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a girl in the forest of moss and bone

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It is the day after what remains of the Konoha Eleven returns after the Chuunin Exams when Tsunade summons her.

Sakura had been given two days off to recuperate and had planned on spending them scrubbing the sand out of her hair but shishou wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important. So she tips the genin messenger, dresses quickly, leaves a note for her parents who are both out on missions, and bolts.

When she arrives at the Hokage Tower, she smooths a hand over her wayward hair before stepping inside. She lets the secretary know she has been asked for, ducks her head politely, and begins to trek up the stairs. 

She can only feel two chakra signatures in Tsunade’s office, and the second one belongs to Shizune. She hovers, curious about what the two of them want to speak to her about. Her training with the Konoha Eleven hasn’t been interfering too much with her training with them or her work at the hospital. It could be a two man mission, just her and Shizune. Or maybe they require her input on something? But what would the two of them want her expertise on? Kakashi-sensei’s reading habits? Naruto’s favorite flavor of ramen?

“You can come in, Sakura,” her shishou calls, and Sakura berates herself for not announcing her presence. It’s impolite to sneak up on ally shinobi. 

“Good morning, shishou, good morning Shizune-senpai,” she says after closing the door behind her. 

“Good morning, Sakura,” Shizune says. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

Sakura ducks her head shyly, but she’s beaming underneath her bangs. “Thank you, senpai. I couldn’t have done it without you two." 

“Your success,” Tsunade intones, “is the result of your hard work. You got that flak jacket all on your own.”

She looks at her hokage, at her teacher. There is something fond and proud in her pale brown eyes. Having that gaze on her makes Sakura puff up a bit. She made the Godaime proud. She made the Godaime proud!

“Which is why I’ve called you here today.”

Tsunade beckons Sakura to come closer, and the newly minted chuunin approaches the thick red desk. On it, is a teal and white scroll, bound tightly with silver tassels.

“This,” Tsunade says, “is a summoning scroll for the slugs of Shikkotsu Forest.”

Sakura blinks up at her shishou, then to Shizune.

“After your performance at the exams, I think you’re more than ready to make your contract.”

“Tsunade-shishou, I -,”

Tsunade holds one finger up and Sakura closes her mouth around her thanks.

“I think you’re ready, but the slugs have the final decision.”

Sakura furrows her brow, looks again between Tsunade and Shizune.  

“They decide?”

“The slugs of Shikkotsu Forest are very particular,” Tsunade says, gently tapping a finger against the smooth wood of her desk. “They are prone to rejecting many who seek their wisdom. They turned me down the first time I requested to contract with them.”

Sakura bites the inside of her cheek and asks, “Why are they so 'particular', shishou?”

Tsunade arches a brow that says, ‘I know something you don’t know’ and says, “Complicated family history.”

Sakura, who has dealt with Kakashi being cryptic about what he likes on his toast is entirely unfazed.

“It makes them wary of outsiders,” Tsunade continues. “Not to mention Katsuyu’s Great Slug Division is a powerful healing technique, but has subterfuge applications that make it incredibly dangerous.”

That – that makes sense. There were lots of innocuous summons, ones that could slip in and out of villages, buildings, homes, without being noticed. But people killed snakes on sight, and an ugly toad was enough to make anyone screech, broom raised to shuffle the thing out of doors. Hawks and most messenger birds were already in heavy rotation with the hidden villages. The Hatake and Inuzuka ninken were so heavily associated with Konoha that even regular dogs got passing glances if they strayed too close to the training grounds.

But the slug summons? Slimy as they were, from what Sakura had seen of Katsuyu, slug summons were much faster than their normal counterparts. If her summoner was strong enough, Katsuyu could plant herself nearly everywhere in a hidden village to gain intel.

“If one of the slugs in Shikkotsu Forest is capable of such power, who knows what the others are also capable of.”

“Only the summoners,” Sakura answers, nodding. “But aren’t you the only one?”

Tsunade sniffs haughtily and suddenly Sakura regrets asking. 

“If the slugs of Shikkotsu are so selective in choosing who summons them, then why are you one of their chosen few, shishou?”

Sakura very narrowly dodges two pens and a thick tome on the history of Konoha’s merchant clans. Shizune finds all of this hilarious. Sakura tries not to.

“Because, brat,” her shishou says, “I passed their test.”

Sakura does her best not to deflate. She can handle high standards. She can handle lofty expectations. But another test? She knows she’s been slotted as a paper ninja for the greater half of her career, but come on she just got back from taking a test.

“They rarely deny anyone who passes the test their contract,” Shizune adds helpfully, hiding her laughter behind her hand.

“If you meet their expectations,” Tsunade adds, “you’re in.” 

“So what exactly,” Sakura asks, dreading the question on her lips, “is the test?”

Tsunade grins wickedly and shakes her head. “Can’t tell you.”

Sakura narrows her eyes. “Can’t tell me or won’t, shishou?” 

She catches the wooden ochoko cup before it can deviate her septum.

“Your reflexes are getting better by the day,” Tsunade muses. “Can’t and won’t.”

Sakura places the sake up back on the desk, fingers lingering on the red wood.

“I’m not forbidden to tell you, but I have been encouraged not to,” Tsunade explains. “It’s been a long time since I was tested in Shikkotsu. The slugs may have changed the test by now. Or it may be the same. But everyone must go into the test blind.”

Sakura stifles a snort. She went into the Chuunin Exams blind twice, and she made it out alive both times. But a sacred space like a sage region was a world away from the Forest of Death or even the Great Dunes of Suna.

“I’ve talked this over with Katsuyu, and they think you’re ready to try.”

Sakura’s gaze snaps back to Tsunade.

“Katsuyu-sama? They – really?”

“I’ve been reporting much of your progress to them. I still think you should wait another year to contract, but Katsuyu is of the opinion that they know better.”

Sakura’s stomach flips. Katsuyu? Katsuyu, themself, really? She thinks that she, that Sakura - ? It’s one thing for shishou and senpai and her yearmates and their senseis and even Moegi to believe in her ability. It’s another thing entirely for a summons as old and powerful as Katsuyu to see something like potential in her.

“When can I do it?” she asks, putting both hands on the desk, just barely closing in on the teal and white scroll.

Tsunade arches one blonde brow, places one hand on the scroll, and slides it out of Sakura’s reach.

“A week’s time at least,” Tsunade says.

“But shishou, I - ,”

“No buts,” Tsunade repeats. She draws the scroll into her hand, silver tassels rocking delicately against each other. “You’re a fresh chuunin and you’re still hopped up on that victory. Not to mention you only just returned home.”

Tsunade opens her green jacket and slides the scroll neatly inside a pocket before crossing her arms across her chest. 

“Contracting with a summons is a lifetime commitment, Sakura.” Sakura does her best not to pout. If the look on Tsunade’s face is any indication, she fails miserably.

She chuckles at her, then reaches out and squeezes Sakura's forearm.

“Go back home. Spend some time with your family. Really decide if this is what you want to do.”

Sakura hums in acquiescence and rubs at her arm. Something in Tsunade softens. She pats the pocket in her jacket where the scroll is and gives Sakura a winning smile.

“You’ll be on half your usual hospital rotations starting the day after tomorrow. Keep up your training with Shizune and your year mates, but stay away from me.” Tsunade points an accusing finger at her. “I don’t want any questions about the forest or the slugs or their test, understand?”

Sakura nods, valiantly resisting the urge to roll her eyes and says, “Yes, shishou, I understand.”

“Good. Dismissed.”

 Sakura clicks her heels and bows before she heads for the door. Before she can put her hand on the doorknob, Tsunade’s voice stops her.

“Really think about this, Sakura. Don’t say you want this because it’s being offered to you. Any summons would be lucky to have you contract with them.”

She turns her head over her shoulder. The softness hasn’t bled out of Tsunade, but she’s using her kage voice, the one that demands to be listened to, revered, and followed.

“If at the end of the week, your answer is yes, report to my office at zero three hundred hours packed for a mission lasting upwards of two months.” 

“If not,” Tsunade says, waving a hand at her, “send a note and work the graveyard shift instead.”


 

Sakura leaves the Hokage Tower vaguely lightheaded.

Shishou thinks she’s ready to form a summoning contract. Shizune does too. Katsuyu-sama wants to contract with her. It hardly hits her that if she says no she’ll have to work the fight-ANBU-into-accepting-medical-treatment shift. She’s – She’s been formally asked to contract by the Slug Princess to her slugs.

Sakura throws both fists in the air and screeches with delight in the middle of the street. It won’t be the strangest thing the civilians see a shinobi do that day.

She doesn’t know who she’s going to tell first. Her parents? Ino? Team Eight, Team Gai? She wants to take herself to the nearest stall and buy umeboshi for everyone in the house. She wants to leap ninety meters straight in the air and howl, she’s so happy.

Sakura had to ask the Godaime to teach her. Had to ask Kurenai to take her on. Ino only asked her to work with Team Ten during the Chuunin Exams because they were a man short. And maybe Tenten asked her to train with Team Gai on genjutsu but that was an open invitation.

The point, is that Sakura is not used to being asked for. Requested. Sought after. Acknowledged. Looked at.

She’s been overlooked and denigrated and underestimated since she first entered the academy. And while the schoolyard bullies dropped off one by one, Sakura’s self esteem is still cradled in layer and layer of doubt and suspicion of anyone who looks at her like she’s worth something.

But this, this proves it, doesn’t it? Proves that someone sees her. Not someone who she’s asked to look at her, but someone who asked about her. Tsunade-shishou said that Katsuyu wanted to know about Sakura’s progress. That means, maybe even from the start of her apprenticeship, Katsuyu had an eye on Sakura to inherit the Slug Princess’s summoning contract.

The tears are welling up hot and bright on her cheeks before she can stop them. Sakura wipes them away vigorously and smiles, watery and hiccupping and proud. If someone as important as Katsuyu sees her, asks after her, and thinks she matters, it must be true. She must be good. She must be worth something.

She is.

Sakura’s second ‘Shannaro’ of the morning is the loudest one yet. 


She doesn’t tell anyone except for her parents and even then she only tells them the next day. Kizashi arrived in the early morning from a brief bodyguard mission, and Mebuki was expected back from reconnaissance later that day. Both of them had been absent when Sakura returned from the exams, had left after her and left notes that told her when they could expect her to be back and where they were going. 

Sakura is nearly boiling over with excitement. When her father steps in the house, her eyes snap open and she's barreling down the stairs before she can stop herself. He doesn't get the chance to say, "I'm home" before Sakura is shouting, "I made chuunin!"

Kizashi is where she gets her excitability so her father hollers his congratulations loud enough for the neighbors to hear. He's already planning a celebratory meal but Sakura is still bouncing, still has more to tell. The words 'summoning contract' leave her mouth and Kizashi sweeps his daughter into a hug that drags her off her feet and knocks several photographs and three potted plants onto the floor.

They’re still cleaning up when Mebuki arrives home, but before she can finish saying, “I’m ho – what on earth have you two done to my living room - ?” Sakura explodes with the news. Mebuki’s shriek is second only to her daughter’s.

Kizashi fires up the grill to make yakitori to celebrate and Mebuki lets Sakura (who, by the way, is a legal adult) have mochi ice cream before lunch.

“Do you think you’ll be paid for going on a mission that long, even though it's not for the village?” Mebuki asks as she sets plates down on the kitchen table.

Sakura presses her lips together in a thin line before sheepishly responding, “I didn’t ask.”

Mebuki clucks her tongue and takes a swipe at her daughter, one Sakura lets connect because it always leads to her mother drawing her into her side and kissing her temple.

“Well ask!” her mother says, nuzzling the side of Sakura’s head. Mebuki sighs and puts her hand on her daughter’s shoulder, lightly squeezing. “I know this is a wonderful thing, sweetheart, really I do. But I wish you didn’t have to go so soon.” 

Sakura looks up at her mother. Mebuki smiles and pats her daughter’s head. It suddenly occurs to Sakura that she is only a couple of centimeters shorter than her mother. When on earth did that happen?

“I don’t have to do it, mama, Tsunade-shishou was just offering telling me -,”

“Hush,” Mebuki says. “Listen to your mother complain. I’ve only just come back from a mission and you’ve only been home a day from the exams.”

Mebuki folds her daughter into a hug and Sakura has to hold the chopsticks in one hand as she wraps her arms around her mother’s back.

“You’ll do the right thing either way, Sakura, I know you will,” she says. “And either way, we’ll enjoy this week we have together, won’t we?”

Sakura sniffles into her mother’s white blouse, still smelling of sweat and earth and travel.

“Yes, mama, we will.”


 The clan kids don’t have jobs. They don’t need them. Ino works in her family’s flower shop because it’s the best place to collect gossip for her inner-village spy network. Kiba occasionally helps Hana at the clinic because he needs to know basic care for Akamaru. They more or less get to decide when they have to come in, because their families put their training first.

Tenten and Sakura are the only two civilian born shinobi among them who work day jobs. Sakura doesn’t have to because her parents both bring in enough money from missions to support the three of them, but Tenten is an orphan and has to supplement her mission stipends with a steady job.

After Sakura initially started training with Team Gai, having lunch every couple of days when her shifts matched up with Tenten’s became an easy habit. The weapons expert worked in a weapons shop, primarily as a stock girl but she was the only one Old Man Ken let take care of the antique weapons. Tenten had her eye on taking over the shop when Ken retired, but her dreams of being a legendary kunoichi kept her flittering between the mission desk with her team and her whetstones at the shop.

Ken is kind enough to give Tenten an extra day off for making chuunin, so she and Sakura head towards their favorite okonmiyaki stand. Tenten orders hers with shrimp and green onion while Sakura loads hers with pork belly and extra cabbage.

“Headed out again so soon?” Tenten asks from behind her hand, mouth full and chewing. “That’s a pretty quick turnaround.”

Sakura shrugs. “For peace time, I guess.”

“But you’ll be gone two months! You were just gone for two weeks!”

“Godaime’s orders.”

Tenten hums in agreement and takes another bite of her okonmiyaki. She swallows before speaking this time. She has green onion in her teeth.

“So what will you be doing? Are you allowed to talk about it?”

Sakura very pointedly sucks at her teeth. Tenten doesn’t get it.

“It’s kind of like a test shishou wants me to take.”

She sucks her teeth again, so hard she ends up making herself cough. Tenten flags down a waiter and asks for a pitcher of water.

“A test? You just took a test.”

“That’s what I said.”

Sakura makes eye contact with Tenten before reaching up and rubbing at her teeth. Tenten’s brows furrow. She takes another bite of her okonmiyaki. Sakura throws her hands up in defeat and keeps eating.

“So what kind of test is it then?”

The waiter returns with their water, and Sakura takes a delicate sip to wash the taste of cabbage down.

“It’s to see if I’m ready to have a summoning contract.”

Tenten chokes on her own water.

Sakura pounds her back three times before Tenten grabs her by the wrist and coughs herself back to breathing.

“Godaime strength, Sakura, godaime strength,” she wheezes.

“Sorry,” Sakura says with a wince.

Tenten takes another slower sip of her water before wiping her mouth and looking back at Sakura.

“You need to go on a month long mission for that?”

Sakura rubs her feet together beneath the table, suddenly feeling awkward. “Guess so.”

“Huh,” Tenten says, “those slugs must be picky.”

Sakura nods, feeling a little warm at the chest to be reminded. She was chosen. She was asked for.

“Well, if you do head out,” Tenten says, “there’ll be a party for you when you get back.”

Sakura flushes a little, “That won’t be necessary, Tenten, really -,”

“And if you take the graveyard shift,” Tenten interrupts, “we’ll have a party then, too. You know we don’t need a reason to celebrate.”

Sakura laughs around her own food but chokes on her joy when Tenten asks, “So are you penpals with that Suna boy, or what?”


 She doesn’t get much time to tell anyone else about her potential mission for the next two days. Even half shifts at the hospital eat up her time.

The nurses welcome her back to the hospital with noisemakers and a little cake in the break room to celebrate her promotion. Sakura hugs Azami, her supervisor for organizing it all.

She has a mouthful of cake when she’s called out to treat an academy student with second degree burns around her face from a katon experiment gone wrong. She’s a sweet kid named Tohru who looks at Sakura like she hung the moon when she hands the girl a popsicle after her healing is complete.

Despite Sakura not really having the time to tell anyone, the news travels. Tenten is no gossip and neither are her parents, but there’s always a genin somewhere with a big mouth and news in Konoha only gets through the Mother’s Brigade and T&I before it can get to Ino.

Sakura is in the library brushing up on her knowledge of the pituitary gland before a quiz Shizune has scheduled for the following day when Shikamaru raises his head.

He’s not often found in the library, primarily because he’s the oldest chuunin out of them all and gets called out on more missions. But the moment he realized it would be the last place anyone looked for the Konoha Eleven’s lazy genius, he took up shop. They don’t often sit near each other, still not as close as they are with the rest of their year mates, but sometimes Shikamaru has a pencil sharpener when her lead breaks and sometimes Sakura has the ear plugs that Tenten definitely did not give for Gai-sensei's monologues on youth during their morning laps.

 Sakura is mumbling about hormones under her breath when Shikamaru groans, disrupting the easy silence of the library. She resists the urge to shush him. Sometimes he groans in his sleep, and sometimes he groans just for the sake of it. He never does it to distract her.

 “Watch your six,” is all he can say before Ino barrels into Sakura’s blind spot, one arm hooked around Sakura’s throat in a chokehold she knows won’t hold her if she fights it, but makes her instincts itch all the same.

 “Sakura-chan,” Ino whispers, and Sakura gulps because when was the last time Ino called her by her name? Much less with an honorofic.

 “Ino-pig?”

 “We have so much to talk about! Why don’t we get out of here and do some talking?”

 Sakura decides then and there that if Ino (when Ino) takes over Torture and Interrogation, she is going to do her very best to never, absolutely ever end up a missing nin for any reason whatsoever.

 Ino drags her out of the library, through the village streets, to the greenhouse beyond the Yamanaka Flower Shop. It’s heady and warm inside, and Sakura’s nose is filled to the brim with the smell of earth.

 Ino busies herself with a ficus, spraying it gently with water.

 “You’re headed out pretty soon after your promotion.”

 Sakura nods. “I am.”

 “It’s not - ,” Sakura can feel more than she can see Ino’s hand clench around the spray bottle. “It’s not another retrieval, is it? For Sasuke?”

 The question floors Sakura. A second Sasuke retrieval mission?

 “Now that you’re chuunin, you could go and find Naruto. Then the two of you with the Pervy Sage could go and find, Sasuke. Bring him back, right?”

 “What? Ino, - ,”

 “Because if that is what this mission is,” Ino says, straightening her back. She’s beginning to over water the ficus. “If it is, then I’m not letting you go.”

 Sakura’s shoulders drop. “Ino-pig –“

 “There are plenty of chuunin now,” the blonde says, whirling around. There are no tears in her eyes; Sakura was always the crybaby between the two of them.

 “Any of us could go. I could go. But you –,” she says, pointing at Sakura with the spray bottle, “you shouldn’t.”

 Sakura’s mouth feels incredibly dry.

 “I don’t know how you feel about him anymore, Sakura, but I hate him. I hate him.”

 Ino’s eyes are glassy but the venom in her voice, the early roiling of killing intent that makes her stand ramrod straight is enough to surprise Sakura.

 “Anyone, anyone who could do what he did to the people that loved him,” she says, “that wanted him to be safe, that wanted to help him? Anyone who could do what he did to Chouji, to Shikamaru – “

The tears are a moment away from spilling hot and wet over Ino’s cheeks, and Sakura is reaching out, pushing the water bottle down, reaching to bring her friend into a hug and assure her she’d never accept a mission like that (when Sakura isn’t even sure if she’d be able to take a mission like that).

Ino shakes her off like her hands are wet leaves.

 “Anyone who can do that to the people who want to help him can burn.

 “Ino, Ino-chan, I’m not – I’m not going on another retrieval mission.”

 Ino narrows her eyes. She puts down the water bottle and reaches out her hand. “You swear?”

 Sakura takes her oldest friend’s hand without hestitation.

 “I swear.”

 Ino sniffles a little bit and nods. She takes her hand back to herself, wipes her clammy palms on her skirt and asks, “Then where the hell are you going, Forehead?”

 Ino takes the real news like a spoonful of honey.

 “Well that’s fine,” she says, pruning a rosebush, calm as can be. Sakura is winded and once again thanks her lucky stars that she and Ino will probably never have to fight as anything other than allies.

 “Especially,” Ino purrs “if it means I get to snatch Tsunade-sama away from you.”

 Sakura blinks. “What?”

 Ino scoffs, flipping her ponytail over her shoulder. Sakura lets it whap her in the chin. The single piece of hair that somehow ends up in her mouth, she picks up with her fingernails and plasters on Ino’s back where her midriff is exposed. It makes the girl shriek and round on her with the pruning shears.

 Sakura puts up her hands in defeat.

 “You didn’t really think I’d let you surpass me, did you Billboard Brow?” she asks. “We may be friends, but we’re still rivals. And slug summons or not, I’m going to wipe the floor with your ass come the Jounin Exams.”

 Sakura, who has most assuredly not been thinking that far ahead in the future only says, “Whatever you say, Ino-pig.”


 Once Ino knows the whole truth, she allows it to spread to the rest of the Konoha Eleven. Sakura fights a migraine after Lee and Gai’s combined congratulations and wonders why she’s friends with Ino in the first place.

 Kiba is equally as rowdy with his congratulations, but he’s infinitely more thoughtful. They are cooling off after a four way spar between herself and Team Eight, each of them suitably exhausted. They are sprawled, jacketless, shoeless, down to bare skin and bras, chests rising and falling as they catch their wayward breath.

 Akamaru is sprawled over the place where Kiba and Sakura’s arms almost touch, and he lays his little head on Sakura’s sweat soaked ribcage, whuffing to cool himself off.

 “Godaime-sama is right to make you wait a while, Sakura,” Kiba says after a while.

 Sakura turns her head, brows furrowed.

 “Akamaru and me, we’ve been together as long as I cam remember,” he explains. “But my ma tells me story about her and Kuromaru from the last war that make even Hana shake.”

Akamaru grumbles his agreement. Sakura scratches him behind the ear in sympathy.

 “What I mean is,” Kiba starts, then lifts himself to shake the sweat off of his forehead. Sakura shuts her eyes before any of the salt can sting them.

 “What I mean is that it’s a big commitment. Like, really big. The Inuzuka dogs are different than actual summons, but they’re all partners, you know? All summons, all ninken, they're partners.”

 Sakura opens her eyes to Kiba peering down at her. Akamaru lifts his head, yipping in agreement.

 “Your blood binds you. Really binds you. You can feel each other’s pain. If those lines get too crossed, it’s hard to come back.”

 Akamaru whines and Sakura is abruptly reminded of Kiba’s father. Kiba’s father who had gone rabid after the death of his own ninken. Who Tsume Inuzuka had to run away from the family to keep them safe from his madness.

 Sakura gulps. Then she reaches out and wraps her fingers lightly around Kiba’s wrist. He isn't looking at her, but the rigid line of his back speaks where he falters.

 “I’ll remember.”


Sakura doesn’t actually decide she’s going to the forest until the sixth day. Which also happens to be the first time she’s seen Kakashi-sensei since Naruto left the village.

It is not as happy a reunion as one would expect.

Sakura is doing rounds. Not graveyard rounds, regular rounds. Azami is by her side, rattling a list of patient care chores (“They’re not chores, Sakura-chan, it’s your job.”) that they have left to do for the day until Sakura can spend the next half of her shift shadowing in the pediatrics unit. Sakura, who has seen one live birth in her two year apprenticeship, is incredibly excited to shadow her first C-section. She would be there already if shinobi had as much survival instinct at home as they did in the field.

Sakura, because she is a practical, reasonable person, has never understood why certain shinobi will avoid the hospital at all costs. Her training tells her it’s a psychological thing, that shinobi see the hospital as the place that puts them off active duty and not on, and that there are too many Third War veterans to whom hospitals mean death sentences and nothing else.

But Sakura and her generation are peace time babies, some born orphans and some to single parent homes, but all born to the generation that shook off the last dredges of the war and said ‘Enough’.

So she is spoiled by Kurenai’s insistence on chaperoning her genin to the hospital and bright eyed academy students who sit still under Iruka’s watchful gaze as Sakura takes their blood pressure.

“All lacerations have been healed. You’re just making sure there’s no lasting damage and that the blunt force trauma he received isn’t having any undue effects post healing,” Azami says.

 Sakura furrows her brows, wondering who exactly is taking missions that involve multiple lacerations and blunt force trauma.

“He’s in room thirty-two. You’re running diagnostics and taking notes, so I’ll go get us some drinks while you take care of this, yeah?”

 Sakura nods, taking the clipboard from Azami when she offers it.

“Green tea, right?” the older woman asks.

“Ah, I’ll have an aloe vera water. They should still cost the same. I’ll spot you if they don’t.”

Azami snorts and ruffles the hair around Sakura’s hitai-ate.

 “Save your new chuunin money for something special, Sakura. A couple of coins won’t put me out.”

 “Thanks, senpai.”

 Azami groans at that. “I’m your senpai for now. Soon you’ll be teaching me, slug sage!”

 With that Azami gives her a thumbs up and heads off to the break room. Sakura’s eyes narrow as she reads over the chart. This patient’s history of major injuries spans a thirty year career of hospital dodging, medic avoidance, and sheer dumb luck. The number of times he has had to be restrained to his hospital bed is outnumbered only by the number of times he has escaped said hospital restraints.

Sakura is just about to flip to the first page to find the name of her patient from hell when a familiar voice calls out her name.

 “Ah, Sakura-chan.”

Kakashi-sensei is laid up in the hospital bed in room thirty-two. He is in his standard uniform, but his shirt is a short sleeved turtleneck and a surgical mask covers his mouth. Sakura is – perplexed.

 “Kakashi-sensei,” she says. “hello.”

 Kakashi cocks his head. “No hug? Is that any way to treat your poor genin sensei? After all he’s been through?”

Sakura swallows around the lump in her throat and enters Kakashi’s room.

 “Considering the extent of your injuries,” she says, trying to steer the conversation back to the professional, “hugging probably isn’t a good idea at the moment.”

 Sakura walks into the room, and sets the clipboard into the cubby at the base of her teacher’s (former teacher’s, he’s not her sensei anymore, is he? Is he?) bed.

 “I’m going to need you to take off your flak jacket and shirt so I can make sure your injuries are healing properly, Hatake-san.”

 The formal name feels like oil on her tongue. Kakashi only raises a brow at her new attitude.

 “Mou,” he says, “I don’t think I can undress in front of my cute little student. I’m old enough to be your father, Sakura-chan.”

 “And I,” Sakura says firmly, “am the medic assigned to your check up. I can turn around if you wish, but the shirt needs to come off. Please. Hatake-san.”

His attempt at a joke only grates hard on her suddenly frazzled nerves. This of all the places, was not where she wanted to see Kakashi-sensei. The hospital. A place he has to go if he wants to stay on the mission roster. He couldn’t have sought her out before this? Said hello? Dropped a bag of chips at her window? She and Naruto both know Kakashi used to leave food in his apartment. If his communication skills are that bad the least he could do was try in a way he understood.

But he hadn’t.

And to be fair, Sakura hadn’t either. Her training with shishou and her work at the hospital took up most of her time. It wasn’t an incredible struggle to fit in training with the rest of the Konoha Eleven. Their senseis actually seemed to care about how Sakura was progressing. Sometimes Kurenai would leave a genjutsu theory or a horror novel for her at the front desk of the library. When she’d pass them by in the park, Asuma would invite her to play a round of shogi against him or Shikamaru. And Gai definitely noticed when Sakura was absent from his team’s early morning laps around the village.

And if all those other jounin could see that she was a kid just trying to do her best, and could give her a helping hand or even a nudge in the right direction, then why couldn’t the man who was getting paid to do it do the same?

 It wasn’t Sakura’s job to seek Kakashi out. He was responsible for overseeing her education, not the other way around. He wouldn’t have gotten drafted back into ANBU unless he did nothing to add new members onto Team Seven. He wouldn’t have gone back into black ops unless he wanted to.

 No matter what his reasons, he let Sakura down on purpose. And she was still angry about it.

 She washes her hands and slaps on a fresh pair of pale blue gloves. When Kakashi finishes moving behind her, she turns sharply on her heel but stays in his line of sight until she is behind him. It’s a bad idea to hop into any shinobi’s blind spot, even in a hospital, unless they know that’s where you’re headed.

 “Any lasting pain, swelling, or discomfort?” she asks, pressing her hands onto Kakashi’s back and running the diagnostic. Her chakra pools in her palms and eases across Kakashi’s tenketsu. His muscles spasm involuntarily at her intrusion, but he bites down on the reflex like the war dog he is.

 “None.”

“Any issues raising your arms high above your head?” she asks, sliding her palms towards his middle, where a scythe (or a blade like it) almost tore a clean piece out of his abdomen.

“None.”

“Hm,” she says, snapping off one glove and picking up the clipboard so she can take notes. “And your head? No trouble seeing? Chakra enhanced healing around the head can cause headaches, fatigue, nausea, and mild hallucinations. Are you experiencing anything like that, Hatake-san?”

“No.”

Sakura hums, snaps her glove back on and says, “I’m going to put my hands on your scalp near the laceration there, Hatake-san. Are you ready?“

He says nothing.

“I need a verbal confirmation that you know I will be touching your head and neck, Hatake-san. Do you understand what I am about to do? A simple yes or no is fine.”

He is silent. Sakura grinds her teeth.

It's common knowledge that anything from the shoulders down is fair game in a check-up. Most shinobi get skittish around old scars because of psychological associations with wounds, but as a young medic without enough flack in the hospital, Sakura has been drilled from day one; Don't touch a shinobi's neck without permission, don't touch a shinobi's head without permission, stay in their line of sight until they stop looking at you if you must work behind them. Too many medics had been mangled by a jittery shinobi's instinct for the rules not to be put in place. 

She needs a verbal confirmation. She needs it or she can't finish the exam. Just grabbing the head and risking getting impaled on a Chidori isn't even remotely worth it. Maybe one day when she's as fast as shishou or can spit mild paralytic airborne poisons like Shizune. But Sakura is fourteen and a decent genjutsu specialist who doesn't have the element of surprise. She has to get the answer. 

“Hatake-san, your check up won’t be complete until I make sure there is no excess medical chakra attached to the wound in your head. Excess foreign chakra in the brain can cause hallucinations, hemorrhaging, tumor like growths, and permanent brain damage. Do you understand that I need to run this diagnostic?”

Quiet. Nothing but the sound of his breathing, tapered and low and Sakura’s heartbeat pounding indignant and angry in her ears. How dare he. How dare he. She’s only trying to help him. She’s doing her job, which is more than he can ever say he did for her.

It’s disrespectful. He’s being blatantly disrespectful. Nevermind that he’s an awful patient. Nevermind he has a history of being unhelpful with medics. She was on his genin him. She was on the first genin team he ever had that passed the bell test. That had to mean something, didn’t it? Didn’t it? The time that Team Seven had, it had to mean something to Kakashi, didn’t it? Even though he dissolved the team without giving her a reason. Even though he disappeared from her life when he never did as much to Naruto or to Sasuke. Even though he spent all his time making sure the two of them would be shinobi of renown while she waited in the background to impress a passerby with her tree climbing.

Sakura’s eyes suddenly feel hot and puffy but she can’t cry in front of Kakashi. Not like this. Not anymore. He doesn’t deserve it. She cares and cares and she still cares and he doesn’t deserve any of it.

Sasuke had abandoned her love, called her annoying and left her out in the cold where anyone could have found her. Naruto left with a sannin, chasing a pipe dream, swearing to bring Sasuke back for her. Kakashi was the only one of them who left her without a word.

She’s a moment away from snapping off her gloves and leaving him to Azami when her old sensei takes a labored breath in through his nose and out through his mouth.

“Yes, Sakura,” he finally says.

The low rasp in his voice is enough to quiet the summer storm that has been raging inside of her. His shoulders don’t slump, but something in his voice sounds like the way Kiba looks when he’s scolded, Akamaru snuffling at his side.

 “Are you ready for me to run the diagnostic on your head, Hatake-san?”

“I am.”

She places the tips of her fingers on his pterion, following the path of the puffy wound back onto his parietal bone. Head injuries were always tricky, especially when healing them with medical chakra. The body wants to heal itself, and accepts encouragement, but not a complete take over. Head wounds have been known to completely reject the Mystic Palm Technique when they’re severe enough.

She probes as tenderly as she can, looking for any trace of chakra that doesn’t make her mouth taste like ozone.

 When she’s satisfied, Sakura breathes out and steps back. She snaps her gloves off and tosses them in the wastebin before she scribbles down notes about the laceration. When she’s finished, she faces Kakashi with a hesitant smile on her face.

“Alright, Hatake-san. You should be good to go. You’ll have to have another appointment with a specialist before Godaime-sama sends you out on another mission, but I have no doubt she’ll look you over herself before you go.”

 “That’s all?”

 Sakura blanches. “Uh, yes, Hatake-san, that’s all.”

 “Hm.”

 Sakura turns her back politely as he begins to dress himself.

 “Do you have any questions for me? I can direct you to a specialist now if you want a more in depth assessment of your injury - ,”

 “No, Sakura-chan, you’ve done plenty.”

Sakura turns around and bows her head lightly. “I’ll be going then.”

Before she can take a step, he hits her with, “Congratulations on making chuunin.”

She swallows hard. Forces a smile. Doesn’t say, ‘No thanks to you’.

“Thank you, Hatake-san.”

“You remind me,” he muses, “of an old teammate from my genin days.”

How nice, Inner croons, bitterness and resentment making her voice obnoxious in Sakura’s mind. He cares about someone you remind him of.

“She was a talented medic as well. A front line medic,” he says. He is looking just over her shoulder when he says. “She died in the war.”

Sakura’s lips feel very chapped. She wants to run. She wonders where Azami is, and how long it takes to get an aloe vera water.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” she says instead, inclining her head.

“You’re stronger than her,” he continues, still sitting, hands folded loosely in his lap. “Much stronger now. And advancing every day under Tsunade-sama. So I’m not worried about you any more.”

Did he ever worry in the first place?

“But please, Sakura-chan,” he says, “please don’t grow up to hate your poor genin sensei.”

Her heart leaps into her throat. This isn’t fair, this isn’t fair, this isn’t fair.

“I’m not sure his old heart coud take it.”

He sees her he sees her it’s not you he cares about her whoever she was but she’s dead and you’re the replacement he’s begging a ghost for sympathy

She is trembling. Trembling like a branch in the wind.

“I,” she says raggedly, “am not the reincarnation of a girl you lost in the war, Kakashi.”

She spits his name like it hurts her to say it. He’s focused on her now, much more than he was before, surprised at her tone.

Sakura is not prone to anger. Fits of pique maybe. She’s been known to throw a tantrum every once in a while. When she knocks Kiba through a tree for calling her ‘pinky’, it’s not because she’s mad. If she were mad, she would have knocked him into a boulder.

Sakura’s rage is blotchy faced and ugly. Hideous on a fourteen year old girl with edges of baby fat still holding onto her cheeks. It makes something in Kakashi feel hollow.

“You chose to leave me behind and I,” she spits, “I made the choice to keep moving forward, without you because you made me.”

Her voice is low, almost too quiet to hear but there is spittle coming off every word, a heaving breath to support every line, and a pair of sharp green eyes that root her former sensei to the spot until she is ready to let him go.

“I am Haruno Sakura. Not your genin teammate. I am the student you decided to abandon.”

When she cries, the tears are so hot they feel like they’ll scald her cheeks. She doesn’t bother wiping them away. Let him see what he’s done. Let him hurt the way he’s hurt her.

“I don’t - ,” she hiccups, “I don’t hate you. But we? We aren’t friends.”

She wipes her arm underneath her nose to catch the snot. Runs an errant hand through her hair.

“Maybe we can be. One day. But you,” she says, pointing at the man who used to make her tremble with fear, “you have to earn it. Because I’m not letting you waste my time any more.”

“Sakura-san, sorry about the wait. Would you believe I had to kick the vending machine three times to get my coffee out? I nearly went bug eyed and started looking for the damn things tenketsu - ,”

Azami’s voice trills from just outside the room, and quiets until she is silent when she enters. Sakura looks up at her senpai, sniffles around her clogged nose and says, “I’m all finished here, senpai.”

She moves to the door. Makes it. Turns around. Looks at her old genin sensei one more time.

“Take care, Hatake-san.”


 Sakura spends the morning of her seventh day with Neji. She doesn’t do it on purpose.

Neji always prefaces his training with his team with a deep meditation. Oftentimes, he does this on the Hyūga Clan estate. Other times, he does it on top of the Hokage Monument, where the rising sun can warm his face as he settles himself for the day.

It was Asuma that taught Sakura how to meditate, but Neji is who she practices with. His presence beside her is rarely as grating as Ino, who is prone to fidgeting or Lee who has very little patience for sitting still. He and Hinata are good partners to work with, now that they’ve begun to settle around each other. The Hyūga Cool, as Kiba calls it, looks good on the both of them.

But this morning, Sakura rises at four to beat the sunrise. She warms up, slides on a pair of loose black pants and a dark green tank top, a light gray jacket thrown over for the cool morning breezes.

She jogs to the monument, takes the scenic route that starts at the westernmost end of the civilian district and winds around smatterings of trees before inclining slowly to meet the village wall.

It is still early spring and the flowers haven’t finished their blooming. If her journey to Shikkotsu Forest takes as long as Tsunade anticipates, Sakura won’t be back until early summer at best. She’ll miss a couple of festivals, and a couple of birthdays, too. The thought makes her lag a little bit, until she is standing alone on top of the village perimeter.

The grey night is a shroud. The cooks of the civilian district have begun to rise, opening their shops to start prep work. Her mother’s father was a merchant who dealt in cloth, but his mother was the seamstress who ran the business some of her cousins participated in today. Her great-grandfather was one of the best cooks in Flower Country. Mama said she still got letters from people who swore up and down his takoyaki was the best side of Mist.

The stars haven’t started winking out yet, though the streetlights have just begun to flicker on. Shinobi never sleep, and Sakura can see them, can feel them flickering in and out of the village, stumbling into or out of bed, kissing their children hello or goodbye.

Tomorrow is the eighth day. She will met Tsunade in her office at three in the morning. She already has her bags packed. Tenten is a monster when it comes to augmenting storage scrolls. Her clothes are packed. Her medical supplies are packed, and then packed again in case something breaks or she loses something. She has enough ration bars, jerky, dehydrated fruit, and journey bread to feed Chouji for a week an a half, which rounds out to about two and three quarter months for anyone outside the Akimichi. She has close toed and open toed shoes packed in case of weather, with an obscene number of socks her mother had strong armed her into packing. Tucked safely inside the scroll containing her clothes is the katsumori Moegi had given her for the Chuunin Exams and a picture of the Konoha Eleven in their stiff new flak jackets after the exam.

She breathes in the night air and wonders if she’s ready. She’s just about packed for war. She doesn’t know what to expect. Shizune never had any interest in contracting with the slugs, so she’s only as helpful as she can be. True to her word, she hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her shishou since the offer was put on the table.

Logically, she knows that Katsuyu can divide herself and spit acid. It’s about all she has to go on. She hadn’t packed any more weapons than she’d need on a courier mission for fear of disrespecting the slugs, but wonders if part of their test will be something offense based.

Her breath comes out in puffs of air that she can see. The days aren’t too hot yet, still touched with February’s cool. It hadn’t snowed over much this year, but the winter chill held on stubbornly into March.

 Her jog had picked up into a steady run until her eye catches Neji already seated on the Sandaime’s head. She waves in the distance, and even without using his Byakugan, Sakura’s sure he can see her. Regardless of her muted wardrobe, she does still have pink hair.

She catches up to him in only a few more minutes, breath moving easy through her lungs. It was strange to think that only a handful of years ago, only running a half circuit of the village could wind her. Since Tsunade, since Teams Eight and Ten and Gai, Sakura hardly breaks a sweat.

“Good morning, Neji-san,” she calls when she finally approaches.

“Good morning, Sakura-san.”

She stretches out her arms and her legs before she slips into lotus beside Neji. He’s already shifted his breathing, and Sakura only needs to listen to him to find her way.

The silence is somewhat reassuring. The varying encouragements, bits of advice, and pep talks she had faced the past week had surprised her and made her a little uncomfortable. She had gone from people paying a reasonable amount of attention to her, to people paying (what she sees as) an unreasonable amount of attention on her.

But Neji was quiet as he ever was. Steady as he ever was.

At first, Sakura had been concerned that she had replaced one emotionally closed off dark haired boy for another. She had told herself, rather firmly, that she wasn’t interested, and that she was working with Team Gai in a purely professional context. Nothing more. After a couple of days, she started to believe it. And then she really did believe it.

Gai’s team was nonsense at first glance. A fuinjutsu user with a massive weapons specialization, a taijutsu user incapable of moulding chakra, and a Hyūga. But there was a reason they were the number ones for the Chuunin Exam the year Sakura took it the first time. They were good. They understood each other, knew how to work around each other. Where one was weak, another supplemented with a strength. Where one was brash, another two were calm. Where two were stubborn, a third was loose. They were, by all means, what Sakura now thought Team Seven could have been.

But that was in the past. Maybe some day Team Seven might form again. Naruto couldn’t leave the village forever; he was on an indefinite mission until Jiraiya decided he was ready to return. But he’d be back one of these days. And Kakashi – Sakura had left that door open for a reason. But she wasn’t going to work for it if he wasn’t.

 A wet leaf plasters itself to the center of Sakura’s forehead. She doesn’t flinch. She focuses her chakra and holds it there until the heat of her body, the heat of her life energy warms it to dryness. And then, then she lets it go.

They sit like that for hours until dawn rears its yellow head. As soon as Sakura feels the world warm itself awake around her, something in the pit of her gut loosens.

“Neji-san,” she says, voice raspy from disuse. She hasn’t spoken since she woke up that morning.

“Hm?”

“Every day,” she says, slowly opening her eyes. “Every day that I’m gone, I’m going to meditate facing west so you can turn around and see me when the sun rises.”

She hears Neji turn his face towards her, but doesn’t spare him a glance. The village is rising below her, and Sakura wants to remember every sound.

“And every once in a while,” she murmurs, “will you use your Byakugan and look for me?”

A flimsy request. A childish wish. She is still prone to them. She thinks that if she ever loses enough humor to ask for silly things, maybe that will be the day she retires from active duty.

“I will.”

She turns her head to look at him. The intensity of his gaze would be enough to pin her to her spot if she wasn’t already still. He looks soft in the early morning light. Pale lavender eyes reflect the barest bit of moonlight still hovering in the air, and only bandages cover his forehead, his cursed seal. His hitai-ate rests on his kunai pouch beside him.

“You promise?”

“You have my word,” he says, all quiet sincerity, “as a shinobi of the Hidden Leaf.”

Sakura offers him her hand to shake on it. He takes it slowly, as if he thinks she is testing him. She holds his forearm and gives it a firm squeeze. He squeezes back.

“Thank you,” she says.

He doesn’t let go of her arm.

“Tell my parents,” she says. “Tell my parents if you see me.”

Neji nods. “I will.”

For the first time in her life, the beautiful boy is not the one leaving Sakura behind. This time, she gets to leave him.

It sucks.


Sakura spends the rest of the day at home, letting her parents fret over her. Her mother had insistently helped her pack the day before regardless of what choice she made while Kizashi threw her old stuffed toys into her packs while she wasn’t paying attention.

She does, for sentiments sake, let the cactus plush that Kiba got her for her birthday occupy a little space in her pack. It’s round instead of long, with a bright purple flower on its head and a smile on its face. When she focuses the chakra around her nose to enhance her sense of smell, the plush is a breath of cool desert nights and food too spicy for her mouth to handle. It’s big enough to be a decent pillow, which is the only reason (but definitely not the only reason) Mebuki pretends not to see her husband toss it in with Sakura’s things.

Her family spends her last night in Konoha playing card games, shouting at each other when her father gets caught cheating and booing just as loudly when her mother gets away with it. Sakura eats until she is full, and then she eats some more, if only to taste her father’s cooking before she can’t for two months.

It’ll be the longest she’s ever been away from home at a stretch.

She wonders how Naruto (doesn’t think of Sasuke, stubbornly, stubbornly doesn’t think of how Sasuke) did it, how he left everyone he knew behind for something beyond the cradle of Konoha’s walls. She doesn’t know how she’s going to do it. It’s one thing to go to Suna or Mist or Taki or Hot Springs country, but a sage region is not quite the same as a different village. She may be the only human being there. The only living human being. It’s frightening.

No, Inner writhes, it’s exciting.

Mebuki insists that Sakura’s in bed by eight pm so she can get a decent REM cycle in before she has to wake up. Sakura’s jitters aren’t inclined to agree.

She tosses and turns, wakes up and checks her pack, paces, and checks her packs again. She adds a comb and a bar of combination shampoo/conditioner and rereads the instruction on her recently purchased spile in case the only fresh water in the forest comes from trees.

She checks to see if she has enough matches, double checks the weight of her sleeping bag, and runs her hands through the basic academy katon that is sure to get a decent campfire going.

“Haruno Sakura!” Mebuki calls from down the hall. “Put your butt back in that bed!”

She puts her butt back in the bed. She focuses on her breathing, sticks her tongue on the ridge behind her front teeth, breathes, holds, releases. Breathes, holds, releases. She’s out in another five minutes and she rises one hour before she’s due at the tower.

She brushes her teeth, washes her face, and combs her hair. She sits on the floor in front of the mirror in her bedroom, and braids her bangs back onto either side of her head, picking up more hair until she pins both braids firmly at the back of her head. She breathes in slowly. Shakes her head. None of her hair moves. She adds ten bobby pins to her pack.

She pulls on a light pair of black cargos that are laden with pockets. Then, a long sleeved reinforced mesh shirt and on top of that, a black sleeveless turtleneck, then her chuunin flak jacket on top of that. She checks her pack for tampons. Then pads. Then that kind of double reinforced underwear her mother got her two birthdays ago that she rarely wears, the seven pack whose packaging boasts an ability to hold up to four quarts of blood. She pats that pack of underwear twice, just in case. Then she makes sure she has a couple of bars of detergent. Stuffs in one pair of fingerless black gloves, two pairs of plain, and one pair of full fingered armor plated gloves.

Her red banded hitai-ate. She picks it up from her bedside table, and rubs her fingers over the deep grooves of the leaf insignia. She breathes out of her mouth and takes a second to marvel at how far she’s come. Sakura looks at herself in the mirror, and shrugs of her flak jacket. With steady hands, she rips the red cloth off her hitai-ate. Beneath her red cloth is a black band that allows it to be moved from band to band as they wear down. She sits on her legs, and carefully sews the black band onto the front of her flak jacket. There won’t be any time to tie her hair back, no need for a pretty headband to keep her hair out of her eyes. She’ll braid it back from now on, for as long as she has to.

She mends the red ribbon as best as she can, then wraps it tightly around her left arm. Sakura puts on her sandals, and stands.

Lifts on her pack. Adjusts her pouches on her hips. Makes sure her tanto is secure at her lower back. Breathes in. She can do this. Breathes out. She can do this.

Her parents are awake. Kizashi stares Sakura down until she eats the entire omlette he puts in front of her. It was not thin by any means. It was stuffed with vegetables and meat and cheese and when Sakura shies away from the handmaid parfait her mother prepares for her, Mebuki whacks the side of her head as lovingly as she can.

They see her off with a group hug and a flurry of kisses all over her face.

“I’ll be back soon,” she says lightly.

Kizashi smiles broadly at her, and Mebuki claps her hands.

“Come back soon,” Kizashi says.

“Come back soon, sweetheart,” Mebuki murmurs.

She's off. 

She walks slowly. She memorized as much as she could the day before, but today she runs her fingers along the walls of the building, flicks the hangings of the food stalls. She taps paper lanterns, unable to keep her hands to herself.

Her walk feels much too short.

Sakura passes by the early morning secretary who waves her through. She knocks on the door of Tsunade’s office, and enters when she is beckoned inside.

Katsuyu’s summoning scroll is the only thing on Tsunade’s desk. The godaime is standing in front of it, dry fingers tracing the kanji of her own name.

“Are you ready, Sakura-chan?” Shizune says.

Her voice makes her jump, but she’s quick to recover.

“Y-yes, senpai, I’m ready.”

Shizune smiles and gives the pack on her back a pat. “You look like you should be set for five months, not two.”

The dark haired woman gives her a wink and says, “That’s probably for the best.”

“Sakura,” Tsunade barks. Sakura jumps a second time.

“You’ll be put down for a solo B rank, lasting an expected duration of one month as your earliest return, three months as your latest. You'll be compensated as such.”

“Yes, shishou.”

She tilts her head over her shoulder and gives Sakura a leveling gaze.

“You won’t be leaving through the village gates, but you can still leave a note to someone who might’ve missed your leaving.”

She waves a dismissive hand at the clipboard in Shizune’s hands, at which Shizune hands it over to Sakura. She purses her lips; she’s only ever left notes for her parents, but she hasn’t gotten enough missions to make a big habit out of it. Besides, everyone she knows already knows where she’s going.

A flush creeps up her neck; shishou hadn’t told her she wasn’t supposed to tell anyone, hadn’t told her that her mission was top secret. But she just said it was put down at a B rank with a max length of three months. It’s the most intense mission she’s taken since the Wave fiasco. And it's her first solo mission. Sure Sakura’s done plenty of D ranks by herself during her apprenticeship with shishou. There were a couple of courier missions with mismatched genin teams with chuunin squad leaders. Sakura was not exempt from Tsunade’s attempts at bolstering the village after Orochimaru’s attack and Sasuke’s defection.

But this is a push. A good push.

Sakura writes her note.

“Stand beside me, Sakura.”

Tsunade holds a flat stiletto knife in her hand and hands it to Sakura. She takes it gingerly, still watching Tsunade’s face.

“You’ll nick the tip of each finger on your right hand, then the fingers on your left, then, like mine, you see? You’ll form a circle with your fingerprints.”

Sakura looks over Tsunade’s shoulder to see where Tsunade had signed her name so many years ago.

“Form the seals. Watch me, Sakura. Boar, dog, monkey, bird, ram. Repeat it. Let me watch you.”

She forms the seals once, then twice, then three times until Tsunade grunts her approval.

“Press both of your hands down, so all of your blood touches the scroll at the same time.”

“When do I sign my name, Tsunade-shishou?” Sakura nearly whispers.

She can feel the strength of Tsunade’s bond with the slugs, pulsing slowly, can feel the strength of Shikkotsu Forest brushing against Sakura’s chakra like a friend she hadn’t met yet. It moved curiously, familiarly, probing the same way medical chakra moved.

“You sign your name if the slugs send you back.”

Sakura blanches. 

“If?”

Tsunade nods once, a little smile on her face. The smile cracks then falls. She places her hands on Sakura’s shoulders and turns the new chuunin to face her.

“You don’t just bind yourself to the slugs, Sakura. They bind themselves to you. The relationship has to be mutual,” Tsunade says. “You must accept each other. Remember that.”

Sakura tucks herself into a hug before her shishou can stop her. Tsunade sighs and thumps her twice on the back.

“Come on, brat, you’re wasting daylight,” she says. “The slugs are only half as patient as I am.”

Sakura smiles before she turns back to the sealing scroll. She holds Tsunade’s stiletto carefully, and nicks her fingers. The pricks are small, the same size she does when she helps new diabetics learn how to take their own sugar. Then, she squeezes a drop of blood out of each fingertip, letting it well over prints.

She looks over her shoulder at Tsunade and Shizune. She smiles.

“See you soon, Tsunade-shishou, Shizune-senpai.”

"Come back soon, Sakura."

"Come back soon."

She forms the seals. Boar. Dog. Monkey. Bird. Ram. Carefully, she presses her bloody fingers onto the parchment in front of her, once white but now greyed with age.

She breathes.

“Kuchiyose no Jutsu.”

Something grabs her by the navel and pulls.

Chapter Text

 

Naruto,

I don’t know if you’ll get back before I do, but it’s been two years so maybe you’ll be home soon.

I’m going to the Shikkotsu Forest to pursue a contract with Katsuyu-sama and the slugs. Jiraiya-san will know where I’m talking about. Ask him about it, if you haven’t already been to Mount Myōboku. I’ll be back in three months at the most. So if I’m not here when you get home, don’t head out again without me!

I miss you. Hope to see you soon.

I’ll be back soon.

Love,

Sakura


 

 She's falling. Fast. 

Her face is to the sky, so she swings herself around, spreads out her arms to slow herself down. 

Shikkotsu Forest is horrifying from this high above. There are massive skeletons littering the forest and jutting out of the canopy; something like a ribcage and the skull of an animal that has no place in the natural world she is from. There is a single mountain that juts sharply into the sky, higher than any of the bones and above the lush greenery that covers the forest. She figures if there's anywhere she should go first, it's probably there.

She turns her head around to clock where the sun is in relation to the mountain. It was early morning when she left Konoha, the sun hadn't even risen yet. She doesn't know if east and west are the same things in a sage region as they are outside, but she's only got skills learned in Konoha to go off of. East will have to be east and west will have to be west. 

Sakura looks around, scans for the nearest ribcage. There are several bones jutting out of the moss canopy, she just has to pick one. She closes her arms at her sides and presses her legs together, and dives hard. She summons chakra to her hands and feet when she gets close enough, and grabs onto the nearest white bone. She's sliding down, not losing any of her speed, so she increases the chakra coating her hands and feet, digs her fingernails into the bone beneath them and hopes she can slow down before she hits the ground and shatters every bone in her own body. 

She bursts down through the canopy, leaving a skylight that illuminates her way down. The forest is just as spooky as she would have guessed when she was falling through the air. The bones are connected to spines whose vertebrae create hills and valleys below her. There are no clear signs of life, but that doesn't mean that something isn't hiding and waiting to eat her. As she descends, she notices huge paths, much too large to have been made by any one human, or even a group of many. 

"Katsuyu-sama," she breathes. The slug is huge. From what Naruto told her, back when he was part of the mission to bring Tsunade to the village, Katsuyu was easily the size of the largest building in Konoha. 

There are paths that are larger still, and Sakura wonders just how big the slugs of Shikkotsu Forest can become. 

She slows down before she touches ground, and she's grateful for it. She steps off of the bone she's used to take her into the forest and onto the forest floor. She immediately slips and lands on her ass. 

There is slime, everywhere. 

It is then that she realizes, that the only reason she fell so fast after she broke through the canopy was because there was slime on the rib she propelled down. She wipes her hands on her pants and valiantly does not gag. She's trained with Aburame Shino and his kikaichū. She can handle this. Probably. 

She pats down her pockets for her compass. When she was falling, that huge mountain looked like it was maybe forty kilometers from where she landed. Seeing something from the sky is much different from seeing it on the ground, but she's got nothing else to go on. She decides to walk at least halfway before night falls. 

When she gets her compass out of her pocket, Sakura quickly discovers that it is completely useless. The needle is spinning madly, first clockwise then counter then back again. She flicks at it with her fingernail. It doesn't help. 

"Figures," she murmurs to herself. 

She sticks the compass back in her pocket. She's a shinobi. She doesn't need a compass to figure out which way west is. The sun was lower in the sky when she was falling, which means it's not yet noon. Where the sun is now is in the east. She looks up at the skylight she made by accident and smiles in confirmation; the sun is definitely in the east. Which means the mountain is ahead of her, to the west. She doesn't know how far north she needs to go, but she's got her bearings and feels more comfortable now that she has a place to start. 

 So she walks. 

Twenty kilometers in a day isn't so bad for a shinobi using chakra to augment their steps. Sakura already used a decent amount sliding down an ancient monster's rib, and she isn't sure what kind of horrors await her in the depths of the forest. She doesn't want to waste what she has before she sets up for the night. 

She uses her brute strength to break off a low hanging branch to use as a walking stick. She's going to do this the civilian way. 

After the first four hours, she crouches on what looks like a femur and settles down for a snack. She's careful with her water. She's got two canteens that hold a liter and a half each. She hasn't tried out her spile yet, but she also isn't sure if there are any sources of freshwater nearby. 

Slugs shrivel when they're salted, though. Their bodies have low sodium content, and slime is heavily water based. Too much salt in their water could kill them. So there's definitely freshwater somewhere, around the forest. She just has to find it. She drinks a little easier after that. She eats a handful of dried apricots to stave off her hunger. 

'Slugs,' Sakura thinks. Slugs. If they drink freshwater, then what do they eat? She wracks her brain for basic slug biology. They can't be carnivorous. Nothing that looks like a long piece of snot can eat meat. So plants. Vegetation. Looking around, Sakura can see why they settled in Shikkotsu. There's greenery everywhere. All kinds of things are growing out of the ground. She's seen a couple of fruits hanging from tree branches, and bunches of berries on bushes but she's abstained. She's more or less sure that anything a slug can eat, she can probably put in her body. Summoning slugs might be a little different. 

Her break is only ten minutes long. She tucks her apricots back into her food storage scroll, and her canteen back into her pack. She picks up her walking stick, and presses onward. The day passes without the excitement of the morning. She doesn't fall into anything or fall off of anything or fall onto anything. She hikes through the forest. She climbs over dilapidated bones and underbrush. If she squints, it almost looks like the Forest of Death.

The thought of home makes her feel a little empty at the middle. Home. She won't be back for months. She's here, she's really in Shikkotsu Forest. She won't be able to get back unless the slugs send her home. She thinks of her mother and father waiting for her. Of Ino-pig and Neji. Of Tenten and Kiba and Hinata and Lee. Of Chouji and Shikamaru. Suddenly she misses the way Asuma-sensei's cigarettes smelled of clove. And she misses the way Kurenai-sensei would touch up her eyeshadow in a little black compact, and wink at Sakura when she caught her doing it.

She even misses Gai-sensei's booming speeches on youth and growth while they ran the circuit of the village. She misses anmitsu. She's not gonna be able to eat it for months. Months. She misses her bed. She misses her own bathroom. 

Homesickness lances through her like a knife. She wonders how Naruto has dealt with it. At least he has the Pervy Sage to keep him company. Sakura just has herself and the slugs. Not even the slugs yet. Just the forest and the solitude inside of it. Her shoulders slump. How on earth is she going to do this?

'Snap out of it,' she tells herself when the homesickness threatens to turn into despair. 'You're a damn chuunin. Act like it.'

Sakura pulls back her shoulders and straightens up. If there's one thing she learned from Ino, it's that faking confidence is half the art of actually being confident. Bluffing is an invaluable tool in the shinobi world. And her shishou may be an awful gambler, but one of the first things Shizune taught her was how to see through Tsunade's poker face. 

"The trick," Shizune says, "is that her face always looks like that."

"But," Sakura murmurs out loud, "she only means it when she's bluffing."

Sakura moves forward.

The day goes on. Passes into dusk and into evening. When the light that filters through the canopy begins to weaken, she picks up her pace and starts to scan the forest for a suitable place to sleep. The undergrowth seems safe, but she doesn't want to risk anything nibbling on her in her sleep. She still isn't sure who exactly pays the rent here. But light is fading fast, and Sakura didn't think to pack a hammock for staying the night in a forest full of trees. 

She settles down near the trunk of a uniformly large tree. Every tree in Shikkotsu is large, even the saplings. She looks around for any fallen branches, and settles on one that looks just about as big as both of her thighs put together. Sakura hefts it onto her shoulder, and sets it against the trunk of the tree she's decided to sleep under at an angle to the forest floor. Then, she gathers smaller branches to fix the larger one in place. 

She gives her shelter a couple of rough shakes to make sure it's sturdy. When she's satisfied, she starts looking for foliage to cover it up in case it rains. She debates whether or not she should pull out her tarp, but that seems a little excessive. Shikkotsu isn't any more muggy than Konoha is in the late summer, and she's comfortable even now, geared up as she is. 

Once her shelter is in place, she huddles inside and takes off her packs. She unrolls her sleeping bag and her cactus plush, and sets them down tidily. She leaves her pack at the base of the tree, with her tanto and weapons pouches on either side of her, should she need them in the night. She's just about to start foraging for firewood when she notices something. 

The sun has set, and Shikkotsu has begun to glow. 

The flora and fauna around her seem to come alive. They begin to shimmer, then dully, they glow. Even slime trails become luminescent. The leaves on her shelter sport pale blue-white veins. 

She can't help but run her fingers over the shimmering vegetation. She's never seen anything like it before. Is this what the slugs eat? Is this what makes them grow so big? In the corner of her eye, a white flower blooms. When she grasps its petals, she feels something like a pulse. Is this where the slugs draw their power from? These strange plants that blossom and glow at night?

Sakura wants to stay out all night and write down what she sees, but she knows that she'll need her rest. She only made it sixteen out of twenty kilometers, so she has catching up to do the next day. She blames her troubled sleep the night before, and resolves to listen to her mother more when she gets home. 

Even underneath her little shelter, the leaves above her shimmer. She wonders if that's going to be a problem. When she closes her eyes, she finds that the glow is just distracting enough to keep her awake. Suddenly, she wishes that she hadn't torn up her hitaie-ate the way that she did. If she hadn't, she'd have a sleeping mask. 

A sleeping mask? Inner asks. What are you, a princess? The daimyo's daughter? 

Sakura rolls onto her side, hand on top of her tanto. The cactus plush beneath her head is soft and reminds her of home. It makes her feel just a little bit safer. 

Inner is right. A sleeping mask in a forest full of bones is a ridiculous idea. She makes a note to herself to ask what kind of creature left skeletons like the ones that jut out of the canopy. Sakura is pretty sure slugs don't have bones. 

'What if,' she thinks, 'that's what the slugs eat.'

A shiver runs down her spine. She has to remind herself that slugs are vegan. Slugs are very vegan. They are not going to eat her because she is not made of leaves. She is mostly protein. She is made of protein. And she's got lots of muscles, so that's extra protein. All over her body. Yes. She's probably the least appetizing thing in this forest. Nope. She's not tasty at all. She falls asleep repeating the mantra of how completely unappetizing she is.

Then, the rustling begins. 

"Slugs," she says beneath her breath, "are nocturnal."

She rises. If slugs are nocturnal, that means if she gets to the mountain during the day time, they won't receive her. They'll be sleeping. She stifles a groan behind her hand. The best course of action then, would probably be to ruin her sleep schedule. If she stays up all night tonight and sleeps the day through tomorrow, she'll be on slug time. 

'No wonder nothing came out and bit me today,' she thinks. 'Everyone was asleep.'

Sakura shuffles until she is sitting and begins to break down camp. She folds up her sleeping bag and stores her pillow. She puts her tanto back in its harness on her lower back. She shuffles her pack and her weapons pouches back onto her thighs. She looks up, debating whether or not she should break down her shelter or leave it when she sees a hole being bitten out of her ceiling. Then a second, and a third. 

A pale pink slug is eating Sakura's house. 

"Hello," she says. 

The slug wiggles its eyes at her and says, "Hello. Who are you?"

"I'm Haruno Sakura. I'm a chuunin from Konohagakure."

The pink slug takes another bite out of Sakura's ceiling. "Never heard of you."

That's not promising.

"Uh, Senju Tsunade sent me," she tries. "I'm expected by Katsuyu-sama. To make a contract with them, and all of the slugs of Shikkotsu Forest."

The slug snorts. Sakura didn't know that slugs could snort. 

"You mean Nao-oba-sama is expecting you," the slug says. 

"No," Sakura says. "Katsuyu-sama. They requested that I come here."

"No," the slug replies. "You mean Nao-oba-sama. She's the oldest. Katsuyu-oba-sama must have given her a recommendation."

Sakura sucks on her teeth. The slug, however irritating it may be, probably knows better than her. Sakura had thought that Katsuyu was the leader of the slugs in Shikkotsu. She has no idea who Nao is. 

"I guess so," she says. 

The pale pink slug 'hm's at her and continues to eat Sakura's dwelling. A few moments pass in silence, Sakura wondering if she should say something else or if the slug will. 

"I'm Sango," the slug says. "And I'm eating breakfast."

Sakura nods. "I'm Sakura."

"I know," Sango grumbles around a mouthful of leaf. "You already said so."

"Uh," Sakura says. "Sorry?"

Sango wiggles their eyes at Sakura and keeps eating. 

"You must be headed towards the mountain temple," Sango says. "Lucky you. You're going in the right direction."

Sakura tries not to let Sango's tone influence her mood. She's headed in the right direction, good. That's a great comfort. If she walks through the night, she'll probably make it there by day time. Then, she can sleep at the foot of the temple during the day, wake up that evening, and finally see Katsuyu. Or Nao, who is apparently much more important. 

"Lots of people get really lost when they first come here," Sango continues. "There was one man, a long time ago, with really long hair who went east instead of west. I only remember because he had Tsunade-chan's last name. He was from Konohagakure, too, I think."

Sakura narrows her eyes. That could describe any number of shinobi. The Senju clan was large before the First and Second Shinobi World Wars decimated it down to the Godaime. 

"He was dreamy, even for a human," Sango says, "He expanded the borders of the forest when he left, as a thank you."

"Expanded the forest?" 

Sango nods. 

"He could make trees."

Sakura's jaw drops. 

"You… You don't mean Senju Hashirama, do you?"

Sango nods again, much more enthusiastically. 

"That's the one," they say, "Hashirama-kun. He was a sweet boy."

The Shodaime. The Shodaime was a slug sage. Sakura isn't sure what to do with this information. She has questions. So many questions. The first of which being, how in the world doesn't everyone know about this?

"He's Tsunade-sama's grandfather," Sakura says, trying to be helpful. 

Sango nibbles on the edges of a leaf. "That's nice." 

"Anyway," Sango says, as if Sakura's interruption had personally offended them, "He was very dreamy and very sweet. We were all surprised when Tsunade-chan came after him. She had a crazy temper. Not like Hashirama-kun at all."

"Sango-san," Sakura begins, "pardon me for asking, but, just how old are you?"

Sango tilts their head, assessing. "We don't age like you humans do. I don't know how old I am. One day, I was part of my tou-san, the next day, I was myself."

That's - not a very helpful answer. Tou-san is strange though. Slugs were hemaphroditic, and Tsunade had always referred to Katsuyu with gender neutral pronouns. Sango had a father and an aunt, and Sakura was confused. She wants to open her mouth, but Sango seems to like to hear the sound of their own voice, so Sakura stays silent. 

"I was myself when Hashirama-kun came for his contract and to learn slug senjutsu," Sango says. "From what he said of the outside world, Konohagakure was still a dream then. There was a war going on, then. He talked about his brothers. He worried for them."

Sakura 'hm's. Sango keeps talking.

"Once he got his contract, he had to return because of the war and all," the slug continues. "But once he came back, he was a man grown. He stayed for a whole year to master the Dance of Earth and Sky."

"Sango-san," Sakura says. "What is the Dance of Earth and Sky?"

Sango peers down at Sakura and takes another bite of the ceiling. 

"I can't tell you yet, Sakura-chan," they say. "But I like you and I think you'll find out."

"Thank you?"

"You're welcome. Now get up."

Sakura blinks. 

"I'm sorry?"

"Get up," Sango insists, "you're wasting moonlight. Give me your hand."

'The slugs are only half as patient as I am,' her shishou had said. Sakura reaches out her hand to Sango. The pink slug slides delicately onto the back of Sakura's hand and keeps moving until Sakura must flip her palm upward. 

"Good," Sango says, "you know how to listen. Now get up and let's go before someone bigger than me eats your dwelling."

"Yes, Sango-san."

Sakura uses her free hand to move the remaining leaves off of her shelter and steps outside. There are slugs everywhere. 

"I told you," Sango says, "it's breakfast time."

They are of every color and every size, though none of them approach Katsuyu-sama's girth. They slither up and down trees, through the tremendous paths larger slugs have made, over and around each other to find their breakfast. 

"How many of you are there?" Sakura asks the pink slug in her palm. 

"There are one thousand slugs in Shikkotsu Forest," Sango says.

One thousand. One thousand? Sakura will have one thousand slugs at her command when she contracts with them? How many toads are there? Sakura can't imagine that a thousand toads could live at Mount Myōboku. She can barely tell how a thousand slugs can fit in Shikkotsu Forest. 

"Do you all live in the mountain temple?"

Sango wiggles her eyes. "Sometimes yes, sometimes no. There's more food in the forest, and Hashirama-kun made trees with little dwellings in them, so many of us live there as well."

"A human!"

The gasp is followed by silence. Several slugs rear back from their breakfast. At least a hundred pairs of extended eyes are looking at Sakura. 

"Hello," she says. 

"When did they get here?" 

"You already know we've been expecting one."

"I don't remember Nao-sama saying anything about this."

"This one is Katsuyu's, don'tcha know?"

A rumbling goes up even louder than the rustling towards breakfast. Sango humphs and begins to inch her way up Sakura's wrist to her shoulder. 

"Can you do that thing that humans do?" they ask. "That sound with your mouth?"

"You mean a whistle?" Sakura asks. 

"Yes, that's the one. A whistle. And make it loud."

Sakura sticks her index finger and her thumb in her mouth and whistles. Loudly. The slugs quiet down as one. 

"You all act like you've never seen a human before in your lives," Sango says from their perch on her shoulder. 

The slugs bristle at the brash comment, but none of them contradict Sango. 

'Their father is Nao's brother,' Sakura thinks. 'Sango must be very important.'

"This here," Sango says, "is Haruno Sakura. She's Tsunade-chan's apprentice, remember Tsunade-chan? She's here seeking a contract and senjutsu on Katsuyu-oba-sama's request. I'll be taking her to see Nao-oba-sama if you lot don't mind."

Sakura looks at Sango from the corner of her eye. She can't remember telling the slug she was Tsunade's apprentice. Only that Tsunade had sent her. Maybe they mean the same thing to the slugs. But...

'Look underneath the underneath,' Kakashi's voice rumbles in her mind. 

There is a difference to humans. And if Sango is older than the founding of Konoha, if they knew the Shodaime and Tsunade and countless humans in between, then they probably know there's a difference, too. 

The slugs have begun to rustle in excitement at Tsunade's name. 

"What a lively girl she was!"

"I miss her, why does she only summon Katsuyu and not me?"

"This is her apprentice? I wonder if she's even half as talented."

"I," Sango says, cutting neatly into the din, "will be taking her to the mountain temple. She's expected. So get out of the way!"

The slugs clamor to follow Sango's order. Sakura wonders just how intense the hierarchy of slugs is for one so little to command such a large group. She's abruptly reminded that size isn't an adequate measure of power. Besides, if Katsuyu can divide their body, there's no reason why Sango can't do the same. 

"Let's get moving."

"Yes, Sango-san."

Shikkotsu Forest at night is breathtaking. The canopy above her head is alight with purples, yellows, and blues. Flowers opened their buds or shut them if she brushed against them too quickly. Little creatures like fireflies flittered in and out of sight, some guiding her path, others flowing in and out of it. Sakura had never seen a place like this in her life. 

"It's extraordinary," Sakura whispers. 

Sango laughs lightly from their place on her shoulder. "It is."

The walk isn't half as hard with the lights of the forest guiding her way. It strikes Sakura that the morning light is meant to disorient and confuse travelers. You can only really get anywhere going by night. The slime the slugs leave behind offers crisscrossing paths that all merge at one point or another, but the one direction they all point to, is north west. Even the little floating lights encourage Sakura in that direction.

"They are spirits," Sango says when one lands on Sakura's nose. 

"Of what?" 

"The humans that have died here."

Sakura swallows. She doesn't want to ask, but she knows that she should. 

"How many humans have died here? Trying to get their contracts?"

Sango curls themselves around Sakura's neck. 

"Many."

Sakura is pretty sure that nobody has ever died contracting with the toads. The snakes may be another story. Nobody who looked like Orochimaru got a summoning contract just by asking nicely. The guy was horrifying looking. The Sandaime had a contract with monkeys. Sakura doesn't know much about them, but they didn't seem like the type to let people die in their domain. 

Tsunade's reputation as an unparalleled healer must have overshadowed the true nature of Shikkotsu Forest. None of the slugs she had encountered so far had given Sakura a reason to believe they were capable of mass slaughter. Then again, she herself was a pink haired fourteen year old who had nearly killed someone during her Chuunin Exam the second time she took it. She probably didn't look like she was capable of murder either. 

"Is the test that Kat - , I mean, Nao-sama," Sakura begins, catching herself, "is the test that Nao-sama gives very dangerous?"

Sango hums on Sakura's shoulder. 

"To many, yes," the slug says. "Humans are difficult. They lack flexibility. When they are deprived of something they think they deserve, they go mad."

Deprived of something they think they deserve? Like what? Food, shelter, water? Sakura knows that no shinobi worth their salt would ever enter foreign territory without the means to procure either of the three. So then, do the slugs deprive those seeking contracts of things they need to survive?

"I like you, Sakura-chan, so I'm going to tell you a little secret," Sango says. "It is not the test that kills the humans. It is their own madness."

Sakura has no idea what that means. Anyone would go mad without food or water or shelter for long enough. Or at least come out of the situation more worse for wear. 

"Remember that, Sakura-chan," Sango says, "when it's time for you to prove yourself."

Sakura swallows around the mild panic that's rising in her throat. She doesn't have enough water to last three months. She has a spile, and slugs need freshwater to live, so if she has to, she could probably find a lake of some kind. She can stretch her food to last three months, and maybe, maybe another week and a half after that if she absolutely needs to. It'd be better if she could figure out what foods in the forest were safe for her to eat. She has clothes for every weather condition save for heavy snowfall, and she suddenly wants to kick herself for not preparing for that. 

"I'll remember, Sango-san."

Day breaks by the time they reach the foot of the mountain. Sango complained the whole way about how slow humans were, and seemed to get heavier with each complaint. Sakura wasn't sure when the slug decided she needed weight training, because by the time Sango slithers off her arm, the slug is the size of a five year old child. 

"I didn't have lunch or dinner because of you," Sango says, narrowing their long eyes at Sakura. 

"I, uh," Sakura mumbles, "I'm sorry."

She slides her pack around to her front and rummages around for her food storage seal. She unfurls it on the ground and looks up at Sango. 

"Is there any human food you like?"

Sango inches over to her, peering down at the sigils on the scroll. 

"This is very good work," they say. "Did you do this?"

Sakura shakes her head. 

"No, a friend of mine. Her name is Tenten. She's my age. She's the best when it comes to sealing."

Sango nods approvingly. 

"Few humans are good at the sealing arts," they say. "You should send this Tenten to the forest when you get home. I would like to contract with her myself."

Sakura nods. "Are you - are you very good with sealing, Sango-san?"

The slug wiggles their eyes. "It is one of my many talents."

"Ah." 

"Peaches," Sango says. "I like peaches when I must eat human food."

Sakura nods, a little smile on her face. She had packed two containers of canned peaches in case she ever needed the extra sugar. She summons them out of the scroll, and peels the lid open. 

"Should I -," she begins, gesturing to the ground in front of the slug. "Or would you rather eat them from the can?"

"The ground," Sango sniffs. 

Sakura empties the can of peaches onto the forest floor, and Sango gobbles them up, syrup and all. 

"That was nice," they say. 

Sakura can't fight her smile. "I'm glad."

"Well," Sango says, wriggling and beginning to turn around. "I'll be off."

Sakura gets to her feet, eyes scanning the ground before her. She'll have to go to sleep too, to get up when the slugs are waking. 

"Rest well, Sango-san."

Other slugs begin to slither by and up the many steps of the mountain temple. Others move around the temple itself, off to the borders of the forest and into the tree dwellings Senju Hashirama built for them. 

"You too, Sakura-chan," Sango says. 

The slug leaves her and Sakura sets up camp. She's dog tired. She hadn't noticed the fatigue set itself into her bones as she had moved. Sango had chattered about all sorts of things, and the little spirits had kept themselves in Sakura's eyes. For fear of being impolite, she had half listened to Sango and carefully ducked her head every time a spirit came close to her face. 

But now, with day breaking the spirits disappear and the slugs go to sleep. Sakura unrolls her sleeping bag at the base of a tree facing the mountain temple. She leaves her pack on her left and her weapons at her right. Her cactus pillow is soft beneath her head. 

The mountain temple rises high into the sky, breaking through the canopy and letting slivers of sunlight in. Sakura wonders how many steps there are. At least a thousand. She doesn't even want to think about how she'll have to hike up them all. The steps seem to get narrower the higher one goes. It's not a big deal for a slug, but for a human, it looks daunting. There's no way she'll be able to sleep on the steps towards the top. 

Sakura hunkers down at the base of the tree and shuts her eyes. Most of the light the mountain temple lets in is filtered by layers and layers of canopy. She can tell it's daytime, but it is a mottled, shaded one. She worries that she won't get enough sleep. 

Her exhaustion isn't worried at all, and within moments of shutting her eyes, she's out like a light.


 

 Sakura dreams of Sasuke. 

They are in the Forest of Death. She is on the ground, biting into Zaku's arm as he slams his fist over and over again on her head. She cannot let go. She cannot let go. If she does and they get to Sasuke, she doesn't know what will happen to him. She can't let that happen. 

She tastes blood and bile and her own tears. Her eye is swollen. Her hair is a mess. And she is in so much pain. There are bruises forming all over her, and the places where Zaku's kunai dug themselves into her flesh have barely stopped bleeding. 

If you lose too much blood, Inner says, beginning to panic, we'll die. 

Sakura doesn't want to die. She's never even thought about dying, not in very much depth. She did on the Wave mission, though she was rarely in any danger. Naruto and Sasuke, they were the ones who did most of the fighting. Them and Kakashi-sensei. She had protected the bridge builder with a single kunai, not like anyone tried to rush her. 

But now? Now Sakura might get brain damage if Zaku keeps punching her. 

Then, abruptly it is Kin. And she is not holding Sakura back by the hair. She is pulling it out. Ripping out strand by strand, hank on hank of Sakura's hair. It makes a sound like velcro tearing. She wants a kunai, a shuriken, anything with a sharp enough edge. She wants her tanto but it isn't there. Kin keeps ripping out her hair, and locks are falling over and into Sakura's eyes. 

Sasuke is in front of her. 

"Who did this to you?"

Sakura cannot answer. Her mouth is dry. She is scared. She is so very scared. 

"Sakura."

She's shaking. She is at the back gates. Sasuke has a backpack on. He is looking at her almost fondly, but his eyes are cold. He has looked at her this way a thousand times, and yet he has somehow never seemed so kind. 

"Who did this to you're annoying."

He is covered in the black flames of his cursed seal. 

"Who did this to you're annoying."

He is holding her arm like he held Zaku's, pulling it out of its socket. He is going to rip her arm off of her body. 

"Sakura."

He is running at Naruto but Naruto doesn't have a face. They are rising and falling towards each other, a Chidori in one hand and a Rasengan in the other. They are going to collide. They are going to kill each other. She cannot let that happen. 

Both of them are Sasuke. Both of them hold assassination techniques in their palms. She is skewered on lightning. She only feels warm. 

"You're annoying."

He is filled with a thousand needles. He is bleeding. He's going to die. Haku has killed him. She is about to lose the first boy she ever loved, and she hadn't done anything. Hadn't been able to lift a finger to help. She had been weak. 

"You're annoying."

He is walking past her. She is on the ground. One of her eyes is swollen, but the other can see him. He is radiating killing intent. It makes her empty stomach lurch. 

"Who did this to you?"

He is pulling out her hair. Yanking it out of her head. She is screaming. 

"You're annoying."

She is biting his arm. Her mouth is filled with blood and bile. He is punching her head, trying to shake her off. 

"You're annoying."

She is in the mirrors. He blows a fireball in her face. It melts the ice. It burns her. She is on fire. 

"Sakura."

The village gates. He is behind her. She can feel his breath on her neck. She is sobbing. 

I… I love you with all my heart! 

He is drawing a fuuma shuriken. He is the boy behind her and the beast attacking her. She has only one kunai to defend herself. He is her precious person. She will defend his life or die trying. 

If you were to stay here with me, there would be no regrets… because every day we'd do something fun, we'd be happy I swear!

He is clutching her hand for dear life in the Forest of Death. A demon, it must be a demon. A woman with the neck of a snake has bitten him and she doesn't know what to do.

I would do anything for you!

He flash steps in front of her as the Demon Brothers prepare to dive through her. He saved her life once. Twice. Many times. That has to mean something, doesn't it?

So… Please just stay with me!

"You're annoying."

She wakes up in a cold sweat. Her heart is thumping hard in her chest and her mouth feels dry. It is dusk. She opens her eyes to the forest above her. The day is still fading. She should get up and keep moving. 

Sakura reaches up one hand, fingers to the sky. 

"Sasuke."

The name feels strange without the honorific at the end. 

"Sasuke-kun," she tries. And it feels just as foreign. 

She rarely says his name out loud anymore, not unless she has to. She wonders where he is. If Orochimaru is experimenting on him. If he's training hard, if he's strong enough to kill his brother yet. 

After his quest is over, Sakura wonders if he will return home. She wonders if Tsunade would let him. She wonders how she would feel if he walked back into the village one day. How would it feel if he looked at her instead of through her?

A yellow spirit lands on her finger and bounces back off. 

Is he safe? Is he eating? Does he ever think about them? About the village, Kakashi-sensei, or Naruto? Or her? Does he care? Did he ever? 

When she closes her eyes, she can still see his face. Not proud, but a little smug. Like he knew she was going to come after him and he knew he was going to knock her out anyway. 

Sakura's hand becomes a fist. She doesn't know if Sasuke will come back. Doesn't know if he wants to. She can't - she can't make him do anything he doesn't want to do. Persuasion didn't work. Naruto left to get stronger to bring him back by force. Sakura got stronger too, but, is it to bring Sasuke home? Is it for herself? For the village?

Sasuke is a missing nin. He betrayed Sakura. He tried to kill Naruto, a fellow leaf shinobi. He's disgraced himself and what was left of the Uchiha name. The Uchiha used to be one of the most respected, revered clans in Konoha after the Senju. Now they are down to two murderous brothers. Their memory is being tarnished with every choice Sasuke makes. Their ghosts can't be resting easy. 

Sakura thinks, really thinks about what it would take for her to become a missing nin. For her to leave everyone and everything she loves behind. She can't imagine it. Maybe that's the point. Her heart is big, almost too big for a shinobi. Much too big by half for a kunoichi. Sakura could forgive a thousand wrongs done against her, if the right person were doing them. 

Sasuke lost his entire family in a night. He's been chasing the strength to avenge them since he was a child. Sakura thinks of Kizashi and Mebuki, of her parents, of her entire world and wonders what she would do if someone took that away from her. She'd want revenge, too. 

Would she destroy others that loved her to do it? Sakura doesn't know. 

She tries to think of what she'd do if she had to face Ino in the Valley of the End. If her actions had sent Tenten and Hinata to intensive care. Sakura thinks that the guilt alone would eat her whole. 

She couldn't do it. She never would. But Sasuke did. 

Sakura puts her forearm onto her forehead, fingers still digging into the meat of her palm. Did she get stronger to bring him home, or did she get stronger to prove to herself that she could?

She gets out of her sleeping bag slowly. The hike up the mountain steps will take all day, and the slug slime is slippery enough that it could hand her ass to her in seconds. She doesn't feel like having to start over climbing because she slipped. She drinks some water, devours a protein bar and gets to her feet.

Sakura breaks down camp, and heads for the temple stairs. 

It really does take all day. 

She has to keep her feet coated in chakra to keep herself from slipping. There is slime from at least one thousand slugs coating the steps and it has hardened over time. Some places are hard packed and completely dry, while others are slippery with new gunk. Abruptly, Sakura wishes she had the foresight to put on her close toed shoes before she had started her ascent. 

As the steps get slimmer, she uses more chakra to keep herself upright. She has to start using her hands. The feeling of slime coating her fingers even through her chakra is not one that Sakura will forget any time soon. 

She has to maneuver around tree branches and greenery when she gets close to the canopy. Above the treeline, the moon is full and bright. Abruptly, Sakura remembers her promise to Neji, or rather his promise to her. She wonders if he looked for her this morning, and if he will again. 

The stars flicker into existence as Sakura climbs. The moon is bright enough to guide her way. She has to heave herself up by her hands onto the last step of the shrine and into the open aired entrance. She immediately almost loses her balance. The early risers of the slugs have begun their descent into the forest. 

It's breakfast time. 

Sakura presses herself against a wall, murmuring apologies with a bowed head as cranky slugs of every color slither past her. Once the rush is over, she starts down the hallway. She follows their slime trails until she feels as though she's been going in circles. She slips a couple of times, and every time new slime gets between her toes, she yelps in disgust. 

It feels like it takes hours, but when she reaches an open aired atrium she is stunned into silence. 

Light from the moon has poured into the room. Inside of it is Katsuyu-sama, huge, bigger than Sakura has ever seen the slug. Beside them are two others, each larger than their counterpart. The second largest is of a pale red hue, with white spots speckling their sides. The largest is purple, with a single white diamond on their forehead. 

'The biggest one must be Nao-sama,' she thinks, 'and the second largest must be Sango's father.'

"Sakura-chan!" 

Think of the devil. The child sized pink slug inches toward Sakura, head bobbing side to side in excitement. 

"You made it! Very good. We've been waiting for you!"

"Sango!" 

A slug beside the red and white one narrows its eyes at Sango. It bears a striking resemblance to the slug beside it, but its red is of a deeper hue. 

"Come here, little sister. You're being impolite."

Sango is a girl. Or at least, prefers to be called one. Sakura files the information away for later. 

Sango lets out a put upon sigh and turns away from Sakura. She inches back towards her family. 

"You may approach us," the second largest slug says as Sango tucks herself by its side. 

Sakura steps forward. Then she stops and takes off her pack. She leaves her weapons at the doorway. If she wants them to trust her, she'll have to trust them. Her instincts are telling her to at least keep her tanto, but she removes it as well. 

Then, Sakura approaches the slugs once more. She gets down on her knees, palms on the tops of her thighs. 

"I am Haruno Sakura of Konohagakure," she says, introducing herself. "I have been sent by Senju Tsunade, who thinks me ready and capable of summoning the slugs of Shikkotsu Forest. I ask for your contract, if you will allow me."

She puts her hands forward, and bows until her forehead is touching the slime covered ground. 

"Please allow me to take your test to prove my worth to you."

"We know who you are."

Sakura keeps her forehead on the ground. 

"You are Tsunade's apprentice," a different voice says, one low and husky. "Your manners are much more refined than hers were at your age."

"To be fair," a voice cuts in, higher pitched, "Tsunade-sama was preparing for war. She had little time for pleasantries."

"Mitsuru, Katsuyu," the first voice says. "Be silent."

"Yes, Nao-onee-sama."

"Yes, Nao-onee-sama."

"Child," Nao says, "Haruno Sakura. Raise your head."

Sakura does. Nao tilts her head at Sakura, narrowing her eyes. 

"My little sibling Katsuyu seems to think that you are worthy of contracting with us," she says. "But I am not so sure. What do you think?"

Sakura is the last person who should be asked to gauge her own worth. 

"I do not know," she answers honestly. "Many have died trying."

"So what," Nao says, "makes Katsuyu and the so-called Slug Princess think you are different?"

She swallows. "I - I'm a hard worker. I don't give up. When I decide I'm going to do something, I do it."

Nao snorts. 

"There are thousands of hard working shinobi in the human world, Haruno Sakura. This trait does not make you special."

Out of Nao's stomach slithers a smaller version of her, about Sakura's height. It transforms slowly, until it is a mirror image of her, with pale white and purple skin. 

"Tell me, child," the strange clone and Nao say simultaneously, "is there anything that makes you worthy? Do you want to contract with the thousand slugs of Shikkotsu because you want to and have trained to, or because you are an opportunist who seeks our power?"

Sakura looks up at her clone. Even its hair is made out of Nao's strange body. 

"I -," she says, mouth dry. She steels herself. "I want to protect those I love. I want to be able to heal them and to fight for them. I -"

Sakura breathes in through her nose and out through her mouth. 

"I can do that without the slugs of Shikkotsu," she says. "But I do not want to. I can, and will become strong enough to keep the ones I love safe, with or without your help."

Sakura bites her lips as soon as the words leave her mouth. That - that probably wasn't her best plan. 

Nao and the clone in front of Sakura snort together. "Tsunade's apprentice," they say. "I can see that."

The clone sits on its knees in front of Sakura, perfectly mimicking her posture. 

"Tell me, child, do you know she thinks you are worthy of being a slug sage?"

Sakura's eyes widen. 

"N-no," she says. "I had no idea."

"Hm," Nao and the clone say as one. "I should like to find out."

The clone raises a fist to Sakura's eye level. It opens it, and inside is a tiny red speck. It leaps at Sakura's face. She immediately reaches up to slap at the offending creature, but Nao's clone grabs her hands in a vice like grip to stop her. The speck slithers up Sakura's cheek and around her jaw before crawling into her ear. She nearly screams as the invading thing slips not inside of her skull, but inside of her mind. 

It roots around viciously, opening memories and nightmares. It rifles through her dreams like it's welcome there. When it comes upon Inner Sakura, even the second personality quivers before the invader. 

After some time, the red speck crawls out of Sakura's other ear, down her shoulder and onto the hand of Nao's clone. The clone stands and melts back into Nao's body, but not before offering the speck to the red and white slug. 

"Well, Mitsuru," she says. "What do you think of her mind?"

The red slug shuffles as it accepts the speck back onto its body. It reforms itself into a what spot on its side. 

"She has hopes," Mitsuru says, "and fears like any human. There is a fighting spirit inside of her that she must resolve into herself. She is stubborn, like her master. But she is strong."

"Do you think she is worthy?" Nao asks. 

Mitsuru gives Sakura an appraising glance before looking at his sister. 

"I think," he says, "that she shows promise."

Sakura has no idea what that means. Sango and Katsuyu seem to think it is a good thing, because the both of them squint their eyes lower to their heads. At least, Sakura thinks that's what that movement means. 

"Katsuyu?" Nao says. 

"I would not have recommended her for the contract if I did not think she could get it, onee-sama."

That makes Sakura feel warm. 

"I should like to see her try," the oldest slug says. "Stand, child, and armor yourself once more."

Sakura rises to her feet, and moves to obey. When she gets her pack and her weapons back on her, she stands before the three elder slugs. 

"To gain your contract," Nao says, "you must find the Nakemuji Sennin in their shrine. We will not help you. You must find the shrine by your own merit. Once you arrive, the sage will give you your contract. Do you understand?"

Sakura nods. 

"I asked you a question. Do you understand?"

Sakura clicks her feet together, arms firm at her sides. "Yes, Nao-sama."

"Good," Nao says. "Katsuyu."

The teal and white slug approaches her and bows her head. 

"Forgive me, Sakura-chan," they say, "this is not going to be pleasant."

Then, they spit into Sakura's face and Sakura's eyes are on fire. 

The acid is quick acting. She feels it burn through her cornea and eat its way, ravenous to her iris. She's trying to keep calm, to suppress the urge to claw at her face to wipe the burn away and tries, shaking, to mould her chakra into a healing technique. 

Shock. That's what's happening, she's in shock. That's why she can not only feel it, but knows exactly when the acid starts to gnaw on her lens. She presses both hands to her face to stop it, but as soon as her green chakra gets close to her eyes, she is no longer being devoured. 

Sakura lowers her hands as the acid begins to spill itself off of her face and down her cheeks. It doesn't burn as it drips onto the floor. It doesn't singe her foot when a drop lands there. 

Her breathing is heavy. She sucks air in and pushes it back out, and does her best to diagnose her injuries. She shouldn't be conscious. She shouldn't be alive. The acid was strong enough to seep through the delicate tissue of her eyes, and definitely has the ability to eat at her retinas, through her veins and back into her brain. She knows what Katsuyu's acid can do. 

"You will travel through our forest the same way we do." Nao says. "Blind." 

Sakura feels herself begin to hyperventilate. Blind. She can run around the village perimeter blind. She can get through certain patches of the forest blind. She can move through her own house blind. But Shikkotsu is a forest of unimaginable size, and Sakura is a stranger in this foreign land. 

"You will find the Namekuji Sennin as you are. They will give you your sight back, they will give you your contract, and if they think you as worthy as Tsunade does, they will teach you senjutsu."

She can feel herself begin to shake. She drops down to a crouch and tucks her head between her knees, and tries to force herself to breathe. She vomits on the floor of the mountain temple instead.

"You may take as much time as you need," Nao's booming voice says. "If you die, your body will become part of this forest. Katsuyu will inform those in Konoha of your passing."

She tries to open her eyes. The pain is excruciating. Her eyelids have swollen themselves shut to keep more danger out. Sakura bites down hard on the scream that tries to wriggle out of her throat. The world is dark. Sakura feels cold.

"Susumu," Nao calls. 

"Yes, Nao-oba-sama," calls a smaller voice. 

"You will be her companion, and will update us on her progress as she goes."

"Yes, Nao-oba-sama."

"But Nao-oba-sama -" and that's Sango's voice. "I think I would be a better fit to help Sakura-chan -"

Sango's voice cuts into silence. 

"I do not recall asking what you thought."

"Yes, Nao-oba-sama. I'm sorry, Nao-oba-sama."

Sakura is shaking violently. She gulps in air as best as she can, and tries to summon her chakra a second time. It won't obey her. It is as volatile as she feels and refuses to be moulded. 

She can feel something cold and slimy brush against her toes and immediately kicks out at it. She lands hard on her butt, probably bruising her tailbone. 

"Sakura-san," a tiny voice says, "it is me, Susumu. I was beside Mitsuru-tou-san, the smaller, darker red slug, do you remember?"

"I -, yes, I do."

"Good," Susumu says, "I am here to help you. Please, allow me."

She nods, jerkily. "Yes, of course. I'm sorry."

"It is alright."

"You're Sango's older sister?"

"Older sibling, Sakura-san. I prefer older sibling."

"Yes," Sakura breathes. "Of course. I'm sorry for - for assuming."

"It is alright."

The slug bypasses her foot and instead slithers onto her palm. Its slime is cool on her fingers, and it rises until it is perched on her shoulder. It is small, very small, much smaller than Sakura expected. 

"I am going to guide you out of the mountain temple, Sakura-san. After that, you must guide yourself to the shrine where the Namekuji Sennin resides." Susumu says. "Are you ready?"

"I -," Sakura swallows around nothing. The taste of vomit is still acidic in her mouth. "Yes. I'm ready."

"Alright," Susumu murmurs. "Please stand."

Slowly, slowly, Sakura rises to her feet. She wipes her mouth off with the back of her hand, flinching when she rubs Susumu's slime on her mouth instead. Careful of the slug on her shoulder, Sakura bows. 

"Thank you, Nao-sama, Mitsuru-sama, Katsuyu-sama. I will do my best."

She can hear the slugs, or at least one of them, rustle as she speaks. Perhaps one of them is leaving. 

"Yes," Mitsuru's low voice calls. "See that you do."


Sakura turns and begins to walk. She can hear the sound of thick bodies moving, slithering, and understands that the slugs are leaving as well. She wonders where they are going. Perhaps to have breakfast.

"Stop, Sakura-san. You are about to run into a pillar."

Susumu is helpful.  

Sakura puts her hands out and lays them on the pillar. She gauges its width. 

"Do I go," she begins, licking her lips. "Do I go to the left or to the right of it?"

"The left, Sakura-san."

Sakura breathes in deep and moves to the right. 

This. This is a lot. She's blind. She's blind. There are legends of blind samurai, so in tune with the world around them that they do not need their sight to see. But those are legends. Sakura is not a legend. She's a fourteen year old chuunin from Konohagakure. Tsunade is a legend, so are Jiraiya and Orochimaru. Hell, even Kakashi.

She isn't. She's a kid, and she is wildly out of her depth. The only reason she can get around her house in the dark is because she's had to leave for missions without turning on lights or waking up her parents. She only knows her home out of habit. 

"Keep one hand on the wall, Sakura-san, not both. You cannot rely on them forever."

Sakura tries to think of the Hyūga. Thinks of Hinata. How when she was training with Neji, her eyes became so strained that she had to bind them shut for days on end. She wonders how the other girl managed moving around the sprawling Hyūga estate with only Neji to help her. And even then he left to find the Eyebright plant that would aid her recovery. 

Sakura swallows down her panic. She can do this. Katsuyu would not have said she was ready if she didn't think so. Tsunade would not have allowed her to go to the forest if she didn't think so either. 

But, Inner whispers, shishou wanted you to wait. 

Sakura grinds her teeth. Tsunade had wanted her to wait. Katsuyu's insistence is why Sakura is here in the first place. 

It had warmed her heart, a week ago. To know that a being like Katsuyu had taken an interest in her. Now, with the slug's acid having burned through her retinas, Sakura feels slightly less fuzzy on the inside. 

"Twelve paces forward, then a sharp right turn. Continue forward."

She isn't sure what she's going to do when Susumu has to stop helping her. Sakura has to somehow manage to get to the shrine where the Namekuji Sennin lives. Sakura doesn't even know where that is and she has no idea where to start. 

"Continue. Continue. Continue. Stop. Make a left. Continue."

Nao is strict and she holds her power well. There's no way Sakura can convince Susumu to just tell her where the slug sage lives. Not with an aunt like Nao. There is nothing that Sakura can bargain with, no deals she can make. She has to do this the hard way. 

That's the point, Inner scoffs. What good thing comes easy?

Sakura makes a fist with the hand at her side. She wants to put it through the wall, and destroy the mountain temple. She knows it's the quickest way to get herself killed. If the crumbling rock doesn't get her, an angry slug will. And even if none of them do, she's one blind girl with barely enough supplies to last for a year. She wouldn't make it. 

She loosens and reforms her fist as a way to cut some of her tension. 

"Right, Sakura-san. You're close to the exit. Just keep going forward."

When she steps outside, she can feel the cool air of the forest brush across her wounded eyes. 

"Take care going down the stairs. They are narrow, if you remember, Sakura-san."

The stairs are a bitch and a half. Sakura is slightly paranoid if she misses one, she'll go skidding on her butt down to the forest floor. That's an easy way to snap her tailbone in half. 

She counts the stairs as she goes. She touches down with her right foot, then brings down her left and presses them together. Then again, right, then left, together. Right, then left, together. It takes an agonizingly slow pace, but Sakura is too scared to go any faster. She wants to make a joke about going at a snail's pace, but she isn't sure if it'd offend Susumu or not. 

When they reach the bottom, Sakura folds onto her knees and presses her fingers into the soft, cool earth beneath her.

"Alright, Sakura-san," Susumu says. "I will not be able to help you from here on. If you have any questions that are not about your journey to the sage, I may be able to answer them."

"Thank you, Susumu-san," Sakura murmurs after some time. 

But she's only half paying attention. She's got her fingertips on her eyes. She breathes in, and the breath that comes out is a sob that cleaves her in two. 

Chapter Text

She's exhausted. The pain, the disappointment, and the confusion drag themselves over her body and the second Sakura finishes sobbing, she falls asleep at the foot of the temple.

It is a deep slumber, brought on by the exhaustion of her body healing itself while simultaneously being wounded. She does not dream. When she next wakes, she discovers that a day has passed. There is no slime on her body to indicate that the slugs of Shikkotsu had crawled over her to get back into the temple. She takes the small blessing for what it is. 

She is stiff all over. She had fallen asleep half curled on her side with all of her equipment still on her back. There is a crick in her neck that refuses to be rolled out and she's sure she has the impression of grass stuck on her face. Still, it had been a good rest. A long rest that she needed. Her dream of Sasuke the night before last weighs heavy on her mind. She's happy she was in too much pain to dream. 

It takes some time, but she gets up. She fumbles with her chakra, trying to call up enough for the Mystic Palm Technique. She feels her chakra well up around her hands, practiced and steady and she places them on her eyes. 

There's a wealth of damage, but Katsuyu's acid seemed to know exactly what it was doing. None of the skin around her temples or her nose was harmed. The acid hadn't eaten through any bone either, which was a good sign. All it had done was make her eyes completely useless. There isn't anything to heal, really. She doesn't even need to disinfect anything. The wounds are pristine. Both of her eyes are just masses of thick scar tissue, knotted around itself. 

She takes down some of the swelling on her eyelids to make herself feel like she has the situation under control. This, this she can do. She's healed minor eye strains on herself before. Tsunade didn't like it; a great way to fuck up your sight was to fiddle with it with chakra. It was one of the reasons why the Uchiha went blind after over-use of their Sharingan during their careers as shinobi. Any dōjutsu user ran the risk of all sorts of eye problems later in life based on how heavily they relied on their techniques. 

But Sakura's chakra control is in the ninety fifth percentile, and she can handle taking down swelling on her eyelids. She holds her breath low in her stomach, then breathes out, then back in again as she unravels her red hitai-ate band from her arm. 

"Excuse me, Susumu-san," she says as she begins to wrap the red piece of cloth around her eyes. 

She ties it snugly so there's no chance it will fall off. Even if Katsuyu hadn't let the wound get infected when they caused it, keeping her eyes covered was a decent way to keep other unwanted germs out of her open wound. 

Slowly, Sakura rises to her feet. She has no idea where to go, or how to even start. She hasn't the faintest clue where the slug sage resides, or where she should start looking for their shrine. Susumu can't help her get there, and isn't likely to even want to help her despite being assigned as her companion. Sakura swallows the panic that bubbles in her throat, and shoves it into a box in the back of her mind. There's no time. 

What she should do, is memorize her equipment all over again. She knows how most of her things look and feel, but she's going to have to use every sense to recategorize her belongings. Tsunade was a war time medic; Sakura knows the inside of her medical supplies pouch backwards, upside down, blindfolded, in the dark and under heavy fire. Suddenly, she's incredibly grateful for her shishou's paranoia. It's one less thing she has to memorize. 

Sakura reaches out her hands and carefully moves forward. She slides her feet ahead of her so she doesn't accidentally trip herself on a root, or anything quite as embarrassing. She meets the treeline with little difficulty and puts her back to the nearest thick trunk. She slides down to the forest floor and breathes in deeply. Okay. She can do this. This isn't so bad. 

"Excuse me, Susumu-san," she says, as she takes her pack off of her shoulders. 

She can feel Susumu slither down her arm and back up once Sakura settles her pack back between her legs. She swallows and begins the process of memorizing the clasps of her sleeping bag and cactus pillow. They are the few things she does not have inside of her sealing scrolls, and Sakura is careful to memorize which side of her sleeping bag the zipper is on and which side is up or down for her pillow. When she is sure, she sets them down beside her. 

She'll go through her bag item by item, and quiz herself as she goes until she has everything memorized. Being a shinobi meant memorizing mission briefs the same minute they were received. This would take longer, but she could do it. She can do it. She will do it. 

"Susumu-san," Sakura says as she pulls her sealing scrolls out of her pack. 

"Yes, Sakura-san?"

Sakura rubs her feet together, suddenly feeling awkward. Starting conversations isn't a weak point for her per se. She's a friendly person, and well liked in the village. Generally speaking, she could talk to anyone. Sango must have spoiled her with her chatty ways. Susumu seemed dreadfully polite, not speaking until spoken to. 

You'd be that way too, Inner Sakura snorts, if Nao was your aunt. 

"How old are you?" 

The slug hums, as if they're surprised Sakura decided to make conversation. Sango was content to talk enough for two people, but Susumu is silent. Sakura - Sakura isn't too keen on quiet at the moment. The thousand slugs are all tucked in the forest, eating and talking with each other far away from Sakura's ears. Here, there is only the night sky above and the mountain temple looming behind her. Noise would be nice. 

"I am older than Sango by many years," Susumu says. "Like her, one day I was part of my father, and the next day, I was myself. I became myself before Senju Hashirama came to Shikkotsu for his contract, if that helps with time in your realm."

Sakura lifts one of her scrolls to her nose. She can't recognize anything from the way the paper feels between her fingers, but she gets the barest whiff of peach syrup and knows that's her food. She'll have to go through her scrolls individually to memorize what is in which bag, container, and can, but for now, this will be enough.

"Is that how all slugs are born?" Sakura asks. "One day, you're part of an older one, and then you're yourself?"

Sakura can feel Susumu bob their head on her shoulder. "Yes."

Sakura hums and lifts a second scroll to her nose. The smell of dried paper and ink is heavy, but if she adds just the barest bit of chakra to her nostrils she can smell her conspicuously scentless detergent. This one contains her clothes. 

"If Nao-sama is the oldest slug, does that mean Mitsuru-sama and Katsuyu-sama were - er, became themselves from her?"

"No," Susumu says. "Nao-oba-sama, tou-sama, and Katsuyu-sama are siblings and were all born from one parent."

Sakura furrows her brows. There was no fourth slug in the atrium when she visited, and she was only just there. 

"Is their parent the Nakemuji Sennin?" she asks. 

Susumu says nothing for a moment, and Sakura wonders if the slug is measuring their response. 

"Yes, and no," they finally say after some time in silence.

Sakura nods. She memorizes perfectly the different feelings of her clothing and food scrolls. She memorizes which way is up on her spile, and how her sleeping bag rolls out if she grabs it from nine possible angles. It takes a good portion of the evening. 

"Are all of the slugs in this forest related?" 

Susumu wiggles, adjusting themselves on her shoulder. 

"In some way or another, yes," Susumu says. "We all descend from our one parent, but there are other slugs younger than tou-sama and Nao-oba-sama, who are their siblings who are weaker because they are younger."

"Ah," Sakura says. "So strength for slugs is based on age?"

"Yes."

"Why is that?"

"It is because," Susumu begins as Sakura unfolds her clothing scroll, "we are creatures born of natural chakra who feed on natural chakra. There is strength in living many years and surviving. We are like kitsune but instead of growing tails, we grow patterns on our bodies."

Sakura thinks of Katsuyu's white belly and teal stripes, of Mitsuru's red body, speckled with white, of Nao's purple body and single white diamond. 

"How large do slugs get?"

Susumu does what Sakura would call a shrug if she could see it. 

"It depends on how large we would like to be," they say. "We are beings of the natural world, one unfettered by boundaries. When you could still see the forest, you saw the bones?"

Sakura nods. 

"The creatures they belonged to once lived in this forest. They were like us, but settled elsewhere."

Sakura is becoming rapidly aware that sage regions are absolutely nothing like the world she comes from. She swallows and rifles through her clothes. She recognizes the fortified menstruation underwear as well as her bars of detergent, soap, and combination shampoo/conditioner. Good, that's good. She feels a little better already. 

"Does surviving on nature chakra allow you to grow so large?"

"Yes, among other things."

That's enough to make Sakura put down one of her tidily folded tops. 

"Like what other things?"

Sakura can feel Susumu begin to slither down her shoulder, her arm, before slithering onto her knee. She can feel the slug's slime coalesce on her pant leg and resigns herself to being absolutely disgusting for the rest of her stay in the forest. 

"What do you think it means to survive on nature chakra?"

Sakura - hadn't put that much thought to it. 

"Eating it?"

There isn't very much to know about nature chakra. Only sages have that knowledge and there are few of those and far between. Susumu makes no sound, but Sakura gets the distinct feeling she's given the wrong answer. 

"What do you suppose is the law of the natural world, Sakura-san?"

She opens her mouth to say something like 'kill or be killed' but Sakura knows a test when she sees one. She closes her mouth. It isn't a riddle. Susumu probably doesn't have the time to riddle her this or riddle her that. That would just be silly. 

The laws of nature seem - difficult through living as a shinobi. What is nature to someone who can summon fire to their lips, or create a hurricane with their hands? But chakra itself if part of the natural world. As the old religions say, it is something borrowed and returned to the world upon one's death. It's why shinobi who follow those old ways, those stringent codes of ethics left over from the Warring States period, are convinced that they must do good with their chakra so that they do not poison the world upon their death. 

"The law of the natural world," Sakura says, "is giving and receiving."

She can feel Susumu relax onto her knee and Sakura counts it as a victory. She's always been good when she just settles down and thinks things through, that's always been her greatest strength. 

"Explain, Sakura-san."

"There are - legends," Sakura says, careful of her language, "about how humans came into the world, and how chakra was a strange and fantastic gift to them. People who believe in those legends believe that a person's chakra is a reflection of who they are, of their heart, and their deeds. They believe that when a person dies, just as their body becomes food for the worms and the worms are food for the birds and so on, that person's chakra feeds the world around them in turn."

Sakura bites her lip, and begins packing her clothing back into her scroll. 

"The natural world gives chakra, and we take it, use it, and return it when we die. All living things have it, but only some can mold it in certain ways, to make jutsu. But every living creature has chakra within them."

"So what does it mean to survive on nature chakra?" Susumu asks. 

Sakura narrows her eyes. It feels strange behind her red cloth. It bunches around her eyebrows. 

"Is it a - a constant giving and receiving?" she ventures. "Like…"

"Go on."

She licks her lips and rolls her food scroll between her hands. 

"Human beings eat food, which has nature chakra within it, because it is part of the natural world. When we - excrete it, in any way in excrement or in death, we're giving it back, so that in time it can return to us and we can return it to nature."

She unfurls her food scroll in her hands and folds her legs, allowing Susumu plenty of time to move if they get uncomfortable. Sakura wipes her hand over Tenten's tidy seals and feels her many food items pop into existence. 

"But that takes time. There's a long process of digestion, or cell deterioration from when we ingest the chakra to when we expel it."

She runs her fingers over her canteens, tests their weight. She carefully sniffs each bag of food at the seam to get a whiff of what's inside. 

"But you slugs must have a way of simultaneously ingesting and expelling that allows you to subsist entirely on nature chakra, is that right? That's how you survive on it alone?"

She looks to where Susumu can be and for a flash, she almost sees the slug. A shadowy blue outline, there and then gone. She resists the urge to rub the odd mirage from her eyes. It'd only agitate her wounds. 

"How do you suppose we do that, Sakura-san?"

Sakura hums under her breath. She recognizes the tins of peaches under her fingers. The meaty smell of jerky reminds her of Chouji, of Team Ten and her gathered in Yakiniku Q after returning from the Chuunin Exams. There's protein and granola bars, entire meal replacement bars, and soldier pills, god forbid she ever need to use them. 

Food. It takes time for humans to ingest and expel, especially depending on what they eat. But the slugs of Shikkotsu survive entirely on the forest itself. If eating veggies alone could give Sakura her contract, she'd do it in a heartbeat. Maybe there's something about only ingesting things that have been recently growing, whose residual nature chakra is still thrumming alive inside of it? With the food she had, canned and processed and churned out to be as aggressively nutritious under any number of circumstances, there was probably little of the natural world left to be found inside of it. 

So they constantly ingest vegetation of the forest, so they are constantly ingesting nearly pure nature chakra. That's - both interesting and deeply worrying. Do all summons survive on nature chakra the way the slugs of Shikkotsu do? If so, are all summons beings made of chakra, like the tailed beasts? Or do they only survive on it? Then again, isn't everything a being made of chakra, just with extra crude materials thrown in? Some beings are more pure energy than others, like Susumu and their many siblings. Humans were several steps down the ladder. 

"You are thinking too much, I think," Susumu says wryly, after several minutes stretch by in silence. 

Sakura can feel her face flush, and she knows the slug is right. 

"I think so, yes."

"That is something that many humans do," Susumu says. "Your ability to reason is an excellent gift, but you often use it to craft your own end. Many things are much simpler than your kind make them out to be."

Sakura chews the inside of her lip and memorizes the way a protein bar feels under her palms as opposed to a meal replacement bar. 

"Like how nature gives and receives," she murmurs, repeating Susumu's words. "It's simple."

The answer slaps her in the face. 

"The slime!"

She doesn't drop her protein bar by some miracle. How could she be so dense? Of course it was the slime, the slugs constantly produced it. It covered literally every square inch of the forest. What else could it possibly be?

"You - that's how you give back to nature, return nature chakra to the world. You ingest nature chakra in your food and immediately excrete it in slime. It puts you in a - a stasis, almost? Which allows for your longevity? Is that it? Because you're constantly interacting with the chakra of the natural world, you're constantly, not aging, I'd say but you're moving with it? You're constantly moving with nature!"

Sakura feels like she's just won something. That's how they do it! That explained, well, a lot. The vibrant, greenery of the forest, the slime that coated every surface, the ageless nature of summons who lived even before the world outside Shikkotsu went to war. The slugs were in a state of constant symbiosis with the natural world around them, feeding and being fed in return. 

"Exactly, Sakura-san."

Nature chakra wasn't something separate from the slugs, it was a part of them. An integral part of them. Senjutsu had to be an extension of that, an extension of the concept of constant giving and receiving but Sakura wasn't quite sure how. 

"That's - that's incredible," she says, voice going soft and reverent. "That's why your slime has healing properties. It's more or less pure chakra, you can just mold it to do whatever you choose. That's why it works as acid, too."

Life and death were twins the way healing and hurting were. Healing slime and corrosive acid were no different. And to think that both sides could live inside every slug in Shikkotsu? Sakura's head spins with the possibilities.  

"You could do anything with the slime, couldn't you?" she asks, hungry to learn, to know, to understand. 

Susumu curls into a tidy ball on her knee. 

"Nearly anything," they say. 

"Does this mean you all have different things you can do?" she asks. "Nao-sama can make clones with her body, and your father, that - speck of his? It can read minds. Does all of that have to do with your slime? Or is it something else?"

"Much like humans can mold chakra, so can slugs," Susumu replies. "Because we are constantly devouring and expelling chakra, we can do any great number of things with it. We have practice, moving it through our bodies, so there is no difficulty, encouraging it to take a certain form or perform a certain action."

Sakura leans her head back against the tree behind her. 

"What can you do, Susumu-san?" 

"I can know a person's heart by touching them."

Sakura rears back up, brows furrowed. She adjusts her red band across her face as it slips down over her nose. 

"That's like your father, yes? He can know the mind, and you can know the heart?"

She undoes the knot behind her head and ties it again more securely. 

"Something to that effect, yes," Susumu says. "My father can rifle through the mind and know all of a person by entering the mind with his slime. With my slime, through touch, I may know the heart of a person. Sango is similar, she may also know the mind of a person."

"What is the difference between the mind and the heart?"

Susumu chuckles. "The heart is a person's core. It is closer to their center, their core than the mind. It is their instinct, their passion, their hope, and their despair. The mind, the way my father sees it, is memories and values, what makes up a person. My sister sees the mind in a way that allows her to read a person's thoughts."

Sakura wants to smack herself. That's how Sango knew she was Tsunade's apprentice. But -

"Can she know the person's thoughts when she touches them?"

"No," Susumu says, sounding almost put out, "my sister, when touching a person, knows every thought they have ever had until that moment."

That's - horrifying. Sango knows about Sasuke. And Naruto. It was nothing compared to what Mitsuru knew about her, and now Susumu. Between the three of them, they knew everything Sakura ever had been and had ever wanted to be. 

"By any chance," Sakura says, a little grin curling across her face, "do you know of a family called the Yamanaka?"

Susumu straightens up a bit at that, and Sakura can feel the slug's weight change as they nod. 

'Other senses are supplementing the loss,' she thinks. And good. That's - that's good. 

"My father gave that family the gift of our sight when the clan was very young," Susumu says. "The first of their clan, Inoko, she was the first slug sage."

Sakura can feel her mouth purse in confusion. 

"I thought Senju Hashirama was the first slug sage."

Susumu snorts, and wow, that's a strange sound coming out of a creature with a mouse the size of her fingernail. 

"We have existed longer than human beings have fancied time to exist," Susumu huffs. "Of course there were sages before Senju Hashirama. Yamanaka Inoko was the first of them all."

Sakura holds her hands together in her lap, considering. 

"Why did Mitsuru-sama give her and her family his gift?"

Susumu seems to deflate at that. 

"You humans had been warring with each other for many ages before Senju Hashirama came for his contract. Even before my grandparent was born. My father favored the Yamanaka with his gift so that they might survive those war times."

Sakura tries to think back to her history lessons. There isn't very much that comes before the Warring States period, and nearly nothing that reaches back to before the Senju and Uchiha families were founded. Anything before that is legend. The God Tree, chakra fruit, the Rabbit Goddess; they were legends revered by those who still followed the old religions. Not false things per se, but nothing taken seriously by any shinobi of this age. 

Sakura wonders if that is a grave mistake. 

"What made Yamanaka Inoko and her family special enough for Mitsuru-sama to do such a thing?"

Susumu waits a moment, as if they are choosing their words carefully. Having grown accustomed to random pockets of silence, Sakura waits in turn. Susumu is much more careful with what they have to say, and Sakura supposes that's because they're in charge of being her companion, whatever that means. It has something to do with teaching, that's for sure. 

"It is because Inoko-san and the Yamanaka could see what others could not," Susumu finally says. "My father did not give them their sight, he merely enhanced it."

And wasn't that also incredible, that a being made of chakra could just give an entire family a kekkei genkai? And that it would remain in their blood, passed on generation after generation until today? Sakura wonders if Ino knows about her ancestor, about Inoko and her time in Shikkotsu. It was probably a precious story, and a guarded one. One told to children as they grew up, so that they would be proud of their heritage, but also so that they knew that their gift was one given, and that anything given could be taken away. 

Sakura runs her fingers across her unraveled food scroll and summons a granola bar. She rips it out of the wrapper and eats it in measured bites. The flavor isn't the best, but she wants a moment of silence. The wrapper she places back in the scroll, content to let garbage collect there until she can empty it out when she goes home. 

It is no wonder that the slugs of Shikkotsu are specific with who they contract with. There are likely to be swaths of people between Yamanaka Inoko and the Shodaime, but Sakura now recognizes that, that number is probably few and far between. The slugs had the power to enhance a natural proclivity to insight on human behavior into a full blown kekkei genkai. They devoured and expelled chakra at a rate that allowed them to heal and destroy simultaneously within their own bodies. They could touch you with their slime and know every thought you had ever had. Of course they were specific with who wielded their power. 

It was different than Naruto's toads, at least what of them she had seen. The toads seemed more suited for direct aggressive combat. Sakura hadn't seen any of Orochimaru's snake summons up close, but it was easy to see how a venomous creature like that would lend itself to covert or outright brawling. Even Kakashi's dogs made sense for battle or scouting, retrieval or intel. 

The slugs of Shikkotsu could easily do all of those and then some. 

Toads and snakes couldn't heal. Dogs couldn't read thoughts. Kikaichū could devour chakra, but could they expel it in the same way? Could they mould it in the same way? Hawks had awesome sight, but it didn't compare. 

Abruptly, Sakura is aware of why Tsunade wanted her to wait a little while longer before pursuing her contract. The slugs of Shikkotsu were one thousand strong, each with their own specific talent and use. All of them had to decide she was worthy. Would her time here be spent convincing them to like her? Or should she focus on the task she was given in finding the slug sage in their shrine, wherever that may be?

"Did slugs teach humanity how to heal with chakra?" she asks after a long moment. 

In a strange way, Sakura can - she can feel it when Susumu's pride wells up within them. She wonders if having the slug on her this long has developed some kind of feedback loop. Susumu can feel her heart, so maybe now she can feel Susumu's. The thought of being able to touch someone and know them terrifies her. She'd rather have a different gift. 

"Yamanaka Inoko was the first of the human healers, yes," Susumu says. 

The tale is long and curious and Sakura wonders if it's written down somewhere. 

Summons were creatures who lived and breathed chakra. They could heal themselves without thinking, their bodies so in tune with the natural energy around them, that what was borrowed was immediately replaced. Humans were more complicated, and took much longer to heal themselves without the aid of chakra. 

"The human body's process of healing," Susumu says, "is nature chakra in human beings already at work."

But Yamanaka Inoko worried over the state of her family. In war times, it is difficult to watch your people heal slowly when others are dying every day. 

So she learned senjutsu from the Nakemuji Sennin, who taught her how to transform one's own chakra to encourage another's to heal. This was the birth of the Mystic Palm Technique. The perfection of chakra control required for the technique ensured that Inoko was one of the few in her clan who could practice it for long, but once the Yamanaka created their alliance with the Nara and Akimichi, Inoko's healing techniques spread as gestures of goodwill. And so, medical ninjutsu began as a whisper in wartime. 

"The diamond on Nao-sama's head," Sakura ventures, "what is that?"

Susumu stiffens, and Sakura knows she is perhaps getting close to something she might not be allowed to talk about. 

"It is the progenitor of Tsunade-san's sealing technique, the Byakugō."

Sakura's jaw drops. 

"Shishou, she developed that here, in the forest?"

Susumu squirms, but answers anyway. 

"She learned the way that the slugs can constantly regenerate themselves, and replicated the effect by storing chakra in herself rather than ingesting and expelling."

Of course she did. Of course she did. Only Tsunade would see something that most humans would call impossible and figure out a way to make her fragile human body do it. 

"Sakura-san," Susumu says. And their voice pulls Sakura back to the present. 

"Yes?"

"I would not suggest forming a seal such as Tsunade-san's, with the way she has developed it."

Sakura reaches out her hand, and the slug clambers onto it without any fuss. 

"Why not?"

"What is it, Sakura-san, that makes human beings and we slugs of Shikkotsu different in the way that our bodies process chakra?"

Sakura rubs the back of her neck. "The rate of usage. You use more faster because you can take in and put more out faster. Humans are much slower."

"Yes," Susumu encourages. "The human body can only regenerate its own cells a given number of times over their life. After the age of twenty-five, this regeneration happens more slowly than the deterioration, which causes aging."

"Yes."

Sakura remembers this lesson, to the day. She had gone into a quiz blind with Tsunade. Most of her quizzes Sakura went in blind. There was little rhyme or reason to what she learned about the body initially. It all depended on who needed help at the hospital. She learned about skin when she was shadowing in the burn unit. She learned about reproductive systems when she shadowed on natural and assisted births. 

"We slugs, we live until we are tired of living. Then, we join nature again. But human beings do not have such a luxury," Susumu explains, "because you do not know how to use the chakra in the world around you to regenerate yourselves. You die when your bodies must."

"We take more than we give back."

Sakura's stomach drops out from inside of her. That was what it was. Slugs, toads, snakes, dogs; all these creatures had unimaginably long lifespans because they were perfectly in tune with the world around them. The only human beings that could do the same were sages, and those were few and far between. 

She had already known the dangers of the Byakugō seal, and the Creation Rebirth techniques derived from the massive storage of chakra it produced. But this - if her shishou had known of any way to bypass this kind of roadblock, surely, she would have done it. Tsunade was not the type of person to do anything halfway, much less the type of shinobi to create an imperfect jutsu. 

"Is it possible," Sakura begins, connecting the dots that are slowly making themselves apparent before her fingers, "to store nature chakra in a Byakugō seal?"

Susumu hesitates. That is all the answer Sakura needs. 

"It has never been attempted."

"But," Sakura insists, "it is possible?"

"Yes."

The answer makes something blossom in Sakura's stomach. Her idea sends Inner on her ass laughing, with a stubborn little smile across her face. 

Damn, she says, I like the way we think.


 Her mind is running a mile a minute and she’s never been this excited in her life.

The reason the Byakugō is inherently imperfect is because the chakra is stored over a long period of time and then released in short bursts. Chakra coils, chakra itself, it’s a system the body needs to use to become stronger. When it’s stored and not consistently used, atrophy begins in the chakra system itself. Tsunade was clever enough to circumvent that effect away from her chakra coils, but the result was the reduced rate of her lifespan.

If Sakura could figure out a way to store nature chakra, to combine it with her own energy through senjutsu to form her Byakugō, she could perfect an incomplete technique. The only problem was that the slugs ingested and expelled nature chakra in equal measure. Every living thing outside of humans did this, but the way human beings manipulated chakra prevented them from living in perfect balance with the natural world around them. However accidentally, they took more than they gave. It was only rectified in death, when everything returned to the world all at once.

So what she needed to do was figure out a way to store nature chakra in her Byakugō while simultaneously expelling chakra into the natural world. It would increase the strength of her seal at least tenfold. One’s own chakra, stored over a lifetime of training could give Tsunade the strength of one hundred people. But with nature chakra -

‘I wouldn’t the strength of a hundred,’ she thought, a giddy smile breaking across her face, ‘I would have the strength of a thousand. Ten thousand!’

The strength of the entire world, augmenting what her body would do.

The only issue was how. It was no wonder it had never been attempted before. But it was possible. That was all Sakura needed.

There was plenty of potential danger. Her chakra control had to be refined even further. The ninety-eighth percentile at least. She had to control the energy of the world around her and store it on her body. Releasing that much chakra in bursts of battle could destroy her chakra coils if she wasn’t careful. But if she could figure out the push and pull of taking and giving, then Sakura could do it without causing herself any harm.

Was it an ability that every person who could mold chakra was capable of? Or was it something that had to be given by the Nakemuji Sennin? Not for the first time, Sakura wishes there was more information on the Shodaime and his techniques. He was famed for being able to heal himself without forming hand signs, but there’s no history of him having a seal like Tsunade’s or a technique that resembled it.

‘But he was a slug sage, so that has to have something to do with it.’

Tsunade’s technique was imperfect because she hadn’t been interested in senjutsu. But the Shodaime knew something that Sakura didn’t. Something that combined nature chakra with his own to give him the ability to heal the same way the slugs did. The Shodaime had been killed in battle, which left no clues about whether or not his technique of giving and taking had given him the longevity of the slugs.

But the root of his healing had to be senjutsu. Did his body heal itself through manipulation of senjutsu? The history said he could heal himself while he was still engaged in battle, unconsciously. But how, exactly, did he do it? Was it like Yamanaka Inoko, who had been given a gift by one of the elder slugs of Shikkotsu? And if so, who had given him the gift? Katsuyu? Nao? The Nakemuji Sennin?

Katsuyu was capable of giving gifts to a certain degree. The strength of their attacks when Tsunade summoned them were directly proportional to the power in her seal. So it would make sense of Katsuyu was the progenitor of, well, all of the strength of the Senju that had come to Shikkotsu Forest.

Sakura finishes her granola bar and takes a few swigs from her lighter canteen.

Speaking of the Nakemuji Sennin, she needed to start looking for them.

“I’ll be standing now, Susumu-san.”

She can feel the slug wrap themselves firmly around her leg. Sakura puts her scrolls, her bedroll, and pillow back in her pack and puts it on. Then she stands, using her hand on the tree behind her to help her stand. She reaches out, and moves around the tree until she finds a low hanging branch. She breaks it off as carefully as she can and measures it against her body. It’s a little short, but it’ll do as a walking stick for now.

Susumu crawls up her leg and settles around her neck.

“You’re not allowed to help me get there, right?” she asks.

“Exactly, Sakura-san.”

“Okay.”

Sakura moves forward.

Her steps are calculated. She sweeps her walking stick out in front of her and moves where she doesn’t find any obstacles. She’s got no way to tell what is east and what is west. She knows that the mountain temple is at her back, and if she moves forward the way that she is, she’ll be headed southeast. There’s no guarantee that this is the direction towards the shrine, but it’s the best bet she’s got.

Sakura wonders then, if just because Susumu can’t help her, the other slugs won’t as well.

Sakura wouldn’t be half the shinobi she is if she didn’t find the guts to ask for help. She wouldn’t be the Godaime’s apprentice if she hadn’t asked. She wouldn’t have learned genjutsu, or learned how to use her tanto if she hadn’t ground up the courage to admit she didn’t know something, swallowed her pride, and asked.

The rush of the slugs out of the temple towards the heart of the forest for breakfast is over by now, and Sakura can hear the far off sounds of their conversations. She wonders if the slugs congregate in the heart of Shikkotsu on purpose, like a town square. She doubts that there’s very much news for them to share. What do they care what happens to the world outside of the forest? Human lives were blinks to creatures that were functionally immortal.

“Watch where you’re poking that thing!”

Sakura’s walking stick has managed to stick into something soft, much softer than the earth below her feet.

“Oh no, I’m so sorry,” she says, pulling back her stick and jamming it into the earth beside her foot. “Are you alright?”

The unhappy voice had come from her left, but Sakura isn’t sure if she’s managed to impale a small slug or disgruntle a much larger one. The voice isn’t very far away, and it’s much louder than Susumu and Sango’s, in their smaller forms on Sakura’s shoulders.

“I’m fine, but my tail’s gonna be smarting for days.

“Stop giving the human a hard time, Shigeo, you brat,” chimes a voice further away.

“Who are you to tell me what to do, Chie?”

“I’m older than you by fifty human years and have more spots than you have brains, that’s who.”

“Don’t you have to go suck the stupid out of Gen?”

“Yes, in fact, I’m supposed to do that right after I tell Yusao her only child was a shit to the only human we’ve had in here since Tsunade made her contract.”

“You’re going to tell my mom on me?”

“You’re picking on a blind kid!”

“We’re all blind!”

“This is her first time!”

Sakura stifles her laughter until it spills out of her mouth. It’s a bright sound, one she hadn’t known she had missed. The laugh fills her belly and makes it just a little bit harder to breathe.

The slugs near her quiet, and Sakura can feel their unseeing bright eyes on her, but she can’t help herself. After a few more moments of joy, she calms down and presses her free hand over her mouth to stop herself.

“I’m sorry, uh, Shigeo-san, Chie-san,” she says. “You just sound like people I know from home.”

They remind her of Sasuke and Naruto, before everything went wrong. The two of them bickered like they had been married, constantly jumped ahead of each other in arguments, guessing what the other would say first and spitting it out before a word could be put in edgewise. Sakura had never quite found a place in their dynamic. But here, where the boys do not exist, being reminded of the unit they were and the outlier she is hurts much less.

“I’m sorry you know anyone who reminds you of Chie,” Shigeo huffs.

Sakura smiles and moves her stick so that it only brushes the slug’s side. Okay, there they are.

“May I ask, what pronouns do the two of you use?” she asks. “I almost offended Susumu-san here earlier, and I wouldn’t want to make that mistake again.”

Shigeo moves a little but doesn’t leave; they must be moving their head towards something to eat.

“I’ll respond to whatever you call me,” Shigeo says through a mouthful. “Gender is a human thing and I think it’s stupid.”

“Whatever you call Susumu is fine by me,” Chie says, and their voice is much closer. “Your language changes much faster than ours does. I’ll trust you to use the right words.”

It’s much easier when a slug like Sango’s pronouns are announced in public spaces, but Sakura resigns herself to dealing with it.

She can feel a slimy head bump up against her hand, and Sakura lets her palm fall between a pair of eye stems.

“Chie-san, is this you?” she asks.

“Very good,” the slug replies. “Have you figured it out then? The way we do it?”

Sakura purses her lips. She gathers her chakra to her nose and ears, and slowly dials up how much her senses can gather. Nothing changes dramatically. She can hear slugs eating from further off and she can smell the sweet-not-smell of their slime, but otherwise, nothing has changed.

“No, Chie-san, I haven’t figured it out yet.”

The slug hums beneath her touch.

“That’s alright. You look like a clever one. I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon.”

“Either that or you’ll die here,” Shigeo adds helpfully.

“I’m going to spit on you,” Chie hisses.

“Come and get me, you old fart.”

Just as Chie is about to move to do Sakura doesn’t even know what, she feels her fingers twitch on the slug’s head.

“You can see me?” she asks.

Sakura can feel Chie’s eye stems shift as they turn to peer up at her.

“Of course I can. We all can.”

Sakura draws her walking stick closer to her side. There was a shuffle to her left, and she’s pretty sure it’s Shigeo moving again.

“Nao-sama said that the slugs of Shikkotsu are blind.”

“We are.”

Sakura shakes her head.

“Then I don’t understand. How do you see me?”

“We see your chakra.”

Oh. Oh! How ridiculous of her not to have figured it out by now. The slugs didn’t need eyes to see when they could ‘see’ the chakra in every living thing. And if seeing chakra was seeing like with eyes, then of course they could differentiate between her human body and their slug ones, between organic material and inorganic.

‘You will travel through the forest as we do,’ Nao had said. Did that mean - ?

“Is that something I can do?” Sakura asks.

Chie wiggles beneath her hand.

“Of course you can!”

“How?”

The Hyūga could see a person’s chakra coils and their tenketsu, could track the way a person’s chakra moved through their body. It effectively allowed them to see a person by only seeing their chakra. But they had their eyes open to do it. The slugs around her had small grey eyes on the edges of their eye stems, and didn’t seem prone to blinking.

“It’s the same as sensing chakra,” Shigeo grumbles. “Don’t you learn anything in the human world?”

“You could learn some manners in the human world,” Chie snipes.

“Chie-san,” Sakura interrupts, “please. How can I do it? I don’t know how.”

She can feel it when Shigeo moves because he turns his whole body around and his tail leaves a trail of slime that buffets against the side of Sakura’s foot.

“You have to stop trying to see the way you’re used to,” the slug says. “It’s not something you see with your eyes. You have to see with your entire body.”

That doesn’t make a lick of sense. Sakura bites down on the urge to say it out loud. See with her entire body? That can’t be right. She has tenketsu all over her body, she has points where she can expel chakra and oh dear god, that’s it. That’s it.

All over her, she can expel chakra, that’s how jutsus work. Formation of chakra, pulled from the reserves, focused at a particular tenketsu, and then expelled; the mouth and the hands are the most popular and easiest to focus, but there are a plethora of jutsu that require other tenketsu around the body as mediums.

Human beings rebuild chakra by resting and eating, essentially rebuilding by taking in what they lose from nature. If Sakura needs to be able to see with her whole body, she can’t just expel chakra. That would give her an idea of what’s around her, but it wouldn’t let her see. Like knowing someone is beside you because you can feel them breathing.

She needs to be able to bring in chakra as well, so that she can gather information about what is around her. That’s knowing who exactly is breathing down your neck.

She thinks to the Eight Gates that Gai and Lee rely on for their taijutsu, but somehow that seems – that seems wrong. She’s not trying to rewire her body to perform a great feat; she’s doing it to replace something she’s lost.

Sakura worries her lip between her teeth and thinks. What did Sango say? Sango said that human beings lacked flexibility. They went mad when deprived of something that they thought they deserved.

Sakura wasn’t promised sight at birth. She wasn’t promised any of her senses. She was barely promised her first day of life. If she had been born blind or deaf, she would have naturally begun to supplement not having these systems, not missing them because she never had a reason to. The only reason she wants to replace her sight is because she’s had it before

But the slugs of Shikkotsu must be born blind. They don’t replace their sight, they simply see. And that has to be because –

“You’re not augmenting or supplementing anything,” she breathes, “you’re doing both.”

Shigeo makes a sound that might be a chuckle. “So you aren’t an idiot after all.”

“You all,” she begins, “you all could see with your eyes alone if you wanted to. Couldn’t you?”

“If we chose to, yes,” Susumu says.

The sound of their voice surprises Sakura. It had been quite a while since she had last heard the slug speak, she had almost forgotten they were on her shoulder.

“Sight means many things in Shikkotsu, when we are able to see so much with different kinds of eyes.”

Susumu can see into the heart, Sango the mind, and Mitsuru the entirety of a person. Of course sight didn’t only mean seeing what was in front of you to them.

“You see with your whole bodies,” Sakura repeats.

She takes her hand off of Chie’s head and holds it up in front of her covered eyes. There is a single tenketsu in every finger, with two in the pinky. There is a point between the thumb and the index finger. There are three on the wrist. Sakura focuses solely on her palm upward.

She focuses the smallest amount of chakra to each tenketsu, and feels the familiar flare of heat that accompanies the beginning of a jutsu. The tenketsu in her hands are much more refined than those in her feet because of her work with medical ninjutsu. They only take what they need and nothing else.

She’s expelling, but she doesn’t know how to draw it back in as well. Fear makes her hesitate. She knows the costs of opening her tenketsu, has seen Lee in the aftermath of opening his fifth gate. She knows that this is nowhere even close to what he has trained for, but it makes her hold back. She has to be careful.

She’s got chakra control in the ninety-fifth percentile, she can do this. Of course she can do this. She wouldn’t be here if she wasn’t capable.

Without a second thought, Sakura opens the tenketsu on her right hand.

A burst of energy reaches into her hand, threatening to flood the pathways in her fingertips with the pulse of the natural world. Abruptly, there is color, all sorts of color. She can feel everything, can see the world cracking open like a pomegranate in front of her face. Somehow, with her hand outstretched in front of her, she can see Chie’s orange and white spots, and Shigeo’s mottled yellow and brown body. She can see the trees around her, the grass underneath her feet. She can see the spirits of the dead whirling around her fingertips.

It’s their chakra. Her body is taking in their chakra, and that’s how she can see. They are beings that are one with the natural world, and their bodies let her take as she will. Humans were selfish with their chakra; their bodies wouldn’t let her suck in their energy to give her this sight. But Sakura is in a forest outside the realms of shinobi and civilians.

All at once, it is suddenly too much. The pathways in her hands feel full to bursting, and she’s aware that she’s risking severe chakra burns all over her fingertips and palm if she isn’t careful. She’s doing something wrong, she’s doing something wrong, but she doesn’t know –

“Expel it! You’re taking it in but you aren’t expelling it!”

But Sakura doesn’t know how. She had started by expelling her own chakra, but the natural chakra of the world around her is desperate to enter her body. It buffets against her like a tide ready to swallow her whole.

“Shit!”

She doesn’t know who says it, but she can guess why. Her skin doesn’t feel like her skin anymore. Her clothes are too tight. Her shoes are wrong, somehow.

“Stop her!”

“We’d blow out the pathways in her arm if we did that!”

“We can fix it later, she’s turning into a – ”

Sakura cannot hear them. She is getting shorter, somehow, and fatter. She is oozing slowly out of her clothes. She doesn’t know where her bones are going. She is frightened, but the world around her is writhing to enter her body. It wants to make a home inside of her and it wants to be used.

“Sakura.”

It is Susumu’s voice. Calm and low. Serious. Sakura latches onto it like a lifeline.

“What is the law of the natural world?”

The law of the natural world is giving and receiving.

She is out of balance. She is receiving and receiving and giving nothing in return.

Sakura thinks about her wrist, which is nearly not a wrist anymore. She opens the three tenketsu there, and the world shifts around her. She releases her own chakra and nature energy spills into her to replace it.

Her body finds its way back to her. Her bones reshape themselves, skin returns from thick and oily. Her sandals are ruined. Her flak jacket has several popped seams. Her pants might as well be a skirt. Her armor mesh had managed to keep her strange new body contained, but just barely.

There are nine tenketsu open on her arm, six of them receiving and three of them giving. Before anything else can go wrong, Sakura closes them.

Her legs feel like jelly. She wobbles, then leans heavily on her walking stick. A fat body moves to support her, and between her stick and the slug, Sakura is levied gently onto the ground.

“Eat this,” says Shigeo’s voice, muffled around something.

Sakura cradles her right hand close to her chest, and puts down her walking stick. With her left hand, she reaches out to where Shigeo’s mouth should be. He spits a bundled leaf into her hand and without a moment’s hesitation Sakura eats it.

It is a bitter herb that brings tears to her eyes, but it is not the worst thing she has ever put in her mouth. She chews and swallows obediently.

Her body is confused. Nature chakra is present in her reserves, wild and excited about it’s new container. Her own chakra, much more reserved, does not know how to react. They are not mixing, but they are not separate.

“What happened?”

“You attempted sage mode like an idiot,” Shigeo says.

Sakura chokes on the flavor of greenery in her mouth.

“I what?”

Chie laughs, and Sakura turns her head to where the sound is coming from. She presses her fingers into the slug beside her, and the ‘oof’ she gets in return is the only indication that she’s leaning on Shigeo. Her earlier sight is gone.

“Subconsciously, you started trying to mold natural energy and your own chakra into senjutsu chakra,” Chie explains.

“Only instead of waiting until you met Onyomi to do it, so y’know, he could teach you how to do it with proper technique, you just went for it!” Shigeo huffs.

Sakura leans heavily into their side.

“My body changed,” she says, licking the inside of her mouth. The leaf had a strange aftertaste.

“You were turning into a slug,” Shigeo supplies helpfully.

Sakura wants to take a yearlong nap.

“I was turning into a slug?”

“Yeah,” Shigeo says, “it’s a shitty side effect that’s circumvented when you have the proper technique. But since you’re an idiot and you don’t, you almost became one of us.”

Sakura wonders how many of the thousand slugs of Shikkotsu are shinobi who made her same mistake. It’s only her chakra control that saved her. That and Susumu’s voice, coaching her through her wild mistake.

Sakura lifts her hand up before her face. It is burned, yes, that much she can feel. The skin feels stretched out and hot on her palm and her fingertips feel like they’ve already begun to blister.

“I could see for a little while,” she murmurs. “Chie-san, Shigeo-san, I could see both of you. And the trees and the grass.”

Her control needs work. She needs to get to the ninety-eighth percentile. Absolutely perfect control would be better, but she’s not sure she can make a five point jump in under five months. If she had better control, she wouldn’t have started molding the two energies within herself. Even now in her belly, she can feel the sharp, uncontrolled edges of nature chakra threatening to make her sick.

Expulsion is part of the process. Sakura wretches up her granola bar into the earth in front of her knees.

“Great,” Shigeo says.

“Sorry,” Sakura murmurs.

“Don’t move, stupid,” Shigeo continues. The slug bobs their head, but doesn’t leave their side. She wonders if they can extend their neck or something, because the berries that they drop into Sakura’s lap weren’t in her line of sight when she could see the trees.

“Eat these.”

She does. Her stomach calms, and so does her chakra.

“Is the technique used to create senjutsu chakra called the Dance of Earth and Sky?”

She remembers Sango’s compliment, and her cryptic answer when Sakura questioned it.

“Maybe,” is all Shigeo says.

Sakura will take it. She doesn’t want to know at this point. She’s had a long day.

She had been able to see. For however, briefly, she had done it. And she had accidentally taken the first steps to sage mode, to forming senjutsu chakra within herself. That was plenty. That was more than enough. She feels dizzy with the weight of what she has done.

Once she got over her fear, it had been easy. The world around her wanted her to be a part of it. It had welcomed her like nothing ever had before. It called her home. It took up space in her body. It demanded her chakra in return. It slipped in and then out of her, all at once benevolent and malicious. But it was neither. It only was. Giving and receiving, pushing and pulling.

A person didn’t need a strong body or mind to gain sage mode in Shikkotsu Forest. They needed both. They needed to be totally in control of themselves. No move could be made extraneously. Nothing could afford to be wasted. No hesitation, no fear, no pulled punches. Everything had to have a purpose. Use what you have and only what you need. It was exactly like Tsunade, exactly like the way she taught, exactly the way medical ninjutsu worked.

Sakura could absolutely fucking do this.

“You should rest now, Sakura-san,” Susumu says, and the slug’s voice sounds far away, much farther away than their previous perch on Sakura’s shoulder.

It suddenly occurs to Sakura that she slept through the night. Her long, black slumber began during breakfast time for the thousand slugs of the forest. She can’t tell what’s day and what’s night anymore, by virtue of the very little light that manages to slip through the canopy. For all she knew, she had stumbled upon Chie and Shigeo in the middle of a midnight-midday snack. 

“Is time different here?” she asks after a few moments.

“Time!” Shigeo huffs. “Humans invented time to count down the days until they died.”

“What he means,” Chie cuts in cleanly, “is yes.”

Sakura swallows, fingers digging into her walking stick on the ground beside her.

“I thought I got here two days ago. Is that right?”

She can hear the rustling sound she recognizes as a slug shrug.

“Your sleeping pattern may think so, but there are many differences between a slug hour and a human lifetime.”

Tsunade had only sent her away for a minimum of a month and a half. Was this why? Because time was foreign in sage regions? What if she had been here for years but hadn’t even noticed it? No, no, if she had been here for years she would have known. She would have run out of rations.

Even as the thought enters her head, Sakura is aware that she hasn’t been eating on a very tight schedule. She’s had apricots and a granola bar, and lots of water. There are no consistent mealtimes. She’s only eaten when she’s been hungry and that’s been rare. She’s vomited twice, but she’s been fed the food of the forest by Shigeo, who hopefully knows what will and will not kill her.

Around a jaw-cracking yawn, Sakura wonders if eating the same way the slugs do will help her body more naturally adapt to having nature energy inside of it.

“Rest, Sakura-san,” Susumu says. “You will need your strength for your journey.”

Sakura wonders if the berries Shigeo made her eat are forcing her fatigue, but she can feel the chakra coils in her hand demanding rest and her reserves are still confused. The entire system that is her body is still in shock from temporarily becoming slug-like. For the second time in recent memory, exhaustion tumbles over Sakura when she is silly enough to stand in its path.

She falls asleep on Shigeo, with her ruined boots still on her feet.

Chapter Text

Sakura, like in those ages before she was born, measures time by her period. When she wakes up cramping, she knows a month has passed. It has passed in glory.

She has learned, and she has not stopped learning. She wakes and sleeps with the slugs, Susumu always at her neck. Others have come and gone, and Sakura learns their names. She knows fifty of the one thousand slugs of Shikkotsu, and more greet her every day.

She refines her control. She learns to open every tenketsu on her body, the half of the left to receive and the half on the right to give. She can feel the whole world thrumming in her veins. It seems to welcome her home, back to the great network of energy she was part of before she was in her mother’s womb, and to which she will return once she has died. It is as excruciating as it is comfortable. It is hard, hard work.

Her right hand is still scarred from the chakra burns she gave herself on her first try. She had never healed herself blind before. But Shigeo had stuck her hand in his slimy mouth and took away most of the pain. The blisters and callouses are good, and Sakura has no idea how ugly the scarring is. Nothing has been irreparably damaged. She still has a working hand. She already wears gloves more often than naught anyway. It is a small price to pay for what she is learning.  

Letting in nature energy is easier when she is moving. She practices often. She opens one tenketsu on the meat of her right hand and one at the same place on her left. She leaves them open all day and moves with seeing hands through the forest. Even if she’s doing something small, like running her fingers through her hair or chewing her breakfast, the flow of energy in and out of her body comes like second nature. She never accidentally turns into a slug again.

She learns how to see. Kiba and Akamaru had taught her how to smell for the purpose of mimicking smells. And that is a kind of sight. But when Sakura opens her entire body to the entire world, she can see clearly. The world is alight with a soft blue fire, churning insistently at the core of every living creature. The slugs are bright and insistent because they are constantly giving and receiving, much as she is. And the pure chakra in the trees and the leaves and the greens thrums like music she knows the words to. There is a pulse that Sakura can feel, can match her own heartbeat to. She is part of it. Part of Shikkotsu Forest, part of the entire world.

She can see the spirits. What were little yellow spheres of light are full grown people, men and women and those in between or outside those lines. They are part of the forest too, having died there, having their bodies buried by thick vegetation. Their bones feed the trees and the trees feed Shikkotsu.

Their bodies, when she sees them are beautiful. They are outlined in a soft haze of yellow light, but they are dressed in what clothes they died in. Some are wrapped in resplendent armor. Others, simple shifts or shirts and pants. A few of them died naked.

Some, Susumu told her, were not people who had died receiving their contracts. Some were people who had contracted with the slugs, but came back to Shikkotsu when their lives were approaching their ends.

“The body is buried here,” Susumu had said, “but the soul is immaterial and may live with us forever.”

Sakura wonders what it would be like to return to the forest when her body began its final decay. The slugs can see the spirits all of the time, and can speak to them. The spirits can speak to each other if they so choose. Shikkotsu is not the Pure Land, but it is something adjacent to it. It is one of very few places where the dead and the living may interact, if one only knows how to do it. The dead never really leave the living behind. Not while there are memories and ancestral shrines. It is easier for them to stay in Shikkotsu, in this strange middle ground while there are those on the other side who still know their names. When people forget, then they must move on. 

There are few from villages outside of Konoha in the forest. The slugs are particular, and their contract circulated in damp areas that mimicked Shikkotsu in shape. When asked about it, Shigeo’s mother Yusao would say that humans raised in such climates were of a similar mind to the slugs of Shikkotsu. But there were spirits from Suna, where poisons demanded a clever hand and refined healing arts. So did nin from Kiri every once in a while. But a wealth of those spirits in the forest where those of Konoha shinobi.

When she learned how to see, they had flooded her with questions. No matter where the dead shinobi had lived their lives, most of them had died in the wars before the hidden villages were founded. There really hadn’t been very many people who successfully contracted with the slugs in her village in the generations between Tsunade and the Shodaime.

The spirits understood that a great deal of time had passed, and many of them asked about the state of the world on the outside. The spirits of Konoha shinobi crowded around her, and not for the first time, Sakura was grateful she was as bookish as she was. She didn’t often read tomes of history for fun, but her village was relatively young. It wasn’t hard to understand a couple generations worth of history, especially when you glided through the academy like a duck on water because you were slotted to be a career genin.

So they gather around her, the ghosts of Shikkotsu, and she tells them of the Shinobi World Wars and Orochimaru’s invasion. She tells them of Tsunade’s absence and return, outlines the events of the Kyuubi Attack as well as she can with the limited information she has at her disposal. She flinches her way through the Uchiha Massacre, and Konoha’s loss of the last two Uchiha. But she tells them of the new hospital, and the sweeping reforms that came with Tsunade’s induction as Godaime. She tells the ghosts that their village is weak, but they are growing. They are surviving. Some nod in understanding, others in approval. Many are concerned.

There is an Uchiha in Shikkotsu called Ikue who looks at Sakura with the singleminded intensity that only an Uchiha could possess. 

She says to her, "You were close with one of them, my kinsmen."

Sakura nods. 

"Konohagakure has done many things to the Uchiha. Being their home is the chiefest among them. If my kinsman does not return, it will not be for lack of loved ones."

Ikue was old enough to have fought beside Senju Hashirama. Sakura knows the woman is wise. Knows inherently that she is not trying to hurt her. But when Sakura thinks of Sasuke, she only can see Kiba and Akamaru laid up in a bed. She can only see Neji with a perforated lung, organs rapidly failing. She sees Shikamaru weeping, and Chouji in intensive care. She can see Lee, not battle ready but charging in anyway. 

She can see Naruto, carried on Kakashi's back, clutching a hitai-ate. 

The world is much bigger than a single boy. His actions had consequences that did severe damage on the people that Sakura has come to see as family. And Sakura wants to believe that there is good in Sasuke, that he will one day realize that Naruto is his brother as much as Itachi is, that there are people within Konoha's walls who will fight and die to keep him safe. But Sakura has learned to give and receive in Shikkotsu. Love is something that can be given and given and given, but when the well empties as all wells do, there is only stone at the bottom. 

Sakura knows she cannot draw water from a stone. 

She does not get over him. Not in as many words. She struggles and wrestles with the idea alone that she has outgrown her infatuation. But every time her heart yearns for Sasuke, she can only see the devastation he left in his wake. She can only feel his breath on the back of her neck. She can only feel her shame. 

She does not know if she wants him to come home. She does not know if there is room in her life for a boy like that, not anymore. There are many other people for her to look after. And Sakura knows, Sakura knows that love is not a box that gets filled up, and will not let any more inside. She knows it gets bigger the more you love. 

But Sakura is a shinobi. And she is too soft. Much to soft for a kunoichi by half. Her heart is her greatest strength and her greatest downfall. If she came across Sasuke in battle, if he held his sword to Naruto's throat, she would not have time to convince him not to kill her friend. He had proven that he would do whatever it was he had to do to reach his goal. And if that meant killing people, she was sure that Sasuke wouldn't hesitate. 

If it came between Naruto and Sasuke, Sakura knows she would choose Naruto every time. If it were the boy she loved or Ino, she would pick Ino. And Lee. And Tenten, and Hinata and Neji, and Akamaru and Kiba, and Shino, and Shikamaru, and Chouji. She would pick her shishou. She would pick Shizune. And Kurenai and Asuma and Gai. She would pick Kakashi. 

She would choose her parents. She would choose herself. 

She grows up in fits and starts. She doesn't notice it. 

Her chakra reserves deepen with her new training. Every day, she empties her own reserves, which encourages them to deepen to sustain her. But when nature energy floods into her body, her reserves get somehow stronger. More resilient. Chakra exhaustion does not come because nature energy does not want it to. The natural world wants to move and keep moving, and Sakura's body is being made to keep up. So reserves deepen, like one muscle being worked, and the strengthen like another being pushed to its limits.

She eats the food of Shikkotsu more than she eats the food she packed. It's hard not to. When she can feel the pulse of the universe in the berries and the fruits that she picks with her hands, her body moves before she can stop herself, her mouth bites before she can second-guess. It is not a matter of reinforcing her own life with the lives the vegetation around her. But this world wants her to be a part of it. And in the pit of her belly, she wants to be a part of it as well. 

And as she eats, her body learns faster. If she eats well in the night, her tenketsu loosen themselves. Soon, she does not have to think about opening her left or closing her right. Her body adjusts to what she feeds it and expels her chakra as she devours the forest. 

The food makes her hair grow. That, too is something strange. It grows at an extraordinary rate, especially when her tenketesu are giving and receiving simultaneously. It grows right out of her braids and brushes her shoulder blades. It is -  peculiar to have hair so long. Cutting it short had been a symbol as well as a practical move. But Sakura knows that kunoichi, that shinobi don't need short hair to fight well.

To have long hair in the shinobi world means that you are not concerned it could be used against you because no one will ever get close enough to. It's why the Hyūga wear their hair long. The Yamanaka and Akamichi as well. Even the Uchiha did; Ikue's mane of spiky black hair was a testament to her abilities while she lived. 

Sakura tugs her hair out of its updo and wonders if she will ever feel strong enough to leave it down again. She thinks of her shishou's low pigtails and of Kurenai's thick black hair. Sakura tugs on her pink locks, worries them between her fingers. Maybe she'll never feel that powerful. Maybe she doesn't have to. Maybe, she can just be. 

Sakura accidentally does not spend very much time looking for the Nakemuji Sennin. This is not even remotely her fault. She gets waylaid by her curiosity, by her desire to understand how and why and when and what for. 

The slugs are the progenitors of medical ninjutsu and Sakura wants to know everything. 

She learns because she is a ravenous girl and the slugs are eager to teach her. Chie and Gen teach her how to remove poison from the body manually, without sucking at the wound or injecting an antidote. She cuts the meat of her thigh and the slugs teach her how to separate her own red blood cells from her white, breaking down the red fluid to its basest components. When she knows how to divide her white blood cells, when she knows how to pull out excess sugar from her bloodstream, Chie tells her that there isn't a substance that Sakura couldn't remove from her own, much less anyone else's body. 

She learns how to use her chakra to talk to the body. It was a lost art, not just encouraging bones to mend themselves or urging them in the right direction, but following and strengthening the body's impulse to demand healing from itself. 

Shigeo teaches her how to isolate parts of her body, how to cut them off from her autonomic nervous system and how to keep them functioning with chakra and willpower. Her control refines, and Sakura can tell her nervous system to stop pumping her heart and it does. She tells the cells in her heart to keep pumping blood, to keep functioning, and they do. Sakura tells her pituitary gland to stop creating growth hormones, but uses her chakra to stimulate hair and nail growth, tells her uterus to shed its lining when she wants it to. 

She learns how to live in her body. Learns how to trust herself. Her consciousness rails against her at first. So do her instincts. Sakura's heart does not want to stop beating. Her neurons do not want to stop firing. It is unnatural for these systems to stop working. 

"Yin and yang," Shigeo says. "Your forebrain and your hindbrain. Instinct and intellect. They must be as one."

Crushing down her body's urges to live is terrifying, but Sakura knows she can keep herself alive. She could put herself in a coma, could shut down her mind, open her tenketsu and live like monks live, on no food or water but only on the chakra of the universe vibrating around her. But it takes time. 

Inner Sakura is stubborn. Calls her crazy. Calls her insane. Accuses her of trying to kill them both. 

It starts in the smallest possible way. Shigeo is patient, but insistent.

Sakura scrapes her arm on a tree branch and Shigeo tells her to stop her blood flow, and to let the world around her heal it for her. She has to concentrate. Concentrate harder than she's ever focused on absolutely anything before in her life. She thinks Shigeo is crazy. Her body wants, desperately wants to send blood, to clot and close the wound to keep anything dangerous in the outside world and not inside where it could do harm.

She sweats with the effort of holding her instinct at bay. She is completely still and she is struggling. It is so hard for a scrape only a few centimeters long. But her body is desperate. It wants to heal itself. 

The tenketsu on Sakura's mouth are open and she turns her face to Shigeo. The yellow and brown slug is staring at her.

"As one, Sakura. As one."

It takes trust. It takes an extraordinary amount of trust. It is agonizing, ignoring every warning sign, ignoring the way Inner screeches at her to save herself.

But the tenketsu that are open on her mouth let nature chakra in, and as she twiddles her thumbs to make sure she is still moving, the energy closes the wound for her. 

The secret of the healing factors that slug sage mode provides is not a secret exclusive to slug sage mode. Her shishou's Byakugō was a wartime technique, stunning in its effectiveness and devastating in its human cost. It bypassed the connection between human beings and the world around them for a noble purpose, but it was not a necessary leap into hell. 

The secret of Senju Hashirama's magnificent ability to heal without hand signs, was a result of trusting the body, of trusting the energy of the natural world to heal what was broken. 

Nature was patient. It could wear away at a mountain for a millimeter a year until what one generation called a mountain, their descendants would call a valley. After a great storm or an earthquake, the natural world could right itself without any human intervention. The human body did its best to mimic this ability in a tidy, self contained way. But it wasn't necessary. It had been lost, the technique of tuning oneself in so finely to the world around them, that nature's process of renewal had been worn away in the human memory. More than anything, it was an act of great trust. 

So Sakura learns how to trust.

After accidentally becoming a slug the first time, she had replaced her pair of ruined pants with a pair of shorts and her shirt with a tank top that she wore under her flak jacket. She stopped wearing shoes. Even without her newfound sight, she was hyper aware of the world around her in a way she never had been before. 

She learns how to run in the forest, how to anticipate low hanging branches or roots that jut their backs into footpaths to trip her up. She learns how to turn at the drop of a hat, how to climb trees just as fast without chakra as she can with it. She scrapes her hands and knees bloody as she goes, and then she vaults herself from branch to branch, flying through the forest, trusting that she can and will catch herself. 

She falls once. She lands poorly. She breaks her leg. 

She panics. Sakura has never had to heal herself blind before. She tries to view it as a learning opportunity rather than a death sentence. 

But then she remembers that her body wants her to heal, and that the natural world wants her to heal. Sakura opens her tenketsu, lets the energy in and back out again. She lets go. 

Her leg is healed in seconds. As if it had never been broken. 

She is up and running again without a second thought. She does not test the leg to make sure it has healed properly. She trusts her body, she trusts the universe around her. And in turn, they begin to trust her. 

A little while after that, she stops hearing Inner Sakura. 

Healing this way isn't easy, and she can understand why so few people manage to master it. It defied every part of Sakura's body, every part of her mind to do let nature take its time with her. And even after two periods in Shikkotsu, she cannot do it consistently. She must concentrate. After a little while, after falls and scrapes and cuts and bruises, she learns how to compartmentalize. She cannot do it while she is in the middle of a conversation, or while her mind is elsewhere. She needs to focus on the world around her, focus on not molding, not encouraging, but allowing, and then it happens. 

She does not feel bad that she cannot do this all at once. The Shodaime was well into his thirties when he became a slug sage. Sakura is fourteen. She has time. There are other things she can do instinctively. She can unleash the natural world onto her body between one blink and the next. She can separate her saliva down to the molecular level without even opening her mouth. She can see despite her ruined eyes. She make her brain stop her heart, and she can manipulate her chakra within herself to keep it pumping. 

One day, Sakura will be able to quiet her mind and her body to a oneness so complete, so absolutely in tune with the world around her, that if she wanted to she could live for four hundred years. 

Today, she learns how to coat a handful of stomach acid in her chakra and draw it out of herself to use as a weapon. Today she throws herself out of trees until she can manipulate her chakra at the cellular level to harden her skin and her bones so that when she hits the ground from a forty meter drop, she's back up and running in a second, her chakra absorbing the shock instead of her body. Her entire body becomes a callous. Every day she goes to sleep exhausted and every morning she wakes up ready to conquer.  

Sakura, however accidentally, forgets what life is like outside of the forest. She forgets her promise to Neji. It's easy. Easier than it ought to be. 

There is no time to think of home, not even to think of her parents, much less Neji. Not when she's nocturnal, and the slugs have lifetimes worth of information to cram into her skull. It's like Tsunade's training but with a thousand teachers, each one of them demanding her attention before another snatches it up. She's busy. She knows that's not an excuse. But she still doesn't think of them.

It's easy to blame it on waking in the night and sleeping in the day. She can't meditate at dawn because she must be awake by dusk. It just doesn't work out. It isn't a perfect excuse, but it is the only one she has. 

She wonders sometimes, whether or not she should just stay. The slugs would let her. She could ask Katsuyu to tell Tsunade she just - wasn't coming home. 

But the idea of being a missing nin, of being like Sasuke makes bile rise so high in Sakura's throat she thinks she might vomit. 

It would be nice to stay, sure. But if she gets her contract, she can always come back. Shikkotsu wasn't going anywhere. She could learn all she needed to know whenever she needed to learn it. 

So Sakura presses onward, and she keeps moving forward. 

Shikkotsu is a labyrinth of thick vegetation, lit up with wondrous colors at night and suitably maze like in the day. With her blind eyes and seeing body, Sakura navigates it as the slugs do. She isn't sure of which direction to pick, so she heads east, in the opposite direction of the temple that housed Nao, Mitsuru, and Katsuyu. 

As she walks, she is taught. Sometimes the ghosts trail her as she peppers Susumu with questions. Chie and Shigeo somehow always manage to find her, wherever she is in the forest, and on occasion they have been known to bother her. 

Every once in a while, the ghosts will challenge her to a spar. They are immaterial, so they cannot touch her, but she gets a warm feeling whenever they pass too close to her. This is how she learns katas from Kiri, and the way that Suna shinobi wield their weapons. Ikue shows her the Breath of Life technique, how to use her breath to increase her internal temperature so that she never wants for a blanket even on the coldest nights in the forest. 

The ghosts badger her to correct her form, to straighten her back or lift her elbow. It's like having another couple hundred teachers, along with the thousand slugs she already has to deal with. But they are patient with her. They see no divide between clans and nations now that they are dead. What matters now is that she is of Shikkotsu, and therefore, she is their little sibling. They take it upon themselves to make sure she survives. 

The world needs more healers. The ghosts know this better than Sakura ever will. 

Some of them walk with her as she goes east. Many don't know where she's going; they took different routes to find the Nakemuji Sennin. When she asks others if she's going in the right direction, their non answers and deflections assure her that she is. 

No one will give her any absolute truth. They may want to help her, but they know this journey is hers alone. She must make it to the shrine or perish. None of them want her to die in the forest.


There is a valley beneath Sakura's feet. She stands, her toes sinking into soft grass and peers sightlessly into the bowl below her. 

Susumu is perched at her shoulder and Gen, Chie's mate is at her side. There is a Yamanaka ghost beside her, pale eyes glittering in the night. 

"You know," Sakura says, measuring her words. The valley is not barren; bright flowers speckle it liberally, but there are no trees. It is not empty, but it is desolate compared to the rest of Shikkotsu. 

She holds her hand to her stomach, below her navel and feels her body begin to stir. It is her third period. She has been gone three months. She has been walking for days. When she sleeps and cannot inhibit herself, her body believes in the universe and allows itself to be healed. 

"I don't think I ever asked where the slugs come from."

She raises a hand and lays it gently on Susumu's long body. The slug had increased their weight as Sakura traveled, lengthening and fattening itself over time. She had not been expecting the weight training, but she's glad for it. 

"You are old," Sakura says, "but you do not know how old you are."

"Yes," Susumu replies. 

Sakura resists the urge to snort. 

"You told me once, Susumu-san," Sakura says, "that your father and aunt and Katsuyu-sama all have a parent. But you never told me who that is."

Susumu bobs their head. 

"That is correct."

Sakura steps down over the edge, and feels herself begin to slide. She keeps steady and puts her arms out, shooting down the ridge of the valley towards the meadowlands below. 

"Will I ever find out?"

Gen is fast and slides down moments after she takes off. The ghost floats down at a slower pace, but Sakura can feel her warmth not very far behind her. 

"I think so, Sakura-san," Susumu says. "I think so."

The world is full of color, and Sakura can feel it. The bottom of the valley is somehow brighter than the forest itself. There were multi-colored plants and flowers in the forest, but in the valley, Sakura can see the stars. There are great and strange lights above her head, wriggling and shifting like the slugs do across the forest floor. 

There is little slime, only the feeling of fresh growing grass beneath her feet. It rises high to her hips and flowers rise higher. The buds all point in the same direction. 

Sunflowers will turn their faces to suck in the yellow star's warmth. These flowers are doing the same. 

Sakura follows them, running her fingers over their petals. Her walk is slow and measured. There is no need to rush. The Nakemuji Sennin will be there when she gets there. 

"You're made of chakra," Sakura muses. Gen has sidled up beside her and keeps pace. The Yamanaka ghost follows more sedately. She was a strange woman, who watched Sakura but said very little to her. Her hair was much darker than Ino's, more of a red hue than a true blonde. But her eyes were as striking as her friend's.

"There are few creatures in the known world made entirely of chakra," Sakura presses.

There were forest spirits, deer with white pelts and many horns. Wolves whose paws were of a size with Sakura's head. The Nara and the Hatake had made contracts with such spirits in return for their services protecting packs and herds. These creatures were manifestations of nature chakra, and the earth's desire to protect itself and be protected from negative human influence. They were creatures of willpower and energy, who belonged to no one but who willingly exchanged their strength for sustained safety. 

But there were other beings that were more chakra than willpower. More brute strength, raw and untamable, desiring neither protection nor destruction but continued, unfettered existence. 

Sakura had only ever seen the Kyuubi in drawings or sketches. Had only ever read about it in first person narratives of the attack that happened before she was born. The first time she had felt the malevolent chakra had been in Wave, when Naruto had gone berserk over what they had thought was Sasuke's death. 

She had seen part of the Ichibi when she held her single kunai in defense of Sasuke's life. It had frightened her, but she hadn't been able to think about it. Its killer intent had not been able to eclipse her fierce desire to protect. But in retrospect, the creature had been much different from the Kyuubi. After all, Gaara had been much different from Naruto. 

When Naruto released some of the Kyuubi's chakra, it was deafening, overpowering, and terrifying. But it had only been used to revenge someone he loved. Despite what Sakura had known then, Naruto had been able to control the Kyuubi's chakra through his own willpower, through his desperation to avenge Sasuke. He had something to fight for, and that made all the difference. 

Gaara had been a cautionary tale for Naruto. He was what her teammate could have become if he had not gotten a team, had not been determined to be acknowledged, admired, and loved. Gaara's power, the Ichibi's power had no focus. It was lashing out because it was agitated, and that agitation translated into the desire for blood.

After spending three months in Shikkotsu, Sakura knows that nature always wants blood. Something has to die for something else to survive. It is that movement of life and death that sustains the universe. Nature wanted death for the sake of balance. And it was a testament to the poor seal that kept the Ichibi inside of Gaara that the beast's urges for blood had not been tempered by the larger world's desire for life.  

There were seven other tailed beasts besides the Ichibi and the Kyuubi. Beings of unimaginable strength, sealed tightly in human containers and spread across the shinobi world. Sakura didn't know the shape of each creature, but she knew that somewhere, inside some person lived a creature that was quite literally, a slice of the chakra of the world shoved into a flimsy body. 

It was miraculous that seal masters had been able to create jinchuuriki in the first place. It should have been impossible. It was no wonder the beasts occasionally got free and ran amok. They were beings of nature confined into pockets outside of space and time, influenced by human emotion. The beasts weren't inherently evil; they had become degraded by being forced to live out their extraordinarily long lives in chambers that they could not comfortably fit inside.

No wonder jinchuuriki had to be carefully chosen; Sakura hadn't been overcome by nature chakra because she had learned how to expel it. Jinchuuriki never had the opportunity to expel great amounts of their bijuu's chakra. It was a wonder nine people in the world weren't running around with completely destroyed chakra coils. 

The existence of jinchuuriki was an insult to the natural world. It was like forcing a volcano to erupt into a teacup. But the system had been in place for so long that no one would ever consider releasing the beasts from their hosts. Especially when removing the beast almost uniformly killed the host. 

"I've met two of them," Sakura says. 

"And what did you think of them, Sakura-chan?" Gen asks. 

Sakura shrugs. 

"I might have liked them if I wasn't sure I was gonna die when I met them," she answers. 

Gen chuckles at that. 

"Yeah," he says, "they can be pretty cranky, can't they?"

Sakura would be too, if she had spent several lifetimes wearing a pair of shoes that didn't fit. 

It doesn't escape her notice that Gen seems to know more about the bijuu than she does. That he seems to have spoken with them, or at least one of them, and has a gauge of their personality. 

"I remember what their chakra felt like."

It was entirely possible that the slugs had simply manifested as part of the will of the natural world. But it was also possible that Katsuyu's parent was the one who the world created, and all the slugs of Shikkotsu were that parent's many children. 

Sakura believed in the former rather than the latter one. 

Why else would the slugs so carefully guard the identity of the parent, if they were not some great being who needed protection? Still, it was difficult to reconcile. How on earth had a tailed beast managed to have children? Not to mention having time to deposit them in a place like Shikkotsu?

"Impossibly large. It wasn't evil, like I had read. But it was so large it dwarfed mine. Never mind their bodies, their chakra alone could've swallowed me whole."

Someone had told Sakura that the slugs weren't the first to settle in the forest. It was entirely possible that Nao, Mitsuru, and Katsuyu had found the forest after its former occupants had left and had gone about populating it from there. 

Sakura didn't know if she believed in god. Or God. There was that old adage that the only god the shinobi knew was death. And often, shinobi carried out its work. 

It was difficult to reconcile death with someone or something that could create tailed beasts. Then again, the beasts were forces of the natural world. And they had as much of a right to be there as Sakura did, or the rain, or the soil, or a forest fire. Nature did what it pleased how it pleased. Perhaps it wasn't a matter of who did it or why, but how did the beasts maintain balance and what did nature want them to exist for. 

"It felt…"

Sakura wonders if the imbalance caused by the Shodaime's attempts at peacemaking are what caused the Shinobi World Wars. She wonders if they're the reason the Kyuubi broke loose, why Orochimaru has tried to destroy her home, why the Uchiha have been massacred. Nature with time will set to rights what has been disrupted. This steady loss of human life is replacing the chakra that losing the bijuu cost the natural world around them. 

Sakura wonders what the Shodaime would have done if he had known. Or if he did it on purpose. No one can stay many months in Shikkotsu and fail to understand that if there is a god, then it must be nature. And nature's will is uncompromisable. 

She wonders if the loss of the Uchiha is justifiable for the sake of the village. She wonders if the purges in Kiri were justifiable for the sake of the jinchuuriki within their walls. Sakura wonders about Suna and Taki and Kumo. She thinks about Naruto. About the boy who was sunshine and selflessness and blue eyes. A beautiful boy who had been given nothing, who had to scrape by to survive. 

'Absolutely not,' Sakura thinks. It wasn't worth it at all.

Godaime's apprentice or not, Sakura is still just one girl and she would be going against a tradition that has (poorly, barely, has not actually at all) kept the peace in the known world. 

"It actually felt a whole lot like this."

There are stairs. They lead into the earth. In her ears is a pulse so loud, it demands that hers beat in time with it. The chakra contained within the ground is still massive enough that Sakura feels insignificant in comparison. It buffets against her, not unlike the nature chakra slipping in one half of her body and out of the other. 

There is a thundering below her, a hum so similar to the song of the world around her that Sakura knows the forest has been leading her here the whole time. She was never going to get lost. 

Sango had said that people went mad not because they were blind, but because they refused to move forward once it happened. Sakura wasn't surprised. The slugs didn't want anyone who could not navigate as they did wield their power. So some ran around in circles. Others slept while the slugs were awake and moved while they slept. They didn't adapt and so they died. They stayed still when they should have moved. 

Sakura doesn't waste time thinking. But a hand on her wrist does stop her. 

The ghosts are immaterial. They should not be able to touch her. But the Yamanaka behind her tugs on Sakura's wrist until they are standing face to face. 

The woman is in hard plated dark purple armor. A nagamaki is at her hip, and her hands are gloved. On her breastplate is the sigil of her clan and her eyes stare right into Sakura's. 

"Inoko-sama," Sakura breathes. 

The first slug sage peers into Sakura, and without making any hand signs glides into her mind as easy as breathing. Sakura can feel it, can feel Inoko the way she could feel Ino in her mind. But where Ino was brash adrenaline, Inoko is practiced ease. She is the first person to wield this kekkei genkai. She has mastered it in its entirety. Her touch is light. She gleans Sakura's entire life with her hold on the girl's wrist and her blue eyes locked on green ones. 

"Go," Inoko says. "You are ready, and he is waiting for you."

Sakura nods but doesn't move until Inoko has released her from her grip. 

"Haruno Sakura."

The woman says her name as if it is a fine vintage, aged sake or wine left in the ground to ripen there. 

"There will be songs about you, I think."


The stairs take her deep within the earth, to where tectonic plates shift and magma bubbles new continents into existence. Sakura can feel the world being born. It gets hotter as she goes down. She leaves her pack on the stairs, sticks the ribbon she uses to cover her eyes into her pocket. She is sweating. 

The world becomes a haze of red and orange before her shut eyes. There is only chakra, all around her. It presses against the walls around her, seeks her out, plies at her tenketsu that have grown wide as a pupil at rest. They used to be the size of needlepoints, even after her training with Tsunade. Now they are large, strangely large to accommodate the world she lets tumble into her skin. 

There is no slime on the stairs. The heat seems to evaporate it into thin air. Gen and Susumu make no sounds of discomfort. They travel down, down as Sakura does. They say nothing. 

She puts her hands on the walls beside her, trying to feel her way. They are smooth, worn down with time and travel. The slugs must have created this tunnel, but someone with feet must have made the stairs. Sakura wonders which human created the mountain temple. Had it been a gift? And who made the stairs that descended into the shrine? Had that been a gift as well?

The stairs peter out into a spacious circular room, lined with doorways. It strikes her then that there are multiple entrances to the shrine below the earth. Sakura wonders if she could have kept going west, and if she would have found the shrine that way, too. 

Gen slides in afterwards and leaves her side. Susumu slithers slowly down Sakura's shoulders and leaves as well. Sakura takes off her pack and leaves it at the doorway she came in from. 

At the center of the room is a deep bellied pool. It is empty. 

There is nothing to decorate the walls. There are no statues, no words. There are only the many staircases leading outward and the pool at the center of the room. And then, there are bubbles. 

Sakura only notices them when one pops against her shoulder. It leaves a layer of slime on her bare skin, much different than Sango or Susumu's. It's thinner, like bubble soap. But as it slips down her shoulder, every ache and pain she's dealt with for the past three months seems to disappear. 

Then there is a laugh, a deep throaty laugh that makes Sakura scan the entire room. The chakra around her is so thick she can hardly see Susumu or Gen. She can barely see her own two hands. 

"Do you understand, then?"

Sakura turns around, but there is nothing behind her. There is only the voice, deep and strong, a lyric in the pulse-song of the world. 

"That it is not enough to be clever, or physically resilient."

Sakura swallows around the panic that wants to bubble up in her chest. She breathes in deeply through her nose and closes all of her tenketsu. She is blind again, completely blind. The chakra around her almost topples her over when she cuts herself off from it, but even her new sight had begun to impair her. 

"You have learned that true strength lies in trust."

Sakura carefully gets down onto her knees and bows so low her forehead is pressed against the cool stone floor beneath her. 

"Haven't, you, Haruno Sakura?"

Bubbles rest on her back and sides, rising and falling as she breathes. Each falls on a pressure point, a place where her chakra could escape if she allowed it to. As the bubbles unstick themselves and rise back into the air, Sakura reopens her tenketsu one by one. 

When she looks up, the Nakemuji Sennin is before her. 

"Well," he chuckles, "it seems our game of hide and seek is over and done with."

Sakura smiles breathlessly. It's over. She found him. She made it. All by herself, she made it. 

"Stand, Haruno Sakura."

She does. As she rises, she sees Susumu inch over to the great slug and slip tidily into his body. The Nakemuji Sennin hums thoughtfully for a short time before Susumu exits his side. 

"What an interesting girl you are."

Sakura feels shaky on her feet. The song of the world is thrumming hard in her ears, is beating in her heart, is vibrating in her chakra reserves. The Nakemuji Sennin is part of that song. She wants to be a part of it, too. Wants to be a part of him, and part of Shikkotsu. 

"I am called Onyomi. I am the Nakemuji Sennin."

She bites down on the 'I know' that wants to rip its way out of her lips.

'I know. I've been searching for you. I never thought I wouldn't find you. It was only a matter of time. I would have stayed forever if it meant meeting you.'

"Come, child," Onyomi says, "you have seen and learned much in my forest. We may continue when you are refreshed. Let me heal your wounds."

She steps toward the great flame that is Onyomi's chakra, and the slug tilts its enormous head over her. It spits slime down over Sakura's head. 

The slime is thick, thicker than any of the other slimes that Sakura has had the pleasure of encountering in her time in Shikkotsu. It falls over her body in fat globs that smack wetly onto the floor. 

Onyomi keeps spitting until Sakura is fully covered. It takes so long that Sakura has to open her mouth to breathe, and the slime slips between her lips. It is sweet, like peach syrup. 

Sakura can feel her body reacting. The slime heals the miscellaneous cuts on her cheeks and legs. It soothes the soreness buried deep in her muscles from three months of walking. It softens her skin and strengthens her nails and lengthens her hair. It heals her eyes completely. 

When Sakura blinks her eyes open for the first time in what feels like months, the light is almost too bright. 

The underworld cavern is somehow in the wide stomach of the valley, and it is daylight. The sun spills over Sakura's shoulders, warming her insistently. She reaches out her arms in front of her, marveling at herself and how she has changed. 

She looks down at her scarred hand, at the mangled tissue. He had left that. Sakura was grateful. Immeasurably so. The burn scars on that hand meant something to her. Maybe he had known from when Susumu merged with him. 

Sakura presses her fingers to her eyes and finds that the lids aren't puffy. There's no swelling, no scarring, absolutely nothing that would indicate that she had ever had acid spit into her face. 

"Ah," Onyomi says, "what a pretty child you are."

Sakura flushes, and looks up at the Nakemuji Sennin. Onyomi is a massive slug, pale blue, who constantly drips slime. Behind him move six fat tails, rising and falling at their own pace. 

"I have been told that you wish to contract with the thousand slugs of Shikkotsu, Haruno Sakura."

She nods slowly, hands falling down to hang at her sides. 

"But I should think that it would be a shame if you left this forest with a contract, but without our most sacred teachings."

He was going to teach her senjutsu. Sakura was going to learn sage mode from the Nakemuji Sennin himself. Sakura bends at the waist, running the upper half of her body parallel to the floor below her. 

"I would be honored, Nakemuji Sennin-sama."

There isn't time for the effusive feelings she had when she found out Katsuyu wanted her to train here. There is only deference and respect. He is confident in her ability so she is as well. She knows he would not make this offer unless he was sure she could handle it. He trusts her ability, and she trusts him. 

There is no room for second guessing or hesitancy. Sakura is told she is enough and she believes it.

"Oh ho ho," Onyomi chuckles. "How very polite. My little Nao must have frightened you something fierce."

Sakura flushes and slowly straightens back to her full height. The sun is so warm. It is different from the heat in the cavern below the ground. And it is different from the Breath of Life technique. 

"I am Onyomi, and you may address me as such."

"Yes, Onyomi-sama," Sakura says. 

"Good," he rumbles, and his voice sounds pleased. 

"Now, child, you have already accidentally attempted senjutsu, so I may have less to teach you than you think." 

Sakura scratches the back of her neck, embarrassed. Of course he knew about that. 

"You must combine nature energy with the chakra inside of you to create senjutsu chakra, and to master sage mode. This you can do on your own, but there is a caveat."

Sakura looks up at him from under her bangs; they have grown longer. When she was blind, she hadn't bothered to notice. But now, she must tug them behind her ears so that she can see. 

"When you attempted sage mode," he begins, "what mad you fail?"

Sakura bites her lower lip and thinks back. Shigeo had never told her what she did wrong, he had only said that she lacked the proper technique. But as she had trained with the slugs, she had noticed that everything was easier when she wasn't keeping still. 

"I wasn't moving," she finally says. "I was still when I tried the first time, and that's why I started transforming."

Onyomi nods his great head once. 

"Yes, dear child, you are exactly right."

The pale blue slug seems to relax somewhat, and Sakura takes it as a hint for herself to sit down. She sits cross legged in front of him, awaiting instruction. 

"The toads of Mount Myōboku are silly creatures," Onyomi begins, "who believe that gathering perfect stillness in a meditative state is the best way to gather nature energy into one's body. A noble method, perhaps, but one that fundamentally misunderstands nature. Why do you think that is, Sakura?"

Sakura rests her palms upwards on her knees, gazing up at the Nakemuji Sennin.

"Because nature is not still," she says. "There is always a blade of grass growing, always a breeze moving. The tides are never still, and even when the sun is setting the moon is rising."

"Yes," Onyomi says. 

"The toads teach this way because it is simpler to teach humans to be still instead of to constantly move," he explains. "Humans are already difficult to teach, you know, and the method of stillness has proven to be the fastest way to help them learn. But it is not always effective. It is why the toads must use their oil to hurry the process, creating powerful sages but not well learned ones."

Sakura thinks of Jiraiya and stifles a laugh. He was a pervert and therefore at the top of her hit list on any given day, but she could admit he was a learned man. It was strange to hear anyone speak about him as if he were still a child, and an unintelligent one at that. 

"The Hakuja Sennin of Ryūchi Cave is a bit more clever," Onyomi says. "His venom directly fills the body with nature energy. If a person survives such an encounter, they become a sage. But if they do not, they are usually eaten. I find this method rather tasteless, don't you, dear girl?"

Sakura nods hesitantly. Was Orochimaru a snake sage? Was Sasuke by now? 

"Our method is much simpler, and like most simple things, is infinitely more clever. Would you like to know what it is, child?"

Sakura nods. 

Onyomi lifts his head and makes a high pitched trill in his throat. Immediately, Sakura can hear the sound of bodies sliding across the meadowlands.

"The slime," Onyomi says, "of the four elder sages of Shikkotsu Forest is much like the venom of the White Snake Sage and the oil of Mount Myōboku."

She turns her head and sees the three large bodies of Nao, Mitsuru, and Katsuyu at the edge of the bowl that dips into the valley. They slide down and approach. Behind them are the one thousand slugs of Shikkotsu Forest.

"Our slime will help your body allow nature chakra more readily into it. But you have almost completely mastered giving and receiving, so our slime will only make your journey that much easier."

Slowly the slugs begin to gather around her and Onyomi. They keep a respectable distance. They are more colors than the rainbow can describe, of all magnificent heights. The elder slugs, Onyomi's children are the largest, with bodies so vast that Sakura cannot see far enough into the sky to see their eyes. 

"We do not see nature as a still thing, but one that is constantly moving. You, dear child," Onyomi rumbles, "must move constantly while submerged within the slime. You must feel the pulse of the world around you, and you must move with it."

Sakura looks back to Onyomi, who is smaller than his children for her sake. She feels a burst of fondness for him and his kindness. She turns, looks to the deep stone pool before her. 

"It is not enough for your heart to beat or for your lungs to breathe. That is your body following instinct, and not your choice to move. But all of you, your entire body, must follow that pulse for as long as it must take."

Sakura closes her eyes. She balls her hands into fists and then releases them. She can stop her heart. She can stop her lungs. She can tell them when to move and how much. She can order her blood to stop clotting. She can make her stomach acid twice as corrosive. She is in absolute control over her body. She hadn't noticed when her chakra control slid into the ninety-ninth percentile. She hadn't needed to. That wasn't the achievement she was trying to achieve. 

Shigeo had said instinct and intellect had to be as one. That was what she was after. And when she stopped thinking about becoming perfect, her mind and her body began to understand each other and matched each other stride for stride as she developed. 

Her heart beat because she was alive. Her lungs breathed because she was alive. But this? This was much more than living. It was joining the world in a way that had not been attempted in three generations. And it was not about her flimsy human body, but about telling the natural world that she belonged to it. And in turn, it belonged to her. 

"It is a dance called the Dance of Earth and Sky. It has existed for as long as the earth and sky have existed. It is the movement of the world, the pulse of the world itself. There are no steps except the ones that you find necessary."

Sakura wants to laugh. Sango had told her, all those months ago about the Dance of Earth and Sky. The little slug had hoped she would find out what it was. 

And now here she was, sitting before the Nakemuji Sennin, who hadn't wanted to send her back to Konoha without her learning senjutsu. 

"But Sakura," Onyomi says, drawing her out of her thoughts, "senjutsu does not come without a price."

The law of the natural world was giving and receiving. To gain senjutsu, Sakura would have to first give something in return. Yamanaka Inoko had taken senjutsu and introduced the world to medical ninjutsu, tipping the wartime balance of life and death into life's favor and in return, restoring a measure of balance to the world. The Shodaime gave the great forests to Shikkotsu and to Konoha. He left something that lasted to both worlds in exchange for his extraordinary power.

Sakura looks down at her one scarred hand and her one unblemished one and wonders what she could possibly offer these beings of endless wonder.

She thinks, and then she has her answer. 

Sakura looks up over the assembled slugs. They are all sized according to their power and to their age. The smaller ones have been able to squeeze between the elder slugs, between the tidy box that Nao, Mitsuru, Katsuyu, and Onyomi have made around her. She sees Sango and Susumu, Chie and Gen, Shigeo and Yusao. 

Sakura thinks of home, thinks of Konoha and her many shinobi. Thinks of the people waiting for her to come home.

“I will give you the future,” she says, a smile breaking over her lips.

“Sango-san, I will give you a student."

She finds the pink slug near her father, the size of a child. Her eyes are wide as they peer at Sakura. 

"Tenten," Sakura says, "is her name. She’s the best seal master of my year, and under your tutelage, she’d be a force to be reckoned with.”

Sakura looks to Mitsuru and Susumu by his side. She thinks of Inoko and her strong grip, her pale eyes; the way a single touch could lay Sakura open like a book. It is time that the Yamanaka rediscover their power, and who they have to thank for it.

“Susumu-san, Mitsuru-sama, I can give you the Yamanaka heir, Ino. She can continue the legacy of her anscestors.”

She cannot promise that they will learn. She cannot promise that they will be found worthy, but she can swear that she will give them the opportunity, her friends and the slugs, to know each other. 

"When I have my own apprentice," Sakura says, "I will teach them everything that I know, and I will bring them to you, as well. My disciples will guard the lands that I guard, protect the forests that I protect."

Sakura puts a hand to the ground and uses it to help her stand. She turns, gazing out at the valley around her and the thousand slugs that have gathered. The ghosts are there, too, just behind the slugs. They are all dressed the same now, in nothing at all. It is surprising, but not strange. Somehow it is - right. It is what Sakura would expect, if she had known to expect it. 

When she opens her mouth, she can swear the spirits of Konoha shinobi burn just a little bit brighter for her. 

“To Konoha, I will give my life to protect its forests, the Shodaime's forests. I will protect the deer spirits of the Nara, and the wolf spirits of the Hatake lands."

The Konoha shinobi draw their right fists over their heart in a uniform resounding thump. It was a war time salute; the many generations must have learned it from one another. Sakura draws her right fist over her heart. Ikue's black eyes pierce her from several meters away and Sakura can swear she feels Inoko's gaze on the back of her neck.

Sakura drops the salute and looks out over the Kiri, the Taki, the Suna, the Yuga, and Kumo shinobi. Tsunade had ensured that Konoha was a beacon for medical ninjutsu. By far, their shinobi had the highest life expectancy rate in the known world, and were known for quick turnarounds after physical rehabilitation. The same couldn't be said for the other hidden villages. 

And Sakura knows that she is breaking several laws when she opens her mouth next, but it is what the world wants of her, and what's more, it is the right thing to do.

"To the known shinobi world, I will heal any person who asks for my help."

Even Orochimaru. Even Itachi. Chakra was meant to be used, not hoarded. And while her duty was to her village and to her kage, she now had a duty to Shikkotsu. And if she did not give, she could not receive.

There are no ghosts that balk at her words. They know their world needs healers more than it needs fighters. They know that the balance of life and death is being tilted wildly out of control, and that something needs to be done. If someone doesn't protect humankind, it will perish within a handful of lifetimes. 

They are dead and can do nothing. She is alive and capable of everything.

"I will give all of my own chakra, and the rest of my life," Sakura says, "to the world as an emissary of Shikkotsu Forest. I will be the voice of this forest, I will be its eyes and its healing hands, if you will have me.”

There is perfect silence for only a moment. Then Sakura turns and her feet brush the warm stone as she goes to face Onyomi.

"Yes," he whispers, soft and reverent. "That will do nicely."

Sakura smiles. The weight of what she has promised weighs heavily on her shoulders. The slugs have no need to tell her if she does not hold up her end of the bargain, that this power will destroy her from the inside out. It will devour her for her lie, for hoarding the power of one thousand slugs and not returning the power to the world where it came from.

It is a good thing that Sakura's heart is too big for a shinobi, and much too big for a kunoichi by half. She has never been known to be selfish.

"Step into the pool, child," Onyomi says. 

Sakura shrugs off her flak jacket. She takes off her shorts and her underwear, then her shirt. She looks up at Onyomi, then at the empty pool. She walks over to it and crouches, putting her hand at the rim. She leaps inside and lands tidily at its center. It's at least twenty meters deep. 

Above her, the sun and moon share the sky, with stars flickering in and out of sight. The sky is pulled between day and night, each wanting to reside over this ceremony. 

The elder slugs inch closer towards her, their fat mouths pressed against the edges of the pool. Sakura shivers, but not because she is cold. There is power thrumming loudly all around her, threatening to eat up all her attention. 

"Sakura."

She looks up. There is Nao, peering down at her with sharp black eyes. 

"Do not stop moving, child, not for anything," the purple and white slug instructs. "Stillness is death."

Sakura nods once. As the cool slime of the elder slugs of Shikkotsu dips into the pool, and rises around her ankles, Sakura opens all three hundred and sixty one tenketsu on her body and she begins to dance. 

Chapter Text

Her Hyūga eyes are not necessary here, but she activates them all the same.

These too, had been a gift from Onyomi. Gained by a pair of blind twins, Kagome and Seichi. Their bargain had been to teach others the ways of Shikkotsu. Seichi had, for a time. Kagome had not. And though Kagome lost her gift later in life for her lie, Seichi had died first of illness. And so the Hyūga kept their newfound sight, and lost their history.

Their descendants had forgotten where their gift had come from, but Haname has not.

She was buried in the forest; her bones, the chakra in her marrow had fed the slugs for longer than this new child had been alive. She had seen Tsunade come for her contract and win it. 

But this girl. She is different, and yet not so much. She is definitely of Konoha stock. Curious. Stubborn. Brash and foolish at times. But with a heart the world could fit inside of, and a spine of steel. Yes, a shinobi like Haruno Sakura could only be born in Konohagakure. 

Haname wonders what will become of this girl, and her promise. A shinobi could not claim fealty to a village and to a sage region. It was not done. It made things - complicated, unnecessarily so. This promise would drive a rift between the girl and her hokage, between her and her family, her friends, and comrades. 

The Hyūga had sworn to teach the weak and downtrodden how to protect themselves. Yamanaka Inoko had spread medical ninjutsu into the world, forcing death back on its haunches. There would be no medical ninjutsu today if not for her widespread teaching of the practice, rather than keeping the life saving practice secret. Senju Hashirama had created massive forests to replace the regions that had been devastated by generations of warfare. Konoha had been built into those forests, and thousands lived there today because of what he built. 

They were small changes, ripples in a pond. They were changes quickly forgotten. When Haname was born, she had no idea how medical ninjutsu was created or who began its practice. She only knew that it still existed; for the slugs this was enough. She had known the Shodaime raised the forests, but she also knew that the swing on the academy grounds was the best swing in the whole village; for the slugs this was enough. She had not known about her ancestors, Seichi and Kagome. She had never known why her eyes were sealed when she turned three. She had never been given a reason.

There was no way Haruno Sakura's 'why' could ever be forgotten.

It was possible that the girl knew and understood the implications of her promise to them. Fealty to the forest, to nature itself was dangerous. It would leave the girl to interpreting the will of nature on her own if she was not guided. It was easy to misunderstand, or willfully misconstrue the words of a bijuu. After all, they were creatures of malice, weren't they?

But her power would be impeded, no, destroyed if she behaved in opposition to her promise. The Hyūga did not know why they wore the Caged Bird Seal, they only knew it was to protect the secrets of the Byakugan. But Haname knew that Seichi was the firstborn, and had born children. He had been true to Shikkotsu. Kagome, the second born had not. 

It had been little Sango, all those years ago, who told Seichi what he must do to his twin, and to her descendants. What the slugs could give, they could also take away. 

If Haruno Sakura lied to Shikkotsu, it was possible that her ability to mould chakra, her ability to use ninjutsu in any form, could be sealed away for the rest of her life. Her children would be civilians. She could teach, perhaps, but she had already been scarred by the forest. That girl's right hand was the physical manifestation of her time in Shikkotsu. It was a brand, a reminder. It had been burned in the forest and healed in the forest. It belonged to the forest. If the slugs wanted it back, they could take it away. 

What was a medic with one hand? A shinobi with no chakra? It was certainly possible and growing more possible every day, in this day and age, to stay in their line of work with certain disabilities. But by and large, the world was still an inaccessible place. Haruno Sakura would die a one handed civilian with sealed chakra if she defied Shikkotsu. She could even end up dead. 

It was perilous to say the least, to be in this situation. Her promise was grand. What exactly did she intend to do with it? Protecting the Nara and Hatake lands would have been more than enough. Returning the Hyūga to their heritage would have been enough. The Yamanaka had not broken their vow, but returning more of their stock to Shikkotsu would be plenty.

But Haruno had promised the thousand slugs students and her chakra, and her life. She promised to be their eyes, their ears, and their hands. She had said she would do their work. Haname wondered what exactly that work would be, and how she planned on doing it.


The longer a person stayed submerged under the slime of the elder slugs of Shikkotsu, the stronger their slug sage mode would be. 

Yamanaka Inoko had spent three days in the slime. She had not had more time. There were wars going on. She had lives to save, family members to protect, allies to make. She does not regret her brevity. She had saved her son's life the day she returned, had been able to draw infection out of a poisoned wound at his side.

He had been her first student, and that ninjutsu was what brokered their alliance with the Nara and Akimichi. Inoko was content with what she knew. Let later generations not impeded by wartime, but buoyed by the joy of learning stay submerged for days at a time, weeks even. If there was time to spare for such pursuits, if the village didn't need every shinobi that could hold a kunai at the ready, then Inoko would be happy to watch a child of any hidden village step into the pool and dance for a lifetime. 

Senju Hashirama had danced for two weeks. He had been one of the strongest of them, of the Konoha shinobi. Even he had trouble at home. It was difficult to leave a fledgling village for so many days at a time, especially when he was the favorite to be its head, when his best friend was a potential enemy. 

He had been a clever boy, but his heart was too soft. Inoko thought it was suitable that his promise was built on trees and growing things. He had nothing else to offer. He would not make a bargain that would take him away from his village. So he pursued balance in a way that was easy for him. Convenient. 

Inoko had known Butsuma. The man was hard, as all parents in war had to be. It was a wonder he hadn't eventually been given a softhearted son like Hashirama. But it was a shame. Hashirama could have been more if he had not been so simple and so loving. 

He had promised little because his heart had been elsewhere. He could not conceive of sacrificing so much for a place he had not fought to build. Onyomi knew this, and still gave him senjutsu. Inoko has wondered about that ever since it happened, puzzled. 

She had approached the Nakemuji Sennin and asked after Hashirama had left the forest for Konoha. 

"He is building," Onyomi had said, "on blood soaked ground."

Inoko had hummed, pretending she understood. Onyomi had laughed at her. 

"This is all that he can give," the sage had said. "The size of the gift does not matter. It matters that it is given."

"But who will this so called hidden village benefit?" Inoko asked. 

Onyomi had looked down at her, and that was peculiar every time it happened. No one had ever looked down on Inoko. She had become clan head at the age of eleven after her father had died. Had discovered Onyomi in the forest before her name was Onyomi, when she was still called Saiken. 

She had taken Inoko to Shikkotsu when she was nineteen. She was Clan Head, she couldn't spend more than two days in the forest. Saiken had been kind to her, had asked her what she wanted to do most in the world. Inoko said she wanted to keep her family safe. 

Mitsuru had been her guide in Shikkotsu. They had been friends immediately, had liked each other, found comfort in each other. Inoko cried when she came out of the slime and Mitsuru bestowed her with his gift. A kekkei genkai, a way to protect her family for generations. It had only taken two days. 

She had not been able to return to Shikkotsu until she was a woman grown. She was twenty-eight. It had been nine years and the fighting had no end in sight. She needed to prevent casualties. She had earned a summoning contract, but she was not a sage. She begged Saiken to each her how to heal. Onyomi told her to become a sage.

She spent three days in the slime, but three others had been spent bent between Onyomi and Katsuyu, learning how to mould her chakra. How to let the world in and let healing out. She had mastered medical ninjutsu in three days because she had to. 

All of Inoko's time in Shikkotsu could be added up on two hands. And yet there she was, deemed worthy, the first of them. The progenitor of medical ninjutsu, and the first family to be blessed with a kekkei genkai from the slugs of Shikkotsu. 

Haruno Sakura had been dancing for eighteen days. 

"What on earth," Inoko mumbles, "will she be able to do once she gets out?"


 It is the question on everyone's lips, though Inoko is the first to ask it out loud. 

Eighteen days pass in silence. Then twenty-one. Then twenty-seven. Then thirty-three. 

Ikue has never seen anyone dance this long. She had never become a slug sage, but she had seen others come and try in the process. Many became slugs themselves anywhere between five minutes and five days in. Haruno Sakura had not stopped moving from the moment she stepped into the pool. 

Even now Ikue can see the top of her head moving in slow motion through the pale slime. There are swaths of black curling over her arms and the tops of her feet. Her sage markings change by the day, moving and settling until they are satisfied. They won't choose a single location until Sakura stops dancing. Ikue wonders when exactly that will be. 

She will need this incredible strength to go with her incredible bargain. 

The slime of the elder slugs of Shikkotsu is supposed to drain after some time. The body is supposed to take it in through the pores, through the ears, nose and mouth, converting it into the first stirrings of senjutsu chakra within the body. But Haruno Sakura had already attempted senjutsu and had avoided the unfortunate transformation that came with such hubris. She did not need the additional help. 

Uniformly, every potential sage's body sucked in the slime, desperate for the extra assistance. Haruno Sakura had been dancing for twenty-one days before there was even a centimeter less slime in the pool. 

"Is it her chakra control?" Ikue asks, looking to Hyūga Haname, who has her Byakugan activated.

The brown haired kunoichi nods. 

"She's threading the chakra in the slime so finely in with hers," Haname answers, voice gone soft and reverent, "that her chakra coils are reshaping themselves around it. Her entire tenketsu system is transforming."

Ikue's eyes widen and she turns to look at where the girl is still dancing in the pool.

"That means -"

"All of her chakra is senjutsu chakra now," Haname breathes. "Or it will be, if she keeps moving like this."

It was dangerous. It was stupid. It was unheard of. No one had chakra control that precise. Absolutely no one. Senjutsu chakra was perilously strong. It was only one step removed from pure nature energy; it was capable of destroying the chakra reserves of those who wielded it foolishly. 

After thirty-five days, Haruno Sakura starts threading senjustu chakra into her musculature. Ikue stops believing in impossible things when the girl finds a way on the fortieth day to inject it into her bone marrow.

"She's ensuring that there will always be a reserve of senjutsu chakra somewhere in her body," Haname explains. "Her own chakra won't regenerate as senjutsu chakra, but she's storing it physically within herself."

"It's clever," Onyomi says from his seat. "She knows of Tsunade-chan's Byakugō. Susumu-chan tells us this dear girl wants to store raw nature energy in her own seal."

Ikue nearly chokes on her spit. But she's dead. She doesn't have any spit. 

"She's using her bone marrow as the site of a storage seal?"

Onyomi shrugs. Nao seems to fluff herself up with something like pride. She's looking unbearably and haughtily fat; she's very proud of herself. 

"That's exactly what she's doing."

Ikue shakes her head. 

"Not for nature energy though," Nao says, "that would take more concentration than she can give to it right now."

"But it takes immeasurable chakra control to store chakra at even one point in the body, much less in every muscle and every bone," Ikue presses. 

If Nao had eyebrows she would raise them. 

"If she stayed another four months in Shikkotsu," the purple and white slug says, "Sakura would have absolutely perfect chakra control. As it is, in the human world, it will take her perhaps a year to achieve that."

Ikue folds her arms across her chest and looks out over the assembled ghosts. All of them are in various stages of surprised at this revelation. 

"Does this mean you will claim her when she leaves the pool, Nao-sama?" Haname asks. 

Nao looks smug. Ikue wants to roll her eyes, but doesn't. Nao has never taken a favorite. The Yamanaka were Mitsuru's. Sango had been the patron of the Hyūga. Katsuyu had taken on both Senju Hashirama and Senju Tsunade. 

"My father and I have much grander plans for this girl," Nao says, cryptic as can be. 

Ikue looks at the girl in the pool, and watches her dance for fifty days. Half of the slime is gone into her body, its chakra stored into every part of Sakura's body. The way she was now, just walking around she would blind a Hyūga. Not to mention what she could do with storage seals, if she actually ended up making them. 

And now that she had stored senjutsu chakra at every point on her body, where would she store her own chakra? And where would she put her nature energy? 

This girl was Nao's favorite; her chakra control was already pristine enough to store senjutsu chakra in her muscles. There was no reason why she couldn't have multiple Byakugō seals. 

And wasn't the idea of that terrifying; a fourteen year old pink haired girl, storing one impossible form of chakra along with one that was nearly impossible, while also storing what her own body made. 

Inoko was right. There would be songs about Haruno Sakura. 


Haruno Sakura is under the slime of Shikkotsu for fifty days when the top of her head touches the air of the forest. The time passes in the human world.

To Konohagakure, she has been gone for five months. If she is gone for another month, she will be declared missing in action. Tsunade will summon Katsuyu and ask whether or not the slugs will part with Sakura's body so that her family and friends may mourn her before she is buried in Shikkotsu. 

Her parents are worried, Kizashi more so than Mebuki. Though she was more hesitant to let her daughter go, she has an unwavering belief that her daughter will return. Kizashi is prone to flights of fancy; he has a very active imagination. He worries himself to sleep, and back awake again, nudging Mebuki in the night and asking her if they checked Sakura's supplies thoroughly enough, if she had enough food, if she needed more weapons. 

Tsunade does not worry. Even though Sakura is precious to her, even though the thought of losing another person she has believed in, who she has poured her heart into makes her hands shake and throat dry, desperate for the burn of rice wine down her throat. Tsunade does not worry. She works. She knows how long it takes to convince the slugs to contract with her. Katsuyu wants Sakura to be a sage; that will take at least twice the time. Tsunade had stayed long enough to be Katsuyu's apprentice. Who knew how long it would take for Sakura to gain sage mode?

So Tsunade does not worry. She works. She directs the hospital, sees new medics through training, and lets Shizune hide her liquor. She scratches TonTon's back and resists the urge to slap the cigarettes out of Asuma's hands when she sees him. She isn't worried. Sakura is her apprentice. She will be fine. 

Not everyone is so sure. When they aren't on missions, the Konoha Eleven are useless.

Kiba is wild with worry. Once Sakura is gone for four months, he starts spending more time with Ino. The both of them mutter to each other, sharing information about summons and contracts and Sakura's survival skills. They become attached at the hip, this unlikely pair.

Lee haunts the hospital, as if Sakura will show up there once she returns. Tenten drags Lee away from the hospital, spouting kind words about how well Sakura can take care of herself while stomping down the doubt that she might not come home. Shino is not as invested in worrying over her return, but sometimes he moves as if he's anticipating Sakura's fist to split the ground, providing displaced earth for his kikaichū to ride.

Chouji will occasionally bemoan having someone he could fight on terms of brute strength, who wasn't quite as enthusiastic as Lee, would talk about how he missed getting into sweets eating contests with her. Shikamaru wouldn't say it out loud but Sakura was a fantastic shogi player and an excellent cloud watcher. She had a nice laugh, too. 

Neji looks for her every morning, like he promised he would. He knows that he cannot see a sage region with his Byakugan. It doesn't stop him from straining his eyes, pushing his kekkei genkai to its absolute limits and then beyond. His reach gets farther. He can see eight hundred meters away after Sakura's third month away from the village. 

He presses to a kilometer, then a kilometer and a half by the time four months and two weeks go by. He knows he won't be able to see her, but he thinks that if he tries, maybe he could do it. He thinks it's enough if he knows that he looked for her, that he could tell her that he did when she gets back. He tries not to think about whether or not she looks for him. Those thoughts lead to thoughts about whether or not she even has eyes to see, or if she's alive in that strange region. He doesn't want to imagine her dying. 

He makes jounin while she is away. When he's promoted, Neji wonders if he would be assigned to retrieve Sakura's body, if it came to that. If he'd have to journey into a strange forest, and bring her corpse back to her family. If he'd be the team leader. He's fifteen and he has no idea if he'd really be able to do it.

Ino really does end up taking Sakura's place as Tsunade's apprentice. She becomes an adept healer, but she really shines as a poison's mistress. Shizune gains her first disciple, then she and Shiranui Genma pass the Yamanaka heir between the two of them. Ino wants to know what kind of paralytics could kill a summons. She wants to know this for purely hypothetical purposes. She could never, would never kill a being as powerful or as important as Katsuyu-sama.

She learns how to reverse engineer even the most deadly toxin into nothing more than sugar water. She's working how to nullify acids, how to heal acidic burns because, well, you never know. It has nothing to do with Katsuyu being able to spit acid. Neither does the antidote making kit Ino starts carrying in a pouch on her hip.

She doesn't doubt that Sakura will return. Ino just doesn't know what her friend will have suffered from by the time she gets home. 

She is gone, has been gone for longer than any of them are accustomed to. It was peculiar, turning around at a flash of pink. Missing her was like running your tongue over the spot where a tooth was supposed to grow in; you knew it was coming back, but you were anxious because what if it didn't?

She was one of them. A part of them, necessary to their function as a graduating class. She had gained chuunin rank with them, had healed almost all of them on varying occasions. She had gotten bruised and bloodied with them, had taken missions with them. They loved her, and she loved them, and the thought of losing her hurt. 

Sakura was the last member of Team Seven. She was the only member of the team still listed as active duty in the register. If she was gone for longer than her allotted five months, that would change. 

It had gone unsaid among them, that after precisely twenty weeks and one day, all of them would request to be put on the squad to retrieve Haruno Sakura. The Konoha Eleven looked after their own. And even if one of them made it onto the squad, it would be enough. It didn't matter who. As long as it was family that brought her home, that would be enough.


Saiken was born when the world was born. They had eight siblings, with funny bodies and silly voices. All of them had names. No one had made them, because no one had made the world. They simply were, the same way the grass was, the same way the trees and rivers were, as well.

Saiken's siblings had scattered not long after they were all born. They were children together, had spent a couple hundred years playing, lolling about. Matatabi and Shukaku had left first. Shukaku liked it warm the best, and Matatabi liked the mountains. Then Kurama had disappeared to roll around in the forests. Isobu left for the watery lands, Son Gokū settled in the belly of a volcano. Kokuō went wherever Son Gokū did. When Chomei began to fly, she never stopped flying. Gyūki was restless, and wanted to see the whole world.

In the end, it was only Saiken in the sprawling forests. They got lonely.

So they split themself in half, made themselves a twin. A perfect double, taking half of Saiken's yin chakra and half of their yang chakra to create a whole new sibling. Onyomi was born. They were identical, pale purple, slimy, and six-tailed. And Saiken was not lonely anymore. 

They ambled around the world together, slipping in and out of forests, eating as they went. They were happy for a time. Then the humans became humans, and learned how to hurt each other. Saiken and Onyomi were frightened. 

Saiken was a big sister before she created Onyomi. She could not imagine how she would feel if Matatabi or Shukaku were hurt, if she had to watch Isobu weep. So she took Onyomi back to where she and her siblings were born, to the strange forest who Onyomi later named Shikkotsu. 

Saying goodbye was hard, but the humans could not reach sage regions. Onyomi was her little brother, and Saiken would protect him at any cost. 

Then she met Inoko. She was a good warrior, and what's more, a child in need of help. She wanted to protect her family. Saiken understood that better than anything. 

She took Inoko back to the forest, where Onyomi had given himself a three children in his loneliness. Saiken's nephew (though also her son) taught Inoko how to reach into the minds of others. Onyomi taught her how to heal. 

Saiken stayed in the world the humans began to populate, always aware of what her brother was doing. They were of a mind; her will was his will, and his will was in turn, hers. 

(Saiken would never admit it, but little Nao was her favorite.) 

Her siblings began to have children as well. Kurama birthed the kitsune, Shikaku the tanuki. Matatabi created the bakeneko, Isobu the many strange turtle spirits that inhabited his watery homes. Son Gokū's first son was called Enma. Chōmei's beetles multiplied, changing shape until she had great grand children that looked nothing like her. Gyūki's children, the uni-oshi were just as funny looking as he was.

And while Saiken did not see her siblings often, they were still of one mind, just as she and Onyomi were. When Kurama disappeared, she felt it like a physical blow.

Someone, a woman called Uzumaki Mito had sealed him within her belly. The wars of the humans had started to drive Saiken's poor siblings mad; Kurama was not evil, but he was a trickster. And sometimes his pranks brought devastation.

Saiken wondered what to do, if anything at all could be done.

But Onyomi was safe, in the cradle where Saiken and her siblings were born, where Saiken's children and grandchildren were growing by the day. And even if she was sealed in a body that was much too small in a village that was wet and cold instead of lush and temperate, her mind was still her own. She may be stuck in a human body, but she can still hear her twin's thoughts.

Saiken is inside a man called Utakata. He had been sealed inside the man when he was just a boy. Saiken had done his best to make the process as painless as possible; this child did not want this burden. It was true that if the boy died, Saiken had a chance at survival, but there was a strange man with red eyes, and Saiken was hypnotized into stillness. 

Utakata was a sweet child. Saiken did not want to see him hurt. He lends the boy his chakra when he needs it, and speaks softly to him when the child musters up the courage to introduce himself to the beast in his body. 

When the reign of the Bloody Mist begins, Saiken recognizes that his sister and her small human cage are being manipulated. There is nothing he can do. The genjutsu over Isobu is strong, and the genjutsu over young Yagura is much stronger still. Saiken is strong, and Utakata has survived Kiri's barbaric academy exams. But Isobu is unstable, and her container is being manipulated. 

When Saiken rouses Utakata in his sleep, she tells him the name of her sister Isobu, and that Utakata's young leader is being manipulated. She warns Utakata that they might be next if they do not move quickly, that someone with a Sharingan has transformed the Mizukage into a puppet.

When she tells Utakata to pack a bag, to wait in the night, and to run, Utakata listens. 

They meet Roshi by accident, and where Son Gokū is, Kokuō is not very far away. Saiken rolls over with joy at being reunited with two of her siblings after so long. Han is not trusting, but Roshi can speak to Son Gokū and knows that the monkey has an older sibling called Saiken, and younger siblings as well. They travel for a while, not because they like each other. But Han's gut won't let him leave Roshi's side, and Roshi will not leave Utakata.

They grow together in the wild. They learn to trust each other. Soon, these strange three men become like brothers, much like the beasts inside of them are.

Saiken calls his daughter-niece Sango to them, and she creates seals for the bottom of Han and Roshi's feet, as well as Utakata's. If they ever are in danger, if they ever need each other, they are just a pulse of combined human-beast chakra away from one another. It is more than the others have.

They part ways, but they always find their way back to one another. They feel Shukaku's pain when she is forced into a tea kettle. They feel it when Son Gokū's son must try to kill his summoner's student. They feel Kurama's malice when she is freed from her container, and turns her vitriol on the village who put her there. 

But they also feel Gyūki preen when his cage raps at him. And they feel Chōmei laugh in delight when his grandchildren make their homes inside of Aburame bodies. 

Utakata is twenty-six and Saiken has lived many lives. They do not prepare her for the static feeling rush of Onyomi calling her back to Shikkotsu, opening their mind link wide enough that she can see this girl called Haruno Sakura swear to give her chakra and her life to be an emissary of Shikkotsu Forest, to be the eyes and hands of Saiken-Onyomi and their many children. 

"Yes," Saiken murmurs along with her twin, her second self. "That will do nicely."

When she returns to Utakata, he is in Hot Springs Country, blowing bubbles at a group of barefoot children. 

"Saiken," he says softly, underneath the screeches of toddlers, "what has happened?" 

'Something extraordinary,' she whispers in his mind. 

Utakata raises his pipe to his lips and blows a yellow bubble that smells of custard and froth. A little boy leaps onto it, and it carries his weight. He howls with laughter. 

"And what is that?"

'You have a sister.'


Sakura spent three months in Shikkotsu looking for the Nakemuji Sennin. Her last two months are spent in the throes of the Dance of Earth and Sky. 

She dances for sixty-one days.

She does not think. She lifts her arms, slides her legs. She breathes in the slime, and it nourishes her, like air and food combined. Her body takes the wheel, and her mind shuts off. Trust. She trusts herself to keep moving. She breathes. Her heart beats. She does not think. 

She is one with Shikkotsu, and Shikkotsu was one with her. That was all that mattered. 

When the slime dips around her head, then around her head, and shoulders, Sakura does not stop moving. She is dreaming, perhaps. Of sunshine, dappled on the forest floor of Konohagakure. She can see Tenten, in a white blouse and red pants. And Lee, in his jumpsuit. Neji is there, with a comm in his ear, squad leader for a courier mission to Suna. 

She dreams of Ino pressing azaleas into fine powdered poisons, holding her breath through the process. She sees Chouji on his seventy-eighth push up. She sees Shikamaru hunched over a text cataloguing the brief history of Otogakure. 

There is Hinata, besting her little sister in a spar and teaching her, her invented Water Needles technique. She sees Kiba brushing burs out of Akamaru's fur, and looking for ticks. She sees Shino, belly on the ground, eyes narrowed as he watches two beetles fight over a piece of dung. 

She sees Tsunade snapping a pencil in half when Shimura Danzo questions her leadership. She sees Shizune narrow her eyes, sees Shiranui Genma behind his ANBU mask waiting to be given a reason. 

She sees Kakashi in front of the Memorial Stone, running his fingers over the names he could spell backwards, upside down, and in the dark. 

She sees her parents, finally home for two weeks at the same time. They go on a little date every night. They bicker over whether or not they should get a dog. 

Sakura sees Naruto falling asleep with his back against a tree, a blue popsicle melting in his fist. He's gotten taller, so much taller, and the blue-white-orange jacket he wore when he left Konoha has been more or less ruined. 

She sees Sasuke. In white and blue and black, with a katana at his hip. His hair is longer. His curse seal is sharp and black on his pale skin. 

She sees Gaara. He's being inducted as the Kazekage. Temari and Kankuro are beside him, his trusted advisors. They are beaming with pride. Gaara's smile is a small, and secretive thing. It makes Sakura's heart burst. 

Then there is a blonde woman with a Kumogakure hitai-ate. She has a gaggle of children around her; she is their genin sensei. They stare up at her with awe and respect, and hang off every word that she says. 

There is a violet eyed boy, sitting in an office. The air around him is oppressive, dark, and dangerous. There is a large hook at his side, and a tidy scar on his face. 

A laughing man with red hair, his arm thrown around the shoulders of an armored man. They're eating barbecue. They jostle each other like brothers. 

A brown haired man with a pipe in his lips, blowing bubbles for children while steam rises from the many bath houses in the village behind him. A green haired girl shouts a laugh into the sky as she unfurls wings made of chakra threads, and catches the wind as she leaps off a cliff. A dark skinned man with pale blonde cornrows, beatboxing under his breath, his subordinates cheering him on or urging him to be quiet in equal measure. 

She feels the pulse of some strange unidentifiable thing in Ame. Gets flashes of blood red hair and purple eyes. She sees a kunoichi with painted fingers fold her seven hundredth paper crane. She sees Uchiha Itachi in a cloak decorated with white and red clouds furrows his brow as he works 'Tobi' into 'Obito', thinks about crushed bridges and stolen eyes, and wonders why his cousin's body was never retrieved from Kannabi Bridge. 

She sees a statue, and feels her stomach roil at what it represents. A different cage, a different prison, forcing her body and the bodies of her siblings to exist as one inside of it, locked in strange wood and chakra together until they were all docile under a single human's control. 

That statue was a sacrilegious thing, an unholy thing. A thing that was not supposed to exist. A man had created it to bend the world to his will, but its creation had killed him many moons ago. He had wanted to use it, once filled with all nine beasts, to destroy a boy he had known in his childhood. He wanted to use she and her siblings to kill the boy he loved, and the village he had created. 

He had died before he could, but others had found it. Others with similar intentions, to different ends. They are called Akatsuki. They want to force her and her siblings to bend to their will. She will not let that happen. She cannot let that happen. 

When she wakes, she will find and destroy the statue. She will find her siblings and figure out some way to free them from their jinchuuriki without sacrificing the lives of their fleshy human cages. With each sibling she released, the world would slowly right itself, and all would be well. 

Yes. That was her mission, her lifelong goal. She would protect the spirits she had sworn to protect in Konoha, but she had siblings in the world who needed her help. She would save them. There was no alternative. She would not die trying. 

She would save them. 


On her sixty-first day in the pool, the last of the slime dries itself into Sakura's skin. Her feet are moving on cool stone floor, making soft whispers against the ground. Her eyes are shut, and the warm air that sweeps into the bowl she stands in warms her skin. Even then, Sakura does not stop moving.

Time had erased itself. She could feel the pulse of the world around her, and her body stepped in time with it. It was not a matter of whether or not she wanted to dance. She only did.

The one thousand slugs and one hundred ghosts of Shikkotsu gather close together, to see what their new sister has become. Onyomi looks on. Sakura has changed.

Her hair reaches down to her feet, and billows out beyond her. Her finger and toenails have grown jagged, snapped off when they grew too long in the thick slime and unable to continue with Sakura's constant movement. Her eyelashes have grown longer, so has her arm and leg and pubic hair. Beneath her skin, her veins, muscles, and bones all glitter a soft purple with the strength of the senjutsu chakra that has been stored there. 

Her sage markings are extraordinary. 

Onyomi has not seen another slug sage since Hashirama, but he immediately recognizes the black circle on Sakura's forehead. 

Sage mode presents itself differently on the bodies of those who take it on. Hashirama had one circle that outlined another, and markings that cupped his eyes and slipped down his face like black tears. Sakura's markings are reminiscent of his, but completely different. Where Hashirama had one circle that cradled a full black circle in the middle, Sakura has two thin circles that frame the center of her forehead. Her eyes are marked by black lines that radiate in three neat rows, like signs of weariness, but they extend down over her cheekbones and back to her temples. 

The circles are present on the backs of her hands as well, three thick black circles that radiate out like ripples on a pond's surface. The same circles are on her feet, and on either side of her waist are black circles that cross over each other at her middle.

Susumu, the little thing, inches down into the Sage Pool and stops herself at Sakura's still moving foot. Sango follows.

"Sakura-chan," they say, "Sakura-chan, you may stop the Dance of Earth and Sky."

"Saku-chan, Saku-chan," Sango says, "you've done it! You've mastered sage mode!"

It is only when they ease their little bodies onto Sakura's dancing feet that she stops. It takes her some time to open her eyes, lashes still coated with slime. And when she looks down at the two slugs, her eyes are weak from being shut for so long. 

She crouches down and allows them to crawl onto her hands. Then she stands, with the siblings cupped in her palms. She looks up, and sees the thousand slugs and one hundred of Shikkotsu looking down at her. She turns her head to Onyomi, who smiles. 

"You," the Nakemuji Sennin says, "are a whirlwind of a girl."

Sakura laughs, a raspy breathless sound. Sango and Susumu inch up her shoulders, and Sakura gingerly pulls herself out of the tub. When she stands before Onyomi, she holds her breath, stops her heart, and stands still. 

Her sage marking do not disappear. A smile ripples over her face. 

Sakura mastered sage mode. 

Sakura mastered sage mode. 

"What an extraordinary child you are," Onyomi says. "I have never seen anyone quite like you."

Sakura smiles and ducks her head. Her hair trails behind her, the ends of it still dipping into the pool. It is a heavy weight on her head, but it nothing compared to carrying Susumu on her shoulders for three months straight. 

"Senjutsu is a means to an end," the Nakemuji Sennin says. "It is the method by which you are able to use the gift bestowed upon you by the slugs of Shikkotsu, by the master who has decided to take you on as their apprentice."

There are many bubbles in the air, rolling off Onyomi's back and bouncing through the air. They are of every color, and they smell of grass and sweet things. 

"Are you ready to meet your new teacher, and to receive the gift we have given to you?"

Sakura swallows. The two slugs on her shoulders slither down her body and away from her. They join the massive wall of slugs that flank Sakura on all sides. 

"I am," she whispers, voice hoarse from disuse. 

The slugs part ways to create a path. Nao presses forward, shrinks herself until she is of a height with Sakura. The slug gives her an appraising look, eyes wandering over her glittering violet veins and the black markings that shroud her body. 

"I will take you on, girl," Nao says. "I claim you as my disciple, and as my child."

Sakura bows deeply at the waist and murmurs her thanks. Swears that she will be a good student, and that she will not fail her teacher. Instinct tells her to rise and reach out both hands. Nao spits a strange concoction of acid and slime into her palms, and Sakura drinks it. It tastes like ozone and blackberry juice, crushed fig between her teeth. 

"That is my chakra in your body, child," Nao says. "You are mine until you return it when you die."

Sakura nods. 

"Yes, Nao-sama."

"It will help you more easily use the gift my father has decided to bestow upon you."

"Yes, Nao-sama." 

Nao scrunches her eye tentacles together in a smiling way and says, "Do you want to know what it is?"

"Yes, Nao-sama, if I may."

Nao turns her great head, as if to gesture to the assembled slugs that all peer at Sakura with their seeing blind eyes.

"Your gift is the one thousand talents of the slugs of Shikkotsu," Nao declares. "All of them are yours to use."

Sakura's eyes widen. She opens her mouth, then closes it again, shock making her stand at attention.

"It is customary," Onyomi begins, "for a slug sage to have one master, and one gift. These can sometimes be from two slugs. Katsuyu-chan was Tsunade-chan's master, but her gift came from Nao."

"My father taught Inoko how to heal," Mitsuru explains, "but I gave enhanced their sight."

Sango bobs her head at the front. "That big lug Shigeo taught the Hyūga twins how to fight, and I taught the Hyūga how to see, and how to seal."

There is an enormous ball of emotion forming in the base of Sakura's throat. She does not hold it down. The tears prick at the edges of her eyes, not because she is proud or surprised, but because she is overwhelmed. Sakura had only ever met fifty of the slugs, only really knew fifty of their names by heart. And yet, every single one of them had chosen to give her their power and their talent. 

Sakura had spent sixty-one days in the slime, and now she is crying because she can feel how proud they are of her. She can feel their belief in her, unwavering, the same way they can feel her dedication to her promise. All of them trust her not only with the forest, but now with their power. 

She does not know how to say thank you without bursting into tears. 

"It will take time," Onyomi says, "for you to learn how to use such magnificent power without harming yourself. So for now, you will need to summon the slug whose talent you wish to use when you wish to use it. Their expertise will be transferred to you with body contact."

Sakura swallows around her tears and nods. 

"Nao-chan will be able to teach you more thoroughly, and so will the slug you ask for help," the Nakemuji Sennin continues. "For now, I would suggest only mastering one talent per week, or perhaps per month. Any faster and you would hurt yourself."

If Sakura mastered a talent a day for a year, she'd be a master within two years. Two years. The thought overwhelms her. It'd be a bad idea to say the least. An astronomically bad idea, one that might fry her brain and destroy her chakra coils. Still, it excites her. She won't push too hard; she knows her limits. And Nao wouldn't let her hurt herself. 

"I understand, Onyomi-sama," she says. 

The great pale blue slug seems satisfied with that, and then all at once every slug in Shikkotsu is pressing forward to congratulate her and to meet her if they haven't already. She can feel them buffet against her legs and arms and in her mind as well. Sakura wonders what on earth she's going to do, telepathically linked to one thousand minds. But it does make memorizing their names easier. 

"Come, come," Onyomi says, "there will be plenty of time for that. Our new little sister has a home she must get back to, and other siblings who are worried about her."

Guilt tries to force its way into her heart, but fondness for Onyomi and homesickness beat it to the punch. 

Home. Konoha. Sunlight and oak trees. The Eleven. Her shishou. Shizune, and Azami. Her parents

"Sakura-chan," Onyomi says tenderly, "dress yourself while I prepare your contract. You must sign it in blood, and then you may return home."

Sakura nods. Before she can turn around, a massive jet black slug with a white belly called Fudo drops her pack at her feet. Sakura knows that Fudo is a strange slug who can manipulate earth and water into forming crystals. Sakura blinks at herself and takes her hand off of Fudo's side; she hadn't noticed that she had reached out to touch them. 

"No worries, kid," they say. "It's instinct, y'know? Nothing to be ashamed of."

Sakura still flushes and apologizes before getting to her knees and rustling through her pack. She pulls out a pair of black pants, and a long sleeved, dark green qipao top with her family insignia on the black. She didn't know how long she had been gone, but she'd rather be hot and have to take off clothes than cold and have to put more on. 

When she had left, it had been spring. It could either be summer or autumn by the time she got home. She puts on a pair of open toed sandals, and resolves to use Ikue's Breath of Life technique if she gets to cold. 

She runs her fingers through her long hair and very much doesn't want to cut it. When she had shorn her hair during the Chuunin Exams, it was to escape a life or death situation. It was to prove a point. But now her hair had been grown in Shikkotsu. And she didn't want to forget that. 

But it's much too long. Even the Hyūga kept their long hair down to their waists, and Sakura's trailed far out onto the floor around her. She takes a kunai and carefully cuts it so that it ends at the dip of her lower back. She could bother Ino to even it out when she got home. 

She doesn't bother with her flak jacket, but she does tie her red head ribbon around her arm. There. She's ready. 

"Come, child."

Sakura pulls her pack onto her back, and walks towards Onyomi. Before him, is a much older version of the scroll Tsunade had held in her office. On it, Sakura can read clearly the names of every person who contracted with the slugs, all the way back to Yamanaka Inoko. 

"Write your name in blood," Onyomi instructs. "Then, think hard about where you would like to go. Hitomi-chan will take care of the rest, won't you, dear?"

A bright yellow slug about Sango's size nods.

"Of course, jiji," they say, inching towards Sakura.

Hitomi is the fastest of the slugs of Shikkotsu. It is their job to ferry prospective contractors into the forest. When Sakura had felt something tug at her navel and pull her into the sage region, it had been Hitomi, grabbing at her chakra and yanking her into the different dimension.

Sakura carefully nicks her right index finger, and squeezes her fingertip so that enough blood wells up to write with. Then she presses it down and begins to write. On the scroll, she writes her name in half the size she usually would use. Beneath it, she writes something else.

Sakura rears back up onto her knees, then stands, Hitomi situated safely on her shoulder. Sakura looks out over at the assembled ghosts and slugs. She looks at Shigeo, at Chie and Gen, Yusao, and Fudo, and Susumu and Sango. She looks at the elder slugs and their parent. She looks at the ghosts; at Ikue and Haname and Inoko. 

She looks over at Shikkotsu, at the deep stone pool where she has just been reborn. At the purple flowers blooming in the field around her. And a love the likes of which she has never known fills her to bursting. 

"I will not fail you," she says. 

They all know she means it.

When Hitomi whirls the two of them to Konoha, Onyomi peers down at what his newest child has written on the scroll. He laughs. Then Nao crowds around him, followed by Mitsuru. Nao cackles and Mitsuru hums, thoughtfully. Katsuyu purses their lips, and worries.

On the scroll, beneath her given name, the girl has written: Shikkotsu no Sakura.  


Tsunade is upside down. Or maybe Sakura is. It's hard to tell. She's been gone so long in a world where up is down and north is south, it's strange to be so - oriented. 

She is on her back, and she is winded. She has just - cracked Tsunade's desk in half with the force of her landing. There are papers still fluttering in the air, settling down to the ground as she has displaced them. She's pretty sure there's a broken sake bottle somewhere underneath the wreckage. 

"Ow," she groans. 

She reaches up to scratch the back of her head, and notices that Hitomi has popped out of existence, back to their home. She sees her arm before her, sees the pale violet senjutsu chakra has absorbed most of the impact of her fall; her body had trusted itself, had reached out and coated her in chakra to protect her. Sakura smiles, and watches as the purple energy fades back, deep into her bone marrow. 

She looks up, and sees the assembled Konoha Eleven, all in various stages of shock, staring down at her, open mouthed and surprised. There are definitely tears in Ino's eyes. 

A sound at her left draws Sakura's attention away from her friends. Shizune has stopped in the middle of throwing senbon at her, and Sakura is now aware of the three ANBU who have unsheathed weapons at her throat. 

There is a delicate 'ahem', and the ANBU back off. They shushin away, not even a curl of smoke or a fluttering of leaves to mark their sudden absence. 

"Well," Tsunade says wryly, leaning over her, "it looks like you're ready for the Byakugō."

Sakura can't help it. She opens her mouth and she laughs. 

Chapter Text

Ino quite literally throws herself onto Sakura, with Kiba and Akamaru not that far behind. They drag her off of the broken desk and into their arms. A diagnostic jutsu flares to green life on Ino's hands, and Kiba and Akamaru sniff at her cuticles and hair for blood or poison. 

"Sakura!" Lee shouts. And oh, now he's crying. "It is so good to see you! We were all so worried about you! We feared the worst!"

Sakura patiently allows Ino, Kiba, and Akamaru to fuss over her and she looks at her friends. 

"The worst?"

Tenten hooks her arm around Lee's neck and slams a hand over his mouth to shut him up. Neji is just - staring at her. Hinata is trying to pry Kiba off of her, murmuring something about stifling her and her needing space after her long journey. 

"Did you all think I died?" Sakura asks. 

Ino's hands get a little more insistent, and her chakra spikes in an agitated way. Shikamaru has a hand on the back of his neck; Chouji is looking at the ground. 

"We had collectively assumed that something bad had happened to you," Shino says. "Why? Because your earliest anticipated arrival was four months ago, and you are a capable shinobi who is rarely late, unlike Hatake-san, your genin sensei."

Sakura looks to Ino, and takes her friend's hands in hers. The chakra coating Ino's palms flickers into nothing, and she looks at Sakura long and hard. 

"We didn't want strangers to bring you home, if something bad had happened," Tenten says. "We came here to request to be on your retrieval squad."

Sakura is so touched. Her lower lip wobbles, and then Ino's lower lip wobbles, and then they're pulling each other into a rib cracking hug. Then Kiba has thrown himself into the mix, and Chouji is a sympathetic crier so he's in it, too. Lee won't be left out of a cuddle puddle, and his enthusiasm drags Tenten along with him. Hinata joins in not long after that. Shikamaru gets one word through his signature phrase before Ino's arm reaches out, snatches him by his chuunin vest, and tugs him into the embrace. Shino offers Sakura a pat on the back from a more respectable distance; Neji stays far away, but his eyes are on her every move. 

"While I do appreciate such shows of solidarity and camaraderie in my shinobi," Tsunade says, "I have have yet to receive a mission report from Haruno, who also needs medical attention from someone not so emotionally invested in her health and wellbeing."

The Konoha Eleven unravel themselves from her after that, but at a sedate pace. They take it for the dismissal that it is. Sakura gets several arm squeezes and pats on the back as her friends file out of the room. 

"When you're out of the hospital," Tenten says, fingers wrapped loosely around Sakura's wrist, "we're going to celebrate! All of us, together!"

Sakura smiles. "Absolutely." 

"Chouji-kun," Tenten says, "do you think your parents could reserve us a table at their restaurant for the end of the week?"

The two of them leave Tsunade's office with their heads bent together, talking party preparations. Tenten still has her arm hooked around Lee, who shouts encouragements and well wishes for Sakura's good health.

"We'll come visit you in the hospital, Sakura," Hinata says gingerly, manhandling Kiba with one arm and holding Akamaru by the scruff with the other. 

"Thank you," Sakura says.

Kiba barely allows himself to be jostled out of the room. He wriggles out of Hinata's grasp, and lays both his hands on Sakura's shoulders. He looks from her left eye to her right eye, sniffing the air around her. After a moment, he nods. 

"You're still you," he says, sounding relieved. "All the way you."

Sakura puts her hand on top of Kiba's, and nods back at him. 

"All the way me."

"Good," Kiba draws her in, and thumps her hard on the back, "I wouldn't know what to do with a rabid slug anyway. Probably'd have to pour salt on you or something."

That draws a laugh out of her, and after that he and Akamaru go silently. Shino nods at her as he exits, and Shikamaru eyes the red ribbon tied around her arm. 

"Your hitai-ate?" he asks. 

She shrugs. 

"I sewed it onto my vest," she answers, gesturing at her pack, "but it got really warm in the forest, so I never wore it."

Shikamaru raises an eyebrow and pointedly looks at his sleeve, where his hitai-ate is sewed down, and then back at her. Sakura smiles with all her teeth. 

"You're a fashion icon, Shikamaru."

He snorts, and pats her shoulder once before following the others out. Neji is the only one left, but he doesn't touch her. Sakura purses her lips; she abruptly remembers her silly request of him, and is dually reminded that she didn't even put up her end of the bargain. What a way to start her contract with the slugs; she's already breaking her promises. 

"I'm -," Neji begins. He closes his mouth. He's already got his white duffel across his shoulders, like he would have been ready to head out as soon as Tsunade gave him the go ahead. Come to think of it, Ino had a pack on her back as well. Sakura swallows around the lump in her throat. 

"I'm happy you've returned safely."

He nods to her, brusquely, and then he leaves. Sakura watches him go, then moves to the door and shuts it behind him. 

"Wow, you have a type," her shishou says, humor in her eyes. 

Sakura doesn't flush, but it's a sure thing. Tsunade raps her knuckles on her desk twice, and then an ANBU member with a cat's mask appears in the office. 

"Cat," Tsunade says, "I know carpentry is wildly beneath your skill set, but do you think you could take care of this for me?"

The ANBU looks over the damage then nods. With a clap and a press of their hands, the desk is restored, with dark brown wood mending the break Sakura had made with her fall. 

"Dismissed."

Cat disappears without so much as a 'pop'. Tsunade runs her hands over her newly repaired desk and looks up at Sakura. 

"You look like you have a lot to say," her shishou says. "But first -,"

Tsunade moves around the restored desk and pulls Sakura into a hug. She's careful, which is enough to make Sakura falter, because her shishou is usually never gentle. Her hugs are all brusque, hard, efficient. Tsunade's love is tough. But when she wraps her arms around Sakura's shoulders, she holds her like she's holding glass. 

"What did you promise them, Sakura?" she asks. 

Sakura reaches up and hugs her teacher back, fingers bunching in the green cloth of her jacket. Tsunade pulls back, and places her hands on Sakura's shoulders. 

"It didn't take you five months to find Onyomi," Tsunade says. "It would've taken you two, maybe three and a half tops. You spent the rest of that becoming a sage, didn't you?"

Sakura nods, hands coming back down to her sides. She closes her eyes, breathes in the breath her mentor breathes out, and activates her sage mode. Tsunade lets out the smallest gasp, then picks up Sakura's hand to study the circles on the back of her hand. 

"My grandfather was the God of Shinobi, and he only spent two weeks in the slime of Shikkotsu. He promised them forests," Tsunade says. "His marks were only on his face."

Tsunade closes Sakura's hand between her own, and in sage mode, Sakura can feel the blood running through her shishou's veins. She can feel the oxygen diffusing in her lungs, can almost feel the staticky hum of her neurons firing. 

"What on earth did you promise them, Sakura?"

Sakura swallows and deactivates sage mode. She looks up at her teacher and wonders if this will be the worst thing she has to do today. 

"Me."

Tsunade furrows her brows. 

"You?"

She nods and carefully takes her hand back from her shishou. 

"I promised that I would take care of the spirits on the Nara and Hatake lands," Sakura begins, curling her toes up in her sandals. "I said that I'd be their emissary, their eyes and hands in the human world."

Sakura squares herself on the ground, and prepares for the fist she knows will be headed for her soon. 

"And I said that I would heal anyone who asked for my assistance."

Tsunade's eyes widen, and Sakura can feel the change that happens in the room. Tsunade's chakra is a tightly controlled storm of anger, confusion, disappointment, disappointment, disappointment, sadness, grief. 

"You," she grounds out, "better have a really good reason for all that."

Sakura counts to five before she starts talking again. 

She tells Tsunade how the tailed beasts came into existence, how they were part of the world, how nature demanded balance. How before Senju Hashirama started sealing the tailed beasts, human wars were a result of human misunderstanding; of greed and jealousy. Some clans took up too much space, leaving smaller families to starve. No one would leave the land they knew, so fertile grounds just to the south or north were spurned for the sake of dying where your grandparents died. 

The Warring States Period happened because of manmade scarcity of resources. She tells Tsunade that her grandmother, Uzumaki Mito sealed Kurama inside of her to push back the bandits that threatened little Uzushiogakure. Then Senju Hashirama ended the wars, but wars are like forces of nature; they only end themselves. Hashirama saw Mito's lovely forehead seal and the Kyuubi trapped there, and began to subdue the other tailed beasts. 

Then instead of peace, the world went wild. 

It is difficult, telling her shishou that the Shinobi World Wars are her grandfather's fault, based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the bijuu not as demons but as forces of nature. Part of the natural world in its basest, purest form. It is hard to tell her shishou that Orochimaru, her friend and ally, was corrupted by a deep seated unbalance in the natural world, and that imbalance was the very same that spawned the Kyuubi Attack fourteen years ago, and Uchiha Massacre. But Sakura keeps speaking. 

The world needs to be put back in balance, and Sakura has sworn to be the one to do it. 

"And how exactly," Tsunade asks, "do you plan to do it?"

Sakura purses her lips, and knows that nobody is going to like her solution. 

"I'm going to release the bijuu."

Tsunade's eyes widen and she slams her hand down on the barrier seal on her desk so hard she almost splinters the new wood. 

"You're going to what?"

"Not now," Sakura amends. "Jinchuuriki die when bijuu are unsealed from them, and more death won't put the world back to rights. My only solution right now is to make sure all the jinchuuriki die with their bijuu still inside of them, so that when they die, the bijuu are released back into the natural world."

Tsunade puts her elbows on her desk and folds her fingers together. 

"The political implications of this little plan of yours are astronomical," Tsunade says. "A kage would sooner eat their hat than let go of their jinchuuriki."

'A kage,' Sakura thinks, narrowing her eyes, 'or you?'

She drives the thought out of her mind as soon as it tries to make a home there. Tsunade loves Naruto, loves him the way that people exposed to him for long enough do. But she knows that Tsunade is one of the few sealing masters left alive who could seal the nine tailed fox into another container if Naruto were to die. 

"I'm not asking permission," Sakura says plainly. "I'm going to do it."

Tsunade's eyebrows furrow at that, and she lays her forearms down on her desk. 

"You'll cause a war." 

"I'd be stopping a war," Sakura presses. 

Tsunade leans back in her chair and asks, "What do you mean by that?"

Sakura presses her tongue to the roof of her mouth and chooses her words carefully. 

"The organization Akatsuki has plans to kidnap the jinchuuriki from the hidden villages, extract their bijuu, and seal them in some kind of - statue," she explains, drawing on the dream that had tumbled through her mind while she was in the slime. "I don't know what they'll be using it for, but what could anyone want nine tailed beasts for?"

"Nothing good," Tsunade answers. 

She watches her shishou grind her teeth for a moment, jaw locked in thought. 

"If they go after the tailed beasts," Sakura says, stomach churning inside of her, "they'll go after Onyomi."

It draws Tsunade's eyes to her, this realization that Sakura knows the secret of the slugs of Shikkotsu Forest. 

The fact that Saiken was still immeasurably powerful as a tailed beast with only half her yin and half her yang chakra was a feat unto itself, but she had, had time long before her initial capture to get stronger with half her body and half her chakra. If the Akatsuki were measuring her strength by that of her other captured siblings, it would not escape their notice that Saiken wasn't as powerful as she should have been.

And if there were Sharingan among the Akatsuki strong enough to hypnotize Isobu and her container, then it would be no difficult task to hypnotize Saiken into revealing her twin's hiding place.

The thought of Akatsuki defiling a place as sacred as Shikkotsu makes Sakura's skin crawl. The beasts were born there, Saiken created Onyomi there. It's one of the oldest places in the world, untouched by humankind. Akatsuki rampaging through the forest, trying to trap Onyomi frightens Sakura, and she can tell the thought doesn't please Tsunade either. 

Regardless of whether or not Tsunade is a slug sage, her blood is still bound to the slugs of Shikkotsu. If their sage, if their Nakemuji Sennin is corrupted, they will in all likelihood go with him.

"How did you get this information while you were in Shikkotsu?" Tsunade finally asks. 

"I saw it," Sakura says, "I saw it while I was in the slime."

Tsunade raises a brow, and Sakura is immediately aware of how ridiculous that sounds. Her shishou cracks a smile, and then Sakura feels just light enough to smile as well. 

A moment passes, but then Tsunade puts her kage face on, and Sakura tenses. 

"You do realize that your actions, if you really do go ahead with this," she begins, "will be a reflection on Konoha."

Sakura nods. There's a sinking feeling low in her gut. 

"If you wander the elemental nations freeing bijuu, someone will eventually accuse me of sending you out to do it. And Konoha is strong; she has many allies. But she will not survive a siege of four nations."

Sakura thinks of her first Chuunin Exams, and then of her second. She thinks of her academy days, thinks of cutting her hair and wrapping her hitai-ate around her forehead. She thinks of sewing the metal plate onto the red ribbon Ino gave her so long ago, thinks of how she had sewn it into her flak jacket. 

She is aware that now, she is not wearing the leaf insignia. It is tucked away in her bag.

"You cannot be both a Konoha shinobi, and the emissary of Shikkotsu Forest."

Sakura had expected that this would happen. It still doesn't stop the awful feeling that claws up her throat. In another life, she might have opened her mouth and retracted everything. She would revoke her promise to Shikkotsu, regardless of what damage the slugs would do unto her for lying to them. She would learn how to live as a civilian medic. She would worry over her friends when they left on missions, and would welcome them back when they returned. 

Naruto never went back on his word. That was his nindo. A year ago, Sakura had thought that her nindo was to protect Naruto and Sasuke. A handful of months ago, her nindo was to protect her precious people, and their precious people. 

Now, Sakura isn't sure what her ninja way is. But she knows that Naruto was onto something when he declared that he would never break a promise. A person was worth nothing if they weren't worth their word.

She opens her mouth to speak, but Tsunade puts a hand up to stop her. 

"What do you think Jiraiya is to the Leaf?" she asks. 

Sakura shuts her mouth with a soft click and thinks. 

"He's an independent contractor," Tsunade answers. "On occasion, he will take missions for us for a fee. But his fealty is to Mount Myōboku."

Tsunade reaches into her desk and pulls out a sheaf of paper. Sakura's heart leaps into her throat.

"For all intents and purposes, he is not a Konoha shinobi," her shishou continues. "But he is being paid handsomely for training Naruto, among other small things he does for the benefit of Konoha."

Tsunade pushes a stack of forms at her. One is labelled Request for Resignation from Active Duty, another Independent Contractor Application 449-B. Sakura holds them in her hands, careful not to crumple the paper. 

"Your intentions towards the bijuu are concerning," Tsunade says. "But Naruto is an important citizen of this village, and his parents have sacrificed very much. I will not dishonor their memory by failing to protect their son. And the health of the Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure hinges on the ongoing safety of the Nakemuji Sennin. So does that of her apprentice."

Tsunade drums her fingers on the desk, and closes her eyes. 

"Jiraiya has told me the same story about Akatsuki that you have. I believe you, Sakura, when you say that this is the right course of action. But I cannot allow you to do it under Konoha's banners."

Sakura fingers her way through the forms. Renunciation of Citizenship of Konohagakure. Resignation from Team Roster. Resignation Notice 307-A, Konohagakure General Hospital. 

"What I can do," Tsunade says, "is release you from your oaths to the village. You will not be classified as a missing nin, and you can still take contracts that will aid the village."

The paper is crumpling around the edges. Sakura lays it down on the desk and smooths out the edges. 

"Few people may know where your loyalty lies, Sakura," Tsunade continues. "There is a reason Jiraiya no longer uses his family name on his travels."

Someone could come for her parents. If she leaves the village and goes by Haruno Sakura, and she does what she's meant to do, someone may try to harm her parents. 

"You don't have to have a decision now." 

Sakura's eyes snap up to her kage; Tsunade's gaze is infinitely soft. 

"I'll give you a year," she says. "A year to work with the Nara and the Hatake, so you can fulfill that end of the bargain. A year to keep working in the hospital to fulfill that as well. You'll have one year to decide whether or not you can complete this assignment from Onyomi, or if you would rather remain one of Konoha's own."

It was a year to say goodbye. Her shishou was giving her a year to say goodbye. There was no way Sakura would back down now, she knew that she couldn't. Not when there was so much at stake. She had siblings now, scattered across the world. And one of them was Naruto. Naruto. 

Her heart clenches hard in her chest. She has a brother now that she already knew. And she can't let anything as horrible as what Akatsuki is planning happen to him. If she remains a Konoha shinobi, she'll be limited. She'll bring shame to her parents if she acts out of line. She could be executed by another village, and it would only reflect back on Konoha. On her shishou. Her kage. On her parents. 

"Take your time, Sakura," Tsunade says. "Really think it over."

She's already made her choice. 


 Shikaku is the Jounin Commander and a personal advisor to the Godaime Hokage. He's survived a small handful of wars, a lifetime of being a shinobi, being a Clan Head, marrying Yoshino, and having a son like Shikamaru. At some point in his career, he has probably thought, "Nothing will ever phase me after this". 

"Haruno Sakura is what?"

Shikaku is absolutely phased. 

"You heard me, Nara," Tsunade says, arms folded beneath her ample chest. "Haruno Sakura is now the resident spiritual liaison for the Nara and Hatake families."

Shikaku narrows his eyes. There are few people who know exactly why the Nara and Hatake have bonds with certain animals, and fewer still who actually believe spirits exist. 

He had been a boy when he had first met Itsukushima and Kasuga. His parents had brought them to the otherworldly buck and doe, laid him beneath their sniffing noses. 

What a lot of people didn't understand about the Nara, was that the Clan Head didn't choose who their heir would be. Itsukushima and Kasuga did. Shikaku's uncle had sons that the two spirits hadn't liked, and his aunt had a daughter that the spirits had looked over as well. When Shikaku was three, he had reached up his chubby hand and laid it on Kasuga's long green face. She had let him. 

It was witnessed by everyone in the clan, even children younger than Shikaku. His overlooked cousins had been there as well. 

When he and Yoshino brought Shikamaru home for the first time, the spirits had been waiting for them at their home instead of deep within the bowels of the Nara forest. That had been both illuminating and terrifying to say the least.

All of this adds up to the fact that the relationship between the spirits and their clans is known solely by those spirits, those clans, and the Hokage. There was no reason a civilian born chuunin should have any knowledge of what went on in those pockets of forest.

Shikaku stuffs his hands in his pockets and lets out a sigh. He runs a catalogue of everything he knows about Haruno Sakura behind his eyelids. Kunoichi of Team Seven, didn't make it to the second round of the Chuunin Exams the year Shikamaru competed. She nearly would have defeated Ino in her preliminary match if she had been a bit more clever, had twisted Ino's boisterous attitude to her advantage.

She had been one of the few genin able to dispel the mass genjutsu placed over the stadium during the Konoha Crush. She had been assigned along with Shikamaru and Naruto to find Sasuke. Shikamaru had stayed behind to delay the Oto nin pursuing them, but Shikaku knows that Sakura tried to stare down a tailed beast and almost died in the process. 

Her apprenticeship to the Godaime had taken her from 'lucky she wasn't already dead' to 'you're lucky she hasn't decided to kill you yet' in just under two years. She made chuunin with the rest of Team Ten when the exams were held in Suna. She had been sent away to gain her summoning contract with Katsuyu, or at least that's the last Shikaku had heard. Ino had started visiting less; Shikamaru had told him it was because she was trying to figure out how to kill a summons. 

Ino had always been a terrifying girl when it came to the people she loved. 

"I can't guarantee that the spirits will accept her," Shikaku finally says. 

Tsunade huffs out a laugh at that. 

"Oh believe me, they will."

Shikaku raises one eyebrow, and is positively sure that whatever Tsunade says next, it couldn't possibly be as ridiculous as what he's thinking. 

"She's the first slug sage in Konoha since the Shodaime."

Shikaku was thinking the girl was actually half spirit herself. This was a much more reasonable explanation. 

"And her responsibilities now extend into my clan's private lands?" Shikaku asks. 

Tsunade shakes her head as if he's the one being difficult. 

"It's what she promised to do to gain senjutsu," she explains. "It's not exactly a promise she can back out of."

"Can't or won't?"

Tsunade abruptly looks rather sad. It makes the hairs on the back of Shikaku's neck stand up. He's seen the Godaime with many looks on her face; smug, enraged, irritated, buzzed, cheerful. But never sad. 

"Can't," she says firmly. 

Whatever Haruno had promised Shikkotsu, if it made the Godaime look like that, it probably was pretty intense. Summons could be tricky, Shikaku knew that much. Once you signed the contract, they had your blood and they had your chakra. Shikaku knew other shinobi that could destroy a person with less than that. For the summons of a sage region, it was probably more than they needed.

"Is she still a shinobi of Konohagakure?" he asks after a moment of silence. 

Tsunade pours herself a drink. Shikaku feels as if he is back on steady ground. 

"That remains to be seen."

Shikaku knows that if Konoha could spare shinobi, now would probably be the best time to start throwing them out into the wilderness. They've got a strong number of chuunin now that Shikamaru's academy class have all been promoted. Hyūga Neji made jounin not too long ago. The number of genin the academy is churning out under Umino Iruka's updated curriculum are smarter, harder, and more resilient than Shikamaru's graduating class had been. 

Nobody came out of the Konoha Crush unscathed. It had been a rude awakening, to realize how far their village's defenses had fallen. It had been too easy for Orochimaru to get in, to confuse them all, and to kill the Sandaime. 

But now, the village was back on its feet. It would take a much stronger hit to knock them all on their ass again. 

"Alright," Shikaku says. "She can have permission to come onto Nara land, though we will need to teach her how to identify herself to our wards. She's not our blood, so it'll take some extra time."

Tsunade nods.

"She'll be in the hospital under observation for the next two days. I'll throw her your way when she's released," the Godaime replies, running her finger around the neck of the sake bottle.

"If they reject her," Shikaku begins, "she won't be allowed back onto the grounds. The wards are tied to the will of the spirits. If they want her out -,"

"Shikaku," Tsunade interrupts. She shakes her head and he closes his mouth.

He puts his hands up in defeat. Obviously he's caught her at a bad time. A sad drunk Godaime is probably the worst possible Godaime. 

"I understand."

"Then you're dismissed."

Shikaku wonders how Hatake's going to take the news. Considering the way Kasuga has been encouraging Shikaku to take a deer to the Hatake grounds for the past several months, the spirit on the Hatake land was gonna be happier about the news than the shut-in who was supposed to be taking care of it was.

Shikaku runs a hand over his face. How in the world was he supposed to tell his clan that someone else was coming to take care of Itsukushima and Kasuga? There would be riots, Nara riots; shifty eyes, bristling discomfort, and calmly delivered eviscerations of his character. 

The Nara were very protective of the buck and doe that lived on their land, and with good reason. The Nara had herded deer for years before the two spirits found the family. They made a deal and came under each other's care. The deer spirits taught them how to make medicines from the antlers of the deer they herded and from the herbs in the forests around them. In return, the spirits became part of the Nara herd, and brought with them great masses of wild deer.

It made the Nara a rich clan, before and after the Warring States period. But the deer were more than just a source of economic security. They knew the name of every Nara that had been born and brought to them, spanning back beyond living memory. They could heal with a touch, and had immeasurable knowledge of the natural world. They had become family members, a strangely shaped grandfather and grandmother that watched always over the clan. 

No one outside of the Nara was permitted to look at them. It was a small miracle the Hokage even knew they existed. The elder's council certainly didn't. The Hatake and the Nara were the only families in Konoha with ties to spirits, and thus they knew about each other. The Hatake had come from the mountain wolves; they had been allies for a time during the Warring States periods. The Nara would send deer meat to the Hatake to feed their wolves, and the Hatake would help protect the Nara in battle in return. 

Kasuga's insistence that Shikaku bring meat to the ōkami on the Hatake lands was a continuation of that alliance, but Kakashi did not live in his compound and the wards would not let Shikaku onto their sacred land. The venison went to Chouza, who made better use of it anyway. 

The fact that Haruno Sakura had gotten permission from a sage region to enter Nara and Hatake lands meant something important. Shikaku didn't know what exactly yet. He had never needed to become a sage with any summons, not when he had two nature spirits to look after. They must have had some connection to Shikkotsu Forest that he did not yet know about, had never thought to ask about. 

Presenting Haruno Sakura's presence on sacred territory as a command from a spirit like those who inhabited the Nara forests would probably appease about half of them. The other half would still call him crazy. 

In the end, it came down to whether or not Itsukushima and Kasuga accepted the girl. If they didn't, she was nobody's problem. There was no way she wouldn't know what she had to lose if she started blathering on about nature spirits to whoever would listen. The full force of the Nara clan would come down on her head in the quietest, most discreet possible character assassination that Konohagakure had ever seen. The Yamanaka and Akimichi would be behind them, and that would be enough. No one would trust a word that came out of Haruno Sakura's mouth afterwards. 

And if the nature spirits on Shikaku's land accepted the girl… 

If the nature spirits on his land accepted the girl, Shikaku had a lot to learn about Shikkotsu Forest and how much sway they had in the human world.


It must be Ino who tells her parents that she's home because as soon as a nurse can get her into a hospital bed, Haruno Kizashi and Mebuki are barreling in through the doors and drowning her in their affection.

"Mama! Papa!"

"Let me get a good look at you," Mebuki says, kissing Sakura's forehead.

"Did you have enough to eat? Did you have enough weapons? Are you hungry? I brought you lunch," Kizashi says, dropping about three bento boxes onto the nightstand beside Sakura's bed.

Sakura scratches the back of her head.

"You brought all of us lunch, papa."

Kizashi pins her with a glare that usually only her mother puts on her.

"All three of those," her father says, "are for you."

Sakura is not even remotely hungry, but she knows that there will be trouble if she doesn't eat.

She plays a good soldier and gets down about half of the first bento, all the while letting her parents pat her head and hold her close. She missed their touchy affection, the easy way they jostle her and hold her close. She missed them.  

"I'm requesting another four days of leave for the both of us," Mebuki announces to Kizashi midway into their visit. "We deserve some time with our daughter."

"I couldn't agree more."

Sakura has to bite down on the fact that she'll be leaving them again in a year's time. That no amount of paid leave will make up for the years she'll be losing once she goes. She vows to herself that she'll free the bijuu in two years or less; she can't imagine being away from home much longer than that, away from her parents. 

Oh no, her parents. How were they going to react to her not being a Konoha shinobi anymore? Sakura had stuffed the forms Tsunade gave her in her pack, but it was only a matter of time until the truth came out. This wasn't a secret she could keep for months at a time. The sooner she told them, the better. They could enjoy their time together that way, instead of counting down the days until Sakura rescinded her oaths and left indefinitely. 

She drags them into more hugs than she can count, and when they leave, she burns the image of the Haruno circle on their backs into her memory. She won't be allowed to call herself a Haruno a year from now. She won't let herself, for her parents' sake. She'll have to - she'll have to find clothes without it, won't she? 

When her parents are gone to put in their request for four days of leave, Sakura sinks into her bedsheets. She hopes she doesn't see Azami on rotation. She almost doesn't even want to tell Tenten when she gets out of the hospital; she won't have the heart to go to a party that celebrates her victory when she knows it'll really be celebrating her state sanctioned defection. 

She rubs the heels of her hands into her eyes and tries to breathe. She's not defecting. Tsunade is offering her a way out, the best way out possible. She can still look out for Konoha's interests. She can still protect the people she loves without abandoning her village. 

It still leaves a rotten taste in her mouth. 

She's not like Sasuke. She isn't leaving for power. She isn't leaving for glory. But she's not like Naruto either; she isn't leaving just to return at a later date. Sakura's leaving until her goal has been achieved. She can't come back in good conscience if the world is still in peril, if Naruto is still in danger. If her brothers and sisters, if Onyomi's brothers and sisters are still being hunted. 

But once this is over, where will she be? Would Tsunade allow her to come back into the fold as a citizen and shinobi of Konoha? As long as Sakura lived, she would still belong to Shikkotsu. Would Tsunade want to take that chance? Would the Rokudaime after her?

Sakura thinks of Jiraiya. How he's been on the road for longer than she's been alive. How he still sends word back to Tsunade, how his spy network tells him which way the wind will blow before it changes direction. 

She wonders if she could handle being out there in the world by herself for years on end. In Shikkotsu, she always had someone to talk to. Living in Konoha was the same, even when she felt her loneliest. 

But Sakura couldn't take anyone with her into the world. Tsunade had taken Shizune, but only because she was a genin, therefore an adult and capable of making her own choices. And Tsunade had been traumatized by the war. Of course she wanted to leave the place that made her fight. 

The only reason Tsunade had never been labelled a missing nin, was the same reason Orochimaru never had been. The Sandaime had a soft spot for his students. 

Jiraiya was the only one to become an independent contractor, and that was precisely because he became a toad sage and swore his allegiance to Mount Myōboku. Orochimaru had been run out of the village, more or less. Tsunade had just - left. And Sakura will never think she's better than her shishou, but her reasons for leaving the village are at least a little bit more noble and a little less tinged with post traumatic stress and a cursed necklace.

When the nurses come in to check on her, Sakura goes through the motions of the check up in near total silence. They understand; it's common for shinobi to return from missions a little rattled, preferring silence to chatter. If she's too impersonal, they'll make a note on her chart that she might need to be referred to a Yamanaka, so Sakura pipes up every now and again about wounds she received in the forest. 

The nurses carefully go over the leg that she broke and mended while she was in the forest. They are perplexed; the bone behaves as if it had never been broken. Then they go over her hand. The mass of chakra burn scarring that wraps around her fingertips and knuckles is truly hideous, but diagnostic jutsu after diagnostic jutsu prove that the scars are purely surface level. Shigeo had healed everything that mattered; he had left the scars for a reason. So had Onyomi. 

She declines when they ask her if she wants them to repair the scarred tissue. They nod in understanding, and they leave. 

Sakura looks at her pack in the corner of the room, and wonders about her hitai-ate. She won't return it to Tsunade, she never would. She'd - she'd leave it in her bedroom. It would wait for her there, or wait for her wherever her parents were. They could move while she was away. That was entirely possible. 

Before she knows why, Sakura's eyes flick to the window of her hospital room. There is no shadow cast across the glass, but Sakura can sense another chakra signature prickling at the edges of her mind. It's strong, and imposing. It has the same ozone feel to Nao's, like static electricity, but it's also deeply familiar. 

Sakura bites her lower lip when she realizes it's Kakashi. 

She knows he won't come inside. And she doesn't have it in her to ask him to come in. 

She had told him - she had told him that he had to make a choice. That they could be friends if he made the effort, because she wasn't going to pour herself into a person who didn't want her around. But if she can logic her way around Tsunade abandoning the village, there was no reason she couldn't logic her way around Kakashi abandoning her. 

They had very little in common. Kakashi was a grown man, a jounin, who had seen more of the world than Sakura ever had. He had lost literally every single person he had ever held close to his heart. And she and Naruto had reminded him of people he had held close to him. Of course he hadn't fought Jiraiya when he came to take Naruto away for his training. Of course he had quietly put himself back in ANBU rotation when Sakura was the only one of them left. 

Kakashi was used to losing the people that he loved. Distancing himself from them, shoving them away in a shoddy attempt at protecting them, this was the best that he could do. 

Sakura reaches for the cup and pitcher of cool water the nurse had left her on their way out. She pours herself a cup and drinks the whole thing. She eyes the bento boxes her father had left her, and is immensely grateful. Hospital food is not known for its variety of flavor. 

Whether Sakura liked it or not, this absent assertion of his presence was Kakashi's way of letting her know that he cared. It was exactly what she had told him to do, and he had done it on his terms. 

It's not - it's not exactly what she was expecting. And it's not what she wanted either, and it isn't the way that she wanted it to happen. But it was what Kakashi had to give. 

Sakura's heart had landed her in a lot of messes, but if she had been the type to hold grudges, she never would have mended her friendship with Ino. 

Five months isn't a lot of time, she knows that. But maybe seeing his team get blown into the wind changed something in him.

Sakura sets her cup down on the table, and runs her hands over her eyes. Even if she doesn't forgive him now, she'll be on his clan grounds soon enough. He wouldn't be able to get rid of her, even if he wanted them to.

They'd be friends, or at least friendly, or at least allies. For Sakura, that was more than enough.


Team Eight really does come to visit the next day, along with parts of Team Gai. Tenten and Chouji are busy planning Sakura's celebration party. Shikamaru's been called off to a clan meeting, and Ino has the morning shift at her family's flower shop, but says through Kiba that she'll be there in the evening. 

They bring her a wild assortment of flowers, all from the Yamanaka shop. The bouquets aren't too loud, but the people are boisterous enough. There are fat purple and yellow irises, little daisies, stargazer lilies, tiny carnations, yellow solidago, and purple statice. Lee, looking extraordinarily like a mother hen, worries over her scarred hand. 

Kiba has a thousand questions about the slugs and how they tested her, and Hinata is curious about what she learned. Shino wants to know everything there is to know about the biology of slug summons. Sakura bites down on the urge to tell him that the bugs swarming in his veins are her cousins, in a way. That because of this, the two of them are cousins, too. 

Team Eight has to leave first because they've got their own physicals scheduled for the same day. Lee eventually goes because he has to train with Gai, and he promises to tell him that Sakura's well in case he's still worried. 

It leaves Sakura alone with Neji. 

She purses her lips, worries the petal of a stargazer lily between her thumb and forefinger. 

"I looked for you."

Neji breaks the silence with the admission, and Sakura's heart starts hammering twice as hard in her chest. 

"My Byakugan could see eight hundred meters before you left. I can see three kilometers now," he continues. "Because I looked for you. Every day."

Her hair is as long as his now, she notices. But where he pulls his into a tail towards his lower back, Sakura's is loose. He looks pristine in his white shirt. Sakura can still feel the mud of Shikkotsu between her toes, can still taste peaches in the back of her throat. 

"Neji-san -"

"I knew I wouldn't be able to find you," he continues, blowing over her. It's so unlike him to interrupt, it stuns Sakura into silence. "It isn't possible to see into sage regions. They're in pocket dimensions. And while it's possible for humans to move between them, we can't see into them."

He's so far across the room that Sakura wants to reach out and yank him close to her. She hadn't had the time to think about him, to wonder and worry about him. So much of her head space was occupied by the slugs, by Onyomi, by her bargain, and by Sasuke. She feels guilty for it now, not remembering, not realizing that the one person she had asked to wait for her actually did.

"But I did," he says softly. "Every day. At dawn."

Sakura doesn't know how to say she didn't look for him. That she couldn't, not at dawn, when the slugs were well into their sleeping hours and she had to be, too if she wanted to be rested enough to travel in the night time. 

Sakura is very aware that her shishou is right, and that she does have a type, and that it's emotionally unavailable people who are cruel to her and leave her the moment they wring her dry. 

But Sakura kissed a boy in Suna because he respected the fact that she broke his ribs during the Chuunin Exams. And Naruto had always loved her in a way she couldn't reciprocate because he thought she was beautiful, and talented. 

Sakura has only ever had crushes on women like Temari and Tenten; women who were vicious, a little scary, and had truly fatal senses of humor. And even though she hadn't thrown herself at either of them for fear of being eaten by the other (the open secret that was Tenten and Temari's relationship had been unofficially announced when they were caught necking between preliminary fights during the Suna exams), she knew that she liked them based on a common ground of admiration and respect. 

Respect. Sasuke had never respected her. He had maybe liked her for a little while, but never the way he liked Naruto. If anyone on their team had been dead last, it had been her. 

But Sakura has grown in the two years since Sasuke's defection. She commands respect wherever she goes, not because she is feared, but because she is trusted. She has healed almost every active duty shinobi at least once. She has splintered the ground with glancing blows from her fingertips. She is the Godaime's apprentice. She is Haruno Sakura, and her name is only months away from becoming as legendary as her master's. 

She doesn't tolerate disrespect. No one who can't see her for what she is deserves to be in her life. She proved that when she told Kakashi where he could stick himself. And she proved it when she stared her kage in the face and refused to move a centimeter. And that was only yesterday. 

The fact of the matter is that Sakura has changed. And so has her type. 

"Neji," she says. 

He seems to freeze a bit at the informality. It makes Sakura's stomach flutter. 

"Thank you." 

Something shutters in his expression, and he gives her a curt nod. Sakura is out of her bed before she can stop herself, wrapping her scarred hand around Neji's wrist. He stops in her grasp. 

Sakura gently squeezes the delicate bone and muscle under her grasp. 

"I mean it," she says. "Thank you."

When he kisses her, he does it without warning. His teeth smash against hers, and she's pretty sure she's got a cut if the blood dripping into her mouth is any indication. 

It is only a dry press of lips, softened when he loses his nerve and Sakura refuses to let go of his wrist. 

He pulls back and turns bright red when he sees the cut he's left on Sakura's upper lip. She only smiles at him, and squeezes his wrist a second time. 

"Don't worry," she says. "We can try again."


Ino doesn't get the chance to come and see her that night, mostly because there's an army of civilian mothers whose children Sakura had delivered during her apprenticeship who heard that she was back in the village and wanted to send her welcome home flowers.

Sakura isn't sure how she's going to be able to say goodbye to Konoha when the villagers are just this wholesome. 

She lazes a couple of days away at home. Her father challenges her to a spar, then immediately goes slack jawed when he tries to body slam her into the ground only to see her veins go purple and absorb the shock of the impact. He yields pretty quickly after that.

Mebuki teases him for days afterward.

Her celebration party at Chouji's family's restaurant is as raucous as she expects it to be. There's food and noise and celebration. Ino squishes her in on one side, almost positive that if Sakura's out of her grasp, she'll disappear again. Tenten is on her other side, piling food on her plate and recounting stories from missions when Sakura was gone.

Neji is at the opposite end of the table, sandwiched beside Kiba and Shikamaru. Each time he catches her eye, he smiles at her, a little secretive smile only for her and Sakura feels warm all over.  

The days start to go by. 

She's found in the library by Gai, who sweeps her into his arms in a massive hug and spins her around several times before challenging her to a spar to see just how far she's come in the last five months. She accepts graciously both the challenge and the ass kicking that will bruise her blood cells. 

Kurenai is much more gentle. She clucks over the state of Sakura's right hand, but gives her a couple of pointers on how to she can use the scarring in her genjutsu, now that she's aware of the way the patterns look on her own skin. 

Asuma offers her a cigarette in congratulations when they run into each other. Sakura takes one drag for the hell of it, then grinds the thing underneath her heel. 

"That," Asuma says, "was my last one."

Sakura smiles prettily at him. 

"I know."

She doesn't see Kakashi. Somehow, she survives. 


Shikamaru isn't there when Sakura is summoned to the main house on the Nara compound. It's probably for the best. The spirits on Nara land aren't something that rational thought can explain, and Sakura's presence is barely explained by logic. 

Shikaku keeps his hands in his pockets, Yoshino at his side as he guides Sakura away from the main house and towards the darker forests. The Shodaime had given the Nara extra trees to fence the ones they had long since claimed. It was a clever disguise, the sturdy oak. If you didn't look twice, you'd almost think that nothing abnormal could ever live on the Nara estate. 

"Don't look them in the eye," Shikaku had said. "It's disrespectful."

"They may not even appear to you," Yoshino added, "and it isn't a mark against you. They're very particular."

"Don't try to touch them."

"Bow to them before you sit down."

"Keep your hands visible."

Sakura had smiled through it as if they were parents worried about her first day at the academy, rather than two jounin level shinobi who had seen the forest spirits gore a man for looking at them the wrong way. 

"Of course, Nara-san, Nara-san," she had said. 

They had given her one of Yoshino's old kimonos to wear, a forest green number speckled with white threading and pale blue flowers. A new child had to be dressed well to meet Itsukushima and Kasuga; Shikaku remembers being mortified when they insisted on greeting Shikamaru in only his swaddling clothes, and his little blue hat from the hospital. 

They burrow deep into the forest. The Shodaime's trees let light filter in through their wide, separated canopies. The Nara trees are more like the Forest of Death; light does not get in. There is darkness, an abundance of shadow. The right Nara in these woods could take an entire legion to its knees. Shikaku had been told stories about his ancestor, Nara Shikako, whose ingenuity with these same forests made her a legendary trapper. Nara Shikaten had used the forests as cover for ambushes. 

Shikaku can feel the pull of the shadows, insistent and cloying around his navel. Shadows are not stagnant things that appear and disappear with light. Shadow was as much of a person as their physical body was; shadow was everywhere, chasing light into nothingness, and unfurling in its menacing glory when night fell. 

It is cooler and Shikaku can see the hairs on Yoshino's arms stand up. Sakura doesn't seem bothered. It occurs to him then that she's just spent the last five months in a land called the 'damp bone forest'; of course a little cool air doesn't bother her.

The darkness becomes nearly suffocating, but Shikaku has been walking through these lands since he was a child. He knows every stone, every twig, and every low hanging branch. Yoshino spent too long in ANBU to let a little darkness upset her; she moves with steps even quieter than his. 

Haruno Sakura walks through the Nara lands as if she knows them. It doesn't take long, but before Shikaku can stop her, she's the one leading them through the forest. Shikaku's eyes have long since adjusted to the dark. He can make out her silhouette, and the way the green of Yoshino's old kimono plays against the shadows around her. He can see just the barest touch of her hands when she walks; there are circles of pitch black on the backs of her hands.

After some time, Sakura stops and dips herself into a low bow. Shikaku and Yoshino sit, flanking her either side. They won't be able to stop the spirits if they choose to gore Sakura, but they'll have enough space to draw her corpse away from them. Hopefully, if they're feeling merciful, they'll leave enough for her parents to bury.

Sakura stays in her deep bow, while Shikaku and Yoshino flank her for nearly one hour. One hour bleeds into two, and two into three. Shikaku is sure the spirits won't show up, and that it'd probably be best if they headed out before nightfall happened in the village proper.

Kusaga enters the little clearing before they have a chance.

The doe has pale green fur, dappled with spots that dance as she walks. They take the shape of different flowers, different trees, and her eyes are an intelligent pale blue. She's massive, easily the size of a full grown man, and wherever she steps, the grass seems greener. On occasion, flowers have been known to bloom when she is walking and is in a particularly good mood.

The spirit approaches Sakura, with her head tilted. She bows deeply in return, and when she rises, she gets closer.

"Shikau," Kasuga coos, "you put her in my favorite color on purpose, didn't you?"

Shikaku has the grace to feel a little sheepish. The kid was one of Shikamaru's friends. What's more, she was one of Ino's. He wasn't going to throw her into the lion's den without a fighting chance. 

"You are very pretty, little one," Kasuga says, flicking her ears backwards and forwards. "What are you called?"

"Haruno Sakura," she replies. 

Kasuga laughs at that, and the sound is like a running river. 

"A spring time name," Kasuga says. "How lovely. Did your parents name you after your hair?"

The back of Sakura's neck goes a little red. 

"Yes, seishin-sama" she says, in a shy voice. 

Kasuga presses close to her, and Shikaku can feel himself and Yoshino tense simultaneously. But the doe only snuffles Sakura's hair before rearing back. 

"Do you know you smell of peaches?"

Sakura nods. 

"And what lovely markings you have," Kasuga continues. "Tell me, are they a recent gift?"

Sakura nods a second time. 

"From Onyomi-sama."

Shikaku narrows his eyes at that. That must have been the name of another summons in Shikkotsu. It made sense; Kakashi had more ninken than just Pakkun. 

"Onyomi-kun!" Kasuga exclaims, and that's also not something Shikaku was expecting in this life or the next. "You are one of his! I should have known. I have not seen someone with your markings since Hashirama-kun, and that was many clan heads ago."

Shikaku had not known that the Shodaime was a slug sage. He's sure one of his ancestors must have known; it was not common for people outside of the Nara to come onto the Nara lands. Being the Hokage and a slug sage was probably how the Shodaime had managed to get the Nara to agree to join the village in the first place; he would tell no one of their spirits because it was part of his duty to protect them. 

"That explains your eyes, Sakura-chan," Kasuga continues. "What lovely eyes they are. Senjutsu sits well on you, I think."

Shikaku wonders what exactly is so special about this kid's eyes, but he thinks better of asking. He's had enough ridiculous dojutsu users to last a lifetime. If Haruno is part Hyūga, he doesn't want to hear about it. 

"Thank you, seishin-sama."

"I am called Kasuga, Sakura-chan," the doe says in a prim, but firm voice. "You have aligned yourself with the Nara, and you may call me my name."

Sakura sits down before Kasuga and bows deeply, pressing her forehead into the wet earth. 

"Yes, Kasuga-sama."

Kasuga lifts her great head and flicks her ears at Shikaku. 

"Have her added to the wards, Shikaku-kun," the doe says. "She will have full access to our lands."

Shikaku nods once, silently and Kasuga turns back to Sakura. 

"Tell me, child, do you know how to care for a herd of deer?"

Sakura raises her head. "I do not, Kasuga-sama, but I can learn."

Kasuga seems to smile, and dips her head to nuzzle Sakura's cheek. Shikaku is floored. 

"Good," the green doe says. "The Nara love to learn. You will do quite nicely here, I think."

Itsukushima does not show himself, but that is not a surprise. It was already astonishing that Kasuga touched Sakura twice. She was the older of the two spirits, and the stronger of the two. Itsukushima was an all seeing spirit who rarely showed himself when he was not needed to help decide upon the next clan head; Kasuga was a motherly spirit who treated every Nara as if they were her own fawns. While the spirits were of one will, they were not of one mind. Kasuga had the final say on many decisions, simply because she could beat Itsukushima in a fight if the need ever arose. Shikaku had never seen two spirits do battle, and he hopes that his lifetime is short enough so that he never has to. 

The point was that Kasuga was older than the Nara family, and while she was known for being loving, she was not known for touching anyone who she had not given permission to touch her first. Itsukushima's thoughts on Sakura hardly mattered when Kasuga had so obviously given her, her approval. 

"We don't know nearly enough about Shikkotsu Forest," Shikaku says to Yoshino as she waves at Sakura's retreating form.

She'll be coming back tomorrow to be added to the wards. She has Kasuga's approval, and by proxy Itsukushima's. It won't take longer than a minute to add her blood and chakra to the seal matrices on the oldest tree on Nara land. It'll take some time, but by the end of the month, Haruno Sakura will be the only person outside of the clan allowed free reign and entry on the Nara estate. 

"You're absolutely right," his wife returns, her pleasant smile not falling off of her face until Sakura has vanished, and even until she is well out of shinobi enhanced hearing range. 

Yoshino turns to him and lifts her hand. Shikaku turns and offers that hand his arm, and he feels Yoshino's small calloused fingers hook into the crook of his elbow. 

"We also don't know enough about the Shodaime," she continues once they have entered the compound, and the notice-me-not-conversation seals ripple into activation. "We hardly know anything about slug sages. We'll have to consult the old texts and ask Itsukushima-sama what this means. Kasuga-sama seems to fond of her to tell us the whole truth."

Shikaku uses his free hand to tug at his goatee. 

"She calls herself the emissary of Shikkotsu Forest," he says. 

Yoshino raises a delicate brow. His wife is a genjutsu specialist second only to Yūhi Kurenai because she retired out of ANBU to have a family as Yūhi's career hit its stride; Shikaku has literally seen that eyebrow grind full grown Kumo nin to their knees. 

"And what does that make her to Konohagakure?"

Shikaku shakes his head, and places his hand on top of his wife's. 

"Not an ally," he says, "but not an enemy either."

Yoshino huffs. 

"The neutral ones are the most dangerous kind."

Shikaku pats his wife's hand, and he thinks of Naruto and of Sasuke. He thinks of Kakashi. He thinks of Ino, and how she taught herself how to nullify acids in her kitchen sink. He thinks of Shikamaru coming home late a couple of weeks ago from Sakura's welcome home party, flushed and content at having his friend home. 

"She's not even remotely neutral," Shikaku says after a little while. 

Yoshino narrows her eyes. 

"That's even worse."


It's September when Sakura returns, so when she leaves in a year, she'll be going in August when the summer is at its hottest and begins its lazy descent into cool weather.  

For now, she prepares for winter. 

She works full time at the hospital instead of taking missions and racks up a decent amount of money in her savings account. She blithely ignores the fact that she will need to empty that entire savings account when she leaves the village. She also doesn't think about leaving the village. At all. 

She's got all of the paperwork filled out. It's in the false bottom of her desk. She doesn't know when exactly she'll find the strength to walk into Tsunade's office and hand it to her. Doesn't know what she'll do when the paperwork is approved and she's released from her oaths. 

She already feels like a puppet with cut strings. She doesn't want to know how she'll feel when the strings are cut for real. 

For now, she bothers her parents. She makes them meals when they leave on missions, and she has warm dinners or breakfasts or lunches prepared when they arrive home. Her father will more often than not, shove her bodily out of the kitchen, the place he has called his domain, where quote, "Usurpers are not allowed within five meters of the rice cooker". Mebuki laughs at him and devours Sakura's fried eggplant. 

She goes to the Nara compound once a week, usually without an escort to talk with Kasuga. She and her mate Itsukushima have been well fed and they require very little from her. She'll still occasionally bring offerings of incense, wildflowers, and fruit. They are accepted graciously. Kasuga calls her 'Momo' for her peach smell, and Sakura wonders what exactly it is about spending sixty some days in a vat of slug slime that makes her smell like fruit. 

She doesn't hunt down Kakashi and demand access to the Hatake lands. Rather, when she arrives, she activates the senjutsu chakra thrumming in her muscles, and the wards let her in without a second thought. She goes into the deep forests of the Hatake land, finds the old white torii, and devises a plan of action. She doesn't see the ōkami of the Hatake for several weeks after that, but Sakura is patient. She leaves him food. Kasuga tells her to bring him a fresh kill, and teaches Sakura how to kill a buck with her bare hands, how to thank him for his sacrifice. 

She cuts the meat into tidy pieces, and leaves them for the ōkami. The spirit is stubborn, but he is hungry. Eventually, Kasuga tells her, there will come a time to bring him a whole deer. Sakura cracks her knuckles and smiles; Kasuga licks her cheek. 

Sakura still trains with the Konoha Eleven. Gai and Lee are ridiculously excited when Sakura shows off her new glittering purple veins in a spar, and are doubly excited when the hits they try to land on her don't break as many bones as they used to. Sakura reminds herself to store more senjutsu chakra on her body after every such spar. 

Kiba is the person who teaches her how to fight with a partner. Sakura summons Hitomi and Shigeo for their speed and his fighting know-how. She may or may not accidentally learn the style that gave birth to the Gentle Fist, and the mind numbing quickness that inspired fuinjutsu specialists to dream of the Hiraishin. 

Kiba breaks down the way Sakura fights as one, and teaches her how to listen to the subtle cues Hitomi and Shigeo give her. Much like the Inuzuka and their instinctual awareness of their partners, Sakura is telepathically linked with whichever slug is making physical contact with her. Kiba teaches her how to deploy herself into the battle calm, how to open herself up to the suggestions of her summons, how not to think and how to act. It's almost the same thing as trusting. Sakura learns very quickly. 

She doesn't bother chasing down Kakashi. Eventually, he comes to her in roundabout ways. He "accidentally" bumps into her when buying the next volume of his smut series. He swipes the eggplant from her cart into his own at the grocery store but leaves a tin of mochi ice cream. He makes up for himself in small, quiet ways. Sakura lets him. 

Tsunade was not even remotely joking when she told her she was ready for the Byakugō. The training for it is days on days of meditation, of focus. Sakura had been able to store almost fifty days worth of senjutsu chakra in her body because she had been swimming in slime made to help her do just that. And she had been moving. But Tsunade tells her to use her own chakra, and to keep still when forming her first Byakugō. 

The first out of four. Sakura - may have an impulse control problem. 

She stores her own chakra in the seal at the center of her forehead. She stores three fourths of Nao's chakra in a diamond that lays on it's side just to the right of the first one. She stores nature energy (which is damn near friggin' impossible unless she's in sage mode, and even then her body wants to store senjutsu chakra and not raw nature energy) to the left of her center seal. When she isn't storing senjutsu chakra in her actual blood cells (Chie is actually insane because now when Sakura's asleep she can feel her blood diffusing oxygen) she stores it in a diamond just below the center one. 

Sakura spends a year creating four Byakugō seals.

It's actually much healthier than it sounds.

Her chakra reserves are deeper and more resilient, and her tenketsu are wider after her time in Shikkotsu. But Nao's chakra, the nature energy that doesn't know how to leave her alone, her senjutsu chakra, and her own chakra are all crammed inside of her and desperate for space. Having four seals gives the chakra somewhere to swirl and to ferment without actually making Sakura's non-Uzumaki body explode from the sheer amount of chakra developing in her system. 

She also does not slap Shigeo to the moon and back again when he sees the shape of her seal and tells her she lacks originality. It isn't her fault the damn thing looks like a cherry blossom; she hadn't wanted a stupid row of diamonds on her forehead. 

With a small Susumu on her shoulder, Sakura relearns how to open her tenketsu to receive nature energy in this world. There's much less, but also somehow much more to receive. People aren't actively taking in nature energy, so she has more to pull from, but she's also not eating foods that have been digested by Onyomi's many children. She supplements by growing a vegetable garden in her backyard, and eating things she cooks the day she picks them. 

The first time Ino had seen her bite into a tomato, she had nearly slapped the damn thing out of Sakura's hands. 

She leaves her hair long, unwilling to cut what Onyomi had given her. She keeps it in an untidy bun at the top of her head, her bangs slipping down to frame the side of her face like her shishou's. Shizune comments on the similarities between their hairstyles, and Tsunade gives Sakura a little wink. Nobody who got their hair in Shikkotsu wanted to cut it. Nobody. 

She shops for clothes in the jewel tones of the slugs in the forest; oranges, and reds, and teals, and purples, and blues. She buys pairs of beige colored cargo pants, and accidentally goes a lot of places barefoot.

Like. A lot of places. 

She tries not to feel guilty when she stops wearing her family crest on her back. She reminds herself that her slug sage markings are many infinite Haruno circles, and that they are always beneath her skin. In her blood, in her heart, Sakura is still her parents' daughter. Not wearing their symbol doesn't make her any less of their child. 

Neji's white shirts don't have the Hyūga symbol on them, and neither does Hinata's pale purple coat. Shikamaru's Nara clan symbol isn't on his flak jacket either. Ino's got nowhere to put her clan symbol. In fact, Chouji's the only one to wear his family's crest on him day by day. 

It doesn't make her like Sasuke, as much as it doesn't make any of the Eleven who don't wear their family's symbols like Sasuke. She knows who she is. She doesn't need a shirt to remind her. 

She introduces Sango to Tenten just like she had promised, and Tenten goes starry eyed at the idea of being apprenticed to one of the creatures who taught humans the art of fuinjutsu. She agrees to go to Shikkotsu in a year's time after Sango has taught her the basics; if she survives the forest, she will be Tenten's master.

Sakura's heart swells not only to fill this one part of her bargain, but also because Tenten's talents were wasted on her single fuinjutsu specialization being with weapons. The Hyūga wouldn't take her on an apprenticeship because she was an outsider, and Tsunade's expertise was outside of Tenten's realm of interest. But Sango? Sango loved Tenten. It was a miracle she hadn't dragged the kunoichi back to the forest after Tenten showed her the arrays on her Twin Dragon scrolls. 

Ino places her hand on Susumu's back and twelve seconds later is drafting a formal request for her own contracting mission to Shikkotsu. The Yamanaka had forgotten along the way who had given them their kekkei genkai, but Ino knows the name of the woman who made sure their clan survived the Warring States period, and so does Inoichi. He's fully prepared to throw the weight of the Yamanaka behind her request if Tsunade denies her. 

Shigeo meets Neji entirely by accident when one day the slug is picking on Sakura for her poor balance. Shigeo calls Sango, and with a pop she is there, too, with her slimy belly on Neji's palm, examining his thoughts and the recent history of the Hyūga. 

Suffice to say, the slugs are furious. 

Sakura takes Sango and Shigeo to the Hyūga and accidentally starts a revolt in whispers. Sango expands to her full size in Hiashi's tidy meeting room for guests, absolutely ruins several tatami mats with her slime, and rages about how the Caged Bird Seal was a punishment for not upholding the vow that Hyūga Kagome made to Shikkotsu. Sealing in death the Byakugan of Kagome's descendants was supposed to be a reminder to the main family of what they were supposed to uphold. Shigeo had given them techniques to protect the weak, and Sango had given them sight to protect themselves. A handful of generations after Seichi's passing, the seal had been twisted out of its original context.

Now, it had been used as a fear mongering tactic, a way to divide and control a family, and the oath Hyūga Seichi and Kagome had made to the slugs of Shikkotsu had been forgotten anyway. 

"That seal," Shigeo says, bristling with rage, "was supposed to be removed from those of Kagome's line who were true to the oath that she broke."

It was never supposed to be an instrument of violence. 

Sango lays her body on the hand of each Hyūga and tells each one whether or not they deserved their Byakugan unsealed as it was. Whether or not they individually took after the twin that kept their oath, or the twin that did not. Many members of the main family were unhappy with their results. The branch members almost overwhelmingly passed her test.

It starts weeks of deliberations that leave the Hyūga in a tailspin, but it ends with the clan head deciding that losing his brother had been enough, and almost losing his nephew had been the writing on the wall long before he was ready to see it. 

There is resistance, as there is resistance at all change. But after some time, a small school opens up on the Hyūga compound for civilians and shinobi with disabilities, or who are old, or considered too frail to fight. The Hyūga teach them how to protect themselves. It will take generations until they achieve balance, but when Seichi and Kagome's lines begin working as one, Shikkotsu is pleased. 

Sakura's not allowed in the room when Sango begins teaching Hyūga Hiashi how to removed the Caged Bird Seal from the heads of his clansmen, but when she sees Neji after the fact, her fingers brush feather light against his unblemished forehead.


Sakura is in Ino's bedroom, pouring over a text on advanced chakra theory. There's nearly nothing on how the Shodaime achieved his "miraculous" regenerative powers in battle, but Sakura knows that most of it is because of his senjutsu. But there's something she's not getting. The one thing she had the most trouble with was instantaneous healing; you had to stop your bodily processes entirely, and allow nature energy to heal you. She had done it with her broken leg, but that was far less pressing than organ failure or a knife in the heart. She wanted to know the mechanics of how. 

Unfortunately, Sakura is the only person on this side of the Pure Land who knows even a fourth of the how. If she asks one of the slugs (Shigeo in particular), they'll just tell her to let go and trust. Sakura knows there's no shortcut to that, but it doesn't stop her from looking for one anyway.

Ino had said to meet at her place, and Inoichi had let Sakura in with a wave of his hand and smile on his face. She had settled down to read for about four minutes before Ino barges into her room with her hands on her hips and a scroll in her hand.

"I got us a mission!"

Sakura's stomach drops.

"I'm team leader and Tsunade-sama is asking me to pick a squadron."

Tsunade knows that Sakura hasn't turned in all her resignation and renunciation forms yet. She had to have known that Ino would want Sakura at her back no matter what the mission parameters were. They had proven their capacity for teamwork together during the Chuunin Exams. They had advanced a long way since then, Sakura in Shikkotsu and Ino in Konoha. The two of them would be a force of nature no matter where they went or what task they were assigned.

Tsunade knew Ino would come to her. She was forcing Sakura's hand.

"I want you on my team, but I was wondering if you had anybody else in mind."

Sakura shuts her eyes and tries to think of a way to tell Ino the truth. 

Her parents don't know yet. She hasn't told anyone. She hasn't even talked it over with Sango, or Chie, or Shigeo. She's heard Onyomi's voice like a silken whisper in her mind before she falls asleep and just as she wakes up. It's not sinister, but it is a reminder. 

She's spent six months in Konoha ensuring that the parts of her promise she could fulfill there were fulfilled. But there is a world full of bijuu, and an organization hellbent on subjugating them. 

"I'm not on active duty, pig," Sakura says lightly. "Couldn't take the mission even if I wanted to."

Ino snorts in a very unladylike way and tosses the mission scroll at Sakura. 

"You will be when you read this," she returns. "It's in Hot Springs Country, aka the village hidden in luxury hotels."

Ino smiles at her and gives her a little wink. 

"You've been grinding yourself to the bone at the hospital, Forehead, don't think I haven't noticed. You've been working nonstop since you got back. You need a little break!"

Sakura bites her lips together and rolls the scroll between her hands. 

"I can't, Ino."

That stops her friend, her childhood friend, her lifelong friend. Ino puts her hands on her hips and pins Sakura with a fierce gaze. 

She's getting stronger by the day under Susumu's careful guidance. She can't glean thoughts with a touch yet, but she's getting to where she doesn't even need to use hand signs to use her clan jutsu. Sakura's sure that if Ino contracts with the slugs and gets Mitsuru as her master, she'll be the strongest Yamanaka since Inoko. 

"What do you mean can't?"

Sakura rolls her shoulders. It had been a miracle in and of itself that Tsunade had taken her off active duty for a year as a cover. Sakura had made something up about the hospital being backlogged and needing her help, and also needing to learn how to use her slugs in battle formations. Her friends had nodded understandingly, especially Tenten and Ino, who were keenly aware of the grueling training regimens the Shikkotsu slugs were capable of planning. 

"I'm not a -, uh …"

Sakura doesn't have the words for this, and she isn't brave enough for it either. How can she tell Ino the truth? How can she make her mouth form the words that'll condemn her to the fine line between deserter and mercenary?

"I don't take missions for Konoha anymore."

That's what she settles on. It's objectively worse. 

Ino's eyes narrow and Sakura knows that little vein that twitches on her forehead is screaming to pulse chakra and invade Sakura's mind. Ino knows better than to enter Sakura's mind without permission; Inner Sakura had long since been coalesced into her subconscious mind, but her strength was still tenfold. Sakura could bat Ino's clan jutsu off like a fly when she was prepared for it. She could wring it out like a tick when she wasn't. 

"You can get back on the active duty roster, like, whenever you want to," Ino says, measuring her words. "You're the Godaime's apprentice."

Sakura presses the mission scroll between her hands. 

"I don't want to get back on the active duty roster."

"Why not?"

Sakura closes her eyes. She can't look at Ino when she says it. She can't. She can't. 

"I'm not - affiliated with the Leaf anymore."

When Sakura opens her eyes, Ino is looking just over her shoulder. It makes it twice as hard for Sakura to keep talking. 

"I'm not really - I mean, I'm not a - I'm no longer a shinobi of Konoha."

There's a look in Ino's eyes that Sakura's sure has been on her own face. It's what she felt like when Sasuke left, and her world was stolen out from under her feet. It's how she felt when she read Naruto's goodbye note. How she felt when she realized Kakashi had abandoned her.

"What do you mean you're not a Konoha shinobi?"

Ino is doing her best not to look devastated. Sakura feels terrible, but there's also the curl of something like content settling in her stomach. 

She hasn't really felt like a shinobi for months, not in the ways that count. She loves her village, loves its people, but ever since she got back, she's seen Konoha not as a military nation, but as a land comprised of people with different beliefs, ways of speaking, and ways of life. All of them have become more beautiful. She spends entire days in the hospitals now, bringing people back to life instead of sending them to their graves like she would if she were on active duty. 

Sakura became a medic to supplement her skill set. She had perfect chakra control and wasn't doing much with it. She hadn't been attracted to Tsunade's prowess as a healer; she had wanted the strength to level mountains. To obliterate the people who threatened those that she loved. 

Sakura learned medical ninjutsu and saw the value in saving lives by saving them, and not by taking others. There was plenty of death in the world. With healing hands, Sakura had been able to keep death at bay for as long as she could for people who otherwise might not have stood a chance. 

Going to Shikkotsu, understanding balance and the natural laws, all of that had cemented in her the unconscious idea that Sakura was not supposed to be a front line medic who snatched life out of the jaws of death. 

Even from the beginning of her shinobi career, Sakura had never taken initiative in fights. During the Wave mission, she had laid back out of instinct (and a lack of skill) to protect Tazuna. She had thrown herself into the Oto nin squad in the Forest of Death when Naruto and Sasuke were out of commission. She had stood in front of the Ichibi with a single knife in her hand, overwhelmed with the instinct to guard the life of a person dear to her. She had never wanted to start fights, but she had ended them out of necessity. She didn't find much pleasure in ending fights either, to be honest.

Sakura was never meant to be a shinobi who attacked first, or a medic who saved life after life under heavy fire. She had always been a protector. The one thing that stood between danger and safety when all security failed. Sakura was safety. She was the first line of defense before death ever came knocking. Long before Sakura knew it, she had been the balance keeper.

It occurs to her now that Tsunade had always known that. And that this was the exact reason she put Sakura on heavy hospital rotations since her return from Shikkotsu. 

Tsunade knew that Sakura was going to leave. She had known the whole time. And her hospital shifts and lack of missions had been given to her in the hopes that she would recognize it, too. 

Sakura takes in a deep breath. She feels steady when she opens her mouth to speak. 

"I didn't introduce you to Susumu or the Hyūga to Sango and Shigeo on a whim, Ino," she says. 

She puts the mission scroll down on Ino's desk and looks back at her friend. Ino still isn't looking at her. It hurts, but she understands. 

"I did it because I swore an oath to Shikkotsu Forest to be their emissary," she continues. "Part of my responsibility is reminding the families who owe their strength to the Nakemuji Sennin and their children of Shikkotsu."

A frown tugs the corners of her mouth down. 

"So many forgot, Ino," Sakura says, crossing her arms across her chest. She leans back into Ino's desk chair. "Every clan except the Yamanaka forgot their vows to the forest and forgot the forest, too."

"You fixed that."

Ino's eyes still aren't on her, but Sakura can feel the intention of her words. 

"The Yamanaka remember. The Hyūga are teaching self defense to civilian toddlers," Ino says, voice cool as the air outside. "You don't need to - to stop being a Konoha shinobi for that. You've already done it being part of the village."

"Bringing these families back to Shikkotsu wasn't the only promise that I made."

Ino stiffens at the mention of swearing an oath to any leader other than the Hokage, to any place other than Konohagakure. The clan kids had been raised to be loyal to their families first and their village second. It wasn't a popularly acknowledged truth; it was something that could cause clan massacres the likes of which hadn't been seen since the one that claimed the Uchiha. A kage could only demand so much loyalty from clans that had fought viciously to ensure their own survival. Konohagakure was a way to ensure the ongoing of several families; civilians had flocked to them after. 

The village was nothing without the group of families that agreed to found it. And those families were nothing without their children. There wasn't a doubt that the clans were loyal to the village, but nobody could turn a blind eye to the purges of kekkei genkai in Kiri. Hidden villages did not always protect those that built them. Families had to protect themselves. 

Sakura looks at Ino then, and she knows her friend will try to understand. In a way, in the way that matters, she will. It doesn't mean she'll forgive Sakura for her choice. 

"I told the Nakemuji Sennin that I would be his eyes and hands in this world."

Ino grinds her teeth. Sakura flexes her hands in her lap. 

"I can't be a soldier of Konohagakure and an emissary of Shikkotsu."

The clans lived in the village. The whole world lived in Shikkotsu, and Shikkotsu lived in the whole world. Sakura couldn't do her duty inside Konoha's walls. 

Ino doesn't say anything. She understands completely, but she doesn't get it at all. Sakura stands. She picks up her book and leaves the mission scroll on Ino's desk. 

"Tsunade-sama gave me a year to make my decision," Sakura murmurs, fingers still glancing off the wood on Ino's desk. 

It's already been four months. Sakura's birthday has come and gone. She's fifteen, and it's April, and in another handful of months she won't be a Konoha shinobi anymore. It's - it's less frightening than she had thought it would be. It's less frightening than it was when she first came back, and hadn't been able to say it out loud. In the forest it had been easy. But now in the real world, Sakura can call herself what she is. 

"And you've made it."

Ino's looking at her now, and Sakura can physically feel the weight of her gaze. Sakura holds it, drops her shoulders and waits. Ino doesn't smile, and she doesn't frown. She just looks at her. 

Ino is a wall. She doesn't give anything away. Sakura wonders what she looks like, and if it's compelling, or inspiring. 

She knows that Ino's wondering how much this has to do with Sasuke, if it has anything at all to do with Naruto. Sasuke left for the strength to kill his brother, Naruto left to get strong enough to bring Sasuke home; why had Sakura stayed behind, and why was she leaving now?

Sakura nods. 

"I have."

Ino steps out of the way, so that there's enough room for Sakura to leave. She squeezes the spine of her book close to her chest and takes in a breath.

It's not as hard as Sakura would have expected, leaving the Yamanaka compound.

Stepping out into the street, Sakura feels - She isn't sure of how she feels yet. She's at once lighter and heavier than she was before she had the conversation. It'll take time for Ino to understand, for everyone to understand. When she leaves the village, she'll be taking Konoha with her in her heart. But the world is much bigger than her village walls, and she made a promise to be a part of it.

To repair it. 


Ino doesn't tell anyone in the Konoha Eleven. It gives Sakura enough time to sit down with her parents and explain it to them. They keep it a tightly controlled secret within the family, and Ino keeps her mouth shut. No matter what, they've always been friends, even now. Even when Sakura is preparing to abandon what they've both been working for since they entered the academy.

Mebuki signs off on the forms as a witness to Sakura's character, to ensure that she's of sound mind in her decision and that she isn't being coerced into releasing her vows.

Sakura keeps working her shifts at the hospital. She keeps training with her year mates. She doesn't go to see Ino very often, but they do cross paths. She's angry with her, Sakura knows. And that's okay. A lot of them will be angry with her when they find out. And a lot of them won't be.

Sakura doesn't know how to not keep it a secret. She knows it will be a shock. She doesn't know how long she'll be gone. There's no time stamp on her absence, not like Naruto's or on Sasuke's. Sakura would be gone between three years and forever. She had always been the middle ground in Team Seven. 

They figure it out for themselves. They had noticed the way Sakura, of all people, stopped wearing her clan symbol. They notice that she's not on active duty. They know she isn't taking any missions, that she isn't going out of the village. They know that something is happening. Something important. 

Tenten is the one who puts all the pieces together. It's because she's got her training with Sango. Sango doesn't tell her anything about it, but Tenten is clever. She understands misdirection, how to poke and prod. Sango is old enough to have given birth to her great-great-great grandparents. Tenten can't give her the run-around. But she lets Tenten get the answer out of her; keeping this a secret isn't good for any of the people that Sakura loves. 

Tenten says, "I understand," with her hand on Sakura's shoulder, and Sakura believes her. 

Tenten isn't the type to become a slug sage; that's not what she's after. Ino may do it, but even then, she wouldn't make a deal like Sakura's. 

Tenten is a weapon's mistress. She creates seal arrays with ink and blood with the steadiest hand in Konohagakure. She understood the necessity of balance. She wouldn't handle a sword that had an uneven weight. If her brush had too much pressure or too little in the stroke, it'd blow up in her face before she even finished it. She probably understood it in a way none of the others would. 

She takes Sakura out for a drink afterward. They don't get hammered because they aren't ridiculous, but they have a couple of fruity, ridiculous looking cocktails. Sakura isn't ashamed to say she sobs on Tenten's shoulder when her friend takes her back to her apartment. 

Tenten holds her up, and they fall asleep on her couch. Sakura cries herself to sleep, but when she wakes up, Tenten is making omelettes. 

Tenten puts one with plenty of pork belly and green onion in front of her, and Sakura devours it. There's only a little too much pepper, but it's homemade and it's good and Sakura feels better when she eats. Tenten pours her a huge glass of water to make up for the hangovers they both don't have. 

"You can stay as long as you need," Tenten says as she gets dressed. "I'll run interference for you if you need it?"

Sakura thinks of Tenten staring Ino down, throwing her arms up and activating the wards on her apartment in the chuunin quarter so no one can bother her. 

"I think -," Sakura starts. "I think I'll take you up on it."

Tenten smiles and shows her where her tea collection is, and where she hides her cookies. Sakura wraps herself in the comfy blanket on Tenten's couch and hides. 

Tenten is true to her word. No one comes to bother her. She does finally come home, she's got take out boxes full of barbecue and a carton of ice cream under her arm. 

"I didn't tell them," Tenten says as Sakura tears out of her self imposed blanket cocoon to get at the food. "But everyone knows."

They aren't shinobi for nothing. Sakura thinks it's better that they know without her having to tell them. She wasn't like Naruto, who left one note and an absence that was in and of itself a declaration. And she certainly wasn't Sasuke, who's midnight escape necessitated a five man squad to retrieve him. 

Nobody understands it quite like Tenten. But they try. And Sakura loves them for it. 


They're at a dango stand, legs kicking beneath them. She's on her lunch break, and he's got an hour before he has to head out on a mission with Shino and Shikamaru and Tenten. His arm is close enough to touch hers. 

He's sometimes stiff, and distant, but most times he's pliant. Lee only insists on piggyback rides and push up contests because Neji's a softy at his core. He's given in before, in private, and Lee is sure he'll give in again. 

She's got two months to go. Seven weeks to be precise. 

"When you leave," Neji asks softly, "where will you go?"

Sakura smiles around a mouthful of dango. The day is bright and warm. Sakura's in a pair of pale blue scrubs, her hair pulled out of her face. She performed a surgery today without chakra, with scalpels and stitches and her bare hands. It had been a success. The dango for lunch is a congratulatory snack. 

A warm breeze buffets against the back of her neck. Sakura rubs at her forehead, against her four Byakugō seals. She turns and looks out at the villagers and shinobi that pass the stall. At the children with tiny parasols, and their parents chasing after them. Gai is bowling Kakashi down with everything but the kitchen sink. 

Sakura twirls the stick of dango between her fingers and hums. She can feel Neji's pale eyes on her, and she turns to look at him. Her smile softens when she looks at him, then she turns her gaze back out at the world passing by outside the dango stand. 

"I have a - a cousin," she begins. "His name is Utakata. I think I'd like to find him first."


 The End. 


Epilogue.


 

"I'd like to request a mission."

Tsunade steeples her fingers beneath her chin, and tilts her head.

"Oh? Has someone solicited you personally?"

"No, Hokage-sama. This is my own request."

She reaches into her desk, rummaging around for his records. 

"What did you have in mind?"

"One year bodyguard detail. Solo. B-rank, possibly A."

Tsunade snorts, and looks back up at him. She couldn't look more unimpressed with him if she tried.

"And who is important and skilled enough to require a single Hyūga bodyguard for a year?"

"Haruno Sakura."

Tsunade raises one blonde brow at him. Neji has stared down his uncle, his Clan Head, when he thought he was wrong; Tsunade is intimidating, but Hiashi has been Neji's demon since childhood. She doesn't scare him. 

"She doesn't need your help."

Neji nods. "Of course she doesn't."

"You're one of few jounin the village. I was thinking of saddling you with a genin team."

The thought makes his stomach turn over. He's in no way ready to train a group of children. Despite his dearth of experience, he's still wet behind the ears himself. The laugh on Tsunade's face is enough to tell him she's only joking. 

"Hiashi won't be happy about this," she says once the laugh has fallen off her lips.

"He won't have a reason to be, if I am assigned this mission, Hokage-sama.""

Neji is the pride of the Hyūga Clan, even now after Hinata has advanced so far and Hanabi is slated to become the next clan head. His rank and talent allow him into elder council meetings that even his two cousins are absent from. He has clout in the main family, and he is a beacon to the branch. Especially now that he has brought them a girl who ensured that there were no longer divisions between the main and branch families.

A year away from them would have - ramifications. Especially if it got out that he had requested to follow a mercenary out of the village. 

"Why should I let you go?"

Neji squares himself, plants his feet firmly on the ground. He knows that on occasion, the Godaime will throw a punch when someone gets flip with her. 

"Because you aren't going to let her go alone, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade drums her fingers on her desk, then reaches inside. She draws out a small sheaf of paperwork, already mostly finished. 

"I must be getting soft in my old age," she says, "if brats like you can see through me."

She knew someone was going to come. It had only been a matter of who came first, and who she thought was suitable for the assignment. Neji wonders if Ino had gotten here before him, and had been turned down. He wonders about Tenten, too, and Kiba. They'd all follow Sakura into the abyss if it meant getting her back out safely. They hadn't all volunteered to retrieve her body from Shikkotsu the first time for nothing. 

"You've got one year. You'll make periodic reports via messenger hawk. Update me on her progress, tell me what she's doing, and where she's going."

Neji bows, and Tsunade presents him with a sheaf of finished paperwork that only needs to be processed by the mission desk before it's his. He takes it in his hands, bows, and thanks her. Before he hits the door, Tsunade's voice stops him. 

"Show discretion in what you choose to send back to the village," the Godaime says. "There are certain people on the council who will not like what Sakura aims to do, and who she aims to do it for."

Neji turns and holds her gaze. 

"You've got one year, Hyūga. On day three hundred and sixty-four, you're back in this office or you'll have ANBU on your ass and I won't be able to do anything to stop it."

He nods once, but Tsunade stares him down. Somehow, this is worse than her hitting him with enough force to turn his bones to jelly. He understands now, why she is called legendary. Hiashi is powerful, but he is no Sannin. 

"You keep my girl safe, understood?"

 Neji feels the paper crumple at the edges in his hands. He hears it, distantly, over the sound of the silence that fills the room to bursting, waiting on his answer.

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

Tsunade leans back in her chair. She reaches for her throat, for a necklace that isn't there. Her hands don't shake a bit when she fills a little porcelain cup with sake. She doesn't take a sip. 

"Good."

Neji bows, and turns to leave. 

"Dismissed."