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A Stitch in Time

Chapter Text

Somehow, they had done it. Ended Kaguya. For good. Sakura smiled at her boys, reunited at last, in exhaustion. The proof of her own labor rested proudly on her forehead. She had entered the war without it, but had gained a seal to match her master's on that day. Not even her sister disciple, Shizune, had a seal. Sakura was happy. She finally had earned a place at their sides.

Everything had been going well, the remaining shinobi were loudly rejoicing and the battered bodies were finally ready to rest, when Ino's alarmed shout broke everyone out of their revelry. She pointed with a shaky finger, Shikamaru steadying her with a hand around her shoulders, and one by one everyone looked up.

In the spot where Kaguya had been recently slain, an oval, sparking hole had appeared. No one said anything, or moved, or even breathed (it seemed). Thy watched as what appeared to be an eye, decidedly reptilian-like in it's green-gold color and one black slit for a pupil, peered down at them. The masses were frozen, and Sakura wondered if the fearsome eye had a paralyzing effect or if they were all just that shocked.

She attempted to force her weary body to prepare for battle, staring challengingly up at the newest assumed threat. It stared back, gaze roving over each shinobi until it landed on her. Sakura felt her breath leave her in a gasp as it started to glow a deep forest green. It was almost like…on the other side she could see a lush world. A forest, green and peaceful, with a river flowing calmly through it. She was hallucinating though. She was sure it was a trick by the strange orb meant to disarm them. But why did she feel like her firmly planting feet were losing traction, like she was sliding forward? Odd.

She thought so at least, until she heard Ino shriek her name, and turned to see her teammates coming out of their stupor to run for her, Naruto in the lead, arm outstretched. "Sakura-chan!"

Even the unmoved Sasuke looked completely caught off guard in that moment.

"What? Naruto?!" She yelled, but in the panic she wasn't sure if he even heard.

Sakura shrieked herself when she was positive her feet actually left the trodden soil. She was getting sucked in, and as much as she kicked and clawed at air, gravity had abandoned her.

"I claim this one." A voice rang clearly over the shinobi. It was a woman's voice, powerful and as deep as time.

Claimed? No, Sakura Haruno was not a possession to be claimed! But the force pulling her further into the air disagreed.

Everyone was shouting for her now, and she saw the faces of all her friends looking frantic. Hinata's wide eyes were watery as she watched her helplessly get pulled away from them. Ino looked like she was demanding Shikamaru to do something. Lee did his best to get to his feet and dash to her rescue just like he had that day she acknowledged him. Tsunade bellowed for her, but she was severely weakened from the battle and supported only by her fellow Kage. Kakashi looked completely stunned. Sai had summoned animals to retrieve her, but they had been battered away by the strong, invisible hand pulling her skyward. Naruto was still running for her, but Gaara—

The Kazekage stretched his own hand out, a fierce look glimmering in his eyes. Two tendrils of sand snaked out through the air and wrapped around her wrist and ankle. For a minute, Sakura had an anchor against the pull. There was a shared sigh of relief. Kankuro and Temari cheered next to him. Gaara began attempting to bring her safely to the ground again, and Sakura's chest heaved at being in the center of the gravity-destroying tug-o-war.

"I claim this one. I will not be denied." The voice growled this time, enraged that they had dared to try and stop its wishes.

Gaara's eyes widened. Something was fighting his sand, almost prying it away from Sakura. He quickly sent out two more tendrils to grab her other wrist and ankle, and another around her midsection for good measure. Sakura Haruno was Naruto's treasured teammate, and had become a dear friend of the Kazekage's in her own right.

He would not let her be taken away. He fought with everything left in him to keep Sakura without crushing her limbs or ribs. But he could feel the invisible grip pulling harder the more he pulled back. At this rate he would accidentally kill her trying to save her.

He hated to, but if he didn't… Gaara loosened his sand, only marginally, but it was enough. She was quickly sucked up, flipping through the air until she collided with the monstrosity of an eye—and falling through it with one last scream. The air was suddenly calm again; the redhead knew because there was nothing pulling against his still-animated tendrils of sand. Empty and outstretched, there was laxness. The eye blinked, and, having gotten what it came for, winked out of sight.

Those who had been close enough to see what had happened, those who had known Sakura, mourned her immediately. Screamed for her in vain. Naruto roared his rage, Kyuubi chakra seeping through. And the sky remained the sweet and somber mix of oranges and pinks as the sun began to set on the absence of the pink-haired kunoichi.


Her first moments in her new world were baptized with water. But the burning in her lungs might as well have been flames. She was sinking! And she tried bringing herself up, but her limbs were as useless as lead weights. It felt like every ounce of her remaining chakra—dwindling supply though it was—had been depleted.

Of all the ways she was sure she'd die, Sakura had never suspected drowning. Fate was unpredictable. Ripped away from her friends and comrades so suddenly only to be left for dead in at the bottom of a river… At least she thought it was fresh-water.

Almost out of oxygen, she tried to recall her proudest moments. She had finally proven her worth, at least. Maybe…she could be remembered as a strong kunoichi after all.


His eyes narrowed minutely as he raised a hand, watching as a stream of water rose from the river. Before he could form a jutsu, he paused. A weak chakra signature was nearby. Very nearby. Closing his eyes, he reached out with his sensory perception. The signature was so close it was almost on top of him…or at his feet. There, floating downstream towards him, was a body, face down and wearing ninja garb he had never seen before. He watched with a cocked head, in case this person was feigning injury to wait for his guard to come down, but when the body almost floated by he realized it was no act.

He applied chakra to his feet and easily caught up to the body. Looking down, he could tell it was a woman. He pulled her into his arms, knowing that in her unconscious state she was harmless. He carried her back to the bank and set her down on her back, noticing her clammy skin and pale color. She didn't stir.

She wore a red forehead protector, and he took it out of her wet pink hair to study. Even before he looked at the kanji that simply read "shinobi" he knew she was no Konoha nin he'd ever seen. They currently had no pink-haired kunoichi. Besides that fact, the village was still newly formed, only having been completed for less than a month. He made a point of knowing every shinobi clan and face currently living within village walls.

And she was certainly no civilian, whoever she was. She also wore pants, something no kunoichi he'd ever seen did. All together she made one large oddity from head to toe to origin. While he was known for being the more cautious of the two between his brother and himself, he decided this woman was a mystery that needed unraveling.

Placing a hand above her chest, he willed what water was in her lungs to rise. Her dainty mouth was forced open as an orb of water left her body and she sputtered a deep cough. He continued, making sure all water had been expelled before running a lightly glowing hand over her to revive her. Jade eyes slowly flickered open.

Chapter Text

The first thing Sakura registered, was that she wasn't dead, or surrounded in water. She was dazed though, and her mind sluggishly rebooted. Carefully, she sat up. Her eyes slowly came into focus, and she gasped when she saw the man crouched over her. A man in blue armor with red eyes and snow white hair. The Nidaime!

Not long ago she had seen this man engaged in fierce battle with Madara Uchiha and Obito along with the other reanimated Kage. But the man before her wasn't the same as the one she'd seen. His skin was not ashen and cracked. His sclera weren't black.

And as powerful and intimidating as he'd been even in death on the battlefield, the power this man emanated now was very much…different, though currently controlled. He was alive. Jade eyes caught the glint of his happuri and she noticed the familiar emblem of Konoha gleaming proudly. The village. Her home.

It made her heart ache to think of. She wasn't sure what was going on. She hadn't even gotten to truly celebrate with everyone, or mourn the fallen. She hadn't even gotten to see the village they'd fought so hard to defend. She hadn't even gotten to decide if she forgave Sasuke for everything he'd put them through. She just wanted to see the familiar faces of her friends and sensei and maybe hug her parents…

"Kunoichi, who are you?" His deep voice rumbled as soon as he noticed she was awake. "Do not lie to me." He flexed his chakra threateningly, even though there was no need. She had witnessed his power for herself. She couldn't image going up against him when he was alive and in his prime. She didn't want an enemy in Tobirama Senju.

"I…" She started. But where was there to start? Logically, the beginning. But, something deep down told her that the beginning she knew wouldn't make sense to him. But nothing made sense when a dead man was alive again. Only… Madara Uchiha had been dead, then ended up fully alive thanks to Obito's jutsu, and then dead again. Everything in her mind was a jumbled mess.

And Lord Second was getting impatient. "I won't ask again," he said, eyes narrowed. "Tell me who you are. And why you had this?" he held up her headband. Sakura's hand went to her wet hair immediately, brushing through it. Yes, that was definitely hers. She couldn't decide if it was a good or bad thing that it wasn't her usual forehead protector. What would he do if she'd been wearing the mark of the Leaf when he found her?

'Well sorry if I'm a little weak and disoriented, pal! It's kind of been a long day!' Great. Her mouth may have been slow to work, but her subconscious was wide awake and roaring.

"My name is Sakura Haruno." She finally managed to say. "And that's…that's mine." She reached for it, and he grudgingly allowed her to take it back. Filled with a sense of comfort to have her headband back in her possession, even if it wasn't the one that marked her as a Konoha shinobi, she tied it back in place.

"Haruno…I've never heard of that clan." Sakura heard him mutter.

"It's not a traditionally shinobi clan." She replied carefully.

"So how did you come to be one? Assuming the headband isn't for show." he quipped.

Sakura narrowed her eyes. Despite the great amount of respect she had for this man as a relative of her mentor and a founder of the village she loved, she didn't remember him being snarky. Of course in the heat of battle there was little time for snark, and really, he and the other revived Kage of the past had interacted more with Naruto than her.

"How does anyone become one? They're raised and taught from an early age." Sakura quipped right back.

Tobirama glowered. In a second his hand was at her throat and she was lying flat on her back in the grass. "Don't trifle with me girl; you just said you came from civilians." Clearly, the Second Hokage did not appreciate the same level of sarcasm in others that he bestowed on them. At least not from those he considered potential enemies.

"I didn't say both parents were. My mother was a shinobi. She wasn't very active after I was born, but she taught me what she knew." Sakura hoped that story worked. She certainly didn't plan on telling him she learned most of what she knew from another Senju, his grandniece, of all Senju.

"What clan was your mother from? I know of no clans that would impart such a…loud and impractical hair color." His nose crinkled. It was Sakura's turn to glower. Was a guy that was practically an albino really saying he thought her hair was "loud"? She'd spent half her life learning to like herself, "loud" hair and all, thank you very much.

"My loud hair is from my civilian father." Sakura spat. "My mother never talked much about her family. I don't know who she was before she became a Haruno." This time her words were entirely true. She didn't know either of her sets of grandparents and her mother never mentioned why she was compelled to join the academy.

But she couldn't mention her mother attended a ninja academy. Sakura didn't know if allowing regular children from outside clans to become shinobi was very common at this time… The more she spoke to this man, who was undoubtedly the Nidaime, the more she was convinced that somehow, someway, she wasn't in the time she'd left. To be thrown so far back would have been something she'd have a hard time believing, if she hadn't seen so many unbelievable things happen during the war. Legions of undead shinobi from generations past fighting…Kakashi's long-believed dead teammate very much alive and behind the whole war… Sakura was certainly in the business of suspended disbelief if she hadn't been before.

Tobirama's grip loosened. "And all these questions about who I am and where I'm from but I don't even know your name." she reminded him.

Tobirama's eyes held a note of suspicion. Not that long ago, ninja's exchanging names was deadly, because it was hard to say if someone had fought against and killed someone else's clansmen. But this girl claimed she was of a civilian background and her mother was the only other ninja in the family, so it was unlikely the Haruno had clashed with the Senju.

Still, he'd made quite the name for himself even before shocking the world by forming a village with his brother and Madara. Many knew of the aloof Tobirama Senju. White hair and red eyes were very distinct.

"I am Tobirama Senju." he said. Sakura nodded, gesturing slightly to his hand. Cautiously, he removed it and allowed her to get up. Sakura decided in that moment that to do something that would either be utterly stupid or genius. She wasn't sure which yet.

"So does that symbol on your happuri mean you're from the new ninja village I've heard about? Konoha?" Tobirama considered her carefully. There was nothing deceitful in her expression or her eyes. Genuine interest if anything.

Of course news had already spread like wildfire. Even now, all sorts of clans had already come from far and wide, wanting to join the village. Most recently it was the Nara. There were even civilians turning up, wanting to live in the village for shelter from the constant bloodshed on the outside, and make new lives for themselves. His bleeding heart of a brother didn't turn them away. Konoha, while still growing, was becoming quite the melting pot.

"So you've heard."

Sakura nodded, "Yes, and honestly, I was on my way there. I'm not really sure what happened…or how I ended up floating face down in the river. Thank you for reviving me by the way." She dipped her head in genuine respect. Inside she was deeply relieved that it was someone from her own village who was one of the good guys, and not a band of rogues who had discovered her in her weakened state.

"You're thanking someone who could just as soon kill you?" Tobirama raised a brow. It was true he'd saved her but he still wasn't use to gratitude from strangers.

"You didn't." Sakura smiled for the first time. "And I don't think you will."

Feeling suddenly and inexplicably abashed, Tobirama quickly changed the subject. "Why were you looking for the village?"

"I was hoping to join…" Sakura said slowly. "My family is gone. It's just me now, and when I heard about this ninja village I decided I would try to find it."

Tobirama thought about it. The very first time his brother had told him of his dream, he had been doubtful. Ninja were nomadic by nature. They certainly did not live harmoniously together with other clans and non-ninja either. They grew up in dangerous, bloody times where death was ever-present.

But Hashirama, the stubbornly optimistic fool, had made him believe in his dream, and he had fought bitterly by his brother's side to make it happen, even swallowed his pride and worked alongside the Uchiha. Now Konoha was a reality and he saw the beauty in Hashirama's plan. Tobirama knew he'd fight tirelessly to his last breath to keep the village going. It was time to usher in a new era. That meant that when he met strange pink-haired kunoichi in the forest, who asked to join the village, he was annoyingly inclined to oblige and show her the way. In the end, Hashirama would have the final say. Not that he couldn't already guess what his brother's decision would be.

Tobirama stood to his full height. "I assume you're familiar with traveling by trees?"

"Of course," Sakura answered almost indignantly, forgetting herself. "It's…one of the first things I learned." she said coolly.

"Can you keep up?"

Sakura slowly got to her feet, noting that the white-haired man towered over her. "I think so,"

'As long as you don't dart off to lose me.' Sakura wouldn't put it past him. He already seemed reluctant. She supposed living the way he had for so much of his life, it was hard to erase the general distrust of strangers. But the brief amount of time she'd seen his brother interact with Naruto, the First seemed warm and candid. More like Naruto than this man.

Sakura heard a heavy sigh, and looked up into Tobirama's face to notice he appeared displeased. "I don't have time for uncertainty…" Unceremoniously, he stood in front of her, back turned, and crouched slightly. Sakura stared. "Get on," he commanded.

Under any other circumstance she'd laugh. The Second Hokage was going to give her a piggy-back ride? But she decided not to test him anymore, and hopped onto his armored back, wrapping her arms securely around his neck and her legs around his waist. "Thank you, I appreciate—"

Tobirama took off before she could finish and she almost bit her tongue accidentally.

"Do you always go this fast?!" she squealed. She was right. Had she tried to follow him, he would have most definitely left her behind.

"This is the average speed of travel for most ninja."

'Like hell!' she thought.

"We'll get there in no time going this speed!" she said above the whistle of the wind.

"Yes, so you'd better be ready to plead your case to the Hokage."

Sakura lowered her head in thought. She had managed to convince Tobirama to take her back to the village, and his brother seemed like a nice man, but when it came to the village, and allowing a wandering kunoichi of no real origin to enter…would he be welcoming?

Chapter Text

Sakura really wasn't sure how to feel when the sight of the familiar gate came into view. Tobirama let her get down as they approached the two sentries on duty. The minute they recognized the white-haired shinobi they bowed in the utmost respect and opened the path into the village. Of course they gave the unfamiliar pink-haired female at his side curious glances, but neither questioned the Senju's second-in-command.

Stepping inside along with the would-be Nidaime, Sakura really didn't need to fake her sense of awe. The village was vibrant and bustling with activity, in many ways just as she remembered it from her own time. However, it was still in its early stages, and so there were key differences. Some buildings were still under construction, for example. There was no Hokage monument in place yet. No Ichiraku ramen on the corner. And the most notable difference, no familiar faces. That thought caused Sakura to whither inside. Was this really even still her home? In a way it was but in another way it wouldn't be the Konoha she knew and loved for many, many years. Still, seeing the village in its infancy with her own eyes was pretty amazing.

Doing her best to ignore all the stares—of course there would be stares, she was walking side by side with the respected brother of the village's leader—Sakura followed Tobirama to the Hokage mansion. She tried to steel her courage, and prepare herself for what she would tell the Hokage. Obviously, the same story she'd told Tobirama. Anything else would make the man more suspicious of her than he already was. She just hoped she could confidently and effectively make a case for herself. Hopefully the First was a reasonable man…

"You seem at a loss." Tobirama said suddenly. Sakura was honestly surprised he'd even bothered to comment on it.

"Well yes…" Sakura replied slowly. "I'm about to speak to the most powerful man in the nation aside from the daimyo, right? And he'll be the one that decides if I can settle here or not." Truthfully she hadn't even thought of a plan for what she'd do if she was turned away. Maybe sit pitifully outside Konoha's gates like a pink-haired vagabond until she was either let in or chased off? Everything really was riding on this.

"Unnerving from your perspective, I'm sure." He said thoughtfully. They were now standing outside the Hokage's office door. Tobirama knocked swiftly without giving her any more time to prepare.

"Enter!" a voice called back. Sakura thought it sounded fairly cheerful. She mentally bemoaned Tsunade for never having spoken more about her grandfather. Details about what the man was like off the battlefield would have been helpful at the moment!

Tobirama stepped in first with Sakura at his back. She tried standing as close as possible without touching him. She wasn't sure why she was so nervous. This was her home. It was almost like she was coming back…except the home she knew wasn't the way she'd left it, and someone new was living there.

So maybe not exactly like coming home, but close enough. She was forever a Konoha kunoichi in her heart, no matter where or when she found herself, and no one would ever take that sense of pride or the lifetime of memories away.

"Brother!" a loud voice boomed jovially. Wait, what? Was this really the man she'd read about, called a "God of Shinobi"? He sounded almost childishly excited. "You're back from your solo training earlier than expected—you left in such a huff…was it boring? I could have come with you." Sakura could just barely see around Tobirama. Should she step forward, or wait to be introduced?

Tobirama scoffed, folding his arms across his chest. The pink-haired kunoichi imagined he had on a petulant expression to go with his body language. "You know you can no longer leave to train whenever you wish. You have new duties, a village to run, requests from clans coming in every day." Tobirama chastised. "And," he added with a grumble. "The point of me training alone is to alleviate some of the burden of wrangling you into line every day. Having you there defeats the purpose."

'Whoa, who exactly is the older brother here?' Sakura was half surprised by their relationship and half amused.

"That isn't very nice, brother…" the Hokage mumbled sulkily.

'Poor guy,' Sakura thought sympathetically. 'The Nidaime sounds like a regular drill sergeant.'

"I am your advisor as well as your brother. I can't always be nice; you'll take advantage and get carried away." Tobirama insisted firmly. "Besides, scolding you isn't why I came." And there it was, the moment of truth! Sakura stood at attention, putting on her bravest face.

Tobirama stepped aside, and the Hokage and Sakura met eyes for the first time. 'That he knows of.' She reminded herself. And really, meeting this man in the flesh wasn't exactly the same as meeting him on the battlefield briefly as a reanimated undead.

"Oh," Hashirama leaned forward, studying her in honest surprise. His tanned skin had a healthy glow and was in perfect contrast to Tobirama's pale complexion, and she could see the warmth behind the curiosity in his brown eyes. Instead of the armor she'd seen him wearing before, he was dressed in the Kage robes the Sandaime had always worn. Right down to the haori. But instead of the Hokage's hat, he had a simple red headband.

Sakura knew the man sitting behind the desk was incredibly powerful; after seeing him fight for herself she knew the legends about his power weren't exaggerated. However, unlike Tobirama, he didn't have the same intimidating aura, and it helped to put her slightly at ease.

"Hello there!" he greeted, smiling kindly. "I'm not sure if Tobirama's mentioned, but I'm his brother, Hashirama Senju." He tilted his head as he took her in, seeming particularly interested in her hair. To be certain he'd probably never seen anyone with a more unusual hair color, Sakura guessed. "I don't think I've ever seen you around the village." Suddenly, his eyes lit up and the two other shinobi in the room could almost see the animated lightbulb over his head. Sakura thought it was laughable and had to hide her smile. "Unless…when you said you wanted to be alone to train you really meant…" Hashirama's grin became sly as he looked back and forth between the too. "I suppose it would happen eventually. Congratulations, brother! I'm very excited for—"

"You fool!" Tobirama roared indignantly. "Why would you assume something so—with her of all…!" He was clearly frustrated, and when Sakura looked up into his face she could see the barest traces of pink on his cheeks. But whether that was from embarrassment or annoyance she didn't know him well enough to say. What she did know, was she was highly offended at his almost violent dismissal of her as if seeing her in a romantic light was beneath him.

Sure, she understood she barely knew the man, and that yes, she was probably damp, bruised and filthy (she had literally just been in a war, she was entitled to look a little rough, damnit!), looking less than desirable, and honestly, why did she even care?

For the most part, her vanity had lessened considerably over the years and she no longer put daydreaming about boys or making sure her hair was the shiniest in the village above more important matters, like training to keep up with her prodigy teammates—yes, even Naruto's level of growth in such a short period was unprecedented, Jinchuriki or no.

But she had also never forgotten she was a woman and, in her opinion she wasn't that ugly. She'd grown into forehead and everything! So Tobirama had wounded a bit of her feminine pride and a part of her almost wanted to demand he apologize.

She tamped that down though, and watched the white-haired shinobi struggle to regain his composure with far more glee than she should have had. She was vindicated in seeing that the Hokage seemed just as amused by Tobirama's ordeal as she was, and when she met his eyes again, they were twinkling.

"She and I are not…that." he ground out. "In fact hardly know this woman. I was training as I said I'd be when she suddenly came floating down the river, appearing nearly dead. I was able to revive her, and she claimed she hails from a family known as Haruno, mostly civilians, save herself and her mother, who brought her up as a shinobi. She wants to join the village and claims she was headed here, but recalls nothing about how she ended up facedown floating downstream."

Hashirama listened intently with wide eyes to his brother's explanation, turning to Sakura when it was clear Tobirama had no more to say.

"That's quite an incredible story." he said, addressing her for the first time. "I admit, you don't dress like any kunoichi in these parts, and you do look like you've been through quite the ordeal," His brows knit with concern as he took in her tattered, dirty clothes and bruised face.

Again, Sakura was hit by a wave of self-consciousness as she imagined how she must look to him. She supposed she really couldn't be too mad at Tobirama—though she would continue to hold that offense over him anyway—because she certainly didn't look like she'd stepped from anyone's fantasy. Treating her wounded comrades had come before seeing to her own needs, which was why she hadn't bothered healing herself. Then when the fighting had called for her to step up and assist Sasuke and Naruto in taking on Kaguya, then briefly Madara, she had pushed herself to her limits, even with her newly found seal.

She was sure she had various bruises beneath her clothing, and every muscle in her body screamed in pain, now that she bothered to notice. It was amazing she hadn't collapsed already, really. Only the tough training Tsunade had drilled into her and pure determination kept her upright. Slowly, Sakura gripped one arm nervously, bowing her head slightly. "It was a long journey…" she said, "not really one I'd want to repeat anytime soon."

"And you made the journey by yourself? Are you from the Land of Fire originally?" Hashirama questioned.

"Yes to both, Lord Hokage." Sakura found it much easier to be respectful of this man, who didn't push her buttons like Tobirama, and who, while clearly possessing a very boisterous personality, also was capable of compassion and seriousness when the situation called for it.

She was pleased he truly was as reasonable as she'd hoped. It was no wonder why history sang his praises as a good leader of the Leaf. "My family is gone…we never were really all that big anyway, and it was only my mother and I to defend everyone. She…said if we were separated or she fell in battle I should head for Konoha myself and try to start over here." Sakura didn't consider herself much of an actress but she did everything she could to make her voice and face appear as earnest as possible.

She didn't want to lie, but even to her ears she knew how the truth would sound. Ridiculous. A kunoichi from Konoha, living in the distant future that had participated in the Fourth Shinobi World War when the first war hadn't even happened yet? All that did was paint her as a suspicious individual…it was bad enough she couldn't tell them how she'd ended up in the river since she really didn't know. Better to make her story as believable as she could on all the other fronts.

'Please believe me!' she begged. Fending for herself indefinitely outside the protection of the village didn't sound at all appealing. She had never had to live that way, and she wasn't all that confident in how she'd survive in the Sengoku Jidai era when she was already beat down and bordering on chakra exhaustion.

Luckily for her, the Hokage's eyes were full of sympathy and understanding. He didn't look inclined to throw her out. "That's…you haven't had it easy, have you?" he asked gently.

"Yes, that's if her story is to even be believed at all." Tobirama mumbled. Sakura wanted to sigh. She was beginning to see how this worked. Tobirama served as the caution and voice of reason Hashirama seemed to inherently lack. Or strongly suppress constantly…

"Tobirama," The Hokage sighed. "I think this woman's been through enough without you questioning her motives. Look at her," Hashirama motioned to her with a hand. "Does she truly look like she's in any state to do harm?"

"Not currently." Tobirama conceded. "But once she's back to full health, it'll be too late. All I'm asking you to do is the same thing I ask you every time a situation like this presents itself—use caution and good judgement."

Hashirama nodded slowly, "And I believe, as I do every time, that I am." He turned his attention back to Sakura, "I'm sorry for my brother's…wariness. It's become ingrained into him to question the motives of almost everyone he meets I'm afraid. But if you say that you'd like to make the village your new home, and you truly don't have any bad intentions…I believe you." Sakura blinked.

'Just like that?! No interrogation? No seal on my tongue to make sure I can't give any secrets away? No…no…ugh, swallowing a senbon?'

She was both relieved and a little concerned that gaining admission into the newly formed Hidden Leaf Village seemed so simple. In her time, she knew that there was a rather lengthy process for anyone that wished to immigrate.

A process that could take months sometimes and typically included proper vetting papers, a summary of the immigrating party or parties' intentions, a report in good standing that they hadn't left their village for any unsavory reasons, signed by their Kage or whoever served as village head, along with Tsunade, and reviewed by the council, and much more.

Of course every situation was handled differently, but Sakura had never paid too much attention because Konoha had always been her home since birth and she never had any intentions of living elsewhere. The Leaf was where she'd blossomed into the person she was today, where her friends and family were. She was proud to be Sakura Haruno of the Hidden Leaf.

"I know Tobirama said that your surname was Haruno, but would you mind telling me your first name? I make it a point to try and learn everyone's names in the village." Hashirama continued.

"It's Sakura," she was able to say with more confidence than she had previously.

"Sakura?" The Hokage repeated. Then his eyes flew to her hair and he grinned brightly. "Ah, Sakura! I see!" he chuckled. "How fitting."

"Hmph…" Tobirama grunted, clearly not finding it anywhere near as fascinating as his brother.

"Don't be like that, brother." Hashirama chided lightly. "If you've got the time to spare why don't you show Sakura-san the village and to her living quarters." The brown-haired man rubbed his neck. "I'm afraid the homes don't have much in the way of furnishing but we can have someone help you with that as well."

Sakura bowed graciously. "Thank you, Hokage-sama. It's more than I could have asked for." She meant it.

Hashirama sheepishly waved off her bow, looking uncomfortable. "Oh nonsense, Sakura-san. You're going to be a part of the village and we're, well, I like to think of the village as one big family!" he smiled goofily, and Sakura found her heart warming to this man, who in that moment reminded her of her blonde teammate.

And as soon as her heart warmed, it sank, thinking about Naruto and everyone else she'd left behind. They probably thought she was dead. Her parents would be devastated when she didn't come home with everyone else. 'No, I can't dwell on that now. Not in front of them!' Sakura quickly shook herself out of it before her thoughts took a turn for the gloomy.

"I hope that won't be a problem," she told Tobirama, trying to be at least civil.

Tobirama didn't answer. He turned to leave his brother's office. "Follow me."

Sakura bristled but then told herself to relax and go with the flow. She'd just have to get use to this curt man.

Sakura looked over her shoulder and Hashirama waved, his eyes closed as he smiled. "Welcome to the Leaf!" he called after her.

In her mind she added emptily, 'Welcome home.'

Chapter Text

"I advise you try to remain close." Tobirama said as soon as they exited. "The village is active this time of day and I have no time to find you should you get lost."

Sakura huffed, nodding. Honestly she didn't think she needed the tour. She navigated her Konoha all the time, and this one wasn't even as developed as the village she'd grown up in.

Still, she remained quiet about this and let the Senju lead her through the admittedly busy streets of the village. "That is the market. Many merchants have set up shop there and if you ever need something, be it clothes or fresh produce that would be the place to find it." Sakura mentally filed this away. The selection wasn't as varied as it had been in her own time, when Konoha had several trading agreements arranged with other Hidden Villages, but it was still enough that she thought she would be able to find what she needed.

They continued the tour, and Tobirama pointed out the next spot worth noting. "That is the shop where you can purchase more munitions, should you need." Sakura turned her attention to a building that looked as new as it likely was. Of course in a ninja village one of the first necessities would be a place where shinobi could buy their weapons.

In her time, she remembered that TenTen was always there eagerly whenever new shipments came in. The older kunoichi had once told her that if she ever retired from active shinobi life she would open a weapons shop. Yet another memory from a lifetime ago.

Tobirama took note of the girl's expression as he told her about the village she would now call home. She seemed to be taking everything in, listening intently, until suddenly her eyes took on a faraway look and he knew she was thinking about the past.

In Tobirama's opinion a ninja hardly had time to look back; looking forward was what kept one vigilant and alive. Of course a village setting meant they no longer had to constantly keep looking over their shoulders, or so Hashirama kept telling him. But his brother forgot that this was only the first step.

That was why Tobirama maintained the position he did. To keep his brother focused. He was the realism to Hashirama's idealistic views of the world. And if that painted him as harsh, so be it. Like his caution toward the girl, who was only a few years younger than them by the looks of her, and yet she looked just as seasoned as he had at that age.

He turned, expecting to see the girl, Sakura, still at his side. But the distinct pink hair and strange clothes were nowhere to be seen. He cursed quietly to himself. He'd told her to stick close, and now she had been swept away…

As he had warned her, he didn't have time to scour the village for her. However, if he let her continue to wander, lost, she may become an inconvenience for whoever stumbled upon her. Worst still was the thought that word would get back to Hashirama and he would have to listen to his elder brother scold him about purposely leaving Sakura on her own. Looks like he had no choice but to find the troublesome woman.

Sakura blinked in surprise. One minute she was sure she was following behind Tobirama and the next minute, she was standing…somewhere that was not the front of the weapons shop. Lost in thoughts of the past—or were they thoughts of the future?—Sakura had allowed her feet to travel with the crowd in no particular direction.

And now where was she? Maybe it would be best if she got on a roof to gain a better vantage point. The sooner she found Tobirama the less miffed he'd be—hopefully. She had a feeling she wouldn't be his favorite person of the hour no matter what she did, short of pulling him from a burning building.

She turned around and squinted into the distance to see if she could spot a flash of white hair. What she didn't expect, was to catch sight of a very familiar clan symbol. Her heart raced, and she took off without thinking, shoving her way through the crowd as she ran after the back with the red and white fan on it. She'd have time to contemplate the irony of it all later, she told herself vaguely, right now she needed—

Too late, she realized she'd acted foolishly. Her hand had fisted itself into the high-collared shirt of who, for a second she thought had been Sasuke. But honestly that was impossible. Unless he had been thrown back like she was.

The man turned quickly, as expected of someone with ninja reflexes, and looking into his face, he most definitely was not Sasuke. Sakura wasn't as disappointed by that fact as she wanted herself to be. Really, was Sasuke Uchiha her first choice of person to be mysteriously sucked into the past with? Resoundingly no.

It was clear by the guarded expression on the handsome definitely Uchiha face that the man most certainly didn't know her and Sakura averted her gaze bashfully.

"I…I'm sorry. I thought you were someone else." she told him truthfully.

The unknown Uchiha studied her cautiously, trying to discern if this strange woman who had the audacity to grab him was a threat. They were still standing in the middle of path, both being jostled by people walking by.

"We should move elsewhere." Sakura stared at him in honest surprise. What she wasn't surprised by, was the deep voice. All the Uchiha she'd ever met seemed to have rich baritones.

"R-Right," she agreed quietly, and together they leapt to the roof of a nearby shop. She stood slowly, studying the man she'd chased down. He did look a lot like Sasuke, even from the front, except, he also vaguely reminded her of someone else, too.

"Now, you say you thought I was someone else. Do you have business with another member of my clan?" he asked.

The kunoichi was a little taken aback at the calm of this Uchiha. Sasuke had always been so cold to her, even as children. It had somewhat shaped her imaginings of what an encounter with another Uchiha would be like. Not to mention fighting that crazy madman Madara. Apparently the Uchiha had two sides: aloof or unbalanced.

Sakura shook her head. "N-No. I only just arrived here today. I was separated from my guide…and I wasn't thinking…from behind, you looked like someone I knew from back home. I'm sorry."

He appraised her, taking her in. "Home must be a long way. Forgive me but I've never seen a kunoichi dressed like that."

Sakura chuckled. "So I keep hearing." The women of this time likely mainly wore battle kimonos. She would have to get use to a different style of attire if she had any hope of blending in. The pink hair was already enough to set her apart as it was. "I'm Sakura Haruno,"

The man gave her a small smile. If she wasn't caught off guard before she most definitely was now. It wasn't one of Naruto's wide grins, but it also wasn't a smirk—the only thing close to smiling she'd ever seen Sasuke do—and it wasn't the maniacal, debauched grin of a psychopath she'd seen on Madara's face either.

Suddenly, he was standing close to her, and her hand was in his larger one. He brought it to his lips, and Sakura felt her face go red all the way to her roots. Had—had an Uchiha just put his lips on her skin?! Now she knew she was a long way from home. "I am Izuna Uchiha." The name meant nothing to her. She'd never heard of this Uchiha in the history books, so maybe he was a relatively insignificant individual in the grand scheme of things?

"I-It's nice to meet you," she mumbled. That's really all she could do when faced with this situation.

"Likewise." he replied. For a minute Sakura just took in and marveled about what it would have been like for there to be Uchiha like this in the present. Sasuke wouldn't have gotten a passing glance from her. But now wasn't the time to be thinking about all that, the what if's. She still needed to make her way back to Tobirama.

"W-Well, I should probably go." she said politely. "I need to find my guide and…he's not very patient." At least he wasn't with her.

"I understand." Izuna replied, "I should also return to my business. Maybe we'll meet again soon, Sakura-san." He leapt to the next roof, and then the next, until he was nearly out of sight. Sakura watched him go, still not really sure what to make of the encounter.

Sakura prepared to leap off the roof and search the streets again, but a hand on her arm stopped her. There was Tobirama looking highly indignant as he glared at her with sharp red eyes.

"I told you to stay close." He immediately scolded. "What sort of shinobi allows themselves to be taken by their own thoughts in unfamiliar territory?"

"The kind that misses home!" Sakura snatched her arm away. She had responded without thinking, and when she realized what she'd said, she recoiled with a gasp. Well. It was really no secret. And it definitely wasn't a lie.

Tobirama's eyes softened almost imperceptibly.

Great. Now the scorn was being replaced by pity. Sakura just wanted to be alone by this point. To privately mourn for what she had lost in the blink of an eye. What she may never get back if she couldn't think of a plan. She still wasn't even sure there was anyone in this time she could entrust the truth to. So for now she was on her own.

"Come, I'll show you to the house that's been prepared. I imagine you'd like rest."

"But you haven't finished showing me the village." Sakura found herself insisting. She was sure he was only dumping her off because she had gotten mopey. And no she didn't really need the tour but it didn't hurt—maybe there was something different in this version of the Leaf.

"That can be done another time." He took off, this time by way of rooftop, in the opposite direction Izuna had gone, and Sakura had no choice but to follow. She tried to note the location of as many of the notable places as possible, for when she was out by herself.

Most were in the same places she'd remembered. A few minor things were different or absent but for the most part she'd be able to get the essentials while she was here at least.

The house Tobirama landed in front of was quaint, but Sakura immediately found it charming. "Hashirama for once had the mind to think ahead. Instead of building houses as new arrivals come to the village, he prepared several rows of homes in expectance that we'd gain more shinobi over time." he explained. That meant the Shodai had used his Mokuton, which she'd read about. It truly was a very useful, multi-purpose talent.

They walked in and Sakura surveyed the home. There was already a futon, and a tidy little kitchen with sunlight dappling the floor from a window above the sink… She was already envisioning where she'd put in a small table for studying. It would do just fine for the time being. She didn't plan to make this her permanent residence. But until she knew how to get home, she had a roof over her head, and she was grateful.

She turned around and told Tobirama as much. Well, the part about her gratitude.

Strangely, he looked away when she gave him an earnest smile. Maybe he just felt bad about earlier? It was embarrassing to blurt out that she missed home so suddenly. Even if she knew there was no shame in it.

"I'll leave you to get settled," he grumbled, not even bothering to use the door to exit.

'Wow, it's like he couldn't get out quick enough.' Sakura was determined not to let Tobirama and his attitude bother her.

She stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips, trying to process the events of the day. The battle had ended just before sunset in her world. Here, it looked like it was just barely reaching high noon, so she likely arrived early morning. Was it even still October here, as it had been for her before? It certainly didn't feel like the crisp falls in the Fire Country she had come to know.

Just as she was debating whether she should bathe or go shop for some clothes with the meager amount of money she happened to have, she got a knock at the door.

Honestly she wasn't sure who to expect. Really, no more than two people could know where she was. 'I've only been in the neighborhood for a few minutes and I'm already getting visits?' she mentally laughed.

A tall woman she'd never seen before stood on the other side of the door. She had a long, narrow face; dark eyes, and dark brown hair in a short ponytail that stood straight up with a bang that bore a striking resemblance to Ino's covering one eye. She wore a simple light blue yukata. "Are you Sakura-san?" She asked before Sakura could even get a word in.

"Y-Yes?" Sakura leaned her weight against the door. She was tempted to add "Who's asking?" but thought better of it.

"I am Toka Senju. Lord Hashirama sent me, with a fresh change of clothes." The woman bowed slightly, holding the folded garments out in front of her like a peace offering. Sakura smiled awkwardly. It was very thoughtful of Hashirama; he was a kind man to his core.

"Oh, then please come in," she offered, inviting the older woman into the meagerly furnished home.

Toka stepped in without reservation, walking to the futon and setting the clean clothes down. "I will stay, in case you need assistance. Lord Hashirama said that you may not be accustomed to wearing the clothes I brought."

Sakura scratched her hair, which she would gladly take the opportunity to wash. "H-He's not wrong." she chuckled weakly.

Toka nodded, her solemn expression never wavering. She stepped forward, walking by Sakura toward the back of the house, where Sakura guessed the bathroom was. "I will help you draw your bath." She stated more than offered. Not wanting to offend the woman, Sakura silently accepted. She was completely drained and not too proud to take the help.

Twenty minutes later saw Sakura still relishing the steaming water of a hot bath. She sank down to her shoulders, having already scrubbed until her skin was nearly pink. Apparently, Toka knew some Suton.

Nothing as impressive as Tobirama's she assured her, but Sakura thought the Senju woman was a goddess at the moment. She'd even changed the water so Sakura wouldn't have to soak in her own filth. When she was satisfied, she carefully slipped out of the wooden tub and grabbed a nearby towel that had been brought with the clothes. "I'm ready," she called through the door, and Toka entered, doing several hand signs that made the water evaporate.

Feeling clean from head to toe, it was time to look at the clothes she had to choose from and decide what to wear. Toka had brought several neutrally colored yukata, for everyday use, as well as two battle kimonos, similar to the style Temari wore.

The one she gravitated toward was, ironically, red—or had Hashirama insisted on it?— and sleeveless with white trimming. It came to her mid-thigh for easy mobility. The other had sleeves and was a light green with a sunflower design. Sakura decided she'd save the kimono and had Toka help her into an emerald yukata instead. She put her zori back on, but left her headband under the stack of clothes still folded on the futon.

Toka nodded in approval. "Very nice. I chose well." Ah, so the clothes were Hashirama's idea but Toka's choosing. Sakura was relieved she hadn't been brought anything outlandish. Of course even if the clothes hadn't been to her tastes, she would have sucked it up and graciously worn it anyway, if only to be out of her dirty uniform. "Now, I've been instructed to take you to market to find furnishings for your house."

Sakura began to stammer out a protest but Toka was having none of it. "I must insist, Sakura-san. Lord Hashirama requested it and, given the choice, I would rather go against your wishes than his." Sakura sighed. The Senju woman was only trying to help as she'd been told to do. Obviously she had a great deal of pride in the level of trust Hashirama bestowed on her. She could understand. She felt the same about Tsunade's trust, even when it was the most menial of tasks.

That was how the two ended up back at the market Tobirama had shown her earlier, selecting furnishings for her home. Sakura tried to be inconspicuous in carefully selecting the cheapest things she could.

A hand carved stool or two, the small but spacious desk she needed, blank scrolls and a few brushes with an ink well. Sakura was ready to tell the Senju she had made her selections when the woman gave her a stern, almost disapproving face. It sorted of reminded her of Yamato-sensei's "spooky" face. Sakura flinched.

"Lord Hashirama insisted you also get more personal affects to make your home your own space." Well. Hashirama had spoken, apparently, and through Toka his will would be carried out. With a woman who took her duty this seriously there was really no point in arguing.

Sakura reluctantly moved on to pick out a few more things. A pot to cook, some decorative scrolls, a nice painting of a wheat field at dusk, and…an ink portrait of five cats, an adult with four kittens. Oddly, when she looked at the painting, she saw Team Seven…

The large cat watching over the kittens looked wise as it squinted, and she could almost imagine its silver fur. One kitten was on its belly, rear in the air and ready to play. It would have golden fur, she thought. The kitten in the middle was looking up at the older cat eagerly, waiting to learn. A white kitten with green eyes. The cat next to her looked sullen, bored. A dark kitten with coal eyes, she decided. And lastly, one kitten lay sprawled out with a Chesire grin, not a care in the world. Another dark kitten…

Overcome with emotion suddenly, Sakura looked away as her purchases were sealed in a scroll for easy transportation. Smiling wanly at the Senju woman in thanks, she tried not to dwell on her thoughts as they moved on, Sakura getting several sets of kunai, shuriken and senbon.

Toka pointed out a beautifully crafted black blade she thought Sakura needed, but the younger kunoichi sheepishly explained she wasn't very well versed in kenjutsu and relied heavily on her taijutsu. The last necessities Sakura was made to get were basically groceries. Some fruits and vegetables, and some rice she could make into onigiri when she returned.

That was enough for the minimalist in Sakura, who had been used to living on the battlefield without anything extravagant for what felt like years, in reality it was several weeks of non-stop fighting and twist after twist.

By the time Toka escorted her back to her new house and left her, Sakura was famished and decided lunch and a nap was in order.

She set the rice to boil, sorted through as many of the purchases as she could, and then collapsed on the futon, sighing heavily. 'What a long, strange day!' It wasn't over yet, though. There was another knock! Dragging herself back up with great effort, Sakura returned to the door and this time got a true shock.

Hashirama Senju stood on the other side, waiting patiently, a sunny smile already in place. She blinked. Oh. She definitely wasn't expecting him! She'd only seen him earlier that morning, but compared to then it seemed so much had already happened.

"Hello Sakura-san!" he greeted with no small amount of exuberance. "I came to see how you were settling in." He took in her appearance and his smile grew. "That yukata really brings out your eyes. Toka chose well." He acknowledged that it was Toka who had chosen, but he preened as if he'd picked the outfit for her.

'Where does he get the energy?! He's as bad as Naruto!'

"H-Hello Lord Hokage…" By comparison Sakura couldn't keep up. She wasn't even going to try.

"Oh, I know that's my title, but I'm still not that use to hearing it." He rubbed his head with one hand, the other still hidden behind his back.

"Well, you definitely deserve it!" Sakura smiled kindly. "It was very nice of you to send Toka-san to help me. To tell you the truth I'm a little overwhelmed by all the things I got today though…w-was it really necessary for me to get decorations too?"

Hashirama peered around her, an easy feat considering the height difference. Sakura was beneath his shoulders. The Hokage laughed good-naturedly. "Toka told me she had to insist! And still you hardly got more than you needed."

Sakura shrugged bashfully. "W-Would you like to come in, Hokage-sama?" Normally she'd be more confident, but this man was the First Hokage and a founder of the village! She couldn't show him anything but the utmost deference. Any self-respecting Leaf nin would likely be just as humble in her shoes. Well…except Naruto.

Hashirama looked over his shoulder. "I guess I should. It wouldn't be good for me if Tobirama saw me outside the office. He doesn't really know I'm gone," Sakura's eyes widened at his admission.

The First was ballsier than she thought if he really was willing to duck out on Tobirama and face his wrath. If she let him in, would she be harboring a fugitive? Would Tobirama come after her too? She mentally groaned.

Like she needed to give the Second Hokage more reason to hate her. He may have been a paranoid pain in the ass but he was still a future Hokage and she respected him too. It was too late to take back the offer though, because the First was gently squeezing by her and with slumped shoulders she shut the door behind him.

"I know I haven't made it look like much, but—"

"No, Sakura-san, it's great!" He said sincerely.

That was when she remembered the rice; she should probably check on that…

"Oh, excuse me…I was just making rice balls for lunch…" she bowed slightly.

Hashirama waved that off. "Do you need help?"

"No Hokage-sama! I couldn't ask you to do that! Y-you're still wearing your robes and everything!" Not that Sakura would tell the man he could help if he was wearing civilian clothes. Shishou's grandfather, helping her make lunch. How could she possibly—

"Could I help if I offered? Technically, you wouldn't be asking me then." He was already moving toward her as she took the pot of rice off the small fire.

She looked into his face and saw clear determination to do as he wanted. "Is this stubbornness a Senju trait?" she grumbled under her breath. She gasped, covering her mouth. Hashirama wasn't the least bit offended, thankfully. He boomed with deep laughter. Sakura nervously joined in with a few weak chuckles.

And that was how Sakura made lunch with the First Hokage. She was glad when they were done. He hadn't complained even once, merrily patting the rice into the perfect triangles as if he did it every day. Sakura was frustrated, and bit her lip to keep from complaining as the rice she was trying to mold refused to cooperate.

It was easy to tell whose were whose. The lumpy ones sat next to perfectly shaped onigiri. Sakura figured it was almost poetic. Because she was a lumpy rice ball in comparison to him, a rice ball without a grain out of place.

"There, all done." Hashirama patted his hands.

"Thanks for your help. I finished twice as fast as I would have by myself." Sakura told him in appreciation. "If there's any way I can repay your for this, or the clothes and things from the marke—" A loud, low noise filled the air and Sakura nearly jumped, expecting some snarling beast to come bursting in.

"Since you mention it, if I could try one of these rice balls it'd be a pretty big help! I haven't eaten since breakfast," He laughed again, and she smiled, laughing with him without hesitation this time.

"That I can do."

And that was how Sakura had lunch with the First Hokage. He asked her if she thought she'd be able to adjust to life in the village, and Sakura assured him honestly that she'd get the hang of it, with time.

Sakura even found the courage to ask him a few small questions only he would know, to sate the curious scholar inside her. Getting to know a legend was the chance of a lifetime. Who knew how long she'd be stuck here? Finally, when they'd finished off all the rice balls, Hashirama sat back with a contented sigh. "Well, that was a good meal Sakura-san. Food is always better with good company of course," he added charmingly, winking. "If Tobi had his way, I'd take all my meals alone, in my office."

He pouted. Honestly pouted. She found it endearing and hid a small smile. "Yes, this was nice Hokage-sama. I really can't thank you enough for all your help."

"You're a member of this village now. It's my job to help my people, no matter how small the act."

Sakura wouldn't say going out of his way to make sure she got settled in was small but the fact that he thought so told a lot about the kind of person he was.

"Oh! Before I forget…there's another reason I came."

Sakura perked in interest. "Oh? Not just to help me make lunch then?" She was feeling comfortable enough to crack small jokes. Hashirama seemed to have the ability to put people at ease with a smile. Not unlike someone else she knew.

He shook his head with a chuckle, reaching into his robes. "Tobi said I was rushing it—that we should wait until you'd been in the village longer. But after talking and having lunch with you, I can tell that you definitely deserve this." He produced a strip of cloth with a metal glint—oh! A headband!

He held it out to her proudly, taking in her wide eyes and awed expression. Sakura carefully took it from him with great reverence, running her thumbs across the cool, curved surface, feeling the familiar engraving of the leaf insignia in the center.

Sakura tried to fight it, she really did. But…

"T-thank you…" she choked out, her eyes watering.

Hashirama was definitely pleased by her reaction, though his smile was more sober now. "Hey now, it's okay. I know it's been rough for you, but you've got the Village now." Gently, he reached up to brush away a tear from just under her eye.

She managed to push back the tears and the crazy emotions after that, securing her new headband in place of her old one. She would always have her Allied Shinobi headband, but the new one now held sentiment too.

Hashirama looked like he wanted to say more, but his eyes suddenly grew wide, and a terrified expression passed over his face. "W-What?" Sakura became panicked, thinking somehow he sensed a threat. "Should I get ready for battle?"

"No. It's him." he said shakily. "I'm sorry Sakura-san but I have to go. Now!"

Sakura watched in confusion as the Hokage abruptly poofed away. That was until another familiar face poofed in suddenly.

A livid Tobirama was standing in the middle of the room, red eyes narrowed. "Hashirama!" he seethed. Unfortunately, when he couldn't find his brother, his eyes locked on her. "You!" he snapped. "He was here, wasn't he? How long ago? Which direction?"

Sakura slowly shook her head back and forth, eyes wide. She'd almost forgotten he was a sensory ninja. He could track down a chakra signature as well as any nin dog. Direction, distance, location…the redheaded girl Sasuke had recruited, had the same ability.

He kneeled on the floor, touching it with his index finger. Sakura watched in fascination as his eyes squinted in concentration. "You think hiding there will save you?!"

In a poof he was gone as fast as he'd come. Sakura sat in stunned silence. She was honestly bewildered. And then it struck her just how comical it all was, and she laughed in earnest. For the moment, all her worries were out of mind.

Chapter Text

Naruto had never known a single week could be so long. And even after losing Jiraiya, he had never known the void left by someone's absence could be so crushing. That was how it felt, returning to the village without Sakura. A hollow victory.

She was there one minute, ripped away from them— from him— the next. Sucked into a damn lizard's eyeball. It had almost sent Naruto on the warpath again, but Kurama's insistent voice in his head, telling him he had to calm himself, had brought him out of it. All he'd been able to do after that was sink to his knees in despair and punch the ground.

He vaguely remembered Gaara joining him, apologizing, and Hinata's feeble attempt to get him to pick himself up. But losing one of his teammates again right after they'd fought so hard together…it was just too much. It gave him a new perspective on what it meant to be helpless. So close! They were so close to having Team Seven reunited at last.

The blonde couldn't even remember the sequence of events that had come afterwards. It was one long string of blurs. He'd ended up back home somehow, and the village had begun the process of grieving for the fallen. Neji's death was compounded sadness, something he did his best to support Hinata through, despite his own grief over losing Sakura. She wasn't dead though. He refused to believe she even could be—wherever she was, she was alive and fighting to get back to them.

In the meantime, Naruto left no stone unturned looking for answers. He had seen a lot during and before the war, so he wasn't about to disregard any possibility. It could be some crazy genjutsu.

A powerful enough genjutsu could literally bend reality, as everyone who had dealt with Obito and Madara were well aware. But Sasuke had been standing right there, Rinne-Sharingan activated, and he'd told his old teammate if it was genjutsu it was the likes of which not even his eyes could get through.

Naruto asked Kurama, but all the fox had been able to tell him was that the eye was most likely a portal leading to another dimension and that he'd briefly caught wind of a very powerful, very ancient presence. Too bad it disappeared when the eye did and the Kyuubi couldn't answer any more about it.

So Naruto spent the next week going from angry to sad, helpless to determined. He didn't interact much with his friends; in fact he hardly left his apartment. Tsunade had told everyone it was best to give him space. For the most part everyone did. They were missing Sakura just as much as her team was, but life had to continue, somehow.

It was on the seventh day of Naruto's descent into solitude that he got an unexpected visitor. "How long do you plan to go on like this?" Naruto half-turned to see his estranged teammate standing there, regarding him coolly.

"Oh great, I should have known if I stayed cooped up in here too long they'd send in an expert. Being depressing is your department. Sorry if I stole your thunder." Naruto replied, hands folded behind his head.

He heard the quiet scoff as Sasuke said, "No one sent me. I came to see when you planned to get off your ass. This isn't like the reckless, impatient dobe I know."

Naruto sat up at his words. "Know? How long's it been since we knew each other Sasuke?"

Sasuke didn't bother to deny the quiet accusation of his question, simply looked around at the small space that was quickly slipping into disarray. Naruto wasn't the neatest even when he wasn't sulking. But a week of neglect had his apartment almost in shambles—like he'd left it the way it was before the war, and added new messes on top of the old.

The layers of dust he could see accumulating made Sasuke believe it'd been a while since Naruto had been home prior to the return to Konoha. At least the ramen cups scattered across what served as his breakfast table meant he was eating. Eating junk and not much else. Probably drinking expired milk, too.

"All I know is, if you want to see Sakura again you won't be able to do it like this."

"Don't you think I know that?!" Naruto snapped, his eyes suddenly flashing with fighting spirit. "But what the hell am I supposed to do? I don't even know where she is! No one does!" Naruto dropped his head into his hands with a deep sigh.

When he raised it again, Sasuke could see the bags beneath his eyes and the tiredness radiating from his whole being. It wasn't just from a lack of sleep either. How long had the dobe been playing everyone's hero?

"Since when do you care about Sakura anyway?" the blonde spat resentfully.

"…I never said I didn't care."

"You've got a hell of a way of showing it, Sasuke." Naruto chuckled mirthlessly. He collapsed back on his unmade bed, staring at the ceiling quietly.

"I came here for a reason, Naruto. I've been thinking of a way to at least find out what dimension Sakura's in, but I'm going to need your cooperation. Or are you not up for the task?" Sasuke wasn't sure if it was the proposal itself or the hint of mocking that got Naruto to look at him.

Naruto sighed, reluctantly giving the Uchiha his attention. "Keep talking, asshole."

A week. She had been in the past for a whole week, and if it was some elaborate genjutsu, the caster had spared no expense to make her believe it was real.

She knew genjutsu tricked the senses, but Sakura was almost positive it had to be real. Only someone with extensive knowledge of history could have made a world so immersive around a time period when there were still so many mysteries left out of texts.

Sakura was slowly but surely taking it all in, trying to get used to living without the comforts of modern technology. She missed what she'd taken for granted. Showers, for instance.

She was now taking baths instead, and getting water to boil from a small spring that had mysteriously appeared behind her house. Toka had appeared twice after their initial meeting, making sure Sakura's food supplies were kept well-stocked.

The worst part was feeling a bit disoriented in terms of her routine. Before the war she'd had a solid one. Mostly, she was at the hospital keeping her medical ninjutsu skills sharp. But with no hospital and nothing to really do here but attempt unsuccessfully to find a way home, she was, for lack of a better term, bored out of her skull.

Sakura didn't work her ass off enduring Tsunade's rigorous training regime for years just to let it go to waste now. If nothing else, she at least wanted to spar with someone—anyone!

She'd become so paranoid about her skills getting dull (even though she'd barley been off the battlefield a week) and so desperate to keep that from happening, she'd almost barged in on a spar between two kids that couldn't have been older than academy age to ask if she could join.

Something had to be done soon, or she'd eventually return to her own time a drooling vegetable, her sanity lost to boredom.

As she sat in her house meditating, her consciousness being pulled further from the world around her, an image flashed through her mindscape. The haunting image of a reptilian, green-gold eye.

"Why do you resist?" It was the same voice she'd heard on the battlefield. "I am giving you the chance to become so much more than you are. I am making you my own!"

Slowly, the shape of a woman formed. Someone she had never seen, wearing an emerald kimono with a gold obi, with impossibly long black hair to her feet, similar to Kaguya's save for the color.

Her features were hard to discern beyond that. She wore a wide-brimmed straw hat reminiscent to the ones the Akatsuki had dawned, and it hid much of her face. She saw the dainty ruby red mouth frowning shallowly though.

Sakura's consciousness tensed away, but she bravely continued her meditation. 'And you are?' Sakura thought.

"Someone you likely would not know even if I told you…I, unlike the foolish, vain Rabbit Goddess, am not someone who seeks to rule through fear. Someone so insecure I feel the need to manipulate from the shadows."

Sakura's felt like cold flames had been lit inside her heart. She knew about Kaguya. But she had called her "foolish" and "vain"…as if the terrifying Mother of Chakra were insignificant. Was this a new threat?

'What do you want, then?' The kunoichi asked cautiously.

"Haven't I told you? I want to give you everything, sweetling. In time, you will ascend to the position you belong. The first step…was placing you where you were needed most."

'Is that why you brought me here?' Sakura asked, unable to contain her anger. This woman claimed she didn't believe in meddling, but exactly what did she think ripping Sakura from her time and dumping her here, in the distant past, was doing?

"Yes." The mysterious deity said simply. No remorse. No understanding of the magnitude her actions had already had on Sakura's life. "You have already encountered Kaguya's descendants." She meant Hashirama and Tobirama…and the Uchiha, Izuna. Naruto had briefly told her, as best as he could explain it—it was Naruto after all—about what he'd been told regarding his ancient heritage by the Sage of Six Paths.

Hashirama and Madara were reincarnations. And subsequently all members of the Senju and Uchiha respectively, were direct descendants of the Sage's sons, thus making them direct descendants of Kaguya's.

"I have no descendants. I had no children. But I have chosen you, darling girl, to be my progeny."

That left Sakura speechless. 'I'm not sure I follow…you brought me back in time to…' Even as Sakura tried to wrap her head around it, she found it impossible. Here was this ancient deity who scoffed at Kaguya's attempts to bring the world to its knees—an attempt that had very nearly succeeded—but who also seemed to have chosen Sakura to carry on her own line.

"From the moment I claimed you, my blood flowed through your veins, child. You are as much a descendent of the Otsutsuki clan as if you were born so."

'Otsutsuki?! You are like Kaguya.'

The woman lifted her chin proudly, slowly removing her hat to reveal golden-green, reptilian eyes and a face that was certainly befitting a goddess. Porcelain smooth and expertly composed. Even Sasuke would probably be impressed by her poker-face.

"I am Mizuchi no Megami, the Dragon Goddess."

'Oh, hell no.' Sakura couldn't help the curse that flickered through her mind. One goddess had been cataclysmic, and even with Team Seven's combined strength they had barely managed to seal her away. Now, here was another goddess that came from who knows where. And she had her sights firmly set on Sakura.

"For so long, it was my younger sister's descendants who molded history, all for the sake of preparing for her arrival. But I am not like Kaguya. I do not seek the subjugation of humanity. I am content to observe, as I have for many millennia. I now simply wish to observe through you."

Yes, and that was exactly what bothered Sakura. This goddess wasn't sealed. Nothing was able to stop her from doing as she pleased. Sakura alone knew she certainly wasn't enough.

"For now I depart and leave you to your ruminations." Mizuchi, after casually dropping that bombshell, had the gall to say she was leaving. How the hell was Sakura supposed to meditate now? There was no getting her mind to a calmer place and there likely wouldn't be for a while.

As soon as she felt the goddess' presence leave her mind, her eyes were wide open and she was on her feet, looking around wildly. But she was alone. In every sense. The only evidence of the goddess' "visit" was the searing pain on the inside of her wrist in the shape of a crescent moon with a small circle situated inside the curve. The pink-haired kunoichi grit her teeth, quickly using a henge to cover it.

Sakura's mind raced as if pure adrenaline had been injected into her veins.

The blood of the Otsutsuki.

She was like Naruto and Sasuke now… Sakura wasn't sure how that was possible; she also wasn't sure how she felt about having god-blood. What would that mean for her in the long run?

Sure, she had always strived to catch up to Naruto and Sasuke, but not for a minute did she want their inheritance. She was proud that even without a shinobi pedigree, she had still risen to exceed the expectations of herself, and everyone around her.

Her normalcy was what had always set her apart on Team Seven. At first she had seen it as a hindrance. Overtime she had made it a strength. She didn't want to change into someone she couldn't recognize.

The longer she thought about it the more overwhelmed she felt.

Now she really needed a good spar. Dressing herself in the red battle kimono and securing her shiny hitai-ate, Sakura took the weapons she'd gotten on her first day in the past and set out looking for somewhere to train.

There were several individuals she could think of who would be the perfect opponent, but she wasn't bold enough to ask them when she'd barely seen either of the Senju since their last encounter, when Hashirama was running away from his brother in terror.

The thought of it still had her choking down a laugh. The two were something of an unwitting comedy duo. And yet she had seen for herself that they were a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield.

While she was just fine not seeing a battlefield again anytime soon, she had been a shinobi for most of her young life and wanting to train was practically ingrained in her now.

It was only after she'd made it into the crowded village streets that she realized with dismay she didn't know where to train. Maybe if she was lucky, her team's training grounds would be there.

Sakura knew the way by heart, and the whole walk there she crossed her fingers that the clearing would be as she'd remembered it.

'I wonder if I could talk to the Hokage about doing missions…The village is accepting mission requests, aren't they?' Sakura needed something to take her mind off what had happened during her meditation. The mark she'd managed to hide felt like it was exposed for the world to see, and she unconsciously rubbed her wrist.

Since she didn't want to do anything to draw suspicion to herself, it was better to keep the symbol Mizuchi had callously branded her with hidden at all times. 'Maybe I should start wearing a bandage on my wrist, just in case?'

Sakura was preoccupied finding ways to make sure the Otsutsuki symbol was never uncovered. And then there was the question of what it did. She wasn't naïve enough to think it was simply for decoration. She continued to stare blankly at her wrist as she walked, though the henge was holding fine.

'I guess there's nothing I can do about it right now. Better find someplace to trai—' She stopped abruptly as she bumped into an armored chest.

"Again, I find you unaware of your surroundings…I question your abilities as a shinobi more with each meeting."

She stared up into the blank face of Tobirama, who had appeared from nowhere. Given his reputation as the fastest shinobi of his time, it was quite possible he had.

"I guess that's what passes as a hello around here." Sakura huffed.

Tobirama dipped his head slightly in a mocking show of greeting.

Sakura rolled her eyes.

Tobirama plowed on. "My brother requests you. A matter of importance, or so he claims."

Sakura's brow furrowed. "And for this he sent you and not a messenger hawk?"

Tobirama gave her a wry sort of smirk. "My sentiments exactly." Clearly, he wasn't amused that his brother was sending him on paltry errands.

'Well so much for training…I wonder what the Hokage could want to see me about. He's not…going to ask for my headband back, is he?' Sakura's heart thudded painfully at the thought. Or maybe they'd discovered something that made her a suspicious person. Though, if that were the case she was almost positive Tobirama would have attacked her outright.

"Alright, let's go." Tobirama seemed satisfied she would come without argument, taking to the rooftops with Sakura right behind him. Every now and then Sakura noticed he glanced back as if to see if she was still there, and the kunoichi thought he almost seemed amused she could keep up.

'This guy really doesn't think much of my skills, does he? Though to be fair I guess he's never seen me in action.' Sakura smirked at the back of his head. 'Better watch out! Looks are deceiving.'

As if he sensed her gave, Tobirama glanced over his shoulder on cue, his face still expressionless. Sakura sobered up after that. When the Hokage residence came into view, Sakura was half-surprised Tobirama led her in through the open window behind the Hokage's desk. Nevertheless she followed, greeted by the sight of a sulking Hashirama at his desk, sorting through new requests. Toka stood at his side, arms folded with a stern look on her face.

"Toka, can't you ease up a little?" he whined, apparently he hadn't noticed them yet. "We're old friends! You don't have watch me just because Tobirama told you to."

"Lord Hashirama, even if Lord Tobirama hadn't requested I keep you from running off, I'm well aware of your tendency to become distracted in my own right. As you said, we are old friends." Toka smirked slightly.

"Brother," Tobirama cleared his throat, and Hashirama stiffened as he looked up.

His expression only brightened when he noticed Sakura standing at his brother's side. Presumably because he saw her as the one person in the room who wouldn't gang up on him.

"Sakura-san!" The Hokage greeted happily, an audible sigh of relief following the exclamation.

Toka nodded politely. "We meet again, Sakura-san."

"She isn't here to save you from your duty, Hashirama." Tobirama reminded. "She's here at your request, which you led me to believe was important."

"Ah!" Hashirama seemed to remember suddenly as he nodded in agreement. "I know this is short notice, and you're still getting accustomed to the village, but how would you feel about taking a mission?"

"Yes!" Sakura all but screamed without hesitation. Anything was preferable to languishing in the village over her predicament.

"Brother, how is that wise?" Tobirama questioned. "We know nothing of her skill or competency."

Sakura's eager expression fell into a scowl. Tobirama had a habit of talking about her like she wasn't in the room. And he was always so blunt with his skepticism.

Hashirama's smile didn't fade. "That's true, but if she made such a difficult journey here, then I believe in her abilities." He looked to Sakura with his usual sincerity. Sakura understood the Hokage was a man that believed in his judgement when it came to having faith in others. How he had ever been close friends with a man like Madara alluded her.

"I should inform you that you'd be going on this mission with Toka." Again, Sakura met eyes with the brown-haired woman. As far as Sakura was concerned, the Senju woman seemed like a reliable ally.

"It'll be nice to work with you Toka-san!" Sakura said amiably.

"Likewise." A ghost of a smile appeared on her normally solemn face.

"What kind of mission is this brother?" Tobirama asked, his eyes going from glaring at Sakura in suspicion to eyeing Hashirama doubtfully.

"Well, actually…" he chuckled slightly. "I'm not the one with the details. A request came early that one of the clans could use some help from outsiders, preferably two women. I decided to send Toka, and she actually requested that you also be assigned this mission, Sakura-san."

Toka nodded in agreement. "Yes. I can't explain it but, I feel a kinship towards you Sakura-san. We will work well together, of that I'm sure."

Sakura's mouth opened slightly to voice her confusion.

A cold look overtook Tobirama's face as he glared toward the Hokage's door. "This mission request came from him."

"Him who?" Sakura couldn't stop herself from asking.

"You can come in now!" Hashirama called, and as the door opened Sakura felt her heart seize up.

Chapter Text

There he was. The man who had caused so much destruction on the battlefield. He wasn't sneering coldly, and his Sharingan wasn't activated, but Sakura so him as no less of a threat. He wasn't clad in his armor, but a deep blue kimono with a crimson obi. Apparently this was his civilian wear. Still, this was Madara Uchiha, without a doubt. Worse, he was alive again. Worst still, she was the outsider in this time period to which he rightfully belonged.

Sakura's fists clenched tightly and she felt her seal itching to be unleashed, a physical tingling on her forehead.

Madara surveyed everyone in the room and his gaze landed on the only person he didn't recognize. A new kunoichi. A new kunoichi with pink hair staring at him with an impressive amount of hostility. "I can't imagine what I could have possibly done to deserve such a look of hatred from you, kunoichi." And her killing intent wasn't lost on the others, either.

Hashirama had grown tense, his face sobering considerably as he looked between his old friend and the young kunoichi cautiously. Tobirama also observed the display keenly. Clearly, she either knew Madara personally, or she'd encountered the Uchiha clan before. By her reaction she wasn't happy to see him either way. He remembered her story of being the last member of her family, and wondered if the Uchiha had anything to do with it, Madara most of all.

"You," Sakura seethed. 'Stay in control!' She told herself. Yet her fist was already glowing blue. A direct hit and she could potentially do some real damage.

"I don't believe we've met." Madara continued, seemingly unaffected by her extreme anger. "On the battlefield or otherwise. That hair is rather memorable, if nothing else."

"Madara…this is Sakura Haruno. She's recently joined the village." Hashirama smiled weakly. The intensity between the two hadn't wavered even slightly.

"Sakura," Madara said musingly, the name rolling smoothly off his tongue. "I don't think I've ever slaughtered any Haruno." he said nonchalantly.

Sakura's temper was dangerously close to winning. 'You may have never killed my family but it doesn't mean you didn't kill hundreds of comrades! Including you almost killing Tsunade-shishou and Gaara and the other Kages!'

"M-Madara, please!" Hashirama all but begged. "Could you…tell us all what this mission is?"

"Back during my father's time as head of the clan, we had a shaky alliance with the Kaguya clan." Sakura stiffened at the word, doing her best to hide the visceral reaction the name "Kaguya" incited in her. "They were fierce and barbaric and thrived in the chaos of constant war." Madara's face showed clear disdain.

Cold terror and righteous anger warred for dominance as Sakura thought of the most fearsome opponent she'd ever faced down with her team. Her threat level to the world has easily trumped Madara and Obito's combined…

By the look Tobirama was giving her, she knew she'd let some of her emotions slip across her face in some way. Of course, if he questioned her, she could easily say that it was due to encountering this Kaguya clan, being that the Warring States era was such a bloody, brutal period. If they were in league with the Uchiha at any point they were likely a strong shinobi clan. Maybe they even had a connection to the goddess...

"You never mentioned anything about this to me." Hashirama suddenly interrupted, sounding very much hurt.

Madara shrugged. "What need was there?"

Hashirama continued to sulk regardless.

"Honestly brother," Tobirama looked wholly exasperated with his brother's change in mood. "Do you not remember what our father told us? About a clan that had briefly allied with the Uchiha—warriors wielding weapons made of their own bones. He called it devilish."

Toka, who had been listening quietly, nodded. "Yes. I remember once as a child I saw such warriors on the battlefield. Shooting bones from their bodies as if they were kunai. And even when one of their own fell…they reveled in it. They were ghastly."

Now, Hashirama really seemed to have kicked his brooding into high gear at the news. If Sakura had to guess, she'd say it was because he felt left out of the loop. He wasn't the only one though. She was just as clueless about this Kaguya clan of horror, though also morbidly curious now. It sounded like a kekkei genkai. What other way would they use bones as projectiles? Bones served a purpose; as a medic she knew this well. But that purpose was not impaling your enemies.

Hashirama now wore a downcast expression as the Uchiha continued.

"An accurate description." Madara agreed. "Their bloodline ability is jarring, but combined with their insatiable appetite for battle it makes them overwhelming to most opponents. Naturally, my father wanted to utilize this for as long as possible, though there was never any official signing of a treaty."

"And," Tobirama remarked, "I suppose that when you became clan head you maintained the unofficial alliance."

"It seemed the most diplomatic option at the time, yes. I wasn't quite convinced Hashirama's village proposal would pan out." Madara answered, unapologetic.

Sakura could clearly see the proverbial stone drop down on the poor Hokage's head.

Madara noticed too, and rolled his eyes. "When it did I told the Kaguya it would be the end of our alliance. Naturally, you can imagine how that went over with them. Which leads me to my request,"

'Finally!' Sakura thought. She didn't trust this Madara, regardless of the fact that he hadn't done any of the things the one on from the Fourth War had. One day he still might. He had it in him. She had blindly accepted the offer of a mission, not knowing he would be the client. Her caution was firing on all cylinders. It could be a trap.

"I need two shinobi capable of retrieving my Gunbai."

Hashirama's eyes widened. "Y-Your fan is gone?"

Madara sighed. "I've been searching of course. Shortly after we agreed to the treaty, before moving to the village, it was stolen from the compound. Uchiha spies have been in the fields looking, as I knew it would turn up eventually. The Gunbai is not something that can be effectively wielded by just anyone, and a large battle fan is far from inconspicuous. I've received conformation that it's in the Kaguya's possession."

Sakura's own eyes widened in shock. Now she remembered! It was that horrible giant fan Obito had, and subsequently returned to Madara. She was seriously expected to put such a powerful weapon back into the hands of a murderer?

There was a quiet sound that could've been a snicker, carefully disguised as a cough. She peered at the white-haired man at her side. Madara had heard it too, narrowing his eyes at the younger Senju brother. "You find this amusing?"

"Frankly, yes." Tobirama said. Blunt as ever. "That fan was your pride. And you allowed it to be taken from under your nose. I thought there was nothing the Sharingan didn't see?" Sakura had to choke back a snicker of her own. She may not have been on the best terms with Tobirama, but hearing him fearlessly taunt Madara was entertaining.

"Would you perhaps like to face my Sharingan for yourself?" Madara asked. Sakura froze, the hostility between Tobirama and Madara palpable and smothering. It hadn't quite risen to the level of what would be considered killing intent, but it was getting there.

"Tobirama. Madara. Peace!" Hashirama had apparently snapped out of his funk. For the first time she saw the First Hokage's face become stern as he issued a silent command for both of them to stand down.

As Sakura and the other two Senju looked on, the two calmed themselves reluctantly.

Once it was clear there wouldn't be a brawl—that would likely level the building flat—in the Hokage's office, Hashirama was back to being all smiles. Sakura sweat dropped at his quick turn around. 'That's some resilience he's got.'

It was so strange that this man who would come to be revered as a legendary shinobi, was so far either a seemingly unassuming man child or a commanding leader. "Now! Of course we'll help you retrieve your weapon, Madara." Hashirama nodded in reassurance.

"Brother, hold on!" Tobirama quickly interceded. "You know nothing of the enemy's current location, their numbers, or if they are expecting someone to come for the fan. How can you so easily go along with this?"

"Well…" Hashirama frowned, thoroughly chastised.

"And why is this not a matter your own clan could handle?" Tobirama continued, this time directing the question at Madara.

"You should be smart enough to realize that they would expect an Uchiha to come for the fan. They took my Gunbai partially for what they feel is retribution and also likely to draw me into a confrontation. While I certainly do not balk from the challenge, I'd just as soon not walk into what is so obviously a trap designed specifically for me." Madara sounded very patronizing as he explained. "Which is why I need two unassuming shinobi, kunoichi preferably, to infiltrate and retrieve it."

"Why kunoichi?" Sakura asked sharply. She was sure her mistrust was clear in her eyes.

Madara crossed his arms as he looked at her like her presence wasn't needed. It made Sakura's blood boil. She had spent years fighting to earn her place on the battlefield fighting alongside and not behind her boys, and she would not be dismissed!

"There's been word as of late that the Kaguya want fresh shinobi blood in their folds. They've taken many women from smaller clans to keep as spoils of war. They were never as large a clan as we are, and too many constant battles has caused their ranks to dwindle. Repopulating as soon as possible seems their best option to avoid extinction."

Sakura's face took on a look of disgust, and when she saw Toka she saw the older woman's expression was much the same. Hashirama looked troubled as he realized what Madara was saying and Tobirama stared coldly.

"As you might imagine, an Uchiha would be easily recognized, and they are not foolish enough to believe an Uchiha woman would go to the enemy willingly as a deserter."

"So we're supposed to offer ourselves up?"

Madara eyed the young girl skeptically. "Who said anything about this mission pertaining to you?"

"I agreed to take the mission before you entered! You're the one that needs help getting your stupid fan back!"

"Quite the mouth on this one," Madara remarked, suddenly looming over her. Yes, his speed was just like she remembered it.

"Madara!" Hashirama rose from his seat, looking concerned.

Sakura stepped away, glaring, but he grabbed her jaw firmly in his strong grasp. "Urk!" She stared as defiantly as she could, channeling her kill intent.

"Oh?" Clearly Madara sensed it. He looked…intrigued. "Maybe you are a true kunoichi after all. Very well." Sakura clamped down on the hand holding her jaw and applied pressure. Without her chakra, she easily began to leave a bruise around his wrist. Something flashed in his dark eyes and then he abruptly let go. Seemingly satisfied with himself, his hands disappeared into the sleeves of his kimono as he folded his arms. One reappeared, and he carelessly tossed a scroll in Tobirama's direction. The white-haired shinobi caught it with ease.

"You'll find the location and design of the Kaguya stronghold my strategist drew up." Madara explained nonchalantly. "Use it wisely."

He brought his sleeves together and his hands disappeared again, standing there like an emperor. Poised liked that, he looked regal and untouchable, and Sakura loathed him for it. He might as well have had a crown on his head! In his casual disregard for everyone in the room, especially her, she saw arrogance.

"I look forward to the return of my Gunbai." he said, seeing himself out.

Sakura and the three Senju watched him go with various expressions on their faces from anger to worry. Hashirama, on the latter end of the spectrum, turned to her, his brows pinched in apology. "I'm sorry, I'm not sure what's gotten into him." he sputtered. "If you'd rather not accept the mission, I'd understand. I can—"

"No." Sakura was determined to get that fan. She would accept his unspoken challenge.

"Show me you are significant enough to acknowledge." His eyes had said.

"With all respect Hokage-sama, I'd like to go."

Hashirama's expression remained concerned. Not because he doubted her personally, but more because, he could see something about the interaction with the Uchiha leader had upset her.

"Don't think you can accomplish this mission with bluster." Tobirama said sternly, looking up from surveying the mapped details. "It would be foolish and you would be forfeiting your life."

"My answer's the same." The pink-haired kunoichi said coolly. "I want to go on this mission."

'So shut up and tell me when I'm leaving!' Her irritation with Madara was bleeding through, and she wanted to be excused before her temper was unleashed.

"Brother…" Hashirama said quietly. "Sakura-san seems to be confident. We owe it to her to match her confidence with our own belief in the success of her first mission as a shinobi of Konohagakure."

Tobirama eyed his brother's pleading eyes, and then the clearly wound-up younger kunoichi who was staring off into space. Walking over to hand Toka the scroll, he closed his eyes in acquiesce. If she was to earn her keep in serve the village, she'd have to prove herself eventually anyway. "Do as you see fit."

"Right. Then I'd like you to pack for departure and convene at the village gate within the hour." Hashirama instructed the two women. "And, for my own peace of mind, I'd like to send additional aid. N-Not because I doubt you!" he added quickly, "But, they will shadow you and in the event it's needed, intervene if problems occur. I'll catch them up to speed and they can also meet you at the gates."

Toka turned to her mission partner. "Alright, Sakura-san. Let's both prepare ourselves to the fullest. By the looks of this map, we've got a day or more of traveling ahead."

Sakura nodded solemnly. "Yes!" She'd rather not have had her first mission in this time be helping the likes of Madara, but now that she'd agreed she was determined to see it through. That should take the smug look off his face!

'Get ready to taste defeat. Shannaro!'

"Madara, welcome back." The clan head looked up from his calligraphy to see his brother standing in the opened rice paper door, his hair ruffled slightly by a light breeze. "Did Hashirama find someone suitable to retrieve your Gunbai? I could go—"

"No," the elder brother interrupted. "Toka Senju, and a rather interesting girl have accepted the mission and I'm wholly looking forward to the results."

Izuna's silky ponytail spilled over his shoulder as he cocked his head in curiosity. "Oh? You've found someone whose strength you'd like to watch."

"I'm not sure. It would please me if her strength matched her fire. She seemed to despise me on sight."

"A jilted lover?" Izuna joked, taking a seat across from his brother.

"Hardly." Madara just barely resisted rolling his eyes. His hand was sure as he continued his smooth strokes of the brush. Not many would guess that calligraphy was a pass time for the feared Uchiha leader.

After all, what interest would he have in a slip of a girl with curiously pink hair?

Chapter Text

Sakura ran to the gates, her pack slung over shoulder and determination in her eyes. Her heart was pumping hard, both with adrenaline and excitement. After fighting so hard in the war, one would think she'd want a break.

Some time to simply enjoy the peace they'd won.

But she was denied that the minute the Dragon Goddess interfered. Now she was in a strange time, facing new obstacles, and if she stayed in the village she'd go crazy, trying to figure out what to do with herself. Throwing herself into this mission had two main benefits—a distraction and a way to prove Madara and Tobirama wrong.

As she noticed the large gates looming up ahead she quickly hopped down from the rooftops and made the rest of the way to them running across the dirt. She stopped, panting lightly and looking up to the procession gathered with a smile. True to his word, Hashirama had sent reinforcements who were all sporting packs.

The first person to speak was a young girl roughly Sakura's age, her dark hair in spiky pigtails sitting high on her head, and a familiar look of intelligence in her drooping gray eyes. "Well, I guess it's important to start with introductions, eh? I'm Shikamarin Nara." She gave a short wave.

Sakura blinked as she took in the girl standing there. She wore the Konoha headband on her forehead, a long-sleeved mesh top covered by a cropped dark green jacket with her clan crest on the sleeve, and a green battle skirt that came to her knees. She really did look like a female Shikamaru. Well, with more feminine facial features. "Not sure why Lord Hokage chose me for this, I have to say. My clan's only been here a few weeks and it sounds pretty bothersome, doing all this for a weapon. But I'll pull my weight."

The man standing by Toka looked skeptical. "Are all the Nara this relaxed?" he scoffed. Then he smiled slightly, "I'm Sasuke Sarutobi."

Sakura did a double take. Sasuke? Well, she supposed it wasn't an unheard of name but really! A Sasuke in this time period, from the Sarutobi clan. What were the odds she'd leave one Sasuke only to encounter another one? He was tanned, with dark hair tied in a topknot, and an equally dark beard. His blue eyes seemed friendly enough and he looked to be the oldest person there, maybe in his mid-thirties.

The last unfamiliar person had long, straight purple hair to the shoulders with expressive brown eyes, and in Sakura's unvoiced opinion, was rather androgynous-looking. "Hello, it's a pleasure to meet all of you. I am Susumu Fuma. I was requested primarily for my abilities as a healer, so my fighting may be subpar in comparison to you all. But, I will support you to whatever end. I hope we all work well together." Susumu ended with a polite bow. Sakura smiled, but inwardly she was no closer to deciding if this person was male or female and it made her brain itch. Another time.

Toka decided to go next. "Toka Senju. This promises to be a treacherous mission into enemy territory. So let's all keep our wits about us." Sakura immediately noticed her forehead protector was absent from its place on her forehead, and guessed it was likely the same reason she didn't have hers on her. They were going into enemy territory as women supposedly seeking a new life in the Kaguya clan. They couldn't afford to be connected to Konoha, which already had garnered a lot of attention. It would immediately blow their cover and put them in unnecessary danger. Of course the others would be hiding, so wearing their headbands or not wouldn't be as risky.

"And you, young lady?" Sasuke Sarutobi smiled kindly at her. "Looks like it might be your turn."

"Well, I'm Sakura Haruno, and I haven't been in Konoha very long…but, I'm determined to make this mission a successful one!" She said with passion, slamming one fist into her open palm, an old habit. Then, realizing that was an unusual gesture for a girl in this time period, she dropped her hands, blushing.

Sarutobi chuckled, and some of the tension eased from Sakura's shoulders. "It looks like we're all ready then."

Toka took the lead. "Yes, our destination is right in the heart of the Kaguya territory, at the foot of the mountainous region to the far east. It has the nickname the Land of the Dead for good reason."

'Wow,' Sakura thought. 'This Kaguya clan really knows how to sell it!' And Sakura had no doubt they lived up to all the rumors; she had to take this seriously.

"I still don't know how they just let you walk around…" Naruto grumbled, eyeing the Uchiha skeptically. They were walking through the thick brush of the forest on the outskirts of the village, Sasuke leading the way. The Uchiha seemed to know where he was going. He'd kept up a deliberate pace since they'd stepped out of the village.

"The perks of being the last of a valued bloodline, from what I'm told." Sasuke responded dryly. "I'm still pending my hearing with the village's shinobi council, but the Hokage convinced them there was no need to restrict my movements."

Naruto's sharp eyes shifted to a deeper shade of blue. "Does that mean you aren't running?"

Sasuke kept his pace, glancing at his companion only once with a blank expression. "I'm here, aren't I?"

Naruto stopped following. "But now Sakura's not." He fisted the fabric of his pants, "And I'm following you into the woods, because you said you've got a plan—"

"I do." The dark-haired shinobi hissed quietly. "But it'll only work if you focus. It's just up ahead now."

"What is?" Naruto asked tiredly. "Why exactly is the plan out here anyway?"

Sasuke took out Kusanagi and cleanly sliced through the brush, to reveal a decrepit looking building sitting just downhill. Naruto walked up behind him, staring at the rundown place Sasuke had brought them to in bewilderment.

Naruto's mouth twisted into an annoyed frown, and he resisted the urge to shove Sasuke downhill. "Are you joking—"

"No!" Sasuke snapped. "Now shut up and let's go!"

Muttering under his breath the whole way there, Naruto followed Sasuke down the slope and across the dry earth to what had probably once been some kind of temple—at least Naruto thought so—that had seen better days.

His eyes slowly took in the dilapidated state, worn by time and neglect, until his eyes landed on a familiar symbol carved into the wood, just under the slant of the roof. "That's…the Uzumaki—what is this place?"

"It belongs to your clan." Sasuke explained vaguely as he stepped through the doorway, Naruto now hot on his heels. "It's a storage temple."

"And nobody ever bothered to tell me?" The blonde's temper began to flare as he stepped into a room that was lined with…masks of all things.

Sasuke sighed. "You can take it up with the Hokage later, right now you need to clear your mind." Naruto was still agitated as he watched Sasuke take a seat on the dusty floor after picking up two masks from the wall. He handed one over to the bemused blond before placing one over his own face.

"Sit." Sasuke's muffled voice said. "And meditate."

Naruto stared at the snarling red face of the mask in his hand. The eye holes were glaring slants; it had bared teeth and oni horns. Why the hell did the Uzumaki have to keep such creepy masks? Why couldn't they just leave him some scrolls? He looked at Sasuke, who already seemed pretty deep in his meditation as he sat there completely still. Naruto guessed if the teme was taking this seriously, then he should to. Out in the middle of the woods in an old building full of creepy masks, no one would bother them while they were vulnerable…he hoped.

With a heavy sigh, Naruto carefully placed the ugly mask over his face and sat down, trying to clear his head. He'd done something like this on Mt. Myoboku and at the temple when he was learning how to connect with Kurama.

Naruto was honestly clueless about what the Uchiha could possibly have in mind. Like he was tuned into the blonde's thoughts, the dark-haired ninja spoke.

"Now we're going to link our chakras…" Sasuke spoke suddenly. "And summon the Sage of Six Paths."

"We are making good time. The Kaguya stronghold will be upon us in three days." Toka told their group.

"We should make plans to camp here for the evening." Sarutobi announced, his muscular arms folded over his chest as he surveyed the area. "I'll look for food." He withdrew a kunai from his pouch with a smirk. "I hope no one minds game meat."

"Anything that'll keep us going," Shikamarin drawled. "It's not really the time to be choosy anyway, is it?"

"Good to see you're a sensible one. No one else has a sensitive stomach, do they?" Sarutobi's eyes drifted to the delicate-looking purple-haired healer.

"Oh n-no," Susumu quickly replied. "Don't worry about me. As long as I don't have to see it gutted I'll manage just fine."

Sarutobi gave an affirmative nod. "I'm off then." Sakura watched him go off into the brush.

"What should we do then?" Shikamarin asked, blinking slowly.

"Susumu-san, would you be willing to gather the wood?" Toka asked.

Susumu smiled in relief. "Yes, that's a task I could definitely do."

"And Shikamarin-san, I hear you're skilled with traps. It never hurts to be cautious."

"I get it. Make some around the camp grounds, right? On it." She stretched her arms above her head lazily.

"Sakura-san, you and I will get water from the stream."

Sakura shrugged inwardly. She could've had worse than canteen filling as a task, so she wasn't complaining.

As she walked beside the brown-haired woman, she began to wonder what else Toka could do, besides Suiton. Maybe when they got back, she'd be willing to be her sparring partner in the future.

"So, you've been up against the Kaguya before?" Sakura asked casually.

"Yes, just the once though. I remember it vividly," Toka's eyes hardened.

"Doesn't that mean there's a chance they might remember you, too?"

"Doubtful. It was fifteen years ago now. Many of them that were fighting that day died. Struck down by the Senju, or their own…"

"W-What?" Sakura gasped.

"When they become bloodlusted, many can't distinguish friend from foe. Killing is all that matters." Toka explained coolly. "That being said, what we're doing is essentially espionage. If we're discovered, or can't escape undetected, we'll fight our way out, or die. Are you prepared for that?" Sakura met Toka's intense eyes determinedly.

"Yes, once I get a mission I follow through."

Toka tilted her head curiously, pushing some branches away as they continued for the stream. "I may understand…why Hashirama chose to have faith in you. I admit I was curious about the kind of kunoichi you truly were. I've known both Hashirama and Tobirama since we were children. I saw them as younger brothers…and as you may have guessed, Hashirama is always quick to trust, and just as quick to forgive." Toka smiled fondly. "Tobirama airs on the side of caution, always. He may seem distant at times, but he cares for his comrades, and the village."

Sakura hummed in thought. She could see the white-haired man making himself the "bad guy" so his brother didn't have to be. Despite the strictness he'd displayed so far, clearly he cared for his brother if no one else.

Toka went on after more silence. "This dream of Hashirama's…partnering with the Uchiha's…I was skeptical. I doubted his judgment and whether he truly understood what he was asking of all of us…" she admitted quietly. "We had been fighting for so long and endless blood was spilled on both sides. My younger sister, my older brother…" Toka broke off with a deep sigh. "But I also wanted to believe in the future Hashirama was trying to create, for their sakes. So I staked everything on following him down the path he chose for our clan. We all did."

Sakura felt her admiration and respect growing by the minute. Toka had devotion strong enough to overpower her own fears and lingering animosity. "I think Hokage-sama is lucky to have your loyalty."

Toka gave Sakura a small, humble smile. "We're luckier to have his leadership. I was right to believe in the impossible…and now I would gladly give my life in defense of the village."

Sakura nodded in understanding. To some, a shinobi sacrificing themselves to defend their homestead was one of the greatest honors. "All the same, I think I'd like it better if you were around for a while. I could really use a sparring partner." Sakura joked, lightening the mood.

"A partner…" Toka repeated thoughtfully. "Yes, it's been sometime since I've trained with anyone outside of the clan. A change of pace would be…nice." She agreed. "But first, the mission."

"The mission." Sakura repeated. They had found the stream, and Toka handed her two empty deer-skin canteens to fill, while she filled three others. "How do you feel about it?"

Toka looked up, capping the first canteen she'd filled. "It doesn't surprise me Madara Uchiha has made many enemies for himself." She replied evenly. "Unfortunate perhaps that we're taking his place in a trap,"

'So she's not exactly happy to be helping him either.' Sakura reasoned.

"By the way, I hope you don't mind me asking, Sakura-san…what is your history with Madara?"

Sakura groaned quietly. She should have known the confrontation with Madara wouldn't go unnoticed. "It's not him…" she lied. "In the past, an Uchiha hurt a lot of people who were close to me. I think seeing one so suddenly caused that reaction. He reminded me of the one from back then."

"I see. The Uchiha have hurt many, it's true. But so have the Senju…" Toka hung her head. "It's difficult to truly move forward. Generations of bitterness aren't so easily erased by a piece of paper." She stood, arms holding the three full canteens.

Sakura realized she still was holding the first canteen in the stream and quickly finished filling it before doing the second one. "I promise I won't let my feelings jeopardize the mission or endanger anyone. I want to prove that bast—I mean I know I'm up for this."

Toka cocked her head. "And just what are your specialties in combat? Mine as you may have guessed are Suiton techniques. I also employ poisons."

Sakura was surprised and impressed by the news. Her eyes gleamed with curiosity. "Really? Would you um, be willing to show me?"

Toka chuckled. "If I show you, then it means a truly tough battle is underway."

Sakura sighed. "Fair enough. Well, I think I told you before, but I use a lot of taijutsu. Oh, and I know medical jutsu too. So um, if Susumu-san needs help, I can back…" Sakura trailed off, not sure what the correct pronoun was. "I can back up a fellow medic."

Toka's brow arched, "You're a healer? I haven't met many outside our clan that are skilled in combat and healing. Your skills may become a very valuable asset on this mission, if any of us is wounded. For that reason, take care not to allow yourself not to become incapacitated."

"Don't worry about me, I can hold my o—"

"AIYEEEEEEEE!" Sakura's declaration was cut off by the sound of a shrill scream that made both her and Toka jolt in alarm.

"That came from the area where we set up camp!" Sakura exclaimed.

"Let's go! Prepare yourself." The Senju warned, already taking off. Sakura was right behind her, mentally gearing herself towards what could be the first battle she had in this time.

When they broke through the foliage, what they found wasn't exactly what they were expecting.

Susumu was kneeling beside the prone body of Shikamarin Nara, who was sprawled on the ground, unmoving. A bundle of sticks the healer had been sent to gather laid discarded haphazardly by the way side.

"Did you see what happened?" Toka demanded, walking over to stand above the body of the young Nara and the frazzled medic.

"N-No!" The healer's head shook frantically. "I came back and she was out cold! I can't find any injuries or anything."

Toka's eyes narrowed in thought. "Well Sakura-san, this is your opportunity to assist. I will make sure there are no hidden enemies. If Sarutobi-san returns—"

"Right here…" The buff man walked calmly into the clearing, several small animals he'd managed to catch tied up and slung lifelessly on his back. "Figured I should head back and see what the issue was. Besides, that scream scared away all the game for miles." He tilted his neck, cracking it.

Susumu's head ducked in shame. "I-I'm sorry. Maybe I'm not cut out for life outside the temple after all…"

"Hey now, none of that." Sarutobi shook his head. "You're on this mission with us, so that means we're trusting you to watch our backs. And we'll watch yours."

"I'll be back as soon as I've confirmed the area is secure." Toka announced, taking off into the trees.

Sakura studied the body of the unconscious girl carefully. If she didn't know better, she'd say she just looked like she was in a deep sleep…

"Hey kid, now's not nap time," Sarutobi set the animals aside and bent down to shake the girl's shoulder.

The Nara didn't so much as stir. "P-Please wake up, Nara-san!" Susumu shouted, in very close proximity to her ear. There was a trail of drool starting to leak from the corner of the girl's mouth…

"SHIKAMARIN NARA!" Sakura's scream didn't make the girl so much as twitch, but her two teammates stepped back from her with a wince.

Sakura quickly lifted her arm and checked her wrist for a pulse. It was strong and steady. Carefully putting her hand over the girl's body, she activated her medical ninjutsu for the first time in over a week, ignoring the noises of surprise from her comrades as she worked.

She probed Shikamarin's system until there wasn't a single cell she hadn't scanned. There were no toxins she could detect, no internal injuries, though she had figured that wasn't the case to start off with. She was just…out cold. Shikamarin had looked alert enough when she'd gone off to set traps, but then, she was a Nara. Was this some sort of medical condition? Had she accidentally inhaled something?

"I don't get it!" Sakura huffed. "Physically she's fine. But it's like she's in a coma…"

"I wish there was some clue to tell us how she got this way…" Susumu muttered sadly.

Sarutobi sighed heavily. "This is a problem. If we can't wake her up—"

A ferocious growl filled the air, and the group looked between themselves in shock. "W-What was that?" Susumu whispered.

"It didn't come from these guys," Sarutobi said dryly, motioning with his thumb at the pile of dead animals.

Suddenly, Sakura remembered back to the day she had lunch with the Hokage. "Don't tell me…" Cautiously, she dropped her head to the girl's stomach and waited.

"Sakura-san…?" Susumu trailed curiously.

Sure enough, seconds later a louder noise that vibrated against her cheek followed the first one.

"Quick! Do either of you have any snacks?"

"Eating at a time like this…?" Sarutobi scratched his head. "No, I don't have anything on me but some energy pills."

"Susumu-san, what about you?"

The timid purple-haired medic began to fidget. "Oh, yes! I packed some sweet buns! Just a minute…" Susumu began fishing through a pack, coming back with some pretty looking buns that looked like white peaches.

Sakura took one with a nod of thanks, carefully prying Shikamarin's mouth open. She broke a piece of the bun off and made her chew it, hoping her hunch was right. Shikamarin's reflexes kicked in and she swallowed. The team watched anxiously, bewildered but intrigued.

Without warning, Shikamarin's gray eyes flew open and she sat up, looking completely calm.

"Izanagi above, kid!" Sarutobi exclaimed. "What was that about? That was pretty scary."

Shikamarin took the bun from Sakura and continued eating, as if nothing had happened. "I set up the traps," she said between bites.

"Th-that's not…what happened?" Susumu squeaked.

Shikamarin looked around. "I don't really know what you mean. I set the traps and came back to camp."

"Yes, and then Susumu-san found you passed out cold." Sakura pressed. "You don't remember fainting?"

"Hm? No, not really…" Shikamarin sucked her fingers thoughtfully after finishing off the bun. "But you know…I think kaa-san said something about it once. Something about me getting knocked out the minute I get hungry. It's not like I ever remember."

Sakura's brow twitched. "So you fall asleep randomly the minute your stomach's empty?"

'What kind of shinobi does that?!' She inwardly screamed.

On the other hand, a part of her wanted to unravel the medical mystery behind such a strange condition. She'd never seen or heard of anything like it. Sure, shinobi and civilians came to the hospital dealing with sleep issues. She'd even once treated a little boy with narcolepsy who would constantly hurt himself when he fell asleep in the middle of activities. Was this a strange new form of that?

Shikamarin shrugged. "Like I said, it's not like I remember much." She looked expectantly at Susumu. "Do you have any more of those buns?"

Sarutobi rubbed at his forehead. "…It's barely started and already this is a doozy of a mission."

Sakura, now wondering if the biggest threat to her safety were her enemies or the quirks of her teammates, sat down heavily on a nearby rock. 'You can say that again…'

Chapter Text

Sakura nibbled at the freshly cooked game meat they were having for dinner. Despite Susumu scaring away the prey with the commotion, Sarutobi had managed to catch three rabbits and two quails. He then cleaned and gutted the animals by himself, performing the fire jutsu necessary to cook them. Clearly, the man had survival skills.

After the earlier scare and the revelation of the female Nara apparently having some form of narcolepsy, Sakura was feeling slightly better that an adept ninja was watching her back. Then there was Toka, who had firmly volunteered herself for first watch. Sakura had caught a glimpse of a devoted, softer side to the other kunoichi at the stream, but now the Senju's focus was entirely on a mission.

'I've gotta get my head right for this too.' Sakura thought. Thinking about the fearsome clan she'd be up against, the inside of her wrist suddenly felt hot, and she rubbed it against her thigh with a gasp. Hoping no one had seen, she glanced up. Luckily, the others were engrossed in their meals.

"Before we reach the Kaguya's land, you will leave us, and find a hidden area to make camp for the duration of the mission. Should we need you in anyway, I will send word by means of my summon." Toka was explaining to Sarutobi.

Susumu, head tucked, picked at the sleeve of the thick lavender kimono, eating daintily with one hand. Sakura squinted. Such delicate mannerisms led her to believe Susumu may be female after all. Vaguely, she was reminded of Hinata.

Shikamarin on the other hand ate with much less care, with more energy than Sakura would expect to see from a Nara. So far, the only thing that seemed to get her going was food.

Sarutobi also ate heartily, tearing into his quail meat and wiping the juices away with the back of his hand, the other arm planted on his muscular thigh as he listened to Toka's plan. The scars littering his exposed arms told of a life of many battles, especially the prominent scar running down his bicep. His built physique told of training from a young age, and the seasoned look in his eyes spoke to his experience. Overall, out of all of them on the mission, Sarutobi could easily be captain, if Toka hadn't already taken up the position.

"So another day and a half, huh?" Sakura mumbled.

Her comrades looked at her, their faces illuminated by the firelight.

"You aren't getting jitters, are you kid?" Sarutobi asked.

"Well, I know what I'm up against, so I know to be cautious, but I think a mission like this is almost a relief." In comparison to fighting a war, went unsaid.

Toka, Sarutobi and Susumu gave her strange looks, Shikamarin too absorbed in her meat to care. "Well you know, I haven't taken a mission since I came to the village. I was afraid I'd get out of practice." Sakura explained carefully.

"Huh. This mission, fighting a bunch of barbarians is a relief, is it? A little bit of a thrill-seeker?" Sarutobi smirked. "I like your style, and that was some quick thinking back there. Hell if I knew what was wrong. You seem like you have a decent head on your shoulders. Just keep your wits about you and it'll stay there."

Sakura sighed, staring into the glow of the fire. "Believe me, I've had plenty of practice with dangerous enemies."

"We all have." Toka replied solemnly, standing. "Try to rest, everyone. We set out again at dawn."

Sarutobi stretched his legs out with a sigh, swallowing the remains of his meat. "Diligent, that one." He nodded to Toka's back as she left to patrol. "That's good news for you, though." He told Sakura. "Whose watching your back can make or break a mission." His eyes trailed to Shikamarin lazily. "Of course…I'm sure you're well aware of that." The man scratched at his beard, stood and began rummaging through his pack, to set up his sleeping area.

He turned to Shikamarin and Susumu. "Let's go you two. I want you both on alert tomorrow morning." He told the other two shinobi.

Susumu stood suddenly, bowing. "Y-Yes!" Sakura watched the other medic rummage through a nearby pack and set out a light travel bedroll.

"Time to sleep? You don't have to tell me twice…" Shikamarin grinned happily, rolling out her own bedroll.

"You sleep when you're full…you sleep when you're hungry." Sarutobi shook his head half-heartedly. "I just hope you'll be able to put that kekkei genkai of yours I've heard rumors about to good use when the time comes."

"Hey…" Shikamarin climbed onto her bedroll, lying flat on her back with her arms behind her head. "I always get the job done, old timer…"

"Old ti— I'm thirty-five!" Sarutobi huffed good-naturedly. "Of course, I guess that is old for us shinobi." He chuckled sardonically.

Sakura quietly took out and set up her own bedroll, still deep in thought. The first test in this new time period was upon her. Madara's smug expression flashed through her mind, and she squeezed her eyes shut in anger before slowly opening them, more determined than ever to see the mission through.

The last thing she heard as she closed her eyes, was the Nara on her left wondering what they'd have for breakfast.

She was surprised to open her eyes and find that she wasn't in the forest by the campfire. None of her companions were anywhere to be found, and there was an eerie fog that blanketed everything. "What the hell is going on?" the bewildered kunoichi demanded. Sakura let herself wander, on high alert for a possible threat. "Hello? Toka-san?" she called warily. Silence. "Shikamarin…? Sarutobi-san…?"

"You won't find them here." A familiar voice answered coolly.

Sakura's head turned sharply to the right, and there, standing elegantly in her emerald kimono, was the goddess she had met before during meditation.

"I-It's you again…!" the kunoichi swallowed thickly.

"Indeed." The Dragon Goddess smirked gently.

Sakura took in the woman's appearance, and her eyes immediately drifted to the two appendages curled on either side of her head. "You…look different." She said quietly.

Sprouting from Mizuchi's long hair were two curved ebony horns. The goddess looked pleased with herself at the comment. "Being connected to a mortal with an exceptionally potent life-force has made me stronger. As I gain strength, my appearance may alter, but do not be alarmed." Mizuchi explained nonchalantly. "I will continue to grow as my connection to you deepens. Think of yourself as my tether to the mortal realm. For now, I am corporeal only in this realm. But soon…that will no longer be the case."

Sakura looked down at her wrist, where the mark of the Otsutsuki was fully visible once again. "Please…tell me what your intentions are." Sakura looked the goddess directly in the eyes, willing herself to be brave. "My last experience with a goddess wasn't the best…"

Mizuchi seemed to consider the pink-haired mortal. Her aristocratic face scrunched slightly. "Dear Sakura, please. I am not the fool Kaguya was. I told you all I can about my intentions. I simply wish to observe through my progeny." Sakura tensed as Mizuchi stepped forward, extending two long fingers toward her chest. "You." Sakura felt the lightest tap between her breasts, and her body tingled.

"W-What's going to happen to me?" Sakura questioned. "I mean, I've seen some of Kaguya's descendants. Their tier of power is beyond anything I can do now."

Mizuchi frowned crisply. "You doubt yourself? That won't do. You won't complete the tasks I've prepared for you full of doubt."

Sakura's eyes widened. "Tasks?! You just said—"

"I want to observe, yes. But things must be set in motion, all the same." The goddess answered, almost sounding bored. She cocked her head, and some of her long ebony hair spilled over one shoulder. "Many were fated to die before your arrival. And some would never live."

Sakura was beyond frustrated by the goddess' cryptic statement. "What's that supposed to mean? Any way I look at this…it sounds like you're asking me to change things." The pink-haired medic shook her head slowly as she tried to process that. "A-And I know I'm in no position to refuse you, but changing history…has consequences."

Mizuchi's brow rose. "Oh? The uncertainty of the outcome perturbs you?"

Sakura nodded hesitantly.

"I have seen you fight in spite of your fear. Even when you believed Kaguya was an opponent you could not beat, you battled valiantly. That is the reason you were the one I chose…" Mizuchi said calmly. "You won't deny me, will you?"

Sakura saw the hard glint in those golden-green eyes and knew better than to argue against a goddess. If she was understanding correctly, the longer Mizuchi attached herself to Sakura, the stronger she was able to manifest on the mortal plane.

If she wanted to get rid of this goddess before she could become a threat, while she had yet to gain her full strength would be the best time. But was that even a good idea? Mizuchi was the reason she was in this time…if she found a way to destroy or seal the Dragon Goddess, what would happen to her, a girl already in a time she didn't belong to?

Would she fade from existence? Or be stranded here, in the past forever… Right now, whatever the goddess had planned, it was likely best to keep appeasing her. In time, maybe the whimsical deity would decide Sakura's mission was complete, and return her to her own time.

'I'll just…think of this as a long-term mission. And the sooner I finish the sooner I go home.' Sakura told herself.

"A wise decision." Of course, Sakura wasn't sure how she felt about this telepathic link…"Of course, I am a benevolent goddess to those who have curried my favor." Mizuchi's eyes closed and she looked particularly pleased with herself. "For your success, you will be rewarded. Your first challenge…a triumph against my sister's progeny…Ohoho…prove that my bloodline is superior. I have already given you the power."

Sakura's eyes opened wide, startled. Above her was a clear sky full of stars. A dream…it was all a dream. But that didn't mean Mizuchi hadn't really made contact. She glanced down at the spot where the mark on her wrist would be in the dark. She was beginning to understand that the mark was a direct link to Mizuchi.

When the goddess wanted to make contact, it burned hot. Could tapping into it be the key to unlocking the power she'd been given?

"I need to study this as soon as we get back…" she whispered to herself. She glanced around, but everyone seemed to be sleeping peacefully. She could hear Sarutobi's deep snores from somewhere nearby.

Toka, though… She wasn't around, but Sakura could feel a chakra signature close by. She wasn't a sensor, but there was no killing intent in the presence and she figured it was just Toka patrolling.

'Maybe I should help her…she's been up all this time, and it's not like I ever get back to sleep after that anyway.' Sakura stood up with a stretch.

She turned up out of the blue. She had a questionable origin. And most intriguing of all, she seemed to despise Madara nearly as much as he did… Some things were bothering him about the mysterious girl, Sakura Haruno.

And yet… "Hashirama…" Across the table, his brother was happily slurping up a bowl of hot udon. Because Hashirama insisted that though he now lived in the Hokage Manor and Tobirama the Senju compound, they should eat dinner together regularly.

Hearing his name, the Hokage looked up. "Hm?" Noodles hung from his lips, and with his brown eyes innocently wide he looked ridiculous. Definitely not like a man strong enough to be the leader of a shinobi village.

Ignoring his brother's undignified table manners for the moment, Tobirama pressed on. "I've been thinking about Sakura Haruno…" He stared into his bowl of hardly touched food.

Hashirama messily slurped the noodles into his mouth. "What about her? She seems fairly reliable, and I think if Toka seems to trust her, then that says a lot. We both know how Toka is with outsiders—" A thought seemed to dawn on the brown-haired man and his eyes lit up. "Oh, unless it's not about her skills at all." Tobirama's brow arched. He stared blankly as his older brother leaned forward with a sly grin. "Is it…like I first thought after all? Are you thinking of courting Sakura-san?! You have my full blessings, of course. I mean I was truthfully a little worried you'd ever find someone who wouldn't mind your attitude."

Tobirama grit his teeth as his brother rambled, and at the dig to his personality. "For the last time, idiot, I have no interest in that woman." He saw a curious pair of eyes that belonged to one of the women who routinely cooked meals, watching them as she passed by. "And I would advise you not to spout such nonsense."

The last thing he needed was the headache of rumors about his purported love life spreading around the compound. As it were, he fended off quite a few advances from Senju women already. Settling down could wait until the village had reached true prosperity. And when he chose a wife, it would not be a short-tempered, pink-haired girl who was nearly as snarky as he was.

"Oh…" Hashirama deflated from all his previous excitement at the prospect of seeing his brother married off soon. "Then it is about her competency?"

"Since she's taken the mission, questions about her competence in battle will be answered soon enough. Either she'll successfully survive the Land of the Dead. Or Toka and the others will return without her." Hashirama frowned slightly, but Tobirama saw it as something that was just that simple. Those who took things lightly or will ill-prepared for the harsh realities of shinobi life, died. It was a fact in their world. While the thought of a young girl dying on her first mission for the village clearly bothered Hashirama, he saw it strictly as a test. Was the girl worth keeping around, or was she dead weight?

"Then…" Hashirama trailed off, his eyebrows puckered in confusion.

"Did you not notice the intense animosity she held for Madara during their first meeting? Although she said 'you' as if she'd known him from before."

Hashirama scratched the side of his head, shoveling more noodles into his mouth at the same time.

Tobirama impatiently waited for his brother to finish chewing. "Well, I guess it's true they didn't hit it off well…"

Tobirama felt his eyes roll. That was an understatement. The killing intent was enough to prove that she was at bare minimum, a kunoichi.

"But," Hashirama continued. "These are bloody times we live in. There are many people would have had the same reaction to seeing either one of us. The Senju are not without their own enemies." He waved his chopsticks at his younger brother, before eating a piece of aburaage.

"I'm aware of that," Tobirama said flatly. "It's unavoidable. But in regards to this Haruno girl, I can't help but wonder how her feelings toward the Uchiha will affect her placement in the village. If she truly holds a vendetta…"

"It doesn't effect yours much." Hashirama smirked playfully. "Besides, Madara is capable of handling hostility. He understands that some rifts won't be repaired easily."

Tobirama gave a snort as he lifted his cup of sake to his mouth. As if Madara was so forgiving…

Holding grudges was an official Uchiha pastime, if someone were to ask Tobirama.

"If you're so concerned about her intentions, why don't you get to know her when they return?' Hashirama laughed. "You could see how she's acclimating to the village and observe her daily life for suspicious activity."

"Perhaps…I will." Tobirama nodded solemnly.

"Huh?" The Hokage blinked. "I…I was only joking!"

Tobirama stood. "Usually sitting through your obnoxious table manners is a chore. But I feel like I've actually gained something from this dinner. Unusually, I may have you to thank for that, brother."

Hashirama continued gaping, too surprised to respond to Tobirama's backhanded compliment.

"It's growing late. You should return to the Manor." Tobirama tossed over his shoulder as he left the kitchen.

"Well, I could always stay here for the night…" the Hokage mumbled meekly. "I did have a room in the compound before moving into the Manor."

A white head of hair popped back around the door frame briefly. "Not anymore. I've converted your bedroom into my own study. To avoid cluttering my own room."

Hashirama wilted. "How could you be so cruel? It's like you don't want me here…"

He received silence as an answer.

"Well, this is it…" Toka announced.

Sakura stared up at the imposing fortress at the foot of the mountain that they could see off in the distance. "Wow…" she breathed. For barbarians, they had a handle on how to make a sturdy enough looking fortress, that was for sure.

The Kaguya stronghold, where she assumed the entire clan was based, was surrounded by a thick stone wall on all four sides, the back of the base was literally built into the foot of the mountain for added protection. Sakura could just barely make out a large compound behind the barrier. Due to the region, there was a thick layer of fog that added an ominous touch. And since they were close to the mountains, it was chilly.

"Starting today, we aren't kunoichi of Konohagakure. We are wandering shinobi with no home, looking to settle with the Kaguya."

Sakura nodded in affirmation. It was important that they both kept the aliases they were going to use at the forefront of their minds.

"You will use your medical jutsu to impress them, and I will have my Suiton techniques." Toka continued. She reached up, pulling at her small ponytail until her hair had fallen to touch her shoulders. Her bang she kept covering her eye. "I am no longer Toka Senju. I am Tomoko Sawada."

"Should I change my name too?" Sakura whispered.

"I highly doubt they'd remember a civilian clan, but hell maybe it's better to air on the side of caution." Sarutobi said, arms crossed as he leaned against a tree. He chewed restlessly on a senbon he had gotten from Toka, claiming that his wife often used them, and that chewing them helped him redirect nervous energy.

Sakura looked thoughtfully up at the stone wall they'd be penetrating soon.

"Um, what about...Sakuya Haruna?" Shikamarin drawled.

"That's hardly a change…" Susumu sighed.

"Oka…" Toka muttered.

Sakura smiled brightly. "I like it. Oka Takahashi seems plain enough."

"But Sakura-san… what about your hair?" Susumu fretted.

Sakura bit her lip. "Well…I guess maybe…" She quickly formed the correct hand signs and in a puff of smoke, in place of the pink-haired and green-eyed Sakura Haruno, there was the honey blond, brown-eyed Oka Takahashi.

"Now's the hard part. We have to get them to trust us, or we'll never get them to let their guard down long enough to get the fan." Sakura said, rubbing her chin.

"This mission may take some time. I will send you updates on our progress periodically through my summon. But they will be watching us carefully, so it will be tricky. Not many people have joined the Kaguya willingly. Most of the women brought as concubines are captives." Toka said, a hard edge to her voice. "Set up camp in this area."

Sarutobi nodded. "Understood. I'll cover our tracks so well, they'll be none the wiser the enemy is living under their nose." He winked. "So you two had better do a good job fulling them on the inside."

"Don't worry." Toka smirked. "I have plenty of experience in espionage."

"Please be careful…" Susumu told them, brown eyes looking watery. Sakura wondered if she—for now she was operating under the assumption that Susumu was a girl— had ever done anything like this. A part of her felt that Susumu must have come from a civilian background and lucked onto a path as a shinobi.

"That's right…or this'll turn into a rescue." Shikamarin added.

"Idiot," Sarutobi lightly flicked her forehead. "You've got some nerve."

"Alright, the fog at the foot of the mountain is lifting…we make our move." Toka and Sakura looked at their comrades one more time and headed for the Kaguya's settlement.

The remaining three ninja quickly hid themselves without a trace.

Chapter Text

Despite Toka's declaration that the fog had lifted, to Sakura it still was unnervingly dense. She had to rely entirely on her honed shinobi senses to detect any possible threats. She could feel Toka nearby more than she could see her, but the hairs on the back of her neck still stood on end. Fighting blind was not exactly a specialty of hers.

"Unnervingly quiet…" Toka muttered.

"This close to their compound…there's no way they don't know we're here." Sakura whispered back.

As if her words were the trigger, Sakura's shinobi senses kicked in and she suddenly found herself ducking as Toka yelled to get down. Not that she hadn't planned to. Projectiles were shooting at them through the fog, one coming so close it cut her across the cheek as she rolled to dodge another. The air whistled as more projectiles rained down on them and one landed precariously close to the kunoichi's foot.

Curious and irritated, Sakura bent quickly and pulled it from the earth. Her eyes narrowed in scrutiny. 'What the hell? Is this…a humerus?' Hundreds of hours of medical training had made her especially familiar with the human anatomy. And Sakura knew she was holding a human bone in her hand. What threw her was the unusually sharp point the bone ended in. Normally, because the humerus connected to the ulna and radius, it functioned more as a socket. 'Ugh, this isn't the time to nerd out!'

Standing up at the ready, Sakura watched as Toka spit several senbon from her mouth that knocked some of the smaller bones flying at them from the air. There was a grunt of pain through the fog as one of the redirected projectiles apparently connected with a target. Then it was a short pause, and what sounded like indistinct murmuring. Not ready to drop their guard, the two kunoichi wordlessly maneuvered themselves so that they were back to back. Toka pulled more senbon from her pouch and Sakura held the humerus like a short sword. "We are not here to fight. We wish to seek asylum with the Kaguya!" Toka's voice rang out clearly through the valley.

Sakura felt a bead of sweat trickle down behind her ear as she held her breath. She was ready to fend off another attack, either way.

After a considerable tense silence, a gravelly voice began speaking. "…Asylum, eh?" Several voices chuckled.

"…Sure, we'll think about that. If you survive!"

Feeling more bones coming her way, Sakura narrowed her eyes in focus. 'There, there and there…!' Each one of the metacarpals she expertly deflected found its target through the mist, judging by the hisses.

Sakura was fully prepared for the assault from above as a man came flying towards her, a bone extended from his palm and a crazed smile on his face. She quickly blocked with her own makeshift weapon, digging her heels into the dirt and using her strength to force him back. Not letting up, she followed with a flurry of punches while he was off-guard, mindful of the fact that the enemy could use bone projectiles at will.

Already battered by the girl's herculean strength, the nameless Kaguya was gasping for air, bones protruding from his body like the quills of a porcupine. But there was one area he hadn't covered…

The last thing the Kaguya saw was the fist flying for his face, slamming into his eye. He dropped solidly to the ground, unconscious. Sakura dusted her hands and turned to see Toka had immobilized three other members by utilizing the moisture in the air for her Suiton technique. She'd trapped them all in a water prism, forcing them to hold their breaths until they lost consciousness. The minute they stopped resisting, Toka dispelled her jutsu with a flick of her wrist and the Kaguya slumped to the ground.

The two kunoichi met eyes and nodded at their handiwork.

A low chuckle of approval sent an eerie chill up Sakura's spine, and she saw Toka stiffen. "Well, well…two competent kunoichi."

"That's right." Sakura said determinedly.

"And you came all this way, hm? Are you aware why it's called the Land of the Dead?"

"We've proven ourselves and we seek asylum." Toka said, ignoring the amusement in the man's voice. "Are we allowed to join you inside?"

The heavy sound of hoof beats across the dirt filled the air as the fog lifted further. An imposing man sitting atop a menacing black horse sneered down at them from several yards away. "Those you defeated are hardly a challenge compared to me." he boasted. "But, at the very least you've got ninjutsu and taijutsu skills…that's very advantageous if we could add that into our own lines." He rode a little closer, sizing them both up.

"What are your names?" he asked gruffly.

"Tomoko Sawada." Toka said.

"And I'm Oka Takahashi."

"And you expect me to believe you've come of your own volition? The women we bring back come kicking and screaming, or pleading. Few offer themselves up." He chuckled quietly.

"Our village was lost to battle, and we're the sole survivors. Your clan is the most powerful for miles. If it means sanctuary, we're willing to sacrifice ourselves, body and soul."

Sakura had to admire the way the other kunoichi handled herself. Toka was smooth as rich sake, calmly speaking without a hint of hesitation or fear, no tells in her body language either.

The man studying them had tanned skin, calculating black eyes, and equally black hair, parted down the middle and half up in a bun. His thick beard hung long down his neck, and his frame was beefy, large hands tightly gripping the reign as he steered the horse to circle them. "I don't exactly have the final say, but…" his thick tongue came out to lick at his dry lips. "Our leader should be pleased with you two. Who knows, one of you may even get the honor of bearing his grandchildren. No women worthy of his only son have come along yet…" he laughed loudly to himself, turning the horse back toward the fortress. "Follow."

Sakura and Toka exchanged looks with each other, and then looked back to the bodies still laying unconscious on the ground outside the compound. The man on the horse glanced back and scoffed. "Why are you hanging back now? Not thinking of turning tail, eh?" he grinned coldly. "Or if you're worried about those worms, don't. They'll drag themselves from the dirt and get to plead for their lives later."

The kunoichi slowly followed behind the powerful flanks of the big black horse. "Plead?" Sakura questioned.

"We're a proud warrior clan. We have no use for those who fall in battle." He explained. "If the enemy doesn't cut you down and you can't get back up, then you don't deserve the honor of carrying the Kaguya name."

Hearing him so nonchalantly talk of slaughtering their own clan members horrified Sakura, but it also made her secretly roll her eyes. 'If that's how they operate it's no wonder their population is dwindling. They're getting killed or killing each other faster than they can repopulate.' So far, everything she'd heard of the Kaguya rang true. They were battle-obsessed and barbaric.

"If you're allowed to join us hear, it'll be the same for you…" he continued. "Prove yourselves useful, or you'll be practice for the young ones to perfect their aim."

This time, when they approached the fortress, the man on the horse lifted his arm in signal and the gates rolled open for them. Sakura took a deep breath quietly, following behind Toka into a whole new world.

Sakura's expression soured when she thought of the reason behind all this. That bastard probably wouldn't even be grateful, with how arrogant and entitled he'd seemed in the Hokage's office. It was only her proud that allowed her to stay the course. Sakura didn't care less if the Uchiha and his weapon were ever reunited. 'Madara had better appreciate the lengths we're both going to in order to get back this damn fan. We're literally putting our lives on the line!'

"Madara…" the voice rattled, "I…want you to have…my eyes. Use them to protect…our clan." Izuna panted with no small amount of effort. It was clear he was in a great deal of pain.

Madara frowned. "You'll need them more. When you recover, I'll need a second pair of eyes fighting at my side."

"Brother…you can't protect me from the inevitable." The chuckle Izuna tried to make stopped as he coughed wetly, eerily.

In a rare display of emotion, Madara's arm shook as he reached for his brother, laying prone and injured on the cot, clan healers frantically trying to treat his wounds. He remembered the moment Izuna fell in front of him, and how alarmed he'd been, terror gripping him at the thought of losing his last immediate family. Then, with the absurd sense of timing he always had, Hashirama had suggested that they cease the endless fighting once and for all. And Madara, so broken from the constant skirmishes that left his proud clan so depleted, had almost agreed.

Until Izuna's feeble voice had stopped him, and his eyes hardened again. What had he been thinking? Izuna wasn't even cold yet, and he was ready to give in to those damned Senju! Hashirama may have been his friend once, but things had changed for both of them. And childish dreams were just that—childish. His clan came first. His brother came first.

He watched Izuna take ragged breaths as a healer woman dabbed at his forehead with a cool cloth. They were keeping the wound clean and wrapped, staunched it to the best of their ability. But that damned bastard, that Tobirama…

Damn those Senju!

And with great bitterness Madara thought about how if his clan had healers that knew the technique the Senju did, Izuna may have already been healed. Instead it was touch and go for the last week, and his brother wasn't getting better. "Lord Madara," A healer shakily rose to his feet after so long on his knees tending to his brother. "May I have a word?"

Grimly, Madara nodded, leading the man outside Izuna's room. "Speak plainly, will my brother recover from this?"

The man, a healer who had been treating their wounds since he was a young child, wrung his hands, avoiding his heavy gaze. "I…I don't think so milord. Lord Izuna's will is keeping him alive, but only just. His chances…of succumbing to his wounds before the week is through are high." After delivering such horrible news the man swallowed, ducking his head in sympathy. No one wanted to face the ruthless temper of their leader.

Madara's mouth twisted into a cold sneer. His anger at the Senju, at the situation and even at himself for ever believing there could be peace, was mounting. "Go." He ground out, "Return to Izuna." The man bowed, his eyes full of sympathy as he left Madara alone with his thoughts. The Uchiha leader exited the compound building to step outside, a slight breeze moving his hair.

But immediately, sounds of a commotion came to him on the wind.

"Who are you?! We won't ask again!"

"She may be sent by the Senju, after Lords Izuna and Madara! Kill her if she takes another step!"

Knowing that someone unfamiliar had arrived, Madara was quick to shunshin in the direction of the compound's entrance. Instead of any Senju he'd ever seen, what he found were a group of Uchiha in a tense face off with a woman in a dark green kimono. Black hair past her hips spilled out from under the tassled takuhatsugasa that covered her eyes and nose. All he could see was her smooth skin and a pert ruby mouth.

"My sister treats her descendants with such little care." She murmured, laughing quietly.

Madara's Sharingan was activated immediately. "Not another step!" he growled, placing himself between the woman and the entrance to the compound.

Her head turned, and she breezed right by the other Uchiha.

"What the hell is happening? I can't feel anything!" he heard one shout in horror.

"What did she do? We're paralyzed."

Madara ignored them, drawing his gunbai in preparation for battle. He could not afford to let an intruder attack them with Izuna in such a critical state.

"You dare attack the Uchiha on our own territory?" Madara scoffed.

"Calm yourself, Uchiha." She sighed, seemingly unconcerned. "This is not an attack. I came to save one of your own. His life force is weakening by the day, is it not?"

Madara stiffened. How did she know about Izuna? Had word spread so quickly? "Are you claiming to be a healer with the power to save my brother?" Despite the prospect of that possibility making him the tiniest bit hopeful, he remained guarded.

"I only ever state what is within my power to do." She replied coolly. "However, my time on this plane fades. I don't have a tether here. If you truly wish to save your brother, then you will take me to him with no more delay."

Madara studied the woman. She was tall and poised, her pale hands clasped gently in front of her. Her posture and the expensive looking fabric of her kimono suggested she was some sort of nobility. However, her aura was unlike anything he'd ever felt. He was far from a sensor-type, so he couldn't pin down exactly what type of chakra was emanating from her, but it was monstrous. Greater than his, or even Hashirama's.

Without looking directly into her eyes, it was hard to see the intentions in them, or trap her with his Sharingan. He had to rely on his intuition. A war raged inside Madara. Regardless of where she came from, if she could restore Izuna to health, then Madara would make her do so. Even if she was not willing, he wasn't above coercing her. However, if it was trap…he would be a fool to allow her into their stronghold.

"My lord, please, be careful!" one of the Uchiha cried out. Madara had almost forgotten about them in his intense face-off with the strange woman. The Uchiha that shouted the warning was the young Kou, one of the promising young members of his guard.

"Quiet!" he heard another Uchiha hiss at Kou. Hikkaku. "Lord Madara is no fool. His judgement is sound." Hikkaku strained against the woman's power to meet Madara's eyes with a look that said he respected any decision his leader chose to make.

"What will you gain by saving Izuna? Are you hoping my clan will be indebted to you?" That would be the most plausible. Perhaps she wanted an alliance and had heard of Izuna's condition, deciding to seize on the opportunity.

After all, Izuna would be the clan leader in his absence, or should he fall in battle. Madara didn't want to think about who'd inherit the clan if he and Izuna were both gone. Neither of them had heirs, or had thought of settling, despite mounting pressure from the Uchiha council for both of them to take wives. Likely, should they both die young and without a chosen successor, the clan would be split into factions all vying for the position of the next clan leader.

Madara was pulled from his thoughts by the quiet voice. "It's not what I'll gain. Your mortal lives are so brief, after all." The Uchiha leader wondered if he'd misheard. "But, helping to save him from death will be in the benefit of not only your clan, but her as well."

Now Madara was truly confused. Her? Before he could demand an answer, the medic who had been overseeing Izuna came running out, looking frantic. "My lord! Please come quickly…Lord Izuna…!" he swallowed thickly. "I believe…it's time…"


The shock caused Madara's eyes to involuntarily deactivate for the first time since childhood.

"Well, what is your decision?" asked the woman.

Gritting his teeth, Madara dropped his head in frustration. "If you can truly do what you say you can—"

He stopped and pivoted on his heel, marching back into the compound with the woman practically gliding behind him. His men were released from their bind and as they got their bearings, Madara's pace increased until he was darting through the Uchiha compound at high speed. Surprisingly, he felt that the kimono-clad woman was still at his side.

He threw open the door to Izuna's room and the medics scrambled out of his way. No one questioned the presence of the mysterious figure at his side, as she settled herself on one side of the dying young man. Kneeling gracefully, she began unraveling the blood soaked bandages without pause, even as Izuna took drawn out, ragged breaths. Madara wiped the sweat from his brother's brow, willing this to work.

"I see…" She murmured, eyeing the ugly wound in his side. "This is no ordinary death wound…but then, when my foolish imouto wants to be spiteful, she is always thorough." Saying that, she brought one slender, long fingered hand over the weeping, bloody hole in Izuna's side, her focus entirely on her task.

Madara sat silently, jaw clenched, as he watched. It didn't look like she was doing much of anything. The wound continued to sap away Izuna's life. Losing his patience, Madara heard himself snarl.

"Well?" he snapped. "Will you heal him or will you die for deceiving me?"

She ignored him, holding her palm upward. Under her breath she murmured words he couldn't hear in a steady mantra. The Uchiha wondered if she was some sort of priestess who thought she could pray Izuna back to life.

That was when the most remarkable thing happened. Black ichor rose from the wound, floating above her palm. She clasped it in both hands, and when she opened them…

It was a butterfly, dark as midnight, fluttering serenely. Madara wondered what trick, what genjutsu he was under. She'd drawn something out… The butterfly alighted in her hands, and with a soft smile she brought it gently to her face. "A blight. The minute my sister marks those she deems unnecessary for death, they are blighted. It does not matter how they die, or by whose hands, she blights them, when she does not need them." Madara didn't understand any of what she said; he only cared if his brother would live to see another sunrise.

He chanced a peek at Izuna's face, and to his internal amazement, he had already slightly regained some of his color. He was pale anyway, as were all Uchiha, but now he no longer had the sickly hue of a cooled corpse.

When he heard the strangled gasp of one of the medics in the room, he looked up in time to see the woman, the healer who had possibly saved his brother, had raised the butterfly to her lips…and eaten it.

Disgusted and unnerved, Madara watched as the last of the twitching wings disappeared into her pretty red mouth. She swallowed daintily, a charming smile on her lips, despite her eyes still being covered. "A blight cannot be allowed to return into the air. It will just fly back if it does." She explained. "Now, I can begin healed him." Her hands ghosted over the weak Uchiha until she pressed both palms to the wound and applied pressure. Izuna, still unconscious, whined in pain.

Unable to do anything more than watch, Madara grit his teeth. He stared as her feminine hands grew dark with his brother's blood, an eerie golden light pouring out of her hands and into his body. He had never seen that.

Once, he had seen Hashirama heal the wound of another Senju after a fierce battle. His chakra had been a deep shade of green. But Madara knew next to nothing about how healing worked, so he couldn't say for sure if the technique the woman was performing was normal. Clearly, she was not.

He was sure that his face was betraying his emotions as he watched the infected wound that had been painfully killing his brother begin to close before his eyes. The quickened breaths Izuna was taking were slowly starting to even, and even more of his healthy color had been restored. The only noises in the room were the small whimpers from Izuna, but even those were gradually lessening the longer the healer worked. Madara was so completely transfixed by the sight of his brother coming back to life, he almost missed the woman slowly lifting her blood-stained hands from the now healed flesh. The skin bubbled briefly, and then finished pulling itself together. Aside from the mess of dried blood there, no evidence of the injury remained.

Madara realized he'd been holding his breath, and expelled a large gush of air. Izuna…Izuna would… He raised a hand to touch his brother's hair.

"Incredible!" One of the medics exclaimed, breaking the spell.

"In all my days, I've never seen such an astounding technique…" the same healer, who'd only recently told him Izuna wouldn't make it, was staring at the kneeling woman in awe and curiosity. "Please, you must teach me."

"Would you consider joining the Uchiha, as a medic?" another healer piped up. "We have so much we could learn from you. We'd finally be on par with the Senju's healers!"

Madara's brow rose at the forwardness of the medics extending an invitation without so much as asking him. But it was a thought. She had effortlessly saved Izuna. She could save many more Uchiha.

"I suppose…given the situation, it is an offer I will formally extend. You have proven your medical skills invaluable." Madara spoke.

The woman lifted her head, and for the first time, he caught sight of her eyes. They were an odd mixture of liquid gold and forest green. A unique shade somewhere in between. "I care little for that. I only do what I must to prepare."

"You're also quite skilled in speaking in riddles. Clearly, there is more to you than a wandering healer." Madara stated.

She laughed sweetly. "You comprehend the obvious." Rising slowly to her feet, she clasped her hands together again, unbothered by the blood on them. "My work is done. He will live, and I will go." Madara and the other Uchiha watched as she made her way to the open door, her long hair like black silk behind her.

"What would make you reconsider?" One of the healers asked mournfully.

"Nothing was being considered to begin with. I simply did what I felt needed to be done." She stated carelessly, not turning. Before she crossed the threshold of the door, she turned slightly, and smiled. As beautiful as it was, there was also something chilling in it.

"Look for me in the arrival of the blossom that blows among the leaves."

She was out the door then, despite the cries of the head healer, begging her to return. Madara stared silently, his mind working to absorb everything he'd witnessed.

Several healers had gotten up to chase after her, but he remained at his place by his brother's side. He heard confused shouts of "She's gone!" from outside, but his eyes were all for his brother, who was starting to stir.

With considerable effort, black eyes opened, looking dazed at first. Madara watched in relief as Izuna seemed to finally return to the world of the living, slowly turning his head to meet his gaze. "Madara…?" he asked, clearly confused.

Madara felt his lips twitch into a rare smile.

He yawned loudly, not bothering to hide it. Since that day, Madara had questioned what he'd seen many times. Regardless of the fact that there were other witnesses, and the proof was in Izuna being alive. It was like a lurid dream, something so detailed yet so surreal.

"That yawn wasn't very noble, Lord Madara," the warm breath against his naked back made him half turn, only to see the amused smirk and lovely eyes that he'd expected.

"I see no need to keep up airs, given my company." He replied, sitting up.

"I consider myself lucky," The voice laughed airily. "I'm one of the few privy to such unguarded moments." Madara shuffled himself so he was facing the front of Naoko. Only to see she had propped herself up on an elbow, watching him with hooded eyes. She used the tip of her finger to trace a lazy pattern against his hip bone.

"So you presume to know when I'm being unguarded?" he asked challengingly.

The satisfied smirk never left her mouth. "I believe besides your dear brother, and perhaps our charming Hokage, I am one of the few who could make that presumption, yes."

He gently caught her wrist as her hand drifted further from his hip, and she laughed brightly. "Not up for more?" A pout he knew all too well. With anyone else, she might have been able to get her way. "You allowed me to stay through the night. That's rare as of late." Her mood turned suddenly serious as she rolled away to stretch her lithe body out. "Something must be on your mind."

Madara scoffed. "Again, you presume to know me so well."

"Years of being around you has afforded me that privlelage." She shrugged leisurely. "I at least know when you try to hide your true thoughts."

Deciding the only way to through her was with candidness, he said. "I dreamt of Izuna…of the time I almost lost him."

She nodded with a hum, placing her warm palms on his broad shoulders and kneading the taut muscles soothingly.

"But you didn't. He's out in the training yard right now," Naoko reminded. "Most likely cursing your name."

Madara glanced over his shoulder with furrowed brows. "And why would he do that?"

"Because it's long past the time you were due to help him train the young ones." She smiled coyly, like a cat who'd had her fill of cream.

Madara stood abruptly and she rolled off the bed with a squeak.

She was ignored as Madara left to clean himself, most likely hoping Izuna wouldn't be too upset. Izuna was normally mild-mannered, not as intense as his brother. His was a quiet sort of anger, but one equally as bad as Madara's, when provoked.

Forgetting his commitment to help with the training of their clan's promising young shinobi to spend a morning romp with her was likely not an excuse Izuna would want to hear, or accept.

Naoko lazily stared at the ceiling, wondering what she could do to make her day less dull. Clearly, she wouldn't be getting more of Madara's attention anytime soon. Picking herself up, she found her scattered clothes and nonchalantly dressed herself as Madara got himself ready in another room. "I suppose I'll just…see if some lucky man would like to have a late breakfast with me." She sighed loudly, making sure he heard.

"My regards," he called back, disinterested. "Make sure he's aware you eat your weight in food before the meal. It's only fair."

Scrunching her face in disdain, Naoko marched herself across the bedroom just as he returned from the bathroom, his hair still wet as he began slipping on his clothes, before securing his armor.

"For the record," she said, eyes narrowed. "I pity the woman who weds you. That bedside manner will make you a horrible husband."

Madara chuckled quietly to himself as she left his house.

As he made his way out onto the training grounds, he saw a row of young children, all practicing kenjutsu techniques Izuna was demonstrating. He stood back, leaning against a tree to watch as his brother corrected several of the children who'd performed sloppy strokes, complimenting their star pupil, Kagami, as he flawlessly imitated the move Izuna had shown them.

The Uchiha prided themselves on being proficient in several areas they felt were key to raising exceptional shinobi. One of those areas was the use of a variety of weapons. And Izuna was by and large the most skilled swordsman of their clan. There was only one opponent he had ever lost a draw to: that damnable Tobirama.

Aside from that, his kenjutsu ability was a great asset in teaching the next generation. Kagami especially, both brothers had agreed, was a gem that had would it took to possibly be their successor. The boy was barely ten, but he was the child of his generation blessed with the natural talent of the Uchiha more than any other.

"Enough with swords, for now." Izuna instructed, and all the children sheathed the short swords they were holding. "Everyone here has mastered the basics of fire jutsu, correct?" The children nodded obediently. "Then you're all ready to learn more of our clan's signature bukijutsu."

A small cheer went up among the children, and it was at that moment Madara decided to make himself known. He pushed off the tree, sauntering casually toward his brother. Izuna seemed to be in a fairly good mood, but there was no guarantee that would last the moment they met eyes.

Despite their propensity for fire, Izuna was more than capable of freezing someone out quite effectively when they angered him. Instead of lashing out in rage as Madara did, he allowed others to stew in his silent anger.

Izuna heard his footsteps and all the children quieted down the minute they noticed the frozen expression on their teacher's face. "I'm sorry, everyone. I'll have to show you more after I speak to my brother." A few of the children looked disappointed, but no one was brave enough to object as they scampered off, far enough down the training field where they wouldn't get caught up between the brothers.


"It's nice of you to finally grace us with your presence, Lord Madara. I wondered when you'd descend from the throne."

"Obviously you're unhappy with me…" he laughed quietly.

The scowl on Izuna's face made that pretty plain.

"A bit, maybe." He took out his sword and sliced cleanly through a three inch thick wooden target. "I don't object to how you spend your time or with whom, only when it runs into—"

"Clan matters," Madara finished. "Yes, you've only said so over a hundred times." He added flatly. He squinted at the unamused look on his brother's face. "You're more like Mother than you realize…"

Suddenly Madara found himself blocking the sword that came flying for his armored chest. He knew that Izuna had struck, knowing he'd be able to parry, and he spent a minute admiring the speed and power in that one stroke as he fought his brother off in a stalemate. "If I was anyone else, I'd be dead." He mused. "You came at me with true killing intent…"

"I would be disrespecting you to come at you with anything less." Izuna replied blankly. He flicked his wrist, able to push Madara's sword aside enough so that he had a clean shut at an upward thrust. The elder brother grunted. His armor absorbed most of that blow, but it further proved Izuna wasn't playing around, and that he intended to fight his brother until his anger had subsided.

"The real question though, is are you disrespecting me?" the younger brother asked, taking the hilt in both hands and going in for the crescent slash he'd just been showing his students. Madara successfully moved, and then parried when Izuna followed it up with a downward stroke that had sparks flying from their blades.

"…That was pretty personal. Had that follow up hit landed, I very much doubt I'd ever have heirs." He gave his brother a dubious look, and Izuna grinned wolfishly. Both their swords were pointed down, as they both fought to disarm the other. "Your point has been made little brother, I assure you. Now stow your blade and your anger."

Izuna huffed, pushing up on Madara's sword at an angle the minute he loosened his hold so that it went flying into the air and landed in his left hand.

Izuna stabbed both blades into the ground.

"Please don't insult me with a half-spun apology, Madara." Izuna spat.

Madara sighed quietly in relief. His brother was finally ready to listen. "You know I wouldn't. Your work with them," he nodded toward the group of children practicing on the far fringe of the training ground, Kagami helping a young girl grip her tanto correctly, "is very important for the future of the clan. I know you take the duty seriously. I should try to support you better." The tension started to flow from Izuna's shoulders. It wasn't necessarily an apology but it was at least sincere, by Madara-standards anyway.

Izuna took a long look at his brother. "You're troubled." He said suddenly.

Now Madara fought the urge to roll his eyes as Naoko's words came back to him. "It's no excuse, but I had the dream."

Izuna sobered, immediately knowing what he was referring to. Madara had never fully told his brother what transpired on that day. And he'd forbade any of the healers who were there from saying anything either. His brother's life had been saved through mystical means. He was almost certain of that, no matter how many times he tried to convince himself otherwise. Many nights Madara had mulled her words over in his head, and they'd never made much sense. They remained as cryptic as they had been on that day.

Until Sakura Haruno had appeared.

A girl with pink hair and the name of a blossom, turning up in Konohagakure, a village he'd personally named. Hidden in the Leaves. At the time, he'd thought it was just a whimsical thought that had crossed his mind due to the falling leaf.

Was there a connection or was his mind just grasping at straws to solve something that had been bothering him for months?

"I'm alive." Izuna grasped him by the shoulders, peering into his eyes. He even pulled up his shirt so Madara could see the unblemished skin. "That healer brought me back from the brink, and I promise not to let myself be put in that situation again."

"Don't make foolish promises, little brother." Madara said absently. "Dying is something we shinobi are born to do."

"That's true," Izuna agreed slowly. "But I won't die anytime soon." He stubbornly stated.

"And that would be nice, because I doubt I'll find that odd woman again." Madara conceded drily. "But there's something I never told you, the last words she said to me."

Izuna cocked his head.

Sakura discreetly glanced around, trying to memorize the layout of the compound. They'd passed many houses, all as drab as the others. Young children sparring fiercely, people haggling with each other for food, and most unnerving of all, young women with dead eyes who were clearly not born members of the Kaguya clan, trailing listlessly around men who tugged them around like property.

Some of them held newborns, so clearly the Kaguya had already successfully used some of them as broodmares. Sakura vowed to do what she could for them before their mission was through. Of course, proving themselves useful and biding their time was the primary purpose of them being there, until they could find and recover the fan.

Intel gathering for future use against the Kaguya was secondary, and realistically, helping the women being held captive was last. The man had led them to a stone building bigger and more imposing than any of the other smaller houses they'd seen.

He dismounted his horse, grabbing the arm of some passing boy who also looked like he wasn't a Kaguya, and barking at him to take his horse for feed at the stables. Sakura's heart ached for the cowering young boy, who nervously grabbed the big horse's reigns, trying to avoid the nasty snap of its teeth as he led it away.

"We are about to enter the presence of Lord Yoshiro. If he deems you worthy, we will find places for you amongst us, until suitable matches are made. If not, you die. And I get the honor of killing you." The second option seemed to please the big man greatly.

"We should at least know the name of our executioner." Sakura said dryly.

"Call me Kento." He grinned broadly, looking even more menacing. "Now go," He had led them to a long hall with ornate, heavy wooden doors, and when they were closed he shoved them through.

They fell to their knees in what Sakura could only describe as the throne room of their leader. She peered through her blonde hair to see long legs up on a dias in front of them. "I've brought two new ones, my lord."

"Have you? Well I hope for your sake they last longer than the others." The man turned, an imposing man with the same tanned features and dark hair, long and down his back. He had two small red marks, just above his eyebrows, and for some reason, he was eerily fixated on Sakura, before his eyes slowly roamed over Toka beside her.

"They put up quite a fight and believe it or not, they want to join the Kaguya willingly, my lord."

"You are either confident or you are fools." Yoshiro said. "which is it?"

"We are simply in need of asylum, my lord." Toka said. "We have no more village and we are strong kunoichi. We could be of benefit if you allow us to join your clan."

"Benefit?" Yoshiro slowly descended from his platform, looking down at them from the part in his hair. The way it hung, long and lank, reminded Sakura sickeningly of Orochimaru. "I'll be the judge of that. You say they took out some greenhorns, Kento?"

"Yes my lord. The little blonde she-devil there pounded them with her fists. And the other seems capable of water ninjutsu. They should be sturdy."

Sakura wanted to gag at the way he said 'sturdy', knowing what he meant.

"Rise." Yoshiro commanded. Sakura and Toka slowly got to their feet. "One of you may very well be the woman I give to my son. Only the strongest will do to continue our lines." That made sense, of course. Strong genes bred strong children who would usually go on to be strong shinobi. But the Kaguya had such a disgusting way of going about it.

"Should I get the young lord, then?" Kento asked.

Yoshiro nodded solemnly. "Yes, bring my daughters too. They should all meet the new arrivals." he leered.

Chapter Text

Sakura blinked at the three children standing by their father's side, who were observing them with open scrutiny. As Yoshiro had said, he had two daughters and one son, who was hardly anymore a child than Sakura. One child, clearly the youngest, watched with curiosity on her face, while her older sister looked cautious. Both were tanned and dark-haired like the other Kaguya.

Yoshiro's son and heir, however, was a different matter. Although he shared the bronze skin and dark eyes of his relatives, the hair banded on either side of his face was white, just like the clan's namesake. He wore a periwinkle blue yukata, opening so far that a considerable amount of his muscular chest was exposed.

Sakura wasn't sure what she'd been expecting, but a small part of her was relieved she wasn't staring into the face of some grimy man with wandering eyes. Yoshiro's son didn't look much older than her, and he certainly didn't seem interested in her or Toka.

"Jun'ichi." The young man slowly looked at his father, dark eyes blank. "What do you think of these two?"

Jun'ichi stared at the both of them, his eyes alternating. "They're new concubines." His tone gave nothing away. He looked almost dismissive. His sisters looked more interested in the meeting than he was.

"That's not what I asked." Yoshiro pressed. "They are not like the others. Kento tells me they are decent kunoichi. Sturdy enough. You are my heir, and soon you will need heirs. I've allowed you to continue rejecting all the women I've sent you, but now is the time to choose."

Jun'ichi gave a barely audible sigh. "Are you sure, tou-san? With all due respect they appear…frail." He was looking at the disguised Sakura as he said it.

Without warning, he walked into her personal space, looming over her by a little less than a head. His long index finger reached out, and he none too gently pressed it to the cut running down the girl's face. Inwardly, Sakura winced as his finger jabbing into the cut made it throb and begin to bleed again.

On autopilot she lifted her hand and brushed aside the offending digit, keeping his gaze as she easily healed her small injury. There was silence, and she wondered if she'd done the right thing in revealing her skills so soon.

But, she reminded herself that she wanted to impress them. Give them a reason to keep her around. Odds were it would be easy to find and get into their weapon cache if she stayed close to the clan head and his family. Even if she already missed Konoha.

"…Did you see that?" the smallest girl whispered loudly, tugging at her sister's sleeve. Her hair was cut in a simple bob that didn't even reach her shoulders. The black hair swished as she glanced at Sakura again. "She healed herself!"

"Yes, she's clearly a healer." The older girl said back, shaking her sleeve from her younger sister's grasp. Her own dark hair was twisted into an elegant bun at the top of her head, some of it banded on either side of her face. "Now be quiet, Kikue."

"You know healing techniques." Yoshiro stated quickly, walking into Sakura's personal space too. She wanted to lean away, both from the man and his son. Yoshiro turned to his son, who was suddenly staring at Sakura with narrowed eyes.

It seemed like her demonstration had ignited at least a spark in the apathetic young man. Now he watched her like she was a loaded trap ready to spring, unsure of what else she could do. "You're the one." Sakura's eyes snapped back to Yoshiro, trying to hide her surprise. His dark eyes were shining with a strange greed. "Jun'ichi. This is the woman I've chosen for you. Do you object?" Sakura's eyes slowly trailed to Yoshiro's son. Jun'ichi. He seemed resigned to the notion this was happening. With or without his consent.

"And if I did? Would it matter?" He muttered under his breath. The white-haired Kaguya nodded mutely.

Yoshiro ignored it, his attention back on Sakura. "Our clan has never had a healer. Can you do more?"

Hesitantly, Sakura nodded.

"How much more?"

"I have an extensive knowledge of the human anatomy. I've performed countless successful procedures. Resetting broken bones, suturing battle wounds, detecting the onset of illnesses…" Sakura began listing a small amount of what she could do. She felt more confident now, more in her element. The Kaguya seemed more interested in her with every word. This had to be a good thing, right? Part of the success of this mission depended on her proving her usefulness.

"It's easy to say you can do more than heal cuts. But how do we know?" All eyes looked to the older Kaguya girl, who was scowling with her arms crossed.

"Harihane. Do not speak out of turn." Yoshiro growled. Surprisingly, the girl held her father's gaze defiantly. "But, my daughter has a point. I think I'd like a demonstration." Sakura was slightly confused. She glanced at Toka but any traces of the camaraderie she'd seen in her at the stream was gone. Her face was stone. She had entered a single-minded state where only the mission mattered. "Kento, go and fetch your stable hand."

"Yes, milord." Kento moved surprisingly quickly for his mountainous size. Sakura was feeling an increasing sense of discomfort. Not for herself. She was sure she could handle whatever the Kaguya threw her way. But she was lost in the midst of their brusque ways and heavy-handed culture.

She wished desperately she could slip away and discuss everything they'd seen so far with Toka. If only to be assured somewhat. She glanced at the older woman again, and this time, Toka spared her a small glance. She was sure in that one look she saw a look of steely calm. Toka wasn't scared or even apprehensive. She was alert and ready. Sakura had to try to be the same.

No sooner had she thought this than Kento returned. His large hand was wrapped around the scrawny arm of a small boy he was dragging along. Sakura held in a gasp as they got closer. It was the boy who had taken Kento's horse to the stable.

He was quivering, eyes wide in fear and confusion. His face and clothes were streaked with dirt, like he'd been doing something laborious outside before Kento had come and whisked him away.

"Alright. If you can heal the boy than I'll have seen all I need to." Yoshiro declared.

Sakura's eyes scanned the young boy from head to toe. He was dirty and scared but he didn't look hurt. Was there something she wasn't get—

"Kento, if you will."

In a flash, the boy was whining like a wounded animal as Kento squeezed harder on his arm. By the time Sakura realized what he was doing the protestation was half stuck in her throat. "Wait—"

The child's agonized scream drowned out her words. The big man dropped his small arm harshly and it hung limply at his side. His eyes overflowed with tears as he weakly lifted his other arm up to cradle his limp one. Shock and horror dominated her features as Sakura rushed to the boy that had fallen to his knees, bawling.

"It's rare for a Kaguya to break bones." Yoshiro continued explaining calmly. Sakura felt a small tremor of anger as she reached for the boy's arm, her hand glowing. "Thanks to our kekkei genkai our bones are perhaps the most indestructible thing about us." Sakura ignored him, gingerly lowering the arm the boy was using to protect his broken one so she could better examine him.

"I imagine his bones have been thoroughly shattered. Under normal conditions without treatment he wouldn't last long. We've seen it often enough with the servants we keep here." Yoshiro stated.

'Servants? More like slaves!' Sakura grit her teeth in a consolidated effort to keep ignoring the man.

"However, if you're truly a competent healer, then the boy has no need to worry. And neither do you." Sakura chanced a look at the man's face and almost lost it at the highly amused smirk he wore.

Sakura swore under her breath as she continued her diagnosis. It was a fracture for sure. If Kento had truly splintered the bone into pieces like he'd likely aimed to, without a hospital she'd have much more serious problems. But Tsunade had prepared her to work around adverse conditions in the field, so she was confident she could still help the poor boy.

She was, however, worried about the strength of his bones. It had been a while since she'd worked with a patient so obviously malnourished. His bones probably didn't have as much calcium as a young boy's should, and that could be a problem if they proved to be brittle.

"Don't worry. I'm here to help you." she whispered to the sobbing child. He seemed startled from his crying when she used her unoccupied hand to brush some tears from his face. His crying quieted minutely, hiccups interspersed through the tears. "What's your name?"

That got his attention. He blinked teary eyes, trying to gauge if the woman was truly safe. Biting his lip, he whimpered, sniffling loudly. Sakura didn't think he'd answer. Then he spoke with considerable effort. "Y-Yu-Yuuta." Sakura smiled comfortingly. She was aware that Toka and the Kaguya were watching her every move. It was now or never.

"I'm going to heal you, Yuuta. I'll try to make it as quick as possible."

She turned back to the family, who were watching her as if viewing a spectacle. Her eyes were cold. "I'll need something to splint this."

The amused expression never left Yoshiro's face. "Of course. Kento can get you anything you'll need." He motioned to the man that seemed to be Yoshiro's right hand, and he exited. If it weren't for Yuuta's sake Sakura would want him to take his time coming back. Any many that could so easily injure a defenseless child without remorse was a lowlife in her eyes. She imagined if Yoshiro commanded it Kento would do more than injure a child. But if she thought about that, she'd be too angry to focus, and right now a patient needed her.

Tsunade had taught her they could use their chakra to hold a patient's fractured bones in place, when surgical screws weren't available. Now would be one of those times. She sent chakra into Yuuta's arm, numbing it. Her chakra searched out the break, and she found two places. She was silently relieved it hadn't been much worse.

A man like Kento could have turned Yuuta's arm to pulp. She carefully brought one finger to the spot where she felt the break and pushed the pad of it to Yuuta's skin. He flinched instinctively but didn't cry out, so she pressed on. She used her chakra to hold the fracture together, and did the same for the other spot.

For good measure she ran her whole hand down his arm, using her soothing healing chakra to make sure her work would hold. Yuuta had almost stopped crying when Kento got back, but one look at the man looked like he was going to start up again. Sakura didn't blame him. She roughly took the materials he offered to her with a thinly veiled look of disgust and set to work splinting Yuuta's arm. The boy watched her work in silent awe.

She was careful not to jostle his arm too much, and when she'd tied the cloth up at his shoulder she sat back on her heels, satisfied. Yuuta looked down at his arm, then into her face, surprised. The boy had literally thought he was going to die. That much had been obvious. Without her medical expertise he just might have. "There," she smiled slightly. "Just try not to do too much with that arm, now."

"B-But…my chores…" he began meekly.

Sakura turned back to Yoshiro, her eyes hard. "This boy doesn't need to be doing heavy labor while he heals. My chakra will speed it up, but that arm still needs time to finish healing."

"Are you making demands now?" Kento glared at her. "We have a shortage of able-bodied servants as it is."

"Because I'm sure you overwork them." Sakura challenged boldly.

"Why you, sniveling—"

Surprisingly, it was Yoshiro's son who held up a hand to silence the bodyguard.

"You've proven yourself." He stated, his voice flat. "Father, I'd ask the servant boy be given lighter chores as the healer states."

Yoshiro's brow rose, his thin lips pressed together as he mulled over his son's request. "Very well…" Yuuta looked shocked. "Return to your quarters." He bowed clumsily, darting out of the room, but not before giving Sakura a large, teary smile.

Kento was clearly fuming, and Sakura had to hide a satisfied smirk.

"I've decided that you may have the potential to carry on the Kaguya name and give my son heirs. And a healer is something we're in need of anyway." Yoshiro eyed Sakura up and down. "What's your name, girl?"

"Oka Takahashi, milord." Sakura bowed, revolted as she was.

"That sounds like a civilian name…" Kento muttered bitterly.

"No matter." Yoshiro dismissed. "All the better, actually. A strong shinobi bloodline could possibly dilute ours. Whatever children my son has will need to have the bloodline of the Kaguya, and they shall."

Kento remained silent, though he glared venomously at Sakura.

"Harihane." The scowling young girl looked at her father. "Take Takahashi to your rooms." Sakura didn't think the girl could get more annoyed, but she was wrong. "And what's your name."

"Tomoko Sawada." Toka responded.

"You'll go to the servant quarters. Tomorrow you'll start working the fields for your keep."

Sakura was disappointed she and Toka wouldn't be in the same room, but maybe that was by design on the Kaguya's part. They'd just have to be sneaky about meeting up later.

Harihane decided it was time to interrupt. "But Father," she practically growled. "She," She pointed at Sakura, "is going to be Junji's bride. Shouldn't she stay with him? Or even Kikue!"

The youngest perked up at the sound of her name. "Kikue wants to see more!" She looked at Sakura with shining black eyes that were slightly unnerving, grinning toothily. "You can do more, right?"

"O-Only if someone's injured." Sakura forced on an awkward smile. The little girl puffed out her cheeks in a pout.

"Maybe someone will get hurt soon then," she mumbled quietly. "Kikue will bring them to you so she can watch." She said it so innocently. Like she didn't understand what was wrong with the statement. Sakura felt a chill go through her.

"Of course, you won't be allowed to have anything dangerous." Yoshiro smiled mockingly. "Kento, search her pack." Before the burly man could reach for her backpack, Sakura took it off and tossed it at his feet. She watched as he searched it thoroughly, hiding her thoughts behind a blank expression. 'The most dangerous things I have are my fists and my mind.' She chuckled quietly. 'They won't find those in there.'

Grunting, Kento threw the pack back at her. Sakura caught it easily.

"Let's go," Harihane marched over and grabbed Sakura's wrist, tugging. She had a surprisingly strong grip and Sakura could feel her wrist bruising. Even though she could have pulled away from the girl, she let herself be led away with one last glance back in Toka's direction. Kento was snatching her backpack away to search it.

Sakura was looking back at her as they were led in opposite directions. Toka had half-expected this. But she wasn't overly concerned. It worked in their favor.

If Sakura stayed close to the clan head and his family, and she herself could get information from the servant quarters, then they had a higher chance of not only discovering the location of the weapons cache, but Kaguya secrets.

As she walked behind the burly Kento she was taking in every detail, memorizing where she could see Kaguya guards lingering around, and devising a plan to come and go as she pleased. The clan was stretched thin. So all she had to do was find the chink in security, and exploit it.

Tonight, she would slip away and send a message to Konoha. Promising regular updates was the only way she'd been able to get the Hokage to agree to her request. Of course, Hashirama didn't know the full extent of it. He would have raised strong objections if he did, without a doubt. He was as soft-hearted as he was strong, and that's what made him such a beloved leader. It's why the Senju would follow him to the ends of the earth, herself included.

But, it also meant that sometimes he was blinded by his generosity. That was where others close to him such as herself and Tobirama came in. He was more than capable on the battlefield, but his tendency to seek out the best in everyone left him vulnerable. For this reason Toka would gladly make herself the tool that protected not only Lord Hashirama and the clan from more subtle threats, but now the village as well.

Sakura Haruno…Toka couldn't say if she was a threat. If she could be trusted, she'd be invaluable to the village.

When Lord Hashirama had sent her to help a new arrival several weeks earlier, he had been vague about details. Toka half expected the door to open to the face of some wide-eyed and haggard civilian. Instead, she was met by the cautious green gaze of a clearly battle-hardened young kunoichi.

Immediately Toka's guard was up. Many shinobi had started to enter the village from all over, and the scars of battle marred them all in some way or another. It was the steeled glint in their eyes when they passed by a member of a clan they had once lost someone to.

It was the physical wounds just starting to heal. It was the look of disbelief when they wandered the village, clearly in awe such a place existed. Toka understood all of this. What she didn't quite understand was Sakura. As she helped her under Hashirama's instructions, she observed closely.

She was never as open in voicing her mistrust or showing hostility like Tobirama. But even when Sakura kept up a harmless façade, Toka was sure never to completely lower her own guard. The girl looked so jaded at times as they walked the streets together, and yet Toka was sure she had yet to reach her second full decade of life. Compared to Toka's twenty-five years, she was just a child. And yet…

Sakura Haruno had clearly seen more than her years. It wasn't so uncommon in the war torn era they lived in. Children grew up on the battlefield and by Sakura's age, any vestige of innocence had been stripped away. If they lived that long.

The strange thing was that Sakura didn't strike her as someone who had led a particularly hard life. The wariness she'd seen was caused by something fresh, something that hadn't happened long ago. Hashirama had told her she'd claimed to have lost her only family and village not long before Tobirama found her, but Toka was sure there was more than that.

At times she felt bad, essentially spying on the girl, when Sakura wasn't aware she was around. Using the excuse of helping her get acclimated to watch her closely.

She seemed to be a genuinely good kunoichi, but the Senju refused to take chances. When she had seen Sakura in her house alone one day meditating, she hadn't thought much of it. But then something strange had happened. An immense chakra was suddenly surrounding the house, something almost unearthly…

Shortly after that, Hashirama told her he'd like for her to go on a mission, and Toka knew what she had to do.

"I'd like for Sakura Haruno to come with me."

Hashirama's smile had fallen slightly. "I don't understand…have you seen Sakura-san in combat?"

"No. But I'd still like her to come. I will take full responsibility if she gets in the way."

Hashirama stroked his chin in thought. "I'm not entirely sure about the nature of this mission. I only know that Madara has requested it and needs two competent kunoichi that have proven themselves. It could be risky. Tobirama certainly won't agree." He sighed. "If it's all the same, I'd rather send another Senju you've worked with before."

Toka understood Hashirama's concerns. She also understood what she was asking for could be seen as reckless and irrational. Two things normally not associated with the level-headed kunoichi.

But she had her reasons. Reasons she couldn't tell the Hokage or he'd never agree. "Please, Lord Hashirama, trust my judgement. No harm will come to Sakura-san. I'm willing to protect her if necessary." Toka didn't particularly enjoy lying to Hashirama. But it was for the good of everyone, she told herself. And, so long as Sakura didn't give her a reason not to, Toka would have her back.

"It's a large weight to put on your shoulders, Toka." Hashirama still didn't look too convinced. "Taking an untested kunoichi into battle…well, you've never done anything without reason for as long as I've known you." A slow smile spread across his face. Toka nodded, bowing in respect, even though they were long past such formalities.

"I won't let you down, Lord Hashirama." That, at least, was not a lie.

Hashirama had Sakura called into his office later that same day and explained Toka wanted her to accompany her on a mission. The pink-haired kunoichi had been all too eager to accept. Of course, her mood soured quickly when Madara Uchiha entered the room. Despite that, Sakura had decided to stay the course, and Toka was secretly pleased. It would derail things if Sakura had chosen to back out.

Hashirama had done his part in defending Sakura's participation in the mission to Tobirama, who she had known would raise the strongest objection. Madara was unconcerned with who accomplished the mission, so long as he could get his fan back. Toka knew that trusting his instinct and vouching for Sakura came from the kindness of his heart.

But she also knew that it was because of their old friendship that Hashirama was really allowing Sakura to go. Maybe he had a good feeling about the kunoichi. If he said he did, then he was likely being truthful. Then again, Hashirama tended to have a good feeling about most people. But what he hadn't said was more than anything, he was placing his trust in her. In Toka. She had no intention of betraying that trust.

Sakura seemed like a good kunoichi. She had the skills and she seemed to have the drive. Toka wanted to trust in her completely. But she believed in being thorough if nothing else. After what she'd felt when Sakura was meditating, she was sure there was more to the mysterious kunoichi than met the eye.

"This is where you're gonna stay." Kento announced, smirking as they stopped in front of a shabby stone building. It was far removed from the opulence inside the clan head's own home. "Nothing fancy. Not like you servants deserve it." He burst into the building, almost taking the wooden door down with a shove of his shoulder.

There were roughly twenty women inside, sitting at wooden tables and hunched over a pitiful amount of food. They'd interrupted their meal time. Instantly, all the women were at attention, practically trembling at the sight of the tall man.

"Fall forward!" Kento barked. They lined up obediently. "This one is new. Show her the ropes." He glanced around. "Where's Yuhi?"

"Right here, milord." Toka watched as a young woman stepped forward, not looking as intimidated as the rest. In fact, despite the cowering females around her, she held herself with a certain poise that was admirable. Her honey colored hair was tied in a high ponytail, loose strands falling into her face.

"You're personally in charge of making sure this one falls in line. If you fail you know what'll happen."

"Of course, milord." The girl bowed, a polite smile on her face.

Kento sneered at the women who were trying to avoid his eyes, delighting in their fear. He brushed them out of the way on his way to the table and looked down at the rations. Thin soup, half-stale bread and some cheese. He snatched up the closest bowl of soup and downed it in one gulp, throwing the bowl on the ground. It shattered loudly and shards scattered everywhere. Some of the girls yelped as they jumped to avoid the flying porcelain.

"Pig piss would taste better." Kento laughed, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Glad I'm not one of you. Enjoy your meal, ladies." He swaggered out of the quarters, slamming the door on his way out. Toka watched as shoulders slumped in relief all across the room as he left.

"I-I was scared he was here to take one of us away…" someone whispered off to the right.

"He wouldn't have wasted time taunting us if that were the case." Another voice sighed.

"Well, we're all here together for the moment. That's what's important." said the girl Kento had called "Yuhi". She turned to Toka, and this time her smile reached her alluring red eyes.

"You must be exhausted. We don't have anything grand but you're welcome to it," She gestured behind her at the table of food. "I'll show you our sleeping area after the meal. But first, I'll need to clean this up." She bent down with a sigh, carefully beginning to pick up the scattered shards.

One of the young girls gasped. "Oh! I'll get a broom!" She scampered off carefully.

"And I'll get a trash bin…" another girl volunteered.

Yuhi smiled as she continued to pick up the bigger shards. "They're all so helpful." She blinked when she noticed Toka was on the ground, picking up shards with a blank expression. The Senju had decided she'd need to ingratiate herself with this girl, who seemed to be something of a leader among the female servants.

"No, you don't have to—"

"I know." Toka interrupted. Yuhi nodded in understanding.

"Thank you…"

"Tomoko Sawada."

"Thank you, Tomoko. I'm Yurine Yuhi." She smiled slightly.

Chapter Text

Sakura watched as the young girl undid her hair from its bun, letting it fall down loose past her shoulders. She looked up at Sakura, who stood awkwardly by the door, and glared. "That's where you can sleep." She scoffed. "Don't come near my side."

Sakura arched a brow when the girl's back was turned. She had been given what amounted to a small corner of the Kaguya's room. It was obvious just how keen the little Kaguya was on showing Sakura how unwelcome her presence was. Harihane wasn't very old, and yet she had a considerable amount of contempt. It couldn't all be for Sakura.

As she got out her bedroll and began setting up her area, Sakura mulled over everything that had happened that day. They'd successfully infiltrated the Kaguya clan. However, she wasn't stupid enough to believe eyes and ears wouldn't be on her and Toka for a while. Hopefully, with any luck it wouldn't matter. They'd find out where the fan was, get it, and be gone by the time the Kaguya caught wind of anything suspicious happening under their noses. And they would definitely be gone before any wedding.

Personally, Sakura felt the sooner the better. She didn't know Toka very well, but she had to feel similar after what they'd seen, right? The way they treated the people they'd taken as servants was horrible. With the brutal reputation they had, it shouldn't have been a surprise. But Sakura kept remembering how Kento had broken Yuuta's arm without a second thought. She worried for the boy, and all the other young children who had to grow up here, fearful of what would happen if they placed even a toe out of line.

She glanced at Harihane, who was brushing her hair out with a comb, looking intensely into the mirror. Sakura couldn't help but wonder if the child slaves were the only victims who'd grown up inside the compound. Something had to make the girl so terse.

"How old are you, Harihane?"

She watched the girl glance at her slightly. "We won't be friends, okay? No use making small talk with me. You may have impressed Father, but that doesn't mean I'll ever accept you."

Sakura was getting impatient herself. She didn't want to be there any more than the young girl wanted her to be. It would be a long mission if she had to spend every night sleeping in the same room as such a bitter little girl. Maybe she'd stay with Toka and the other servants after all. Less likely to wake up with a sharp bone pressed against her jugular. "I'm not trying to be friends. I get that you don't want me here. Just trying to make conversation."

"I'm twelve." Harihane lifted her chin proudly. "I've seen plenty of battles, too. I'm not a baby like Kikue. And I'm smarter than Junji." She pulled the comb roughly through a tangle and hissed. "But…" her dark eyes narrowed on Sakura's reflection in the mirror. "You come along and suddenly you'll be Junji's wife, the lady of the clan…"

Sakura glared back. "I didn't come here to marry your brother. I just wanted asylum—"

"Hah!" Harihane waved her hand dismissively. "Do you think you're the first woman to say that?" Sakura was careful to conceal her surprise. Was Harihane…onto her? "I mean you're the first one that might actually be useful though. But still…my brother may wed you, but I bet he won't even bed you." Harihane stated smugly.

Sakura couldn't help but let her mouth fall open slightly. The Kaguya turned, her arms crossed and a satisfied look on her face. "You may have passed my Father's test, but you'll never pass my brother's. He's not interested in anything. Not marrying. Not being the heir. Nothing."

"Everyone's interested in something." Sakura insisted. "Even you, I'm sure."

Harihane turned around on her stool and stared at Sakura coldly. "I am interested in something. But it's Jun'ichi's birthright, not mine. Never mine." The girl stood from her stool, slamming her brush back down and stomping across the room. She glared at Sakura so venomously that the disguised kunoichi actually considered getting ready for battle.

Harihane's anger was slowly turning into killing intent. She looked Sakura up and down with disdain. "Father will ask me to acquaint you with the compound and help you adjust to life here. But I won't. I refuse. Let Junji or Kikue do it." She left then, making a grand exit and leaving Sakura alone in the large, cold room.

'Was I like that at twelve?' Sakura thought to herself.

She was moody and boy-obsessed and quick-tempered, but she was hoping she'd never been that bitter. But maybe…there was a reason behind Harihane's attitude besides just rebellion. If she were born into a family like the Kaguya, Sakura thought she just might be angry at the world, too. Especially if she was a young girl who was constantly overlooked.

Clearly Yoshiro's older daughter had some derision with her family. And it was spilling over into how she saw Sakura, who she thought would become her brother's wife. Sakura couldn't say why she was really there, so she'd just have to deal with Harihane hating her and hope it didn't cause any problems to the mission. 'Hopefully Toka's having an easier time than me…'

But Toka, collected and focused as she was, would probably take anything she encountered with ease. She would be getting ready to send the first report back to Konoha soon…That was what they'd agreed on before separating from the team. Toka had a summon that was inconspicuous and could quickly correspond with the village if necessary.

Sakura wasn't sure if she should even attempt to summon Katsuyu. Who knew how time-travel effected summoning contracts? She wouldn't want to strand the gentle slug like she was. Plus, the Hokage was familiar with Toka's summon. No one would know what to make of Katsuyu.

Sakura rubbed at her temple in exhaustion. The mission had barely begun and she was ready to leave. At this point she didn't care which Konoha she returned to, hers or the one she'd just left. Either was preferable to the Kaguya's den. She slouched down onto her bedroll, figuring she was safely alone. Sakura found herself wondering what her loved ones were up to in that moment. Naruto. Kakashi. Sai. Tsunade. Yamato. Her parents. Ino. Hell, even Sasuke, who treated her like a nuisance. Were they looking for a way to bring her home? 'It's weird. I'm so close to home, but so far away…'

Naruto wasn't sure what he was supposed to be feeling, but he was almost sure Sasuke's plan wasn't working. 'Stupid teme. He's so vague. How the hell do we summon that Sage geezer?' Connecting their chakras, even if Naruto did understand that plan (which he didn't), seemed like a pretty desperate attempt.

Sasuke was grasping at straws, as far as he could tell. The more he thought, the more frustrated he became. Just as he was about to demand Sasuke clarify, a loud creek filled the dusty shrine. Alert, Naruto pushed the mask back up, his hands already prepared to start forming signs. He was half-surprised to see Sasuke was sitting there with his mask also raised, looking bored. "Typical…" the Uchiha muttered.

Confused, Naruto turned to the shrine entrance, wanting to question him, when suddenly he heard voices, bickering loudly.

"Suigetsu you made us late! You are so utterly useless!" screamed a shrill female voice.

There was a scoff. "I made us late, eh? I'm not the one who held us up, trying to find the right outfit for her little reunion with Sasuke-kun." Sasuke's name came out mockingly high from the decidedly male voice.

"What…what is—" Naruto's question was cut off as two people appeared, a red-haired woman and a smirking man with silver-blue hair. "Hey! You're—"

"Karin. Suigetsu. It took you long enough." Sasuke cut in. "Where's Jugo?"

Suigetsu shrugged nonchalantly. "Eh. Big guy's traveling the world alone, taking a sabbatical to 'find himself', whatever that means." He rolled his eyes. "Anyway, we're here now."

"Can somebody explain what the hell's going on?" Naruto asked impatiently.

The red-haired woman stepped closer as if noticing the blond for the first time, squinting at him. "We're here to help with the ritual obviously. Sasuke-kun filled us in. Since you're both reincarnations of the Sage's sons, he thinks there might be a way to pull his spirit temporarily back to the land of living by syncing up your chakra. But that'd take an expert in chakra like me," Karin puffed out her chest. "Plus, it's experimental at best. All I've got to go on is some hypothetical theory, unfinished notes from Kabuto."

Naruto blinked slowly. Half of what she'd said was in one ear and out the other. Karin seemed to realize that, because she rolled her eyes and adjusted her glasses. "Sasuke-kun wasn't kidding when he said you were a dense one. Look, all you need to know is that if this thing works a portal will open and the Sage'll appear. He might know how to track your little girlfriend."

He glanced over and met Sasuke's eyes. The Uchiha's face was as blank as ever, save for an arched brow. "Well?"

Naruto rubbed a hand across his forehead with a sigh. "This sounds…like a weird plan. I don't even know if I get it…but well, if it means we might be able to get Sakura back, then yeah, I guess I'm in."

Suigetsu grinned, his sharp teeth glinting. "Alrighty, then you're gonna wanna try harder to clear your mind." He was looking directly at Naruto. "From what Sasuke says that shouldn't be too hard for you, eh?"

Naruto at first thought he was being complimented, then his lips fell into a frown. "Teme," he seethed, gritting his teeth.

"Stop agitating people, Suigetsu!" Karin smacked him, and Naruto watched as he exploded into water. "You'll make this whole process that much harder if either of them are restless." Suigetsu reformed fairly quickly though. Sasuke really knew how to pick 'em… A screeching banshee of a fan girl and some snarky guy that turned into a puddle…

"You both need to stop fooling around. Suigetsu, draw the circle, exactly like I showed it to you." Sasuke ordered.

Suigetsu pulled a face. "Ya know Sasuke, you're lucky you're stronger than me now. Still, with you guys all vulnerable during the ritual I might be tempted to…" he pulled a finger across his throat. "Kill ya~"

"Suigetsu, if you lay a hand on Sasuke-kun…" Karin growled, raising an open palm.

"Yeah, yeah…" Suigetsu waved her off. "Just a joke." He pulled out a kunai and started twirling it. "Time to get to work." With that he slit his palm and began drawing on the floor in blood.

Tobirama stared at the steaming food in front of him. Across the table, his brother sat grinning like a fool, his eyes shining as he sniffed the air deeply. There was enough food between the two to feed a family, at least. Dishes of fresh caught fish, bowls of rice, edamame, and even some of the honey wine his brother adored. "This looks wonderful, doesn't it brother?" Hashirama didn't wait for him to respond as he turned to an older woman standing just over his shoulder. "You've outdone yourself, Mei-san!" he complimented.

The woman giggled, placing a hand against her flushed cheek. "Oh no, dear. It's always a pleasure." She replied courteously. "Let me know if there's anything else you'd like."

Hashirama only smiled. "You've done more than enough here for tonight."

The white-haired shinobi found himself resisting the urge to roll his eyes as the woman old enough to be their mother almost skipped out of the room. The clan truly loved Hashirama. Whenever he visited the compound, they bent over backwards to accommodate him. His brother always insisted it was unnecessary, but their clansmen did it not out of obligation to serve their leader, but genuine respect and affection.

He was a fair, kind leader. His way of leading the clan was much different from their late father's, who was stern, firm-handed and stubborn. He'd been a strong leader, but not the most approachable. Their people respected Butsuma Senju, but Tobirama always suspected that it was the position they respected, and the man they feared.

"Itadakimasu!" Hashirama said quickly, chopsticks already in hand. He immediately began helping himself, chewing loudly.

Tobirama wrinkled his nose. His brother's table manners were, as usual, lacking. He hid it well enough when they ate with potential allies, shinobi coming to align themselves with the village. But at home in private, his brother lacked all etiquette and simply dug in.

"Have some brother!" Hashirama urged, fish flakes sticking to the side of his mouth. Tobirama eyed him blankly before fixing himself a plate of fish and vegetables with a bowl of rice. He said his own quick thanks for the food before eating slowly.

For a while, neither talked, and Tobirama was just fine with that. Besides the fact that he wished there was something to drown out Hashirama's grotesque chewing. Hashirama looked like he was itching to start up a conversation. His normally chatty brother couldn't stay quiet for long.

Tobirama silently thanked the gods he so seldom bothered praying to when a clan advisor walked into the dining area, a familiar bird on his arm. "My lords," he said quickly, "My deepest apologies for interrupting. I just thought you should know Lady Toka's summon has arrived." Hashirama quickly cleaned his mouth, having the decency to look embarrassed.

"No need for apologies. Thank you for bringing him." He clicked his tongue at the large, gray owl. "Fukuro, to me." Tobirama withheld a snort. It was an incredibly unoriginal name, but, it was to be expected from Toka.

The owl spread his great wings and glided smoothly across the room to land on the brown-haired man's shoulder. Tobirama watched as the intelligent bird turned its head completely around and pulled out the scroll attached to the leather sling on its back. Toka had trained it well from a hatchling, and he delivered scrolls for her loyally. Hashirama took the scroll and brushed the back of his hand against the owl's chest in thanks. "I don't have a kunai…" his brother muttered.

Wordlessly, Tobirama produced one from his holster and handed it across the table. He ignored the disapproving look his brother gave him. Tobirama knew Hashirama wanted to scold him. Weapons at the table in the compound were rude, because it could be interpreted as a lack of trust in their clansmen. Tobirama was less sentimental on the matter. It was about vigilance, not propriety, their clan's feelings be damned.

Hashirama proceeded to carefully slice his finger and press it to the scroll. Toka was inherently cautious. Instead of leaving things to chance, she relied on the fierceness with which Fukuro protected any scrolls entrusted to him, and the sealing she placed on her scrolls. Tobirama had to admit, he found it clever.

There was a prick of envy he hadn't thought of it himself, using blood seals to secure messages. Only Senju blood would open a scroll. He waited patiently while Hashirama's eyes skimmed the scroll, which he could imagine was meticulously written in a careful hand, knowing their long-time friend.

Hashirama pulled the scroll away from his face, blinking, and then his brother's hearty laughter filled the air.

"I can't imagine anything particularly funny about a mission report…"

Hashirama grinned. From his place on the Hokage's shoulder, the owl began impatiently chewing the man's hair. "I disagree. The team we sent did their job as escorts. Although…there was an…incident with Shikamarin Nara."

Tobirama tilted his head slightly to show he was listening. He doubted it was anything morbid, because his brother wouldn't be smiling if anything had happened to the Nara heiress. "Toka writes about a strange condition where Shikamarin fell asleep without remembering. It was caused by…" he paused. "An empty stomach, or so Sakura-san hypothesized."

Tobirama stared. And stared. And stared. "You must be joking."

Hashirama laughed nervously. "We'll have to keep that filed…other than that, it seems the mission is going incredibly well so far."

"Care to elaborate?" Tobirama finally returned to his food, chewing his fish.

"Well, the infiltration went as planned. The Kaguya have taken both Sakura-san and Toka in and given them roles. Toka is going to gather as much information as possible from the other servants…and Sakura-san…" A strange looked passed over Hashirama's face. "The Kaguya have apparently become so impressed with her talents as a healer that Yoshiro Kaguya is intent on marrying her to his son and heir."

Tobirama poured himself some honey wine and drank it down in one go. "That girl? A bride?"

Hashirama nodded. "Healers are invaluable, now more than ever. You know that. The Kaguya are facing a crisis with their clan's resources constantly being depleted. Their clan's skill range has never been as balanced as ours, or even the Uchiha's. They rely heavily on offensive abilities and value brute strength above all else, to the point of brutality against their own when one of them fails. Marrying the heir to a woman who is both capable on the battlefield and according to Toka, a very skilled medic, is actually a good match on this Yoshiro Kaguya's part…"

Tobirama grunted. His food was all but forgotten, but he still held his chopsticks. He supposed from that standpoint, the girl did hold value, her temper aside. It made him more determined to unravel the mystery behind Sakura Haruno. He knew Toka wasn't one to embellish someone's abilities. If the girl was a liability, she would have said so. But somehow, Sakura Haruno had turned into something of an unexpected asset if she truly had the Kaguya so captivated.

His brother was back to eating and talking with his mouthful. "We'll let Fukuro rest for the night and send him back to Toka in the morning." He offered the owl a piece of fish and the bird snapped it from his fingers without hesitation. Hashirama stood up and walked to a window, opening it. Fukuro flew out with a strong hoot, likely to go rest up in the Senju aviary.

"That way he'll arrive around nightfall, and have cover." Tobirama concluded. For once it seemed like his brother was thinking sensibly without prompting. It was a sound plan. Toka had likely timed when she'd sent him out so that he'd arrive to them in the evening. Owls were nocturnal after all, so it wouldn't draw attention if one was active, unlike during the day.

"I think this team should be home before we know it." Hashirama said cheerfully.

Tobirama only sighed. "The mission isn't over yet, brother."

The sun was barely on the horizon, the sky still dark, when Toka felt a hand on her shoulder. Her dark eyes snapped open immediately. She'd never been a heavy sleeper. A life where the treat of death was ever-present made it hard for her to ever truly let her guard down. Definitely not in enemy territory. It was only Yuhi, she realized, smiling kindly and pressing a bowl into her hands.

"Good morning," the blonde whispered. "Sorry to wake you, but it's time to get up." Toka didn't complain as she rose; she was a disciplined kunoichi and had been trained to rise with the sun from childhood. "It's not much but you should eat the porridge." She continued. "The day will be long and it'll be hard to work the fields when you're hungry."

Toka nodded in thanks, taking the spoon stuck into the lumpy substance and eating silently. It was tasteless and half cold. She would have almost preferred rations, but she wasn't one to complain. Nutrients were nutrients, and it would be naïve to expect the comforts of home here.

In the servant quarters, everyone slept on cots lined on both sides of a long room. It was cramped, humid and uncomfortable, but the Kaguya had hardly proved to be accommodating captors so far. Idly, she wondered how Sakura's experience was going. Undoubtedly better, if only slightly. After all, she was to stay with Yoshiro and his family, the way she understood it. And it was clear the head made sure he and his children lived in luxury, even if no one else in the compound did. Yuhi waited patiently for her to finish, and when she swallowed down the last horrible bite, the girl nodded. "Now I'll show you where we go to work the fields."
Toka stood, setting the bowl aside. "What exactly are they growing?"

"Vegetables in this season." Yuhi answered. "The Kaguya feel it's beneath them to sow the fields." She explained. "They often take able-bodied, young men and women from farming villages to do that for them. There's also less resistance." There was a wry lift of her lips.

"I'm guessing the Kaguya don't share much of the crops with the harvesters either."

Yuhi sighed. "We get…what's left, and that's never much. But we shouldn't waste time talking, let's go." Toka followed Yuhi out of the room. The small servant quarters were bustling with girls getting ready to go work the fields. Everyone was marching single file out of the quarters and towards a field at the edge of the compound. They picked up shovels, plows and hoes and started working silently. The Kaguya had them trained well, and the guards watching them closely didn't help. "You'll need this." Yuhi handed her a plow. "You can work with me today. Just follow my lead."

"Of course," Toka replied.

"Hey, sis!" Toka looked up, watching as men marched into the field from the opposite direction the women had. By their clothes and the tools they carried, she could easily see it was the male servant population. There was a young man with windswept blonde hair, a strong jaw and red eyes that looked strikingly like Yuhi. He walked over to them, and when he noticed Toka he smiled dashingly. "Hello," he took Toka's hand and brought it to his lips. "You're clearly new, so allow me to introduce myself—Kureno Yuhi, protector of maidens everywhere and—"

"Argh!" Toka was genuinely surprised by the war cry from Yurine Yuhi, who delivered an uppercut that knocked the young man flat on his back. The kind look and demure nature was gone and replaced by agitation as the girl stood over the downed blonde. "Brother!" she hissed, "Must you hit on every woman you encounter?! Did it ever occur to you that you're a nuisance?" She was breathing heavily, worked up.

Her brother didn't even attempt to pick himself up from the ground. "M-My…bad…" Kureno muttered.

"Yuhi One! Yuhi Two! What do you think you're doing?!" A Kaguya guard barked. "Stop messing around or it's the Dark Cells for both of you!" Toka watched both siblings stiffen. Kureno quickly got to his feet and picked up his shovel.

"Apologies." He bowed to the guard. He smiled weakly at Toka and his sister. "Nice meeting you, then. Farewell for now, sister."

When he ran across the field to take his spot with the other men, Yurine sighed, rubbing at her neck. She was frowning in concern as she took a trowel and knelt in the dirt. Toka knelt beside her. "I may have gone too far…he never seems to worry about anything, and that annoys me. And he's too flirtatious with women!" Her face reddened in anger. "But…he's the only family I have left now." Her tone softened as she showed Toka how to move the dirt aside. "D-do you…do you have siblings?"

"A brother and sister."

"Oh!" Yurine's face lit up.

Toka could see she wanted to ask if they were there with her. "They're both long dead."

She watched Yuhi's red eyes widen in horror. "I'm…how awful of me!"

Toka shrugged. "You couldn't have known. Show me where to plant." She didn't want to dwell on them or what she'd lost. She wanted to throw herself into the present. As always, it was the only way she could keep going.

Yurine gratefully took the opportunity to change the subject. "R-Right…its carrots today."

Sakura's eyes slowly opened, and when she stared back into curious black eyes, she scooted back with a gasp. The tanned face hovering over hers stretched into a gap-toothed smile. "Are you awake now nee-san?" It was the youngest Kaguya from yesterday. The one who had eagerly watched her heal the stable boy. What was her name? "Kikue's here to help you get ready for breakfast!" she cheered, raising her arms.

Right. Kikue. How could she forget when the little girl spoke in the third person? Sakura rubbed at one eye and offered the cheerful child a small smile.

"That's nice of you…" She glanced around, noticing a certain grumpy someone was missing. "Um…where's—"

"Harihane-neesan?" she guessed. "Gone. She trains early every morning." Nonchalantly, she pushed a bone from her wrist and swung it around in mock aggression to demonstrate. Sakura leaned away from the sharp white bone dangerously close to her throat. "She scolds Kikue for not training enough." Kikue pouted.

Sakura thought about the face of the twelve-year old, pinched in a scowl. 'No one can say she isn't dedicated I guess…' At least there was drive to match all that anger and intensity. "S-So breakfast, huh?"

Kikue perked up, nodding energetically. "Yosh! Servants already drew you a bath, neesan! Let's go, let's go!" Sakura was almost cross-eyed, trying to keep up with all her energy. She looked so much like her sister, but her attitude couldn't be more different. Kikue pulled her up from the futon with surprising strength, hopping around her while Sakura stretched. "This way!" Kikue's high voice chirped as she pushed at Sakura's back.

Still waking up, the kunoichi did her best not to stumble over her feet. Kikue steered her down the hall, chattering the whole time. The topics switched constantly, so Sakura could barely keep up, but the little girl didn't seem to mind.

When they got to the bath chambers, Sakura pushed open the door, surprised to see a large tub full of steaming water. "Like it?" her little escort asked.

Sakura had to admit that her muscles were sore and it was tempting. "It's great," she breathed.

Kikue beamed. "Do you want help neesan? Kikue could wash your hair!" she offered innocently.

Sakura smiled awkwardly. "I'm alright. But you've been a lot of help Kikue."

Kikue looked a little disappointed, but she nodded anyway. "Don't take long! Kikue wants to help you pick your kimono!" The little girl skipped out of the bathroom, and Sakura sagged against the tub with a sigh.

Well…for a little girl who came from such a bloodthirsty clan, she was surprisingly normal. Energetic, but normal. Harihane seemed like she had a temper and didn't take well to strangers. She was a little more like what she'd expect a child from the Kaguya clan to be.

And Yoshiro's only son… Sakura thought about his blank face as she slipped her yukata from her shoulders. She didn't know enough about him to really make an assessment. His thoughts, whatever they were, were carefully guarded. 'But…maybe I can get him to talk about his family's battle history. The Kaguya are proud. Then he can show me the weapons cache.' Once she was undressed she slid into the tub carefully, hot water lapping at her skin. The air was sweet with whatever oils had been dumped in the bath, and Sakura gratefully started washing with the new soap cake and cloth waiting for her.

She understood the important position she was in. Close to the head family, she was also privy to very useful information, if she played it right. Even if she didn't see where weapons were kept, all she needed was a location and she and Toka could plot how to break in. Even if Sakura was positive she had less experience in espionage than Toka, she wanted to at least prove herself. 'I want it all to go in the mission report.'

That way, maybe she wouldn't have to hear the Hokage's brother doubt her to her face anymore. The fan itself would be proof enough to shut up Madara, wouldn't it? The whole time she bathed, she thought of Konoha, the one in this time and her own. She wanted to go back home, naturally. But if that wasn't an option right now, she at least wanted something remotely familiar.

Even if there was an arrogant Uchiha with murderous tendencies waiting there. Sighing, Sakura got up, fumbling with a towel as the air brushed against her bare skin. She toweled herself and wrapped it tight around her lithe figure. Padding to the bathroom door, she had just pushed it open only to see Kikue waiting on the other side. Sakura gasped, a hand going to her chest.

"Oh, you waited." She smiled weakly.

The excited Kaguya nodded. "Uh-huh. You need help getting dressed, ne?"

Sakura shrugged slowly. "I…guess…?" If she was going to be expected to wear a kimono, which she still hadn't gotten used to, the answer was yes. That was when Sakura noticed two servants waiting with the young girl. Kikue pushed at the small of her back, shoving Sakura back through the door. The servants followed, swarming Sakura.

"H-Hey, wait a minute—" Someone yanked her towel off and Sakura covered her bare chest and clenched her legs together, glaring. She didn't even have time to voice her indignation when a powder blue kimono made of smooth silk was being pulled onto her. It was surprisingly comfortable, to the kunoichi's curiosity.

The sleeves were long enough to hide her hands completely and a white obi was cinched at her trim waist. Instead of her usual zori, she was given high, strapped sandals. Kikue called for a stool, and when she got one, hopped on it to start styling Sakura's currently honey yellow hair. "Hmm...Kikue knows what to do." Sakura heard a sharp noise, and whirled to see Kikue had pushed a bone from her wrist. Sakura quickly grabbed her wrist, anticipating a threat. But the girl only pulled the bone out with her other hand, smiling.

"For your hair!" she explained, taking the brush a servant handed her and running it through the damp locks. She plaited two pieces to hang in Sakura's face, the way the Kaguya seemed to favor, then swept the rest of the loose hair up into a side bun carefully, securing it with the bone. "You look like a Kaguya now." she giggled. "Junji will be happy." Kikue clasped her hands together, and with her bright smile and the strands of black hair falling into her large eyes, she looked peaceful and cherubic.

A relieved sigh that her cover hadn't been blown passed through Sakura's lips. "Thank you," she allowed Kikue to tug her up by the hand.

"Now, to breakfast!" she declared, raising a fist in the air. She pulled Sakura by the hand down the hall, and because she had no idea where the breakfast hall was, the disguised kunoichi let her. Kikue was humming cheerfully under her breath and skipping at her side. Sakura again marveled at how different she seemed from the rest of the family. She was almost like a normal, carefree child.

"Kikue..." she started. It was the second time she said the little girl's name and she noticed it rolled smoothly enough off the tongue. Kikue Kaguya.

Kikue glanced up at her."Haaai?" she sang.

"What's...what's your brother like?" she found herself asking. Sakura decided it'd be easier to know how to act if she had some idea of the heir's normal demeanor. He'd seemed so apathetic. Apathy she could deal with it. She was used to dispassionate males in her life, and she preferred apathy to the cruelty she'd seen in Yoshiro and Kento.

Kikue placed a finger to her chin in thought. "Junji is really strong!" she exclaimed. "Hari-neesan says she's stronger though. Sometimes she's mean. Even when it's pretend fighting she's too rough! Junji's never mean. Not to Kikue. He helps me practice when he can, and takes me for walks in the garden. Once, tou-san made him be mean to servants that made him mad. I don't think Junji-nii liked it."

Sakura absorbed everything. It sounded like Jun'ichi was a decent brother, at least. But how much of that was just Kikue's rose-tinted view? Even the worst monsters could be wonderful in the eyes of their loved ones.

"Why do you think that?" Sakura asked carefully.

"Because Junji isn't tou-san!" Kikue's reply was sure and fervent. "And he's not...he hasn't been happy for a long time." There was a sadness shining in her dark eyes now. "That's why Kikue hoped..."

There was a long pause, and Sakura felt the small hand holding hers squeeze tighter. "Oh, we're here..." she observed.

They stood in the doorway of a spacious room with painted murals of fierce battles featuring the Kaguya slaughtering their opponents covering the walls. The center of the room featured a large rectangular table where Yoshiro and his son were already gathered. Kento stood guard by Yoshiro, and when he laid eyes on the young heiress and her guest, his mouth twitched into a smug smirk. Sakura bit her lip, trying to appear coy while inside she simmered. Some way, somehow, before she left, she'd put the giant brute in his place.

"Kikue brought Oka-neesan!" The little girl exclaimed proudly, letting go of Sakura's hand and running for the table. She quickly found her place two sits down from her brother.

Yoshiro glanced up from the tea a servant had been pouring for him. "So you have." he replied evenly. "Now quiet yourself, girl. Yelling at this hour. Honestly,"

Chastised, the young girl slumped in her chair. With her eyes she motioned for Sakura to take the seat between she and her brother, onyx eyes wide and pleading. Sakura slowly wandered closer to the family, noticing the absence of her less than gracious roommate. "Ohayo," she bowed courteously at Yoshiro, then Jun'ichi.

"You're wearing the kimono prepared for you." Yoshiro nodded, looking pleased. Good. All the better to stay in his good graces. "Sit. Next to my son." Sakura obeyed, circling around the table, a walk that seemed like a mile, and sitting awkwardly beside the boy not much older than her. He didn't say anything to her, but their eyes met and he held her gaze momentarily.

'Okaaay...So I guess that's...something?' Servants began filing into the room, carrying serving trays piled with food. Their arms shook and their eyes darted nervously while not looking at anyone in the family as they set the tray down. Sakura took in the gaunt faces and worn clothing with a frown. It was clear they weren't eating nearly so lavishly as Yoshiro and his children. It made Sakura worry for Toka. Although, she was sure the Senju could take care of herself.

"Where's that insolent girl?" Yoshiro growled. He looked to his guard. "Kento?"

"Training, milord." He said with the insufferable smirk that never fully seemed to leave his face.

"Training." Yoshiro stated blandly. "Regardless, she knows how I feel about tardiness at my table."

"Should I go get her so you can give her the lashing she deserves?" Kento asked, his eyes sparking gleefully. The man was a sadist, Sakura decided. Simple as that.

"No need." Yoshiro said. He motioned to the doorway. Harihane walked in, not in a kimono but a training gi. It was the first time Sakura had seen a kunoichi not wearing a battle kimono in this era, and she stared in slight awe. Harihane's hair was in a quickly deteriorating bun, strands clinging to her sweaty forehead. Sakura could see a few bruises littering her face, but there was a hardness in her eyes that belonged to a shinobi at least twice her years.

The twelve-year old lifted her hands and stretched her fingertips toward Kento, shooting small bones at him with flinching. His own bones shot out defensively to stop her attack, and he laughed deeply. "Nice try, little girl. Your aim is better than its ever been." he said, the bones receding back into his body. "But you've got a ways to go before you're ready to tangle with me."

"Harihane." Yoshiro said sternly. "Sit." The girl scowled at her father before marching to her seat. Sakura glanced at the other two siblings but neither seemed disturbed by their sister's attack of their father's guard. Jun'ichi was eating silently and Kikue was sipping from her cup of tea, holding it between both her small hands.

"When breakfast is finished, Jun'ichi will walk you around the compound." Yoshiro declared. His son barely glanced up.

Sakura forced on a polite smile. "Thank you for the hospitality, milord." It was her chance! A walk alone with the heir to ply him for information!

In that moment, Sakura almost wanted to trade places with Toka. Whatever she was doing had to be better than sitting through the most awkward, tense meal of her life.

Chapter Text

The first thing that happened after breakfast was Kikue begging to come along with her brother and Sakura. Yoshiro quickly put his foot down, claiming Jun'ichi should be alone with her. For once, Sakura didn't mind. Kikue had proven herself harmless so far, but she was distracting with her boundless energy. Jun'ichi escorted her away from his family, and she had to ignore the icy stare of his sister Harihane boring into her back.

The weight of suffocation she'd been feeling while she ate with the Kaguya was almost tangibly lessened the minute they were out of the head family's household. "Where are we going?" she asked quietly. Her hand was rested on his arm as they walked. Servants and Kaguya clan members watched them curiously, but Sakura ignored all the gazes. She kept her eyes focused forward.

"My father wants you to have a full tour of the compound." Jun'ichi said.

'That doesn't answer the question…' Sakura withheld her frustrated sigh. She'd realized her "intended" wasn't much for small talk, but she was determined to pry it out of him if necessary. "Right. I guess if I'm going to live here I'll need to know my way around." Sakura said thinly.

"Hm." he responded, and Sakura took it as a sign of agreement. "That," he pointed to a building as stone and bland as the others, "is where supplies are kept."

"Supplies like what?" Sakura pressed.

"Food. Other things."

"Other things like weapons?" Sakura asked innocently.

"No. Other things like wagons, parts to repair equipment for the horses, and brick. The weapons bunker is underground, beneath the war room." he replied plainly.

Sakura was feeling pretty giddy at that small bit of information. "Underground? Why there?"

"It's the most expansive, I suppose." Jun'ichi didn't seem particularly interested in they why's.

"It's a little odd, I mean I haven't been here long but your clan mainly uses your kekkei genkai right?" This time there was genuine curiosity in her voice. Jun'ichi glanced down at her blankly.

Sakura had to admit, he was fairly handsome. His tanned skin contrasted nicely with his stark white hair, which he had partially up in a bun secured by an emerald brooch, the rest tumbling past his shoulders. Like many of the other Kaguya she'd seen, he wore beads to band his hair on either side of his face in the front. There were two red dots above his eyebrows, and he had very pronounced cheekbones. He was wearing a light green kimono and standard ninja sandals.

"It's a tradition, you could say. Started by my great-grandfather."

"A tradition?" she repeated.

"Taking the most valuable weapons of the enemies we defeat." he explained. "They're trophies from battle more so than anything we actually use."

"That sounds like a waste…" she mumbled, unable to stop herself.

"I agree." he said evenly. "Battles take away everything from the losers. Why take away their dignity by defiling a corpse?"

That…wasn't something she'd expect to hear the Kaguya heir say. Sakura stared up at him and he met her gaze. "You really think that?" she asked slowly.

Jun'ichi stared at her a little quizzically, arching one of his trimmed brows. "What reason would I have to state it if it wasn't how I felt?"

Sakura flushed a little. He had a point. "Well…when you take over after your father you can do things your way."

Sakura felt his arm stiffen under her hand and there was a slight fluctuation in his chakra. It didn't feel dangerous though. "My way…?" he chuckled slightly. "That's where you're wrong. That's not how it works in this clan, as you'll soon find out."

Sakura wanted to press him more, but stopped herself. Instead, she said, "So what else should I see?"

"There's not much to see. The crop fields, the servant quarters, the stables… Not much that's pleasant." He shrugged. "But you'd probably like the gardens…"

Sakura pasted on a smile. "The gardens it is, then."


It wasn't what she'd been expecting. The gardens were green and lush, with hummingbirds darting between bushes of bright flowers, and trees bearing fruits. The hedges were neatly trimmed and there was a well-kept path that winding through the garden and around a koi pond. Sakura sucked in a breath, surprised by the beauty. Who knew an oasis like this would be tucked away in the Kaguya compound?

Sakura released her escort's arm and stepped further into the gardens, drinking it in. "This is…" she didn't really have words. She'd seen beautiful things before, beautiful places, but the fact that the Kaguya clan kept such a place wasn't adding up.

"It's one of the few truly peaceful places in the compound." Jun'ichi explained quietly.

Sakura smiled slightly as a hummingbird flitted around her head, its tiny wings beating hard. "Who grew all of this?"

"…My mother did."

Sakura turned to him, noting the solemn expression hadn't left his face. The whole time she'd been there she hadn't seen a single trace of Yoshiro's wife, if he had one. When he'd gathered his children, he hadn't mentioned a wife. No one had.

"She seems like she must be pretty talented with plants."

"She was. They reminded her of her old home, she told me." He held out his arm to Sakura, and she slowly walked over and took it. He guided them to a stone bench near the koi pond. "My mother was an outsider to the clan, just like you are. I'm not sure she ever fully got used to it all." Sakura watched silently as Jun'ichi produced a small bag of something from inside his kimono… leftover bread from breakfast.

He broke some off and tossed it into the pond. The fish rushed to nibble at it. "This was the only place she felt a connection to her old life I think. She'd bring my sisters and I hear often, and make us listen to the sounds of nature."

She watched his hands as she listened to him. They were large, thin hands with long fingers and they broke the bread gently. Her eyes traveled up to his face next. He was concentrating on the koi, and for the first time Sakura noticed something almost lonely about him.

"That's a good memory to have of her. She sounded like someone who appreciated the little things."

A small smile formed on the Kaguya's formally blank face. "She was indeed. But…in the end she died because she couldn't embrace the spirit of the Kaguya. Or so my father says." The fleeting smile fell away again and his eyes were as cold as flint as they stared into hers. "Tell me about your home."

It was less of a question and more a demand. Softly spoken, but still a demand. Normally, it would have made Sakura bristle, but she sucked in a light breath and began thinking. "It's a lively place." she said. "The people there are like one big, extended family. I grew up with my friends there, and we all learned to be shinobi together. It use to feel like nothing bad could ever happen…but that was just me being naïve at the time."

Jun'ichi quirked a brow, "You speak about it as if your home isn't gone." he said coolly.

"It never will be. In my memories." Sakura replied just as smoothly. Inwardly she cursed for her small slip, but was happy she recovered well enough.

He tilted his head, studying her carefully. "You should hold onto them then." Sakura nodded. He offered her the rest of the bread and she took it, grateful for a small distraction. As she fed the koi, she heard him asking another question. "That bone in your hair…where did you get it?"

Sakura blinked, gingerly touching the bone securing her hair in its bun. "From your sister, Kikue."

He made a noise of understanding. "She's taken a liking to you. Outside members of the clan, she's usually more withdrawn." An image of the spirited little girl she'd met popped into her head, and Sakura had a hard time believing it. "My father has no time for her, and Harihane is more devoted to training than playing these days. I have my responsibilities as heir. She must feel comfortable enough to attach herself to you."

"I'm flattered. She's sweet." Sakura said truthfully.

"Sweetness doesn't win my father's favor." He sighed. "It's saved her in a way."

"What do you mean?" Sakura asked, brushing the last of the crumbs from her palms.

"Kikue isn't as young as she looks and acts. She's nine, but small for her age. My father would've likely sent her to the battlefield long ago, except for the fact that she's never been good with her Shikotsumyaku. My father sees her as a failure and hasn't sent her into battle yet."

Sakura mentally sighed in relief. "But that'll change soon. He won't wait forever. Whether she's ready or not, he'll send her by her next birthday, if not sooner."

Sakura's lips parted, ready to protest, but she quickly sealed them shut again. Kikue was a Kaguya. They were her family, not Sakura. If her father wanted to use her as a child soldier, what could she really do to stop it? 'Nothing.'

Her anger turned into cold resignation. She felt disgusted with herself for so easily accepting that. People suffered every day, whether she was aware of their pain or not. And as many lives as she'd saved in her shinobi career, people would continue to suffer. It was foolish to think suffering would go away just because she wanted it to.

Jun'ichi sighed. "It's…disturbing from an outsider's view, I'm sure. The way we do things I mean."

Sakura laughed mirthlessly. "Shinobi life is disturbing." The koi swam around in the pond, happy and sated. "So, why do your sisters call you 'Junji'?" she asked abruptly. She didn't want her thoughts to get any darker. She had a front to keep.

"It's…something my mother used to call me." Jun'ichi said. "Harihane remembers that name from then and uses it out of habit. Kikue grew up mimicking her." Despite his melancholy, there was still a fondness Sakura couldn't help but notice whenever he brought up his sisters. "Do you have them? Siblings?"

"Always an only child." Sakura said, shaking her head. She was glad, now more than ever. Worrying about herself in a strange time and place like this was difficult enough. If she had a brother or sister she was separated from and worrying about, it'd be worse. She felt guilty enough her parents had never gotten to see their daughter after the war.

"And what were your parents like?"

Sakura thought about it. "Well, we were a pretty loving family. My father liked to tell jokes…they weren't always too funny, but…it made him happy I guess. He was kind and energetic. My mother worried a lot. When I became a real kunoichi I thought I knew it all. I'd get annoyed when she tried to tell me what to do. Sometimes we'd argue."

Sakura clearly remember how she'd insisted she was a grown up because she had a headband. That made her a real ninja, a mature young woman. She'd been so blindly naive then. Not a clue about what it truly meant to wear that headband and call herself a kunoichi. But her parents had been patience, even when she'd acted like a brat.

"But they loved you." he stated. Sakura stared into his dark eyes, and he was looking at her expectantly.

Sakura felt slightly guilty that she hadn't thought of her parents as much as she'd thought of her friends, and her own survival. She knew they were likely devastated. Maybe they even thought she was dead by now, but she'd only really giving them passing thoughts. 'Some daughter…'

"Yes, they loved me." she sighed, fisting her hands into the fabric of her kimono tightly. If he noticed the change in her mood he pretended not to.

Silence fell over them then, but it was short lived. They both looked up when they felt a new presence enter the garden. It was a Kaguya from what Sakura could tell, dressed in a plain kimono but with the typical dark features. "Milord," he bowed slightly.

Huh. Sakura mused. So even in a clan like the Kaguya they practiced humility to their superiors.

"My…apologies." He eyed Sakura in suspicion. "I know this is your place of peace, but there's been a great deal of commotion in the fields, and because he's indisposed, Lord Yashiro asks you to be present."

Jun'ichi stood and nodded. "Very well; we'll handle it."

The Kaguya left without a word.

"We?" Sakura repeated in surprise.

He looked back at her and held out his arm. "If you're going to be the lady of this clan someday, you'll need to see how it operates. The good…and the bad." Sakura fought the urge to scowl as she took his arm. She had a bad feeling about whatever she was about to witness.

She wasn't really sure why, but they walked to the fields, through the streets. Jun'ichi didn't seem like he was in a particular hurry. He was calm, like they were still strolling through the gardens. No, Sakura corrected herself, that wasn't quite right.

Outwardly, there was nothing in particular that indicated anything besides apathy. But chakra could feel the slightest tension in the muscles of his arm and feel the fluctuation, small as it was, in his chakra. That didn't say anything about what was going through his head.

The fields were fairly expansive. Not as big as the farmlands outside Konoha where she and Team Seven had done genin missions, but vast enough that it clearly took more than one or two people to maintain it. There were probably fifty servants out in the fields. It was hard to tell, because they'd clustered together. There was a man kneeling in the dirt, supporting a woman who looked like she'd collapsed. Above them, a very angry Kaguya with a whip was glaring down at them.

Sakura found that she was pulling on Jun'ichi's arm to speed him up, trying to get closer.

Jun'ichi found a trembling older man with a balding head and a hunched back and pulled him aside. "You there, what's all this?"

"A woman collapsed, sir. But the supervisor isn't letting her seek treatment. And well, now her husband's kicking up a fuss…the young never know when to quit. It'll just make trouble for the rest of us." he muttered mostly to himself.

"Come." Jun'ichi said, taking Sakura by the arm and stepping into the crowd.

"I've told you, your break won't be until you finish your half of the field! The crops don't harvest and replant themselves!" said the Kaguya sharply.

"My wife can't wait for the break! She's tired and she needs water!" The man on the ground was insisting. "I won't return to work until she's allowed to rest." Sakura could now she the weariness but clear defiance in his eyes. The other servants looked on fearfully at the standoff between servant and supervisor.

The Kaguya brought his whip down in a flash, and the man cried out as it lashed at his arm. Sakura was now close enough to see the harsh welt of reddened skin already bubbling up. The whip had struck him so hard it tore at his sleeve.

"What makes you so special?! You're all replaceable little rats!" the Kaguya sneered. "If I give your wife a break, every last rat in this field will want one, and nothing would ever get done!"

The man, now clutching his injured arm slowly lifted his head. His wife was leaned against him, breathing heavily. Her face looked pale and there was a sheen of sweat across her forehead. Her eyes were barely opened. "P-Please…" he huffed. "At least let her work in the shade…"

The whip came down again, hitting him in the back. He cried out, hunching over, face practically in the mud. The cackle of glee made Sakura snap. She started to charge her way over, when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked back to see the solemn face of the Kaguya heir. "Let go. If you won't stop it I will."

"You'd make it worse for them."

Sakura glared, snatching her arm away. "Nothing's worse than this," she hissed.

"That's right, rat!" The Kaguya crowed triumphantly. "Down in the filth! Actually, like this you're less of a rat and more of a worm!" he guffawed, shaking with laughter. "And let this be a lesson to the rest of you worms. You are cowardly," he whipped the man again and he collapsed on the ground beside his wife. "You are lower than muck," he hit the man again, bright red staining his back as Sakura pushed her way forward. "And you are…"

Before he could crack the whip again, Sakura was there, holding her arm up to block it. The thick cord wrapped itself around her wrist, but she ignored the biting sting, using the Kaguya's shock to her advantage. She jerked her arm hard, and he came flying forward, colliding with the fist she had waiting to meet him. When he fell back on the ground, it was clutching his crushed nose tightly, blood dripping through his fingers.

Sakura found she was breathing hard with adrenaline. As much as she wanted to beat him while he was down, the man now whining pitifully as he held his face was neutralized, and she had been raised better than the Kaguya.

Turning away from him, she saw Jun'ichi come up beside her. Still angry at him for not intervening, she glared. "This woman needs shade and water."

He nodded wordlessly, picking the woman up with ease and taking her to where Sakura could see a small hut at the side of the field. Everyone was murmuring amongst themselves, unable to believe what they'd just seen.

"All of you…you're really so afraid for your own skins you won't stand up for one of your own?" she asked. "That's what makes you easy to control! The Kaguya don't need to use whips when they have your fear!"

It wasn't really fair to them and she knew that. They were rightfully scared for their lives and she doubted very many had ever been trained as shinobi before being brought to the compound. Still, they had turned their backs on the man and his wife, who probably worked beside them every day, so easily.

"What are you suggesting we do, then? We can't fight them! We're farmers—defenseless! Those who try to fight never win. It's every man, woman and child for themselves!" It was the same older man from before.

"It doesn't have to be!" Sakura snapped. "When people stand together even the weak can be strong. But, it's up to all of you to decide." She unwrapped the whip from her wrist and held it in her hands. Just the sight of it made several servants near her recoil. Sakura tested the elasticity a few times, and then unceremoniously tore it in two, dropping the broken pieces at the feet of the Kaguya still whining and holding his nose. "That's broken." she smirked, not sure if she meant his nose or his weapon.

He climbed to his feet carefully, using one arm to pull himself up. "Y-You…" He tried to glower, but with his ruined nose he hardly looked threatening.

The kunoichi ignored him as she looked at the man who was still down in the dirt, bleeding from the gashes on his back. Sakura bent down, moving to help him up. She carefully tried to support him, letting him wrap an arm around her shoulders. "I-Isamu…" he whispered. "W-Where's Isamu?"

She assumed he meant his wife, and smiled gently. "Resting. You're going to need to get healed up. I'll help you."

"Let me give you both a hand." Sakura looked up to see Toka, who smoothly took her hand and lifted them up. Sakura blinked, feeling something small pushed into her hand. She glanced down at it. A small scrap of paper. Tucking it carefully away inside a small inner pocket of her kimono, they started half-dragging the man to the hut.

His wife was inside, sitting on a cot, Jun'ichi helping her drink water.

"Isamu!" He smiled in relief.

"Easy…" Sakura admonished as he almost fell forward. The two women managed to sit him down next to his wife, and Toka stared at Sakura meaningfully before making her exit.

"If you'll help me get his yukata loosened, I can heal his back."

Jun'ichi complied, helping the groaning man out of his blood-stained, dirty yukata so he was exposed from the waist up.

Sakura felt anger rise in her again when she saw his back, bleeding freely. She instantly put a cool green hand to it and he sighed in relief as the pain started to numb and the wounds closed. When she was done, she healed his arm, and then her own wrist. "You shouldn't be so reckless. What were you going to do if I wasn't a medic?" Sakura couldn't help but scold him slightly.

"I-I'm sorry for the trouble, but thank you…"

He took his wife's hand gently. "Are you better?"

She smiled weakly. "Better." She agreed. "Tired, but I'll be fine." Her weary eyes met Sakura's. "I appreciate what you've done for us. Thank you, both of you."

The man seemed to realize Jun'ichi had been there the whole time. "Wait, aren't you…L-Lord Jun'ichi?" he gulped. "I wouldn't have talked back but my wife needed care. S-She—"

"I am not angry." Jun'ichi interrupted him. "You protected a loved one at great cost to yourself. It was admirable." The man shakily nodded, pulling his tattered yukata back on and securing it. "You should both return to the fields as soon as you can." He gave Sakura a little nod. "I'll be speaking to the supervisor…I know he likely acted on my father's orders, but his actions were excessive. I trust you can see yourself safely back to my sister's rooms. No one should bother you since they saw you with me today."

Sakura stared at Jun'ichi as he left the hut. His actions were more mysterious to her now than ever. But she couldn't worry about that now. She needed to find somewhere alone, to read whatever Toka had given her.

She smiled one last time at the couple, who were looking at her reverently. It reminded her of the way Yuuta had looked at her. These people were so starved for kindness that they latched onto it desperately. "Take care of each other." She waved, stepping out of the hut.

Sakura snuck out of the room when the moon was high in the sky and she was sure everyone was asleep. Her heart pounded dully, but she blocked it out. Her senses were alert for any sudden chakra signatures popping up, but no one stirred.

The room's other occupant hadn't come back again that night, and Sakura was beginning to suspect she slept elsewhere to avoid her. Harihane's room had a window, and she took full advantage of it, working it open slowly and slipping out. Her feet touched down and she glanced around. She was on the side of the compound. Thankful for her memory, Sakura crept through the shadows, feeling like a shinobi from bedtime stories. On a secret mission through enemy territory.

A long shadow stretched across the corner and Sakura slunk out of view, concealing her chakra. But when it wandered by she almost laughed when she saw it was just a cat, trotting by with a rat in its mouse. When it had passed, she continued on her way, feeling satisfied when she reached the meeting point. Toka waited for her inside the small hut by the crop fields. "Alone?" she asked.


"What have you learned?"

Sakura figured that's what this was about. "Enough. The weapons are stored underneath the war room. After Jun'ichi told me that, I got Kikue to show me around their manor. The war room is to the west…it's close to Yoshiro's side. There's a trap door in the room. I'm guessing that's it."

"You've ingratiated yourself to them well," It could have been Sakura's imagination but Toka seemed to be studying her approvingly. "My only concern is that…you aren't getting too attached."

"Attached? To the enemy?" Sakura scoffed.

"Stranger things have happened." Toka said evenly. "However, they can't happen here. This mission will end and we will go home, one way or another. Everyone is an enemy here, and casualties are a possibility. Do you understand?"

Sakura's eyes narrowed. Toka was questioning how well she could do the mission, being close to the head family.

She opened her mouth, then closed it.

Both women tensed at the same time. Someone was there. Toka opened the door in a bold move, the night breeze moving her brown hair. "Show yourselves." Toka said lowly.

Soundlessly, two figures stepped into the room. Sakura stepped forward but the Senju stopped her with an arm. "You followed us."

Two people Sakura had never seen before with sandy blonde hair and red eyes stood side by side. The female looked apologetic. "It was rude, but we had to know…"

"We saw what you did today." The male said, looking at Sakura. He smiled charmingly. "A beautiful, brave woman like you is rare indeed." The female smacked the back of his head without a thought.

"Now is not the time, Kureno!" She looked sheepish as she cleared her throat. "Ignore my brother, please. As we were saying, we know you're shinobi! You must be." She continued excitedly. "There's no other explanation. If either of you were farming folk, you would have broken by now."

"If you intend to inform the Kaguya, you will die where you stand." Toka warned. There was an eerie hardness to her voice. Sakura had a hard time seeing in the darkness, but she could just imagine Toka's blank brown eyes.

Kureno raised his hands in surrender. "What? You misunderstand! My sister and I had made plans for a while now…to get back what the Kaguya took and escape. We tried to get others to join us, but…they're all afraid. Then Yurine told me about how she thought you were a kunoichi." He said to Toka.

"I was going to tell Tomoko about our plans tonight. I waited until everyone was asleep, but I saw her get up to leave…I waited until she was gone and then got Kureno. Please, we truly want to join together! You said when the weak join together even they can be strong. The four of us could do it. We could escape!" Yurine cried.

Sakura went slightly slack-jawed. "Are you serious?"

"Of course," Yurine nodded. "Why would we not want to take back what is ours?"

Toka and Sakura shared a long look.

"What do you want to take back?" Toka asked cautiously.

"Our family heirloom." Kureno replied. "It's all we have left after the Kaguya slaughtered our village and burned it to the ground. We were spared and taken captive…"

Sakura remembered what Jun'ichi had said about the Kaguya custom of taking weapons from their fallen enemies. "Was the heirloom a weapon?" she asked quietly.

Yurine nodded vigorously. "Yes! It's a katana and tanto set. How'd you know?" she gasped. "Did they take a weapon from you too?"

"Er, something like that…?" Sakura paused unsurely.

"Even more reason for all of us to join together then." Kureno grinned.

"Many of the servants here are simply civilians. They had no reason to follow us, and their spirits were broken." Yurine frowned sadly.

"They're scared." Sakura agreed. "In this compound, the Kaguya might as well be gods, controlling life or death for everyone and issuing punishment on a whim."

"Right. So even though they've already lost everything they don't fight back. But…that might change now that the two of you are here." Kureno said, a hint of hope in his voice.

"We can get back what was taken without help. Why should we join with you?" Toka asked.

"You don't have to, of course. We could forget this meeting ever occurred. But we think the information we have is invaluable." Kureno's handsome face became smug.

"In three nights, the Kaguya are having one of their revelries." Yurine clasped her hands together.

Sakura paled. She hated to know what that entailed.

"Lord Yoshiro always oversees the battles and then the Kaguya feast. It's the perfect opportunity." Kureno explained.

"You're just…telling us all this? What's the catch?" Sakura asked skeptically.

Yurine giggled as Kureno chuckled. "They truly are shinobi." He told his sister. "Nothing to worry about fair flower." He moved and took Sakura's hand in his, trying to bring it to his mouth. Sakura snatched it away, eyeing him warily.

He sighed in dejection. "My sister and I think you can be trusted." He looked at Toka and held out a hand. "Can you trust us?"

Sakura didn't sense any ill intentions. She looked to Toka. "That remains to be seen." said the Senju. Kureno slowly lowered his hand.

"We're shinobi too, you know," Yurine said. "The last of the Yuhi clan after the Kaguya came…My brother and I both excel at genjutsu and sword fighting."

"Fine." Toka glanced around. "In three nights, with your help, we strike. But betray us and—"

"We know. So we have a deal." Kureno interrupted.

"We should all be returning before anyone suspects anything." Toka told Sakura.

"Wait!" Both Konoha nin turned. "There's one more thing…" Kureno said.

"You've got someplace to return to, don't you...?" Yurine sighed. "If you'll have us, we'd like to come. The Yuhi are a small clan so we had few enemies, and we'd work for our keep—"

Toka held up a hand. "Prove yourselves, and we will take you."

Sakura felt her breath catch in her throat. She was witnessing history. If they succeeded, the Yuhi siblings would return to Konoha with them. 'One of them must be Kurenai-san's direct ancestor.'

It dawned on her then how much influence she had on the past, and how that could affect her own time. The Dragon Goddess knew that too.

Sakura snuck back to the manor, feeling more foreboding than she had the entire mission.

Shikamarin sighed, her face cradled between her palms as she stared listlessly at the fire. The sun was getting low. There would be a dark sky twinkling with stars hanging over them soon.

A rabbit roasted on a spit above the flames. The scent of smoked meat filled the air. Shikamarin thought that the sunset had some of the same colors as the fire. That pretty burnt shade, so defiantly bright. "Game meat…again." It slipped out before she could stop it.

Sarutobi, who had been concentrated on turning the animal, arched a brow. "I'm sorry, is there something else you're in the mood for? Takoyaki perhaps?"

"I know you're teasing me…" she grumbled. "You don't have takoyaki." It didn't stop her from wishing he did. She'd never had it, but her clan had always been forest-dwellers. Better to raise their herd of deer. "Game meat every night is…boring."

"I know this might be your first mission for the village, but it's not your first time outdoors, is it?" he chuckled. Deciding the rabbit was done, he pulled it off the open flame, humming in satisfaction. "And Susumu never complains, do you?"

The timid healer looked up quickly, fingers poking together as was her habit. It meant she didn't want to be a part of the conversation. "W-Well…I know y-you're doing your best to provide for us, Sarutobi-san." she said softly. Truthfully, Susumu said everything softly. The only time Shikamarin had her really make a lot of noise was when a large caterpillar had dropped down on her head from a tree one day.

"We're pretty close in age, right? You're supposed to be on my side," Shikamarin worried her lip, but she wasn't really worried. She wasn't really upset with Susumu either. Both of those emotions took up too much energy.


"She's messing with you, I'm sure." Sarutobi assured calmly. He cut up the rabbit meat and handed it out on some large, heavy leaves he'd found.

Shikamarin chewed hers lazily. Sarutobi was a good hunter, and not once did any of them go to bed hungry. She should be grateful for that. Still, she wondered when they'd hear from either of the two who were with the Kaguya. That stern Senju or Sakura. They were both okay, weren't they?

She popped another piece of meat in her mouth. "Not in the mood to complain anymore?" Sarutobi asked from the other side of the fire, smirking.

"You're an alright cook." Shikamarin conceded. There was always good-natured teasing between them. He looked out for her and Susumu like a reliable uncle.

"Hmph!" He bit into his own piece and swallowed. "What about you Susumu?"

"I'm grateful." Susumu smiled. The healer was demure, almost skittish, and quick to fluster. It made Shikamarin think her life before Konoha wasn't a pleasant one.

"I'm glad someone is." Sarutobi boasted, lifting his rabbit to take another bite. Shikamarin watched the food disappear from his hands, a screech piercing the night air.

"What the hell?" Sarutobi cried, shocked. He stood, taking out a kunai. Shikamarin didn't see the need. The culprit hadn't gone far. A small screech owl sat on a low hanging branch, greedily eating its stolen catch. Sarutobi moved towards it deliberately, noticing it had something strapped to its back. The owl paid him no attention. Shikamarin thought the bird looked smug.

"Come here, you!" Sarutobi swiped at the bird but it easily lifted itself into the air to avoid him. He growled in frustration as the owl squawked.

This time Shikamarin was sure it was mocking him. The owl hovered in place before swooping low over Susumu's head, causing the medic to squeal and cover her head. Shikamarin stuffed the last piece of rabbit into her mouth before the bird could reach her. She held out an arm tentatively, and the little bird alighted on it.

"Foul little thing…" she heard Sarutobi mutter as she took the scroll of the owl's back. "What is it?"

"Not sure," The Nara shrugged, unfurling it. Her eyes quickly skimmed over the careful script. "From Toka. Says they're going to be going after the fan soon. They found help. But we're supposed to meet them in the compound…that's all it says." She tossed the scroll at Sarutobi and he read it himself.

"M-Meet them inside the compound?" Susumu's teeth were practically chattering. She wasn't meant for frontline combat that was for sure.

"Don't worry, kid. You'll stay out here and we'll meet up with you. The two of us should be enough back-up. I have a feeling we're just diversions anyway." Sarutobi explained.

"Maybe she thought you'd be a good diversion." Shikamarin told him. "You're the slowest and the oldest after all."

"No wonder that little beast likes you," Sarutobi smirked wryly. The owl had moved up her arm to nuzzle at her cheek. "You're both cheeky things."

The days leading up to the break-in of the weapon's room trickled by. She continued to eat with the Kaguya, and play with Kikue when she could. The little girl always looked at her with such adoring eyes, following her like a lost duckling.

It made her feel almost sad that she'd be leaving her here. As for her brother, Jun'ichi brought her to the garden every day and they'd feed the koi. They had developed a quiet understanding of each other.

Even Harihane, to Sakura's great surprise, didn't seem as hostile towards her. Ever since the night Yoshiro had announced rather casually he'd heard about what she did to the Kaguya in the crop fields, Harihane seemed acutely interested in watching Sakura from a distance. It wasn't with the anger from their first meeting. Now Harihane looked almost curious. 'Like she's waiting to see me break someone else's nose.' Sakura realized, smirking lazily to herself.

The night of the feast was a bustling time for the clan, just like she'd expected it would be. The Kaguya fought each other in a melee style tournament. Then, they'd take to servants and make them fight, promising extra food rations to the winner. It made Sakura sick.

She stayed by Jun'ichi's side, dressed in a purple silk kimono with her hair done up in another style by Kikue, smiling prettily like a good little future bride. It was hard, keeping up the front. But she continuously told herself it would all be over soon. She'd be going back to Konoha, and maybe get some revenge on the Kaguya on her way out.

At dinner, she sat beside Jun'ichi near the head of the table. The Kaguya reveled the way they battled. Wildly. Servants constantly were coming to the table to refill cups and clear away plates to make room for the next course. Meanwhile, Sakura imagined they were subsiding on mere scraps.

The thought made her push her food around, but whenever she caught Yoshiro's eye she made sure to take a few bites, so it didn't seem too suspicious. Yoshiro. She'd be glad to leave his household. He wasn't a brute like his guard, but no doubt he was just as cruel.

She'd never openly admit it, but Toka might have been onto something. Sakura did feel badly for his children. Even Harihane. As she'd spent time with the older and youngest of Yoshiro's three children, she'd discovered maybe not every Kaguya was black-hearted.

The sound of silver chiming against pewter drew everyone's attention to the head of the table, where Yoshiro sat, looking deceptively well-mannered in his mauve kimono. "A toast..." he said, raising his cup with a sly smile. "To my son, and the woman he has finally agreed to marry. May he lead our clan to even greater heights than ever before!"

The other Kaguya lifted their glasses at the table with roars of excitement. Harihane rolled her eyes and halfheartedly lifted her cup before gulping it down while Kikue raised her glass of juice high above her head, beaming. "To Junji and Oka-neesan!" she squeaked happily. Sakura smiled fondly.

The feasting continued, but Sakura became increasingly antsy as time passed. It would be time for the second event of the evening, the melee battles, and that's when she'd slip away.

"You know," Harihane muttered over the noisy room, glaring sourly, "You could do a better job of not showing you wanna be anywhere but here." Sakura had long since stopped taking the girl's glares and brusque way of speaking personally. It was just how she was. Young and perpetually pissed off.

"Oh, no, it's not that..."

"Yeah, it is. Why would it not be?" Harihane stabbed at a piece of chicken with her chopsticks roughly and ate it. "These feasts are stupid. People get drunk, handsy and loud. Even the women are no better. After the melee fights I'm going to put Kikue to bed."

Harihane ignored the small voice mumbling, "Kikue wants to stay with nee-san and Junji!" in the background.

"You don't stay for the servant fights afterwards?" Sakura asked curiously. The only time Harihane seemed to be close to happy was when Sakura had seen her training. She was good, well beyond Sakura's own skills at twelve. Of course, Harihane had the benefit of a kekkei genkai, and she was perfectly adapt at utilizing it.

She'd taken down opponents twice her size with relative ease. Sakura learned that the bruises she sometimes had on her face were small when she left her sparring partners bloody heaps on the floor. They lived though, and sometimes Sakura had healed them herself.

"Those are even stupider than this feast! They're just half-starved commoners..." Harihane said, dabbing at her mouth with a napkin. "Making them fight is pointless. It's not even entertaining... The Kaguya who participate in the melee choose to, and it's a chance to show how strong your Shikotsumyaku is. But commoners are fighting because they think they'll die if they don't. It's not for fun. It's for their survival...that's...not entertaining." her voice was quieter, and Sakura wondered if she was implying that she found the fights cruel. Harihane wouldn't say it outright, but it was the impression Sakura got.

Sakura smiled into her cup as she took a sip. She'd insisted on juice, because she wanted to be alert for tonight.

"What?" Harihane snapped. "You've got a stupid look on your face like I said something funny."

Sakura laughed. "It's nothing. I was just thinking you're sort of nice when you let yourself be."

Harihane's cheeks puffed out indignantly. "You're weird," she hissed, angrily eating her food.

Sakura had no denial for that, so she merely shrugged.

The melee was just starting when she told Jun'ichi she was starting to feel heavy-headed and wanted to go for a walk to clear her head. He offered to escort her, but she assured him she'd memorized the compound and would be fine on her own. There was some reluctance in his eyes, but he didn't stop her. Sakura kept up a calm front as she left the sparring hall.

It was a free for all. Kaguya tearing into each other to see who'd be the last one standing. Somewhere in that mess, was a small girl with something to prove who was cutting down foes with a vengeance. Sakura half-wished she could stay to silently cheer on Harihane, but the mission was what came above all.

Toka was waiting for her just outside the hall. No one was paying much attention to what the servants did now. They had to seize the window of opportunity. They walked silently, back toward the manor. Now that everyone knew that Sakura was meant to be the young lord's bride, no one questioned her presence. They'd just think Toka and the Yuhi siblings were assisting her.

Yurine and Kureno smiled when they saw them coming. "This is it!" Yurine whispered.

"Let's not let excitement get the best of us. The hardest part is still ahead." Toka reminded.

She took the lead, and Kureno turned to Sakura, whispering. "She always like that?"

"If you've got time to whisper, you've got time to walk." Toka called.

Kureno laughed sheepishly, and Sakura blushed, both of them quickly catching up to Toka.

Sakura had never actually been to the west side of the manor. Jun'ichi told her it had once belonged to both his parents, but now his father lived there alone, while the children occupied the east side. It was where Yoshiro's bedroom and war room were. It was also where Jun'ichi's late mother had her library. Apparently she'd been an avid reader as well as a gardener.

They traipsed the halls carefully, Yurine quietly explaining she'd once been summoned to this side of the manor with a handful of other servants. It was to move everything belonging to the late lady of the clan to another area. Yoshiro had wanted it out of his sight. Yurine had been in the war room then, noticed the trap door, and from the drunken lips of Kento one night, had learned it was where the Kaguya kept their store of confiscated weapons.

Sakura wasn't sure how Toka felt about the Yuhi siblings, but she was glad for the information.

"So this is it," Toka said, pushing at the door to the infamous room. "Quickly, let's-"

"Nee-san?" a small voice asked sleepily. Sakura felt cold dread settle in her heart. Everyone turned, surprised to see Kikue, rubbing at her eyes, stumbling forward in her oversized slip.

"Kikue!" She crouched, and the little girl shuffled toward her. Sakura placed a steadying hand on her shoulder.

"I didn't sense that child..." Toka said, clearly disturbed. "I didn't sense her at all. I can't sense her now!"

Sakura blinked, she looked at Kikue with new eyes, realizing that Toka was right. She was standing right in front of her, breathing, blinking at her with innocent eyes, clearly alive and well. But there was no trace of a chakra signature.

"That's not this some kind of trap?" Kureno asked, glaring at the little girl.

"Kikue..." Sakura said slowly. "Are you..."

"She's a sensor-type." Yurine realized. "A good one."

Toka nodded. "Yes, it makes sense."

'That's why I couldn't sense her at all those two times. She suppressed her chakra.' Sakura remembered. Then she thought of something else. "Kikue, how'd you know exactly where to find me?"

She beamed, her flat chest puffed out. "Kikue always knows where to find nee-san! Because Kikue knows what nee-san's chakra feels like. She can see it!"

"Definitely a sensor..." Sakura concluded.

"Sens...or?" Kikue repeated. "What's that mean? Tell Kikue!" she cried, a little more animated as she looked at the faces surrounding her curiously.

"No way, are you trying to tell us you didn't know you're a sensor?"

"It takes training to perfect sensor abilities. The fact that she's achieved this level with apparently no knowledge of her status is impressive." Toka said genuinely. "It stands to reason she hasn't been trained. Her family may not even realize the asset they have right under their noses. She's likely been tapping into it unconsciously. A strong desire to see you," she nodded at Sakura, "And her abilities activate. Wanting to remain quiet out of curtesy, and she suppresses her chakra. It's all just a guess, of course. At any rate, it's dangerous for her to have seen us. Her abilities could ruin everything." She took a step toward Kikue.

Sakura felt her hand clench around Kikue's thin shoulder. "Toka..." she glared. "She's still just a child."

"Children are the most dangerous of all." Toka said, still advancing. Kikue started to back away cautiously. "They are weapons of war as much as any adult shinobi."

Toka's fingers twitched and Kikue's eyes glazed, before she slumped forward.

"You put her in a genjutsu..." Sakura breathed in relief. She gently laid the tiny body in the hallway outside the war room.

Toka's lips curved wryly. "I am a kunoichi. I am no monster. She'll awaken thinking she's dreamt it all." They looked at Kikue, head rolled to the side, her eyes were open and her lips were parted slightly. She was deeply ensnared in Toka's genjutsu, whatever it was.

"What if someone finds her like that?" Kureno asked.

"She still won't remember she's seen us. She'll think she was having a lucid dream and left her room. That's what she'll tell them. Hopefully, we'll be long gone before then." Toka stepped into the war room with the others behind her, and opened the trap door with a hard tug.

"Sakura, you go first, we'll take point."

She could hear Yurine speaking as she stepped into the dreary staircase that spiraled down into the dark, miles underground. "Sakura? Then your name isn't Tomoko either, is it?"

"Call me Toka." the Senju was saying.

Sakura felt like her body was buzzing. Her heartbeat was quick with excitement more than fear. This was what the week and a half they'd spent on this mission was for. She could feel Toka and the others around her, and it gave her a sense of security as they crept further into the bunker.

The walls were gradually widening, and torches lined them periodically, kept burning with oil. It was eerily beautiful. The ceilings arched surprisingly high the further down they went, and gleaming marble columns looked untouched by time. There was a haunting quality in the air, like the'd stepped into a forgotten sepulcher. Sakura's eyes widened when they stepped into what had to be the main room, the cache itself.

It was lined with weapons of all shapes and sizes. The walls were gilded in gold and encrusted with rubies, delicately carved hooks to hold some of the heavier weapons. Ornate swords, maces, battle axes, and bo staffs hung decoratively. Sakura vaguely thought this would be something out of TenTen's dreams.

"The spoils of their raids." Kureno growled from somewhere behind her. "When they destroy small ninja communities, they take weapons as their trophies. Weapons that have been passed down for generations."

Sakura understood his anger, but she was just grateful the Kaguya didn't take heads to display.

"Save your anger." Yurine said. "We're getting what's ours back." The Yuhi siblings stepped around Sakura and began surveying the weapons.

"Sakura," Toka whispered urgently from right beside her, "The fan." Sakura vaguely noted Toka had dropped the honorific.

In her awe, she had somehow missed what should have been obvious. Above all the other weapons, sitting there in all its glory, was Madara Uchiha's gunbai. Sakura ran toward it, her fingers wrapping around the bandaged handle as she pulled it down. She couldn't help but admire it. It was weightier than a normal fan but for its size that was expected. Sakura didn't know weapons that well, but she knew this one was special. She ran her hand over the tomoe marks and it almost felt like it thrummed.

"Let's go!" Toka hissed urgently. "I feel company coming on."

Sakura did too, and cursed silently. She'd thought they'd have more time. In her peripheral vision, she could see the Yuhi siblings had reclaimed their weapons too and were ready.

Sakura took off running with her comrades right behind her. She knew there was a fight waiting for them and she was more than ready.

The first five Kaguya to meet them fired on them immediately. The group split to avoid them, but the barrage was endless. Frustrated, Sakura swung the fan hoping to repel the attacks. It did more than that. The Kaguya went flying through the air as if they were insects, the bone projectiles impaled them before they hit the ground.

Sakura's eyes widened and she looked at the weapon in her hands. Kureno gave a low whistle. "That's sure something. Where'd you get a thing like that?"

"No time— keep moving!" Toka barked. "The more the path widens the more enemies." They stepped over the downed bodies of the groaning Kaguya.

The tunnels widened but no more enemies came at them. Sakura was suspicious. Something was wrong. It happened suddenly just as they reached the incline leading back up to the trap door. Dozens of chakra signatures were everywhere. Sakura skidded to a stop, yards away from a small army of Kaguya led by Yoshiro. Kento stood at his side.

"Well, well…it seems Kento was right about you. Something was off." Yoshiro drawled. "My son will be disappointed. I'm told he was actually interested in you. My daughters too. A pity I'll have to break the hearts of my children." Yoshiro's bones protruded from his arms and shoulders, and the other Kaguya followed his lead, extending their bones. Sakura tensed, knowing that Toka and the two Yuhi were all prepared to fight to the death.

"Take out Yoshiro." Toka murmured. "We can handle the others."

Then a wave of Kaguya descended on them with sharp battle cries and Sakura met the ruthless smile of Kento. "Not gonna make it that easy on you, girly. You want to get to Lord Yoshiro, then take me on."

Sakura carefully set the fan aside, cracking her knuckles. "Gladly."

The hulking man came at her and she readied a fist meant for his solar plexus. He stopped it with a meaty palm, smirking. "Weak," he chuckled.

Sakura tilted her head. "Really?" He was so busy underestimating her, he failed to see the fist she drove into his chin until it was too late. His jaw made a sickening crack as it collided. The arrogance seemed to fade from him as he gripped at his broken jaw, glaring at her.

To his credit, he recovered more quickly than she was expecting, swinging an arm spiked with bones at her left. Sakura narrowly dodged in the enclosed space. And when he swung at her from the right it managed to gash her side. Hissing, the kunoichi silently promised herself retribution.

When he made a grab for her she met him head-on and they grappled for control. The protrusions from his palms dug into her own, and she ignored the pain, pushing back hard and squeezing his hands tightly.

She could see discomfort start to flicker in his eyes, as much as he was trying to hide it. She used her super strength until she felt every one of the fat fingers on his left hand break. The dark thrill she felt at the look of agony on his face sent a chill up her spine. 'Look who doesn't have a high pain threshold.' He let go of her other hand immediately, grabbing her by the throat faster than she could react. He squeezed, his fingers easily encompassing her entire neck.

Sakura sputtered, reaching up to pry his hands away. But the minute her hand touched his metacarpal bones began digging into her throat. The threat was clear. Try to break her fingers and he'd puncture her neck. Sakura dropped her hands and started swinging her legs. She heard Kento's garbled laugh and knew he thought she was futilely struggling, but she kept desperately swinging her lower torso while her air continued to run out.

Closing her eyes, she wrapped her legs around his broad waist and swung up, using her strength to flip him over her head. She spun in the air to land on her feet, but with his monstrous size, he wasn't as lucky. He crashed down and the floor underneath him splintered with the sheer force, making a sizable dent. He sprawled on the floor, unmoving. Sakura panted, rubbing her neck. That had been too close.

She glanced around to see half of the other Kaguya her team had been fighting either dead or unconscious. Yoshiro clapped slowly, stepping around his kinsmen with disregard. "Brilliant. Now killing you really does seem like a shame." He tisked. "Return the weapons you've taken and I may yet see you as my son's wife."

"I'll pass." Sakura huffed. Her throat still burned, but she wasn't going to waste her energy healing herself until after the battle. She was confident she didn't need to unleash the Byakugo seal to beat Yoshiro, which would probably break her henge.

Yoshiro smiled thinly. His eyes said he knew that'd be her answer. "I'll tell my son you died fighting, then." Sakura eyed him warily. No doubt he'd be faster than Kento, but just as strong, if not stronger.

Sakura went with a right-left hook combo, testing the water. Yoshiro easily blocked it with an arm, using his bones to defend himself from damage. She hopped back, narrowly missing as he took the opportunity to thrust at her abdomen with a bone sticking from his arm. As they fought she mentally analyzed what she knew about their fighting technique.

They were taijutsu specialists, excelling in close-range combat. But they could also be mid-range fighters due to firing their weaponized bones. And speed...Sakura decided to assume Yoshiro had that too.

She ran through five familiar signs and her hands glowed a sharp blue.

"Full of surprises." Yoshiro grinned. "I'm excited to see what that does."

"You won't be as excited when you find out, I promise." Sakura said.

He rushed her, as fast as she expected him to be, and slashed at her with a sharpened bone, swinging it widely like a sword. Sakura ducked once but the second swing caught her in the right shoulder. She caught it with her right hand and snapped it in half with her chakra scalpel. He didn't stop, pulling a long bone, sharpened to a point from his side and swinging it down. Sakura blocked it by crossing her arms in an "x" over her head, but Yoshiro kept pushing down. She exerted force and flung it away, not wasting time to touch her glowing hand to his side.

He grunted. "So a paralysis effect. Interesting."

"Not through yet," she mumbled.

"Likewise," he chuckled darkly, the bones from his back protruding, and then growing to lengths the bones in a human body normally never could. Sakura was fascinated, but kept herself focused as he jumped and began rotating midair. Sakura backflipped, cursing the limited space and trying not to trip over the bodies of the fallen Kaguya. She reared back her fist and slammed it into the nearest wall, smirking as it crumbled. 'That should open up the room some,' she thought smugly.

Yoshiro momentarily paused his assault to watch. Sakura was quick to take advantage, hitting his leg with her chakra scalpel, and then the dominate arm he'd been using to attack her. He wobbled unsteadily, but had an impressive amount of control over his body, even with the muscles not responding correctly.

He shot a flurry of bones from his rib cage and Sakura found herself back flipping again, rolling hard to the right on her injured shoulder with a hiss when she landed to get out of the way of another attack. 'That's it! I'm done with this!' She felt like a snake peeling back its skin as the Byakugo appeared through the henge.

Yoshiro slammed his hand into the ground and bones sprouted through the floor, causing Sakura to launch herself into the air again. Deciding not to waste the airspace, she turned the dodge into a heavy drop-kick that caught the Kaguya on the crown of his head. She was pleased to see he looked dazed. It was likely only the density of his bones that kept him from fainting. Anyone else would have at least developed a concussion on the spot.

Taking advantage, Sakura quickly dove under his guard, driving her glowing blue fist into his stomach so hard it pulled him off his feet and into the air; she brought him back to earth with a slam that had the floor flying up with debris.

She heard someone cry out as debris was flung across the room. There was blood dripping from Yoshiro's lips as he stared at her from the crater with half-lidded eyes. " aren't natural." Sakura huffed, stumbling before righting herself and collecting the fan. She smoothed her hand down the surface and smiled. It hadn't taken an damage at all from her attack. Interesting. Maybe she wouldn't give it back to Madara. Maybe she'd keep it for herself.

She turned around to see all three of her companions were staring at her in disbelief. Even the normally composed Toka seemed like she was seeing Sakura for the first time.

Sakura blinked innocently, forgetting that these weren't the people she had battled beside for years. They weren't used to her "monster strength" as Naruto called it. "What?" she asked sheepishly.


Everyone was breathing hard when they climbed back up into the war room. No one was waiting for them, but it would only be a matter of time before more Kaguya came after them. Frustrated, Sakura didn't bother with finding a safe exit route. "Get back!" she warned the others.

She took one look at the wall, reared back her fist, and with an impassioned cry, the wall was rubble and a cool night breeze was flowing into the damaged room.

She heard a squeak she thought came from one of the Yuhi siblings, but ignored it as she carefully climbed over the mess she'd made, fan secured. Toka was right behind her, and Kureno and Yurine followed soon enough.

They ran through the streets of the compound, but by then word had spread and more Kaguya were quickly on their heels. They were all ready to fire on them, and Sakura suddenly cursed. It felt like they wouldn't make it, after everything they'd been through.

"Need some help? The cavalries here. Katon: Haisekishō!"

'That voice! That technique...' Sakura knew it was the escort team.

Smog washed down onto the bewildered Kaguya, and Sakura could hear them coughing and shouting in confusion. She knew what came next. "Keep moving!" she urged Yurine and Kureno, who had stopped to look back. "He's going to...!"

The fire was so close, Sakura could feel the heat of it at her back. It singed the ends of her hair as it collided with the smog and created a tall column of flame that successfully cut off the Kaguya chasing them.

"Get the fan out of here, we'll be behind you!" Sarutobi shouted. Sakura figured the best thing she could do was listen. Toka and the others ran behind her, and the front gates were almost in sight. Until two figures suddenly sprang out. Sakura skidded to a stop, slightly surprised to see Kikue (wide-eyed and awake) and Harihane blocking their path.

"We're supposed to be stopping you." Harihane said irritably. "But-"

Toka stepped forward. "Then see if you can."

"Lady, do you even listen?! Did it sound like I was done talking?" Harihane went on, throwing up her arms. "I said we're supposed to be stopping you! Father figured you'd try storming the front gate. Go east, Junji's got horses waiting for you through a side-gate. We'll throw the rest of 'em off your trail for a little while."

"Why are you doing this?" Toka asked sharply. "You're betraying your own clan."

Harihane glared. "I don't like you. It's like I'm arguing with my reflection or something. Just take the horses if you don't wanna get caught, now go!"

"We should leave, Toka." Sakura sighed. "I think we can trust this." The Senju looked disgruntled but didn't protest. "Thank you, Harihane." Sakura smiled.

She couldn't be sure, but it looked like her tanned cheeks were a little flushed. "Tch..." she said, not meeting Sakura's eyes. Kikue ran over and latched onto the kunoichi's leg.

"Don't leave! Take Kikue too!" she cried, tears streaming down her face. Sakura picked the little girl up and hugged her before setting her back down.

"Be brave, Kikue. I know you can." Kikue took her hand in a death grip, shaking her head.


"Oh, for crying out loud!" Harihane exclaimed, hitting her sister on the head and dragging her away from Sakura. "You're such a baby!"

"We should go," Yurine urged, casting a nervous glance behind them. "How long until they find away around the fire?"

"Right," Sakura agreed, and the group took off running, leaving the sisters behind.

As promised, they came to the east wall of the compound to see Jun'ichi standing tall in the moonlight, holding the reins of a horse in each hand. The boy Sakura remembered helping, Yuuta, had the reigns of two more. He lit up when he saw her. "Hi miss!" he greeted cheerfully. "I never did thank you."

"It's fine, Yuuta." Sakura panted, ready for the whole night to be over. Yuuta shook his head.

"When m'lord said he wanted mah help wranglin' some horses you could use, I was so happy! Here!" he handed her a reign. "She's fast n' strong and really sweet, so she won't throw ya."

"Um..." Sakura fidgeted slightly with the fan. The whole time she'd kept it in a death grip. It was almost sort of comforting to hold onto. Maybe because she'd worked so hard to get it.

"You can't ride holding that. Here," Jun'ichi suddenly produced a thin chain, attaching it to the small hole Sakura hadn't noticed in the bottom of the fan's handle. Jun'ichi's arms briefly circled her waist as he wound the chain there, taking the fan and pressing it against her back before securing it.

Sakura blushed lightly. "Thank you."

To her surprise, he smiled lightly. "Get on," he inclined his head at the mare patiently waiting.

Toka, Yurine and Kureno were already on their horses. Sakura, not wanting to be outdone, put one foot in the stirrup and tried to clumsily pull herself up by the horn of the saddle. She'd never ridden a horse. It wasn't a skill she'd ever thought she would need. She tried to vault on to the tan mare, but overshot the mark and almost fell over the other side.

Her cheeks were bright red as she scrambled to correct herself, knowing she'd already made a fool in front of everyone. A sigh tickled the hair near her neck as she felt herself being yanked up and sat correctly in the saddle. Jun'ichi was watching her with barely masked amusement.

"Should I be worried about this arrangement?" he asked.

"We'll help her," Toka said, looking like the elegant lady-warrior she was, sitting on her horse.

"You did the right thing. Thank you...Junji." His eyes widened, and Sakura wondered if she'd made a mistake, but he bowed his head slightly. "Uh, I still think you could change the Kaguya. You and your sisters. You can see that your father's way isn't the right way and that's the first step. Step out of his shadow, show the rest of the clan the right way."

He nodded solemnly.

"Leaving without us?" Sarutobi came strolling up, Shikamarin trailing lazily at his side. He hopped on Sakura's horse behind her, and she was mentally a little relieved someone who probably had more experience handling horses would be riding with her. Shikamarin climbed on with Yurine, not even questioning who she was. Kureno pouted slightly.

"Have a nice journey miss!" Yuuta smiled.

Jun'ichi slapped her horse's side and it bolted into the narrow tunnel leading back into the woods, the other horses following. Sakura glanced behind her, feeling tired but triumphant.

Jun'ichi watched his father pace angrily, his hair looking unkept and dark circles beneath his eyes. Yoshiro Kaguya had most definitely known better days. He hadn't taken the decimation of his war room, and the deceit of his son's bride-to-be well.

She had not only defeated him but struck a tremendous blow to his pride. Jun'ichi was familiar enough with his father to know he wouldn't let it go. He supposed he himself should be angrier about how she'd fooled him, but he wasn't. She was a kunoichi, and undercover missions fell into the job description from time to time.

He wanted to believe, though, that her genuine care for everyone she'd encountered hadn't been faked. It had felt like she was truly someone he could open up to. "That girl...and her companions, they'll pay!" his father hissed, repeating the same thing he'd been repeating for days. "I'd hunt them down myself!" He stopped pacing momentarily, looking his son squarely in the eyes. Jun'ichi met the slightly manic gaze straight on. "That's what I'd like to say...but I'm need here. The servants have grown restless, we've had to quash several small riots just this week alone. It seems that girl's inspired them." he sneered. "So, you will hunt her down in my place. Bring her back here alive, though it's not necessarily a bad thing if she's been damaged."

"You want me to waste my time, tracking down a woman who's likely long gone."

"Yes!" Yoshiro barked. "And you will obey, do you understand? Pack immediately. I want you gone before sundown."

Jun'ichi knew that was his dismissal. He left his father to his manic pacing and returned to his own chambers. Lately, he'd been thinking a lot about what she'd said. He wasn't his father. He didn't have to be trapped in the deadly shadow of Yoshiro Kaguya. He could do things his own way, make the Kaguya clan better. That was impossible as long as his father lived though. And patricide...well, it was a possibility, but did he truly want to lead a bloodthirsty bunch of clansmen loyal to his father? They'd see him as weak, weaker than they already did, if he suggested his new way of thinking. Still, he felt she was right. He had to do something to restore his family's soiled name...

"Going somewhere, brother?" he pushed his doors opened, and there were his sisters, both standing there with their bags packed for a long journey. Harihane had her battle armor on. And little Kikue...was sporting armor too, bouncing on the balls of her feet.

"It seems I'm not the only one." he muttered.

"Got that right!" Harihane pointed at him accusingly. "Take us or else!"

"Hari-neesan, stop being bossy!" Kikue complained. "She means, we want to see nee-san too. So please Junji-nii!"

Jun'ichi raised a brow. "Who told you I was going to find her?"

Harihane rolled her eyes, flicking her jet black hair from her face. "Oh, please. We know Father just as well as you. Of course he'd send you to drag her back here. So count us in. It's about time I got out of this crap hole for a while, and Kikue needs to see the world at some point. Maybe she'd finally grow up."

"Kikue is growned up!"

Harihane made a flourishing gesture as if to say 'see?'

"You both miss her too, then."

"Yes," Kikue said immediately.

Harihane blushed, shaking her head. "Like hell! I just wanna see what else is out there, okay? Maybe somewhere, there's a place that appreciates strong women and let's them lead their clans."

"There's no changing your minds I presume."

"No~" Kikue sang.

"Does father know?"

"Does he need to?" Harihane retorted.

Jun'ichi closed his eyes, smiling. "It looks like we all changed, at least a little..."

Kikue eagerly looped her arm with her sister's "H-Hey! What're you doing?"

The youngest sibling ignored her, waddling to her brother awkwardly in her armor and dragging Harihane along. When she reached him, she took his arm too. "An adventure! Kikue thinks this'll be a fun trip!"

Jun'ichi ruffled her hair. "I agree."

Chapter Text

Tobirama peered into the Hokage's office to see Hashirama diligently working through a stack of papers in need of his approval. The village was ever expanding. Two more new clans had joined them, and Hashirama had again built more homes for the new arrivals.

Admittedly, when he was serious and focused on the task at hand, Hashirama hardly needed his help, except for advice. But there were too many times when he complained that Tobirama's methods of supervision were heavy-handed. That he need a break, or he'd collapse.

Tobirama hardly worried about that. His brother's stamina greatly surpassed that of any normal shinobi. It was, however, closing in on lunch time. And as much as he'd have him skip it, Hashirama had made plans for lunch with a certain Uchiha clan head.

He sighed, mentally bidding farewell to the image of the focused Hashirama sitting behind his desk. "Brother," he called, pushing the door open slightly.

"Hm…" Hashirama didn't look up. He was reading over some document. "It's been unseasonably warm this year, especially for fall…the farmers are saying it's going to effect the harvest. They're requesting a shift of their fields, but I already gave the area they're proposing to the Nara clan, so—" Tobirama cleared his throat. It was good that Hashirama was thinking seriously about how to best solve the problems of his people, both shinobi and farmers alike, but if he didn't stop him, he'd go on talking to himself forever.

Hashirama finally took notice of his brother standing right in front of him, putting down his quill and smiling. "Oh, Tobirama, when did you get here?"

The white-haired shinobi bit back the sharp retort that would include berating his brother for not sensing him. "Never mind that." he dismissed. "Aren't you going to be late?"

"Late?" Hashirama asked in confusion. "For…? Oh, right. Lunch with Madara." he laughed easily, putting the papers aside. "You're right, I should get going." He stood up, stretching. "On the other hand…" Hashirama began, a devilish smile forming, "If I happen to take a detour, and it causes me to be late, that vein on his forehead will bulge out and his nostrils will flare."

Tobirama quirked a brow. He certainly didn't understand the closeness his brother shared with Madara, but he did understood the appeal in provoking him. Madara's expressions could be amusing when the right buttons were pushed.

"You shouldn't provoke someone right before you attempt to discuss policy with them. It's in poor form." Tobirama said it, but he wasn't sure if he meant it. At least not when it came to that damn Uchiha.

Hashirama shot him an accusing look. "Yet you can't be trusted to remain civil with either brother for an entire conversation. You're allowed fun at Madara's expense, but I have to show restraint? That, dear brother, is quite the hypocritical rule."

Tobirama wasn't moved. "I'm not Hokage." he said flatly.

"Feh…" Hashirama muttered. "Anyway, I think I'd like to walk through the village today. It's good to show my face to the people every now and then. Why don't you come with me?"

Tobirama looked hesitant. "Must I?"

"Oh, what do you have to do that's more important?" He raised a hand as Tobirama opened his mouth to speak. "Those experimental jutsu? Perfecting the bunshin technique, isn't it? You can do that any time. Join me, brother." Hashirama strolled through his office door, glancing back expectantly.

Tobirama grumbled something inaudible.

"Was that a yes?" Hashirama asked.

"Only until you reach the restaurant. I refuse to be in the presence of Madara for an entire meal." He easily fell into step with his brother.


The bright sunshine on their faces as they exited the Tower felt almost out of place. It was offset by the chill of an autumn breeze, and that brought Hashirama some comfort. It wasn't just the farmers who had been concerned. He'd caught whispers around the village from some villagers that it was a bad omen. Something had thrown nature out of balance and upset the gods.

Hashirama, choosing to see the brighter side, simply chose to treat it as if spring had come early. He liked spring, because he liked rebirth and new beginnings. Flowers, trees and plants blooming also fascinated him. Cherry blossoms especially.

'Who doesn't like cherry blossoms?' he thought. 'They epitomize everything wonderful about spring.' He wondered if they'd bloom out of season, the way the weather was going.

"You should be more mindful. You'll end up walking into someone." Tobirama advised. Hashirama blinked, realizing his brother was right; he was walking and thinking, not really paying attention.

"It's alright," Hashirama smiled. "You warned me in time so I didn't—" The Hokage nearly tripped over something that felt too large to be a rock.


"And what did I just finish saying?" Tobirama clucked.

"I'm sorry," Hashirama rubbed his neck, realizing he'd nearly fallen on a child that had been crouching on the ground. "Here," he helped the boy up, watching as he dusted himself off, inspecting his body for bruises.

"Are you alright? What were you doing down there?" Hashirama asked, bemused.

The boy heaved a sigh, still looking down. "Um…" He seemed reluctant to answer.

"Oh, I know you." The boy looked up at him, realizing he was the Hokage. A wide-eyed look of awe took over the child's face. "You're Sasuke's son, aren't you?"

He looked a lot like Sasuke, with his tanned skin and the shape of his dark eyes. His hair was sandy brown, lighter than his father's, but this was Sasuke Sarutobi's son.

The boy nodded. "I'm—"

"Don't tell me." Hashirama interrupted, stroking his chin. "I want to guess. You're…" He prided himself on remembering almost all the faces and names of his villagers. He was almost positive he could remember the boy's name if he tried. "You're…" he fumbled, drawing a blank. One glance at Tobirama and he knew his brother wouldn't be helping him. "You're…Little…Saru…" he finished weakly, patting the boy's head.

The boy's face looked appalled. "S-Saru? With all due respect, Lord Hokage, it's sort of rude to compare somebody to a monkey the first time you meet them!" he huffed. "I'm Hiruzen!"

Hashirama deflated, embarrassed. "Hiruzen."

"It might not be your given name, but it is your family name, correct?" Now Tobirama decided to step in. After he'd made a fool of himself. Typical Tobirama. "In the future, it's unwise to crouch in the street, no matter the reason. Remember that, Saru." Tobirama brushed by the boy and Hashirama took that as his cue to follow.

The Sarutobi boy was pouting and he gave him an apologetic look.

"It's Hiruzen," Hashirama heard him saying to himself.

He was already late, so little Saru likely wasn't the only one who would be mad at him before the end of the day.

He focused on the smiling faces of the villagers and shinobi who waved and greeted them respectfully when they walked by. It was nice to see everyone in good spirits. It made him feel as if they were on the right path, finally. Tobirama was constantly reminding them they had a long ways to go towards completing village infrastructure. His brother, ever the pragmatist.

They had almost made it to the restaurant, and Hashirama could swear he saw that proud posture and long black mane through the throng of people passing by.

He was about to attempt to shoo Tobirama off, hopefully avoiding a confrontation right in front of the restaurant. His brother wasn't looking at him though, instead tilting his head in focus.

The Hokage was very familiar with that, and it meant Tobirama had a chakra signature he recognized in his cross-hairs. "Who is it?" he whispered, desperately praying it wasn't an Uchiha.

As much as he tried to explain to his younger brother that the Uchiha were their allies now, Tobirama's hostility and natural suspicion intensified whenever he caught sight of an Uchiha. Any Uchiha.

"I feel—"

"Haaashiii-niiii!" He recognized that voice instantly, turning in time to catch the girl leaping at his back. He sighed as he lowered the giggling girl to her feet. 'Well, it's not an Uchiha.'

"Hello, Reira. You're in high spirits, as always." It was true, whenever he saw the brunette she was wearing a sunny attitude, running around the village looking for adventure.

"'Course!" the girl said proudly, rubbing the bridge of her nose. "You foiled my sneak attack again today."

Tobirama shook his said at Reira. "That was horrible. A sneak attack usually consists of a much quieter approach. Unless you're trying to alert the enemy that you're ambushing them. In which case, that attempt went smoothly."

Reira looked up at Tobirama, grinning. "You're serious as always, sourpuss. It's like Tobaa never left." She blinked, suddenly remembering something. "Oh! I got this from one of her owls today!" she proudly brandished an opened scroll from somewhere inside her training gi, waving it around.

"She's coming home!" she squealed, spinning around and almost bumping into a passing civilian. "Tomorrow!"

"I've already received one of her owls myself." Hashirama explained. "I know."

"You're always the first to know…since you're Hokage an' all." she mumbled, putting the scroll safely away again. "Anyway, where are you headed? Wanna have lunch together? I would've had dinner with you last time you were at the compound, but…" she sighed. "I got in trouble again."

Hashirama chuckled in amusement as Reira skipped beside them. "Oh? Another prank gone wrong?"

"It wasn't supposed to be a prank!" The little girl noticed Tobirama didn't look convinced. "Really!" she insisted. "The beetle wasn't supposed to drop into Mei-san's tea…I was just trying to show it to her."

Hashirama laughed brightly. "Unfortunately, I can't have lunch today. I'm meeting with Madara. You remember him, don't you?"

Reira's tanned face creased. "Sure do. He's that Uchiha with the face like this," she said, pulling her face down into a grim countenance. "And sometimes, he makes faces like this." She once again rearranged her face into an angry snarl.

Tobirama nodded in approval. "Exactly the one."

"Tobi, please…" Hashirama felt the need to defend his friend. Even if it was true that on occasion, Madara's face had unintentionally caused babies to cry.

"Why're you meeting with him?" Reira asked curiously, her long braid swinging behind her as she glanced to her side. The quaint sushi restaurant where Hashirama was having lunch with the Uchiha head was only yards away, and standing in front of it were patrons doing their best to enter and exit the building while maintaining a wide berth from an irritable man waiting outside.

"Well, we have some things to discuss." Reira held up a finger to indicate she had more questions. "Boring grown-up things."

Sighing, she rolled her eyes. "Okay, I get it. I'm out of the loop then, huh? Well, when you're finished discussing boring grown-up things with an Uchiha that has a face like an oni mask, come by the compound and play with me, okay? I made a new friend I want you to meet!"

She darted off, back into the crowd, the familiar brown braid bouncing behind her. Along with the yellow gi, Reira Senju was easy to pick out in a crowd.

The Hokage waved at her back, despite knowing she couldn't see it.

"Does she remind you of anyone?" Hashirama asked.

"Yes," Tobirama sighed. "A ghost that's long gone." His eyes narrowed as he saw Madara slowly turn in their direction, likely sensing Hashirama was near. "Have fun." he spat, streaking away.

Hashirama wondered if he'd ever live to see the day his brother and childhood friend would get along. He supposed he shouldn't hold his breath.

"Madara," he greeted evenly.

"You are late." he rumbled, surveying Hashirama's sheepish smile and Hokage robes. The vein on his temple was throbbing irritably, and his nostrils flared when he huffed. Inside, Hashirama allowed himself to snicker. He knew Madara well.

"I am, and I don't have any excuses for that." The Hokage stated humbly. 'None you'd accept, anyway.'

"Well, don't make it a habit." Madara walked into the restaurant dismissively. Hashirama knew he'd gotten off easy so he didn't push the fact that Madara was ordering him around like he was the Hokage.

They entered the restaurant and eyes instantly fell on the two formidable men. Together he was sure they made quite a sight. Madara was dressed simply in a navy yukata with the Uchiha crest on the back, and Hashirama fidgeted with the end of his own robes. Maybe he should've changed. Coming out wearing his Hokage attire always drew attention, intentionally or not. But stopping to change would have made him even later. And Madara would have likely chewed him out properly when he'd arrived.

A young woman that Hashirama recognized as the owners' daughter came over to them, though her steps faltered when she caught sight of Madara's scowling face. "Welcome Hokage-sama," she bowed. "And you too, Uchiha-sama…" She awkwardly tried to smile, hiding her anxiety. Hashirama had to commend her for her bravery.

"Is there a table?" Madara asked.

"Yes, we've saved one." She swallowed, wiping her hands on her apron. "This way, please…"

As she seated them, Hashirama smiled gratefully. "We'll have whatever's fresh caught for today with a side of rice. And sweet bean soup. And some green tea!" Hashirama said after thinking about it.

The dark-haired woman looked only too happy to have a reason to leave the table. "You're scaring people." Hashirama whispered. "When you make that face, everyone gets the wrong idea."

"I am an Uchiha." Madara said. "They don't need any other reason to get the 'wrong idea'." His dark eyes glared into Hashirama's. "And I'm not a child. I am perfectly capable of deciding what I want for myself."

Hashirama sighed heavily, "Madara…that's not…" Was that true? He had a reputation that proceeded him. Not many people understood that Madara was a good man the way Hashirama did. He was proud, aloof and not always forthright in expressing his emotions. Due to that, people were sometimes wary. They didn't have the benefit of knowing Madara had another side. The side that loved his clan (especially Izuna) fiercely, was too shy to relieve himself when someone was watching and was secretly kind to children. Hashirama saw a lot of hidden good in him. He just wished the world could see what he did. "Hey, I wasn't treating you like a child! You would have taken all day deciding."

"Then you were treating me like a child!" The Uchiha said accusingly. "One that couldn't make up his mind!"

"No…" Hashirama stubbornly denied. It had been reflex to order for the both of them. He didn't mean to offend Madara's pride. He shook his head. "Listen, we're here for a reason. You've thought over my proposal haven't you? Even without the constant threat of being sent into war, the youth of the village still need training. I know conventionally each clan has trained their children according to traditions passed down through generations, but I truly feel if we're going to foster an attitude of village above clan, this is a step in that direction."

Madara crossed his arms, looking down at the table top for a moment. "I've thought of it…and while I wouldn't be opposed to the idea… I have to ask, how do you plan to go about this? This…academy you're proposing. There are a few important things to consider. Such as the entry age and specifications, how long children will be taught, and by whom. Then, you'd have to consider how to make accommodations for child prodigies who progress faster than their peers."

When Madara paused, there was a small smile on Hashirama's face. "What?" the Uchiha asked suspiciously.

"You've given this a lot of that. I was honestly a little afraid you wouldn't agree at all. But now that I have you on board, things will go a lot smoother." The Hokage said cheerfully.

"I had a hand in creating this village too." Madara reminded. "Infrastructure and expansion should be a joint effort."

"Of course!" Hashirama said excitedly. "You know, Tobirama's been thinking of an idea to rank the ninja of the village according to ability and experience. The young ones would be at the bottom naturally, and as they improve, they could progress their way through the ranks. Each rank would have requirements that would need to be met before promotion."

"I assume the breakdown would be to help missions to be assigned accordingly."

Hashirama nodded, about to explain further, when the serving girl came back with both her parents. All three of them carried trays of food and tea which they sat down in the middle of the table. Steam hit both men in the face and Hashirama smiled pleasantly.

"Will you be needing anything else?" the restaurant's female owner asked kindly.

It was clear she was speaking mainly to Hashirama, but the Hokage looked across the table at his friend.

"No." he said, picking up and breaking his chopsticks. "What about you?"

Madara eyed the food briefly before shaking his head. "No…thank you." To his credit, the Uchiha seemed to have taken Hashirama's words to heart, because he made an attempt to soften his facial expression.

The family seemed surprised, but quickly pasted smiles on their faces. "It's always a privilege to have you as customers." The male owner bowed humbly. "Both of you." He nodded at Madara.

"Please enjoy your meal!" the young woman chirped, dragging both of her awestruck parents away by the arm.

"See?" Hashirama asked. "Was that really so hard?"

Madara picked up his own chopsticks, pulling a bowl of rice closer. "Incredibly." he said sardonically. He took a few small fish, grilled sardines, but made a face at the bowl of small orange-red orb clusters in the middle of the table.

"What's that sour look for?" Hashirama asked curiously. "It's only roe. Salmon roe, by the looks of it! This is a high-quality spread." To demonstrate, the Hokage lifted a spoonful of the roe to his mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

Madara's eyes were full of disdain. "Only roe? Those are the eggs of a fish!" He turned up his nose, pointedly ignoring his friend munching on the fish eggs. Hashirama wanted to tell him that for all his protesting earlier, Madara really did resemble a petulant child at the moment.

"Exactly! It's a good source of nutrients." Hashirama explained. "You shouldn't be so picky. What's the difference between eating the eggs of a chicken and the eggs of a fish?"

Madara looked incredulous as he gestured to the bowl of eggs. "Eggs of a fish! You said it yourself. That's the difference. They're slimy, uncooked fish spawn. Fish is meant to be eaten grilled over an open flame. Sometimes raw, but never in egg form." He said it with such bitter finality that Hashirama couldn't help but laugh. At some point in time, roe had traumatized Madara, apparently.

A particularly horrible idea crossed Hashirama's mind suddenly. Horrible for Madara, anyway. "In that case, would you care for a friendly wager?" he asked innocently.

Madara drank his tea and then stared at Hashirama blankly. "You know I'm not one for wagers." He took a bite of his fish. "You have a problem and I'm not encouraging it."

Tobirama had told him almost the exact same thing, on more than one occasion. When it came to bets, the Hokage could never turn them down. The gods of fortune had always seemed to smile on him favorably, and so he figured wasting that favor would be an insult to the gods.

"I understand…the idea of betting against me must be daunting." Hashirama frowned, picking at his own food sadly. From the corner of his eye, he saw Madara freeze mid-bite.

"Daunting?" he scoffed in disbelief. "An Uchiha is daunted by nothing." Madara countered.

'Except peeing in front of people.' Hashirama mentally added.

"Then why won't you make a bet with me?"

Hashirama could see he'd successfully chosen the right words.

"A bet about what?" Madara asked irritably. "What could there possibly be, right now, in this moment, that I would choose to wager against you for?"

"Nothing much." The Hokage said, shrugging his broad shoulders. "Just the return of your fan."

"My fan?" The Senju was now mentally patting his own back. "What about my fan? Come to think of it, you've told me nothing about how that mission has been progressing. Have they been caught? If anyone would be, I'd assume it's the pink one with the big mouth. What she lacks in personality Toka at least makes up for in skill."

Hashirama bit his tongue from defending his old friend. Toka was also misunderstood. "Everyone's fine, the last I heard. The pink one is Sakura-san."

"The one from civilians who hates me."

"She doesn't hate you." Hashirama said breezily. She did and they both knew it. "But back to our wager. If they are able to successfully retrieve the fan. Well, if Sakura-san specifically successfully retrieves the fan, you'll have to eat an entire bowl of roe by yourself. But if Toka writes to tell me she completed the mission herself and Sakura-san was a hindrance, I'll cut my hair to the length it was when we were boys."

Madara calmly put a bite of rice in his mouth. "I'd like to see that. You'd look even more ridiculous than you did then."

"Then, do we have our wager?" Hashirama warmly stuck his hand out across the table. Madara eyed it briefly, seemingly weighing his odds, before shaking hands. "Excellent!"

"Now, back to this ranking system you mentioned—"

"Hold on!" Hashirama held up a hand, carefully reaching into his inner robes with another hand. "I have something I want you to read." He produced a scroll he'd been keeping since the night before. He had planned to show it to Madara at some point during the meeting. He truly had. But then the opportunity in front of him had presented itself, and he'd withheld.

Madara took the scroll from him, likely thinking it was details about plans for the academy. There was a flicker of guilt there, but then it was quashed by the mischief Hashirama constantly had to tamp down.

"Participating in pranks with a ten-year old girl isn't becoming of a Hokage." Tobirama's voice said in his head. Meh. He swatted it away. Tobirama wasn't here now. He wasn't pulling a prank with Reira. And he was the Hokage; he was allowed to have fun sometimes.

He watched, his face remaining oblivious as he let Madara take his time reading the report. Toka's mission report. The one that expressly stated that Sakura Haruno had been instrumental in the retrieval of the fan, using amazing strength to defeat the clan leader.

Madara's eyes hardened as he read it, but his face began looking sickly. When he locked eyes with Hashirama again, the Uchiha looked furious.

"How long have you had this?" he hissed.

"Only since last night. Toka's owls always arrive late, you see—"

"Last night means you had prior knowledge when we placed our wager minutes ago, did you not?"

"I thought you'd be happier about this." Hashirama feigned shock at Madara's reaction. He knew full well it wasn't the news but the deceit that had the Uchiha fuming. "You're getting your gunbai back. With just that scythe you look like a death god, so, this is an improvement."

"You made a fool of me." Madara growled, his knuckles clenching at the table so hard it began to crack. "I refuse to honor this wager. I should win by default!"

Hashirama rolled his eyes. "You never pressed me to specify any conditions. It's your own fault."

Madara didn't look any less livid. "Sleep with one eye open." he warned.

A bead of sweat involuntarily trickled down the back of the Hokage's neck. "You lost," he gulped. "You're eating this bowl of roe." He pushed it towards Madara, a sly grin appearing. "Now you have two opponents you can't beat. Me, and this ro—" Hashirama blinked as Madara suddenly snatched the bowl away, picking up his spoon and looking into the bowl with utter contempt.

If his eyes burned red with the Sharingan, it wouldn't surprise the Hokage. He watched his friend begin shoveling fish eggs into his mouth, his eyes never breaking contact.

Hashirama wouldn't be sleeping with just one eye open. Because he wouldn't be sleeping at all.

It had been days since they'd successfully retrieved the fan, and Konoha was closer than ever. Sakura was ecstatic. It felt like a lifetime since she'd seen either version of the village. She was sure the others were happy too, from the way they all talked. Shikamarin wanted her mother's home-cooked meals. Sarutobi wanted to see his wife and son. Susumu wanted to stop having bugs drop on her from overhead. Yurine and Kureno were just happy to be free of the Kaguya, and Toka was solemn as ever, but Sakura felt like she'd learned to read her better since the start of the mission; the Senju seemed more at peace now that they were going home.

The pink-haired kunoichi sighed, splashing her face in the cool waters of the river where they'd stopped for a short break. After nearly two days of nonstop riding, Sarutobi had decided they should turn the horses loose and go the rest of the journey on foot. So that's what they'd done, sending the animals in another direction in case anyone was still chasing them.

She reached into her kimono and took out the bone that had once held her hair in a bun, fingering it carefully. Her thoughts drifted to the three Kaguya siblings that had risked everything to help them. Had their father discovered their deceit? How were they doing now? Kikue's tear-stained face flashed through her mind. She wished she could have invited all three to come back with them, but it wasn't possible. Toka was team leader, and she knew full well that the Senju wouldn't agree to bring Kaguya back to Konoha.

'And,' Sakura thought, dipping her fingers in the cool stream again. 'It's really a good thing they didn't come. Who knows how that would've effected history.' She glanced behind her, seeing the large fan that never left her sight was propped on the rock where she'd left it. That was what she'd worked towards. Maybe not everything about the mission had gone as planned, but it was a success nonetheless.

Sakura pushed herself up onto her feet, walking slowly to the weapon she'd become strangely fascinated by. Her fingers traced the red border thoughtfully. Madara Uchiha was only getting his fan back due to a technicality. If she kept it, she wouldn't have truly completed the mission, which was the retrieval and return of the gunbai to its rightful owner. That didn't mean there wasn't a large part of her that itched to delve into the secrets behind the gunbai.

Clearly, it had certain properties beyond that of just a normal weapon. It was wooden, but no tree was sturdy enough to withstand the things she'd seen that fan withstand. If it belonged to almost anyone else but Madara, she'd be asking questions to sate the curious twelve-year old starving for knowledge that lived inside her head. However, she wanted nothing to do with a madman that was probably one temper tantrum away from becoming the traitor from the history books. 'Oh well, I'll enjoy having the fan around while I can.'

Sakura stopped fondling the weapon, feeling a non-threatening chakra signature nearby. "It's a nice one, isn't it?"

Toka Senju was walking towards her, her angular face less reserved than usual.

"I've never seen a weapon like this." Sakura admitted. She remembered how Madara had even effortlessly deflected one of Naruto's beast bombs or whatever they were, back at him during the war. So she knew it didn't just block physical attacks like the bone projectiles. Temari's fan could've blocked those.

"May I join you," Toka asked.

Sakura glanced her way curiously before nodding. "I'm pretty sure you technically outrank me," she smirked slightly. "You're team leader."

"True enough." The brown-haired kunoichi rolled her shoulders. Sakura was slightly surprised when Toka sat down on the grass, against the rock she'd placed the fan on. The Senju tilted her head up towards the sky, which had become harder to see as they ran into the denser forests closer to Konoha. "Tomorrow it will all be over."

"It was a long mission, but I feel like I learned a lot. I want to thank you," Sakura smiled. "For letting me come in the first place. I'm pretty sure if it was up to the Nid—to Tobirama-san, I wouldn't have been able to."

"Actually," Toka said, "That's what I want to talk to you about. Your performance on the mission."

Toka looked her right in the eye, the stern expression she normally wore back on her face. Sakura found herself becoming slightly nervous. There was something about those chocolate eyes that reminded her a little of another Senju woman, a lifetime away. They were eyes that commanded respect. "Did I do something wrong?"

"No," Toka shook her head. "Nothing like that. If anyone did, I fear it was me."

Sakura didn't bother to hide her shock this time. "I'm not following…"

"I requested you be allowed to come along, yes. But I'm not sure my suspicion of you wasn't the sole reason. I didn't know anything about yoru skills. I could have jeopardized everything. Especially your life. Yet I told myself for the village, I would. If I thought you were dead weight, I could cut the rope."

Sakura's mind was drinking and processing everything. "You mean, you expected me to die?"

"Expected?" Toka sighed. "It was…I was prepared to use whatever means necessary. It's how I've always been. Up until recently I've only had to rely on my own clan. I knew everyone I've ever gone on a mission with. Trusting in Lord Hashirama's dream meant my loyalty to the clan would have to be overridden by a willingness to strive for unity with everyone in the village. I told myself long ago I was prepared for that. Yet when it happened…" Toka grunted in frustration.

"I fell back into my old ways all too easily. Loyalty to clan. Loyalty to mission. Loyalty to teammates…? That's where things became blurred. I started asking myself questions. Things like how much loyalty did I really owe to a kunoichi I had no history with? We were comrades, bound by what? A symbol of the Leaf, but no shared history or blood. But that's not the way Lord Hashirama envisioned. All Konoha shinobi are his family." She bowed her head. "I was always prepared, somewhere in the back of my mind, to sacrifice you for the mission if it came to that. If it had been a choice to stay and help you, or get the fan and leave. The choice would have been obvious."

Sakura couldn't deny she felt angry. Toka was admitting that her life would have been forfeit had she run into trouble that jeopardized the completion of the mission. She'd been prepared to deliberately abandon Sakura, or worse, push her into harm's way.

The pink-haired kunoichi had been taught the exact opposite. Kakashi had drilled into them that a shinobi who would leave their teammate to die and prioritize a mission was nothing.

But Toka was from a different time. She'd lived a hard life where a shinobi owed loyalty to nothing and no one but themselves and their family. Now, that mentality was being made to shift suddenly, and she was having trouble adjusting.

"But Sakura," Toka stood up and faced her. "I want to make it clear I don't feel that way now. I saw the way you were fighting. You trusted in me to have your back. You didn't hesitate to have mine. We could have all died, but I don't think you once thought of leaving me, or even the two we'd only just met, to save yourself. I have much to learn from you."

The Senju bowed deeply. "If you'll have me. I'd like for us to be comrades. And if you'll accept it, I'd like to offer my apology." Sakura stared at her, the head bowed in humility, waiting to be forgiven or condemned. The longer she stared, the more her anger melted away. The young kunoichi took a deep breath and let it go.

"Could you look at me?" she laughed awkwardly. "It might be easier to see eye to eye." A poor attempt at a joke, but it made Toka look up at least.

"Toka," she sighed. "You and I lived very different lives before we met. Where I came from was a lot like Konoha. An extended family. I can't say I understand the way you see things, just like you probably don't understand me all the time either. But the important thing is, we have shared history now. We survived the Kaguya together. So I'd like it if we could be comrades going forward, if that's what you want." She stuck out her hand slowly. It was now or never. "But I'd like it even more if we could be friends. There's a lot I could learn from you, too."

Toka looked genuinely stunned. Her hand remained awkwardly extended as Toka snapped out of her stupor. A smile slowly graced the Senju's somber face. "Thank you, Sakura," she said, taking the pale hand in her calloused one.

She paced restlessly. Lately she had begun testing the boundaries of the realm between spirits and mortals, feeling the energies on the other side become easier to read as the wall separating her from them grew thinner.

It was the triumph of her progeny over her sister's that did it. At last, she could come and go as she wanted again. As long as her selected scion grew strong and prospered, there would be no weakening of her hold. She would be restored. Fully and truly.

Though, before she went forth, she felt she should reach into the girl's mind and make contact. She had been obedient thus far, and that deserved praise. While she slept with her retinue, the deity extended her aura and stroked at the edges of the sweet child's subconscious. "Sakura," she reached out. "Answer my calls."

It wasn't long before Sakura had connected with her, eyeing her own mindscape with a note of resignation. She had become used to the goddess playing in her mind when it suited her. "It's been a while…" she said lightly. "I haven't seen you since before the Kaguya."

"Mortal moments are but brief flickers for an eternal being, dear one." Mizuchi admonished. "Surely by now you must have come to realize that much."

"I know you're the real deal, but that's pretty much it." Her shoulders slumped, but her bright green eyes shone with curiosity. Fear and caution had waned slightly, but the curiosity had grown stronger. Interesting.

"I have to admit I still don't really think I get it." Sakura said quietly.

"In time, all will be clear. I simply wished to thank you, for the moment. Due to your actions, I am restored." She spread her arms wide, smiling grandly.

The verdant eyes widening up at her were almost child-like as they clashed between shock and fear. Still, that curiosity didn't leave. Oh, that wonderful curiosity.

"You did say something about that before. That I was your…link to the mortal world." Sakura said slowly in acknowledgement.

A long-fingered hand came down, fingering the pink locks fondly. "Yes, and that link has been strengthened adequately now. I am free to move about the mortal plane as I wish."

Sakura's head jerked away in alarm. Mizuchi let the hair slip through her fingers, soft as silk. "I freed you…" she whispered. Realization was now settling over her features, so many emotions and thoughts shared by the link, warring for dominance.

Mizuchi smiled gently. "Yes, but there is one thing you did not do…" she sighed.

Sakura blinked as the hand once again found its way to her, knuckles skimming her cheeks.

"You did not kill." Mizuchi grasped Sakura's face, looking deep into her round eyes.

"Kill? T-The Kaguya? That wasn't the miss—" She stopped talking when Mizuchi squeezed her face. It was only a mindscape, but the link made every touch real.

"It was my mission. Sakura, you must learn there is a difference between a task set forth by your shinobi ruler and the will of a goddess. You cannot deny that the world would be best served by the erasure of those savages?"

"You never said that triumphing meant killing." Sakura sputtered.

Mizuchi let go of her face abruptly. "How very naïve of you to assume otherwise. You could have unleashed power the likes of which they had never seen. Instead you ignored my gift and relied on your own power. And when the time came to deal the final blow and erase them from history…" her serpentine eyes narrowed, "You gave mercy."

"I just…it wasn't the mis—"

"A goddess only grants mercy to those who are deserving. Those who have earned her mercy, those who have use. That is how balance is made and kept. Do you understand? You are my progeny. You carry out my will."

She could feel the confusion and fear giving way to another emotion. One Mizuchi had always found particularly amusing in the various ways mortals expressed it. Anger. "What happened to observing? If you force your will on me, isn't that the same as what Kagu—"

"Never speak of my sister as though we are the same." She hissed, exerting mental pressure that brought Sakura to her knees.

"I'm sorry!" she cried. "I'm sorry!" Mizuchi realized what she was doing, and immediately stopped. Any comparison to Kaguya always brought the caged darkness to the fore. Kaguya was a tyrant. She was a benevolent goddess who loved her kin. She was!

"Oh, dear Sakura, forgive me." Sakura warily got to her feet. Mizuchi hated the mistrust plainly visible on her face now. "Perhaps I was not clear…and a true deity always strives to set examples for which their worshippers can follow."

"An example…" Sakura rubbed her arm, eyes flickering in thought. "Going forward it would help to know what you want."

"Yes. And next we meet it will be in your world and not your mind. Until then." Mizuchi placed a motherly kiss to the crown of her head, withdrawing completely from Sakura's mind.

From there, transposing herself into the physical world was a simple matter. She had been existing in a half-state for some time. She had not been back into the mortal world since saving her sister's descendent, the male from the Uchiha.

Stepping back into existence was exhilarating. She felt, she saw, she heard. All of it through her own senses. The deity ended up far enough off from where her progeny was, finding herself ankle-deep in desert sands; but when one fell through a barrier instead of using worm-holes, it was never an exact.

Mizuchi got her bearings quickly, able to remember the location of the compound from Sakura's mind. It was a matter of using her powers to jump there, and there she stood. She looked up at the fortress' stone walls, so inconsequential for a goddess. She glided through the gates, unbothered.

As usual, her arrival stirred the inhabitants into a stupor, and then an uproar. She was quickly surrounded by the very brutes she was hoping to encounter. Tanned faces were bared in snarls as they closed in on her.

"Ah, you Kaguya are an uncivilized bunch indeed. When in the presence of a goddess, you kneel."

"What's this one babbling about? And is that a horned headdress she's got on? Awful fancy looking to be wandering around by yourself." snorted one. Mizuchi didn't trifle herself with guessing which. They were all the same.

"Are you lost?" A Kaguya woman asked sweetly. "You must be, thinking you can stroll through our gates without consequences. I say we kill the bitch slow."

Mizuchi was undaunted. They'd find if they tried that bones didn't pierce the scales of a dragon. "Before all that, I'd like to meet the one who presumes to lead you."

"What's she saying?"

"I think she wants to see Lord Yoshiro."

"You've got a lot of nerve!"

Mizuchi sighed. Not ten minutes in the mortal world and she was already tired of the games they played. "I will escort myself then. Stand aside." They pressed closer instead. She glared, feeling her ancient power bubbling up at their defiance.

"We give the orders here."

"Perhaps you do, to those pitiful men and women you control. But a deity takes no orders." Her chin lifted and her gold-green eyes flashed angrily. If they were smarter, they would have taken heed to the signs. Alas, Kaguya's ilk it seemed were as reckless as she had been.

Something pressed against the nape of her neck, barely touching her skin through the long pool of jet hair. It only touched her because she let it.

"Walk," someone growled.

Mizuchi turned nonchalantly. "One of you oafs start leading, and I will." The bone jabbed harder into her neck, but it didn't pierce the ivory skin as she shuffled along, her green kimono dragging through the dirt.

People in the street stopped and stared. They were truly pitiable with their sallow, dirty faces and haunted eyes. They wore rags compared to the Kaguya's kimonos. The goddess found the whole procession dull. They wanted to make a show of their might, parading her through the compound as their "prisoner".

Once, she had been honored as she was meant to be. Mortals weren't insolent and they bowed when they were told to. There were sacrifices made in her name and offerings of fine wines and fruit so ripe it burst on the tongue. That was once though, before her silly sister had dared to proclaim herself a goddess. Before she'd been weakened and forgotten altogether by man, left out of history.

Now mere insects presumed to have control over a dragon. It was laughable. The last laugh would be hers, in the end.

The Kaguya chattered about her fate, making sure to mention the possibility she could become Lord Yoshiro's concubine. They were deliberately lewd, though it was unlikely they knew any other way to be. She maybe a new wife gifted to his son, when the young lord returned. Yet one wouldn't rule out the possibility that she'd be given to them, the guards… On it went. Mizuchi likened their talk to the dull whine of cicadas.

They pushed her toward a stone manor that would have been imposing if not for the gaping hole in the side, currently being repaired by cowering servants. Pleasure curled through her that her Sakura had managed to cause such destruction without her assistance. With her help, she'd be unstoppable.

"Stop gaping and keep traipsing!" A feminine voiced hissed, shoving her into the manor's entry. "Kneel," Large hands pushed at her shoulders, forcing her to her knees. She allowed it, waiting impatiently for the leader of the insects to show himself.

"Fetch Lord Yoshiro. If he asks, tell him we've brought him something of interest." The Kaguya at her back fisted her hair roughly. "Pretty wench." he laughed. "Are you nobility?"

Mizuchi didn't answer.

"Finally decided to shut that mouth and save energy. You'll be screaming before long." Fingers ghosted across her lips, and she resisted the urge to sever them from the hand they belonged to. "Careful. It's unwise to put those near the maw of a dragon." Her tongue ran over her teeth. It had been too long…

"What is all this about?" someone asked angrily. "I gave orders not to be disturbed unless it was word of my son." Out strolled a man who could only be this Lord Yoshiro they'd been speaking of. He looked worn and irritated, a prodded snake that had just barely slithered away from the hawk to nurse its wounds.

"My lord! This woman is delusional. She strolled through our gates demanding an audience with you. She babbles about dragons and goddesses, but hasn't given us much fight so far."

"More than enough mouth though…" another grumbled.

"Not nearly enough mouth!" someone jested lewdly. They all guffawed, but Yoshiro held up a hand, walking closer.

"You must either be confident or foolish. Which is it?" Mizuchi easily brushed away the hands on her shoulder and stood to her full height. She was long-bodied and graceful, standing taller than even Yoshiro.

"Confident? Foolish?" she chuckled. "Those are traits ascribed to mortals and lesser gods. And I am neither. I am the Dragon Goddess."

"And what, pre tell, has brought a goddess to our midst?" Yoshiro asked. The fool didn't believe her.

"Many things, Yoshiro Kaguya." Mizuchi glanced around her. A room of roughly twenty Kaguya. Hardly worth the effort. "You are among the countless clans descended from the Rabbit Goddess. You even share her name." She was feeling gracious enough to let them process that.

"Did you hear that?" Yoshiro asked his clansmen coyly. "We're the kin of the Rabbit Goddess!" The Kaguya all got another good laugh at Mizuchi's expense. "I do like the sound of that though." He mused. "Kin of a goddess."

"Yes," Mizuchi moved closer to the man. "Kin of a goddess. But not kin of this goddess." She looked at the smirking faces with disdain. "And I'm eternally glad for that. If my descendants ran amok like barbarians, it would shame my name. My sister cannot right this wrong. So I intend to in her place."

Her hand shot out without warning, gripping Yoshiro by his throat and lifting him into the air. Alarmed, the Kaguya immediately shot out their bones, hoping to skewer her. She laughed as she batted them all away with a flick sending them through the throats of their owners, manipulating the bones slowly so that the deaths were agonizing. Each dying gasp was more tantalizing than the one before.

Mizuchi kept her hand firm but careful around Yoshiro's throat. "You see, you've become a blight on this world, even among shinobi-kind. By nature those of you wielding your ninjutsu and taijutsu and styling yourselves as ninja are chaotic. I revel in chaos. However, your chaos I find crude and savage."

She tilted her head and stopped to watch as life left the eyes of a woman who, ironically, had wanted to kill her slowly. The Kaguya reached for Mizuchi, reached for help pleadingly. "You ask for the mercy you've never shown another? How very selfish you are in your time of dying." The goddess decided she was bored of watching them die, and she ended it suddenly. She grinned dangerously at Yoshiro, who was looking on with wide eyes.

"Am I squeezing your throat too tightly?" she asked, shaking him. "Speak."

"My…my son will avege m—"

Mizuchi couldn't restrain the undignified snort. "Your son has forsaken you. All three of your children have. They've left this place, never to return. They have the favor of my progeny, so they will not know my wrath."


"So fixated on revenge, so blinded…" Mizuchi said, walking from the room with Yoshiro dangling from her grip. "When was it you last saw your daughters? They are gone. In your darkest hour, no one will come to your aid, Yoshiro Kaguya. You have made sure of that."

On her way down the hall, she passed a servant, who looked on with wide eyes of terror. "You there, gather everyone to the courtyard at once. Every man, woman and child you see."

The cowardly servant continued to tremble, her hands wringing together.

"Do it with haste!" Mizuchi said, losing her patience. The scrawny weakling ran away from her.

The goddess sighed ruefully. "Oh, to be feared again…" She looked at Yoshiro, bringing him to eye level. "You understand the thrill that brings, do you not? You understand so well you've gone mad with the feeling."

The Kaguya grunted. "Whatever you want, take it. Then leave."

"You amuse me, bartering with a goddess…" She pushed her way into the dining area, where it looked like the Kaguya were in the middle of a grand feast. They ripped through the meat of a pheasant like animals, laughing drunkenly as they drank from cups sloshing with wine. Several servant women sat quivering in the laps of their captors.

All the festivities stopped the minute they caught sight of their leader in the clutches of a mysterious woman.

One brave soul stood, eyeing he suspiciously. "Lord Yoshiro? What's the meaning of this?" he demanded.

Yoshiro angrily glowered. "What do you think is the meaning? Kill her!" he squeaked as she tightened her hold on him.

"And with that, you let them die." Mizuchi told him.

She threw him to side as if she were discarding a broken toy. Her arms spread wide in welcome as the Kaguya men and women all rushed her, several drawing bones from their bodies as long as blades to wield against her. Mizuchi let them get within striking distance before she snatched away one of their weapons and stuck it through the eye of the Kaguya who attacked her. Their speed could never match hers. She could coil and strike, coil and strike repeatedly.

It came out through the other side of his skull and he fell with a heavy thump. The others cried angrily, attempting to overwhelm her with sheer numbers. The talons of her fingers extended and she caught a Kaguya fool enough to leap at her from over the table, driving her hand easily through his chest and pulling out his still beating heart with one hand.

She marveled at it— the veiny, fleshy mass of muscle—before crushing it in her hand and letting the body drop. A woman who came charging at her with all the bones of her back, arms and chest extended attempted to spin and slice her to ribbons. Mizuchi sighed, taking two protruding rib bones and pulling them in opposite directions with her bare hands.

The female Kaguya screamed as the goddess pulled her body until it started to rip at the seams. From under the table, the servants who had scrambled away from the bloodshed watched on in awe. There was almost an art to the way the woman killed, her hands and face now stained in blood splatters. She continued until every Kaguya in the room was dead, except one… cowardly attempting to crawl away.

"The fun is only just beginning." She held out her hand and with force Yoshiro was jerked back into her. She caught him by the throat, dangling him like a caught cat once again. "You may come out," she told the quivering servants.

They glanced between themselves, timidly crawling forward on their knees. "Spread the word that the Kaguya are no longer your captors. You are free."

She left the room before they could stir, in search of more enemies. She dragged Yoshiro along by the hair now, like a child with a blanket.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked after a while.

"I'm doing what Sakura could not. Meting out the justice that only a goddess can."

"S-Sakura?" She yanked him sharply.

"That name is too sweet for your tongue." Mizuchi declared. "Do not utter it again." She exited the manor, only to find an amassing of Kaguya and servants alike awaiting her outside. The enslaved people took one look at her blood-stained features and shied away. The Kaguya were no strangers to bloodshed, and they prepared for battle. Persistent to the last.

"Release Lord Yoshiro!" A bulking man rumbled. He looked as if his face had been recently been beaten like dough, and his jaw reset.

"Who are you?"

"Kento. Captain of Lord Yoshiro's guard, and your executioner."

"A pleasure," Mizuchi bowed. "However, you are confused about who will be whose executioner. Are these the entirety of your forces?"

"Every man, woman and Kaguya child." Kento smirked, his bones beginning to lengthen.

Mizuchi smiled fiercely. "How courteous. You've gathered everyone for me." The world erupted into chaos. The servants fled away as thousands of bones rained down from the sky like a storm of blades. The goddess once again let Yoshiro go, holding her palm out. The bones disintegrated in green flames, ash falling to the earth instead.

She looked at the faces of the young and old. The realization dawned all at once. "Oh? Do you understand now?" Her features began to warp, face lengthening into a black maw and a tail rippling from under kimono.

They ran in fear and she rose into the air, her scales glimmering like obsidian. Kento she caught first, diving down and trapping him under her talons. He grunted, attempting to throw her off. She purred, her foot coming down to crush his spine. Her tongue flickered out to taste the copper on the air.

Mizuchi left him there to suffer, breathing thin jets of green flame that burned any Kaguya who attempted to escape and caught buildings on fire. She was careful to avoid any innocents, her long, thin body wriggling through the air like a snake's. The compound burned, and countless perished. Carnage and wreckage had engulfed the compound by the time she alighted, taking the form of a woman once again.

She was streaked in blood and eyes peered at her in fear from all directions. Mizuchi felt sated. She had punished evil and gotten to fly after being confined for so long.

Surprisingly, Yoshiro remained where she'd left him. Sitting in the dirt and staring off at nothing. The goddess had wanted him to know the despair of seeing everything burn before his eyes, and it had worked.

She pulled him up by his hair, walking him through the streets. He stumbled over the bodies of his fallen clansmen. When they stopped, it was in the courtyard. Mizuchi had decided to let him look upon her face. In the past, countless mortals had found her beautiful. She decided her visage could bring him peace he didn't deserve.

"What are you?" Yoshiro asked. His face was that of someone who had already given themselves over to death.

The goddess gently clasped the back of his neck, bringing his face closer as she leaned in. Her breath stirred the hair near his ear. She felt his breathing speed up and then hitch. The skin at the nape of his neck rose.

"Your reckoning." Those were the last words he would ever hear. She drove her clawed hand through his stomach and thrust upward, cleaving him neatly in half.

Entrails splattered at her feet, and the crowd that had been lurking watched in silence, staring at the bloody pieces of corpse. The man who had been their tormentor. "Behold," Mizuchi bellowed. "Your goddess has delivered salvation to you!"


Sakura's eyes flashed open. She suppressed a scream of panic, placing a hand to her chest and trying to make sure she was truly awake. That had been the strangest thing she'd ever dreamed. It was like she wasn't herself, but someone else.

Someone who had apparently taken great pleasure in slaughtering the Kaguya. She wanted to believe it was just a strange, bloody dream, but she knew better.

'Mizuchi…she showed me by example, just like she said she would.' Sakura ran a shaking hand down her face. It was one thing to be a ninja and kill, but that was a slaughter. Granted, the Kaguya deserved every bit of it. Her mind remembered three distinct faces who'd been missing.

Where were Jun'ichi, Harihane and Kikue? Hopefully far, far away and somewhere safe. Sakura collapsed back against her bedroll with a groan. The sun was starting to appear on the horizon, and it'd be time to move out soon. The homeward stretch was close, and everyone was too anxious to rest for long. She felt the same way. It was too long since she'd seen Konoha's gates.

She looked around camp. Everyone was starting to stir from their own bedrolls, instincts telling them to rise with the sun.

Sarutobi was nowhere to be found, which meant he was on the hunt. She felt a friendly presence somewhere above her, and knew it was Toka, standing guard from the trees. She watched Susumu sleepily reach into her pack and take out an apple. She turned on her side and pressed it to Shikamarin's mouth.

The strange Nara would sleep indefinitely, if food wasn't presented to her first thing in the morning. 'I need to study that…' Sakura thought. Her mind was preoccupied by the vivid images the goddess had shown her. Somewhere far away, most of the Kaguya clan were dead. It further solidified her reasons to be wary of Mizuchi.

Sakura felt like she was toeing the line. She was no match for someone who could single-handedly dispatch a whole clan as brutal as the Kaguya. What choice did she have though, but to continue playing Mizuchi's game until the goddess got bored?

Sakura found her things and decided to find some privacy to relieve herself and then wash her face up in the stream. If they kept a consistent pace, they'd arrive by midday, by Toka's estimations.

As she made her way to the stream, Sakura kneeled on the bank and stretched to cup water in her hands. But that wasn't a simple nightmare she'd had. She needed something more than splashing. She inhaled as much air as possible and thrust her head underwater. She came back up, water sliding down her face, and pushed her hands through her wet pink hair.

No. It wasn't enough yet. Sakura repeated the action, dunking her head underwater again. Some of it got into her mouth that time, and she came back up sputtering. It was icy, but the discomfort only vaguely registered. 'One more time.' Sakura held her head under as long as she could. Why was she doing this to herself? It wouldn't make her feel any cleaner. And why should she feel dirty to begin with? Mizuchi's actions were not hers. The Kaguya were horrible, beyond horrible.

She felt a hand in her hair wrenching her up, and when she spit out water and turned to the person behind her, there was Toka, staring at her sharply.

"What were you doing?" the Senju asked sternly.

"Washing my face," Sakura said nonchalantly, moving her sopping hair from her eyes.

The hand in her hair fell away into Toka's lap. "You looked like you were trying to wash your soul." Sakura eyed her strangely. "I once had to do the same. I was young, and I thought if I tried hard enough, I could wash the blood away from my soul. I wanted to stop remembering every time I closed my eyes."

"Did it work?" Sakura asked, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear.

Toka laughed emptily. "Of course not. We're shinobi. Some scars never heal, on our bodies or our hearts."

Sakura stood up, hiding the way her knees buckled momentarily. "Well, my face is clean. So I'm headed to breakfast." She walked over and got the fan, heading back to camp.

She knew Toka was watching her, but she ignored it. She could stow the disturbing vision away, at least for a while.

It turned out the desire for home was a powerful thing. The team arrived in Konoha several hours before midday. The large green gates had never been a more welcome sight.

If she were more dramatic, Sakura might have sank to her knees in the dirt and put her cheek against the ground. She half-expected to see Izumo and Kotetsu nodding off or chatting animatedly, before she remembered this was years before even their parents were born.

Whoever they were, they recognized Toka and greeted the team, the gates slowly opening up to reveal the village inside. Sakura took a deep breath of air as she walked in with everyone else. It even smelled like home.

"Look at the size of it!" Yurine exclaimed.

"Look at all the beautiful women!" Kureno said to himself, following behind a group of random women going by. Yurine was quick to tug him back by his ear. Sakura rolled her eyes. She had learned pretty quickly what a flirt Kureno was on the journey home. After a day or so, everyone ignored him, much to his dismay. Whenever he got out of hand, his sister was there to smack him silly.

"No time for detours. It's straight to the Hokage Tower." Toka reminded. "They're expecting us."

"Yeah, yeah..." Shikamarin stared longingly at a stand selling steamed buns.

"Better listen to our team captain," Sarutobi ran a hand through his hair. "Mission's not technically over until that's in the client's hands." he nodded at the fan strapped to Sakura's back. Everyone had unanimously agreed that Sakura should be in charge of the weapon until it made it back to Madara.

Its retrieval had been a team effort, but Toka insisted the Uchiha should see her with the fan. Sakura didn't try to be humble and decline. She wanted to see the look on the smug bastard's face more than she'd admit.

Sarutobi was right though. She'd have to give up the fan. It didn't mean she had to like it.

"Does it seem more crowded than normal?" Susumu asked quietly as someone jostled by her.

"It looks like there are even more people since we left..." Shikamarin agreed, munching on a pear.

"Oh, w-where'd you get that?" Susumu said, surprised.

The Nara looked down at the fruit in her hand. "Where did I get this?" she shrugged, biting into it again.

Sakura sweat dropped. For some reason, she felt like she was attracting a lot of stares in particular. That was probably all in her head, though. 'Maybe it's not...if they're new then they've probably never seen anybody with pink hair. And I'm carrying a giant gunbai.'

The more she looked around, the more she realized she was being watched. By random Uchiha. They whispered behind their hands, not doing a very good job of hiding their surprise.

"Make way," Toka pushed her way through the noisy crowd of villagers, some of them outright gawking. Sakura and the others gratefully followed the path she made.

The pink-haired kunoichi squared her shoulders back. She started shoving her own way through when people stood in the way. "That's Lord Madara's gunbai!" someone was saying.

"They really brought it back..."

"No way! Her? Look at her! I bet it was the Senju who got it, and she's just carrying it."

They were almost at the Tower, Sakura grit her teeth. Practically at the steps. She just had to ignore them a little longer.

"Sakura-san?" A hand touched her shoulder.

Sakura was about to flip someone over her shoulder, until she realized the voice was familiar. It was the Uchiha she'd met the day she'd come to Konoha. The one that looked like Sasuke with a ponytail.

"I remember you," she said lightly. "You're Izuna-san!"

She was rewarded with a charming smile. "Impressive. You managed to remember a face as dull as mine."

'Dull? Is he serious? Who's he comparing himself to?' If Izuna thought he was dull looking it was pretty unfair to any average person.

"You're on your way to report the success of your mission, aren't you?"

"That's the plan." she agreed.

"Would you mind if I joined you then? There's something I'd like to discuss with him myself."

Sakura glanced back at her team. Surprisingly, Toka, who she thought would put up some kind of objection, shrugged. 'Well, he's an Uchiha. This belongs to an Uchiha. So I guess it's fine.'


Izuna gestured for her to walk in front of him, opening the heavy wood doors for her. As soon as she'd walked through, Izuna followed, the door shutting behind them.

Shikamarin glanced at the rest of them. "So...are we gizzards?"

Sarutobi raised his brows in amusement. "Apparently, we're in the way." he winked.

"Who was that guy? That was pretty smooth." Kureno nodded in approval. "It looks like I've got serious competition here." He produced a pad and quill, jotting notes.

"Wh-where'd he get that?" Susumu asked incredulously.

Toka sighed, rubbing her head as she walked into the Tower.

Izuna knocked on the door politely.

It sounded like there was an animated discussion happening on the other side.

"Enter!" By now, Sakura recognized the Hokage's voice.

The pair walked through at the same time, only to find the Hokage leaning over his desk and arguing with a very irate Madara.

"That is stupid! Almost stupider than the time you-"

"Lord Hokage," Izuna cleared his throat. Madara and Hashirama looked up to see Izuna and Sakura watching them. Behind them, the rest of the retrieval team were finally making their way up the stairs.

"Ah, come in please," Hashirama greeted jovially. "Welcome back everyone! Congratulations," Sakura eyed him oddly. She was pretty sure he'd just been having a heated screaming match with Madara Uchiha.

Sakura stepped forward. "Thank you, Hokage-sama." She purposely ignored Madara.

"Toka's told me all about your bravery. I'm impressed! It was a wise choice, having you on the mission."

There was a derisive grunt that had Sakura's head turning sharply. She glared at Madara. "Got something to say?"

"Congratulations on not dying." He held out a hand, "I believe that belongs to me." Sakura felt her face reddening angrily.

"Madara, I think you can be more gracious than that." Hashirama sighed. "They risked their lives to return your gunbai."

"Brother, I agree." Izuna interrupted. "Why are you so rude to Sakura-san?"

"Wait! Brother?" Sakura said. "No way in hell..." Izuna, the kind Uchiha, was the brother of Madara, the evil one.

"Yes," Izuna chuckled slightly. "Madara is my older brother."

"Please don't repeat it..." Sakura mumbled. "It was hard enough to get my head around when you said it the first time..."

"I'm not the rude one. She's hated me since our first meeting. Isn't that right?" Madara asked snidely. Sakura bit her lip so she wouldn't rise to the bait.

Izuna blinked. "That's the girl?"

"What do you mean, 'that's the girl'?" Sakura demanded, hands on her hips.

"Madara did mention something about an ill-fated meeting when he requested the mission. But I wouldn't have thought..." Izuna looked confused.

"If I may..." Toka held up a hand. Sakura looked back and blushed. She'd forgotten all about the others. "Here is the mission report I wrote up this morning. And these are the two I mentioned. Kureno and Yurine Yuhi."

Hashirama tilted his head, forcing himself to look at Toka. He'd been watching Sakura and the Uchiha brothers intently. Everyone had. "Thank you," he took the scroll and set it aside. "And welcome," he told the Yuhi. "Thank you for your assistance. As soon as we get all this sorted out Toka can show you to your living arrangements." He took two shiny headbands sitting on his desk, holding them out. Yurine and Kureno shared a wide-eyed stare, moving to accept the gifts eagerly.

The Hokage looked expectantly at Sakura. "All that's needed now is the exchange."

Glowering, Sakura removed the fan from her back. She tossed it hard, discreetly using a little more strength than necessary and making sure it was a sloppy throw. It sailed at Madara and he managed to grab the end of the handle awkwardly. Clearly he hadn't been expecting the amount of force in her throw, because the edge of the fan smacked him in the face.

'That's what you get for underestimating me.'

Sakura made sure to display the appropriate amount of shock. "Sorry..."

Hashirama put a fisted hand to his mouth, trying to hide a giggle. "Now Madara..."

The Uchiha took his time examining the fan as if he expected to find it damaged. Satisfied, he took out a scroll and bit his thumb before setting it on the Hokage's desk. Several hefty pouches appeared. Sakura watched as he tossed them at Sarutobi, Toka, Shikamarin, Susumu and even one bag for each Yuhi. "Mission pay."

Sakura gaped. "Aren't you forgetting something?"

Madara eyed her lazily. "Do you want to charge me a fee for having the biggest mouth on the mission?"

Sakura stomped her foot and the room shook. Hashirama peered down at the floor in shock, then at Toka, who smirked at him. "No! I want you to acknowledge I helped get your fan back as much as anyone else in this room." she hissed. "I could have kept it!"

"Taking credit for the work of others, and being dishonest?" Madara mocked.

"Dishonest?! You're holding the damn fan again, aren't you?" Sakura threw up her hands. Everyone was getting whiplash as they watched the argument go back and forth.

"Brother, please stop taunting her..." Izuna scolded. "Sakura-san completed the mission and returned the gunbai to you, as she said."

"What a peculiar kunoichi," he smirked. Reaching inside his kimono, Madara produced a bag bulging so much it looked ready to burst. Sakura held out her hands, ready to catch it. But he surprised her by actually walking over to place it in her hands. "Your pay."

Sakura stared down at the weighty bag, sitting in her palms. Her eyes instinctively searched the bag for an explosive tag, or some other trap. Madara Uchiha didn't just carefully place a bag of money in her hand without being up to something.

Hashirama sighed in relief. "I think you've all earned a rest. Why don't you go and let your families you're back?"

Sakura suddenly felt subdued. 'Family... My family's not here. Or my teammates. No one I know, really...' No one seemed to notice her sudden change in mood. She didn't blame them. They all had families and friends to return to, and they were excited.

"Good idea." Sarutobi grinned. "I can surprise Hiruzen." he poofed away.

" look hungry..." Shikamarin said suddenly.

"W-What? No I..." A low growl sounded from the timid girl's stomach. She blushed prettily.

"So you can have dinner at my house. Only one plate though. The rest is for me," Shikamarin guided the purple-haired medic out by her shoulders.

"Reira's been waiting for you Toka." Hashirama told her. "Why don't you show our new friends around and then head home. You'll do a better job keeping her out of trouble than I could."

Sakura could have been imagining it, but it looked like Toka hustled the Yuhi duo out of the Hokage's office the minute he mentioned "Reira".

It was left between Sakura and the Uchiha...brothers. 'I refuse to get use to that. There's no way.'

"I should be getting home too, Lord Hokage," Sakura bowed. She eyed Madara disdainfully as she left the office. Izuna glanced between his brother and the Hokage. "Did you need something, Izuna?" Madara asked.

"No, not really..." Izuna's eyes were staring anxiously at the door. "I'll see you at home later." He practically sprinted down the hall to catch up with the kunoichi who had left.

Hashirama placed his head in his palms with a heavy sigh. "I'm not sure what he finds so special about that pink girl..." Madara grunted.

He glanced up to see Hashirama fighting a sly grin. "Remove that look from your face." he commanded.

"Izuna's not the only one who thinks Sakura-san is interesting." he looked at his friend pointedly. "Do you think I didn't notice that bag you gave her had double the amount as the others?"

Chapter Text

He wasn't sure what compelled him to follow her, but since their initial meeting on the streets of Konoha, he had found the mysterious kunoichi interesting, to say the least.

And after Madara's revelation about how he'd been saved from death, it made Izuna even more curious. Truthfully, he remembered nothing. He was waning in and out of consciousness and his state of mind had been…jumbled, at best.

Had it happened to anyone else, Izuna would have thought it sounded a bit like a legend. A woman like the one Madara had said saved him couldn't be human. She ate a butterfly that she'd pulled from his wound. And the parting words…none of it made much sense. Madara had been brooding about it for a while, but it hadn't particularly crossed Izuna's mind since he'd found out.

Then he had been out relaxing on a day when he wasn't training the children, and there was that distinct shade of hair he remembered from weeks ago. Even more surprising was his brother's weapon on her back. Izuna had vaguely wondered if he'd ever see the kunoichi again; the village was steadily growing and it could be easy to miss someone. He hadn't run into her since that day he'd seen her wearing strange clothes and covered in bruises. But there she was! Or her back, at least.

He wove his way through the streets, following the team until he got close enough to touch her shoulder. Her green eyes were guarded when she spun around, but then something had made her relax slightly. Sakura Haruno, with her mysterious origins and unique features, was intriguing to him.

Maybe that was why his feet led him to go after her when she left the Hokage's office, seeming a little sad. His brother and Hashirama probably found his behavior strange, but he didn't care when he called her name and she turned to him with curious green eyes.

"Um, something wrong?" she asked unsurely.

"No," he sighed. "I just wanted to apologize for my brother…" Sakura blinked. "And, I wanted to ask if…" Suddenly, he felt nervous, and he cursed himself. "Would you mind if I walk with you?"

Sakura cocked her head to the side, rubbing her arm. "I'm going home…" she said. His face must have looked more disappointed than he wanted it to, because she quickly added, "But you know, company might not be bad."

Izuna understood it was likely a pity offer, but he could put the inherent pride of the Uchiha aside and accept. Anything to help sate his curiosity.

"Then please lead the way," he gestured with his arm as they made it to the narrow set of winding stairs that led back down to the bottom of the Hokage Tower. Sakura smiled slightly, walking in front of him and carefully going down the stairs, her hand braced against one wall. The other clutched the bulging pouch of money close to her bosom. He followed, trying to keep a respectable distance while studying her vibrant hair and slightly rumpled kimono.

The minute they were back outside, Sakura took a deep breath of air and sighed contentedly. "I'll never get tired of that smell."

Izuna discreetly smelled the air too. All he got was the scent of sunshine, and from somewhere downwind, roasting meat. "What smell is that?"

"Home," she said absently, walking off in the opposite of the Uchiha compound. He mentally noted that as he easily kept pace at her side. She was a woman of petite stature, but she carried herself like she was much taller.

Home. She called it home. "You've gotten used to the village quickly then." he mused.

Sakura looked up at him and blinked slowly. "Oh, yeah," she trailed off. "And I guess spending so much time with a clan like the Kaguya makes it even easier to appreciate something like this. There's no tension in the air. Everyone looks happy to be here,"

Everywhere around them, ninja streaked across rooftops, and children played in the streets. Merchants sold their goods at the markets and housewives gossiped together as they ran their errands. Izuna had to agree that compared to a clan as unbalanced as the Kaguya, Konoha was an oasis of safety and stability. "I was young when my father made his alliance with Yoshiro Kaguya. He brought some of them to the Uchiha compound. I don't remember very much about them, except that Yoshiro was a man with chilling eyes."

Sakura nodded. "Don't forget the cunning streak a mile long," she said under her breath.

Izuna didn't seem to hear her. "His son was only a little younger than me. We played, but whenever he could, he'd be at his mother's side. She was heavily pregnant and he was protective of her."

"Jun'ichi. I met him; Yoshiro actually planned to make me marry him," Sakura said wryly. "He helped us escape though. I can't imagine that going over well with his father."

Izuna puzzled over her words. "That's interesting. I remember a quiet boy more interested in books than people who loved his mother deeply. I can't imagine him growing up to defy his father and betray his clan. Something about you must be special to spurn even a Kaguya's heart to action."

Sakura blushed, surprised by his comment. "Not…really. I'm not sure why he helped us, but I doubt it had anything to do with me." She sincerely believed that too. Izuna wasn't so sure.

"Were the Kaguya as fierce as I remember?" he asked.

"Fierce is one word, but I think I'd use cruel." She muttered said angrily. "They had so many people they'd taken away from their homes and they treated them like animals! I saw them break a little boy's arm just so I could heal it. There were women there who were forced to have their captors' children. And even though we didn't take much, the weapon storage was full of weapons they claimed from battles. A lot of them looked pretty valuable." She'd said it all in one breath, and when she was done, her chest heaved slightly. "Sorry, I get angry just remembering."

"I understand. The Kaguya have built a legacy through brutality. I'm not naïve enough to think the Uchiha don't have the blood of innocents on our hands, though I'd like to think it was more for necessity at the time, and not intentional cruelty."

Sakura looked up at him, her green eyes seemingly searching, "We're all shinobi, and we're all killers…I trained hard so I could have the power to protect what was important to me with my own two hands. I don't think I can say I take pride killing though; it's just a part of the life that I had to accept. Maybe there's even a little part of me that likes being a medic because I can tell myself it balances out. For every life I take, I can save another one." There was a wry tilt to her lips and she wrung her hands together before dropping them.

Izuna's interest was further piqued. Her honesty was refreshing, but so was the fact that she knew healing. "You know medical ninjutsu?"

Sakura, who had been looking ahead, turned to him again. She looked surprised he'd been listening. "I started training to learn it when I was about fourteen."

"The Uchiha clan doesn't have many who know healing ninjutsu. Most of the practices they use are more traditional. I don't like admitting it, but when it comes to medical prowess, the Senju clan is far and away superior in that regard."

He noticed that she started smiling and her eyes got brighter. "Oh yeah? I bet training under a Senju medic would be hell, though. Come to think of it, I noticed the Senju seem to have a lot of general skills. The Hokage has Wood Release, but I've heard Tobirama Senju primarily uses Suiton. And from fighting on the mission with her, I know Toka has a lot of versatile abilities." Sakura tilted her head back and stroked her chin in thought. "It's pretty impressive."

"That's because they pride themselves on being the 'clan of a thousand skills'. They think it brings more balance to their fighting." Izuna explained. His father had taught them that in order to best their enemies, they had to study them. By the time Tajima had died, Izuna and Madara, his only remaining sons, knew the Senju's battle techniques inside and out. But Butsuma Senju apparently shared a similar mindset as his rival, because the Senju had become just as wise to Uchiha battle tactics.

"But the Uchiha have their fire jutsu and their weapon techniques."

"That's right," Izuna agreed. "I have my sword, and Madara has his fan. Speaking of the gunbai, it didn't seem like you wanted to part with it."

Sakura whirled around, walking backwards, her eyes wide as pink dusted her cheeks. "Er…I…I've never seen anything like it, so I may have been a little curious, but—"

"It's alright," Izuna chuckled. "An interesting weapon would be a commodity and something worth studying. The fan has special properties, like you might have guessed. It's not meant for just anyone to wield."

They had entered the neighborhood where Sakura was living, all the wooden homes more or less identical. Izuna watched as Sakura stopped in front of the third house in the row, glancing up at it absently. "Well, this is me. Home sweet home," she rubbed her arm, glancing between the front door and him. It could have been his own wishful thinking, but she looked a little reluctant to part.

"Uh," she stared at her feet contemplatively. "It's not really much inside. I didn't do too much to it before I left…but I've got a box of tea leaves and some honey. If…if you want to come in, making tea wouldn't take long."

Izuna blinked in surprise. He truly wasn't expecting an invitation. Maybe Sakura was more foreword than he'd thought.

Her voice brought him back to reality before he could get too deep into his head, "I mean, you were talking about the fan, and I really was curious," she continued.

And instantly, he tossed the absurd thought that her request had anything to do with liking his company. She was intrigued by the gunbai and wanted to know more. From their exchange in the Hokage's office, he highly doubted she and Madara would be sitting down for civil talks soon.

'So that's it then. I'm a source of otherwise unattainable information.' Attempting a polite smile, Izuna nodded. "Tea sounds nice,"

Sakura beamed eagerly, hitching her pack higher on her shoulders. "Alright!" she exclaimed. Then, realizing her excitement, she cleared her throat sheepishly and tried for a cooler approach. "Alright, just give me a minute." She put her mission pay in her backpack and worked through several hand signs to release the protection seals she'd apparently put around her house.

Izuna followed her into the neat little house, closing the door behind him. Glancing around, he could see the personal touches she had tried to add to her space, scrolls on the walls, and a small desk with an ink well and brushes.

Sakura bent down and took off her zori, and he did the same. "Like I said, not much…" she shrugged out of the backpack and laid it down by the door, fishing the sack of coins Madara had given her out and setting it on her table. Izuna studied it discreetly. He hadn't noticed until then that it looked hefty. He didn't think the others his brother had handed out were as plump. Madara must have prepared the pay well in advance. Curious that he'd purposely give Sakura more…

"Is green tea okay?" she asked, brushing a hand through her hair as she went into the small attached kitchen on one side of the room. "To be honest…it's all I've got right now…" He watched Sakura stand on her bare toes, her hand reaching into the cabinet above her head. The kunoichi really wasn't very tall. A head shorter than him at least, maybe even more.

"Green tea is fine," Izuna walked over and made himself comfortable in one of the chairs at her table.

"So you were saying the fan has special qualities," Sakura urged. "Maybe that's why the Kaguya had to put it away? Besides the fact that, you know, they rely a little too much on their Shikotsumyaku for everything. I don't think I saw any of them use anything but taijutsu the whole time I was there."

Sakura made a triumphant noise as she got the canister of tea leaves down, glancing over her shoulder at him as she shook them with a smile.

"It's likely that they couldn't have controlled it even if they wanted to. Hiding it away and settling for just having such a rare weapon as a prize was the best thing they could have done," Izuna shrugged. "It's semi-sentient after all."

"So it has its own will?" Sakura asked attentively. The pink-haired woman padded over and took a kettle off a hook on the wall. "I'll be right back!" Izuna watched her nimbly dash down a hall and heard a door opening. It only took her a few minutes to come back. "I get my water from a well outside. It's not the most convenient thing in the world, but it works," she explained when she came back. She used some flint to start up a fire in a small pit before he could offer to do it for her, and set the kettle of water over the flame.

Izuna thought about it, "The fan doesn't quite have its own will. But I suppose you could say the spirit tree it was made from makes it sensitive. It feels out the chakra of its wielder, and if it finds it suitable, you'll be able to use the gunbai's ability to the fullest. If it doesn't take to the chakra though…" he crossed his arms and tilted his head. "Well, you could say it doesn't cooperate."

"It could backfire on you," Sakura guessed.


Sakura walked over and sat across from him. "I swung it…" she said quietly. "It was just reflex. But there was so much power in one swing."

"Hmm," Izuna imagined the small, fiery kunoichi wielding his brother's fan. "That doesn't sound like the fan rejected you. You would have been thrown back with the recoil if it had." Madara wouldn't be pleased, knowing Sakura could use his fan. Or worse, Izuna thought, he would be pleased.

"Wow," Sakura said to herself. "I'm…I'm shocked. I've never really trained in bukijutsu beyond the standard handling of kunai and shuriken. Oh, and I learned to use senbon around the same time I started medical training. That's about it, though."

Izuna smiled a little. "Do you know why it's a fan that's passed down, and not some other weapon?"

Sakura shook her head. "No. Why?" she asked inquisitively.

"Fans have always been important to our clan." Izuna explained.

Sakura laughed. "That's for sure! It's your clan symbol."

"It is." Izuna said, motioning to his back. The Uchiha fan was proudly stitched onto almost every shirt or yukata he owned. "When my father handed the fan down to Madara, he told him it would create the wind that fans the flames. Our flames. You see my father partnered with Yoshiro for a reason. They were equally ambitious men. His hope was that we could burn out every rival clan that opposed us."

The kunoichi quirked a brow. "Sounds like a standup guy,"

Izuna found himself pleased with her forwardness, baring a grin that showed teeth. "He wasn't known for his charm, our father. He took great pride in his reputation on the battlefield though, and passed everything he knew along to my brothers and I. Madara especially."

Sakura scowled, something that didn't go unnoticed by Izuna. She truly despised Madara, yet she didn't seem to have any issues interacting with him, so her problem couldn't be that she hated Uchiha as a whole. It was just Madara.

The kettle started whistling and she got up, rushing over to take it off the flame and flitting around to finish the tea. Soon the aromatic scent of hot tea filled the air, and she carefully brought him a clay cup of it. "Thank you,"

She nodded, taking some sugar and honey and adding them into her own cup. Sakura blew at it, her cheeks puffing out endearingly as she huffed.

Izuna watched her take a sip and did the same. When he brought the cup from his lips, he looked at Sakura earnestly. "It's apparent to me the way you feel about Madara."

Her pink lips parted.

"I won't ask why or try to defend whatever action that might have led to your feelings. But I think you seem like a good person, Sakura-san, and I know you're bright." Izuna wouldn't deny the masculine pride he felt when she blushed at his compliments. "Madara is…at times a hard person to understand. I know that better than most. He's not without his flaws…but he's not without his good traits, either. I suppose all I'm asking is that you keep that in mind. No more."

Sakura took a deep drink from her cup, and when she set it down, she stared into it pensively. "I see…" That was all she said for a while. "I'll try to remember."

Izuna believed her. He didn't fool himself into trusting that meant his brother and the pinkette wouldn't clash anymore. But it was a start.

Tobirama had made himself busy reworking the formula to his jutsu, kage bunshin—more stable and effective than the normal bunshin jutsu by far. Whispers had begun to travel, whispers that other shinobi were thinking of following their village model. Tobirama decided he needed something that could help with intelligence gathering. After all, he couldn't go off to get intel for long periods at a time when the village still needed so much work.

The idea of being in two places at once had seemed far-fetched at first, but the more he thought it over, the more it had merits. That was when he'd first set to work modifying the existing jutsu that allowed a ninja to make temporary dopplegangers.

Sometimes Hashirama or village affairs managed to side-track him, but he had been making fairly steady progress. Well, with the exception of one small part of the formula he couldn't seem to get worked out.

He was hunched over his desk wondering what was causing the snag in the jutsu's completion. The clones still weren't lasting as long as he wanted them to, and information from them only came back to him about half the time.

His concentration was pulled away by the familiar signatures he sensed entering the village. He knew the exact minute the fan retrieval team came back, even before he heard Reira screaming down the hall outside his door to welcome Toka home. He sensed them all, but it was the signature of Sakura Haruno he honed in on. Hashirama's advice about shadowing her came back to mind, and he thought when she had her guard down would be a good time.

When she left the Hokage's office, he noticed right away that she wasn't alone like he'd been expecting. The presence of a man that revolted him only slightly less than Madara's trailed beside her. A man who should have been dead months before. Izuna.

Tobirama remembered dealing would should have been a death blow. He couldn't imagine how Izuna had survived it when it was common knowledge that Uchiha healers did not possess the medical jutsu that the Senju did. When Madara agreed to sign the peace treaty several weeks after the encounter, it was with a healed Izuna at his side.

Since then, he had been even more wary of the Uchiha's second-in-command. He didn't trust a man who had not only formerly been his enemy but had somehow escaped almost certain death with little explanation.

The fact that Sakura Haruno, who he still wasn't sure what to make of, was associating with Izuna, further raised his suspicion. She'd appeared so mysteriously. And though she held a clear dislike for Madara she got along with his brother well enough. Was it possible he had missed something? Did Sakura have something to do with Izuna?

Hashirama seemed to trust her. It didn't mean he wouldn't err on the side of caution. He easily stayed well out of sight and suppressed his chakra signature to a level that wouldn't be associated with a shinobi of his caliber. He found himself a comfortable and well concealed spot on a neighboring rooftop, in perfect placement so that he could see through one of her windows.

Although the Uchiha entered her house, after nearly a half hour of waiting Tobirama began to suspect nothing truly nefarious was happening—at the moment. He used his chakra to enhance his hearing and listen in. They talked over tea like old friends inside, about the gunbai Madara favored in battle, of all things.

Then she was reenacting the escape from the Kaguya stronghold with animated gesticulating and occasionally noises. Izuna Uchiha seemed enraptured by her tale. 'Fool,' Tobirama thought. To be so easily impressed because a woman with a pretty face could spin an interesting yarn.

After some time, the Uchiha took his leave. Sakura saw him out with a wave. Tobirama thought he had seen enough, until he watched Sakura make her way over to the coin purse and take out a handful of money to count. It was her mission pay, most likely, and it looked like Madara had been surprisingly generous.

The bag hardly seemed to empty even as she took more out. Sakura muttered something to herself, looking at the money on her table in clear shock. There were even some paper notes.

'Is he trying to bribe the girl somehow?' That didn't make sense though. Madara wouldn't have known her skillset or if she'd be an invaluable ally to the Uchiha prior to the mission. It was all even more suspicious that both the leader and the second-in-command of the Uchiha clan seemed to have some sort of vested interest in Sakura.

Tobirama watched her put all but a few pieces of money back into the bag, and then rush over to seal up the purse in a scroll, hiding that scroll in her futon. She was surprisingly fast exiting her house, replacing the seals that he recognized acted as wards against intruders.

Since Sakura was now on the move, he followed, albeit idly. He doubted that she was so brazen as to act out in broad daylight. Her footsteps seemed sure as she roamed the village, like she knew exactly where she was going. She had to possess a decent memory considering she hadn't been in Konoha very long before the mission. 'The market.' he realized.

She was headed straight for the market. Well, it made sense. Being going for over a week, she had to be low on food stuffs and maybe with money in hand, she wanted to get things she couldn't afford before. Tobirama wondered if tracking her during such a mundane activity was even worth his time. Time could be better spent working on his jutsu at home, or even making sure Hashirama wasn't slacking off.

The Senju turned to leave, until he spotted the unmistakable pink-haired head going in the same direction that Reira, and surprisingly Toka were walking.

Sakura sighed to herself. She was tired after traveling all day, and all she wanted was a meal, a bath and a nap. But, she realized after Izuna left that her house was bare and if she wanted any kind of decent meal, she'd need to buy it.

Luckily, with the money she'd gotten from the mission that was hardly a problem. 'Hell, I could splurge and go to a restaurant for dinner tonight and it wouldn't make a dent!' Sakura's mouth started watering when she thought of treating herself to a meal at a barbeque house she'd spotted on the way to the Hokage Tower.

Grudgingly, she had to admit that retrieving the fan had been worth it. After letting her temper out in the Hokage's office, she wasn't exactly sure what kind of impression she'd left on Madara, but she had money to live on for a while and she'd gained the respect of Toka and the others, and that was all that mattered.

Sakura admitted that she felt proud of herself. Covert missions where she was required to conceal her identity weren't her specialty by any stretch. She'd only been on one other mission falling under that category in her entire life. All things considered, she'd done well.

Her stomach growled long and low. Sakura blushed, glancing around nervously. No one in the market seemed to hear it. 'I need to decide on what I'm having for dinner. Or is it early enough to be considered lunch? Doesn't really matter, I could eat almost anything.' Sakura started wandering from stall to stall, inspecting fresh fruit and eying spices, trying to decide if she felt inspired enough to cook her own meal.

Cooking wasn't as fast without the kitchen appliances she was used to. She had to do it all the old-fashioned way. Sakura briefly thought that if she knew Fire Release techniques, the process could go a lot faster. 'Learning some more ninjutsu might be a good idea, actually…I mean, who knows what I'll be up against in the future. I need as many extra skills as I can get.' Without noticing, her hand trailed to the concealed mark on the inside of her wrist.

"Sakura!" The familiar feminine voice brought her back to herself. She looked up, seeing Toka approaching her with a young girl in an eye-catchingly bright yellow gi with a plain green cloth tied around her forehead bouncing at her side.

"Toka," she smiled as the dark-haired woman approach. "Long time no see," she joked.

"Wow," the young girl, who was studying her with curious golden eyes, hopped forward. "Your hair is so pretty!"

Sakura looked down at her, smiling slightly. "Uh, thanks." she replied. "I like your braid."

The girl touched a hand to her brown head, smiling a little bashfully. "It's the only hairstyle I really know how to do," she admitted.

Toka sighed. "I just got back to the compound from showing the Yuhi's to their homes when she insisted we should go to the market." She nodded at the girl who stood with her hands behind her back. "This is Reira, my niece. Reira, meet Sakura. She's one of the kunoichi I went on the mission with."

Reira's eyes lit up and she was immediately leaning into Sakura's face. "No way! You were on the mission with Tobaa? That must mean you're super strong!" she clenched her fists in excitement. "What was it like out there? Was Tobaa mean to you? She fusses at me all the time."

Toka jerked her back by the collar, one hand on her hip. "Reira, that's very rude. I'm sure Sakura is exhausted and wants to finish her shopping in peace,"

"Aw," Reira pouted, although she didn't struggle against Toka's grip. "I just want to talk to your friend…"

"It's alright Toka," Sakura waved a hand in front of her face. "Honestly, I'm just trying to decide what I should get to eat. But now that I've walked all this way, I think I might just turn around and go to that barbeque house."

"Ooh," Reira hummed in approval. "That place has great yakiniku!"

Sakura's stomach growled again at the mention of food, and she clutched it, embarrassed. It didn't help that Reira laughed and poked her above the belly button.

"Whoa, your belly's really talking, huh?" An idea suddenly came over the girl. Sakura could see it in her eyes. "Hey, can we go eat barbeque with Sakura?!" Reira turned to Toka pleadingly. "You're tired from the mission too, right? It's perfect this way. We can eat with Sakura and she can tell me all about the cool moves she knows."

Sakura waved her hands around. "No, no…my move-set isn't anything that special…" she began humbly.

She was surprised when Toka gave an indignant scoff. "I would hardly say punching down an entire wall wasn't anything special."

"You did whaaat?" Reira's eyes got comically wide. "Y-You have to tell me how!" she insisted.

"Reira." Toka said sternly. The little girl groaned.

Sakura felt a little bad. "You know, company during dinner for a change might not be so bad."

Toka looked slightly surprised while Reira grinned from ear to ear. "You mean it?"

"Sure," Sakura shrugged. "I—"

"Yosh!" Reira jumped, running around the two kunoichi with her arms in the air. "I get to hear about the mission!" She ran over to a man selling fresh eggs, peering at the hen sitting in a bamboo cage. "I get to hear about the mission!" she told it.

The bird tilted its head at her. "Cluck?"

Toka covered her face with a long-suffering sigh. "The future of the Senju is bright indeed," she grumbled flatly.

Sakura giggled. "I think it's kind of cute."

"Don't encourage it," Toka replied. "Let's go, Reira," she called as she and Sakura started walking. Reira stopped running around, quickly sprinting back to them.

Sakura enjoyed the slow breeze that ruffled the hairs at the back of her neck. Walking with the two Senju, Toka's composure balanced by Reira's energy, she thought she could almost come to like this Konoha a little. At least while she was here. Because one way or another, she'd get the Dragon Goddess to tell her how to go home…

"Hey, what's goin' on over there?" Reira ran a little bit ahead of them. "All those ladies are blocking the way…is there a sale or something?"

Curious, Sakura stood on her toes and peered up ahead. Sure enough, there was a crowd of women giggling and swooning over something.

"Weird…" Sakura whispered. "It wasn't like that when I came into the market."

"Let's investigate," Toka decided, already pushing her way through the crowd. Sakura looked down at Reira and the two shared a shrug before following her lead. Sakura glanced around.

"Oh, I already told you, he was looking my way!"

"No, get lost; those bedroom eyes were clearly directed at me!"

"Say what?" Sakura blanched. Were they…fighting over someone?

That was when she noticed that standing in the middle of the commotion was none other than Tobirama, his red eyes full of frustration and annoyance and his mouth pulled into a severe frown. It almost reminded her of a cat that had been given a bath against its will. The women didn't seem to notice or care that he was aggravated. They yelled at each other as they yanked at his shirt sleeves.

"What's the meaning of this?" Toka demanded loudly.

"What does it look like?" one of the women with her face caked in powder snapped. "The Hokage's brother doesn't come here often, and this is our only chance to," she paused to elbow a woman who tried to jump at her back in the face. She fell back into the crowd with a cry of pain. "Get him to choose one of us!"

"Choose one of you?" Sakura gaped. Some of these women looked old enough to be her mother and they were fighting over a man in his twenties like a prime cut of meat.

"Yeah, so you'd better not get any bright ideas, Pinky!" someone shouted.

"Are you threatening me over him?" Sakura guffawed. It was like fighting the other girls in the academy for the right to sit next to Sasuke all over again. The only difference this time was it was a competition she hadn't even been aware she;d entered. Her kunoichi pride didn't allow her to back down though. She cracked her knuckles threateningly and many of the women flinched at the sound.

"All of you should be absolutely ashamed of yourselves!" Toka growled. "What makes any of you think fighting with each other guarantees you the chance to marry him at all?"

The women slowly looked around, considering her words. "Wow," Sakura shook her head.

"I suggest you all step away from him and go back to your business now. Or will I need to be more persuasive?" There was a hard look in Toka's eyes. She reached threateningly into her leg pouch and pulled out several senbon that gleamed from between her knuckles.

Looking mortified, the women slowly began giving Tobirama a wider berth. Grumbling, they obviously decided to count their losses and slowly dissipated through the market, shooting Toka and Sakura, as well as each other, hard stares. Tobirama jumped as one brushed by him. She giggled behind her hand and wiggled her fingers.

"Are you okay?" Reira asked worriedly.

"She…she squeezed my…" he looked like he might be sick. Sakura had to hold in a laugh.

"What happened? Those women were civilians. Even Reira could have successfully evaded them." Toka tutted.

"Don't remind me," he grunted. He couldn't tell Toka that he'd been tailing Sakura when suddenly a housewife had spotted him and he'd been ambushed by women all professing their love to him and telling him to choose one of them on the spot.

When he bluntly rejected their attention, they turned on each other, and he was forced to watch. Pissed off he couldn't do anything but stand there as women he'd never even met argued over him. He'd escaped them several times, determined to keep track of Sakura, but they seemed to find him around every corner.

For women who weren't shinobi, they had surprising tenacity. Tobirama had to eventually give up on Sakura's whereabouts to focus on the problem at hand—getting rid of his own pursuers. But even that had erupted into a fight. It wasn't the highlight of his day, but it was only made tolerable by the fact that his brother hadn't been around to see it—and laugh.

"They were right about you not coming to the market a lot," Reira mused. "What were you up to?" Tobirama yanked her headband down over her eyes. "Hey!" she protested.

"I'm not you, therefore, I don't always have to be up to something." he rolled his eyes.

"I trust you would rather Lord Hashirama not hear about this," Toka had a small amount of mirth flickering in her eyes as her lips curled in a smirk.

Sakura was smiling far from innocently. "I see you've made it back from the mission in one piece." he growled. Her amusement at his expense got under his skin. The least he could do was get under hers in return.

She raised a brow challengingly at him, placing a hand on her hip. "I'm more capable than you realize,"

"I agree," Toka seconded.

Now that Tobirama was slightly surprised to hear her agree to so readily. Very soon, he'd need to see Sakura in action for himself.

"We're going to go have yakiniku now, Tobi-nii~" Reira announced. "Yakiniku!" she repeated it just for emphasis.

"Reira, what have I told you?" Toka chided. "It's Lord Tobirama to you."

"But," Reira's face scrunched in a frown. "I've been around Tobi-nii since I was a baby. That just sounds wrong." An impressive rumble came from Reira's stomach, but she only laughed. "Sorry, but we gotta go!" she grabbed Toka and Sakura both by the wrist and started to run.

"Don't pull us!" Toka was saying, but Reira didn't pay her any attention. He stood there watching them, wondering how Sakura had been clever enough to get even Toka to lower her guard. Somehow he was now alone on this front, that Sakura Haruno couldn't be trusted.

As soon as the thought flitted through his head, the selfsame woman turned and stared at him with quizzical jade eyes. Oddly, she looked like she was trying to parse him out too.

Tobirama smirked at her. They could make it a competition then, seeing who could unravel whose secrets first.

Chapter Text

Persistent knocking like a woodpecker with a vengeance was the first conscious sound she registered. Sakura rolled over with a groan, trying to ignore the sunlight streaming through the bedroom window that the gauzy curtains didn't block out. "Mo away…" she grumbled into the futon her face was pressed flat into. The knocking paused, and Sakura sighed in contentment. That woodpecker clearly knew what was good for it.

Her peace didn't last long when the knocking started up again. 'Okay…clearly the world wants me up.' A hand slowly slithered out from beneath the cozy covers as she reached groggily for her alarm clock, intent on checking the time. Questing fingers absently patted the flat wooden surface of her nightstand a few times before she realized she wouldn't find an alarm clock, because they didn't exist yet. 'There's no way I'm getting a rooster.'

The pounding intensified and Sakura jackknifed upward, an agitated cry leaving her mouth as she got up. It occurred to her that it wasn't a woodpecker outside her window, but someone knocking on her front door. She had no idea what time it was, but she knew it was probably an indecent hour because the sun didn't look like it'd been up long. Whoever was on the other side of the door was going to get an earful.

She didn't bother changing out of what passed for sleepwear in this time, a light yukata, before stomping over to the door. Admittedly, being woken up early wasn't the only thing causing her bad mood. Despite being back in the safety of her own house for the first time in over a week, sleep hadn't come easily to her the night before.

Her mind was plagued with endless thoughts of the dragon goddess, Mizuchi, now corporeal and running wild in the mortal world. She dreamt of the deity, but she didn't know if they were truly dreams or if Mizuchi was letting her see through her eyes again.

Sakura felt frustrated and guilty, not knowing what she'd done to let Mizuchi free in the first place, and struggling with the thought that she might have inadvertently unleashed a force more dangerous than Kaguya on the world.

When she finally opened the door to see a cheerful looking Reira being scolded by Toka, her scowl melted into a confused frown. Rubbing at her tired eyes to make sure she wasn't imagining things, Sakura leaned her hip against the doorframe. "Uh hey, what're you guys doing here…so early?" She squinted into the sunlight of the outside world.

"You look awful!" Reira gasped. Sakura's face darkened. The last thing she wanted to know was that she looked as hideous as she thought, and by a little girl no less.

"Reira!" Toka admonished, pulling her by the ear. Reira yelped. "I'm sorry, Sakura," the kunoichi said apologetically. "Entertaining this one's antics aren't important. Clearly you need your rest more."

Sakura was scrambling for an answer, but her brain refused to connect their appearance to any helpful information stored in her head. "What?" she grunted.

"Don't you remember?" Reira asked, tears of pain in her eyes as Toka continued to hold her ear. "Yesterday!"

Verdant eyes blinked, and suddenly a flood of memories came sluggishly churning back.

Sakura glanced around at the patrons of the barbeque house. Everyone was enjoying their yakiniku so much that no one had even glanced up when they'd entered. Except for the portly chefs searing meat on a long griddle at the front of the restaurant, who welcomed them enthusiastically. Sakura was a little surprised to see that everyone working there seemed to be members of the Akamichi clan. 'Since when do the Akamichi run a barbeque place?' That was definitely a new change from her time. Although, if it had been the case Choji would have been elated.

"Back again, Reira? And you've got some company this time."

Toka looked down at her niece skeptically. "Reira…just how often did you come to this restaurant while I was gone?"

Reira pouted innocently, toeing the floor to avoid meeting Toka's eyes. "Once…twice…maybe a few times."

Toka sighed. "Well I suppose that's not so—"

"A week." Reira finished.

"What? You had plenty of food at home, and Mei-san was supposed to prepare all your meals."

"She was!" Reira acknowledged. "But she kept trying to get me to eat icky stuff…so I ran away from dinner and found this place on the day it opened. I've been coming here ever since."

"One of our youngest and best regular customers." A passing Akamichi added. "And for a little thing she puts her meals away just as well as any grown shinobi." He reached down and patted Reira's head with a beefy hand.

"See? They like me around here!" Reira said proudly. "Come on, let's go see if my favorite table is open…" she glanced around the room, and her eyes lit up. "Ah! There it is!" She ran for a table close to the back of the restaurant, near the kitchen.

Toka and Sakura followed and took their seats in the booth. Sakura sat on one side by herself while Toka sat with Reira. Sakura couldn't help but study the griddle built into the table curiously. She doubted it was electric, but it still had to be some of the more advanced kitchenware she'd encountered in this era thus far. It looked like it worked with wood charcoal.

She wondered if it'd be possible to get one installed in her house. 'Or is that being a little vain?'

An Akamichi woman waddled over, grinning when she noticed Reira. "There's our Reira-chan. What'll it be today?"

"Just some rosu for me." she answered without hesitation.

"And for you ladies?" she asked, "We've got quite the selection, so choose away."

"Misuji will be fine." Toka replied.

Three pairs of eyes trailed to Sakura expectantly and she looked around nervously. She'd sometimes be invited for barbeque with Ino and her team, and usually she ate whatever Ino was having.

"Um, chicken I guess?"

"That's sorta boring." Reira sighed, kicking her legs.

"Hush," Toka scolded. To their hostess, she said, "Could you also bring some vegetables?"

"Of course," said the Akamichi. "I'll be right back with your platter." Their hostess smiled pleasantly, heading back into the kitchens.

"Vegetables?!" Reira squawked.

Toka leveled her with an admonishing stare and she instantly quieted. "I have no doubt that while I was gone you got away with quite a bit. But do you really expect me to let you eat all that protein without any vegetables?"

Reira blushed lightly. "Well…I was hoping?" she said quietly.

"I apologize, Sakura." Toka said. "My niece is…more than a handful and can often get out of control. Feel free to reign her in as you see fit should she ever bother you."

Sakura waved it off. "It's fine, actually. Girls need to be a little outspoken sometimes, right?"

Reira eagerly nodded in agreement. "See? See? She gets me!" she told Toka. To Sakura, she grinned approvingly. "I just knew there was a reason I liked you. Besides your hair and that neat looking diamond on your forehead…what is that anyway?"

Sakura lightly tapped the purple seal in the center of her forehead. "It's my Byakugo Seal." Sensing another question coming on, she added, "It's like a reserve. I store chakra there for my medical jutsu, among other things." Sakura didn't want to over-explain the nature of the mark, afraid it might go over the young girl's head.

Reira studied it for a second in wonder. "That…that means you have Yin Release, right?"

Sakura sat up in surprise. "That's right…how'd you know?"

Reira puffed up. "'Cause Tobaa's got Yin Release too. And Suiton."

"Really?" Sakura directed the question at Toka.

The stoic kunoichi merely shrugged. "Yes. Although, I haven't mastered a technique nearly so advanced as a seal. Mostly, I use Yin Style for my genjutsu. Do you know any other fuinjutsu?"

Sakura rubbed at the back of her neck. "Nah, not really. This is definitely the most fuinjutsu I know right now."

"Still, that's no small feat." Toka continued. "I've heard of only a select few even among the Uzumaki, a clan known for their strong life force and vast chakra reserves, capable of such fuinjutsu."

Sakura scratched her cheek humbly. "Oh uh, look! The food's here." She glanced up at the platters being brought to their table, grateful for any distraction. Receiving praise was always appreciated, but it made her inexplicably bashful. The moment she realized the Byakugo had appeared on her forehead she had been in a state of disbelief she had managed such a momentous thing. Deep down, that disbelief had never completely left. Looking back to her genin days, when the only thing she really had over either of her teammates were her academy scores and perfect chakra control, it felt a little fated she'd awaken to the seal.

Reira was more than happy to drop all talk of chakra nature transformations and accomplishments the minute she laid eyes on the cuts of raw meat. She insisted her rosu be cooked on the griddle first, and Toka told her that would only happen if she had a portion of the vegetables with it.

Sakura watched them, and couldn't help but smile to herself a little. Toka was like a stern mother, though her affection for Reira, muted as it may have seemed at a glance, was very obvious. And Reira, loud and tomboyish but surprisingly intuitive, was hard not to like.

"Hmm…." Reira brought her face alarmingly close to the cooking meat. "I hate the waiting part. So let's talk about Sakura!" Her gold eyes sparkled, and Sakura, only having seen that level of worship in the eyes of Naruto or Lee, tried to steer the conversation into another direction.

"I'm really not all that interesting."

"All the interesting people say that!" Reira tittered. "Anyway, Sakura, maybe you can help us out." She took her chopsticks and carefully flipped a piece of meat so it would cook evenly.

"Help with what?" Sakura asked, watching as Toka added her own meat onto the griddle.

"Well ya know, every year it's the same thing whenever it gets close to Hashi-nii's birthday. Tobaa always gets him a boring gift."

Toka huffed indignantly. "My gifts are not boring, they are practical. Lord Hashirama has always been appreciative."

Reira rolled her eyes. "Because he's too nice not to be. But there's only so much one person can do with a thousand hand-crafted kunai."

Sakura was a little amused to see Toka's face flush. "They weren't all just kunai…" she defended faintly. "The sets have also included shuriken and senbon in the past…"

"Like I said Sakura, she's really unoriginal with gifts and it's a problem. This year I wanna get him something special. It's his first birthday as Hokage!" Reira looked down and realized her rosu was cooked. She eagerly took it off the griddle and began dipping it in tare. "So do you want to help us find him a gift?"

Sakura considered that for a minute. So far the Hokage had been accommodating and kind to her. But, compared to Toka and Reira she hardly knew him. "I wouldn't mind helping if I could but I think you know much more about Hokage-sama than I do."

Reira munched thoughtfully on a piece of rosu while Toka tended to the griddle. Sakura began adding her own pieces of chicken onto it distractedly. "That's true I guess…but what if we told you all about Hashi-nii? Then you'd be able to help us pick something, right?"

"I-I'm not really sure it works like that—"

"Please!" Sakura gasped as Reira reached across the table to take one of her hands. "I just know if I rely on Tobaa he'll get a boring gift again, and he's done so much for the clan and the village, I want him to have something nice."

Sakura hesitantly glanced between Reira's pleading face and Toka, who was shaking her head at her niece. "You're being very forward. We will manage fine this year, as we always do—"

Sakura mentally prepared herself. 'I feel like I'm about to get in over my head.'

"When's…when's his birthday?"

Sakura winced as Reira squealed in excitement. "So you'll help?!"

"Er, maybe…"

"Great! Did you hear that Tobaa?! If the three of us work together, we can find something better than whatever the rest of the clan gets him!"

"Rest of the clan?" Sakura queried. "Are the Hokage's birthdays a really big deal with the Senju?"

"Well," Toka explained. "They weren't always. But, the Senju are naturally very proud of Lord Hashirama. He is a good leader. Since he took over from his father, it's been custom to have a celebration of sorts for his birthday, yes."

"It's really fun." Reira went on, talking with her mouthful. "The whole compound celebrates. There's a lot of food and even games. Tobi-nii and Tobaa pretend to be grumpy but I know they're always happy to celebrate his birthdays too."

Toka ignored that as well.

"Presenting the gift that becomes Lord Hashirama's favorite that year is also something of an…unofficial clan competition." Toka admitted. "He will say he likes them all equally, but it doesn't stop everyone from trying to be the one that gives the gift he likes best."

Sakura plucked a piece of the cooked chicken off the griddle and blew at it before popping it into her mouth. She had a piece of chopped cabbage and then looked curiously at the two Senju. "Sounds like this could be pretty intense. How much time do we have?" Time was important. She had to help choose the perfect present for someone she hardly knew.

"I'd say four days, give or take." Reira said nonchalantly.

Toka and Sakura stared at her. "Four days…? October 23 rd cannot be in four days. It's…it should only be—" Toka quickly counted on her fingers. "In four days." She concluded flatly. "I was so preoccupied on the mission I had completely forgotten."

'October 23rd, huh?' Sakura mused. 'At least I know what month it is now.'

"Yep, well, no one told you to leave for over a week and a half!" Reira wagged her finger, spearing yet another piece of rosu with her chopsticks.

"So we don't have a whole lot of time." Sakura sighed. "Alright, when should we start looking?"

"First thing tomorrow!" Reira raised a fist in excitement. "We can meet up at Sakura's house in the morning."

Sakura had a few more bites of food and nodded. "Is that okay with you Toka?"

"If you truly feel like it's not a bother, then yes, having you join us this year might be nice."

Sakura rubbed a hand down her face. "I did agree, didn't I?" she motioned the two Senju inside and closed the door. "Do you think you could wait for me? I just need to bathe and dress and then we can go."

"Sakura, clearly you're in no shape to—"

"No, I'm fine. Really." Sakura kept her tone perfectly firm as she walked away from them. It was foolish to think she'd be getting rest anyway. Mizuchi would be there to plague her mind as soon as her eyes closed. It was much better to get out of the house and distract herself. 'I wish I had some kind of pick me up though…' Groggily, Sakura trudged into the bathroom, staring woodenly at the empty tub she didn't feel like filling.

"Toka?" she called unsurely. Was she taking advantage of the Senju? Maybe a little…but despite having water as one of her natures she hadn't mastered any Suiton techniques.

"Yes, Sakura?" she heard Toka on the other side of the door.

"Do you mind…helping me fill the tub? I'm sorry, but it'd be quicker…"

"It's alright," her friend answered calmly. She let Toka in and watched as she had the warm water rising in the tub in a matter of minutes. The pinkette sighed in gratitude.

"You really, really have to teach me that sometime."

Approximately twenty minutes later, Sakura had bathed and dressed. "Thanks for waiting." She stepped into the front of the house to see Toka laying food on the table where Sakura generally ate her meals. "Er, you didn't have to cook or anything…you're guests."

"Today promises to be a long one." Toka said solemnly. "It's important we keep our strength up."

That was such Toka logic. She approached everything with steadiness and careful planning. Sakura nodded slowly, taking a seat at the table across from an eager looking Reira. She noticed the child always looked happy whenever food was involved.

"I hope you don't mind me using your supplies…" Toka said as an afterthought.

"Not at all," Sakura said, taking a piece of sliced melon. "I'm just glad I went back and got some things for the house after we parted ways yesterday."

Reira, who had a melon slice stuffed in her mouth, grinned around it, making Sakura laugh. "Mwee twu!"

"Careful or you'll choke on that."

Toka glanced up from the mocha she was arranging to glare. "I see you've forgotten all table manners," she smacked Reira on the back of the head, causing her to spit the melon slice out.

Sakura grinned. "Alright, so tell me a little bit about what the Hokage likes. And what kind of gifts have people given him in the past."

Reira wiped the melon juice dripping down her chin off on the back of her hand. "Hmm…he likes the village, and meeting new people and that scary-looking Uchiha he's friends with, and plants, and—"

"Hold on," Sakura interrupted. "Some of those aren't…exactly tangible things to give. Let's come back to likes and move on to what he already has."

Reira stared at the melon rind in her hands thoughtfully. "I don't think he needs weapons. He always gets those." The brunette girl directed a pointed stare in Toka's direction. Sakura heard the older Senju defiantly grumbling under her breath.

"Right…no weapon sets. Uh, how about a stylish kimono? You can't go wrong with that, right? Something elegant and simple ought to do the trick." Sakura nodded sagely, already imagining the Shodai sporting something that screamed "handsome feudal ruler!" Oddly enough, when she envisioned him in a dark kimono, he was making Lee and Gai-sensei's signature pose, thumbs up and all. 'He could totally pull it off.' she decided. She wasn't sure if she meant the clothes or the pose…possibly both.

"One," Reira drawled, holding up a finger, "problem. He's always dressed in the same clothes 'cause he's Hokage! What's the point of new clothes if nobody sees how pretty they are?!" she finished with a pout.

"Is that why you wear yellow?" the pinkette asked, staring at the almost too-bright fabric.

Reira nodded eagerly. "Isn't it pretty? Bright colors make me happy. And I'm hard to miss this way!"

"The exact opposite of what a ninja should be." said Toka.

"Let me live!"

"I'd very much like to. It's you trying to get yourself killed insisting on wearing that monstrosity—"

Sakura sighed heavily, massaging her forehead. Toka was right after all; today definitely felt like it would be a long one. "She may have a point, Reira," Sakura decided she had to get them back on track. Reira's face fell. "But you know, I know someone that always wore bright clothes too, and he turned out to be one of the strongest shinobi I know." The downcast expression was replaced by a confident grin. "And," she turned to Toka. "You have to admit it does suit her."

"I suppose, but—"

"We should probably get back to deciding on what you're going to get Lord Hokage though."


"Yes, you're right."

Sakura discretely wiped her brow. 'Attention successfully refocused.'

"Then tell me what you think he needs. You both know him much better."

"Sending away to have something made might have increased our options," Toka rejoined the conversation after finishing her mochi. "But, considering how little time we have left, scouring the market is our only chance now."

'Wow,' Sakura thought, impressed, 'She even makes that sound like its life or death. She could have been a good theater actress in another time.'

Reira raised her hand and waved it around. "I think we should go look what the artisans made today!"

"I thought we were avoiding kunai sets?" Toka reminded grumpily.

"We are. But that's not all they sell!"

Sakura thought it over. She had a point. And something that had been hand-made might be more sentimental. "That actually sounds like a pretty good place to start."

"I…" Toka paused. "Have to admit it's not the worst idea I've ever heard."

"Thanks! Wait, were you just making fun of me?"

"Not at all."

"That means you totally were!"

"I think we have our objective now, ladies. Next is making a plan of attack." Sakura smirked, hitting her palm with a fist.

"We're going to win the best present competition this year!" Reira said gleefully. "I just know it!"

Jun'ichi sighed as he came back to the area where he'd left his sisters, only to find it empty. Of course. How could he have ever expected they'd stay put when all they'd done since leaving home was get into trouble? He, being the oldest and the most sensible, was determined for all of them to keep a low profile.

The Kaguya name came with many enemies, and though he knew he and Harihane combined were more than a match for most who would cross them, he wanted to try a new, more peaceful way.

His temperamental sister hadn't been happy about that. Despite her best intentions, destruction was in her blood. Her very hot blood. The world was a very dangerous place, especially for two seemingly defenseless girls and a young man traveling alone together. More than once, rogue nin had attempted to rob them and worse. More than once, Harihane had mercilessly cut them down.

Jun'ichi knew it came naturally for her, trained to kill from a tender age. At least, he reasoned, she wasn't taking pleasure in it. In her mind it was simply a matter of her or them. And knowing his sister the way he did, he knew she was always going to pick them.

Jun'ichi set down the supplies he'd bought, and decided to look around. In all likelihood they weren't far. That was his sincere hope.

"Kikue? Harihane?" he called, walking along through the woods. Neither answered.

His sisters caused him so much grief every day… and yet they were all he had now. They couldn't go back to their clan, their old lives. Not now. They'd made a pact to band together when they decided not to return. Jun'ichi was determined not to become his father after meeting the mysterious kunoichi who had unceremoniously turned their lives upside down. He only wished he could see her again, and thank her for releasing him from his cowardice.

"…no!" the voice sounded like Harihane. They were close.

Jun'ichi trudged through the woods, occasionally picking twigs out of his hair and trying not to catch his kimono on branches. It was embarrassing to admit, even mentally, but at nineteen, he realized he had seen very little of the world, and despite living under his father's tyranny, he knew very little of hardships.

Inside the compound, he had servants who catered to his every need, the finest silks to dress in and plenty of food to eat. The only times he'd truly been out of that fortress was to travel with his father. Once to see the Uchiha and arrange an agreement, and the rest of the times were when he was taken on some of his father's bloody campaigns.

Leaving home on a journey of his own free will, traveling with no particular direction, was very new to him. It was new to all of them. Kikue had never once set foot outside the Land of the Dead in her entire life. The whole world was new to her, and she eagerly drank it all in. Harihane was much better at keeping an unimpressed façade, but even she had been flourishing since leaving the compound.

They slept under the stars almost every night, and talked about the constellations. They took turns cooking food, even though he was by far the best at it. They bonded in a way they never had before, learning more about themselves and each other every day.

Collectively, deciding to strike out on their own had been the best thing they could have done for themselves. Maybe one day, they'd face the consequences of turning their backs on their family. No. It was a clan. Jun'ichi knew his only family were right beside him. In front of him, maybe, as it were. It didn't matter, they were close.

He caught sight of Harihane's back up ahead as she loudly scolded their younger sister.

Closer than he thought. He crept up on them—or attempted to—but Kikue, having apparently recently awoken to sensor abilities from what she told them, lifted her head and perked up when she saw him. He noiselessly raised a finger to his lips and she blinked, grinning cutely. Jun'ichi hid in the tree above them and watched.

"What do you think you're smiling about?!" Harihane screeched. "Do you think it's a joke?"

"No…" Kikue looked up at Harihane through her lashes, attempting to make herself look vulnerable. Even if it was a subconscious effort, Jun'ichi thought it might be a good way to catch enemies off guard.

"Every time we go into a town—every time—and you're holding the money, you get pick-pocketed!" Harihane made sure to punctuate her speech with jabs to Kikue's arm and chest. "You prance around without a care in the world, and are money walks away." That was true enough. They had all taken as much money as they could carry and pooled it.

Junji carefully calculated that it could last them for a month, if they spent sparingly. However, whenever they sent Kikue into town for supplies—she was by far the most inconspicuous—she made an easy target for thieves. The money was always retrieved, because they were never far away, and when the thief tried to turn a corner, Harihane would be there lurking.

"So no," Harihane finished with her hands on her hips, "you can't go into town to buy fruit."

"B-But—" Kikue stammered. Her head lowered and she started to sniffle.

"Cut that out!"

Jun'ichi jumped down, landing between his sisters.

"I'll take her with me into town. We'll get the fruit."

Kikue smiled, wiping the moisture that had been building behind her eyes.

Harihane scowled. "No! You're spoiling her. And!" she held up a finger, "You'll just draw attention. You think people won't remember seeing you? You stand out too much. And we don't need fruit. It'll spoil fast anyway with the way the weather's been."

Jun'ichi quickly reached out and seized Harihane's cheek, pinching firmly.

"Ouch, damnit!"

"When did you become so frugal?" he wondered.

"Someone has to be! …Now let go of my face!" she hissed angrily.

His fingers released the soft skin of her cheek, and she rubbed at the reddened mark it left. "I hate you sometimes." She grumbled.

"Well then some things never change." Jun'ichi ruffled her hair a little, just because he knew she'd hate it.

She growled in warning, like a feral dog and Jun'ichi laughed. The growling didn't stop. In fact it got louder and more realistic. He tilted his head quizzically, studying his sister. Harihane was glaring menacingly at him, but she wasn't growling. Kikue suddenly started whining.

"Kikue feels something scary…"

They both stilled, listening to the long growls in the quiet air.
"Kikue." Harihane's bones began extending from her forearms. Jun'ichi felt his bones slide up and out as his body reacted to the tension suddenly thick in the air. "Get behind us."

Kikue started to shuffle behind them as he and Harihane moved to guard her. Then she suddenly stood beside them, clutching small fists to her chest and shaking her head. "Kikue, what do you think you're doing?!"

"Kikue doesn't want to hide anymore! Nee-san told Kikue to be strong, so she will be!" Jun'ichi stared as his youngest sister struggled to make her bones extend. That had always been why their father saw Kikue as failure. She struggled to use her Shikotsumyaku and could never make use of the bones anywhere but on her forearms and wrists. A defective kekkei genkai, their father called it. A disgrace. Part of why Harihane had been cold to Kikue in the last few years was for their father's approval, he knew.

But she was trying so hard. Maybe their father would never see that, but he could. In her own time, with encouragement and some training, Kikue could catch up.

"Look, it's great you don't wanna be a cry-baby anymore, but seriously, just stay behind—"

A large shadow passed over them as something leapt through the air with a snarl. Everything after that happened almost too fast. Jun'ichi felt the air rush out of his lungs as something big, hairy and muscular charged him, knocking him to the side effortlessly. Harihane fired wildly, but the giant beast didn't seem fazed.

Head spinning, he climbed to his feet and started joining Harihane in an effort to repel the creature. It dodged all their bones, heading straight for Kikue. There was a shrill cry for help, and then he watched Kikue being picked up by a large canine-like creature that bounded away with her. She was struggling and screamed as they disappeard back into the forest.

Harihane looked at him, bewildered. "What the hell was that?! Kikue just got taken by a…a wolf-dog thing!"

"That was bigger than any dog I've ever seen to be sure. Either way, let's go!"

"If that crybaby lets herself get eaten I'm going to cut her out of that thing's belly and kill her myself!"

Junji smiled slightly. To almost anyone, it sounded like Harihane was seething. The days they'd spent traveling together gave him better insight into her feelings. Inside, she was worried for Kikue.

If there was any doubt, the fact that she took the lead in chasing after the beast that had abducted their sister erased it.

"What about these?" Reira was gesturing to a very fine set of china when Sakura looked up. "Hashi-nii likes to eat."

She was referring to pearl plates with a pattern of blue and green peacock feathers decorating the edges. It was beautiful, and likely pricey, but that wasn't the issue…"That's wedding china." Sakura giggled.

Reira turned back around so quickly her braid smacked her across the face. "Huh?! Ooh. This is harder than I thought."

"We've only just begun." Toka reminded her, "And this was your idea. With that kind of defeatist attitude I suppose a kunai set is the best we can hope to muster."

"No!" There was a vehement head shake and a crossing of arms. "We are not get him a kunai set again this year. Nuh-uh." Sakura watched her look around frantically. "We haven't tried that one yet!" she pointed at a nearby artisan shop, already walking towards it. The two women had no choice but to follow. Sakura didn't think either of them wanted to find out what would happen if Reira was left to her own devices in a place full of highly breakable craft pieces. This thought was reaffirmed the minute she set foot in the shop.

'Crystal glass!' she gasped at all the ornate pieces both finished and being worked on. Shelves lined with finished pieces of glass chalices, figurines, vases and bowls were everywhere. Reira started to dash toward something that caught her eye, but Toka grabbed her with almost frightening speed.

"I don't think so," The words came out a dark hiss.

"Can I help you ladies with anything?" The shop owner had popped up seemingly from thin air, wiping his sweaty forehead and removing his work gloves. "See anything you like?"

"It's all pretty!" Reira nodded. "But if you want us to buy something we need to see the best stuff."

"Don't be rude!" Toka shook her slightly.

The shopkeeper didn't seem offended. On the contrary, Sakura thought he looked amused. "Oh, is that so? And what's the occasion?"

"The Hokage's birthday!"

The man's eyes grew large, and he wiped his palms against his apron. "The Hokage, you say?"

"That's right. It's in only a few short days. We're…" Toka fumbled for the right word.

"Gift hunting." Sakura finished.


Stroking his chin, the shop's owner turned and surveyed all his sparkling glass pieces. "I've got a nice variety here. Any one of these pieces would make a fine gift fit for the Hokage, and I would be honored to sell you anything in the shop. But…if I may be so bold, if you'd like something truly memorable, perhaps I can make a custom piece?"

"How long would that take?" Sakura asked shrewdly. "We've only got three days."

"I should be able to complete an order in that time." The owner said confidently. "Just tell me what you'd like and I'll get started right away."

Toka glanced down at Reira. "This was your idea, ultimately. Do you think he'll be satisfied with something like this?"

Reira gave her aunt a thumb's up. "Look at this stuff! It's all sparkly. Who doesn't like something shiny?"

Toka quietly snorted into her fist. "He is a man, not a crow. At any rate, yes, I think we'll take something."

"Wonderful!" he beamed.

"What do you think it should be? A glass animal?" Reira hummed in thought. "Oh no! No! A sake set!"

Sakura stared at the young Senju in curiosity. "Why a sake set?"

"Hashi-nii loves honey wine!"

A Senju Hokage with a taste for alcohol? That sounded suspiciously familiar.

"You don't…say…"

Was he as bad as his granddaughter? Was alcoholism hereditary in the Senju line? Every time she'd interacted with the Hokage, he seemed sober. Then again, Tsunade had been a functioning alcoholic for most of her adult life. Maybe he hid it well too.

"It's true that he enjoys his cups." Not even Toka was denying it! "Perhaps a sake set would be a gift that's both practical and decorative."

"Ya see? Perfect balance. Now um, can…can you let go of my gi?" Toka reluctantly let the white-knuckled grip on Reira's collar loosen.

"A sake set is a fine choice. I've got several different types of glass…"

Sakura watched absently as the glassmaker started talking to Toka in depth about different options. She was glad they'd been able to settle on a gift. Truthfully, it didn't seem like she'd really been much help, besides mediating some of their bickering…

'Birthdays…I wonder how old he'll be.' He was definitely young. Or at least she assumed he was. She knew enough to know Hashirama Senju possessed legendary restorative power in his cells, which is exactly why they were so coveted in her time.

She imagined that same innate regeneration would keep him from looking his age. At the moment, she'd place him as a man in his early twenties. Now that she thought of it…shouldn't Madara and the Second Hokage be roughly the same age range too? And Izuna…he was Madara's younger brother, so how old did that make him? Curiosity was growing in her. After all, she'd known the legendary Hashirama Senju as a long-dead relic of the past. For him to be alive, young and vibrant was still something surreal.

Madara not being hell-bent on the world's destruction was also something she continued to have a hard time wrapping her head around. Maybe, it would have been easier to give him the benefit of the doubt if she'd had prior experience with him before he had stabbed her and tried to plunge the world into an endless genjutsu.

Sasuke had attempted to kill her too, but she couldn't bring herself to see him the way she saw Madara. They had history as teammates, and no matter what Sasuke felt, there was a bond there that would forever link them all. She had no bond with Madara, just an image of him smirking as he cut through Allied Shinobi Forces. If figuring all of that out wasn't enough of a headache, the eerie eyes of the Dragon Goddess flitted through her thoughts whenever she allowed her mind to be idle. Mizuchi wasn't just haunting her dreams anymore. She was real and tangible and capable of truly frightening things.

"Whatcha thinkin' about?"

Sakura looked down to see Reira eyeing her. "Hm? A little of everything. Don't mind me." Toka was still explaining to the glassmaker what she wanted. Reira had probably gotten bored.

"So your mind's running in circles?"

"Huh?" Sakura was surprised; she hadn't thought she was being so transparent.

"Tobaa gets that face sometimes, when she says her mind can't be still."

"That's one way to put it…"

Reira gave her a sympathetic little grin. "You know what, Sakura? I'm glad you're friends with Tobaa."

Sakura glanced over at Toka. She was pointing to the kind of glass she wanted the sake set to be made out of. "Why's that?"

Reira started dragging her foot back and forth across the floor, watching it. "Well, she can be really scary and hard to get close to. But I know she wants friends, because she's a good person, and all good people want friends." She nodded at her own logic. "If she had friends who understood her like I do, I'd be happy Tobaa was happy."

Sakura patted her head gently. "You're really a good kid."

Flustered, she rubbed the back of her neck. "Ehehe! Would you mind telling Tobaa sometime?"

"Oh, I'm sure she already knows." Sakura winked.

"Ahem," They turned when they heard someone clearing their throat.

"Are you two finished?" Toka asked, not unkindly. "We'll pick up the sake set on the morning of Lord Hashirama's birthday, before the celebration gets underway."

Reira spun around excitedly. "He's gonna love this!"

"For the price, he most certainly should." Toka whispered to herself. They all exited the shop.

"I'm glad you both found something to give in time," Sakura smiled.

"Thank you for your help, Sakura."

"I-I didn't really do much. It was Reira's idea..."

"Nevertheless, if nothing else your company today was appreciated." Sakura's smile became a little more shy. "It may be somewhat short notice, but...maybe you'd like to be our guest at Lord Hashirama's birthday celebration."

Well. She definitely wasn't expecting that. 'I've never been to a Hokage's birthday party.' She didn't really think Tsunade's counted. It was more of a one-woman party and it tended to be a little embarrassing. She'd been invited the year she'd become the Godaime's apprentice. It... hadn't been what she was expecting. Shizune baked a cake, and agreed that for the special occasion, she would allow the Hokage to imbibe without scolding her.

It turned into Tsunade greedily hogging most of the cake while drunkenly crying over men being too intimidated by her to ask her out. "And what's wrong with a woman holding her ground? I keep myself in good shape and I'm the fucking Hokage...!"

And so it went, every year after that. Sakura always found herself reluctantly dragged into it, if for no other reason than solidarity with Shizune. Both understood what it meant to be the long-suffering pupils of the stubborn Fifth Hokage.

Being that Sakura now knew where Tsunade may have gotten her drinking habits from, she wasn't sure she wanted to put herself through that again. Of course she had to be polite about it.

"A-Are you sure that'd be okay? I mean it's supposed to be a private event, isn't it?" Mentally, the pinkette patted herself on the back. There. Toka was a woman of reason. She wouldn't want to risk upsetting the balance by bringing in an outsider when—

"It will be fine. Ours is a sizable clan. No one will truly notice or mind you being there."

Sakura wanted to object. She could think of one red-eyed, white-haired someone who most certainly would notice and mind.

Reira tugged one of her hands urgently. "Come on, Sakura! It's so fun, you won't regret it."

Fun wasn't the problem. She didn't have a problem with fun or parties or even with Hokages who liked wine a little too much. She didn't have a problem at all. The would-be Nidaime seemed to have one with her, though.

'I can see it now...' The whole time she'd be standing there awkwardly, trying to be inconspicuous while being all too aware of Tobirama Senju scowling a hole into the back of her head.

"I don't think I really just seems like a family affair, you know?"

Reira frowned. "Friends can be family!" she protested.

The pink-haired kunoichi's resolve started to crumble. What could she say to that.

'Why am I so soft?' she groaned.

"Yeah," Sakura relented. "They can be...and I guess I can stop by. I might not be able to stay long though." she quickly added when Reira started beaming at her. The addition didn't make the girl's smile any less bright.

"I should warn you that the clan can be a lively bunch," Toka brushed some hair behind an ear. "Also, you do not have to worry about getting a gift, since you are a guest."

"I can't show up empty-handed!" Sakura gaped. "Especially not for the Hokage's birthday. It just seems really rude."

"He will understand." Toka assured.

"Maybe so, but I'd still feel better if I brought something."

"I think he'd like that. Everyone likes gifts."

"No one was asking you, Reira."

"But Tobaa...!"

"It's settled." Sakura decided. "I'll find something; don't worry about me." she found herself grinning with a thumb pointed at herself the way Naruto often did when he made a proclamation.

'Eh, it must have rubbed off...'

Sakura didn't mind though because she supposed there were worse habits her teammates could have given her.

His brother's brats were causing too much noise. Hot-blooded spars were one thing, but they screeched like angry monkeys, ready to face off for dominance. When Madara stepped out of his home and onto the porch, he was treated with a rather strange situation. Kagami was standing protectively over some small lump sprawled on the ground, in a battle ready stance.

There were two other children that Izuna was training, glaring menacingly at him.

"What's all this?"

The minute they saw him standing there, all three snapped to attention. "L-Lord Madara!"

They bent awkwardly at the waist in an improvised bow. All but Kagami, who continued to stand ready to attack. Kagami, who was usually respectful to his superiors and never caused trouble. "I believe I asked a question."

Gulping hard, the two boys looked between each other, seemingly trying to decide which one of them would speak. "W-we were just playing, and then Kagami g-got serious, and–"

"They attacked it!" Kagami hissed.

Madara was a little surprise at the heat in his voice. "Attacked what?"

"The stray that's been coming around for scraps. It was minding its own business, and they threw kunai at it. Then, they singed it with a fireball." Looking closer, Madara realized the disheveled lump on the ground Kagami was so determined to protect, had fur. Though it was hard to discern from its charred skin, he could see white fur patched with gray. It was the same cat he'd been attempting to chase away from the compound for quite a while.

'So, the rabbit-tailed nuisance finally met its match...' Grudgingly, he had to admit that the annoying creature was far more cunning than it looked. It was disarmingly charming in appearance, with its tall triangular ears and a tail more reminiscent of a jackrabbit's than a cat.

Be that as it may, Madara didn't very much care for the way it hung around idly on porch steps soaking in sunshine as if it had the right. He'd even caught it hanging around his own door more than once, and was agitated to see Naoko had left cream for it there, likely because she knew it would bother him. The woman was a good bedfellow, but she could be insufferable.

Izuna had a soft spot for the pest, adding further insult to injury. He'd even absurdly suggested he was considering keeping it, but training the next generation of Uchiha kept him busy.

While Madara considered how to deal with his furry nemesis, it would watch him smugly with mismatched eyes, mewing innocently as if it didn't understand that it was in the way. More than once, Madara had considered setting his falcon loose on it. It would serve it right. That was unnecessary now though, because from the looks of it...

"She needs help, or she'll die." Kagami moved to slowly gather the cat in his arms, and it meowed pitifully.

One of the boys apparently responsible ribbed the other playfully. "How soft-hearted can you be? Are you sure you're even an Uchiha?"

Madara's steely gaze fell on the two snickering boys, and they instantly shut up.

"I want the both of you out of my sight. And come tomorrow, rise early. I'll inform Izuna that you'll be training with me."

Their eyes widened, and then in unison their heads dropped. "Yes, Lord Madara..."

He watched them go with feint disdain. Foolish, reckless children. That's all they were. But if he allowed them to think it was acceptable to maim animals and one day they used a fireball against some civilian's yapping dog, it would reflect poorly on the whole clan. Some of the village was still equally fearful as they were awed of the Uchiha. It was natural to be wary of such a powerful clan. The actions of a few stupid children could give rise to further distrust. They would think the Uchiha raised vicious offspring that attacked defenseless animals.

"Hand it here, Kagami," Madara held out his gloved hands, and Kagami moved closer, sadness in his eyes.

"Are you going to give it to the healers?" he asked quietly.

A long sigh passed his lips. He couldn't help it. For all his skill, the boy was still so naïve. "No. I'm going to give it the painless death it deserves."

The curly-haired boy's steps drew short as he stopped and pressed the wounded cat closer to his chest. "You can't!"

"It's the most merciful thing given the circumstances. It will die suffering horribly otherwise."

"But the healers could–"

"Now you're simply being foolish," Madara scoffed. "Tell me, do you think the healers have time to tend to this pitiful cat that's clinging to life by a hair? Do you expect them to put our own clansmen aside to oversee it's recovery?"

Kagami looked ashamed. "No, I'm sorry..."

Madara felt a small amount of pity. The boy was kind-hearted, and he couldn't fault him for that. "Even if the healers took it may still not work." he reasoned softly, "It may still end up succumbing to its injuries." Like Izuna almost did. Blocking out the memory, he extended his hands once again. This time, Kagami slowly started to give him the cat.

The minute it was in his arms, the vile little thing seemed to find some hidden strength, as he heard it starting to hiss quietly. Ah, yes. The feelings between he and his adversary were mutual. The cat resented that he chased it off as much as Madara resented that it kept coming back. "Don't even think about it." he warned as the cat started to open its mouth, as if it had resolved to use the last of its life force biting him.

Kagami gently stroked its head one last time and then shuffled backwards, forcing himself to look away. "I'm sorry..." he mumbled. "I should go home now..." He watched the young prodigy dart off. Yes, the boy really was far too kind.

"What did you do now? He looks like he was fleeing a demon." Madara glanced nonchalantly over his shoulder to see Izuna had finally arrived.

"He's not the only one of your students I've scared off today." he informed him.

"No? That would explain the two boys I saw not long ago. They looked like the Shinigami was coming for their souls."

Madara couldn't help but smirk proudly. If he could put half as much fear in people as the Reaper could, it had been a good day. "After they've trained with me tomorrow, they might wish he had." He turned, allowing Izuna to see the half-dead feline in his arms.

Izuna, expectedly, was shocked. "What happened to it?"

"Your students, according to Kagami. They decided to make a game of maiming the thing. Unfortunately for this mangy sack of fur, its nine lives weren't quite handy enough to save it. I told Kagami I'd give it a clean death."

Madara expected that to be the end of it. Izuna would nod grimly, say his goodbyes, and let him dispose of the cat. He was even willing to bury it somewhere afterwards, because he wasn't heartless enough to toss it out to the vultures. More than anything, though, he didn't want the smell lingering anywhere near the compound. A rotting carcass, no matter what type, smelled revolting.

All thoughts of how he was about to do a good deed by humanely putting the animal out of its misery ground to a halt when Izuna spoke. "You can't." The exact same words Kagami had said. And they weren't the desperate, high-pitch that his disciple's voice had been, but the determined, grounded voice of an adult with conviction. His brother truly meant to spare the cat.

Only, Izuna should know better. He wasn't a child. He wasn't naïve. He had seen death. He had courted it and, most recently, death had almost claimed him as its own. It was one cat. One. Cat. Why was everyone turning him into the villain? At the moment he was the only one being sensible.

"You can't possibly mean that. As you can see, this cat is dying." He lifted it up and allowed Izuna to see its burnt back, fur now missing and skin blackened. It had a laceration on the inside of one of its legs where the kunai had clearly struck it. "Prolonging the inevitable is cruelty I'm not willing to be held responsible for."

"But it can be healed."

Madara felt his nostrils flare and the vein on his forehead twitch. It was the same face he made when Hashirama said something stupid. "You and your pupil clearly have some unspoken connection. His words keep coming out of your mouth."

"He's right. And so am I. Give it here,"

Madara was beyond fed up. Now his words were coming out of his brother's mouth. "The healers won't be able to do anything for this."

"Maybe not the ones you know. But I think I know someone who can. ...I'll rephrase; I'm sure I do." How cryptic. Izuna knew a healer he didn't? Was he bluffing so he could hide the cat away somewhere? No. That would be childish, and more to the point, it wouldn't help the cat anyway. It would be letting it suffer, and between the two of them, Izuna cared more about preventing its suffering than he did.

His brother held his arms out, just like he had done with Kagami. Madara found himself reluctantly transferring the cat once again. And the animal, who had been hissing under its breath since the moment Madara picked it up, weakly started purring for Izuna. "If this mysterious healer is capable of performing the miracles you seem to think they are, perhaps I should come and see this in person."

"I don't think that'd be wise," Izuna sounded a little smug. "You'd likely aggravate the situation."

Madara was left feeling bewildered as he watched his brother poof away.

"I can't believe I said that..." Sakura complained to herself. Who else was there to complain to? Toka and Reira had gone home, and she was walking back to her own house, empty-handed. Despite her best efforts, and the list of things Toka and Reira had said he'd enjoy, Sakura was struggling to come up with an appropriate gift for the Shodai.

"He's not shishou...I can't show up with a bottle of cheap sake...and I'm pretty sure his clan's got all the good ideas covered. They know him much better..." Frazzled nerves had reduced her to this. Talking out the dilemma with herself in the middle of the streets.

Sakura wanted to leave a good impression. The Hokage was, after all, the Hokage. A good-natured and fair leader. If she was going to do it, she didn't want to do it in halves. That was why she had to find something...something that could express the gratitude for all the help and kindness he'd shown her so far, without making it too intimate and leading to a very awkward situation.

It couldn't be anything that family, friends, or a lover would give. It had to be something more...professional. Something an acquaintance could safely give. That ruled a few things out immediately.

Truthfully, she was still hesitant to show up at all. But Toka had already told her that they would walk her to the Senju compound on the day of the party. No way out of it now.

Tomorrow was another day. She could get up early, go to the market, and find something acceptable to present to the Hokage. At the party, she'd ignore and avoid Tobirama like a plague. 'I can pretend he's an enemy nin and practice my evasion skills.' Applying it to some form of training made her feel less like a coward. Shoulders slumped, she dragged herself the rest of the way to her street. By now, she'd gotten neighbors. Some were civilians, but others were shinobi. A blended neighborhood. Maybe that's where Tobirama thought she'd be most comfortable. Not like he cared about her comfort...

'Wait...isn't door?' Leaned back against the door with his head tilted toward the sky, was Izuna Uchiha, with what looked like a bloody rag in his lap.

She approached in confusion and true to his shinobi instincts, he turned to her immediately before she was even within arm's distance. "Izuna-san?"

"Sakura-san," sighed Izuna. A short quiver went through her at the way he breathed her name with so much relief, like she was the only thing he'd been wanting to see all day.

"What's...what's that?" she stopped right in front of him and then crouched. A hand flew to her mouth as squinted eyes stared up at her.


Izuna soothed the animal with gentle words, standing to his full height. Sakura followed, getting back to her feet. "It's in bad shape...I know it might be asking for a lot, but...would you have a look?"

Sakura didn't even think as she deactivated the seals around her house and gestured for him to enter first. Sakura ran into her bedroom, and found the trunk at the foot of her bed. In it, she kept the few items she'd arrived with. Precious things she couldn't part with that reminded her where she came from, and where she wanted to go back to. Among those things, was her tattered black shirt.

When she got back, Izuna was kneeling in the middle of the floor with the animal, cooing reassurances to it. "These are bad burns..." Sakura murmured, placing the shirt down for the Uchiha to lay the cat on. He gingerly set the poor feline down and it mewled in protest. Sakura got a flashback to her early days of training under Tsunade, when she'd be given animals to heal.

Even on days when she wasn't supervised under Tsunade, Sakura would seek out Hana Inuzuka and ask if she could help with some of her less severe patients. Soon, people in her neighborhood were bringing their pained pets to her, much to the astonishment of her parents. Sakura would even coax injured strays into letting her practice her healing techniques on them.

"Don't worry, I can heal these." She laid a glowing green hand down on the cat, pumping the soothing chakra into its system. The whining animal went comfortably lax as she got to work.

"Is she yours?" Sakura asked, never taking her eyes off the patient. If she had, she would have noticed the look of wonder Izuna gave her as he watched her at work.

"A stray that was born somewhere near the compound," Izuna explained. "When we first started building, there was a mother cat nursing her kittens that would sometimes come around. The children would feed her scraps and play with the kittens sometimes, so they became somewhat friendly. When she finished weaning them, they all disappeared, except this one. That was weeks ago now. I think this little one has been left behind."

" this is a really young one then. It's practically still a kitten." Sakura kept a controlled and steady flow of chakra. She was pleased to see the animal was starting to breath a little better. It even lifted its head slightly to sniff at her hand.

"Yes. I thought of taking her in...but I train the children of the clan, and it takes a lot of my attention away. I could also be called away on a mission at any time."

"And it looks like the poor thing's overstayed its welcome." He didn't bother denying it was a fire jutsu that put the kitten in the state it was.

"Madara would just as soon see it gone. I'd hate to turn it out onto the streets and hope it fairs better outside the compound."

"Well..." Sakura cleared her throat as she brought her hand away from the now mostly healed cat. Now, where the nasty burns had been was only freshly healed, pink flesh. It still would like strange until its fur grew back, but it was out of harms way now. "I think it should make it, but the little thing's probably going to be exhausted for a day or two. I'll keep it here. That way, it has a safe place until it's ready to get back on its feet. Oh!" Sakura looked at her lap to see the cat had rested its head on one of her available thighs and was purring softly.

"It certainly seems content with that." Izuna chuckled, brushing a hand across its head. "Thank you," he attempted a courteous smile, but she was looking at him strangely.

"What happened to your face?"

He looked a little bemused. "It's hereditary unfortunately, so there's no helping it."

"No," Sakura rolled her eyes with a snort. He was doing it again, as if implying being blessed with Uchiha features was a terrible thing. "I mean..." she tentatively placed a hand to his cheek and turned his face to the side. A long gash marred the pale skin. She clucked under her breath, pressing a thumb against it. Izuna flinched lightly. "You didn't feel this?"

"Apparently not..." Sakura ignored the way his warm breath tickled the heel of her palm as she pulled it away from him. "On the way here, there were dogs, and their barking scared the cat...she tried to climb to my shoulders for safety, so that might have resulted in an accidental knick." he shrugged nonchalantly. "It'll heal in a days time or two."

Sakura pressed a hand to the injured cheek again. "Or it'll heal now." Once again she concentrated healing chakra to her hand. Izuna stared into her face with clear surprise, and she smirked in amusement. "There," she pulled her hand away, and it was like the scratch had never happened. Izuna's face could go on to be unblemished another day.

He felt the skin. "Amazing,"

"Don't exaggerate. That was hardly life-threatening."

"Still, I find it amazing that these hands," He gingerly picked up the hand that hadn't been idly petting the sleeping cat to study. "Can do so much good. I admire your skills, Sakura-san."

Reflexively, she hit his arm, probably a little harder than intended, because he clutched it instantly, a betrayed look on his face. "That's your reaction to a compliment?"

She laughed earnestly. It was meant to be a playful hit. "Sorry. I forget my strength sometimes."

It was Izuna's turn to smirk. "If you'll use your healing chakra again, feel free to hit me anytime."

Sakura felt her cheeks coloring prettily. "Ehe..."

Izuna smiled, looking down at the cat again. "It's a funny looking thing."

Sakura looked too. "Now that you mention it...what's with the tail? It looks like...a bunny's? And the ears are pretty long for a cat's too..."

"I'm not sure, really. It seems like I remember the mother looking the same way."

"Huh." Sakura scratched behind its ears and it nuzzled even closer, its damp little nose tickling her bare flesh.

"I have to thank you once again," said Izuna. "I'm glad this little one's now in safe hands."

"The safest," Sakura nodded.

"I should take my leave then."

Sakura waved to him as he left, unable to get up with the purring cat snuggled against her leg. 'Did I just get a rabbit cat?'

Three days passed by uneventfully, with Sakura tending to the as-of-yet unnamed cat (she had bought it a wicker basket to sleep in and raw meat to eat). It seemed perfectly content to be with her. The first thing it did when it felt ready to get back up was follow her around the house. It was sort of nice, having the company. Not that she'd felt lonely before...she wasn't! But her new "helper" was still nice to have around.

Izuna had come back two days later to check up on the former stray from the Uchiha district to find how smitten it had become with her, and had stated that he'd have a hard time finding it a new home, when she seemed to have already decided she was staying where she was. Sakura had been reluctant at first. Her parents never allowed her to have a pet growing up, and when she got older, ninja duties kept her too busy. The closest she'd come was pet-sitting for her neighbors once or twice.

An animal was a big responsibility...but, being the soft-touch she was, it was one she took on.

There was only one issue and it had nothing to do with her new responsibility of pet ownership...

Namely, that she still hadn't found an appropriate gift and the party was a day away.

Sakura wandered the village, frustrated with herself. 'This shouldn't be so hard. I wish Ino was here...' Her friend would know exactly how to remedy her situation. Ino was excellent with these things. But, Sakura knew she was on her own. Wait...if she just thought like Ino, maybe she'd find some inspiration.

Ino would pick a gift that fit the receiver's personality, but also spelled out "Ino got this" in glittering lettering. Sakura wasn't sure about the flair, but she knew enough about the Hokage to know the defining traits that had won him the respect and adoration of the village were patience, generosity and fairness.

'Alright,' she thought, fist clenched in determination. 'I can work with this...'

"Come on Forehead, use that big brain!" Ino would jab her in the middle of the forehead. "You can't go wrong with flowers...or plants in this case I guess."


An idea struck like lightning. Sakura lit up as she ran the streets, looking for any sort of store selling plants and flowers. Normally, she'd just head right over to Ino's but she was almost positive the Yamanaka Flower Shop wasn't an option. She didn't even know if the Yamanaka clan had moved to Konoha yet.

There had to be a shop somewhere though, Yamanaka-owned or not. If she looked hard enough she'd find it.

It wasn't the most effective way, but so be it. That was when she spotted a familiar face, holding a small hand basket. "Susumu?" she walked over to her fellow medic, smiling in relief.

"O-Oh, Sakura-san?" Susumu returned it with a timid but sincere smile in return. Sakura admired the long eyelashes that Ino would die for as the other nin blinked. She had been called Susumu a girl in her head, but really, looking at the person in front of her, she still couldn't be sure.

"You look flushed. Are you alright?"

"Huh?" Sakura patted her cheeks. "Oh yeah, totally fine. I'm just...sort of looking for something. You wouldn't know where to get plants and flowers around here, would you?"

Susumu's purple head canted to the side in thought.

"Actually I do,"

"Really?" Sakura asked in excitement. "I ran into the right person then!"

"There's a nice little nursery. It's just around the corner there, the first stop on your right."

Sakura took off at a sprint, waving behind her. "Thanks Susumu."

She wasn't even sure if the purple-haired medic had heard her. But just like she'd been told, there was a nursery, right there. If she felt like being dramatic, Sakura might start tearing up.

Luckily, she managed to keep herself composed as she walked in. A middle aged couple looked up as the chime above the door rang, greeting her.

"Hello, dear, need help or just browsing?"

"I'd love some help. I'm looking for a hardy houseplant. Something that flowers if you have it."

"Sounds like you're wanting a bonsai. We've got a couple of different varieties." The man behind the counter said. "My wife can show you the few we have right now."

Sakura followed the stout woman to the back of the nursery, where a shelf of five different bonsai sat in their pots. "Wow, they all look so different. Which one do you think is the best?"

"Well, they all bloom beautifully, you know." She nodded to herself. "But it's all up to preference. Although, some are harder to take care of than others."

"What's this one's name?" Sakura pointed to the first bonsai. There was an element of grace about it.

"We call that one a Fukien Tea bonsai, my dear. Not an easy one. Especially not for someone who doesn't have a green thumb."

Sakura didn't know if the Hokage had a green thumb, or the time to take care of a high maintenance plant. "Uh, what about the next one? It's really pretty already."

"That's the cherry bonsai. Not to be confused with the cherry blossom bonsai of course," the woman winked. "Although, we sell that species too."

"Interesting," The bonsai had delicate looking white blooms and thin branches. It was so elegant, and a touch feminine, like something out of a painting.

"Yes, they're some of our most popular. As long as you use the right soil and a large pot they'll grow like weeds."

Sakura thought about the pretty tree sitting somewhere the Hokage could admire. It seemed like it'd add a nice aesthetic to any room it was sat in.

"Oh! This one's got little bulbs on it." Sakura poked at the small ruddy bulbs hanging from another bonsai.

"They're not bulbs dear." The woman laughed. "That's actually an apple bonsai. They can bear fruit. Those will get a little bigger and ripen up. Makes a nice snack if you like the tartness. Not to mention, it'll flower in the summer and spring."

A tree that did both! Any plant enthusiast would be happy with a tree that looked pretty and produced fruit.

"And this other one? I like these gold leaves." Sakura lightly touched one of said leaves, admiring the rich autumnal shade.

"Oh, that's a maple bonsai." said the older woman, "easy to take care of, changes colors in the falls months, and really brightens up the room. Can't go wrong with that species."

Sakura stepped back and surveyed all the trees again. She hadn't really thought about just how many different species of bonsai existed. Now that she got a sampling, it was almost overwhelming. But, if it was enough to impress her, someone with minimal knowledge on gardening, it should definitely impress someone who had a Wood affinity, shouldn't it? Sakura was mentally crossing her fingers.

"It's hard to pick, but I think I'll take this one..." Sakura picked up the tree with pretty green leaves and healthy pink blossoms.

"Ooh, that's the cherry blossom bonsai. A very nice choice for you. It'll match your hair." Sakura looked down at the plant, laughing nervously.

"It's for someone else, actually, but I hope he likes it. Thanks for your help."

"Of course. Come back and pick out some more for yourself anytime you like."

Sakura paid for the bonsai, admiring it as she took it back to her house and set it down on her kitchen table. Until the big day, it could brighten up her room a little. "Now I don't have to be worried about being the laughing stock of the party...showing up empty-handed." She was proud of herself. She'd diverted a disaster, as far as she was concerned. Out of nowhere, a gray and white blur jumped onto the table, walking curiously over to the new occupant.

"Hey, get down," Sakura laughed and put the inquisitive cat back on the floor. The last thing she needed was for it to bite the plant or knock it over.


"This," Sakura pointed to the cherry blossom bonsai. "Is off limits,"

Yeah right, like that'd stop her rambunctious little friend.

Sakura carefully picked it up and decided it'd be safest in her bedroom. Unfortunately that meant her kitten would be sleeping out in the hall, but it was only for one night.

She'd worked too hard finding the perfect thing to let it become a cat chew toy.


"Ooh, that's pretty," The first thing the two Senju caught sight of as Sakura opened the door was the vibrant plant she had carefully tucked under one arm.

"Thanks," Sakura looked down nervously at the plant for what felt like the hundredth time. She had spent the night hoping she'd made the right choice. Either way, she was out of time.


The kitten came slinking its way past Sakura's leg and she scooted it back with a foot, quickly closing the door. "Was that a kitty? When did you get a kitty?" Reira gasped.

"Sort of a long story," Sakura chuckled. "Lead the way."

"Of course," Toka took the lead and Reira skipped at her side. "I've picked up the sake set." she held up a wrapped bundle. "And I see you've found your gift as well. It's a nice one. I'm sure Lord Hashirama will find it very charming."

"Here's to hoping, right?"

"Your kimono's really pretty too, Sakura~"

Sakura looked down at herself. Today she'd decided on a turquoise kimono that left her shoulders exposed, and clipped her hair up. Not because she was trying to impress, but because it had been warmer than she was expecting for a fall day.

"I like yours more."

Somehow, Reira had managed to pull off a kimono just as yellow as her usual gi.

"I'm a little surprised to see you wearing one though,"

"It was Tobaa's idea...but at least it's comfy!"

"Better still, it fits the occasion. If allowing you to wear that...color...was the price paid for compromise, then it's one I can accept."

They had walked the distance to the Senju compound fairly quickly. But then, there wasn't much foot traffic around at this time of day. Lunch time would be soon, so likely everyone was either cooking meals or flocked into restaurants.

The entirety of the Senju clan, however, seemed to be happily clustered into the compound. As they passed different members, people gave Toka greetings and waved at an excitable Reira. Sakura got the curious stares she was expecting but at least they didn't seem unfriendly.

The celebrations will eventually spill into the courtyard for the games, but they always start inside." Toka explained.

Sakura clutched the little bonsai and followed her friend into a very elegant traditional building. The Senju clan symbol hung on banners in the hallway they walked, and naturally, it was on the backs of many Senju they passed. Even Reira and Toka, she realized, had their clan symbol on their back and sleeve respectively.

There was excited chattering as Sakura pushed her way into the crowded room after Toka slid the doors open. "Lord Hashirama must have already arrived." Toka said over the din.

"Did you see who he had with him?" a gossiping Senju was telling another.

"Yes, the Uchiha clan leader!"


"Yes, I saw him myself."

"I can't imagine Lord Tobirama's too pleased."

"I'd call his expression the opposite of pleased."

"Tobaa?" Reira pulled on Toka's sleeve. "Did Hashi-nii really invite the Uchiha with the oni mask face?"

Toka sighed long and hard. "Yes, Reira, I'm afraid he's a big enough fool that it's entirely likely."

Sakura's jaw had dropped the moment she heard Madara Uchiha was on the premises. 'Fool doesn't cover it! It's going to be a battle ground the minute Madara and the Nidaime lay eyes on each other. They hate each other! Even I know that!'

Sakura seriously considered leaving, courtesies be damned. 'I'll give him this bonsai so all my efforts weren't in vain, and then I'll slip out.'

"Where should I set this Toka?"

"Well, normally we would line up and each present the gifts to Lord Hashirama ourselves."

Sakura blanched. "There are at least a hundred people here...that's going to take a while."

"These tend to be all day affairs."

Her soul started to slip out past her lips. 'An all day birthday party for a grown man? This whole clan is nuts.'

That was when she heard the boisterous laughter she had come to know well. 'And the birthday boy himself...' Through the hall full of people, Sakura could see Hashirama, his body bent almost in half as he leaned down for an older woman to pinch at his cheeks. He seemed to be enjoying the attention, laughing good-naturedly. Beside him, was a very uncomfortable looking Madara in a navy kimono.

And quickly surging his way through the crowd was the epitome of a very irate Tobirama. The crowd was practically tossing themselves out of the way as he made his way over to Hashirama, jerking him up by the back of his olive kimono and then dragging him away by the ear, but not before giving Madara a scathing look that was gladly returned.

"Enjoy the food everyone!" Hashirama called, even as he was pulled from the room like a child. "Oh, but save me some honey wine!" Everyone laughed.

"Will they be alright?" Sakura asked with genuine concern.

"Lord Hashirama is very resilient. Whatever Lord Tobirama throws at him, I'm sure he'll recover from it." Toka guided Reira off to the other children by the shoulders.

'That doesn't answer my question! And I hope she doesn't mean throws at him in a literal sense. In this case, it's pretty possible.'

Sakura had a feeling this whole event was already gearing up to be a hell of a night, and it was only lunchtime.

Speaking of...

Sakura wasn't normally a person guided by her stomach, but she hadn't really had breakfast. Bonsai plant still in tow, she made her way to the table containing a wide assortment of foods. The Senju clan had truly gone all out. Sakura found herself a plate and a pair of chopsticks, careful not to drop the bonsai. As her chopsticks reached for some inari-zushi, they were intercepted by another pair. Sakura pouted, going for another piece, when her chopsticks were blocked again. That was when she felt her temper starting to boil. "Hey, what gives? There's a table full of food! Do you really need to eat all the inari-zushi?"

Glaring, she was surprised when bored obsidian eyes stared back into hers. Madara Uchiha put the piece he'd stolen from right under her nose into his mouth, chewing mockingly slow. "Yes," he said after finishing. "And, in case you weren't aware, this celebration required an invitation to enter."

Sakura felt her cheeks redden angrily. How was it that this man got under her skin the way he did? Even when he wasn't being homicidal, she wanted to rearrange his face. "I. Was. Invited!"

"Really now?" Madara smirked. "By whom?"

"By a friend. You know, the same way you got in. I hope the Ni...Tobirama Senju throws you out!"

"It maybe true that Tobirama and I don't see eye to eye, but in all likelihood, you'll be thrown out long before me."

Glaring, Sakura snatched the inari-zushi roll from his plate, cramming into her mouth defiantly and storming off. Backpedaling on an afterthought, Sakura turned and took the whole platter of inari-zushi Madara had been about to eat from, satisfied by the glare she received.

Her hands were full between the plate and the bonsai she was carrying, but as soon as she found a spot to sit she could remedy that.

She didn't really know where she was going. She'd completely lost sight of Toka and Reira in the crowded room, so the ebst she could hope for was making her way into the hall without bumping anyone with the platter tray. She didn't count on almost running right into a scowling Tobirama. He looked down at her, and his left cheek twitched. "You."

"Me." Sakura sighed. This was already old.

"What do you think you're..."

"Toka invited me." Sakura said, dragging out each word. "And if the Uchiha doesn't have to leave, neither do I." Okay, so she was being a little bolder than usual, considering the Nidaime technically outranked her on several fronts.

"You'll both be leaving if I have anything to say about it,"

"Well if you did, neither of us would be here to begin with."

Tobirama's scowl could have curdled fresh milk.

"The clan indulges far too many of my brother's antics." he grumbled.

"Well, even if you don't want me here, Toka invited me as a guest, so until either she or Hokage-sama tell me I have to go, I'm staying." Purely out of defiance. Minutes before, she was contemplating leaving voluntarily. The minute Tobirama tried to force her out was the minute she knew she would stay. Quite frankly she'd had enough of men in this time period trying to steamroll her.

She had definitely not made a friend of Tobirama Senju with her attitude. But then again, as patient as she'd try to be with him out of deference for his role as a future Hokage and a founder of the village, he definitely hadn't impressed her with his attitude either, for all his exceptional feats as a shinobi.

It was funny when she thought of it. With both the Senju and Uchiha brothers. There were two brothers she got along fine with, and two she always knocked heads with. He just so happened to belong to the latter set.

"You're incredibly insolent for a guest," he snarled. "And what're you doing with that platter. It's for everyone."

"I know that!" Sakura snapped. "Tell that to Madara Uchiha."

Tobirama raised a brow. "What does he have to do with your stealing the inari-zushi from the other guests?"

"He tried to steal it all first...! So I..." Sakura paused, a blush sweeping over her face as she realized how incredibly immature she must seem. She'd taken an entire platter of food from the table, just so Madara couldn't eat it. "I...took it away so he couldn't have any."

Tobirama's face was too neutral to read, but...Sakura could swear she caught a glimpse of...amusement?

"Tobi!" They both looked behind them to see Hashirama had come bursting out into the hall, looking frantic. "I just wanted to say I'm sorry for not telling you...but you know how you get about anything involving Madara. You won't even hear it. So I knew you'd explode, which you did, and I forgive you for that, but...oh, hello Sakura-san!" Hashirama smiled, waving cheerfully at her. He began talking to his brother again, then blinked, doing a double take. "Sakura-san?" he stared between the two curiously, and they watched in confusion as a slow smile formed and he...blushed. "Oh...Oh. I'm interrupting aren't I? Clearly, you had something on your mind you want to please, don't mind me."

"Lord Hokage..." Sakura began. "Um. I think you might have...the wrong..."

"I've told you repeatedly, you fool! I'm not courting this woman!"

"Tobi, you say that, but every time I see you with Sakura-san, you both look so passionate. What else am I supposed to think?"

Sakura blushed again, darker than the last few times. 'That's because we're always in the middle of arguing! But I guess...I could see how he'd walk in and get the wrong idea.'

"I-It's really not like that Hokage-sama," the weak voice that came out only made her sound all the more like she was hiding something. Damn it!

"Well, if you say so Sakura-san, I'll believe you." Hashirama grinned goofily. "I didn't know you were coming though, but it's nice to see you here! I see you're enjoying the food."

Sakura, ashamed, hid the tray behind her back. "That's not what it looks like either...a-and Toka invited me, I hope that's alright."

"Of course!" Hashirama nodded. "I would have invited the whole village, but it would have been a little too crowded, thinking about it in hindsight." he sighed wistfully. "Maybe next year."

Sakura's mood lightened at his easygoing candor. The brothers really were like night and day. "Before next year, I want to say happy birthday for this one." Carefully maneuvering, Sakura set the inari-zushi down on a nearby piece of furniture that...probably wasn't for sitting platters of stolen food on.

"T-This is for you..." she presented him with the bonsai she'd been protecting for the last day and a half. Her heart beat dully in her ears the longer he just stared at the small flowered tree. She was starting to feel like a fool. Tobirama was watching, and the Hokage didn't seem as enthused about the gift as she was hoping he'd be. It was such a bad reaction, he was speechless.

"T-That's..." Wait, he was speaking! "That's for me?" he pointed to himself innocently.

Sakura smiled unsurely. "Y-Yes?" It came out more like a question, but that was alright. "I know it's not the right order. Toka told me you're supposed to all line up and present the gifts one by one...s-so I can just wait my turn."

Hashirama stepped forward, reaching for the pot. "It's so...beautiful. It's a cherry blossom bonsai, isn't it?"

"It is. I wasn't really sure what kind of gift would be appropriate, I'm sorry."

To her surprise, Hashirama's hands reached out and completely covered hers as they both held the bonsai pot together. She hadn't really been expecting that. At all. His hands were so large! And warm, and calloused...and...was there sniffling.

"Brother. Don't." Tobirama said from somewhere off to the side.

"I c-can't help it. It's so beautiful and sweet-smelling, and it has such a resilient spirit." Hashirama gently took it from her, holding it up to his face. She wasn't really sure what to make of the bizarreness of the situation, which got stranger with every minute. One minute he was silent and now he was...weeping. Over a bonsai. At least he liked it.

"I'll cherish this. And every time I look at it, I'll remember who gave it to me," Sakura found herself forced to look away when Hashirama tried making eye contact. The amount of earnest emotion was so intense it was embarrassing. Sort of like when Lee and Gai embraced and cried, but somehow a weepy First Hokage holding a bonsai made for a more endearing picture. Sakura found herself blinking back a few tears too. 'This makes no sense! What am I even crying for?! Ugh. Earnest emotions. Who needs them.'

"W-Well I'm glad you liked it," What else could she say.

"I love it." Hashirama suddenly swept her into a hug, and for a few minutes she was pressed embarrassingly close to his chest.

He hardly realized how uncomfortable she was. Interacting with the First Hokage, she'd noticed what a tactile person he was. Touching was second nature. Sakura turned, her lips quivering in embarrassment and her face hot, to see Tobirama standing there with a gleeful twinkle in his eyes.

'That asshole's enjoying this!' He wouldn't be for much longer. Before the night was over, she'd get him back.

Chapter Text

Sakura thoughtfully chewed on the inari-zushi. The rice inside was neither too firm nor too mushy and the crispness of the fried tofu shell was a perfect contrast in texture. 'Hmm…this is some of the best inari-zushi I've ever had. No wonder Madara was trying to hoard this stuff.' Actually taking the time to taste what she was eating was a different experience than cramming it down in anger. She glanced at the platter sitting beside her. 'But there's no way I can eat all this by myself…'

She wandered back over to the spread of food and returned the tray to where it had been. She didn't see any signs of a certain obnoxious Uchiha around, and with any luck, the remaining inari-zushi would be eaten up by the time he returned for food.

Feeling sated, she glanced around, hoping to catch sight of Reira or Toka. Instead, she spotted Hashirama through the crowd, gently hugging a child that had run up to him and wrapped himself around the Hokage's legs.

Sakura found her face warming up involuntarily. She remembered the tight hug from earlier, and how awkward it had been for her. The man had no sense of boundaries. When he'd finally released her and thanked her again, Sakura was still feeling flushed. Hashirama practically skipped back into the party, bonsai in tow, with Tobirama trailing behind him, giving her one wary glance from over his shoulder.

Alone once more, she watched everyone mingling, trying to stay out of the way. As expected, she felt like an outsider. It wasn't necessarily that the Senju seemed unwelcoming. But before all this had happened— becoming a time-traveler—the only Senju she'd interacted with was Tsunade. Then suddenly, she was meeting the village Founders, and Toka, and even Reira. Now, there were even more Senju. An entire roomful.

While Sakura didn't consider herself shy, she also didn't think she could be the life of the party. Watching Hashirama, it was easy to see why everyone gravitated towards him. He exuded charisma. 'So that's the man that even befriended Madara Uchiha…' Not for the first time, she was impressed with him.

"Alright everyone, gather around!" An older woman yelled over the din. Cheers went up from the assembled clan. "In an orderly fashion, you may present your—oof!" Sakura gaped as everyone went rushing up to Hashirama, swarming him and shoving wrapped parcels in his face. She could even see Reira and Toka being pushed around in the crowd—Toka looked ready to put a poisoned senbon into the throat of the next person who touched her.

"I said orderly!" the woman cried, indignant. Everyone kept clambering over themselves to present their gifts.

Tobirama inserted himself between his brother and their excited relatives, his eyes daring anyone to test his patience. "I believe Mei-san told you all to line up." Just like that, Sakura saw everyone take several steps back, quickly complying.

Even holding a cute little bonsai—something she recalled the Hokage asking him to guard with his life—the man had a very daunting aura that others naturally submitted to. 'Speaking of dark auras…I don't see…ah—' Madara stood off in a corner with his arms crossed and a mildly disinterested look on his face.

Sakura turned back to the line of Senju. Under the supervision of Tobirama and the older woman apparently called Mei-san, everyone was behaving nicely. Hashirama took the time to thank each person by name, and comment on how he'd be sure to put their gift to good use.

Sakura wondered what his actual thoughts about each gift were. It was hard to tell with the kind smile plastered to his face, and he was steadily amassing a pile. She didn't see a single plant among his other gifts, and a sense of relief washed over her. At least her idea was original.

Toka and Reira finally made it to the front of the line together. The first thing Reira did was pull Hashirama into what looked like a strong hug. 'Urk! The death-grip hug is hereditary!' Sakura thought. Anyone else's face would have been turning blue, but Hashirama took it in stride, ruffling her hair.

"Ah! If it isn't Toka and Reira with my yearly kunai set!" The Hokage said as he accepted the wrapped box Toka gave him. "Thank you both, I will put it to—"

"NO!" Reira protested. "It's not a kunai set this time!"

Hashirama looked baffled, staring down at the package. "No?" he shook it curiously.

"Don't do that!" Reira snapped, putting her hands over his with a glare. "Just…just open it."

Heeding Reira's words, Sakura watched Hashirama place the package down on his lap and carefully unwrap it. When he lifted the lid of the box and saw the glass crystal sake set in all its sparkling glory, a slow smile appeared on his face. "A sake set?" he wondered aloud.

"For your honey wine?" Reira mimed sipping from a sake cup, giggling.

Toka, who had been silent, began fidgeting. "Does it not please you, milord?"

"It's great!" Hashirama announced. He picked up one of the delicate cups from the set to admire. "Look at the craftsmanship!" Sakura almost snorted when he leaned back to hold the glass under Tobirama's nose. His brother peered down at it, nearly going cross-eyed. Sakura laughed harder. She was beginning to see a pattern. The gifts he liked best, were the ones that made the Hokage act dramatically. "And for the last time, Toka, Hashirama is fine. You know I'm not much for titles when it comes to friends."

Toka frowned stubbornly. "Given your positions as both Hokage and clan head, calling you so familiarly seems inappropriate now."

Hashirama rolled his eyes, setting the cup back in the box. "I should break these in!" A cheerful glint shone in his brown eyes. "Who wants to have a toast with me?"

The entire room shook under the force of all the Senju cheering. Tobirama, of course, looked as long-suffering as ever, like every one of his brother's antics was a new headache. Sakura chanced a peek at Madara, who was still standing off by himself, and noticed him looking around cautiously. No surprise there, Sakura imagined. From what she knew about Uchiha, she couldn't imagine celebrations ever getting this lively. More than likely they were solemn and dignified. Coupled with the fact that Hashirama was likely the only Senju Madara was on openly friendly terms with, she could easily guess why it made him feel so out of his element.

'Well,' Sakura thought uncharitably, 'At least I know I'm not the only one.' It was wrong to be pleased by someone else sharing in her discomfort, but she didn't care. If she had to endure through the duration of the party, he could too.

Any thoughts of glee over Madara being uncomfortable in a room full of Senju evaporated when someone passed her a cup of honey wine. Sakura studied it, taking a hesitant sniff. 'It smells…really good.'

"A toast to Lord Hashirama's good health and the prosperity of the Senju and the village under his rule!" someone yelled. Everyone else raised their cups, so Sakura raised hers too.

"A toast!" they cried.

"A toast…" she repeated, taking a small sip.

The sweet headiness burst on her tongue and Sakura licked her lips. It was rich, with only the slightest burn as it reached the back of her throat. Having Tsunade as a teacher meant she was no stranger to drinking on occasion under special circumstances.

It was never much, and never as delicious as the honey wine she'd just sampled. Sakura knocked back the rest of her cup, almost instantly craving more. When the second round was served, she eagerly held her cup up without hesitation. 'Not such a bad party after all,' she decided.

Harihane was getting steadily more frustrated. They had been searching for over a day and a half, and there was no sign of Kikue anywhere. No sign of Kikue meant no signs of remains…and that was a good thing, wasn't it?

'Unless it ate her—bones and all.' The cynical voice in the back of her head whispered. Her mind kept showing her Kikue's face, on the verge of tears, the way it always was when she was scolded. When she closed her eyes for too long, she saw Kikue reaching for them and screaming for help.

She was raised not to feel fear. Not when she stared down an enemy three times her size, and not when she lost someone. In a way, she guessed she'd always taken her siblings for granted. Her brother was the obstacle that kept her from achieving her true dream.

And her sister was the clingy little tag-along that was always crying. She hated them. She hated their father. She hated that because she was born second and a girl, she would never have the coveted title of clan head, something Jun'ichi didn't seem to want in the first place.

All of that was before, though…

A strange woman came to them and just like that everything changed. Jun'ichi and Kikue gravitated towards her instantly. Harihane wasn't going to let her guard down. Weeks went by, and Oka was still there.

It was obvious she felt disdain for the Kaguya and their traditions, and Harihane didn't blame her. She hated her own family. So she didn't expect an outsider to find them anymore bearable.

But Harihane hadn't expected to see such defiance in Oka's eyes. Everyone always cracked and cowered. Except the girl intended to be her brother's fiancé. She wasn't cowed by the cruelty surrounding her, by Harihane's insults, by how bleak everything seemed.

Secretly, Harihane envied her. Her entire life, it had felt suffocating. It was shameful; a Kaguya who was a spare, not the heir, overwhelmed and so angry at herself and the world that she wore it like armor every day.

By the time Jun'ichi had come and told them their father wanted them to stop spies from escaping, and Oka was one of them, Harihane had been thinking for weeks. If changing was possible, it was something she desperately wanted to do. Being closer to her siblings, the only family she had left, as far as she was concerned, was a good place to start…


For some reason, no matter how much she had been keeping her sister at a distance, Kikue always had the same adoration in her eyes, and it made her feel a little ill. No one should be looking up to her. At least, she didn't think so. But if she couldn't get her little sister to stop idolizing her, she could at least become someone worthy of the admiration. The thought that she'd finally made up her mind but might never get the chance to truly reconcile with Kikue, filled her with rage.

She stopped abruptly, no longer focusing on Jun'ichi's back up ahead. Her vision blurred, and she blinked to clear it. When that didn't work she squatted right there in the dirt, put her hands over her ears, and screamed.

It might have been the most childish thing she'd ever done since their mother died. Life wasn't supposed to be a mess of rage and sadness and loss and regret. She was a fully-trained shinobi with plenty of kills, but she was also twelve. And shouldn't that negate the worst of it? Even sometimes? Shouldn't some deity take pity, see her struggling, and fix it? Or was pity not meant for Kaguya? If there was even one small exception, it should be for Kikue. Kikue had never hurt anyone.

"…Hari…hane!" Someone was calling her. Shaking her shoulders. Pulling her into their arms. She kept screaming, squeezing her eyes together as tight as she could. "Harihane, I'm here! You're here!"

"Kikue!" she heard herself wail. "I'm sorry, Kikue! I…I—"

"Kikue, is out there," the voice soothed. A steady hand smoothed her hair. It must have been horrible looking. The bun she had so painstakingly put it in was long gone. The small sectioned braid on the right side of her face pressed to the hot, sticky skin there. Sweat or tears. Tears or sweat. Both, maybe. "She's waiting for us."

"I let it take her!" Harihane sobbed, clutching the fabric of the kimono beneath her fingers. "I…I should have pro-protected her!" she hiccupped.

"You did," The hand came to rest on the crown of her head. "Just breathe." It took a while for her world to center itself again. The clothed shoulder she was leaning against belonged to her brother.

'Who else would it be?' she asked herself bitterly.

His scent washed over her, like pine, wild berries and a new leather saddle. Memories of how he would hold her close when she was barely more than an infant came back to her, and she went slack. How could she not see that while she was busy hating him, Jun'ichi was bearing the brunt of their father's expectations, shielding her all the while.

She pulled her face away from his shoulder and looked up at him with teary eyes. She was crying and there was no point in denying it. Jun'ichi stared back wordlessly, just waiting. She sniffled, sucked in a deep breath, and pushed out of his arms. Her knees shook as she got to her feet, but she ignored it.

"I can keep going now…" she told him, swiping at her face. "I'm ready to get Kikue back."

Junji nodded, standing and brushing at his kimono. He licked his thumb and tried to wipe something from her face, but she dodged it. "Ew, Junji, that's gross."

Her brother only smiled warmly. "So you are back to normal after all."

Harihane felt her face slipping back into its default expression—annoyed. "Completely good to go."

"Out of all of us, you always have been the most resilient." He agreed. "But Harihane, always remember," he bent so that he was eye-level with her. "Whenever you aren't good to go, whenever it's too much, I am here to confide in."

Harihane laughed shakily, trying to hide her embarrassment by turning away. "Y-You're too earnest. Seriously! T-Try being more indirect sometimes, got it?! Like cooler and more mysterious! Not all mushy…"

"My apologies," he laughed, mussing her hair. "Shall we get going now?"

"I'm ready when you are," Harihane huffed, "but don't you ever tell anyone about this. Ever!"

"I wouldn't dare." Jun'ichi replied solemnly.

"Not even if you were tortured?" she snarked.

"Not even if I were tortured."

Harihane rubbed her arm self-consciously. "H-Hey Junji?"

He paused, "Hm?"

"I wanna find Kikue, so I can tell her I'm sorry. But," she swallowed, hoping for courage, "I want to tell you I'm sorry, too. You're…you're a good brother, and I was so angry, I didn't see it, and I know I was a mess, and I just—I don't hate you!"

"I know, little sister." he reassured. "I've always known." He offered her a hand and she reached for it without hesitation. Her chest, no, her whole spirit was lighter now.



Harihane stopped beside him as he examined the markings in the bark of the tree. They very much resembled claw marks…

"What's the huh for, huh?" she asked impatiently. She seemed to have recovered from whatever had caused her to shut down only hours ago.

"I almost believe these were meant to mark territory."

Harihane studied the marks for herself. "These look like they came from an animal…" she grumbled. "And not even like the one we're looking for."

"If I didn't know any better, I would say we were close to a settlement of some kind."

"A settlement?" Harihane repeated. "No way!"

Growling echoed her protestation. The siblings quickly stood back to back, readying their Shikotsumyaku in case of an attack. But they quickly saw they had been surrounded by large, snarling canines. Trapped in a circle, the beasts pressed ever closer. Harihane attempted to attack one, but it dodged quickly. Neither brother or sister had a chance to think of a counter as they watched the large creature begin spinning itself, twisting through the air before attempting to crash into them. The Kaguya jumped out of the way, revealing a deep trench where they had been standing.

"Tch…these are no ordinary beasts…the reflexes and skills suggest that they are ninken." Junji whispered.

"Ninken?" Harihane gaped. "Since when could they do that?" she pointed at the ground where the attack had landed.

"I'm not sure…but clearly these are not wild dogs. I can only hope the one that took Kikue belongs to this pack, too."

"Why would you hope that?" she screeched. The dogs circling them continued to press in closer and closer, their teeth still bared threateningly.

"Because, I think we might be next."

"What?!" Sure enough, the largest of the pack let out a deep bark, and the others began shoving at the Kaguya siblings, urging them deeper into the woods.

"Are we being abducted? By dogs?" Harihane hissed.

"It would appear so." Jun'ichi looked around at the intimidating, well-muscled animals surrounding them.

"Why are you so calm then?"

"I don't think they mean us any harm. If they wanted to kill us, overwhelming us and then tearing us apart would have been simple for a pack this size. Let's just see where they take us."

Harihane stared at him in disbelief, slowly shaking her head. "You'd better know what you're doing…" She glared at the dog shoving at the backs of her calves. "And if we do get eaten, I'll tell them to try you first."


As always, the clan had left nothing to chance. They threw him another wonderful birthday party. Hashirama mused that it may have been the best yet. Madara had even come, despite insisting that he wouldn't be welcome.

He was both surprised and pleased to see Toka had invited along Sakura Haruno. Toka had never had many friends outside the clan, so to see she had befriended Sakura made him happy for his old friend. Sakura had even thoughtfully brought him a gift. A young bonsai that he already found himself fond of. Tobirama was holding onto it for him—grudgingly—while the party continued.

Since childhood, he had always been a little enamored with plants. Despite this, no one had ever given him a plant to care for. Before today. He mentally vowed to make sure the bonsai would thrive with him.

The other gifts were nice too. A new set of armor from Tobirama, a sake set from Reira and Toka. Even Madara had brought him something—a new sword with the Senju crest engraved on the metal. That made him chuckle.

He couldn't imagine what he'd told the blacksmith as he made his request. Madara was so very clearly an Uchiha in every way, so to want a sword with a mark representing the Senju must have been baffling to the crafter.

Speaking of the Uchiha, though he wasn't exactly engaging anyone in conversation, there hadn't been a bloodbath, and so Hashirama felt he could safely call it a success. Or he hoped so. The biggest challenge to his birthday passing peacefully was still to come. The friendly competition of the melee event.

Nothing brought Madara's hot-blooded nature to the fore quite like "a good dance" as he called it. This particular event was more a friendly spar in the nature of entertainment. If he wanted to participate, Madara would need to curb his enthusiasm for battle by a considerable amount. Even sparring, he tended to get carried away. Hashirama knew from experience. Occasionally, he could be the same way. It was why they were a perfect match as sparring partners.

The evening went on without incident, and before he knew it, it was time for the event he'd been both dreading and anticipating.

"Everyone, it is that time again!" Toka announced, catching everyone's attention. He could see Sakura, who had been talking to Reira and some other children, pause and look up curiously. "Whoever wishes to take place in our friendly competition, please step forward."

Hashirama looked at Madara, expecting him to be one of the first to participate. Instead, his friend watched as others scurried over. Frowning in confusion, Hashirama made his way over to the Uchiha. "What's wrong? This seems like something you would have been waiting for all night."

Madara glanced at him. "If someone of the appropriate skill were to participate, then it would be. However, I'm already the least liked guest. I can't imagine that improving if I accidentally harmed anyone."

Hashirama sighed. "Fair enough, I guess…"

His clansmen were all strong and competent fighters, but only he and Tobirama were on Madara's level, and he'd rather not see Tobirama and Madara "forget" the "friendly" side of the competition and try to destroy each other—and in the process everything around them.

Instead he cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting encouragingly. "Have fun in my place, brother!" Tobirama looked at him like he was a lunatic. In all fairness though, it was far from the first time Tobirama had given him that look. And it wouldn't be the last. Hashirama knew he could have taken part, of course. It was his birthday. Who was going to deny him? But as it was for Madara, it only seemed fun if someone on his skill level was competing.

"No," Tobirama said flatly.

"You're not going to defend my honor?" he asked, feeling slightly disappointed.

"From who?" Tobirama asked, annoyed. "Defend it yourself."

"Lord Tobirama, please take part!" one of their clansmen begged.

"Yes! It's been a while since any of us has had a shot at you!"

Hashirama bit his lip to stifle a grin as the crowd began chanting Tobirama's name.

Even his taciturn brother could see when he was backed into a wall, and he handed the bonsai off to Toka as he stepped forward. Several whoops of excitement went up.

Tobirama closed one eye, crossing his arms. "For the record, I find this all to be foolishness…"

No one seemed to mind as several challengers prepared to take him on all at once. Normally, it would have been unfair. But with his brother's skills being what they were, Hashirama found himself wondering if the dozen or so fighters challenging him would be enough.

Toka waved her arm. "Begin!"

There seemed to be some coordination to their combined assault, at least. Several people were using Doton from four different sides, trying to block Tobirama in with a mud wall. Just as the top of the dome began to close, Tobirama rode through on a crest of water, landing unharmed.

"Just like we expected from you, Lord Tobirama!" Even though the maneuver hadn't worked, the opponents seemed pleased and proud.

"I see." Tobirama quickly flashed through hand signs. "Then were you expecting this? Suichutotsu!" Water materialized under the feet of several opponents before forming a pillar that thrust them into the air. Hashirama winced as they landed hard, all in a neat pile on top of each other.

The remaining seven opponents chose a different tactic, choosing to overwhelm Tobirama with their strongest techniques.

One fired a relatively weak lightning attack that was clearly a diversion, and Tobirama used a sharp Futon attack to blow the ball of electricity back, knocking down the attacker in the process. "Urgh…the wind is strong. I think I'm pinned." he moaned, struggling to get back to his feet.

"You should stay down." Tobirama advised. "Getting back up will only give me more reason to knock you over again."

"Got ya!" A giant Doton mud hand flew at Tobirama, smashing into him. Everyone gasped and Hashirama leaned forward. He grinned when the body the hand hit turned out to be a water clone.

"Interesting move, brother," He glanced around. "Though it begs the question where the real Tobirama went."

"That puddle is highly suspicious." Madara remarked. Hashirama noticed it just as another water clone popped up from said puddle, grasping the ninja who had turned the majority of his body to mud by the shoulders. The real Tobirama suddenly appeared in the clone's shadow.

"Hah! Tobirama's stealth is unparalleled!" Hashirama boasted, nudging Madara playfully.

The Uchiha made a face. "I unfortunately…have no choice but to agree with you. In a blink he went from concealing himself behind the ninja using Doton to his own clone, almost before it had finished materializing."

Hashirama watched as his brother punched through the clone, "Raiton: Hiraishin!" The water clone burst, conducting the electricity from Tobirama's attack and strengthening it. The shock made the mud armor crack, and by the time it had all fallen away, the ninja inside lay on the ground, unconscious.

Before Tobirama had even pulled his hand away, mud wrapped around his ankles and hardened. He looked down at it, unconcerned. "What's this? A decent strategy."

Hashirama watched it climb up his brother's body like ivy, until he was encased up to his shoulders.

They wasted no time with another coordinated attack.

"Katon: Endan!"

"Futon: Kudon!"

The air technique hit the flame bullets and made the fire expand into a contained explosion. The light of the flames illuminated the faces of the stunned spectators.

"T-They didn't actually hit him, did they?" someone close to Hashirama breathed in disbelief.

Madara laughed a little. "This may just be the best party yet."

He managed a withering glare, but remained silent as he willed his brother to pop up from the ground or a puddle... Even floating down from the sky was acceptable.

A tense few minutes past and all that remained were the crumbled pieces of the earth cocoon Tobirama had been locked in.

"N-No way? We didn't really kill Lord Tobirama?!"

"Please tell me we didn't kill him!"

"I…I don't know! I thought he would escape…"

"No, you didn't kill me. But thinking you did made you fools let your guard down. Now it's my turn."

Pools of water appeared at the feet of all remaining opponents. They scrambled to escape, but Tobirama was faster, trapping them in whirlpools up to their waists.

"W-We lost…"

"Good one…I guess we should have known we couldn't take on Lord Tobirama."

"That sly dog," Hashirama placed a hand to his chest and laughed in relief. It would have been alarming had his brother been seriously harmed, to say the least. Not only were the attacks not strong enough, but his speed made him nearly untouchable.

"How disappointingly brief." Madara mumbled. Hashirama had to silently agree. Maybe he should fight after all.

"It appears Lord Tobirama wins. Is there anyone else who wants to try?" Toka asked. The spectators took several large steps back.

"I guess that's that." Hashirama hummed. "Thank you everyone, that was very—"

"Wait!" Reira shouted, pushing her way to the front of the crowd, dragging Sakura along. "Sakura does!"

"Reira, no!" Toka snapped.

"But she does! Sakura wants to challenge him. Don't you?" the young kunoichi gave Sakura large, pleading eyes. Sakura looked uncomfortable as she attempted to glance elsewhere.

"I…guess so?"

"Another challenger?" Mei-san squinted at the pink-haired kunoichi. "I don't believe I've ever seen this one around before."

"She's Toka's guest." Hashirama informed her.

"My interest has been piqued." Madara admitted. "I'd like to see this play out."

"Something about Sakura-san must have gotten under your skin." Hashirama laughed.

Sakura slowly stepped up to stand opposite Tobirama. The defeated opponents hobbled out of the way, making room for the next match-up.

"Are you certain about this?" Tobirama asked. He looked bored more than concerned.

"Sure, why not?" Sakura shrugged. "If it's all in good fun, I'm game."

Hashirama watched a smirk appear, her grin eyes glinting.

"Very well. I accept this challenge."

Her job done, Reira came skipping over to Hashirama. "I'm gonna cheer for Sakura, okay?"


"Little girl, have you seen the Haruno fight?"

Reira froze when Madara started speaking to her, before putting on a brave face. "N-No…" she stammered. "But I've got a good feeling about it, okay?" she asked a little defensively.

"A feeling…" Madara smirked. "Let's see whether that feeling is right."

"Begin!" Toka called.

"You may deal the first blow," Tobirama offered.

Sakura stared at him oddly. "Um,"

"Hey! Don't take it easy on her because she's a woman! Don't be rude, Tobi-nii!" Reira screamed, waving her closed fist.

"Stay out of this, Reira," Toka fussed. Everyone laughed as Reira blushed, trying to hide behind Hashirama.

Sakura decided that if he was going to take her lightly, she would just have to show him why that was a mistake. She charged forward, her fist raised, and Tobirama tried to block. The hit still managed to push him back several feet.

Tobirama swung, and instead of attempting to catch or block, Sakura dodged. He followed up with an uppercut, and she narrowly avoided it. Tales of his speed weren't exaggerated. The two traded punches, neither managing to hit the other with anything more than a glancing blow.

Sakura found herself doubling down with her four-hit combo, grinning when she managed to deal several direct blows to his abdomen. Her excitement turned into frustration when last hit made the body explode into water, getting her soaked for her efforts.

"Nice try, but unfortunately I'm over here." Sakura looked up in time to see Tobirama above her, shooting water bullets from his mouth. She back-flipped out of the way, charging in again for the split second before he used another jutsu.

"Take….this!" She could tell within inches of his face that the punch was unexpected, and that allowed it to connect. Sakura watched the future Second Hokage go flying, although he managed to land on his feet.

Excited screams went up from the crowd.

"She got a hit in!"

"Whoever she is, she's pretty good!"

Cracking his neck, Tobirama narrowed his eyes. He refused to be beaten by the likes of a pink-haired kunoichi.

Water appeared under his feet, carrying him toward her on the crest of a wave. Sakura managed to block, but the force of the wave crashing down on her pushed her back several yards. Her clothes were getting heavier, making them somewhat uncomfortable to move in. She jumped, back-flipping twice and striking the ground with a fist.

A fissure formed in the earth and a large chunk of debris collided with Tobirama's wave, knocking him off. He landed on his feet, but Sakura wasn't done. She quickly picked up another big piece of rubble and round-house kicked it in his direction. The clone exploded into a puddle on impact.

"Looking for someone?" She turned, but it was too late.

His punch was a solid hit to her cheek, and for a second her teeth rattled. He didn't give her any time to recover before delivering a spinning kick that knocked her into the air. Winded, Sakura wheezed, attempting to change her trajectory so she'd at least land safely. But Tobirama was right there, kicking her along with two of his clones, sending her plummeting down. The next thing she saw was his Suiton attack, pushing her into the ground with force.

The amount of pressure and the water up her nose and in her mouth made her sputter as she laid on the ground, panting.

'H-He's too fast. And his Suiton's too strong.' Sakura shakily sat up, coughing out water.

"I think we're done here." She heard Tobirama saying.

For some reason, that ignited a fuse that sparked her determination, and she got to her feet.

"I'm still ready to go if you are…"

Tobirama raised a brow, looking her over from head to toe. She didn't need his judgmental gaze to know she probably looked like a half-drowned cat.

"You have tenacity, at least. Fine, let this be what decides the match."

They flash-stepped simultaneously, knocking into each with force and landing on their feet before launching together again. The crowd watched them clash, enthralled. They looked like two blurs, ricocheting together in midair. When they both landed again, neither looked ready to give in yet.

She threw a right hook and he stopped it with a kick. Grunting, Sakura grabbed his shoulders, surprising everyone watching when she easily lifted him over her head before slamming him into the ground, then flinging him across the courtyard. The impact of his body threw up dust and dirt. The sound of everyone's jaw dropping was almost audible. Louder than the silence, was the sound of Madara Uchiha's bellowing laughter.

Tobirama lifted himself from the shallow crater, his chin raised as he brushed himself off, trying to maintain some of his lost dignity.

Sakura took up a defensive stance again. However, instead of charging her, she watched the white-haired Senju slam both palms into the ground.

'What did he just—?' Sakura got her answer as a pillar of water sent her sky high. 'Not again!' She managed to change her direction so that she was torpedoing at the ground, fist first. Predictably, her strength didn't fail her, and the ground buckled and flew apart.

Tobirama, unprepared, went flying, a piece of earth smacking him in the torso. "Oops…" she whispered. The hit had made a mess of the courtyard.

'What the hell are you doing?! You just destroyed the Hokage's freaking backyard!' she inwardly berated herself.

Sakura nervously looked back at the crowd, expecting to see the Hokage looking livid. Hashirama's eyes were as wide as she'd ever seen them, tears steadily leaking from his eyes. When he managed to snap out of it, his expression was even more awed.

"Amazing!" he cheered. "Sakura-san, that raw strength is amazing!"

"Shouldn't you be rooting for your brother?" Madara asked.

Hashirama looked ashamed. "Oh, y-yes…" Clearing his throat, he began cheering again, "Tobi, if you're still alive, good luck to you too!"

Sakura pitied Tobirama in that moment. 'If he was near death I think that comment would kill him.'

"Still, that's impressive power packed into such an ordinary-looking kunoichi." Madara muttered to himself. "This party truly has become the best one I've ever attended." Sakura was sure it had absolutely nothing to do with Tobirama being flung across the battlefield.

"Whoooo, Sakura! Yay!" Reira was happy to chant incoherently, stars in her eyes. Sakura wondered with worry if it was normal for a child to be foaming at the mouth.

The rest of the crowd was awed into silence.

Sakura started scanning the rubble, and spotted an arm hanging out. Gasping, she ran over to it, watching as it started to move and white hair poked out. Tobirama Senju looked dazed when he first reappeared, and she crossed her fingers she hadn't given him a concussion.

"S-Sorry…" Sakura rubbed the back of her neck.

Tobirama spat out a mouthful of dirt, his mouth firming into what she could only describe as the most dignified pout she had ever witnessed.

"Sakura is the winner!" Toka declared.

The entire courtyard was silent, everyone looking at each other in disbelief. No one had expected for a stranger to last so long against one of the Senju's strongest, let alone to win a spar. Sakura nervously rubbed her arm, anticipating some sort of blowback. The sound of everyone cheering and chanting her name was an unexpected turn.

Hashirama was clapping along with the rest while Reira was jumping around, ecstatic. "I know her! I know her!" she told anyone who would listen.

Sighing, Sakura soaked it in. That had been more than she bargained for when she agreed to come to the party. But it was a good spar nonetheless.

Slowly making her way over, Sakura glanced down at the brooding white-haired man still in the dirt. "Here, let me help,"

Tobirama stared up at the pinkette kneeling next to him, noticing she was beginning to reach for him with a glowing green hand. "I can…heal myself just fine," he panted, brushing her hand aside as he lifted himself up. Sakura glared at his stubbornness, but allowed the man to activate his own medical ninjutsu.

"You truly weren't bluffing."

"Bluffing isn't really me," Sakura grinned. "Maybe next time, you'll take me seriously from the start."

"Already assuming there'll be a next time?" he shook his head, sighing heavily. "You may find that my best is more than you bargained for."

"I won't know until I try," she winked, cracking her knuckles.

Grudgingly, Tobirama had to admit that while he could have kept going, she had done better than he was expecting. He had allowed himself to underestimate his opponent, and it had cost him the match and more than an ounce of his pride. Next time, he'd be prepared. He looked on as Sakura stood up and walked back over to Toka and Reira, who were congratulating her. His fool of an older brother was still gushing, complimenting her strength. Even Madara Uchiha, the snake, looked interested.

Tobirama squinted at her soft pink hair. An enigma. Sakura Haruno was truly an enigma.

The Kaguya siblings glanced around. The dogs had guided them to a settlement, just as Jun'ichi predicted. People stopped and watched warily as the large canines seemed to be leading them to the tent in the center of the sizable area.

"This is…getting weird. Those people have crazy eyes." Harihane stated.

"And excellent hearing as well." They glanced up to see a woman standing proudly covered in furs, her wild mane of hair spilling past her shoulders and her dark eyes sharp. On each cheek, a bright red triangle in the shape of a fang stood starkly against her tanned skin. "Greetings. We've been expecting you."

"What do you mean, expecting us?" Harihane asked before Jun'ichi could stop her. "And for what, dinner?"

The woman's nose wrinkled, and then an impressive set of fangs appeared as she smiled lightly. "You're just as she said you'd be. And no, we're not savages, contrary to popular belief."

"Who are you though?" Jun'ichi asked this time.

"Allow me to introduce myself. I am Tsuba Inuzuka, head of the Inuzuka clan." She gestured behind her to the people and dogs who were going about their business, occasionally giving the newcomers furtive glances.

"Those are your dogs, then…" Jun'ichi nodded. "Why did they bring us here?"

"You've been wandering closer and closer within the last day or two. They were given orders to bring you to me, should you get far enough in."

Harihane put her hands on her hips and squared her shoulders. "Lady listen, we don't have time. We're looking for—"

"A young girl. Your sister, correct?"

"You have Kikue?!" Harihane shouted. "Where is she? You'd better not have fed her to your dogs, or—"

Tsuba beckoned them with a hand, walking to the large tent behind her. Harihane and Jun'ichi exchanged cautious glances, following her. The Inuzuka lifted the flap, and there, rolling on the floor with a litter of pups, was Kikue.

They watched as she laughed when one of the puppies licked her cheek.

"That tickles!" she squealed in delight.

"Kikue?!" Harihane rushed inside and Junji followed.

Startled, Kikue looked up, her face going from surprise to joy when she saw her siblings. Hopping up, she rushed into her sister's arms. "Hari-neesan!" Overcome with emotion, Harihane held her tightly.

"What are you doing?"

Kikue stepped out of her arms, grinning. "The scary doggy took Kikue, and she thought she would die, but…She brought her here instead!"

Tsuba nodded in agreement. "Miku didn't mean any harm. She's very protective of children, and it seems she thought your sister was in danger, so she brought her here. Imagine my surprise when she came back from her hunt with a child in her mouth," Tsuba chuckled. "Kikue has been staying with Miku and her pups while she waited on you."

"Miku?" Harihane glanced around. "That big freaky wolf-thing?" A warm puff of air hit her cheek and she looked up to see the large gray dog staring down at her with amused eyes.

"E-Ergh…I mean that in the nicest possible way," Harihane assured, stepping closer to her brother.

"Thank you for keeping Kikue safe." Junji patted the large beast on the head, and it growled in approval. "And thank you for allowing her to stay." he told Tsuba. "Now that we've been reunited, I think we should be on our way."

Kikue looked up at him and frowned. "Already? Kikue will miss the puppies…" She knelt, and instantly the five pups came running up to her and yipping excitedly.

"They'll miss you too." Tsuba agreed. "You're quite a natural with them."

"Kikue, you know we've got to get going," Harihane began tugging her by the arm.

Miku growled, walking over to the girls and nudging Harihane away from Kikue protectively.

"O-Or not…" Harihane lifted her hands helplessly.

"Miku, she's found her pack again. It's time to say goodbye." Tsuba rubbed her partner's ear.

The big dog whined, nuzzling Kikue.

"This…could be a problem." Junji mused.

"You think?" Harihane rolled her eyes.

The tent flap opened again, and everyone watched as a young girl with a boy cut walked in, carrying a large book under one arm. "Mother, Kohaku says he's ready, as soon as you—oh…hello."

"Yoyo-chan!" Kikue ran over and hugged the girl happily.

Tsuba cleared her throat. "This is my daughter, Yoku." The resemblance was clear. They had the same eyes and nose, and Yoku's cheek markings were slightly smaller but just as prominent against her equally bronze skin. "She's been keeping Kikue company,"

Yoku smiled politely. "A pleasure to meet you," she bowed lightly. "Kikue was shy at first, but she mentioned you two often. She was very worried you wouldn't find her."

Harihane eyed the short-haired girl skeptically. "How old are you? You talk like an adult."

Yoku rubbed the back of her head, blushing. "Do I? I'm actually twelve, but small for my age I suppose."

"Harihane is twelve too," Junji said.

"Yoku here's always been mature for her age." Tsuba rubbed her daughter's head affectionately. "She was reading everything she could get her hands on almost before she could stand!"

"M-Mother, please…they don't want to hear about that. I'm sure they have a lot of traveling ahead of them. Although, it'll be dark soon. Maybe you all should stay the night." Yoku looked at her mother for permission.

Tsuba looked the three siblings over before shrugging. "Should be fine. We'll be breaking down camp and heading out in the morning,"

"You're on the move?" Junji asked.

"Sure are." Tsuba said proudly. "The Inuzuka clan's been invited to Konohagakure. We'll be permanently settling down there. We were originally gonna get moving yesterday, but when Miku brought Kikue, we thought it would be better to stay put until you came to get her. I sent the pack out to help guide you in the right direction, just in case."

"What's Kono…Konohanaga….What's that?" Kikue asked eagerly.

"A new ninja village." Yoku explained. "It's a place where different clans have come together and are living in peace," She had sat down on the floor of the tent, ignoring the pups who were pawing at her for attention and instead opening her book.

"That's impossible!" Harihane scoffed. "Shinobi from different clans don't just live together. They'll be at each other's throats in no time."

"This era has been filled with endless bloodshed long before any of you were born," Tsuba explained. "It's unfortunate, but…for a long time that was just the way of things. Now people are tired of that, and maybe it's the hope that there can be another way that's made shinobi take a chance."

Junji remembered his own secret dreams of leading the Kaguya another way. "I think you're right, Tsuba-san."

Harihane was unconvinced. "I'm not sure I buy it, but I am exhausted, so I guess I don't mind staying around for a night."

"Then Yoku can show you to a tent." Tsuba eyed her daughter pointedly.

Yoku glanced up from her book, marking her page with a pout. "Alright, this way then,"

Kikue was the first to bounce after her as she exited the tent. The two older Kaguya took their time, mulling over the idea that a place where shinobi lived together was possible.

Sakura woke up with a tired groan. She'd had the strangest dream, one where she had beaten the Second Hokage in a spar.

She stretched her arms over her head, and noted the soreness of her right cheek. Tenderly, she touched her face and winced when she felt the bruise. "That wasn't a dream…" she whispered, healing it. Something soft and warm brushed just under her chin, and she peered down to see the cat on her chest was waking up.

Smiling, she gently stroked its head. "You're gonna need a name soon." she told it. She sat up, and the sleepy cat rolled off her chest and into her lap.

Sakura couldn't help but laugh as the annoyed feeling struggled to right itself, back legs in the air. "Mrwaar!"

She picked it up and sat it on its feet. The feline looked relieved as it hopped off the futon and onto the large trunk in the room. "Rwrr…" It stretched out and then plopped down on the wooden surface. Sakura glanced out her window and saw the sun was high in the sky.

"Did I sleep in?" she wondered aloud. "Well…I guess I was out pretty late last night." Kicking her feet out of the futon, she stood up slowly, scrubbing a hand down her face. "At least I wasn't too tired to get out of those wet clothes…"

She slowly shuffled around, stripping out of her sleepwear and getting bathed and ready for the day. By the time she made it into her kitchen for a late breakfast, Sakura was feeling much more awake. Sakura sat down with her natto rice when there was a knock at the door. Sighing, she got up to answer it, expecting to see a familiar face, like Reira or Toka or maybe even Izuna. Though the figure at the door was decidedly more…intense. It was a child she'd never seen before, with choppy dark hair that completely covered her eyes and two cowlicks that reminded Sakura of an insect's antenna. She wore a jacket with a high collar, buttoned up past her throat and a knee-length black battle skirt. "Uh..." Sakura cleared her throat. "Can you?"

"..." The girl looked up at Sakura, but didn't say anything.

'This is...getting creepy. Who is this kid?' Sakura's eye twitched and she slowly started to shut the door. "I'm just...gonna..."

A small hand caught the edge of the doorframe just before it shut.

"Don't." She said in a soft voice.

"I...I think you have the wrong house, so..."

"Sakura!" Reira's voice practically sang. "Sakura, Sakura, Sakuraaa~!" The small Senju came running down the road, waving happily. Sakura opened the door again to lean out and look, and the strange girl wordlessly entered the house.

Sakura turned to scold her, "H-Hey, you can't just walk in like you live he-"

"Huh?" Reira had appeared at the door and looked in. "Chisa-chan! I told you to wait for me so I could introduce you! Popping up uninvited is creepy."

"Sorry..." "Chisa-chan" had sat herself down at the table and was reaching for Sakura's bowl of natto rice. Sakura hurried over and snatched it away.

"Reira, do you know her?"

Reira beamed, skipping into the house and closing the door behind herself. "Mm-hm, she's my friend. Her name is..."

"Chisato Aburame." the girl muttered quietly, waving shortly. "A pleasure."

'An Aburame!' Sakura blinked. She supposed that explained the covered eyes and quiet but intense presence.

"Anyway, sorry if she scared you, Sakura. She's harmless! Sort of..."

"I am not harmless. I have three species of deadly beetles living in my body." Chisato informed them.

Reira rolled her eyes. "I did say sort of..."

"Mrwr!" Sakura had sat down to once again attempt to eat her breakfast, when the cat came bounding onto the table.

"Oooh, that's right!" Reira clapped. "You have a kitty now~ What's her name?" she asked, leaning forward to scratch the cat under its chin.

" uh, doesn't have one...I don't even know what it is." Sakura explained, chewing her food.

"I think it's a girl!" Reira exclaimed. "And you should name her Usagi!" she pointed at the cat's rear as it walked across the table to sniff at Chisato. "'Cause of it's tail, see?"

"Usagi..." Sakura pondered. Truthfully, it reminded her a little too much of Kaguya.

"Except that...this cat is not a girl." Chisato stated.

"Huh? How do you know that?" Sakura asked, surprised.

Chisato looked sheepish, but it was hard to tell without being able to see her eyes. "I can...always spot a male. This cat is male. I'm sure of it."

"Uh, okaaay..."

"Chisa-chan, you're so cool~!"

"If you're a boy," Sakura picked the cat up and sat it in her lap. "Then how about, Usamaro?"

The cat stood on his back paws and rubbed his nose against her cheek, purring.

"I think he likes it~!" Reira fist pumped.

"Usamaro it is." Sakura threw a sardine to the happy feline, and he caught it in his mouth, rolling around on the floor in bliss. Reira and Sakura burst out laughing, while Chisato tittered quietly.

"So what made you stop by today?" Sakura asked, continuing to eat and feed Usamaro pieces of sardine.

"Oh, I almost forgot! I wanted you to meet Chisa-chan, but I really wanted to tell you that you kicked butt! Tobi-nii was like 'hn' and then you were like 'bam' so then he was like 'argh' and...and...I never thought I'd meet anybody as cool as Tobaa," Reira grabbed Sakura's hands, pulling them close and putting them on her face. "Maybe some of your coolness can rub off on me!"

Sakura gently pulled her hands back. "I'm really not cool, I promise. And if he hadn't underestimated me, I would have been paste."

"I think you should train with me and Tobaa sometimes, we could all get even stronger together!"

"As long as it's alright with, Toka!"

"It will be, trust me!" Reira pounded her chest a little.

"She was impressed about last night. Everybody's still talking about it."

'Everybody, huh? He hates me now. Definitely.' Sakura couldn't deny that regular sparring partners wouldn't be a bad idea, though. She wouldn't have to worry about finding ways to stay sharp. She and Toka were on friendly terms now, and if Reira was right and Toka found it amenable, then why not take advantage? Toka likely had skills that she didn't. 'Maybe she can even teach me some new jutsu!'

She might have been getting a little ahead of herself though. Agreeing to train with someone didn't necessarily mean agreeing to teach them. But, Sakura had come to accept that she was stuck in the past indefinitely, and recently, she felt she needed more skills. More than taijutsu and the ability to determine when a genjutsu was in use. It was risky, but there was someone she could ask, someone she knew could help her.


She'd wandered deep into the forest, wanting to be as far away from the village as she could. Eventually, she stopped at the river. Glancing down at the inside of her wrist, she hesitantly looked around. "Hopefully this works…" Closing her eyes, she willed the goddess to her.

'Mizuchi…I'm calling you.' When she cracked an eye open, the deity was standing there calmly, looking as radiant as ever. Her lustrous black hair spilled to her feet and her green-gold eyes gleamed with pride. Sakura noted the horns on her head were so dark and shiny they looked almost polished.

"It worked…" she breathed.

The goddess laughed slightly, turning and walking to the river bank, where she sat down on a shiny rock, daintily crossing her legs.

"Oh Sakura, whenever you're in need of me you have only to seek me out." Mizuchi patted the spot beside her, smiling. "Won't you join me?"

Sakura could only stare. Here was a deity, in the flesh, wanting to sit down and have a talk with her. If her encounter with Kaguya had been as cordial, maybe the world wouldn't have almost ended.

Mizuchi watched the river, a serene smile on her painted lips. Sakura slowly approached and sat herself down. "Why so tense?" the deity asked. "This is a quiet place, meant for contemplation. You don't have to be on edge here." Bare feet appeared from under her kimono and Mizuchi dangled them in the water. "It's been so long since I've felt this sort of tranquility. I thank you for being discreet when calling for me, and for choosing to do so near a body of a water. I am a river deity, you see."

Sakura swallowed. "I'm glad you like it. I…I actually wanted to talk to you."

"Oh...?" The deity looked amused. "About?"

"I just wanted you to know that I'm still not sure I'm okay with this. You yanked me from my time and you've got some big plans," Sakura waved her hands around for emphasis. "You want me to do…all the while you're dangling all kinds of vague promises in my face. Still…" Sakura looked down at the mark in determination. "I want to know as much about this as I can." She held her wrist out for Mizuchi to see. "What's it do…and…and how do I use it?"

The goddess' eyes grew bright. "You're finally ready? You want to learn how to use my gift?" she purred.

Sakura tried to maintain a brave face, but she was positive it faltered. "I want to have the best chance at getting home possible, and I think in order to do that, I need to get even stronger than ever."

"Are you sure?" Mizuchi questioned. "You may be my progeny, but you're far from immortal. The training will be rigorous to prepare you. If you even have what it takes in the end, that is."

"H-Have what it takes for what?" Sakura had a feeling she didn't truly want to know.

Mizuchi threw her head back and laughed, long and low. Sakura fidgeted uncomfortably beside her as she waited for her to finish. Anyone else laughing at her outright would have incurred her temper. But this was a goddess, an immortal being of incredible destructive power. Mizuchi finally quieted down, reaching out and touching the tips of her cool fingers to Sakura's cheek. "To be a Godslayer, of course."

Chapter Text

Tobirama entered his brother's office, expecting to see him hard at work. Instead, Hashirama was tending to the bonsai on his desk, cooing under his breath at it.

"Is this really the time for that?" Tobirama grumbled, closing the door behind him.

Hashirama glanced up from sprinkling the bonsai with water, smiling pleasantly. His smile dropped under Tobirama's stern gaze. "Bukkai is very sensitive to negativity. Could you try not to let your sour mood effect my plant?"

"Bukkai?" He couldn't help but sneer at his older brother's usual foolishness. "You're treating it like a pet. It doesn't need a name."

Hashirama sighed, leaning back against his desk. "How many times do I have to tell you that plants are living things? They have their own—"

"Feelings. Yes, so you keep saying," Tobirama rolled his eyes. "But why do I have a feeling you haven't even viewed the amendments to the academy proposal yet?"

And instantly, Hashirama's jovial mood was back. He closed his eyes, folding his arms across his chest. "Ah, that's where you're mistaken, brother. I've been hard at work until just recently." Tobirama watched as Hashirama shifted around his desk and patted at a sizable stack of papers. Some of his ire began to cool. Hashirama was indeed an idiot, on the whole. But when he put his mind to a task, he was more than capable.

"I think it's ready to present to the clan heads!" Hashirama's excitement was almost palpable. "Just think, the next generation of young shinobi getting to learn with peers from outside their clans! We truly are ushering in a new era, aren't we?"

Tobirama rolled his neck, considering. "It's unprecedented. If this works out, it certainly is one step closer to raising ninja that value the village over affiliation to their own clans. But, as usual, you seem to be oblivious to an oversight."

Hashirama's mouth fell open in surprise. "I…I am?"

"Yes. Selection of the instructors. Have you even put any thought into who you'll ask? It's very important."

The Hokage fidgeted, his cheeks turning pink under his brother's expectant stare. "W-Well, I'd been so busy doing revisions," Hashirama laughed sheepishly. "I guess it slipped my mind?"

"As expected." Tobirama produced several files. "And this is why I've taken the liberty of gathering information on all shinobi I feel are eligible to be instructors. I've talked to them about their strengths, and what they feel they could bring to an academy setting. These are the files who made it past the first screening."

Hashirama accepted the files in awe, beginning to skim through them and nod approvingly. "You're always so on top of things, Tobirama! I'm impressed. I think I've found the perfect spot to build it too. So if the clan leaders are all in agreement about sending batches of children as our first class of students, we can begin construction."

Tobirama shook his head as Hashirama practically flew to the door. "And where do you think you're going?"

"To show these to Madara! He told me he wanted to be clued into all infrastructure plans so—"

"Ugh." Tobirama grimaced at the name. The thought of the Uchiha brought even more displeasure than usual. He hadn't seen the man since the night of Hashirama's birthday, and he didn't relish the smug comments he was sure he would make about losing to a pink-haired brat that had come out of nowhere. Hashirama had given him no end of grief for almost five days straight. Of course, his elder brother was half-charmed after her gift, and sang her praises whenever his eyes fell on the bonsai.

"S-So, you'll stay until I return?" he pleaded, his brown eyes widening pitifully. Refusing to meet his eyes, Tobirama scowled, his shoulders lifting minimally.

Beaming, Hashirama waved goodbye. "I won't be long!" No sooner had Tobirama settled himself behind the desk than his brother stuck his head back through the door. "Be good to Bukkai while I'm out!"

"Leave," Tobirama demanded.

Hashirama raised his hands in surrender, backing out of the office slowly. "Alright! Alright!"

Tobirama turned back to the bonsai innocently sitting there, its pink petals looking healthy and its leaves green. Hashirama had been tenderly caring for it since it came into his possession. Fleetingly, he couldn't help but wonder if maybe…Hashirama was projecting his newfound infatuation onto it.

The thought made him scoff. Of course he was. Well, at least partially. Hashirama truly did like plants. And that was why Tobirama made sure never to give him any. He got carried away—not that he needed a reason to do that, really—more than usual when it came to gardening. If he began shirking his Hokage duties in favor of fawning over a plant, Tobirama knew exactly who to blame.

Still, he supposed he grudgingly owed her a certain amount of respect. She had bested him in a spar. Even when he wasn't fighting at full capacity, very few had managed that. Really, only Hashirama and on some occasions, Toka.

So, even if it was only to himself at present, Tobirama could admit that Sakura Haruno was more than she appeared. Some part of him had known that for a while, but it was hard not to be suspicious. In defense of himself, he had every right to be. He stood by his belief that she was still a highly unusual individual that required monitoring. At least he now had a better idea of her skillset. 'A taijutsu fighter…and fairly quick on her feet. A little too reliant on brute strength, but…' His thoughts continued circulating in that manner.

Hashirama's solution to his dilemma was simple—"you should just talk to her". Talking might alleviate some of his suspicion and his curiosity, but…

He glared stubbornly at Bukkai the Bonsai. It sat, mocking him. It was possible that Hashirama wasn't the only one with a problem that involved pink-haired girls.


Hashirama watched eagerly as Madara read through each file. "Well?"

"These…are decent choices." he conceded.

Hashirama tilted his head. "Then why do I sense a but coming on?"

The Uchiha cleared his throat. "Because there is one." Hashirama groaned out loud. "None of that. Now, how do you plan to get the clan heads on board? As it stands now, I am willing to send a group of children from the Uchiha clan for the first batch. I suspect you'll be doing the same with taking promising children from the Senju."

Hashirama nodded. "Yes! I feel that since we're spearheading this, it would only be right if we had children from our own clans, as a show of good faith, you know?"

"That I can agree with. And as I've said, the amendments to the curriculum, admittance age and the candidates to be sensei are all in order. But what do you plan to do with children who aren't from clans?"

Hashirama blinked, bemused. "Is that even a problem? Can't they just…attend too?"

Madara smirked, amused by Hashirama's naiveté. "Some of the more traditional clans won't want the children of their own clans to go to an academy alongside the children of simple merchants and blacksmiths. For generations, those with kekkei genkai believed themselves to be superior to those without. Telling them that a child must now learn alongside a peer who has no remarkable bloodlines, no natural talent, is going to be perceived as an affront to their pride."

"But none of that matters now!" Hashirama insisted. "Everyone is bound by the Will of Fire, linked by—"

"You mean," Madara interrupted. "None of that should matter. But it will. You can't erase centuries of prejudice with the empowering words of an ideal. Having others who were willing to follow us in creating this village was only the beginning."

Hashirama's shoulders slumped. Although, he would be hard-pressed to tell either of them to their faces, but both Madara and Tobirama could be startlingly similar in the way they thought. Maybe the day they saw that in each other, would be the day they could finally make peace… Here and now, though, he could see that Madara had a good point.

"So what do you suggest…? You're telling me that I have to change their hearts somehow, and get them to start believing in the village more than clan. I thought that's why they were here."

"Perhaps some," The Uchiha crossed his arms over his chest. "But not all. The Shimura, for one, are staunch traditionalists. And if you plan to follow through on your invitation to the Hyuga you should know they're the same."

"Then I'll give them proof!"

Madara's brow furrowed in intrigue. "What proof can you offer that a civilian-born child is just as worthy of being a shinobi as one from a large clan?"

"Oh," Hashirama's eyes glinted with pride. "I'm going to introduce them to Sakura-san."

The smell of earth and sweat filled her nose. Sprawled out by the stream, the kunoichi allowed herself to catch her breath, ignoring the fact that she was likely dirty in favor of enjoying the gentle sound of the wildlife in her ears. Mizuchi had promised to turn her into what she called a Godslayer, and indeed she had been. For the better part of a week, Sakura found time to meet her in the seclusion of the forest, and the goddess would instruct her in the same task—creating blights. It was one she hadn't been keen on at first.

"Blights?" Sakura repeated.

"Yes," Mizuchi nodded shortly. "I will teach you how to utilize them when needed, and also how to treat them."

"But what are they, exactly?"

Mizuchi watched as some curious fish in the stream began to nibble at her toes. "Humanity has believed for a long time that when the gods are displeased, bad omens follow. And, they are right. We possess the ability to place curses on mankind. A manifestation of emotions like hatred, envy, sorrow and –we call these blights."

Sakura's mouth formed an "O" in understanding. "A-And you really think I need to know how to make them?"

The goddess eyed her strangely. "Naturally,"

Sakura nervously bit at her bottom lip. "But what's grounds to…you know, blight someone?"

"Grounds?" Mizuchi held her middle and laughed. "What grounds does a goddess need?" she asked rhetorically.

Sakura opened her mouth to reply, but wisely closed it. "Well, I suppose your ignorance is understandable, Sakura. So, I shall explain. To an immortal being, the lives of men are but things to amuse ourselves with. A blight does not always have to be delivered righteously. Some of us have been known to spurn humans with blights for inconsequential reasons. A goddess may cast a blight on a human woman's entire lineage out of jealousy for her beauty. Sometimes, we have even used them to cull the population of nations." Mizuchi smiled proudly. "Famines, illness? We spread those in the hopes of separating wheat from chaff."

"You mean gods can curse people just because they can? That's…that's cruel!"

"Call it what you will…but what humanity calls cruel means little to a god or goddess. Our rules are not the same as yours, after all."

Sakura huffed. "I think we can agree on that."

"Your human sensibilities aside, you cannot deny the usefulness of this ability." Sakura felt like the goddess was wheedling her.

"This is what it takes to be a Godslayer?" Sakura grumbled.

"Of course," Mizuchi reassured, reaching out and smoothing down some of the pink hair on her head. It was an almost motherly gesture that the deity seemed fond of. Although, thinking of Mizuchi in a motherly capacity was strange in itself.

"Fine…if it's what I need to do." To get home. It went unsaid, but that was the unspoken knowledge that passed between them. Sakura would listen and learn, all in an effort to be sent back to her own time. Whether Mizuchi intended to uphold her end or was simply allowing her to think she was, worried Sakura.

She wasn't stupid. Mizuchi had already shown herself to be as whimsical as she was powerful. Sakura didn't really like being led around, but for now she had no choice.

"You will need to reach out and grab hold of all the negative intent that you can. Pull it inside you and then release it, quickly, before it takes hold."

"Sounds simple," Sakura rolled her eyes. "How do I get started?"

Mizuchi stood fluidly, taking the long ends of her kimono in both hands and gliding toward Sakura, something threatening suddenly in her eyes.

Cautiously, the kunoichi slowly began to retreat backwards. Her right hand instinctively reached for her kunai pouch, and she was holding her weapon out defensively, despite knowing it would do her very little good.

"You won't need that," Mizuchi smiled warmly, despite the danger still reflected in her orbs. She smacked the kunai out of the pinkette's hand with a flick of her wrist. Her other hand came up, hovering briefly over Sakura's frozen face. "Relax…" she cooed. "If you are worthy to be a Godslayer, my Godslayer, then this will all be worth it."

The reservations were on the tip of her tongue. Sakura suddenly felt the brunt of what she was about to do, bearing down on her with full force. She was listening to a capricious goddess who, for all she knew, had some dark intentions, in spite of her words.

"Too late to question it." Mizuchi chuckled.

A cool hand seized her face, obstructing her vision. Sakura felt the deity's grip tighten gradually, pulse picking up as she thrashed to get away. Mizuchi released her, and she fell backwards, startled. Collapsing on her back, Sakura was immediately aware that something was wrong. The world was unnaturally still.

She couldn't smell the forest pine, or hear the river and forest animals. The loss of her senses only registered after the shock of discovering her eyes were wide open, and yet, her world was dark. Frantically, Sakura blinked, determine that her sight would return to her. Minutes passed, but there was no clear river, no green grass, nothing. "Mizuchi!" she called hoarsely. "What did you do?" Her mind echoed her anguish. What did you do?!

"If this is enough to unsettle you, then going further with this…training is unnecessary." Mizuchi's voice in her head inspired an odd mix of alarm and relief.

"What's wrong with me?" her voice cracked.

"You are focusing on what you can't do, and not on what you can, for one."

"Really?!" Sakura cried, exasperated. "Riddles right now?"

"I did not rob you of your senses out of cruelty. You still have two remaining. Use them, and tell me what you feel."

Sakura inhaled a deep breath of crisp air, and noticed for the first time that she could still feel the coolness of it whistling in her lungs, if not hear it. Tentatively, she stuck her hands out in front of her, stumbling forward until she touched the rough bark of a tree. She felt the uneven bumps and ridges of the wood, pressing her cheek against it, so overwhelmed she could cry. She still had touch. And she could still taste the forest on her lips, just not like before. The taste of the wood, the grass, the river, the energy from them all, was heavy on her tongue. It was like she was tasting on a spiritual level.

"Feel the energy now? Try looking for hatred. It will take time, but to start, try sensing the energy of just one person. Anyone from that village you cherish so."

Skeptically, Sakura used the connection she now felt to the forest, its inhabitants, and to Mizuchi, looking for someone to test her new skills on. It was difficult, at first. She kept finding that the invisible tether stopped just short of the village. She didn't have the push needed to reach it. Each time she tried, she would recoil back, and all she could sense were Mizuchi and the woods.

Tutting lightly, the goddess gave her senses back as abruptly as she had taken them away. Sakura, strangely, found herself almost disappointed. When her senses returned, the spiritual connection between herself and everything around her evaporated. For the next few days, Sakura found herself returning to the woods. Mizuchi would take away her senses, and she would spend time wobbling around uncertainly like a newborn foal, frustrated by her inability to latch onto even a single person, while Mizuchi laughed in her head.

On the fifth day, she walked further than she had before, her bare feet snapping twigs and getting cut by stray rocks in her path. Sakura knew she was at the very edges of the forest, but maybe she could finally feel what she couldn't touch. All her previous training with the goddess was deeper in, more secluded.

Settling herself on her knees, Sakura spread her palms wide and breathed in the life force of the trees, the woodland creatures, the…the villagers! Slowly at first, and then steadily faster, the energies of Konoha's occupants flared to life in her mind's eye.

"Very good." Mizuchi congratulated. "At last, a connection."

Determined now, Sakura pressed on, setting her figurative sights on one of the sentries. In her state, she didn't sense much more than the hazy form of energy they represented. It was different than feeling for chakra. Instead, she dug, following the darkness Mizuchi told her existed buried in every creature's heart. It was a thread, leading back to the spool, her unwitting target laid bare to her probing.

It was indistinct and sudden when the surge of emotion hit her. Air pushed from her lungs. Sakura had finally struck center, finding the hatred buried inside, just as Mizuchi told her she would. What she hadn't been prepared her, was how suddenly it seized her, mind and body, like quick sand, trying to swallow her the harder she fought. Sakura could feel herself sinking, unable to stop all the darkness she was sucking in.
"Release!" Mizuchi kept repeating. "Release!"

Can't, Sakura's mind sputtered. Can't. She clawed at her arms, at her throat, black veins crawling up her sides, her legs, her neck, across her face. Sakura felt her eyes roll hard into the back of her head as she lay vulnerable and prone, spasming with the effort to expel the negativity she'd just consumed. She was going to die. The sheer monstrosity that was the negativity she'd captured was killing her.

"Spit the damn thing out." Mizuchi snarled.

Sakura weakly rolled onto her stomach, still blind, envisioning her burden taking flight. At first, she was sure it was feathered and black, like a crow. But, she decided, it would feel lighter than that. Her lips fell open, and she coughed, something scaly tickling the roof of her mouth as it exited.

Sakura felt tears pooling in the edges of her sightless eyes. A hand pulled at her hair, and she lifted her chin from the dirt, smiling, somehow sated. Mizuchi returned her sight, and the first thing her green eyes found, was an obsidian butterfly, perched on the tip of the goddess' long finger.

"I told you to be quick, you silly girl." The deity admonished. Her full lips widened in a smile all the same. The butterfly slowly moved its wings, and Sakura watched, captivated as Mizuchi brought it to eye level. Then her painted lips parted as she quickly shoved the insect into her mouth, swallowing it behind a slim hand.

Sakura, too dazed to register what she had just seen, smiled tiredly, and then collapsed.

Creating blights was only the start. Sakura understood now what Mizuchi had warned her about. Either she would survive the training, or she wouldn't. That was the price to learn things meant for immortals. Sakura was reminded frequently that Mizuchi's lessons would be pushing her very human body to the edge of its limits in new ways.

It was dangerous, and reckless. Desperation overruled a great deal of her concern. When she managed to pick herself up, stand on bruised feet, and walk out of the forest, she felt at peace in spite of the increasing amount of risk she was taking, and in spite of the familiar eyes she knew were watching her.

Shikamaru walked into the Yamanaka family's flower shop, expecting to see Ino or her mother helping customers, or minding the front counter. He stopped short at how quiet it was, despite the fact that it was still the middle of day, when the shop got the most foot traffic. In the days and weeks after the war, he had noticed a change in Ino. Of course, that was stupid to expect she'd be the same. There had been a change in all of them. Choji, right behind him, nearly stumbled into his back.

"Um, Shikamaru?" Choji whispered.

"Yeah…" They walked around the store until Choji passed the glass doors to the back patio, stopping to nudge his friend. Shikamaru saw Ino sitting there listlessly, knees drawn to her chest, watering a vase of flowers sitting next to her. He and Choji wordlessly went out and sat down on either side of her. Ino didn't even look up to acknowledge him until he moved the flowers to make room for himself.

"Those are mine," she hissed.

Shikamaru noticed the flowers were wilted, clearly overwatered, even to his untrained eye. "These? They don't look too thirsty right now."

"Well, what do you know?" Ino snatched them away, cradling them vase to her chest.

Choji, who had always been considerate of Ino during her moods, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. "We just thought you might wanna go out and get some barbeque with us? Shikamaru's buying!"

The blonde stared down at the flowers she was clutching tightly, looking for answers in.

Shikamaru watched her watch the flowers, feigning disinterest. His sharp eyes took in her long hair, lacking its usual luster, the fact that her nails, usually painted and trimmed neatly, looked chipped with dirt underneath, and the bags that had settled in under her dull eyes.

"Come on," he nudged her shoulder. "Won't be long."

Shikamaru carefully placed a hand on her bicep, preparing to help her stand, but she shrugged away. "I'm not hungry. You guys should go and eat without me," she mumbled.

"Ino, you know you can't keep—"

"I'm fine," she said shortly. "Sort of been busy around here lately, that's all. We've sold a lot of flowers for a lot of graves." Ino tiredly rested her forehead on her knees.

Choji and Shikamaru met eyes, the Nara motioning toward Ino with his head. Choji pointed to himself in surprise, shaking his head.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. 'Coward.'

"So what kind of flowers are those?" Ino lifted her head slightly, peering at him.

"What, these?" she held up the vase. "They're cosmos."

"Really pretty," Choji added. "What do they mean?"

Ino's blue eyes stared deeply at the cosmos. "Modesty…peacefulness…wh-wholeness."

"And Sakura," Shikamaru said gently.

The lost look in Ino's eyes was replaced by a sudden defiance. "I just like cosmos. I always have. It doesn't have to be about Sakura. Not everything has to be about…Sakura." she spat.

Shikamaru could see past the defensiveness. At first, he'd convinced himself he was fine when he lost Asuma. Then his father had prompted him to cry, and all the emotions he hadn't even known he'd been damming up came flooding out. After the war, when things had calmed, he didn't bother hiding his grief. He missed his father, but he had at least been coping. Ino, on the other hand…Losing her father and Sakura in quick succession was taking its toll, and she was fading fast.

"We're here," he heard Choji telling her. "You know, we get it."

Shikamaru lifted her chin. "You don't really think this is helping. I know you don't. And you haven't really given up on finding her. Her parents…" he sighed. "They're not shinobi, so they don't really understand."

"I'm not saying I'm hung up over it, because I'm not. I made my peace at the funeral, Shikamaru. So whatever this is…it's hopeless." Ino finally lifted herself up on numb legs that shook. They watched her reenter the shop, putting the wilted flowers on a shelf.

Shikamaru stood, brushed off his pants, and followed her. Choji was right behind him, reluctantly. He could understand the sentiment. He didn't exactly want to be around when Ino's time bomb wound down and she exploded. But, she needed them. And if taking the lashing meant it helped her cope, then he could at least offer a shoulder.

Ino was busying herself inside the shop, or maybe she was just going through the motions. "Here, let us help," he and Choji walked over and took away the large bag of mulch she was trying to haul to the other side of the store.


"It's not too late. You can lock up shop, come with us?" he offered.

Ino rubbed at her arms, glancing around the shop. "What if customers come while I'm gone?"

"They'll come back later." Choji said. "If it's important enough."


"Are you really gonna dash Choji's hopes like that? You know how long he's been whining about lunch with the team?"

Choji quickly played along, and Shikamaru was grateful. "Food always tastes better when I get to steal the last bite out from under your noses!"

It wasn't much, but Shikamaru thought he saw a thin smile. "Alright…Mom's resting upstairs. Let me just tell her I'm going…"

Shikamaru leaned against the counter, watching Ino's ponytail bounce behind her as she climbed the stairs to the second floor.

"I'm surprised we finally got her to cave." Choji said as soon as she was out of earshot. "She's been blowing us off for a while now."

"Yeah" Shikamaru agreed. "She's been shaken up, you know. The whole thing with Sakura hit her hard. We don't have any proof she's dead…but when her parents decided to have a funeral anyway, she really went from bad to worse."

Choji's eyes lowered. He walked over to the shelf, frowning at the vase of cosmos. "Is this really okay?"

"She'll throw 'em out soon."

"Not the flowers," Choji groaned. "I mean…is handling it this way really okay?"

"We've tried giving her space, and it's obvious she's not getting better on her own. This is…a compromise. We're trying to get her to remember that we're not letting her do this alone, without cornering her."

"It's Ino, not a wild animal, man." Choji joked.

Shikamaru half-smiled. When Ino was incensed, he didn't think there was much difference, but he'd keep it to himself. Choji picked up the vase to examine the flowers. "Ino's usually so good with flowers…this just doesn't make sen—"

"Choji!" Ino yelled suddenly.

Surprised, Choji jumped, dropping the vase. He fumbled to catch it, and Shikamaru groaned as it slipped through his hands and crashed on the floor.

Silence fell over the shop. Choji was staring at the puddle of water and broken ceramic in horror. "I-I'm sorry!" he yelped.

Shikamaru spared Ino a glance. She was studying the mess with an unreadable expression, arms stiffly at her sides. "You broke…it."

"Hey, Ino, you okay? We'll clean this up, alright? Get you a new vase." Shikamaru placated, raising his hands in an attempt to pacify her.

"N-New?" she repeated. "No. I don't need a new…" she paused midsentence. "It's just gone." she laughed emptily. "Just like she's…gone."

"S-she?" Choji whispered.

"I lost…Dad. It happened so fast." Shikamaru watched in concern as she rambled to herself. He was positive that she wasn't fully aware of their presence anymore. "Then Sakura…left me. I needed her, and she left me too."

Shikamaru cautiously stepped over the broken glass, arms still raised non-threateningly. "Ino, we can help you get through this…"

"That's not the same." she insisted, her voice rising. "Sakura…it's just like her to run away. I…I hate her. I hate her." Even as she declared it, her voice shook, and tears rolled down her face.

"You don't mean that," Choji frowned. "Sakura's one of your best friends."

Ino shook, placing a hand to her chest. "If I don't hate her, then why do I feel so angry?"

"That's normal," Shikamaru soothed, stepping closer. "So is feeling helpless."

Ino looked at him wearily, "This is exhausting, Shikamaru. I don't know what I feel anymore. I don't know…" Shikamaru hesitantly pulled her into his arms, and she leaned against him bonelessly. He patted her back as she quietly sobbed into his shoulder, her grip white-knuckling his shirt. Choji shuffled over, joining the hug. Ino cried harder.

"We'll get her back," she hiccupped, "Right?"

Shikamaru squeezed his teammates in closer. "If she's out there, then there's a way."

Sakura shook her head as Usamaro trotted into the house with a live squirrel in his mouth. It squeaked angrily, struggling to get away. Sakura crouched, patting the cat's head. "You're not keeping that," she laughed. Usamaro lifted his head so she could rub his chin. Sakura looked into the squirrel's beady eyes, prying it from the feline's mouth.

Ignoring his whines of protests, she carefully rubbed the rodent's head, sending small amounts of chakra into it to calm it. It worked, and the squirrel curled into her palm, content. Sakura walked it to the backdoor, finding a tree she deemed tall enough and watching as the little creature happily scampered into the safety of its branches. "Sorry about that!" she called.

The minute she walked back into her house, Usamaro rushed over to rub at her ankle, making pitiful noises. "I had to do it," she told the cat, bending down and poking his pink nose. "I wasn't about to let you kill it in front of me." That squirrel had been one of the lucky ones.

Whenever she let the young cat out into the yard to play and enjoy some fresh air, he would revert back to his time as a stray and chase after some small creature that caught his interest. It was amusing to watch him climb and stumble around—Usamaro was sometimes clumsy in his excitement—a hunter after his prey.

Sometimes, he managed to catch something. A lizard he'd caught off guard, or a bird that was too slow to fly away. He'd quickly dart off with his prey, and later bury the remains of whatever he hadn't eaten in the yard somewhere. Sakura mentally called it "the graveyard". She couldn't imagine how many half-eaten squirrel corpses were fertilizing the soil.

Usamaro looked unconvinced as he slinked away, looking for a spot to sunbathe. Sakura smiled. Having company in the house, even if it was as simple as a cat's, brightened up her routine. And especially when he was always good for a laugh. 'Speaking of sun…' It was a nice fall day, a sunny one, but cool enough that it felt like the weather had finally settled.

Mizuchi had told her they wouldn't train that day. Apparently the mysterious goddess had other engagements.

While she shuddered to think what they might be, she told herself she might as well enjoy the downtime while she could. Whatever else she may have been, the deity was a strict instructor. Sakura could still only produce a blight roughly half the time, and it was difficult to regulate. More than once she'd almost been consumed by it instead.

Mizuchi was determined that it was something she would have to learn to control before they could move on to the next step of actually learning how to remove blights. Sakura found the concept of removing a curse much more appealing than inflicting it, and so she persisted in her efforts.

It was a necessary evil to have a chance to get home. Every day she pulled out her old headband to give her a boost of determination. It helped ease the homesickness whenever she felt it starting to bubble up. All things considered, it seemed to have helped with the adjustment.

Little by little, she was getting use to the differences in this unfamiliar Konoha she temporarily called home. The only part of it she couldn't say she'd gotten use to was the ease with which guests showed up at her door…if they even bothered using the door.

As if on queue, she felt two chakra signatures enter her home, and rushed up the hall into the front of the house. Her jaw dropped in surprise to see the Hokage and his reluctant brother, looking around and inspecting things.

"Look, isn't this cute?" The Hokage exclaimed, motioning to Usamaro's whicker basket and the half-unspun ball of yarn he'd brought home one day. Sakura was well aware there was a disgruntled housewife somewhere in the village who was missing it (because coincidentally she had seen the woman in the market, complaining to a friend that all her yarn had vanished one day), but when Usamaro saw an open window, he would climb right through and explore. "It looks like she may have a cat."

"You're already becoming distracted," Tobirama said. He turned his attention to the spot where she stood, half hidden in the shadows of the hall. "And you can come out now. We've come to discuss something important."

Sakura stepped forward, still bemused, but putting on a polite smile—at least for the Hokage. "Hello," she rubbed her palms anxiously on her thighs. "I wasn't expecting any company today."

"It's not a problem," The Hokage smiled sunnily. "We apologize for imposing suddenly. But…well, do you mind if we all sit?"

Sakura shrugged, motioning to the table. She awkwardly waited as the two men seated themselves, and then took the spot across from them, criss-crossing her legs and then placing her hands in her lap.

She couldn't imagine what they came by for, and a small twinge of paranoia suddenly made her gulp. It was unlikely…but what if they had discovered her connection to Mizuchi? Surely, someone tied to a goddess would be a danger to the village. The Hokage's genial attitude might be a rouse to lower her guard. Sakura discreetly breathed in through her nose. She was being ridiculous.

"Before I impose on you any further with my request, I want to thank you once again for Bukkai." Hashirama beamed. "It really does brighten the office."

"Bukkai?" Sakura asked quizzically.

"He named it." Tobirama explained, looking unamused by the whole affair.

Sakura nodded slowly. "O-oh."

"But we aren't here to talk about my brother's issues."

Hashirama glanced at his brother with a frown, then turned back to Sakura. "I…it's about…" he scratched at the back of his head. "I have a request. It's a bit short notice, so I understand if you can't but—"

Tobirama, tired of the stalling, interjected, "You will serve as the representative for civilian children being able to enter the academy."

"Tobirama," Hashirama laughed a little, slapping his brother's shoulder several times. "Don't make it sound like she doesn't have a choice. You see, Sakura-san, we are opening an academy, so that children in the village can still learn the art of being shinobi, but with the benefit of learning from and with those outside their clans. We would also like to allow children who aren't from clans to attend, of course. But…we're anticipating pushback from some of the more traditionalist families, and so—"

"You will serve as the representative for civilian children being able to enter the academy."

"Tobirama, stop that!" Hashirama cleared his throat, flushing as he gave Sakura a hopeful smile.

"What he means is, if you're willing, I can't think of anyone better suited to present the case of why civilian-born children can make exceptional shinobi, than you."

Sakura sat back, absorbing what they had just asked of her. At some point, Usamaro had crept into the room, and head-butted her hand persistently. She rubbed behind his ears absently. "I see…I don't know what to say. I'm flattered." she stammered. "I'd love for children like me to get the chance to be ninja. It's just…I've never actually had any experience with negotiating with clans or anything like that."

"You can leave that to us. All I'd really like for you to do is speak from the heart," Hashirama explained. "I feel confident that'll be enough."

"Heh…" Tobirama smirked wryly. "Of course you do. Your bleeding heart is all you ever speak from."

"I have you to balance out my idealism, don't I?" the Hokage said optimistically. "At any rate, Sakura-san, would you consider it? I'm willing to let you smack Tobirama around again, if it'll convince you."


Sakura giggled at Tobirama's indignant face. "I'd be honored to be the representative. A rematch with your brother would be added incentive."

Hashirama perked up. "You agree?!" he launched forward, taking her hands and squeezing them in gratitude. "Thank you! This is going to shape the future of the village for the better."

'No pressure then.' Sakura blushed, staring down at their hands and then glancing off to the side. She had told herself since his birthday that she would just have to desensitize herself to the Hokage being such a tactile person. But easier said than done.

Usamaro chose that moment to hop onto the table, temporarily distracting Hashirama. "Oh, so I was right." Hashirama reached out to stroke the cat's back. "You do have a cat! What's its name?"

"I call him Usamaro," Sakura said, "He's been with me almost two weeks now."

"Hello Usamaro," Hashirama leaned down into the cat's face. "You know, there's an air of cunning about him that really reminds me of you, brother."

Tobirama, who had clearly been tuning out the conversation, glared down at the animal, affronted.

"I remind you of a mangy scrap of fur?"

Hashirama stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Well I wouldn't word it like that exactly but yes, in many ways, you do."

"Hey, he does always wear that fur with his armor, doesn't he?" Sakura chimed in, raising her pointer finger.

"Ah, yes!" Hashirama nodded. "I'd almost forgotten."

Sakura looked down at her cat and then up into the face of the agitated Senju. When he narrowed his red eyes at them, he resembled a cat that had been dunked in water, and without his happuri, his spiked hair seemed to bristle.

"Stop staring at me like you're looking for more resemblances!" Tobirama snapped, picking up on her train of thought.

"But," Sakura bit her lip briefly, wondering if she should voice her thoughts. With Hashirama right there, egging her on with his eyes, she let the words spill out of her mouth. "But you also have similar coloring."

The striking pattern of randomly placed silver spots on Usamaro's otherwise white fur almost paralleled Tobirama's own pale skin and white hair.

Hashirama clapped, laughing. "Another accurate observation!"

A vein on Tobirama's forehead began to throb. "We're done here, brother." He declared, seizing Hashirama by the back of his robes and standing abruptly. The Hokage coughed in discomfort.

"W-Well, it was nice seeing you again, Sakura-san." He sputtered, trying to escape his brother's grip. "And meeting Usamaro, of course." The cat meowed in acknowledgement. "Toka will be by to coach you on clan etiquette before the meeting, and answer any questions."

Sakura barely had time to lift her hand and wave before Tobirama flickered them both away.

"Haah…" she looked at Usamaro, who was staring back. "Whenever they're together it's always eventful. Must be nice."


Toka came by the next day, and the minute Sakura opened the door for her, she circled. "W-What?" Sakura asked.

"Straighten your back." Toka placed a hand in the middle of her back and one on her shoulder, correcting her posture. "You will have to wear very restrictive clothing."

"More restricting than usual?" Sakura whined.

"Spending hours in a formal kimono will make the lighter yukatas you wear feel like bare skin." Toka smirked as Sakura blushed.

"What else do I need to know?"

"Most, if not all the clan heads will be men. While the Uchiha and the Senju generally view women as equals and allow them to speak freely, I understand there will be other clans attending where that is not the case."

Sakura frowned in understanding. "So they're gonna be blowhards that expect me to keep my mouth shut and look pretty."

"Unfortunately," Toka agreed. "By merit of the fact that you will be a physical representation of something they are firmly against, you may find yourself being talked down to or undermined. But, don't waver. We are warrior, and the equals of any man. Show them how stubborn you can be."

Sakura grinned at Toka's small smile. "Was that a joke?"

"Partially, yes." Toka stepped back, looking her over from head to toe. "You're going to stand out. Your hair makes that inevitable."

Sakura fingered a lock of it. "I know…it's always been like that so I'm use to it, and I forget sometimes other people aren't."

"Don't let it concern you." Toka told her. "One advantage you have, I must say, is you have met Madara and his brother. At least one of them has seen your strength so I don't think you'll have to try to waste time charming your hosts."

Sakura nodded, "Yeah, that's a relief, isn't it? I mean I'm there to—wait, hosts?"

Toka's brow furrowed. "Did Lord Hashirama not inform you?"

"H-hosts?" Sakura repeated lamely, her eyes large.

"I suppose not." Toka muttered. "It's been decided that the Uchiha clan will be the hosts for this meeting."

Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Fucking fantastic."

"Sakura, language!"

Chapter Text

Reira eagerly accepted the scroll, fighting to look composed. "This needs to arrive at the Aburame compound post haste. No detours and no lingering once you get there." Tobirama explained solemnly.

She nodded quickly so he wouldn't see the smile worming its way onto her face. "I'm off!" Reira dashed for the door, anxious to feel the sun on her face.

"Hold on!"

She stopped so abruptly that she started to trip. "Huh?"

"You know to bring their reply to the Hokage Tower."

Reira couldn't help but feel flustered. She knew she wasn't as responsible as…well, Mei-san had told her more than once she was scatterbrained, but that didn't have anything to do with delivering one little message.

"I know Tobi-nii!" she waved, running down the hall and narrowly barreling into Toka.

"Reira, why are you running?"

Jogging in place, she waved the scroll around. "I'm taking this to Chisa-chan's house."

Toka's eyes were piercing as she studied the scroll, slowly lifting her eyes back to Reira's face and nodding. "I see. Don't cause mischief." She passed with a small pat to her head.

Reira gasped dramatically, placing a hand over her heart. "These aren't even the right clothes for that…" She glanced down at the rose-colored yukata with the water lily pattern Mei-san had badgered her into. The yellow obi was the only semblance of familiarity. She longed for her bright gi and the ease of movement it provided. 'The sooner I get back, the sooner I can get out of these clothes!'

With that bit of motivation in mind, she started running again, exiting the main compound and inhaling the fresh air of the courtyard. Fall finally felt like it was in the air. Until only a week ago, the weather had been consistently warm, and even in her gi, training under the hot sun caused sweat to trickle uncomfortably down her neck.

Mei-san had even suggested that she'd be cooler if she were to cut her hair, but that was a thought she wasn't willing to consider. Reira enjoyed her long braid, as simple a hairstyle as it was. Some others clucked their tongues, too. They'd whisper that she'd be such a pretty child, if not for her personality. Some of them marveled at how different she was ffrom Toka at that age. Reira always grinned, pretended not to hear it.

Even if the task was small, she would hold her head high and show everyone she was reliable. That was what she chanted in her head as she wandered away from the Senju compound, ignoring the baffled stares of her clansmen.

There was a lightness to her step the more she ran. Reira could close her eyes, let the wind whip through her braid, and pretend she was flying through treetops, out on a real assignment. She could pretend that she was delivering a top secret missive, and when she completed it, she'd be greeted with praise for her swiftness.

She could—

Her shoulder slammed into someone else's, and the scroll fells from her hands. She watched it land in the dirt, pouting. "Oh,"

"Oh? That's all you got to say?" A dark-haired boy in a high-collared blue shirt sneered at her.

"S-Sorry!" she added. "I was daydreaming. I know I shouldn't do that, but—"

A hand came down on the scroll as she reached for it. "Look at us when you're talkin'!"

Reira's eyes narrowed. "Can you move your hand?"

"What if I don't wanna, huh? Are you gonna take us all on?"

Reira ignored him, crouching and attempting to slide the scroll out from under his foot, shoving at his leg.

"Now she's ignoring you, Manabu." another boy whispered.

"Leave her alone," a new voice whispered, and Reira watched another boy dressed like the first two, crouch beside her and lift Manabu's foot.

Growling, the bully named Manabu snatched it before either of them could, taking the scroll Reira had only just noticed the curly-haired boy was holding. "What're you gonna do now, Kagami?" he goaded, "Gonna go tell Izuna-sama?"

He waved both scrolls at them, and Reira jumped for them, frustrate when she noticed how conveniently long his arms were. "This is almost too easy. You're both a couple of pushovers. Hey Kagami, maybe you finally found the perfect little playmate."

Reira scowled. "I bet your mother doesn't like you."

Manabu stopped laughing abruptly. "You'd better watch it. I could stomp you just like—" She was surprised when he reached for the front of her kimono and Kagami stepped in front of her.

"That's enough."

That was when she noticed the crest on his back. 'He's an Uchiha!'

Face red, Manabu shoved the scrolls at Kagami. "Whatever. You're not even any fun anymore, Kagami. You're always too busy trying to pretend you're a hero. Let us know when you're ready to stop playing make believe."

They watched as Manabu marched off.

Kagami frowned. "You too, huh, Tenma?"

The other Uchiha shrugged. "He's got a point…you're just not as much fun to hang around anymore."

Reira barely resisted the urge to shout taunts as they retreated.

Kagami turned to her with an apologetic smile. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I think this is yours."

It took her a minute to respond. She was too busy committing his face to memory. She had never seen an Uchiha with curly hair, rosy cheeks and long eyelashes. In her mind, she had thought that the Uchiha Hashi-nii was friends with could be handsome, if he wasn't scary. Kagami wasn't really handsome to her though, he was…

"You're sort of…pretty." she blurted absently.

His eyes widened, and Reira clasped a hand over her mouth, embarrassed. She snatched the scroll from his left hand. "That wasn't supposed to…I said that…out loud."

They stood there in awkward silence, neither sure what to say. Kagami rubbed at his arm, "It's fine," he laughed a little, "You say what you're thinking. That's a nice quality."

"Really?" Reira gaped. "Most people I know don't think so."

He nodded. "Really." He confirmed. "Sorry about them. They've been like that a lot lately."

Reira put her hands on her hips, annoyed in a way that she rarely ever was. "Are they really your friends?"

Kagami shrugged helplessly. "We all grew up together, and Manabu wasn't always that way…"

Some of Reira's irritation evaporated. "That must be rough. But you know, I still think they're sort of stupid."

"They're only sort of stupid on a good day," he winked. "Any other time, they're very stupid."

Reira laughed, until she remembered she had an errand to do, and the color drained from her face. "Oh! Sorry, I need to go. Tobi-nii will bite my head off…" she cringed, tucking the scroll safely into her obi and darting off.

Kagami smiled lightly, still a little confused. He didn't know her name, but he had a feeling it wouldn't be the last time he saw her, whoever she was.

Karin pushed up her glasses, the folder containing what she'd pilfered from Kabuto's lab tucked safely under her arm as she hopped from one branch to another. Not even the long trek back to the outskirts of Konoha with only Suigetsu for company had dampened her mood.

"What're you all excited about?" Suigetsu asked casually, a half-step behind her.

She rolled her eyes. Suigetsu was always slow on the uptake. Always more about swinging a stupid sword and seeing how much blood he could splatter than thinking rationally. That. That right there was why they could never see eye to eye. Karin considered herself a survivor. And she'd manage to do it so long by playing up her cunning, in spite of not really being all that physically strong. Her ninja way was to be a self-preservationist. That was what she did best.

"If you must know, I think I made a breakthrough." She informed him, feeling all the more smug when his eyebrows rose in surprise. "The files I found? They talk specifically about linking the chakra of transmigrants. Kabuto may not have really fully understood since he was relying on folklore just like everyone else, but he was definitely onto something. With actually having Sasuke-kun and Naruto there, I can probably make the necessary adjustments."

Suigetsu gave a low whistle. "Hehe…"

Karin's eyes narrowed. Suigetsu never failed…to get under her skin. "What's so funny?"

"You're just so gung-ho about all this! You bought into it the moment Sasuke talked about it."

"So what?" Karin challenged. "You were there during the war! What more proof do you need to know all the stories are true?"

Suigetsu tilted his head back to observe the tree line, casually folding his arms behind his head, frowning thoughtfully. "I dunno about all that. I mean yeah, maybe some of it's not bullshit. But c'mon, this whole theory?" he shrugged noncommittally. "You know me," he grinned broadly at her, his pointed teeth on display. "Always been more of a proof's-in-the-pudding kind of guy. And so far, there hasn't been much proof, now has there?"

Karin flushed, turning away from him and speeding up. It hadn't worked the last three times they'd tried the jutsu. Sasuke and Naruto were growing frustrated, Suigetsu was getting more skeptical and voicing his doubts at every opportunity. In the back of her mind, Karin had her own doubts. But it wasn't about her.

"Hey, what's your rush?" Suigetsu called, quickly catching up. She silently cursed him. "Look, let's say all this isn't a huge waste of time. Sasuke's right. You're right. Your little theory works. But then what? If the girl's alive, trapped in another dimension for over a month, she's gonna be pretty messed up, right?" he motioned to his head. "And if she's not, well, maybe that's even worse. If it's all happily ever after, then that means Sasuke's not really gonna need us anymore. The girl's known him a lot longer than we have."

Karin bit her lip, too afraid to speak. Suigetsu knew how to rub salt in the wound. Another annoying, special trait of his. Without warning, she turned and punched him as hard as possible with her free hand. Feeling his face explode into water the minute her knuckles connected didn't feel as cathartic as usual. It didn't erase the sting of his words and their possible truth from her mind.

Karin didn't look back. Suigetsu would be fine. Sadly, he always was. It didn't matter what he said, or that he didn't understand. She knew the minute she'd agreed what it meant if Sakura were to be reunited with Sasuke—and Naruto.

"Fuck!" The former Mist nin appeared beside her quicker than she'd expected. "What was that for?" he rubbed at his cheek.

"We don't need you Suigetsu," she spat. "If you've got something better to do with your precious time, go out and do it. One stooge can easily be replaced by any other, you know."

Her comrade didn't flinch in the face of her harsh words. A slow grin of understanding appeared on his face. "Ah, I get it now…I think. Ya know, Karin, you've come a long way. I woulda thought the chance of losing Sasuke to someone else would throw you into a jealous fit."

"It shows what you know!" Karin scoffed, glad to see that the run down storage temple was finally coming into view through the trees. The sooner she got away from Suigetsu and the thoughts running wild in her head, the better.

She descended from the treetops and Suigetsu followed. The minute they were in close proximity to the ground she felt it, and halted immediately. "Whatsa matter now?" Suigetsu asked lazily.

"Shh!" Karin glared. "Someone's inside and it's not Sasuke or Naruto…it's—" she gasped, jumping back and taking up a fighting stance as the silver-haired jonin she recognized as Sasuke's former sensei popped up, a pasty, dark-haired boy beside him.

"Yo," he greeted affably. "Karin, wasn't it? Long time no see."

"Eh?" Suigetsu was sure to voice his confusion. "You know this geezer?"

"Yeah," Karin muttered, refusing to take her eyes off the man known as Kakashi Hatake. "He's one of the people who brought me back to Konoha." Against her will, she might add!

"I was curious about what my students were up to these days. I thought I'd wait for them here, and we could have a friendly talk in the meantime,"

"Tch, like hell." Karin shook her head. "The last time I had a friendly talk with you people, it was from a cell."

"Ancient bygones, really." Kakashi stuffed his hands in his pockets, taking up an infuriatingly laidback slouch.

"Someone going to fill me in?" Suigetsu dug in his ear, eyeing the Konoha nin in disinterest. Karin knew better. He was almost always thirsting for a fight.

"You two are rogue nins who traveled with Sasuke Uchiha, are you not? Are you planning something against the village with Sasuke?" the dark-haired boy suddenly blurted, pulling a scroll from his hip.

"Easy Sai," Kakashi placated. "We're just here to talk, remember? I have a feeling our friends here aren't looking for a confrontation either."

"Friends?" Suigetsu grinned toothily, hands falling to his hips. "Dunno about that. We don't really cozy up to strangers that fast. Right, Karin?"

She nodded. "We don't have anything to say to you. We're not doing anything worth bothering yourself with."

"They're right, Kakashi," Karin felt her heartbeat increase at the sound of his voice. Sasuke! She blinked and there he was. And Naruto too, of course. But Sasuke was the one who was effortlessly staring Kakashi down. "This has nothing to do with either of you."

"Ah, well… You may not be my genin anymore, but I still like to think of us all as a team." Kakashi smiled, his eyes closing. "I'd hate to think my cute little pupils were off getting into trouble somewhere."

Karin gulped, moving closer to Sasuke instinctively. The air was tense. The Copy Nin and his toadie didn't look like they were going away.

"You might think I'm just sticking my nose into things, but I'd like to remind you that not everyone's happy you're roaming free, Sasuke. Don't give the council a reason to change its mind." His dark eyes drifted to her and Karin stiffened. "As for your friends…they're rogues. They can't come and go as they please."

"Karin's family," Naruto protested. "If the Uzumaki clan were supposed to be allies to Konoha then…then she should be allowed to stay if she wants."

She couldn't deny she was surprised to hear him take up for her. Since they'd formally met, she tended to berate him more than a little.

"Naruto," Kakashi sighed.

"This is going nowhere." Sasuke interrupted. "I'm aware of what you're saying, Kakashi, but it doesn't change my plans. We've come too far to turn back."

"Then let's hear it," the masked nin pressured. "If I can't persuade you, maybe you can persuade me." Karin found him a little unnerving, hands in his pockets, looking perfectly at ease even in the tense situation. His chakra suggested the same.

"Are you serious?" Naruto and Suigetsu asked in unison.

Karin couldn't help but echo their sentiments if only in her head. It had all started because she thought that maybe helping Sasuke locate his missing teammate would be the key to seeing the boy from the Chunin Exams.

Now, she was even deeper into a mess thanks to Sasuke. It should have irritated her, at least a little. But, she realized, shifting the files and holding them out to the Uchiha, it didn't. "This is what we got…" she deliberately ignored Kakashi.

Sasuke accepted the files from her. "Good work,"

Those two words were enough to ground her entire world.

"Sasuke, please don't tell me Sai was actually right…you're not thinking of taking action against the village, are you?"

"Not at present, no," he turned to Naruto. "Alright dobe, don't screw this up."

Naruto, predictably, sneered. "Who the hell is the one that's gonna screw up exactly?"

"What's all this sneaking around then?" Kakashi asked sternly.

"We're…" Naruto faltered. "We're looking into ways to get back Sakura, okay?"

Kakashi, clearly shocked, let his eyes sweep over the group of teenagers, looking for any signs of it being a collective joke.

"We'll let you know what we've been up to, but in exchange, you can't get in our way," Sasuke informed him.

Kakashi looked unconvinced, crossing his arms. "I think you know that depends on the details Sasuke."

Kagami knocked, waiting patiently to be told to enter the office. He hoped the Hokage didn't mind that he was running a little late…

"Hokage-sama?" His voice came out meeker than he had hoped, and he cringed. "Hokage-sama?" he repeated louder.

Although it might have been rude, curiosity got the best of him, and he quietly opened the office door, peeking inside. There was a neat, spacious and empty room, shelves of heavy books on one wall, and a large desk in the center of the room with a bonsai and a stack of papers on it. Clearly, the Hokage wasn't around. Kagami knew that meant he should come back again later. But Madara-sama wanted to get the Hokage's response before he continued with the preparations. Waiting might cause a hitch in the plans…

His dark eyes roved the Hokage's desk. Would it be alright if he left it? Kagami wandered closer, fidgeting with the scroll clenched in his hand. The young Uchiha placed the scroll down carefully, frowning when he noticed it looked like it had been dropped in the dirt… Even if it was Manabu's fault, Madara-sama had entrusted him with the responsibility. He was the one who had failed to keep the message safe from abuse.

That was when it caught his eyes, and he couldn't help himself from staring in awe. There, draped across the Hokage's chair, was a length of white fur, undeniably soft looking. His fingers twitched, and Kagami made a fist to keep himself from reaching for it. It wasn't his, and he didn't want to be ruder than he already had by touching the Hokage's things.

'I should go,' he warned himself, forcibly turning away from the invitingly fluffy fur. For added measure, he squeezed his eyes shut. The compulsion to stroke the fur at least once didn't disappear, and Kagami slowly cracked an eye open in spite of himself. Inching closer, he reasoned that it wouldn't hurt to give it a small pat before he left. The stray, his friend, was gone…He missed the cat.

Sometimes he would find himself bringing scraps of food outside, expecting to see the friendly kitten trotting toward him. Whenever he imagined what became of his friend, his heart sank. He should have been stronger and stood up to Manabu the minute he first expressed interest in trying his katon skills out on a moving target. He should have protected his friend.

Instead, he'd make do. The fur couldn't purr when he touched it, or nudge his hand, but the thought of feeling something that at least vaguely reminded him of a cat was comforting. Shakily, he reached out with one hand, his fingers sinking into the smooth white hair of the fur collar. Kagami gasped, delighted that it was even softer than he'd hoped for. One pet turned into two, and then many more, until he was standing in the Hokage's office, transfixed with feeling the texture. He wasn't sure how long he stood there, bringing the fur to his face and hugging it.

Making sure the Hokage got the letter was almost the last thing on his mind when the door slammed open and he jumped, releasing the fur and letting it fall to the floor.

"Hashi-niiii!" A familiar voice screamed. Kagami turned, surprised to see the girl he'd helped standing in the doorway. She was breathing hard like she ran all the way across the village, and when her eyes fell on him, she looked just as surprised.

"Er," Kagami swallowed, feeling the need to clarify, "I wasn't going through anything on the Hokage's desk!"

That seemed like the last thing on her mind as she slowly walked into the room. The closer she got, the more he could see that her round eyes, which he'd originally thought were brown, actually were a shade closer to burnt gold. "Is that Tobi-nii's fur?" she asked, pointing at the strip of white fur at his feet.

"U-Uh…" Kagami felt his palms start to sweat.

The mysterious girl bent down and picked it up. "I wonder if he left it here…" she mused aloud. Then, setting it aside, she beamed at him. "This is yours." In her hand was a scroll, and when he looked carefully, he noticed the Uchiha wax seal, still somehow intact, sealing the parchment.


She shrugged. "Maybe they got switched when you helped me." That made as much sense as anything. It was the only thing that made sense, actually. "I got all the way to Chisa-chan's house before I noticed."

Reaching behind him, Kagami grabbed the scroll and presented it to her, taking his own scroll back with the other. "Thank you…um…"

"I'm Reira!" she declared proudly. "And you're Kagami-kun."

"Right," he agreed. Her liveliness had a way of putting him at ease. "I'm glad we switched these back before I gave it to the Hokage." How embarrassing would it have been to deliver the wrong message? What would Madara-sama have said had he found out?

"Mm-hm," Reira hummed. "Speaking of Hashi-nii, it's funny he's not in his office. He usually is this time of day…unless he's hiding from Tobi-nii…" she pouted. "I bet that's it."

Confused, he canted his head. "Are you talking about the Hokage? Y-You're being kind of informal, aren't you?"

"A little," she poked her index fingers together, looking sheepish. "But that's because they're like big brothers to me."

Realization suddenly settled over him. "You're a Senju?" It didn't make sense for any other child to be so familiar with the Hokage and his brother.

Reira grinned. "And you're an Uchiha." To his surprise, she poked his nose. "But I could tell that just by looking at you. Plus, I saw the fan on your back before."

She had him there. "Where was your message supposed to go?" It didn't seem to unnerve her at all that she was speaking to an Uchiha, but he'd never talked to a Senju close to his age before. He hadn't spoken more than a few brief words with any of his clan's once-sworn-enemies at all. Kagami wasn't old enough to actually hold true malice for them.

He understood their bitter history, and that Madara-sama and the Hokage had known each for many years. Aside from that, he was content to let the adults sort out any lingering bitterness they held. Changing the subject was better than dwelling on it.

"To Chisa-chan's house." Noticing his furrowed brow, she quickly explained, "Chisato Aburame. She's my friend. I took a message from Tobi-nii about some big meeting to her family. Well, I tried to. I got to the gates and then I saw the Uchiha crest."

"How'd you know where to find me?" Maybe she was a sensor-type.

"I guessed~"

Kagami sweatdropped. "You…guessed?"

Reira laughed nervously, surprising him as she hoisted herself onto the Hokage's desk with some difficulty, in spite of clearly struggling in her yukata. "Tobi-nii can be kinda mean…I didn't want to tell him," she admitted. "But Hashi-nii always keeps my secrets. I thought if I gave him the scroll, he'd help me figure out what to do. And he knows that one Uchiha!" she held up a pointer finger. "You know the one? His face looks like this?"

Reira proceeded to cover her left eye with one hand and scowl deeply.

"You mean Madara-sama? He doesn't look like that!"

"If he doesn't, how'd you know who I meant," she wiggled her eyebrows slyly. Kagami blushed. She reached over and picked up the fur he'd been playing with, looping part of it around her neck like a scarf, and then hopping down from the desk, holding the other end out to him.

"It's nice, right?"

"R-Reira-san, are you sure you should—"

"Reira." She corrected. "Just Reira. We're the same age! Probably."

"Reira," Kagami paused. "Are you sure you should do that?" Outwardly, he wanted to be the responsible one. But deep inside, he remembered the plushness of the fur against his cheek, and he thought about how comfortable it would be if he wrapped it around his neck.

"You know you want to do this," she teased, nimbly looping it around his neck several times.

Kagami sputtered, "W-Wait," he protested belatedly.

"Too late," she sighed, snuggling with her end. "I always do this when Tobi-nii's not around and I can get ahold of it. But he watches it way too hard! I don't blame you for trying to sneak a cuddle too, Kagami-kun."

"I wasn't!" His treacherous fingers clutched at the fur, but he couldn't make them unwind it. They held it tighter instead.

Reira made an unconvinced noise. "How much trouble will you be in?" she asked suddenly. "I'll be in lots. I know I was supposed to go home a long time ago…"

Kagami didn't want to think about how fast he got sidetracked from such a simple task. Madara-sama would never trust him with any responsibility again. "I…I…"

"What the hell are you two doing?"

Reira squealed, and Kagami shook as he felt a daunting aura pressing down on him from just over his shoulder. "Run Kagami-kun!" she cried, trying to take off. Unfortunately, the fur around his neck tightened as she started to drag him behind her, as he felt his eyes roll into the back of his head. The soft fur was suddenly choking him out, and what a humiliatingly ridiculous way to go!

"Urk!" he coughed, "R-Reira…"

A strong hand grasped the fur collar and snatched it from them both. Kagami stumbled, falling onto the wooden floor.

"Reira," a stern voice barked. "What are you doing? I told you explicitly not to goof off. Clearly, this was more than you could handle."

Getting over his embarrassment, the Uchiha turned slowly, his eyes starting at the sandaled feet and traveling up into the grim faced of the Hokage's brother, Tobirama Senju.

"T-T-Tobi-nii, I didn't expect…to see you here?"

"I'm sure you didn't." he grunted. "But you were taking far too long, so I tracked you down."

He wasn't positive, but it sounded like Reira muttered "I hate sensors so much" under her breath.

"I can explain, Senju-san," Kagami started. "We met on the way to our destinations, and accidentally took the wrong scrolls. I was supposed to deliver this to the Hokage," Tobirama took the scrool from him and opened it without a second thought, his eyes quickly reading the steady script of Madara's hand.

"Very well," His red eyes drifted to Reira, and she stiffened in place. "Take that to the Aburame's at once. No more delays. Have their response to me in the hour. This is your last chance," he warned.

Reira nodded so hard Kagami was concerned for her neck. "See you around, Kagami-kun!" she waved, scampering out of the room.

That left him and the most intimidating man he'd ever encountered, outside Madara.

"What were you doing with this?" he demanded, pointing to his fur collar. It looked out of place resting on his shoulders against the deep blue fabric of his casual yukata, but he didn't dare voice it.

"It was soft…" he opted for honesty. "…I like soft things. I-I'm sorry. It was wrong to touch it."

Tobirama looked satisfied by that. "You're not as insolent as I'd expect an Uchiha brat to be…but keep your hands off this."

"Y-Yes," Kagami would agree to anything in that moment.

"Then I can look the other way this time."

Relief rushed through his veins. In hindsight, his conduct had been embarrassing, regardless of the reason. If anyone in his clan ever found out, Manabu's taunting would be the least of his worries.

"I'll see to it that my brother receives this. Tell Madara the message was successfully delivered and that he'll get his response shortly."

Somehow, it wasn't what Kagami was expecting. It was almost like…Tobirama was trying to show pity. But the tales of the man's hatred for Uchiha were well known, so maybe it was wishful imagining. Either way, Kagami refused to waste the opportunity to bow out gracefully—literally—giving the man one last flustered apology before running home.

Sakura sucked in a deep breath, wondering if her ribs would be alright. "It's a little tight," she reached for her waist, but Toka's firm fingers brushed hers away.

"It should be," she assured.

"Sakura," Yurine popped up from behind her, holding out two hair ornaments. "Which one do you like more?" The ones in her left hand were wooden, a small oval piece of polished amber inlaid in the wide, flat part, a thin gold chain with white beads dangling from the other end. In Yurine's right hand was a silver comb with a meticulously crafted red blossom decoration attached to it. Both looked too extravagant and delicate to ever be set into her hair.

"The comb, of course." Toka answered for her.

Yurine studied the comb, and then the hair pins, "I would have thought the amber hair pins…" After shopping for a formal kimono with Toka, they had met Yurine by chance as she wandered around, buying items to adjust to her new life.

She'd explained that after being with the Kaguya for over a year, she had decided to treat herself to a new wardrobe. Sakura explaining why she was kimono shopping had piqued the blonde's interest, and she'd been only too happy to offer her assistance. Apparently any time away from her brother and his attempts to charm any girl he met, were much appreciated.

The three woman stood, preparing Sakura for the meeting, only a short hour away. Getting into her kimono required help, and she was grateful to have extra sets of hands. Toka worked on making sure the soft pink kimono with the slightly darker blossom pattern was immaculate, while Yurine brushed through her hair.

When she was done, she gathered it up in her hands, and Sakura vaguely noticed that since her time in the era, it had grown past her shoulders again, brushing her shoulder blades. "There," Yurine tucked the comb into her pink tresses so that some of her hair was secured in a perfect bun at the top of her head while the rest was left to hang. "It's beautiful," she sighed wistfully.

"It is a really nice ornament," Sakura agreed.

"That too," Yurine mumbled. "But I meant your hair. The shade and texture are so appealing. Much nicer than mine." Sakura touched a hand to her hair and blushed.

"I never thought I'd hear anyone say that." It was a far cry from the comments children made about it during her academy years. Even adults would occasionally whisper behind their hands about how odd it was.

"Why not?" Yurine gasped, genuinely alarmed. "Anywhere you go, this hair would make you the talk of town. I can see why you had to conceal it when you infiltrated the Kaguya's compound."

Toka had begun painting her lips with a deep red stainer that served as the lipstick of the period. Sakura wisely kept her mouth closed during the process, noticing the stern look Toka shot her. Two days of careful coaching later, she wanted to believe she was ready for whatever any bigoted clan leader could possibly throw at her.

The truth, however, was that despite the bravado she'd given the Hokage, and despite her desire to help see young children from humble upbringings allowed in the academy, it was a daunting role that rested firmly on her shoulders. Who knew what turn history would take from her actions? "Let that dry." The Senju ordered as she leaned away to inspect her work.

Sakura smoothed her hands down the front of her kimono, discreetly trying to loosen the obi while nodding. Toka, once again, chased her hands away.

When Sakura felt the stainer was sufficiently dry, she addressed Yurine, who was still perched behind her, waiting for an answer.

"You'd be surprised that the attention my hair gets isn't always the best kind," she joked wryly.

"Those people were speaking from a place of jealousy then." Yurine said, firm in her resolve to defend Sakura's hair.

Sakura couldn't deny that Yurine's admiration was sweet and so she smiled in gratitude.

"You should look at yourself in the mirror before you leave, but I believe our work is done." There was a certain gentleness to Toka's tone that reminded the pinkette of a proud older sister.

Sakura carefully stood from the cushion under her knees, faltering as she got use to the restriction of the kimono. Toka wasn't exaggerating about the yukatas feeling so much lighter in comparison. The layers of fabric she was currently wrapped in made her feel like a well-folded tomago.

Waddling her way across the room with difficulty, Sakura stood in front of the full length mirror, taken aback by the sight of the young woman it reflected. She looked into a face with clear green eyes and lips made to look fuller from Toka's steady application of the lip paint. Yurine had groomed her hair to a shine, leaving long pieces on either side that curled at her cheeks and framed her face. The kimono that had been decided on was a matching shade to her hair and it gave her an air of understated elegance. The patterning was simple and feminine, vibrant.

"Wow," she breathed.

"You agree now, don't you?" Yurine asked, squeezing at her shoulder. "Not just your hair is beautiful. You may find a suitor or two before the meeting ends." Sakura's cheeks pinkened as Yurine winked.

"Yuhi, enough joking," Toka shook her head. "Sakura has her goal in front of her. Something so unimportant as the opinions of a man shouldn't matter."

"They won't." Sakura stated. Since taking an unexpected plunge through time, the whirlwind of evidence around her had left little to no time to think of romance.

"You're right," Yurine pouted slightly. "This wouldn't be the appropriate time, would it?"

"And yet you sound unconvinced," Toka rolled her eyes. "It strikes me that you may be a bit of a romantic."

Sakura stared at her friend curiously, but Yurine had turned away, running both hands through the ends of her ponytail. "I'll take that as a yes."

"Ignore her, and put your best foot forward." Saying that, Toka began to shove her from her bedroom by the shoulders.

"Why am I rushing?" Sakura cried.

"You'll want to be early, to make a good impression."

Toka kept pushing at her until she was at her front door. Yurine opened it, and Usamaro darted in.

"I thought she wasn't trying to impress." Yurine whispered accusingly.

"Not for that particular purpose. But as an equal to any men who may see her as anything less? Yes, she absolutely is." Sakura had to catch herself as Toka almost shoved her through the threshold of her own front door.

'Did I just get kicked out of my own house?'

"We're in your corner." Yurine gave her a quick hug, and Toka lifted her chin when the blonde girl pulled away.

"Remember what we've practiced." Sakura felt something being pressed into her hand, and looked down to see the directions to the Uchiha compound that had been delivered by a hawk.

"I'm surprised you aren't going to be there." Sakura worried her lip. Toka, a strong, poised woman, would have been a wonderful support to have at her side throughout the meeting. As it was, she wasn't sure how many, if any, women would be present. For all she knew, she'd be trapped in a room full of men for an indefinite length of time, and half would be hostile, worst case scenario.

"There will be two Senju there already. If there were anymore, their might be accusations that Lord Hashirama was trying to create bias."

It was reasonable to limit the presence of Senju at the meeting. Any more than necessary, and the other clans might start to suspect.

"Let us walk you," Yurine insisted, pulling Sakura down the street by her hand.

"Do you even know the way?"

Yurine nodded down at the note she was clutching, and Sakura sighed in acquiesce.

"Right…" she sighed. "Right…"


Standing at the entrance to the Uchiha compound was an incredibly thrilling and nerve-wrecking feeling, Sakura decided. On the one hand, this would be her first time ever setting foot in it. A part of her was curious about what Sasuke's ancestral home was like. There was no telling how close this version of it was to the one in her time period, but it was still the Uchiha compound regardless, and she would get to see it.

"This is where we part," Toka announced.

"I understand. Thank you for keeping me company on the way over."

She directed this mostly at Yurine, who almost looked more anxious than she was. "I'm sorry," the Yuhi said. "Big compounds like this…remind me a little too much of the Kaguya I suppose."

Sakura's heart panged with sympathy. Daily life with the Kaguya for just over a week would sometimes affect her sanity, but it was nothing in comparison to those who had survived months or even years with them. The ordeal clearly caused Yurine trauma.

"I'll take you home," Toka stated. Yurine nodded, grasping the Senju's arm firmly. They walked away slowly after Sakura was given one final look of confidence from Toka and a weak smile from Yurine, who looked almost physically ill.

Sakura made a mental note to check on her later, turning and facing the more immediate challenge: The inevitable confrontation.

The gates were open, presumably to welcome all the visitors who would be attending the meeting. However, two Uchiha were posted at the gate, chatting amicably and not looking the least bit on guard.

'Huh…' Sakura wandered up to them, pasting on a polite, confident smile. "Excuse me..." They both looked up lazily, and then did double takes.

"Yes?" The sentry on the right asked. She was tall and lean, with shiny black hair that fell straight down her back and a high-collared, sleeveless yukata.

"I'm here for the meeting this afternoon?" Sakura resisted the urge to nervously wring her hands.

"Clan affiliation?" the second sentry questioned. An older man with the beginnings of frown lines at his mouth and bags beneath his eyes, hair cropped incredibly close to his ears and wearing the same standard Uchiha garb as the woman, but with sleeves.

"I'm not from a clan, actually. I'm Sakura Haruno and I'm here as the representation for civilian families." The sentries shared a perplexed look, before the woman pulled out a scroll and studied it carefully.

"Her name is here." she muttered, pointing.

"Then you may pass," the man gestured to the opened wood gates, and Sakura nodded as she shuffled through.

Inside, she was greeted with a charming traditional style that was befitting of the Uchiha, in her opinion. The first thing she noticed were the people, the second was the homes seemed to be built close together and connected by the engawa that wrapped around them.

Almost everyone she caught eyes with had black or brown hair and pale skin, dressed in dark clothes that shared the same red and white fan. In her pink kimono and with her equally eye catching hair, she became a commodity the minute she set foot inside. No one looked hostile, at least. But she was getting plenty of long, openly curious gazes.

Sakura glanced at the note she'd received two days prior. It didn't have details about which building to go to, and she'd rather not wander around drawing more attention to herself. Asking for help was always an option. Any one of the Uchiha currently gaping at her could probably point her in the right direction.

"Would you like some assistance?"

"Yes please," Sakura nodded, still looking down at the slip of paper in her hands. "I'm Sakura Haruno, and I'm trying to..." Her words trailed off as she looked up into Izuna's smirking face. "Oh,"

"What an enthusiastic greeting." Izuna teased.

"I didn't expect you!" Sakura defended.

"You're in the Uchiha compound, and the fact that you might see me didn't occur to you?"

Sakura glared, even though she could feel her cheeks getting warmer. "I'm a little preoccupied today."

"Aa. Madara said you'd be attending the meeting today. Representing civilian entry into the academy."

Sakura looked at him curiously. "Does that bother you?"

"Not at all," Izuna offered her his arm. Sakura only paused a second before accepting it. "Since you've arrived early, why don't I show you around?"

She couldn't deny she was curious. "Alright," It was perfect. She could get a tour without having to be pushy. "You weren' weren't waiting for me to show up, were you?"

Izuna laughed heartily. "No, no. Nothing like that. I've just always had incredibly convenient timing. Depending on who you ask, that is."

Sakura could feel some of her anxiety easing. Izuna wasn't just a familiar face, but a friendly one. It was nice to have at least one ally in unfamiliar territory.

"I'm afraid that the compound itself is nothing spectacular. It's only been here as long as the village has, so there's no centuries of lore packed away." She listened to the low rumble of his voice and gently leaned against the arm she was gripping. He didn't seem to mind, looking down at the top of her head with a twinkle in his eyes as he kept talking. "We have our own training ground." he pointed out a group of young boys sparring as they walked past, and when they looked up and saw Izuna, all of them stopped mid-fight and ran over.


"These are some of my students. I regularly teach the children the techniques passed through generations." Izuna explained.

"So you're a sensei?" she asked, interested. "I guess you probably have the patience for it." Because anyone who was Madara's sibling would have to learn patience, right? Sakura stowed the bitter thoughts, looking down into the questioning young faces.

"I'm Sakura,"

"What clan are you from?" one of the boys immediately questioned. "You have strange hair." He backed away warily.

""That's rude, Manabu." Izuna admonished.

"I'm use to it," Sakura told him. "And to answer your question, I'm not from a well known clan. My last name is Haruno."

"Sakura Haruno...? Is your given name because of your hair?" asked a bright-eyed little girl in pigtails.

"Something like that."

"My name's Miyako, 'cause I was born at night." she introduced herself.

"Miyako's a nice name," Sakura complimented.

"I know, right?" The girl agreed proudly.

Miyako's greeting prompted the other children to lower their guard, because soon they had all circled Sakura and Izuna, eager to talk. "I'm Tenma," said a tall boy with lank hair that covered his eyes almost entirely.

"Manabu." The largest child leered, his nose lifted in the air. "The runt's Kagami." he drawled, fluttering his eyelashes as he clasped his hands under his chin mockingly. Kagami was a cute boy with large eyes framed by sooty lashes, and wavy hair unlike any Sakura had ever seen on an Uchiha.

"I'm not a runt..." Kagami objected. "You're just a little older."

"What's the difference?" Manabu cackled. "Any way I look at it, you're a wimp."

"That's enough out of you, Manabu," Izuna jabbed a thumb back to the training grounds. "Go work on your kata again. Your form's still sloppy." Miyako and Tenma snickered as Manabu's ears turned red.

Glowering, Manabu stomped back to the training field, Tenma and Miyako following him.

"I'm not sure when he got so antagonistic." Izuna shook his head. He placed a hand atop Kagami's mussed hair. "This is my star pupil, Sakura-san."

Kagami tucked his chin to his chest shyly, avoiding their eyes. "I wouldn't say star...I'm just getting the techniques a little faster than the others right now."

"Don't let the humbleness fool you," Izuna continued. "He's got true talent. If anything, I think he's holding himself back."

Sakura carefully leaned forward, smiling kindly. "You know, Kagami, if you don't mind me saying so, I don't think you should hold back just because of a bully."

His dark eyes slowly drifted to her face. "Every time I beat Manabu at anything, he hates me more."

"Speaking from experience, that's usually more about them than it is about you."

"She's right," Izuna chimed in. "You're younger than Manabu, and he sees how much you're progressing and feels threatened. Even if it all has to come to a head before it gets resolved, you should stand your ground."

"It's not just because I beat him in a couple of spars..." Kagami looked up at them imploringly. "Izuna-sama, is it wrong to help others who aren't Uchiha, or to like cats because they're soft?"

"I think you know the answer to that already." Izuna ruffled his curly hair.

"And if you like cats, I have a kitten Izuna-san brought me. Maybe you could visit with him the next time he comes by."

Kagami's eyes bulged and his lips parted minutely. "A k-kitten that Izuna-sama gave you?"

"Did I say something wrong?" Sakura wondered. Kagami suddenly looked like he'd lost his best friend.

"I use to play with a cat who was a stray here...but, it's gone now."

"No it isn't." Izuna removed his hand from Kagami's head and looked at Sakura. "Sakura-san was able to save it, and it lives with her now."

The young Uchiha's face went slack with disbelief, and then lit with joy. "The stray's alive?"

"Not just alive, lively." Sakura explained. "He's always starting trouble."

"I thought...Madara-sama were you able to save him?" he stammered.

"A little medical ninjutsu goes a long way."

"You're a medic?" Kagami's expression was reverent. "Thank you, for saving it."

"All in a day's work. I'm sure if you were friends, then Usamaro would love to see you again."

Kagami looked at Izuna for permission, and he nodded. "If you're sure it's no trouble, then I'd like that."

"Feeling better now?" Izuna asked. "Go on and rejoin the others." The three of them looked over at the training feeling to see the other children pretending not to watch Kagami interact with the adults. They were clearly trying to guess what they had been talking about.

Kagami bowed in gratitude and ran off.

"He's a good kid." Sakura was almost reminded of how upbeat she had seen Sasuke for the brief time she had known him before the Uchiha Massacre.

"Yes." Izuna looked on with fondness as they stood and watched the children start sparring again, Kagami helping Miyako with her kata. "They all are. Even Manabu, when he allows himself to be." Izuna held up his arm again. "We still have time before we're expected at the meeting, would you like to see more."

"Lead the way." Sakura squeezed his arm lightly, and they started walking again.

She noticed as they wandered around that while the compound had an air of distance and dignity, the Uchiha themselves were amicable to each other, stopping to talk, or exchanging polite greetings in passing as they rushed on their separate ways.

This was what the Uchiha were truly like, no less of a family than the Senju or any other clan. Witnessing it almost made her feel guilty. 'So this is what Sasuke got robbed of...'

"Are you getting tired, Sakura-san?" Izuna asked, concern.

"I'm fine. Just lost in thought. But tell me more about the compound. Like that, for example." She pointed at a stand that had quite the line, hoping to redirect Izuna's attention.

"Though we're far from being entirely self-sustaining, some Uchiha who aren't as active as shinobi have shops to support themselves. That's one of them. It sells several kinds of sweet buns."

Sakura's stomach took the opportunity to remind her that she had forgone breakfast. She was mortified by the noise it made, and clutched at her abdomen in horror, but Izuna looked unbothered.

"Excuse me, I'm feeling a little hungry. You don't mind if we stop for a snack, do you Sakura-San?" Sakura couldn't have been more grateful that he was kind enough to allow her to save face.

"If you insist,"

"I do." Izuna pulled her toward the line, which was, to Sakura's pleasure, at least moving.

The smell of fresh pastries tickled her nose as a woman walked by, munching on a bun. Sakura discreetly wiped the drool from her lips when Izuna wasn't looking. She could almost taste the custard filling of a creampan.

The woman noticed her staring and made a show of licking the custard from the corner of her mouth. "What's this? I haven't seen you in so long, and when I do, I find out I've been replaced?" Her disapproval was directed at Izuna, who had taken his eyes from the stand at the sound of her voice.

"Hello to you too, Naoko." Sakura started between them, feeling awkward. She wasn't sure exactly what was going on, but the beautiful dark-haired woman was studying Izuna with betrayed eyes.

Sakura watched "Naoko" finish the rest of her sweet bun and suck her finger clean. "You're so cruel, pretending nothing's wrong between us."

Izuna stared blankly. "Because there is nothing wrong between us. There's nothing between us at all, and I'd thank you to stop making Sakura-san uncomfortable."

sakura began loosening her grip on Izuna's arm, worried she may appear too forward in front of this strange woman who was watching them with so much intensity.

Izuna caught her hand as she stepped away and used it to pull her back to his side. "Sakura-san, this is Naoko. An old friend."

Naoko tittered behind a small hand. "I'm sorry, but the thought of embarrassing little Izuna-chan there is just too fun."

Sakura took a side-long glance at Izuna. He looked more annoyed than embarrassed, and she was positive her cheeks were the only ones burning up.

"It's so thrilling to finally meet Izuna's Sakura-san." She cooed suggestively.

"Naoko," he warned, his jaw twitching.

She closed one eye, shaking her head with a sigh. "You never allow me to have any fun. I'll behave, alright?" Her dark eyes glittered as they met Sakura's.

"In all sincerity, Izuna speaks highly of you. If I didn't know better, I'd say you've managed to impress Madara too."

Sakura couldn't keep herself from gaping at that news. "What do you mean?"

Naoko's bottom lip jutted out in confusion. "You haven't figured it out? Well, Madara is a tough one to read, for the most part. Or at least he pretends to be."

"I think what she means to say is, my brother may appear dismissive, but it's clear when you're mentioned that you've gained his respect in at least some regard."

"Y-You really think so?" Sakura blushed.

"Is it true you put Tobirama Senju on his ass?" Naoko asked with an eager gleam in her eye.

Sakura felt the back of her neck and confirmed that it was, indeed, very warm. To be confronted about her spar with Tobirama was something she hadn't planned on.

"It was a spar."

"A spar you won." Izuna was uncharacteristically smug all of a sudden. "Madara came home quite amused about that. I have to say, that's a sight I wouldn't have minded witnessing myself."

"Oh Izu-chan," Naoko sighed. "Have I ever told you how attractive you are when you're being sadistic? Because you are. When you get like this..." she paused, her face flushing madly.

Izuna ignored her, turning to Sakura. "It isn't that I still hold hostility toward the Senju...this is a new era of peace, and as long as the Uchiha are treated with respect, I'm willing to give this alliance a chance. Even Kagami has made friends with a Senju from what I understand. But..." he grit his teeth.

"But some individuals are harder to forgive than an entire group." Sakura finished knowingly.

"It was awful," Naoko frowned. "That Senju gutted Izuna like a fish and left him to die like it was nothing. Still keeps Madara awake at night."

'How does she know what keeps him awake at night?' Sakura thought. Then, it was as if her subconscious rose up to smack the naivety out of her. 'Oh...' That was an image of a Madara she truly didn't need.

"Next!" Sakura looked up to see the man running the sweet bun stand looking at them expectantly. "You're still buying, aren't you?"

This time, it was Sakura who tugged Izuna along with her.

"See you around Izu-chan. Remember to be the gentleman I expect you to be with Sakura-san." The wink she gave them as she strolled away made it hard to look Izuna in the eye.

"Ignore it. Naoko's always that way." Izuna whispered. "We'll have four anpan, please." he told the vendor.

The man began preparing a small box containing the snacks.

"She seemed to know you really well..."

"Did you think I was lying when I said she was simply an old friend?" Izuna smirked.

Sakura frantically shook her head. "N-no...even if she wasn't, it's none of my business."

"Rest assured, Naoko is a childhood friend to both Madara and I."

He handed the vendor money for their sweet buns and accepted the package before Sakura had time to protest about him paying. "Let's find somewhere quiet to eat these."

Sakura couldn't deny she was still hungry. It wouldn't help her credibility with the clan heads if she went into the meeting on an empty stomach and couldn't concentrate.


"Somewhere quiet" turned out to be the dock of a man-made lake. Sakura couldn't stop marveling on how big the space the Uchiha lived on was. It was a sizable three acres, at least, if not more.

"Help yourself." Izuna gestured to the box of sweets, and Sakura took an anpan, biting into it slowly. The flavor on her tongue was delicious, and she tried not to shove it into her mouth in one bite.

"They're very good, aren't they? Hatsu makes them fresh every day. He hasn't been able to return to the battlefield since a bad leg injury years ago, and he turned to baking. The whole clan is happy, and a little plumper for it." Izuna explained, taking a bite of his own anpan.

"I haven't had anpan in so long...when I was feeling down or someone was mean to me, my mother would take me to a bakery and we'd talk it out over these..." Those were during her academy days, when her mother was always fussing over her. Sakura always felt a little sad they'd gotten so estranged the more time she had spent advancing her shinobi career.

Mebuki had indulged her daughter entering the academy, but the kunoichi knew in the back of her mind that it was something her mother half expected her to grow out of, retiring from shinobi life to settle down at a young age, like she had.

But Sakura fell further in love with being a ninja every year, and after taking up her apprenticeship under Tsunade, she couldn't imagine retiring only to waste her skills when she could be helping others.

"I'm not sure I have such I have memories like those anymore. My earliest memories are Madara showing me how to hold a sword, helping me back up when our father knocked me down while we trained."

It was hard to reconcile the image of the ruthless man who had single-handedly mowed through ninja during the war, with a kind, reliable brother, but she and Izuna had vastly different experiences involving Madara, so she shouldn't really be surprised.

"I know what you're thinking." Izuna startled her by saying. "That's hard to imagine, but it's true."

"Even if...even if I can't see what you do in him, I don't doubt he cares for you as much as you do him." Sakura nibbled on her anpan.

"I meant what I said back there. Your spar impressed Madara. I think he wouldn't mind facing you himself, the way he was talking."

An image of being impaled by one of his rods during battle flashed in her mind, and she placed a hand on the spot. Without the knowledge she had from Tsunade, she would have been a goner.

"Is what Naoko said true too? That you almost died?"

Izuna's whole mood soured instantly, and Sakura wanted to smack herself. "It was a fatal wound. The healers couldn't save me."

"That can't be're...I mean you're here."

Izuna turned his whole body to face her. "If I told you what Madara told me, you really would call me a liar."

"Pretend I wouldn't," Sakura breathed, her heart hammering.

"I don't remember any of this, mind you...but according to Madara." He shook his head, brow furrowed in consternation. "No. Even repeating it aloud makes it sound far fetched."

"I've seen a lot of far-fetched things." Sakura pressed. And lately even moreso.

"According to Madara, the healers said I would die befor the end of the week. That was when a woman no one had ever seen before appeared. She was beautiful, and almost too graceful to be human. She said she could heal me...and she did."

Alarm flashed through her. 'It can't be!'

"Did he say what she looked like?" She was almost afraid to hear the answer. 'Please don't say she had dragon horns!'

"He said she hid her face, but...he caught a glimpse of her eyes, and they looked sharp, cunning. A little like a snake's. The most unbelievable part is the way he says she saved pulling a black butterfly from my side, and eating it."

The confirmation of what she'd already guessed slammed into her, making her feel light-headed. Mizuchi saved Izuna...why? What was she planning. Sakura hadn't even known Izuna then, had she?

"It sounds ridiculous, but here I am." Izuna laughed, expecting her to laugh too.

Sakura didn't. Her face was drained of color. "It's not ridiculous."

Izuna stopped laughing and gently took her hand. "Sakura-san?" The second anpan she'd started to eat was forgotten as she stared out over the calm lake. Mizuchi was calculating about every move she made. Reviving Izuna from the brink of death couldn't be any different.

Madara bowed to the next clan head to arrive, Shinpachi Shimura, masking his displeasure with the whole affair under a stone face of indifference. As usual, it was Hashirama's fault. He had insisted that the Uchiha should host the meeting, because other clans were still wary of them, and proving themselves as hosts would raise positive sentiment. It was a nice thought, but hardly worth the hassle. Madara wasn't one to put on airs. He didn't particularly care who felt what about his clan. They had been misunderstood long before he took over as clan head.

"You're glaring again." Hashirama whispered from beside him. Madara proceeded to glare harder in defiance.

Sasuke Sarutobi entered the hall, greeting Hashirama first, and then bowing respectfully at Madara. "We're happy you could make it Sasuke." Hashirama said. "Please have a seat anywhere inside."

"Thank you," The Sarutobi bowed again, walking into the meeting room. So far he was keeping company with Shimura, Akamichi, Aburame, Nara, and Hashirama's rotten little brother. One of many reasons he'd chosen to stand outside the door with Hashirama to greet guests as they arrived. Izuna should have been there, suffering with him.

He stared down the hall impatiently. "What's wrong?" Hashirama asked, looking ridiculously eager, as if getting every one on the same page would be a simple matter. Optimistic fool.

"We're missing Izuna and Haruno."

"Huh? They're right there," He followed the line of Hashirama's finger to see Izuna escorting Sakura Haruno down the hall as if he didn't have a care in the world. Madara decided to ignore how at ease she looked, holding onto Izuna as if they were lovers just getting back from a stroll of leisure.

It was harder to ignore her appearance, however. It was the first time he had seen her dressed formally, her hair styled and her lips painted. The green of her eyes was sharper as she briefly met his stare and then pointedly ignored him.

The snugness of her baby pink kimono made the curves normally hidden by the loose yukatas he always saw her in more pronounced, harder to ignore. Izuna looked proud of himself, to have her hanging from his arm. His brother reminded him of a reckless young samurai who had been designated to escort the daughter of a lord.

Madara decided he was doing a valiant effort in hiding his ire at the two of them. While he had been dreading the start of the meeting, Izuna was off frolicking with Haruno, leaving the stuffy greetings to him.

"Where were you?" he demanded. Madara's glare traveled to her hand resting in the crook of Izuna's arm. Hashirama noticed too, but his eyes suggested he was more disappointed than irritated. Hashirama, being the fool that he was, likely would've escorted Haruno himself if he was given the chance.

"Showing Sakura-san around." Izuna replied evenly. When had his brother become such a big little shit?

"We're ready to begin," Madara cleared his throat. "Unless you're plannng to take an afternoon boat ride on the lake?"

"Thank you once again for agreeing to this Sakura-san." Hashirama eased his way into the conversation.

"It's no trouble at all." Sakura grinned. Madara narrowed his eyes at her, and she narrowed hers right back. This was what made her simultaneously amusing and frustrating.

Hashirama sighed loudly as they watched Izuna and Haruno walk into the room together, immediately catching the attention of everyone already inside.

"I didn't realize your brother and Sakura-San had become so close..." he lamented.

"That makes two of us." Madara mumbled to himself.

Sakura knew almost instantly who was who. The rotund man at the farthest end of the table was without a doubt the head of the Akamichi. The lean man with dark hair to his shoulders, an eye patch and a look that said he'd rather be napping, leaning against the table, was the head of the Nara clan.

Sakura was both surprised but a little elated when she noticed a dark haired woman with bangs falling into her eyes and a kimono with a collar that rose to cover her mouth. Something about her presence reminded her of Chisato, and so she decided that the woman was an Aburame.

She didn't recognize the brown-haired man sitting on one side of the Nara with his arms crossed, but there was no mistaking the white hair and piercing red eyes of Tobirama.

Hashirama and Madara followed them into the room, taking seats closer to the head of the table. Sakura found herself sitting between Izuna and the Hokage, Tobirama directly across from her.

"Now, I believe we're ready to begin. Everyone should have received a copy of the proposal for the academy with their invitation."

"Indeed." agreed the Akamichi. "But shouldn't we all begin by introducing ourselves. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with everyone here."

"Good idea Chouto. As our host, maybe we should let Madara begin."

Sakura laughed a little in her head at the not so subtle look of contempt Madara shot him. "Madara Uchiha."

"D-Don't you have a little more to say?" Hashirama urged.

"No." The Uchiha said shortly. "I'll leave the babbling to you."

Most of the table chuckled goodnaturedly, including Hashirama himself. "Fair enough," the Hokage straightened himself in his seat. "I'll go next. I'm Hashirama Senju. I, along with my brother, will be representing the Senju clan's wishes today."

Sakura couldn't help but notice how handsome he was in his deep green kosode, a tan haori resting over it, and his hair pulled away from his face in a low ponytail.

All eyes trailed to Sakura, the one sitting next to Hashirama, and she squared her shoulders. "I'm Sakura Haruno. I'm here to represent civilian interests in this discussion."

"So you yourself are a civilian?" The man she didn't recognize grunted.

"I'm a kunoichi, actually." She gave him a sweet smile that didn't reach her eyes.

"No first rate shinobi, man or woman, can make it without the proper lineage behind them." Right out of the gate, Sakura knew this man would probably be her biggest detractor the entire meeting.

"I'd have to humbly disagree." Sakura replied. "Maybe you see it as unconventional or improper, but with equal attention, civilian children are more than capable of keeping up with their peers. That's why I'm here."

"Shinpachi...I've seen Sakura in action firsthand. Maybe we oughta just let her speak?" Sarutobi added. The man sent her a wink and she beamed.

"You're all willing to listen to this?" Shinpachi asked incredulously.

"We came all the way why not?" asked the Nara. "No reason to waste a trip."

Shinpachi settled back in his seat, clearly dissatisfied.

"Let's quickly get through the introductions, and then we can each raise our points." Izuna tapped her clenched fist under the table, a silent plea not to use physical violence on the pompous man. "I am Izuna Uchiha. I, along with my brother, will represent the interests of the Uchiha here today. I also work with some of the children in our clan, teaching them katon and bukijutsu techniques."

"I am Chouto Akamichi." The man across from Izuna introduced. The swirls on his cheeks and physical bulk made his clan obvious. "I represent the Akamichi clan here today." He nudged the man sitting next to him, who had started to doze off.

He stretched, not even bothering to disguise his yawn. "I'm Doi Nara." he adjusted his eyepatch. "I represent the Nara here today."

"I'm Sasuke Sarutobi. I'll be representing the Sarutobi clan." Sarutobi hadn't changed at all since she'd seen him last. He still had a thick, neatly trimmed beard, dark hair in a stylish topknot, and a natural casualness. The only different was the deep red kimono he had traded for the armor she had last seen him in.

The gruff man who hadn't stopped scowling since being effectively shut down held his head up until his nose was in the air. "I am Shinpachi Shimura and I represent the interests of the Shimura clan. I look forward to the argument you present to plead your case, kunoichi-san."

Sakura opened her mouth to give him a scathing retort when she felt a foot nudge hers underneath the table. At first, she suspected it to be Izuna, but it was Tobirama who caught her eye and gave her a discreet shake of his head. 'It's what he wants.' his eyes said.

Sakura silently conceded to his point. Shimura had heard her introduce herself, and yet he called her kunoichi, to mock her. Rising to the bait was exactly what he was hoping she would do.

The small woman with the quiet, knowing air spoke in her soft, clear voice. "I am Ayeka Aburame. I represent the Aburame clan." Sakura noticed with some anger the look of disdain Shimura sent her, but the Aburame only tilted her head in polite greeting.

Last was Tobirama, also looking much different than normal in a teal kimono and deep blue haori. His white hair was free of his happuri, leaving it to fall across his forehead. "I am Tobirama Senju. I, along with my brother, am here to represent the Senju today. I believe we are all clear on the matter of the academy being proposed, and what this means as the next step toward creating unity within the village among the next generation. Of course, not everyone is in agreement on how this should be done. We will each be given time to state our opinions, and explain them."

He looked at Shimura blankly, "Shimura, why don't we get your drivel out of the way first?"

Shimura's face immediately reddened, and Sakura heard the Hokage sputter on a cough beside her. He was an interesting mixture of appalled and shocked by his brother's words.

Sakura did her best not to laugh at Shimura's anger. Who knew there would be something on which she and Tobirama could agree?

Chapter Text

Shimura took a minute to compose himself, clearing his throat as he eyed Tobirama sharply. "I thought this was meant to be an open discussion in which we were all free to express our concerns. If mine are not to be taken into consideration, then perhaps the Shimura—" He made to stand, and Tobirama settled back in his seat, calling the bluff. Hashirama, predictably, fell for it.

"No Shimura-san, please stay. My brother is blunt—too blunt—but he didn't mean any disrespect…" Hashirama tried to make eye contact, silently pleading for him to offer some sort of apology. Tobirama turned away stubbornly. Shimura was wasting everyone's time. He refused to offer an apology for making his impatience known. "We would all be happy to let you speak…" Shimura considered the words and sat back down once again.

Clearing his throat, his eyes drifted around the room, landing squarely on Haruno. "As I was saying, it seems quite reckless to place civilian children in that environment. Quite idealistic that those of any background can become shinobi. But I am a realist."

"Shimura, if you don't mind me asking, where exactly are your concerns coming from?" Madara sighed. "Who are they for?"

"For the village, of course." Shimura retorted, looking indignant that anyone could think otherwise. "In the interest of seeing it prosper, I simply don't see allowing anyone who has a strong desire to become shinobi. That seems like a setup for disaster, inevitably. Our kunoichi friend," he gestured to Sakura, "perhaps is one of the few fortunate ones to survive this long, but most children not accustomed to the life of a ninja would have a hard time adapting. Would it not be cruel to let them think they could withstand it, only to see them cut down in their youth? Better to never put the idea in their heads. They can be perfectly satisfied as bakers and blacksmiths, can they not?"

"Shimura-san may have a bit of a point…" Chouto rubbed his chin. "While I'm not adverse to the idea of those without shinobi lineage being allowed to train, it's true that through generations of conditioning, the chakra coils of shinobi have become stronger and larger in comparison to a civilian-born counterpart. That's not to say that there isn't possible talent there."

"Exactly!" Tobirama watched as Haruno seized on the opportunity to take the floor. "When I started training, my chakra coil was nothing impressive. I wasn't physically very strong, either. I had perfect chakra control, but that was because I wasn't working with a large source of it. But I found a mentor willing to take me on, and I learned to play to my strengths. Maybe the conditions of being born civilian sound like an unsurmountable disadvantage to all of you, but it doesn't have to be. Someone like me is bound to have their own hidden strengths." She looked around the table, meeting eyes with all of them. "I think…I think it's impossible to say that you care about the future of the village, if you don't care about the futures of all of its villagers. The civilian child that's not allowed to enter the academy…might be the one who could have become the next Hokage!" Remembering herself, she turned to Hashirama with a shy smile. "Not that there's anything wrong with the current Hokage."

Hashirama waved his hand for her to continue.

"What I'm saying is, why place limits on a child? The academy curriculum, if it does its job, should naturally weed out anyone who doesn't feel inclined for shinobi life, or who isn't ready."

The clan heads began to murmur amongst themselves, Shimura sneering at them, disgruntled. "Touching," he spat, "but without anyone to back your claims—"

"I can attest to it!" Sarutobi interjected. "I was on a mission with Sakura not so long ago. She infiltrated the Kaguya stronghold and reigned hell down on them. I'm sure everyone here is aware of the Kaguya clan's reputation."

Shimura looked grudgingly impressed. "The Kaguya clan, you say? What were the specifications of the mission? How can we be truly sure that—"

"My daughter told me about that," Doi Nara confirmed. "She also said you figured out how to help her manage her condition...pretty quick thinking on your part."

Sakura looked away bashfully. "It was a simple solution in the end."

"For what it's worth, Shimura, Haruno did in fact take part in the mission to retrieve my fan." Madara added almost casually. "Handling the gunbai and fending off the Kaguya isn't a task suitable for a shinobi who doesn't have at least passable skills. Even you would admit that much."

Tobirama knew Madara and his pride well enough to understand that acknowledgement was not something he handed out lightly. Sakura recognized it as well, staring at the Uchiha in puzzlement, as if she didn't trust her own ears.

"Be that as it may, while I don't quite believe in luck, circumstances may sometimes permit unlikely things to happen. Such as surviving an encounter with the Kaguya with minimal skills."

Again, Shimura callously dismissed the possibility of Haruno's strength, and Tobirama recognized the temper he had become accustomed to build. Her eyes were an open window to her emotions, which was less than desirable for a shinobi, but convenient in the particular situation, where he found himself yet again giving her a stern look as one of her hands clenched the table, causing a faint mark. Her irritation redirected at him, the one who continued to give her nonverbal warnings to hold back.

'It isn't my fault,' he thought to say, 'That you don't have the temperament for diplomatic situations with the likes of Shimura.' Although, silently he would also agree that the man was grating at his own nerves. A healthy dose of skepticism, Tobirama was perfectly inclined to understand, but now Shimura seemed to be questioning decent logic in spite of himself, if only to spite Haruno.

"What if I could also vouch for Sakura-san's strength, Shimura-san?" Hashirama spoke up.

"Lord Hokage, with all respect, you are a man of fairness. It's why I felt comfortable pledging the Shimura to this village in the first place." Shimura said carefully. "But a woman's pretty words can be compelling…they offer the right…incentive…who is to say you wouldn't testify to something you haven't witnessed?"

The room grew silent. All conversation of the academy had almost become nonexistent in the last few minutes, but everyone was well aware that Shimura had crossed a line, bringing into question not only Hashirama's credibility, but also honesty, not to mention Haruno's virtue.

"Are you suggesting to her face that Sakura-san is immoral enough to seduce the Hokage to further her own agenda?" Izuna asked, his voice low.

"Forgive me if I misspoke, Izuna-san, I only meant—"

"Everyone here is aware of what you meant, Shimura." Madara cut in. "You forget your place."

Hashirama, his cheeks washed in red and no doubt humiliated, attempted to remain on higher ground, and offer Shimura an out he didn't deserve. "Ah…we should take a small intermission and allow ourselves time to…Sakura-san, are you alright?"

The kunoichi was doubled over and shaking, clutching herself tightly as if she was in physical pain. Everyone's eyes curiously settled on her.

"No," she bit out. She lifted her head, and her green eyes had turned such a dark, turbulent shade, it was electrifying. For the first time since the meeting had begun, Tobirama saw a glimpse of the fierce, stubborn girl that refused to yield in their spar behind the elegant wrapping of a polished, poised woman. When she had entered the room, the loathsome Uchiha at her side, he had discreetly stared longer than he would ever admit.

Undeniably, she had done a decent job of polishing herself to a shine. But even as he looked at her red-painted lips and the formal kimono, he saw the sharp-tongued, heavy hitting pink-haired Sakura Haruno, more than the delicately groomed one. Something he preferred more than all the elegance. That was the side that had finally made an appearance.

When she stared across the table, her gaze was hard and biting. Tobirama watched on keenly as she leveled the brunt of her anger at Shimura. "I don't care what insults you use to describe me…you're not the first person to think I'm weak and you won't be the last…but," her jaw clenched. "You should speak to the Hokage with more respect."

"Agreed." came the quiet voice of Ayeka Aburame. "Shimura-san, you have toed the line the entirety of this assembly, but now it seems you've more than crossed it."

Shimura shifted, his eyes darting around the room. The other clan heads gave him pressing looks, and Tobirama enjoyed the discomfort it clearly brought him. He was a fool in over his head to speak so freely.

He scolded Hashirama often, but he never once doubted his commitment to the village, a dream he had been nurturing since childhood. For anyone to suggest that his brother would be stupid enough to jeopardize the hard work they had achieved—were achieving— for the temptation of a woman, didn't understand him at all. "What now, Shimura?" Tobirama asked, "You seem to have misplaced your bluster. Perhaps you aren't done discovering new ways in which to question the integrity of everyone here."

Shimura understood that he had no allies in that moment. Tobirama could see it as he refused to meet anyone's eyes. "My apologies, Lord Hokage."

Hashirama gave a silent nod.

"You know, I have to say I think a small intermission would clear the air." Madara intoned, standing. The clan heads looked amongst themselves, standing too. "Izuna, if you would?"

Izuna rose, smiling pleasantly. "If you'd all like to follow me to the courtyard for some fresh air, you're welcome to."

Haruno made to follow them, purposely avoiding Shimura as she carefully got to her feet.

Tobirama shared a wary look with Madara as he passed by. He didn't particularly want to join the others in the courtyard. Instead, he would stand by the door and wait for the meeting to resume. That would give him the time he needed to think of counterarguments. The others could tip either way, truthfully. He knew Sarutobi was as good as convinced, but it was harder to read Nara and Aburame. Akamichi seemed to have doubts, and Shimura was, of course, the biggest detractor and would likely remain so the entirety of the meeting.

As he mulled how best to convince each individual over in his head, he noticed Hashirama place a hand on Haruno's shoulder as she made to go with the others, motioning for her to follow him in the opposite direction. Izuna nor the clan heads seemed to pay much attention as they kept going straight while Hashirama and Haruno veered down a hall to the left. Tobirama glared. He couldn't imagine what his brother was up to. Shimura had just implied there was something between them that would influence Hashirama's decision, and this would only look more incriminating.

Deciding it was up to him to keep his brother from sabotaging himself, Tobirama followed, stealthy and silent, chakra suppressed as he soundlessly scaled the fusuma and settled above their heads in the wagoya. Their voices were low in the empty hall, as they both began talking at the same time, pausing in shared embarrassment, until Hashirama prompted her to speak first.

"I know what you're going to say," Haruno began. "And you're right."

"About?" Hashirama pressed.

"My behavior back there. I let Shimura get to me, and it probably didn't help the case. I'm sorry." she bowed shortly.

Sighing, Hashirama touched her shoulder, and she lifted her head. "Sakura-san, I actually wanted to apologize. For Shimura's words. They were uncalled for, and after this I plan to speak with him privately. You…You're a respectable woman, you shouldn't be demeaned—"

"Wait," Sakura held up her hands, and Hashirama stopped speaking instantly. "Are you offended on my behalf?"

Hashirama considered her question, slowly nodding. "Yes…I am. You were offended on mine, weren't you?"

"That's different," Haruno defended, "You're the Hokage. He didn't have any right to attack you just because he was arguing with me."

Tobirama knew his brother well enough to anticipate that he wouldn't accept such an answer. Just as expected, Hashirama's face plainly expressed his displeasure at the notion. "Why am I owed more respect than you, because of a title?"

She didn't respond right away, her eyes studied the knots in the hardwood floors instead. "It's just…" Haruno fidgeted with the length of her sleeve. "You earned it— the title and the respect. Without you and the other Founders, Konoha wouldn't be…Konoha."

Hashirama looked at her thoughtfully. "More than me, or Madara, or Tobirama sharing a dream, the village became a reality because others believed in it. Others were willing to take a risk in following us. Including you, Sakura-san. Everyone in the village is a pillar who raises it up, from the smallest child…to the Hokage. We may have different jobs, but in my eyes one title isn't worth any more respect than the next one."

The hidden shinobi could almost see Haruno's eyes shining as she absorbed Hashirama's words.

"Was that a poor choice of words?" Hashirama started to fret. "I can think of another example." He cleared his throat grandly, "We're all the roots that give life to the mighty tree."

Haruno's mouth fell open quietly.

"Ah…I'm sorry. I've been told I have a habit of relating everything back to plants in some way. I can think of another exam—"

Tobirama hung his head. Couldn't the idiot see that she was moved by his speech the first time?

Sakura's sincere laughter seemed to catch Hashirama off guard. "It wasn't meant to be a joke."

"I know," she affirmed. "I know. But, I was just thinking, you remind me a little of someone. And you're right, we've all got our part to play. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I need to go back in there and show Shimura all the reasons why he shouldn't underestimate civilian born shinobi." Haruno's eyes fell to her kimono. "That's what I'd like to say, but this kimono is a little hard to actually maneuver in. So I'll settle for explaining why I'm right for now."

"That's the spirit," encouraged Hashirama.

"They should be coming back inside by now, right?" Haruno asked, canting her head. "We should get back."

"After you," Hashirama motioned politely and she slowly made her way past, using the fusuma for balance. Tobirama crouched lower in his spot on the wagoya, willing her not to look up.

"You might wanna go around me," Sakura suggested. "I'm still really slow in this."

It was Hashirama's turn to give a good-natured laugh. "Here, I can help," he offered his arm, and Sakura stared at it in momentary shock, before accepting shyly. There was such an easy candidness to their interactions, he felt like an intruder.

His brother patiently guided her down the hall, their chatter amicable as they turned the corner. Tobirama waited, giving them time to make it back to the room. He was preparing himself to descend to the floor, but the dark, malignant chakra signature coming his way had him tensing instead. He glared through red, slitted eyes as Madara walked by, almost rounding the corner before stopping.

"It's rude for you to lurk there." Not one to back away from the likes of Madara, Tobirama dropped to the floor with a quiet thunk. The Uchiha turned fully, the same intense look of dislike that mirrored his own contorting his face.

One thing that could always be said for their relationship was that neither man bothered to hide his distrust for the other. Without Hashirama serving as the link between them, Tobirama suspected the Uchiha and the Senju would still be doing battle.

Madara gave him a weighing glance, folding his arms. "Am I under suspicion in my own home now?"

"You are under suspicion everywhere you go." Tobirama spat.

One side of Madara's mouth lifted in a smirk. "You, like Shimura, also forget your place. Within these walls, I have the upper-hand. Always." The Uchiha leaned into his personal space, his visible eye flickering threateningly into the red of the Sharingan. "So maybe it's you who should be more careful about coming across suspiciously."

Leveling Madara with one last withering glare, Tobirama moved around him, fully intending on returning to the meeting room. The clan heads would be coming back from the break soon enough.

"A tactical retreat?" Madara contemplated, "How unusually gracious of you. Or is it simply that you consider your reconnaissance accomplished?"

"I don't know what you're implying," Tobirama retorted, refusing to stop walking. Madara's footfalls behind him told him he wouldn't be getting away from the conversation easily.

"I doubt that," Madara continued. "Who is it that you mistrust more? Haruno or Hashirama?"

Tobirama hovered just outside the door of the meeting room, drawing his shoulders back. "Being in the Uchiha compound has you feeling emboldened."

"If it's not mistrust, then why listen to a conversation not meant for your ears?"

"I owe you no explanations." Tobirama entered the room, closing the door on the conversation.

After speaking with the Hokage, Sakura was invigorated with a new sense of purpose, more determined than ever to prove Shimura wrong.

When the clan heads reentered the room and took their seats, she sat straight and looked her adversary directly in the eyes. He returned the stare, albeit uncomfortably.

"Now that we've all had time to take a minute and process the arguments that have been brought up so far, let's get back to it," Izuna declared. "Doi-san, we haven't heard from you, yet."

The Nara's eye drifted to Izuna and he looked like he had swallowed something unpleasant. "Me? I'm not much for grandiose speeches, you see. So I've just been listening to all the others talk. But if you'd really like to hear what I have to say, well, I'll start by telling you that my ancestors were simple folks. They were nomadic and lived off their deer herds. Stumbling into becoming shinobi as an occupation was coincidental, more or less. So I can't really say if it's right or wrong civilians get to become shinobi, but at the heart of it all, the Nara didn't start out much differently."

"And you, Ayeka-san? Chouto?" Hashirama prompted.

"In our clan we do not underestimate opponents, regardless of lineage or appearance." Ayeka explained.

"You know, what Doi says is true. Not all of us here come from strictly shinobi lineages. That's something we should try to remember," acknowledged Chouto.

"That leaves you, Shimura-san," Sakura took some comfort in how he looked properly chastised after entering the room. She wondered if anyone had lambasted him over his remarks while they were gone. "Even if you don't think shinobi life is a job for civilians and don't want anything to do with the academy, I just want you to know that I'm going to keep fighting to prove you wrong."

"Is that so?" Shimura harrumphed, steepling his hands on the table and leaning back, raising his chin. "Nothing you said today has convinced me of anything other than the fact that you're a short-tempered, brash woman who has a great deal of naiveté to spare."

"Then if you don't mind me saying so," Sakura grinned evenly. "You're a dangerously narrow-minded traditionalist who doesn't understand that the world keeps changing, whether you're on board or not."

"She makes a point, Shimura," Izuna added. "Now is the moment where you make your choice. Not allowing children from the Shimura clan to attend is up to you, but, the children who do enter the academy are bound to keep advancing as they learn new things from peers and different instructors that they wouldn't be able to in their clans. In under a generation, the Shimura's fresh blood will be at a disadvantage."

Shinpachi Shimura ground his teeth, dark eyes flashing angrily. Izuna's words had struck something, a sense of pride, maybe.

"Let's put it to a vote," Madara suggested. "All those in favor of civilian entry into the academy?"

Resounding "ayes" from Nara, Aburame, Akamichi and Sarutobi made Sakura's heart soar. The Hokage happily raised his own hand, echoing their "ayes" with his own. Tobirama and Izuna and even Madara lifted their arms as well. Sakura gladly joined them. Only Shimura remained sour-faced, arms stubbornly crossed.

"Are you sure about this, Shinpachi?" Sarutobi questioned.

"You're asking me to choose to allow my son and the other Shimura children to learn with civilians!" he seethed, "Yet you dare to suggest that by not doing so, the Shimura will be left behind?"

"So what is your answer?" Tobirama asked. "You're holding things up."

"I…" Shimura stared venomously at Sakura from across the table. "I do not consent to civilian entry, but I see I am outvoted, so yes, the Shimura will participate in the academy project." Sakura bit her lip, to keep from shouting triumphantly. While it didn't matter to her whether or not the Shimura clan were at the academy, she knew it meant a lot to Hashirama for everyone to participate. And, Shimura was cornered. That alone made her day.

"There we have it then," Hashirama announced. "We can proceed with the academy's construction, and entry will be open to everyone, civilian and clan heirs alike."

A week went by, and preparations were going smoothly. Hashirama lovingly pruned Bukkai, thinking that he should really be thanking Sakura.

He believed her presence had been instrumental to convince the others. Shinpachi was, and would likely remain unsatisfied, but even if everyone's heart hadn't been swayed, it was a start.

"You're really coming into your own." he told the plant. "Your petals are opening up more," Tobirama would never believe him, but the Hokage thought that the bonsai soaked up the praise and grew stronger.

There was something so tranquil about nurturing life, watching it reach its fullest potential. When he stood back from his desk and gazed at the bonsai's strong trunk and healthy leaves, it filled him with more than a little pride. Though he never considered himself one to boast, his green thumb at times impressed even himself! "There, now you brighten up the whole room!"

"This again?" Hashirama, fully expecting the arrival of his brother, turned to see Tobirama entering the office.

"Stop staring at Bukkai like that," he scolded.

"I know you get preoccupied about engagements when it comes to that bonsai, but if this continues to be a distraction, it can't stay in the office with you."

"You wouldn't," Hashirama moved protectively between Bukkai and his brother.

"You and I both know I would." Hashirama did know. "Leave that alone and come with me, or we'll be late."

Hashirama tilted his head back. Late…? Well it sounded vaguely like Tobirama was saying they had somewhere to be, and he'd forgotten.

"You can't honestly mean to tell me you've already forgotten?" his brother reprimanded, "You agreed to take a tour of the Nara Forest today."

Hashirama's eyes lit up and he felt excitement coursing through his veins. "You're right! Doi did say they'd been working on an interesting technique with the trees there."

"It only takes one mention of trees and it all comes back…" Tobirama complained under his breath.

Hashirama ignored him, rushing to place his red headband around his forehead and put the prune sheers aside. A quick straightening of his robes and he strolled by Tobirama, ready to go.

"Well, as guests, it'd be rude to keep the tre—the Nara waiting!"

"You're skipping," his brother shook his head, catching up with him.

"No, I'm not," Hashirama wouldn't have been surprised if he was, but the horticulturist in him was too eager to care.

Sakura answered the front door, only to nearly trip over the prone body face down in the dirt. She bit back a gasp as she noticed the familiar Nara crest on the back of suspicious 'corpse'.

"You're kidding…" she dragged the body inside by the legs with a grunt, flipping it over to reveal the slumbering face of Shikamarin Nara, who had apparently fallen asleep mid-knock. It had been a while since she'd seen the Nara, but the last time was fresh in her mind, and Sakura plucked an apple from a bowl on her table up and crouched beside her, pressing it to her lips. "Bite this."

Shikamarin was unresponsive, so Sakura pried her mouth open and lifted her up, moving her jaw until she heard the crunch of the apple's flesh being pierced. That was all it took before she began to chew and her gray eyes fluttered open. As before, Shikamarin quickly took the apple, eating away, as if there was nothing peculiar about coming to on someone's floor with an apple to her mouth.

"Long time no see," she greeted between bites.

"Uh, yeah..." Sakura rubbed at the back of her neck. "I'm going to have to make you some pills or can't show up and fall asleep on just anyone's doorstep."

"I didn't," Shikamarin munched, juice dribbling down her chin. "I woke up on yours. Thanks for the apple."

"Nooo problem," Sakura stood wearily, but the other girl didn't even bother to try. Eating had become her top priority. "So, did you come by for a reason?" the rose-haired kunoichi stepped around the Nara and closed her front door. When she turned around, she noticed Usamaro had come slinking out of hiding and was pawing at Shikamarin's hand.

"Thought you'd wanna come for a walk with me in the Nara Forest."

Sakura did a double take. "The Nara Forest? Really?" She had never been, but Tsunade had mentioned on more than one occasion that the antlers from the Nara clan's deer were some of the best for medicine. Top quality, she claimed.

"Mhm...I understand if you wouldn't be interested, but Pops was impressed the other day in the meeting, and my mom says I owe you one for the mission."

"I'd love to come!" Sakura exclaimed, almost bouncing on her heels.

"A'right then..." Shikamarin stood, brushing the front of her skirt off. "We can go now, if you want. Pops has some big creation he's been raving about for days. Wants to show it to the Hokage."

The two girls stepped out into the streets.

"When you say he's been raving about a creation, what do you mean?" Sakura couldn't help asking. The scholar in her was intrigued. She wondered if it had something to do with the deer, or maybe a new jutsu. 'It's more likely to be the former though, right? The Nara are way too smart and too unmotivated to show off clan secrets.'

Shikamarin didn't particularly seem to share her excitement. "It's got something to do with trees and chakra...that's all I really know. Eh, when Pops gets like this it goes in one ear, out the other," she folded her arms behind her head. "You know how it is."

"No I don't!" Sakura muttered. "Don't new discoveries, I don't know, excite you? Even a little bit?"

Shikamarin gave her what she guessed passed for an incredulous expression. "Discoveries? No. Unless it's got something to do with food...I find discovering new things to eat pretty interesting."

'It almost seems like...she was born in the wrong family, now that I think about it.' Sakura kept the thought to herself, as two running children squeezed past them. "By the way, did your dad say anything about the academy? I mean, we're both too old to attend, but do you think that's exciting?"

Shikamarin yawned loudly. "Thinking about lessons makes me sort of tired, you know? It took me a while to learn any of our clan techniques when I was younger, because listening to my parents explain put me to sleep."

'It's sleeping or it's eating with her...I should try to help her find new hobbies. Right now, she'd be a good candidate to be adopted by a family of sloths.'


Sure enough, Doi Nara, the Hokage, and Tobirama Senju were waiting for them at the gates to the Nara Forest. "Good morning," Sakura waved.

"Welcome, young lady." Doi returned, scratching at the rough stubble on his cheek. "I trust my daughter didn't give you any trouble?"

"No, she was-"

"Lay off, Pops." Shikamarin warned languidly.

Doi pulled at one of her pigtails playfully, opening his arms grandly. "You're right on time to join our little tour." Doi nodded at the Hokage. Hashirama was looking up at the gates of the forest with shining eyes, while Tobirama remained cool and unaffected.

"Thank you for having us, Doi." Hashirama looked around as the gates swung open, everyone walking forward together.

"It only seemed right that you and Lord Tobirama be the first to see the properties these trees have." Doi explained as they walked. "I think Lord Tobirama especially will find them interesting."

Sakura noticed Tobirama had been glancing around, hands in his pant pockets, but instantly refocused his attention on Doi. "How so?"

Doi stopped walking, patting the bark of a particularly large, gnarled tree with patches of bark missing sporadically. Doi reached into a pouch at his waist, and Sakura almost thought he'd pull out a weapon. Instead, he pulled out small, thin slips of paper and handed one to each of them. "Recently, we found out the bark of some trees here are malleable to chakra. Concentrating chakra into them can reveal ones chakra nature."

Curiously, Sakura applied a small amount of chakra, watching as the paper crumbled into dirt in her hand before reforming and then instantly becoming a soggy mess in her hands.

Hashirama laughed behind her, and Sakura watched in awe to see his paper go through a total of five chakra nature transformations, Tobirama's doing the same.

Shikamarin's split neatly down the middle. "Huh. Futon..." she mused. "Fitting. It reminds me of napping."

Sakura sighed fondly. "Of course..."

"So I have Doton and Suit-hey!" Tobirama had snatched the paper from her hands, studying it.


"What's so funny?" she snapped.

"I understand Doton, but I would have imagined your second nature would be Katon."

"Why's that?" she asked, forgetting her annoyance.

"The temper of a Katon-user." Tobirama said simply.

"There's nothing wrong with being assertive," she defended, placing her hands on her hips. "Or passionate." she added.

"Are you denying being short-tempered?" Tobirama smirked.

"Actually, brother," Hashirama hummed, popping up between them and throwing an arm around each of their shoulders, "You're the one with the Katon nature, and you have to admit that you've got a temper yourself..."

Tobirama shrugged off his brother's arm. "This isn't about me."

"I think it's fortuitous!" Hashirama chirped. "You know, maybe you and Sakura-san could practice Suiton techniques together sometime. It's always nice to fight new opponents, no?"

Sakura coughed, choking on her own saliva. It would be woefully embarrassing for either of the Senju brothers to learn she didn't currently have a single Suiton technique in her arsenal.

"Don't make plans for me," Tobirama hissed.

"I wouldn't want to impose..." Sakura shrugged.

"You wouldn't be...there's not a single person aside from myself or Toka he can get to try going toe to toe with him in Suiton, and I think he's gotten bored with the both of us lately." Hashirama squeezed her shoulder. "Which is where you'd come in. What do you say?"


"Ah," Doi clicked his tongue several times. "It looks like we've got company." Sakura was never more relieved to see a spindly-legged fawn appear from the treeline, curiously venturing closer and closer. Its mother wasn't far behind, keeping a close eye on her offspring.

"How sweet," Hashirama crouched, unconcerned that his robes hung in the dirt as he held his arm outstretched toward the fawn.

Sakura, Tobirama and Shikamarin watched the fawn look at him, scenting the air quietly before creeping forward. The mother deer made a beeline to Doi, and he rubbed her head affectionately.

The fawn bumped its nose against Hashirama's fingers several times. When it leaned its head toward his palm, Sakura could almost feel the Hokage's elation. He proceeded to rub one of its ears. Sakura didn't have extensive knowledge of deer, but she could tell it was young judging by the white spots on its back. Its fluffy tail twitched and it stumbled back, its nose falling to the dirt before it began nosing at Hashirama's robes.

"Hm?" Hashirama laughed as the fawn circled him, nudging his leg expectantly. "Are you trying to play, little one?"

"Usually, they do that when they're hungry...or smell food. I don't suppose you've got any treats on you?" Doi joked.

"Treats?" Hashirama patted himself down. "You know, maybe she's after these?" He produced a handful of berries and the young fawn leapt around before trying to take them from his hand.

"Why are you carrying those around?" Sakura asked.

"Well, I've been growing a small bayberry shrub and it finally bore fruit." Hashirama offered the berries to the fawn, and it took them right away. "I sometimes grow things I can snack on," he admitted.

"That's well and good," Shikamarin drawled, "But I hope you've got enough for all of them too, Lord Hokage."

Sakura gaped as more deer began making their way from behind trees. It had gone from the fawn and its mother, to a gathering of at least fifteen within minutes.

Doi rubbed at his whiskers. " odd. They must really want to greet our guests."

"En masse?" Shikamarin scoffed. "Come on Pops, they came to eat the Hokage. That's pretty obvious."

Doi thumped the back of her head. "Don't be stupid,"

Tobirama seemed to be oblivious to his brother's plight as he studied the bark samples intently. Sakura watched him take out a concealed kunai and collect several more, murmuring to himself. "I could use these to layer...that would stabilize..."

"Uh," Sakura tapped his arm. "Shouldn't you be concerned about...whatever's happening?"

Tobirama followed her eyes. A large stag, at least sixteen points, had trotted forward and was pawing the ground aggressively.

"If my brother isn't capable of defending himself against herbivorous creatures, maybe the village deserves a better leader." He dropped his head and continued to exam the thin slits of bark in his hands.

"That's a good point, but..."

"Easy boy, easy..." Doi was approaching the stag, arms raised as it continued unperturbed toward Hashirama. The Hokage was attempting to offer it berries as a peace offering, grinning uncertainly.

The deer sniffed at his hand, tasting one of the berries, and Sakura heard the Hokage expel a sigh of relief. "See there?" he patted the buck's neck. "I knew we could be frie-" In one fluid motioned it had jammed his head into Hashirama's abdomen and used its thick neck to flip him. Sakura watched the Hokage hanging pitifully across the stag's back as it trotted off, the rest of the herd following.

"I guess...we're friends..." Hashirama wheezed as he was carried off.

Sakura couldn't believe her eyes. "H-He's being taken away!" she cried.

"I've never seen anything like that...deer taking enough of an interest in a person to want to keep them. Huh. Learn something new everyday I guess." Doi thought aloud.

"Shouldn't you be more concerned than impressed? The Hokage was kidnapped by deer."

"I told you they were out for blood," Shikamarin nodded. "But once they realize he isn't actually made of plant matter, I'm sure they'll lose interest."

"It's his own fault, really." Tobirama agreed absently. "Doi, I'd like to get samples from a few different tree species that have these properties and see which one is most resistant."

"Help yourself."

Sakura felt almost guilty that no one was too bothered about the Hokage's fate. 'Well...he is considered a God of Shinobi for a reason. They're probably all right. Deer don't eat meat, and he can get away whenever he wants.'

"Haruno," Sakura was surprised as Tobirama cleared his throat.


"Starting tomorrow, we will meet for Suiton training."

Sakura nodded. "Sure, I'm not doing much tomorrow, so...wait, what?"

"You heard me." his red eyes narrowed impatiently. "Suiton. Tomorrow. I'd like a rematch eventually, but I know the way things stand now, you wouldn't be able to go against me in ninjutsu, otherwise you wouldn't have relied so heavily on taijutsu in our last spar."

'He's right...but when he says it like that it still pisses me off.' she pouted.

"I want our next all out spar to be on fair footing. If I don't hold back, then you shouldn't either."

'Is this his weird way of saying he thinks I have potential to be his equal?' "A-Alright...if you're serious, then I'll take you up on it."

"A wise choice." Tobirama put all the bark he'd collected into his yukata and wandered off toward the next tree, back into his analysis.

Shikamarin patted her arm. "You got yourself a really strong teacher. Nice. I wish..." she sighed. "I wish I could lay down, actually..." she rubbed at her eyes.

"You spend too much time laying down as it is." Doi commented. "You know...maybe I really should go and check on Lord Hokage. Shika, you're with me."

The two Nara walked off. Doi did most of the walking, dragging his daughter away by the collar as they ventured deeper into the woods.

Sakura scratched at her head. She could see Tobirama from a distance, scraping bark samples off another tree. "This has been...a really bizarre day." she told herself.

Knowing what she planned to do after leaving the Nara Forest, she had a feeling it was only bound to get stranger. She had questions for a certain goddess that still needed answering, and it was about time to make another call.

Mizuchi examined the bowl of figs that had been brought to her. Fresh picked from a tree in the gardens, brought to her by one of the many adoring followers she had gained as of late.


Such strange, whimsical creatures. Not quite as whimsical as herself, but sometimes they still managed to surprise her.

When given the chance at freedom, they chose a new form of subjugation. Calling her their savior and pledging to worship her, they went as far as erecting a temple of worship in the ruins of the Kaguya. Over the bones of their captors, they rebuilt everything she had burned down, and chose to remain in that settlement. They plodded around dutifully, like ants foraging and bringing spoils back to their queen. Mizuchi was no queen. She was a goddess. But they treated her like royalty all the same, and whenever she would breeze through to check on what had become of those she liberated, fanfare greeted her.

The humans would hold out their babies, hoping she would touch and bless them. Those infants carrying Kaguya blood, whose mothers neither wanted nor accepted them, she would allow to go peacefully in sleep.

They would call her the "Dragon Savior", and offer her fresh-picked fruit and grand meals, or burn incense for her. Mizuchi sat on the throne that had once been Yoshiro Kaguya's and contemplated it all.

A goddess' natural lifespan lasted longer than eternity. In comparison, the lives of mortals were as feeble as candles in the wind. Mizuchi had seen many a man be born and die, his descendants populating the earth, and then one day dying too. The monotony of the cycle amused her less and less as countless centuries passed, locked away in her prison. She watched foolish mortals stray down the same pointless paths and repeat the same pointless mistakes. In particular, she watched Kaguya's descendants.

Imprisonment meant she had plenty of time for that. It began with her sons; one of them had two sons of his own. It was interesting, how much their ideologies grew to differ. Mizuchi supposed she shouldn't have found herself perplexed when Indra and Ashura died, and, their chakra lived on. In the bodies of Madara and Hashirama. A meeting by chance had spawned into a friendship, a bittersweet rivalry, and then what? Ruin. Ruin for them and for the world. Men, Mizuchi ruminated, so predictable.

Time passed, so very much time, and yet, just a pinprick of her everlasting life. One minute she would close her eyes to rest in boredom. When she opened them again, the world was different. Different, but plagued with the same problems. She couldn't imagine what her brethren in the heavens were doing. They seemed content to watch humanity destroy itself every generation and rebuild as best they could. Maybe they found it dull, as she did.

Kaguya populating the earth had far reaching consequences not even she had imagined. So many of those responsible for the world's problems—the one calling themselves shinobi—were her descendants. Not all though.

Just as she lifted the fig to her lips, biting into its skin, Sakura summoned her. The distinct feeling of urgency flowed into her through the link, and she rose. Mizuchi looped her arm through the air and a portal popped into existence, blinking at her with a reptilian eye that mirrored her own.

Two of her followers had pushed open the door to the Receiving Room, as it had been renamed, only to see her stepping through the eye. They froze, the length of silk held between them trailing the ground and their smiles dropping. It was devilishly fun to see the reactions humans had to her fastest mode of transport.

"Lady Dragon, are you leaving already?" one asked as soon as she recovered her voice.

"Yes," she smiled. "As always, I was pleased by your offerings." Their faces flushed and they slipped into bows.

"Safe return!" The farewell echoed in her ears as she slid completely through the eye, instantly appearing before a pacing Sakura, in the forest that bordered her village. For the sake of discretion, this was where her protégé always deemed fit to bring her.

"Sakura," she greeted.

The pink-haired girl barely looked up, her face pinched in thought. "We need to talk."

"Such directness. And here I thought you simply could use the company." The deity lifted the ends of her kimono and waded into the water of the river.

"I…I have questions. I've been doing everything you asked me to. Everything." The kunoichi turned pleading green eyes on her, and Mizuchi softened, but only just.

"Ask then, the questions you keep in your heart make your face drawn. It's unbecoming,"

Sakura sat heavily on the bank, kicking her feet anxiously. "My first question is about blighting. You said that you can curse someone…but you can remove it too, right?"

"If I so choose, yes. What of it?"

"Did you…did you save a man named Izuna Uchiha?"

Some of the mirth fell away as she studied Sakura's countenance. "One Uchiha looks exactly like all the others. How should I know their names? Why should I be bothered to care, for that matter?"

"Mizuchi, please," she begged. "Did you?"

"I suppose I did pull a blight from one shortly before I placed you in this time. He was slipping so quickly, it was a wonder it worked at all." The goddess opened her hand, and a fish swimming downstream brushed her fingers. She briefly considered catching it, but let it continue on its way.

"So Izuna was supposed to die?" Sakura seemed to be letting that sink in. "Izuna…was supposed to die." She fisted a hand into the fabric near her chest. "It's not that I'm upset you saved him, but what about the consequences?"

"What about them?" Mizuchi challenged. "You're fond enough of the Uchiha,"

"I…I never said that!" Sakura tried unsuccessfully to hide her rosy cheeks.

"And you've lived in a world that bore the consequences of his premature death, whether you realized it or not."

"Consequences like…?" Sakura put a finger to her bottom lip and pushed at it. "Like him not getting to do something important?"

Mizuchi waved her hand. "I am a goddess, Sakura, I am not omnipotent. I myself cannot say if sparing his life will truly make the future brighter, but his death was the catalyst of Madara Uchiha's insanity."

Sakura froze. "It was?"

"Have you not seen how the loss of a family member is enough to radically change an Uchiha?"

Sakura thought of a young Sasuke when they entered the academy, and of older Sasuke, who could never give up on his goal of revenge.

"You're saying that maybe things might be different now? You saved Izuna…to save Madara?"

"Please," Mizuchi denied. "I am not that benevolent nor that optimistic. As I said, I cannot see the outcome of how events may change from here on out. I have found that descendants of my sister in particular seem resolute in seeking their own destruction. That was why it was imperative that you, someone with none of Kaguya's blood, complete this task."

Sakura looked at her slowly. "You said her name…" When the mortal met her eyes, there was…almost compassion there.

"What is your next question?" the goddess found herself uncharacteristally uncomfortable, being on the receiving end of such a pitying look.

Sakura rose, wading deeper into the river toward her. She stopped when the water touched her thighs, her lips drawn in concentration. "I know it's asking for a lot…but can you show me something like you did before when you," she winced. "when you killed the Kaguya. If you showed me a memory, I think I'd understand better."

"You don't need to understand in order to obey."

"That's true…" Sakura scratched at her neck, lifting some of the hair that had escaped a loose bun. "But I feel like I've just been blindly listening, not really understanding. If I understood why you chose me, even just a little…it would answer so many questions!"

"You seek enlightenment…that is something I never promised you'd gain." Mizuchi frowned, considering. "Come closer," Sakura hesitantly waded even closer, until they were chest to chest. The mortal was correct that she had obeyed, and yet the deity kept her at arm's length, enshrouded herself in secrets. How soon was too soon?

For over a month, Sakura Haruno had been doing what she was told. A glimpse at the inner workings of her mind, might be an apt reward after all. "You might find, Sakura," she whispered, bringing her index finger closer and lightly tapping it to the Yin Seal, "That enlightenment is the last thing you truly want."

The girl's eyes dilated, pupils thinning until they rivaled her own. She swayed, falling backwards into the water with a splash.

Mizuchi had the water toss her back onto the riverbank before she could float away.

Sakura's blank eyes stared up at the tree line, her knuckles clenching the grass underneath her. Her mind had been transported deep into one of Mizuchi's memories.

The one she had picked was a simple but important one. The one that had decided her path.

Settling herself in the grass beside the girl's head, she stroked strands of pink hair back from her face, and concentrated on joining her inside the mindscape. The shift was minute, hardly discernable, but she knew immediately that the forest around them was no longer near Konoha. It was the long-destroyed forest in the Land of Ancestors.

Sakura groaned as she got to her feet. "Where'd all this fog come from?" she mumbled. "Mizuchi, where is this? These don't look like trees from the forest around Konoha."

"Astute as always," Mizuchi sighed. "You are correct. This is the Land of Ancestors, Sakura. A long destroyed region. You are in my memories," she gestured with a sweep of her hand to the kunai embedded in tree trunks and the grass that looked like it had been burnt in places. Sakura wandered forward, grimacing at the dark crimson patch of earth puddled on the ground.

"You may have guessed at the fact that this country was recently invaded. Not unlike the time in which you currently reside, this millennia faced constant skirmishes of all sizes."

The kunoichi glanced at a tree where a piece of cloth was still pinned there by a kunai, a blood splatter not very far down the bark. "No matter what time period it is, people always find ways to hurt each other." Sakura hastily rubbed at her eyes. "Is this what you wanted to show me?"

"Not at all." Mizuchi pushed at her shoulders. "Go forth, and you will get the enlightenment you came for."

Sakura whirled around clumsily as she gaped at Mizuchi. "You keep talking like I'm going to regret this. What's back there?"

The deity placed a finger against the mortal's lips. "Listen…"

In the silence, quiet cries permeated the air. Like a child attempting to muffle their sobs. Sakura heard them too, and the perplexed look wasn't lost on Mizuchi. The kunoichi turned and ran blindly into the fog of the memory, her escort easily following. When Sakura broke through the clearing, she stopped short, nearly tripping. A freshly erected wooden shrine with a small body curled in front of it caught her eyes. Try as she might, the child's body shook with the effort to contain her crying, her incoherent mutterings sounding reminiscent of "nee-san".

"It's a memorial shrine." Sakura guessed. "She's…she's in mourning."

Mizuchi watched on silently as the young girl continued to sob, calling out for a sister who wouldn't return.

"Why do you cry, human?"

The river deity closed her eyes and smiled bitterly. The accursed moment when she lost and gained everything.

The sobs coming from the child took several minutes to dissipate, but she slowly lifted her head in confusion. "Who…who said that?" she hiccupped. "Are you…are you a god?"

"After a fashion, yes."

"I…I don't want to talk to the gods!" Sakura was baffled as the small child placed both hands to her ears and cried louder.

"Humans…they cry for everything, don't they? I cannot imagine. So tell me, why do you cry?"

The little girl got to her knees, rubbing valiantly at her face. Sakura couldn't see her face, but the short white hair, parted jaggedly down the middle was vaguely familiar. "M-My nee-san is gone…She was a healer, but t-they sent her away to f-fight…and she…she's not coming back!"

Mizuchi knew Sakura's heart broke over the child, who had begun bawling in earnest again.

"You cry because her soul has ascended? …That's a foolish reason. All of you die, in one way or another."

"I just want her back!" the girl wailed, "I want n-nee-san back!"

"Quiet!" barked the sterner voice. "Enough is enough. If her soul is gone then she will not come back!" The young girl continued to cry.

Sakura made to step closer to the scene, but Mizuchi placed a hand on her shoulder. "This is only a memory of events long passed. You cannot affect them even if you wanted to."

"Alright," the voice said after a beat. "Tell me why you cannot accept death as a permanent fixture in the lives of humans?"

The child turned for the first time, leaning her back against the shrine and raising her face from her hands. Sakura's breath hitched in her throat at the sight of large, pearlescent eyes. Tears dripped from her cheeks and between her fingers. Her white kimono showing dirt stains at the knees. "B-Because the gods took someone I loved away. T-They didn't care how much I miss her. The emperor…he says they needed her more, but I know he's wrong. I need her more! She was all I had…"

"…I see. Humans place so much value on things they know cannot last, and then break their hearts when it is taken away. But…what if I were to grant you a sister once more?"

Her white eyes blinked rapidly. "You can do that? You can bring her back?"

"Me…? No. Souls that have left the mortal plane belong to the Shinigami." There was a flash of light from behind the shrine, brilliant and intense, like a dying star, and then, Sakura watched as what she could only describe as a prepubescent girl who looked startlingly like the graceful Mizuchi appeared.

"S-S-Sena?" The girl ran into her arms, hugging her tightly.

"I am not your sister. I only assumed her form." An unsure hand found the top of the girl's white head, and patted at it hesitantly.

"You really do look just like her," the sniffling girl confirmed. "Except your eyes…a-and your ears and…those things on your head."

The young deity touched a hand to her horns. She smiled gently as they disappeared. Her distinct eyes and ears, however, remained. "Tell me your name then."

"Kaguya." she replied shyly.

The deity crouched before Kaguya, and Sakura took a step back, looking at Mizuchi in bewilderment as her younger counterpart took a small Kaguya's hand.

"From now on, Kaguya, I will be your sister."

"W-what's your name?" Kaguya ventured.

"I…am called Mizuchi."

"Mizuchi…" Kaguya repeated. "I like it!" she pulled at the river goddess' hand. "I want us to go back to the village together. Y-You can stay with me, okay?"

"Absolutely." Mizuchi agreed.

Sakura and the adult goddess watched as the two wandered off together, hand in hand. The scene blurred and Mizuchi found herself staring back out across the river in Konoha's forest.

Sakura was coming to, and when her eyes regained their focus, she shot up and away, quickly falling again in her disorientation.

"You…you told me you were an Otsutsuki!" Sakura accused, pointing.

"I was…" Mizuchi sighed. "For a time, I assumed the form of Sena Otutsuki, and I lived at Kaguya's side, learning about humans."

"So you were a real goddess all along?" Sakura's face paled. She glanced at her wrist. "What is this? What is it really?" The human shook her arm around wildly.

"My essence." explained the deity, "Just a drop of it, but potent enough to make you formidable, as strong as the Uchiha and the Uzumaki you call friends. Not enough to make you immortal or invulnerable, of course."

"All this time…I've been your pet project, like Kaguya was? You're going to observe through me now?" Sakura whispered heatedly. "What was the point of anything I did? What's the point of me being here at all?! Send me home!" Mizuchi's eyes flashed, and her hand seized Sakura by the back of her neck, drawing her close until their eyes met and their noses touched.

"Sakura…" her breath hit the girl's lips, but she continued, "I have appreciated your obedience up until now. I understand that it would be hard for a willful girl like you to blindly follow. My interaction with Kaguya and the far-reaching consequences is my burden to bear and to cherish for eternity."

Sakura trembled, in fear or indignation, Mizuchi couldn't tell. "Why?" she asked helplessly.

"An explanation, a complete one, would take time." Mizuchi released the back of her neck, finger by finger, stepping away in an attempt to compose herself. "You have just witnessed more of my secrets than anyone has in millennia. For now, let that be enough."

There was no doubt in her mind as she disappeared, leaving the girl there to flail for answers, that her stubborn progeny's mind wouldn't settle for that. Sakura would demand to know more. And in time, maybe it would make sense. In the meantime, she didn't have time for a quarrel. What she needed was an obedient Godslayer, and soon.

Chapter Text

Sakura filled her lungs with oxygen, rearing back to release a stream of water from her mouth. Compared to the one she had narrowly missed being hit with, her jutsu was nothing special. But, progress was being made. Not enough for her cranky sparring partner. His hands flashed through three seals and a wall of water rose to defend him, tendrils of liquid shooting out and intercepting all of the water bullets she sent his way.

"Those weren't even pressurized enough to do real damage," he commented.

Sakura glared. "I'm only three days into this." She knew it was a feeble defense in Tobirama's eyes. The man was a perfectionist, as she had learned early on into their…lessons, if one could call them that. Unlike him, Sakura needed a water source to perform any Suiton. In hindsight, his agreement to demonstrate basic water jutsu after her reluctant admittance that she knew none at all, was a miracle in itself. She had received a hard, assessing stare and a quiet grunt. Then he was barking at her to watch closely and copy his hand movements.

The fact that he could so easily gather moisture from the air itself and utilize it to create such powerful water-based techniques in battle was indeed as impressive as she expected it to be. But she knew she was nowhere near that level. They started out near the river in the forest, so she could have some hope of learning any Suiton.

Mastering the signs in the correct order was a small feat. Sakura had done that in under a day. What she hadn't expected was how hard it was to control the water in order to attack with it. Tobirama made it look so easy.

The truth was, mastering something as basic as a water whip was anything but. Sakura found that water was an elusive element, hard to consistently keep molded into shape when its natural inclination was to expand. She struggled to pull a stream of water from the river, and when she managed that, controlling it was like trying to keep hold of a wriggling eel. More often than not it splashed harmlessly at her feet before she could so much as send it in Tobirama's direction.

Today, however, Tobirama had said they'd focus on a different technique. One only slightly easier. Water bullets. Sakura managed to learn the proper seals, once again, in no time at all. But expelling the pressurized water with enough force to hit an enemy and hurt them was struggle.

Tobirama demonstrated, and she found herself quickly dodging globs of water that would no doubt break a bone if they made contact. Sakura spat out a bullet no bigger than her fist and was disgusted to find it looked like a thick ball of spit and didn't travel more than a foot before losing speed and crashing. The rose-haired kunoichi wasn't use to not excelling at something she put her mind to, and that was why she was determined to prove to Tobirama she could learn Suiton.

"That's enough," he sighed, the water wall evaporating.

"I feel like I could keep going," Sakura protested.

"Maybe so," he agreed, "but I have my own matters to attend to regardless." He took to the trees, darting off without so much as a goodbye. Sakura made a face.

"Fine," she muttered to herself. "I can practice on my own," Facing the river once again, she studied her reflection on the calm surface. Her pink eyebrows were pulled down and there was a narrowness to her lips that made her annoyance evident.

'If I can take Tsunade-shishou's training…I can take this.' Running through the signs again, she concentrated on the river's surface until she saw it start to ripple. Grasping on with her chakra, Sakura slowly maneuvered her arms to the side, the water following the movements. Breathing in to center herself, she shifted her stance attempting to keep an invisible hold as she thrust the water back out at unseen attacker.

It splattered uselessly into the larger body before so much as crossing the river. Sakura groaned, preparing to do it again. Through the break in the tree line, she caught a glimpse of the sky, growing steadily pinker. The air was crisper now as it approached evening and the forest was quiet except the lazy trill of a distant crow.

That was when the fact that they had been at it since midday dawned on her. Maybe she would return home too. She had a cat to feed, dinner to prepare…

Mizuchi could turn up at any time. The goddess seemed to delight in that. Whenever she insisted Sakura was in need of more training, it took up the entirety of the day, and she crawled home tired to her bones. Living in this new time period, Sakura found more than ever that preparing for a mundane day to turn into something unexpected had become a necessity.

She gave the river one last contemplative glance. Being able to show Tobirama that she had indeed improved her skills in his absence filled her with a sort of smug excitement. But really what good would it do her to practice into the night, only to have to get up and do it again the next day, exhausted? Lately, she had found herself becoming far too reckless for her own liking.

In the end, it was her empty stomach that made the final decision, Sakura turning away from the sight of the calmly flowing water, trekking back to the village.

Toka's eyes drifted from Reira, happily stuffing shabu shabu into her mouth, to Hashirama, filling a bowl for himself. Tobirama's expression mirrored her own. Out of the four sitting around the table, they were the only two with any restraint. Hashirama's etiquette at meals seemed reserved for formal occasions only. Reira didn't even seem to notice anything else but how to get the food to her lips as quickly as possible.

She snatched her chattering niece's wrist at the same time Tobirama grabbed for Hashirama's. Both brunettes looked up in surprise. "Slow down," the jointly issued command had the exuberant duo shrinking back with meek grins and averted eyes.

They acquiesced, eating more carefully under the stern gazes of Tobirama and herself. "So tell me brother," Hashirama started, finding the courage to talk, "How has the training been coming along?"

Tobirama didn't answer right away. He took his time savoring the taste of his food, and then expelled a tired sigh. "She has no previous Suiton jutsu to build off of. I didn't anticipate that, so it's similar to teaching someone on Reira's level."

Reira squawked in indignation, and then began choking on the food in her mouth. Toka hit her back with a sold thump. Eyes watering, Reira gifted her with a pleasant smile. "T-Tobaa…you saved my life."

"I wouldn't need to if you'd only slow down."

"As I was saying," Tobirama interrupted. "Haruno has some hope of getting there. It doesn't change my mind that I feel she would be better suited to Katon given her temperament."

"I disagree," Hashirama ate another slice of mushroom from his bowl. "The element of water suits her well. Earth, too."

"I would be willing to assist Sakura, if she needs a more solid understanding of Suiton," Toka offered evenly.

"If everyone's helping, maybe I could—"

"No," Tobirama shot Hashirama's proposal down before he'd finished making it. "You have the village as your priority. And don't think I can't see through you,"

Hashirama pointed at himself. "W-What? What's there to see through?"

"You've been singing Haruno's praises since she gave you that potted weed."

"Bonsai and the common weed don't even share the same genus, let alone species." Hashirama defended. "I'm just glad Bukkai isn't around to hear you."

"Plants. Don't. Hear. Anything." Toka watched Tobirama and Hashirama share the same debate they'd been having ever since Sakura gifted the Hokage with "Bukkai".

"I dunno Tobi-nii…" Reira countered. "I talked to Bukkai for thirty minutes the other day when I watered him for Hashi-nii and I think he grew three centimeters!"

"You see there?" Hashirama's eyes lit up with pride. "He responds best to positivity."

Tobirama looked ready to slump face first into his shabu-shabu, and Toka wasn't convinced joining him in hers wasn't a good idea. Hashirama and Reira kept talking about Bukkai's growth, and their plans to make sure "he" was healthy through winter.


If they kept it up through winter, Toka would pray to the kami for snow deep enough that she could bury herself in it until spring.

Madara gently moved his arm up and down several times, allowing the raptor perched on it to spread his wings and prepare himself for take off. One final thrust and he watched his falcon push off into the air, listing only slightly as he drifted over the treetops, the bell tied to his foot tinkling on the wind.

The bird was newly trained, and with winter approaching in some months, Madara wanted a chance to see if the peregrine falcon he had taken to calling Tama was going to prove a useful hunting partner. He would need a new one before long. Glancing over, he noticed Haia, still ripping through the rabbit he had allowed her to keep. Next year would be time to release her.

Tama needed to be prepared to take over as his primary hunter by then. After allowing the younger bird to observe him working in conjunction with Haia to catch the first three rabbits, he set the falcon off in the hopes he'd find them a fourth. He always allowed the birds to have the first catch for themselves. It was only fair, since they did the work.

Madara merely drove the prey out of the brush once his partner had set eyes on it, and instinct took over as they did the rest, swooping in for the kill. He tracked the outline of Tama easily with his Sharingan. When he saw him start to circle, he began to follow, leaping into the trees to catch up. Tama's piercing cry confirmed he'd found prey, and he watched the falcon dive in. Smirking, Madara waited to see what kind of animal he'd be flushing out.

Sakura attempted to form the liquid she had raised from the river into a single ball with great exertion. "I…I think I'm getting the hang of this!" she called to no one in particular. Usamaro, sunbathing lazily on a nearby boulder, certainly couldn't care less. He had been inattentive the minute she refused to let him go after fish in the fear he'd be swept away.

The cat had been growing bolder in trying to follow her from the house of late. After being certain he wouldn't leave her side, she had started to let him come with her on small errands. He rode on her shoulders, watching the world from a higher vantage point. This was the first time she had allowed him to accompany her into the woods.

She was training by herself, a crow delivering a message early in the morning that she would have to train alone. Sakura saw it as the opportunity to show him up that she'd been waiting for. Although…progressing faster without Tobirama around to criticize every lift of her arms, wasn't going the way she'd hoped. Still, a spark of triumph filled her when the water jutsu she was attempting to perform held together longer than it had the day before. "Concentrate," she breathed quietly. "Hah!" With a flick, she launched the ball across the river, jumping giddily as it struck a tree on the other side.

"Did you see it, Usamaro?" she asked, turning to the rock. Blinking, she noticed her cat was nowhere to be found. "Usamaro!" she repeated.

A loud, angry wail echoed across the tranquility, and Sakura winced. Usamaro must have gotten himself into trouble. She shouldn't be too surprised, honestly. Immediately starting in the direction the cry had come from, she heard what sounded like some kind of bird, equally angry and surprisingly close.

Sakura paled as two and two came together. She took off at a run, glancing up to see that sure enough some sort of large bird was diving at something up ahead on the ground.

When it went up again, she was able to see the familiar white coat with silver markings and short tail, rolling away, narrowly dodging sharp talons. Usamaro must have gotten scared and ran while her back was turned, the minute he saw the bird coming for him. At least her cat was smart enough to recognize an attempt on his life.

Before she could reach her cat and drag him to safety, she watched him get his bearings and square up to face the bird, his back arched and a threatening hiss escaping him. Sakura frowned. Maybe his intelligence had its limits then. Usamaro, while he had put on weight and lean muscle since living with her, was not fully grown and nowhere near strong enough to take on a bird of prey.

"Usamaro!" Thinking fast, Sakura reached into her hidden weapons pouch and threw a shuriken, hoping to disrupt the bird's focus or scare it away. Instead, a kunai deflected her own projectile, pinning it to a tree near her head.

Gasping in indignation, she turned her gaze up, to a thick branch above her head, and was only further angered when she noticed Sharingan eyes briefly spare her a glance before refocusing on the two animals. They were disappearing fast again, Usamaro zigzagging across the forest floor to lose his persistent attacker. Madara started to follow, and she growled, following right behind him.

"Hey!" she called over the wind in her ears. She chased after man and bird and cat, Madara giving her a nice view of the Uchiha fan as she stared at his back. "Is that your hawk? Call it off!"

He barely spared her a side-eye, his pace never faltering. The Sharingan was deactivated now, deep onyx meeting beryl green. "We're in the middle of a hunt." Sakura had managed to catch up so she was only a branch behind him, but she moved two branches to land beside him on the next hop.

"Not for my cat, you're not!" Sakura screamed, his nonchalance grating at her nerves.

"Cat?" his voice full of consternation, "Why would you bring your cat into the woods? It seems irresponsible."

"Just call off your hawk!" she snapped.

"He's a peregrine falcon," Madara informed her.

Sakura noted they were approaching a clearing down below, another large bird resting on a stump coming into view. The falcon was trying to chase Usamaro back into the open, where he'd have a better chance at catching him.

Madara didn't seem at all concerned, watching Usamaro scamper for his life. "Something about it seems unpleasantly familiar."

Another yowl broke through the trees, and they watched together as Madara's falcon rose into the air again, a panicking Usamaro fighting in his grasp. The squawking bird was clearly struggling to keep its hold, the cat refusing to make it easy as he swiped and bit.

"So it is a cat,"

Sakura almost missed her step as she stared at the Uchiha in disbelief. "Isn't that what I just said?!"

"Running from behind, it looks like any other rabbit. Especially to a raptor."

Sakura ignored him, racing ahead and flinging another shuriken. This time, it successfully startled the bird and he released Usamaro with a screech.

The rose-haired kunoichi all but lunged forward off her tree branch, arms outstretched. From the height he was falling, there was no way for the feline to safely land on his feet. She snagged him just in time as he fell past her, the oomph making her loose her balance and pitch forward, toward the forest floor.

Sakura had barely registered the rookie mistake she made when an arm snagging her around the waist wrenched a wheeze from her throat. The stop in momentum was so fast, her neck cracked, and she turned to see Madara.

Just as fast as it had happened, it was over, the Uchiha releasing her, allowing her to find her own footing. Sakura immediately checked her cat over, frowning when she noted his blown pupils and the fact that he was breathing heavily. Miraculously, he didn't appear injured, only badly shaken. Running a comforting hand over his back, she began cooing reassurances in his ear. Only the weighted stare brought her attention back to the Uchiha watching her.

He was clearly expecting something from her. "Your bird could have killed him," she blurted.

Madara looked unamused, holding out one arm so his winged menace could land on his gloved wrist.

"You truly are an unbelievable woman," he remarked, nothing about his tone suggesting it was a compliment. "Skilled enough to best Tobirama Senju, passionate enough to sway clan heads, and yet utterly foolish enough to believe that a cat wouldn't become prey to a falcon."

Sakura clutched her cat tighter to her bosom, turning him away from Madara protectively. "Usamaro was minding his own business!"

Madara peered more closely at the cat in her arms, and disdain flashed in his visible eye. "I see…so Izuna truly did manage to save it after all."

Sakura looked down at Usamaro, who seemed content to snuggle into her, keeping a wary eye on Madara's falcon. Blinking in thought, she remembered Izuna's words: "Madara would just as soon see it gone."

"I'm taking him home before that bird gets any funny ideas again." Sakura clenched her fist threateningly and locked eyes with the falcon. The animal shuffled around nervously before wisely turning away to preen.

Madara's low chuckle made her pulse jump. "Be thankful it wasn't Haia," he motioned to the bird watching her warily from the stump. It was a different species, even bigger than the falcon. "She would have broken his back on the first blow. Tama was rattled by all the fuss you made, too clumsy to get a proper grip."

Her green eyes glittered sharply. "If I never see you or that bully with a beak again it'll be too soon,"

Sakura headed home early that day, her blood boiling. Usamaro was traumatized and she was pissed. There was a small voice, one she quickly tamped down, that said Madara had at least some right to be there and hunt. But that didn't mean she and Usamaro should be harassed!

The split second where she had been falling and Madara caught her was also something she didn't want to reminisce too long on. Because for just a second, it felt like maybe he wasn't what she thought.

Izuna welcomed him back with a small smile. He was looking over a scroll at the chabudai, setting it aside to address him. "How was the hunt?" Madara held up the two rabbits with a scowl. "Did Tama not do as well as you'd hoped?"

Lowering the rabbits, Madara considered how to answer. Without Haruno and her cat getting in the way, Tama likely would have performed much closer to his expectations. "There was some…interference."

"How so?" his brother asked curiously.

Before he could answer, quick footsteps on the tatami floors alerted him to Naoko, strolling in and giving him a coy smile. "Nice hunt?" she asked, looking at the rabbits. "Oh, I'll take those for you and start skinning," she strutted over and reached for the stringed rabbits, but Madara held them just out of her reach.

"You weren't invited."

Naoko sighed heavily, pressing a hard kiss to his lips and snatching the rabbits away as she stepped back. "I just invited myself then," she smirked. The brothers watched her walk out of the room, whistling merrily.

Madara's eyes drifted to the place where he knew the dimples on her back would be. At times, she teased him as an older sister would, at other moments, they were insatiably indulging in each other. He never once wished for more. They had seen too much of each other, all the jagged edges the rest of the world didn't. Two wild fires joining together raged into an inferno that destroyed everything, including each other. Their childhood betrothal falling through was for the best, in every way.

"You give her a lot of free reign to boss you around; that's why she thinks she lives here."

"I don't need you to explain that, Izuna,"

Izuna shrugged, leaning his elbow on the table. "So, this interference wouldn't happen to be Sakura-san, would it?"

"You knew," Madara accused.

Izuna stared up at his brother innocently. "I took Kagami to visit Usamaro recently, and she mentioned that she had been practicing Suiton lately. The closest large body of water is the river in the forest. You mentioned going hunting today. I'd hoped you wouldn't see each other, but—"

"Tama mistook that cat of hers for a rabbit," he scoffed, sitting down at the chabudai. "The same cat you apparently gave to her."

"I told you I knew someone who could save it. Sakura-san is a talented medic." Izuna explained. "She's been taking good care of it ever since I brought him to her, and it no longer roams the compound. I thought you'd be pleased by that more than anything."

"I'd be pleased not to get screamed at every time I see that woman." Madara grumbled. "Whatever grudge she's holding seems to intensify with every encounter."

Izuna laughed under his breath. "I can't say I've shared that experience."

"Oh yes," Madara agreed mockingly. "The two of you get along so famously."

"Maybe I'm just doing the right things," Izuna suggested.

"Such as what, following after her like a besotted monkey?"

Izuna eyes shined mischievously. "…Well, not being you, for instance. That alone seems like enough to keep me in her good graces."

Madara tried to keep a firm scowl in place, but the longer he looked at Izuna, the less possible it was. The brothers shared a laugh at Madara's expense.

Not that there wasn't some truth to the joke. He wasn't unused to people being repulsed by him, or by the Uchiha name, but Haruno's repulsion seemed a lot more specific, and…more personal.

It begged the question what had happened between them that he couldn't remember. In all his life, up until just a few short months ago, he had never seen a pink-haired, green eyed girl. The name Haruno itself wasn't distinctly memorable to him either. If she wasn't from a shinobi lineage, then he didn't see his clan having a blood feud with them, as they had with the Senju. Nothing about it added up. "Look for me in the arrival of the blossom that blows among the leaves."

The strange healer.

Sakura, his brother insisted, was also an incredibly capable healer.

The arrival of the blossom.

Could it be…?

The arrival of Sakura.

When she opened the backdoor the next morning and tried to encourage Usamaro to step outside, he refused. Sakura had expected as much. Even carrying him in her arms outside and setting him down near her feet didn't help. He ran back into the house the moment he touched ground.

She wanted to go and train once again, but she'd feel guilty leaving him in his current state.

Giving up, Sakura decided a can of sardines might cheer him up. They were one of his favorite snacks. He followed her more closely than ever, brushing at her ankles for attention and nearly making her trip. Sighing, she opened the can and wiggled one of the slimy little fish in front of his nose. "One minute outside for one fish," she bribed.

Usamaro's round, mismatched eyes were fixated on the tiny herring, and Sakura's grimace lifted into a cautious smile the closer she was able to lure him outside. She crouched in the doorway, holding the sardine just out of reach. The cat tried to scoot himself as close as possible to the edge of the door without his paws actually touching the grass. He sniffed the air, tongue darting out to lick his lips at the scent of fish.

"That's right," Sakura encouraged. "Good boy," One front paw touched grass, and the feline stared at it before cautiously allowing another paw to follow. Humming happily, Sakura let him have the sardine and he devoured it in seconds. Pulling out another, she repeated the process, this time getting him almost entirely out of the house, when a shadow from above fell over the yard.

Sakura and Usamaro shared twin looks of terror for entirely different reasons. Human and cat had a silent agreement, but when the cry of a hawk shattered the tension as one swooped low over Sakura's head, it was all over. Usamaru bolted back through the door, but not before snatching the sardine treat Sakura had been offering.

Frustrated, Sakura threw her arms out. "Are you kidding me?!" The hawk, unperturbed, landed on one of her arms, and she glared at it. It wasn't the bird she'd seen yesterday, thankfully. But it still singlehandedly undone the tentative progress she'd made with her traumatized cat.

It held out its foot, and she took the message attached before sending it on its way. Marching back into the house, she read the note. Her feet came to an abrupt stop when the words registered. She was being summoned to the Hokage's office.

Harihane growled under her breath. If one more tail smacked her in the face, she was on the cusp of losing her temper. Just as she thought this, a cold nose prodded the back of her neck, and she whirled around, ready to tell off the offending mutt. Yoku's inquisitive face stared down at her from atop her mother's imposing ninken. "You seem weary. Would you like to rest on Miku for a while?" she patted the large dog's head. "She can carry both of us easily."

Harihane looked around, noticing no one else seemed to be having the difficulties she was. Kikue was a ways back, walking on all fours as she played with Miku's pups. In the days since they had met the Inuzuka, her younger sister had become infatuated with them, dogs and all.

Junji was having a discussion with Tsuba up ahead, also looking perfectly at peace. She was the only one struggling with all of it. "No," Harihane denied haughtily. "You think some trekking is enough to wear me out? Growing up in my father's household and marching on campaigns with him was worse than this. So it's nothing."

"Oh," Yoku smiled apologetically. "I didn't mean to offend…I just…" she looked down with a blush, playing with Miku's fur. "D-Do you mind if I walk with you then. Or, um, ride?"

"Aren't you already doing that?" Harihane rolled her eyes.

"I suppose so…sorry for bothering you." Yoku's eyes closed, her fangs nibbling at her bottom lip. "I think I should just fall back…" She started to turn Miku around, but Harihane's answering groan stopped her.

"I didn't say you had to leave. Stay if you want to."

Yoku looked unsure, looking at Miku. The gray dog turned her body and marched in step with Harihane. The Inuzuka breathed a sigh of relief that the dog had made the decision for her.

"I must come across very awkwardly." Yoku ran a tongue over her fangs, "I spend so much time with books and dogs that even with the other kids my age, interacting authentically is hard."

"You just overthink it," Harihane told her. "Say what you want, when you want. Forget what anyone else has to say about it."

"I-Is that what you do?"

Harihane nodded casually, kicking at a stray rock. "All the time,"

"You make it sound so easy…" Yoku stopped to maul it over. "I always worry about who it'll offend if I speak my mind too much."

"That's your problem," Harihane shrugged. "The more you hold back, the more the words choke you. Then one day you'll forget what it means to speak your mind in the first place."

"H-Has that ever happened to you," Yoku asked hesitantly.

Harihane turned to look her in the eyes, still walking. "You act meek but you're pretty nosey. Is it the heightened senses?"

Yoku's mouth fell open as she shook her head. "S-Sorry, I—"

"I didn't mean it," Harihane waved it off. "But I guess there was a time when I was more like you…I'd bow my head and let my words choke me because I was afraid to upset my father. He wanted an heir, and I was a girl. My clan was much different from yours. Females don't get to inherit the position of clan head, not ever. I resented that my entire life. Junji, my brother, never really wanted much the way I did. He went along with everything my father said but I always felt like he got praised because he was the firstborn and a proper heir, not because he actually did anything to deserve it."

Yoku studied her with shining eyes. "You all get along so well now, I just thought…"

"That we were always like that? No. It was only recently, after…well we all decided we'd make our own way. I wanted us to be mercenaries. Then we ran into you, and now your mother's got Junji convinced there could be a place for us in that village you're all going to."

"You don't think so?" Yoku frowned.

Harihane made a face of disapproval. "Of course not. Too many things go against us. Even when I lived with people who were my family, we couldn't get along. Every man, woman and child for themselves. Only coming together when it was time to slaughter the enemy, and then going back to fending only for yourself right after. If blood can't tie people together, there's no way a village can."

Yoku was silent. "Plus, the Kaguya have a reputation." Harihane smiled self-deprecatingly. "We're monsters in every way and always have been. The kind that destroy villages and leave a trail. There's no place left for us, and that's why we're on our own."

Yoku remained quiet, a heavy crease between her eyebrows. "I think it'll be different,"


"I…I'm just saying. I think my mother is right. People are always going to be cruel to one another, especially shinobi. And it's in our nature to be selfish for the sake of survival. But what would shinobi risk everything to band together in the first place for, if they weren't ready to try a new way?" Yoku noticed the strange look Harihane was giving her and began to blush. "At least…at least that's what I think."

Harihane laughed loudly, drawing the attention of several nearby dogs. "We're total opposites." Somehow, though, she didn't feel as alone.

Hashirama looked up from reading a report of a shinobi who had successfully removed a family of wild boar terrorizing a local farm. He was preparing to sign off on it when the door to his opened without preamble, Madara strolling in. "A mission to where?" he demanded.

It was a sure sign that he had gotten his mission scroll and, was obviously not pleased.

"You're early," Hashirama gestured to the chair in front of his desk. "Have a seat,"

Madara defiantly leaned against the desk.

"Alright," Hashirama picked up a scroll that he had set aside. "Down to business then. You're going to the Land of Water to help broker a peace treaty. Between two neighboring island nations that have recently emerged. There's a dispute over who has the right to natural resources that they'd like settled once and for all by an outside party."

"I refuse to be that outside party," Madara crossed his arms, turning away in finalty.

Hashirama feigned pity. "They're already expecting you."

Madara wasn't moved, his scowl deepening. "Send your brother. Doesn't he like playing in puddles?"

"Tobirama's been busy helping me negotiate with the Hyuga clan. They're reluctant to join the village, what with the Uchiha having already settled here." Hashirama looked down at the paperwork on his desk. "Somehow, Tobirama's almost gotten through to them. Or at least it seems so. Him being away at such a crucial time would be bad. You know how the Hyuga can be…"

"What place does a shinobi have in resource disputes between two emergent nations?"

Hashirama picked up another scroll and showed it to him. "As you can see…they sent this request jointly… but then I received two more scrolls, within a day of each other from leaders of both respective islands. Each wants to…how should I put this…make a more subtle deal."

"You're saying they both intend to bribe Konoha into siding with them privately? What are they promising?" Madara's right eye widened minutely, "A trade route? A cut of the resources they're jealously guarding?"

"Both," Hashirama nodded. "Each leader is offering something different. I was skeptical about all this, but Tobirama believes if we can truly get them on the same page, it could be good for the village, because we'd get access to everything. There's still a lot of work to do and a trade deal isn't an awful thing to consider."

Madara's brows rose. "So I'm the representative you choose to send in delicate diplomatic matters such as this?"

Hashirama grinned cheekily. "I can only have as much faith in you as you have in yourself, Madara. And," he winked, "As long as they don't find out your secret weakness…"

Madara's cheeks darkened to a noticeable pink. "Oi, you keep that to yourself, Senju!"

Hashirama laughed in earnest, clutching his stomach at Madara's horrified face. "Your secret's still safe with me." he promised, wiping away a single tear.

"Is it? I wonder about that…" The Uchiha eyed him warily.

"At any rate, your ship leaves from the port in Yumegakure in three days. So you'll need to move out at daybreak."

Over his embarrassment, Madara was back to his prideful self. "Who do you take me for? I'll beat the ship to port easily."

"Good to hear you coming around!" the Hokage beamed. "Oh, but one more thing before I forget…" Hashirama pulled yet another scroll from a sizable pile of them. "This is the last correspondence I received…on top of needing help brokering a peace treaty, the islands have recently been experiencing a mass outbreak of a mysterious virus, and it's decimating the population fairly fast. One island in particular has lost half its population in less than a month…"

"I'm not a healer," Madara muttered. "So why tell me?"

"They'd originally requested a Senju, and I consulted with Toka on who to send but then she suggested someone from outside the clan…either way, you won't be going alone. Although your objectives will be entirely different, you'll be going with Sakura-san while she works to figure out a cause for, and possibly control the outbreak."

Sakura waved goodbye at the small group that had come to see her off. After getting her mission from the Hokage the following day, she had packed well for a long trip, securing her newer headband that marked her as kunoichi of Konoha.

Reira held Usamaro close to her chest, making his paw wave at her. "We'll take good care of Usamaro while you're gone~!" she assured. Kagami and Chisato stood with her, and the trio had volunteered for cat-sitting.

"And I'll take care of any food you don't want to expire before you get back," Shikamarin added.

Susumu timidly clutched at Shikamarin's arm in concern. "D-Doesn't that just mean you plan to eat it?"

The Nara placed a finger to her own lips.

Toka stood at the front of the group, arms crossed and her usual poker face on.

Yurine fidgeted beside her, hands clasped to her chest. "A mission to an island," The blonde sighed. "Sounds sort of romantic. A moonlit stroll, a clandestine meeting with a local blacksmith and a kunoichi…a passionate—"

"Yuhi, are you finished?" Toka asked.

Startled from her daydreaming, Yurine lowered her head, fingers combing nervously through her long, side ponytail. "Y-Yes,"

"You'd better get going, Sakura. Your ship will be leaving in a matter of days."

"Right," Sakura clasped her bicep and flexed with a grin.

She turned and flash-stepped for the gates, her spirits high. It had been a while since she'd been presented with something that may actually prove a challenge to her medical expertise.

Though she was confident she could figure out the cause of the outbreak, stopping it with only the resources available to her in such an early era of medical ninjutsu would be…interesting.

The tall green gates were well in sight, and she landed in front of them with practiced ease. The sentries had just begun to roll them open, and Sakura wondered if the Hokage had told them to expect her. That was when she spotted crimson armor and long black hair, gunbai secured to his back. Her heart lurched in surprise and a strangled, "Madara?" fell from her lips.

The man in question turned, his face holding none of the shock but all of the exasperation she was currently feeling. "The sentries are waiting to close the gates, Haruno."

"Y-You're my…you're on this mission too?" The shock had far from warn off. The Hokage had mentioned another shinobi would also be traveling to the Land of Water on a different mission, and that they might see each other, but he'd neglected to mention one minute detail.

Chapter Text

Logically, Sakura understood that despite the deadline to reach the port, the best way to proceed was to pace herself. It would be foolish to waste energy speeding off, all for the sake of losing her…traveling companion. It didn't stop the cold-blooded ire at the Hokage for not telling her, and at Madara, for everything he'd done up until the mission.

So she alternated between letting revenge fantasies of the Hokage and Madara play through her mind as she leapt stealthily through the treetops.

But they both knew that according to the maps, the path they were on was the most direct one to the portside village of Yumegakure. It didn't mean either of them was happy about it. The small satisfaction the pinkette got was that aside from that brief interaction as they left the village, Madara hadn't been inclined to say anything more to her.

She wouldn't have it any other way. They were essentially stuck together until the time it took them to reach the islands, so the less he had to say to her, the better. Sakura kept fruitlessly wondering what could have ever made the Hokage think it was a good idea to send them out into the field together, alone. The man wasn't that oblivious. He knew their history of butting heads.

The kunoichi supposed that maybe it wasn't that the village leader was unaware, but that he trusted them to be able to put their differences aside for the sake of the mission. Sakura remembered as Madara had watched on, unfazed as his falcon hunted her cat. Despite not having witnessed any of the murderous intentions he'd displayed on the battlefield, his constant state of arrogance and indifference grated at her nerves just the same. Truly, the odds of finishing the mission without clashing seemed more and more unlikely as she thought of it.

The Hokage slumped forward with a heavy sigh, face between his palms. 'Did I do the right thing? Not telling Sakura-san in advance seems…' He had an inkling of how she'd react to the news. Yet something told him that since she had already been assigned the mission she would feel obligated to complete it out of sheer duty…or maybe sheer stubbornness. Either seemed probable with a woman as feisty and determined as she was.

Sakura and Madara… They certainly had their fair share of…disagreements to work out. Pairing the two of them wasn't ideal from that perspective but both of their skillsets were needed on such an assignment, and choosing anyone else might have been the difference between crucial success and failure. At the very least, they had been gone at least an hour and no one had come rushing into his office to tell him there was a fight in front of the gates.

"Lord Hokage!" His attention immediately fell to one of the sentries that appeared before him, the urgent expression making him anticipate the worst. Perhaps he'd dared to hope too soon.

"Is there a problem?" he asked coolly. Betraying the amount of apprehension he was feeling would be unbecoming, or so his brother would likely say.

"The Inuzuka clan has just arrived, my lord."

"Oh," Hashirama's expression visibly relaxed. "Then I suppose Tsuba-san will be escorted up shortly to see me. For a minute, I was concerned something more serious—"

"There's more, my lord…" The young man straightened, clearing his throat. "The Inuzuka brought along some unlikely arrivals. Three children from the Kaguya clan."

The Hokage's eyes widened. "Kaguya…in the village?" The fact that they were children didn't necessarily mean they weren't a threat. The Kaguya were a fierce clan; no doubt they would raise formidable children to send into battle. However, it would make no sense to send them up against the might of an entire village of shinobi. Surely their clan head, as unhinged as he may have been, would understand that. "Where are they now?" The sentries wouldn't just allow them through. The Inuzuka were expected and had been in route for weeks. But Kaguya children, not so much.

Hashirama followed the sentry's eyes as they strayed to the door. "There was…a small problem. One of the children refused to go quietly when they were told to come with us, and well, ultimately Lord Tobirama was passing by and stepped in. So they're…"

Tobirama burst in, his eyes cold as he glared down at a wriggling child he gripped tight by the back of her clothing. "Be still. This is the last time I'll warn you." The girl, dark-haired, bronze-skinned and not much older than Reira, growled deeply in agitation.

Another smaller child was hanging limply from under his brother's arm, pouting. Hashirama stood in disbelief, but the door to his office opened before he could pass comment, and in came a woman he could only guess was Tsuba Inuzuka, a white-haired young man and several other Senju taking up the rear.

"Harihane, you're making this worse…" the white-haired young man muttered, his eyes fleetingly landing on the angry child, and then meeting Hashirama's gaze. He lowered his eyes in deference.

"Tobirama, what's…" To ask what was going on would be stupid, when he was already well aware of the situation. "Tsuba-san…we meet…at last."

"Looks that way," the woman responded casually, her sharp teeth briefly visible as she gave him a small, wry smile. "Not the best introduction."

"Didn't it occur to you to send word ahead before allowing three fleas to come along?" Tobirama asked coldly. "Do you even know who these children are?"

"W-We're not fleas!" the smallest one whimpered, not even attempting to escape.

"I told you this would happen!" spat the middle child. He believed she'd been referred to as…Harihane. "I told you we wouldn't be welcome in this stupid place! And you know what? We don't wanna be here anyway—so just let me go!" In a flash, she turned and latched onto Tobirama's arm, sinking her teeth deep into flesh with all the ferocity of a mad dog. Ice froze the stoic Senju's features and he snapped his arm with enough force to not only dislodge her but sending her flying until she crashed unceremoniously to the ground at the feet of the boy Hashirama assumed was her brother.

"I can only imagine the brutish ways you were allowed to behave when you were among your own clan. But know this…child or not, you have no allies here. If you are a threat to this village and came here to cause disruptions, you'll be treated accordingly."

The wave of hostility and the dangerous gleam in Tobirama's eyes had Hashirama moving to intercept. "Tobirama, that's enough."

Still seething, Tobirama turned as if to challenge him, face contorted in silent anger.

"You aren't honestly considering letting them go?" The girl Tobirama still held prisoner under one arm whined as he unconsciously squeezed tighter. "Kaguya raze villages to the ground for sport. Every child is trained from birth to know only one thing, a lust for battle and bloodshed. I don't trust—"

"It's the Hokage's duty to settle all conflicts." he interrupted, his own chakra flaring powerfully to push back at his brother's. You aren't wrong, brother. The Kaguya's acts in the past have been atrocious. But so have the Senju's. So has every other clan who's ever pushed another to extinction. Let them speak for themselves, here and now." His tone brooked no argument, and Tobirama, though diffidently, seemed to come back to himself. The white-haired Senju dropped the child to her feet, and she scurried over to her siblings, pressing tightly to her brothers side and looking back at Tobirama with fearful eyes, still quaking. The teenage boy pulled his other sister back onto her own feet, and she fearlessly glowered at the Hokage's brother.

"You can leave us," Hashirama commanded, "Thank you for your vigilance."

The sentry and the other Senju who had come along looked unsure, but one more pointed look from their Hokage and they bowed as they departed.

That left Tsuba, the three Kaguya and Tobirama. The hardest part of the battle was far from over.

The Kaguya boy stepped forward, his sisters still remaining protectively close. "Thank you, for deciding to hear us out," he bowed, unexpectedly mannerly in demeanor and tone. "You're the leader of this village, correct? The one they call…a Hokage." Hashirama found himself being sized up, the way any decent shinobi would in unfamiliar territory.

Hashirama nodded. "And you are…?"

"Jun'ichi," he supplied. "Jun'ichi Kaguya. These are my sisters…Harihane," he pointed at the middle child and she turned away with a scowl, arms folded.

"Hmph!" Her dark hair, cut to her shoulders and partially secured by a bun at the top of head, swayed with the jerk of her neck.


"Kikue!" the smallest child poked her head from behind her brother, introducing herself in a high, prepubescent voice. Unlike her brother and sister, she had softer, rounder eyes, just as dark as theirs. The red dots above her thin brows pulled close together as she frowned up at Hashirama in caution, the messy bun secured lopsidedly on her head held in place by a small bone.

If he didn't know any better, he'd never think he was looking at a child from the Kaguya clan. She had a bit of his sympathy. All children should hold the same bright innocence at her age. That firm belief had been what encouraged him to keep pursuing his dreams of making Konoha a reality, to shelter children just like her from losing their innocence—and their lives—too soon on the battlefield.

Putting on his most reassuring smile, Hashirama bent closer to her, lowering himself to appear non-threatening. He was a tall man, and to a small child like herself, probably all the more daunting. She was clearly still rattled by Tobirama's manhandling, looking unwilling to let go of her brother.

"Hello Kikue," he greeted gently. "How old are you?"

"Nine," she whispered, peeking up at him for only an instant.

"What about the two of you?" Hashirama coaxed.

"Why do you need to know?" Harihane snapped.

Jun'ichi nudged her. "I'm nineteen. Harihane is twelve,"

"And you expect us to believe you pose no threats?" Tobirama grumbled.

"I didn't come here with expectations of any kind." Jun'ichi assured. "But it's true that we're Kaguya in name only now. We've left all ties with the clan and its ways behind." He placed a hand atop Kikue's head, looking Hashirama in the eyes. Hashirama could see sincerity there.

"Then why come to Konoha? You could just have easily been mercenaries," Tobirama said unpityingly.

"That's what I said," Harihane threw her arms above her head. "It'd be better than being trapped in a…a village where everyone pretends to believe in peace."

"Pretends?" Hashirama arched a brow.

Harihane leveled a scathing look at him. "Pretends," she said firmly. "Peace between clans? That's not the way shinobi are. They make truces and then they break them."

"Lord Hokage," Tsuba stepped in. "The blame's mine for this one. I convinced them Konoha could spare room for them."

Hashirama stroked his chin, eyeing Tsuba, the siblings and his brother. "My brother does make…valid points. The Kaguya have wronged nearly every clan in the village right now. The Uchiha especially might take issue with them settling here."

Harihane, chest puffed out, began to head for the door. Jun'ichi nonchalantly reached back to grab her, turning her in an about face.

"But," Hashirama continued. "I'm willing to allow you to stay on a trial basis, under surveillance."

"We don't have the shinobi to spare for that…" Tobirama started to protest.

"I'll take care of it," Tsuba volunteered, stepping forward with a nod. "I brought 'em here, I can keep an eye out for them. You've got my word, Hokage-sama."

Hashirama, satisfied with the suggestion, turned to his brother. "Any objections to that Tobirama?"

"I've got one!" Harihane voiced, "I don't want to."

"Harihane," Jun'ichi clamped a hand over her mouth. "Allow me to do the talking." The former Kaguya heir met Tobirama's stern gaze unflinchingly. "We leave ourselves at your mercy. If I or my sisters cause you trouble, then please, by all means…handle it accordingly."

Tension lingered, pulled taut like a bowstring as Tobirama finally turned away. "Do as you please then, Hashirama. But, if for any reason these three prove untrustworthy, expect me to step in."

Hours into the journey, and Madara was aware of the sun starting to get low in the sky. He could easily keep going, of course. Darkness was the true element of the shinobi, after all. He'd led many raids on enemy clans under the cover of night. But to travel through the night hardly seemed necessary when he—and admittedly the kunoichi—had been making good time.

The prickle of her animosity burning a hole through him from behind had been a constant pressure since they left the village. There were several times when he was sure she would scream at him outright. But no, she'd stayed quiet, stewing wordlessly. The absence of her yelling was welcomed, but disquieting on its own.

After all, despite what Izuna said, he'd never shared an encounter with Haruno where she wasn't yelling at him, glaring at him, and generally cursing his existence be it aloud or in her head. That she could be quiet for so long was a surprise, almost as impressive as the fact that she could match his pace. She hung back, yes, but it wasn't a matter of keeping up, but of keeping away from him. The feeling of wariness was mutual.

The Uchiha wasn't thrilled to learn the medic who would be accompanying him would be the short-tempered, pink-haired woman, but there was no denying the curiosity mixed in with the reluctance. Izuna was so taken with her, praising her medical skills—skills that made her a true rarity for someone who didn't even hail from a prominent clan, if Izuna's praises weren't exaggerated.

She'd also gained the confidence of the others she had gone on the mission with, and from reading Toka Senju's report and witnessing her spar with Tobirama, he knew her to be an absolute brute in taijutsu. Madara had no doubt that what he'd seen in the Senju's courtyard was far from the extent of her abilities. Though they weren't assigned the same tasks, there was no doubt that there'd be points when their missions would intersect. Already they shared a route to Yumegakure and a ship to the islands. Madara looked forward to seeing how she conducted herself on a mission if nothing else.

Smirking, he began to descend closer to the forest floor, noticing how Haruno stubbornly continued to travel in the hire branches, even as the swath of forest they passed through thinned, and the thicker, taller trees became more sparse, making way for a path that had long been cleared for a smoother road with fewer places for bandits to ambush caravans.

Soon enough, she'd be forced to the ground to settle for the night, and Madara expected that would be when they had yet another confrontation. The Uchiha didn't quite understand it himself. Being almost exclusively on the receiving end of her verbal assault and standoffish attitude for no discernable reason was frustrating, and yet not since Naoko was there a woman who simultaneously infuriated but interested him.

She stood her ground against him, unafraid of revealing her temper. Every act of provocation toward her brought out a magnificence shade to her green eyes and a defiant snarl to her lips. Just bordering on pure hatred, there was a dark beauty there. Like watching a stormy sky split apart by a sharp bolt of lightning.

The soft looks and laughter she gave to Izuna, to Hashirama…they were forced to share that side of her. And she seemed to have worked toward a mutual tolerance of Tobirama as of late, but that was hardly special.

He was sure that she'd likely come to tolerate a lot of people. Very few people could say they knew what it was like to be the sole focus of someone's undiluted hatred. But he and he alone got the brunt of all her blackest emotions, and in that regard, owning that small but unfettered part of her made him feel triumphant in the dance they'd fallen into.

Chuckling under his breath, Madara saw the flash of pink behind him as the kunoichi came to the ground, just like he knew she would. She remained a cautious distance from him, standing at the edge of the copse of trees that created a natural semi-circle just off to the side of the road.

She began to slowly circle the perimeter, no doubt looking for a place to settle as far from him as possible. But every corner of the small thicket was equidistance from the middle, and so he spitefully decided that was where he would spend the night.

Haruno noticed, but she did a valiant job of ignoring him as she took off her pack, kneeling and beginning to rummage through it. She produced a bedroll, then provisions he recognized as edibles. Loosening the headband from her hair, she draped it across her knee and let her fingers comb through the pink strands.

Madara could almost read her thoughts as if they were his own. She was looking at him smugly, noticing his own lack of a pack, a bedroll or rations. Truthfully, he was use to traveling lightly. Snuggling down into a bedroll while away from the safety of the compound had always felt…strange. The field wasn't supposed to bring comfort.

Haruno began unwrapping food, dried meat, by the look of it, watching him from the corner of one eye. Madara wouldn't quite call them comrades, village affiliation aside, so he supposed in light of everything, he understood the mistrust. Ignoring her, he wandered from the clearing, a kunai twirling around his finger. Haruno could rely on her carefully packed provisions all she liked, but a true shinobi knew how to gather the resources they needed from the field.

Sakura watched him go, chewing at the jerky in aggravation. "That one is difficult, is he not?"

Sakura snorted, taking a sip from her canteen. "Yeah, tell me about it—" Turning in realization, she choked on her water to notice Mizuchi sitting right beside her. "What are you doing?" she whispered urgently, her green eyes darting between the goddess and the direction Madara had gone. "You can't be here!"

Unbothered, the deity smoothed the creases in her emerald kimono, her legs folded daintily underneath her. "I go where I wish, Sakura."

Bowing her head, Sakura nibbled once again at the food in her hands, appetite all but gone. "I…I know. But I just mean…" she swallowed, "Wouldn't it be bad if he sees you? I mean isn't that why we were being so discreet before?"

Mizuchi cast her gaze upwards to the steadily darkening sky, now a mixture of pink and orange hues. An autumn breeze blew through the clearing, moving strands of the goddess' dark hair. Absently, she reached up to push them behind her ear, and for the first time, Sakura noticed they were pointed, heavy emerald earrings incased in gold hanging from the lobes. "The time for discretion is drawing to a close, I'm afraid. You still are far from ready."

Sakura set the food aside, completely attentive to the goddess's words. "Ready for what?"

"Another test draws near," The deity said instead, evasive as ever. "On the island."

"How'd you know about that?" the kunoichi questioned.

Mizuchi sighed heavily. Something was strange. Mizuchi wasn't exuding her normal confidence, putting the normal amount of distance between them. The goddess seemed almost…jaded somehow, if that were possible. "Sakura, tell me what I've taught you so far. About blighting."

"Right," She dipped her head to indicate she recalled. "Deities use them to…punish humans…control populations. They're the product of humanity's most negative emotions…"

"And the counter?"

Sakura faltered. "T-The counter?"

"Yes. How do you reverse a blight? How do you heal it?" Mizuchi waved her hand idly, urging her to continue.

"You pull it out of the victim," she bit at her lip in thought. "And swallow it, which neutralizes the threat."

"Deities made them, so they can handle the brunt of reabsorbing them." Mizuchi continued. "You, as a human, cannot. Creating blights, such as it is, nearly kills you."

Sakura opened her mouth to declare that she had a handle on it now. That blighting was difficult but no longer as painful for her. "I can learn the rever—"

"I know you can." Mizuchi held a palm up, leaning back in the grass. "But at what cost? And, on what scale are you willing to pay?"

Sakura frowned. "Why ask me now? You didn't care about any of that before. That's why I'm here, on a mission with a man that nearly tore the world apart."

"All of that is yet to happen." Mizuchi reminded her. "Though, there's no way to tell if your presence truly changes much in the end. The fates are fickle."

"The gods are fickle, you mean," Sakura quipped flatly.

Mizuchi's eyes brightened, and her ruby lips rose in amusement. "It seems you are finally beginning to understand."

Madara stiffened, almost sure he'd caught a glimpse of a billowing emerald kimono and long hair darker than a starless night…and horns. There had been horns. All of it was gone faster than he could decide if it was an illusion. Instead, Haruno was quietly meditating on her bedroll. Alone. Madara moved by her with the kindling he'd brought back, setting to work on constructing the fire pit necessary to cook his fresh kill. A pheasant unlucky enough to cross his path.

One reproachful green eye opened as the sticks he'd gathered were dropped to the ground with a clatter, Madara sitting in front of them as he began plucking the bird. Haruno slowly closed her eye again, back to her meditating. There was silence for the next twenty minutes, the Uchiha preparing his own meal and the kunoichi clearly struggling to continue ignoring him.

When the bird was ready to roast, Madara blew the fire to life, watching the plucked flesh start to cook on the spit he'd constructed. As it cooked, his eyes slipped once again to the young woman at the edge of the clearing. Try as she might to avoid talking to him, watching the food roast was boring, and she, unfortunately for her, was the only person around to entertain himself with.

"The heat of the fire won't reach you from that distance," Her eyes snapped open immediately.

"That'd only matter if I was actually cold." She retorted. "Unlike you, I brought provisions for every scenario."

"Preparedness is important for shinobi." Madara snidely observed her pack, her bedroll, her canteen and the food stuffs laid out. "Especially in the absence of actual survival skills."

The apples of her cheeks reddened, and she leaned forward, green eyes turning to slits. "No one understands survival more than a medic. I have to be prepared so that when arrogant shinobi who think they're invincible fall in battle," Haruno looked him directly in the eyes, "I can be there to heal them. If I thought like you do, counting on finding what I needed by chance, who knows how many people would die."

"You're quite confident in your medical ninjutsu." Madara mused. "Izuna tells me you have reason to be. Although, anyone could save a cat," he remarked offhandedly.

Sakura glanced down at the food she'd set aside, quickly stuffing some crackers into her mouth in an attempt to avoid firing back.

'How ridiculous.' Madara thought. The bulging cheeks and round, angry eyes made her the human counterpart to a disgruntled chipmunk. Noticing his pheasant was nearly done, he lifted it from over the open flame.

"You're exactly the kind of shinobi that I was talking about, you know." He heard her say lowly. "The arrogant, reckless kind. How many lives have you saved?"

"I'm not the kind of shinobi who saves lives, medic." Madara pinched a piece of the cooling pheasant meat off between his fingers, bringing it to his lips. "I'm the kind of shinobi who ends them."

Sakura rose with the sun, glancing over to see Madara was no longer in the center of the clearing. The fire he'd made had burnt out. He was up a tree, apparently resting in one of the lower branches thick enough to support his weight.

She still couldn't believe they were actually on the same side, technically speaking. His mannerisms, his way of thinking…in a child's fable, he'd be the handsome but conniving antagonist, trying to lure the heroine away from her happy ending. But she refused to let him lure her away from her mission.

Everything was packed in short order, and she was ready to head out once again. While the Uchiha rested, she'd get a head start. That was the plan, at least, until he stood, already wearing his armor with the gunbai secured once more on his back. When he turned to smirk down at her, his hitai-ate caught the light of the early morning sun, and it infuriated her. Someone like him shouldn't wear the proud symbol of the Leaf village so well.

Sakura shouldered her pack on, leaping into the trees on the opposite side of the road as the copse they'd spent the night in. Any distance she could create could never be far enough, but it was a start. The kunoichi decided in order to avoid launching Madara into orbit, she'd have almost single-minded focus on the mission ahead. With Madara nearby, that was almost a lost cause.

Chapter Text

The sight of Yumegakure on the horizon was, ironically, the oasis in the desert. The minute Sakura caught a whiff of the sea breeze on the wind and saw the small houses that made up the quaint, seaside village, her chest lightened. They had managed to arrive with a half days' worth of time to spare. Sakura smiled to herself, relaxed by the blue sky striped with clouds and the cozy atmosphere surrounding the little village.

Though there was no doubt they stood out, no one looked at them with anything akin to hostility as they walked the cobblestone streets—a considerable distance from each other, for her sanity. A burly man walked by with a net of fish slung over his strong back, whistling an unfamiliar tune. When they nearly bumped shoulders, he took the time to tip his cap at her as he walked by.

The people of Yume were clearly use to travelers passing through, as aside from some curiosity or a few waves in greeting, no one spared them much of a second look. 'There's something about a seaside town,' she thought pleasantly.

It brought fond memories of missions to portside towns when she was younger. Missions with her own squad and other rookies over the years. Now, a lifetime later, the serenity of peaceful Yume was tinged with her apprehension. Though that was at least partially due to the Uchiha with her. Sakura glared from the corner of her eyes.

Madara stood up ahead, examining a market area where a blacksmith was hard at work in front of his forge. 'We already stand out like sore thumbs,' Sakura reasoned. 'Somehow though, it's more than just appearance with him...' She studied his profile carefully. His arms were folded across his chest, his face impassive.

In his deep red armor with the gunbai at his back and his kama hanging near his waist, Madara looked battle-ready and fearsome. 'That's just the natural air he gives off. It always feels like it's enough to choke you.' Since beginning training with Mizuchi, Sakura had noticed she was much more attuned to strong auras.

For people who held powerful presences like Madara, it was almost amplified by her acute spiritual senses. Although, hazarding a guess, it wasn't the same experience a sensor-type would have had. Nevertheless, it drove her to seek space when it got too overwhelming, and now felt like one of those times. Their ship wouldn't leave for another half a day, and exploring was an effective way to pass time.

Sakura could do with some good food. While living off berries, dried meats and rations had been well and good, she was hardly going to pass up the opportunity to have something more satisfying. It wasn't a stretch to guess that food options on the ship would be limited, going by previous experiences.

There had been a tantalizing aroma coming from downwind and it spurred her hunger. Attempting to follow the scent to its source, she was instead greeted with an armored chest as Madara suddenly appeared in her path.

Gritting her teeth, she leveled him with a fierce stare. "Move,"

Surprisingly, there was no smirk, no hint of amusement in his eyes. "Be warned that the ship will leave with or without you. Don't hold any illusion that I'll come for you."

"It's not my first time on a mission. I know how to rendezvous." Sakura brushed by him, silently pleased with herself for keeping a tight lid on her temper. She'd made up her mind that whenever possible, she'd deny him what he wanted—her reaction. Giving him little to nothing would hopefully make him lose interest faster. Of course, that was if she was able to continue biting her tongue. After all, she'd promised herself he wouldn't get a rise from her all the other times, and he had.

"Excuse me," Sakura called, managing to get the attention of a young boy running by with a fishing pole. He stopped so quickly he almost tripped on his line, righting himself with a frown. The minute he saw her, though, his annoyance turned into curiosity.

"Who're you?" he asked bluntly.

"Just a traveler." The kunoichi noticed how he looked ready to bolt off again, anxiously gripping the fishing rod. "Sorry, but could you tell me where to go for food?"

The young boy moved the oversized cap on his head to scratch at his russet hair, mouth twisting in concentration. "I like to go to the shop on the corner over there! The obaa-san who runs it gives me extra sometimes." he said finally with a point.

Sakura noticed he was talking about a small, open shop not far away where thick curtains served as a divider between patrons and people on the street. It reminded her of fond times at Ichiraku with Team 7.

"Thank y—" Sakura paused, noticing he was already gone.

Shrugging, she continued her walk, falling in with the locals and slipping under the flap of the shop. There was a sweet, pleasant aroma in the air, and several customers inside, eating steamed buns. Behind the counter, a woman rolling dough hummed softly. "Welcome to—oh my, a new face I see."

"Hi," Sakura waved, looking around. "I'm passing through and—"

"Oh," the shop owner interrupted, "Say no more. Please, come in and have a seat. I'm just about to steam these." She motioned with her shoulder to the dough she was rolling.

Sakura took a seat on a stool, noticing a small girl also behind the corner for the first time.

"Emiko, ask our guest what she'd like to have!" the woman urged, her daughter scrambling to place a scroll listing menu items in front of Sakura.

"It says the mizu manju is your special item, so I'll have that." she decided, handing the scroll back. 'This is a strange season for it though…' Not wanting to offend, Sakura kept that thought to herself, giving Emiko a patient smile.

Emiko nodded, shyly avoiding Sakura's gaze and scurrying over to her mother's side.

"I'm sorry, she's very shy with new people." The owner chuckled, "Here, while you're waiting have some taiyaki. It's fresh!"

Emiko stood on the tips of her toes, plating the treats and bringing them to Sakura. The fish-shaped cakes resembled carp, light brown and warm to the touch. "Oh, t-thank you. But is it really okay to just give me this? I don't mind paying…" Even so, Sakura hurriedly wiped at her mouth, which had become moist the minute the fresh sweets were set in front of her.

"Generosity is our way of life here, so enjoy. Think of it as a reason to visit us again the next time you're passing through," she turned to drop the manju into a steamer with a wink.

Deciding arguing against such a kind offer was pointless, Sakura carefully picked up the warm cake and bit into it head first. The sweet bean paste and the combination of the soft texture was so refreshingly good after days of berries and dried meats, she could have shed a tear. Emiko sat a clay cup in front of her quietly.

"Melon juice," she muttered. Sakura nodded in thanks, taking a sip to wash the cake down.

"So young lady," the amiable shop owner began. "I couldn't help but notice your headband…what brings you to a quiet place like Yume for a mission?"

Sakura took another bite of cake, savoring it. "Actually, I'm here to take a ship to the Land of Water."

An instantly noticeable change in mood settled over the shop. Patrons that had been quietly eating, paused, glancing at Sakura in open surprise?"

"Those cursed islands?" a young woman whispered.

"Cursed?" Sakura repeated. "Are you talking about the mysterious illness that's been spreading?"

"No, no! Those islands were cursed long before that…" An older man insisted. "You know, folk there are strange, in a mild manner of speaking. Wary of strangers and known to practice all kinds of things. You be careful there, young lady."

Startled, Sakura tried desperately to process the information. In her time, the Land of Water was home to Kirigakure, a village long since renowned for their bloody civil wars, persecution of anyone possessing a kekkei genkai and the Seven Ninja Swordsman. But she hadn't heard about any of those things yet, and given that Konoha was only just taking off, it was unlikely that Kiri existed. In the academy she'd learned that Konoha had been the first to be established, followed by Sunagakure, and then the other villages. Kiri was second to last…

Then again, she reasoned, with the peaceable nature of people in Yume, it wouldn't be hard to imagine that they would call the gory, sordid way of life in the Land of Water "strange" to put it politely.

The owner cleared her throat, effectively breaking Sakura's concentration. "I think that'll be enough worrying our guest. Here you are; the mizu manju is cool enough to serve now." Sakura took off her pack, digging into it and producing the amount she'd seen on the menu.

Thinking of the kindness she'd been shown, she dug out a few extra yen pieces and snuck them between the paper money, handing both over to little Emiko. The little girl's brows lifted questioningly, but Sakura gently placed a finger to her lips. Three mizu manju were set in front of her, but Sakura found herself too preoccupied to eat.

Hashirama sat down the message Tobirama had given him, stunned speechless. For his part, his brother waited somewhat impatiently. "Well?"

The older Senju read over the beautiful, flowing scrawl for what felt like the dozenth time.

"After careful consideration, we of the Hyuga clan agree to discuss negotiations with you, Hashirama Senju, Hokage of Konohagakure, provided your brother acts as a witness. Be forewarned that we have conditions rooted in the traditions of our clan that we are unwilling to compromise about. If the time and date included below is amenable to you, then we can proceed."

If anything, there was clear progress. The Hyuga were finally, after weeks of hard-won political negotiation, willing to discuss the terms in which they would consider relocating to Konoha. Although the budding village would have likely done fine in the long term without their inclusion, Hashirama had been adamant that if Konoha ever became a reality, as many clans as possible should be invited. Some had been easier to court than others, with the Hyuga being among the hardest to convince. "Tobirama, this is incredible! They're finally willing to have talks,"

Tobirama lifted his chin, a touch of annoyance in the firm line of his mouth. "Was there ever doubt that I would prevail?"

Hashirama carried on blithely, "You understand this calls for honey wine. I still haven't broken in the set Toka and Reira gave me."

Tobirama's eyes narrowed. "You're getting far too carried away. I've merely brought them to the table. Between this and the new trade agreement, granted Madara can truly coax them into a treaty, there's still much to be done."

Hashirama straightened his shoulders, his smile falling away. "Right, of course. I didn't assign the task to Madara simply because you were indisposed, you know. Despite your feelings you have to admit he's a skilled negotiator in his own right."

Tobirama turned his burning eyes onto the unlucky bonsai perched at the corner of the desk. "Tch…"

"Fine, fine…" Hashirama waved aside his brother's petulant mood. "It's too early for you to give Madara any sort of credit, even when it's just us here. So we won't talk about that right now…why don't you tell me how you managed to entice the Hyuga?"

Tobirama's eyes darted momentarily to Hashirama's hopeful face and then fell back to Bukkai in boredom. "That's nothing of interest," he grumbled. Truth be told, Hashirama had left the minute details to Tobirama, because when he'd taken over correspondence with the Hyuga, he seemed to get a better reception, curt though the responses may have been. This the Hokage had always simply credited with Tobirama's taciturn personality.

Something about him must have appealed to the Hyuga's sense of traditionalism. After all, even if Tobirama was only conveying his ideas for him, he always managed to do so in a much more level-headed way that didn't come across as radical as when Hashirama spoke them himself. It was the difference in delivery that mattered most during tough political negotiations such as these.

However, after a point in the talks, Tobirama had become more reserved, giving him less and less detail about exactly how it was he was managing to keep the Hyuga's attention, only mentioning things were proceeding accordingly. But now that things were as good as sealed, Hashirama found himself bubbling with curiosity.

The Hokage playfully wiggled his brows. "Being coy now, brother?"

"No," Tobirama denied, "It just isn't a tale that needs reiterating. I've been speaking with Hisoki Hyuga and gradually ingratiating myself to him."

"Mhm," his brother hummed. "Continue,"

Tobirama gave Bukkai an unimpressed stare before rounding on its owner. Sighing, he explained, "A man like Haruaki isn't hard to understand. But he's hard to court politically, in this instance. The kind of change inherently involved in the process of a functioning ninja village with so many clans and the blending of cultures is, for all intensive perhaps, in staunch opposition to what a traditionalist clan like the Hyuga stand for. Keeping negotiations going meant convincing them they wouldn't lose their identity by joining Konoha. It also meant finding common ground."

"I see," Hashirama muttered to himself. "You've always been so good at understanding what it is someone truly wants from negotiations. But," Here his chin fell to his chest as he peered over the desk suspiciously at his brother. "What common ground do you have with someone like that? The Senju haven't been the most open to changing either, until recently. I'm not sure I'd call our clan one that takes traditionalism to the extent that the Hyuga do, though…"

"It isn't about the similarities of our clans." Tobirama rolled his shoulder, still finding more interest in Bukkai than in looking him in the eyes. "We, as individuals, simply share a few beliefs."

"Well now you've truly piqued my interest," Hashirama was bordering between being inquisitive and concerned. It was unlike his brother to hedge around a conversation so much. Tobirama's personality was as blunt as a stone and cut as sharply as a newly forged blade.

"Are you waiting on me to tell you?" Tobirama scoffed, "What more is there to say?"

"Plenty!" howled the Hokage. "Of all times for you to decide to be more subtle..."

"Our commonality begins and ends with a dislike for a certain person."

"Oh," Hashirama breathed a sigh of relief, "That's reasonable, at least. The enemy of my enemy is—a certain person?"

"I won't repeat myself."

Curiosity quickly became suspicion again. The Hyuga was a prominent clan with a coveted doujutsu. They had many enemies. But more than any other clan, the ones they had a fierce rivalry with were…

"Tobirama, tell me you didn't," Hashirama groaned as his forehead touched the desk.

There was a silence, not so much as a quip to confirm or deny. Peeling his face from the cool wooden surface, Hashirama met his brother's gaze, mortified. "Tell me you didn't…didn't get this far in the negotiation process by sharing your theories on the Uchiha clan!" For quite some time, Tobirama had held firmly to the belief that the Uchiha were cursed to hate.

Or, the Curse of Hatred. Despite being unsubstantiated, Tobirama had often claimed if he could study the mind of an Uchiha, he could prove his theory beyond a doubt. It wasn't something he'd talked about since they had signed the Uchiha and Senju treaty, not something he would ever allow his brother to do, even if he miraculously managed to find an Uchiha willing. It didn't stop the cogs of morally ambiguous inquisition from turning.

"Of course not," Tobirama replied, affronted. "I'm not a fool. To discuss discontent in the ranks is to give the enemy an angle to exploit. I wouldn't openly condemn the whole clan to the Hyuga. However, he asked what kind of man I thought Madara Uchiha was, and I gave my honest opinion."

Hashirama sucked in a deep breath and held it. Even when the burning in his lungs started, he held it in a little longer. "…Tobirama…why? Why?" The Hokage's whines were muffled by the sleeve of his robes as he pressed an arm to his face.

"It worked," Tobirama muttered with a defensive edge. "I told them what I felt, which also happened to be what they wanted to hear, and it worked."

"Yes, but," the Shodai rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Don't you think that expressing your dislike for Madara, the leader of the clan, is the same as expressing dislike for the whole clan?"

"Why would it be?" Tobirama argued. "Madara is a particularly unscrupulous individual, even by Uchiha standards."

"And so you simply made Madara out to be the worst the Uchiha had to offer? I can't believe…" He blinked at the pale flesh of Tobirama's palm being held in the air.

"I've made it clear the Uchiha are a firm fixture in Konoha. The Hyuga know that we aren't casting one clan aside to accommodate them. Expressing my thoughts about living in the same village as a spastic, dramatic, pompous man such as Madara and promising something unreasonable that would isolate one of the most powerful clans Konoha has are different things."

Hashirama scrubbed a hand down his face, peeking through his fingers hopefully. "So you didn't tell the Hyuga anything truly damaging that would put us in a corner with the Uchiha…but you…gossiped about Madara?"

"It is not gossiping. It's an exchanging of like-minded opinions. What self-respecting man gossips?" Tobirama crossed his arms and glared outright.

"I mean," Giggles erupted before he could bite them back. "I mean apparently you do." It was all he could get out before the giggles overtook him again, making his shoulders bounce. The wood of Tobirama's chair scraping against the floor as he stood alerted him that he'd succeeded in annoying his brother.

"I'll be taking my leave," he growled.

With speed impressive even for a shinobi of his caliber, Tobirama had slammed the door, so hard it rattled scrolls on the wall and caused Bukkai to teeter off the edge of the desk. Hashirama snapped out of his laughing fit long enough to lunge for his beloved bonsai, grinning nervously at it. "He'll be annoyed with me for a while over that," the Hokage whispered, lovingly caressing the sides of the ceramic pot with his thumbs. "But he shouldn't take it out on you."

There were at least ten ships of varying sizes docked at the harbor, many still being loaded for their voyages. Sakura strained to tilt her head back far enough to see the tops of some of the largest ones, which must have been sixty feet across. One in particular made her stop and stare, a beautiful cargo ship. While she was certainly no expert on vessels, Sakura had seen a handful of them in her lifetime.

She knew enough to hazard a guess that the crew kept this one exceptionally maintained. It had to stand at least a hundred feet, hull painted white and The Spiriter embossed across the side in hand-carved script. Even Madara must have been at least mildly impressed, because out of her peripherals he stood off to the side, gazing up at the ship approvingly.

A young man on the deck who had been directing the crew noticed them, and came to peer over the edge. "Beautiful, ain't she?" he called down, the mild breeze carrying his voice.

Surprised, Sakura blinked, a bit abashed at being caught gawking. Nevertheless, she nodded truthfully. "I've never seen a cargo ship shine like that. Your crew puts a lot of time into it."

They watched as the young man smiled in pride, walking across deck and coming down the boarding plank. He had a more graceful gait than she'd expect from a sailor. Then again, he didn't exactly look much like the burly, sea-hardened men behind him. Young and well-tanned with keen green eyes and white blonde hair, when his stare settled on her, Sakura found her cheeks warming rapidly.

Halfway down the plank, he paused, eyes widening slightly. "So…you're the shinobi traveling from Konoha?" It was then that Sakura realized he hadn't been watching her; he'd been studying their headbands.

"The hitai-ate seem to make that obvious." Madara said flatly. Sakura bristled, ready to reprimand him for his rudeness, but the young man hardly seemed bothered.

"That's true enough." He shrugged. "It's my first time ever meeting shinobi, so I'll admit I was hoping to see you before we set sail. Words gotten 'round about a place where shinobi from different clans live, united by a single symbol."

"W-Wait," Sakura's face fell. "Before you set sail? Aren't you…isn't this…" she motioned to The Spiriter, "The ship taking us to the Land of Water?" The Hokage had never told them, or at least not her, the name of the ship or its captain. Simply that it would be there, ready to set sail and take them in three days' time. It was vain, but the minute she saw attractive young man and the proud ship, she had assumed. Dared to hope… Surely, the Hokage would find them the finest accommodations possible. Wouldn't he?

His lips lifted into a wry quirk. "Mm, I'm starting to wish." Then, shaking his head, he thumbed past his own ship. "I think you're actually looking for The Harbinger."

"You could have said so, instead of wasting time," Madara sighed, already making his way to the ship docked next to The Spiriter. The ship Sakura hadn't bothered to take note of when she'd been captivated by the attractive crewman and his pretty ship.

Hesitantly, she made her way around the side of The Spiriter, and her mouth fell in undisguised shock at the sight of a vessel that had seen more than its fair share of storms and looked to be in need of some repair. Aboard, a motley assortment of men and women were loading for their trip too, securing crates and taking things below deck.

Although, unlike the crew of The Spiriter, there didn't seem to be any true order. Sakura watched in disbelief as they loudly bickered, dropping crates of what was probably precious cargo to shove against each other. The next thing she knew, two men were in a full out brawl, with the rest of the crew circling them to chant encouragingly.

Shaking her head, the pink-haired nin took a cautious step away. All things considered, it didn't sit well to board a ship with such an ominous name, the crew's conduct momentarily aside.

"This has to be a mistake," Sakura muttered. "We can't…" Madara turned away from the fight, strolling back toward The Spiriter.

"Where are you going?" she demanded.

Madara didn't so much as miss a step. "It doesn't matter where The Spiriter was originally planning to go, its new destination is the Land of Water."

"I don't want to board that any more than you do," Sakura argued, "But you can't make a ship change course. Maybe there's a captain somewhere that can sort it out—"

"Oi!" Craning her neck around, the kunoichi was just in time to see a very angry looking middle-aged woman wielding a ladle march through the crowd on deck, which parted effortlessly for her.

Once she'd gotten herself between the two brawlers, she shoved them away from each other with ease, rearing back to smack the shorter one across the face with her ladle. He stumbled, clutching his jaw.

"What're ya always ruinin' our fun for, Junko?" demanded a grisly red-haired man.

"This is why we're behind schedule! This is why we always get passed up for the big jobs!" she ranted. "You sorry lot spend more time arguin' like brats than anything!"

"Seafolk aren't for tamin'." One of the men who'd been fighting laughed, slinging an arm around her shoulders and drawing her closer. "Salt o' the sea's in our blood! We fight, we sail and we fuc—"

With an impressively precise maneuver, Sakura watched the woman named Junko seize his arm and twist it behind his back, throwing him with an infuriated cry.

The sizable splash as he hit the water made Madara stop and turn around. The Harbinger's crew laughed and the sailor came up sputtering, grumbling about mutiny as he swam his way onto the harbor's dock.

Sakura leaned down, careful not to get any seawater on her exposed toes as he hauled himself up with a grunt. "Are you alright?"

Apparently surprised by her presence, he took a minute longer than she was comfortable with staring into her face while she bent awkwardly.

"Y-You, you're a goddess. You have to be." Sakura's heart leapt in panic.

"What? No, I—"

"Don't mind him!" the woman who had thrown him called down to her. "Tries to sweet talk any decent looking lady he sees!"

Madara was mildly amused by this news. "Decent-looking, you say?" He gave Sakura an appraising stare, as if examining a merchant's wares. "Beauty really is in the eyes of the beholder."

"This close," she snarled in his direction, showing him the space between her thumb and index finger. Clearing her throat, she politely ignored the sopping wet state of the sailor's clothes. "We're looking for the ship traveling to the Land of Water. We—"

"Look!" Another sailor yelled from the ship. "Looka their headbands! They're neenja!" Sakura watched in confusion as everyone aboard dropped what they were doing and clambered to the side of ship to get a look at Madara and herself. The crew gave a collective gasp of awe and Sakura shifted uncomfortably. The ogling made her feel like a rare species in the wild that had encountered people.

"Ignore those apes, miss," the dripping crewman did an awkward, clumsy bow, grasping her hand and squeezing, giving her a sincere smile of crooked or missing teeth. "Welcome, we're honored to take ya to the Land of Water. And the boys'll be on their best behavior."

"Then this is our ship?" Madara asked, barely masking his disdain.

"'Course! And you just made it. We're all ready to set sail."

Creaking on a ship, he supposed, was normal. Especially a well-aged vessel, which the Harbinger undoubtedly was. But with each step, Madara half-expected his foot to go right through the planks of the deck.

Haruno was traipsing around just as carefully, glancing down at her feet periodically and quietly sucking in her breath with every suspicious groan of the ship. "Sorry you had to see us like that." The hulking sailor that had slipped out of the top half of his jinbei raised a meaty hand in belated greeting. "I captain this sorry crew. You and the little lady can call me Joben."

Haruno spun around, no longer caring where she stepped, her mouth agape. "You're captain?!" she yelped. Realizing her blunder, she covered her mouth, "S-She just threw you overboard, so I thought…" her voice petered off in embarrassment.

Joben gave a hearty guffaw and all the sailors, including the reedy woman who had found the strength to toss him into the sea, followed. "Junko there is our cook! Keeps us fed," he patted at his stomach. "And in line. Uses that damn ladle of hers more to smack us silly than to serve."

Junko, her dulled blonde hair cropped short on one side in a fashion he'd never seen, smirked. "Wouldn't have it any other way, cap'n."

Joben rolled his eyes, scratching at his toned abdomen. "Anyway, these are the men n' women who earn their keep as the crew. And this," he patted at the head of a young boy that had squeezed his way through to stand at his side, eying them in child-like wonderment, "is my boy, Kazu."

"R-Real n-ninja?" he sputtered excitedly.

"I'm Sakura Haruno." Haruno introduced herself.

She was met with a chorus of friendly greetings.

"What about you? You're not the shy sort are ya?" Junko asked him.

The whole crew leaned in expectantly. "Madara Uchiha."

"Uchiha…?" someone repeated. "I know that name. They're real famous shinobi." That got the crew worked up, and everyone was chattering to themselves in low, impressed tones.

He'd never admit it, but the thought of even the simplest of sea men knowing and respecting the Uchiha name made his chest swell.

Apparently his wasn't the only ego boosted. "Important people? On my ship?" Not even Joben's thick beard hid the wide smile. "Call for a celebration if I ever heard one. We'll have sake tonight, boys!" The ship collectively cheered, and everyone animatedly sprang into their positions, ready to set sail. When Joben thundered his way across the deck, bellowing orders to lower the sails, raise the anchor and cut the rope, he resembled a man closer to a true captain. Gone was the smart-mouthed seaman who had allowed a cook to fling him overboard.

No sooner had his confidence in the man's skills raised minutely then the ship lurched as it turned, sending a stumbling Haruno into his arms. Dazed, she stayed pressed against him as she caught her breath, hands to his chest. When she looked up at him with hooded eyes, the green caught the sunlight, and he silently marveled at their seafoam color.

"Oi! What're ya doin' up there?!" Junko screamed, running over to Joben. "Looks like you started drinking early, you no good, second-rate seadog!"

Joben was unfazed, taking one hand off the helm to shoo her away. "Ahaha! Sorry, sorry! Just a small error."

His boisterous laughter was the last note that broke the spell, Haruno violently pushing herself from him with an indignant shriek of "Shannaro!" of all things.

And, with the unnatural amount of strength she'd use to pummel Tobirama into the ground, she sent him skidding across deck, only the chakra he applied to his feet in the nick of time keeping him from taking a humiliating spill. Though he supposed it could have been worse, as everyone was too preoccupied to notice.

Madara watched her storm off, her ever noticeable hair fluttering in the late afternoon breeze. Haruno's sudden bursts of sporadic anger juxtaposed against the nearly docile temperament he'd seen her use when not interacting with him, was much like the finicky nature of the sea itself. Reasoning would follow that her element would be Suiton. Like the Senju bastard's.


That was the only emotion to describe it. He was born inclined to Katon… a passionate, all-consuming, dominating element. A raging fire against the raging might of the sea. The outcome would seem obvious, but the notion that in a clash she would triumph didn't sit well with him at all. A dance would decide it. When the time came, he would challenge her to a dance.

Chapter Text

There was something to be said about the amount of energy the crew possessed. It didn't wane at all when the sun started to dip on the horizon. If anything, once the mugs were passed around and the expanse of sky settled into an orange-pink glow, it only amplified.

Sakura found herself pulled into the festivities, handed a tumbler almost overflowing with fizzing amber liquid that smelled nothing like any alcohol she knew of. Joben had called it sake, but this was far from it…

A green-haired woman who had introduced herself not even ten minutes prior as Ai threw a muscled arm around her shoulders, bringing Sakura in closer and singing loudly in her ears. The whole ship was belting the verses of a sea-song unlike anything she'd ever heard. Noticing that everyone else was imbibing, Sakura took a tentative sip of alcohol, managing something she hoped was more akin to a smile and not a grimace to Ai, who had them swaying back and forth.

It wasn't honey wine…that was for sure. Whatever had been offered was more on the sour side with a faint, burning sensation and an aftertaste reminiscent of apples. Unexpected, but after taking a minute to let the taste settle, Sakura decided it wasn't unpalatable and had another sip.

"Good stuff, eh?" Ai's husky voice filled her ear.

"Mmph!" Sakura coughed some of the drink out when Ai delivered a swift smack to the middle of her back, catching her off guard.

Not minding, she continued, "The capt'n's favorite, it is. Nice and strong, but just a lil' sweet enough for ya not to mind the burn much once it goes down."

"He called it sake." Sakura licked at the droplets around her lips after pulling the tumbler away. "But this doesn't taste like it…it doesn't really look like it either."

"Special sake." Ai agreed. "Not like whatcha can get from the mainland, but it's popular far, far away in certain places. Capt'n Joben had it at a tavern an' raved about it for weeks! He got a cravin' for it after that, so now we stockpile barrels of the stuff." Ai snatched a second tumbler from a sailor that already looked tipsy who stumbled by, draining the contents herself and then shoving the empty mug back into the man's hands. "Drink up!" she encouraged. "Long trip ahead. No sense spendin' it dry."

Everyone on deck was certainly following that philosophy at the moment. Sakura was impressed at just how much had already been put away by the rowdy sailors. Joben was one of the loudest. He stood behind the helm, wheel gripped tight in one hand and mug raised high in the other, leading the songs. On a particularly sharp note he chugged hard, the amber liquid that missed his mouth dribbling down his bare chest.

Aside from Junko, who stood off to the side, holding a tumbler on a tray aloft over her head and bending down to speak to the captain's son, it didn't appear anyone had chosen not to partake. At first glance, anyway…

Another perusal of the ship revealed the absence of a certain Uchiha. Sakura gently shrugged away from Ai, doing a full spin, and even craning her head back to squint up at the crow's nest, unlikely as it was that he'd be there.

"Lookin' for your partner?" Junko had come up behind her, a pouting Kazu trailing after her. Up close, she could finally see the resemblance to Joben, if only slightly. He possessed a softer face, unmarred by the rough life of a seaman, but the red-tinted color to the brown hair that brushed his shoulders was the same shade as the captain's, and he had the same shape to his hazel eyes. "It's not that he has to be here," she was quick to clarify. "Wherever he is, he can stay there."

"Below deck in the cabins." Junko smiled sympathetically. "I'm use ta the ruckus these fools raise when they get drink in their guts. But it ain't for everyone. Don't blame him for wantin' to be away from it. Seems like the type that likes the quiet. Thought I'd bring 'em this just in case, though."

"I said I'd take it!" Kazu stood on the tips of his toes and reached for the tray futilely. Junko's arm span was well out of the boy's reach. She bent down and pinched his cheek firmly, pulling it.

"Boy, you must think I've been drinking seawater." The cook laughed. "I give you this and the first thing you'll do is try n' sneak a sip. Don't think I'm not wise to you."

Kazu's ears turned pink. He avoided Junko's eyes, pouting harder. "Can I…can I at least come with you, then?"

"Only if you're willing to help peel potatoes." she answered, starting on her way again. "Once the drinkin's done, it'll be time to start supper."

Kazu groaned, tugging at his hair. "I just wanna talk to a real ninja!"

Junko turned her head, "There's one right in front of you, isn't there?"

The little boy turned to give Sakura his full attention, eyes bright. "Y-yeah! You're a ninja too!" Sakura didn't have time to be offended that her status as a career shinobi was an afterthought when he began bouncing around her, rattling off questions, "What's it like? Do you really throw stars? How many people did ya kill?" He was so excited, he didn't seem to notice the presence looming behind him, but Sakura immediately saw her.

Ai, who had gone off at some point to refill her tumbler, came up behind Kazu to clap him on the shoulder. "Try givin' our guest some space, Kazu-chan."

Ironically, Sakura thought, it was Ai who had practically been embracing her in drunken revelry not so long ago. She seemed slightly more mellowed, although the pink tint to her cheeks suggested she wasn't completely sober. It wouldn't surprise Sakura in the least to find that the Harbinger was full of barely functioning alcoholics.

"I'm nine now, so don't call me 'chan' anymore!" Kazu complained, flailing to get away. "An' anyways, I just wanted to know what a ninja's really like. I never seen one before." He wandered closer to Sakura again, and she eyed him warily when he leaned toward her.

Being that he was only a child, his head barely came to her stomach, and when he was in a half-crouch, it was even lower than that. Uncomfortably so. When she felt a small hand reach out and ghost against her leg, she acted on impulse, smacking blindly.

"Pervert!" Sakura screamed, vision momentarily clouding. When she blinked away the anger enough to realize who her victim was, she found Ai laughing and Kazu…

Kazu laid sprawled on deck, a fresh red imprint across his right cheek and stars in his eyes. "I just…I just wanted to see how you moved in that." He mumbled.

"Well," Sakura planted her feet as the ship lurched, arms akimbo. "You could do that without touching." Her annoyance devolved to worry as the boy slowly sat up and she noticed his cheek was quickly swelling. Biting her lip, she reached for him, preparing to heal the injury.

"Ah, boy'll be fine." Sakura stopped and saw Joben sauntering over, attracted by the commotion. A skinny man was at the helm now, idly steering the ship. For a man of his girth, he moved faster than expected. "Sorry if my no-manners son offended ya. He's thick-headed like his father."

The kunoichi shook her head, reaching for Kazu once again. "I overreacted. Here," Predictably, he flinched away.

Kazu raised his arms up to protect his face, peeking at Sakura from the space between. "Y-You gonna smack me again?"

"That really was just reflex." Sakura insisted. "If you let me, I'll heal it."

"How?" he asked, suddenly curious.

Sakura wordlessly activated her technique, bringing a steady hand to the boy's swollen face as Joben and Ai looked on, mesmerized. She couldn't help but laugh a little as Kazu's once apprehensive expression was overcome by a dopey grin.

"Well, blow me down…" Joben exclaimed from behind her. "Ninja sure are mighty impressive!"

"Ya really can use chakra for just about anythin'. Woulda taken a couple of days for that to disappear otherwise," Ai nodded.

Kazu felt his face, poking and prodding. "Feels like it never happened!" Hopping up, he stretched his arms above his head. It wasn't long before he was zipping around the deck, almost crashing into half-drunk sailors several times.

"That boy," Joben shook his head, but there was an undeniable fondness in his voice. "Anyways," he proclaimed, eying Sakura. "It'll be a while yet before Junko's done. Don't 'spose you'd fancy a little test o' strength in the meantime."

"I'm listening…"

"Round here there ain't no better way to wash down a few drinks then with a friendly competition of arm wrestlin'!" Joben flexed, and Sakura had to admit that even for a man that was possibly over forty, the work he did around the ship gave him impressive muscle toning.

"Did I hear right? The captain's challenging the lady ninja?" Startled, Sakura looked up where the shout had come from. Sliding down the ropes of the sails was a bare-footed man with an eager look in his eyes.

"You heard that from all the way up there?" Sakura pointed. "Even with the wind in your ears?"

"My job is to keep my ears to the wind, miss. But I hear nearly everything all the same, especially challenges. I go by Inoue." he saluted. "And I'd like to see how a shinobi goes up against the most rough n' tumble man on the seas."

"What do ya say?" Ai wheedled. "Interestin' huh?"

Sakura placed a finger to her bottom lip. "I don't see the harm." Deep inside, a competitive fuse had been lit, and she flexed her own arm with a steadily widening smirk. "Sure, I'll take you on!"

"Not so fast, little lady!" Inoue wagged a finger. "There's an order to this things, ya see. Challengin' the captain comes last. Ya gotta go through the other challengers first."

Her brow dipped in skepticism. "Other…challengers? Like who?"

"Like us!" At least ten more sailors in various states of drunkenness were suddenly closing in on them, raring to go. It almost seemed unfair to have the advantage of a clear mind and her raw strength, but, their ship their rules.

"Backin' down?" Joben asked, sounding disappointed.

"Who do I go through first?" Sakura's answer roused cheers from the crew, crates dragged to the middle of the deck along with two stools. She took a seat on one, and Ai, still a little uneasy on her feet, skipped over, settling herself on the other.

"Ai, uh, are you sure?" Sakura could see she still looked a little…impaired, for lack of a better word.

"M'fiiine!" she drawled. "I've handled sword fights after drinking more n' this."

"Ya nearly split yourself open, trying to hold the pointy end!" someone called.

"Oh, drink piss," Ai swore, placing her elbow on the crate, clenching and unclenching her fist. "I may not be the strongest here, but I won't insult ya by givin' you less than my best."

Seeing that her opponent was determined to go through with it, Sakura eased her hand into Ai's before squeezing tight. Admittedly, she was impressed that the hand grasped in hers only buckled for a second before it squeezed back. Hard. Some of the fogginess had left the sailor's eyes.

Inoue hovered close, the unofficial officiator. "Steady now…steady…and…go!"

Suddenly they were grappling one-handed, Sakura silently marveling at the fact that Ai was notably strong, even drunk. But, she had arm-wrestled against the best. Her mentor.

"This is unexpected, although not really." The head of the Inuzuka sighed. "Please, take a seat." The room Izuna was led into was dimly lit and sparsely furnished. It had only been a few days since they'd settled in the village though.

Izuna sat himself on the tatami mat closest to the door, nodding in appreciation. "Thank you for agreeing to this on such short notice, Tsuba-san."

As acting head in Madara's absence, it fell to Izuna to carry out the will of the clan. And, presently that was investigating what truth there were to the rumors that members of the Kaguya now resided in Konoha. There'd been stirrings of restlessness within the Uchiha, some suggesting taking a complaint to the Hokage. But bringing forth a grievance without fully knowing the situation seemed like a waste of his time. To placate those among the elders who groused the loudest, he agreed to see for himself, if nothing else.

Tobirama Senju had nearly been the death of him.

But the whispers circulating throughout the village also named him as the one in charge of the Kaguya. No doubt wherever the alleged prisoners were being held, it was somewhere under his watchful eye. The trouble was how to confirm anything. Waltzing his way into the Senju compound was problematic for obvious reasons. And though he could ask the Hokage, who would likely be more forthcoming with information and sympathetic to his clan's wariness, it hadn't yet escalated to the point where Izuna felt he needed to be involved.

There was one other party that was repeatedly mentioned in village gossip. The Inuzuka, who had become involved. Izuna had no idea how he'd be received if he approached them for information. Tales of their barbaric customs were commonplace. He had grown up hearing the Inuzuka ran naked through the woods, could transform into terrible creatures and occasionally stole and ate babies when food was scarce for them.

Of course he knew better than to take those at face value. Rumor still had it that an Uchiha would would kill the person closest to them as a coming of age ritual, in order to take their eyes and obtain a more powerful Sharingan. If that theory was to be believed, eye theft ran rampant in the clan. In short, hearsay was not only unreliable, but outright false.

It was pure chance that he encountered the clan head, walking through the village with her ninken. The red fangs on her cheeks made her easily distinguishable as an Inuzuka, but it was the deference she was given by the others of her clan who accompanied her that made him suspect she was indeed the clan matriarch.

He had approached and introduced himself. Inwardly, he was embarrassed to be speaking to her on the basis of a rumor. However, it quickly turned to surprise when she not only confirmed it as truth, but agreed to allow him to speak to the Kaguya briefly that same evening. Izuna found her much more gracious and agreeable than he could have ever expected. Still, he wasn't fooled into thinking she was a pushover. There was a contained ferocity in her eyes, just under the surface.

Even as he sat waiting, Izuna knew better than to think he wasn't being closely watched. "Of course. Your concerns are understood. I'll be back with them momentarily."

When she left, Izuna had time to sit and think of who exactly she'd return with. There hadn't been much discussion about specifics, but she'd assured him that the Kaguya she was responsible for meant no harm to the village. Given his history with them, that was hard to believe without speaking to them himself. That was if they would speak at all. He was an Uchiha, and any Kaguya who saw him would know that.

The sound of multiple voices in the hall made him lift his head. They were quickly growing closer, and Izuna thought in bewilderment that they sounded so...young. Were these Kaguya children?

When the rice paper doors slid open and not one, but two young girls stepped through, followed by Tsuba and a white-haired young man who looked vaguely familiar, he got his answer.

While he was still recovering from his surprise, the older girl stepped forward, scrutinizing him with hostile eyes. "Who's he?" she demanded, eyebrows slumped downward.

"He is here to see you," Tsuba said coolly.

Izuna gave the feisty girl a cordial smile, which only made her eyes narrow further. "Hello, my name is—"


The Uchiha met eyes with the boy who had uttered his name, confusion morphing into recognition. "Jun'ichi..."

Their acknowledgement of each other came as a surprise to the room's three other occupants. Tsuba and the two girls looked back and forth, the Inuzuka matriarch giving voice to the silent question shared between them. "You've met before?"

"Long ago, as children..." Jun'ichi answered. "It was well before the two of you were born."

I see," Tsuba rubbed her chin. "Fate is a mysterious thing."

Jun'ichi sat next to Izuna, neither speaking. After considering his next words, the Kaguya opened his mouth, "Are you here because of the recent incident between our clans? They say the sins of the father are the sins of the son after all."

"No...The gunbai is back in my brother's possession. Holding grudges over something already resolved would be trivial." He noticed that the stiffness in Jun'ichi's posture lessened.

"So...Oka and the others were really shinobi of Konoha." he whispered. Hair obscured half his face as he rested his chin on his knuckles, deep in thought. Izuna didn't completely understand where Jun'ichi's mind was going, but it seemed to be headed there fast, because when he lifted his face, there was clarity in those brown eyes. Clarity and...hope.

"Kikue can't feel her..." the smallest child pouted.

"It doesn't mean she doesn't live here." her sister replied, "Ninja do leave their villages sometimes."

"Is that what you did?" Izuna couldn't think of any other reason Yoshiro would send his children to Konoha. He could have just as easily sent an army, instead of risking his heir.

"There was nothing left for us there. The way of my father is outdated. It's something we wanted to part with. Our intentions were originally to strike out on our own, living freely for as long as possible. Until father came for us, or..." Whatever else Jun'ichi had expected would happen to them, he left unsaid, instead gently stroking the head of his youngest sister. "...Izuna, I want you to understand that I can't fully atone for what my clan has done. Which is why we've given ourselves over to Konoha willingly. If being prisoners is what comes of it...then I don't mind."

The reactions of his sisters'...varied.

"Exactly. You don't mind."

"Kikue doesn't mind either! Because she gets to play with Yoyo-chan!"

"What made you decide to try? You say you understand that you might never be fully forgiven. But you were so adamant about attempting to distance yourself from your clan, you allowed yourself to become a prisoner." Izuna stared in quiet disbelief. "I think you've changed since we last met."

"Indeed." There was total serenity in the eldest Kaguya's eyes. "To be blunt, I never put much effort into anything before. Changing was...futile to me. No matter what I did, my ancestors left behind a bloody legacy I'd one day inherit, and there was nothing I could do about that. I told myself I felt nothing, I turned a blind eye to every one of my father's atrocities...even...even my own mother's death." Taking a moment to compose himself, Jun'ichi pressed on. "Then she came and...She had so much passion. I could never have such a strong will, but watching her made me be less passive."

"Nee-san believed in us!" Kikue proclaimed. "So...even just a little, we can believe in ourselves."

That took some mulling over. Something had moved these three to leave the comforts of everything the'd known behind and enter hostile territory, motivated by the desire to change.

Sakura had mentioned that Jun'ichi was instrumental in helping them escape, and it had just seemed so unlike the sullen boy he remembered. Yet so many years had passed since then that such a radical change wasn't outside the realm of possibility. Furthermore, if he recalled correctly, Jun'ichi was only a year younger than himself, making him nineteen to his twenty. They were both young men now. Old enough to shoulder clan responsibilities, to lead raids, to take wives...

When he mentioned this "Oka" something lit up in him, and Izuna couldn't help but wonder if he meant...Sakura. Was it so unreasonable to think that while on a mission she would have used an alias? Or even a full body henge? Pink hair and the small purple diamond seal were rather notable. Concealing them would have been the most prudent thing.

Assuming he was correct in his thinking, it still left something else uncomfortable hanging in the air.

Since childhood, Izuna had always possessed what he considered a healthy dose of curiosity. The world was a vast place, full of knowledge both good and bad. To him, nothing had ever been wrong with wanting to take in as much as possible. His brothers would laugh when his searches for answers led him to getting in trouble with their father. And when his questions were too frequent, Madara would pointedly tell him to shut up. But it was a cathartic sensation to know.

In fact, one of the traits he admired most in Sakura, one of the reasons he deduced talking to her came so easily, was because she was the same. When she asked him about the gunbai he could see it in her eyes.

For the first time he could recall, Izuna wasn't sure he wanted to know. Jun'ichi had shown more emotion in the span of several minutes, in large part due to "Oka" then he could ever remember him showing in the week he'd known him as boys. If Oka was Sakura, then he didn't want to know why Jun'ichi had developed such a fixation on her. The surface level understanding was that she had inspired him. Underneath, however... Did it mean anything else? Was there a reason he should even concern himself with it beyond that?

Funny how he had come to secure some kind of reassurance for his clan, and ended up making things uncomfortable for himself...

Sakura ground her teeth, trying to ignore the clamoring of shouts around them. She'd worked her way through eight opponents so far. Each stronger than the last, but ultimately no match for her grit, strength and latent competitive streak. Now on her ninth, the crew was worked into a fervor, almost no one cheering for the man who sat across from her, straining with all his might, face red in exertion. She felt sorry for him. They should've been cheering for him, but instead...



There was no doubt their screams reverberated below deck. Anyone on the ship not witnessing the competition was participating by proxy. Their hot-blooded enthusiasm must have rubbed off on her, combining with the adrenaline rushing through her veins, because all she wanted in that moment was to keep her streak alive. A bead of sweat trickled down her brow, and with a determined cry, Sakura stood, slamming Gintaki's arm down on the crate.

That had been her intention, at least. But in all the excitement, she'd used too much force, and he crashed through not only the crate they were bracing against, but the deck itself, sending broken wood flying as he fell through the hole with a scream. All the cheering died in an instant, replaced by a collective gasp.

Horrified, Sakura was the first to scramble to the edge of hole and peek down. "S-Sorry!" she called into the void.

"Iss alright!" Gintaki yelled back, sounding winded. "Somethin' down here broke my fall!"

"Someone bring a light!" Joben ordered.

Inoue came with a lantern, dangling it over the deep drop below deck and illuminating the faces gathered around it. The lantern's reach didn't extend far enough to completely light where Gintaki had fallen. Not enough to see everything, but it was enough to see two glowing red pinpricks in the dark.

"W-What...?" Kazu gasped.

"Get off." Sakura recognized the baritone, heard the quiet but very tangible rage. Gintaki screamed again, this time as he went flying across the cabin. Sakura crawled backwards, a sense of foreboding creeping up her spine as the red pinpricks looked upwards, becoming the unmistakable sight of a blazing Sharingan. "Haruno," he rumbled.

Sakura was unlucky enough to find herself the target of all the enmity. It made sense, although she was reluctant to admit that. They were chanting her name, and then a sailor dropped down on him from above deck after crashing through the ceiling. Madara was smart enough to put two and two together.

Nearly choking on her own saliva, Sakura quickly stood, stumbling away from the hole. It was an accident, but he likely wasn't in the mood to hear it.

The sound of the hatch opening made everyone jump, no doubt expecting it to be Madara, coming to exact revenge. Instead Junko's head popped up. It was obvious by the glare on her face that she'd heard the crash. Nevertheless, the crew didn't move, instead adopting innocent facades that were completely out of place on the faces of such a rough, motley group.

"What the hell is going on up here?!" That was when she laid eyes on the sight of the gaping hole. "Oi! Are you all hoping I wouldn't see that!" For the first time, Sakura could see why everyone seemed to give Junko so much room. She was brandishing her ladle at them all, her ears flaming red and murder in her eyes.

Realizing everyone was huddled together, petrified, Sakura bravely stepped forward, raising her hand. " was me."

Junko lowered her ladle in shock. "You? You seem like such a sensible one. I didn't think these seadogs would get you swept up in their antics." Ashamed, Sakura bowed her head. "Ah, well all can be forgiven if you help me spoon out the stew. Fair enough?" Junko winked.

Perking up, Sakura nodded emphatically. "Yes, thank you!" She wasn't sure what had come over her, but if Junko was willing to let it slide as long as she helped serve food, then Sakura would take the slap on the wrist for what it was. As she began following Junko below deck and to the kitchens, she glanced backwards at the crew. She meant to give them a chastising look, but when she noticed the awed gazes of respect, any feelings of irritation disappeared. They were a lot to handle, easily overwhelming. In the end though, they weren't as bad as they could have been...

Dinner turned out to be meat and potato stew, served with a hunk of bread and more alcohol. As a guest aboard the ship, Sakura tried her best not to cause anymore trouble for Junko, and graciously accepted the food. As a medic, she was growing steadily more concerned for the crew's livers. The vessel was sailing idly through the waves, and the clear night sky was speckled in stars.

Finally, the excitement had settled after sunset and the crew was enveloped in an odd peace, scattered on deck and making small talk as they ate. The kunoichi joined them, knowing Madara likely wouldn't and not wanting to seem like Konoha nin were ungracious. Strangely, it was nice...there was an appealing atmosphere about it all, a sense of community. The tang of salt in her nose and the soft lapping of the water against the sides of the ship helped her understand why the men and women who lived and sailed on the Harbinger spoke so fondly of the sea.

"So lass, ya ever been ta the Land of Water?" Joben asked, slurping down more stew.

Sakura, knowing full well she couldn't tell them about her disastrous "C-rank" mission as a genin, smiled wanly. Something told her the crew would have been absolutely riveted by the story. "I've heard lots of stories, but...this'll be my first trip there."

Joben slammed down his mug. "Stories, you say?"

There was a collective good-natured groan from the entire crew, including Kazu, who had taken up residence near her feet. "What's wrong with stories?" Sakura asked with caution. Maybe there was a custom to storytelling on ships she was unaware of.

"Our good cap'n loves his tall tales." Ai explained. "Got ones from all over the world. All up here." She lightly tapped the side of her head, Joben nodding proudly in agreement.

"Thas right. Now, this lot o' mine don't always appreciate the finer art of storytellin', but you're a smart lass, ain't cha? You'll listen to an old man's tales."

Sakura could feel curiosity clawing its way free, prompting her to lean forward. "All over the world? Really? Then you probably know stories from Water Country too."

Realizing he held a captive audience, Joben's eyes grew round in delight. "Aye miss, plenty. But none's more famous n' more scary than the tale o' the one that laid the curse upon them islands. Iwanagahime."

"Iwanagahime?" The mark hidden on the inside of her wrist burned hot. Sakura hissed quietly, covering it with a fast hand. A little healing chakra and the mark's burning sensation dulled to a sporadic throb. 'What does that mean...?'

"Don't tell me yer headin' to that place an' ya never heard tell of the goddess." Inoue clucked his tongue.

"Goddess" immediately got her attention.

Sakura tried not to get too offended, nibbling on her all but forgotten bread with a shrug. "I'm ignorant in these things. No one talks about island deities on the mainland."

"Well listen good lil' lady...the tale of Iwanagahime is a bitter one. Once upon o' a time, there was a god named Oyamatsumi. He's even older than Amaterasu, an' he's a god of mountain, seas, an'...war."

"We're seafolk, so we always leave our offerings for safe travels when we come to a place with one of his shrines." Gintaki said around a mouthful of stew.

"But ol' Oyamatsumi ain't the important one to this tale...Iwanagahime is." Joben cleared his throat. "That was his older daughter. He had two of 'em. Iwanagahime and Konohanasakuya-hime. They say the oldest had a sharp mind but the youngest had undeniable beauty. Oyamatsumi promised Iwanagahime to a young god named Nihongi. But before they could meet, he laid eyes on her sister, and that was that. Fell in love and left Iwanagahime shunned and vengeful. So she laid a curse...instead of the long lives we humans were meant to enjoy if she'd married Nihongi, now our lives are short. We live and die in an instant compared to a god."

Sakura sipped from her mug in silence. Hadn't Mizuchi...said that once?

"But there's more than even that, right chichi?" Kazu was almost rocking in place, and even in the dark, Sakura saw his big eyes sparkling.

"Aye," Joben stroked at his beard. "Like I said, Iwanagahime was the cleverer one. She wasn't gonna take a slight like that spittin'. This is the part that gets interestin'. The part the locals in Water Country tell. She knew her sister loved flowers, so she crafted up some so beautiful, Konohanasakuya-hime couldn't help but touch 'em. They were meant to be first. But then Konohanasakuya-hime pricked her finger on the sharp stem and bled...the red of 'er blood turned the blue flowers purples." The captain shook his head, resting his arms on his knees. "That's not all it did. It activated the curse. Now...ev'ry rainy season the violacia blooms somewhere in a hidden field on one o' the islands...and when they do, the dead rise up to kill the livin'."

"A more morbid ending than expected. But it's still a wives tale at best..." Several necks, including Sakura's strained to see Madara leaning casually against the side of the ship. With his stealth and the cover of night, there was no telling when he'd joined everyone above deck, or why, but Sakura was more concerned with the fact that she'd been too entranced to sense him.

Junko happily got up and handed him a bowl of stew and bread, pressing a drink into his free hand.

"Ah, come out to join us, eh?" Joben called, swilling down more of the "sake". He drew the mug from his lips and let out a loud belch that felt like it rocked the ship. "Maybe you don't believe, but this is a nice night for a wives tale, in'it?"

Sakura didn't think Madara would answer, but one shoulder rose briefly in a lackluster shrug.

"Not much for stories, are ya?" Junko chuckled. "Well, it's hard ta believe, that's for sure. One thing's true though. Iwanagahime's still important to the people of Water Country. Outside folk like us can only guess at why, but, if ya plan to go pokin' around on the island, ya best stay clear of all that."

There wasn't much of a shift in Madara's facial features as he dipped the piece of bread into his stew and took a bite. "Noted."

Sakura almost thought they would get through dinner in a truce. That he'd forgotten about earlier, when she'd inadvertently dumped a two-hundred pound sailor on him. By chance, their eyes met, and although his weren't currently red, it was very clear that he hadn't forgotten or forgiven anything. "Haruno. A word?"

She was a stubborn one, so he wasn't expecting compliance. The entire day they'd spent on the ship, she preferred the company of slovenly, rambunctious sailors to himself. It suited him just fine. He had time to himself in the cabins to prepare for the task ahead of getting two feuding island leaders to form a treaty, in the hopes that it could open new trade routes for Konoha. The temporary quiet and solitude had convinced him that, despite its state of disrepair and its crew, the ship did in fact have an upside.

And then the chant had started. Gradually the sound grew so loud until he couldn't but notice. They were cheering...for Haruno. Madara did his best to ignore it. A hard task in itself. No sooner had he reclaimed his train of thought than a shrill scream pierced the air, catching him off guard. The next thing he knew, he was being pinned beneath the weight of a sweaty man, and all he could focus on was the timid face of Haruno peeping down from the hole in the ceiling.

Hours later, Haruno climbed down into the belly of the ship, escorted by the cook. "I told your friend earlier...and he said ya'd manage fine, but...about the cabins..."

"We'll be sharing." Madara stepped from the shadows, and Haruno came to a screeching halt just short of bumping into him. Junko looked on worriedly. It didn't seem to be really sinking in. Haruno just stared blankly at his chest, her mouth moving but no words forming. Just as before, she looked up at him from beneath her lashes. Although there was a startingly different emotion there. Not confusion but outrage.

Sensing the impending explosion, he grabbed her arm and dragged her through the door as she became aware enough of what was going on to dig her heels in. "I'm not sharing a room with you!" she spat, green eyes dark with anger.

The discontent was mutual. Madara wasn't sure whether he trusted himself not to wrap his fingers around the column of her pale neck during the night, or whether his glee at her reaction would keep him sated for the rest of the trip. "You're more than welcome to the floor." Madara was feeling so victorious, he'd even give her the blankets to nest in.

Predictably, that only made her angrier, and in her intensely volatile state, she advanced on him, standing on her tiptoes until her nose was just under his. "You take the floor."

"Were you not the one that told me you prepared for every inevitability? Sleeping in your bedroll shouldn't be difficult. Or, test your luck in the other cabins. I hear they're sleeping three to a bed."

Haruno fumed, but didn't object. He'd successfully used her own words against her, and she turned her back on him, grumbling under her breath. As she took off her pack and began to set up for the night, Madara tugged his shirt over his head and removed his zori.

Haruno removed a scroll with an angry sigh, blowing a stray strand of hair from her eyes and glaring at him from the floor. That was, until she noticed his naked chest. The scroll poofed open, revealing her change of clothes, and she continued gaping at his chest slack-jawed.

"As a medic, should you not have seen a man's anatomy?"

Red-faced, she hurried to turn away, scooping her clothes into her arms and rushing out of the room.

There was a long night ahead of them, and Madara expected it to be more uncomfortable for one of them more than the other. Fortunately, he thought, it wouldn't be him.

Chapter Text

The candles mounted on the wall gave the room a soft orange glow, lighting a path across the wooden floor to the bed—crude one that it was— pushed back in the corner of the small cabin. The room's only occupant sat with one knee drawn to his chest, head bent as he looked over a map. One careful footstep at a time, Sakura crossed the cabin to her own bedroll, intent on proving her point.

Though he seemed not to like them, Madara had claimed the cabin for himself much like a cat claiming its territory, daring her to intrude. If she had asked, she was sure Junko or one of the other women aboard the ship would find room for her in their own cabins. They were a welcoming bunch, and as far as Sakura could tell, they liked her.

When she'd found the washroom, where all the women bathed together, she'd gotten more than a few offers to squeeze her in with them for the night. With a smile, she'd refused, because she would be damned if Madara was going to be the one with an entire cabin to himself and the smug satisfaction that came with it.

Sparing him a glance, Sakura found he was still studying the map with an impressive amount of concentration. From such an angle, it was hard to see his expression, even more so with the thick bangs obscuring it. Her fingers found their way into her own hair, which was steadily growing. Heading into the war, it was already touching her shoulders again.

Before long, she could easily grow it back to the length it had been when she was a genin. That wouldn't be so bad, she decided. At times she missed her longer hair. Although, Madara's hair was almost excessively long…and there was so much of it, it was bound to be heavy. Yet from what she'd seen in battle it didn't get in his way or slow him down. What was the appeal of keeping his hair that way?

"Instead of watching me, you could be deciding how to handle your duties once we arrive. Hashirama's entrusted you with saving an entire region. There won't be much need for this treaty if the islands' populations is gone."

Bristling, she moved closer to him, preselected, biting words already hot on her tongue. Madara wasn't concerned, only sparing her minimal eye contact that radiated boredom, and going back to his map. Sakura stopped to contemplate, bitterly finding there was some truth in what he said. It would have been far more helpful if she'd known which islands had suffered the greatest casualties, or at least had a general idea of what symptoms presented themselves before people faded away, or where the first outbreak could be traced back to.

All of that knowledge would save her crucial time. As it stood, she was going into an already critical situation with next to nothing. "I…I want to see the map." She croaked, taking another cautious step, until she was standing right in front of him.

Madara stopped looking at the weathered paper in his hands to grace her with his full attention. "Then sit."

Sakura balked, on the cusp of refusal. He'd had all that time to read it, to memorize. Why couldn't she get the same curtesy of studying the map by herself?

"Because it's in my possession." he responded, leaning back into the wall. Gasping, Sakura realize she'd ranted out loud. Stubbornly puffing her cheeks out, she sat at the very edge of the cot, a respectable distance from his person, holding her hand out for the map once again. Madara didn't make the slightest effort to give it to her.

Realizing he was going to make it difficult, her eye twitched, and she took a deep, steadying breath through her nose. "Fine!" She moved pointedly closer, all but ripping it from his hands as soon as she was within finger's length. The first thing that stood out to Sakura was the detail, something she couldn't help but appreciate. "This is a good map." she admitted, studying the route he had mapped from Yume to Water Country. They were traversing across the Kaizoku Sea, and if the map was as accurate as she suspected, she approximated their arrival in two days. No wonder he wanted her to have a working strategy to tackle the illness.

"If this is the capitol," Sakura tapped a spot in the middle of the biggest island, marked with the two circles that indicated a capitol city, "Then once we reach port it should take a day to get there, right?" The thought caused her some frustration, and her mouth twisted in dissatisfaction. "That's more time lost…"

There was a sound somewhere between a sigh and a laugh from beside her, and a larger hand seized one half of the map. "Is your resolve that easy to shake? How disappointing."

Sakura felt her temper sparking back to life. "There's resolve and then there's realism." she snipped. "I'm determined to save as many lives as possible, and that's why I'm here. But I can't stop time. Once I get there, if I can find and examine just one person experiencing the onset of the symptoms, and compare them to someone at the end of the symptoms, I can try to and at least work out a timeline, then slow or halt whatever's going on. That way there's a little more time to find a cure." She nodded to herself, satisfied.

"At least you've thought out a passable plan." Madara shifted, peering at the map and her. And Sakura was suddenly acutely, painfully aware of the warmth emitting from his naked chest seeping through the thin cloth of her yukata. In her peripheral view, she could see the muscle definition brought about by years of training and hard-fought battles.

When she was focusing on proving her point, it hadn't occurred to her that there was an unwelcoming intimacy in sitting so close when he was half undressed and she was wearing one thin layer. Flushing, Sakura stood quickly. "My plan's more than passable. It'll work." she informed him, making her way back to her bedroll. There. He wanted resolve, and that was hers.

Sakura was settling into her spot before he spoke again, his voice low and amused. "Nothing puts a strategy and its tactician to the task like the ever-changing conditions of the field." She sank down further, squinting up at the spot in the ceiling where boards had been hastily used to repair the human-sized hole made earlier in the day. Madara's fury and the sight of an activated Sharingan coming to mind.

Was it wise to close her eyes and drift to sleep in the same room with a man who was more than capable and had a newly found grudge? 'That would be hard to explain to the Hokage.' She yawned. 'He doesn't have to like me, but he knows this mission takes the both of us…' It was an unfortunate fact she had come to terms with some hours into their traveling; just as she had been the Hokage's selection as the best medic for the job—no doubt with Toka's approval—Madara was deemed the best person to represent the village and handle negotiations…

'I don't like it, but it makes sense. Damn it.' Sakura rolled onto her side, forcing her eyes to close while maintaining a steady awareness of Madara's presence in the room. It was that awareness that kept her body from relaxing, and she shifted several times, trying to get comfortable. Finding sleep would have been welcome after the long day she'd had, getting acclimated to life onboard the Harbinger.

But it was looking more like a night where she'd have to wait for sleep to find her. The cabin was noiseless, save for the faint creaking of the ship and the rhythmic beat of waves rocking the vessel. Craning her head back, Sakura snuck a peek at the cot, not surprised Madara was still sitting up, still awake. 'I don't have the energy to try talking to him.' Bored, Sakura gave herself the task of mentally reciting the names for human muscles. A mundane ritual that had helped lull her to sleep on nights when her mind was racing. 'Latissimus dorsi…external obliques…internal obliques…rectus abdominus…' Her concentration faltered, the mental image of an anatomical chart crashing down, replaced with the firm torso of her roommate. Outraged at how her own thoughts had betrayed her, Sakura sat up with a yelp, flustered.

Of course she wasn't fortunate enough for Madara to ignore it. "Rats are more afraid of you than you are of them." he said absently.

"It wasn't a rat!" she hissed, flopping back down and rolling onto her stomach, determined to hide her warm face. 'Swallow me,' Sakura silently told the sea. Perhaps responding to her plea, the ship lurched hard to the right in the waves, and the kunoichi clung to her bedroll to keep from lurching with it.

The rocking returned to a more gentle sway, and Sakura sighed under her breath. There wasn't much she could do but lay there in silence, Madara finally getting up and extinguishing the candles, pitching the room into total darkness.


Kaguya fidgeted as Mizuchi combed through her growing hair, an unhurried pace to her nimble fingers. The comb's teeth hit a snag and she winced when it was pulled through none too gently. "Be still," the voice above her commanded.

The younger girl sat on her own hands to stop herself from tugging her hair away. "That hurts,"

The grip on the ends of her white locks tightened in response. "This menial task would have long since been completed, if not for your need to wiggle as you do."

Kaguya didn't deny that she moved restlessly as her sister sat, combing and styling her hair. It was a wonder how Mizuchi, though hardly as delicate, had the same quick fingers Sena did, and took to grooming hair much better than she had been able to manage it herself. Due to its increasing length, having assistance was all but necessary. "I taught this to you," she fussed quietly. She was sure that her guardian could detect the envy present in her tone.

"Indeed," said her sister, "And now, my skill has surpassed your teachings."

Annoyed, Kaguya huffed, tilting her head at an angle she knew would agitate Mizuchi. "Sena would say, a younger sister should try her best to surpass the eldest. The gods make one sibling more blessed than the other, so that the youngest has goals to strive for." she mumbled. "But, when will you teach me like I have taught you? When will I know what you do about blighting?"

The hand in her hair stilled, and the forest with it. Even the babbling brook close enough to dip their toes in froze at her question. Since coming to find Mizuchi, she had been elated, finding solace and comfort for the first time since losing her sister. And just as she had gained family, her new sister gained knowledge, an understanding she often said was impossible to grasp as a deity. Kaguya wondered about that…what made humans and the gods they worshipped so different? Surely there was no singular thing. Rather, they were at odds on every conceivable level.

The lingering awkwardness and peculiarity to her mannerisms sometimes forcibly reminded Kaguya that despite their physical appearances, this was not her true sister, yes. But she found she was growing attached all the same. The same great admiration she'd had for Sena bloomed anew. With it came a deep desire to know all she could know about the new sister the heavens had granted her. Mizuchi showed her once how she created blights, and how she took them away.

The village had been wary, but when she stopped a great sickness from spreading, their caution of the stranger lessened. Now she was cherished and revered. Whenever there were injuries great or small, villagers knocked on their door before any other healer. Kaguya wanted the same recognition one day, but Mizuchi refused to impart her secrets. "You do not understand what it means to blight. Or to remove one. It is a heavy responsibility and yet you ask for it. Why?"

Anticipating this question, Kaguya sat straighter against Mizuchi's knees, chest expanding in rebuttal. "I am your sister!"

A solitary leaf fell from the tree giving them shelter and was dropped down into the brook, drifting, drifting… Near the base of another tree, two chipmunks chased each other around, one of them almost scampering right over her foot as it retreated. Her response was the levity nature needed to resume motion again.

Mizuchi laughed warmly. "Because you are the sister of a goddess, you believe you should know all that I know?" Kaguya opened her mouth, readying another defense, but the deity was quicker. "Be grateful. Any human burdened by the knowledge of even the lowest deity would lose their sanity in time." As expected, Mizuchi did not understand. A surge of pain throbbed inside Kaguya's chest, and she gathered the ends of her kimono, standing. "Off already? You hardly asked." Taking up the small basket, she shook her head.

"Herbs will not gather themselves. If I cannot take away pain like you do, then I will keep making my remedies!"

Mizuchi's words were full of gentleness and sympathy. "That is what's best. In time, you will see that." She wasn't the one who needed to see…it was the deity she now called sister. Her bare feet were heavy as she walked, willing her lip not to tremble. The hurt of the rejection trying to force tears from her eyes.

A goddess could never understand…how could she, when she was not born human? The blessings and power of godhood had been hers from the start. She looked like Sena, but she did not have her sister's memories or experiences. Kaguya remembered a different life where the faces of her parents had been lost to time, and she had only ever known her kind-hearted sister, the person she cherished more than anyone.

Then she too had been taken, ripped away by a senseless skirmish in an endless line of them. The body…they had not been able to return the body. Not all of it. Beautiful, sweet Sena, with her soft hands unused to the grip of a spear, cut down like a soldier and left there. To their emperor, anyone who could be spared, from healers to bakers to smithies, were expendable on the field.

The despair was too much, eased only when she talked to her, when she visited the shrine. Kaguya vehemently refused to forget her sister, otherwise it would one day be hard to recall if she had ever existed at all. The heavens never gave her the answers she wanted, but one day they gave her another person to hold dear, and she had grasped tightly to a hand she had been longing to hold just one more time. That hand had so much more strength though, was capable of so much more destruction. The fist gripping her basket clenched. If only…if only she could at least remove a blight!


Sakura dimly became aware of the fact that she was awake when the wind and rain from the storm registered in her ears. Eyes weakly able to trace the slats of the ceiling, nose twitching with the sporadic drops that dripped to fall on her face.

The cabin was still and dark, but up above feet pounded across the deck, Joben's voice faintly distinguishable as he gave orders. A flutter of worry touched her heart, but, Sakura easily quelled it with the thought that for all their silliness, this crew was experienced. A storm wasn't enough to panic over.

Her dream on the other hand… everything about that was alarming. The last time she had seen Kaguya, Mizuchi had induced the memory. Rather, she'd transferred a glimpse of the past to Sakura. Since beginning the journey, the goddess had been quiet. A preferable alternative to her unexpected visits. Despite that, she had dreamt. Of a Kaguya who was slightly older and equal parts enamored and envious of her adoptive sister. If there was any reason she'd seen what she did—and the kunoichi suspected there was—it was lost on her.

All she knew was, Kaguya had left, frustrated and dejected that Mizuchi wouldn't teach her about blights. It was the beginning of the rift, whatever it was that had put the fearsome Rabbit Goddess on her path. Every emotion seared into her heart, felt like it had been seared into Sakura's.

Having insight into how the Mother of Chakra had felt, that she could feel, was a jarring sensation. Sakura had known a deity determined to assimilate the world's chakra. Mizuchi had known a lonely girl.

The vision brought fresh questions…if Mizuchi had refused to show Kaguya what she claimed was the most basic measure of godhood, how had she become all powerful in the first place? Sakura thought about mentally calling for the goddess, so they could talk that way. But…she looked at the cot. It was hard to make out more than the vague shape of a body, but he was definitely there.

Even making mental contact with the goddess was too risky. The flare up of energy would be impossible to miss from so close.

The sea gave the ship a hard toss, and Sakura grunted as she rolled across the floor, using chakra in her fingertips to avoid smacking the wall.

"Trouble sleeping?" came the mocking voice from across the cabin.

Sakura couldn't be bothered to hide her audible groan of irritation. How long had he been awake?

"I've had worse nights." Crawling through the dark, she felt her way back to her bedroll and flopped down without bothering to get inside. If sleep wasn't an option, she'd lay completely still, map out the human anatomy in excruciating detail, and wait for morning. 'I can't wait to see land again.'

Shinobi life had gotten him use to nights with little sleep and rising early. What it hadn't done was make him as affable in the mornings as the motley crew running around the ship when he joined them on deck.

Despite the storm that had thrown the vessel around like a toy boat at the mercy of a child's splashes, Joben informed them that the Harbinger was none the worse for wear, and had managed to stay on course. They'd be able to reach Water Country by tomorrow evening, if all went according to plan. Madara couldn't say he would miss life at sea. The company was louder than he would've liked, there was only so much space, Haruno was sending sailors through decks, and waking up nearly tossed across the cabin didn't make for a restful sleep.

His pride refused to let him voice any of it aloud, if only because no one else was, and an Uchiha was never the first to complain. Yesterday, upon realizing their…accommodations, he'd expected Haruno would voice her disdain at some point. Instead, she had somehow managed to ingratiate herself to the crew, taking their antics in stride. It vaguely had him wondering just what kind of company she usually kept.

"Didn't wake ya, did we?" Joben swaggered his way over. The man was in high spirits even after a night spent steering the ship through a storm, something Madara could admit spoke to his resilience.

"Hardly." Madara shook his head. "Shinobi are used to rising at dawn."

"Good, good!" he laughed jovially. "Well, suspect yer lookin' for the lass, eh?" He wasn't. Foreign territory or not, he wasn't so unsure of himself that he needed to cling to Haruno in every waking moment. Madara bit his tongue, knowing Joben would assume he was regardless. The captain folded his arms and motioned with his head to the other side of the ship. The Uchiha's keen eyes easily made out the bright pink hair through the shades of darker colors. "She's right o'er there, showin' Kazu some ninja…er, what did she call it? Nin…ju…tsu?"

"Ninjutsu." He confirmed, wordlessly excusing himself and ducking under a crate being hoisted by two laughing sailors as he approached the opposite end of the deck, where Haruno stood facing the sea, a soft breeze fluttering through her hair. As Madara approached, he could make out the excitable child, Kazu, perched atop the ship's rail, watching. The kunoichi's green eyes glittered as she moved through several hand signs clearly meant for a Suiton technique.

Her stance was…less refined…but he'd seen the technique many times before on the battlefield. No doubt it was something she'd picked up from Tobirama. Kazu hopped down to peek over the ship's edge, gasping as water burbled and rose into the air, manipulated by Haruno's outstretched hands. Madara watched as her arms shook, and the water plopped back into the sea with a splash, her technique incomplete. She was still clumsy in her movements, determined but all at once unsure, and it was effecting her control. Her audience didn't mind, cheering for more.

"Again!" the child demanded. He mimicked her hand movements—incorrectly—with a bright smile.

Haruno laughed obligingly, getting prepared to make the signs. "Alright, one more time…" she whispered, almost to herself. Louder, she declared, "This time for real!"

Madara's Sharingan was spinning the minute she ran through the seals, letting them sink into his memory.

"Haaah!" Haruno's stance was fiercer, the water rising instantly, more controlled as she shifted weight to her right leg, pulling from the sea. Her technique had managed to trap several fish, wriggling around in a blind search for freedom. It almost looked like she would perform the technique successfully…but when she bit down on her bottom lip and her legs buckled once, he knew the inevitable outcome. As expected, she botched the attempt, grumbling in frustration.

Kazu pulled away from the railing, his clothes and face damp with the seawater that had sprayed him. "What happened?" he asked, unbothered by the splash.

"I don't know," Haruno muttered. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong, because he never finished telling me how—"

Moving closer, Madara ran through the seals he'd copied, ignoring how they looked on incredulously. Although not nearly as well-versed in Suiton as Tobirama, he did have enough practice in the element to consider himself above average. His technique was stronger than hers, and when the water rose from the sea at his command, a thrashing shark came with it.

Kazu made a noise between a yelp and a cheer, in awe of the creature's massive size and razor sharp jaws.

Haruno was less impressed, spinning to grab his arm in a crushing grip. "You're insane!" she yelled. Madara shook her off, smirking as he sent the suspended shark flying into the distance with his technique. The impact was so large that it sprayed water across deck from thirty feet away, a pillar of liquid shooting up into the air with a foom.

"Mastering any form of Suiton requires not only the right amount of control but the surety to guide the water. Without that, it has no true destination, and the user has no hope of mastery. Isn't that something your sensei should have told you?"

Haruno's response to his quip was to gape, wet from head to toe, flustered but unable to offer any rebuff. Kazu was faster, shaking water from his hair and offering the shinobi the petulant scowl that only a child could give.

"That was really good." he started by nodding in approval. "You're strong just like I knew a ninja'd be. But…you still ruined everything!" Madara's brows rose into his hairline when the boy moved forward and kicked him in the shin before darting off.

His crude manners were likely exacerbated being around Haruno and her temper. "He's right…" Speaking of Haruno, she was eying him as she pushed wet hair from her face, advancing into his personal space. "Yer impossible." The Uchiha blinked, unsure if he'd heard her correctly.

"Yer?" he repeated.

"Oh, now ya think yer can correct 'ow I talk, eh?"

Madara backed away, more unnerved by her sudden change in speech than by her growing anger. "Haruno, listen to yourself," he said flatly. "You sound ridiculous."

She lifted a finger, prepared to continue, when his words seemed to take effect. Instead of advancing, Haruno backed away with a horrified gasp, face clutched in her hands. "What's happening to me?" she wailed.

"You're absorbing the mannerisms of those you spend the most time around."

"Obviously," she huffed, brushing by him and moving to the edge of the ship again. Her eyes looked far away as she stared out over the sea, wet hair clinging to her face. The expression brought out the youth of her visage. Even when he knew the contrary to be true, she looked so vulnerable that Madara had to blink the image away, setting his mind back to seeing her as Haruno, the feisty kunoichi with an explicably deep hatred for him. "But…" she said softly, "Kazu wasn't completely wrong."

Madara tilted his head back. What was it the whelp told him? "You still ruined everything!" Ah, Haruno saw it the same way.

"I know I'm not a match for you in ninjutsu." She conceded, turning to face him. "Right now, I still need to be stronger, learn more. That's why I'm gonna master Suiton before the mission's over. I don't need you getting in my way."

There were so many emotions in the green depths of her eyes, Madara wasn't sure if he could put a name to them all. The firestorm blazing just behind them, though, made it clear how serious she was. Again, he had to wonder how far was too far to push, when doing so meant he'd keep being rewarded with such intense reactions. Reactions only he could pull from her. "You're so certain that this mission will end like you want it to. Rather, like you expect it to."

Haruno's narrowed gaze darted all over his face warily. "Why wouldn't it?"

Despite the tone of the question, there was an innocence to it that elicited a deep chuckle. "There are countless outcomes to this journey. One of which is that the ship never reaches its next port, and we and the crew capsize along with it. And in that case, Haruno, I find it wholly satisfying to think that your last waking thoughts would be of me."

Sakura shook her head, a breathless laugh tumbling past her lips in a way that let him know she wasn't sure about the state of his sanity. "And that's supposed to be a win for you somehow?"

"It would be more than winning." Madara explained. "There's no greater satisfaction than knowing that while someone who curses your very existence is being consumed by death, in spite of themselves, they can't help but think of you."

"You…" she spat, eyes wide and furious. "You…!" Coherent speech was lost to her as red filmed her vision. Instead of attempting to toss him into the sea like he half thought she might, Haruno briskly spun on her heel, moving like an encroaching storm, doom befalling the next person to breathe a word she didn't appreciate.

"Almost ready," Naruto announced, poking at the searing meat on the griddle in front of them.

Suigetsu sniffed deeply, sharp teeth bared in a smile. "Mm…no need to cook it anymore. I don't mind eating it a little pink."

"Idiot," Karin hissed. "Maybe that's fine for you, but think about the rest of us." She had to admit, not living as a rogue had its perks. Sure, Konoha's elite weren't thrilled to have them moving around, but the Hokage outranked them, and the woman agreed that they could stay for the foreseeable future, granted they caused no problems. It made research more expedient too. Karin was able to run notes by the Hokage, a woman she grudgingly admitted she'd come to admire.

After all, surprisingly, it was Tsunade-sama who had gotten on board with their plan when Kakashi Hatake was more reserved about it. In the midst of explaining that day, it wasn't long before the Copy Nin threw out a peculiar theory none of them had considered…

"I see…So that's what's been going on." Kakashi rubbed at his masked chin. "Well. It's good to know it's nothing nefarious, but I'm not sure I can let you go on."

"Why not?" Naruto challenged, barely withholding a growl. "Sakura's out there stranded somewhere! I know she is!"

The older shinobi shrugged, head leaning casually to the side. "Oh? And I guess you know just where to focus looking."

The blonde faltered, biting angrily at his lip.

"That's just what I thought. Listen, it occurs to me maybe Sasuke's been trying to look into dimensions with his Rinne-Sharingan. Am I right?"

Karin followed his eyes to the Uchiha, who unconsciously rubbed at his eye, expression unreadable.

"Hm," Kakashi paused. "So maybe it's not really necessary to say this, but, we don't know what we're dealing with and this is me just hazarding a guess… maybe Kaguya wasn't the only being capable of dimension-hopping. Or whatever portal opened up and sucked in Sakura was a direct result of sealing her. You know, a temporal anomaly."

"A what now?" Suigetsu butt in, hands on his hips. "Anybody else following this?"

"He's saying a time rift." Sasuke voiced what Karin had been starting to suspect. "It's not another dimension she was transported to, it's somewhere in time."

"Right. Which means she may really be lost to us." Kakashi concluded.

"So that's it?" Naruto spat. "We give up on her just like that?"

"I don't believe that's necessarily what Kakashi-sensei means, if I may be so bold." This time it was the quiet, pale boy who'd arrived with the Copy Nin speaking. "Sakura holds a summoning scroll, correct?"

"Yeah!" Naruto pounded a fist into his palm in realization. "Katsuyu!"

"Then," the boy continued, "It may be possible to at least guess which direction she was thrown, by whether or not her name remains on the scroll."

Following the hunch had paid off, in a way. Taking some of the meat with her chopsticks, Karin acknowledged that Konoha nin weren't entirely as useless as she'd thought. "Suigetsu!" she paused to glare at her former teammate. "Save some for when Sasuke-kun comes!"

"Hehe," The Mist nin was nonplussed by the admonishment, stealing more meat. "Maybe he should have been here on time?"

Naruto shrugged. "I have to agree with him. Sasuke's a big boy. He knows nothin's gonna be left if he's late."

Put out, the redhead ignored them as they chewed loudly and talked even louder. Anywhere else, and Karin might be afraid they would all be thrown out. But the Leaf was a far laxer place than the villages she'd known, and restaurants were accustomed to noisy patrons from what she'd observed.

'Can't get too comfortable.' She reminded herself, eating earnestly. 'As soon as this is all over, it'll be time to hit the road.' Now that they were a little more clued in, it was only a matter of time… Space-time ninjutsu existed, but nothing so powerful it could send a person forward or backwards more than a few seconds. There was only one being who would know how to do that, and it would be the Sage.

Though she offered her help multiple times, Sasuke was stubborn and in the end decided to chase down a jutsu strong enough to call forth the spirit of Hagoromo on his own. Deep down, Karin wondered if he detested the thought of her company that much, or if he was as desperate to escape the loudmouths as she was.

Either way, she had been left behind, stranded in the Leaf with only the Hokage for adequate company. So Karin prepared. Someone had to. Because Naruto and Suigetsu might as well not have been there at all.

Both were hands-on, and by no means good at sitting and searching. Naruto offered, she would admit, but only succeeded in getting in the way with his impatience. 'Sasuke-kun, it's all up to us!' That was what spurred her to keep going, the crucial role she played in all this. Her own feelings aside, Karin would see it through. She owed him at least that much…

Kagami pushed at the door, tentatively stepping inside Sakura-san's house to a…strange scene. Reira was on her knees attempting to coax Usamaro from the top of a shelf in the kitchen. Chisato stood nearby, wiggling a sardine in the air. "Re-Reira?"

The brunette turned, cheerfully smiling. "Hi, Kagami-kun! Um, c-could you shut the door? Usamaro got out last night, I think when I took him home…I don't want him running again."

Doing as she asked, Kagami walked over to his friends, looking up at the cat in question. If he didn't know any better, he would think the creature was rather smug with himself. That was when he noticed the pouch sitting next to him. "What's that up there? It looks important."

Reira's smile cracked, becoming wobbly around the edges as her eyes darted frantically up to Usamaro. "Tha-that's…it's Hashi-nii's. He gambles and that's his secret pouch."

"Looks kind of…full."

"Reira," Chisato interrupted in her soft, steady voice. "Maybe you should come clean. He is our friend, is he not?"

"B-But!" The girl whined, playing with her braid. "It's not my fault!" Kagami watched curiously as Reira's nose touched the floor, her shoulders shaking. "I want to live! I need to take back that pouch a-and that fur!"


"Look again," Chisato advised, pointing with the hand not holding the sardine. The Uchiha stepped closer so he wouldn't startle the feline, sucking in a breath when he noticed for the first time, a familiar fur half-draped across the cat, muddied where it had once been a pristine white.

"Reira," Suddenly, a bad feeling had settled in his gut. And if there was one thing that training taught him, it was that ninja had such instincts for a reason. "Reira," he repeated solemnly. "You're going to die."

Shamelessly bawling, the Senju lifted her face, and he could see the fat tears streaming down her cheeks. "Kagami-kun, how could you?!"

"He isn't wrong," Chisato added, extending her hand to beckon the mischievous cat. "If you don't replace what Usa-chan took, your family will, at the very least, disown you."

Kagami frowned, shaking his head. "How did he get those anyway? Wasn't he in your room when you took him home?"

Dramatically, Reira fell back on her rear, wiping at her face with an arm. "F-Funny you ask…"

"She left her door open. And so he got out…and stole. Then came back here."

"Chisa-chan you're supposed to be on my side!" Unbothered by her tears, Chisato sniffed at the fish she'd been holding, offering it to Usamaro once again. She stood on tiptoes as the cat carefully approached the sardine, the trio watching with bated breath.

"Now," The Aburame whispered to herself, the beetles slumbered in her body coming out in a cluster to surround the wayward feline. Spitting, Usamaro backed down the shelf, hair raised on end.

"Your bugs are scaring him…" Reira rubbed at her puffy eyes. "But I guess…this is better than dying today."

"I will catch him." Chisato assured. "You will live."

Reira switched from crying to gushing, smiling up at her friend in adoration. "Chisa-chan…you are so cool!"

"I don't think we should celebrate yet," Kagami mentioned, scratching at his scalp. "He looks like he's about to…" With an impressive battle cry, Usamaro sprang through the air, snatching the fish and evading capture in one swift movement. The minute all four feet touched the ground he was rocketing off, onto the counter and out the window.

"He escaped again!" Reira began to sniffle, tears finding their way back into her eyes. "Why didn't we close that?! I…I just wanted to get some fresh air."

Sighing, Kagami lifted her to her feet, pinching her cheek firmly. "You should get the fur and the pouch and take them home. That…" he tugged the fur down into his hands, examining it woefully. "Is going to need to be washed well." Usamaro had clearly had fun dragging it along the ground on his trip back home. He couldn't help but mourn for the clean, soft fur he'd first encountered in the Hokage's office. "I…" A poke to the back reminded him of Chisato, waiting patiently for orders. "We," he corrected. "Will find Usamaro! All of us can meet here when we're done."

Accepting the fur, the brunette nodded. "Y-You're good friends!" she cried, pulling them both close in an uncomfortably tight hug. Embarrassed, he glanced at Chisato, noticing her making the same face as she patted awkwardly at Reira's head. It took several tries, but they finally got her fingers to let them go, reminding her to collect the pouch on her way out. "Oof…this is pretty heavy…how'd he get it all the way out of the compound?! Never mind, I guess, good luck!"

"I think you might need it more than us," Chisato reminded her.

"Y-You're right!" Reira sprinted out the door, desperate to make it back in time.

Before she was out of sight, the frantic girl had nearly tripped over the fur draped around her and run into small children playing games in the streets. Feeling pity, Kagami thought about going with her. On the chance that she wasn't able to replace the items before they were discovered missing, there was a high possibility she'd at least need moral support.

Chisato made the decision for him, placing a hand on his shoulder. "We should go, Kagami-kun." She was right. It was prudent to find Usamaro before he found more mischief. Whatever punishment awaited Reira, if there was any punishment to be faced at all, he was confident she was tough enough to handle. Hopefully…

Hashirama stepped back, admiring his own handiwork. "There," He had finally finished building the inside of the last classroom, brand new wooden benches waiting to be filled with the next generation of shinobi. "It has the essentials but still, it feels a little empty." he lamented.

"Empty rooms generally feel that way." Tobirama quipped, leaning against the front row. "A more utilitarian approach is best. In this room, they will learn important tactical lessons. There's no need to make it cozy."

"Hm…I suppose you're right." he admitted. "Oh, but outside is fine, isn't it?" Mind made up, he rushed for the yard area they had designated for outdoor lessons. His brother was at his side almost before he'd come to a complete stop.

"What are you about to do?" he demanded.

Hashirama gently pushed him aside, his hands already forming the necessary seals. "Mokuton!" The ground broke apart, thick branches erupting from it to form a crossed series of bars reminiscent of a domed cage. The Hokage didn't stop there, however, continuing to transform the once barren training ground with wooden structures of various shapes and sizes. The last touch he added were log animal totems that could be climbed with small footholds, or swung on from hand supports.

"Shinobi or not, children should have time to play." Tobirama's face screwed into a skeptical expression. "If there's unstructured activity already in the curriculum…It can easily become a chance to play, and hone their shinobi skills. I'll demonstrate."

"Brot—" Unwilling to hear his brother's usual cynicism, Hashirama jogged over to the barred play structure where children could slip through the spaces to hide inside, or climb their way to the top.

"If I stick my foot through here…"

Tobirama looked torn between outright gaping and turning away in shame. "Hashirama, what the hell are you doing?"

"Showing you how it's done!" he called merrily. "Now, as I was saying…I can put my foot through here…and shimmy the rest of my body if I bend like this…" Although narrating was no trouble, actually forcing his body to comply was another matter. "Hm…that's odd…" Bent precariously, he hung half in and half out of the structure, the ends of his hair brushing the ground. An upside down Tobirama slowly came to stand over him.

"What's odd is you built this intended for use by young children, yet honestly believed that you, a large adult, would fit through."

"In hindsight, it wasn't the most thought through thing I've ever done…" Hashirama conceded. "I could…I could use some help." His feet pushed, trying to free him, but it was his torso that was trapped. "Tobirama," he giggled coyly. "I'm stuck."

Eye twitching, Tobirama snatched his brother's clothes in a white knuckled grip, jerking hard. "A-Ack! You're choking me."

Loosening his hold, the sneering face of his sibling leaned into his. "Shut up. Or I will leave you like this."

Gulping nervously, Hashirama kept quiet as Tobirama wrenched him loose, leaving him in an undignified heap on the ground. The elder Senju took his time getting up, patting himself down to make sure everything was as it should be and then climbing onto his feet. "Thank you, brother! It would've been…unfortunate if I'd been here by myself. Onto the next demonstration!"

At his proclamation, his brother's red eyes glowed hotter than any Sharingan. "You can't be serious…!"

"Oh, this one doesn't involve me trying to climb into anything, so I won't need saving." He promised, finding the totems and motioning to them proudly. "Look how much weight these support! They'll be perfect for building upper arm and core strength." The statement was followed by Hashirama easing himself up and slowly turning so that one arm was the only thing supporting him. "See!" The fact that his brother wasn't immediately declaring him a fool meant he was at the very least, listening. "There's another one of these over on that totem, so you can try too."

The white-haired Senju shook his head, scoffing. "You doing something like this is all well and good, and quite frankly, expected." That brought a pout to his lips. "I on the other hand, must be mature enough for the both of us."

"So you're saying I would outlast you?" Hashirama asked innocently.

"What?" Tobirama spat. "I never said anything like that…" His voice had started to rise, and Tobirama must have noticed it too, because he cleared his throat, calm once again. "I know what you're trying to do."

Difficult though it may have been, Hashirama attempted a one-shouldered shrug. "Keep my balance?"

"Bait me. It may work on someone unwise to your games, brother, but I've had years to build up immunity."

Still holding himself up, Hashirama blew a strand of hair that had fallen across his nose out of the way. "You're right. You know better by now. Admit it though, wouldn't training as children have been so much better with these? I can feel myself getting lighter already!"

Ever the skeptic, his brother grunted a response. "Impossible…"

"How would you know? You're not up here." Hashirama snickered. Briefly, a spark flickered behind Tobirama's eyes, the competitive streak he liked to pretend wasn't there at all. Making a show of appearing disinterested, Tobirama climb the other totem and copied his position.


"The effects are stunning, aren't they?"

"I feel like a fool. I suppose this is how you must feel on a day to day basis, though."

Chuckling, he ignored the remark, as he had learned to do long ago. "Give it time!"

Something jolted through his brother's head; he could see the shift. "You need to go back to your office." Honestly, half of the point of this distraction was hoping he'd forget. The other half was simply because it really was fun.

Hashirama shifted hands when his right one started feeling numb, and his body tipped forward before he righted himself. "Relax, the office is a walk upstairs away."

Tobirama closed his eyes with a grunt, and he didn't mention the fact that he hadn't stopped balancing either. Inside he crowed, triumphant. His little brother was offputtingly blunt with everyone around him, but always so coy with himself.

The road forked off, signaling the end of their shared walk home. "Well," Reira announced, rocking back on her heels. "This was fun today, but I don't wanna do it again tomorrow."

"I think…I will second that for the both of us." It had taken longer than expected to wrangle Usamaro, who had been unusually moody as of late and led them through a wild chase through the market and a civilian district. Reira shivered, remembering the pack of dogs that had chased after all of them when she'd stepped on one's tail.

To say they were all exhausted was an understatement. Covered in just as many cuts and bruises as she was, her friends shared weary smiles, waving as Kagami left for the Uchiha district, and Chisa-chan the Aburame's, a grumpy Usamaro in tow.

"Shut your doors and windows!" she called to Chisa. In truth, between the two of them, it was obvious to even Reira who was more vigilant. Chisato was the same age as her, yet so much more composed and responsible…she wouldn't be the one who let a cat escape, or had to sneak stolen items back home before anyone noticed they were gone.

To an extent, if she thought about it, perhaps she had gravitated toward the other girl, because something about her reminded her of Tobaa, who she had always aspired to be like when she grew up. Reira grinned wryly to herself, watching her shadow stretch out behind her as the sun stared setting.

As long as she could remember, she had called herself a kunoichi, and no one had ever corrected her. But compared to the people she admired most, there were days when she just didn't feel like one…she felt like a clumsy little girl, pretending just like the tiny children who played ninja with sticks pretended. She didn't want to be like them…and the academy would be what set her apart.

Every day on the walk home, Reira purposely took the long route, all so she could stop for a precious few minutes and admire the academy. Since the announcement that when it opened, she would be in the first group of children to attend, it was all she could think about. Of course she trained with Tobaa, as much as possible, but compared to someone like Kagami-kun, who could use swords, and knew fire techniques, and was a born leader…it felt like she didn't train at all.

Reira could feel her heart speed up as she finally came to the part of the journey she anticipated most. Giddy, she sucked in a large breath, gazing at the new building with misty eyes. It was such a beautiful sight, she desperately wanted someone to share it with in that moment.

Every evening when Hashi-nii came to eat dinner with them, she was filled to the brim with questions to ask about how close it was to being finished. He entertained them with more patience than most adults would have, patting her head and telling her it would be soon. That didn't stop her from coming to see for herself.

Unable to contain herself, she skipped her way into the yard to inspect. She wouldn't dare go inside, wouldn't want to ruin it for herself even if she could, but the newly built structures she'd spotted were crying out to her. Reira jumped onto the bars without hesitation, slipping under the spaces and admiring how roomy it was inside before crawling out again and scaling the top. It was no doubt clever use of the Mokuton, and she was grateful that when it came to having fun, Hashi-nii always thought of everything.

"Oh!" Reira was suddenly reminded that she was expected home for dinner any minute, and Mei-san didn't tolerate tardiness to the table well. Brushing herself off the best that she could, the little Senju soared home on feet that felt as light as feathers. People and stands were a blur. Loose pieces of hair fell into her eyes and across her mouth, but arms pumping, she kept running. The sentries only laughed as she skidded through the gates of the compound with a yelp. "Sorry!"

"Better get home Reira!" one of them warned.

"I'm trying! I'm trying!"

The goal was within sight, just a little more…

The Senju compound was an arrangement of conjoined houses in a long 'U' and separated buildings for celebrations and private council meetings. Her house, down near the end, was unfortunately farther away from the entrance than preferable at times like these, and when she reached it, Reira threw herself through the door, tumbling head over heels as she wrestled her sandals from her feet.

"Reira, you can't keep doing this." Before she could even stand, Toka was there, hauling her up. "You know I don't mind your daily explorations, so long as you come home…"

"Clean, I know. I couldn't help it today though!" she flailed her arms in exclamation. "Usamaro got out, and I had to chase him down with Kagami-kun and Chisa-chan after—"

"After you put back the things the cat was only able to take because you allowed him to roam free last night?" Toka finished with a knowing smirk.

Blushing, she meekly poked her hands together. "Y-You saw me?"

"Unfortunately for you, yes. Although I suppose just this once, I will pretend I didn't." Now that was something she didn't expect her stern, no-nonsense guardian to say. Very rarely was she indulged by Toka when her antics landed her in trouble.

"Tobaa!" she cried, overcome with emotion. "I won't do it again. Er, I mean I didn't do it the first time…Usamaro did, but I'll watch him better, promise!" Her aunt rubbed her back for a minute before grasping her shoulders and wrenching her away.

"That's not the only reason you were held up, was it?" Toka's visible eye bore into hers, and she knew there was no point in lying.

"I um…took the long way. I just wanted to see the academy." Reira confessed, refusing to continue holding eye contact and simultaneously scratching at some dirt on her cheek.

Standing to her full height, Reira guided her further inside by the shoulders in silence. They walked the hall together before she spoke again. "What is this fixation you have with attending the academy? Are you that eager to play with others your age?" There was an edge of concern there, like she was worried she didn't have enough friends. Kagami-kun and Chisa-chan were plenty! And she played with the other children in the Senju clan too, so it wasn't like she was lonely. No, playing had nothing to do with it.

"It's training, not playing."

Toka paused, deep in thought. "I see…do you not train enough here?"

"Not enough to keep up with Chisa-chan and Kagami-kun. I wanna be a real kunoichi, like you were when you were my age!" She was sure Toka would be proud of her answer, maybe even tell her a little more about her adventures as a child. There wasn't much she knew about her guardian. Only that she had been tasked with raising her when her parents died, and that, by the time she had reached ten, she'd already built quite a reputation as a formidable shinobi who had killed adults.

"Reira…" Toka's grip on her tightened, and once again she was forced to look into her guardian's weighted stare. "Listen to me, when I was your age…" she trailed off, her voice strained. "When I was your age, I would have done almost anything for the life you enjoy now. Don't be so quick to throw that away."

Frustrated, Reira backed out of her hold. "I'm not! I just want to make you proud! I want to be a real Senju!"

"You a—"

"No I'm not. I always goof around, and no one takes me seriously. If I complete the academy, and if I go on real missions, I can be disciplined, like you!"

"That discipline came at a cost!" There was an unfamiliar ice she'd never seen directed at her in Tobaa's eyes, and she edged away, sensing danger. Shoulders shaking and teeth gritting, Toka looked down her nose at her, hand on hip. "The heavens can attest to everything I lost in my childhood. That is not what I want for you. That's not what anyone wants for the children of this village. Join the academy, hone your skills, but know that you will not become what I was as a child."

Just like that, Toka had cut through her hope for unwavering support and independence. Reira glared, ignoring the sound of her name as she trekked back the way she'd come.

The room was poorly lit, only a single candle set on the table, and a lone silhouette draped half out the window, blowing smoke into the night air through a kiseru. Toka cut a solemn picture, her body slouched and weighted by too many thoughts, too many responsibilities.

"You haven't touched that in years," Tobirama observed, cutting his way through the white wisps and sitting on his knees at the table. There was no food out, not yet. All the better, since the taste would be ruined by the thickness of kizami in the air. A thought he chose to keep to himself, in light of the kunoichi's state.

The end of the pipe left Toka's lips, and when she started to reply, the remains of the smoke swirled into the room. "There are many things I haven't done as of late. None of them are important now…" Another deep puff of her kiseru. "Tobirama, you and I have always been similar. We have even shared similar experiences. I would trust you'd tell me I were to go astray."

Tobirama rolled his shoulders back, testing the waters. "Have you?"

The older shinobi gave an uncharacteristic grunt, exasperation seeping into her voice, "How is it fair to pose a loaded question to a woman seeking answers?" Unpausing, she continued, her voice lowering, "I have never claimed to be perfect. You and Hashirama have seen me at my worst, so it would be a pointless endeavor to try. Makoto asked that I raise his daughter, his only child, and what could I do but accept? I vowed I'd steer her away from the life I knew. I thought it was my duty as her guardian."

Understanding where the conversation was heading, Tobirama took in first Toka's lost expression, then the ceiling. Through it, he hoped the kami would offer up divine intervention. Anything, even something as minute as lightning striking the ground outside, that would keep him from having the conversation. His brother was better suited to the job, if her were asked.

However, as Toka had mentioned, they shared many likenesses. Their personalities, their nindo, the loss of siblings…those parallels had bound them in respect and friendship for many years. Never would Tobirama have thought that he would give her counsel for, of all things, handling an unruly child.

He had no children of his own for a reason. This being one of them. Training them was straightforward, easy. Their emotions, their many, many exhausting emotions? Another matter. Tobirama already had an eccentric brother to look after, and he imagined the skill of handling Hashirama every day was so like that of handling a whimsical child, that there was no need to have one and find out how close they really came. "She is a child, Toka. She doesn't see the good of your intentions, because she has no experiences in the true cruelty of living as a child mercenary."

The cool evening breeze blew back Toka's bang, and she wet her lips, undoubtedly dry after countless time spent at the pipe. "And that's by design." Watching Toka succumb to her vice, Tobirama began wishing for one of his own. He never could stand the taste and smell of hers, and gambling didn't hold the sway for him that it did for Hashirama. But honey wine, served at the right temperature, slid down smoothly and quenched the restlessness. So, if choosing a vice were a matter of life and death, that wouldn't be such a bad one.

"At ten, I knew many things I wish I could unlearn even now. I knew how to wedge a senbon through the back of the neck and into my enemy's skull. I had discovered countless uses for poisons; some of which, I'm sure, killed innocents. I took parents from children and children from parents, and I did it all without question, because I loved my clan, and I was taught that love meant sacrifice." He saw her blink rapidly as she brought her head back into the hazy room, and he realized with quiet shock that a lone tear had escaped her eye. "…I don't ever want Reira to think she has to follow my path to be a true Senju."

It wasn't that he expected fanfare upon his arrival. After a day spent in his office, fielding issues and playing at the role of a fair, solemn leader, Hashirama was grateful to stop by and visit his family, eat at the compound and then return to the Hokage estate. Naturally, when he noticed Reira, sneaking her way back to the compound, he had to slow down and take a moment to assess if anything was seriously wrong.

Toka had always been stringent about the curfew she gave her niece. Even in the relative safety of the village, a child roaming around was still a child. Granted, it wasn't impossibly late, but after dark nonetheless.

"Reira!" he called out to her, his long legs carrying him in her direction before she so much as turned around. When she did, he noticed she was filthy, her gi streaked with dirt and her face much the same. "Hashi-nii…" She looked up at him meekly, fidgeting with her hands anxiously. "Hi..."

Caught off guard, Hashirama did his best not to launch into a panicked spiel, placing a hand on her shoulder instead. "Is everything alright? It's a, past dinner after all. I expected you'd be inside, starting without me like the others."

"I went home." There was a distinctly defensive edge in her young voice. "But then I went back out to Chisa-chan's house."

Relief flooded him at the admission, satisfied that she hadn't been by herself. Some time ago, she'd proudly informed them all she had a new friend in a girl from the Aburame clan. Ayeka's daughter Chisato. "Alright," placing a hand on her shoulder, he gently turned her toward home. "Why don't we walk in together?" Whatever was going on, it was easy to see Reira was hesitant about going inside.

She scratched at her bare arms with a grimace. "Okay...but I'm gonna take a bath first. I am kind of icky right now."

Patting her head with a laugh, Hashirama motioned grandly at the entrance to the house she shared with Toka. "After you then, milady." That put a smile on her face, and she bobbed in a curtsy, running inside and beelining for the baths. Hashirama took the opposite direction, finding his way to the kitchen.

"Taidama! Oh..." To say the sight that greeted him was a bit...somber...was an understatement. Toka and Tobirama sat around the table with the same stolid expression on both their faces. Mei-san was scolding the kunoichi about the smell of kizami in the air while she set dishes on the table.

Everyone turned at his greeting, but only the older woman made an effort to press a small smile to her face. "Welcome back, Lord Hashirama. I do apologize I'm just now finishing serving dinner. Please do come have a seat."

"It's appreciated, Mei-san, but you know you only have to serve us if you truly want to. We're adults, we can take care of it next ti—"

"Nonsense!" The woman snorted, shaking her head vehemently. "I've known all of you since you were born. And not a single one of you has gotten less reckless over the years! As it is, providing balanced meals in the evenings is the least I can do."

Unwilling to continue arguing, Hashirama sat, grinning at his brother and Toka. Mei-san left the room with her nose in the air, point made.

"After all this time, Mei-san believes we need looking after."



Their responses gave him an idea of what to expect from the rest of dinner, Reira's strange behavior aside... 'Well...' Hashirama thought cheerfully. 'That just means it's up to me to bring some levity!'

Chapter Text

The dense fog hung low, obscuring the view of sunrise as the ship ambled through calm waters. It was a dreary sort of morning, the kind that might turn into a rainy afternoon. Sakura climbed up to deck just in time to hear Gintoki shout down from the crow's nest that they were approaching the islands. Although it was hard to see clearly, she could just make out the jutting form of their destination up ahead.

The hairs of her neck stood on end, something ominous curling over her that chilled deeper than the mist. She couldn't have been the only one who felt it. Everyone on deck seemed more…somber than she'd ever seen them. There was none of the usual banter. No laughing or songs or arguments. Sakura tread lightly, feeling caught in some eerie genjutsu. No one greeted her, further indication to the unease in the air.

"You can feel it." Madara's deep voice intoned from her left. "The atmosphere here is smothering. Like the islands themselves are trying to ward off intruders." His form cut through the mist as he approached, though his eyes were trained on the islands. Sakura sucked in a small breath. There already tense relationship was further strained after that day, fresh anger causing any thoughts of civility to dissipate from her mind. Now was the time when that would all inevitably be cast to the side. Faced with such uncertain and potentially dangerous circumstances waiting for them, infighting would only hinder things.

"Okay, I admit it's making me a little anxious," she whispered, "But the sooner we do our jobs here the sooner we'll be leaving. So for now…that should be the priority."

"You really are more disciplined than I first thought."

Although she wasn't oblivious to the backhanded nature of the compliment, Sakura chose to take it in stride, mind focused on a more pressing matter. The ship's bow turned, powering toward the port, and the kunoichi was able to plant her feet in time to avoid being thrown. Several sailors flew past with ropes, moving to secure the vessel as Joben called for his crew to prepare to drop anchor.


"That's a very ugly face you're making." Naoko told him bluntly. The kunoichi was dressed for combat, hair secured in a high ponytail and guards on her shins and elbows, dainty hands encased in leather gloves. The only thing missing was her armor.

Izuna started, briefly wondering why she was there, waiting at his door, until he remembered what he'd asked her the day before. "We can't all be as uninterested in clan politics as you." He muttered, careful as he maneuvered around the spear balanced on her shoulder. Truthfully, he didn't have the patience for her jaunty attitude at the moment, doubt swirling around in his mind.

Izuna set off at an unrushed pace, and to his mild annoyance, she followed. "Why do you have that? You know you're training children, Naoko."

Laughing, the older Uchiha swung her spear out, thrusting up in mock ferocity before resting it across her shoulder once again, tip pointed to the sky. "I won't harm a hair on their darling heads." she promised. "But if they can learn sword-fighting from you, there's no reason why they wouldn't be interested in seeing a seasoned spear fighter in action. I've even gotten Hikaku to be part of my demonstration." The kunoichi bragged. "When I'm done, the children will want me to be their sensei all the time."

Izuna didn't bother returning her banter, once again thinking of the elders' reactions as he'd given his report on the Kaguya. Despite assurance from him that they were well monitored and posed little threat, they stubbornly insisted that at the very least, the Hokage should give them an apology.

He would've been embarrassed to demand such a thing from Hashirama when he knew Madara never would've entertained the elders to this degree at all, and they knew it too. While his older brother took their counsel into consideration often enough, he'd set himself apart from their father as a leader who followed his own path. This occasionally led him to butt heads with the more headstrong members of the clan council, and they deemed him a black sheep.

"I wouldn't pay a lick of attention to what some war hawk past his prime said to me. If I were you, of course. We both know I don't listen to anything they say now." Naoko jabbed a thumb against the wrinkles between his eyebrows. Izuna moved away, before she got the idea to do it again.

"You only did that to see if you could leave a mark." He accused, and she tittered, indirectly agreeing. In their youth she'd had great fun jamming a finger against his forehead for the sole purpose of making him walk around with a red spot there for the world to see.

She had a point though, in the maddening way she often did. Naoko didn't take heed to anything the council said, which was why Izuna was sure they were glad that her betrothal to Madara had devolved on its own. The untamable, chaotic energy she brought wherever she went wouldn't have been anything like the demure matriarch many on the council still thought a Lady Uchiha should be.

Moreover, there was never a time when she'd seemed truly worried in the tumultuous political climate just before moving to Konoha. He didn't have the luxury of turning a blind eye to such things, always mentally preparing for a day when he'd be forced to permanently fulfill Madara's role and lead the clan in his stead… Naoko, however, lived in the moment. Izuna couldn't say he didn't envy that about her.

"Take the time you need to get away from it all. Whatever hasn't burnt to ash will be here to torment you when you return." she chirped.

Izuna grimaced at her apt way with words. "Thank you, Naoko…for being willing to train with the children for today, at least."

As expected, his friend only shrugged. "You could have asked me much sooner." Her eyes landed on the small figures waiting patiently on the training grounds, and her eyes glinted the way they always did before she went off to battle.

"Naoko." Izuna reminded, "Children."

Her lip dipped into a small pout and she waved him off, sauntering toward his students, spear shining in the sunlight.

"I won't let her overdo it." Izuna spun, finding Hikaku coming over, heavily padded in his own armor and sword at his waist. A wise choice. Regardless of what she said, even in the midst of sparring, Naoko's hits were hard and her spear was sure. "At the very least, I can take the brunt."

"I'm counting on you, Hikaku."

The older man hummed, clapping Izuna's shoulder as he passed.

Well. His students would be looked after for the day, and Izuna was free to have a day to himself, outside the compound. The clan wouldn't exactly implode without him around, he reasoned.

There was no harm in some much needed relaxation…

"Thank you for everything," Sakura bowed courteously to the captain, met with the sounds of light-hearted laughter.

Joben clapped her shoulder when she straightened again. Ai, Junko, Kazu, Gintaki and several of the other sailors she had come to know stood around him with smiling faces. "No need for that sort o' thing. Just be safe out there. We're deliverin' some cargo to a neighborin' island, and I promised the crew we'd stop n' hit a tavern or two. Let's hope they don't get piss drunk." He winked. "We'll be back through in'a week's time."

"A week?" she echoed. In taking the mission, the Hokage was sure to inform her the time of completion could vary a bit, diplomatic negotiations delicate on their own. Coupled with the weight of the outbreak sweeping the islands there was no telling if Sakura would be able to distribute a cure to local medics in such a brief span of time.

"It'll pass before ya know it, lass." Gintaki assured, unaware that was her concern to begin with. "We'll swap tales on the way back to Fire Country."

"For now, yer partner's waitin' for ya." Unsurprisingly, Madara had exited the ship almost before the anchor was dropped. And as Ai had said he was waiting not far down the port's platform, back facing them. Sakura gave them all a brave face as she headed for the steep planking. The second she stepped off the vessel, the mist engulfed her completely, until it was difficult to see a hand in front of her face, let alone where she was going. Only shinobi senses kept her from falling off the platform and into the icy water as she stopped near the Uchiha's side.

"Our lodging is at the Hagakure Inn," Madara pivoted on his heel, "It seems that's where Hashirama arranged for the leaders of Chigiri and Genzai to meet with us, specifically me."

Sakura grunted, remembering back to the night she'd studied the map. Not knowing when she would see it again, she had taken the liberty of committing the islands that made up the Water Country to memory, unsure when the information could prove vital. "This island we're on…it's Sekai, isn't it?"

"Very good." Madara hummed, voice impassive. "Sekai is neutral to the conflict, thus an appropriate spot to hold talks." Of course, this was where their missions split neatly. While Madara's goal was to resolve the conflict and establish trade with one or both islands, Sakura's job was elsewhere, treating and curing the dying and infirmed.

The kunoichi nodded, eyes widening at the sight of mountain peaks rising in the distance as they neared the little village of the island. A steep path wound up its craggy side, what appeared to be a man-made structure of some kind set on top. "I wonder what this island's leader thinks of all this?" she thought aloud. "I mean, even if they're neutral, bringing these disputes to the island does involve them in a roundabout way…"

"Sekai has a coalition of villagers, not a single leader." Madara chuckled, and Sakura had a feeling it was at her ignorance. "They've long since declared themselves a neutral territory from the bloody fighting between islands, despite having at least one ninja clan residing here, and the daimyo of Water Country has chosen to honor that for the time being."

She had more questions, more commentary to offer, but the closer they were to arrival at the Inn, the less sharing her thoughts with Madara appealed. Instead, she was vigilant, ever aware of the constant eyes that followed them from street to street. Somehow, Madara knew where he was going, and she reluctantly followed his lead.

There was no getting around that Madara was well-informed, well-prepared. If only she was half as informed about the specifications of her own mission, maybe she'd be walking with a swagger in her step too. But the Hokage had only been able to share the limited things that he'd been told. The rest it was up to her to gather through investigation.

As they traveled further into the village proper, signs of life slowly emerged. A fish merchant's shack populated nearly every other corner, everyone yelling that their catches were the freshest. Sakura caught eyes with one man and he jumped from his seat to hold out a sizable mackerel just under her nose. The fishy tang made her nose twitch, the fishmonger jumping into his appeal before she could shake her head. "Caught this only an hour ago!" he boasted. "Come taste the best of Sekai!"

"He lies!" Another man shouted him down from across the road. "His fish are only a day from rotten. Mine are the freshest!" The proclamation devolved into an intense shouting match soon after, Sakura moving along while they were preoccupied.

Interspersed through the multitudes of fisherman trying to sell them a meal, there were stalls with impressive art on display, one young girl showing them a bright row of jewelry made from seashells and beach glass, undoubtedly the hard work of beach-combing. "A n-necklace for you miss?" she offered shyly. "It would match your eyes?" Admittedly, the necklace was beautiful, uniform pieces of jade glass making up the length of it, with a single speckled shell sitting as the centerpiece.

Its crafter had true talent, despite the roundness of youth in her face. However, it wasn't her age that caught Sakura off guard, but the patchwork clothes and sunken cheeks, something she had seen plenty of during Team 7's trip to the Land of Waves. In the smooth jade surface of the trinket, she could see her surprised expression, and a pang of sympathy hit her.

"How mu—" She began to reach for the jewelry, one hand already searching for her pouch of money. Stunned, Sakura watched as a larger hand seized the necklace before her fingertips could graze it, the Uchiha inspecting the jewelry carefully.

"Cup your palms together," he instructed the small girl, his tone oddly gentle. Blinking up at them with round eyes, she slowly obeyed, her tiny hands trembling as she held them together. The Uchiha had been so silent during the exchange, Sakura nearly forgot she was following him in the first place, and when he loosened a pouch tied at his waist, she understood what he was doing. Shiny golden coins spilled into her hands from his, so many that some threatened to fall to the ground. "Is this sufficient payment?"

Dazed, she managed to nod stiffly, eyes large and transfixed on the money in her hands, likely more than she'd ever held in her life. "O-Oh, yes!"

Madara turned and dropped the necklace into Sakura's still awkwardly outstretched hand. "No more delays, Haruno."

The man had already moved on by the time Sakura was able to draw her attention from the necklace unceremoniously given to her. "H-Hey, wait!" Tucking it away, she hurried after him.

"One room?" Madara repeated. It had been difficult enough in the less than spacious belly of the ship. Now, upon arrival, he found he'd once again be sharing close quarters with Haruno indefinitely.

"Yes," The innkeeper's wife wasn't in the mood to argue, clear exhaustion in her eyes despite it being early morning. "That's all we can spare."

Biting down his discontent, Madara slid her the payment, and she slid him the clunky room key.

"Boy, come here!" she bellowed over her shoulder. Her teenage son straightened from lowering food onto an occupied table in the tavern, glancing nervously in their direction. "Quickly!" she snapped, causing him to mumble something to the guests he was serving and stumble over. The child was pitiable, stature and downcast eyes displaying nothing but resignation toward his mother. "See to it they're settled in. Then get out back and fetch the fresh eggs from the chicken coop. That should've been done before dawn."

Refusing to meet her fierce gaze, he instead plucked at a loose thread on his worn gray yukata. "M-Mina said she would…would do it, kaa-san."

That hardly pleased the gruff woman, "Your sister is already doing the washing. She doesn't have time to handle your chores as well, though the foolish girl might try."

"Y-Yes, you're right. I was mistaken." The boy agreed hastily. "Please," he finally turned to himself and Haruno. "Follow me and I'll gladly show you to your accommodations."

It was clear he only wanted to be away from his mother's harsh tongue, and the Uchiha couldn't blame him for that. Allowing him to save face, he filed behind the cowering son and in front of Haruno.

Taking them around the back of the tavern, the boy led them up a narrow set of steps to the inn's second floor, and Madara was pleased to see it wasn't as shabby as he was expecting. Hand-woven rugs decorated the floors and water colored paintings hung from the walls, depicting fisherman on ships and the village itself being overlooked by the mountain at its outskirt.

One image in particular stood out, a small black-haired woman with a fair-skinned face dressed in lavender silk, transparent sleeves and train, looking out over a cliff side that faced the sea. A single tear rolled from her cheek, and a bejeweled headpiece rested against her forehead, blooms the same color of her kimono scattered at her slippered feet. The artist had gone through painstaking lengths to capture the melancholy of the woman's visage, in turn giving the mural and eerie quality. "Who's that?" Haruno asked from behind him, peering over his shoulder in the tight space of the hall.

Turning, the boy's eyes caught on the mural that captured their attention. "I-Iwanagahime…" he explained. "She…she is still sacred here."

Rubbing his palms against his thighs, he politely inclined his head to a door to their immediate right. "This is your room. I or my sister will come by to deliver meals later. Or…or freshen your bedding…" His eyes lingered on the two of them, cheeks flaming up. "S-Should we bring them in or leave them at the door?"

"Inside is fine…" Haruno trailed off expectantly, her own face awash in red.

"My name is Muyo." he confessed, recoiling as if the word physically stung.

And Madara supposed he too would be filled with intense shame, if he were forced to tell strangers he'd been named "useless".

Seemingly unaware, Haruno offered a gracious smile. Muyo hesitantly returned it, backing down the hall like a timid animal. "E-Enjoy your room." When he turned around, Haruno's face scrunched in displeasure.

"Urgh, I can't believe he thinks we're…" She couldn't bring herself to finish, instead motioning toward the lock. "Alright, let's get this over with."

Briefly, the thought of telling her he'd lost the key crossed his mind, just to see how she'd react. Deciding he would attempt civility for the time being, Madara produced the key and opened the door, even allowing her to enter first.

The room featured a large futon with neatly folded sheets and a trunk to store belongings at the foot of it. A writing desk sat just under a window, and there was a rice paper folding screen painted with peach blossoms, perhaps to give them the option to change around one another and preserve modesty. Haruno shucked off her things, barely giving the room a once over like he'd expected her to.

"I'm heading out," she declared. "The fastest way to find out what's going on is to talk to the villagers. One of them should be able to point me in the direction of wherever they're keeping their sick."

Madara had to admire her dedication; she certainly didn't waste time. "And you believe it would be that easy? Have you not noticed that the people here are incredibly untrusting of foreigners?"

"I've thought about that," she said, taking a fistful of hair in her hand and tying it hastily in a low ponytail, revealing her pale neck. "I can always henge myself if it comes to that."

Clearly, her mind was made up, and even if it hadn't been, Madara saw no point in stopping her. The peace he would receive while she was gone was ideal for him. In the silence of an empty room, there'd be no distractions to keep him from preparing for tomorrow's meeting with the island leaders.

Eying the desk, he decided that after he removed his armor, it would be the perfect place to have some tea and draft notes. "You should be careful not to meddle in anything that would upset the locals here."

Haruno paused by the door, frowning. "I know you're trying to say I stick my nose where it doesn't belong, but I'm not stupid." The heavy door clicked upon her exit, and Madara was able to drink in the sweet silence. It wasn't something that he'd ever admit to her, but even he was a bit curious how she'd handle herself. Whether she was as competent as a medic as others believed her to be, or whether she would soon be in over her head. A foreign nation with its own affairs might as well have been hostile territory. Haruno was young and headstrong, and it could very well be her undoing here...

'This mission might not be as tedious as I'd believed...'

Izuna wasn't sure, but he had the distinct feeling he was missing something. Days spent relaxing weren't supposed to have the opposite effect. That he knew. Yet there he was, restless as he sat in the dango shop, nibbling at the stick of sweets. The drone of the chattering blond sitting next to him made it hard if not impossible to hear himself think, but there was nowhere else to move to, and so he was forced to endure.

"Kureno, how many times does that make this?!" she was saying. Well, seething. "Watching, I feel embarrassed for you, myself, and every girl you've pestered since we've been here."

"Sister mine, you have to take the initiative in these matters! " The man beside her scoffed. "You'll see that my approach is the right one when I'm happily wedded and you're still waiting for some chivalrous shinobi from a distant land to sweep you off your feet." Izuna saw him pat her head a little roughly, like Madara sometimes would to him when they were young. The slightly aggressive affection had been his brother's way of asserting the authority he'd believed he'd had because he was older when they'd have silly squabbles.

'Definitely siblings...' he thought.

"There isn't anything wrong with dreaming a little!" she fussed. "And I never said he needed to be from some far off land. I may find him right here. There's a whole village full of shinobi and civilians here, and someone's bound to be right. You'll never find a wife, because every woman who could possibly marry you has already seen your face darkening her doorstep far too many times!"

There was a pause after that, and unlikely as it was, Izuna hoped that'd be the end of their ridiculous argument. Surely, the other patrons hoped the same. Tea and sweets were best served without the unpleasant bickering of a sibling argument.

"My smile shines hope and inspiration into the lives of lonely young ladies everywhere." Kureno countered.

"Doubtful." His sister shook her head. "Truth be told, your entire personality is off-putting. You give compliments too easily, so it's hard to tell when you're being genuine. And you aren't nearly so good as wooing women as you think you are. You smile too wide when you're nervous, and for a ninja, you're hopelessly flashy."

Kureno made a strangled noise, his hands clutching the counter tightly for balance.

Izuna winced, suddenly a tad sympathetic toward the male sibling.

"And you believe your personality is so much better?" he spat.

"Well, naturally." she beamed, flicking blonde hair over her shoulders.

"Hah! Since you've been kind enough to point out my faults, allow me to return the courtesy, dear Yurine. You never know when things aren't meant to be a competition, and you daydream at inappropriate times. When you aren't doing that, you're henpecking. You prattle on about romance at every opportunity, and when you do find someone you're attracted to, your palms sweat profusely."

The Uchiha watched as Yurine's face became scarlet, the poor girl glancing around wildly to see if anyone had heard. Of course, Izuna had, so he ducked his head and took a long sip of his now nearly cold tea. "How could you know the last one unless you've been reading my journal?!" She accused. "Kureno, I'm going to end you."

If he was gauging the argument correctly, they were fighting about the best way to pursue love... And their opinions of the matter seemed to differ drastically. Somehow, though, it had turned into insulting the other's personal attributes.

"What we need," Kureno went on as if he hadn't heard, "Is a neutral party. Someone who can tell us for sure whose personality is more attractive. Oh, tap that man next to you."

'The to her?' He lurched, hastily eating his remaining dango. He'd sat there for as long as he could bear to, but if they wanted to drag him into the middle of...whatever it was they were calling it, Izuna decided it was time to go. Unfortunately, shoveling five dumplings down at once didn't have the best effect, and he struggled to avoid choking as someone politely poked at his shoulder.

He knew with dread who it was, even before he turned around. 'Damn...too slow.'

"Excuse me, but my brother and I could use some help." Yurine began.

'Yes, you could. You both could. Just not mine.' Izuna carefully swallowed down the dango.

She was remarkably more polite than she'd been a mere moment earlier, as if the side of her he'd witnessed was reserved for dealing with her brother only.

"What my sister's asking is, what type of person do you find charming? Someone bright and talented, like me," Kureno pointed to himself with a grin. "Or someone moody and controlling, like Yurine?" They both leaned in, their carmine eyes eager.

Though he was able to maintain his composure, on the inside, Izuna was frantic for an out of any kind. "I really don't feel qualified to, uh, settle this." he explained awkwardly.

"We won't be mad with you either way," Yurine said gently. "It's just that this argument would go on for days, otherwise."

"Days?" Now Izuna was downright concerned. Would they really waste that much time debating on something so...pointless?

"Humor them," The shop owner whispered as he passed. "Please!" The clear desperation hidden in the man's tight smile was pitiable. "If you can do it, your order is on me." As if it was to add to the needed incentive, Izuna suddenly found another plate of sweets set before him.

Although he wasn't that adverse to paying his bill and leaving, he felt for the man, who'd probably been waiting for the right time to ask the noisy siblings to go.

"I can't personally say who has the better traits between the two of you..." Izuna said slowly. "But I think intelligence is charming. Someone who can carry a conversation and is a bit inquisitive...Maybe even someone who's assertive and stands up for what they think is right, even when she loses her temper sometimes..."

"Loses her temper, huh?" Kureno repeated. He snapped his fingers, eyes lighting up. "Oh, I see. You're that kind of guy."

"S-So having lots of passion is good. And being confident about your opinions?" Yurine asked, poking her fingers together. "I suppose...I could see that. Oh, you know, that's a bit like Sakura, isn't it?" The blonde turned to her brother. "She's a passionate, assertive type. Remember?"

"Hm," He ran his fingers through his hair. "You're right, you're right! Such a strong force for someone with such a fragile name." he sighed wistfully.

Izuna swallowed, his throat a little dry. Some said that great epiphanies struck like lightning, but for him, it was more of a phantom blow to the head. "It is...isn't it?"

Chapter Text

The island's atmosphere seemed to have bled to its citizens, because everywhere she turned, Sakura was met with distant, stony faces. Several times, she'd approached villagers and, just as Madara had warned, she was avoided. When she caught the eyes of a toddler, peering at her from over his mother's shoulder with weary eyes and blue-tinted lips, she rushed forward in concern.

"Excuse me," Sakura valiantly fought through the crowd threatening to separate them from her sight, the child's sweaty face etched into her mind. It was possible he was afflicted with the terrible illness ravaging the population, and if that was the case, it was crucial she examine him immediately. "I'm here from—"

Her foot caught suddenly, and Sakura tumbled to the ground with a shriek. Ankle throbbing, she slowly lifted herself up on her knees to see the woman and her child had already disappeared in the rush of people. 'Damn it!'

She'd missed her chance yet again, and on top of it all, she strongly suspected her ankle was no sprained. It was nothing she couldn't heal, but she'd have to get up and find somewhere to rest first. Unfortunately the throng of passersby made that next to impossible. There wasn't even anything to help her stand. Her fingers clenched in frustration, dirt getting under her nails. At least Madara wasn't around, or the situation would have been infinitely more embarrassing.

"Oh my…Would you like a hand?"

"Huh?" Sakura blinked some dirt out of her eye, confused at the figure hovering over her, crouched down to help. Maybe, the island was getting to her too, and she was hallucinating.

That theory proved incorrect when her "hallucination" took hold of her arms and gingerly pulled her to her feet. The good samaritan was slow to release her, concern starkly reflected in the oval face peering down at her.

And what a beautiful face it was… From so close, it was hard not to notice the length of the dark lashes, the fullness of the pink lips, or the sleek earthen hair, tied in a tight bun. If not for the touch of masculinity in the angular jaw, it might have been easy to mistake him for a woman.

She was nearly too mesmerized to protest as he slipped a hand around her back while smoothly guiding her arm to his shoulder, carefully starting down the street. "Oh, I'm fine now. I can heal my—"

"I saw what you were attempting to do." He explained softly, a distinct lilt to his voice she was only just noticing.

Sakura straightened, prepared to defend herself in case she'd given any onlookers the wrong impression. "I'm a medic, and her child—"

"I understand…but even if you'd caught up with her, she wouldn't have listened. You…clearly are no islander. At least not from Sekai. You may have noticed it's much easier to garner suspicion than trust here."

She bowed her head in acknowledgement. "You don't seem as closed off as everyone else I've met so far. You even stopped to help me."

It was the pretty stranger's turn to look away shyly. "It's in a medic's nature to help without thinking, isn't it? Surely you understand."

Sakura looked him over with new eyes. 'Medic? Then he has to know…!' She was so excited she almost put weight on her bad ankle. That thought her back to the fact that she didn't know where he was leading her, and despite his help thus far, she knew better than to let her guard down. "Really, I appreciate the help, but I'm…er, I can take care of this myself." She gestured down to her swollen ankle, and he stopped abruptly with a gasp.

"Oh no, it's not very polite of me to lead a lady around without at least giving her an introduction, is it?" Even saying so, he still brought her to a low stone wall in front of a dilapidated house, and helped her sit down. "I'm Kou from the Yuki clan. I, and others of my clan, are the island's only healers."

"I'm Sakura Haruno from Konoha. And I came here because of the outbreak, to assist."

Kou inclined his head with a smile. "It's nice to meet you, though I think that needs attending before we discuss helping anyone else."

Sakura followed his eyes and winced at the purple color her ankle had taken on. "You're right…" Bringing her leg up on the wall, she bent at the waist and brought a glowing hand over it to assess the damage. Torn ligaments and inflammation, as expected, but no breaks. The minute chakra wrapped around the wound, the pain ebbed away, and Sakura closed her eyes, as the swelling came down.

"Amazing," Kou exclaimed from her side.

When she opened them and wiggled her toes, the discoloration was all but gone, fading with every second. "You're no ordinary foreign healer." The male conceded. "And you say you traveled from Konoha? Are you perhaps…the aide?"

Sakura nodded, swinging her leg around to stand. "That's right."

"Then what a fortuitous meeting. It's no wonder you looked so frustrated before. Had I known you were arriving today, I would have set time aside to greet you at the port." Kou bowed apologetically. "Forgive me, but…today has been wearisome and it isn't over yet." The frown was almost out of place on his countenance, and Sakura could see the exhaustion in the faint circles beneath his eyes. It was a look all too familiar to her, the look of a weary medic.

"Kou, please, if you could take me to wherever the sick are, I'd like to do what I can. Maybe I know something from the mainland that you haven't tried yet."

His somber expression lightened ever so slightly, and he regarded her with new hope in his eyes. "Any additional help is appreciated. We haven't seen anything like this before, and there are only so many of us."

The sickly child, whisked away by his mother came to mind again, and Sakura's determination flared to life. She wouldn't let the sickness claim more lives. She refused.

Tobirama hadn't spent years honing his sensor skills to have them abused for such frivolous purposes. When he'd told Toka as much, she'd had the nerve to ask if chasing down his brother wasn't an act of frivolity. That, he assured himself, was a special case. Hashirama needed strict monitoring. Perhaps more than he should, given facts…

Nevertheless, every day, Toka employed his ability to help track down Reira who, had entered a petulant phase not even Hashirama's amicable approach could smooth out.

Since that night she had come and sat at the table without uttering a word, things had been incredibly strained between Reira and Toka. It annoyed him, if only because he was inadvertently cast into the shepherding role of tracking the girl down and bringing her home.

Tobirama had to admit she was clever enough to choose places they normally wouldn't suspect she'd be, hence why it saved time to have him do the tracking. If this senseless childhood moodiness did nothing else for any of them, it had helped Reira improve her concealment skills.

No sooner had he thought this, than he arrived at the location of the young Senju's latest hiding place. Mild irritation began to teeter on the edge of true hatred even before he'd laid eyes on her. Reira he could never hate. A handful she may have been, but she was also family, and a child. One he had watched grow from infancy at that. Tobirama had no such qualms about directing animosity at the man she was chatting with obliviously. Izuna Uchiha held Haruno's loathsome cat as Reira reached out to rub the creature's ears. Both stood in front of the absent kunoichi's dwelling, Reira in the doorway as if she'd just exited it.

Lately, more troubling than her daily disappearances was the fact that Reira appeared to spend her time in the company of Uchiha more than her own clan. Toka wasn't bothered by her friendship to the Uchiha boy, and he wasn't raising her, so it wasn't something he'd felt the need to speak on. Izuna was another matter.

"Reira," She turned and the smile fell from her face, arms dropping to her side.

"Oh," she choked dumbly, finding the cat a better place to rest her eyes.

The Uchiha watched the exchange, his own face blank as well. Even the feline in his arms was suddenly regarding Tobirama with something akin to hostility, as if it held him in contempt for taking the attention. For the time being, he ignored both the other man and the animal, nearing the girl with his arms crossed.

"You're wanted at home. This is getting old quickly." Reira's head lifted, and a little defiance returned to her eyes. "But—"

Ready for the inevitable, he was quick to cut her off. "Do I look like I'm entertaining a discussion about it?"

"No." she admitted, biting her tongue in case she said more.

"Then go." Visibly sulking, Reira literally dragged her feet, sandals scuffing up dirt as she walked past. "The most direct route." Tobirama added.

This time, Reira turned, mouth agape. "But—"

Fed up, the white-haired Senju presented his sternest glare, and she flinched in submission. Pinching the bridge of his nose, Tobirama found his glare softening. As always, in the end, he was left to fill the role of the villain. Be it by Toka or Hashirama. "I expect you to engage in a conversation with Toka tonight. A real one. This can't go on…it's…troublesome." He tried to explain, not at all accustomed to mincing words.

Reira considered it, biting the inside of her cheek. "No promises…" she sighed, running off. Tobirama watched her go, satisfied she would return to the compound this time.

Now, for the gaze pressing against his back…

Izuna was the same as when he'd seen him with Haruno. The same as when he'd faced him in battle. In their last battle, the one in which he'd fatally wounded his enemy, Tobirama was sure he had rid the world of yet another Uchiha. But by circumstances that remained shrouded in mystery, Izuna had made a full recovery, and now here they were.

"You've strayed far from the compound today." The Senju taunted. "With your brother gone, I would think they'd be keeping you close."

"I'm on reconnaissance." Izuna's lips pulled into a small grin. "Looking for weaknesses in the village we can exploit when we inevitably plan our uprising." Haruno's cat wriggled and jumped down, circling his feet in a loop. The Senju tracked the animal, until it stopped and sat on its haunches, glowering up at him with mismatched orbs.

Tobirama knew it was all to get a rise. It was the same way their encounters would play out on the battlefield. Anything to mentally unbalance the other, to give even the slightest edge. "Playing cute doesn't suit you." he snarled. Hashirama could say what he liked, but…old habits died hard. And usually they died when the person did. Izuna was not dead, as he should be. So what was to say—

"I'm only telling you what you'd like to think." Izuna stated, face unreadable once more. "You and I both know your…apprehension towards my clan, and especially toward Madara and myself, hasn't gone anywhere."

Without Hashirama there, there was no one to stop him. No reason to mince his words. "Likewise, you hold your own grudges I'm sure. We've both missed our chances to end the other."

Izuna laughed emptily. "Trust you to be so bold that you'd admit you're frustrated I'm not dead. Although, you're right about one thing…Not long ago, I lost to you when before, I thought my swordsmanship was peerless. It may have been my own hubris, but that doesn't mean I can let it go."

Closing his eyes, Tobirama smirked. At least he wasn't alone in his unease. "Following that kind of declaration, we'd normally have a rematch, until one of us was truly dead."

"Yes." Haruno's cat scampered up Izuna's body to settle on his shoulder, nudging against his cheek. "But as you said, that opportunity has passed. For the sake of the village, it'd be better to stow away those feelings." He turned his back, signaling the end of the confrontation.

But, there was a niggling sensation just under the surface. A suspicion he'd placed in the back of his mind, but was now revisiting. "Why are you skulking so close to Haruno's residence?"

That stopped Izuna in his tracks, and he could see he'd caught him off guard. One of his hands reached up to rub the cat's head, and the feline eagerly butted against it, purring loudly. "That hardly seems like something you'd find interest in."

Tobirama found himself growing impatient. "I hate repeating myself, Uchiha. Playing cute doesn't suit you."

"I can't say this nosey side suits you any better." he scoffed. "If that's all you wanted, then there's nothing else left to discuss."

After being thoroughly brushed aside, there wasn't much Tobirama could do besides let him go. The fan displayed on the back of his shirt winked mockingly as a flutter of wind moved Izuna's hair. Haruno's cat was still lazily draped across his shoulders, enjoying the ride.

Nothing about whatever relationship she maintained with the Uchiha clan should bother him. After all, his only interest was facing her in another match, one where he could unleash all his skills against her and win. To that end, it was more beneficial to return home and continue perfecting the kage bunshin jutsu, not speculate on why Haruno insisted on familiarizing herself with such a troubled clan.

Anyone, at any time, could die.

The young.

The old.

The just.

The dishonest.

The innocent.

The corrupt.

Over the years, and especially since becoming a medic that was something Sakura had come to understand, a sobering truth. A good medic was death's worst enemy, able to pull those who otherwise would certainly die, back from the brink. As she followed Kou through a flap that barely kept out the draft, inside the back room of a village meeting hall that was overdue for a painting, that truth was laid out before her like so many cots stretched from wall to wall. Medics huddled at bedsides, wiping sweat from brows or feeding patients liquid from bowls.

A shudder ran up her spine as Sakura was transported back to the tents of the battlefield, sheets blanketing fresh corpses while a team of medics worked tirelessly to piece together those that could still be saved. "It's not much. Certainly not enough," Kou whispered ruefully. "But this is where they're all brought, once they begin showing symptoms. Follow me. I'd like you to meet Erika."

Sakura obeyed wordlessly as they traveled to the back of the room, slipping around healers and the sick alike. She did her best not to let her eyes linger on any one person, afraid she would meet eyes with some of the dying toddlers she'd seen upon entering the hovel.

Fortunately, Kou brought them to a stop near an infirmed man with his upper chest heavily bandaged, being tended to by a very small medic with her back to them as she kneeled at his side. "Erika?" She continued to rummage, the scrape of ceramic bowls filling Sakura's ears, along with the heady scent of a herbal mixture.

"Hmm?" She paused just long enough to awkwardly turn on the stone floor, still on her knees. Sakura was struck by two things. From fingertip to elbow, her arms were coated in a thick caking of fresh blood, appearing more a butcher than a healer. And her face... Well, suddenly it made sense why she was so very small. Erika was a child, no older than she had been at the start of her apprenticeship.

Kou was unperturbed so Sakura did her best to hide her own surprise. True, she had been expecting someone far older spearheading the island's last line of defense against such a terrible illness. But judging would make her a hypocrite, when Sakura clearly remembered Tsunade trusting her to assist in procedures at a far younger age than most would consider. Skill made age irrelevant in matters such as these.

"Oh, hello!" Erika waved both arms at her, heedless of the blood. Her round eyes were dark and fearless, her dark hair cropped up in a practical bob that appeared longer in the front than the back. And the pert little nose in the center of her face was cutely upturned, very endearing. Even the yukata she wore, spattered a little with dried blood though it was, was far too…cheery. A happy yellow. Nothing about her suggested she was a child up to her elbows in death. If anything, she looked right at home. "Are you the help from the mainland?"

Nodding dumbly, Sakura bowed. "I'm Sakura. It's nice to meet you, Erika…"

"Call me Erika-chan if you'd like." The girl soothed. Then, she plunged both reedy arms into a bucket of water at her side several times, taking a sponge and wiping the remaining blood away. "I've just finished cleaning and applying poultice to this patient's chest wound. With any luck, he'll rest much easier through the night."

"Ah, I'll empty that." Kou offered, already reaching over to take the bucket out of her way while motioning with his free hand for Sakura to step closer. Kou left, and, feeling she was expected to, Sakura crouched at the other side of the patient's cot. She had to admit, Erika had done very well on the bandages, and the man did indeed appear to be stable for the moment. He was sweating less than some of the others in the room and his chest rose and fell with deep, only slightly shaky breaths.

Erika giggled as she toweled her arms dry. Cupping a hand to her mouth conspiratorially, she whispered, "Kou-kun is so attentive, like an older brother. He's been very helpful to me since I arrived."

"Since you arrived?" Sakura echoed, glancing around. She had just assumed…

"Oh yes, I'm not originally from this island, or even Water Country." Erika explained patiently. "I was only visiting to gather ingredients hard to find anywhere else but the mountains here, when the outbreak first occurred. That was nearly four weeks ago now…" she sighed mournfully. "And I wouldn't feel right leaving…when I know I can help."

Unsure how to respond, Sakura perused the room again. It was apparent every medic there was doing their best, but…with the death toll still on the rise with no signs of dropping, Sakura had to wonder if what they'd been trying had any positive effect whatsoever. "This is rather bleak, isn't it? It's alright if you say it. You'd only be stating the truth." Erika coaxed.

Abashed at being so readable, Sakura shook her head. "Oh no. Well, yes. It's horrible. But…"

"Despite what it may seem, we've managed to slow it, if only slightly. At least when we catch the symptoms in time. I was the one that first found out how to do that." Regardless of how mature she made herself out to be, a child was still a child. When Erika puffed out her chest with pride in her big eyes, Sakura tamped down the urge to pat her head dotingly.

"What are the common symptoms? And isn't there a fear that it's contagious? I mean, you…" Sakura gestured vaguely at her arms, though they were now spotless, yukata sleeves rolled back to avoid being soiled.

"It isn't contagious. That's the only good news about it." Erika huffed. "It also seems to strike at random, really. Early symptoms present like a mild illness…Fever, stiff joints, coughing fits. It's when it enters the later stages that it becomes…bizarre. Some come to us with horrible wounds and even those that aren't that have festered with…black ooze. Others ever get wounds, but their skin blotches and their lips go blue…they cough…black ooze too. Sometimes there's hair loss, a tree rot smell, uncontrollable shakes. But there's always ooze. It's like some kind of omen, you know?" She nodded her head at the sleeping man laying between them. "That all sounds farfetched to you, I'm sure."

Every word Erika had spoken caused Sakura's heart to thud a little harder, until it was a crescendo of panicked beats that threatened to rip the organ from her chest cavity. What it sounded like was a blight, in which case, something even more dire was happening than a disease outbreak or contaminated food supply.

"Sometimes, we have even used them to cull the population of nations." Mizuchi smiled proudly.

Sakura pressed a hand to her forehead, feeling dizzy. "What's the matter?" Erika asked.

"Never mind me…" she sighed. "I've got work to do." Standing, Sakura ignored the creak of her knees. "I came all the way here and now that I've got a better picture of what's going on, I think I can help." She didn't intend to tell the younger healer how exactly.

Erika was quiet, her wide eyes unnerving as they stared deep into her own. There was something older than a child there, something almost…otherworldly. Sakura could only guess at what went through her head, what she was going to say.

Kou took that moment to return, his footfalls echoing his approach. Sakura couldn't help but take note of the fact that he wasn't alone, an imposing figure in a white cloak with a drawn hood just behind him. There wasn't much visible, certainly nothing to discern who was hiding underneath. But the broad form suggested a male, and the heavy footsteps had the possibility he wasn't a shinobi.

Hoping to gauge what was happening, her eyes fell on Kou. Unlike when he'd left, the male medic returned with a troubled expression, his hands holding the bucket of clean water tight. "Some fresh water." He handed the bucket over to the girl, who graciously accepted. "And, our visitor's here to collect today's bodies."

Erika straightened, her voice much smaller and less confident, "There are only two today. You know where they are." The cloaked figure thumped a fist to his chest, proceeding to a door Sakura hadn't taken much notice of, near the end of the row of cots. The one splash of color on the white fabric was the large blossom in the center of his back, a purple flower that had become increasingly familiar lately. Recognizing it only took a minute, and Sakura gasped. 'A violacia.'

When he was out of sight and earshot, Sakura spoke, keeping her tone low. "What was that about?"

Erika and Kou shared a worried look, the latter sinking down beside them. "That was one of the acolytes of Iwanagahime. Here to retrieve the bodies of those who couldn't be saved. They'll bury them now. They come every day."

Suspicion rose, the warnings of the strange ways things were done in Water Country resurfacing. "Shouldn't the families be allowed to do that?" she challenged. "I mean, where's he even going to take them?"

"No one questions the authority of those chosen by Iwanagahime." Erika said gently. "Now, Sakura-san, I could use some help making more poultice. It'll be time to apply it again before long, and I'm running low."

Sakura was aware of the abrupt shift in conversation, that all was not what it seemed. But she indulged Erika, understanding why she would be hesitant to question the locals since she too was an outsider, albeit one who'd gained their trust.

Trust was something she might need in order to get to the bottom of what was really going on. "If you don't mind, could I try another way?"

It was a huge risk she was about to undertake. Fear fought for dominance but determination wrestled it down.

"A method from the mainland?" Kou guessed.

She giggled nervously. "Something you probably haven't seen around the island, at least."

Erika tilted her head. "I'd normally want to see a demonstration at a better time, but we don't have that luxury now. Please, go ahead."

Steeling her resolve, Sakura turned away from the cot with the slumbering man, and toward one with a boy close to Erika's age, who had woken and started to cough wetly. His eyes were wide and shiny with deliria as she scooted closer.

"It's alright," she hushed when he started chattering senselessly. Calling on the power she'd previously used to make blights, Sakura placed a splayed palm to his chest. The concealed mark on her wrist crackled to life, and instead of the usual green hue of her healing chakra, her hand lit with a golden tone. She could vaguely hear Kou and Erika making surprised noises, but the process in front of her had all her concentration.

Sakura searched, fingers brushing lightly across his skin. When the golden light spilled down to his stomach, just above his navel, he whined, jerking from the cot.

"Easy," Kou pushed him back down, and the kunoichi continued her exploration, coaxing what felt like a knot of malevolent energy toward her touch. Again, her patient jerked and Kou restrained him as she guided the malignant coil to unwind and slither toward his throat.

Wheezing, he began scratching at his neck and the pinkette did her best not to falter. 'I'm killing him!'

Horrified, Sakura began to remove her hand, only for a light weight on her shoulder to stop it. "Wait," Erika pointed, and they watched together as the patient began coughing forth black ooze. Horror becoming hope, Sakura continued, reaching out until the shapeless blob had taken on the insectoid form of the butterflies she was so familiar with from training.

In the past, she had only been forming them, and it had never truly occurred that pulling one out of a blighted victim would be just as exhausting. Mizuchi, had always been the only one to bear witness to her attempts before now. More importantly, she was always the one to dispose of the dark curse. With Erika and Kou watching on intently, Sakura knew it all fell to her.

As it turned out, the sensation of swallowing a blight felt as equally disconcerting as producing one. The small consolation was that after only a second the wings stopped brushing against the back of her throat, and she knew it had dissolved completely as her body worked to absorb the malevolent energy, her mark burning with the effort.

Sakura doubled over, holding her stomach and waiting for it to pass. Kou clasped her shoulder, staring at her with open concern. "Are you...are you alright?" he asked cautiously. Unable to answer, she reached for his own shoulder and squeezed. Given enough time, she would be. And what was more, she now knew what she was up against...and that meant, there was a chance to save the people of the islands after all.

When the knocking started, Madara had stopped his preparations for the impending meeting long ago, switching to the calming pursuit of calligraphy. Earlier in the day, the innkeeper's boy had brought up snacks served with warm tea, and later than that, his sister had come with a fresh ink well. He wondered if it was one or both of them, bringing up the evening meal. It was late enough.

Vaguely, he wondered about Haruno, and if she'd ever managed to even make contact with the group of healers overseeing the illness ravaging the population. She was stubborn, persistent, and bad-tempered. Often, that would spell trouble in an already hostile land such as Water Country. In fact, Madara half-expected it to be some disgruntled merchant or concerned guest from the inn, wanting him to answer for a raging pink-haired woman on the loose.

Somehow, answering the door only to have said woman slump into him hadn't been in the possibilities working through his head. Her head came to rest against his collar bone, breath coming in quick, cool pants that prickled his skin. "Haruno?"

"I know..." she whispered, swaying on her feet. She'd left that morning so determined, so full of passion—now she appeared deflated, keeping herself upright with his aid and sheer power of will.

'How nice,' The Uchiha thought bitterly. At least one of them understood what was currently happening.

Madara never did care for situations in which he was the last to know what was going on, and that certainly applied now. Trying to think rationally, he gave her time to compose herself—and extricate her body from his arms—before taking the liberty of pressing her back by the shoulders. "Pull yourself together."

For the first time he could see her sallow skin and the exhaustion evident in her downcast eyes. She almost looked like she'd joined the legions of half-dead supposedly swarming the island. "I just...need time to recharge." she claimed, voice a little stronger than before. Impatient, Madara proceeded to drag her limp body further into the room, letting the door fall shut behind them. He expected her to offer up at least some token resistance, some biting remark, but she was content to allow herself to be dragged. There wasn't so much as a withering glare.

Madara attempted to set her down on the futon, but she really was just deadweight in his arms, and she landed gracelessly, facedown and unmoving. Haruno emitted a loud groan, unshifting. "This feels good," she mumbled, voice slightly muffled by the fabric.

From the other side of the wall, someone giggled before being hushed by a second voice. "Ah, young love is something else, isn't it?"

Madara glared at the unseen patron in disgust.

Haruno either hadn't heard them, or wasn't capable of caring in her state, instead slowly rolling over onto her side. Half-lidded eyes and a sweaty face became visible as she stared blankly across the room, mumbling lowly to herself. Being a Sharingan user, one of the many upsides was that he had become quite skilled in the art of reading lips. Stepping closer and studying her mouth, he caught every syllable. "This always happened...when I overdid it with my blight training..."

Chapter Text

He hated mediating.

Sitting and listening while pretending to care as two fools prattled on about what wasn't even his concern…

If this was what Hashirama's day normally consisted of, then he was glad it hadn't been him saddled with the Hokageship. "The first deposit was found closer to Chigiri's shore than Genzai's! A small fraction may have washed there, but the supply should be ours alone." Yamane concluded, leering from under the hair that hung to his shoulders. The man was unimpressive and reminded Madara faintly of some nameless ronin he'd once encountered—and slain—in the distant past. He too had thought of himself as much higher than his station, and they shared the same greedy shine to their eyes.

"Lies," Awata grumbled, shifting in his seat. "The tides have evenly dispersed the deposits to both our islands lately, but…the source remains at the very middle of the land bridge. If Genzai can't boast superior claim, than it can at least boast equal claim." The scarecrow of a man was, at the very least, more presentable than his counterpart. Stern and dressed in a deep green yukata with calculating eyes hidden behind rounded spectacles, compared to Yamane's near slovenly appearance he at least managed to convey more poise.

One of Madara's eyes was already closed, hidden behind his bangs. The only thing keeping him from dozing was the irritating drawl of their voices, and the spread of food the inn had provided for them, inari-zushi among the treats. Not for the first time, he wondered at the futility of his presence there, of the entire mission.

Across from him sat the leaders of Chigiri and Genzai, both of them insisting they had sole claim to the abundance of rare seafloor mineral deposits washing up onto shore near the small land bridge connecting their islands. Lying on the table between all of them, was a sampling of the, admittedly very alluring mineral deposit. Jutting out of what looked like an unassuming chunk of rock was what they were calling minamatori.

Madara had never seen a clearer, deeper shade of blue, a bottomless sapphire so dark it bordered obsidian. Although, impressive as the mineral was to look at, that was hardly a reason to fight so adamantly for it. There was undoubtedly more to the story than was being disclosed to him. "If I may…" he cleared his throat, catching their attention. "I can understand the need to jealousy guard such a rare mineral, perhaps on principle alone. But as impressive as it is to look at, and as much of a boon as it might be to export, I find it hard to believe that an agreement couldn't be worked out prior based simply because of those things. Both of the messages you sent to Konoha made it clear not even your daimyo wants anything to do with this…petty squabble."

The men bristled, affronted, but neither attempted to interrupt. "Konoha is but an emerging village itself. I simply thought that, Chigiri being in the same position, our villages would both prosper through cooperation." Madara saw right through him. Not that me made it hard with his shifty eyes and oily smile.

"I find it interesting." The Uchiha explained. "The proposal and the notion itself. Water Country is famously known for the savagery of its people and the pervasuaviely insular attitude."

"Savagery?" Awata huffed. "You speak as if you yourself don't hail from a clan who fought endless battle after endless battle with the Senju until not long ago. And for what? Not for land nor for resources…for what amounted to boasting rights. Who could drive the other toward extinction faster? You have no grounds to tell us that— "

"Infighting between the islands for resources is nothing new, but everything about the mainland especially is frowned upon here." Madara continued, helping himself to more inari-zushi. "It begs the question why now? If Konoha was a more established village that had been in existence longer, I could understand the clout you'd gain from trade. But whatever we can offer you, aside from the odd commodity manufactured in Fire Country, you can mostly find here. And in your trade offers, neither of you mentioned this…minamatori mineral being on the table." The men shared an apprehensive look, the Uchiha delighting in having the upper-hand. "If it's so precious and you're both so desperate you're willing to let foreign village resolve the dispute, why not dangle the most enticing thing possible?"

"Because it doesn't belong on the mainland, that's why!" Yamane growled. "This island's all but lost. There are more dead here than there are living now. And our islands are next! It's already started…might not be happening as quick as it is here, but in a month's time, we'll all be goners. Wouldn't really concern you mainlanders though, would it?"

"That is to say," Awata sniffed primly. "Whoever receives the full supply of minamatori, will be saved by the purifying properties that legends say it contains."

Sakura dabbed at her face with a damp cloth, blinking sweat from her eyes. Her latest butterfly dissipated, leaving behind an increasing heaviness in her gut. Not late into the afternoon and she knew she had consumed dozens. The woman who had been watching over the process was weeping silently, bending over to press a kiss to her child's brow.

The toddler's eyes fluttered open, and like most of the others she'd helped, he looked dazed and unsure. All apprehension vanished the minute he recognized his mother, reaching his little arms out to her. The mother looked at Sakura as if she'd brought light to the sun, her overwhelmed state stopping her words. Sakura didn't need them; she could feel the woman's relief, and she understood. Mother and child embraced, and despite the weariness settling in her bones, she smiled.

She was reaching her limits. She could easily feel it. Yesterday, after treating those whose afflictions were the most severe, Sakura had been forced to stop and stagger back to the inn. Her body was so exhausted she hardly cared about Madara seeing her in such a state, and after he'd thrown her onto the futon, sleep had deep and, to her knowledge, dreamless. Although…there had been a time where she could have sworn she caught a glimpse of gold-green eyes and felt the press of a cool palm on her forehead.

With each blight she took in, Mizuchi's sharp warning hammered through her head alongside the pain of her headache. Human beings weren't meant to eat concentrations of dark energy, and certainly not in such high volume. Maybe she would live to regret it all later… Her body already regretted it now. But her wellbeing aside, she was a healer above all else. When she saw helpless people dying in front of her eyes and knew she could rescue them, it was alright to be a little reckless.

"I don't believe this!" Kou shouted, speaking to a female healer. "You're saying everyone healed by Sakura yesterday is really…"

Sakura peered over her shoulder, listening quietly.

"Yes. Recovering nicely. Weak and tired of course, but no one died through the night for the first time since the illness struck. Festering wounds that never stopped bleeding are finally closing."

"She's been brought here to do miracles." A third healer joined them. "Whatever dark cloud was hanging over us, I feel as though maybe the storm's finally passing. Is that too optimistic?"

Kou laughed, clapping his shoulder. "No such thing, my friend. We've been at this so long, a little good cheer goes a long way."

Pride surged in her chest. Not only was she saving lives, but lightening the burden on the local medics. And so maybe she was stretching herself thin, pushing limits that had only recently been established with these newfound…powers. But she had an obligation, as far as she was concerned.

"Finished already? We owe you so much." The bell-like voice made her stiffen for a reason she couldn't understand. Erika slid next to her, eyes crinkling. Her palms touched together as she brought her hands in front of her.

Erika was the same as she had been the day before, aside from being less reserved. Attributing the reaction to tiredness, Sakura opted to take the praise in stride. "No, you really don't. At any rate, that should be everyone here, right? I'll be moving on soon to the other islands, but if there's anything you need me to do for you here, now's probably the time to let me know."

Erika appeared surprised, blinking twice before tapping a finger to her lips. "I think you can afford to take a rest. Everyone here is out of danger now. I'm still not sure I've ever seen a technique like that, but…the acolytes have heard about yesterday. According to them, Iwanagahime is pleased."

"Anything to keep a goddess happy." Sakura said, only half-joking.

Erika giggled, reaching out and clasping one of the kunoichi's hands between both of her own, smile still intact. "That's why they'd like to meet with you. Tonight."

Unable to hide her reaction, Sakura sat up straighter, her eyes expecting to find Erika's pleasant smile had become teasing. Instead, the young girl's face was openly pitying.

Carefully slipping her hand from between Erika's, Sakura frowned. "I hope they don't take it the wrong way when I don't show up."

Erika gasped, glancing around before she brought her head closer to Sakura's, cool breath ghosting across the pinkette's cheeks. "You have to! You don't just turn them down. Outsiders like you and I have to be especially careful not to upset the order of things."

Sakura wasn't satisfied with that. "I think if anything, we've restored the order." She gestured around them, at the people who would have been dead without their aid.

"You're right," Erika sighed. "Of course you're right. But from their perspective, they have every right to be…curious." She explained diplomatically. "After all, this is only your second day here, and you've miraculously cured everyone on the island. Well, that we know of… Not to mention the…" Erika hooked her thumbs together and flapped her hands. "Butterflies? They're just trying to get to the bottom of things."

Sakura huffed. "I'm not sure what's going to happen even if they do get their answers. So maybe you can understand from my perspective why this all doesn't sit well."

The younger healer only sat back on her heels, shrugging helplessly. "They'll come for you. And when they do, it's in your best interest to go quietly."

"Erika!" Kou called from across the clinic, oblivious to the tension of their conversation.

Suddenly, what had been a worried face melted into child-like excitement. Erika rose. "Apparently, duty calls!" Leaving her cryptic advice to hang in the air, the child skipped off.

The clinic had felt less somber than the day before, but now there was a new chill hanging in the air. One Sakura suspected only she could feel. There was one fact she knew, and that was that these…devotees considered themselves the chosen of a goddess. Sakura herself now reluctantly counting herself among the "chosen", wondered if they had caught on. Mizuchi described blight creation as something that deities could do with ease, and on a whim.

Those calling themselves followers of Iwanagahime, a goddess legend claimed was out for revenge, likely knew that. The question on her mind was how they felt about what she'd done. Fanatical types could be…unpredictable. A zealot who believed they were serving a higher purpose was doubly so. Ino had once told her about the Akatsuki who'd killed Asuma-sensei, Hidan. She'd explained how he didn't care about anything except the "Way of Jashin"…

Every fiber in her anticipated danger and confrontation. As loathe as she was to admit it, informing Madara might not be such a bad idea. Then again, it almost felt like he'd been avoiding her since the night before. Upon waking up, she'd found him gone. Of course, that could also be attributed to the fact that the mediations were supposed to happen first thing in the morning. Either way, Sakura hadn't seen him since the previous night.

Her memories were blurry but she couldn't imagine doing anything that embarrassing. Collapsing into him wasn't ideal, but it wasn't taboo. The thought that she could have said something strange flitted through her mind. Regardless, if that was the case, it could wait.

'I don't have time to overthink stupid things. I need to get ready for tonight.' Assuming Erika's words rang true, the acolytes knew exactly where to find her. What they wouldn't find her, however, was unprepared.

Madara fought the urge to scoff loudly. Haruno either overestimated her own stealth, or she had somehow forgotten he was also a shinobi with acute senses. She started to exit their room, pausing briefly with a sigh before the creak of the closing door signaled her exit.

He continued to feign sleep until he couldn't hear her footsteps—or the second set obviously following her—before crossing the room to peer out the window. It offered a view of the inn's front side, and though the heavy mist was low to the ground, Madara saw Haruno and a cloaked individual. They talked shortly and the figure pointed toward the mountains on the outskirts of the village. Through investigation, he'd learned that was where the shrine dedicated to Iwanagahime sat. It was a safe bet that was where they'd be headed.

It wasn't long before the two decided to move on, the Uchiha watching as the mist swallowed them whole. Whatever Haruno thought she was about to do, she wouldn't be doing it without him confronting her, then and there. Madara pulled a shirt over his head and found his sandals. When she had uttered that strange sentence the night before, he had granted her some leniency in not questioning her, wanting to wait until the mission was over.

But now she was sneaking away in the dead of night, with one of the shadiest individuals he had ever seen, and he refused to allow her to jeopardize the mission. Whatever she was embroiled in went beyond the scope of what they were there for. That much was clear. Madara secured as many concealed weapons as possible, grabbing up his gunbai and leaping from the window.

Undeniably, the temple was beautiful. Lit inside by a long string of candles mounted in ornamental holsters, the pristine white stone glowed. Unlike any other shrine she'd ever seen, the entire structure was stone, built high into the mountainside and spiraled into different levels.

Sakura let her eyes adjust before setting to work committing her surroundings to memory. The entire floor was a mural that depicted what appeared to be Iwanagahime, along with a man or woman in similarly old-fashioned attire. Going by Joben's story, she deduced it was likely her sister, Konohanasakuya, and the god who spurned her, Nihongi. While Nihongi was kneeling before Konohanasakuya in a proclamation of love, Iwanagahime was further away, eyes downcast. The artist had gone through great lengths to capture the emotions on each other faces, and so Sakura was privy to the anguish etched into every line of the older goddess's countenance.

Circling the entirety of the rounded circumference was a clear wading pool, small strips of floor dividing the water into four equidistance, curving rectangles. In the center of the room, a large stone carving of Iwanagahime looked up to the heavens, a violacia resting in her cupped hands. At the statue's feet, a dozen more cloaked followers prostrated themselves in silent worship. Each one with the lavender blossom in the center of their white-clothed backs.

However, the acolyte she was following didn't so much as pause, Sakura glaring at his back as she climbed the stone steps that brought them to the temple's second floor. Where the first floor's room had been circular, the space of the second was rectangular.

It boasted a long walkway covered by a series of domed arches that brought them to a pair of closed wooden doors behind a marbled throne. On each side of the throne were a set of steps that disappeared into the darkness of a tunneled entrance. Sakura could only guess it would bring them to the highest point of the temple, their true destination. Guard up, Sakura clutched at the kunai concealed at hip, ready to act on a moment's notice.

The sheer brightness of the temple's open top level had her pupils shrinking as she and the acolyte emerged from the dim tunnel. Sakura saw the same white stone from the first floor in arcing pillars that joined to form a dome with an unobscured view of the night sky. Again, a mural under their feet rendered a rather melancholy scene of the all too familiar Iwanagahime, kneeling and surrounding by her violacia. Standing in a circle, still and silent, Sakura found people waiting for them. Unlike the robed acolytes, they were miko, distinguishable by their white haori and red hakama.

The acolyte at her back pushed at her shoulders, urging her forward. Glowering, Sakura took a hesitant step. A man in a thick shishoku and a regal bearing met her halfway, smiling gently. "So, the healer from afar…" he bowed and, unsure what else to do, Sakura returned it. "We've been told of your feats." He continued. "You saved many people since arriving. Is that correct?"

Sakura pressed her lips together, guarded eyes sweeping over the assembly of individuals all watching her passively. She was surrounded, acolytes blocking the stairs at her back. If necessary, she was sure she could fight her way through, but only if it came to that. "I did."

"Hmm…" The priest's thick brows furrowed, a long gray caterpillar that had found a home on his face. His heavy sleeves hid his hands as he brought them together. "Yes. I worried about this."

"Worried?" Sakura felt words lump together in her throat and her heart skip a beat. "I…I don't understand. The people of Sekai were dying by the dozens, weren't they? I stopped that. I saved them."

"Yes you did, and in doing so…you disrupted the balance." His eyes were hard to see, but his mouth had taken on a grave line, eyebrows dipping sternly.

Erika had warned her. In a strange way. The order. The balance. "Healer, for generations we have done what we thought was best, guided by faith in our goddess. Finally, she had a message delivered to us. Before you arrived, we learned…were told that calamity would befall us, and that we were not to interfere. As long as we did not, none of us would be stricken. Such is the will of our deity. We allowed the healers to try healing the villagers. We knew it would all be in vein, after all. She assured us." Pausing, the priest cleared his throat, beckoning toward her. Sakura's shoulders tightened, wondering when she would have to defend herself. Maybe, she should preemptively strike. Would it be blasphemous? He was a priest, a holy man… "And then you arrived."

He came closer, and the ring of miko followed, closing in. Rigid, Sakura withdrew her kunai in warning. "There's no need for it to come to that." He tutted. "We only ask you stop here and now. And all will be forgiven. You planned to travel to the other islands and heal more, yes? There's no need. Rather, that's not what our goddess wills."

"I'm not stopping." Sakura bit out. "I'm not going to stand by and watch. It doesn't matter what a goddess wants, because I follow my own will."

For the first time, some of the miko behind him broke their silence, gasping. "Sacrilege." She heard one murmur, aghast. The mist, even thicker so high in the mountains than it was in the village, curled around her in a damp chill and Sakura's arm twitched.

The priest held up a pacifying hand, although his countenanc