well with open cuts, the blood flow means less of it gets into the bloodstream to do its business. And because your match ended immediately, her heart rate slowed as well, which gave her more time before the effects became noticeable. In the field, it might have worked regardless. With black mamba, you're unlikely to last more than six hours. And only about one of those conscious. Now, with that said, black mamba aren't native to Konohagakure and if it's a shopkeeper who sold it to you, someone is about to get their license revoked. Where did you get the venom?"

"It was a gift," Sakura admitted. "From someone I met in the Forest."

Kakashi's brow soared. "And you used it?"

"He told me what it was," Sakura said, staring down at her clenched hands. "I knew what type of venom it was. And...what it did. I just didn't expect for it to take so long to work."

"So you chose to try to kill Temari?"

"Yes," Sakura admitted softly. "Because I thought she'd kill me if I didn't kill her first."

"Alright," Kakashi-sensei said after an unnerving pause.

She looked up at him disbelievingly. "That's it, just 'alright'?"

"Sakura," he said patiently, "Every shinobi in that room had already signed a waiver that accepted the possibility that their match might end with them dead. You saw that in action when that Oto-nin went against Gaara. You were within your rights to make that decision. But you also have to live with that decision. As long as you do that, I won't say anything.

You're a genin now, which means more freedom to make your own decisions. And I recommended you for chunin, which would have seen you making decisions for a squad. I'm not your parent, nor am I one of your Academy instructors. I am your mentor and you are a working professional. Unless your judgment endangers you or others or violates the code, I won't tell you whether you're right or wrong. Every shinobi has to draw their line in the sand, decide what they will and won't do to achieve an end."

"I...guess that makes sense," Sakura said after a long pause.

Kakashi-sensei chuckled. "I'd hope so. Now, you're free to leave whenever you feel up to it. Naruto and Sasuke both won their rounds--" she felt less about that than she probably should, but there was nothing even resembling jealousy inside her at the news, "so we're not going to be meeting up for regular training. I'll be taking care of Sasuke's training personally, so someone else will be handling you and Naruto for the interim."

His grinned, his eye shifting into the familiar crescent that boded ill for everyone. "And, Sakura? Don't think that a few bruises gets you out of walking the ninken."

 

Chapter Text

Sakura left when Kakashi-sensei did, though the enormous, ugly bruise across her shoulder blades protested her decision. It was still preferable to the unnerving feeling that at any moment someone might appear at her door and make the windowless, sterile room her grave. Temari, despite Kakashi-sensei's assurances. Temari's teammate, with the soulless eyes and all that crushing sand.

Orochimaru.

That thought made her walk a little closer to Kakashi-sensei, her gaze skittering nervously over the people they passed in the halls.

He could be anyone, the paranoid part of her brain insisted, to which the rational part retorted, You aren't worth the trouble. She tried to believe the rational voice, but she was still raw from the inexplicable turn of events in the Forest of Death.

Nothing in her career seemed to be going as it should, so why would this be anything different?

"Sakura, if I stop suddenly, I'm going to have to peel you off my elbow," Kakashi-sensei said wryly. "I wasn't going to interrogate you like I did the boys, but I'm listening if there's something you want to tell me."

She worried her lip, sparing one last anxious glance around the entrance as they left the Tower—which seemed even more ominous with the on-site medical facilities—then rapidly recounted everything that had happened in the Forest in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper. The jounin were keeping a corridor out of the forest clear of predators, which made their exit much easier than the journey in, and there was nothing to distract her from her story.

Kakashi-sensei was silent until she'd finished, which was just as well, because once she started talking, she couldn't seem to stop. She had to swipe at her eyes with the palm of her hand, but it wasn't just fear, but also rage and frustration and disappointment, all tangled together. Not just Orochimaru, but Naruto and Sasuke and all the rest—even though she'd tried hard to swallow back the bitterness, it felt so good to finally say it aloud.

Her breathing was slightly ragged when she'd finished, but she'd never raised her voice, not once. And while there'd been tears, she hadn't outright cried either, even though telling Kakashi-sensei about being inside the mouth of the snake had been like relieving it. Her excellent memory, so useful elsewhere, kept supplying the scent and the sound and the feel of it, her stomach clenching reflexively at the that weightless, waiting-for-the pain moments of beings suspended in space.

But she'd soldiered through, came to the Tower and Temari and brought it to a clean end.

Now she glanced up nervously at Kakashi-sensei, who was frowning intently, but when he noticed her attention he raised his brows in that sardonic way of his, twisting his mouth into a wry grin. "Let's just agree that when you retake the exam, you don't go so far out of your way to impress S-class missing-nin."

"Impress?"

"I sealed Sasuke's little memento and Orichimaru came calling after I'd finished. Didn't seem too perturbed by the sealing, which was a little unsettling, but he had good things to say about you."

Sakura was at first dubious, because Kakashi-sensei taught life-lessons by exposing genin to horrifying genjutsu, but then she realized he was serious. It felt like every fine hair on her body stood to attention in its follicle, because being mentioned by Orochimaru meant being taken notice of by Orochimaru. That was high on her list of Do Not Want, because it seemed to stand in opposition to her immediate life goal, which was Live Another Day.

She clasped her forearm hard enough to hurt, gritting her teeth against the shudder that wracked her body. "That's...really bad, Kakashi-sensei."

"I agree. But it didn't sound like he was interested in recruiting you, if that's any comfort. We'll have to keep an eye on Sasuke, though."

The dubiousness returned as she glanced sidelong at Kakashi-sensei. "Don't worry," he reassured her. "I'm not asking you to engage Orochimaru in a fight, just to make certain that Sasuke runs."

"...how? He only listens to Naruto," she muttered.

"Genjutsu if you have to," was Kakashi-sensei's immediate reply. "Rest assured, whatever you show him will be much, much preferable to what Orochimaru is capable of."

Sakura thought through the implications of that, that her Hell-Viewing jutsu was preferable, and was not reassured by this permission to turn her techniques against her teammate.

But, she reassured herself, for the next month, it was Kakashi-sensei's responsibility to watch after Sasuke. And someone else's to look after Naruto. Perhaps after that, her anger might have faded, Naruto once again merely irritating and Sasuke—well, she hoped that one day she'd glance over at him and not the exultant expression on his face as he broke Zaku's arm.

­


The ninken had at least allowed her to return home and shower after their morning 'walk,' since she was scheduled to meet her interim sensei and wanted to make an impression that did not involve mud and dog slobber. The dog hair was a lost cause, so she ignored the way her clothing below her waist seemed to accumulate it like it had magnetic properties.

She was down to only Bull and Pakkun, the latter of whom catching a ride on the larger dog's head, while Bull had his mouth full of a scroll case.

"Instructions for your feeding and care," Pakkun said when he noticed the direction of her gaze.

"Kakashi-sensei didn't tell my mentor what he wanted him or her to teach me himself?"

"That's not the boss's way," Pakkun said. "This way, if there's something they don't like, they don't have a chance to argue with it. At least not in person."

"Kakashi-sensei: The Path to Conservation of Effort," Sakura remarked dryly, which caused Pakkun to chuckle.

"That's about the way of it."

"So who is my sensei?" she prodded.

"That would be telling, kid. Besides, we're almost there."

'Almost there' was a neat little eatery that Kakashi-sensei had tricked her into treating him at, once, the memory of which made her scowl as she came in the door and was welcomed by the waitstaff. There were latticed screens seperating the booths, which leant everything had an air of privacy, but made it hard to pick out anyone even if she'd known who she was looking for.

Luckily, Bull seemed to know the way and the eatery, like most places that catered to ninja, had a relaxed policy when it came to ninja-animals.

Their destination turned out to be a booth in the back corner with a view of both doors—the paranoia stall, as it was teasing referred to, though beneath the humor was a tacit understanding that that seat belonged to whichever jounin was the first to be seated.

Kakashi-sensei apparently felt that unobstructed views of the exits were overrated. His requirement was good light and quick service, which usually saw them seated at the bar or near the kitchen.

The jounin seated at the booth was occupied with chatting up the waitress as they approached, so they had to wait until she'd taken her leave before Sakura could duck into a neat bow and introduce herself.

There was a beat as the jounin considered her, the senbon in his mouth flicking almost irritably, something echoed by the furrow of his brow. But then it smoothed out and she was left with a sardonically grin that seemed more earnest than Kakashi-sensei's expression. "Genma Shiranui," he introduced himself. "Kakashi called in some favors and uncollected bets, and I'm in the village to provide extra manpower for the duration of the exams anyway, so here I am. Sit?"

He indicated the bench opposite him with a tilt of his head and Sakura nervously seated herself.

"I took a look at your records already and I know all about your performance in the exams—perfect score on the first section, a loss in the second that was avenged in a nasty way. But I don't know what exactly Kakashi wants me to teach you."

That was Bull's cue to plop the scroll case on the table and after looking in distaste at the drool-slick surface, Genma-sensei opened it. His eyebrows swept up as he unrolled it, which Sakura felt didn't bode well, but it was Kakashi-sensei. She hadn't expected anything else.

Frankly speaking, if there was a chance she'd be meeting with Orochimaru again, she'd take twice his usual torture and like it.

"Shit," Genma-sensei said with feeling. "He's got a list of assigned readings in here as long as my arm. Some of them you need to be a jounin just to take out of the archives. Real heavy on chakra theory and manipulation and genjutsu, looks like, and enough anatomy texts to qualify you as a hunter-nin in Mizu. As for physical training, looks like you'll be working with his dogs in the morning for stamina training, which is good. I'm not a morning person. Work on your knifework, alright. Wants to press your limits with your projectile weapons, says your aim degrades too much when you're working at speed. Again, pretty basic. What is not basic, and really is just this side of crazy, is that he wants you to be able to do full-speed Shunshin by the time I return you to him."

"Is Shunshin that unusual?" Sakura asked timidly.

"For your first year out of the Academy? If you're any kind of prodigy, maybe not, but this seems like it might be a little much for you."

"Sakura is already capable of the basic movement," Pakkun replied. "She just needs work on fine-tuning her chakra manipulation so that when she enhances her ability to perceive rapid movement she doesn't fry her ocular nerve in the process."

"Really?" Gemna-sensei asked skeptically. "Because that wasn't in...," his voice trailed off and then he shook his head ruefully. "Sorry, Sakura," he apologized. "I should know better than to expect Kakashi to be completely explicit in your personnel files. He's a cagey bastard with his own abilities, no need to expect anything different when it comes to your record-keeping. A little more thorough on your teammates, but there's more people looking over his shoulder when it comes to them." His lips quirked up like that was a joke, but Sakura couldn't follow his humor.

"I don't know when he expects you to sleep with this kind of workload, but we'll do our best. But first, breakfast."

Working with Genma-sensei turned out to be a very different experience from working with Kakashi-sensei. His humor was less edged, less sardonic, and more abundant, which made learning under him more like exercises out of the Academy and less like Kakashi-sensei's prepare-you-for-life-if-you-survive-it style that had become the norm for their sessions since Wave. But Genma was also very, very good at what he did, at least on the armed and unarmed combat side of things, though he readily confessed to being good only at breaking genjutsu.

Which was fine. He hadn't been lying when he'd talked about Kakashi-sensei's reading list, much of which had to be tackled with note paper and dictionary in hand, even if most of them were short treatises rather than full-size books. But this was one area at least where Sakura had complete confidence and she enjoyed the challenge to her mind, setting to her assignments with a pleasure she didn't usually feel when doing physical training. Her motto for that was more suffering today, for less suffering tomorrow, but she was greedy for the knowledge. Even when that knowledge was endless diagrams of eyes and chakra flow and all the ways she could end up permanently blinding herself when using Shunshin if she misdirected the flow even fractionally or kept up the enhancement too long.   

They were more than midway through the month when Genma-sensei was called away during one of their training sessions and Sakura knew something was wrong when he sent a note calling off the rest of the lesson. Unlike Kakashi-sensei, Genma-sensei, for all his humor, took his responsibilities very seriously. It had been strangely unnerving to have her sensei arrive before her to their training field.

Because she didn't receive any word to the contrary, she showed up at their training field on time and found a strangely sober Genma-sensei waiting for her. But he wasn't alone. "Hey, Sakura," he greeted her.

"Genma-sensei."

Genma-sensei's senbon flicked as he considered her, then he sighed. "All right, I've been checking out books under my name and letting you use them, I suppose I can trust you to be circumspect. We had an incident last night. Hayate—he's the one who proctored the selection round after the second round—is dead. And I've been appointed proctor of the third exam, which means I'll be taking on extra duties. Ergo, less time for you. But, Raidō has agreed to lend some of his time and help us out. He'll be training you with your knives." He grinned. "It's about the only thing he's better than me at, so we have to let him enjoy the chance to show off when it comes around."

The other man—Raidō—rolled his eyes silently. He was one of the few jounin Sakura had ever seen with facial scarring, well-healed but with thick ridges of scar tissue that swept across the bridge of his nose and widened in their path along his cheek. Otherwise he had a certain no-nonsense sort of look, his hair cropped short and with no personal modifications to his uniform.

"I'll be in your care," Sakura said politely.

Raidō nodded. "From what Genma tells me, you're easy to work with. My specialty is kenjutsu, so I can give you a good grounding in how to approach an opponent using a blade with superior reach. I didn't have any notice, so I didn't have time to clear my mission schedule. You'll have occasional afternoons to yourself—if you want my recommendation, fill them up with D-ranks instead of more training. I've seen your schedule. You don't want to burn yourself out and more missions to flesh out your résumé will do you good in the future."

Sakura took his advice and all his lessons to heart. She wasn't fond of him the same way she was of Genma-sensei, because he was as sober and professional as some of the guest lecturers at the Academy, more interested in imparting his knowledge than building any sort of connection. Somehow, that made her even more aware that she was taking up his time and she worked hard to not disappoint him.

He made her work hard for it. He'd said his specialization was kenjutsu, which was true, but he hadn't clarified that he was best-known as an assassin. There was little of what she thought of as 'sword fighting' in his style, which was bare of all flash and spare to the point of frankness. She spent most of their practices being 'killed' in a single blow, Raidō-sensei methodically exploiting every weakness in her defenses. And then just as patiently breaking down what she'd done wrong and what she'd need to do instead.

It was almost like being at the Academy again, except with the personalized attention that a natural teacher's pet like Sakura had always craved and competed for. It almost made being a shinobi fun again, helped her paranoia to ease, though every night reminded her exactly why she trained so hard each day. The newest nightmares did not get better, precisely, but just as she'd found with Wave, she grew better at managing them.

Trying not to sleep just made them creep into her waking hours and made her sloppy besides, so she learned all sorts of tricks to fall asleep, to stay asleep, and to fall back asleep when the second didn't work out. She was careful not to work herself to exhaustion just before bed, which made the dreams more vivid, and she sometimes regarded those moments of panicked waking with a dark sort of humor—she'd never had more practice controlling her breathing and easing her heart rate.

She didn't hear anything from Kakashi-sensei or her teammates during the month and she didn't have enough spare time to spend stoking her grudge. It dissipated, the heat of her former anger cooled, though her feelings never quite returned to their original state. Naruto was just irritating, he was dangerous, and while Sasuke was beautiful, she couldn't help but wonder about that flash of cruelty. How much of it was Orochimaru and how much was Sasuke.

Sakura did meet others. Ino, sporting ugly, slow-healing bruises that testified that Zaku hadn't spared her face, hadn't come to brag about her victory. She'd come instead to tentatively broach the idea of rekindling their friendship. "I looked at you down there in the arena and I saw the same stranger I met before—when I first saw that scar, you know—and I felt like...like I was losing to you, somehow. I didn't like that," she admitted frankly, which was so Ino that Sakura was back on the Academy's lawn during their lunch break. "So I couldn't lose my match, no matter what that freak did. I have you to thank for that, Sakura.

Ino didn't ask her about how she'd gotten the scar and Sakura didn't volunteer. Too much of their closeness had been lost and Sakura was too aware that Ino hadn't had a Wave yet, hadn't had a mission take her to the edge and bring her back a different person than when she'd arrived.

One day, maybe, they'd be best friends again. Until then, she was content to let Ino fashion-pick at her outfit and her shemaugh.

It was the first time in a long time that she'd had a conversation that was only peripherally related to her ability to kill someone.

Her other visitor was more alarming and less vocal. Gaara, Temari's teammate. Not a single word had been exchanged between them, but she'd been left with the impression it might have been a whole conversation to Gaara. She had no idea what he'd taken from it—his lack of eyebrows made him even more inscrutable than those eyes alone managed.

And then her month was at an end and it was time to be a part of Team Seven once again.

Chapter Text

Her hair was still damp from the shower when Sakura made her way the arena, nibbling gleefully at a stick of syrup-coated anko dango.

She'd never known a true calorie deficit until she'd met the ninken, but nowadays she ate more than she had before just to maintain her weight. And what weight she did have was beginning to be distributed differently, lean muscle reshaping her arms, legs, and abdomen. Sakura hadn't been precisely out of shape before, but the day-in, day-out conditioning had changed not only what her body was capable of, but what she thought her body was capable of.

That in turn inspired a certain amount of confidence as she passed beneath the guest entrance. Perhaps she wouldn't stand on that field today, but she no longer felt herself to be so deeply unequal to most of them. Just most—she could take twenty years and not feel equal to doing anything more than running from Gaara.

But she had one significant advantage on the competitors—she could enjoy the vendors that had turned out in force as the wealthy and the curious of four countries turned out for a rare exhibition match. She was also clean, put-together, and likely to stay that way. Just days before she'd finally been in to see the specialist and she no longer had the scar on her face staring at her every time she looked in the mirror.

There'd been a strange, faint tinge of regret when she'd seen it absent on her skin, when she hadn't felt the faint tug of it when she smiled, but it had been nearly buried by the relief of no longer having that visible reminder of Wave. She already carried quite enough of those.

She followed the directions of the ninja on crowd control and maneuvered her way through the civilians crowding the stairways until she came down to the front rows, which had been reserved for shinobi. The idea being that though the competitors were expected to have the common sense not to use attacks that could injure someone in the stands, they all understood that competition effected judgment and therefore were forming ranks of human shields in front of the daimyō and diplomats who might be understandably perturbed by a stray kunai.

The stands were already filling and Sakura was trying to pick out someone familiar to sit by, not having much success at it. With Ino and the rest of Team Seven in the final round, she was left with few options among people who own age—transitioning directly from crippling shyness to being the best friend of the most popular and capable kunoichi in their class hadn't earned her many friends. And she didn't know many older shinobi—Genma-sensei was proctoring and Raidō-sensei would spend the day serving as Hokage-sama's aide.

She was beginning to think she should have invited the ninken along to keep her company when Sakura came to an odd realization. Before, the idea of sitting alone, the implication she didn't have anyone to sit with, that she didn't belong to a group, would have made her chest tight with anxiety. To a preteen girl—and maybe a preteen boy, for all she knew—not belonging anywhere was worse than belonging to a group that treated you badly. Now—now, that all seemed so petty. What did it matter that she was sitting alone? She'd killed alone, fought alone, trained alone.

So she chose a seat with a view she liked, helped herself to another stick of dango, and settled in for the competition. If the stranger at her elbow—she'd chosen an aisle seat—made her uncomfortable, it wasn't any sense of social embarrassment any longer, just an unhealthy paranoia that was still dogging her through her nights and into her days.

She would never admit to anyone that those first few nights back from the Forest she'd shoved her bed just far enough away from the wall for her to slip into the crevice, feeling safer sleeping there for all that her tactical mind knew that it might limit her mobility if someone actually attacked her in her own home.

But there was too much ambient noise and energy surrounding her for her to slip into herself; even the shinobi were excited by the prospect of the competition. This year was heavy on names that carried a certain weight—the last of the Uchiha, the prodigy of the Hyūga, the demon come up out of the desert. Everyone else might have been window-dressing for their matches, especially as they were guaranteed a match between the first and the last and the odds were heavily favoring the winner of that match to face the Hyūga in the finals.

Sakura couldn't disagree, given what she'd seen, but something like odds wouldn't stop Naruto from beating his head against a brick wall until the wall bled. 

The third round opened with Tenten and Rock Lee, who'd taken the "exhibition" to heart, giving the audience an intense display of shinobi technical skill without serious aggression driving their fight. And they didn't throw themselves at each other recklessly either, each clearly pacing themselves in anticipation of several more rounds.

No point in winning the first round if you faced chakra exhaustion at the beginning of the second. For a long time, it looked like it could go either way, and then Lee made some move she couldn't quite follow with her eyes and Tenten was down, his hand at her throat in an echo of his signature opening stance.

When Genma-sensei called the match in Lee's favor, Sakura could just make out a rueful smile on Tenten's face as Lee shifted his hand away from her throat and pulled her to her feet. Her hand clapped down on Lee's shoulder in a friendly gesture and her body language made the short exchange that followed look like encouragement.

It was...nice, Sakura decided, to see a team who could enter into even a high-stakes competition like this and still treat each other with respect. Of all the things they'd displayed on the field, that impressed her the most. Team Seven wouldn't have been able to replicate that, not for all their Sharigan eyes and impossible chakra reserves.

The match that followed it was about as unlike the first as it could be without actual homicidal intent, Hyūga Neji all cool dignity while Naruto shouted, and raged, and seethed. She was glad she couldn't make out exactly what he was saying, because while time had tempered her resentment, she hadn't forgotten what she'd felt as Hinata picked herself up again and again and flung herself against an enemy she wasn't skilled enough to beat. Tell her it's enough, she'd wanted to shout, Tell her it's alright to quit. Tell her she doesn't have to hurt for someone else's hate.

Some part of her knew that Naruto had only wanted Hinata to stand up for herself, to defend her pride and her skills, but what would it mean to absolutely commit yourself like that and lose anyway?

But whatever impact that match had had on Hinata, whatever effect all that impassioned yelling had on Neji, it was Naruto who won the match.

The next match was slated to be Sasuke's, but he still hadn't made an appearance. There was a sharp fragment of worry there, but a stronger sense that he was with Kakashi-sensei, who would probably be late to his own funeral, told her that they were just late.

Shikamaru's match followed on the heels of the announcement that they would postpone the highly anticipated battle between Sasuke and Gaara.  Given the nature of the match that followed, Sakura thought it would have been disappointing for the civilians even if they hadn't been anticipating anything else. Much like Kakashi-sensei, but without his flare or his ability to goad others into doing what he wanted them to do, Shikamaru would expend exactly enough effort to meet his goals and no more. In the Academy, that had mostly been passing grades except on multiple choice tests, which didn't involve nearly as much effort as essays. She couldn't help but think that some sort of bribery was involved, to keep him in this match when he looked so plainly apathetic.

But not enough, apparently, to secure the effort for a second round.

It was frustrating, to watch the opponent who'd beaten her be handed her victory by someone who just didn't care enough to take it, but it was clear by the expression on Temari's face that she found it infuriating. And she thought, Good, but there wasn't the vehemence there that she'd felt in Naruto's match against Neji.

Paranoia had turned to a faint sense of shame, because she'd tried to kill her and Temari, probably knowing that, had refrained from doing the same. She'd judged someone by their teammate, which was a stupid thing to do. It was part of the reason she'd hated being slotted into a squad with Naruto, because she'd known that what people thought of her would be tainted by what they thought of him.

She wasn't Naruto.

And Temari wasn't Gaara.

She was glad when the two of them cleared the field and Ino and Shino took it. Sakura cheered for Ino, even though she was aware it was a bad match for her skillset since she wouldn't be willing to kill Shino's kikaichū, devastating his colony being far more traumatic than destroying his favorite kunai. Ino lost, but she did it with style, collapsing dramatically to her knees as a cloud of chakra-eating bugs lifted from her shoulders, not bloodied and bruised and beaten, but seemingly untouched.

If she had to lose in a public arena like this, this kind of ending was the kind best suited to Ino, especially when she tried to stand and her legs almost collapsed again and both Genma-sensei and Shino moved to catch her.

Ino had always been the heroine in her own story. She'd come to the Academy with a team waiting for her, tailored for generations to support her skills. Her skills had been unquestionable, from sparring matches to flower arrangement, coupled with, if not perfect social grace, then a real sense of her own place in their little microcosm. A kind of social command, Sakura would have called it. She might not have been universally liked, but no one made fun of Yamanaka Ino.

There was a distant regret in Sakura that she would never be that girl, but the resentment was gone, as if her subconscious had finally recognized she no longer had a place in that story. She felt freer for it.

Sadder, but freer.

And then came Sasuke.

The last second entrance, his hair settling from an assisted shunshin, back-to-back with a shinobi infamous the continent over—everything was so perfectly calculated to heighten the drama of the moment that she knew Kakashi-sensei was behind it.

Why Kakashi-sensei was behind it was another question, because it would have been perfectly in character for him to simply amble in at the last minute, wave Sasuke on his way, and go back to reading his nasty novel.

Maybe, her eyes slid over to the Hokage's balcony, maybe he was late to give everyone else a chance to fight the first round without being overshadowed by this match.

Or maybe, she thought more wryly an instant later, Kakashi-sensei couldn't resist the urge to mess with this many people at the same time with so little effort on his part. That one was far less noble, but far more likely.

"Yo!" Kakashi-sensei greeted her, suddenly lounging on the divider rail, hands tucked in his pockets.

"Did you forget to set your alarm this morning, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked dryly. "Because the ninken-slobber setting was working just fine on mine."

Kakashi-sensei chuckled. "Consider it practice for your first boyfriend. He too will wake you hours before you're ready just to slobber—"

"Sasuke would not--," Sakura retorted automatically before her brain processed the TPO. "Kakashi-sensei!" she hissed, ears burning a bright, embarrassed pink.

Her reprimand only made him chuckle again. "I suppose we should actually watch," he said laconically, turning back toward the arena. "Given the amount of effort Sasuke put into his training."

Sakura had been willing to be distracted from the match itself, had carefully shoved it into a dark corner of her mind and thrown a blanket over it. To her, Gaara was more monster-made-flesh than a fellow shinobi. She'd seen his sand, how easily and effortlessly he manipulated it, seen how little life meant to him. Dosu hadn't been an opponent, he'd been an annoyance, crushed more easily than swatting a fly and with as little remorse.

She didn't want to imagine Sasuke fighting him, because for all Sasuke's skill, she wasn't certain it would be a fight.

"If you keep frowning like that, you'll have wrinkles by the time you're twenty," Kakashi-sensei chided her. "I'm deeply hurt by your lack of faith. You didn't think I was just going to let Sasuke loose against Gaara without giving him a chance, did you?"

"You only had a month," Sakura murmured skeptically.

"Ah, but there are massive shortcuts that can be taken in training when you factor in a Sharingan. Especially when that month was spent on two things and two things only. A weapon capable of piercing that sand and the speed he'll need to use it."

"Oh? That's a lot of confidence you have in your student, Kakashi."

Sakura flinched as another man—another jounin-sensei, appeared on the steps above Kakashi-sensei. Not only had she not heard him approach, he was Rock Lee writ large, and that was painful for anyone with working fashion sensibilities. She might have been spending more time in blood and mud and less time on her hair, but at no point had she incurred brain damage significant enough to consider a clinging green jumpsuit anything less than spectacularly hideous. Even Sasuke wouldn't have been able to make it look good.

Sakura almost couldn't look away, but Kakashi-sensei ignored him.

Once the fight below started, Sakura found it an easy thing to replicate, because after a month's separation, with all her bruises and fractures healed and safely a bystander once again, it was hard to remember that she was angry at Sasuke when she was half-convinced that at any moment he was going to die.

Gaara's match with Dosu had been brutally short, but she'd thought she understood just how dangerous he was.

She'd been wrong. As frightening as he'd been when he'd crushed the Oto-nin, it was worse to see just how ineffective Sasuke's attacks were against him.

And when she learned what Kakashi-sensei had meant when he talked about a "weapon," she was impressed for all of the roughly forty-three seconds it took to understand that Gaara losing his composure wasn't an advantage at all.

Things were bad, her breath caught painfully in her throat, chest tight with anxiety, fingers locked on the edge of her seat with such force that there was an ominous groan of protest.

And then things got worse.

Chapter Text

Her heartbeat slowed, her fingers relaxed, the muscles in her chest unclenched. Sakura slumped back in her seat, subsumed by a warm, drowsy wave. She felt safe and very sleepy.

It was that feeling of absolute, cradled-in-her-mother's-arms safety that made the world feel wrong. Sakura didn't feel safe even in dreams; there was no reason for it now, not when she was almost certain she was about to discover if all Sasuke's blood ran as red as the liquid dripping from his knuckles.

Genjutsu, she thought, reflexively stopped the flow of chakra in her nervous system. And just like that, the drowsiness vanished, replaced with a tension that had her strung as tight as a koto. She was almost surprised she wasn't vibrating like a plucked string, but she forced herself to let her head loll gracelessly to one side, hands dropping to her lap. 

Closer to her knives.

Sakura's quickly decided her field of vision was too limited, her hair prickling with unease at the thought of pretending to be asleep when she could hear the distinctive sound of kunai striking kunai in the stands around her.

Her fingers twisted in a familiar gesture and she slipped out of the "shell", her clone remaining slumped in her seat. Crouched on her hands and knees, Sakura took in chaos even down the valley formed by the seats, ninja from the village fighting a war above, around, and between the bodies of civilians and shinobi still caught in the genjutsu. It wasn't until one of their opponents toppled into her space that she caught sight of a too-familiar forehead protector.

That single musical note told her everything. And nothing.

The nothing could wait, because the ninja wasn't dead.

Sakura pounced, powerful leg muscles driving the motion smoothly forward, and before the ninja had recovered his balance one of her hands had seized his jaw and she slammed his head against the concrete. Her control over her chakra-enhanced strength had improved over the course of a month—when his jaw snapped and splayed and his head impacted with enough force to kill, it was on purpose.

She was a long way from shattering boulders and cracking concrete, and she'd fractured her radius in two places during that month in practice, but humans were a lot more fragile than rocks. Especially when it involved blunt force trauma to the head.

A jounin, who'd apparently been charging to her rescue or maybe he’d just to finish what he'd started, stared incredulously down at her for a moment and then was gone again without a word.

Sakura considered falling back to her original position, but a glance back at Kakashi-sensei and Might Guy revealed two jounin intentionally making targets of themselves and she wanted no part of that action. She thought about sheltering in place, pretending to be dead, and waiting for it all to be over, but that was only that small, frightened self that had never stopped running from that first ninja with quicksilver eyes.

The rest of her was calculating how to keep her head down and still contribute to the battle. Better control of her chakra-enhanced strength or not, one-on-one tutoring with her knife skills or not, training in the shunshin or not, she was one genin. In the stories, Orochimaru was a lot of things, but an idiot wasn't one of them. If she had to invade a foreign village with a limited force, her infiltrators were all going to be jounin. And against a jounin, she had exactly one weapon. Surprise.

And if that failed, well, they were going to be mailing her to her mother in a box.

It was a good thing she had slender shoulders and a child's small body. Otherwise she really wouldn't have been able to squeeze between the feet and seatbacks without leaving a tell-tale trail of shifting bodies.

Sakura could swear she could feel her heart thudding against the back wall of her throat as she scurried along between the seats, heading toward a battle that she could hear but couldn't see without raising her head above the safety of her trench. The sheer number of feet she had to skirt made her uneasy—who was powerful enough to lock down this many ninja in a genjutsu? Was this Orochimaru himself? Some part of her hoped so, because if this wasn't Orochimaru, it meant he had a subordinate capable of this. And that was bad.

She tried to shove the thought that the enemy could slaughter the sleeping ninja like cattle under a mental rock, but it was cockroach-persistent. Could she wake them? Should she wake them? Or would that just cause more chaos?

Sakura reached the battle before she had to come to any decision and she went to her belly, crawling almost entirely beneath one of the seats and watching the footwork of two jounin as they grappled in the narrow aisle. She was lucky—they were talking and the Oto-nin was female, with slender ankles and painted toes. She had to wait for the sneering Oto-nin to come within reach, but when she did her hand shot forward like a snake striking and when it closed around the enemy kunoichi's ankle she jerked it toward herself with all her might.    

The kunoichi had all her weight braced against her opponent, was using chakra to help her keep her footing, but Sakura was the straw that broke the camel's back. The kunoichi went down hard as her opponent capitalized on her sudden weakness and her leg slid beneath the seat where Sakura was lurking. It would have been a bad position to recover from regardless, lunging directly upward likely to dislocate a hip or break her leg and her opponent wasn’t about to give her more space, but Sakura didn't take the chance that one of Orochimaru's people wouldn't bend in places humans couldn't.

Modern shinobi were lightly armored as a rule. They were stealth troops, not samurai shock forces, though their ninjutsu made that a possibility.

The kunoichi was true to that rule, so it was only fabric and flesh that provided a barrier to her knife.

And Sakura kept her knives very sharp.

The spout of blood from her femoral artery caught Sakura in the face, startling her, and she smacked her head hard against the underside of the seat. Her backwards scrabble was ungraceful, but she managed to get the blood out of her eyes and wasn't attacked in the interim, so it was a victory.  

"You okay?" the jounin that she'd just assisted asked her, glancing down at her only briefly before launching a kunai at an opponent.

"Provided she doesn't do something stupid like bleed acid," Sakura said, resisting the urge to use her shemagh to mop her face. "Sir," she added belatedly.

That earned her a harsh chuckle. "You'll be fine. Good assist."

"Thanks. Good idea or bad idea to try to wake some of our people?" Sakura asked, the feeling of blood on her face overwhelmed by the relief at being able to ask an adult what she should be doing. Even a total stranger. That way, if she woke someone up and they died because of it, it wouldn't be her fault. She was learning to live with the reality of her own mortality and the blood already soaking her hands.

She wasn't yet strong enough to bear the deaths of her fellow soldiers, not when it was her decision that brought them there.

"If you can bring some of the chunin up, do it," was his response. "Leave the genin under."

"Yes, sir," Sakura said. She'd crawled beneath a chunin's seat to get at the Oto-kunoichi, now she dragged the chunin down into her trench. She didn't need him standing up in surprise only to catch a kunai to the back of the head. Sakura was less practiced at breaking others out of genjutsu than she was at freeing herself, but seconds later she had a very confused chunin staring up at her.

"Wha—?"

"We're being invaded by Oto forces," Sakura said curtly. "How good are you at breaking genjutsu?"

As it turned out, he wasn't, but he was perfectly willing to drag another chunin to her. Sakura was soon surrounded by enough chunin to form two combat squads, which almost emptied her row of those who'd thought to wear their distinctive flak jackets. There were probably more chunin among them, but they left those in their civvies asleep.

One squad covered their advance as they switched rows, a kunoichi wearing Inuzuka clan markings now helping Sakura to break the genjutsu. It was frustratingly slow, because unlike casting a genjutsu, breaking it required physical contact for someone with her skills. And she was getting quickly tired of explaining that yes, there was an invasion and no, she was not going to play twenty questions under fire.

It was a very different sort of thing to the fights she'd been in before. This was a battle where killing one or two people almost didn't matter. It wouldn't be over quickly, wouldn't be finished cleanly. They hit patches where the infiltrators had killed their people before a jounin could challenge them, they lost members of their squad as the Oto-nin tried to stop their forward progress.

Unlike the jounin, the chunnin formed squads to combat the Oto shinobi, three teams remaining in orbit around Sakura and the growing compliment of genjutsu-capable ninja.

"I think we've got enough people to break into squads," the Inuzuka kunoichi working next to Sakura said. "Two to break the genjutsu, two combat squads to cover them?"

Why are you asking me?! some part of Sakura screeched, because the kunoichi was at least four years older than Sakura, but she nodded.

The Inuzuka kunoichi bared her teeth in a fierce smile before she relayed instructions along the line. She took with her a cluster of Aburame chunin they'd recently woken and a gangly, nervous chunin who was in his first stage of medic-nin training. Sakura didn't recognize the clan affiliations of any of the chunin who were suddenly falling in around her, but she thought that her partner in breaking the genjutsu was a Yamanaka.

The lead of her combined combat team was a shinobi with long white hair, fine as spidersilk, and a kodachi that flowed like water.

Sakura almost headbutted Kakashi-sensei, who was suddenly crouching in front of her as she moved toward her next chunin. "When you're done leading the resistance," Kakashi-sensei said dryly, "I have a mission for you."

Sakura stared at blankly at him for a long moment, her brain readjusting to the idea that there was a world beyond the next chunin. Then she nodded, glancing up at the lead of her team, who obligingly pulled his blade from the gut of an Oto shinobi and sidled closer.

"I'm borrowing my student," Kakashi told him before Sakura herself could say anything.

"Understood, sir," her lead said and Sakura tried to fix his appearance in her mind. There was a gaping, freely bleeding wound high on his side, which he'd taken when a pair of Suna kunoichi had tried to rush Sakura. He'd killed the first, taken the wound, killed the second almost before it had sunk in that Suna had betrayed them, was collaborating with Oto for the invasion. She didn't even know his name and that didn't seem right. When this was over, she'd ask.

She rose from her crouch, knees protesting, and then hesitated before following Kakashi. When this was over, there might not be any opportunities for asking. "Thank you," she blurted, making him look back at her. "I'm Haruno Sakura."

"Sakuya. Uematsu Sakuya."

"I'll let Sasuke know you were having an affair while he was off chasing down Gaara," Kakashi-sensei murmured as he tucked her beneath one arm and flickered to the top level of the stadium, where Naruto crouched and Shikamaru sprawled.

"Sakura-chan, are you alright?" Naruto asked her worriedly and it to a moment to remember there was blood, dried and flaking, on her face. There'd been other worries.

"It's not mine," she replied. "Did you say Sasuke was chasing Gaara?" Sakura asked Kakashi-sensei.

"His team retrieved him and removed him. And Sasuke decided he'd take the initiative and follow," Kakashi-sensei replied. "Which is where you all come in. It'll be the first A-rank mission since Wave." His voice was light, but his single visible eye wasn't laughing.

Naruto seemed excited by the prospect of being able to do something, but Sakura's hands tightened into fists. From here, out of the worst of the battle, she could hear the sound of fighting in the streets beyond the stadium. Stupid, some part of her mind said, of course that wasn't all their forces.

And there would be others, in the forest. Out there, there wouldn't be a combat squad supporting her, covering her flanks and keeping her from harm.

Sakura watched in silence as Kakashi-sensei explained their mission, summoned the ninken, and sent them on their way.

There was almost a sense of inevitability as Pakkun alerted them to the fact that they'd picked up a tail. A large group, eight ninja, two chunin-level combat squads. She listened as Shikamaru condemned himself, volunteered to be the one left behind, to set the ambush so they could go ahead.

She could have let him.

Not too long ago, she would have let him. He'd have been right, because that Sakura didn't have the necessary skills, but more than that, that Sakura wouldn't have had the requisite courage.

She was not that Sakura.

She took some small comfort in the fact that Kakashi-sensei seemed to have anticipated this, sending the whole pack and not just Pakkun.

"No," she said firmly, earning her a surprised glance. "Your chakra reserves haven't recovered from your match with Temari. You're cleverer than I am, Shikamaru, but you can't outwit chakra exhaustion. Take Pakkun with you and catch up to Sasuke, before he gets himself hurt. The pack and I—we'll take care of it."

Someone—she didn't look down to discover who, but the fur felt like Shiba or maybe Akino—brushed beneath her hand in a gesture of silent comfort. 

"Are you sure?" Naruto blurted.

"Yes." The word wasn't as firm as she wanted, so she cleared her throat and tried again. "Yes. It's—well, it's not fine, but none of this is," she said, jerking her chin back toward where smoke was blackening the sky above the village. "Just...get Sasuke. Please." If she explained any further, tried to say anything more, she was going to lose her nerve, she clenched her teeth tight to prevent any more words from escaping.

She expected Naruto to argue, but he was giving her a very strange look. And then he nodded solemnly. "Okay," he said, voice raspy. "Okay. We'll be back to pick you up before you know it. And then we'll give 'em what for together."

And then they were gone.

Chapter Text

Sakura made a silent resolution to herself that if—no, when she survived this battle, she was going to acquire a sealing scroll, fill it with everything she thought she'd need and some she didn't, and carry it everywhere. She'd even take into the bath and tuck it under her pillow at night, if that was what it took to have it with her when it would be really useful.

Like now.

She had her basic kit, because that already followed her around more faithfully than one of the ninken when there were treats to be had, but as she crouched down in a strategy circle with the ninken, she couldn't help but feel that more equipment would be more useful than a head full of mostly theoretical knowledge.

Luckily, the ninken brought a lot of experience to the table. For a brief moment, she'd felt very alone when Naruto and Shikamaru had left, but that had been wrong. She did have teammates, packmates, seven of them, the numbers not so unbalanced as she'd feared.

"We can't risk trying a genjutsu trap, not with a squad this large," Akino murmured.

Guruko nodded gravely. "Unless you can take them all out quickly and cleanly, it'll turn into a trap for you instead of for them. And for us. We're going to have to separate them."

"Hunt, harry, herd, hurt," Bisuke recited solemnly. "We've never practiced this, never hunted as a pack with you, Sakura, so listen. Ūhei, Akino, and Shiba are the fastest of the pack and working together, they can run your average ninja into the ground. They'll hamstring a shinobi and take them down working together, but only Bull is big enough to pull down a man on his own. He's got twice the crush power in his jaws as the rest of us—he can break the big bones in a man's leg." Bull gave a huff of agreement. "Guruko, Urushi and I are primarily trackers, but we can distract and harry an enemy."

Sakura nodded, committing everything to memory. She was familiar with the speed of each of the dogs, had seen several of their tactics in use, but it would be different when it wasn't in play. Sakura could remember clearly that first, terrifying run in Wave, so she saw the advantage of using the pack. They just had to think of a plan that used all their strengths effectively.

It didn't have to be foolproof—Naruto wasn't here—but it did have to work.

Sakura closed her eyes, biting her lip. Eight ninja. Two combat teams. It probably wouldn't be hard to separate them into two teams—habit was a powerful force and very few ninja had much practice on working with a squad larger than four. If it was a small enough threat, they'd likely split into two cells, one to deal with it and the other to continue to their assigned target.

If she was very lucky, they would only send one or two ninja to investigate the split in their tracks, but Naruto was the one with the favor of the cosmos. Sakura would plan for a full team. Whatever her plan was beyond that, it couldn't be time intensive—she'd still need to catch up to the squad pursuing the others before they actually caught them.  There were certain distress signals that were pretty universal that might make them turn back, but she couldn't risk that more of the Oto or Suna forces would come investigate.

I must be like lightning, Sakura thought to herself. So fast, so sudden, it's gone before the sound arrives. She hadn't meant it as a pun, but as the thought anchored itself in her resolve, she realized the play on words. When they talk about turning out like your sensei, she thought wryly, crossed her arms across the top of her knees and ducking her head behind the barrier, I thought I'd end up with something more useful than Kakashi-sensei's terrible sense of humor.


Sakura lay belly-down in a tangled patch of briars, in a sort of tunnel created by animal traffic. It wasn't ideal cover, but this deep beneath the iconic, towering trees of Konoha's home forests, briars and their like were the only things with the tenacity to grow.

Her shemagh was tied securely over the lower half of her face, the fabric taut against her cheekbones. She'd retrieved her combat glasses from her pouch—the first time she'd poked herself in the eye with a low-hanging branch when moving faster than the human eye could normally track was the last time, so far as she was concerned. She been more than half-convinced she'd put her eye out. Sleek, sort of cool-looking, her combat glasses sat close to her face and had a narrow rim of some spongy material around the lens edges that she could channel chakra into to create a seal, which she'd done.

Sakura wished for the reassuring warmth of a small body tucked at her side, but for now the ninken were outside the clearing, per the plan. Pakkun was the best sensor of the pack, but Akino had confirmed that a full squad had taken their bait and followed Sakura's trail.

Her fingers dug furrows in the loam as she watched them walk into the clearing, their steps heavy with confidence. Four men, older, with no distinctive uniforms or weaponry. Chūnin rather than jounin. Which makes them still better than you-nin, she reminded herself harshly.  

She held her breath as one ninja almost stepped on her fingers, but her genjutsu was apparently proof against their detection. That was good. They'd been almost certain the team had been tracking them conventionally; a good sensor-type would have made her genjutsu as pointless as a paper bag pulled over her head at this range.

Sakura didn't shift, even when the ninja pivoted to say something to his team. A shinobi chooses his moment, she told herself, but the waiting was terrible. She was utterly convinced that the sound of her heartbeat was just as loud to the enemy as it was to her, that the Oto-nin were toying with her, but then one of the ninja placed his foot squarely on one of the tagged packets.

The directed pulse of chakra interrupted her genjutsu, but the tags concealed around the clearing went up with a roar, heavy grey smoke billowing outward, and contained in that smoke was enough airborne capsaicin to make Sakura's throat burn instantly despite her precautions.

It was much worse for the Oto-nin, but there was no guilt or pity for them, not like that silver-eyed nin who'd died in fire. This was her home, the last safe place. And they'd ruined it.

She didn't even have to lunge for the ninja, he'd been that close, just raise up on her knees, knives driving forward into his femoral artery. Not lower in his thigh, as it passed through the adductor hiatus, like the kunoichi, but just below his groin. Her knives were turned with the curve down and angled slightly, like razor-backed fish, slicing through the heavy muscle to open the medial circumflex femoral artery.

He collapsed almost on top of her and Sakura had to twist awkwardly away to avoid being trapped by his weight and the natural snare of the briars. She hissed in a breath as a kunai drew a long, shallow gash along her collarbones and that deep breath burned worse than the wound, but she swallowed down the urge to cough, turning the pain and the fear into movement.

Thanks to Kakashi-sensei and the ninken, she had plenty of experience in maneuvering in heavy briar growth, which was all thorny snares and unexpectedly strong plants. Wherever Sound was, they apparently had less undergrowth—charging forward in these conditions required stepping high and clear, not like the low, soft steps that ninja were trained to use to minimize noise.

Even in the heavy smoke, she could track her opponents by the sound of the cursing, coughing, and tugging on the network of briars. She heard it grow quieter on her left, one of them taking to the trees, but that left two of them on the ground.

Her covering smoke was a double-edged blade—it made it much, much harder to dodge kunai. Two more dug trails on her arms as she swept toward the target farthest to her right. She didn't know how he saw her through the tears streaming from his eyes, but he had a pair of kunai in his hands. He was taller, stronger, but the capsaicin was doing its work, his breathing rasping, uneven, interrupted by violent coughing.

It's hard to fight when you can't breathe.

His strikes were rough, a little desperate, and nowhere near as fast as Raidou-sensei's. He struck at her with both kunai pressed close together, driving them toward the center of her mass, which might have been more effective with his full strength and some momentum behind it. She used her left hand knife to redirect the force of the blow to one side, giving her an opening. Sakura heard another of the Oto-nin coming up behind her and panicked a little, lunging forward even though the angle wasn't right. Her strike along his side wasn't clean, and one of his hands came back and caught her in the jaw, the cold metal ring of his kunai leading the blow.

Sakura lost her footing, the metal slamming into her cheek hard enough to make her teeth break through the skin, and the teeth themselves felt painful and loose, but she wasn't given any time to recover. This close, the smoke made a less than effective barrier and her opponents were trying to end this as quickly as she was.

She shoved chakra forcefully into the soles of her feet, running forward when her cowardly self screamed run away! One knife was sheathed, her hand pitching kunai with chakra driving them whistling through the air, and there was her opening again. Her recovery was unexpectedly quick, judging by the widening of his eyes, and she came low, her shoulder catching the injured nin just below his ribcage only seconds before the knife in her other hand went deep.

Too deep—she felt the tug as he began to fall, knew that she ran the risk of breaking the blade if she'd caught it between vertebrae. She let the knife go, just in time to badly block another strike from his partner and barely twist aside when the other Oto-nin dropped down from the trees.

Mostly twist aside. There was a burning line straight down on shoulder blade, but it wasn't her spine and it hurt less than her face.

And it didn't interfere with her ability to strategically retreat, the smoke having dissipated enough that she could clearly see her opponents again. She used the trees to make it difficult for them to use kunai and they hadn't come more than twenty yards before the ninken made themselves known. Urushi bolted from the underbrush, acting like a living tripwire, the Oto-nin's momentum sending him face-first to the ground. Before he could do more than come up on his elbows, Bull was on him, powerful jaws closing over the back of his neck.

Sakura turned just in time to see Ūhei, Akino, and Shiba burst from their own hiding places, two of them flanking the last ninja and catching his sleeves in snapping teeth, the third savaging the back of one knee. He began struggling wildly, but Akino and Shiba kept their grip and pulled at his arms like a macabre tug-of-war. Sakura heard the fabric of his sleeves begin to give, but her kunai had already caught him in the base of his throat.

Breathing heavily, Sakura very carefully raised a hand to her neck. When she'd twisted, there'd been a sharp jolt of pain and then numbness. Vertebrae out of alignment. Nothing she could do about it, except hope nothing caught when she tried to turn her head. She didn't even try to investigate her cheek.

The ninken didn't wait on her when she doubled back to retrieve her second knife. They would need the time to get as close to the other squad as possible, because while they were fast, none of the ninken could move at shunshin speeds without Kakashi-sensei's assistance.

Sakura had to work to bring her breathing under control, because this would not only be the most dangerous shunshin she'd ever done, it would also be the longest. And the others had been under supervision, in very controlled conditions. Mistakes made at that speed meant shattered bones or worse.  Even if she didn't hit anything, if she screwed up the chakra flow that would temporarily increase the speed at which her optical nerve processed input she could potentially be blind for the rest of her life.

Shunshin made for a for strange experience, seeming to expand time and compress distance, but there had been a sharp thrill in mastering it. She just hadn't expected to be quizzed on that mastery so soon.

She took another breath, stilled her quivering. And then she moved.

The chunin had half-turned toward her, so her knife ripped cleanly through his throat, blood slinging in a liquid arc from the edge of her knife.

"Shit," one of her opponents snarled violently as the rest of the team whirled to face her.

"Looks like Akagi's squad dropped the ball," another commented, sounding far less worried than his companion. That worried Sakura, but she was already doubling back on her own trail, racing toward the ninken. They'd hoped the ninja would choose to chase the prey they could see and Sakura felt a brief flare of satisfaction as she caught glimpses of all three when she dared glance back.

That satisfaction turned to pain as three ninja proved too much for her skill at dodging—she had to leap to clear a deadfall and a kunai caught her high in the shoulder. She made a strange, half-stifled scream and landed heavily, but she kept running.

She was getting worried and a little light-headed by the time she heard the ninken set upon the Oto-nin and she turned just in time to catch the full force of a running tackle. The impact drove the kunai set in her shoulder even deeper and this time she did scream, but she also clawed one-handedly at her attacker's eyes and bucked hard enough to throw him off.

Sakura scrabbled upright and found herself almost face-to-face with that nin who'd spoken with such confidence earlier. He was wearing an unnerving grin as he rose from the forest floor, casually brushing off the legs of his pants.

Was there some sort of requirement in Oto's shinobi code that said they weren't allowed to let ninja out of training until they'd convinced them that a kill wasn't any good unless they spiced it with a little fear?

She felt nauseous from the pain and her left arm wasn't working well, though a rough movement as the Oto-nin proved it wasn't only Konoha that knew how to use fire dislodged the kunai. Guruko almost startled her as he charged in, but their opponent was fast on his feet and he caught the small dog hard in the ribs. Guruko yelped as the force lifted him of his feet and slammed him heavily into a tree. A handful of senbon pinned him there and Sakura darted in, trying to make use of the opening, but she underestimated just how good her opponent was.

The broad, wedged shaped blade of the kunai caught between her ribs and she screamed again, but she managed to catch his wrist before her he could pull his weapon free. The scream turned into a warcry and she headbutted him with everything she had left, put all the force in her body into the blow and she heard the sickening crack of his nose giving way. She let go of his wrist to grab at his collar and smash her head more squarely into his forehead and when his dead weight pulled at her arms, she let him drop.

Sakura stood still for a long moments, her vision unfocused and her eyes dripping freely, gasping in air. Then she clawed at her shemagh, yanking it down just in time to throw up everything in her stomach. When she was finished, she found herself on her hands and knees, almost sobbing as she used the fabric to clean away the vomit that had leaked through the long, ragged hole in her cheek.

Her hands went to the kunai lodged between her ribs, but someone barked at her, "Don't pull it out!"

"It hurts, it hurts, it hurts," she keened and struggled upright, stuffing the soiled shemagh roughly into a pouch. She tried to stop her tears, because her ragged breathing made every wound echo pain back at her, but it was beyond her. All she could do was stagger over to Guruko, pulling out the senbon as gently as her clumsy fingers were able. He was breathing, but he lay in a little crumpled heap that she gathered carefully to her chest.

The other ninken gathered around her, the fur on their muzzles stiff with drying blood. Even as she watched, Bull sniffed her downed opponent and then closed his teeth over the shinobi's throat. He gave the body a savage shake before he released him and padded up to her, whining faintly in the back of his throat.

"This is as far as we go," Sakura said softly. "This is where our mission ends."

Chapter Text

It took Sakura a long time to realize she was losing short patches of time. Or maybe it was only a short time to realize and a long time she was losing. When she tried to look up at the sun to gauge the passage of time, a hot wave of not-quite-pain radiated out from her neck and she found she couldn't tilt her head back any further.

That was okay, she decided, feeling Bull's head pressing against her back in an effort to keep her upright. If she didn't remember stopping, found herself staring blankly ahead with the ninken whining encouragement at her knees, that was okay. Even the pain, which seemed to get worse with every step, was okay.

These things were evidence of survival.

Only she was allowed to decide when it was time to lay down and die.

And that was going to be a long, long time from now in a soft, super fluffy bed. It would be warm and comfortable and it would be just like falling asleep at the end of a long day. A good day, where she'd done something that didn't involve dead men and the memories they'd carved into her. Someone would be there, she decided as she made a conscious decision to take one more step. Everyone died alone, but she could have someone at her side until that last moment, and when she'd gone on, he'd follow. He wouldn't leave her, even for death—she'd go first, she decided, and took another step.

She tried to picture Sasuke laying at her side, fingers interlaced with hers, breath slowing in time with hers, but found she couldn't picture an old Sasuke at all.

As she stumbled and nearly fell on top of Guruko's limp weight, she realized she couldn't picture herself old either. Her long, long time from now seemed like someone else's dream. 

But she clung to it tenaciously. Maybe she couldn't imagine it properly, but that didn't matter. She was going to live long enough to see it.

"We're almost to Konoha," someone said encouragingly. She had to blink several times to get her eyes to focus on the ninken speaking to her. Bisuke, she thought, inordinately pleased with herself after the effort it took to retrieve his name.

"C'mon, Sakura, you've got this beat," Shiba said, prancing from side to side in a way that made her feel like she was going to throw up again.

Sakura blinked at Shiba and Bisuke, then realized she was missing dogs. Several of them. "Where did everyone...?"

"They've gone to find someone to help," Bisuke said.

Sakura nodded dumbly, but she kept walking because she'd driven it into herself that walking was good, was synonymous with not dead, and she was still not dead. So she walked.

Straight into a barrier that gave, just a little, but it was enough to stop all her forward momentum and she sunk down on her heels, still clutching at Guruko. Forcing her numb fingers to release his fur, she patted down her leg until her hand closed over her knife.

"Whoa, hold up there," someone said. "I happened to see Kakashi's ninken running through the street like there was an even bigger fire somewhere else and when I ask them what's the matter, they tell me one of his students is injured. And here I come to find that not only is his student a cute little miss, she's entirely prepared to stab me. That sort of breaks my heart."

Sakura glanced up as far as she could before the pain stopped her, then rolled her eyes up, trying to take in her...something. Her first, overwhelming impression was hair. Lots of hair, rough and white, like...

Her mind failed her as she tried to think up a suitable metaphor, but then all that hair shifted as the man crouched down. She was immediately struck with the impression that she knew this man, but didn't know him. "You're...Orochimaru's teammate," she said when she failed to remember his name.

His head sagged and when he looked up again, his smile was slightly rueful. "You know, it's been years since I've been sidelined as "Orochimaru's teammate," but sure. My name is Jiraiya and let's just cut off introductions there for now, before you do something very dramatic like die in my arms. Good fiction, bad reality." And without a single indication of effort, he picked them both up.

Sakura's stomach lurched, but it seemed like a tremendous effort to throw up, so she kept up her interior litany of just another minute, you can get through it, it will get better.

She and Guruko were quickly handed over to some sort of field clinic, where the medic-nin made a lot of noise and Jiraiya promptly disappeared. And the sight of his long, spiky hair—past his hips—swaying with his stride was the last thing Sakura remembered as the medic-nin put her under.


Judging by Asuma's thunderous expression, he'd found his student. Kakashi briefly considered putting on his best "giving a damn" expression, but he didn't and there were bodies burning in the streets, so he didn't.

"What were you thinking?" the other man demanded. "Sending genin after a monster like Gaara?"

"Sorry," Kakashi said with mock-pleasantry, "I must have overlooked all the jounin with nothing to do in the middle of a joint invasion."

Asuma didn't back down. "You send genin to get civilians into the emergency shelters, you don't send them hunting jinchūriki."

"Well," Kakashi drawled, "Suna did forget to send a note about that one. Maybe you should take it up with the Kazekage."

"I'm serious, Kakashi. They could have been killed."

Kakashi's brows swept toward his hairline and masterfully didn't gesture back to the arena, where there were dead genin enough to make the point that there wasn't any guaranteed safety in times like these. "Were they?" he asked instead.

"Not the ones I brought back with me," Asuma admitted after a grudging pause. "Shikamaru is suffering from nothing worse than chakra exhaustion. And both your students will recover."

"Both? I have three."

"The third is just proof of what I've been saying. When Shikamaru told me that your kunoichi had stayed back to meet an ambush—of no less than eight chunin with just your dogs as support—I left him and your two to limp back to Konoha while I doubled back on their trail."

"And?" Kakashi prompted.

"And she must have gotten lucky—one of ours must have interfered. There's a trail of dead chunin and a blood trail that a blind man could follow that dead-ends outside Konoha's walls. You'd just better hope that your dogs were enough to make sure it was a Konoha shinobi that took her."

Kakashi frowned, because while he'd acknowledged that sending them out was a risk, Konoha's military strength was nothing to be scoffed at. There'd been enough jounin and chūnin to occupy the invasion force's time—four genin shouldn't have drawn the attention of two squads, not outside the walls when the real fight was inside them. For all that Naruto was what he was, he was also soundly sealed, and Sasuke's Sharingan hadn't evolved to the point where it was indelibly burned into his chakra signature. If they'd been chasing fleeing genin just for the fun of it, it was sloppy and undisciplined.

He crossed his hands behind his back to disguise the clenching of his fists, but his loss of control was only momentary. He smiled, eye creasing with the force of the motion. "My guess is that no one interfered," he told Asuma as he bit down on his thumb hard enough to draw blood. A pulse of chakra—his reserves were low enough that it gave him a faint headache, but the Sharingan was an insatiable pit he'd learned to live with—had Ūhei at his feet, muzzle stained with blood.

"Kakashi," the hound said, relief heavy in his voice. "Sakura, she—"

"Oh, you're about to get the news," a familiar voice said as the Toad Sage dropped without warning from a nearby roof. There'd been enough jounin in the arena that Kakashi and Guy had moved onto the streets, helping to reduce civilian casualties by the simplest expedient—killing all the invaders before they could kill anyone else. Guy had, of course, tried to make it a competition, slightly more serious than their usual ones.

Kakashi wasn't that crass, but he was winning.

He cocked a brow at Jiraiya, who said, "Someone really did a number on your kunoichi, Kakashi. I'm impressed she managed to escape and make it as far as she did. For such a cute little miss, she's got some real grit."

 Kakashi glanced back down at Ūhei. "What happened? Asuma tells me you fell back to lay an ambush."

Ūhei perked his ears and ducked his head. "Yes. Two combat squads. We brought them all down before they could reach the others, but the last one got Guruko and Sakura. She brought him down, though, and Bull finished him," he said, baring his teeth in a fierce canine smile. "Three of the kills were hers outright and she finished off another while he was in our teeth—and she could have killed the last one. The medic-nin say she'll probably recover without complications, but it was very close, Kakashi."

Kakashi's eyes strayed over to Asuma, who was staring slack-jawed at the hound, his cigarette threatening to escape his lips. "I told you I didn't think anyone interfered," he said evenly to the other jounin.

"Wha—Kakashi—," Asuma trailed off, shaking his head. Then he sighed, sucked in a noisy breath, and said, "I have to go check on the rest of my students," before bounding off.

Jiraiya was staring thoughtfully at the hound, brows deeply furrowed, but his expression relaxed when he caught Kakashi's glance. "For such a cute little miss, sounds like you're raising her pretty hard, Kakashi."

Kakashi chuckled, a flat, humorless sound. "At this rate, its less like I'm raising her and more like she's surviving me. I put her in a position where she killed on her first mission outside the village and then she went and managed to impress Orochimaru during her chūnin exam."

Jiraiya's gaze sharpened. "She did identify me as "Orochimaru's teammate." Did he try to recruit her?"

"Oddly enough, he told me she was too dangerous to keep. Of course, that was right after she'd lost her preliminary round."

"Losing usually doesn't impress Orochimaru," Jiraiya pointed out, curiosity heavy in his tone.

"It does when your opponent almost dies twenty minutes later because you've got poison smeared on your blades. And she'd almost killed his entire genin team and she survived an encounter with him personally in the Forest of Death, just a few days earlier—Sakura made quite an impression. He was hunting the Sharigan, though. I didn't think he'd turn it into a full-scale invasion," he said darkly.

Jiraiya chuckled, low and bitter. "I don't know that anyone knows what goes through that head of his anymore." Then he shrugged, almost like he was throwing off an invisible weight. "Well, lots of fires to put out, damsels in distress to rescue." And just like that, the Toad Sage was gone.


Sakura woke up in time for the Third's funeral, the hole in her cheek reduced to a long, shiny scar.

She touched it gingerly as she examined her reflection, suddenly nostalgic for the cleaner line of her knife scar. This one was wider, a little ragged looking, but they'd regenerated enough flesh before sealing it that it wasn't puckered or twisted-looking.

It had, of course, bruised spectacularly, but the swelling was almost gone and it wasn't to the sickly yellow stage yet. The medic-nin had put most of their effort and chakra into healing the much more dangerous stab wound, which was still very tender, though they'd apparently found enough time to put her spine back into alignment. More shallow cuts they'd left to heal on their own time—Kakashi-sensei had been by this morning to help her change the dressing on the long cut down her shoulder-blade, which had taken four stitches.

Sakura pulled her fingers away from the scar, returning to the reason she was in front of a mirror at all. It was a miserably overcast day, which leant the right sort of melancholy for the funeral of a man as great as the Third, but she also wanted to be her neat, presentable best when they paid their respects.

Her hair, unfortunately, took on a life of its own in humidity, so it was less a matter of styling it and more a matter of taming it. By the time she'd managed something respectable—though no amount of product had stopped her hair from parting itself back into rough spikes—it was time to rendezvous with the rest of Team Seven. She idled a few extra seconds in front of the mirror, tugging at her clothing, though she'd ironed it very carefully that morning and already done a thorough ninken-hair inspection.

Even her knife rig had been carefully cleaned, so that it no longer smelled like old battles.

When she couldn't delay any more without actually risking being late, she left her house. She kept her eyes mostly on her feet, because she didn't want to see the damage that had been done to the village or all the signs of mourning. Sakura hadn't heard anyone come out with any official numbers, but the simple fact that they wouldn't release any casualty reports meant it was bad. Like, significantly-weaken-their-military-strength-and-lose-clients-to-other-villages-and-invite-other-attacks kind of bad.

But she tried to shove that aside. Today wasn't supposed to be a day about numbers, profits and losses, it was supposed to be able the people those numbers hid. She would do her utmost to respect that.

Neither Sasuke or Naruto said a word to her, though Naruto did give her a limp sort of wave and such a pathetic smile that she wanted to pat him on the head like he was one of the ninken. Sasuke's eyes lingered on the vivid scar across her cheek like he wanted to say something, but he turned away instead and led them to where the service was being held.

It started raining in the middle of it, like the village itself was crying, and she thinks that it was perfect and fitting, though she's also pulped the stem of flower she's meant to lay on the coffin in an effort to keep her own tears at bay. When the official ceremony was over, people started to break into tight knots, talking in low voices. Sasuke and Naruto both disappeared, but Sakura didn't try to find them. 

She was surprised when a friendly hand clamped down on her shoulder and she looked up to find a solemn Inuzuka kunoichi. It was the same girl who'd been helping her during the invasion. "Hey," she said, in that pleasant, slightly husky voice that seemed to be a common trait of her family. "I don't think we ever had time to properly introduce ourselves." A huge dog plopped itself down inches from Sakura's feet, wagging its tail slightly. He or she wasn't like Akamaru, was instead like one of the huge wolf-dogs she's seen other members of Kiba's clan with, this one ruddy-colored.

"Haruno Sakura," Sakura offered somewhat timidly.

"Inuzuka Mariko. And this is Rie," she said, tilting her head down at the dog.

"Thanks," the dog—she—said. "For helping Mariko out." She bared her teeth, but it was a silent gesture. "Stupid, to ban the ninja from bringing their companions if they're full-grown. Apparently we make the diplomats nervous. As if we're all that eager to bite them—if you can get past the stench of their cologne, you can taste it."

Mariko grinned down at her companion, then sobered quickly. "When it was all over, we decided we'd find you and thank you. Good manners and all that, since you probably saved our lives. Good thing your hair stands out, though you could stand to grow a couple feet. I didn't realize you were so young."

"We?" Sakura asked, but Mariko was already motioning to others. Familiar faces, ones she recognized from the stands. Sakuya was there too, which was a relief, and he and the others formed up around her in their own little cluster of conversation. From the corner of her eye, she glimpsed Team 10, but then someone said something and her attention was drawn back to the chūnin who'd stood with her during the invasion. They were strangers, some of whom whose names she would doubtless forget, some of whom she might never speak to again, but for now they were companions, united by experience and grief.

 

Chapter Text

Sakura didn't see much of either of her teammates in the following days, though she saw enough of the ninken and Kakashi-sensei. It was only her very early morning practices that continued as they had—for now, there wasn't enough leisure time to casually hold squad practice. She could only assume that Sasuke and Naruto were still doing their own morning solo-practices as well, because she, the other genin, and most of the chūnin had been tapped as labor and had been separated into work teams supervised by civilians. Beginning the day after the Third's funeral, for an entire week, Konoha turned every available resource toward rebuilding, including its human resources.

No battle was ever fought that cleaned up after itself. The large summons that had been present and some of the more impressive ninjutsu had destroyed a lot of infrastructure. Almost forty percent of the village was without power and twenty percent was without running water. Hundreds had emerged from the shelters to find their homes destroyed and their shops ruined. It was to those shops and homes that the younger ninja were assigned—it was the jounin who were dealing with the bodies, dredging them out of the rivers so they couldn't contaminate their drinking water, doing mass burning of the Oto-nin before insects and vermin turned them into vectors of disease.

It was, in short, a disaster. And in order to fund the recovery, jounin and chunin were going to be dispatched in large numbers once they 'd returned from escorting the shaken dignitaries home. Most of those had stayed long enough for the Third's funeral, both out of respect and because they'd been made to understand that until the ninja had secured the village and had time to assess that they weren't going to meet any nasty surprises on the way home, it would be far safer to stay a few nights in the village.

Sakura had heard most of this from Kakashi-sensei, when he had informed her that she'd be working under a construction foreman after another team had cleared an area of rubble and salvaged what they could. The combination of her chakra-enhanced strength, excellent grounding in practical mathematics, and her ability to walk up vertical surfaces guaranteed her a career in the construction industry if she ever got tired of the kunoichi life, Kakashi-sensei had told her dryly before making himself scarce. She had no idea what Naruto or Sasuke had been roped into doing, but somehow she was pretty certain that Kakashi-sensei was avoiding anything that even looked like heavy labor.

As for her, though she was mostly fetching and holding and carrying for real carpenters, it was considered more skilled than carting rubble. Which meant that most of her crew was older, some of them even chūnin. They'd intimidated her the first day she'd reported to the address that Kakashi-sensei had given her, but except for one or two of them who couldn't seem to pass her without heckling her, they were all nice enough.

Sakura fell into a kind of routine, one helped by the fact that she wasn't sleeping well at night again, which meant she was bone-tired by the time she dragged herself home in the evening. She cleaned her knives, inventoried her kit, scrubbed at stains that would never come out of her shemagh. Eventually, she'd fall asleep—usually after she'd given in and moved to a room that didn't have a window that opened onto a balcony. She sort of liked the shower—there weren't any windows in the room and with enough pillows, the guest futon, and a blanket shoved inside the room, it felt a little like one of the nest-forts her father had helped her build as a child. After rigging the door, it was very cozy indeed. She knew it was not necessarily healthy, but it was what it was and it was her routine.

Until the morning the ninken didn't come.

Bemused, Sakura stowed away the guest futon and refolded her blanket very neatly. By the time she'd dressed and the pack hadn't appeared, she was worried, but also half-convinced that Kakashi-sensei had left on a mission without telling her and taken the ninken with him. When she'd finished eating breakfast, she'd reconsidered that, because as much as she liked to harp about how irresponsible and irritating Kakashi-sensei was, he'd never left her without the ninken in the morning before. Not since Wave.

Sakura was probably the only one of her team who knew their sensei's address, though it had been Pakkun and not Kakashi who had given it to her. She'd never used it before now, but urgency and worry were their own excuses.

Sakure eventually made it to his apartment building, though she'd taken a least two wrong turns and resorted to asking directions from an old man setting up a takoyaki stand. Sakura lived in a neighborhood of nice single-family homes, where entrepreneurial types ran things like bakeries and flower shops on the ground floor. Pakkn had told her that they and Kakashi-sensei lived in an apartment building. She just hadn't expected quite what she found. Clean, well-maintained, but clearly showing its age, its units very small if she judged by the space between doors. The whole neighborhood was like that, clean but rundown, the streets more narrow than she was accustomed to.

Of course, now that she'd seen it, she couldn't have said what she'd been expecting. As far as she'd observed, all Kakashi-sensei really needed was a dry space to store his smutty books. He hadn't even bothered to personalize his uniform and she'd never seen him use anything other than standard ninja kit. If it weren't for the ninken, she could almost have believed that he bunked with a different woman every night like that one rumor said. Or, more likely, took up space on unsuspecting people's couches. Maybe had longsuffering friends with guest bedrooms.

Sakura was staring up at the balconies, trying to make sense of the numbering system, when she heard a door open and shut somewhere on the fourth floor. She automatically looked in the direction of the noise, but she was surprised to recognize the person pacing agitatedly back and forth on the balcony. "Genma-sensei?" she called up to him.

She was still working on her lip-reading, but the shape of an expletive was easy to make out. Genma-sensei swung himself easily over the railing, landing enviably lightly on his feet.

"What's wrong with Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura demanded.

Gemna-sensei scrubbed a hand through his hair. "All of his students have fantastic timing," he grumbled, then sighed deeply. "Kakashi was involved in an incident. A classified incident," he clarified when Sakura opened her mouth to ask for details. "He's injured and out of commission for a little while, that's all. They're waiting on a...specialist," he said after a significant pause.

"Oh," was Sakura's soft, startled exclamation, because she'd only ever seen Kakashi-sensei exhausted, never really injured, even against Zabuza. "...but he'll be alright?" she asked hopefully.

"We'll see," was Genma-sensei's less than encouraging reply. "But it might be awhile, Sakura. Dammit," he said with feeling. "You're going to be finished with the work group in a couple days. And I've already received a list of assignments thick enough to choke on. But I'll try to work something out—at the very least, pull you down some D-ranks or something. Give me until the day after tomorrow, alright?"

Sakura could only nod silently, then she glanced up at Kakashi's apartment. "Can I go see him?" she asked quietly.

Genma-sensei's hand came down on her head and, rather than ruffle her hair, simply rocked it back and forth. "Sure, princess," he said gently. "I'll even let you take care of Kakashi's dusting."


 Genma-sensei was as good as his word, though his words as he led her to the site of her next assignment were something less than encouraging. "Just...be respectful," he said quietly, his hand on her shoulder. Sakura glanced up at him, then at the house they'd been approaching. It looked picturesque, a tidy little house shadowed by low, fruiting trees. It was outside the walls, far from urban center of Konoha in one of the small communities that had developed as the population overflowed the bounds of the original village. The only sounds were the rustle of grass, the song of birds, and the hum of bees.

She darted another glance back up at him. "It's usually chūnin who come out here to run errands," he said, still in a low voice. "You can think of this as a kind of...retirement community."

"Running errands is usually kind of a genin thing," Sakura observed, her own voice almost a whisper.

"Yeah, well," Genma said, staring at the porch and its single rocking chair, "they called her Grandmother Nightmare."

And that was the phrase echoing in her head as she tentatively rapped on the door. "Ma'am?" she called, "I'm Haruno Sakura. I'm the genin that was sent to work for you this morning."

Sakura heard the sound of very soft footsteps only just before the door opened. With an introduction like "obāsan no akumu," she'd braced herself for all sorts of things. What she got was a woman who stood no taller than she did, who smelt faintly of talcum powder and lavender, and whose smile lines were etched deep.

As the woman's eyes brushed over the new scar on her face, Sakura resisted the urge to duck her head. Of course people looked—if it was someone else's face, she'd do the same. It was only when they stared that her cheeks started to burn and she was torn between anger at them and anger at herself. It was nothing to be ashamed of. One day, she'd have repeated it to herself until she believed in it like she'd once believed that following the rules would keep her safe.

Today wasn't that day, but then the woman looked away.

Sakura scrambled in her memory for her real name, because she couldn't think of a quicker way to make a bad first impression than calling her Grandmother Nightmare to her face. It came easily enough, because she'd asked Genma-sensei about it. Her name was Gozen Reiji, and though Reiji was a common enough name, it was also generally a man's name. Genma-sensei had just glanced down at her and given her an enigmatic smile, senbon flicking.

"Um, it's a pleasure to meet you, Gozen-san," Sakura said, ducking her head.

The woman's brows rose faintly, but she smiled. "We have a busy day ahead of us," she said. "Haruno-chan, wasn't it?"

Maybe it was because Kakashi-sensei had been her taskmaster, but as the morning slid by, she only found Gozen-san demanding rather than nightmarish. She asked things to be done in just the way she wanted them, quickly and without mistakes. And she rewarded success with more complicated instructions, some of which she briefly suspected Gozen-san of making less than clear on purpose. And stopped suspecting almost immediately, because she knew it was probably just prejudice based on that nickname.

That was before she kept catching sight of things—creeping things, crawling things—in her peripheral vision. Before she helped replant flowers and more things crept over her fingers than by rights should be in any square foot of soil, especially as there was nothing there when she jerked her hands back. Before shadows in the towels she was folding kept growing legs and flexing mandibles.

She suspected genjutsu, but even when she subtly interrupted her chakra flow, she couldn't sense the moment when it broke. Or the moment when she was caught in another one. But she kept her mouth shut, did what Gozen-san asked, and showed up promptly at the appointed time the next day.

Sakura wanted less and less to go, but she kept at it, for four long days so full of subtle genjutsu that even when she'd left the house and stopped the chakra flow that would dismiss a lingering illusion, shadows still kept creeping at her in her own home. She'd stopped trying to sleep in her bed entirely and she'd tried leaving the lights on when she went to sleep, but found that only cast darker shadows. So she stayed in the dark, told herself that she would not be beaten by an old woman, and took frigid showers to wash away the sticky, clinging sensation of exhausted nightmares.

But on day five, when the shadows started creeping, she didn't have to form any handsign at all. It was sort of like consciously blinking, if you happened to have hundreds of eyes. She "blinked" a lot that morning, the genjutsu growing more obvious and aggressive as her day marched toward lunch. And when her onigiri turned into a handful of maggots, she didn't even bother to dispel the illusion. It still tasted delicious.

That earned her a slightly different smile, one with sharper edges. Gozen-san pulled her elbows onto the table, supporting her chin with her hands. "You're a genjutsu-type," she observed.

"Yes, ma'am," Sakura answered, uncertain as to where the old women intended to lead the conversation.

"They send them to me occasionally. Want me to teach them," she confided. "Or that's what they call it. I call it theft." Her eyes were very hard, a strange hazel with a starburst core of green, as she met Sakura's gaze. "In my day, they did not welcome kunoichi. Women were wives and mothers and if they fought, it was an extension of that role. To protect their house, their children. Even that was frowned upon. Even now, you hear constantly about the great," and there was a wry twist to that word," shinobi of the past. Their triumphs, their wars. How many kunoichi do you hear about in the Academy?"

"There's Tsunade-sama, ma'am," Sakura replied when her silence demanded an answer.

"Who was a medic," Gozen-san replied sharply. "I won't degrade her skills—they saved a lot of lives during the wars. But healing—that's been a woman's art since we came out of caves. And Tsunade-sama might seem ancient to you, but I can remember her as a child. My father never really reconciled himself to having a girl child. It wouldn't be until almost seven years after I was born that my mother managed to give him the son he wanted. And her health was never the same again."

Sakura was beginning to feel like an insect under a magnifying glass, Gozen-san cataloguing her reactions to each revelation. "I was taught very little," the old woman continued. "But I decided that only I could make decisions for me—and I was going to be everything they told me I couldn't. I grew up in a time of war, so there was always the opportunity for practice. I experimented, tested, perfected dozens of genjutsu. I was the first female operative in ANBU—they declassified my file five years ago, so it's not quite a crime to admit that now. They called me the Foxwife. And I was the best damn saboteur they'd ever seen."

Sakura swallowed nervously. "What happened?" she asked.

Gozen-san's eyes narrowed. "They tried to assign Uchiha to my squad. I'd never liked the Uchiha, even before then. Everything they saw, they thought was theirs to take. A technique perfected over a decade, copied in the space of ten seconds."

"Did they eventually force you to take one on?"

The smile widened and for a moment, if she pictured skin smooth with youth, she could see why they'd called her the Foxwife. "I married a Hyūga and he moved into my house," she said, every word fierce with victory. "The Hokage was wise enough to see that I would not stand for it, so that was it until after I retired. And then that proud, proud man—Uchiha Fugaku—decided that it was beyond time that I pass on my techniques. I was an old woman, my husband was dead, and I had no children. And who better than this magnificent prodigy that happened to be his son. Uchiha Itachi. Called it an obligation," she spat. "It was a good day the day he stormed out of this house."

"So you never taught him?"

"No," Gozen-san said, some of the tenseness leaving the set of her shoulders. "He was a strange, quiet child. After his father had had enough, he came to me in person. I was prepared to turn him down, but instead he apologized for his father's temper and his presumption. Killing his clan was the greatest favor he ever did for this village."

Sakura couldn't react at all for a moment, her brain unable to process what Gozen-san had declared as decisively as her favorite type of jam. "How can you say something like that?" Sakura managed to force out at last, not quite shouting. Her mind was awhirl with the implications of that terrible, blasé statement. 

She hadn't realized she'd half-risen out of her chair until Gozen-san said sharply, "Sit down. You were too young to remember what they were like. You have only stories and too many people are afraid of telling evil stories about the dead. For now, take it as my opinion—and I am entitled to that."

Sakura tried to swallow down the sick feeling, but it wouldn't leave her. "Did you ever teach anyone?" she asked, searching desperately for a question to ask when all she wanted to do was leave.

"Not formally. And none of my techniques in full. The closest I ever came was with Orochimaru—there was a clever, curious child."

"You—you're—," Sakura shook her head.

"A monster? Oh, probably. There comes a time when you're too old and too tired for hypocrisy and I spent my youth keeping enemies awake for nights on end with terrors. I know what I am. And I thought I knew what you were. I thought Hatake had sent you, to make one last attempt at forcing me to choose someone to pass my techniques onto before I die. But as it turns out, you're just a genin who doesn't give up when faced with a mean old lady." She chuckled and withdrew her hands to her lap. "I've found you very helpful, Haruno-chan. Until your sensei wakes up, I think I'd like to have you continue to help me. If you come back tomorrow," Gozen-san said as she shoved away from the table, "there is one rule in this house: you assume nothing. What you think you know about your village, its history, its shinobi, washed in revisionist patriotism and the need to make things fit tidily into some half-hearted morality scheme—leave it at the door."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

The hard, unforgiving ridge of Kakashi-sensei's bookshelf dug into her shoulder where she'd pressed herself so tightly in the corner, but Sakura ignored it. She ignored Ūhei, who was clutched tight against her chest, her knees drawn up on either side. Her forehead lay against the rise of his shoulders, a warm, breathing thing in her arms.

She ignored them all, because she could not ignore what Gozen-san had told her.

There was nothing worse than being told something awful about something you loved and finding no way to dispute it except primal, emotional denial.

But, now that someone had called her attention to it, wasn't it strange? An entire clan had been massacred, but it had slipped so quietly into history that Sakura had almost forgotten it. At this, her face and ears burned, recalling a few very stupid comments she'd said to Sasuke after being assigned to Team Seven. It had happened when she'd been very young, young enough that her impression of the event was limited to a sense of restlessness from the adults and Sasuke taking a long leave of absence from the Academy.

That was before her crush, back when Ino was the axis on which her social life revolved. She'd hadn't paid it any special kind of notice, any more than when Shino was sick for days at time as his body tried to adjust to hosting his colonies.

In fact, before coming to Kakashi-sensei's, she'd actually gone to the library and spent hours in front of the microfilm viewer, reading back issues of the Konoha Daily. There'd only been a week of headline articles, then it had just...slipped out of the village's social consciousness, appearing further and further back in the paper until it wasn't mentioned at all. She'd ignored the dirty look of the librarian as she'd retrieved the roll that had the edition of the paper released exactly a year after the massacre, but there'd been no mention of it.

Almost like it'd never happened.

Uchiha Itachi, she whispered to herself inside her head. She'd parroted that name back at Gozen-san, intuiting that he was someone she should have known from her tone and a vague recollection that it was a name she'd heard before. Until the papers, she hadn't realized that he was Sasuke's older brother, though reading it had reminded her that it had been a name she'd heard a lot at the Academy. And then she hadn't and not for a moment had she stopped to wonder why.

The death of a clan, fallen almost entirely out of popular memory.

Sakura shivered, wondering just what else had faded so easily out of the history she knew.

The question wasn't whether she believed Gozen-san.

 The massacre had happened. That was indelible fact.

Uchiha Itachi had been officially declared the perpetrator. That was what the papers said.

People wouldn't have put it aside so quickly if they'd been better liked, if Gozen-san had been alone in her resentment of the Uchiha. That was what deductive reasoning said.  

The question was whether or not she wanted to go back to Gozen-san, to hear whatever else the Foxwife might have to say. To live, every day, with the memories she would carry home. To hear things she didn't want to hear about her village and its heroes, who she wanted desperately to believe were good men. No, not good men, infallible men.  Her grip on that belief was already pretty tenuous, thanks to Kakashi-sensei. Who came, but late. Always late.

But if she didn't go back, some part of her mind said, that was like trapping a spider in a Tupperware container and shoving it into a cabinet. Some part of her would always feel like it had escaped and was biding its time, waiting for revenge. Better to kill it cleanly, better to know than not.

It was easy to think that, but no part of her wanted to do it, any more than any part of her wanted to step onto another battlefield. Just curling into herself like this could still make her ache in half-real, half-remembered pain. But she would, she thought as her tears soaked silently into the fabric of Ūhei's vest.

She would.


She'd cried against Ūhei until she'd fallen asleep and woken many, many hours later to find the ninken piled around her. That and a shower where she'd scrubbed herself until she was almost raw had given her enough courage to make the journey to Grandmother Nightmare's. She didn't knock on the door this time, because Gozen-san had given her permission on the third day to come inside without waiting for permission.

The old woman was baking cookies when she opened the door; the whole house smelt like warm chocolate. And Sakura was sick to her stomach as she met Gozen-san's eyes. "That wasn't the worst story, was it?" she asked her quietly.

There was nothing soft in Gozen Reiji's eyes when she responded to her question. "The worst stories are not the ones we hear as words. They're the ones we feel in our hearts. For me, the worst story...," she paused thoughtfully, and Sakura's hand slid to grasp her upper arm as she realized what it might mean, that Gozen-san had so many bad stories it took this long to choose a worst.

"The worst story," Gozen-san said at last, "is of a selfish man and a willful woman for whom many sons and daughters died, just so they could have a son of their own blood. He knew—and she knew even better—exactly the stress it would put on the seal, but they did it anyway, because they were so strong and proud and clever that they thought that it was their chance to take. But it wasn't, not in the end. So many dead, all because they didn't have the sense to adopt and raise a child of the heart, rather than of the flesh. And he died for it, but did anyone think he'd gotten exactly what he'd deserved?"

Sakura was so still she wasn't certain she was even breathing, but Gozen-san's gaze was fixed somewhere in the past. "No," she said softly, voice sharper than one of Sakura's knives. "No. They whitewashed him and what he'd done and made him a hero," she sneered. "And that is why it's the worst story. If there was anything redeeming about that terrible night, it was that at least they didn’t manage to make a martyr out of other."

 "Who was it?" Sakura breathed.

"That," Gozen-san said, "is classified."

Sakura blinked at her, feeling strangely betrayed.

"Don't give me that look, child," she said. "I am an angry, bitter old woman, but I will be a good shinobi until the day I die. And that means even bad orders are carried out. Now," she said, "the weather's nice, so I'd like you to start by airing out the futons."


Sakura had a fully grown deathstalker scorpion in a glass sealed with wax paper and a rubberband at the top in one hand, her other hand swollen and not nearly numb enough beneath layers of ice, washcloth, and masking tape when Naruto bounded back into her life.

"Hey, hey, Sakura-chan!" she heard someone call from behind her as she explained her problem to the receiving nurse.

She turned to look and found her teammate waving at her from the entrance, closely shadowed by a well-endowed blonde woman who followed him when he bolted forward.

"Sakura-chan! You'll never guess what I—," then he checked himself, brows furrowed. "Wait, are you okay? Or just here to visit Sasuke?"

Sakura stared blankly at him. "Sasuke's here?"

It was his turn to stare. "You don't...?"

"What's that in the glass there?" the woman, who was accompanied by a slighter, darker woman she hadn't noticed earlier, said as she approached.

Sakura frowned down at the aggressive scorpion, who was still trying to strike her hand through the glass. "An object lesson," she muttered beneath her breath, "about being misled by experience." When the woman raised a brow, Sakura flushed. "A scorpion stung me while hanging up laundry on the line, ma'am."

Now both brows soared, because Konoha didn't have any native species of scorpions, but then the nurse called Sakura's attention back to treatment of her throbbing hand.

And that was the first time Sakura saw Senju Tsunade, the third member of the Sannin. Konohagakure's legendary three, who might only have one among them openly called a traitor, but all of them had left the village. That was Gozen-san's first remark when Sakura brought her the news that Tsunade had returned to become the Godaime, after she'd been released from the hospital and had very grumpily returned Gozen-san's scorpion to her.

Of course, by that point Sakura was convinced that the only people that Gozen-san respected and liked were the others who had survived careers as ANBU lifers. And those were a very, very few, most of them living nearby and many of whom Sakura had met as what Gemna-sensei had intended to be a D-class mission or two overran her life. But as Sakura listened to the murmur of the village, shamelessly eavesdropping on conversations as she ran errands, Gozen-san wasn't the only one who was less than forgiving about the formidable healing skills that Tsunade had deprived the village of when she'd left. There was a lot of talk centered on how many might have been saved in the wake of the invasion if she'd been there.

Sakura had contradictory feelings about what she'd heard, read, and seen, but what concerned her more than the new Hokage was the first proper meeting of Team Seven since the invasion, which hadn't yet happened. Sasuke hadn't been released from the hospital yet, though she was going to go see him today.

It felt, somehow, like she was going to that first meeting again, back when they'd only been genin-candidates. It wasn't only that there were more dead men and scars between her and them again, though that was part of it. The time she'd spent learning not to flinch when whole passels of illusionary spiders rained down on her while changing a light bulb, Sasuke had spent in the hospital for a reason no one would tell her.

While she'd listened to Gozen-san explain that insects were effective in genjutsu because people readily believed they were real and most found them disturbing en masse, while more fantastic illusions invited the brain to realize it was trapped in an illusion, Naruto had been off on some adventure with the Toad Sage. Even Kakashi-sensei. When she'd been breaking plates while washing dishes, slicing open veins and learning that the fears that really spoke to people, the ones hardest to shake off, were the ones rooted deeply in reality, he'd had medic-nin coming by to make certain his IV was feeding correctly.

But first, she had an audience with their new Hokage. She shifted restlessly, Kakashi-sensei occupying the time as they waited with his novel, which was somehow both irritating and reassuringly familiar. She was surprised to see Shikamaru and Asuma exit the Hokage's office, Shikamaru looking deeply unsatisfied with the chūnin vest tucked under one arm.

His scowl disappeared briefly as he said, "Hey, Sakura," as they passed them.

She managed to muster a smile in return, but then Kakashi-sensei was peeling himself from the wall and she followed him into the office. She knew the slighter, dark-haired woman as Shizune now, Tsunade-sama's apprentice, but she was a little bemused by the pygmy pig that came to snuffle at her foot. The blonde-haired woman waved them impatiently further in until they stood before her desk.

"So, Kakashi," she said, "it seems you have a whole passel of extraordinary students." Hazel eyes fixed on Sakura, who struggled not to squirm. "Haruno Sakura?"

"Yes, ma'am?" Sakura responded, and it was only because of time spent with Gozen-san that she didn't squeak. If her voice was a little higher than normal, it was because the part of her brain that would forever live in the Academy regarded the office of the Hokage with more than a little awe.

"Despite the interruption of the exams, upon review of their performances, two of your yearmates received promotions today," Tsunade informed her, settling her chin on interlaced fingers. "You, however, were eliminated during the preliminaries after the second section."

"Yes, ma'am," Sakura replied, swallowing down the memory of that match.

"Normally, that would be the end of it. However, I received a recommendation for your promotion from a jounin."

Sakura's eyes automatically swept over to Kakashi-sensei, who raised a brow. "A field promotion?" he asked Tsunade-sama. Sakura couldn't quite work out the complexities of his tone.

"Yes," she replied. "The jounin was not the only one who came to me with something to say. A handful of chūnin came to me and were very insistent that it would be very embarrassing for them go on mistaking a genin for a chūnin. After that, I pulled your files." Those hazel eyes narrowed. "I was more than a little surprised by what I found. It's a record that almost seems like it shouldn’t belong to a genin brought up in peacetime, but it is what it is. As of this moment, you have the highest kill count of anyone in your graduating class, but that alone isn't enough to make chūnin."

She raised her head off her hands, lips compressed into a thin, unhappy line. "Personally, I dislike field promotions. We only see them regularly in wartime and that was something I wanted to leave far behind. But neither can I ignore the needs of my village, which will be asking a lot from its shinobi for months, likely years as we rebuild our military strength. I'd like to give you at least another year of field experience, but circumstances being what they are, I'm going to reward you for your sacrifices in the past by asking more of you tomorrow. As of today, Haruno Sakura, you are a chūnin of Konohagakure. Congratulations."

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Sakura worried at the fabric of her chūnin flak jacket as they descended the stairs in the Tower, ignoring the way she was destroying the neatly pressed creases. It would have to be sent out to be tailored regardless, general sizing not suitable for something meant to protect her life.

Kakashi-sensei glanced down at her, for once sans his novel.

Sakura bit her lip. "Do I have to wear it?" she asked him softly.

"You know you don't," Kakashi-sensei pointed out, "but not wearing the vest isn't going to change the fact that you're chūnin."

"I don't—," she fumbled for words, in the end managing only a plaintive, "Why?"

When her eyes flickered over to Kakashi-sensei, he looked grim. "You already know the answer to that one as well, Sakura," he replied, mildly admonishing. "Our effective military strength took an enormous blow. But we can't admit it. You're only the first field promotion we'll see, not the last."

Sakura nodded slowly, because that was something she did understand. Kakashi-sensei looked away from her as he continued speaking. "Tsunade-sama was very vocally against field promotions outside of wartime, back when she lived in the village. She thought that they only considered ability, without the stability or emotional maturity to use that ability well."

"Do you think she was right?" Sakura prodded cautiously.

The corner of Kakashi-sensei's mouth visible to her tilted up. "Except for when I became a genin, my rank was awarded through field promotions. But that was wartime. Field promotions couldn't really have been avoided, not without crippling ourselves. Not even Tsunade-sama would disagree with that, though she wasn't really happy about mine, but after...well, after that I met someone who never sat for an exam in his career. And when he went wrong, he took a lot of people with him," he said darkly.

Uchiha Itachi, Sakura guessed, but kept silent on that topic. She wasn't ready to discuss the massacre with Kakashi-sensei. Because that would lead to Gozen-san and the things she had to say and she wanted to keep that part of her life as far from the rest of it as she could. To pretend, just a little while longer, that it wasn't something that seeped into everything, spoiling her world of black and white with all sorts of shades of grey. And spiders.

"Do you think that I deserved to be promoted?" she forced herself to ask instead.

Kakashi-sensei didn't answer for a long time and she was almost certain he wasn't going to answer at all when he spoke. "I think things would be much easier for you if you'd had more field experience. I agree with Tsunade-sama on that. All of your missions have either been D-ranks or assignments gone sour. But while she might be hurting for personnel, but she's being careful about who she's promoting. Someone else might have promoted every genin who made it into the final round. She didn't. Instead, she promoted you, the Nara, and the Aburame boy. It wasn't a decision based solely on the exam—both of the boys also managed to detect and escape the genjutsu on their own and contribute to the village's defense, even if the Nara required a little motivation. That was probably why she decided against promoting Rock Lee, who is highly skilled but also dangerously specialized due to his disadvantages. I don't doubt that he'll make chūnin, but he'll really have to work for it."

He shook off his speculations, reaching out to ruffle her hair. "Don't look like that, Sakura," he told her. "I might not be certain you're ready, but you deserved the promotion."

She stared back. "...that makes no sense," she protested.

"I am a deeply complicated man," he told her.

She kept her gaze fixed on him a moment longer, then deliberately turned away. "Yes, Kakashi-sensei."

"Do I detect sarcasm from my student?" he asked, this time rapping his knuckles gently against the side of her head. "Though, technically, you can call me Kakashi-senpai now."

Sakura felt her stomach clench with panic at the implications of that, but Kakashi-sensei rapped her with his knuckles again. "When you feel ready," he said. "Until then, you've got a team that still needs to earn their own promotions. You'll probably be asked to take on missions without them for now, just like I will, but you're still a part of Team Seven. And even when you aren't with us, chūnin still operate on squads and aren't sent on A-rank assignments like what Wave turned out to be."

Her fingers slowly unclenched from the fabric of her vest. "I'm really glad you're alright," she said with sudden fierceness.

"I could say the same," Kakashi-sensei replied. "Considering our record and how long I was...unavailable, I'm surprised you didn't have to thwart another invasion. I want the extra key to my apartment back," he added casually.

Sakura frowned and did not look at him when she muttered, "No. You have hard locks."

"I could change them," he suggested.

"You won't," Sakura said. "And I won't tell Naruto or Sasuke where you live."

"Fair enough," Kakashi-sensei conceded after another long moment. "But you will stop alphabetizing my novels."


As they entered the hospital Kakashi-sensei disappeared for a follow-up appointment that Tsunade-sama herself had told him in no uncertain terms that he would actually appear for. If she gambled, she'd put money on him making an escape within the first three minutes. Sakura was left to shrug on her new flak vest—his advice was that it was better that her teammates find out now rather than later—and ask for directions to Sasuke's room.

The mystery of why Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke would be hospitalized—or homespitalized in Kakashi-sensei's case—at the same time gnawed at her, amplified by the fact that everyone had refused to tell her what was wrong with either of them. And she'd seen Kakashi-sensei, who hadn't had wounds of the visible and gaping kind. That left either poison or genjutsu, but knowing that brought only more guesses.

Kakashi-sensei would never tell her, but Sasuke might.

But Sasuke was going to be...displeased. She winced at her own understatement, because Sasuke was going to be furious and Naruto was going to be upset, but she did think that Kakashi-sensei was probably right. Just as he'd been when he'd forced her to confront the reality of Sasuke's chakra nature and all the ninjutsu of his clan. Better now, in the relative safety of the village, than in the field. 

It didn't really make the prospect any more pleasant.

When she came to the room she'd been directed to, she double-checked the room number and spent several minutes straightening her clothes and smoothing her hair. Anything to delay actually opening the door, but at last she slid it open with a quick, decisive movement.

And found nothing. No one, she quickly amended, because the covers of the bed were tossed back in such a way that suggested someone had gotten up in a hurry. All her nervousness transmuting to irritation, Sakura considered where they might have gone. They likely hadn't actually left the hospital—Sasuke wasn't Kakashi-sensei after all—but she couldn't actually see Sasuke intentionally loitering in public spaces like one of the waiting rooms.

She bit down harder on her lip as she considered how likely it was they'd gone somewhere that wasn't a public space. Sasuke might drop honorifics, but he didn't usually go out of his way to break rules. But as far as Naruto was concerned, as his record at the Academy had proven, doors meant to keep him out were mostly a suggestion. More than one of their instructors had asked him snidely if he could read.

With that in mind, she had an idea where they might be.

Her eyes skittered nervously over the corridor as she slunk to the stairwell, easing the door shut. It would be just her luck if Naruto and Sasuke had come through without anyone noticing and someone caught her on the way up. She wasn't like her blond teammate; she didn't have much experience with being in trouble with adults. And, despite how pathetic it seemed, she still felt that same nervous pinch in her belly when she thought about being yelled at.

For all the dead men between her and the Academy, she was still in many ways that good child who thought rules existed for a reason.

But she made it safely to the rooftop and found the door that led onto the roof not quite shut all the way. She would have crept out cautiously—it could have been a member of the staff after all—but she heard the sharp, unmistakable shriek of kunai grinding against one another.

Sakura darted out, but even as two familiar figures came into sight, she heard another sound. The sound of a thousand birds chirping, they'd said. Chidori.

And there was Naruto, the air in the palm of his hand twisting and distorting, and both of them were roaring, Sasuke swooping down like a bird of prey and Naruto reared back like something too large for Sasuke's talons to close on. She didn't recognize Naruto's attack, but in the instant she had to perceive the battle, she knew he thought it would be a match for Chidori, else he'd have turned to his clones. This wasn't a friendly fight, she thought numbly. This had turned into a death match.

Her irritation tangled up with her fear and it spilt over into movement. Her eyes saw everything, slow as a flower blooming, her body swift as the strike of lightning in that moment. Sakura's hands closed well behind their wrists, but the crackling energy of Sasuke's Chidori leapt the gap and she screamed as her muscles spasmed involuntarily and they both slid free of her grip.

She'd half turned, just enough that their hands drove into the roof rather than each other, Sasuke's wrist sinking in elbow deep while Naruto's hand left a twisted crater in its wake. Sakura could only stare, chest heaving with unsteady breaths, one hand clutched tight over the aching trail of Sasuke's attack. "...what were you thinking?!" she demanded in a shrill voice, backing away from both of them.

"Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked shakily, picking himself up.

Sasuke had to struggle more to pull himself free, but his eyes widened slightly when they landed on Sakura.

"You could have killed each other," Sakura said numbly. "You would have killed each other."

"It's not—," Naruto's half-hearted protest died in his throat. "I didn't mean for it to go that far," he said instead.

Sasuke's eyes flickered toward Naruto, dropping to the crater at his feet and lingered there with such intensity Sakura wanted to flinch away from him, then back to Sakura. "...what are you wearing?" he asked her, voice harder than she'd ever heard it.

Sakura forced herself to lower her hands, though there was stinging, burning welt all along one arm from the path of the electrical energy. She tried to ignore it and the part of her brain occupied in reliving just how close she'd come to knowing the same kind of force that had once pierced Gaara's sand. She straightened her back and tucked in her chin and said, "My chūnin vest."

Sasuke's eyes narrowed, but Naruto's reaction was far more flattering. His jaw dropped briefly, but then a wide grin swept across his face. "Obā-san promoted you?"

"You were eliminated in the preliminaries," Sasuke said sharply.

"It was a field promotion," Sakura replied.

Sasuke's eyes were accusing and Sharingan red. "You weren't even there for the fight against Gaara," he growled. "Why would you merit a promotion?"

"Hey," Naruto interjected, "that's not fair, Sasuke. You know Sakura stayed behind so that we could reach you in time to save your scrawny butt."

Sasuke's lips twisted in a snarl, but Sakura snapped, "Stop it. Just...stop," she said, more softly. "We're already going to be in trouble for the state of this roof. Don't make it worse. What were even fighting over, anyway?"

"The fact that Sasuke's an idiot," Naruto grumbled.

"As far as I'm concerned," came Kakashi-sensei's dry voice, "you're all idiots."

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto said eagerly, while Sasuke and Sakura stayed silent.

Kakashi-sensei's single visible eye swept over them, taking in the scene. "Well," he said. "This one I've got to hear."

Chapter Text

When no one immediately spoke—Sakura was cringing in anticipation, Naruto shamefaced but stubborn because Sasuke wasn't speaking, and Sasuke wearing the iciest expression he could muster—Kakashi sighed. "Fine. We'll do it your way," Kakashi-sensei said flatly. "Sakura, when your teammates have decided that the best way to settle their differences is a public duel, I don't care about the property damage you caused seperating them. That'll come out of their pay. Is your arm alright?"

When she hesitated, glancing over at Sasuke, who was pointedly not looking at her, he ordered, "Go have someone look at that."

"Now?" Sakura asked, because though it hurt, she'd been really hurt before. And this conversation seemed like a very important one.

His single visible eye narrowed, but when she tucked in her chin and met his stare mulishly, he relented. "I suppose you're owed just as much of an explanation as I am, since you're the one who ended it. Now, who wants to tell me why it seemed like a good idea to use lethal techniques to settle your differences? I didn't teach you Chidori to have you use it against your teammate, Sasuke, any more than Jiraiya would have taught you that particular technique if he'd known what use you'd put it to, Naruto. I don't care if you lost your temper. I don't care that you didn't think—that wouldn't have made either of you any less dead if Sakura hadn't interfered. From the moment you step past the Academy doors, you're taught to respect your weapons, that they're tools, not toys. Ninjutsu isn't any different."

"Yes, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto agreed miserably, staring down at his hand and then clenching it into a fist. "I...I wasn't thinking. I was just so pissed. But it won't happen again," he promised. "Because...just 'cause you didn't mean it doesn't mean anything, not if someone gets hurt."

Kakashi-sensei spared the remorseful genin a brief smile. "There are always accidents during training and no will hold those against you, but that is one technique that is never appropriate to use during sparring." Naruto, glancing down at the crater he'd left, winced and nodded.

Attention turned to Sasuke, whose eyes were shadowed by temper, not regret. He scowled at Kakashi-sensei, lips barely parting as he muttered, "Got it."

Kakashi-sensei's brow rose. "Really?" he queried. "Then I suppose you won't mind walking Sakura down and explaining why she has minor electrical burns?"

There were clear lines of tension in Sasuke's jaw as he stalked toward the door. Sakura wasn't certain whether she was meant to follow, but when he reached the door, he turned and gave a look that was a silent demand to follow. She trailed him silently, Naruto staying behind with Kakashi-sensei. She could hear the low, indistinct murmur of their voices as she followed her dark-haired teammate down the empty stairwell.

Once Sasuke had made her uncomfortable through sheer embarrassment, too afraid of looking less than her best to ever really be at ease with him. Now—now it was unease that made the hair on her arms prickle as their footsteps echoed, the stairwell creating a sense of intimacy despite the people that were just on the other side of the doors. She'd feared fire first and conquered that fear, but now it was Sasuke himself. Or, perhaps, a Sasuke less than himself. Sakura couldn't forget him in the grips of that seal and though she couldn't see that livid, living tattoo peeking from under his collar, the look on his face as he'd launched himself at Naruto bore an awful resemblance to the one he'd worn back then.

She was occupied with considering the idea of never really feeling safe with Sasuke again when he spoke. "Thank you," he grunted, almost too soft for her to hear.

Sakura didn't have to ask him to clarify. She still didn't feel comfortable, the scent of sweat and ozone too much for that as he paused to let her catch up, but she felt better, lighter somehow. Team Seven might never be Team Ten, but there was still time for them to find their own balance.


Sakura had just gotten her vest back from tailoring when she received the notice from the mission office. Zipping up the vest and settling it as comfortably as she could manage over her habitual outfit—she wasn't going to wear the standard uniform unless it was a formal occasion—Sakura was surprised to find that her trepidation was almost swallowed by her eagerness to not see the reminders of the recent invasion whenever she stepped out the door.

Also, a mission would distract her from the fact that her mother was coming home. Just for a little while on leave, but it would be long enough. Sakura didn't know if she could or should tell her about everything that had happened since she'd become a genin—she'd been worried enough that her daughter had already made chūnin. Proud, yes, but worried, just as she'd been when she'd heard about Sakura's team roster. Her mother's team had drifted apart when two of its members had taken support positions and the other had been absorbed by another team undergoing similar growing pains as young genin found career paths they wanted to follow. Her father's team, by contrast, had remained intact.

The Sakura first assigned to Team Seven had thought she'd follow Sasuke anywhere, but now, a little more battered and a little wiser, she could read between the lines of her mother's letter and see that Mebuki had hoped that she'd find her calling a little further from the battlefield. Her mother clearly knew what a field promotion implied. Konoha had taken her heaviest casualties among her field shinobi. With this promotion, without a noncombat specialization, her career as it stood ended in an urn or as a jounin.

Sakura bundled all that up and set it aside as best she could as she reported to the mission office. The Hokage herself was giving mission briefs this morning, which gave Sakura an additional incentive to nervousness above and beyond the absence of her teammates. Shino was there, however, and Tenten slid in the door only moments after Sakura. Sakura's brows soared even higher when Hinata peeked around the door, then was gently shoved inside by Ino.

The five of them—well, alright, the four girls—stared curiously at one another as Tsunade-sama finished briefing an older team on a C-rank. When the door had closed beyond them, they were waved forward.

"Well," Tsunade-sama said, resting her chin on her interlaced hands, "here's your first taste of a mission outside of your genin team, without any jounin to supervise. I'll do broad strokes for you. The details will be provided in the mission packet. There's a ryokan in the south that's been having some trouble with a group of bandits that have moved into the area. We suspect the bandits of having some ninja training, because local law enforcement hasn't been able to track them back to their base. It's a small group, no more than ten, and on the grounds of the inn they've confined themselves so far to making lewd comments to the nakai and demanding food be prepared and served. But they're growing more aggressive about harassing the girls and recently the travelers they've been accosting aren't just being robbed, they're being badly beaten as well. In our last communication with Gion-san, it was done basically at her doorstep. So, before any of her nakai are raped or any of her guests murdered, Gion-san commissioned us to take care of her problem.

"You three genin are going to replace the nakai, several of whom have returned home until the problem is taken care of. A ryokan's reputation is its lifeblood, which is why Gion-san isn't willing to let her service of what guests are still coming to suffer while we get the rest of it straightened out. In theory, you're young enough that even if the bandits think that you're shinobi, they won't consider you a threat. Your leads for this mission will be Aburame and Haruno, who have the responsibility of tracking the bandits, restraining them, and turning them over to law enforcement. Understood?"

A somewhat ragged chorus of affirmatives answered the Hokage, who nodded sharply. She plucked a manila folder from the chaos of the desk and proffered it. Sakura glanced over at Shino, who tilted his head toward the Hokage. So it was Sakura who went forward to take the folder. Weighing its weight in her hand, she suggested they adjourn somewhere else to go over the details and was met with ready agreement.

The thought of facing ten men might have made her more nervous with a different partner, but if they only suspected that they had ninja training, she had some confidence that Shino's kikaichū would at least negate their ninjutsu. It worried her a little that they were only supposed to subdue them, but she'd cross that bridge when they came to it.

Once they'd left the Tower, it was Ino would took the lead, finding them a neat little café whose walled courtyard offered them almost total privacy this early in the morning. Inside the folder were printed packets for each of them, Sakura and Shino's different from the others, and a handful of photographs and topographic maps of the area. They studied the information in relative silence—Ino badgering them for their orders and reciting it faultlessly back at the waiter when he appeared—until everyone had read over the data at least once. Sakura, by virtue of practice, apparently read faster than anyone else and she'd only read it over a second time out of habit. Her memorization scores were even better than Ino's.

"This sounds like it might be fun," Ino offered. "Well, for the three of us, at least."

Tenten grinned. "I have to admit, there hasn't been much call for dressing up on my team's missions before. I haven't worn a kimono since kunoichi classes, though. Unless you count yukata."

"No worries," Ino reassured her. She flipped her long ponytail back over her shoulder with her hand in an exaggerated movement. "We'll have your feminine wiles up to par in no time. And Hinata-chan should be even more used to kimono than I am, right?"

Hinata flushed at being addressed directly and ducked her head. "Yes," she answered in a small voice. 

"If it comes to looking demure in anything, I'd take Hinata-san's advice over Ino's," Sakura confided to Tenten. "Ino always managed to look one photographer short of a glamour shot whenever we did formalwear—It was the only thing our kunoichi instructors ever criticized her about."

"I can't decide if that was supposed to be an insult or a really backhanded compliment," Ino retorted. "Hinata-chan, you do already own cosmetic contacts, don't you?"

"Yes," the girl replied, more firmly this time. "Do you have to wear them too, Ino-san?"

"Not for the same reason you do," Ino said with a smile. "I'm unlikely to be kidnapped or anything, but if I want to pass as a civilian, my eyes are kind of a dead giveaway."

Sakura glanced over at Shino and asked tentatively, "Do you think we'll have trouble with our end of the assignment?"

She'd never been close to the shinobi in the Academy, finding the idea of bugs living beneath his skin too much for more than politeness, but that was before she'd watched spiders drip down out a leak in the ceiling. Sakura was far from liking them, but she was confident she wouldn't embarrass herself or him by shrieking.

"There should be no issues," Shino responded after a moment's consideration. "Weighing their numbers and what intelligence we have on them against our collective skills, barring unexpected circumstances, we should find them only a moderate challenge."

Given how closely Shino's analysis paralleled her own, she wasn't surprised to find her own confidence buoyed, though she winced at the mention of unexpected circumstances. When they dispersed to pack their own supplies, Sakura and Ino were left to walk home together, which was deeply nostalgic. Especially as Ino was clearly anticipating the mission, but away from an audience she was quieter than most people suspected. Social engineer, moodmaker, trendsetter, all those things were true, but that wasn't all that she was.

They walked in almost-comfortable silence for a long time, but then Ino spoke. "I'm glad," she told Sakura. "We never really got to work together much in the Academy when we started running practice scenarios, because, well, you don't want to put the first and second ranked kunoichi on the same team. And we don't really hang out anymore. I miss that," she said, tone turning wistful. "Mom and dad keep asking if we've made peace over the Uchiha and wondering if you'll start coming over to eat again. I've tried coming to your house to ask, but you're either ignoring me or you're never home."

"Not ignoring you," Sakura responded. "Even when we were fighting over Sasuke, I couldn't manage that. I don't think anyone could," she said slyly, which made Ino grin. "I just--I'm busy and the house feels empty with dad still gone. I do training sessions in the morning, then if I'm lucky there's a solo D-rank open for me. If not, I go to the library. Kakashi-sensei is a huge fan of assigned reading, because it's like training me but without any effort on his part. Then there's this one old lady that I've been helping out in the afternoon. I was doing D-ranks for her for a while, but now I just go," she admitted.

What she didn't admit was the amount of time she'd spent lurking in Kakashi's apartment while he'd been in a coma or that the old lady was a large part of the reason she didn't want to be alone in her own home.

Ino eyed her until Sakura shifted uncomfortably. "You should come over once we get back," the blonde said. "I know that you've seen and done things that I haven't yet, but I don't think that's a good enough reason to let you deal with it by yourself. I let you try to end our friendship once over Sasuke and I shouldn't have done that. And I shouldn't have just let you walk away the last time, either," she remarked. "You know you could always talk to my Dad, if you need to talk to someone. He's super-good at keeping secrets."

"In the job description?" Sakura offered in an echo of an old joke.

"In the job description," Ino confirmed with a grin, but it faded quickly. "You don't look like you're sleeping at all, Sakura. And trust me, your looks need all the help they can get."

Sakura scoffed. "I'm fine," she lied.

"Uh-huh," Ino replied in the tone of the unconvinced. "Right, well, I'm just going to go pack. Are really going to wear that vest with that outfit?"

"For now. All the extra pockets might make up for the fact that it is likely the most unflattering thing I've ever worn. At least until I can afford a sealing scroll. I didn't realize how expensive they were."

"You're bending space-time with chakra," Ino pointed out as she stopped at the door to her house. "You think that would come cheap?"

 

 

 

Chapter Text

As Sakura walked beneath the great gates that led out from the village, she experienced a pang of anxiety and had to master the sudden need to look back at Konoha for reassurance. Wave was an anomaly, like one of the great trees falling while you happened to be standing under it. Tragic for you, but if it happened to everyone no one would go walking in the forest.

She fretted with her new, freshly laundered shemaugh—grey with olive drab—and tried to convince herself that she'd met her quota of missions gone bad. She didn't really believe it, which was why she'd tried to anticipate what might go wrong. She had enough kevlar cord stashed in her vest pockets to rappel down the village's walls, she'd packed extra rations and a spare canteen in her backpack, two canisters of a tear gas mixture were a reassuring weight in another set of vest pockets, with one of a sleeping gas solution on the other side—these with internal pressurization and she'd thought to pack a mask and spare herself the sore throat—and she'd brought along her blunted practice kunai from the Academy in an effort to comply with the subdue order without resorting entirely to hand-to-hand.

Her chakra-enhanced strength could make the advantages of greater height and weight nil, but while she could punch hard, her control wasn't to the point where she could trust it would be just hard enough. For now it was a matter of all in or all out, which was fine if her aim was to irreversibly rupture something. Though even her 'all in' didn't even begin to compare to what real chakra-enhanced strength could be like. Tsunade-sama's first temper tantrum in the practice fields had evoked a strangled kind of awe, because it looked more like the work of a natural disaster than a person. She'd handily won the concession she'd wanted from the Council, at least according to the rumors that had whipped through the village.

She glanced to one side as Ino gave a pleased sigh, her arms stretched high above her head, sunlight making her blonde hair shine. The girl noticed her look and grinned. "Oh, come on," she inveigled. "There are literally days before we arrive. That gives us plenty of time to be somber and serious later. Today the sun is shining, it's my first C-rank mission without the two doofuses I've been paired with since forever, and we are being useful to our village in a way that doesn't make me feel like I'm still an Academy student."

"She makes good points," Tenten said with a laugh. "Now, if you can keep that attitude up after a day in the trees, I'll be impressed. We are taking the treeroad? Not running, right?"

Shino turned toward her, his high collar and glasses making his expression difficult to read. "For what purpose would we run? In terms of weighing energy efficiency against speed of travel, the treeroad represents a stamina forgiving mode of travel without significant loss of speed."

"Just asking," Tenten responded. "Guy-sensei is a fiend. He makes us run everywhere—I swear, some days I think someone told him he's training a team of courier-nin."

"That sounds awful," Hinata ventured timidly.

"Well, some days it is. But in the interest of fairness, I am a fantastic long-distance runner by this point. And I never have to count carbs."

"Lucky," Ino said in good-humored envy. "But no thanks. So, to the trees, oh fearless leaders?"

Sakura scoffed, but Shino ignored the sarcasm. "Yes. There is no reason to delay and every reason to press forward."

Being in the trees didn't hinder the steady ebb and fall of conversation, though Shino contributed only rarely. Not because he didn't want to intrude or felt unwelcome, Sakura thought or at least hoped, but because he didn't have anything of note to contribute and Shino didn't do idle conversation. It was an easy three-day trip by the treeroad to their destination, which was located on the peninsula, almost on the border between Fire and Tea. On the evening of the second day, when they were approaching the area they'd tentatively identified as the thieves' territory, their squad split. Tenten, Ino, and Hinata would spent the night as civilians at a waystation and continue by themselves on foot, while Sakura and Shino kept to the trees and pressed ahead.

They scouted the road as they went, not willing to chance the others facing an ambush, but the roads were clear and Sakura caught her first sight of Miyakowasure, which was a large, gracious-looking inn that abutted the ocean. It wasn't a straight drop down into the waves, but rather a stepped series of rocky shelves that someone had thoughtfully carved steps into. Unwise to visit in unpleasant weather, but with today's waves only lapping contently against the lowest shelf, it was no surprise to see a yukata-clad guest staring out over the water.

The height of the trees dropped sharply and changed composition as they came nearer to the ocean, but the forest never disappeared entirely, the manmade elements blending almost seamlessly into their surroundings. The titular tea flowers were blooming in profusion around the landward side of the inn where there was protection from the salt spray—all in all, it shot a bolt of envy through Sakura, who would be camping out for the duration.

But then again, she reminded herself, she'd much rather be a guest than part of the staff. She'd never had any natural grace at most of the kunoichi classes, ikebana memorably included, though through hard work and Ino's assistance—and that of Ino's mother—she'd mustered sufficient skill to see them through. She shoved away the thought that serving guests didn't normally include being involved in a fight weighted against her in terms of numbers, concentrating instead on how terrified she'd always been when she'd had to mind her sleeves and stride length aside from whatever task she'd been asked to do.

Though they didn't have any reason to believe that the inn was under active surveillance—Gion-san might have paid for their services, but the attacks had focused on the roads—Shino swept the grounds with his beetles. Sakura tried to avoid staring or averting her eyes as the insects crawled up the backs of Shino's hands to disappear inside his sleeves, but her mind was attempting mathematics of the unnerving kind as it tried to calculate how many beetles could reasonably be concealed by Shino's heavy clothing.

A lot, came the answer, but she stopped that line of thought when she started imagining she could hear the rustle of their movement and the clatter of tiny mandibles. Genjutsu came in two forms, invocative and evocative—to be truly good at the first, Gozen-san insisted, you need an imagination with an eye for detail. Which was well and good, Sakura reflected darkly, until you found that you were scaring yourself silly.  

She came out of her thoughts to find Shino staring at her and she flushed. "There appear to be no hidden watchers," he reported. "We should make contact with Gion-san."

"Yeah," Sakura replied awkwardly, letting him take the lead as they made for Gion-san's office. The interview with the client that followed was brisk and professional, the lady just as elegant as her house, and she had kunoichi-class composure.

She'd given them fuller details on the attacks, and when Shino had left to suss out the best locations for their daytime post she worked with Sakura in identifying the precise location of the attacks on their topography map. When Sakura left with just as much care as she'd taken coming in, she had a moment's anxiety before Shino dropped down from a nearby tree.

"The males can follow the pheromone trails of a female," he explained at her unspoken question, adjusting his sunglasses on the bridge of his nose. "I planted one on you earlier. I did not ask your permission. Why? Because I thought you might be irrationally upset. My observations in the past revealed an unfounded fear of insects common among females, though perhaps preferable to the male response which uses violence to cover a similar unease."

Sakura frowned at him. "I'm more upset at not being asked than the beetle. I'm not in any danger of squishing her by accident, am I?"

"She perceives and processes visual information three times faster than the human brain, so that significantly reduces your chances of crushing her," Shino reassured her. "Judging by the behavior of the males, she's in the folds of your scarf, just behind your right ear."

"Just so long as little insect feet are far from bare skin," Sakura said, ignoring the instinctive ew factor, noticing only now the pinkie-nail sized beetles tracing patterns in the air near her head. "I haven't completely mastered my involuntary swat reflex."

Shino nodded gravely. "Understood."

He led her to the sites he'd scouted and they settled in after they briefly visited the site of the most recent attack. They discovered it wasn't incompetence on the part of the local police, who'd tried to use dogs—a recent rain in the area combined with basic track concealment skills meant there wasn't much to go on as their targets had sufficient ninja skill to travel by the treeroad.

 Shino directed swarms of a dozen beetles each to settle in the footpaths, road, and among the branches of some of the likely trees. They'd return immediately if they were disturbed—or that was his explanation of what he was doing when he caught Sakura staring. As he'd been completely silent, doing nothing more than staring intently at his hands, which had been covered in beetles, she was more than a little unnerved. Carrying out instructions that complex was more credit than she'd given to Shino's swarm.    

Living proximity traps that would escape the notice off all but the most observant—she could see how that might be very useful skill to have on a team like his.

For her part, she studied their newly embellished map and spent the afternoon establishing a search area. Ideally there would be another incident and they would have a fresh trail—otherwise they were going to attempt to follow that thoroughly sketchy trail and would need all the assistance they could get.

She was tucked close to the trunk of a tree, her shemaugh tied over her distinctive hair, when the other three girls made their appearance. All three had changed into casual civvies and took the time to really admire Miyakowasure, Ino's voice drifting up to her perch. Another strike of envy, this one harder to shove away. But she did, eventually, one hand coming up to sweep her fingers along the slick raised ridge of her latest scar. Next week she saw the specialist again.

Shino was different from both of her teammates—he hardly even shifted for hours at a time, but whereas Sasuke probably wouldn't have initiated conversation if they'd waited a week, on their second day she found him in "her" tree. His attempt at conversation was...awkward. And Sakura finally understood after knowing him for the better part of a decade that his speech habit of asking questions and answering himself was at least partially a nervous tell.

He wasn't like Naruto, who could natter on forever, or Ino, who could conjure conversational topics—he was instead bluntly interested in how much she'd changed from the Academy and the experiences and training that had caused it. The way he phrased it made it seem less like a personal interest than a kind of scientific curiosity, as if he'd identified a kind of caterpillar only to be surprised at what emerged from the cocoon.

No matter why he wanted to know, Sakura wasn't about to share. She tried to be polite, but she was afraid all her words had slightly jagged edges.

So she was therefore very surprised when he tried to use a very basic tactic—reciprocity—to draw it out of her. They were three days in without so much as news of the bandits, though they were going to give it one more day. According to the pattern, they were almost overdue for another attack. By this point, Sakura was immensely tired of waiting in trees for something to happen and was on the verge of thinking that perhaps Kakashi-sensei's bring-a-book mentality wasn't far off the mark.

Not porn, though. She was nowhere near that desperate for entertainment.

"The speculation that all my beetles dwell inside my body is erroneous," Shino commented, which tore her out of contemplating how uncomfortable tree branches were as prolonged seating."Only the females nest inside my body, which causes the males to swarm. If you were to attempt to host an entire colony, even a small one, your muscle structure would be so compromised as to be nonfunctional. As it is, space inside the abdominal cavity is limited, which creates a limit on how many beetles I can host. Much of my physical training is devoted to improving my core strength, so that my abdominal wall provides sufficient protection."

Sakura half-turned to glance at him, but as he was on the opposite side of the trunk, she could only see the edge of one sleeve.

"...like bees?" she ventured.

"No. You're thinking of worker bees, which are non-reproductive females except in exceptional circumstances when a hive becomes queenless. The females are more intelligent and they do coordinate the males, so it not an unreasonable comparison, but it has significant shortcomings in understanding the social structure of a kikaichū swarm."

Sakura made a thoughtful noise in the back of her throat. "...wouldn't this be considered an Aburame clan secret?"

"No. This would be clear upon close observation to anyone with reasonable deductive skills. Making the symbiosis functional and breeding the kikaichū to possess desired traits would be considered secret—something has disturbed several of the treeroad swarms," he said, shifting instantly back into a professional mien.

Sakura tensed but didn't move to look immediately—the human eye fixed on movement quicker than it did shape. She saw the flight of beetles returning and very slowly shifted so that she could catch glimpses of bodies moving through the trees. She could hear them too, which was reassuring as a measure of their skill level. When they were well past, Shino and she slunk closer to Miyakowasure. Laid out along the length of a branch, Shino somewhere below her, Sakura got her first decent glimpse of their targets through her field glasses.

Judging by their silhouettes, they were all male, and slighter of build than she'd expected. Young? her mind posited. That might make sense—dissatisfied young men who didn't have the skill to be promoted but had plenty of skill to terrorize civilians. Even Konohagakure lost track of a few genin and would-be genin each year, a number that had spiked exponentially in the wake of the invasion.

She couldn't confirm her guess as to their age, because they all wore grinning oni masks that only exposed their faces below the nose. Her grip tightened as she saw Gion-san exit the inn to greet her "guests," trailed by three familiar fellow genin. They trust you to do your job, Sakura reminded herself, now trust them to do theirs.

Hinata put on the most convincing show of being cowed, but she did it almost too well. One of the bandits strutted up to her, tugging at her bangs hard enough to make the blue-haired girl wince. Ino's nature wouldn't let that pass without comment, which earned her a hard backhand, but one of the men—the leader?—snapped something at the man who'd struck her. He stepped away, though the one who was speaking to Hinata stepped closer to her and said something that made the girl blush ferociously.

And then they were inside and Sakura could only wait and hope that nothing went wrong inside, because her mission was very clear. She felt the branch she was on shift and turned her gaze away from the view provided by her field glasses to find Shino crouched just behind her feet.

"Here," he murmured, pulled something from his one of the cavernous pockets of his jacket. With another glance toward the inn, Sakura let her feet drop to either side of the branch and shoved herself upright. Tucking her field glasses pack into her pouch, she reached out to accept what he offered.

"Zip ties?" she whispered back.

"With a flexible metal core," Shino confirmed. "Why? Because it requires metal snips to remove, making escape unlikely. My mother specializes in live retrieval."

"Thanks," Sakura said, surprised by the gesture, but Shino had already dropped back to his branch. Sakura tucked away the handful of zip ties, which fit awkwardly into her own pockets.

Each of them had taken one quick bathroom break by the time the bandits emerged, which left them immediately prepared to follow. Shino's females had positioned themselves near the inn's exits, which made it an easy task for them to drop unnoticed onto the bandit's clothing. They waited until there was a sufficient distance for stealth and then Shino led the way. It was a longer journey than Sakura had anticipated, almost on the edge of the search grid she'd established.

There were no recorded cave systems in the area and no houses, so they were surprised to see that the entire group slipped inside an almost invisible crevice that looked like nothing so much as an elongated natural sinkhole. Once inside, they were equally astonished to find a vast, linked serious of rooms the size of a warehouse. "What is this place?" Sakura asked so softly that she doubted Shino would hear.

But he did. "They say that during the Third War," he murmured, "they had Doton users create a series of hidden fortifications all throughout the land of Fire. The location is odd, but perhaps this is one of them. When the war ended, no record of their locations were ever made public. And likely they didn't find it necessary to maintain the ones in noncritical positions."

And then there was no more conversation as they traversed the ceilings, hearing the conversation of the bandits from the third chamber of the complex. Sakura retrieved one of her canisters from her vest, but Shino's hand descended on her wrist. There was just enough light to make out him shaking his head and she realized that in chambers like these, with unknown and likely limited ventilation, her partner wouldn't be able to provide support.

But that wasn't what he had in mind, she discovered as he inched closer. "Let me secure the room with the swarm first," he murmured. "They can prevent escape and hasten the collapse of our targets."

Sakura nodded and couldn't help a shiver as her closeness allowed her to feel when Shino's swarm poured from sleeves and pockets, a huge mass of softly rustling elytron that swept like an ominous cloud into the next room. She waited patiently for Shino's signal, securing her gas mask and combat glasses, sealing the second. Her "sleeping gas" mixture was isoflurane-based, the cheapest and most generally available inhalational anesthetic except for the flammable ethers that were still fairly popular for situations that carried less of a risk of sparks. Though that might have seen a quick end to the bandit problem, even if it made her stomach twinge at the thought. She didn't expect it to actually put anyone to sleep—If  she increased the concentration or if the room was significantly smaller than this one she was running the risk of outright death on the part of the bandits because the invention of a 'safe' sleeping solution was something that would make someone's fortune—but she did expect it to significantly relax muscles and reduce reaction time.

When Shino's signal came, her reaction was instant, pitching in the canister and herself only seconds later. One hand swept to a blunted kunai while she kept the other one free and the following minutes were a blur of limbs and weapons and action.

They weren't good enough to sell their skill as mercenaries, for all their having learned to hide their trail. That was Sakura's first irreverent thought as her opponents tried to combat both gas and a winged enemy that was feasting on their chakra, leaving them with only sluggish weapon and hand-to-hand skills. It was the first mission in which Sakura felt that the Academy's training was more than adequate, though it was tricky to navigate through the sheer number of opponents.

The blunted kunai disappeared from use as she used both hands to fix zip ties on a downed opponent, shifting to avoid the clumsy strikes of another bandit, whose hand she caught and secured in the instant after the first was secured. It was a pattern that continued until all of the bandits were captured, though the shallow, erratic breathing of a few of them were enough to make her nervous.

All that remained was for them to do after that was to send for the police, Shino sprinting off while Sakura used her chakra-enhanced strength to get the men up out of the bunker, their spoils following them up by the time the local authorities had arrived to take custody of them. At least two required immediately medical attention, but Sakura's guilt was tempered by the knowledge that part of the responsibility lay with Shino's chakra-hungry beetles and the irrefutable fact that it had been the easiest, quickest, cleanest way to deal with the problem.

She wouldn't even have any new facial scars to show for it, though one lucky bandit had opened up a long gash on her arm.

They reported their success to Gion-san, who rewarded them with a fantastic dinner and a night at Miyakowasure. Sakura had a chance to tease Ino, who was obviously eyeing a handsome blue-haired apprentice chef, and enjoy a long, relaxing bath. By the time she woke the next morning, in a clean, fluffy futon which smelt like fresh herbs, she was almost giddy with the success of the whole thing. All the bandits had survived the night, no one had gotten badly hurt, even if Ino had bruised, and she had a commemorative photo that featured the four girls in yukata around a table spread with a course of their kaiseki dinner, two on either side of the coat-clad Aburame.  

That feeling of triumph buoyed her all the way back to Konoha, where they delivered their report directly to a grim-faced Tsunade-sama. When she'd dismissed the others, asking Sakura to stay behind, the frisson of unease that had prickled the back of Sakura's neck when they'd been directed to the office of the Hokage transmuted to a full-body chill.

"Yesterday, Uchiha Sasuke defected to Otogakure."

Chapter Text

"I...don't understand," Sakura forced through lips that felt as if they'd gone numb.

Tsunade-sama interlaced her fingers and rested her chin on them. "When Orochimaru approached your teammate, he was flagged as a flight risk. Given his kekkei genkai, a high-priority one. At the genin level and even in some chūnin specializations, there are officially recognized methods of transferring your citizenship to another village. In Konohagakure, that includes an interview with a Yamanaka to determine just how much sensitive information you intend to take with you. Jounin are ineligible for this and there are some kekkei genkai we cannot allow to leave this village. The Sharingan is obviously one of them.

“The chūnin assigned to that particular patrol district had instructions to check the Uchiha's home and verify his presence. Toward dawn, they found him absent and his mission gear missing. At that point, I had two options. Send a proper retrieval team to return him to the village no matter his feelings on the matter or send a group of his agemates in an effort to convince him to return of his own accord.

“I am aware of how Orochimaru works," she told Sakura with just a hint of wryness. "He is very good at sowing confusion, doubt, and using just the right touch of physical force to manipulate a situation. In the long-term, dragging the Uchiha home would have fed into any persecution complex that Orochimaru erected. So I gambled on getting his willing cooperation. And lost," Tsunade-sama admitted gravely.

"I underestimated how badly Orochimaru wanted him. Usually, making it to him is a test in itself. If you can't make it to him, you aren't worth his time." There was a distant, reflective look in Tsunade-sama's eyes. "That's just the way he's always been. But this time he sent retrieval teams. If there'd been fewer of your agemates or if they'd been less skilled, it could have been a disaster. As it was, no one died, but Uchiha Sasuke belongs to Otogakure now."

"This was...yesterday?" Sakura asked, her voice strange and quivery. Because she remembered yesterday, all pretty clothes, delicious food, and the uninterrupted view of the ocean.

"Yes," Tsunade-sama confirmed. "You'll need to do an interview. Inoichi-san has volunteered to conduct it himself. If you were aware of his intentions, helping to conceal them is a crime against the village."

Sakura shook her head slowly. "I knew he was unhappy," she whispered. "And I saw—," her hand traveled up to clutch at her neck where Sasuke's seal had lain quiescent. She swallowed. "I was there, when he met Orochimaru. I still didn't think—I don't understand why he'd join him."

Tsunade-sama only gave her a bitter, twisted smile and dismissed her to her interview with Ino's father. When that was over, Sakura plodded to the hospital, her eyes fixed on her feet. She'd expected her thoughts to be loud and tangled, but they were silent and still. Sasuke was gone, that was the one thing that mattered. For all that he'd made her uncomfortable and afraid, he'd loomed so large in her life until these past few months that thinking of living without him was like contemplating life without the sun rising in the morning.

She stood for long minutes outside the room with the placard for 'Uzumaki Naruto', sharply reminded of the last time she'd come to visit a teammate in the hospital. Was that fight part of the reason he'd left? She couldn't wrap her mind around that idea. Orochimaru had said he'd come to him seeking power, but hadn't that fight showcased plenty of it? Sasuke's Chidori, Naruto's Rasengan—if you weighed one against the other, they would both kill a human just as dead for all that one left a bigger impact crater. And she'd been promoted to chūnin in her first year out of the Academy.

Team Seven had been poised to become the most powerful combat squad of their generation. Even if Sasuke had taken it in his head to go hunting Itachi—her deductive reasoning skills were intact enough to realize that once she'd swallowed the uncomfortable fact that Sasuke's stated life goal was murder—their team was powerful and capable. Though the village might never have authorized a mission against Uchiha Itachi, they would have followed Sasuke. She could see it in her mind's eye: using village intel to establish a search area, taking just enough leave to accomplish the mission, a hunt made swift by the ninken.

That was all so many shattered ideals now, she recognized as she slid the door open.

"I tried to bring him back," Naruto burst out the moment he recognized who'd stepped into the room. "I did," he protested before she could say anything, hands clenched tight on his cover.

"I know," she replied simply, which made some of the wildness fade from his eyes.

"You...you do?" he blurted.

Sakura frowned at him as she made way to a chair, scooting it next to Naruto's bed. What kind of person was she in Naruto's eyes? "Yes. Tsunade-sama and Ino's father explained."

Naruto nodded slowly, then his eyes fell to his hands and stayed there. "I'm sorry I couldn't bring him back for you, Sakura-chan," he told her.

"It was Sasuke who chose to leave," Sakura replied. Saying it was almost painful, like chewing needles, but the truth was like that sometimes. Gozen-san had shown her that, told her that sometimes it was like trying to drink a cup full to overflowing with fire ants—difficult and bitter to swallow.

She glanced up from her contemplation of her own hands to find Naruto staring at her. "You're not mad at me?"

"What right do I have to be mad when I wasn't even here?" Sakura asked him bitterly.

It was Naruto's turn to develop a perplexed wrinkle in his brow. "How would you know to be here? Did he tell you he was going to pull a dumb-ass stunt like this?"

"I just—," Sakura struggled to find the right words to express something that sounded stupid even as it coalesced. "I just should have known. If you love someone, you're supposed to be able to tell if they're about to turn traitor. Or at least you'd think so. Sasuke never told me anything," she finished softly, betrayal rippling like a sour note in a symphony through her words.

"Well, I like you, Sakura-chan, and I thought you'd be yelling by now, so I guess we don't get everything right," Naruto offered gamely, though his grin was crooked.

"...I never understood that either," Sakura admitted. "I've never been nice to you, Naruto."

That crooked grin faltered and then fell away entirely. "I guess not. But you were polite when we first met. Not "nice," I guess, but you treated me exactly the same as the rest of the class. Later, when you were annoyed at me, I could tell it was me annoying you, not that weird scum-on-my-shoe thing that everyone else was doing even when I hadn't done anything to them. That I knew of," he clarified, his expression so soberly thoughtful that it was almost like looking at a stranger. Then he grinned again, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "And you're cute."

That earned a weak smile. "I can't believe I'm about to say this, but you can do much, much better than someone who's genuinely annoyed by you," Sakura replied. "I won't ever find pranks that cause property damage funny or think that breaking the rules and getting promoted to the next class regardless is something daring instead of irritating. But the world is full of people. Ones we haven't even met yet, as my mother keeps telling me. I am your teammate, Naruto. Maybe, one day, we'll be friends. But I don't think I'll ever like-like you."

Naruto grimaced. "I guess I knew that. And your mom was right, you know. There are plenty of other pretty boys that aren't Grade-A assholes. I guess. Somewhere."

"...I can't believe we're having this conversation," Sakura said with a wobbly laugh, the first warmth of tears blooming behind her eyes.

Naruto nodded, his own eyes suspiciously watery. "You're really not mad?" he asked tentatively.

"I'm really not much of anything. Mostly sad, a little convinced that this is just another nightmare. Angry will come later, I guess. But you almost killed yourself trying to bring Sasuke back."

Naruto visibly hesitated, then glanced up at the door. "Not that you can tell," he told her, voice tempered with his own bitterness. "They'll discharge me this afternoon. I—about the Forest of Death, I'm sorry."

"What do you mean?"

His hands were clenched in his covers again. "It just seems stupid now, but it wasn't like anybody ever got really, really hurt during training at the Academy. I just thought it was like that for everyone. It hurts and you suck it up until it doesn't anymore. Here, look at my hand," he said, thrusting it toward her.

Glancing up at him from beneath raised brows, Sakura did as he asked. "What am I looking for?" she asked at last, finding it unremarkable. It looked the way a hand ought to look, but then it dawned on her what she wasn't seeing. "This is the hand you stabbed, isn't it, back on the way to Wave? They removed your scarring?" Tight-lipped, Naruto only looked at her expectantly, so she reached forward and ran questing fingers along skin so smooth that Ino would have had a fit of jealousy. "You don't have any scars," she remarked in surprise. Not even the tiny ones that accumulated from a lifetime's handling of weapons, no matter how careful you tried to be. "And you hardly have weapon calluses."

"See?" Naruto said. "That's what I didn't realize, back in the Forest. I didn't start putting it together until I saw how long it took you to heal and how bad your scarring was. I don't heal like you do, so I don't hurt like you do. Sorry, Sakura-chan. I didn't know."

Sakura just sort of gaped at him, but then she forced her jaw shut, her thumb stroking over unscarred knuckles one last time before her hand retreated to her lap. "So you have some sort of regenerative bloodline?"

"Something like that," Naruto muttered.

"That's," Sakura searched for a word, "useful."

"That's it?" Naruto demanded. "Just, "That's useful"?!"

"It also makes me feel even less guilt about hitting you upside the head, which pretty much puts it in the negative," Sakura informed him irritably, gritting her teeth only slightly as she tried to keep her temper in check. "I have lived my entire life surrounded by classmates who have abilities I won't ever have, just because they happened to be born into the right clan. My family has served, fought, died, and passed unremembered into history from the founding. When I was younger and when I was still having a hard time at the Academy, it used to make me angry—angry enough to say terrible things to my parents and my grandmother," she confessed grimly. "I blamed them for being perfectly unremarkable people."

"...that changed?" Naruto questioned softly, probably wary of Sakura's temper.

"When she was dying, my grandmother told me that it was an opportunity. That whatever I made of myself, I wouldn't have to live in the shadow of my clan's name. My name would be my own, my achievements my own, and that I could pass that legacy forward, until there was some child far, far in the future wondering how she'd ever measure up to her ancestress. I didn't really believe her, but it made me realize that I didn't want to live my whole life dogged by jealousy. It was only making me miserable, because it was something no amount of wishing could change. So, yes, it's useful, like the Byakugan, the Sharingan, or any of the secret clan jutsu."

Her tone was slightly snappish, because for all her speech and best intentions, it was difficult to be generous when faced with things you couldn't have. She was trying though; sometimes it was the effort that mattered.

She was rewarded by a sheepish grin. "Yeah, I guess so," Naruto conceded. "I just wanted to prove them all wrong, that I would amount to something no matter what they said about me, and I didn't need any fancy clan name to do it with."

"Well," Sakura replied sheepishly, "it did help that I consistently ranked in the top three of our class."

Naruto snorted. "Yeah," he said again. Then, more softly, "Yeah. Um, Sakura-chan?"

"Yes?"

"You know, after this, when I'm released from the hospital, Jiraiya wants to take me out of the village. For training."

"You don't want to go?"

Naruto shrugged. "Granny Tsunade already said she's not going to send more ninja after Sasuke. And the Ero-sennin didn't sound like it was really a choice. He's mostly an idiot and a pervert, but I guess that you can't really say he doesn't deserve to be part of the Sannin. But with both me and Sasuke...away, what will happen to you?"

It was her turn to echo the gesture. "I'm chūnin, Naruto. There'll be missions. Composite teams, like the last one I was on." She bit her lip and swiped hastily at a tear that spilled down her cheek.

"Hey," Naruto said, leaning forward and catching at her hand, "we'll get him back. I promise."

Everything about his body language told her that he was in earnest, that he really believed in what he was saying. "If all it took was dragging him home, Tsunade-sama would have sent a jounin to do it," she whispered, arresting the path of more tears. "He comes back and then what, Naruto? We can bring him back to the village, but only Sasuke can decide to stay."

His grip tightened on her hand and in that moment was a silent understanding. That Naruto would try regardless.

Chapter Text

[storgē]

With Sasuke...gone and Naruto now absent on his training journey, Sakura lived in a perpetual state of nervous anticipation for all that she'd acted blasé in front of Naruto. The missions were a certainty; her relationship with Kakashi-sensei was far more uncertain.

It wasn't unheard of for jounin to take on individual apprentices, but there was a special process for that. Sakura didn't have any illusions of being so specially gifted as to merit the complete attentions of a jounin as storied as Kakashi-sensei even under normal circumstances, nor was she skilled enough to not be a serious liability on the kind of missions he'd need to take on now that Konohagakure needed the kind of income A-rank missions brought.

And she was, after all, chūnin. Technically speaking, she was a working ninja now—what she learned would be from her seniors, not from a teacher. It was entirely possible that they'd only place her with a more experienced team and that would be the end of it. Team Seven would become nothing more than a memory of failure.

She hardly ever slept in her bed anymore—the western-style piece of furniture was too much "sacrifice on altar" for the abused limits of her imagination—but it was still her favorite place to think, especially when there was sunlight spilling in through her window, warm as an embrace. Her knees were pulled tight to her chest, back supported by the wall, and her forehead pressed to one of her knees.

Even though the time she'd haunted Kakashi-sensei's apartment had been very brief, she missed it terribly. With eight dogs, there was always someone begging attention, or food, or just proving remarkably tolerant of intermittent petting. Not like here, where the emptiness of the house below seemed almost to echo, her thoughts too loud and too uninterrupted to prevent the slow encroach of a miserable depression. Kakashi's couch might have been a nightmare, likely older than she was and with an almost magnetic property where dog hair was concerned, but she'd trade that perch in an instant with her tidy bed and all her sunlight.

She hadn't seen any of them, sensei or ninken, since he'd left on his last mission.

Sakura tightened her grip, pressing her head harder against her knees. She needed to stop this and she knew it, but she wasn't any more able to stop the first trickle of tears than she would have been able to hold back the tide.

It was worse than not having teammates, worse than being just the one left behind. One of them was a traitor. She was still struggling with the idea, but others didn't have the same conflicted feelings. Today, a woman on the street—a perfect stranger, cheeks flushed with rage, eyes full of unshed tears—had come to a dead stop right in front of her and hissed, "I hope that your former teammate gets everything he deserves. My brother died when that snake came and then that boy," the word was so full of rancor it could have been a curse," just hands Orochimaru the most valuable bloodline this village has."

It was only the opening salvo of a stream of potent vitriol and Sakura had been powerless to do anything but stand there, pale-faced and trembling, as she closed her eyes and wished she could just flee. But some part of her brain had recognized that since Sasuke's defection wasn't a secret any longer, this was just the first of these conversations.

Somehow Gaara—who wasn't only a jinchūriki, but also the son of the previous Kazekage—had gotten embroiled in the whole thing, and the genin who'd been sent in Sasuke's retrieval had belonged to large and prominent clans. Their families had been more than a little curious about what had hospitalized so many young prodigies, especially as they hadn't been informed that they were about to be sent out on a mission. With that many people involved, and enough shinobi more than capable of noticing when Uchiha Sasuke never showed his face on the streets again, the news spreading was only a matter of time. Tsunade-sama had taken preemptive action and announced it very gravely herself.

Once she'd been so, so proud to be part of Sasuke's team. She'd gloated about it to Ino. Now she almost wished she'd been assigned to some other squad, that she'd only ever watched him at a distance—and had her heart broken at a distance too.

Eventually, someone had taken pity on the young genin, gently steering the now-shouting woman away.

Sakura had fled at the speed of shunshin.

She was so busy trying to stop the tears, she almost didn't notice the shift of the mattress. But almost was not the same as not, and she glanced up sharply to find that it was Kakashi-sensei perched on the edge of her bed.

His brow quirked in a question, but Sakura only ducked her head, trying to wipe away the evidence of her fit of tears. So she had no forewarning, only recognized the press of warm fur as Bull's weight was significant enough to tip her forward into the wave of dogs who leaped up onto the bed and were competing for space to press cool noses against her bare skin. There was no speaking, just a rather embarrassing bit of strangled snuffling on her part, but soon they'd teased her out of the worst of her misery, especially when Shiba started "assisting" by lapping at the tear tracks down her cheeks.

"Thanks, everyone," she murmured, answered immediately by a unanimous tail-wagging.

"No problem, Sakura," Pakkun reassured her. "It's the obligation of leading men to show up at times like these."

She blinked at him, then turned a questioning look to Kakashi-sensei, who told her, "In this case, Pakkun is your leading man. I was going to at least take a shower first."

Pakkun scoffed, but only grumbled something about the smell of sweat, steel, and knife oil that she couldn't quite make out.

Sakura ran thumb and forefinger over Pakkun's velvety soft ears. "It was an honor to learn from you, Kakashi-sensei. I—I wish it could have lasted longer."

She hadn't thought to say it after she'd first made chūnin, too busy trying to wrap her head around the idea that she'd made chūnin at all, but the sentiment would have been just as earnest then. Kakashi-sensei might never have been there when she felt like she'd needed him most, but he was always there to pick up the pieces and help her glue them back together into something stronger.

"Just for that comment, you should expect an extra twenty minutes on tomorrow's walk," was Kakashi-sensei's immediate reply.    

Sakura blinked at him. "But without Sasuke and Naruto—without the team—chūnin and jounin hardly ever work together."

"Lots of people manage friendships without being on the same team," Kakashi-sensei pointed out dryly. "And jounin work in pairs."  

[cleithrophobia]

"If you have to go to the bathroom, go, otherwise quit squirming and ask," was Gozen-san's exasperated comment as Sakura scrubbed at the planks of the porch. Konohagakure might not have vicious extremes in weather, but mold was a yearlong problem. The plan was to scrub the porch free of mold and re-seal the boards, which was straightforward, but less straightforward was her reaction to Gozen-san's silence on Sasuke.

Sakura bit her lip and pressed harder on her brush, using her body weight to drive the bristles deep in the worn boards. "Could you use genjutsu to brainwash someone?" she asked. "Or a seal?"

""Brainwashing," you say. That would be a technique and a half," Gozen-san said with a chuckle. "And if it existed, it would be a kekkei genkai, and the family would be slaughtered as soon as could be managed. The rest of us make do well enough without something like that. With time and the right resources, you don't need genjutsu to change someone's mind. There wouldn't be spies in the world if it wasn't possible to turn people into assets. It's an art, almost like a really good massage. Once you know the stress points, it's just a matter of applying enough pressure. Still, you can't exploit what isn't there. There is a good deal of skill involved in picking your target; of knowing who will bend, who will break, and who will simply take you, if you are not careful. The best never even bother to lie—you just have to show them a different kind of truth. I assume this is related to your Uchiha brat; you've never showed an interest in coercion techniques before."

"I actually thought you'd say something," Sakura admitted.

"I have said something. Not to you, no, because I believe that when you speak, it should do something useful. In my capacity as a former ANBU captain, I submitted a recommendation to the Hokage that the Uchiha be eliminated before he grows up to be more than a nuisance."

Sakura took a long moment to gape at Gozen-san, whose expression looked as if she'd done no more than recommend a particular recipe or something equally mundane, not just admitted she thought that outright killing Sasuke was the best solution. Some part of her mind finally ventured, This is her mundane.

Another, far more melancholy part recognized, This is my mundane, one day.

But not today, she thought fiercely. Today, she was allowed to be a little bit horrified at the comfortable finality of Gozen-san's assessment.

She almost didn't notice the heat at first, radiating up from the porch planks, because her eyes were on Gozen-san. Who was seated in that single rocking chair, moved to the far side of the porch, her hands busily crocheting. But when she glanced down, little tongues of fire were licking off glowing, charred wood. Sakura made a strangled sound in her throat, but the little inhalation was full of dry, dry air and smoke, which had her choking.

"During the Second War, there was a year in which we had a very nasty drought here in Konoha. Usually we have more than sufficient rain and even if we don't, there are plenty of rivers. Not so that year. And what rivers didn't dry up, they diverted in places as far from the village as they could manage. A clever man in Iwa had decided that our forest could become our pyre—we lost thousands of acres to that blaze and came closer than most people know to losing thousands of human lives.

“It had already crowned when we arrived. They had wind-natured shinobi both enhancing the blaze and dispersing the smoke, so it was almost too late by the time a watchtower noticed. As it was, it was like walking into hell on earth," Gozen-san said thoughtfully. "Humans are fascinated by fire, but when it becomes a beast so wildly out of your control, there is a deep, primitive part of the brain that can only react with fear." And on her last word, Sakura's world blazed.

[oikophobia]

It wasn't just that Kakashi-sensei appeared whenever he liked to continue her training, though he insisted on being treated to a meal afterwards and he was much more expensive than Naruto, but she was almost certain that he was using his influence to put her with specific teams. Unlike her first mission, the last two she'd been on had seen her appended to established teams and she'd had just a single day of downtime between them.

She had her suspicions as to his motives. Sakura didn't have a noncombat specialization, which meant that she was going to be the "muscle" on any purpose-built team. And her muscle wasn't that impressive just yet, though she thought she'd done well with Shino. With a proper team, it would have mattered less. Without one, she needed both strength and utility, otherwise she'd find herself at the mercy of Konoha's needs.

On the mission she'd just returned from, she'd been part of a five-man squad who clearly didn't really need her, though she'd been of an age with the person they'd been hired to escort. Very putatively, she'd been the girl's body double for a few dicey stretches of road. It was their field medic who'd approached her, taken her under his wing temporarily, making conversation about the medical specialization just as the head of the force recon unit she’d taken the other mission with had explained about acquiring and collating data and coupling that with their resources for effective action.

Sakura would readily admit that medical jutsu seemed tremendously handy. She had every intention of expanding her required reading and maybe asking Honda-san for guidance if she couldn't manage with books and animal "volunteers".

But when she'd come to the cold realization that Tsunade-sama's medic program required her to stay out of the thick of combat even when it wasn't a matter of protecting the client, she'd known she couldn't become a field medic. Not only did it take a special breed of cold rationality to watch your teammates take the brunt of the damage without putting all Kakashi-sensei's lectures on teamwork to good use, but she just wasn't that brave.

It was strange and counterintuitive, but for her standing still, fighting only defensively, was balancing on the edge of a dangerous precipice. One little misstep would lead to the kind of retreat that had nothing to do with regrouping and everything to do with running away.  Every mission was first a battle with herself. And taking that step forward, exposing herself to pain, to injury, to possible death, that was winning the battle. If she just stood, if she just watched, safe and insulated in her role, she knew there would come a point where she wouldn't be able to take field missions at all. The fear would win, complacence having eroded the fear of shame, the pride and the patriotism that let her move forward despite it all.

When you only watched the backs of others, she thought it would be very easy to think, No one would notice. It might start small. Less eager to rush in, slower to take chances. Until it became no one would notice if I didn't come at all. She was coming to know herself uncomfortably well. It wasn't a stretch anymore to imagine herself rationalizing herself right into a role far from the field.

And despite how much she did not want to be there sometimes, that felt like a betrayal. Of who, she couldn't say, but it was anchored as firmly in her head and her heart as the fear. She liked to think it was more than just pride, that she'd deeply internalized the teamwork component of Konoha, but the pride was there, the inescapable weight of other people's opinions propping it up whenever it flinched.

Whatever it was, if these were Kakashi-sensei's hints about where her possible talents might lie, she was more than half-convinced she was crazy for favoring force recon. In wartime, not only were they expected to perform limited recon functions deep in enemy territory, they were expected to carry out limited scale operations without support, then vanish like shadows in sunlight. In peacetime, their specializations were extraction, hostage recovery, and kidnapping. Missions that required them to move fast, silently, and improvise.

It sounded like every nightmare mission she'd ever participated in, so she hoped that time would bring other missions. Other options.

Sakura was so involved in mulling over a future in which she voluntarily placed herself in that position that she was entirely surprised by the presence of someone else in the house. Treading lightly over the floorboards, she padded toward the kitchen and the soft sounds of something that she didn't actually think was a home invasion. It was more than likely just Kakashi-sensei pillaging snacks that weren't out of date at this time last year.

So she wasn't prepared for the sight that greeted her. "Mom?" she gasped, remembering only belatedly that she'd known she was coming. Somewhere upstairs, there was a calendar on which the date had neatly written down and then circled a time or twenty for good measure.

Haruno Mebuki turned and her eyes widened at the sight of her daughter. Sakura was suddenly, fiercely glad that her appointment with the specialist had gone well, her face once again unscarred. She didn't even think she looked particularly bad, but of course her mother hadn't seen her for some time. And Sakura doubted it was the few poor inches she'd gained since graduation that held her attention. She realized one hand had gone to clutch at the opposite arm, the other dropping to rest comfortably atop one of her knives.

It was a defensive posture and she tried to force herself to relax it, to throw herself into her mother's arms, but it was like her feet had sprouted roots while she wasn't looking. So it was her mother who closed the distance between them, folding Sakura into her arms. The gesture brought back her childhood, carried on her mother's scent and in the safety she'd always found there. One of her mother's hands came up to cradle the back of her head, navigating her sweaty, tangled hair with ease.

"Oh, Sakura," her mother breathed.

"Mom," Sakura mumbled into her mother's shoulder, almost choking on all the things that needed said. But for the moment she just clung to the one woman left in the world who could make things better by just being there. Her Baba could have done the same, maybe even better, but she was long gone. Gone, gone, gone—like her mother and father had been for most of her life, like Sasuke, like Naruto.

Everyone always left her behind.

She hadn't cried, not really, since she'd heard the news. But suddenly she was sobbing and couldn't bring herself to stop.

[vestiphilia]

Sakura hissed as she dabbed the rubbing alcohol towelette against the wide, ragged scrapes that decorated one of her legs, deep enough that she was dribbling blood. It looked like she'd been severely underestimating the abrasiveness of tree bark all this time, but she was now thoroughly schooled in the fact that not all of Konoha's forest was as forgiving as their smooth-barked Fire beeches.

Mariko only watched, hands resting comfortably in the pockets of her sleeveless hoodie and looking cheerfully unrepentant. "This is why sane people wear pants," she told Sakura, voice rough with laughter. "I'm actually a little surprised that your legs don't look as if you live with a rabid housecat."

 Sakura took a moment from her task to scowl at the older chūnin, who'd been the one to bodycheck her into a tree.

That only made her grin widen, Rie's tail beating out an eager tempo against loam. "I'm just suggesting you don't ruin your best feature before you have a chance to make use of them."

"Best feature?" Sakura repeated dumbly.

"Sure. A cute face gets you noticed in the Academy, but once you've hit puberty? Eyes tend to trend elsewhere. You've already got great calves—how much do you run, seriously?—but I bet you're going to have fantastic legs once you've got some height. I've met your mother, remember, so I wouldn't hold out much hope on the chest angle. Genes, y'know, can't win against them. Unless you're going the path of Tsunade-sama. There is no way those things are natural, not unless she's got some children stashed away somewhere. Body fat just does not do that."

"Why are we talking about this?"Sakura asked.

"Girl talk," Mariko said. "Very important part of life. Right, Sakuya?"

Sakuya and his teammate Chiasa—who was an unfair combination of fantastically pretty, genuinely nice underneath some tsundere speech patterns, and really skilled, none of which was lost on Sakuya—had been pretending deafness from the moment Mariko had mentioned puberty.

Sakura had thought Kiba was crude in school, but it turned out to be a clan-wide frankness that very probably had something to do with their canine companions. With that frankness amped up into a late-teens chūnin, there had been some very uncomfortable conversational lines crossed.

One of Mariko's teammates had resigned, while the other had found a noncombat specialty, leaving Mariko to head a team of chūnin whose teams had been similarly dissolved. That made her a fantastic resource, someone willing to talk about practical choices and who hadn't taken the prodigy route through her career. She was also an eager sparring partner who wasn't above explaining the best ways to counter her own attacks. Best of all, unlike Kakashi-sensei, Sakura also didn't have the sensation she was allowing Sakura to have the upper hand whenever she managed to take it. 

But, god, sometimes she was embarrassing. The last time their little coterie—Mariko, Rie, Sakuya's whole team, and others who'd been in the stands during the invasion—had made it out to dinner, Sakura had thought she'd have to invent a jutsu that let her melt into her chair. Ranking the, ah, 'posterior assets' of men wasn't a conversation she thought she could survive more than once. Sure, Sakura and Ino had giggled together over boys, but it had been more of a general thing. He's cute, he's not, maybe noticing his eyes or his hair, not a breakdown of someone's body so complete as to be a rubric for attractiveness. It had only gotten worse when she'd attempted to wrangle Sakuya and the other boys into the conversation, proving either confident enough or flexible enough in her sexuality to turn her sights on women.

The other chūnin trended four to five years older than her; sometimes hanging out with them made her feel special and much closer to adulthood, but sometimes she only felt tremendously awkward and out of place.

"As flattered as I am to be included in this 'girl talk'," Sakuya said after a long pause, white brows rising incrementally, though his voice was as smooth as ever, "I think I'll choose the "staying silent" option."

It was Mariko's turn to raise her brows. "Does that mean you're coming with us when we take Sakura shopping?"

"Hey," Sakura protested sharply, "I think you skipped the step where you asked Sakura if she wanted to go shopping."

"One word. Pants."

[bibliophilia]

Sakura balked when she saw the store, but Kakashi-sensei's hand clamped down on her shoulder. "Ma, ma, Sakura-chan," he drawled, "Is something wrong?"

She tried to splutter an answer, but before she could, she found herself inside, the door closing behind them with a decidedly ominous sound. Sakura made a small, hunted eep and Kakashi-sensei's hand closed tighter.

It was a lot more crowded than she'd imagined, but it only stood to reason. These people were here for the same reason that Kakashi-sensei was, after all—today was the release of the first press of the Icha Icha Paradise movie. Or at least that was what she assumed from the promotional signing. Only Kakashi-sensei's hand was serving to keep her from bolting for the door.

"Why don't you look around," he suggested in a voice that suggested it wasn't a suggestion at all. "While you're waiting. I'm going to get in line."

And with a firm pat on her shoulder, he abandoned her. Her eyes darted for the door, but she obeyed, skulking closer to the shelves so she wouldn't seem so out of place. She was very purposefully not looking at anything when a voice asked, "Can I help you find something?"

Sakura nearly leapt out of her skin as she stammered, "No, no, I'm not looking for anything!"

She turned to see an almost disappointingly normal clerk regarding her with faint amusement. An almost disappointingly normal female clerk, with pretty, tea-colored hair and kind brown eyes. "You're a girl," Sakura said without thinking. It almost came out as an accusation.

The amusement deepened. "Strangely enough, women enjoy smut too," she said. "Though we usually demand a little more in the way of plot. We only carry a limited video line and as books are almost the only escape from the male gaze, most of our customers are actually female when there isn't a new Icha Icha release. Is this your first time here?"

"I'm not here," Sakura responded immediately. She pointed to Kakashi-sensei.  "I'm here with him."

The clerk, whose tag read 'Akemi', followed the line of her finger until she encountered Kakashi-sensei, who noticed them and waved. Cheekily. Akemi chuckled. "Ah. Hatake-san. If he's here for the release, you'll be awhile. We won't be giving out copies for another three hours."

Sakura's shoulders slumped. She'd thought Pakkun's reprisals for failing training goals were bad. Now she knew better.  

"Are you sure I can't help you find anything?" Akemi asked. "You're free to browse, but that can be a little dangerous if you're...sensitive," she settled on after a significant pause.

Sakura just stared blankly at her for a long moment, before raw curiosity triumphed over social conditioning. She had certain expectations about stores like these and the books and things in them, but this clerk defied them. So she wanted to know. "What about...something with a strong kunoichi?"

"Ah," Akemi said thoughtfully. "That's your taste, then? I think I can recommend something."

Sakura followed her obediently, but with growing trepidation. Akemi finally came to what she was looking for, pulling from the shelf one of novels. She expected one of those damning, blandly colored slipcovers, but she was surprised to find it much like the light novels she'd borrowed from the library before Kakashi-sensei's reading assignments had taken over her life. Sakura still accepted it like she might a live snake and tried to not look too closely at the cover. Tentatively flipping it over to the title page, she was instantly transfixed by the first illustration.

A kunoichi—tall, slender, elegant, but wearing the uniform of an ANBU without any salacious alterations—had a shinobi caught up easily by his collar, his feet clear of the floor, her body pressing his aggressively against the wall. She was smirking, and his face was turned aside, but a blush dusted the ridges of his cheeks. He was sleekly good-looking, all artfully tousled dark hair and pretty eyes. Though it was just the first plate, Sakura suddenly felt a wash of respect for the illustrator.

The title was Tsunami to Tsundere-kun.

"It's the first in the series. It was meant to be a stand-alone novel, but it was so popular they serialized it," Akemi said. "The female lead's just been promoted into ANBU and she clashes with her teammates, because for this overly convoluted reason, their squad isn't formed with a captain declared outright and they only have a short window of opportunity to decide who gets the captaincy. You'll figure out pretty quick that Tsunami's abilities are based on Tsunade-sama's and there are some great scenes where she uses that monstrous strength to flip the usual gender-roles. You know, the ones where the man pins the women in place to finish a conversation, that sort of thing. Neko-kun there is the focus of the first one, but all the members of her team have at least one novel that focuses on their development. And the later ones that feature Ookami-kun, who's her main rival, are really good too. And it's pretty vanilla throughout the series so it's good for a..first-timer." The last word was said with a hint of laughter and Sakura flushed.

"So long as you stay out of The Cherry Pit, you'll be fine. Pure love's pretty popular with kunoichi, so they're separated out by citrus content. Then, for our customer's convenience, they're sorted by relationship type—see the little placards on the shelf? If you're in a yuri mood and don't want to wade through the heteronormative sea or if you can't stand yoai, you'll find it much quicker and won't be in for any unpleasant surprises in the last twenty pages. Then they're sorted by author's last name, of course."

She led Sakura back to the end of the shelf, which was papered with a light green gingham and featured an anthropomorphized lime grinning at them. Others shelves kept to the cute gingham prints and big-eyed fruit, which explained why the store was called Lemon&Lime—the enormous ones over the registers had the byline 'It's doki-doki time!' The Cherry Pit she'd referred to was a walled-off section where a staff member stood sentry. It had not one but two anthropomorphized fruit—the Bitter Cherry section was apparently to the left, the dark burgundy fruit equipped with smoldering gaze, while Sweet Cherry was on the right, far more playful looking. It was apparently the home of the entire Icha Icha series.

Her first instinct was to thrust the book back on the shelf and pretend she'd never seen it. But...

"Hatake-san has an account here," Akemi said with a grin. "I'd say he owes you one. And we have a little reading café, just beyond the registers there. I recommend the Orange Dreamsicle float."

Sakura's first instinct was a no thanks, but somehow she found herself in ownership of the novel. And by the time Kakashi-sensei had emerged, she had every intention of owning all of them.

And in this way, a new fan was born.  

Chapter Text

[centophobia]

Sakura had a growing Box of Shame stashed beneath her bed, though her parents were gone again and her Tsunami novels weren't half as shameful as Kakashi-sensei's Icha Icha series. Tsunami hadn't so much as kissed Neko-kun, Hebi-kun, or Usagi-kun in the three books she'd read, but the sheer tension was enough to leave her blushing. And quite enough to assure that outside Lemon&Lime, she didn't read them outside the privacy of her own room.

That third novel had been a consolation prize to herself after a disastrous three-week mission. A sunny southern isle, full to bursting with plant and animal life—it should have been pleasant, but whether it was the fault of bug or bacteria, Sakura had spent most of the mission very sick. The kind of sick that involved haunting a bathroom for days on end; by the time she'd come home she'd lost almost seven pounds. As it turned out, regardless of her former thoughts on dieting, it wasn't weight she'd needed to lose.

The only redeeming point in the whole mess had come near the end. While the team she'd been appended to had been completing the actual mission—they'd been hired to protect a building site from criminals the islanders had been exiling into the forest for years, who'd finally overcome their differences long enough to raid the supplies for a temple restoration that it had taken the entire village almost a decade to gather the money to fund—she'd gotten several very hands-on lessons about the use of a blowgun.

Using poisoned darts to hunt monkeys in the trees might be a practical method of hunting on the island, but she'd seen the utility of it for wider applications. Once she'd come home, she'd found a synthetic version that could be unscrewed into short sections and Hasekura-san had found her a pouch that sat horizontally at her beltline—unlike senbon, a blowgun could be used in almost complete stillness to the same effect.

And since Fū had first introduced her to poison, she'd discovered that the world was a far more inimical place than even her Academy classes would have had her believe. Something as harmless seeming as a grub could be used to kill if it happened to be the progeny of a diamphidia beetle—not that she'd choose that particular one, because that particular toxin took its time and ended in fevered delirium. Local frogs had provided the toxins to kill the monkeys she'd helped hunt; almost half of the flowers that resided in Ino's mother's shop had some sort of toxic component. Judging by her reading, every second animal and third plant in Suna was in some way toxic. It was almost mind-boggling, but it was for the moment her "light" educational reading.

Her serious reading involved the introductory texts of the medic-nin course. It hadn't exactly been difficult to discover what the training curriculum was and while the books had been expensive, her mother had been more than pleased to purchase the textbooks for her before leaving again. For Sakura's birthday, she'd said, and Sakura had silently accepted the fact that her mother wouldn't be home for it.

She still hadn't seen her father since her promotion, which wasn't to say he hadn't been back to Konoha; their missions weren't allowing them overlapping days at home. He'd resorted to leaving her notes posted all around the house—on the cabinets in the kitchen, on the bathroom mirror, once a whole conversation's worth of text around the frame of her door. It had been work being equally clever in responding to them.

But it was nice, the silliness, because while the Academy curriculum had been easy enough that Sakura hadn't needn't to really apply herself—she'd spent more time admiring Sasuke than reading their handouts and still managed the highest scores in written work—the medical jutsu was challenging even in the groundwork stages. A good kind of challenge, though. Safe, relaxing, almost. Compared to what she put her body through physically and what Gozen-san did to her emotionally, it was reassuring to be naturally good at something again. Only time would tell if she would feel the same way once she moved on from endless memorization and chakra exercises to actually attempting the techniques.

[agraphobia]

Sakura wasn't quite certain why Gozen-san owned a half-dozen futons, as she never had any guests, but the woman made her air them out regularly and refresh the sachets of dried herbs that kept all the drawers and closets of the house sweet-smelling. So far, the futons hadn't spewed out bugs or burst into flames or had a texture not unlike stroking nettles, so Sakura was uneasy. 

And apparently that was easy to read from her expression, because Gozen-san chuckled as she came even with Sakura, her arms full of herbs that had come out of her garden and had been carefully dried on her porch. "Ah, the look on your face. Sometimes it isn't the illusion, it's the expectation of it that's important. The right mood," she said with a small, quirked smile.

"You know there are two types of genjutsu. Invocative, which you control. And evocative, which you draw from the mind of your victim. Your Magen: Narakumi no Jutsu is of the latter type. It's gentle enough, as those things go. Once, when we were in the field and didn't have a Yamanaka or Uchiha handy, we had to interrogate a young kunoichi. Time-sensitive. So we made implications, but no real threats, made our body language just so, and waited until the light was just right—and then I loosed the kunoichi's imagination. We did it too well and I didn't stay to supervise, which was a mistake. She brutalized herself so badly that she went into shock."

"What—what did you do?"

"Well, she wasn't high value enough to keep as a prisoner, so once our window of opportunity to obtain the information closed, I killed her," Gozen-san replied. "There's few injuries so difficult to heal as the ones you can inflict with genjutsu."

[euphobia]

Sakura had been laboring under a grueling mission schedule for months—sometimes with her peers, very occasionally leading squads, but mostly joining more experienced chūnin squads—but now she was receiving a more permanent assignment.

She had tangled feelings. Resentment, because this assignment drove home the fact that Team Seven was scattered to the four corners and might never find its way together again. Excitement, because she was eager to find a place to belong again, to wrap herself in the comfort of a group identity. Sasuke might have sneered, but belonging was important. Ino's shadow had kept her safe from Academy tormentors; being included in Team Seven had been something to be proud of. She was tired of being pitied and shouted at in turns, ready to associate herself with something different even if it felt a little like a betrayal.

She wasn't being assigned to another four-man cell, which made it slightly better. Konohagakure's chūnin ranks had been in disarray after the invasion. And what with mission demand, there hadn't been the luxury of carefully considering how to put all the broken pieces back together. Instead they'd been using conglomerate teams, like the one they'd assembled for the mission to Miyakowasure.

Tsunade-sama had slowly assembled new specialized teams, until the number of unaffiliated chūnin had shrunk to roughly the same levels as they'd been pre-invasion. But rather than continue to assemble teams herself or put more pressure on the mission office, Tsunade-sama was gathering the rest into twelve person units under the supervision of an experienced chūnin who would accept missions and assemble teams from their members as needed.

Sakura was developing a real skill for research nowadays, learning who and when and where and what to ask to achieve an answer, but it hadn't been hard to find information on her new squad commander. Mariko had recognized the name of her team leader, but what she'd been able to tell Sakura hadn't been encouraging. Aihara Cho had only been a genin in the last war, but though the details on the how were sparse, both of her teammates had been killed and her jounin-sensei had committed suicide after returning the young girl to the village. She'd never integrated back into another four-man squad, had instead spent her career as a generalist but never gone on to become a jounin.

There were soundproofed rooms set aside for briefings and meetings for jounin, but everyone else made do. Team Seven's place had been a bridge; her new team's place was a sunny terrace that overlooked an equally pleasant patio. Everyone else on the team had been working together for several weeks, or so she'd been told—Sakura was the last person to be assigned to the team.

There was a set of exterior stairs that led upward onto the terrace and Sakura's soft-soled boots were almost completely silent against the wood, but her appearance surprised no one. She took in eight ninja lounging on comfortable padded benches, which made for more of an audience than she was perfectly comfortable with. It wasn't a hostile audience, though. Most of them were smiling, but not so broadly that it seemed mocking. All of them were older, which wasn't unexpected, but several of them appeared to be closer to her age than she'd expected. Sixteen to twenty, if she had to guess, but a slightly older woman approached her before she could do more than take in the usual numbers divide of kunoichi to shinobi.

For someone with a name as delicate and ephemeral as Aihara Cho, the woman was a study in irony. Her black hair was ruthlessly bobbed to her jawline, and while she was petite, her frame was sturdy and her hands were rough with calluses. And she had the iciest blue eyes Sakura had ever seen, like the winter sky she only ever saw in movies. Sakura ducked her head and offered greetings and an introduction; when she glanced up, those eyes hadn't precisely thawed, but some of the hard lines around her eyes had relaxed.

"Welcome to the land of broken teams, Haruno," Aihara-taichou said. She followed this with a lightning round of introductions, which Sakura scrambled to follow, then dismissed most of the others. They'd apparently assembled only to nod hello to their newest member, which was sort of flattering. "I expect they told you a little about how this squad will operate?"

"Yes, ma'am," Sakura replied promptly, then repeated what she'd been told.

"Good memory," Aihara-taichou complimented her. "And they got it almost right. If we had about three months where I could drill you all together, it wouldn't be a problem to switch members in and out at will. As it is, I've paired everyone off, balancing the safety of someone who is very familiar with your fighting style with the flexibility of working with other pairs as needed. You have a surprisingly long mission record for such a recent promotion, with more high-ranked missions than I’d expect," she said, some hint of a question in the statement. Sakura didn't have a good answer for that—Kakashi-sensei using his influence wasn't exactly the impression she wanted to make—and the moment passed.

"I've known that you were going to be assigned to me since the squad was first being readied and I've read your files, so I have some idea of your style. Chakra-enhanced strength, though not as refined as Tsunade-sama's," Aihara-taichou commented, one hand touching her opposite shoulder, elbow, and wrist in an echo of the black compression wraps that had made themselves a part of Sakura's wardrobe in an effort to alleviate the joint and muscle discomfort that was the price she was paying for her training. "Also considerable speed training, something of a knife specialist—it was in your file that your trained under Raidō Namiashi. And that Genma Shiranui had supervised your speed training. A dabbler in poisons. Your files have you classified as a genjutsu type, but it doesn't mention special training."

Sakura still wasn't certain whether she would call what Gozen-san did "teaching," because in all these months the old woman had shown her more about the nature of fear and the human mind than she'd ever wanted to know, but she'd never walked her through the use of a single technique. She kept silent, because that part of her life ruled by Gozen-san and her cynical view on people and the history of the village was somehow even more private than her books.

"It's not a bad resume for someone your age. It sounds—and there will come a time when I ask for a demonstration—very adaptable. So I paired you with someone equally flexible." Sakura glanced over the remaining ninja, but Aihara-taichou shook her head. "Not here. We'll be going to meet him—your partner is already in the field."

[ereuthrophilia]

The first time she met him, he was unremarkable in the way only truly excellent infiltrators are capable of. He'd even been described to her and she was ashamed to admit she might not have looked twice at him if she'd not been looking specifically for him. His hand ghosted over her hip as he gently shifted her out of his path on his way through the packed room, his polite, 'Sorry, excuse me,' accompanied by a brief but impersonal smile—if she'd really been the twenty-something woman whose face she was wearing, it might have been totally innocuous. As it was, there was a message in her pocket now, but its contents would have to wait until it was safe to leave.

The second time, there was no mistaking him. His Hyūga bloodline was unmistakable in some things, like the color of his eyes and the shape of his face, but that was where it ended. His coffee-brown hair had a natural wave and though he wore it traditionally long, he had it swept up into a messy knot. Those distinctive Hyūga eyes were partially concealed by glasses just as sleek and stylish as her own, only his lenses were tinted a somewhat startling red. And unlike most Hyūga she'd met, there was nothing traditional about his clothing choices. He had the panache and fashion sense of a rock star, a half-unzipped sleeveless vest with its fur-lined hood revealing the light armor common to ANBU, scarlet rather than white or grey, boots instead of sandals, loose black pants tucked into those boots.

"Hyūga Tatsuo. I've heard a lot about you, Haruno-san. Please treat me kindly." While his fashion was very modern, there was an easy, old-fashioned correctness to his manners.

"It's a pleasure to meet you," Sakura replied, "I look forward to working with you." And while the words might have been rote, they certainly weren't a lie.

[scotomaphobia]

"Are you okay?" Tatsuo asked worriedly as Sakura crouched down, the heels of her palms pressed hard against her aching eyes.

"Yes," she hissed, but she didn't move her hands, even as her temples ached with almost equal intensity. Tatsuo was skilled, trained in the Hyūga Jūken style, and seventeen. Which made it perfectly normal for him to be quicker than her, but she'd been driving herself harder in her speed training in an effort to match her partner. Even outside of shunshin he could move at speeds she couldn't follow without using chakra to artificially manipulate the speed at which her eyes and brain could process visual stimuli, so she'd been augmenting her eyes more often.

For the first few weeks, it hadn't been an issue, but then had come the headaches. Not all the time, just occasionally. And now, something that felt like eye strain, if eye strain felt like someone jabbing a senbon into her optic nerve.

Tatsuo's hands settled on her shoulders. "That doesn't look like 'okay'," he observed gently.

"I'll be fine," she snapped, then tempered her voice and repeated, as if she could make herself believe it, "I'll be fine."

[cainophilia]

Ino's nails were biting into Sakura's arm and only tightened when she tried to pull away. "Alright, forehead girl," Ino said, "not only do you go clothes shopping without me, but you get assigned to a new team and you don't even introduce me to your new teammate?"

Sakura winced at the real hurt that underlay Ino's anger. Team Ten had met her other chūnin friends, Mariko and Rie, Sakuya and his team, but she'd never introduced them to any of the members of Aihara-taichou's squad. It wasn't that she was ashamed of Team Ten. She wasn't ashamed of her new squad, either. But they weren't the way she'd assumed a squad should or would be, not like Team Ten or even Team Seven.

Aihara-taichou was her commander, not her friend. The others were her coworkers, which meant she got along with everyone, respected their contributions just as they respected hers, but no one went out of their way to socialize outside the celebratory dinners after a successful mission. There was an unspoken understanding that they weren't a real team, just the broken remnants of teams that were, and for most of them that loss was still too sharp to want to pretend otherwise. There was also the added complication of the work rotation—there were always pairs in the field and it might be weeks before she worked with a particular pair again, which put a damper on any fledging friendships that might have developed.  

So there was only Tatsuo, who'd once been a tokubetsu jounin with a specialization in recon before an attack had ruined his eyes and they'd returned him to chūnin status. That had been offered in confidence, when she'd gotten a particularly blinding headache after a rough session of training. She'd already observed that he never used his Byakugan on missions, but she'd thought it was just an idiosyncrasy.

As it turned out, he could only use his bloodline for a very brief time before the pain became debilitating; the ever-present sunglasses were to combat an extreme sensitivity to UV light, their tint to correct the color spectrum he saw the world in. The attack had done something to the chakra channels that were the key to the Byakugan and the unleashed chakra had mutated the cells of his eyes in a way that most healers would find irreversible.

She'd asked why he hadn't asked for Tsunade-sama to examine them. His answer had been an explanation of the clan law that prevented Tsunade-sama from meddling with the doujutsu of clan members—they had their own medics for that, though non-clan medics could treat any other wounds.

Her eyes trailed over to Tatsuo, who probably had no interest in hanging out with shinobi several years his junior. But he only smiled. "We were about to get something to eat. Would you like to come along?"

[hodophobia]

Takigakure would hold the next chūnin exam. It, alongside Amegakure, Kusagakure, and their erstwhile ally Suna had a treaty with Konoha that agreed to acknowledge a promotion awarded by the leader of any of these villages in the course of the chūnin exam.

It was an honor to hold the exam, but it was also expensive in terms of resources. Not only did the host village have to provide security and proctors for the event, but it also lost whatever income those ninja might have provided if they'd been sent on missions instead. So it was also therefore a kind of boast. Konohagakure and Sunagakure hosted the exam far more often than the smaller villages and when it was the turn of one of the less prosperous, populous villages, other villages often sent extra personnel along with the examinees to assist.

This was doubly true after the fiasco of the last exams, because while it was assumed that Orochimaru's target had been Konoha and its Kage, no one was willing to trust that the snake had gone into hibernation.

So it was that Sakura found herself traveling to the Waterfall Village as part of an extra security detail. Tatsuo was there, of course, and it was Shino and Shikamaru who rounded out the squad.  For them, at least, it was convenient because their squads were retaking the exam, which in Takigakure did not require a team of three. From what she'd been told during her briefing, their squad would be providing security for the Konoha contingent during the night. She'd not noticed it during her own exam, but Waterfall was instituting a curfew for the foreign ninja in an effort to prevent any trouble, so they would patrol the quarters assigned to the Leaf shinobi. They were to make certain that no one snuck out or slipped in.

To a long-ago Sakura, this might have produced a premonition of boredom, but the Sakura who walked to Takigakure kept her knives honed and treated the blades with topical anesthetic. Boredom was occasionally a welcome friend.

Chapter Text

[xenophilia]

"O!Nee!San!" Those three gleeful syllables were Sakura's only warning before a pair of arms flopped over her shoulders, a warm body suddenly pressed tight against her back.

That could have been hands with a garrote, was Sakura's first thought as her body instinctively tensed, but then the syllables coalesced. And she relaxed, just a fraction, because there was only one person who'd ever called her that.

"Fū-san?" she asked, craning her head to confirm her guess. Fū's arms slipped from her shoulders as he stepped back and grinned at her, those eerie yellow eyes crinkled up with good humor.

"My day just got twelve hundred percent more interesting," he assured her. "I didn't think I'd see again, onee-san. Did you name your fangs, yet?"

Sakura frowned at him, which made him grin even more widely. "'They're tools,'" he said, mimicking her voice. "Yeah, yeah. No fun, nee-san." His eyes swept over the cluster of her squad: Tatsuo, Shino, Shikamaru. They were waiting outside for the genin to finish registration for the exam, having already finished processing their own entry into the village and having received a housing assignment. "You got a promotion, which is good. But I don't see your team from last time, which might be bad."

He stared at her expectantly until Sakura answered. "It was," she admitted. "Um, your team..."

Fū nodded. "Yep. Still very dead," he replied, which made her cringe. "No promotion for me, though. My new team are chūnin, though. There's one riiigght over there," he said, drawling the word as his eyes sought someone out in the crowd, jabbing a finger when he'd found them.

She's pretty, was her first envious thought, then the ninja happened to shift so that they were in profile—the jawline and laryngeal prominence quickly shifted her opinion to He's still pretty. Given the crowd of boys clustering around him where he was leaning against the wall of a neighboring building, she wasn't the only one who'd let hairstyle and clothing cues lead her opinion. Almost violently red hair was pulled into a high ponytail, bangs allowed to drape in a kind of lazy loop before they'd been tucked back into his hair tie.

A plain, sleeveless black shirt with a high collar, black pants—if that had been the end of what he was wearing, he was still pretty enough to cause some confusion. But it wasn't. His wrists were heavy with braided bracelets—no beads or metal to make noise, but still colorful all the same—and his narrow hips were given the illusion of feminine curves by the wrap skirt he wore. The exterior was black, the inside a rich brocade like a very expensive furisode. The skirt itself was held in place by what looked like an obi, just wrapped rather than tied, the obi itself tethered by colorful obijime, some of these beaded or braided. And it was all in such a masterful coordination of patterns and colors that even Ino wouldn't have had room to criticize.

He glanced over at them and Fū waved, which prompted the other shinobi to unfold himself from his position against the wall. "They look like they're going to cry, Zen," Fū observed, voice quivering with laughter.

"Strange how much I don't care," Zen said. "I get tired of getting chatted up by men."

"Maybe you ought to stop being so pretty," came the glib suggestion.

"Maybe they ought to spend more time honing their powers of observation and less time trying to sound like they have more than two brain cells to rub together."

"Aw, Zen, I'm sure some of them would still talk to you even if they did notice."

"Yes, because that sounds so much more appealing," Zen said, rolling his eyes, which were a warm brown at this distance. "I'll let you know when I'm ready to play to stereotype, just as soon as you prove that the ability to enjoy pattern and color is somehow the exclusive province of women and gay men. Did you need something, Fū?"

"Just to introduce my incredibly not-fun teammate to my much-better-fun friend." Fū raised a hand in a pantomime of a gossiping housewife. "Don't mind him. He gets defensive in front of strangers."

Another eye roll from the much taller shinobi. "Anyhow," Fū said, long sleeves flopping over the ends of his fingers as he gestured from one party to the other.  "Haruno Sakura and company, meet Momiji Zen. Zen, meet Sakura."

"And who are you?" Shikamaru asked, his posture not quite casual enough to have not recognized Fū.

"Umehara Fū," came the cheerful reply.

"Is she the reason you were bullying us to take the assignment to play nanny to the Konoha ninja?" Zen demanded tetchily.

"Yep," Fū reported, flashing him a double victory sign. "Nee-san has bite. I promise you'll like her."

The older shinobi sighed. Both Shino and Shikamaru were watching the ninja with purple-tinted hair warily, but Tatsuo was watching it all with a faint smile. "You have interesting friends, Sakura," he remarked when he noticed her looking. "I'm Hyūga Tatsuo," he said as he shifted to come stand beside her. "I'm the leader of this extra security detail. If you're our liaison, it's a pleasure." She knew he couldn't have missed the boy's discomfort, but Tatsuo was much lower-key than the two younger members of Team Seven, without any Kakashi-sensei's apparent apathy. She could only describe him as a comfortable person; in the time he'd been her partner, he'd never failed to make her feel more at ease.

It was a very strange thing, to suddenly realize that while she might not have had all those years at the Academy with him, she'd been on more missions with Tatsuo than she had with Team Seven.

"Are we going to be rendezvousing with the rest of your team?" Tatsuo asked.

"I'm sure they'll show up. Eventually," Zen replied, his tone one of sardonic long-suffering. "They already give you your housing assignments?"

[nyctophobia]

Two days into the exams and everything was proceeding smoothly, except Ino was suffering a severe case of hair and outfit envy. Her first comment on meeting Zen was a less than quiet, "Finally! A man who knows how to take care of himself!," with a pointed look toward her own squadmates. Shikamaru had only sighed, but Chouji had looked hunted.

For now, Sakura sat in opened window, the cool night air playfully tousling her bangs. Her back was pressed against the frame to avoid becoming too much of a backlit silhouette, the other members of her squad and Zen's—the other two members had shown up at the last moment—ranged along the long hall that housed roughly half of the Konoha entrants. Tatsuo stood on the other side of the window from which she sat, but he was silent—they were both listening. There were also guards posted on the roof, but they'd also bear a share of the blame if one of their charges managed to slither out a window and make trouble.

Then, "Smells like rain," Tatsuo remarked very softly.

Sakura hummed an affirmative reply. The air was sweet with the scent of rain falling elsewhere, being driven on the wind that stirred her hair and the clouds whose bellies were intermittently lit with lightning that was distant only for the moment. They'd probably see a summer squall before the night was out, but the prospect of a storm didn't seem to deter the crowds that still filled the street. Unlike the foreign shinobi, whose curfew fell at sundown, the civilians and native shinobi were enjoying the festival atmosphere in the streets below.

The smells and sounds wafting up presented a not inconsiderable temptation to join the fun, which was only exacerbated a moment later as fireworks began to join the natural light display. She wasn't able to see the lake from where she sat, but Sakura was certain that it would be a spectacle worth seeing, the lights reflecting against the flat, glossy blackness of the water, perhaps shedding enough light in the instant before they disappeared to see the distant branches of the great tree.

The village of Takigakure was founded in a caldera of mind-boggling scale, with the residential and mercantile districts clustered along the rim of the extinct volcano. The central portion of the village—its seats of government and military complexes—were located on an island that had been built at the center of a vast lake, in which they'd rooted a tree even more enormous than Konoha's fire beeches in an effort to prevent erosion. Aside from water-walking or a boat, the only way to reach the island was by a bridge that was almost the equal of Tazuna's. The lake was fed from the yearly snowmelt and rivers of the adjourning mountain range, themselves possessing several nice examples of the titular waterfalls, but none so picturesque as the ones that plunged hundreds of feet to the valley floor on the opposite rim of the caldera.  

It was in an effort to ignore the spectacle of the fireworks—because, really, she wasn't made of stone and festival food came with a ready-made excuse that it was a special occasion—that she focused her gaze on the wall of the hotel rather than the crowds in the street.  She didn't know if she'd have seen it otherwise, though 'seen' was precisely the correct verb. 'Felt' was very imprecise, but there it was. A distortion in the way she perceived the world, that faint wrongness that marked a genjutsu. If she tilted her head just so, she could make out distortions in the air that marked the contours of a body under a chameleon technique.

Very chakra-intensive, Sakura thought as she watched the figure slip from the second-floor window to the ground. In an instant, there was another festivalgoer where the ninja had landed, the transition so smooth in the crowded street that no one looked twice. Sakura waited for others to follow or intercept the shinobi, but as he or she began winding through way along the street, there was no indication that anyone else had seen.

For an instant, she was very tempted to pretend she'd seen nothing. The ninja housed on that floor weren't from her village and weren't her responsibility.

But when seconds ticked past, marked by the tha-thump of her heartbeat, still no one went to retrieve the shinobi. And she couldn't quite sell herself on the idea that they were allowing him or her to run for a reason. Sakura didn't think of herself as a brave person, not even all these missions after Wave. Brave was for people like Naruto; she only ever wanted to make it home. Following orders, following the rules, that was the surest method to make it home even in dangerous times. Chasing after foreign ninja in the dark?

That was asking for trouble.

"What is it?" Tatsuo murmured, having slipped away from his side of the window to stand behind her, one hand resting lightly on her shoulder, his head so near hers that the orderly tha-thump of her heartbeat seemed to stutter.

But the moment was swallowed by the anxiety of the decision that she was about to make. "Second floor," she said in a low voice. "A ninja exited under cover of genjutsu from the window. No signs of pursuit."

His fingers tightened incrementally on her shoulder. "Do you still have a visual?"

"Yes."

Tatsuo straightened. "Sakura's seen someone exit the building. Second floor. We're going to pursue."

"No one else is pursuing?" Zen asked, standing upright from where he'd been leaning against the wall.

"They were under genjutsu," Sakura volunteered.

"And no one else noticed this? Just her?" Zen asked, finely arched eyebrows soaring toward his hairline.

"Sakura's exceptionally sensitive to genjutsu," Tatsuo replied evenly. "I doubt any of your chūnin could match her skill."

Zen looked faintly incredulous, but gave instructions to his teammates to stay behind.

"Lead," Tatsuo said, "We'll follow."

So Sakura pitched herself out the window, her soft-soled boots hardly making a noise as she landed on a nearby roof. She didn't look behind to confirm the presence of the others, because her prey was almost out of sight. Tugging her shemagh up the bridge of her nose to minimize the risk of her pale skin attracting notice, she had a moment's gratefulness to Mariko for convincing her to leave her skirts for activities that involved less midnight pursuits across rooftops. And given how badly her red top had clashed with the dark olive of the standard flak jacket, she'd switched out tops to a deep grey. One day she'd save up enough to replace the chūnin standard body armor with something custom, but right now she was outgrowing shoes, reading through expensive reference books, and sourcing tools as fast as her mission pay came in.

For now though, it was enough to have the reassuring weight of her knives and the knowledge of Tatsuo at her back.

Though they made better time by the rooftops than her target made in the street, she stalked him or her with care. Given the smoothness with which they kept shifting their appearance, Sakura was beginning to suspect it wasn't a chūnin candidate they were following.

Zen's air of skepticism had vanished, his dark eyes tracking the movement of their mark even as they took a moment to wait behind the ridgeline of a roof. Though he or she was being subtle about it, they were checking for pursuit.

"What's in this direction that they could be interested in?" Shikamaru asked.

"The settlement tapers out in this direction, so it turns pretty quickly into forest. But before that, you have the area where we're housing the Suna-nin," Zen reported grimly.

"So far out from the rest of the entrants?"

"Well, the elders thought there would be less trouble if we limited the interaction between Konoha and Suna," Zen replied, shifting incrementally higher on the roof and then signaling for them to proceed. "Maybe they were right to be worried."

"It could be," Tatsuo acknowledged. "But if he came from a second-floor window, they aren't necessarily a Konoha shinobi. At least not one traveling with the main party. We were all assigned rooms on the fourth and fifth floors."

"We'll see," Zen replied. "There," he said, pointing out not another large hotel like the one they'd been staying in, but rather a series of buildings. "Taki's location makes it unsuitable for it to also be the trade center of our nation," he murmured at their confusion. "So, not enough steady visitors needing lodging to build large hotels. We do better with smaller inns."

"Question," Shino interjected. "Just how close are we going to allow our target to get to his target? Would it not be safer to simply interrogate him later?"

"If we could be certain he was working alone, yes. Otherwise, no," Tatsuo replied. "Whoever we're tracking is either very brave or very stupid to be acting alone, if his aim is revenge. He's being even more foolish if the goal is to cause trouble between our villages."  

"You think so?" Shikamaru said. "I can think of a lot of ways one shinobi could sabotage our relationship with Suna. We're not exactly on the best of terms, y'know."

"That's odd," Zen remarked.

"What's odd?" Tatsuo asked, rather than attempt to refute Shikarmaru's assertion.

"He's moving toward the forest, rather than the inns," Sakura replied.

"Perhaps the Byakugan should be used to attempt to ascertain his objective?" Shino suggested.

"It's not a pair of night-vision goggles," Sakura replied defensively on Tatsuo's behalf.

"It's fine," the older ninja said. "But she's right to say it isn't precisely night vision. It'll be much easier if I don't try to do this and run at the same time. Go ahead and continue pursuit—we'll catch up."

Zen nodded sharply, then he was off in a soft rustle of cloth. Shikamaru and Shino hesitated a moment longer before following.

"Tatsuo...," Sakura said.

In the uncertain light cast up from the streets below, she could still see the small, wry smile that shifted his lips. "It's only a little pain," he said. But the breath that shifted his shoulders betrayed a far greater trepidation, as did the fine tremor that traveled along the length of the hand that had shifted comfortingly to her shoulder.

He closed his eyes and she felt his breath catch as the veins just below his temples bulged. His eyes snapped open, seemingly searching blindly for things well beyond human vision. A soft, breathy stream of invective punctuated the night and as she watched, a blood vessel burst in his right eye, turning the sclera red. Though she knew that what was causing the blood vessels to burst was far worse than the damaged vessels themselves, it was visible evidence that Tatsuo was hurting, just as his hand trembling on her shoulder was.

Sakura reached up to clasp her hand over his. In response, his fingers tensed against her shoulder, then he released her abruptly, eyelids fluttering shut.

"What part of that was 'a little pain'?" Sakura demanded, feeling utterly useless and sort of wretched because of it. Right then and there, though he'd explained why Tsunade-sama would never be able to attempt to correct the damage to his eyes, Sakura decided that for once in her life belonging to a family rather than an expansive, intergenerational ie would be useful. She would find a way to give Tatsuo back his doujutsu; she'd never be a medic-nin proper, would never serve an internship or residency in a hospital, but she was clever enough to serve this more selfish purpose. Just as she knew that her chances of survival increased if she didn't have to depend on dragging herself to a medic and handling poisons was a stupid enterprise without a solid knowledge of antidotes, she couldn't allow Tatsuo to suffer because she was afraid of making the effort.

She ignored the part of her brain that sneered at that thought, that told her that it was more than just effort, that even if there wasn't a doujutsu involved it would have been an incredibly sensitive injury. 

Her demand made Tatsuo smile, pained as it was. "The part where I talk about it to other people. At least it was useful."

"Useful?"

"Our target isn't the only one in the woods. I can't see them well enough to make out detail, but it looks like there are ten others in there with him. I have a rough idea of where they're going; it seemed like they were meeting, rather than seeking something."

"Eleven?" Sakura echoed. "That many?"

"Definitely not genin out to make trouble," was Tatsuo's reply. "Let's catch up to the others."

The rest of the group hadn't gone far—Shino had managed to coax a female beetle onto their target, so they'd been able to trail him from a distance with less chance of discovery.

"Shit," Zen said, with deep feeling. "Eleven?"

"Eleven," Tatsuo confirmed.

Shikamaru sighed. "I guess it would be too much to hope for that they're just meeting for an extra-wild party and we can go back and leave them to it?" A soft sound drew their attention upwards, where the first drops of rain heralded a cloudburst that smote them only seconds later. "So troublesome," he sighed, this time more deeply. "Well, how do we handle this? Numbers favor them, which means that surprise is our best weapon, but since we don't actually know that they're doing anything beyond breaking curfew, we're probably going to have to send a clone while everyone conceals themselves. Then, if they don't disperse, we attack. Anyone capable of a jutsu that would let us send word we might have reinforcements?"

When only silence met him, he said, "I was afraid of that. So, who has the best clone?"

"I believe," Shino volunteered quietly, "I am the most capable of producing a substantial clone that will not be recognized as such. My hives are sufficiently developed to produce two such clones; if you wish to send for reinforcements, I can provide such a service at the expense of my offensive abilities." When Shikamaru shook his head, he continued. "If it turns out that their intentions are hostile, I can also subdue several of the shinobi quickly."

Shikmaru nodded. "All right," he said. "That should probably be our goal. Nonfatal capture. If feasible," he allowed, glancing over at Sakura. Who scowled back at him—despite not having family techniques, or chakra-devouring bugs, or the flexible Jūken, she managed. Mostly.

Paralytic poisons and genjutsu were best, as Sakura was beginning to suspect Tsunade-sama had honed her talents as a medic-nin first to combat things like ruptured organs. Experience was her teacher concerning chakra-enhanced strength; no one seemed to have written anything about it and even if she'd gathered the courage to ask advice from Tsunade-sama, she respected the fact that the Sannin was in charge of the recovery of her village after a major attack after an extremely long absence. Though the traditional alliances between the clans might have held true, the heads of several clans had changed, the internal politics of the village had continued to develop and shift in her absence, and policies and practices had continued to evolve. That was before factoring in the fall-out from the invasion. Sakura did not envy her that monumental task. One day, though, especially if she made jounin, she'd ask. Even if by that time she'd figured it out herself.

Those thoughts were quickly dismissed as the five of them dispersed. Sakura found herself belly-down on a forest floor, not a totally unfamiliar position, but the rain that continued to pound down made it an uncomfortable one. Though it represented an advantage if any of their targets had enhanced olfactory senses like Kiba and provided a visual barrier, it could turn a bit chilly even in warm weather. Also, though she'd taken to binding her long hair back in a fabric sheathe—if anyone grabbed it, the sheathe slid free, sort of like a lizard losing a bit of tail—she still wore bangs to break up the shape of her face. And hair plastered against her forehead wasn't precisely pleasant.

Luckily, Shino didn't keep them waiting long. There'd hardly been any conversation among the eleven ninja, which made Sakura wonder if they were waiting for some sort of signal.

They all tensed in concert as Shino's clone stepped out from behind a tree, lantern in hand. Not as himself—she vaguely recognized a Takigakure jounin—and he demanded, "What are you doing out here? Curfew for foreign-nin was hours ago."

One of the ninja stepped forward, a woman with a low, raspy voice. "I think not. If you want to blame anyone for what will happen tonight, blame Konoha and Suna, who couldn't manage to destroy each other somewhere far away. Or maybe your elders, who agreed to let an unstable foreign jinchūriki inside your borders."

Shino's clone stiffened. "What do you intend to do?" he asked.

"Break the stranglehold of two great villages," the kunoichi sneered. "No one will trust Suna and with Konoha unable to meet demand...well, you understand." And then, without any further warning than that, the attack began.

The kunoichi had whipped out a blade with the rough, functional lines of a machete, which Sakura didn't doubt would have cut bone and flesh as easily as vegetation, but when she slashed into Shino’s clone she was met with a black haze of kikaichū rather than blood. Only eyes familiar with them would notice how sluggish their flight seemed, how much the rain interfered with their ability to fly. The lantern the clone had been holding fell to the ground, giving them just enough light to fight by. There was a keening sound as two razor-edged chakrams burst through the brush, one cutting through a ninja's arm with such force only a thin layer of skin and muscle kept it from dropping to the ground.

That would be Zen, interpreting "nonfatal" liberally. She'd wondered what had been hiding in those large, square pouches dangling from the back of that complex configuration of obijime; his melee weapons were the feng huo lun, the paired wind-and-fire wheels. Circular like the chakrams, a quarter of their hoop shape was unsharpened and padded, with an interior crossguard. The other three-fourths had short, flame-styled blades protruding. But Sakura didn't have time to admire his technique—her chosen target had just unfolded an urumi from about his waist.

Like the bastard child of a whip and a sword, it had five flexible metal tongues, each of them sharp enough to slice her open though not enough to cut through bone.

That knowledge was not particularly reassuring.

Unlike the others, Sakura still hadn't come out of hiding. Fingers weaving into a net of intent, she spilled chakra into her channels just so. And when she released it, the ninja froze, eyes trained on the ghost. Others too—it would have been wasteful not to try, but unlike those hireswords on Wave, these ninja found it mostly a momentary impediment. With a silent thought of gratitude to Kakashi-sensei, Sakura shoved off and sprinted forward, the handle of her knife impacting her target's head. He fell with an almost silent thud, Sakura going low to duck another shinobi's blow.

But the battle hadn't devolved into a fierce knot of combat, Sakura noticed with alarm in the scant moments her new opponent afforded her as she fought him and her instinct to end it now!, the view of the forest and her opponents made difficult and strange by the poor lighting. There were stragglers who'd stayed to engage them, but the others were all off and running toward their objective. Gaara, Sakura thought with alarm, having heard of that battle from Shikamaru. Plenty clever enough to draw his own conclusions, he'd shared them with Sakura only after Naruto had been weeks away on his journey.

In part because he had his own suppositions about Naruto himself.

If they have some way of putting Gaara to sleep..., she thought, which made her shout, "Shikamaru!"

"I know!" he snarled back from where he was fending off a shinobi who wasn't giving him any quarter. Almost counter-intuitively, Shikamaru's abilities were severely curtailed on a moonless night like this one. Without a source of light to cast a shadow from his body, he couldn't use it in his family's technique and the light from their single lantern was making for a very poor situation on his end. As was the speed of his opponent.  

He must have known how difficult this battle would be for him, but he'd come regardless, when he could have volunteered himself as a courier service. Sakura was struck briefly by admiration of the boy who'd been hands-down the laziest in their class, but she earned a hard kick to the sternum from her own opponent for that microsecond of inattention. As she gagged, Tatsuo's deft fingers struck at the back of her opponent's neck, causing him to sink bonelessly to the ground. His own target already lay defeated, her hair shining against wet leaves.

"Alright?" he asked, deflecting a thrown kunai.

"Really ugly bruise. Be alright when I can breathe," Sakura wheezed, forcing her body to move even as it protested the lack of oxygen. "Need to stop them before they make it back to where the Suna-nin are."

Tatsuo nodded and then he was gone, quick and certain even in the dark and the rain. Shikamaru used the uncertain footing of last year's leaves slick with the rain to finally down his own opponent, then he was moving too. Shino had already vanished into the forest after the fleeing shinobi, but Zen was a flurry of ferocious movement, light catching on his bright brocades.

Sakura wondered at his trouble until a moment's stillness alerted her to strange vibration in the ground. Earth manipulation, Sakura realized, which was hard enough to combat in daylight. With only the uncertain light of a single lantern, it had to be a nightmare. He wasn't her partner; he was a chūnin in his own right and if any of the others got to Gaara they stood a chance of facing far greater casualties than one chūnin. But when something like a hand jutted up out of the ground, clasping Zen's lower leg and gripping, she couldn't unhear the sound of his bone shattering, nor his shout of pain.

Almost before she knew she was moving, the chakra-filled earth was shattering beneath her fist, which brought another howl from Zen as his broken bones were ground against one another from the force of it. Then her shoulder was catching him in the belly as she tossed him up onto her shoulder, not quite fast enough to avoid a spear of earth that tried to drive itself through her ribs. The flak jacket did its work—without the edge of metal to pierce the fabric, it dispersed the force of the blow across her ribs, one of which gave with a sharp crack and an even sharper stab of pain.

Especially when she was bearing Zen's full weight, one hand over his back to keep him from sliding down off shoulders too narrow to do this well, her other arm keeping his skirt from obstructing her. She'd almost mastered her fear of shunshin, but she'd never done it in pitch dark forest, everything slick with the rain still beating down. She didn't have a free hand to pull down her combat glasses; what light there was provided by lightning and it was intermittent at best.

The darkness seemed to draw her awareness close to her body, to the beat of her heart, the motion of her lungs, the sounds of her own breathing made horrifically loud. Sakura swallowed down a sick premonition of pain and then she moved, darting through the trees with no grace but all speed. A rock shifted underfoot and Sakura nearly fell, a warm discomfort blooming in an ankle forced to bear all her weight and Zen's besides at an angle not meant for weight-bearing.

Sakura's plan wasn't to outrun their assailant, who was turning the very earth against them—smaller than Gaara's great sand constructions, but dead was dead—but a brief instance of light revealed a suitably broad tree. Using the hand pressed against Zen's legs, Sakura folded her fingers into a symbol of concentration and left a clone to lead on their pursuer. Flitting behind the tree, she unloaded Zen rather roughly against the bark, fingers twisting nervously into a far more basic chameleon technique than the chakra-draining one that the first shinobi had used. Zen had shifted himself upright, seemed about to do something, but Sakura used her chakra-enhanced strength to press him flush against the tree, hand over his mouth as an indicator for silence.

She was stronger than he was—not overall maybe, but incessant practice had changed and was changing the dynamic of sheer brute force between her and everyone else forever—and being so close was a reminder of that. Sakura didn't know what those first abortive struggles were about, unless he didn't trust that she'd be able to conceal them, but they were easily quelled. Her hand wasn't flush against his lips—people tended to bite when you did that—but she could feel his warm breath feathering against her palm, quick and fast like the heartbeat of a bird. Though it slowed as the sound of pursuit faded.

Sakura cautiously shifted her hand away, though she kept supporting Zen's weight. Listening carefully, she tried to part the sound of forest and rain from a shinobi waiting for them to break cover. "Zen-san," she whispered, turning back to face him, a brief flash of lightning giving her just enough light to see as he shifted his upper body toward her, lips pressing gently against her own.

"That's all the thanks you get," he whispered next to her ear. "Now, go."

Sakura almost stumbled back. Her own lipbalm was the refreshing tang of grapefruit, so the sweetness of strawberry that lingered only momentarily was him. And Sakura could not deal with that just now.

So it was back into the dark, hunting someone who could manipulate the ground she stood on. A patch of moss, loosened by the rain, slipped sideways off a rock, taking Sakura with it. She slammed hard into a tree, rough bark scouring her forearm and the side of her face, though her shemagh protected most of it. With that much noise, she didn't have to worry about finding him.

He found her.

Sakura barely had enough warning and presence of mind to leap away as the forest floor exploded in a toothy maw of quick-growing stalagmites. He didn't have Gaara's fine control, the part of her that wasn't screaming look out, look out! noted. Even the "hand" that had broken Zen's leg had been stiff and rudimentary.

The only recourse was to keep moving and to move unpredictably, his chakra insufficient to simply overwhelm her with the sheer size of a construction. But this made it hard to close, hard to aim. And her broken rib felt like she was being kicked in the chest every time she had to contort her torso to avoid another strike. 

Shikamaru's "nonfatal" could wait for another day, another battle. What she wanted was one. Good. Strike.

Baring her teeth unconsciously, she used the shunshin technique to cover ever smaller spaces, ten feet, five, two, seven, her flight as jarring as a housefly's. She almost couldn't see—it wasn't just the dark, but the speed. Rocks shifted, branches tried to tear, and he tried to kill her. But then there she was and there he was and then her knives were ripping into flesh, one in either side of his ribcage, like pinchers closing. It brought her so close it was almost a parody of a hug, and she could feel the warmth of his breath.

And she could feel the interruption of it, when blood flooded his lungs, hear the sound as his body struggled not to drown in own fluids. She did not twist, instead bending her knees so she could drive them up, until she supported the full weight of his body on arms that trembled. From adrenaline, from fear, from relief, even if foam-flecked blood was dripping from his lips onto her nose.

When she couldn't hear him breathing anymore, she lowered him to the ground, kicking the body free of her knives. She stole a moment to wipe her blades clean before re-sheathing them. Looking up from her task, she tried to get her bearings. All her tricks to navigate in the woods weren't working, as she'd disoriented even herself in that last mad rush. She finally had to scurry up a tree and orient herself by the lights of the village.

She could go back, get Zen, secure their unconscious ninja. Shunshin was chakra-intensive and while her physical stamina was fantastic thanks to the ninken, her chakra reserves were more of a work in progress. She was already balanced on the fine edge that threatened to tip her over into exhaustion, where her reflexes would begin to slow and her control would degrade. And for her, who depended on her control, that was a disaster in the making.

But Tatsuo was out there in the dark somewhere. He was her partner, the one who was there. She owed him at least that much consideration in return.

So she was back to jogging through a dark forest, not willing to risk actually laming herself or missing a battle. The silence was unnerving; she didn't think they'd have gone so far she couldn't hear the crash of kunai against kunai. But there was only the rain, softer now, a susurrus in the leaves.

"Sakura?" Tatsuo's voice came, a welcome sound in the night. So welcome, in fact, that Sakura suspected a trap and slunk in a wide arc that would bring her in at an angle rather than straight-on. "Sakura?"

His voice was louder now and Sakura took to the trees, grimacing when crouching sent waves of pain along her side.  There was Tatsuo, lantern in hand without a hint of genjutsu, and he had someone surprising with him.

"Tatsuo," Sakura acknowledged as she dropped from her perch, regretting the thoughtless maneuver instantly as it jarred both rib and ankle. "Gaara-san."

The red-headed nin dipped his head gravely in acknowledgement.

"I guess this means it's over?" she asked.

"All but the collection and the interrogation," Tatsuo acknowledged. "As it turned out, Gaara-san has a habit of going out for walks at night. That was what our shinobi hoped to take advantage of. We were making a bit of a ruckus, so he naturally came to investigate. That gave one of our targets the opportunity she'd been waiting for—they'd developed some sort of genjutsu."

"It's similar to the one I use when Shukaku is more of an asset than an annoyance, which isn't often. But they're hardly the first to have tried," Gaara rasped. "I carry stimulants. But with eleven of them working in concert, they might have managed it. If they'd managed to take me by surprise, which is unlikely."

Sakura managed to dredge up a tired smile. "Well, still, I'm glad you're not hurt."

Gaara blinked at her and she imagined if he'd had eyebrows, they might have risen in surprise. He seemed to find the concept strange. "...and you?" he responded at last.

"And me what?" Sakura asked.

"Are you hurt?"

"Nothing that won't heal." 

Chapter Text

[social anxiety]

Fū's upper half was sprawled across the table, both his arms fully outstretched, his chin resting on the tabletop. "That's mean, nee-san," he whined. "Having all that fun without me."

He'd just plopped himself down at the table she'd been sharing with Ino, trying to work up the courage to bring up the kiss.

It was...odd. The kiss. Not just A Kiss. The Kiss. Her first one. The one that was supposed to belong to The One. The kiss that was supposed to presage her Happily-Ever-After, like in all the books and movies and everything else.

...alright, maybe not all the books, namely the ones in the Box of Shame, but they didn't count.

...or the old stories, where hardly anyone lived happily for any length of time, but they didn't count either.  

She'd decided that kiss belonged to Sasuke back when she'd decided she belonged with Sasuke, before he'd gone and betrayed everything they'd been taught to serve and protect. After that it just hadn't occurred to her to spend her time in imagining The Kiss with anyone else, as if that part of her had left with him. It helped that she hardly left herself any time for that sort of thing anymore, too busy studying and sparring and learning to live in a world where "sleeping in" was sometimes something unwelcome.

She'd certainly never imagined The Kiss would happen when her heart had been galloping from the fright and anxiety of battle rather than the intensity of her feelings.

Zen was probably the most beautiful boy she was ever going to meet, and he was nice enough, but he was basically a stranger. She wasn't angry, because she didn't have any sense of anything being stolen, and it had been special, sort of, but she still wanted to know what it meant, that he'd kissed her like that, but she didn't want to bring it up in front of Fū.

Who was now sulking at her.

"Because we had so much time to go looking for you while you were out playing around," Zen said as he cautiously lowered himself into another chair—they'd healed his leg enough that he was in a walking cast—making Ino gape, though she recovered quickly. "Next time we're trailing someone, I'll stop and think, Wait, maybe Fū would like to help out."

 "Exactly like that, but without sarcasm," Fū agreed.

Zen just stared at Fū for a long moment. "It must be a strange, strange thing to live in your head," he remarked at last. "Anyway, before I forget, you and I have a dinner to attend this evening," he said to Sakura.

"What?" Sakura said. Well, squeaked, but she'd save what dignity she could, especially as Ino was now staring.

A brief, knowing smile flashed across Zen's face. "Your squad, me, and Suna no Gaara—we're going to be having dinner with the elders. Congratulations for us, an apology for him."

Having delivered that news, she might have expected him to leave, but he and Fū stayed and made conversation for awhile until something else nabbed Fū's attention and Zen had to leave for an appointment. Almost the instant Zen was out of sight, Ino's fingers were latched on to her arm, likely as a measure against Sakura bolting. "Alright, confess," she demanded. "What was that?"

"What was what?" Sakura asked grumpily, hating to be put on the spot even if this exact conversation had been her earlier goal.

"You, flustered. Pretty, pretty boy, smirking. I don't know, what could I be curious about?" Ino replied snarkily.

"Alright, alright," Sakura said, eyes flittering over the others enjoying the sunlight in the park. Which was stupid, some part of her brain told her, because no one else likely cared, but it was habit. When she told Ino about her lightning-lit kiss, the other girl made strangled noises of what sounded mostly like giddiness and envy.

When she posed her question, about what the kiss meant, Ino mulled it over thoughtfully. "Not speaking as a voice of experience or anything," Ino said, "but it's probably one of those victory kisses. Y'know, he's thinks you're cute and he's grateful and caught up in the moment, but he doesn't necessarily want to date you. Which is probably a good thing. Taki's far enough away that he'd be less boyfriend and more penpal. But I have to say, Sakura, for a first kiss? Nice," she drawled appreciatively, which set them both to giggling. 

[philia]

Sakura almost toppled over backwards when a hand suddenly covered the text she'd been reading, a strangled noise only about half as embarrassing as an actual shriek escaping her throat.

After she'd snatched at the heavy table and managed to right her chair, Sakura looked up sheepishly to find Tatsuo wearing an expression of exasperated indulgence. "What are you doing?" he asked.

"...reading?" Sakura tried after a brief silence, because she was too ashamed to admit that there were aspects of her medical studies that she found mind-numbingly boring. Not that she expected or needed novels, but many of the books and even case studies tended to be dense and almost purposefully inaccessible. They were academically standoffish in a way that was as unlike the highly simplified Academy texts as it was possible to be without being another language entirely, full of new and difficult terms that required a dictionary on one hand and a notebook on the other.

"Strange, how much that resembled almost falling asleep on the book," he remarked wryly. "How long have you been at this, Sakura?"

"Not long," she demurred.

"Really? Because, strangely enough, I saw someone who looked remarkably like you sitting in this seat this morning. As it is now dinnertime, I think you've earned a break." He happened to glance down and grimaced. "If you don't leave now, I'm going to be obliged to tell Hokage-sama that you came this close to drooling on her work."

"I don't drool," Sakura bit out defensively as she gathered her things, cheeks flushed pink.

"You don't," Tatsuo confirmed. "But the Hokage won't know that." As they left the library, where Sakura had spent the better part of her day making good use of its collection, he glanced down at her. His expression softened as he said, "If you keep this up, I might start to think you don't like working with me."

"What? Why?" Sakura demanded, perplexed.

"This much study and practice—you'll be jounin before you're old enough to drink," Tatsuo replied. "Especially if our missions keep going so smoothly."

Sakura hugged her notebook tighter to her chest, made uncomfortable by the reminder that if she made jounin, she would no longer be part of her current squad. While parting from Aihara-taichou and the others would give her a feeling no worse than she’d felt when saying goodbye to the greater part of her graduating class, she'd really regret not working with Tatsuo anymore. But Tatsuo was unlikely to make jounin again—no matter how remarkable his salvaging of his career, too much of his early training had focused on the use of his doujutsu. Without his memory, even his Jūken would be just another thing stolen from him in the course of that one terrible mission.

"Quit that," he said softly. "You're supposed to reassure me that I'm your favorite partner, not look guilty."

"Sorry," Sakura mumbled. "And you are my favorite partner. Given that I've had just the one, that's not so bad, I guess."

Tatsuo laughed and laughed all the harder when Sakura's stomach growled audibly. "Here," he said when she would have stomped toward home, "let me save you from yourself. If you've spent the entire day drowning in big words, I doubt you have any plans that I'll interrupt. And if you come with me, you won't have to cook," he pointed out.

It was not a difficult decision, but Sakura grew progressively more hesitant as he led the way not to any of their favorite restaurants, but somewhere she'd never been before.

The Hyūga compound.

"Tatsuo...," Sakura said with trepidation, not comfortable with the glances she was getting from white-eyed passerby.

"If you stop looking like you're trespassing and aware of it, no one will look twice," Tatsuo said, then suddenly he was behind her, hands on her shoulders, propelling her through a gate. Unlike the Uchiha district, where houses directly fronted the streets, many of the houses they'd passed seemed to have small walled yards or gardens attached to them; perhaps in a place where so many people had a doujutsu no normal wall was proof against, the illusion was privacy was doubly important. And there was the fact that for all that Uchiha name was more infamous, the Hyūga line had been wealthy and well-established long before their wild offshoot. They'd been given considerable space when the village had been established and unlike the faded Senju and massacred Uchiha, they'd flourished. The Hyūga were now the most powerful clan in Konohagakure. But quietly.

"Haha," he called, which made her want to bolt, but there was nothing to be done about it before a woman emerged from the house. She was older than Sakura had thought she'd be, fine lines bracketing her eyes, but less alarming than she'd expected. There was elegance there, but it had been worn by time to something comfortable and inviting.

"Tadaima. I'm delivering your dinner guest," Tatsuo told the woman, laughter in his voice and she smiled back at him.

"I see that," she replied. "Tou-san's setting the table, so you're just in time. Okaeri, children."

[canophilia]

There'd been a long-ago conversation in which Kakashi-senpai had explained the difference between his ninken and summons. Summoned animals weren't really animals in any sense but form; they were spirits who would outlive their contractors, who lived in places that weren't casually accessible to humans. Their contracts were rare, while companion animals—personal summons or contracted animals were acceptable terms too—were far more common. They had human-level intelligence and commiserate lifespans, often living and dying with their shinobi.

She'd tucked the information away, because that was what she did, but she'd never expected this.

"It's like a pet store where the pets choose you," Pakkun explained as he trotted at her ankles. "Crossed with a matchmaker's—pup's parents can make decisions for them, if a shinobi prefers to partner with someone they can raise and train up as they like. You don't see adult animals there very often, mostly genin-equivalents, so there's still plenty of raising to do even for the ones old enough to make their own choices. And you can start contributing to this conversation at any point," he said to Kakashi, who was trailing behind them.

"You're doing fine without me," he replied carelessly without looking up from his book, waving them forward. Sakura envied him his spatial awareness; she'd tried to duplicate the ability, an experiment that had left her only with bruised pride.

Pakkun huffed, his little tail twitching indignantly, but he was distracted when Sakura asked, "So, the ninken—did you all choose senpai, or did he take you in as pups?"

"Both. He didn't take us all in at once, you understand," Pakkun said. Then he snorted. "You should have seen him the first time he tried to raise a puppy. Let's just say that it's a mercy that no one was ever fool enough to let him near human babies."

"You know, I am right here," Kakashi-senpai remarked flatly.

"You were the one who didn't want to join the conversation," Sakura pointed out with mock-innocence.

"Don't be mean to your senpai, kouhai," Kakashi-senpai chided as he clapped his book shut and strode briskly forward to catch up to them, slowing to match Pakkun's pace when he'd drawn even with them. "Especially when he's taking you out to get a puppy."

Pakkun took this as permission to continue regaling Sakura with stories from when the ninken were young and Kaskashi-senspai was as well—"younger" Kakashi-senpai insisted, not young, because that would make him old—until they reached the expansive building that was their destination.

Despite Pakkun's comparison, it wasn't a pet shop; there were no large windows so you could gawk at the companion animals. There was a large, easily readable sign atop the entrance, but it was closer to the ones that labeled civic buildings rather than an advertisement. It had the feel of one as well, because they were immediately greeted by a desk manned by a sober member of the Inuzuka clan.

They were instructed to sign in and were issued visitor badges, which they were required to wear at all times within the premises. They waited by the desk as the woman called someone to escort them, but it wasn't a long wait. It was a younger woman who emerged through the doors, her long hair pulled neatly up into a ponytail and unfamiliar clan markings on her face. A thick blue line bisected her chin and another ran from cheek to cheek across the bridge of her nose. "Hi," she said brightly. "I'm Nekoda Kayo. Do you have your paperwork ready?"

Sakura glanced worriedly over at Kakashi-senpai, because she hadn't been aware of any paperwork, had been entirely surprised this morning when he'd shown up at her door and announced where they were going. She wasn't even sure she could cover the fees—and surely there would be fees. But she kept her mouth shut as Kakashi-senpai produced a packet of paperwork and handed it over.

"Good, good," Nekoda-san said, "Now, if you want to come to my office while I process this, it shouldn't take long." Again, it wasn't a long wait though the girl occasionally asked Sakura to clarify points, making thoughtful noises. "Well," she said when she was satisfied, "It looks like you're an excellent candidate, Sakura-san. Now, would you like to meet our animals?"

Sakura nodded hesitantly and was rewarded by being led into a vast room which was populated by animals in all shapes, sizes, and species. Some could speak with human voices, others yapped, yowled, and chirruped to produce an exuberant cacophony. There were other workers wearing clothes identical to Nekoda's, all of them sporting clan markings on their faces. Other shinobi with visitors’ passes accompanied them, the animals reacting like Academy children to a guest speaker. Excited, but too aware of the possibility of scolding by their sensei to mob them.

Nekoda-san gave them both a moment to absorb the room, Sakura's eyes skimming over dozens of adorable dogs of all ages. Ferocious looking ones too, like the ones the Inuzuka clan partnered with, though not many of those. She was overwhelmed by sheer choice and the repercussions if she made the wrong one, but in the midst of all that confusion, something niggled at her mind. Some not quite right in the world.

She turned, seeking the source, until her gaze landed on a tall cabinet well away from the excitement. What’s a genjutsu doing there? she thought to herself as she crept towards it.

"Sakura-san?" Nekoda-san asked.

"There's something here," Sakura replied distractedly, her will already sealing chakra channels in a well-honed reflex.

She found herself staring into eyes that weren't green and weren't blue, but some strange, immensely intense shade in between. The cat stood slowly from where it had been crouched, tail flicking. He had a regal, triangular head and large ears, his medium-length fur laying close to his body except for the tail, where it formed a sort of fan. He was very dark, but not a true black, more seal brown, and beginning midway down his tail, the dark hairs gained silvery tips. His ears too, had that grey sheen, and just the faintest hint of it around his nose. 

"What do you mean? There's nothing—?" Nekoda-san cut herself off as the cat terminated the illusion. "Oh," she said, a wealth of meaning in that single sound.

The cat glanced briefly over at her. "I want this one," he said plainly.

"Sakura-san is here to look at dogs," Nekoda-san protested weakly, which was a strange reaction, and coupled with the 'oh' of moments before conspired to give Sakura a kind of ominous feeling.

"Nonsense," the cat insisted. "She'd be wasted on the imbecilic creatures."

"Hey," Pakkun protested.

"You can't help it," the cat said condescendingly. "A dog is at best a scent tracker. Cats, however, are natural chakra sensors and innately talented in the art of illusion. I don't know why anyone would prefer a dog to a cat. Especially one like myself," he went on without a shred of humility.

"Could be something like personality, maybe," Kakashi-senpai muttered, which earned a rumble of agreement from Pakkun.

Nekoda-san winced. "This is Soudai," she said.

"Named himself, did he?" Pakkun remarked snidely.

"Don't be ridiculous," the cat sniffed.  "Kayo, see to the paperwork, will you? That's a good girl."

The woman seemed to firm her resolve. "Soudai," she said patiently, "it doesn't work like that and you know it. You haven't even asked if this poor girl is willing to put up with you."

"Put up with me?" he asked archly. "I think she's quite clever enough to see that she'd be well recompensed for 'putting up' with my personality quirks, as you phrased it."

"Soudai, you spend all your time lurking under genjutsu and turning up your nose at shinobi just because they can't find you. No one would think to look for a genjutsu here."

"Precisely," the cat said with another sharp tail twitch. "Therefore, they're unworthy of my time and attention."

Nekoda-san pinched the bridge of her nose, then turned to them with a sheepish grin. "Sorry. Soudai's a handful. And he's been here for a while, so he's sort of one of our resident characters. We haven't quite figured out why he hadn't given up yet. Shall we look at some dogs?"

Almost pouring himself to the floor from the top of the cabinet, the cat surprised her when he said, "Oh, very well. Lead the way."

"You're coming?" Sakura asked.

"Of course," the cat said, blinking up at her lazily.

And given what followed, it wasn't difficult to discern why. Every dog and puppy had issues with parentage, prowess, and personality laid bare before her until they were all regarding her nervously. Some of the puppies had even taken to running. Judging by the thrumming purr of satisfaction radiating up from the cat at her foot, that was exactly what Soudai had intended.

Sakura had never had a natural aptitude for handling strong personalities. Naruto's loudness made her want to smack him upside the head, Sasuke's aggression made her handle him like he was an unstable chemical, and the first few years of her friendship with Ino had been spent in the shadow of a much more self-assertive personality. She was better now than she had been in those early years in the Academy, but there was a limit that she hadn't managed to overcome yet. It wasn't a problem in enemy shinobi; she didn't have to make conversation with them.

As far as she could tell, Soudai was everything bad that had ever been said about cats. He was clever, conniving, and almost appalling self-centered. And yet...

It wasn't just that he'd chosen her. When it came to written work, she'd been unequivocally the best in her class at the Academy. When it came to group work, she'd always had people choose her, even when they didn't like her, depending on her skill and work ethic to get them through the assignment. Until the real world, until Wave, she'd had a lot of confidence in that. Only now, months and months later, was she starting to regain that sense of self-worth, but it had never been low enough for that alone to have decided her. Even if he had been waiting all this time for someone to see him, hiding behind that genjutsu. There was something in that, something that tugged at her, just a little. And that something, combined with clear skill and that cleverness and conniving that also stood to be so irritating, made up her mind.

He didn't struggle as Sakura picked him up, hind legs dangling as she met his eyes. He just blinked at her, docile enough now that he'd gotten his way.

"Sakura, please don't tell me you'd choose an arrogant, self-centered cat over a loving, loyal dog, no matter how sleek his fur is," Kakashi-senpai said, then paused. "No, wait," he sighed. "That question just answered itself. Sorry to have wasted your time, Nekoda-chan. It looks like that one will be going home with us after all."

It wasn't just a matter of paperwork (or fees, which Kakashi-senpai handed over, giving Sakura a card from her parents, who'd wished her the best with her new friend), but also a very complex sealing that took place in a purpose-made room. Shallow lines etched into the floor were filled with ink in which their blood—hers and Soudai's—mingled and it took the assistance of four of the workers to see it completed. Sakura didn't feel much different afterward, but Kakashi-senpai reassured her that it wasn't that kind of a seal.

Much like actual pets required a collar, personal summons required some signal of their affiliation so as not to be mistaken for a pet by a civilian. Nekoda-san helped her find something like a small version of a shemagh—though young and rather slender, Soudai was fully grown and larger than Pakkun—which rather than being knotted was held closed by a metal clip with the Leaf engraved on it, which set at an angle, slightly to one side.

Judging by the purring that reached her ear from where the cat had draped himself across her shoulders, he found it more than "sufficient," but judging by the way Pakkun was eying him, there would be a definite adjustment period.

So long as they didn't live up to the "fighting like cats and dogs" saying, Sakura thought she could live with that.

[vulpophilia]

"I feel like it's staring at me," Tatsuo remarked as he eyed the mask, which had found a temporary home on the coffee table.

"I know what you mean," Sakura replied, glancing down at it. "I had to take it out of my room. I kept feeling like it might come alive and attack me if I turned my back on it. And forget sleeping with it in a forty-foot radius."

"I'd almost be afraid to move it," Tatsuo muttered.

The mask was Gozen's. Sakura had seen several different animal designs on ANBU masks in the brief moments she spotted them around the city, but she'd never seen one quite like Gozen's. For one, its base color wasn't white but a deep, terrible red, which made its wide, toothy smile all the more gruesome. The old woman had called it a gift, but Sakura only saw it as further confirmation of a terrible sense of humor.

"Fascinating," had been Soudai's pronouncement, which had prefaced the cat laying belly-down, staring at the mask for hours on end. Then had come conclusions on color and subtle asymmetry and the aesthetics of fear and the grotesque, which had been interesting but hadn't really made the fear better.  

"Oh, really, the two of you," the cat said impatiently, rising from his seat and vaulting across the divide to the coffee table. Nudging it to one side with his head, he cleared the space enough for Sakura to set down her tray of drinks and snacks.

"Thanks, Sou-chan," Sakura said, which made Soudai's tail and whiskers twitch, though with amusement or irritation it was hard to say.

Living with Soudai was an experience. One that told her that she'd grown up a little when she wasn't looking, because it wasn't in her any more to simply comply. But, to her surprise, that hadn't thrown Soudai at all. He compromised, most of the time, and simply ignored her when he wasn't willing to. But he never looked like he resented her asserting her own rules. Like the no-cats-while-showering-rule. He didn't follow it very well, but he'd only complained when she'd tried shoving him under the spray rather than throwing him out.

And for someone who'd lived basically alone for years, it was very strange to have a warm, furry form curled into her side when she woke up. (Or to be woken up by a cat who knew no regular hours prowling the house, or to wake up to sharp little claws kneading at her back.)  To have someone to talk to over breakfast. (To have someone insist that a real breakfast included fish. Without fail.) To have someone to talk to at home at all. She understood, in those moments, exactly why Kakashi-senpai needed the ninken. It had nothing to do with tracking or combat prowess and everything to do with simple company. With Soudai there, there was a lot less time for disastrous introspection and he never failed to wake her from her nightmares. 

"What are we watching?" Soudai demanded as ninken suddenly poured into the room, heralding Kakashi-senpai's arrival.

"That would depend on what senpai brought from the video rental," Sakura told him.

"We're being subject to his questionable taste again?" Soudai complained, even though he'd already stretched himself across the back of the couch.

"It is his turn," Tatsuo pointed out.

"And it's strange, how often my turn seems to coincide with me being away on missions. I start to feel unloved," Kakashi-senpai said from where he surveyed the scene from the doorframe, his ninken all claiming their favorite spots. Line of sight to the television was irrelevant—the frame rate was too slow for them to perceive it as anything but a slideshow with a soundtrack. The same was even more true of Soudai, but he wasn't content just to keep them company like the ninken, who were more than happy with an occasional head scratch. No, Soudai required attention. But he wasn't alone in his criticism of Kakashi-senpai's choices.

"It's not you, senpai," Sakura reassured him. "Just your unique taste in movies." Sometimes, because it was Kakashi-senpai, she thought he was doing it on purpose, but also because it was Kaskashi-senpai, she couldn't be certain.

"Can we get one where both the main characters survive? Or at least one that doesn't involve a kiss in the rain?" Tatsuo asked wryly.

"You are both heartless savages," Kakashi-senpai said drolly. Then his gaze caught on the mask, which had ended up facing the door when Soudai had finished nosing it out of the way. "And where, exactly, did that come from?"

"It was a gift," Sakura admitted.

"From who?"

"From...someone I know," Sakura settled on at last.

"That I never would have guessed," Kakashi-senpai retorted. "Because that design looks almost like a decommissioned ANBU mask."

Sometimes, Sakura forgot that Kakashi-senpai had once been ANBU and that though Gozen-san was now an old woman who passed the time scaring children, she'd once been infamous. "Does it?" she asked.   

Chapter Text

[gerontophobia]

Sakura was clever, competent, and followed orders well, which meant that people genuinely liked working with her. It wasn't like placing his other students, who would have been headaches for very different reasons. She'd built a tidy little reputation before being assigned to Aihara Cho, a chūnin who had a reputation of her own. The older chūnin had a very low tolerance for recklessness, after what had happened to her first team—one of her teammates had been convinced that despite their sensei's orders he was more than ready to be a part of the war effort and managed to get both himself and Aihara's other squadmate killed when he hadn't been—and he supposed he'd let himself get complacent, let himself trust in Aihara's "better cautious than sorry" selection of missions.

What he'd really wanted to do was shake Genma until his teeth rattled once he discovered how Sakura had even come into contact with someone like Gozen Reiji, but unfortunately the other jounin had been out on a mission. So he'd settled for ambling toward the little cluster of houses that was essentially an ANBU retirement community. It was a very small community and insular; it took a certain kind of person to survive ANBU as long as most of them had and being nice wasn't necessarily one of the requisite attributes.

He remembered his own stint in ANBU with no particular fondness. Mostly it had been S-rank special-ops, high-risk missions run in unallied countries with no support or reinforcements if things went sour. Those hadn't been so bad. They'd been enough to keep his mind on the here-and-now. But there was a reason that they were called Black Ops. The "necessary" but ethically and morally dubious ones...

Being a shinobi was being asked to sacrifice your body for your country; being ANBU sometimes felt like selling pieces of your soul for it. At the time he'd thought that he was so numb to everything it wouldn't make any difference what his body was doing, but it had. It had.

Kakashi had been the prodigy of his generation, but he was wise enough to know that there was always someone. Someone better, someone faster, someone deadlier. Uchiha Itachi and before him, Uchiha Madara had made their names famous by being unfathomably dangerous.

Namikaze Minato. The Senju Hokage. The Third. Those were the heroes of the village; they were the names every genin knew.  They’d cast long shadows, and in those shadows lived shinobi whose names never became famous because they'd spent their entire careers behind dehumanizing masks. Especially in the early days of the villages, when it had been spilt blood and piled corpses deciding which villages would survive the chaos, which ones would eventually become the Shinobi Godaikoku, the Five Great Shinobi Countries.

Kakashi redirected his thoughts from their dangerous course, but just at this moment reflecting on Sakura wasn't comfortable either, because it wasn't as if she'd met the woman they called Grandmother Nightmare only a week or two ago. She'd known her long enough and well enough that there was a mask in her house that had seen more carnage than most shinobi saw in their entire careers.

Somehow, even though he now did such things as movie nights and sparring matches with his former student, he'd managed to forget that Sakura wasn't like the others. She'd smile, play pretend that all was well in her world while internalizing her problems, attempting to solve them on her own. She didn't demand to be taught new techniques, whether through shouting or sulky silence, she'd just taken what little he'd had to give and made do, searching out things on her own. Surprising him, mostly in pleasant ways, but seeing that grinning red visage had shaken him as badly as Sasuke's decision to leave.

It ate at him, that he hadn't been able to discern the nightmares that had followed her home from Wave from those that might have come from whatever she'd been doing with Gozen. Sakura knew who she was, what she'd been, what that mask meant, because otherwise she would have never bothered to deflect that question. His question now was just how far that familiarity went. Kakashi didn't think he'd like the answer—Sakura had been the one without all the inescapable history; if she'd taken up creating her own, he didn't know what he'd do.

Except maybe more of the same thing he'd been doing his whole life for the important people in it: showing up too late to do anything but help the odd survivor limp away. And there were so few of those.

And then he was at the home of the woman who'd once worn that toothy mask and there she was, a little old woman sitting on her porch, hands full of a knitting project. He waited, to see if she'd acknowledge him, but there was only the rhythmic clicking of her needles.

He cleared his throat. "Nice day, isn't it?" he asked conversationally.

"Hatake," Gozen responded reproachfully. "I am an old woman. I don't have enough time left for you to go around wasting it. You're here about Sakura."

"Ah—yes," he said, only momentarily discombobulated by her directness. "I noticed a mask, the last time I was at her house. Strangely enough, it looked like yours."

"Well, I did give it to her," Gozen admitted plainly. "So of course it did. It's hers now, whatever she decides to do with it. Just as with everything else I've given her."

He'd told himself it was impossible because of Gozen's history of hoarding her jutsu, even as his instincts prompted suspicion, but this...

"You've always refused to pass on your techniques," he remarked, somehow hoping that she'd agree, that she was referring to recipes, knitting patterns, even a kitschy saltshaker collection. 

"That's still true," Gozen agreed and the tension ran out of Kakashi's shoulders, his breath escaping him in a sigh of relief. "I'll take my techniques to my grave. Inherited techniques are dead things; you learn them, learn them well, and you think that's all there is to them. It doesn't take genius to refine them, make them your own, to better accommodate and compliment your abilities rather than that of its creator; she can go to others for that. But jutsu you develop yourself, they're something living. It's like raising children. No matter how old you get, you're never quite finished. That's something I'll pass on to Sakura."

She paused for a moment and then smiled. "Aside from the character building aspects, it's not in my nature to be so generous as to let someone grow famous on my blood, sweat, and labor. If Sakura masters what I've shown her, it'll be because she's clever enough to do it. Not because she's got those damnable eyes," she murmured sourly, gaze drifting to where a Sharingan lay obscured by cloth and metal.  "Or because she happened to be born to a family with the right kind of blood, the right kind of history."

The tension had returned to his shoulders, creeping up the muscles of his neck and threatening to inspire a headache. "Shown her?" he repeated with careful neutrality.

"She came to me with nightmares. I gave her better ones," Gozen replied. "She'll need them, if Orochimaru doesn't put down that Uchiha whelp before he's old enough to cause too much trouble."

Kakashi bristled slightly, both at the insinuation that Sasuke would make more trouble than he already had for the village and the certainty that Sakura would meet him in battle. "Even if she confronted Sasuke," he pointed out, "he has the Sharingan."

Gozen's lips twisted into a sneer. "Even with so many of them dead, you still believe in their myth, don't you? That boy's family made that mistake, thought that those eyes made them gods, but look what that got them. Even if they had been," she said with deep ironic emphasis, "even gods can be tricked. And they can die."

[epistemophilia]

Given Sakura's introduction to Gozen-san, she'd never asked outright to be taught any techniques.

So she'd memorized what genjutsu could be found in the library (not very many, though a person could drown in theory) and learned all of what Kakashi-senpai had to share. Which wasn't much. He hadn't said so, just implied that he'd always found them incompatible with his personal style. Judging by the way he'd collapsed in Wave and what Honda-san had said, using the Sharingan was almost as taxing to him as using the Byakugan was to Tatsuo, albeit less painful. Not many ninja made use of genjutsu anyway; when they'd bothered Kakashi-senpai simply hadn't judged them worth the chakra to collect.

So she'd focused on other things. Perhaps not easier, because if they were easy, wouldn't everyone be capable of chakra-augmented strength or medical jutsu? Poisons were easier than those, because other people used them and because they'd fought a war with Suna. There were dosage tables, endless suggestions on sourcing them, using them, enhancing them. And, suddenly—or it seemed sudden—she had preferences, field experience, recognized expertise.

But she'd dared, on a morning she was feeling miserable and worn and achy with the newfound nastiness that was the dark side of puberty, to do more than just dismiss the illusion of stinging red ants boiling up out of the ground. This time she struck back, hiding her handsigns in the loose dirt she was working in. Mugen: Jubaku Satsu.

She felt the pull on her chakra and saw the ghost form, the tree nearest Gozen-san reaching out to embrace her with deadly intent, Sakura's own body given the illusion of invisibility. It was an old illusion, almost traditional, really, popular among Konoha-nin because it made use of their native environment. More chakra intensive than she liked—the complex, constantly shifting camouflaging illusion that was the "invisibility" component was hugely draining, but it was bound up in the technique.  She thought it was pretty good, the lines of the ghost firm and solid, her execution seamless, but Gozen-san only snorted and reached out, her hand parting the illusion like water. And just like that, it faded away.

"Come here, girl," Gozen-san said, beckoning her over. With more than a little trepidation, Sakura did as she was told. "Your hand," Gozen-san said impatiently when she'd reached her. Bemused, Sakura extended it. Strong fingers, hard and bony, snatched her wrist and before she could do more than widen her eyes in surprise, she'd scraped Sakura's hand along the bark of the tree so hard that there were droplets of blood forming up on the stinging skin.

"These canned illusions," Gozen-san said with distaste. "They make you lazy. You make some signs and trust it to take care of all the details. It's not like that evocative genjutsu that you favor. That reaches into your victim's mind and tears out the image you need; they're providing all the details, you're simply providing guidance and chakra. Invocative genjutsu are all about the details. I've told you that before, but it doesn't seem to have sunk in. If I can't feel the texture of the bark rasping against my clothes and my skin when the branches are closing, if I can't hear the creaking and groaning of the wood as it moves, if I can't smell the bark and the lichen, if the pressure feels like a flat iron band rather than a rounded limb, you're doing it wrong," she remarked flatly.

"You're not dealing in illusions," Gozen-san continued, never releasing her hold on Sakura's arm, leaving those droplets to become slowly drying rivulets. "The world is experienced through the senses; all we know of the world is perception. You have to make it real. You're not peddling dreams to your target, you're changing their world. All the way down to the fragments of bark left behind in a scrape."

She emphasized her point by sweeping her thumb over Sakura's red skin, making her wince. "You have to create a situation in which to disbelieve your genjutsu is to disbelieve all of your senses. You've had nightmares for as long as I've known you. How hard is it to tell yourself it's only a dream while you're living it? But you have to do better than that. The mind tricks itself while it dreams. It knows what details in needs, but you won't have that advantage when you turn a genjutsu on someone else. Humans give sight primacy, but it's not the only thing that matters.

"With enough chakra, you can overwhelm the shortcomings of a genjutsu, but it's ugly. Beneath you. Anyone with enough chakra can do it, like beating someone over the head with a cudgel until they agree with you that the sky is green. You're too weak for that in terms of chakra; too skilled for that in terms of potential. Their ways isn't yours. You can't replicate fire by simply looking at it; if you have to burn your hand a hundred times to truly experience it, then that's what you do.  Do you understand?" Sakura nodded weakly. "Now, try again."

Gozen-san was endlessly critical and apt to interrupt Sakura's focus by turning her own genjutsu against her and giving it teeth. Gozen had nothing but scorn for using the illusions without understanding how they were created, the way most shinobi utilized genjutsu. Without that basic knowledge, they could not modify them, let alone create them freely the way that Gozen-san seemed to.

It wasn't that Sakura didn't have the knowledge, precisely. Sakura had an excellent grounding in theory, buttressed by a solid medical understanding of how and why genjutsu fed false signals back to the brain. But creating new jutsu? That wasn't something they were taught at the Academy or something that was expected of chūnin. Especially as Gozen-san seemed to insinuate that, with the right technique, all invocative genjutsu were one.

Not one jutsu for ants, another for spiders, another for fire—just one, ultimately flexible technique that allowed one to project nightmares limited only by your imagination. Though, she admitted, having a dozen or so scenarios you had so perfectly memorized they were instinctive was useful. And every evocative genjutsu required its own technique. 

Though, Gozen-san pointed out, it wasn't only nightmares that could be useful even if she enjoyed them most. Tranquility. Joy. Desire. All of it could be manipulated, twisted to serve a purpose, and for the first time Sakura thought it was a good thing that Gozen-san dealt in fear. The thought of being confronted by illusions meant to evoke desire at every turn...

Well, the spiders with their clicking mandibles and hairy legs were finally preferable to something.

But the others—the call of a familiar voice, the scent of a summer's day, the feel of home—all of it could become tiny, fatal distractions.

She worked with the Magen: Jubaku Satsu, breaking it into its component pieces until she was only working with an illusionary tree. Sakura tried working with it as the ghost and found it too intangible; consultation with Gozen-san returned the fact that, yes, you could turn a genjutsu on yourself. She hadn't liked the beneficent look that had accompanied the answer, but it hadn't taken long to work out that genjutsu stood to be the ultimate drug. You could see anything, feel anything, be anything so long as your chakra held out.

All Sakura wanted was to master it, so she spent hours with one palm pressed against a real tree, the other against its mirror. And she kept at it until only her memory and the tug on her chakra were the only indicators as to which was the original.

It was only the first piece of an endless puzzle, the world transformed into a place not to be just experienced, but painstakingly memorized. As Gozen-san had promised, the things she feared came easiest, almost imprinting themselves on her memory as she bit down on one hand and tried to keep the other from trembling as she allowed things with too many legs and poisons glands to crawl across the back of it. Instead of just ignoring pain, working through it, she carefully committed the feel of a cut, the agony of a burn, the ache of a blow.

Other, more pleasant things took on a new intensity as she captured not just impressions in passing, but lingered until she knew the exact texture of a petal, the feel of silk, the scent of a home-cooked meal. She put together scenarios with painstaking care, until she could call them up with only the handsigns and a moment's attention. And one of Gozen-san's friends—he lived two houses over, with a garden full of lilies and a closet full of skeletons, like all the ex-ANBU—introduced her to his son, who was a T&I specialist. It was from him that she learned what there was to know about evocative genjustsu, dredging up treasured and dreaded memories both from the depths of an enemy's subconscious.

It took her more than a year until she'd grown confident enough in her collection to call it a technique. Gozen-san never once disclosed what she'd called hers and Sakura had never named anything. Not her knives, not her cat.

But she called this Kanashibari, that awful moment when waking from a nightmare in which one found oneself paralyzed, unable to move or speak.  

[ereuthrophilia]

Sakura was all but basking the warmth of the day, which was why she was comfortably settled against a tree in one of the parks within Konoha rather than reading at home. Soudai had accompanied her, but he'd melted into a furry puddle in a dappled patch of sunlight almost immediately on arrival. He wasn't usually content to sleep, even when she'd rather he did, so the sight of him stretched out on the grass had prompted a wry, fond grin.

Then she'd turned her attention to her book and set the world and all its worries aside for a while. She had her own customer loyalty card at Lemon&Lime and, to her embarrassment, was as well-known for her tastes as Kakashi-senpai was for his. She'd once tried about the first three chapters of the first Icha Icha novel, but that had been enough to know that it was written by a man for men, which was fine, she guessed, but not something she'd read voluntarily.

She'd found her own niche genres. "Another fem-dom lite? Or is it an empowered reverse harem heroine today?" was Akemi-chan's familiar, teasing refrain. Sakura had read and reread all the Tsunami to Tsundere-kun novels, so until the next one came out, she was searching out new authors. None had quite measured up to Tsunami, but she'd found others she liked. This one—safely hidden behind the barrier of a medical text to allow for public reading—was a new recommendation from Akemi-chan, who worked at the store to facilitate a ferocious reading habit that appreciated the employee discount and the ability to read book blurbs on her breaks.

 Kongaragaru was the first of another multi-book series, this one featuring an embittered jounin trap-master who'd been badly injured both physically and mentally when her lover/partner—who'd been a habitual piece of nastiness who'd undermined her confidence in herself as a person, though he hadn't been able to touch her confidence as a shinobi—had betrayed her. She was therefore none too receptive to the attentions of her gentle Hyūga medic-nin, whose goal had become to restore both her health and her heart despite Beniko's somewhat acidic personality.

With a combination of some sort of Jūken-derived chakra-massage that had started as physiotherapy and quickly become quasi-erotic and Beniko's practical skills at restraining enemies used in ways that Sakura wasn't certain she was quite comfortable with—but Hyūga Jinichi seemed to enjoy—she was treading ground very strange to her. Tsunami had been easy to emphasize with. Beniko was a little harder to understand when she was touched by the trust displayed in Jinichi's easy submission.

She was on a page with an illustrated plate and was trying very hard not to glance over at the art—and that looked like a seriously complex series of knots and she was trying hard not to remember that there was an appendix to this novel that had directions and if it was this bad before any actual sex Sakura didn't know if she'd survive the later novels—w hen she heard raucous laughter.

Looking up in guilty instinct, she found Tenten almost sobbing with laughter against Neji's shoulder. Lee just looked bemused, but Neji looked very close to spontaneous combustion. And he was looking at her.

Tenten raised her head, wiping tears from her eyes, and seeing that Sakura was looking at them, stepped towards her. Sakura managed to shove both her books into her messenger bag before she was very close, but the knowing grin on her face told her she was fooling no one except maybe Lee.

"Um, something wrong, Tenten?" she asked.

"Not really," Tenten replied, the grin widening. "You must have been pretty into that book."

Sakura did not rise to the bait, willing down the flush that wanted to color her cheeks and set the tips of her ears to burning. 

Tenten didn't seem disappointed. "Guy-sensei was just with us," she said. "He happened to see you here, studying in the park, and held you up as an example of youth and virtue to us all." Her expression turned positively wicked. "Only, it looked to me like you were enjoying it just a little too much, you know. So I coerced poor Neji into taking a look at what you were reading. One look at his face and it was pretty easy to tell that wasn't a medical textbook. Care to share?"

Sakura's eyes darted over toward Neji, who was all but gaping at her. She shushed the terrible, inquiring part of her brain that wanted to ask if Jūken could even be used like that and settled instead for being embarrassed and feeling it served her right for following Kakashi-senpai's example.

[trichophilia]

Sakura gained some things and lost others when her team left.

Tatsuo was one of them.

No one except Ino had brushed her hair for her since her grandmother died and it had never occurred to her to want anyone to.

But they'd both seen the movie before and she was multitasking from the floor in front of the couch, taking notes as she read over a new study on abnormalities in the eye that could cause debilitating symptoms when chakra was used to enhance them.  The stabbing pain hadn't improved with practice—when she enhanced her eyes for shunshin for long periods, she began to feel first pain, then a gradual loss of color vision, and just the other day she'd scared herself when vision in her left eye had degraded to foggy shadows. She'd eventually come to suspect that she might be only very slightly astigmatic, which didn't affect her day-to-day vision, but when amplified by chakra to force her eyes to process visual stimuli at a rate humans weren't normally capable of, she exacerbated it into optic neuritis due to spillover from her channels.

While it wasn't really pleasant, especially if she permanently blinded herself before she corrected it, she'd taken it as an opportunity. She had a feeling that Tatsuo's vision problems, while more extreme, might be linked to the same damage caused by chakra spillover from damaged paths. By insisting on correcting her own vision issues herself, rather than confessing the problem to a proper medic, she also provided a neat excuse for the borrowed books that littered her room without making any promises she might not be able to keep.   

Before they’d settled in for movie night tonight, Sakura and Tatsuo had engaged in a long, grueling practice session that pitted her ability to dodge against his Jūken, so she'd showered as soon as she'd made it home and left her hair loose to air dry while Tatsuo took his own turn in the shower. She was regretting that now, as every time she leaned forward her hair spilled over her shoulders, getting in the way and leaving wet tracks on the paper. Sakura scowled at it, having worn it tied back so long she'd forgotten the irritation of wearing it loose for anything but going straight to bed.

She'd started growing it out for Sasuke, even though its texture meant that it would never be as smooth and sleek as she'd like it to be. Not like Ino’s. She'd kept growing it out of habit and because another few inches of ponytail was as easy to wrap as doing the rest of it.

It also made her feel pretty, perhaps a little more feminine, which mattered, sometimes. Not in the field, but at home, out with friends. Mariko had been proven right in her predictions—with some new height and her morning walks, she had fantastic legs, now that she was developing the hips to complement them. But her bust was, well, a bust. And despite the pleasant implications of that later in life—no back problems or fear of the inevitability of gravity—it was in the now a sore spot that wasn't soothed by the fact that she wasn't nearly old enough to have her full growth in any way just yet.

Shoving her hair back over her shoulders, only to have it fall forward once more, Sakura glared at Tatsuo when he chuckled. "Hold that thought," he said, disappearing upstairs only to return with comb and brush  in hand. Settling himself on the floor with his back supported by the couch, he shoved the coffee table to one side until there was room enough for Sakura to settle herself in front of him.

It wasn't until he'd worked the tangles out that she noticed what an unexpectedly sensual activity it was, the firm, even stroke of the brush across her scalp, his fingers deftly managing the length of her hair. She went very tense and still, suddenly aware of Tatsuo in a way she usually wasn't. She spent her days with him, bunked with him on missions, sparred with him and fought beside him. She was more comfortable with him than she'd ever been with another person, but in this moment "comfortable" was not what she was feeling.

Tatsuo was her partner. A person way, way before he was a young man. Not now. Not with the warm heat of him so close, his woodsy, musky scent tickling her nose. She almost yelped when he nudged her in the ribs with his knees. "Relax," he admonished her.

How? she demanded plaintively in her head, but over her sudden discomfort, she reminded herself just who it was at her back. And with that, it was easier to disperse her tension by folding her legs tight against her chest, tucking her arms securely around them. The movement turned her back into a sensitive curve and she shivered as the thin fabric of her t-shirt provided little protection against the gentle stroking that was chasing pleasant sensations down her spine.  

Tatsuo kept it up until she'd been lulled into a pleasant drowsiness, which was why she made a sound of protest with the brushing stopped. There came his soft chuckle again, then an insistent tugging sensation. "What are you doing?" Sakura murmured.

"Your hair," Tatsuo replied teasingly. "Now, hold still or it'll be uneven."

Sakura did as she was told, until he draped her hair forward over her shoulder. "When and why, exactly, did you learn how to do a fishbone braid?" she asked bemusedly, though she had to admire what a neat job he'd done of it.

"Trade secret," was his reply. "Not bad, though?"

"No, it's really good," Sakura reassured him. "...thanks," she said shyly, twisting around to glance at him.

Hyūga eyes had once looked very strange to her, like the milky eyes of dead fish when she was at her most unkind, but she could read good humor, kindness, warmth in them now. And something more than warmth, something like heat, an expression she had little experience interpreting but which spoke to deep instincts. She'd known from the moment that she'd met Tatsuo that he was good-looking, but it had never felt so immediate and visceral as in this moment. And all those things tugged at her, made her realize all of a sudden that she was very lucky to be this close to him, to have met him at all.  

There'd only been one other moment when she'd been so aware of someone else, but that moment with Zen had only been an instant, not this slow, languid build towards...something. It also sparked another thought. What would it be like to kiss a friend, instead of a stranger? To kiss Tatsuo?

There was something in the moment that prevented her from weighing good idea against bad idea, from considering consequences, more curiosity and the heady sense of being admired driving her rather than outright desire. She twisted around to face him fully, flexible as a cat, her hands pressed flat against the floor on either side of his hips. She caught a flash of Tatsuo's widening eyes in her peripheral vision, but she was intent on getting the angle just so, because she wasn't so long in the moment as to be immune to the embarrassment of messing this up.

Her first contact was gentle, tentative, her lips barely whispering over his, but when she drew back a little to regroup, she shifted all her weight onto one hand so that she could slip the other behind his neck, committing more of herself to the motion. Their second kiss was longer, more reciprocal as he shifted, his hands coming up to grasp her shoulders.

Sakura felt the sting of both embarrassment and disappointment as he gently put space between them, which spurred her to duck her head and try to make a dignified retreat. But he held her fast, one hand leaving her shoulder to nudge her chin up until she met his eyes.

"To be clear," he said, "this isn't 'no.' But my temperament isn't suited for doing something like this for curiosity's sake. I've had to let go of too many things already to keep doing it with grace. You're a wonderful partner and very pretty, but you haven't had enough people tell you that yet. When you make jounin—" he silenced her automatic protest at that, "when you make jounin and you've left enough men breathless, if you still want to, if you still want a Hyūga whose eyes are so thoroughly ruined the elders removed his Kago no Tori no Juin, we can do this again. I promise I'll be waiting."

[gamophobia]

Sakura gained some things and lost others when her team left.

Tatsuo was one of them.

He'd given her time and a choice, but as she gripped his sunglasses like her hold on them was the only thing keeping her world intact—one lens cracked, both smeared with blood—she understood that was a choice she'd never have to make. There was a strange numbness in her, uncurling from her belly, up her spine, into those hands that weren't shaking from the fear and grief and rage.

They'd been contracted for a kidnapping. Wealthy merchant's daughter who'd been traveling incognito. He'd been unwilling to wait for a ransom note, had been quick to commission a B-rank that had Aihara-taichou's entire squad on the trail. It had led them to a little town on the coast, which had been unexpected but not entirely strange—urban environments offered more anonymity, but they'd expected to eventually discover an isolated farmhouse or something similar, an environment where you could hold someone captive without anyone raising a fuss.

As it turned out, none of the captor's neighbors would have done more than recommend a buyer. They'd stumbled onto a generations-entrenched slaving operation, reinforced by missing-nin talent.

Jounin-level talent. Not many, but it only took one. Just one to see beneath the henge and decide a Hyūga was too much of a threat to their operation to leave the village alive.

It had all gone wrong, so, so quickly. She—they—hadn't known what they'd happened upon, weren't given the chance to form conclusions. They'd gone in together, because that was what partners did, because that was what their orders were. Two others to make up a full squad, Tatsuo their face in the crowd, their infiltrator. Sakura's transformation jutsu were flawless, but he had a touch with people that she didn't, so she'd always interacted less directly on these kinds of missions, kept an eye on the place, the people, her partner. In a town this size, this had taken the form of shadowing him in a way that civilians wouldn't normally have noticed.

But they weren't civilians. And if Tatsuo's reflexes had been any less honed, he'd have been dead when the first missing-nin struck.

One of their squad had gone for help, the other had gone to reinforce Tatsuo's position, and Sakura yanked both canisters her tear gas solution from her vest as people spilled into the street like a disturbed hive of hornets. Some part of her had acknowledged that this was it then, the place where it ended, because retreat was the only certain path out of this place. She was fast enough. Fast enough to outrun them all.

But not fast enough to leave Tatsuo behind, not when she could see him at the end of the street.

Despite the quickness of the residents' response, there was a distinct lack of military precision in the armed chaos below. Her initial impression was correct—like bees or ants, they were only following the first to strike, mindlessly operating to eliminate the threat in their midst before carrying on with their lives. Some of them were hardly more than ordinary people wielding whatever was at hand, grass sickles and butcher knives, protecting a livelihood.

She'd already been wearing her combat glasses, her shemagh pulled snug across the bridge of her nose, so there was no hesitation as she pitched the canisters into the thick of the crowd. She was in this moment immune to the gradations of guilt and culpability—if it was within reach of her knives and carried or had carried a weapon, it didn't matter if it screamed, cried, or tried to flee, she cut them down. Men, women, half-grown children. It was like the crowd on the end of the bridge all over again, except this time she was Zabuza, and it was a slaughter.

Between the gas and the whirlwind the slavers were reaping, Sakura had enough space to maneuver without the press of bodies overwhelming her with sheer numbers, but not enough of them were fleeing and too many of them were capable of using chakra to keep the roofpaths from being an advantage. She was briefly, fiercely jealous of anyone who could have used a ninjutsu to turn the streets into a graveyard in one massive expenditure of chakra. But even if she killed herself with the effort, Sakura couldn't have done it, so she didn't waste the energy, let it fall away because the world outside demanded her all her attention.

Everything was the flash of steel under sunlight, the subtle shift to avoid an oncoming blow, the strain on her wrists as she swept her blades through flesh and cloth and sometimes bone. She was such a part of the rhythm of this terrible, mad dance she almost didn't realize she'd fought her way to Tatsuo's side, but there he was, those graceful killing hands lashing out with a quickness that would have been impossible to follow if she wasn't seeing the world with eyes enhanced with chakra. Their styles were a good match for fighting side by side; neither of them used ninjutsu, each had a precision, an economy to their movements.

The third member of their squad was there too, tried to lead them out of the carnage, but the moment he made the rooftops more skilled missing-nin targeted him. He was like the rest of Aihara-taichou's squad: chūnin, more than competent enough when the mission only went sideways, but in these circumstances, against these odds it was only a matter of how many he cut down before he fell himself.

Sakura heard shouting when she saw him go down in her peripheral vision, realized that the full squad had arrived. Some part of her fluttered in gratitude; the rest thought that they were here to die, that the right decision would have been to retreat, to report to the village and let them send in a team capable of taking this on. Would she have made the same call? She wasn't given time to reflect on it, just to keep killing, having to keep moving because footwork was becoming difficult around the bodies.

Her head began to hurt, her arms began to ache, and she was bleeding from a half-dozen grazes she'd been too slow to avoid. It would only get worse, she registered dimly, as she grew more tired and the real shinobi stepped from behind their meat-shields to take down their exhausted prey. It was good tactics, if you had them stomach for them, and it wasn't you being harried into the ground.

It was a challenge to pace herself, to not roar aloud and throw herself against them with everything she had, but that was the road to a quick death and she was determined if she could not live, she would make them pay for it.

The thin, cowardly voice in her mind told her that she could still make it if she ran now. This dross, those jounin—none of them could catch her with her speed. She could take Tatsuo with her, could have tried it in the beginning, but she'd never have been able to take their squad of four out of harm's way. Even more impossible now, so she shoved it aside with a snarl as she drove her knife up into the hollow of a woman's throat, through the roof of her mouth and further to where the important things dwelled. It was as she was yanking her knife free of her sagging body that something caught her attention.

She half-turned, just in time so see Tatsuo sinking to his knees. It was a quiet, suspended moment, where it seemed like all the sound in the world retreated, leaving her an almost perfect silence in which to watch him fall. The veins around his eyes were bulging—he'd used the Byakugan in the end, perhaps brought about his own death with the pain of it. He didn't look afraid, or angry, just wore that intensely focused look he put on instead of admitting how much his eyes hurt him. For a heartbeat, she held out the hope that he'd get up, but then he turned painfully towards her and his neck was all meat and blood where his opponent's suntetsu had ripped a gaping path.

All Sakura's careful pacing suddenly became meaningless. Roughly thrust-kicking an opponent away from her with chakra-enhanced strength, feeling the give of his sternum, she was at Tatsuo's side in an instant, sheathing her knives and laying on desperate, useless hands. He was gone and it was with sharp, sour hate that she looked up at his opponent, who gave her a wicked smile and licked Tatsuo's blood from the sharpened points of his suntetsu, one hand beckoning her in an invitation. "How sweet," he cooed insincerely. "Well, I'm certain he'd be glad to know you cared."

Sakura knitted her fingers, forgetting any reservation she might have had about what it was to fight to kill and fighting to hurt. "Show me what you love," Sakura snarled as she manipulated her chakra, sinking intangible claws deep in her target's nervous system, "let me return the favor and take it away."

 It was evocative genjutsu, realizing all his deeply buried fears in terrifying detail, like the novel version of the flash fiction that was Kakashi-senpai's Hell Viewing. Genjutsu could be like dreams, complex ideas conveyed in very brief amounts of time, nightmares writ complete at the speed of thought. She couldn't enjoy the ghost, had to keep fighting, keep killing or be killed, but she could feel a pitiless satisfaction when he began to beg. And she let him, let him beg and scream and cry, caught in her genjutsu, until she laid bare hands over his throat and pressed with her thumbs until the cartilage of his trachea collapsed and he turned first red, then plum purple, then dead.

Breaking things, bones, people, she returned to Tatsuo's side, snatched up his broken sunglasses, closed his eyes for the last time. No time to do more than that.

And then she did what she hadn't allowed herself to do before, threw herself into it with a roar until she almost couldn't draw enough breath, almost couldn't lift her arms for the next blow. She took shelter for a little while then, fingering his sunglasses, feeling the growing numbness that settled in her belly. Her vision was already off-color, blurry, and the pain in her head was almost as bad as the pain where someone had driven a curved sickle into her hip almost to the joint. She couldn't do anything about the former, but she could and did seal the worst of her wounds, leaving only a faint, residual stiffness.

Sakura slowly rose to her feet, took a shaky breath. I don't want to die. That wasn't a revelation, there was nothing new about that instinct toward survival that made animals gnaw off their own feet in traps to limp through another day, that made people get out of bed in the morning even when there wasn't anything to look forward to. It had been the mantra that had seen her through Gatō, through Orochimaru, but sometimes will wasn't enough to change the world.

But she stepped back out into the sun anyway, fought until the world faded to shadows and her unblemished knife, never meant to be used with chakra-enhanced strength, broke off midway down the blade. She tossed it aside and buried her fist in someone's face, turning the curve of it concave as the skull collapsed under the force of it. And when she couldn't see anything, was reduced to lashing out blindly, she put her back against a wall and kept at it until someone's hand—huge, sweaty palm, calloused and hard—smashed her head against the wall.

Her world exploded in white pain, the hand took a firmer grip, and then she knew nothing at all.

 

Chapter Text

[bedside manners]

Kakashi stared blankly down at his open novel, more to have somewhere to focus his gaze that wasn't there than with any real intention of reading it. All of his attention was on the reassuring noise of the medical machinery crouched in every corner of the room, confirming with every dispassionate beep that Sakura had made it through another terrible, silent interval.

He owed every one of those seconds to Aihara, who never left the village without a way to contact the network of extraction squads which were based throughout the country for rapid response. In this case, that response had come too late for most of her team. Upon the extractions squad's entry into the village—because of the nature of the distress call, several teams had rendezvoused before their assault—only five survivors had been discovered, one of whom had lost too much blood to stabilize, another succumbing quietly to shock during transport.

The former of those had been part of a pair of ninja that Aihara had ordered to retreat, because she hadn't judged their combat skills adequate enough to pit against such numbers.

They'd initially counted Sakura among the dead; if they hadn't had an extremely gifted medic-nin along or if Sakura had been any less tenacious, she would have remained there. Judging by the extensive bruising, the swelling of her brain and the lovely hematoma that went with it, as well as the broken ribs and the slow hemorrhage that were competing with the traumatic brain injury to kill her first, the responding medic-nin had assessed that someone had bashed her head against a wall until she'd lost consciousness and kept kicking her once she was down.

The slavers hadn't been interested in keeping Sakura. Not with the devastating path she'd left behind her, dozens of corpses bearing the distinctive marks of her knives. Not carnage, because that wasn't Sakura's style, which was all surgical precision and brutal efficiency. Even now that she had stamina to spare, she'd never lost the habits formed when she'd first gotten serious about being a shinobi.

He could still remember those days, when a brief sparring match would have her wheezing. Part of him wished they were still living them, that his team had had time to actually be a team, before two of them had went off with Sannin and one had taken up desperate last stands. 

One death had been especially interesting to the captain of the combined extraction squads. A jounin missing-nin—not famous enough to be a household name, but annoying enough to earn himself a bounty—who'd apparently let himself be strangled by a small pair of hands, no other bruising or marks of restraint on his body at all. Kakashi had hemmed and hawed and avoided admitting that his former student was the present protégé of Gozen Reiji—or at least as close as that old bitch would ever come—though he didn’t know if giving her the idea that Sakura had crafted a genjutsu capable of holding a jounin without any outside input at all was any better.

If it came down to it, he wasn't certain how he felt about it himself.

Proud, yes, relieved that Sakura had survived to come back to him when so many hadn't ever come home again, but there was a distinct line between the kind of thoughtless, childish cruelty that she'd displayed on occasion with Naruto and the kind of cruelty—or at least the level of dissociation, the lack of empathy, or perhaps the will strong enough to overcome any sympathy—that was required to use Gozen's brand of genjutsu. It was always possible that Sakura had used something else, something a little less like the reason so many genjutsu-types of any reputation tended to be infamous, but Kakashi had gotten into the habit of assuming the worst and being proved right.

And he was no stranger to bitter, bitter anger, but he'd never had the ability to express it as someone else's nightmares. Not the way a proper genjutsu specialist could. The technique he'd shown Sakura, that was a bludgeon, no build-up or subtlety at all, easily escaped by a halfway competent shinobi. Not enough to hold a jounin for more than a few seconds, certainly not long enough to strangle anyone. 

Over two years ago now, Sakura had made her first kill and that had changed her irrevocably. This would do the same, but only time would tell how this whole miserable situation would change her.

He could only be there, offer what support he could, even if it was just repressing his dislike of hospitals to sit at her bedside and watch over her while she slept. It wasn't the obligation of a sensei to his student—he hadn't even been that in name for a long time. It was the same kind of warm regard he might have felt for a younger sister, if he'd ever had one; despite the disparity between their ages and experience, Sakura was a friend. And he had precious few of those, none of whom made him break his rules as easily or readily as Sakura.

She was...pack. The family that he'd chosen and been chosen by.

So despite the antiseptic smell that turned his stomach, Kakashi stayed. The mundane matters were being taken care of by others, so that he could be there when Sakura woke.  

Any kills conclusively identified as Sakura's that carried a bounty had already been processed and the funds deposited in her account, the bounties which belonged to deceased shinobi having been given to their families alongside the death settlement. In this case, the bodies of all the Konoha shinobi had been successfully retrieved, so there had been that closure.

Genma, who'd delivered an absolutely riotous bouquet, was feeding both the ninken and Sakura's furry terror. The ninken, at least, were capable of reacting with sufficient gravity, curling in miserable little piles around Sakura's bed when they'd come to visit, but the cat had planted himself on Sakura's sternum and started kneading his claws in her blanket, those uncanny eyes focused on her face as if he was either gauging her expression or demanding she wake and pay attention to him. Kakashi had removed him by the scruff of his neck and the cat had taken sulkily to second-guessing the nurses.

Kakashi glanced up as someone slid the door open and he was surprised to see it was Aihara. "Should you be up?" he asked, taking in her sallow skin and a mouth turned into a thin, tightly compressed line by her refusal to admit to pain.

"I'm well enough to look over what's left of my team," she replied as she walked stiffly to Sakura's bedside. She was silent for a long time, then without looking over at him, she said, "I'm recommending her for promotion. Even if they don't make her jounin, she's ready to lead a team. I was going to wait until she got over whatever she has against elemental ninjutsu, but I see now that she doesn't need it. It'd be useful, of course, but she has the mentality and the skills."

"When?" he asked quietly.

Now she glanced over at him, her eyes cold and knowing. "I turned the paperwork over to a courier this morning. That's the way this village works—you survive something that could be reasonably expected to break a civilian for the rest of their life and it asks you to do it on a regular basis. It won't be easy. But it will be a damn sight easier for her if she has something better to do with herself than wallowing in what she lost. She would have been reassigned regardless; not enough of us survived for this squad to be a viable unit any longer. I'm just making certain she gets the acknowledgement she deserves."

Her expression softened, but just slightly, just enough for Kakashi to get a clear sense that for all her detached mien, Aihara was suffering. "She made me proud to be her captain. Right until the end, she never stopped fighting."

Having apparently satisfied her need to check up on Sakura and having said her piece, Aihara took her leave and left Kakashi to his vigil, which was interrupted by the parents of her partner, his mother bearing an armful of peonies as pink as Sakura's hair, still tightly furled. Though he'd heard about them, this was his first time meeting them, which made the greeting exchanged between them stilted and awkward, Tatsuo's mother escaping the tension by arranging her flowers on the table beneath the window.

"I cut them from my garden," she said as she arranged them prettily, all effortless elegance next to Gemna's riot of color. She ran the petals between her thumb and forefinger, looking the kind of reflective that would have been a prelude to tears if it weren't for stalwart Hyūga dignity. Kakashi was grateful for that, because there was nothing in the world to make you feel gawky and awkward like someone crying. "Sakura admired them so much when they bloomed last year, so I thought it would be a pity if she missed them this year. I offered to part them out, so she could have her own, but she just gave me this look...," she trailed off, letting her hand fall away.

She swallowed uncomfortably and her husband took up the thread of the conversation. "We'll be by again when she's awake. Just because...," and it was his turn for that moment when the muscles in his face tensed as he forced emotion down, mastering himself, "just because Tatsuo isn't here any longer doesn't give her an excuse not to visit. For us, for shinobi, the squad is your family—and just because you lose a member of it doesn't mean you stop being family. The dead never really leave us."

"I know," Kakashi replied. And he did. His whole life was full of ghosts.

But Sakura wasn't one of them, not yet, and so he stayed until she woke up, stayed while she cried, and promised himself this time, with this team—even if parts of it were scattered—it would be different.

[the things that don't kill you]

Sakura locked the door carefully behind her, sinking to the floor with her back against the comforting solidity of it.

Staring blankly at the ceiling, she tried to swallow down the sick feeling creeping up from her belly, the growing certainty that she could not do this. When her breathing was as steady as it was going to get—which was really just a generous way of saying she wasn't light-headed from the panicked wheezing that had started from the moment she'd resolved to do this—she let her head drop to stare at her hands, flexing them as green medical chakra played like living fire across her fingertips.

This is a bad idea, a little voice warned, you shouldn't be trying this without supervision. You shouldn't be trying this at all.

Before that timid, cautious voice could talk her out of this, Sakura raised her hands to her eyes and began.

Eventually she heard Soudai, yowling on the other side of the door. "Sakura? Sakura, what are you doing in there? Answer me."

But Sakura couldn't, couldn't move, couldn't stop, for fear that her microscopic adjustments to the interior of her eye would leave her permanently blind when she opened them again. Delicate muscles, miniscule veins, some of the most fragile chakra channels in the whole body and she was manipulating them without ever breaking the skin, working only through excellent memory and a strange kind of sonar peculiar to medical chakra.

She could hear claws tearing at the door and Soudai snarling, but she ignored him. "Sakura, let me in. Let me in. If you don't answer, I'm going to do something drastic."

Sakura could only answer with silence and he finally said, "Fine, you irritating creature. If I'd been born with hands, I would rip open this door and strangle you until you came to your senses, but things being as they are, I'm off to summon Kakashi."

She could hardly redouble her efforts, because medical chakra just didn't work like that, but she kept panic at bay and finished what she'd started. By the time it was Kakashi knocking on the door, she'd moved to the far wall, her head held in her hands, too afraid to open her eyes and see what she'd done. "Sakura?" Kakashi asked cautiously as she heard the knob turn and the door open. "Sakura," he said again, his voice closer to her now as he knelt. "Sakura, what's wrong?"

-x-

"What's wrong," Tsunade-sama said sternly as she brought a clipboard none-too-gently down atop Sakura's head, "is that you have a shinobi with entirely too much talent. Your eyes are fine. Better than fine. Don't think I didn't notice the little improvements, like those shunts you burned into your chakra circulatory system to avoid inflammation caused by chakra spillover." she told Sakura, who winced when it seemed the clipboard would impact again. But instead it came down softly on her hair. "Good job, kid. You could cycle chakra into your eyes all the livelong day if it suited you."

Keeping the clipboard in place, Tsunade-sama frowned down at her. Contemplatively, which was not as reassuring as it might have been. "Hatake, take a walk," she ordered brusquely.

"Hokage-sama?" Kakashi-senpai queried, his one visible brow rising.

"You heard me. Take a walk. A long one, well off hospital grounds. I'll see to her discharge and you can scold her yourself later. Now, shoo."

And without another word, Kakashi-senpai went.

Tsunade-sama sighed and slumped into the chair beside Sakura's bed. "Good. Now, we're going to have a talk. No, don't make that face. I'm not going to yell at you. You clearly knew what you were doing and took a calculated risk. That's not something a good commander discourages. In fact," she chuckled, "it almost makes me wish that I'd had a hand in it. But in a way it's good that I didn't."

"What do you mean?" Sakura asked.

"Because I'm a Senju, which means I'm bound by all the old agreements. As my student, you would have been a Senju by extension, so far as the clans are concerned. You, however, are free to do as you please. And you have a someone close to you who is slowly going blind, if chakra exhaustion doesn't manage to kill him first."

"You mean—?"

"Yes, him. He won't like it very much if you try to help, but feel free to ignore his opinions. We have enough suffering in this world without people choosing it," she told her, abruptly shoving herself to her feet. "I look forward to our interview, Haruno."

"Interview?" Sakura asked blankly.

"For your jounin assessment. I'll tell them on my way out that you're cleared to leave. Judging by your records, you'll be able to take care of your own paperwork." And just like that, she made to stride from the room, only turning back when she was in the doorframe."Oh, and Haruno?"

"Yes, Tsunade-sama?"

"The secret to a really good impact crater? It's not just pure chakra. It's a simultaneous doton manipulation."   

[picnics with the dead]

When you're ready, we'll take you to the Hyūga shrine.

We parted out some of Tatsuo's ashes for you, during the bunkotsu.

You'll always be welcome here.

Forty-nine days. The time it took a soul to sever all ties with the world.

And, though she wasn't ready, time for her to say goodbye properly.

There was a cultivated peacefulness to the garden, a sense of remove despite its location within the Hyūga compound. There were high whitewashed walls which buffered the sound of people and intensified the impression of being alone with the dead. One enormous memorial stone dominated the center of the garden, bearing the family name in livid, living red, but only the heads of the line had individual stone markers even though this was where all Hyūga came to rest. For everyone else, there was a tiny little building that recorded the names of the deceased on slats of bamboo, rolled into a mat that traced the dead of the clan to before the founding.

Tatsuo's father had explained the tradition, the urns of the heads of the clan—containing only the better part of their ashes, the rest shared by their immediate family—were buried beneath a seedling fruiting tree. No one ever ate from them even when they came of age; their fruit was for the animals, the spirits, and the gods. Choice of tree was dictated by personal preference. Peaches, pomegranates, one ancient, gnarled apple past fruit-bearing age that predated the village.

Her tiny urn, her part of Tatsuo, rested on her bedside table, next to his shattered glasses—she wasn't certain whether she was grateful or not that they had managed to follow her home—next to the photo of her shattered team. Sometimes it was almost enough to make her feel obligated to light incense and leave offerings, but instead she wished him good morning when she woke up—she'd been trying to get back into the habit of sleeping in her bed because her father had been home those first weeks and concerned for her and she didn't feel the need to tell him she'd spent days in the past sleeping beneath the comforting shelter of the kitchen table—and faced that terrible moment where she had to decide to get out of bed and face a world that there wasn't any waking up from.

That was the beautiful thing about nightmares and the terrible thing about dreams. They ended. And because people spent every night escaping the things that terrified them by the simple expedient of waking up, it was perhaps a natural human impulse to consider how much easier existence would be if it came to such an end. But it was only in those first moments between here and there, between dreaming and waking, that Sakura ever let herself think of how much she wished she could go back to sleep and never have to face the things waiting in the world and that only in those first days after she came home.

Life was hard and brutal and likely brief, but she wasn't so deep in her misery that she'd forgotten that there were other things besides Tatsuo and missions gone awry in it. It wasn't even really about the loss of her partner, the loss of the squad, the almost-loss of her own life. It was about being bone-tired, soul-tired, along with all the tender bits deep inside that still felt strange and fragile whenever she moved. 

But Sakura made herself get up and get on with it, replacing ruined gear, exercising muscles made weak by chakra-healing and bed rest.  She'd replaced her broken and unrecovered knife, spending the best part of her bounties on the special steel capable of channeling chakra; if she'd thought sealing scrolls excessively expensive, it was on par with having a knife custom-forged at ten times the rate of a good carbon steel one. She'd seen pictures of weapons made with the steel before, had noted that they were all black, but she'd thought it was a stylistic thing. 

As it turned out, the same quirk of the steel that made it capable of channeling chakra meant that it had a glossy black sheen. And because it was so rare, which was part of why it was expensive, only truly talented swordsmiths worked it, which meant that she'd been breathless with admiration at the artistry of the hamon and the sharp, vicious elegance of it when her commission was presented to her. That had been a strangely formal moment, all tea and ceremony and being glad that Kakashi-senpai was there and feeling like she was accepting art rather than a tool.

She'd brought it with her and she was wearing her new boots—she could hear Ino even now, that knee-high boots with built-in knife sheathes were the epitome of kunoichi sexy and they even looked half-good on Sakura—and a new, sleeveless shirt in black that looked very stark against her pale skin. Its flatteringly tailored lines would look better when she regained the weight she'd dropped, though as it was worn under her flak jacket, it wouldn't matter regardless.

She had a whole pile of new shemagh, because she hadn't had the heart to tell her father that she didn't have anywhere to wear pretty dresses or anyone to wear them for and she'd known he was trying. His sigh of relief when she'd gently steered him toward an outfitter’s rather than a boutique hadn't escaped her either, had made her laugh and feel just that little bit lighter. Today's was one she'd never wear out in the field, all green and pink and white. And her hair had been carefully, meticulously braided.

She'd gone on missions with Sakuya's team once she was cleared for duty again and with her agemates, but she'd saved her new things for this day. Not only would she say goodbye to Tatsuo, within the next week she'd begin the series of supervised assessment missions that would decide whether she'd be reassigned to a new squad or receive jounin status. Eight separate A-rank missions, each conducted with a different jounin partner who'd have a say in whether she deserved the promotion, followed by a one-on-one interview with the Hokage.

Part of her was honored, because she and Hyūga Neji—who was a widely acknowledged prodigy—would begin their assessments at the same time.

However, more of her only wished for the courage to say, No, I don't want to do this anymore, because aberrations seemed to be her reality and how much worse would it be when the missions were meant to be dangerous? But she hadn't. Because she did not want to come to feel accepted and at home with a new team, only to have it snatched away again. She'd lost two of them; she'd decided that next time, it would be her partner who was left behind, however callous that seemed.

And Kakashi-senpai was a jounin as well as the only person she trusted to survive, no matter what happened. So she'd bite her tongue, give her all, and hope that would be enough.

But first she had to get through today.

Sakura clutched in one hand a carefully packed bento and because that hand had started trembling as she'd passed through the threshhold, she clasped her other hand tightly over it.

"When you're ready," she echoed with bitter irony, punctuating the statement with an uncomfortable giggle. "I wonder when that would be."

Fingers clenching tighter on her burden, Sakura forced her feet to carry her forward, eventually seating herself on a rock whose worn, moss-free surface testified to other mourners having made their way here. She carefully unwrapped the salted rice onigiri which had been sharing space with a shallow ceramic bowl and a bottle of hanazake that had required a careful request to Mariko. She'd wanted sake, for tradition's sake, but she needed something above 80 proof for what she intended. Hanazake was 120 proof and not a regular resident of her parent's liquor cabinet.  

Shoving half of the riceballs to one side and pouring a cup of the hanazake for someone who wasn't there to drink it, Sakura nibbled at her own allotment, snuffling as the salt of her tears mingled with the salt in the rice. She only managed to eat half an onigiri before she had to stop, her stomach clenched tight from grief. She hadn't allowed herself to cry since she'd been released from the hospital and she'd put this off until she thought she might be able to get through this without sobbing, but this all made it all so very final, the goodbye she'd never gotten.

Stealing a sip from Tatsuo's cup for courage and wincing at the taste, Sakura poured the alcohol into the dish she'd brought until it was a little over half full.

If you could see someone you'd lost, even if it was only for an hour, would you be strong enough to resist making your memories into something you could touch?

Sakura wasn't.

Not when all it took was chakra and will to see Tatsuo sitting across from her, one leg drawn up to his chest, the other extended comfortably. "Hey," he said fondly, his voice resonating with all the warmth that dwelled in her memories.

"Hey yourself," she choked out, smiling through her tears.

That familiar grin quirked his lips, but faded quickly into concern. "What are you doing, Sakura?"

"I just—just thought that you should be here for this," Sakura told him. Told herself. "Maybe you're really watching, even though they say you should be safely somewhere else by now, but..." she rose, Tatsuo coming to his feet as well, and she reached out until their hands were palm-to-palm, their fingers interlaced. She could feel the warmth of his skin, the texture of skin beneath the pads of her fingers, the resistance of bone beneath the thin flesh.

This is a terrible thing, she recognized even as she basked in the moment. Some part of her realized that this was something as cruel and certain as any of Gozen's nightmares—offering someone something that they could never have again, granting them the desires that they never voiced to others. Giving them one moment and taking all their others.

Killing them with kindness.

But that was a thought for the battlefield, for the future, and in the now there was Tatsuo as she remembered him. As the thought traveled through her mind, for a moment the genjutsu wavered and it was Tatsuo with his neck gaping and his eyes fading, but she firmed her will and he was whole and hale again. She reluctantly released Tatsuo's hands, stepping backward, and he mirrored her movement. "I wanted—" her throat clenched so tight she couldn't speak. "...I think I could have loved you," she told him plaintively. "You were everything that I didn't know to want in a partner."

"We just didn't have enough time," Tatsuo replied. "Relationships aren't something you just have. They're something you have to build and repair and maintain."

Sakura smiled faintly, because those weren't his words. They belonged to another Hyūga, a wholly fictional one, but it didn't make it less true. "Love is a house," she murmured. "It's all about the foundation." She took a deep, unsteady breath and unsheathed her knife. Not the new and shining one, but the one with discolored steel, familiar and comfortable in her hand.

With her free hand, she pulled her braid taut, and in a single smooth motion, she severed it at the base of her neck. The shorn strands fell forward, just brushing her shoulders where they were hunched by the movement and with tension. She'd never thought about how heavy all that hair was until it wasn't there anymore, almost as strange and disconcerting as being without the armor of her clothes.

"I'm going to grow it out again," she told her illusion as she sheathed her knife, crouching to coil the long, braided length in the bowl of alcohol. "Not for anyone else, this time. Just for me, because I like it. But this, this was our moment, which sounds stupid and silly to say out loud, but...this will always be yours," she murmured, folding her fingers into an unfamiliar handsigns.

Katon, she intoned silently, not flinching from the great gout of flame that spilled upward from the bowl or the smell of melted hair.

She owed it to Tatsuo, owed it to herself, not to flinch away. So she refilled the bowl again and again, until there was no more hanazake and her hair was only ashes to be snatched away by the wind.

[red rice]

Her mother's fingers were clutched tight on her upper arms and Haruno Mebuki's eyes looked suspiciously damp, her usually stern expression forgotten. "Oh, Sakura," she sighed. "We are proud of you."

"But this isn't precisely what you had in mind for me," Sakura said softly, so she wouldn't have to. "I know. I understand. I really, really do. When I graduated the Academy, this wasn't what I had in mind for me either."

"We just don't want to lose you," her mother confirmed. "And we've come so close already. And jounin—we've never had a jounin in the family before. We can't—there's no connections, no secret jutsu we can give you."

"I don't need it," Sakura reassured her, her mind flickering to men who'd died because they'd paused for the sight of their mothers, their brothers, their lovers, who'd paid for having a heart. For men who'd been afraid of fire, who'd flinched at the sensation of fear, who'd grown careless when supplied with euphoria. Of enemies who hadn't needed any genjutsu to ease their transition to the afterlife. Not all A-ranks involved combat, just the risk of it, but for the assessments they'd chosen missions in which that risk was something closer to a certainty. And because she wanted jounin not for the rank, not for the money, but for the possibility of a partner who'd stay, she'd put all of her talents on display even when she might have been able to offer swifter ends.

She'd learned to compartmentalize it, to push away the guilt, to shut down the strange moral quandary of was it worse to torture a man with horrible images or to take advantage of his softer nature. She wasn't past the nightmares, still felt the weight of it all, perhaps would never escape it, but every day it grew easier to just not think about it.

She shifted so that she was cupping her mother's elbows. Sakura met Mebuki's eyes earnestly. "All those secret techniques, all that prestige, all that tradition, everything that makes a clan—I didn't need any of it. So don't for a minute regret that it wasn't something you could give me. I'm not ashamed to be an Haruno."

But, she thought as her mother embraced her, I can't promise that you won't someday be ashamed of me.  

[sagiso—my thoughts will follow you into your dreams]

Jaraiya gazed with bemusement on the letter forwarded to him by his editor, thinking that maybe he'd made some mistake when he was decoding it. But as he eyed first the original and then the one he'd printed out neatly as he worked with that hellish cipher his contact had devised, he discovered that his work was entirely accurate.

Which only left him with an ominous feeling building in his bones, because for the better part of a decade, his informant had only one question.

But now he had a request. A highly specific request.

Jiraiya's brow furrowed as he tried to puzzle out what exactly Uchiha Itachi had in mind when he'd asked for a medic-nin capable of staging his death, aside from the obvious. Why within the timeline he'd outlined? What had changed? What had he learned, after all these years?

But those were questions without answers and all he could do was burn both sheets of paper and resolve that when he took Naruto back to Konohagakure, he'd put an open-minded medic-nin on his shopping list. 

 

 

Chapter Text

Naruto knew he was grinning like a fool, but he didn't care who saw. After well over two years of absence, trailing after a man who was three parts pervert to one part sheer ninja genius, this was his first glimpse of his village put to rights. No rubble, no half-collapsed buildings, none of that sharp, unpleasant smell of anxiety clinging to the crowds like the stink of sweat on a humid summer's day.

Just Konohagakure, just as he remembered it, except for Tsunade's face having joined the other Kage on the mountain. Naruto grinned, briefly contemplating the expression on her face if he announced his arrival with a very public prank, but he was a little too old for the mustaches-on-monuments stuff.

Also, he knew she'd know exactly who did it and he didn't plan on spending his first afternoon back in the village scrubbing on a rockface.

So instead he cupped his hands around his eyes like field glasses, crouched down on the electric pole that he'd scaled to get a better view of the streets, and looked for anyone he recognized.

"Kakashi-sensei!" he bellowed when he spotted a familiar unruly thatch of hair, waving both arms wildly and earning only a desultory little hand flick of acknowledgement in return. But that only made him grin wider, because he could almost hear that lazy 'Yo!' that had accompanied Kakashi-sensei's every chronically late arrival.

Flinging himself from his perch, Naruto landed softly on his feet, winding his way through the crowd without looking back to see if Jiraiya followed.

"Sensei!" he greeted him enthusiastically as he came within what most people would consider speaking distance. From here, he could confirm his initial thought, that Kakashi-sensei hadn't changed at all. Leaning comfortably against a wall, he was paging through Icha Icha Violence—which as he knew all too well, had released three years ago. He has to have that thing memorized by now, Naruto thought with a snicker. Jiraiya had assured him about seven times that the ultra-rare advance copy of Icha Icha Tactics currently living in his hip satchel—and when he'd carelessly slid it in there alongside his kunai, Jaraiya had looked fit to strangle him—would make Kakashi-sensei's year, but Naruto really thought having Team Seven back again would do that.

He caught a glimpse of a bag semi-hidden behind Kakashi-sensei's legs, but the angle made it impossible to read the logo. "Doing some shopping, sensei?" he queried. "Whatcha get?"

"Eternal gratitude," was the wry answer he received. Then, "Ah, there she comes."

Naruto followed his gaze and couldn't help that he was suddenly smiling so widely that it was almost painful, because it was Sakura. He made to rush forward and sweep her up in an exuberant hug that he'd probably get a head-thumping for, but she held out a repelling hand even as a smile quirked her lips.

"Naruto, I'm really, really glad to see you, but I've just spent three hours in line standing next to the most pernicious, unpleasant overweight harpy ever to be allowed through the doors of my favorite bookstore. If you wrinkle my signed limited-edition bonus poster, I'm going to be obliged to pulp your head. Really."

Naruto could only gape as Kakashi-sensei shifted to gather his bag, which he proffered to Sakura, who accepted it curiously. But her cheeks flushed with pleasure as she glanced down into it. "Is this what I think it is?" she demanded.

"For the record, getting that was even more painful than going with you to the first showing of the Tsunade to Tsundere-kun movie adaptation."

"Please," Sakura said, rolling her eyes. "I saw you, you know, going for your second viewing. I only didn't sit with you because it was weird watching it with you the first time."

"Abandoning me to the conversation of housewives. I should take that poster I just handed over back and leave you to sulk over only having a life-size Neko-kun when you might have had an Ōkami-sama as well. All that long, flowing silver hair, those steely eyes, those rippling muscles...," Kakashi-sensei teased, only holding up his hands in a playful warding off as Sakura closed the distance and socked in the arm, blushing furiously.

Naruto could only stare, feeling more than slightly left out of this almost impenetrable conversation.

And because Sakura had changed so much that with the initial, blinding joy of reunion slipping away, Naruto had to scramble to marry all those fond daydreams of Sakura—not romantic, because he'd taken her at her word, but the ones that also featured Kakashi-sensei and the treasonous asshat they were going to beat sense into—with the version standing, breathing, living in front of him. He'd seen so many things, learned so many things, grown so much while he was away, but despite recognizing her burgeoning changes when he'd left, he'd somehow expected...

Well, he'd expected himself to be the only one really changed by his long absence and Kakashi-sensei's unchanging Kakashi-ness had fed that delusion, that life in the village would pause and be waiting for him to slip back into it like a familiar, well-worn pair of house slippers.

It wasn't just inches and curves, though she'd added those too, shifting away from 'cute' and 'sweet' to something else. Her hair—always so long and worn loose in the Academy—was shorn short and hardly brushed her shoulders. Gone was her red dress and even the red vest and petal-like skirt she'd taken to wearing right before he left, though she still wore a shemagh knotted around her neck. Her sleeveless vest was now in black, her shoulders defined and her arms lean with muscle, her forearms protected by vambraces that provided protection from her elbows all the way down to the first knuckle, leaving the ends of her fingers, her thumbs, and her palms bare.

Over that sleeveless vest was a familiar flak jacket, two pouches setting at her back beltline, the upper long and narrow—a scroll case?—the other a slightly wider rectangle. He could recognize the complex harness that kept knife sheathes and other pouches in place from hips to knees, where her boots began, worn over fitted black pants, but those intervening years—well, there was a reason certain shops sold certain kinds of magazines that sold a lot of issues of women kitted up like soldiers.

Luckily, she didn't catch his brief ogling—he was convinced that she'd meant what she said, but c'mon, he was a teenager and he'd liked her for a long time—and he was able to meet her eyes as her embarrassed flush died down and she stepped back from Kakashi-sensei, turning her attention to him. "So, having found both of us, I bet the next thing on your reunion tour is a visit to Ichiraku, isn't it?" she teased. "Tell you what, I'll treat."

Sakura held up her bags. "It'll just take me a minute to rush these home, so stay right there," she ordered, vanishing.

"Got a quick one on your hands, Kakashi," Jiraiya murmured.

He said something else too, but Naruto was distracted by another familiar face. It was Konohamaru, who'd clearly been hard at work on his version of Naruto's pervy ninjutsu and was eager to show it off. His eagerness was catching and Naruto almost got so caught up in a round of trump-this that he failed to notice that Sakura was suddenly there again, but the instant he noticed her he grinned sheepishly at Konohamaru, scrubbing his hand through his hair. "Y'know, maybe we shouldn't do this in the middle of the street like this. Meet me later and I show you what a real Naruto original looks like, okay?"

Flicking a knowing gaze toward Sakura, Konohamaru smirked and gave him a thumbs up. "Got it, boss!"

Sakura watched him as he scurried off. One brow arched and she said, "You know? I don't really want to know. Ready for that ramen, Naruto?"

"Always," Naruto told her earnestly. "We taking these two along?" he said, jabbing his thumbs at the two older shinobi.

Sakura shrugged and glanced over to Kakashi-sensei, who made a shooing motion with one hand. "You two kids go ahead and have fun, we'll go have some grown-up talk."

"Grown-up talk?" Sakura queried. "Doesn't that usually involve actual grown-ups?"

"Ha-ha," Kakashi-sensei said dryly. "Poke fun while you can. I'll see both of you at seven at training ground three."

"What happens then?" Naruto asked curiously.

"It's a surprise," Kakashi-sensei told him, before vanishing just as suddenly as Sakura had earlier.

Naruto scowled at the empty space Kakashi-sensei had recently inhabited, but followed willingly enough when Sakura prompted, "Naruto?" from where she was standing several paces ahead.

"Really, we're not twelve anymore," Naruto complained to her.  "Does he really need to pull that mysterious sensei stuff?"

"Senpai only has a few hobbies, but he's really, really dedicated to them. Unfortunately, they're almost all annoying," Sakura complained, but it was said with clear fondness.

"Senpai?" Naruto asked.

Sakura flinched, anxiety flashing across her expression. "Um, yeah, about that, Naruto...I—" then she stopped short, the nervousness giving way to relief. She raised a hand and waved at someone and he followed her gaze, his eyes catching on a very perfunctory return wave.

"Hey, Shikamaru!" he greeted, more than making up for the Nara's lack of enthusiasm. His gaze slid over to Temari, who was eying him in return. Now, most days it only seemed like Jiraiya had dragged him from one end of the continent to the other, but he'd picked up a thing or two along the way. Some of it had even been intentionally taught by his mentor.

Unintentionally, Jiraiya had taught him everything he'd ever need to know and then some about reading body language—he could name twelve signals off the top of his head that indicated that the master pervert was seconds away from being slapped.

Sort of irrelevant at the moment, as he couldn't imagine Shikamaru working up the energy to do anything worthy of retaliation, but he'd learned in his time away that for all that the world seemed peaceful, even shinobi from allied villages didn't show up uninvited just to hang out. People made friends outside their villages—he had made lots of memories outside the village walls himself—but they chose places other than their villages to meet.

So, not a social visit and as he'd kept a mental tally of the days since he'd been gone, it wasn't hard to guess why Temari was here. Still, he couldn't resist. "So," he observed with a grin, "look who's on a date."

While Temari scoffed aloud, Shikamaru didn't even bother to roll his eyes. "Not even close. I'm being forced to proctor the chūnin selection exam and as an added bonus, I get to escort the ambassador from Suna. Also, since I am apparently now a courier, there's letters from Taki for you, Sakura. Their ambassador brought them. Judging by the feel, I think Umehara sent something not meant to go by regular post. If I keel over, I'm blaming you."

Sakura moved forward to take them as Shikamaru produced a pair of letters from his equipment pouch. "Your sacrifice is much appreciated," she said with a smile, tucking them away, giving a nod of greeting to Temari, who returned it with a slight smile.

Naruto realized only belatedly that that was weird, because women who almost killed each other tended to hold grudges about it, but they'd apparently worked through it. "So, Sakura, when we host the exam next rotation, are you going to take the liaison position?" Temari asked.

Sakura shrugged. "That depends on whether or not Tsunade-sama offers it to me," she replied.

"Of course she'll offer," Temari assured her.

"It would put you in Suna when Naruto is taking his exam," Shikamaru agreed. "Unless you have some sort of plan for scrambling together a team at the last minute?" he said, addressing the last part to Naruto.

Naruto blinked, then felt sheepish embarrassment turn the tips of his ears pink. Making chūnin, compared to everything else, hadn't even made it on the list of things-that-need-worried-about. "Ah, yeah, I guess I would need to find some teammates, what with Sakura already being a chūnin and all."

"Jounin," Temari corrected.

"...what?"

"Sakura's a jounin," Shikamaru replied with just the faintest hint of exasperation. "Same for Temari here, Kankuro, and Neji. Shino's halfway through his evaluation for promotion to jounin. And everyone else has already made chūnin, so you're going to have to look outside our year for teammates."

"...but Gaara hasn't made jounin yet?" Naruto asked hopefully, because while he might say that it was just a ranking, it stung to be the only genin, training journey with one of the strongest ninja alive or not. They hadn't been near Suna for a long time. Jiraiya claimed he was allergic to deserts; Naruto was pretty certain he just didn't like countries where women didn't spent most of their time in a lot less clothing than was necessary if you didn't want to burn to a crisp under an unrelenting sun that was coupled with a stinging wind.

"Gaara's the new Kazekage."

"Say what?!"


Her eyes might have been fixed on the little group conversing in the next clearing, but Tsunade's mind was elsewhere, tangled up in the past. It hadn't just been personal loss that had spurred her to leave the village all those years ago, though it had been the deciding factor.

There'd been certain elements in the village that had been gaining power and causing strife that she'd wanted no part of. As one of the last Senju, she wouldn't have had much choice but to start taking sides. Danzō and his aggressive warhawks, the eternally tetchy Uchiha, she'd been too heartsick to want to have anything to do with any of them.

So she'd left everything behind only to discover that it was impossible to outrun yourself. She returned and found she was left to deal with the sins of dead men and the inscrutable plans of Uchiha Itachi.

"So he wants a medic-nin to help him?"

"That's the word," Jiraiya replied quietly as they both admired the results of his training of Naruto. If he could only learn patience and with a little more experience, he'd be just as formidable as his father had been. But for now, for all the talent he'd shown just now and back when he'd mastered Rasengan, he was still very raw in the technical skill department. It was a tradeoff of sorts—he had a lot of life experience unrelated to the grinding cycle of missions that Sakura didn't, had probably acquired people skills and knowledge that most of his agemates might never get, but her combat skills had been tempered by a career that had seen several unlucky missions that had obviously convinced her that the path to survival lay in neutralizing her enemy swiftly.

"So, ideas? You know your medics better than I do. Anyone willing to cooperate with a man who massacred his entire family?" he said wryly. "Even if you did read them in on why he'd done it, they might have a few things to say about the whole thing. Most of them probably wouldn't believe the Sandaime would authorize something like that, even retroactively." 

Tsunade silently agreed. Most of the last generation and the current one had only ever known their kindly, grandfatherly 'Professor', but they hardly ever paused to think what it took to survive as many wars as Sarutobi Hiruzen. A man so dedicated to serving the welfare of his village he'd alienated his own son; a man who'd served with, raised, and buried four generations of ninja. It rankled, a little, that it was only after his death that she'd been included in his secrets, even if she had left the village. Even upon her return they'd only been handed over grudgingly from the Elders. She'd had to follow a trail of clues the Sandaime had left for his successor to discover the rest, written in his own hand and bearing his own thoughts.

He'd been a canny old ninja; he hadn't trusted that the past would safely stay there and hadn't wanted whomever had followed in his footsteps to be unprepared.

He'd regretted the massacre, true, but he'd admitted that it had provided a solution to a very thorny situation. So he'd allowed Shimura Danzō to become the festering abscess that was currently Tsunade's problem and allowed Uchiha Itachi to leave the village with a promise that he'd watch over Sasuke. Jiraiya had already found that being a spymaster suited him better than any day-in day-out position in the village, so the Sandaime had handed the young man over to him and for the many years that followed, Jiraiya had fed him coded reports about Sasuke's welfare in exchange for information. 

Tsunade fervently wished she'd thought to bring enough alcohol to replace her current headache with one medical chakra could fix, but instead she was silent a moment more, admiring the display that had followed Naruto's charge.

Genin could "go all out" on each other, as could some chūnin, but a sparring match between jounin was all about control. She was seeing it in spades between Kakashi and his pink-haired opponent, who'd closed on each other and engaged in a lightning quick dance that allowed no retreat, almost like they were bound within a six-foot circle. Neither pulled a blade or resorted to ninjutsu, just kept to this highly impressive show of hand-to-hand skill.

If she'd been making bets, she would have laid her money on Kakashi and won. He was controlling the pace of the fight; he was quicker than his former student and had been on the battlefield when she was still in the cradle. But that wasn't giving Sakura enough credit—it was the step between an S-class nin and an A-class one. Against most enemies, in a battle to the death rather than possession of a bell, the girl would clearly be deadly. She wasn't hitting with the strength that could shatter bones, but she was making it difficult for him to hit her, flowing around his strikes like dust motes around an outstretched hand.

Possibly it was by virtue of a familiarity with Kakashi's style; there were certainly similarities between their movements.

"She's right there," she said in response to Jiraiya's question.

"Sakura? She trained as a medic-nin? That didn't really seem like where her training was going when I left with Naruto."

"Not exactly," Tsunade said, her tone mirroring Jiraiya's former wryness. "She's not formally trained, but she's impressive."

"Your tone of voice doesn't say that's a good thing."

"It's not a bad thing," Tsunade hedged. "Thanks to her, Kakashi has a fully functional Sharingan."

That tore his attention away from the match, which Naruto had rejoined. "Fully functional?" he asked her sharply.

"Yes. And when I say 'fully functional', I mean that she integrated it so perfectly that it has a fucking Mangekyō phase now."

"What?!" Jiraiya demanded, not even pretending to pay attention to the match any longer.

Tsunade turned away as well. "Well, she did it unsupervised—again—so I only have hearsay to go on. Apparently, as she was completing the surgery, it evolved on her. Scared her half to death. It upset Kakashi, once he'd figured out what had happened and had convinced Sakura that she hadn't done something wrong, but he's...working through it."

"Mangekyō," Jiraiya muttered distastefully, then shook his head. "But if he has a functional Sharingan, that means...?"

Tsunade's lips curled up into a tight, slightly feral smile. "Yes. That means that Konoha's Copy-nin no longer suffers from chronic chakra exhaustion."

Jiraiya chuckled. "Well, somebody is in for a nasty surprise." Then he grew pensive. "So, she has the skills, but will she work with Itachi?" After a moment's careful thought, he brightened. "I could just fail to tell her exactly who she'll be working with."

Tsunade eyed him. "Well, we'll see how that works out."  


Even now, the morning after their match with Kakashi-senpai, Naruto was still snickering over his victory. Threatening to destroy an advance copy of Icha Icha Tactics had brought their sparring to an abrupt halt, Kakashi-senpai conceding the bells for a chance to read what was sure to be another terrible, smutty novel months ahead of anyone else.

"Did you see the look on his face?" Naruto cackled, "That had to be almost as good as when—well, no, never mind, you really had to be there to appreciate that one."

"I hope you're not talking about anything that involved me," the Toad Sage said repressively as he joined them at the table. Sakura wasn't about to subject Naruto to her cat this early in the morning, so she'd left boiled fish for Soudai and snuck out to enjoy her plate of fluffy, self-indulgent waffles that would leave her hungry again before noon.

"What are you doing here? What are you even doing awake?" Naruto asked. "I thought you and baa-chan would get roaring drunk together, y'know, like the last time, and you'd still be sleeping off a hangover."

"Your opinion of me never fails to impress," Jiraiya told him dryly and his answer was a sloppy salute as Naruto returned his attentions to polishing off his own breakfast.

"Good morning, Jiraiya-san," Sakura said as he waved one of the waitresses over.

"Breakfast with a pretty young lady always makes for a good morning," Jiraiya said with a smile. "As for you," he turned back to Naruto, "you've got paperwork you have to fill out, if you want to apply for a temporary team to try and take the exams."

Naruto scowled. "One thing I didn't miss was filling out forms."

"Paperwork makes the world go ‘round, kid," Jiraiya said.

"Since it's super not-cool for the future Hokage to be the only genin in his graduating class, I guess I'll just have to suck it up," Naruto told Sakura, though his scowl hadn't abated. "Sorry to leave you with the pervy-sage, but no way am I gonna wait until there are lines to go with all the paper pushing. If he tries to touch you, break his face."

And with that he was gone and Sakura side-eyed the member of the Sannin she'd been left with. Who rolled his eyes in exasperation. "I have no idea where Naruto gets all these ideas."

"Um, maybe he read your books?" Sakura ventured timidly, prepared to offer a retraction and an apology if he took the over-familiarity badly.

But instead he laughed. "Don't tell me you've read them?"

"Not as such. Kakashi-senpai reads a chapter aloud whenever I don't meet a training goal, though, so I know what happens." Mostly acrobatics that stretched credulity even for a trained kunoichi.

"Well, don't tread softly on an old man's ego," the Sannin said with continued good humor. "But I'm not here to promote my books."

Sakura stilled, sensing something in his tone, before scooping up a forkful of strawberries, whipped cream, and warm waffle. She took a bite, chewed slowly, and then said, "Oh?"

"Mostly I'm here to return Naruto, but there's something else I needed to take care of while I was here. I need a favor."

It took all her training to continue to eat her breakfast, her waffles suddenly tasteless in her mouth. She considered for a moment the possibility that he would propose something sleazy but harmless in a 'needing inspiration for my novel' way, but she knew he was more than that. Naruto might never have been overawed by him, but Sakura was both better-informed and more respectful of her elders.

"What kind of favor?"

"One of my informants needs some assistance from a medic-nin. He's been in deep cover for a long time, which means that most of the usual tricks to extract himself aren't going to cut it. He needs to be dead, but he'd like it to be a little less than permanent. And if you want that done right, you need a medic-nin.  Tsunade said you'd be the best for the job."

Sakura tried not to let the compliment sway her, but some part of her would always be a child hungry for acknowledgement. "He couldn't stage a fire?"

Jiraiya chuckled. "That would probably be the least believable thing he could do. He's not some well-placed paperpusher and the people around him aren't going to accept a charred corpse at face value."

Sakura bit her lip thoughtfully. "So this will be dangerous?"

"Isn't everything?" was his reply.

"How will I contact him?" Sakura asked and tensed further when Jiraiya sighed in relief.

"I was hoping you'd ask that. I'll get in touch with him. He'll know who you are and he'll find a way to get in touch with you. He'll explain what he has in mind. You just need to remember that the word is "camellia"."

"Camellia," Sakura repeated softly. "Perishing with grace."

Chapter Text

Sometimes there were days in which Sakura wondered exactly which avaricious, murderous warlord she'd been in a past life to merit playing such a crucial role in the interesting times of their day.

Even though Naruto had come home again, those first days of his return had been as close to normal as a shinobi's ever got. She'd listened patiently to him whine about being assigned to teammates-of-last-resort for the duration of the exam, partially out of guilt. Not that he'd be taking this exam by himself, she'd been chūnin before he'd ever left with the Toad Sage, but because when she'd been deciding whether or not to pursue her jounin promotion, she hadn't spared a second's thought for where that would leave Naruto.

He hadn't said anything about it yet, but Sakura wondered if he actually hadn't realized or was simply pretending not to know that even if he was promoted to chūnin, he'd be assigned to a chūnin squad and missions commiserate with his rank. Even considering his...circumstances. Maybe especially considering his circumstances.

But before it had come to the point where Sakura might have tentatively brought up career plans or Kakashi-senpai had either intervened or decided it was time to take another mission and left a ‘by the way’ sort of letter behind—you could never tell with him—their luck soured.

They'd been with Naruto when the summons had come and if she'd had the time, Sakura might have cited the chūnin who'd brought the message that they—Kakashi-senpai and she—were wanted by Tsunade-sama. Her clear anxiety had drawn Naruto's interest and he'd dogged their steps, shouldering his way inside Tsunade-sama's office despite Sakura's half-hearted protest. There was no one else in the village who'd have dared to address the Hokage like he did, let alone demand he be told what was going on.

Yet, somehow, he ended up attached to the mission.

Jiraiya had exchanged words too softly spoken for her to catch with Naruto, but she'd felt the less-than-casual pressure of his hand when it closed over her shoulder. "Remember, camellia," he'd murmured before they were running toward Suna and the chaos that had awaited them.

Less by luck and more by ninken intervention they'd been able to intercept Temari on her journey home, which had proved useful as they'd found the leadership of Suna in disarray. The village had suffered considerably from the machinations of Orochimaru, not just in the sense of loss of shinobi, though several of their best jounin had died in Konoha's streets, but from the turnover in senior leadership when the people who'd lost their loved ones discovered that their elders and advisors had allowed themselves to be manipulated by someone masquerading as their Kazekage.

It hadn't mattered to them that an invasion was enough in line with the previous Kazekage's character that no one had thought to doubt the orders, only that there were scapegoats within reach. Many of the older members of the advisory council had been forced into retirement, leaving Suna with a much younger, less experienced group of people to manage things in the face of a kidnapped Kazekage.

She'd had little time to admire Temari's ability to make men and women years her senior follow her orders, instead being presented with a puzzle worthy of Fū at his most devious. She'd kept in touch with both Fū and Zen since the Taki exam; as they were all young shinobi still making their names, they kept in touch by letter more often than in-person.

Fū—who still preferred stonefish toxin and his cruel serrated knives—had been the one to invent the game. Every month he sent her a new compound. The challenge was to identify its components correctly within whatever limit he set in the letter; if he won she owed him a visit, if she won he'd send something deadly harvested from his little menagerie. Her home laboratory hadn't been fully sufficient for the task, so she'd taken to using the public labs—civilians had such things as music studios to rent, shinobi sometimes needed access to the technical equipment of their trade as well—which had drawn Tsunade-sama's attention.

She'd taken the whole thing in good humor, remarking that she'd never thought she'd live to see the day when shinobi exchanged poison as a puzzle rather than a weapon, and one morning Sakura had found a stack of Tsunade-sama's personal journals waiting for her. The Hokage had never said a word about them and when she'd finished with them, she'd left them just where she'd found them.  

After that she'd won more often than she lost—visiting him when she could because she could—and it hadn't been lack of skill or ingenuity on Fū's part. When Kankuro had looked like he might remember the conversation, she told him that he owed the Taki-nin a thank you note and perhaps a new spider or something, which had earned her weak chuckle.

She was surprised by the depth of Temari's trust. "Since he's not here to do it himself, I guess I'll just have to keep the village safe for him," she said grimly. "Bring my brother back to me. Not just for me though—this village needs him."

Sakura nodded solemnly, the muscles in her jaw tense as she watched Kakashi-senpai try to temper Naruto's charge ahead! philosophy. "We'll find him," she promised. "We'll bring him back." Unspoken between them was the knowledge that it might only be a body they returned, but they would bring him home.

"I know you will," Temari said. "We'll send one of our jounin with you—even with the Copy-nin's tracking skills, it'll be useful to have someone familiar with the terrain."

"Who?"

A voice came from above them. "I'll represent the Sand village myself," a voice made dry and raspy with age proclaimed.

Sakura's head snapped up and she had to peer against the unrelenting sun to make out the shape of a woman she'd only heard about in stories until today. Even the Sannin needed compelling villains to give their careers heroic scope. From the sands of Sunagakure it had been Chiyo, the Spider, who'd brought poison and puppets and was considered more dangerous than any four average jounin put together. She'd been a Name, feared by one side and revered by the other.

Sakura's eyes narrowed further as she considered the reality rather than the legend. Time had not been kind to the woman. Her skin sagged, lines of care written deeply on her forehead and bracketing her mouth, and dark age marks discolored even the small expanse of skin revealed by her clothing. But her eyes were still clear and sharp as Sakura's knives and she didn't quite trust her.

She said nothing, though, just as she'd said nothing about the wisdom of putting a jinchuriki within easy reach of the Akatsuki. Kakashi-senpai was in command of the mission and he, like Tsunade-sama, had earned the right to give her orders.

"Lovely," Soudai pronounced in tones of disdain as she summoned him. She couldn't tell by his sweeping glance whether he meant the scenery or the company. Kakashi-senpai was knees-deep in eager ninken, but while they were better scent-trackers and one a decent sight hound, Soudai was the superior chakra sensor.

It was a measure of Naruto's focus that he made no comment about the cat as they moved out, Chiyo leading them to the area where they'd discovered Kankuro and their trail began. Soudai chose not to run alongside, instead draping himself across Sakura's shoulders and keeping himself steady by means of chakra.

"Of course they'd be smart about dispersing their trail," Kakashi-sensei murmured when they'd arrived and the ninken had declared that it smelt like something had traveled down all the trails leading away from the site.

Soudai leapt nimbly from his perch, pacing the area as he examined the trailsign before declaring, "This is the one Sakura and I will follow. You may do as you please."

Kakashi-senpai's brow twitched faintly in irritation. "On the off chance that his highness has gotten it wrong, would you mind following the other trails?" he asked his ninken.

A mixed chorus to the tune of "You've got it, Boss!" was his answer and the dogs split into pairs to follow the other tracks. Soudai returned to his sentinel post on Sakura's shoulder and she raised a hand to idly stroke his head as he settled in, needlessly digging claws into the reinforced shoulders of her flak jacket.

They traveled in tense silence for the rest of the day, resting only briefly as they waited on moonrise, the pattern stretching into the next day. Sakura had fallen into the rhythm of hard travel, but she kept herself alert to their surroundings, though they encountered no one as they crossed from spare deserts into the greenery of the Land of Rivers. It was only there, the sound of her footsteps being swallowed by the lush, forgiving grasses that she felt Soudai tense. "Someone ahead," he whispered in her ear and within a few distance-eating steps she sensed the presence too. Her eyes caught the flicker of red clouds writ on a dark cloak—Akatsuki.

"Stop!" Kakashi-sepai ordered, throwing his arm in front of Naruto, whose head jerked back like he'd been struck.

"Uchiha...Itachi!" he snarled between clenched teeth.

Partnering with Kakashi-senpai had taught her a lot she'd never have known about Sharingan, though Gozen-san had taught her more. The old woman hadn't hesitated to tell her anything, while Kakashi-senpai had been reluctant to experiment with the new Mangekyo phase in front of her, though he'd regularly let her spar against him with the Sharingan active. Though he could now deactivate the doujutsu at will, he still wore his forehead protector pulled down across that eye, jokingly telling her that it threw off his depth perception to have two functioning eyes. She understood that he did it in part to protect her, because meddling in clan secrets like that was dangerous even when the clan was mostly memory and gravestones.

So she knew enough not to meet the eyes of the man looming so large in front of them, but she wished that her hands didn't feel so cold with fear, the small hairs on the back of her neck prickling as a chill telegraphed itself down her spine. The cloak obscured his body, concealing his build and any armor he might have been wearing, covering even his hands which made her even more uneasy.

She hardly heard Chiyo's whispered advice to Naruto on ocular jutsu, her attention on the weight of Soudai shifting so that he crouched on one shoulder. "Something's not right," Soudai murmured, so low she almost couldn't make out his words.

Now what? she thought worriedly, her eyes skittering across their surroundings as she tried to see evidence of traps or further ambush.

Itachi had been silent, content to let them talk, but Sakura stilled like a rabbit before the hawk when he finally deigned to speak. "It has been a while, Kakashi, Naruto," he said, his voice pleasant, cultured, educated. Sakura couldn't help the prickle of unease that swept through her.

She and Kakashi-senpai had taken only one major mission before this—there'd been a man in the Land of Snow who'd spoken like that. And when she'd shown him his mother in a genjutsu, he'd stabbed her over and over and over, his hips thrusting forward with the final blow and his voice had been warm and sincere when he'd complimented her on her illusion, telling her it had been almost as good as the first time.

Sakura settled her hands on her knives to ward off trembling. That one had manipulated their battle from the beginning, using her fear and her anger to distract from their surroundings. She'd used chakra-enhanced strength and found herself slipping into the frigid waters of a frozen-over lake; she could only imagine that Uchiha Itachi would be much, much worse.

"Well, you know how it is," Kakashi-senpai drawled with too much tension in his voice and far too little of his usual dry humor. "You get busy, you forget to visit. Luckily, the last time you came 'round was pretty memorable. As in, the usual tricks don't work against you and those eyes. But it's not exactly a picnic for you, either, is it? Those eyes come with a cost," he said, shifting his forehead protector out of the way so that his own Sharingan was on display, though not his own Mangekyo shift. "Not just in chakra. How much of your eyesight have you lost?"

Sakura glanced sharply over at her partner, who'd never mentioned any trouble with his sight, which was stupid and irresponsible and not something she could afford to think about right now.

"Kakashi," and there was a depth there that had her attention immediately returned to their opponent, who she had an alarming feeling was now aware of Kakashi-senpai's Mangekyo shift.  "Are you...?"

Kakashi-senpai was silent for a heartbeat and then he shifted the conversation. "Anyway, you won't catch me napping this time," he said.

"Yeah!" Naruto added. "And if you think I'm the same, well, you're making a big mistake."

"I'll take care of him, Naruto," Kakashi-senpai said sharply.

"...oh? You might be careful, making such boasts," came Itachi's smooth voice. "After all, if you die and I take the jinchuriki, who's left to plant camellias on your grave?" 

Camellias? Not red spider lilies? Why would anyone plant—no. No. Please no. As she looked up to meet eyes as red as the higanbana and just as steeped in death, she thought that if she survived this, she would do something terrible to Jiraiya.

And just like that, when his eyes met hers, she found herself caught in a genjutsu. It was subtle—very subtle—but it wasn't inescapable. That fact made her relax only fractionally, but she still drew her knives from their sheathes.

"Our time is limited, so if you have questions, ask them quickly." Uchiha Itachi said without preamble. "Jiraiya warned me that he hadn't made you aware that the request was mine, so I expect some resistance."

Gozen-san had been right, Sakura thought bleakly, when she'd implied that it hadn't been a psychotic break or just sheer pleasure in the killing that had motivated Uchiha Itachi to do what he'd done. She liked the world a little less every time one of the old woman's scathing statements proved to have merit, because Gozen-san's world was relentlessly indifferent when it wasn't actively cruel and she didn't like to think she lived in that world.

But Jiraiya, for all his faults, wouldn't have sent her to help him otherwise.

She tried to believe that this was some trap, that somehow Itachi had intercepted the Toad Sage's communication, that he'd tortured her contact until he'd confessed, but the reasonable voice in her head sneered at that and asked why Uchiha Itachi would bother. If he wasn't her contact, he'd have killed him or her and that would have been the end of it.

She both wanted and did not want to ask questions, a whole floodgate of anxiety threatening to overflow, but she instead tried very hard to pretend that she trusted that Jiraiya would not get her killed.

At least not one purpose, came the cynical voice.

"What do you need me to do?" she asked simply, surprising him. Or at least she thought she had, but he was difficult to read. All his emotion lay in his eyes and she was afraid of those eyes.

And because she was trapped anyway, dead anyway, she took a moment to study the face of the man who'd ruined Sasuke's life while doing ‘the best thing he'd ever done for this village'. She'd seen photographs, but all of them had been of a younger Itachi. From before a village of assassins learned to call him a mass murderer. He was like Zen in that he was more beautiful than handsome, those deadly eyes elegant and heavily lashed.

"It is fortuitous," Itachi said after a moment's silence, "that we were able to meet in this time and this place. If we hadn't, the chances that you would be able to observe this jutsu in person again are slight. I had other plans, but I think this one offers the best chances of success. You might not have noticed it yet, but I am not actually present—it is why I cannot use my Sharingan to compress time so that we could speak at length. The technique belongs to Sasori of the Red Sands—he has made someone into a living puppet, a vessel for my chakra, who wears my appearance. I think it would suffice for the purpose I intend to put it to, so I suggest that you watch closely and lay claim to the body when this battle is finished.

"It will take us three days to finished extracting the Ichibi; the host will not survive the process if you fail to interrupt us. The process of extracting a bijū is...demanding, upon both mind and body," he continued unperturbedly, as if he hadn't just pronounced Gaara's death sentence. "We shall be left to our own devices for several days following the end of the process, regardless of the outcome. On the fourth day, you will meet me at a group of cottages maintained in the north of Fire Country by a Yado-san—we will have the Tsubaki House." Sakura tried to shove away the thought that she'd be alone with a man who'd killed more people in a single night than most shinobi would in their entire career, instead memorizing directions as he gave them to her in that terribly uninflected voice.

And because she was afraid, when he'd finished speaking, it was Sakura who dispelled the genjutsu, her eyes narrowing as she searched for the flaw that would say, This body is not what it seems, but if this was a jutsu, it was a fearsome one. She couldn't tell if she could actually sense an active genjutsu or if she was simply looking so hard for one her mind was tricking itself.

Then there was no more time for observation, because Kakashi-senpai had torn through Itachi like he was paper—and there was more substance to paper, for when the smoke had cleared, Itachi's doppelgangers flanked them on all sides. Naruto's hand dipped into his kunai pouch, but Sakura was following Soudai, who'd launched himself from her shoulder.

She ignored the shadows clones that Naruto 'killed' with his kunai, ignored the way he froze, because if he could face Orochimaru at eleven he could survive meeting an Itachi out to frighten him, for Soudai was the unerring needle of a compass. Kakashi-senpai drew level with them and then surged ahead, for while he might not like her cat, he respected his skills.

Their Itachi didn't attempt another genjutsu snare. He just moved, like fire sparking or lightning striking, shifting from restful stillness in one heartbeat to the final handsign of a fire-style jutsu in the next.

"Sakura!" Kakashi-senpai bit out sharply.

"Got it!" she retorted, sheathing her knives as Kakashi-senpai and Soudai skidded to a halt, leaving Sakura facing a roaring, immense sphere of fire that promised searing heat even at this distance. Sakura flexed her fingers through her own handsigns and with a sharp, primal cry, she drove her fist into the earth, which gave with a shudder and a groan, a rampart of earth thrusting itself up like prow of a ship. The fire broke over it, spilling harmlessly aside. She felt Kakashi-sensei's tap on her shoulder as used his own doton manipulation to go underground and when he'd vanished, she let the earthwork crumble, the rubble hiding her partner's exit, his own shadow clone at Sakura's shoulder.

She could have let her eyes flicker up then, shown Itachi Kanashibari, the technique she'd sacrificed a lifetime's worth of peace of mind for, but even if he wasn't what everyone thought he was, he was still dangerous enough that she wanted a weapon he wouldn't anticipate. Her knives back in her hands, she surged forward at clone-senpai's side. Itachi's eyes slid towards the clone, which jerked to an unsteady halt.

It was time enough for the real Kakashi-senpai to burst upward from the earth as Itachi's back, his Raikiri driving deep into the missing-nin's flesh with such force that his hand erupted from the front of his chest still swathed in arcing lightning. It bowed Itachi's body forward and it was only Sakura close enough to see the faint, satisfied smirk that creased his lips as he fell and became someone else.

Chiyo sucked in a surprised breath as she drew close and Kakashi-senpai cautiously rolled the body onto it's back. "That's...that's Yura," she said. "A jounin from Suna."

"Wait," Naruto demanded, "you mean that wasn't Itachi?"

"No," Kakashi-senpai remarked grimly. "That wasn't even close."

"I don't understand. That wasn't just a transformation technique, no way," Naruto said.

"You're right about that," Chiyo agreed. "I don't understand how they did it, but it's clear that the object of this was to buy themselves time. They've probably already begun the extraction."

"Then we have to hurry," Naruto replied, fists clenching tight and the whispers on his cheeks becoming more deeply etched as his temper flared.

He looked to Kakashi-senpai, who nodded and said, "We'll push on before resting."

Sakura knew she needed the body; she also knew it wasn't wise to acquire it with Chiyo looking on. So it was a genjutsu-self that fell in with them—Kakashi-senpai would probably ask, but better him than answering to Suna's interrogators.

Sakura reached behind her for the storage scroll that she'd finally managed to save up for, unfurling it beside the body. Acting quickly on the assumption that she wasn't good enough to fool the Spider for long, she sealed the Suna-nin's body inside the scroll and then sprinted toward the squad, until she ran within her ghost. She dismissed her illusion then, which made Kakashi-senpai give her a sharp look, but if Chiyo took note, she said nothing.

Sakura wished she could trust that silence.

Chapter Text

They were again waiting for the moonrise, Sakura bedded down semi-comfortably and well on her way toward sleep—the ninken would be taking the watch so that the shinobi could get as much rest as possible—when the soft noise of someone settling next to her dragged her back up to full alertness.

Naruto, judging by the smell.

Not that he didn't launder his clothes, but you could only eat a diet that unvaried for so long before your body and your house became haunted by it. Soudai's fresh-fish-in-the-morning demands might have improved the texture of her hair, but she'd given up on trying to completely expunge the smell from the kitchen.

"Hey," he said very softly, "can we talk?"

Sakura considered telling him no, because tired was one thing she didn't want to be when confronted with the men capable of taking Gaara, but the part of her that kept trimming her hair recognized that there might not be any more time for talking after this. "Yeah," she said just as softly.

With the rustling noise of clothing shifting, Naruto stretched himself out next to her, lacing his hands behind his head and staring resolutely up at the sky. He was silent long enough that Sakura caught herself sinking slowly back to sleep, so she was startled when he finally chose to speak. "I don't know how much you know about Orochimaru," he said.

He left the statement so open-ended she had to ask, "What about him?"

"I mean—you know after he left the village? After he showed back up, he was part of the Akatsuki for a while. And, I was thinking...after we beat the hell out of them for what they did to Gaara, we should ask if they know where he's hanging out now. 'Cause, y'know, we've only got a little time left before Sasuke..."

Sakura didn't spend much time nowadays thinking about Sasuke; if her eyes caught occasionally on the picture that lived on her nightstand, she had more regret for growing up—which was ugly and brutal and hard—than she had for someone else's decisions. Sometimes she looked at his dark eyes and saw only a stranger, someone who'd she'd never really known, because how could that boy she'd studied with more intensity than any jutsu have grown up to be a traitor? Then her gaze would slide down to Tatsuo's shattered glasses and the feelings that welled up at the sight of them washed away the lingering remnants of regret she might feel over Sasuke.

While his defection had hurt her, that wound had healed up enough that it was only sore when someone prodded it. People no longer cursed him in the street and her by extension; she was no longer just the Uchiha's teammate. It wasn't like Tatsuo's death, which sometimes still took her by surprise—she'd forget, just for a moment, and think I'll tell Tatsuo next time I see him and then the grief would be a brief, blinding pain when she remembered that she'd see him when she was dead and not before.

Sasuke's leaving hadn't been like that, because all she and Sasuke had ever shared was something that might have been a team with more time and effort. Their camaraderie had never made it off the battlefield—Sasuke had been at his kindest when the threat of death or failure was nearest—and after all this time she had enough perspective to see that Sasuke hadn't been interested in having friends. Not that she'd likely been worth being friends with, but she could have been Senju Tobirama reborn and it wouldn't have mattered.

She wondered if Naruto, who could still shout at the Hokage like a toddler having a temper tantrum without an iota of shame, had ever wondered if this was one mission that was doomed to failure before it even started. "Naruto...Sasuke, he--he's been with Orochimaru for a long time now. He's not the same person he was when he left the village."

"You don't know that," came Naruto's swift reply, low and furious. "I mean, sure, he went with him to start with, but maybe he realized how stupid a decision it was and couldn't leave. For all we know, Orochimaru keeps him locked up in an underground room somewhere."

Sakura thought that Orochimaru didn't needs walls of stone or bars to keep someone prisoner, but she didn't say so aloud. Talking to Naruto was still strange and slightly uncomfortable and she couldn't be certain how much frankness was allowed. He sometimes seemed older, more worldwise, and then he was in the Hokage's office and god that still bothered her. She didn't care if he didn't speak politely to his elders—well, not much, anyway--but Tsunade-sama had earned her place and if he really wanted to be Hokage, he should at least respect the office if he couldn't be bothered to acknowledge the kunoichi who sat in the chair.

In the Academy, she hadn't understood that Naruto felt loneliness and isolation, let alone that those feelings likely lay behind the way he acted out, but sometimes when it was the snide voice in her head directing her thoughts and making commentary on his conversations with Chiyo, she wondered if he thought that was worse than Kakashi-senpai's childhood. Which, as far as she could tell, hadn't happened at all.

But Kakashi-senpai hadn't said a word, had just explained to Chiyo the bond that Naruto felt lay between himself and the other jinchuriki with that distant, self-effacing humor of his and Sakura wasn't certain it was her place to make a fuss when Kakashi-senpai clearly preferred that his past remained unexamined by prying eyes and ears. 

"The jutsu that sealed Shukaku inside Gaara. I did it," Chiyo had admitted. "I did it to protect the village and the villagers suffered for it; now the village that I spent my career trying to bring to its knees is the one who's come to save us. Maybe I wasted all that time."

Kakashi-senpai had reassured her that she was still young enough to achieve anything she wanted, but Sakura kept glancing thoughtfully over at Chiyo until the old woman had noticed.

"Something to say?" she'd asked.

"...did they ever consider appointing you as Kazekage?" Sakura asked. "When the Third disappeared, I mean. You weren't older than our Sandaime and you'd been a major influence in village politics for a long time. You had control of the Puppet Corps—you'd basically trained them yourself."

Chiyo threw her head back and laughed. "And now I know the two of you are trying to make me blush. If you'd seen our Council, you'd know why. To this day, we don't have a single woman on it. I think young Temari will be the one to change that, but at first they listened to her only because she was first the daughter of a Kazekage and then because she was the sister of the Fifth. It took work to make them recognize her as a person. I wasn't interested enough in the title to make a stand for it; I was content to play puppetmaster off the battlefield as well as on it. That is one thing I am glad to have lived to see begin to change—someday perhaps we will have as many kunoichi as we do shinobi." Then she laughed again. "Or at the very least, maybe we'll catch up to Konohagakure's ratio."

Recognizing that her thoughts were drifting and that she was being uncharitable because she'd been running for days on end with only the promise of a confrontation with S-ranked ninja to look forward to, Sakura refocused her attention on Naruto. "We'll ask," she promised.

But that was the only thing she promised.


Sakura was relieved to see Neji and Guy's teams, even if the Hyūga flushed and refused to meet her eyes. When ignoring the issue of her reading preferences hadn't worked, she'd scraped up the courage to attempt to talk about it, but that had only resulted in the discovery that Tenten snorted when pressed too hard with laughter. Now it was Genma snickering and she knew that if she happened to survive this, she was going to hear about it later. He and Neji had been pulled from another mission; Guy and Shino had just returned to the village from after an assessment mission and hadn't even had time to turn in a verbal report before being sent out again.  

But their reunion was brief—they hardly had enough time to greet Naruto before they were following the directions provided by the Byakugan to destabalize the five-point seal that was providing a barrier to the cave. The trail had led them to one of the great plateaus that dotted the country of Rivers, like islands in a sea of trees, the stone having been worn into its present configuration by an ancient glacial retreat. Their targets appeared to be sheltered in a cave, which wasn't that unusual, though mostly bandits didn't manage to seal themselves inside so securely. Judging by what they knew of the men inside, Sakura would guess the elaborate sealing array was the work of Sasori of the Red Sands, perhaps using another infiltrator.

As if the hulking great rock wasn't enough. Sakura surveyed it with narrowed eyes through the lenses of her combat glasses. "The reports from Suna—they described an explosives expert and a puppetmaster. Do you think one of them is capable of earth manipulation on this scale? Neji didn't say anything about anyone else inside."

"Does it matter?" Naruto demanded, his eyes wild and his expression making it clear that patience was not one virtue he was willing to practice today.

"If someone in there can manipulate a stone like this, I want to know about it before I walk into a cave and they bring the mountain down on my head," Sakura replied tightly.

"But you can use doton techniques, can't you?"

Sakura glanced incredulously from the rock to Naruto and then back to the rock again. "There are doton techniques," she said finally, "and then there are doton techniques." While she could use doton manipulation to shatter a rock this size as an extension of her chakra-enhanced strength, her ability to manipulate the element in more productive ways was limited to smaller structures.  

"It's likely the explosives expert," Kakashi-senpai said. "Unless you disagree?" he asked, turning the question on Chiyo.

"It has been many years since Sasori left the village," was Chiyo's reply. "I wouldn't even venture to guess what that boy is capable of nowadays."

Kakashi-senpai nodded. "Still, I think I'll flush out our explosives expert and leave the other one to you three. The others will reinforce our position, but I don't think they'll let us wait around for them to get back. Hyūga, Shirunai, you can help Sakura's team; Guy, if it isn't too much trouble, you and Aburame can help me if I haven't already brought down the target."

"By yourself?" Naruto asked sharply, over the sound of confirmation from the others. "You don't want us to pair off?"

The edges of Kakashi-senpai's lips curled up in a smile, his eyes crinkling. "Sensei might have a trick or two you haven't seen yet," he said, reaching out to ruffle Naruto's hair, which made the younger ninja scowl. Kakashi-senpai's hand curled into a fist and he gently thumped his former student on the head. "Remember," he cautioned, "keep a leash on that temper and chain of command means Sakura's in charge when I'm not there."

Startled, Naruto glanced over at her, which made Sakura straighten uncomfortably. Then, when she considered whether she'd rather be uncomfortable or go inside this tomb without a battle strategy, she decided that she'd shove aside all the complexities of working with Naruto again. She opened her mouth to speak, paused, and then reminded herself that her death was waiting behind that stone.

And if she hesitated, it would catch her.

"Don't engage him directly," she told Naruto, whose expression scrunched up in a prelude to a protest. She cut him off before he could speak. "No. Now is not the time for a field test for whether or not the Kyūbi can safely metabolize complex poisons. A puppetmaster walks into battle with an army—you'll be mine. And whatever you do, don't let any of his weapons touch you."

She could see the muscles in his jaw flex, but he nodded tightly. "'Kay," he said roughly. "We'll do it your way."  

"Well," Kakashi-senpai said, leaping agilely up to crouch over the seal. "Sounds like the others are ready. Why don't you knock, Sakura?"

And so saying, he ripped the paper from the rock's surface.

"Get flush against the cliff and watch out!" Sakura snarled as she surged forward—recalling that Neji had reported that Gaara was prone on the floor, the Akatsuki closer to the rockface, and prayed that this wouldn't end this mission in more ways than one—her fist impacting the rock face with enough force she would have shattered every bone in her hand if she'd had less control of her chakra.

As it was, the stone reacted like it had seen the loving attentions of a demolitions team. It exploded inward, thousands of shards of rock turning the interior of the cave into a killzone.

Or it would have, had not a counter-explosion further parted out the boulder and sent it whistling like shrapnel toward Sakura's position. With a smothered curse, she threw herself prone against the ground, raising a much smaller barrier than she'd used to divert Uchiha Itachi's fire technique.

When the sound of rubble settling had finished, her hair and back now coated with a fine layer of crushed rock that threatened to pour down her collar and itch like nobody's business, she shoved herself up and joined the others in the interior of the cave.

There were two shinobi inside, just as promised, and the young, blond one scoffed at them. "Ne, ne, Sasori no Danna, did you see that? That might have been exciting, if it had actually worked. But you might have hurt your poor little Kazekage, you know. Well," he said with a chuckle, "not that it would have really mattered."  

"I'm just glad they stopped gossiping outside," the other ninja replied. "I was getting tired of waiting."

The other ninja—it was he who'd left those strange tracks, which hadn't resembled any human she'd ever tracked before and had drawn comment from the ninken. A puppet body? Sakura thought uncertainly. Any deformation of the human spine that severe would have left a person unable to walk without excruciating pain; it also should have started manifesting in childhood, which Chiyo hadn't mentioned, or she supposed it could have been an illness.

Sakura favored the puppet explanation, as her luck didn't tend to trend in the direction of half-crippled opponents.

"Well, I'm sorry you feel that way," Kakashi-senpai drawled, but Naruto stepped stiffly forward, every line of his body stiff with tension.

"Where is Gaara?" he demanded, baring teeth gone too sharp to be human, his hair rippling with the force of a chakra that made Sakura's lizard-brain tremble and threaten to bolt. Raw chakra like this usually didn't make her think of anything in particular, but this was like the hot, blasting winds that plagued the deserts of Sunagakura, like the breath of an angry beast.

It reminded her of Sasuke's curse mark too much for comfort.

Sakura was nursing a private theory, one that ran a little like this: the Kyūbi might have worn the shape of a fox, but it wasn't a fox, not really. It wasn't animal instinct that Naruto reverted to when he was like this, but a stupid, unthinking rage. There was nothing subtle about it, but when you had this kind of strength, did you really need surprise? He surprised her, though, keeping himself in place through a force of will visible in the trembling of his hands, which were fisted tight enough that blood was trickling from between his fingers.

She might have had to clench her teeth, but that Akatsuki only looked amused. Or the blond did. "Oh, him, hmm? He's right here," he said, shifting aside so that they had a better view of Gaara.

His lifesigns were so faint as to be invisible from where she was standing; it was only the knowledge that Neji would have pronounced him dead if that was the case that kept her from believing it.

But alive now didn't mean much, not when there were two Akatsuki members between them and the fallen Kazekage. If they hadn't brought Naruto along, perhaps they might have just abandoned him and foregone the fuss of a confrontation, but they'd never know whether or not that was true.

Naruto's eyes—strange, feral—settled on Gaara's unmoving form. And then, ever so slowly, they settled on first the blond, then the puppetmaster. "You're dead," he promised. "Now, give me Gaara back."

"Hey, hey," the blond laughed. "You're doing that wrong, you know. You're supposed to promise to let us live if we hand him over to you. Or," and his voice turned sly, "offer to trade yourself for him. Since you're a jinchuriki and all, we might have a deal."

"I'm not a liar," Naruto promised them soberly. His eyes flicked over to Kakashi-senpai, a silent demand that said if the older ninja wasn't willing move, he would.

Kakashi-senpai's response was a put-upon sigh, but almost faster than even Sakura's chakra-enhanced eyes could track, he was darting forward. Unfortunately, he was up against S-class ninja, the blond throwing a handful of small—honestly, they looked like tiny figurines, but they flew, as in deviated from a straight path and then detonated almost in senpai's face flew. Kakashi-senpai had managed to avoid the force of the blast, but the larger bird-sculpture that had been looming in the background swallowed down Gaara's body like a pelican would a fish, the shinobi leaping astride its back in a movement that spoke of familiarity with the tactic.

And, just like that, it took to the air and Sakura tried not to let herself contemplate just how much chakra it would take to put that much weight in the air and keep it there. She consoled herself with the thought that senpai had been famous even with a parasitic eye—and when they'd mopped up the trouble on their end, Guy-senpai and Shino would make certain that they brought Gaara back.

Naruto darted toward the entrance of the cavern, heedless of his orders, but Sakura's hand closed around his arm.

"No," she hissed at him.

"But Gaara...!" he snarled back at her and for a moment her hand prickled unpleasantly at the point of contact, like fireants biting at her skin.

"Senpai's orders stand," she insisted. "Don't you trust him?"

He didn't give her words, just a frustrated roar of rage and frustration as they'd apparently reached the end of Naruto's tolerance; where there'd been one blond-haired shinobi quivering with tension there were suddenly a dozen and a full eight of them were twisting back toward Sasori and charging forward, hands going in an identical movement to equipment pouches and flinging a barrage of kunai toward their opponent.

Who blocked them all without blinking with a long, segmented tail that arched over the back of the puppet like a scorpion's. That it sprouted like a tongue from a face that took up the whole of the back just made the whole thing grotesque, which might have been the intention.

"It's called Hiruko," Chiyo told her curtly. "Think of it as a suit of armor, with all the capabilities of any other puppet. Except with this one, you won't be able to watch his body language. While I might have created the Puppet Corps, it's Sasori who created the modern combat puppet. The ones you've seen Kankuro use? They're his design. From before he defected from the village."

Sakura cringed internally, but externally she spared Chiyo a short nod before as she sprinted forward to follow-up Naruto's rush. She didn't pull her knives—wood and metal would only dull them when they were meant for flesh and her control over air-nature chakra was tentative enough that she had to concentrate on giving her black knife an edge that could cut through anything.

She couldn't do that and dodge senbon launched from a puppet's open mouth without losing her forward momentum or her life, so she didn't. Her throat was tight with anxiety, but intense conditioning kept her breathing and her heart rate even.

Thank you, ninken, she thought as she shoved chakra into her feet and skidded to one side to avoid another spray of senbon. She'd learned never to leap if there was any other way—she didn't have a deft enough touch with air to maneuver in midair. Sasori lifted Haruko's misshapen left arm, palm outward like he was warding her off.

Somehow, she failed to be surprised when the whole construct from the elbow down launched at her. She swept to one side, avoiding it, but almost got herself turned into a hedgehog when it detonated and launched more of the tiny, spiky needles in a wild spray. Only a hasty wall of earth yanked up without handsigns—thin and so unstable it hardly held against the impact of the needles—saved her from certain poisoning.

She let the wall crumble, righted herself where she'd gone slightly off-balance and plunged forward again, accompanied this time by a fresh barrage of kunai from her allies. From the corner of her eye she caught sight of the tail and gritted her teeth, but when its path was suddenly arrested she didn't spend much time on why. Instead she took a leap of faith, shoving off against the hard-packed earth and launching herself into the air, her foot impacting with the carved nose of the face leering up at her from Hiruko's back.

It was like flattening a cockroach, the carved body giving beneath her with a crunch, but unfortunately no soft innards leaked from the exoskeleton. Instead she was suddenly standing almost nose-to-nose with a pretty boy whose soft, indifferent smile made her feel like she'd swallowed lead. Her mind was trained to catalogue impressions, sensations, so it noted the eerie, almost unnatural perfection of his skin, the strange way his eyes reflected light, the scent of some fragrant wood and an equally delicate oil. She heard Chiyo, faintly, exclaim in surprise, but he was very, very close and she didn't have the attention to spare.

"You might almost be interesting," he told her, shifting only slightly to let a large windmill shuriken do no more than ruffle his hair, which Sakura took as an opportunity to retreat to a safe distance. Safer distance, she amended. "If you don't disappoint me, perhaps I will do you a favor and let you experience true art. It has been difficult, finding kunoichi worth my time. I wouldn't want to make you wait, so I think I'll show you the prize of my collection. If only because he was so difficult to acquire."

He produced a scroll from within his cloak and a deft maneuver of his wrist revealed about a foot of the interior, which bore a single character. San. Three. Three puppets? Sakura thought as she watched the puppeteer carefully. No, sounded like just one.

Sasori didn't leave them to wonder for very long, but when the smoke cleared, Sakura thought perhaps some more taunting might have been in order to prepare her for the figure that hung suspended before them.

The Third Kazekage.

She heard Chiyo's hiss of recognition, but it was competing with her own involuntary sound of dismay. In terms of strength relative to their other Kage, the Third had been unequivocally Suna's strongest. Somehow, Sakura just couldn't make herself believe that Sasori had made a puppet as a homage. There was something here, something strange and sinister.

Chiyo figured it out before she did. "That doesn't just look like the Third, does it? What have you been doing, Sasori?" she accused.

"Why that tone?" Sasori challenged. "Behold the fruit of your teachings, old hag."

"What part of what I taught you involved the deaths of three Kazekage?" Chiyo retorted. "Ten years ago the Third disappeared and now both the Fourth and the Fifth, dead at your hands or through you being complicit with the plans of that snake. If it was only degrading yourself by becoming a criminal, well, I'd have been content to let my line end naturally. As it is—well, I can't lay down for my dirtnap while my grandson is intent on tearing down everything I've built up."

Her words were sharp with feeling; Sasori only blinked languidly and corrected her. "I wasn't actually involved with the Fourth. I just let Orochimaru use one of my agents. He would have brought him down even without my help."

"So you helped Orochimaru kill Gaara's dad?!" Naruto demanded.

"Even though he's no longer a member of the organization, he and I still trade favors."

"The kind of favors that means you know which rock he's hiding under?"

Sasori's head dropped to one side. She thought in someone else it might have been a birdlike gesture, but in him it sent of quiver of unease up from her toes, because he'd looked for a moment like nothing more than a puppet whose strings had been fumbled. There was something inhuman there, like there'd been in that forest with Orochimaru.

And unlike Orochimaru, she didn't think he'd be content with toying with them.

"I think that's met our quota of small talk," Sasori said in the same moment that he sent the Third swooping toward them like some vengeful spirit. Not toward Sakura, who was nearest, but toward Chiyo, its arm sprouting blades until it was a wing feathered with things that could rip and tear.

Sakura crushed the instinct to treat the puppet as her enemy; no matter how elaborate, it was only a weapon, like a sword, like an illusion, and you fought the person wielding a weapon, not the weapon itself. This was one fight that not one of them, not even Naruto of the bijū-enhanced healing, could afford to let go on for very long. Walking away from a fight with an S-class ninja was already a victory. The probability of leaving that fight without a single injury that breached the protection of the skin?

Maybe someone with a doujutsu like Uchiha Itachi's could have done it, but Sakura couldn’t.

She wasn't even on the level of Kakashi-senpai. She wasn't good enough to cover for the mistakes of others, not in a fight like this, could only flood her eyes and body with chakra and press forward.

She caught a twist in Sasori's lips just before he made a slight motion with his left hand, which was her only warning before she was suddenly awash in a sea of grasping hands, like suddenly being ducked in a tank of upset squid. The kunai that launched themselves from between the long, ropy cables that masqueraded as arms might have just been hooks set in tentacles—it was only because she was busy dodging them that she caught the shadow of the ropes that would have made them makeshift harpoons.

But because she was busy dealing with the real and present threat of impalement, she'd failed to notice the canisters until they deployed.

Nose, mouth, throat—the sensitive tissues, the mucous membranes, and the list would have included her eyes if it weren't for her combat glasses—it was like someone had lit thermite in the nerves there, an awful, screaming pain that made inroads toward her lungs. It took long moments for her to realize that it wasn't just her nerves screaming, she was too, and it took a force of will to stop, to still the heaving motion of a body desperate for clean air, to hold her breath when it felt like she was holding something that burned and scorched inside.

Nerve gas, the little thinking part of her brain registered. Localized, limited dispersal.

And, I'm asking senpai for a gas mask for my birthday, even as she forced limbs to move, using chakra to shove herself in a wild arc that just about sent her tumbling.

Several Narutos were instantly at her side, asking questions, demanding a response, but Sakura took several shuddering breaths, feeling the rawness in her throat, in her nose, the slow pins-and-needles fade of pain and then she charged doggedly back toward Sasori.

She knew that Naruto had been serious before, intent and barely controlled, but hearing her scream had apparently crossed another invisible line. The Rasengan that tore through the mass of arms and left the Third's body twisted and mangled on one side was enormous, way outside what Naruto had been capable of when he'd left.

Unfortunately, the Third was no longer human. And when his head swung to one side and those lifeless eyes seemed to be staring at them, Sakura had the eerie feeling that Sasori had let the strike hit.

"Tsk," Chiyo hissed from somewhere behind her. "Stealing all the glory. Can't have myself sitting here like a useless lump, not when this is Suna's problem."

Sakura hadn't been keeping track of the old kunoichi, didn't dare look at what she was doing. But she was reassured that between Naruto and the woman who might have been the Third's successor in another world, they could hold off something that had the Third's face and likely his abilities, but none of his spirit.

Sasori's faint smile shifted to a sneer as Chiyo did something behind her. "I wonder what you think you're going to do with those toys."

Chiyo's chuckle was nothing like the hearty laughter she'd indulged in on the run here. This was the amusement of the Spider, full of venom. "The Mother and The Father? I think you, like all foolish children, will find yourself surprised."

She reminded herself of her allies' strength as the puppet-Third's mouth dropped open, steams of dark sand pouring out. She reminded herself of it with each pounding footstep as that sand took shape—spears and shields and once a sheer crushing mass—but she was equal to the challenge. What couldn't be dodged could be smashed into the ground through brute force, which fed her confidence, because these large, unwieldy geometric forms weren't the nightmare she'd feared.

Sasori allowed her to get within twenty steps of him before he made the nightmare real.

"Satetsu Kaihō," he told her conversationally before the world exploded into black spines.

Sakura skittered and stretched and twisted and somehow ended up fifteen feet in the air, nestled in the negative space between the bars of a black iron tree.

She felt the warm, heavy liquid sliding down her cheek, where she hadn't been quite able to turn her head fast and far enough.

Such a small cut. But enough to introduce the poison into her bloodstream and with her heart beating at its current wild tempo, it would travel fast. Almost as quickly as that information had filtered through her mind, her knife had scored as deeper gash over the shallow cut and her other hand glowed with medical chakra, forcing the veins and tiny capillaries to constrict, to spill the tainted blood down her face instead of into her body.

And then, with only the reassurance of Naruto's voice and Chiyo's as to their survival, she tried again to make her way to Sasori, slithering through the sharp-edged obstacle course that he'd left her with shunshin speed.

This time it was five steps.

Just five.

She didn't have time to dodge, just barely enough to redirect fractionally, to choose the point of entry for the spiked thing that had punched through the front of Sasori's Akatsuki cloak. It was a 'best of bad choices' situation, because there just weren't any good options for an impalement in the abdominal cavity, all those organs tightly packed together. She managed to direct it very low, slightly to one side—the part of her brain that spent so much time looking at medical texts and charts diagnosed she'd likely need immediate medical attention for a gastrointestinal perforation and though it was difficult to judge from this angle, he might have destroyed one of her ovaries.

That voice was very cold, very small, especially against the roar of pain. Her throat was still very tender from the gas, but the scream spilled out anyway. It was pain and rage and defiance, even against this, even when bladed wings snicked into place behind Sasori's back, shredding his cloak and revealing just how little of his humanity was left.

I will not die here!

With the strength of that thought, she poured chakra into a genjutsu, flinging it toward Sasori, who'd been dragging her in like a fish on a line. She'd known he wasn't human, but he still perceived and that was all she needed, that moment of hesitation. It wasn't one of her illusions, no, she didn't trust that would be enough, but she reached in and yanked up one of his, inspired the one clear shift of expression he'd revealed during this entire battle. The Mother and The Father. He'd been bored, impatient, but only that had managed to draw out real emotion.

She forced her unwilling body forward, which drove the corded knife deeper, but she had him down and pinned and her knife pressed against the strange canister rooted in his chest, which looked more organic than anything else.

His eyes met hers, clearly inhuman now, but still strangely steady, and part of Sakura seized up in it's a trap!, but the rest of her was poised to drive the knife home.

 "Nothing to say?" he asked.

Her mind flickered to her promise to Naruto, then considered the man beneath her. How dangerous he was, the time she had left before either the poison stole her strength or the cramping in her abdomen became so violent she wouldn't be able to function. Naruto wanted to chase Sasuke and that was fine, but they'd get their answers somewhere else. Jiraiya was a spymaster and he owed her a favor.

She drove the knife home.

Chapter Text

Once, she'd been certain that there was nothing worse than the pain and fear to be had in the midst of battle.

Nowadays Sakura knew better.

She breathed very shallowly in an effort to stop the movement from pulling at the cable speared through her belly, but between the pain and the poison she was already light-headed and that only made it worse. Very gingerly, she took the cable in hand, pulling her focus from the voice in her mind shrieking profanities to channeling wind-natured chakra into the blade of her black knife.

She almost didn't think she'd get it to stabilize, but when it did she severed the cable roughly a foot from where it protruded from her skin. When she or someone else pulled the rest free, they'd need a firm grip.

"Sakura...," Naruto said worriedly from where he'd come to hover at her side, his hands held outstretched like he'd like to help but didn't know how. All traces of the Kyūbi had retreated, taking the rage and leaving only a comrade whose eyes were wide with fear and apprehension.

Sakura briefly considered apologizing, intensely aware that sometimes second chances for conversations didn't always come around, but then she decided that she had nothing to apologize for. Once senpai had stepped outside the cave, it had been her mission, her decision to make.

Chiyo came up on her other side, her gaze on Sasori's motionless shell. She knelt next to the fallen puppet, her movements full of the weight of her years in a way that they hadn't been before they'd discovered that her grandson was not only a criminal, not only a Kage-killer, but also apparently a mad genius able to fuse his mind into a body of wood and steel and defile corpses in new and exciting ways.

After only a moment, she exhaled, a long sigh that skittered along the torn edges of Sakura's nerves. She'd only ever heard that sort of sound in one context. It was a death sigh, the sound a soul made when it left the body. "You poor little fool," she muttered, before bracing her hands against her knees and shoving herself upright.

Her eyes flicked to Sakura, then over to Naruto.

"Alright, boy," she said, "time for us to make ourselves a little more useful. That one," she said, jerking her head toward the fallen marionette that had once been the Third Kazekage, "and this one will need taken out and burned. Use those clones of yours and search Sasori beforehand—even if they've already got what they came for, if he has anything on him that incriminates anyone else in the village, it'll save us the time and effort of looking for them."

"You're going to burn them?" Sakura asked in surprise, wincing and instantly regretting the decision to speak. Her hands were busy, pulling her sealing scroll from her kit and retrieving the antidote she'd used to neutralize the poison he'd used on Kankuro. There was no guarantee that this was the same poison, but she hoped that the chemical makeup was similar enough that it would help.

"Sasori started out with good intentions," Chiyo said ruefully. "Just as I did, when I decided to seal a bijū into an unborn child. And look at the mess we made in the end. I tried to protect Sunagakure once through raw might, but I won't make that mistake again. There are some lines we shouldn't cross. Sasori's corpse-puppets are something best burnt and scattered to the wind. And you should get on that," she said sharply to Naruto, "before this girl keels over."

"Hey!" Naruto protested defensively even as he folded his hands and surrounded them in a fresh sea of doppelgangers, who gathered up the last remains of the Third Kazekage and Sasori of the Red Sand. "You were talking. I was listening."

Chiyo just made a shooing motion with one hand, crouching down next to Sakura.

Sakura wasted no more time, explaining what she needed the older woman to do. And, without complaint, without further comment, Chiyo did as Sakura asked. Sakura kept topical anesthetic in her gear for use with her knives, but she wasn't a dedicated medic-nin, which meant she didn't carry a full surgeon's kit and wasn't conveniently equipped with a local anesthetic to make this process easy. She did, however, carry soldier pills.

Whatever complaint her liver might make against their use, the potent chemical cocktail offered among other benefits a temporary deadening of the ability to feel pain. There was a reason their sale was restricted and monitored.

Chiyo pulled the cable out slowly and even with the soldier pill, it was...unpleasant. Sakura clotted the blood on the exit wound on her back, but didn't seal it completely. She'd had Chiyo pull slowly so she could seal the holes torn in the walls of her intestine as the cable exited, preventing as much leakage into her abdominal cavity as she could.

The smell wasn't pretty in itself, but it combined with pain-and-drugs to induce vomiting, which was even less pretty and threatened to overcome the ability of the soldier pill to keep her functional. As it was, she blinked away starbursts of light and shoved herself mostly upright again.

What she needed next—aside from an actual hospital—was someone else capable of water manipulation, because while she could do it, her hands were shaking now and her ability to focus was being challenged by cramps, seizing muscles tight in her calves, her belly, threatening control of her bowels. Just as she'd feared, Sasori was too much of an expert, too much an artist, to blindly duplicate a weapon he'd left for them to decipher. But she didn't have access to a lab, so she could only do what she could with what she had, attempt to give her body a fighting chance against whatever it was that pulsed through her bloodstream. 

Infection was the next great risk even if she survived the poison; bacteria that had been previously been contained would flourish in its new environment. Sepsis sounded far less dramatic than impalement, but was just as capable of killing her.  

She smeared her topical anesthetic generously over her skin and with Chiyo's assistance—she had the surety of a butcher if not the skill of a surgeon—they widened the entry wound and while Chiyo held it open, Sakura roughly flushed the blood and...other things out.

She'd just managed to coax the flesh back together in a tender, raw-looking scar when the black that had been nibbling at her peripheral vision washed over her with the inevitability of the tide, sweeping away her consciousness.


When she woke, it was in one of the border stations. Neji and Genma had made arrangements with the extraction network for a proper medic-nin to meet them there while they'd carried her from the Land of Rivers back into Fire Country. Last they'd heard before they'd passed out of wireless range, Naruto and Chiyo had successfully rendezvoused with Gai and Shino and were in the process of tracking Kakashi-senpai and his target.

Between the poison and the inroads of the bacteria—her medic-nin had been mostly impressed she'd had enough resolve to even make the attempt, even if she hadn't had enough control to do the job cleanly—she'd developed a dangerously high fever almost immediately and had only disjointed memories of the trip. Sakura was actually grateful for that, because she hadn't been the delicate-deep-swooning kind of sick; no, she'd been the losing-control-of-bodily-functions kind of mess that was best remembered dimly and not spoken of afterward.

She'd lost two days.

She thanked her medic, professed gratitude and obligations of the meal-buying kind to Neji and Genma, and then they parted ways. Neji and Genma had received orders to resume their own mission, while Sakura was under medical advisement to rent a hotel room, drink plenty of fluids, and spend the next several days sleeping if she insisted on leaving the medic's care.  

But Sakura had an appointment to keep.

Her muscles felt weak and sore, her throat and sinus passages still felt raw, and she was miserably tired, but she was alive and living people had obligations. If she spent some of the time walking civilian-slow, well, she still made it to Tsubaki House in plenty of time for her meeting.

A meeting prefaced by spending seven minutes all but hyperventilating just within sight of the cabin where she'd be alone with Uchiha Itachi.  Regardless of the fact that he was working with Konohagakure and it had been orders rather than ambition that had led to the massacre, he was dangerous. Anything he was involved in would put her in the path of people just as deadly as he was. 

Which was magnitudes more dangerous than Sakura.

Just a minute, she'd promised herself when she'd first stopped, which had soon turned into just another minute, which had turned to an unnerving round of mental math in which she considered the window in which the killings had been carried out and the size of the Uchiha ie. Her mind automatically calculated just how many people had needed to die per minute on an average to see the entire doujutsu-wielding clan massacred in a single night.

The number she produced was not reassuring, but she eventually told the voice that if Uchiha Itachi wanted her dead, that was that and senpai would probably feed her cat.

Wiping sweaty palms against her pants, Sakura walked toward the cottage, which looked charming and well-kept from a distance and remained so as she approached. The plants that clustered around the engawa were both colorful and selected with care; she recognized several that would naturally ward off mosquitoes and make the narrow walkway a pleasant place to sit in the evenings, other aromatic herbs mingling with brighter flowers. She also spied several of the namesake tsubaki flowers planted on the grounds and someone with a fine hand for calligraphy had painted the kanji that was framed to one side of the door.

There was even a pair of house slippers set out for her.

Wrestling herself free of her boots, she stepped up onto the engawa, slipped her feet into the waiting footwear, and padded softly over to the entrance. She rapped her knuckles gently against the frame, somehow hoping that no one would answer.

"Come in," called that smooth, cultured voice that had made such an impression at their last encounter.

Sakura slid the door open and stepped inside.

Uchiha Itachi sat across the room from her on a thick cushion that billowed up around his thighs, his back supported by the wall. One leg was partially drawn up toward his chest and he cradled an open book in his hands—by the look of it, some kind of novel, not a reference text.

He wasn't wearing his cloak, wasn't looming across from her on the battlefield, and she was suddenly struck by how delicate he seemed. He wasn't especially tall and his shoulders weren't as broad as senpai's, his musculature lithe and deceptive. On first glance, if you didn't know his history, your first thought wouldn't be, This is a monster.  

"I am glad you could make it," he said, marking his page and setting his book aside, the Sharingan fading from his eyes. "Are you hungry? It won't take long to finish lunch. Sit," he insisted as he rose nimbly to his feet, indicating the low table that occupied the center of the room.

With that he turned and left the room.

Sakura could only stare after him for a long moment, because she'd built a complete, harrowing experience in her mind before she'd even laid her hand on the door and Uchiha Itachi had just shuffled off to make lunch like he was someone's grandmother.

That thought was reinforced as he reemerged from the kitchen, a tea service ensconced on a tray. One brow arched fractionally and she thought she saw what might have been amusement in his dark eyes before his expression returned to being unreadable.

Left alone again with the tea, Sakura gathered her shredded expectations and sat. She discovered he'd left a damp towel, neatly rolled on one side of tray, for her to wipe her hands with. She made use of it and then poured herself a cup of tea. She sipped at it gingerly, wincing at the heat, her eyes mapping the space she'd found herself in. Tsubaki House had been built quasi-traditionally, meant to embrace nature rather than sit apart from it. The sliding doors that made up the better part of three walls were presently closed, the sunlight filtering through their paper panels giving the room a warm, natural ambience.

There wasn't much in the way of furniture: the table, two zaisu and kyōsoku, more of those plush cushions stacked neatly in a corner, a tiny television set whose main purpose seemed to be the flower arrangement atop it.

There were two doors that led further into the cabin. One led to the kitchen, presently occupied by one Uchiha Itachi. She supposed the other led to a bedroom, with a bathroom further in.

As he'd promised, it didn't take long for Itachi to reappear. He arranged in front of her a meal that made her glance up at him incredulously, her eyes making it to his chin before she remembered who he was and jerked her gaze back toward the table. It paid homage to color, seasonal appropriateness, nutritional balance, and was arranged so nicely that it was going to be a shame to eat it.

"Itadakimasu," Sakura murmured.

Of all the men she'd ever eaten with, only Sakuya and Neji had table manners as pretty and as natural as Itachi's, like they weren't just something they took out for special occasions. Naruto jabbed his chopsticks at people when he was talking, Sasuke had tended to begin without thanks, inhale, and then stalk away before anyone else finished, and eating was something Kakashi-senpai did in theory rather than in observable practice.

They made it halfway through the meal before Itachi spoke again. "When we met, you seemed more open to cooperation than I expected. "

Sakura glanced up, made it to his cheekbones and caught the first glimpse of crimson and abruptly dropped her gaze again.

That inspired a soft, almost inaudible sigh. "I apologize for my use of the Sharingan, but as Hatake-senpai pointed out, my vision has degraded significantly. I can no longer see you clearly across this table without my bloodline limit active."

Sakura blinked, startled by the admission, and met his gaze squarely for the first time. The form might have been the same as senpai's, three tomoe swimming around the central pupil, but she trusted Kakashi-senpai. Abruptly recalling his pointed statement, Sakura glad that she'd given her answer to this particular question some thought on her way here. She had no intentions of admitting to Gozen-san.

"When children are dead in the streets, it makes it hard for people to think with their heads instead of their hearts. The horror of it—it's like the best genjutsu. Every man, woman, and child in a clan as big as the Uchiha—which was composed except for the elderly and very young of active ninja, at least some of whom ought to be absent on mission—are killed in a single night, all within their compound and none of the patrols heard a thing? That isn't a random act of violence. That's something that requires planning and collusion from people in a position to make that happen," Sakura responded, fingers clenched tight on her chopsticks.

Itachi frowned thoughtfully at her. "...that's an unexpectedly pragmatic assessment," was the reply he eventually made.  "I could have taken care of the patrols myself."

"They're required to check in on the wireless every half an hour. If they don't, extra patrols are sent to make certain no one's left them dead in an alley or anything. From the reports that were released, it took longer than that for you to—," she censored herself. "So, you couldn't have left them unconscious. If you'd killed them, it would probably have been reported, because there wouldn't have been any particular reason so suppress the fact. Even if you staged an incident elsewhere, there are protocols that should have been followed. They would have been followed, considering the tensions between the Uchiha and the rest of the village."

"Or I could have simply told them to see nothing, hear nothing," Itachi suggested impassively.

"A genjutsu? I suppose you could have," Sakura replied, "but then you'd have had to blanket the surrounding area on your own as well. The Uchiha compound isn't that isolated."

When Itachi made no answer, she only shook her head. "Alright, even if you took care of the patrols yourself, there's no way it was a coincidence that so many members of the clan were there that night. Even for a clan gathering, there would usually be only so many exceptions made in terms of mission assignments and the rota of the military police. Especially considering how heavily the department was staffed by Uchiha,” she finished softly. “I can’t believe the clan didn’t find that many concessions suspect, unless there were also other people in other places snuffing out the last of the embers of the Uchiha rebellion.”

Itachi inclined his head ever so slightly. There was an awkward silence, at least on her end, before Itachi asked, "You are here, which means the battle against the pair of Akatsuki assigned to the Ichibi came to a favorable conclusion for Konohagakure, but if I may ask whether you killed them or merely convinced them to cut their losses...?"

"Sasori was dead," Sakura reported, stilling the hand that wanted to drop to her side, where a thick scar testified to the gaping hole that had been there so recently. "Kakashi-senpai was still in pursuit of the other one, but that was days ago."

"Deidara," Itachi commented, "is likely to have run, if Hatake-senpai couldn't quickly bring the battle to a conclusive end. He is...less than committed to the objectives of the organization."

Sakura was less than reassured, but she trusted Kakashi-senpai to survive. Still, for the first time she took real initiative in their conversation, turning it toward the reason she was here. She set her chopsticks aside on their stand with a resolved clink.  "I'd like to talk about your plans. I know you want to stage your death and you want to use Sasori's jutsu to provide a believable corpse. However, I'd like more details, if you don't mind. Such as how you propose to die and who you think will see it done. There are very few people that I think could kill you convincingly; since you're going to all this trouble, I don't think you're asking me to help you stage a slow death in bed."

Itachi blinked thoughtfully at her, then set his own utensils aside. "The plan," he said slowly, "remains much the same as it has been. Sasuke will kill me, as he was always meant to, but it appears that my skill for prognostication was not so honed as I had hoped. In return for my continued services to the village, Jiriaya has supplied me with reports of my brother's progress. Sasuke is as strong in some ways as I'd hoped, but weaker in others. Knowing what I know now, I cannot trust what will come after. I am dying and have been for some time, but it is more inconvenient now than it was before," he announced in an unhurried, even tone, like he was reporting to her the time. "If you are capable of treating my condition, it would be useful; if not, we will proceed with the staging of my death on a slightly accelerated timetable. So, I will die, and I will watch, and act if necessary. And after that, perhaps die in truth."

Chapter Text

"What?" the word tripped flatly off her tongue before her mind managed to rein in her mouth and she realized she'd just been incredulous to Uchiha Itachi. "Sorry," she apologized automatically, "just...give me a moment to parse all that."

There'd been two salient points within that jaw-dropping pronouncement. Uchiha Itachi was dying. And that was, well, not okay, because if he was dying-dying and going blind and still ranked as an S-class ninja, then she was almost afraid to guess what he might be capable of in good health. Still, he was all but a stranger, a name and a face and knowledge of a terrible event that she knew more of from microfiche than personal memory.

Sasuke, however, was someone she'd watched for years. She'd paid more attention to his career than her own, had followed rumors of his tastes and preferences like they were the dogma of a religion. Sakura hadn't needed other hobbies or interests, because she'd had him.

Now that she knew the truth of the massacre and that information on his younger brother was the currency by which Itachi was paid, it didn't take genius to guess that Sasuke had been the one person that Itachi couldn't bear to kill. It hadn't been innocence—they're been children hardly crawling who'd never seen another sunrise—but affection that had kept Sasuke alive.

Kept him alive and turned him into that stranger he'd been at the end, the one who'd sold himself to an infamous criminal because he was blind to everything but revenge.

Sakura took a deep, unsteady breath and then rose. "You said you're dying."

"Yes," Itachi confirmed. "My lungs. I haven't seen a medical professional for my condition in some time, but they were quite certain in their prognosis."  

Trying not to eye him like he was a large carnivore that she suspected of being rabid, Sakura padded over to his side of the table and knelt behind him. He didn't stiffen or otherwise react to someone he didn't know well being so close; she didn't think she could have done the same if their positions were reversed.   

Itachi just sat there, even as her hands flared with the distinctive green tint of medical chakra. She laid her hands on his back very gently and discovered that he was unexpectedly warm, his heat soaking into her palms across the thin barrier of his shirt. "Tell me about your symptoms and their diagnosis," she asked him.

Her training was geared toward injuries that would be incurred in the field, not diseases. This was not a gash or a puncture or a break, though she could help in terms of inflammation or infection. She'd expected something terrible that she could hardly diagnose, let alone treat. Cancer, perhaps, maybe some cellular disorder she'd never heard of.

It was terrible. She wasn't mistaken on that point. The damage was extensive, severely impacting the functionality of his lungs. It was also bacterial, which was something she had a little experience with after her nasty little bout of illness in the humid subtropics.

And had been very, very treatable.

Her hands shook slightly as she took shifted back a little and she curled them into her lap. "This was treatable."

"Yes," Itachi acknowledged evenly.

And he'd chosen not to.

That fact seeped into her veins, made her chest tight with something she couldn't name. She'd had time to acclimate to the idea that perhaps the Uchiha massacre hadn't been all that it seemed. Sakura hadn't, however, thought about what that would mean in terms of how Itachi viewed the event and his role in it.  That first time she'd met him in person, he seemed so distant, so calculating, so inhuman she hadn't for a second considered this one inescapable fact. 

Uchiha Itachi hated himself.

This awful thing he was allowing to happen to his body, it was a very deliberate thing. They weren't in the world of a century ago, where there weren't the drugs or the knowledge to treat his condition, nor was he a very poor man living in an area without access to proper medics. This was a choice to make every breath hurt, to make his body ache, to end his life coughing up blood and slowly suffocating as his lungs failed. Perhaps it might spread, if he lived that long, to his spine, his joints, his kidneys. He wasn't a fool. He probably knew all of those things, had chosen this for himself regardless. 

This was a penance.

And Sasuke? Sasuke was his means of suicide, of bringing everything to an end.

Perhaps it would have also been his final apology, to a brother he'd wronged for the sake of something bigger than their family.

Perhaps he thought his death would appease Sasuke, when nothing else would.

It was reckless and desperate and mostly stupid.

Sasuke might have been satisfied with that for an hour, a month, a year, but what then? Did he just self-destruct, his purpose accomplished? What happened if he ever discovered the truth about what had happened that night? Granted, that information was unlikely to ever make its way to Sasuke's ears, but if it did, the consequences were dire enough it deserved some consideration. She had no real idea how strong he was now, but if he turned on Konohagakure, really, truly turned on the village, she knew who'd be sent out to put him down. And she didn't want that for Kakashi-senpai.

Even if he never discovered what had really happened, what did Itachi expect Sasuke to do when all was said and done? Sasuke had already ruined his career in Konohagakure with his own choices. He wasn't like Itachi, who'd been in deep cover for the better part of the decade. Uchiha Sasuke really was a traitor to the village. And in the shinobi world, betrayal came with consequences. He'd only been a genin when he left, so there was that in his favor. It wasn't like he'd taken a scroll or a weapon or intelligence. Just himself and one of the most valuable bloodlines in the village. If Orochimaru didn't take that from him, maybe he could buy himself back into the service of the village.

It would be hard, though. Konohagakure remembered Orochimaru. Knew what he was capable of, treated Mitarashi-san—his former student—as suspect even after years of faithful service.

One day, if he wanted, Sasuke might stand in the ranks of Konoha shinobi again. But trust would come much harder and much slower, if it ever came at all. He would never serve in ANBU, would probably have trouble being promoted to jounin. If and when that promotion came, he'd likely work only for outside clients, never for the village, never be entrusted with sensitive information.

If he didn't come back to Konohagakure, another village might take him in. Take him and his eyes, start another war, begin a new cycle of destruction and competition between the villages. For now Otogakure wasn't encroaching on the business of the major villages and was protected from reprisal for their attempted invasion by Orochimaru's reputation. If he left Oto? Gave himself to Iwa or Kiri or another major village? Then they'd see how long the peace lasted.

Setting even that aside, what kind of emotional fall-out would there be from killing the man who'd murdered his family? When that single purpose was all he'd pared himself down to? Sasuke hadn't been a bastion of emotional stability in those last days even before he'd spent years with Orochimaru.

It wasn't until his knee tapped hers that Sakura realized Itachi had shifted. "Sakura-san?"

She frowned unhappily at him, shuffling on her knees until she was facing him again. "May I examine your eyes?" she asked, retreating to more comfortable ground, which was more a measure of how much she wanted to avoid the Sasuke question than it was an indicator of trust.

But Itachi only studied her expression briefly before dipping his head in assent.

It was like—it was like kissing Tatsuo that first time, only this time the nervous energy boiling beneath her skin didn't have a pleasant source. He didn't close his eyes, even when she framed them with her hands, her thumbs brushing against fragile skin.

He'd admitted to blindness. He hadn't said a word about pain. Intense neuropathic eye pain, at least when he channeled chakra in the patterns she'd observed when Kakashi-senpai pushed it into the Mangekyo state. Even now, with the Sharingan in an activated but essentially passive state, he had to be experiencing some pain. Everywhere his chakra channels touched, the nerves displayed the same kind of damage she'd expect to see in a burn. Something to do with the Uchiha clan's fire-dominant chakra? Something else entirely?

Some of it was clearly chakra overflow, the kind of damage she'd dealt herself when she'd first started mastering Shunshin, but while she understood the base structure of the Sharingan due to her treatment of senpai's eye, she'd have to correct what she could and observe any developing problems, because there were subtle variations from the way she'd integrated senpai's implant. And on a cellular level, subtle variation was everything.

At last, Sakura lowered her hands back into her lap. "I'm not a proper medic-nin," she told him seriously. "I didn't do a residency at the hospital or anything like that."

"But you were talented enough to you to be recommended to Jiriaya regardless of that."

"Yes, well, we're going to put you on antibiotics strong enough to be toxic to your liver and we're going to do it without proper medical supervision," Sakura told him frankly. "I can probably repair the cellular damage in your lungs and hopefully the nerve damage in your eyes. I can restore your vision, but I won't know if I can stop the problem from recurring without more invasive study."

Itachi arched one brow, dipping his head slightly to one side. "That prognosis doesn't sound quite as dire as your expression would indicate."

Sakura smoothed out her expression with the ease of considerable practice. "Sasuke—I don't think it's a good idea. To include him in all this," she clarified.

"Is this a tactical protest or an emotional one?" was the response drawn from Itachi. There was a fractional drop in the warmth of his tone, a certain hardness in the set of his eyes. Subtle things, but they were enough to remake him into the public face of Uchiha Itachi, clan-killer and Akatsuki member.

She clenched her jaw against the impulse to swallow her protest. He was her lead for this mission and it was his mission, but they weren't on a battlefield. She could discuss her concerns. She felt her own expression begin to reflect some of Itachi's hardness. "Why did you change the plan?" she challenged him. "Why not just let Sasuke kill you outright? Has he fallen short of your expectations or is there something else? Someone else?"

In the face of his silence, she continued, "When I worked with him, Sasuke was psychologically vulnerable and I can't imagine that Orochimaru wouldn't have exploited that. How long since you've seen him, face-to-face? Are you trying to break him?"

That drew a sigh from Itachi, the deadly intent seeping from him to leave him merely frightening rather than terrifying. "Not since before he left the village," he admitted, those deep stress lines beneath his eyes more prominent than ever. She resisted the urge to flinch back as his expression grew briefly assessing. "You mentioned antibiotics. How long before I would feel an improvement?"

She allowed the change in topic, but she wasn't finished with that particular discussion.

"If you were civilian without access to a medic-nin? Nine months. If you were in Konoha General under Tsunade-sama's supervision? Four months. That's for complete eradication of the bacteria. Normally, you'd see improvement before that, but your case is so advanced that a civilian doctor wouldn't be able to do more than advise you to make your last arrangements," Sakura told him frankly. "I don't know how long we'll need to keep you on antibiotics. I guess it'll depend on how often you want to meet for a chakra-healing session. Since I can't discuss which antibiotics would be best for you with someone who has actual clinical experience, I'll need a little time to research. Then there's the small matter of getting the drugs. I could start on your eyes immediately, but I'm not really up for an extended surgery. Your eyes are bad enough without someone making stupid mistakes because she's overreaching."

"How long before you're recovered?"

"A day, maybe two." She'd likely still feel miserable, but more confident in her ability to make it through a prolonged surgery.

"I won't be expected for another four days. You will stay here with me until then," Itachi suggested in such a way that it became an order. "We will rarely have the opportunity to meet. The ritual to contain the bijū is extremely taxing and though we belong to the same organization, no member of Akatsuki trusts the others enough to show weakness in front of them. So it is expected that we will slink off and disappear after we take a jinchuriki, but at no other time will a face-to-face meeting be without risks that I would rather avoid if at all possible." That harshness was back in his face as he said, "Given the number of free jinchuriki remaining, our opportunities will be severely curtailed.

 "I will explain as much as I can about Akatsuki, both its goals and its members. I will also provide a way to communicate with me, when we cannot actually meet. But for now, we should finish lunch."


Itachi was careful, systematic, and thorough. Or at least that was her impression of him as he produced a tarp so she wouldn't spoil the floor when she unsealed the body that had previously worn his face and wordlessly produced a surgeon's kit. He described the members of Akatsuki to her in uncompromising detail to her as she worked: skillsets, psychological profiles, career histories. Details she could pass on to Jiriaya, far more information than could be included in coded letters that masqueraded as complaints about the impact of Jiriaya's novels on the morality of the populace or about his depictions of women.  

She listened intently to him while she searched her subject's clothes, examined his skin, slit him open and cracked his sternum to spread him wide, opened up his skull and peered into the wrinkled, grey-tinged folds of his brain.

Her impression that Sasori was a mad, twisted kind of genius intensified as she found kanji on the inside of his skin, like some terrible reverse tattoo. Once she'd found the first by accident—his scalp slipping loose from his skull—she began the delicate and labor-intensive task of skinning him. It wasn't the first time that she'd skinned something, as survival exercises at the Academy had made her proficient at it. Squirrels and rabbits were easy; with a few preliminary cuts and a partner to hold their feet, their skin could be pulled away with no more effort than taking off a slightly sticky sock. Deer were more awkward only when you didn't have the opportunity to hang them. 

Not so a human being, whose skin was thinner and more delicate. A younger Sakura would never have made it past the first incision without bolting, but present-day Sakura was not only a veteran of the battlefield but also of Gozen-san. It helped that her audience was Itachi, who managed to seamlessly marry clinical distance with respect for the fact that this body had once been a person. Gozen-san wouldn't have cared; Naruto would have covered his unease with terrible jokes and maybe prodded an eyeball to convince himself that this didn't freak him out.

Eventually she had the skin off and spread before her like a map. She studied the characters, probing for residual chakra while Itachi retrieved pen and paper and laid down a diagram of their placement. They discussed method of application, exchanged theories on why one character would have been chosen over another, and drew conclusions about the chakra network that would be created when the jutsu was activated. The subject's—or victim's—own chakra withdrew deep into the internal organs, helping to maintain automatic functions, while the outside source of chakra—Itachi had first-hand experience with that part of the technique, which would make the transference much easier to recreate—flooded the normal chakra network and essentially remade one person into another.

She was unwillingly impressed, a little horrified, and very certain she'd made the right decision to end the fight against Sasori when she had.

When she'd learned all she could from the body and the sunlight was well on its way to fading from the sky, Itachi disposed of their subject while she showered and pointedly tried not to consider where their own "volunteer" would be coming from. There were a lot of people that the world was better off without, but Sakura was uncomfortable with the way her moral lines seemed to be made of sand. Press her too hard and she'd redraw them somewhere a little closer to the person she didn't want to become.

Itachi showered when he came back inside, then insisted on making dinner, which relegated her to feeling awkward at the table while he produced more evidence that some Homemaker's Association somewhere was missing their role model. His hair was loose and still damp when he joined her, spilling over his shoulders in a dark, sleek waterfall. The table was small enough that she could smell the sharp, clean scent of the soap he'd used, overlaid by a strong herbal scent that Sakura suspected was due to the copious amounts of tea she'd seen him sipping throughout the day—due to the ingredients she'd been able to recognize, she was almost certain it was helping him to manage the cough that should, by all rights, be plaguing him at this stage.

It was only then, in that moment of strange intimacy, that her brain managed to process something that should have occurred her much earlier, when Itachi had insisted she would spend the next several days with him. Alone. In this isolated, cozy getaway cabin.

Uchiha Itachi was as unreal to her as the actors on television, but Itachi was a man.

She wasn't delusional enough to think he'd be attracted to her and she wasn't worried that he'd make advances. She certainly wasn't worried that she'd inexplicably fall deeply in lust with him like in one of Jiriaya's trashy novels. But that wasn't the point.

The point was that everything was about context. Kunoichi worked with mixed-gender teams that heavily favored the male side of the equation. The Academy hadn't been interested in producing soldiers that viewed each other as gender-neutral equals; there'd been too much emphasis on the differences between kunoichi and shinobi for that to happen, making them all painfully aware of the boy/girl divide. She'd shared cramped tents with her genin team and shared accommodations with senpai as a jounin and she'd shared space with Tatsuo too, but all those things shared factors in common. All those people had been familiar to her, people she'd grown up with, and there had been clearly established boundaries laid between them, reinforced by the protocols taught in the Academy. 

Collaborating with Itachi made the rules strangely fluid; he walked a strange line between partner and contractor and with all of the other things making him what he was, it was impossible to put him into a neatly labeled box and treat him with unabridged professionalism. He made her too uneasy for that and this assignment was so far outside anything she'd ever done—there would be support, no post-mission debriefing, she'd never break it down and analyze it with her squad—that it demanded a certain kind of flexibility, a change in the rules that governed every mission.

And because of all those things, because she was a teenage girl who read smutty novels in her spare time, because he was one of the most beautiful and tragic men she'd ever seen, Sakura experienced a few very uncomfortable moments of recognition of Itachi the man before she tucked it away and looked on him as simply Itachi.

"You're an excellent cook," she told him, which drew a faint smile.

"My mother was excellent. If I am passable, it's all to her credit," was his response. When Sakura visibly hesitated, his expression softened until he was that warm, affable creature that had greeted her with lunch, as if she'd never challenged him on Sasuke. "You are allowed to talk about them. To ask questions. You don't have to pretend that the massacre did not happen for my sake. It will be...not pleasant, necessarily, but welcome to speak about my family to someone who knows that I did not kill them simply because I could. I have been pretending to be that monster for so long it is almost more real to me than the truth."

Sakura nodded slowly, taking in that admittance, said in the same even tones with which he'd announced he was dying. She'd already learned that all his emotional displays were subtle, but this crossed the line into impossible to read "So, your mother taught you to cook?" she prompted. "That's unusual, isn't it? In clans, I mean. Though it’s fairly unusual in general, too."

"Yes," Itachi responded, picking up the thread of the conversation. "But I was very fond of my mother and the kitchen was a place that my father rarely entered.  Both of those contributed to my desire to learn. It was something that she and I could do together—once I was in the Academy, there were very few of those things left that were considered appropriate for the heir of the clan."

"If your father avoiding the kitchen was a good reason to be in it, I guess you didn't get along?"

"It was not my father, precisely, that I was avoiding. Only his expectations. In those moments when he forgot he was the head of the Uchiha clan, he was a good father. Those instances happened less and less as I grew older, though, and tensions with the village worsened. He was...very proud of being an Uchiha," Itachi said after a moment's consideration. "So much that I think it came to define him. Every insult dealt our clan became a personal one and he reacted in the only way that he knew how. With anger, resentment, and eventually, violent action."

"Your mother, did she...?" Sakura asked tentatively, but found herself unable to complete the question.

Itachi, however, apparently didn't require her to say anything aloud. "You want to know if my mother died for the sins of her husband?"

 "It's just...not everyone in your clan who died that night would have been directly involved in the plan to rebel. I understand, sort of, why they issued a blanket order. But if your mother wasn't responsible for anything more than being an Uchiha, I think that must have been very hard."

"In many ways, my mother was a traditional clan wife. She deferred to my father in public, so I suppose to an outsider it might have seemed as if she allowed all her opinions to be led by his. But she was her own person, responsible for her own decisions. She was also an integral part of the plans for rebellion. As the wife of the leader of the clan, she took on most of the social responsibilities that my father was too busy for. There was no need for my father to arrange clandestine meetings when my mother could visit anyone in the compound at any time without arousing suspicion. My mother might have been both kinder and softer in her manners than my father, but she was not a victim."

Because Sakura didn't know whether that made it better or worse, she only prodded at her tamagoyaki. "How well do you know this area?" she asked him before the silence could grow awkward.

"Reasonably well," was his answer, which Sakure interpreted to mean that he was probably aware of every residence within fifty miles if he held true to pattern. "What do you require?"

"Access to pharmaceutical catalogs and case studies," she replied. "And then access to a pharmacy."  

She did manage to convince him to at least let her do the dishes while they discussed the logistics of acquiring what she would need to begin treating Itachi's condition. By the time they were both satisfied exhaustion had sunk deep into her bones and she was seriously considering just pillowing her head on her arms and sleeping at the table.

Itachi rose from his seat across from her and slipped into the bedroom, though that was something of a misnomer.

In keeping with the design of the house, the bedding was stored during the day in a large closet, leaving the second room empty and useful for other functions beyond just being a bedroom. She heard the sound of one of the closets being opened and Itachi reappeared in the doorway with a thick, comfortable-looking futon that smelt ever-so-slightly like cedar and sunshine even from where she was sitting.

Her mind wasn't quite groggy enough with the need to sleep not to react at all when he asked her, "Shall we go to bed?"

It took very little time for the rational voice in her head to firmly assert that he was only trying to keep her from drooling on the table, not propositioning her, but people like Uchiha Itachi were the reason that people believed that the Sharingan could read minds rather than just allow them to interpret microexpressions. Her only comfort was that it appeared alarm had trumped anything else that she might have felt, which meant that while the tips of her ears warmed with embarrassment she didn't feel the need to let her head drop to the table with a hearty thunk.

An undercurrent of amusement warmed his dark eyes. "You have nothing to worry about. What's the term?" He paused thoughtfully for a moment. "Ah. I am a herbivore."

Due to the speaker, it took Sakura's brain a moment to process the term. Herbivore. A man for whom sex came very low on the hierarchy of needs, if it appeared at all. There were other associations as well, but Sakura was fairly certain that was the one meant to reassure her. It usually wasn't a compliment, but she'd grown up with boys who thought 'You fight like a girl' made a fine insult.

She outranked most of those boys and had a higher kill count than anyone in her graduating class. In Itachi, "herbivore" didn't carry warm and fuzzy overtones—except perhaps in those moments when he was  putting her own mother's cooking to shame—but translated to a highly cerebral being.

"Also," Itachi continued in a distinctly wry tone, "I suspect you would not enjoy sharing a room with me with me at the moment, let alone a bed. Night sweats and coughing fits are, I imagine, less romantic in person than what classical literature would lead you to believe."

 

Chapter Text

They passed an uncomfortable night together, she and Itachi.

Though he slept in the outer room, the walls weren't sufficient barrier against the sound of his coughing. Whatever he was using to manage during the day wasn't enough to prevent the ragged, wet sounds that occasionally escaped him and jolted Sakura awake. She'd padded over to the door after one such episode and discovered he'd not even attempted to lie down, just slumped against the wall with the thin pillow behind his head, the covers pulled up over his shoulders and the thickness of the futon beneath him.

His eyes fluttered open, his awareness of his surroundings apparently fully intact despite his body's suffering and she met his undemanding gaze only briefly before she made a silent retreat back to her own futon.

Sakura woke at dawn out of habit despite sleeping poorly and stumbled to the bathroom, going through her morning routine as quietly as she could. She was sans ninken and the energy needed for a proper "morning walk", but she did slip outside when she'd finished. For the next hour, she did slow, controlled sets that returned limberness to muscles gone slightly stiff with disuse and helped her sweep fresh chakra through her body.

She'd expected Itachi to be up by the time she'd finished; she'd half-expected him to be watching, evaluating the person with whom he'd be first entrusting his eyesight and then his life. But he was asleep when she slunk back inside and though he relocated to the bedroom while she made herself tea, he didn't reappear until almost ten o'clock.

While "well-rested" wasn't the adjective she'd have chosen to describe him now that she knew to look beyond the initial impression, he was neatly put together and apparently ready to initiate the next phase of their plan. Or at least that was what she assumed, given that his hair now appeared to be a warm brown, worn much shorter but in a flattering cut, and he was wearing glasses, his eyes dark with the absence of the Sharingan. He wore civilian clothes badly in the sense that he would have attracted less attention if he was a little more rumpled and unkempt, but he seemed intent on minimizing the changes he'd need to maintain while they were out.

Part of her mind, the section that collected life-size posters of actors and desperately counted days until the release of the next novel in the Tsunami series, approved. Vehemently. The kunoichi part of her brain noted that he was attractive enough to be memorable and that wasn't a necessarily a good thing.

She took her cue from him, though she was more than slightly skeptical of her ability to create a convincing cover that looked as if she belonged walking around with that. Her kit always had basic infiltration gear, but basic was the key word and while she wasn't homely or anything and henge would fix it if she was, it was the how he presented himself that worried her. Even without an introduction, even without family resemblance, it was easy to tell clanborn from the old families if you knew what you were looking for.  Lessons from the cradle up shaped them, made them something distinctive that couldn't be aped by just putting on the right clothes. In this case, Sakura didn't think she wanted to mimic the effortless posture or the complete self-assurance and made a mental note to suggest that Itachi do something less...Itachi with himself. Not that she doubted his skills, but the gender-bias of kunoichi classes cut both ways. Most boys emerged from the Academy with only nominal infiltration skills and there was nothing in what she knew of Itachi to suggest it was something included in his skillset.

A petal-pink blouse with long, loose sleeves hid the muscle tone in her shoulders and arms, while her knee-length shorts drew attention to the lean lines of her legs, distracting from the very thin, flat blades hidden beneath the denim. Even if someone did notice, she wasn't worried. Any onlookers could mistake them for off-duty ninja—goodness knew the civilian population of Fire was used to that and eager to have the well-paid shinobi spent their coin at their establishments—so long as they did not identify them as Uchiha Itachi and Haruno Sakura.

Her wonderfully broken-in boots were exchanged for sandals that would not survive a marathon, but would blend in seamlessly in a civilian crowd. She scraped her hair back into a spiky ponytail before illusion shifted its distinctive color to a less noticeable brown, and she slightly altered the shape of her face while she was at it. Minor changes like these were easier to maintain and less noticeable than full transformation.

 Exterior alterations complete, she focused her attention on the more subtle things that would actually sell this persona, because no amount of chakra could disguise habits, foibles, or mannerisms.

Placing one hand on either side of the bathroom mirror, Sakura took a deep breath, held it for a heartbeat, then exhaled very softly until her muscles were taut. Gather 'self' up, breathe 'self' out, she repeated to herself in the familiar mantra they'd been taught in the Academy. Consider what made “you” and discard those things unnecessary in order to become the person you needed to be to achieve your objective.

In reflection, it was also an accurate summary of her strategy for dating Sasuke. 

 Meeting her own eyes in the mirror, like her early genjutsu exercises with the tree, Sakura shifted her posture and expression, modulating her voice until she was satisfied that in the unlikely event someone she knew just happened to be in the area, nothing about her would make them ask, "Hey, wasn't that Sakura? And who was that guy she was with?"

Itachi's brows rose only fractionally when she addressed him as she came out of the bedroom, lowering the formality of her speech in a way that would have made her uncomfortable if the whole situation hadn't already had her ill at ease. Not in a rude, 'oi, you' way à la Sasuke—she wasn't dressed to pull off that kind of act—but far more warmly familiar than their brief acquaintance merited. "So, how far are you going to make me walk in these shoes?" she teased. “And are those glasses actually anywhere close to the prescription you need?”

While Itachi might not be an infiltration specialist, he was adept at reading situations. And apparently shameless. "Does it matter how far, so long as they look cute?" he asked amiably, his body language shifting to something far less reserved. “And no. But they do transform the world from abstract watercolor to film in soft focus, so they are sufficient for their purpose.”

That amiability persisted throughout the first part of the day, though Itachi didn't feel the need to fill the silence between them with chatter. The tree-road saw them to the closest mid-sized city, which they'd decided was the likeliest to have a full hospital, not just the clinics that serviced the rural communities. Unlike Konoha General, which had a modicum of security due to their shinobi patients—just as they occasionally assigned chūnin to suicide watch, they also had round-the-clock surveillance for critically injured jounin—this hospital wasn't difficult to infiltrate.

An ebb and flow of patients and visitors kept them from being noticed in the halls; genjutsu kept them from being noticed as schedules were perused and they slipped into the empty office of one of the doctors who had a day off on the rotation. Itachi riffled through the papers on the desk until he discovered the signature they'd need to forge a prescription, memorizing both it and the handwriting of the doctor with the Sharingan active; another minute saw several pages from a prescription pad liberated from a locked drawer.

While he was acquiring that, Sakura paged through the reference tomes weighing down a shelf on the far wall until she located both the disease she was looking for and recommended treatment options. She silently pointed out the drugs she wanted, leaning close to whisper further instructions as to dosage, and Itachi silently scribed her requests.

The cardboard backer on the desktop calendar provided the password she needed to access the system and while her mock-up case file was a little sketchy on the details—she'd essentially cloned the file of another patient with the same condition, but far less advanced, changing what personal details she could--she wasn't too worried. It wouldn't hold up to intense scrutiny, but they weren't going to give anyone a reason to do more than glance at it— few minutes lurking in the pharmacy had told her that the doctors within the hospital were using the intranet to send memos rather than phoning downstairs.

They could have outright stolen what they'd needed, but she didn't want to get anyone fired. She didn't expect anyone to double-check in any case; some of the drugs were expensive, but there weren't any opiates among them.

They could have gone to another pharmacy rather than the one at the hospital, but the odds of them carrying some of the drugs on a day-to-day basis were extremely low and, in this case, a slightly hassled and very busy pharmacist was an asset. With so many people passing through during the day, they were less likely to be remembered.  

The visit to the pharmacy that followed on the heels of their B&E was both fruitful and uneventful, but Sakura was grateful as they left the grounds of the hospital, the smell of sun-warmed asphalt and the fried food of street vendors replacing the subtle stench antiseptic and anxiety.

"So, mission accomplished," Sakura ventured. "Or at least phase one of a currently indeterminate number of stages."

“Yes,” Itachi agreed absently. Sakura thought they would turn back then and she would have to endure another day of awkward isolation, but he said instead, "Do you like taiyaki?"

"Yes?" Sakura responded bemusedly, then realized that her intonation had turned her answer into a question. "Yes," she repeated.

Itachi nodded and steered them toward a nearby store, where Sakura discovered that he shared her predilection for the custard-filled ones. Itachi asked the woman manning the counter for directions to the nearest park as he accepted the bag, thanking the woman pleasantly when she suggested that he and his girlfriend might enjoy one that was a little further away but had been less designed to cater to mothers with small children. Sakura would have been content to trail behind him, staring quizzically at the back of his head, but he seemed intent on having her walk beside him and after the second time she almost ran into his shoulder as he paused and glanced back at her, she complied.

"I've already agreed to heal your eyes, cure your disease, and stage your death. Exactly what sort of favor are you about to ask that requires taiyaki?" she murmured to him, the words spoken softly enough to be swallowed up by the noise of the city.

Itachi looked over at her, one brow quirking upwards as a faint smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Perhaps I should point out that a boyfriend buying you food shouldn't be acknowledged as bribery but...I'd like to talk about Sasuke. So, some sweet, to go with the bitter."

Tension knotted the muscles in her back and neck, but Sakura resisted the urge to frown. "Oh?" she asked with manufactured lightness. "Reconsidering your position?"

"No. However, the information the Jiraiya provided me, while thorough, was...clinical. Evaluations by teachers, psychologists...grief counselors. I'd like to hear about Sasuke from someone who was more invested in him as a person, rather than as a shinobi."

"...I don't know that I ever really knew Sasuke as well as I thought," Sakura admitted, not meeting his eyes, instead fixing her gaze on the first flush of greenery heralding their destination. "But I'll tell you about the one I thought I knew."


Kakashi had a niggling feeling that this phenomenon he was experiencing was best called "separation anxiety," which put him on par with dogs in empty apartments and helicopter parents. He was neither, but he reasonably attached to his partner and Sakura had an established habit of almost dying on him when he wasn't watching. He'd been told, of course, that she was taking a few days medical leave and was resting in the comfort of civilian accommodations elsewhere, but he'd feel reassured when she was in front of him and not before.


There were situations that were unequivocally intimate, regardless of where or with whom they happened. Sex was the one that was probably leapt to the forefront of anyone's mind, but Sakura thought she could make a solid argument that surgery outside the well-lit operating theatre of a hospital required more trust than sex would have. After all, unless someone brought syphilis to the party, sex didn't usually come with the risk of permanent blindness.

If she screwed up here, it wouldn't be as simple as handing the case off to another medic and wishing Itachi better luck next time. At best it would be a benign cellular mutation—at worst? A highly aggressive cancer.

Rather than her kneeling for hours on end—Hinata might have been able to manage that without excruciating pain, but Sakura was less practiced at seiza—Itachi's head was pillowed on a thin cushion on her lap, her legs partially drawn up to either side and her back supported against the wall.

She'd carefully partitioned off the part of her brain that was admiring the aesthetics of all that long, ink-black hair spilling across the pillow, the heartbreaking transience written in the pale, pale skin and deeply shadowed eyes. It wasn't sexual, really. Not romantic, but Romantic. Itachi belonged to some sweeping epic tale of love and betrayal and murder, while she—she belonged in the workaday world, to the armies to fought and lost and won and died without leaving their names behind to live on after them.

His skin was smooth and too-warm beneath her fingers as she settled them into place—his lashes felt like butterflies walking across the palm of her hand when his eyes opened. "Something wrong?" she queried.

"Nothing," Itachi murmured, closing his eyes again. She waited, to see if he would say anything else, but when he kept his silence she closed her own eyes and drove her chakra down into his flesh.

The damage was still awful enough to make her want to cringe in sympathy, but that was shoved aside in favor of impartial analysis. Chakra surgery was much less painful that the regular kind and now that she didn't have to work to ignore a gaping wound in her abdomen, she'd have enough control to mute the pain to nothing more than moderate discomfort. Her work on senpai's transplanted eye had given her some idea how she'd like to proceed, but the way she'd chosen to "wire" the transplant back into Kakashi-senpai's native system wasn't identical to the chakra network that already existed to support Itachi's Mangekyo Sharingan. Her improvised system wasn't perfect, not if senpai was still experiencing loss of sight, but this nerve-damaged mess...

Well, she wouldn't have declared it a "successful, stable mutation of the Byakugan."

She closed the pathways, temporarily rendering his Sharingan nonfunctional, so that she could assess the cellular damage without being distracted by the mangled channels or the strange chakra residue that coated some of the nerves that were responsible for his chronic neuropathic eye pain. This part, at least, she had some confidence in correcting. She didn't do quite what she'd done to her own eyes, which might have created chakra channels that had the possibility of destabilizing his doujutsu, but his normal sight was restored without mishap.

Sakura responded to this early success by a slow, thorough evaluation of the tangled nest of chakra channels that fed between different regions of the brain and his eyes, using trace amounts of her own chakra to "illuminate" the channels. If Gozen-san hadn't taught her to be so painstakingly meticulous or if she hadn't severed his channels to begin with, she'd have probably missed them entirely. "Itachi? The Sharingan doesn't have a third form, does it?"

He went very still beneath her. "Itachi?" she prompted.

"What would make you say that?" he asked.

"There are channels here that, well, I guess I'd describe them as collapsed veins. They're there, but your chakra hasn't been travelling through them. No nerve damage and they seem to..."

"Seem to what?" he asked her with marked patience when her voice trailed off.

"Seem to fix some of the major issues caused by the Sharingan. Most of them, I think. Maybe all of them. They're smaller than the first set of channels. Capillaries, almost. But more complex." So complex it would be almost impossible to duplicate to fix Kakashi-senpai's problem, but now that she had an idea what the system was supposed to look like, she had some ideas as to how that could be corrected.

"If you can, you should make use of them," came Itachi's response, which neatly sidestepped her original question. But if the Mangekyo wasn't quite public knowledge in the way that the Sharingan was, it didn't seem out of the realm of possibility that there was a third form, even more secret than the second.

Before she attempted to divert his chakra into the new channels, she first began to repair the damage caused by and to his other channels. But the more damage that she healed, the more difficult it became to keep track of the other set of channels, almost like they were shrinking away from the healthy channels. "What do you have to do to activate this one?" she muttered to herself as she struggled. "Cause irreversible catastrophic damage to your own eyes?"  

Itachi made no answer and she gave up the attempt at healing the damaged channels, instead focusing on attempting to open the newly discovered ones.

It was less than fruitful. "Your doujutsu is very, very annoying," Sakura told Itachi as she wracked her brain for a solution. "How is the second phase activated? Senpai's just sort of was when I integrated the eye, but that can't be how it always works."

Itachi was quiet for so long she thought he wouldn't answer. And when he did, she almost wished he hadn't. Especially when, after another gaping, bleeding silence in which she marveled at just how awful the Sharingan was, he told her the usual manner in which one obtained an Eternal Sharingan.

"I really think the Byakugan is really the better choice here," she quipped weakly as her fingers trembled against his skin. She felt herself becoming frazzled, losing control of the precision demanded by medical chakra, and choked down her horror. She needed to think with her head, not her heart. She mulled it over, examining that extremely specific condition for triggering a mutation that resulted in the Mangekyo, comparing it to what she knew of the development of the first phase of the Sharingan.

"It's chemical," she concluded aloud, the tremor from her fingers having transferred to her voice. "It's not about the situation itself. It's about the body's responses to the situation. Certain regions of the brain are stimulated, which in turn produces a cascade of chemicals and hormones being released..." Sakura trailed off, her eyes snapping open on the revelation, her head dipping down so she could fix her gaze on Itachi.

Kanashibari. That was her answer. "Please don't fight me," she whispered to Itachi, closing her eyes even as she opened his mind to an image of Sasuke as she'd seen him in the Forest, roiling with corrupt chakra and wide-eyed with hate.

She rebuilt him meticulously, from the scent of his soap to the faint overlay of smoke, his hair shifting as he whirled to face them, his face twisted not into the coldly furious lines that he'd worn in reality, but that just-on-the-edge-of-control look he'd worn when he'd confronted Naruto on that roof all those years ago. When it came to the people that mattered, Sasuke lost all that cool poise that he liked to pretend went bone deep.

She felt Itachi tense, but he didn't begin to dismantle her genjutsu. Not even when Sasuke snarled at him with a voice like a wounded animal, demanding, "Why?!"  

There it is, Sakura thought with mingled guilt and satisfaction as those shadow channels gained definition. As she spun Itachi's feelings toward Sasuke and her memories into one finely honed tool, the guilt faded away until she was intent only on the result, on opening the path even if she had to pave it with pain.

And she did.

The conversation between Sasuke and Itachi turned, twisted, the coin spinning and landing to reveal the source of that deep, roaring hate. She let his mind feed Sasuke the words to express his betrayal and his anger. And it was Itachi's hope, his deep-seated belief in his brother's strength that lanced the boil of all that festering emotion, though it was Sakura who made Sasuke say, "Then see it through. Save me," and take a knife to his own eyes, freeing them from their sockets and offering them as bloody favors.  

You couldn't really reach out and pluck eyes like grapes, but the skin there was thin, delicate. In reality, she didn't know if someone would have enough control to cut out their own eyes without damaging them, even if they couldn't feel pain. But a genjutsu could be a world of probable lies, of things that might be, and reality mattered less than belief.

The channels were open, distinct, but no chakra flowed into them, and Sakura knew that there wouldn't be another chance like this one. Even if Itachi volunteered for further emotional torture, he was too much a genjutsu-type himself for him to let some illusion impact him like this a second time. So what the hell? she demanded of herself. It was at least partially a response to emotional distress; she'd proven that part of the theory.

If the Mangekyo was an endangered animal, the Eternal Mangekyo was a legendary beast. Itachi had only been able to cite a single known, proven instance, which any idiot knew didn't make a data pattern but was plenty of basis for a legend to take root on. It was unlikely that the family had conducted experiments in the Orochimaru-searching-for-the-limits-of-possibility sense of the term, so they only had that one success to go on. Which may have led to some erroneous beliefs. For example, the "close blood relative" clause—why include it? The Sharingan was a young doujutsu—anyone who had an active form of it was a close blood relative. There'd been a great deal of cousin-marriage taking place, to increase chances of passing on the Sharingan.

So, in theory, any Sharingan would do, so long as it wasn't the pair you were born with. But why? Maybe... she thought, it's not so much the new eyes, so much as the chakra? I can't duplicate the residual memory of the unique abilities or anything, but he's already come this far half-blind and dying. I can't imagine what he'd be like if he wasn't trying to destroy himself.

Chakra was as distinctive as fingerprints, but if she could smudge that fingerprint somehow...

If she was a criminal mastermind, she might have a better idea of how that might be done; if the Academy had a graduate course in chakra theory and she'd completed it, she might have more confidence that badness wouldn't ensue. What she had instead was the knowledge that any jinchuriki's chakra could be tainted or influenced by their bijū and there was no reason that what worked on a macro scale wouldn't be as effective on a micro scale.

It needs to be just different enough, Sakura thought, biting down hard on her lower lip as she shifted a fractional amount of her chakra back into its natural state—as opposed to the tightly controlled chakra used for medical jutsu—inside Itachi's eyes. She felt his breath hitch slightly at the discomfort of someone else's raw chakra inside his body and she sensed him automatically begin to disperse the genjutsu. "Itachi," she said sharply, before the shadow channels could begin to fade, "activate your Sharingan."

He obeyed and chakra flooded into the previously unused channels. Opening her eyes to the real world, Sakura glanced down at him, removing her hands from where they'd rested against his face. His eyelids parted and those hell-red eyes met hers.

"I doubt they're as powerful as the real thing," Sakura told him softly, "but since the only person with the real thing that you know of is dead and buried, I think the fact that you won't go blind through use of your doujutsu makes a good consolation prize."    

Itachi blinked, the red giving way to black, and he stared up at her with an inscrutable expression. "Indeed."  

Chapter Text

Whatever nature had intended for Itachi, nurture had assured that he was habitually inscrutable.

It wasn't just self-awareness that informed him of this. His teachers and mentors had been in turns pleased and then worried by his self-control; his one girlfriend from his single doomed attempt to pretend at normality—because he'd been seventeen and partnered with Kisame, who welcomed with open arms all life's pleasures and didn't see why his partner should live the life of an ascetic without at least trying the things "normal" men enjoyed, because perhaps he wasn't the perfect martyr, because it was acceptable for even S-class missing-nin to break the facade of perfect, cold indifference when it came to a woman and sometimes he grew very, very tired of being Uchiha Itachi—had made it known to him that she had always felt that he'd kept her at an emotional distance.

Of course, she'd also intimated in the same conversation that his lack of an aggressive sexual pursuit of her was actually a lack of attraction, which had undermined her self-confidence and made her feel undesirable and therefore the collapse of their relationship was his fault.

The Itachi of those days had been an awkward teenager even for all the lack of rampant hormones. He hadn't possessed either the courage or the emotional intelligence to attempt to explain that the pursuit of sex for sex itself had no attraction for him, but if she'd first allowed an actual relationship to develop and then clearly made herself the aggressor—subtle hints of sexual attraction weren't something he'd been skilled at interpreting at the time, as he seemed to lack that inborn instinct for it and most of the more blatant ones were frankly distasteful—Itachi might have been willing to share more of his body than he had. He had been tempted to point out the brief dates allowed by his demanding mission and training schedule hadn't managed to make her much better than a stranger even after "dating" for a year, but by that point he had been aware that sleeping with perfect strangers was regarded as a coup by most men.

Even without his peculiarities, however, a lifetime's training would have made him cautious about such vulnerable intimacy.

Yet here he was, years later, bemused by a very different kind of vulnerable intimacy and finding that shield of inscrutability challenged by what at first glance had been an unassuming young kunoichi. When he had altered his plans, he'd accepted that there would be risks and complications. No matter Jiraiya's connections, he'd assumed it would be difficult for the Sage to find a medic-nin who was both skilled and willing to collude with a mass murderer.

So he had not expected much from Haruno Sakura in those first days. Now he watched her in the same way that he watched Kisame, with an awareness that a person that had one hour been an ally—perhaps even a friend—could turn against him in the next. She'd been a possible threat from the moment she'd been read in, from the second he'd allowed her to touch him with her hands aglow with chakra, but his evaluation of her as a real and present danger had waited for that instant when—without a single handsign—she'd plunged him deep into a genjutsu so textured, so layered that it wouldn't have shamed any member of the Uchiha clan.

Even those rare few that had achieved Mangekyo.

There had been a certain look in her eyes when he'd opened his and seen through the lens of the Eternal Mangekyo for the first time that had chilled him. Haruno Sakura had proved herself to be a creature of warm, ready emotions these past few days. Not unprofessional, no, but more willing to move past well-entrenched impressions than he'd expected. Even with the mitigating circumstances, it should have been hard for her to move past what he'd done. He'd anticipated passive-aggressive tactics, if not outright dislike. Sakura had displayed nothing more than a certain wariness in that first day, which had been the first signal that there was more to this kunoichi than the wide green eyes and candyfloss pink hair would suggest.

Even then, he hadn't anticipated that unguarded moment when she'd moved her hands away and her eyes had met his. He would have understood fear—either in instinctive response to the sight of his eyes or in anticipation of reprisal the genjutsu—or even pride, which would have been fully justified given what she'd accomplished, but what he'd seen instead was the hard, satisfied look of a kunoichi who was not surprised by her own competence.     

It was compelling, that justified self-confidence; for all the moments of well-spoken, polite, kind kunoichi he'd seen in the several days they'd shared, it was only then that he thought she was powerfully, undeniably charismatic. 

One day, perhaps one day very soon, the world would know she was a force to be reckoned with.

Providing, of course, that she survived long enough for her legend to bloom.

"May I ask why you did not choose to become a medic-nin?" Itachi asked as he joined the kunoichi on the engawa, where she'd retreated after doing what she could to ease his breathing and apologizing for not being able to recreate the same miracle she'd wrought with his eyes. "You have the skill."

"That might be true," she affirmed as she shifted to watch him as he settled himself next to her. "But skill isn't everything." She hesitated briefly before locking their gazes in a way that was almost confrontational, those wide green eyes now narrow and assessing.

"I'm a coward," she stated brazenly, evenly, like someone else might admit to liking the color blue or that they preferred their udon cold. "Being a medic-nin would become my excuse. To not take action, to delegate the danger to others. Eventually, I might not have been a medic-nin at all, just a medic. It's...easy, when others are there, to step aside when they're loud and eager and all you can think of is how much it's going to hurt when they hit you."

Her shoulders hunched inward slightly at that admission, as if her recall of past injuries was so sharp and present that to mention it was to relive the sensation. He wondered then how different it might be to craft such terrible, immersive genjutsu without the advantage of his doujutsu. "I don't think you would have let your fear conquer you," he volunteered softly.

He expected her to blush or demur. He did not expect her to say, "Like it's conquered you?"

This time there was no "almost" about the shattering of his facade. Shock seasoned with anger welled up from his core, finding their expression on his face and in his body language. His habitual courtesy evaporated under the unexpected strength of his own response. He had been called—and had deserved—some truly nasty epithets, but no one had ever insinuated that he was a coward. Most of those people slinging names had been like the wind blowing in Iwa to a cave-dwelling fish in Kumo—he'd never felt their opinions ripple the tranquil lake of his emotions. Only those people whose thoughts he valued had the ability to make his anger burn quick and indignant; somehow in these few days Haruno Sakura had become one of those select few.

"Oh?" It was only a single syllable and he did not raise his voice, but he infused in it with all his displeasure.

Sakura's eyes narrowed, but she did not flinch back. If anything, her shoulders straightened from their defensive posture and she leaned slightly forward, her hands clenching against the edge of the engawa with such force he could hear the wood groan in protest. "You are basing your actions on secondhand intelligence and an impression of your brother that is almost a decade out of date. You're afraid to find out what Sasuke's made himself into after all these years."   

"That's a little insolent for less than a week's acquaintance," Itachi retorted coolly. "And whatever Sasuke is or is not, it is my fault. I made him what he is. And I trust that my brother was strong enough to be tempered by what I did, rather than shattered by it." 

He hadn't noticed that he'd been unconsciously leaning forward until Sakura mirrored his posture, which put them uncomfortably close. But he didn't pull away and neither did she.  

"I want to change the terms of our agreement," Sakura told him. "Before I correct this," and she reached out, splaying one hand across his chest while the other remained clenched tight on the edge of the porch, "I want to see Sasuke with my own eyes. No, not just see him. Talk to him. And then I'll come back and show you what he's become. Then you can reevaluate this plan."

Itachi searched her expression, seeking hints as to why she'd suddenly grown bold. "What has changed? You wouldn’t have said such things only a few days ago," he demanded.

"They say familiarity breeds contempt, but I don't think that's true. Familiarity just reminds us that even the people we respect and fear are human. Familiarity breeds an awareness of fallibility. I respect you more and fear you less than when we first met, which is what makes me willing to say something, but I've always thought you were wrong. And it isn't just that I don't think Sasuke has the kind of mental fortitude you're gambling on. It's that your plans just stop, just like that," she said, pulling her hand away from his chest and snapping her fingers to illustrate her point.

"Once you've stopped whatever it is that changed your mind about dying on Sasuke's blade, what then? You die and you make him our problem instead? You give him your eyes and find your peace, while we get to discover what your stupid, unstable doujutsu becomes when you plug it in to his brain?" Sakura snapped.

"Stupid?" Itachi repeated blankly, brows furrowing.

"Stupid," Sakura insisted firmly. "From what you've admitted and what I know from senpai, your Mangekyo states provide wildly different capabilities that hardly even seem related. The Byakugan generally varies only in the distance one can use it over. It's stable, like inheriting your parents' hair color. Your eyes are like...willfully infecting yourself with a heretofore unknown parasite and hoping it’s symbiotic. But you're distracting me. Sasuke. I want to see him. I want you to see him."

"My brother has not been your teammate in years; we have known each other for only a few days. I suspect it is not for his sake or mine that you're being so aggressive about this."

The muscles in Sakura's jaw clenched tight. "If it was only about you and Sasuke, it would be your business, but it isn't. If you're gone and Sasuke becomes a threat to the village, who do you think they'll send to hunt him? Without you, we only have one ninja really equal to combating the Mangekyo Sharingan. And he's my partner." Her lips were thin, unhappy line, underscoring the hard expression in her eyes. "Even if he wins," she said quietly, "Kakashi-senpai might never recover from it. Maybe that makes it sound like I think less of him than you think of your brother, but real trust, real respect—real love—isn't built on the illusions they show the world. It's about the person they are at their core. I know Kakashi-senpai. Do you know Sasuke?"

Itachi gentled his tone, curbing his anger and irritation. "I've watched over him all his life. In the cradle, as a toddler, as a child. I was there when he was learning to speak in full sentences. When he'd rather chew on his wooden shuriken than practice with them. As he managed to struggle against my father's expectations without coming to resent me for them. You've only known Hatake Kakashi for a few years. I doubt that you know your partner as well as you think."

Sakura scowled at him and he found he couldn't resist the urge to smile at her, flicking her forehead gently as his annoyance ebbed to a manageable level. "Don't make that face," he chided. "I will offer a compromise. You will have some time before our next contact. If you happen upon Sasuke, I promise to listen and consider whatever you might have to tell me about him. But that is all."

"What part of that is a compromise?" Sakura asked incredulously.

"I am not your partner, Sakura," Itachi replied. "I am your lead on this mission; you are here to provide a specific service. You may feel free to offer advice, but unless it relates directly to my health, I do not feel obliged to take it. Understand that I have not shared all my reasons for acting as I have. In return, provided you do not use your genjutsu skills to attempt to manipulate whatever you observe to suit your own bias or attempt to manipulate my emotions, I will allow you to not only tell me, but also show me Sasuke."

Though Sakura didn't seem satisfied by this, she nodded curtly in acknowledgement of his decision. The comfortable silences he'd enjoyed after she'd gotten over her initial nervousness were replaced by an uncomfortable interlude filled with closed-off body language. When she spoke, it was to say, "If I don't leave soon, senpai will literally loose the hounds. Do you have any idea when Akatsuki plans to move against the next bijū? Because as funny as it would be to feed Kakashi-senpai a story about sneaking off to meet a secret boyfriend or something, it's unlikely that I'd even hear the news until we returned to the village if we were on a mission."

Itachi had already considered this and had a ready solution. "You are familiar with contracted animals?"

"Yes. Why?"

"We can meet here if Akatsuki takes another jinchuriki and you receive word of the capture in time, but most of the remaining bijū belong to unallied countries. There is a good chance they will do everything in their power to conceal the sudden reduction in their military strength, which is in large part why the Akatsuki can operate with such impunity. I could send a message to Konohagakure, but as you pointed out, that is no guarantee that you will be in the village. There is also the possibility that you might find it necessary to contact me."

"And contracted animals are the solution to this quandary?"

Itachi inclined his head and nipped down hard on the side of his thumb, smearing blood across the hardwood. Chakra twisted space and time, pulsing a call between this porch and wherever the murder had chosen to roost. They emerged in a silence punctuated only by wingbeats, the formation executing a tight turn to land themselves in a scattered semi-circle at their feet. Not all the crows that now surveyed them with bright, intelligent eyes were directly contracted to Itachi—rather it was their connection to the contracted members of the murder that allowed the summoning jutsu to work for them.

A lively sense of curiosity, a puzzle-loving nature, and a surprising helpfulness when the fancy took them were what compelled them to come, so Itachi never quite knew how many crows would answer his call. He'd tugged on the threads binding him to his twelve, but there were over twenty birds present on the lawn. Some days and hours would have produced less; sometimes he'd had nearly a hundred birds answer.

"Shoma," he greeted the large, somewhat tattered female who had been both his first partner.

"Boy," she greeted him in return, ducking her head in a brief movement that was cursorily deferential. It had caused a ripple in the clan when the heir had went against tradition and partnered with a crow.  He'd justified it to his parents by pointing out how advantageous an avian companion would be in terms of surveillance, but truthfully he'd simply liked the gruff, motherly corvus.  

She hopped closer to the pair of them, her head tilted to one side as she assessed the situation before she turned an inquisitive gaze on Itachi. "This is Haruno Sakura," he explained. "She's assisting me with the matter of my brother." That sparked a reaction, as wings were partially unfurled and a hissing chorus testified that Sakura wasn't the only one who disapproved of his plans.  

He ignored both the protest and the slightly smug expression expressed beneath raised eyebrows. “She is keeping me alive until the work is finished,” he reproached, which produced a less hostile reaction.

“Now,” he said softly, casting his eyes over the assembled birds, “communication between us will be difficult, so I would appreciate it if one or two of you will lend your assistance to Sakura.” While not as strong as the contracted ties between shinobi and animal, the ties within the murder would be sufficient to allow them to locate his own contracted animals, who in turn could find him without difficulty.

Sakura patiently bore the clamor that came next as the crows clustered tight around her and bombarded her with a barrage of questions that came so hard and fast from so many different beaks that she just looked bemused—and perhaps slightly pained—when one young crow perched itself on a knee and another settled on her shoulder. The crow that had claimed her shoulder—a female almost as big as a raven, with a scarred beak and a strange streak of white feathers slashing over one eye and down the back of her head—reached out and gently tweaked her ear. “Is there anyone at home that’s going to be upset if we contract with you?" she rasped.

Sakura grimaced. "If I don't ask, the answer to that is going to be very much a yes." She bit down on her own thumb, smearing blood across the planks.

As the smoke of the summoning faded, a slender cat with judgmental blue-green eyes surveyed them all before blinking disdainfully. "I see," he said, flicking the tip of his tail dismissively. "I am certain there is a fascinating reason why you are collaborating with Uchiha Itachi, but I first demand to know why there are crows perching on my person. Even if my person has of late very inconsiderately left me to deal with the riffraff that are treating our house as a thoroughfare."

"Soudai," Sakura sighed, but the crow on her shoulder fluttered to the ground, landing so that her beak almost touched the cat's nose. To the cat's credit, he did not flinch back, though his whiskers twitched in irritation.

"Yes?" he drawled.

"My name is Michi," the crow replied, "that little one you've set to cowering is Yoko."

"And? Surely you didn't expect me to be interested in your names. If you are for some reason offering your services to Sakura, I believe my own abilities as a companion are more than sufficient without brining anyone of the corvidae family into it."

"Unless you have a secret ability to sprout wings and fly, I doubt it," Michi replied, ruffling her own wings to reinforce the point.

"I'll need someone to relay messages between Itachi and me," Sakura cut in, which earned her a look from the cat. "It's not that I don't trust that you could track him, it's a matter of time efficiency. I'm not replacing you, I'm supplementing. Contracting out specialized tasks."

"Not only do you ask me to accept dogs shedding in my space, now you'll subject me to birds?" he sniffed. "Oh, very well. Make your contracts. And then," he said, turning those cutting eyes on Itachi, "you're going to tell me everything."

 

Chapter Text

The sheer frustration that Itachi's pigheadedness had inspired was only slightly tempered by the schadenfreude of subjecting him to Soudai, so it was that the topic of Sasuke was in the forefront of her mind as she traveled back to Konoha.

Though it didn't make her entirely oblivious to the cat that had draped himself over her shoulders and was diligently preventing the crows from making a perch of her person, though that only seemed to encourage Michi to try to make conversation on the wing. Which was also dutifully intercepted. The older crow had soon stopped any pretense at talking to Sakura, instead "bonding"—if you could call it that—with her fellow companion animal. Sakura could count on one hand the number of words Yoko had contributed during their journey, always in a low, timid voice.

"Soudai, would you please get down?" Sakura asked. "You're making the back of my neck sweat."

"You'll thank me later," was Soudai's reply. "They probably have lice." He'd raised his voice slightly to be certain Michi had heard him, which sparked a debate on the relative merits of cats and birds. 

She was left largely with thoughts of her once-teammate and unlike her early teenage years, none of them were pleasant. When he'd first defected from the village and she'd been talking about the possibility of his return with Naruto, her opinion of Sasuke hadn't yet had time to sour and she'd still been operating under the long-standing habit of putting the brightest face on his actions. Then had come those bitter middle years, which had then faded with the passage of time and more immediate concerns. By the time Naruto had returned from his training journey and they'd found time to talk during their retrieval mission, she'd been able to treat the subject with a gentleness that came from emotional distance.

Her time with Itachi, hearing his plans, considering the consequences—that had brought all the bitterness roaring back to life, without the rosy nostalgia Naruto seemed to so effortlessly inspire.

After taking abuse from civilians in place of the absent Uchiha and listening to the none-too-quiet whispers of the other shinobi, her initial generosity had ebbed. Any lingering warmth had been quashed as she rose through the ranks, becoming acutely aware of just what kind of potential military strength Sasuke had taken with him—and the potential that one day he would be wielded as a weapon against the village. It wasn't like he wouldn't have been aware of that when he'd gone to Orochimaru; the Sannin had just staged an invasion that had taken the lives of too many of their brothers and sisters in arms.

Anyone who would sell themselves to someone like that deserved far more than just the loss of her good opinion. 

She'd become haunted by that mad, bright light in his eyes when he'd been given his first taste of the power the Sannin could offer, that seal crawling across his skin; she recognized the same kind of fear and distrust she'd experienced back when fire and the scent of burning flesh still made her quiver. Only this time there was no trust-building exercise, no Kakashi-senpai to coach them through their differences. Kakashi-senpai was mute on the subject; she had no desire to overcome it. She was not awfully bothered by Naruto’s optimism about Sasuke. Naruto's ability to see only the best in people could be almost endearing except for her conviction that someday someone was going to disappoint him very badly, but she'd expected better of Uchiha Itachi.  

One could learn to forgive someone a lot of personal failings. Kami-sama knew she surely had some of her own. But disloyalty was not one of failings they were brought up to take lightly. The Academy wasn't intent on simply producing capable shinobi; Konohagakure wanted its shinobi to serve not for the sake of money or fame, but for a breed of patriotism that would survive capture and torture, that ran deeper in their bones than love or lust.

One never forgave traitors.

Sakura thought she'd outgrown her spiteful phase, but as her feet impacted almost silently against the branches of the trees, she found she hoped that Sasuke regretted what he'd done.

Well, she thought to herself, I'll find out soon enough.

Partway to the village, she interrupted Soudai and Michi's conversation to send her two crows winging their way toward Jiraiya. He owed her a favor for not warning her about Itachi and if anyone had any idea which rock Orochimaru might be hiding under, he would. And, luckily, after having served with Itachi's crows, Michi and Yoko had a trick or two for locating the wandering Sage.


Sakura grimaced as she unknotted and unwound her sweaty shemagh, which stunk like cat. Glancing around to make certain no one was watching, though the streets were nearly empty as twilight drew her cloak over the sky, she stuffed it into a pouch and scratched at her nape with both hands.

"Good riddance," she muttered to in reference to her erstwhile animal, who'd abandoned her for the lure of the closing fish market.

All the windows of her house were dark as she alighted on her balcony and slipped inside, but Sakura tensed as she picked up the subtle cues of someone's presence. Her knives were in her hands almost before her conscious mind recognized the intrusion, but before she could investigate her bedside lamp came on with a sharp click.

The low wattage bulb provided enough light to see but not to blind; what she saw made her say, "Senpai, we need to have a talk about boundaries."

Kakashi-senpai was sprawled out on her bed, one arm tucked behind his head. The other waved off her objection.

Sakura sheathed her weapons absently and crept closer. "...is everything alright? You're not bleeding out on my bed or something because you're a stubborn ass, right?"

"I think that's a violation of the senpai/kouhai code, calling your beloved senior nasty names," Kakashi-senpai remarked, shifting to one side and partially drawing up his arm so that his head was pillowed on his hand.

"Oh? Beloved senior? I didn't know Genma or Raido were here," Sakura teased, tilting her head into one hand while the other came to cup her elbow. "Should I go say hello?"

"Is that any way to treat the man who's been sleeplessly waiting for your return?"

"You were napping in my bed." A memory of Soudai's complaint about "riffraff" scuttled across her brain. "Wait, senpai...you haven't been, y'know, staying here, have you?"

"Well, that doesn't mean I wasn't worried," Kakashi-senpai responded, ignoring her second question entirely. "From the stories Naruto was telling, Sasori had you spitted like a kabob."

Sakura grimaced, her hands falling to her sides at that particular bit of imagery. Pain, exhaustion, and medication had kept the worst of the night terrors away before she'd rendezvoused with Itachi; the S-class missing-nin in the next room had kept her sleeping lightly enough that they hadn't been an issue while they shared a house. A return to the comfort and safety of her own home, counter-intuitively, would change that.

"I need to shower," she announced abruptly, because she could feel the cold creeping up from low in her belly, drawing her muscles tight, making it hard to breathe beneath the pressing weight of the terror waiting to spill over her. The first shock of intrusion, which had come before the pain. The desperate please let the pain stop, it HURTS, one more breath, one more breath, HURTS, coupled with the knowledge that if the pain stopped, that was the end. Forcing herself to go slow as she pulled the cord out, to trade pain for survival.

Her stomach lurched and Sakura had to concentrate on her breathing as she walked toward her bathroom. Keeping her composure and keeping down her dinner was the first victory; pushing away the temptation to slip herself inside a warm, soothing genjutsu was the second. There were coping mechanisms—and no shinobi who made any kind of career out of a combat specialty made it any length of time without those—and then there were addictions. It would begin with an escape from night terrors, but it wouldn't end there. There would be excuses, reasons, until she didn't need either because there wasn't enough left of her outside the addiction to need to justify it any longer.

Instead she settled for a thorough scrub in steaming hot water, justifying the scented bar of soap that she used as aromatherapy. Its sharp, clean scent—chocolate mint—coupled with pounding water did eventually allow the tension to seep out of her muscles, though to overcome the terror she had to focus on the Sasuke issue. It was like a slow tidal shift; fear flowed out as irritation flowed in. By the time she was toweling her hair dry and pulled on a clean set of training things that had seen better days and had now been retired to sleepwear—she was so far past vanity with Kakashi-senpai, who'd seen her in mud and blood and worse things—she was almost grinding her teeth with the frustration of things she would have to keep to herself.

Her irritation was reserved in minor part for Itachi, who'd complicated an already tense situation, peeling away the scab on the nearly-healed wound that was Sasuke. Part of it belonged to the members of the Uchiha clan, who'd all but signed their own death warrants when so many of them had decided that violent action against the village was even something to be considered; perhaps a very slight part was attributed to whomever had made the fateful call that had seen all but two members of the clan dead by morning. A major part of her annoyance, however, belonged to Sasuke. Not that the rational, reasoning part of her mind couldn't point out that there were mitigating circumstances, just like with every other person on the list; it was that emotion-driven centers of her brain felt more betrayed by her former teammate than by people she hardly knew.

She didn't attempt to tamp down on those feelings as she left the bathroom. It would be good for Kakashi-senpai to think she was annoyed with him. If he'd been so worried for her safety as to haunt her home, the same Kakashi-senpai who'd held them all at such emotional distance she'd only heard him yell at them exactly once outside of battle—and that in a situation that must have brought up nasty memories of the mission that had finished his own team—she was certain the internal conflict was significant. His refusal to operate on any mode other than "sardonic" meant that he was never going to provide much in the way of touchy-feely mentor moments.

Understanding that didn't mean she thought he didn't deserve to sweat a little for being, well, himself.

He hadn't even had the ninken present to soften the blow.

As Sakura considered why that might be so, because Kakashi-senpai had a trend of allowing the dogs to do the emotional heavy lifting in their relatioship, she noted that he was at least sitting upright now instead of lazing on her bed. Glancing up at her, he bookmarked his page with what she hoped was a nonfunctional explosive tag.

She clutched her knife rig comfortingly to her chest, waiting for him to initiate conversation and was surprised when he patted the space beside him on the bed. Sakura obediently joined him, the firm mattress giving only a little beneath her weight. She caught herself stroking the sheathes of her knives like she might stroke Soudai when he was feeling generous, so she laced her fingers together as she tried to decide whether outwaiting Kakashi-senpai would be a fruitful exercise. Chances were that he'd either go back to his book or fall asleep or maybe even wander off, but he surprised her when he sighed.

"So," he said, tapping his book once against his leg before stowing it in a pouch. "I assume they told you at the gate you go in for your debriefing with Tsunade tomorrow, so I'll let her explain the particulars, but you should know that all our operatives from Konoha survived the mission. Unfortunately, Genma's personality also survived," he reported dryly, "so invitations have already gone out to celebrate your first S-rank kill. Congratulations. You're going to be infamous."

"They declassified the mission?" Sakura asked incredulously.

"The elders assessed that news of our cooperation in the retrieval of the Kazekage would help shore up any remaining fractures in the alliance between us and Suna. That," and his voice took a wry turn, "and I think they took a certain malicious glee in announcing the fact that a young jounin from our village killed one of the S-rank ninja that have been underbidding us for contracts."

Sakura bit down her lip so hard she tasted blood. While infamy had its uses, anonymity was a far more welcome thing to a proper village shinobi that didn't have to depend on their own name to garner missions. Though she doubted that they'd released much in the way of details, certain assumptions were going to be made about her skills. As Kakashi-senpai's partner, there had already been speculation, but she was still at the point where her skillset took opponents by surprise. If she lost that advantage...

Well, she'd have to learn to be quicker. Stronger. Fiercer. Whatever it took to survive.

Quitting was less of an option than ever, now that she finally understood what her parents and instructors had meant when they said that your squad was your family.

"So you were able to get to Gaara in time?"

"Yes. Chiyo-san suffered a stroke due to overuse of chakra while healing him, but aside from suffering from mild vertigo, she's made a full recovery according to the last missive out of Suna."

"I guess we really shouldn't have expected anything less," Sakura said with a wry laugh, which sparked an answering chuckle from Kakashi-senpai.

"There's something else," Kakashi-senpai said after the laughter had faded. "Chiyo-san ordered Naruto to search Sasori's body."

"I remember," Sakura said quietly.

"He found something. Something relevant to Konohagakure, rather than Suna. Ebizō-san was put in charge of decoding the papers Naruto had found in the hope of locating any remaining sleeper agents before they could be activated. Apparently Sasori never lost the habit of using a code Chiyo-san had developed and taught to him during his childhood, so the decoding went quickly."

"And...?" Sakura prompted.

"And it seems that Sasori had just received word from an agent requesting a meeting. After assessing the message, their intel team decided that it was highly likely that this particular spy worked with Orochimaru. That's when they sent the information on to us." Between his mask and his indifferent tone, Sakura was left to guess how he felt about the situation. If mention of Sasuke was inevitable whenever Naruto and she were together, Kakashi-senpai could go months without acknowledging he'd ever existed.

"...is the village going to act on it?" Sakura asked, making a bitter mental note to recall the crows from their task as soon as senpai left. They'd have already roosted for tonight, so she could take comfort in the fact that she didn't have to try and herd Kakashi-senpai out without him growing suspicious. All her as yet unformed plans about how she'd accomplish a difficult task—namely to talk to Sasuke both without her partner being any the wiser and without being slaughtered by Orochimaru or his minions—were discarded in the face of this strange, unhappy twist of luck

Though she could take some comfort in the fact that it was unlikely that a kill order would be issued.

"Probably," senpai said after a long pause, his head coming to rest against the wall with a gentle thump.

Sakura set her knife rig aside so that she could draw her legs tightly against her chest, wrapping her arms around them and resting her chin on her knees. "If Tsunade-sama hasn't issued orders yet...," she trailed off, unwilling to finish the sentence, which meant she was likely waiting on someone to return. Someone such as Sakura.

"...the Hokage isn't obligated to tell us even if she decides to act on it," senpai pointed out.

Sakura side-eyed him incredulously. "She already gave you a courtesy heads-up about the information. You think she's suddenly going to, what, change her mind and decide that telling you is a bad idea? It's not like she announced it in front of Naruto."

The silence that followed was very telling.

"Oh, kami," Sakura groaned, burying her face against her knees. "How long did it take him to demand to be included on the mission? And to insist vehemently that there was going to be a mission? Was he at least nice about it? What was Tsunade-sama thinking?"

"Let me put it this way," he said sardonically, "It was an instantaneous detonation and Shizune was still sweeping up the debris when I left. Naruto survived, but several pieces of decorative porcelain will never be the same again."

Sakura groaned again, feeling the hot flush of embarrassment even though she knew that Tsunade-sama would do more than just throw things if she was bothered by the chronic insubordination.

Kakashi-senpai reached over and patted her head, which made her glare at him over the barrier of her arm. 

"If you want to make me feel better, you're going to have to resort to your 'here, look, a puppy!' tactic," Sakura told him as she stretched her legs and slid from the bed. "If you're staying, you can have the bed. I always feel like I'm in danger of imminent asphyxiation once everyone piles on top." While a valid reason—her twin bed had never been intended to hold one teenager and eight full-grown dogs—she fully intended to dry the walls and floor of the shower and sleep in its well-lit confines. While the dogs might think that it was strange, they were uncannily good at knowing when to provide wordless support.

And just occasionally, when she needed it most, Kaskashi-senpai displayed that same kind of sensitivity as he agreeably bit his thumb and summoned a much-needed dose of tail-wagging feel-good.

Not even the ninken would take away the nightmares, but if experience was any kind of teacher, she knew she only had to take the pain one moment at a time. She'd live through it—stronger, harder, perhaps more scarred, but she would live.  


Sakura arrived at the Hokage's tower promptly, which is to say she'd been processed through security fifteen minutes before her debrief was scheduled to begin. For courage, she'd chosen a new shemagh from among the ones her father had bought her, this one designed more for fashion than for mission wear. Deep maroon with a pink grid pattern, it still smelled pleasantly of laundry detergent and home—which this morning came with an undertone of clean, recently washed dog.

Kakashi-senpai had taken her up on her semi-serious offer and spent the night. Whatever else he'd done while he'd been lurking about and waiting for her return, he hadn't done the grocery shopping. So, after she and ninken had gone on a proper morning walk and tested the limits of her body, the whole parade had shuffled off to the shops. Sakura thought she had gotten a proper glimpse of what it might be like to be a housewife with a whole passel of children, though at least they'd been willing to help carry bags. Kakashi-senpai had just regarded them all with an eye-crinkle and his hands stuffed deep in his pockets.

Soudai had been less than pleased with their company; she'd been awoken in the middle of the night by a suffocating sensation that had turned out to be her cat perched right atop her sternum, sharp little claws pricking out a code of annoyance. But breakfast had been a messy, loud, wonderful thing.

It had been like those rare days back before her grandmother died and her mother and father had been home at the same time. Certainly a little noisier than that, but the feeling—of wellness, of wholeness, of family—was exactly the same.

Sakura was offered congratulations and good-natured ribbing as she navigated the intentionally winding halls, none of the staircases connecting more than a single floor. Though shinobi could make a lot of conventional tactics against forced entry useless, it didn't mean they had to make it easy for anyone stupid enough to try. Some of the shinobi who spoke to her, particularly the jounin, she knew only by sight and not by name; before this, she'd been only been infamous by association and many jounin didn't warm to the fresh faces in their ranks until they'd survived long enough to be worth knowing.

She'd made it above the administrative offices to the floor that housed the Council chambers and the offices of the heads of clan and elders who sat on that Council when she encountered another group, some of whose names she did know.  Sakura came to a halt and stepped to one side of the hall, ducking her head in recognition of Utatane Koharu and Mitokado Homura. They were accompanied by another man, this one whom she'd seen only in passing. She'd always assumed that he belonged on the Council or at least worked with them, though she had no idea what role he might fill.

He looked harder and more weathered than the Kage's advisors, his mouth deeply bracketed by lines that suggested he didn't smile well or often. His chin was scarred and she'd had enough scars of her own by now to know that they likely could have been removed; judging by the pattern, perhaps someone had tried to scissor their blades through his throat and he'd ducked his head in time to survive and decided to keep them as souvenirs.

Judging by the extent of the bandages swathing the rest of his body, he'd probably ended his field career on a mission that had almost killed him and had permanently crippled him. Which, Sakura supposed, was enough to make anyone sour.

She was and wasn't surprised when they paused beside her.

"Haruno-san," Mitokado-san said. "Congratulations are in order."

"Yes," Utatane-san agreed. "By all reports, you acquitted yourself very admirably in the mission. There aren't many kunoichi your age who could have stood toe-to-toe with an S-class ninja and survived it, let alone killed an opponent like Sasori of the Red Sands. And then to come out of the fight critically injured and have enough composure—and the skill!—to heal yourself well enough that your receiving medic-nin was astonished at what you'd accomplished under the circumstances."

"I was working with an excellent team, ma'am," Sakura replied, blushing at the praise, "and the desire to survive the provided me with the incentive to make use of my entire skillset." She was fully aware that if it hadn't been for Chiyo and Naruto, the fight would have revealed the real distance between her own skills and someone like Sasori's.

Quicker. Stronger. Fiercer. Those three things have not replaced shinitakunai as her mantra, but they are the things that will support that single, selfish goal. The existence of opponents like Sasori would assure that her skills were never allowed to plateau. She would work harder, would push her limits, would break her limits and remake herself if that was what was needed.

"It is an unusual skillset," the man whose name she didn't know observed. "Especially considering your records reveal no formal training as a medic-nin."

This time Sakura didn't blush, for there was a look in his eye that made her distinctly uncomfortable, though she tried to hide it. "I've been on missions where the medical support was extremely limited," she said, "and it seemed like a useful skill to pick up."

"Not many people have the chakra control required to just 'pick up' medical techniques," was his reply, his dark eyes watching her with an intensity that made the hair on the back of her neck prickle. "I expect other thanks are in order."

"Sir?" Sakura asked, slightly bemused and more than slightly wary.

"This is the first time Hatake Kakashi hasn't had to be hospitalized for chakra exhaustion despite having leaned quite heavily on the abilities of his Sharingan during his own battle. That has been a predictable outcome of missions of this type for years. The only significant change in his life has been you, who spent some time going quite thoroughly through the ophthalmology section according to your library records. Though I suspect that had rather more to do with your own shunshin-related eye problems, which you haven't required treatment for recently. Flushed with that success, I imagine you couldn't resist attempting to fix what you knew to be broken. Quite impressive."

From the expressions on the faces of the two elders, the man hadn't shared this line of deductive reasoning with them. And, apparently, Tsunade-sama hadn't seen fit to share the news. Astonishment was writ on both their faces, before it morphed to something else. "Meddling with a clan doujutsu—," Mitokado-san began pompously, before the scarred man raised a hand to ward off his objection.

"The Haruno have never been able to field enough shinobi to be classified as a clan," he said. "Therefore she is exempt from clan law."

There was some grumbling from Mitokado-san, but it subsided quickly and the scarred man's attention refocused on Sakura. "You are on your way to debrief with the Hokage, are you not?" he asked and Sakura nodded dumbly. "Then we shouldn't keep you. My name is Shimura Danzō; I expect we will have many opportunities to work together in the future."   

 Sakura ducked her head, both in habitual politeness and to hide her expression as she murmured in return, "Please take care of me."

 

 

Chapter Text

Tsunade sat with her chin pillowed comfortably on her interlaced fingers, thumbs framing a jawline that remained striking through very liberal use of illusion. Some people called it vanity; Tsunade thought of it as strategy.

Perhaps in her weakest moments, awash in enough sake to travel through time, it also allowed her to pretend that she was still in a world where here team wasn’t as infamous for leaving the village as they were for protecting it.

Judging by the look in her eyes, Haruno Sakura was a couple decades and a few bottles short of anything approaching nostalgia. Oh, she didn’t say anything—one of the things Tsunade appreciated about Kakashi’s young partner was that she hadn’t accrued any unnecessary arrogance or lost any of her manners with her appointment to jounin—but her mouth could have been painted with a single slashing brushstroke.

“Something to say?” Tsunade asked, unable to resist prodding the wound.

“With the Akatsuki actively moving to acquire the bijū, is it wise to send Naruto with us? Will the spy even show up? Surely he or she will have heard that Sasori is dead.”

Tsunade snorted. “What am I supposed to do, lock him up for the duration? I’m not that kind of Kage, even if Naruto’s personality was something a hell of a lot more biddable. He’ll leave the village at some point. I’m sending an ANBU along to keep an eye on him, though it’d be best if you didn’t tell Naruto that he’s along primarily as a minder for our favorite blond knucklehead. And there’s a chance no one will show at the rendezvous, that’s true. But given your description of Sasori’s true nature, there’s also a chance that the spy might suspect that Sasori survived the battle. We also don’t know how isolated Orochimaru’s village is or where the spy is placed within it; they might not be in a position to hear of his defeat before they’re due to report to Sasori.”

Sakura’s expression was still conflicted, but she nodded, the unhappy set of her mouth partially hidden by her shemagh. Tsunade had no doubt she’d be wearing the same expression when she passed on the news of their mission to Kakashi—she really enjoyed this aspect of their partnership, being about to tell the prompt, polite half what needed done and allowing her to wrangle the half who knew exactly what he could get away with.

While the Elders had questioned partnering such a young, inexperienced jounin with Sharingan Kakashi, Tsunade had found even in the short time that she’d been Kage that with Kakashi it was less a matter of matching skills—honestly, the boy had those to spare, with whole reams of techniques that the Sandaime had asked him not to make use of in peacetime for the very good chance of property damage and injury to unlucky bystanders—but rather a matter of finding someone that he was willing to work with. He’d been refusing any sort of permanent partnership since he’d been processed out of ANBU, but when Haruno Sakura had been promoted, it had been him coming to Tsunade to make the request.

Just for that, she would have granted at least a temporary dispensation, but by the time that request had been made she’d had time and opportunity to familiarize herself with the only member of Team Seven whose name alone wasn’t enough to build expectations of greatness. She’d already been looking forward to seeing what kind of career this kunoichi would shape with her own hands; when she’d defied a truth that had been accepted since the founding—the Sharingan could not be successfully transplanted and therefore was in no danger of being stolen like the Byakugan—Tsunade had been required to stifle the impulse to transfer her into the medic program and never let her go. 

These weren’t desperate times, however, so it was her job to respect the decisions of her shinobi and not trample on their dreams and ambitions just because it would make her life easier.

Besides, Sakura made up for it in other ways aside from just being a good field operative; for all that it sounded like something out a bad novel, the young kunoichi had somehow tempered the worst of Kakashi’s antisocial habits. Tsunade doubted she’d done it on purpose—or that she was even aware of it—but the fact remained that in making an effort to take better care of his remaining student, Kakashi had begun spending less time with his dead and his books and more time in the presence of real people. He was eating better and more regular meals; he wasn’t subject to the drain of a Sharingan turned parasitic with what would have been a perfectly good transplant under other circumstances. His skin tone had improved and he’d gained a little muscle mass under that flak jacket.

As a member of a team that had fallen apart once there wasn’t a common threat to hold them together, she really envied that kind of partnership. More than that though, she wanted it to succeed, to continue being a source of strength for them both. Whatever those idiots thought in other villages, Tsunade stood behind the philosophy that shinobi would fight for their village, die for their friends, and survive against all odds when they had something to come back to. For a long time, Hatake Kakashi had lacked that last and she was glad that he’d found it again. Let some other village have their martyrs and their dead heroes. History had given them enough of those; for now she would do all in her power to see that her that her shinobi were given the opportunity to become curmudgeonly old grandmas and grandpas. 

This did not mean she could not tease a too-somber teenager while she was still young enough to be easily embarrassed.

“There was just one thing you left out of your report,” she told Sakura solemnly.

“Ma’am?” came the anxious reply.

“Isn’t Uchiha Itachi the prettiest man you ever did see?”  


Sakura could still feel her ears burning as she did everything in her power not to stomp out of the Hokage’s office like a toddler throwing a tantrum. It was one thing when one of her senpai teased her—that was nothing new or special—but she hadn’t expected it from Tsunade-sama. Some part of her was flattered; leaders didn’t tease subordinates they didn’t like. She was also really, really embarrassed, because her stammered reply hadn’t been at all dignified or convincing.

Sakura was also confused by the part of her that resented being asked to discuss Itachi the person rather than Itachi the informant, even when it was just the Hokage teasing her. It was strange and stupid and in its way as intensely private as her time with Gozen-san.

When she arrived at senpai’s apartment, she wasn’t surprised to discover he was out and left his copy of the mission brief with the ninken without waiting for his return.

After the directed, relatively quiet bustle of the Hokage’s tower and the quiet neighborhood that Kakashi-senpai called home, the crowded streets of the commercial district came as something of a sensory shock. Wanting neither to train nor to study, but most of all not to be left alone with her own thoughts right now, she looked for someone not so closely tied to the Uchiha issue.

She wasn’t surprised that it took some time to find someone; it was still early enough that most of her friends would still be doing morning training if they were even in the village. The person she did find, however, more than made up for the wait.

Especially given the company Ino was keeping.

Judging by his facial markings—similar to Kiba’s, only thinned and elongated until they more sharply resembled fangs and there were two of them beneath each of his eyes—he belonged to the Tsukigawa clan. Though given the enormous silver-white wolf that flanked Ino’s other side, it wasn’t exactly an inspired deduction.

Smaller and more reserved than the Inuzuka, the Tsukigawa did not share their wolves outside their clan. The only way to partner with one was to marry in; something that would happen only if one of their unmatched wolves decided that you weren’t a waste of their time. In the clan proper, wolves were matched with children at birth—the children were raised to address them as “aniue” or “aneue”. After so long together, they even came to have eyes of the same color.

This particular specimen fell well into the handsome part of the tall and dark spectrum, his black hair slicked away from his forehead in thick, unruly spikes. He was probably three or four years older than Ino and nearly a head taller.

He was also, Sakura thought ruefully, sensitive to people staring—he glanced over at her while she was busy cataloguing Ino’s catch and quirked both eyebrows in silent question. Ino followed his gaze and smiled broadly when she saw Sakura, waving her over to their side of the street.

“You’re back!” she said gleefully, pouncing on Sakura and surprising her with a swift hug. As she released her, she settled into a familiar pose, hand fisted on one hip. “I hear you’ve been up to some exciting things lately.”

“Define exciting,” was Sakura’s wry retort.

“Oh, you know—saving the Kazekage, killing an infamous S-class missing-nin, things like that.”

“I didn’t realize that S-class missing-nin came in any other category than infamous.”

“And that,” Ino replied tartly, “sounds like you’re avoiding the subject.”

“I might have been there,” Sakura allowed. “And what about you?” she asked, letting mischief creep into her voice. “Looks like you’ve also been up to something…exciting.”

Ino, being Ino, didn’t blush at the teasing, nor did her companion. Ino grinned instead. “Azumi-sensei was mostly a bodyguard, y’know? So when he decided our tracking skills left something to be desired, he called in a favor from a friend of his, who had his squad take us out for one-on-one field training. This magnificent gentleman,” and her hand dropped to pat the wolf’s head, “was my partner. We got along so well that we decided we’d try dating.”

Ino sighed gustily. “And then he told me that if I wanted to take him out, I’d have to bring this lug along too,” she said, thumping her taller companion on the chest, which only caused him to smile down at her fondly. “Anyhow, this is Tsukigawa Gin,” the wolf’s ears twitched, “and this is Kaoru. Gin, Kaoru, this is Haruno Sakura.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Haruno-chan,” the wolf offered. “You’ve done some good work.”

“No, not at all,” Sakura demurred anxiously. The only thing she wanted to talk about less than her fight with Sasori was her public encounter with Itachi; she was dreading the day when someone was insensitive enough to ask for details. “I’m also pleased to make your acquaintance.”

“You don’t need to make light of it,” Kaoru rumbled, his tone gruffly kind. “There’s such a thing as too much modesty.”

Sakura felt the tips of her ears flush. “Well, too much modesty isn’t something you’ll have to worry about with Ino around. I hope your date goes well,” she said cheerfully, bidding them farewell and making sure she was well out of sight before she let her expression fall.

Other people get to grow up and move on with their lives, she thought to herself as she allowed herself to wander aimlessly through the crowded streets, abruptly no longer in the mood for the kind of company her friends had to offer. Sasuke, who’s the one holding us back now?!

Her bitterness wasn’t something she wanted to share with the people she cared for, but there were others in her life. People who stood outside the simplistic categories of “like” and “dislike.”

Gozen-san—well, she won’t be worried, but…

It was just as weird to miss someone like Gozen-san, who was unapologetically sadistic and without contest the most cynical person she’d ever met. But what Gozen-san offered, aside from practical advice she was never quite emotionally ready to hear, was perspective.

Shunshin made the journey to Gozen-san’s home a short one and it was only as her feet hit the steps of the front porch that Sakura realized she was still in the mission wear that she’d reported to Tsunade-sama in. God, if I don’t pull myself together, she’s going to eat me alive, Sakura realized ruefully.

But it was too late now to go back home and change, as Gozen-san might be getting on in years but she’d certainly sensed Sakura’s arrival. So she stepped boldly forward, rapping perfunctorily on the doorframe and letting herself inside. She shed her boots in the genkan, neatly arranging them to face the door as she stepped into a pair of house slippers that had become “hers” in the course of her visits.

She wasn’t surprised to find Gozen-san in the kitchen.

“What are you staring at, girl?” Gozen-san asked her. “If you’re waiting on me to welcome you back, you’d do better to take off that flak jacket and make yourself useful.”

Sakura obediently complied and was soon putting her hard-earned knife skills to more mundane use as she diced and chopped and generally did as she was told, reflecting wryly that not only had Gozen-san honed her genjutsu, most of her current housekeeping skills could really be attributed to this unforgiving woman. Today’s task was pickling vegetables, which was far more labor intensive than simply plucking them from a market shelf.  

By the time they were finished the sun was sinking low in the sky. If some of the vegetables tasted especially sour when they enjoyed them through the winter, Sakura would know that some of her turmoil and bitterness had seeped into them, because some of her turmoil had disappeared in the process.

“So I hear that you went to play in the world’s biggest sandbox,” Gozen-san remarked. “I suppose I should recognize the fact that you crawled out of there with all your limbs intact. I have something for you.”

“…something for me?” Sakura repeated warily.

Gozen-san rolled her eyes and shuffled off to another room, which briefly made Sakura consider bolting for the door. Steeling her nerves and gritting her teeth, she instead took a seat at the table and waited for Gozen-san to reemerge. It didn’t take very long and the old woman plopped a journal unceremoniously down in front of her.

Unsanitary, was Sakura’s first thought. Not only was it tattered, the paper the old kind that wore soft as cloth instead of yellowing, it was stained with what appeared upon first, second, and even third glance to be blood. Who died all over this? was what she wanted to ask as she reached out tentatively toward the journal.

“That’s Araki Kenta,” Gozen-san said, as if she could read her thoughts. “He left a little bit of a mess behind when he went.”

“An enemy?” Sakura asked, wondering whether she was about to receive some trophy of

“To himself, in the end. Before that, he was a member of my ANBU squad. I told you how we made use of genjutsu on the battlefield. Have you ever been curious about how we were able to do such a thing or were you making stupid assumptions about my chakra capacity in my youth?”

“…stupid assumptions?” Sakura ventured.

Gozen-san snorted. “You’d think after enough time spent with me, you’d outgrow that nasty habit. Think about it for a moment. Ninja with kage-level chakra are the exceptions, not the rule. We certainly never had enough of them for them to play extended roles in any campaign. So we had to develop a way to make use of S-rank jutsu ourselves, without having anyone collapse of chakra exhaustion. Nowadays there are lots of methods, some less polite than others, to use the chakra of several people cooperatively, but we were in an age where there was still resistance to working on teams not only of mixed gender, but mixed families. So we were feeling our way through the dark and it was Araki who was our expert, such as it were.”

Sakura frowned, her fingers spread over the splotched cover of the journal. “…if he’d been carrying this with him in the field when he died, he would have sealed something like this, wouldn’t he? It’s too bulky to shove into a pouch.”

“Oh, not all of us get to die in the field. The world’s not that merciful. During one of our operations, Araki and another member of our squad were exposed to an experimental chemical weapon. The other man died during the mission, but Araki survived. Or that was what it looked like from the outside. On the inside, he was rotting—it was eating lesions in his brain the whole time. He hid it well; every ninja who spends any time in ANBU gets to have a closer personal relationship with paranoia. But he was surrounded by people whose lives depended on their observation skills. We knew something was wrong and the medic-nin began treatment, but even with today’s advances in medicine I don’t know whether it would have done any good.

“We thought the treatment was working, right up until the day he butchered his lover. And then it came out that he was still suffering periodically not only from intense paranoid delusions, but also auditory hallucinations and fits of irrational rage. The rage ended and he had her blood on his hands; I heard he walked into police headquarters and begged them to put him down like a dog. But he was also a victim. In the end, he spent the rest of his life in prison in solitary confinement. Writing this,” Gozen-san said, stabbing her finger emphatically down on the journal. “His methods and his techniques, liberally interspersed with his madness. And when he’d finished, he did to himself what they wouldn’t do for him.”

“…and you’re giving it to me?”  

“Well, it is a nasty, tangled mess from a troubled mind, so it’s not as if you won’t have to work at it,” Gozen-san cackled.

“But why now?” Sakura pressed, which made the old woman’s expression grow somber.

“Old farmers learn to forecast the weather; old shinobi learn to forecast storms of a different sort. Whenever anyone starts collecting bijū and finds themselves successful, it’s already too late to start worrying. Think of this as a countermeasure. Trouble is coming to this village. You ought to prepare as if you think a war is coming.”

“War?!” Sakura asked in alarm.

“Well, they might not call it that when they write it down in the history books, but when you’re the one standing on the battlefield, it won’t matter what they want to call it.”


Sakura was making an active effort to avoid Naruto; judging by the ninken information network that faithfully arrived at her house about five minutes before she was really ready to be awake, Kakashi-senpai was also avoiding contact since he’d sent a messenger bird with the particulars of their official mission to their blond teammate. Not just with Naruto, but with Sakura and the ninken as well.

She felt like she was listening to a housewife complaining about her son when Pakkun grumbled, “He stayed out until all hours of the night, too. He hasn’t done that in years. Even when it comes to women, he’s back—”

“Stop,” Sakura demanded, holding out on hand to reinforce the command. “I neither need nor want to know. We leave later this morning, so it’ll be over soon, one way or another. Speaking of leaving, I’m going out now. I’ll leave the door cracked if you’d like to stay, just remember to close up the house when you leave.”

“Where’re you going, Sacchan?” Shiba asked curiously.

“I have someone that I need to visit before we go,” Sakura replied quietly.

The dogs exchanged speaking looks, but Pakkun only said, “Be safe.”

“Mm-hm,” Sakura hummed in noncommittal reply before she slipped out the door. She’d gotten into the habit of using the body flicker to travel, what with avoiding Naruto and sharpening her skills in anticipation of a Sasuke who’d had three years with a Sannin to widen the skill gap between them. Her hands slid over the hilts of her knives. No matter how much I sharpen my fangs, what does it matter if I’m not strong enough to bring down my prey?

Not that this was a kill order; they were authorized for retrieval only. The mission came with a strong recommendation to abort if they encountered Orochimaru—the plan as it stood was for senpai to interrogate whomever they found at the meeting point and to hope that Sasori was as talented at placing spies in Sound as he had been in Suna.

On the heels of the ninken, there’d been a message from the Hokage. Their numbers had multiplied along the way, so it would be two strangers instead of one waiting for her at the gate.

She passed into the Hyūga compound and traveled the now familiar path to their memorial garden. “Good morning, obā-san,” she offered quietly to the elderly woman who could be reliably found here in the early morning.

“Good morning,” came the warm reply from a woman who faithfully came to eat breakfast with a husband who’d been dead almost as long as Sakura had been alive.

People did strange things for love.

Though she was here for Tatsuo, she felt a closeness to senpai in this garden, knowing that somewhere, he was having his own consultation with the dead.


“Senpai,” Sakura began sweetly, “you are in charge of this traveling circus. Please rein it in,” she hissed.

Kakashi-senpai glanced up from his book and looked back toward the source of the atmosphere that was threatening to bring on a headache. Senpai raised a brow at the commotion, then shrugged, turning back to the open pages of his novel. “Mah, mah, you can’t interfere too much in these things. Children need to learn how to get along with others.”

Coming from you, that sort of makes me want to smack you.

Judging from the exasperated sigh that came from Kakashi-senpai’s other side, their ANBU companion, who’d given his name as Yamato, was also suffering from a fraying temper.

“Sakura-chan!” Naruto demanded. “Come back here and explain to this idiot—!”

“Oh, so you need someone else to finish your arguments as well as your battles?” From the tone, it couldn’t be characterized as a taunt, but the words were enough to set Naruto off again.

“Naruto!” Sakura said sharply, “If you don’t like what he has to say, ignore him and stop starting conversations with him. You don’t have to be friends, but you do have to work together.”

“Why aren’t you yelling at him?!” Naruto protested.

Sakura’s eyes slid over to the boy he was jabbing his finger at, meeting placid black eyes. Seeing her attention was focused on him, the boy smiled, a stiff and unnatural movement. Sakura fell back until she was right beside him and could lean close and whisper into his ear. “You’re holding it for too long. A “natural” smile is brief; humans can’t hold on to happiness for that long.” She pulled away and raised her voice to a normal speaking level. “Sorry about my teammate, but just bear with him.”

It was her turn to smile, just a little too falsely bright, as she pulled away, “After all, it’d be a shame if it was the senpai who ought to know better that was causing trouble, wouldn’t it?”

He just blinked at her and, tilting his head slightly to one side, said, “I’ll consider taking your advice, hag.”


There would be no subterfuge. With senpai and his Sharingan along, it was purely a capture and interrogate mission. That did not mean, however, that they wouldn’t take precautions.

They’d split into two groups, with Naruto begrudgingly agreeing to remain with Yamato, who’d kept his squad back outside the normal sensory range for a jounin. Kakashi-senpai had placed Pakkun with them; if he summoned the dog, they were to come and reinforce their position. If for some reason Kakashi-senpai was unable to summon Pakkun, Sakura had submitted herself to being painted on by Sai. Several of his ink animals, primed with his chakra and requiring only a slight nudge of her own to activate, hid beneath her clothes. With someone else it might have been strangely intimate, but Sai had been so indifferent to the process she couldn’t even work up a blush.

For now they were observing the Tenchi Bridge, Sakura’s back pressed comfortably against the trunk of a tree as she surveyed the wooden stretch through her binoculars. That’s that man who I thought was a hidden proctor in the chunin exam, Sakura thought with an unpleasant jolt of recognition. Yakushi Kabuto. But he was registered as a Konoha-nin, so why…? Then she recalled those too-accurate ninja information cards. He was a spy, she registered numbly. But whose originally? Sasori’s? No, if he was Sasori’s, there’d be no reason to have him follow Orochimaru. With Sasori’s techniques, he wouldn’t have to risk transitioning someone into Orochimaru’s organization and waste his time and effort if they ended up useless. He could have taken someone that already belonged to him and made him his puppet without anyone the wiser.

…but if Orochimaru trusted him enough to put Yakushi in deep cover in Konoha or recruited him as a sleeper agent, would he be careless enough to miss Sasori’s jutsu? But Suna did…

“He was in Konohagakure during the chunin exam,” she said softly to senpai.

“Aa,” Kakashi-senpai acknowledged, “I remember. The only one who opted out before the preliminary round. He’d have stood out less if he’d just lost his fight.”

“…we have no way of confirming he was actually Sasori’s. Do you think it’s a trap?”

“Oh, probably,” Kakashi-sensei answered lackadaisically.

“…we’re going to spring it, aren’t we?” Sakura sighed, resigned to the idea. She tucked away her binoculars and slipped on her combat glasses, pulling her shemagh up the bridge of her nose. “Are you going to take responsibility if Orochimaru himself is lurking somewhere?”

“I’m sure he’s busy. And if he isn’t, he’s the kind who isn’t satisfied with just killing you. He’ll want a little conversation first.”

Sakura had some very vivid memories about that aspect of his personality and wasn’t eager to experience a reprise of the Forest of Death. But she knew what Kakashi-senpai was intimating. If Orochimaru decided to have some entertainment at their expense, that would be their only window of opportunity for escape. After that…

“If you get me killed, you’ll owe me dinner,” she grumbled aloud, while some part of her wailed in protest.

“Remember to mind your manners when we go say hello,” Kakashi-senpai called up to her as he vanished from his perch.

Sakura took a deep, unsteady breath and followed his lead, her knives resting lightly against Kabuto’s back while Kakashi-senpai’s hand came to rest none too gently on his shoulder.

“Let’s chat, shall we?” Kakashi-senpai invited and from the way Kabuto stiffened, she’d guess that his Sharingan was in full view.

Whatever he was to Sasori, whatever he was to Orochimaru, this man had fed information from their village to people who wanted to do harm to the people and places she cared about.  

Whatever Kakashi-senpai showed him, she did not feel in the least sorry or guilty for what they were about to do.

Chapter Text

“You can try begging,” Kakashi-senpai went on pleasantly, “but you should know that Sakura is into that sort of thing.”

Dinner is letting you off too lightly, Sakura thought darkly. You’re going to owe me concert tickets or something.  “Don’t say that, senpai. This one belongs to Orochimaru—he might like it and then you’d never get him to talk.”

Kakashi-senpai made a thoughtful noise. “That might be true. Well, we’ll just have to give it our best effort. Don’t you think, Kabuto-kun?” Senpai’s sarcasm was all sharp, cutting edges and she could see the nervous tension in the lines of Kabuto’s back. While she couldn’t be certain how he felt about her at his back, it was clear that he aware of the very real threat standing in front of him.

“Now, now, let’s not be too hasty,” a too-familiar voice said, causing a tremor of fear to slide up her spine, prickling across her scalp, and threatening to cause her hands to tremble. “If you don’t give him time to talk, he won’t be able to issue the invitation.”

“Invitation?” Kakashi-senpai replied harshly, all the teasing leeched from his voice.

“That’s right,” Orochimaru confirmed. “When I heard that someone had finally discovered the limits of Sasori’s art, I knew that there was a chance that Konohagakure might send someone to intercept his spy. I just didn’t think Tsunade would be so reckless as to send the people the message was intended to reach. Such a shame, really—I was going to have to be clever and she went and made it easy. Ah, before I forget,” and it was Sakura’s turn to stiffen as he circled around so that he could see her, “there is something here that deserves recognition. I think this settles the argument between Sasori and I quite neatly—his “eternity” proved to be too brief to qualify.”

Sakura had lived all her life in a ninja village—she’d seen people with all sorts of eyes, from the eerie Hyūga to the various animal-partnered clans and she’d recently had the opportunity to stare into the crimson depths of two different Mangekyo forms, but she’d never seen eyes so inhuman before.

“I’m glad I could be of service,” she managed, voice only slightly shaky, but her hands still rock-solid.

Orochimaru chuckled. “Since I doubt that Jiraiya managed to pass on qualities like patience or restraint onto his disciple, I presume you won’t have to travel very far to collect the last member of this little reunion.”

“What exactly are you planning?” Kakashi-senpai asked suspiciously.

He earned a smile for his suspicion. “You’re here to see Sasuke, aren’t you? I have no objection to that, but you don’t really think I’m just going to let you trample through my house while you’re at it.”

Letting us see Sasuke? Why? Unless…

“This is a test for Sasuke,” Sakura pronounced with a veneer of calm. “You want to see what he’ll do if Naruto—if we—confront him.”

Those eerie yellow eyes focused on her. “Just so. Tomorrow I’ll take Sasuke out on a training exercise—it will certainly be instructive. For everyone. You have a map?”

Sakura hesitated until senpai ordered her roughly, “Go ahead, Sakura.”

Sheathing her knives, she retrieved the topographic map she’d brought of the area around the Tenshi bridge from her sealing scroll and proffered it to Orochimaru. The paleness of his hands was doubly emphasized against the paper of the map; not even Sai’s skin was that shade and he looked like he’d been raised in a cave like some kind of mushroom.

“You’ll have to come closer, if you want to be able to read the map as well,” Orochimaru pointed out and Sakura gingerly came to stand at his elbow, trying to focus on her breathing rather than on how vulnerable this made her feel. He’d always sort of loomed in her memories and she discovered that it wasn’t just fear that had shaped her perceptions—he really was tall.

I wonder if that’s a criterion for the bodies he borrows, some cynical part of her brain wondered even through her trepidation.

“By midmorning, we’ll be here,” he told her, pointing out a location not as far from their present one as expected.

If he wasn’t such a powerful ninja, that might actually be useful information for locating the area he’s using as a base. The hair at the back of her neck prickled as Orochimaru leaned close and spoke in a low voice, that long-fingered hand closing over her shoulder. “You should act surprised to see him tomorrow—we wouldn’t want him to think we’re collaborating against him, would we? See you then.”

And with that he turned and strode back across the bridge toward the forest.

“Ah, Hatake-san, if you could let go of my shoulder…?”

Wordlessly, Kakashi-senpai released his captive and Kabuto followed obediently in the direction that Orochimaru had taken, nervously readjusted his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

“Well,” senpai said when both enemy shinobi had vanished from their senses, “that didn’t go precisely as planned.”

“It’s Orochimaru. Does anything?” Sakura asked sourly, full of knowledge that she couldn’t share. Even Akatsuki couldn’t predict or control the movements of this member of the Legendary Three.

Kakashi-senpai made a thoughtful noise of concession, then sighed. “So….”

“…we walk into a trap and hope it’s for Sasuke,” Sakura agreed. “And that Naruto is hiding some emotional maturity under that tracksuit in the likely event that Sasuke doesn’t want to be returned to village.” She knew even as she said it that it was both true and a little unfair to Naruto to say so. Naruto was also their best chance at completing their mission; though neither of them had said so, Sakura knew that the moment Orochimaru had involved himself, getting Sasuke back to the village through use of force had ceased to be an option.

“Not, ‘doesn’t want to go home’?”

Sakura hesitated. She knew from conversation from Itachi that he still considered the village home; in their own ways she suspected that all three of the Sannin felt the same. But Sasuke? It wasn’t so much that she couldn’t contemplate thinking of him as someone who still felt Konohagakure was more than just a place where one lived, but rather that the well of generosity in her heart was in a drought stage—she didn’t want to welcome him back to her village.

He'd followed after a man who’d invaded their village. Maybe Sasuke hadn’t seen it, but she’d been there in those stands as his forces slaughtered sleeping ninja on a day that was as much about inter-village cooperation and display for the civilians as it had been about anyone’s promotions. Had he even read the final tallies for civilian casualties?  The shinobi ones? Or had it not mattered to Sasuke that he wasn’t even bothering to defect to a proper village, just joining what amounted to a highly organized, highly militant cult?

It was a strange thing. She feared Orochimaru, for the invasion and for the Forest, and the perspective offered by time and experience made her respect his abilities, but when it came to anger or hate, she felt far more strongly about Sasuke than Orochimaru. Fear doused the heat of her anger when it came to Orochimaru, but she feared Sasuke just enough to give her anger bite. Besides, it wasn’t personal. Not like Sasuke was.

Maybe it was because learning to accept the alliances shifted and changed was part of being an adult ninja—Suna had participated in the invasion, after all, and they were supposed to let go of those grudges.

“Sakura…?” Kakashi-senpai prompted, pulling her out of her thoughts.

“Home…I think it’s a lot more fragile than people think,” Sakura replied softly. “And that once you’ve broken it, it’s a lot harder to put back together than simply coming back.”

“…so you’re a cynical divorcée before the age of eighteen.”

“Senpai,” Sakura scowled.

Kakashi-sempai reached out and patted her hair, his hand coming to rest atop her head. “I think that home is something more resilient than all that,” he said. “Well, shall we go back and inform Naruto that we have a lead?”


“You’re not as excited about tomorrow as your teammate,” Sai observed.

“That’s not exactly an achievement,” Sakura muttered into her bedroll.

One of her first acquisitions after finally purchasing the much longed for sealing scroll had been some bedding that was a step up from a blanket spread over unforgiving ground. She hardly ever slept deeply, so she didn’t see the point of sleeping badly and waking up stiff. It was a fine, warm night so they hadn’t bothered to pitch tents, which had left Sai free to essentially invade her personal space. She eyed him in her peripheral vision, noting the way he was sitting, like he was attending some kind of outdoor lecture.

Weirdo.

“I want to understand,” Sai pressed. “Naruto said you also value your team and teamwork highly, yet you display a marked lack of enthusiasm for confronting Uchiha Sasuke.”

Sakura sighed and shifted so that she was facing Sai. “Naruto is an extroverted optimist. He will always care, he will always care deeply, and he will be the first to tell you that he cares. I’m also pretty certain that he thinks that people are fundamentally good and it’s only that circumstances get in their way.”

“And you do not think this way?”

“No. Which is why I’m not expecting anything from Sasuke. Maybe it’s because Team Seven is the only team Naruto has ever had, so he doesn’t have anything to compare it to, but I’ve been on other teams. Team Seven—we really should have been sent back to the Academy. We passed Kakashi-senpai’s bell test, but none of us really got teamwork. It didn’t help that our skill levels were all over the place, we were all obnoxious little brats, and senpai was…well, himself, which didn’t exactly help smooth out our rough edges.”

Sakura paused thoughtfully, trying to judge Sai’s reaction, but all she was rewarded with was that same blankly inquisitive look. “The point being that we judge the bond we had with Sasuke through the lens of our own bias. Naruto treasures his precious people by believing in them with as much force and conviction as he wants them to believe in him—he’s here because of his bond with Sasuke. I’m here for Naruto and senpai and because it was Tsunade-sama’s order.”

“…what if the Hokage hadn’t ordered you to be here?”

“I still would have come. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t have let Naruto do it on his own.”

“Even though your way of thinking—discarding a bond when it is no longer useful or when the other person decides to sever it—is the most logical one?”

“And therefore the correct one?” Sakura said with some amusement. “I’m sure the world would be a more orderly place if it worked like that, but we’re talking about how people feel, not how they think. Sometimes I’m pretty sure they’re only vaguely related. It’s not even like I don’t have a bond with Sasuke any longer. But I’m not Naruto. Relationships based on that kind of hope and loyalty—I don’t think they’re really healthy for anyone involved.” She grimaced as she remembered her own days of blind devotion to Sasuke. “So when Sasuke chose to leave, I chose not to chase after him. That doesn’t mean I could just cleanly cut away what I feel about him like taking scissors to paper. Especially since that idiot can’t give up on him. That’s not how bonds work.” 

“It’s like…take senpai,” she said, waving her hand vaguely in his direction. “If someone asked me if I wanted to meet a man who feels absolutely no shame about reading porn in public, avoids obligations he finds annoying, is habitually late and makes stupid excuses about it, and who makes a hobby out of antagonizing people, I’d say no, right? But then one day, you wake up and realize that you find all those things sort of endearing, not on their own merits, but because of who those traits belong to. That even though they’re sometimes annoying and embarrassing and you sometimes wish they’d turn in a respectable adult, you also realize you’d somehow miss those things because they make them who they are.”

Sai blinked at her. “Is this a love confession?” he asked. “Because I understood they were usually made to the person in question.”

“Is this a—what? For Kakashi-senpai?” Sakura responded incredulously. “That’s not even close to where I was going with that.”

“Developing romantic intentions toward a mentor is a commonly depicted theme in novels and movies. The age difference seems to be a key element in giving it a “forbidden” aspect, making it more—.”

“Woah, stop. You were listening to my description, right? Senpai would make a terrible boyfriend, even if I thought of him like that. He’s more like…a very quirky, but strangely reliable older brother. Don’t you have someone like that? A bond that’s not about orders or convenience. One you’d do things you don’t enjoy to protect.”

Sai contemplated this quietly for so long that she almost abandoned the conversation, but he finally said, “Someone like a brother…I think I had one once.”

“You think?”

“I don’t remember it very well,” he said, then shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does,” Sakura insisted. “Your body can go on existing without friendship or affection as long as you feed it, but…what’s the point?”

“Point?” Sai asked blankly.

“Why do you bother getting up in the morning? Why put yourself at risk? In danger? I mean, I guess you could just take pleasure in the mastery over your body or the excitement of battle,” she conceded doubtfully. She did enjoy the first now that she had actual skills, but Sakura doubted she would ever understand the latter. There was nothing enjoyable about the sharp, choking adrenaline of real battle.

Sai studied her face carefully, like he expected to be quizzed on it. “Is it normal, to consider one’s motivations for getting out of bed?”

“Not all of us are born with conviction,” Sakura replied, canting her head in Naruto’s direction significantly. “Some of us have to find it.”

“I will consider it. My motivation,” Sai said abruptly.

“That’s good. But first, sleep.”


Advice wasn’t automatically bad even if it came from a dubious source—they’d told Naruto that they had a lead on a nearby base where Sasuke was likely staying, not that Orochimaru was confident enough in his shaping of Sasuke’s character to test him against his old team. It wasn’t that they didn’t trust Naruto, precisely, but more that there was a mutual acknowledgement that Naruto attempting to take Sasuke back by way of taking Orochimaru down would be a Bad Thing for all involved.

Maybe a raging jinchuriki would be enough to take down the most devious of the Three. Or maybe the rest of them ended up dead and that smirking white snake was at best amused by the whole thing and more than happy to pick up whatever was left of Naruto.

She felt jittery, almost sick with anxiety and anticipation, but she carefully kept all of it tamped down beneath an impassive expression. The last thing that her blond teammate needed in this moment was encouragement. His eyes kept shading toward red, taking on that feral quality that she’d learned was indicative of the bijū rising on the tide of his temper.

Then they were there, on that spot that had looked so wholly unremarkable on the map in comparison to those dangerous, spidery fingers that had pointed it out, and there Sasuke was and her heart seemed to have migrated up into her throat. It was wholly possible it had been pushed ahead by her stomach, which was threatening to revolt.

Orochimaru had chosen the staging ground for this farce well—their team had emerged from dense forest into what appeared to be something like a natural amphitheater. Nature or perhaps some shinobi battle of the far past had left a flattened area faced with steep walls of rock interrupted only by a few tenacious rhododendrons. Orochimaru stood atop the wall almost perfectly opposite them, Kabuto almost as close as his shadow.

“Well, well,” Orochimaru drawled. “Look who it is, Sasuke. Your friends have come to visit.”

Sasuke’s expression twisted into a sneer, his eyes sweeping over all of them like someone who’d seen a cockroach scurry across the floor.

“Perhaps it might be best if we adults stayed out the way of this reunion, eh, Kakashi? And guest member. How delightful that they’d send you,” he said to Yamato in a way that made the ANBU’s already unreadable expression harden until it could have been carved from stone.

“Sas—!” Naruto’s attention was all for their former teammate, his desperate plea emerging as a shout that was strangled as Sakura yanked him aside.  

And Sasuke was here, close enough for her to count his eyelashes and the bizarre thought that filled her head was I will live and make it to my own party. Stupid, stupid thing to think when Sasuke was in front of her, but the promise of Genma who’d bothered and Raido who’d agreed to attend and Ino who’d absolutely be there—it was more than enough to make her think desperately, I want to go home.

But she was here, firmly rooted to this reality, in which Sasuke’s eyes were cold and assessing, the tilt of his mouth slightly cruel. “I’m not allowed to say hello?” he asked coldly. She’d thought that attractive once, but now the bitter irony saturating his voice left an equally bitter taste in her mouth.

“Hello, Sasuke,” she told him tightly.

“Sakura.” He said it the same way Soudai did when he was at his most irritating, like he was deigning to notice her existence and she ought to apologize for troubling him.

It was much less endearing on this boy, whose eyes slid over to Naruto. “You,” he said, “here to try and convince me to return to the village?”

“We’re here to take you back,” Naruto retorted, his tone more even than she’d expected. “After all, what kind of Hokage would I be if I couldn’t even drag my own teammate home when he’s too stupid to find his own way back?”

“You think that’ll work out any better than it did last time? Idiot,” Sasuke’s hand slid to the hilt of the sword sheathed at his waist. “I spared you last time on a whim. Haven’t you heard that you shouldn’t tempt fate?”

“Fate?” Naruto quipped. “You’ve learned some big words, Sasuke. Maybe you should try to learn some more of them. Like friendship. Or maybe loyalty. Maybe those kinds of things are too difficult for someone like you. Which is why we’ll keep on coming to drag you home until it finally sinks in. Don’t you get it, bastard? If you don’t come back, Orochimaru is going to wear you like a sock puppet.”

“Don’t lump me in with someone like you. I cut our bonds because I had only one bond worth protecting and it was one of hatred. And to finally fulfil the promise of that bond, I’d do much worse things than just give up my body.”

Sakura had been freely channeling chakra into her eyes from the moment she’d caught sight of Orochimaru. She saw the moment when Sasuke started to shift, the curve of his back changing as he went to draw the chokuto from its scabbard. Her own hands were just as quick, just as sure, and due to the placement of her own knife rig and the length of her blades, her black knife was the first to clear its sheathe.

Naruto had also caught on to the imminent violence, but it was like watching someone wade through deep water—without the Kyūbi enhancing his senses, he couldn’t match Sasuke’s sheer speed. Jiraiya had been busy teaching him to live and laugh and love in a world where no one knew he was a jinchūriki; she imagined Orochimaru hadn’t bothered to waste time on Sasuke’s already anemic social skills. Sakura herself was caught somewhere in between—she’d hadn’t a formal teacher since the dissolution of Team Seven, but she’d trained with Hatake Kakashi as a partner he respected.

The flat of her black knife caught the edge of Sasuke’s sword and it was only paranoid habit and a bit of vanity that had caused her to shove earth-natured chakra into the blade. She’d paid a truly appalling amount of money to have the thing forged, so the idea of someone marring it had begun the habit; she’d justified it with the fact that it made for excellent practice and had since refined it until it was second nature.

Now it kept her blade from parting beneath the onslaught of Sasuke’s own special blade—she could feel his chakra lashing at her own.

“Annoying,” he murmured, his free hand suddenly wreathed in lightning as he struck at her from the other side.

Sakura let her body drop beneath his strike, her empty hand slapping against the earth and sending her feet-first into the air just above the flashing blade of his sword. Her skin seemed to quiver beneath her clothes and the oddest sensation stole over her as ink slithered over her skin, up the channel between her breasts, flowing along her collarbones and bursting from her arms in a tangled knot of dragons.

Sasuke spat fire up at her, incinerating the densest knot of dragons and twisting his body to avoid the others that impaled themselves into the ground like spears thrown from heaven. He might have caught Sakura too, but there was already an eagle tearing itself from her flesh and bearing her aloft out of harm’s way. As soon as the flames faded, the eagle changed, shifted, became like feathered shadows streaming from her arms.

She landed lightly on her feet even as Naruto made to sprint forward and take advantage of Sasuke’s preoccupation, his eyes blazing red and that ominous chakra she’d finally understood to be the Kyūbi boiling up off his skin like steam from a kettle. Sasuke only glanced at him, but Naruto stumbled to such an abrupt halt that Sakura knew something had gone wrong in the same instant that she felt the none-too-subtle dissonance of a genjutsu that was all raw power.

What is he…? The thought formed even as her hand dipped into her equipment pouch for kunai and she found her answer when that aggressive chakra vanished and Naruto’s knees buckled. I