Work Header

Five Petals

Chapter Text

i. This is not supposed to be happening.

Sakura had expected many things when Sasuke was assigned to her team. She'd expected daring rescues and escapes, Sasuke to be sweeping her off her feet with how effortless he made everything seem, him protecting her whenever she was put in harm's way.

Their most daring escape yet came of Sasuke stabbing himself in the thigh.

This is not supposed to be happening. All of Sakura's images of her teammates aren't supposed to be crashing down around her.

She watches Sasuke fight the strange snake woman who had put Naruto out of commission with a single strike to the stomach, following them as best she can through the trees, but a part of her feels miles away as her mind struggles to put together what she's seen.

Naruto had once again proved himself to be brave and true despite everything the world– and she– had thought about him, fighting and refusing to give up, standing firm where Sasuke had stepped back. Perfect hero and prodigy Sasuke had nearly– No. There was no 'nearly' about it. He'd given up. He'd surrendered. He'd surrendered for all of them, and balked in the face of danger until she'd screamed at him to go back into the fight.

And then there's her.

She'd called Sasuke a coward, but is she any better? All she's done is stand on the sidelines, weeping and screaming. Perfect student with a gift for genjutsu, smart and talented with all the potential in the world, once in a generation mind Sakura Haruno had stood by and watched while her teammates handled everything.

She tenses and readies a cry as she spots the substitution a second before Sasuke, but it dies in her throat when the packets of black powder ignite and she finally notices Sasuke's web of wires. Had he been setting this up the whole time? Why didn't she notice that? She's supposed to be observant. She's supposed to be intelligent. But she didn't notice Sasuke leading the snake woman on a deliberate path and weaving an intricate trap.

For a second she convinces herself it was genjutsu that hid it from her but that's no excuse– Sasuke's genjutsu technique dips just slightly below average, if she didn't sense it before now that only proved that she was nowhere as good as she thought.

She feels the heat from the dragon flame but she can't be happy for Sasuke when her mind is still spinning. What good was she this whole time? What good has she ever been? What is she good for when all she does is stare at Sasuke and Naruto's backs while they thunder ahead?

She clenches her fist tight and bounds down to Sasuke's side– She can't find out if she doesn't start moving.

Her voice comes out in a pale imitation of cheer as she stops next to Sasuke; "You did it… You okay? Don't worry, it's all over."

Even before the snake woman stirs Sakura doesn't quite believe that.

She hears the wire snap and feels the familiar crushing grip of the jutsu that had stunned them back at the fight's beginning as she stumbles forward onto her knees. This time her brain gets to work immediately– not a Leaf form of genjutsu, most likely tricks the subject's fight or flight response, forces you to freeze in the face of imaginary danger. Evidently the snake woman wasn't in the mood to invent a danger this time.

Sasuke forces the words out of his throat; "No… Impossible–!"

The snake woman moves in one swift leap to a branch several yards away. Sakura can see now that her face has been severely burned– So severely that the skin is peeling away. She can see a small corner of unmarred, pure white flesh through a hole in the skin, and a golden eye. It feels familiar, like a photograph from a textbook, or a torn-out page hastily tucked away in the back cover of an academy yearbook in a dusty storeroom.

Her voice shifts down into that of a man's as she speaks; "Such mastery of the Sharingan at so young an age, you're a true Uchiha after all… Yes, you'll do nicely."

All Sasuke can do is choke out a roar as he tries desperately to move, to fight against the jutsu like he had before, but he had much more stamina and chakra back then.

The woman? The man? The ninja continues on like they're talking to themselves; "You are definitely his brother. If anything, your eyes are even keener than Itachi's."

That name, that cursed name that Sakura suddenly stopped hearing the morning after the Uchiha Clan's population went down to one, gives Sasuke strength enough to shout, "Who are you– What do you want?!"

They chuckle, tossing the Heaven scroll like it's a ball; "My name is Orochimaru… But as to what I want, that will have to wait until we meet again," green flame starts to spread across the Heaven scroll, taking bites out of it until it's fully consumed, "which won't happen until you finish this test with the best score of all."

The words tumble dumbly out of Sakura's mouth; "The scroll–!"

Orochimaru doesn't even acknowledge her; "First, you'll have to defeat the Hidden Sound ninja who serve me–" Sakura's mortally wounded pride won't let that stand.

So she barks, "I have no idea what you're talking about, but if you've finished why don't you just beat it?! If we never meet again it'll be too soon!"

His voice comes out in a slither; "Oh, he and I will meet again…" His hands form a seal and his neck shoots upwards as it extends, head looping through the air towards Sasuke with his mouth open wide in a horrible grin.

The world slows down around her as Sakura's mind works at a breakneck pace. This is genjutsu binding her, her strength, especially when she's seen it before. She's seen how Sasuke broke its hold when it was far stronger and applied with far greater care. And now Sakura has something she's never had before– Something to prove to herself.

So she bites down on the side of her tongue, hard enough that she immediately tastes blood. She shoves herself up and she runs blindly forward with none of the grace she'd like but all the passion, all the fury and speed she has to spare. Her vision narrows down to a single point– Sasuke.

Several things happen all at once in less than a minute's time.

Sakura's elbow slams into Sasuke's side from an angle he doesn't anticipate, sending him tumbling end over end off the branch.

Sasuke rights himself just a second too late and without checking where he's going to land– When he does his knee twists, he feels a lightning bolt of pain shoot from his sole to his head, his leg gives out.

And Orochimaru's teeth sink down to the gum in Sakura's shoulder.

He rips them out with a ferocity and urgency he never would've used on sweet and soft little Sasuke, but he's too late. A small black flower, five petals all pointing out from an empty heart, blossoms between the holes where his fangs had been. Sakura's knees buckle immediately and she pitches forward, swooning off the branch. He prays that she'll land head first and save him a whole mess of time and trouble, but bright and brilliant little Sasuke breaks into a limping sprint and catches her in the nick of time.

He glares up at Orochimaru, Sharingan burning, bad leg and unconscious girl in his arms all that's keeping him from leaping up and tearing his teeth out of his mouth.

Orochimaru retreats into the shadows with a sneer and knowledge he would be the first to gain– Do not turn your back on Sakura Haruno.

This isn't supposed to be happening.

That's all Sasuke can think as the adrenaline peters out and he sets about the agonizing task of collecting his team. It's a task that shouldn't be agonizing, but thanks to Sakura's split-second decision he has to climb back up to Naruto by carefully channeling what remains of his chakra into his good foot and the arm not holding her. Between the pace and the pain it's enough to make Sasuke fall into a running narration of profanity as he inches up to Naruto.

He wants to blame Sakura. He wants to call her stupid and foolish and impulsive, and when he caught her he almost did. But the words had died in his throat when he noticed she was breathing short, shallow breaths, eyes barely open and glazed over, her temperature spiking up to dangerous levels in the seconds between Orochimaru biting her and Sasuke catching her. She keeps twitching, fidgeting, making pained sounds, but never rousing.

Whatever's happening to her would've been happening to him if she hadn't done something. And considering he'd been the one Orochimaru was aiming for, who knows what could've happened if he'd hit his mark.

The thought leaves Sasuke feeling very cold.

Naruto is also unconscious and shows no signs of waking, not even after Sasuke succumbs to his frustration and slaps him. Twice. Hard. With both hands occupied by people in critical condition and a leg that only hurts worse the longer he keeps trying and failing not to put weight on it Sasuke is forced to carefully navigate the interweaving branches down to the forest floor, and settles for rolling Naruto and Sakura into the first hollow in a tree he can find. Despite how his wounded pride is growling and snarling at him to find Orochimaru and strangle him with his own tongue, his wounded knee is telling him that this is as far as he's getting.

Sasuke regrets paying only the barest amount of attention when medic ninja came into the Academy to teach them basic field medicine, because after staring at Sakura and Naruto for five minutes of silence he has to admit that he has no idea what to do for them. He doesn't even know what to do for himself. He rifles through Naruto and Sakura's packs and the medical supplies they have on them are limited to the bare minimum necessary to plug up bleeding cuts, nothing he can use to wrap up a sprained (or worse) knee.

All he can find for Sakura's fever is some rags and a small canister of water which he clumsily uses to get a rag wet and put on Sakura's forehead like he remembered his mother doing for him when he was sick. And Naruto's problem is the polar opposite– he's ice cold, sleeping so soundly that he almost looks dead. Sasuke's checked his pulse four times now, it's so sluggish he almost misses it each time. Whatever Orochimaru did to him with that strike goes far beyond the reach of Sasuke's half-remembered knowledge of field medicine.

Sasuke leans back against the roots sheltering his team. The sun set quite a while ago now, his chakra reserves are slowly coming back, he could go out and look for food or help– Sasuke tries to stand and this time his leg doesn't even let him start to put weight on it. He comes tumbling back down into the dirt before he can even get halfway out of the hollow.

And for a moment, Sasuke just sits there, staring ahead into space, thinking about how it's been a very long time since he's felt quite this helpless.

He shuffles back out of sight. Carefully, humbly, Sasuke makes the handsigns for a very basic genjutsu– one that should make the hollow look empty to the naked eye. A part of him wonders why he's bothering. Sakura would've done it better.

Sasuke Uchiha, alone in the dark, takes a shuddering breath in, and waits.

This is not supposed to be happening.

Orochimaru had planned this for years– years! Every step of this coup and his personal project to find a new, perfect host had been orchestrated with such precision and accuracy it had even scared him a little, and then of course this happens! He has to talk himself down as his body sinks into the trunk of the great tree, the moonlight making his exposed flesh look positively ghostly, as he stews and simmers in impotent rage.

It's just his luck, isn't it? He runs through hundreds of worthless candidates, Itachi proves himself too willful to be taken, Kimimaro is too frail, and perfect Sasuke is yanked from his grasp by some clanless child of civilians who would die before the night was through. Nothing else for it– Sasuke will have to be taken by force. The girl has a one in a hundred chance of living, but he'll have Sound ninja kill her quickly and take her body back for study; if there was anything interesting about the poor clanless fool it was that her particular curse would further his research.

She should be proud. It's probably the most honor her family will ever receive.

He feels Anko's presence before she touches down on the branch and greets her through gritted teeth, "Not that I don't appreciate you coming to welcome me home, Anko, but let's keep it short. Sensei has had a very difficult day and is in no mood for games."

Anko bares her teeth in a fierce grin; "Good, neither am I."

Ordinarily he'd toy with her, set up a substitution for her to throw around to get her confidence up before bringing it down again, but he's in no mood. He melts into the tree as she tosses the senbon she'd primed in her off hand, distantly hearing them clatter against the wood as he quickly slithers around to rise up behind her. With a single half-seal, he reaches out and takes hold of her curse mark, freezing her in place and forcing a pained groan out from her gritted teeth. Anko's hand flies up to her neck, already doubling over as the pain shoots through her like lightning.

Orochimaru glares at her back as she falls to her knees; "I have no more patience for upstart little girls trying to be more than they are, Anko. Perhaps I should've learned that lesson better with you."

She meets his eyes over her shoulder, still burning defiant despite her complete disadvantage; "Why are you here?! Did you come back to assassinate Lord Hokage?!"

Orochimaru can't help but snort at how pedestrian that question is; "Of course not– I don't have nearly the manpower to do something like that. In fact, I'd come here looking for more, but my plans have been thrown slightly off course. There was an absolutely wonderful boy I had my eye on; I'd even had the same gift I gave you all ready to give to him. But it's been wasted on one of his friends– a girl of absolutely no consequence who'll likely die before morning."

Anko has the unmitigated gall to actually smirk up at him through the pain; "Yeah? Don't count her out yet. I survived, didn't I?"

Orochimaru disguises the jolt of shock that shoots up his spine by stomping on Anko's back with one foot, shoving her face down into the bark of the tree and sending another shot of pain through her curse mark for good measure. Anko cries out, her yowl like that of a cat with its tail caught in a mousetrap.

Anko's a filthy, defiant little stray, but she's also right. She had been even less than Sasuke's little pink hanger-on: a war orphan no one would lay claim to, because everyone had looked her over and seen nothing of any worth to claim. The only thing even he'd seen was that if Anko died in the experimentation process no one would come looking for her. But she'd survived. Out of ten test subjects, many more healthy and promising than her, she'd clawed and scratched through and come out better.

He can not afford to let the same thing happen to Sakura.

So instead he just smirks, forcing mirth and easiness into his voice as he drawls, "But why would I want another worthless castoff when I can instead have the Sharingan?"

Now that gets the fear of Heaven in Anko's eyes as they go wide and her breath catches on that name. Good. That's the look he wants to see in all his pupils' eyes.

He leans casually over, resting an elbow on the knee propped up by Anko's back; "By the way– Three genin from my village are taking part in this exam. It would be an awful shame if the exams were cancelled before they could prove themselves, wouldn't it? It would just crush them, and well… I don't know what I would do if you took away my fun. Keep that in mind, won't you, Anko my dear?"

With that, he takes his foot off her back and turns on his heel, stalking off into the darkness.

This is not supposed to be happening. And he's going to make sure it doesn't go any further.

Chapter Text

ii. Sasuke’s honestly not sure how much sleep he ended up getting that night. It was more than none at all, he knows that much from all the times he started nodding off and shook himself back to consciousness, but definitely not enough to matter. He’s hungry, he’s exhausted, both are leading to his chakra regenerating at a sluggish pace, and his teammates still haven’t woken. The most he’d been able to do was keep switching between the two rags he’d been using to keep Sakura’s fever down, but the water in the canister is running low.

The pain in his knee has come down to a consistent ache, but experimentally putting pressure on it turns that ache so sharp he doubts he could stand. Sasuke’s throat feels agonizingly dry. He’d been trying to worry mostly about his teammates (for once) so he wouldn’t contemplate exactly how bad it could get if he left his knee like this.

His reflexes, however, are perfectly fine he finds as the rustling of a bush and a dart of brown in the corner of his eye lead to him palming and throwing a kunai in its path before he can stop himself. His sharingan flashes, then sputters out, just in time for him to catch that he’d nearly skewered a squirrel. A tiny one, too.

Sasuke presses his face into his hands and groans, “I’m losing my mind.”

“Do you think he noticed the explosive tag?”

“Not likely– Look at him. He’s fading fast. What a waste of good Uchiha blood.”

“So it’s time to strike.”

“Soon. Just let him sweat for a little bit longer, and we’ll have him right where we want him.”

The paper the ninja stuck to his back is burning now and the squirrel runs and runs and runs as if the speed alone will put the fire out or tear the paper from his back. This forest was always a risk, foraging here was always dangerous, but usually in the way he expected, like from the tired boy. He knew how to avoid kunai and shuriken. But ninja knew how to catch squirrels when they needed them.

And now he’s being caught again, a hand covered in bandages that melt into a deep green grabbing him firmly but not crushingly out of the air. He squirms and squeaks and writhes to get out, but stops when the ninja’s other hand swiftly plucks the paper off his back and shakes it hard enough to put out the fire.

The world finally slows down and the squirrel considers the boy that caught him. Head fur cut into a straight line over his big round eyes and mouth in that friendly shape humans like; he opens his hand for the squirrel to sit in and escape should he choose.

“There, you’re safe now,” he says, “Who did this to you, little fellow?”

It doesn’t take too advanced a mind to know this human is sweet.

So he tells him of the ninja with the foreign smell who plucked him off the ground and put the tag on his back. He tells of how they sent him running at a tired boy guarding a sleeping girl with pink fur. When he mentions her the sweet ninja’s whole face changes, making the shapes humans made when they didn’t like what they were hearing.

“Please, little friend– can you show me the way there?”

The squirrel considers.

And he does.

Sasuke wants to think he’s finally passed out and having a nightmare when the three Sound genin drop into the clearing, but he knows he’s nowhere near lucky enough for that. Sasuke reads them quickly as he scrambles to cover as much of the tree hollow as he can– one hunched over with his face covered in bandages, one with spiky hair casually sitting on a big rock, and their female member with hair down past her waist.

“Not much of a lookout if you’re falling asleep on the job,” Bandage Face growls, one eye locked on him, “At least you don’t have to worry anymore now that we’ve found you.”

Spiky Hair one holds out a hand; “We’ll make this nice and simple– Let us take the girl, and you and Blondie get to live to see thirteen. Sound fair?”

Sasuke can only bring the Sharingan up for a brief, he hopes to Heaven intimidating, crimson flash as he hisses through gritted teeth, “No. Get lost before I make you get lost.”

The girl’s laugh sounds like a broken, tinny bell; “Don’t get cute, Uchiha– Right now you quite literally don’t have a leg to stand on. Be smart. It’ll be no big loss if you let us take her. We could even give you our scroll to sweeten the pot.”

Spiky Hair glares over at the girl; “Really, Kin? Do you wanna give him our wallets too if he says no to that?

Kin rolls her eyes; “Get over yourself, Zaku– It’s not like we can’t find some other soft Leaf genin to kill.”

Bandage Face narrows an eye at Zaku; “Remember our orders. She’s priority number one.”

Zaku’s glare hardens, but he shoves his hand in his pants pocket and growls, “Got it, Dosu.”

For a moment he’s not proud of, Sasuke pauses and considers how well he and Naruto could get on without Sakura. In theory, they could do fine. Between them both there’s enough power and skill to beat back other genin or the beasts of the forest, and with them back to one scroll they’d no longer be at a disadvantage against their competition. In theory, they could pass this leg of the exams.

But in practice he knows exactly what would happen. Naruto would wake up and lose his temper with him for letting Sakura go to her death and run off to save her. Sasuke would try to chase after him but never catch up on a bad leg. Best case, time would run out and they’d fail. Worst case, Naruto would get torn to shreds by the Sound genin and Sasuke would get eaten by a giant forest snake.

Surrender isn’t an option this time.

He digs in his heels and bares his teeth; “The only way I’m moving from this spot is if you drag me away.”

Dosu’s eye narrows in a grin; “That can definitely be arranged.”

They all leap at him at once, and with his chakra all but bottomed out Sasuke knows he only has one chance at stopping them, even if just in their tracks. His hands fly through the signs, he draws in enough air to fill his lungs twice over, and–

Fire Style– Fireball Jutsu!

At this close Sasuke’s vision is filled with bright blazing orange, like he’s staring into the sun. He can feel the fire singing the tips of his hair, his elbows below his armguards, even his knees, but he doesn’t care. He just keeps pushing, pushing pushing pushing until his lungs are empty and he can’t possibly make any more fire and he keeps pushing.

He pushes until the fire pushes back.

With a loud blast of noise and wind the flames come rushing around Sasuke and he barely gets his arms up in time to save his face. He feels bursts of lancing pain as licks of flame scorch through his shirt and across his legs but the wind as it keeps battering him puts them out before they can spread and destroy his clothes.

The wind stops and Sasuke brings his arms down– thankfully he hasn’t started a forest fire, everything’s too green for that, but bits of vegetation are smoldering on the edge of the clearing. Zaku stands directly across from Sasuke with a cocky grin, hands open wide to reveal a hole in each palm. So that’s where the wind came from. Kin and Dosu stand on each flank, not even a dusting of soot on either one.

“Some genius,” Zaku barks, “You’re just a run-of-the-mill dumb brute getting by on clan privilege! The family name won’t do crap for you here, princess.”

He doesn’t even have enough chakra to activate the Sharingan for half a second. Sasuke’s jaw tenses and he draws a kunai– Orochimaru had wanted him to begin with, right? Well if they wanted Sakura, they’d have to kill him to get her. One way or another he’d use his dying breath to tell Orochimaru to screw himself, and Itachi would know where to find him in Hell.

A blur of deep green, deeper than the whole forest, screams “Leaf Hurricane!” as it strikes each Sound genin hard in the chest and sends them slamming into trees and bushes on the clearing edge.

Sasuke’s mouth is smiling before he can tell it to stop and he’s letting out a hoarse, giddy, breath of a laugh; “No fucking way.”

Lee lands and immediately glares over his shoulder; “Do not think I came for you, Uchiha,” his eyes fall on Sakura, just behind him, “I made a promise, and I will keep it no matter the cost.”

Sasuke notices the squirrel perched quite comfortably on Lee’s shoulder and he nearly laughs again.

Lee leans down to gently let the squirrel dismount, and as he gets closer he murmurs to Sasuke, “What has happened to her?”

Sasuke shakes his head; “I don’t know.”

Lee purses his lips, large brows furrowing at the news (or lack thereof), before he fixes Sasuke with a stare that pins him to the spot; “I know you are exhausted, but she needs us now more than ever. I will fight– Please, hold the line as best you can.”

The fire of Uchiha Pride is easy to stoke, hard to soothe. It feels like measly sparks coming from nearly dead coals in the face of Lee’s dark, honest eyes, brimming with emotion that should be beyond Lee’s thirteen years. Sasuke doesn’t like to remember the life Itachi destroyed, but the only other time he’s seen eyes like that is when his father looked at his mother.

He respects it. But oddly, he doesn’t like it.

So he scoffs, “Make sure not to embarrass yourself in front of her.”

Lee bares his teeth in the sort of grin he imagines macaques use to intimidate rivals; “Oh… Sasuke Uchiha, I do not like you.”

He fluidly straightens up into a fighting stance, his back to Sasuke and the Sound genin where he’d been standing two days ago. Sasuke almost pities them.

Dosu is the first to stand, stalking forward and pulling his long sleeve back to reveal an arm guard filled with holes; “Zaku, Kin, you can have Sasuke. This one’s mine.”

He charges the tree hollow again, and Sasuke expects Lee to meet him in the middle with a strike. Lee does something quite different. Lee shoves his hand elbow deep into the dirt and wrenches up without even a grunt of effort an entire tree root, knocking Zaku off balance as he upends the soil while placing cover between him and the Sound ninja.

“I am positive there is some sort of trick to your attack! Therefore, I will not waste my time trying to dodge it,” Lee declares, “After all, I have seen your jutsu before!”

Lee takes advantage of their cover to slow down. Continuing the trend of doing things Sasuke doesn’t expect him to, he starts unwinding the bandages on his hands until he has a length of loose linen about a foot long each in each hand.

He spares one last glance over his shoulder at Sasuke; “This next jutsu places an incredible strain on my body, so please, be ready for the worst.”

Sasuke’s eyes go wide as he snaps, “Are you serious?! We’re no good to Sakura if we’re both broken! Why are you taking some stupid risk?!”

Lee looks away; “Because I am only permitted to use this jutsu under one specific circumstance– When it is to protect someone precious. I am not surprised you do not understand.”

Dosu comes wheeling around the root and Lee moves so fast Sasuke would need his Sharingan to track him. In a breath he’s in front of Dosu, foot slamming upward into his chin. Dosu goes flying up into the air, almost high enough to hit the first branch of the great trees above. Lee moves in another imperceptible flash and this time appears behind Dosu, bandages moving as if possessed to wrap tight around him and bind them together. Lee loops his arms around Dosu and crushes him close as he flips them both around to fall headfirst towards the forest floor.

And then, as if none of this was enough, Lee starts to spin.

“Take this! Primary Lotus!

Sasuke notices Zaku finish a round of handsigns and shove his hands into the dirt a second too late. The ground rises to meet them in a burst, sending Lee flying off on a diagonal while Dosu lands heavily up to his waist in the soil. Lee lands on his feet in front of the tree hollow, but wobbles unsteadily as he tries to push himself upright.

Sasuke resists every urge to say he told him so.

“I’ll expect a ‘thank you’ later,” Zaku snickers as Dosu extracts himself from the dirt, shaking off the impact.

“Don’t give yourself too much credit,” Dosu grouses, slowly turning back to face Lee, “That jutsu nearly took me out even with your rescue…” he pulls his sleeve back again, “But now it’s my turn.”

Dosu charges and swipes at Lee’s middle, but as Lee dodges the apparatus on his arm pulses and lets out a low tone that for a second makes Sasuke feel like vomiting, while Lee nearly falls on his ass trying just to stop moving.

For a second Dosu’s voice wobbles in Sasuke’s ears; “You’re fast, I’ll give you that much. But you’re not faster than the speed of sound.”

Of course. They’re Sound ninja. Of course they use sound.

Lee pitches forward and down to one knee as he fails to regain equilibrium and fails the fight against nausea, retching onto the dirt. A trickle of blood comes running down from one ear along the line of his jaw.

Dosu’s laugh scrapes at Sasuke’s already thin restraint; “I don’t need to hit you with my fists– I can hit you with the power of sound.”

“Old fashioned Taijutsu’s not worth much when you’re too dizzy to stand,” Zaku cuts in, pushing air in threatening jets out of the holes in his hands, “Face it, Eyebrows– you’re up against the jutsu of the future.”

Dosu skirts around Lee, bringing his arm up for another swipe; “Your turn now, Uchiha!”

Sasuke’s grip on his kunai is white knuckled as he pushes himself up on his good leg and braces for Dosu’s strike, but Lee comes wheeling in between them with a cry of “Leaf Hurricane!” he can’t even finish through another bout of nausea. Dosu lets out another grating laugh and brings his arm around for another strike, one Lee blocks, but Dosu’s amplifier lets out a high pitched whine that sends Lee crumpling to the ground, clutching his ear as more blood gushes forth.

Sasuke’s own shout surprises him; “He’s already down, leave him alone!”

Dosu’s eye slowly slides to Sasuke, and the bandages over his mouth bend with a concealed smirk; “Ah, right– I’d forgotten about you.”

Now his Uchiha Pride is burning bright and hot, and Sasuke brings his kunai up to point at him in challenge; “I won’t let you make that mistake again.”

“This looks really bad, guys– We should get out of here!”

“You’re underselling it, Choji. Naruto and Sakura are out, Lee’s not far from out himself, and Sasuke’s looking… Jeez, I didn’t know Sasuke could look that bad. So? What do you want to do, Ino?”

“Wh– Why are you asking me?!

“Aren’t you madly in love with him? I thought you’d want to keep him from getting killed.”

“I– I mean– That is, I…”

“Oh, right, I forgot. There’s absolutely no way Sasuke could lose a fight. Your words, right? You ready to stand by them?”

What do you want me to do?! Jump out there and get myself killed?! If Sasuke can’t handle them what the Hell makes you think we can?”

Sasuke grabs a fistful of shuriken in his off hand and lobs them at Dosu as he starts running. Zaku comes sprinting in before Sasuke gets too close, shooting out a blast of air to reverse their trajectory. Sasuke dives into a roll, just barely skirts underneath the tips of the shuriken and the force of the air– he comes out close enough to swipe at Zaku’s ribs with his kunai but too slow to make contact before Zaku can pivot out of his reach.

Sasuke stays low to the ground and lunges again– he bridges three inches of distance before a hand grabs the back of his headband at the knot.

Fuck, he forgot there were three of them.

Kin’s other hand takes a fistful of his high collar and she physically lifts him off the ground, swinging him around and tossing him like a discus with a great roar of effort. Sasuke smashes face first into the boulder opposite the tree hollow, his nose breaking on impact. As he bounces off and hits the ground, a part of Sasuke’s brain absently takes note of how he no longer feels the familiar weight of his headband pressing on his forehead.

He rolls to a stop and opens one eye just in time to see Kin twirling his headband by one untied end, strolling up to him with a wicked grin. Sasuke growls like a feral dog and has almost pushed himself up to his good knee when Kin reaches him and stomps on the bad one. He screams and swipes blindly at Kin with the hand he realizes too late is no longer holding a kunai. Her free hand catches his wrist in an ironclad grip.

She holds his headband above her head, looking for all the world like the academy upperclassmen that would take Naruto’s goggles and make him chase them all over the village to get them back; “You want this that bad, Uchiha? Come on, you’ll have to work for it!”

If Sasuke had any chakra left he would be spitting fire as he growls, “I’ll kill you, I’ll fucking kill you–!”

She steps easily over him, rearranging herself so she has a foot on his shoulder and is pulling back on his outstretched arm, tossing his headband into the bushes so she can hold his forearm with both hands; “Sure you will, princess.”

And then she yanks. Sasuke feels his joint pop out of the socket and there’s no other way to describe the sound he makes than a wail as it comes surging from his throat, louder and louder for every second Kin keeps pulling, scratching his throat raw as it claws its way out. She tosses him by the forearm back towards Zaku, who stops Sasuke’s roll with another stomp to his bad knee. Sasuke’s able to take one glance at it and see it’s becoming very purple before Zaku stomps again.

And, just for good measure, he does it one last time as hard as he can. Sasuke feels something crack then stops feeling anything in his knee at all. His cry makes his own ears ring, and there’s no denying the tears that are cutting clean streaks through the dirt on his face.

Lee is staring at him, pure horror in his big black eyes. Sasuke finally finds a reason to be glad Sakura and Naruto are unconscious– he’s not sure he could live with the shame of them seeing him like this.

Zaku grabs Sasuke by the hair and lifts him up so he can grin in his face; “Awh, our princess is so pretty when she cries, isn’t she?”

Screw it, he’s dying anyway.

Sasuke spits in his face.

Zaku doesn’t miss a beat, his face immediately twisting into a scowl and his free fist coming up to punch Sasuke square in the eye. Sasuke doesn’t have room to reel back with Zaku holding his hair so he almost leans into it as Zaku keeps punching him, likely for no other reason than to guarantee his eye will swell shut. Once he’s blackened his eye to his satisfaction, Zaku lets go of Sasuke’s hair and hits him with a blast of air to the chest just hard enough to send him tumbling into the root Lee unearthed.

He slides bonelessly down to the dirt, his good arm trapped beneath his side.

“Screw it, I don’t give a shit anymore what the boss wants,” Zaku shouts, pointing both palms right at Sasuke, “I’m gonna kill this little fucker!”

All Sasuke can think is, Finally.

There’s no way Sasuke could ever lose.

Ino had taken that for granted.

He’d seemed completely unbeatable in academy sparring sessions, mopping the floor with the likes of Naruto, Kiba, even her own teammates Shikamaru and Choji without even breaking a sweat or that cool, disinterested look.

This was perhaps the rawest way possible for Ino to learn that academy sparring was miles away from a real fight.

Shikamaru’s eyes are wide and he looks caught between leaping into the fray or away into the forest as he hisses, “This is about to get really ugly.”

Choji is shaking, past the point of stress eating, his appetite gone in the face of Sasuke’s blood painting the ground.

Somehow, all Ino can do is remember the first time she met Sasuke.

They’d been so small, too small for the academy and probably too small for the meeting of the clans they’d been brought to. He’d looked ridiculous in the little kimono and hakama he was wearing, matching his brother and father and yet looking like a tiny version of his mother with much spikier hair instead. Ino’s not sure why she judged– she probably didn’t look much more dignified in her own tiny kimono.

Due to alphabetical seating instead of prestige seating the Yamanaka and the Uchiha were closer together than they would usually be, so Sasuke was able to see her quite easily by just leaning over and looking down the line of clan representatives.

He’d smiled, the expression dimpling his little chubby cheeks, and waved at her. Her face had started burning as she waved back.

His older brother had gently pushed him back into sitting up straight, nodded at her in a polite but firm suggestion that she do the same, and Ino had left the clan meeting holding her father’s hand with a skip in her step because she was sure she was going to marry that sweet boy in the silly little hakama.

After a while Sasuke had stopped smiling and Ino had forgotten why she’d started crushing on him in the first place, the feelings dwarfed by her own sense of competition. But right here in this forest Ino’s brows furrow and she clenches her hands into fists, because she is sure that she’s not going to let that sweet boy in the silly little hakama die.

Sasuke’s vision blurs and he’s convinced that he’s finally fallen asleep and started dreaming, because now the three dumbasses from Team 10 are standing between him and the Sound genin. All Sasuke can do is blink sluggishly, taking in the whole scene; Nara is holding Akimichi’s scarf like a leash, Akamichi isn't even on his feet, and Yamanaka is standing tall between them, hands curled into white-knuckled fists at her sides.

So Sasuke just slurs, “No fucking way.”

“Yeah, that’s about how I’m feeling too,” Nara scoffs, a wry grin on his face.

Yamanaka smiles over her shoulder at him and something stirs weakly at the back of his mind, like a half-remembered dream; “Don’t worry, Sasuke. We’re not gonna let them get any closer.”

If Sasuke were in less pain and had any more faith left to spare, he would’ve remembered his manners and said Thank you.

As it stands, he just laughs like a drunkard and says, “Good luck.”

Chapter Text

iii. Darkness.



She’s not sure how long she’s been here, writhing in the dark and the hurt and the heat, listening to the two voices scream and whisper and argue and bargain.

“Come now child, won’t it be so easy to just slip away?”

Like hell it will be! I’ll take your power and use it to punch your teeth in!

“All you’ve done is drag those two down, leaving them will be a blessing.”

You know what sounds like a blessing to me? Coming out of this, being stronger, and tearing everything to shreds!

“You’ve done nothing. You are nothing. Do the world a favor and become nothing in the purest way you can.”

Tough shit– You’ve made me more than that!

The voices fought and snarled and scratched at each other until the familiar and the foreign suddenly started merging into one. They started agreeing. The old, the suppressed, the willful, saw the benefit in a compromise. The new, the sinister, the calculating, saw a use for her.

And then it was just one voice, caught between young and old, male and female, brash and reserved, musing out loud to her.

“Come on sweetie, don’t you want to wake up? Who knows how those two are getting on without you? They need you. They’d never admit it, but you’re what holds them together.”

The heat starts to die down. The pain starts to fade. The darkness starts to brighten. Because the voice has a point.

“Come on, think of it like this– With all this power, you’ll be on their level! Hell, you might be better than them. They’ll be watching your back now after all of this! Isn’t that what you want, Sweetie?”

Her vision starts to come back to her in blurry slices as her eyes try with all their strength to open– Ino, Shika, Cho, running through their clan’s techniques and showing off against these three people in foreign clothes and unfamiliar headbands, but quickly being pushed into a corner since they didn’t account for the sheer ruthlessness of their opponents– and she tries to move, but can only wiggle her fingers by inches.

“Just say yes, Sweetie– You don’t have to be nothing anymore. No more clanless child of civilians. You can be a legend with power like this. Power like this saves the world. Power like this gets its face carved in a mountainside. Power like this can demolish mountains. Just say yes, Sweetie…”

She forces her eyes open, one more time, searching for one important thingand she finds it, leaning battered and broken against a pulled up root.

Nose broken and bloodied.

Knee bent wrong, bruising past purple.

Arm limp, shoulder jutting out square instead of round.

Eyes black, no Sharingan, no chakra.

Sakura’s eyes shoot open wide and she lets the heat fill her from toe to crown as she growls, “Yes. Hell yes. Give it to me, NOW.

Sasuke had to admit it– Shikamaru, Ino and Choji could’ve gone the distance. They had fairly fine-tuned control over their clans’ signature techniques, though they’d yet to make them their own, and as always the Ino-Shika-Cho combination was built from the ground up to work together like magic when the right strategy was pushing it forward.

It was a shame that the right strategy is exactly what they didn’t have.

They’d leapt in half-cocked with no real idea of how to drive the Sound genin back beyond “overwhelm them until they give up”, and had made the fatal assumption that they cared what happened to their teammates. Now Shikamaru was at his limit, Choji was reeling from one perfectly timed hit, and Ino was stuck in a body no one was going to protect.

Sasuke swallowed hard and looked over to Lee– he was still on the ground, recovering poorly from the Primary Lotus and the relentless attack on his inner ear. Sasuke still couldn’t feel his left leg, and any relief that numbness gave him was replaced with the stabbing pain from his dislocated shoulder, broken nose, and black eye. He was still so low on chakra he was next to useless, and he hadn’t heard movement from the tree hollow since this whole fight began.

There was nothing left but to hope for death or a miracle.

Zaku grins a predatory grin as he crows, “Did you really think you could beat us? Face it, you Leaf ninja are just a bunch of hacks!”

Dosu’s smirk is evident under his bandages as he adds, “From a second-rate village.”

“Huh, that’s pretty tough talk. I guess that makes your village third-rate.”

Everyone's eyes fly up to the branches, and Sasuke can’t believe that they actually got the miracle.

Neji Hyuuga stands proud and defiant above the fray with the third clanless member of the team crouched at his side, her dark eyes immediately finding Lee and lighting up with concern. His arms are crossed over his chest and he looks down upon the Sound ninja like they’re little more than a pair of rats in some Hyuuga estate storeroom.

Neji glares down his nose at them; “I wonder if any of you amateurs are ready to take on the real thing.”

Since Sasuke is still convinced he might die here, he allows himself a moment to think that Neji is incredibly cool.

But since he still has a reputation to uphold in the event he lives, Sasuke just mutters, “About time you got here.”

Neji’s eyes settle on Lee as he lies in the dirt; “And I see one of you decided to work over our teammate…” he grits his teeth in a snarl and the veins around his eyes bulge outward as the Byakugan activates, “Who wants to admit to that?!

Now that gets the Sound genin to freeze, and Sasuke’s not above smirking in a sick sense of triumph; the Hyuuga were the Uchiha’s only rivals once the Senju all but disappeared, he’d been told and shown in great detail what they could do. Sasuke’s going to enjoy seeing Neji dismantle the Sound ninja piece by bloody piece.

All thought of that disappears from Sasuke’s mind as a rush of pressure hits him and hits him hard.

The hair on the back of his neck stands up on end, and he isn’t alone– everyone in the clearing suddenly freezes, tensing up, gasping, shivering from head to toe, and all eyes shoot to the tree hollow. Sasuke turns to look with his whole body.

For half a second, when all he saw was Sakura standing tall with her eyes wide open, Sasuke could only think it was another miracle.

But then he sees the rest.

Thousands of tiny black petals have exploded outward from the flower on her shoulder and spread across her body, covering just over half of it. Sakura had never had more than an average amount of chakra to her name, but now it’s quite literally overflowing, swirling around her in a sickly green cyclone and sloughing off her in pulses of heat and energy with so much force it cuts lines in the ground. She stands slightly hunched over, arms hanging loose, looking up from a downturned face like an animal about to lunge.

But more than any of that, Sasuke can’t look away from her eyes.

They’re open wide enough to hurt, and the one thing he can see in them is a deep and twisting malice, an anger that’s festering and rotting and threatening to poison everything it touches.

He sees it in the mirror on the worst days.

Neji’s voice comes in choked horror from the treetops, “What in the world–?!

Kin’s voice carries Ino’s shaky, “S-sakura…?”

Shikamaru thinks fast and starts dragging Ino’s body to the bushes, shouting, “Get out of there, Ino! Now!” Ino doesn’t move. She doesn’t even look like she heard him. She’s just staring ahead, frozen, a look of uncharacteristic fear distorting Kin’s features.

Sakura’s eyes turn to Sasuke, and for a brief flicker there’s the worry he’s used to from Sakura before the anger covers it up again and she growls, “Tell me who did this, Sasuke.”

A thousand different words fight to get out of Sasuke’s mouth, shoving and pushing and scratching, and all that ends up escaping is, “Sakura… What in the…?”

Something like recognition sparks in her eyes, and her mouth pulls from one side up into a bizarre parody of a smile; “Don’t worry, Sasuke. I’m stronger now. I can protect you…” the Not A Smile widens into an angry, primate grin, “So just tell me who the Hell it was.”

Sasuke’s throat dries up, and no matter how much he wants to speak all that comes out are hoarse breaths.

One singular thought crawls into his brain, word by agonizing word: This is no miracle.

Sasuke’s shocked back into the present by Zaku sneering, “I’m the one who roughed up your princess, sweetheart! What’re you gonna do about it?!”

Sakura’s eyes snap to him and her chakra flares up around her, sending another pulse of pressure across the clearing. The black petals flash a magma red as they creep further across her body, covering another inch of her skin, and those bared teeth fall open as she lets out a long, furious breath. Sasuke turns to look at the Sound genin– Dosu is slowly backing up, exposed eye wide open in naked fear. Kin, Ino, both are too shocked to move. And Zaku is pure arrogance, readying his hands for a blast of air.

“Come on Dosu,” Zaku laughs like a blood-drunk hyena, “Don’t tell me you’ve chickened out!”

Dosu reaches out to Zaku but all he can do is shout, “Zaku, no! You don’t understand–!”

Zaku shouts over him; “Watch this! I’ll take all three of them out in one shot! Super-sonic Slicing Wave!

The rush of sound and wind is deafening, but Sasuke doesn’t have time to feel it before Sakura’s grabbing his collar in one hand and Naruto’s in the other. He feels another pulse of chakra, the very singular feeling of jutsu cast without a hand sign, before Sakura darts at a breakneck speed around the Sound genin to the other side of the clearing. Sasuke nearly gets whiplash from the sudden start and stop, and when the sound and fury of Zaku’s attack finally dies down all that remains where Team 7 had stood is a storm of pink petals.

Zaku doesn’t even have time to whirl around before Sakura’s behind him, slamming an elbow into the base of his neck. Sakura’s taijutsu and physical strength had always been, quite frankly, terrible– but that blow sends Zaku spinning through the air and into Dosu, knocking them both over. As they pick themselves up, Sakura savors the moment, that horrible Not A Smile stretching her mouth into a misshapen scar of teeth.

“Come on, boys,” she warbles, “You gave everyone else such a thrashing– Don’t tell me you all lost to this!

Zaku takes her bait like clockwork, throwing his hands up again as he roars, “Come here and say that to my face you little bitch!

Sasuke’s vision blurs and Sakura is in Zaku’s striking range; “Careful what you wish for.”

She swings wide with her right fist but this one is just slow enough for Zaku to strafe around her, avoiding the blow. He fakes around to her left, she turns to follow, and Zaku jukes back to the right with a hand wide open and going right for her head. Sasuke’s mind cooks up a horrible image of Sakura’s skull being blown clean apart by compressed air and he starts to call out, but Zaku’s already grabbed her long, silky hair and wrapped it tight around his fist.

He yanks it back and jeers right in her ear, “Gotcha! If you spent as much time on your taijutsu as you do on this hair I wouldn’t be about to blow your head off.”

He mashes his palm against the back of her head and a wave of sound explodes out into Sakura. With a violent shudder her body bursts into yet more pink petals, but Sasuke notices one other thing– hair. Countless strands of Sakura’s long hair fly into the air all around Zaku’s hand, and when Sakura materializes behind him she’s holding a kunai in her right hand, her hair chopped messily short just above the nape of her neck. Her headband slides off and clatters to the ground.

Before Sasuke can process that Sakura’s hand shoots out and buries itself in Zaku’s hair at the crown of his head, pulling back hard so his chin points at the sky and he lets out a strangled screech.

She positions the point of her kunai as close to Zaku’s pale neck as she can get and hisses, “You talk too much.”

And she brings the kunai down.

Ino lets out an ear-piercing scream in Kin’s voice, Zaku tries but the sound is wet and choked and cuts off completely as Sakura shoves the kunai as deep as it’ll go. Blood shoots out in a jet of crimson and when she lets his head go Zaku crumples to the ground, landing on his back, staring up at the sky.

The blood covers Zaku’s neck and dribbles onto the ground. Sakura stands next to him with her back straight, her face calm. Sasuke blinks and for that second of darkness he’s six years old again in his parents’ bedroom face to face with Itachi, moonlight streaming in and making the blood look as black as his family’s hair. His eyes are wet with tears when he opens them again.

Sakura’s eyes slowly shift from Zaku to Kin, Ino, now with her hands covering her mouth as she shakes violently. Sakura’s mouth pulls into that Not A Smile once again.

“One down, two to go.”

Things come to Sasuke in shaking flashes as Sakura advances on Kin, on Ino, on them both.

Glimpses of her in the academy library as he cut through it, deep in books because she couldn’t rely on raw talent or a clan name to make her more than a chunin that peaks at twelve and does C-rank missions for the rest of her life.

Glancing from the corner of his eye at her staring at him when she should’ve been staring at the board during lectures, spring green eyes searching for the moment he would return her gaze so she could blush and hurriedly look away and smile to herself like she’d won her own private game. How she’d done that even when they were newly minted genin and introducing themselves to their sensei.

The view of her in the trees above, having mastered the fine chakra control necessary to get up there easily, kicking her legs back and forth and sticking her tongue out at them because for the first time she’d actually beaten them– and the brief thought of how impressive that was before he squashed it down.

The sound of Sakura sobbing as she held him in an embrace that pressed on Haku’s needles, the sound deep and forlorn like the wailing howls of a cat that had lost its kittens to a rushing river– a sound of complete, inconsolable anguish. Two thoughts, in quick succession. First, that the sound was beautifully honest. Second, that he never wanted to hear it again.

Her moaning with regret as they left the first exam that of course the goal had been to cheat all along– she couldn’t believe she’d wasted her time just answering the questions, sure they hadn’t been that hard but she couldn’t believe she’d been so stupid as to miss the point– and wondering how she could possibly think she was stupid.

In that moment, Sasuke realizes he knows Sakura far better than he thought.

And now he’s pushing his shoulder back into place, shoving himself to his feet, scrambling forward on limping legs and throwing himself at her back, tearing his voice out of his throat; “Sakura!

Sasuke is not graceful. Not perfect. He can’t be anymore.

His arms wrap around her but his momentum sends them both crashing to the ground, neither able to catch themselves. They twist and land on their sides, both scraping their cheeks on the dirt. Sakura writhes like a fish on a line and wrenches one arm out of his grasp to prop herself up, to glare down at him with eyes wide and teeth bared.

Sasuke couldn’t know what he looked like when he met her eyes but Sakura would see the look on his face behind her eyelids for years to come.

“Don’t do this,” he rasps, voice thick, “This isn’t you.”

It’s not quite instant. There’s a moment that feels like a year where she just stares down at him, eyes wide, body trembling. Then her chakra rushes up around her like a storm, nearly forcing Sasuke off, and the petals race back to their center, leaving her skin clear. She wriggles out of his arms so she can get up onto her knees, eyes darting from one injury to another, pure in their worry.

She’s Sakura again, fretting and babbling “I’m so sorry Sasuke, I don’t know what I–” in a voice that cracks and crumbles around sobs. It’s kind of annoying. But it’s annoying in that way Sakura always is; it’s common, simple, uncomplicated. It’s the kind of annoying that could only come from a girl who’d never had to worry about anything bigger than if her crush liked her back before her journey to the Land of Waves. So it’s the kind of annoying that makes him smile.

Dosu clears his throat and in an instant Sasuke is back in the Forest of Death with enemies bearing down on his team. He props himself up and cranes his neck to look around Sakura– Dosu has drawn back to the edge of the clearing, Zaku over one shoulder and an unconscious Kin near his feet. He’s holding his scroll out for them all to see.

“Clearly we underestimated you, Haruno,” he rumbles, placing the scroll neatly down on the ground, “A trade– the scroll for our lives.”

Sasuke’s mouth screws up into a frown and he’s about to shout the thousand questions on the back of his tongue, but when he sees Sakura’s face they get caught behind his teeth.

First: Her eyes slide between Sasuke and Dosu, as if she still doesn’t believe someone’s afraid of her strength.

Second: Her eyes settle on Dosu and they burn. She clenches her jaw and her fingers dig into the dirt and she looks ready to pounce.

Third: Her eyes slide closed.

“Deal,” she growls, “Get the Hell out of here.”

Dosu grabs Kin by the scruff and disappears into the treetops.

“We can’t tell Naruto about this.”

Sakura’s voice makes Sasuke jump. She’d been quiet since the Sound genin disappeared and their classmates came spilling into the clearing, busying themselves with Naruto and Lee. Sakura had just stared at her hands, softly shaking with pursed lips and wide eyes. He’d sat at her side– He wasn’t good with words unless they were mocking, and he remembered enough of his manners to say nothing at all if he couldn’t say anything nice in moments like this.

Now she was fixing him with an intense stare as she continued, “He’s already gonna make a huge scene after seeing what we’ve been through– We don’t need to give him any more to worry about. Especially since we don’t know what this thing is.”

Sasuke frowns, a hand drifting towards the mark before he realizes it’s moving; “How long can we keep it from him? Something might set it off again and…”

She fiercely shakes her head, taking his hand in a vice grip and pressing it to the ground; “We can’t let that happen. Not again. I’m not– I won’t–“ her voice catches and tears flood her eyes. She blinks hard so they won’t fall, but it doesn’t quite work.

Sakura’s voice falls into a whisper, “You know what the scariest part was? I wasn’t… It wasn’t like I was trapped, just watching. I knew what I was doing. I was thinking things like, ‘Oh now I can finally use that genjutsu I read about, I’ve never had enough chakra to do it myself’. I was proud. It was so easy to just… let loose. I felt strong and brave and…”

Sasuke squeezes her hand; “There’s always a catch to crap like this– You’re too smart to fall for something too good to be true.”

She laughs, but it’s a pale shadow of laughter, her eyes still focused on the dirt; “For being so smart, I’ve been feeling pretty stupid lately.”

Sasuke’s at a loss for words once again as Sakura solemnly takes a kunai and makes a shallow cut above her mark, pulling out bandages to wrap over her whole shoulder. The blood seeps in convincingly enough, and she binds it tight so she won’t bleed out or get an infection from a ruse. He hadn’t known there were multiple ways of feeling helpless, but today was proving to be very educational.

Ino’s voice breaks through the tension as she strolls over in a stiff-legged attempt at being casual; “Hey, Forehead! Want me to even up your hair? You’re looking pretty scraggly after the job you did on yourself.”

Sakura’s hand ghosts around the ragged edge of her hair, looking almost like she forgot she cut it. Then she slowly shakes her head.

“No, I’ll keep it like this,” she mumbles, running a hand through her long bangs, “It’s better if I remember.”

Ino pursed her lips, putting her hands on her hips and shifting from foot to foot, obviously trying to find some words to say but not coming up with anything.

Sakura saves her by asking, “But could you take a look at Sasuke? You’re better at field medicine than I am and he… He really needs it,” she smiles at him and gives him a pat on the shoulder she obviously meant to be reassuring, “I’ll go see how Lee’s doing, and… Thanks, Sasuke. For everything.”

Sasuke watches Sakura leave, but his eyes can’t linger on her for long as Ino settles down heavily in front of him, obscuring his whole field of vision as she leans in close and starts prodding at his face. He finds it’s a lot easier to remember her name now that he essentially saved her life.

“Black eye, broken nose, pretty standard,” Ino starts her running commentary, “Dislocated shoulder, also do-able, but– Oh my God Sasuke what the hell happened to your knee?!”

Sasuke’s not sure what she wants to hear exactly, so he just starts from the top; “I landed wrong falling from one of the higher branches to the forest floor. It probably twisted–“

“How high up?”


Ino glares at him as she feels his knee; “How high up did you fall from?”

Sasuke furrows his brow in thought; “… Twelve meters, give or take?”

Ino’s eyes go wide; “Sasuke. At best you tore a ligament. At best. If that Sound jackass didn’t break it while stomping on it you for sure broke it falling.”

Sasuke just stares at her; “… Oh.”

Ino runs a hand through her hair as she groans, “Okay, so you obviously didn’t splint it or wrap it up, and the only classes you got less than a hundred percent in were the medical ninjutsu classes so I know you didn’t use any on yourself… Did you at least keep your weight off it?”

Sasuke slowly shakes his head. Ino stares at him, jaw on the floor, long enough for him to get uncomfortable. More uncomfortable, anyway.

But then she smiles and shakes her head; “You’re kinda hopeless, huh?”

It doesn’t sound like an insult. Not even an accusation. She almost sounds delighted, like a child let in on a secret.

So he shrugs; “I guess.”

Ino returns to his face, to the things she can easily fix by setting his nose and splinting it straight or giving him a disposable icepack for his black eye and telling him to try his best to do ten minutes on, ten minutes off. He likes her scolding him far better than he likes her fawning over him, he decides.

She grows quiet as she wraps his arm tight to his side with another disposable icepack pressed to it, looking past him as she performs the repetitive action. He’s about to tell her she’s maybe wrapping it too tight when she speaks up again.

“What happened to Sakura?”

On instinct Sasuke lies; “What do you mean?”

She scowls at him and tightens the wrap on purpose, enough to make him wince; “You know damn well what I mean. She’s never been that fast. She’s never had that much chakra. She’s never been that…” Terrifying. Ino doesn’t say the word but they both hear it.

Her eyes are hard for a precious moment, but they soften with a heavy sigh; “Look. Me and Sakura… We’re not exactly friends anymore but I don’t hate her. I’ve never hated her. It’s like you and Naruto.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes; “How is it like that?

Ino just arches a brow at him; “I guess you’re clueless as well as hopeless. A rivalry isn’t about hate– It’s about pushing each other. You don’t push at people you don’t care about. If you don’t care you ignore them. I know you know all about that.”

He frowns because he’s not going to let her see him grimace.

Sasuke mutters under his breath, “I don’t know what happened to Sakura. We had a run in with another ninja and he left that mark on her shoulder and I guess it lets her… do all of that. He’d meant to leave it on me but she…”

Ino’s smile was wry and small; “She took the hit for you, huh?”

He nods, feeling as clueless and hopeless as she’d determined he was.

Ino glances over her shoulder at Sakura before looking back to him; “People are going to start asking questions. If it’s not my team or Lee’s, it’ll be your sensei, or the exam proctors, or worse. Are you ready for that?”

“It’ll only be a secret until we know what to do next,” Sasuke bristles, gritting his teeth, “For now, we’re just getting through this leg of the exam. It’s called the survival portion for a reason– There’s nothing to do for it but survive.”

Ino shrugs, closing her eyes in a tacit gesture of surrender; “It’s your call– Or, I guess, it’s hers. You’re just her teammate, you’re along for the ride.”

She fixes him with a hard stare as she stands up; “I’m not leaving, I’m just going to see if I can find some sturdy sticks for a splint, but… Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid before I get a chance to beat the tar out of her.”

Sasuke smirks, more with his eyes than his mouth; “I’ll try, but I’ve got my hands full enough with Naruto. He does enough stupid crap for all of us.”

Ino rolls her eyes and walks past him over to the bushes to start foraging for splint material, while Sasuke’s eyes find Sakura like a magnet pulling to metal. She’s found Lee and is speaking to him in a soft voice– his female teammate managed to rouse him, but he’s still quite sensitive to loud noises after the damage done to his ear.

Speaking of loud noises, Sasuke winces as he hears Naruto bellow, “SASUKE WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO YOU?!

The blur of orange and blue comes skidding in, almost tumbling end over end as he tries to land on his knees at Sasuke’s side. His blue eyes search him up and down but keep going back to his knee– Sasuke imagines he’ll have to get used to those kinds of looks, at least for a little while.

Naruto’s been talking the entire time Sasuke’s been thinking; “And what happened to Sakura’s hair?! Did you guys beat the snake lady or is she still out there?! And how’d Bushy Brows get so messed up?! How long have I been out?! Wh–“

Shikamaru silences Naruto, at least for the moment, by throwing a heavy clod of dirt at the back of his head and snapping, “Could you shut your mouth for five seconds? Everyone here’s had more than enough excitement for a lifetime, try to read the room.”

Naruto, to his credit, does bring the volume down by a few decibels as he snaps back at Shikamaru, “That’s another thing, why are you guys even here?

“They came to help us,” Sasuke sighed, leaning back on his free hand, “Let’s try and run through the rest of your questions in order– I encountered some trouble, you should ask Sakura why she cut her hair because I don’t know, the Grass ninja is gone, Lee tried to help us and also got into trouble, and you’ve been out for nine hours.”

Naruto’s eyes somehow find a way to go even wider, and they look from Sasuke to Sakura and back again before he asks, “Was… Sakura also out?”

Sasuke pauses, long enough that he imagines everyone else in the clearing knows he’s about to twist the truth just a bit.

And he replies, “Yeah. She got knocked out in the fight with the Grass ninja.”

Naruto grimaces, his thoughts spilling out of his mouth in that uncurated way they always do, “No wonder you look like shit, you must’ve stayed up all night,” and his face splits into that sunny grin, “You were totally lost without us!”

Sasuke cuffs Naruto on the side of the head with a snort; “Don’t get smug– I’m not the one who overslept and missed two whole fights.”

Naruto’s about to fire back when a voice beside them clears their throat; “Sasuke.”

Sasuke turns and right at his eye level is his headband. He follows the arm holding it up to Neji, staring down at him with a kind of perfect calm Sasuke envies.

“You should keep better track of this,” Neji says as Sasuke hesitantly takes the headband back.

Sasuke swallows hard, running his thumb over the leaf insignia; “I… What happened to Lee, I should’ve–“

Neji shakes his head; “Don’t apologize. Can you imagine how Lee would be ranting about disgrace and how much he would hate owing you something if you actually did save him? Trust me, he’s far better off with Sakura as his hero.”

Sasuke thinks for a moment Naruto’s eyes might pop out of his head; “Sakura saved you guys? Seriously?

Neji’s intense white eyes alight on Sasuke’s, asking a silent question.

Which Sasuke answers by shrugging with his good shoulder and simply saying, “You shouldn’t underestimate her. She might surprise you.”

Chapter Text

iv. Kabuto strolls into the tower and hears his master’s voice ring out; “So, what’s the verdict?”

He smirks; “They’re an interesting group– If I had to guess, they only took so long to pass because of Sasuke’s injuries. After all, a ninja can’t jump through the trees if his knee is broken,” Kabuto winces, “I will admit, I did tell them I knew a little bit about medical ninjutsu so they’d let me take a look. With all the beating it took and the low level of treatment it’s received, I think he’s going to retain some permanent damage. If you still want his body, that might be an issue.”

Orochimaru waves it off; “We’ve dealt with worse.”

Kabuto nods; “Very well. He was able to compensate well for it– He still had chakra, and you don’t need to leap into the fray to use the Sharingan or a fireball. In their last engagement he could’ve taken their opponents out easily if not for Naruto’s overconfidence. Now he’s an interesting beast. It seems like his chakra repository grows with every time he taps into the Nine Tails’ well, which is good for a kid who refuses to give up.”

Orochimaru’s gold eyes meet his; “Tell me about Sakura.”

Kabuto blinks once; “The girl?”

“She has a name, but yes, the girl.”

Kabuto blinks twice; “… Well, she’s covered her whole shoulder in bandages so I don’t know how her curse mark is progressing, but the few times she used genjutsu she seemed like she was in pain. It’s actually helped her stamina, surprisingly. Honestly, I’m not sure what we’re looking for with her. We drew up detailed models for how the curse mark could affect Sasuke, and I’m not sure what we could do for Sakura beyond comparing her with Anko’s growth pattern. She’s… Well, she’s nothing.”

Orochimaru grins that serpentine grin and hisses, “What she is, Kabuto, is the perfect bait.

It has been a trying week, to say the very least.

Though Sasuke’s injuries have agreed with Sakura and Naruto keeping him on the sidelines and making sure he gets plenty of rest, his pride has not. As the three of them walk through the doors into the tower, Naruto striding forward like he doesn’t have a care in the world and Sakura having to limp at his pace due to the curse mark flaring whenever she used more than a thimbleful of chakra, Sasuke just hopes that there are medics in there more qualified than Kabuto.

The words potentially permanent damage and Kabuto’s painful wince as he re-splinted Sasuke’s knee echo in his mind and he has to shake his head to get them to leave. He was a genin like them, he said he’d never been properly certified, he had to be wrong. Sasuke needed him to be wrong.

Sakura sees the deep line forming between his brows and puts a hand on his shoulder. He lets her keep it there as Naruto squalls about the empty room they’ve walked out into.

Sakura rolls her eyes at all of Naruto’s ruckus; “Bring it down a notch, Naruto. It’s obvious what comes next– Just look up there.”

She points to the framed writing at the head of the room, mounted far above their reach– If qualities of Heaven are your desire, acquire wisdom to take your mind higher. If Earthly qualities are what you lack, train your body and prepare to attack. When Heaven and Earth are open together, the pairless path will become righteous forever. This … is the secret way that guides us from this place together.

Sasuke smirks up at the poem; “I think I know where we can find that missing word.”

Naruto turns to him wide-eyed and grouses, “Are you sure? Remember what could’ve happened last time we tried to open the scroll?”

Sasuke glares over at him with gritted teeth; “First, I thought I said we weren’t going to mention that ever again. Second, if there’s anywhere we’re supposed to open these scrolls, it’s in here.”

Sakura nods and adds, “We got both of them and made it here fair and square. We’ve earned the right to open them… But one of us should probably stand back. Just in case.”

Sasuke swipes the Heaven scroll before Sakura can tell him not to move his bad arm too much– besides, all he has to do for this is hold one end of the scroll. Naruto palms the Earth scroll and tentatively makes ready to open it.

He locks eyes with Sasuke; “We’ll do it together, on three.”

Sasuke nods to Sakura; “Count us down.”

She steps back with a grimace, counting for every step; “One… Two… Three!

Sasuke and Naruto tear the scrolls open so fast that Sasuke tweaks his shoulder just a bit, both of them looking away on reflex before slowly turning to read them. On the inside is just the character for person.

Sakura from her distance cocks her head to the side; “What does that mean?”

Naruto shrugs like he always does, with the entire upper half of his body; “You’ve got me.”

For a moment, Sasuke also stares at the scroll, mind completely blank. But then his eyes move from the central character to all the writing around it, set in a very particular pattern. And his eyes go wide.

Sasuke flings the scroll across the room as the center point begins to swell and smoke starts to leak out, shouting louder than he probably needed to, “GET RID OF THE SCROLL NARUTO!

Naruto was already throwing it before Sasuke told him to, chucking it against the far wall with a yelp of panic. Miraculously they both land in a perfect cross with the two main symbols overlapping before the bulges explode into a cloud of light gray smoke that fills the room. Sasuke’s an Uchiha, he’s been breathing in smoke since before the academy, but Sakura and Naruto are hacking up a lung after a couple breaths. Sasuke’s Sharingan whirls to life and he gets into as best a fighting stance as he can manage– he’s almost glad Naruto and Sakura aren’t on their guard. He’s been spoiling for a fight.

So you can imagine the mixture of complicated emotions that come bubbling up when the smoke clears and his academy teacher Iruka is smiling affably at them.

The smile nearly falls as his warm brown eyes actually take in Team 7, but he manages to keep it around a strained voice as he says, “Long time no see, you three look… bad.”

Naruto lets out a surprised huff of a laugh; “I mean, we feel bad. Sasuke here’s feeling the worst!”

That earns Naruto a slap to the back of the head and a shout from Sakura to watch his mouth.

Sakura shakes her head and brings her eyes back to the matter at hand; “What are you doing here, Iruka-sensei? Why’d the scrolls summon you?

Iruka’s voice is hurried as he drifts over to the team and starts fretting over their injuries– so, once again, Sasuke gets crowded; “The chunin are supposed to welcome the passing genin to the tower and I was randomly selected and how did all of this happen?

Sakura’s already explaining, or at least reciting the script they’d rehearsed that included no references to Orochimaru at all, fretting in harmony with Iruka; “Sasuke took a hard landing on his leg so that’s the part that’s worst off, though his shoulder is–“

Sasuke pushes out of Iruka’s range with an annoyed grunt of, “I’m fine! I’m a ninja and ninja get wounded! It’s called the Forest of Death for a reason right?! We’re here and we passed, didn’t we?! So stop crowding me and say your piece!”

There’s a long, deathly silent moment of his teammates and his teacher just staring at him, eyes wide. Sakura’s especially bite into him– not because they’re sharp and angry, like Naruto’s are for Sasuke shouting at his beloved teacher and crush, but because they’re just as soft and concerned as they always are.

So he runs a hand through his hair and huffs, “Sorry, I just… it’s been a rough week.”

Iruka’s smile has some of that old warmth Sasuke remembers from when he’d reach out and Sasuke would push his hand away. The other academy teachers left the brilliant but broken little boy alone, but Iruka had always tried. Sasuke somehow feels worse.

Iruka fishes a watch out of his pocket; “Well thankfully that week’s ended on a good note– You all just barely passed.”

He takes them through the poem on the wall, how it’s meant to represent the duties and diligence of a Chunin, and how the survival exam was meant as a mock-mission simulating a long and dangerous journey in the field where danger came at them from all fronts and they had sensitive material they couldn’t look at. Sasuke can see Sakura smirking just a little bit as Iruka lays it all out– a surefire sign that she’d guessed this from moment one and was delighted to be proved right. Once again, annoying. But it makes him smile in rhyme with hers.

When he finishes going through his script of things he’s bound by tradition to tell them, Iruka’s smile wavers at the edges and he brings a hand to his mouth; “You three… Please be careful in the third exam. Especially you, Sasuke, your injuries–“

Naruto, as always, barges right in; “Iruka-sensei, we stopped being students when we got these headbands. And it’s like Sasuke said– We’re ninja now, ninja get hurt and they survive. We’re not kids anymore, so don’t you worry, we passed the second exam and we’re gonna pass the third! Just you watch!”

It’s everything Sasuke can do to keep his smile down to a small, understated, restrained smirk.

Iruka is quiet for a long time before he beams at his students; “You’re right, Naruto, I’m sorry about that.”

Naruto just lets out his goofy cackle of a laugh.

Despite Naruto’s speech, Iruka still recommends Sasuke see the tower’s medical staff before meeting up with the other genin– he makes the very salient point that sure, ninja get hurt and survive, but they also go straight to the hospital if they come back from a mission limping. To Sakura’s brief surprise, Sasuke agrees. But then she remembers Kabuto offering to take a look, prodding at Sasuke’s knee with chakra-coated fingers (prodding hard and getting no reaction), and grimacing as he said there might be permanent damage.

Sasuke wants a second opinion. There’s no way he could want anything else.

All the candidates filter out into a massive arena with catwalks for viewing up above and a massive sculpture of two hands forming the ram sign at the head of the room. All the chunin who greeted the teams and their jonin teachers stand in orderly rows by the sculpture, alongside the exam proctors and the Third Hokage himself. Kakashi catches Sakura’s eye and gives her a lazy two-fingered salute. After five days without him, Sakura finds herself smiling wide and giving him a little wave in return. Naruto, of course, waves with his whole arm and calls “Hey Kakashi-sensei!” so loud it echoes throughout the whole cavernous room.

As the genin line up Sakura looks around– only six teams out of twenty six managed to pass, which was still more than she’d estimated back when they all walked through that chain link fence. She looks them all over, taking careful inventory– There are the big coats of Team 8, the lackadaisical attitude of Team 10, the clean silhouettes of Team Gai, the plain black of Kabuto's team, and the menacing presence of the Sand genin. Sakura furrows her brow– she was sure the Sound team that ambushed them would pass, if they were good enough to put Sasuke through all that pain and suffering they had to be good enough to bounce back from what she did and make it to the tower…

A thought passes through her head as her eyes ghost over the empty spot where Sasuke should be– not really a thought, actually, but a memory. Anko's voice telling them that they would only pass if a full team made it to the center of the forest.

Sakura's heart drops into her shoes.

Oh no. No no no no no.

She clutches her stomach, she’s sure her face is turning the same color as her eyes, and Sakura goes very cold as she tries so hard to rationalize.

He’s just too injured to fight and they’ve disqualified him, he dropped out after what happened, he disappeared when Dosu and Kin weren’t looking, he was an enemy and this is your job Sakura this is what ninja do now pull yourself together and don’t throw up all over the damn floor–!

“S-sakura? Are you alright?” Hinata’s gentle voice sounds like a firecracker going off in Sakura’s ear as she whirls around to face her, eyes wide in panic. Poor Hinata nearly bumps into one of the other genin as she jumps at the shock.

But quickly she softens and leans in, whispering, “Did something… happen? Out in the forest?”

Sakura quickly shakes her head and plasters on a smile; “No, no, no no no. I’m alright. We’re all alright. Naruto’s alright.”

Hinata’s cheeks light up, but she has the presence of mind to ignore Sakura’s poke at her crush, instead looking at the hole in the ranks between her and Naruto; “Where’s Sasuke? Did he… Did he have to drop out, or…?”

Sakura lets out a short bewildered laugh; “What? No, he’d never drop out. He’s just checking in with the medics– You know how it is, you do most of the fighting, you get most of the injuries! He’ll be here soon.”

Hinata purses her lips, pushing her fingers together like she always does when she’s nervous; “I-I hope so, I think the proctor’s about to–“

Anko’s voice, amplified by a microphone headset, cuts Hinata off; “Now that we’re all here, let me first congratulate all of you on passing. Lord Hokage’s going to explain the third exam, so don’t let me catch you chatting instead of listening!”

The Hokage steps forward and launches into one of his infamously long speeches– first, explaining the Chunin Exams’ purpose as a proxy battle for allied countries so they wouldn’t destroy each other’s military power on a whim, as well as to show the pride and prestige of the nation so those in the position to hire ninja could get a look at what country they’d want to pull from in the future. Nothing new to Sakura– unlike Naruto who was stage-muttering questions to Lee, she’d paid attention in History.

Gaara’s voice slithers out in a rasp, “Any test at any stake is fine. I can handle whatever you throw at me, so just get to the point.”

Sakura frowns, looking over at his back; his shoulders are tense and his arms are crossed as tightly as he can manage. He’s not like Sasuke or Neji, quiet thanks to confidence. He’s a tightly wound spring threatening to burst loose at any second. She sincerely hopes she’s nowhere nearby when he does.

The Hokage glares pointedly at Gaara, but clears his throat; “Very well then, I–“

One of the jonin, a sickly looking man with deep bags under his eyes, bows his head as he interrupts the hokage; “My Lord, before that, please allow me to speak first– as proctor of the third exam.”

The Hokage simply nods; “Go ahead, Hayate.”

Hayate turns to the assembled genin; “Before we begin,” he cuts himself off by coughing up a storm into his hand. Sakura grimaces and hopes that they caught him on a bad day. If not, she had no idea how someone so sickly could make Jonin.

When he finally finishes, he continues as if nothing happened, “Due to more of you passing than we expected, we’re going to have to hold a preliminary round before the third exam to thin out the ranks,” the genin erupt into rumbles of discontent and outright shouts of “No way!” and “That’s not fair!” and Sakura isn’t ashamed to admit she’s part of them– They all passed, and she can at least be sure her team got their scrolls… somewhat fairly. They all deserved to be continue onward, even if it made things take a bit longer.

Hayate, to his credit, fields their complaints well, projecting his voice so he’s speaking just over them, “I understand how you’re feeling, but like Lord Hokage said, a lot of important dignitaries will be coming in to watch the exams and we can’t waste their time. They’re here for the best of the best. Besides, we only have a limited amount of time for these exams, so we have to speed things up. So if any of you aren’t feeling like you’re in top physical condition, now’s the time to drop out,” appropriately enough, Hayate starts coughing again, and keeps going for a good minute before calming down, “We’ll be starting the exams immediately.”

The rumble of the genin protesting the decision goes quiet in her ears as Sakura’s eyes go wide and Naruto immediately whirls around to meet her gaze. For once he remembers how to be quiet, mouthing Where’s Sasuke?!

She can only shrug– if he still wasn’t back that was going to be a problem. He can’t have dropped out, even she knew his pride was all-consuming. Had the medics forced him to stay behind? Oh that would not go over well. Even in his injured state Sakura’s not sure anyone could force Sasuke to do anything.

Hayate, ever so helpfully, adds, “Oh yeah, who goes forward is gonna be determined through one-on-one Sudden Death rounds of combat. So if that’s not your speed now’s the time to hop off.”

Sakura’s heart drops into her stomach. Well. If that’s what they’re doing now she’s hoping to Heaven that Sasuke does have the common sense to drop out. She grits her teeth as she feels a sharp, stabbing pain in her shoulder– right where the mark is– and digs her nails into her palms. Clutching at it over and over again will just get people wondering. She’s been getting better at it, keeping her reaction to a minimum even though the pain makes her want to cry.

Her taijutsu’s still pretty poor, but if she uses any chakra the mark could start spreading again. She can’t drop out, because then Team 7 will be down to one representative. She frowns and stares boldly forward– There’s no going back now.

She can feel eyes on her, from the Jonin to Ino just a couple steps away. In fact, she’s been staring at her since they got here, her blue eyes burning holes in Sakura’s bandages. Ino’s footsteps echo loud in Sakura’s ears as she crosses the distance between them.

“Hey, Sakura,” she whispers, low and harsh, “You sure you should still be here?”

Sakura blinks once, twice, then finds the wherewithal to pull up a grin; “Afraid you’ll lose if we have to fight, Pig?”

Ino’s eyes narrow and she jabs an accusing finger at her shoulder; “You know what I’m talking about! What happens to you if you lose it like you did in the forest?! What happens to your opponent?

Sakura feels like her soul is floating above her body, watching this all happen, and all she can do is stammer; “Y-you don’t know what you’re talking about, Ino–“

“The Hell I don’t!” she snaps, getting in Sakura’s face, “I saw the whole thing! Me, Shikamaru, Choji, and Lee’s whole team too! We didn’t ask questions because you’d been through enough and we needed to find scrolls– The jonin aren’t gonna cut you that slack.”

She puts her hand ever so slightly up, hovering around her shoulder threateningly; “Either you own up and withdraw, or I tell them.”

Sakura’s holding her breath, eyes wide, face pale. She glances around– Naruto, staring at them with a thoughtful frown as he tries to put the pieces together, Kakashi on the podium studying her with his one eye narrowed, Anko conversing in harsh whispers with Ibiki and the Hokage while her eyes keep darting back to Sakura, looks of concern from Hinata and Iruka, too many too many eyes all focused on her–

And that voice is back, hers but not, whispering, You make her put that hand down, Sweetie, and why not break her wrist while you’re at it? You’re strong enough. She’s still weak. Show her her place–

Kabuto raises his hand and all eyes go to him as he, so affably it’s almost annoying, says, “Yeah, you got me. I’m out.”

Naruto’s jaw immediately falls to the floor and he starts shouting to Kabuto about not giving up, bringing all eyes and ears away from Sakura; even Ino’s, for a precious moment. So Sakura has time to close her eyes, take a deep breath in, hold it, and push it back out. Her mind is clear, just for that moment.

And when she opens her eyes, she says, “Ino.”

The force in Sakura’s voice shocks Ino back into paying attention to her while Naruto carries on with Kabuto, keeping everyone else’s eyes away from them.

Sakura squares her shoulders and meets Ino’s gaze; “I made a choice back in the Forest. I’m not going to let Naruto and Sasuke keep running ahead of me anymore. And I’m not going to let this mark make me lose sight of who I am ever again. I can and I will do both. This is my life and my fate, not yours. So drop it.

Ino stares at her a while longer, hand still poised to rise, eyes boring into her with a mixture of anger, pride, and… something that looks almost like fear. But she finally scowls and clenches her hand into a fist, cuffing Sakura just a bit too hard on her bandaged shoulder.

“If you don’t keep your shit together, I promise I’ll make you regret it,” Ino hisses before stalking back to stand in line with her team, ignoring all concerned murmurs from Shikamaru and Choji in favor of glaring hard at the ceiling.

A cough from Hayate brings Sakura back into the moment, where Kabuto has left the room and Naruto’s back to looking at her in confusion, and Hayate is asking if anyone else wants to quit. No one responds. Sakura glances over her shoulder at the door– at this rate they might just disqualify Sasuke for not showing up.

Hayate folds his arms behind his back; “Alright, we’ll begin the preliminary round. Once again, this isn’t sparring– You’ll be fighting at full strength. Due to the odd number, we’ll have to have eight normal matches and one of you will be selected at random to fight a second time against the one remaining candidate,” anticipating the groaning he’s about to hear, Hayate adds, “That, I’ll grant you, is not fair but it’s the best we can do on short notice. There are no rules– You’ll fight until one of you dies, concedes, or physically can’t keep going anymore. As proctor I have the authority to intervene if a match seems hopeless so you don’t all die here. Now, it’s time to determine the first matchup.”

Anko mutters something into her headset and right on cue one of the large panels on the far wall slides up to reveal a large screen; Sakura can’t help her jaw dropping open. The biggest televisions she’s seen around the village were at best sixteen inches, that had to be as long as two of her, maybe longer. And there are three more of them on either side of an even larger panel, taking up a third of the wall. The part of her that's just a twelve year old girl, no more or less, briefly wonders what it would be like to watch a movie on that.

“The matchups will be determined at random, and their names displayed on the screens up above,” Hayate explained, “That’s all there is to explain– Let’s begin.”

Sakura feels her guts twist into knots then untie themselves again as a bright yellow ‘vs’ flashes to life in the middle of the screen, and above and below like displays on a slot machine the screen cycles through all the names on the roster. It truly is random– she could be the first match, and she could go up against Gaara or Neji or even Naruto. Her hand drifts to her mark on instinct. Keeping her shit together would be quite a bit harder against any of them. The names finally start to slow their rotation, as if they’re programmed with suspense in mind, before stopping on two of them that make Sakura’s stomach do a somersault.




Sakura covers her mouth and stares at the very very empty spot in front of her, whispering, “Oh shit.”

Naruto slaps both hands over his face and groans, “That dumbass!

Hayate, like nothing in the world is wrong, calls, “Those whose names have been selected, step forward.”

Yoroi very smugly does. Sasuke quite obviously does not.

Hayate’s eyes narrow as he surveys the genin; “Is Sasuke here?”

Iruka speaks up so Sakura and Naruto don’t have to; “I recommended he see the tower medics before coming here, if he hasn’t made it by now…”

“But we haven’t heard from the infirmary,” Kakashi points out, folding his arms over his chest, “We don’t know if he’s medically cleared or not.”

“We’re running on a tight schedule,” Hayate sighs, “If he doesn’t show up in the next five minutes, we’ll have to disqualif–“

The door at the back of the room slams open; “I’m here!

Sakura whirls around and for the three seconds that she’s turning she is absolutely elated. But then she sees Sasuke.

The only thing keeping him from doubling over as he pants is his hand on the doorframe, while the other one braces against his left thigh. His splint is gone but his knee still looks like it’s covered in one big, yellow-black bruise, and as he walks further into the room she can tell he’s trying very hard not to limp. His arm is unwrapped, but he’s taking great care not to move it as he walks. Sasuke shoves his way through the crowd to stand beside Yoroi, jaw clenched so tightly Sakura knows for a fact he’s biting his tongue to keep from wincing in pain.

She sees Kakashi drag his hand down his face and she almost wants to do the same.

Hayate slowly blinks as he looks Sasuke up and down; “And you’re sure you’re in fighting shape.”

“I was cleared to fight,” Sasuke snarls, “The only problem is how this tower’s laid out, it took me forever to find my way back.”

That was such an obvious lie it physically hurt Sakura to hear it.

Hayate swallows so hard it makes him cough again; “Okay… The two of you have been chosen for the first match. Are there any objections?”

Yoroi is definitely smirking under the bandanna covering his face as he says, “Oh absolutely not.”

“No,” Sasuke snaps, “Let’s get on with it.”

Sakura looks between Kakashi and Naruto and both of them look just as bewildered as her. Ino and Lee’s teams are also looking at him in complete bafflement. It seemed she wasn’t the only one who never thought Sasuke could be this arrogant.

Or… maybe that isn’t all. There’s a wild look in his eyes, almost hungry, and he’s shifting from foot to foot not from pain but anticipation. His fingers are twitching, his eyes are darting around, he can’t sit still. Almost like Naruto. He’s looking at Yoroi like he has something to prove.

“Uh… Alright then,” Hayate says, taking a big step back, “Let’s start the first match. Everyone else, please clear the area and go to the upper level.”

Sakura catches him by the shoulder just before she heads up to the catwalk, whispering, “What happened?”

Sasuke meets her eyes and his Sharingan are blazing as he growls, “They told me I was in no shape to compete. They were going to disqualify me, because I’d just lose immediately if I tried to fight. I’m gonna show them that I don’t lose.”

Sasuke loses.

He loses very well, it’s a magnificent showing of ninjutsu since Sasuke can’t really do much else in his current state. Phoenix Flowers, Dragon Flames, even the signature Uchiha Fireball all light up the room and threaten to burn off the spectators’ hair. He also uses some genjutsu, though that’s mostly to cover his ass in those rare times he has no choice but to change his position and just tell his screaming leg to suck it up– once he learns Yoroi can drain his chakra, Sasuke starts having to do that a little more often. But it doesn’t take his opponent very long at all to pinpoint Sasuke’s bad arm and bad leg, close the distance, and work them until his screams start sounding like an animal being slaughtered and the proctor calls the match off.

It’s slightly less humiliating than Kakashi having to come down and physically stop Yoroi from killing him, but only slightly.

Kakashi does appear beside him when the medics are called down to bring him to the infirmary, but that’s just to whisper harshly, “You’re beaten, Sasuke. You were beaten the second you decided to fight on one leg and one arm. Don’t take it out on them.”

And Sasuke is sufficiently shamed into cooperating. Besides, he can already hear one of the medical ninja hurriedly whispering to the proctor that Sasuke was not cleared and he absolutely should not have been fighting at all, and that’s just another nail in his coffin at this point. The medics won’t let him walk, mostly because he can’t, and Sasuke has to quickly do the mental math of what at this point is worse: being stretchered out, or having to lean on Kakashi as he tries to keep one last shred of his dignity by staying upright on his way out of here.

He opts for the stretcher.

Just about the only positive thing Sasuke can think as he’s carted back to the infirmary he’d spent so much concentrated effort wheedling his way out of is that at least it was on the record that he lost instead of being disqualified. Or at least it would be until it was retroactively marked that he was not cleared for competition and was disqualified on those grounds instead.

Sasuke shuts his eyes tight, half so he won’t have to see Kakashi following them at a leisurely pace and half to be alone with his thoughts. It couldn’t even be Neji, or Gaara, or even Naruto, could it? In keeping with Sasuke’s luck it had to be some no-name, someone who no one’s hopes were riding on, with no clan to speak of. Sasuke hadn’t even been in this to become chunin– he’d been here to test his strength, to see how far he could go, to see what he was worth.

He supposes this answers that question. And he bites his tongue hard enough to taste blood.

Sasuke doesn’t open his eyes until he’s being gently dumped out into a cot in the infirmary and the attending medical ninja, a severe Hyuuga woman in her fifties with a long scar down the left side of her face, is settling down and going through the signs for the Mystical Palm Jutsu.

“Any particular reason you didn’t use that on him when he first came in?” Kakashi wonders, leaning against the wall.

She glares at him and shoots back, “You should know that– Heaven knows I fixed you up enough times when you were too young for a full course.”

Kakashi smiles under his mask; “Consider this a teaching moment for his benefit, Hakumei-sensei.”

'Hakumei' shakes her head, clicking her tongue; “Honestly the little dumbass could probably use it.”

So she meets Sasuke’s eyes out of the corner of hers as she continues, “Kids your age unless there’s a life-threatening emergency we do it in multiple treatments. Mystical Palm Jutsu’s overwhelming for a body unaccustomed to it, especially one that’s still growing. Best case, one of your injuries heals wrong and you’re stuck with something we’d need to do surgery to fix. Worst case, we overload your circulation and you die.”

When she stops on his knee she leaves it feeling pleasantly numb, moving next to his shoulder and his face; “Also, it’s fucking hard, so not everyone can learn it. I’ll bet even your Sharingan could only get it halfway right. I’m only one in the tower who knows it, and because they assumed you’d stay put the residents down here didn’t call me.”

The second the soft green glow on her palms goes out she thwaps Sasuke on the forehead with the back of her hand– thankfully, not the one with a wedding ring on it– and reprimands, “We could have made sure there wasn’t any permanent damage if you’d just stayed here and let us start working! Now…” she sighs, closing her eyes and running a hand through her hair as the the wind finally goes out of her sails, “We’ll see what the hospital can do for you. I don’t think you’re quite at the level where you have to start looking for another career, but that leg probably won’t ever work the same.”

Sasuke feels as though he’s trying to talk around a lump in his throat the size of his fist, so all he says is, “… Oh.”

Kakashi speaks up again; “Do you think you could get him well enough to watch the other preliminary matches?”

Hakumei scratches the back of her head as she thinks, then shrugs; “I can get him in a proper sling and a splint and give him a crutch, he can get up there fine,” she shoots Sasuke another glare, this one with a bit less fire, “Just make sure you don’t stand up the whole time. If I hear you didn’t sit down even once I’m gonna make damn sure you get the meanest physical therapist the hospital has on staff, you hear me?”

Sasuke just nods dumbly. Hakumei excuses herself to find those supplies, leaving the two of them alone in a silence that feels like it lasts a lifetime.

“So,” Kakashi remarks, settling down casually next to Sasuke and opening up his book, “Want to tell me what happened in the Forest?”

Sasuke’s eyes narrow, and once again he lies on instinct; “Nothing.”

“That’s a lie,” Kakashi says in a sing-song voice, turning another page of Icha-Icha, “I can tell that on top of being dislocated you’ve got a chip on that shoulder. Something happened. Something that didn’t just hurt your body– it hurt your pride.”

“And how the hell would you know?” Sasuke snarls, turning as much of his body as he can still move as away from Kakashi as he can get it.

Sasuke hears the book snap shut, and Kakashi’s voice pitches down in that way Sasuke’s heart both reaches desperately out to and violently rejects all at once; “How do I ever know anything about you, Sasuke? Because I was a prideful little jerk who never felt good enough but hated it when other people were better than me when I was twelve years old.”

Kakashi reaches out and puts his hand on Sasuke’s shoulder. Sasuke reflexively flinches out of his reach, and his teacher just sighs.

“I know exactly what it looks like when you’ve been beaten down,” Kakashi continues, voice softer now, “When the world seems like it’s hellbent on proving to you that you’re not strong enough and never will be, and just will not let up until it’s pushed you over the edge. I’ve been there, over and over again. And I’ve come really, really close to going over that edge. I want to make sure you never get that close. So tell me what happened to you… And to Sakura.”

Sasuke shoves himself into sitting up, eyes wide as he frantically asks, “How do you–?!”

“You never let her touch you before,” Kakashi answers simply. Sasuke doubts that's the whole answer, but it's the most damning piece of evidence.

Sasuke remembers his own words, distantly, as if from the bottom of a deep lake: It’ll only be a secret until we know what to do next.

He has no idea what to do next. But Kakashi might.

Sasuke hangs his head as he begins, “We were ambushed by ninja from the Hidden Grass…”

Chapter Text

v. Sakura, in all honesty, did not expect Sasuke to come back from the infirmary. But just after Kankuro finishes his fight against Misumi Sasuke comes hobbling up the stairs on a crutch with Kakashi strategically walking just a couple steps behind him in case he falls.

Naruto is sprinting over to meet them before Sakura can weigh the pros and cons of running over there herself, so she’s right on his heels, apologizing to everyone they bump into along the way. When Sakura meets them in the middle and smiles at Sasuke she’s at first not surprised that he doesn’t return it. But the way moving his eyes to meet hers seems like it takes all the strength in his body doesn’t bode well.

“So? How’d it go?” Naruto asks, grinning and folding his arms behind his head like nothing in the world is wrong.

Kakashi glances pointedly down at Sasuke, who closes his eyes with a deep sigh. That gets Naruto’s grin to fall.

“It’s… not great,” Sasuke replies, plucking the words out one at a time with care, “I’ll mostly recover. But it’ll take some time.”

Naruto winces; “Yeesh, what’d they really tell you? You look like your cat died.”

Sakura glares at Naruto and is scolding before she can stop herself; “Don’t pry, Naruto, if he doesn’t want to talk that’s up to–“

Sasuke, to her shock, interrupts her; “They didn’t tell me I was gonna have to stop being a ninja or anything like that. Just that… I might have some trouble with my leg. Probably permanent trouble. Like I said, it’s not great.”

In a flash Naruto is suddenly twice as concerned as Sakura; “Then what the Hell are we doing standing up?! Come on, there’s a railing we can see through, sit your ass down!”

Sakura didn’t know there was a way to carefully shove someone but once again Naruto surprises her by doing just that to Sasuke, pushing him down into sitting with with his legs dangling over the edge of the catwalk. Sasuke doesn’t object to the shoving, just to that he’s so close to the edge– “You saw how big my fireballs can get, I don’t want someone burning my legs off, dumbass!”– and Naruto pushes him back to the wall before settling down next to him and stretching out his legs so no one will miss Sasuke’s splinted knee and step on it on accident.

Sakura can’t help smiling– It’s clumsy and not at all subtle, but the way Naruto cares about people really isn’t anything but charming.

Kakashi clears his throat, stepping over Naruto and Sasuke’s legs to stand at Sakura’s side; “There’s something we need to talk about.”

Probably just for emphasis, he lightly taps the bandages on her shoulder.

Sakura reaches out and grips the railing so she won’t betray anything on her face, knuckles already turning white as she brings her voice down; “Oh. Okay. So… you know about that.”

He nods, putting his hands in his pockets as he begins, “I’ll be frank with you: That mark can still kill you if you lose control of it. Ordinarily I’d recommend you rely on Taijutsu for the preliminaries so your chakra use doesn’t aggravate it, but given your strengths don’t lie there I don’t think that’s the best idea. So long as your match isn’t up next, I do have an idea–“

Hayate coughs quite loudly, a surefire sign that he’s about to speak; “Alright, now that the arena’s clear again it’s time for the next match.”  

Same as before– The screen lights up, the names start cycling, the names roll to a stop.




Sakura turns back to Kakashi, who’s still staring at the screen, his one exposed eye wider than she’s ever seen it.

“Are you alright, sensei?” she asks.

“I’m terrified, actually,” he replies, his voice sounding like it’s coming from miles away.

Sakura swallows hard; “Yeah, me too.”

Kakashi levels her with an intense gaze; “Sakura, if you lose control of the curse mark I will have to come in and stop the fight. It’s up to you not to let it get to that point, understand?”

Sakura nods, her head feeling a thousand pounds heavier. She carefully makes her way down the catwalk to the stairs and nearly doesn’t notice Ino falling in step behind her.

“‘This is my life and my fate so stay out of it’,” Ino mutters, her voice a mocking imitation of Sakura’s, “Well now it is my life on the line, Forehead. I am done cutting you slack.”

Sakura’s jaw clenches and she ignores the stabbing pain in her shoulder; “I’ve had enough of your slack to last a lifetime, Pig.”

Ino makes a choice the second her name flashes up on the display– She’s going to end this fight as quickly as possible. This isn’t about a clueless boy who decides to fight on a broken knee or becoming the fastest a Yamanaka has made chunin in peacetime, it’s pure survival.

She drafts a strategy as she walks down the stairs and really wishes she had time to run it by Shikamaru. The end goal is to mind transfer herself into Sakura as quickly as possible and force her to surrender– Yamanaka chunin bragged about that tactic all the time from their exam days, it counted mostly just on the basis of it being damn hard to get your opponent still enough to land the jutsu and the proctor respecting that. Hayate seems like a soft touch, he’ll definitely go for it. But if she can possess Sakura without anyone finding out, that’ll be even better.

She stops near the proctor and turns to Sakura. That dumb round face and giant forehead, Sakura hardly looks any different than she did when they were academy students learning flower arrangement. If Ino squints she can replace that headband with the ribbon she gave her and it’s like they’re eight years old again. Her resolve starts to peter out; Oh Heaven knows she can’t do this, Sakura’s just Sakura, this can’t–

Ino almost misses Sakura untying her headband. Thanks to her long bangs there’s a bit of drama in them falling forward, shadowing her eyes. Then she ties it around her forehead and looks back up to meet Ino’s gaze, eyes hard as diamonds.

She can hear Sakura’s teammates loudly and not so loudly wondering why in the world she did that, but Ino knows. She remembers everything about that moment, from the chill of the wind to the smell of the flowers in that meadow behind the academy and most importantly Sakura’s words.

“I won’t wear this headband on my forehead until I can call myself a true shinobi.”

Ino grits her teeth. Alright then, no pulled punches.

Hayate’s voice rings out through the arena; “Begin.”

Everyone has a plan when they first start a fight. Ino realizes this doesn’t count for shit the second Sakura sprints forward, socks her in the stomach, and slams her clasped hands down hard on the back of her neck.

Ino recovers quick, turning her downward momentum to her advantage by diving to grab Sakura’s leg, pulling it out from under her and knocking her to the ground. She keeps a hold on it as she pivots up to her feet, wrenching it the wrong way to twist Sakura’s knee. Sakura bites down hard on the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming and instead grabs for her pack of tools, tossing shuriken, senbon and kunai every which way but loose. For half a second Ino thinks she’s getting desperate until Sakura’s free foot smashes into Ino’s chest and the shock makes her let go.

Ino reels out of range and Sakura is quick to start moving, skittering around low to the ground like a bug as she quickly locates her shuriken, scoops them up and tosses them at Ino again. She’s able to dodge them but Ino knows that hitting her’s just a bonus, making sure she can’t regain her balance is the grand plan.

Something sparks in Ino’s mind– she can use that.

Ino makes sure to stagger just out of Sakura’s reach, timing her dodges and forming one hand sign per step. They’re random signs, but not too random; Sakura’s enough of a bookworm she’ll know Ino’s bullshitting if it doesn’t look real enough. Just as she’s making the ram sign she sees the perfect opening, and stops moving long enough for Sakura to get close.

Sakura finally closes the distance and hits Ino with a palm thrust to the sternum, knocking her down to her knees. Just as Ino predicted, Sakura looms over her with her hands clasped again, poising them to strike right down on the top of Ino’s head.

Ino throws up the Mind Transfer Jutsu’s hand sign, lining it up so Sakura’s face is right in the frame and lets it loose. The last thing she sees before the brief blackout of the transfer is Sakura’s eyes going wide…

When Ino’s vision comes back, she is not staring down at the crown of her own head, her hands poised above her ready for a surrender.

She is instead looking down at the arena from where Shikamaru is standing.

Ino immediately swears out loud, drawing a jump from Choji and Asuma, as she tries to figure out what happened at a lightning pace. She looks back to her match and it doesn’t take much effort to figure out– Sakura is running around behind Ino’s body while a static, illusory version of Sakura stands right where Ino had last seen her. From where she is, perfectly aligned with Sakura, she can see her hands aren’t clasped for a blow– they’re forming a hand sign, the last one for the Dancing Petal Illusion Jutsu Sakura used back in the Forest.

The Forest.

Ino immediately laces Shikamaru’s fingers to release the jutsu. Sakura just used chakra. Chakra. If she doesn’t get back to her body right now–

For a few seconds, everything is black.

When she comes back to her body her first instinct is to lunge forward, run, leap out of Sakura’s range but just as the illusion explodes into petals Ino is yanked backwards by Sakura wrapping part of Ino’s ponytail around her hand. Oh no no no no NO this is how that Zaku kid died no no no NOT AGAIN– Ino lets out a terrified shriek as she palms a kunai in her shaking hand and drags it through her ponytail. She tears out of Sakura’s grasp at a full sprint, leaving her hair behind.

She takes the risk of looking over her shoulder and immediately wishes she hadn’t. Blazing petals are swirling up and out from under Sakura’s bandages onto her neck and up to her chin, even moving towards her eye, and Sakura is chasing after her at a breakneck pace with her mouth open in a snarl. Ino feels a wave of pressure hit her feet as chakra bursts out from Sakura’s soles, giving her a burst of speed that lets her catch up to her and catch her like an animal, grabbing her face and covering it with her whole hand.

Ino’s flight and fight responses have both failed so she freezes in place like a fainting goat. She’s only distantly aware of her team shouting to her to get a grip or Sasuke screaming for Sakura to stop and pull herself together, she’s back in the forest trapped in a body no one is coming to help frozen and frightened and this is Sakura Forehead Billboard Brow Sweet Little Bud Who Hasn’t Blossomed she can’t have just killed someone she can’t she can’t she can’t and now she’s bearing down on her like an enemy because she is an enemy she wears an enemy’s face and she’s going to kill her she’s going to kill her and leave her for the animals in the forest and–

“Now’s your chance, Ino, MOVE!” Shikamaru’s voice shocks Ino back to reality, where Sakura has taken her hand off her face and is biting down on her lip hard enough to draw blood as the petals recede back beneath the bandage. For a second, Ino can’t even believe it– it’d been near, so fucking near, but Sakura had gotten her shit back together and beat it back.

And the next second Sakura is surging towards Ino ready to throw a punch and Ino remembers she’s in a battle.

She forces her legs to move and runs in to throw a left hook of her own, but by the time she’s letting hers fly Sakura’s is already halfway there, and Ino knows she’s too late.

The world slows down as Sakura’s fist comes sailing through the air towards Ino’s face. Before she even feels the impact Ino can feel the electric, moment-before-a-lightning-strike-air of a burst of chakra far larger than it needs to be zooming down Sakura’s arm towards her knuckles and soon into Ino’s nose. So that’s how she’d fought it off. She’d used her fine-tuned chakra control to push all the chakra feeding the curse mark out into this blow.

Well I’ll be goddamned, the bud is finally blooming, Ino thinks to herself.

It’s the last thing she thinks before the chakra and the punch hit her square in the center of her face and she blacks out.

Sakura squirms as goosebumps rise along her skin, chattering, “N-not to tell you how to do your job–“

“Too late,” Anko grumbles.

“But is it really necessary for my top to be off?” Sakura wonders.

“Trust me kiddo, if it wasn’t your sensei over there would actually be doing this instead of backseat sealing,” Anko grouses as she draws in some of the last elements of the seal, “But it’s a bad look for a dude who’s nearly thirty to be toolin’ around with a topless twelve year old girl, so if I messed up the parts going over your boobs we’ll never know.”

“Well-spoken as always, Anko,” Kakashi remarks from the pillar he’s leaning against. Sakura tries and fails to hold in a snorting chuckle. Anko frowns– Shit, she really is just a kid, isn’t she? Even in this cold dark room surrounded by an elaborate seal made in blood meant to keep a dangerous criminal from manipulating her through his brand on her skin, Sakura could still giggle like an academy student.

In a way, this is worse than Orochimaru actually getting his fangs in Sasuke. Sasuke’s innocence was already gone. Sakura still had at least a piece of hers to lose.

Anko finishes off the last character before standing up straight and looking over to Kakashi; “We good to go?”

Kakashi goes around the circle, playing very well at being disinterested and casual while surveying every character and every kunai placement like a hawk. Anko knows it’s not for her benefit– It’s to make sure Sakura’s huffing with annoyance instead of shivering with fear.

“Eh, looks good enough to me,” he says with a too-loose shrug as he comes back around behind Sakura.

She rolls her eyes; “Please take this seriously, sensei.”

“Trust me, Sakura, I’m as serious as a heart attack,” he replies with a fake smile in his voice, stepping back, “Go ahead, Anko.”

“Here goes nothing,” hand signs are easy to remember, so she flies through those like lightning, “Curse sealing!

She presses her palm to the curse mark and there’s a flash of bright light before Sakura tenses up and lets out a shrill cry of pain. The scrolling lines of text come slithering across the floor inward toward the curse mark, crawling up along Sakura’s body and settling around the mark in a circle as the five petals flash that magma red, trying to get out but not succeeding. Eventually they settle back into their original shape and Sakura’s scream peters out. She slumps forward, nearly falling and just barely catching herself before her face hits the cold stone floor.

Anko can’t help smiling as she kneels down next to Sakura; “There, that should keep you feeling human for a while. Now, listen carefully– That thing’ll keep the curse mark from acting up, but it’s only as strong as you are. If your will falters for even a second, that seal will break, and–“

And Sakura’s eyes finally glaze over and she loses the fight against passing all the way out, landing cheek first on the stone.

And she’s gone,” Anko sighs, “Well, at least she heard the important bits.” Kakashi has crossed the distance between them and is shrugging out of his flak jacket, draping it over Sakura. In her sleep she instinctually draws it tighter around herself, and Kakashi’s one dark eye crinkles at the corner with a real smile.

She grins at him, cheeky; “Awwww, so you don’t play favorites after all!”

“Oh no, I just play Least Favorites,” Kakashi replies.

A voice that turns Anko’s blood to ice rings out from the darkness; “How charitable of you– You’ve grown into a fine teacher, Kakashi.”

Orochimaru appears like a ghost from the shadows, his chalk white skin the only contrast against his dark hair and fatigues– the Sound jonin, of COURSE it had been him– and his grin wide, yet still not quite reaching his eyes. Exactly as she remembers him.

Anko leaps to her feet, snakes already writhing out of her sleeve; “You have some fucking nerve you son of a bitch–!

Kakashi grabs her roughly by the shoulder; “Don’t. If a fight breaks out right now we’re not the ones in danger– Sakura is.”

Anko’s breath catches in her throat. Damn it, he was fucking right. They were the only line of defense between that girl and the monster that wanted to take her away. They were everything Anko wished she’d had when Orochimaru came bearing down on her.

So she draws back the snakes and shifts into a defensive position; “If you take one step closer I’ll use your blood to paint the walls.”

Orochimaru’s eyebrows arch and he lets out an amused hum; “That would give this place some nice color, it’s fairly drab in here as is.”

Kakashi’s eye narrows; “Why so interested in your mistake, Orochimaru?”

Orochimaru gasps theatrically, putting a hand to his chest as he looks to Anko; “Anko, you tattled on our private conversation? I’d be hurt if it wasn’t so predictable. But if you must know,” this time his grin reaches his eyes and it’s all the worse for it, “I plan on turning my mistake into a miracle. I’d say that you don’t get to become a Legendary Sannin without learning how to make the best of a bad situation but we all know Tsunade and Jiraiya are notoriously bad at that.”

Anko can’t help cocking her head to the side; “You’re giving up on the Sharingan?”

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat, my dear,” Orochimaru replies through an airy laugh, “The Sharingan’s too lovely to pass up– Kakashi knows all about that. But Sakura is also something quite useful: A blank canvas. She holds infinite possibility, perfect for molding into whatever shape I need. Just like you, Anko.”

She remembers his pretty words, his assurances that she could be whatever she wanted to be because she wasn’t held back by clan expectation or limited by a bloodline technique forcing her into one style of fighting, how the curse mark would give her the raw power she always lacked so she could finally be something, and it’s all Anko can do to not be sick.

He turns on his heel, walking away from them as he says, “I don’t need to take you from her. She’ll come to me when she’s finally sick of being treated like dirt.”

Orochimaru walks until he’s almost entirely shrouded in darkness before he stops; “Oh, my, I just had a thought,” he turns back to them, tapping his chin as he thinks like a child imitating what he sees on television, “Sasuke and Naruto have grown rather attached to Sakura lately, haven’t they? It’s only natural, they’re her teammates after all, but I wonder… What would happen if she were to leave? What would they do?”

He shrugs, grin back en force; “Oh well, I suppose it doesn’t matter now. Good luck with the rest of the exam!”

And he melts into the dark, leaving Kakashi and Anko alone with a passed out girl and far too much to think about.

Sasuke had been frantically discussing Sakura’s match with Lee and Naruto and very much not sitting down when Kakashi appears behind the three of them, missing his flak jacket. The shock nearly sends Sasuke pitching over the railing but Lee and Naruto just barely catch him and help him whirl around to face Kakashi. Sasuke almost can’t hear himself in the chorus of the three of them asking Kakashi variations on “Is Sakura alright?!” and “Where is she?!”

“One at a time, you three,” Kakashi says, putting his hands up in a warding gesture, “Sakura is perfectly fine. She’s sleeping soundly in the infirmary, a respectful distance from Ino because we don’t know quite how she’s going to take defeat once she wakes up.”

Sasuke purses his lips– Thanks to that curse mark scare her bed’s likely surrounded by ANBU black ops, but Kakashi’s not going to say as much in front of Naruto and Lee.

Kakashi’s hand falls on Sasuke’s shoulder and while Sasuke flinches he lets him keep it there; “She’s going to be alright. Just relax and watch the rest of the matches– You might learn something.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes, shrugging Kakashi’s hand off now just for the sake of it; “Should I just keep my Sharingan on the whole time, ‘take notes’?”

“I mean sure, if you want to add ‘needing glasses’ on top of all your other health issues,” Kakashi replies, casual as anything.

Sasuke’s about to shrug that off before he blinks and turns back to Kakashi with a quizzical look; “Wait, what?”

“An inactive sharingan eye is more susceptible to the lens deforming under stress, and the Sharingan itself used even casually can cause deterioration in the eye,” he leans down, taps his headband where it covers his eye, and Sasuke doesn’t have to see the grin on Kakashi’s face to know that it’s shit-eating, “Why do you think I keep this bad boy covered all the time?”

Sasuke just stares at him for a moment before eloquently responding, “Oh. Well,” and turning back to the railing.

He doesn’t get much peace as he tries to watch Temari and Tenten’s match. He can feel Naruto staring at him, eyes nearly all the way shut he’s squinting so hard. Sasuke just frowns– whatever it is, he has no interest in answering it, so he just ignores it and hopes it’ll go away.

That tactic rarely works with Naruto, and it doesn’t work this time as Naruto leans over to try and get into Sasuke’s field of vision, asking, “What did happen when I was knocked out?”

Sasuke just stares ahead as he answers a question with a question; “Why do you want to know?”

Naruto holds up one finger; “One: You care a lot more about Sakura than you used to.”

Sasuke couldn’t help but turn to Naruto and blink in confusion. Did he? He didn’t feel like he did… Though if Kakashi’s observations in the infirmary were any indication, he’s probably a poor judge of that.

Naruto holds up another finger and Sasuke nearly jumps as Naruto starts, “Two: I don’t know if it was just me but I saw a weird mark on Sakura’s–“

“It is only natural Sasuke would be more attached to Sakura after his ordeal in the Forest,” Lee cuts in, saving Sasuke’s skin, “He went without food, water and sleep to watch over her, and fought with all his strength to protect her! It was really truly admirable!”

Sasuke can’t help arching a brow as he leans on his crutch and turns to Lee; “I thought you said you Did Not Like me?”

Lee’s smile is probably as close to a smirk as he can manage; “I am still not so sure if I do. But I certainly respect you after seeing your fighting spirit and everything you have done for Sakura. However, please remember– When it comes to her heart, I will not lose to you.”

Sasuke just shakes his head and turns back to the fight; “How about we focus on your teammate?”

The rest of the preliminaries pass in a flurry of action that Sasuke is both exhausted by and surprised went so fast when it all finally comes to an end; Tenten puts on a damn fine show but Temari handily dispatches her, Naruto manages to beat Kiba in the most unimpressive yet classically Naruto way possible and the next two matches…

How does he even begin to describe the next two matches?

First, Hinata Hyuuga versus Neji Hyuuga. Neji, the older genin whose skill and poise Sasuke couldn’t help but admire, and Hinata, the girl his age he knew from memories of Uchiha and Hyuuga rubbing shoulders that are faded but not unpleasant. Neji brutalizes Hinata, striking with a level of cruelty Sasuke hadn’t imagined possible, nearly killing her because she deigned to imply he was projecting his issues onto her. And Hinata, Hinata who’s fighting to become stronger and see what she’s worth, Hinata keeps fighting even in the face of certain defeat and keeps getting back up.

Sasuke doesn’t speak much as the fight goes along and Naruto shouts encouragements to Hinata and everyone else murmurs about how she’s certainly going to lose. He just thinks of all the time he spent admiring Neji, all the times they’ve been compared, and starts to wonder if that was time wasted. He sees Hinata pick herself up, barely able to stand, and his knee aches.

And second, Gaara versus Rock Lee. The battle which all others would be compared against for years to come. Lee is absolutely magnificent, his taijutsu immaculate, his speed unmatchable. Sasuke actually does activate his Sharingan, not to take notes but just to see every single moment of Lee’s perfect form– Naruto has to keep him from falling over the railing he’s leaning so far, trying to get as close to the action as he can. But Gaara…

Gaara is beyond human. Beyond possibility. Nothing in the world could’ve prepared Lee for Gaara. Oh Lee does as well as he possibly could against him, but that’s like saying Lee did as well as he could against a typhoon. Gaara even behaves like something unnatural, something more or perhaps less than human– he does not move, he only acts. Lee pushes and pushes and pushes. He pushes so hard he destroys the arena floor. And when he cannot push anymore, when opening the gates puts him past the point of no return and Gaara has crushed his arm and leg and Lee isn’t even conscious, he stands up. And pushes.

A thought begins to form in Sasuke’s head.

Maybe, he thinks, Maybe this is what strength looks like.

Lee may never like Sasuke. But Sasuke’s not ashamed to admit he admires Lee. And it becomes quite a bit harder for Sasuke to feel sorry for himself when he hears that Lee’s injuries mean his days as a shinobi are over.

Sasuke doesn’t remember the last two matches very well. He knows Choji lost to Shino and Yoroi fought and lost an additional round against Shikamaru. The Hokage explains to the finalists that the final exam will be in one month so they have time to train and dignitaries have time to arrive, and he lays out the bracket via random draw.

Sasuke nearly throws up when Sakura is matched against Gaara.

Naruto immediately starts trying to negotiate (or Sasuke supposes a better term is ‘yell until someone gives up’), desperately trying to take Sakura’s place, but the Hokage and the proctors stand firm. Sasuke can hear Kakashi swear under his breath behind him. With Naruto pitted against Neji and Sasuke out of commission, their luck could hardly be worse.

Due to the nature of Sasuke’s injuries making the trip from his home to the hospital unfeasible, Kakashi and Hakumei already set him up a room in the hospital. All the others who lost in the preliminaries have been moved there as well– Sasuke’s dreading seeing what happens when Lee wakes up. But there’s a silver lining; despite the high security, Kakashi tells him that he can sneak Sasuke into Sakura’s room once she wakes up, though his motives aren’t entirely unselfish.

“I think she’ll take the news better if she hears it from you,” Kakashi remarks in a tired whisper. Sasuke’s not about to disagree.

Sasuke has to wait in his room until Sakura wakes up, and Naruto stays with him until visiting hours are over, rambling about all the half-baked strategies he has in mind to beat Neji. Sasuke does try to give some advice, but mostly ends up being talked over, so he settles for the usual– making fun of Naruto until Naruto tries to jump him and the nurses have to pull them apart. It’s definitely not good for Sasuke’s health. But it makes him feel normal, so he doesn’t care.

Sakura doesn’t wake up until around the middle of the night, at which time Hakumei lets him in with a warm smile and a whisper of, “Don’t get too crazy in there, Romeo. You both need your rest.”

Sasuke rolls his eyes probably a lot harder than he needs to, hobbling over to the chair near Sakura’s bed. She’s already turned to look at him, eyes half open but somehow bright with excitement. It’s only when he sits down that he realizes he’s smiling, just a little bit.

He’s not sure how to start, so he just says, “Good morning.”

Sakura frowns; “It’s dark out.”

“It’s a minute or so after midnight, so technically it’s morning,” Sasuke replies, shrugging his good shoulder. That gets a soft snicker out of her.

“What’d I miss?” she asks, slowly shifting so she’s propped up on one elbow.

Sasuke could go through the whole thing beat by beat. In fact, he wants nothing more. He wants to tell her about how he’d never seen a technique like Temari’s, how Shikamaru astounded him with that simple but brilliant strategy, Naruto’s ridiculous victory, Hinata’s courage, Lee’s tragedy, all of it.

But what ends up coming out of his mouth in a sheepish rush is, “You’re fighting Gaara in the third exam.”

Sakura first just stares at him, jaw falling open. She blinks, slowly at first then rapidly.

Then her eyes slide closed and she mutters, “Fuck.

Sasuke can’t help it. He’s laughing. He’s doing all he can to keep it quiet and make it stop but he can’t, after everything that’s happened in the last week all he can do is double over laughing like an academy student hearing his first dirty joke. And soon Sakura’s joining him, unable to keep upright on one arm and flopping back down to the bed, throwing her arm over her eyes and just giggling helplessly.

For that moment, for the first time in far too long, Sasuke finally feels like he’s just a kid.

Chapter Text

vi. While Kakashi details his position to her, Kurenai stares at him in silence. Anko just makes sure her mouth is full of dango at any given moment and avoids looking at Kurenai’s intense red eyes. Back when there were more of them to go around people accused the Sharingan of being creepy, but honestly the Yuhi have them beat because their eyes are like that all the time.

“Sakura’s chakra nature is Earth, so her learning the Chidori is right out,” Kakashi explains, leaning back in the cheap hospital cafeteria chair, “If she’s going to have even a ghost of a chance against Gaara she’s going to need to hone her strengths, and her main talent lies in Genjutsu. Naturally, Kurenai, you’re a perfect fit for her.”

Kurenai just slits her eyes in a glare; “I hope you haven’t forgotten that I also have a genin to train for the third exam.”

Kakashi’s mask shifts in such a way that Anko’s sure he’s smiling, but it quite literally doesn’t reach his eye; “I haven’t. In fact, I was so interested in that I asked how Shibi’s taking the news and learned he plans on giving Shino special training in secret techniques he, with all due respect, doesn’t want his jonin sensei learning the ins and outs of. Just in case.”

Kurenai doesn’t say anything, just drumming her fingers on the table– the only thing between her and Kakashi’s very punchable face.

Anko loudly swallows her bite of dango before piping up, “Then why am I here? My genjutsu’s shit.”

The look Kakashi sends her way is quite a bit more serious; “Since you have personal experience with Sakura’s condition, I thought you’d be best suited to help her train her will to get through it. As I’ve explained already, Sakura wouldn’t benefit from what I can teach her. I’m asking the two of you for a favor– one I will pay back.”

Kurenai and Anko share a look that says one thing they both understand clear as daylight: Is this guy fucking serious?

So Anko’s the first to answer, shrugging as she says, “I really don’t know what you want from me, Kakashi. I’m a special jonin for a reason– ‘not suited for instructing genin’, it’s written in my file in big red letters. Besides, everything I know I learned from Orochimaru. I thought we were trying to stop her from becoming a littler, pinker me?”

Kurenai leans forward, mouth hidden behind steepled fingers so all Kakashi can see are her piercing scarlet eyes; “Are you avoiding training Sakura because you’re not suited to it, or because she looks like Rin?”

Kakashi goes completely still.

Anko’s jaw drops open into a grin, eyes wide and darting between Kurenai and Kakashi as she laughs, “Oh ho ho DAMN, right for the gut huh?! You do not fuck around, Yuhi!”

Kurenai keeps going like Anko didn’t even say anything; “It’s not really your fault that you ended up with your late teacher’s son, the last Uchiha, and a girl who looks too much like Rin. It is your fault that you’re avoiding Naruto and Sakura in favor of doting on Sasuke, especially when they need just as much help and guidance as he does. Kakashi, it’s this simple– They are children. You’re an adult. Naruto doesn’t have anyone else and Sakura only has her mother. They need you.”

Saying Kakashi is staring at Kurenai doesn’t feel quite right. It’s more like he’s staring past her, or through her. Anko winces– with all these low blows she sincerely hopes Asuma knows how not to make Kurenai mad at this point.

Kurenai’s face softens as she sighs; “Honestly I wouldn’t be opposed to helping Sakura. But I’m not going to enable you. I’ll only train her if you train her as well. I can lessen your load, I won’t take the whole thing.”

Anko nods, leaning back to prop her feet up on the table; “Yeah like, if you can do that I’ll try to keep an eye on Sakura and talk to her every now and again, but I’m not a counselor, I’m not a teacher, and on top of that Lord Hokage wants me planning countermeasures for if our uninvited guest decides to make trouble. Your girl is your responsibility, Kakashi.”

Kakashi finally moves, nodding ever so slightly– for himself, not for them.

He meets their eyes; “That can work.”

The hospital discharges Sakura the morning after the preliminaries, and Sasuke finds himself wishing she could stay just a little bit longer. That wish stems almost entirely from the absolute misery that is Lee waking up and being given the news.

Sasuke doesn’t see it firsthand because he doesn’t need to– There’s suddenly a commotion from several rooms down the hall, a sound like shouting and things being knocked over, Hakumei is suddenly called away from giving Sasuke his physical therapy itinerary because “The boy needs to be restrained” and she runs like the devil to get there, he hears voices rising– Lee’s, Gai’s, every orderly and nurse brought into the room– before suddenly cutting off. Even when things calm down Hakumei doesn’t come back. Sasuke creeps out of his room, as stealthy as he can be while bound to a crutch, and walks until he comes to a stop outside Lee’s still-open door.

Lee’s face is pressed into Gai’s shoulder as he shakes with sobs, one intact arm wrapped around him and hand grasping his flak jacket tight enough he might tear it. Gai has him in an embrace that’s tight, but Sasuke imagines it would be tighter if Lee was in better shape, weeping as quietly as he can into his student’s hair. Hakumei is standing off to the side, hands in her white coat’s pockets, staring past the two of them out the window with a bone-deep weariness in everything from the set of her shoulders to the the way her head droops every so slightly.

Sasuke’s not sure why, but he’s suddenly turning as fast as he can and racing away, not just back to his room but all the way down the stairs and out to the hospital garden in the open space in the middle of the building. And then he just… wanders. He hobbles along the paths, looking at the trees, thinking about how warm it is outside even for early July, trying to identify the birds by call, before he finds himself beside the hospital pond.

He’s not alone out here.

Hinata is sitting on one of the benches nearby, all prim and proper posture that comes with good breeding despite the fact that she’s connected to an IV drip and is crying. She somehow manages to do that aristocratically too, keeping her sobs restrained to tiny, uneven breaths and hiccups while her tears run down her cheeks in even lines.

Sasuke hasn’t held a conversation longer than “May I borrow a pencil please” with Hinata since they were five years old, so he just stands there wondering if he should stay or go until she looks up and he’s pinned to the spot by her white eyes rimmed in red.

“D-did you hear,” she whispers, barely audible her voice is so weak, “W-what they told… What they said to Lee?”

Sasuke just nods as he comes over to Hinata and sits down on the bench beside her. As he settles down on the stone he quickly realizes Hinata’s not quite sobbing, more just trying to breathe when her condition demands she be wearing an oxygen mask. She probably stopped sobbing a while ago.

Hinata has a remarkable talent for talking just as Sasuke’s wondering what he should say, murmuring, “It’s just… Lee worked so hard. I-I remember seeing him on the training grounds until dark, even though… No matter what any of the other kids said about him he never gave up, a-and Gai was always supporting him, a-and he was trying so hard and–!”

She has to stop, taking deep, rapid breaths as she clutches at her chest. Sasuke’s Sharingan springs to life on instinct as he tenses up– with a frown and a shake of his head he blinks it away. It’s not the Byakugan, he can’t see through her chest to see if she’s in danger of having another heart attack. He can’t do anything for her except watch.

Hinata’s breathing calms down, though it still catches and stutters, and when she looks to him her eyes are full of tears again; “It’s not fair.”

Sasuke likes to think he’s become something of an expert on unfair circumstances, so when he says, “Yeah, it’s not,” he imagines that carries some weight.

Hinata nods again, and the two of them sit in silence for a while, watching the koi in the pond swim around and around in lazy circles.

Then Hinata suddenly blurts out, “I’m sorry about your family.”

For a good minute all Sasuke can do is stare at her, wide eyed, brows furrowed, jaw hanging slightly open.

Just as he’s about to ask her where that came from, she answers his question; “We stopped talking in the Academy, a-and then the… the incident happened and you stopped talking to anyone a-and there was just never a good time to say it but I always… I’m so sorry. Your mom was nice. Ita– Your b– … Your mom was so nice.”

Sasuke’s not sure what to say.

So he opens his mouth and says the first thing that comes to mind; “Thanks… I’m sorry about your family, too.”

Hinata is quiet. Sasuke has half a second to think she took that as an insult before she smiles ever so slightly.

Things progress with quite a bit less drama from there on out. The first two weeks of Sasuke’s stay fall into a fairly regular routine of Mystical Palm treatments, physical therapy that makes him regret ever calling Kakashi a hardass when it came to training, and bumming around the hospital garden because he’s still in no shape to walk all the way to his apartment and back every day.

Sasuke thinks that seems like a good challenge and way to rehabilitate his body without getting too wild with it, but Hakumei thinks he’s a “stupid little punk who got himself in this mess and still thinks he knows better than the trained medical professionals” so he doesn’t push it. Much. It’s not long before the only three genin left over from the chunin exams still in the hospital are Sasuke, Hinata, and Lee, and the three of them end up seeing quite a lot of each other.

For Hinata and Sasuke, it’s generally pleasant. They tend to end up in the cafeteria at the same time and take their lunches together or find each other while both meandering around the garden and turn their separate walks into one, making understated conversation. Between Hinata’s shyness and Sasuke’s ungraceful way with words that’s really the best they can do. But they improve with their conditions. Hinata gains the strength and the comfort to talk about how things have changed in the Hyuuga household since Sasuke stopped being dragged there to fritter the time away while their fathers talked. Sasuke relaxes and tells her about the missions he's taken with Team 7, both mundane and exceptional.

Out of necessity Sasuke has become very good at identifying crushes– one day he asks Hinata why she doesn’t fawn over and invade Naruto’s personal space like the academy girls always did for him, and she turns the same color as the tomato Sasuke’s eating before forgetting how to speak entirely. It’s the funniest thing Sasuke’s seen in years.

Sasuke’s run-ins with Lee are decidedly less pleasant. For the first week, any time Sasuke sees Lee it’s generally in glimpses taken while passing his room. He seems to barely move unless he is physically moved, preferring to stare either out the window or at the wall with a blank, defeated look on his face. Sasuke hates it. He hates seeing Lee, bundle of obnoxious energy and passion, completely drained of both. It shouldn’t even be possible.

But it somehow gets worse, because the next week Lee transitions from “depression” to “angry denial”.

Lee attacks his physical therapy like a man possessed, which Sasuke has a front row seat to since their appointments are at the same time in the same area of the hospital. Lee pushes himself far harder than even his therapist recommends and tries to argue for more time, more intense therapy, more more more. And when they won’t give him more he starts taking matters into his own hands, trying to train on his own time, sneaking out of his room and being found collapsed somewhere else in the hospital.

“It’s almost impressive how far he gets sometimes,” Hakumei grumbles over her paperwork one night as Sasuke joins her in the on-call room (he rarely sleeps all the way through the night and eventually she just puts him to work helping her take down patient notes instead of letting him wander the halls like a ghost), “But I swear, the kid’s gonna end up killing himself if he keeps on like this. He refuses to engage when the counselor meets with him, he doesn’t even listen when his teacher visits and tries to talk some sense into him… I have no goddamn idea what to do with this kid.”

Sasuke, being a preteen boy with a history of dealing poorly with injury himself, doesn’t imagine he can give much in the way of valuable advice. He simply nods as he copies Hakumei’s notes down in his impeccable (the words of many an academy teacher, not him) handwriting.

Things come to a head at the end of Sasuke’s second week when he’s taking a walk with Hinata through the hospital garden. As they’re coming out towards the pond Sasuke’s the first to hear him, Lee’s voice straining around his attempts to count whatever exercise it is he’s trying to do, and Sasuke for a second can only be impressed with the fact he’s gotten to a hundred and eighty nine of them. But then Hinata is gasping and running as best she can despite her trouble breathing and Sasuke is swearing and hobbling along behind her.

Lee is a pathetic sight. Sasuke’s not one for kind words already and even he can’t think of anything nicer to say as Lee struggles to complete a pushup on one set of broken toes with an arm in a sling. His face is ashen and soaked in sweat as his body shudders all over, quite obviously biting the inside of his cheek to try and work through the no doubt immense amount of pain he’s in.

And on top of all that he’s muttering to himself like a madman; “Two hundred pushups, that was the deal! If you cannot finish them it is one hundred leg squats, so come on! Here we go! One hundred ninety–!”

Hinata steps closer, hands folded over her chest as she tries to talk around her labored breathing; “L-lee, you shouldn’t be out here! Y-you have– You have to stop, why are you–?!”

Lee carries on, pointedly ignoring Hinata; “One hundred… ninety one…!”

Sasuke frowns and lets out a frustrated grunt before walking up beside Hinata; “Lee, come on, knock it off.”

“P-please, Lee, we– We’re all worried about you,” Hinata reaches out to touch Lee’s shoulder, to try and draw his attention to them.

She gets his attention alright. Lee’s head whips around to meet Hinata’s eyes as he snaps, “Keep away from me! Please! Got to… finish my training…”

There’s tears in Hinata’s eyes as Lee struggles through several more pushups, groaning out once again to himself as if Hinata and Sasuke didn’t even exist, “Do not count me out… I am not through yet…!”

Sasuke shuts his eyes tight and growls through gritted teeth, “Hinata. Go get a nurse.”

She looks up to him, eyes wide and hands shaking; “A-are you sure? I-I–!”

The Sharingan turns on by itself as Sasuke meets her eyes, gaze intense; “Just go already.”

Hinata doesn’t need much more convincing. She runs as fast as her damaged organs can take her back up the way they came.

Sasuke’s not quite proud of what he does next. He uses his crutch to flip Lee onto his back– stopping his movement without hurting his already ruined arm and leg, yes, but not the most dignified way to do it. Lee flails like an overturned turtle and Sasuke has to step on Lee’s stomach with his good leg to make sure he doesn’t move too much. He thinks, distantly, that from the outside this whole situation probably looks ridiculous.

Lee shouting from the ground brings Sasuke back into the moment; “Get off of me! Let me go!

Sasuke, through gritted teeth, retorts, “Not gonna happen– You've screwed yourself up enough for one day.”

Lee glares up at him, eyes burning with so much anger Sasuke almost doesn’t recognize them; “What makes you think you know better?! You are going to recover one day! You get to keep being a ninja! You have no right to talk down to me!”

“I’m trying to keep you from dying, dumbass,” Sasuke shoots back, trying and mostly failing to keep his temper in check, “I get how you’re feeling–“

Wrong choice of words.

Lee grabs at Sasuke’s calf and tries to wrench him off, bitter tears spilling from his eyes as he snarls, “No you do not! There is no way you ever could! You are an Uchiha, a genius, born with every advantage! You do not know what it is like to have nothing!”

Something in Sasuke snaps.

He throws his crutch to the ground, grabs Lee by the front of his hospital-issue shirt as he falls to one knee, and yells in his face, “THE HELL I DON’T! I USED TO HAVE PARENTS!

That gets Lee to freeze, but Sasuke wants to keep yelling, so he does; “Don’t you dare tell me I don’t know how it feels to lose the most important thing in your life! It’s like having your guts torn out and thrown into a river! It hurts and it hurts and it never stops hurting! Even if I kill Itachi, even if I avenge the clan and restore it, I don’t… I don’t think it’ll ever stop…”

Sasuke almost forgets Lee is there. He’s never said this out loud. It’s been skirting around in the depths of his mind, gnawing at him whenever he thinks about Itachi and vengeance and everything that’s been keeping him going, but now that his own strength has been judged and found wanting it’s too hard to ignore. Itachi needs to die. He knows he does. The Uchiha need to flourish again. He’s certain they do. But the hole in his heart is too wide, too deep, too empty; he’s not sure anything in the world can fill it.

Sasuke’s eyes burn and his throat aches and he hates that he’s crying in front of Lee, but Lee still has tear tracks on his face, so he considers them even.

“And… even if it never stops,” Sasuke sighs, letting Lee go and sitting down heavily in the dirt, “You can’t go making it worse. It’s just stupid.”

Lee is silent for a long time before he asks, “Your clan… Do you miss them?”

Sasuke, to his own surprise, laughs; “All the time. Even though I was there and I saw it happen it… sometimes doesn’t feel real, you know? Like I’ll catch myself walking towards the Uchiha District instead of my apartment when I’m going home, or I have dreams where they’re all still alive then wake up and for a few minutes think ‘ah shit I overslept, Dad’s gonna kill me’ before I remember it wasn’t real or…”

Sasuke leans back on his good arm; “You wanna know the most fucked up thing that happens? I sometimes miss Itachi. I’ll forget for a second that he’s the reason this all happened and I just miss my brother, and when I remember, it just… Do you remember how it felt when Gaara crushed your arm and leg? It feels like that. Every single time.”

Lee scooches over to sit next to Sasuke and says in a soft voice, “My parents died when the Nine Tails attacked. I knew nothing about them, except that they were Shinobi. When I started, I simply wanted to know why they decided to live and die the way they did, I wanted to understand…” Lee starts to well up again, “And I do. It is more than fighting. It is pride, in our village and in ourselves. Yes, we may not always do what is right, but we are always protecting those we love, and there is something noble in that… I cannot imagine a life where I do not do that anymore.”

Sasuke smirks, cuffing Lee on the uninjured shoulder; “You’re too good to be true, you know that?”

Lee grins; “I suppose I am, because there is another reason– I have too many unfinished fights.”

Sasuke just laughs as he spots Hinata coming back up the path with a nurse in tow; “Knew there was a catch.”

Despite the short courses over a long period of time, the Mystical Palm Jutsu is still so potent that Sasuke is (apparently) recovering twice as fast as it would take him to with only mundane medicine. By the end of his second week he’s able to use his formerly bad arm for most normal activity, though his shoulder doesn’t quite agree with his secret arm-wrestling matches with Lee so Sasuke imagines it will still be a good few weeks before he can use it for combat. Hakumei also clears him to start putting some weight on his bad leg, but only while wearing a brace, and never for very long.

“Might as well say right now, get used to the brace,” Hakumei says as she fits it on him, “You’ll probably need a less intense one to manage pain even when you’re well enough to jump through trees.”

Sasuke’s been coming to terms with the permanence of his injury– seeing Lee’s predicament firsthand is very good for developing perspective. Still, the concept of needing a brace forever makes Sasuke go quiet and do a lot of staring into space for the rest of that day. He’s so caught up in his own thoughts he doesn’t catch his stare getting so intense that the Sharingan turns on as he’s getting another round of Mystical Palm treatments.

It occurs to Sasuke later that day as he’s doing his daily bit of wandering through the hospital gardens that he probably copied the Mystical Palm Jutsu. He wonders if Hakumei is right about even his Sharingan needing a couple chances to get it right, and as fate would have it he comes across a bird lying on the ground, wing broken.

Sasuke’s Sharingan spins to life and his hand glows with a light blue-green chakra as he gently presses it to the broken wing. The bird instantly dies from a heart-attack. Once Sasuke stops staring down at it, eyes wide in shock, he checks the wing and finds it had started knitting itself back together.

Not perfect, but promising.

Over that weekend Sasuke starts experimenting with the Mystical Palm Jutsu, falling into a rhythm– cover his Sharingan with a genjutsu during the day’s course of treatment, then at the end of the day in his room fish a kunai out of his gear in the wardrobe and practice by giving himself small puncture wounds and trying to heal them.

He’s aware of the irresponsibility of this tactic, if anyone finds out he’ll probably be considered a suicide risk and lose all his gear for good, but he’s not going to find birds with broken wings every day and he’s not stupid enough to experiment on his knee or his fellow genin, so this is the best option. It doesn’t take him long before he can heal a small pinprick without a scar, but longer cuts come out only half-healed or stay open. Sasuke quickly learns that getting frustrated and trying to force the wounds shut tends to result in his heart rate spiking and the cut just oozing more blood. He starts wearing his arm guards again and if anyone notices they don’t say anything.

That Monday, for the first time since he was admitted, Kakashi stops by. Sasuke hides his urge to ask Kakashi why he’s been ignoring him by instead incessantly asking about Sakura’s training and their plan against Gaara. Kakashi deflects his questions in his typical way, with vague answers and lame changes of subject, and Sasuke finds himself wolfing down stale hospital omusubi while glaring across the cafeteria table at him while he’s no doubt smirking under his mask.

And Sasuke chokes on that omusubi when Kakashi remarks, “You know, there’s better ways to practice the chakra control you need for Mystical Palm Jutsu than making yourself look like you have a drug problem.”

Once he’s done coughing up the rice, Sasuke sputters, “How–?!”

“Hakumei,” Kakashi replies, definitely smirking now, “You really should know better than to think you can hide anything from a Hyuuga. You’re just lucky she came to me before putting you on Suicide Watch just to teach you a lesson.”

Sasuke stares at him, eyes wide; “She wouldn’t.”

Kakashi just keeps smirking; “She absolutely would. She’s a brilliant doctor but she’s worse with kids than I am.”

Sasuke’s first urge is to tell Kakashi he’s not that bad, but he swallows it and instead asks, “Well do you have any better ideas? Believe it or not I don’t like experimenting on myself.”

Kakashi leans closer, resting his cheek on his hand, and asks, “How would you like to learn how to use the Lightning Blade?”

Sasuke would like it to be officially known that his jaw absolutely did not drop.

Kakashi’s eye crinkles at the corner; “It’ll help with your chakra control, but it can get a bit messy. Sakura’s busy these days, but we’ll see if she can give you any advice. I’m training her every other day, so I can get you out of here on the days I’m not training her. This all sound good?”

Yes,” Sasuke forcefully replies before catching himself and making himself lean back, “I mean… You sure you’re gonna have time to train Naruto if you start training me?”

Kakashi lets out a sort of surprised laugh before he answers; “Well, I had intended to start training Naruto right about now after sending him off with someone to help him fix up his fundamentals, but he somehow managed to stumble into someone who’ll teach him better than I ever could, so here I am.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes– his mile-wide competitive streak wants to ask about Naruto’s new teacher, but he gets the feeling Kakashi’s going to get very vague if he asks, so he keeps it to himself and listens with rapt attention as Kakashi lays out how this new schedule is going to work. Sasuke privately admits to himself that while the Chidori is tantalizing in its power and spectacle, he’s mostly itching to get out of the hospital. He was starting to develop Cabin Fever, and the “track marks” on his arm were just his most obvious symptom. Hakumei signs off on the plan when they bring it to her, citing that Sasuke was starting to get “squirrelly” as reason enough to let him go.

The training ground Kakashi brings him to when they start is a lot closer to the hospital than Sasuke expected it to be. It makes sense– if there’s an accident in training the hospital’s where you want to go first– but he does feel a bit condescended to considering he’s getting better at walking further and further on his crutch and can put slightly more weight on his injured leg every day. When he brings this up Kakashi dares Sasuke to run from one end of the training ground to another. Sasuke blanches and Kakashi laughs.

“Yeah, there’s a reason we’re starting out just holding the Chidori,” Kakashi says, coming in and quickly ruffling his hair before Sasuke can push him away, “It’s going to take you a while longer before you’re up to running with it.”

One of the first things that Sasuke thinks of as he and Kakashi get to work is that chakra natures should’ve been covered in the academy. The second is that trying to make and hold pure lightning is perhaps a better education in the exact flaws of his chakra control and the limits of his Sharingan than trying to heal the broken wings of birds– his control is imprecise, and to push so much power into one place and keep it there, precision is a must. Sasuke starts out essentially creating small lightning bombs that leave minor burns on his palm the second after they explode, but Kakashi tells him it's a fairly good start and Sasuke does an alright job using his other hand to heal the charred skin.

Kakashi trains him every other day from sunrise to sundown, at which point he takes Sasuke to a random restaurant in walking distance for dinner because he remembers all his stints in the hospital and he’s not going to let Sasuke’s taste buds atrophy from eating that food all the time. Sasuke probably enjoys that part the most. At least he does until a rogue element tips the scales in favor of the training itself– Sakura starts showing up.

When she first pops up at the training ground Sasuke’s just stunned to see her again, not just because he didn’t expect it but because she looks quite a bit different. She did clean up her new hairstyle a bit, but that mostly just comes from brushing it– it’s still as short in the back and long in the front as before– and has taken to wearing a long-sleeved black shirt made of breathable but strong material under her usual dress to cover up the mark as well as black gloves that almost match Kakashi’s. There’s some new but healing scars on her calves, and whenever she shows up she generally has a small bandage or two on her face, but when she does she’s positively glowing.

She’s never there for particularly long– Her genjutsu training with Kurenai has progressed to Sakura having to spend whole days keeping Kurenai from catching her by throwing her off her trail with techniques she’s learned, so she’ll come too close to Sakura’s liking and she’ll have to sprint off. But while she’s there she’s pure encouragement, cheering Sasuke on and giving him advice on chakra control that’s a bit more academic than Kakashi’s. Sasuke imagines once she’s a Jonin any genin would be lucky to have her because her advice alongside Kakashi’s helps him move quite a bit faster than he thought he would, going up from creating tiny explosions to being able to hold the Chidori for a minute.

When they have a second, Sasuke tries to ask Sakura what her strategy against Gaara’s going to be. Her eyes light up and she almost tells him before she catches herself and grins at him instead.

“Sorry, but I’m gonna have to keep that a secret for now,” she says, almost apologetic, “I want it to be a surprise for everyone.”

Sasuke doesn’t push it, but he doesn’t hide his frown as he gets back to training– he's always hated surprises.

Sasuke’s off days at the hospital aren’t too different than they used to be, except that Naruto is visiting quite a bit more often. Every few days he would pop in to see how Sasuke is doing, but now Sasuke can count on him to be there any day he’s not training with Kakashi after sundown, because apparently Naruto needs someone to vent to. The sum total of his visits tends to be them sitting in the cafeteria, Sasuke eating and Naruto rambling about how his training is going nowhere and the pervy sage isn’t teaching him shit and he’s probably just tricking him with this whole toad summoning business and who needs chakra control anyway he’s been getting on just fine without it and damn this hospital makes crappy ramen so Sasuke had better get better soon so he can do this at Ichiraku not the hospital.

Naruto’s ramblings make very little sense, especially the parts where he talks about a perverted sage teaching him to control his chakra by summoning frogs. Sasuke at first privately assumes Naruto is lying. Then he publically assumes Naruto is lying and they have to be thrown into the hall because there’s no fighting in the cafeteria.

It’s nine days before the final exam when Team 7 finally gets together for the first time since the preliminaries. Naruto has just come into the lobby and Sasuke meets him there because he can track Naruto like clockwork when the door opens on Naruto’s heels, Kakashi and Sakura walking through it, Sakura with some fresh bandages on her face as well as a brilliant smile and Kakashi’s headband not quite covering his Sharingan as much as it usually does.

Sasuke blinks in surprise and is about to ask why they’re here when Naruto shouts over him; “Kakashi-sensei! Sakura! It’s been forever, what are you doing here?”

Sakura rolls her eyes; “It’s been three weeks, Naruto, calm down.”

Kakashi, surprisingly, is the one to actually answer a question straight out; “Sakura’s been doing so well in her training that we finished up early today, so we thought we’d find the two of you and treat you to dinner. Like you said, it’s been forever.”

Sakura and Kakashi spare a private, mirthful glance as Naruto’s excitement ratchets up another notch and he starts begging that they go to Ichiraku, and Sasuke is sure they’re up to something. It’s probably not anything bad, but Sasuke hates surprises.

Nevertheless, he shrugs; “It’s not like we had anything better to do.”

Kakashi tells the three of them to get a head start since he has something to take care of here, and as the three of them make their way out Sasuke looks over his shoulder to see Kakashi start talking to one of the receptionists in hushed tones. Also suspicious.

Naruto and Sakura chatter across Sasuke as their walk on either side of him to Ichiraku– if they’re bothered by having to walk slower to keep up with him, they don’t say so, though Sakura does check in with him every couple minutes to see if he’s alright. It’s annoying, but it’s proof she hasn’t changed too much, so he only minds it a little bit. Sasuke expected Kakashi to surreptitiously meet them there via jumping across rooftops, but to his surprise he actually catches up with them and walks the rest of the way at street level, easily joining Naruto and Sakura's conversation. Sasuke’s content just making the occasional comment; like Naruto said, it’s been forever.

It’s also been forever since Sasuke had ramen, and he thankfully remembers he likes Tonkatsu ramen just in time before Naruto tries to order for him and make it the nastiest thing Teuchi and Ayame can whip up. It’s a lot easier for Sasuke to stay quiet and listen when he has the excuse of his mouth being full of noodles.

“So Sakura, you gotta tell me,” Naruto says across Kakashi, “What’s the big strategy for taking out Gaara? Are you gonna use more cool genjutsu? That one you used against Ino was sweet, do you think he’d fall for it?”

Apparently Kakashi had been training Sakura in how to answer questions without actually answering them; “I have been learning more genjutsu, but my training’s been pretty broad. Kakashi-sensei’s been drilling me in ninjutsu and taijutsu too, and he’s an absolute slave driver.”

Kakashi just grins; “Sunup to sundown, every other day.”

Naruto frowns, bouncing his leg as he asks, “Yeah yeah but… What are you gonna do? Lee went in hard with taijutsu and that didn’t work, and that sand can block almost anything so who knows about ninjutsu, are you sure you’re ready for this Sakura?”

Sakura frowns and shuts her eyes as she replies, “Naruto, I’ve been training every day, and I have nine more days. I’m going to be fine.”

Naruto grimaces; “I mean, I guess, but I saw what happened to Lee, and–“

Sakura’s jaw clenches tight and she cuts Naruto off; “So what’s your strategy against Neji? I heard he did a number on Hinata, how are you going to deal with that?

Naruto is immediately on the defensive; “Oh, uh, well, I-I’ve got that all figured out! Yeah, it’s all covered! Been plannin’ since day one and ironing out the kinks and uuuhhhh I think I’ve got it all situated! Yeah! Neji won’t know what hit him, believe it!”

Sakura smiles over at him, sickly sweet; “Really! Then you won’t mind telling me what it is?”

Naruto starts to sweat, and not from the heat of his ramen; “Right, right! Right… Well that’s… uh… it’s, uh, uuuhhhhhhhhh a surprise! Yep! A big surprise! Just watch closely during the match and I’ll blow your socks right off!”

Sakura just laughs as she pins her bangs back and takes a long slurp of ramen noodles; Sasuke also finds himself chuckling, just a little bit. Naruto manages to sheepishly scarf his whole bowl down before ordering seconds.

Kakashi leans down to stage-whisper to Sakura, “I think now’s as good a time as any to give it to him.”

Sakura perks up and nods enthusiastically; “Oh yeah, right! Do you have it?”

Kakashi just fishes around in his vest before handing Sakura a long (over eight inches if Sasuke had to guess) box wrapped in blue and red paper. She spins on her seat and holds it out to Sasuke, grin wide and cheeks rosy.

“Happy Birthday, Sasuke!” she chirps.

It takes Sasuke a couple seconds to process it. Is it his birthday? He looks to the calendar on the Ichiraku kitchen wall: July 23rd. Shit, it is. When was the last time he got a birthday gift? It had to be before–

Naruto shouting breaks Sasuke out of his reverie; “WHAT?! SASUKE IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY AND YOU DIDN’T EVEN TELL ME?! Aw man and Sakura got you a present– I don’t have anything!”

Sasuke takes the box out of Sakura’s hands, holding it gingerly like it’s made of glass; “I… I forgot all about it.”

Naruto’s voice of course finds a way to be even louder; “YOU FORGOT YOUR OWN BIRTHDAY?!

Kakashi takes that moment to slide some papers down the bar to Sasuke; “Since we’re doing this, you can have my gift too.”

Sasuke sets the box down carefully next to his ramen and picks up the papers. His brow furrows; these are hospital discharge papers– oh. There’s his name, right at the top. He rifles hurriedly through them– he’ll have to come back once a month for a couple more months for checkups and there’s a list of exercises he’s to do on his own to keep up his physical therapy, but for all intents and purposes he’s out.

Sasuke looks up just in time to see Kakashi smiling with his eye; “You’re a free man now, Sasuke.”

Teuchi smiles a warm, grandfatherly smile as he says, “Well, if it’s your birthday Sasuke, then your orders are on the house, all you can eat! Though that’s probably happier news for your sensei than you.”

“I’m suddenly wishing it was Naruto’s birthday,” Kakashi mutters, looking through his wallet.

Naruto lets out a frustrated yell; “Damn it, you guys did that just to show me up! Well just you watch, I’m gonna get Sasuke a late birthday gift and it’s gonna be way better than yours, believe it!

Sasuke feels warm. He hasn’t felt this warm in a very long time.

There’s a lot he wants to say, but all that comes out is, “Thank you.”

Sasuke doesn’t have Naruto’s bottomless pit of a stomach so he only eats the one bowl of ramen, but Ayame gives him some free daifuku for dessert. Sasuke would usually just give them all to Sakura, but he finds himself eating half of one while staring back at Ayame’s expectant smile. Sakura has to go home before her mom starts to worry so she breaks off from them early, waving until she’s out of sight. Kakashi and Naruto walk Sasuke home– Kakashi jokes about Naruto and Sasuke having a sleepover, but Naruto wrinkles his nose at that and makes some untrue remarks about Sasuke’s grooming and laundry habits. Sasuke's not in too much of a daze to shoot back that he doesn't want Naruto stinking up his apartment either.

As they leave him at his door, Naruto calls over his shoulder, “Remember jackass, I’m definitely getting you a birthday present, whether you want one or not! Believe it!”

Sasuke waits until he’s all the way inside and sitting on his bed to unwrap Sakura’s present, and even then he takes a moment to just admire the wrapping paper. He looks for where she’s taped it at the seams and carefully undoes the tape, trying to tear as little as possible, but that’s how he always opens presents. He places the wrapping paper on his nightstand and takes the lid off the box.

Inside is an absolutely beautiful tantō knife in a deep blue wooden sheathe with a samegawa-wrapped hilt. Sasuke takes it in his hands like it’s a newborn baby bird and carefully draws it– the blade is sharpened to a razor edge and shines in the moonlight, with a notare hamon sweeping gracefully along the bladed edge. And as if this blade wasn’t perfect enough, he turns to look at the base of the pommel and he sees the Uchiha crest emblazoned in it.

It’s only now that Sasuke notices the note sitting beneath where the knife had been in the box, written in Sakura’s crisp handwriting on a small piece of card stock. Sasuke carefully, reverently sets the tantō down beside him and picks up the note.


I’ve hopefully said this before by the time you read this but, Happy Birthday! I wasn’t sure what to get you since you don’t really have hobbies you talk about, so I got you something you can use. I can’t imagine you’ve had many good birthdays in the past seven years– and I’m sorry if that just dredged up bad memories, oops. Nevertheless, I wanted to make this birthday a good one for you, and I hope I can make all the ones to come good too.

Love, Sakura

Sasuke reads the note over and over again for a good two minutes.

Then he sets one hand on his injured knee, and soft cyan chakra glows brief and bright from his palm. Sasuke knows one thing for certain– He wants to get back out on the field. He wants to go back to doing missions again, even if they’re just D-ranks pulling weeds and rescuing lost cats.

Like Naruto said– It's been forever. And forever is too long.

Chapter Text

vii. It’s during her third week of training when Sakura speaks to Gaara for the first time.

Usually after a long day of training with Kakashi or Kurenai she drags herself home, shoves her face full of food so she won’t have to answer her mother’s questions about her training, pulls her carcass up the stairs and passes out the second she touches her bed. She thought nothing short of her house catching fire could wake her before dawn. A conspicuous thump on her roof proves her wrong.

Sakura is up and out of her bed before she can convince herself it’s none of her business, suddenly glad she fell asleep in her gear as she grabs a kunai on instinct. Her time with Kurenai shows its efficacy as she comes up to her balcony and quickly casts two genjutsu– one to mask the sound of her sliding glass door she opens it, another to make her “invisible” by reflecting the her surroundings over her body (she’s learned that it’s not much help if she moves too quickly).

Just as she starts creeping out her door and starts tracing the perimeter of her balcony counterclockwise, her visitor drops down right in the middle of it. And Sakura has to bite her own tongue to keep from gasping, because Gaara of the Desert is crouching in the middle of her balcony.

He doesn’t appear to have seen her, but as he slowly brings himself up to stand at his full height his dark-ringed eyes slowly scan back and forth from one end of Sakura’s room to another. There’s only one reason he’s here– He’s looking for her. And if he doesn’t find her…

A jolt of cold fear lances up Sakura’s spine. She suddenly remembers the day she came home from the hospital in stark clarity– her mom had hugged her so tight it hurt when she came through the door since Kakashi had told her just enough to worry her, and Sakura had lied to her for the first time in her life about exactly what had happened while her mom had nervously futzed with her dull pink, nearly brown hair. Sakura had caught up on her chores and the neighborhood gossip, she’d helped her mother cook dinner, they’d watched an old favorite movie that made them laugh so hard they cried, Sakura had fallen asleep on the couch and woken up tucked in bed.

Gaara starts to carefully move towards her door. Sakura doesn’t even think as she darts around to block his path.

Sakura releases the genjutsu, melting back into full view and staring him down; “It’s rude to go into a girl’s room without asking.”

Gaara blinks rapidly, probably the only sign Sakura was going to get that she surprised him; “… Are you really that arrogant? You could’ve lived if you’d stayed hidden.”

Sakura shrugs; “Yeah, I could’ve. But then you would’ve gone downstairs looking for me and found my mom. I’m not going to risk you hurting her.”

Sakura imagines if Gaara had eyebrows they’d be furrowing right now; “Why does she matter? You’re the one in striking range.”

As if to prove that point, sand comes creeping out of Gaara’s gourd in a slow stream, twisting onto the ground and around Sakura’s feet. She stands her ground despite the block of ice that flash-freezes in her stomach, mind playing all her imaginings of how Lee’s battle with Gaara had gone so disastrously wrong she’d cooked up as Kakashi had told her the risks ahead. If she couldn’t face it now, she’d never face it during the exam, and then she’d be dead for certain.

Assuming he doesn’t just kill her right here.

Sakura cocks her head to the side like this is any other boy in her life asking her a stupid question; “She matters because she’s my mother and I love her? I’ll bet you don’t have friends, but you probably have family– You have to understand that much.”

His face twists into a scowl as he quite plainly says, “No, I don’t. I don’t understand any of you people… You least of all.”

He retracts the sand and stalks closer to her, Sakura taking a step back for every one he takes forward until she’s back across the threshold of her sliding glass door and he’s just on the other side. Sakura could slam it in his face, but any sudden moves feel like they could provoke him. It’s like dealing with a frightened horse. Gaara almost mirrors her in how he cocks his head to the side, eyes moving from her feet to her hair as he studies her. He leans in closer and she leans away.

“What… are you?” he finally asks.

The question is so completely out of left field that Sakura can’t help a startled chuckle, but that makes Gaara lean back and blink rapidly again so she quickly stifles it.

“Uh… I’m a person? A shinobi? A kunoichi? I really don’t know what answer you’re looking for,” Sakura replies.

Gaara shakes his head, eyes narrow now; “You are… nothing. No clan, no tailed beast, no handicap. You live in a civilian house, in a civilian neighborhood. You should be nothing. But you made it this far, so you can’t be. So. What are you?”

Sakura just stares at him, jaw hanging open. If this was any other boy (except maybe Sasuke) she’d already be shouting at him, punching him so hard he flew off her balcony, but since this is Gaara she can only stare.

Let him know exactly who you are, Sweetie.

The voice barely needs to convince her.

Sakura squares her shoulders and looks Gaara in the eye; “I’m everything you said. My mom’s family is civilian– sometimes ninja pop up, my aunt was one, my great-grandma was one, but most of the time they’re just civilians. So is my dad’s, but I’m not the best person to ask about him. I’m clanless, nobody sealed a tailed beast in me, and I’m pretty capable of doing most things a shinobi should be able to do. I’m also top of my graduating class in the Academy, a member of Team 7, Tsubaki Haruno’s daughter, and a ninja loyal to my village. That’s what I am. And I’m going to be a lot more.”

Gaara stares at her for a minute or two before sneering and turning away, stalking towards the edge of her balcony; “Disappointing. Killing you will barely be worth the trouble. It will prove nothing.”

Sakura takes a step back over the threshold of her door, teeth grit, eyes slit into a glare; “I’m not going to roll over and die, Gaara! I’m going to beat you!”

Gaara spares her one last look over his shoulder, ice blue eyes paralyzing in their gaze; “You will try.”

He disappears in a rush of sand.

It’s the day before the final exam when Sasuke speaks to Gaara for the first time.

Sasuke’s at the hospital to visit Lee, but thanks to the receptionists who have become very used to him he learns that Naruto was admitted three days prior. Apparently he’d been found beside the giant footprint right outside the hospital door, asleep with a doofy grin on his face, and hadn’t woken up since. He wasn’t comatose– They knew that for a fact because he had been snoring so loud people had been asking if there was construction happening in that wing.

Sasuke has to admit, privately, that maybe Naruto wasn’t lying about being trained to summon toads.

Sasuke comes into the room to find Shikamaru already at Naruto’s bedside, playing shogi against himself. For a couple seconds they just stare at each other.

Sasuke breaks the silence; “Hey.”

Shikamaru raises an eyebrow; “Hi.”

Sasuke nods towards Naruto; “How is he?”

Shikamaru shrugs; “Sleeping like a log.”

Sasuke nods again, pursing his lips; “Right…”

There’s another long silence before Shikamaru asks, “You play shogi?”

All the time against Itachi, which he always lost; “Not much these days.”

Shikamaru wags his head towards the board; “Wanna play?”

He does; “Not really.”

Shikamaru shrugs; “Alright, just as well, I’d probably beat you anyway–“

Sasuke is pulling up a chair and settling down across from Shikamaru with a scowl on his face; “Set up the damn board.”

Shikamaru smirks as he does; “No cheating, Sharingan Boy.”

They’re ten minutes deep into a game he’s losing when Sasuke notices it. The sand in the hourglass has stopped moving. Shikamaru notices it a fraction of a second later, and the two of them lock eyes across the board.

Sasuke knows– this can only be one person’s doing; “That’s weird.”

Shikamaru nods– if it is him, they need to tread carefully; “Maybe they just forgot to wind it.”

Naruto starts to stir and they go back to their game like nothing’s wrong– They don’t even need to talk around that problem. Naruto knowing and making a production out of everything would turn it from “potential disaster” into “actual disaster”, so they pretend like everything’s normal.

Naruto rolls over to look at them through bleary eyes and Shikamaru grins over at him; “Look who’s back in the world of the living.”

Sasuke grimaces; “There goes my quiet afternoon.”

Naruto rubs at his eyes, yawning, “Shikamaru? Sasuke? Where is this?”

“The hospital, dumbass,” Sasuke replies, shrugging, “You’ve been out for three days.”

Naruto’s eyes go wide and Sasuke’s squeeze shut. Wrong choice of words.

Naruto’s up and grabbing both of their collars as he shouts right into their ears; “ARE YOU SERIOUS THREE DAYS?! WHEN’S THE FINAL EXAM?!”

Shikamaru barely manages to choke out, “It’s tomorrow–!”


“Calm down, kid, get a grip!” Shikamaru snaps as he tries to wrench out of Naruto’s grip.

“He doesn’t know what the Hell you’re talking about Naruto,” Sasuke snaps, physically pulling Naruto off of him. Naruto turns to shout at him, but his eyes immediately catch where Sasuke has his tantō fastened at his hip and they switch from burning with anger to sparkling with awe.

“Holy crap Sasuke where did you get that?” Naruto asks, letting go of Shikamaru and crawling over to get a better look.

“I wanted to know about that too, now that you mention it,” Shikamaru remarks, leaning back in his chair, “Looks fancy– Is that an old Uchiha heirloom?”

Sasuke feels the smile on the very edge of his lips as he replies, “Actually, this was a birthday present from Sakura. I have no idea how she paid for it, but I’m not complaining.”

Naruto groans and throws his head back so hard he falls onto his back; “Of course she got you something super fancy! How the hell am I supposed to top that?!”

Shikamaru snorts; “Of course she got you a weapon. Do you have any hobbies?”

Sasuke frowns; “Why would I tell you about them?”

Naruto snickers; “I’ll bet they’re old man stuff like building ships in bottles or collecting stamps.”

Shikamaru just blinks at Naruto; “What’s so bad about those?”

Naruto cackles, “Oh my GOD you guys are secretly sixty years old! How did you get so boring?!

Sasuke’s smart remark is drowned out by Naruto’s stomach growling like an angry tiger, and Sasuke quickly changes gears; “Holy shit Naruto, is part of your training starving yourself?

“Screw you, I’ve been sleeping for three days! I can’t eat when I’m asleep!” Naruto shoots back, clutching his stomach self-consciously.

“Good thing I’m here,” Shikamaru says as he picks up a fruit basket from under the shogi table and sets it on Naruto’s bed, “I brought these for Choji, but the doctors say he can’t eat it so you might as well dig in.”

Sasuke turns to Shikamaru with a quirked eyebrow as Naruto immediately picks out an apple; “Why’s Choji here? Training accident?”

“He wishes,” Shikamaru replies, “Asuma’s been taking him out to barbecue after every day of training and all those short ribs caught up with him. It’s just indigestion– super bad indigestion, sure, but still indigestion.”

Sasuke shakes his head with a sigh; “Of course that’s it.”

He perks up as Naruto starts snickering beside them; “Hey, guys, I have a great idea– Let’s take this into Choji’s room and eat it in front of him!”

Shikamaru stares at Naruto blankly; “Naruto, that is needlessly cruel,” then he smirks, “I’m in.”

Sasuke shrugs; “Shogi was getting boring anyway.”

As Naruto finds his shoes Sasuke packs up the shogi board and makes sure to glance at the hourglass. It still hasn’t moved. He and Shikamaru exchange looks while Naruto’s back is turned. It’s a bad sign. But they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.

They come out into the hallway, Shikamaru leading the way to Choji, and Naruto folds his arms behind his head as he looks over at Sasuke; “You’re walkin’ a lot faster than you were back on your birthday. Do you even need that crutch anymore?”

Sasuke tenses for a hot second and has to talk himself down– Naruto doesn’t know about what you’ve been doing, even if he did he won’t tell anyone, calm the fuck down Sasuke you’re just making yourself look even more suspicious.

So he rolls his eyes and elbows Naruto in the ribs, shooting back, “Yeah, I need it to whack you if you keep being annoying. I’m not gonna have my knife’s first blood be yours.”

Naruto sticks his tongue out like they’re still in the academy; “Good luck hurting me with that, that wood doesn’t even look that heavy–“

“Girls girls you’re both pretty,” Shikamaru grouses from in front of them, “I’d really like to actually make it to Choji’s room and not get thrown out of the hospital.”

That gets Sasuke and Naruto to behave. For now.

They pass Sasuke’s old room and it dawns on him why he came here in the first place. He’s about to broach the subject of popping in to see Lee when they pass right by his door, and Sasuke gets a glimpse inside. Lee’s resting in bed and he has a visitor looming over him.

Sasuke has to bite his tongue to keep from swearing out loud, because that visitor is Gaara.

This time when Sasuke elbows Naruto in the side it’s enough to hurt him and Naruto almost yelps before Sasuke slaps his hand over his mouth and points insistently at the doorway. Naruto and Shikamaru follow his arm and both freeze, eyes going wide. Shikamaru immediately makes the standard Leaf shinobi hand signals for What’s the plan? Naruto insistently punches his own open palm– the standard Naruto hand signal for GO IN THERE AND BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF HIM.

Sasuke chews on his lip as he struggles to think of a plan, keeping an eye on Gaara from the corner of his eye– good news is Gaara hasn’t spotted them. Bad news is that Gaara is starting to clutch at his own head and hunch over and make pained noises so he needs to think of one fast.

Sasuke takes his hand off Naruto’s mouth and points to Shikamaru before going through the hand signs for Shadow Possession Jutsu then pointing to Gaara. He then points to himself and Naruto and uses both hands to mime them flanking him. Shikamaru looks to Naruto, who just shrugs, and once again makes the standard Naruto hand signal for Go in there and beat the shit out of him. Shikamaru rolls his eyes and nods to Sasuke, creeping forward on silent feet. Naruto and Sasuke wait on bated breath, eyes darting between Shikamaru as he tries to line himself up with Gaara’s back and Gaara as the noises he’s making become less pained more crazed.

The cork falls from Gaara’s gourd and sand starts spilling out, quickly reaching for Lee as Gaara thrusts one hand out, prepared to clench it into a cruel fist.

Sasuke’s Sharingan springs to life as he harshly whispers, “Now!

Shikamaru’s hands fly through the signs and his shadow slides across the floor like it’s made of ice. Sasuke’s dropped his crutch and is racing in, Naruto following his lead and going around Shikamaru’s other side. Sasuke skids to a halt on Gaara’s right, drawing his tantō and brandishing it with an unpracticed hand. Shikamaru’s shadow connects and Gaara freezes, allowing Naruto to wheel around from the other side and clock Gaara with a right hook.

“The Hell do you think you’re doing in here you bastard?!” Naruto shouts as he brings his fist back and drops into his slouched, almost animalistic fighting stance. Sasuke’s eyes flicker down to Lee– if Naruto’s voice didn’t wake him then he must be under some anesthesia from a surgical procedure. Sasuke knows there’s no way he could sleep through Naruto’s squalling.

Shikamaru recoils from the blow in perfect sync with Gaara, bringing a hand up to his cheek as he snaps, “Watch it, Naruto! If you hit him you hit me!”

Naruto winces; “Right, sorry.”

Instead of a bruise on Gaara’s cheek it cracks and grains of sand drip like blood. He’s eyeing the three Leaf genin with a calm, masklike expression on his face, like he hadn’t just been having some sort of mental breakdown.

Sasuke slits his eyes in a glare as he says, “You’re surrounded and outnumbered– Tell us what you’re doing here or else.”

Gaara turns to Sasuke and examines him with his eerie pale blue eyes before his upper lip curls in a sneer; “What happened to you?”

Sasuke can only blink; “What?”

“When these exams began I saw your eyes,” Gaara hisses, “They were full of hatred. It’s what drove you… You were just like me. But now… you’re burying it. Have you really gotten so weak that you’ve given up?”

Sasuke takes a sharp breath in through his clenched teeth, his Sharingan starts spinning, and his blade is almost at Gaara’s throat when Shikamaru shouts, “Sasuke stop!

He stops.

He’s so close, an errant twitch could have steel meeting sand, but Sasuke holds his blade there in his white-knuckled grip as he shakes all over, jaw clenched so tight his teeth might break. He looks at Gaara’s infuriatingly calm face and all he can see through the red filter of his Sharingan is Itachi.

Tell me why you’re here,” Sasuke growls, his own voice feeling like sandpaper against his throat.

Gaara’s eyes sweep from Sasuke down to Lee as he answers simply, “I was going to kill him.”

“Are you serious?!” Shikamaru exclaims, voice painted in a thick glaze of disgust, “Crippling him wasn’t enough? Are you that mad he managed to land a hit on you in front of everyone?!”

Gaara’s eyes narrow, the most expression he can make while Shikamaru controls his body; “I don’t see why it has to be so complicated. I just want to kill him, that’s all.”

Sasuke manages to get back some of his composure as he spits, “It’s never that simple.”

“You’re sick in the head, you know that?!” Naruto shouts, widening his stance so he blocks even more of Lee from Gaara’s sight.

“If you don’t get out of my way I’ll kill all three of you, too,” Gaara says, almost sounding polite despite the slithering undertone of his voice.

Shikamaru puts on a pretty good fake smirk despite the sweat running down the side of his face; “Did you not hear Sasuke before? You’re outmanned, and after this month of nonstop training I’m pretty damn sure you’re outgunned too. Not to mention we’re in the middle of a shinobi hospital– Even if you did get past us you’d be found out and hunted down in seconds. Just be smart and walk away.”

Now that Gaara’s said it it’s all that Sasuke can think about– boiling just under the surface of Gaara’s armor is the same kind of toxic hate that drove Sasuke and is still simmering in a lump caught right in his throat. Sasuke’s is just for one person. Gaara’s is much, much larger. Shikamaru’s bluff is a good way to buy time but nothing short of death is going to make Gaara stop.

Sasuke would put a lot more stock in that thought if it wasn’t taking all of his willpower not to slaughter Gaara himself.

“This is your last warning,” Gaara rasps, “If you want to live, get out of my way.”

Naruto snorts, all bravado as he shouts back, “And this is your last warning, stop running your mouth and leave Lee alone if you don’t want all your bones broken!”

Shikamaru finds himself the only voice of reason in the room; “Cool it, Naruto! We don’t wanna go there! This guy is nuts, he fights like a demon!”

Naruto’s grin takes on a bizarre edge as he barks, “Ha, sure he can fight like a demon, but I’ve got the real thing inside me! We’ll see who wins against that!

Sasuke completely forgets Gaara, Lee, and even Shikamaru.

His eyes go wide and he brings his blade down and he’s suddenly putting together dozens of pieces of evidence he hadn’t even known were evidence.

The scars on Naruto’s cheeks certainly do look like whiskers, it was always odd how adults– even reasonable ones like his own mother– would look at him with such a burning hatred when Naruto’s greatest crime was minor vandalism, he did remember thinking it sucked for Naruto that his birthday was the same day as the Nine Tails’ attack, it was strange how the history books never mentioned who the third Jinchuuriki for the Nine Tails was since the second had unfortunately passed away, he has foggy memories of as he lay in critical condition from Haku’s attack Naruto’s eyes turning red–

Oh god damn it he is a fucking idiot.

He looks to Shikamaru, who’s showing clearly on his face that he’s thinking much the same thing. But when he looks to Gaara…

His face is blank. But his eyes have changed. There’s something in them like… excitement.

“I see,” Gaara murmurs, “You’re like me then.”

Now it’s Naruto’s turn to freeze; “Huh?”

Evidently, Gaara is all too happy to explain; “I’ve been killing since the day I was born. To ensure the Sand Village’s might my father used his ninjutsu to infuse me with a sand spirit while I was still in the womb– It killed the woman who gave birth to me and I was born a monster. Its name is Shukaku.”

Everyone in the room is reeling but none more than Naruto. All his bravado is gone and he’s just staring at Gaara now, caught between horror and a sort of dawning realization. He looks like he’s going to be sick.

“Who the Hell would do that to a baby?!” Shikamaru blurts out, but he already knows the answer– the same sort of people who’d done it to Naruto.

“I guess we can rule you having a loving family right out,” Sasuke mutters, gathering all his resolve to ignore how his palms are sweating and his knee is begging him to take his weight off it and go find his crutch. He doesn’t need this right now.

Gaara’s mouth twists into a bizarre, carnival mirror reflection of a smile; “You’re right, Sasuke. My family is one bound together by hate. My father has sent countless assassins after me– I’m not his son, I’m his experiment gone horribly wrong, and it’s his duty as Kazekage to dispatch threats to the village. The village I was supposed to protect. I had failed in the mission assigned to me at birth and lost my purpose… what point is there in living without one? Existing with no reason? It’s the same as being dead.

Sasuke is starting to feel very cold.

“I found my own answer, eventually,” Gaara continues, almost like he’s talking to himself, “It was death that gave me life, and it is death that sustains me, that proves I exist. I live only for myself, I love only myself, and so long as there are people for me to kill I will never disappear.”

Life is taken and in doing so life is given. If he dies the pain will die with him and everything will be born again.

It makes sense. Sasuke hates that it makes sense.

Naruto takes a step back, away from Gaara. All his fear and disgust and sympathy might as well be written in red ink all over his skin.

Shikamaru turns to him, well in a panic by now; “Hey! Where are you going?! Sasuke’s already checked out I can’t lose you too!”

Sand surges up around Gaara and blasts outward, knocking Sasuke into the wall and Naruto to the ground. The shock is enough that Shikamaru’s concentration falters for a second, and that second is all it takes for the Shadow Possession Jutsu to sputter out like a weak flame. Sasuke’s shoulder and leg cry out but he can’t afford to listen to them as the sand roars in his ears and Shikamaru shouts for both him and Naruto to get it together. All he can hear is one thought, louder than anything else as Gaara’s sand surges towards them.

There is no way they can beat him.

“Alright, that’s enough.”

The deep and authoritative voice makes everyone stop in their tracks and look towards the door– even Gaara’s sand abruptly comes to a halt and drops down to the ground. Sasuke had never expected to be relieved to see Might Guy, but today is just full of surprises, and the feeling washes over Sasuke like a wave as Guy stands in the doorway and stares down at Gaara with a stern look in his eyes.

“Save it for tomorrow, boys, that’s when the real competition starts” he says as he strides into the room, “You’re just wasting it today, is that what you want?”

Out of nowhere Gaara cringes and clutches his head, making those same crazed, agonized groans of pain from before the three Leaf genin had caught him. His sand races back into his gourd and it takes him nearly thirty seconds to regain the bare minimum of composure necessary to drag himself out of the room, glaring through slitted eyes at them while one hand stays buried in his short red hair.

He only pauses at the door, leaning on it with his free hand, and glaring daggers over his shoulder at them all; “It doesn’t matter when– I will kill you. All of you.”

Sasuke doesn’t sleep much that night. And by Sasuke’s standards “not much” equals “not at all”. He eats a pitifully small breakfast, dresses in street clothes, sends a short jolt of healing chakra through his knee, brushes his teeth and keeps his eyes locked on the dark bags underneath them, which do not make him feel any better.

He walks to the stadium, leaning heavier on his crutch than he has to. It’s been quite a while since he’s had this singular feeling of being alone in a crowd, especially one as raucous as the one the Final Exam Festival has drawn. When had it stopped?

He climbs the arena stairs and finds a seat– not too close to the front and not so far he can’t see. People are still filtering in and the proceedings aren’t due to start for another twenty minutes at least, so Sasuke’s trying to think of something to fill time so he’s not alone with his thoughts when he hears a familiar pair of voices squawking back and forth at each other as they filter in.

Sasuke turns just in time to catch a glimpse of Naruto waving at him as he walks into the seating area; “Hey there, Jackass! How’d you beat us here on a bad leg?”

Naruto indeed has not come in alone– he and Kiba are flanking Hinata, who is doing a very poor job of hiding her delight. Sasuke smirks at her and raises an eyebrow. She turns tomato red and Sasuke can’t hold back a snicker.

“Since when do you three hang out?” Sasuke asks as they filter down to his row, Hinata and Kiba settling down next to him.

Kiba snorts and Akamaru whuffs; “Since Orange Juice here got lost on his way to the arena and ran into Hinata waiting for me. Forget about us– Since when are you and Hinata friends? She told me you guys hung out in the hospital, what's that about?”

Hinata frowns slightly as she softly reprimands Kiba; “I-I already told you, Sasuke and I used to spend time together when we were little. We were… We’re catching up.”

Sasuke’s still amazed she remembers that far back. But she doesn’t need to forget the happier parts of her childhood.

Sasuke’s about to drift off when Naruto grins at him and gestures with his thumb towards the cheap seats; “Hey, come with me– I wanna talk to you about somethin’.”

Sasuke tenses. Is it Gaara? Sakura? Whatever it is, Naruto can’t say in front of Kiba and Hinata– anything he wants to keep secret is probably worth keeping under wraps.

Sasuke nods; “Alright. Save my seat, Hinata?”

She purses her lips, pressing her fingers together; “O-okay, don’t be too long.”

Naruto takes Sasuke by the shoulder and all but drags him away as he calls, “Don’t worry, he’ll be back before you know it!”

They go up past the cheap seats and into the tunnels connecting ground level to the stands, not stopping until Naruto’s dragged them into an alcove for a service stairwell and Sasuke physically pushes him off; “Alright, what is it?”

Naruto doesn’t answer with words. He instead answers by shoving something in Sasuke’s face so fast and so close that he can’t tell what it is without pulling back. It’s… a bracelet. A pretty nice looking bracelet made out of dark blue stone beads, but still a bracelet.

“Yeah yeah, I know it’s not as nice and expensive as Sakura’s present but Sakura doesn’t need to pay rent and buy all her own groceries,” Naruto says, taking Sasuke’s free hand and shoving the bracelet past it to rest comfortably on his wrist, “The lady at the store said these stones are good for healing and can help chakra flow, and you only wear blue or white or black so they fit with the rest of your crappy clothes.”

Sasuke tries to frown around a building smile; “And you’re sure she wasn’t scamming you.”

Naruto blinks at him, uncomprehending; “Nah, she seemed like she knew her stuff. She had a white lab coat and everything.”

Sasuke lets out a soft laugh through his nose as he looks over the bracelet. The stones have been polished to an almost mirror sheen and their weight isn’t cumbersome. It doesn’t even look half bad. He could get used to wearing it.

He nods; “I like it.”

Naruto's grin sticks around for a second more before his face drops into an oddly pensive expression, and he says, “Good… Okay, so I’m just gonna say this, and I’m only gonna say it once, and then we’ll go back to calling each other Jackass and Loser and we don’t have to talk about this ever again, alright? You got it?”

Sasuke quirks an eyebrow; “Yeah? I got it?”

Naruto nods, jaw set, eyes resolute; “I saw how Gaara shook you up, so I wanted to give you that because we’re not him. We’re lucky, because we don’t have to be. We have our team and our friends and our village and he doesn’t have anyone. And he’s wrong. Sasuke, you're one of the strongest guys I know. Because you… you care– You care about Sakura and Kakashi and Lee and Hinata and even me. You care about people and you don’t give up. That’s what makes you Sasuke, not your family or your eyes or killing the guy who hurt you. That’s what makes you strong.”

Sasuke’s throat aches as he murmurs, “My brother. It was my brother who hurt me. He killed our clan. All of them. Even our parents.”

Naruto jolts back, eyes wide and jaw hanging open.

Sasuke’s shrug is weak but his smile strong; “You told me about your demon, even if you didn’t mean to. Thought you should know the name of mine… Thanks, Naruto. For what it’s worth, you’re one of the strongest guys I know, too.”

Naruto grins wide and holds his fist up. Sasuke just stares at it, eyebrow raised.

Naruto groans and grabs Sasuke’s hand, forming it into a fist and forcefully bumping it into his; “See? That’s a fist bump! How have you never seen one? You are SO BAD at being normal!”

Sasuke snorts and cuffs Naruto on the shoulder; “Are you serious? You’re the furthest thing from normal, loser!”

Naruto sticks his tongue out at Sasuke; “Nuh-uh, Jackass! If we got into a normal contest I’d beat you by a million points, believe it!

“Worry about the actual contest, dumbass,” Sasuke laughs, taking Naruto by the shoulder and spinning him to face the corridor, pushing him out, “Get going! You’re gonna be late and they’ll disqualify you!”

Shit you’re right! I gotta go, see you later!” Naruto shouts, tearing off down the hall and nearly disappearing before he stops, turning to call over his shoulder, “Let’s promise! We’re not gonna let Sakura die! If Gaara gets out of control we’ll help her! Believe it!”

And Sasuke, to his complete and utter shock and mortification, calls back, “Believe it!”

The second Naruto runs out of sight Sasuke buries his face in his palms and groans so loud they can hear it all the way in the Sand Village. He schleps back out into the stands and down to his seat, where Ino and Choji have settled in on the other side and greet him brightly.

“Jeez, what’s eating you?” Ino asks, lightly shoving him, “You look like someone told you your dog ran away.”

Sasuke just sighs, “Naruto is a terrible influence.”

Sakura pauses so suddenly at the arena gate that Kakashi runs into her back.

She whirls around and looks up at him with her big green eyes wide, her whole body trembling; “I can’t do this, sensei.”

Kakashi cocks his head to the side; “You know if you’re going to get cold feet you could at least have the decency to have said something earlier.”

Sakura carries on like she didn’t hear him, rambling as she runs a hand through her bangs, “Who knows if any training is enough to take on Gaara? A-and I’m not like Naruto or Sasuke, I don’t have any trick up my sleeve, at least not one I can use, and no one’s here to see me they’ll probably all be going up to use the bathroom during my match, and–!”

“Breathe, Sakura,” Kakashi says, using the calm, gentle voice he usually reserves for Sasuke, “You’re going to be fine. You’ve been training every day and you’ve grown so much– We can’t guarantee victory. But we can at least guarantee that you don’t go down without giving as good as you get. And besides, Naruto, Sasuke, your mom and I are all going to be watching and cheering you on. You can do this. That’s a promise.”

Sakura shuts her eyes, taking a deep breath in, holding it, and letting it out. Kakashi puts a hand on her shoulder and waits.

You’ve got this, Sweetie– You’ll make Gaara feel every ounce of pain he’s ever inflicted on others.

When she opens her eyes again they shine like the edge of a blade; “I’m not going to let him kill me. And I’ll get him back for Lee. If I beat Gaara… I don’t care if I lose after that. That’s enough.”

Kakashi smirks, eye crinkling at the corner; “I know I usually advocate for setting reasonable goals but I have to remind you that if you did win the whole thing it would be great for my reputation–“

Sakura laughs as she kicks at his shin and he easily leans out of the way. It’s a familiar game– Sakura knows she’s swift enough to hit him and he knows he could get her back twice as hard. It’s between her soft kick and his slow dodge where affection lies.

Sakura turns on her heel, bangs flowing with her like water, beaming; “Come on, let’s go. I’ve never been late for anything in my life and I’m not going to ruin that record here.”

She walks proudly into the arena, not late and not early, perfectly on time as the rest of the competitors filter down into the center of the arena. Naruto catches her eye and waves to her with both arms, so there’s really nothing she can do for him but smile and walk over to stand with Shikamaru between them, in order of who's fighting when. Her sharp eyes catch that they have a new proctor, a lazy looking man with a senbon resting between his teeth. Shikamaru and Naruto are muttering about that next to her when the proctor snaps at them to shut up and shape up for the crowd.

The stands are packed, but at this height to Sakura they’re little more than a roiling mass of loud color. She’s sure if she concentrated she could pick out Sasuke or Ino or her mom, but it’s probably better if she doesn’t know where they are. She squares her shoulders and stands up straight, posture perfect and eyes facing boldly forward. She's going to make them proud. She's going to prove herself. And she's going to wipe the floor with Gaara.

“Alright,” the proctor says, turning towards the Kage’s box, “Let’s get this party started.”

Chapter Text

viii. As the proctor goes over the tournament bracket for the audience's benefit Sasuke has to wince on behalf of Shikamaru– his match was dropped right in between Neji's and Gaara's, doomed to be the bathroom break fight. Shikamaru’s smart and Temari’s fan techniques are intriguing, but if the rumblings of the people in the stands around him are any indication no one’s here to see them. More than Sakura or Naruto Sasuke hears his own name making its way around the crowd.

“You’re serious? The Uchiha’s not in this?”

“Read the program, he’s not on there.”

“No way! My friend who taught him at the Academy said he was a prodigy, how’d he get knocked out?!”

“Hey, Neji and Gaara are tough, maybe he fought one of them in the preliminaries–“

“Didn’t you hear? Gaara permanently crippled his opponent and Neji fought his cousin– Uchiha’s sitting over there, he doesn’t look ‘permanently crippled’ to me.”

Sasuke doesn’t realize he’s grinding his teeth until a familiar voice remarks from the aisle, “That’s the easiest way to wear down enamel, you know.”

He turns to see Kakashi, smiling at him from behind the mask, and Sasuke mutters, “It’s either that or I start fighting everyone in this arena.”

“That’d be interesting to see, but let’s try to find a middle ground,” Kakashi laughs.

The exam starts off strong– Naruto and Neji’s match brings the crowd to their feet, though Sasuke misses most of it because the stress of watching Naruto and Neji fight is enough to make Hinata start relapsing. He looks to Kakashi, eyes wide and desperate. Kakashi takes a moment, likely weighing the pros and cons of Sasuke’s first real trial for his Mystical Palm Jutsu being Hinata, before finally nodding.

As Sasuke guides Hinata out of the stands and up the stairs Kakashi follows them close behind, murmuring to Sasuke, “Don’t overdo it– Keep it to short bursts, and let her breathe. The trouble’s in her heart. We don’t want to make things worse.”

Sasuke keeps one hand on Hinata’s wrist to feel her pulse as the other heals her, pausing any time he feels her heart rate go up even by one beat– He’s learned to use his Sharingan and leading lines of chakra to feel out the problem areas and focus on them. He can’t bring Hinata back to one hundred percent, but he can at least stop this relapse. Reasonable goals, Sasuke; Kakashi had said it over and over again as he hacked away at the Chidori and now he’s saying it for him, which he hates only slightly less than the fact he parroted Naruto’s catchphrase.

When he finishes, Hinata smiles at him with a slightly wry edge to it, whispering around labored breaths, “Did you… copy that… when we were in… the hospital?”

Sasuke rolls his eyes; “Like there was anything more interesting to do there.”

Kakashi asks Hinata if she’d like to rest here just a little bit longer or see the medics, and she vehemently refuses– Win or lose, she needs to be there for Naruto. Sasuke and Kakashi exchange amused glances behind her back. At least, they do until Kakashi’s eye looks just over his head and suddenly narrows. Sasuke follows his gaze and his eyes meet the blank stare of an ANBU mask.

“What are the ANBU Black Ops doing here?” Sasuke hisses to Kakashi as they proceed carefully down behind Hinata.

“There’s three options I can think of,” Kakashi murmurs, “Security against Gaara, security against Orochimaru, or that’s an enemy posing as ANBU. Let’s hope for the former two.”

They come back just in time to see Naruto draw on a bright orange chakra source so powerful it sends a wave of wind through the crowd as it surges up around him. Neji and Naruto throw themselves at each other with so much force it craters the ground, and Naruto wins the day with a move so smart Sasuke’s standing up along with Hinata as she forgets her shyness long enough to cheer for him.

Naruto earns a standing ovation and receives it with ample enthusiasm and absolutely no grace. It’s hard to see Neji’s face in detail from this high up and Sasuke can’t hear anything too clearly over the roar of the crowd, but he almost looks thoughtful as he’s stretchered out.

Shikamaru and Temari are indeed the bathroom break match, though that’s no fault of theirs– In fact, it’s an absolutely brilliant showcase of tactics as they move around each other in an elaborate dance of strategy and counterstrategy that eventually gets the crowd on the edge of their seats. Shikamaru gets Temari dead to rights via an excellent use of the terrain (and his own shirt)… then forfeits.

Sasuke laughs under the raucous boos from the crowd and is certain that for irony’s sake Shikamaru’s going to make Chunin.

But all the laughter dries up, because now it’s Sakura’s turn.

There’s a thick, smothering tension surrounding them all as Sakura takes the field– Ino is chewing her nails with fear in her eyes (though of who, Sasuke couldn’t say), Kakashi is completely motionless, Hinata is pressing her fingertips together while chewing her lip, Akamaru is whining high and sharp, and even Gai and Lee can’t lighten the mood as they come in just in time to see the match start.

Sasuke’s grip tightens on his crutch and he whispers, “Don’t you dare lose, Sakura.”

The proctor brings his hand down like a flag; “Begin!”

He leaps back and Sakura immediately leaps in, chucking a handful of shuriken to cover herself as she sprints towards Gaara. A bank of sand comes in to catch them, another one rushing underneath it to grab Sakura’s leg. The second it hits she explodes into petals, the scenery flickers and drops away just behind them to reveal the real thing as she dives between the two banks of sand, rolling and coming up with a kunai in hand, slashing for Gaara’s throat. A jet of sand grabs her wrist and the rest comes surging to meet it, wrapping around Sakura like a cocoon.

Gaara clenches his fist and the sand collapses inward. Sakura does not explode into a rain of blood but a shower of petals.

Sasuke’s eyes go wide; “What–?! That wasn’t a petal illusion that was solid he grabbed that how did–?!”

Kakashi’s voice has that musical lilt it always has when he’s amused; “Turn your Sharingan on. Don’t want you missing anything.”

Sasuke’s eyes blaze red and there Sakura is, an outline covered by the same Invisibile Cloak Jutsu she’d used to find her opening as she rolls around Gaara’s feet and comes up behind him.

“Was– That clone had a shadow, how did Sakura learn how to use Shadow Clone Jutsu?!” Sasuke exclaims, eyes darting from her to Kakashi and back.

“She reads a lot of books,” a rich feminine voice replies from beside Kakashi. Another cloak of chakra drops to reveal Kurenai, smiling warmly down at the genin. Kakashi nods to her in acknowledgement while Kiba and Hinata jump at the sudden appearance of their sensei.

“Sakura has quite a lot of theoretical knowledge and a strategic mind, but she’s frightfully average when it comes to her chakra well,” she continues, “That’s why her control is so precise– If you only have so much, you learn how to make it last. When it came to teaching her how to apply those jutsu she’d read about, we made sure she knew how to do it wisely. Sakura’s not like Naruto, she can’t create a whole army of herself. But she does know how to make one Shadow Clone at a time– and how to make that clone count.”

The chakra coating Sakura’s body races down into her fist and it collides with Gaara’s cheek as he whirls towards her, sending him skidding backward and cracking all the armor on the left side of his face.

Lee’s the first one to call out, beaming bright as sunlight; “Incredible! Sakura’s taijutsu has improved tenfold, I am so proud of her!”

“Sh-she has improved, b-but maybe… maybe not as much as you’re thinking,” Hinata remarks, and Sasuke turns to see she’s activated the Byakugan as she watches the battle with her brows pensively knit, “She channeled chakra into the blow and targeted a weaker part of the armor. I don’t think she got as strong or as fast as you in just a month, Lee.”

Kakashi shrugs; “That was never the plan– There wasn’t time, we had to work with what was already there. Besides, there’s no way Sakura would win by pretending to be Lee.”

Standard clones radiate out from Sakura in a staggered circle and rush Gaara, each covered by a Petal Illusion that bursts into a cloud of pink when Gaara’s sand jolts up to hit it. Every time half of them are destroyed Sakura takes another step back and sends another wave of clones and illusions to crash against the rising tide of Gaara’s sand.

Sasuke doesn’t see what she’s doing until she’s hidden in the shade of the arena wall and the leftover petals from the illusions as they’re pushed around by the force of Gaara’s sand forms a veil, obscuring visibility and coalescing back into illusions that run out from the blushing storm only to hit more sand. All the sand and petals in the air obscure how the clones and illusions don’t kick up dust or cast a shadow and Sasuke can see Gaara’s mouth drawing into a scowl as his eyes dart from clone to clone, illusion to illusion, trying to pick out the real thing.

He looks back to the real thing, and Sakura’s hands are flying through a sequence of signs he doesn’t recognize. Dog Snake Monkey Ox Tiger. She dissolves out of sight like mist on the wind.

Kakashi lets out a low whistle; “So she’s going for the kill right away?”

Kurenai is glowing with pride, hands on her hips; “Of course she is– It’s the mark of any good genjutsu specialist. If a fight lasts longer than five minutes you’ve lost.”

“Or she’s trying to make all the chakra she’s using up count for something,” Ino mutters around her nails as she chews them down as far as they’ll go, eyes narrowed into slits.

Roots burst out of the ground and wrap tight around Gaara, squeezing him hard enough to make his eyes go painfully wide and force a gasp out of his lungs. More roots come soaring up and twisting onto themselves to create a gnarled dead tree that grows around Gaara like a cage. His sand lashes about in a blind panic, searching frantically for the attacker, and Gaara writhes like a trapped rat in the tree’s iron grip.

Just above Gaara the tree’s bark ripples so subtly Sasuke’s sure only he and Hinata notice it before Sakura’s torso melts out of the tree, looming above him with a kunai in one hand. Sasuke can only gape at the spectacle before him– first Shadow Clone Jutsu, now Binding Death Tree; how many books on Jonin-level techniques is Sakura reading?

Gaara finally catches sight of her a moment too late and Sakura’s other hand grabs his hair, wrenching his head back and exposing his throat as she primes her kunai to strike.

“No! She is just going to hit the sand armor!” Lee exclaims, lurching forward and Gai gently holding him back.

Kakashi smirks; “Just watch.”

A pulse of lime green chakra comes out of Sakura’s hand, washes over Gaara’s hair and down into his armor. There’s an agonizing pause… and a layer of sand an inch thick explodes off of Gaara, exposing his pale flesh to the sun. Sasuke is audibly gasping and leaping to his feet. Of course, of course, of course of course of course! Sakura’s chakra nature is Earth and her control is surgically precise, she pulled the armor off of him! Gaara’s eyes are wide and he’s watching the sand hit the ground, mouth hanging open.

And Sasuke is cheering with all the passion in the world and none of the shame, “Take the bastard out, Sakura!

Sakura takes half a second to grin before thrusting the kunai down towards Gaara’s carotid artery. That’s a half a second too long. Gaara bares his teeth as his sand finally gets a bead on her and arcs upwards with dizzying speed and zero coordination to slam into Sakura’s chest.

The force sends her flying several yards away and breaks her concentration on the genjutsu, the tree dissolving like mist and freeing Gaara to move of his own power for the first time this match as he skitters back to put even more distance between himself and Sakura. The sand follows at his heels like a devoted puppy.

“I can’t fucking believe it! How could Forehead blow her only chance like this?! Now Gaara’s gonna pop her like a grape!” Ino wails, hands burying in her hair. Hinata clasps her hands over her chest to keep them from covering her eyes.

Gaara makes a single hand sign, the most Sasuke’s ever seen him make, and all his sand pools around him before it starts building up a thick, spherical shield. Sakura shakes her head to get her bearings just in time to see it and swears under her breath. She pushes chakra into her hands and feet and sprints across the arena, desperately trying to get to the shield before Gaara completely closes it.

She comes so close, there’s only a foot between her and the shield and she’s priming her hands to grab it and tear it open again when spikes of sand shoot out from the bubble. Sakura’s Earth chakra can only dissolve two of the spikes and she has to double back, pivoting around to backpedal out of range. It’s all the time Gaara needs to close the shield completely.

“Does he plan on squatting in there the whole fight?! What a coward!” Kiba snarls over Akamaru’s frightened whining.

A whorl of sand breaks off from the main shield, spinning up six inches above the dome and coalescing into one brown eye that swivels around to focus on Sakura.

Sasuke’s eyes narrow and he mutters, “No… He’s preparing something.”

Kurenai clicks her tongue, shaking her head; “She overextended herself– with the Binding Death Tree Jutsu exhausted she’s too low on options.”

Kakashi smirks over his shoulder at her; “Spoken like a true genjutsu specialist. This isn’t an assassination– It’s a fight. The real test starts once your first strategy fails. We’re going to find out right now if Sakura’s ready to make Chunin.”

Sakura bites down hard on her lower lip to keep from grinding her teeth in frustration; she palms a kunai, coats it with chakra and tosses it at the bubble of sand. It clatters off like she’d thrown it at a stone, her probing lance of chakra managing to go through a foot of solid sand before dissolving. She turns her gaze up to the eyeball and is tempted to make the sort of gesture that will let Gaara know exactly how she’s feeling…

When a thought occurs to her. Two, in fact.

That’s just one eyeball, meaning Gaara sacrificed his depth perception in order to see her.

And the amount of sand required to make a shell that thick means Gaara’s definitely not wasting any on his armor.

She grins, wide and ferocious. Absolutely protected her ass– he’s left himself absolutely open.

Sakura had meant to leave this fight with her chakra well at seventy five percent, but the feat of knocking out invincible Gaara of the Desert in the first round is worth bringing that goal down to fifty (but no lower– she still wants to put up a good fight against Kankuro or Shino even if she doesn’t win).

Step one is easy– Sakura runs through the hand signs without even thinking, Ram Snake Tiger, and unleashes a bevy of clones covered by Petal Illusions to slam into the bubble, backing up to the point where the eye can no longer see her from a birds-eye view while her clones every time they explode against the sand spikes that rush out to greet them send the chakra used to make them flowing back into the sand, gauging its thickness.

Just as Sakura thought: It’s thinner around the base, leaving a foot of room for Gaara to sit on the ground. Sakura has a window of a foot and a half.

Step two will take her down to sixty percent– While the eye is swiveling from one of her normal clones to another Sakura summons a Shadow Clone and has it stand in front of her, perfectly mimicking her stance, before casting another Invisible Cloak on herself. The Shadow Clone follows her directions, casting a Minor Illusion Jutsu to make it look like she’s gathering metric tons of harsh green chakra in her hands before dashing around towards the back of the bubble. The eye hones in on the clone and follows her.

Finally, step three– Sakura says a prayer as she runs through the hand signs, draws a kunai, and dives into the ground. She surges forward, using her chakra to shove the dirt back and away.

If her eyeballed measurements of the distance are even a fraction of a centimeter off, she’s dead. If she’s too slow when she comes up out of the ground, she’s dead. If she can’t make the one, maybe two hits she has while in there count, she is absolutely dead.

Not a damn thing for it– she’s within her foot and a half window. She brandishes her kunai and breaches up and out of the earth.

Earth Style– Rending Drill Fang!

In the darkness Sakura just barely sees the tip of her kunai clip the bottom of Gaara’s jaw so she digs in as she comes rocketing up, slicing across his face from the corner of his jaw to the corner of his forehead before she hits the top of this bubble shoulders first and has to catch herself to avoid falling in Gaara’s lap.

This space is barely big enough for Gaara, let alone the two of them– she needs to kill him and kill him quick before she suffocates. Her eyes take a second to adjust and she sees Gaara, hands shocked out of a seal, eyes so wide they’re about to bulge out of his head, shuddering all over like he’s been dropped in ice water.

Sakura finds his carotid artery and starts to thrust her kunai down just as Gaara’s hands shoot out and close around her throat.

Hinata’s gasp and shriek of “SAKURA!” comes a half-second before the sand shell falls in an unceremonious heap to reveal Gaara, face split by a bleeding line from jaw to forehead, bearing down on Sakura with his hands closed tight around her throat as he lets out an incoherent scream of rage, fear, and something animalistic that shakes Sasuke to his core.

Sakura gasps for air and flails her blade wildly towards his neck, only to miss and bury the blade in his upper arm. Gaara just squeezes tighter and screams even louder.

Sasuke almost doesn’t notice the white feathers falling gently across his vision. His Sharingan just barely saves him– the feathers are pure chakra, and when they alight on the crowd anyone they touch pitches forward, dead asleep in their seat. His vision starts to tunnel and he just barely brings his hands together to release the genjutsu.

Just in time to see all hell break loose.

There’s an explosion of dark smoke from the Kages’ box so thick Sasuke can’t see through it. The ANBU operatives leap from their seats and rush to the head of the stadium. Gaara’s siblings vault over the railing of the competitors’ box down into the arena and wrench Gaara off of Sakura. Sasuke can just barely make out the bright red of the Hokage’s hat as he appears in the grasp of the Kazekage atop the box roof, but he doesn’t see it for long before sheets of swirling darkness rise up around them to create an opaque barrier– one of the ANBU throws themselves against and bounces back covered in fire. As Kakashi Gai and Kurenai start to run towards the fight, the ANBU that had caught Sasuke’s eye earlier appears at the bottom of the stairs, four Sound ninja leaping from the stands to flank him and block the jonin’s path.

“W-what–?! What’s happening?!” Hinata exclaims, shocking Sasuke– of course, her Byakugan was active for the fight, of course she’d break the genjutsu.

Before anyone can tell her, there’s a distant but incredibly loud crash. Sasuke’s mind is working at triple speed; to be that loud but that far away it has to be the wall. Something’s happened to the wall. Something has damaged or broken the Leaf Village’s seven-story high five foot thick stone wall.

Sasuke feels like a damn idiot for ever worrying about the chunin exams.

Sakura can finally breathe again as Gaara’s much stronger siblings tear him off of her and for a moment she just lets herself flop to the ground, taking big, grateful gulps of air. But then she notices the lack of movement in the stands, the smoke and barrier overtop of the Kages’ box, the loud, distant crash. Sakura rolls up to her knees, back to the world of the living and in an absolute panic.

“Stop it Gaara!” Temari cries, holding fast despite Gaara’s violent thrashing.

Gaara speaks but it’s not to her; “I have to, I must, kill her, kill her, kill her kill her KILL HER–!

Kankuro’s strong arms keep Gaara from struggling out of his grasp, growling through gritted teeth, “It’s not worth it, Gaara! We don’t have time for this!”

“He’s right, remember our mission!” Temari pleads.

Gaara tears his arm out of her grip and points his hand, poised to clench into a fist, at Sakura; “Out of my way, let me GO!

Their sensei drops in between Sakura and the Sand genin, shouting over his shoulder, “What the Hell are you three doing?! The operation’s already underway!”

Gaara drops to his knees like a bag of rocks and clutches at his head, making pained groans. The proctor appears a foot in front of Sakura, standing protectively in the way so Sakura has to crane her neck around him to see her erstwhile opponent.

Sakura finally finds her voice as she starts to pick herself up off the ground; “What’s going on?! Why won’t anyone tell me?!”

Gaara is doubled over now and Temari follows his every move, eyes focused on where Sakura’s kunai is still sticking out of Gaara’s arm; “This is bad, the blade is in down to the hilt– And he’s almost completely drained of chakra!”

Kankuro’s eyes go wide; “But what about using that–?!”

Temari shakes her head; “It’s impossible.”

Their sensei’s voice drips with contempt; “You idiot, this is what you get for transforming before we got the signal!”

Kankuro’s voice is rising as nervous sweat warps his face paint; “Well what do we do now?! We need Gaara for this– What the Hell is Plan B?!”

That gets their sensei to pause, taking a breath, and getting back some of his composure; “There is no Plan B. Gaara’s our ace in the hole– You two will just need to get him out of here, see to his wounds, and once he’s in better shape proceed with the plan.”

Kankuro and Temari don’t need to be told twice, Kankuro picking up Gaara and the three of them leaping over the arena wall. Now it’s just Sakura, the proctor, and the Sand jonin. She slowly gets to her feet, never taking her eyes off of where Gaara and his siblings had disappeared.

“Let me guess,” the proctor drawls around the senbon in his teeth, “Orochimaru’s either pulling the strings or footing the bill.”

Sakura’s curse mark throbs painfully at the sound of that name and she only barely holds in a gasp.

The jonin smirks; “Don’t know, don’t care. It’s just you and me right now– Let’s have some fun.”

Sakura stands up straight and stares intensely at the proctor; “Sir– Requesting permission to pursue and take down Gaara.”

He smirks at her over his shoulder; “Already acting like it’s wartime. You’ll make a damn fine chunin, Sakura. Permission granted and use of deadly force authorized. Stop them, no matter what it takes.”

Sakura nods with a quick “Yes sir!” before she sprints after Gaara. One way or another, she’s finishing their match.

Sasuke barely has time to process the fact that Sakura has left the arena and Orochimaru is holding the Hokage hostage before the stands erupt into combat, Sound ninja throwing themselves at the Leaf jonin with reckless abandon.

They crash against Kakashi, Gai and Kurenai like waves into rocks– Kurenai hits them with anything from simple petal illusions to get them into striking range to genjutsu that hits their inner ear and throws them off balance, falling and knocking themselves out. Gai’s strikes are hard enough to break bones and send Sound ninja flying out of the stands and all the way to the arena floor. Kakashi is pure grace and finesse, deflecting and cutting down Sound ninja with no wasted movement. Sasuke almost gets lost in watching them before a shuriken whizzes past his ear and he realizes he needs to get his head in the game.

Sasuke takes Hinata by the shoulder and pushes her down, instructing her via hand signals to follow him as he starts crawling towards the far side of the stands. Negotiating around people’s legs is a pain, but less painful than another errant shuriken hitting Sasuke’s throat. Hinata has crested over the hill of initial shock and is completely silent as she follows close behind. They don’t stop until Sasuke hears Kakashi say their names, loud and forceful.

He pokes his head up just enough for Kakashi to see him; “What is it?”

Kakashi looks over his shoulder to lock eyes with Sasuke, gaze intense; “Go find Naruto, Shikamaru and Shino. If they’re asleep, break the genjutsu on them. Tell Naruto that we’re finally getting another mission– An A-Rank. You’re going to track Sakura down and stop her, then await further orders.”

“Both of you be smart and be careful,” Kurenai calls from her own battle not far away, “You’re still injured, if you don’t think you can keep up fall back and wait the danger out somewhere safe– There’s no point in bravery if it just gets you killed.”

“Y-you’re sending us off alone?!” Hinata exclaims, popping up beside Sasuke and immediately coming back down as Kakashi grabs a Sound ninja flying at him and tosses them behind him, the body sailing too close to the genins’ heads.

Kurenai smiles; “Not quite.”

Sasuke’s furrowing his eyebrows, eyes sweeping over the crowd just as he notices the front of Kiba’s jacket start to wriggle. Akamaru’s little wet nose pokes out and he takes some experimental sniffs before carefully crawling out and dropping to the floor, running over to hop into Hinata’s lap.

“Normally I’d send one of my own ninja hounds with you, but we don’t have that kind of time,” Kakashi says, “Akamaru can track Sakura’s scent. Now go, both of you!”

Sasuke frowns hard and shouts, “Don’t you dare die here!” before racing off with Hinata and Akamaru close behind. They make it up the stands and into the tunnels and quite literally run into Naruto and Shikamaru halfway to the competitors’ box as they come around a corner. Shino is trailing behind them, almost out of sight.

Naruto backpedals and looks at Sasuke with something close to genuine fear in his eyes; “Sasuke–?! What the hell’s going on?”

“Not sure about that myself,” Sasuke replies, “But I know one thing– We’ve got a new mission.”

Chapter Text

ix. Shikamaru opens his eyes and places his hands flat on his knees; “Alright, here’s the plan.”

The group of harried genin and one ninja hound look up from their muttered conversations, all eyes on him. Shikamaru sees Sasuke’s eyes, still blazing with the Sharingan, and his hand on his injured knee pulsing every couple seconds with blue-green healing chakra– oh this is going to be a total drag.

Shikamaru sighs as he begins, “Hinata, Sasuke, you’re gonna go scope out a safe location and signal us when you find it; we’ll have one of Shino’s bugs ride with you so you don’t have to throw up a flare. Naruto, Shino, Akamaru, you’re with me to find and stop Sakura. We’ll signal Sasuke and Hinata and circle back around to where they’ve set up. Hit me with your objections.”

“You are not benching me,” Sasuke snarls, tomoe starting to ever so slightly spin around his pupils, “I’m going after Sakura, whether it’s ‘according to plan’ or not.”

Shikamaru breaths in through gritted teeth, pinching the bridge of his nose and remembering exactly why Team 7 was so irritating; “Sasuke. Your leg is literally in a brace right now. And even if you could move at the pace we need Hinata needs someone to cover her if your safe zone isn’t so safe. Sorry Hinata, but your condition’s way more precarious than Sasuke’s, you need someone with you when you’re under stress like this. Especially someone who can apparently heal.”

“I’m fine,” Sasuke snaps, “I made it all the way here without my crutch didn’t I? I can keep up– If you’re so worried about Hinata you go with her.”

Shikamaru just glares at him; “I remember what happened the last time you tried to fight while insisting you were ‘fine’. No one’s gonna be able to stop the fight before you get killed this time. Whatever you’re trying to prove, drop it. We don’t have time for Uchiha Pride.”

Naruto raises his hand like he’s an academy student; “Actually… maybe he should come after Sakura.”

Shikamaru raises an eyebrow; “… Make your argument.”

Naruto rubs the back of his neck; “If Sakura’s really set on taking out Gaara, Sasuke might be the only person she listens to– she definitely won’t listen to me. And…” Naruto purses his lips, eyes falling to the concrete, “Something’s been weird about Sakura since the Forest of Death. I don’t know what it is, no one will tell me. But…” he locks eyes with Sasuke, “Sasuke knows what. He knows how to handle it.”

Shikamaru whirls to look at Sasuke, eyes wide; “Are you seriously telling me that you guys still haven’t told Naruto?!”

Sasuke looks away; “He’d just make a scene–“

“This is life and fucking death, Sasuke,” Shikamaru cuts him off, “Even if she had whatever the Hell that thing is under control in the arena she could lose it at any point! For fuck’s sake Sasuke she almost killed Ino! Twice!”

“Oh so now you’re concerned about Gaara?!” Sasuke shouts, “Remember what he said to us in the hospital?! He’s willing to kill us! He was trying to strangle Sakura with his bare hands! If she loses it on Gaara then he deserves it!”

Shikamaru is nearly on his feet now; “And then who’s next?! Temari and Kankuro?! Us if we get too close and she thinks we’re trying to stop her?!”

Sasuke is on his feet; “She’s not some kind of wild animal! She’s–!”

ENOUGH!” Hinata’s voice rings out louder than they’ve ever heard it and echoes through the stone corridors. The boys can only gape at her as she coughs on the heels of her outburst, looking from each other to her and back again. Naruto scooches even closer to her side, hovering around her with naked concern on his face. Sasuke slowly comes back down and tries to reach out to heal Hinata, but she shakes her head, putting a hand up to stop him. He sits uselessly by, just staring at her as she finally calms down. Akamaru lets out a whine, nuzzling at her leg.

Hinata wipes her bloody palm on her jacket like it’s not worth twice as much as Shikamaru’s house, and says in a steady voice, “We don’t have time for this. If Sasuke went with me he’d be a liability– He’s too upset about Sakura and he can’t back down from a fight. Also, Shikamaru, you’re low on chakra while Sasuke still has most of his, so you wouldn’t be good for much fighting. You can come with me and relay any tactics to Shino through one of his bugs. Naruto and Sasuke may not remember the strategy but Shino definitely will. Is that alright with everyone?”

The boys exchange sheepish glances before Shikamaru mutters, “Yeah… sorry Hinata.”

Hinata nods, getting gingerly to her feet as she adds, “And Sasuke, please tell Naruto what you’ve been keeping from him. There shouldn’t be secrets between teammates.”

One of Shino’s bugs crawls out from his sleeve and onto his fingertip; He gently places the bug on Shikamaru’s shoulder and he can just barely make out that Shino’s making eye contact with him behind his shades as he rumbles, “Be careful with her. If she’s crushed, I will know about it.”

Shikamaru just grimaces; “Yeah yeah, I’ve got it. I’ll be a perfect gentleman.”

Hinata gently picks up Akamaru and hands him to Sasuke, since her first two attempts of handing him to Shino or Naruto resulted in him growling like a small motor; “P-please, look after each other. Kiba will be devastated if anything happens to Akamaru.”

Sasuke struggles through trying to hold a dog for a couple seconds (has he seriously never held a dog before what is WRONG with this kid), settling on cradling him like a baby before Akamaru just lets out a frustrated whuff and jumps up to perch on Sasuke’s head.

Naruto nods, resolve burning in his eyes; “Hinata, Shikamaru… Good luck. I swear, we’ll keep Sakura from doing anything too stupid– Believe it.”

Shikamaru just sighs, remembering the good old days when he thought Sakura was the smart one on this team, before he realized they were all headstrong idiots who just kept enabling each other. What a fucking drag.

Shino is largely uninterested in everything Sasuke’s telling Naruto about Sakura’s curse mark, so while they follow Akamaru as he sniffs Sakura out through the forest Shino makes sure to leave insect scouts behind them to watch their backs. They’re simple creatures, but not so simple that they can’t follow commands, and he leaves them with the parameter that they’re to report back the second any human crosses through their field of vision.

Shino spares a glance to Sasuke and Naruto– Sasuke talked a big game about being able to keep up on his injured leg, but he’s making sure to either catch a branch like he’s swinging off monkey bars with the arm that didn’t have a shoulder dislocated recently or hop on his unbraced leg when he has to push off a branch with his feet.

It’s impressive how well he’s learned to compensate in so short a time. But Shino has to wonder how long he can sustain it.

His precautions bear fruit a lot sooner than Shino would’ve liked, and he interrupts the conversation; “We’re being followed.”

Naruto looks to him, blue eyes wide; “What?! How– Right, bugs. How many are there?!”

Shino pauses to make sure he has his numbers right before answering; “Nine of them, all of them Sound. Considering they’re following three twelve year olds and a dog instead of contributing to the larger invasion, likely they’re after Sasuke or Sakura specifically. We’re probably dealing with Jonin level ninja, Chunin if we’re lucky.”

Sasuke clicks his tongue, glaring eyes their normal black so the Sharingan doesn’t siphon away all his chakra; “We don’t have time to set up a counter-ambush. The only option is for someone to stay behind and buy time.”

Shino stops on the next branch he hits; “Alright then, I won’t be long. Remember, if Akamaru starts whining that means you’re close.”

Naruto tumbles to a halt, nearly bowling into Akamaru as he tries to stop on a nearby branch, turning around to look at Shino with pure shock on his face; “Wait a minute Shino! That’s nine Jonin coming after you! There’s no way–!

“I’m the only one here who’s barely used any chakra today,” Shino cuts in, “And technically speaking, I outnumber them. I’m going to be fine, Naruto. I’ll throw them off our trail and catch up to you, so just get going already.”

Shino wishes he was actually as confident as he’s making himself sound. He’s never taken on this many opponents by himself, even in optimal terrain where he can send them on wild goose chases while subtly draining their chakra. They’re moving fast and tracking them with deadly efficiency. At this stage he’s certain his colony isn’t big enough to reliably distract nine opponents. Statistics had never been the math class he excelled in, but he doesn’t need to know that much of it to know his odds are incredibly poor.

But there’s no other choice– Sakura will only respond to Sasuke, and Naruto despite his unskilled approach has the raw power to at least delay a monster like Gaara. Neither of them has the patience or the restraint to do anything but slam headlong into these nine ninja and die instantly. It has to be him.

Akamaru’s letting out a high pitched whine, canine face contorted in a strange echo of human concern. Shino smiles behind his collar; and all this time he thought Akamaru didn’t like him. That’ll be a nice thought to take with him if he dies.

“Look after them, Akamaru,” Shino adds, “Bite them if they do anything stupid… No, wait, you’ll be biting them constantly. Bite them if they try to do something too stupid to recover from.”

Akamaru’s tail doesn’t come out from between his legs, but it does start wagging.

Naruto sets his shoulders and nods; “Remember, you promised! If you don’t come back, I’ll never forgive you! Believe it!”

The two genin and one dog leap off and Shino wonders when he ever promised Naruto anything.

He shakes his head and leaps up into the treetops– there’s work to do. He left females behind as scouts and had them attach to the nine ninja as they passed, so it doesn’t take him long to get a sketch of their position. Eight of them are traveling close together in a horseshoe formation just below the canopy while the ninth is several yards behind them up in the leaves, level with Shino. A contingency plan in case of a counterambush. He’ll have to separate him from the pack first.

It’s a simple matter to make an insect clone and send it on a course to just barely pass the ninth Sound ninja, but whether or not he’ll take the bait is quite a bit more complicated. They’re gaining quick– No time to think of another plan. Shino sends out the clone.

The clone passes the straggler and there’s a tense heartbeat of a moment where all Shino can do is wait, barely breathing.

The straggler stops and the main squad pauses a half-second later. Then they scatter.

Shino bites his lower lip– Plan A is a bust. If he had to guess, they’ve gotten wise to his delay tactic, if not the details of it. Time to be a bit more direct. Shino keeps his focus on the clone and orders it to slow down, little by little, before losing its shape and wheeling back around to mob the straggler. There’s another deadly pause before the bugs start filling up with chakra and he hears a blood-curdling scream. He feels the swarm make an abrupt drop to the forest floor, and two of the eight remaining Sound ninja go running towards the straggler.

Shino maybe has a minute before the two of them make it there and burn off a sizable portion of his colony, so he leaps straight to the swarm. He manages to make it in time to recall them– the straggler is still in shock from so large a chunk of his chakra being taken in so short a time, so Shino has time to toss a shuriken and slice his carotid artery wide open.

He does not have enough time to do that and hide again before the two members of the Sound squad make it there, look down at their fallen teammate, then look up and immediately spot him.

One of them narrows his eyes; “So this is the one they left behind. Kabuto give us a file on him?”

The other shakes his head; “No, but I’ve got a handle on the Leaf clans– Dark glasses, big coat, creepy, no doubt he’s an Aburame brat. Their thing is bugs, so–“

Shino doesn’t let him finish, throwing a volley of shuriken before he leaps back into the canopy. He can hear them deflecting the projectiles and swearing at him before they leap up into the trees, hot on his tail. He plots his course carefully, making sure to cross the line of sight of the other six Sound ninja and throw a shuriken for each one he passes to goad them into giving chase. Shino’s mission is simple: Keep them from following Sasuke and Naruto. Scattered like they are one could easily pick up on their trail and tell the others– they can’t do that if they’re all chasing him down.

Once he confirms they’re all on his tail, Shino starts looking for a clearing to drop down into. Death’s basically a certainty at this point, and he’s oddly at peace with it; Kurenai taught them how to kill and in doing so taught them how to die. Her words echo in his mind: The best way to go is in service to your comrades and your village, and while taking your enemy down with you.

Shino sends a bug away to meet Sasuke and Naruto and show them the way back to Hinata and Shikamaru– there’d be no point in this death if he left his comrades stranded.

He lands on the far side of the clearing and pivots around to stand and face his opponents, all seven of them landing on the opposite side and glaring down their noses at him.

Shino’s eyes narrow– Seven? He counts a second time, a third, reaches out to the eighth female beetle, and she’s… gone. Shino’s mind is racing as his swarm rises up and out of his sleeves, floating around him like angry storm clouds. Did the eighth man crush her? Is he hiding up in the trees right now? Did he find Naruto and Sasuke’s trail? Kiba is going to kill him in the afterlife if one of them catches up and harms even one hair on Akamaru’s head.

Shino steels himself; he’s gonna try his best to live, because he is not going to die a failure.  

One of the men on the side sneers, “Too bad, little bug boy, we’re gonna crush you like one of your pe– aaUGH–!!

Something long, thick and green wraps around his neck and yanks him up into the trees. Shino hears an unmistakable snap and the body falls back down like a broken toy. Before the six remaining ninja can even react two more snakes, these ones white as snow and as long as the ninja are tall come racing out from the shadows and constrict around two more, one coiling up to squeeze down on his victim’s neck until it snaps while the other bites down so hard on his victim’s throat that not only are both carotid arteries cut wide open but the windpipe is crushed.

Now that there are only three, Shino finally gets a look at exactly who’s come to his rescue as she slinks just a tiny bit out of the shadows. Wild hair pulled into something that might’ve started life as a bun. A long tan coat over mesh armor. Pale brown eyes and a wicked smirk.

Of all people, Shino could not in a million years have expected the proctor of the second exam Anko Mitarashi to be his hero.

She throws two handfuls of senbon with pinpoint accuracy, all four of each finding their marks in the necks of two of the Sound ninja. The last one spots her and whirls around, a kunai at the ready to tear into her. He strikes and Anko ducks easily under it, kiting around him as another dark green snake comes slithering out of her sleeve. Anko kicks his legs out from under him and the snake grabs him as he falls, wrapping up around his torso so its mouth is open and waiting right at his throat. Shino can only stare– “special Jonin” doesn’t seem like enough for her. She’s an absolute artist.

The Sound ninja writhes in Anko’s grasp, eyes wide in terror; “Why are you doing this?! You served Lord Orochimaru too–!”

Her eyes narrow and she hisses, “You answered your own question, genius– I’m not gonna let him hurt any more little girls. Now do me a favor and die.”

The snake buries its fangs in the ninja’s neck and tears his throat clean open. He falls limp to the ground among his fellows and the snake shakes its head to get the blood off before slithering back up Anko’s sleeve and out of sight. When she looks back to Shino, that big grin that reminds him far too much of Naruto is shining at him like the sun and Shino’s quite glad he wears sunglasses now.

“You did some damn fine work here kid,” Anko says, coming over to give him a friendly punch on the shoulder, “Now let’s see if we can catch up to those hotheaded friends of yours– They’ll need you if they’re gonna get Sakura to your safe zone. Last one to them’s a rotten egg!”

With that, she leaps into the trees, and Shino has no choice but to desperately try and keep up with her.

Sakura has to give those genin from Rain some credit, the Sly Mind Affect Jutsu was perfect for pursuing enemies through the forest– especially when those enemies are extremely frazzled and don’t have home field advantage. Kankuro and Temari have been jumping along the same circuitous path for almost five minutes now, Gaara draped over Temari’s shoulder not quite unconscious but definitely unresponsive.

The siblings have already started sniping at each other, Kankuro grumbling about how the forest can’t be this big and Temari snapping at him to stay on task. All Sakura needs is another minute– they’ll definitely be irritable and tired enough for her to start picking them off.

Temari stops on a sturdy branch; “Kankuro, wait. Look–“ and she rests her hand on the trunk, right below three streaks of red, “I marked this tree with some of Gaara’s blood two minutes ago. We’ve passed it three times.”

Kankuro lets out a frustrated growl; “This is why I fucking hate forests, I can’t believe we got lost–!

Temari narrows her eyes and forms a one-handed seal; “We didn’t get lost. A certain pink nuisance who specializes in genjutsu made us lost.”

Sakura feels a wave of pressure from Temari as she releases the genjutsu and frowns, biting her lip. Right, she forgot– Temari is clever. Alright, picking them off is going to have to start now. But she’s only barely giving Temari any more than she’s already earned.

Sakura makes sure she’s hidden behind a tree trunk and an Invisible Cloak Jutsu as she calls out, “You’ve found out that much! Do you think you can find me next? I can hide in the forest and run you ragged with genjutsu until you’re too tired to hold onto Gaara anymore or you can try and find me right now– Your call!”

Temari frowns, brows knitted in thought, before she gingerly passes Gaara off to Kankuro; “Keep running. I’ll handle her.”

“You’re seriously giving in?! She’s taunting you like a schoolkid, Temari,” Kankuro exclaims, though he takes Gaara regardless.

Temari just smirks, taking her fan off her back; “If she thinks genjutsu’s enough to beat me she’s in for a rude awakening.”

Realization flickers in Kankuro’s eyes and he nods just once before leaping off with Gaara. Sakura has at best a half second to think that maybe she got overconfident before a gust of wind slices clean through the tree trunk right above her head.

Sakura doesn’t even care about the fact that running and leaping this fast is definitely going to distort the edges of her Invisible Cloak and instead just dives off the branch as another gust of cutting wind comes right for her, catching a branch lower down and rolling behind another tree trunk. Sakura looks around the trunk and drops a Petal Illusion, fully visible to Temari– Sakura can also give Temari that she’s quick on the trigger, she only has a window of three seconds to jump to another branch before another gust cuts that trunk to pieces.

She leaps to another tree and then another, each one felled by Temari the second she catches sight of Sakura on it, and Sakura only barely gathers the presence of mind to have an exposed clone jump to another one while she stays cloaked and goes in a different direction so she can hunker down and catch her breath. It’s difficult to do so when the simple force of Temari’s fan pushes the air straight out of her lungs.

The wind stops and she glances over her shoulder– Temari is readying her fan for another barrage, eyes scanning the forest around her like a jeweler inspects a gem for flaws. Sakura frowns; Temari’s strategy is almost insultingly simple, but for someone from Sand in terrain like this it makes perfect sense. If Sakura’s going to keep hiding behind cover, then Temari will get rid of all her cover. The second Sakura’s forced into the open is the second Temari closes the distance and the second she’s lost.

Or at least it is if Sakura keeps trying to go around and up.

Sakura leaves a trail of Petal Illusions behind her as she starts leaping to lower and lower branches. She makes sure to jump up every now and again so her pattern isn’t so obvious, but sometimes it’s out of necessity because Sakura’s getting to the level where Temari is felling entire trees and they don’t always fall in the direction she expects. When Sakura finally touches down on the forest floor Temari has created a clearing full of logs with a ring of dirt near the remaining trees’ roots, her perch standing alone in the center. Sakura drops her Invisible Cloak and glares defiantly up at her opponent, who smirks at her in triumph.

“Nowhere left to hide,” Temari chuckles, readying her fan, “Hope you’ve done your praying, kid– This is your last chance.”

The genjutsu is a simple one, and easily hidden behind the signs she needs for her ninjutsu– all it does is alter Temari’s perception ever so slightly, making her think that Sakura’s standing just a little bit farther away than she actually is. Temari leaps onto her fan and summons a gust of wind to send her flying down towards Sakura, surfing on the air with all the grace of a falcon and twice the speed. Sakura’s window is rapidly closing as Temari cuts through the air towards her and her hands race through the signs: Ram Tiger Snake Dog Rat Ox Horse Rabbit Tiger Boar Snake.

Temari is ten feet away as the crow flies and closing in fast. Sakura falls to one knee and slaps her hands flat on the ground– Earth Style! Practice Brick Jutsu!

The simple earthen wall shoots out of the ground at a diagonal and Temari flies face first into the top. She’s knocked out of the sky, her and her fan falling in an unconscious heap on the logs she’s left in her wake.

Sakura pauses, not to savor the victory but to simply catch her breath. She’s at thirty-five percent chakra capacity now, give or take five percent– if she’s fast and makes it count she can take Gaara down and still have enough left over to make an escape, but everything has to go exactly right. Nothing ever goes exactly right.

The voice doesn’t speak but Sakura feels it, and she growls “Shut up” as she leaps into the trees.

Kankuro almost doesn’t notice it when Gaara finally starts stirring again. His soft grunts of pain and discomfort are drowned out by the wind rushing in Kankuro’s ears, so he feels Gaara come back to the world of the living when he starts squirming in his grasp.

“Yeah yeah, welcome back you little goblin,” Kankuro grumbles around his own panting. Temari better get back here soon because despite being bigger than her he has much less patience for Gaara, and therefore much less patience with how heavy all his sand makes him.

Gaara’s first words to him are the ever so grateful, “Put me down, Kankuro.”

In order to make himself feel better about the ridiculous disaster their mission has become, Kankuro briefly entertains the thought of dropping Gaara right here and the little jerk plummeting to the ground like a stone. The tiny part of his mind that speaks in his half-remembered idea of his mother’s voice will absolutely not let that happen, but it’s a lovely thought.

“Not a chance,” Kankuro growls back, “Your face is split wide open and there’s a kunai sticking out of your arm, I’m getting you out of here and getting you medical attention before anythi–!

Gaara’s arm slams into Kankuro’s stomach and he goes flying into the nearest tree trunk, gasping as the impact knocks the wind out of him. Gaara comes to a clumsy halt on a branch a couple yards ahead and Kankuro has to use chakra strings to catch and reel himself back up before hitting the forest floor. Gaara shouldn’t hit this hard– either he’d been doing taijutsu training in secret or Temari was wrong about the transformation failing completely. At this point Kankuro’s not sure which one he wants to be true.

And when he pulls himself back onto the branch, he realizes that’s not even the worst case scenario, because Sakura Haruno managed to catch up with them and is standing on a branch ten feet away. Oh fuck, Temari, where–?! If this little pink nightmare killed his sister Kankuro’s not going to let Gaara have the chance, he’ll murder her himself.

“I am authorized to kill you, Gaara,” Sakura declares, “If you surrender and let me take you back to the village to be detained and tried for your part in the invasion, I won’t have to.”

Kankuro can’t hold in a bewildered laugh– What the fuck is this girl?! She talks like an Academy student playing Shinobi but was totally willing to kill Gaara before, and right after beating Temari in record time she’s hesitating? The pieces come together in a flash; she’s clanless, completely ordinary, at twelve her chakra pool is gonna be worthless next to Gaara’s, and she’s been using a helluva lot of chakra. Kankuro grins, two parts arrogant one part nervous. She’s reaching her limit. This’ll be over before you can say ‘Sand Coffin’.

Instead of gagging her smart mouth with sand, Gaara lets out another pained groan and clutches at his right eye. With no provocation whatsoever, the sand armor on his left side starts to crack, spiderwebbing up and around the break in the armor where his giant gash has been left open to the world. Kankuro freezes, grin falling into pure terror– Temari was wrong, Gaara is still transforming. And if that glazed over look in his eyes is any indication he’s going to hurtle into that form with reckless abandon.

“Come on Gaara, keep it together! Remember the mission!” Kankuro yells even though he knows it’ll fall on deaf ears.

“Doesn’t make sense, doesn’t make sense none of this makes any sense,” Gaara rasps, scraping his nails against the sand armor, “How did you make me bleed?! You’re a pitiful and soft little creature that’s been coddled and smothered by love and you wounded me?! HOW?! You have no purpose, your life has no value, it’s nothing! I will not have my existence ended by nothing! I WILL NOT ALLOW IT!

Kankuro just stares in mute horror as the sand from Gaara’s gourd starts fusing into his sand armor, morphing and changing into the dark-veined left arm, eye, and ear of Shukaku. It’s of course just a second too late that Kankuro realizes exactly why Gaara’s lost it– This is these exams and the Leaf village’s softhearted yet strongarmed genin chipping away at Gaara’s fragile internal logic, the twisted framework he’d built up to try and understand the world, and Sakura making him bleed is just her taking that and breaking it over her knee.

Suddenly he pities the little pink nightmare.

Gaara leaps with a swiftness unfitting of how gargantuan and heavy the growth on the left side of his body is, lunging straight for Sakura– She’s barely fast enough to jump above the impact, but the giant claw closes around the branch and snaps it like a twig, giving Sakura nowhere to land. She lets herself plummet towards the ground and grabs a branch as she falls, swinging from it to another tree as Gaara follows her and in an attempt to grab her leaves five gouges, a foot deep each, in the trunk.

They’re enough to fell the tree, which kicks up a giant cloud of dust as it hits the floor below. When the dust clears, Gaara is hanging from another tree by Shukaku’s arm and Sakura has hidden herself from sight.

Gaara is screaming now, saliva dripping from his misshapen mouth like a rabid dog; “Go on, Sakura Haruno! Scurry and hide like the vermin you are! It makes no difference, I will tear down this whole forest to find you! There’s nowhere in the world that’s safe from me!

Kankuro spots the hint of pink poking out behind a nearby tree trunk a fraction of a second before Gaara does. Gaara lets out a screech of “Found you!” and Sakura sprints out from behind the tree, but Gaara pounces on her a second too late. She explodes in a puff of smoke the instant Gaara makes contact and comes running out onto the branch Gaara had leapt from, throwing a bevy of shuriken at his unarmored side.

He pivots around and catches them with Shukaku’s arm, letting them sink into the sand before it spits them back out at ludicrous speeds. They cut the branches they hit clean in half and when they slam back into Sakura they knock her clean off the branch– another puff of smoke, another clone.

Gaara’s laugh is a twisted parody of the sound; “I thought you were going to kill me, Sakura Haruno! Was that all talk?! Why do you you keep running–?!

Gaara falters and grips at his head yet again, letting out another pained screech, before he starts leaping around and indiscriminately tearing down trees, screaming for Sakura to come out. Kankuro wants to run, wants to flee as far as he can and leave Gaara behind forever, but can only sit there and stare in horror. It’s been like that their whole lives and it’s not about to change now. Kankuro accept a long time ago he was going to be stuck with Gaara until he died– he just didn’t think that it would be so soon.

Something draws his eye– not a flash of pink, but a bright green glow that’s nearly blinding. Sakura comes out onto a branch behind Gaara, five yards away, with chakra coating her forearms and writhing like flames. She’s glaring at Gaara, teeth bared, slouched over like an animal. It echoes her burst of ferocity from the preliminaries, the part of her fight where she’d seemed like a completely different person. Where had this girl been hiding?

Sakura leaps from the branch, sailing through the air straight towards Gaara’s transformed arm, and Kankuro finds his voice a half second too late; “WATCH OUT, GAARA–!

Gaara whirls around and brings his arm up to block, but that’s the exact wrong move, because Sakura grabs one of the claws and her chakra surges through the sand, lighting up the black veins. She lets out a great roar of effort and yanks the claw with her as she flies past Gaara, tearing his arm clean down the middle up to his shoulder and pulling an agonized scream out of him.

Kankuro shakes his head, mouth moving and voice coming out without his consent; “No… no, no no no how the fuck did she wound him again?!

Sakura lets go of the claw and nearly misses her landing on a nearby branch while Gaara lands with a heavy thunk on a branch a yard or two down. There’s a moment of deathly stillness as Sakura gulps in air and shakes all over, while Gaara lies unresponsive in a puddle of bloodstained sand. And just as Sakura turns to marvel at her handiwork, Gaara twitches and the sand starts to reform back into Shukaku’s left side.

“Oh you’ve got to be fucking kidding,” Sakura breathes as Gaara pushes himself up onto his haunches.

Something in Gaara’s face twists, and when his voice comes out it’s almost soft; “I see now… I misjudged you, Sakura Haruno.”

For a blessed second Kankuro dares to hope Gaara’s come out the other side of this deep dark tunnel he’s going through, but as Shukaku’s tail starts to form from the gourd he knows he’s wrong; “You make sense now. Your eyes burn because you’re trying to prove that your life is worth something, consequences be damned. You could care less about your village, your friends, even your family– My life is a trophy, your ultimate proof of the validity of your existence. You are like me, Sakura Haruno! Now come at me with everything you have! Let’s prove whose life is worth more!”

And Sakura is just staring at him, eyes very wide, skin very pale, lips very blue. She’s nearly at full-on Chakra Exhaustion– that was all she had.

Gaara wraps his tail and arm around the branch and pulls back until the sand is straining like a rubber band under the tension– then lets go. He launches himself straight up into Sakura and in her state even she knows there’s no dodging. She just brings her arms up and braces for an impact that sends her flying through three branches and slamming back-first so hard into a tree’s trunk that she burrows a foot deep into it.

Gaara lands on a branch two yards away and taunts, “Where is your drive, Sakura Haruno?! We’re just getting started, don’t want to disappoint me do you?! Stand up and fight!

Sakura spills out of the tree trunk, catching herself so she’s on hands and knees on a branch, face obscured by her long bangs. For a moment, she just stays like that, breathing heavy– And then bright green chakra explodes up her left arm and her head whips around to face Gaara. Black markings in the shape of tiny flower petals cover the left side of her face and her eyes are wild as they zero in on Gaara.

She shoves herself up so she’s only barely standing, arms dragging on the bark near her feet, and shouts, “FINE! LET’S FUCKING GO!

She and Gaara leap at each other at the exact same time, but Gaara swings at her with Shukaku’s arm and Sakura has to awkwardly adjust her position in midair so it doesn't knock her out of the sky. Whatever big blow she was planning turns into her tapping Gaara’s shoulder and all the chakra on her arm going out in a second. Gaara lands on his feet and Sakura lands in a heap, twitching as she lies helpless on the branch.

There’s a pregnant pause before Shukaku’s arm dissolves at the shoulder and drops off of Gaara like a lizard shedding itself of its tail. Gaara screams but it’s not out of pain– it’s a war cry. Sand creeps down his right arm instead to form another massive claw.

Gaara pivots around and pounces towards Sakura. She doesn’t move to dodge, doesn’t even try. Either she’s accepted death, or she’s lost the strength necessary to avoid it. Kankuro closes his eyes and looks away with a wince– he can’t watch.

Kankuro does not hear the sound of sand wrapping around Sakura and crushing her until she’s just a rain of blood.

He instead hears a hearty THWAK! and Gaara yowling in pain, then the distinctive sound he’s gotten quite familiar with of a body hitting a tree.

Kankuro opens his eyes to see Naruto standing on a branch just in front of Sakura, teeth grinding as he glares at Gaara, while Sasuke and the Inuzuka’s little dog crouch protectively over her.

And all Kankuro can say is, “No fucking way.”

Chapter Text

x. Sasuke gingerly pushes back one of Sakura’s bangs and swears through his teeth when he sees the petals blooming across her skin. He activates his Sharingan– he can’t see her chakra pathways like a byakugan would let him, but he doesn’t need to. All the chakra in her body is pulsing out from the curse mark, the rest of her drained dry.

“She’s in a bad way, Naruto,” Sasuke calls, “We need to hurry!“

Naruto’s not even listening, just staring at the hulking mass of sand and blood hunched over on the branch across from them; “Sasuke… Who the Hell is this?!”

Sasuke glances to Akamaru, who’s whining at such a high pitch he’d be inaudible if he tried to go higher; “There’s no one else it can be but Gaara.”

Gaara cocks his head slowly to the side, one blue eye squinting; “You two… You’re the ones I didn’t kill that day…”

Naruto sucks in a sharp breath and Sasuke bites down on his lower lip. The last thing he needs is to remember that day, how even while he was trapped they’d been at his mercy, and that wasn’t even him at full power. Sasuke puts a pin in his fear– he’ll come back to it, right now he needs to focus, he needs to examine his enemy, he doesn’t have time to be afraid.

Despite the giant, bestial arm, Gaara’s right side has gone through Hell. Thanks to the cut across his face blood is running down into his eye and he needs to blink rapidly to force it out. The handle of Sakura’s kunai is still sticking out of his upper arm and his sand has warped around it, careful not to get any in the wound– if Sasuke had to guess the sand armor ends right around where the cut on his face begins.

They can use that.

Naruto wheels around; “Grab Sakura, we have to go now–!

The second Naruto takes his eyes off of him Gaara dives off the branch, flying right at Sakura with his gigantic claws spread wide open and his teeth bared like he’s going to tear Sakura’s throat out with them. Sasuke’s body is moving before he can tell it how, sliding in front of Sakura and stopping in a stance wide enough to cover her.

Mind racing, Sharingan spinning, Sasuke has less than a minute to react. Which he realizes in a flash as he sees Gaara’s exposed right flank is exactly how much time he needs. He sends chakra surging down his own right arm, as much as he can call up in less than a minute– it’s more than he needs, as always, but this time he knows what to do with the excess. The lion’s share turns into a coat of sparking lightning, and the fraction that remains glows a blue-green that’s nearly overpowered by the Chidori.

The second Gaara’s in striking range Sasuke pushes off with both legs and buries his hand into Gaara’s side. The Chidori slices through the sand armor like butter and the impact pulls an animalistic shriek from Gaara’s throat as he convulses from the small-scale electrocution and his pulse skyrocketing. He plummets abruptly downward like a stone, smashing clean through several branches before his tail wraps around a tree trunk and stops his descent. Gaara just hangs there twitching, mouth wide open, blue eye rolled so far back it’s nearly all white.

Sasuke overshot his own jump and just barely catches himself with his bad arm on a nearby branch, biting down on his tongue to keep from swearing out loud at the pain in his shoulder, before pulling himself up and jumping back to Sakura’s side. His knee protests at the hard landing and Sasuke has to stifle another swear.

“What did you do?!” Kankuro shouts from where he’s been cowering this whole time.

“He’ll be fine,” Sasuke snaps, throwing Sakura over one shoulder and turning to Naruto, “He’ll probably only be out for thirty seconds, and that’s if we’re lucky– Let’s get a move on!”

Shukaku’s arm shoots out and slams through where the branch connects to the trunk. As Sasuke’s feet fall out from under him he has a second to think he really should know better about tempting fate by now.

Then he’s falling, so fast and so hard he doesn’t have time to do anything but pull Sakura off his shoulder so he’s shielding her with his body. Sasuke feels the branches snap against his back before he hears them until he slams into a branch so sturdy he gives when it won’t, letting out all the air in his lungs in a loud gasp as he goes bouncing off in another direction. He keeps his arms locked tight around Sakura– if she’s hurt he’s failed his mission, and he will not fail again.

Sasuke lands awkwardly on his side, bouncing once and nearly letting Sakura go, but just barely managing to keep a grip on her as he rolls to a stop.

Down on the forest floor it’s eerie how quiet it is, and even though he knows he probably doesn’t have a moment Sasuke takes one to learn how to breathe again. It’s as he’s getting his breath back that he feels Sakura weakly squirm against his grip and loosens it just enough that she pushes back and he can see her face. Her petal-covered cheeks are streaked with tears and the look in her eyes is both unreadable and far too familiar.

She tries to push against him before seizing up, rasping through clenched teeth; “Why? I’m supposed to be stronger now, I’m supposed to be protecting you, why are you still coming to my rescue?!”

Sasuke knows that feeling. That completely helpless, worthless feeling, of thinking you were good enough and being proven wrong. Of your pride being taken and torn to pieces, burned, and spit upon to put out the flames. What would he have wanted to hear? What does Sakura need to hear?

… What would Kakashi say?

The words come in a halting, stilted cadence as he thinks over each one; “Sometimes… Sometimes we’re not as strong as we think we are. And we might be wrong about what it is to be strong. It’s okay. We’re still genin. This is how we learn.”

Sakura does not start feeling better. Instead her eyes well up with tears again and she lets her head drop onto his shoulder as her body shakes with tiny sobs. Wrong choice of words. Sasuke bites his lip to keep from scowling too hard. He should’ve just said something ridiculous and saccharine like Naruto would’ve, something about how he rescued her because teammates help each other and turning your back on your friends makes you worse than trash and–

Sasuke tenses when he realizes Gaara isn’t crashing through the trees to land on top of them and kill them.

He lets Sakura go and sits up, just in time to see Akamaru jump down several branches to land beside them, tail wagging as he sniffs intently at Sakura. Sasuke spares the dog a smile before turning his attention back up to the branches above. He can’t see through the leaves, but he can still hear Naruto and Gaara clear enough to know what they’re saying.

Gaara’s back in full force, growling, “Who are these two to you?! Why risk your life against me to protect them?!”

There’s a pause before Naruto shoots back with quite enough rage but not enough drive, “What kind of question is that?! They’re my friends! If you try to lay another grain of sand on them I’ll pulverize you, believe it!”

“Come on and try it then!” Gaara’s screaming challenge is answered by a war cry from Naruto and a whack!– too thick to be one of Naruto’s blows.

He hears Naruto swear under his heavy, labored breath, then mutter, “Got no choice… Gotta protect them…”

Gaara’s laugh is dark and warped; “And that’s exactly why you’re going to die. As long as you fight for the sake of others you’ll stay stuck where you are, down in the muck. There can be only one winner, only one existence proven– Forget your friends and fight for yourself!”

Sasuke can picture Naruto grinding his teeth; “You’re talking pretty big, but don’t forget who wounded you! Who landed that first hit on you in years! Sasuke, Sakura, Lee, they all fight for the village and for each other! You sure as Hell weren’t stronger than them!”

Gaara’s laugh this time is raspier, less assured; “You think you know them so well. There’s no way to ever truly know someone else’s heart– There’s no point in even trying. Let trivial feelings like friendship and loyalty cloud your focus and you’ll die.”

“Yeah yeah, keep yapping while you still have a mouth to yap with! I’m about to shut you up once and for all!”

All Sasuke has are the sounds of battle, but they don’t sound very promising. He frowns hard, clenching his hands into white-knuckled fists. What is Naruto doing up there?! He has half a mind to go up there himself and take over this battle, but stabs of pain from his shoulder and knee set him straight before he can. He shakes his head– time to think like a Shinobi.

He turns to Akamaru and whispers, “Can you get up there and see what’s going on? When you come back just tell me if Naruto’s winning.”

The little dog nods and hops back up the branches without hesitation. He’s gone for maybe twenty seconds before he comes back down and vigorously shakes his head. Sasuke swears under his breath. Fuck thinking like a Shinobi– Time to rush in there like an idiot.

“Keep Sakura safe,” Sasuke growls, shoving so much chakra into his feet they start glowing, “I’m going in. I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

He leaps up into the trees with so much force he craters the ground behind him.

Sasuke flies like a rocket back up into the canopy just in time to see hear the BOOM and see the telltale dark gray smoke of a paper bomb– Naruto comes tumbling end over end out of the smoke and Sasuke kicks off a tree with his bad leg to change his trajectory. He tackles Naruto in midair and soars until his feet hit a branch and he forces out enough chakra to stick their whole bodies to it. Naruto drops to the bark with a yelp and Sasuke falls to one knee with a hiss.

He’s pushed it too far, his knee is nearly numb from the pain and his shoulder might’ve been dislocated again from when he slammed into Naruto. He whips around to see his teammate’s handiwork; if he didn’t take Gaara down with whatever the Hell that maneuver was Sasuke is going to scream.

When the smoke clears, the guise of Shukaku is melting back into normal sand on its left side and Gaara is struggling to stay upright, warbling to himself, “He attacked the base of the tail where the defense is weakest… He didn’t wound me, but the sand couldn’t absorb the impact…”

Despite that the sand is already starting to reconstitute itself, and when Sasuke looks to Naruto he sees that same cocktail of fear, disgust, and sympathy from their meeting at the hospital. But now there’s something else, something that overpowers all the other feelings.


And something in Sasuke absolutely hates seeing it in Naruto’s eyes.

So Sasuke grabs Naruto by the collar and screams in his face, “GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER UZUMAKI! Sakura needs to get the Hell out of here before she gets any worse, so either you let me buy you time to get her back to Shikamaru and Hinata or you get your head out of your ass and fight! I had to sit by and watch as I lost everything once, and I swear to God if you make me do that again I will follow you to Hell, drag you back, and kill you again!”

Sasuke drops Naruto’s collar and catches his breath, leaning on his good leg. Naruto just stares at him for what feels like an eternity.

His blue eyes spark to life; “I get it now.”

Sasuke furrows his eyebrows; “You get what?”

Naruto pushes himself to his feet; “Gaara’s no different than I am, with the exact same sadness and loneliness. He didn’t fight for anyone, while I was up here worrying about protecting you and Sakura and… And for a second there I thought maybe he was strong, stronger than you or me or anyone else, because he didn’t care about anyone. I let him get under my skin. I already knew better– That’s not what real strength is. If you just fight for yourself you’ll never be strong, not ever!”

Naruto presses his hands into a seal and lets out another war cry as chakra rushes up around him like a burning wildfire, so strong and so bright Sasuke has to shield his eyes.

There’s a burst of white smoke, and suddenly the forest has become an orange grove as clones of Naruto appear on every surface they can cover. Sasuke can’t help a twinge of disbelief and something much uglier as he looks around at the sheer volume of clones– Intellectually he knew Naruto was strong, that the chakra of a Tailed Beast would make him even stronger, but this was further than he’d ever thought Naruto could reach.

But he doesn’t have time to be jealous. There’s a mission to complete.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to keep you waiting,” Naruto crows as he points at Gaara, “Get ready for an original jutsu straight from my ninja handbook!”

Sasuke snorts, “So I can assume you’ve got this?”

Naruto grins over his shoulder; “You know it! You and Sakura get going– I’ll catch up in no time! Believe it!”

Sasuke just smirks; “At this point how can I not?”

He drops back down to the forest floor and scoops up Sakura, breaking out into as full a sprint he can manage on one good leg. He feels an impact hard enough to shake the ground and nearly stumbles but catches himself– He has to keep running, has to get Sakura to safety, has to complete his mission because he is not a failure.

That single-minded drive keeps Sasuke from noticing the pain in his leg, but it also leads to him nearly cutting Shino’s throat open with a hastily-palmed kunai as he runs straight into him.

Shino grabs his arm with a swarm of bugs; “Calm down– It’s just me. And I’m not alone.”

“Howdy kids,” the jolly voice of the second exam proctor chirps as she lands beside Shino, “You playing nice?”

Sasuke can only blink; “Why are you here?”

Anko just pulls the collar of her long coat back to show a small black spot that Sasuke almost mistakes for a bruise before he sees the shape is far too similar to three tomoe; “Because I’ve got a vested interest in keeping your girl out of Orochimaru’s hands. Speaking of, I see she didn’t take our warnings seriously.”

Sakura fidgets in Sasuke’s grasp; “I didn’t have a choice, Gaara would’ve–!”

“Calm down, Honey, I’m just foolin’,” Anko sighs as she plucks Sakura out of Sasuke’s grip to carry her bridal style, “Come on, let’s find your friends. And don’t get any ideas about breaking off to join Naruto in playing hero, trust me I will know about them.”

The slight edge to her grin tells Sasuke there’s really not much room for him to argue.

When they reach the deep-forest clearing Hinata and Shikamaru set up in Sasuke throws dignity and his image to the wind to collapse face first into the dirt. Shino settles down next to him cross-legged and Shikamaru comes over to nudge him with his shoe.

Shikamaru clicks his tongue; “Jeez, chasing Sakura must’ve really taken it out of you.”

Sasuke rolls so he’s on his side, catching a glimpse of Anko as she gently sets Sakura down, and asks, “Is she going to be alright?”

Anko just smiles; “She’s gonna be just fine, Romeo. You can relax.”

Sasuke immediately pushes himself up, trying to get to his feet despite the fact that one leg keeps giving out; “Can’t, have to go back, Naruto’s–“

Another earth-shaking impact, one that knocks Shikamaru and Hinata both onto their butts. A shadow passes over the clearing and Sasuke finds himself scooching back with his fellow genin to get a good view of what’s blocking out the sun past the trees.

It’s a frog.

A gigantic frog.

A gigantic bright orange frog with a pipe in its mouth and a scar across its eye facing down a gigantic tanuki made of sand.

On second thought, maybe Naruto would be fine without Sasuke’s help.

Still, he can’t help but breathe, “How in the world– How did Naruto learn how to do that?

Shikamaru and Hinata turn to him with wide eyes; “NARUTO did that?!”

Hinata turns back towards the fight, beaming from ear to ear, white eyes positively sparkling; “A-amazing– He’s gotten so strong! I didn’t… I had no idea you could summon creatures that big!”

Shikamaru’s smirking now, leaning forward on his knees to watch the show; “Who knew he had it in him?”

Sasuke can only shrug one shoulder; “Whoever trained him, I guess.”

A fight of this scale rocks the ground with every blow and threatens to fell the whole forest, but the genin can’t look away from the sheer spectacle of it all. For a long moment Sasuke’s caught between feeling deeply inadequate and just screaming his lungs out cheering for Naruto, and the latter wins the day the second Shikamaru and Hinata decide to start loudly (or in Hinata’s case “loudly”) rooting for his teammate.

Despite the battle of titans above Sasuke’s eyes keep flickering to Sakura, who almost looks asleep except for how her eyes twitch in time with the back and forth rhythm of the duel.

The battle ends in the grandest way possible, with Naruto transforming the toad into the Nine Tailed Fox– it’s enough to even make Anko swear out loud as she gapes at the battle above.

No power in the world could’ve kept Sasuke from running to Naruto the second Shukaku dissolves and the great toad disappears.

When Sasuke finds them, Naruto and Gaara are lying on the ground, so spent all Naruto can move is his head as he turns to look at him. Despite that there’s a long, scuffed trail behind him– the pieces aren’t hard to put together. He crawled towards Gaara with his chin. His headband is gone and blood is flowing from a cut on his forehead– there’s an identical one on Gaara. And Gaara… he’s just staring up at the pieces of blue sky peeking out through green leaves.

It doesn’t take him long to find Naruto’s headband in the bushes, and when he limps over to Naruto again he kneels at his side and holds it out for him to see; “You should keep better track of this.”

Naruto looks up to him, blue eyes wide and brimming with tears; “Sakura, is she–?”

“She’s going to be fine,” Sasuke replies, “It’s all over. Now stop squirming so I can heal you.”

Naruto slowly looks between Sasuke and Gaara before he turns his gaze up to Sasuke; “Can you heal him first?”

Sasuke almost asks why. But then he remembers how Naruto had cried, had mourned Haku and Zabuza despite everything, and he doesn’t need to.

He doesn’t even get an inch away from Naruto before Gaara’s siblings touch down in front of him. Despite how Temari is exhausted and sporting a broken nose and Kankuro had never seemed like he cared that much about his brother, they both crouch protectively in front of him.

Gaara’s voice is so soft it’s almost inaudible; “That’s enough… It’s over…”

Kankuro opens his mouth to protest, but the sight of Gaara’s face more relaxed than it’s likely ever been makes him stop.

And he murmurs instead, “Alright then.”

There’s a long moment where Gaara just stares at the two boys from the Leaf village. Naruto Uzumaki and Sasuke Uchiha. Naruto finally lost consciousness, but Sasuke is gazing back, eyes focused on him and Kankuro as Gaara leans heavy on his brother’s shoulder.

Gaara remembers when he first saw Sasuke’s eyes. They were akin to two pits, so deep they were bottomless, two inescapable black holes that consumed anything that got too close. There was hatred in them, rage, and a loneliness few people could survive.

But now those eyes are looking at three enemy ninja, and they aren’t seeing enemies anymore. They’re seeing a family, one that had been on the brink of shattering, but had a chance to pull itself together again.

And those eyes are so full of longing it’s painful to look at.

They disappear into the trees. Gaara starts to understand as he slowly, carefully turns everything over in his mind. Naruto had to build his family from the ground up. Sasuke had his taken and ached every day it wasn’t there.

Gaara has a chance. It’s more than they ever had.

So he whispers, “Temari… Kankuro… I’m sorry…”

Kabuto presses down hard on Orochimaru’s wrist; “Do you feel that?”

Orochimaru hisses through gritted teeth; “For the last damn time, Kabuto, no.

“Then I’m afraid the situation is about as dire as it looks,” Kabuto sighs, “It’s beyond my skill level… You’re going to need another body a lot sooner than we thought.”

Orochimaru clicks his tongue; “It might go deeper than that– Sarutobi used the Reaper Death Seal, who knows if switching bodies would ever be enough…”

Kabuto is quiet for a moment before he looks Orochimaru in the eye; “We need a second opinion. You know who from.”

Orochimaru’s face is unreadable; “I do. And in the meantime… Just in case… We need to speed things up with Sakura.”

Kabuto nods; “As you wish.”

Chapter Text

xi. Sasuke didn’t learn that the Hokage had died until twenty four hours after it happened. But in hindsight it was obvious that it had.

When he’d regrouped with the others, dragging Naruto behind him with his good arm, Anko had gotten some kind of message on her radio headset that had made her barely hold in a gasp. Then she’d pasted on a grin and apologized, saying they’d have to hide out here a little while longer while everyone else cleaned up in the village proper– but the civilians had all been evacuated and casualties were looking low, so there was no need to worry.

Sasuke had been suspicious at the time, but had dropped it when it was time for them to come back. When he’d seen the extent of the property damage, especially around the stadium, he’d thought that’s what Anko was trying to hide from them. The hospital had been abuzz with activity, to the point where some emergency procedures for critically injured chunin (likely stationed at where they’d broken through the wall) were happening right in the lobby, and that just cemented Sasuke’s theory. Besides, he didn’t have time to think on it further– he was busy making sure that the hospital staff didn’t keep him too far from his teammates for too long.

Sakura was out of his control, at least for a while; Anko had to take her to a secure part of the hospital so no straggler Sound agents swiped her while they were treating her Curse Mark. So Sasuke stuck to Naruto’s side, and since they were just standard wounded that wasn’t too hard. Hakumei came to treat them both, and while she chided Sasuke for pushing himself she couldn’t help but let out a low whistle when she saw the work he’d been doing.

“This isn’t half bad for being self taught with sloppy chakra control,” Hakumei had said around a wry grin as she worked on his knee herself, “We could make a decent medic out of you.”

He hadn’t been sure how to respond to that, so he’d just shrugged.

They’d set Naruto up in a room for the night thanks to the toll that fight took on him, and while Hakumei said Sasuke could go home he’d insisted on staying with Naruto, keeping watch over him as a parade of people came in and out of the room to check on them both. Kakashi was first, and Sasuke had been about to ask him for details about what had happened in the village before he spotted Sakura in his arms. Which, in hindsight, was the perfect way to distract Sasuke.

Kakashi had laid her down in the empty bed across from Naruto’s, placing Sasuke squarely between them, and turned to Sasuke with a tired smile crinkling the corner of his eye; “We’ve got the mark back under control. She’ll be alright. I’d tell you to go home, but I get the feeling that won’t take.”

Sasuke had shrugged, this time with a smile; “Got it in one.”

Kakashi had laughed before sitting down on Sakura’s bed, his voice pitching down and softening as he continued, “I talked to Anko and the others– You really stepped up out there when Sakura and Naruto needed you.”

Sasuke’s smile had become more of a wince; “Well, I mean… I’ve already gotten practice with it.”

And really, what else could he have done? Sakura had trained her skill to the point where she could duel with Gaara and make a decent dent in his perfect defense, Naruto apparently had insane amounts of raw power bubbling just under the surface that he could call to help him summon giant toads, what else could Sasuke do in the face of that? He’d lost out on a month of training. His grasp of the Chidori was only enough to stun Gaara for a fraction of a minute. What else was Sasuke good for these days? What was he even worth–

Kakashi reached out and gave his shoulder a gentle squeeze; “Putting your friends first, trusting them to handle what you can’t, pushing yourself to your limit to keep them safe, knowing when to back down… Sasuke, even some seasoned jonin can’t do that. A ninja’s worth isn’t measured in how many lives they take. It’s measured in how many they save, how many they can protect. That’s how I measure it, anyway. I just wanted to tell you that I’m proud of you. You’re growing into a fine ninja, Sasuke, and an even better young man.”

Sasuke remembered feeling warm. He remembered his hands shaking and his eyes burning and suddenly feeling so so tired but so… warm. He’d choked out a “Thank you” while making sure his bangs hid his eyes and when Kakashi ruffled his hair he leaned into the comfortable pressure.

It’s hard for Sasuke to remember exactly who came through after that, mostly because there were so many of them– he did remember Kurenai since Sakura was as much her student now as she was Kakashi’s, Iruka who fretted over Naruto until Sasuke told him he was going to be okay, Sakura’s mother Tsubaki who did the same for Sakura before she started fretting over Sasuke too (which felt strange but not unpleasant), Teuchi and Ayame popping in to give Sasuke the ramen they’d intended for Naruto if he’d been awake, almost all of the other Leaf rookie genin (even Lee who was nearly tripping all over himself to see if Sakura was okay), Anko who had intended to give him some dango but ended up eating it herself when Sasuke told her he didn’t like sweets, and Hakumei one last time to give Sasuke some blankets since he definitely wasn’t going home tonight.

In hindsight, Sasuke realizes that not a single one of the adults mentioned any details about how the battle with the Sound and Sand invaders had gone beyond a vague “we won”. They were intensely focused on how Sasuke and his teammates were doing, how their mission had gone, to the point where there was no room for any other talk.

Sasuke remembers having a dream. But as he thinks about it now, it settles with a bone-chilling weight in his stomach that it was probably real. He remembers in the middle of the night seeing the same ANBU who blocked Kakashi’s path to the Hokage standing over Sakura’s bed, unreadable mask examining her in silence.

Then he’d turned to Sasuke and said in a soft, familiar voice, “You know there’s nothing you can do, right? She will go with Orochimaru. Not tonight. But soon.”

Sasuke remembers slurring, half-asleep, “You won’t take her. I won’t let you.”

There was a smirk in the ANBU’s voice; “Now I don’t remember saying he’d take her. What recourse do you have if she goes under her own power? What will you do then, Sasuke?”

And Sasuke doesn’t remember even hesitating for a moment; “I’d bring her back.”

The ANBU removed their mask, and Sasuke had decided right then he was dreaming, because now Kabuto was smirking down at him; “Good answer.”

He’d fallen back asleep.

When he wakes the next morning, Naruto and Sakura are already stirring; in twenty minutes or so when they’re all awake Kakashi comes back in, somber now, to tell them what happened to the Hokage. And suddenly, in hindsight, everything makes sense.

It’s only once the Sand Village has rooted out the extent of Orochimaru’s manipulations and offered their complete surrender that the Leaf Village finally holds a funeral. Taking time to grieve had been too much of a risk with the possibility of another strike looming over them. The memorial is ostensibly for everyone who died in the invasion, but even the children know it’s really for the Hokage. And honestly, Sakura’s certain that it could never be any other way, no matter how many other casualties there were.

She feels far away as she dresses herself in black and bids her mother goodbye so she can go and meet Sasuke and Naruto in their usual alleyway, like she’s a puppeteer moving her own strings. It’s not grief she feels, not quite. It hardly feels real. The Third Hokage had been unique among the Kage of the five great nations, and even among the previous ranks of Hokage, just because he was always… there.

Even in his first term after the Second had passed he tried to stay down to Earth, to make himself familiar to the people. That’s why he’d been pressed to retake the position after the Fourth had passed in the Ninetails’ Attack, he was a comforting and familiar face when that’s what the Leaf village had needed most. There had been no distance between him and the people– even Sakura had known him since the academy. He hadn’t been Lord Hokage back then, he’d just been Old Man Third who would come in for boring guest lectures and visit the girls when they were learning how to arrange flowers. She remembered working together with Ino to make him a bouquet and he’d accepted it with a wide smile and some comment about how it’d brighten up his office.

He was old, she knew that– older than most ninja ever got to be. And one day he would’ve gone no matter how peaceful the Leaf Village stayed. But it should’ve been like he’d wanted all along– there’d be a Fifth Hokage watching over the village, he would’ve been long retired, and it would’ve been reported once the Sarutobi Clan had time to privately grieve that he’d gone in his sleep. It was supposed to be the kind of death you expected, the kind where you just shrugged your shoulders and said, “He’s in a better place now.”

It wasn’t supposed to be now. It wasn’t supposed to be this.

As she places her flower on the altar and distantly hears Konohamaru weeping into Iruka’s shoulder, she knows what she feels is a drop in a vast ocean. But she’ll miss Old Man Third all the same.

Team 7 goes for post-funeral ramen and talks about literally anything else as they eat. With the sun out and her stomach full it’s easy to do. But clouds roll past the setting sun as she walks Sasuke home– he’s back on a crutch thanks to how he pushed himself going after her. Trying to think about that makes her stomach twist in a way she’s not sure how to define, so she tries not to. The Hokage is farther away, it’s easier, it doesn’t make that voice start whispering.

So she asks Sasuke, “Did you ever talk to the Hokage much?”

She doesn’t expect him to answer, but manages not to jump when he does; “More when I was younger. He set me up in my apartment when… You know when. I think a social worker was supposed to check on me for that first year or two but he did instead. I thought he was pitying me and I hated it. I said as much, and… He didn’t come see me anymore. But he’d still try to talk to me when he came by the academy. I didn’t talk back.”

Sasuke suddenly stops, brows furrowing hard as he stares intently at the ground– Not angry, not frustrated, just like he’s trying to put something together. Sakura waits at his side, eyes darting from his face to the crutch in his right hand, just in case he starts wobbling.

When he speaks again it’s at a murmur, like he’d forgotten she was here, “He… wasn’t pitying me. That wasn’t pity. It was… He looked sad I guess, but,” Sasuke suddenly turns to her, eyes alight with a questioning spark, “That didn’t seem like all. That wouldn’t be all, would it?”

Sakura frowns for a moment as she turns it over herself, before shrugging; “I don’t know what else it would be. I mean… Your family did so much for the village, and some of the elders were probably old enough to be friends or war buddies… maybe he was just sad. Or he was beating himself up over… all that happening on his watch?”

Sasuke nods, shifting weight back onto his crutch as he starts up towards his house again; “Yeah… Guilt seems about right.”

It’s properly dark by the time they make it to the building, and Sakura stays with Sasuke all the way into the elevator and to his front door. As he’s caught between fumbling with his keys and keeping his balance on his crutch Sasuke pauses and turns to her, an eyebrow raised; “Wait– How far is your house from here?”

Sakura blinks a couple times in surprise; “Uhm, well I live downtown, so I think that’s–“

Sasuke interrupts her mental math; “That’s really far, Sakura– And it’s late. Are you really going to walk all that way back by yourself?”

Sakura really, really misses the time when that little voice in the back of her head would, in the face of what a twelve year old lovesick girl could only call an invitation, scream and celebrate as Sakura externally gaped and blushed. As it stood she was still gaping and blushing, but the way her stomach was tying itself up in knots wasn’t pleasant, wasn’t out of excitement and anticipation for being alone with Sasuke. And the voice in the back of her head was instead hissing that he was patronizing her because of course he was, since she’d proved herself to still be weak because it’s like he said she was never strong she was just a fuckup who charged in half-cocked with a stupid, impossible idea of being important and worth something–

Sakura’s voice comes out terse and clipped; “I’ll be fine, I can walk a mile by myself. Goodnight, Sasuke.”

Sakura takes the stairs down to the street and takes the Even Longer Way home so she can stew in her thoughts. She pushes straight past her mom without a word when she comes in the front door, going straight up to her room and out onto the balcony. She curls up on the stone bench and thinks back to when Gaara had dropped down in front of her, to how she’d thought she was ready, how she’d thought she’d had a chance

But before her thoughts go any further, her mom is sliding the door open, blankets over one arm, two steaming mugs in her other hand, and a smile on her face. Without a word she comes over, presses the mug of what is now obviously hot chocolate into her hands, wraps one of the blankets around her shoulders, and sits down next to her.

“So,” she says as she tucks the blanket around her lap and blows on the hot chocolate, “Wanna talk about it?”

Sakura tenses up, and all she can think is that she can’t tell her everything. If she knew about the curse mark her mom would never sleep again, she’d beg her to stop being a shinobi, she’d faint right there– no, there was no way. But… Sakura stares at the hot chocolate, the warmth spreading from her hands on the mug down into the rest of her. She doesn’t have to lie. She just doesn’t have to tell her everything.

So she says in a trembling voice, “There’s just… so much. I-I thought I was stronger, I thought I could be as good as Naruto and Sasuke and I wouldn’t drag them down anymore, but… I almost died, and I put my teammates in danger, and Sasuke pushed himself and got himself hurt saving me again and Naruto saved the day again and it’s just– Nothing ever changes, none of my training meant anything I was just the useless girl again and… Maybe that’s all I’m ever gonna be.”

Her mom takes a long sip of her hot chocolate, the kind that lets Sakura know she’s thinking long and hard about what she’s going to say next. She hates awkward silence, and if she has to deal with them she at least likes to give an excuse.

When she brings the mug down from her mouth she smiles over at Sakura and puts a hand on her knee; “Sakura, honey, do you remember the day your dad left? After I’d helped him box up all his things we watched him go, all the way down the street until we couldn’t see him anymore. You were in tears the whole time but you were so quiet, you didn’t say a word until he was out of sight. Then you took my hand, and I’ll never forget what you said– “You can cry too now Mommy, it’s okay. We can both cry.” And I knew right then that you were stronger than I’d ever thought you’d be."

Sakura's jaw drops ever so slight open, and she hides it by taking a sip of her hot chocolate as her mom goes on; "I knew that when you got hit, you’d take the time you needed to cry, but then you’d get right back up again. And you always did. When the kids at the academy would make fun of you for your forehead I told you that you didn’t have to stay, that there’d be no shame in leaving, but you wouldn’t even dream of it. After what happened in the Land of Waves you cried all night, but the next morning you still went out to meet your team.”

Her mom puts an arm around her shoulders and draws her in close; “It’s okay to fail, sweetheart. It’s okay to not be ready. It’s the only way you learn– smart girl like you, I’ll bet you’re already thinking of ways that Gaara kid won’t get by you again. They might treat you like a full grown soldier, but don’t forget that you’re still a kid. You’re still my kid. And under this roof none of those stupid shinobi rules apply– Go ahead and cry. Cry and get scared and get frustrated and do everything they won’t let you do. And when you’ve done it all you need and you’re ready to face the world again you go ahead and face it. I’ll always be here for you when you need to come back.”

And Sakura, with her face buried in her mom’s shoulder, finally lets herself cry.

The Sand Village isn’t the only threat lurking around the Leaf Village, waiting on bated breath to take advantage of their weakness, so genin aren’t being sent out of the village until the Feudal Lord and the emergency committee of jonin nominate and elect a candidate for Fifth Hokage. And since so many of their senseis are on that committee the only missions genin can get are low-cost D ranks helping rebuild.

That’s how Sasuke finds himself replacing roof tiles on an apartment building downtown while most of the other Leaf rookies flit around the surrounding structures, mixing cement, hammering nails, and talking instead of working. Even Hinata’s contributing, though thanks to her recovery’s steady if not speedy pace she’s mostly just fetching and grabbing, as well as using her Byakugan to see which parts of the buildings need the most urgent attention.

So when noon rolls around and Choji’s growling stomach and whining about how hungry he is starts to grate on his ears Sasuke rolls his eyes and turns to Hinata as he says, “If we don’t break for lunch soon he’s gonna get even worse. Can you go get us some food? Take my wallet– Naruto, you go with her. With how much she’s gonna need to get she’ll need someone to help her carry it all.”

Naruto just shrugs and says “Sure” while Hinata chokes on her own agreement and nearly drops Sasuke’s wallet. Her mouth snaps shut as her cheeks light up and she stares at Sasuke, eyes wide and brows drawn in. He just smirks back at her.

Sakura hops onto the roof as she adds, “I’ll go around to everyone and see what they want; I’ll come too, to see how much each thing costs so they can pay Sasuke back–“

Hinata activates her Byakugan and stammers, “A-actually, Sakura, you should stay– I just noticed, that… the part of the roof Sasuke’s working on is looking weak, y-you could use some Earth style to fix it up!”

Sakura blinks, but shrugs, and as everyone comes over to her to give her lunch orders to take down Sasuke shoots a questioning glance at Hinata. She just beams back at him, looking far cheekier than Sasuke thought she could, before taking Sakura’s list and heading off down the street with Naruto.

Sakura settles down beside him, channeling her lime green chakra into the stone roof, and smiles as she looks at Hinata and Naruto head off; “They could be cute. Honestly I just hope they work out so Naruto will lay off me,” she arches a brow at Sasuke, smirk playful in a way that makes Sasuke’s mouth oddly dry, “But since when do you care about that kind of thing? Last I checked you could care less about your own love life, let alone Naruto’s.”

Sasuke looks back down at the roof as he places another tile; “It’s just annoying to watch Hinata futz around him without doing anything.”

Ino’s laugh hits Sasuke’s other side as she comes over with a fresh bucket of mortar; “We’re annoying because we’re direct, Hinata’s annoying because she won’t make a move– There’s just no pleasing you, is there?”

Sasuke shrugs, shoulders tight, mouth screwed into a frown; “It’s all a hassle, but you guys are at least doing something.”

Sakura’s face turns the same color as her dress and Ino’s grin is blinding as she crows, “Really now? Can I get that in writing? There’s some academy bets that would win me!”

“Ino, I think they need some of that mortar on the other side of the roof,” Sakura mutters, chakra pulsing in uneven bursts as she sloppily mends the cracks in the wall.

The smile on Ino’s face immediately drops, and her voice is harsh as she shoots back, “They look fine to me.”

When Sakura and Ino had fought and bickered over him in the academy it had been annoying. But it had been simple. Now he was just a channel for the deeply complicated something that sat between them now, the conduit for this oppressive and thick atmosphere that made every breath Sasuke took feel like a Herculean effort. These girls used to be annoying, back before one had nearly killed the other. Twice. He can’t believe he misses annoying.

As it stands, he lamely utters, “I’ll take it over to them,” and makes his way over to the other side of the roof as fast as he can with his (improving, but still unpleasant) limp.

He sets the bucket of mortar down next to Tenten and she smirks without looking at him; “Scared of getting cooties from those icky girls?”

“I can handle that,” Sasuke murmurs, setting a tile next to where Tenten’s working, “But things are different with them now.”

“And you don’t like ‘different’,” Tenten finishes for him, scooping out some mortar, “Yeah, I’m starting to see that boys aren’t good with ‘different’. Especially boys with big chips on their shoulders.”

Sasuke’s eyes drift to Neji on the next building over, Byakugan active as he quietly directs Shikamaru around the weak spots in the roof. Lee, Sasuke knows all about. But Neji he learned from Naruto since he’d missed part of the fight healing Hinata. All he could think as he listened was that he didn’t know for certain if the Uchiha had done anything like that to their branch families, and that left him feeling very cold in that way he still wasn’t sure how to classify.

“They’re adjusting pretty well all things considered,” Tenten remarks, bringing Sasuke back to the present just in time to keep from hitting his finger instead of the nail in the tile, “I mean, I’m not gonna stop worrying about Lee, but Neji… I think this ‘different’ will be good for him. He used to think ‘different’ was impossible, after all.”

She pauses in her work and looks over at him, eyes thoughtful; “Sakura and Ino… I hope their ‘different’ doesn’t get any worse. But who knows how much that hope is worth.”

They continue to work in a silence that’s not quite comfortable, but not oppressive, until Naruto and Hinata come back with lunch. From how much Hinata hands over to Choji and how much less is missing from Sasuke’s wallet than he thought there’d be he can only think she paid for at least half of this herself (he’s seen how little can fit in Naruto’s frog wallet). He makes sure he’s looking her in the eye when he takes the drugstore omusubi from her and says “Thank you” so she knows it’s not just for the food. The tiny smile on her face tells him she got it.

The Leaf rookies end up sitting in a circle on the roof as they eat, Hinata next to Naruto and Sasuke smushed between Naruto and Sakura. Neji’s as far from Hinata as he can be and Ino makes sure Shikamaru and Choji are between her and Sakura, but the way Naruto and Kiba thunder over everyone else and the girls chatter across the circle and Choji’s eating like this could be his last meal is enough to push those elephants to the most distant corner of the room.

Between trading jabs with Naruto about their respective lunches, answering Shikamaru’s and Shino’s questions about his training with the Chidori, and swapping private jokes with Sakura and Hinata, Sasuke thinks that this is… nice. He finds himself wishing Lee could be up there with them. Any pain in his knee or his shoulder feel far away under the rays of warm sunlight.

Naruto elbows him in the side, grinning from ear to ear; “What’s got you smiling, jackass?”

The bracelet on Sasuke’s right wrist glints in the sunlight and Sasuke just snickers, “None of your business, dumbass.”

This isn’t how he’d wanted to see the village again.

Ideally he’d never wanted to see the village again. But he’d grown used to the idea of what he wanted and what needed to be done being miles apart, and should he have to come back he’d have liked it to be like he remembered it, or at least close.

The wall had suffered the most damage, but the stadium and downtown were close seconds. Asuka Nara’s drugstore had its roof entirely caved in, the bar ANBU agents would always collect in after the worst operations is partially burned down, and the front of the bookstore is entirely scorched. The crack in Lord Sarutobi’s face on the mountain is an echo of the greatest loss the village suffered.

But there are some silver linings. The academy is still standing and even now students and teachers are repairing what was damaged. Home… home is still intact, a benefit to being placed as far from the city center as they could possibly afford. Everywhere in the village even with the state his eyes are in he can see people rebuilding, from civilians helping each other put their neighborhoods back together to a group of genin taking a break on a rooftop from repairing an apartment building near the main street.

This, he thinks, is what the Will of Fire should mean.

His partner’s voice rouses him from his own private reverie; “Well, it survived. But barely. The damage is extensive.”

He finds himself speaking without thought; “Not long ago it was at the height of its glory. Look at it now…”

He can feel his partner’s eyes on him, curious; “Hm… You sound almost sad. Don’t tell me you still have feelings for your old home.”

Despite the mocking tone he knows his partner wouldn’t begrudge him if he told the truth. That’s why he likes him. But none of this farce is for him. It’s not for their leader or their targets or for any ninja who comes at them with grand ideas of bringing them to justice. It’s for himself. Because if he breaks character for even a moment he’s not sure he could ever go back into it again.

So Itachi Uchiha lies, “No. None.”

Chapter Text

xii. Sakura and Kurenai always met at tea shops or dango stands, mostly due to Sakura’s own sweet tooth, before training. Kurenai would take her through the day’s lesson plan over their snacks while Sakura told her what she’d like to focus on, then they’d head off to the training ground. Sakura and Kurenai both were creatures of habit so their routine was set in stone by this point.

Which is why today as she turns the corner and the tea shop comes into view it takes Sakura a fraction of a second to realize something is wrong.

Kurenai usually waits for her inside, but today she’s standing just outside the entrance. She usually meets Sakura alone, but she’s currently caught in hushed, tense conversation with Asuma at her side and Kakashi as he leans against the entryway in an unconvincing show of being relaxed. Sakura tries to look past them at the other patrons in the tea house, but the moment she blinks the table just behind the jonin is empty. She knits her brow into a frown as she pushes herself from a brisk walk to a jog.

Kurenai notices Sakura as she comes into earshot and turns to her with a smile that’s frayed at the edges; “Oh, Sakura, you made it.”

Sakura’s eyes dart between the three jonin as she asks; “Is something wrong? What were you guys talking about?”

Asuma snorts, but it’s with a forced kind of mirth; “Getting right to the point without screwing around? Kakashi are you sure she’s your student?”

Kurenai’s smile turns apologetic as she puts a gentle hand on Sakura’s shoulder; “I’m sorry, but Kakashi’s told Asuma and I about something pressing we need to take care of right away. I hate to cancel on you, but–“

Sakura forces her own smile as she stiffly waves it off; “No, no, it’s okay– The village is spread thin, I get it.”

Kurenai gives her shoulder a pat; “Thank you for understanding, Sakura,” she turns to Asuma, face deadly serious again, “Let’s go.”

The two of them disappear, so fast they might as well have teleported, and Sakura’s alone with Kakashi. Her eyes drift back to the empty table just behind the noren where she’d thought she’d seen someone. There’s a pair of still-steaming teacups and barely touched dango sitting on the table. She narrows her eyes– Someone had definitely been there, but how had they gotten away in the literal blink of an eye? It couldn’t have been genjutsu, she would’ve felt it, would’ve seen it…

Kakashi interrupts her thoughts, leaning down to smile at her; “Kurenai might be busy, but I’m free. Wanna head out to the usual training ground? I’m meeting Sasuke there, we can work on taijutsu today.”

Sakura rolls her eyes playfully as she starts down the street, sighing, “Fine, I guess you’ll do.”

Kakashi laughs as he falls in step with her, “I really need to talk to your mother more when she’s not beside herself with worry because I know you did not get that smart mouth from me.”

Sakura kicks too slow at his shin and he dodges just slow enough, and as they walk and talk she almost forgets that something might be wrong. She remembers again when they’re nearly to the training ground and Kakashi stops dead in his tracks. Sakura turns to him and for the second before he realizes she’s looking his dark eye is sharp and narrow, like it is in battle. She hates seeing it like that.

He knows she does, because the instant he notices her noticing him his eye closes and he rubs at the back of his neck; “I hate to make this a running theme, Sakura, but you’re gonna have to go ahead without me. Something’s come up. Make sure Sasuke doesn’t overdo it today, and–“

“Sensei, what aren’t you telling me?” Sakura cuts in, glaring hard and fierce up at him. His breathing stops for an overwhelming second and his eye flickers down to her left shoulder. She clenches her fist so hard her knuckles go white under her gloves.

He puts his hand over her curse mark as he brings his voice down; “Sakura, if I could tell you, I promise that I would. But this requires jonin level clearance, and–“

He’s lying. He’s lying right to her face and he thinks he can get away with it, like she’s still some silly little girl and not a ninja who’s taken a life and scarred Gaara of the Desert’s face and could take him on right here right now if that’s what she wanted because he’s right to be scared of the Curse Mark he has no idea what

Sakura bites down hard on the side of her tongue. The voice isn’t even a voice anymore. It’s just her. Maybe it’s always been her.

She forces out a harsh breath; “Whatever. Just go.”

Sakura doesn’t even stay to watch him go, turning on her heel and stomping the rest of the way to the training ground. Kakashi at least wasn’t lying about Sasuke already being there, stretching his good leg when he looks up and notices her. In her current mood all Sakura can look at is the brace covering his left knee.

Sasuke’s brow furrows; “What are you doing here? Where’s Kakashi?”

Sakura crosses her arms over her chest, blowing one of her long bangs out of her face as she snaps back, “Don’t ask me. Kurenai cancelled on training with me and Kakashi said he’d take over but ran off when we were almost here. Something’s wrong but they wouldn’t tell me what.

Sasuke narrows his eyes, looking just slightly past her– the telltale sign that he’s thinking hard about what she said as he mutters, “That’s becoming a running theme.”

It’s almost amazing how much hearing Sasuke echo Kakashi without a thought lightens Sakura’s mood. It’s cute in a way she’d never thought Sasuke could be until she’d handed him his birthday gift and seen the awe on his face. Her eyes drift to his hip and the knife is still fastened proudly at his side, Uchiha crest on the pommel shining in the sun. Sakura takes this moment to bask in the feeling of (still, miraculously) being in love with Sasuke Uchiha. It makes her feel normal.

So she puts her hands on her hips and sighs, “Well, their loss– We can get on just fine without them. So, how about we do some work on chakra control?”

And they do train, first focusing on taijutsu and second on chakra control. Even while obviously favoring his right side Sasuke still puts her through her paces, Sharingan flickering on and off as he flows between moves “borrowed” from Lee and the Hyuuga and ones he’d learned the old fashioned way. He’s starting to develop a style, close to all three but not quite any of them, focused on hard, targeted strikes and smooth, quick footwork. He’s also been learning some knife techniques– Sakura’s fast enough now to keep her gift from drawing her own blood, but he’s still able to slice some hair off the tip of her bangs, which is enough to make her hastily pin them back when they finally break to switch focus.

Sasuke asks her why she still hasn’t cut them to match the rest of her hair. She just shrugs and lets out an uneven laugh, saying “Oh, you know,” because she knows he doesn’t and will chalk it up to being A Girl Thing. Her hair’s supposed to be a reminder of consequences, a warning to Not Go There ever again. She’s not sure it’s working.

Chakra control is next because it’s less physically taxing but also far more likely to make Sasuke cut the session short on account of frustration. They mostly try walking on the practice stream set in this training ground for that specific purpose, though Sasuke ends up nearly soaked within minutes. His method of compensating for chakra overflow by channelling it elsewhere works fine enough on still water but with an active current the chakra output needs to constantly shift to match the changing surface; it had even taken Sakura a session or two to grasp the theory behind it. Sasuke was never one for theory. There was a reason she’d beaten him in every written exam.

And predictably enough they finish a good half hour early due to Sasuke, after an impressive but ultimately failed attempt at staying on the surface of the running stream, taking an agitated swig of water from his canteen and grumbling, “Let’s stop for today. I wanted to see Lee and Hakumei in the hospital, I should probably get there early.”

Sakura lets him have his excuse; “Alright. You mind me tagging along? I want to see how Lee’s doing too.”

Sasuke shrugs; “Do whatever you want.”

Sakura rolls her eyes and makes sure to bump him with her shoulder as she falls in step beside him. He shoots a glare over at her but the side of his mouth twitches up before he pushes it stubbornly back down again. As they stroll towards the hospital Sakura makes small talk and Sasuke actually makes an effort to respond, even if it’s just a low hum to let her know he heard her. She savors every single one.

Things are normal when they come to the hospital. Even with several weeks between them and the invasion of the village the place is still abuzz with activity, and Sasuke and Sakura actually have to wait in line to talk to the receptionists since so many people are here ahead of them. But their concerns are mundane, and when Sakura and Sasuke ask about Hakumei and Lee they get the answers they expect- she’s with a patient, he’s in the middle of physical therapy- and are in the middle of wondering whether they should wait out here or seek them out anyway when things promptly stop being normal.

The first thing Sakura hears is Kurenai’s voice over the sound of the doors clattering open; “We have an emergency!

She barely gets time to take in the fact that Kakashi is hanging barely conscious between Asuma and Gai’s shoulders as they barrel through the waiting room on Kurenai’s heels. The jonin don’t even notice her and Sasuke standing and staring agape as they push their way in and a cloud of nurses and orderlies hide them from view, spiriting Kakashi away and leaving everyone in the dust. For a second, all Sasuke and Sakura can do is stand and stare.

Sasuke is the first to speak in a stilted, wavering voice; “W-what… Was that–?!”

“That was Kakashi-sensei…” Sakura picks up, mind rattling and racing and bouncing off the walls of her skull as she tries to put together all the clues that things were off today together into a coherent whole. She slowly shakes her head. There’s not enough information. She needs to learn more.

Sakura steps behind Sasuke and her hands start flying through signs; “Stay out here and look worried, I’m going in after them.”

Sasuke immediately frowns; “What?! No, I’m coming with you–!”

Sasuke, you are not stealthy and not discreet,” Sakura hisses through her teeth, “I’ll be quick and I’ll tell you everything I learn once I’m back. Just trust me for five minutes.”

Sasuke narrows his eyes, then lets out a harsh breath; “Five minutes. That’s all you get.”

She nudges him with her elbow before running down the hall under the cover of an invisible cloak. Sasuke’s eyes follow her for a moment before he goes over to the nearest nurse and starts making a scene by loudly demanding answers he knows she doesn’t have. Sakura smiles as she ducks into an empty room and trades her invisible cloak for a transformation into a nurse– “reliable” is a good fit on Sasuke.

Sakura gets her head back in the game by coming out into the hall and following the sounds of commotion to a room on the second floor, arriving just on the heels of Hakumei and blending in with the other frazzled nurses who hang around on the edges of the room. Gai and Asuma gently deposit Kakashi on the bed and Kurenai hovers around him, running her hands through her hair. At first glance, aside from being soaking wet, nothing seems outwardly wrong with Kakashi. There’s no blood, no bruising, nothing. But his eyes are glazed over and barely open, his breathing erratic, and the only movement he can seem to muster is the barest twitch of his fingers.

Sakura has seen Kakashi weakened before by exhaustion. This is different. All Sakura can think of is the deep dark pit of burning pain she’d fallen into every time she’d gambled with the curse mark and her blood freezes to ice in her veins.

Hakumei storms up to the bed, batting Gai and Asuma away as she kneels at Kakashi’s side; “Alright where’s the fucking fire? The way you three were running like headless chickens I thought I’d find this idiot on the brink of death again.”

Kurenai shakes her head, absently fiddling with her hair; “Honestly he might be, we don’t know what’s happening to him we just know he–“ she cuts herself off and her eyes dart around the room before settling on her fellow jonin. Asuma and Gai look to each other before shaking their heads.

Sakura bites her lip. Looks like Kakashi wasn’t lying about “jonin-level clearance”.

Hakumei’s still focused on Kakashi, activating her Byakugan and immediately furrowing her brow; “Oh my God what is wrong with his chakra flow?”

She looks up and notices the looks the jonin are exchanging before she shakes her head and barks over her shoulder at the nurses and orderlies, “All of you, out. Now. This is apparently above your pay grade.”

They all start to shuffle out around Sakura and she has no choice but to go with the flow, Hakumei shutting the door right on her heels. Sakura sticks with the herd until they start to disperse, slowing down and eventually turning around to head back to the door. As soon as no more eyes are on her she throws up another invisible cloak and presses her ear to the door– the conversation is indistinct, vague, too muffled for this kind of door. Kurenai’s genjutsu would’ve been the perfect deterrent to anyone but Sakura, least of all because she’d taught her the exact same technique.

She bites the inside of her cheek– Kurenai’s an expert, if Sakura breaks the genjutsu she’ll know immediately. But that’s under ideal circumstances, and Kurenai’s mental state had seemed less than ideal. Sakura could maybe catch a minute or two of the conversation before Kurenai realizes what happened.

Sakura forms a basic seal and reaches out with her chakra. It’s a risk she’ll happily take.

The second she breaks the jutsu she hears the tail end of Hakumei’s sentence; “– because the chakra in his brain and eyes is doing some weird shit I haven’t seen in a pretty specific amount of years so remember that I technically outrank you and spill it.”

“Okay, okay, no need for that,” Asuma cuts in, “We were gonna tell you, but it’s some pretty sensitive shit– National security risk sensitive.”

“We ran into Itachi Uchiha,” Kurenai hisses, likely through gritted teeth, “Kisame Hoshigaki was with him. Kakashi said they were part of something called the Akatsuki with seven other members… And that they were here looking to take Naruto. We tried to hold them off, but Itachi… He did something to Kakashi, probably with his Sharingan since Kakashi told us not to look at his eyes, but that’s all we know.”

Gai’s voice is far more subdued than usual as he adds, “They ran off when I showed up to assist. The ANBU Black Ops should be on their trail but who knows if they’ll actually catch them. At the moment, Kakashi is the priority.”

Hakumei is silent for a moment before her voice comes out in a low, horrified whisper, “… It’s the Mangekyou Sharingan. It has to be. This is always what it looked like. The kind of damage this does to the brain is– We don’t have anyone here who can fix it. I can’t even fix it. The only person who could was Tsunade and nobody’s heard from her in years.”

“Well isn’t that fucking perfect,” Asuma grumbles in harmony with the click of a lighter.

Someone starts to move– Sakura can’t tell if they’re pacing or going to another part of the room– as Hakumei speaks up again; “I can put him under so he’s not in any pain while we wait on a solution, but that could be just as bad as leaving him, depending on how long that takes.”

Just as Gai seems to start to speak again the door comes flying open, pushing Sakura off it and into the wall. The impact breaks her concentration and the cloak falls away, just in time for Sakura to lock eyes with Kurenai as she glares at her from the doorway. Sakura freezes. It’s all she can do to keep a hold on her transformation.

Kurenai stalks toward her as she growls, “Who the hell are you?

Sakura has very few options, and all of them are bad. She picks the first one that comes to mind.

Earth Style– Hidden Mole Jutsu!

The concrete floor beneath Sakura’s feet dissolves into fine sand and she plummets straight down to the first floor, just barely catching herself in a roll and running blindly in the direction she sincerely hopes is the waiting room as she lets her transformation fall, letting the puff of smoke act as a temporary smokescreen. She wheels around a corner and nearly knocks Sasuke over– of course he was gonna come after her, he’s surprisingly predictable, but in this specific situation that’s a godsend. She grabs his arm and yelps out a quick “RUN!” as she keeps sprinting.

“What the Hell happened?!” Sasuke shouts as Sakura picks out a bright green exit sign and tries to ignore the third set of footsteps gaining on them.

“I’ll explain in a second for now just run!” she shrieks back, throwing a hasty Practice Brick wall up to block off the hallway behind them as she runs shoulder first through the exit door. From there Sakura makes them run exactly like she would run from Kurenai in the latter days of her training, rapidly and in zigzagging patterns that crisscross on top of each other with petal illusions dropped whenever her feet touch a roof. Sasuke keeps up surprisingly well despite how he winces every tine he accidentally lands on his bad leg.

After a good two minutes they finally land, boneless and exhausted, under a thick grove of trees vaguely near the Academy. For a long second Sakura just savors the shade on her back and cool grass on her face. She’s down to fifty percent in chakra reserves already and as she turns to Sasuke she can see him rubbing at his braced knee while sucking in labored breaths through clenched teeth.

“Okay,” Sasuke pants, “Will you now tell me what the Hell happened?!”

Sakura pulls herself up onto her knees; “Kurenai caught me eavesdropping– I was disguised, so if they caught me they would’ve just thrown me to T&I so… I panicked.”

Sasuke leans over and cuffs her on the back of the head; “You should’ve just dropped it, they wouldn’t have killed you for being worried about Kakashi.”

She elbows him in the side again; “I know what I should’ve done but after what I heard I was–“

“What did you hear?” Sasuke leans in as he asks, eyes sharp and attentive again.

Sakura pauses. In that pause it settles on Sakura like a stone weight exactly who Itachi Uchiha was– who he is. Who he absolutely has to be.

If she tells Sasuke, there’s no way they’re not going after Naruto, regardless of what shape they’re in. If she lies to him, he’ll know. And if he finds out what, who, she lied to him about… She closes her eyes and lets out a long sigh. There’s no other choice.

“Itachi Uchiha came back to the village,” Sakura says, keeping her voice slow and measured like she’s trying to calm a spooked horse, “He was looking for Naruto. The jonin fought him, and Kakashi was hit with something called the Mangekyou Sharingan. Itachi apparently ran when Gai showed up, and ANBU’s on his trail.”

For what feels like an eternity Sasuke simply stares at her, eyes wide, mouth pressed into a tight line, jaw clenched so hard Sakura thinks he might break all his teeth.

Then he’s up on his feet and damn near sprinting to the treeline, and Sakura swears as she pushes herself up and goes racing after him; “Sasuke wait–!

“Don’t try to stop me Sakura,” Sasuke growls, and it’s the same boy who called her annoying and said he was only living to kill a certain person again and she almost does as he says.

But she’s not that girl anymore. So she doesn’t.

Sasuke be reasonable, ANBU is after him and if he evades them there’s no way we can catch him,” Sakura snaps, doubling her pace as they come out onto the path beside that familiar stone bench.

“If he finds Naruto that’s a death sentence for him,” Sasuke mutters, like she’s not even here, “There’s no way he’s letting Naruto go, three jonin won’t throw him off.”

“He wasn’t working alone Sasuke, there was someone else with him,” Sakura insists, reaching out for his shoulder, “If Kakashi got taken down–!”

Sasuke whirls around and his Sharingan is blazing as he shouts back at her, “He killed everyone, Sakura! Our parents, our grandparents, he killed children! Kids even younger than I was! He deserves to die, don’t you dare say he doesn’t!”

Sakura grabs him by the shoulders and forces chakra into her hands so he can’t break her hold; “Just listen to me for two seconds! You said it yourself Sasuke, if Itachi finds Naruto he’s dead! We’re both weaker than Naruto right now– If we go after him and try to pick a straight fight we’ll die too!”

Sasuke squirms in her grip but his eyes are drifting towards the ground; “If you distract him, if you get Naruto out of there first then maybe–“

“Then maybe you die,” Sakura cuts in, “Sasuke, look me in the eye. Breathe. Push out everything else, just think about your skill level right now, and be honest: Could you kill Itachi?”

Sasuke tries one more time to wrench out of her grip before he takes a deep breath, in through his nose, out through his mouth. He bites down hard on the inside of his lower lip as his red eyes meet her green, and Sakura does everything she can to not break eye contact.

Then he closes his eyes, lets out a long hiss of a sigh, and growls, “No.”

Sakura lets the chakra flow back into the rest of her body as she says, “Look– We aren’t going to just sit back and do nothing. But we’re protecting Naruto before we’re doing anything else. Understand?”

Sasuke opens his eyes again as he says, “Fine,” through a glare that doesn’t convince her at all.

Sakura takes her hands off Sasuke’s shoulders with a sigh that’s as relieved as she can manage; “Alright, from what the jonin said it didn’t sound like Itachi found Naruto. Where would Naruto be right around now?”

Both of their eyes flick up towards the sun. It’s almost exactly noon.

They look back to each other as Sasuke says, “That’s not even a question.”

Ichiraku isn’t far, even closer when you bypass streets altogether, and in seconds they’re pushing through the noren as Sasuke barks, “Old man! Has Naruto stopped in today?!”

The sudden shock nearly makes Teuchi spill boiling hot ramen broth all over Ayame, but he recovers in time to answer, “Hold on now– He did, but wh–?”

Sakura is up at the counter and leaning in as she exclaims, “Do you know where he went when he left?!”

“W-well Master Jiraiya came by while he was here,” Ayame stammers, concern painted all over her face, “They headed off somewhere together–“

“Where to?!” Sasuke demands, right up next to Sakura now.

“I only heard them mention that outpost town a little ways South from here, Shukuba Town,” Teuchi replied, brow furrowed now, “But what is this about?

“Naruto’s in danger now who is Jiraiya?!” Sakura presses.

Teuchi’s whole demeanor changes in half a second, brow smoothing out as he crosses his arms over his chest– evidently, they should’ve lead with that; “He’s one of the Three Legendary Sannin, a big old fella with a head of white hair. I’d tell you that Naruto’s safe with him, but you’re his team– I won’t tell you not to look out for him. Just be careful with whatever you’re running off to.”

Ayame reaches over the counter and puts a hand on Sakura’s shoulder; “Don’t do anything reckless, please.”

Sakura smiles, but makes a point to only say, “Thank you, we’ll be going now.”

Because with how Sasuke’s eyes are burning as they go tearing out of the village gates Sakura knows that’s something she can’t promise.

Naruto Uzumaki is many things– well maybe not many things, even he’ll admit he’s not that complex a guy, more like several things– but one thing he certainly is not is “patient”.

He certainly has very little patience for pervy old sages who talk all big about bringing him along on some adventure and teaching him some secret technique that’ll put the Chidori to shame then when rubber actually hits the road sticking him in a hotel room while he goes off to get laid.

But the siren song of a technique that could make Kakashi regret ignoring him is a powerful and tempting one, so Naruto actually makes it through an admirable seven and a half minutes of sitting around working on his chakra control before something distracts him. To be fair it’s a knock on the door, and Naruto likes to think he has at least enough manners not to leave someone hanging if they want something. Besides, it could be the pervy sage back from striking out– of course Naruto hops off one of the beds and strolls over to the door.

The first thought that occurs to Naruto as he opens the door and looks up at the pair of eyes boring a hole in his skull is, That’s not the Pervy Sage.

This person is a good head and a half taller than him, with most of his body hidden by a black cloak covered in red clouds. What Naruto can see is black hair framing his face with symmetrical bangs, a scratched-through Leaf headband, and two Sharingan ringed with dark shadows and deep, stress-born creases that don’t fit in the individual’s otherwise young face.

Naruto is several things, and while one of those things isn’t “book smart enough to beat Sakura or Sasuke on written exams”, “stupid” isn’t one of those things either.

Naruto knows what happened to the Uchiha. He knows who did it. And he knows this man looks far too much like the one other Uchiha Naruto’s met for him to be anyone else.

“You’re Itachi Uchiha…” Naruto says without his own permission.

“Well that saves us the burden of introductions,” a strangely smooth voice remarks as an even taller man in the same uniform with wild hair, pale blue skin and beady eyes comes strolling in to stand beside Itachi, blocking off the whole doorway, “Though I must say, it’s hard to believe a child like this is holding in the Nine-tailed Fox.”

They know about the Nine-tails. What Naruto only suspected was a dangerous situation has definitively become one. Naruto starts to slide one foot backwards and Itachi’s eyes zero in on it– running to the window is not an option.

Itachi’s voice is like a bolt of black silk as he says, “Naruto, you’re coming with us."

Rapid footsteps sound from down the hall. Kisame and Itachi’s heads swivel on a dime towards them. Naruto hears a harsh, high gasp, and then something hitting the wall.

Then Sakura’s voice cries, “Earth Style– Practice Brick Jutsu!

Naruto can’t even finish shouting her name as a thick wall of concrete comes crackling out of the left side of the doorframe and surges across it, filling the door and blocking the way. Naruto can hear voices, first Itachi’s partner, and then… Sasuke.

He’s trapped in here alone. And they’re trapped out there with Itachi.

Naruto has felt helpless before. And he hates it.

So he grits his teeth, lets out a roar, and slams his fist into the wall.

Chapter Text

xiii. Shukuba Town is not particularly big, but it is densely packed and full of activity. The second Sakura and Sasuke come skidding onto its main thoroughfare she is deeply appreciative of the fact that there’s two of them here to cover all this ground.

She turns to Sasuke, eyes sharp; “You take the left side of the street I’ll take the right– The second one of us gets a lead we regroup, we are not going in alone. Understand?”

Sasuke’s jaw tenses and his eyes are like onyx daggers but he mutters, “Sure, fine,” and Sakura knows she has to find Naruto first.

Without another word they each start tearing down their side of the street, dipping into every hotel they see to ask the front desk if a goofy-looking blond genin traveling with a big old guy with white hair has checked in. It’s just as Sakura is considering changing strategies that she comes into a surprisingly nice lobby with fountains in the front and hits paydirt.

“Come to think of it someone like that did check in just a little bit ago,” the woman at the front desk remarks, flipping through the guestbook, “There was a blond boy in orange with a Leaf headband and a white-haired middle-aged guy. The older guy rented the room then sent the kid up ahead since one of the working girls was calling his name–“

“What was the room number?!” Sakura cuts in, leaning in so close she’s nearly nose to nose with the receptionist.

The receptionist’s eyes shoot from the guestbook to Sakura’s headband before she gulps and stammers, “H-here, the boy’s in this one.”

She shows Sakura the book and points to the room number– 305. Sakura nods quickly and turns on her heel, running back out to the street, eyes peeled for Sasuke. They’ve kept a pretty even pace, so he’s coming out of the hotel right across the way as she calls out.

“Naruto’s in here! Come on!” Sakura shouts, and Sasuke’s at her side in the blink of an eye, nearly pushing past her.

She catches his shoulder to slow him down as she hisses through her teeth, “There’s two sets of stairs on either side of the building, you take left, I’ll take right. The room number is 305 so I think that’s the third floor–“

Enough I get it, let’s just go!” Sasuke snaps, darting with his uneven stride to the left staircase and disappearing up it. Sakura swears under her breath and charges up the right. If only this was just a mission to protect Naruto, that would be so much easier. At this point she’s given up all hope of preventing Sasuke from doing something stupid and reckless– now it’s just a matter of catching him when he tries.

Thanks to his limp Sakura’s faster than Sasuke even with a head start– she makes it to the third floor first, and she’s not alone in the hall. Staring down the fifth door on her right are two men in black cloaks covered in red clouds, one with a gigantic sword on his back and the other with piercing red eyes. The door is open and at this angle she can see orange, yellow, and blue– just enough of each to know exactly who she’s looking at. Her footsteps draw the attention of both men and Sakura reads the shorter one in a second: Black hair, scratched-through Leaf headband, Sharingan.

That’s all she needs to see.

Sakura’s hands race through the signs and she slaps them on the wall as she shouts, “Earth Style– Practice Brick Jutsu!

Her chakra surges through the concrete to the doorframe and the wall shoots out to cover it, not leaving a single gap for even light to come through. Sakura can hear Naruto shout her name from behind it– She has maybe two minutes before the knucklehead breaks through to try and help. She’s about to tell him to run, but the two men turn to face her fully and Sakura’s tongue turns to lead. She stops so suddenly she nearly trips over her own feet. It’s like encountering Zabuza or Orochimaru all over again– she only needs to look at them to know how wildly outclassed she is.

She needs to run. She needs to fight. She needs to get her shit together because if she doesn’t her whole team is going to die right here and now.

The tall blue one– Kisame, she has to guess– steps towards her, hand going to the hilt of his sword; “Well isn’t this just adorable, it’s a rescue mission. Are you his teammate, little flower? Or are you just an admirer?

Sakura almost has the beginnings of a plan in mind before Sasuke’s voice rings out; “Itachi Uchiha!

There he is at the end of the hall, staring Itachi down. Smoldering in Sasuke’s eyes is that same deep black hate Sakura remembers boiling in the pit of her stomach when she’d yanked Zaku’s head back and shoved the kunai clean through his throat. He’s ready to kill, no matter the cost. Sakura’s stomach churns and twists. She can’t let him do it. She won’t.

Itachi speaks, his voice far softer than it has any right to be; “It’s been a long time, Sasuke.”

Sasuke's Sharingan blazes to life, and a sharp-toothed grin spreads across Kisame’s face as he catches sight of it; “Well now, the plot thickens. Care to introduce us?”

“He’s my younger brother,” Itachi replies, his voice teetering between “infuriatingly casual” and “deceptively blank”.

Interesting,” Kisame remarks, grin only stretching wider, “So the rumors of the Uchiha Clan being completely wiped out were greatly exaggerated.”

“This is what I’ve spent my whole life preparing for,” Sasuke shouts, drawing all eyes back to him as the Chidori explodes to life in his palm, “I’m going to end this nightmare right here and now, Itachi Uchiha! Get ready to die!

Sasuke’s off like a shot towards Itachi and Sakura has to think twice as fast– easier to do with Sasuke's bad leg. They can’t make contact, she won’t let them. An idea forms like the crack of a whip and Sakura’s making the hand seals on instinct– Rabbit Boar Rat Horse Tiger– before slamming her hands onto the floor in front of her and channelling as much chakra as it takes for her to take hold of both the floor beneath the Uchiha brothers’ feet and the second floor below that.

The second Sasuke gets too close Sakura cries, “I’m sorry, Sasuke! Earth Style– Ground Splitting Jutsu!

The floor breaks apart in a jagged hole right underneath Sasuke and Itachi. They both go plummeting down and the floor below that breaks again, dropping them both on the ground level– hopefully. She can’t see anything through the cloud of dust and rubble she kicked up and all she can hear is Sasuke’s surprised shout and the Chidori’s chirping suddenly cutting off. She pitches forward on hands and knees and it’s all she can do not to heave right onto the floor. This is what she’d been afraid of– she’s becoming far too familiar with Chakra Exhaustion, and nausea is an early warning sign. If she’s lucky she has fifteen percent left to work with. Better use it wisely.

Sakura starts to pull herself up, supporting herself on the wall, as she calls out, “N-Naruto, get going! Find Jiraiya! We’ll try to catch up–!”

She’s cut off by the side of Kisame’s sword slamming into her stomach.

All the wind goes out of her at once. She’s sent flying, slamming back-first into the stairwell door and nearly breaking it off its hinges with the force of the impact. As she falls in a boneless heap to the floor she tries to tally up what’s broken– she counts several ribs and maybe her collarbone, but more than any of that she’s suddenly deathly cold, shivering all over as she tries and fails to pick herself up. Her brain has become a wild bird caught in a too-small room, beating at the walls as she desperately tries to figure out how getting hit by a sword took that last bit of chakra she had.

Kisame clicks his tongue; “Now look what you’ve done, you’ve gone and disappointed Samehada– they were hoping to eat up so much more chakra from you. What were you thinking, little flower, coming into a fight with two grown-ups with so little chakra to spare?”

The sword eats chakra. Sakura shoves all the warnings from Anko and Kakashi far afield to reach out and grasp the five burning petals on her shoulder. It’s not even a bargain anymore, there’s no voice to gamble with as it wheedles her to take control of her gift. The heat and pain bloom throughout her body, overpowering the cold as petals come crawling out and onto her skin like ants. Unsteadily, Sakura pushes herself up and locks eyes with Kisame, teeth grit, eyes wide.

Something like pity flickers across his face.

“Now that’s a shame,” Kisame sighs, “For a second there I thought you might’ve been smart.”

Sakura may have had a plan at some point. But when those words hit her ears it shatters like glass and she starts running towards Kisame with a howling war cry tearing its way out of her throat.

She leaps at him and he smacks her out of the sky with a backhanded swing, sending her bouncing off the wall and down onto the ground. He scoops her up off the ground with the tip of the sword, flipping her up into the air just to smack her down again. The impact forces breath that isn’t there from her lungs as the sword swallows chakra faster than the curse mark can generate it and the weight of the gigantic weapon pins her down. Sakura struggles uselessly as Kisame shakes his head, tut-tutting her like she’s a child having a tantrum.

Even the curse mark can’t overpower the piercing pain as Kisame slams Samehada down flat on her back, bouncing her against the ground one more time. She tries to breathe and it comes in ragged, wet wheezes that send jolts of pain spiderwebbing across her entire body– trying to take a deeper breath sends her into fits of coughing up blood. One of her ribs has to be puncturing her lung. Sakura’s head is spinning, her vision swimming, Kisame a blur of blue and black above her.

He takes the sword off her back and her heart is beating out of her chest as she tries to move, to even twitch, but her mind is outpacing her body as Kisame raises his sword up for one last strike.

“You know, I’m usually not the type for mercy,” he muses, “But for someone doomed to Orochimaru’s clutches, I’ll make an exception.”

If Sasuke learned anything from the Chunin Exams, it’s that it’s better to land on your back than your feet.

And land on his back he does as he comes down in a shower of rubble in the center of the hotel lobby, sending the receptionist and several guests screaming out of the way. He’s winded from the impact and his gasps for air end up with him sucking in dust, eyes shutting on instinct as he coughs it all out and wrenches himself to his feet. He doesn’t have time for this, he has to find Itachi again, has to kill him right now before he loses his chance.

Sasuke forces his eyes open as the dust starts to clear and whirls around wildly, Sharingan spinning like windmills. Itachi didn’t land anywhere near him. He’s gone. That can’t be right, there was nowhere for him to go, he can’t have used genjutsu to hide his Sharingan would see it where did he go–?!

Sasuke’s chain of thought is broken by a glass-breaking scream from Sakura.

His head whips up and around to the edge of the holes she made in the floor and he sees her, curse mark painting her skin, knocked out of the air by Kisame’s gigantic sword, bouncing off a wall and onto the ground just for him to pick her up and slam her down again with the giant blade. The angle is bad and he can’t see her anymore, she’s hidden behind the edge of the floor and Kisame’s coat, but he sees him bring the sword up and slam it down again, drawing another choked cry from Sakura.

He brings the sword up, as high as he can in the cramped quarters; “You know, I’m usually not the type for mercy, but for someone doomed to Orochimaru’s clutches I’ll make an exception.”

And Sasuke is moving before he can tell his body to stop.

His knee screeches under the effort of Sasuke shoving chakra into his feet and leaping up to the edge of the hole in the second floor and he knows this next jump won’t get him close enough even as he pivots and starts to build the lightning chakra, starting in his chest and moving towards his shoulder like Kakashi taught him.

But maybe he doesn’t need to.

Sasuke draws his tantō and reminds himself at breakneck speed what he tells himself during every practice run he’s ever taken the weapon through– it’s an extension of your hand.

Sasuke’s chakra goes in two directions, to his feet until they’re glowing bright enough to blind, and down his arm in lightning blue and healing teal. He springs off the break in the floor, shooting towards Kisame’s back with a rocket’s tail of chakra sailing behind him. Sasuke doesn’t have enough distance for his hand to hit Kisame, but he has just enough to jab the tip of his blade into Kisame’s back. That’s enough contact for Sasuke to send the Mystical Palm Chidori shooting down through his hand, into the hilt and along the blade.

Sasuke would never know how lucky he got that day– Not because Kisame’s back was turned, but because his chakra nature is water.

Kisame lets out a bloodcurdling shriek as he convulses wildly, eyes rolling back in his head and foam spraying from his mouth as the bolts of electric chakra go running through his own chakra network like a lightning bolt hitting the ocean. His muscles contracting and relaxing in rapid succession force him to let go of Samehada, sending the blade plunging down the way Sasuke had gone– and the way Sasuke is about to go as his momentum runs out.

Sasuke’s sudden spike downwards yanks the knife out of Kisame’s back and he has to grab onto the broken ledge with one hand to keep from falling all the way back down again. He’s about to pull himself up when the stone wall covering Naruto’s door explodes outward, Naruto leaping through it fist-first. The orange Nine-tails chakra swirls around him, the air boiling around it, and Naruto roars like a lion as he tackles Kisame. Naruto’s adrenaline and chakra plus Kisame still being mid-seizure allow the much smaller boy to grab him with both arms and physically throw him across the gap in the floor and Naruto goes bounding after him, only sparing Sasuke a second glance once he’s across.

“What’s up, jackass?! Where’s your brother?!” Naruto calls, eyes darting between Sasuke and Kisame, bouncing on his heels in his low stance just in case he starts moving again.

Sasuke finally pulls himself up onto the third floor as he calls back, “Don’t know, but we gotta prioritize! I don’t think that took him out!”

Kisame stirs under his own power again just at that moment. He pushes himself up and comes shambling to his feet, bowed nearly all the way over as he locks eyes with Sasuke. The fractal lines of burned flesh spreading around his face are still smoking and the foam at his mouth makes him look rabid as he pants, mouth hanging open to reveal two rows of serrated teeth. Sasuke can only gape back at him– the Chidori is supposed to kill. That just pissed him off.

K-k-k-kill you,” he slurs, hatred sloughing off of him in waves, “Little ssssshITS, gonna kill you b-b-bOTH!

He lunges at them and Naruto and Sasuke have no choice but to leap in to meet him.

Itachi is much better at falling than his brother. It’s not any fault of Sasuke’s– Itachi’s just had more practice.

The second the floor drops out from under them Itachi pushes back off the chunk of stone nearest to his feet and manages to leap back from the next hole that opens up while Sasuke nosedives through that one as well. He rolls to a stop a foot away and immediately throws up a Greater Invisibility jutsu, smoothing out the lines and distortions common to a basic Invisible Cloak for just a minute. He uses that and the cloud of dust to dart out of Sasuke’s line of sight, heading towards the right-side stairwell.

He sprints through the door and shuts it behind him so he can lean heavy on it, not to catch his breath but to regain his composure. He’s supposed to be better-trained than this, he’s supposed to be able to see the brother who will kill him one day, the brother he’s doing all of this for, and keep it together. He is ANBU Black Ops. His mask is never supposed to come off.

But Itachi also thought that the day of the massacre. And he had wept onto the sword that would murder his parents instead. He was only thirteen then. And he’s only eighteen now. Itachi bites down hard on his lip, drawing blood and squeezing his eyes shut tight to keep the tears from falling as he shudders all over.

He inhales deeply, filling his lungs until they burn under the strain before letting out a breath laced in Uchiha smoke. He needs to find the Nine-tails, and he needs to find him now before he’s forced to do anything to Sasuke. Now’s not the time. There’s so much more they both need to do.

He opens his eyes and the emotionless murderer who cares only for his own power is back. He darts up the stairs to find the door to the third floor bent nearly all the way in. It's barely been a minute and he's already missed too much of the fight. Itachi pulls the door open in time to see his partner– face covered in smoking lightning-strike scars and Samehada nowhere to be seen– lunging for Sasuke and a newly freed Naruto.

They meet him on the other side of the gap in the floor but even severely injured and without Samehada his partner puts the two genin on the backstep, siphoning off bits of their chakra with his own two hands with every blow and forcing them closer and closer to the edge of the hole. There’s nothing they can do but block and slowly inch their way backward, desperately trying to get out of his range without provoking a bigger attack. Sasuke’s braced knee is starting to buckle.

But all that gets pushed aside when he sees motion from the floor several yards in front of him. The girl, what was her name was it even in the intel, is dragging herself up. Her breathing is coming in harsh and short, and when she glances at him over her shoulder her skin is covered in tiny black petals– Orochimaru’s handiwork. Itachi’s eyes narrow; if Orochimaru got close to this team then why didn’t he take the chance to take Sasuke? He doesn’t have much longer to mull that over as the girl comes stalking down the hall towards him, gaze so heavy and piercing it would pin a lesser man to the ground. Diseased green chakra starts to spin around her like a maelstrom, cutting into the walls and the floor.

“You… this is all your fault,” she growls, “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you and I’ll end this!

She breaks into a shambling run that shouldn’t be as fast as it is and Itachi has to dart in to meet her, palm thrust hitting her in the lung he hopes isn’t punctured. It knocks her off balance and he uses the opening to grab her by the throat, slamming her down onto the ground and pinning her there as she writhes like a snake in his grasp. She snarls, grabs a kunai to swipe at his eyes, kicks at any part of him her feet can reach and Itachi knows she won’t stop unless he makes her stop.

He looks her right in the eye and activates the Tsukuyomi.



Sakura is no longer on her back but on her stomach, a knee pinning her to the floor and her hair is long again as it pulls her head upright and forces her to look ahead.

“Don’t blink.”

On the other side of a gap she thought was six feet wide but seems as vast as the Valley of the End the same man pinning her down has Sasuke and Naruto each strung up on posts, tied down with chain.

He begins with Naruto, using a rusted blade to slice his belly open. Naruto’s scream is her scream as Itachi winds his intestine around his arm and yanks on it, twists it, shoves it back in just to tear it out again, never letting it come free. He uses the jagged blade to pierce and sever everything in Naruto’s body cavity, pulling each one out and tossing it aside once he’s finished. He pours the acid from Naruto’s stomach on his foot so he can feel it. He crushes both kidneys under his heel. He holds Naruto’s beating heart in his hand just to show him he can.

Sakura feels each pain in harmony with him, belly crying out in agony with every organ ruptured, and she begs for mercy from someone who will give her none. She does not even get to feel the same release of death that Naruto does as Itachi crushes his heart in his bare hand.

“Don’t bore me with your crocodile tears. Why cry for a nuisance? If you cared for him you would’ve protected him.”

Sasuke is next. Sasuke is last. Sasuke is everything.

And Sasuke is worse, because all the rusted blade does is cut. He cuts the same spot on his chest, methodically, exactly, and the pain adds and adds on top of itself as he carves it out. Sakura twists and squirms in Itachi’s grip as she wails for the pain to stop, for him to let them go, for Kakashi, for her mother, even for the father that abandoned her.

“Of course you want someone to save you. Why would you change? Everything you did in pursuit of your own vanity was never going to amount to a single thing.”

Itachi carves. And carves. And carves, deep into their chests, for three long days that feel like three long years in this fraction of a second. The same spot. The same rusted, jagged edge. He makes a cavern in Sasuke’s chest that threatens to cave in but never does.

Under the red moon in the red sky time becomes meaningless. Everything becomes meaningless. Her fight, her friends, the very concept of Sakura Haruno loses all meaning. Who is she? Where is she? Why does she hurt so much? And why won’t it stop?!

“It will not stop because you cannot stop it. You’re still too young, too weak. Maybe one day you could have broken this, but you’re out of time. Goodbye, Sakura Haruno.”



Sakura goes limp, her eyes shivering as the Tsukuyomi fills her senses, and for yet another moment he can’t afford Itachi pauses just to look at her. She’s so young.

He bites down on the side of his tongue– She's exactly as old as he was. That's old enough.

He stands to his full height and calls out to Kisame, “Focus on taking the Nine-tails, we need him alive–!”

The door to the left stairwell comes crashing open, and an older man's voice shouts, “I LEAVE YOU ALONE FOR FIVE MINUTES!

The man in the doorway’s mane of white hair leaves no room for error– Jiraiya is staring down this absolute disaster of a scene, eyes coasting over Kisame and Naruto and locking in on Itachi's sharingan across the six-foot gap in the floor. Itachi swears under his breath. They’re out of time.

“It was seven minutes! And they started it!” Naruto shoots back on instinct.

“I don’t care who started it, I’m finishing it!

Jiraiya runs through the hand signs so fast Itachi wouldn’t be able to track them without his Sharingan active before slamming his hands palm-first on the ground; “Ninja Art: Toad Mouth Trap!

Bright pink flesh comes growing out of the walls, out and down around corners and underneath Itachi’s feet. He starts to sink into it, flesh trying to grow over his foot and trap him in place, but he doesn’t have time for that. In one swift motion he breaks the still-weak flesh trying to trap him and goes sprinting forward, leaping only as far across the gap as he needs to grab the collar of Kisame’s cloak. The both of them go crashing down through the quickly closing gaps in the flesh, just barely missing them and making an uncomfortably soft landing in the lobby.

Itachi catches sight of the Samehada’s handle poking out from the carpet of muscle and pulls it out of the floor with one hand as he uses the other to drape Kisame properly over his shoulder– he’d been putting up a good fight, but the devastating electrocution he suffered through is taking it's toll on him and the much taller man sags heavy against Itachi’s side as the adrenaline starts to peter out. With his bearings gathered Itachi turns his eyes towards the front entrance just as the toad’s flesh covers it over.

Nothing else for it.

Itachi makes a break straight ahead and focuses hard on the wall of flesh ahead of him– black fire comes blossoming out from the center of his vision, burning a hole clean through the material just large enough for Itachi and his cargo to go leaping through. He lands in the middle of the crowded street to gasps from the populace but at this point Itachi could not care less if he tried. After Tsukuyomi and Amaterasu both in a row he can barely see, his vision a mess of blurry colors and blood red. He picks a direction and jumps for it, hoping he’s at roof level.

It turns out to be the exact wrong direction, because he hears a loud and familiar shout of “STOP RIGHT THERE CRIMINAL SCUM!” as a blur of green, orange, black, but mostly green comes flying at him, head on.

Itachi does not have time for this. He's not too proud to run from Might Guy twice in the same day.

He sucks in more air than he can carry and blows.

Fire Style– Fireball Jutsu!

Orange engulfs Itachi’s field of view and he drops like a stone, falling from roof level back to the street. That won’t kill Might Guy, but Itachi hasn’t used that move to actually try and kill anyone since he was a genin. It’s always served him better as a diversion, anyway. Itachi keeps running, keeps pushing, keeps leaping up then dropping down, he runs and he runs and he runs until he’s deep in the forests he was trained to disappear in and even then he only slows down enough to try and look for something vaguely resembling a cave.

He barrels into it, as deep into the dark as he can, before pitching forward onto his knees. He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes until he sees stars. Once he takes them away and opens his eyes his vision is still fuzzy at the edges, but serviceable. Good. He’s no use to Kisame blind.

Itachi turns to his partner, propping him up against the cave wall. Kisame says nothing as Itachi unbuttons his cloak, forces him to shrug out of it so he can use the deeply inadequate medical supplies he carries to see about even starting to treat what his brother did. He ends up having to take Kisame’s shirt and headband off him to get a clearer view of the full extent of the scarring. As Itachi’s eyes run over the lightning bolt pattern radiating out from the center of Kisame’s back across his entire upper body Itachi has to wonder if Sasuke made a lucky guess about his partner’s chakra nature, or if he’s just grown stronger than Itachi could’ve possibly hoped.

Kisame’s voice comes out in an amused rasp, “Gotta say, Itachi, you really had me fooled for a while there.”

Itachi freezes. He doesn’t even breathe as he stares at Kisame and waits for him to continue. He can’t make a move, can’t say a word, can’t do anything until he knows for certain what Kisame means. He would hate to have to kill Kisame if his cover was blown.

Kisame’s hand lands palm down on the top of his head; “Leaving your kid brother alive, hauling me out of there when I was dead weight… You’re a soft touch after all.”

Itachi lets out a long, relieved sigh, and sets about cleaning Kisame’s wounds. Kisame’s hand runs through his bangs and down to his ponytail, threading his fingers through it and absently playing with his hair. Itachi chalks that up to the potential brain damage. But it does feel nice, so while he won’t mention it again, he won’t forget it.

Due to the nature of his fighting style Gai has become familiar with pain, to the point where he can usually ignore it entirely. But there’s nothing like getting hit head on with a fireball to get one’s self reacquainted with it.

Even weighed down by his partner Itachi was quick on the draw, and though Gai had blocked the worst of it that still meant his forearms were an angry red mess of freshly burnt skin. The fireball was so grand in its scale that when he’d finally made it out of its blast radius he’d lost any advantage he had in catching Itachi on the run– make no mistake, he had still given chase in the direction he thought they were going, but that quickly proved itself fruitless.

With a sigh around a wince, Gai decides to retrace Itachi’s steps back into Shukuba Town instead.

It’s not hard to find the aftermath of Itachi’s battle– a hotel’s front entrance burned clean open, the interior covered in a quickly-receding layer of flesh, and two six foot wide holes in the second and third floor are more than proof enough of a battle. More than that, Gai finds Itachi’s target. Naruto and Jiraiya are on the third floor along with the other two members of Team 7, Naruto with barely a scratch and Sasuke covered in dust and rubble while Sakura…

Oh, Sakura.

She’s lying in the middle of the hallway like a broken toy, blood leaking from her mouth and breath rattling, eyes staring half-lidded up at the ceiling as she twitches weakly. As Gai stares down at her he can only think of Kakashi back in the village, reduced to this by his encounter with Itachi. Kakashi was a grown man. Sakura was just a girl, even younger than his Lee.

There were those who mourned Itachi’s betrayal. In that moment Gai knew he would never do the same. Anyone who would do this to a child is no one Gai would want to call comrade.

Jiraiya is holding Sasuke back as he thrashes desperately toward her; “Let me go, let me go I can help her I can heal her I’m the only one who can let me go–!

Stop Sasuke, you’ll just make it worse,” Jiraiya hisses and Sasuke starts to wrench even harder, held back only by his knee buckling under the strain and even then he’s still pulling himself towards her. Naruto is frozen, eyes darting between everyone in the hall, mouth hanging open wordlessly.

Gai shakes his head at Jiraiya’s clumsy attempt at dealing with children, and steps in.

He comes around between Sasuke and Sakura, kneeling down to Sasuke’s level, and says in a low voice, “Sasuke, Sakura’s injuries are mostly internal and all would be tricky even for experienced medical corps at their most calm. You’re too close to this and you’re not ready. What she needs right now from you is to believe in her as they work on her back in the village. I know you can do that.”

Sasuke’s eyes stay focused on Sakura as the fight drains out of him. Slowly, he nods. Despite how much the boy looks like he desperately needs it, Gai knows it would be overstepping to hug him. He puts a hand on his shoulder instead, one he shrugs off on reflex.

“Sakura is gonna be okay, right?” Naruto wonders, voice just a hair too loud to be a mumble.

Gai and Jiraiya stare silently down at her for far too long.

Jiraiya takes the bullet for them both and answers, “Physically, yeah. Ninja come back from worse than this all the time. But… mentally…”

Naruto and Sasuke both look to him with desperate worry painted all over their faces; “What do you mean?”

Gai doesn’t want to explain this. They shouldn’t have to know about this kind of pain, this kind of cruelty. But their teacher and their friend are both under it’s effects. The truth will come one way or another.

“Itachi put her through something called the Tsukuyomi,” Gai explains, “A kind of genjutsu exclusive to the Sharingan that puts the victim through an illusion more real than reality. In half a second it can put them through a lifetime of torture– The mental damage that does has killed people before. Sakura and Kakashi were lucky to even survive.”

Naruto’s eyes are wild with a mixture of rage and fear as he shouts, “What?! He got Kakashi-sensei too?! What the Hell are we waiting for, if he’s after me then let’s go and get him! I’m not gonna wait around–!”

“Don’t be stupid,” Jiraiya barks, Naruto flinching at the sound, “If they weren’t trying to take you alive Itachi could’ve killed you the second he made eye-contact! Half your team is down, this is over.”

Naruto grinds his teeth; “Bullshit, Sasuke absolutely ruined the blue guy–!”

“The Chidori’s supposed to kill,” Sasuke whispers, drawing all eyes to him as he stares at Sakura, “Even after a hit that hard… He got up. He fought us. He was taking off bits of our chakra with every hit…”

Sasuke reaches out, brushing one of Sakura’s bangs off her face, and Gai almost can’t hear him murmur, “This is my fault.”

Naruto’s bravado burns away and he’s left only staring at his two friends, helpless. Gai’s throat aches. They need something to hope for.

“We need a supreme medical specialist to fix what was done to their minds,” he says, trying to sound more confident than he feels, “A master of healing jutsu. And we need one soon.”

Miraculously, Jiraiya smirks; “Well it’s a good thing the woman you mean is exactly who we’re looking for.”

All eyes turn to Jiraiya, even Sasuke’s, wide in shock.

Even though he hoped for it Gai hardly thought there was actually a chance of finding her again; “Her? You mean–?!”

Jiraiya’s smirk turns to a lopsided grin; “Exactly. The third Legendary Sannin, the Slug Princess herself, Lady Tsunade.”

“Are you sure you can find her?! No one’s been able to track her down in decades,” Gai says, desperately trying to keep his own hopes down.

Jiraiya’s shrug is too easy; “I know her better than I know myself– I know exactly where to find her.”

Gai finally lets his enthusiasm burst forth; “FANTASTIC! Then I’ll leave everything to you, Master Jiraiya! I’ll bring Sakura home to the medical corps, and Sasuke–“

“Take me with you,” Sasuke says, gaze intense as he comes up to his feet and looks Jiraiya in the eye, “If this Tsunade’s a master healer, I want to meet her.”

Jiraiya just raises an unimpressed eyebrow; “Really. And how do you think that’s gonna go down?”

“If she can fix something like the Tsukuyomi I wanna learn how,” Sasuke fires back, black eyes burning with a new kind of fire, “I’m not going to let this happen again. Ever.”

Gai frowns, large brows knitting together; “Sasuke, you’re–“

Jiraiya cuts in with a shockingly casual, “You know what? Screw it, fine. Hope you’re good traveling with what you’ve got on your back, kid, because we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Gai turns to him, large brows flying all the way up behind his straight bangs; “You’re serious?!

Another too-easy shrug from Jiraiya; “I know one thing about Uchiha for sure, and it's that they're all stubborn little assholes– If you try to force him to go home he’s just gonna do something even dumber once he's back there. Besides, I think he’s gonna get a rude awakening when he actually meets Tsunade.”

“I’m still here, you know,” Sasuke snaps.

“Trust me, I’m aware,” Jiraiya grouses.

Naruto's looking between Jiraiya and Sasuke with his whole body, a storm of different emotions all over his face; "Wait, what?! Is this really happening?"

Jiraiya nods before jabbing a thumb towards the broken doorway of his erstwhile hotel room; “Get your things– Looks like we’re heading out sooner than I hoped.”

Gai collects Sakura carefully in his arms; “You’re sure you know what you’re doing?”

Jiraiya just sighs, “Absolutely not. But what the Hell else is new?”

Chapter Text

xiv. Before they part ways Gai asks Sasuke if he’d like to heal the burns on his arms through a smile Sasuke would consider patronizing if it wasn’t coming from one of the most genuine human beings on the planet. Regardless, he imagines he only asked to get Sasuke’s morale back up. Sasuke’s hands and chakra control are still shaky and while the wounds are healed it isn’t with any particular grace and he leaves significant scarring on his forearms. So Sasuke’s morale does not improve.

Actually hitting the road does a slightly better job of that– Watching the hills roll past is simple, as mindless as putting one foot in front of the other. But Naruto asking what the Akatsuki want with him brings him back down to Earth.

Sasuke tries to look like he’s not listening as he listens in, but he’s not sure he did a very good job of that. His gut twists and clenches as Jiraiya lays out how they’re after the power lurking inside of Naruto, the deep well of dark chakra that is the Nine Tails, which somehow doesn’t make either of them feel any better. Naruto, at least, can put on a smile and pretend to be positive as he chatters about needing to get stronger fast so he can take them on.

Sasuke’s never been very good at pretending.

So he changes the subject; “This Tsunade we’re looking for– She should be about the same age as you, right Old Man?”

Jiraiya loudly rolls his eyes; “Surprise surprise, the kid knows basic math but not basic manners. Yeah, that’s right, but don’t keep your eyes peeled for a middle-aged lady. Tsunade’s about as vain as she is proud so she’ll be using jutsu to make herself look more like she did in her twenties.”

Naruto’s face screws up like he just ate something sour; “She really wastes a bunch of chakra all day long to make herself look good?”

“Not just for that,” Jiraiya snorts, “She’s a notorious gambler, known far and wide as The Legendary Sucker since she’s a notoriously bad gambler– It’s in her best interest not to look like herself, that way everyone she owes can’t track her down. Still want her to be your teacher, Uchiha?”

Sasuke just glares back up at him; “What matters is her skill– She could be an alcoholic and I’d still want to learn what she knows.”

Jiraiya grimaces; “With an attitude like that no wonder Kakashi is always worrying about you.”

“So how the hell are we supposed to find someone who’s always skipping town? You do have a plan to find her, right?” Naruto wonders, craning his neck around so he can look Jiraiya in the eye.

Jiraiya just shrugs; “Let’s just say we’re playing it by ear– Besides, downtime on the road means time for you to train and get stronger, right?”

“We’ll come up with something, we have to,” Sasuke snaps, “We can’t go home without her.”

Naruto glares over his shoulder at Sasuke; “You know if you’re gonna be here you could try to be less of a dick, Sasuke.”

That makes Sasuke pause a bit– That Naruto didn’t call him ‘jackass’ is a bad sign. Anyone in a better headspace would probably leave that alone or apologize and actually try to be ‘less of a dick’.

Sasuke is not in a good headspace; “Don’t mind me, this trip’s all about you right? It’ll be like I’m not even here.”

Naruto evidently is not in a good headspace either; “What’s with you?! We just got out of a fight, why are you trying to pick another one?

Sasuke’s grin is sharp and his laugh is harsh; “Think of it like I’m measuring your abilities! Gotta see what we’re working with before my brother comes back for Round 2 with you!”

Naruto gets up in his face, growling like the beast in his belly, “Are you fucking serious?! Your brother wants the stupid fox not me! Are you jealous that everything’s not all about you for once or–!”

Jiraiya grabs the backs of their heads and clonks their foreheads together.

“Okay that’s enough,” Jiraiya cuts in, shoving the two of them apart and situating himself as a buffer between the boys, “If the two of you can’t say anything nice you can’t say anything at all– We’re gonna be spending days on the road, in town, in hotel rooms together, and this is gonna be a disaster if we can’t at least tolerate each other. If you pull this shit again I am turning this expedition around, got it?

Sasuke and Naruto both mumble, “Got it,” but Sasuke’s mind is miles away as he mulls over a single word Naruto said.


He circles around it as they make it to a mid-sized town built into a pit, as Jiraiya sends him ahead to find them a hotel, as he finally buys some supplies for the rest of the journey, as he ignores the festival in the streets to go sit in their hotel room and stare at the wall.

Sasuke likes to think he’s become a bit better at recognizing his own feelings.

At the moment, he really hates that he has, because here alone in a dark empty room Sasuke can’t deny that he is jealous.

Not of Naruto’s power– it’s hard to be jealous of that when Naruto didn’t earn it, when without it Naruto would likely be about as strong as Sasuke is right now. But of the fact that because of that power Itachi wants nothing to do with him.

Sasuke leans back against the wall, shutting his eyes tight; it’s like nothing’s changed at all. Even after everything Itachi’s done, after everything Sasuke’s learned, he’s still a little kid desperately trying to get his older brother’s attention and getting poked in the forehead with a sad “Sorry Sasuke– maybe next time” for his troubles.

Only now that’s getting people hurt. That’s getting Sakura hurt.

He sees her broken body behind his eyelids, hears her choked breaths in the silence.

There’s no one around to see, no one around to hear. But Sasuke still can’t let himself cry, no matter how much he wants to.

Tsubaki Haruno should not be as familiar with the hospital as she’s become.

This time around when she walks through the front doors she putters around the lobby for nearly ten minutes, moving from excuse to distraction so she won’t have to ask the receptionists what room her daughter’s in. She’ll give Gai one thing, when he delivered the news to her he was very clear about what had happened, which is more than she can say for the other times she’s gotten word about her daughter being hospitalized. Maybe she’s selfish, maybe she’s a coward, but seeing her daughter– her only daughter, her baby– in the state he described…

Her stomach twists. She doesn’t know how much more of this she can take.

But Sakura needs her, so she drags herself to the front desk and up the stairs to her room. Tsubaki nearly doesn’t open the door, nearly turns tail and runs, but she clenches her jaw and breathes in deep before sliding it open.

Some of the tension drains out of her, because there’s a distraction sitting right between Sakura and the second bed in her room. There’s a dark-haired woman with Yuhi red eyes settled in the center of the room, frowning hard and tapping her foot incessantly as she scratches away at a clipboard. From the way she’s dressed she certainly doesn’t look like a medic.

The woman notices her before Tsubaki can speak, and her smile is strained as she meets her eye; “Oh, you’re Sakura’s mother right? I’m Kurenai Yuhi, I don’t know if she’s told you but I’ve been–“

Tsubaki nods loosely as she shuffles into the room and pulls up another stool; “She has, yes, you’ve been tutoring her in genjutsu. We’ve never met before now so I didn’t recognize you.”

Kurenai smiles around a wince as her eyes flicker over to Sakura and Tsubaki follows her gaze. It seems they were able to heal the worst of Sakura’s physical injuries, but she’s still hooked up to an oxygen mask and IV drip, and those alone make her look so small and frail as she sleeps like the dead. Gai had told her the genjutsu that hit Sakura was intense, so damaging they had to put her under like she was going in for surgery just so she wouldn’t be in any more pain while they searched for someone who could help her.

The hospital room suddenly feels unimaginably big, and Tsubaki feels incredibly, pathetically small.

Kurenai’s voice, slow and unsteady, brings Tsubaki back to the moment; “I… We were supposed to train this morning. But there was an emergency, and I… I fought the same man that ended up hurting her. Kakashi and I both couldn’t beat him, and she must have overheard us at the hospital and– I don’t know if she wanted to avenge Kakashi or protect Naruto or keep Sasuke from doing something stupid but I could’ve done more, I could’ve stopped her, I could’ve stopped him and… I’m so sorry, Mrs. Haruno. This is on us.”

Tsubaki’s brow furrows– both from being called ‘Missus’ and the sudden mention of Sakura’s actual sensei; “I’m sorry, what happened to Kakashi?”

Kurenai doesn’t respond with words. She instead just gestures with the clipboard to the bed on her other side, opposite Sakura, with her mouth pressed into a tight line. Tsubaki’s follows the gesture– Kakashi is right there, as dead to the world as Sakura. No wonder she didn’t notice him, he’s barely moving, barely breathing. Tsubaki’s hands clench into fists in her lap. She should’ve known he’d had something to do with this. He always does.

Kurenai taps the end of her pen on the clipboard; “I didn’t want to leave either of them alone just yet, so I decided to make myself busy updating Kakashi’s emergency contacts. He has some, technically, but they’re all…”

She just turns the clipboard around for Tsubaki to read the names she’s crossed out. Minato Namikaze. Obito Uchiha. Rin–

Tsubaki closes her eyes with a wry smile and mutters, “She just won’t let me hate him, will she?”

Kurenai tilts her head slightly to one side; “She?”

Tsubaki points to the name, written in that messy handwriting she’d always said was proof medicine was her calling; “My sister. My maiden name was Nohara.”

Kurenai blinks rapidly, her eyes shifting between the clipboard and Tsubaki– She can see her doing the math in her head, everyone always does. That she and Rin were born ten years apart isn’t so strange, especially not for civilians. What makes Kurenai’s eyes eventually go wide and fill with a mixture of pity and genuine sorrow is the much smaller gap in time: the year between Rin’s death and Sakura’s birth.

“I’m… surprised you enrolled Sakura in the academy,” Kurenai mumbles, suddenly incapable of making eye contact.

It’s nothing Tsubaki’s not used to, so she shrugs; “Trust me, it wasn’t what I wanted. Her father went and did it behind my back, because Sakura was begging to go and he thought having a ninja in the family would be… advantageous. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back and got us the divorce. But the paperwork was all submitted, and I told Sakura so many times that she could drop out if she really wanted to, but she never did.”

Kurenai looks over to Kakashi, lips pursed; “Still… I don’t know if I could trust Kakashi with my child’s safety if I were in your position…”

“Are you kidding? I don’t trust him,” Tsubaki chuckles, “Especially not after the Chunin exams. But I’m a civilian– There’s nothing I can do about it. And…”

Her eyes drift back to her sister’s name and linger for a moment before she closes them with a sigh; “Rin never hated him. Not once. Not for a single moment. And Sakura… Well, I’ll just say, I didn’t know how much she’d missed her dad until Kakashi started training her one-on-one.”

She looks Kurenai in the eye; “So, for their sake, I’ve chosen not to hate him. I don’t approve of him, I don’t even know if I like him, but hating him… It’s just not worth it. They’ll keep loving him no matter what I think.”

Kurenai smiles, soft and a bit sad, but real; “I can see where Sakura gets her strength from.”

Tsubaki just smirks; “That’s a two-way street– I’d be lost without her.”

Kurenai nods, resolute; “Then let’s pray for her to get better soon.”

While he’s training Naruto Jiraiya keeps Sasuke busy by giving him a photo of Tsunade to take around the town’s bars and gambling halls and ask anyone if she’s seen her. Sasuke thinks that’s an incredibly rudimentary method of information gathering. He almost says so, but remembers the fading bruise behind his headband and keeps it to himself.

Before he sets off, Sasuke takes a moment to examine the photograph– for being thirty years old it’s in good condition, hardly faded and only slightly creased from having been folded once or twice. Despite how soft her features are Tsunade’s expression is serious, determined, and her gaze is piercing even through a photograph. Sasuke squints at the light indigo rhombus in the center of her forehead. It’s familiar, in the same way a lot of half-remembered Uchiha gossip and information learned for written academy exams then promptly forgotten is familiar.

Sasuke shrugs, reasoning he can ask her about it in person, before starting his mission.

It takes weeks.

Two weeks, to be fair, but that’s still longer than Sasuke wanted to stay in one place getting absolutely nowhere.

The only consolation he has as he comes back every evening from a day of people either telling him to get lost or saying they’re so sorry but they haven’t seen that woman in their life maybe try the tavern down the street dear (like he’s not a trained shinobi who saw battle during an invasion by a foreign power) is that Naruto and Jiraiya don’t seem to be having a good time of it either.

Naruto comes in even later than Sasuke does, grousing about the pain in his hands and wrists and needing to sleep with cold compresses on them to even sleep at all, while Jiraiya comes in long after they’ve fallen asleep and only wakes up around midday, reeking of alcohol to the point where no matter how many windows Sasuke opens the smell has been permanently absorbed into the tatami.

Now that he thinks about it maybe Jiraiya’s having too good a time.

“What’s Jiraiya actually teaching you, anyway?” Sasuke asks one morning over breakfast.

Naruto picks at his tray as he replies, “It’s called the Rasengan, basically a big spinning ball of chakra in your hand that you hit people with– Kinda like the Chidori but with way more steps involved, and way stronger, believe it. Like the first bit of the training was using just my chakra to pop a water balloon, I had to use a stream of chakra to spin the water around until it exploded. And right now he’s making me try and blow up rubber balls of air the same way!”

Sasuke just blinks, eyes wide; “That is some… precise chakra control.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Naruto exclaims, throwing his free hand in the air, “First I needed to learn how to spin my chakra in multiple directions at once! Now I have to put out more chakra and make it denser! It’s damn near impossible, believe it!”

“Where’s Sakura when we need her,” Sasuke grumbles around a bite of food, “Everything I know about chakra control I learned from her, she’d be able to figure that thing out in seconds.”

Naruto frowns hard at the tabletop; “Well… I mean… We know exactly where she is.”

A heavy silence settles over them and doesn’t lift until both of them finish breakfast and go their separate ways.

The Rasengan sticks in Sasuke’s mind for the rest of the day as he does his usual unsuccessful round of asking after Tsunade. The Chidori is perfect for someone with his naturally imprecise chakra control, it runs on the same principles as walking up trees and along water. But to create a concentrated sphere of spiraling chakra, that kind of precision could perfectly mend broken bones and internal injuries easily… Sasuke buys a water balloon and a rubber ball and heads to the outskirts of town.

Sasuke doesn’t pop the water balloon, but he does nearly start a forest fire out of frustration and come back to the hotel after Jiraiya, so that’s something.

He tries several more times over a few more nights, but eventually comes to the conclusion that maybe he’s coming at this from the wrong angle. Naruto is specifically trying to make a spinning ball of chakra– Sasuke doesn’t need to do that. He needs to mend internal injuries, not just keep them from getting worse like his knee or Hinata’s heart, he needs to fix broken bones the day they’ve been broken… Sasuke stares at his pinky toe on his good foot for a long time.

Breaking your toe on purpose, Sasuke finds, is a lot harder than it looks.

Once it’s broken, as the toe starts to turn purple Sasuke takes a hold of it with his fingers, feels for the break, and activates his Sharingan. He visualizes his own chakra network as he sends chakra down through his arm, straining to keep the chakra to a thin, concentrated stream– just enough to heal his toe and only his toe. The chakra moves slowly, deliberately, but he’s able to regulate the amount and keep it within the established parameters. Sasuke holds his breath as he feels the bone knit back together, watches the skin fade back to its normal pale color as the bruising fades.

Hie takes his hand away and wiggles his toes– good as new.

Sasuke’s swell of pride at a job well done is quickly staunched by a familiar voice behind him muttering, “Fuckin’– If this is what you’re like without a teacher then maybe Tsunade should take you under her wing.”

Sasuke doesn’t turn around. He just bites down hard on his lower lip as Jiraiya’s heavy footsteps come through the grass up behind him. There’s a long pause before Sasuke feels a hard thwap! to the back of his head.

Jiraiya crouches down next to Sasuke, glaring hard at him; “Look, Uchiha, Like it or not I’m responsible for you right now. If you do shit like this and it goes wrong– and it absolutely will– that’s on me. If I catch you pulling this again I will send you right back to the village, you hear me?”

Sasuke keeps his lip pinned between his teeth as he nods so he won’t say what he’s thinking out loud– Alright, then you won’t catch me.

Sasuke expects Jiraiya to go away. He doesn’t. He gives Sasuke an appraising look, rubs his chin, then smirks. Sasuke tenses– that’s bad. That’s very bad.

Jiraiya settles down, sitting next to Sasuke and turning toward the glow from the city; “You know, maybe Tsunade’s perfect for you– She used to do crap like that all the time.”

Sasuke’s brow furrows; “She did? Why?

Jiraiya shrugs; “Why are you doing it? She didn’t have a teacher. Medical ninjutsu and field medics were a thing certainly, but remember that Tsunade invented the Medical Corps. We didn’t have a standardized training program for medical ninja, if she wanted to learn she’d have to leave the team and apprentice herself specifically under someone at the hospital, keeping her completely out of the field until she was made an equivalent rank to chunin.”

Sasuke snorts; “And let me guess, she didn’t think she could leave you and Orochimaru alone for five minutes without you turning on each other.”

Jiraiya raises an eyebrow; “How do you figure that?”

“Sakura’s been out of the picture for barely a week and a half and look at me and Naruto,” Sasuke mutters, “I figure a lot of three-man teams are the same.”

Jiraiya doesn’t confirm or deny that, just shaking his head with a wry smile; “Either way, once she got enough clout to force Sarutobi to reallocate the resources for a Medical Corps she came up with the standard method of learning Mystical Palm jutsu on fish and other specimens before you ever touch a human being– she was constantly showing recruits all the scars from when her tests on herself went sideways so they’d know exactly what could happen if they tried doing as she did and not as she said.”

Sasuke grimaces; “Should I expect that when I meet her?”

Jiraiya just cuffs him, much softer this time, on the shoulder; “That’ll only be if she agrees to train you– One thing at a time, Uchiha.”

Sasuke, to his credit, shifts his focus when he trains during the night and wee hours of the morning– If he can’t apply that level of precision and control to healing, maybe he can apply it to the chidori instead. After a night he’s able to consistently reproduce the chidori-tantō technique he used on Kisame, concentrating the lightning chakra into a steady stream conducted down the blade, before trying to refine the edge of the chidori itself.

He doesn’t make too much progress in honing the chidori’s cutting edge, but he can hold it and run with it for a longer time and farther distance and brings himself up to three bursts per day, so it’s not a total loss.

And when they hit the two week mark, Sasuke is asking after Tsunade in a bar when, after striking out, he hears a man chuckle, “I know exactly who you’re talkin’ about, kiddo.”

Sasuke turns to the man, only distinctive by the self-satisfied grin on his face, holding the picture out to him; “You’re sure? It was this woman?”

He gives the picture a quick glance before nodding, swirling his drink as he replies, “Yep, that’s the broad. And I can tell you exactly where she is.”

Sasuke smirks, other hand ghosting over his wallet; “I’d buy you a drink, but since I’m underage I’ll just be straight up and ask how much you want for that.”

The man snorts; “You’re good, kid– I made out like a bandit not too long ago thanks to your lady.”

Sasuke grimaces, muttering almost to himself, “I guess they don’t call her a ‘Legendary Sucker’ for nothing.”

“Her losses were pilin’ up, so she went lookin’ for a change of scenery,” he continues, “Headed to Tanzaku Town, a few miles South of here. Better head out quick– If that losing streak of hers catches up she might go running from there, too.”

They head out the next afternoon.

“Hey you! Another round over here!”

Shizune grimaces, wringing her hands as she clutches Tonton tight; “Milady, it’s late, we should be going…”

Tsunade just glares over at her; “Whose winnings are we spending, yours or mine? I’m a grown woman and if I want to drink until I pass out in a gutter at three in the morning that’s my right.”

Shizune looks away with that kicked-puppy expression, and Tsunade just focuses on her cup of sake. Orochimaru gave her a lot to think about, too much– Is it really so bad that she wants to get blitzed off her ass so she doesn’t have to do that for an evening? That round had better get here quickly, Tsunade’s falling deep into the valley of a night of hard drinking where she’s not about to black out but just drunk enough that the alcohol is reminding her that it’s called a depressive for a reason.

Tsunade frowns at her sake; how in the Hell did Orochimaru manage to look surprisingly good and also like complete shit at the same time? He’d looked just like he had when she’d last seen him, who knows how many years ago now– she knows he’s not cheating, there’s no diamond in the center of his forehead. Maybe those snakes in Ryuichi Cave taught him how to shed his skin. If he can do that… maybe he really could bring Dan and Nawaki back to life… Great-Uncle Tobirama could do something like that, but he’d outlawed the technique for a reason

But she’s starting to forget what their voices sounded like.

She hears an employee call out “Welcome!” and a young, grating voice shout about a decibel higher than the ambient noise in the room, “If we’re just getting food why not go somewhere real like a ramen shop or something?”

And Tsunade freezes when another voice she hasn’t heard in years replies, “I swear to– Did Kakashi teach you anything? This is exactly the sort of place where you can pick up information, especially on someone like Tsunade.”

It suddenly occurs to Tsunade that not only is her table directly across from the door, but Jiraiya is definitely tall enough to see over the divider giving the table the illusion of privacy. She draws her shoulders in and glances up towards the door– Jiraiya apparently has a lot more self-confidence than her and Orochimaru since he’s taken those years right on the chin, but she could still pick him out of a crowd. What’s more surprising than how he has and hasn’t changed is his entourage. Two Leaf genin are milling about on either side of him, one in orange the spitting image of the late Fourth Hokage, one in blue who could hardly look more Uchiha if he tried.

Tsunade only has a second of puzzling over why the Hell Jiraiya’s traveling with children before his eyes alight on her.

He looks at her.

She looks at him.

And he looks at her.

And she looks at him.

And he looks at her.

And she looks at him.

And Jiraiya shouts for the entire fucking town to hear, “Tsunade?!

She leaps to her feet so she can yell right back over the divider, “Jiraiya?! What the– Why are you here?!”

Jiraiya strolls on over to the table like it hasn’t been over a decade and Tsunade doesn’t want to send him flying through several walls; “Finally, I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Shoulda known you’d be in here…”

The two genin’s eyes dart between her, Jiraiya, and each other before they come running (or limping slightly, in the Uchiha’s case) after him. This is a “seat yourself” sort of place, so they’re well within their rights to squeeze into the other bench across from her and Shizune. As the mini-Minato calls to a server to order some tavern food, she looks pointedly towards him before raising a questioning eyebrow towards Jiraiya. Jiraiya pulls out a pen, scribbles something on a napkin and pushes it over to her before either genin notice.

Yes, he’s Minato and Kushina’s boy. He doesn’t know. Don’t say anything– It’s better that way.

Tsunade rolls her eyes, but folds up the napkin and shoves it in her pocket. Ignorance really is bliss, she supposes.

The Uchiha clears his throat, drawing her eyes to him; “You already know Jiraiya, but I’ll introduce us– My name is Sasuke Uchiha, heir to the Uchiha clan. This is Naruto Uzumaki, my teammate and Jiraiya’s… apprentice, I guess? We’re honored to m–” Naruto reaches over and grabs Sasuke in a headlock that looks just a hair shy of friendly– “Ow!

Naruto jeers right into his teammate’s ear, “What’s with you, jackass? Where’d you learn manners? Or are you just suckin’ up ‘cause she’s got a great ra–” Sasuke repays him with an elbow to the ribs– “aaaAAOW!

Years come and go but preteen boys will absolutely never change.

Tsunade leans hard on her hand, looking down her nose at Sasuke; “Why are the Uchiha letting their heir run around with an old pervert looking for me?

A hush falls over the table.

Tsunade shuts her eyes so she won’t have to see all the awkward glances being traded back and forth around her. This is what she gets for avoiding word about the village at all costs, even (and especially) when Shizune tries to tell her about it. She’d only learned about the Nine Tails’ attack and Minato’s death because news like that crosses national borders and was the only thing anyone would talk about for at least a week after it happened. The Uchiha… nobody likes talking about the Uchiha. Especially not in the Leaf village.

Sasuke’s the one who finally speaks up; “The Uchiha Clan is… I’m the only one left.”

Tsunade opens her eyes but avoids looking at the kid; “I see. My condolences.”

He just nods; “Thank you.”

The sake and food comes mercifully soon and everyone falls into an awkward, uncomfortable silence justified only by the fact that their mouths are full. Shizune has the worst poker face at the table, squirming in her seat and chewing on her lower lip, not even touching the food or alcohol. It’s only slightly worse than any given time Tsunade’s losing.

Tsunade puts away another cup of sake, letting out a long sigh; “This day just keeps getting longer… Didn’t know I was signing up for a fuckin’ reunion.”

Jiraiya refills her cup before tipping back his own, his stony gaze never leaving her face; “So you did meet with Orochimaru. What happened?”

Shizune, of course, gasps slightly before glancing nervously over to her. Sasuke and Naruto both tense up, Sasuke’s eyes dropping to the tabletop and Naruto’s zeroing in on his teammate. So they know who he is, too. And from how Sasuke’s shivering, they know him well.

Tsunade likes to think her poker face is fairly decent, so she just shrugs as she pulls a deck of carts from her blouse; “Not much– We said hello and went on our way.”

Tsunade starts to shuffle the deck, and Jiraiya hands his unfinished plate of kebabs to Naruto. The boy proves he’s Kushina’s son by digging in while still staring her down with a suspicious glare. Sasuke’s more focused on the cards. She wonders if he’ll turn those Sharingan on and help Jiraiya cheat– Every Uchiha she’s ever gambled with used those eyes to cheat, one hundred percent of the time. Even Great-Uncle Madara cheated when she was little and playing against him for sweets. He would never tolerate an Uchiha losing to a Senju, regardless of the stakes.

So Tsunade only deals Jiraiya in; “Well then, why are you looking for me?”

“I’ll cut right to the chase,” Jiraiya states, serious as a heart attack as he looks right past his hand at her, “Tsunade, the Leaf village in its wisdom has come to the decision to name you the Fifth Hokage.”

Tsunade nearly drops her cards. Naruto actually chokes on some fish. Sasuke and Shizune both go wide-eyed and look between her and Jiraiya, and Tsunade reasons that cheating wouldn’t help Sasuke very much– his poker face is just as bad as Shizune’s, maybe a little worse. Once Naruto works through the choking (with help from Sasuke smacking him just a bit too hard on the back) he levels her with a look she can only describe as pure outrage.

Tsunade schools herself back into a disinterested smirk as she looks through her hand.

Jiraiya doesn’t blink; “You did hear about the Third Hokage, didn’t you?”

Tsunade shrugs; “It came up when Orochimaru and I were exchanging pleasantries– He told me he was the one who did the deed.”

Naruto’s bellowing hits a piercing pitch, making her wince; “Wait a minute you’re saying Orochimaru killed the old man?! Who is this Orochimaru guy anyway, I know he’s the one who hurt Sakura but–!”

Sasuke elbows him again, the motion clipped and stiff, as he hisses, “He’s one of the Legendary Sannin, like those two, now keep it down–”

Naruto does not keep it down; “But they’re all from the Leaf village, why would he wanna kill the Hokage?!”

Sasuke glares up at him; “Why would he want to put a curse mark on me and torment Sakura? Because he’s an evil son of a bitch, end of story–!”

Naruto stands up in the booth so he can shout past Sasuke over to Jiraiya; “And you know this guy murdered the Hokage, right?! What have you done about it?!”

Sasuke’s about to snap at Naruto again before he pauses, then turns to Jiraiya; “Wait a minute, he’s got a point why hasn’t anything been done? Why did they send you to find Tsunade instead of having you track down Orochimaru? You’re a Sannin he was part of your team it should be your responsibility–”

Naruto shouts over him as he points over at Tsunade; “And what’s the deal about her being the Fifth Hokage?!

“Both of you, sit down and shut the Hell up,” Jiraiya growls.

“Absolutely not, I–!” Naruto’s cut off by Sasuke grabbing his wrist.

Sasuke mutters, “We’re not finished. We’re just pulling back temporarily.”

That gets Naruto to sit back down, but the fire in his eyes just burns even hotter. Tsunade can feel the air around them heating up right alongside it– It doesn’t take a lot of mental math for her to realize, between the charge in the air, who his mother was, and the scars on his cheeks, exactly where the Nine Tails went.


Jiraiya swaps out three of the cards in his hand; “I’ll say it once again– The Leaf Village has made its decision. They’ve chosen you to be the Fifth Hokage. So… What’s your answer? Do you accept it, Tsunade?”

Tsunade shuts her eyes– it does nothing to mitigate the feeling of four sets of eyes all focused on her, weighing on her like a ton of concrete. She thinks back to Orochimaru’s offer, his arms for her family. And once he had his arms again, the village that’s begging for her to come back and lead it would go up in flames. There’s no question. That she’d even consider selling them out, that doing so is looking more and more appealing as the night rolls forward, disqualifies her right off the bat.

She tastes something sour on the back of her tongue– That village, their wars that just begot more wars, it killed them both. It killed her grandfather and great-uncle and her sensei. She’s not letting it kill her, too.

Tsunade discards her entire hand; “I decline.”

Shizune, the genin boys, even Tonton all look to her in shock, but Jiraiya just smirks; “Now when was the last time I heard you say that… Oh right, that’s the answer I got the first and last time I asked you out.”

Naruto lets out a loud, frustrated groan; “Will someone tell me what the Hell is going on?! First you told me we’re looking for her so she can heal Sakura and Kakashi-sensei, and NOW you’re springing all this Hokage bullcrap on me, and she just goes and refuses?! What’s even happening right now?!”

“Keep your shirt on,” Jiraiya cuts in, “She knows she can’t refuse. There’s no one else who can take the position– She almost singlehandedly made sure the Leaf won the Second Great Shinobi War, thanks to her unrivaled skill as a warrior and a healer. Not only that, she’s the granddaughter of the First Hokage. There’s no one alive with that sort of skill, clout, and heritage. Once she accepts, and she will, she’ll have to come back to the village and heal the rest of your team. Two birds, one stone.”

Oh she will, will she? Tsunade’s starting to remember in very clear detail why she resolved to never, ever, absolutely ever in her life until she dies, give this Chauvinist toad a single inch.

She clicks her tongue as she draws a new hand; “Sloppy sloppy, Jiraiya– Your standards for apprentices have fallen pretty drastically. This one’s a loudmouth fool, without even the barest understanding of what it takes to be a shinobi, let alone Hokage.”

The air heats up another few degrees as Naruto bristles, shoving Sasuke closer to Jiraiya as he leans in over the table; “Hey!”

Jiraiya turns his grimace into a wry grin; “Come on now, don’t be unfair– That’s a standard next to no one can live up to. Minato was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, all but born to be Hokage– The people loved him, the brass loved him, the ladies especially loved him. Someone like that only comes around once in a few generations.”

Naruto’s brow furrows and he whispers to Sasuke, “Was the Fourth Hokage’s name Minato?”

Sasuke just gapes at him before wondering, “Did you seriously not read a single page of our history textbook?”

Tsunade scowls at her cards as she slowly unfurls her hand; “And what good did all of that do him? Oh he was talented, he was strong and charismatic, treated Kushina like a queen and would’ve been an amazing father but what did he do instead? He threw his life away, decided to die for his village instead of live for his child.”

Jiraiya grits his teeth, clenches his jaw, but Tsunade’s not interested in him. She’s interested in Sasuke, who’s staring hard at the side of Naruto’s face as the boy fumes, looking as though he’s starting to put together a puzzle with a million moving pieces. So the Uchiha is clever. From her experience with the clan, she knows that clever doesn’t always mean smart.

She sneers over her hand; “Face it– he gambled with his life and he lost. That’s a bet even I wouldn’t take. My grandfather and great-uncle lost that bet, gave their lives to protect the village, and look at where it is now– It’s so fragile they think I’m the one who can fix it.”

Jiraiya narrows his eyes; “You’ve changed, Tsunade– The woman I knew never would’ve said things like this, especially not out loud.”

The woman he knew hadn’t had her heart torn out, shoved back in, then torn back out again only to be thrown in the mud by the village he’s trying so hard to preserve. Honestly, it’s rich that Jiraiya can claim to have ever known her at all, especially when his eyes are even still lingering south of her collarbone.

“Don’t forget, technically I’m older than you,” she snickers, “The years have done their number on me… Oh, right, let’s not forget about Sarutobi-sensei. He tried to be a hero at his age and what did it get him? A death that doomed the village instead of saving it. Out of all of them I’d expect him to know better.”

Naruto is shaking in his seat now, grinding his teeth, and she’s sure there’s a vein popping out behind that headband. The heat in the room is stifling now and she’s sure Naruto’s canine teeth look sharper than they did two seconds ago. She’s playing with fire. But she stopped giving a fuck about getting burned a long time ago.

She unfurls her full hand– nearly a royal flush, if not for one stubborn Four of Spades.

Tsunade sets down her cards and sighs, “Playing at Hokage… Count me out. That’s a fool’s game.”

“That does it–!” There’s a clatter of dishes and Naruto nearly vaults all the way over the table before Jiraiya grabs the back of his jacket and Sasuke grabs his leg, both of them wrenching him just far enough away that he can’t touch her.

Fantastic, we’re definitely getting kicked out now,” Sasuke grouses as he tries not to get kicked in the face.

“Let it go, Naruto, people are staring,” Jiraiya snaps.

“Like Hell am I gonna let her sit there and make fun of the old man,” Naruto yells, nearly pulling out of their grip, “I don’t care if she’s an old lady, I’ll knock her fuckin’ teeth in!”

The kid wants to fight her. Physically, with his hands. Tsunade is just drunk enough to find that hilarious.

She stands up with one foot on the table, getting in the kid’s face; “Are you challenging me, little boy? You’ve got guts, I’ll give you that. Alright then– Let’s take this outside!”

Tsunade tells Naruto she’ll only need a single finger to defeat him. For a second, Sasuke thinks she’s bluffing.

He learns in a few seconds more that she absolutely isn’t.

She disarms the raging mad Naruto with one stroke and sends him flying halfway down the street with a single flick to the forehead, the blow leaving a nasty bruise that he won’t be able to cover all the way up even with his headband. Sasuke thinks he probably should be concerned about Naruto but all he can do is look on in complete and total awe. Tsunade is nothing like he expected her to be– She’s better.

When Naruto tells her that to be Hokage is his dream that gives her a microsecond of pause, enough that Naruto gets in close enough to nearly hit her with an incomplete Rasengan– nearly. It’s just as Sasuke’s trying to take in the swirling sphere of chakra that Tsunade strikes the ground with that single finger and rocks the earth beneath his feet, creating a fissure that nearly splits the street in two. The sudden break catches Naruto’s foot and all he does is leave a spiraling scar in the ground before the force of the Rasengan blows him back again.

Sasuke only realizes he whispered, “Holy– She’s amazing,” out loud when he catches Jiraiya snort out of the corner of his eye.

As Shizune helps Naruto out of the crevice Tsunade turns on Jiraiya and shouts, “Are you serious? You’re teaching him the Rasengan but you’re not–!”

Jiraiya cuts her off, voice hurried and terse, “Well of course I am, I’m his teacher why wouldn’t I teach him one of my strongest jutsu?”

Sasuke’s brow furrows. There it is again. The physical resemblance between the handsome and tragic young Hokage and the fuckup who slept during lectures about him is starting to feel like less and less of a coincidence.

“You said it yourself, Minato was a once in a lifetime talent,” Tsunade snaps, a cold fire in her eyes, “No matter who he is, this kid is not Minato and he’s not you, there’s absolutely no way he can ever master the Rasengan! You’re wasting your time and his, filling his head with false hopes and wild ideas, making him think he could actually be Hokage someday–!”

Naruto scrambles to his feet and nearly falls back over again as he shouts, “I’ll show you who’s wasting time! Gimme just three days and I’ll have the Rasengan down flat, believe it!

Sasuke rubs at his temple as he groans, “Naruto you have a concussion just drop it and–“

And Tsunade actually laughs; “Don’t tease a gambler, kid! I might just hold you to it!”

Sasuke blinks rapidly– Wait, what?

Naruto snorts, “I said it and I meant it, and I never go back on my word! That’s my ninja way, believe it!”

No. No no no no no this isn’t going to happen.

Tsunade smirks; “Fine then, let’s make it a bet. I’ll give you one week– If you master the Rasengan by then I’ll admit I was wrong and that you’re worthy of becoming Hokage. I’ll even throw in my necklace.”

“Are you serious?!” Sasuke exclaims.

“I don’t know if she is,” Jiraiya replies, “That necklace belonged to the First Hokage, that thing’s worth at least as much as three gold mines and the mountains on top of them– If she’s giving away that thing for a bet with a twelve year old she must be black-out drunk by this point.”

Naruto, unfortunately, overheard that appraisal, and after salivating for a couple seconds calls back, “Lady, you’ve got yourself a bet!”

How. How in the Hell. How in the Hell did Naruto of all fucking people manage to get this woman to bet her most valuable possession after fifteen minutes and Sasuke’s barely been able to get one word in edgewise?! He wants to go over there and punch him right in his big stupid bruise until his skull fractures.

Tsunade grins as she tosses Naruto’s fat frog wallet up in the air with one hand– wait, when did she lift that off of him?! Sasuke should’ve had his Sharingan active.

“Alright, but if you lose you have to admit I was right, and I get all the money in Froggy here,” Tsunade chuckles as she tosses it back to Naruto.

Her assistant comes up to her, desperately begging her to reconsider, but Tsunade just blows her off as she heads up the street. That’s it, he is not letting Naruto hog all the spotlight and leave him in the dust, not tonight.

Sasuke runs after her; “Hey! Wait!”

Tsunade stops and lazily swivels back around, looking him up and down with a raised eyebrow; “I was wondering why you were even here, Uchiha. Go ahead kid, say your piece.”

Sasuke is bad with words, especially under pressure, so he just blurts out, “I want you to teach me medical ninjutsu. I don’t care if you’re Hokage or not, I don’t even care if you come back to the village, I need to know what you know. Whatever it takes to be your apprentice I’ll do it, I just need to learn how to heal better than I already can– I need to be good enough to fix the worst kinds of wounds.”

Tsunade stares him down for nearly a minute before her eyes flick downward and she points low; “How’d that happen?”

Sasuke blinks in confusion before following her eyes and her finger to his braced knee; “My leg?”

“Kid your age shouldn’t need something like that,” she drawls, resting her hands on her hips, “What’s the story?”

Sasuke stares at her. He considers. Refusing would kill his chances of learning from her right here and now. Lying or telling a half truth would cripple them.

So he takes a deep breath, and tells the truth; “I broke it during the Chunin exams. I didn’t know enough to fix it, and the enemy took advantage of it and made it worse. It added up until the damage was permanent. I can walk, I can even run, but I’m going to be in pain for the rest of my life because I couldn’t fix myself.”

Tsunade’s eyes narrow; “Yeah, no, I’m not training you.”

Sasuke’s eyes go wide and he exclaims, “What? Why not?!”

“Same reason I got out of the game myself,” she replies, “To be a medic you have to put others first. And I’m a selfish bitch. You didn’t start on this road to help people, you got in it for yourself. You’re exactly the kind of brat I’d turn away from the medical corps all the time during the war.”

Something cold and heavy settles in Sasuke’s stomach. He wants to tell her she’s wrong, but all he can think of is how helpless he’d felt in the Forest of Death, and how he’d felt that same helplessness every time he just barely wasn’t good enough to heal a wound or win a fight or even make it home to his apartment without pausing to grit his teeth over the pain in his bad leg… how it was the same helpless feeling he'd been drowning in for weeks after the massacre.

He can’t stop running from that feeling, chasing down the hope that maybe, one day, he won’t ever have to feel like that again. There was nothing selfless in that.

Tsunade turns on her high heel and waves him off as she adds, “And let’s not forget that Grandpa Senju killed Great-Grandaddy Uchiha. We wouldn’t want them rolling in their graves.”

Sasuke can only watch as she strides away, her assistant and pig pausing only to shoot him apologetic glances before following on her heels. He stares down the long, empty street for what feels like forever before Jiraiya roughly pats his back, literally smacking him back to the world of the living.

“Come on, kid,” he mutters, “Let’s get going.”

Sasuke looks up at him, asking around the ache in his throat, “You knew she’d shoot me down, didn’t you?”

“Like I said, I know her better than I know myself,” Jiraiya replies as he steers them away, “And I know she thrives on playing hard to get.”

Sasuke feels like he’s in a daze, and he ends up back at their hotel without remembering the walk there. Jiraiya sends him up after Naruto, and Sasuke walks right past him as he heads into the room despite Naruto squalling in his ear. He sits down on one of the beds and stares out the window at the night sky.

She’d humored Naruto with a fight and a bet, even if she knew he’d lose both.

She’d turned him away without a second glance.

A lump of heavy, roiling, bitter something is coagulating deep in the pit of Sasuke’s stomach, and it festers with every moment Sasuke stays awake to stare at the moon.

Kabuto comes into the darkness of Orochimaru’s chambers, face unreadable; “I’ve received some interesting news from our scouts in Tanzaku Town. Jiraiya’s come looking for Tsunade, and he’s not alone. He’s brought Naruto… as well as Sasuke.”

Orochimaru had been glaring at the space just beside Kabuto’s head until that name hit his ears. He sits up, ramrod straight, and stares Kabuto down with eyes so wide they burn.

“You’re sure?!” he hisses, leaning in as Kabuto closes the distance.

Kabuto nods; “I double and triple checked– A stroke of luck like this can’t be left to chance. He’s within our grasp. What do you want to do? We could change our strategy and go for him instead of taking this chance on Tsunade.”

Orochimaru frowns hard, gazing into the middle distance as he thinks.

This is the perfect chance to fix his own mistake, to get back what had been stolen from him, to finally put his plans back on schedule. He’d wanted to see the Sakura option through to the end but the thought of the Sharingan makes him salivate, sends his heart racing with excitement at the sheer possibility, and it’s close enough to reach out and pluck it off the vine…

But he can’t reach out and grab it. The Reaper Death Seal attacked his soul, not just his body– they’d done all they could to research his condition but they still don’t know for certain how deep this damage goes. These are his arms, the instruments of his dream, he can’t afford to take a chance on them…

And then, Orochimaru gets an idea. An awful idea. Orochimaru gets a wonderful, awful idea.

A grin splits his face and he answers, “I think we’re quite capable of multitasking.”