Whether or not anyone wanted to admit it, Sakura was simultaneously the weakest link and the core of Team Seven.
She was neutral ground between the three powerhouses that eclipsed her. When she stood up and refused to be cowed by the Oto nin in the Forest of Death, when she grabbed Sasuke despite how wrong he looked, when she had thrown off a clan heir's most powerful ninjutsu, when she had stood in the jaws of a rabid jinchuuriki to protect a person she loved; Sakura had proven that she was just as deserving of recognition, of admiration, and of respect. That she would do anything to bring light back to Sasuke's life, and that she would fight to protect Naruto's dream, no matter the cost.
This is no different.
So when bitter words fly, she follows them not because she is in their shadows, but because she is their support. And when they start yelling, circling each other like fighting dogs, Sakura stands her ground. And when the chirping of a thousand birds fills her ears, and the wind around her gets sharp enough to cut, Sakura doesn't have to think before she's moving.
Kakashi is maybe ten seconds too late to stop the assassination techniques.
Sakura leaps in between them because those who abandon their comrades are worse than scum.
The Rasengan buries itself in her arm, tearing tissue away from bone. The Chidori connects just after it, coming down hard onto her head. The lightning crackles against her skin, but Sakura can feel her face begin to burn.
Absently, she can hear screaming. Then her body is convulsing, shuddering, hard. She is bleeding on the roof of the hospital. She can't see out of her left eye. Through the right, while her eyes flutter as electricity demands her heart to stop, Sakura can see Naruto. He's holding her, screaming, scraping his throat raw.
Sasuke is crouched beside them, hands hovering, unable to help but unwilling to leave. He looks panicked. And how funny. What did he think killing techniques would do?
As shock grabs her body and pulls her into rest, she can hear Kakashi-sensei's voice from very far away.
"You're holding her too tightly, Naruto, lay her down. Easy, easy, that's right. Step back, both of you."
His voice is tight, but he's calm. Then there are soft hands and the glow of healing, and Sakura doesn't know anything else.
When Ino finds out, she does something nobody has done since the Founders Era.
She demands an audience with the Uchiha.
Sasuke has holed himself up in his clan complex, and only answers the summons for the sake of his family's honor. Audiences are always granted because they are rarely asked for. It is a way for others to share grievances with different clans peacefully, on neutral territory. Sasuke doesn't remember his father ever doing it, but his grandmother Kagome would tell him stories about when she was a girl, and the Hyūga would demand audiences when Uchiha shinobi would attempt the Jūken.
They are supposed to be peaceful, well thought out gatherings. Because Ino is a clan heir, she can demand one, but it is still strange. Itachi is the oldest remaining Uchiha; her audience should be with him. But Sasuke is the only Uchiha left in Konoha, so he answers. He isn't expecting much. Maybe a letter of some kind. He knows that Ino is Sakura's friend, was Sakura's first real friend, and he can guess that she's probably livid.
Ino spits in his face. She tells him that when she is leading the Yamanaka, the Uchiha will not have her clan for an ally. The only thing she doesn't do is cut her hand so he knows it's a blood oath; that much would probably get her in trouble with her father.
But she leaves. And Sasuke stands there with her spit still in his eyes, and he feels like he's crumbling from the inside out.
"I didn't mean it," he says to the Pervy Sage, watching as the medics wheel Sakura from her operating theater to her room.
She's had to undergo several surgeries, one of which to remove the residual lightning chakra still fluttering around in her system. Sasuke's Chidori had nearly given her lifelong epilepsy. Naruto's Rasengan had all but destroyed her right arm.
For a while there, in between surgeries, it was possible that she might never have been able to be a shinobi.
Jiraiya looks down at him, but there's no pity in his eyes. Only disappointment.
"You don't use a killing technique unless you're aiming to kill," his teacher says, voice low and solemn. "Did you mean to try and kill Sasuke?"
Naruto's hands curl tighter around the bunch of cosmos flowers in his hands. Ino hadn't wanted to sell them to him, but he had showed up to the flower shop and Sasuke hadn't. She had been merciful, but had told him that she was only helping him because she hadn't been able to bring flowers to Sakura herself.
"No," Naruto says.
And it's true. He hadn't wanted to kill Sasuke. He hadn't wanted to kill anyone. He just wanted to knock some sense into his friend, into his best friend. It was supposed to be a spar. It was supposed to be fine. But Sasuke had been so angry and then Naruto had gotten angry, and then he couldn't stop himself, and all at once Sakura was in the middle and - well. Now she was made of broken pieces.
"Then be grateful Sakura stepped in between the two of you," Jiraiya says. "If she hadn't, the both of you might be dead."
But how can he be grateful when either way, he might have lost the only two people who ever looked at him like a comrade, like a brother, like a friend, instead of as a monster? The same two people that had protected him, had fought and spilled blood for him?
The nurses tell Naruto he can't go in to see her yet, and the tears that burn at his eyes are the only thing that make the nurses take the flowers from his hands and promise that they'll be put in Sakura's room.
The garden snake on his bedroom floor tells him that in one week's time, a group of four Oto nin will meet him thirty meters outside of the village walls of Konoha. They will take him to Orochimaru, and his training will begin immediately.
He can almost hear his mother scolding him when he beheads the thing, and the kunai he uses to do it buries itself centimeters deep in the polished wood floors.
The bandages cover the left side of her face, and her right arm is bound so tight she can hardly move it. Still, Sakura knows she is lucky to be alive.
When she peers around her hospital room, she can see a vase full of slightly wilted cosmos flowers. She's not strong enough to sit up yet, but her mouth is dry and she's happy to be awake. She wonders who the flowers are from. Ino, most likely. She's the only one who knows what her favorite flowers are.
There is mumbling, the sound of two voices speaking in low conversation. They get quieter as they enter her room.
It's Naruto. Naruto is there with another batch of flowers in his grip, and Ino is beside him, looking annoyed as he squeezes them. They both stop still when they notice she's awake.
"Sakura-chan," Naruto breathes, and his lip is wobbling.
"Forehead," Ino says.
Naruto makes a move to run over to her, but Ino stops him with a firm hand on his arm.
"Go tell the nurses she's awake. I'll take care of the flowers."
He doesn't look like he wants to follow the order, but he does, and he leaves the cosmoses with Ino.
She carefully removes the old flowers from the vase, pours a packet of flower food into the old water, and deftly cuts the stems of the new blossoms in her grasp. She arranges the flowers carefully, all the while not looking at Sakura.
She wants to open her mouth to say something, but the bandages on her face reach down to her chin and they wrap low around her neck. She can't speak yet.
"It's nice to see you awake, Forehead," Ino says, and her voice is strained, like she's trying not to cry, too. "But you should get some more rest. We'll be back again soon, okay?"
With her good arm, Sakura reaches out and Ino catches her hand. She busses her lips against Sakura's knuckles, and when Naruto returns with the nurses, Ino ushers him out before he gets the chance to say anything to her.
That hurts a little bit. But so does her arm, and when the nurses feed her ice chips and morphine, Sakura rests easy.
"You had a cousin," Kakashi says to him, "he was on my team when I was younger."
Sasuke hasn't left his clan compound in weeks. He knows that the groceries that have been left on his front porch are from Kakashi. He eats them because he is hungry, not because he is grateful.
"He died saving my life," Kakashi says.
The day is sunny and bright. It's too nice a day. Sasuke doesn't know how to hate it. Kakashi is standing beside him with a bouquet of spider lilies in his arms. Sasuke knows who they're for, but he doesn't want to think her name.
"He was the one who told me that those who abandon their comrades are worse than scum," Kakashi says. "It was a lesson my father tried to teach me, but it didn't stick until Obito did."
There is a breeze, warm and soft, against Sasuke's cheek. He thinks about the kunai still dug into the polished wood of his mother's floor. He thinks of how the garden snake writhed as it died.
"This is his eye," Kakashi continues. "He told me to take it, so he could see the future with me."
Kakashi lays down the flowers next to Sasuke's hand. He doesn't make a move to pick them up. They stay there beside him, and Sasuke's fingers curl up.
"I carry him with me every day. This eye is the only living thing that remains of my squad. It and I are the end of that Team Seven."
Spider lilies were his mother's favorite flower. He can remember his father bringing her a bouquet once, when she found out she was pregnant. It was only a month before the massacre. Sasuke had wanted to name his little sister Usako. He had been so excited to be a big brother, too.
"The people that love you," Kakashi says, "the people that would die to protect you, they are still alive. You have a chance that many shinobi in your position never have. Don't waste it."
"I did that to her."
Naruto's got a fistful of cosmos flowers in his hands again, but no Ino at his side. Sasuke is standing there, on the opposite side of Sakura's door. He's holding a bunch of bright red and white flowers.
"We both did."
Naruto kicks at the ground, still feeling out of his depth.
"How's your neck?" he asks.
Sasuke flinches, just the smallest bit, but his free hand doesn't move up to cover the three tomoe on his neck.
"Kakashi-sensei found me this tutor," he replies. "Insane woman. She's got one, too, but she can control it. She's teaching me how."
"How long has she - How long has she been awake?"
Naruto shrugs. He thinks he should feel bitter now that Sasuke's asking about it. Naruto has visited the hospital every day for the month that Sakura's been in and out of surgery. He hasn't left her side for anything other than food or sleep.
"Today's the second day," he replies.
Sasuke nods, an awkward jerking motion that puts his eyes on the ground.
Naruto takes in a deep breath and lets it out. There are so many things he wants to say to Sasuke but he can't. Now isn't the time. It just isn't.
"Come on," he says, nodding his head towards the shut door. "She's waiting."
Sasuke has never killed anyone before.
He has seen death. Has seen too much death. And it had made him hateful and angry and violent. He had wanted to make things right, erase the evil of his brother's deed by killing him.
But Sasuke has never taken a life. And almost a month ago, he almost did exactly that.
He doesn't love Sakura the way he loved his brother. And that's what makes the difference. Itachi's betrayal had dragged Sasuke through hell and back again, had destroyed his peacefulness in sleeping, and any resemblance of normal, healthy, coherent thought. He was obsessive, had plan on plan on plan of how to destroy Itachi for destroying their family.
But Sakura was Sakura.
She had been annoying in the academy, annoying their first couple of weeks with Team Seven, positively useless on the mission to Wave. But she held his hand when Orochimaru put the seal on his throat. And when he woke up from his slumber, the sight of her battered, beaten, and in pain - it had done something to him he hadn't expected.
He had delighted in harming the shinobi who had hurt her. And it was only when she held him back that he stopped.
Kakashi had told him, from Naruto's report, that Sakura had stared Gaara down, had put herself between him and a demon to keep him safe.
Sasuke had done that before, in Wave. Had leapt into the path of certain death because Naruto was in danger and he had to move his feet. And Naruto had unleashed a corrosive, violent power because he was in pain.
They had all, the three of them, been ready to jump headlong into the shinigami's path to deflect it from the others. But Sakura had stepped in between him and Naruto.
He can still see her blood on the roof, her pink head as his lightning burned her hair, the way her face had puckered and cracked when the ended the jutsu. He could still see Naruto weeping over her body, dragging her close. He could still see her white bone where the Rasengan had torn her flesh away.
The Sharingan was a curse.
But he doesn't need it to remember the hesitant smile she gives them when they enter her room, each carrying a bouquet and their apologies.
They find it hard to look at her, she knows. Sakura had never been the pretty one, always too loud, too awkward, too angry, too vicious; her forehead was too big and her hair was pink and her skin was too pale. The scars make her look tougher, make her look stronger. But they also make it difficult for her teammates to look at her.
Sasuke doesn't look her in the eye. Instead he focuses on her good ear, the one that isn't mangled from his Chidori. Naruto sits on her left side so he doesn't have to see the swaths of scar tissue that cover her right arm.
Kakashi-sensei is the only one who can look her in the face once her bandages are removed. When she is discharged from the hospital, he presents her with five turtleneck shirts with face masks identical to his.
"For the next couple of months," he says to her, mouth quirking up in a smile. "You'll need to protect the skin while it finishes healing."
The right sleeves of the shirts are long and compressive, while the left side is sleeveless. They're all in black in case her skin cracks too hard and she begins to bleed. The material is fine, and Sakura can tell by the lack of tags and the Haruno circle on the back that they're custom made.
Her eyes water up, and from behind the tidy hospital mask she had put on for her discharge she shouts, "Thank you, Kakashi-sensei!" and barrels into his arms to hug him.
He helps her get one of the new shirts on with the upmost care, and when she's got it on, he tugs her hair out from where it got stuck in the mask and lets it over her shoulders.
"You're very good at this Kakashi-sensei," she chirps.
He shrugs, and tugs the mask up around the back of her neck so it's even.
"One of my teammates was a katon user, and got burns often and the other was a medic," he replies. "I had to start being helpful or I'd get in trouble with my sensei."
Sakura gives a dramatic gasp from behind her new mask, and carefully winds her hitai-ate around her throat. Kakashi quirks a brow at that, but says nothing. A hard metal plate is always good to have to protect your neck; he's not gonna begrudge her that.
"You? In trouble with your sensei?"
"I know it's hard to believe, but yes," he replies. "I was incorrigible as a child."
Sakura gasps again.
"You? Were a child?"
Kakashi snorts at that and helps her get her bag up the clothes she had been wearing when she entered the hospital. Sakura's parents had died in the Konoha Crush, so Ino had brought over a pair of loose pants for her to wear when she was discharged. The red qipao she had been wearing that day was ruined beyond repair.
"Where are you staying from now on, Sakura-chan?" he asks as she carefully uses her left hand to sign the little remaining paperwork.
The orphan's quarter was swelling after the invasion, and Kakashi personally didn't want Sakura living in her own house full of ghosts. He had been there as a child, and he knew that it wasn't exactly very good for a young person's development.
"Sasuke-kun actually invited me to stay with him for a while," she replies, "at least until the compensation kicks in."
Kakashi nods sagely; there would be a lot of new orphans receiving their parents' salaries and small compensatory checks for their lives lost protecting the village. But something in Sakura's statement makes Kakashi double take.
"Sasuke?" he asks. "You're staying with Sasuke at the Uchiha compound?"
She nods and carefully stretches her jaw a couple of times until she gets used to the way her face feels under the mask.
"Yeah," she replies. "He says he's got all this extra space, so until I have enough money, he said I could live with him. Naruto, too, since the orphan's quarter is getting really packed about now."
Kakashi nods woodenly; this wasn't exactly what he meant when he told Sasuke not to waste his chance but - well, he wasn't going to complain.
"I'll escort you there, then," he says, offering Sakura the crook of his elbow.
She smiles at him, and the long scar that curves up from her lip and touches the bottom of her eye, and the pinched pink skin around the curve of her cheekbone, they crinkle with her pleasure.
"Thank you very much."
They arrive at the compound to the sound of Naruto and Sasuke screaming.
"What are you doing, dobe, you can't just leave the sheets out without putting clothespins on them or they'll fly away!"
"I'm not the one who tried to pass off cherry tomatoes as a snack you crazy bastard, Sakura-chan likes sweets!"
Sasuke is barefoot, with a small white surgical mask on over his face, and he's wielding a carpet beater as if it's an actual weapon. In his other hand, he's dragging a still damp bed sheet off of a clothesline.
Naruto is leaning halfway out a window, wearing an apron decorated with frogs, holding onto a wooden spoon like he's ready to do battle.
"She doesn't like ramen either, usuratonkachi!"
"That's a lie! Sakura-chan likes miso ramen and I would've had a bowl for her finished if you didn't start shouting!"
Sakura is bewildered. Kakashi seems nonplussed.
They had stopped by her house to pack up her things. Her clothing filled up two duffel bags, while a couple of photo albums, her mother's jewelry, her father's favorite old novels, and assorted memorabilia took up an entire suitcase. Kakashi carried it all without giving Sakura the opportunity to pick anything up.
Then they had stopped for dango on the way, and he had given her a brief tutorial about how to eat so quickly no one could see her face. Sakura wasn't so sure she would wear the mask forever the way her sensei did. Her scars weren't badass like Morino Ibiki's, they were hideous looking, still new and raw. In time, when they calmed down if they ever calmed down, she'd keep away from masks and long sleeves. For shinobi, scars were signs of survival.
But for now, the compression the sleeves and the mask provided made sure she didn't have to pay out of pocket with her meager genin salary for similar equipment.
"Boys!" Kakashi hollers. "Are either of you going to help Sakura-chan with her bags?"
Sakura's teammates snap to attention when Kakashi yells at them. Both of them narrow their eyes at Sakura's new get up.
"You look just like Kakashi-sensei," Naruto howls, jumping out of the window to come grab a bag off of their sensei's shoulders.
Sasuke peers at her face without the same hesitance he usually has and leans back with a huff.
"At least you don't have a Sharingan, too," he says, grabbing another bag.
They bicker over who gets to take the last one, but the smell of burning food sends Naruto scrambling back into the house to save dinner. He creates a shadow clone on his way, and this one takes the duffel bag and starts yammering to Sakura about how much she's going to love his home cooked ramen. Sakura hardly has the heart to tell him she's ruined her appetite with sweets.
"Good luck with that," Kakashi says, inclining his head towards the main house of the Uchiha compound.
Sakura laughs at him and steps inside, taking off her shoes as she does.
"This way," Sasuke says from just down the hall, guiding her.
There are a wealth of bedrooms for a family with several children. Sakura doesn't ask about the doors that are shut. She can tell where Naruto is sleeping now because of the many posters she can see through a doorway, and because of the mess on the floor.
Sasuke's room is as tidy and neat as she was expecting it to be, with his bed beautifully made and his desk tidily kept.
"This one's yours," he says, stopping by a room at the end of the hall on the left.
Naruto's already taking her clothes out of one of her duffels and stuffing them into drawers. She raises a brow and wonders how he's going to react when he sees her underwear.
The room is at the back of the house and faces a lush, cultivated green space. It's a little bedraggled from years of disuse, but there have been clear attempts to tidy it up. The windows are study and reinforced. There is a bed at the center of the room, and a cream colored desk and chair.
"You're welcome to the garden. It was my mother's," Sasuke says as Sakura opens the doors to the closet and peers inside. "I know you like flowers so. Yeah. There are seeds somewhere around here. If you'd like to start from scratch."
"Thanks, Sasuke-kun," Sakura says, flashing him a grin from behind her mask.
Naruto's clone snatches the other two bags from Kakashi and Sasuke and with the upmost care begins placing Sakura's few reminders of her family on her desk. The clone's fingers linger on a photo of Team Seven. The clone pops in a burst of smoke, and then Naruto is there in the doorway, panting and looking at the three of them in the room.
"Well?" Naruto asks.
Sakura looks from him to Sasuke. Sasuke huffs and looks at the ground, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
"Do you like it? The room?" he asks.
Sakura smiles from behind his mask and says, "It's perfect."
Lunch is an affair that Kakashi stays for, and the four of them thank Naruto for the meal. The noodles aren't even a little bit burnt, and everyone hems and haws over Naruto's surprising culinary skills.
While Kakashi manages to eat his entire meal without removing his mask, Sakura has no qualms about peeling hers down to eat. Naruto's smile gets a little strained as she does and Sasuke flinches the first time he catches her eye. But as lunch goes on, they relax a little bit. It'll take time. Like all things do.
It happens a couple of weeks later after Sakura's returned from physical therapy to the Uchiha compound. Team dinners have become regular occurrences every Thursday night when Kakashi is in the village.
Her arm is getting stronger every day, and it's getting easier and easier for her to move her face and her jaw. Sasuke spends time apprenticed under Mitarashi Anko to control his seal, and Naruto bounces between Kakashi and Jiraiya, flourishing under their tutelage.
It will take a little longer still before the medics will give Sakura notice that she can start training with her team again. In the meantime, Kakashi helps her with maintaining the strength of her right arm despite how ruined it is, and how to use a sword with her left since it is currently the only one she can use. They only go through light katas, stopping immediately when Sakura gets tired, but it makes her happy to know that she can still do something.
It's after dinner (eggplant, because Kakashi bought it and there's nothing else to cook), and they're all leaning back with full bellies and satisfied smiles on their faces. Kakashi produces a camera from his pocket and waves it in the air.
"This Team Seven is a lot different from the one you were a year ago," he says. "I think I'd like a picture of this one, too."
Sakura is the first one up and standing, bouncing on the soles of her feet.
She turns around to where Naruto and Sasuke are still sitting. She raises an eyebrow, and gives Sasuke her good arm to drag him up. Then she gives Naruto her bad one, and he gets up on his own.
It isn't like she wants to have pictures taken of her with her scars marring her face. But it isn't something she'll be able to escape just by running from it.
"Are you sure, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asks in a quiet voice. Kakashi is setting up the timer on the camera.
Sakura nods and busses him on the cheek with her mostly ruined mouth. He doesn't leap out of her reach, which he would have a couple of weeks ago, but he does go a little still.
"Don't worry, Naruto," she says, a teasing smile on her lips, "Between the three of us, I'm still the pretty one."
Sasuke snorts at that, but Sakura knows he's only doing it because he's uncomfortable. She knocks their shoulders together as Kakashi ambles back around behind them, throwing up his same peace signs.
Sakura throws her arms around her boys, grinning with her half cracked face. Naruto puts a hesitant arm around her waist, and Sasuke follows suit, arms brushing against each other's as they both hold onto her.
Kakashi prints four copies of the photo, one for him and his three genin.
A fifth copy is put in a picture frame made of popsicle sticks (a box of which was demolished during the most ridiculous heat wave of the summer in the garden behind Sakura's bedroom, eaten one after the other as the noon sun broiled the three genin, the wooden sticks cleaned and painted bright orange and blue by Sasuke and decorated with swirling glitter narutomaki by Sakura as a birthday present for Naruto) and sits on the kotatsu in the living room of the main house of the Uchiha compound.