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Sakura was fairly certain that carrots didn’t know they were carrots. Of course, they probably also didn’t worry about having turned themselves into, say, radishes without noticing, so there was a distinct possibility that the operation hadn’t gone as badly as she had feared that it might while she was putting herself under. In fact, her memories from the kage bunshin were quite promising, and all of her post operation test results matched her pre-operation ones.

Of course, it was a kage bunshin so Sakura saw that as a kind of a six of one, half dozen of the other kind of situation, and one that left her exhausted to boot. Kage bunshin were chakra intensive to make, and the operation had gone on longer than Sakura had estimated that it might, the upshot of which was that Sakura had gotten almost no chakra back when her kage bunshin had finally dispersed itself.

With nearly half of her chakra gone to her kage bunshin and the other half to the seal on her forehead, there was effectively none left for Sakura herself, never mind her daily life. She was probably just lucky that she had only managed to give herself chakra exhaustion on top of everything else.

The generally agreed upon cure for chakra exhaustion was rest, which meant that Sakura had to beg off of playing ninja with her cousins. She had also sent one of her younger cousins with short notes to Shimon and Muta. When Kaho had returned bearing their agreement to cancel that week’s practices, as well as the news that Tokuma and Kurenai had apparently taken missions outside of the village, Sakura had gracefully surrendered three of her old dresses, their agreed upon price for Kaho’s services. She hadn’t been using them, anyway.

So, instead of doing anything fun over the break between terms, Sakura stayed home, slept, and sent chakra to the seals on her forehead. Whatever else happened, she couldn’t afford to allow those to fail.

And so it was that Sakura was lying on her tiny balcony and drowsing in the sunshine, when she woke suddenly and completely.

There was someone in her room.

Jerking upright, Sakura flung a handful of blunted practice kunai through the open doorway, the grouping done by habit.

Her hand was still moving, still flinging those useless blades, when Sakura thought, while I’m up, I should check on Sasuke, and then felt dizzy at the total lack of howling agreement from the seed of crazy at the back of her brain; the seed of crazy that she had used a gods be damned shadow clone to cut out of herself.

A crazy scheme to cut out Itachi’s bit of crazy, thought Sakura, even as she flung her second to last practice kunai. So between him and me, who’s really the crazy one?

Sakura found that she’d rather not know.

Another Sakura stepped out of the shadows, her hands full of Sakura’s thrown kunai. As Sakura watched, her very last practice kunai clutched in one hand, the other Sakura melted into a familiar form. Surprised, Sakura blinked at him.

“Shimon,” Sakura groaned, as she lay back against the warm concrete.

It was a good thing that the intruding shinobi was someone friendly to her. Had it been someone unfriendly, Sakura thought that she probably would have died. It wasn’t like she currently had it in her to fall out of the way of a counterattack, never mind dodge it. And her distraction hadn’t improved her response time. Truly, she had been lucky that it had been Shimon who had infiltrated her house.

“That would’ve worked better with real kunai,” said Shimon.

“Haven’t you ever heard of knocking?”

“Who knocks on their own bedroom door? And also? Did you know that your mother will let anyone that looks like you into the house?”

“Go away, Shimon!”

“What’s the point of all that security if your mother is going to just let anyone waltz in through the front door?” continued the older ninja, apparently ignoring her.

“She’s not a ninja,” snapped Sakura. Even talking felt like work. “I am literally the only ninja in the entire history of this family.”

It would never have occurred to her mother to doubt that any Sakura she laid eyes on wasn’t the real Sakura.

“Huh.” Shimon crossed the room, his movements silent. “Well, even a pair of sparrows will occasionally produce a kite, right?”

Despite herself, Sakura smiled at the old adage. Even that ached.

“What are you doing here, Shimon?”

“You missed practice.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s fine. You seem busy. Chakra exhaustion?”

“Only a little bit,” admitted Sakura. “You didn’t have to come all this way to check on me.”

While Shimon lived in one of the newer, more centrally located ninja districts, Sakura’s family home was much further out, as distance was measured in the village. Only a few blocks separated her parents’ home from Konohagakure no Sato’s outmost walls.

“It’s fine,” said Shimon, waving away her words. “I was curious about you, anyway.”

“Why?”

“Why not?” Shimon countered, although Sakura thought that there was probably more to it than that. There usually was. “It wasn’t easy to find this place, by the way. Fortunately, you have a cousin who will sell you out for the price of a haircut.”

Stupid Norio.

“Did you really let Norio cut your hair?” asked Sakura, curious. Norio would have been over the moon. His first real ninja customer!

“Of course not,” scoffed Shimon, his voice much closer now. “Do you?”

“Never.”

“So how did this happen?”

Peeping through her lashes, Sakura saw a concerned expression on his handsome face.

“Medical jutsu,” said Sakura. “The technique was more chakra intensive that I thought it would be.”

“Ah,” hummed Shimon. “Did it work?”

“Yes, I think so.”

She seemed able to hold a semi-intelligent conversation with Shimon, so maybe she hadn’t accidentally turned herself into a drooling vegetable. Or maybe it only seemed intelligible on her side?

“Was it worth it?”

“Yes,” said Sakura, much more firmly this time.

“Well, there’s that at least,” said Shimon.

“Why aren’t you more upset about this?” demanded Sakura.

Had it been Muta or Tokuma that had found her like this, Sakura suspected that she would have been lectured at length. There probably would have been a certain amount of that instensity that Tokuma used instead of yelling in Tokuma’ lecture; obscure insect analogies in Muta’s. Shimon seemed to be taking her chakra exhaustion like, well, like he was Uzushio himself, even though Sakura knew for a fact that he wasn’t.

“Because ninja in our position have to take risks,” said Shimon.

“Our position?” asked Sakura blankly.

Maybe she really had damaged herself, because she couldn’t think of a single thing that she and Shimon had in common, aside from a friendship, training, and a certain admiration of his hair. They didn’t even share an elemental affinity. At least, she didn’t think they did, but she might be wrong about that. After all, she also might be a deluded vegetable now.

“Those of us who don’t have an old, established ninja clan to fall back on,” said Shimon, distracting Sakura from her thoughts.

“I thought you came from a ninja clan too?”

“It’s a newer one,” said Shimon dismissively. “And anything that was unique about us was lost in the kyuubi’s attack. The family library burned, and my parents along with it.”

“I’m sorry.”

Shimon waved a dismissive hand at her.

“Never mind,” he said. “It was a long time ago.”

But it still hurt. Sakura knew that from her own experience.

“Hey Shimon?” said Sakura, while casting about wildly for a change in topic. “Didn’t Kaho give you my note?”

“That littler girl cousin of yours? She did. That’s when I realized that none of us really knew anything about your personal life.”

“What’s there to know?” challenged Sakura, a mere shadow of her usual self. It was hard to work up the proper amounts of energy when sitting up for too long felt like work. Even Inner Sakura was tired.

Shimon smiled.

“Don’t get touchy,” he advised, “or I won’t share my recovery pills with you.”

Sakura began to laugh.

“Some medic nin out of the Uzushio District makes them,” continued Shimon, as he took her hands and hauled Sakura to her feet. “No name worth knowing, but I think she’s got promise. Just make sure that you remember to call them recovery pills. She’s pretty strict about that.”

Leaning against his side, Sakura only laughed harder.

Shimon stayed for awhile longer, fetching and carrying without complaint. Before he left, he asked, his expression troubled, “Are you going to be okay here with them?”

“Yes, of course,” said Sakura, surprised. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well… you have chakra exhaustion. And you said yourself that your family is entirely civilian,” said Shimon, now uncomfortable. “Will they know how to take care of you?”

“Ah, yes, I’ll be fine here,” said Sakura, touched by his concern. “I promise.”

In truth, she’d already been found out, scolded by her parents for overdoing it with her seal work, and teased by several cousins, all of which had come bearing sweet treats and well wishes as well as taunts. Now, she was being coddled by her parents.

Chakra exhaustion, although regarded as a dangerous malady in the shinobi world, was seen as little more than an inevitable, if sometimes inconvenient, childhood ailment in the Uzushio Quarter. Among Uzushio, it was considered little worse than catching a nasty cold; there could be complications, but usually there weren’t. It bemused Sakura to realize that if her parents had been traditional Leaf civilians rather than Uzushio ones, then they wouldn’t know how to care for her now.

I really would have needed Shimon’s concern then, thought Sakura, feeling even further touched by her comrade’s care.

“If you’re sure you’ll be okay,” said Shimon, still hesitating.

Sakura smiled – she couldn’t help it – and nodded.

I really do have a good friend in him.

In him and Muta both; Shimon left that day, but he or Muta checked in on her every day that week. And when they weren’t there, a couple of beetles buzzed around her bedroom – kikaichu, Sakura suspected, keeping an eye on her for their master.

There were a lot of things that annoyed or frustrated her in this new life of hers, but it was nice to know that as much as some things had changed, the most important things remained the same.

Sakura had always been lucky in her friends.

 

 

 

When school had let out, Sasuke had meant to fight with Sakura twice every day, and maybe trick her into sharing some of her techniques with him, as she had that one time. But to Sasuke’s annoyance, Sakura got sick over the break between terms. He caught one glimpse of her, napping on the little balcony attached to her bedroom, and then – since he couldn’t find a way up there to fight her, anyway – left her to get better.

He had his own training to do, after all.

I’ll pull ahead of her while she’s relaxing in the sunshine, decided Sasuke, and nearly smiled at the image of Sakura watching in dismay as he easily surpassed her next term.

With Sakura’s defeat as his goal, Sasuke trained harder than usual over the break. He even tried to read a bit for school at night, when he was too tired to throw again or run through another kata. Rookie of the Year had never been his amibition – it was a stupid title for a stupid kid that had never had any real problems to distract him – but it was a title worth having, if it meant taking it away from Sakura.

One way or another, she would acknowledge him.

Then she would want to train with him.

(And then someday, he would use all of his training and everything that he had ever learned to defeat that man.)

On the first day of the new term, Sasuke woke up feeling excited. Finally, he would get to see the result of all his training!

The Uzushio Quarter was in the exact opposite direction as the Shinobi Academy, but it was towards the former, rather than the latter, that Sasuke ran that morning. When preparing for the break between terms, Sasuke had picked out all the best locations for ambushing Sakura on her way to school – Sakura seemed to like to break into the academy and train there during school holidays rather than using a proper training ground – and it was in one of those locations that Sasuke hid himself, kunai at the ready.

She still looked like hell, but that didn’t stop Sasuke from flinging a full brace of practice kunai at her.

With irritating ease, Sakura slid out of the way of them all. She didn’t even have the decency to jump! And she was smiling.

Scowling, Sasuke flung himself after the kunai.

As always, it was an annoyingly short fight.

Afterwards, as he lay panting on the ground, Sakura leaned over him. Sasuke tensed, his eyes squeezing shut.

Will she? Sasuke wondered, half wanting it and half dreading it at the same time. Sometimes she did it, when he had fought particularly hard or done particularly well against her. To his shame, Sasuke found that he hoped she would. He shouldn’t want her to, because Ita – that man – used to do it, but –

Two fingers gently poked him in the forehead, and Sasuke’s heart twisted in his chest. He both loved it and hated it, when she did that.

His eyes snapping open, Sasuke looked up into Sakura’s face in time to see her smile as she said, “Good job. You’ve definitely improved over this break.”

And, forgetting himself, Sasuke smiled up at Sakura, his heart fluttering in his chest. When she offered him a hand up, he even took it. Together, they went to find his deflected kunai.

He hadn’t beaten her today, but someday he would. It was a crucial step on his path to becoming an Avenger. And when that day came, when he ultimately defeated that man –

“Race you?” asked Sakura, breaking into his thoughts, and Sasuke nearly grinned again.

He was good at being fast, and for answer, he took off running.

Side by side, they raced each other – and the first bell.

 

 

 

Sakura came armed to the new school term with three invites to her twelfth birthday. It wasn’t really her twelfth birthday – after some consideration, she’d decided it was her eighteenth. She’d been nearly seventeen when she died, and she’d lived nearly a year in the past. That, and a little consideration for the whole dying thing put her at eighteen – but there was no way for anyone else to know that.

The last time around, Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji hadn’t been at her twelfth birthday. There was no way for them to know that, of course, and they weren’t going to find out, but as she handed out the invites to Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji, she still felt incredibly nervous.

“It’s not going to be anything huge, like your birthdays,” said Sakura quickly, “and you’ll be the only ninja there, but I hope that you’ll come, anyway.”

Flinging an arm around Sakura’s shoulders, Ino pulled Sakura into a sideways hugs, saying stoutly, “Of course, we’ll be there!” Then, meaningfully, “Right, guys?”

“Yeah,” sighed Shikamaru heavily.

At the same time, Choji asked, “Do you know what kind of food you’ll be serving yet?”

“Choji!” shouted Ino, now lunging for the Akimichi.

“I was just asking!” defended Choji, as he scrambled away from her.

Sakura laughed. This was what she wanted at her last birthday party before Team Seven, just this. After it, things would never be this uncomplicated again.

Ino was still chasing Choji – and Shikamaru, because he’d gotten in on the act – around the school yard when the bell rang, calling the academy’s students to classes. And obediently, they came.

Before the break between terms, all of the setback students had been required to introduce themselves to the inclement weather training group at large. Since then, the twenty-one students that had failed to keep their forehead protectors had been split among Sakura’s class and the two classes a single term behind them at the academy. Officially, their placements were supposed to have depended on how they’d done on their survival training with their prospective jounin sensei.

Sakura doubted that, mostly on general principle, but that morning, four setbacks had formally introduced themselves to her class, and Naruto had not been among them.

Where is he? Sakura wondered. And despite herself, even despite knowing better, she hoped.

It wasn’t like Naruto to just not show up – not unless he’d left the village entirely, that was. But it was much too early in the timeline for Jiraiya-sama to take Naruto on as his general traveling companion and nominal apprentice. So, maybe he’d been randomly assigned to one of the other classes this time?

Sakura hoped harder.

And Naruto’s wasn’t the only familiar face missing from class that morning. Kiba and Akamaru hadn’t shown up for school either. That was also unusual.

And probably connected to the lack of Naruto around here, Sakura decided. If she remembered rightly, those two idiots had been teammates during inclement weather training. Something is going on.

But, as Sakura couldn’t do anything about it – or even ask questions, not while that Sarutobi kid was loudly making sure everyone knew how lucky they were that he’d been setback – for the time being, she pushed the matter from her mind. Just then, she had bigger fish to fry: namely, the term’s placement exam. Sakura was determined to hold onto her spot – and so, it seemed, were Sasuke, Shino, and Ino.

There wasn’t much change in the class’ rankings going into their third – and final – term at the Shinobi Academy, save among the civilian-born. Sasuke, who had gone up a few places on the academic side of things, held onto his spot as the number two in their class in combat skills; Shino, his spot as the number two in academics; and Ino, as the number two over all in their class. And Sakura, despite her current condition, managed to hold onto her top ranked spot in everything.

By the end of the afternoon, Sakura was the only civilian born academy student still enrolled in her class at the academy. Last time around, Sakura had been proud to have outlasted them all. This time, she wasn’t. Sakura no longer compared herself to the bottom of the barrel. Now, she had her eyes fixed on higher stars.

The next morning, Kiba was there… and so was Naruto. Looking at Naruto, Sakura nearly cried.

“How did they even get placed?” Sakura demanded of no one in particular, her misery turning swiftly to anger. “They weren’t here yesterday. They’ve failed the placement exam, and they should’ve been set back!”

“It’s not a rule,” argued Ino from her place beside Sakura. “It’s more of a… suggestion.”

Yeah, if you’re clan affiliated, thought Sakura sourly.

“They’re not getting away with anything,” added Ino, perhaps arguing with the emotions she could no doubt feel radiating off of Sakura. “They got slotted into the lowest ranking spot among the passes. It ruins Shikamaru’s record. He’s actually pretty mad about it.”

Sakura didn’t doubt it, but she was pretty mad at Kiba, Naruto, and all the relevant academy instructors too. If Naruto and Kiba had been set back a semester, like Sakura herself likely would have been in their place, then Sakura would have escaped Team Seven, for sure. As it was, the threat of her former genin team loomed larger than ever over her.

Stupid, Sakura thought, now glaring at an oblivious Iruka-sensei. If looks could kill… well, she’d probably have the sharingan, maybe even the legendary rinnegan. Instead, Iruka-sensei hardly even seemed to notice. So incredibly stupid.

With half an ear, Sakura listened to Naruto’s blustery self introduction, then spent the rest of the morning working industriously on her Long Distance Creation Rebirth Transmission Technique, while the academy instructors taught the usual things to the usual people. Afterwards, they broke for lunch.

It was still too cold to eat outside, so everyone was once again confined to the classroom. To Sakura’s bemusement, the lunch groupings had shifted again, and in a new way, no less.

Shino, Hinata, and their assorted cousins had moved to sit down the row of desk from Ino, Choji, and Shikamaru’s group, instead of sitting by themselves at the back of the room as they had all last term. Shikamaru, who seemed to be napping on his forearms, opened one dark eye to briefly study the location of the Aburame and Hyuuga children, so the closer proximity probably meant something to the clan kids. All Sakura got out of it was that the two groups were both probably pretty confident that the other couldn’t or wouldn’t poison them.

Or maybe the possibility of poison hadn’t occurred to them? They were all still pretty young. But as Shizune’s kohai, Sakura felt that was a mistake. A crafty and determined poisoner could get you anywhere and at anytime, even if you were, say, sleeping behind all the security seals that you had stolen from the Hokage’s office specifically to keep her out – not that Sakura was speaking from vast personal experience or anything. And Ino, while not yet the crafty or determined poisoner that she would someday become, had already begun learning her clan’s poison formulations, although Sakura wasn’t supposed to know that yet.

At any rate, Hinata and Shino’s group had never shown such an overt interest in Ino’s group before; at least, not since Sakura had started paying attention to such things. They were now, and it probably mean something to someone who wasn’t Sakura.

Sasuke still ate alone, as did a handful of others, including Naruto. The first time around, Sakura had been one of those loners. This time, Ino had tugged Sakura down next to her, forcing the rest of the group to form around her, Sakura, Shikamaru, and Choji.

It was heartening, of course, that Ino still cared about her so much, but Sakura had a feeling that it was a pointed comment to… someone about something; probably not her, though. Ino knew very well that Sakura had no understanding of intra-clan politics. Sakura was fairly certain that had been made abundantly clear at Ino and Shikamaru’s birthday parties, though she was probably going to reemphasize that point at Choji’s bash in May. This year, at least, she was fairly certain that she was going to get an invite to it.

It’s too bad that clan politics don’t necessarily follow the village’s politics, thought Sakura, her mouth briefly twisting. If they did, I’d be so good at them! Or at least… better.

As a sitting Hokage’s apprentice, a keen interest in intra-village politics had been a necessity, as had an interest in those politics played between the Hokage’s office and the daimyo’s court and those between the various hidden villages. In any of those games, a sitting Hokage’s apprentice was a strong piece, one that needed to be taught her moves. Tsunade-shisho, Shizune, and even Shikaku-san had all been willing teachers, explaining even as they had moved her around the various boards. There, at least, she had usually had some idea of what was going on and why, at least at the surface and immediately underneath it. Underneath that, though, she had still been learning.

But still learning or not, Sakura had been better equipped to face those games than the ones her clan-affiliated classmates played with each other, which sadly still remained a mystery to her. Luckily for her, this time around she still had Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji to escort her around the board, even if none of them seemed inclined to explain it to her.

Whatever her friends’ reasons for it, Sakura soon found herself perfectly positioned to listen with ostensible disinterest as two of Shikamaru’s cousins whispered to each other, commiserating over the cruelty of their parents. Apparently, they were being forced to help harvest ingredients to make medicine for a plague somewhere. Sakura found that tidbit of information far more interesting than they did.

After lunch, the instructors announced a new training exercise, one that they definitely hadn’t done the first time around.

I would have remembered that, Sakura thought, exhausted, as she trudged back to the showers with Ino afterwards. And I would have hated it.

The taijutsu exercise had basically been an extended game of king of the hill, one presided over by Iruka-sensei and Mizuki-sensei. It was a game that Sasuke had started, and Sakura had finished.

By the end of it, Sasuke was glaring at her, and Naruto was glowering at him. As the then-reigning king, Sasuke had defeated Naruto as one of his challengers. A handful of matches later, Sakura had dethroned Sasuke in turn. Unlike Sasuke, though, Sakura had held onto her crown against all comers until the end of the game.

Long live the queen! Sakura thought, pleased with herself for winning, despite the exhaustion tugging at her bones.

But what else could she have done? No way was she going to lose her class rank! She had her pride as a chuunin to think about! And anyway, winning hadn’t required anything in the way of chakra expenditures on her part, just strategy, skill, and a certain amount of ruthlessness. If they had required the students to actually use any of their basic three ninjutsu in their matches, Sakura would have been sunk, though, and judging by the teachers’ expressions, they knew it just as well as she did. She was still that low on chakra.

And so, it was with a grateful heart, that Sakura was dismissed from school for the day. Avoiding Sasuke and Ino’s ambushes alike, Sakura dragged herself straight home to bed. And there she slept, until it was time to get up and get ready for school the next day.

That morning, Sakura and her classmates drew lots to determine team captains for the obstacle course. Sakura cheated horribly, but then so did everyone else, including the teachers. She just did it better. A little more cheating – on Ino’s part this time, plucking the number that Mizuki-sensei was thinking from his surface thoughts and then tapping that number into Sakura’s palm with her forefinger – and Sakura got to pick first out of all the team captains.

“Ino!” trilled Sakura, and grinning like the cat that caught the canary, Ino moved to Sakura’s side. On her next picks, Sakura chose Shikamaru, Choji, and Naruto.

At that last name, Ino grimaced.

“Sakura! Why him?” hissed Ino, her voice nearly drowned out by Naruto’s cheers. He was utterly delighted not to have been chosen last for once, and he was showing it by gloating about how his team, the team of the great Naruto-sama, was going to beat all of the other teams. Believe it!

It wasn’t making their team any more popular than it already was.

“Because we have to have teams of five,” said Sakura blandly.

“But him?” pressed Ino. “Hinata would have been a better choice!”

“We won’t win with him,” said Shikamaru in an unhappily undertone. For all that he made a show of laziness, Sakura knew that he liked to win as much as anyone else.

“I heard from some of the others that he’s already failed to make genin twice,” said Choji around a chip, and Ino clicked her tongue, openly annoyed.

Ino grabbed Sakura’s shoulder and leaned on it, hard, snarling, “Sakura! Tell me! Why him?”

“Later!” snapped Sakura, as Naruto bounced over to them.

Looking at him, Sakura didn’t feel murderous, at least no more so than usual. Instead, she felt her stomach sink. It had been a long time since Naruto had last looked at her like that. She hadn’t missed it.

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto! And I’m going to lead us to victory! Believe it!”

Ino glared at her. The look that she shot Naruto should have curdled his blood in his veins.

“Listen up,” said Ino harshly. “This is only going to work one way. You’re going to do everything we say.”

“I don’t have to listen to you! You’re not even the team captain!”

“But I am,” said Sakura, interrupting. “And what I say goes.”

Naruto frowned, but before he could say anything, Shikamaru sighed as if deeply put upon, saying “Fine. You win. We’ll do what you want… Sakura-taicho.” Then to Choji, “It’s so troublesome.”

After the slightest of hesitations, Choji nodded, saying solemnly, “But there can be only one captain, and Sakura did win it. It’s only fair.”

It was a simple manipulation, but it seemed to work. Naruto’s expression cleared and he nodded, but before anyone could say anything else, Iruka-sensei was shouting at them to listen up. The class quieted down, listening hard as Iruka-sensei outlined the rules. They were more or less the same every time, of course, but sometimes particular rules gave clues as to what sorts of obstacles the teams would be facing. Afterwards, each team was assigned to a starting block.

“Swinging jump and floating poles,” said Ino in an undertone, as Sakura’s team made their way to Team Red’s starting location.

“And probably some sort of courier component,” added Shikamaru, his voice just as low.

“That’s what I heard,” agreed Sakura. Pointing at Ino, she said, “You’re number one this go around. Shikamaru is two, Naruto is three, Choji is four, and I’ll be five, okay?”

The Ino-Shika-Cho formation nodded, but Naruto frowned.

“Iruka-sensei said the whole team had to complete the course to win,” protested Naruto.

“It’s the order that we’ll go in as we tackle the obstacles,” said Sakura. “The only exceptions are walls. Then I always go up first and Choji always goes up last, because we’re the strongest. We’ll get everyone else over.”

“I don’t need anyone’s help getting over the walls! I can do it myself! Believe it!”

“Of course you can,” scoffed Shikamaru. “Everyone can. The point of the obstacle course isn’t to measure what we can do as individuals; it’s to gauge our teamwork. And for our team, it’s quicker if Choji and Sakura help us over the walls.”

“When we four are on a team together, we always win,” said Ino sharply. “Don’t drag us down, Naruto. Stick to the order. You go after Shikamaru and before Choji.”

Naruto folded his arms across his chest. “Fine,” he said sulkily. “But I want to go first.”

“Ino has to go first,” said Sakura. “It’s an important job, and she knows how to do it. If you pay attention, then maybe you can go first another time.”

“On every other team that I’ve ever been on, everyone got to go wherever they wanted in the formation,” complained Naruto.

“Yeah, and that’s why they lost,” sneered Ino. “Don’t screw this up for us, setback.”

Naruto slouched a bit lower, his arms tightening across his chest. His lower lip jutted out. It had been years since Sakura had last been on a team with Naruto, but she found that she knew that pout. That idiot wasn’t going to follow the plan.

But then, that’s why I put myself last, isn’t it?

Choji was a great anchor man when it was just herself, Ino, and Shikamaru on a team, but at eleven, he hadn’t had the confidence or the skill to deal with someone like Naruto. Shikamaru and Ino had the confidence, but they lacked the patience. Last time around, Sakura hadn’t had enough patience or skill for him either. This time around… she still wanted to pummel Naruto into the ground, truth be told; Sasuke too. But she would settle for running as far away from them as possible… while still being able to look at Sasuke and see that he was okay any time that she wanted.

Damn Itachi and his damn behavioral modifications! Sakura thought, her mouth pulling down into a scowl.

Unfortunately, of anyone in their year at the academy, she might literally be the only one currently in possession of both the confidence and the patience needed to deal with the village’s number one knucklehead. If Naruto was going to learn anything before he graduated, it was probably going to be on her to teach it to him.

It was a depressing thought.

Almost as depressing as our ranking is going to be after this exercise, thought Sakura, scowling. She could feel it in her bones.

If this little team of hers won – and that was a big if, thanks to Naruto’s presence on it. The odds against their team were now unforgiving – then it wouldn’t be pretty. It would be like every other mission that Team Seven had ever successfully completed: a disaster that somehow, miraculously, turned out right, probably in spite of her teammates’ best efforts.

Honestly, Sakura wasn’t pulling for it. Miracles had never been her forte. Sakura’s achievements had always stood on a solid foundation of hard work, dedication, and determination.

But I’ve got Team Ten with me this time, thought Sakura, trying to buck herself up. That has to count for something. Right?

Sakura had the sinking suspicion that she was about to find out.

 

 

 

The less said about the first part of the training exercise, the better. Honestly, if Ino hadn’t been so busy arguing with Shikamaru that she slipped, fell backwards off of a climbing rope, and landed on Naruto’s face fist-first, accidentally knocking him unconscious, their team definitely wouldn’t have had a hope of placing, never mind coming first. That Shikamaru had, at nearly the same time, leaned out of the way of said falling kunoichi and her striking fist was really impressive. If Sakura hadn’t known better, she would’ve suspected Ino of using her bloodline limit to coordinate the whole thing.

Their teamwork is amazing! Even now, it can’t be beat, not even by Naruto.

He was just so shitty at working with anyone! Naruto even had trouble working with Choji, and they didn’t make ninja more laidback than the Akimichi heir. It certainly hadn’t helped that, at the first available opportunity, Naruto had ignored their team’s plan, overtaken Shikamaru, and started boasting about how he was definitely going to be first now. He had been second on the climbing rope, instead of third, which was where he was supposed to be, because he was trying to overtake Ino, when she’d had her little fist-first mishap.

But between Ino’s uncharacteristic, if remarkably well aimed, clumsiness, Choji’s willingness to help Sakura lug Naruto up, down, and around the course while running at full speed, and Ino and Shikamaru’s willingness to fill in the gaps that left in their team’s usual formation, they managed to take first against all odds.

Frankly, the surprising ruthlessness of this littler Ino-Shika-Cho formation made Sakura feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It was like working with echoes of who they were going to grow up to be. Sakura liked it. She liked it a lot.

She also liked winning a lot. Sakura knew that she probably should have been at least a little embarrassed by that, but as one that had inherited her master’s hatred of losing on top of her own innate sense of competitiveness, Sakura couldn’t quite manage to scrape any of that up. Mostly, she felt happy and relieved that Naruto hadn’t managed to sink them.

As it was, she checked Naruto’s head again for damage, found none, and then helped Choji carry him to the school medic’s office, where the school’s assigned medic nin performed the same jutsu on him, then held Naruto back from class just in case.

Sakura nearly snorted. Naruto needed every minute of classwork that Iruka-sensei could cram past his thick skull, just in case he ever actually graduated.

On their way back to the training course, Sakura congratulated her remaining teammates on their win.

“Yeah, well, no thanks to you or Naruto,” snapped Ino, flipping her lengthening blonde hair at Sakura.

“Ino,” said Choji. “That doesn’t really seem fair. Sakura –”

“Picked him!” interrupted Ino. Then, to Sakura, “I thought you hated him!”

“At graduation, the highest score gets paired with the lowest,” said Sakura mildly. “I wanted to see what I was in for, before it really mattered.”

Ino rolled her eyes at Sakura. “You don’t really believe that, do you?”

“My dad says that’s more of a guideline than a rule,” offered Shikamaru.

Sakura wondered how that had come up between Shikamaru and his dad. Had Shikamaru been worried that he might get paired with her rather than Ino and Choji? Thinking about it, Sakura found that she wouldn’t have minded having this little Shikamaru for a teammate.

“Maybe for clan heirs,” said Sakura, her tone perhaps a touch harder than she intended. “Things are different for first generation ninja.”

“Not that different, Forehead!” protested Ino. “Teammates are chosen to compliment each other!”

Sakura snorted. She and Sasuke had, from a certain perspective, perhaps complimented each other on paper, but Kakashi and Naruto hadn’t been chosen to compliment her skills, deficiencies, or goals. Kakashi had been chosen for Sasuke – and Naruto, albeit for different reasons – but definitely not for her. Sakura had always been, at best, an afterthought on Team Seven.

“First generation ninja are chosen to compliment the bloodline limits and politics already assigned to a genin team,” said Sakura. “No matter where I rank in the class, I’m going to be a filler, Ino. Three weeks after we graduate, everyone will have already forgotten that I was Number One Rookie for our class. And given his test scores, as well as his general popularity in the village, I’m going to be paired with Naruto, when we graduate.”

And given his parentage, as well as what was sealed behind his belly button, Sakura could only think of two or three jounin that might be able to handle Naruto, only two of which Sakura knew for a fact were currently without genin squads of their own. Of those two, Sakura knew, one wasn’t really an option. Whether it was because the Sandaime had never really trusted him or the origins of his abilities, Captain Yamato wasn’t going to be assigned her and Naruto as students. Even with his abilities and Tsunade-shisho’s full support, there had been grumbling when he had been assigned as captain of what had been until then Team Kakashi.

Still, thought Sakura wistfully, it would’ve been nice to serve under Captain Yamato again.

“They’ve still got to drum out six more kids before the end of the term, and Choji says that he’s already failed twice,” said Shikamaru presently, breaking into Sakura’s thoughts. “He’ll probably be gone before we take the exit exams.”

“That’s like saying they’d fail Sasuke out of the ninja corps for poor pen and paper scores,” scoffed Sakura. “Uzumaki is an old ninja clan, and it carries maybe three or four bloodline limits. No way, they’re going to fail Naruto out of the ninja corps. If he wants to be a ninja, then they’ll let him keep trying until he makes it.”

Even if he wasn’t the Yondaime’s son, Naruto’s spot in the academy would have been assured by virtue of being the village’s only living Uzumaki. As he was both the only child of Yondaime Hokage and Uzumaki Kushina, his place in the Shinobi Academy was practically inviolable, no matter how he scored on anything. Short of murdering Hinata with his bare hands and in front of at least three witnesses, there was very little Naruto could do to get himself kicked out.

“I didn’t know that Uzumaki was a ninja clan or that it had bloodline limits,” said Ino, her frown deepening. “How do you?”

“They were one of the founding ninja clans of Uzushiogakure,” said Sakura, shrugging. Easily, she hoped, despite the foreboding prickling its way up her spine. Sticking to the truth, she continued, saying, “People here tell stories about Senju Hashirama’s trees and Uchiha Madara’s organ thefts and Senju Tobirama’s seals. People from Uzushiogakure tell different stories, ones about Uzumaki Mito and Hoshigaki Kai and Odawara Kanon.”

Most of the stories were about legendary lost seals and the seal masters who invented them. Most, but not all; Hoshigaki Kai, for instance, was said to have been able to track a target across the breadth of the ocean on the strength of a single drop of blood, and Fushimi Kameo was storied to have sealed the aspidochelone, turning the sea monster from a marine terror into an aerial one, although no one had seen the giant flying sea turtle since the fall of Uzushiogakure.

“After a certain point, you begin to notice things,” added Sakura, “even if they aren’t directly said. The Uzumaki have bloodline limits, and they carry a lot of them.”

“It makes sense,” opined Shikamaru, although he was frowning. Choji just looked troubled.

Then they were back at the obstacle course, and much to Sakura’s relief, there was no room for further discussion about Uzumaki Naruto or anything else during their teachers’ debriefing.

I’ve got to be much more careful about what I say to those three!

Afterwards, Iruka-sensei dismissed them for the day and, still tired, Sakura took herself home to bathe and sleep, waking just long enough to eat dinner that night.

Aside from her lingering tiredness, though, everything was much the same as it had been the previous two terms. Classes were certainly louder, though. Naruto had no indoor voice woth mentioning, and after he got comfortable in their class, he seemed determined to reclaim his mantle as the class clown. And he and Kiba kept picking at each other – which always somehow ended up involving everyone around them – much to Iruka-sensei’s very vocal disapproval.

By then, though, even Shikamaru was sitting up and glaring at Naruto. Apparently, not even he could sleep through the racket.

For herself, Sakura was thoroughly annoyed. With all that going on, it was impossible to concentrate properly on her work. Giving it up as a lost cause, Sakura put her notebook for the Long Distance Creation Rebirth Transmission Technique aside for the time being. Listening with half an ear to Iruka-sensei’s lecture – it wasn’t any more interesting now than it had been when she had first woken up in this body, nearly a year ago now – Sakura put her hands between her knees. Her fingers shielded from casual inspection by her legs, as well as the front panel of their shared desk, Sakura practiced the hands seals for the one earth jutsu that she knew, flexing her chakra at the end of each complete set without actually invoking the jutsu. To learn to invoke a technique without using all or even most of the associated hand seals took a lot of practice.

If this keeps up, thought Sakura, as Iruka-sensei began roaring at Naruto and Kiba yet again, it’s going to be a very, very long term.

And from prior experience, Sakura already knew: this was definitely going to keep up.

It was nearly the end of the day, when Iruka-sensei announced sign-ups for shadowing assignments. At his words, an excited ripple ran through the classroom. Whether you made genin or not, shadowing was widely considered to be one of the best perks of making it to the final term at the Shinobi Academy.

Last time around, Sakura’s name had been one of the first called for sign ups. With practically her pick of the shadowing assignments, she had done hers in the aviary. Sakura had loved it, and even spent a few months spinning out fantasies of working there someday. Then she’d made Team Seven, and her dreams had gradually changed, shifting away from the aviary in favor of other goals.

When her life had imploded, Sakura had taken as many of the division’s D-ranks as she could get her hands on. Unlike many of the missions accepted by the mission office, those sent in by the aviary could be done by one genin just as well as three, provided that the lone genin had some time on her hands. Alone in the world and suddenly entirely responsible for herself, Sakura had found that she had a great deal of time on her hands and a fierce desire to eat three meals every day.

Later still, as the sitting Hokage’s second apprentice, Sakura’s understanding of the aviary and how it functioned had been invaluable.

Her memories of the place were fond enough that Sakura’s first thought was to shadow there again. But as Iruka-sensei called students up one by one to choose their assignment (and then leave), Sakura found that she had plenty of time to rethink her selection. While it would have been fun to do another round at the aviary, it might be more productive to go elsewhere for her shadowing assignment. Not the hospital, Sakura already knew a lot about that place, but perhaps somewhere else, somewhere that she was less familiar with.

When her name was finally called, Sakura went to see what was left on the sign up sheet. Not a lot, as it turned out, because Iruka-sensei had called her name so much later than he had the first time around. The aviary was long gone, so it was a good thing that Sakura hadn’t had her heart set on it. Running her eyes down the list, Sakura found that of the remaining potential assignments, it was the positions with the Green Division, the Inuzuka Veterinary Clinic, and the Wall Guard that peaked her personal interests.

Professionally, she was very interested not only to see that runner for the Council of Elders was on offer as a shadowing assignment, but that Yamanaka Fu and Aburame Torune had filled both of those slots. As she remembered things, Yamanaka Fu and Aburame Torune had both been staunch supports of Danzo’s. Even by the harsh yardstick that ROOT used to measure its members, their devotion to Danzo had been extraordinary.

Is this how Danzo hunts for new recruits among the clans? Or has he already made contact? Is this just to solidify the bond that already exists between them? Sakura wondered. And does the academy keep these sign up sheets as some sort of record? Is there a folder somewhere filled with past sign up sheets? I’d be very interested to see who signed up as runners for the Council of Elders in previous years. Maybe I’d find Uchiha Itachi’s name among them.

“Haruno,” prodded Iruka-sensei, and Sakura hastily jotted her name down next to the Green Division’s offer.

While the Inuzuka Veterinary Clinic appealed to her curiosity as a medic nin, and it might have been fun to spend a week shadowing Muta and Shimon on the wall, it was the Green Division that she thought might best aligned with her current ambitions. After all, they were the ones that took care of the village’s trees, as well as its training areas, green spaces, and lawns. Sakura was especially interested in how they nutured and cared for the trees, particularly the ones of the Shodaime’s design.

And then, maybe I’ll finally be able to grow one of my own, thought Sakura, as she passed the pen back to Iruka-sensei.

At home, Sakura’s mother was pleased that she’d chosen such a sensible and safe mini-apprenticeship – she’d been exactly the same way about Sakura’s aviary assignment, the first time around – while her father made terrible jokes about it.

To Sakura’s surprise, though, it was her cousin Tadashi that was the most excited about her assignment. He was far more excited than Sakura herself, and she was the one who had chosen it. Sakura had mentioned it to Tadashi during her weekly game of ninja with her cousins, and the next day, Tadashi appeared on her doorstep with an armful of folders.

“I thought I could maybe help you make a good impression,” said Tadashi awkwardly, and bemused, Sakura nodded.

Tadashi, it turned out, loved the village’s trees, especially the Shodai’s massive legacies. Sakura hadn’t ever known that about him.

“You did your shadowing in the Green Division, didn’t you?” said Sakura, although the answer to that was abundantly obvious. Where else would he have gotten his information? “Why didn’t you go into it after school?”

“Because we’re not part of a ninja clan,” said Tadashi. “I would have had to at least make genin to care for the village’s trees.”

“You would have?” Sakura frowned. “No, that can’t be right. They’re not ninja in the Green Division.”

“You know that thing that ninja do where they walk up walls?” said Tadashi. “They teach that to all genin. It’s a required skill for employment in the Green Division.”

And without a ninja clan to teach him, there was only one place that Tadashi could have learned tree or water walking: his jounin-sensei. But, like all the rest of their clan, he hadn’t graduated the academy, which meant that he’d never been assigned a jounin-sensei, which ultimately meant that he hadn’t been able to apply for a position in the Green Division.

“I’m sorry,” said Sakura, meaning it.

In peacetime, Konohagakure’s Shinobi Academy valued a very narrow set of skills. In wartime, it valued even less. All of those Uzushio children with their excellent chakra control that had been failed out of the academy in peacetime would have been graduated early in wartime, as meat for the grinder. For them, there had never been a true way forward in the shinobi world. There hadn’t been for her either, not without Team Ten, Asuma-sensei, Tsunade-shisho, Shizune, and whole lot of luck.

“It’s not so bad,” said Tadashi, dragging Sakura back into the present. “I like being a carpenter too.”

“Good,” said Sakura. Tugging a diagram closer, she asked, more for his sake than her own, “Could you explain this one again to me?”

And once again, Tadashi patiently explained the care and feeding of saplings to her.

I’m going to nail this assignment, thought Sakura happily. At least, she would if Tadashi had anything to say about it.

 

 

 

All told, Sakura liked her shadowing assignment. It wasn’t as much fun as the aviary had been, of course, but the people had been nice, and they had been more than happy to answer her many, many questions about the structure and growth of various plants, but most especially the various trees around her. To repay them, Sakura had been more than happy to work extra hours in the greenhouses, helping to pick and bundle herbs, dry them out as necessary, and process them into their desired forms.

Originally, Medicines and Supplements had been one of Sakura’s areas of study on her way to the rank of Master Medic Nin, and she had produced her training supplement in pursuit of her mastery of it. So, she couldn’t help but notice that all of the plants that she had been asked to work with were used in pain management, fever reduction, and producing antiseptic. Whether it was for the hospital or whatever assignment those Nara cousins’ parents had caught, Sakura didn’t know. But the quantities contracted by the hospital had been quite large – alarmingly so. Sakura tried not to speculate, but it seemed like they were processing ramp up or outbreak quantities of materials. Either had the potential to be disasterous for the Leaf.

At the end of the week, Sakura returned to the Shinobi Academy amid rumors of a big contract going to the village’s hospital, of all places. The parting with the Green Division was friendly, though, on both sides of the relationship.

With her new knowledge under her belt, Sakura began revising her approach to growing trees herself. Well, she did when she could complete an entire train of thought. With Naruto’s addition to her class, school had gone from a dull if ultimately productive experience to an entirely frustrating one.

To add insult to injury, Sakura still found herself staring at Sasuke more often than not, and thanks to Naruto, she couldn’t even try to distract herself from her unwanted habit. He was just so disruptive! And that annoying!

She also found herself glaring at Naruto almost as often as she found herself watching Sasuke, and the only reason that she was reasonably confident that it was no doing of Itachi’s was that she wanted to smack and maybe yell at Naruto, not kill him with her bare hands.

Honestly, the most constructive thing that she could do with her school hours was to practice the chain of hand seals that Shimon had taught her. She repeated it over and over and over again under the cover of her desk and knees, flexing her chakra at the end of it to give herself the sensation of having invoked the jutsu. She could do the jutsu, Shimon had made sure of that, but Sakura wanted to be able to invoke it without using hand seals, just like Kakashi-sensei.

It was a relief when, about two days after her mini-apprenticeship with the Green Division had ended, the academy’s headmaster called her out of class. Expecting another lecture, albeit from a new quarter, Sakura nevertheless went gladly; between Iruka-sensei’s seemingly ongoing determination to be wrong about seals in his annual lecture on the topic and Naruto’s ongoing antics – he apparently found the lesson as boring as she did, probably for different reasons, though – it had been a more frustrating lecture than usual for Sakura.

Gesturing for her to follow, the headmaster turned and led Sakura down the academy’s wide main corridor. Grateful for the save, Sakura walked docilely at his side. And in the refreshing silence, some of her good humor returned to her.

To Sakura’s surprise, waiting for her in the headmaster’s office was not another lecture but Shindo Fuyuki, the head of the Field Medics’ Division. Standing in front of the headmaster’s desk, Shindo had his arms crossed over his chest. Sakura’s division leader glowered down at her.

“This is the student that you requested, is it not?” asked the headmaster, as he retook his place behind his desk.

“Yes.”

“Then I will have her paperwork completed as quickly as possible.”

“Thank you.”

“In times like these, we must all do our part for the village,” intoned the headmaster. A beat, then he added “She can go with you today, if you like. Take the afternoon to explain the situation to her and get her settled in at the hospital.”

Half turning, Shindo Fuyuki arched his eyebrows at the headmaster, his surprise evident.

“They’re doing sealing this afternoon,” said the headmaster by way of explanation, and Shindo shrugged.

Sakura bristled. How dare they dismiss sealing techniques like that!

This is why the general education sealing lectures are so shamefully bad, thought Sakura mutinously.

But since whatever they were talking about would save her from an entire afternoon of lessons at the academy and while trapped in a room with a bored Naruto, no less, she let it pass. One of the first lessons that Sakura had learned as her master’s apprentice was to keep her mouth shut when she was ahead. And so it was that Sakura – and the headmaster – let Shindo Fuyuki take her out of classes for the rest of the day.

It wasn’t until they were back in Shindo Fuyuki’s cramped office in the hospital that Sakura found out why she had been excused from her afternoon classes, though. When she did, Sakura stared at her superior, aghast.

“You can’t be serious,” she said flatly. Never in her entire time as a field medic had the medical corps been so desperate. Then, belatedly, “I’m a pre-genin.”

“I am. We’re calling in everyone – the retired, the half-trained, and even our program’s lone pre-genin –” There, the grim line of his mouth briefly ticked upwards. “– to take shifts in the hospital or missions in the field as their situation allows.”

Sakura had suspected for a while that there was either a plague or serious border skirmish happening somewhere in Fire Country, but she hadn’t realized the situation was that desperate. She wished that she had paid more attention to the medical corps before her apprenticeship with Tsunade. Then she would have at least known if this was to be expected… or if it was some terrible side effect of the time travel seal.

As terrible as it was, Sakura really hoped that all of this had happened the first time around too.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said the head of the field medics’ division grimly, inadvertently echoing her earlier thoughts. “Plague is spreading like wildfire in the northern provinces, and the daimyo to contract with Hokage-sama to send half of the field medics’ division and half of the hospital‘s doctors to the northern provinces to deal with it. To make up the deficiency in our forces, the hospital is calling on everyone – even those with only first aid training – to make themselves useful to the village, and that includes you, Haruno.”

Sakura hated to even ask, because she loathed nothing in this new life of hers more than she loathed having to re-attend the shinobi academy, but if she was going to get back out in the field – and steal the top score from Yondaime Hokage on the exit exam – then she needed to graduate. Therefore, Sakura forced herself to ask “But what about school? How will I graduate?”

“You’ll attend the academy two days a week, work at least four and a half days in the hospital, and have any remaining time to recuperate,” said Shindo. “Your time working in the hospital will be counted towards your graduation requirements. At the end of the term, you’ll still be allowed to take the final exam.”

Sakura blinked, surprised.

“The teachers agreed to make a special allowance like that for me? I thought they hated me.”

“Strongly dislike,” corrected Shindo. “Although I’m told that’s a relatively new feeling towards you. Apparently, they hadn’t thought of you at all before this last year or so.”

Well, that stung. Sakura had always suspected it, even when she was actually the age that she appeared to be, but it still irritated her to hear it as an undeniable fact from Shindo Fuyuki.

“And they aren’t making any sort of allowance for you,” added Shindo. “It’s a provision that’s always been in the school charter. It was meant for clan use, mostly in times of war or village-wide distress, although there are a few other situations where it might come into play. At any rate, the hospital applied for it on your behalf.”

There, he paused. There was almost a question in Shindo’s expression.

“They didn’t seem to know about your attachment to the medical corps at the academy,” he said gruffly.

Sakura shrugged. “As you said, they don’t care about me. Why bother them with it?”

Fuyuki considered her a moment longer, then he shrugged. He kept going, saying, “You may drop a few slots in the ranking as a result of your absences, but don’t worry about it. Academy rankings don’t matter after you graduate, anyway.”

That was very true. But she was still going to be the number one – of all time, if she had her way. It wasn’t like the academy instructors were going to cover any unfamiliar material, after all.

“And this is what you intend to focus on, anyway,” added her superior. He paused there and regarded Sakura narrowly. “You do still want to join the medical corps after your graduate, don’t you?”

“I don’t want to work in the hospital,” said Sakura firmly. “I’m a field medic. If I’m going to miss school anyway, I’d rather go to the provinces with you.”

Shindo Fuyuki smiled faintly.

“It would be a good hands-on experience for you – and from what I’ve heard, we’ll need any extra hands that we can get – but until you graduate the academy, no one can take you anywhere,” he said.

Not for any significant length of time, Sakura knew. As the head of his clan, Hyuuga Hiashi had often petitioned the academy as well as the Hokage’s office to have Hyuuga Hanabi attached to several of his short-term, lower stakes missions in Fire Country.

Perhaps reading her expression, Shindo added more gently “This will be good hands-on experience too, Sakura.”

“But the hospital is only temporary for me,” stressed Sakura. “Right?”

“Right,” agreed Shindo.

“All right,” said Sakura, as if she had any choice in the matter.

Working at the hospital probably wouldn’t be that bad. She didn’t have super fond memories of that period in her apprenticeship, but that had been a stressful time in her life. She had just barely been making ends meet and relying on free food from the hospital’s cafeteria to keep herself fed. It was bound to be better now. Aside from anything else, she was neither homeless nor alone in the world this time around.

Belatedly, Sakura added, “But I’m not changing sheets or bedpans unless everyone else is doing it too. I can actually help people.”

Shindo snorted. “From what I hear, you daydreamed and doodled through all of your modules at the hospital as well as your classes in the academy,” he said.

“That,” said Sakura with great dignity, “was because their academics were too simple. But I still listened.”

And those hadn’t been doodles. Those were seals – incomplete and experimental, perhaps, but medical seals nonethless.

“Yeah, well, we’ll see what, if anything, you actually retained.”

“You’re gonna be amazed,” said Sakura confidently.

“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said Shindo blandly, and Sakura scowled.

He’s gonna eat those words, vowed Sakura, her fist clenching. Leaning back on his desk, Shindo Fuyuki crossed his arms over his chest and smirked down at her as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.

Unlikely, scoffed Sakura and smiled back at him, the expression all sweetness and teeth.

Shindo laughed.

“While I’m away, make yourself useful and try to stay out of trouble, Haruno,” said Shindo.

And just like that, Sakura received a reprieve from the horror that was the Shinobi Academy, effective three days from the day that it was communicated to her. It barely gave Sakura enough time to get all of her affairs in order.

She started by talking to her parents that night. She hadn’t expected much, maybe an indulgent ‘That’s nice, dear’, but her mother went from bewildered to furious in less time than it took Sakura to draw in a particularly deep breath.

“They can’t just do that!” shouted her mother. “You can’t just be graduated! Just like that! Just because they ran out of medic nin at the hospital! It’s not wartime!”

“I’m not graduated!” Sakura yelled back, her temper flaring just as quickly. “I still have to go to school two days a week, don’t I?”

It would have been easier if she could have graduated early, though. She wouldn’t have had to worry about the looming ghost of Team Seven, if she had left the academy two, maybe even three, terms ago. But even if that sliver of Itachi had allowed it, no one had been allowed to graduate early since Uchiha Itachi himself had slaughtered his entire district in a single night. There was an actual law against it now.

In Tsunade-shisho’s opinion, that had been one of the few things that Sandaime had done right after the Yondaime Hokage’s death, though she wished that he’d done it sooner – in time to save Nawaki, the Uchiha clan, and countless others. Her grandfather, the First Hokage himself, had never approved of children on the battlefield and neither had had his brother, the Second Hokage, or his granddaughter, the Fifth Hokage.

Hyuuga Hiashi had thrown a fit, though, when he had discovered that the law applied just as much to his second daughter as to everyone else. He had thrown an even bigger fit when Tsunade had refused to waive the requirement for Hanabi. It had offended Hyuuga Hiashi to his very soul that his favored second daughter should be forced to graduate at the same age as his heir.

In an attempt to force the Hokage’s hand, the Hyuuga’s headman had ordered the lesser members of his clan to cease taking missions or fulfilling their shifts in the village. Of the main and branch houses, only Hinata had dared defy him. She was still his heir, after all. The others hadn’t had much of a choice, not if they wished to remain either unsealed or with their Caged Bird Seal uninvoked.

In retaliation, the other ninja clans, large and small, had banded together to try to fill the most egregious gaps in the ranks left by Hyuuga. The Hyuuga may have provided a twelfth of the village’s entire ninja force, but the other clans were adamant that Hyuuga’s second daughter not be allowed to graduate early when their own heirs, although equally worthy, had followed the law.

Tsunade-sama had been equally adamant: she would not have another Uchiha Itachi in her village. And it was to make her point that Sakura and Shizune had volunteered to work extra shifts throughout the village, a Hokage’s apprentices serving as arms of the Hokage herself as much inside the village as outside it.

In the end, even Clan Hyuuga had needed to eat. Their clan’s coffers, although deep, hadn’t been deep enough to float their large clan for more than a few days. Then everyone had returned to work, and crisis had been averted. Hanabi had eventually graduated at age twelve, the same as everyone else, and as Rookie of the Year to boot. Hyuuga Hiashi had never shut up about it.

The most surprising part of the whole matter, at least as far as Sakura had been concerned, was how well the disparate clans could get along when united against a common enemy, even if that enemy was just the Hyuuga headman’s arrogance.

In the present, Sakura’s mother calmed somewhat.

“So, you’re not a full ninja?” asked her father.

“Not yet,” said Sakura, and her mother’s mouth twisted, her eyes narrowing into dangerous slits.

Although Sakura’s obligation to attend the village’s shinobi academy had been imposed even before her conception, her parents were not yet resigned to her mandatory service in the shinobi ranks. At best, they seemed ambivalent about Sakura’s potential career in the village’s military forces.

It was probably for the best that Sakura hadn’t noticed that the first time through, though. At twelve, she wouldn’t have understood. It would have hurt her. As a chuunin, and one that had lived through the destruction of the Uzushio Quarter, no less, Sakura could understand her parents better.

Speaking directly to her parents’ fears, Sakura added, “I’m just supposed to pick up a few shifts at the hospital, while there’s a medic shortage on. They’ll probably try to make me run errands or change sheets and bedpans. And I’ll still have to pass the exit exam at the end of the year to become a true shinobi, just like everybody else.”

“Well, that all sounds very fair, doesn’t it, honey?” said Sakura’s father with open satisfaction. Putting his arms around Sakura’s mother, he gave her a little squeeze, as he added “Sakura will have to compete for her place in the ninja corps, just like all her cousins did. And then she can focus on becoming a Seal Master, just like she wants.”

The two things – ninja corps and Seal Master – weren’t mutually exclusive, though Sakura didn’t bother to tell her parents that. It wasn’t the purpose of this conversation.

As far as Sakura could tell, her parents’ hopes for her future rested entirely on her failing to attain a genin’s contract or, should Team Seven happen, there being absolutely no armed conflict in the ninja world during Sakura’s required service time. Then, she could quietly retire to a safer life as a civilian, her parents secure in the knowledge that if anything should happen – for instance, Konohagakure no Sato being invaded, maybe even falling to enemy forces as another ninja village had years ago – Sakura could perhaps take care of herself, maybe even survive it.

To that end, Sakura’s extensive injuries during the Sand-Sound Invasion must have been a horror to her parents, although Sakura had missed the worst of their reaction to that. By the time that she had woken up, they had not only accepted it but begun packing. They hadn’t been able to bring themselves to stay and endure what they had seen as Sakura’s most probable fate.

To be fair, they hadn’t exactly been wrong about her eventual end, just about how much the village wouldn’t care when it found her. Tsunade-shisho and Kakashi-sensei and Asuma-sensei and Ino and many, many others would have cared deeply, Sakura knew, if she had been weak enough to die and stay dead instead of taking her younger self’s place in her younger self’s body.

Things calmed down after that, and if her parents seemed to want to love on her especially, Sakura allowed it. There were certainly worse things than being loved unabashedly by your parents.

The next day, Sakura invited Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji out for a snack after school, her treat. Ino and Shikamaru were suspicious, but Choji, at least, was delighted. He was less delighted when he heard what she wanted. In fact, the three of them looked at Sakura like she had lost her mind.

“Sakura –”

“Look, I don’t like it, but the fact remains that he’s probably going to be my teammate.”

“You don’t know that, Sakura!” argued Ino.

“I know that I don’t have a ninja clan to prevent it,” said Sakura bluntly. “Barring interference from outside sources, the highest score gets paired with the lowest score, remember? Well, that’s me and Naruto, which means that knucklehead needs to learn how to be someone’s teammate before I have to rely on him in the field to be my teammate.”

In the face of their stares – Ino’s blank, Choji’s surprised, Shikamaru’s pitying – Sakura wilted a bit.

“I’m not asking you to teach him your clan techniques or anything like that. I just want him to be a slightly less shitty teammate when I get assigned him.”

“What a drag,” sighed Shikamaru. “Why can’t you train him yourself?”

“I would – I meant to – but there’s a medic shortage in the village at the moment. Apparently, I’ll be working at the hospital most days for the foreseeable future. It’s going to have to be someone else who does this for me, and there’s no one better at teamwork than the three of you.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” chirped Ino, and, now smiling, she flipped her shoulder length hair at Sakura.

“We can do that,” said Choji. He sounded uncertain, but the smile he gave Sakura was nearly confident.

“Oh man,” sighed Shikamaru. Closing his eyes, Shikamaru put his hands up behind his head, his elbows jutting up at angles nearly as spikey as his hair. “This is going to be so troublesome.”

“It is,” agreed Sakura, sympathetic, because it was. She’d met Naruto. Twice now. “It really, really is.”

Shikamaru opened one eye to study her. He sighed again. Dropping his arms, he added, “But I suppose we can try.”

“Thank you, all of you,” said Sakura, meaning it.

“But we’re not promising anything,” warned Shikamaru. “That guy is an idiot.”

Nearly weak from the sheer force of her relief, Sakura laughed and nodded, because there was no denying it. Naruto really was the village’s Number One Knucklehead.

But this time, he’s going to be better – even if it’s only a little bit, thought Sakura, determined, because if she was going to be stuck with Team Seven again, then things were going to be different this time. They had to be, because she was different.

And step one was to try to make Konohagakure’s Number One Knucklehead slightly less of a knucklehead, preferably before she had to spend much time with him or anyone had to rely on him for anything. It was imperative for Team Seven’s cohesion. And her own ongoing survival. At the very least, it might make her slightly less inclined to punt Naruto into the nearest tree. As Sakura remembered things, that had happened quite a lot during her first tour on Team Seven; during her brief tour on Team Kakashi too, come to think of it.

After Sakura finished with Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji, she went to find Muta and Shimon so that she could rearrange her training schedule with them. Tokuma and Kurenai were still out of the village on their missions, so she had no immediate obligations to attend to there. Then, her affairs in the village arranged to her satisfaction, Sakura ran to her favorite stationary shop to buy a scroll appropriate for sealing. The summoning seal that she knew wasn’t as complicated as the Strength of One Hundred Seal, much less the Strength of One Hundred Seal combined with the Creation Rebirth Seal, but it was complicated enough to require a scroll of nearly the same size.

“A storage scroll?” asked Uzumoto Haruto, as he rung her up.

“Not yet,” Sakura hedged, even though her storage scrolls were good enough to make clan scions jump to weird conclusions. And to be fair, she literally couldn’t make them any better than she had been, not yet, at least, but her very best effort still didn’t feel quite good enough to give to him, an actual seal master from the old country.

Maybe I’ll have more time to work on that now, thought Sakura hopefully, as she ran home.

Later, though, because now might be the last time for the foreseeable future in which she would have both the time and the chakra necessary to renew her connection with the Eternal Slug. The first step in that, of course, was to use one of her newly made storage scrolls to seal her furniture away. Then, she unrolled her newest sealing scroll, its sheer size taking up the center of her cleared space.

Slowly, carefully, Sakura sketched the lines of her seal in pencil, hesitating only a moment when she came to the center of her summons. In the normal course of things, this was the part where a ninja took her chances, summoning to herself – or vice versa, depending on how the seal was structured – a representative of the animal clan that most closely mirrored her nature. Then, they would get to know each other, perhaps become close, maybe even sign a summoning contract someday.

Sakura hadn’t had to do any of that, though. Tsunade-sama had simply given her the chain of seals that would summon to her a division of Katsuyu-sama, The Eternal, and Sakura had obediently inked it into the center of her summoning seal. Katsuyu-sama had been delighted by her summons, and Sakura had been offered the Slug contract within the hour. She had always wondered, though, what animal would show up if she had left her summoning seal open. In fact, she still wondered about that sometimes.

But now is not the time to find out, thought Sakura, shaking those silly thoughts away. With a firm hand, she sketched in the cluster of seals that formed Katsuyu-sama’s name.

It would be nice to know – and even nicer to have a second summons to her name – but Katusya-sama was the one that she needed now. If she were to be caught out – and sooner or later, she would be. Sakura knew her strengths, and infiltration wasn’t numbered among them – then she needed to be able to prove the origins of her abilities. The ability to summon Katsuyu-sama would give her story a weight that it would otherwise lack. Plus, the Long Distance Healing Transmission Technique required Katsuyu-sama to work.

Using her red and black sealing ink, as necessary, Sakura began to trace over her penciled lines, infusing each inked line with the appropriate amount of chakra as she went. She could only manage half of the seal, but that was okay. She still had tomorrow to finish and invoke her summoning seal. The day after that, she’d be working at the hospital.

There was, however, one small hiccup: her seal wasn’t dry by bedtime.

She hadn’t noticed it – hadn’t even realized that it was happening even though, academically, she had known that it should – but across all the months that she had been in this younger body of hers, Sakura’s chakra reserves had grown. Back when she’d first resealed this new, littler body of hers with the Strength of One Hundred and the Creation Rebirth Seals, Sakura had only been able to manage to ink sections of her seals at a time. Thanks to her years of experience, she’d had more chakra than she’d originally had at eleven, but nowhere near enough for her purposes. It had taken her weeks to get those seals finished and ready for transfer.

Now, she had more – a lot more – chakra than she’d originally had at eleven. The down side to that, however, was the amount of time it took her freshly inked seals to dry. As far as down sides went, Sakura would cheerfully take that one, but, in the meantime, she needed to find somewhere else to sleep.

Her sleeping bag presented itself as an obvious option. With the ease of experience, she set up her little camp in the bit of hallway outside her bedroom.

When her parents came up, she wasn’t asleep. It was probably for the best, as her mother squatted down to shake her awake. Opening her eyes, Sakura peered up at her parent.

“Sakura? Sakura?” demanded her mother. “Why are you sleeping in the hallway?”

“Because my sealing ink isn’t dry yet.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t sleep in your room!”

“It’s a big seal.”

Her mother sat back on her heels.

“What kind of seal?” asked her father from where he stood further down the hall.

“Summoning seal,” said Sakura. “If it works,” she added, even though she knew that it would. She’d done it before, after all.

Her father smiled. “Well, that’s fine. You can sleep in the hall one night.”

“Two, probably,” said Sakura.

“Two nights, then,” said her father. “Right, dear?”

“Yes, dear,” sighed Sakura’s mother. Her expression was tight, though, and the corners of her mouth pinched. She was obviously unhappy.

But whatever her mother was unhappy about, Sakura’s mother managed to contain it, while they said their goodnights again. Her parents’ bedroom door shut softly behind them and, although no sound escaped the confines of their room, Sakura knew her mother well enough to know that her mother was probably shouting again.

Snuggling down in her sleeping bag, Sakura tried to sleep – but not too deeply. She still remembered vividly the dream that she had had while doing inclement weather training with her classmates in training ground seventy-nine.

The next day, Sakura dragged herself through first her challenge with Sasuke, then her school day, and finally through her challenge with Ino. She won – against Sasuke, Ino, and the kid that she’d been paired up with in taijutsu class – but it wasn’t with her usual flair.

“Don’t worry so much about tomorrow,” ordered Ino, as she walked Sakura home after their challenge concluded. “You need your sleep! Every minute you waste worrying tonight is one less minute of being awesome tomorrow.”

Sakura smiled. “Thanks, Ino. I’ll try to remember that.”

“Hmph, you’d better!”

Sakura laughed.

At home, Sakura made herself a cup of tea, enjoying it before she went upstairs to finish her Summoning Seal.

Summoning contracts could be structured in a variety of ways, each method possessing its own strengths and weaknesses. When she was fourteen, Sakura, like her master and Shizune before her, had weighed her various options and decided that she preferred to wear her summoning contract in her bones rather than carry it around as a scroll on her person. The years between then and now hadn’t made her regret her decision. Carefully, Sakura inked in the necessary elements in her seal.

One unexpected upside to getting her personal affairs more or less settled the previous afternoon was that she got to start a couple of hours earlier that afternoon, which ultimately meant that her Summoning Seal was dry, rolled up, and put away in her closet by bedtime that night. Sakura got to sleep in her own bed that night and, more importantly, under her own dear Sweet Dreams Seal.

Sakura didn’t bother to unseal the rest of her things. They’d only get in the way.

The next morning, Sakura woke early – even before her alarm clock went off – refreshed and ready to face the day. Hopping out of bed, she sealed it away, made a quick trip to the bathroom, then fetched her Summoning Seal from her closet. Unrolling it, Sakura filled up most of her bedroom’s floor space.

Making her way carefully to the center of the scroll, Sakura crouched next to Katsuyu’s name. Pressing her hand to the center of the name, Sakura took a deep breath and crushed down her nerves. Then she crushed them down again.

Katsuyu wouldn’t know her, just Tsunade-shisho and Shizune-senpai wouldn’t know her. She knew that. And in theory, she was fine with it. She had to be. But, now that the moment was upon her, Sakura found that she was nervous.

What if Katsuyu-sama doesn’t like me without Tsunade-sama to introduce me? What if I can’t get her to allow me to sign her contract a second time? What if I can’t do this? No, that’s stupid. I have to do this! And I will do it! Just watch me, cha!

Her resolve firmed, Sakura poured her chakra into the seal. Under her hand, it blazed to life. A moment later, her hand was lifted, pushed up from its place against the scroll by the curve of a small, slimy back, and unspeakable relief seared through her.

Katsuyu-sama!

“Sakura-chan!”

Shocked, Sakura lost her balance and fell backwards, landing on her backside with an audible thump.

“You know me?” whispered Sakura, looking down at her dog-sized summons through eyes now blurry with unshed tears.

“Of course! You are Tsunade-sama’s second apprentice, Haruno Sakura.” Katsuyu-sama’s eye stalks wriggled, peering around the room for a few moments before seeming to settle on her face. “Where are we?”

Hearing those words, Sakura burst into tears. She flung her arms around Katsuyu-sama and pressed her wet face into her summon’s slimy side. Katsuyu-sama squirmed against her and gently complained, saying, “Sakura-chan, your tears… They’re very salty…”

Laughing, Sakura tried to stop crying, she really did, but ended up leaning back instead.

“S-Sorry,” she apologized, dragging a sleeve across her face. “I’m still such a crybaby!”

“Why are you sad?”

“I’m not! I just – you really know me?”

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“Because we haven’t met yet! I haven’t met Tsunade-shisho or signed your contract or – or anything, really. I’m still at the academy.”

“Sakura-chan, there is, was, and will only ever be one of me anywhere or any when, just as there is now, always was, and will always be only one of you in this timeline.”

“But I’m not the same Haruno Sakura that was originally here in this place – in this body – almost five years ago!”

There was a pause, then Katsuyu-sama said delicately, “Well, perhaps as humans understand things.”

But not, apparently, as the Eternal Slug did.

“May I sign your summoning contract again, then?” Sakura asked, now blotting her eyes and runny nose against the long sleeve of her sleep shirt. Her mother would have been appalled. To be fair, so would almost everyone she knew.

“Of course,” said Katsuyu-sama. “I have always enjoyed our contract.”

Have always, am now, and will someday enjoy it, if Sakura understood correctly the barest edges of what Katsuyu-sama had alluded to earlier. But it was such a huge, overwhelm concept that Sakura put it aside, content for the time being merely to nod to Katsuyu-sama.

Using a chakra scapel, Sakura cut her thumb and signed her name next to Shizune’s on Katsuyu’s contract, affixing her bloody thumbprint beneath it. On her own summoning seal, the one that she had used to call Katsuyu to her in the first place, Sakura used her bloody thumb to sketch out a small, quick seal, filling a place on the sealing scroll that had heretofore been left empty. Katsuyu also affixed her mark to the seal. Then, her blood still wet on the scroll, Sakura activated her summoning seal one last time.

As Sakura watched, the lines and whorls of her summoning contract crawled off of the flattened partment, swarming up her hards, over her wrists, and along her arms to settle against her skin. For a split second the seal hung there, a web of blood and chakra warm against her living flesh. Looking down at her arms, Sakura thought, how pretty. Then, the burn set it.

The seal burrowed its way through flesh to sear itself into her bones, settling into the blood-making marrow at the center of them. It only took a handful of heartbearts – all of them long and gut-wrenchingly painful – then it was done. The scroll was now burned black, so many ashes beneath her knees, and Sakura carried her part of their summoning contract within herself once more.

Sakura was once again a Slug Summoner, just as she’d always been. She was one of three, just as she should be. And big, bad shinobi that she was, Sakura wept.

And Katsuyu didn’t even complain about the salt this time.

 

 

 

Once, Sakura had stood at the gates and watched as a half dozen cocky boys left to retrieve Sasuke. It had nearly proven to be a suicide mission.

Now, Sakura stood at the gates and watched as half of all of Konohagakure’s medical personnel left the village. As she watched them file past her, Sakura wondered what her shishou would have done in Sandaime’s place.

She definitely would have assigned more guards, decided Sakura.

These medic nin weren’t like her or Shizune or Tsunade-sama. Some had been trained to dodge, to take care of themselves, some could even take care of themselves and a patient, but most expected to be protected by their teammates, while they worked. Some of them had never even taken a mission, spending their entire professional lives until now in the safety of the village’s hospital. They were sitting ducks. If anything went wrong – if they all died – it would be a devastating blow against Konohagakure.

And then there were the traitors.

Among the throng, the gleam of sunlight on Kabuto’s glasses had caught her eye. Past him, there was a trio of ninja that Sakura didn’t know, but they seemed friendly with Kabuto. One jostled another, who knocked into Kabuto, causing him to drop a battered blue book. The second cursed his teammate and shoved at his shoulder, and perhaps as an apology, the first reached down to grab the book for Kabuto. But he didn’t lean down. Instead, his arm stretched.

Seeing that unnatural stretch, Sakura remembered exactly who those three were, though she’d forgotten their faces.

Traitors, thought Sakura, her fists clenching. She memorized their faces.

After the Sand-Sound Invasion, Kabuto and his three teammates had disappeared for awhile before resurfacing in Sound. Later, Ino’s team had killed at least one of them and claimed the bounty on his head.

In the present, Sakura wanted to punch their heads off. She wanted to grab Kabuto and shake him until his teeth rattled. She wanted to demand that Kabuto tell her why he had saved her life all those years ago, first in the chuunin exams and then later during Naruto’s rampage on the Kanabi Bridge. She wanted to ask him why he had paid so much attention to her career over the years. He was a missing nin. He wasn’t supposed to care what happened in the village that he had abandoned or to the people that he had left behind.

And yet, if Orochimaru had been the leader of her fan club, then Kabuto had been its vice president. No one, not even Rock Lee, had admired her skills as much as they had. It had been creepy and annoying, and not just because it had never failed to put her shisho in a foul mood.

This Kabuto wouldn’t have – couldn’t have – known why, because he didn’t share those years or memories with her any more, but he could probably guess. At least, Sakura hoped that he could, because she had never been able to figure it out.

But she couldn’t ask. Nor could she expose the four of them for what they really were, because that in turn would have meant exposing herself too. Just thinking about it, Sakura tensed and reflexively braced herself for the paranoid wails of that sliver of Itachi’s. Instead, there was blessed silence in her skull… and what felt like an awful, painful knot in her belly as well as between her shoulders.

Stupid Itachi, thought Sakura, disgruntled.

Taking a deep breath, she began to stretch out her arms, trying to allieviate some of those awful knots. Overcoming the conditioning imposed by Itachi’s sliver would take time, but Sakura had already decided that she was going to be over it by the Sand-Sound Invasion. She couldn’t afford to prioritize Sasuke’s safety over anyone else’s, much less the entirety of the Uzushio Quarter’s.

Perhaps feeling her gaze on him, Kabuto looked up from dusting his book off. Uncertainly, he waved to Sakura. Grimly, she waved back.

Shindo Fuyuki was near the end of the column.

“Remember what I said, Haruno,” he said sternly. “We’re shorthanded, so make yourself useful, if you can.”

“Yeah,” said Sakura shortly. “Just try and be careful, okay? You’re not a line ninja. None of you are.”

Shindo’s expression actually softened. “Worried about me then, Haruno?”

“Of course not,” lied Sakura. “I just think it would be really inconvenient if you all died. I might get stuck at the hospital forever.”

Her superior snorted. “I’d hate to inconvenience you that way. We’ll be back before you know it.”

Sakura nodded.

And then he was gone.

Sakura stayed at her self-imposed post until the very last medic nin had straggled through the gates. Then she waved up at Shimon and Muta, both of whom had wall duty, and took off for the hospital. It was her first day, and to her surprise, Sakura had already been assigned to the emergency room.

Desperate times indeed, thought Sakura, as she ran down the sidewalk.

With half of their number gone north to stamp out a plague, the remaining medical corps had decided that there simply weren’t enough personnel to run both the emergency room and the clinic, so the latter had been shut down for the duration. Accordingly, Sakura reported to the emergency room and was promptly sent to Hitomi-sensei.

“You’ll catch on soon enough,” said Hitomi-sensei. She was one of the doctors that Sakura had shadowed before, although that had been in the walk-in clinic. She had been a lot more relaxed back then. Now, she looked stressed and tired. “It’s good that you’re starting on a Wednesday. It’ll give you a chance to get into the rhythm of things before Friday.”

“What happens on Friday?”

“What doesn’t happen on Fridays in the emergency room?” asked the newly promoted shift supervisor. She had apparently gotten the job the same day that Sakura had learned of her reprieve from pre-genin boredom. “Here,” added Hitomi-sensei, while covering a yawn with her hand. She passed Sakura a sheet of paper with her other hand. “Don’t lose that. It’s your work schedule for the next two weeks.”

“Yes, Hitomi-sensei,” said Sakura obediently.

“And don’t waste your chakra on anything minor,” added Hitomi-sensei tiredly. “You aren’t trained enough to be able to handle any of the more complicated cases, but your chakra control is fantastic. Better than any given jounin’s. You’re going to be called on to sit in the sealing arrays on the second floor.” Hitomi-sensei paused a moment. “Has anyone told you about the sealing arrays on the second floor?”

Even the prospect of having to explain them to Sakura looked like it exhausted her.

“Yes, Hitomi-sensei,” said Sakura again. It had been Shizune, and it had been near the beginning of her apprenticeship, but Sakura figured that it still counted.

And Hitomi-sensei looked so tired.

“Did you have a shift last night?” asked Sakura.

“Yes,” said Hitomi-sensei. “It was a mess. We got some of the overflow from ANBU’s in-house medical wing. I’ve got four more hours here, and then I can finally go home to sleep.”

“It’s quiet now,” said Sakura. “Why don’t you go catch a nap in one of the beds?”

“I can’t,” said Hitomi, although she looked deeply tempted. “There’s another girl that’s supposed to be here too. She’s supposed to work the intake desk, and you’re supposed to be the runner. And we’re missing a couple of field medics.”

“I’ll wake you when any of them show up,” offered Sakura. “Or if anything interesting comes in.”

Hitomi-sensei visibly wavered.

“If it’s tougher than a splinter, come get me,” she ordered.

She waited just long enough to see Sakura’s nod before she shambled off, calling over her shoulder, “I’ll be on the examining bed in 1-A.”

“Got it!”

Whoever Sakura’s work partner was, she never showed up, and neither did any of the other field medics, but nothing very exciting came in either. Mostly, Sakura sat at the front desk and worked to combine Tsunade’s Creation Rebirth Seal with Tsunade’s Long Distance Healing Transmission Technique.

Half an hour before Hitomi-sensei’s replacement was meant to arrive, Sakura went in to wake the doctor. She brought with her a mug of tea. While Hitomi sipped the tea, Sakura gave her a brief rundown of the morning’s events.

“And none of them ever showed up?” asked Hitomi-sensei, frowning. “Everything is in disarray right now. I’ll have to see if they’re all out on a mission – or gone north, I suppose. Good job holding down the front desk all morning, Sakura.”

“It wasn’t hard,” deflected Sakura. “Nothing really happened. Mostly, I just worked on my medical jutsu.”

Tiredly, Hitomi-sensei nodded.

“Practice what you can when you can,” advised the older medic nin. “This afternoon may be busier. I’ll have to see if anyone is available to come work it with you and – Hey, does your schedule say who’s supposed to supervise you in the afternoon?”

“No.”

Hitomi-sensei sighed. “I’ll have to see about that too, I suppose.”

It was another hour before Hitomi got out of there. There wasn’t anything that Sakura could have done to make it quicker or easier for the older woman, but she still felt bad about it.

The afternoon shift was busier, but, fortunately, everyone assigned to it eventually showed up. And, as no one really expected much out of Sakura yet, she got to keep most of her chakra supply intact.

Stepping out of the hospital at the end of her shift, Sakura took a deep breath, happy to fill her lungs with fresh air. It was well after sunset, but not yet time for the streetlights to turn on. Across the street, someone moved in the deeping gloom, and automatically, Sakura glanced that way. From his place across the street, Shimon waved at her.

Surprise and then worry filled her heart. Crossing the street to join him, Sakura said “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“Nah,” said Shimon. “I came to walk you home.”

Sakura stared at him, perplexed.

“Walk me home?” she repeated dubiously.

Sakura had never had such a thing happen to her in her entire life, not even when she was actually twelve and alone in the world. She’d seen it in manga and romance novels, of course, but Sakura hadn’t thought things like that happened in real life. Apparently, she’d been hanging out with the wrong people.

Figures, thought Sakura wryly.

It wasn’t just that one night, either. Every night that she had to work, either Shimon or Muta was waiting to walk her home at the end of her shift. She didn’t even know how they had gotten ahold of her work schedule. Shimon and Muta were good friends.

And, despite its inconveniences to them, hers was a good schedule. She only attended the shinobi academy on Mondays and Fridays, ostensibly there for the introduction of new concepts and then to be tested on them at the end of the week. Mostly, she used that time to work on her Long Distance Creation Rebirth Transmission Technique. After school on Monday, she worked on her weekly homework packet in the school library before going to practice with Shimon or Muta. On the way home, she checked her trap lines.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, she worked at the hospital, finishing up her packet of weekly academy assignments during her breaks. She didn’t have time to pretend to look things up at the library, but she had entire shifts of medic nin to theoretically ask for help, so Sakura figured that it probably balanced it out. On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, she had time to spar if Shimon or Muta did, then check her squirrel traps. And on Thursday evenings she played ninja with her cousins, after she finished up with Shimon and Muta and her squirrel traps.

On Friday nights, Sakura worked in the emergency room, sometimes half the night and other times the full night. On the nights when she had to work the whole night through, Sakura grabbed breakfast in one of the ninja districts the next morning before heading over to the book fair committee’s weekly meeting.

After meeting with the book fair committee, she sometimes had lunch on Saturday with her cousin Minako. If they discussed seals, then Sakura could look forward to babysitting that night. After she got the twins to bed – and assuming that she had the chakra to spare – Sakura continued her ongoing quest to grow a tree. If she didn’t have any chakra to spare, Sakura tended to curl up on Minako’s couch with a good book or she slept. Usually, one led to the other.

If she didn’t spend Saturday with her cousin Minako and the twins, then she went home for an afternoon nap, after which she worked with her captured squirrels. Sakura was using them to test her initial theories regarding how to combine the Long Distance Transmission Technique with the Creation Rebirth Seal. She didn’t expect these initial tests to necessarily yield her desired results, but they would help her to determine in which direction to proceed.

On Sundays, she sometimes worked in the emergency room, other times worked on her medical jutsu either in the village library or in her bedroom with the ill-fated squirrels. It was only occasionally that she had a Saturday or Sunday afternoon free to just hang out with Ino or even Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji.

Into this busy schedule slunk Kurenai, fresh from her most recent mission. Sakura came out of the hospital one afternoon to find the older kunoichi waiting for her with a smirk and a jounin’s embossed rivets on her flak jacket. And Sakura, big bad kunoichi that she was, flung her head back and squealed at the very top of her lungs, as loud, long, and hard as she could. She hopped – up, down, and over to Kurenai – with her hands clutched together in front of her chest.

“We’re going to have to renegotiate our rates,” said Kurenai, smiling down at her.

“Of course!” agreed Sakura readily. Swinging her bookbag around her hip, Sakura fished out one of the two packages that she had been carrying around with her. Offering the box in its cheerful wrapping paper to Kurenai, she said brightly, “Here! Congratulations on your promotion!”

Laughing, Kurenai accepted the box. “Have you just been carrying this around?”

“Ever since you went off to take the exams,” Sakura confirmed. “I knew you could do it!”

Of course, she’d known that Kurenai could do it again – the older kunoichi had been both a jounin and the leader of a squad of genin when Sakura had laid eyes on her for the very first time, after all – but until that very moment, Sakura hadn’t known for sure that Kurenai would do it again. And Sakura, who knew her now better than she’d ever known Kurenai in her past life, was genuinely thrilled for her. Every chuunin dreamed of making full jounin, but few ever did. They were the elite, after all.

And Kurenai is one of them! Sakura thought, still delighted for her. Again!

Kurenai beamed at her.

Happily, when Kurenai-sensei opened her gift and found inside of it a fully stocked medical kit and a storage scroll, she didn’t immediately accuse Sakura of anything weird. She just smiled and said, “Thank you, Sakura. I needed both of these,” and she sounded so genuinely happy with her gifts that Sakura relaxed. Sakura hadn’t been able to think of – or afford – anything better, but she’d still been worried that Kurenai-sensei might read the wrong message into it. Clan scions could be weird.

“You deserve it! Not everyone makes jounin!”

In point of fact, almost no one did.

Still smiling, Kurenai nodded and tucked her gifts away in her flak jacket. Kurenai started to move then, her steps headed away from the hospital, and Sakura obediently fell into step with her.

“Hey, do you need a checkup or anything?” asked Sakura, wiggling her fingers at Kurenai, and still smiling, Kurenai shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I didn’t get hurt.”

“I’m glad! And I’m glad that your first mission as a jounin went so well!”

For answer, Kurenai-sensei merely smiled.

“What about you?” asked Kurenai, as she led Sakura towards the nearest training fields – and away from the Uzushio Quarter. “Are you well?”

“I’m super busy, but it’s really great!”

“I’m glad,” said Kurenai-sensei. “Do you like working in the hospital?”

“Yes,” said Sakura. “It’s not field work, but it’s better than attending the academy every day. And I like being useful.”

She had a lot less time for her private research now, but working at the hospital made Sakura happy in ways that she simply hadn’t been before. And limiting her attendance at the shinobi academy by definition limited her contact with Sasuke, which in turn allowed Sakura the time and distance to wean herself off of the behaviors that she had developed under Itachi’s compulsion. Not that she didn’t still see him and Ino most days, both Sasuke and Ino made sure of it. It was just different.

Sasuke usually challenged her in the morning, before he went to school. And if Sakura was going to school that day, they’d race there after Sakura finished kicking his ass. In the afternoon, there was Ino, no matter where Sakura had been that morning or was that afternoon. Ino really livened up Sakura’s afternoon breaks at the hospital.

In fact, Sakura had just finished fending off another of Sasuke’s surprise attacks, when old man Uzumoto gestured her inside of his stationary shop. Surprised, Sakura nevertheless obeyed.

Holding a coin up between his two fingers, he rasped “I have a few deliveries for you to make, if you’ve got the time before school, Sakura-chan.”

“Of course!” said Sakura cheerfully even though she wasn’t going to school that day.

As Uzumoto Haruto wrapped the last of his packages in decorative shop paper, he said, his head bent over his work, “That boy, is he a friend of yours from the academy?”

“Friend?” echoed Sakura, surprised. “You mean Sasuke?”

“Mhmmm,” hummed the older shinobi.

“I don’t know what Sasuke is,” admitted Sakura. “He’s just… there, every day, usually to challenge me to a fight.”

And wasn’t that odd? Sakura had never been able to say that about Sasuke her first time through. She honestly hadn’t been able to say that about anyone her first time through, although Ino could certainly have said it about her their last year at the academy.

“Perhaps a rival then?” offered Uzumoto Haruto.

“Ino is my rival,” said Sakura automatically, and the old man shot her a sharp look.

“Whatever he is to you, perhaps you and he – and you and Ino, come to think of it – could keep your tests of strength confined to the academy’s grounds,” suggested Uzumoto.

“We used to, but I only go there twice a week now,” said Sakura. “There’s a medic shortage at the moment, and I’ve been called up to work in the hospital most days.”

“Two days a week?” repeated Haruto, his busy fingers never wavering in their work. “That doesn’t give you much opportunity to keep up on your school work.”

“I’m still number one in my class!”

“When was the last time they ranked you?”

“At the beginning of the term.”

“Before you were called upon to work at the hospital?”

“Yeah,” said Sakura. Then, seeing what he was driving at, she added, “But I’m still going to be Rookie of the Year! I keep up with my work – at the academy and at the hospital. They could test me on everything tomorrow, and the only part of the exam that I couldn’t pass is fire starting.” Sakura scowled, annoyed at the thought that something so small was holding her back from rivaling the Yondaime properly. “But I was never going to pass that part of the test. I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’ve tried some more, but I just can’t do fire jutsu. My elemental affinities are too strong.”

“They tested your elemental affinities at the academy?” asked Uzumoto Haruto without looking up from his work.

Sakura snorted. “No, but I’m a medic nin. It soon became obvious.”

She pointed her finger at the nearest vase of flowers on the countertop, threading her chakra into its water. Moving her finger through the air, Sakura dragged a tongue of water through the air in a loop and then a spiral in a modified application of the Delicate Poison Extraction Technique.

At that, Uzumoto Haruto did stop working to watch her. Sakura pulled the water through one more loop, just to show off, then redirected it back into the vase, before she carefully removed as much of her chakra as possible from the flowers’ water. Only a teeny tiny shadow of her chakra remained in the water, a testament to her previous use of it.

“I couldn’t manage fire jutsu either,” said Uzumoto Haruto, surprising her. “Perhaps they’ll give you partial credit if you just manage to start a fire somehow?”

“No, I asked,” said Sakura, shaking her head. “I can start a camp fire with sticks, flint, magnesium, and matches, but none of it matters because I can’t do it with a fire jutsu.”

“A pity, but you have an excellent work ethic,” said the old man, as he looped the string one more time before tying it off into a knot. “There now,” he said with evident satisfaction. “Everything is already labeled, and there’s a storage scroll in the top drawer of my desk. If you’ll seal these things away in it for me, I’ll go fetch the list of addresses for you.”

“All right,” said Sakura. It was an easy enough request. Given the number of deliveries to be made, it was also probably a task that rightfully should have gone to the mission office, but she liked Uzumoto Haruto, so what the village’s mission desk didn’t know about this wouldn’t hurt anybody. It wasn’t like she was running messages for ROOT or the Council of Elders, after all.

Although, come to think of it, no one would look down on that. But they should.

The next day, Sakura was on her way to school and moving at a brisk clip, thinking hard – If she was going to become the Number One Rookie (Of All Time, because there was no point seriously competing with twelve-year-olds when she could compete with legends), she was going to have to master the fire starting jutsu. Or figure out how to fake it – when a voice shouted her name.

Turning, Sakura saw that it was Shirobara calling her over. Shirobara and her sister, Akaibara, had a business together. Akaibara was a smith, best known for her kitchen knives, while her sister Shirobara collected the money, delivered the knives, and went door to door sharpening them. Sakura had never seen their work outside of the Uzushio Quarter, and she had never seen their work again after the invasion, but all of her mother’s kitchen knives had been made by the one and sharpened by the other.

“Hey, Haruno!” called Shirobara. “We want to show you something!”

Changing direction, Sakura approached the older woman, who didn’t even wait for Sakura to greet her before she said, “Look here. This is the seal my sister and I use to help keep our knives sharper, longer. That would be useful to a shinobi, right?”

“Yes,” said Sakura, bemused, but she watched eagerly as Shirobara sketched out the seal for her. When the seal was done, and Sakura had memorized it, she profusely thanked Shirobara, who grinned at her, pleased.

“You keep that to yourself now, you hear? Me and my sister don’t need that seal gettin’ around now.”

“I won’t give it away. I promise,” swore Sakura, who was still confused as to what exactly was happening, and Shirobara grinned. She winked broadly at Sakura.

“See that you don’t,” said Shirobara, then she ruffled Sakura’s hair with one rough hand before continuing on her way.

It was odd, and it certainly hadn’t happened the first time around, but Sakura wouldn’t have thought too much about it, except that it kept happening.

The next day, old man Okazaki hailed Sakura from his shop. He never went outside of it. Assuming that he wanted a message carried, Sakura dutifully changed directions. Jogging across the street, she stopped in front of the old man where he stood inside of his threshold.

“What can I do for you?” asked Sakura cheerfully.

“It’s not what you can do for me, Haruno,” said the old man. “It’s what I’m going to do for you.”

A rival to the Yamanaka flower shop, old man Okazaki wanted to teach Sakura the seal that he used to encourage his seeds to put down roots and grow on top of the giant vats in which he raised fish.

As a medic nin, Sakura could think of many potential applications for such a seal in healing her patients. As a medic nin with secret tree-growing aspirations, Sakura was extremely interested. She could think of a few, non-professional things to do with that seal too.

“Now, see that you don’t tell your little blonde friend about that,” said old man Okazaki sternly when he was finished, and Sakura nodded solemnly.

“She has her clan techniques, and now I have my seals,” said Sakura, and old man Okazaki barked a laugh.

“True enough,” said the old man, and then he gave Sakura an apple before shooing her on her way.

And it wasn’t just the Kai sisters or old man Okazaki who wanted to show Sakura a seal. Suddenly, lots of people wanted to teach her a seal. Sakura didn’t understand it, but she was more than willing to go along with it. She was a ninja, after all, and a damn good one at that. It wasn’t beneath her to loiter in public places in the Uzushio Quarter and see who might want to teach her something.

And just as suddenly, although not coincidentally, it wasn’t just Muta, Shimon, Tokuma, and occasionally Minako providing the bright spots in an otherwise dull week. Every day, the people of her district gave Sakura lots of little reasons to be happy, all of them sketched out in the rich earth beneath a tree or against the back of her hand or in the condensation from a glass of water.

One morning, Sakura was on her way to school and running at a brisk clip, when Fumito stepped out of his restaurant, Miyori’s. He stood directly in her path, stopping Sakura in her tracks.

“Ah, Sakura-chan! We wondered if you had a moment?”

“I do!” said Sakura, even though she didn’t. But Fumito had never asked for her help before, so it was probably important if he was asking for it now.

Veering off track, Sakura followed Miyori’s dad into their family restaurant. With a gesture, he led her behind the counter and then into the kitchen where its grill and burners stood unlit. There, Fumito considered Sakura for several seconds.

As a veteran of her master’s particularly piercing brand of consideration, Sakura stood absolutely still and tried to look competent. It must have worked, because Fumito said, “I wanted to teach you my family’s fire starting seal.”

In Sakura’s chest, her heart lurched then leaped into a gallop.

“You have a fire starting seal?” she squeaked, hope clutching at her throat. “What do you want for it?”

It was bad tactics to just ask like that – against the wrong person or, worse, either Tsunade-shisho or Shizune, then Sakura would probably have suffered for it – but Sakura didn’t care. She needed that seal, and not only for the exam. It was worth a lot to her.

Fumito, however, shook his head at her.

“It’s a gift,” he said gruffly. “Do something great with it, okay?”

Sakura swallowed hard. She nodded. “I will,” Sakura promised.

With painstaking care, Fumito taught Sakura the shape and lines of his family’s fire starting seal, as well as several variations on it, all of which produced slightly different sorts of flames. Cooking food that people actually wanted to eat, it seemed, was even harder than Sakura had ever suspected that it might be, and it wasn’t like she’d thought it was easy. Once upon a time, she’d had to live on her own cooking, after all, not to mention the stuff that they served in the hospital’s cafeteria.

Then, when he was satisfied that she knew his family’s fire seal inside and out, Fumito watched as Sakura lit the restaurant’s grill and burners to his exact specifications.

“Good job,” he said, daring to ruffle Sakura’s short hair, and Sakura beamed up at him.

“Every fire jutsu that I ever perform is going to be your fault,” said Sakura cheerfully. “And my explosive tags! Thanks to you, they’re going to be legendary!”

To her amusement, Fumito blushed.

“If you manage to graduate despite everything that’s happened this term, that’ll be enough for most of us, I think,” said Fumito, and Sakura blinked.

“How did you know about that?” asked Sakura carefully.

“Ahhhh, old man Okazaki mentioned that you were worried about it,” said Fumito. “They’re saying around the quarter that you were in line to be number one in your class until you got called up to the hospital.”

It took a moment, but at his words, everything snapped into sharp focus, and Sakura suddenly knew why everyone had been giving her seals lately. Choked up, she swallowed twice, hard, and blinked her eyes. But it was no good. Dragging her forearm across wet cheeks, Sakura said, “I am the number one in my class, and that’s the way it’s going to stay. With everyone’s help, I’m definitely going to make a perfect mark.”

Because it’s not just my pride on the line now, thought Sakura, her determination now as hard as a diamond in her heart.

The final exam would be easy enough – she’d managed to scrape a passing mark on it the first time around, after all – but a perfect mark at the academy meant demonstrating her ability to perform the basic fire starting jutsu that all academy students were taught.

And how am I going to do that? Sakura wondered.

It was a question that followed her all the way through the school day and into her ensuing ones at the hospital. When she wasn’t practicing the hand seals for the one earth jutsu that she knew – and sometimes, even when she was – Sakura worried at the problem, making and discarding dozens of plans. Sakura didn’t doubt, not for a single moment, that the academy instructors would rank using a seal to start her campfire as an automatic fail, the same as using flint or magnesium, but Fumito’s fire starting seal was literally the only way that she going to demonstrate the skill.

The problem, Sakura decided, is that there won’t be enough time or privacy to sketch the seal during the exam. And there’s absolutely no reason for me to bring a scroll with a prepared seal in it to the exam. So, how am I going to sneak that seal into class?

She was still mulling it over on Friday morning when she stopped in at old man Okazaki’s shop on her way to the academy. Ostensibly, she was there for some fresh fruit to eat at lunch.

Leaning her hip against the counter, Sakura watched as the shop keeper folded her fruit in the length of fabric that she had brought specifically for that purpose, using his hand and stump to best advantage just like Uzumoto Haruto always did.

And, as he worked, she wondered. To a ninja reliant on hand seals to perform all their jutsu, there could be no injury more devastating than the loss of a hand. It would be a horrible loss to a Master Medic Nin, to be sure, but it shouldn’t be career ending.

But what about to a Seal Master? Sakura wondered. Finally, Sakura said “Hey, you’re from the old country, right?”

Without lifting his attention from his work, Okazaki still somehow managed to shoot Sakura a sharp look.

“Yes.”

“I need to know, if a ninja from Uzushiogakure needed to use a seal but couldn’t be caught using it, what did they do?”

“Oh, I’d hardly know,” tutted Okazaki. “I’m just an old shopkeeper.”

Sakura tried very hard not to sigh. She drooped only a very little bit.

“But,” continued Okazaki, “I have heard that some of them could string seals between their fingers.”

Okazaki held his hand up between them, his five fingers crooked, and Sakura automatically glanced down, studying his hand as if she had ever had the ability to see chakra. Even more stupid, she was actually disappointed to see only a man’s hand with her own two eyes.

Then old man Okazaki leaned forward and blew into his hand, a steady stream of grey fog billowing out from between his pursed lips. As the fog eddied across his palm, Sakura saw them: chakra strings.

Sakura gasped, and across his hand, old man Okazaki winked at her broadly.

As she watched, Okazaki moved his seal from his palm to each of his fingertips in turn and then his thumb.

She had only a few more heartbeats in which to commit the shape of his seal to memory, then it was gone, the chakra strings crushed out of existence by his closing fist. Okazaki sucked in a sharp breath, pulling all his chakra infused fog back into his lungs, and then breathed out again, this time just a regular breath. Every hint of his chakra use was gone, his chakra recycled back into his coils.

Smart, thought Sakura, admiring both his frugality and his chakra control. I’ve got to start doing it that way too!

“But you know how it is once a thing is lost,” continued the old man nonchalantly, as he returned to his wrapping. “People start making up all sorts of wild stories.”

And, overcome, Sakura laughed. “I don’t suppose you need an apprentice?”

“No, the shop doesn’t have that much business,” said the old man. “Besides, I thought you wanted to be a ninja.”

“The best I can be,” Sakura agreed. “But I need to learn the Pillar of Four Truths Seal, and –”

There, she faltered, her words stopped by the old man’s scoff.

“Oh, I’m just an old shopkeeper,” he said. “I’d hardly be trusted with something like that.”

Sakura strongly doubted that. Disappointed, she sighed.

“Well, if some night you ever wake up from a dead sleep remembering how it goes –”

Okazaki favored her with a craggly smile.

“You’ll be the first I teach it to,” the old man promised. “I’ll keep you in mind.”

Sakura nodded. It wasn’t anything useful, but it was better than nothing.

And it’s not like I’m leaving empty handed, thought Sakura, her mood brightening. Old man Okazaki had solved half of one of her problems, and he’d taught her a second seal! Maybe things are finally beginning to go my way!

And maybe it was that slow shifting of the tide that made her think that skipping school day was, if not a good idea, a better idea than wasting yet another day trying to pretend that she was learning things that she already knew. What she actually needed to learn was in the library, not the academy.

Accordingly, she took herself off to the stacks, taking brief breaks to stretch her legs, eat lunch, and run to the bathroom as she taught herself the basics of stringing chakra.

When she left the library late that afternoon, Sakura was tired, but she was still in a good enough mood to practically bounce down the sidewalk. Not only did she have the basic theory down, but the exercises that she’d tried in the library had all been successful. It turned out that creating and manipulating chakra strings, while new to her, nevertheless relied on skills that she had already mastered as her shisho’s apprentice. She was going to be stringing seals between her fingers in no time!

In point of fact, she started trying the very night. And the next day, during a lull in the emergency room, Sakura returned to her chakra stringing exercises. In fact, Sakura practiced every day that week, because while spinning out her chakra into threads wasn’t difficult for her in and of itself, weaving those same chakra threads into a seal was hard. Closing her fist over her tangled mess, Sakura reabsorbed her chakra and tried again. And again. And again, across all the days of the week until it was Friday again.

In any given week, Friday was Sakura’s longest day. She had a full day of school and then the night shift at the hospital. Accordingly, Sakura spent the first eight hours of her day ignoring her ostensible lessons as she alternately worked on life-changing medical jutsu and mokuton theory, before running to meet Shimon for her afternoon practice. After that, Sakura went home to shower, change, and eat dinner before running to the hospital for her night shift.

That night, Sakura walked in on a full waiting room. Every seat had someone in it, and looking past the guy working the in-take desk, Sakura could see that the examining rooms were all occupied too.

The medic nin working the in-take desk looked harried. As Sakura approached, his expression faltered. For an awkward moment, she thought that he might cry. Manfully, he pulled himself together, saying, “How may we help you?”

“I’m here to help you,” said Sakura. “Haruno Sakura, reporting for her shift. After I clock in, what should I do?”

The other ninja’s expression faltered again. He looked her over, from the toes of her pink boots, up the length of her pink and white tights, her pale pink skirt, and darker pink jacket to her round child’s face, and then sighed.

“I’m not even going to ask,” he decided. As he heaved an armful of folders into Sakura’s arms, he said, “I’m Jotaro. Take those to Sayako-sensei after you clock in.”

“Okay,” said Sakura, hitching the folders higher in her arms. Stupid short arms. “I can do that.”

And then, she was going to see what could be done about shifting some of these people out of here.

When Sakura found Sayako-sensei, she was in examining room 1-E. Lightly kicking the door, Sakura used her elbow to enter the room. She found the doctor dealing with a nasty gash in a patient’s arm. She eyed the wound for a moment, and then said, “Jotaro said to bring these to you. If you’re done here, I can close up for you.”

Sayako-sensei looked over her shoulder at Sakura. “Do you know how to do stitches?”

“Yes. I’ve done them lots of times,” said Sakura confidently, and it was even true.

Sayako-sensei nodded, but past her shoulder, the patient frowned.

“Hey, I don’t want her,” he complained, as Sakura changed places with the doctor. “And I don’t want stitches. Just close it up with chakra.”

“Too bad,” said Sakura without an ounce of sympathy.

“You can’t talk to me like that!”

Looking up from where she was laying out her materials, Sakura smiled sweetly at the older nin.

“I am a fully qualified medical ninja. More than that, I am very busy. And if you keep wasting my time like this, you’re going to have trouble talking at all. Got it?”

The older ninja, a chuunin judging by his flak vest, looked past her to Sayako-sensei.

Sayako-sensei, who was frowning as she skimmed through the folders, pretended not to notice.

The chuunin subsided into a scowling silence. While he tried to decide what to make of her – and how much trouble she was willing to put up with – Sakura got to work on his arm. By no coincidence, Sakura was sure, she and Sayako-sensei finished up at nearly the same time. The older nin gave the chuunin care instructions for his arm, and then they left.

“Tell Jotaro that I’ve got these sorted in the order that I want them admitted in, barring anything unforeseen coming in,” said Sayako-sensei briskly. “I saw your work in there, and it was good – very good – although your bedside manner could use some refinement. We try not to openly threaten the patients.”

Sakura nodded, accepting her criticism as valid. Her senpai, Shizune, had often made the same observation.

“I’ll try to be more subtle next time,” promised Sakura, just as she had always promised Shizune, and Sayako-sensei briefly grinned.

“Take examining room 1-N and start working your way up from the bottom of the stack,” said Sayako-sensei. “See if we can’t clear some of these people out of here, okay? Skip anything that you aren’t absolutely confident that you can do. And don’t use your chakra unless you absolutely have to, Sakura.”

“Right,” said Sakura with a sharp little nod.

She would have much rather been working her way down the stack instead of up it, but everyone had to start somewhere.

At least I’m finally getting somewhere instead of just waiting to get started here or in the clinic or at the academy.

With that cheering thought, Sakura went to find Jotaro again.

With the ease of experience, Sakura made quick work of her assigned cases. There may have been a few overt threats here and there, but not too many. Well, none where any witnesses could hear them. People just seemed leery about entrusting their nasty scrape, burn, or cut to an eleven-year-old pre-genin, and perhaps doubly so when said pre-genin was dressed entirely in shades of pink and white.

Once she actually got started, though, the older shinobi usually seemed willing to shut up, settle down, and give her a chance, perhaps lulled into compliance by her seeming competence. The older shinobi, eager to escape the hospital’s confines, seemed to think that their required follow up was soon enough to have her work evaluated by one of her colleagues.

The genin, however, were the absolute worst. One rank up the totem pole, it seemed to offend their very souls to be tended by a ‘little kid.’ They were also the most likely to demand another medic nin check her work. And it wasn’t just once or twice. They kept it up, making Sakura’s shift in the emergency room go three times as slowly as it should have.

Things were a lot easier when I was starting out as the Godaime Hokage’s apprentice, Sakura reflected sourly, as Hideki-sensei studied her work. Back then, I really didn’t entirely know what I was doing, and I probably could have done with a little less blind faith. Now that I know what I’m doing, I can’t go five minutes without someone demanding a consult on their scraped knee.

It was almost as annoying as the Shinobi Academy. Almost.

And Sakura wasn’t the only one annoyed by it. After the fourth time that she was called in to look at some snot-nosed genin’s perfectly tended (albeit self-inflicted) minor injury, Sayako-sensei had sharp words with Jotaro.

“The next time that someone asks you for a follow up regarding Sakura-kun’s work, just say no,” she said sharply. “It’s fine. It’s always fine, and I don’t have the time or chakra to waste on unnecessary consults. Their follow up appointment will be soon enough.”

The genin took that with all the aplomb that their youth and rank afforded them, which was none. That, however, was Jotaro’s problem.

Of all the cases that she saw that week, the sick toddler was the only one that Sakura kicked over to a colleague. She was a field medic, not a pediatrician. Common childhood ailments – much less the uncommon ones – were almost entirely outside of her wheelhouse.

“Good call,” said Sayako-sensei later. “If you don’t know how to handle something, don’t be afraid to pass it along to someone more suited. We’re short-handed, not careless.”

“Yes, sensei,” said Sakura, inclining her head.

Late the next Friday afternoon, Sakura came in to pandemonium. It wasn’t even well-organized, much less controlled, pandemonium. Not only was every seat filled in the waiting room, but so were most of the aisles too. A couple of ANBU agents in their painted animal masks lurked to one side of the door, and a couple of occupied stretchers filled the space between two of the rows. Past the admissions desk, Sakura could see that all of the examining rooms were filled too.

If it was this bad now, it was going to be absolutely miserable later. Sakura knew enough about working in the hospital from her previous life to know that much.

At the desk sat a small woman with black hair cut short. She was only a few years older than Sakura currently looked, so maybe fifteen or sixteen, and at Sakura’s approach, she looked like she wanted to give up, get up, and flee the room, maybe the entire hospital.

“Haruno Sakura, reporting for work,” said Sakura when she was close enough. “What should I do?”

The other girl nearly sagged.

“I don’t know,” she said hopelessly. “Something?”

As far as starts to the day went, it wasn’t the most auspicious. Still, Sakura soldiered on.

“All right,” she said. “I’m going to go clock in, then I’ll be back to help with… this. Okay… er, what did you say your name was?”

“Ami,” said the other kunoichi miserably.

“All right, Ami,” said Sakura with her very best, most soothing bedside manner. “I’ll be right back.”

She clocked in, briefly debating the lab coat that had turned up in her in-box. Long and white, it had Sakura-sensei embroidered on the chest. It had been very thoughtful and kind of someone to acquire it for her. The coat would make her look more like a member of the staff, and that could only make her work go more smoothly. On the other hand, it was way too big for her. The sleeves fell down over her hands and the bottom hem dragged around her feet. If she wore that out into the waiting room, she’d look like a kid playing dress up. Sakura absolutely didn’t need that sort of aggravation in her burgeoning professional career.

In the end, she split the difference and shoved it into her bag. She’d get the coat hemmed and then wear it around work.

Back in the emergency room’s waiting room, Sakura found Ami getting yelled at by a chuunin with a couple of long scrapes, one down the side of his face and the other down the length of his forearm. Neither of the ANBU agents had moved, but a distinct sense of menace was radiating off of the still standing ANBU Crocodile. It would probably be an inauspicious start to her shift to slap either of them into unconsciousness.

Sakura was still deeply tempted, though.

“Are these the open tickets?” said Sakura brusquely, interrupting the chuunin’s rant. She gestured to the two slouching piles of folders in front of Ami. “All of the open tickets?”

“Don’t interrupt! I’m talking here!” snapped the chuunin, drawing himself up. Ami stared up at him, apparently unable to direct her attention anywhere else. “And I don’t think it’s too much to ask –”

“Ami!”

At the sound of her name, Ami startled. She finally tore her gaze away from the chuunin.

“These folders?” persisted Sakura. “Are they all of the open cases?”

“Uh – um, yes, I think so,” said Ami, nodding.

“– those of us who actually serve the village get some actual service when we –”

Sakura bravely resisted the urge to sigh. ‘I think so’ wasn’t the sort of assurance on which she could rely, never mind entrusting someone’s health to it.

“Pay attention to me!” shouted the chuunin, reaching across the desk to grab at Sakura’s chin.

Without conscious thought, Sakura’s hand snapped up to intercept his. She caught his wrist, shifting her grip to press her thumb against a pressure point. It brought the chuunin to his knees, howling. That, of course, changed the angle of his arm, turning a restraining grip into a brutal one.

A kinder person, perhaps someone that hadn’t been trained by slug summoners, might have let go of him then. Sakura not only held on, she tightened her grip, leaning forward over the desk just far enough not to dislocate his arm from the socket but not much further. She didn’t want to get a reputation for being soft.

“Attempting to intimidate or touch hospital personnel is strictly prohibited,” said Sakura sternly, uncertain if he could hear her over his own howls. “Do you understand?”

The shouting seemed to resolve into a string of garbled syllables ending in “Bitch!”

Sakura leaned back a fraction, making the chuunin scream.

Leaning forward again, Sakura said evenly “Attempting to intimidate, never mind touch, hospital personnel is strictly prohibited. Do you understand?”

“Yes!”

Sakura released him, allowing her opponent slump ingloriously to the floor.

“Excellent. Please return to your seat. Your name will be called when an attending medic nin is prepared to treat you.” In the sudden silence, Sakura turned to her coworker. Smiling, Sakura said, “Ami, take a few minutes, maybe get yourself a cup of tea. I’ll take over from here.”

Coffee, in Sakura’s professional opinion, would only make Ami’s nerves worse.

Clumsily, the other girl nodded. The moment that Sakura turned her attention back to the waiting room, Ami bolted.

To everyone else, Sakura said “Everyone look around you. Is anyone unconscious or obviously bleeding out?”

Silence, disturbed by only the rustle of clothes as the people in the waiting room did as they were told. Everyone seemed to be shaking their head, and no one was pointing or raising an alarm, so Sakura moved on, saying, “Excellent! Now, I will read off the names of everyone who has signed in and done their admittance paperwork. If you don’t hear your party’s name, someone needs to see me.”

Thumbing through the files, Sakura rattled off name after name to the waiting room. When she was done, five people stood and approached her desk.

Dammit, Ami! Sakura thought, watching as they approached.

Passing them the necessary paperwork, Sakura said to the rest of the waiting room, “Now that everyone is accounted for, I will sort your cases according to the seriousness of the injury. The most gravely injured will be seen first. While that’s happening, please be patient. I’m going to try to get everyone here seen in as timely a fashion as possible.”

Bending her head over the stack of folders, Sakura began sorting. A few minutes later, the quiet background noise of the waiting room started up again, maybe slightly louder this time. Sakura had certainly given them plenty to talk about.

By the time that all five of her unregistered patients had finished signing in, Sakura had sorted her files in decreasing order of gravity. She was maybe halfway through a quick circuit of the waiting room, making sure that everyone was stable and no one was dying for lack of immediate attention, when one of the attending medic nin finished with a patient. Briefly returning to the desk, Sakura passed the attending the file for her next patient and then took care of the finished patient’s paperwork and prescription. After giving the discharged patient directions to the hospital’s pharmacy, Sakura returned to her inspection of the patients in the waiting room.

By the time that Ami finally returned, looking slightly more put together, Sakura had assigned another folder and done a quick field exam of the injured ANBU agent’s comrade, ANBU Crocodile. (ANBU agents had a terrible habit of ignoring or downplaying their own injuries.) Sakura took the opportunity to review Ami’s duties with her, walking her through the next person to be admitted, and then assigned herself the injured ANBU agent as her first patient.

For Haruno Sakura, apprentice to the Godaime Hokage, it would have been next to nothing, routine even. For Haruno Sakura, no name academy student, tending to his injury was an exciting change of pace. His injury was maybe at the very outermost edges of the sort of work that they had been allowing her to do, but not so far out that there was likely to be any objections to her doing it.

Hustling her patient and his squad mate into an examining room, Sakura got to work. The ANBU agents were refreshingly easy to deal with. They didn’t complain about her age or demand that someone check her work or anything else. They just let her do her job to the best of her ability, listened silently as Sakura rattled off care instructions, and gave empty promises to return for a follow up appointment.

Tsunade-shisho wouldn’t have let them get away with that.

A Sakura who could slap a someone with seal – say, a tracking seal, like the one that she had tucked under Sasuke’s hair – wouldn’t have to let them get away with it either. She’d never have to accept empty promises from ANBU agents or anyone else ever again. If they missed their appointment, she’d be able to go find them, easy as that.

Then and there, Sakura promised herself that her tracking seal would be the second seal that she learned to spin with chakra threads, right after she mastered threading the most basic fire starting seal that she now knew between her fingers.

But in the meantime… If they’re only going to get medical attention the once, better me than some of the others, thought Sakura, trying to console herself, as she went to pick her next patient, her mind flashing to some pretty dire possibilities. Ami was near the bottom of the barrel, but she wasn’t exactly scraping it, sad as it was to admit that the medical corps currently had worse.

Someday, I’m going to fix that!

Sakura pulled her next patient from the middle of the stack then began working her way down it. Bashing out the easier cases, although a blow to her pride, had certain benefits. It allowed her to conserve her remaining chakra, for one, and for another it helped to quickly clear out the waiting room. It also allowed Sakura to keep a closer eye on the admittance desk, waiting room, and Ami than she otherwise might have done, which was good, because even after Sakura’s impromptu training, Ami was still terrible at her assigned duties.

All in all, Sakura thought that her shift was going rather well – definitely better than she could have predicted when she had shown up for work that afternoon – but Ami, however, seemed to see things in a different light.

Sent off to dinner together, Sakura had just tucked into her free meal with gusto when Ami burst into tears, wailing, “I hate this! We shouldn’t even be here!”

“We shouldn’t?” asked Sakura, surprised.

“No!” shrieked Ami. She stabbed a finger at Sakura’s face. “Look at you! You’re, what, twelve?”

“Eleven,” muttered Sakura resentfully.

“That’s exactly what I mean!”

“Ami, calm down. Everything is going to be fine.”

“How can you just say that? Nothing is fine!”

Sakura took a deep breath and tried again, reminding herself that Shizune-sensei had said that it didn’t count as winning an argument if you just shook the other person until they were too dizzy to keep disagreeing with you.

“Ami, I need you to calm down. This is a stressful situation, but we’re going to get through it. Before you know it, everyone will be back, and –”

“We are? How?”

“Because I am going to tell you exactly what to do,” said Sakura confidently.

Ami laughed. “You? You probably have even less of an idea of what’s going on than I do!”

“No one could have less of an idea of what to do than you do,” snapped Sakura, her temper flaring. Then, rather give into that rising urge to beat some competence into Ami, she grabbed her lunch and left the break room, choosing to finish her meal under one of the trees outside.

Sakura was about as far from an inheritor of a doujutsu as it was possible to get, but she had plenty of practice compensating for her defiencies. With an application of finely molded chakra to the back of her eyes, she could see in the dark. Which was excellent, both on missions and when it came to eating alone at night in a darkened courtyard.

Alone in the dark, Sakura took the opportunity to get her flaring temper under control and find her center. It was a Sakura with a full belly and a renewed sense of calm that reentered the emergency room later that night. Which was good, as it turned out, because the rest of her shift didn’t go any easier than the first part of it had, thanks in no small part to Ami.

Personnel decisions weren’t hers to make, but Sakura couldn’t help but feel that Ami’s skills as a medic nin would be of greater use to everyone changing sheets and emptying bedpans. As it was, she did her best to keep an eye on Ami between seeing to her own patients.

It was early then next morning when Sakura finally stumbled out of the hospital, exhausted and ravenously hungry again. Nearby, Shimon peeled himself from his lean against the hospital’s wall.

“Morning,” he said, then grinned when a particularly loud twist of Sakura’s stomach answered him before she could.

Sakura glared at him, her face hot. “You didn’t hear that!”

“So, I shouldn’t ask you to breakfast?”

“Mmmmm, breakfast,” hummed Sakura, briefly distracted by the prospect of hot food. True, she’d have to actually buy it – unlike the stuff in the hospital’s cafeteria, which they gave away for free to hospital staff and active duty medic nin – but it would probably be really tasty, also unlike the stuff sold in the hospital’s cafeteria. And it had been hours since she had last eaten, and she had used quite a bit of chakra, and proper nutrition was important to –

“Yeah, c’mon, you big bad medic nin,” said Shimon, ruffling her hair. Her hands flying to her head, Sakura scowled up at him, but Shimon just kept grinning down at her. “I’ll take you to breakfast.”

“Okay!” cheered Sakura, her previous ire instantly forgotten.

It was so early that even the sun hadn’t risen yet, which meant that there was no point in trying to grab breakfast at Miyori’s. It wouldn’t be open yet. Instead, they got breakfast at an all night café in one of the newer ninja districts, then Shimon walked Sakura to the book fair committee’s weekly meeting on his way to his shift on the walls.

Sakura honestly hadn’t expected much from her time on her district’s book fair committee – except to maybe be seen as an adult when she finally graduated the shinobi academy – and that had proven to be a mistake on her part. The committee was fascinating. There were benefits to being on the book fair committee that Sakura honestly hadn’t seen coming. But like any good ninja, now that she knew they were there, she intended to take full advantage.

She just had to figure out how. The other committee members were sneaky, but she was sneakier. After all, she’d once upon a time been a fucking Hokage’s apprentice, after all. She was a little shark swimming among barracudas, not that she was going to let on as much to the barracudas. Instead, Sakura made herself small – the better to observe without being observed in turn – and did whatever tasks were assigned to her quietly, efficiently, and without complaint. And as she worked, Sakura watched, waited, and wove her own plans.

Plans, she was chagrinned to discover, that hinged entirely on Hatake Kakashi’s attendance at the annual celebration. That was a safe enough thing to do in combat situations, but a risk everywhere else. Worse, she needed him to show up early.

But maybe it won’t be him, thought Sakura, trying to console herself. Maybe I’ll get someone who’s punctual; someone like Yamato-taicho.

But did Captain Yamato absolutely love reading? She didn’t know. And even if he did, what were her chances of getting him as her jounin-sensei? She could hope, of course, but she didn’t really believe that she was going to escape the curse that was Team Seven, never mind escape it to a genin team headed by Captain Yamato. She was going to catch the curse that was Team Seven full in the chest. There was no dodging it, not for her.

At least this time I can pretend it’s because I’m the Rookie of the Year and Naruto is dead last in the class, thought Sakura, scowling.

It was better than the truth: that among all the girls who remained in their class, she was both the least objectionable to the village’s various political factions and the one least obviously connected to anyone important. If her training was neglected or she died while Kakashi was busy protecting the village’s last Uchiha and only Uzumaki, there would be no one important to make waves about it.

Sakura still boggled sometimes that Kakashi-sensei had chosen to save her – a comrade useless to him on every level – from Zabuza over saving Sasuke and Naruto, both of them important village assets, from the fake Hunter nin. Given what could have happened to the boys as well as how things had worked out between her and Kakashi later – or rather, how they hadn’t – Sakura still didn’t know what to make of it.

Did he save me? Or was he saving the client? Sakura wondered. Was I just lucky enough to be standing in front of the client when Kakashi-sensei decided to protect the mission instead of his comrades? Or did he decide to be the sort of trash that saved me rather than any of the village’s actual interests?

That mission to Wave Country – and how everything had worked out – still confused her. Honestly, she hadn’t thought about it in years. But she was reading one of Jiraiya’s books in bits and snatches – the only one without a smidgen of smut in it, as it turned out – and its main character, Naruto, reminded her of old times. It was like looking at the past through rose-tinted goggles. Jiraiya, it seemed, was a sentimentalist, as well as a world class asshole, not to mention unrelenting pervert.

It was a good read, though, a fun one even, and if Jiraiya’s Icha Icha series was anything like The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi, Sakura could understand why Kakashi was so addicted to his work. But it was also an unwelcome reminder: the end of the school year was looming ever larger, and at the end of it, Team Seven lay in wait for her. No matter what she did or didn’t do or where she ranked in the class, being reassigned to Team Seven would be her reward for working hard and keeping her head down. Just thinking about it made Sakura tired. It was probably going to be horrible.

But things are going to be different this time, Sakura vowed. Believe it.

And if Naruto’s trademark exclamation sounded less like sunny bluster and more like a threat, well, it probably was. Sakura wasn’t Naruto. She didn’t need to bluster. She knew what she was – and what she wasn’t – and she was one of the best at what she did. Being overlooked was painful, but there were benefits to it, if you had the background or resources to make up for it. And this time, she did.

Team Seven wasn’t going to know what hit them.

 

 

 

The seamstress that Sakura had used most often as a chuunin was probably still in business, but this time, Sakura took her new lab coat to Tanaka-san, the seamstress who lived down the street from her parents. Standing on a stool, Sakura held perfectly still as Tanaka-san pinned her sleeves and hem at the appropriate lengths, asking as she did, “How long do you intend to wear this coat?”

“Until it wears out, I guess. Why?”

“If it was for short term wear, I’d recommend cutting the excess length off,” said Tanaka-san as she placed another pin. “But if you intend to keep it long term, it would be better to keep it and let it out bit by bit as you grow.”

“Pin it,” said Sakura. “I’m definitely going to get bigger and taller and stronger. And I need you to treat it with that chemical that repels stains. The one that they use in the ninja districts? People are probably going to bleed on me.”

Frankly, she’d be lucky if they just bled on her. Medic nin was a surprisingly messy occupation, one chock full of other people’s bodily fluids.

“I don’t know of any such chemical,” said Tanaka-san apologetically. “But I have a seal that will repel most liquids from fabric. My father used to use it on his sails.”

“That’s even better,” said Sakura, meaning it. “My patients will like me better if I don’t reek.”

It was true, too. Kakashi-sensei, although naturally tight-lipped, had complained about the reek of her lab coat as much as he had complained about the hospital’s stench, when he was on pain killers. Kiba and his clan hadn’t even had the decency to get dosed to the gills with anything before they had started complaining. Other ninja with enhanced senses had been more polite about it, but the wrinkles of their noses had been eloquent enough to make their opinions known. If Tanaka-san’s seal worked even half as well as the chemical treatment used on medical gear in the ninja districts, it would save Sakura a lot of annoyance in the long run.

In the present, Tanaka-san beamed at her.

“I’ll have it ready for you as soon as possible,” she promised.

“Thanks!” chirped Sakura.

Tanaka-san had the coat altered and back to Sakura within seventy-two hours. Storming through the hospital’s hallways, her brand new and still bright white lab coat flapping around her calves, Sakura was surprised to notice the difference that a lab coat with her name embroidered onto it could make. She wasn’t taller or any more impressive looking, but the lab coat still seemed to make people take her way more seriously.

The real test, though, will be when I get another genin to treat, thought Sakura, as she jotted a few notes in a file before handing it off to Jotaru.

Jotaru, as if hearing her thoughts, assigned her the next genin to darken the emergency room’s doorstep. Maybe it was just her imagination, but the kid was slightly less annoying. Or maybe she was in too good a mood to let a brat like that bring her down.

“You’ve been happier lately,” noted Shimon, one day before practice.

“Have I?” asked Sakura and then grinned at him, because she really had been. Between her increased workload at the hospital, learning her district’s seals, and making tangible advances on her self-set goals, Sakura had been the happiest that she had been since waking up in the past.

And she’d just learned a new seal! On her way to practice, Chiyoda had pulled Sakura aside to show her a seal for water desalination. Sakura had thanked her profusely for gifting her such a useful seal.

“Mmmmm,” hummed Shimon in the present. “Less pissy too.”

Sakura kicked him for that – or tried to. Shimon danced away from her foot, laughing. What Sakura would have given to be able to shatter the ground under his feet just then, she couldn’t even express.

I’m just going to have to beat Shimon up the old fashioned way, decided Sakura, as she darted after him, grinning just as widely as he was.

It wasn’t even their least productive practice session.

 

 

 

With the sudden increase in her hours worked in the hospital’s emergency room came a dramatic increase in Sakura’s disposable income. To celebrate, she blew an unseemly amount of it on a pot of tea at the teahouse on the eastern edge of the Uzushio Quarter, the one that Kurenai had taken her to before they began their lessons. And then she lingered over it, enjoying the fact that the tea in pot never got cold or overbrewed.

Definitely a seal, Sakura decided, marveling. Then, after another delicious sip, I cannot believe that I’ve been drinking tea wrong all this time!

As always, her shisho was right: a good shinobi never stopped learning.

Sakura blew through her academy assignments – the most inspired of which was an extra credit assignment in code breaking. It was laughably easy, and Sakura wasn’t just saying that because her very last assignment before her death was to the ciphers and code breakers division of ANBU – then settled down to work on marrying seal to jutsu, lingering over a pot of the teahouse’s marvelous tea as she did.

Sakura spent most of the afternoon processing the data from her second round of testing. Getting the necessary seals on her varous squirrel stand-ins had proven tricky – and she’d had to order an almost impossibly fine pen from Uzumoto to get her seals to a workable size – but the initial test results seemed promising.

In her second round of testing, Sakura had discovered that she could marry her shisho’s Long Distance Transmission Techinque to her master’s Creation Rebirth seal. That was a huge step up from her first round of tests. Unfortunately, invoking the two together had, without exception, resulted in the rapid aging and death of the squirrel standing in for Sakura herself. Not ideal or even useable, really, but Sakura thought that with more refinement and testing, she could work out what was going wrong there and fix it. The Uzushio Quarter still had enough squirrels to support her scientific endeavors.

Sakura worked steadily, until she ran out of tea. Then she jotted down her initial thoughts on her test results, packed her things away, and began inspecting her tea set for seals. Their tea seal – or even seals – would be hers!

Sakura had just begun her inspection, when one of the servers appeared at Sakura’s table.

“Can I help you with anything?”

“No,” said Sakura. “No, thank you.”

She expected the server to leave then, but he didn’t. Instead, he lingered. Ignoring him as best she could, Sakura felt around in her tea pot, her smaller hands finally coming in handy.

The server was still hovering.

“Did you need something?”

“N-No.” A beat then, “What are you doing?”

Sakura paused long enough in her search to skewer him with a look – well, try to. She needed more practice. Her master definitely would have skewered him with that look, though – and retort, “What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Is there something wrong with your teapot?”

“No,” Sakura admitted, grumpy. The only thing wrong with it was that she hadn’t yet figured out where they’d hidden the seal.

“Then perhaps I could take –”

Sakura’s free hand, the one that she hadn’t just fisted inside the tea pot to keep it aloft, snapped out to slap the server’s grasping hands away from her empty tea cup.

“Don’t you dare!” snapped Sakura. “I’ll tell you when I’m finished.”

The server shot her an odd look, but with the ease of practice, Sakura ignored it and him. Eventually, he gave up and left. Sakura continued her investigation.

It took a bit of doing, but eventually she figured it out. The teahouse’s cups and pot were made from some sort of colored clay with a thick layer of white… material, possibly some sort of other clay, applied asymmetrically over its top. Hidden from casual inspection by that white material, there was a tiny Uzumaki swirl, the symbol of the Uzumaki clan and Uzushiogakure, carved into both the cup and the pot.

Found them! Sakura thought, happy.

“It’s rude to inspect others’ equipment for seals,” said a woman’s voice from much too near by.

Looking up, Sakura found a bluff-faced woman standing next to her table. She was almost as muscular as Gai.

Instinctivcely, Sakura tensed. She hadn’t even known the other shinobi was there.

“Sorry.” She wasn’t actually sorry, of course, but Sakura had always had a keen sense of when it was time to suck up. Now, said that keen sense, was the time.

“I’ll bet,” scoffed the other. She claimed the seat across from Sakura. “Satisfied?”

“Yes, very!” said Sakura cheerfully. “Your tea was the best I’ve ever had!”

The corner of the woman’s mouth ticked up.

“When Jun came and told me that some violent kid was feeling up the china, I assumed it was some clan brat looking for an excuse to be offended.”

“With this hair?” scoffed Sakura. “Not likely.”

What offended her was the knowledge that all her life, she’d been drinking her tea wrong. But, with any luck, she was going to fix that.

Across from her, the older shinobi cracked a grin. “Gonna try to reveal my seals?”

Sakura perked up. “I didn’t know that you could do that! Not with inanimate objects.”

Her eyebrows arched. “So, what were you planning to do?”

“I don’t suppose you need a storage scroll?” offered Sakura hopefully.

The other shinobi barked a laugh. “You’re gonna have to do better than that.”

“Ten storage scrolls?” amended Sakura, immediately revising her offer.

“If I need a storage scroll, I can make my own.” The older shinobi pushed herself to her feet. “When Jun comes for your tea set, don’t hit him this time.”

“It was just a slap!” protested Sakura. The older shinobi was turning to leave, so Sakura said to her back, “This isn’t over yet!”

The older shinobi favored her with a quick smile over her shoulder. “I look forward to your next offer.”

Then she was gone, Jun taking her place as if by magic. This time, Sakura let him collect her used tea set. Already, her mind was churning.

What else could a person with the world’s greatest tea seal possibly want?

Sakura didn’t know, but she was going to figure it out.

 

 

 

Konohagakure had been founded by werewolves.

It’s the only explanation, thought Sakura, distracted, as she worked intake.

It was the early hours of Saturday morning, the moon was still full, and the waiting room was only half empty. Sakura had just directed a couple of nurses to wheel an injured chuunin into examining room 1-E for Hitomi-sensei, when an ANBU squad in full uniforms burst into the emergency room.

Taking them in at a glance, Sakura abruptly found herself at a crossroads.

The doctors and medic nin seeing patients had been slammed all evening. They were all with patients just them, and so late in their shift, they were probably all running low on chakra, anyway. They couldn’t handle this too. But if the ANBU squad had come here that meant that either their comrades were too injured to make it all the way back to the ANBU compound or that ANBU’s in-house medic nin had sent them here, overflowing patients that they were too tired or too busy to see to just then to the regular hospital. Either way, this squad was in danger of running afoul of their unfortunate timing.

If Sakura kept being the person that she was at least half-assedly pretending to be, some of these people were going to die. And if she didn’t…

Ninja who disobey orders are trash, but those who abandon a comrade are worse than trash.

Sakura decided not to think about what would happen if she didn’t keep pretending.

Grabbing the nearest person, which unfortunately turned out to be Ami, Sakura snapped, “Go get the nearest crash cart. And a poisons cart.”

“But Hotaru-sensei –”

“I don’t need Hotaru-sensei! I just need the carts!” Sakura gave Ami a hard shove, sending the older girl staggering back a few steps. Emphasizing her next words with a lash of killer intent, Sakura snarled, “You’d better have them down here in two minutes or less, or I’ll make you regret it with every fiber of your being before you die, Ami. Got it?”

“Y-Yes,” squeaked Ami. She scurried off.

Sakura turned her attention on the six-man squad. The three mostly upright ones were heaving their comrades off of their shoulders and onto the floor. She decided to start there with her diagnostic jutsu.

Lightly vaulting over the admissions desk, Sakura went to meet her patients.

Massive force trauma and equally massive amounts of poison in her first patient; in fact, he was actively dying. Massive amounts of poison and splintered ribs in the second. The third, she knew. In fact, Sakura knew his body nearly as well as she knew her own. ANBU Wolf had mostly minor injuries, although his chakra levels were dangerously low and that stupid fucking sharingan of his wasn’t helping with that.

Sakura moved on to the upright ANBU agents.

She was reaching for ANBU Owl, when he snapped, “Don’t waste your time on us! Focus on them!”

“I was unaware that you knew jack shit about medical jutsu,” sneered Sakura. “Now, shut up and stop wasting my time. Or you’ll regret it.”

The ANBU agent’s mask briefly tilted towards the agents that had been laid out on the floor. Obviously, he’d taken the most obvious meaning from her words. It wasn’t what she’d meant, of course, but Sakura reached for him again, anyway.

Lesser amounts of poison, which was good; she would have to look to be certain – because how was he standing up? How had he carried anyone home on his back? Even a soldier pill couldn’t make him unaware of the pain, and there would be a lot of it. Damn it – but Sakura was nearly certain that almost all the skin had been scraped off of his back.

The next ANBU agent that she came to was lucky that her ribs hadn’t yet finished breaking, much less pierced her lungs.

And the last – ANBU Cat, blocky build, dark brown hair, Sakura noticed with a clench of her heart, and an unusually high concentration of unprocessed natural energy in his chakra signature, something that rendered it nearly familiar to her – showed signs of torture. In addition to those injuries, he had a badly broken right hand as well as a handful of more minor injuries.

Sakura refused to wonder if it was Captain Yamato yet under that mask.

The three ANBU agents that were still conscious didn’t look so great, but looking around Sakura realized that at the moment her entire medical team consisted of those three and Ami, who was the gods alone knew where, and whoever she could conscript from the waiting room.

Ami had better get those carts here before I need them, thought Sakura darkly, as she returned to the desk to grab a handful of urine sample kits and a couple of bottles of clean water from one of her desk’s drawers. From the desk’s top, she grabbed a clipboard, a handful of admittance paperwork, and a couple of pens. Then she returned to the emergency room’s newest admittances.

“You, sit down,” Sakura ordered, while pointing at ANBU Tiger. “I need you to write down everything that I say regarding treatment.”

It was an important job. And she needed Tiger to hold as still as possible until she could be seen to, because Sakura absolutely didn’t want those ribs to kill Tiger now. It would be such a stupid way to die. But Tiger couldn’t be her first priority.

Pointing at six or so ninja in the waiting room – Sakura didn’t remember their issues as being particularly life-threatening – Sakura snapped, “You. Your hands both work, right? Get over here. Hold ANBU Hawk down. Removing the poison is going to hurt like hell.”

Of course, ANBU Owl and ANBU Cat seemed to think that order included them. Idiots.

Of the two, ANBU Hawk was actually the ANBU agent with slightly less poison in his system. He was also the one less likely to crash after Sakura finished removing the poison from his body… assuming none of his rib shards punctured his lungs.

While everyone got into place, Sakura poured still, clean water into one of her sample cups.

The delicate poison extraction technique went about like it always did: painfully.

The bulk of the poison removed, Sakura sent everything into one of the empty sample cups. That done, she sealed it and gave it to ANBU Tiger for labeling.

Ami isn’t back yet, Sakura noted with annoyance. She needed that cart!

Pointing at ANBU Cat, Sakura said, “The poisons unit is on the top floor. I need one of their crash carts. I don’t need any of their medic nin or any of their other crap. Just the cart. Go get it, okay?”

ANBU Cat nodded.

Turning her attention away from the sight of him getting laboriously to his feet, Sakura jabbed a finger at ANBU Owl.

“I also need a crash cart from this floor. There should be a couple in the closet down the hall. Go get one, all right?”

ANBU Owl nodded.

That taken care of, Sakura turned her attention to her next patient.

Poison removal went about as badly as she had feared that it might. In fact, it went so badly that Sakura didn’t even have time to screw the lid on the sample cup full of poison, never mind looking to see if anyone had come back with their carts yet.

Slicing a chakra scapel through tissue and bone, Sakura reached into his chest. With one hand, she massaged his heart. Her mouth, she occupied with either rescue breathing or shouting demands at the nearest unoccupied shinobi.

If they were in the field, her patient would have died. At the back of her brain, Sakura knew that. She had too little available chakra and he needed too much work for him to have survived under field conditions. But they were in a hospital filled with medical equipment that could take a lot of the strain off of Sakura’s limited chakra supply. Plus, there were lots of people to act as her nurses and surgery assistants here.

So, when she snarled “The White Birch Stabilizer Seal Box! Give it to me!” at the room in general, half a dozen hands thrust random bits of medical equipment under her nose. Sakura picked out the thing that she needed and kept working.

They got things for her, held organs as needed, and set up bits of equipment for her. And with their help, the patient’s situation began to improve. It took awhile, and it was hard, especially since her tiny, practically useless body had only half of a tiny, practically useless pool of chakra to call on, forcing Sakura to finesse things that she otherwise would simply have fixed and moved on from, but eventually he was stable.

Well, somewhat stable. There were still trace amounts of poison slowly killing him, after all. And eventually, someone might try to move him.

Sakura decided to worry about that later.

Sitting back on her heels, Sakura dragged a shaking wrist across her sweaty forehead.

“Okay, good, that’s good,” said Sakura to no one in particular. It felt like a lot of people were staring at her, probably because she was doing this in a waiting room. “Poisons cart?”

ANBU Cat pushed it towards her, and ANBU Tiger held up a pair of sample cups, both of them sealed and labeled.

“Great,” said Sakura tiredly. Her stupid body was low on chakra. At that moment, Sakura wanted her fully formed Strength of One Hundred seal more than she wanted even her monstrous strength. “All right, I just need to remove a sample of the poison from ANBU Owl, and then I can get to work on the antidotes.”

And then there would be everything else to do for them, including ANBU Owl’s entire back.

Just thinking about it exhausted Sakura.

“I wasn’t poisoned!”

“You absolutely were,” disagreed Sakura. She wanted to just scramble his neurological impulses and be done with the argument, but she was trying to husband the remnants of her meager chakra supply. She was going to need every scrap of chakra remaining to her for ANBU Cat’s hand. “It obviously wasn’t in large enough amounts to drop you, but it’s there. And it might not even kill you. But if I leave it in you, it will have severe long-term effects on your health. You might even have to retire.”

Stiffly, ANBU Owl lay down on the damn floor.

His poison removal went so well that he passed out. Given the state of his back, it was probably overdue anyway. To ANBU Tiger, Sakura directed a note regarding his probable use of soldier pills.

Her three poison samples collected, Sakura got to work using the equipment on the cart to identify them. If she was lucky, at least one of the poison samples would be in the poisons library. Then, she could administer the pre-made antidote on the cart and move on.

To Sakura’s delight, she got very lucky. Not only were all three samples the same poison, but it was a fairly common one from Swamp Country. Left untreated, it ate away at living tissue, rotting it on the body. Treated properly, it only took five to seven days to fully recover.

The antidote wasn’t one typically stocked in the poisons cart’s limited poisons library, but the formula for the antidote was one that Sakura knew by heart. Sakura had had to make it for herself so many times that Sakura’s original body had actually possessed some limited immunity to the poison. Shizune had believed in a hands-on – and sometimes terrifying – approach to teaching Sakura her poisons, antidotes, and formulations techniques.

Saying a quick prayer of thanks to her maker – the medic nin’s first canon – as well as Shizune, Sakura began mixing the antidote, giving the proportions of ingredients to ANBU Tiger as she did. When that was done, Sakura administered the first round of antidote to all six members of the squad, starting them all on their rounds of treatment. She had ANBU Tiger make a note of that too on all of their files.

From there, Sakura made a second round, making sure that everyone was still stable. (They were, thank the gods.) Her obligations complete as the intake medic, Sakura stood and then staggered, her head spinning.

A hand caught her under the elbow, steadying her.

“Thanks,” muttered Sakura, looking up at whoever the hand was attached to.

Tokuma grinned down at her. Like an idiot, Sakura gaped at him.

“Seems the shoe is on the other foot now, eh, Sakura?”

That snapped Sakura out of it. She still had way more chakra than he had had when they had first met!

“What are you doing here? My shift isn’t over for –”

“It’s been over for an hour and a half.”

“When did you get here?” demanded Sakura.

“About the time you demanded a syringe of – of something and then yelled at everyone for offering you the wrong one.”

“Because it was the wrong one! I needed the –”

“I know. I was there, remember? I even offered you three different things.”

“Were any of them the right thing?”

“Eventually, one of them was.”

Sakura laughed.

Subtly – because she could be subtle, even if stupid Suzume-sensei at the academy didn’t think so – Sakura turned her verbal defeat into a stretch. She stretched her arms and then her legs before arching her back so far that she had to sigh at the sheer pleasure of the stretch and burn in her abused muscles.

And while she did, Sakura surveyed the waiting room.

There were a lot more ninja crouched around the ANBU team than she remembered there being when she had started treatment, all of them line ninja who had come in for treatment of more minor ailments. ANBU Tiger was still sitting stiffly in her chair. ANBU Cat now slumped beside her.

And standing in the hallway that led to the examination rooms was Ami with their shift’s supervisor, Hotaru-sensei, as well as the next shift’s supervisor, Sayako-sensei, and Hideki-sensei from poisons. Behind them stood roughly half a dozen other medical nin.

Sakura scowled.

She had specifically told Ami to get the damn carts, not another medic nin.

As for what those other medic nin were thinking, Sakura couldn’t begin to guess. Sayako-sensei’s face was cool and professional, Hideki-sensei’s expression bland, as they approached. Hotaru-sensei just looked exhausted.

Straightening, Sakura gave them the same report that she would have given Tsunade-shisho regarding the patients’ status and care. Hideki-sensei cocked his head to one side, the veins around his eyes gently bulging, and Sayako-sensei nodded. Issuing crisp commands, she gestured the lesser medic nins forward with their stretchers.

“Hey!” snapped ANBU Tiger. “You can’t separate us!”

“Stop complaining. You’re all going to the same place,” said Sakura tiredly.

“So are you,” said Sayako-sensei. “Come along, Haruno. You’ve made yourself the primary on this.”

It was something that Tsunade-shisho would have done.

Sakura nearly groaned. She didn’t have much chakra to contribute to the sealing array.

While the other medic nin loaded the ANBU agents onto their stretchers – ANBU Tiger refused to surrender her paperwork (“It’s my only job, dammit! You can’t make me useless!”) – Hideki-sensei took command of the poisons cart and all of Sakura’s specimen cups. Ami got the unenviable task of cleaning up all the blood and chunks of visera on the emergency room floor.

Sakura hadn’t realized it at the time, but she’d made something of a mess there. And all her well-meaning assistant-nin had spread it around more as they scrambled to find the things that Sakura had demanded. She was a mess with blood up past her elbows, her stained clothes sticking to her skin, and even Tokuma had blood on his pants.

There were wings and floors of the hospital that, outside of wartime, were kept shut up tight. Most of the second floor was like that, leaving only a few healing arrays open for the hospital’s day to day operations.

Every single member of that ANBU squad could have done with some time as the focus of an array – even Kakashi-sensei; especially Kakashi-sensei, given how low his chakra reserves were – but there simply weren’t enough available array rooms for everyone to be treated simultaneously. Therefore, the four most critically wounded ANBU agents went into the four remaining array rooms, leaving Sakura to wait in the hallway outside with Kakashi-sensei and ANBU Cat. Their remaining injuries, although still untreated and likely painful, weren’t life-threatening.

To Sakura’s secret – and immense – relief, being elected primary didn’t seem to require her to serve as the lead on any of the sealing arrays. That was done by four other fresher and more senior medic nin. Instead, she just had to wait in the hallway with the other two patients.

It had been a long night, and her stupid little body was tired. Even though it was unprofessional – and it meant that she couldn’t keep an eye on her collegues or the patients in the arrays – Sakura ended up sitting on the floor with ANBU Cat on one side of her and Tokuma, who had followed her upstairs to seemingly no one’s consternation, sitting on the other. Somehow, he had even gotten the medical charts off of ANBU Tiger.

Absently, Sakura reached out to take ANBU Cat’s broken hand in both of hers. That was the worst injury in the hallway, after all.

Hands were a critical area on any shinobi, one that few would let just anyone touch. ANBU Cat was no different. With a half-muffled cry of pain, he wrenched his hand away from her, making Sakura’s heart twist in her chest.

In another lifetime, he wouldn’t have wrenched his hand away like that. At least, Sakura didn’t think that he would have; assuming that this ANBU Cat was her ANBU Cat.

Tiredly, Sakura crushed all that down as best she could. Inner Sakura helped.

“You should let me look at it,” said Sakura. “It’s broken, and I’m really good at broken bones.”

She had had a lot of experience with them, after all.

ANBU Cat seemed to think about that for a moment before slowly, reluctance in every line of his body, he offered his hand to her.

Gently, Sakura took it in both of hers again. She politely ignored the slight jerk in it when her skin touched his, an instinctive withdrawal quashed as best he could.

“Tokuma, I’ll need pain killers from –”

“No,” snapped the ANBU Agent. “No pain killers.”

Sakura blinked back sudden tears. “Are you sure?”

Captain Yamato had been the same way. Painkillers had scared him too.

ANBU Cat inclined his head.

“All right,” said Sakura. “I’ll temporarily disrupt your pain receptors. You’ll know that it hurts – or that it should hurt – but you won’t really feel it. Okay?”

ANBU Cat nodded.

And, although she was tired, Sakura got to work. She was primary on his case, after all.

ANBU Cat’s break was complicated, but Sakura found the work almost soothing. Finding the fragments of bone, moving them into place, repairing that bit of nicked artery, and scouring away that bit of incipent infection was detail work, requiring skill rather than power.

Sakura had always distinguished herself at assignments like that.

As she worked, she talked. Sakura told Tokuma what she was doing so that he could update ANBU Cat’s chart and gave ANBU Cat care and follow up instructions, in case she was too tired to explain everything to him later.

And she really was that tired. Sakura’s exhaustion seemed to pull at her bones, dragging her down until her head came to rest on Tokuma’s shoulder. Her eyes were closed, but that didn’t matter. She had never been able to see what she was doing inside of ANBU Cat’s hand, anyway.

She was slotting the last few bits of bone into place – she was going to make it this time. She was going to finish before Itachi, except that wasn’t right, although Inner Sakura wouldn’t tell her why – when somewhere nearby a door snapped open.

“Haruno,” a voice sighed, half waking Sakura. “What are you doing?”

“Finishing up with his hand,” said Sakura tiredly, her words oddly slurry around the edges. That was probably bad. Although maybe she was just tired; it could be that.

Fusing the last bone shard into place, Sakura used the last dregs of her chakra to scan her work, testing it for flaws. It helped no one to have a badly healed hand. Why even bother coming to a medic nin then? They could have done that for themselves.

It all seemed fine – or as fine as it could be under the circumstances – so Sakura fixed his pain receptors and let him go.

“This wasn’t what I meant when I brought you up here,” said the voice severely. “You were meant to observe and learn about the sealing arrays.”

“Already seen ‘em. I snuck up here at lunch on – on a day.” Sakura gestured at ANBU Cat clumsily. “Haven’t treated any of their more minor injuries,” reported Sakura, because that was important. It bore saying even if it was embarrassing.

She used to do better work. More of it too.

“It’s fine,” sighed the woman’s voice. “I’ll see to it.”

That was good, because Sakura couldn’t.

Exhausted, Sakura finally let herself fall asleep.