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Running With Wolves

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"Welcome to Hell!"

Sakura jumps, and the parrot mask infront of her bobs up and down as the woman wearing it cackles loudly. In the long, cavernous corridor,the laugh echoes strangely, which doesn't do anything to settle the girl's nerves.

"I mean, welcome to Delta. This is where all the newbies come, on guard rotation, see? And look - you don't even have a proper mask yet! I can't even call you something cool, so you'll just be 'Rookie' from now on. I, obviously, am 'Parrot'. Over there, that's 'Cat'. 'Dove' is checking on the prisoners."

Sakura nods carefully, unwilling to look away from either the insane Parrot or the creepy Cat prowling around in the shadows.

"Okay, first thing. Why are you here? What can you do?"

Sakura stumbles at the first hurdle, she totally blanks for a moment, and has to scramble to remember what the Quartermaster had muttered as he'd handed over her blank mask and papers.

"Good chakra control, genjutsu sensitivity, and good memory?"

Parrot goes quiet, and it isn't actually reassuring. Scarier still, Cat speaks up abruptly from the doorway behind her.

"You know no ninjutsu, genjutsu or taijutsu. You have no bloodline limit to make up for it. And you have no combat experence."

His voice is cold, matter of fact, and distinctly pissed off. Sakura is reminded abruptly of Sasuke, his sharingan eyes spinning as he scorned her, as he laughed at her ineptitude and brought his lightning-wreathed hand closer and closer to her chest.

She is rather a waste of space, isn't she?

"But we can fix that! Here, you need to recognise the inmates so you know when they're trying to escape. To do that, you have to sense their chakra. Not everyone can. but if the Quartermaster thinks you can sense genjutsu, you can probably sense a bit of chakra too. Even if you arent a natural, you can still build up a little bit of awareness. Just take a deep breath, let your chakra settle, and tell me when things get wierd."

Sakura hisses through her teeth a moment later when something sharp and cold opens up infront of her, a swirling mass of chakra only loosely controlled, a dirty yellow colour ringed with impatience and disappointment but held in place with tethers of duty.

"I guess you've got a knack for it, huh?"

Behind her, a strong earthy core rooted in willfullness, the brown tones offset by streaks of rust that are not at all friendly, cracks of fatigue marring the chakra. These people seem a little difficult to get along with.

Sakura doesn't like this, not one bit. Surely chakra sensing should not be so intensely personal! What if they can read her just as easily? Can they see her shallowness, her weaknesss? The Team Seven reject, half killed by her childhood crush, and left for dead by her trusted teammate and sensei. What must her core look like now? A dried up well, maybe. More like a paddling pool left out in the sun.

"If you can learn this fast, there's hope for you yet! So, can you defend yourself?"

The punch sends her flying, she doesn't even see it coming. She definitely can not defend herself.
_____

How's it going?

Sakura thinks she might be getting the hang of hand signals at least, and a few other little gestures if they're kept slow. She lets her weight rest on her right leg to show she's at ease, it seems to be the right response.

Any movement?

She blinks in confusion, then realises that Cat-taichou means the prisoners. All of them in this block are from the village of Sound, captured during Orochimaru's invasion. Inmate A is a redheaded girl made up of sharp edges and hollowness, rung through with falseness. B is perhaps a little older, his skin tanned despite imprisonment with dark hair and a darker scowl. He's all earth, the kind that gives way beneath your feet. C is the opposite, bleached of all colour but for the grey tinge to his skin. Even his chakra is nearly see-through, no clear affinity or substance, only a strange growth on it like some sort of tumour. Is there such a thing as chakra cancer? Sakura steers clear of C the most.

It's C who makes the first move. Sakura feels the disturbance from the other side of the containment facility, drops her bento and legs it down to her teammates. Only by the time she gets there (too slow, always too slow) Parrot is pinned to the wall by thick, gloopy webbing. Her mask is in pieces on the floor, some of the paint shaved off by a jutsu. Her eyes are brown, plain old brown, wide open in horror and glazed over. Her chest isn't rising and falling, what's left of her chakra is leaking out like a cold draught, and something has sliced her open - armpit, to navel, to armpit. That's why she isn't breathing, because her guts are piled on the floor.

Sakura stumbles backwards, slips on blood that's rich with Cat's chakra, and remembers her two other teammates. She hurtles towards the carnage down too-silent corridors filled with broken seals. Somewhere along the way, it all starts to warp. Genjutsu, surely. She spikes her chakra just so, breaking through the illusion hiding inmate A perched on the rooftop and attracting everyone's attention. She doesn't register the arrow until it's all the way through her shoulder, pinning her to the wall. She's lucky it's her left side, isn't she? The doctors had said she would never recover all the feeling in that arm. It is still agony, and the world blurs oddly for a little while.

Cat is infront of her, chips taken out of his mask, a chunk missing from his arm. He's pressing a scroll into Sakura's hands, signing frantically at her to go, to get help, to ring the warning bell. But how is she supposed to do that? She swallows, a horrible idea taking root. It won't hurt as much as it should- probably. She listens to her team leader, plants her feet on the wall so the arrow takes all of her weight and launches herself forward before she can black out.

It makes mincemeat of her shoulder, but then again Sasuke had already taken most of it out along with lots of other important things on her left side. She doesn't let it slow her down, and the escapees seem too concerned with Cat and Dove to see her make a break for it.

The bell tolls loud and clear under the Quartermaster's stern gaze, and he has her stand to attention as soon as that's done. Sakura can barely keep her feet in place because Cat and Dove are on their own against three dangerous enemies, Parrot is in pieces, how can she stay here? The Quartermaster ignores her, takes the scroll and reads it like he has all the time in the world. When he examines her again, there is pity in his beady little eyes, and Sakura doesn't think she's gonig to like what he has to say.

She's right.

He hands her an ornate carved wooden box, a note pinned to the top with an address on it.

"You have been released from Delta Squad Thirteen, effective immediately. Reallocation will take two to four weeks, you will receive independent missions in the interim....I'm sorry, Rookie."

Sakura stands to attention out of habit, numb and disbelieving.

"You require medical attention. Now. Please don't resist."

She tries to launch herself out of the infirmary window, the westernmost prison block just in sight, the chakra signatures of Cat and Dove and Parrot barely there at all nd only traces left of the inmates. Dove's is a little brighter maybe, he could still be alive - A needle breaks through the skin of Sakura's thigh. She swears and screams and cries all the way to oblivion.
____

Failure. Teamkiller. Coward. Liability.

The whispers follow her through Headquarters. She's only been on site once before during her induction, but she doesn't dare to ask for directions when every mask she passes radiates disgust. She crushed her chakra sense down as deep as she can because the loathing is thick enough to choke her, everywhere she turns.

Her first solo mission comes mercifully quickly, a simple enough retrieval. The Quartermaster calls her Wolf instead of 'Rookie', and it stings a little less. She doesn't hear Parrot's laughter ringing in her ears.

It goes well, really. For all that she's alone for the first time doing what should be a four man job with only scraps left of her chakra and no special jutsu to keep her hidden. Her chakra does seem to grow every time she uses it, but sometimes it goes a little wonky if it gets too near the lightning scar, and there still isn't much to speak of. Cat's core had been a vast plane of potential, Sakura's? It's maybe a metre square, tamed and trimmed perfectly. Still, away from the village she opens up her chakra sense every time she settles down for the night. She hones right in on Konoha's Westernmost prison block even when she's miles away, somehow it's always just within her reach. She watches it like an eagle, scours the area for any sign of Delta Squad Thirteen. The earth is dead, stale, just like her teammates corpses. That doesn't change no matter how hard she looks.

She should have stayed. Disobeyed. Died with them. Instead she had finished her mission like a good little ninja.

She finishes this one too, brings a dirty little scroll that might once have belonged to a Warring States Era general back to HQ, and the Quartermaster takes pity. gives her another. And another, and another. The missions all blur together, they keep her out of the main base with it's whispers and rumours, and that's all she cares about - that and keeping track of the prison block.

By the time another official meeting is called, Sakura has completed over fifty missions alone. She doesn't stop, and the Quartermaster doesn't ask her to. It's a nice arrangement really. She trains all the way there and all the way back, and doesn't once think of home.

"Wolf, this is Panther, your new squad leader. Jackal and Owl too, they're Alpha Squad Three. They've agreed to take you on for their next couple of missions."

Sakura bows as is respectful, no more no less, and keeps her chakra sense locked up tight still because Panther radiates utter disdain even with a mask on.

"Your first assignment is in mist, Panther has already been briefed. Good luck."

He might even mean it, but Sakura is suddenly so scared she can barely breathe. She tries to level out her heart rate before Alpha Squad can notice, sure that they'll prey on her for the weakness.

On the way out of the meeting room, Jackal's shoulder clips Sakura's bad side. She bites down on her tongue to stop the scream, only her ankle gives way strangely and flares up something fierce. With a dawning sense of dread, she recalls the bruising that had hindered her last trip back. It's not bruising, but swelling. A stress fracture, maybe. She sighs near silently, focuses on the mission, and floods her ankle with chakra in the hopes that it takes her weight.

Alpha Squad don't talk, they move. They run so fast that Sakura has to figure out how to keep up with her already limited chakra reserves. She unleashes her chakra sense for only a moment, filtering out more hatred than she knows what to do with, cold cutting fury, scorn, mistrust - and tries to take note of how the others use their energy to enhance their steps and leaps. She draws back into herself when she thinks she has the trick of it, and sure enough the going gets a little easier. Her ankle gives way every third landing, but she can handle it.

Too soon they are on the outskirts of the Village of Mist, just as cold and damp as Wave. The air is thicker, harder to breathe, and every passing civillian seems larger and scarier than in the Leaf Village. All of a sudden Panther vanishes, his chakra snuffed out like a candle, and Owl and Jackal follow suite. It is a technique Sakura didn't know existed, and the penny drops. She's their decoy, their bait, a bright beacon of chakra in a crowd with none of their own.

The first kunei lodges in her gut, deep, sending her to her knees. That's why the second one skims overhead. The senbon still pierces her right elbow with enviable precision, and too late she recognises an explosive tag. She whites out with the pain of it, but her chakra sense doesn't give her the mercy of a clean break from reality. The enemy nin's life force burns bright and blue for a brief moment before Jackal's cold and sharp energy cuts him down, and then Alpha Squad alight on the pavement only briefly.

Clean up. Panther commands, and then she is alone, surrounded by chunkks of flesh and streams of blood that she herself can barely see. She sighs tiredly, plants her hands on the ground and begs for help. The earth, thankfully, takes what little chakra she can give. The water too, lights up to her chakra sense like nothing else. The two elements work together to swallow up the evidence, leaving Sakura unable to even stand.

She loses a few minutes maybe, takes a deep breath and forces her legs to comply. There's grass where it hadn't been before, thriving on the nutrients of the rapidly decaying flesh, too comfortable a pillow to resist. But she must resist. If a mist ninja finds her in their territory, she is worse than dead. She searches blindly for her team, and is only granted a glimpse, right on the edge of her range and running as fast as they can.

Abandoned again. Of course, this is why they accepted her in the first place. This is payback for following Cat's orders, for leaving Delta Squad to die. The sense of betrayal pales in comparison to the self loathing.

Maybe she should surrender to her injuries, as they so clearly want her to. A better death than she deserves, honourable, in the line of duty even.
_____

She reaches HQ long after the rest of the squad after days of endless running, the others already in the infirmary for a routine check-up. Panther's signature flickers with unease as Sakura lets the Quartermaster know she's back, he must have a little awareness of his own, but he doesn't outwardly react when she bodyflickers to the door of the medical ninja's domain. Jackal does though, he manages to spit at her feet even with his mask in place. The mednin, short and stout with the face of a Robin, leaks a horrible killing intent.

"Out. I won't treat you, monster."

She deserves no better, of course. But she can't really breathe, standing up is more exhausting than it should be, her heart keeps fluttering oddly and her chakra is writhing like it knows something is wrong. She shunshins again, regardless, to somewhere she knows inside and out - the westernmost prison block. She trails after glimpses of months old chakra activity with her eyes, maps out a fight she's had nightmares of ever since it occured, and at some point her body gives up on her.

She's roused by something cold and wet on her cheek, something that breathes. A nose. A dog? She squints up at the culprit and gets an eyeful of silver and white fluff, blue eyes bright with childish hope. Not a puppy, not any breed of dog she knows, but wilder. Maybe a wolfhound. Probably a wolf. She stays as still as she can.

The cub starts licking her face, and it's breath stinks. When that doesn't work, the thing whimpers pathetically. Sakura's resolve crumbles immediately. She staggers to her feet after a few pathetic attempts, only her ankle gives way at once, and she has to find her way back up and stay there. The cub watches her, waits for her and whimpers a little louder every time she falls. The concern is touching, really.

Once she's relatively stable the cub moves, sniffing this way and that, clearly searching for something and looking back at Sakura in the hopes that she can find it easier. She nearly faceplants at her stupidity because of course, such a tiny cub will have a mother. She hopes for his sake that there's still something to look for, catalogues the cub's chakra signature which is oddly developed, a warm river running over cool reliable rocks, and casts out her own awareness as far as she possible can. Her range is not large enough. She huffs in frustration, and turns to whatever she can. She asks the rivers and the rain, the ground beneath her feet, the forest she's a little lost in.

The forest wakes up as her chakra touches it, ever tree leaning in a little. As if waiting for her permission, her energy is guided down into the roots, and from there she glimpses more than she can keep a hold of before her head starts to pound awfully and she leans over to puke.

"Here. This way."

There's a long, long way to go. She thinks maybe the mother is on the outskirts of Rice Village, where the forest starts to thin in the area before Earth Village gets territorial.

She loses more and more time, but the cub doesn't know the way, she makes what little progress she can.

"Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear." Something growls, with chakra that bites like the cold of winter and a core all but frozen solid. Sakura glimpses the cub's clear blue eyes set over a muzzle filled with teeth longer and sharper than swords, and a body that might be too big to fit inside of her apartment. The world falls away alarmingly quickly.

We should help her.

Her? A human?

A human who led my cub home.

The cost for her kind is too great, at this stage.

So give her the choice.

"Girl." A voice growls by her ear, and she can't open her eyes to find out who it belongs to. Her lungs are tiring in a way she's never known, there's a sluggishness that goes beyond exhaustion.

"Will you let us help? Even if it hurts?"

She feel's the cub's back pressed against her legs, and for him she manages a little nod. She should at least check on the cub.

"Sign this."

Something guides her hand, swipes it across her stomach where blood is pooling, then presses it to thick paper. She can't manage to twitch even a finger, so she simply plants her palm down. Her fingerprints are unique, aren't they.

"Good. My apologies."

Chakra creeps in, warm and familiar, and Sakura snuggles up to it like an old blanket. The cub worms his way under her armpit, his snout on her face, his core thrumming with gratefulness. She twists her arm to thank him right back, but it takes all the energy she has left.

The warmth burns brighter, hotter, it's inside of her and she can't release it. Magma in her veins, a volcano where her heart should be. She screams, only her teeth and jaw are all wrong and a howl breaks the silence instead.
____

You're stronger than you look.

She groans, the sound strangled in her throat, and cracks open an eye to glare at whomever had disturbed her rest. A warm brown eye stares right back, amused, and she is somehow compelled to listen. She lifts her head up from her paws.

From.

Her.

Paws.

She yelps in surprise because those paws shouldn't be there, and it is a yelp that leaves her snout. She jumps up in shock at the sound, only her legs don't work the way they should and she collapses in a tangle of gangly limbs. Her stomach spasms with the strain of it, and the cub at her side whimpers pathetically.

She's a sucker for this cub.

What's a sucker?

The cub wriggles closer, warmer against the pinky-white fur of her neck, and she relents. She chooses instead to stare at the newcomer, with a rusty brown coat and a core of chakra belonging to something ten times his size at least. He's taking a smaller form to make this easier.

Make what easier? She whimpers, and the brown wolf rests his nose on her shoulder to comfort her. It shouldn't work, but it does. Something explodes inside of her brain, a rush of images and sensation easier to grasp than her own thoughts. She sees herself, a wolf not yet grown with too long limbs, white pink fur, and scars she shouldn't have survived. She's running with the brown wolf, the cub, his mother and litter, a grey wolf built like a bear - many wolves. Pack.

Pack. The brown wolf confirms, she is his pack. At her confusion, she gets another blast of his thoughts.

We made you pack, we healed you.

Pack seems to be the best thing she can think of, warm, safe, happy. She relaxes a fraction, and so too does the brown wolf. She realises why when what's behind the contentment catches up to her, a grief, a horror and betrayal that doesn't fit. It overtakes her in the span of a heartbeat, and the brown wolf drives it out with more thoughts of pack.

Human worries. You are a wolf now. You are our pack, we are yours. Whether you stand on four legs or two. Come.

That makes sense. She lifts herself up carefully to follow him, every step a huge trial, and muzzles the cub in apology as she goes. Snapper, the cub is cold snap in the spring, with teeth to match, Snapper. That done, she forces her limbs to comply. It should be strange, yet it isn't.

Away from Snapper, the brown wolf seems more serious.

Human pack? Want you back?

She shrugs doubtfully, but he seems right. Her human pack leader might be waiting for her to return, to check she's alive at least. There's a sense of duty running strong in her, and the wolf leader chuffs at the stubborness twinned with it. His thoughts intrude again, with a snapshot of his image reflected in her eyes.

Old soil, scarred earth under an unlit sky. Age, certainty, wisdom.

He is not brown wolf, he is Wisdom, leader of the pack. And he is not finished yet.

Young soul sharp eyes bright spark leading the lost, taking point under a sky full of guiding stars. Bright Guide.

It doesn't fit her, but he doesn't budge, so she takes the name because she honestly can't think if she has one already. Bright Guide, she can deal with. And, she realises, he is waiting for her to be ready to run. The air is charged with anticipation, eagerness. A hunt!
____

Bright Guide lands unsteadily on two legs in an office she thinks she knows, and is greeted by a beady eyed little man who looks ancient. She doesn't trust the shadows, the doorway, the chakra signatures flickering to life in the corridors, but this man seems to expect a little bit more than her wariness. She bows oh so slightly, and he breathes a sigh of relief. So he does know her. His breath is awful though, the reek of plantlife thick enough to choke her. She bites her tongue carefully.

"Another mission for you, then."

Duty wells up in her, she knows this routine, his words are familiar even if the shape of them is hard to decipher. His tone, too, is a cheer that rings false. He leans in before she can move away, squeezes her shoulder reassuringly. Bright Guide freezes because - her left shoulder should hurt. She doesn't remember why, but it should.

"There is a system, you can complain."

Human gibberish. She nods quickly, eager to get away, and the little man sighs in defeat.

"Your team are en route."

She reaches out for any half familiar chakra she can find, hitting on a mini hurricane of hurt and rage first. Yes, she thinks, this is the man with the Jackal mask. She heads for his location without wasting any time.

____

Owl has been separated from the group, and she is deep in the bowels of a piece of the city that reeks of sex and sweat and alcohol. Bright Guide - Wolf, by her ANBU mask she is Wolf -finds the older woman up to her neck in trouble. Men surround Owl, all of them armed, and civillians press in from all sides too. They can't use anything flashy. The largest of the enemy raises his cleaver to get the first strike in.

Wolf catches the blade with a little chakra, spins it back around and launches herself forward. For once there is more excitement than worry, the lure of worthy prey, the sweet tang of his blood and fear. She grins with too sharp fangs, her mask in the way of tearing the prey's throat out with her teeth, and a wind jutsu takes him out before she can act on her instincts. It shreds the man's neck, taking his carotid and his jugular right out. Owl doesn't tilt his chin fast enough, the first few spurts absolutely drench Wolf.

She should be disgusted, shouldn't she?

Back on even footing, Wolf pins down another lowlife with nails that seem a little too strong all of a sudden, and instead of using a kunei she feeds her chakra in to the earth and water surrounding her. The concrete swallows him greedily, and she leaves him to suffocate.

Soon enough they're all dealt with. Owl is shaking, cold and tired, and Wolf carefully pushes her in the direction of Panther and Jackal before turning to tear off the mercenary leader's head all the way. She wastes no time in lingering, the head is bound for base.
____

It's straight on to another border town, another drug ring, more local trouble. Wolf follows Alpha Squad in stony silence, for once able to keep up now that her injuries have been miraculously healed. Jackal, wary of her, takes first watch when they stop for the night, but Sakura has no intention of sleeping with these three at her back. It is, of course, when she's on full alert that Owl alights on her branch. Wolf has a Kunei at the ready immediately, teeth bared in a silent snarl behind her mask.

"Thank you. And sorry."

Owl manages out loud, her voice husky nd cracking in places like she's been...leaking? Crying. Like she's been crying. Wolf nods curtly, backing up a little so she can leave, only a hand catches the edge of her armguard.

"Do you forgive me or not?"

There's a little bit of fire, which might be better than the crying. Wolf sighs at her own stupidity and carefully lifts up the bottom of her tank top with her free hand. (Weakness, she's showing not-pack weakness?). Where the explosive tags had gone off is a mess of ugly scars wrapping around her side. There's another patch where the kunei had lodged in her gut, and it is around that one that Wolf carefully traces the blood vessel that had been severed. Owl goes very still. The womn shrinks down in shame, just as lost as Wolf feels, and gestures rather uselessly.

"We really were leaving you to die."

Wolf scrambles for words that don't fit right in her head or her mouth, needeing to convey not just the bitter sense of betrayal, but the underlying resignation and expectation. She can't understand half of what her comrade is saying, what is she supposed to do? The silence drags on awkwardly, before her mouth finally moves the right way.

"I'm used to it."

Her voice is off, a little broken, closer to a growl than before as she struggles to shape the words. It grates on her throat and her nerves, she wishes she'd not bothered, and Owl doesn't seem too happy either.

To Wolf, Alpha Squad hasn't been so bad, they haven't dirctly tried to kill her yet. She scratches absently at the ligtning burn over her heart, and turns to go before the situation gets worse.

"We'll do better. Jackal, he was Parrot's brother. Even he can see you're not that bad."

Owl is damned persistant. Wolf grumbles at the way the talk is turning out, then slips down a little to take a seat on the branch with her legs dangling in the air, and scooches over to make room. Owl does look uncomfortable, tired, she should be resting. The words Wolf want to say come easier this time, she knows them better.

"I am a liability. Trash. You were right to leave me for dead."

A hand comes out of nowhere to strike the side of Wolf's mask, over her cheek. She has to turn to put Owl back in her sights.

"Don't you dare! Liabilities don't save their teammates, do they? And - here, Panther-taichou says you can take out the next target in the morning. It means he doesn't think you're weak either."

Owl holds out a plain enough looking blade, a tanto with a black handle, only there's so much chakra in the weapon that Wolf wants to sneeze.

Sakura ends up cleaving the target in two, from shoulder to hip. The bald little merchant in his bright yellow silk robes isn't a drug smuggler at all, he deals in children instead. She tries to explain to Panther, only the words catch in her throat and all she can manage is a low growl. Wisdom would understand, Pack would understand.

Panther-taichou might understand too. He wipes the blade clean when he takes it back, seals the body into a scroll as requested, and they race bacl to the village before the local authorities can come.
____

It goes on for some time. Mission after mission, with no break in between. Panther-taichou grumbles about a lack of leadership but never says anything more. Wolf doesn't complain, she can check on the Westernmost prison block whether she's in the country or not. Somtimes she thinks she catches glimpses of her pack, too.

She's still a little surprised when, after a miserable trek through the land of Waves with more gut wrenching terror involved than nostalgia, a bundle of white and grey fur nearly bowls her over as the team makes camp.

Overexcited, Snapper batters Wolf with Worry, alone in the cold, pack family pack together pack help! Perturbed, she replies with Cub young, cub stays with pack. But Snapper just sends her Alone in the cold, refusal, rejection until she caves. Bright Guide reaches down to scratch Snapper behind his ears, and he in turn keeps an eye on Alpha Squad as they watch her in shock.

Snapper then decides to lead her on a little game of hide and seek, not too far from Alpha Squad, promising a reward at the end of it. He literally begs. When Bright Guide gives in as usual, he takes her closer and closer to a source of strong blood-fear-triumph smell. His first kill. He hasn't even one for a senible little rabbit or fox, but a full grown deer. Bright Guide eyes the antlers wearily and scans her packmate closely for any injuries, marvelling at his idiocy but not quite able to get mad at him for it.

She sends him an image of the whole pack hunting instead, every wolf working together to take down prey this big, and instead of being chastised Snapper preens. He sends her a memory of her wolf form instead, sleek white pink fur and gnarled scars, leading pack to prey. For a moment, Bright Guide is lost in the thrill of it. Her teeth are sharp enough, she can track better than any other, she can show Snapper how to hunt better! It is only when her gums start to ache and her bones twist oddly that Wolf comes back to herself, back to two legs and human duty.

She slings the deer over her back and moves quickly before she can change her mind, dropping the carcass down by the fire for her teammates to share. She tears off a hind leg for Snapper, another haunch for herself, then leaves them to it because-

Meat. Fresh meat. The human part of her remembers being disgusted, but Bright Guide is only damn near starving. She falls to her knees at Snappers urging, sure that noone is watching, and then she feasts to her packmate's victory.

Mask firmly back in place, Snapper bounding happily by her side, Wolf remembers to return to the fireside to rejoin Alpha. They're still trying to cook, she sees.

Normal food just hasn't been the same since her healing, she realises guiltily. Cooked meat just smells off, lacking something vital. The raw meat - it has her checking her teeth for fat and sinew, eager for another taste. Dimly, an odd ringing in her ears, she thinks back to running with her pack and hunting well, before returning to Alpha. Has she eaten since? No? Not a single damn meal, not one. The exhaustion she feels down to her bones isn't weakness, it dawns on her, it's starvation.

Why hasn't she eaten?

Her stomach turns all the way over at the thought of fluffy rice seasoned with vinegar and furikake, at charred meat, and she feels cold all over.

She can't, can she? Or maybe she can, but it would be too disgusting to keep down.

This is what Wisdom had meant when he'd called her Pack, she realises. He had meant more than she'd thought, he'd been trying to tell her that she wasn't just family, she was a wolf. She didn't just give up two legs for a little while, she'd lost parts of her humanity...for good.

Her eyes are leaking, she realises, and the whimpers leaving her throat are not human at all. Snapper quivers with the need to help her, and only stops when she buries his face in his fur and wraps herself around him.

"What's wrong?"

It says a lot that they're speaking using words after weeks of only signing, and it takes Wolf a heartbreaking moment to piece together the sounds, then she opens her mouth to respond in kind. And she can't, not at all. Panic bubbles up, all thoughts and images with nothing human to help her translate. Loss, grief, helplessness, and no words to put to the feelings.

She's whimpering louder now, her bones grinding painfully again as her form tries to match her thoughts, and Owl is... Owl is right there, right in front of her, not leaving at all. Guide shakes against Snapper, and her packmate only radiates things like trust and a sense of belonging. Pack.

These people are human-pack. Slowly, Bright Guide lifts her head to look at Owl, and she tries to pick through her thoughts to find the right ones before she practically throws them at the woman. It is Owls turn to drop to her knees and leak from her eyes, hiccuping in a way that hits Bright Guide in the heart. Bewilderingly enough, Jackal and Panther move in for a closer look instead of retreating.

Owl tries to compose herself, then gives it up and drops her mask.

She's older than Wolf, in her early twenties maybe, with a shock of black-blue-purple hair and brown eyes that are lighter than Wisdom's but have no pupils at all. She's pale too, her lips are trembling strangely, worried maybe. Some part of Bright Guide tries desperately to recognise her, because she should damnit. It's right there when she thinks of Team Seven, the forest of Death, and the creepy snake man.

Anko. This woman is called Anko.

But then Bright Guide flinches, that one human thought very much at odds with the rest of the mess. Her head is wrong. Her body is wrong. Anko-Owl sees her retreating, and doesn't give her a chance.

"You lost something when your summons healed you, after our first mission, didn't you? You were broken so badly that they had to take something to give some life back to you."

The woman is angry, furious, only not at Bright Guide. Still, her words are far too true because something is missing, and she can't even begin to fathom it. Panther seems stricken, Jackal rather ashamed. But - they're wearing their masks, aren't they? Guide can't see their face to tell that with her eyes, and she doesn't need to because she's using her nose. Like a dog. Like a wolf. She hadn't even been able to tell! Shit.

Anko wants a reply. And there's no way Bright Guide can give her one, because the words had fallen on to ears that might as well be deaf in the first place.

"You've lost your words, huh? But you can still understand me?"

Bright Guide closes off a little, because maybe she can and maybe she can't. The tone is not too hard to recognise if she concentrates, but the harsh sounds all run together horribly. Sometimes she thinks there's meaning, but it's fleeting, she can't hope to catch it. And Bright Guide must look pretty sorry for herself because Anko scoots closer.

"It's pretty hard, then? Can I help?"

Snapper worms his way upright, broadcasting everything on his mind proudly, like he's got just the right answer. Bright Guide relives running with the pack for a moment, her teeth tearing through deer hide, sweet meat rewarding her efforts and the creature going down kicking. The sense of pack is strong, strong enough to send Alpha Squad reeling while she is distracted.

"You're thinking instead of talking. Like an Inuzuka kid."

Panther fills the silence, his own mask by his feet, revealling another set of eyes without pupils- this time blue. His hair is a familiar blond, but strange red markings underline his cheekbones. Yamanaka.

"I'm married to an Inuzuka, maybe I can help."

His thoughts intrude on her, loud and yet shallow. Snatches of calm, quiet, peacefulness. Bright Guide replies gently, he has the ideas but none of the meanings, she needs to show him how to better tether the memories to emotion.

Alone in the snow. Bleeding tiring fading lost. Hurthurthurthurt broken abandoned tired failure betrayed tired TIRED weak cold.

Oops, she realises, as Panther's expression crumples and he turns around to be sick. Maybe something less powerful? She takes the mix of betrayal and resignation she'd wanted to show Owl earlier and casts that out at them instead. That only seems to make it worse. She reaches further, to a memory of Team Seven, herself poised between Naruto and Sasuke with Kakashi-sensei keeping an eye on them. It's a scene full of innocence, and not one she can keep hold of, it runs on quickly. There is the forest, full of enemy ninja and the creepy snake man, then the Sound and Sand invasion. Soon after, of course, is the look on Sasuke's face - scorn and mania. He hoists her up by the neck, squeezes tightly and then brings a hand full of lightning closer and closer to her chest. There's burning agony, the reek of singed skin like popcorn, and then it's through her ribs, through her lung, she's drowning in her own fucking blood and he keeps going. Her mind checks out, or maybe her body does, when his jutsu plows though her heart. But even in oblivion, she can feel the forest around them reaching for her, begging her to stay alive.

Next it's an image of Cat ordering her away from the fight, back past Parrots remains, and she's useles pathetic weak failure better off dead trash

Finally, there is Snapper following her back to his pack, the pack becoming her Pack, the intrusive burning of the wolf healing. There's a sense of belonging throughout all of it, a snapshot of a contract she hadn't been able to read but had likely signed while half dead. Mostly dead. Nearly all the way dead.

So sue her, she's stubborn.

But there's a difference, before and after the healing. In perception, in humanity.

She's lost it. Lostitlostitlostit. BrokenruinedmonsterFREAK.

Anko slaps her out of nowhere, and Bright Guide snarls on pure instict, lets her mask fall and goes for the hand before her thoughts can catch up. Snapper knows it's okay to bite back, but Bright Guide...she should know better. Shouldn't she? She should be human. And she's not.

Someone's hand is cupping her cheek and she's crying again, because her teeth are sharper than they were before, and she wants to use them, and she shouldn't. Again. betteroffdead overtakes her. It is Snappers turn to nip at her, projecting thoughts of Pack and Belonging to drive away the madness. Right, she has a duty to him at least, she shouldn't abandon him. Instead she pulls herself away from the human hand and curls back up against the wolf cub, because it is her turn to shiver. It's not fear, it's cold, her human form is too thin, too cold, all wrong.

Jackal leans in, stinking of even more guilt than before.

"You're just a kid, aren't you? Fuck, on Kakashi- senpai's team? You can't even be fourteen yet! We left a kid for dead? We told a kid to take the kill? What the fuck?"

Bright Guide curls her lips back to show her teeth, because she knows her response to this. She lets him meet her mind to mind again, lets him see her stubborn fury. Ninja. Killerninja.

He sighs, pulling down his own mask to reveal Parrot's chin and eyebrows pasted onto a man's face, his own brown eyes only a few shades lighter.

"Right. So you're panicking. We're freaking out too. We all need to just...relax, okay?"

Bright Guide tries, she really does, and so does Snapper. The overwhelming memories of peace and pack and belonging do help her breathe easier, but then it's all she can think about. Her bones twist again, sharper than before. And then she is looking up at Jackal because she is on four legs, all wolf and not human at all, literally a wolf now. She snarls in frustration because this isn't helping! Then her ears go right back and her tail sinks, and she can't find any human left in her, there's only the absence of it. The girl is nowhere to be found, nor is Wolf. Bright Guide is at the helm.

Snapper, on the other hand, loses all the tension building in his hackles. He snuggles up to her like he fits better, his own exhaustion and the comfort of a full stomach weighing Bright Guide down as well.

Wisdom, she supposes, hadn't meant to tear away her identity. He'd only wanted to heal her, to make her Pack.

A terrified smelling Anko slowly settles down next to her, and then Jackal while Panther moves to take first watch, and sleep encroaches.

She wakes up a wolf without words, but she is with her human-pack, and they are patient with her.
___

It doesn't last. Nothing good does. It's a mission in the Village of Sound that sets their house of cards on fire. There's a traitor to kill, Kabuto, and Wolf who is now a little bit more of her old self does remember him from her chunin exams. The silver haired prick has a ton of information on Leaf Village defenses and guard duty patterns, enough to trigger another invasion maybe. He needs to be taken out before he reaches his comrades.

But Jackal is down.

Wolf turns off to save him from a hail of senbon, taking a few hits herself because she's always too slow, and she loses feeling in her forearms and shins almost immediately. For a moment she is all human, the idiot girl who won't let her teammates die. And then she is Wolf and Bright Guide all at once, and this man is Pack. Her goal is the same. Panther-taichou shouts back for her to Stop fucking around! and his moment of distraction costs him. A sound jutsu sends him flying back into Owl, and they both crash to the forest floor unconscious.

Bright Guide won't leave Pack to die. Neither will Wolf, or the girl. There isn't even a choice to her. She hoists her three teammates over her shoulder with a little chakra to offset the strain, and she shunshins as fast as she can back to the village.
___

"They don't want to see you."

It's the Robin ANBU again, stinking of loathing, with another medic in a bear mask with a physique to mask helping to block the door. Wolf can already tell that if she pushes a little bit more, she'll have a knofe to her throat. She backs down to avoid a fight, and remembers her words at the last moment.

"Why?"

Bear laughs cruelly.

"You failed. "

He doesn't stop there either.

"You failed them, you failed your village, you failed yourself. It would be better for everyone if you took responsibility and killed yourself."

She is a little girl all of a sudden, fourteen years old and draped in an ANBU uniform that is too big for her. Snapper nudges her leg but she doesn't have the heart to reassure him. He starts to bite, furious at her sudden lack of survival instinct, and the other masks chuckle at even the beast turning on the master.

There is a mission waiting for her, the problem can be set aside for another week at least.

Kill a Sand dignitary, the Quartermaster orders, with no team and no backup. Too late, she realises that he stinks of unhappiness, of unease, of disappointment in her. He is just like the rest of them.

It's suicide, and he knows it, and he knows she knows it too. She still takes the missive without complaint and ignores Snapper whimpering by her side. Every minute spent on base is hell, a constant barrage of insults andpetty injuries. She doesn't care how stupidly dangerus the missions are as long as they take her far away.

She doesn't need them. She doesn't need anyone, especially not Alpha Three.

It still has her in pieces though. They cast her out so quickly after claiming her as human-pack, she wonders if wolf-pack will be the same. Still, she doesn't need to think about that sort of thing when she's on the move.

She ends up on four legs sometimes, Snapper thinks it's because she's hurting, at least noone is there to see.

At some point, after maybe thirty missions, or forty, or more than she's bothered to keep track of, she thinks to check in on her parents house. Has her shame reached outside of ANBU? Have her parents suffered? Her parent's home seems a little quiet, doesn't it? Snapper's ears are flat back against his skull and she thinks hers would be too. She pushe pen the door, because it's unlocked, and the kitchen is the first room she comes to.

That's her dad, isn't it? His shirt and trousers stained in a way he'd never been happy about before. His pink hair down to his shoulders, unwashed and uncombed. His reddish-brown eyes glassy, unseeing. From the smell, Wolf realises, he must have been hanging from the ceiling for over a week. She chokes, tears her eyes away and snatches up his death note, only she's so upset that the words seem more like gibberish than they ever have before. She searches the rest of her house instead, finding nothing of her mum. No clothes, no perfume, no shoes. Where has she gone? It's all going to pot, She realises.

Snapper looks at her, begging her to go back to her human-den away from this mess, and for once she follows his lead.

Her apartment block isn't as quiet as she'd hoped. The racket is coming from her corridor too, and when she skids to a halt at the end of it she sees a scene straight out of her nightmares. Snapper's mum, freshsnowsheeticemiddlewinter Winter, is guarding Sakura's door in a small enough form to fit the confines of the corridor. The mother must have been alerted to Snapper's distress and come to investigate. Around the wolf, a horde of ANBU are gathered. All of them are holding kunei, or have their chakra primed for a jutsu, and Winter is already bleeding but doing nothing about it incase the strangers are Bright Guide's human-pack.

Winter has been hit by something big, a fire jutsu, it's taken all the fur off her shoulder, and there's a knife lodged in her throat.

Something wild erupts out of Wolf, familiar, forgotten, uncontrollable. Her chakra takes on shape, feeding the seeds and flyaways stuck to the boots of the enemy, and the trees that never had the chance to sprout beneath the building. Her anger gives life, so much life, and trees tear up the concrete as they grow to entomb the threat. Not entomb, no, the branches are too sharp for that. Wolf launches herself forward to protect Winter, already having failed.

Failure. she's such a failure.

She hauls Winter back through the door of her apartment, slamming it shut, and feels her energy levels drop a little as another tree sprouts to bar the way. She ignores it, wipes a little of her own blood off her shoulder and calls forth her chakra.

Sakura's core is green, so unbearably green, shot through with ribbons of clearest blue and scarred all over just like her. It's also flickering alarmingly, shrinking with each passing moment. She ignores that with practised ease and wrestles it into compliance, reaching out for a wolf she trusts with her life who can help Winter, begging him to come.

Wisdom greets her sadly, and is gone with Winter before the plume of smoke from the first summoning has even begun to dissapate.

Girl-Wolf-Bright Guide can't breathe. She tries to move forward, but her body can't decide between girl or wolf and she goes sprawling. She screams in frustration, only it's a howl, and the dregs of her chakra writhe with it. Branches grow from her very core, breaking through the flesh of her back and shoulders with no regard for the pain it causes her, leaving her wailing like a newborn.

What is this? Why is this happening?

She doesn't know that, but she can think of a solution. Snapper whines piercingly, but he's not helping - she doesn't want her thoughts to hurt him, so she begs him to check on his mother. Maybe he goes, maybe he doesn't.

Her human-pack has rejected her. Her wolf-pack soon will, they have a right to with what happened to Winter. She failed them all. She even failed her own blood, her parents, with one of them swinging from a kitchen light and the other missing for at least a week.

She steels herself, and carefully withdraws her standard issue tanto, grateful for poseable thumbs. She can't remember the words or prayer, can't remember much of anything, but she knows where to put the blade to at least.

It's the right thing to do.
____

"Don't crowd her, you hear me?"

Panther's voice is close, quiet, urgent and shaky. Bright Guide sniffs a little, cataloguing anticipationfearguiltapologyguilt and it isn't enough to warrant movement. There are others too, but she can't find the energy to investigate. She doesn't have to, not when a tiny chubby finger comes closer and closer and prods her right in the gut. Bright Guide's world explodes into agony, and she snaps out of sheer reflex, narrowly avoiding bone as someone yanks the idiot cub away. Shame hits her after a moment, she shouldn't have been so quick to bite a youngling, and she tries to back away. Her legs won't let her.

She starts to panic, choking on antiseptic and gauze, dried blood and too clean chakra, strange scents all mixed with her own. She struggles backwards again, but her human frame gives way, so she lets it twist into the shape of a wolf and hears more than a few human curses as she does so.

"Easy, Wolf."

Panther-taichou mutters, knowing she will hear it. He backs it up with thoughts of peace and calm projected her way, and at the intrusion Bright Guide responds rather poorly. She imagines her teeth tearing out his stupid fucking throat and he takes a few steps back.

Wolf pauses, confused.

She should be dead. She should definitely be dead this time. What is going on?

As soon as she looks a little less threatening, Panther-taichou falls to his knees, bowing so low that his neck is far too easy to reach.

Sorrysorrysorrysorry-

She headbutts him impatiently until he sits back in to a more sensible posture, rolling her eyes exasperatedly. At the surge of human annoyance, she's suddenly on two feet again. The tiles are too cold, and there's a silly gown draped over her shoulders.

Oh, she realises, as more of the grl's sensibilities creep back in. She blushes tomato red and snatches at the material to make it cover her front. Even with that progress, she can't think of the words she needs to say, she settles on a scowl instead.

"Nice to see you awake, brat."

A dog-woman, an Inuzuka with close cropped brown hair and the same fang markings as Panther. Behind her legs crouches a kid who must be hers, crying and cowering in reponse to being bitten. Wolf's chin goes right down, eyes on the floor, and the womn laughs.

"Don't worry, he had it coming. I'm Yuki, Taisuke-baka's wife."

She's pointing at Panther-taichou. Wolf makes an effort to label him as 'Taisuke', but it seems too silly.

"The cub is my son, Yusuke, And this is our clan leader, Tsume-san."

There's another woman, a little older, who smells just as strongly of dogs. Dogs who, Wolf realises, are lurking just outside the room ready to intervene. Tsume-san speaks up for herself after a moment.

"A clan leader is like a pack leader."

Bright Guide is almost immediately torn between showing human respect and wolf respect, should she bow her head or bare her throat? And the pack leader frowns at her obvious dilemma. A moment later Tsume-san yanks Sakura's head straight.

"A member of my pack hurt you."

Wolf shrugs, but is forced to elaborate when everyone in the room stares at her. It takes an embarassingly long time to find the words.

"Not just him."

She wants to say more, to attatch the confusing feeling of the whole world closing in on her, everyone she trusts hurting her pack, losing more and more trust with each passing day, losing her pack.

Tsume-leader sees it written on her face maybe.

"You're like one of our kids. Too touched by the pack. You need to learn human words."

Wolf blushes, she doesn't need it confirmed that she is worlds away from bright bookworm Sakura, now so stupid that she can't even read her own dad's deathnote.

"Hey now, it's happened to all of us. We just need to teach you the bits you've lost. Here, My son Kiba was the absolute worst with human language - his sister Hana was great with him. She can help you too, okay? OI, HANA!"
____

By the time Wolf is steady on her feet, she can actually string a whole sentence together. Snapper, who had dropped in after a few days and refused to leave her side, learned the human words too. He mostly used them to call her an idiot, and he has "grade A moron" so rehearsed that it barely sounds like a growl anymore. He constantly assaults her with images of pack and contentment to try and force her to be happy, and she doesn't begrudge him his efforts. He's scared for her too, for her weakness. Every time she stumbles, he asks if she wants another healing. He's there to catch her with questioning eye and a hopeful tinge to his thoughts, but Wolf can't say yes. Not when the first healing cost her this much already. What would another round do to her, when she already spends most days thinking all wrong.

Wolf keeps the deathnote in her back pocket, she doesn't dare to read it. She can guess enough anyway. Her dad hadn't expected her to come home and find him, he'd not thought she'd come home at all. And hadn't she proved him right?

"So." Hana interrupts, dark eyes crinkled at the corners with hope. "Have you got a name?"

Wolf thinks carefully before answering.

"Bright Guide?"

Hana snorts in disbelief.

"A human name, dummy."

Oh, right. "Wolf?"

Hana stares blankly at the ANBU mask Wolf holds up, and then proceeds to use it to hit her upside the head.

It's actually Hana's brother, Kiba, who solves her problem. He barges out of the house into the garden and freezes as soon as he sees Wolf. She shares his shock, because she does recognise him, from somewhere.

"Sakura?" He exclaims not quite happily, and Wolf who must be Sakura beams back at him before turning back to Hana. Wolf twitches her fingrs in the ANBU sign for victory, realises it's not a loud enough sign for current company, and then catches Panther-taichou twiddling his thumbs in reply in her peripheral. What?

My designation! And her taichou looks up fully in shock.

 

"How can you forget your name?"

 

She shrugs, not quite willing to face that fully, and points triumphantly at Kiba.

 

"Got it back though." Her tongue trips up in the middle, but she manages, and Panther looks at her imperiously.

 

"So what's your surname, then?"

 

She deflates rapidly.

 

"Haruno." Kiba intervenes, like they're both idiots. "Not seen you in a while, thought you'd dropped off the roster."

 

Tsume glares at her brother for ruining the game while 'Sakura' tries to remember what a roster is. Ah, he thought she'd stopped being a ninja. Before she can enter that minefield, Panther forges ahead with his own conversation.

 

"Wolf." He blurts out, moving forward to where she's sitting against a tree with Snapper running around her chasing a butterfly.

 

"Do you remember much of the incident?"

 

Hana tactfully drags Kiba away by the ear at this point, hurridly explaining that Snapper belongs to Sakura, not the clan. Incident, Wolf wonders, and thinks he might mean her attempted gutting. She shrugs.

 

"Do you remember using a strange jutsu?"

 

She wracks her brains for the scenario, Winter bleeding infront of her and the forest bursting through the floor. Oh, she realises, oops.

 

"I got angry. The forest helped."

 

Panther settles down beside her, eying up the cub nervously.

 

"Did the forest use your chakra?"

 

She sinks down in shame, because isn't she enough of a freak? And her taichou pats her reassuringly on the back.

 

"It's an honoured bloodline, only one other person alive has it - and his gift was forced on him. You come by it naturally don't you? But that's not the point- All of ANBU now know that Wolf has mokuton. They tried to kill a comrade with the first lord hokage's bloodline limit- there's a bit of a stir at the moment."

 

She can't grasp the reverence in his voice, it's easier to ignore.

 

"It might be best for you to meet with the new hokage, Lady Tsunade? She's the last Senju. Do you want to set up a talk?"

 

Can she? The failure of ANBU, face to face with the leader of the village. Something of Sakura stirs in her enough that she looks down at the clothes Hana has dressed her up in and groans. She can't meet the hokage like this.

 

"Yuki's clothes might fit you."

 

Wolf squirms uncomfortably.

 

"I don't know what rank I am, outside of the corps."

 

Panther laughs quietly at her, but there's a sadness in his eyes.

 

"To join an assassination squad like Alpha, you have to be atleast chunin. To do any solo s-rank missions, that's jonin work. When the Quartermaster started sending you out on those, he declared you jonin, and that will be in your file. So why don't you ask the Hokage for your flak jacket?"

 

She stares, because surely not?

 

"Trust me, I do sometimes know what I'm doing."

___

Sakura winds up wearing, stupidly enough, her off-duty ANBU uniform. It's a simple enough black tank top and trousers, with chakra reinforced tape wrapped round her shins and matt black armguards secured. Panther-taichou had said the body armour was a bit too much though. And he'd taken some of the tape to her arm too, to hide the tattoo. The only colour left is her vibrant pink hair, although she thinks there are tuft of white showing now, and Hana had taken a comb to it at some point too.

She shunshins to the lobby of the Hokage's tower with Snapper at her heels, not really in the mood for crowds, and spends a little time in the shadows observing all the chaos. Once it hits mid-afternoon, the place seems to quieten down a little, so Sakura approaches one of the desk ninja.

"Haruno-san, is it? It's been a while! Oh yes, I see, you really are overdue a meeting! And, ooh, the Lady Hokage is free for the next twenty minutes. Follow me!"

The odd little man is not put off by the wolf at her side at all, and Snapper really is starting to look more like a wolf and less of a mutated hamster now. Sakura breathes a sigh of relief over not having to talk, because Panther had made her rehearse for hours but she's sure the words won't sound right still. She follows the ninja as he hurries along, elbowing people out of his way, flahing his lanyard to anyone who looks obstructive. He would make a masterful infiltrator, it's a little terrifying.

The Hokage really is free, but Sakura's timing is a little poor. It turns out that what's left o the original Team Seven have tried to take advantage of the time slot too. Sakura is too busy keeping track of the veritable shining storm of Naruto's chakra, Sasuke's own simmering magma shot through with lightning, and Kakahi-sensei's bright orb of pure white energy to notice the desk ninja leaving her at the door. All of their signatures are ready to riot. Oh dear, this really is the worst time-

Snapper nudges her forward stubbornly, plainly broadcasting that she's faced worse fears than this before. As a compromise, she's hit by an image of Wisdom in a cloud of smoke-she knows she can summon him if she need to, she has back-up.

"Oh. And you must be the Haruno Sakura I've been hearing so much about."

The other ninja in the room seem to shrink, and he realises she hasn't actually seen them since her hospitalisation. That's a long time for tension to build, isn't it? She keeps the door at her back, bows respectfully but as quickly as possible with her eyes on the Uchiha, and steps forward so that Kakashi-sensei is the closest to her. The jonin is chalk white from what she can see, Naruto gaping like a fish, and Sasuke is turning an unhealthy shade of purple. Tsunade-sama, for all that she keeps the appearance of a beautiful blonde thirty year old, is every bit as composed as Sakura expects.

"So." Tsunade-sama starts, looking Sakura up and down conspicuously. "When this lot skipped out on you, you slipped straight into into ANBU."

Wolf stutters embarassingly, but the words are in reach thanks to the Inuzuka.

"There was some rehab first. Two months."

The hokage peers at her curiously, suspiscion dawning in her eyes.

"There was a scuffle before you left, huh? How bad?"

She hesitates, the Uchiha right there, Kakashi-sensei looking like someone is killing his puppy infront of him.

"Lightning damage to the heart, lungs and spine." Snapper speaks up for her, the growl in his voice there because he wants it to be.

The folder in Tsunade-sama's hands is in multiple pieces. Kakashi-sensei and Naruto...they don't look like she expected. They look stunned, lost really. And Sakura begins to think there is something horribly wrong with this picture.

Had they known? If not, why not? She peers at them suspiciously. Because that might explain why those two smell just a little bit like pack. Tsunade-sama rifles quickly through a file that must already have been on hand, once, twice, and then he looks up.

"That isn't recorded. Was it conventional treatment? Who arranged it? What did they say?"

Sakura needs a moment to think so far back. The sponsor was quite striking though, old and covered in bandages, he'd held himself upright despite his cane.

"A creepy old dude called Danzo. He wanted to know why the lightning hadn't killed me outright, why I wasn't a total vegetable."

Tsunade-sama, too, looks considering.

"It wasn't a glancing blow?"

Wolf hesisates, and again Snapper flaps his gums impatiently.

"It was through and through. There shouldn't have been anything left. Wisdom-leader says she has her own gifts, and they rebuilt her heart before her body could suffer it's loss. It's why she was still alive at other times, too, but it uses a lot of chakra."

Sakura stares at Snapper because she's never told him anything about this, she doesn't even know what he's rambling about. He projects before she can use any words.

Wisdom looked. It's the forest, it helps you.

She examines the toes half-covered by her sandles.

"There have been other times."

Snapper puffs himself up to twice his size, and he really is getting bigger.

"It's pack business."

"Summons business." The Hokage clarifies, like it matters, and at Snapper's nod the subject is dropped.

"The first time then, if it was before your contract?"

Sakura nods carefully, wary of all the eyes on her.

"When I was in rehab, the doctors had to break open my spine again to get at my lungs, and the anaesthetic didn't work then either. They said it was a miracle. But, um, my spine was a little bit chipped and the shock messed with my nervous system. So I had use of one lung, lost a few ribs, lost full motion of my arm for a while. And the nerves there. They came back though. Um later."

"So why, then, has the Uchiha not been remanded in custody for the attempted murder of a comrade?"

It's scary how politely disinterested Tsunade-sama can look when she smells downright furious. But for the sake of Kakashi-sensei who might-or-might-not be pack, who might not have known Sakura was even hurt, who's scent reeks of self-loathing, Sakura tries anyway.

"Because I'm alive, Hokage-sama?"

"Not good enough."

"Because- the Leaf Village needs to look strong, Hokage-sama? And the Uchiha were fundamental to it's founding."

Oh, Sakura realises, it is nice to remember more than she expects.

That was the work of my grandfather, the First Hokage. My great uncle, the Second, saw them attempting to mutiny and confined them to a compound for it."

Sasuke looks rather like he wants to punch something.

"But he also made the police force up of the Uchiha, so he had to have trusted them to carry out the law."

"Some of them." Tsunade-sama admits, but it look like the conversation is nowhere near finished. Perhaps she wants the object of the discussion to leave the room first, because Sasuke is leaking more killing intent than is advisable in the most well guarded part of the village. There are, Sakura counts, at least four ANBU absolutely ready to take him out. And - is that? She stops holding in her chakra sense, focusing on the mask in the eastern shadows. There is the earth-toned core scarred with old loneliness and flecks of purple betrayal, flickering sadly with guilt. Owl.

An assassin on guard duty?

"Let's return to the duration of yout rehabilitation, after this incident, shall we?"

"Of course, Hokage-sama, two months hokaga-sama."

"And then ANBU."

"Only guard duty, hokage-sama."

"In ANBU."

"Yes, hokage-sama."

"And could you move your arm, by this point? Or use chakra without blowing up your, apparently new, fucking heart?"

Well shit. Sakura has to search for the words, it feels like she's backsliding, but she owes the Inuzuka such a good hunt.

"I avoided the bad tenketsu, hokage-sama."

Tsunade-sama sighs, and Sakura feels the weight on everyone's eyes on her yet again.

"You do realise that it takes chakra control in at least the ninety-fifth percentile to circumvent any tenketsu near the vital chakra points, don't you?"

Sakura can't figure out some of the words, though she knows she's read them before, and she can't let Snapper rifle through her brain infront of witnesses. Instead she shrinks down a little and mumbles about her ANBU file, spelling out W O L F in fingersign as she pretends to fix her belt. The Hokage nods impatiently, and three of the guards on rotation go very, very still. Odd.

Tsunade pulls out a file so thick that the desk bows under it's weight, and Sakura hadn't realised she'd done anything worthy of note. Kakashi-sensei can't take his eyes off her, and this is not going according to plan.

After reading only the first page, the Hokage stops. She stares right at Sakura.

"Copy this." She orders, and lets sharp green chakra ooze over her fingers. Pure chakra, Sakura thinks, with all the elements filtered out. So she needs a clear head. She toys with the chakra in her palm first, then tentatively sends it to her fingertips. There's a hint of too-green earth there, but otherwise it looks okay.

Kakashi-sensei slaps a hand against his face, and the Hokage nods distractedly. After a few pages, she glances up at the boys.

"What are you still doing here? "

Kakashi-sensei has to drag them outside the office, Naruto especially kicking and screaming, and Tsunade-sama returns to her reading.

"Have they stopped eavesdropping yet?"

Sakura scans the area quickly.

"They're in training ground seventeen, Hokage-sama."

Snapper is laughing at her. Why is he laughing?

"So. They're in the training ground on the outskirts, then? About twelve miles east?"

"Um. Yes, Hokage-sama."

Owl, above her, is starting to feel very annoyed.

"It doesn't say here that you're a sensor-nin, Haruno."

She twitches.

"I don't have much range, ma'am."

That earns her a long, hard stare.

"What colour am I? And that's an order now. Tell me exactly what you sense."

Her heart is beating like a hummingbird's and even Snapper seems to realise that something is going wrong, because he tries to use words when Sakura starts projecting lostscaredterrifiedwrongfreaknothuman and Kakashi-sensei takes a step back too.

"She can't right now, I don't think." He isn't too upset by that.

"Why not?"

And now, without the Uchiha in the room, Snapper breaks his silence.

"She's thinking too much like a wolf, it won't fit into human words."

Sakura cringes away from the truth, and attempts to sink down through the floorboards.

"You've been healed by the wolves. After the Chidori at some point. Was it just to speed up your recovery?"

Owl feels petrified, and Wolf spares a thought of something vaguely positive to send that way, in the hopes that something of the human-pack bond still linger. She has to say something, this is her leader. Pack-leader, she wails internally, when human thinking is lost again. And that is a mistake. Her thoughts bubble over against her will, and because the Hokage really is the village-leader, the human pack-leader, they reach the lady.

Wolf remembersnot-breathing, sinking into the snow. She can't avoid the recollection of leading Snapper back to his mother, falling more and more until she hadn't gotten back up, her chakra failing over and over again. Wisdom's rushed contract, the burning agony, and the loss.

ANBU failed you too, huh?"

She doesn't look up. She doesn't want pity, not at all.

"Well done for answering my question though, about your range. Miss three fucking country wide sensor."

Oh, that. Kakashi-sensei is looking at her like she's dropped in from another planet, Owl is choking on disbelief, and honestly this is a little much. Wolf sighs, missing too much to find the right response, and settles on rolling her eyes.

"Toe to toe with my goddamned granduncle, and won't even admit it."

Nope, nope, she is absolutely certain that her range is really not that strange. Anyone could manage it if they looked hard enough, and she's enough of a freak that she won't let this tip the scales even more.

Snapper bites her ankle, hard, glaring. He relents at the Hokage's obvious annoyance.

"So. Your wolf bites you a lot then?"

"Only when she's being a moron." Snapper growls out, and gets ready to take another chunk out of her shin.

"A moron about what?" Kakashi-sensei breaks in, only he looks like he might not want to know.

"Haven't you heard from your ANBU buddies up there? Bright Guide put her comrades lives before the mission. They've spent the past five months giving her hell for it, and sending her on the craziest missions they have. Alone. Forty two s-ranks, wasn't it? Have they paid you yet? Or did they hold off because they were waiting for-"

Snapper cracks, sending forth a painfully clear image of a girl who must be Sakura. She's on the floor of her apartment, except the wooden slats are all covered in blood, just like her. She's slumped over in silent apology, and when the scene jumps forward and a wolf snout nudges her body to the side, her guts start spilling out from the gaping hole in her abdomen. Her chest barely rises, but tree roots writhe beneath her body, forcing her heart to keep pumping.

Sakura can't breathe. She can't remember words, she justs turns on Snapper in wild fury. He was supposed to have gone, he shouldn't have seen - any of it. He bites her ankle this time.

Pack And she can't really be mad at him, but she is downright heartbroken.

He might have broken - well, everyone in the room, now that Sakura looks. She sighs, a little closer to levelheaded, and it's not a good thing. Tsunade-sama snatches a bottle out of her desk, and before Sakura can smell the sake, she's downed the lot.

"Okay, okay, so my most trusted ANBU operatives drove their most promising mask - who also happens to be fourteen years old- to commit ritual suicide. No big deal, right."

She really does not want to be here. Her lips curl back into a snarl as Kakashi-sensei white-fang-dog-nin reaches out for her like she's a ghost, and she is a hairs breadth from sinking her teeth into his wrist.

Owl breaks rotation, signing tentatively from the shadows.

You're losing her

And white-fang-chakra snaps to attention, eying Bright Guide critically.

"Hokage-sama, please, wait. I don't think- I don't think Sakura can follow right now."

The clear-spring-hidden-chakra woman stops babbling at once, and Bright Guide tries to back away again.

"Just how badly did she need healing if she's lost her native tongue?"

Cold-snap-in-the-spring joins in, making strange noises.

"She didn't know her name, until yesterday. You're lucky she came at all."

The two humans stop all at once, the chakra that had built up around them threateningly returning to lower levels, and she's too far gone to read the looks on their faces.

"Are we pack enough?"

"Maybe, you can try. She might take your head off though."

Their minds encroach on her's, cold-snap-in-the-spring staying close so she knows it's safe, is it?

What's missing? What's gone? It's rough, a light sense of sadness to it, attatched to thoughts of scarring and voids, but Bright Guide hasn't talked to anything like pack in so long that she's horribly eager. She doesn't wait to watch them, she just shows them what's changed because of pack. The words, the teeth, the scents and the wrongness. The last thing she lands on is..hard.

Sakura won't eat. She won't. Because her choice is between fresh meat and nothing at all, and all the things her parents had cooked for her are off the table. And her dad is dead and she can't even replicate the bento box he'd made every monday morning because the thought pf rice alone has her puking. Umeboshi might be actual poison. The vegetables are all rot to her.

Bright Guide whimpers because the last time she ate was when Cold-snap-in-the-spring had made his first kill.

Snapper snarls in frustration at this new challenge to overcome, at the source of the sickness clinging to his packmate, and he puts the two humans on the backburner. He aligns his thoughts with Wolf's and he steers her back to hunting. Back to how delicious the deer had been, kicking only a moment before the feast. He fills her so full of the scent and taste that the sense of her starvation rings out to the rest of the pack like a slap to the face.

Her chakra has held it at bay for months, but all of that had gone towards keeping her alive, and now she's left with this. She tries desperately to think of the food that humans should like, the food her dad had so painstakingly prepared sometimes, until her bile is ruining the Hokage's lovely floor. Snapper senses weakness, he throws in the thrill of the hunt and the joy of the pack. and Bright Guide is so terribly hungry. For a fraction of a second she is a starving mad wolf trapped in a stick thin body with bones like twigs, a cramped jaw and a horrible keening whine.

And then Sakura is gone. And Snapper needs to fix this. He pins his now weak pack-mate to the floor because only two-maybe-three humans nearby are pack, and it might not save them, and he knows Bright Guide won't forgive herself later. He casts his thoughts out to find the hunt, so close, because they too can sense her pain, and he physically drags her towards it. Out of the human's territory, to the wilderness.

Nothing is safe from Bright Guide's teeth.

He's heard of a mother who starved herself for cubs for two months, but this...five months. And using chakra all that time. How is she alive? Wisdom-leader brings up the rear, and he does not have a kind answer.

Her organs are shutting down without chakra. She has time to eat, but after that...

A healing?

I'm sorry. It will be crueller.

Will she come back?

The wolf? Yes. The human? She will struggle, drown, suffocate. And then some of her will return. Ready yourself.

Some of her, but not all. Bright Guide already mourns the loss of herself, has fought so hard to reclaim what she can. And to not even eat - she will not want this, Snapper knows, but it is for her own good.
____

"Sakura."

Humans. Bright Guide does not respond, only licks the blood off her paw and waits for leader to take action. Wisdom-leader does not move either, so she probes at him with curiosity.

Human pack, not threat.

Who's human pack? Wisdom-leader glares fiercely at her, and she turns her attention back to the interesting two legs. They're coming closer, too, and the shorter one is making noise.

"Sakura? Can you understand me?"

The human is looking right at her, and mewling like a young cub. Bright Guide stares blankly back for a moment, glances at Wisdom-leader who turns away unhelpfully, and then whines at Snapper. Snapper's blue eyes gaze back sadly, like he knows something she doesn't, and when he opens his mouth it's to imitate the same noises as the humans.

"She has forgotten. There was another healing, more was lost."

The taller one, a man maybe, with chakra that's sharp and white and wild, whimpers now in a way that Bright Guide recognises. It...hurts her, a little. she headbutts his leg to get the noise to stop, but before she can get irritated Wisdom-leader finally gets involved.

Eat, we have left some for you.

Bright Guide wastes no time in bounding back to the carcass, and finds that the pack have barely eaten any of the young ox at all. Confused, she looks for permission again, and is given it. She is far too hungry to risk wisdom-leader saying no, now. And the whole of the beast's chest has been left untouched. She makes quick progress, her teeth designed for this sort of work, and loses herself to it for a time.

The humans are watchiing silently, sadly. Snapper tries to help them with their gibberish.

"Wisdom-leader said she was dying again. From starvation."

The shorter one, older, a woman, nods tiredly, She smells like grief and worry. That won't do at all. Bright Guide shies away from sharing thoughts with strangers, and she can't understand the language Snapper has learned, but there is something she can do to help. She reaches out with her chakra, and lets it fill a cluster of snowdrops by their feet, bringing the flower back to life and then some. Shock radiates from the pair of two legs, disbelief, and it is better than sadness so she goes back to eating.

"Are you shitting me? Mokuton?"

"It's what kept her alive, before."

The woman is leaking from her face, an the man is rigidly still in an unnatural way. Okay, there's one more thing Bright Guide can do to make them stop spilling their unhappiness all over the place. She laments her loss of a full meal, and quietly uses her jaw to drag the carcass closer to the humans, careful to take it by a leg that's already been stripped of meat.

Food is supposed to fix everything, but they only stare at her, before facing each other to argue.

"What, you think slugs can ingest this? You're the one with the dog summons, get on with it!"

The grey haired man with sharp white chakra sighs before moving towards the meal. He pulls down the cloth over his too small face, and he at least looks like his teeth might stand a chance of tearing through flesh. After a beat of hesitation, he crouches down and tears off a chunk of belly a little stiffly, and then he starts to smell not just of weariness but contentment. He likes it! It's working!

At her thrill of happiness and success, both the humans and Snapper twist to face her. Maybe her thoughts spilled over a bit. Are they pack? The man holds up his front legs - his arms, a little uselessly. Does he want to attack? Defend? What?

Not my food.

Comes down the line from him, and it feels so familiar that Bright Guide can't help but bask in it for a moment.

You like it. Yours now.

His glare says he's not convinced, so Bright Guide repeats herself. She sends him her sense of fullness, like she's ready to burst and wants to sleep for a week and her stomach hurts - it doesn't, she hasn't felt like that in a while, but the human doesn't question it. He takes another bite, and is happy, and Bright Guide is overjoyed that she can help her maybe-pack.

"What does she mean, you like it?"

Grey hair swallows before spewing out more strange sounds in response.

"The dogs healed me once too. It sticks."

"And Sakura? How much of this is going to stick?"

"All of it. But maybe we can get some of her back too, if her pack leader allows."

Pack leader, she know those noises. They mean Wisdom-leader. There are other pack leaders too -

Panther-taichou, leader of Owl-Anko and Jackal-with-a-dead-sister.Snapper picks up on it.

"Alpha Pack. Are they okay?"

"On guard duty for the rest of their natural lives, the pricks."

Healthyhappywhole Snapper trills, but Bright Guard is...doubtful. Guilty, she is guilty. Snapper gives her a wave of frustration for her troubles. Even so, it lingers and it hurts. She thinks she should be broken, she should be not whole, she should be dead, and her pack-mate whimpers.

"What's that?"

"She's still sick. She wants to be dead."

White fang, she finally places the man's chakra, leans forward on his knees and keens quietly, It is not a wolf noise but it is painfully close. His thoughts of loss and grief are human but not, and words leak out of him too.

"I've failed you so badly?"

Failed. She knows this. She moves her mouth to try out the human word-but her mouth is the wrong shape to make it. She whimpers, she tries to force it to fit, and all of a sudden everything hurts. She twists and she's too thin, too weak, with her legs facing the wrong way and a snout that can't possibly contain her teeth. That's not the problem, no - her chest is a diferent shape, and she's never had to think about it before, but she doesn't know how to get this body to breathe.

"Don't tell me-"

Black spots dance infront of her eyes, every muscle screams for air.

"Tell her how to breathe! Show her! She can't remember!" The woman screeches as she rushes forward with glowing green hands and sets Bright Guide's heart pounding even faster.

Chest rising falling pulling pushing in out in out. Over and over again, white fang broadcasts. She copies him helplessly,in and out, and he puts her hand to his chest so she can feel the action and do a better job of aping it.

Second nature, it should be. Don't think, just do.

Relief floods her when she finally gets it right, but she can't stop there because it feels all wrong, she has to keep copying. By the seventh breath she might have the hang of it, but by the tenth she's exhausted.

"Do we let her sleep?"

"She might forget the trick of it."

"The trick of breathing?"

Shame fills Bright Guide. How stupid can she be? She can hear the defeat in the man's voice, she know she's the cause, she's such an idiot. Snapper sighs, and nips at her scary-thin leg.

Bad thoughts. He growls, and that's not a good enough reason. She snarls back at him until he pulls away, and his ears twitch oddly.

"Her teeth are sharper than before, she'll find it harder to talk."

White fang nods curtly, and before Bright Guide can protest, he's lifted her up into his arms. He doesn't steal her right away though- he looks to Wisdom-leader, who nods to give permission. He, too, moves his mouth in a human fashion.

"I have healed her as best I can. It is your turn."

Healed? She's been healed? But she feels fine! She's only a little bit hungry. At that, Snapper chuffs at her, radiating disbelief. She bares her teeth at his disrespect and he growls right back.

This is why! You have lost more of yourself, human-pack will bring you back.

I am myself.

There is more of you. Let the two legs help.

She relents, and the humans take her.
____

It takes months.

Sakura tears into her steak so fast she nearly chokes on it, and slows down under Scarecrow's watchful eye, only as the meat goes down she's filled with shame and disgust. She narrows her eyes at the offending steak, and dives in with even more determination, but the shame only builds more. By the time she's staring at empty, bloody hands, she's so uncomfortable she can't stand it.

She has, she realises, just attacked a hunk of meat like a wild animal. And savoured every bite. She is also whimpering in a very high pitch, and her body is all wrong, just like her mind and sense of taste.

Scarecrow is by her side immediately, radiating reassurance and whispering words that Sakura can only just catch. He's saying them so slowly for her, and she can barely understand. Why isn't her brain working?

Sensing her distress, Scarecrow cleans her hand with a wet cloth, avoiding her wickedly sharp nails, and slowly mops up her arms. She relaxes because he is pack, only some part of her only grows more anxious. Shouldn't she be cleaning herself?

"Sensei?" She mutters, nonsensically, and Scarecrow's head whips up, nearly hitting her chin.

"Is that you, Sakura?"

Is it? That is her name, but it doesn't fit. At a loss, she simply shrugs, and the man smiles at her with his one visible eye.

Oh, he'd said that at normal speed, and she'd understood!

"Welcome back, Sakura."

She coughs in embarassment, reaches out of nearly forgotten habit to check that her mask is hiding her face -and it isn't. Her nails scrape against delicate skin instead of porcelian, taking a hefty chunk out of her cheek before her hand is snatched away.

"I guess it was too much to hope you wouldn't want it back, huh?" And the wolf mask is pressed carefully into her hands so she can figure out how to fasten it herself.

"You've got to put some work in to get back into ANBU. Want a little help?"

Training with Kakashi-sensei. She grins. Another expression that doesn't work, but he gets the idea.
____

The Quartermaster hasn't aged a day. He might have reached the limit on that front. He does, however, wither as soon as Wolf walks through the door. There are no greetings exchanged, and the tension slowly builds until the little man loses his nerve.

"Here." He wheezes, thrusting some papers at her, and she take them carefully. Her nails won't file down, and they haven't dulled yet. It would be a shame to injure the poor old geezer. Closer inspection yields favourable results.

She's captain of Alpha Squad Two. No doubt Tsunade-sama's doing, and likely she's had Kakashi-sensei reinstated as captain of Alpha Squad One. They have a long way to go before they can rid ANBU of Danzo's taint.

It's all over headquarters by noon. Wolf is back! Wolf is Captain! And Inu silently laughs at her as she suffers through it from across the mess hall. She gets her revenge, though. She points right at him, so he can't blend in, and the whisperers realise that the legendary Dog is back!

This might make their mission a little harder.