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Drifting Petals

Chapter Text

The inky darkness of late night blanketed the streets of Konohagakure. With only a few lights shining around the streets, Sarutobi Hiruzen could almost pretend it was the Konoha of a year ago. Before the Kyuubi, before the devastation, when the village was still full of joy and laughter rather than suspicion and fear. Fom where he sat in his office, staring out the panoramic windows on an upper floor of the administration center, the view was peaceful, almost serene.

Behind him, his desk was covered with dozens of papers and scrolls arrayed in a messy scatter. Mission requests, reports, reconstruction measures - a thousand and one things demanded the Hokage's attention, and precious few of them were positive.

Konoha had suffered in the months since the death of the Yondaime. Meetings of the clan heads remained tense, full of finger pointing and accusations. The physical damage from the Kyuubi's rampage had been mostly restored, but Hiruzen feared the mental and emotional scars from the attack would never fade. Uchiha Fugaku had stormed out of the last meeting of the clan heads, furious at the blame Danzo and others had laid at his feet. Many in the village were already speaking of the baby jinchuuriki with disgust and loathing.

What really happened on that night, Minato? Who unleashed the Kyuubi on the village? Surely the Uchiha did not betray us. As always, Hiruzen had no answer to these questions. I'm too old for this, he mused as he puffed on his pipe, shoulders slumped and eyes off to the distance. Biwako, how I miss you.

A slight tap at the door brought him out of his musings. Early. Something must have happened. Taking a breath, he straightened and forced the tension and despair from his face. Hiruzen turned back toward the desk, re-lighting the doused lamps with a flicker of chakra. The pipe vanished into a hidden pocket, and he retrieved the red and white hat of the Hokage from where he had tossed it in disgust, placing it atop his brow. He took a deep breath and adopted the kind yet stern face he wore as the Sandaime.

A twitch of a foot triggered the hidden mechanism which unlocked the office door. "Enter," he called, disabling the traps with precise taps to the fuuinjutsu array under the desk.

A single masked shinobi slipped soundlessly through the cracked door and closed it behind her. ANBU Panther stepped up to his desk and wordlessly offered him a message scroll. The Sandaime took it and scanned its contents briefly. Most of it was routine reports, predictable - but the last sentence, hastily scrawled...

He laid the scroll down and turned his gaze toward the kunoichi. "Give me a full summary of the final item, Panther."

The cat-masked agent looked up. "Hokage-sama. A post-natal checkup on a baby in Konoha General Hospital uncovered indicators of a kekkei genkai in the child. The parents are civilians. The family was not on the watch lists. This knowledge has been confined to two medics directly involved in the case and myself."

The words were clear and concise, as was her habit. The Sandaime absently turned towards the wall as he considered them, drumming the fingers of his left hand as he thought.

Kekkei genkai - bloodline limits - were almost entirely confined to the various clans of the shinobi world, who guarded their unique abilities with zeal. Citizens who immigrated into Konoha had their backgrounds checked for ninja relatives - both as a precaution against infiltration and to watch for exactly this circumstance. Obviously, not every line could be traced - records missing or destroyed, orphans of war, and simply not enough time to investigate everything - and the result of such oversights was neatly documented in the scroll in front of him. A child born out of the blue with such an ability was almost unheard of.

"How was the bloodline discovered?"

"Complications during the birth. Both mother and child required healing with medical jutsu. One of the trainees noticed unusual chakra pathways and structures in the baby's nervous system. The team leader was unable to identify the cause and requested the aid of an ANBU agent."

"Has an identification of the bloodline in question been made?"

"I have tentatively identified the kekkei genkai in question as the Museigen no Shikou. The clan in question no longer exists - destroyed decades before the founding by the Uchiha, among others."

"I trust your judgment. The parents, and the baby?"

"The medics were unable to save the mother. The child will need intensive care over the next few days. The father is aware of this, but not the surrounding circumstance."

Hiruzen sighed. "What do you know of the father?"

"Haruno Kizashi, a civilian merchant. He is native to the village. I believe he is a loyal and relatively ordinary citizen."

"Who is no doubt wholly incapable of raising a child with resurgent bloodline abilities."

The masked kunoichi remained tactfully silent.

"Do you have anything further to add?"

"No, Hokage-sama."

The Sandaime sat silently for a few minutes in thought. The emergence of a new kekkei genkai in Konoha was a prize to be reckoned with. Minor wars had been fought over less. If the brief summary Panther had found describing the bloodline was correct, the baby could no doubt grow to become a powerful ninja. In another two generations Konoha might even gain another clan. The choice before him was stark.

A civilian such as the father could not deal with raising the baby. He would have no experience with the abilities his daughter would manifest, and no training to prevent injury to her or himself if anything went wrong. Civilian parents could and did raise children who grew into successful shinobi, but rarely did ninja from such backgrounds enter the elite ranks. Children with kekkei genkai, almost by definition, were born into the clans.

Sighing again, he made his decision. "The nature of the child is to be kept secret. Any further reports will be given to myself verbally. Destroy the relevant records and replace them with fakes."

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

He closed his eyes. Minato, forgive me. I fear I have failed to protect your son. Now, I will take another child from her father. Such were the burdens of leadership. Hiruzen dearly wished he could have stayed in retirement, free from the responsibilities of the Hokage. Of course, that choice is not mine to make. It was never mine to make. Who else could shoulder his burden? Tsunade had abandoned the village. Danzo? Orochimaru? His former teammate and student were both capable and extremely intelligent, but neither man valued the Will of Fire or particularly cared for the citizens of Konoha. Danzo would see us at war again within months, and Orochimaru spends all his time in the laboratory. Jiraiya's capabilities as a field agent and spy were too valuable to chain him to the village, and he had no interest in taking the Sandaime's place. Once again, Hiruzen felt the loss of his chosen successor keenly. Damn the Kyuubi.

He brought his focus back to the present. He could afford to be mournful later, when the village had no urgent need of him. Eyes hardened, the Sandaime spoke with grim finality.

"Panther. Until such time as a guardian can be found, you will be responsible for the child's safety. Have her transferred to the secure wing of the hospital. Make the necessary arrangements for the father. The medics tragically failed to prevent the death of the baby along with the mother."

"Understood, Hokage-sama."

"Dismissed."

A quick pulse of chakra released the seals, and Panther slipped out the window and flickered away. Hiruzen stared at the report again, committing its contents to memory. A quick fire jutsu turned the scroll to ash in his hand. Another wave of his hand closed and sealed the window.

Another day as Hokage. Another secret to keep. Another child to hide and protect.

Hopefully, Panther could piece together some records on the training necessary to control this bloodline. Many of the clans that had joined the village kept records back to the Warring States Era. Among these were analyses of the various abilities used by enemy shinobi - all the information that could be learned, bought, or stolen. That ANBU records were already able to match a specific bloodline to the child was promising.

Promising. Bah. A few minutes ago I was hoping for positive news. Now it has come, and I am only more regretful. For fear of an unknown bloodline, he had ordered a newborn taken from her remaining family. To strengthen Konoha, he would see her trained as a ninja, another living weapon to wield against the enemies of the Land of Fire. Konoha was often viewed as soft and weak by the other villages. Hiruzen knew such claims were nonsense. Just because the shinobi bearing leaves on their headbands did not generally attack civilians or pillage and rape in wartime did not mean they did not live according to the same brutal calculus as the others. Danzo thinks me a fool. I think he has made hard choices for so long he has forgotten that sometimes there are softer options. But when the chips are down, are we so different?

What he had ordered done tonight was wrong. In the service of the village, perhaps, but still reprehensible.

Such was the burden of the hat he had accepted. Such was his duty.

For the third time that night, Hiruzen mourned the death of Namikaze Minato. Perhaps the Yondaime, with his keen intelligence and firm moral foundation, could have found a better solution. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps. The Sandaime, forced to retake the position he had eagerly relinquished, could not afford to take chances.

Certainly, a civilian father was not an insurmountable barrier. The situation could be explained, shinobi could be appointed as watchers, and difficulties might be managed. But such solutions would require attention and effort the village did not have to spare. It was simpler to tell the man his daughter was dead and place his daughter with more capable ninja. Simpler to cut away the complications regardless of the morality of the decision.

Simpler, to do what was easy instead of what was right.

Chapter Text

Baby Haruno Sakura slept quietly. The room in the secure wing of Konoha General Hospital was silent except for the quiet rustle of wind against the walls.

Mitsuhara Fujiko sat in the corner, lost in thought. She had a lot of time to think as Panther. After setting up traps and genjutsu, guard duty tended to blur into hours of tedium, waiting for something interesting to happen. Her mind tended to wander, particularly in the five and a half months since the attack.

The Kyuubi. The memory drew her in, always waiting.

ANBU had known there was a chance something might happen the night of October 10. Even with all their elaborate preparations - the secrecy, the barrier, the guards, the hidden and fortified location chosen for the birth - there was always the possibility Kushina's seal might slip just enough to let the fox out.

Her squad had been on standby within the village: Panther, Falcon, Squirrel, and Boar, their captain. They'd been together since her induction into ANBU two years before the end of the Third War. Falcon, the trap expert who'd picked up medical jutsu after a disastrous assassination attempt gone wrong that had nearly killed them all. Squirrel, the earth-type specialist, skilled in tracking and manipulating the battlefield. Boar, the team leader and close combat expert, cool and calculating under pressure. Fujiko was the only kunoichi on the team, a kenjutsu specialist also skilled in stealth and simple genjutsu. Over three years of working together through the end of the war and the aftermath, they'd become closer than the siblings she'd once dreamed of having. There was no one better to have at her side.

They had all been edgy and tense. After weeks of hiding from enemy patrols and sneaking past guards on a long espionage assignment in the Land of Hot Water, all four of them had wanted to relax and unwind. Learning that the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi was about to give birth and might kill them all had not been pleasant.

There had been nine ANBU squads deployed in the village that night. The normal rotation usually called for three or four, but the extra teams had been held back from mission duty so that they could stand guard on this night.

Her squad joined three other ANBU teams assigned to the wall of the village that faced towards the location chosen for the birth. They'd laid traps along the approach to the village, carved out huge pits with earth jutsu, and prepared massive explosive tags. Now they sat, waiting.

Squirrel had been in the middle of one of his crude jokes, though no one had really been in the mood for humor. Falcon, usually taciturn, had become even more monosyllabic than usual.

The first warning had been the oppressive chakra exuded by the demon. Every ANBU trained their sensory abilities to at least a basic level of proficiency, so they all knew immediately the seal had failed. Nothing else could have produced that sudden surge of tainted chakra, clearly noticeable from kilometers away.

That was bad, but not entirely unexpected. Minato and Kushina were both highly proficient with fuuinjutsu; it was entirely possible that if nothing else went wrong they might reseal the fox themselves. So the four of them had traded uneasy glances and taken to the treetops, just inside the village walls. If the fox did break lose, they and the three other ANBU squads would see it coming and be able to slow it down while the rest of the village prepared.

"Easy," Boar murmured, reminding them of the plan. "If it's a full break-out Gecko and the others will send up flares. Don't panic yet."

Then the presence vanished. Fujiko nearly gasped in relief as the pressure of the demonic chakra abruptly lifted. Maybe we won't die tonight after all, she thought.

And then the Kyuubi reappeared behind them.

It was impossible, utterly impossible. The demon couldn't teleport like that. The Fourth Hokage theoretically could have brought the Kyuubi with him via hiraishin, but it was simply not possible that he would make such an incredible mistake. No flares. No warning. Could the demon kill all of them so quickly?

They stood frozen for a long, long second. Then, "Move!" Boar roared, his normally quiet voice harsh and panicked. The four of them sped back towards the village center, chaining shunshin after shunshin to cover the kilometers in seconds.

They arrived to total chaos. All of ANBU had known exactly what might happen, but most of Konoha's shinobi had only been informed of a higher alert level, not the reasoning behind it. Konoha's civilians had trained evacuation drills, but the last time an evacuation had occurred in earnest was more than a decade earlier, back during the Second Shinobi World War. Even at the height of Iwa's penetration into the Land of Fire during the Third War, the village itself had never come under direct attack. No one had experience dealing with the rampages of a tailed beast - the high quality of Uzumaki fuuinjutsu had prevented the constant slips that plagued the other villages' jinchuuriki.

Close up, the sheer presence of the Kyuubi staggered them. The aura surrounding the demon was something like and unlike killing intent. Killing intent was personal, predatory. A snake causing a small mouse to freeze with the intensity of its regard. Though Fujiko had no particular skill with the technique, she had felt it and overcome it many times on the battlefield.

This was different. The Kyuubi didn't have any particular desire for her death. It had no regard for Mitsuhara Fujiko, ANBU jounin of the Leaf. The chakra flowing out of it did not target her in any way. It was primal, elemental, a volcanic blast of overpowering rage and hatred.

The force of it struck her like a physical blow, and she dropped to one knee as they landed.

Fujiko had struggled back to her feet, trying to find herself in the whirlwind of fear and despair that surrounded her. Around her, the civilians that could move were fleeing in terror. Many more lay paralyzed by fear, whimpering in the night. The urge to join them was powerful.

In the end, it was her teammates that gave her strength. She would not abandon them to the Kyuubi. Konoha would fight, and she would fight with it.

It was chaotic and brutal. Screams and shouts filled the air along with the roaring of the fox and the massive rumblings that accompanied its devastation. Smoke and dust hung low over the battle, and hundreds of fires blazed in the night. No one had a plan, and outside her ANBU comrades Fujiko had no idea who was in charge.

"You kids! Run for a shelter!"

"Somebody help me!"

"Watch out!"

"I can't see! I can't see!" A Hyuuga screaming, clawing at his eyes as he staggered away from the demon. Fujiko winced. With the byakugan's ability to sense chakra, looking at the Kyuubi was probably like staring at the sun.

"Hold out until the Hokage gets here!"

"Get those genin out of there!"

"Mass fire jutsu in five! Aim for the eyes!" That was something she could do. More than two-thirds of Konoha had a fire affinity, Fujiko among them, and she added her fireball to three hundred or so others, a tremendous roar of flame that scored the Kyuubi's face and made it rear up onto its hind legs. The backwash blew soot over them, sending many of the shinobi not protected by filters or masks into fits of coughing.

"Move!"

"Get the hell out of here!"

With a tremendous crash, the Kyuubi lunged forward, smashing the buildings they had stood on flat into the ground. Most of them got away in time, but a few unlucky stragglers vanished beneath its claws.

"Medic! I need a medic over here!" Falcon nodded to them and headed over, putting glowing hands to the stump of someone's leg, severed below the knee.

"I need engineers up here! We're going to try to set up some of the siege ballistae! Buy us time!"

"Get me some damn explosives!"

"Here!"

Someone passed out scrolls full of explosive notes. Fujiko wrapped them around the hilts of kunai as she timbers sent flying as the Kyuubi exploded through a housing district. Boar smashed a boulder out of the sky with a flaming fist, his special armguard glowing red with chakra.

"Volley!" Thousands of kunai and shuriken peppered the beast's flanks. Little damage was done, but every bit would help. Fujiko threw until her holsters were empty. Then the hundreds of explosive notes triggered, blowing pits several meters wide into the beast's flesh. Blood poured down, steaming into red mist in the fires and adding an iron tint to the already choking air.

"Water jutsu specialists on me! We need to get a fire brigade going!"

"Where the fuck are the Uchiha?"

"Leave him, he's done for!"

"Regroup! Form up by squads!"

"Get a wall up, we need to push it away from the hospital!"

All in all, the Kyuubi paid little attention to their efforts. It waded through Konoha as it pleased, buildings crumbling beneath its claws. The great tails lashed around its back, pummeling the ninja too slow or injured to move quickly enough. They could control its path somewhat by providing it with tempting targets, but they lost shinobi with every attempt and the Kyuubi refused to be taunted back along the way it had come.

And throughout, the same presence dragged at their spirits. The Kyuubi was not a foe she could look in the eye, not an enemy she could lock blades with in a test of strength. It merely rampaged, and its chakra constantly threatened to overwhelm them with their own powerlessness and futility.

They were giving everything they had, the shinobi of Konohagakure, and it wasn't going to be even close to enough.

Then there was a flicker of yellow light at the top of Hokage Rock, and Fujiko felt a stirring of hope. She'd thought Namikaze Minato dead. If the Yondaime was alive, then perhaps they could -

The Kyuubi reared back on its hind legs, dark chakra gathering in an orb in front of its mouth that would wipe the mountain off the face of the earth. The sphere blasted forward, shattering the kilometer of buildings between the fox and Hokage Rock in an instant. The vibration was felt from the inside, in her bones.

There was the barest impression of inky symbols in the air, and with a flash of yellow the ball of chakra was gone. The explosion in the distance shook the earth, dislodging her footing. She stumbled, dropped to her knees just as one of the massive tails whipped through the air overhead and crashed down, missing by inches as she hurled herself to the side with chakra-enhanced reflexes. She tumbled in the wake of its passage, rolling through the street as rubble crashed down.

Springing upright, she turned to find her teammates, and saw -

Gone -

No -

The block behind her had been pulverized, buildings crushed into the ground. The cohesion of the shinobi had been shattered, disoriented survivors spread around the surrounding ground. She looked, hoping for a familiar porcelain mask among the living - just one - dear kami -

Thick blood and specks of matter she didn't want to think about glistened on the shattered edge of half a mask with boar markings. The things lying beside it, twisted and broken, torn flesh and protruding bone, couldn't really be called bodies -

"Rally to me! To me!"

The arrival of the Sandaime provided much-needed leadership as he stood tall in his old-style armor, adamantine staff held before him. But Fujiko couldn't pay any attention to him, her gaze fixed on Boar's shattered mask.

She'd lost her parents and grandparents as a young child, and it had only driven her to start the Academy as soon as possible. She'd lost her sensei and her genin teammates in a single, horrible day at the start of the Third War, and it hadn't broken her. She'd lost friend after friend to the battles that followed, and however much it hurt, it never shattered her spirit. But this was too much. They had spent so much time together, bled together, laughed together, fought together to defend their home. To lose them now, just when hope had started to return...

She screamed then, in rage and pain, and drew her katana, leapt toward the bulk of the Kyuubi. She was heedless of the Sandaime's shouted orders to regroup, full of loss and anguish and the need to make it bleed, make it pay, bring them back -

One of the swinging tails carelessly flicked her out of the sky, and she knew no more for a time.

A sound brought her out of the reverie.

Where am I?

The hospital room. No, not hers, not after the attack. The baby. Haruno Sakura. The dim lights and quiet, steady rustle of wind.

She sighed softly. The flashbacks were getting worse. Dismissed from the hospital a few days after the attack, she'd returned to her apartment to find the entire block leveled. Her roommates appeared on the list of the dead soon after.

Adrift, she'd thrown herself into the reconstruction work, trying to distract her mind. It had worked, for the first week or so. Then the dreams started. Dreams of fire and demons chasing her from her own shadow. Sometimes she dreamed of the attack, only she didn't stand and fight but stood motionless as her friends died around her. Sometimes porcelain ANBU masks like those of her teammates hid from her in the woods, and when she finally caught them they lifted to reveal bloody, faceless skulls. Even the nightmares of the Third War she hadn't had for years returned, of Chihiro-sensei's crushed body, and holding Soichirou's hand as he bled out, of headless Iwa shinobi standing in a circle over her, silently watching their killer suffer.

She had gone to the Sandaime, Hokage once again, and demanded missions outside the village. Even without a squad, with two thirds of its command structure dead, she was still ANBU, one of the best, she had argued, and too valuable to keep in the village carrying wood and stone. She hid the bags under her eyes beneath makeup and ANBU mask, forced herself to stand tall and strong, and clenched her hands to hide the trembling in her fingers. He agreed.

She flung her way into assassination and sabotage assignments, disregarding her own safety without a squad to watch her back, and rejoiced in the ability to do something, make a difference.

And every time the kunai of an enemy came close to her chest, every time she ducked under the swing of a sword, there was a part of her that welcomed the danger, wanted her to be that fraction slower. Wanted to take the hit. Oblivion would be a gift.

Every time she slept, her dreams brought her back to that night, reunited her with Falcon and Squirrel and Boar just so they could be ripped from her once again while she fell helpless in the dirt.

Eventually, the Hokage took note of her tired shoulders and shaking hands and refused to send her outside the village, assigning her to guard and messenger duties, ordered her to sleep in.

It was funny in a slightly morbid way how her superior, the military dictator of Konoha, was the only person close to a friend she had left. Everyone else had died. Family, teammates, mentors, friends. The only one left was the man who'd singled her out of the ranks of new chunin rotating home from the front lines of the Third War, saw her talent and drive and referred her into ANBU. They were quite a pair: the young black ops agent broken by the age of twenty, and the old shinobi fatigued from too many conflicts, both of them weary of the burdens duty had thrust upon them.

Maybe that was why she clung to the sight of this baby, swaddled in blankets with an oxygen mask and IV line. It was the first time since the attack anything around her had pointed to the future instead of the painful past.

Haruno Sakura. Healthy, stable and out of danger, and born with a kekkei genkai not seen for generations. The baby stirred a feeling Fujiko had long since given up on.

Hope.

It wasn't something she had much of. She'd always been a bit of a pessimist, and the Third War and the Kyuubi had beaten any remaining optimism out of her.

But now, even after the devastation wrought by the Kyuubi, the village would carry on. The proof was sleeping in front of her. There would be a next generation to carry the Will of Fire. Just babies and young children now, in need of protection and succor, but in time they would grow, and someday -

Someday they might achieve the dreams their predecessors had failed to grasp.

If I cannot hope, then I can be a shield for those who can.

Fujiko came to a decision, and for the first time in five and a half months felt a fraction of the burden of the past lift from her shoulders.

o-o-o-o-o

The Hokage came in the late afternoon, disguised as just another Konoha jounin. To her surprise, it was the man himself, not a shadow clone. His lined, tan face eased just a fraction when he looked at the baby.

"Any trouble, Panther?"

She let the genjutsu fade. It had become one of her only distractions, trying to perfect her illusions to the point even Hiruzen couldn't see through them. She had yet to come close. The Professor read her like an open book.

"No, Hokage-sama. She's been sleeping all day. The medics expect no further issues. She'll be able to leave the hospital within the week."

He grunted, taking the clipboard hung by the bed and skimming through it. He replaced it, and they sat quietly for several minutes, both staring at the pink bundle.

Fujiko licked her lips and swallowed, mustering her courage.

"Ho- Hokage-sama."

He turned to her, one brow raised. "Yes, Panther?"

"I- I would like to put my name forward for custody of the child."

She had surprised him with that. His eyes widened minutely. He didn't seem displeased, which gave her a bit of hope. "You would have to leave ANBU."

"Yes, Hokage-sama. I- you know my- it has not been the same, without my team." Fujiko looked down, trying to feel for the proper words.

"You know I have been - distracted - since the attack. You - we - both know that I am not truly fit for duty." There. She'd said it. "I have - too much baggage. My friends are all gone. I have no family. If given responsibilities I am likely to get myself and my team killed." The words came in a rush. "Even on solo assignments, I will - I do - not take proper caution."

It pained her to admit the truth. Her cheeks flushed with shame and embarrassment.

"Panther."

She didn't respond.

"Fujiko." His voice bore the unmistakable hint of command. "Look at me. Remove your mask."

She reached a trembling hand up and slipped the mask off her face, porcelain cool against her hand. She raised her head slowly, tears dripping down her cheeks. Blue eyes met brown. She couldn't read his expression.

"You understand the responsibility you would be taking."

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

The Sandaime studied her for a long moment. Mitsuhara Fujiko was one of his better ANBU operatives. The brown-haired, blue-eyed kunoichi had made a name for herself on the front lines of the Third War - she'd lasted almost a month solo after her sensei and the rest of her team were killed, before the chaos of the opening days of the war lessened enough for reassignments to be made. She'd been rotated home and promoted to chunin, and her test scores were high enough that he approved her transfer to ANBU. Fujiko adapted to the life of black ops better than most, without many ties outside the tight-knit division. For her to make such a request was... unexpected. She had rarely reached out socially to anyone; not at all in the months since the Kyuubi attack and the second loss of her team. He knew her apartment had been destroyed by the Kyuubi; when not on duty he was pretty sure she slept in ANBU headquarters. He wondered what had caused this sudden shift in her. "Panther. Your analysis?" he asked.

"Sir." She stiffened, ran a hand through short brown hair, the calm mask of the operative slipping back into place. "The primary considerations are security and suitability. Suitability requires that a ninja be given custody, someone who can devote a majority of their time to the child. A clan ninja familiar with kekkei genkai may be advantageous, but placing the child into an established clan is likely to be disruptive. The clan teachings will certainly not fit with her kekkei genkai abilities, and the clan leadership will be wary of a new bloodline which may overshadow their own. It is thus preferable to place the baby with an experienced ninja not associated with a clan. Security requires someone either without close associates or with those who can be trusted to keep the secret or which can be severed, and the former is obviously preferable. I am clanless, already know of Sakura's existence, and can disappear into the village easily. ANBU Panther is not well known, and can simply appear on the internal KIA lists. If I need to be recalled to active duty I can simply be assigned a different mask. Otherwise, no one will take notice of another young mother raising a child. The father will be assumed to have died during the Kyuubi attack."

"And your personal reasons?"

Her voice broke. "I- I- it was a dream I had, to raise children, but after - after Soichirou died it was - not something I considered possible. I know I cannot continue as I am, but I would not abandon my duty without reason. Someone must care for the child, and I am qualified, and want a chance to rebuild my life. Please." She was trembling now, and Fujiko hated that, hated to lose the cool focus that had been her shield in the years since the deaths of her first team.

Hiruzen smiled, reached out and took her hands with his. "Enough. It is good to hear you say such things. I have worried for you these past months, child. I give you my permission, with conditions. You will see a therapist."

She flinched slightly. He gripped her hands, preventing her from withdrawing. "You know it must be done, Fujiko. If you are to raise a child you must be mentally and emotionally stable, or close enough that it makes no difference. If you cannot do it for yourself, or for me, do it for her." His gaze held hers firmly. "You will do this right. You will allow me to find a suitable house near the Sarutobi clan district. I will send a shadow clone regularly to check in on you."

He frowned, considering. "Retain your ANBU gear. Panther will be officially retired from ANBU, but there is no reason Mitsuhara Fujiko cannot be appear on the reserve list. Your name will be removed from the active duty rolls, but I will give you paperwork and information analyses to complete. If it ever becomes necessary, Panther will be reinstated and you can easily return to duty."

Her heart was thumping against her chest. "Thank you, Hokage-sama. Thank you. I will not let you down."

Chapter Text

The house Fujiko and Sakura would live in was nestled in the residential district between the Sarutobi and Uchiha clan compounds. It was an older part of Konoha, and the plots of land allocated to each home were full of trees. The side boundaries were marked with a row of Hashirama trees. Created as saplings by the First Hokage, they now overshadowed many of the surrounding birches and maples, fifty years later.

The house itself was small, paneled with cedar shingles and covered by a red tile roof. No overly curious neighbors were going to catch many glimpses of any training that occurred in the back yard, and if anyone decided to climb the trees to spy, well, Hiruzen had been quite specific with his permissions.

"Ignorance will be your primary protection, Fujiko, but I expect you to be proactive in discouraging prying eyes. Any measures you wish to take are allowed, barring only lethal traps a civilian might wander into," he had said, with a smile that belied the hardness in his eyes.

She'd taken his words to heart. It had only taken a little while to move her meager possessions out of ANBU headquarters into the new home - almost everything she'd ever owned had been destroyed along with her apartment - and it was the work of an afternoon to pick up the things she'd need to take care of Sakura. Her 'daughter' was longer a Haruno but legally Mitsuhara Sakura, with a newly faked birth certificate to prove it. Though is it really fake if the Hokage himself ordered it made?

Moved in and baby secure in a crib with multiple bunshin watching out, she turned her focus to making the simple house into a fortress. With ANBU-honed efficiency she laid dozens of tripwires, snares, and genjutsu traps in the surrounding trees. Hiruzen gave her fuunjutsu security seals to place on all the walls, designed to paralyze anyone whose chakra registered as foreign (the only people allowed through were Sakura, Hiruzen, and Fujiko herself) and Fujiko rigged the outer doors to squeak loudly unless you pressed them in the right spot while entering.

She found the five best spots from which to observe the yard and rigged them with a particularly nasty trap Falcon had taught her only a month before he - she flinched away from that thought - that Falcon had once shown her. It would glue the feet of anyone who triggered it and spray a combination of poison ivy oil and skunk stink all over the intruder. If any of them ever triggered, she planned to replace them with something thoroughly lethal.

The dining room and kitchen were clean and well stocked. The furniture was comfortable without being dumpy, and was certainly a grade above anything Fujiko had owned before. She'd lived most of her life in the subsidized apartments for lower-ranking ninja, full of old rickety chairs and tables broken and mended by generations of careless chunin. These chairs had cushions that weren't thin and lumpy, didn't smell, and weren't patched in multiple places with clumsy stitches. The window shutters didn't have any missing or broken slats.

Over the next weeks she spent her time in and around the house, Sakura nestled in a carrier on her back. The pink-haired baby was still spending most of the day sleeping, but Fujiko liked to sing quietly and tell stories while she worked. Knowing Sakura would not remember specifics, Fujiko talked freely about her old teammates. Even when she was older, she thought she might turn some of the more amusing events of her shinobi career into bedtime stories. Being able to talk about the past was something her Yamanaka therapist had encouraged, and she had to admit it was… nice… to be able to speak her feelings without fear of judgment or rejection.

She turned the large room in the back corner of the house into a mirror of the training room Boar had once proudly described to her, stocking it with the same brand of dummies and weights she remembered him liking. She decided that, in honor of his memory, she would try to recreate his signature 'fire taijutsu,' where he wreathed his arms and legs in flames that would burn opponents but not his teammates, and incorporate it into her own fighting style.

She prepped the two bedrooms, though Sakura wouldn't need her own room for some years yet, sleeping in a crib next to her bed in the meantime. Hers she painted a light shade of blue similar to her own eye color, Sakura's in pale green. She'd be damned if she forced pink on the kid - she remembered with horror the garish kimonos the matron of her orphanage had liked to dress the girls in. No, she decided, if she had her say Sakura's color would match the beautiful green of her adorable eyes.

She was coming to love the little girl even faster than she expected. Fujiko couldn't help herself; Sakura was just so darn cute. Well, there were moments where she filled her diaper or spit up gunk foul enough to fluster even a former black ops agent's calm, but most of the time. Well, the part where she had to wake up multiple times every night to care for a crying baby was pretty annoying too. Okay, so there was a lot that was hard about raising a child on her own, but she still loved the girl.

One of the front rooms became a storage space, the other she turned into her office. The drawers in the desk had multiple false bottoms; the first concealing some moderately important financial documents the second, hidden under a genjutsu and lethally trapped, was where she kept the paperwork Hiruzen sent her to look over.

The second time Hiruzen came to check on them, he brought a few additional scrolls he had been able to find detailing the Museigen no Shikou. With his shadow clone's help, she secured them in a trapped shoebox in her closet, hidden in plain sight. Hiruzen contributed several security seals she couldn't make head or tails of. When she asked what they did, he merely frowned briefly and told her any would-be-thieves would find it surprising and extremely unpleasant. She shrugged and didn't press further.

Once Hiruzen's clone had dispelled, she moved on to the room she'd saved for last. The previous owner had had a small storage room or walk-in closet attached to the bedroom she chose as her own. She cleared it out and carefully unpacked her prized treasures.

The shattered pieces of the three porcelain masks she laid out carefully on the black silk cloth. On the shelf above them she placed a picture frame. All four people in it were smiling.

Fujiko was in the middle of the three kids in front, blue eyes lit up with joy, arms around the shoulders of her teammates. Handsome Nohara Soichirou was on her left, grinning easily, his rectangular purple clan markings clearly showing against his cheeks. On her right was tan-skinned Nara Yoshimoto, lips uplifted in a lazy smirk, black hair in the classic Nara ponytail. Behind them was Inuzuka Chihiro, their jounin-sensei. The tall woman with the characteristic face markings of her clan stood with her arms crossed, cheeks dimpled and canines revealed by her smile. At their feet, ears just poking into the bottom of the picture was their sensei's ninken companion Shiromaru.

They'd never had the courage to tell Chihiro-sensei just how dorky she looked when she smiled. Now, tears in the corner of her eyes as she stroked the edge of the frame, Fujiko wished she had. It would be worth it just to feel Chihiro swat them good-naturedly and parry with some crack about their own appearances. She could almost hear Soichirou laughing at Yoshimoto's dry, sarcastic wit, feel their hands in hers as they skipped from the training ground to get ice cream mochi together after a hard workout…

She wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffled. It wasn't good to dwell on the past. She slid the door closed softly. Later, she would return and light some incense.

o-o-o-o-o

The days were quiet. Fujiko spent her time sitting in the backyard with Sakura, pointing out the names of objects while she read the scrolls on the Museigen no Shikou.

Days became weeks. She started going out and about more often, taking Sakura with her to see the markets and playground, even if she was still too young to interact with the other children. She picked out picture books to read, and a little white stuffed bear. Sakura adored it, clutching the fuzzy creature with her tiny arms and chortling happily.

Weeks became months. Fujiko finished memorizing the scrolls, burning them and filling the shoebox with trapped fakes. She regained much of the conditioning she had lost to stress and fatigue since the Kyuubi attack, and began practicing the meditation techniques Sakura would need when she grew.

Shadow clones also meant she could leave one watching over Sakura and report to Hiruzen's mandated therapist on a regular schedule. It was hard. Perhaps the hardest thing she'd ever done, to talk about her past and all her dead friends. But the elderly Yamanaka was understanding - she had been in ANBU too, back before the Second War, and the shared background gave them a common base to build off of. And while Fujiko's problems were not exactly trivial, none of them were particularly unusual in either scope or degree. It would take time to heal, but that was something she had in abundance these days.

Just under a year after the move, on Sakura's first birthday, Hiruzen arrived at the door bearing two cherry saplings under his arm. He'd left a clone to handle paperwork while he took part of the day off. They planted the trees together in the front yard and chatted about nothing. The face of the henge he'd adopted was smooth and unlined, but Fujiko could see the tightness in his eyes.

Feeling slightly guilty about her retirement, she took on more paperwork in the months that followed, keeping her shadow clones busy. The headaches when she dispelled the technique were agonizing but bearable, and if she could see the signs of Hiruzen's stress, he needed the help.

In the evenings, she lay in the backyard with Sakura nestled on her chest, telling stories of her childhood and the escapades of her genin team. When the pink-haired girl's eyes drooped shut, she carried her inside and laid her to bed, kissing her gently good night.

Then she'd burn a stick of incense in the back room while she meditated, releasing her sorrows into the night. As difficult as she found therapy, she had to admit it had helped. The nightmares came less often now, and her dreams were no longer filled with chaos and death.

By the time she was a year old, Sakura was speaking her first coherent words. 'Tree' and 'cloud' were among her early attempts, and Fujiko nearly cried the first time Sakura called her 'kaa-chan'.

She wasn't altogether sure how she felt about that. There was no doubt that she was coming to think of the girl like her own daughter, and it warmed her heart to know Sakura thought she was her mother, but even so…

Fujiko didn't like that Sakura had been taken from her parents. She agreed with Hiruzen's logic - Sakura's mother was dead, her father unable to handle the inevitable emergence of her kekkei genkai - but she still felt guilty on occasion. The shinobi of Konoha were supposed to protect civilians, not steal children.

When should she tell her? Should she tell her? What should she do in the meantime?

In the end, she decided to change nothing. When Sakura was old enough to understand, she could go to Hiruzen for direction. Until then, there was no reason to love the child - her child - any less.

o-o-o-o-o

The first manifestation of Sakura's kekkei genkai occurred shortly after her fourth birthday. They were in the front yard, playing a variant of catch and tag designed by shinobi parents to surreptitiously train proper agility and reflexes.

It was late March, and the cherry trees were in full bloom, spectacularly covered in pale pink flowers. Sakura giggled as she ran under the branches, her return throw knocking a few petals into the breeze -

And she suddenly turned, head tracking the fluttering pink with an icy precision. Her eyes widened -

Fujiko was there in an instant, ball forgotten in the yard behind her. "Calm down Sakura," she said, speaking as high and rapidly as she could. She'd practiced, over and over, until she could snap words out in a fraction of a second. She hoped it was fast enough for Sakura to understand.

Sakura stumbled, arms whipping out farther than they needed to - leg flying out in what was probably meant to be a slight step forward but looked like a full on front kick, eyes panicked.

Fujiko grabbed her gently, restrained the wildly flailing arms and held her by the shoulders as she stared into her eyes.

"It's just like we practiced sweetie," she directed, still talking in the clipped, fast voice. "Feel the chakra, feel the flow, slow it down."

For the last few months, since she'd been old enough to understand, Fujiko had Sakura join her for morning and evening meditation, helping her through the exercises laid out in the scrolls Hiruzen had given her.

Now, she had to hope it was enough. She carried Sakura inside as quickly as she could, sitting down in the entry. She flashed through the hand signs for a shadow clone, which immediately henged into her old ANBU appearance and took off for the Hokage Tower.

Setting Sakura down in the lotus position, she began talking through the exercise.

"Shallow breaths, count one hundred in and out." She began to copy Sakura's breathing. "Match my pace, now count ninety nine in and out. Feel the current, let it relax."

She continued in that vein, directing Sakura to count one less each breath. Down to ninety, then eighty. The minutes ticked by.

By the time Sakura was counting to fifty in her head for each breath in and out, her clone dispelled. She jerked a little, trying to recover from the sudden shock. Normally, Sakura wouldn't notice such a small movement, but this time Fujiko could see her eyes track the motion.

Hiruzen had sent a shadow clone back with hers.

The numbers passed faster now. She kept up the same breathing rhythm (for Fujiko it was always an even five-count, in and out). Finally, forty minutes of carefully regulated breathing later, it was over. She could see the shift in Sakura as her mind snapped back to normal time.

She caught her by the armpits before she could hit her head on the floor. "Well done, sweetie," she murmured, holding her tight. "I'm proud of you." She flickered her chakra in the arranged signal, unblocking the door.

Hiruzen stepped in immediately. The sight of him brought Sakura out of her post-meditation fugue.

"Sarutobi-jiji!" she squealed, jumping forward into his arms. She always called him that. His regular habit of visiting to pick up and drop off paperwork always included at least a short time with Sakura. She became convinced that he was her grandfather, and after Fujiko caught a true smile on his face one day when she found them together, she stopped trying to pursuade Sakura otherwise.

He patted her on the head affectionately, looking at Fujiko.

She nodded to him. "It worked, Hokage-sama. I won't say it wasn't disturbing, but the exercise worked exactly as the scrolls described."

He closed his eyes in relief. "I had little doubt, but that is good to hear." He set Sakura down in front of him and regarded his pseudo-granddaughter with warm eyes.

"You should be proud of what you did today, Sakura," he told her. "Can you describe to me what happened?"

She nodded eagerly. "Uh-huh. Kaa-chan and I were playing catch in front, and the ball knocked some flowers off the cherry tree. I was thinking how pretty they looked and then it was like everything slowed down, and I felt like I was falling 'cept my legs wouldn't move fast enough and my arms were slow too. Then kaa-chan grabbed me and was talking, but it sounded really weird, really slow and different. Then we sat down and did the meditation thing and I could feel my chakra moving fast and I got it to slow down like kaa-chan taught me, but it took a really really really long time, and then you were here!" she finished excitedly.

"That's very good Sakura, very good indeed." He turned to Fujiko. "It's been a long time since I read about the Museigen no Shikou. What is the next step?"

"Once the child is able to come out of Museigen no Shikou successfully, it's a matter of learning the feeling involved. The first time is by far the hardest, according to the scrolls. Sakura should be able to come out of it much faster the next time - seconds or minutes at most. With practice, she should be able to control how much her mental processes accelerate."

"Very well. Sakura?"

"Yes, Sarutobi-jiji?"

"How do you feel? Are you dizzy? Does your head hurt?"

She shook her head, pink hair bouncing. "No, I feel good!"

"Do you remember what it felt like in your head, when everything slowed down?"

"Uh-huh."

"And do you remember what it felt like to speed things up again? Do you think you could do it without help?"

"Yup!"

He looked up at Fujiko questioningly.

"It should be safe. Sakura, do you think you can do it now, just for a moment? If you need help again just touch my hand and we'll go through the meditation again."

"Sure!" Sakura closed her eyes, face scrunched up in concentration. The change was clear. Her face relaxed, eyes snapping open. Her head swiveled, precisely and smoothly, to stare directly at Hiruzen and then Fujiko. Her arms swung up her sides, faster than Fujiko had ever seen a child move before, faster than many chunin could move, and stopped with her index fingers barely touching over her head.

Then she took a deep breath in and out and stumbled forward. "Kaa-chan! Kaa-chan! I did it!"

Fujiko hugged her, kissing the top of her head.

"Very good," Hiruzen whispered.

o-o-o-o-o

With the largest hurdle passed, Fujiko began teaching Sakura the starting forms of Konoha's standard taijutsu. Sakura was a diligent student, quickly learning the basics. It took a few more months before she had improved to the point where Fujiko was satisfied with her form. Then she began physical conditioning.

Not too much; Sakura was still too young to do more than a handful of pushups or sit-ups at a time. But she could run for a few minutes at a time, and gradually began to improve.

The trick, Fujiko learned, was to make each exercise a trade. For every pushup Sakura did, Sakura would get to stand on Fujiko's back as she did five of her own. For every day running, Sakura would clamber up onto Fujiko's shoulders and Fujiko would run up one of the Hashirama trees (she disarmed all the traps on one tree for this very purpose). Hidden by a simple genjutsu, they could look out over the village. Fujiko pointed out all the landmarks, the various clan districts, and places Sakura had been. Eventually, it would be time to get down, and Sakura would clutch Fujiko's neck as she flew to the ground with a single Shunshin no Jutsu.

Along with physical training came meditation. The Museigen no Shikou gave an incredibly powerful advantage as it was, but Sakura had spent the equivalent of nearly three days of subjective time the first time it triggered. It was lucky that the bloodline abilities came along with a massively increased resistance to boredom and mental fatigue, or the experience would have reduced the girl to a shivering wreck.

So it was necessary for Sakura to learn how to control the process. Which meant hours of meditation and focusing exercises. Fujiko was glad that Sakura wanted to learn how to control her strange new abilities enough that she didn't complain much about all the sitting still. She had outstanding self-discipline for a child.

As a side effect, she was also learning chakra control. Sakura had a natural talent for it, and barely needed Fujiko's instruction. When Fujiko produced leaves for them to practice sticking them to their forehead with chakra, it had only taken Sakura a few minutes to master the exercise that took some students days or even weeks.

By then, Sakura was proficient in taijutsu and could control with some effort the speed of her Museigen no Shikou. It was time to put the two together.

"Now Sakura," Fujiko told her as they stood together in the training area, dressed in grey tank tops and black leggings. "We're going to begin working on your taijutsu in Museigen no Shikou. Before we get started I need to set some rules."

"Okay, kaa-chan." Sakura regarded her warily, green eyes serious.

"It's nothing bad, sweetie. You just have to be careful. First rule is easy. Before you practice, I want you to run through all the stretches I showed you. This will help prevent you from getting injured."

"Sure."

"The second rule is more serious. I need you to promise me not to use Museigen no Shikou for taijutsu unless you are with either myself or Sarutobi Hiruzen-sama."

"Okay."

"It is really important that you keep that promise, Sakura. Taijutsu is not something safe to do whenever you want. Make sure you're in a clear area. You are extremely fast while in Museigen no Shikou, even if it feels slow to you. A civilian could be seriously hurt if you hit them accidentally."

Sakura looked upset. "I don't wanna hurt them!" That attitude was deliberately cultivated in shinobi children. Picture books and bedtime stories about ninja always had the hero treat civilians with respect and care. In Fujiko's stories and in books made in Konoha, anyways. The other villages were somewhat more lax in how ninja could legally behave.

"I know sweetie, that's what this rule is for. Hiruzen-sama and I can keep you and ourselves safe, but we have special training."

"Alright, I guess."

"Good. Now run through the first kata, as perfectly as you can. I'll tell you when to stop."

She watched as Sakura ran through the form. It was a basic sequence of blocks, punches, and kicks, but it required a lot of coordination for someone not quite five. She performed the kata smoothly. If Sakura were a genin, Fujiko would have insisted on tighter timing and focus, but for now it was fine. Her form was amazing, really.

"Okay. Now take the starting stance. I want you to go into Museigen no Shikou and run through the form as best you can, then come back out when you finish."

"Okay."

She took her stance again, face relaxing in that peculiar way, and started to move.

Sakura blitzed through the form, hands and feet moving with perfect accuracy, each punch and kick precisely on target, form immaculate. She finished, standing still for a moment as she returned to normal.

"Excellent job, Sakura." Fujiko tried to keep the astonishment off her face. The scrolls had described how Museigen no Shikou provided an instant increase in form and speed, but she'd thought the description exaggerated and overblown. Now she knew it understated the case. Sakura had gone from a level of skill appropriate for an advanced five-year-old to something approaching mid-chunin speed and technique. Of course, she lacked the strength and conditioning of a teenager, and certainly had no intent to fight - there was no determination behind her strikes, she still saw them as simple movements, not realizing the hidden lethality in her hands.

If Sakura could grow into half the ninja Fujiko was without the Museigen no Shikou, when she used it she would outclass any of the jounin Fujiko had known. And now she was imagining what Sarutobi Hiruzen would be capable of with such a bloodline - 'terrifying' didn't begin to cover it.

She brought her mind back to the present. "Good work, sweetie. I'll take you out for dessert tonight."

Sakura clapped her hands, bouncing on her toes in delight. "Anmitsu! I wanna get anmitsu!"

Fujiko ruffled her pink hair affectionately. "Of course, sweetie." Sakura had discovered anmitsu a few months ago, when Fujiko had taken her to one of the summer festivals. It was now her favorite food, and, Fujiko found, an excellent motivator for lessons. Sakura knew if she impressed Fujiko with her progress she'd be taken out for anmitsu, and had proceeded to blow through the obstacles in her path with a speed that astounded her mother.

That evening, as they walked home hand in hand, Fujiko decided it was time to talk.

They lay out back together, watching as the stars came out. Sakura was too big to fit on Fujiko's chest any more, so they lay side by side with Fujiko's right arm wrapped around Sakura's shoulders.

"Sakura, you're old enough now to consider enrolling in the Academy. I know you've heard a bit about it from me and kids at the festivals, but I want to make sure you understand what it is."

"It's where kids go to learn how to be ninjas, right kaa-chan?"

"That's right, Sakura. But being a ninja takes a lot more than going to school. You'll have to work hard, mentally and physically, more than I've ever made you do. And when you graduate, you'll be a shinobi of the Leaf, and have to become responsible."

She wasn't ready to explain everything that went into ninja work quite yet. Sakura was still too young to be comfortable with the idea of killing, after all.

Beside her, Sakura was thinking intently. "You went to the Academy, kaa-chan?"

"Yes, I did."

"Did Sarutobi-jiji?"

Fujiko laughed. "No, Hiruzen-sama is older than the Academy. Older than the village, actually."

"Wow, that's old."

"Yes, it is."

They lay in silence for a moment. The moon shone through the trees, casting gentle light upon them.

"Kaa-chan?"

"Yes, Sakura?"

"Did you like being a ninja?" And oh boy, that's the million-ryo question, Fujiko thought. She didn't have a quick answer.

Being a ninja had always been her goal as a child. It was a way out of the orphanage, a clear path to independence. She'd eagerly taken the chance to enroll and never looked back.

Had she enjoyed it? The Academy had been hard, but she'd made good friends. Her genin days were the happiest in her life. The Second War had ended years earlier, before any of them had a chance to be involved. Yoshimoto, Soichirou, and herself had become fast friends, and Chihiro-sensei was the mother she'd never known. She'd thought Soichirou was becoming even more than a friend. They'd gone on dates a few times, and been caught kissing by their sensei in a spectacularly embarrassing incident.

Then had come the Third War. Her team had been caught on courier duty when the war was declared, running diplomatic messages to Kusagakure. When Iwa forces pushed through the Land of Grass and into the Land of Fire they had been caught on the wrong side of the border. By the time they had managed to break free of the fighting, Soichirou was dying of blood loss and Chihiro-sensei was dead, overcome by the fourth jounin of the squad that attacked them. She took the first three of them with her, though, and Yoshimoto had trapped the last man with his clan's signature jutsu, and Fujiko made her first battlefield kill with the katana Chihiro had given her for her last birthday.

Funny how that detail always stuck in her head.

Soichirou died well before they reached the medics, and Yoshimoto froze the four ninja of the next Iwa nin they ran into so Fujiko could kill them. Except it had been five, not four, and Yoshimoto died before either of them realized their mistake. After another brief struggle, Fujiko's katana claimed another life, and then she was alone.

Then had come many days of fighting, the combat that continued day and night as she killed and killed and killed and killed and

And she should really get a grip on herself, because Sakura was waiting for an answer.

"It's a hard question, sweetie. I met my best friends because I became a ninja. But I had to fight in a war, and that's something I never wanted to do. I hope that your life will be different, but being a ninja is risky. Be sure of yourself."

"Okay, kaa-chan." Thankfully, Sakura seemed thoughtful rather than repulsed. Still, Fujiko felt the need to reassure her.

"You don't have to decide now. You're too young to join this year's class, so you have a while to make up your mind."

"I will. But I want to be strong, like you, kaa-chan. I want to go."

Fujiko closed her eyes. Did she feel relieved, because Sakura wanted to go and that meant no convincing was necessary? (And how far would the village go, to see a new bloodline trained?) Or did she feel sad, because her little baby was growing up so fast?

She didn't know. But she'd hope for the future, knowing that Sakura was loved and supported in ways she hadn't been all those years ago. Her adopted daughter would grow to be a strong woman. Of that, she had no doubt.

Chapter Text

The day Sakura first met Uzumaki Naruto came a week before she started the Academy. Fujiko took her out shopping, to buy new clothes for the start of her shinobi career.

"You'll need more outfits for the Academy, Sakura, clothes that you can spar in and get dirty without ruining them. But you still want to look nice, so we should get you something more than the tank tops you wear for training in the house."

So they'd gone to the shopping district that catered to shinobi after breakfast, and Sakura had picked out the styles she'd wear for the next few years.

Dark blue shinobi sandals were standard, of course. She wore black leggings that reached just below her knees and a black undershirt. Over the leggings went a pair of dark green shorts and a utility belt with a good assortment of pouches and pockets. A sleeveless red vest went over the shirt, made of a sturdy fabric Fujiko told her would be resistant to stains.

As she stood in front of the store mirror, Sakura had to admit she looked good. The dark red of the vest went well with her light pink hair, and her green eyes stared back from a face that looked confident. I'll make kaa-chan and Sarutobi-jiji proud, she vowed.

Fujiko was absently stroking her hair. "I'll teach you how to pin your hair back when we get home," she said. "Long hair isn't practical. Even in training spars, it can be a disadvantage."

"I'll just get it cut."

Fujiko's hands stopped. "Are you sure, sweetie? I know you never much cared for looks, but you do have beautiful hair."

Sakura took on a mulish expression. "You told me you had short hair all through the Academy and as a genin."

Her mother sighed. "I did, and it certainly was practical. But some of my classmates liked to make fun of me for it, and I didn't want to put you through that."

"Well, that's stupid."

"Sometimes people are." Fujiko pursed her lips, thinking for a moment. "All right. I suppose you can always grow it back if you change your mind."

Sakura smiled. Success. She didn't understand why kaa-chan was reluctant about pushing the clothes and short hair on her. It made sense; practicality was the most important consideration for a ninja. Even after years away from duty, her mother still often wore combat vests, and never put on dresses or colorful clothes other than a few festival days a year. If Sakura was going to be the best, she couldn't afford to be some shrinking violet concerned about her looks. She would be strong, like kaa-chan and Sarutobi-jiji, and anyone who tried to make fun of her would regret it.

After paying for the clothes, Fujiko took her to some of the weapon and equipment stores. Sakura selected a new set of kunai and shuriken, as well as the maintenance kits to keep them sharp and oiled.

She noticed her mother pausing over a display of funny-looking harnesses. "What are those?"

"Training weights," Fujiko replied absently. "I think you're still too young for these. When you become a genin, they're worth the investment. Nothing improves your speed and endurance more."

Part of her wanted to protest, but she didn't think she'd be able to convince Fujiko on this one, so she just nodded and went along to the checkout.

As they walked home, sudden shouting up ahead distracted her.

"… Get lost! Get out of here!"

People in the crowd ahead were stopping to look at someone. A shopkeeper was yelling at someone wearing orange?

Sakura ducked under a tall man to get a better view. It was just a kid! He brushed dirt out of his blonde hair as he scrambled off the ground where the shopkeeper had pushed him.

"Why did you come here, you pest?" the man snarled at the boy.

Sakura turned to look for her mother. Surely this wasn't right, what the man was doing? And all these people were just standing there and watching; why didn't they do something?

She tugged at Fujiko's hand. "Kaa-chan, shouldn't we…"

Sakura trailed off as she got a glimpse of Fujiko's face. Her mother was staring off into the distance, eyes blank and unseeing. She had a sad look, like the one she often had after she came out of the little room next to her bedroom and didn't think Sakura could see her.

Kaa-chan got distant, sometimes. It tended to happen mid-October, or the second week of February. Sakura thought it had something to do with her mother's old teammates. With all the stories Fujiko had told her when she was younger about the great friends and comrades she'd had, she thought those dates had something to do with when she lost them. But why would a boy around Sakura's age make her think of them?

Could he have something to do with it? But that was kaa-chan's past, so why would all these other people feel the same way?

She grabbed her mother's hand, tugging firmly. "Kaa-chan, what's going on? You're scaring me. Who is that boy?"

Fujiko shook herself slightly, eyes focusing back on Sakura. "I'm all right, Sakura. I was just surprised. Wait here for a minute."

Sakura watched, puzzled, as she stepped through the crowd toward the boy in orange and the irate shopkeeper.

"… Just looking at that mask," the boy was saying. "I didn't do anything wrong!"

"Well I don't want to see you here!" the man snapped. "Got it? Don't show up again!" With a huff, he turned and walked back into his shop.

The boy hunched over. He seemed to be fighting back tears. The crowd started to disperse, people turning their backs and walking away. The boy swiped the mask off the street where the shopkeeper had thrown it, turned to run away-

And found his wrist seized in Fujiko's hand.

He flinched, reflexively pulling away. "What do you want, lady, let me go!"

Her mother crouched down next to the blond, speaking softly enough Sakura couldn't understand more than a handful of words.

"Who… fish cake… does… all the time?"

What? Had she heard that right? What did a ramen topping have to do with any of this?

Fujiko exchanged a few more words with the boy, then stood and pulled him gently back to where Sakura was standing.

"Naruto-kun, this is my daughter Sakura. Sakura, this is Uzumaki Naruto."

The boy, suddenly happy and excited, smiled brightly. "Pleased to meet ya, Sakura-chan!"

Sakura smiled tentatively back. "Nice to meet you, Naruto-kun." She looked questioningly at Fujiko. "Kaa-chan? What's going on?"

Her mother smiled tightly. "We're going to see the Hokage."

o-o-o-o-o

Sakura had been inside the Hokage's Tower only once before, when Fujiko had taken her to register for the Academy. (To her embarrassment, it was only then that she had connected 'Sarutobi-jiji' and the Sandaime Hokage).

The chunin guards let them through without question. Sakura thought Fujiko might have flashed a series of hand signals, but it was too fast and since she hadn't had Museigen no Shikou activated she couldn't be sure.

The secretary looked up as they walked in. Her lips pursed as she saw Naruto, wrist still held firmly by Fujiko. "The Hokage asked not to be disturbed. Whatever the demon brat's done now, it'll have to wait."

Demon brat? Naruto? It had to be, but he seemed like a normal boy to Sakura.

"Fine," Fujiko bit out. She retrieved a scroll from a vest pocket, scrawling a few words on it. "Give him this." She tossed the scroll to the secretary, who disappeared through the door behind the desk.

A moment later, and she was back. "I'm sorry, the Hokage is too busy to see any visitors now. He suggests you might come back tomorrow."

Fujiko's expression fell, and Sakura stiffened internally. Her mother was faking. It was the same face she made when she wasn't really mad at Sakura but had to chastise her anyway. What's going on now?

They walked back home in silence.

As Fujiko opened the front door, Sakura saw the last person she was expecting. "Sarutobi-jiji?" she burst out. "But- I thought…"

The Hokage smiled at her. "Hello Sakura-chan, Naruto-kun." He looked at Fujiko questioningly.

"Sakura, why don't you take Naruto-kun around the house? Show him the training room - he can practice with the spare kunai if he wants."

"Okay, kaa-chan," Sakura agreed dutifully, but shot her the look that said you're telling me everything later.

Fujiko met her gaze levelly. I will. "Hiruzen and I need to have a talk."

It was only after Sakura closed the door behind them, cutting off the adults' voices, that she realized how strange that had been.

Kaa-chan always called Sarutobi-jiji Hokage-sama. She always spoke deferentially, with respect, no matter how familiarly he addressed her or Sakura. Something about the events of the day had made her angry to an extent Sakura had never seen before. The worst she got was like that one time she had spilled oil all over the clean laundry and not told Fujiko until her mother found the mess, hours later. Even the time she'd been caught playing with sharpened kunai unsupervised didn't compare.

Naruto tugged at her hand. "Hey, hey, Sakura-chan! Fujiko-san said there was a training room, right? Does that mean you're going to be a ninja?"

"Yes, I'm starting the Academy next week."

"You are? Me too! Maybe we'll be in the same class! I'll be the best ninja ever, dattebayo!"

She grinned wickedly at him. "Sorry, that's going to be me. C'mon, I'll show you the back."

o-o-o-o-o

Fujiko stared at Hiruzen with barely restrained anger, her blue eyes icy. Flashing through the hand signs, she sent a shadow clone to watch the kids. This wasn't a conversation that could be overheard.

"Would you care to explain to me, Hokage-sama, why you are allowing this village to treat the son of the Yondaime like garbage?"

"Mitsuhara-san, I agree the situation is regrettable, but what do you expect me to do about it? And you did not help by publicly walking into the tower with Naruto and Sakura in tow. You're lucky that several of the upper level shinobi are in the habit of dragging Naruto in whenever he causes trouble."

Fujiko flinched. "I was not... thinking clearly, sir. And I felt that drastic measures might be necessary to convince you to change the situation."

Hiruzen sighed. "Do you think I do not trust you, Panther? Do you not trust me?" He did not sound angry, but sad - which only made her feel worse.

She looked down. "I do trust you. I know how much trust you have placed in me. But I expected you to ensure that Minato's son was treated well. You declared the boy's parentage a secret. You decreed that no one in the village could talk about what - or who - he is."

"There were excellent reasons for"-

She cut him off. "I know. I'm not saying you should reverse those decrees. But you know how the other villages treat their jinchuuriki! You know as well as I do that Han and Roshi inflicted plenty of casualties on Iwa forces as well as ours. Look at the writing on the wall! If things keep going like this, you'll end up with the Kyuubi rampaging across Konoha again!"

He sighed again, rubbing the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. "Naruto is strong. He inherited Minato's Will of Fire and Kushina's resilience. He-"

"Don't be too sure. The boy does not - he cannot - understand why people treat him this way. What do you expect him to think when shopkeepers throw him out and call him a demon? Where will he learn to love the village, if all he receives in return is hate?"

"It's not all bad," Hiruzen protested. "I moved him out of the orphanage - which he hated, and drove the matron mad - and into his own apartment. I have an agent checking to make sure he eats and maintains a basic level of cleanliness, and I've introduced him to Umino Iruka, one of the new Academy instructors who will teach his class. Some of the newer merchants treat him well."

"And if you're very lucky that means there will be a handful of survivors when he finally snaps."

"What can I do? The village will not forget the pain and terror of the Kyuubi on my say-so."

"I know," Fujiko told him softly, thinking of the painful memories that years of therapy had only dulled. "I've got a good enough poker face to keep it away from the kids, but I'm not sure I'll ever be able to look at him without flinching inside. This situation is poisoning the entire village. An angry and socially isolated jinchuuriki is not a small problem. If you have to give him an escort to prevent people from abusing him, the cost would probably be worth it. If you don't take care of this sooner rather than later, you may end up having to destroy Minato's legacy." And wasn't that a nice euphemism for kill a six-year-old boy before he lets the demon out.

Hiruzen sighed, slumping into his cushion. His voice was soft, painful. "I'm an old man, Fujiko-chan. I should be retired. I was retired. I'm sixty-five years old in a world where the vast majority of shinobi die before they see forty. My bones ache and my joints hurt, and every day I get up in the morning, missing my dead wife and my dead children. I should be sitting in the sun with my remaining son and grandchild, not in the Hokage's office!" He rubbed a hand over his face, letting her see the exhaustion in his expression, the bags under his eyes. "Naruto's upbringing is a problem? Of course it is a problem. This village has little left but problems. I spend hour after hour, day after day, trying to hold the clans together as they squabble over every little thing, desperately attempting to paper the cracks before they become unstoppable fissures. The other villages are always, always watching, circling us like wolves waiting for any hint of weakness. I will probably be forced to recall you, and others, back to active duty very soon."

He stood. Slowly, he rolled his shoulders back, standing tall. He carefully placed the hat upon his head, smoothing the wrinkles from his robe. The fire returned to his eyes. Sarutobi Hiruzen was gone, and before her stood the Professor, the God of Shinobi, the Sandaime Hokage. "Panther!" he snapped.

Fujiko came to attention. "Yes, Hokage-sama?"

"If Uzumaki Naruto is isolated and alone, you will encourage your daughter to become friends with him. You will provide him with training, and as much care and support as can reasonably be expected as the parent of his friend. Do you understand?"

She bowed, low. "Yes, Hokage-sama!"

"Good." The had was removed, the pipe returned to his hand, and he was the kindly grandfather once more. "Let us check on the children."

o-o-o-o-o

They found them in the back yard, throwing kunai at the targets Fujiko had set up on the trunk of a Hashirama tree. Sakura's form was better, but what Naruto lacked in technique he made up for with boundless energy and enthusiasm.

The blonde and pinkette were chatting away as they threw, ribbing each other good-naturedly.

"…Honestly, if that's how you throw it's no wonder you miss so often."

"Hey! Sakura-chan, don't be mean. At least I have spirit! You're so serious, it takes all the fun out of being a ninja!" He noticed them watching. "Hey! Old man! How come Sakura-chan calls you Sarutobi-jiji?"

Hiruzen smiled easily. "I knew Mitsuhara-san when she was an active-duty shinobi. I like to check in on her and Sakura every once in a while, and it's what Sakura started calling me as a toddler."

"Weird. Anyways, check this out! Watch what I've been practicing!" He turned to some of the kunai embedded in the target.

Fujiko caught him by the collar. "Not right now, kiddo. Go wash up, it's time for dinner. Sakura, show him where the bathroom is."

"Aw, you're no fun! C'mon Sakura-chan, I bet I can beat you there!" He dashed off.

Sakura huffed as she took off after him. "You idiot, you don't even know where the bathroom is!"

Dinner was a crowded affair. The Hokage didn't usually stay for a meal when he visited, needing to get back to his office as soon as possible. Naruto, despite his small size, seemed to take up a disproportionate amount of space, chattering away as he embellished his stories with hand motions. His table manners weren't much to speak of, either.

Fujiko spent the meal watching him, trying to see what kind of person he was. The enthusiasm and over-done emotions could be a defense against his social isolation, though it matched what little she remembered of Kushina's personality. He had Minato's spiky blonde hair and blue eyes as well.

Overall, he seemed like a decent kid. The disregard shown to him by the villagers did have an effect on him, no matter how well he hid it. Most of his stories were about playing pranks on shopkeepers who treated him poorly. He clearly enjoyed having the attention of the three of them, and Fujiko wondered if his trouble-making wasn't just a cry to be heard.

Fujiko herself was starting to get over the shock of the stark reminder of - that night - and liked what she saw. For what he'd experienced, Naruto was well adjusted. She thought he would be able to cope with the reveal of the Kyuubi sealed inside him (whenever Hiruzen decided to share that little tidbit with him), and his enthusiasm would serve him well as a ninja.

It was… difficult to sit across a table from him knowing the monster responsible for the deaths of her teammates was there as well, but it was getting easier as she understood him more. The kid doesn't deserve to be treated like he is.

After dinner, Hiruzen offered to walk Naruto back to his apartment. Sakura and Fujiko waved goodbye from the front door.

"Naruto," Fujiko called after him, "please come visit whenever you want. I'm sure Sakura would enjoy a training partner."

The answering smile was huge and genuine.

o-o-o-o-o

After Sarutobi-jiji had walked away with Naruto, Sakura turned to her mother, ready for answers.

"Kaa-chan, what happened today?"

Fujiko sighed, ran a hand through her short brown hair. "Come inside, Sakura. I'll explain what I can."

They sat together in the dining room.

"Sakura," began Fujiko, "do you remember when Hokage-sama and I talked to you about why it was important to keep your Museigen no Shikou secret?"

Sakura nodded. "Uh-huh." What does that have to do with - oh. "Does Naruto have something like that?"

Fujiko hesitated briefly. "Sakura, there are some things I can't tell you. Not because I don't think you can handle it, or because I don't want to, but things that are illegal for me - for anyone - to say. So while I can tell you that the answer to your question is yes, please don't ask for any details."

Sakura thought about that. "Okay. And that's why people treat Naruto badly? It's not anything he did?"

Her mother hesitated again. "In a way, yes. Imagine if before you were born there was a powerful ninja with the Museigen no Shikou - a criminal who killed hundreds of people, reviled throughout the village. How do you think the village would treat you, if they knew about your bloodline?"

Ouch. "So they are afraid of him?"

"Of what he represents, and what he might do, yes. It's more complicated than that, but I can't explain it better."

"But he's just a kid! He's nice, he wouldn't hurt anyone!"

"You've met him, Sakura. Most of the villagers are too wary to get close. They know he's dangerous, and so they don't bother to judge for themselves."

Sakura paused. "Is he dangerous?"

Fujiko sighed. "Life is full of danger, Sakura. I am dangerous. Hokage-sama is dangerous. You are dangerous. Yes, Naruto is dangerous, but not really any more than other people you know well."

"So I don't need to worry?"

"No, sweetie, you don't. You'll know if Naruto ever becomes a threat. It'll be completely obvious. Until and unless that happens, he's just a normal kid. One who could use a friend."

Sakura nodded. "Sounds good. Do you think we'll be in the same class at the Academy?"

That took them into a discussion of how Konoha's shinobi forces were structured, and how the various classes of the Academy worked.

Most Konoha ninja were members of the Genin Corps. They handled messenger duties, guarded low-security buildings, and dealt with untrained bandits. The Chunin Corps was the next step up - many chunin commanded genin squads, or worked missions with a higher level of danger.

Most entrants to the Academy - children of career genin, chunin, and first-generation shinobi - would be sorted into large classes taught by a group of rotating instructors, and then be graduated directly into the Genin Corps, where they would work for most of their lives. Genin who showed unusual talent were singled out for promotion into the Chunin Corps, or were taken as apprentices by older shinobi.

Jounin were the elite of the village, selected from the best of the chunin. The most promising children from Konoha's ninja clans bypassed the typical Academy classes. Instead, they - and other particularly talented students - were placed into a smaller group with one or two dedicated chunin instructors, only joining the other students for a few lectures a week. Upon graduation, they were assigned in groups of three under an experienced jounin-sensei.

The so-called 'jounin-track' genin were the only ones who would participate in the international Chunin Exams. Their numbers were strictly limited; only around a dozen or so jounin-track genin graduated in any given year. This was the class Sakura and Naruto would likely be placed into.

"That doesn't seem fair," Sakura pointed out. "What about the civilian kids who start out slow? Without any training there's no way they could make it into the advanced class."

Fujiko shrugged. "The civilian kids who score in the top two or three academically get passed to the advanced class. Others who show talent in the basic class are given the chance to transfer in their third year, though it doesn't happen often. It's not like there's anything particularly wrong with the standard Academy classes - they're just not as focused. Clan children and the children of higher-ranked shinobi - like you; I'm a jounin - already know a lot of the material covered in the regular class."

Sakura frowned. "You were an orphan, right? So you must have tested into the advanced class?"

"Yes, I got one of the academic slots. I had a lot of catching up to do, especially with fitness and taijutsu. You won't have a problem - I wouldn't be surprised if you're the top of the class."

Sakura blushed. "Thanks, kaa-chan. I'll do my best."

Fujiko ruffled her hair affectionately. "I'll be proud however you do, Sakura. Don't worry too much about the class rankings. Just focus on learning as much as you can, and be sure to make friends."

Another puzzle from earlier struck Sakura. "Kaa-chan? Did you know Sarutobi-jiji was coming to see us? What the secretary said didn't upset you."

Fujiko laughed. "Well spotted, Sakura. It's a code I have arranged with Hokage-sama. If he had been truly busy, the secretary would have said 'come back at a later time'. 'Come back tomorrow' means he'll see me, but doesn't want it known. I knew he'd be waiting for us at the house, or at least send a shadow clone."

"Cool."

"It is indeed convenient. There are lots of little secrets in the shinobi world like that that you should keep an eye out for. Now, let's get started on your exercises. Get your warm-up and stretches done, and then I want to see how you're doing with the fourth kata."

o-o-o-o-o

The first day of the Academy was bright and clear. Sakura woke up early, butterflies in her stomach. She ate breakfast quickly, and then changed into her new clothes.

Looking in the mirror calmed her down a bit. She looked ready for the Academy, even if she felt a little nervous. You can do this, she told herself.

Fujiko walked with her to the Academy complex, a series of buildings connected by walkways in the shadow of the Hokage Tower. Many other parents were walking new students as well.

The new arrivals were directed by some older-looking kids to a large grassy area between two of the buildings. Their forehead protectors were shiny and new - Sakura thought they were members of the year that had just graduated.

She and Fujiko stood near the front of the crowd. A podium had been set up on one end of the field. Sakura wondered if the Hokage would be addressing the new students. She looked around for Naruto, hoping she'd be able to spot his bright orange vest in the crowd.

He was sitting in a tree off to one side, alone. There was a noticeable gap in the crowd near him.

She tugged Fujiko's sleeve. "Kaa-chan?"

Fujiko followed her gaze to the blond boy. She pursed her lips, then nodded. "I'll see you after school, Sakura. Have a good first day."

Naruto's face lit up in a brilliant smile as she clambered up next to him. "Sakura-chan! Hey! You cut your hair!"

"It's nice to see you, Naruto. And long hair isn't practical for a ninja." Fujiko had trimmed Sakura's hair the night before. It was only a bit longer than Naruto's, ending well above her shoulders.

"Aw. Your hair was cute."

Cute? "Excuse me?"

"Ah-ah I mean it's still awesome Sakura-chan! Yeah! Short hair is good too, dattebayo!"

"You dummy. Hey, how come you're sitting out here?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "Well, uh, people don't bother me if I stay to the side."

"That's stupid. Next time you should come stand with me and kaa-chan."

"I dunno, maybe - hey look! It's old man Hokage!"

The Sandaime stepped up to the podium, wearing formal white and red robes. He wore the traditional hat of his office, the kanji for 'fire' emblazoned on the front.

The crowd quieted instantly. He cleared his throat.

"Welcome, all of you. Students, this is the first step on your journey to becoming shinobi of Konohagakure. I have a few words to say before the start of classes."

He gestured to the mountain behind him. The faces of the four Hokage seemed to stare into the crowd.

"Konohagakure was founded on the ideals of our ancestors. Senju Hashirama and Uchiha Madara came together to unite their clans in a time of endless strife. The Village Hidden in the Leaves was the first of its kind, a brave experiment in trust and comradeship.

"Today the Will of Fire passed down to us from the honorable Hashirama-sama burns brightly. Our love for the village and each other gives the shinobi of Konoha the strength to reach their limits, to fight on despite any odds. It is my hope that all of you will take on this philosophy.

"As you pass through the walls of the Academy, reflect on those who came before you. Remember them, and honor their sacrifices. Cherish your friends and comrades, for they are what will give you strength in the times ahead. Learn all your instructors have to teach you.

"Do this and honor the Will of Fire, and in six years' time I will be proud to call you shinobi of Konoha."

He bowed as the crowd broke out into cheers and then flickered away in a swirl of leaves. Parents began to say goodbye to their children. The crowd started to disperse.

Sakura nudged Naruto. "Hey, let's go find our class. I'm supposed to go to room 211, what about you?"

"Me too! Hey, that probably means we're in the same class, dattebayo! This is gonna be awesome!" He jumped down out of the tree, Sakura close behind. She waved to Fujiko as they ran into the building, excitement bubbling in her stomach.

This is it, she thought. I'm finally going to be a ninja.

Chapter Text

Sakura liked most of the classes at the Academy. Their main instructor was Umino Iruka, a smart and calculating chunin. He was young, only about seventeen or so, but proved to be an excellent teacher. For the first month, they were going over basics - the twelve hand seals needed for every ninjutsu technique, basic taijutsu and chakra control, the geography of the Elemental Countries, and writing and simple mathematics.

Sakura knew most of it already, of course, but she didn't mind. Basics were important - Fujiko had drilled her forms over and over until she understood that fact. Furthermore, Iruka had given the more advanced students the scrolls for the Henge no Jutsu. They weren't allowed to try it yet, but Sakura was happy to just learn the theory. Fujiko hadn't included any jutsu in her pre-Academy education.

The only one she knew from before the Academy was Naruto. Sakura was disappointed to see that his social isolation extended to their classmates, though Iruka-sensei seemed to like him. The other students weren't actively hostile - they just drew away when he walked by, or turned to talk with someone else if he sat near them. They'd talk to him if necessary, but never initiated any social interaction themselves.

Since she didn't know anyone else and the other kids were happy to shun her only friend, Sakura usually sat with Naruto in a back corner where they had a good view of the rest of the class.

There were only a dozen students in the jounin-track class. Besides Sakura and Naruto there were seven kids from ninja families: Aburame Shino, Akimichi Chouji, Hyuuga Hinata, Inuzuka Kiba, Nara Shikamaru, Uchiha Sasuke, and Yamanaka Ino. There were also three civilian kids who had scored highest on the entrance exams: Iruhano Shinji, Tosugawa Rin, and Ukane Setsuko.

Most of the class seemed wary of Naruto, and by extension her. The only exception was Uchiha Sasuke.

Sasuke and Sakura were in neck-and-neck competition for the top rank in the class. Sakura had a slight edge in the academic subjects and taijutsu, while Sasuke won easily in weapon skills. No one could come close to Sakura in chakra control. She thought it irritated the Uchiha. He was obsessed with beating his older brother Itachi's Academy records, but frankly wasn't as good. Sakura guessed his home life was a little rough; rumor had it his parents were disappointed in him for not matching his brother's standard, and the Uchiha as a whole were regarded as cold and aloof.

"They're decent people for the most part, Sakura, but they have a difficult position in the village," Fujiko had told her. "The Uchiha weren't as well liked as the Senju among the other clans, and Madara's defection shortly after the founding of the village only increased the prejudice. Their control of the Military Police doesn't help. The Uchiha are often seen as different by the rest of Konoha's shinobi, and since MP officers are the ones called to discipline rowdy ninja there's somewhat of an us-versus-them mentality."

Whatever the larger context, the end result was that Sasuke was unwilling to pay attention to the social barrier around the two in the back corner. He sought Sakura out to challenge her to spars or throwing competitions. Sasuke seemingly had a pathological need to prove himself the best, and her ability to outperform him infuriated him. In turn, she thought him annoying and arrogant.

Working with Naruto had greatly improved his grades. Sakura encouraged him to do his classwork and helped him with parts Naruto didn't understand. Teaching someone else was the best way to make sure she knew the material, so they both benefited. Naruto wasn't stupid - his bad grades were often due to the fact that none of the instructors other than Iruka-sensei would acknowledge his presence or give him constructive feedback.

Her two least favorite instructors were Mizuki and Suzume (for whatever reason, no one knew what their family names were). Mizuki was a chunin a little older than Iruka who seemed to hold a special dislike for Naruto. She often caught him looking at the blonde with an expression of distaste, even when he was with other students. Iruka-sensei seemed to like Mizuki though, so maybe he wasn't all that bad.

Suzume was the instructor for the twice-weekly kunoichi classes all the girls had to attend. Sakura hated it. Learning about flower arrangements and how to wear a formal kimono didn't interest her, and she wasn't any good at it. All the clothes she owned were chosen for practicality - Fujiko had certainly never dressed her up in a kimono as a little girl. She wanted to be a ninja, not a yamato nadeshiko. The times they talked about poisons or concealed weapons were pretty cool, but other than that she considered the class a total waste.

And the girls in the class were vicious. Not physically of course - even airheaded Suzume would notice that - and they weren't going to try anything while sparring for fear of what Sakura would do to them in return. But there were always whispers.

"Hey, see the girl with the pink hair? She hangs out with the freaky kid."

"Her short hair looks ugly. And her forehead is way too big."

"Do you think she's crazy?"

"Crazy ugly, maybe."

"Maybe she's a demon too."

"And she beats Sasuke all the time, it's not right!" And really, that was probably the sin that they couldn't forgive. Sasuke was regarded in an almost worshipful fashion by many of the girls at the Academy, and Sakura had the temerity to be better than their idol. At some things, anyways.

"She's a freak!"

So far Sakura had been able to ignore the taunts, but she had to admit they sometimes hurt. Maybe if everyone didn't associate her with Naruto she'd be able to make other friends, but she was firmly entrenched on the other side of the social gap.

No one really defended Sakura, though her classmates from the jounin-track class never joined in with the bullying. She usually sat away from the others, or next to Rin or Hinata if she had to choose someone. Ino was friendly to her during kunoichi classes but avoided Naruto during the regular lectures. Sakura felt it would be unfair to her best friend to reach out to the Yamanaka, and so she usually kept quiet.

The best parts of the week were the days without kunoichi practices. After the school day finished, Sakura and Naruto would walk together to the house between the Uchiha and Sarutobi districts, say hello to Fujiko, and train together in the back yard. Most days, they drilled taijutsu, but when Fujiko instructed them she usually had them work on weapon throwing and chakra control.

They were both benefiting from the joint training. Naruto badly needed someone to point out the mistakes in his truly abysmal taijutsu form. He tended to charge in swinging wildly, throwing kicks and punches with abandon until Sakura threw him on the ground. Sakura, on the other hand, got someone close to her own size to practice on, which opened up many combinations that just wouldn't work on Fujiko.

Fujiko was training, too. Sakura often came home to find her mother's katana freshly oiled in the training room, and the wooden training dummies acquired many deep gouges while she was at the Academy.

In the evenings, she worked on her control of her Museigen no Shikou. She could slip in and out of the technique at will and could control the rate at which her thought processes sped up.

Fujiko wanted her to work on her ability to notice and disrupt genjutsu. Any opponent unaware of her kekkei genkai would use genjutsu not designed for someone who thought up to a hundred times faster than normal. Many types of genjutsu would simply fail to take hold. For those that did work, Fujiko taught her to look for and notice the tiny discrepancies that crept in with even the most advanced techniques.

Museigen no Shikou required her to build up a good chunk of chakra to start, but it didn't drain her chakra while active - the only time limit was given by her mental focus. That sounded like an advantage, but Sakura gradually realized just how hard it was to interact with the world while Museigen no Shikou was active.

She could understand Fujiko - with some difficulty - only because Fujiko had spent months training herself to talk fast and high-pitched. Anyone else's voice just turned into a low buzz of garbled sound. Sakura couldn't speak either - she couldn't process all the tiny motions of the tongue and vocal cords when everything happened a hundred times too slow. She just sounded like gibberish. It was intensely frustrating.

She could always reduce the boost, but that was a poor fix. Crippling her kekkei genkai wasn't a good solution.

Until she could learn to make herself understood, Fujiko was drilling her in a language of hand signs common to the upper ranks of Konoha's shinobi forces.

They were practicing a combination of both genjutsu awareness and sign language. Fujiko would run through a few sentences of hand signs and Sakura would repeat them back until Fujiko was satisfied. The catch was Fujiko would sometimes use a layered genjutsu that changed the hand signs Sakura saw. Sakura had to notice the genjutsu and disrupt it in time - and every time she tried to dispel a genjutsu that wasn't there Fujiko took a step back, making it progressively harder. When Fujiko reached the opposite side of the yard they'd take a five-minute break before starting again.

By midsummer, she could reliably sense and disrupt Fujiko's genjutsu as long as they were within three meters of each other. She had drilled her academy taijutsu to perfection, using a gradually decreasing speed of Museigen no Shikou to master each movement.

Though Sasuke still edged her out in shuriken and kunai use, she now had a comfortable lead in both academics and taijutsu. The Uchiha was becoming increasingly sullen around her. He mastered his clan's signature Goukakyuu no Jutsu over a single week in August, finally surpassing one of his brother's records. He bore an irritating smirk for the next two weeks.

"What kind of cool ninjutsu have you been working on, Mitsuhara-chan?" he asked her innocently, eyes gleaming.

Sakura had to grit her teeth, smile sweetly, and admit she didn't know any comparable jutsu. It was a shame Fujiko and the Hokage had expressly forbidden her from using the Museigen no Shikou in the Academy unless her life was in danger. She itched to wipe the smug look off his face.

The fangirls around Sasuke didn't help her mood either. When they weren't teasing Sakura, the girls in the kunoichi class loved to admire Sasuke. They worshipped the ground he walked on, competing for scraps of his attention. The fact that he acknowledged Sakura as close to his equal just made them hate her more.

In September, the barrier finally broke. Her three worst tormentors in the kunoichi classes - Ami, Kasumi, and Fuki - pushed too far with their taunting.

She'd been worrying about Fujiko. Her kaa-chan had been looking increasingly tired, and Sakura was sure she'd heard her leaving quietly in the night on several occasions. Well, not heard, Fujiko was too stealthy for that, but if she focused chakra to her ears she would eventually notice the lack of breathing sounds from the next bedroom.

When one morning at breakfast Fujiko had looked particularly tired, she'd asked what was going on.

Fujiko sighed, running a hand through her short brown hair. "You're going to the Academy now, Sakura. I don't need to be home all the time any more, so the Hokage asked me to rejoin the active duty roster."

Sakura was shocked. Her spoonful of fruit froze halfway to her mouth. "I thought you had retired from being a ninja? All those bedtime stories about your time in black ops - it's really dangerous! What if - What are you…"

Fujiko smiled wanly. "Don't worry too much Sakura, Hokage-sama won't assign me outside the village while you're still in the Academy. Nothing I'm doing should involve any fighting - it's usually just guard duty. I'm just tired from lack of sleep. I'm not as young as I used to be."

"Promise me you'll keep yourself safe, kaa-chan."

"I'll do my best, sweetie."

And so Sakura, already tired from her rigorous training schedule, now had to worry about her mother getting herself injured or killed. Despite her reassurances, whatever Fujiko was doing certainly wasn't risk-free. Several of her black bodysuits vanished from the laundry - and Sakura knew she had been wearing them. The logical explanation was that Fujiko didn't want Sakura to see what had happened to them. The gray armor set that used to hang on the walls of the training room vanished, presumably to be used for its original purpose.

It was simple bad luck that Ami chose to taunt Sakura about her parents (or lack thereof) later that day.

As usual, Sakura was working alone on her flower arrangement. What a stupid waste of time. Ami, Kasumi, and Fuki were working together close by, positioned so she could clearly hear what they were saying.

"Look at Forehead Girl." Ami, as always, started first.

"I know, so pathetic, right?" Fuki was quick to agree. She seemed to think that hanging around Ami would increase her status, and was always there to back the ringleader up.

"What's she doing now? Oh look, she's adding daffodils."

"How sad. Hanging out with the freak has clearly addled her brain."

Sakura tried to tune them out, humming a song under her breath as she worked. There's nothing wrong with daffodils. As usual, it didn't work.

"Why do you think she hangs around with that weirdo?"

"I dunno, because she's a freak?"

"Well with the forehead and dumb hair cut, that's for sure."

"Oh, no, that's not why." That was Ami again, and she sounded particularly vicious. Turn away, Sakura urged herself. You're letting them get to you, be strong. Walk out of earshot.

"I was thinking it's because Forehead must not have parents either."

What.

"Oh, how sad," Kasumi voiced with fake sympathy. "Her mother clearly never taught her how to behave properly." Ami and Fuki giggled.

And that was it. Fujiko might not have been the best mother, but Sakura had always looked up to and admired her. Sure, Fujiko wasn't a 'proper lady', but she was strong and smart and loving. She treated Sakura like an intelligent person, not the little kid some of the instructors still saw them as. She was always there and supportive when Sakura needed her. Hearing that little - idiot - slander her was the final straw.

"Ooh, that got her attention."

Sakura was only half-aware as she let the partially complete bouquet fall from her fingers.

"Aw no, Forehead, don't drop the flowers, you picked them especially to be ugly. Did they remind you of your mother's face?" More giggling, this time from Fuki and Kasumi.

And Sakura was done, Ami was going to pay for that, all three of them were, and she lunged for the girls.

There were three of them, but her taijutsu was the best in the jounin-track class, theirs at best average in the general classes, and they moved slowly, so slowly.

Ami's eyes were widening comically, mouth opening to yell something. Sakura's left hand swung, shattering the purple-haired girl's nose as her right palm shot forward, faster than the laughable attempt to block, and hammered into Ami's solar plexus.

The girl went flying backwards, air leaving her lungs in a gasp.

Kasumi was pulling back in horror, but Fuki was already moving to defend her friend. Her front kick was actually pretty good, but Sakura was better and had all the time in the world.

She caught the kick as it extended, pulling Fuki forward and off-balance. Her right leg swept out, taking Fuki in the ankle, and the girl went down, foot twisting at an impossible angle.

Sakura whipped around to face Kasumi.

She was backpedaling, mouth open and screaming, but Sakura could only hear a low buzzing sound as she leapt after her. In her peripheral vision she could see some of the other girls turning to look at the sudden shouts, Suzume running at her, bushy hair and glasses askew, but too slow, all too slow.

She spun halfway around Kasumi as the girl stumbled, bringing her left knee up against the girl's hip as her forearm whipped down into her collarbone with a long and satisfying crack. Kasumi's head flew backward, plummeting to the ground.

And then Suzume was there, and the world suddenly seemed to speed up, as the tension fled from Sakura's body and she realized-

Oh, no.

o-o-o-o-o

Sakura woke slowly. Where was she? A hospital bed, she thought. What had happened? She'd put the three girls on the ground, and then deactivated the Museigen no Shikou she hadn't realized she'd slipped into, and then Suzume-sensei had hit her, knocking her out cold with one precise strike.

"First girl: broken nose, three broken ribs, four fractured. Sprained wrist from a bad landing. Second girl: one sprained ankle, the other broken in three places. And third: broken collarbone, dislocated hip, sprained shoulder, and a compound skull fracture. All three sent to the hospital, the last lucky to be alive."

The voice was cool and professional, lacking in any emotion. Sakura burrowed her face in the pillow. I am so dead. Worse, she knew she deserved what she was about to get.

"I'm disappointed in you, Sakura," Fujiko continued. "Whatever those girls may have said to you is no excuse. You promised me you would never use Museigen no Shikou unless your life was threatened."

Sakura risked a glimpse at her mother. Fujiko's blue eyes were icy, face blank. She continued in that same emotionless voice.

"You will be returning to the Academy tomorrow. Once classes end you will return directly home. You will not speak to your friends. Naruto may not come with you. Under no circumstances will you use your kekkei genkai. If I discover you have abused it in such a manner again you will find yourself needing a bed alongside the three girls down the hall for the next month. Am I clear?"

Sakura found her voice. "Yes, kaa-chan," she whispered.

"Good. Come with me."

The walk from Konoha General Hospital was extremely awkward. Sakura kept her head down, staring at her feet as she trudged behind Fujiko.

Her mother took them home. Fujiko led Sakura to her room, closing the door. She must have done something else, because a moment later all hint of sound cut off.

Sakura flopped down on her bed, screwing her eyes shut in misery. I messed up. I really, really messed up and I don't know what to do. She sobbed into her hands, shoulders trembling.

o-o-o-o-o

Fujiko was watching Uchiha Shisui when Hiruzen's summons found her. The Hokage had shown up at her door again a few days after Sakura started the Academy. She knew what he was going to ask.

"Panther. I am afraid Konoha is in need of your skills."

And to that, what was there to say? She had spent six years in retirement and in therapy. She was largely free of the demons that had plagued her thoughts in the final months of her shinobi work. Her village needed her, and so she would serve.

And really, what else was she going to do? Stay at home all day while Sakura was in school?

Regardless, the Hokage had tasked her with an extremely sensitive assignment. She wasn't sure of the entire situation, but it was clear to anyone intelligent in the village that relations with the Uchiha had taken a marked turn for the worse in recent years.

With the blame for the Kyuubi attack falling largely on their shoulders, the Uchiha had been restricted to their clan district in the village. Clan members traveling outside the district were watched, often by ANBU. There were whispers of an Uchiha conspiracy.

Uchiha Itachi, son of the head of the clan, was currently serving in ANBU and was loyal to the Hokage. Uchiha Shisui, his closest friend, had been tasked by the clan elders with monitoring the recalcitrant heir, but was secretly working for Hiruzen as well.

And so Fujiko unpacked her ANBU armor and old mask and watched Shisui as he pretended to watch Itachi, and wondered if there was someone watching her and how many levels of doublethink this whole mess would take to understand.

Shisui and Itachi weren't making her job easy, either. The Sharingan could see chakra and break genjutsu, and so she was forced to rely on simple stealth, suppressing her chakra as much as she could. This meant both of them could move faster than her.

She had just managed to find a good vantage point in the crook of a rooftop when the little monkey tapped her on the elbow. It stared at her face, blinking for a moment, and then flashed a hand-sign before disappearing in a puff of brown fur.

Wondering what the Hokage needed now, she hurried back to the Hokage Tower.

Hiruzen's face was grim. "Panther. I'm afraid there has been an incident at the Academy."

Her heart froze. No. It can't be. Please tell me it isn't bad.

He seemed to sense her distress. "Sakura is unhurt. However, she is in a great deal of trouble. Were you aware that some of the girls in the kunoichi classes were verbally abusing her?"

Fujiko nodded sharply. "Yes. She told me she could handle it. What happened?"

"She put three girls in the hospital - one of them nearly died. I believe from the instructor's report that she used her kekkei genkai to do it."

Her face fell. It's worse. "Does anyone know what happened?"

His face was hard. "I'm not sure. I have ordered Suzume not to speak of the incident to anyone, but I do not know how much the other students saw. The girls from the jounin-track class should know how fast Sakura is in sparring practice and may have noticed the difference. I do not wish to question them, as to do so would immediately raise suspicions."

Fujiko huffed. "All right. What do you need me to do?"

"Retrieve Sakura from the Hospital - Suzume knocked her out. She should wake up soon. Take her home. Make sure nothing untoward happens for the next few days. I will run damage control."

She nodded. "Yes, Hokage-sama."

o-o-o-o-o

The door slid shut quietly, and Fujiko activated the privacy barrier, cutting off Sakura's room from the world outside.

She let herself slump to her knees, tears already falling.

The whole situation was messed up. She'd known about the bullying, but Sakura had said she was fine, and Fujiko had dropped the subject after that, forgetting that her daughter was six, not an adult or even a teenager who could handle repeated verbal taunts without cracking. Sakura was just so smart and mature for her age Fujiko sometimes lost track of how young she really was. She'd been such an easy baby to raise, not like some of the kids Fujiko knew in the orphanage…

No, Fujiko couldn't really put the blame for this mess on Sakura.

Then the Hokage had come, demanding that Fujiko return to duty. That had taken more time away from her daughter, and had undoubtedly added to Sakura's stress when she noticed her mother leaving for missions. Fujiko didn't fool herself into thinking Sakura was oblivious. No matter how careful she was, her daughter slept one thin wall away, and could break any genjutsu Fujiko was willing to use on her. Keeping her cut and torn outfits out of the laundry only delayed the inevitable.

But Hiruzen needed her. The stress on him had only increased since their conversation about Naruto. Even only knowing a fraction of the whole picture, she could tell the Uchiha situation was severely messed up. This could end up taking down the village, if things went badly. A single loyal ANBU operative at the right place at the right time could make all the difference.

So Sakura, Fujiko, and Hiruzen all had reasons that explained their behavior. Who was left?

The three bullies? Whatever they deserved, they'd gotten it and more.

The instructor should have known something was going on, but Fujiko knew how clever children could be when hiding bullying.

If she was being honest, the whole thing came back to how the village treated Naruto. When Sakura started hanging out with Naruto, Fujiko knew her daughter would inevitably end up tainted by association in the eyes of the village. That was undoubtedly why the bullies had seen Sakura as a viable target. Add in her short haircut (practical, but socially awkward) and a few other choice insults, and, well…

Three girls in the hospital.

Fujiko didn't think Sakura realized just how close she had come to killing Kasumi. If the girl had fallen at a slightly steeper angle, if the medics hadn't realized how bad the skull fracture was in time…

It had been a long time since a Konoha Academy student had died to another student. If Sakura, a child known to be friends with the boy seen as the symbol of the Kyuubi, had actually killed the girl…

Fujiko shuddered. Think about something else.

What would she do with Sakura now? Fujiko wasn't willing to simply confine her daughter to her room - such a draconian method wouldn't solve anything. Still, it would be best to keep Sakura out of the public eye as much as possible.

After Sakura's burst of temper, Fujiko wasn't about to teach her any genjutsu. Still, some kind of training would be good; keep her tired as much as possible.

Tree climbing, Fujiko decided. She has the control for it, and it requires focus and practice. Even if she gets it quickly, water walking should take longer.

That was decided, then. Now she could go have a good cry of her own, and wish that Sakura was still her baby and Fujiko could solve anything that went wrong.

o-o-o-o-o

Going back to the Academy was horrible. Sakura felt like a total pariah. Thankfully, Naruto didn't move when she sat next to him. Sakura thought she might have a breakdown if he abandoned her as well. Is this what he feels like all the time?

Sasuke seemed particularly moody. Was it because she had utterly beaten three girls without a scratch? Or was it something else?

She kept her head down and did her work silently. Thankfully, there weren't any more kunoichi classes that week.

She'd passed Naruto a note explaining that she was forbidden from talking to him or training with him, and headed home.

Fujiko was waiting.

"Sakura. Today you'll be starting on tree climbing."

She launched into an explanation of how the exercise worked - it was all about moving the proper amount of chakra to the feet. Too much chakra and she'd be repelled from the tree; too little and she wouldn't stick.

Sakura picked it up quickly. Her excellent chakra control meant all she had to do was test out a few different concentrations of chakra before she found a working solution.

Fujiko didn't stop there. When Sakura was able to walk up and down the trunk of the tree reliably, she ordered her to run through her taijutsu forms while horizontal. It was clear she intended to work Sakura into exhaustion.

Fighting sideways was hard. Sure, her feet had a firm grip on the tree, but that just meant her body wanted to hang upside-down. Staying level required constant effort, and the strain on her leg and abdominal muscles was extreme. Standing on one leg when she kicked was even worse.

Within an hour, she was sprawled out across the ground in the back yard, limbs feeling like jelly.

"Go wash up for dinner, Sakura," Fujiko told her. "After we eat you'll be training on genjutsu resistance."

And two hours later, Sakura was both physically and mentally exhausted. Fujiko was layering increasingly advanced genjutsu over her, often casting the next in the sequence before she had successfully dispelled the previous genjutsu. But she was keeping up, if barely, and there was a hint of - approval? - in Fujiko's expression.

Oh, and they were standing in the canopy while doing so. From here, they had a good view of much of the village, and after canceling a particularly tricky jutsu of Fujiko's, Sakura noticed -

"Kaa-chan. Someone's putting a genjutsu over the entire Uchiha district."

Chapter Text

"Kaa-chan. Someone's putting a genjutsu over the entire Uchiha district."

Sakura had barely finished speaking, and Fujiko was moving. Having deactivated Museigen no Shikou to speak clearly, Sakura only saw a flicker of motion before she was suddenly alone in the tree, a few leaves floating where Fujiko had been an instant before.

Then in scant seconds her mother was back, kitted out in what Sakura recognized as the grey armor that usually hung in the training room. Fujiko had the porcelain cat mask over her face and was buckling on her sword belt. She flashed through a blur of hand seals and three shadow clones joined them on the branch, two of them jumping with her away into the night.

The remaining clone was speaking rapidly. "Sakura, go back into Museigen no Shikou and observe the Uchiha district. If anything changes, tell me immediately with hand signs. If anyone approaches, retreat to the house."

o-o-o-o-o

Fujiko sped across the rooftops, thinking furiously. Placing a genjutsu over the Uchiha district was an obvious prelude to one thing: an attack. The question was, an attack on whom? Were the Uchiha finally implementing their tentative plans for a coup? Was this a prelude to an ANBU purge of the clan? Was an outside force attacking the heart of Konoha's military power?

One man would have the answers.

She landed on the windowsill of Hiruzen's office, chakra flickering rapidly to alert the occupants, using the standard codes every black ops agent learned by heart. Instantly, the two ANBU guards appeared in front of her, weapons ready.

Hiruzen lifted a hand; he spoke a few words. Fujiko couldn't hear him due to the security seals, but the ANBU opened the window for her to slip inside.

"Panther? Report."

"Hokage-sama. An unknown party has placed a genjutsu over the Uchiha district. Is this a legitimate operation?" If he was working at his desk, the answer was almost certainly no, but the question had to be asked.

His face flickered through several emotions. She caught surprise, anger, and - betrayal?

"Mongoose!" His voice cracked with command. "Sound the general alarm; take everyone in the jounin standby station and report to me. Hippo, alert all ANBU squads and secure the rest of the village."

Both masked agents flickered away.

Fujiko spoke up. "Hokage-sama, I have two shadow clones performing reconnaissance in the Uchiha district. They will dispel when they appraise the situation."

Hiruzen nodded. "Good work, Panther." He was changing rapidly out of his robes of office into combat gear.

Pain burst into Fujiko's mind, as the dispelled clones' chakra rushed back across the village, bringing with it the memories of what they had seen. She pushed past the splitting headache to piece together the images and report. "The Military Police Headquarters is under attack by a single masked shinobi. He is rapidly killing the defenders - I think nearly all the Uchiha shinobi are gathered there. A ninja in ANBU gear is killing civilians." A pause, as she scanned through the clone's memories. They weren't wearing a mask - if she had managed to get a glimpse of their face... "It's Uchiha Itachi."

Any reply he might have made was interrupted by the return of Mongoose. The ANBU agent was accompanied by about a dozen jounin. Fujiko didn't recognize many of them. She wasn't familiar with the newer generation of jounin, those promoted after the Kyuubi attack. She'd have to step up her information gathering. Another time, not now.

The Hokage turned to the newcomers. "The Uchiha clan district is under attack. The focus of the attack is the Military Police Headquarters. Support the defenders and protect any civilians. Lethal force is authorized. Go!"

They shunshined away.

"Fujiko. Lead me to Uchiha Itachi."

o-o-o-o-o

Sasuke was moody as he walked home from training. He'd had such high hopes for the year, but things weren't working out as expected.

He had finally, finally started the Academy. Sasuke had looked forward to it for so long - at last, his chance to prove himself to his father!

But the Academy instructors had all seen him as Itachi's little brother; had all talked about how amazing Itachi had been, how they expected great things from the younger sibling of such a genius.

It had stung, but Sasuke was confident he could build his own reputation as the best in his class. Only… it hadn't worked that way.

Sasuke was naturally in the jounin-track class. He qualified on several points - an Uchiha, son of a clan head, high test scores, and - sibling to a known prodigy. He had expected to immediately rise to the top of the class, surpassing his brother's record as much as possible. But there was a problem.

The problem was named Mitsuhara Sakura.

The daughter of some little-known jounin was better than him. Better. Than. Him.

He was working so hard to get out from under Itachi's shadow; he hadn't even considered the possibility that some of his classmates might match his abilities.

Oh, Sakura couldn't beat him at everything - he was far better with kunai and shuriken than she was and she didn't have any ninjutsu, but she did have a clear advantage in academics and taijutsu.

And that burned, because he had counted on having a flawless Academy sparring record. To lose to a girl in the first week was humiliating. It was even worse when his mother prompted Fugaku into asking how his classes were going. He couldn't even say he was the top student of his class!

So he challenged her at every opportunity, not caring that everyone seemed to ignore her because she hung out with Uzumaki Naruto. Why should he pay attention to what the other children thought? They were distractions, their only noteworthy feature that they happened to be in the same class as Uchiha Sasuke. Easily dismissed, easily forgotten.

Suddenly, instead of working to overcome his brother, he was working just to keep up. Her taijutsu form was flawless, so he trained his to try to match. He studied as hard as he could in the academic subjects, but he was forced to admit she was simply smarter than him. Weapons were his big advantage, since ninjutsu wasn't being graded yet, and he worked hard with shuriken and kunai to maintain the gap.

When his father trained him to use the Goukakyuu no Jutsu, he'd gone all-out to master it in a week, even faster than Itachi. The glow of beating his brother had warmed his heart, but it was even better to taunt his rival with.

"What kind of cool ninjutsu have you been working on, Mitsuhara-chan?" he'd asked her, knowing she had nothing. The flash of anger in her green eyes was beautiful to behold, and he'd spent the rest of the day smugly satisfied that this time she'd been the loser.

He'd been spending the afternoons after Academy classes at the training fields. He'd given up begging Itachi to train him - as cool as his older brother was, he never had the time to spend with Sasuke. Besides, he was going to be better than Itachi someday, and he couldn't surpass his brother if he only learned the same things.

And then Mitsuhara had gone and put three girls in the hospital. It was hard to get information out of other girls in the kunoichi class - they all seemed distracted when talking to him - but from what he had been able to hear it sounded like she had been holding back in the Academy spars. She had beaten him, and she wasn't even fighting at full strength. That burned.

Sasuke was distracted from his musings when he nearly tripped over something in the middle of the road. Who would leave a fruit basket spilled - was that blood?

Then he saw the body. Middle-aged, long black hair, Uchiha fan on the back of her dark clothes, throat cut.

Why hadn't the police cleaned up the obvious crime scene yet?

Where was everybody? He looked around, realizing he was alone. It wasn't that late in the evening, there should still be a few Uchiha out and about-

His breath caught. Not body. Bodies. Plural. He could see four lying on this street alone.

He started to run. Mother. Father. I have to get home!

Sasuke could now hear the sounds of combat. Shouts, screams, the clash of metal on metal. He ran on, sprinting for home.

The street around his house was quiet. He dodged around two bodies in the street, threw open the door-

o-o-o-o-o

Uchiha Itachi was killing a baby. The parents lay dead behind him where they had tried to block the door with their bodies.

The black haired teen stood over the crib and matter-of-factly ran the katana in his hand through the infant's heart.

The crying stopped.

Itachi calmly withdrew the blade and moved on to the next house.

o-o-o-o-o

Fujiko and Hiruzen arrived as Itachi finished killing a family of four. The father lay decapitated by the door. The mother, stabbed through the heart as she pleaded for the lives of her children. The girl, four or five, screaming with terror as the katana slid across her throat, eyes wide as she drowned in her own blood. A quick flash of the blade and the head of her three-year-old brother joined her on the floor.

Itachi was good. He sensed their arrival almost a full second before Hiruzen reached him, turning to face them, his Sharingan blazing.

The Hokage was better. "Stay this madness!" he roared, disarming the Uchiha. "Who ordered you to do this?"

There was an instant of quiet; the only sound the trickle of blood on the floor.

Itachi barely looked surprised, his face pale in the faint light. "Danzo told me this was your will. Hokage-sama, there is a man I believe to be Uchiha Madara in the village."

Madara? But he died a long time ago. The Shodaime killed him.

"Who of your clan lives?" Hiruzen demanded.

"Madara went to wipe out the police station. There was a meeting there tonight to plan the final stages of the coup. I have yet to kill Uchiha Fugaku or Uchiha Mikoto. Or- I intended for Sasuke to live. Other than my family... I don't think I left anyone else alive."

"Then follow me," the Hokage ordered.

o-o-o-o-o

The Konoha Military Police Headquarters was a scene of chaos. Bodies littered the half-destroyed building, many warped strangely. The jounin led by Mongoose were trying to quell the scattered fires without further damage to the building.

Itachi had maintained the same calm face as they ran through the district. Fujiko wondered what he was feeling.

"Mongoose. Report."

"We took six casualties. Two dead, four injured. No Uchiha survivors. The attacker used some kind of space-time ninjutsu - could teleport, fly, and phase through attacks without hand signs. He disengaged after killing every Uchiha defender, and none of the trackers or sensors can find a trail. The Barrier Team detected neither the intrusion nor the fighting. The building sustained heavy damage. We prevented immediate collapse with earth jutsu and are currently trying to retrieve as many of the records as possible."

"Very well. Evacuate the wounded. As reinforcements arrive, have them sweep the district for any survivors. Itachi, see to your remaining family."

The raven-haired teen vanished.

"Panther, stay with me."

Chunin and jounin reinforcements were streaming in from the rest of the village, summoned by the general alert. She watched as Mongoose organized them into squads and dispatched them after survivors. The four wounded jounin were carried away on stretchers.

There might be a tiny handful Uchiha left, based on what her clones had seen, but not very many. Itachi had been quite thorough as he killed. Hopefully Madara - or whoever he was - hadn't been able to finish the job.

Hiruzen was pacing back and forth, thinking hard about something. Fujiko wondered what was going on. The Hokage hadn't seemed particularly surprised when Itachi had said Danzo ordered the massacre of the Uchiha clan. What did the Shimura clan head have to do with this? Obviously, he was higher up in the village administration than she had realized. Perhaps he was Itachi's ANBU superior? The ANBU General in her day had been Mantis, a Yamanaka, but it was likely someone else held that position now. She supposed there could even be entire sections of black ops she was unaware of.

There was a sudden commotion among some of the jounin. Fujiko looked over - one of the squads searching for survivors had returned with someone.

The Hokage noticed a moment later and rushed over. Following him, Fujiko caught sight of the limp form held between two jounin.

Not an Uchiha. Someone in standard ANBU uniform, mask blank of identifying marks. No visible forehead protector.

"We found this one killing civilians, Hokage-sama. There are at least five more. Squads Three and Seven are still engaged. We captured this one alive to question. The equipment appears to be genuine Konoha-issue," reported one of the jounin holding the prisoner. "His tanto had ANBU watermarks."

"Wake him." The Hokage's voice was cold.

The other jounin roughly pulled the mask off, revealing the bruised face of a pre-teen boy. There were exclamations of shock from some of the surrounding ninja. Someone waved smelling salts under the boy's nose. He stirred.

Hiruzen seized his chin. "Where is Danzo?" He growled.

Why would an invader know about one of Konoha's council members? Fujiko thought. Wait, Itachi said Danzo had ordered him to kill the Uchiha. Was he given backup?

The boy didn't answer. Hiruzen shook him. "Where is Shimura Danzo?" he repeated.

The boy's mouth opened, then he seemed to tremble and lay still.

"Paralyzed," grunted one of the jounin holding him. "Probably a security seal tattooed somewhere in his mouth."

"New orders," the Hokage bit out. "Spread the word. Find Shimura Danzo and report his location to me. Prevent him from leaving the village." The words obviously pained him to speak, but his voice was firm.

o-o-o-o-o

Sasuke rushed through the front room. He could hear voices from deeper inside the house; neither was familiar. He paused by the door, listening.

"A shame, Fugaku, that your son was too weak to finish this."

"Danzo-sama, we should vacate the premises. The Hokage has alerted much of the village. If we are discovered…"

"No matter. Hiruzen foolishly believed this could end without bloodshed. He will not stop me; with the cancerous Uchiha clan removed Konoha can finally begin to move forward. Come. Leave the corpses."

Corpses? Sasuke flinched, catching himself before he could fall. His sleeve rasped against the wall. Instantly, the door was thrown open and rough hands seized his arms.

"Who is it?"

"The younger son, Danzo-sama."

"Ah, good. One less end to clean up. Dispose of it."

"Yes, sir."

And one of the hands lifted him by the neck. He could see the figures now. The one that held him looked sort of like an ANBU member, but the mask didn't have any of the red markings. Inside the living room, standing over two dark-haired bodies was an older man. His face was partially obscured with bandages, one arm hidden in his robe. He leaned on a simple cane.

The pseudo-ANBU drew a tanto with his right hand, cocked his arm back to swing-

There was a blur of motion, a flash of black and silver. The hand holding Sasuke was amputated at the wrist as a blade flew inches in front of his face. Black flames scoured the man's body as he flew backwards with a choked wheeze.

"You will not touch him."

Brother!

Itachi's katana was soaked with blood, and he looked tired and upset, but there wasn't anyone Sasuke wanted to see more. Of course his brother was too strong to be defeated by whoever was attacking the Uchiha. Whoever the bandaged man was, there was no way he could beat Itachi. Sasuke was safe.

The cane tapped the floor, twice. "Uchiha Itachi. I should never have counted on a weak-willed fool like you to do what was necessary. Inconvenient."

"What was necessary? None of this had to happen! You are the fool here! You have betrayed Konoha!"

"This village was betrayed long ago. I am merely purging it of the guilty and the unworthy."

"Enough." Itachi lunged forward, katana slashing viciously, but the old man dodged with sudden speed and agility, retaliating with some ninjutsu that produced blades of wind.

"Do not take me for a helpless old man, boy. I have beaten Uchiha far stronger than you."

Someone grabbed Sasuke, and they were speeding out of the house. He looked up and saw Itachi's face. "Brother - what?"

Itachi dropped him in the street. "Get clear, Sasuke!" His brother - some kind of clone, Sasuke realized - ran back inside the house. In shock, Sasuke stumbled along the road. What should I do? Should I help Itachi? Should I get help? Everyone is dead; I don't know what to do. He stood, frozen with indecision for a minute.

The house exploded behind him, flames erupting into the night. Debris and shuriken sprinkled down around him. He could see the two figures fighting. A glowing yellow skeleton wielding a sword and shield surrounded Itachi. He was casting a barrage of fireballs and the strange black flames he had burned the not-ANBU with.

The old man was on the defensive, Sasuke could tell. He was dodging fires frantically as he cast powerful water and earth jutsu, shredding the neighborhood. There was a red Sharingan spinning in his head, no longer concealed beneath the bandages, and more were visible on his right arm. Sasuke felt sick. How many Uchiha did he kill to get those eyes?

Itachi lunged forward as the blazing yellow humanoid swung its sword, bisecting the man. Instead of falling to the ground, the body vanished and reappeared nearby, only to vanish again as Itachi covered the area with black flames.

Then a piece of debris struck Sasuke in the head, and everything went fuzzy. He lay on the ground, trying to keep his eyes open. No… brother… stay… can't…

He must have been hallucinating, because now the bandaged man was using wood jutsu, and everyone knew only the First Hokage had that ability. Many of the Sharingan on his arm were closed, and he was breathing hard. Sasuke struggled to keep his eyelids from closing.

Itachi was still on the offensive. Nii-san is really amazing, Sasuke thought sluggishly. He cast fireball after fireball, burning through what must be an astonishing amount of chakra. The glowing yellow giant was blocking every attack that came close with its shield while its sword slashed through whatever rooftop his opponent was on.

Itachi's opponent summoned clones, only for them to be slaughtered by the black flames. He reappeared again. The old man was shouting, but Sasuke couldn't make out the words. Lightning danced along his arms, striking ineffectively at Itachi's chakra construct. Suddenly, he charged toward Itachi. The yellow sword stabbed through his chest, and he vanished again, reappearing inside the skeletal figure. Itachi stabbed him through the neck with his katana.

This time, the body did not disappear. Tendrils of darkness shot out from the old man's chest, forming a black sphere that suddenly contracted with a whoosh of air. Everything the sphere had intersected was gone, as if a giant hand had taken a scoop out of the buildings and the street. The remnants of the glowing skeleton dissolved into mist.

More ninja were arriving now; Sasuke could see them on the rooftops. As his eyes drifted shut, he could hear someone furiously yelling for a medic.

o-o-o-o-o

Fujiko stared down at the cup of tea in her hands. It had been a long night. They had spent hours gathering the bodies of the dead, laying them in neat rows in front of the destroyed police station. She was sitting in the Hokage's office, ostensibly guarding him while he started in on the mountains of reports and paperwork the night had generated.

Uchiha Sasuke, second son of the clan head, had survived the devastation. He was in Sakura's Academy class. He'd been unconscious when they arrived at the site of the battle between Uchiha Itachi and Shimura Danzo. Fujiko wondered how much he'd seen. Too much, I'm certain.

Shimura Danzo's personal ANBU had been thorough. They had hunted down every civilian not killed by Itachi. Hiruzen had called them members of 'Root'. Apparently Danzo had built his own division within black ops, handling missions without the oversight of even the Hokage. The few agents they'd managed to capture had stayed quiet. Most had fought to the death. The dead were probably the lucky ones; Torture and Interrogation would be spending a lot of quality time with the survivors. Morino Ibiki was practically gleeful.

Danzo himself was dead, of course. She wasn't clear if the black vortex was something he'd triggered in a fit of suicidal fury, or if it activated automatically when Itachi had managed to kill him. Whatever it had been, she hoped it was painful. The only shame was that he'd managed to take Itachi with him. Maybe not, she corrected herself. They're not dead unless you have the body in front of you, went the black ops saying. She didn't think either of the two had pulled a vanishing act, but she couldn't rule out the possibility

Fujiko had only caught a glimpse of the fight itself, but that was enough to see that Itachi was one powerful kid. She'd known, through overheard gossip and the analyses that Hiruzen sent her, that he'd been the youngest ANBU captain ever, and the reality seemed to match the legend. He'd thrown around powerful fire jutsu like confetti. They'd had to wall the district off - no one could figure out how to put the black fire out. The best they'd figured was to separate all the burning debris into one big pile and surround it with an artificial moat.

The Uchiha would get their memorial fire all right, and black, too - Fujiko thought they would have liked that touch. Nice and grim, just like their clothes and humor. She wondered morbidly who had picked a red and white fan for their clan crest; it didn't seem moody enough.

Sakura was fine. Fujiko had been half-worried that Madara, or whoever it had been, would somehow be alerted to someone noticing his illusion and be able to snatch her daughter out from under the shadow clone she'd left.

In the end, she'd put Sakura to bed without an explanation. The Hokage had ordered her to keep everything she knew a secret. The two of them were the only ones that knew Itachi had been the one to kill most of the civilian Uchiha, after all. Most of the village thought it had been Root agents.

The Hokage was going to make an announcement tomorrow - later today, Fujiko corrected herself. The sun would be rising soon. There would have to be some sort of cover-up. They couldn't just go around revealing that a village elder had turned traitor and ordered the massacre of the most prominent clan in Konoha in cooperation with one of its oldest villains.

And that was the real problem - Madara. They only had Itachi's brief comment as evidence. He was in no condition now to give any more details - vanished to wherever Danzo's sealing jutsu sent its contents. The reports of the jounin who had supported the futile defense didn't match up with historical records of Madara's fighting style, but that wasn't good evidence either way. If Madara was alive, he'd undoubtedly take great pains to conceal his existence, and he'd had more than enough time to invent a completely new fighting style - or several. Regardless, an S-class shinobi had been able to waltz into the village without anybody noticing. The barrier and sensing teams would no doubt be doing a lot of work in the next weeks to explain how this could have occurred.

The Hokage looked up from the scrolls he was working on. "Go home, Panther. I doubt you'll be needed any further."

She stood, tossed down the last of the tea. "Yes, Hokage-sama." Fujiko paused. "You should get some sleep when you can, sir," she told him softly.

He just shook his head. "Academy classes will be canceled for the next few days. Stay with your daughter; I will summon you if any need arises."

"Yes, sir."

The house was quiet. It was uncomfortably close to the Uchiha district and the cloud of death that hung over it, but there was nothing she could do about that now. Checking that the shadow clone watching over her daughter was undisturbed, she changed out of her filthy mission clothes. She was asleep as she hit the pillow.

o-o-o-o-o

Sasuke didn't come back to the Academy the day classes started again. Sakura wondered what had happened. Is he dead?

Fujiko had kept quiet about whatever had happened in the Uchiha district that night. Sakura hadn't seen much after her mother left. The genjutsu had gone down after about an hour. Large portions of the district were revealed to be destroyed and on fire, but any fighting was already over. Fujiko had returned briefly to order her to bed, and then disappeared once more. Sakura was relieved to see her mother unharmed, but was left to worry about what was going on.

The next day, the Hokage had made some kind of announcement. Fujiko hadn't let her attend, and all she would say was that pretty much the entire Uchiha clan had been killed.

Classes were subdued. Even Naruto was quiet, his usual boisterous greeting replaced with a quiet "Hey, Sakura-chan." The instructors had been preoccupied and distracted.

At least no one seemed to be thinking about her. There hadn't even been any funny looks from Ino. Sasuke wasn't around to bother her either, and it was the quietest day of classes she'd ever had.

The remainder of the week passed by with the same quiet depression. Sasuke returned to the Academy. His fangirls, their number only increased by the mystery surrounding the Uchiha Massacre, as it had become known, squealed with delight upon his entrance at lunchtime. Sakura, eating with Naruto in one of the trees, rolled her eyes.

"Hey, Sakura, why do you think all those girls like Sasuke?" Naruto asked her.

"I don't know, I think it's stupid. Probably because he's a clan kid. Maybe they like his attitude, or something."

"Maybe. Hey, he's coming over here!"

Sakura looked up from her bento to see Naruto was indeed correct; Sasuke was walking over to them, pack of fangirls following in his wake, joined by more curious Academy students. He stopped below their tree and looked up at her.

"Mitsuhara. Spar with me." Not waiting for an answer, he turned and walked over to the taijutsu field.

Sakura swallowed, the last bit of rice suddenly dry in her throat. The fangirls looked stunned.

"What just happened?" Naruto asked rhetorically.

Not sure what else to do, Sakura jumped down and followed the moody Uchiha. His black eyes were dark and unreadable. "Rules?" she asked automatically. A crowd was forming around them. It looked like half the Academy had gathered to watch them fight, even a lot of the upper years who normally ignored their younger classmates.

He scanned the crowd. "Shino will judge. Taijutsu only. First to three points."

The high-collared Aburame shuffled to the front. Sakura couldn't tell what he was thinking; his eyes, as usual, were hidden behind dark glasses.

They took their stances. Sakura's, as usual, was flawless. Sasuke was tight with tension. What's with him today? Sakura wondered.

Shino gestured for them to begin, and Sasuke was charging her. He was fighting without restraint, holding nothing back from his blows. It made him sloppy. She reinforced her limbs with chakra and responded with precise blocks and counters. The crowd was quiet, uncomfortable. Everyone could see something was different with Sasuke.

Sasuke was quick, and slightly stronger than her, but the tension and anger he was fighting with made him slightly sloppy. It was only a minute before his guard dropped a fraction too low and Sakura caught him in the ear with a palm strike.

"Point, Mitsuhara," Shino informed them blandly.

They backed off and started again. Sasuke was getting irritated with his inability to land a blow - even more than usual. His form was getting choppier, the power behind his kicks increasing. She deflected one and flipped him into the dirt, tapping his ribcage with a toe.

"Second point, Mitsuhara."

Sasuke stood up and brushed himself off, glaring at her. Sakura glared back. "What's with you today, Sasuke? Nothing's changed since last time; you're not gonna beat me at taijutsu," she told him.

He just glared harder. "Stop sparring and fight me, Mitsuhara."

"What do you think I'm doing?"

"I know you're better than this! Stop holding back and show me what you can do!"

Now he was making her angry. I will not use the Museigen on him, Sakura chanted mentally. I will not use the Museigen on him. I won't. She blocked again, and he shoved against her. She stumbled, catching a glimpse of his face - wait, were those tears?

Distracted, she let him get a kick through her guard, sending her sprawling.

"Point, Uchiha."

Angry now, she stared him down. He was crying, with rage or sadness; she couldn't tell. His fangirls were looking stricken at him. Naruto just looked confused.

This time, she charged him, knocking away his side kick and ducking under his guard to land a punch on his ribs.

"Point and match, Mitsuhara," Shino intoned.

Sasuke ignored him, charging her again, half sobbing, and half shouting. "Fight me, Mitsuhara!" There were shouts of dismay from the crowd, and someone was yelling for Iruka-sensei. Sakura blocked and dodged, trying to get away. Come on sensei, stop him before I have to.

Then Iruka and Mizuki were there, calmly restraining the wild Uchiha. Sakura stopped, panting, as everyone looked on.

In the arms of the two chunin, Sasuke burst into tears.

o-o-o-o-o

When he returned to class the next day, Sasuke was cold and unemotional. He barely interacted with the world around him, ignoring everyone except the instructors and Sakura. She caught him watching her throughout the day.

At lunchtime, he approached her again.

"Mitsuhara."

"Uchiha. You're not here to challenge me to a fight again, are you?"

His mouth twitched. Did he almost just smile? "No. I want to train with you."

I was not expecting that. Sakura nearly fell out of the tree with shock. "You want to train… with me?"

"Yes."

"Hey, hey, bastard!" Naruto cut in, jumping in front of Sasuke. "You can't train with Sakura-chan, she's my rival!"

He shot Naruto a withering glare. "Idiot. I don't know why Mitsuhara hangs out with a fool like you."

Sakura found her voice again. "As opposed to what, a genius like you?" she asked dryly.

"Yes."

"Then no."

That seemed to surprise him. "No?"

Sakura shook her head. "Nope! Naruto's my friend. You're just annoying. I'm sorry about what happened to your family, but I'm not going to train with you. Besides, kaa-chan still won't let me bring friends home - if you were a friend, which you're not." She hopped down. "Come on, Naruto, let's go eat somewhere else. This tree feels gloomy all of a sudden."

She ignored the look Sasuke sent after her as they walked away.

Chapter Text

Konoha gradually recovered in the wake of the Uchiha Massacre. A mass funeral was held for the dead, presided over by the Third Hokage. Fujiko bought formal black kimonos for herself and Sakura.

The ceremony was held near the Naka Shrine. Almost the entire population of the village, including every shinobi not actively deployed, turned out for the funeral. Hiruzen read the list of the dead as the shadows of clouds drifted across the mourners.

Sakura glimpsed Sasuke near the front, standing stiffly. His face was cold and expressionless, eyes fixed on some distant view. He didn't acknowledge or respond to any of the people who stopped to give him their condolences.

The black flames left by Itachi's final battle - Amaterasu, Sakura learned they was called - were carefully gathered into a pyre at the center of the former Uchiha district. The names of the dead were carved into four pillars of grey stone at the corners of the blaze.

Hiruzen showed up at the house a few days after the funeral. He and Fujiko locked themselves in her office, where they stayed for nearly an hour. Upon exiting, both looked tired and worn.

"I have to leave the village for the next few weeks, Sakura," Fujiko told her over dinner.

"What? Kaa-chan! I thought you weren't getting any missions outside the village," Sakura protested.

Her mother sighed. "Normally that would be true, yes. But the Uchiha comprised a large fraction of Konoha's best active-duty shinobi. Hiruzen can't afford to leave a jounin-level kunoichi like myself on light duty. Konoha must continue to appear strong to outside parties. I don't like it either, but everyone will have to make sacrifices. Hokage-sama needs me. One mission, three weeks at the most, and then I'll be back. You'll have money for food, I'll leave training plans for you and Naruto, and you can go to the Sarutobi clan if you need anything."

Sakura chewed her lip. "I guess you don't have a choice, huh?"

Fujiko left the next morning before dawn. The hugged each other in the gray light under the trees in the backyard. "I love you," Sakura told her mother, holding her tightly. "Come home safe."

"I will," Fujiko assured her, standing pale in her black bodysuit and grey armor, and with a flicker of leaves, was gone.

o-o-o-o-o

While Fujiko was deployed, Sakura discovered she had a new problem at the Academy. Or rather, a recurring old problem.

o-o-o-o-o

Monday.

"Mitsuhara. Train with me."

"I told you no."

"Hn."

o-o-o-o-o

Tuesday.

"Mitsuhara. Train with me."

"No, Sasuke."

"Hn."

o-o-o-o-o

Wednesday.

"Mitsuhara. Train with me."

"Are you going to keep asking?"

"Yes."

"Still no!"

"Hn."

o-o-o-o-o

Thursday.

"Back again?"

"Hn."

"Hey, Naruto?"

"Yeah, Sakura-chan?"

"Punch Sasuke for me, will you?"

"Okay!"

o-o-o-o-o

When Fujiko returned, sixteen days after she had left, tired and bruised, Sakura was ready to start tearing her hair out in frustration. She had refused him, told him to get lost, beaten him soundly in several more spars, and tried repeatedly to sic Naruto on him - nothing was working. Sasuke kept appearing at lunch to ask her to train with him, sure as clockwork.

"Kaa-chan, I don't know what to do." Sakura stared helplessly at her breakfast. "Ever since the massacre, he seems fixated on training with me. I thought he'd stop after I told him no, but he keeps coming back. It's been more than a month, and he's getting really annoying!"

Fujiko regarded her daughter across the table. "Well, why don't you train with him?"

"You're taking his side?"

Fujiko waved a bandaged hand. "I didn't say that. What about the request makes you refuse?"

Sakura thought. "Well… I don't think he's thinking of working with me. He sees that I'm stronger in certain areas and wants that ability himself. Sasuke probably thinks that if he gets the same kind of training I do he'll be better than me. I don't want to be used. Plus, he treats Naruto like dirt."

Fujiko frowned. "So it's that you think he sees you as a means to an end. If you thought he just wanted to train with you, it'd be fine?"

"Basically, yeah. And I'd want him to treat Naruto better."

"Have you told him that?"

"Kaa-chan?"

Fujiko shrugged. "Tell him you have conditions. Give him an ultimatum. If he's that focused on training with you, it'll be nearly impossible to dissuade him. So don't try. Instead, force it to happen on your terms, not his. What else can you do? He's fixated on you. Beating him in another fight will just encourage him. Besides, you and Naruto could use a new sparring partner."

"I thought I wasn't allowed to have friends over?" Sakura winced as she thought of the incident in kunoichi class.

"It's been long enough. You've learned your lesson. There isn't anything to gain by preventing you and Naruto from working together."

"Thanks, kaa-chan. I'm glad you're back."

"So am I. Don't make it easy for him."

"I won't."

Still hoping he might stop on his own, Sakura lasted through another two weeks of daily requests from the Uchiha. Finally having had enough, the next day at lunchtime, Sakura jumped down from the tree as Sasuke approached.

"Sasuke."

"Hn?"

"I have conditions."

"Hn."

"My name isn't 'Mitsuhara'. It's Sakura. If you want to train with us, you'll have to use it. No calling Naruto an idiot."

"Hn."

"And no more saying 'hn' either. Use actual words. Respond when I, Naruto, or others talk to you."

"…Fine."

"What's that?"

"Fine, Sakura."

"Try again."

"I'll do it, Sakura-chan." Sasuke scowled, irritation plain in his eyes.

"All right. This is going to be about training. If you're looking for a quick way to beat me, don't bother. We'll help you get better, sure, but only if you have the right mindset."

"I get it."

"Okay. Naruto, come on down."

"Aw, Sakura-chan, do we have to train with the teme? He's all grumpy."

"It's better than having him interrupt lunch every time we want to eat. And part of the deal is he won't be so moody around us. Come down and say hi."

The blonde jumped down in a huff. "I'm Uzumaki Naruto, dattebayo! I don't like you! But if Sakura-chan says we're going to train together, I guess that's okay." He offered a hand.

Sasuke rolled his eyes. "Can I at least say he's loud?" he demanded.

Sakura laughed. "'Course you can. It's true. Now be polite."

Sasuke grunted. "Uchiha Sasuke. I suppose it's nice to meet you, you loud-mouthed Uzumaki brat. Naruto," he added hastily, seeing Sakura's glare. He hesitantly put his own hand against Naruto's, and grimaced when the blonde shook it enthusiastically.

"Yahoo! Oh, man, Sasuke-teme, I can't wait to crush you in sparring practice!" Naruto was practically vibrating from excitement.

Sasuke glanced mournfully at Sakura. "Is he like this all the time?"

She smiled brightly. "Yup! Better get used to it." Maybe this won't be so bad after all.

He groaned.

o-o-o-o-o

Fujiko looked slightly surprised to see the three of them walking together, but she recovered quickly.

"Naruto, Sakura, start with your usual warm-ups. Who might you be?"

Sasuke repressed the urge to be short with her. "Uchiha Sasuke, Mitsuhara-san."

She raised one eyebrow at him. He stared back. This was Sakura's mother? She didn't look like much. About average height, she had a wiry build that looked strong but not bulky. Blue eyes stared at him from under short brown hair. He had expected someone that screamed competence, but she was very… underwhelming.

Fujiko beckoned to him. "Okay, kid, let's see what you've got. Taijutsu only. Try to hit me."

He obliged. She shut him down with efficiency, dodging just far enough back or to the side that he missed, redirecting his kicks easily. Angrily, he pushed harder, throwing his best combinations at her. She blocked easily. In the end, he was forced to stop, panting and tired. Fujiko didn't even look winded.

"Not bad for an Academy brat. You need to work on your form; your stances are weak around the left foot and you drop your guard a fraction too much when you kick. Those are the biggest issues. Your endurance obviously needs work, but so does Sakura's."

"…All right." She didn't sugarcoat things like some of the Academy instructors did with him, which was nice, even if the criticism stung. He looked over at the others. Naruto was holding a leaf on his forehead, face scrunched up in concentration. Some kind of chakra control exercise, probably. Sakura was doing taijutsu. On the tree trunks. Horizontally. No wonder she's better than me, he thought. I need to learn how to do that.

Fujiko started him on the same exercise Naruto was doing. He was to channel chakra to his forehead until the leaf stayed put. At first, Sasuke felt insulted, but after the leaf fell of his head the first time he changed his mind. This isn't as easy as it looks. He glanced over at the blonde. At least the dobe wasn't any better at it than he was.

For the first week, Fujiko mostly drilled the three of them separately. Naruto and Sasuke got various chakra control exercises, while Sakura continued to practice taijutsu on the side of the trees.

Sakura continued to work on the Museigen no Shikou with Fujiko in the evenings, after the other two had gone home. Able to notice and disrupt genjutsu to Fujiko's satisfaction, she was now working on reading her opponent's intent through little motions and twitches.

"The Museigen already gives you the advantage of time to think in the middle of combat," Fujiko lectured, "but that doesn't mean you shouldn't always seek to improve it. Shinobi without your kekkei genkai can read their opponents. You can turn that split-second advantage into multiple seconds of time to plan your counter."

Unlike the genjutsu practice, Sakura had a great deal of difficulty with this. Progress was slow, but Fujiko urged her not to be discouraged. "You won't get this without years of practice," she told Sakura. "Keep at it; you will get there eventually. It's not a skill even most chunin have."

o-o-o-o-o

After about a month of training together, Sasuke sat down next to Sakura and Naruto in the back corner one morning in the Academy. She looked at him. He looked back.

"…What?" He seemed puzzled. It was almost cute.

"…Nothing," she eventually replied.

If looks could kill, Sakura would have died the instant Ino and Setsuko walked into the classroom and saw them sitting together.

They passed the morning lessons in silence, the boys sitting on either side of Sakura. Come lunchtime, Sasuke joined them in their usual tree. His fangirls shot them withering looks. Sakura watched Ino stomp away to join Hinata and Rin on the other side of the courtyard and sighed.

"Tell me you're not doing this just to get away from them."

"…Maybe?"

"Figures."

Still, Sasuke joining them resulted in the cooling of tensions between Sakura and Naruto and the rest of the students. Having the most popular boy in the school openly acknowledge them forced the others to do so as well.

The next day at lunch, Sakura offered Sasuke a bento.

"What is this for?" he asked.

"It's for you. Take it." Sakura held his gaze calmly. She'd noticed he never brought anything more than rice balls for lunch since the massacre, and they were never well made. Sakura thought he didn't know how to make anything else. He was certainly too proud to ask.

Sasuke was staring at the box as if it was poisonous. Sakura rolled her eyes. "Take the stupid bento, Sasuke. Don't tell me you aren't going hungry. It's not pity food - I can hardly feel good about beating you if you aren't eating right." Just because you irritate me doesn't mean I like seeing you suffer.

He snorted. "In your dreams, Sakura." Still, he took the box.

Afternoon training continued through the fall and winter. Fujiko had them sparring with each other nearly every day now; the odd one out did chakra control exercises and then switched in against the winner. Early in the afternoon, Sakura would win all the matches. Eventually, however, she'd get tired, and Sasuke - though sometimes Naruto - would beat her once, ending her streak. After a few more matches, she'd be tired enough that Sasuke would start winning the majority. Eventually, both of them would be worn out and Naruto, with his seemingly infinite stamina, would beat them both.

After Naruto won five or six times in a row, Fujiko would call a halt and lead them through a rigorous set of stretches. At the end, the three were tired, sweaty, and covered in grime. After they washed up, they'd sit in the shade of the trees and go over schoolwork.

Sasuke had protested the first time Fujiko told them to get out their homework. "I'm training to be a ninja, not an academic!" he huffed. "I don't need to know about local customs in the Land of Lightning! Learning about economics won't help me get stronger!"

Sakura and Naruto winced. Naruto had voiced almost the same opinion when he first started training with Sakura. The results had been… spectacular. Here it comes.

"Oh, really?" Fujiko practically purred. "Tell me then, young Uchiha, when your target goes to ground in a border village, how do you plan to pick him out if you can't tell what belongs and what doesn't? Pull a kunai and see who flinches? You'll end up gutting a civilian." She leaned forward, eyes glittering. "How will you read the merchant's books to tell if he's swindling you if you don't know the local exchange rates? Is iron cheaper or more expensive far from Konoha? Oh wait, you don't know! I guess you'll have to trust that he's honest. Oops! There goes the discretionary fund for your mission."

She used a jutsu to transform into an elaborately robed figure. "Is the woman carrying three daggers in her clothes a threat, or is it traditional for females in her culture to wear ceremonial knives? What about the needles in her hair? Are they common ornaments or hidden weapons? Is chili pepper normally included in foods in this region, or is has it been added to cover up the smell of something else? Is the tattoo on that man's head a badge of honor or decoration, or is it a method of marking criminals? Do you smell cyanide, or is that kind of incense supposed to smell like almonds? Is that species of bird one you'd expect to see in this region during this time of year, or is it part of a flawed genjutsu the caster didn't think to change or a summons sent to spy on you?" She paused, releasing the illusion. "I could go on and on. There are many occasions in the life of a ninja when knowing a particular piece of knowledge will make the difference between life and death. Do you expect your teammates to cover the abysmal gaps in your education? I thought you wanted to be the best."

Sasuke flinched. "I… yes, Mitsuhara-san."

"Being a good shinobi requires awareness. It requires knowledge. Setting or escaping genjutsu requires intimate knowledge of your surroundings. If your opponent knows something about the terrain you do not, you have already lost half the battle. You may cripple yourself on your own time, not under my watch. Not learning as much as you can now will result in failed missions later and can easily get you and your teammates killed. Knowledge is not a hindrance. It is another weapon in your arsenal. I trust I will not be hearing such complaints again?"

He looked down. "No, Mitsuhara-san."

And so they helped each other with schoolwork. Naruto's academics had improved by leaps and bounds in the past months. He'd never be at the top of the class, but Sakura thought he was probably getting better grades than Kiba or Shikamaru. Of course, the Nara could probably beat everyone if he wanted, including her, but Shikamaru was far too lazy to put in the effort that would require, and preferred to get by with the lowest possible passing mark.

Which was why Sakura was surprised to see Naruto clumsily trying to hide a recent assignment scroll covered in red ink. They'd studied the material for that essay only last week - Sakura knew he had that stuff down!

So she signaled Sasuke, and he distracted Naruto while she slid the scroll out of his pocket. She scanned it. She snatched up her essay, comparing the two side by side.

"Kaa-chan!"

Fujiko was there in a moment. "What is it, Sakura?"

She shoved her scroll into Fujiko's hands. "Read this."

Her mother did so, and then looked up. "What did you want me to see? I know you do good work."

Sakura thrust Naruto's essay into her hands. "Now read that one."

Fujiko started reading. Immediately, her brow furrowed. "Naruto!"

The blonde looked up from where he and Sasuke were wrestling on the ground. "What's up, Mitsuhara-san?"

"Do the instructors mark all your work like this?"

Naruto was puzzled for a moment. Then he yelped. "Sakura-chan! You shouldn't be looking at other people's work!"

"Answer the question."

He scratched the back of his head. "Uh, I guess so? I tend to get better marks from Iruka-sensei, but I figure he likes me more."

Fujiko shook her head. "No. Iruka-sensei probably marks you correctly. This," she brandished the essay at him, "is mostly correct. Not perfect, but it's well above a passing effort. Whoever graded this docked three times as many points as you deserved. Sakura, who graded this set of essays?"

"Mizuki-sensei."

"Thank you. Sasuke, may I see your copy of the essay as well?"

Wordlessly, he handed it over.

Sakura wasn't sure what Fujiko did with the essays, but by the end of the week Mizuki and two other instructors were gone, with three new chunin replacing them. Naruto's grades showed immediate improvement.

Sasuke was starting to show the blonde more respect as well. The realization that the instructors had deliberately sabotaged his classmate didn't sit well with the Uchiha. He'd always relied on the class standings to determine how he matched up against his peers, and the fact that those rankings might be falsified put him in a sour mood for days. Mostly, though, his grudging acknowledgement of Naruto was due to their training sessions. It was hard to view the overenthusiastic boy as a waste of space when he could beat Sasuke, even if it only happened after the Uchiha was exhausted.

Before they knew it, it had been a full year since they entered the Academy. They watched graduation and the entrance of the new class from the shade of the birch tree Naruto and Sakura had sat in a year ago. Sakura thought it felt nice and companionable.

o-o-o-o-o

Their second year in the Academy was much less eventful than the first. Sakura and Sasuke maintained their one-two position in the class rankings. The third place slot in the rankings was the subject of much rivalry and competition among the other students. Besides Sakura and Sasuke, the top academic scores were traded between Yamanaka Ino, Aburame Shino, and Ukane Setsuko, the glasses-wearing kunoichi. Setsuko was sometimes bullied by members of other classes because of her vision problems and civilian parents, who were ordinary laborers. They stole her glasses and called her 'four-eyes' and other such names. She developed a close friendship with Ino, in spite of their academic rivalry, because the Yamanaka girl was always quick to defend her.

In taijutsu, Naruto had a loud and boisterous rivalry with Kiba, who he usually edged out for third place. Sakura thought Hinata, the quiet and timid Hyuuga heiress, probably could have beaten both of them if she was willing to assert herself. But she wasn't, preferring to stay in the shadow of outgoing Tosugawa Rin, who talked so much it didn't matter if Hinata was silent.

Kunoichi lessons continued to be the bane of Sakura's existence. The terrible trio had long since returned from the hospital. Fortunately, the hostility towards her was much subdued. Unfortunately, she continued to find flower arranging, tea ceremonies, and wearing formal clothes to be just as dull, if not worse. She struggled through, knowing the knowledge might be useful later.

o-o-o-o-o

By the end of their third year in the Academy, Sakura could walk on still water. Ripples still caused her to lose control and fall in. Sasuke was able to climb trees, though the bark splintered under his feet. Naruto could almost do it but was still having issues with chakra control.

A lot of their training had moved on to weapons use. Here Sasuke had the clear advantage and enjoyed lording it over Sakura and Naruto. He liked to let them have a chance at the targets first, and then throw his shuriken or kunai to strike just to the side of theirs.

"You teme!" Naruto would shout, "Why don't we go over to the sparring ring and fight this out, huh?"

Sasuke would just smirk in response. "It's not taijutsu day, dobe. Now come back and do it again. I'll bet you can't improve your terrible score from earlier."

"You bet, huh? I'll show you what Uzumaki Naruto can do, dattebayo!"

And Sakura would roll her eyes at the two of them, fondly.

Once Sasuke broke through his cool and grumpy exterior, he was actually somewhat pleasant to be around, Sakura had to admit. Many of his snide comments and insults actually encouraged Naruto to do better. And having someone who could push her in training was helpful. Naruto did his best, but in some areas he simply wasn't on the same level as Sakura and Sasuke.

o-o-o-o-o

Fourth year in the Academy brought with it their first foray outside the village proper: the Academy camping trip.

They spent the summer learning practical survival skills: identification of common flora and fauna, how to set up and clear camp, safe outdoor fire practices, hunting and cleaning food, digging a proper latrine, warding off pests - the list went on and on.

Iruka-sensei taught them the simplest fire jutsu he knew - all it would do was create a candle-sized burst of flame at the tip of the user's index finger, but it meant none of them would ever have to carry matches again. (Though Sakura made a note to never put Naruto in charge of lighting the fire - his jutsu tended to explode into a huge jet of flame).

Fujiko took them into the woods out back behind the house and showed them how to set up sleeping bags in the trees. They'd be given tents for the camping trip, but such gear was a luxury they wouldn't be able to carry with them on missions. It was better to get used to the hanging sleeping bags now, rather than make the adjustment during a tense field situation. Plus, it was fun to sit up in the canopy all cozy, looking down at the lights of Konoha or up at the stars.

The campsite for the trip was only about a kilometer into the forest that surrounded the village. It wasn't truly isolated from the village - they could easily see the walls and Hokage Rock from the treetops - but just knowing they were outside the place they had grown up for the first time was exciting.

Sakura learned to appreciate some of their other classmates during the trip. Hinata was the best cook, able to take handfuls of grubby forage and come out with something that actually tasted good. Shino, as far as everyone was concerned, was worth his weight in gold for his ability to clear the bugs and insect life out of their chosen campground.

"It is illogical for you to fear insects," he told them. "Why? Because most of them would much rather be far away from you. Those that would be drawn to harm you are easily dealt with." He was still withdrawn and sometimes socially awkward with his rhetorical mannerisms, but his newfound popularity would last for some time.

While the other kids set up their tents, fumbling and laughing over the posts and pins, Sasuke, Sakura, and Naruto set up the tents they had been given at the other side of the campsite from where they planned to sleep. Sasuke's gray tent was marked clearly with the Uchiha fan. They knew his fangirls were unlikely to pass up such a golden opportunity, and planned to spend the night comfortably ensconced as far away from the giggling masses as possible.

Working together, they efficiently set up their own fire. Sasuke and Sakura hunted a few rabbits and caught some fish while Naruto gathered tubers and firewood. They pooled their findings with their classmates - the jounin-track class had wordlessly decided to let Hinata supervise all the cooking.

With Chouji and Shinji as her assistants, the Hyuuga heiress put together a delicious stew. While many of the other students were gnawing on charred rabbit or overcooked fish, the jounin-track class sat together around the fire and enjoyed the food.

And as they hung together in their sleeping bags under a Hashirama tree, listening to the sounds of the forest, Sakura realized that somewhere along the line Sasuke had turned into a close friend. It was hard to pinpoint where the change had occurred. First, he'd been the competitive and annoying Uchiha kid. Then, the moody and traumatized survivor who wouldn't leave her alone. Over the years of training together, she'd come to appreciate his snarky and understated humor, his needling of Naruto that pushed the blonde to achieve, and his quiet talent.

As she fell asleep, Sakura reflected that it was nice to have friends.

In the morning, Ino complained bitterly about the orange paint in her hair as all the boys laughed. She'd tried to sneak into their decoy tent, which, in a rare display of cooperation, Naruto and Sasuke had trapped together. When she started to chase Naruto around the camp, the rest of them still laughing, Sasuke blandly informed her that he thought the orange splotches improved her complexion, prompting even more hysterics.

o-o-o-o-o

Back home, Fujiko had finally started teaching Sakura to use genjutsu during their evening lessons. "Genjutsu is often misused as a catch-all term for techniques that fool your opponent. When people refer to 'genjutsu,' they often include things like illusions and camouflage techniques, which are more properly classed as ninjutsu. Technically, it's only genjutsu if you're modifying the chakra in your target's nervous system."

"When you say illusions," Sakura asked, "you mean things like a henge?"

"Right, I suppose that was unclear. I mean some kind of chakra construct that appears real." She turned towards a nearby bush and focused, running through a few hand seals. The bush seemed to twist and flow, distorting until it appeared to be a boulder. "Like this," Fujiko said. "I could use actual genjutsu, to make you perceive the bush as a boulder, but that's not what I'm doing. I've encased it in a layer of chakra, similar to a henge, that reflects light like a real boulder. This is technically a ninjutsu, but everybody calls it a genjutsu, because it's used for the same purpose."

"I think I get it," Sakura said. "All the tricks you taught me about noticing genjutsu apply to both categories, but only one can be dispelled with a kai."

"Correct. As a side note, this means the two categories are particularly effective when used together, especially when the illusions are more obvious than the genjutsu. The target tries to kai, sees that the illusion doesn't disappear, and if you reapply the genjutsu quickly enough they become convinced that it is real - even though they were able to dispel it - because they were only paying attention to the illusion.

"Now, the first thing I'll teach you is how to release someone else from a genjutsu. That'll get you used to interacting with someone else's chakra system, and we can build from there. Once you learn the henge I'll start teaching you how to create illusions, but that will probably have to wait until after you graduate from the Academy." This first step was accomplished over several weeks with the aid of one of Fujiko's shadow clones, who genjutsued the original Fujiko so Sakura had a target to practice on. It reminded Sakura of how she conceptualized starting the Museigen, though instead of twisting the chakra within her own mind, she did it on her target.

Once she mastered that, the next step was causing an effect on the target. "The simplest genjutsu of all," Fujiko called it, "just do something weird to your opponent's chakra system. Get a feel for how your chakra interacts with someone else's. This can sometimes produce a brief moment of discomfort, but nothing more. Controlling the effect comes later."

It took months of effort to get right. Reaching out to someone else's chakra system was hard enough when she could touch them; doing it at a range of ten meters required horrendously precise control, straining her abilities to the limit. Once she could reliably target Fujiko at that range, she started learning the actual manipulation.

"Genjutsu is notoriously unreliable for amateurs," Fujiko told her, "because there are so many things that can change how any particular ninja is affected by the same technique. This is why many shinobi don't bother with it at all, and the ones who are effective with it are specialists. My genjutsu mantra is: simple is better. The less complicated the changes you're trying to make are, the less ways you can screw it up. I was considered quite good with genjutsu in ANBU, but it was because I restricted myself to a few simple and easy techniques and learned to leverage them against any given opponent. Some genjutsu users go in for these really complex techniques, flashy stuff that screws with people like hard drugs. No. Just no. The Uchiha got a pass on this because the Sharingan is made of bullshit, but the rest of them who do this are idiots, in my considered opinion. Simple is better. Don't go trying to make your opponent think their arms are melting off or that their teammates have suddenly been replaced by monsters; that makes it incredibly obvious they're in a genjutsu and unless you can prevent them from succeeding with a kai all you've done is waste time and chakra. If you do have enough control over their actions to prevent a kai then you should have already won without any of this mucking about."

"Simple is better," Sakura repeated, committing it to memory. Makes sense. Sounds like a pet peeve of hers.

"I do things like crouch down in a hidden corner and cast an illusion to make it look like I'm part of a nearby boulder or a bush - again, remember, that's technically an advanced henge or illusion, not real genjutsu - make people dizzy, suppress a few sounds, or briefly make something seem closer or farther away. Simple is better. You only need a little advantage to decide the course of a battle. Always assume that your opponent is capable of a seal-less and silent kai. The first full genjutsu I'll teach you - and it'll be the only genjutsu I teach you until you fully master it - is how to render your target unconscious. The technique can be used with different speeds and amounts of chakra; at the most basic, it slowly induces increasing drowsiness. Simple is better: use it from stealth, take it slow, and you can often get them to nod off to sleep without realizing anything is wrong." She grinned viciously, gesturing at her katana. "Then you amp up the power, so they won't wake without outside help, and walk up and cut their head off. Or just steal their stuff and tie them up, whatever fits the situation. Simple is better. If you don't have the time, you can overpower it and try to clobber them into unconsciousness. But if they have any decent amount of genjutsu resistance training they'll shake it off before it takes hold. That's much more risky, but it does give you an opening where you can get in close and hit them while they're trying to kai."

Kaa-chan would make a really scary enemy, Sakura thought. I'm glad she's teaching me.

It was hard, harder than anything else Sakura could do. It took the rest of the year before she was anywhere close to comfortable with the technique, and then only with the Museigen active. She practiced it daily, but soon had other things to occupy her training time.

o-o-o-o-o

The instructors started them on the Academy Three in the late spring of their fifth year. Over the course of the summer they memorized the hand seals, theory, and chakra manipulation for the Henge no Jutsu, Bunshin no Jutsu, and Kawarimi no Jutsu.

Surprisingly, Naruto had the best henge in the class. Sasuke had the most perfect hand seals in the class, while Sakura had the fastest, and her exceptional chakra control gave her the most precise kawarimi.

Despite their best efforts to help him, Naruto simply could not create a proper clone. Sakura's duplicates were visually indistinguishable, as were Sasuke's. Naruto's were obviously sickly, often proportioned wrong and unable to stand, sometimes spraying smoke from a badly formed limb until they dispersed.

At last, they were forced to admit defeat. "I don't know what to do," Sakura said, throwing her hands up in the air at yet another twisted clone. "Maybe if Sasuke had the Sharingan he could see what you're doing wrong with your chakra. Until then, you'll just have to keep practicing, I guess."

Naruto slumped. "Darn. Just my luck they'll probably focus on the Bunshin no Jutsu for our graduation test."

Fujiko found them like that, standing forlorn in a circle. "What's wrong, kiddos?"

"My clones always come out weird and deformed," Naruto complained.

Fujiko frowned. She ran through the seals for the jutsu, summoning a copy of herself. She examined it critically. "I wonder…" She did the technique a second time, concentrating. A sickly Fujiko appeared beside her, stumbling back and forth.

Naruto was amazed. "Whoa! You did it on purpose! What's the trick?"

Fujiko frowned. "Try making twenty bunshin with the technique. Don't use any more chakra, just increase the number of clones."

"Uh, sure." He did so. The resulting clones looked much less sickly. "Whoops, I made twenty-three. Hey! These guys look a lot better! What gives?"

Fujiko sighed. "I thought so. You just use too much chakra, Naruto. Overpowering a kawarimi or henge doesn't do much besides use up the excess chakra. With a henge, it actually makes the illusion stronger. But clones can get wonky if your control isn't good enough. Practice making them in large numbers until you can create normal clones, and then slowly reduce the amount with lots and lots of practice." She grinned. "You might want to ask Iruka-sensei to teach you how to reduce the number of hand seals for a jutsu. It'll save you time, and a whole lot of finger cramps."

o-o-o-o-o

The Academy held a taijutsu tournament for all students in their sixth year. Sakura cruised through several easy preliminary rounds, beating students she didn't know from the regular classes. Ino, Setsuko, and Rin cheered loudly as Hinata flattened Kiba in the quarterfinals and was just edged out after a long semifinal match by Naruto. She blushed the whole time as they exchanged respectful bows afterward, and looked like she might faint when Naruto thanked her for a great match. In the other bracket, Sakura beat Chouji (a much tougher opponent than she anticipated), and Setsuko to face Sasuke in the semifinal. As usual, she emerged victorious over the Uchiha. He smiled easily as they bowed to each other after the match, not particularly upset at his loss. "You'd better beat Naruto in the final," he told her afterword, "I won't forgive you if he's able to lord a victory over me." She did.

It was a good experience all around. Even the regular students had a good day. Often, they felt overshadowed by the jounin-track class and resented the difference in treatment. The Academy had held tournaments before, and usually the jounin-track students crushed their competition. This time, seven from the regular classes had made it to the round of sixteen, and one of them, the extremely popular Akado Daisuke, made it as far as the quarterfinals to face Sasuke.

Almost before they realized it, six years at the Academy had gone by. It was time for their graduation exam.

Sakura nervously dressed in her Academy outfit. Black leggings, black sports bra and undershirt, dark green shorts, and her red vest. She pulled on her shinobi sandals and fingerless gloves, surveying her appearance in the mirror critically.

"Ready to go, Sakura?" Fujiko called.

"Just a minute, kaa-chan!" Sakura yelled back. She looked into the mirror. Her reflection stared back with confident green eyes. Blowing pink bangs off her forehead, Sakura nodded sharply to herself and turned for the door.

She met Sasuke and Naruto just outside the Academy. The three of them exchanged excited looks and fist bumps.

"Today's the day, dattebayo!" Naruto crowed. "We're finally gonna become genin! First stop, ninja! Next stop, Hokage!"

Sasuke cuffed him. "You dobe," he said fondly. "Don't count your kills before the battle. You still have to pass the graduation exam. Think you're up to it?"

"Hey! What are you trying to say, Sasuke-teme? You're looking at Konoha's Number One Shinobi, Uzumaki Naruto! I'm gonna beat you and Sakura-chan, dattebayo!"

Sakura tuned them out as they continued to bicker. None of them were truly worried about the graduation exam. The only possible hiccup was Naruto's Bunshin no Jutsu. He'd gotten it down to seven quality clones before the technique began to break down but that seemed to be his limit, the clones still misshapen when he tried to make fewer. Fortunately, his henge and kawarimi were good enough that they were confident he'd pass the ninjutsu portion of the exam with room to spare.

They joined the other jounin-track students in the classroom. Iruka-sensei was calling them one by one to another room for the first part of the exam.

Of the three, Sakura was called first. "Good luck, Sakura-chan!" Naruto hollered as she followed Iruka.

In the next room were two chunin with clipboards. They tested Sakura on the Academy ninjutsu. Bunshin, henge, kawarimi. Create a bunshin and henge it into one instructor while she transformed into the other. Kawarimi with the bunshin. Sakura performed it all flawlessly. They noted her score down on the clipboards and asked if she had any other ninjutsu or genjutsu she wished to demonstrate for extra credit. When she responded in the negative (Fujiko had advised her not to reveal her genjutsu skills, since it would be noted on the public Academy records), they nodded and waved her through the door to the training area outside.

Another chunin waited outside in the sparring ring. "Good morning, Mitsuhara-san," he greeted her politely. He was a tall, brown-haired man of average height, wearing the standard Konoha flak jacket. "My name is Koyoba Shin, and I will be testing you in taijutsu."

"Koyoba-sensei," Sakura nodded to him.

"Assume a basic stance."

Shin ran her through all the academy forms, first normally and then left-handed and at double speed, taking a few notes on his clipboard from time to time. When she finished, he smiled at her.

"I am pleased to say you have passed the theoretical portion of the taijutsu exam with a perfect score," he told her. "Next is the practical section. You are forbidden from using any ninjutsu, genjutsu, kekkei genkai, or any other techniques other than simple chakra enhancement. Is that understood?"

"Yes."

"Good. Your goal is to score as many hits on me as you can. I will begin by fighting at the level expected of a fourth-year Academy student. As you strike me, I will gradually increase the difficulty until either I judge you no longer capable of hitting me, or you take too many hits yourself. Begin whenever you are ready."

Sakura charged him, giving it everything she had. Koyoba Shin might have only been fighting at a mid-Academy level, but his form was perfect. Still, she struck him twice in quick succession. He shifted into a stronger stance and countered with an advanced Academy combination, forcing her on the defensive. Over the next few minutes, she managed to hit him eight more times, though the last was only a glancing blow to the shoulder. Then he switched into a style she didn't recognize, forcing her to come up with new counters on the fly. She fell back on the basics, combinations as easy for her as breathing, relying on speed and perfect form to see her through. She blocked most of what he threw at her, but she slowly lost ground, accumulating minor hits all over her body.

Eventually, he called a halt and she stopped, breathing hard and somewhat sore. Shin retrieved his clipboard and scribbled down some more notes. "Excellent work, Mitsuhara-san, quite impressive. The only better score in my time at the Academy was Uchiha Itachi, I believe." Ooh, he better not say that to Sasuke!

Sakura thanked him and moved on to the last stage of the exam. The final test was an obstacle course, built in one of the adjacent training grounds. It took Sakura a grueling five minutes to pass through the combination of traps, razor wire, muddy ground, steep rock walls, and pit traps to the end.

"Mitsuhara Sakura, you are free to go for the day. Final grades will be posted in Room 217 tomorrow morning."

She was tired and muddy as she walked home, but had a huge grin on her face. She knew she had passed with high marks.

o-o-o-o-o

The genin teams were announced the next day. Naruto seemed uncharacteristically depressed. When she first caught sight of him, Sakura thought for a moment he might have failed, but then she saw the hitai-ate on his forehead.

Naruto brightened immediately when he saw her, though there was a flicker of something - fear? Uncertainty? She was probably just imagining it.

"Hey, Sakura-chan, you passed!"

"As if there was ever any doubt, you big dope. I see you managed to scrape through."

He grinned. "Yeah! My clones didn't turn out too well, but my henge and kawarimi were good so they let me through. Have you seen Sasuke-teme yet?"

Said person flicked him from behind. "I'm here," Sasuke said coolly as he slid in next to Sakura.

"You're late, teme!"

Sasuke raised an eyebrow. "Iruka-sensei isn't here yet. That means I'm early."

"That's a terrible excuse!"

"Quiet!" hissed Sakura, as their instructor walked in the door.

Iruka smiled at the assembly of new genin. "Congratulations to you all on passing the final exam. Without further ado, your genin teams:

"Team Four: Aburame Shino, Tosugawa Rin, and Ukane Setsuko." The quiet Aburame didn't say anything, face hidden as always behind dark glasses, but Rin and Setsuko exchanged grins and a high five.

"Team Seven: Mitsuhara Sakura, Uchiha Sasuke, and Uzumaki Naruto."

"Yahoo!" Naruto crowed, hands flung in the air. Sakura restrained herself to a single fist pump. Sasuke didn't obviously react, but she saw the corner of his mouth creep upwards in a small smile.

"Team Eight: Inuzuka Kiba, Iruhano Shinji, and Hyuuga Hinata." Shy Hinata and quiet Shinji exchanged tentative smiles with Kiba, while Akamaru yapped in approval - or maybe disapproval, only Kiba could really tell.

"And Team Ten: Akimichi Chouji, Nara Shikamaru, and Yamanaka Ino." Chouji reacted to this pronouncement by opening another bag of potato chips, while Ino groaned and flung her hands out dramatically.

"How troublesome," Shikamaru drawled.

"Your jounin instructors will come by and pick you up in a few minutes. It's been an honor to be your instructor these past six years. I know you will make me proud."

Chapter Text

Team Seven waited in the classroom for their jounin-sensei to arrive. They were alone.

"Come on! I'm fed up with waiting!" Naruto yelled up at the ceiling, slamming his hands down on the desk.

"Calm down Naruto, shouting won't make him come any faster," Sasuke said. He was sprawled on his back across a row of desks, idly playing with a length of thread in his hands.

"It's been almost an hour," Sakura complained. "Aren't ninja supposed to be punctual?"

"Never thought I'd hear you agreeing with the dobe," Sasuke commented idly.

She swatted the back of his head. "Don't be such a grouch, Sasuke." She watched as Naruto sprang up and began pacing in front of the classroom door. "Hey, Naruto," she asked the blonde curiously, "why were you looking so upset this morning? Did something happen last night after the exam?"

Naruto looked stricken for a moment, then shook his head rapidly, plastering a broad smile on his face. "No, no, Sakura-chan, nothing happened."

"Then why did you seem upset?"

He scratched his head. "I, uh, I had some bad milk this morning. Wasn't paying attention to the expiration date. It gave me a stomach ache, that's all." He chuckled nervously.

Sasuke stopped playing with his thread for a moment. His gaze locked with Sakura. The thought passed between them. He's lying.

Sakura opened her mouth. "Naruto…"

"Good morning, my adorable little genin!" The happy sentence somehow managed to convey the impression of a brilliant smile. What?

Sakura, Naruto, and Sasuke goggled at the figure slouched in the doorway, discussion forgotten. He was tall and lanky, with gravity-defying silver hair. His Konoha forehead protector was crooked, covering his left eye, and a dark blue mask concealed his face below the bridge of his nose. The eye not covered by the headband was crinkled up, like he was smiling. Though his head was turned in their direction, one hand held a book loosely open in front of him, its cover a nauseating shade of orange similar to Naruto's tracksuit.

Whatever Sakura had imagined their jounin instructor would look like, this wasn't it.

The book suddenly disappeared as the man snapped his fingers with the same hand. "Maa, aren't you a bunch of cute little kids. Meet me on the rooftop." He vanished in a slight puff of smoke.

Sakura glanced wildly at her teammates. Naruto was standing in shock. The appearance of their sensei had shattered even Sasuke's composure. The Uchiha blinked, then groaned. "That's the guy who's going to be teaching us?"

Sakura shook herself. "We should get to the roof."

Sasuke snorted. "Yeah, because he obviously takes punctuality seriously."

o-o-o-o-o

The silver-haired man was sitting on a roof corner, legs dangling over the long drop to the ground. As they walked silently across the rood towards him he stood, turning to face them.

"I am Hatake Kakashi. Let's get to know one another."

They sat in a loose square facing each other.

"Now," Kakashi began, "let's all go around and introduce ourselves - name, things you like, things you hate, hobbies - the usual."

"Why don't you start?"

He shrugged. "I'm Hatake Kakashi, as I told you before. I like many things, including good students, and dislike several other things, including bad students. I have several hobbies, none of which I'm in the mood to tell you about. I don't see why you need to know anything more about me, so that's it for my introduction." He smiled at them (at least, that's what Sakura thought the movement of his mask and the little crease by his eye signified), and then pointed to Naruto. "You next."

"Uzumaki Naruto. Let's see… oh! I know! My favorite thing in the world is ramen! My least favorite thing is the time it takes to cook! Hobbies…" he scratched his head. "Eating ramen, I guess?"

Sasuke was next. "I am Uchiha Sasuke. I like only a few things, including my friends. I have too many dislikes to list. Hobbies are a waste of time."

Sakura would have hit him if they hadn't been with Kakashi. Really. Why must he be so grumpy? "I'm Mitsuhara Sakura. I like anmitsu, my friends, and learning new things. I dislike people who treat my friends badly. I don't have any hobbies, really - I spend most of my time training."

"Excellent!" Kakashi clapped his hands together. "Now, we'll meet tomorrow morning at Training Ground Three for our first team training. I wouldn't recommend eating breakfast beforehand. Throwing up is so unpleasant… Anyways, don't be late!" He vanished with a casual wave of his hand, leaving a few swirling leaves.

Naruto frowned. "Kakashi-sensei is kind of weird."

Sasuke stuffed his hands into his pockets. "My brother and father used to mention him occasionally. Kakashi is a very powerful shinobi - he's said to have memorized over a thousand jutsu." He snorted. "I have to say, I always pictured him as more... impressive."

"Huh. Interesting. What do you guys want to do with the rest of the day?" Sakura asked, stretching.

"Hn. We should work out a few plans for tomorrow."

"Aw, that's no fun!" Naruto protested. "Let's go to Ichiraku and celebrate becoming a team instead."

Sasuke poked him. "Train now. Ramen later."

Naruto pouted, but came along.

They went to one of the public (for ninja; civilians were prohibited) training grounds. Sakura practiced water walking on the small stream, while Naruto and Sasuke sparred in the trees. They followed with a round robin of sparring matches on the ground, and then finished with a long set of stretches Fujiko had taught them.

I think now is a good time to tell them. "Hey, guys?" Sakura said. "I have something I need to tell you."

"What is it, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked. Sasuke just raised a brow questioningly.

"It's something I've had to keep secret for a long time. Now that we're on the same genin team, I think I should tell you. Please don't spread this around; it could be very dangerous for me if people knew."

"I won't tell anyone."

"Don't worry, Sakura-chan, your secret is safe with me!"

"Thanks. But keep your voice down, Naruto."

"Oops. Heh heh."

They sat down across from one another. Sakura took a deep breath. Can I do this? I've kept it to myself for so long; it's strange to be sharing it. "I have a kekkei genkai," she said quietly.

Sasuke clapped a hand over Naruto's mouth as the blonde started to shout in surprise. After a minute, he removed it.

"Sasuke-teme, that wasn't nice!"

"Don't be a idiot, Naruto!" Sasuke hissed. "You don't go shouting about this where anyone can hear!" He turned to Sakura. "Interesting. I never saw anything like that. Does your mother have it?"

Sakura shook her head. "No, it's recessive. They're not even sure if I got it from my mother or father's family. It's called the Museigen no Shikou. It's… basically, I can think incredibly fast, up to around a hundred times more rapidly than normal."

"Aw," Naruto complained, "I was hoping it was some awesome ability, like Lava Release. Or Mokuton! That'd be cool!"

"Naruto…" Sakura complained.

Sasuke cuffed him. "Dobe, you just insulted her kekkei genkai. Think before you speak. And the Sharingan is basically really good eyesight, and it's considered one of the most powerful kekkei genkai in existence." He turned to Sakura. "What else does it do? Kekkei genkai rarely have only one effect."

Sakura chewed her lip. "I'm not sure, actually. All we had were some scrolls from the Warring States Era. Fujiko told me there were advanced applications, but I'm not supposed to learn them until I've mastered the basics."

Sasuke nodded. "Did you use it at the Academy a lot?"

Why would… oh. He wants to know if I beat him because of it. "No, I couldn't. Everyone would notice if I did - I don't move normally. But it did help with a lot of home training."

"Why are you telling all this, Sakura-chan?" Naruto scratched his head.

"Because we're on the same team now. You'd see it the first time I used it in combat, and Kakashi-sensei will probably want to see me train with it at some point. It's just easier to tell you now rather than have it come out suddenly in the future."

For some reason, that seemed to make Naruto uncomfortable. Isn't he happy that I trust them with this?

Sasuke stood. "I want to see you use it."

"Now?"

"Yes. Spar with me."

Sakura sighed. I should have seen that coming. "Fine." I'll try not to hurt you.

They stood opposite each other. "One last thing," Sakura added. "I won't be able to understand anything you say while using the Museigen. Fujiko and I have a form of sign language we use. I'll teach you later, but for now if you need me to stop, use this sign." She gestured. Sasuke repeated it a few times. "If I can't see you, then tag me on the elbow."

"Got it. You start."

Sakura took a deep breath. Feel the flow. Take the current and feed it into the center. Twist. The world slowed.

Sakura drifted across the ground towards Sasuke. His eyes were widening minutely; he was obviously surprised by how she was moving. I suppose it would be disconcerting, she thought. Maybe I should watch myself in a mirror sometime.

Her lightning-fast kick slowly extended outward. Sasuke saw it, but his block was out of sync. It would have perfectly blocked her kick in a normal sparring match, but with the Museigen no Shikou it wasn't fast enough. He realized this and started to turn away, his block shifting into a deflection.

Sakura spent a few mental seconds thinking. Her kick pulled back, becoming a step forward. Her right hand shot out and she leaned in. He couldn't adjust in time, and her palm struck him in the collarbone, knocking him back several feet.

She smoothly moved forward, grabbing and pulling him off balance with her left hand as her foot hooked neatly behind his knee.

Sasuke went down in the dirt.

Sakura stepped back, letting her Museigen no Shikou fade.

"Oh yeah! That was awesome, Sakura-chan!" Naruto was pumping his fist up and down. You'd have thought he was the one to put Sasuke on the ground, not me, she thought wryly. She turned to Sasuke.

He had a bit of a sour look on his face. He rose to his feet, dusting his clothes off. "Hn. Interesting. You could decide mid-kick to change your combination?"

Sakura nodded. "Yes. Hundred times faster, right? Means I can take several 'seconds' to think through all my moves. The fight lasted several minutes for me."

He turned contemplative. "We really need to learn your sign language. That advantage is huge."

Sakura nodded soberly. "I know. That's why it's been kept secret. Only us three, Fujiko, and the Hokage know about it. Oh, I guess Kakashi-sensei must as well."

Sasuke nodded. He smiled. "I can't wait until I unlock the Sharingan. We should start thinking about how our kekkei genkai will work together."

Naruto jumped between them. "Hey, hey! No more training. Ramen! Ramen!"

Sasuke looked at him sourly. Sakura sighed. "You did say we could go to Ichiraku later."

Beaming, Naruto grabbed their hands and sped off towards his favorite food stand.

o-o-o-o-o

The next morning, as Sakura was about to run out the door, Fujiko grabbed her by the shoulder.

"Where are you going? You haven't had anything to eat!"

"Training, kaa-chan. Kakashi-sensei said we shouldn't eat beforehand."

Fujiko paused. "Is that exactly what he said, Sakura? Did he actually tell you 'do not eat breakfast tomorrow'?"

Sakura thought. What were his exact words? 'I wouldn't recommend eating breakfast beforehand. Throwing up is so unpleasant.'

"No, he didn't." Wait a minute. All he did was 'recommend'. And his statement about throwing up was unconnected! I just assumed

Sakura groaned. "Kaa-chan, I'm an idiot."

Fujiko smiled. "That's all right, Sakura. There are onigiri in the ice box. Take some for Naruto and Sasuke too."

o-o-o-o-o

Training Ground Three was one of dozens of nearly identical training areas for Konoha shinobi. It was a roughly circular clearing in a small forest of Hashirama trees, with a few scattered bushes and boulders. A stream ran into a small pond on one side, with a red wooden bridge across it. The ground was pockmarked and cratered; remnants of ninjutsu training. Many of the trees had scorch marks or kunai and shuriken embedded in their upper branches.

Sakura was the first member of Team 7 to arrive. She took a seat in a comfortable fork of one of the surrounding Hashirama trees and surveyed the area. If Kakashi-sensei tried to trick us into not eating breakfast, he's certain to have more tricks planned. She slipped into Museigen no Shikou, checking for genjutsu. As she expected, there weren't any she could find. Still, never hurts to look. She couldn't see any traps, but that didn't mean they weren't there.

Sasuke showed up next, hands in his pockets as he meandered into the clearing. Sakura jumped down to greet him, using chakra to soften the landing of the twenty-foot leap.

"Morning."

"Hey."

"Did you eat breakfast?"

"Kakashi-sensei said not to."

Sakura grimaced. "I thought so too. Then kaa-chan told me to think about his exact wording."

It only took Sasuke a second. "I'm an idiot. Hmph. Embarrassing."

Sakura held up a bag of onigiri. "I brought snacks for all of us."

"…Thanks."

Naruto showed up half an hour late. His hair and clothes were unkempt. Sakura raised an eyebrow at him. "When'd you go to bed last night, Naruto?"

He smiled sheepishly. "Pretty late. I stayed up training and overslept. Hey, onigiri! Kakashi-sensei told us not to eat!"

"No, he didn't."

"But-"

"Dobe, if you don't want any Sakura and I will split your share."

"Teme! Give me those!"

Sakura took to her tree again as Sasuke and Naruto began wrestling over the remaining onigiri. Once the snacks were gone, the boys joined her.

"…He's going to be late again, isn't he?"

"Probably."

"Ugh."

o-o-o-o-o

Kakashi watched the three genin from his hiding spot under a bush. It was nearly three hours past the time they were supposed to meet, and he wanted to see how his would-be students had spent the free time.

They had potential, his kids. Uchiha Sasuke, last of his clan, was certain to be a powerful ninja. While not gifted with the same genius as his brother, he still had large amounts of natural talent, and would one day awaken the powerful Sharingan in his eyes. Uzumaki Naruto, of course, was the jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi, and if he continued to work on his chakra control he could become a more powerful man than his father.

Kakashi suppressed the familiar wince of pain caused by thinking of Minato. The area around the memorial stone had been quiet and peaceful that morning, and he'd spent a good two hours there thinking about his old teammates.

He dragged his attention back to his still-living team. Mitsuhara Sakura finished out the trio. She was the one he knew the least about. Obviously talented, she had edged out Sasuke for the top spot in her class by a small but significant margin. He only had the bare bones of how her kekkei genkai worked, but even without it she would become a kunoichi to be reckoned with. Rumor had it she had learned to walk on water before graduating from the Academy. Certainly, her chakra control was exceptional.

All three of them had the capability of one day becoming A- or S-rank jounin. He was glad. They'd need that kind of power to survive what was likely ahead of them. And it was his job to train them to that point.

Right. Training. Hopefully they hadn't been sitting around waiting. What had his cute little students been up to?

The three were currently sitting in the middle of the clearing, having a conversation with animated hand gestures. Kakashi felt a stab of disappointment. Not training. Well, at least they were socializing. Hopefully they cooperated well enough that they'd be able to pass the team exercise.

Still, there was something familiar about Naruto's clumsy motions…

Kakashi crept around the clearing to get a view of Sakura's hands. He was pleasantly surprised. That's Konoha sign language. She's teaching them the basics, looks like. I wonder why she learned it? Certainly, it wasn't bad for a genin to know the sign language common to the upper ranks; just unusual.

Well, time to get started. Kakashi prepared his chakra, and shunshined neatly to the center of the clearing.

o-o-o-o-o

Sakura was in the middle of correcting Naruto on the proper wrist motion for 'friend' when a swirl of leaves announced Kakashi-sensei's arrival.

"You're late!" Naruto shouted, pointing an accusing finger at their silver-haired teacher.

Kakashi's eye crinkled. "A jounin-sensei is never late, my little brats. He arrives precisely when he wishes to. Besides, the dew on the leaves was so beautiful this morning I got distracted, and then a wandering cat caught my attention…" he drifted off, staring absently at a nearby treetop.

"Anyways," he continued, "today we'll be holding a little test." He held up two small bells. "It's a fairly simple exercise. Your goal is to obtain one of these bells. Do so, and you pass. Don't, and you fail."

"Um, sensei?" Naruto scratched his head. "There are three of us. Shouldn't there be three bells as well?"

Kakashi laughed. "Yes, that would make sense. No. At least one of you will be failing this test. Those of you who fail will be sent to the Genin Corps."

"What!" Naruto exploded. "The Genin Corps?"

"You're a jounin," Sasuke cut in. "How are we supposed to have a chance?"

Kakashi shrugged. "I don't particularly want students. It's no skin off my nose if you fail." He paused. "Tell you what. I'm feeling generous. Instead of having to take the bells from me, I'll make you a deal. The three of you can pick the one person who will fail and go to the Genin Corps. The other two get to stay and be my students. Majority vote wins."

They looked at each other, shocked. Choose one of us to fail? Sakura thought. That's so heartless. Why is he trying to drive us apart?

And that thought niggled at her mind, because hadn't they expected him to have more tricks?

Ignoring Naruto and Sasuke's complaints, she dropped into Museigen no Shikou. Plenty of time to think. Okay. First possibility is that he's actually telling the truth. She considered it. Not likely. Every team I can think of has three genin. If the instructors actually sent people down to the Genin Corps, they would end up with uneven teams at least some of the time. And why would they spend so much time and effort on the jounin-track class if they were going to send some of us into the regular forces? It doesn't seem reasonable.

Second possibility: he's lying. In that case the actual test must be how we react. That's probably it. So what's the correct answer? Identifying the weakest link on the team? No, that would only be the case if they were actually interested in sending someone to the Genin Corps. She thought further. There's no good answer to his question; no matter whom we choose the team ends up weaker. She stopped. That's it. The correct answer is to refuse to answer.

Confident, she released her Museigen no Shikou. Only a second or two had passed. Naruto was yelling at Kakashi. Sasuke looked furious, but was pensive.

"…Totally unfair!"

"Shinobi life is unfair," Kakashi said. "It is full of impossible decisions. You must learn how to weigh outcomes and make the least damaging choice."

"Sensei," Sakura interrupted. "I know what we should do."

He turned to her. "Oh? Who will be demoted to the Genin Corps, then?"

She stared at his single eye fiercely. "We won't pick anyone. We all fail. We'll all go to the Genin Corps."

Sasuke made a noise of protest, but she shot him a quelling glare. This is right.

Kakashi loomed over her dangerously. "I'm afraid, Sakura, that the choice is not yours to make." He turned to Naruto and Sasuke. "Well, gentlemen? If the two of you agree, you can stay my students. Sakura here would have you all fail."

Sasuke hesitated. Please don't. He shook his head. "No. Sakura is right. We were put on a team together. If one of us goes to the Genin Corps, we all go."

"Yeah!" Naruto shouted. "We'll never abandon our friends!"

Kakashi sighed. "If saying it could only make it so. And you were such promising students, too… not going to change your minds?" The three of them shook their heads firmly, standing side by side. Kakashi shrugged. "Oh well. In that case, you all… pass."

Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke exchanged a three-way grin.

o-o-o-o-o

Sakura had expected them to leap into training right away. Instead, Kakashi sat them all down in the middle of the clearing. He slouched back against a boulder, lazily tossing the bells in one hand.

"How much history and political theory did you learn," Kakashi asked, "besides a basic overview of the Shinobi World Wars?"

The three of them exchanged looks. "Not much," Sakura admitted. What does history class have to do with anything? Shouldn't we be getting a mission from the assignment desk, or at least be doing some training? "Politics wasn't something any of the instructors spent a lot of time discussing. We learned a bit about the important clans during the Warring States area, the story of how the village formed, stuff like that."

Kakashi waved a hand lazily. "It's no fault of yours; don't worry about it. Most genin and even chunin have no need to be concerned about politics. It'd be a waste of instructor time to teach it in the Academy."

Sasuke frowned. "'Most' genin implies that we are different."

Their sensei nodded. There was a serious look in his eye. "Pay attention." He glanced pointedly at Naruto.

"What, is there going to be a quiz later?" the blonde quipped.

There was a sudden spike of fear and adrenaline. Killing intent, Sakura realized numbly. Naruto had really pissed Kakashi off with that joke.

"There will not be a quiz." Kakashi's voice was icily precise. "This is not the Academy. You are in the real world now. This is a matter of life and death, not only for you, but also for all of Konohagakure. You earned the right to wear that headband. Don't make me take it from you."

Naruto nodded nervously.

"Now," Kakashi said, cheerful again as he unrolled a detailed map of the Elemental Countries, "what you have to understand is that the current system of hidden villages is relatively new. Sandaime-sama is actually older than Konoha."

Sakura settled in for what was clearly going to be a long lecture. Beside her, Sasuke had a grim look on his face. Even Naruto seemed serious.

"Senju Hashirama formed the Village Hidden in the Leaves together with Uchiha Madara in an effort to end generations of warfare and unify two of the most powerful ninja clans in the Land of Fire. The end of the Uchiha-Senju feud allowed both groups to repurpose the resources previously dedicated to fighting each other. Other clans - the Hyuuga, Sarutobi, Yamanaka, Nara, Akimichi, and so on, quickly joined Konoha, adding to its military power. In exchange for their promise of loyalty to the village and the Hokage, the clans were given concessions: areas within the village to do with as they pleased, the right to arbitrate disputes within the clan however they wished, the right to maintain exclusive control of their bloodlines and secret jutsu, the control of what missions clan specialists could be sent on, and the inclusion of their clan heads on the political council that, along with the Hokage, runs the village.

"As they gathered the support of the clans, Hashirama and Madara also sought and obtained approval to found Konoha from the Fire Daimyo. During the Warring States era, nobles hired ninja from different clans all the time. There was a complicated relationship between various shinobi and the court, where the clans fought to receive lucrative contracts from nobles and sometimes assassinated nobles who hired their rivals. Generally, tensions between the Daimyo's court and the clans were high. The unprecedented move, suggested by Hashirama, was that Konoha would be given authority over all shinobi within the Land of Fire by the Daimyo, and provide a central administration for their services at a discount to the nobles. In theory, the Hokage serves the Fire Daimyo as the head of a private military. In reality, it may be more accurate to say that the Fire Daimyo pays Konoha's expenses in exchange for assurances that we will be available should he ask, and our noninterference with his court. The exact balance of power between the Hokage and the Fire Daimyo has shifted back and forth several times in the last decades.

"At any rate, Hashirama's new villlage seemed to be working perfectly. Next, he sought to expand to shinobi beyond the Land of Fire, and obtain the approval of other Daimyo. His ultimate goal was to unite shinobi everywhere, imagining a peaceful society - for shinobi, anyway - where former enemies could live side by side. Unfortunately, he had made a critical miscalculation. By gaining the Fire Daimyo's support, he had made Konoha, and himself, the representatives of the Land of Fire. He was no longer an independent leader, and the nobles of other nations were not willing to see 'foreign' shinobi, nominally serving a man they saw as their bitter enemy, operate in their territory. Madara saw this as an opportunity to compel the obedience of other shinobi clans, which, among other things, was the initial source of the deep enmity between Iwagakure and Konoha that continues to this day.

"The other hidden villages - great and small - formed as a direct reaction to the Land of Fire's expanding military power. This is important; it is critical that you understand the difference between the country, the hidden village, and the shinobi clans who inhabit it. Clans in other nations had sought to emulate the success of the Uchiha-Senju alliance, but they only became what we would call hidden villages when the daimyo of their respective nations, fearing the advantage gained by the Land of Fire, granted them land and exclusive contracts. Until then, they were merely large alliances of clans - unusual in size, perhaps, but nothing qualitatively different. After, they were at least nominally bound to serve the interests of the country that contained them. This poured oil on all the simmering conflicts between the various countries. Before, noblemen would have to negotiate with individual shinobi clans, undertakings of great expense and risk, to obtain their services in war. Navigating the relationships between clans, often opaque to outsiders, was incredibly difficult, and before the formation of hidden villages the nobles could usually only hire one clan at a time, which limited the numbers available for any particular conflict. Suddenly, they had access to coordinated armies of hundreds or even thousands of shinobi - previously unheard of. And the shinobi were, by treaty and obligation, required to serve their country. The nobles immediately sought to leverage this newfound power against their enemies.

"It seemed to signal the destruction of Hashirama's dream: Konoha, rather than providing the foundation for a new era of peace, seemed poised to usher in a level of warfare never seen before. Desperate to prevent large-scale conflict from breaking out, the First Hokage resisted the militarization of Konoha as much as he could and spent the latter years of his life holding diplomatic summits and trying to sign treaties between the villages. He hoped to ease tensions before war could erupt - Konoha was resented by many of the others as the first and most powerful village, and Hashirama feared that the other villages might band together against us. Hashirama's conciliatory behavior was the primary point of contention in his latter disagreements with Madara, who wished to jump-start the conflict while Konoha maintained its lead. Madara reasoned that he and Hashirama had spent years successfully integrating the clans within the Land of Fire into Konoha, while the other nations were still in the process of finishing their consolidation. They could, he argued, use our more organized shinobi forces to mount a devastating first strike, shattering the opposition before it had a chance to entrench. Though privately Tobirama agreed with Madara, in this case, he publicly supported his brother. Hashirama vehemently disagreed, and famously, Madara tried and failed to mount a coup, leaving Hashirama to continue his efforts alone. A few years later, he died, and under Tobirama Konoha's military buildup resumed; no longer to preempt its enemies, but to prepare for the seemingly inevitable First Shinobi World War.

"The point is this: Konoha, and by extension the Land of Fire, exited the Warring States Era the undisputed first among the ninja villages. We immediately began discarding this lead: first by slowing the initial push for militarization, second with Uchiha Madara's defection, third by signing concessionary treaties with other villages, and finally with death of the First Hokage. The Second Hokage took steps to recreate that advantage, among them the standardization of shinobi education at the Academy and the jounin-sensei program, but it was too little, too late. Konoha could have won the First War had we chosen to press forward with our advantages from the start rather than try to keep the peace, but the opportunity was lost."

"Hey, hey, Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto interrupted. "Are you saying peace is a bad idea? That the First Hokage was wrong?"

"No, Naruto. I am only trying to give you the facts. 'Right' and 'wrong' are luxuries you will not always be able to consider. Save morality for another time and focus on understanding what I'm telling you.

"The devastation of the First Shinobi War affected all five of the major villages, and nearly every minor village as well. This was a new type of warfare. In the past, wars between nobles were fought with armies of samurai and conscripted peasants. Shinobi were hired as spies, assassins, and saboteurs. The clan rivalries created a great deal of conflict between families of ninja, but for the most part shinobi were hired to fight non-shinobi, not each other. In the Warring States Era, it was not profitable for nobles to strike directly at the shinobi hired by their enemies - to seek the deaths of their families, attack their hidden strongholds, et cetera. Doing so upset the clans, and many shinobi charged the offenders extra money or simply killed them in response. Much safer and easier for the nobles to pay the enemy's shinobi to stay out. But now the shinobi were military assets of their countries, and thus seeking victory required the annihilation of the opposition's shinobi village. Hence, the title of 'Shinobi World War.' Tens of thousands of shinobi died, in battles of unprecedented scope and savagery. Dozens of clans were utterly annihilated, and vast sums of knowledge were destroyed along with them.

"Konoha lost a good portion of its forces, as well as the Second Hokage. While our power was diminished, so too was that of our enemies. Many of the minor villages attempted to take advantage of this gap. The armistice and treaty signed at the end of the First War was only between the great powers, allowing the smaller villages to continue low-level conflicts. Within twenty years, these various smaller wars erupted into the Second Shinobi War.

"Konoha again proved to have superior forces. We had the Sannin, the White Fang, the Third Hokage, and several other top-class jounin. Konoha exited the war in a position of strength, with a tentative alliance with Sunagakure. However, the village still lost many mid-level ninja and quite a few jounin. The Senju had been reduced to the brink of extinction. Uzushiogakure had destroyed been destroyed in the years leading up to the war, and the Uzumaki, who had long stood in alliance with the Senju, were reduced to a scant handful of survivors.

"The Third War, less than a decade later, saw the loss of the alliance with Suna. The White Fang had been disgraced and committed suicide shortly before the start of the war; Tsunade of the Sannin, last of the Senju, had left the village. Resurgent ninja forces from Iwa and Kumo heavily outnumbered the Leaf, which was forced to fight on two fronts.

"It is not an exaggeration to say that Namikaze Minato single-handedly won the war. Konoha snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, producing an S-class shinobi capable of going toe-to-toe with enemy Kage or entire armies on his own. Iwa was forced to retreat to its pre-war borders, and Kumo signed a truce, though we technically remained at war with the Land of Lightning until a few years later.

"Again, notice the pattern. Either in the years leading up to or during each shinobi world war, Konoha has lost critical members of its elite. Our tenuous grasp on the position of premier military power was held solely by the ability of a select few individuals. Iwa, Kiri, and Kumo, by comparison, were not able to match the sheer individual power of the Sannin or the Fourth Hokage, but could field large numbers of lesser, but still capable, opponents.

"I am sure you can see the problem. The Yellow Flash is dead. Orochimaru of the Sannin is a traitor; Tsunade has long deserted the village. The Hokage is extremely old for a shinobi, and must remain in the village as deterrent. The Toad Sage Jiraiya is the only Kage-level shinobi free to leave the village, and he is not particularly young, either. Konoha, reliant on a tiny group of elites, lost all but two of them in a handful of years. Add to that the losses suffered to the Kyuubi, and you begin to understand why our current situation is so dire."

He paused for a moment to take a drink of water, fast enough that Sakura couldn't get a glimpse of the face beneath the mask.

"A Fourth Shinobi World War was only avoided for a few critical reasons that meant none of the other villages were in a position to take advantage. Our 'ally' Suna was struggling through a severe drought, and as the weakest member of the five great villages it could probably not afford to go to war even against Konoha's weakened state. Iwa still needed more time to recover from the vast casualties inflicted by the Yellow Flash. Kiri had become preoccupied with the Fourth Mizukage's purge of 'traitors' and 'subversive elements' and the beginning of its current civil war. Kumo had also suffered losses in the Third War, and was dealing with a sudden influx of refugees on its southern border. Furthermore, the new Raikage and his advisors did not want another war.

"This gave Konoha much-needed time. A new group of jounin - myself included - recently promoted towards the end of the Third War, was able to fill some of the void left after the Kyuubi attack. The next generation looked promising. Uchiha Itachi's genius and meteoric rise through the ranks did not go unnoticed. It was clear that Konoha was going to regain stability and power.

"The Uchiha massacre changed everything. In one fell swoop, Konoha lost its most powerful clan and along with it essentially the entire Military Police force, many of its most powerful jounin, and suffered a severe blow in prestige. Iwa scented blood in the water, and deployed additional forces to the Grass border, a sure prelude to invasion. The Hokage was forced to bring dozens of ninjas out of retirement, and the situation very nearly spiraled out of control."

So that's why kaa-chan had to leave so suddenly on a long mission. Sakura raised a hand. "Sensei, how does the village not know of this?"

Kakashi smiled grimly. "Propaganda. False posturing. The Hokage deployed dozens of jounin and high-ranking chunin to the frontier, reinforced key border outposts, and announced an increase in Academy recruitment. In short, a screen of lies to convince Iwa and our citizens that Konoha remains too powerful to attack."

Naruto frowned. "Well, it worked. I mean, I didn't know any of this stuff, and no one's gone to war with us."

Kakashi shook his head. "All it did was buy more time. Iwa must now gather intelligence to ensure that Konoha is not baiting a trap. Once they find sufficient evidence of our weakened position, they will invade. Iwa has never forgotten or forgiven the damage inflicted in the last war. When, not if, Iwa declares war, Kumo will likely open a second front. If Suna takes advantage and allies with either side, four of the five great shinobi nations will be at war, likely drawing in even the minor villages not already serving as battlefields. Konoha must prove its strength in a manner that cannot be faked for the threat to be vanquished."

"And that's where we come in," Sakura said.

"Yes. For the past few years, the Academy has restructured the process by which new genin are assigned teams. Each year the three most promising graduates are put together, under the best available instructor. This is Team Seven. This is the squad that produced the Sannin. It was the team led by the Third and Fourth Hokage. Now, it is our job to prevent the outbreak of a Fourth Shinobi World War."

o-o-o-o-o

There was silence for at least a minute after Kakashi's announcement. How do you respond to a bombshell like that? Sakura thought. Oh, forgot to mention it, but we're expecting you to match the freaking Sannin in the next few years.

Sasuke spoke. "We're only genin at the moment. What has been planned for us?"

"For now, training. Most genin work missions for most of the day, and then do team training or go home to rest. You will only occasionally perform missions and spend the bulk of your time training with me. Six months from now, the international Chunin Exams are being held in Konoha. You, along with several other planned teams, will enter. It is our intent to utterly crush the competition. The international Chunin Exams are an excuse to show off the power of the villages, dressed up in a promotion exercise. Foreign villages will send their best genin, many who are chunin in all but name. I do not expect you to beat them. I expect you to humiliate them. That is your goal."

Naruto let out a breath. "You can count on us, dattebayo! Just wait, we'll be the best ninja you've ever seen, Kakashi-sensei!"

"Yes," said Kakashi, "you will."

"Now", he said, clapping his hands together briskly, "let's have a look at your analytical skills. There are three other genin teams from your class. Tell me why they were grouped together."

"Well, putting Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji together is an obvious attempt to get a second generation of the famed Ino-Shika-Chou team," Sakura started.

Kakashi nodded. "That's the easy one. Next?"

"Shino, Rin, and Setsuko," Sasuke stated. "Shino is an Aburame, so he's got tracking and battlefield control. Rin is a melee weapon user, and Setsuko was going to be a ninjutsu expert. So… Shino to herd the enemy into Setsuko's kill zone, and Rin provides close-up support against anyone that gets through."

"Setsuko was pretty smart," Naruto added. "Not as good as Sakura or the teme, but between her and Shino they'd be able to handle lots of stuff. And that leaves Hinata, Kiba, and Shinji. Kiba's got his dog, obviously."

Sakura picked up the thread. "Hinata's Byakugan gives them field awareness and close support from her taijutsu. Kiba has scent tracking and is good with taijutsu and close-to-mid-range combat. Shinji had good chakra control - he'll likely be either a medic or a genjutsu expert."

"So, in summary?"

Sasuke ticked off his fingers. "One highly capable support squad, one assault squad, and either a hunter squad or a scout team, depending on how Shinji and Hinata specialize."

"Good. Now, how do you fit together?"

Sakura's mouth was dry as she answered. "A heavy assault team. We're going to be the ones who charge right into the thick of battle." Like the Sannin. Like the Yellow Flash.

Sasuke pointed to each of them in turn. "Naruto has endurance and hitting power. With his high chakra reserves, he can engage a large number of enemies and hold their attention. He's the anvil. I'm the hammer. I support him with ninjutsu and genjutsu. Sakura is our trump card. She takes out anyone who can threaten us, and handles strategy and tactics. With the Museigen no Shikou, she has the time to take into account every part of the battlefield and modify plans on the fly."

Kakashi nodded again. "A good summary. Now, let us discuss how to identify the likely specializations of opposing ninja based on gear, appearance, formations, and the like. The first thing to consider is…"

o-o-o-o-o

Sakura slumped exhaustedly in her bed. Kakashi-sensei had really put them through the wringer. After discussing their future, various identification strategies and the more cerebral aspects of combat, he had gotten an in-depth look at all their abilities. The ninjutsu portion of the Academy graduation exam was a cakewalk compared to what he demanded. And the taijutsu…

Kakashi hadn't found much wrong with Sakura's taijutsu form. Even with his exacting standards, the training she had done paid off. So, while Naruto and Sasuke worked on improving their form (while standing in the trees, of course. Training on the ground was 'wasteful of a good opportunity to improve', according to their sensei), Kakashi decided Sakura would work on her chakra control as well.

So she found herself doing taijutsu on the pond. While Kakashi threw rocks at her. While she was required to keep a leaf stuck to her forehead with chakra.

Needless to say, she was thoroughly soaked by the end of training, as well as sore and tired. Around five o'clock, Kakashi had cheerfully dismissed them for the day, informing them to meet at the same time tomorrow.

"Don't be late!" he chirped. "It's going to be a busy day, and we have lots to do!"

Sakura would have been angry with him, except that required energy she didn't have, and her pillow was quite soft and comfortable…