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“I’m going to be honest with you,” said Sakura, who was working very hard to keep her voice level. It was a testament to her skill as a medic nin that she wasn’t currently screaming her head off. Her shisho would have been proud of her. “I don’t think that I’m the best fit for this mission. There are several areas in which my skill set would be… inadequate.”

It pained Sakura to say it – almost as much as her limbs had pained her before she disrupted the feedback from the nerves in her arms and legs – but it was true. If she had possessed any of the required skills for this mission, she would not currently be lying here half pulverized and trying to reason with a madman.

Fucking Mangekyo Sharingan eyes, thought Sakura bitterly. Their genjutsu had been easy enough to break and their fire easy enough to avoid, but fighting Itachi’s fully formed Susano-o had been like fighting a tailed beast with her bare hands – and no prep work.

Sealing, Sakura thought, not for the first time. There’s got to be a way to seal that fucker.

Too bad she didn’t know it.

If I get out of this alive, Sakura thought, not for the first time, I’m going to become a fucking sealing master. I’ll be Uzumaki Mito come again. Jiraiya will eat his fucking heart out. Fuck!

That last was because Uchiha Itachi, who had until that moment been almost entirely focused on cutting a seal into the floor of the cave with one burning hot fingertip, his face so close to his work that his nose sometimes brushed the ridges of it, had sat back on his heels to look directly at her with his burning red eyes.

Staring back at him – at his bloody tears, the red tracks down the length of his cheeks, the tangled hanks of greasy black hair hanging around his shoulders, and the pale flesh stretched too thin over his bones – sent a shudder through Sakura’s heart.

He looked… ghoulish.

For a moment, just a single solitary thump of her heart, Sakura feared that he wasn’t really the last Uchiha at all, just an evil spirit that had set up shop in a little boy’s body years and years ago and never left.

Then Itachi blinked, and he was once more simply the deranged S-class criminal that had kidnapped her during Naruto’s rampage. Vaguely, Sakura wondered where his partner was. She hadn’t seen him once since Itachi had taken her from Konohagakure.

“Who would you recommend to take your place, Sakura-san?” asked Itachi politely, briefly giving her his full attention, as if they didn’t both know that Sakura was trying to stall him. He was always so polite. Even when he had had his Susano-o pulverize every bone below her knees and elbows, he had been polite, not that Sakura had been in much of a position to appreciate it, what with the excruciating agony and all. After two heartbeats, he asked, “Kakashi-senpai, perhaps?”

“Yes,” said Sakura firmly. She tried to look like someone trustworthy and helpful, and not at all like what she really was: someone lying her ass off while she worked frantically to piece her shattered limbs back together. Bravely, she soldiered on, saying, “He was our jonin instructor – mine and Naruto and Sasuke’s. Out of all of us, Hatake Kakashi has the best chance of making a difference in Sasuke’s life.”

Itachi’s mouth twisted down, and his spinning eyes whirled faster. For a moment, Sakura dared to hope for a little more time while he considered it.

“No,” he said with finality. “Kakashi-senpai has already failed this mission once. There’s no use in him trying again.”

“Naruto?” asked Sakura. A shard of bone scraped past another one on its way to reforming her shin. It slotted neatly into its assigned place – the most complicated and personal of all 3D puzzle pieces. Repairing the ligaments and tendons in her arms and legs would be easier once she had her skeleton back in more or less the right shape. Belatedly, Sakura added, “Naruto was always Sasuke’s best friend as well as his rival.”

Itachi shook his head. “He has the kyuubi.”

Sakura didn’t know why that shielded Naruto from the best plans of deranged mass murderers, but apparently it did. She was more than a little jealous. Then she remembered the state that Naruto had been in the last time that she had seen him, and the feeling evaporated. Whatever the benefits, a shitty sealing job negated most of them.

Seeing Itachi’s attention return to his sealing array, Sakura quickly said, “What about Yamato-taicho? Back then, he was better placed than I was.”

“The shinobi that you call Yamato has an incompatible nindo,” said Itachi, his fingertips tracing the lines and swirls of his seal. It was just a working theory, but Sakura suspected that he was functionally blind. “And he has no hope of access to Sasuke while Sandaime leads Konohagakure. Factors beyond his control were held against him by the Sandaime.”

“Then someone from a ninja clan maybe?” offered Sakura, while eyeing Itachi’s handy work with increasing desperation. It was beginning to look alarmingly complete. “They always have pull.”

Bending his head over the seal that he was so painstakingly inscribing into the stone, Itachi very politely pretended not to hear her.

Sakura not so politely fumed.

Her plan, such as it was, was very simple: distract Itachi long enough to piece her legs back together, get free, stab Itachi with her poison-treated hairpin (originally a gift from Ino), and run away. She could fix her arms later – if there was a later. It was a good, solid plan despite lacking in several key details, such as how she planned to survive any part of it. Sakura had the nagging suspicion that, by his own standards, Itachi had been both kind and gentle with her up to this point. She expected that might change if she actually managed to stab or poison him.

Closing her eyes, Sakura concentrated on piecing herself back together.

She had the bulk of the work in her left leg done when Itachi made a little noise, and Sakura reflexively opened her eyes to see what had changed during her inattention. The answer was: not much. Itachi was still crouched on the floor next to a seal that was… Sakura couldn’t actually say what it was. She only recognized a handful of elements, all of them Uzushio.

And that was a problem.

With her background, Sakura knew seals. She was no Toad Sannin, but she had grown up in the Uzushio Quarter, back when it had actually been populated by Uzushio refugees. The Strength of One Hundred Seal had been her mastery project in medical sealing. She should have been able to discern something useful about Itachi’s seal, but looking at it now – really studying it – Sakura realized that she had no idea what it did. That wasn’t a good thing. Worse, whatever it was, it looked like it was finished or close to it.

Crouching on his heels next to his seal, Itachi looked almost pleased, despite the way that his whirling sharingan eyes were steadily dripping blood.

Sakura’s stomach sank.

Whatever he was going to do to her, it was going to be soon, and Sakura didn’t even have enough of her legs fixed to try to run away.

Rising, Itachi approached her saying, “Allow me,” and Sakura immediately redirected her chakra, reshaping and sharpening it. When Itachi grabbed Sakura, his bare palms making contact with the soft skin under her arms and his fingertips digging into her flesh, she lashed out with a minor lightening jutsu, scrambling the electrical signals between Itachi’s brain and his body.

Itachi grunted and collapsed, dropping her.

All techniques are worthless before my eyes, my ass! Sakura thought gleefully. Even if she died in the next few minutes, she would go to her death holding this moment close to her heart: the first time that she finally managed to knock some sharingan wielding asshole on his ass.

With any luck, it wouldn’t be her last.

“This resistance is pointless,” intoned Itachi from his place behind her. His leg was twitching against the small of her back. “A few more minutes will change nothing.”

Sakura closed her eyes and said nothing. She needed to concentrate.

More softly, he said, “I would sacrifice even these eyes for the opportunity that I am giving to you.”

“To die in agonizing pain?” needled Sakura, despite her best intentions.

“Is that what you think we are doing here?” asked Itachi. He sounded genuinely surprised. “I am giving you the opportunity to try again,” said Itachi softly, wistfully, and at the tone of his voice, Sakura actually opened her eyes. Tipping her head to one side, she tried to look at Itachi over her shoulder. She could see most of his face and about a third of his twitching body. None of it was particularly informative.

“To try what again?” she demanded.

“Everything,” he said, and he smiled. Even his teeth were bloodied. Sakura wished that she had been the one to do it. “If I could go back, I would look my brother in the eyes and tell him the truth. I would have been honest with Sasuke from the beginning.” He hesitated there and, looking lost, Itachi added in a smaller voice, “And… I would have stopped Kisame. I would have saved him too.”

It almost sounded as if he really thought that he could…

No.

That was impossible.

But where the hell did he get that seal?

“What truth?” pressed Sakura, because if there was one thing that Sakura had learned from Kakashi-sensei during that disastrous mission to Wave Country, it was the value of information gathering, especially when faced with impossible odds. All knowledge was useful eventually.

Itachi tilted his head to the side, catching Sakura’s eyes with one of his own spinning ones, and Sakura just had to think ‘Shit!’ before his eyes began to pull at her.

She really hated those eyes.

Sakura quickly countered his genjutsu, except it wasn’t a genjutsu at all, and in the depths of her mind, Inner Sakura woke, already roaring their battle cry.

“You will protect my foolish younger brother,” said Itachi severely, his black on red eyes spinning, and although her Inner shielded her from the worst of his technique, Sakura still felt Itachi’s words sink into her, catching in her being like barbed fishing hooks. “No matter what the cost, Haruno Sakura, you will protect Uchiha Sasuke.”

Then he cut her hand and kicked her into the seal, his bleeding hand landing on its outer edge a moment later.

Blood – his blood – flowed along the seal’s channels, the speed of its movements unnatural, and Itachi’s chakra flowed in its wake.

The last thing that she saw as she lay dying, as Uchiha Itachi’s blood surged through the seal inscribed into the stone, was a ragged crow. It opened its black beak to caw at her, and a sharingan eye blinked at Sakura from the back of its throat. A black, four-pointed shuriken was spinning, spinning, spinning, around a pinprick pupil in a sea of blood – her blood; hers and Itachi’s – and Sakura screamed as the seal took effect, shredding her essence.

Death would have been a mercy.

Chapter Text

Sakura slammed herself upright, gasping and shaking and utterly shocked to have woken up at all. In her ears rang a child’s screams.

There were footsteps, a door slammed opened, and Sakura lashed out, punching the moving… thing. There was a pained yelp, and Sakura rolled to the side, away from her attacker. A short drop before she clumsily landed on her knees – whole, undamaged, and tiny. And apparently she was the source of all the screaming.

Sakura immediately shut up.

Blinking hard, Sakura discovered that the moving things were her parents, looking younger than the last time that Sakura had seen them. Apparently, she had just gut-punched her mother.

Sakura would have felt bad about that – her parents were civilians, and thoroughly unprepared to be on the receiving end of chakra enhanced punches – but she was pretty sure that this was some deranged genjutsu of Itachi’s. She flexed her chakra, trying to dispel the genjutsu, and when that failed, Sakura momentarily reversed her chakra flow, disrupting it.

The first should have shattered the genjutsu, and the second collapsed it. Instead, nothing happened.

Sakura tried a more advanced technique, one that relied on the user’s mastery of medical ninjutsu and near perfect chakra control. It was a technique known only to Sakura, her shisho, and Shizune. There should have been no countering or circumventing it. The sharingan granted many abilities, Sakura knew, but an intimate knowledge of medical ninjutsu was not among them. Itachi would have fixed his eyes if it were.

But Sakura was still trapped in her childish body and still standing in a room that had been destroyed during the Sand-Sound Invasion. She was still looking up at her younger and very concerned parents. Sakura hadn’t seen them in years.

She was beginning to feel uneasy.

Pushing that away – fear management was an integral part of being an active shinobi – Sakura bit her lip hard enough to make it bleed, much to her parents’ very vocal horror.

They hadn’t disappeared. Worse, she was still there.

Temporarily admitting defeat, especially in the face of all that parental love, Sakura let her mother hug her. A moment later, her father joined them, his arms going around both Sakura and her mother. And despite everything – including nearly five years as an active duty shinbi, Itachi, her recent horrifying death, and all her better sense – Sakura relaxed into her parents’ affection.

Vaguely, Sakura wondered if this was how Itachi’s family had died: trapped in their own minds, surrounded by their loved ones and a false sense of security as he brutally butchered their bodies.

Sakura flexed her chakra once more, disrupted it again, and again altered the flow of chakra in her brain before biting the inside of her cheek so hard that it bled.

And yet, there they were: her parents. Alive, well, and loving on her like she really was a little girl again.

It was sweet enough that, even knowing this had to be some sort of nefarious sharingan-based genjutsu trap, Sakura still healed her mother’s forming bruise as an apology for hitting her in the first place. The trickle of chakra that she used was so tiny and so well spun that her mother didn’t even feel it.

Not that there was much damage done.

Her body was smaller, impossibly weaker, and lacked all of the enhancements of her proper body. Even without her care, the worst that her mother would have suffered was a nasty bruise.

Sakura was nearly offended by that.

It was hours before she got her parents settled again, using claims of a nightmare. It was nice – the hugs, the concern, the cup of hot cocoa – but it wasn’t real, none of it was. Sakura just wasn’t certain how Itachi was keeping her under. She had been on the receiving end of sharingan-induced genjutsu before, and while it had been difficult to break, she had managed to break it. Naruto had been the one who couldn’t break out of it. She and Chiyo had broken it for him. And yet, there she was: still trapped in one of the sharingan’s illusions.

The enormity of her failure burned.

Eventually her parents went back to bed, and Sakura directed a trickle of chakra into the seal on the wall that served as her nightlight, making it light up. She hadn’t needed it in years, but its warm, golden glow was almost as comforting as Sakura remembered it being.

Late into the night, Sakura lay in bed, trying frantically to break the genjutsu that had been cast on her. Sakura was still trying to break the genjutsu when her small, exhausted body betrayed her to its mounting exhaustion and fell asleep.

Stupid, fucking useless body.

 

 

 

If her body had worked at all like it was supposed to, Sakura would have killed her father when he woke her up the next morning. Instead, she fell out of bed a second time and her laughing father retreated to the doorway, blissfully unaware of her attempt at patricide.

“Is this what they’re teaching you at that school of yours?” he teased. “It’s ungraceful.”

“School?” Sakura demanded blearily. “Don’t go there. Haven’t gone in years.”

“It’s nice to see that your other dreams were better,” her father said, grinning. “But you’ve got to get up! You’ll be late!”

Sakura hated being late. Of course, a genjutsu with details drawn from her brain would know that.

Sighing, Sakura got up anyway.

Her father disappeared from the doorway, leaving Sakura to try to figure out what to dress her smaller, younger body in.

There were no red qipao dresses in her closet, so she wasn’t supposed to be twelve yet or near graduation. And a quick check of her dresser’s top turned up the all important red ribbon. Whenever she was supposed to be, she hadn’t challenged Ino yet for Sasuke.

And she hadn’t yet invested in any shorts, which meant that all of her skirts and delicate little dresses were out. All of the shirts with cutouts in the sleeves were too impractical – as were most of her pants.

In the end, Sakura settled on a loose jersey, pale pink with the words “Angel Approved” stamped across the back in sky blue letters, and a pair of snug black pants that only came about three-quarters of the way down her legs. The pants seemed to be made from the same material as her shorts usually were, which made them the most practical item in her younger self’s closet.

Sakura remembered that she used to hate that jersey as a kid. It had been a birthday gift from her parents, one that had come a couple of years too late – or too early, depending on one’s view of the timeline. She had hated its practical cut, been appalled by its bold colors, and been embarrassed by the phrase printed on the back. Even back then, she had wanted Sasuke-kun to think her pretty.

And just look at how that turned out, thought Sakura, her mouth turning down.

Sakura shrugged out of her pajamas, yanking on her chosen articles of clothes with far more force than was strictly necessary. In her proper body, that would have ripped the fabric. In this smaller, weaker one, it didn’t even pop the stitches. She ran a brush through her hair, tied the all important red ribbon in the place her forehead protector usually went, and went downstairs for breakfast. Still unused to her smaller body’s limbs, the stairs were nearly a death trap.

Breakfast, at least, was good. It was exactly the way that she remembered her mother’s breakfasts being: egg on rice, steamed fish, and vegetables. And it was as tasty as she remembered her mother’s cooking being. Sakura wolfed down her portion and collected her childhood bento box.

Sakura had carried that lunch box all six years of her academy career. She had even carried it to practices on Team Seven until a stray fireball had melted it. Her lunchbox should have felt familiar and comforting to her, but while its weight was familiar, her lunch box’s scuff marks were all wrong. It didn’t have enough of them.

Because I’m not rivals with Ino yet, Sakura realized. Their rivalry had been hard on her everything.

Pushing away her disquiet, Sakura smiled brightly.

“I’m off!” chirped Sakura. “I’ll see you later!”

“Have a good day!” chorused her parents, and Sakura smiled again for her fake parents before she tripped out the door and down the front stairs to the street below.

I need to go somewhere quiet – maybe one of the practice grounds – and break this strange technique, thought Sakura, as she emerged onto the pavement, and then felt light-headed. In her head, there was an ugly twist and her thoughts rearranged themselves. Those hooks in her psyche dug into her brain, tugging her towards the academy… and more importantly, Sasuke.

She had to protect him.

He was foolish and weak and so, so precious. Sasuke was everything.

Sakura went cold.

That, Sakura knew, was no sentiment of hers, and neither was the swell of love – wild, wounded, brotherly.

Sasuke was a bright, shining thing in her life – the only bright, shining thing in her life. She had to protect Sasuke, no matter what the costs.

Sakura pushed back against those thoughts, Inner Sakura rising up to crush a swell of foreign desperation. She had thought them, felt them, but they weren’t hers.

Itachi’s will was as unforgiving as the sun in Suna, but Sakura’s will was no mean thing either. Sakura raged against the compulsion, pitting her will against Itachi’s, but the barbed hooks were so deeply embedded into her brain that not even Inner Sakura could get them out, though she tried.

For now, Sakura was stuck. She would obey the compulsion, and Inner Sakura would keep the worst of Itachi’s technique at bay until she could figure out how to remove it in its entirety from her brain.

Sakura went to the academy, but she didn’t go there willingly, much less happily.

The run to school was breathtaking – and not just because Sakura was jogging.

The Uzushio Quarter was bright and alive and vibrant in a way that it hadn’t been in years, not since the Sand-Sound invasion. All of the buildings were once again painted cheerful shades of blue and green and pink, colorful tiles picking out waving trees and swirling waves, flying birds and swimming fish. They drew the eye to the district’s walls… and away from the seals that circled the windows, doors, and archways of almost every building in the district.

Friends, neighbors, and even passing acquaintances that she hadn’t seen in years – most dead, some moved away, many barely remembered – waved or called out to Sakura as she ran by and, unexpected tears stinging her eyes, Sakura waved back, breathlessly shouting cheerful greetings as she slowly jogged past. She hadn’t realized that she remembered – or forgotten – so many things about the old district. She hadn’t even realized how much she had missed it.

But what would have been the point? wondered Sakura, as she angrily swiped away her tears. What’s gone is gone.

Except, apparently, in genjutsu; there, home was the same as it always had been, as it always should have been.

It was a long run from the Uzushio Quarter to the Ninja Academy – the length of the village, in fact – but when Sakura finally got there, wheezing and out of breath, the academy was… exactly as it had always been: enormous, battered, and defensible, although that last was only visible to her now. Ghosts of her past milled in the school yard – Hinata and Shino were standing together near the front doors, while Ino held court over a gaggle of little girls… and Shikamaru and Choji, who just happened to be respectively napping and snacking within earshot of the blonde. Neji was loitering near Hinata and looking pissy as all hell about it. Naruto slouched on the swing and glaring at everyone indiscriminately.

There was no sign of Lee, Tenten, Kiba or Akamaru. Or of Sasuke – a thought which brought all of Itachi’s seething desperation surging to the forefront of her brain again, despite her Inner’s best efforts to beat it off. There was just so much of it.

Sakura was wrestling with that – she was struggling to crush Itachi’s craziness down to acceptable levels and force it to the back of her brain – when someone knocked into her shoulder hard enough to send her careening into the fence.

Sakura caught herself with her face.

At least that shut Itachi up.

Peeling herself from the wooden boards, Sakura looked up in time to see Kiba pelt past her without a word of apology or even a glance.

It was weird to see him without Akamaru. Wrong, as everything had been wrong since she had woken up in her childhood bedroom – and her childhood body; mustn’t forget the body.

And had Kiba really been such an asshole to her when they were… whatever age they were?

If that part turned out to be some shred of memory gleaned from a forgotten corner of her mind, Sakura was going to punch him – just as soon as she saved herself from this genjutsu and the madman holding her under it.

“Sakura!” shouted a girlish voice, and Sakura automatically looked.

Ino was waving an arm at her.

“Hurry up!” shouted the Yamanaka. “Or we’ll be late!”

It didn’t really matter – it was all just an illusion – but Sakura jogged across the courtyard anyway, cursing her younger body’s slowness. Had she really been so easily winded?

Ino led Sakura inside, taking her first to their lockers and then to their classroom. From that, Sakura discovered that they were in their second to last year at the Shinobi Academy. From the date carefully written in the top right hand corner of the blackboard, Sakura learned that she was eleven years old. Apparently, she had recently had her birthday.

Happy belated birthday to me, thought Sakura and scowled.

Sitting through morning classes afforded Sakura the opportunity to consider her failure to break the genjutsu from multiple angles. What it boiled down to, Sakura decided, was the fact that, mangekyo sharingan eyes or no, she could break Uchiha Itachi’s genjtutsu. She had done it before, and she could certainly do it again. Except last night, she hadn’t been able to dispel the illusion – perhaps because it was no illusion.

She might really be here, trapped in her eleven year old body and on a mission for Uchiha Itachi.

Fuck, she hoped not. Sakura had liked herself, and she had liked what she was working to become. She had loved her life. If she had to do it all over again – if she was really eleven again –

Sakura put her head down on the desk in front of her and willed herself not to cry.

She didn’t know how long she had slumped there – or how long she might have slumped there – before a small hand patted her back.

“It won’t be that bad,” whispered Ino. “I’ll help you, Sakura.”

What won’t be that bad? Sakura wondered. Straightening, Sakura listened more carefully.

Apparently, end of year evaluations were upon them. Starting on Monday, while Suzume-sensei and Iruka-sensei met with individual students to discuss their progress, strengths, and weaknesses, the rest of the class would be doing conditioning with Mizuki-sensei and the rest of the fifth years.

Well, good. This body definitely needed conditioning. If Sakura was really stuck with it – and she shuddered just imagining it – but if she was, then she wanted it to be at least as fast and strong as her real body was.

And in the meantime, Sakura could relearn how to walk and run and throw in this body. Just thinking about that – about how much she had lost when Uchiha Itachi had stolen her life from her – made Sakura want to cry again.

Her eyes stung with tears, and she bit the inside of her cheek hard enough to taste blood, but she didn’t cry. Sakura didn’t do that sort of thing anymore, not since she had reported Uchiha Sasuke as a missing nin.

And it could always be worse.

She could have stayed dead.

Tsunade-shisho would never have forgiven her if she had stayed dead.

Thinking of her master, of her strength and determination despite her terrible luck and her unending grief, Sakura straightened. New strength flooded her heart.

She could do this.

Probably – no definitely. She could definitely do this.

She was a proud shinobi of Konohagakure. She was the second disciple of the Godaime Hokage! And she was the heir to all of the power of the Slug Sannin. Even if she was unmoored from her life, eleven again, and alone, she wouldn’t be anything less. She would adapt and survive and fucking thrive in this new life of hers. And she definitely wasn’t going to lose – not to time or herself or Uchiha Itachi, when she saw him again, because one way or another, she was going to see him again. (And when she did, she was going to break his pretty fucking face! Cha!)

But first… she had to survive being eleven again in Sandaime’s Konohagakure.

I know things, Sakura thought unhappily, information if not the exact course of future events. I should probably tell someone. And maybe see if they’ll give me back to Tsunade-shisho… or even Kakashi-sensei.

Just thinking it brought back all of Itachi’s dizzying desperation. Those hooks dug into her brain again, twisting her thoughts around themselves.

If she told them about her future, then she would have to tell them about Sasuke – there would be no leaving him out. Yamanaka Inoichi was too thorough for that, Nara Shikaku too clever, and Morino Ibiki too paranoid. She couldn’t tell about Sasuke – about what he’d become or how he had died. She had to protect him, no matter what.

Even as she thought them, Sakura knew that those were not her thoughts. It was not her love coursing in her veins. But even knowing that those thoughts and those feelings was Itachi’s – and even with all of her experience tamping down on her Inner’s mood swings – Sakura still had trouble crushing Itachi’s compulsion down to manageable levels.

But if even thinking about it makes me this crazy, then I really can’t tell them anything, thought Sakura, her eyes fixed on the back of Sasuke’s messy head.

Not saying anything would make her a sleeper agent at best, a spy at worst. As it was now, the Council of Elders would see her tortured to death for that in the name of extracting information… and possibly shutting her up, considering some of the things that she had heard about them since becoming Tsunade-shisho’s apprentice.

She was no one to Sandaime Hokage, and she could expect no aid from that quarter. Tsunade, Shizune, and Kakashi didn’t even know her yet. She had grown up as Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji’s playmate, but it would be foolish to expect aid from the Yamanaka, Nara, or Akimichi clans. They were all smaller clans, and despite the positions that their respective clan heads held within the village, their political power was limited. At eleven, there had been nothing about her to suggest that she might be someone worth knowing someday, much less someone worth burning political capital to protect.

All of her successes and good deeds, all of her friendships and camaraderies, the reputation that she had made for herself, and the respect that she had earned were gone, washed away with her missing years. Even all of her growth, personally and as a shinobi, had been taken from her.

She had nothing, she was nothing, and she had no one.

Not even when she had been at her absolute lowest after Team Seven had things been as bad for her as they were now.

Friends all around, thought Sakura grimly, and not one of them is really mine.

It was impressive how thoroughly Uchiha Itachi had fucked up her life without even trying. She had just been collateral damage in his unrelenting drive to save Sasuke, which come to think of it, was weird. Common wisdom held that Itachi had slaughtered the entire Uchiha clan just to see if he could.

Apparently, he could.

Except all should have included Sasuke, which it hadn’t; if the gibbering puddle of crazed panic at the back of her brain was to be believed – and Sakura couldn’t imagine why it wouldn’t be – that was the absolute last thing that Itachi wanted, and he was willing to sacrifice himself, her, and the future that she had come from to see his will done. That was an awful lot of effort to go to for someone that you planned to murder for the sin of being born an Uchiha.

It didn’t make sense and, had she been in her own bright future, Sakura would have pursued that line of thought. Instead, she temporarily tabled it in favor of figuring out what she was going to do – and how she was going to survive this mess.

As much as it pained her to think it, the easiest thing – the safest thing – might be to go missing nin for awhile; just long enough to find Tsunade and Shizune, at least, and ask them to fix her brain. But even considering that as an option available to her was enough to bring Itachi’s compulsion roaring back to life. If she left the village, then who would protect Sasuke?

What am I going to do? Sakura wondered. What can I do?

She was stuck.

 

 

 

Taijutsu practice that day was an exercise in humiliation.

The less said about that the better.

 

 

 

In the end, Sakura decided that she had to start somewhere.

If she could get rid of the compulsion that Itachi had planted in her head, then she would have so many more options. So, objective number one: fix her own brain.

In her time – the time that she was originally from – such a resolution wouldn’t have been much help. At the beginning of her tenure as Hokage, Sakura’s master had banning the use of mind altering jutsu and compulsion techniques on Leaf nin by Leaf medic nin. Those were the sort of shortcuts in medical care, her shisho had said grimly, that ultimately weakened the village and cost lives.

Accordingly, all of the information on those techniques had been removed from the medical section of the general library and moved to the smaller, hidden library in ANBU HQ. Those techniques had sunk into the sole province of ANBU’s Intelligence and T&I departments. Ino had been really good at them.

But if they had been banned from general use by the medical corps by the Godaime Hokage, then it meant that they were still in use by the Sandaime Hokage’s medical forces. Everything that Sakura needed to fix herself was waiting for her in the medical section of the general library. She just needed a reason to start hanging out there again – and if that reason paid, so much the better.

So that same afternoon, Sakura stopped by the hospital to pick up information packets for the hospital’s various medical programs. She already knew what she was going to go out for – the field medics’ corps, of course – but it was important to look like she was exploring her options.

It was only an abundance of caution, drilled into her across several years of being a sitting Hokage’s apprentice, that made Sakura read and then reread the various forms’ fine print before she signed anything. And with every reading, her stomach got tighter and sank further. It was somewhere around her knees when Sakura finished and sat back in her seat.

The position of field medic had been created during the Third Shinobi War under the direction of Senju Tsunade. After the Third Shinobi War had ended, and without Tsunade to champion it, the position had apparently sunk first into unimportance then mediocrity; it became a nice idea, rather than a necessity.

As Senju Tsunade’s apprentice, Sakura knew that. And as her apprentice, Sakura knew that it wouldn’t be until the Godaime Hokage came to power and enrolled her apprentice, a then thirteen year old Haruno Sakura in the medical corps, specifically in the position of field medic, that the field medics’ corps would once again rise to become a necessary and respected branch of Konohagakure’s medical corps. Its members would be considered the elite among the medical ranks. Any semi-competent medic nin could save a life in a hospital. Only someone with real skill could save that same life while up to their knees in mud and while taking enemy fire.

Sakura had always been proud to be a field medic. Making field medic had been the first tangible step towards her dream. Now, though, to be a field medic was to be a joke. To know academically that it would be that way was one thing. To see it all but written out in front of her – to know that when she re-upped with the field medics’ corps she was going to become a joke again – was something much worse.

To be a field medic under Sandaime was to be a glorified band-aid dispenser and stretcher carrier, someone viewed incapable of providing competent on the spot care. Apparently, they weren’t even expected to observe Tsunade-shisho’s four laws. Her job would be to fight – if she could, if she wouldn’t hold anyone back with her incompetence – long enough to rush her patients back to the village so that the real medic nin could care for them properly.

Fuck that. She was probably a better medic nin than all of the rest of them combined. She was Senju Tsunade’s apprentice and her heir. Even Kakashi-sensei had thought that she might outstrip her master someday.

The key words there being was and had thought, Sakura thought grimly.

She wasn’t Senju Tsunade’s apprentice or heir now.

No one thought that she could outstrip a career genin, never mind the Slug Sanin.

And jokes or not, field medics still had access to the medical library.

If she was going to perform highly inadvisable brain surgery on herself – an action flying directly in the face of good sense, any discernible sense of self-preservation, and all the applicable medical canons – then she needed access to that library.

Mind made up, Sakura tossed all of the other information packets in the little pink wastepaper basket to one side of her desk. Grimly, she scrawled her name across the top of the application for the position of field medic.

Sakura was the absolute best field medic that the Village Hidden in the Leaves had produced since Senju Tsunade had fled it. She had made them acknowledge her as such once. How hard could it be to do it again?

Hellish – but as she filled out her forms, Sakura pretended not to know that.

 

 

 

When Sakura left home the next morning, it was with a bounce in her step, her completed application clutched in her hot little hand, and the remnants of her birthday money safely tucked between the outer side and inner lining of her little lunch box. As Sakura remembered things, theft was a real problem at the ninja academy. Money in pockets was like asking to fend off a legion of burgeoning pickpockets, but no one would question her devotion to guarding her lunch, not with an Akimichi as both a friend and a classmate.

Akimichi took food very seriously.

Sakura dropped her application off at the hospital on her way to school, vowing the moment that it left her hand to come back and check on her status in the program every day if that was what it took to get access to the medical library and all its wonderfully useful books and scrolls on compulsion techniques.

From there, Sakura picked up the pace, jogging to the academy and arriving just in time to plop into her seat a heartbeat before Iruka-sensei strode into the room. By habit, she claimed the empty seat next to Ino, who slid a look sideways at her but otherwise said nothing. It was surprising how quickly the little things were coming back to her, when the bigger things – running, throwing, kicking Kiba in the head – were still eluding her. Damn it.

Classes were surprisingly boring. Sakura had remembered her teachers as being much better speakers. Now, all she noticed were the minor inaccuracies and the way that they glossed over the most interesting parts of their subject matter. It was probably too complicated for academy students, but Sakura would have been interested in a lecture comparing Leaf’s modern sealing techniques to those sealing techniques that had survived the fall of the Village Hidden in the Whirlpools and tracing how the former had evolved from the latter. It was a fascinating area of inquiry.

Instead, Sakura got to watch Iruka-sensei seal, unseal, and reseal a kunai into a storage scroll, while he droned on and on and on about how useful and valuable a decent storage scroll was. According to Iruka-sensei, they were an expensive but necessary part of ninja life. He seemed to think that storage scrolls were incredibly difficult to make.

Fun fact: Storage scrolls weren’t really that hard to make. Sakura had made every storage scroll that she had ever owned. All you needed was some good quality paper that absorbed chakra, equally high quality ink, also chakra absorbent, a thorough grounding in basic sealing techniques, and the ability to both generate and manipulate pure yin chakra. Tsunade would have beaten the tar out of Sakura for wasting her money on stupid stuff like pre-made storage scrolls when they could have taken it to the track and blown it on a sure thing.

Allowing her gaze to briefly flick to Sasuke – still there, still alive, still utterly oblivious – Sakura let her thoughts drift while she idly worked her way through a familiar set of chakra exercises, feeling unspeakably grateful that at least her previously legendary chakra control had followed her into this weaker body.

Working with her chakra – inside her body, where no one but a Hyuuga would see what she was doing – Sakura discovered with a dull sense of delight that she definitely had more chakra than she remembered having even at thirteen. Most of it was yin chakra, reflecting her older mind in her younger body, but Sakura was confident that her yang chakra production would soon adjust to balance it out. Conditioning this body would certainly stimulate yang chakra production and speed up the process. If she was very lucky, she might even end up with larger chakra stores than last time, though Sakura wasn’t going to hold her breath.

Given her current chakra levels and using them to project her future chakra levels as well as her future level of fitness, Sakura felt that a layer of very basic body modifications made sometime at the beginning of the next school year wouldn’t hurt her. She could be stronger, faster, and more durable again. Her monstrous strength would only be a second round of body modifications away.

Unfortunately, yin, yang, or mixed with a nature, Sakura couldn’t afford to be seen using any of her chakra yet. At eleven, she hadn’t known a single jutsu – and hadn’t had access to any, either. With nothing else to do with it, Sakura figured that she would simply up the amount of chakra sent to her Ram seal – after she got around to resealing herself that was. Hopefully, her forced inactivity would allow Sakura to bring the Creation Rebirth and Strength of a Hundred Seals to full power sooner than last time – maybe even in time to save her life this time.

Crazy Uchiha bastard, Sakura thought, scowling. But since there was nothing to be done about it at the present moment, Sakura let her grudge – and her thoughts – slide away from her.

Past Iruka-sensei’s shoulder, Sakura could see one of the academy’s many trees through the classroom’s window. It was enormous and old, but not as big as any of the ones that the Shodai had grown at the village’s founding. Those trees were monstrously large, and they never bloomed, not like the one outside the window.

It was kind of amazing that the Shodai Hokage’s jutsu had outlived him by so much.

He must have used senjutsu to grow them, Sakura thought idly. It was the only explanation that made any sense.

All ninjutsu techniques, save those that fell under the category of medical ninjutsu, were made up of some combination of yin and yang chakra and an elemental nature. Yin chakra gave shape to a technique, yang chakra gave it strength, and the element was the medium through which they were expressed.

A greater yin to less yang chakra ratio produced things like genjutsu, the Yamanaka clan’s Mind-Body Switch techniques, and the Nara clan’s Shadow techniques.

Yang chakra was what allowed ninja to instinctively fortify their bodies, granting themselves greater strength, speed, and durability. It was an integral part of the body modifications that she and Tsunade shared – had shared.

Senjutsu, however, was different. It was the gathering and manipulation of the natural energy that all living things produced by the simple act of, well, continuing to be alive. Everything – people, animals, plants – all produced a small field of it around themselves. That natural, living energy was the difference between Shodai’s trees and Kakashi-sensei’s water dragon, and the reason that the former had outlived their creator, while the latter collapsed the moment that Kakashi-sensei’s chakra flow faltered.

Tsunade had taught Sakura a bit about gathering and manipulating senjutsu in the course of her studies at the hospital. Sakura had collected and manipulated natural energy – in the most rudimentary fashion possible, and certainly without achieving anything remotely comparable to the Slug Sage’s level of skill – while creating and producing her Medical Pills.

The day that their clinical trials had been declared a success and her Medical Pills had been added to every medic nin’s first aid kit had been one of Sakura’s proudest achievements. It had secured the future of the Haruno clan – her clan, the one that she was going to found someday – as a clan of medic nin in Konohagakure. As long as her descendents could produce those pills for the village, they would have a place in the shinobi world.

Now, she had to carve that place out for herself all over again.

Another person might have been crushed by her losses.

Sakura chose to think of it as an opportunity to overcome and do better this time… somehow, despite the fact that things had worked out pretty well for her the first time.

Sakura tried really, really hard not to think how well things had been working out for her – despite Sasuke losing his body, before Itachi set off Naruto and stole her life. When she did, it was sometimes difficult to remember that being eleven again was a wonderful opportunity rather than karma punching her in the face via the hand of a suicidal maniac. She probably deserved some sort of hellish karmic punishment for every opportunity that she had ever squandered – so her entire life up until age thirteen, basically – but this seemed a little steep.

Focusing on the here and now seemed like her best option.

Not that focusing seemed to be helping her smaller, weaker, stupider body hit the stationary target. Sakura couldn’t believe that there had ever been a time when tossing a kunai down the length of the academy’s kunai range had been difficult for her, but it was impossible to argue with the ache in her shoulders.

When her blunted practice kunai landed several feet short of the target yet again, Sakura grimly reminded herself that this was yet another opportunity to overcome her deficiencies.

It didn’t help.

Damn it! Sakura thought, scowling as she sloped back to her place in line. Mortification churned in her gut, acidic. I’m the only real chunin here. I’m better than this! I should be our year’s number one rookie!

She hadn’t been the first time around, of course, but then Sakura hadn’t been a displaced chunin in an academy student’s body back then either. It had been a simpler time.

Becoming her year’s number one rookie – an honor that should have rightfully belonged to Ino, though common wisdom had mistaken Sasuke for their year’s number one – was a stupid, petty goal, but it was better than nothing. She still had her pride – and she needed something to strive for, Tsunade had beaten the habit of it into her.

But first, she needed to learn how to make this body move the way that she wanted it to, when she wanted it to, and how she wanted it to move – preferably without humiliating herself any more in the process. That last, though, might have just been wishful thinking on her part. Biting back a sigh, Sakura watched Sasuke make his throws.

Pretty good, Sakura decided grudgingly. But then, lack of skill had never been Sasuke’s problem.

It was a long, frustrating afternoon.

After school, Sakura went first to the hospital – her paperwork hadn’t been processed yet – then to her favorite stationer’s shop, the sidewalks under her feet dappled with shade by the trees lining them. Most of the trees that lined Konohagakure streets were the smaller ones that had come up long after the Shodai had died. But here and there among them towered the ones that the Shodai had grown at the village’s founding, as big and leafy and bare of flowers as all the rest of their kind.

Standing on the inner edge of the Uzushio district, Sakura’s favorite stationer’s shop was only about ten feet wide and maybe about a hundred feet deep, although half of that had gone to a back storeroom. Neatly tucked between a much larger armorer’s shop and an equally tiny place that sold painting supplies, it was easy to miss. Sakura hadn’t even noticed that the shop until she was eleven. Like so many things, it had disappeared in the wake of the Sand-Sound Invasion. If Sakura remembered rightly, the painting place had taken over its space. Sai had often called on her in the name of teamwork and friendship and their bond as comrades to lug home Sai’s canvases from the art place for him.

Thinking about Sai – about where he must be and what he was likely doing – made Sakura’s heart ache for her teammate. Shoving those thoughts away, Sakura pushed her way into the shop, a trio of jingling bells hanging overhead betraying her arrival.

Inside the shop, Sakura asked the clerk behind the counter as cutely as she knew how for their third largest paper scroll, three bottles of chakra infusible ink – one black, one blue, and one red – and the smallest, finest brush in the shop. That last, the brush, had to be fetched from the back stock room, its long tan box lid dusty with waiting – for someone like her, Sakura imagined. Not many people had a use for such a thin brush with such fine hairs.

The clerk, a retired shinobi with a slightly misaligned face and a limp, eyed Sakura speculatively as he rang up her purchases.

“Trying your hand at sealing?” he guessed, while Sakura carefully arranged her younger self’s life savings on the counter. It was all the money that she would have spent on pretty dresses, cute haircuts, and nail polish the first time around.

Now, Sakura caught her breath and held it, making her face blush. Widening her eyes, she tried her hardest to look every one of her eleven years.

“Yes!” she chirped brightly. “Iruka-sensei taught us all about storage scrolls today! Making one didn’t look that hard. But I thought it might be, er, cheaper to buy a big scroll and then cut it into practice squares.”

The shinobi smiled.

The paper that Sakura was buying wasn’t chakra infusible – a requirement for sealing scrolls – but he didn’t correct her obvious mistake, saying instead, “It’s good, steady work if you’ve got the knack for it,” and quoted a price that was fifty brass coins more than Sakura had. At her expression, he chuckled and made up the difference.

“Thank you,” said Sakura, her gratitude heartfelt. On impulse, she added, “Someday, I’ll make a storage scroll for you. A good one!”

And the clerk smiled again. It wasn’t pretty, but it was very kind, so Sakura beamed back at him.

At home, Sakura did a couple of hours of conditioning – most of it focused on running without falling on her face – showered, and ate dinner with her parents. That last, something that Sakura hadn’t been able to do since she was thirteen, was something that she had been enjoying since she woke up eleven. Like the district, she had missed them more than she had realized.

After dinner, Sakura retired to her room, claiming homework. Resealing herself was a kind of homework.

It was only when she got up to her room that Sakura realized that she had nowhere to do her sealing. Her desk was too small, and her lab no longer her own. Or was it not yet her own?

Sakura shook her head.

Time travel was complicated. Better to stick to the matters at hand.

I’m going to have to do some rearranging, decided Sakura, while eyeing her bedroom critically.

Moving furniture – even small pieces of furniture – was a lot more work without her monstrous strength to carry her – or rather it.

When Sakura was fourteen, Tsunade had taught Sakura the Uzumaki clan’s Yin Seal as well as her own Creation Rebirth Seal. To those seals, Sakura had eventually added her own mastery seal – the Strength of One Hundred Seal. None of the seals were dependent on the others, though by layering them, Sakura had to fill all three to capacity with her chakra before she could use any of them, either independently or in concert. In this, at least, her confinement to the academy would be an asset to her rather than just an annoyance.

Getting out a colored pencil and a ruler, Sakura began to sketch out the lines of her first seal – the Yin Seal – in bold red lines. Over it, she planned to sketch out both the Creation Rebirth Seal and the Strength of One Hundred seals in differently colored pencils before she inked in any of the seals. They were all complicated seals with a great many precisely placed lines and angles, and she couldn’t afford to mess up any of them. Literally, could not afford it. She hadn’t been able to afford the supplies that she currently had. There would be no replacing anything if she screwed up.

It took hours to get the first seal penciled in, and when she did, a tap on her bedroom door nearly made her smudge the lines.

“What?” Sakura snapped, angry at the interruption.

“Bedtime!” trilled her mother’s voice, muffled by the wood of the door.

“I’m busy!”

“Bedtime,” repeated her mother more firmly. “You can work on your school project tomorrow, honey.”

Graduation was the age of majority in the ninja world. Twelve only a year away, but at that moment it felt very far off.

“Yes, mama,” gritted Sakura, and though she was loathe to do it, she carefully cleared away her sealing equipment. She wished that she could set security jutsu on her desk without drawing attention to it or herself.

Instead, Sakura tucked her things beneath her bed. If anyone tried to get at her secret, she’d wake up. In her current body, she might not be able to do anything about it, but at least she’d know what had happened. Under the current circumstances, it was the best that she could do.

Sakura really hated being eleven again.

 

 

 

It wasn’t just her mother or her bedtime holding her back, Sakura discovered when she finally went to ink her seals.

To work, each line of each seal had to be infused with the same amount of chakra as every other line in that seal. Every wisp of chakra had to be a perfectly balanced mix of yin, yang, and natural chakra, the latter carefully kept devoid of any elemental nature. And each seal had to be inked in its entirety before she could move onto the next. None of the lines, angles, chakra, or ink belonging to any given seal could bleed into the others, save for the places where she had done it intentionally to link the seals together, allowing Sakura to draw the chakra from one when she was using the others.

Inking those seals was hard work, requiring perfect concentration… and a lot more chakra than Sakura’s small body currently possessed. It was going to be several days before Sakura could fully reseal herself.

But she was also five, nearly six, years in her past. Sakura had nothing but time. However long it took, she would eventually manage it.

Sakura was the name of a tree as well as a flower, and she was determined that her second bloom was going to be even better than her first.

Count on it.

 

 

 

Her fourth morning in the past, Sakura went slightly crazy.

But only slightly; it wasn’t like she killed anyone.

When she came back to herself, Sakura had a chunk of pink hair clutched in one hand and a blunted practice kunai in the other. In the mirror, her eyes were wide – too wide – and only half of her hair was still shoulder length. The other half was barely past her ears, its shorn ends uneven and ragged.

Sakura could have used medical jutsu to re-grow the lost inches in a heartbeat. Instead, she dropped the handful of hair in the sink with all the other handfuls of hair that had been carelessly tossed there and grabbed another hank of her pink hair. With quick, steady hands, Sakura hacked off the rest of her hair.

The haircut wasn’t great. In fact, it actually looked worse than that time that she cut her hair in the Forest of Death. And it didn’t do anything to make Sakura look more like herself, not when the body that housed her mind was in was so tiny and weak and helpless, not when the face was all wrong, even if the eyes were right. But it was a start.

And it made her happier.

One glimpse of her impromptu haircut was enough to make her mother cry.

Twice, she offered to take Sakura to the hair salon before school, her voice rising with each of Sakura’s refusals.

“Mama, I can’t be late to school.” Well, she could, but it wouldn’t do much to help her blend in with her classmates.

“At least let me neaten it up for you,” said her mother desperately. “And maybe – maybe some hair products will hide –”

“No,” said Sakura sharply. If she was going to hide what she had done, she would have left her hair alone. Or at least she would have re-grown it before she left the bathroom. She wanted to look different – and feel more like herself. More gently, Sakura added, “I can’t be late. Iruka-sensei yells at latecomers and makes them stand in the hallway. It’s embarrassing.”

Sakura left, while her mother was still offering to write her a note.

She risked jogging through the district, nearly tripping over the nearest curb or cat every time that she dared to wave at anyone she knew or who knew her. This morning, she tripped every few minutes instead of every other step like before.

Progress!

Her body was still slow, and it still easily tired, but her hair was short, it was a nice day, and the Uzushio Quarter was bright with life again. All in all, it seemed like it might be a good day.

When Sakura arrived at school, Ino looked at her twice, but wisely said nothing.

 

 

 

Earth, water, senjutsu, yin chakra and yang, thought Sakura during morning classes, her thoughts sing-songing, that’s what Shodai’s trees are made of.

She was ignoring a lecture on – shinobi ranks, Sakura discovered – in favor of (working her chakra and) further contemplation of the tree outside the window. It was a very nice tree; sturdy and good for climbing. The Shodai’s trees were better, though.

Sakura wondered if the Shodaime Hokage had deliberately done that, mixing his elements together to make the biggest, best, and most sturdy tree that he could or if it had just happened that way, his body working on instinct.

Yamato, she knew, had always had to think about it – clapping his hands together to mix his earth release with his water release to produce wood jutsu. But Yamato had also begun life as a horrifying medical experiment somehow gone unexpectedly right, so who knew if his deliberation was the same as the Shodaime Hokage’s.

Most shinobi, Sakura knew, instinctively mixed their yin and yang chakra together. They learned the correct mix for their techniques via trial and error, and then practiced hitting that balance until they didn’t have to think about it anymore. She had never done it that way, though. Her chakra control had always been good, which in turn had enabled her to understand on an almost instinctual level how much of her limited supply of chakra to pour into any given technique. It was how she had accomplished tree walking on her first attempt – and later mastered water walking after a single morning’s practice.

Mastering medical jutsu had meant learning how to deliberately separate and then blend back together various amounts of yin and yang chakra to achieve her desired result. The ability to do deliberately what others did instinctively was one of the skills that separated a master medical ninja from a mere journeyman medic. Tsunade’s reasons for her insistence on this standard of excellence were esoteric at best – and mostly boiled down to, because I say so – but it was impossible to argue with the results. Konohagakure’s master medical ninja were the finest medic nins in the world.

Bored, Sakura decided to work from the assumption that Shodai, like Yamato, had used an element of deliberation when mixing his energies and chakra natures to make trees. She began to sketch out potential methods of mixing yin chakra, yang chakra, senjutsu, and his two chakra natures to grow a tree out of nothing in lieu of taking notes on – shinobi ranks; they were still discussing shinobi ranks. How much was there to say on that, anyway?

Sakura only stopped sketching out her theories when Ino elbowed her in the side, and frowning, Sakura looked up from a tricky bit of theorizing. Apparently, they were going to have a guest speaker today in lieu of weapons practice.

“Ota Ichiro is from the Talon Division,” said Bekko-sensei. “Please give him a warm welcome – and your full attention.”

That last was said with a pointed look in Sakura’s direction, one that she pretended not to notice.

The speaker from the Talon Division, at least, was interesting to Sakura. At the very beginning, back when she was not yet trusted to work on human patients, Sakura had practiced her skills on the village’s birds. Nothing in her life had prepared her for the pride – the sense of accomplishment – that had come from seeing her newly healed patients take flight. She still remembered the joy that had tripped through her chest the first time that it had happened.

Ota Ichiro was the bright spot in her morning. The rest of it was nearly too dull to be borne.

 

 

 

At lunch, Ino asked what was up with Sakura’s hair.

“Nothing,” snapped Sakura defensively. Ino blinked at her sudden hostility – hurt flittering across her child’s face – and Sakura sighed. They weren’t best rivals as well as best friends yet. “It was time for a change?” Sakura offered more gently, and ruffled a hand through her shorn locks.

“I could even it up for you,” Ino offered warily, and Sakura smiled, feeling suddenly and unaccountably happy at the inadvertent parallel.

“Yes, please,” she said meekly. Her mother had offered earlier – and nearly cried at the idea of Sakura going outside looking like that – but it hadn’t been the same, and she hadn’t had time anyway, not if she was going to be on time for school.

So Ino cut Sakura’s hair, Choji finished Sakura’s lunch, and Shikamaru watched them all with his dark eyes. For all that he was the laziest person that she had ever known, Shikamaru was also one of the most curious. New things held his attention.

Watching him watch her, Sakura vowed to be as boring as possible for the foreseeable future.


Chapter Text

As a child, Sakura had never really thought about it, but the Uzushio Quarter was filled with seals. Truthfully, she hadn’t even noticed, not even after she had begun spending more time in the village proper – at the academy, at Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji’s houses, or at the ninja shops. She hadn’t even noticed when she had begun taking missions on Team Seven. Sakura hadn’t realized how much she knew about seals until she began studying medical sealing under her master. And she hadn’t realized the wealth of seals used every day in the Uzushio Quarter until she saw her childhood home with her chuunin’s eyes.

There were the seals in her bedroom of course – one on the headboard to give her good dreams, another on the wall to act as a nightlight, others on the window to keep intruders out – as well as all the other rooms of her parents’ house. Seals were sewn along inner hems of clothes, hidden inside toys, and etched down the spines of kitchen knives. They circled lintels, stretched across the mantel, and hid among the bright tiles in the bathroom.

Every neighborhood in the Uzushio District had its own green space, one which was never used for ninja training, though there were a couple of ninja training grounds scattered throughout the district. In those green spaces, families relaxed on blankets sewn with seals, and children splashed in water features that usually had a seal or two hidden under their gravel.

The Uzushio Quarter’s annual celebration was coming up in a few months, and already thick prayer ropes had begun to appear around the Shodaime’s massive trees. Each rope was adorned with dozens of colorful paper streamers, each inscribed with a wish and protected from the elements by a line of seals marked down their backs. There were so many of the Shodai’s trees – and consequently so many streamers – that jogging through the Uzushio Quarter became like running through a rustling rainbow.

Seals were scratched into the bottoms of the wooden crates from which fresh produce was sold, they were twisted into the backs of welcome mats, and they even adorned the insides of old man Yamaguchi’s fluttering wind chimes.

They were everywhere.

In the Uzushio District, that which was valued was sealed.

Given her district’s love of seals and sealing, Sakura was surprised that Uzumaki Naruto wasn’t more popular there. She wondered why. And then, since she looked like a child, she simply asked someone.

“There’s a boy at school – Uzumaki Naruto. Why doesn’t he ever come to the district’s annual celebration?” asked Sakura one night over dinner. She watched with amusement as her parents both froze at her former teammate’s name. Pressing her momentary advantage – as any good ninja would – she added, “He’s Uzumaki. You probably can’t get more Uzushio than being an Uzumaki.”

Well, maybe a red-headed Uzumaki. And Sakura seemed to remember something about the clan having a bloodline limit – or maybe two of them? As far as she knew, Naruto didn’t even have one.

Either way, the Uzumaki clan had been one of the founding clans of Uzushiogakure. Their sealing masters were legendary. It seemed odd – and a shame – that the only Uzumaki in Konohagakure wasn’t particularly welcome in the Uzushio Quarter.

“There is more to being Uzushio than just having the right sort of name,” said Sakura’s mother quickly. “He doesn’t share our culture.”

At nearly the same time, Sakura’s father said, “And he doesn’t have the seal.”

“The seal?” asked Sakura, ostensibly willing to be diverted, even though she knew very well what it was. Her parents had had a very short, extremely uncomfortable conversation with Ino’s father when he had offered to fix her brain after her first try at the Chunin Exams and then a much longer, more frank conversation with Sakura after he had left, because her brain wasn’t broken. It was just sealed.

In essence, the seal was Inner Sakura.

A remnant of Uzushiogakure’s information security system, the Four Pillars of Truth Seal had protected the minds and memories Uzushiogakure’s citizens using the subject’s most essential nature as their greatest mental defense. Thirty odd years after the fall of the village Hidden in the Whirlpools and the scattering of its people, those who escaped the destruction of Uzushiogakure still voluntarily inscribed the Four Pillars of Truth Seal next to their children’s hearts.

The daughter of two Uzushiogakure refugees, Sakura had been born in Konohagakure. She had been raised in the Uzushio Quarter, indoctrinated with her parents’ traditions, and sealed at the appropriate age. She was as Uzushio as anyone else in her generation.

Despite being born to an Uzumaki, Naruto rarely if ever set foot in the Uzushio Quarter, he didn’t know any of the traditions, and he hadn’t received the Four Pillars of Truth Seal. Naruto, who should have been as Uzushio as she was, wasn’t considered Uzushio at all.

Neither of Sakura’s parents were sealing masters – they hadn’t even made genin – so they didn’t know much about the elements of the seal itself, but they knew a lot about what it was and what it was supposed to do.

“So you didn’t seal me?” asked Sakura, because she had asked that same question the first time around.

“No, we took you to one of the district’s sealing masters,” said Sakura’s mother.

“Why didn’t anyone take Naruto to one of the district’s sealing masters?” asked Sakura. “His mother should have, right? She was an Uzumaki! Maybe she could have even sealed him herself. But he’s an orphan so… maybe she died before she could give him the seal too.”

Sakura’s parents exchanged an uneasy look.

“Maybe,” said Sakura’s father uncomfortably.

“Then it’s not his fault – or hers – that he doesn’t have it,” said Sakura, and she was surprised by how fiercely she meant it. “His mother probably wanted him to have it too. Why didn’t anyone else have him sealed for her sake?”

The look her parents exchanged then was downright panicky.

“The Leaf wanted him for himself,” said Sakura’s mother at last. “Leaf nin aren’t sealed with the Four Pillars of Truth.”

Sakura frowned. “Really? They don’t seem to like him very much. And they don’t take very good care of him.”

Her parents paled.

“Never say that again!” hissed her mother. Her hand darted across the table, and Sakura allowed her mother’s long fingers to close around her arm. She gave Sakura’s wrist a sharp little shake. “Do you hear me, Sakura? You cannot say things like that – not even here.”

“Mama…”

“Listen to your mother,” said her father sternly. He was never stern. Sakura’s father could rarely manage to be entirely serious. “Think before you speak.”

Sakura’s mother gave her arm another little shake, pulling Sakura’s attention back to herself. “You don’t have to say every thought that comes into your head, Sakura.”

“I understand,” said Sakura, and smiled. Her parents relaxed. “When can I learn the Four Pillars of Truth Seal?” asked Sakura and watched as her parents’ faces lit up.

“You’re thinking of going into sealing then?” asked her mother brightly.

When she was eleven, Sakura would have shrugged her shoulders and looked away. She might even have blushed when she said, “Maybe? I’m good at it. And it interests me.”

Now, Sakura said confidently, “I’m going to become a Sealing Master… among other things.”

With the right seals, Sakura was certain that she could close the gap between herself and her teammates. With the right seal, she could seal away even Itachi’s Susano-o, even if it meant sealing away Itachi’s eyes. Then they’d see how well Uchiha Itachi fought without his bloodline limit.

Her parents looked delighted. And just like that, they were thoroughly distracted from her interest in Uzumaki Naruto. And for a few pleasant hours, so was Sakura.

 

 

 

Sakura mastered the art of running without tripping over her other ankle just in time for conditioning with Mizuki-sensei. Unsurprisingly, only she was impressed by that accomplishment.

Day one of conditioning was hellishly hot. When Sakura went to bed that night, she was lightly sunburned and everything ached. It was a good start.

Day two was overcast. Within an hour of starting, Sakura felt a raindrop land high on one of her cheeks.

“Mizuki-sensei!” complained a girl that Sakura had lost track of after the academy. “We’re getting wet!”

“Run faster! If you can still talk, you aren’t working hard enough!” hollered Mizuki-sensei from his place beneath a large, black umbrella. “Do you think that you won’t ever get stuck in the rain while running missions for the village?”

She wouldn’t, Sakura knew.

That girl – her name currently escaped Sakura – hadn’t grown up to be a kunoichi. Sakura thought that she had heard somewhere that she had been killed in the Sand-Sound invasion or maybe ended up apprenticing as a chef at Yashimura’s, that high priced sushi restaurant in downtown Konohagakure, but she wasn’t certain.

The only thing that Sakura could say for certain was that the girl was a whiner. She kept complaining to the gaggle of girls that she was jogging with, her nasally voice carrying.

Past the girls, Mizuki-sensei’s face darkened. When he finally threw a kunai at her, only that girl and her friends were surprised.

Sakura wondered if she and Ino had been that annoying the first time around. She thought not, just judging by the face that Ino made as she lapped them. Ino would have never have kept her around if she was that annoying.

Mizuki-sensei made them keep running throughout the ensuing deluge.

 

 

 

“Hey Sakura,” said Ino later, her voice low so that it didn’t carry under the splash of warm water against tile and the collective tittering of sixty preteen girls as they showered. “You’ve been… different… lately.”

Sakura slanted a sideways look toward Ino, meaning to gauge the intent behind her words. Instead, she was distracted by a pang in her chest sweet and sharp enough to slice all the way through her.

It had been a long time since Sakura had last caught Ino looking at her like that – young and unguarded and achingly earnest. She wasn’t precisely a wide-eyed innocent – the Shinobi Academy began chipping away at that early on, and the clans earlier still – but she was as close to it as any shinobi child got. At eleven, Ino was still sweet in a way that Sakura’s friend at sixteen hadn’t been in a long time.

This, Sakura decided, is Itachi’s real gift to me – inadvertent, ill-advised, and crazy as it was.

She had the chance to enjoy Ino’s relative innocence again, a period of time in any shinobi’s life that was as brief and brilliant as a butterfly’s flight.

And this time, Sakura vowed, things won’t get ugly between us even when they become complicated.

And they would become complicated. Ino wasn’t going to take Sakura’s usurpation of her place as their year’s number one rookie lying down. She was going to fight Sakura tooth and nail for it.

Just thinking about it sent warm nostalgia stealing through Sakura.

“Sakura?” Ino pressed, drawing Sakura’s attention back to the matter at hand. Her friend was frowning at her. “Is everything okay? You feel…”

Ino’s mouth briefly twisted down, and Sakura knew what she meant. That feeling was hard to quantify – happy but sad, sweet yet sour, brilliant and painful, all at once. If there was a word for it, Sakura didn’t know it either. It was an emotion that she hadn’t known at eleven.

“I’m fine,” Sakura promised. Bringing her hands to her hair, Sakura briefly scrubbed at the shampoo in it then twirled, turning her back to the spray of warm water. Her head tipped back, Sakura scanned the room from beneath her lowered lashes, gauging the interest of their classmates in their conversation.

The locker room was the best place to tell secrets – it was by nature noisy enough to cover a conversation and steamy enough to obscure lip movements – but by the same token, it was also the best place to pick them up too. No one seemed overly interested in them, however, though it was impossible to tell what a Hyuuga was observing at any given moment.

Sakura liked Hinata well enough, but the Hyuuga heiress had been no particular friend of hers at the academy. And good habits were good habits – especially when there were other Hyuuga lurking about.

Turning back around, Sakura dropped her head, her chin coming to rest against her (mournfully flat) chest. Her hands scrubbed at the shampoo at the back of her neck and the slick residue it left across her shoulders, making Sakura’s deliberate action to hide her mouth against the glow of her chakra system look more natural.

Next to her, Ino’s eyes sharpened, though her expression didn’t so much as twitch.

“I’ve applied to the field medic’s program,” Sakura murmured, and Ino’s eyes widened.

“Sakura!” Ino squeaked, her face bright with excitement. By habit, her voice didn’t carry far. “I’m so happy for you!”

Sakura smiled, genuinely pleased by her friend’s response.

“Thanks!” Choosing her words carefully – Ino had always felt the change in her mindset when she lied – Sakura said, “Sensei always said that my chakra control was very good, and it’s a good way to hone that into a useful skill. It’s only been a few days since I turned my application in, so I don’t know what they think of it yet.”

Not much, Sakura suspected. But that was okay. One way or another, she was going to get in.

Ino frowned, her fine eyebrows briefly flicking together.

“It might be easier next year,” her friend cautiously opined. “After we’ve graduated.”

“Probably,” Sakura agreed. “But I wanted to get started as soon as possible. I want to get my medic training out of the way so I can move onto other things.”

Ino grimaced. “You always did study too much, Sakura.”

“Probably,” agreed Sakura, because as smart as she was, she really had been very silly at eleven. Sakura hadn’t really understood what her teachers had been trying to prepare her for until she was thirteen and everything was falling apart around her.

It was only a moment later, when surprise and then wariness flickered across Ino’s childish face that Sakura realized that she should have been flustered and defensive. She hadn’t answered correctly!

Stupid, stupid mistake! But I can’t get caught now, Sakura thought, her stomach twisting. Itachi’s wild panic was rising in her like a thick fog over a river of her thoughts, making them choppy and disorganized. Were his thoughts always like this? Were his feelings always so strong? How did Itachi live like this? If Ino’s father drags me off to T&I, who will protect Sasuke? I have to protect Sasuke!

“Th-There’s another thing,” said Sakura, as casually as she could manage, which wasn’t very; not with Itachi’s desperation pounding at the back of her head like a war drum, not with her heart beating in time to it. Damn Uchiha. “I’ll tell it some other time.”

Curiosity lit Ino’s childish features, but a deliberate glance at the clock, barely visible through the steam, forestalled her questions, giving Sakura time to drum up another secret to confess to Ino. The truth was out, for obvious reasons.

I’ll give her something though, Sakura thought as she pumped her hand against the dispenser, dropping blobs of cheap industrial grade conditioner into her palm. Something good.

After all, there was no shortage of secrets and gossip to be had and shared in a ninja village. And if Sakura couldn’t come up with a secret of her own to share, she could certainly find someone else’s.

 

 

 

It was three long, uncomfortable days before the academy’s instructors got around to critiquing Sakura.

During their first five years at the academy, ninja studies were confined to six main areas of study: physical conditioning, kunai and shuriken practice, taijutsu, tactics and strategy, trap making, and kunoichi classes. The three ninjutsu that academy students learned as well as the fire starting jutsu and all of their genjutsu training – which, truthfully, wasn’t much – were taught in a student’s final year at the academy.

Of the six areas, Sakura had only truly excelled at tactics and strategy and trap making while she was in the academy. Kunoichi and weapons classes had been hit or miss for her at eleven, while physical conditioning had been mostly miss. And Sakura knew for a fact that her younger self had been terrible at the Leaf’s taijutsu techniques.

Being love rivals with Ino during their last year at the academy had vastly improved Sakura’s skill with kunai and shuriken, just as being on Team Seven had improved her physical conditioning, but Sakura hadn’t bloomed as a shinobi until she had become Tsunade’s second apprentice. Tsunade had improved nearly every facet of her, both as a ninja and as a person.

But at eleven, Sakura had been an absolutely dismal shinobi candidate, and her instructors had had no way of knowing that she would improve – or even that she would prove to be a genjutsu type next year. Sakura couldn’t believe that Iruka-sensei would dare to smile at her and say, “You’re doing fine, Sakura! Keep up the good work!”

When she was really eleven, Sakura would have been happy with that evaluation. He had said that she was doing fine! They hadn’t scolded her! She would have thanked them then and left.

Now, Sakura frowned and wondered how he could possibly smile at her like that and tell her to keep it up. As far as they knew, her foundations weren’t fine. She was only excelling relative to her peers in two areas – and neither was as immediately practical as being able to dodge or deflect the thrust of a kunai. The first time around, Sakura had been lucky to live long enough to meet Tsunade of the Sanin, never mind apprenticing under her.

At least Suzume-sensei hadn’t smiled or nodded.

Narrowing her eyes, Sakura asked cautiously, “How would you suggest that I improve?”

Suzume-sensei’s eyebrow twitched, and Iruka-sensei actually blinked, before the kunoichi said crisply, “More physical conditioning, less theoretical work.”

Sakura stared at her teachers.

“That’s… all?” she asked as delicately as she could manage.

Suzume-sensei inclined her head.

Sakura waited a beat – she could think of lots of ways that her younger self had needed to improve – but when no more advice proved to be forthcoming from either instructor, Sakura smiled sweetly and said, “Thank you, Suzume-sensei. I will work on my physical conditioning.”

Inside, Sakura was seething.

All in all, Sakura’s entire counseling session lasted less than five minutes. Sakura couldn’t believe that it had taken them three days to get around to saying that to her. What were they saying to her peers? And which of them were they taking longer with?

Her lackluster performance review cast a pall over the rest of her day. Making excellent use of her ability to multitask, Sakura chose to fume while she staggered laps around the perimeter of the academy’s practice ground.

I’m not just going to beat Ino, Sakura decided. I’m going to score higher than them too!

After Mizuki-sensei dismissed them for the day, Sakura went to look up her teachers’ scores in the school library.

As a child, Sakura had never been interested in the academic scores of those who had passed through the ninja academy before her, but she knew that the academy kept a record of them where any student could look at them. She had to ask one of the librarians where the yearbooks were shelved.

“Extra credit project?” guessed the chunin who was helping her. As an academy student, Sakura had done all of those.

“A new goal,” corrected Sakura. “I wanted to see who had the highest score on the exit exam.”

It could have been true.

The chunin hummed and led Sakura to a shelf filled with fat, dusty books, all of which were leaf green with years embossed in gold on their spines. Looking at the years on them, Sakura realized that they only went back about thirty-five years – Sakura’s shisho and her teammates wouldn’t be in them.

“You want this one,” said the librarian, as he fished down one of the books. It was the only book on the shelf without a pair of years stamped onto its spine. “It’s a list of the academy’s top one hundred graduates ranked according to their exam scores.”

“Thank you,” said Sakura.

Under the librarian’s watchful eye, Sakura flipped open the book.

The first face was one that she recognized. His smile was goofy and a bit shy with none of his monument’s sternness.

“Yondaime-sama,” Sakura breathed, her eyes skipping over his scores. They had all been perfect, of course. And he had been ten years old at the time.

No beating him, I suppose, Sakura thought wistfully, as she turned the page.

The face glaring up at her from the second page was adorable.

And also familiar. And –

“So cute!” squealed Sakura, feeling both shocked and utterly, unspeakably gleeful.

Kakashi-sensei had been the cutest, angriest five year old to ever graduate the academy, Sakura was sure. And he was already wearing his mask.

Sakura didn’t know whether it was his age or his two grey eyes that shocked her more. She had always known that Kakashi-sensei was an elite shinobi, but she had never imagined him with two matching eyes. And she had never before seen him angry.

His scores were only near perfect, the slacker.

And after Hatake Kakashi came… Uchiha Itachi.

Of course, he did.

Sakura scowled down at the sad little boy gazing up at her through dark, limpid eyes. He didn’t look like a deranged mass murderer –

Was probably what his clan thought as he mass murdered them, Sakura thought angrily as she skimmed Uchiha Itachi’s scores. Like Kakashi’s, they were only nearly perfect. In fact, though his individual scores had varied slightly, he had ultimately ended up tying with Kakashi-sensei. His best score had been in ninjutsu – no surprise there, though Sakura was surprised to discover that it was possible to score a better than perfect score on any part of the graduation exam – his worst score had been in taijutsu, and his second worst trap making, things that Sakura carefully tucked away in the recesses of her mind.

Sakura hadn’t been planning to face Itachi in a knockdown, drag out ninjutsu battle – despite the echo of Itachi’s will lingering at the back of her brain, she wasn’t actually crazy – and he had had a long time since his academy days to make up for his deficiencies, of course, but Itachi hadn’t beaten her in a fist fight or caught her in a trap, so perhaps he hadn’t bothered to address those issues with his performance. Sakura wouldn’t count on it, of course, but all knowledge had its value.

To add insult to injury, Sakura saw that he had been only seven when he had graduated.

Bastard, she thought spitefully. She couldn’t even have this over him. The only way that she could beat him would be if she earned a perfect score, tying with Namikaze Minato.

It wasn’t impossible – she was twelve, a chunin, and the apprentice of the Godaime Hokage – but Namikaze Minato had been the Yondaime Hokage. That was a lot to live up to.

On the other hand, if she managed this, she would be that much closer to being who she had been again.

And she would get to defeat Uchiha Itachi at something, no matter how small or petty or stupid it was. Academy grades didn’t even matter – not after genin teams were assigned, and sometimes not even then, otherwise it would have been Ino who was Naruto and Sasuke’s teammate instead of Sakura.

That she would be competing with Kakashi-sensei too though… well, that was icing on the cake. Imagining that – imagining how much fun it would be to taunt Kakashi-sensei about coming second to her after they were comrades again – was what did it. Kakashi-sensei had always been fun to tease even though there had always been very little with which to tease him. A higher academy score would be as good as anything else.

Mind made up, Sakura flipped back to Kakashi-sensei’s page. Ironically, genjutsu escape and infiltration techniques had been his weak points.

Probably because he refused to take off his mask, thought Sakura, smiling as she imagined it. Suzume-sensei would have failed him so hard!

Sakura jotted down her former sensei’s scores, but didn’t bother with Yondaime’s – perfection was easy to remember. Then she carefully returned the book to its place on the shelf.

The librarian had left her side by then, but Sakura waved to him as she left.

Sakura walked home slowly, thinking hard.

She thought that she probably had all of her academic areas covered, although she might need to brush up on what each teacher preferred to see in a perfect assignment. And as a chunin, she knew that she had mastered tactics, strategy, trap making, ninjutsu, and genjutsu to academy standards.

But her coordination was shot, her younger body needed to be physically conditioned to within an inch of its life, and she needed to practice throwing with this new body. She also needed to relearn the style of taijutsu taught at the academy and temporarily phase out some of the techniques unique to her Tsunade-shisho’s taijutsu style. As far as the village was concerned, there was absolutely no reason for her to know how to punch a hole through a mountain – and it would be a couple of years until she could make all of the body modifications necessary to support that style of combat anyway.

It was going to be a lot of work, and she only had – Sakura did some quick mental calculations – fourteen weeks and some odd days to do the bulk of it. Using a supply of her Medical Pills would certainly help, but she needed money to buy the ingredients.

The only source of money looming in her future was the field medic’s program at the hospital.

Sakura dropped by the hospital yet again to see if her paperwork had been processed yet.

“I’ve been waiting for you to come by!” said the girl at the front desk brightly. Red-haired and grey-eyed, her name was Emiko, and she was a new acquaintance. “Hold on a second!”

Sakura watched as Emiko searched for something n her messy desk, papers creasing beneath her careless hands.

“Aha!” said Emiko triumphantly as she unearthed a long, white envelope. “I’ve got an envelope for you! I mailed the others, but I knew you’d come by so…” She passed Sakura the envelope.

Sakura ripped the letter open, her movements less careful than she should have been. Even without her usual strength, she nearly ripped the letter in half.

“So?” pressed Emiko, as Sakura’s eyes skimmed the lines of text. “Did you make it in?”

“I’ve been invited to interview with Nohara Reiko,” said Sakura. That, at least, was someone that she knew.

“I think I saw her go into her office a minute ago!” said Emiko, and before Sakura could respond one way or the other, she leaned over to press a button on the intercom.

“Nohara-sensei?” said Emiko, as the intercom crackled to life. “Do you have a minute for an interview?”

There was a brief pause, before a voice said suspiciously, “What kind of interview?”

“For the field medic’s program!” said Emiko. “The girl that I told you about is here, and I thought that as long as she was – and if you had time – now would be as good a time as any to get her interview out of the way.”

“I’ll be right out.”

“Thanks!” chirped Emiko, and released the button. Sitting back in her seat, she smiled up at Sakura. “There you go! It’s better to do it now than later. Seats fill up in those courses.”

“Oh,” said Sakura, surprised. “Thank you.”

“No problem!”

Sakura wasn’t as vain as she had once been, but she still wished that she had time to clean up before her interview. Instead she watched – painfully aware that she was smelly, dirty, and sweat-stained from her earlier conditioning with Mizuki-sensei – as a small, dark-haired woman with a delicate build emerged from the hallway behind Emiko’s desk.

Nohara Reiko looked tired, but amused. Soon, she was joined by another doctor, Tomochika Goichi, and an older medic nin, Shindo Fuyuki. Both doctors had been field medics during the Third Shinobi War before they left active duty in favor of permanent attachment to the hospital, they were all competent, and Shindo Fuyuki had a hot temper.

She liked her interview committee, Sakura decided as the trio moved toward her.

When the trio stopped in front of her, Sakura set her shoulders and smiled up at them. It felt odd that all of them – even tiny Nohara Reiko – were taller than her. It was… discomforting.

“It’s an honor to meet all of you,” said Sakura when the introductions were made. “Thank you for seeing me today.”

I know these people, thought Sakura. I know their strengths and weaknesses. And I’m the best candidate that they have – or are going to get. I can do this!

She had to do this.

Determined, Sakura stormed after them into the interview room.

 

 

 

All in all, her interview didn’t go badly.

Sakura thought that she answered their questions well enough, but she could see in their faces that they weren’t taking her seriously. That was okay. Sakura already had her backup plan in place.

When Nohara-sensei started to suggest that Sakura try again after she had at least a year as a genin under her belt, Sakura tipped her head to the side and smiled, saying, “Are you worried that I don’t have the necessary chakra control yet? My teacher once said that my chakra control is already better than that of many jonin ninja. It might even be better than yours.”

It was even true. Kakashi-sensei really had said that about her… when she was really twelve.

Across from her, Shindo Fuyuki’s mouth twisted down and tiny genjutsu flames ignited in his eyes.

“Prove it!” he snapped, leveling an accusatory finger at her, and Sakura let her smile grow into a smirk – one calculated for maximum annoyance.

“Gladly,” she sneered, momentarily forgetting that she was eleven, not sixteen going on seventeen. Satisfaction coiled around her heart like a serpent – or a slug. “Name the challenge.”

It wasn’t a challenge. It was a whole series of chakra exercises challenges that Sakura breezed through with an ease befitting Tsunade’s second apprentice.

“To be fair,” said Sakura as she completed the last one, seeking to smooth away even a fraction of Fuyuki’s growing sullenness, “it’s a talent, not a skill.”

Well, it hadn’t been at the beginning. Tsunade was the one that had taken her natural talent for chakra control and trained it until it was a skill that Sakura could wield as incisively as Shizune wielded her senbon needles.

After that, her place in the program was a cinch. Orientation would begin the weekend after next.

“Haruno,” said Tomochika Goichi at the end of the interview, and Sakura, who was halfway to the door, froze. “You don’t have to answer this but… why do you want to be a field medic? With your chakra control, you could train to become a full medical ninja attached to the hospital.”

Field medics are full medics, thought Sakura fiercely. Or they should be.

“That’s not my dream,” said Sakura, half turning to look at him. She smiled tightly. “But I’ll never be the sort of person that would let my comrades die – not if I can help it – so it makes sense to become a field medic too.”

No one said anything, so Sakura assumed that the interview was over. Raising two fingers in farewell, Sakura left.

Slowly, Sakura jogged home, gasping and wheezing the entire way.

It finally felt like things were beginning to come together. Maybe. All she had to do was protect Sasuke, fix her brain, protect Sasuke, claw her way back up the shinobi ranks, protect Sasuke, kick Itachi’s ass – he totally had it coming; her brain was a mess – and protect Sasuke, because her little brother was everything.

Not my little brother, thought Sakura. She really hated Itachi’s stupid compulsion technique.

As she ran, Sakura tried to ignore her body’s complaints by trying to mentally map out the bare bones of her summer training regimen.

Summer was the semester in which clan kids shadowed their parents and focused on learning their clans’ specialties. Academy teachers returned to the field to brush up on their skills, and most of the academy was locked up tight.

As a child, Sakura had found summer a welcome respite from the pressures of the ninja academy. She had tried to keep in shape, but she had spent the bulk of her time haunting the academy’s library.

This summer, Sakura was going to train hard, get in shape, and remake this slow, weak eleven-year-old body of hers into the body of the number one rookie of her year. It was going to become the body with which she crushed her tiny, adorable sensei’s scores.

It was going to be brutal.

But it’ll be worth it when I beat sensei and Itachi, thought Sakura fiercely. Admittedly, she would be pitting the entirety of her sixteen-year-old chunin self against the entirety of her angry, little sensei’s five-year-old self, every ounce of strength in her eleven-year-old body against every ounce of strength in Itachi’s seven-year-old self, but one couldn’t have everything.

One could, however, have a wash, a soak, and a quiet afternoon in which to finish brilliant, paradigm altering medical seals and apply them to one’s own forehead.

The familiar web of the lines and dots briefly burned against Sakura’s face, against her whole body, as they burrowed beneath her skin. They seared their way through her muscles and branded themselves into her bones. It only lasted for a moment – a long, gut-wrenchingly painful moment in time – then it was over, the page that had held her seals now black and Sakura transformed.

For the first time since she had woken up in her childhood bed, Sakura felt like herself; smaller, weaker, diminished, yes, but herself.

It felt pretty damn good.

 

 

 

On the last day of school, Sakura took Ino to their bench – the one that she had taken Ino to when she returned Ino’s ribbon and declared Ino her love rival. This time, Sakura was wearing their red ribbon when she declared them Best Rivals.

Standing across from Ino, Sakura said, “Next year, I’m coming for you. I’m going to our year’s number one rookie, not you. From here on out, I’m your rival as well as your friend.”

Ino looked stunned.

Her eyes flicked up to Sakura’s hair, where their red ribbon was firmly knotted, then back to Sakura’s face. Ino’s brilliant eyes narrowed.

“We’ll just see about that… Forehead Girl.”

Sakura smirked, delighted. “Bring it on… Ino-pig.”

Ino’s eyes briefly widened – outraged – then narrowed again. A sharp smile – blunt compared to the ones that she’d give Sakura later, but a good first effort – twisted Ino’s lips. With a flick of her shoulder length hair, Ino turned and stalked away. Over her shoulder, Ino called, “Train harder, Forehead. Next year, I don’t want to be bored by you.”

Sakura laughed.

Ino was hurt – Sakura could tell that much just from the set of Ino’s shoulders – but at least they weren’t feuding over a boy that neither of them wanted as much as each other’s acknowledgement. She’d get over it.

Probably.

After making Sakura thoroughly regret it.

Sakura went home to start training.

Chapter Text

As unlikely as it was, Sakura had planned to spend her entire first day of summer break training relentlessly. She had envisioned herself as making slow but steady progress. The truth was… less inspiring.

Truthfully, she was distracted. And it wasn’t until the fifth time that she caught herself casually searching for Sasuke’s hair that she was willing to admit the problem: Sasuke. Specifically, there was no Sasuke for her to visually check on a dozen times a day. Knowing that he was safe somewhere inside the village wasn’t enough. She had to go see.

Cursing Uchiha Itachi, all of his forbearers, and whatever missing nin had failed to kill him in his murky past, Sakura gave up training and went to find Sasuke. She jogged over to the part of town that she vaguely remembered Sasuke’s apartment as being in. Where it was exactly, she didn’t know, but Sakura spent most of the day figuring it out. She also spent most of the day itching, her compulsive need to see Sasuke jittering just beneath her skin.

And the entire time, Itachi’s compulsion tormented Sakura with Itachi’s insane, completely unreasonable fears. After three hours, Sakura found herself half convinced – and entirely panicked, in the most violent, murderous way possible – that someone terrible might have happened to foolish little Sasuke when she wasn’t looking. Which would be terrible! She had to protect him!

Someone, went Itachi’s thoughts, never something.

The difference was not lost on Sakura.

By the time that Sakura next set eyes on Sasuke – alive, safe, whole, look again, still alive, safe, and whole – she had raked pink lines up and down the length of her arms, despite Inner Sakura’s best efforts to protect her from the worst effects of Itachi’s compulsion.

Sitting in the tree outside of his apartment – and watching as Sasuke towel dried his hair – Sakura tried to think what to do. Clearly, she had to keep closer tabs on Sasuke. She didn’t want to know if the echo of Itachi’s will that lingered at the back of her brain could get even crazier or more obsessive.

But keeping closer tabs on Sasuke would interfere with her training. She’d never get anything done if she had to track down Sasuke every couple of hours.

There’s only one thing to do, Sakura decided as she soothed lines of abraded flesh. I’m going to have to go visit Minako tomorrow.

It would eat into her training time, but it would probably be worth it.

 

 

 

Sakura’s cousin Minako bore about as much relation to Sakura as anyone else in the Uzushio Quarter, save her parents, which was to say that they were related not at all. In the Uzushio Quarter, grandparents by blood, aunts by blood, and uncles by blood were extremely rare in Sakura’s generation, but adopted ones were very common.

Sakura’s Aunt Mai had lived down the street from her father in Uzushiogakure back when there was an Uzushiogakure to live in. When the village had fallen, Aunt Mai had found Sakura’s father in the ruins and taken him by the hand. They had never found their own lost siblings or parents or grandparents or aunts or uncles or cousins, but they had had each other even if that hadn’t been nearly enough.

Sakura’s father and her Aunt Mai had eventually left what was left of Hidden in the Whirlpool with a band of orphans nominally cared for by a half-dead Uzushio jonin that one of the other kids had dug out of a pile of rotting corpses. Sakura’s mother had been part of that group too, and Sakura had been raised to call no less than five of its members her aunts and uncles.

Aunt Mai was almost a decade older than Sakura’s father, and Sakura’s cousin Minako was similarly nearly a decade older than Sakura herself. Old and grown up – at least, as Sakura had seen things at twelve – Minako had married and recently pushed a pair of twins into the world.

Looking at her cousin now, Sakura wondered at how young Minako was.

“A babysitting mission? For the shinobi academy?” asked Minako, who was dandling tiny baby Daichi on her knee.

“Yes, essentially,” said Sakura, who was trying her hardest not to drop Eiji. It was harder than it sounded.

“The upper years must be so much more fun than the lower ones!” chirped her cousin, and Sakura shrugged.

“There are some good points, some bad,” she said philosophically, and her cousin laughed. “It’ll be a relief when it’s over.”

Minako suddenly narrowed her eyes at Sakura. “You’re not just saying that to spare my feelings are you? I’m glad that you’re so good at ninja things.”

“No, of course not,” said Sakura quickly. “I’m just… ready to move on.”

There Minako nodded and settled back in her seat, seemingly satisfied.

Immigration to Hidden in the Leaves did not come without its consequences. Immigrants were required to either attend the Shinobi Academy themselves or send a child of their body in their place. Such children couldn’t quit the academy, no matter how bad it got. They had to either be washed out by their teachers or passed into a genin’s contract. As Aunt Mai’s eldest child, Minako had been sent to the Shinobi Academy ate age six, like Sakura herself had later been. Unlike Sakura, though, Minako had washed out at the end of her fourth year. She could channel chakra well enough to stick a handful of leaves to her forehead, but she didn’t know a single ninja technique.

Few people in the Uzushio Quarter did though.

But Minako – like every good Uzushio – knew a few seals.

And just as Sakura hoped, her cousin had a seal to help her keep track of her toddlers. In fact, Minako had a whole battery of homemaking and childrearing seals. Sakura didn’t know if she was ever going to want to have children, but she could see immediately practical uses for seals that let someone keep track of someone else on a map. Minato knew barrier seals to keep children from falling down stairs, as well as seals to act as nightlights, seals to blackout a lit room, and sound dampening seals. She knew some basic locks – nothing as complicated as the seals that protected her home, but more than enough to keep babies out of cabinets – and stasis seals to keep food hoot, cold, or relatively fresh, among other things.

Sakura had seen some of the seals that Minako described around her childhood home, but her parents hadn’t ever gotten around to teaching them to her. Maybe they would have if they had stayed in Konohagakure longer. Or maybe they had been waiting for Sakura to have a house or a baby of her own. Whatever their reasons, Minako had a wealth of seals that Sakura wanted, and she was willing to teach any or all of them to Sakura for the low, low price of her future misery.

Sakura, who could already feel Itachi’s compulsion rising under her skin like a sunburn, blithely promised her cousin seven babysitting nights in exchange for the locator seal and still felt that she had gotten off cheaply, especially when she understood the theory behind the seal.

At least in theory, it was an offshoot of summoning jutsu, except no one was being dragged anywhere. Instead, they were using their blood to locate everyone who shared that blood within a certain radius of the caster, depending on the caster’s strength and skill with the jutsu. In a clan compound, it would have been useless. But in a district like the Uzushio Quarter, where few people were related by actual blood, it was dead useful.

“It probably isn’t what you were hoping for, but it is what you asked for,” said Minako defensively, because as was, she had conned Sakura out of seven babysitting obligations for a seal that was ostensibly worthless to her, but Sakura brushed her words away.

“It’ll take some testing, but I think I can modify this to my purposes,” said Sakura absently, her mind already churning through possibilities.

“You can?” asked Minako, sounding surprised. “Did they teach you that at the academy?”

Sakura blinked at her cousin, surprised. She was tempted to lie to Minako, but at the naked envy and regret in Minako’s expression, Sakura said, “No. In your last two years at the academy, they mostly talk about how difficult sealing is and say it’s best left to a master. I figured that out on my own.” Thinking of her Strength of One Hundred Seal, Sakura smiled and added, “I’m actually pretty good at sealing, you know.”

Minako laughed, her expression clearing. “Of course you are! You’re Uzushio, aren’t you?”

Sakura should probably have made her excuses and left then – it would have been more comfortable for her if she had – but instead she left it to Inner Sakura to stomp Itachi’s rising compulsion down while she visited with a cousin that she hadn’t seen in literal years. They talked, drank tea, and played with Minako’s boys until it was time for the twins to go down for their naps. Then Sakura made her excuses and escaped.

She had to go spy on Sasuke, after all. Sakura needed to make sure that he was okay and protect him from any danger.

But first, she had to find him.

He wasn’t at home so Sakura tried the Uchiha ghetto, finding him on one of the extinct clan’s training grounds. He appeared fine, if slightly singed around the edges. Luckily, there was a lake with a rickety dock nearby.

Over lunch, Sakura watched Sasuke try to teach himself how to blow fire down his ninja wires. Sakura, who had had a hell of a time learning the very basic fire jutsu used to light campfires, wished him luck with that.

After lunch – and after her stomach had finished settling – Sakura went running. She needed to condition and she needed to think. Somehow, one way or another, Sasuke was going to be sealed with some variation on Minako’s child tracking seal. That was a given. But figuring out how to efficiently modify it to suit her purposes was going to be harder. And she was going to need to find someone willing to let her test her variations on them.

Sakura couldn’t wait to get started.

But first, she needed to go check on Sasuke again.

 

 

 

By the time that Sakura’s extended family gathered to celebrate Sakura’s admittance into the field medic’s program – something that her parents were taking much more seriously than Sakura herself was – Sakura had three working variations on the tracking seal to test. She still needed willing test subjects though. It was only a working theory, but Sakura suspected that was what cousins were for.

Sakura’s nuclear family consisted of only her, her mother, and her father and the three of them fit comfortably in the cozy little apartment over their shop. But with all of her relatives in attendance – namely, her three aunts, two uncles, their various spouses, and all of their assorted children and grandchildren – there was absolutely no way that they could eat dinner in their home.

Instead, Sakura’s parents had reserved one of the picnic pavilions in their neighborhood’s park. After helping her parents set up at the pavilion, Sakura swung by her cousin Minako’s house to help carry stuff down to the pavilion for her. If there was one thing that Sakura had learned across Team Seven’s various disastrous babysitting missions, it was that babies did not travel light. Sakura didn’t currently have her monstrous strength – and it would be at least a year or two before she could make the necessary body modifications to regain it, not that she was counting dwn the days or anything, because that would be crazy – but she still knew how to use chakra to reinforce and strengthen her body. The results would be less impressive, but surely they would be good enough to haul baby gear around for her cousin.

When Sakura arrived at Minako’s shop, she ran around the side of the building to press her hand to the back door. A seal briefly glowed blue under her palm and the door’s lock unlatched itself. Pushing the door open, Sakura was greeted by the shrill wails of angry toddlers. Girdling her loins, Sakura ran up the narrow set of stairs to the landing, where Minako was waiting for her with a wailing baby on each hip.

“They’re teething. Sometimes it flares up,” said her cousin by way of explanation, and Sakura lit up.

“Oh, oh, I know this one!” said Sakura excitedly, while taking Daichi from his mother. Building a minor medical jutsu in her forefinger, Sakura rubbed her finger over Daichi’s gums. Under her touch, the baby settled.

“How’d you do that?” asked Minako enviously, as she exchanged Eiji for Daichi.

“It’s a medical jutsu,” said Sakura. “I learned it while working in the hospital’s general walk-in clinic.”

“So useful,” sighed her cousin happily, as Sakura settled Eiji.

Minako’s husband, Norio, appeared at the door to kitchen, a pair of frosty looking teething rings in his hands.

“What happened?”

“Sakura used a ninja technique on them,” said Minako happily.

When Norio squinted at Sakura suspiciously, Sakura said stiffly, “One I learned at the hospital,” and watched as her cousin’s husband relaxed.

Minako, however, scowled at him. “What did you think I meant?”

“How should I know?” said Norio. He raised his hands defensively between them. “Ninja do strange and terrible things to their children.”

“Sakura would never!” gasped Minako. “She’s my cousin.”

At the same time, Sakura growled, “I would never!” and she, unlike Minako, also brandished a fist. If the twins hadn’t been looking, Sakura definitely would have hit him for even daring to imply anything like that about her.

Nothing he said after that point was an apology, which meant that Norio spent the entire walk to the park in the doghouse.

Sakura spent the walk carrying an oversized diaper bag and her cousin’s sveche and wondering what would happen when Minako decided that it was time to put the Pillar of Four Truths Seal on their sons. Norio and Minako were both civilians, but he wasn’t Uzushio himself. As far as Sakura knew, Norio’s family didn’t usually seal their children. Hyuuga was the only clan in Konohagakure that did, and the village’s feelings about that were ambivalent at best. Uzushio, by contrast, were usually pretty free with their seals and doubly so when they loved a thing. Sakura was pretty certain that, although Norio didn’t know it, Minako had already put locator seals under her sons’ hair. Judging by his behavior earlier, if Norio ever found out about the seals under the twins’ hair, he would probably be furious that Minako had ever used ninja techniques on their children.

Norio, Sakura thought unhappily, might have been a mistake on Minako’s part.

At the picnic grounds, Sakura found that her Aunt Mai had already arrived with Minako’s younger siblings in tow, as had Sakura’s two uncles and their various spawn. Sakura’s Uncle Toru had been married four times (that Sakura knew of), and some of his older kids hadn’t been able to get away from their apprenticeships, but all the younger ones were there. Sakura added Minako’s dish to the other ones and put the diaper bag next to one of the picnic tables, while Minako shepherded her small family over to her mother’s side.

While the (other) adults drank and grilled, Sakura played ninja with her (now much younger) cousins – she was the S-class missing nin that the younger kids had to band together to capture – and around them, other members of the extended family straggled into the party pavilion with dinner dishes and stories.

Thanks to Uncle Toru’s incredible fecundity, it was family tradition that the adults sat at one table while the children old enough to feed themselves ate at another table. This in turn meant that formally congratulating Sakura required everyone at both tables to quiet down so that her congratulations could be heard. Sakura left that monumental task to Uncle Toru and her father, only jumping in to thank her older relations for their well-wishes and say, “Actually, there’s a favor that all of you could do for me. I want to test a seal that I modified…”

When Sakura saw her relations’ faces sharpen with interest, she knew that she had them.

What occurred next was the most epic game of ninja-style hide and seek that her family had ever had. Ever. And Sakura regretted nothing… not even when she had to sit in the tree outside of Sasuke’s bedroom window later that night to watch him breathe for awhile.

Someday soon, I’m going to slap a seal on his ass, vowed Sakura. And maybe doing something about his diet; he’s looking a little thin.

Dinner wasn’t in her usual wheelhouse, of course, but Sasuke had to be protected no matter what – even if it was just from starvation.

 

 

 

Sakura didn’t actually slap a seal on Sasuke’s ass. That would’ve been way too obvious. And she would’ve had to touch Sasuke’s bare ass. Given the current state of affairs between them, that would have been unspeakably awkward at best.

Instead, she used the last of her black chakra-infusible sealing ink to take a page out of Minako’s book and put a small tracking seal under Sasuke’s black hair. He never even noticed… probably because of the medical jutsu that she was using to keep him under, but Sakura preferred to think that it was her returning ninja skills at work. She’d gotten past his (nonexistent) ninja guards, hadn’t she?

Before she left, Sakura slipped a box of onigiri in Sasuke’s refrigerator, because Sakura was thoughtful like that. And also because that sliver of Itachi was worried sick that Sasuke might starve to death. Apparently, only he was allowed to make Sasuke suffer.

Sealing Sasuke helped a little… but not as much as she had thought it would. Being able to find Sasuke quickly cut down on time wasted looking for him, at least, and it allowed Sakura to keep a training schedule. That, at least, made Sakura’s training go much more smoothly.

The next couple of weeks of Sakura’s summer were dedicated to conditioning until she collapsed, target practice, and taijutsu forms. Every day, she got up before dawn and ate a large, well-balanced breakfast. Then she grabbed her packed lunch, retrieved her water bottles from the freezer, her sports drinks from the refrigerator, and grabbed her map of Konohagakure before she went outside to do warm up stretches on the front lawn. Sakura jogged down to the academy’s training grounds, picking the locks before the sun had even risen and locking up after herself after the sun had set for the day.

Ostensibly, the academy was closed for the summer, and Sakura certainly never ran into anyone while she was there, but her regular use of the facilities couldn’t possibly have gone unnoticed. Such a thing was impossible inside of a ninja village. But no one ever challenged her presence directly or even indirectly, so Sakura took it as permission. She was careful to leave everything as she had found it, undamaged and only a little worse for the wear.

And if she jogged past Sasuke’s place on the way home – and then climbed the tree outside his apartment building so that she could watch him for a few minutes through his window – well, that was Sasuke’s fault. (And Itachi’s obviously.) He should really invest in some curtains – or even some blinds.

Luckily, Sakura was shinobi. Or at least, she was going to become one. Stalking a boy and spying on him through his windows was the sort of stupid shit that a kunoichi might do when she fell in love. You know, before she got serious.

Orientation came and went, Sakura listening carefully as the trainers explained her duties and responsibilities as a field ninja, the current organizational structure that ruled the medical ninja ranks, the current professional canons, and the policies, procedures, rules, and codes currently in place in the hospital. At the end of orientation, Sakura was given a packet of papers, one of which listed all of professional modules, workshops, and lectures that would be offered by the hospital that year. As silly as it was, Sakura’s heart fluttered at the list of classroom opportunities laid out before her. Sakura always had liked learning.

Flipping ahead, Sakura planned what she would take over the summer by deciding which courses she would probably have time to take during the school year. It was all rudimentary stuff, something that might have dimmed Sakura’s enthusiasm under other circumstances, but the prospect of getting paid to review basic theory and techniques perked her right back up again.

The things I do for easy money, thought Sakura wryly, as she signed up for the month long introductory module. Sakura would have to attend three-hour classes three times a week, effectively losing nine hours a week to the hospital, but it couldn’t be helped. If Sakura’s training was going to yield the results that she was after, she needed a supply of her Medical Pills.

Except it wasn’t that easy, because nothing in Sakura’s life was ever that easy.

While her strength, physical condition, and stamina all improved by leaps and bounds with the addition of her medical supplements, her younger body’s reflexes were still shit. She never could have dodged Sasori’s senbon with a body that was so slow to do what Sakura wanted.

I need a training partner, Sakura decided unhappily. They’ve got to be fast, scary, and willing to throw pointed objects at me. Some skill at taijutsu wouldn’t go amiss either.

A lingering fear of death, Sakura had always supposed, had been part of what made Tsunade’s training so effective.

Except at eleven, Sakura hadn’t known anyone like that.

It was unfortunate – almost as unfortunate as the Hyuuga that Sakura spotted loitering under a tree in the hospital grounds one afternoon. Changing directions, Sakura went to see what that was about.

At her approach the older boy – late teens with brown hair, eyes that gleamed like opals in the sunlight, and a meticulously covered forehead – glared at Sakura. He looked like death warmed over.

Someone, she decided, ought to look into that.

“Get lost, brat,” snapped the Hyuuga, and Sakura ignored him, choosing instead to kneel beside him.

“It’s just a diagnostics jutsu,” said Sakura, as she raised her hands between them, and the Hyuuga snorted. But he didn’t try to interfere, the veins around his eyes bulging as he watched Sakura work.

It was the work of a moment to understand what was wrong with him.

“Your injuries are healing nicely,” said Sakura, sitting back on her heels, “but your chakra is nearly exhausted. If you aren’t careful, you’ll have to go back to your bed in the hospital.”

“I can’t stay there,” scoffed the Hyuuga. “I’ve got things to do.”

If he were really capable of accomplishing any of those things, he probably would have left then. Instead, he sat where he was and glared at Sakura, obviously willing her to leave first so that he could hide his weakness.

Sakura considered him, weighing her options. He wasn’t scary, but almost by definition Hyuuga were fast and good at taijutsu. And he might be willing to toss a few kunai at her. Best of all, ninja were secretive by trade, if not necessarily nature, and clan ninja were more secretive than most. If this Hyuuga discovered a secret training shortcut – say, an academy student with amazing supplements – he wouldn’t be likely to spread it around. She just needed to make him want to train with her.

“What rank are you?” demanded Sakura, wavering. “Genin?”

She wasn’t willing to go below a chuunin in her training partner. She was eleven, but she still had standards, damn it!

“Chuunin!” snapped the Hyuuga, and Sakura was relieved. “I’m a chuunin level shinobi, and my name is Hyuuga Tokuma.”

“All right, Hyuuga Tokuma,” said Sakura, coming to a decision. “I have a proposition for you. I have a supply of medical pills that will help you heal up faster. Take one pill twice a day, every day for a week, and you’ll be almost back to rights. But for each pill I give you, you owe me an hour of your time. I need a training partner.”

The Hyuuga narrowed his eyes at her.

“Soldier pills won’t help me,” he said flatly. “Soldier pills are what got me into this mess to begin with.”

“Did I offer you soldier pills?” demanded Sakura tartly, and the Hyuuga scowled.

“What are they then?”

“Supplements,” said Sakura, as she flipped open one of her books, “to be used when training hard or to speed recovery from injury or chakra exhaustion. I make them myself, and I take them myself. The recipe is an old family secret.”

With clan-affiliated shinobi, that last phrase usually signaled the end of a line of inquiry – clan secrets were sacrosanct – and true to form, the Hyuuga immediately stopped asking uncomfortable questions.

Though it pained her to do it, Sakura ripped the title page out of one of her books and folded it into a box. Into the box, she carefully counted fourteen pills from her pill container. It was nearly her entire current stash of Medical Pills.

I’ll have to take another module, thought Sakura unhappily.

“They look like Soldier Pills,” said the Hyuuga.

“Well, they aren’t,” said Sakura, aggrieved even though he wasn’t the first to say it.

Perhaps I should add food coloring? wondered Sakura, suddenly feeling morose.

On that last mission to Suna, even Kakashi-sensei had accused her of taking soldier pills when he had caught her taking one of her supplements, and he of all people should have known better.

“Look, I’m not going to take unknown pills offered to me by an unknown person,” said the Hyuuga bluntly, interrupting Sakura’s grief.

Food coloring was serious business.

“Fair enough,” said Sakura. She plucked a pill from her pill container. “Watching?”

Then, after he had activated his byakugan, Sakura popped the pill into her mouth and chewed.

If that had been a Soldier Pill, she would have had to re-grow teeth.

And also scrape her teeth over her tongue. Swallowed whole or not, Soldier Pills had a unique flavor designed to bloom at the first hint of saliva. It was one of the many ways that Konohagakure’s medical ranks tried to subtly persuade their colleagues not to abuse the damn things, because Soldier Pills were dangerous. They invoked an immediate reaction in the user’s body, a boost of extraordinary power now to be paid for dearly later. Sakura’s pills were the opposite. While the immediate effects were small, sometimes even negligible, their effects were felt in the longer term.

“See?” said Sakura, after several minutes in which her body’s systems didn’t kick into overdrive. “Not a Soldier Pill.”

“Why are you doing this?” demanded the Hyuuga, the veins around his eyes gently bulging as he studied her carefully.

“Because I need help, and so do you,” said Sakura, resigned. She gently twisted the sides of the origami box, forcing its top to spiral shut. “And don’t even think about stiffing me.”

The Hyuuga straightened his shoulders, and even with the veins in his face bulging, it was easy to see his offense in his expression. “I’m a Hyuuga,” said the boy stiffly.

“Yeah, I know,” said Sakura. With those eyes, everyone knew it.

Hinata and Neji had been okay – eventually – but most of the Hyuuga that Sakura had run into across the years had been total dickbags. It had been a struggle not to strangle them with their own hair. Tsunade had always said it was the lack of counterbalance – before, the Hyuuga had always had the Uchiha and the Senju to pull against them. In their absence, Hyuuga had been the largest clan in the village – and unopposed, save for those rare occasions that a handful of other clans could put their differences aside and come to a consensus. Hyuuga had been running roughshod over everyone that wasn’t a Yamanaka, Nara, or Akimichi for years. Why that had extended to Sakura and Shizune, as Tsunade’s apprentices, Sakura had never been certain; guilt by association, perhaps.

But Sakura needed the other chuunin’s help, so she relented, choosing expedience over righteousness when she added, “I like your clan’s heir well enough, but some of the others…”

The boy’s face tightened, and he looked away.

“Far enough,” he told the oak tree. His hand scooped the package out of Sakura’s hands. Rattling the origami box at Sakura, he said “If these work, I’ll come find you. You have my word on that.”

“All right,” said Sakura, and he whipped around to blink at her. Holding a pill out to him, she said, “One for the road?”

After a moment, he accepted it, swallowing it with the ease of practice.

Sakura pretended not to notice when he turned first grey and then green. They didn’t taste that bad!

Standing, Sakura offered the Hyuuga a hand up – one that he grudgingly took. Hauling him to his feet was harder than she liked to admit, even to herself. A flare of irritation at her body’s limitations, and Sakura let it go, choosing instead to smile up at her new training partner.

“I’m Haruno Sakura. And I’ll see you soon. Bye!” And with a wave, Sakura left, jogging towards her class. If she hurried, she wouldn’t be too late.

Not that any student of Hatake Kakashi’s should worry about being too late to anything, ever, thought Sakura, and grinned.

 

 

 

One evening, Sakura came home from training to find an assortment of her cousins sitting on the flight of stairs connecting the side door to the apartment over her parents’ shop with the street outside. Sakura tensed, but she smiled that wide, fake smile that so very many people had believed over the years, and her assorted cousins were no different. They smiled back.

“Sorry, am I late for something?” she asked, feeling guilty.

“No!” said Yuki quickly, her fist coming up between them. “We just thought you’d be home sooner.”

“Sorry,” said Sakura again, even though she still had no idea what she was apologizing for.

“Never mind,” said Tadashi, his hand moving through the air as if to brush her words away. An older cousin, Sakura watched with interest as a delicate flush rose in his face. “The younger kids have been asking for a few weeks, and we decided to wait until you finished your introductory module at the hospital before asking, and… do you want to play hide and seek?”

“Using that seal from the picnic!” piped up little Shinichi, and Sakura grinned.

“Sure!” she said. She was exhausted, but she could always use more practice. And there were some adjustments that she had been thinking about making to it. Now would be as good a time to test them as any. “Let me just put my training gear in my room?”

Sakura had assumed that they had only wanted to play with her that night, but somehow, from then on, Sakura’s Thursday nights became the nights that she played with her cousins. She didn’t really mind. And if Sakura tried new or different variations on her seals on them, no one seemed to mind that either.

 

 

 

“You practice at the academy?” asked a voice, scornfully. “Really?”

Another push up, and Sakura collapsed onto her side. She rolled onto her back and, raising one hand against the sun, smiled at the silhouette looming over her.

“It’s not like I have access to any of the village’s training grounds.”

Those were for genin level shinobi and higher.

“Well, I do,” said the boy’s voice, and he offered a hand to Sakura. She let him haul her to her feet. Upright, Sakura could see that he looked much better than the last time that she had seen him. He was also frowning at her, that same heavy disapproval that Neji and Hinata’s father had mastered. Maybe it was genetic?

“When we practice together, it’ll be on a proper training field,” said Hyuuga Tokuma haughtily, and Sakura nodded, because it didn’t matter to her where they practiced together, so long as they did.

After that, Tokuma slotted neatly into Sakura’s training schedule, claiming three two-hour blocks of time from Sakura’s work week as his own. He wasn’t as fast or ruthless or skilled as her Tsunade-shisho or Shizune, but he was still too much for Sakura’s current self to keep up with – which, although depressing, was good. It was great even. Sakura could literally feel herself improving during her training against Tokuma. She just wished that she didn’t need to improve so much.

Sometimes, Sakura dreamed about crushing him with one monstrously strong fist. (She would put him back together again afterward, of course.)

“Why are you doing all this any way?” asked Tokuma once. “You aren’t going to be a combat nin. Your dream is to be a medic nin, isn’t it?”

The question brought Sakura up short.

Across two lifetimes and maybe five years, not once had anyone ever bothered to ask her that.

Not once.

“No,” said Sakura, surprising herself. “It’s not. It never was.”

It was the truth, but it was a truth that she had never said out loud before, because it hadn’t been important. Not to her and not to anyone else either; she had needed training, and Tsunade was willing to give it to her.

Tokuma arched his eyebrows at her, surprised.

Sakura shrugged. Looking away from him, she said, “I’m a first generation ninja. I have to take my training where I can get it. And I really don’t want my teammates to die, not if I can help it. I… like being useful.”

“But – your medical pills –”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t good at medical jutsu,” said Sakura sharply, looking back at the Hyuuga. “If anyone from outside a clan was ever hailed as a genius, I’d be considered a genius where medical jutsu is concerned. And why not? I’m intelligent, I have an eidetic memory, and my chakra control is flawless. And I work hard at it. But that doesn’t mean that I always wanted to be a medical nin. It was just… necessary to achieve my dreams.”

Naruto had been claimed by Jiraiya, Sasuke by Orochimaru, and she would have been damned before she let herself be left behind by them again. Sakura had scraped together her courage and asked Tsunade to train her, because Tsunade had been the last sannin left unclaimed, not because she had possessed a burning desire to heal the wounded or be the last man standing in every squad.

And truthfully, she might not have asked the most famous medic nin in the world for training even then, if she had thought that Kakashi-sensei might train her up properly. But the writing had been on the wall, at least with regards to her sensei’s regard for her, and Sakura had been out of options. To this day, Sakura didn’t know what she would have done – could have done – if Tsunade hadn’t taken pity on her back then.

For that – and everything else – Sakura owed the Slug Sannin.

A flicker of hard earned instinct, and Sakura’s hand snapped up to clamp around Tokuma’s wrist. She blinked at the older boy, his wrist warm against her palm.

“You’re getting better at that,” Tokuma said, and he smiled. “I think you’ve got your breath back. Want to get back to it?”

Sakura smiled and nodded. “Sure.”

Near the end of his fifteen hours, Tokuma asked for another supply of her Medical Pills for his own training.

“At the same rate,” he added, and Sakura happily assented. Finally, something was going her way!

“And maybe they could taste… not completely horrible?” asked Tokuma warily, and Sakura scowled.

“No,” she said shortly. “Making them taste better would make them less effective.”

Only slightly less effective, but Sakura hated to waste effort. As Tsunade’s apprentice, she had learned to hate waste. (Excess, however, had been another matter.)

Tokuma grimaced. “I’m willing to take that risk.”

“I’m not,” Sakura retorted sharply. “I have my pride as a medic nin to think of.”

An odd look flashed across Tokuma’s face. After a beat, he added, “What about food coloring? That way, they won’t look like soldier pills.”

“It’s too late!” said Sakura indignantly. “I already made my next batch.”

“Well, maybe for next time then,” said Tokuma easily, and Sakura rolled her eyes.

“Annoying,” she proclaimed. “You’re so annoying!”

Tokuma laughed.

 

 

 

Eventually, Tokuma brought Aburame Muta and Hijiri Shimon by, saying that his old genin squad mates were interested in obtaining a supply of Sakura’s supplements too and at the same rates as Tokuma. Willfully overlooking how much Shimon looked like Sasuke – but with better hair – Sakura blithely damned herself to a third training module at the hospital for the promise of more people to train against before the beginning of the fall term at the Ninja Academy.

And suddenly, Sakura’s training schedule was so much busier. And better, because she was finally getting better by the day.

From there, it was a countdown of weeks and days until the Uzushio Quarter’s annual celebration, and her eventual return to school. Despite the looming threat of the fall term, Sakura’s excitement ratcheted higher with every day that she crossed off of her calendar. She nearly couldn’t wait for the annual celebration!

Stretching between the remnants of the Old Wall and the village’s current outer walls, the Uzushio Quarter had not started out as one of Konohagakure’s districts. It had, in fact, begun as a shanty town. It had been a slum slouched against the village’s outer walls and filled with Uzushio’s refugees.

Sandaime had ordered the Uzushio Quarter enclosed within the village’s perimeter after the end of the Second Shinobi War. That in turn had necessarily led to the enclosure of the chuunins’ stadium, which stood to the north of the Uzushio quarter, as well as the Nara, Aburame, and Hatake lands within the village’s perimeter.

The Sand-Sound invasion had been reliant on the stadium’s position within the village’s walls. And sandwiched as the Uzushio Quarter was between the stadium in which the chunin exams were held, the outer wall, and the Main Road, which cut straight from the village’s Main Gates to the Hokage’s office, the district had been at the center of the fighting. During the invasion, Uzushio Quarter’s mostly civilian population had taken nearly catastrophic losses. Everyone had lost someone, including Sakura. Some people had lost everyone.

After the Sand-Sound Invasion, most Uzushio had chosen to leave the village for one of the Uzushio enclaves on the coast rather than trying to rebuild in Konohagakure. What remained of Sakura’s family had left with the others, and within a matter of months, Sakura had found herself one of the very few of Uzushio descent left in the Leaf village. It had been hard and lonely, mostly in ways that Sakura could not have anticipated when she had said goodbye to her family at the gates.

And in the end, even she had abandoned the Uzushio Quarter.

It had been the only way to avoid the strange new buildings going up where her district had been. The Uzushio Quarter – which had kept its name, despite the enormous lack of Uzushio living there – had become somewhere else entirely. The quarter and its comfort, its familiarity, and its annual celebrations had become yet more things lost to Sakura in the wake of the Sand-Sound invasion.

Now, she couldn’t wait to celebrate Uzushiogakure’s founding!

With her whole family!

And all her friends!

Sakura’s first impulse was to go kick down a few doors and invite everyone she knew to the party. Tsunade-shisho needed cheering up, Kakashi-sensei needed to get out more, and Captain Yamato so liked to be included in things. Sasuke, Naruto, and Sai had probably never even been invited to a party before. And Shizune and the others deserved to have some fun!

Except she didn’t know any of those people now; she hadn’t even met Naruto yet. And she wasn’t yet on friendly terms with most of the Konoha Eleven.

She could have invited them anyway, but just thinking it was enough to set off Itachi’s compulsion; kicking down doors wasn’t discreet, and she had to be discreet if she was going to stay close enough to protect Sasuke. And she had to protect Sasuke! She couldn’t allow Sasuke to die a second time!

Rolling her eyes at herself – and Itachi – Sakura settled for inviting people that she already knew.

Ino would be there, of course – they weren’t feuding – and she could invite Shikamaru and Choji, if she wanted. Never certain if they were her friends or just putting up with her for Ino’s sake, Sakura had never quite scraped up the courage to invite them before the Chuunin Exams the last time around. After it, there had been no more annual celebrations to agonize about not inviting them to.

Sakura wanted them to come now.

“I’ve heard that there’s barbequed pork,” said Choji consideringly, when Sakura invited him.

As a child, such an answer would have hurt her feelings. She would have been insulted. Now, Sakura smiled.

“Roasted pig,” corrected Sakura cheerfully, because while the two methods of cooking were similar, she didn’t want Choji to be disappointed by the difference in flavors. “There will be fish, shellfish, and even chicken, if you don’t like it.”

“Well, if you’re sure that I can come,” said this younger, still uncertain version of Choji, his voice quivering, and Sakura beamed.

“I’m sure, I’m sure!” said Sakura eagerly. “You’ll come?”

“Yes,” said Choji, after flicking a quick look to his mother.

“Great!” Sakura enthused. “Ino will probably be there too. She comes every year. And I’m going to invite Shikamaru this year too.”

At that, Choji’s shoulders relaxed and his smile widened, becoming more real.

Sakura nearly laughed. Instead, she said a few more small things, and then took her leave. She ate dango on the walk to the Nara lands, arriving with sticky fingers and a wide smile. By following the path, Sakura ended up at the headman’s house.

When Sakura knocked, no one answered. She knocked again, harder, and a voice murmured in her ear, “They’re out. Can I help you?”

Startling, Sakura spun around.

No one; she was the only person standing in front of the headman’s house.

Turning in another, slower circle, Sakura eyed the scattering of Nara cottages suspiciously, looking for the source of the jutsu.

“Second house to the right of Shikaku’s,” said the woman’s voice. “You’ll find me out back.”

Following the voice’s directions, Sakura stepped behind the cottage to find a brown-haired woman hanging out her laundry.

“Shikamaru,” said Sakura, skipping the formalities because she had yet to meet the Nara who had use for them as anything other than a delaying tactic. “Do you know where he is?”

“He and his father are out,” said the Nara woman.

“Can you tell me where?” asked Sakura, one hand clutching the other. “It’s important.”

The kunoichi glanced her way, dark eyes lingering, and then smiled. The directions that she gave were to a training ground – surprisingly, not one of the ones belonging to the Nara clan.

“Thank you!” said Sakura, and took off running for Training Ground Five.

When she found them, Shikamaru and his father were lying on the slope of a hill. Shikamaru was cloud watching, his father napping next to him, although Sakura thought that she saw a flicker of dark eyes beneath the elder Nara’s dark lashes.

“Will you come to the Uzushio Quarter’s annual celebration with me?” asked Sakura, startling Shikamaru badly. “Ino and Choji will be there,” added Sakura, when her classmate continued to stare at her with wide eyes. “And there will be old men to play shogi with.”

Shikaku smiled, his eyes still firmly closed.

“Yeah, I’ll come,” Shikamaru sighed, and Sakura smiled.

She wished that she had realized sooner that Choji was too nice – and Shiamaru too lazy – to pretend to be her friend if he wasn’t. It would have made so many things so much easier.

Surprisingly, Ino was the hardest member of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation to cajole into coming. And it wasn’t just because she was out of the village, shadowing her father on a mission, the first three times that Sakura swung by the Yamanaka compound to ask. Sakura had been haunting the Main Gate, waiting for them to return so that she could invite Ino.

And then Ino turned her down!

“But why not?” demanded Sakura. Sakura had invited her every year since their first year in the academy. And Ino had come every year except for the ones that they were feuding. They weren’t even feuding this time!

“You were the one that said we were rivals!”

“Well, yes,” admitted Sakura, surprised, as she skipped a step to keep up, “but I wanted it to be fun like those two old perverts.” At Ino’s indignant look, Sakura hurried to add, “The loud guy with the terrible eyebrows? He’s very… green. And very loud. And his rival is this old man who’s always reading adult books in public. They run past the Uzushio Quarter sometimes…”

On Ino’s other side, her father missed a step. A suspicious noise escaped him, one that was nearly was nearly drown out by Ino’s indignant cry of, “And which pervert am I? The loudmouth or the old one?”

Sakura’s crushed her first response – it was too mean to say too this younger, softer Ino – and instead looped her arms around one of Ino’s, saying cheerfully, “You’re my best eternal rival!”

“Sakura, I’m sweaty,” complained Ino, but she didn’t shrug Sakura off. Sakura chose to count that as a minor victory.

Leaning against Ino’s shoulder, Sakura crooned, “Shikamaru and Choji are coming this year. They’d be disappointed if you didn’t come too.”

Ino pulled back far enough to frown at her. “You invited them?”

Sakura shrugged, feeling unaccountably awkward under Ino’s piercing gaze.

Ino’s sudden grin lit up her face.

“Good,” she said with obvious satisfaction.

“So you’ll come?” pressed Sakura.

“Well, if Choji and Shikamaru and my best rival are going to be there…”

“Thank you!” yelped Sakura, and she hugged Ino – and her arm – tightly.

“Sakura! Sweaty!”

Sakura laughed.

 

 

 

Sakura’s last invitation was a matter of chance rather than careful planning on her part.

She had been on her way to the hospital, running because it was an easy way to get some extra training in, when she and the wall of olive and blue in front of her both dodged right – he to avoid the sudden appearance of a familiar pug and her to avoid the sudden jut of the front end of a baby carriage from a shop.

“Oof!” Sakura gasped, as the wall of muscle knocked the breath out of her. She reeled backwards, a hand catching her by the shoulder before she actually fell over.

Looking up, Sakura’s mouth fell open.

Captain Yamato gazed placidly down at her. And he was so completely, wonderfully, not on fire!

“Are you okay?” he asked, and Sakura nodded, still stunned. A moment later, she remembered her mouth and snapped it shut.

“I’m fine,” she said. “And you? Are you okay? Did I hurt you?”

And then, to her distant horror, she actually began patting at him. Even she wasn’t sure if she was looking for bruises or tiny tongues of flames.

At that, Captain Yamato actually smiled down at her.

“I’m fine,” he gently assured her.

A flicker of moment at the corner of her eye drew Sakura’s attention back to the little pug. He trotted over to Captain Yamato’s side and leaned against his ankle, looking up at him with soulful eyes. Captain Yamato tended to keep his emotions to himself, except when he was drunk, but Sakura could have sworn that he nearly sighed at Pakkun.

Kakashi-sensei tended to have that effect on people.

“Do you know the annual celebration?” Sakura asked on impulse. “The one in the Uzushio Quarter?”

Captain Yamato blinked at her. He looked surprised.

“Yes,” he said slowly, but he didn’t ask why. Sakura elaborated anyway.

“You should come this year,” said Sakura. “You could be my guest!”

Captain Yamato nearly smiled again. “Thank you, but I think I’ll be out of the village then.”

“Are you sure?” pouted Sakura. At his inclined head, she said, “Well, if you are in the village, come by! Everyone will be happy to see you!”

Well, she would, and that was what was really important.

But three out of four wasn’t bad.

 

 

 

Sakura’s mother had signed up to bring three dishes to the neighborhood party.

“I thought that we could work on them together the day before,” said her mother. “Your cuts are always so neat,” and Sakura nodded.

“Sure!” said Sakura, while mentally rearranging her schedule. If she got up early, she would still be able to do a respectable amount of training anyway. Muta preferred to spar in the very early morning anyway. “I have a class to attend that day, but otherwise, I can help.”

Not that she was much help.

In this, at least, Sakura did not have to pretend any degree of ineptitude. She had never been particularly good at cooking, and it wasn’t something that she had improved at during the intervening years. If anything, she had somehow gotten worse at it.

Sakura’s mother ended up doing the lion’s share of the work, but Sakura helpfully did the lion’s share of the cutting, chopping, beater licking, and bite tasting. It was a division of labor that seemed to suit them both, and the dishes were ready in plenty of time for set up.

That night, Sakura went to bed with butterflies swooping through her belly and a wide grin. She could hardly wait! And she hardly slept a wink, bouncing out of bed even at the first blush of dawn.

The next morning dawned bright and clear, and Sakura went down to the Main Road to wait for Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji. They ambled into view – Shikamaru with his hands tucked behind his head, Choji already snacking, and Ino chattering brightly to the boys about something – and they already looked so much like the people that they were going to grow up to be that Sakura had to blink hard against a sudden rush of tears. Happy tears, this time.

“You’re not going to cry, are you, Forehead?” demanded Ino, breaking off mid-word to sneer at Sakura. Well, it was probably meant to be a sneer. Mostly, she sounded worried.

Sakura shook her head, swallowing hard against the lump in her throat.

“No!” she said indignantly even as she dashed a wrist across her eyes – for appearances’ sake, not because they were wet. “I’m just… really happy to see you all. Come on! I’ll show you where we’re going!”

And so saying, Sakura looped her arms around one of Shikamaru’s, dragging it down so that she could hold onto him. Ino grabbed one of her arms and one of Choji’s, who complained about the way that squashed his bag of chips against his chest.

“Each neighborhood has their own celebration,” said Sakura, as they threaded their way through the growing crowd, their linked arms making them into a human chain. “We play games all day, and every family brings food to the feast! And at night, all the neighborhoods have a fireworks competition against all of the other neighborhoods!”

“Everyone knows about the fireworks,” said Shikamaru. “All the noise and smoke is so troublesome.”

“Shut up, Shikamaru!” hissed Ino, because at eleven a comment like that probably would have upset Sakura terribly.

At the same time, Sakura said fiercely, “The village is lucky that it gets to see our fireworks!”

From Sakura’s admittedly hazy memories, Uzushio fireworks were something to behold. When the other Uzushio had left Konohagakure, they had taken most of Leaf’s fun and frivolity with them. Or maybe they had just taken Sakura’s.

Pushing that thought away – and ignoring Shikamaru’s snort – Sakura said, “I know that I promised you old men to play against, but my cousin Hanako was on the shogi committee this year, so now your name is down to play one of the games against one of the shogi masters.”

“I’m what?” demanded Shikamaru sharply, and he missed a step, lurching against her.

“We hire shogi masters and set up tables in a square around them, so that each master can play ten games of shogi simultaneously against ten amateur shogi players. They do this five times, and by the end of the morning, every shogi master has played fifty games. I thought that you might want to do some surveillance before your match, so you’re signed up for Master Wu’s third heat. And right now, we’re going over to help set up the tables and boards that you’re going to be playing on.”

They did, Ino grumbling the whole time about Shikamaru’s old man hobbies, and then they left Shikamaru to it.

Together, Sakura, Ino, and Choji cut through one of the other parks on their way back to the game tables, and Sakura pulled up short among the maze of dog-eared used books. Going back a few steps to the thing that she had seen from the corner of her eye, Sakura teased an older paperback out from between its neighbors.

The Tale of the Utterly Gutsy Shinobi read its title. The book was by Jiraiya. Strangely, it didn’t have a single content warning printed on its cover or, Sakura discovered during a quick flip through, a single illustration of a naked woman.

It was actually kind of a letdown.

“Sa-ku-ra!” called Ino impatiently. “Buy it or don’t! We’re going to miss the window for sign ups!”

Sakura glanced at the price then passed the smiling red-headed woman behind the table a few coppers.

“Thanks!” Sakura chirped before running off to rejoin her friends.

Sakura, Ino, and Choji were nearly to one of the game tables, when there was a shout, and they turned to find one of Choji’s cousins sailing towards them, her sheer size and unwavering pace parting the crowd around her.

Ino made an impatient noise. Under her breath, she hissed, “We’re going to miss the four-legged race!”

“Probably,” Sakura agreed as Choji moved to greet his kinswoman. “But she’s already seen us.”

Ino huffed out a breath. “We’d better make the egg toss,” she grumbled just before Choji introduced them to his second cousin, Akimichi Aiko.

“She’s one of this year’s judges in the baked goods division!” said Choji happily, and Sakura could see where this was headed. Judging by the momentary slump of her shoulders, so could Ino.

In no time at all, Akimichi Aiko had taken Choji in hand, and with a cheery wave, Choji went to taste the best baked goods that the Uzushio Quarter had to offer.

“And then there were two,” said Ino gloomily.

“Which is exactly how many people you need for a three-legged race,” said Sakura cheerfully, and Ino brightened again.

“And the egg toss,” added Ino slyly.

“And the wheelbarrow race,” said Sakura, although she and Ino had never agreed on who had to be the wheelbarrow, and they grinned at each other.

Sakura and Ino spent the next couple of hours competing in everything that offered a ribbon to the winners, and winning none of them.

There were only a handful of actual ninja in the Uzushio Quarter – most of them chuunin, a couple of genin and jounin, and some grizzled old retirees from Uzushiogakure or the Third Shinobi War – but it was a requirement of citizenship in Konohagakure for immigrants to either attend the Shinobi Academy or send children to it. Everyone who lived in the Uzushio Quarter had been required to either attend the shinobi academy themselves or send at least one or two children to it. Most people failed out of the academy, failed the genin survival exam, or rode out their mandatory initial contract as genin, but everyone still had some degree of ninja training to fall back on in competition. And anyone could invite guests to the annual celebration – including old friends or teammates from outside the district that had grown up to be chuunin or jonin.

It made the competitions fierce.

Ino almost won the poisonous division of the flower arranging contests though, and Sakura’s placement in the kunai toss had been respectable. Choosing to quit on a high note, they went to see how Shikamaru had done in his shogi match. Except it turned out that Shikamaru was still playing; not only that, a crowd had gathered around to watch in intent silence. Ino and Sakura joined the crowd, watching for a time before Ino tugged Sakura away again.

“Come on,” said Ino, after they were a short distance away. “Let’s go get ribbons braided into our hair.”

Sakura nodded, and they did, Ino giving the girls at the table a lot more to work with hair-wise than Sakura did.

They met up with Choji soon after that, and discovered that he now harbored the hope of someday becoming a judge for the pork roasting competition. Apparently, he liked Uzushio-style roasted pork that much. Reunited, the three of them entered one of the three-man squad egg tosses.

“Shikamaru better get done before they open up the scavenger hunts,” said Ino, the corners of her mouth turning down into the beginning of a pout. “You have to have a four man squad to compete!”

Sakura had plenty of cousins that could take Shikamaru’s place in a pinch, and there was even a desk for people who wanted to compete but didn’t have enough close friends to put together a four man squad on their own, but she didn’t say any of that, because she understood. They could play without Shikamaru, but it wouldn’t be the same.

They played a few games – and won exactly none of them – and Sakura was just going to suggest that they get lunch, when Shikamaru found them.

“Took you long enough!” complained Ino.

“Did you win?” asked Sakura, and scowling fiercely, Shikamaru shook his head. He looked grumpy… and at the same time, oddly delighted. Apparently, it had been a very good game.

Over lunch, Shikamaru regaled them with the details of his shogi match – whether Ino wished to be regaled or not – and Choji listened placidly, nodding in all the right places. For herself, Sakura was amused. She had never, in either life, seen Shikamaru so animated.

Who knew that shogi was the way to get him fired up? Sakura wondered, and then bit the inside of her cheek against a laugh when Shikamaru launched into an impassioned explanation of the whirling leaf defense as applied on the shogi board.

After lunch – and at Shikamaru’s insistence – they went to watch a shogi match between two of the masters using an oversize shogi board and life-size pieces.

From there, Ino dragged everyone over to the scavenger hunt signups. It went better than Sakura had expected – for all of his moaning about the troublesomeness of their list, Shikamaru was as competitive as anyone else – but a team made up of jounin and chuunin beat everyone to collecting everything on the list. Team Ino-Shika-Cho-Saku came in one hundred and fifty-seventh. It wasn’t a bad ranking, especially for a team of academy students, but Ino huffed at it.

“At least we did better than last year,” said Sakura. She looked at Choji, who was openly dejected, for a moment before adding, “A lot better. Like, thirty places better,” and Choji brightened.

“We’re finally going to get to do the team obstacle courses at school next year, aren’t we?” said Ino. “We four should be teammates as often as we can. We’ll be unbeatable!”

Choji grinned, and Shikamaru didn’t proclaim Ino’s idea troublesome, which was practically the same as enthusiastic agreement from him. And, her heart warm, Sakura nodded.

Already, things were beginning to turn out better!

At the feast that night, they sat with Sakura’s extended family. Choji, who was willing to try a tiny bit of everything, rhapsodized at length about the various roasted porks he tried as well as the clams and mussels, two kinds of scallops, roasted chicken, shrimp, three kinds of crab, and all the sides. He even liked her Aunt Mai’s balut. Not even Minako and her siblings ate Aunt Mai’s balut. It put everyone within earshot in a great mood, and Sakura could already tell that everyone would be looking forward to seeing Choji again next year.

Afterwards, everyone relaxed on blankets and waited for the sun to finish setting. When it was finally fully dark, fireworks ripped apart the night sky. Delighted, Sakura ooohh and clapped and cheered along with everyone else. It had been such a long time since there had been fireworks or joy or Uzushio in the Uzushio Quarter!

At the very end of the day, Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji all straggled home with Sakura, the four of them curling up in futons arranged on the floor of Sakura’s bedroom. The bedding was tightly packed together, but they didn’t seem to mind.

“Thanks for coming, everyone,” said Sakura sleepily into the semi-darkness of her bedroom. Choji’s breathing was already heavy with sleep. “I had a really good time today.”

Shikamaru grunted, Ino mumbled something incomprehensible, and, smiling, Sakura drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

 

After Sakura saw her friends off the next morning, she had to help with clean up. All of the Uzushio’s Quarter’s children had to help clean up after festivals. As a kid, Sakura had always hated that part of any large scale celebration.

While at the academy, Sakura had always assumed that getting her forehead protector would spare her that at least. But she hadn’t thought to join any of the adults’ committees during her last year at the academy, so her first year as a genin had seen Sakura cleaning up with all the other kids, the same as always. Angry at herself for being such a kid – for not betting on herself when she had the chance – Sakura had vowed that the next year would be different. She would never clean up after another stranger ever again.

There had never been another annual celebration of Uzushiogakure’s founding, at least, not within Konohagakure’s walls.

And mere months after she made it, Sakura broke her vow. Her first day working in the hospital, Sakura had been assigned the task of cleaning up after a different group of strangers.

There’s just no escaping it, thought Sakura, now seventeen, a chuunin, and resigned to her fate.

But she still hated it.

And this time, she was definitely going to join one of the festival’s committees ahead of time. Sakura was already keeping an eye out for sign ups. Next year, she wasn’t going to pick up a single stranger’s crumpled cup. But in the meantime, there were certain advantages to be found in chatting idly with the other Uzushio children while they worked together to sweep the streets clean.

Several of the other children had younger brothers and sisters at or near sealing age. Of that group, many of them were too young or too civilian to watch what they said to the friendly older girl who hung on their every word.

As far as Sakura could tell, there were half a dozen sealing masters of any repute currently hiding in the Uzushio Quarter, two of which came from the old country. Sakura was fairly confident that the village had no idea that there were any Uzushio sealing masters left alive, let alone living in the village, otherwise the Council of Elders probably wouldn’t have let any of them leave with everyone else after the Sand-Sound Invasion.

What Tsunade-shisho would have done in their place was something that Sakura preferred not to wonder about. Sakura liked to think that her master would have given the Uzushio a reason to stay in the village of their own accord. Tsunade had certainly missed the resources that they had brought to the table. But Sakura had been a sitting Hokage’s apprentice long enough to know that where there was a carrot, there was usually also a stick – unseen, perhaps, but certainly felt when it struck; the larger the carrot, the larger the stick.

In the present time, every family in the Uzushio Quarter had their favorite sealing master, the one whose work that they swore by, including Sakura’s family. Sakura subtly pumped the other kids for information about their family’s preferred sealing masters, because she might eventually need to talk to them all. In an ideal world, one of them would take her on as their apprentice. In a less ideal world, she needed to know who to pay to modify the Four Pillars of Truth Seal... or steal the seal off of so that she could try to modify it herself.

If it was at all possible, Naruto and Gaara’s seals had to be stabilized.

Unfortunately, while the children had strong opinions about the niceness and candy choices of their family’s sealing master, they only had the vaguest ideas of where their family’s sealing master could be found. Tracking them all down was going to take time. Fortunately, Sakura currently had a lot of that.

She decided to start with her family’s sealing master. For one thing, she knew at least two people that would be willing to tell her where to find him. And for another, he was fond of her parents. Nepotism was as good a means of getting what she wanted as any other. And it would be a new experience for her.

Years and years ago, Uzumoto Haruto had come from the old country with a group of orphans that had included Sakura’s parents. Years later, he had put the security seals on their house – and the Four Pillars of Truth Seal on her, of course. Neither of her parents – or any of her aunts, uncles, or cousins – could ever have managed it. And she actually knew where he lived – well, she did after subtly interrogating her parents over dinner that night.

A jounin in the old country, Uzumoto Haruto had died during the Sand-Sound invasion. Sakura had hazy memories of hearing from her grief-stricken parents that he had died while protecting several other people’s escape from the invading nin. Currently, he lived in the apartment over her favorite stationer’s shop. In fact, according to her parents, he owned her favorite stationer’s shop. Sakura didn’t know how she felt about that, especially since she hadn’t even realized that there was an apartment over her favorite stationer’s shop.

Even knowing that it was there, Sakura found it difficult to look in the general direction of where the apartment ought to be. She’d tried all four forms of genjutsu release, and she still couldn’t see the apartment over the stationer’s shop, much less find its door. Even sitting in the tree next to the place where the apartment should be made Sakura’s skin crawl. She wanted to get going and move on. She had things to do and people to see! She definitely didn’t want to stay there. There were definitely better places to practice her genjutsu releases.

Sakura stayed anyway. She always had been too stubborn for her own good.

Crouching on her well-placed bough, Sakura determinedly stared at the place where the apartment above the stationer’s shop ought to be. She tried to think what to do.

It was there. Her parents had said it was there, and they wouldn’t have lied to her about that. But… she couldn’t see it. Or sense it. It wasn’t genjutsu. And she desperately wanted to be anywhere else – even though her objective lay somewhere in that patch of empty air.

Is it a seal? Sakura wondered. If it was, she wanted to see it! But first, she needed to persuade the sealing master to see her… and teach her the Four Pillars of Truth Seal. Fun could come later.

It would be easiest, Sakura eventually decided, to simply go into the shop and ask to see the owner. I can always break into his place later if that doesn’t work.

Hopping out of her tree eased a great deal of her mental discomfort. There was apparently a proximity component to the seal. Filing that idea away for later contemplation, Sakura went inside the shop.

Inside, Sakura was happy to see her favorite clerk – the kind one that had loaned her money – there and manning the front desk. Even better, they appeared to be alone in the shop. Sakura didn’t see – or sense – anyone else, at least.

“Here for more sealing supplies?” asked the clerk with one of his ghastly smiles. Near his hand was a cup of tea, half drunk but still steaming.

Sakura shook her head. Bowing formally to him, she said, “I would like to make an appointment to speak with the owner of this shop.”

“What do you want?”

“None of your business,” snapped Sakura, Inner Sakura rising close to the surface, and then narrowed her eyes as a thought struck her. She studied the clerk carefully.

Uzumoto Haruto would have been in his twenties when he nominally escorted a band of orphaned children across a hostile landscape to the dubious safety of the shanty town outside of Konohagakure. Slightly more truthfully, the band of orphaned children had dragged his broken body through a war zone, keeping him alive using whatever first aid and household seals they knew. That had been about twenty years ago, putting him in his forties or early fifties.

The clerk could have been in his forties. They would have been hard years.

It wasn’t just his grey hair making him look older than he was. His face was weathered and worn, lined with his grief. Old scars slash across his slightly misaligned face before disappearing down into the collar of his shirt, and he was missing a hand, the sleeve neatly pinned up. There would be other old scars beneath his clothes, Sakura knew. Some old injury had to be the cause of his limp.

Imagining the wounds that he must have had, Sakura wondered how a handful of unhappy orphans with little or no training had managed to keep him alive long enough to get him to Konohagakure.

“You’re the owner, aren’t you,” said Sakura slowly. “You’re Uzumoto Haruto. I can’t believe I promised to make you a storage scroll.”

The clerk stared at Sakura very, very hard. An edge of (unpleasantly potent) killer intent leaked into the space between them, a warning between shinobi. A threat, if Sakura had been only what she appeared to be.

“How do you know that name?” asked the clerk.

“Because I’ve got business with you,” said Sakura, uncowed.

There was a brief silence before all traces of the other’s (unpleasantly potent) killer intent vanished.

“And I still expect to receive my scroll, Haruno,” rasped the clerk. “What do you want?”

Many things, thought Sakura, but she put her most pressing need first.

“It’s about Naruto – Uzumaki Naruto.”

“What about the boy?” demanded the seal master sharply.

“He’s Uzumaki Naruto. He should have the Four Pillars of Truth,” said Sakura. “Why doesn’t he?”

“Ask the Toad Sanin,” said the clerk, still sharp. He half turned away from her, a dismissal. “If that’s all?”

“Can he still be sealed?” Sakura persisted. “If he wants to be?”

Because he would want to be; Sakura would make sure of it.

“No,” said the sealing master.

“Why not?” demanded Sakura. “His seal… He needs it.”

“The Four Pillars of Truth Seal must be applied after a child has developed a sense of self but before the child’s mind ceases to be malleable enough to accept and compensate for the unavoidable changes in their mental landscape. It’s a narrow window of time – and one that closed for Uzumaki Naruto years ago. His children can be Uzushio if he wishes it, but he can never be.”

Sakura scowled. That was not the answer that she had wanted to hear. And Sakura knew enough – about developing her own seal, medical sealing, and (thanks to that bastard Itachi) the human mind, as well as a smidgen about Yamanaka’s mind techniques – to know that modifying such a delicate seal would be the work of decades… if it could be done at all.

She didn’t have that much time!

But if Naruto was too old to receive the Four Pillars of Truth Seal, then the seal had to be modified to suit his circumstances, because an out of control Naruto was a scary Naruto. Sakura couldn’t let that – any of that – happen again, not if there was any way to prevent it.

“Can you teach me the Four Pillars of Truth Seal?” asked Sakura, because simply asking for what she wanted had always served her well in the past.

“The Four Pillars of Truth isn’t a simple seal,” said Uzumoto Haruto. “It takes years of study to develop the level of mastery necessary to be able to properly shape it and successfully apply it.”

“I’m willing to work hard and dedicate myself to mastering the seal of my people,” said Sakura, her voice adopting a more formal note. “If you take me on as your apprentice, I will work hard every day to make you proud of me.”

“I have no doubt that you are and you would,” said the old sealing master gently. “But I don’t want an apprentice.”

Sakura wilted, despair clutching at her throat. She needed this. He didn’t know it yet, but the whole village needed it.

“Please,” said Sakura, her voice wavering. She sounded like she was thirteen and desperate again; mostly, because she was desperate. “Please. I need you to do me this favor. I must learn this seal.”

The old man’s face spasmed, some emotion passing over it too quickly for Sakura to identify it, and then his face was empty of emotion again.

Stupid, thought Sakura angrily. I overplayed my hand. So stupid.

He wasn’t Tsunade, and Team Seven hadn’t just very publicly imploded. Naruto hadn’t even pulled on the kyuubi’s chakra yet. Uzumoto Haruto couldn’t even begin to imagine why this was so important to her.

“Should I find myself in need of an apprentice,” Uzumoto Haruto said very gently. “I’ll bear you in mind.”

There wasn’t much to say after that.

But Sakura wasn’t going to give up. There were at least five other sealing masters of any repute hiding somewhere in her district, and she would find all of them if necessary. Surely, surely, one of them would be willing to teach Sakura the Four Pillars of Truth Seal. She might not have parted on the best of terms with Naruto, but she wasn’t going to abandon him – or the village – to stupid mistakes.

A ninja who abandoned their teammates was worse than trash.

Despite everything that had happened, Sakura still believed that.

 

 

 

Three days later, and after a certain amount of thought, Sakura joined her district’s book fair committee. It was one of the few committees that took members from all of the neighborhoods within the Uzushio Quarter, it played to her strengths, and best of all no one would expect her to do her part by sweeping the streets or picking up other people’s trash after she got her forehead protector. Sakura would be an adult again then, and she was going to be treated like one again then, dammit.

The fact that it might help her dig up information on the other five sealing masters in her district was honestly just a bonus.

There were enquiring sideways looks when Sakura showed up without even the built in excuse of a parent or older cousin in tow and signed into the committee’s ledger, though everyone was much too polite to ask her why she was there. When she was done, Sakura passed the pen off to the person behind her in line and then moved to sit quietly at the side of the room, choosing a vantage point from which she could see everyone else.

Sakura hadn’t learned much from Kakashi, but one of the things that she had learned was the value of information gathering. She didn’t want anything from anyone else on the committee just yet, but when she did, she was going to get what she wanted. That was something that she had learned from Tsunade.

When she got home from the first meeting of the Book Fair Committee, Sakura began work on Ino’s birthday gift. Ino’s birthday was only about two weeks after the new term started, and Sakura didn’t want to have to scramble around looking for a gift at the last minute.

In her previous life, she and Ino had been love rivals by the time that Ino’s eleventh birthday had rolled around. Sakura hadn’t been invited to the celebration, and she wouldn’t be invited again until Ino turned thirteen. This time, Sakura was fairly confident that she was going to be invited, so she needed to come up with a gift.

When Sakura had really been eleven, she probably would have gotten Ino something cute but ultimately useless to a ninja. Now, she was too strapped for cash to even pretend like that was a possibility. Instead, Sakura scraped up her meager funds, counted them carefully, and went to buy supplies at her favorite stationary shop.

“Still working on your storage scrolls?” asked the clerk as he rung her purchases up.

“You know it!” said Sakura cheerfully. She still had hopes of somehow luring him into teaching her. She just hadn’t figured out how yet.

At home, she began work on it.

Storage scrolls weren’t difficult to make, but between her long hours of training, all the Medical Pills that she was making, and her forehead seals, Sakura was nearly as strapped for chakra at any given moment as she was for cash. Before, making Ino’s storage scroll would have been the work of an afternoon. Now, it was the work of thirty minutes a day, every day, for a week. In the end, Sakura was proud of what she had produced.

At sixteen, Ino would have loved it.

Sakura was less certain that at eleven Ino would like such a practical gift.

But it was what she had. And the craftsmanship was some of her best. It was much better than anything that Sakura had ever made before now.

Ino had better pretend to like it.

Looping a blue-black ribbon around the middle of the rolled up scroll, Sakura tied a bow on it then slid the whole thing into a long pink envelope decorated with clouds and stars. It was also from her favorite stationary shop.

There, Sakura thought, feeling pleased with herself. That’s done. And it even looks like a twelve year old wrapped it.

Her shisho had always said that proper preparation prevented piss poor performance – usually at the top of her lungs and while flinging boulders at her.

Sometimes, Sakura missed Tsunade so fiercely that it hurt.

Eighteen months, give or take, and then I’ll see her again, thought Sakura, doing the calculations yet again. The distance between her and Tsunade never appreciably shortened, but Sakura still found doing the calculations to be comforting.

She wanted everything to be perfect for Tsunade when she came back. (Even though she knew that it wouldn’t be.)

If only she didn’t have to waste so much time at the academy! But to get her forehead protector, she had to graduate. And to graduate, she had to attend.

And thus begins the world’s most boring training sabbatical, thought Sakura wryly, as she packed her lunch for the first day of school.

Sakura wasn’t looking forward to the coming school year. It was going to be the sort of training sabbatical on which she went nowhere and did nothing particularly interesting, but she remained determined to get some benefit from it. That she was equally determined to avoid any undue attention from ROOT or ANBU, however, severely limited her options. And Itachi’s lingering compulsion to protect Sasuke wasn’t doing her any favors either.

Neither was Sandaime’s speech.

Sakura’s last year at the academy had begun the same way as all the others had: with a solemn opening ceremony, during which the Sandaime exhorted them all to do their best for the good of the village and its bright future. His speech was nearly as grave as the ceremony itself.

Watching Sarutobi Hiruzen as he looked down at them with a twinkle in his eyes – seemingly the embodiment of a kindly, indulgent grandfather, one who loved them all dearly enough to be amused instead of annoyed by the ugly, distracting faces that Naruto was making – Sakura admired his façade. It was nearly flawless.

Chiyo had been a devoted grandmother too, and kindly she was not. They were peers, after all, and the veterans of three secret shinobi wars. He couldn’t be that old and that nice. But the kindly grandfatherly façade was probably the only reason that he hadn’t yet snapped and punted Naruto through the nearest wall for his latest bit of mischief, so Sakura was willing to be outwardly awed by (his dedication to) his façade for the time being. Although for the record, her Tsunade-shisho never would have stood for that sort of disrespect, not from anyone.

When the Sandaime Hokage got to the bit about them all being branches on the same great tree, Sakura idly wondered if Danzo had heard this speech. Probably, she decided, because Sandaime gave some variation on it every year. He probably whipped some variation of it out for chuunin promotions too. Maybe this speech was where Danzo had gotten the name for ROOT.

And then the opening ceremony was finally over, and Sakura was listening as classroom assignments were called. Tenten, Lee, and Neji were already graduated, and Naruto was in one of the classes two terms ahead of theirs, but everyone else had been assigned to the same class, just like last time.

Delighted, Sakura skipped down the hallway to where Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji were waiting for her at the classroom’s doorway.

“Are you ready for this, Forehead Girl?” demanded Ino, her sharp tones at odds with her bright smile.

“I’m ready to crush you, Pig!” laughed Sakura. “At the end of the year, the position of Number One Rookie will be mine!”

“Tch, how troublesome,” scoffed Shikamaru. “What does it matter where you graduate so long as you do?”

Without waiting for an answer, he turned and led their way into their new classroom.

“Of course, he doesn’t understand,” scoffed Ino in an undertone. “He’s just so lazy!”

Sakura laughed.

Shikamaru and Choji chose seats at the back of the classroom with Kiba and the other troublemakers, while Ino and Sakura claimed seats near the front of the classroom. That their seat had a direct sightline to the back of Sasuke’s head soothed the echo of Itachi at the back of her head.

Uchiha Itachi was an S-class criminal. Sakura knew that for a fact. But as she stared at the back of Sasuke’s head – creepily, she was sure – she wondered how Uchiha Itachi ever gotten any serious criminaling done when so much of his focus seemed to revolve around Sasuke, staring at Sasuke, and obsessing over Sasuke’s continued good health. Of course, for all intents and purposes, Sasuke had died shortly before Itachi had laid that compulsion on her. Maybe Itachi had been better – or less actively crazy – before that happened.

It didn’t escape Sakura that she was thinking that about a guy who snapped and murdered his entire family. Well, everyone but the one that he was completely obsessed with.

“All right!” barked Iruka-sensei, as he strode into the room. “Pay attention! As some of you already know, I’m Umino Iruka! And this year, I’m your homeroom teacher!”

Iruka-sensei’s self introduction was the first and last time that Sakura paid full attention to him that year.

Their first day back at the academy after the summer term ended, all academic classes were cancelled in favor of testing students’ skill sets to see what, if anything, they had learned over the summer term. Clan scions usually had a couple new skills to flaunt – and this year, so did Sakura.

Showing a level of restraint that would have made the Slug Princess proud of her, Sakura placed first in everything.

It felt shockingly good.

They are eleven and twelve year old academy students, Sakura thought fiercely. You shouldn’t be proud of being better than them at anything. It would be shameful if you weren’t. And the tests were easy. There weren’t even jutsu on them.

And yet, that unreasonable feeling of pride persisted.

Her first time through the academy, skill evaluation days had been Sakura’s least favorite days of the school year. She had looked forward to them with dread. She had learned her assigned forms and done her assigned practice work, but there had never been any hope of closing the gap between her and the clan scions, though she had certainly tried after declaring herself Ino’s love rival.

Now, the clan scions had no hope of closing the gap between her skill set and theirs – not any time in the next few years, at any rate. Sakura wasn’t going to let them.

Ignoring the strange looks – from her peers, their instructors, even from Ino – Sakura did the absolute best that her small, weak body was currently capable of and left school that day with a skip in her step.

Sakura was now officially the best ninja in her class.

She blamed Uchiha Itachi for that.

Bastard.

Ino left with her. The Yamanaka Flower Shop was in downtown Konohagakure, only a few blocks from the Hokage’s Tower and the Shinobi Academy, but that day Ino hurried Sakura past her father’s shop.

“Aren’t you going in?” asked Sakura, nodding at the shop.

Ino shook her head. Her mouth was tight, but she said, “I’ve got a shift at the greenhouses today.”

The Yamanaka clan ghetto was nearly as far out as the Uzushio Quarter. No one lived there – the Yamanaka clan chose to live integrated with the rest of the village – and it was filled with greenhouses, training areas, and the occasional Yamanaka guard or gardener.

“Sakura, how did you do that?” demanded Ino when they were a further distance from the academy.

“Suzume-sensei said that I should do conditioning over the summer, so I did. And then I found someone to help me with a few things,” said Sakura, choosing not to pretend not to know what Ino was asking. She wasn’t Kakashi. Lightly bumping her shoulder against Ino’s, Sakura smiled as she added, “I told you: this year, I’m going to be your best rival. We’re going to get so good!”

Reluctantly, Ino smiled.

 

 

 

Over the next few days, the teachers met with their students to discuss their progress – if any – and release class rankings as of the new term.

Sitting across the table from her teachers, Sakura studied them as they studied her. Suzume-sensei and Daikoku-sensei watched her with cool eyes. Mizuki-sensei and Iruka-sensei were friendlier, but no less interested in her sudden improvement. Sakura chose not to answer any unasked questions – knowledge was its own currency in the Village Hidden in the Leaves – forcing someone to eventually just ask.

That task, as ever, fell to Iruka-sensei. He was the warmest – and most harmless looking – of the assembled teachers. Suzume-sensei and Daikoku-sensei were too cold to fill the role, Mizuke-sensei too sly. When he asked, Sakura simply said, “The summer semester is for training with your clan. Since I don’t come from a ninja clan, I found something that a ninja would value, and traded it for some training with some chuunin. They were very helpful.”

That unleashed a twenty minute lecture on the dangers of blithely trusting unknown ninja, even within the village, enough to make secret side deals with them. Sakura nodded at the appropriate moments and wondered – if students from non-ninja clans weren’t given additional help at school and weren’t supposed to get it from third parties, what were they supposed to do? Besides die – preferably while saving one of their more valuable teammates.

She also wondered what her teachers assumed that she had traded for her additional training. From their overreactions, it was probably something unsavory. She should probably be offended. Maybe she should punch someone? Excpet students weren’t generally allowed to punch instructors outside of training…

Then and there, Sakura renewed her promise. Her graduation was going to be as painful as possible for everyone not named Haruno.

Through gossip, Sakura learned that Sasuke had been ranked as the number two in their class in combat skills. Shino, surprisingly, was the number two in academics. And Ino, like last time, had scored in the top three or four slots in everything, which would have made her first overall in the class – and eventually, their year’s (entirely overlooked) Rookie of the Year – if Sakura hadn’t gone and ranked first in everything. Instead, Ino was ranked number two over all in their class.

Ino, at least, took it well.

“Kunai range, after school,” demanded Ino, while pointing at Sakura accusingly.

It was an echo of the past, reversed but still pleasant.

Sakura smiled. “I’ll be there.”

 

 

 

Sakura’s sense of superiority didn’t get to last long. The very first jutsu that students learned at the academy was the fire starting jutsu.

Sakura had never mastered the fire starting jutsu, and when she used it, she was lucky to produce a few sparks. On Team Seven, she had relied on Sasuke or Kakashi-sensei to start her fires. After Team Seven, she had learned to pack her kindling to her best advantage. Sakura had mastered the art of fire starting with sticks, flints, magnesium, and matches.

While Daikoku-sensei passed among her class, complimenting and criticizing their efforts at starting a fire as appropriate, Sakura mourned the fact that neither of the cauterization jutsu that she knew could be modified enough to reproduce the effect of the basic fire starting jutsu, though one of them could be used to inscribe names into the Memorial Stone. It had always added a certain flair to any funeral that Tsunade had presided over.

But a rookie who couldn’t use the fire starting jutsu to its best effect was a rookie unlikely to earn a perfect score. Such a rookie would be relying on making an above perfect score elsewhere on the graduation exam.

Sakura didn’t have good enough luck to rely on anything but herself. The time had come to master the fire starting jutsu. Or figure out how to fake it. So far, Sakura had not yet figured out how to fake it.

On the bright side, she had perfect marks in literally everything. As the girl who had scraped through her taijutsu classes with a barely passing mark, there was something undeniably satisfying about being undefeated in her taijutsu matches at school. But, as with everything in her new life, there was a dark side even to this: namely, the homework and extra credit assignments.

One didn’t get to be the Number One Rookie (Of All Time… hopefully) without being seen as well rounded in all the classes offered by the academy. That, unfortunately, meant getting perfect marks on all the assigned homework and class work, as well as acing the written tests and skills tests.

Worse, however, was her need to keep cover. At eleven, Sakura had been the type to do all of the extra credit assignments as well as the ones that everyone else did. She couldn’t afford to stop being like that now. Sudden changes in behavior – particularly with no obvious explanation – tended to draw the attention of the village’s intelligence network. While Sakura was uncertain that any civilian child from a hopelessly civilian family would merit anything more than the most cursory of monitoring, it wasn’t worth risking it.

And so Sakura grudgingly spent Monday, Wednesday, and Friday afternoons in the academy’s library. As a chuunin, Sakura didn’t particularly need to research her answers to the work assigned by her teachers, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt to be seen researching her answers. Sakura wished that there was more interesting information stored at the student library. As it was, there – as in her classes – she had to make her own entertainment.

About a week and a half after the start of the fall term, Shikamaru shoved a battered envelope into Sakura’s hands.

“Here,” he said. “I meant to give this to you, but I forgot.”

And without waiting for an answer, he tucked his hands behind his head and walked away, leaving a bemused Sakura in his wake.

Tearing into the envelope, Sakura fished out a small white card. She read it… and then read it again.

Shikamaru had invited her to his birthday party.

Shikamaru had never invited her to his birthday celebration before.

Is it because I invited him to the annual celebration? Sakura wondered, and then knew that it had to be. It was the first major change to her relationship with Shikamaru from the way that it was last time.

Thinking about it for a moment, Sakura decided that she wasn’t sorry that she had done it. And she didn’t regret it. She just hadn’t expected it to have consequences either.

Things were changing.

Although it’s still too early to say if it’s for the better, Sakura thought, as she toyed with the card. What am I even going to get him? What do eleven year old boys like?

She didn’t know. And she still didn’t know two days later when her cousins came to play ninja. Since some of them were boys, Sakura just asked.

“Lots of things!” said her cousin Reo, who was himself only fourteen. “Get him something that he likes. What does he like?”

“Shogi and naps and cloud watching,” said Sakura immediately. “But he already has a shogi set.”

“Get him a real ninja kunai!” piped up little Shinichi. “That’s what I’d want!”

“Yeah!” yelled several of her cousins, boys and girls alike, and many small fists were waved in her general direction.

Looking at them, Sakura knew that if she ever gave any of them real ninja kunai as a gift, they would probably accidentally cut a finger off. She could reattach it, of course, but she’d probably never hear the end of it.

“He’s from a ninja clan,” said Sakura, hoping to gloss over the question of real ninja kunai. “His family would have a better version of any weapon or ninja tool that I could get him.”

“So give him a seal,” said her cousin Tadashi carelessly.

“A seal,” said Sakura slowly, weighing the idea in her mind as she said the words aloud. “Or a sealed object? He might like one of those.”

She didn’t know that he would dislike getting a storage scroll, at least. And it would be relatively cheap to make. She would have to buy the scroll, but she still had chakra infusible inks left over from making Ino’s storage scroll.

“Can we play now?” whined Yuki, and Sakura nodded.

“Sure!” she said brightly. “Does everyone still have their seals from last time?”

 

 

 

It was bound to happen again.

Sakura still ran (nearly) everywhere as an easy way to get more training in while she went from one place to the next. As her conditioning had improved, her running had gotten faster. But sooner or later, Sakura was bound to run into someone – especially since she couldn’t use chakra to avoid them. The only surprising thing was that it hadn’t happened sooner.

“Oof!” gasped Sakura, as she knocked into several feet of olive-clad muscle. A hand caught her shoulder, steadying her, and Sakura found herself blinking up at Captain Yamato. She beamed, genuinely delighted to see him again.

“Sorry!” chirped Sakura, and her former captain’s hand fell away from her elbow. “Hey, I remember you! Did you make it to the annual celebration in the Uzushio Quarter after all?”

Captain Yamato blinked down at her. “No, I’m afraid not.”

“Too bad!” said Sakura. “Well, there’s still next summer, right? Maybe I’ll see you then! Bye!”

And with a wave, Sakura ran off again – because she had apparently learned absolutely nothing from running into Captain Yamato. When she glanced back – flicking her short hair away from her face as an excuse – Captain Yamato was gone.

 

 

 

Attending yet more classes on topics that she was already familiar with afforded Sakura many opportunities to think about where she was going wrong with the fire starting jutsu, as well as to satisfy Itachi’s compulsion to creepily stare at the living, breathing, and oblivious Sasuke. (And seriously, what was Itachi’s deal with his little brother? It wasn’t sexual, but it certainly wasn’t normal either.)

Since neither of those were particularly fruitful (or stimulating) areas of enquiry, Sakura mostly thought about sealing and the Shodai’s Mokuton jutsu. Wood Release was a bloodline limit by all reports, and not something that Sakura could take for herself, but it was really interesting to think about potential ways and means of reproducing the effect, and when you were trapped in introductory classes all day every day, that was what was really important.

And the introductory classes didn’t end at the classroom door. Fourteen weeks of intense physical conditioning had allowed Sakura to take her rightful place at the top of the class in field exercises, weapons work, and taijutsu class. Survival exercises and solo obstacle courses were a breeze. It was fun to be on top… but it wasn’t very challenging. Skills classes at the academy were only slightly more interesting than academic classes at the academy.

On Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoons, Sakura went to the hospital to sit through modules designed to teach new field medics all the basics that were required of them.

There was not a lot required of them.

The three to five hours a week that she spent training with Shimon, Tokuma, and Muta were the highlight of her week, save for the weeks when sealing lessons with her cousin Minako edged them out of the top spot. They were the highlight of every week.

That was probably why Sakura started dying her Medical Pills purple.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” said Sakura sternly to Muta. “This is just an experiment.”

“Understood,” said the taciturn Aburame, but Sakura thought that he might be smiling behind the wide collar of his coat.

“Let’s just get started,” said Sakura bad-temperedly, and Muta let her get away with that too.

Once a week, Sakura babysat for Minako, played ninja with whatever cousins (and sometimes whichever neighborhood kids) showed up, and challenged (or was challenged by) Ino to a competition as best rivals. Occasionally, there were book fair committee meetings to attend too. No one had quite worked up the will to ask her what she was doing there, and Sakura, intent on avoiding clean up duties, attended them religiously.

And in her copious free time, which most often seemed to fall on Sundays, Sakura quietly researched compulsion techniques – how to set, break, reverse, and rehab them – in the medical section of the main library. She was slowly but surely making progress there too, although she had to be careful to disguise her true point of interest with extraneous research into adjacent matters.

Maybe it was because she had Uchiha on the mind, but Sakura found the materials on breaking, reversing, and treating various methods of genjutsu torture to be fascinating. None of it applied specifically to the sharingan, of course, but she had enough experience, both first and second-hand, to extrapolate. And of course, any medical text written by her shisho was an old favorite, lovingly revisited.

Sakura was thinking about the medical treatise that she had recently read and going through the associated chakra exercises internally when Daikoku-sensei snapped, “Haruno! Did you do the reading?”

“Yes, sensei,” lied Sakura.

“Then you won’t mind demonstrating the genjutsu release to the class,” he sneered, setting off a flurry of nervous titters. “Get up here!”

“Yes, sensei,” said Sakura, as she rose from her seat.

Standing at the front of the class, Sakura allowed her teacher to cast a low level genjutsu on her. She let it settle over her, barely feeling it as his chakra inserted itself into the flow of her own.

He’s good at that, Sakura thought, watching with interest as the class faded from her senses and a large mirror of all things appeared.

Looking into it, Sakura saw herself, but as she ought to be – seventeen and wearing a chuunin’s vest with her family, friends, and comrades standing around her. All of her relatives were there – everyone that had died in the Sand-Sound Invasion or fled the village in the aftermath – as well as Captain Yamato, Shizune, Sasuke, and Naruto. Kakashi-sensei’s nose was buried in his dirty book, but Sakura knew from the slant of his eye that he was happy.

As she watched, Tsunade slung an arm around her neck and hauled her in close for an awkward sideways hug, as she sometimes had when she was really, incredibly, blindingly drunk. Sakura’s family laughed, and Ino jumped on her back, hooking her chin over Sakura’s other shoulder. She smiled, her cheek bunching against Sakura’s own smiling face. And overhead, there were fireworks, brilliant splashes of red and blue and green and white lighting up the sky behind her important people.

“Kai!” Sakura snapped, flexing her chakra against the genjutsu before Sai could do whatever endearing thing he was about to do with that ink-lion. Around her, the illusion shattered, leaving Sakura gasping in front of thirty academy students. Whirling on Daikoku-sensei, she snapped, “What was that?”

“Your fondest wish,” said the teacher levelly. Unexpectedly, he smiled. “You threw it off much more quickly than I expected. And you used the more advanced technique from the assigned reading too. Very good, Haruno.”

“Thank you, sensei,” managed Sakura, her voice strangled, before sloping back to her seat next to Ino.

Her fondest wish wasn’t exactly a surprise to her, and it hadn’t been true even before Itachi’s seal tossed her backwards in time, but Sakura brooded on it all the same. Her family had either died or left the village before Sakura got her apprenticeship with Tsunade. As far as she knew, they had never even met any of her teammates – not even Team Seven from before it imploded. And Sakura had never seen all of her comrades happy at the same time. But she found that she wanted it all the same. She wanted it all so much that it made her heart hurt.

Sakura regretted allowing Daikoku-sensei to snare her in his genjutsu.

At lunchtime, Ino bumped Sakura with her shoulder, saying, “You’re not still sulking over whatever you saw in that genjutsu, are you?”

“No,” lied Sakura, and then smiled when Ino leveled her with a very flat stare. “Come on. If we don’t remind him, Shikamaru might think it’s too bothersome to eat lunch.”

Ino scowled, but she let herself be diverted.

“He’s so lazy! He needs to pay attention more!” complained Ino. She poked Sakura in the side, making her yelp. “And so do you! I saw you staring at Sasuke!”

“I wasn’t staring at Sasuke!”

“You stare at him all the time! Not even a cloak of invisibility could hide your crush!”

Sakura flushed hot, despite herself.

Stupid Itachi, she thought furiously. Aloud she said fiercely, “I do not have a crush on him!”

He was literally twelve. Sakura shuddered at the mere thought of it.

“I like him too,” said Ino challengingly, startling Sakura. Ino’s little face was fierce.

“Ino… you shouldn’t say things like that,” said Sakura weakly. “He’s not worth it.”

“Because you like him too? Do you want him all to yourself, Sakura?”

Because he’s a traitor, Sakura thought coldly. He’d abandon his comrades and go off with anyone if they promised him power. Sasuke is worse than scum and you deserve better.

“I don’t like him, Ino,” Sakura firmly repeated. “I just find the shape of his hair very soothing to look at when I’m thinking, especially when I’m thinking about trees. If Shikamaru sat in front of us, I’d probably be staring at the back of his spiky hair instead of Sasuke’s. It looks almost like a palm tree, don’t you think?”

Ino stared at Sakura for a moment, her expression so nonplussed that it was actually blank, and then she began to laugh. She was still laughing when they caught up to Shikamaru and Choji.

“I didn’t think it was that funny,” said Sakura grumpily.

“Can you imagine what Shikamaru would do if you did that?” demanded Ino, and Shikamaru shot them both a suspicious look.

“Sleep?” guessed Sakura.

“With the way you stare?” scoffed Ino. “Who could sleep?”

“Man, that would be so troublesome,” pronounced Shikamaru, which made Sakura laugh too.

After lunch, they had range time and then taijutsu class, fighting matches against each other in the arena used for the chuunin exams.

If Sakura had ever bothered to think about it – or him – at all beyond Itachi’s throbbing compulsion to (stare at him incessantly and) keep him alive, she might have assumed that Sasuke would have liked her better this time around.

At eleven, she had been hopelessly infatuated with him. Her weapons skills had improved dramatically across her last year at school, thanks mainly to her rivalry with Ino, but her taijutsu skills had remained deplorable until Tsunade took her on as her apprentice. When they had been genin on the same team, Sasuke had disliked her because she was weak – too weak to be a worthwhile challenge to him.

The years between sixteen and eleven weren’t many, but Sakura was now the best ninja in their class.

And tiny Sasuke hated her for it.

While Ino fought Sakura’s sudden superiority tooth and nail, Sasuke seemed to content to concentrate his efforts on hating Sakura to death. Sakura was happy to report that, as of his crushing defeat in taijutsu class that afternoon, Sasuke had yet to actually manage it. His groundbreaking work in that area, however, continued.

He was still glaring at her in fact, the pupils in his dark eyes trembling, when Sakura left for her training module at the hospital. In fact, he followed her all the way there – moving as subtly as any pre-genin could, which wasn’t very – apparently for the sole purpose of glaring at her more.

Sakura was amused.

Sasuke was gone by the time that her module let out, however, freeing Sakura up to pursue her newest interest: tree poking.

Ever since Daikoku-sensei had begun teaching them the substitution technique, Sakura had been poking at the Shodai’s trees, examining them with her chakra as well as her five senses. She was currently comparing and contrasting them against the more natural trees that grew throughout Konohagakure. On her way home, Sakura stopped several times to thread her chakra into various trees. In fact, she did that a lot over the next few weeks, with and without Sasuke acting as her silent, hateful shadow.

What Sakura discovered was that naturally grown trees in areas heavily populated by chakra users had residual chakra in them. It was a small amount and muddled, but there. Trees in areas heavily populated by civilians, on the other hand, had only the unfocused, natural energy that one could expect to find in any living thing.

A class project with Shikamaru and Kiba netted her the knowledge that the ancient, gnarled trees in the Nara forest hummed with chakra, all of it bearing the characteristic marks and ratios of the Nara clan. Over the generations, the chakra build up had been such that there was now enough Nara chakra in those trees to confuse a mid-level sensor nin.

And trees grown by the Shodai, Sakura discovered, blazed with what must have been the Shodai’s chakra. All of it – both the chakra and the natural energy – was carefully molded and, like the entire Nara forest, enough to confuse a mid-level sensor ninja. Chakra leak in the ninja districts, as well as the Uzushio Quarter, had only strengthened the molded chakra matrixes within the trees. That was why the Shodai’s trees were larger, stronger, and healthier in the vicinity of frequent chakra users than elsewhere in the village.

Konohagakure’s founder had been brilliant… and shockingly duplicitous.

I knew it! I knew it! I knew it! Sakura thought triumphantly every time a new data point supported her previous hypotheses. I knew it!

Sakura was nearly bouncing with glee.

She was impressed, of course, with the village’s first Hokage, but even better than that, was the knowledge that she had been right about everything. Or at least, everything related to the Shodai’s trees. (She had made some pretty shocking errors in judgment as a member of Konohagakure’s then infamous Team Seven. But no one needed to know about that, because time travel.)

But even more amazing than that was the delicate balance of elements inherent to the Shodai’s jutsu. The careful blending of yin or yang release within chakra natures, the enhancement of the tree’s native natural energy, the use of medical jutsu to improve the tree’s structure and make it grow to its greatest size, and the absolutely exquisite chakra control needed to execute it all simultaneously and to the desired effect… Sakura shuddered at the complexity, at the sheer craftsmanship inherent to the tree beneath her hand. It was enough to get a girl… flustered.

Well, it was if that girl was Haruno Sakura.

It was embarrassing how hot and bothered the Shodai’s handiwork got her. It was her crush on Sasuke all over again, but this time on a dead man… who happened to be her beloved master’s beloved grandfather and the founder of their village.

My collection of highly inappropriate crushes, Sakura thought, despairing. Let me show them to you.

At least he had never knocked her unconscious and defected from the Leaf or tried to murder their comrade. And he was too dead – and her shisho currently too gone – for her to make a fool out of herself in front of either of them. So, you know, she was already doing better than last time.

Sakura wondered what Captain Yamato’s Mokuton trees would feel like. Were they as carefully crafted as the Shodai’s had been or the product of vast amounts of hit and miss until he had found the right balance, as so many ninja techniques were? It was a line of speculation that led her to some interesting places, theory-wise.

But she never, ever, under any circumstances would have tried to replicate the Shodai’s jutsu.

It was her teachers at the academy that made her do it.

If they had been just a little less boring and their classroom exercises just a little more interesting, she wouldn’t have spent twenty minutes evaluating her skills as a medical ninja against the Shodai’s obvious skills as a medic nin, found herself lacking, and then made a list of the areas in which she needed to improve. She wasn’t going to let that guy defeat her, not as a medic nin.

Sakura only wasted two hours looking up incredibly advanced and highly exoteric chakra control exercises in the medical library and memorizing them, because she needed things to do in class. Her control, thankfully, had followed her to this new, little body, but it was an ingrained habit to work at refining it whenever she wasn’t fully engaged. And there was absolutely nothing engaging about the pre-genin syllabus. It definitely wasn’t an attempt to make her work as exquisite as the Shodai’s. That would be crazy and a waste of time, two things that she couldn’t afford.

She worked on shaping the water component while soaking in the bath – rather than simply diverting her excess chakra into her Strength of One Hundred Seal, as she usually did at the end of the day – because it was fun. And as long as the chakra all got used, her chakra pathways would continue to increase.

And it was a good way to improve her skill with water jutsu. Water was one of her elements, after all… as was earth. If Sakura could have thought of a discreet way to work on that too, she would have.

Senjutsu, on the other hand, proved to be a more fruitful area of improvement. Sakura knew just enough about senjutsu from her master – and then her subsequent practical applications of the information, something that had ultimately resulted in the creation of her Medical Pills – to have a basic understanding of what he had done there. She just needed to get the manipulations, chakra ratios, and timing right and then… if the Shodai’s techniques were hidden rather than a bloodline limit, if she could teach herself the things that she needed to know, if she could replicate his work, if she could just do this, then… then…

Then maybe I’ll grow a tree, thought Sakura, feeling flush with unexpected hope. If anyone in this world was suited to replicating Shodai’s lost technique, it was her.

And Sakura found that she was certainly willing to give it a try… but only to make the classroom hours go faster.

 

 

 

Aside from herself, Sakura had never seen anyone at Ino’s birthday parties that wasn’t a Yamanaka, Akimichi, or Nara. It had been obvious even to her, even at that age, that she didn’t belong, and not even all of Ino’s fierce assurances that she was wanted there could change that. She had been the only pink-haired person in the entire room, something that had made her feel even more self-conscious under all those assessing shinobi gazes. Looking back on things, it had been good practice for when she was the only pink-haired person in the entire village.

In the present, Sakura was the only pink-haired person at Shikamaru’s birthday party. This time, she pretended not to notice.

“Here,” she said to Shikamaru, offering to him a large dark blue envelope decorated with shooting stars and crescent moons. “I made it myself. I hope you like it.”

Shikamaru opened his mouth to say something, glanced at the looming presence that was his mother, and sighed.

“Thank you,” he said unenthusiastically. “I appreciate it.”

“Try to sound a little more sincere the next time you say that,” she advised, laughing. Glancing away for a moment to gather her thoughts, Sakura looked back at Shikamaru’s youthful face and said, “It’s not a shogi set or anything like that, but I thought it might be useful next year, when we’re real ninja.”

Interest sharpened Shikamaru’s expression.

“Thank you,” he repeated, and his fingers flexed around her gift, making the envelope crinkle loudly. He was trying to feel for what was in the envelope.

Smiling, Sakura inclined her head and slipped past Shikamaru and his mom, heading further down the porch to where Shikamaru’s dad was already drinking with Ino and Choji’s dads as well as a smattering of other adults from their respective clans.

It was still early in the afternoon, but several of the adults were already pink in the face, including Ino and Shikamaru’s dads – the heads of ANBU’s Intelligence and ANBU Assassinations Departments respectively. Sakura found that very reassuring.

That sliver of Itachi at the back of her brain remained crazy and unreasonable.

Sakura ignored it as best she could.

“Sakura!” called Ino, while waving her over to the corner where she and Choji were playing cards with some of the cousins, and Sakura moved to join them.

When she was actually a child, having the brightest hair in the room had discomforted her. Now, it made Sakura feel… valued. Wanted, really, since there still wasn’t anything noticeably special about her; she was from a family of hopeless civilians, not one of which had ever graduated from any ninja academy anywhere, ever. She didn’t know anyone important, and she wasn’t apprenticed to anyone important yet.

She was currently ranked first in the class, but that was coming out of the summer term. It didn’t mean much yet, since the last year was the year in which academy students learned all their ninjutsu and genjutsu skills. If Sakura managed to hold onto her lead across the fall term – thirteen weeks total, although there were only six weeks left in it now – then it might be worth noticing.

Nothing but the purest of friendships had gotten her through the front door, and this time she knew it.

The party moved at a swift pace after that. The ninja children played ninja games, there were snacks on a side table, and the adults gossiped, something that Sakura listened to with half an ear. Shikamaru’s mom brought out cake and ice cream, Shikamaru was duly sung to, and everyone enjoyed their share of the sweets before Sakura was gently encouraged to leave.

That, Sakura knew, was because they were saving the clan matters for when there were only clan ears listening. And as the evening wore on – and everyone got drunker – there would be wandering Yamanaka minds and slithering Nara shadows to contend with. Of the three clans, only the Akimichi became less dangerous when drunk.

Taking the hint, Sakura thanked Shikamaru for inviting her, waved goodbye to the others, and left. It was only mid-afternoon, so Sakura had plenty of time to meander home – she was too full of cake and ice cream to run anywhere – and change before going downstairs to visit her parents.

Sakura’s parents ran a bookkeeping business. They kept books for several businesses in the Uzushio Quarter. Her parents didn’t usually work on weekends, but the quarterly tax was coming up, and everyone was scrambling to come up with what they owed the village.

The money that the village took in from its cut of missions paid for basic infrastructure, the shinobi academy, the hospital, and the like, although a part of it also went into the village’s war chest. Shinobi villages were always preparing for the next great shinobi war. At one time, civilian taxes had supported the village’s police force, jails, and the detainment center, but after the Uchiha Massacre what remained of the village’s police force had been disbanded and the police functions, jails, and detainment center had been shifted to ANBU’s purview – and the village’s tab.

Nowadays, taxes on civilians and businesses were supposed to support things like the village’s orphanage, the widows and families fund, various business and community growth funds, and the disaster recovery chest, although they could be allocated to things like the hospital or village defense during times of war, stress, or unrest.

Considering what ROOT was doing to the village’s orphans and how the recovery had gone after the Sand-Sound Invasion, Sakura wondered what the point was. It seemed obvious in retrospect that the village’s leaders were using the civilians’ taxes to fund their illicit projects. And in the wake of the invasion, it had become painfully obvious that only a fraction of the funds had ever ended up at their intended destinations.

The civilians need a Civilian Council, Sakura thought as she ran down the stairs, to protect their interests.

It would never happen, of course, because there was too much money at stake, but she liked to think about it. Her parents didn’t pay taxes to support Danzo’s private army, and they had deserved better than to be left to save themselves during the Sand-Sound Invasion.

Sandaime had been a great shinobi, but he was aloof from his civilian population. He hadn’t care for them or even appreciated where his food, clothing, and quarterly influx of revenues came from, and the village had suffered for it after the Sand-Sound Invasion. When every Uzushio not currently under contract to the village had left, they had taken with them their skills, labor, progeny, and potential future revenues. It had made recovery from the attack harder, and the village had consequently been smaller and weaker in the aftermath than it had been before it.

Sakura hadn’t been the only one to miss the Uzushio. Tsunade had missed them fiercely… and angrily. The mistakes of the previous Hokage were inherited by their successor, and as Sandaime’s successor, Tsunade had inherited the consequences of a great many mistakes.

Downstairs, the front room was empty, the sign on the door turned to “Sorry, we’re closed!” Sakura found her parents in the back offices.

When they had opened their business, her parents had divided the back room in two and used seals to soundproof both of them. Separate workspaces, her mother had often said, was the key to a happy marriage. Every client, no matter how small their account, deserved privacy and their full attention when addressing their personal financial concerns, her father had always said, which couldn’t happen in a combined office. It seemed to work for them.

Knocking on first one open door and then the other, Sakura said, “I’m home!”

“Already?” called her father cheerfully. “You weren’t gone very long. I thought you were at a party!”

“I was! And then… it ended.”

“You weren’t the last to leave were you?” demanded her mother, popping her head out of her door. Her arms were full of files. “Sakura, you shouldn’t be the last to leave a party.”

Sakura laughed. “I was the first.”

“You shouldn’t be the first either!” exclaimed her father, appearing at the door to his office. “Then they’ll think that you weren’t having fun.” His eyes widened. “Were you having fun?”

“Yes,” said Sakura, with a quick smile. “But I was the only person there who wasn’t part of the Nara, Akimichi, or Yamanaka clans. Shikamaru liked having me there – I think – but they wanted me to go so that they could talk about clan business. They’re all part of the same compact, you know.”

Her mother’s lips briefly thinned. Her father’s eyes widened.

“No,” said her mother tightly. “I didn’t know.”

“So it’s kind of a big deal that you were invited at all?” asked her father slowly.

“Not really,” said Sakura. She shrugged. “It might be important, if I was the First Head of the Haruno ninja clan, but I’m not. Since I’m just his friend from the academy, it just means that Shikamaru considers me a close friend. That’s all. It was probably just reciprocity for inviting him to the annual celebration. He had a really good time playing shogi with one of the shogi masters. And he loved the living shogi match.”

Sakura watched as her parents both relaxed.

“That’s good,” said her mother. “I’m glad that he had such a good time.”

“Really good!” agreed her father brightly. “Was there dancing?”

Sakura laughed. “At a Nara event? They’re way too lazy! But it was nice! There were games. And the cake was really good! I think they got it at one of the Akimichi bakeries.”

“I’m glad that you had fun,” said her mother more sincerely, and her father nodded.

“It’s Ino’s birthday tomorrow, isn’t it?” asked her father. “You always have fun at that.”

“It is! And I do!” Sakura smiled. “But I came down here for a reason. I know that you’ve got to work late tonight, so I thought that I could make dinner – if you like.”

Her parents exchanged a quick, panicked look. Seeing it, Sakura pouted. She knew what that look meant. She wasn’t that bad of a cook!

“We were thinking of getting takeout tonight,” said her father diplomatically, “as a treat. Why don’t you go pick us up something from… somewhere?”

“Miyori’s,” said her mother immediately. “I love their spring rolls.”

“Oh!” exclaimed her father, looking delighted. He clapped his hands together. “And their udon!”

“Alright,” said Sakura. “I’ll go to Miyori’s. If I go now, I might get there before the dinner rush. Here, let me write it down for them.”

Miyori’s made the cutest food that Sakura had ever seen anywhere, but it was all really tasty. It was late in the day, so all of the restaurant’s sweets would already be gone, but everything else would be made to order. Accepting money from her father, Sakura ran all the way to the restaurant.

When Sakura arrived at Miyori, Fumito was behind the counter. Sakura could just glimpse his wife, Megumi, through the pass through from the kitchen. At the table sat a little girl with her mother’s brown hair and her father’s blue eyes. That little girl’s name was Miyori, and she was the person that her parents had named their restaurant for.

“Hello!” called Sakura, as she came through the door. “I’ve been sent to get dinner!”

“Are your parents working late then?” asked Fumito sympathetically.

“Yes,” said Sakura, as she passed him a cloth bag and the paper that she had written her family’s order on. “It’s that time of year again.”

Fumito nodded, and they talked pleasantly for awhile. Megumi was a civilian from a long line of Leaf civilians, but Fumito had been a toddler carried out of Uzushiogakure by one of the other refugee groups. Word had it that Fumito had been rejected by the Shinobi Academy, so his requirement had passed to his firstborn – and so far only, child – Miyori. At six, Miyori had just started at the academy, and Sakura gave her tips for how to succeed with the first year teachers.

“If you want to rank well in your classes,” Sakura said, “then you’re going to have to work harder and be smarter than any of the clan kids. It’s hard, but you can do it.” Little Miyori nodded seriously and, on a whim, Sakura said, “I could check your homework if you like?”

So she looked over Miyori’s assignments and, since the restaurant was currently empty, helped the younger girl with her taijutsu stances.

“I know that Akira-sensei showed it to you like this,” Sakura said, as she gently modified Miyori’s stance, “but he’s a man. To be as strong as him, you would have to use chakra to enhance your body, and his center of gravity is all different from ours anyway. Do it like this, okay? It’ll be easier on you, but it’ll give you the same results.”

Miyori chewed her lower lip. “Won’t he be mad at me for doing it differently than he taught me?”

Sakura laughed, because she would have asked the same thing her first time through too.

“No. The kunoichi from clan families are getting tips like this from their parents. He’ll just be surprised that anyone told you.”

Miyori scowled. “But that’s not fair!”

“No,” Sakura agreed. “It’s not. But there’s not a lot about being a ninja that is fair, so I guess the academy is good practice for that at least. Pay attention to the chakra exercises, especially the one where you stick leaves to your forehead. They’ll help you with your sealing when you get older.”

Miyori nodded seriously.

“Sakura-chan,” called Fumito. “Your order is ready.”

Turning back to the man, Sakura watched as he carefully stacked colorful cardboard boxes into her cloth bag. On top of her order, he added a little partitioned box.

“That’s not mine,” said Sakura immediately. “I didn’t even know that you had any left.”

“Just a few,” said Fumito. “As a thank you.” And he winked at her.

Sakura grinned back. “Thank you!”

Paying, she took her bag and left the shop with a last little wave to Miyori and her father.

Carrying takeout meant that Sakura couldn’t run. For the first time since she had woken up in her younger body, she crossed paths with Captain Yamato at the main road without first knocking into him. As always, the sight of him alive and not currently on fire brightened her mood.

Deliberately stepping into his path, Sakura said cheerfully, “Hey, it’s you again!”

Tiredly, Yamato blinked down at her. He had a slightly singed pack on his back and a bloodied bandage around his left thigh and another around his left bicep. He looked stressed and… sad.

Captain Yamato never looked sad. When he was sober, he never looked much of anything except serious, mildly amused, and wildly frustrated with his subordinates’ stupidity, and Sakura suspected that the last only made an appearance around the members of Team Seven. They just tended to have that effect on people.

“Here,” said Sakura, and on impulse, she pulled the cardboard box of sweets from her takeout. Presenting it to him with one hand, she said, “This is for you.”

Captain Yamato’s eyes widened. “I don’t understand,” he said warily.

“You look sad. So maybe this will cheer you up?”

Captain Yamato now looked bemused, which was an improvement in Sakura’s estimate of affairs.

“Thank you?” he offered, still wary and unsure.

As Sakura passed him the box, a familiar form appeared at Captain Yamato’s side. Slinging an arm around Captain Yamato’s shoulders, he slouched close saying, “What’s this? A love gift? You’ll share with your poor old senpai, won’t you, Tenzo?”

Sakura could practically see the effort that it cost Captain Yamato not to roll his eyes at Kakashi. Biting back her laughter, she waved at them both saying, “Well, I’m off! I can’t let dinner get cold! Bye!”

She left before anyone could ask any uncomfortable questions, her amusement following her all the way home.

 

 

 

Shikamaru and Ino had been born only a day apart, and that year, Shikamaru’s birthday had fallen on a Saturday, Ino’s on a Sunday.

Ino’s birthday party would probably have many of the same people at it, but Sakura knew from experience that the atmosphere would be entirely different. Aside from anything else, Ino always had her birthdays in the greenhouse with all the non-poisonous flowers. Walking up the path to the designated greenhouse, Sakura could already hear boisterous laughter and the clink of glasses. Through one of the windows, Choji waved at her, and smiling, Sakura waved back at him.

Ino was hovering by the greenhouse’s door, happily greeting her guests without the looming threat of adult censure to force her good behavior. Ino loved hosting.

It was odd.

Sakura had been coming to Ino’s birthday parties for years, but looking back on it, no one had ever paid much attention to her before. Even at Shikamaru’s birthday party yesterday, no one except Ino, Choji, and sometimes Shikamaru had paid any attention to her. Now, it felt different.

The volume of the parry hadn’t changed, and no one was looking directly at her save Ino, but Sakura still had the impression that she was being observed from every angle. It made the fine hairs at the back of Sakura’s neck prickle… as well as her instincts as a shinobi.

The sliver of Itachi at the back of her brain wailed to life, and Inner Sakura was on it in the next instant, her iron fists of fury beating back the tides of Itachi’s crazy paranoia. If Itachi had ever successfully completed any infiltration work at all – ever – Sakura would eat her boots. If she still had boots, that is.

Sakura told herself that she was being ridiculous.

She didn’t really believe it though.

Forcing a smile, Sakura thanked Ino for inviting her and surrendered her birthday gift unto the birthday girl. Ino practically snatched it out of her hands and squeezed it, the pink envelope crinkling under her fingers. Her face lit up, and she crowed, “Yes! I got one too!”

“It could be something different,” said Sakura, amused. “It could be a very large tube of toothpaste.”

The disbelieving look Ino fixed her with made Sakura laugh.

“Although it’s probably not,” Sakura conceded, and then laughed again when Ino stuck her tongue out at her.

“Come on,” said Ino, grabbing Sakura’s hand with her free hand. “I’ll show you where to go.”

That was new. Ino had never worried overmuch about where Sakura went or who she talked to at her birthday parties, as long no one was unkind to her. Now, Ino planted Sakura beneath a half-grown hybrid, right between Shikamaru and Choji. They were cloud watching. Sakura bit back a smile.

“Stay here,” order Ino, then fluttered off to see to her other guests. She still had Sakura’s gift clutched in hand. In fact, Sakura watched as Ino bypassed the presents table entirely, holding onto her gift as she laughed at something one of her aunts said.

That was strange too.

Turning her attention to her companions, Sakura said, “How’s it going?”

“Good,” said Choji around a mouthful of chips. When he offered the bag to Sakura, she politely took one.

“Mmmm, barbecue,” she said, and Choji grinned.

“My mom’s being troublesome about that storage scroll you gave me,” sighed Shikamaru. “She said it was too much.”

“Too much?” asked Sakura, confused.

“Too expensive,” explained Shikamaru.

“I told you, I made it myself,” said Sakura, “so it only cost me the price of the actual scroll I used. I didn’t even have to buy the inks, because I still had some left over from making Ino’s.”

Shikamaru slanted a sideways look. “You did say that, didn’t you?”

“You made Shikamaru’s sealing scroll?” asked Choji from her other side. He sounded impressed. “Iruka-sensei said that those are really hard to make.”

Sakura shrugged. “It wasn’t that bad. He’s just not very good at sealing. It would’ve gone quicker if I had larger chakra stores though.”

“You should tell my mom that,” said Shikamaru gloomily. “Maybe she would relax – as much as she ever does.”

Reaching into his kunai pouch, he produced the storage scroll that Sakura had made for him, still bound by the black ribbon that Sakura had looped around it. The bow was much sloppier now.

“My parents showed me how to use it,” said Shikamaru, as he unrolled the scroll. Sakura saw a glimpse of the front of the scroll – ‘shogi set’ and ‘chips’ had already been sealed into it – before he flipped it over. “But we couldn’t figure out what the dots on the back were for.”

“They’re to protect the scroll,” said Sakura. Tapping each dot in turn, she said, “That’s to strengthen it against bending and tearing. That’s to protect against wind. That’s for dirt. And that’s for water. You can’t take it swimming or use it during a storm, but a light sprinkling of rain won’t destroy it.”

They were the same seals that Uzushio used on the slips that they printed their wishes on before attaching them to the prayer ropes.

Shikamaru groaned. “Oh, man. That probably makes the scroll even more valuable. My mom is never going to stop freaking out.”

Tapping the blank spot beneath the dots, Sakura said conciliatorily, “I still haven’t figured out how to protect it from burning. And it’ll still get worn out over time.”

“That’s not going to make my mom feel better.”

“I didn’t mean to get you in trouble,” said Sakura coolly, drawing away from Shikamaru.

After studying her for a long moment, Shikamaru made a face.

“I’m not ungrateful,” he said, “and for what it’s worth, I like it. It’s useful. But between clans, expensive gifts like storage scrolls have meanings. It means more because you gave it to Ino and me.”

“Oh,” said Sakura, equal parts bemused and annoyed. She was always finding out about things like this after she had already misstepped or expected too little or been mortally insulted without knowing it. Shikamaru was twelve, and he still knew more about inter-clan politics than she did.

“But I’m not part of a ninja clan,” said Sakura.

“But you could be,” said Shikamaru. “You could want to marry into one.”

His? Sakura wondered, and grimaced. She didn’t want to marry Shikamaru. She hadn’t wanted to marry anyone, since her crush on Sasuke had exploded in her face.

“Well, my mom is thinking of it like that,” said Shikamaru as he looped the ribbon around his scroll again.

“What about your dad?”

“I dunno,” said Shikamaru. “He was sick this morning.”

He was hungover, although Sakura kept that insight to herself.

“Or you could start your own,” said Choji bracingly. When she and Shikamaru looked over at him, he shrugged, saying, “My dad is the Fifteenth Head of the Akimichi Clan. That means fifteen generations ago, there must have been a First Head of the Akimichi Clan.”

“I… hadn’t thought of it like that,” said Sakura slowly. It was better than anyone thinking that she wanted to marry into Shikamaru’s clan, at least.

I wonder which theory Ino believes, thought Sakura, and then reflexively looked over to where Ino and her father were moving between their guests. They fluttered between them like a butterflies tending their garden. Ino was still carrying Sakura’s gift with her, its paper wrappings crumpled beneath her fingers. That… probably meant something, maybe even something important.

Stupid clan politics, thought Sakura, not for the first time.

When all of the guests had arrived, Ino delicately chivvied her guests through the party activities, ruling everyone under the age of seventeen as thoroughly as any princess with a tiara on her brow. In short order, Sakura was fed cake and ice cream and ushered out the door.

On her way home, Sakura picked up takeout for her family.

“How was your party?” asked Sakura’s father over dinner. “Fun?”

“Yes,” said Sakura. She frowned down at her bowl of miso soup. “And it was weird. I gave Ino and Shikamaru sealed objects for their birthdays, and their clans made a whole big deal out of it.”

“What kind of sealed objects?” demanded her mother crisply. “It wasn’t anything embarrassing, was it?”

“No, I gave them storage scrolls,” said Sakura. “They worked and everything.”

Her parents, at least, were delighted.

“Our little sealing master!” cried her father, and Sakura grinned.

“Not yet,” Sakura disagreed. “I’m more like a sealing genin, I think.”

“It’s good, steady work in a ninja village,” said her mother, beaming. “And it’s lucrative too. Do you know how much storage scrolls go for?”

“No,” admitted Sakura.

“We’ll go price some out next weekend,” promised her mother, even though it was one of their busy times, and her father was so happy that he didn’t even protest.

Sakura beamed. At least someone was happy about her skill with seals.

 

 

 

The Sarutobi found her at lunch the next day. Inviting himself to have a seat on her blanket, he smiled at Sakura. She suspected that it was meant to be flirtatious.

A term ahead of her at the academy, Sarutobi Haru had always seemed nice enough, but he had never paid much attention to her, not even when she had been Tsunade’s apprentice. Sakura had always been under the impression that, while he respected her abilities and position in the village, he hadn’t particularly liked her personally.

Now, he was downright solicitous, leaning towards her and hanging on her every bland word.

“It must be hard for you, being a first generation ninja.”

“I get by.”

“Yeah, but it’s easier to get by with a little help from your friends,” said Haru, and then smiled another of those flirtatious smiles. In another few years, it would make his face handsome. Now, it just made Sakura uncomfortable. No one deserved to be flirted with by a twelve year old.

“Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji are great friends,” agreed Sakura, and glanced over to where the others were making their way towards her. Shikamaru looked as laidback and unbothered as ever, but Choji looked vaguely anxious. Ino was scowling.

“You have more friends than that,” said Haru, leaning nearer. Too near, in Sakura’s opinion.

Cocky brat, thought Sakura, and smiled sweetly.

“Tell you what,” offered Haru, his hand landing on Sakura’s shoulder. “I’ll help you with the basic three and your chakra control if you’ll give me a storage scroll too.”

Sakura threw her head back and laughed, bright and loud and sparkling. She couldn’t help it. He was just so cute.

And then she punched him face first into the ground.

“You’re a terrible friend,” Sakura said bluntly to his prone form, “and you’re a worse ninja. You didn’t even bother to do a speck of research on your mark, did you?”

“What’s there to research?” spat Haru, as he levered himself up. “You’re just a civilian.”

“One who beat your ass.”

“I wasn’t expecting it!”

“Then you’re even more pathetic than I thought,” sneered Sakura, and Haru scowled at her darkly.

“Sakura’s already in a medic nin program,” said Ino from behind Haru, and Sakura watched with interest as the Sarutobi stiffened. “She doesn’t need you to help her with chakra control.”

“Or your training,” said Sakura. “I’m first in my class at the academy – unlike you.”

“My great uncle is the Hokage!”

“Which says nothing about you,” snapped Ino. “Except that you don’t have any of your own accomplishments to brag about.”

“Perhaps I should ask Hokage-sama if it’s really his will that I make you a storage scroll for free,” asked Sakura, and watched with interest as Haru paled. “That’s what I thought,” said Sakura with satisfaction. “He doesn’t like it when you throw his name around, does he?”

“Shut up!”

“Or what?” sneered Sakura. “You’ll tell your great uncle on me?”

The fight was very short.

“Troublesome,” pronounced Shikamaru as they watched Haru storm away.

“Your cousins are such gossips!” complained Ino.

“So are yours,” said Shikamaru, and Ino scowled.

“It could have been one of my cousins,” offered Choji, trying to smooth things over between them.

Sakura suspected that it had been all of the above, but rather than saying that, she merely said, “It doesn’t matter. If they want a storage scroll, they can buy it off of me like anyone else.”

“You’re selling them?” asked Ino, surprised.

“No,” said Sakura, “but Shikamaru says that they’re expensive. No one is going to seriously scrape up that kind of money to pay a pre-genin for a storage scroll that they could buy off a known supplier instead. It’ll be fine.”

Probably.

Sarutobi Haru may have been the first of Sakura’s school mates to try to trick, charm, or bully Sakura out of a sealing scroll, but he wasn’t the last. It certainly made the term more interesting.

 

 

 

“Your friend was in here earlier,” said Fumito casually, as he boxed up Sakura’s order a few weeks later.

“My friend?” asked Sakura, surprised. The little restaurant was really far away from all the ninja districts. “Ino?”

“No, another one,” said Fumito. “He was older and a full ninja. Dark hair, dark eyes, kind of a square face?”

Captain Yamato? Sakura wondered, and shrugged, saying, “That could be a lot of people.”

“But no one who comes to mind immediately,” guessed Fumito. “Don’t worry. I didn’t say anything about you.”

“Thanks!”

The man winked. “There are a lot of pink-haired girls in our district,” he said, and Sakura smiled.

“There are, aren’t there?” she said happily. Sakura wondered if she could persuade any of them to stay this time around.

As she ran out of the restaurant and down the street, her second shadow abandoned the clothing shop that he had been loitering in to chase after her.

Sakura frowned.

It had been amusing at first, but now it was beginning to be annoying. If he kept it up, she was going to have to ask him what he wanted, and Sakura didn’t want to have to do that.

It was bad enough that she had to protect him and occasionally slip food into his fridge. Talking to him, thinking about him, thinking about Team Seven was asking too much of her. It had been months since Sakura was killed by the older, somehow crazier Uchiha brother and flung into her past, and in all that time, Sakura had avoided thinking too hard about Team Kakashi’s original members.

They hadn’t exactly parted on the best of terms.

Sasuke had blithely deserted the Leaf for the mere promise of power, knocking her out and shoving two chidori through Naruto’s chest while he was about it. Half of their year mates had nearly died trying to bring him home. Two and a half years later, he had kicked the crap out of her teammates then given his body to Orochimaru in exchange for the promise of even more power.

But something must have gone wrong with the technique – or very right, Tsunade had said, because it would have explained a lot about what Orochimaru had become in his later years – because the two of them had ended up blended together. The thing that they had become had been neither of them. Worse, he had somehow been crazier, more mercurial, and less empathetic than either had been individually. It had been a tossup as to who had taken that development worse: Itachi or Naruto.

Naruto had already nearly killed her twice over Sasuke – not counting that time on the hospital’s roof. And Sakura wasn’t sure – she’d been busy first not dying, and then getting kidnapped by deranged Akatsuki members – but she didn’t think much of anything had survived Naruto’s meltdown over Sasuke’s death.

An out of control Naruto was a disaster.

Between them, Sasuke, Naruto, and Orochimaru had done what three great shinobi wars and the fall of Uzushiogakure hadn’t managed to do: they had destroyed the Village Hidden in the Leaves.

At the end of everything – well, her everything, Kakashi had probably outlived her – things with Kakashi had been… fine. Probably. She had been his favorite medic in the village… which, honestly, hadn’t been saying much. Unfortunately, it was all that she could honestly say about what had lain between them – or rather, what hadn’t lain between them. Sasuke had been his favorite when they were children, Naruto when their team was reformed. She had just been… there; useful, sometimes, perhaps, but seemingly never more than a friendly work acquaintance to Kakashi on even on their friendliest days.

The rejection of it still stung.

It was just easier not to think too much about Uzumaki Naruto, Hatake Kakashi, or Uchiha Sasuke, even if she spent an unreasonable amount of time staring at the back of the last’s head while contemplating jutsu equations.

Except now, Sasuke was making her think about him when she didn’t have to.

Sakura did not appreciate it.

She was not a patient woman by nature, but Sakura did try to wait him out. Two weeks into that, she gave up and flung a couple of practice kunai at him – one where he was to get him moving in the right direction, and the other where he was going to be after he dodged the first – and roared, “Enough already!” Her shout was nearly loud enough drown out Sasuke’s yelp when Sakura’s blunted practice kunai hit him – in the chest, she thought.

Glaring at the bushes, Sakura snapped, “What do you want?”

Another beat of silence, then the bush rustled again as Uchiha Sasuke emerged from it, rubbing his chest and scowling at her.

“Train with me,” demanded Sasuke, and Sakura nearly died then and there, ignominiously killed a second time by an Uchiha.

Damn Uchiha, Sakura thought, as she used a wisp of medical jutsu to ease her choking and soothe her throat.

“No,” said Sakura, as soon as she could speak with a level tone. If it came out harsher than she had meant it to, she wasn’t sorry. Sasuke didn’t respond well to niceness anyway. He’d been everyone’s favorite teammate – hers and Naruto’s and Kakashi-sensei’s – and he’d still betrayed them all the first time that someone offered him a shortcut to the power he craved.

If there was one thing that Sakura wasn’t going to do, she absolutely wasn’t going to train a future traitor to the Leaf.

In the present, Sasuke glared at her again before turning on his heel and stalking away with all the furious dignity of an insulted cat. But the next day he was back, stalking her, staring at her, and making the skin on the back of her neck crawl.

Sakura beamed him with another blunted practice kunai. Thanks to stupid Itachi’s stupid compulsion, Sasuke’s pained yelp was even more satisfying than Sakura had expected it to be, which was… odd. Sakura had the impression that the compulsion ought not to have responded like that.

As odd as that moment was, Sakura didn’t have time to untangle it then. Sasuke edged out of his hiding place, already staring at her. Hard. It was just a hypothesis, but Sakura suspected that he was trying to intimidate her.

It reminded her of Sai. He had always studied her like that, and she… missed it. She missed him. Sakura wished that she had bumped into him even once since waking up in her younger self’s body.

“Stop it,” said Sakura, her eyes aching and her face uncomfortably warm. Inner Sakura cursed their fair skin. It was always blushing at the worst possible moment! “You’re making me uncomfortable.”

“You stare at me all the time in class,” retorted Sasuke, sounding disgruntled. He dropped down from the tree that he had been hiding in. “How did you know that I was there?”

Because I’m a goddamn chuunin, that’s how, you self-important brat, thought Sakura irritably. Out loud, she said, “I’m not staring at you. Your head just happens to be in the direction that I like to look in when I’m thinking.”

Sasuke snorted. He crossed his arms, turned on his heel, and left.

The next day, the little shit sat at the back of the class. If Sakura was going to look at him, she was going to have to twist around in her seat to do it.

Little bastard, Sakura thought, annoyed.

She didn’t have to look at him. She just had to check in on him at least a few times a day; a dozen, tops. Watching Sasuke be alive, well, and unthreatened during weapons and taijutsu classes might be enough to satisfy the compulsion that Itachi had set on her. And if not, Sakura knew the best spot to sit in the tree that grew outside of his apartment. From there, she could watch Sasuke’s main room and bedroom at the same time… or feel the flicker and pull of his chakra on the rare nights that Sasuke actually remembered to draw his curtains.

But to stare at Sasuke during weapon and taijutsu class, she actually needed to be near him. And that would require a certain amount of effort on her part.

And so it was with a deeply resentful heart that Sakura beat out a dozen other girls for a position on the same weapons’ range as Sasuke. As she took her place beside him, Sasuke smirked. Sakura narrowed her eyes at him, barely resisting the urge to smack him through the nearest tree. She might have done it anyway, but Itachi’s compulsion distracted her.

Smacking Sasuke – into a tree or at all – would have hurt him, but Itachi’s compulsion didn’t seem to see it that way. It seemed to interpret her heartfelt desire to hurt Sasuke as a heartfelt desire to improve him, and for his own good, no less. It would accept terrible damage to Sasuke as a means to achieving its goal: protecting Sasuke, no matter what.

That…

It was…

It said some really uncomfortable things about Uchiha Itachi… and about the people that had shaped his nindo.

A teacher’s nindo left a mark on their students – unseen, perhaps unfelt, but there all the same. She had been Kakashi’s least favorite student, the one that he had forgotten that he had more often than not, but even she had taken his nindo to heart. She didn’t abandon her teammates. She would protect them. And she would save her comrades’ lives, if she could manage it.

Naruto had believed it too, as well as Sasuke – well, before Itachi had broken his mind, anyway. Even Captain Yamato had believed it, despite saying repeatedly that he hadn’t. He had once made a truce with Kabuto – traitor to the Leaf, apprentice to Orochimaru, and A-class criminal – to save her life after Naruto had lost control of the kyuubi and critically wounded her. As far as Sakura had been able to tell, everyone who had ever spent much time as Kakashi-sensei’s kohai had adopted his nindo to one degree or another.

Lee had wholeheartedly believed in Gai-sensei’s Springtime of Youth, as had Tenten to a much lesser extent. Even Neji had adopted it… after Naruto defeated him in the Chuunin Exams. Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji had adopted Asuma-sensei’s belief in the King, and Kiba, Shino, and Hinata had taken Kurenai-sensei’s nindo as their own.

Sakura had met many, many people who shared Itachi’s nindo. And they had all been students of the same man… Shimura Danzo.

A link between ROOT and Uchiha Itachi? Sakura wondered, her stomach sinking.

It seemed impossible, but if she had learned anything as Tsunade’s apprentice, it was that few things were truly impossible in the ninja world. If there was a link between Danzo’s ROOT organization and Uchiha Itachi, the boy who had murdered his entire clan in a single night to test his strength, then –

“Hey, idiot!” barked Kiba, utterly derailing her train of thought. “Go throw your kunai!”

“Shut up!” shouted Sakura, her fist slamming onto the top of Kiba’s head. “I was thinking!”

“Ow! Jeez! You –”

“Haruno!” shouted Iruka-sensei, interrupting Kiba before he managed to say something that Sakura would have to kick his ass for.

“Sorry, sensei!” chirped Sakura automatically. Stepping up to the throwing line, she took her turn. The kunai that she swiftly tossed at the target all went where she wanted them to go, but Sakura was too out of sorts to enjoy it.

The throws had been too simple to do much to distract her from the suddenly thorny issue of Itachi. Because if Itachi was a ROOT agent, then it meant that there was probably more to the Uchiha Massacre than initially met the eye.

There were few things in this world that Sakura wanted to do less than help that guy.

He had tortured her! And murdered her! And his entire family, save Sasuke, whom he had used genjutsu to torture until he was more than half mad. Uchiha Itachi destroyed everything that he touched.

But… Danzo.

And maybe, possibly Sai.

And village security.

Sakura sighed.

 

 

 

By the end of the fall term, Daikoku-sensei had taught them the hand seals for the Leaf’s simplest bunshin technique, the village’s transformation technique, and the Leaf’s standard replacement technique. None of Sakura’s classmates could perform all three of them yet.

“Remember to practice over the break,” said Daikoku-sensei on the last day of term. In front of him, an entire class of pre-genin is bent over their hands, laboriously twisting their fingers through the list of seals written on the blackboard behind him. “I expect to spend some time helping you to refine your abilities with these techniques next term, but the bulk of the work should be done outside of class.”

As a (secret) chuunin, the assignment was a snap for Sakura. After all, she already knew all three techniques, and she could perform them both instantaneously and without using hand seals.

But, Sakura decided, as she made the hand seals along with everybody else, the point of training sabbaticals is to train. There’s always room for improvement. My goals – my goals for this training exercise are…

There, Sakura faltered. The three techniques they were learning, while unglamorous, were the bread and butter of their future trade. How could she possibly improve on them?

I can’t, Sakura decided. I’ll just have to think of something more creative to do with them. Something that I haven’t done yet.

On the last day of the fall term, Iruka-sensei took his homeroom class down to the obstacle course. The three homeroom teachers for students in their last year at the academy offered their students a rare treat: they got to pick their own teams of four for the obstacle course.

Ino, Shikamaru, Choji, and Sakura were clumped together almost before Mizuki-sensei had officially turned everybody loose to find their own teammates.

The last year at the ninja academy was the hardest, and even though they were still two whole terms between them and graduation, there had already been a lot of dropouts and dismissals from their class, and even more from the classes a term or two ahead of them in school. When the dust settled, all three classes combined only managed to field thirty-odd teams.

Sakura saw that Shino and Hinata had partnered up with two kids from another class that Sakura didn’t recognize at all. Sasuke was on an all boys team that was being cooed over by a team of girls destined for civilian life. Naruto and Kiba had somehow ended up on a team with two kids that Sakura vaguely recognized from the ninja corps. In fact, looking around, Sakura realized that she only recognized about half of the kids around her from her previous life. The others had just… disappeared.

Were they killed? Maybe in the invasion? Sakura wondered. Or did I just… not see them ever again?

Looking at their happy little faces, Sakura sincerely hoped that they had just run in different social circles. Unfortunately, she had been a ninja too long to entirely believe it.

At Iruka-sensei’s shout, all of the teams moved to the starting line.

Sakura was seventeen and a chuunin. She had been on actual missions, fought in actual ninja battles, and killed actual enemy nin. No one in Konohagakure had killed as many Akatsuki members as she had.

And yet, as she took her place at the starting line with all the eleven, twelve, and thirteen year olds, Sakura felt her heart rate pick up. Her stomach twisted with nerves. She was actually worried about her little team doing well on a hypothetical mission on an obstacle course at the academy.

Sakura listened carefully as their instructors outlined the mission parameters.

They may have been eleven and twelve year olds, but her little team of pre-genin was going to ace this!

 

Chapter Text

“You’re happy,” said Shimon one day before practice.

“Am I?” asked Sakura and then grinned at him, because she was.

When she had been a child, Sakura had hated the breaks between terms. Ino and all the other clan scions had always come back from them smarter, stronger, and better than they had been the previous term. Sakura had come back from them feeling the gap between her skills and theirs all the more keenly. Every break, she had fallen further and further behind her classmates.

Now, the breaks between terms were by far her favorite parts of the school year. With no other demands on her time, she got to pursue her own training and her own research without explanation to anyone. And she didn’t even have to pretend to care about the Shinobi Academy or what went on in it.

Right now, she was pursuing improvement in her field skills. More specifically, she was getting ready to spar against Shimon.

Shimon was a generalist like Kakashi-sensei, although not nearly so skilled. Unlike Kakashi-sensei, while he was a jack of many trades, Shimon was a master of none. Sparring with Shimon was fun in a way that Sakura had never experienced before, because she never knew quite what to expect from him. Occasionally, Sakura even wondered if training with Shimon was a taste of what it would have been like to really seriously train with Kakashi-sensei.

Training with Shimon was when Sakura got to pull together the extremely paltry number of skills and techniques left to her after her forced reincarnation into her younger self and try to turn them into something useful. It was against him that Sakura was refining her use of the three basic jutsu that every final year academy student learned, learning to combine them in new and interesting ways. With Shimon, Sakura didn’t bother to pretend to need the hand seals, and Shimon didn’t bother to inquire into her unexpected skill with the techniques.

Although training with Muta, Shimon, and Tokuma was often the highlight of her week, it was sparring with Tokuma that played most to Sakura’s interests.

Muta was a mid-range figher, preferring not to get too close when engaging an enemy. On Team Kakashi, he would have likely been Sai or Yamato or Kakashi-sensei’s problem, if there was a choice to be had among opponents. Sakura didn’t have any mid-range techniques – not yet, at any rate. She preferred to avoid, observe, and eventually punch, hard. Muta didn’t have any puppets for her to destroy – or at least scuff up for him, since they were training together – and she couldn’t even throw boulders at him yet. Laying down a thick cloud of bug spray, although tempting, was out too; Muta was a friend.

All of which meant that training with Muta was mostly Sakura trying to keep two steps ahead of his voraciously hungry chakra-eating bugs. It was actually a lot like her initial combat training as a field medic, except the consequence for failure was a lower chakra level rather than being pulverized by her shisho. There were even patterns of attack to observe, predict, and avoid. Whether he meant to do it or not, Muta was helping Sakura to improve her speed, her stamina – ever the bane of her existence – and to teach this new little body of hers to move like her older, stronger body had done.

For all of that, Sakura was deeply and genuinely grateful to him. So grateful, in fact, that she tried very, very hard not to mind about the bugs. Or at least stop automatically trying to squash them when they landed on her. Someday, Sakura had vowed more than once, she was going to find a way to repay Muta for his kindness by figuring out a technique that would challenge him, just the way that he had always challenged her.

And since she hadn’t been particularly fast before – fast enough to land most of her punches, but not fast enough to land one on Kakashi-sensei – Sakura was willing to see the inadvertent speed training that she was getting from Muta as an improvement on her old self. It was a relief. Training with Muta was one of the few places in her life that Sakura could see her efforts at improving on her previous skillset actually beginning to bear fruit.

Of her three new training partners, it was Tokuma, who shared Sakura’s interest in close combat and taijutsu techniques. Sparring with him allowed Sakura to refine her stopgap taijutsu style. Dusting off tips and tricks that she hadn’t used in years, Sakura dropped the power moves that she had so painstakingly refined under her master in favor of returning to the instant and relentless counterattacks that she had learned under Asuma-sensei during the times that she had been assigned to Team Ten and then refined with him in the months leading up to the new Team Ten’s second crack at the chuunin exams.

During the hours that she trained with him, Sakura had no greater dream than to beat Tokuma bruised and bloody with her own two fists.

And dodging his juuken was good practice. Tokuma’s byakugan allowed him to observe and predict Sakura’s patterns of attack just as she observed, predicted, and countered his. Pure taijutsu matches against Tokuma were more evenly matched in that regard than they had ever been against anyone that wasn’t Tsunade or Shizune. It was exilerating, but it certainly wasn’t fair, not with Tokuma using his bloodline limit like that.

Just wait until I perfect my blinding mist, thought Sakura vengefully. Then we’ll see how evenly matched we are!

And across from her, Tokuma smirked, as if his eyes could see even that.

Tokuma and his all seeing eyes made Sakura practice being sneaky, just like Asuma-sensei had always wanted her to be. Just as she needed to be, now that she couldn’t casually kick down a mountain.

One day, Sakura wasn’t going to lose, not even to Tokuma.

Sakura’s hours of outside sparring and independent practice had consequences, of course. More and more often, Sakura’s re-learned tricks, techniques, and modifications on the village’s basic taijutsu style bled into her academy spars. They strengthened and improved on the generic taijutsu style that students practiced at the academy, which fit Sakura about as well as they fit anyone, which was to say poorly at best.

As pre-genin, only the clan scions were supposed to have learned any modifications on the village’s generic style. Everyone else was meant to learn them from their jonin-sensei – provided that they passed the school’s final exam and their jonin-sensei’s survival training, of course.

With the ease of practice, Sakura ignored her teachers’ questioning eyes, preemptive judgements, and silent disapproval of her push to improve herself. If they weren’t interested in training her up properly themselves, they hardly got to have a say who or where she got her training from.

And slowly, despite them limitations of her new, tinier, weaker body, Sakura began to improve. Someday, she was going to beat Tokuma bruised and bloody. And on that day, she was going to laugh.

It was for use in spars against Tokuma that Sakura had first started trying to peel off and direct curls of steam while soaking in the bath at night. What had started as a means of refining her ability to shape and control water – a crucial skill in both poison removal and, apparently, tree growth – had swiftly taken on new dimensions. Sakura had known since she was twelve that a thick enough fog could blind the sharingan. She just didn’t know if the same was true of the byakugan. But if she kept practicing, she might find out.

The first time that she used her new technique, peeling wisps of fog off of a nearby lake while trying to dodge Tokuma’s blows, Tokuma laughed at her.

“I don’t have the sharingan,” he scoffed, after he had knocked Sakura down again. “No mere physical barrier can blind these eyes to the glow of your chakra pathways.”

“Huh,” grunted Sakura, half in annoyance and half in pain as she popped open her blocked tenketsu. “Good to know.”

Her next attempt at an obscuring mist was liberally laced with her chakra. Tokuma still kicked her ass though.

“Better,” he said brusquely, and then extended a hand down to help her up.

It was at those moments, when she was lying flat on her back looking up at Tokuma, that Sakura most missed her old body. With it, she would have had access to her monstrous strength and all the taijutsu techniques that had gone along with it. A little mist and some pointers from Asuma-sensei were a poor substitute for the combat skills that she had learned, honed, and polished to a murderous shine under the Slug Sannin’s guidance.

Tsunade, she thought, wouldn’t have understood her losing to anyone, including a Hyuuga; maybe especially a Hyuuga. Their general disdain at the possibility of using their eyes for the healing arts and secretiveness regarding the location of common tenketsu points had always gotten on her teacher’s last nerve. Tsunade wouldn’t have taken her losses to Tokuma with anything remotely resembling grace.

Sakura still took Tokuma’s hand and let him pull her to her feet.

“Did the fog at least hide my chakra coils this time?” demanded Sakura, panting, and then scowled when Tokuma shook his head.

“There will always be more chakra in a living person than in any of their techniques,” said Tokuma. His pale eyes briefly narrowed at her. “Even if that person is being overly liberal with the amount of chakra they put into their strands of mist.”

Sakura stuck her tongue out at him and then grinned.

Someday, somehow, she was going to get him without just breaking down and using her medical jutsu to incapacitate him. She was going to defeat Tokuma, knock him on his ass, and then generously offer him a hand up, just like he had always done to her. She just had to figure out how to make her mist brighter – as bright as her chakra coils – without sinking too much chakra into it. Simple, really.

As soon as Tokuma declared them done for the day, Sakura headed home for a hot shower and a soak, during which time she tried to think about ways to make her mist technique shinier. Nothing came immediately to mind.

The problem, Sakura eventually decided, is that I don’t actually know very much about water itself.

Perhaps it was time to remedy that.

Clambering out of the tub, Sakura dried off, dressed, and went to the academy’s library to read about water. Tomorrow morning, she would move on to the more advanced texts that they kept in the village’s ninja library.

And since it’s the break between terms, thought Sakura happily, I actually have time for stuff like this.

During the break, Sakura had quickly fallen into a basic routine: jutsu refinement in the early morning, book work when the library finally opened for the day, conditioning and weapons practice in the afternoon, taijutsu in the evening, and water jutsu practice while she bathed and then relaxed in the bath at night. After that, it was bedtime so that she could rise early and do it all again the next day.

Alterations in her schedule were made for practice with the chuunin, seal work with Minako, and that night for breaking into the school library. It wasn’t like they didn’t want her to be there outside of proper business hours. After all, they hadn’t made any improvements to the academy’s security since the summer term.

It was a long night, but Sakura thought that she might have found what she was looking for while reading about why water was blue. That had led her to the books on light and shadow. She just needed a few more – or a lot more – details to begin to put her idea together.

Tokuma wasn’t going to know what hit him. Literally.

The next morning, Sakura slept later than usual, dreaming of Team Kakashi. In her dream, all six members, past and present, were sitting on a blanket and eating festival food while Uzushio fireworks exploded overhead. She woke feeling refreshed – and grateful for the seal carved into her headboard.

Every family in the Uzushio Quarter had their own set of household seals, the slight differences between them being what made them unique. Unlike the sleeping seal used in the hospital, the Haruno sweet dreams seal didn’t interfere with the user’s sleep patterns. Instead, they worked to turn nightmares into something more palatable to the dreamer.

Under her family’s seal, what might have been a nightmare about Naruto rampaging through the village – or maybe mortally wounding her at the Kanabi Bridge – became a more restful dream in which she enjoyed a nighttime picnic with her teammates. It was a good seal, better in Sakura’s opinion than anything they used in the hospital to help patients sleep.

Rising, Sakura made her bed and got herself together for the day. She wolfed down a quick breakfast, and headed to the main library to read about water, color, and light. She was coming out of the library when Sasuke found her.

Sakura had honestly hoped that the lure of so many unsupervised hours would have redirected his focus from her to anything else. Instead, he had choosen to stalk her even more vigorously than he had during their last school term.

I’d forgotten how narrow his focus could be, thought Sakura ruefully. Thinking back on it, though, Sakura was nearly positive that it had been one of the things that she had liked best about Sasuke when she was eleven. I would have loved this back then, thought Sakura, a reluctant smile pulling at her mouth.

As a girl, Sakura had possessed a crush on Sasuke-kun even larger than her forehead. And when she wasn’t busy imagining him kissing said forehead and telling her that it was the perfect size, Sakura had been busy scraping up the courage to ask him out again. Never give up, no matter how crushing the rejection had been her unofficial motto. Well, that and love conquers all!

Sakura had been a very silly child.

One thing that Sakura had never quite worked up the courage to do, however, had been to outright stalk her beloved Sasuke-kun. She had been tempted to try, of course, but back then she had been so in awe of him, so certain that he was out of her league that she had never quite gotten around to it. She hadn’t wanted to hear what he might say if she annoyed him in such a personal way.

If he had ever stalked her back then the way that he was stalking her now, Sakura would have screamed and flailed and told everyone, but most especially Ino. Her joy would have incandescent. In fact, just thinking about it and imagining her younger self’s unrestrained glee at her Sasuke-kun finally noticing her was enough to send an echo of the emotion bubbling through Sakura.

She would have been so happy!

And she was happy, despite everything.

Bastard, thought Sakura, because Uchiha Sasuke had no business making her – not the shard of his brother at the back of her brain, but her – happy. Nostalgia was the worst.

Since she had practice that afternoon with Muta, Sakura lost Sasuke on her way to Training Ground Eleven, but her happiness lingered and followed her all the way through practice.




Sakura was by no means a sensor nin, but she had just enough awareness in the area – and by now, familiarity with Sasuke’s chakra signature – to know when he showed up in front of her house the next morning. He wasn’t even trying to hide from her! Sakura made a face, annoyed, and the three clones standing across from her made it back at her.

Keeping to her schedule, Sakura continued her practice until it was time to go to the library. She was beginning to suspect that Itachi had accidentally fucked up his technique – either that or crazy, murderous, brain-stealing bastard that he was, he had fucked up her brain on purpose. Either way, Sakura was going to start seriously training to kill him just as soon as she finished fixing her mind, which at the moment meant branching her research out into false memories and the treatment thereof, because it seemed to be the area of research closest to what Itachi had done to her.

Sakura really wished that she had access to the Yamanaka clan library. And a Yamanaka – preferably Ino; more specifically, she wanted the one that she had grown up with. Sakura loved the little Ino that she had now, of course, but it wasn’t the same.

Even if I put everything back to exactly the way that it was before, it still won’t be the same as before, thought Sakura morosely. Because I’m different now than I was back then. I’m not eleven anymore.

And she wasn’t exactly doing a great job of being who she had been at eleven. It was just too boring to be that Sakura all day, every day.

It’s good that I have genuine emotions to carry me past the rough patches, thought Sakura, the bulk of her thoughts still on the Yamanaka clan.

Sakura didn’t know precisely how the Yamanaka clan’s techniques worked, but she knew enough from Ino to know that there was always a certain amount of low grade background noise in their minds, all of it from other people. A lot of it was other people’s emotions or stray thoughts. According to Ino, most people thought very loudly, but almost no one thought at any length about anything very interesting – not without a few subtle nudges in the right direction, at any rate.

Little Yamanaka spent their childhoods building up crackerjack mental barriers to keep everyone else’s thoughts and feelings down to a dull roar at the back of their minds. They spent their genin years learning to slip out past their own mental defenses and take control of others’ bodies, if not their minds. And they spent their chuunin years learning how to manipulate others’ thoughts with all the ease and finesse of a master sculptor. What a jounin level Yamanaka like Ino’s dad was capable of, Sakura didn’t know.

What she did know was that if anything about her had changed too dramatically at the surface level – the basic emotions that she had always had – then Ino or her dad would have noticed. Why they hadn’t noticed any difference in her thought patterns, she didn’t know for certain, but Sakura suspected that it had something to do with Inner Sakura’s presence in her mind.

Inner Sakura’s purpose was to protect her mind, guard her secrets, and provide clarity of thought. When Sakura had finally stopped kidding herself – and everyone else – about who she was and what she wanted, Inner Sakura had vanished. She had only reappeared when Uchiha Itachi had attacked Sakura’s mind.

Inner Sakura had fought every assult that had ever been attempted against Sakura’s brain; she had even forced Ino out once. Even now, Inner Sakura protected her from the worst of Itachi’s (potentially botched) technique. It wasn’t too far-fetched to suspect that Inner Sakura had always protected her thoughts from casual inspection by anyone, including Konohagakure’s famed Yamanaka clan.

As far as Ino or her clan was concerned, Sakura was just like that. They had never known her without the seal. And perhaps, they had never been able to hear her thoughts, casual or otherwise.

Perhaps there was more than kindness in Ino’s offer of a red ribbon all those years ago, thought Sakura with a small smile.

An unhappy little girl, whose emotions were loud but whose thoughts were silent, would have interested Ino at any age.

A few hours among the library’s stacks soothed the worst of Sakura’s temper, which was good, because when she emerged from the library, Sasuke was waiting for her. He followed her down the block to the green space that Sakura liked to eat lunch in. It was a green space, because shinobi neighborhoods did not have parks. Sakura settled under a tree, Sasuke into a nearby bush… and Sakura sighed.

“Come out already,” she said, “You’ve got to be hungry by now, Sasuke-kun.”

As soon as she said his name, Sakura wanted to bite her tongue.

What is wrong with me? Sakura wondered, even though she knew what was wrong with her. Stupid Kakashi and his stupid bell test had made it forever impossible to eat and leave her teammates hungry, not even her traitorous former teammate who had given his body to Orochimaru in the pursuit of his vengeance.

If I’m going to be stuck here, I’m going to have to make sure to call him Sasuke – just Sasuke, thought Sakura as she watched Sasuke emerge from the bushes. He was smirking and, as Sakura watched, he ruffled a hand through his hair to get the leaves out of it.

At eleven, watching him do that had always made her sigh. Now, watching him with much more jaded eyes, Sakura realized that he meant to have that effect on her.

Uchiha Sasuke was not unaware of the effect that he had on the opposite gender. It was just that most of the time, he didn’t care.

Well, that makes two of us, thought Sakura, amused. She was a seventeen year old kunoichi. An eleven year old’s burgeoning sexual wiles weren’t going to be enough to seduce her to his ends. But she appreciated the fact that he was trying to use all of his ninja weapons on her. And given first Haru’s and now Sasuke’s attempts at seduction, I finally know what they teach the boys during kunoichi lessons.

Watching Sasuke saunter towards her, Sakura felt a little less embarrassed about her younger self’s raging crush on Sasuke. Apparently, he might have meant to do some of that. Or at least, meant to present himself in such a cool fashion.

Bastard, thought Sakura again, and it was nearly fond.

Sasuke dropped down across from her, and Sakura pushed her bento box forward, positioning it between the two of them. At first, they ate in silence, and Sakura noted with amusement the way that Sasuke’s mouth lingered on the chopsticks when it was his turn to use them.

Indirect kisses like that would have been so romantic to her twelve year old self! She might literally have died of glee. Now, Sakura had to bite back her giggles.

He was so cute!

“When are you going to stop following me everywhere?” Sakura finally asked after swallowing a clump of rice, and Sasuke glared at her.

“When you fight me,” he said.

“I fight you at least once a week in school,” said Sakura. “You always lose.”

Everyone lost against her. Even in this body, there were benefits to being a chuunin in a pond stocked entirely with pre-genin. It would be a lie to say that Sakura wasn’t enjoying them.

“Fight me again!”

Sakura nearly rolled her eyes at him. It was like being on Team Seven again except that Sasuke was apparently playing the part of Naruto this time – or maybe himself during the chuunin exams. It was annoying. In fact, it was so irritating, that Sakura spoke sharply – and without thinking.

“Fighting me is a waste of time. You’ll just keep losing, and I’ll continue to pull ahead of you, because you haven’t adapted your training regime to my new style at all.”

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at her. “I’ve changed things.”

“But they weren’t the correct things, were they? Otherwise, you’d be improving against me.”

He wouldn’t win – Sakura wouldn’t let him win against her – but he’d at least be doing better than he had been doing against her. Sasuke was the second best at taijutsu in their class at the academy, but he wasn’t improving in their spars, and they both knew it.

Although Sasuke’s estimates of his current ability against my own are probably overly generous, decided Sakura, as she idly watched her foolish younger brother struggle with himself. It was a thing that she had never seen before, and she was just curious enough to wonder where it going to go.

In the end, it didn’t go anywhere. Sasuke got up and left rather than giving in to whatever impulse had briefly stirred in him. Sakura told herself that she didn’t care and wasn’t interested. And if she was interested, it was probably Itachi’s fault, brain-stealing bastard that he was.

That afternoon, Sakura didn’t have a hospital module to get to or a chuunin training partner to look forward to, so after weapons practice she assigned herself extra taijutsu training instead. Sakura had been working to slowly teach this new little body some more of the moves and tricks and kata that her proper body had known how to do as naturally as it had known how to walk. She wasn’t going to be able to kick Tokuma’s ass until Asuma-sensei’s taijutsu techniques were second nature to her again.

Sakura figured that she had enough time in the library and hospital and with her chuunin training partners that any minor discrepancies in her abilities could be explained away – so long as she remembered not to try to pulverize or shatter anything. Not that she could. She hadn’t yet made even half of the necessary adjustments to this body to support that style of combat. Using those techniques would have shattered her bones for sure.

Sakura had had quite enough of that already.

For the moment, Sakura was simply unnaturally strong, as any shinobi with sufficiently advanced chakra control could reinforce their body to be, rather than being properly monstrously strong, as she had once prided herself on being.

Sakura missed being monstrously strong. And her old body. And her old time.

Crushing down those useless feelings, Sakura kept practicing.




Sasuke resumed following her the next day. At lunch, he approached Sakura again. Crossing his arms over his chest, and glaring at a nearby shrubbery as if it had personally offended him, he said bad-temperedly, “How do you think that I should be training?”

Sakura was flummoxed. How had that happened? Why was he asking her? Sasuke had never directly asked her opinion on anything in their entire time on Team Seven, much less for help with his training. He had always thought her beneath him – even the one time that Kakashi-sensei had inadvertently allowed her to be better than him and Naruto at anything.

Eventually, she said, “I’ve told you already: I don’t want to train with you.”

Sasuke finally looked at her, and in that moment, Sakura knew that she had made a terrible mistake. She just didn’t know what it was. Well, not until Sasuke tried to punch her, his blow quick for a pre-genin but his movement badly telegraphed, and Sakura easily leaned out of the way. She caught his wrist as it sailed past her ear and using it, as well as the momentum in his body and the press of her hand against his chest, Sakura threw herself backwards, flinging Sasuke over herself.

He landed on his back, and Sakura was on him in a heartbeat. She pinned him in place, a blunted practice kunai pressed tight against his throat.

Sasuke glared up at her.

“I’m faster than you! I’ve always been faster than you! How did you do that?”

“Easily,” sneered Sakura, and Sasuke glowered at her.

When she let him up, he attacked her again! This time, Sakura slammed him face first down into the grass. It took three more (wildly unsuccessful) attacks before Sakura gave up and ate lunch while sitting on Sasuke’s back.

And maybe the part where she shared her lunch with her captive confused him, because Sasuke came to find her again the next day. He announced his presence with a barrage of kunai. Without bothering to make any of the hand seals, Sakura replaced herself with a log. She reappeared behind Sasuke, the edge of her practice kunai pressed against the front of his neck. Blunt or not, it wouldn’t take much pressure to slit his throat.

The part of her brain where Itachi’s compulsion resided was surprisingly fine with that. It seemed to view the possibility as a learning experience – so long as she intended to repair Sasuke’s throat before he died.

She really needed to get that sliver of Itachi out of her brain as soon as possible. Despite Inner Sakura’s mighty efforts to hold its worst effects in check, it was still absolutely crazy, and it was getting that crazy all over her.

Somehow, with Itachi’s crazy bubbling at the back of her brain, Sasuke looked nearly well adjusted by comparison.

Sakura still kicked his ass though. Repeatedly. And then she shared her lunch, because she had packed enough for two and it seemed a shame to let that go to waste.




The start of the winter term returned Akamaru to his customary place on top of Kiba’s head. Kiba had apparently gotten his canine partner over the break between terms, something that seemed to fill the loud boy with a quiet sort of awe every time he looked at the puppy.

It had been a long time, at least from her prespective, since Akamaru was so little. Looking at the pair of them together made Sakura feel nostalgic, not that she was going to allow that feeling to keep her from kicking their asses during placements.

The start of the new term also brought the return of Sasuke to his preferred seat at the front of the classroom. At the sight of Sasuke back where he ought to have been, something unknotted in Sakura’s chest. Not that Sasuke’s absence from the front of the class had been getting to her. It was just a relief to Itachi’s shard to return to the natural order of things: Sasuke sitting up front, and Sakura watching over him from a safe distance.

In previous years, students had only been cumulatively tested at the end of the spring term and the beginning of the fall term, when they returned from whatever training their parents were – or weren’t – giving them. During their last year at the academy, however, students were tested, racked, and stacked at the beginning of every term as well as at the end of the spring term, when thirty fortunate souls earned their forehead protectors.

Not everyone was excited at the prospect of the teachers taking such an intense interest in their development as shinobi. Choji was so nervous that he even forgot to snack, and Shikamaru looked downright grumpy at all the attention.

Daikoku-sensei tested them on their genjutsu escapes as well as the bunshin, transformation, and replacement techniques. (Sakura earned extra credit points for knowing how to perform two forms of genjutsu escape – self-inflicted pain and flexing her chakra. She performed all three basic techniques too, making sure to go slow and use hand seals. She had to show improvement somewhere, after all. Sasuke, who had apparently noticed her lack of hand seals during their impromptu challenges, frowned at her when she used them in class. Sakura pretended not to notice.)

Mizuki-sensei tested their endurance, conditioning, and survival skills – including the fire starting jutsu. (It remained the bane of Sakura’s existence. She still couldn’t manage it, and her ability to start fires using other methods was worth nothing but contempt to Mizuki-sensei.)

They had a short break after that and a snack, after which Suzume-sensei tested their kunoichi skills. (Embarrassingly, Ino still scored higher in that than Sakura. Sakura could manage a fair approximation of the seduction stuff – better than Ino or anyone else in her class, at least. It was everything else that tripped Sakura up. Not coincidentally, it was everything else that put Ino ahead of her in that area.

When her mother had died, Ino had insisted on taking up many of her mother’s duties both at home and in her family’s business. After the academy, Sakura had never used any of those skills again, save flower arranging and that was in her capacity as Ino’s friend rather than as a kunoichi of Konohagakure. Fortunately for Sakura, kunoichi skills weren’t factored into their final scores. That sort of infiltration – like medical jutsu and sealing – was seen as a specialist skill at the academy.)

Iruka-sensei tested their skill with traps, kunai, and shuriken, rearranging the targets on the kunai range into less obvious lines and ever more obscure angles. (Sakura and Sasuke hit them all, but she was the only one in the class not to fall in a pit or get hit by a swinging log while doing it.) After that, Iruka-sensei and Mizuki-sensei presided over their taijutsu placement bouts. (Sakura kicked ass. She would have been ashamed to do anything else.)

They broke for lunch then, Sakura watching her classmates with interest as they moved to find their lunch-mates. Last term, everyone had been tossed outside to find their own places to eat somewhere on the academy grounds. This term, it was colder outside, which meant that everyone was confined to eating inside their classrooms.

The only good thing about their class being confined to the classroom was that it presented Sasuke with absolutely no opportunities to casually attack Sakura during their lunchbreak. That was probably a good thing, because Sakura’s mother had begun to notice that they never had any leftovers any more, all of them going into the lunches that Sakura shared with Sasuke after she kicked his ass.

That afternoon, Sakura sat with Ino, Shikamaru, Choji, and a small gaggle of girls from shinobi clans, while Shino amd Hinata sat together in a distant corner of the room, a few of their assorted cousins sitting nearby. She had known that Shino and Hinata were on good terms in the academy, but Sakura hadn’t realized that they were such good friends even so far back.

The whiner – the girl who was bound for a very early death, a future as a sushi chef’s assistant, or both – sat with her coterie in the center of the room, loud and oblivious to just how poorly they had done on their placement exams.

A small, beaten down contingent of civilian-born girls and boys huddled together in the back of the room, no doubt counting down the days until they were finally allowed to return to the civilian ranks. Sakura wondered if her cousin Minako (and most of their other cousins, truth be told) would have sat with them and then pushed the thought out of her mind. She couldn’t help any of them now.

Scattered around the rest of the classroom were younger versions of people that Sakura knew grew up to be shinobi in their own rights, most of them eating alone like Sasuke. They wouldn’t graduate the first time that they tried or their teams wouldn’t make it through survival training on their first try, but someday, they would make genin. Some would even make chuunin.

After lunch, they drew lots to determine team captains for the obstacle course. Shikamaru pulled a captain’s slip – much to his own horror – and picked Choji first, which in turn meant that Ino and Sakura were claimed by other squad captains.

It was harder to finesse across the finish line a group of kids that hadn’t been raised since infancy to work together as a team, but somehow Sakura managed it. Her pride as the only chuunin competing in the exam demanded it! But it was a narrow thing. If Jotaro hadn’t helped her literally drag Yuji around most of the course, they wouldn’t have finished at all. Placing was out of the question. First place, which had gone to Ino’s team, was a distant dream at best, even for a shinobi with Sakura’s skillset.

After they finished the exercise, their teachers went over the results with them, and then the school day was finally over. Half an hour later, as Sakura jogged towards the exit – and freedom – she spotted Sasuke loitering in the bushes to one side of the schoool’s gates.

That was odd.

Sasuke waited for no one – except Kakashi-sensei. But at twelve, Sasuke hadn’t met Kakashi-sensei yet, and so it was still fair to say that he waited for neither classmate nor teacher after school. As soon as the bell rang, Sasuke was out of there.

And so was Sakura usually, but that particular day she had stayed after for a senbon challenge with Ino on the kunai range. This time, challenges with her were actually challenging for Ino, which in turn meant Sakura’s best rival was slowly, but determinedly, improving. Two terms from now, Asuma-sensei wasn’t going to know what hit him, hopefully literally.

But in the meantime, Sakura had absolutely no idea why Sasuke was bad-temperedly loitering near the gate. Fortunately, Sasuke was kind enough to clear that up for her with a snap of his wrist.

Dodging his sidearm throw, Sakura charged straight at Sasuke. She just barely remembered not to send a burst of chakra to her fist, when she hit him.

The fight was still really short.

It felt really weird not to feed Sasuke onigiri after beating him up. Instead, Sakura patched up his nasty scrape for him.

If he keeps this up, Sakura thought, as she jogged down the street later. I’m going to have to start packing a second lunch; and maybe a small medical kit.

It would hardly be the worst inconvience imposed on her by this new life of hers.




The next day, the whiner and her coterie were gone, as were about half of those beaten down civilian kids and several of the children that Sakura hadn’t even remembered. Sakura’s homeroom class was noticeably smaller – and quieter – after that.

That same day, class rankings as of the winter placement exams were released. Sakura was, as per her ongoing plot, still the number one in all of their classes as well as the number one in their class rankings over all.

It was her last year in the academy, and she was now only two quarters from graduation. Next quarter, Sakura and her remaining classmates would have to choose a branch of the shinobi forces in which to shadow. Most clan scions would choose to go with their parents or another relative, but clanless ninja like Sakura needed guidance. From what she remembered, she hadn’t gotten much, if any, but she hadn’t been much of a shinobi last time either. Maybe they hadn’t expected her to pass. This time, Sakura expected some actual guidance during her meeting with her teachers.

Instead, her teachers chose to focus on their deep disapprove of Sakura’s sudden improvement in both skill level and the class’ rankings. They were vehement that the influx of taijutsu techniques unknown to them in her repertoire of skills could not bode well for her. Apparently, whoever had taught them to her had most likely done it for nefarious purposes of their own.

Sakura had laughed at that. It was just such a leap – and in entirely the wrong direction too.

Looking back on things, she had no doubts that, at least in the beginning and especially during that month before the invasion, Asuma-sensei had indeed had his own purposes in picking up Kakashi-sensei’s slack, but they hadn’t been nefarious. And whatever his reasons, Asuma-sensei’s training had helped her immensely. She might not have gotten her apprenticeship with Tsunade-sama at all, if Asuma-sensei hadn’t taken a personal interest in keeping her from getting any worse at her chosen profession in the months before Sakura had met the Slug Sanin. He had even begun trying to improve her.

We oughta kick their asses for saying shit like that about Asuma-sensei! Inner Sakura roared. Her eyes sparking and burning, she punched up into the air over her head. Let’s make them bleed!

Firmly, Sakura reminded herself that she didn’t care what her academy instructors thought of her.

Except, they aren’t thinking it about us! Inner Sakura protested. They’re saying it about Asuma-sensei!

“It’s not whatever perverted thing that you’re imagining!” Sakura snapped, her mood abruptly shifting, because Inner Sakura was right. They weren’t just slandering her. There was Asuma-sensei to think of too.

Sakura hit the table between them hard enough to make it rattle. She only wished that she could hit one of them.

“Damn perverts! It’s bad enough that my training has been so thoroughly neglected by my teachers that complete strangers pity me enough to give me a bit of training here and there, but now I also have to listen to those same teachers complain that someone is interested in my continued survival once I leave this academy! I shouldn’t have to listen to this too!”

At her words, Iruka-sensei looked equal parts uncomfortable and offended, while Mizuki-sensei seemed to settle on being viciously amused. All the rest of Sakura’s teachers had less mobile faces. Whatever their feelings on her outburst, they kept them to themselves.

Sakura’s academic conference hadn’t lasted much longer after that.

Classes continued on as usual. Sakura politely sat through them, but she was much more invested in her research, both into the Shodai’s magnificent trees and kicking Tokuma’s magnificent ass.

According to Sakura’s estimates, she was probably skilled enough with the water element and yang release for her purposes. And her ability to gather natural chakra, although nowhere near her master’s skill level, might be enough for her purposes. But to successfully grow a tree, she would need to improve her control over the earth element and her ability to shape yin chakra outside of her body.

Of her two deficiencies, Sakura decided to start with external yin release jutsu. She was supposed to be a genjutsu type, after all.

She started by going to Daikoku-sensei, not because she expected any help from that quarter, but as an object lesson. She didn’t want to hear later about how offended they were she sought actual help elsewhere.

Sakura was a chuunin in a pre-genin’s body, and she didn’t actually need any of the academy’s instructors or their attention, not any more. But once upon a time, she had. And there were still a half dozen civilian born students in her class that did need their help quite badly.

Even though circumstances were different now, Sakura still felt that what she had said to them during her academic counseling session had still essentially been true. Under their august training, her younger self had graduated with one foot already in the grave. She had gotten very, very lucky, not so much in Team Seven but in the teachers that had come after them. Sakura had no doubt that there were countless little leaves that hadn’t been as fortunate as she.

And so, knowing it to be a fool’s errand, Sakura nonetheless tracked Daikoku-sensei to Suzume-sensei’s classroom after school and politely asked him to teach her genjutsu.

“Not much,” Sakura said quickly, aware of her teachers’ stony gazes. “Just a few simple techniques.”

“No,” said Daikoku-sensei. “That will be your jonin-sensei’s prerogative.”

Sakura felt her mouth turn down. Then, she smiled.

“Of course, you’re right,” said Sakura sweetly. “Thank you for your care and attention, sensei. I appreciate it.”

The resulting lecture was hardly worthwhile, and Sakura had to not only rush through her now daily match with Sasuke but also sprint to avoid being late to practice with Shimon. All in all, her momentary spite probably hadn’t been worth it, no matter how good it had felt in the moment.

Not one to be deterred, Sakura asked Shimon next.

“Hey,” said Sakura to Shimon, after they had finished practicing for the day. “Do you know any genjutsu?”

“No,” said Shimon with a little shake of his head. It set his long bangs to swaying around his face. “Muta knows a bit, but it’s all tied into his bugs. Tokuma uses it sometimes too. Ask him.”

Sakura nodded. “I will.”

And she did, but Tokuma merely frowned and shook his head at her.

“I can’t teach you,” he said. “I use my byakugan to help with my illusions. They’re not as strong as they would be if I had the sharingan, but my techniques still aren’t something that would be useful to someone without a doujutsu.”

Sakura huffed out a sigh.

“You’re graduating at the end of the year, right?” add Tokuma. “Ask your jounin-sensei. If you’re interested in learning genjutsu, they’ll definitely be able to help you.”

“I don’t want to learn genjutsu for genjutsu’s sake,” said Sakura. “There’s a technique that I’m trying to develop. I’ve got the medical ninjutsu components down, but the ratios of yin and yang chakra are off, and I’m clumsy at using pure yin release outside of my body besides. The genjutsu arts are founded on the ability to produce, shape, and manipulate yin chakra, so I thought that maybe if I learned a couple of simple genjutsu techniques it would be easier to… get the effect that I want.”

And by ‘get the effect I want’, Sakura meant ‘grow trees like the Shodai.’ Unfortunately, nothing was ever easy.

Across from her, Tokuma briefly frowned into the middle distance.

“The jounin exams are coming up,” he said at last. “You get to see the lists if you’re on them. There’s a woman trying for jounin this year who is known for her exceptional genjutsu techniques. They say that she’s as good as the Uchiha were. Maybe if you offered her enough of your supplements to get her through the exams, she would be willing to teach you a few things.”

“I would!” said Sakura quickly. “Who is she? Where can I find her?”

Tokuma smiled at her. “I’ll pass your name to her. If she’s interested, she’ll find you.”

Reluctantly, Sakura nodded. Jounin were unstable at the best of times. Even if this woman that Tokuma knew was just a jounin candidate, it was probably best not to corner her, not until Sakura was as good as she used to be or better.

But waiting chaffed at her.

It chaffed at her the next day while she doodled seals and jutsu equations in classes. It chaffed at her while she wrote her end of module exam and signed up for a time to be tested on the practical components. It didn’t chaff at her as she ran home that evening, her feet pounding down pavement dappled with shadows and sunset, because she was too busy feeling the burn in her lungs.

In the gloaming, a figure stepped out into the path ahead of her.

Tall and slim despite the bulk of its chuunin’s vest, the figure had a head of shaggy dark hair and a shadowed face.

“Are you Haruno Sakura?” asked a woman’s voice, and Sakura tensed.

Sakura nodded. “I am.”

The figure took two steps forward – two steps that Sakura automatically took backwards; she wasn’t what she once was – and suddenly Sakura could see the other kunoichi’s face: large red eyes, the slope of a straight nose, and screaming red lipstick smeared over a shapely mouth.

Relief loosened Sakura’s stance.

“I’m Yuhi Kurenai. Tokuma told me to come and find you.”

“I know what you’ve come for,” Sakura said, smiling. “Do you want to go somewhere to talk?”

Kurenai arched one shapely eyebrow at her, but she inclined her head.

“Come with me.”

Obediently, Sakura moved to the other woman’s side.

Although Kurenai had been jounin-sensei to three of Sakura’s classmates from the academy, Sakura hadn’t actually known her very well. She had done her paperwork well and turned it in more or less on time. Her genin had all improved under her tutelage, and they had all been devoted to her. Even Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji had been fond of her. And she had seemed saner than most of the other jounin that Sakura had dealt with as her shisho’s apprentice, although that hadn’t been a high bar to clear. It wasn’t much to go on.

Kurenai led Sakura across the main road to a teahouse on the very edge of the invisible line that separated the eastern half of the Uzushio District from the newest ninja districts. Sakura had never seen it before, but just looking at its outside façade, Sakura knew that she couldn’t afford to step foot inside of that teahouse. She bravely followed Kurenai inside anyway.

To her left was a set of narrow stairs that led upwards, while to her right was a set of narrow stairs that led downward. Both were wreathed in shadows. In front of her was a spacious room with small, simple tables set up at intervals around it. Lanterns hung from the ceiling, the light filtering through their paper shades seeming to shadow as much as it illuminated. It was the smaller lights set in the center of each table that seemed to allow the shadowy people seated at each table to see each other.

Kurenai led Sakura forward, and Sakura swiftly discovered as they passed between the tables that not only could she not discern anyone’s specific features but she couldn’t hear their conversations either.

Sakura wondered if the people seated at the tables could see her or Kurenai’s faces. Tipping her head back, she tried to see the seals on the lanterns as they passed under them, but the unusual light that they produced made the seals on the insides of their shades look like inky smears. Blinking her eyes hard, Sakura returned her eyes to the red whirlpool on the back of Kurenai’s flak jacket.

Settling into the seat across from Kurenai, Sakura felt sweaty and ungainly against the more elegant kunoichi. Crushing that feeling down, Sakura sat silently as Kurenai ordered a small bottle of socho for herself and a pot of tea for Sakura.

“No, I couldn’tpossibly –” began Sakura immediately, because she probably couldn’t even afford a glass of tap water in a place like this, and Kurenai smiled.

“I insist,” said Kurenai. “It’s my treat.”

And, feeling wary, Sakura inclined her head. “Thank you.”

Kurenai nodded. She waited until the server had slipped away from their table before broaching her business with Sakura. For a genjutsu specialist, Kurenai was surprisingly direct.

“Tokuma says that he’s taking the jounin exams two years earlier than predicted,” said Kurenai. “He says that’s thanks to the supplements that you provide him in exchange for training. Tell me about them.”

Sakura did as she asked, launching swiftly into an abbreviated version of the presentation that she had given on her supplements when arguing in front of the hospital board for clinical trials for them. She mostly abbreviated the parts that seemed to make Kurenai’s eyes glaze over. Only the return of their server, now bearing their drinks, stopped Sakura.

“So they’re not Soldier Pills then,” said Kurenai, and Sakura shook her head emphatically.

“Soldier Pills give an immediate burst of immense power that the subject will pay dearly for later,” said Sakura. “My pills work slowly and in the aggregate. You won’t see an immediate change in your energy or chakra levels, but there will be a noticable improvement in roughly two weeks. They’re to be used when training hard or to speed recovery from injury, serious illness, or chakra exhaustion.”

“What’s in them?”

“Clan secret.”

“You don’t come from a ninja clan. Did you invent them yourself then?”

“Every ninja clan has to start somewhere,” said Sakura philosophically. “Maybe mine will start with me.”

Kurenai considered Sakura narrowly. Sakura bore up under it as best she could, using that time to pour herself a cup of hot tea. It was surprisingly delicious. With her fingers, Sakura discreetly checked the outside of her cup for tiny, hidden seals. There were none. And she couldn’t see any inside the teacup either.

Could I have been making my tea wrong all these years? Sakura wondered, while eyeing the small, oblong teapot. A lack of seals carved into her tea cup didn’t preclude there being seals inside the tea pot… or on the table. There were probably seals on the table though. How else would the establishment have dampened all those conversations down to nothing?

Discreetly – well, hopefully discreetly – Sakura began to feel along the edge of the table, hoping to find the seal used… and not to find gum. She probably wouldn’t find gum. This place seemed like the sort of place that would, on general principle, quietly murder anyone who stuck their gum to the bottom of anything.

Across from her, Kurenai blinked. Reaching for her socho, she poured herself a small glass of the stuff. Apparently, Kurenai drank her shocho neat. Tsunade-shishou would approve.

“What are you doing?” Kurenai asked as she held her glass up, presumably to admire the color and clarity of her drink. It deserved to be admired. Kurenai had ordered a good vintage from a fine brewery in Fire Country.

“Trying to find their sound dampening seal,” said Sakura. “And whatever seal they used to enhance the flavor of the tea. I just want to know if they used Konoha’s sealing techniques or Uzushio’s.”

If it was Uzushio’s, she could probably get a similar sound dampening seal off of Minako. Come to think of it, she could probably produce a similar shadow effect by combining her childhood nightlight seal with her new understanding of light and some other household seals that Minako had offered her. It would take a certain amount of trial and error, but it was possible.

Sakura saw an unfortunate amount of babysitting in her future.

Kurenai laughed softly.

Knocking back her two fingers of socho, Kurenai closed her eyes, savoring it even after she swallowed. Opening her eyes, Kurenai said at length, “There are no seals on my side of the table.”

“Huh.” Sakura reached further under the table; still flat and smooth, damn it.

Sakura was beginning to seriously consider just giving up and crawling under the table to look for the seal marks, when Kurenai found a seal mark on the underside of the little lantern set on the table. It was the Uzumaki swirl. In Konohagakure, that was synonymous with Uzushiogakure.

“Uzushio,” said Sakura with satisfaction.

“Are you interested in seals then?” asked Kurenai. She had one elbow on the table and her chin balanced on her palm. With her other hand, she held the displaced candle. The lantern’s little shade sat abandoned on the table between them.

“Yes,” said Sakura. “I want to be a Seal Master someday.”

“Not a Genjutsu Master?”

Sakura shrugged. Looking up from the seal mark, Sakura said, “I don’t know. They say that I’m a genjutsu type at the academy, but I don’t actually know any genjutsu, and Daikoku-sensei won’t teach me any.”

“Oh? Why not?”

“Because it’s not specifically his job,” said Sakura, “and also because I’m getting lessons outside the academy.”

“Most students get help outside of the academy,” said Kurenai coolly, while leaning back in her seat.

“Yeah, but they’re clan scions,” retorted Sakura sharply, and felt her own eyes narrow in response. “I’m from a family of civilians. Worse, every member of my family that attended the academy before me failed out before earning their forehead protectors. Not much is expected of me. And that’s why I’m going to make them weep, preferably tears of blood.”

True, she had only ever seen that happen to Mangekyo sharingan users, but Sakura was sure that she could arrange something.

Kurenai laughed.

“There’s more to being a ninja than spiting your academy instructors. It’s a dangerous profession, and you’ll be surrounded by death. Most ninja die young. You should be certain before you commit to this path.”

Sakura wasn’t afraid of dying. She had spent most of her apprenticeship to Tsunade convinced that the Hokage or her assistant were going to murder her, either accidentally or else accidentally on purpose. It had made her much stronger, mentally as well as physically.

And she had already done it once.

Not that she could say any of that to Kurenai.

Smiling prettily, Sakura settled on a line of reasoning that would be convincing to a clan ninja like Yuhi Kurenai. Some of it might even have been true. Well, for someone out there, just not for Sakura.

“Being a civilian isn’t safe either. My parents are both from Uzushiogakure. In the entire history of the Haruno clan, there has never been a family ninja. That didn’t save any of them,” said Sakura. “There was once a ninja on my mother’s side. She was from one of the vilage’s great ninja clans, and my mother’s ancestor was her second husband. Half of that kunoichi’s descendants were ninja, the other half civilians. They all died on the same day anyway. Everyone runs the risk of dying young. The only thing people really get to choose is how they’ll face it.”

Sakura liked to think that she had handled being sacrificed to the God of Death by a madman as part of his murder-suicide time travel plot with some aplomb. She was still mad as hell about it, of course, but she hadn’t given up. She wasn’t beaten yet. That was probably the important thing.

And next time, she was going to take whoever killed her with her, rather than having to rely on them to have the decency to die with her of their own accord.

“They didn’t all die,” said Kurenai. She smiled. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

It took Sakura an embarassingly long moment to realize what Kurenai meant, but when she did, Sakura ducked her head and smiled. Her face was very warm.

“I hadn’t thought of it like that,” she admitted. Thankfully, Kurenai didn’t laugh.

“All right,” said Kurenai. “I’m not averse to teaching you a few things. But the price seems steep.”

Sakura shrugged. “You’re not a jounin yet.”

“Is it the same price that everyone else pays?”

“Yes, of course,” said Sakura. She blinked. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“No reason,” said Kurenai smoothly.

Sakura squinted at her. “Should I have been trying to charge different people different amounts?”

“It’s fairer not to,” said Kurenai, and Sakura didn’t miss the way that she dodged the question.

“That’s true,” agreed Sakura, settling again. Figuring out what amount she should have been charging and on what rubric felt like making extra work for herself. Better to continue as she had started.

“But I’m going to want to renegotiate if I make jounin.”

“That’s fair,” agreed Sakura.

Kurenai smiled. “Then let’s get started.”




On a friend or teammate’s promotion, it was tradition in the Village Hidden in the Leaves to give them gifts. Since Sakura had no doubt that Tokuma and Kurenai-sensei were going to get promoted, she needed to start on their gifts. What those gifts should be, though, was a mystery to her, one that she spent Iruka-sensei’s lecture on calculating basic trajectories trying to unravel.

Ideally, it should be something that was useful to them; even better if it was something that complimented their style of combat.

A good medical kit, although incredibly useful, complimented only her own skillset, but it was probably the expected gift from a medic nin.

A seal, Sakura felt, would be better. In the Uzushio Quarter, seals were almost always an appropriate gift. You really had to work at it to go wrong with giving a seal as a gift. And a seal given as a gift could tell you a lot about your relationship with the giver. If you cared at all – and especially if you loved it – you put a seal on it; hopefully, one appropriate for the situation at hand.

However, neither Tokuma nor Kurenai particularly liked seals, and anyway, neither of them trusted her enough to let her put a seal on them. But maybe they would let her give them a seal? One that was safely on something else, something not attached to them in any way, shape, or form.

The absolute best seal for either Tokuma or Kurenai would be a high level elemental technique that they couldn’t do for themselves – a water dragon for someone with a fire affinity, for example, or a forest of stone spears for someone with a wind affinity. Unfortunately, Sakura didn’t know either of their elemental affinities, and all her high level techniques were medical jutsu or medical seals, anyway. All of her low level techniques were medical jutsu or medical seals too, for that matter. And she had absolutely no idea how to capture any sort of elemental jutsu, no matter how simple, in a seal. It was an interesting area of inquiry, but not one that she was likely to scratch the surface of, much less master, in the amount of time that she had to produce gifts for the two chuunin.

Another good seal for either of them would be something to do with light and shadow, like at that ninja bar that Kurenai had taken her to the other day. Shifting light and shadow would probably favor Tokuma’s doujutsu, and they could provide a distraction from Kurenai’s genjutsu.

Thanks to Minako’s tutelage – and her ongoing need for a babysitter – Sakura’s collection of seals was growing every day, but that didn’t mean it was going to expand enough in time for her to design, test, and tweak a different, but hopefully still useful, kind of seal for Tokuma and Kurenai. No, if she gave either of them a seal, then it would have to be a seal that she already knew worked.

Running through her various seals in her head, Sakura thought that the best one to give the new jounin would be a storage scroll. They were useful, and the new jounin could carry whatever they wanted in them. And it counted as getting one of her seals on Tokuma. Well, if she squinted and did a bit of pretending, it probably did. But Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji’s clans had been so weird about the storage scrolls that she had given them that it made Sakura hesitate to give another storage scroll to anyone, ever, under any circumstances. And making jounin was better than a birthday. Everyone alive got one birthday a year. You only made jounin once – if at all. She had to come up with something better than a storage seal!

Sakura’s next best seal for a ninja was her exploding tag. It was really good! She’d once ruined Training Ground Ninety-Two getting the elements just right. And before she had gone back in time, she had been working out a timing component to add to her exploding tags. If she finished that up, then she would have something truly unique to give them. But it wasn’t like she had anywhere to test her adjustments to the timing elements, and anyway she was still trying to lay low, relatively speaking. Making Captain Yamato get out there to resurface Training Ground Ninety-Two again wasn’t exactly the definition of lying low.

And truthfully, Sakura wasn’t entirely certain that Kurenai and Tokuma wouldn’t accidentally blow themselves or a teammate up if she gave them one of her super awesome exploding tags. She’d certainly never seen or even heard of either of them working with exploding tags before – which, come to think of it, might be a good area of attack in her next practice with Tokuma – and just giving them a handful of the things might be dangerous to their continued good health.

Unfortunately, that was it. If she didn’t give them a storage scroll or a stack of exploding tags, then Sakura didn’t have even a wisp of an idea for another seal that might be appropriate to give to a newly minted jounin.

Maybe I should just buy them something? Sakura thought, and then immediately discarded that idea. She could never afford anything nice enough to congratulate someone for making jounin.

But maybe as part of a larger gift? Sakura wondered, considering the possibility. That might work. And she might even be able to afford it.

Medical supplies, on the other hand, were entirely affordable – especially if she used a five-finger requisition form. Sakura’s shisho and sennpai never would have stood for it, but under Tsunade-sama medical supplies had been free to all medical personnel anyway – provided the request was reasonable, of course. And Sakura was once again the definition of dead broke.

Giving basic medical kits to the new jounin was definitely beginning to look like a better idea than it had initially seemed, even if it was still really predictable.

In the end, Sakura settled on storage scrolls for sure and basic medical kits if she couldn’t think of (or afford) anything better. So what if clan-born ninja had weird reactions to getting perfectly good storage scrolls as gifts? That wasn’t her fault! She would just have to be incredibly specific about her intentions in making them common pieces of ninja equipment. And maybe a bottle of semi-decent socho for Kurenai, if Sakura’s savings account had recovered by then; what she would buy Tokuma if that happened, Sakura didn’t know.

At least I have a plan now, thought Sakura, deciding to go with it until she thought of something better – just in time to field a question from Iruka-sensei regarding the angle of throw to hit an enemy nin that was stationed thirty meters away and ten meters up a tree.

That, at least, was easy.




The next time that she sparred with Tokuma, Sakura won.

It wasn’t the way that she had dreamed of winning. What was left to her of her taijutsu style was not yet up to defeating Tokuma, and her monstrous strength hadn’t suddenly returned to her. She hadn’t even used an exploding seal.

Sakura had other options available to her, however, ones that she hadn’t used previously as a matter of principle. But if Tokuma was really signed up to take the jounin exams, then as his comrade, it was Sakura’s job to help him prepare to the best of her ability.

Judging by the wild look in his eyes, Tokuma wasn’t as appreciative of her efforts to be helpful as he could have been. Crouching next to Tokuma, Sakura poked him in the head, undoing her nerve scramble.

“When did you learn to do that?” demanded Tokuma, as he scrambled first to sit up and then onto his knees.

“Ages ago,” said Sakura dismissively. “Since you’re going for jounin, I thought I’d better stop holding back.”

Tokuma snorted. “If you medic nin can do things like that, they shouldn’t make us protect you on missions.”

“The other medic nin can’t do things like that,” said Sakura sharply, because she wanted no misunderstanding on this point. “In the entire history of Konohagakure, there have only been three medic nin known to be able to use their medcial jutsu as combat techniques: the Slug Sanin, Tsunade, her apprentice, Shizune, and me. Well, someday me. And that’s it.”

Kabuto didn’t count.

Tokuma was looking at her strangely, and Sakura didn’t know why, so she decided to keep talking. To reiterate, she added, “If you don’t protect them, the medic nin assigned to your team will die, and you will likely die shortly thereafter. If you don’t die, you will gain an unsavory reputation with the medical corps. There aren’t enough active field medics for their assignment to any squad to be frivolous.”

Even if they were jokes, they were jokes that did their best to keep their teammates alive. They deserved at least that much consideration in return from their teammates.

And they wouldn’t always be jokes. One way or another, Sakura would see to that.

“If you could always do things like that, then why didn’t you?” demanded Tokuma.

“Because I wasn’t exchanging recovery pills for the opportunity to hone my medical jutsu against you,” said Sakura tartly. “I made that deal with you and Muta and Shimon, because my general combat conditioning was appalling, and I knew it.”

Tokuma grinned. “You called them recovery pills.”

“I did not!” shouted Sakura, even though she definitely had. Damn chuunin and their damn insidious mind games!

That their version of mind games was simply to call them recovery pills until she called them that too was neither here nor there.

“Recovery pills!” crooned Tokuma, and then laughed as he scrambled away from Sakura’s jab.

“Get back here so I can make you suffer!”

Strangely, shouting that only made Tokuma run further away.

So annoying! Sakura thought, as she chased after him, grinning.




If Tokuma was an annoyance, then Minako’s husband Norio was a damn blight on the entire Uzushio Quarter. Honestly, Sakura didn’t know what her cousin saw in him. Currently, he was eyeing Sakura suspiciously from across the main room. Sakura ignored him with the ease of long practice.

Minako, seemingly oblivious, happily chattered at both of them as she put in her earrings, adjusted her hair, and kissed the sleeping twins goodbye. Slipping her arm in his, she tugged her husband towards the stairs.

They were maybe halfway down the stairs, the thump of their feet against the stairs not nearly enough to cover Norio’s voice as he asked in an undertone yet again why they were leaving the boys with Sakura rather than his mother.

“Because Sakura is responsible, and she’s willing to stay here while she watches them,” said Minako imperturbably. “You mother would make us haul the boys across the length of the village to her house.”

“You never want to take the boys to my mother’s!”

“It’s a long walk, especially when carrying two sleepy boys.”

“It wouldn’t be, if we lived there.”

“Lived there?” echoed Minako. She sounded stunned. “Outside of the Uzushio Quarter? Where would we live? What would we do? Our business is here!”

“People need their hair cut there too,” said Norio soothingly. “And we’d be closer to the ninja districts. We’d probably get more business.”

Sakura thought that he was vastly overestimating the amount of business that he could pull in from the ninja districts. Barbers and shave men like Norio were a civilian indulgence. Ninja didn’t trust strangers so near their throats, especially not with bladed objects, and that went double for their more vulnerable heirs. That was why so many ninja had such terrible haircuts.

If they moved to his mother’s district, Norio shouldn’t count on making more than he did here, and he’d probably make a lot less. Merchants and the village’s clients had to pass through the Uzushio Quarter to get to the inner parts of the village, which naturally generated a certain amount of foot traffic past their businesses. And during the chuunin exams, when the village was full to bursting with tourists, business naturally spilled over from the small entertainment district surrounding the arena and into the Uzushio Quarter. Tucked away in the farthest corner of the village, the traditional Leaf civilian districts didn’t have any of that going for it.

On the other side of the coin, though, their district’s placement was a much safer plae to live. For any of the traditional Leaf civilian districts to be taken, foreign nin would have to fight their way across the length of the Uzushio Quarter and then either across the width of the downtown districts or the ninja districts, both of which were heavily defended. By the time that they got there, the civilians would be long gone, hidden away in the emergency tunnels behind the Hokage’s monument.

The Uzushio Quarter and the Entertainment District didn’t have that same promise of safety for their citizens or even comparable bolt holes for them to hide in. And the fact that the village’s sitting Hokage considered both districts disposable did not in any way make either of them safer for their inhabitants.

He might not care, but I do, thought Sakura fiercely. And that’s why I’ve got to figure something out.

What that something was, she still didn’t know.

Annoyed, Sakura pushed Minako’s furniture out of the way. She worked out for awhile, channeling her frustration with Sandaime into her kata, and then put everything back where it had been. After that, Sakura spent a couple of hours working on her version of Shodai’s Mokuton technique before switching her efforts to Tokuma and Kurenai-sensei’s storage scrolls. Those, at least, were coming along nicely. The fact that she was making progress in some areas of her new life was highly motivational. It made all the areas in which she felt like she was failing seem less hopeless.

Tired, Sakura turned in before Minako and her husband got back from their date. Curling up on the couch, Sakura closed her eyes and dreamed about having the strength to pulverize mountains.




Sakura wasn’t the sort to give up or give in, not ever, and she hated to lose.

But she was also the sort to face facts, because people died when a medic nin was too busy daydreaming to see what was happening right in front of her. And it was to that end that Tsunade had systematically scoured the most useless bits of her whimsy out of Sakura, though not even the legendary Tsunade could remove it all. Usually, all that learned practicality was to Sakura’s benefit. Now, though, it left her in a rather uncomfortable position.

During her sillier moments, Sakura liked to think that her new ranking in her class was going to change everything. She would get a new jonin-sensei, new genin teammates, and a new start on her ninja career. It was going to be amazing.

During her more realistic moments, Sakura understood that there was absolutely no dodging the curse that was Team Seven. Their number might change – and she honestly hoped that it would – but any way that she looked at it, she was trapped. If she, Sasuke, and Naruto all graduated in the same quarter, then she was going to be stuck with Sasuke, Naruto, and Kakashi-sensei as her teammates, because Kakashi-sensei’s assignment to Team Seven hadn’t been any more random than hers had been the first time around… or would be the second time around either.

Sakura didn’t have any especially bad memories of Team Seven, at least not before everything went to hell, but Sakura didn’t want to go back to it either. She wanted a new start. If she was going to change the future, now was her first opportunity.

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 knew what she was, as well as what she wasn’t.

It was with that in mind that Sakura propsitioned Tokuma.

“I need a favor,” said Sakura bluntly one day after practice. “And I’ll give you a jutsu in exchange for it.”

Tokuma blinked at her. Slowly, he rubbed his hand towel over his sweaty face.

Sakura still couldn’t win against him without using her medical jutsu in unexpected ways, but she liked that she could make him sweat. And she liked that her new style of combat was finally beginning to come together, even if it involved a lot more medical jutsu and a lot less genjutsu than she had previously imagined it might.

“What sort of favor?” asked Tokuma finally.

“There’s a boy in the class ahead of mine, Uzumaki Naruto,” said Sakura. “He has a bloodline limit.”

“Really?” asked Tokuma, looking surprised. And wary. “What is it?”

“Naruto has more chakra than any hundred academy students put together. It’s one of the Uzumaki bloodline limits,” said Sakura, visibly surprising Tokuma further. She pretended very hard not to know exactly what Tokuma had been thinking about.

“How do you know that about the Uzumaki clan?”

“Because there are a lot of Uzumaki in the legends from old Uzushiogakure,” said Sakura, feeling surprised. “Someday, I want to be as good a Seal Master as Uzumaki Mito!”

Tokuma smiled. Indulgently, he asked, “And what’s this favor that you want then?”

“I want you to make Iruka-sensei teach kage bunshin no jutsu to Uzumaki Naruto so that Naruto can graduate this time. Until he learns chakra control, chakra intensive jutsu like kage bunshin will be easier for him than the lesser ranked stuff that they teach at the academy.”

“I don’t know kage bunshin no jutsu and neither would your Iruka-sensei,” said Tokuma with a little shake of his head. “It’s an A-class jutsu shared only among the jounin.”

“I know it. That’s the jutu I’d pay you for doing me this favor.”

If Naruto graduated on his second attempt at the graduation exam instead of his third try, then there was no way that the Hokage could get the old Team Seven back together. With Naruto safely on another team, she might not even get assigned to Sasuke and Kakashi-sensei. And even if she did get stuck with them, there would be someone new in that fourth position. Any way she looked at it, Sakura would be on a new genin team.

All she had to do was to make sure that Naruto passed this time.

Unfortunately, Tokuma, who was her first step to a different future, was frowning at her. Sakura scowled back at him, annoyed by his resistance even though she had expected it.

“Sakura, where did you learn that jutsu?”

“A fool and his jutsu are soon parted,” said Sakura with some asperity. At Tokuma’s continuing (and heavy) disapproval, she said, “No, really. I literally took kage bunshin off of a fool who needed to use hand seals to invoke his jutsu.”

That was how she had learned Naruto’s Sexy no Jutsu too.

Petulantly, Sakura added, “I don’t even have sharingan. His fingers were just so slow!”

Tokuma sighed.

Sensing weakness, Sakura added wheedlingly, “This would help you with your exam, wouldn’t it? It’d make the examiners think that some jounin really has to have a lot of faith in you.”

“Instead of some snoopy brat who needed a favor.”

“Tokuma!” exclaimed Sakura, stung. “I really do believe in you! I know you’ll make jounin! But is it really so bad to want Uzumaki Naruto to graduate on his second try?”

“No,” said Tokuma reluctantly. “It’s not. I’m just… nervous.”

“You’re going to do great!”

“It usually takes three or four tries to make jounin,” warned Tokuma. “And this is my first. I’m not likely to advance this time.”

“I’ll still be proud of you either way,” said Sakura stoutly. “Besides, you could still make special jounin, couldn’t you?”

“It’s… unlikely,” said Tokuma with obvious difficulty.

“But not impossible! Come on, I’ll show you the hand seals.”

“I haven’t agreed to anything yet!”

“You don’t have to,” said Sakura. “You need this.”

Sakura watched as Tokuma’s aggravated expression softened into something much gentler.

They spent a few minutes going over the hand seals and the chakra flows then Tokuma made his first couple of bunshin. They looked good, and they were solid when Sakura gently poked them, but the effort of holding them together for even a few minutes left Tokuma drained.

“We’re going to have to work on that,” said Sakura sternly, although she was not unsympathetic. Stamina had always been her weakness too.

“Yeah,” agreed Tokuma. Then he frowned. Sternly, he added, “But not you. The chakra drain is too much for you right now.”

Sakura nodded, acquiescence easy this time. She had tried kage bunshin no jutsu once when she was twelve. It had been necessary at the time, but it had also made her so sick. She had a lot more chakra now than she did back then, of course, but her distaste for it remained visceral. She would never like that jutsu, although she could think of one use for it…

“I don’t mind,” said Sakura cheerfully. Firmly, she put that idea out of her mind. It was crazy. “I’ve got a lot of other areas to improve in right now. Kage bunshin can wait.”

And so could she.

Sakura had faith in Tokuma. He was could be stiff and proud like all the rest of the Hyuuga clan, but he was also kind and fair. Naruto’s circumstances would bother him, as would the fact that Naruto’s bloodline limit was essentially being used against him. Bloodline limit users were sensitive about that sort of thing.

No, Tokuma wouldn’t let her down.

It was Naruto and Iruka-sensei that she was worried about failing her, though Sakura tried very hard not to think about that, mostly because there was nothing that she could do about it. They would either learn their lessons in time for the next academy exit exam or they wouldn’t, though she dearly hoped that they would. In the meantime, though, she could help herself… and Tokuma.

Sakura found that she didn’t mind helping Tokuma.

Sasuke, though, was shit out of luck.

He could follow her as much as he liked and attack her as often as he wanted, but she wasn’t going to teach that traitor a damn thing.

Mind made up, Sakura went home to see what leftovers were in the refrigerator. If there was anything good, she could use it to make riceballs. Sasuke seemed to like her riceballs. He ate them, at least. And if she didn’t feed him, who would? He might starve to death without her – even though he hadn’t actually starved to death last time either.

Sakura chose not to dwell on that, however. She was happy, and the sliver of Itachi at the back of her brain seemed relatively content at the idea of protecting Sasuke from imminent starvation. Everything was right in her world – or as right as it could be just then.

Happy, Sakura ran all the way to the market to pick up some cherry tomatoes and pickled plums for her riceballs.




About six weeks into the new term, Sakura was finally spared the hospital’s introductory classes, beginner’s modules, and super simple practicums. Her weekly commitment to six hours of module work as well as however many hours of research and practical work she needed – which, in her case, was none, though she took thorough advantage of the opportunity – instead became a twice weekly eight hour obligation to the hospital’s walk-in clinic, all of her actions strictly supervised by one of the doctors or medic nin assigned to the clinic that shift.

“Normally,” said the older medic nin that Sakura had been assigned to shadow around the clinic, “you wouldn’t be sent here. You’d be sent out on a simple mission to get some practice in the field and then, if you proved skilled enough, you might eventually be allowed some hours here. But since you’re still a student at the academy, allowances have been made for your unique situation.”

“Thank you?” offered Sakura, since the man obviously thought that they were doing her a favor, and the older medic nin snorted.

Finally deemed knowledgeable enough for some practical, hands on hours in the hospital’s clinic, Sakura spent the next several weeks fetching, carrying, and sitting quietly in a corner while some other medic nin actually treated their patients. It wasn’t much – especially since she wasn’t trusted to work on anything more difficult than nasty scrapes, ingrown toenails, and the like – but it was still miles better than sitting through her training modules had been.

And despite everything, Sakura enjoyed it. If she had strong, sometimes incredibly pointed, opinions about how to maximize efficiency and patient care in the walk-in clinic, Sakura made sure to keep them to herself. No one liked a know it all or outside interference, and at the moment, Sakura would be seen as both.

On the bright side, Sakura discovered that clinic hours paid better than ones spent sitting through professional development modules. It was a large enough jump in pay that Sakura could actually save a little instead of sinking nearly every copper that she pulled down into buying ingredients to make her pills for her training partners. Not that she got to keep the extra money for long.

“Don’t you have any other shirts?” Ino demanded one morning, startling Sakura. “You’ve worn that one twice this week.”

“I washed it in between!”

“I know, but it’s boring. And it’s also faded and getting a little frayed around the collar.”

Automatically, Sakura’s hand rose to cup the side of her neck where her shirt’s loose collar lay against her collarbone. Not even she knew whether it was to hide her poor shirt from Ino’s critical gaze or to assess the validity of Ino’s statements. Either way, it did feel a bit frayed against her fingertips. And when she looked down, her green shirt was a lot less green than she remembered it being.

This shirt would have to be taken out of rotation. It was her mother’s rag box for it now. Briefly, Sakura mourned its loss. She might have mourned it longer, but Ino was laughing at her, and Sakura couldn’t let that stand. That, in turn, led to a challenge and then to kunai practice, so that it was several hours before Sakura next considered the topic of her attire.

She was slightly dismayed to discover how empty her closet and dresser were. She had maybe five shirts left, including the one that she was wearing, as well as a few worn bottoms, and a handful of dresses that Sakura had early on decided to save against some unknown future need to dress up and look cute.

Apparently, her new training regime was harder on her wardrobe than she had realized. At least her winter coat and jackets still fit nicely. Even better, they weren’t even stained or frayed. But everything else that she owned was trashed.

I need to go shopping, decided Sakura, excitement rising within her.

Despite everything and all the years that had happened since she had really been twelve, Sakura still genuinely enjoyed shopping. It was less fun on a budget, of course, and it would be less fun still on her current budget, but, still, shopping!

Ino, of course, was more than willing to help her shop for her new look. She wrinkled her nose though when she found out just how little they were putting together Sakura’s new look on.

“Don’t you have any birthday money left?” demanded Ino. “And I thought you were getting paid for working at the hospital?”

“I do get paid, but all my money is –” Sakura briefly hesitated there. There was no reason not to tell Ino, save the warning twinge of Itachi’s paranoia at the back of her head, but Sakura determinedly ignored that, leaving it to Inner Sakura to wrestle it down as she plunged on, saying, “You remember how I said that I’d found someone to help me with a few things? I’ve been trading homemade training supplements for lessons. Ninja lessons.”

Immediately, Ino’s gaze sharpened with interest. “You know how to make Soldier Pills?”

“Yes, of course, but my supplements aren’t like Soldier Pills. They’re designed to work much more slowly over a longer period of time,” said Sakura. “My pills are to be used when training hard or to speed recovery from injury, serious illness, or chakra exhaustion.”

“That’s how you got so good over the summer.”

Sakura nodded. “I make some for me, but most of them go to some chuunin that I know. It’s an hour of training for each pill.”

Ino’s eyes widened. She whistled low.

“Your pills must really work well!”

Sakura shrugged. “But some of the ingredients to make the pills are expensive. This is what I can afford to divert from pill production.”

She had been saving it for a rainy day.

“Then ask your parents for money,” ordered Ino, but Sakura shook her head, immediately rejecting Ino’s solution.

She wasn’t really twelve, after all. It had been a long time since Sakura had asked anyone other than Tsunade-shisho or Shizune-senpai for help, professionally or otherwise. Sakura was still getting used to the idea that her parents seemed to think that they had a right to know where she was at all hours of the day. It was none of their business! And neither was her training regime, career goals, or financial information.

“I’d rather see what I can get with this first,” said Sakura, rather than explaining any of that to this younger version of Ino, and Ino shrugged.

“Not much,” Ino predicted darkly.

Sakura wished that she could disagree with Ino.

Autumn was sliding into winter, and all of the seasonally appropriate garb in the equipment stores was still full price. Sakura and Ino were reduced to scoring the bargain bins, which were full of summery fashions that had failed to sell and damaged winter gear.

“Hey,” said Ino, drawing Sakura’s attention away from a thin, long-sleeved shirt. “What about this?”

Ino held up a wad of pale pink fabric that unrolled itself into a pair of very pale pink tights decorated with lots of pinker dots and fluttering pink butterflies.

Snow and butterflies, Sakura realized, horrified. That’s snow and butterflies!

“No way,” said Sakura flatly.

“Really?” asked Ino. She blinked down at the tights. “I think they’re cute.”

They were. They were so cute that if Sakura wore them, no one would ever take her seriously ever again.

“They’re ninety percent off,” said Ino, looking at the tag on them. Her blue eyes narrowed. “I bet we could bargain them down. And they say that they’re woven out of the same stuff as mesh armor! Sakura, that’s great!”

Sakura groaned. She definitely, definitely didn’t whimper.

“I’ll see if there are any other pairs!” said Ino brightly, her head and shoulders briefly disappearing into a bin that came up to her waist. She came up with three more pairs of pink tights and a pair of pink half boots with flat heels, giant pink bows at the apex of their pink laces, and a ruff of white fur around their tops to match the white detail work along the length of their eyelets and over the closed toes.

Sakura wasn’t sure whether they were supposed to be summer or winter wear, but she could definitely see why they hadn’t sold. No adult kunoichi would ever wear those, and few children in the village had need of them.

“Here!” said Ino, thrusting her finds into Sakura’s arms. “I think I see something else at the bottom of the box!”

Ino disappeared back into the bargain bin, leaving Sakura to discover at her leisure that the pretty pink boots were only a half size too large – plenty of room to grow into – and entirely lined with fur. Her feet would be both toasty and dry in these. And at ninety percent off, they were in Sakura’s price range.

Sakura was nearly resigned to the boots and pink tights when Ino emerged with two pairs of black shorts and a large wad of white fabric that revealed itself to be more tights, this time with pink sakura petals and dragonflies floating across them.

“They’ll match your boots too,” said Ino with obvious satisfaction, and Sakura tried to console herself with the knowledge that if twelve-year-old Ino thought them appropriate then no one would suspect her at a glance of being anything other than twelve and still relatively sweet.

“Hey, what were you looking at?” asked Ino, abruptly changing direction.

“A couple of shirts with ink stains,” said Sakura. “I think I can get them out. And if I got some shorter sleeved shirts, maybe I could layer them.”

“Will it hide the ink stains?” demanded Ino, and Sakura grinned.

They left that shop with four pairs of pink tights, four pairs of white ones, the pink boots, two pairs of black shorts, a few long-sleeved shirts in shades of pink and red and white, a few short-sleeved shirts, also in shades of pink and red and white, a couple of pale pink or white skirts to wear over her shorts, a pair of pink sandals, open-toed and oversized so that her feet would have room to grow into them, and a discount that left Ino grinning like the cat that ate the canary and its brother.

At the next shop, Ino found a bulky red vest with lots of padding, pockets, and the same sort of neckline as Sakura’s old quipao dresses. It was fifty percent off, and all of their powers of persuasion combined couldn’t get the shop clerk to budge on that, but not buying it meant that Sakura could splurge on a few full price items, namely two pairs of black pants and a knit sweater with a hood. It was white, and she might literally, not figuratively, kill the person who dared to bleed on it. She didn’t have enough clothes to let inconsiderate people go around bleeding on what few nice things she did have.

Sakura’s mother, at least, appreciated Sakura’s new look.

“You look so cute, dear!” she squealed, while Sakura modeled her new outfits for her parents. Her father nodded, a wide grin splitting his face, and Sakura smiled too, childishly happy with their approval of her ridiculous apparel.

Abarame Muta, Hijiri Shimon, and Hyuuga Tokuma were not nearly so supportive. It probably didn’t help that, in addition to her entirely pink and white outfit, the jacket that she had worn to practices with them was hot pink too.

Muta had stared at her for several seconds, his eyes lingering on the lengths of pink tights encasing her legs, and his expression was incredibly disapproving. Ultimately, though, he said nothing.

Shimon had gaped at Sakura in all her pink glory and then grinned, saying, “So you really are a kid, after all.”

“They’re very practical,” said Sakura defensively. “And warm.”

“Sure they are,” he said, reaching out to tweak a lock of her short hair. Sakura slapped his hand away, and that served as a perfectly good opening to their spar.

Tokuma, however, was unrelenting in his criticism. Not even attacking him had shut Tokuma up.

“You’ll never sneak up on anyone again,” he predicted gloomily, and then aimed a thrust of his flatted palm for her side. Sakura twisted out of the way, knowing the rhythm of Tokuma’s fighting style by now.

“I’ll wear my black pants when I want to sneak up on people.”

“That won’t hide your feet.”

Another blow avoided turned out to be a sneaky combination move, one that Tokuma had never used against her before, and his palm slapped against her forearm. A brief stab of pain and the chakra flow in the limb became sluggish and distorted. Sakura leaped backwards and then replaced herself with a log when Tokuma pressed his attack.

“Your entire clan wears white all year round,” protested Sakura over the sound of Tokuma’s palms striking wood. She grimaced as her redirected chakra flow popped her closed tenketsu open again. Sakura had yet to figure out how to do that without it hurting.

“I don’t,” said Tokuma sharply, and it was true. Sakura had never seen him in anything besides the standard issue uniform.

In lieu of admitting that she had bought them while dead broke or – worse – being forced to reconsider some of her previous fashion choices, Sakura flung herself at him in a head on attack. He blocked her kicks and punches, but her attempt at a headbutt ended in a satistfying crunch against her forehead.

Wide foreheads were good for something, after all.

At the hospital, there were smothered grins or deeply put upon sighs by whichever doctor was supervising her that day, but Sakura absolutely refused to take any guff off of any patients – civilian or otherwise – about her clothes.

Surprisingly, though, Kurenai was almost as supportive as Sakura’s parents.

“They may see you coming,” said the Genjutsu Master, amused, “but they’ll still never see you coming.”

And then she winked one red eye at Sakura, and Sakura, who had come to unabashedly like her cute new gear, laughed.

The silly boots were warmer and softer than even she had expected, and the tights were warmer and more durable than she had ever dared to hope. Dirt and blood washed out of them pretty easily. Her black pants were perfect, of course, and she tried not to wear her (pristine) white sweater where anyone might vomit or bleed on it. Layering her various pink, red, and white shirts left her warm enough for indoor classes, but Sakura found that she preferred to wear a light jacket over them while sparring, at least until she had warmed up. That light jacket was almost invariably pink too, because Sakura preferred to match.

All in all, they were perfect, if so cute that they seemed to make otherwise reasonable shinobi want to cry. Sakura liked them for that reason too. She had never been averse to being cute – just not being taken seriously, because she was cute. Although that second – being too cute to be taken seriously – was probably a good thing, given her current circumstances. Sakura still hated it though.

One person that didn’t seem to even notice her recent increase in cuteness, though, was Sasuke. The sight of Sakura in all her pink glory didn’t even dent his grim determination to fight her every day after school. If anything, it only seemed to make him angrier at her.

Everything seemed to make him angrier with her, including the yummy onigiri that Sakura often fed him after she kicked his ass. And it was yummy. Sakura hadn’t even been the one to make it! Minako had. It was probably a good thing that he still didn’t seem to know who was stocking his refrigerator with food.

The most annoying thing about it all, though, was that Sasuke wasn’t getting noticeably better under her ass kickings. He just kept making all the same mistakes.

Frankly, it was beginning to irritate Sakura. She didn’t have a lot of free time, and he wasn’t making the most of whatever time they spent together. Annoyed past all enduring, Sakura finally snapped, “Look, the counter goes like this!”

And so saying, Sakura showed him the counter, moving through it once quickly, then slowly, then quickly again.

“Now you do it,” demanded Sakura and then watched him narrowly, lobbing pebbles, insults, and praise as necessary. She was halfway through teaching him a simple combination to go with the counter before she realized what she was doing. It was like being doused in ice cold water.

When did I lose my mind? Sakura wondered, feeling equal parts horrified and amazed by herself. Even the sliver of Itachi at the back of her brain was horrified. What was she doing teaching Sasuke anything? Sasuke was to be protected! He shouldn’t be fighting! Sasuke might get hurt if he was fighting! And he was a traitor. Sakura hated traitors!

“I’ve got to go,” said Sakura abruptly, and she ran away before Sasuke could say or do anything about it.

The next day, like clockwork, Sasuke was waiting to ambush her at the school’s gates.

That day, Sakura kicked his ass, and she didn’t teach him a damn thing. But she couldn’t help the little thrill of pride that she felt when Sasuke used the counter that she had taught him. It didn’t stop her from countering her counter, of course, but still, that stupid, confusing feeling was there.

Sakura decided to ignore it. If she didn’t think about it, then it hadn’t happened. She had too much to worry about to worry about that too.

Sasuke could take care of himself. Well, with a little help from her, of course.




When Iruka-sensei announced their survival training, the classroom filled with groans.

Everyone that hadn’t made a genin squad at the end of the winter term, no matter their place in ninja school, would spend a week camping out in the wood, under the hopeful theory that it would be enough to teach cold weather survival skills and tactics to the rising genin candidates. Having actually run missions to places like Land of Snow and Land of Ice, Sakura knew for a fact that the cold that they faced in the forests of Fire Country would be considered balmy weather in the aforementioned countries. It wasn’t going to be a big deal.

Sakura’s classmates, however, were excited and terrified in near equal measure.

“Man, it’s going to be so cold,” groused Shikamaru the next day at lunch. Next to him, Choji shivered.

“Don’t complain,” ordered Ino. And then, in markedly less assured tones, “It probably won’t be that bad.”

“It was bad last year,” said Choji gloomily.

“We were almost two years out from graduation then,” said Ino. “We’ve learned things since then.”

She sounded like she was trying to convince herself as much as the boys.

In the grand scheme of things, sleeping in a standard issue tent in the middle of one of the training grounds during one of Fire Country’s winters was as nothing compared to the cold weather that they could potentially encounter in the field, but it was still the coldest thing that any of Sakura’s year mates had ever had to endure. Bearing that in mind, Sakura said cheerfully, “Exactly! We’re all way better now than we were back then! I bet yu’re right, Ino! This is gonna be a snap!”

Shikamaru scoffed, but both Choji and Ino both looked relieved, so Sakura decided to count that as a win.

Less cheering was the way that their inclement weather training would cut into her personal training schedule. Sakura was brooding on that while she practiced her new variations on the bunshin, transformation, and replacement techniques.

Nearby, Tokuma alighted on the ground.

“Ready to get started?” he said brusquely, and Sakura nodded quickly.

They had barely begun, when Tokuma blurted, “What’s wrong with your forehead?”

“It’s not that big!” snapped Sakura, one hand flying up to cover the offended body part.

It would have been the perfect opportunity to punch her or seal her chakra pathways, but Tokuma merely shook his head at her. The bulging veins around his eyes relaxed.

“Tokuma?”

“That’s not what I meant,” he said. “There’s a spot in the center of it that glows like a star, and there are shining stripes slashed all across your body. They’re not natural.”

“Oh!” Sakura relaxed. “That. Those are my seals.”

Tokuma paled and stiffened.

“Someone sealed you?” he demanded urgently. His hand darted out to grab her, his fingers curling around her wrist. “They say Jiraiya-sama of the Sannin is a Seal Master, but he hasn’t been in the village in years. But there are other people that know seals. Maybe one of them can help us.”

By then, Tokuma was very determinedly dragging her towards the gated entrance of their training ground.

“I don’t need help,” said Sakura, digging in her heels. “I put the seals on myself.”

Tokuma’s steps faltered. Turning on her, his eyes still fierce, he snapped, “What do you mean that you sealed yourself?”

Tokuma was still half wild – with fear for her, Sakura realized. Looking into his face, Sakura remembered again that being sealed meant something different outside of the Uzushio Quarter. Across the years came Neji’s bitter voice, explaining to Naruto what the Caged Bird Seal meant to him… and likely to Tokuma.

In the Uzushio Quarter, being sealed meant that you were loved.

In the rest of the Leaf village, it meant subjugation – to a Main House or ROOT or foreign nin.

Tokuma still had his hand wrapped around Sakura’s wrist. Over his hand, Sakura rested her own.

“It’s not like with your clan,” said Sakura, feeling awkward. Ignoring the warning twinges from Itachi’s stupid technique, Sakura soldiered on, saying, “In the Uzushio Quarter, everyone uses seals all the time. If you can’t do a thing yourself, you close the gap in your abilities with your seals. If you love someone, you protect them with your seal work. Those of us that aren’t owed to the village attend the Shinobi Academy to learn chakra control for their seal work.”

It felt odd to explain such basic things – such personal things – to Tokuma. And looking into his face, Sakura could see that Tokuma still couldn’t quite believe it. But then, his forehead seal hadn’t been placed there because someone loved him.

“As a ninja, I want to be strong,” continued Sakura, her voice gaining force. “I never want to hold anyone back or be a liability. And I don’t want any of my comrades to die because I wasn’t strong enough to do everything that I could to save them. The seals that I’ve placed on myself reflect my resolve. They’re not like your Caged Bird Seal. They’re mine.”

Tokuma sighed. Sounding utterly reluctant, he asked, “What kind of seals are they?”

“One is half of a pair that will help shape my combat techniques, and another is a medical seal,” said Sakura, carefully avoiding any direct references to the Uzumaki clan or Senju Tsunade. “And the third is my own invention: The Strength of One Hundred! An extra reservoir of chakra one hundred Sakuras deep isn’t much now, but someday it could be.”

Tokuma looked reluctantly intrigued.

“Can I see your seals?” he asked, his eyes flicking to Sakura’s forehead – because it was bare, not because it was big, Sakura belatedly realized.

“Not yet! When they’re all charged with my chakra, then I’ll wear my seal’s mark on my forehead,” said Sakura. Briefly, she bit her lip before asking, “Can I see your seal?”

Tokuma hesitated a long moment, then nodded jerkily. His hand fell away from Sakura’s wrist, leaving the skin there feeling cold. As Sakura watched, he reached up and untied his forehead protector.

The seal mark for the Caged Bird Seal was as big and ugly as Sakura remembered it being.

She had barely glimpsed it before Tokuma tried to put his forehead protector back on.

“Hey!” complained Sakura. “You didn’t show me anything!”

“I showed you my seal,” said Tokuma shortly. “That’s enough.”

“No, you showed me your seal mark. There’s a difference.” Inspiration hit. “It’s like a storage scroll. The flower or triangle or square that you put your things on isn’t actually the seal. That’s just the mark that the seal has been reduced down to. The actual seal for a storage scroll covers the whole scroll, front and back. It’s the same with that mark on your forehead. That’s not the seal, just the shape that it’s been reduced down to.”

Although judging by the size of that mark, Hyuuga hadn’t bothered to reduce their seal much.

Tokuma narrowed his eyes at her. “So where is my seal?”

“You’ll have to either circulate your chakra much faster or much slower to make it show up,” said Sakura. “If you take off your vest and shirt, you’ll be able to see when it works.”

Tokuma regarded Sakura narrowly for several moments, before he abruptly shrugged off his chuunin’s vest. He yanked his turtleneck off and dropped it on his vest then sat cross-legged on the ground. On his knees, Tokuma rested his hands, their palms facing upwards. He closed his eyes.

Sakura couldn’t see or even sense the flow of Tokuma’s chakra inside of his body – not without inserting a thread of her own chakra into its flow, at any rate – but she knew when his efforts began to pay off.

Faint blotches swam to the surface of his pale skin and darkened until they looked almost like bruises that had been jabbed into his skin by someone’s juuken. As Sakura watched, the blotches stretched into lines and whirls and jagged edges, vines of dark ink growing up the trellis of Tokuma’s lithe frame.

“There you go,” Sakura breathed. “That’s your seal.”

Tokuma’s pearly eyes popped open. He looked down at himself, the glowing lines on his skin briefly faltering.

“I had no idea that it was so… extensive,” said Tokuma faintly.

Sakura narrowed her eyes as she studied the seal work.

“It’s actually two seals that have been linked,” she said, briefly touching his temple. An oddly spiky element had been inscribed there. “This one is in a sealing style that I don’t recognize, so it’s not Whirlpool or Leaf in origin. Some of the elements are almost Uzushio, though, and those I can read. They’re used in medical seals, so this is probably the seal that will make your eyes completely useless to anyone else after you die.

“This one on your chest though… It’s in the Leaf’s style of sealing.” Sakura paused there, frowning. She touched the bridge between the seals. “It’s usually considered bad form to combine schools of sealing, so whoever envisioned this seal of yours either mastered both styles of sealing or the Leaf part came later. It’s really grim.”

“Can you read it?” asked Tokuma tightly, and Sakura glanced away from the glowing lines of his seals to study his expression, but there was nothing to see there. Tokuma’s face was perfectly still, his eyes downcast. The fall of his long, dark lashes hid his eyes from casual inspection. He was a blank slate.

Hinata, Sakura thought vaguely, but didn’t follow that thought to its natural conclusion. She abandoned it in favor of refocusing her attention on Tokuma’s seals.

“It’s not the sort of seal that I’m usually interested in, but yes, I can read its components,” admitted Sakura, and watched as Tokuma’s shoulders briefly rounded before he straightened them again.

“Pain, potential brain damage, and death, all inflicted at will,” said Sakura, touching another luminous portion the seal on his chest. “Agony if you were to try to circumvent this seal or go against the ones who inscribed it on you. And… there’s something that disappears into your pants. I can’t see if it’s part of this second seal or if it’s a bridge to a third one.”

“Never mind about that,” snapped Tokuma, his cheeks flushing pink.

“Something related to reproduction?” guessed Sakura, now squinting at his lap.

Tokuma lightly smacked her upside the head.

“Hey! What was that for?”

“Pervert!”

“I am not!” Well, not compared to the rest of Team Seven, at any rate. “I was imagining where your seal must lie!”

“I told you not to worry about that!”

“How can I not? That is an ugly seal, Tokuma.”

All the fight seemed to drain out of Tokuma.

“It is what it is,” said Tokuma stiffly.

What it was was a reminder of the past. The last time that Sakura had seen a seal like Tokuma’s, it had been Sai wearing it.

Is ROOT’s seal a variation on Hyuuga’s Caged Bird Seal then? Sakura wondered and then immediately wished that she could put the seals side by side for comparison’s sake. Perhaps breaking one was the key to breaking the other.

The idea that anyone had seen a seal like Tokuma’s, though, and then worked to improve it, making it stricter and even more draconian, disgusted Sakura. Ugly seals like Tokuma’s were to be broken, not worked with until they became your own.

Not that she was seriously thinking about breaking Tokuma’s Caged Bird Seal. She didn’t know how. She hadn’t read any of the right books. And she didn’t even recognize the eye seal’s style, except to say that it wasn’t Leaf or Whirlpool in its design.

But I can find out what it is, thought Sakura, new purpose filling her. It wasn’t like she had a lot of other things going on at the moment – just fixing her brain, growing a tree or two, crushing the competition at the shinobi academy, carving out a place for herself in the medical corps, destroying Itachi and all his works, and carving out a new place for herself in the Uzushio Quarter, an adult place. Easy peasy.

It was probably a good thing that Sakura already had an idea where she could find out the information that she wanted, not that she could get her hands on it any time soon.

Briskly, Sakura slapped Tokuma’s shoulder.

“I’ve seen everything that I can see,” said Sakura. “So unless you’re going to let me copy your seals, you’d better stop doing that and put your shirt on.”

Tokuma’s eyes snapped up to her face.

“I thought you weren’t interested in these sorts of seals,” said Tokuma sharply.

“The one on your head is a medical seal,” said Sakura smoothly – but not nearly as smoothly as Shizune would have done in her position. Shizune had the constitution of a riverboat gambler. “I’m always interested in those.”

Tokuma looked suspicious. The veins around his eyes bulged as he used his bloodline limit to study her – and perhaps see if she was telling the truth. Crossing her arms over her chest, Sakura glared back at him. She tried to look offended.

She’d been telling the truth! Well, most of it. Knowing any of the rest of it could only hurt him. Besides, it was only conjecture at this point, anyway. She might be wrong about where she could get the books that she needed.

Sakura wished that she had made better use of her time as Tsunade’s apprentice. She had thought that she had been doing a pretty good job of it at the time, but every day, she realized that there was still so much – about being a medic nin, about being a ninja, about the village – that she just didn’t know.

But even when she had possessed access to libraries with whole bookcases devoted to torture and interrogation techniques and tactics, Sakura just hadn’t been interested in them. Sakura hadn’t even been tempted by the sealing scrolls. She had been entirely focused on learning to be the best field medic that she could be, and happy to leave things like torture and interrogation to Shizune, Ibiki, Ino, and the rest of the Yamanaka clan.

Sakura regretted that now. Just because she hadn’t had any use for the knowledge then, didn’t mean that she might never have any use for it. If she had at least glanced through any of those dusty sealing scrolls back then, then perhaps she would have some idea how to break a seal like Tokuma’s now.

Not that she was thinking about breaking a seal like Tokuma’s. It was cruel, but breaking the Hyuuga clan’s famed Caged Bird Seal would cause massive instability in the village. It would make her mortal enemies with several of the village’s major clans, including the Aburame clan and the Hyuuga clan’s main house. And it would put Danzo on his guard.

But it was a really nasty seal.

In front of her, the stiffness eased out of Tokuma’s frame.

“Sorry,” he said.

“It’s all right,” said Sakura. “I just wish that I could help you more.”

“I’m not asking you to break my seal!”

“No,” agreed Sakura. She touched the relevant portion of the seal. “You would never dare.”

Tokuma flinched. The glow winked out of his seal, the ink fading more slowly from his skin.

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed,” said Sakura sharply. “You didn’t choose those seals for yourself. And there’s nothing wrong with having a strong survival instinct.”

“Not like you,” said Tokuma, his gaze flicking up to her bare forehead again, and Sakura didn’t know if he was talking about her seal work or her survival instincts. “Do you promise you did all your own seals?”

“I didn’t do all of my own seals,” admitted Sakura. “I’ve probably got at least a dozen under my hair that my family left there.”

And there was the Pillar of Four Truths Seal, of course.

Sakura yelped, startled. In a blur of speed – He was always so fast! – Tokuma was on his feet again, his hand clamped around her wrist.

“T-Tokuma!” yelped Sakura, as he nearly dragged her off of her feet. “Your clothes!”

His hand still hard around her wrist, Tokuma veered back to where they had been to snatch up his discarded shirt and uniform jacket. Tokuma let go of Sakura long enough to roughly yank on his clothes, the collar of his jacket lying twisted against the side of his neck. Grabbing her wrist again, Tokuma resumed his march for the training grounds’ gate.

“Tokuma! Where are we going?”

“To get those seals looked at.”

“What? Why? They’re just little kid seals!”

“That’s what they told you,” said Tokuma darkly.

“Because it’s true!” argued Sakura. “They’re no big deal!”

“But how do you know?” demanded Tokuma, briefly slanting a look back at Sakura.

“Because I do! Because they said so! Because I know them!” A horrible thought occurred to Sakura, and she dug her heels in. “You’re going to shave my head, aren’t you?”

“How else is the sealing master going to read your seals?”

“I can read my own seals! And you are not shaving my head with a kunai!”

“Of course not!” Tokuma actually sounded surprised. “We’ll go to Shimon’s apartment and borrow his razor.”

“Ye – No! No, we’re not doing that either! Because I’m still bald at the end of that plan!”

Tokuma slanted an almost teasing look back at Sakura over his shoulder. “You’re a proud medic nin. You can probably regrow organs. Surely, you can regrow your own hair.”

Sakura narrowed her eyes at Tokuma. “Appealing to my pride as a medic nin? That’s sneaky, Tokuma!”

Tokuma grinned. Pointing at himself with his free hand, he said, “Ninja,” and Sakura laughed.




Shimon’s apartment was near Sakura’s old apartment building, and like her old apartment, his was roughly the size of a postcard. That still left him better off than Kakashi-sensei or Yamato-taicho, who had both roomed in apartments roughly the size of postage stamps. Truly, Shimon had a taste for the finer things in life - except when it came to bathrooms.

For reasons that utterly escaped Sakura, he seemed fine with sharing the bathroom at either end of the hallway with everyone else on the hall. She had lived in a place like that right after the Sand-Sound Invasion, and she had moved out of it a month after making chuunin. Sakura had found it stressful to share a bathroom, but it must have worked for him, because Shimon said that he had lived there for years – ever since he had left the orphanage, in fact.

Sakura, who had once found herself suddenly alone in the world at the ripe old age of twelve, could relate.

Now, though, Sakura was sitting straight and tall on a stool and trying not to so much as twitch while Shimon shaved her bald. Around her feet were scattered clumps of pink hair, all of them carelessly hacked off of her head with a kunai. Behind her stood Shimon, and behind him stood Tokuma and Muta. In the mirror, Sakura could see that the former had his arms crossed over his chest, while the latter had his chin tucked into the collar of his jacket. Between his high collar and sunglasses, Muta was inscrutable.

Sakura was just the opposite. She was scowling at her reflection in the mirror and all of theirs as well. It had been a long time since daylight had last touched her scalp directly, and Sakura wasn’t looking forward to feeling it again. Already, her head felt cold… and naked. Her scalp missed its hair.

“There’s way more than a dozen seals here,” reported Shimon.

“Seal marks,” corrected Tokuma. “Sakura says that those are called seal marks. They hide the real seals.”

Well, at least the afternoon hadn’t been a total waste.

“Whatever they are, she has a lot of them,” retorted Shimon.

Sakura felt a prickle of curiosity. What all had her family left on her?

Soon enough, Shimon was holding a smaller hand mirror up to the back of Sakura’s head, letting her see the back of her head for the first time ever.

The first thing that she noticed was how pale her scalp was. Against it, the lines of the sometimes overlapping seal marks that decorated the back of her head were crisp and dark. In the large mirror in front of her, Shimon, Muta, and Tokuma looked appalled. Sakura couldn’t see why. Didn’t they see how well loved she was?

“No one could read those,” said Tokuma at last.

“Tch, spoken like someone without the chakra control of a medic nin,” scoffed Sakura. “Put your finger against the first one so that I’ll know what I’m aiming at.”

The first seal mark that Tokuma pressed his warm fingertip against was one of her mother’s.

Focusing on the feel of his fingertip against her skin, Sakura adjusted her chakra flow in the selected location. Under Tokuma’s finger, a seal bloomed.

Excited, Sakura studied it in the mirror. Then she glared at its reflection.

“I can’t believe it!” spat Sakura.

“What? What is it?” demanded Tokuma urgently.

“A nap time seal! Those are for toddlers! Who lets their daughter go off to the academy with one of those still on her scalp?”

Tokuma’s expression faltered. Shimon slapped a hand over his grinning mouth, and Muta laughed.

Shimon giggled, and Tokuma snorted, and suddenly all three of them were laughing at her. Sakura glared at them in the mirror, missing her monstrous strength with all her heart.

“It’s not funny! Stop laughing!”

That only made them laugh harder! The bastards!

“Oh, oh, what’s this one?” asked Shimon, pressing his finger to another seal mark. Still sulking, Sakura nevertheless adjusted her chakra flow to reveal the seal.

“A baby barrier seal,” reported Sakura. “Ugh! I stopped falling down stairs years ago!”

There was another barrier seal, this one a match to the seals that used to adorn the cabinets under the various sinks in her parents house and likely put in place to keep her from eating the cleaning supplies stored in said cabinets, as well as one that Sakura recognized from her Bubbly.

Bubbly was a stuffed dog that Sakura had taken everywhere with her when she was little. On her first day of school at the Shinobi Academy, Ami and her other bullies had stolen Bubbly. Sakura had cried herself for hours that afternoon, certain that she would never see Bubbly again.

Bubbly had appeared on her pillow during the night, and he had never left her bedroom ever again.

Sakura had always assumed that one of the other girls had felt bad and returned Bubbly to her. Apparently, they hadn’t. The seal must have returned him to her.

And then there was the seal that made Sakura melt.

“It doesn’t really mean anything,” explained Sakura, her voice wobbling. “And it doesn’t do anything.” Or if it did, everyone had forgotten what it was. “It just means I love you.”

Sakura had many copies of that seal. Several were from her older cousins, including Minako, and there were three from each of her parents.

Sakura had always known that she was loved, but it made her eyes burn to see how much she was loved.

“That’s all of them, isn’t it?” demanded Sakura, dragging her sleeve across her eyes.

“Yes, that’s all of them,” said Shimon, after a moment’s hesitation.

“Good!”

Folding her fingers into a seal to enhance her concentration – first two fingers raised, the other two curled down with her thumb lying across them – Sakura gently encouraged her hair to grow faster. In a matter of moments, her hair had returned to its proper length.

“Now, if you’re done being nosy,” sniffed Sakura, “let’s go do something else.”

The three chunin exchanged looks, before Muta said, “I could eat.”

They took her to a yakisoba shop in one of the ninja districts. Sakura, Muta, and Tokuma all ordered a meal, but when it was his turn, Shimon only ordered water.

“Hey, aren’t you going to eat anything?” asked Sakura when the server had gone, and Shimon shook his head.

“Can’t,” he said glumly. “I’m saving up for a new storage scroll. The one that I have is starting to fritz.”

Sakura nearly frowned. Sitting and watching everyone else eat wouldn’t be much fun.

Carefully, she said, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’ll make you a new one, if you want.”

Shimon stared at her. So did Tokuma and Muta.

It made Sakura uncomfortable. Wriggling a little in her seat, Sakura added “I won’t charge you for it, so you can afford to order whatever you like.”

“Sakura, you can’t just give away something like a storage scroll,” said Shimon. “They’re really valuable.”

That certainly hadn’t stopped Ino or Shikamaru from accepting her storage scrolls as gifts, and Sakura was willing to bet that Choji wasn’t going to turn his down either.

“I was going to make you pay for the scroll and ink,” Sakura said with great dignity. “Anyway, you still won’t let me put any seals on you. This seemed like the next best thing.”

That certainly distracted them.

Muta, Shimon, and Tokuma were so busy vigorously defending their right not to wear any of her seals that none of them seemed to notice when Sakura gestured to their server for another number three for Shimon. And they were still going on about it when the food arrived, the server setting a plate in front of each of them with a soft click.

Still railing against the inscrutability of seals and Seal Masters, they began to eat. In fact, Shimon was halfway through his beef and noodles before he realized that he was eating with everyone else.

Shimon’s eyes widened. He dropped his chopsticks… and Sakura laughed.




Since Tokuma and Kurenai’s storage scrolls were already done, and Sakura was mostly just playing with the lantern seals that she had meant to make for Tokuma, it was easy to put aside her current projects in favor of making a storage scroll for Shimon. It still took longer than she would have liked – at any given time, half of her unimpressive chakra supply was going into her forehead seals, and training took up a fair portion of the other half – but she still got it done in what she thought was a reasonable amount of time. When she tried to give the scroll to Shimon, though, he looked at her like she had grown a second head.

“You didn’t already go out and buy a scroll, did you?” demanded Sakura, torn between outrage and anxiousness.

Shimon shook his head.

“So then you still need one,” sighed Sakura, feeling relieved.

“Sakura… I can’t just take it,” said Shimon, his hand nonetheless hovering near her scroll.

“But I want you to?”

“I can’t,” said Shimon. “I know that you don’t understand, and I know that you meant well, but I can’t just accept your charity.”

Anger bloomed in Sakura. Having once been in his position, she understood completely.

“It’s not charity! It’s a gift… between friends.”

“Yeah, well, the gift that my friend is trying to give me is too much.” Shimon gently pushed Sakura’s extended hand back towards her. “Keep it. You’ll need one when you make genin.”

Sakura considered Shimon narrowly. There were only a few, very specific things that Sakura wanted. Most weren’t things that Sakura wanted to be given, but as for the rest…

“Tell me, Shimon,” purred Sakura in her best imitation of Tsunade. “Do you know any earth jutsu?”

Shimon blinked. And then he grinned.

“I think we can come to an arrangement,” he said confidently, while easing the storage scroll from her hand, and Sakura beamed. That had been exactly what she wanted to hear.

Earth, it turned out, was nearly as easy to manipulate as water. At least, it was for Sakura.

“Earth might be your element,” said Shimon one day after practice.

“And water,” said Sakura without thinking. When he arched his eyebrows at her, Sakura grinned and said “Here, watch.”

Uncapping the lid of her canteen, Sakura threaded her chakra into the water inside of it. As Shimon watched, she swirled it out of the canteen and around in first a loop and then a spiral.

Shimon whistled a low note of appreciation.

And Sakura grinned.

“It’s part of a high level poison removal technique,” admitted Sakura, as she directed the water back into its canteen.

“So earth and water then,” said Shimon. “There aren’t a lot of water users in Fire Country.”

“But Tsunade-sama!” protested Sakura, surprised.

“How do you know that?” asked Shimon, sounding equally surprised.

“Well, it’s her poison removal technique,” said Sakura, scrambling for a reasonable answer. “She invented it and gave it to the hospital.”

Her shisho had also invented the lightning technique that Sakura occasionally used to scramble the impulses between a target’s brain and body.

Lightning and water were Tsunade’s two elements; water and wind, Shizune’s. Water had been the place where all three of them met.

Longing, fierce and staggering in its depth, swept through Sakura. Shizune, she was sure, would have had a lot of opinions regarding her doujutsu blinding fog. And Tsunade-shisho would have challenged her to do better – at everything. Sakura would have dearly liked to know what her Tsunade-shisho thought of her trying to replicate the Mokuton with medical techniques.

“Ready to go again?” inquired Shimon solicitiously.

“Sure.”

It was definitely better than thinking.




After she learned Shimon’s earth jutsu, Sakura’s Mokuton research was ready to enter the practical testing phase.

The first time that she showed up to babysit at Minako’s house with a small plant pot in one hand and her pack on her back, her notebooks of Mokuton research stashed inside of it, Minako blinked at her.

“An empty pot?” she asked, as she closed the door behind Sakura.

“There’s a seed in the dirt.” And that dirt had cost her an arm and a leg. Who knew that premium potting soil was so expensive?

“And you’re going to glare it until it grows?” laughed her cousin.

“It’s research,” said Sakura loftily. “I’m working on developing my own jutsu.”

“A project for school?” asked Minako, her interest sharpening.

“For me,” said Sakura, as they started up the stairs. “I got the idea while Iruka-sensei was busy being wrong about seals.”

“If you were going to daydream in class, that was probably the time to do it,” agreed Minako.

As always, the twins were already bathed. All Sakura had to do was feed them, play with them a bit, brush their teeth, and get them to bed. It was harder than it sounded, especially since there were two of them and only one of her.

Still, Sakura somehow managed it. And then, she got to work on her tree.

One way or another, she was going to prove that she was just as good a medic as the Shodai. That dead, old man didn’t even know who was coming for him!

Satisfied, Sakura got to work.




As busy as Sakura was, the end of the term almost seemed to come barreling at her with alarming speed, and with it came the threat of wintertime survival training. Through the grapevine, Sakura got the names of those in the class above hers that had passed the exit exam.

Naruto’s was among them.

Glee suffused Sakura. Her plan had worked!

All that idiot had to do was pass his new sensei’s survival training, and he would be a genin. He could do that. He’d done it once before, after all.

Shifting Naruto onto a different team would force the remaining parts of Sakura’s old life to fall into a new pattern, like pieces rattling around in a kaleidoscope. Without Naruto in her year, Sakura might even manage to escape Kakashi, Sasuke, and being on Team Seven all together. She would finally have a brand new beginning for her brand new life.

For the first time since waking up in the past, Sakura found that she was excited about the future. She couldn’t wait to graduate and get started on it!

Sakura was so excited that she bounced practically everywhere after that. Even her running stride felt bouncier.

“You’re in a good mood,” croaked old man Okazaki when Sakura stopped in at his shop one day. A survivor from the old country, someone had slit old man Okazaki’s throat at some point in his murky past, making it difficult for him to speak. Now, old man Okazaki sold fresh fruit and fresh flowers, two things that Sakura’s parents bought only from him.

“Yes!” agreed Sakura with a wide smile and a little nod. Then, because she was so excited that she could burst with it, Sakura leaned closer to old man Okazaki and said in a low voice, “They say that the idiot in the class ahead of mine at the academy passed this time. He’s going to be a genin.”

“And you’re happy for him?” asked the old man with a particular sort of gleam in his eyes.

“Yes! Definitely!” chirped Sakura, ignoring the old man’s indulgent smile. She was too happy to be annoyed by the conclusions that he had jumped to. “And for me! I’m the number one in my class. If he had been setback again, he would have been assigned as my teammate.”

“Your teammate?” echoed the old man, frowning as he folded Sakura’s fruits in a square of brightly patterned cloth. Sakura had brought it with her from home.

“Yes! The Hokage made it a rule that the number one rookie in an academy class has to be teamed up with their class’ dead last. So it’s good for both of us that he passed this time.”

“And you are your class’ number one student? That’s quite an honor. Congratulations.”

“Thank you?”

“You sound surprised,” noted the old man as he passed Sakura her purchases, safely folded into a cloth carrying pouch.

“I think that you might be the only person who has congratulated me on that,” admitted Sakura, as she settled the folded bag over her shoulder.

“Oh, well congratulations again then,” rasped the old man.

Sakura smiled at him. He really was very sweet. Pointing at a nearby bouquet of flowers that was wrapped in his shop’s trademark paper, Sakura asked, “Do you want me to drop that anywhere on my way home?”

Sakura had never seen old man Okazaki away from his building. He grew everything that he sold on the roof of his building, using seals to make the space hold more than it ever should have been able to support.

Okazaki gave Sakura the name and address that the flowers were meant to go to and she left with a final wave, taking her fruits, her good luck apple, and her delivery with her.




It was nearly the end of the quarter when Sakura finally pulled together everything that she now knew about compulsion techniques, genjutsu torture, false memories, and the treatment and rehabilitation of all of the above into a shiny new treatment plan for herself.

No longer would she have to labor under the tyranny of Itachi’s unrelenting crazy! And all she would have to do to escape it was something completely and unequivocally insane.

Pot, meet Miss Kettle, muttered Inner. You’re both cracked! You’ll get along great!

Sakura pretended not to hear her.

She was confident that she could remove Itachi’s technique from herself – a bad idea in and of itself. Sakura was professional enough to admit that without reservation. Brain surgery was best done by a second party, someone like Tsunade or Shizune – but simply cutting Itachi out of her mental landscape wouldn’t be enough; not after all the time that Itachi’s particular brand of crazy had been embedded in her brain. It would only free her of his worst compulsions.

Sakura needed to rehabilitate herself too. She would have to work hard to kick the behaviors, habits, and thought patterns that she had developed because of Itachi’s technique. And there were probably other things – things that Itachi had likely impressed on her without her or Inner Sakura even realizing it – that would need to be dealt with too.

It was too bad that there was no one that she could ask for help. Tsunade, Shizune, and Ino – the older one, who had specialized in doing this sort of thing to other people – would all have been excellent candidates. As it was, Sakura had only herself.

It was becoming something of a refrain in this new life of hers.

But Sakura still hoped that she could maybe tough it out until a better option came along – preferably a Tsunade-shaped one. As desperate as she was to be rid of stupid Itachi and his stupid, compulsive behaviors, Sakura wasn’t so desperate that cutting into her own brain seemed like a good idea yet. Well, she was, but she was still hoping that a better idea would come to her before it came to that.

Sakura was still trying to figure out what her better idea was when Tokuma and Kurenai-sensei disappeared off to take the jounin exams. They were still off being racked, stacked, and examined when Sakura packed her bag for the academy’s survival exercise.

Soon enough, Sakura was standing outside of the academy, watching as her classmates trickled into the courtyard in ones and twos. It was early, the sun just peeking over the horizon, and most of them looked tired; most, but not all. Ino came bounding over to Sakura, her pack bouncing on her back.

“Sakura! Are you ready to go?” demanded Ino, her words wreathed in puffs of white.

“Yes!” said Sakura brightly.

Ino beamed. “This is going to be so much fun!”

Sakura smiled, willing to take Ino at her word. After all, she was no Yamanaka.

And even if it wasn’t fun, it would at least be different.

From somewhere near the front gates, there was a crash and several angry shouts. Turning, Sakura saw Naruto in all his orange-clad glory pumping his arms over his head as he shouted, “Uzumaki Naruto has arrived!”

At the sight of Naruto, disappointment crashed through Sakura. At the same time, a seething black hatred rose in her. It filled all the empty places around her crushing disappointment, mixing with it to become a new and dangerous emotion, one that overwhelmed Sakura. She lurched a step forward and then another one. She was on the brink of running at Naruto, her fist cocked back, when Inner Sakura slammed into that nasty new emotion head on, knocking Sakura sideways.

Or maybe that was Ino’s grip on her arm yanking her that way.

When Sakura came back to herself, her fists were clenched and she was aching with the desire to pulverize Naruto. It was the only way to protect – to protect –

An image came to mind: a man, enormous and pale blue with biceps as big as her head and a shock of dark blue hair. He grinned at her with a shark’s ragged teeth, humor gleaming in his flat shark’s eyes.

And seemingly in response, fondness – Itachi’s fondness – rose within her.

That was nearly as startling as his black rage had been.

Sakura hadn’t thought there was room enough inside of Itachi’s heart for anything except Sasuke. Apparently, there was. And whoever he was, Itachi was devoted enough to layer in a secondary urge to protect him that was shocking in both its depth and enormity.

I don’t know whether he did this on purpose or not, thought Sakura, fuming, but this is going to be a problem.

“– survival training setbacks,” Ino was saying. She gave Sakura’s arm a little shake. “Ignore him, Sakura.”

“Yeah,” agreed Sakura shakily. “He just surprised me, you know?”

He was supposed to be a genin already.

Ino shot her a skeptical look.

“And it’s early,” added Sakura, scrambling for a better explanation, preferably one with enough truth to it not to read as a lie to Ino or her other senses. “You know what I’m like in the morning. And he’s just so annoying!”

Ino softened.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “You’re really not at your best in the morning.”

Sakura scowled at her friend, mock offended.

“What do you mean I’m not at my best? I’m always at my best!”

“Pfffft! I call ‘em like I see ‘em, Forehead,” scoffed Ino.

“It’s amazing you can see anything, what with your hair getting so long,” Sakura sneered. Reaching past Ino’s shoulder, she tweaked a long lock of Ino’s blonde hair. “How do you keep it from getting tangled with everything?”

“Trade secret,” huffed Ino.

“Mhmmm,” hummed Sakura. “I’m going to remind you of that when you want me to help you pick all the dead leaves out of it.”

“I won’t need you to!”

Feeling more relaxed, Sakura smiled at Ino. “So you’re gonnna make Shikamaru and Choji do it?”

“No!”

“Make Shikamaru and Choji do what?” demanded Shikamaru as he and Choji slouched up to them.

“Nothing!” snapped Ino. “Hey, did you see that guy next to the gates? He’s so annoying!”

“Yeah,” agreed Shikamaru, scowling. “It’s too early for that.”

“What do you mean it’s too early? You’re never up for that sort of thing,” teased Sakura.

“It’s too troublesome,” agreed Shikamaru. “But it’s still too early for that guy.”

“And it’s cold,” complained Choji, stamping his feet.

“Cycle your chakra faster,” said Sakura absently. “It’ll warm you up a bit.”

Warily, she poked at the sliver of Itachi at the back of her mind, now quiescent. Talking about Naruto, apparently, was not enough to set him off.

Is it just the sight of Naruto? Sakura wondered. Maybe even the sound of him?

Either way, it was going to be a very long training exercise.

When everyone had arrived and been checked off by the teachers, Iruka-sensei called out, “All right! After our new classmates briefly introduce themselves we’ll get going!”

Naruto’s self introduction – “I’m Uzumaki Naruto! I like ramen, and someday I’m gonna be Hokage! Believe it!” – made Sakura’s heart clench with an ugly amalgam of hurt, rage, and recrimination, as well as grief, murderous anger, and a desire to protect someone from Naruto.

It also made her reconsider her stance on using the kage bunshin technique.

If Naruto was going to be her classmate again, then cutting Itachi out of her mind as soon as possible was… probably a good idea. It was better than betraying herself with Naruto’s sudden murder. Sakura was angry with Naruto, but she didn’t want to kill him.

At least, she didn’t think that she did. Right now, it was kind of hard to tell.

But good idea or no, Sakura hated the idea of using kage bunshin at all. Ever.

The only time that Sakura had ever used the kage bunshin jutsu in her entire career as a ninja had been in the Forest of Death when she was twelve. Sasuke had been barely conscious and writhing in pain, while Naruto had been unconscious and hanging from one of her kunai. They couldn’t stay where they were, but she couldn’t leave them behind either. Nor could she choose one boy to leave behind and the other to carry with her, while she looked for a bolt hole for their team. The kage bunshin jutsu had been her only choice.

And it had worked. She had carried Sasuke, her clone had carried Naruto, and no one had been left at the nonexistent mercy of the Forest of Death or the other genin squads in it. But even with her excellent chakra control, using the kage bunshin jutsu for even such a short time had left Sakura ill and shaking. She had barely had enough chakra to get her teammates to relative safety and set traps around their hiding place.

It hadn’t been enough, of course. She had gotten the shit kicked out of her by that Sound squad, and so had Lee in trying to come to her aid. Without Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji’s help, they all would have died there.

The entire experience had left Sakura with a bone deep aversion to the kage bunshin jutsu. Even now, when using kage bunshin would (probably) free her from Itachi’s compulsion technique, Sakura wasn’t sure that it was worth it, not if it meant using kage bunshin jutsu. And yet… freedom. One way or another, to be free of Itachi and his direct influence wasn’t an opportunity to carelessly pass up.

Everything would be so much simpler if I could just ask Tsunade-shisho for help, thought Sakura unhappily.

I miss Tsunade-shisho, agreed Inner Sakura, mirroring her unhappiness.

Fortunately, Sakura wasn’t the only one scowling at the clump of setbacks milling around near the academy’s gates. Sakura had never had much luck, but she had always had excellent friends.

When the self-introductions were finished, Iruka-sensei shouted “For the purposes of this week’s exercises, you’ll be working in teams of six! You have thirty seconds to find your teammates,” Ino’s hand clamped on Sakura’s wrist, “and then we’ll be picking them for you!”

Ino’s other hand shot out to capture Choji’s wrist. Where Choji went so went Shikamaru, which meant that their team was already up to four members.

Sakura scanned the scrambling mass of children around them, looking for their last two members. Most of the other kids had already begun to form small clumps of their own. As she watched, Hinata drifted towards Naruto. She had Shino in tow.

Inner Sakura crushing down the surge of unreasoning murderousness that swelled in her heart at the mere sight of her old teammate, Sakura watched as the shy girl tried – and failed – to get Naruto’s attention. The village’s number one knucklehead was too busy exchanging insults with Kiba and Akamaru to notice that someone actually wanted to work with him.

What Hinata actually got was Sasuke’s attention.

Sakura watched as the Uchiha cut through the crowd like a shark through water, heading straight for Hyuuga Hinata. Sasuke grabbed Hinata’s wrist in passing, yanking the Hyuuga heir after him. With Hinata in tow, he made a beeline for Sakura and the younger incarnation of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation.

“Here,” said Sasuke brusquely. “We’re joining you.”

“Sasuke-kun!” squealed Ino. Shikamaru scowled. Choji crunched a chip. “You want to join us?”

“I brought Hyuuga,” said Sasuke defensively. “She’s useful.”

Next to him, Hinata flushed as red as a cherry tomato. She looked stunned. As Sakura watched, Hinata pressed her free hand to one of her reddened cheeks, and Sakura grinned.

Such a pain in the ass, Sakura thought, almost fondly. If Sasuke had been even half as attentive to her the first time around, she might never have gotten over her crush on him.

Still, it might be nice to get to know Hinata before she had all – or even most – of her defenses perfected. By the time that Sakura had really started to pay attention to Hyuuga Hinata the first time around, the other girl had already had her masks firmly fixed in place. But at eleven – or maybe twelve, Sakura wasn’t certain how old Hinata actually was at present – Hinata was still just as soft and vulnerable and nearly honest as Ino currently was. There was a lot to be said for getting to know your comrades when they were still too young to know any better.

“Sure, you guys can join us,” said Sakura, despite knowing that Hinata would have preferred to be on a team with Naruto and Shino. Come to think of it, Shino might have preferred that too.

“Of course, they can join us!” squealed Ino. She pumped a fist over her head. “With all of us on a team, we can’t fail! We are so going to win this!”

Even Shikamaru smiled at that. Lazy, he was, but also incredibly competitive.

From the academy’s main courtyard, the teachers led them across the village to training grounds seventy-eight and seventy-nine. Seventy-eight and seventy-nine had a smattering of scrubby little trees – well, scrubby by any Konohan standard of tree growth – but their main draw was their grasslands. Seventy-nine had a mucky pond on it that in the summertime was literally abuzz with insect life.

The Aburame clan loved it, but everyone else steered clear of the literal clouds of mayflies, blood-sucking mosquitos, crickets as big as an adult’s hand, and weird white mothlike things that Sakura could never remember the name of. Whatever they were, they burrowed under bark – or the smooth, hard stalks of the reeds that lined the lake or even particularly dry skin – to lay their eggs. Frankly, Sakura hated the place and tried to avoid it at all costs.

At least it’s winter, thought Sakura. And we’re all fully clothed.

Not that it being winter had been much use to her mock team the last time that she had suffered through this survival training exercise. And long sleeves had never seemed like much of a deterrent against the egg funnels of those weird moth things. Truly, Sakura took comfort from every puff of breath that misted in the air in front of her. Cold, at least, kept most of training ground seventy-nine’s insect life at bay.

Sakura’s luck holding true, her six-man squad was assigned a campground near the shores of the dreaded lake. And from all the shouting, it seemed that Naruto’s squad had been assigned a plot maybe a third of the way around the lake.

At least Sakura now definitively knew that it was just the sight of Naruto that made the Itachi sliver crazier, not the mere sound of him in the distance.

“All right,” said Ino determinedly. “Now that we’ve found our spot, we’re supposed to make camp.”

“Not on the lake,” said Sakura quickly.

It was a training exercise for the actual academy students, and Sakura truly intended to leave most of the decision making up to Ino and the others, but there were limits.

The others all looked at her strangely, but that was okay. They didn’t know.

“Okay,” said Ino slowly. “But not on the lake.”

Eyeing the long grass all around them, Shikamaru sighed. “How troublesome.”




“Ah! My rival!” boomed a familiar voice, rattling the trees around Kakashi and possibly the Memorial Stone itself. “There you are! Are you ready to spar?”

“Can’t,” said Kakashi unhappily and without taking his eyes off of the names of the dead. “I’ve been assigned as security on… that thing.”

From the corner of his eye, he watched as Gai’s fuzzy eyebrows knitted together in a truly impressive frown.

“Thing?” Gai questioned, almost delicately.

“With the academy students,” said Kakashi, feeling annoyed again at the old man’s interference.

“Ah!” Gai’s expression cleared. He beamed at Kakashi, all his teeth gleaming as he gave Kakashi the thumbs up. “Excellent news! That is where I first found Tenten and Neji! Perhaps this year, you will finally find students worthy of your hip genius!”

Kakashi doubted it. He preferred to help chuunin polish their skills. Chuunin were more durable, less annoying, and less likely to die on him. They didn’t need him, not like Rin and Obito had.

Obito and Rin had still been genin when they had died.

Tipping his head back, Gai frowned at the sky.

“Aren’t you running a bit late, my rival?” asked Gai. “I seem to remember the academy students assembling at dawn for inclement weather training.”

“Eh.”

“They cannot wait for you,” warned Gai.

Kakashi made a vague gesture with his hand. What did it matter? How fast could an eight man squad of academy teachers travel with a herd of sixty or so pre-genin in tow, anyway? Not very fast was Kakashi’s bet.

“Come!” boomed Gai, grabbing Kakashi’s arm. “I will help you locate your targets!”

Kakashi considered pointing out to Gai that he was a tracker nin. He nearly said that he wasn’t finished at the stone yet and that he would much rather spar, anyway – Gai didn’t get much time without his genin in tow these days – but it felt like too much work. Instead, he let Gai drag him away from the Memorial Stone, across the little red bridge, and towards the academy.

Maybe if he didn’t mention that the academy had provided him with an itinerary for the week, they wouldn’t find the kids too soon.

“I seem to remember the academy providing me with an itinerary last year,” mused Gai, and Kakashi’s heart sank. Apparently, he would be seeing Tenzo sooner rather than later.

How unfortunate.

With Kakashi in tow, Gai got his hands on a copy of the academy students’ camping itinerary then escorted Kakashi all the way out to training ground seventy-eight, where Susumu met them.

Susumu was another jounin that had so far successfully resisted taking on any genin, despite the Third’s meddling. In fact, Susumu had just failed another team of genin candidates, the same as Kakashi.

They had worked together before – and even been assigned to these academy inclement weather training exercises before – so Susumu didn’t bother to point out how late Kakashi was or to try to scold him for it. All Susumu said was, “You’ve been assigned as security in training ground seventy-nine with Asuma, Hibiki, Donburi, Kurenai, and Tenzo. Your partner is Tenzo. Have fun.”

Kakashi nearly scowled. Of the two training grounds, seventy-nine was by far the worst. It had the lake, after all.

Giving into temptation, Kakashi sank into the ground, Gai’s ringing encouragements reverberating through the earth that rose up to swallow him. His self-proclaimed eternal rival had an excellent set of lungs. Gai’s shouts followed Kakashi as he sped towards training ground seventy-nine… and Tenzo’s vast disapproval. Unlike Susumu, he wouldn’t understand.

When Kakashi surfaced, it was right next to Tenzo’s chakra signature. He expected a scowl and maybe some scolding. Instead, Tenzo looked revolted.

That seemed a bit harsh to Kakashi. He wasn’t that late!

“That kid with the dog dared the kid in orange to eat a burrowing moth,” reported Tenzo in faint tones of revulsion. “And he did. Now, they’re having a moth eating contest.”

Kakashi grimaced.

Peering through the long grass, he saw what was obviously an Inuzuka kid… and his sensei’s son. As he watched, the spitting image of Namikaze Minato – his beloved teacher, and a man so feared that flee on sight orders had been issued for him in all the major shinobi nations during the last war – popped a moth into his mouth.

“Man!” crowed sensei’s son. “Those are nasty!”

“Gonna give up and admit that you’re a loser?” demanded the Inuzuka with a toothy grin, as he chomped on another unfortunate moth.

“Never!” shouted Uzumaki Naruto. “You’re the loser, Kiba!”

Roughly, sensei’s son rustled the patch of reeds nearest him. A cloud of moths, all of them slowed by the cold, exploded from the grass. Several of the unfortunate insects were snatch out of the air by Minato-sensei’s son and the Inuzuka kid and eaten on the spot.

Kakashi was horrified.

That – That has to be Kushina, thought Kakashi, watching with revulsion as the boys chomped through the moths like they were Akimichi at a barbecue. Minato-sensei would never!

Well, not until the rations ran out, at least. And it would be after they had decimated the local rabbit, squirrel, and fish populations, obviously. Minato-sensei’s son had gone after the insects first thing.

Kids were disgusting.

Past those two idiots, the other four members of their six-man squad were setting up camp directly on the shores of the lake.

Big mistake, thought Kakashi, feeling darkly amused.

The mosquitoes weren’t the only blood suckers that lived on the lake. As a genin, Kakashi had found out the hard way that bloodworms lived in the mud and soil surrounding it. It was winter, but at the slightest hint of warmth, they would wake up, burrow up to the surface, and attach themselves to whatever warm-blooded idiot had loitered near their lake. And now, another generation was about to learn that invaluable lesson.

At least he wasn’t the learning tool this time.

“Come on,” murmured Kakashi. “Let’s see what the rest of the kids are up to.”

He didn’t want to patrol the academy’s training exercise – if word of his activities got back to Sandaime, it would only encourage the old man – but it was either that or watching Minato-sensei and Kushina-kun’s only child eat moths with the Inuzuka kid while their teammates worked industriously to set them up for blood loss and failure. When faced with such a choice, Kakashi chose the lesser evil.

Together, he and Tenzo did a sweep of the training ground. Near the end of it, they found Asuma and his partner crouched in a stunted tree near another little group of academy students. Asuma was watching the children with a sour expression.

Although assigned to a campground adjoining the lake, this group had decided to make their camp among the long grass rather than out in the open on the shores of the lake.

At Kakashi and Tenzo’s arrival, the pink-haired girl in the group briefly looked up from what she was doing. She glanced in their direction, her green eyes the brightest snippets of color among the dead grasses, and then returned her attention to her task. It was impossible – they were jounin, and she wasn’t even a genin yet – but Kakashi would have sworn that she had noticed their arrival.

Next to Kakashi, Tenzo tensed.

“What’s wrong?” Tenzo asked the other two, while scanning the area.

“Nothing,” said Asuma. His expression became sourer yet. “I’m just observing my genin squad.”

Blinking, Kakashi looked back at the six children. He wondered what Asuma saw when he looked at them. For himself, he saw five clan heirs and the dead weight that they would no doubt turn on the first time that something went wrong. He wouldn’t have passed that squad, he was certain.

“You found three that you like then?” asked Tenzo carefully… and maybe a little enviously. Tenzo was one jounin that would never be offered a squad of genin to lead and mold into the next generation.

Kakashi envied him that.

“No,” said Asuma. “But when spring rolls around, I’m pretty sure that I’m going to get assigned the Yamanaka, Akimichi, and Nara heirs anyway.”

Ah, well, yes. That made sense. That alliance had been making waves at Clan Council meetings, jounin meetings, and chuunin assemblies lately. Assigning their heirs to Sarutobi’s son would certainly be one way of strengthening the ties between those clans and both the Sarutobi clan and the Hokage’s office. It probably wouldn’t get Akimichi Choza to stop asking questions about the discrepancies that he thought he had detected in the village’s ledgers, however. Not even a well placed fire had done that, though.

And if it was a political matter, then Asuma probably wouldn’t be able to get out of it by failing them either.

Theoretically, a teacher only had to fail a genin candidate team once to escape it and all its members. In practice, things were less clear cut. These days, Kakashi had to reject a genin team twice to get free of them. None of those teams had been comprised solely of heirs though, but even if they had been, he probably could have gotten away with it.

Few clans in Konohagakure had either the sheer numbers of the Hyuuga clan or an alliance as strong as the one that lay between the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi clans, and thus few clans could kick up the same sorts of trouble over their heirs – or the kids placed on their heirs’ genin candidacy squads. Pitted against that was the might of the Hokage’s office, the interests of the Sarutobi clan, and all of Asuma’s father’s machinations as the Sandaime Hokage.

Asuma was caught between a rock and a hard place, and Kakashi didn’t envy him it. As a younger man, Asuma might have just failed the newest incarnation of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation for pure spite. Now, Kakashi wasn’t certain what he would do.

But Kakashi knew from experience that if Asuma failed that squad, no matter how deserving they were of that failure, he’d likely just find the same group of genin candidates standing before him during the next round of survival training at the end of the summer. He had just tested and failed those squads again and again and again until their parents or the Hokage had gotten the message, of course, but Asuma was made of softer stuff. He probably wouldn’t do that.

“They don’t look so bad,” opined Tenzo, and Asuma snorted.

“It’s the principle of the matter,” said Asuma in an undertone. “I would have preferred to choose for myself.”

Kakashi sympathized. He suspected that he would be having a similar conversation with the Hokage regarding the village’s last Uchiha and only Uzumaki soon enough.

Slanting a look the Uchiha’s way, he found the village’s lone Uchiha working with the Nara and Akimichi heirs to erect their shared tent. The teamwork between the three of them wasn’t great. The Nara and Akimichi, although comfortable with each other, were awkward around the Uchiha, who seemed either not to notice or not to care about their discomfort. Watching him with the other two, Kakashi didn’t see a passing mark in his future either.

Bored, Kakashi moved on, and Tenzo hurried to catch up. It was going to be a very long, incredibly annoying assignment.

At least I have Icha Icha, thought Kakashi, and felt no small amount of comfort.

He wasn’t looking forward to seeing what his sensei’s son was up to on his next sweep of the campgrounds, though. Brushing that thought aside, Kakashi kept going.




If there was one body in the world that Sakura knew as well as her own, it was Hatake Kakashi’s. He had been a shit sensei both times that she had been on his team, but for her he had been an exemplary (and sometimes extraordinarily brave) patient. Sakura knew his chakra signature nearly as well as her own.

More than that, though, she had expected someone to be along to check on them. Sakura had been trying to keep a subtle lookout, testing her skills as a ninja against whoever was watching over them.

And she had failed.

It was only because she had been looking for something, anything, out of the ordinary that Sakura had even sensed the whisper of Kakashi-sensei’s chakra signature as he arrived. And if he hadn’t been assigned as a chaperone to this camping practical, Sakura never would have noticed the other chakra signatures loitering in that tree, one of which she thought might belong to Captain Yamato.

At least they’re probably jounin, Sakura thought, trying to console herself. If they had been other pre-genin, she might have had to do something drastic. What, she still didn’t know, but it would have been drastic.

“S-Sakura-san?” stuttered Hinata, drawing Sakura attention back to her.

“Sorry,” said Sakura quickly, and went back to tapping their tent’s peg into the ground.

As far as training exercises went, camping out with a bunch of pre-genin in one of the training fields was really tame, but to Sakura’s surprise, it was also really fun. They were really fun.

That night, Sakura was smiling as she fell asleep in the girls’ tent.

Sakura dreamed about that last day in Konohagakure, about the way that the Hokage’s office had shook as Captain Yamato had called the pillars into place. There was the feel of Captain Yamato’s hand against her back as he shoved her out of the way, and then everything was on fire. Ninja – her comrades, people that she had known and treated and worked so hard to keep alive on missions – burned to death in the fires of the kyuubi no kitsune. This time, Captain Yamato was among them, a blue, shark-faced Akatsuki burning with him.

Dead, she thought as their screams filled her ears. The stench of burning flesh filled her lungs, making her sick and dizzy. He’s as good as dead.

Sakura wanted to save them more than she wanted her next breath, but Creation Rebirth was only for her, and then Itachi…

Sakura jolted upright, a scream still lodged in her throat.

It was only as the blind panic drained from her system, that Sakura realized where she was... and worse, when she was. Breathing heavily, her right arm still extended in a punch, Sakura tried to gather her wits.

There’s nothing I can do for any of them now, thought Sakura, as she slowly lowered her arm. It was shaking now; all of her was shaking.

She had forgotten how much sleeping could suck.

You’re getting soft, thought Sakura wryly.

“Mmmmm, Sakura?” croaked Ino, from her place to one side of Sakura. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” lied Sakura. Then, more truthfully, “It was just a bad dream.”

“M’kay,” sighed Ino. Rolling over, she went back to sleep.

Pushing herself to her knees, Sakura crawled for the tent’s flap. She grabbed her jacket, pulling it on before she undid the tent flap. Both Ino and Hinata sleepily complained about the cold as Sakura crawled outside.

Outside, the night was very dark, forcing Sakura to lace the tent’s flaps up tight by touch rather than sight.

It was a cold, crisp night, the stars bright and the pre-genin quiet. That wouldn’t last, Sakura knew. Some of the groups must have fallen for the trap that was the lake. Last time, her team had, and her screams had woken everyone.

In the meantime, Sakura zipped up her jacket, cycled her chakra faster, and enjoyed the quiet. She was far enough from the damn lake that Sakura judged it safe to sit down with her back to a tree, although to be safe, Sakura chose the one that the jounin had been huddled in earlier. To be extra safe, she also pulled up her hood to protect her head.

All of that done, Sakura tipped her head back to rest against the tree’s trunk as she watched the stars. But she must have enjoyed the quiet and the twinkling starlight a little too much, but she soon drifted off to sleep.

Sakura dreamed that she was in land of waterfalls, her bedroll between Captain Yamato’s and Sai’s. She was warm, and everything was okay.

Sakura jolted awake to the distant sound of screams.

It took her a moment to place herself – outside, training grounds, under a jounin’s uniform jacket – and then to relax again, as a second set of screams joined the first.

So, the bloodworms have finally struck, thought Sakura, darkly amused, or maybe the skin burrowing moths.

Her first instinct was to go and help those unfortunate pre-genin, but Sakura knew from prior experience that the teachers had brought medic nin from the Aburame clan to help with that. And parasitic insect life really wasn’t one of her areas of specialization. She knew just barely enough to get by. Really, it was better to leave things in the hands of the experts, none of whom were likely to want to puke at the sight of moths or their larvae burrowed into flesh.

Decision made, Sakura snuggled deeper under her loaned jacket. It was warm – someone had added the liner in anticipation of the night’s cold – and she was tired.

She was so very tired.

Taking a deep breath to stave off the worst of her tears – Sakura couldn’t believe that she was still such a crybaby – Sakura sucked in a lungful of the scent of green, growing things. In Konohagakure, it was hardly a unique scent, not like, say, wet dog, but after the nightmare and in Sakura’s current frame of mind, it cut like a knife. Burying her face in the jacket’s fabric, Sakura tried not to let her tears be known.

As a former crybaby, Sakura had a certain amount of experience at that.

And then… it was morning, the jacket was gone, and Ino was shaking her shoulder. For a third time, Sakura startled awake.

“What? What’s happening?” demanded Sakura, as she sat bolt upright.

“You’re lucky you didn’t get bloodworms, is what’s happening,” snapped Ino, although her expression was confused. “Sleeping outside and on the ground like that!”

“Those live on the lake,” said Sakura absently, as she stood. Her face felt tight from the remnants of last night’s tears, and she needed to wash it. “The skin burrowers were way more likely.”

“Ah ha!” crowed Ino. She stabbed a finger at Sakura’s face dramatically. “I knew there was a reason you were so dead set against sleeping on the lake! Someone told you! Who told you? My dad didn’t even warn me!”

At the same time, Shikamaru barked, “Skin burrowers?”

Choji and Hinata shuddered.

Sakura barely avoided smacking herself. She needed to be much more careful about what she said to these kids, especially when she was first waking up in the morning.

Weakly, Sakura said, “Surprise?”

Maybe this assignment was going to be trickier than she thought – if not for the reasons that the teachers had anticipated.




Sasuke, hordes of disgusting parasitic insect life, and a few nightmares couldn’t dim Sakura enjoyment of camping out with her littler friends. The days were fun, but the nights were difficult, and the mornings tricky. All in all, Sakura was as grateful as everyone else to return to school – and her snug little bed at home with its lovely mattress and wonderful sweet dreams seal.

Sakura hadn’t realized quite how many nightmares that seal had diverted her from having.

When they returned to school, Sakura purchased a new notebook in anticipation of Iruka-sensei’s debriefing. While he reviewed the students’ performance during their camping exercise, Sakura began work on a new project: The Long Distance Creation Rebirth Transmission Technique.

Her attempts to replicate Mokuton had entered the practical testing phase – at least for the time being – as had her blinding mist jutsu, so Sakura was free to devote all of her remaining class time to contemplating how to marry Tsunade’s Creation Rebirth Seal to Tsunade’s Long Distance Healing Technique.

The Creation Rebirth Seal was a technique in which the user traded a few months off the end of their life to survive the next few minutes. It immediately healed the body in its entirety and replenished its chakra supply, leaving the user ready to continue battling their opponent.

Tsunade had invented the Creation Rebirth Seal so that she would never again lose someone because she wasn’t strong enough – or physically well enough – to heal someone else. She had gifted it to the hospital then made its mastery a requirement to attaining the rank of combat medic. The Creation Rebirth Seal was the reason that in Konohagakure’s entire history, there had only been two combat medics. Three, if Itachi hadn’t killed Sakura when he had.

When Sakura had invented her Strength of One Hundred Seal to close the gap between herself and her overpowered (if absent) teammates, Tsunade had immediately seen its potential use to a field or combat medic nin. Within a fortnight, Tsunade had begun work on her Long Distance Healing Technique, a jutsu in which a slug summoner joined with Katsuya to use Katsuya’s many divisions to transmit her medical jutsu to injured shinobi all across the battlefield. With it, a skilled midic nin could heal entire divisions – maybe even an entire village – in a matter of minutes.

There had to be a way to transmit the power – and the cost – of her Creation Rebirth Seal to a dying comrade. And if that was possible, then perhaps in the event of a catastrophy – say, large numbers of people being stomped on by a demonic chakra construct fashioned by a former teammate turned rampaging jinchuriki – she could transmit it to many other Leaf shinobi on a battlefield.

Theoretically, at least, it should be possible.

The power stored within her Creation Rebirth Seal was such that, if Sakura ever had to use it on herself, it would even refill the well of chakra stored in her Strength of One Hundred Seal. Surely, she could harness that power, her bond with Katsuya – assuming that she still had a bond with the Eternal Slug – and possibly some portion of the power stored in her Strength of One Hundred Seal to use Tsunade’s Long Distance Healing Technique to bring many other people back from the brink of death.

Thinking about it, Sakura was fairly certain that she had all the pieces that she needed to achieve her ends; she just needed to figure out how they should all fit together. That was going to be the wonderfully tricky part.

Sakura had learned to love a challenge.

While her teacher reviewed and critiqued everyone’s performance on the field exercise, Sakura began work on her answer to Tsunade’s improvement on her seal.

Sakura was so engrossed in improving on seals and techniques that her master had already improved on, that she didn’t even pretend to listen to the academy’s instructors. She couldn’t wait to see how Tsunade answered this!

“Someday, Iruka-sensei’s gonna kill you,” predicted Ino at lunch.

“Huh? Why?”

“Because you aren’t even pretending to listen any more!” exploded Ino.

“Oh. Yeah. Is it that obvious?”

“Yes,” said Shikamaru, and Sakura blinked. He actually sat behind her – like, five rows behind her.

She really hadn’t been subtle then. Sakura hated to admit it, even to herself, but maybe Kurenai-sensei was right about her: maybe she wasn’t really a genjutsu type, not yet.

“Pretend to sleep,” advised Shikamaru. “They take that better.”

Sakura snorted. They really wouldn’t have taken that better from her. She was no Nara, after all.

“If you keep screwing off in class, your class ranking will slip, Sakura,” predicted Ino darkly.

“That wouldn’t be the worst thing,” opined Shikamaru. “First doesn’t really mean anything anyway.”

It was a testament to their security as clan nin that it didn’t occur to any of them to say ‘If you don’t pay attention in class, you’ll never pass the exit exam!’

It wasn’t wartime. If Sakura had failed the exit exam, even once, her career as a ninja would likely have been over.

As a first generation ninja without a clan name or the weight of hundreds of years of careful breeding behind her, Sakura never would have been allowed to take the final exam three times, much less been allowed to fail it three times in a row and still make genin.

Clan nin – even clan nin who had lost their entire clan, all their family’s jutsu, and all the lore that went along with them – had advantages that they weren’t even aware of.

“Yes it does!” snapped Ino. “You’d better start paying attention again, Sakura! I’m not going to win Rookie of the Year just because my stupid rival gave up!”

Sakura blinked.

The first time around, she had hung on the teachers’ every word. It wasn’t like she could get the information that they were imparting anywhere else, after all. She didn’t have a ninja clan to fall back on, not like Ino, Shikamaru, or Choji.

Now, Sakura was the top mark in every class at the academy, but she hadn’t thought how her extreme disinterest in pretending to be interested in general info would look to anyone else.

Do any of the teachers think that I’ve given up too? Sakura wondered, and then she nearly grinned – an unpleasant grin, she was sure. It wouldn’t have even fooled Sai.

She hoped that they did. Sakura wanted her eventual victory – and high score – to be as painful as possible for them. It would be sweeter if they were wrong in every single possible way that they could be wrong about her.

But as for her best rival…Sakura didn’t want to worry Ino.

“No one’s given up, Ino,” said Sakura. Soothingly, she hoped. “I just had an idea for a jutsu while we were camping.”

“You’ve been screwing off all year!”

“Well, I’ve had a lot of ideas for jutsu,” said Sakura.

“Wow!” said Choji around a mouthful of food.

“What kind of jutsu?” inquired Shikamaru without looking up from his lunch.

“Like your training pills?” asked Ino, who was apparently willing to be diverted.

“What training pills?” asked Choji, and Sakura listened, amused, as Ino officiously explained the matter to him.

That’s really amazing!” said Choji when Ino was done.

“I’d wondered where and how you were getting your outside training,” said Shikamaru. At Sakura and Ino’s looks, he shrugged and added “It was the only explanation for her sudden improvement. Who are you training with Sakura?”

“Some chuunin,” said Sakura. “I don’t think you’d know them. They aren’t any of your cousins.”

“Better watch out that they don’t take your pills and steal your formulas,” said Shikamaru practically, and Sakura grinned.

The Uchiha weren’t the only ones who stole from their comrades. Everyone else was just more subtle about it.

Tsunade and Shizune had once said the same thing to Sakura, and then helped her to figure out how to obscure her pill’s working ingredients from the detection of inquiring minds. Nothing was entirely uncrackable, but figuring out the working ingredients – and how they interacted with each other – would have required an exorteric body of knowledge, including a working understanding of basic senjutsu as it applied to and interacted with both herb lore and high level medical jutsu.

Frankly, Sakura suspected that if anyone was going to steal her pill’s secrets, it was the Nara or Yamanaka clans. They had a lot of medic nin in their ranks, some devoted to treatment, others to research. And the Nara loved their trees as much as the Yamanaka loved their flowers. It wasn’t impossible that some of their medics knew something about senjutsu or how it related to other bodies of knowledge.

It was to Sakura’s benefit that, historically, the Aburame and Hyuuga had little to do with the Nara clan or its allies. And Shimon was the last scion of a small, relatively new clan of low-rank ninja. Old clans like the Nara, Yamanaka, and Akimichi would have little interest in a ninja like him. If she hadn’t been best friends with Ino since forever, they wouldn’t have had any interest in Sakura herself either.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” promised Sakura, aware of the irony of the situation, and Shikamaru nodded.

“So what kind of jutsu are you working on?” demanded Ino.

“Medical jutsu,” said Sakura, and watched with amusement as all three of her younger friends lost interest. “I’ve got to build on what I’ve got,” added Sakura mildly.

“Of course, you do,” agreed Ino bracingly. “Lately, I’ve been thinking about joining the medical corps too. Dad says it could come in handy when I settle on my specialization.”

Sakura nodded knowingly. The older Ino had often found her medical specialization useful in her work with T&I.

“I’ve been thinking about it too,” admitted Shikamaru, surprising Sakura. He sighed. “But it seems like a lot of work.”

He hadn’t become a medic nin the first time around. As far as Sakura knew, he hadn’t even thought about it. Or maybe he had, but he hadn’t felt close enough with Sakura to share that with her.

“What about you, Choji?” asked Sakura, turning on the third member of the Ino-Shika-Cho formation. “Are you thinking about becoming a medic nin too?”

“Me?” squeaked Choji, his eyes huge. “Do you think that I could? I’m not very good in our paper classes.”

“Sure, you could!” said Sakura, surprised. “They don’t really teach anything useful to a medic nin here. So even if you aren’t very good at these subjects, you might be really good at the hospital’s classes. Given your family’s techniques, I think that you’d probably be really good at medical jutsu.”

Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji all stiffened.

“What do you know about his family’s jutsu?” demanded Ino sharply.

“Nothing,” said Sakura, raising her hands between them. “But I’m a good enough medic nin to know bodily augmentations and yang chakra manipulations when I see them.”

Ino and Shikamaru’s eyes narrowed, and Choji was still looking at her the same way that a rabbit might regard a snake, so Sakura rolled her eyes. Dramatically, she hoped.

“Any sufficiently skilled medic nin who has ever given it half a minute’s thought has probably already guessed it too. They’re just too polite to say anything about it directly to any of you.”

“Maybe,” said Shikamaru noncommittally, and Sakura knew that all three of them were going to go home and ask their parents about it. Well, let them. It was true enough. It just took a master medic nin to guess it, an accreditation that Sakura had been working towards when she had died.

She had possessed the necessary skill at chakra manipulation, and she had already proven her mastery at medical sealing with her Strength of One Hundred Seal. Sakura had been working on developing her signature poison as proof of her mastery of that area of medical jutsu when Itachi had killed her.

Sakura still had dreams about it sometimes, a poison potent enough to kill tailed gods – or at least their jinchuriki. Surprisingly, it had been proving to be gentle enough to spare civilians. The idea for it had come to her after the incidents with Naruto at the Kanabi Bridge.

Ino wasn’t the only one who wanted a word with her though. At the end of that day’s classes, Iruka-sensei barked, “Haruno, stay after class!”

“Yes, sensei,” said Sakura blandly.

For her general inattention in class, Sakura was assigned the tasks of washing the blackboards, clapping the erasers, cleaning the windows, and mopping the floor, all of it to be done under Iruka-senei’s eagle eye. And she had to do it for the rest of the week. Iruka-sensei said that he had wanted to punish her longer, but they only had that much time left before the break between terms.

It was more one-on-one attention than she had gotten from the man during her entire original tenure at the shinobi academy.

Sakura was three days into her punishment with two to go when Tokuma came through the classroom’s doors. She was so surprised to see him there that her blackboard washing rhythm faltered, and Iruka-sensei tossed a dirty eraser at her.

“Back to work, Haruno,” he snapped. “Mind your own business!”

Sakura hadn’t even known that Tokuma was back yet from the jounin exams.

From the corner of her eyes, she watched as Iruka-sensei stood. Together, he and Tokuma went out into the hallway. Through the window in the door, Sakura watched as the two men briefly spoke. Then Tokuma left, and Iruka-sensei returned to glare at her.

Sakura couldn’t ask Iruka-sensei what that was all about, but she could certainly ask Tokuma. As soon as Iruka-sensei had the grace to declare her punishment over, Sakura was out of there. She didn’t even bother using the door, hopping from the window to the tree that she had spent so many hours studying.

Iruka-sensei’s shouts ringing in her ears, Sakura scrambled down the tree, barely remembering not to use chakra to just run down it.

He was probably going to punish her for leaving that way. Whatever, at least she would know if Tokuma had passed. And what Tokuma’s business with him had been. That would probably make it worthwhile.

Sasuke was waiting for her at the gates, as had become his habit. Ignoring him, Sakura ran past Sasuke and let him tag along as she looked for Tokuma.

It was at times like this that Sakura wished that she had put tracking seals on more than just Sasuke. Sure, she could find Sasuke anywhere in or around Konohagakure, but she couldn’t find Tokuma anywhere. He wasn’t at any of the training grounds that he or his old teammates favored nor was he at that restaurant that they had taken Sakura to that one time. Shimon and Muta often worked wall duty, but neither was there that day, so Sakura couldn’t ask either of them if they had seen Tokuma.

Frustrated, Sakura gave up.

Never mind, thought Sakura. He can’t hide from me forever.

That actually made her feel marginally better.

Giving up for the time being, Sakura turned around and ran back the way that she had come.

The academy was closed for the day and locked up besides, but Sakura hopped the fence. If they didn’t mean for her to use the facilities, then they would have gotten around to locking them up better.

Sakura did some conditioning then got down to work on her taijutsu. She was practicing her most basic forms – Sakura liked to start at the beginning, whenever possible – when Sasuke stepped into one of her punches, moving to block it with his forearm.

And Sakura let him.

If he was there training with her, then he wasn’t out being kidnapped or murdered by someone else. She would know exactly where he was and what she was doing to him. That made the shard of Itachi at the back of her brain happy. And with the mood that she was in, training with a partner, even if it was with a snotty pre-genin, was probably better than training alone.

Sakura let Sasuke spar with her.

But she definitely wasn’t going to be making a habit out of this.

Sakura didn’t have time for power-hungry traitors.




“Last day of school!” crowed Choji. “I can’t wait for it to be over!”

“Finally,” sighed Shikamaru.

“Until next term,” added Ino primly. Just to make the boys groan, Sakura suspected.

“What’s everyone going to be doing over the break?” asked Choji.

“Training with my dad probably,” said Ino happily.

“Me too,” said Shikamaru, and he looked pleased.

“Me three,” said Choji. Beaming, he said through another handful of chips “I’ve got to bulk up!”

All three of them looked at Sakura, who smiled.

“Babysitting. And playing ninja with my cousins!” said Sakura, and then laughed when the other three’s expressions faltered. “Don’t be like that! It’ll be fun!”

“Forehead, we’re almost through the academy! You shouldn’t be playing ninja anymore!”

“Well, they enjoy it. And when we play, my cousins let me try out my new seals on them,” said Sakura, reasonably she thought.

The other three looked appalled.

Sakura laughed again. “They really don’t mind.”

Ino, Shikamaru, and Choji’s expressions all said that they didn’t believe it.

It was true as far as it went.

Sakura had a date to babysit for Minako that night. Tomrrow, she was going to dig Itachi’s compulsion out. And after she recovered, ninja with her cousins.

Originally, Sakura had meant to do her first round of body modifications during this break, but Itachi’s unreasoning desire to murder the ever living shit out of Naruto every time that she set eyes on him had changed her priorities around a bit.

It hadn’t been so hard that week, mostly because Naruto hadn’t been at school. Apparently, he and Kiba had eaten several of those burrowing moths. They had spent Iruka-sensei’s entire recap in the hospital.

But next term, there would be no escaping Naruto, Sakura was sure. The way she remembered twelve, every time that she had turned around, there was Naruto doing or saying something embarrassing. If she still had that sliver of Itachi at the back of her brain when he started in with that, Sakura would kill him.

It forced Sakura to switch things up a bit on her schedule: save Naruto’s life now, retake a lost part of herself later.

Sakura sighed.

Being a good comrade was sometimes a lot harder than people gave her credit for.

Sakura was musing on that – and what she would do if she was unlucky enough to get reassigned to Team Kakashi. She could always fail his Survuval Training Exam and see who she got assigned as teammates on her next shake – when she arrived at Minako’s place. As usual for her lately, Sakura had brought with her her notes, her pot, and her seed.

It was Norio who answered the door that night. As always, he was a delight.

“Why did you bring that here?” demanded Norio. He eyed Sakura’s barren pot like she was trying to enter his house with a live viper in tow.

“Because I wanted to?” offered Sakura, uncertain what he expected.

“No ninja techniques under my roof! Or near my children!”

Behind him, Minako made an apologetic face.

“Of course not,” lied Sakura with one of her bright, shiny smiles. Like so many people, Norio bought it.

Satisfied, he swaggered past Sakura, leaving it to Minako to tell Sakura that the children were upstairs in their playpen. Minako had a few other instructions then, with a brief press of Sakura’s hand, she left with her husband.

Sakura couldn’t figure out what Minako bothered to have date night with that guy. If it were her, she’d want to spend as little time with him as possible. Of course, if it were her, she wouldn’t have married Norio in the first place.

Upstairs, Sakura played with the boys, fed them, played a bit more, and then got them ready for bed. When they were down in their cribs, Sakura went downstairs to work on her jutsu.

She had pages and pages of ratios that didn’t work, but she was close. Sakura was sure of it.

She had crossed three more formulas off the list and had just started with a fourth, when one of the boys began to fuss.

Sighing, Sakura went upstairs to see what the problem was. Whatever it was, both boys were very, very angry about it. In fact, they were fractious most of the night, leaving Sakura only a couple of hours in which to tinker with her seed and her jutsu.

It wasn’t a good start to her school break.

Never mind, thought Sakura. Tomorrow will be better.

It would have to be. Otherwise, she’d end up accidentally lobomizing herself.

The part of her brain that Itachi had attacked was not the same part of her brain that regulated her chakra flow. They were all super close together though, and they both relied on her memories to effect their changes. Sakura wasn’t going to tamper with those, though. She was just going to dig out the false bits that Itachi had inserted.

Well, her kage bunshin was.

Gods above, but she hated that jutsu!

And yet, the next morning, after her parents had gone downstairs to work, Sakura forced herself to make the hand seals for it.

As long as she was quick, this would work.

As long as nothing went wrong, she would be fine.

But how often does that happen to members of Team Seven? Sakura thought despairingly, as her clone poofed into being beside her.

Nevertheless, she was committed. This was the only way to avoid really killing Naruto.

Lying back on her bed, Sakura began the process of putting herself under.

“Don’t worry,” said her clone. “Everything is going to be fine.”

The very last thing that Sakura saw was her clone smiling down at her.

What pretty liars we are.

Chapter Text

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.