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Spirit-Touched

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, the Haruno clan were priests. They wandered the world, gained the favor of wondrous beasts and were touched by the spirit realm. They walked among the downtrodden and the poor, and did not bow to royalty. They were akin to the gods and they were revered.

Sakura’s parents call her spirit touched. It is in the springtime color of her hair, in the emerald hue of her eyes. She’s sweet as the cherry blossoms, sturdy as the trunk of the sakura trees. Against the breast of her mother and her father’s palm smoothing her head, her parents thank the twin gods of dusk and dawn as they wept.

Sakura is three years old when she sees the dragon of the Uchiha. It’s a fierce spirit, bigger than anything she’s seen in the whole of her short life. It flies high in the clouds, dancing in the winds, its dark hide stark against the white cumulus. It roars and it’s like the crack of thunder, booming and fierce. Its serpentine, wingless body curves through the air like a water snake in the lake. It shines in the sun, the black scales glittering like stars in the daylight.

She’s eight when she meets it, moaning in the mud of the river. Its glorious mane is limp and waterlogged, its scales lackluster and pale. It’s a sickly thing, dying like the rest of its clan. She brings it gifts to rouse it, plates of meats and fruit that her mama helped her to make. The dragon won’t eat these gifts, so she comes back with childish offerings such as her cutest toy and her softest blanket. She tucks the toy under its chilly jaw and drapes the blanket over the sallow crown of its horns, curls herself on its other side, flush to the underside of its jaw. She sleeps, listening to breaths that rasp and rattle, and dreams of an alabaster stag, glowing in the light of the full moon. It is suspended in moonbeams, and its great antlers cast shadows across the earth, from which trees grow and forest animals roam. She dreams that she is a dragon made of stars, and that she hunts the stag. When she begins eating, blood thick in her throat and fresh on her nebulous tongue, she wakes up crying.

When she returns to her home in tears, her mama tells her that it is a spirit quest, and congratulates her.

“I don’t know of any white stags, though,” she says thoughtfully. “And the full moon is four days away.”

“Mama, I don’t know how to hunt,” the girl wails.

“Nonsense,” says her father, wiping her tears. “I remember signing your permission papers when you went on your first school-sponsored training expedition. Honey, didn’t it mention something about learning how to fend for oneself in the wilderness?”

It was true; she and her classmates participate in survival training every season. It’s a whole field trip, where they all camp in the woods and practice setting up traps. They’re chaperoned by shinobi, experienced men and women that teach them in an outdoors environment. Sakura always loved the survival training, even if she had to learn how to skin prey animals and cook them over the fire that she had to make herself. Still, those kills had been small rodents, or rabbits, or birds. Bigger animals, like deer, were too advanced for the class.

“But I can’t wait that long,” Sakura worries. “What if Sharingon-sama dies of starvation before I’m able to make sense of my dream?”

“Well, baby,” says Mama. “Maybe the spirits will visit you in your dreams tonight, too? They might give you more information.”

That night, she dreams she is a doe in the Nara forest. She’s grazing sweet grass under the light of the stars, and she’s watched over by a huge white stag made of moonlight.

Chapter Text

On the night of the full moon, Sakura goes to the Nara forest and kneels at the trunk of the biggest tree. Its gnarled roots stretch around her, like exposed nerves, cool against her palms. Its branches sway far above, the leaves whispering in the wind. There are no night sounds except for the quiet murmur of the trees and the steady human breath of a little girl. Moonlight drifts through the moving boughs of the trees and casts the air in a dreamlike quality, still and silent. From this silence, the spirit deer emerges, wraith-like, from behind the massive tree. Its antlers merge seamlessly with the foliage, the crown of its head blending unnaturally into the bark.

“Spirit-sama,” says Sakura, standing fearlessly. “I seek permission to hunt within your forest.”

The spirit watches her with intelligent eyes, brown like the dead leaves on the forest floor. Against the pale sheen of its coat, they are striking, like new growth after a wildfire. Moonbeams are caught in the thick hide, where they refract the soft light in every direction. The stag’s head detaches from the bark and lowers. Wood creaks and leaves tremble as its neck stretches down. Its nostrils flare as its breath wafts over her, warm like decaying matter and smelling like the thickest, darkest part of a healthy wood. When it speaks, it's with the sound of a felled tree; soft at first, as the bark is ripped and the trunk is torn, then deep and resonant and booming. She hears its voice deep in her chest, and it reverberates down through her toes and up to her fingers.

With my blessing, says the stag in the broken light of the full moon, you may hunt.

Sakura hides in the sturdy branches of the old trees. She stalks a buck from on high, a huge creature easily four times her size. It’s grazing peacefully as she adjusts the grip of her kunai, sharpened just this afternoon for precisely this purpose. She drops on the deer and kills it quickly, slits its throat as she had been taught in her field trips and skins it right there on the forest floor. She takes what she needs and stores the meat in a storage scroll she’d bought with her parents, then kneels next to the remains and thanks the creature for its energy. Hands soaked in blood and tears on her face (the stag was so beautiful and so unaware) she scours the surroundings for appropriate stones, which she places in a circle around the stag’s final resting place, and leaves.

At dawn, for the whole ordeal took the entirety of the night, Sakura travels to the riverbank where the spirit dragon sleeps, half-submerged in the swift water. Only its head and part of its dark, sinuous body are visible, wet and cold to the touch. Its eyes are gummy and unfocused, and every breath it draws is a visible struggle. In the days she’s been gone, it hasn’t gotten better, but it hasn’t gotten worse, either.

She collects firewood and builds a pyre, checks it with the notes she had taken on such things in the days leading up to the full moon. The school-sponsored hunting expeditions were a big help, but she’d needed additional research on the procedure, particularly with the cooking of big game. As the venison cooks over the coals, she goes to the dragon and cleans the areas she can reach. She’d brought a pile of towels and soaks one of them in the river water. As she gently rubs its greasy mane, once as white as the clouds, it groans and shows its teeth, but makes no other shows of aggression. By the end of it, she’s damp and somewhat grumpy, but the dragon is scrubbed as good as she can make it, and the food is cooked through.

“Please, Spirit-sama,” says Sakura at the dragon’s snout. “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling, but please eat this. You don’t have to eat much, just a few bites.”

It regards the girl with blood-red, sharingan eyes, half-lidded and exhausted. There are three tomoes, she sees, and they spin slowly in place as she stares. Finally, the dragon huffs. Sakura scrambles to her feet, briefly bows, and fetches a plate from the storage scroll, where she arranges the offerings of meat. She returns to place the offerings at the creature’s head, then takes a knee and holds out a piece of venison the size of her hand. Lethargic and disconsolate, the dragon’s head lolls to the side and she forces its mouth open. Its fangs are sharper than any kunai, longer than her forearm, but she reaches inside its maw with meat clenched stubbornly in her fist, and force feeds the spirit. It lacks the energy to swallow, so she bodily pushes the head up until she feels the creature compulsively gulp, then struggles to lower it back down and feed it again. She pauses often to wipe away the dragon’s tears as it weeps.

“I’m sorry, Sharingan-sama,” she murmurs into damp scales. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

Chapter Text

Her parents don’t know the specifics of her adventures. She doesn’t tell them she’s meant to trespass on the lands of a prominent clan and poach their sacred deer.

“It’s between you and the spirits,” her mother assures her. “A spirit quest is intensely personal.”
“Besides,” her father adds with good humor, “we need plausible deniability.”

Mama swats his arm.

“Ow! Honey, it could be illegal--not that we’d judge! Our darling daughter should do what she needs to do, no questions asked!”

The worst part of it is that it is illegal. If she’s caught, there’s a real possibility that her parents could be put to death and Sakura imprisoned in a juvenile detention center. She’s not of age, after all, and can’t be tried as an adult until either graduating the Academy or she reaches her 18th birthday. It’s not like the modern world believes in spirits--how could they, when none have been seen since the era of the Warring States?

So she prays to the twin gods of dusk and dawn that she completes her quest unmolested, that her clandestine hunts are undetected, and that Sharingan-sama recovers enough to return to the skies. Sakura knows that it will be a long time before it can remove itself from the healthy waters of the flowing river, but she’ll do all that she can to aid it in its time of need. With the blessing of the spirit of the Nara forest, she’s poached two more deer under the light of the full moon. Already, Sharingan-sama breathes more clearly and sleeps more soundly, but it hasn’t moved from its position in the riverbank in all the time Sakura has visited it.

That’s okay. Sakura just hopes she isn’t caught.

Chapter Text

Sakura feels eyes on her.

She’s in the process of skinning a doe and she’s covered in blood up to her elbows. She’s on her knees, sweating beneath the silent boughs of a watchful forest. The shinobi instincts she’s been nurturing since she was six years old prickle. The delicate hairs at the back of her neck raise and she pauses in her work. Heart pounding, she stands, hand clenched tight around the kunai.

There, standing at the foot of a young elm, is Shikamaru Nara. He’s not slouching, but he’s got his hands in his pockets, and he’s watching her with sharp eyes, made darker by the deep night. His stance is warily aggressive. He’s got his weight evenly distributed, like he’s readying for a fight, and he stares at her blankly. This isn’t the lazy boy from her classes, who naps during the lectures and never does his homework. This is the heir to a deadly ninja clan, who’s been trained how to kill since birth and is easily the most intelligent mind of their generation.

“Explain yourself,” he orders coldly.

(Once upon a time, the Haruno clan were priests. They answered to no one except the gods and accepted no human authority. They did not bow to royalty and they explained themselves to no one.)

Sakura Haruno is on a quest from the spirit world. She does as she pleases and explains herself only to her parents, and only if it pleases her. At her feet is the dead doe, more than half-skinned and under her fingernails is the crusted blood of her kill. Coated on her elbows is the proof of her deeds. She looks Shikamaru in the eye, lifts her chin, and thinks, “I don’t need to explain myself to you.”

Chapter Text

For a person like Shikamaru, who is firmly set in the realm of the physical, the concept of the spirit is hard to grasp. It’s not like chakra, which is more organic in nature, something he can feel in the marrow of his bones, tangible and touchable. The spirit realm isn’t something he can see, it’s something that must be believed.

So the spirit stag comes to him in bursts, in bits and pieces. It’s in the shadows cast by the ethereal light of the moon, full and shining in a star speckled sky. He hears it in the hushed rustle of the leaves in the wind, he smells it in the forest scents, thick in the back of his throat, and feels it in the breeze. Behind the pink-haired girl, the air shimmers like heat off asphalt. There’s a distorted figure forming over the corpse of the doe she’d killed, abstract and half-realized. In the canopy, he sees the vague shape of what could be antlers, or perhaps grotesque branches. He sees a being that could be four-legged, if he doesn’t look right at it.

It’s not what Sakura sees because he’s not ready for that truth yet.

Imagine you wake up one day and you go outside to go to work, or grocery shopping, or just to feel the sun on your skin. Imagine that throughout the day, you feel that there’s something strange about the world. You keep looking up at the sky, but you’re not really sure why. The sun is there, and the sky is blue, and there are some clouds drifting far above, but there’s something about the sky that draws your eye. The day wears on, and the disquiet grows, and you can’t put your finger on it, but you feel off-kilter, like you’ve forgotten something. Imagine, you’re on your way home now, and you get out of the car, and you glance once more at the sky, and you see the sun is setting, or about to set, and you stare at the horizon for a moment like there’s something unsettling about that day that you cannot quite pin down.

Imagine you’re staring hard at the horizon, a hand over your eyes and squinting heavily, when you finally pinpoint the problem:

The sun is setting in the east.

How could you not have registered such a thing? you wonder, dazed. It’s so obvious now! The sun had risen in the west and now it’s setting in the east; shouldn’t you have caught that sooner? You were aware there was something strange this morning, and now you have it!

But the thing about human consciousness is this: if something is the same for the whole of your life, how could you comprehend anything different? If the sun had always rose in the east and had always set in the west, how would you have reacted if that had suddenly been inverted? How quickly would you have noticed such a thing?

If pressed, the best description Shikamaru could give would be something like this:

“Imagine you’re really tired, and you’re resting under a really big tree on top of a big hill. You’re cloud watching, and you think one of the clouds might look like a deer. It’s like that, except you’re in the cloud, and it’s actually a thunderhead, and there’s lightning everywhere, and the thunder is so loud it’s causing ear damage, and it’s not actually a cloud.”

Yeah, it’s pretty confusing for Shikamaru, too.

Chapter Text

Something about Shikamaru that Sakura is beginning to understand is that he’s whip smart. You wouldn’t be able to tell by his grades, but he’s dedicated and creative. When he doesn’t understand an issue, he examines the problem from multiple angles, peels back the layers until the core of the thing is revealed. He internalizes a quandary and asks himself, “If what I’m seeing is real, how could I have missed it?”

So she tells him a story about her family, passed down through the ages. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, long before the Shinobi Nations existed, powerful spirits walked the Earth. They were part of the world, from the climate to the movement of the continents. They were worshipped as gods far and wide, offered gifts in exchange for mild weather and successful crops or prayed to for times of peace during warfare. Humanity would look upon them and see them for what they were--nature made physical.

One day, a powerful spirit was angered by lack of faith. The people did not honor it and, enraged, it had called a draught and set the land alight. A great wild fire ravaged the thirsty forests and consumed what crops managed to grow. The light of the fire could be seen leagues away and the people feared that their ignorance would cause the whole world to burn.

But one woman didn’t fear the wrath of the spirit. She journeyed through smoldering forests and walked over steaming coals to the altar. She carried with her a basket, containing food and baubles. She brushed off the ash coating the altar and knelt before it.

“Spirit-sama,” she said, “I have brought what food we have left as an offering for you. The fires have burned the granaries and left my family homeless, but my father is the beekeeper and we will find a new home shortly, as there is always want for honey. In this basket is bread my mother baked and salted meats. We were saving the food for the Imperial soldiers, but your flames have kept them away from the remains of my village. If it pleases you, I would slather the bread with honey, but I have butter if sweet things are not to your taste.

“My grandmother is a skilled seamstress, and she weaved a blanket that she hopes will suit your altar. My brother is but a child, and had spent three days and three nights scouring the river for the prettiest, smoothest skipping stone. He enjoys simple games, being so young, but he wishes for you to throw the stone on the widest river and be entertained.

“As for me, I have no skills with womanly duties. I cannot cook and I lack the patience for clothes making. I dislike children and men do not please me. I have an aptitude for herbs and healing potions, but such things are not meant for women. I have nothing to offer you except my intelligence and my body, both things I know not how you could utilize.”

Here, the woman pauses. She takes a fortifying breath, tinged thickly with smoke, and stares at the space behind the altar with hard, defiant eyes.

“My body and my intelligence are mine, but I can give you something more. I can give you my thanks. For you see, I was promised to someone on the day I was born, and I have grown to resent him. We were meant to marry when your fury was unleashed, and after the inferno blazed through the tender heart of my land, he was among the number of the dead. While the death of so many lives saddens me, I am grateful for the freedom you have blessed me with.

“Spirit-sama, as I traveled across the land, I saw every night the strength of your wrath. In the blackest time of the evening, I could see it in the distance, the flames that you brought to punish the people who have forgotten you. The people look at the flames and they remember that the rain falls as you wish it to, and that it is yourself who brings the cool winds blowing.

“To me, the future was bleak, because when I looked ahead, all I could see was a husband I did not want and children I would have no choice but to bear. Now, I look to the future and I am reminded that only the spirits can foretell my fate. I am kindling, and only a spark is needed to set me ablaze, where nothing controls me except the wind and the water, and if a man touches me he will burn.

“So I thank you, Spirit-sama, for giving me the time I needed to realize the strength of my heart and the heat of my will.”

And because of the woman’s words, the fires calmed and the nation recovered.

Chapter Text

Shikamaru takes a week off from school. He spends the time at home, recovering from an existential crisis by reading philosophy books and staring into space. His parents are distinctly worried, but he tells them nothing of his meeting with the girl in the woods, who had blood on her hands and a doe crumpled at her feet, with eyes that gleamed like gemstones. He doesn’t tell them of the technicolor thing he saw in the trees, the entity that might have looked like a deer in the loosest sense of the word.

Sometimes, when he’s feeling up to it and his parents are on the cusp of a true heart to heart, he picks himself up and lays down in the backyard with his herd. The deer wander as they please, but there tend to be one or two that prefer human company. He looks at them graze and he thinks of a burial site erected by Sakura in honor of a kill he should have punished her for. He thinks of how he had felt when she dropped to her knees and prayed, as the fine hairs on his arms rose and the air became oppressive. He thinks of how he knew, beyond a shadow of doubt, without an iota of physical proof, that there was some thing out there in the forest.

As the afternoon drips into evening, he recalls the sound of Sakura’s voice as she recited a tale from her family, and he thinks of the things he thought he knew.

Chapter Text

On the third day of Shikamaru’s absence, Sakura asks her best friend Ino of news. Everyone knows that the Yamanaka and Nara clans are close allies, even if Ino rebuffs Shikamaru’s presence. 

Her friend shrugs and says, “How am I supposed to know what goes through a boy’s head? He’s probably just ditching.”

Sakura isn’t so sure. He took the knowledge of the spirit realm better than she would have expected, but her classmate is only human. Besides, his attendance is almost as steady as her own, even though he sleeps during class. 

Anyway, she has bigger fish to fry. Exams are fast approaching, and Sakura has found those three days filled with practice. Her katas are dreadful, so she spends her time in the practice grounds, running through them. Ino assists her often, but she grows bored quickly. Being from a ninja family, she’s known how to fight since she could walk and finds herself frustrated with Sakura’s inept skills. 

“You’ll pass the exams just fine, Sakura-chan,” she groans after class, when Sakura asks to spar with her for the hundredth time. “You don’t need any more help from me. Your forms are textbook perfect and you can hit the bulls’ eye three times out of ten. Now, c’mon , there’s this knife set I wanna show you, you can practice after. ” 

“No, that’s okay, Ino-chan,” she says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” And that’s that. Ino leaves and Sakura visits the practice grounds for the fourth day in a row. 

It’s there she meets a boy cast in sunshine colors, with eyes like the sky and hair like spun gold. 

For people like Sakura, who have one foot in the spirit realm, the physical world can be hard to perceive. She looks at him and sees something more than a little boy doing target practice. She sees past his human body, and knows that he is more than the sum of his parts. To Sakura’s spirit-touched eyes, he glows like a star, his aura supernatural in its brilliance. He shines brighter than the sun, lit from within by a blinding incandescence. She’s dazzled by the energy seeping out of him, like his soul is three hundred times bigger than his body, and every time she blinks, afterimages are imbedded into the back of her eyelids. 

She sees him and mistakes him for a god. 

Eventually, he notices her. He’s gone to recollect the kunai he’s thrown, and he spots her on his way back.

“Heya.” His voice is dual-toned, like there are two people speaking in the place of one. It sets her teeth on edge, makes her hindbrain quiver, because one of the voices is guttural and deep, and makes her think of the growl of a predator. He continues on to say, “I was here first, so’s you gotta wait your turn.”

“Huh?” she replies, fighting the impulse to kneel. 

“Ya can’t kick me out, ya know? It’s still my turn.”

“Oh. Um, okay. I’m not…” Is this a prank? Is this some trickster spirit, pretending to be a boy and expecting her to play along? She’s never been so indecisive in the presence of a spirit! She blurts out, “Sorry.”

His whole face contorts in a frown. “Sorry?” he parrots. “Sorry for what?”

She gulps. “Uh, for--for interrupting. I’ll just…” she points hazily at the sparring block and hurries to it, goosebumps breaking on what seems to be the whole of her body. Soon, she hears the rhythmic thunk of weapons colliding with solid oak, and forces herself to run through the pre-workout stretches. At her back, she feels the warmth of the sun and smells the thick scent of smoke, swears she can hear the crackle of firewood. 




Chapter Text

She finds out the boy’s name is Naruto Uzumaki. He’s training to be a genin, like herself, but he’s a grade above her. She knows this because she asked Ino, and Ino knows everything. 

“He’s a deadbeat,” she had said dismissively. “He’s not from a ninja family, so his taijutsu sucks, and he’s not smart enough to ask for help from the teachers. Forget about him, Sakura-chan, he’s just a trouble-maker who won’t make it to genin.”

Sakura frowns at the harsh words of her friend. “Ino-chan,” she says, planting her fists on her hips. “ I’m not from a ninja family, and my taijutsu sucks. Would you say that I’d fail the test, too?”

“Of course not! But Sakura-chan, it’s different with him--he’s not gonna amount to anything, you see? He’s a prankster, and that’s all he’s good for.”

Sakura purses her lips. “ You just know psychology terms,” she snaps. “Does that make  you any less of a ninja?”

Ino deflates under Sakura’s hard stare. “Just forget about it, neh, Sakura-chan? I take it all back, okay?”

Even her parents, usually a pillar of support and unconditional love, forbid her from seeing him.

“You’re not to go near that boy, do you understand?” snaps her mother. “Not for any reason, do you hear me?”

Never had her mother spoken so harshly. Confused and tearful, Sakura turned to her father for some sort of explanation, but her humorous papa was stone-faced. He agreed with Mama and there was nothing Sakura could do to convince them.

(But the Haruno clan do as they please and do not bend to human laws.)

Sakura is no longer six years old, crying at the cruel taunts of her peers. She doesn’t need the protection of Ino, her one friend in the world, her steadfast companion, to stand up for her and fend off the bullies. Sakura’s learned how to throw a punch without breaking her thumb and she knows how to take a hit without sustaining unnecessary damage. She knows how to school her face to look cold and blank, and above all she’s held the great dragon spirit as it cried for its murdered clan. If she wants to make friends with a little boy who reminds her of the sunrise, then she will do so. 

And anyway, there’s a story that buoys her. It goes like this:

Once upon a time, long before the Shinobi Nations existed, there was a peasant girl. She had no brothers and her family loved her too much to give her away. She had one true friend, a spirit fox that enjoyed playing tricks. 

One day, the fox tricked a wealthy family and they grew angry. 

“We cannot punish the spirit,” said the lord, “for their ways are mysterious and we cannot touch them. As you are a friend of the spirit, you will pay for our humiliation by marrying our youngest son, who is a fool, and you will be bound to our whims.”

“Oh, spirit!” cried the girl. “Why have you tricked that family? I was happy with my station in life and now I must go away, and do their bidding.”

But the fox grinned and said, Do you not see this opportunity? It will be the trick of all tricks, and you can use that foolish family. And it told her of its plan.

Later, after the youngest son had bedded the girl and solidified the relations between the two families, it was revealed that it was not the peasant girl who wedded the young man but the trickster fox spirit, and the spirit laughed and said, If you do not wish to cause more humiliation to your family, you will tell your father it was not I whom you met this night but my friend, and you will let her go about the rest of her days in peace.

And so the young man told his parents he consummated with the girl, and the marriage was not dissolved, and the peasant girl’s family were peasants no longer. The girl became educated and grew into an intelligent young woman who was respected and beloved by all.  

Chapter Text

Sakura plays a trick. 

To her parents, she says, “Yes, I’ll avoid Naruto,” but after school lets out, she uses the spirit sight to locate the boy. He shines like a beacon, his aura extending hundreds of feet into the sky. He pulses noxious red entwined with the natural blue of his chakra (which tells Sakura he is mortal, for chakra is antithesis to the spirit realm), and she follows it to the training grounds. Naruto is practicing his kata but he pauses as she approaches. His aura pushes at her like the deep current in a wide river, and she has to fight the invisible force or be swept away. 

“Hello,” she greets, swallowing as she looks into his cerulean eyes. “You’re Naruto Uzumaki?”

He stares suspiciously. “Who’s askin’?”

“Ah, I’m Sakura Haruno. I--I was wondering if I could spar with you.”

He blinks at her owlishly. “What? Whattadya mean?”

Now, she blinks. “Huh?”

“Like, is this a prank? Did someone dare ya?”

Her eyebrows furrow. “No. It’s just--exams are coming up, and I know you’re training to be a ninja, like me, but you’re a grade above me, so your taijutsu is probably better. I’m--I’m not very good at it, yet, and I was hoping...Well, that you could help me.”

He stares at her for such a long time that she doubts herself. She shuffles her feet and rubs her hands together, tries to wait for him to respond. Finally, he speaks and the deep rumble of his baritone voices grows gruff, makes her feel it all the way to her core. “You want help? From me?”

“Um, yes?” 

“But--but we only just met!”

She frowns. “So? There’s no time constraints on friendship.” She knows this from every tale she’s been told that bonds can be spontaneous and long-lasting or they can be years in the making. Moreover, how does she explain that she senses the strength of his character radiating from his pores, that she wants to bask in it? How does she describe the light he emits blindsiding her? She wants to know him, and damn anyone who questions her, and anyone who writes him off as worthless.

It seems as though her words have gobsmacked him. “Friendship?” he says, wide-eyed and shocked, while his aura flares with strong emotion. She feels on the cusp of sunburn, that if she stands too close for too long, her skin will become crispy. “You mean--you wanna be friends?”

She nods decisively. “Uh-huh. If you want.”

Naruto grins, and it’s like the trickster spirit from the stories, foxy and unrepentant. “Yeah, okay!” he says through his smile. “We can be friends. Believe it!”

Chapter Text

With Naruto’s help, she passes the practical exam. 

“It’s the best grade I’ve gotten on the practicals yet, Naruto-kun!” she enthuses. “Thank you so much!”

Naruto ducks his head sheepishly and kicks at the ground. “Ah, but I didn’t do nothin’, Sakura-chan,” he says, somewhat sullenly. “We just sparred abit, is all.”

She shakes her head vigorously. “Stop selling yourself short, Naruto-kun. I wouldn’t have done nearly so well without you.”

“I guess you don’t really my help no more, you know?”

She blinks, taken aback. “How do you mean?”

“Well, ya know. The exams are over, so’s you don’t gotta hang around no more.”

She purses her lips. “That’s not true, Naruto-kun. We’re friends, aren’t we? Just ‘cause exams are over, that doesn’t mean we stop hanging out. Not unless you want to.”

His head jerks up, eyes wide. “Ya mean it? We’re really friends?”

“Of course!” she responds. She’s reminded of the first day they met, how he sounded so shocked at her offer of friendship. The thick miasma of his chakra thickens and rushes over her skin in a warm caress. He smiles slowly, like the first glimpse of the sun after a cloudy day, unforgettable and resilient. 

After the tests, Shikamaru returns to school. He’s got bags under his eyes and he’s more withdrawn than usual, silent and taciturn. “I still have to do the make-up exams,” he says dully.

“You’ll do well on them, Shikamaru,” Sakura assures. They’ve dropped any honorifics, in light of their strange relationship. Next to her, Ino watches him with a strange gleam in her pupil-less eyes. She’d never say it, but she’d been worried for him, and his washed out appearance seems to disarm her. 

“Yeah,” Ino chimes in. “It’ll be a piece of cake for you.”

He pillows his head in his arms and sighs loudly. “Sure,” he mumbles. 

The girls give him their notes and Sakura asks if they would like to meet after class to study. Ino declines, as Sakura thought she would. Ino’s never liked studying more than she has to, and she likes spending time with Shikamaru even less. Luckily, Shikamaru agrees, which is beneficial because Sakura has plans to reunite with Naruto after school lets out and introduce the boys. Besides, Naruto still has to study for the written portion of his tests and he needs all the help he could get. 

She leads Shikamaru to the training grounds, where she and Naruto study every day. When they’re not practice sparring or doing target practice, they sit in the shade of the trees and review notes. Naruto is waiting, sitting cross-legged at their usual tree with his open binders around him in a semicircle. He’s got a pencil between his teeth and a fierce scowl on his face as he studies.

“Naruto-kun!” greets Sakura. “This is Shikamaru Nara--he’s missed some classes, so I was hoping we could quiz him.”

Naruto turns sharp eyes to her classmate. His aura becomes abruptly unfriendly, spiking unpleasantly and hotly. He crosses his arms and looks him up and down, then frowns heavily. “He don’t need to study with us ,” he accuses. 

Sakura stops in her tracks, confused at the venom in his voice. “I--I thought we could all study together, Naruto-kun.”

He turns his nose up at Shikamaru, acting like a haughty Hyuuga. “It was just s’posed to be the two of us, Sakura-chan.”

Her confusion is rapidly turning to frustration at his aggressive manner. Her eyes narrow dangerously. “A study group can be more than two people, you know.”

Naruto huffs. “Two’s plenty, Sakura-chan.”

Shikamaru rocks back on his heels and says sardonically, “Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.” He removes a hand from his pockets and waves it dismissively. “If you don’t want me here, then I’ll just go to the library,” and turns to do just that. 

She rounds on him. “Not one more step, Shikamaru!” He grinds to a halt and turns to her with a dead look in his eyes. She stomps to Naruto and begins a hushed, but violent conversation. “What is your problem, Naruto-kun?”

“My problem?” he snarks back. “Nothing! I thought you were happy with just us!”

“I am ,” she snaps. 

“Then why’s he here?” he demands, stabbing a finger at Shikamaru, who is staring blankly at the cumulus clouds. 

“Because he’s my friend, too!” she hisses. Then, she pauses. “Or, he might be, eventually. And--and I thought…” Here, she runs out of steam, twiddles her fingers. “I thought you two could friends as well. That you might get along.” 

Naruto’s expression becomes mullish and he crosses his arms again. “But you were you my friend first, ya know?”

Sakura experiences the light of a revelation. She’s known him for barely more than a week, but the force of his insecurity hits her like a brick to the face. “Oh, Naruto-kun,” she gasps, “I didn’t exactly meet Shikamaru on the best of terms. He...we knew each other, but only as classmates until recently. And--and we’re willing to get to know each other, but it’s like...this is a test run, see? And if he wants to be my friend, then he’ll need to be yours, too. It’s not a--a one-for-one, where I can be with you, or I can be with him, and not the other. You see?”

Naruto’s face steadily deepens in thought. “So, what? It’s like a three-way date?”

The comparison throws her. She’s not nearly old enough to think of such things, and won’t be for years . Still, it sounds apt, so she nods. 

Naruto is silent for a time, then he says, “And if it turns out me an’ him can’t be friends? Then what?”

She shrugs. “Then he’ll go to the library and study by himself, I guess. Maybe go hang out with Chouji-san.” Her fists clench. “He’ll be missing out, though. Anyone who doesn’t want to be your friend is stupid, Naruto-kun, and isn’t worth the time of day.”

Shyly, he avoids her gaze by glancing at Shikamaru’s slouched figure. After a moment of silence, he lets out a gruff breath, tinged with spiritual flame and stinking vaguely of sulphur. He relaxes and his aura does, too. “Fine. He can stay.”

So they enfold Shikamaru into their group and the three study amicably. Later, after Naruto has gone home, Shikamaru lingers to speak with Sakura privately. He looks at her and says, “You know there’s a reason he has no friends, right?”

Protective anger rushes through her, leaving her breathless with fury. She is sure that he knows to tread lightly when she tightly asks him what he means. 

He looks at her with eyes that are too intelligent, that have seen more in the last few weeks than can last him a lifetime. “The adults call him the demon fox,” he says pointedly and Sakura understands.

Chapter Text

One day, after an intense sparring session that left Sakura winded and shaky, she catches sight of Naruto’s eye-searing orange jacket, discarded on the grass. They’re resting in the shade, and it’s muggy enough that her companion removed his outer layers, though he’s in better shape than her. She notes the spiral symbols stitched on the cloth and swears she’s seen it before. She sifts through her mental library and soon finds a brief passage from one her history classes. It reads,

“Uzushio, the Village Hidden in Swirling Tides. Destroyed during the Second Shinobi World War, it was the sister village of Konoha. Chuunin and Jounin bear the crest of Uzushio in honor of the strong friendship between the two villages.”

She frowns. That was all she was taught--that it was the hidden village of the dead Land of Whirlpools.

“Naruto-kun,” she asks, distractedly, “what’s that symbol on your jacket mean?”

He turns to the jacket and points at the swirl. “What, that?” Then, he grins, and it’s a proud and happy thing. “It’s my clan symbol!”

Her brain stalls. She can literally feel the gears jamming. “Huh?” she says dumbly.

“The Uzumaki clan!” he reiterates. “I don’t got no parents, ‘cause they died when the demon fox attacked, but my mom left me my name, see? An’ that included my clan’s crest--it was the only thing the orphanage had of my folks, ya know?”

“Incredible,” she whispers, to Naruto’s confusion. “Naruto-kun, I think I know where your clan came from. I mean, it’s only conjecture, er, guess work. But that marking, it’s very distinctive. We went over it in class, but only for a second. Did your teachers ever tell you about someplace called Uzushio?”

He shakes his head, oddly silent. 

“It was once a strong shinobi village like Konoha. We used to be really close allies, and we’d share all sorts of stuff. It was in the Land of Whirlpools, but the country was destroyed sometime in the Second Shinobi World War, along with the hidden village. That marking on your jacket, it’s identical to the crest of the lost village.”

His eyes have become gradually bigger as she spoke, his face slack in shock. “I...How d’you know all that, Sakura-chan?”

She averts her eyes at the awe she detects in his voice, feels it in the flare of his red, red aura. “I just...remember stuff,” she mumbles. 

“Wow...Like, everything?”

She shrugs. “If someone says something, I’ll remember.” It’s something her parents are fiercely proud of, the way she can recite a story or piece of history she’d heard only once. 

“Sakura-chan, you’re amazing! That’s so awesome! Tell me, tell me, d’you know anything else about the Land of Whirlpools or whatever? Huh, huh? Do ya?”

She giggles, caught up in his excitement. “I’ll ask my parents,” she promises. 

As it turns out, her parents do know a thing a two. 

Mama’s face lights up the name of the village. “Uzushio!” she says in delight. To Papa, “Honey, did you hear that? Sakura-chan wants to hear about Uzushio!”

Papa looks up from his papers. Thick with nostalgia, he says, “Do you really, Sakura-chan? Well, then, let me tell you a story that happened long ago, before the Shinobi Nations existed…”

...About an island protected by whirlpools. The people on the island were closely tied with the spirit realm, blessed by the twin gods of dawn and dusk. At sunrise, the sea glittered in hues of orange, kissed by the warm wings of the dawn. At sunset, dusk swept in a twilight tincture of deep violet and a scattering of twinkling stars. At night, the surf peacefully lapped at the shores and up above, the spirits of the stars would dance. 

All this, Sakura tells Naruto under the azure sky of the afternoon sun, his eyes glittering like stars and his aura like the tide, pushing and pulling. 

Chapter Text

In Sakura’s earliest memory, she’s sitting in her parents’ lap in the backyard, chubby-cheeked and fat-fisted. It was nighttime, and there were crickets chirping while a bonfire burned. She was looking up at the night sky, feeling warm and safe and loved. 

As she watched, green eyes wide with wonder, distant shapes moved in the darkness between the stars. 

As she gets older, she learns more about them.

They’re spirits that are too big for this world, says her mother softly. They eclipse the sun and travel across galaxies as they please. 

They’re as old as our universe, murmurs her father, and will be unchanged at its end.

Every night, she sits and stares. She looks up at the stars as beings beyond her understanding partake in a slow, far-away dance.

Once upon a time, there was a priestess who heard the faint song sung by spirits in the stars and danced to their slow, steady beat. She felt their distant voices in the thumping of her heart, tasted it in the starlight, and swayed to it under the glow of the Milky Way, painted across the night sky in cool, glimmering colors.

Chapter Text

The spirits weren’t always hidden.

“Mama,” says Sakura sometime around her fifth birthday. “Why doesn’t anyone else see the spirits?”

“Well, baby,” her mother replies, stroking her hair. “That’s a complicated question. There were a lot of reasons that piled up on top of each other until, eventually, the spirits left.”

This was how she told it:

Once upon a time, long before the Shinobi Nations existed, there was a brilliant inventor. She didn’t like how her tools would blunt, so one day, when her husband was away, she went to the forge and invented a new metal. She called it iron and it was stronger than the bronze tools typically used by her people. It was a well-crafted tool that would last long after her lifetime.

When her husband returned from his travels, he was spellbound by the iron. He took it from his wife and used it to hunt with their son. He returned home with a great boar and insisted she make more.

“Husband,” said the woman, “I will do anything you want of me, but do not ask me to forge another, for the metal makes the spirits wary and I do not wish to displease them.” But her husband persisted and so she relented. She crafted an arrowhead of iron and her husband went hunting again, this time taking two of their sons. He returned home with a monstrous bear and pressed her to forge yet another iron weapon.

“Husband,” she said, “I cannot. The metal is useful but unnatural, and it repels the good spirits of the realm.”

Then her husband grew angry and tried to make the metal himself, but every attempt proved unsuccessful, for he lacked the skill of his wife. Finally, he forced her her divulge her secret, and she made for him one more thing. It was a knife unlike any other. The blade was six-sided, the hilt looped so as to thread a steady finger there, and he used it to hunt with all three of their sons. But on this venture, he was unlucky. The spirits had indeed grown wary of this strange, dark metal, and struck down the three sons in fury. This time, when the husband returned it was as a childless father and his wife a childless mother.

Sakura interrupts. “Mama, why would the spirits do that? It was just iron.”

“Yes, sweet pea,” she says, grimly, “but it scared them, because iron can hurt the spirits, even kill them.”

“But they’re spirits!” she protests, eyes huge.

Her mother smiles. “There are many things about this world that you still have to learn, Sakura-chan,” she says and continues the tale.

The husband became mad with grief. “My sons are dead and gone,” he said, cursing the spirits with all his heart. “Until my sons are returned to me, I will kill every spirit I come across with this unnatural knife my wife made.”

“You will doom us,” his wife cried. “I warned you not to use it, but you have ignored me and now our sons have moved on from this life. You must not use the metal against the spirits or they will never trust another human being again!”

But that was what the man wanted--the spirits frightened and gone from this world, just as his children were. He went against the wishes of his wife and set forth on a long quest, slaying any unfortunate spirit he ventured upon. At the unnatural death of such beings there came a horrible blight. It took hold in lush wilderlands, killing all manner of plant life and forest animals. As the death count mounted and the inventor’s husband continued on his gruesome journey, the blight spread to crops in the fields and the people began to starve. Those who did not go hungry were ravaged by plague, where they grew sick and died in short order.

And just as he planned, the living spirits became frightened of the mortals and withdrew from the land. But there was one spirit who was sympathetic to the grieving family and revealed itself to the inventor. It took the form of a giant snake, and its coils easily engulfed the modest house of the broken family. Its scales glimmered with all the colors of the rainbow, constantly changing.

We have killed that which you held dearest, it said, hanging its glittering head in shame, and so your husband has tainted the spirit realm. The corpses of my kin will rage across your world as dreaded, formless creatures, and everything that they touch will be corrupted.

“My husband is in mourning, and he will never be satisfied with life until our children walk upon this earth and speak unto him,” said the woman. “If nothing is done, I fear the whole world will pay from my servitude and the grief of a childless father. Oh, if only I had never invented the accursed metal!” With those words, she went out into the world, accompanied by the spirit snake, and found her husband. He looked unwell; his skin was pallid, his hair unkempt, and his eyes white with madness.

“Wife,” he said, “have you come to put a stop to my quest?”

“Yes, husband,” she said. “We will never see our sons again on the plane of this reality, and you have made orphans aplenty. You have created childless parents and grandparents without grandchildren. Now, you are going to make a widow, though I am not the first.”

From behind her, the snake spirit showed itself. It gave her the strength and knowledge of a samurai, and she used these gifts to fight her husband, who became enraged at the sight of his wife working in tandem with a thing he hated above all else. They fought for a long time, trading blows and exchanging strikes, until her guard had broken and he went without love for her heart. He did not find his mark, however. The weapon sank into the snake spirit, who had taken the blow in lieu of its companion. Its colors dulled and its scales dropped from its succulent skin as it writhed on the ground, crushing trees beneath its huge bulk and causing horrible devastation. The inventor’s husband tried to draw the knife from its corrupting body, but the iron stayed fast. In his struggles, he was unprepared for his wife to go behind him and, with the spirit’s dying favor still in her, drove her own knife into his back. Her husband was dying quickly, and said to her,

“You would do this? To your own husband?”

“Would you do this?” she asked, not without passion. “To your own wife?”

He looked at her as his lifeblood soaked the ground beneath them. “Yes,” he sighed. “I believe I would.” And so he took his last breath and his life left him.

“Honorable Spirit-sama,” said the widow, “how may I ease your pain?”

Sit with me, said the spirit, its glow gone. Sit with me and pray. I would like to feel your thoughts as I pass from this world. I am sad that it was iron that took my life, for now I will be lost to madness and further corrupt this world that I love.

“I am sorry for this awful thing I have made. Without it, none of this grief would have happened.”

The spirit laughed, a sad sound. But do you not see? If not you, someone else would have invented it. You little mortals enjoy making things, I have found. It pleases me, the lengths you would go to in order to satisfy your curiosity. And the more you learn, the more you create. Such creations you make. Such art and beauty and wonder you make. Your souls are young, and ever curious. So curious. And those were its final words. The grass beneath her knees died with it, and there was a diameter of rot extending as far as her eyes could see. The leaves on the trees withered and fell from branches, the boughs dried and the bark became cracked. Before the widow’s eyes, the snake spirit’s body rippled like molten metal, its skin sloughed off its body, and it became something else, something twisted and fierce.

During this change, the inventor said a little prayer, what she thought would be her last. She prayed to the spirit, or what was left of it, thanking it for the friendship they formed and the conversations they shared on their journey to find her husband. She thanked it for the words it said to her as it died, and she prayed to the other spirits for forgiveness. She saw what her friend had become and she wept.

Mama flicks Sakura’s nose. “And then something wondrous happened,” she said, eyes sparkling. “When someone prays, their mind is open to the energies of the universe. The soul is laid bare and the body shed. It’s what your papa and I do when we pray, we open our minds to the spirits all around us. It’s like meditation, Sakura-chan, it’s a way to commune with the world and all the things beyond it. Do you know what happened when the widow inventor prayed?”

“Was the snake spirit saved?” she asks eagerly.

“In a way. As she prayed, she felt eyes on her. She felt that time had slowed and she was adrift in a sea of darkness. But when she opened her eyes, she saw that she was surrounded by stars. Below her, she saw the Earth as it truly is, a planet of blue ocean and swirling white clouds, its atmosphere a thin blue skin against the vacuum of outer space. She saw the sun as a bright white jewel, a harsh star in an unforgiving universe.

“In her time, they thought that the Earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the Earth. Do you know what that’s called, Sakura-chan, when the Earth is the center of the universe?”

The girl thinks for a moment, face serious and expression tight with thought. “Geo...geology?”

Mama shakes her head. “No, that’s the study of the rocks and how they change over time. What I’m talking about is the geocentric theory. We now know that the Earth is a sphere and that we revolve around the sun. But at the time, the science hadn’t been discovered for it. We didn’t have enough data and the telescopes weren’t what they are today.”

“Wow...So she was in outer space? That’s so cool! How did it happen, Mama? Couldn’t she not breathe? I thought you couldn’t breathe in space.”

“She wasn’t in outer space, honey. Her body was still on Earth, but when she prayed, powerful spirits heard her and wanted to talk to her.”

“About what? About the spirits that were hurt? What did they say?”

And her mother tells the end of the tale:

The woman couldn’t look away from the sight below her. She saw the oceans and the continents, blue broken by splashes of green and brown. Before her eyes, the planet rotated gradually, the clouds a solid white mass visibly blowing in the unseen winds. She saw the shadow of night as the globe revolved, a distinct line of darkness as the god of dusk chased the last traces of day. The god was truly magnificent, a bird-like force of nature composed of night. Its wings stretched from one corner of the globe to the other and its tail feathers trailed across the planet. She would have stared for hours, transfixed by the beauty of the world in which she lived, but she heard a voice from behind her, from all around her, from the universe itself. It’s an alien sound, something far bigger than her. It’s the crash of planetary bodies, of planetoids colliding and asteroids meeting. It’s the sound of the stars, a constant white noise and a deep, bone-rattling hum. She saw the galaxy without the filter of the Earth’s atmosphere, dazzling and soul-wrenching, and she saw the darkness between the stars roil.

We have heard your prayers, said the spirits that were too big for the Earth, and we will help you.

There was a sudden, bright light from the heavens. It was as though every star shone of their own volition, like they’d decided to outshine the sun. It got to the point where she had to cover her eyes or risk blindness. In quick succession, there was a loud noise, like the beat of a hundred war drums at once, followed by a high-pitched tone like nothing she’d heard before. Then it all went away--the afterimages of the constellations burned behind her eyelids and her ears rang with the strange tune, but when she lowered her arms from her face and squinted at her surroundings, she found herself back on Earth, where gravity tethered her to its surface and the wind played about her hair.

Above her was a snake of monstrous proportions, and she was kneeling within its coils. In its white scales was the sparkle of stars, its eyes the deep black of space.

I am reborn, said the snake. The love you felt for me and the grief you bear for the lives lost touched the distant spirits, and they took my essence and changed it. The blight your husband caused is reformed. What we are now, I do not know, nor do I know my new purpose in this life.

The woman rose with tears still on her face and said, “Then we will embark on a new venture, Oh Unknown Creature, and together we will discover the answer, if indeed there is one.”

And so the inventor and her friend went out into the world. She remembered the things she saw in her vision, of the Earth as a fragile sphere suspended in the void, and she preached far and wide about the splendor of the universe. The snake beast communed with the lost spirits that had also been revived, and a new age dawned.

Chapter Text

There’s a spirit following Sakura. 

It watches her from afar, on rooftops and in the trees she passes. She sees it in the flashes of wings and the flutter of feathers. It’s curious about her, and it sends cautious trills, disjointed and echoing. She leaves it offerings of fruit and nuts in the garden of her home, gives it gifts of straw and linen to encourage it to show itself. 

“The spirits are wary of ninja,” says her mother at dinnertime, “because of the iron weapons they carry and the chakra they’ve refined. Give it space and it may greet you in time.”

So that’s what Sakura does. 

When she sees it in the corner of her eye, she doesn’t turn to catch it. When she detects movement in her peripheral, she sees glimpses of deep purple and a raptor-like body, but she makes a point of averting her eyes. She sings to it under her breath and sometimes it will sing with her, ghostly and spectral. 

Chapter Text

Sakura remembered informing her parents that she wanted to sign up for the Ninja Academy. They didn’t like it, but she was determined to become a kunoichi and they reluctantly accepted. Later, she was studying for a test, her first in the Academy, and they told her to close her textbook and join them on the couch. 

“Sakura-chan,” said her father, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, “what we’re about to tell you doesn’t leave this house. Not a word of this is to be spoken to anyone outside of us and these walls, understand?”

Sakura nodded quietly, cowed by his serious tone.

Mama said, “The Haruno clan tells history as it is. We don’t lie in our stories, because the spirits know the truth. And what the spirits know…?”

“We know,” Sakura finished. 

“Precisely.” Papa smiled, tweaking her nose. 

“Your book says there are three Hokage, yes?” asked her mother. “Well, honey, the textbook is lying. It’s something that every ninja does. They lie. Sometimes, it’s to serve the Hokage and protect the village, but other times...other times it’s to keep a secret.”

“What secret, Mama?”

Her parents shared a look, the kind of thing they did sometimes, like they’re having an entire conversation with their eyes. They seemed to come to an agreement because Papa said, “Our Sandaime Hokage, Hiruzen Sarutobi-sama, isn’t the third Hokage. He’s the fifth.”

Years later, she’s at the training grounds with Shikamaru and Naruto, preparing the blond for the written portion of his exam. 

“What are the names of the Hokage from the founding to the present?” she quizzes him.

He’s scowling as he thinks, trying to remember. “Ano...Hashirama Senju, Tobirama Senju...and Hiruzen Sarutobi-sama?”

“Correct,” Sakura almost says. 

(“The spirits know the truth,” said her mama.)

She bites her tongue and makes a decision.

She signals for the boys to come closer. The three of them bow their heads together, close enough that their foreheads brush. She prays for assistance, hopes that she’s not making a horrible mistake that will put them in danger (“Tell no one,” said her parents. “This doesn’t leave the house, understand?”). 

Suddenly, there’s a shrill cry resonating from the trees. It’s the sharp trill of a bird, a warning cry. Sakura turns her head slightly and sees a spirit bird perched in the branches. It has the body of a peacock, the long elegant neck and the sleek plumage, but its head is that of a falcon, sharp-beaked and sharp-eyed. Its tail is long and tapered, fluttering in the wind. Its feathers are deep violet at its head, lightening gradually as it nears the tail. It sees her watching and tilts its head.

You’re being watched, it cautions, I’m not alone in this tree. There’s someone hidden and they are listening.

She gulps. She sends a wordless prayer, a thoughtless jumble of help me. The spirit ruffles its feathers, then lifts its head and unleashes an ungodly scream. It’s long and drawn out and inhuman, piercing and unbelievably loud. Shikamaru flinches from a sudden noise he has no business hearing, but Naruto is unaware, blue eyes wide and his aura nearly overpowering.

She jumps on the opportunity. “I’m saying this once, so listen closely,” she murmurs. “Sarutobi-sama is the Third Hokage in the textbook, but in reality he is the fifth. The Yondaime died in office, shortly after we were born. His name was Minato Namikaze. The Third took up the hat after his death and resumed his reign as the Sandaime Hokage. Repeat this to no one. On the tests, we will lie. Nod if you understand.”

Shikamaru nods, but Naruto opens his mouth to ask a question. Sakura speaks over him, mindful of the time limit her guardian is thoughtfully providing. “The Haruno clan knows the truth, Naruto, now nod.” 

Naruto nods, looking more confused than ever. 

She relaxes, avoiding Shikamaru’s pained, pointed stare and sends a prayer of thanks to the spirit. The silence is ringing in her ears. Naruto looks mulish, so she winks at him. He pouts, but he returns to the study guide without a word alluding to the hushed conversation. Loudly, he says, 

“Ne, ne, so if old man Sarutobi is the Third Hokage, then that must mean he's really, really old, huh?”



Chapter Text

With the end of exams, summer break is fast approaching. Her classmates are rowdy and the teachers struggle to keep them focussed. 

“Why bother?” says Ino. “We don’t have any more tests; why should we study if we’re not going to apply any of it?”

So the next few weeks are composed mostly of drills. They spar and throw kunai and spar some more. They practice with shuriken and senbon and then spar. In fact, the only noteworthy thing that happens is the spreading of a rumor. 

Ino tells Sakura, heart in her eyes, “Sasuke-kun is coming back to school next year!”

It’s all Ino can talk about, though Sakura doesn’t understand the excitement. His family is dead; doesn’t he deserve privacy as he grieves?

After class lets out, Sakura and Shikamaru go to meet Naruto in the training grounds. He’s late, so they pass the time lounging in the shade. Shikamaru watches as she erects a small shrine in the bushes for the spirit bird. She’s taken to calling it Purple-sama in light of its incredible purple plumage.  

“Are you making offerings?” he asks. 

“That’s right. In case they’re hungry, and also in thanks for what they did last time.”

“You mean…?” He trails off without finishing the sentence.

“Uh-huh. Neh, neh, you still have some leftovers from lunch, right? Come and offer them some of your fruit. I’m sure they’d appreciate that.” 

He does. He places the fruit neatly in front of the shrine, then looks up as they hear Naruto’s loud greeting. 

“Guys!” he’s shouting. “I passed!”

“Congratulations!” Sakura cheers. Shikamaru stands and the boys share a fistbump. 

“I got my best grade ever! Believe it! I did so well, Sensei accused me of cheating!” he says, bouncing on the heels of his feet.

“What?” Sakura chokes. 

“Yeah! He brought me to the Hokage, but I told him, I told him I’ve been studying really hard with my best friend Sakura-chan! He was so totally surprised, but I told him all ‘bout you an’ Shikamaru, even though you’re kind of a hard-ass,” he says to Shikamaru.

“Am not,” he immediately denies. 

“Are too!” Naruto says. “‘Cause you never let me get away with anything, ya know? You made me re-do the whole study guide from scratch , which is just--it’s such a pain . An’ if I got one little thing wrong in a kata, you’d be like, ‘ do it again until you don’t embarrass yourself.’” 

“He does do that,” Sakura admits, unable to prevent a smile. 

“No, I don’t,” he argues. 

“But--but the old man listened to me! It was so cool! And, and that teacher? He totally got fired.” He takes a deep, highly pleased breath. “So cool…” 

That night, Shikamaru constructs a shrine for the first time. He leads her to the tree where he’d first met Sakura all those months ago, when the spirit of the forest revealed itself to him, saying he used stones from the Nara River. 

“Did I do it right?” he asks, slouching, hands in his pockets. “I’ve never made one before, so…”

Sakura swallows and nods. “It’s perfect,” she says through a thick throat. The practice has fallen out of favor in the Shinobi Nations for nearly two centuries. As far as Sakura knows, only her family respects the spirits in such a way and when he bows, it’s picture-perfect. No self-respecting shinobi shows the back of their neck to anyone, even the leader of their hidden village.

Afterwards, Sakura asks if he would like to meet Sharingan-sama. 

When he’s close enough to comprehend what he sees, he stops in his tracks and stares. The dragon is sleeping, most of its body submerged in the river. Its breathing is deep and labored, its scales oily, its mane filthy. It doesn’t stir as Sakura kneels at its snout and executes a respectful bow. 

“I’ve brought a guest, Sharingan-sama,” she says. “Come and bow, Shikamaru.”

He approaches slowly, palms out and telegraphing every movement, though the spirit doesn’t rouse. He copies the girl, lowering himself to his knees and bowing deeply. When he straightens, the spirit’s blood-red eyes are open, regarding him tiredly. 

He helps Sakura wash the dragon with towels she’d brought from her home. She does it quickly, her movements practiced and gentle, but with Shikamaru’s help, it’s even quicker. They relax at the dragon’s snout and she answers his questions, of which he has many. 

 

Chapter Text

Sakura spends summer break as she always does: with the spirits. She visits the shrines she’d constructed over the years, and those her parents built, and those her grandparents built. They’re dotted throughout Konoha, in the woods and by the rivers and streams and lakes. They’re in the populated areas, too, places where people pass without noticing the little shrines. Her parents would usually accompany her, offering advice and and supervising her progress. This year, however, she’s adamant that she goes alone. 

“I don’t know, sweet pea,” says Papa. “What if you stack the shrine wrong and anger the spirits? What if you get lost?” 

“That won’t happen,” she argues. “I’m almost nine, Papa, I’m old enough to make shrines by myself.”

“Well…” says her mama slowly. “Our daughter is in the Ninja Academy; if she’s old enough to go to war, she’s old enough to make her own shrines.”

So her parents let her go without chaperones. She carries with her washcloths to wipe the dust and foliage from the structures. Most of the shrines are in good condition, and the spirits that reside there are familiar with the Haruno clan, greeting her happily. She cleans their homes and leaves them offerings, then she goes to meet Shikamaru at the outskirts of his compound. After they depart, when they’re far away from his home, he warns her that his parents are starting to notice her hunts.

She takes the news calmly. His family is reputed to be geniuses, after all. “Maybe you should stop following me,” she says thoughtfully. “It’ll be bad enough if I get caught.”

He snorts. “Too late for that, Sakura. I’ve known who’s been poaching on Nara lands for months now; I’m an accessory. Besides, the work you’re doing is important. Mom and Dad wouldn’t understand.”

They move on to less troubling things. She shows him her haunts and introduces him to her friends. Though they don’t dare show themselves with a strange ninja-in-training, she can sense them hovering at the edge of her perception, bright and curious. 

“This one likes river rocks,” she says, scrubbing a shrine at the foot of a tiny pond. “It can take days to find the right one, but they adore it.”

“What if they don’t like the rock you get?” he asks. 

Sakura tilts her head. “I always find the right one.”

“But what if you don’t?”

She honestly doesn’t understand. “But I do.”

He shakes his head and says, “Then help me find a good stone for them.”

She beams. “Sure!”

They enlist Naruto for the job, telling him they are on a mission to locate the most beautiful rock in the river. They spend the afternoon in the water, splashing and laughing in the hot summer sun.

On the way home, Sakura gets into a fistfight with no less than five civilian boys. 

They’d cornered the trio and started heckling Naruto. They’d thought they had strength in numbers, that it was five against three, but they were wrong. Sakura is going to be a kunoichi, she knows how to pinpoint weak spots and exploit those things in her favor. She is spirit-touched, and she’ll defend Naruto to the death. Can’t they feel the holiness bursting out of his skin, don’t they see the power within him? Even the adults look at him like he’s a nuisance, as though he is vermin; not one tried to intervene on his behalf.  

Naruto is starry-eyed and grinning, but Shikamaru is more proactive. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he says as they flee the scene. “Our parents are going to find out about this.”

“Well, let them,” she snaps. “Standing up for my friends is something I’ll never apologize for.”




Chapter Text

Her parents are apocalyptic. 

“We told you to stay away from him!” Mama shouts. “Not only did you lie to us, we also find out you’ve been picking fights! Fights, Sakura!”

“But I--” she starts.

Her mother slashes the air. “I don’t want to hear more lies from you. Go to your room while Papa and I discuss your punishment.”

She slinks to her room, shutting the door quietly behind her. She goes to her bed and slumps onto the mattress. She had known that her parents would not take her friendship with Naruto well, but she hates that her fears had been confirmed. She doesn’t know what she’ll do if she’s not allowed to see him. Sneak out after curfew? No, Naruto’s orphanage is very strict about that. What about Shikamaru? Will he be barred from her company, too?

She’s roused from her melancholy by a rhythmic tapping on her window. It’s Purple-sama, watching her with bored, violet eyes. At her attention, the spirit opens its wings and passes through the glass barrier as though it’s nothing but air, gliding to her bed. 

“Hello, Purple-sama,” she sniffles. She’s always been a crybaby, Ino teased her for it sometimes, and she wipes fat tears off her cheeks. The spirit bird trills and starts piling her pillows into a rough nest. There are many, and it takes time to arrange them to its satisfaction, until there is a sizable space within the pillow pile. In the middle is a depression, big enough for Sakura’s small body to curl up in. Purple-sama takes her comforter and uses it as bedding. 

Sleep comes easily to her, surrounded by downy feathers and the soft blanket, warming quickly with her body heat. The smell of the spirit fills her nostrils, bringing the sensation of flight, of the ground far below and the sky all around. It’s the scent of the clouds suspended high in the atmosphere, stretching out for miles and miles. 



“Mama, Papa, you’re being unfair,” says Sakura. “Naruto is my best friend. He helped me with taijutsu, which you know I’ve been struggling with. He’s a good person and I don’t understand why you’re being so...prejudiced! Meeting Naruto was the best thing in the world for me, and he doesn’t deserve the bad treatment. Being around him is like…” She pauses, trying to find the right words. “It’s like sitting in the sunlight when you’ve been inside all day, and it was rainy for the whole week.”

Purple-sama snaps its beak.

“Yes, I agree,” she says. “It’s a little heavy-handed, but they need to hear it.” She nods decisively, pulls back her hair from her eyes, and goes downstairs for breakfast. 

She doesn’t get the chance to speak. Her parents tell her that she’s forbidden to wander Konoha without one of them present. If she wishes to visit the spirits, Mama or Papa must go with her. She’s never allowed to see Naruto again. 

They don’t even know Shikamaru was with them. They don’t address him, so Sakura doesn’t mention his name in fear they’ll forbid her from seeing him, too. The only exception is full moon nights, because those aren’t for pleasure but a necessity. It’s during one such night she speaks with Shikamaru for the first time since the altercation with the civilian children. 

He yawns loudly and expressively. When he’s finished, he says to her, “I’m not in trouble, but Mom and Dad told me to tell you that what you did was brave but stupid.”

Sakura narrows her eyes at him. 

He shrugs. “Apparently, he’s got a guard. They would have stepped in before things got physical.”

“Well, it’s not a very good guard,” she mutters. 

Chapter Text

There is a story that takes place during the Warring States Era, about a prisoner apprehended for heresy against the Emperor. She was captured by the Imperial soldiers and put in the dungeons below the palace, where she was left without food or water for three days. On the morning of the fourth day, a guard stood outside her prison cell and asked if she would like to quench her thirst. 

“To drink this water,” he said, “you must speak the truth. You must confess your sins against the crown and commit to the Emperor, for he has the divine right to rule and was chosen by the spirits to lead all the people in this land.”

“My thirst is great,” she replied, “but I would be speaking lies. The Emperor is but a man and the spirits do not believe in such human concepts.”

The guard grew angry and demanded she repent, but when she did not, he left her. She prayed for many hours until there came a creature to hear her. It took the shape of a fierce hound, with sparks between its fangs and electricity dancing in its bristled fur. Once, I was a spirit, born in the thunderclouds and the bringer of storms, it said. I was the flash of lightning before thunder, the crack of a thunderclap. That was not so long ago, but I have been changed by tragedy. Now, I am the pause between heartbeats, I am the subtle charge in the living system of all lifeforms. 

Your prayers reached me and I have come to help. While I cannot take you from this jail cell, I can sustain your body for three days and three nights. Come the morning of the fourth day, I can do nothing else and you will succumb to thirst.

“I thank you, Oh Creature of Electricity, for the time you can grant me. Come hither and tell me of how you came to be in this form.”

So the spirit did. It told her of a man driven mad by grief and how he used iron to kill many spirits. She listened attentively as it told her how powerful spirits breathed new life into the spirit realm and how the world changed for it. 

Every morning and every evening, the guard came to her cell and tested her resolve. He ordered that she repeal her treasonous statements. Every time, she resisted. On the morning of the third day, he became frustrated. 

“Why do you not see the error of your ways and see the truth?” he said. “The Emperor is the embodiment of the spirit realm. It is through him that the spirits speak to us; many have disappeared from this plane and it is only through his leave we are blessed with their love.”

 Her voice was rough and her face gaunt with hunger, but at the topic she was given new life. “Before I was imprisoned here, I was a priestess,” she told him. “After I am gone from this jail, I will still be a priestess. It is through my connection to the spirits that I know the Emperor is mortal, and that he has power only through the consent of the governed.

“You see, guard, a human being cannot truly know the spirits. No mortal can understand them, not even the Emperor. The spirit realm is different to ours and the ways of the spirits are known only to themselves. They can help just as soon as they can hurt, and to claim that they can be controlled is tomfoolery. Can a person control a hurricane or predict an earthquake? No. The spirit realm is nature made physical and to dominate that is to have mastery of the Sun.”

The guard was troubled by this. In the minds of many folk, it was believed that the Emperor was holy and that no person could look upon him and live. “You are committing treason by saying this,” he protested. “Everyone knows that only the Emperor can divine the ways of the spirits.”

“Then I implore that you open the door of my cell,” the prisoner said. “If you are struck down on the spot, you will have your answer and I will be proven a liar.”

The guard was swayed by her argument, but his fear was stronger. He left without another word, thinking heavily on their conversation. Come evening, he brought with him a jug of water and gruel. He gave these to the prisoner. As she ate and refreshed herself, he said to her, 

“I have meditated on the things you’ve told me, and I’ve found myself deathly curious. If you are a priestess as you claim, then you are knowledgeable in the ways of the spirits and I have questions that will burn on my tongue until I ask them.”

“Then ask your questions,” she replied. “But I will not answer them until I am free from this dungeon.”

“You ask for the impossible,” he told her. “The Emperor will see it.”

“He will not,” she declared. “As I have said, he is but a man. He cannot see through walls or hear the thoughts in your head. Moreover, you have given me food and drink; surely, he would have known this and killed you for it?”

The guard was displeased with this ultimatum, but her logic was sound and her demands were met. With a shaking hand, expecting at any moment to be seen by the Emperor’s divine powers, he unlocked the cell door and the prisoner was freed. As soon as she stepped over the threshold, the entity that had sustained her revealed itself to the guard. In its eyes was a storm cloud and in its breath was the smell of the rain. It looked upon him and he became aware of the beat of his heart and the sound of his lungs, and he was overwhelmed by the sudden knowledge that this creature could cease the necessary functions of his body with nary a thought. 

You have spared this woman’s life and in doing so questioned your beliefs. You have moved me, and so long as you protect the priestess, I will stay with you. You will be pursued, but with me at your side you will overcome any enemy.

And so the three left the palace dungeons and went out into the world. The priestess resumed her pilgrimage and her jailer became her bodyguard, protecting her from those that would silence her. 

Chapter Text

As the morning passes and bleeds into afternoon, Sakura kneels at the foot of her bed and prays for help. 

“Spirits of the shadows and hidden places, I pray that you hear me and listen. I ask that you take me safely from here because I have friends that miss me and... and I desperately wish to see them.”

The light from her room fades and her senses dull; her smell deadens and she feels wrapped in cotton. The sounds outside become quiet, then stop altogether. She hears only the thump of her heart in her ears and rush of her pulse. A voice speaks from the walls, rises from the floor, falls from the ceiling. 

I have heard your prayers, says the spirit of the shade, and I will help you.

From one breath to the next, Sakura is enveloped in a cloud of darkness and disappears from her home. She blinks beneath the shade of a cherry tree in the garden behind her house, staring at the trunk as sunlight filters through the leaves. Birdsong is loud in her ears and the wind is brisk against her skin. 

She thanks the spirit profusely as she turns on her heel and goes to find Naruto. Like a needle pointing north, she is drawn to him and finds the boy napping at the training grounds. 

“Wake up, Naruto-kun,” Sakura greets. “I need your help to build a super important shrine for a super important spirit!”

He squints sleep-glazed eyes at her and through a huge yawn, asks, “A spirit?”

“Uh huh. It needs to be someplace hard to find, somewhere hidden. You know, a hidey-hole!”

He stretches. Around him, his noxious red aura slides leisurely over the plains and rises luxuriously past the tops of the trees. “Oh, yeah,” he says, relaxing. “I know lotsa places like that. This spirit, is it like one of the ones from Uzushio? Ya know, that are so big they move the ocean? Or can blow away the clouds?”

“No,” she says, then frowns. “Well, they might be. I dunno how big they are, ‘cause they don’t really like being seen. But I wanted to make a pretty shrine for them, somewhere where no one would find it without looking really, really hard.”

Naruto pouts as he thinks, his arms crossing over his chest and shoulders hunching. After a moment, he nods decisively. “I think I know the perfect place,” he says, and shows her his secret hideout. It’s a shallow cavern camouflaged by bushes and tall grasses. The mouth of the cavern is barely big enough for them to crawl through, but past the entrance is a spacious underbelly. Sakura can walk ten paces or more from one end to the other, and she can put her arms up way over her head without her fingers touching the top. 

 

She turns to Naruto beaming, and says, “The spirit is going to love this, Naruto-kun! Help me find stones, and then we’ll build its shrine.”



Chapter Text

 

While they search, Naruto asks her about Uzushio. It’s a common topic, one he’s requested she speak of several times. He’s taken by the idea of an island surrounded on all sides by the ocean, utterly fascinated by a world of azure seas and constant sea breezes, a far cry from the lush forests and thick trees of their homeland. “But there’s something I don’t get, Sakura-chan,” he admits. “If Uzushio was protected by powerful spirits, how come they couldn’t’ve done anything to stop it from gettin’ destroyed?”  

“Well, the spirits hadn’t been part of our world for a long, long time,” she tries to explain. “The people rejected them, so they left. By the time Uzushio was founded, around the same time as Konoha, no one remembered there were spirits in the first place, so they never thought to ask them for help.”

“So?” he refutes, crossing his arms. “Just ‘cause they didn’t remember no more, that doesn’t mean the spirits shoulda abandoned them. S’not right.”

Sakura considers his words. She tries a different approach. “Naruto-kun, when I say the spirits left, I don’t mean they moved away or--or abandoned us. They’re still here, doing what they can, but the people stopped believing in them. It’s like the Will of Fire. Belief fills a person with inner strength so that when they’re pinned down and at the end of their rope, they have the ability to push on. But when the Will of Fire goes out, when no one believes in themselves or their loved ones, they can’t fight as hard.”

He’s quiet for a moment, his face all scrunched up as he thinks. “So...So’s what you’re saying is, ‘cause no one believed in the spirits, the spirits couldn’t help as much as they oughta?”

“Sort of.” 

There’s a beat of silence. “I still don’t get it. Couldn’t the spirits have told ‘em the truth?”

“It doesn’t work that way, Naruto-kun.” Sakura purses her lips, struggling to make him understand. Inspired, she pulls out a piece of paper from her pouch, used to sketch seals. She produces a pen and sketches a horizontal line. “Neh, Naruto-kun, what do you know about the light spectrum?”

“Eh?” Thrown, he uncrosses his arms and looks at her in confusion. “Ano...it’s how we see, innit?”

“Uh huh. You know that light travels through space in wavelengths, right? Like radio waves?”

He scratches his temple. “Kinda?”

She shows him her finished sketch. It’s a line graph of light, red on the far right and purple on the far left. Below the written words are scribbled wavelengths, long and drawn out on the right. As they approach the purple, they get more squished together. 

“This is visible light. Color, like sound waves, move through the medium in the form of waves, see? When we talk, our voice box produces sound, which travels through space as sound waves until it reaches our ears. Our ears send electrical signals to the brain, and the brain translates that into what we use to communicate. It’s what radios do, they pick up different frequencies and transmit it.”

He nods slowly. “But what’s that gotta do with the spirits, Sakura-chan?”

 “Well… There are other forms of light we can’t see, just like there are sounds we can’t hear ‘cause they’re too high in frequency, or too low. But if we can’t perceive them, does that mean they don’t exist?”

He shakes his head. 

“Exactly! The spirits are like that, too! Just because you can’t see or feel them, that doesn’t mean they’re gone, it just means they’re out of our range of perception. You know?”

Naruto hums. “Neh, Sakura-chan? Doesn’t the sun let out, like, invisible light, too?”

She blinks and he continues. “Ya know, like in sunlight--there’s, like, in-infred, right?”

“Infrared?” she questions.

“Yeah, that one! It ain’t seen, but it’s felt, right?”

Sakura’s smile blooms. “Yes! Infrared and ultraviolet radiation!”

“Yeah, yeah!” He steps out of the deep shadow of the trees and into the light filtered through the foliage. He holds his arms out, palm up, so that the speckled sunlight falls on his inner arms. “It’s why we get sunburns if we stay out in the sun too long, right? Neh, neh, Sakura-chan, are the spirits kind of like that? Like, you can’t really see ‘em, but you can feel ‘em?”

She nods. “Exactly.”

“And--and they’re like the Will of Fire, right? You gotta really, really believe in them so they can become stronger?” 

“Yes,” she confirms, her heart feeling too big for her chest.

Naruto places his hands on his hips. “Then, when I’m Hokage, I’m gonna make it so’s they don’t gotta hide no more! I’ll believe in them, like you do, Sakura-chan!”

Chapter Text

She stayed longer than she should have. Evening is quickly coming down on them and with it, Sakura feels a kernel of fear. She turns to Naruto, intending to tell him she needs to go home for dinner when she hears the frantic calls of her parents. 

“Sakura!” her mother cries from far away. “Sakura! Where are you?”

Her father’s voice carries from the trees. “Sakura! Sakura!”

“I’m here!” she yells. Why should they sound so concerned? she wonders, jogging in their direction. Had something happened? “Mama, Papa, I’m here!”

Her parents come tumbling out of the underbrush. Mama runs to her and falls on her knees, her arms tight around her daughter. Papa follows, crouching with his hands on her shoulders and checking her for injury. 

“Where were you?” Mama demands.

“We’ve been looking everywhere!" Papa breathes.

“I--I’ve just been here,” she responds, her own arms automatically winding around her parents. “Why, what’s happened?”

Mama pulls away. “What’s happened? You were gone, Sakura, that’s what happened.

“You’ve been here this whole time,” Papa confirms. 

“Y--Yes. I was playing with--” she turns to Naruto. He’s watching with this awful look on his face, something she’s never seen on him before, something wretched and sad. 

Her parents follow her gaze. Mama’s grip on her shoulders becomes vice-like. “You were with Uzumaki? You--did you sneak out to see him?”

Papa takes a deep breath, hanging his head. “Our daughter, the rebel. Don’t you know what grounded means?”

Her chin lifts. “I was building a shrine with him. He had nothing to do with me sneaking out. He didn’t even know I was in trouble ‘cause I never told him.”

Her mother rises. Her hand slides to the back of Sakura’s neck, warm and grounding. “We’re going home. We’ll discuss this at the house.”

Naruto steps forward, his fists balled. “No, she’s wrong.”

Mama rears back. “Excuse me?"

“I did know she was in trouble,” he lies. “An’ I asked her ta come out anyways. So...So, it’s me you should be mad at, not her. Sakura-chan’s been nothin’ but nice to me, for as long’s I known her. She don’t deserve punishment.”

Sakura feels tears burn in her eyes. “Naruto-kun…”

There’s a beat of silence. Then Papa catches Mama’s eye and they have another one of their talks without talking. Mama’s lips purse and Papa glances at Naruto, standing defiantly in front of them, his aura flaming around him. Her father’s eyebrows quirk and Mama sighs loudly, pinching the bridge of her nose.

Papa says, “Uzumaki-kun, how long have you and Sakura-chan been friends?”

Naruto crosses his arms. His eyes flash blood-red, but only Sakura seems to see it. When he opens his mouth, his teeth have morphed into fangs. Naruto’s dual toned voice becomes far more pronounced, the human side overshadowed by the deep snarl. Through their companionship, she’s gotten slightly more used to it, but when he speaks now, her knees shake with the compulsion to kneel. “We’ve been friends for forever. And she said, she said to me that friends are part of the Will of Fire, ya know? An’ the Will of Fire is what ninja use when we gotta protect the village.”

Papa nods sagely. “I know of the Will of Fire. Every citizen knows of it, even noncombatants. It’s a noble philosophy. Sakura-chan is very knowledgeable about ninja facts, isn’t she?”

Naruto’s eyes narrow, and the whiskers on his cheeks thicken. He watches Papa like he suspects a trap. He unfists his hands and clenches them again, and Sakura notices the nails have elongated into claws, sharp and deadly. “Sakura-chan’s a genius,” he states. “And that’s why she can’t get in trouble--she’s gonna be the best kunoichi in the world, and if she gets grounded for forever, then she won’t graduate, an’ if she don’t graduate, she ain’t gonna become a genin.”

“I agree,” Papa says. “I think that Sakura made a mistake leaving the way she did--she made me and her mama very scared--but it was because she didn’t want to leave her best friend by himself. I think that’s a good reason.” 

Mama clears her throat and Papa scrambles to correct himself. “It was incredibly irresponsible and brought unfounded fear on her loved ones, but as long as she promises not to do it again, she can be forgiven.”

“Really?” Sakura says.

Mama squeezes her shoulder. “Really.” Then, speaking to Naruto for the first time since she found the two of them, she turns to the boy and asks, “Have the two of you eaten dinner yet?”

Naruto gapes. His teeth, Sakura is pleased to note, are shrinking back to human-levels of sharpness and his cheeks are returning to the three-whiskered normalcy. His voice, too, is less animalistic. “I--no?”

Sakura tugs on her mama’s hand. “Mama, can Naruto-kun come over and eat at our house, please? His curfew isn’t for another hour.”

Mama smiles wanly. “Sure, Sakura-chan.”

Sakura slips out of Mama’s hold and flounces to Naruto, unable to believe her luck. “Would you like to, Naruto-kun? Mama and Papa make the best dinners.”

“Ah, well…” Shy now, the blond toes the ground, averts his eyes. “If...If that’s okay…”

“It is!” Sakura takes his hand and pulls him forward. “Nothing would make me happier!” 

Hand in hand, they return to Sakura’s house and eat a hearty meal while her parents engage them in smalltalk.

Chapter Text

When she’s six, Sakura’s parents tell her of a man named Minato Namikaze. He was a name known internationally, a key player in the War and a ninja like none other. He had long blond hair and an infectious laugh, who treated all citizens as friends and allies. 

“He was unbelievably kind,” says her mother. “He made it a point to speak with the citizens of Konoha.”

“He had a wicked sense of humor,” says her father. “He could even make the Uchiha clan heads crack a smile.”

“He was extremely charismatic,” Mama continues. “He could make anyone his friend.”

“I heard he was a devil on the battlefield,” Papa confides. “No one could match him. Why, after a harrowing battle, he single-handedly convinced Iwa to surrender during the Third War.”

(Sakura’s folks don’t know this, but there was one other person who was more ferocious in battle than even Minato Namikaze, the Yellow Flash. Her name was Kushina Uzumaki, and she was truly feared.)

“Wow,” Sakura breathes, stars in her eyes. “Papa, if he was so strong, who could’ve defeated him?”

Mama brushes a lock of Sakura’s hair off of her forehead. “Not who , Sakura-chan. It wasn’t a person that killed our Yondaime. It was a demon.”

“The Kyuubi,” Papa murmurs. 

Mama nods. “He is the Nine-Tailed Fox, the strongest of all the Tailed Beasts. He is evil incarnate, a blood-thirsty monster that seeks only the destruction of humankind. He hates people, because we’ve foiled his machinations over and over again. To contain him and his brethren, we trapped them in certain strong people using fuinjutsu.”

Papa says, “The Kyuubi is made entirely of chakra, Sakura-chan, without a drop of the spirit realm within him. Because of this, he is unbalanced.”

Sakura looks down, thinking quickly. “But...I thought chakra had always been a part of us, just like how the spirits have always been with us.”

Mama shakes her head. “Not always. It’s been integrated into modern society, but a long time ago, the Earth was barren of chakra. Chakra isn’t something the spirits utilize and therefore they were vulnerable to it. With it, a mortal could touch the spirits without repercussion. It’s one of the reasons we don’t want you to become a kunoichi. Spirits dislike chakra and avoid it when they can.”

Papa asks, “Neh, Sakura-chan, has your mama told you about things called ley lines?”

Sakura shakes her head. 

“They’re invisible lines of power that connects every living thing,” Papa explains. “The ley lines are produced by the life energy of all the organisms on the Earth’s surface. It redistributes energy, extends far out into space, just like the magnetic field, encasing the Earth in a sort of bubble.

“We don’t know when or how, but somehow, chakra was introduced to the planet. It was through these lines of power that chakra was dispersed into the natural order. Admittedly, it’s not a popular theory, and there’s very little documented proof, but the Haruno clan knows the truth.” He smiles at Mama. “It’s why I fell in love with your mother. She had all sorts of crazy theories about chakra and spiritualism. Drove me batty.”

Mama laughs. “You believed me eventually, didn’t you?”

“I did,” he agrees, leaning over their daughter to lay a playful kiss on his wife’s cheek. Sakura squeals, putting her hands between them to separate them. Papa chortles and peppers Sakura with kisses, Mama tickling her sides. Sakura erupts into giggles, and the three of them devolve into a tickle fight. 

 

Chapter Text

The rest of the summer passes quickly. The spirit of the shadows and hidden things, whom she refers to as Shadow-sama, is grateful for the shrine she and Naruto erected, and it gives her its blessing to use its power on full moon nights. With Shadow-sama’s help, she and Shikamaru are able to avoid his family’s patrols, undetected and unnoticed, even if they walk not a foot away from the children. In the shadows cast by the moon, hanging fat and full in the night sky, the spirit keeps her and Shikamaru safe.

On this night, the spirit dragon lifts its head and eats the meal she cooked without assistance. She and Shikamaru watch, overjoyed, as it consumes the venison, one painful bite at a time. When it’s done, it immediately falls asleep and the two children follow suit curled at its jaw. 

In the late morning, they go to Sakura’s house and she introduces him to her parents over a hearty breakfast. 

“They know about the spirit quest,” she warns him before they enter, “but not what it is I do on your clan lands. You’re not going to say anything about it.”

“Who do you take me for?” Shikamaru asks, offended. “Of course I won’t say anything. What we’re doing is illegal.”

Her parents greet him warmly and serve them a delicious meal. Afterwards, they meet Naruto at Ichiraku for lunch and discuss the future. 

“I wonder who my genin team will be,” Sakura wonders, sandwiched between her friends.

Through his third bowl of ramen, Naruto says, “You an’ Shikamaru are gonna be on the same team, believe it.”

“Unlikely,” Shikamaru disagrees. “I’m guaranteed to be with Ino and Chouji.”

Naruto snorts and nearly chokes on his mouthful. He plants his hands on the counter and leans on them to stare Shikamaru in the eye. “Says who?” he demands. “What, do you not wanna? I’d kill to be on her team!”

Shikamaru shrugs. “It’s been that way since the founding,” he explains. “Our families work well together and every generation is assigned to the same team.”

Sakura says, “I thought the genin teams were chosen randomly.”

The brunet shakes his head. “There are other qualifications. Mostly, it’s personality traits, but clan politics are involved, too.”

Naruto makes a face. “That’s messed up,” he says, reclining back. “Why should politics factor into things, you know? If some geezer decides that two of you don’t be on the same team just ‘cuz your parents were all together or whatever, it’ll be a huge waste of resources!”

Sakura privately agrees. She and Ino are friends, but she’s seen first-hand how well the blonde and brunet get along, which is to say that they don’t. Shikamaru is on more friendly terms with laid-back Chouji, and he dislikes Ino’s pig-headedness. He goes along with her schemes only because confrontation requires mental fortitude, and he abhors labor of any kind.

“If I can’t be on Sakura-chan’s team,” says Naruto, “maybe I can be on the same one as Fukuhara.”

“Who’s that?” Sakura asks, cleaning her bowl with a bit of bread. Naruto hardly ever talks about his own classmates. Being a year above, she doesn’t really know any of them. Naruto hadn’t mentioned any of them by name before.

“Fukuhara Hagoromo!” he chirps. “She’s really good at ninjutsu, and she helped me with a test once.”

The name strikes a cord. She rifles through her mental library, searching for relevant files. “Neh, neh, isn’t Hagoromo one of the founding clans?” she asks. 

“I dunno,” says Naruto, while Shikamaru puts his chin in his hand and drawls, “That’s right. Didn’t they all die out?”

“Apparently not,” Sakura responds. She finds what she’s looking for and recites, “Traditional allies of the Uchiha clan, they used to be a prominent clan, but their numbers suffered from a hereditary disease.”

Naruto swallows the last of his food and grins at her. “Wow, Sakura-chan, you know more about our village than old man Hokage.”

“I doubt that,” she says, flushing.

Shikamaru nudges her. “She knows about the history of all the villages. She’s just too modest to say it.”

She pushes him away. “That’s so not true!” she denies, pleased and smiling. 

Naruto laughs and pulls her into a headlock. Before it morphs into a wrestling match, Teuchi tells them not to wreck his ramen stand. “Take it outside, you hooligans,” he orders, playfully waving a utensil at them. The three of them do so, paying quickly and playing a game of impromptu ninja tag in the streets.

That night, she dreams she’s a dragon made of starlight, flying up from the Earth. She bursts through pearly-white clouds and climbs ever higher, the continents green and visible from the stratosphere. Unbound from gravity, she flies and flies, until she reaches the Sun and dips into the surface. She dances in the solar flares, breathing in plasma and spewing superheated gas. Far away, the Earth is suspended in a sunbeam, no bigger than a grain of sand. 

Chapter Text

Shikamaru eavesdrops on his parents one summer evening, listening as they discuss the string of animal killings. 

“It’s ritualistic,” his father says. “He’s methodical, leaves no trace and erects trophies.”

Mom sighs. “If Fugaku were still here…”

“I know.”

There’s a moment of mourning, silent and sad. Then, his dad says, “It will only be a matter of time before he moves on to people. This lull is concerning.”

Sakura had made the shrines with care. She deliberated which stones to use and thanked every deer for their energy. She knelt at the head and put love in the prayers. They both cried when Sharingan-sama ate venison by itself, as it struggled with every bite and forced every swallow. 

“They’ll hibernate now,” Sakura told him, cleaning its jaws of slobber. “Regain its strength as it sleeps." 

Mom says, “He’s chunin level, at least. Has to be, to commit such atrocities undetected for months on end. Shikaku, do you think he’s already dissatisfied with the animals? Could he also responsible for the disappearances?”

“No. He’d leave the stone circles at the crime scene, make it obvious it was him. He’d stalk them for a few hours, then kill them when they’re secluded, like the animals. As I said, it’s ritualistic.”

Shikamaru goes to his room, quiet as a ghost. He makes contingency plans as the adults murmur behind closed doors. He remembers a bedtime story his mother told him when he was little, about a lost boy and the doe that found him. 

“Why do you cry, little one?” asked the doe 

“I’m lost,” the boy tearfully replied. “I fear that my family will forget me and I’ll die alone in these dark woods.”

“You are not alone,” said the doe. “Come with me and we will find your family.”

So the boy went with her and they travelled far into the forest, where the shadows were deep and the sun never touched the ground. It was a trek of many hours and the night was black around them. 

“Fear not,” said the doe as the boy shivered. “Nightfall means connectivity. When the Earth revolves, its shadow connects half of all things across the globe. The darkness touches everything your eye can see and many more things beyond. Through these connections, you will find what you seek.”

The doe taught the boy how to read the threads of shadow linking one thing to another. She coached him to differentiate his shadow from another’s, so that no matter how far, they would be bound and found. 

Mom said, “It was the creation of our Kekkei Genkai, the Shadow Technique. You’ll learn how to use it one day, but won’t be a deer that teaches you.”

“Did we really learn it from a doe?” he’d asked.

Mom snorts. “Of course not. It was a genetic quirk, honed through generations of battle.”

Now, Shikamaru thinks of Sakura standing unafraid as the spirit of the Nara Forest loomed before her. He remembers her green, green eyes and her hair glowing bright and pink in the full moon’s light. He recalls the tension in the air, like a huge tree on the cusp of felling, and he wonders. 



Chapter Text

After the summer break, Sasuke Uchiha returns to class. He sits by himself in the back next to the window and spends the lecture staring outside. 

During lunch, Ino squeals and says, “We should give him our notes!”

“Ino-chan, I don’t know…”

But Ino won’t listen. She takes Sakura by the hand and drags her to where Sasuke is eating alone. He doesn’t look up at their approach, doesn’t show any sign of their presence. 

“Hello, Sasuke-kun!” Ino chirps. She pauses, waiting for him to respond. When he doesn’t, she blunders on. “If you need any help with your studies, me an’ Sakura-chan can give you our notes.”

Sasuke takes a bite of his food and says nothing. 

Ino fidgets, opens her mouth to offer again, but Sakura steps in, squeezing Ino’s hand to silence her. “We just wanted to let you know. Have a good day, Uchiha-san.”

Then, she drags a protesting Ino away.

“Wha--Sakura! I was getting somewhere!”

Sakura resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Sure, Ino-chan. But how about we give him some space, neh?”

“But wouldn’t you say he needs someone to support him in his time of need?”

Yeah, a therapist, she thinks. Out loud, she says, “Sure, Ino-chan, but he doesn’t know us. You said what you wanted to say, now leave it alone.”

Ino snatches her hand away. “ No, I didn’t say what I wanted. You stopped me before I could.”

Sakura blinks. “But-- you just wanted to give him notes,” she says, confused.  

“Yeah, and then while we studied, I was gonna ask him out on a date.”

Sakura recoils. “A date ? Why?”

Ino throws her hands up in the air. “Because! He’s cute and I like him! Who wouldn’t want to date him?”

Sakura thinks of how he pretended they weren’t there, how he looked out the window and said not a word in class. She thinks of how Sasuke must be feeling, the only Uchiha left in school, in the village. He used to sit with his cousins and they’d pass notes when the teacher’s back was turned. Is he still living at his family’s compound? She shivers just thinking of it. 

“I wouldn’t want to,” says Sakura, thinking of Sharingan-sama when she had first met it, crying in the mud and listless. “Look, Ino, just...leave him alone for a while, okay? He’s been through enough. At least let him get used to being in school again.”

Ino’s lips purse. “Well,” she finally says, “at least I won’t have any competition from you.”

The words don’t really sit right with Sakura, but she let the subject drop. They return to their own lunches and talk of less upsetting things.

Chapter Text

As Sharingan-sama enters its healing sleep, Sakura decides to construct a shrine around its massive head. It will be dormant indefinitely, and she wants to make something for it to remind it that she’ll remember it. This is a task that she emplores Ino to undertake with her, so they can play in the woods and in the rocky plains. The two of them unearth pretty stones and dazzling rocks, critically analyzing every nook and cranny. 

“What do you need these for, anyway?” Ino asks. “You’re not making a shrine , are you?”

Sakura pauses with a stone held in her palm, rising from her crouch and piercing Ino with hard green eyes. “I am making a shrine,” she says.

Her friend sneers. “Daddy says shrines aren’t modern.”

Sakura’s fists clench, the stone digging into her skin. “It’s Haruno tradition.”

Ino flips her ponytail. “Well, it’s stupid.”

(Sakura doesn’t know it, but the Naras and the Akamichis and the Yamanakas have been working a case. They’ve been studying the shrines she’s left on full moon nights and forging incorrect theories. They’ve been holding meetings and their children have been drawing their own conclusions from whispers.)

Sakura calls an end to their outing, stones clinking in her pockets and dissatisfaction curdling in her gut. 

During school the next day, Sakura approaches Sasuke by herself. 

“Excuse me, Uchiha-san,” she says, standing some ways from him and taking care to keep the exits clear. “Do you have a moment?”

He looks at her coldly, but doesn’t tell her to leave.

She raises her hands and opens her palms, where there are a pair of stones waiting for his perusal. She holds them aloft and asks which he likes more.

“Neither,” he says. 

“But which do you like less?” she continues doggedly.

“Why?”

“They’re for a friend,” she replies. 

His eyes move to the stones. Finally, he decides the one of the right. She thanks him brightly and sees herself out. It’s a trend she maintains during the next few weeks; she asks Sasuke’s opinion about two stones, and each time, he wordlessly picks one over the other. Their interactions take no more than thirty seconds, and she never speaks to him in class or instigates conversation should there be a third party present. 

The only problem occurs when she moves on to the base of the shrine, which are composed of bigger rocks. These would be troublesome hauling to school, as they are heavy and quite large. She complains of the dilemma to Shikamaru and Naruto, and the brunet simply says, “Ask him to come with you.”

“But what if he says no?” she worries.

The boys solve this puzzle by bodily dragging her to Sasuke. Shikamaru tells him, “Sakura has more rocks she wants to show you, but they’re too big to bring to class. Come with us and pick one so she’ll stop harping at me.”

Naruto smacks Shikamaru’s arm. “Don’t be so mean to Sakura-chan!” Then, he crosses his arms and says to Sasuke, “They’re cool rocks, but you gotta decide which one of ‘em you like best, you know?”

Sasuke grunts and follows them. There are ten rocks she’d gathered over the course of three days, sweating and panting. He inspects them and asks how many she needs.

“Just five,” she responds, wringing her hands. 

“Hn.” He ambles over to the pile and taps his favorites with a pale finger. “I’ll help you carry them,” he offers blandly. 

“Oh,” she says, surprised. “Thank you.”

The four of them relocate the rocks one at a time, trekking through undergrowth and navigating sprawling roots until they reach Sharingan-sama’s sleeping space. Sasuke ignores the spirit dragon entirely, utterly unaware of its presence. Naruto, on the other hand, he tilts his head at the shore and his nostrils flare, but his eyes slide over the dragon’s sleeping form without commenting. Sakura directs the placement of the rocks to surround the portion of the dragon not underwater, and as they erect the shrine she notices that Sasuke gives the spirit a wide berth, as though he can subconsciously sense it. 

“You should do something more productive with your time,” Ino had said , thinking she was being supportive. 

Sakura spends the evening with three of her classmates on the riverbank. She has dirt under her fingernails and is muddy up to her knees. There’s sweat pooling in the small of her back and dripping down her forehead, and she’s laughing as Naruto splashes her while Shikamaru complains of getting wet. Sasuke rests in the shallows, bare foot with his pants rolled up. He’s standing in the curve of Sharingan-sama’s coils, hands in his pockets and face relaxed.

Sakura is happy to spend the rest of her days doing less productive work. 

Chapter Text

Years pass. Naruto graduates. 

His friends attend his graduation ceremony and he looks at them with the biggest, proudest smile on his face. He accepts the hitai-ate from Iruka, so happy he could burst with it. Sakura’s parents have their hands tight around Sakura’s shoulders, watching with pride glittering in their eyes as Naruto ties the forehead protector on his brow. Shikamaru has his hands in his pockets and his shoulders are slouched, but his lips curve in a smile and his gaze is sharp. Sakura basks in the glory of Naruto’s aura, feels its warmth to the marrow of her bones and smells its wildfire scent thick in her nose. 

Once upon a time, the Haruno clan were priests. They walked where they pleased and spoke how they liked, for they were protected by powerful spirits. They followed no human law and did not bow to royalty. No man could control them and any chain that held them would shatter.

As the country splintered and war blossomed, as the Emperor was dethroned and new governments were born, the common people remembered the Haruno clan as truth-speakers, as soothsayers, and as peacemakers. The governing powers of Japan branded them as traitors, but the citizens of the realm would not comply. The names of the Haruno clan were lost to history, like most things are, but there were tales of a woman unbent, who walked on burning coals in a devastated wasteland to deliver precious cargo. There was word of a broken widow who would travel to village after village, preaching of a limitless universe with an infinite number of stars, bearing planets that were huge and spherical and jeweled in crisp white clouds. There were stories of an old woman whose intellect was beyond compare, who could outwit a master strategist and solve any equation put forth to her. 

As Sakura goes out into the world, she will be remembered for the deeds she will accomplish, for the hearts she will touch, and for the change she will create. She is as sturdy as the sakura trees, as bright as the pretty pink leaves. She has love burning in her breast, she has hope churning in her belly, and she is steel wrapped in a silk cover (if any man tries to grip her, he will be cut to the bone).

Once upon a time, the Haruno clan were priests. They walked among the downtrodden and the poor, and they were loved by all.

(In another life, Sakura’s team was all the colors of the day. She would have been the pink of dawn and the pink of dusk. Naruto would have been the afternoon skies, with his bright sunshine colors, and Sasuke would have been the night. Together, they would have been the breaking of the day, and the blue, blue sky, followed by the inevitable coming of the dusk with stars shining in a black, black sky. They would have been great. Broken, but great.

In this life, Team Seven is more subtle. Sakura, Sasuke, and Shikamaru are the dark before dawn, they are the setting of the sun. They are the quiet beauty between one day and the next, unstoppable, undeniable. Everyone sees them, but only a few appreciate them. Everyone knows them, but only a few are moved by them.)

(Those few love the fiercest, and those few live life to the fullest.)