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Blessings of Normal

Chapter Text

Volume 1. Slide to the Left!

Chapter 1. This Is Something New


The first thing I noticed upon waking was that I was not in bed. Second: I was on the ground, outside. The third: I felt well-rested.

I had never felt well-rested in my entire life.

The fourth thing I noticed was

"SAKURA-CHAN!"

that.

As much as it burned to disturb my rare inner peace, I opened my eyes to confront the external lack of it. It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining, a gentle breeze was blowing, and I was… surrounded by Naruto cosplayers.

The source of the call was a boy tied to a large wooden pole planted in the ground, in full Naruto cosplay. I raised my eyebrows; the costume was surprisingly good. The clothes looked incredibly professional and his hair looked natural.

"Hey, um, did your friends pull a prank on you? Do you need-" I stopped. The words had come out in Japanese. As though it were the most natural thing in the world. "Do you need-" I tried again, but it came out the same way.

"Sakura-chan! You just collapsed! Are you okay?!" He'd said it in Japanese. Which I understood.

We were then joined by two others, arriving so quickly and quietly they seemed to appear between one blink and the next.

"Maa," a silver-haired man– a Kakashi cosplayer– said. "Is my cute little student already injured before the first mission?"

I opened my mouth. Closed it. Opened it again. Closed it again. Am I getting hit on by a random cosplayer? And, "You guys are like, WAY too in-character right now."

It was hardly the most important thing, but it was what came out of my mouth anyway. That's what people tend to do in stressful situations, isn't it? When you face something this disconcerting, you grasp at the first confusing thing you can get your hands on and poke at it.

"Did you hit your head or something?" a dark-haired cosplayer asked. He looked overwhelmingly annoyed at the whole situation.

"No– well, I mean, my head doesn't hurt, at least. Um," I took a deep breath. Okay. Waking up in a strange place, surrounded by people I don't know, no memory of how I got here, dissociation between what I'm saying and what I think I'm saying… "I'm sorry to bother you, but could you direct me to the nearest hospital? I think I'm having some sort of... dissociative amnesia? I have a few mental illnesses so..."

The Kakashi-cosplayer's one visible eye widened, even as the Naruto one started hollering, "What?! You're sick? That sounds awful! We need to help her right away–"

The next thing I knew, the Kakashi-cosplayer sprang into action to jab a piece of paper on my forehead.

I had no time to be confused about this because I promptly became unconscious.

When I awoke, it wasn't in any place I recognised. I sat up, still feeling oddly magnificent, and rubbed at my arms. It felt like my body was covered in static electricity, but not anything like that at all. Curious and curiouser.

I was on a hard white bunk built into the floor. The room was featureless, save a chair, a tinted window, and a tinted glass door.

Memory began to flood back in. I wondered if they skipped a normal hospital room and went straight for a psych ward. The bed had straps on it. Maybe they thought I was dangerously unwell. Was I? Did I sleepwalk? Is that how I ended up in that field?

I curled my knees up to myself, noting in bemusement that I was wearing a red dress with shorts. I didn't recognise the outfit at all. The shorts were shorter and tighter than I would normally go for. Also my legs were perfectly smooth? And I was wearing sandals. I never wore sandals.

With the motion of leaning forward, I also noticed I had pink hair. My hair was not supposed to be pink. And the hair was too long.

"Hello?" I called out. My heart thudded in my chest and I broke out in a sweat, but panic didn't seem to set in quite yet. My hands weren't even shaking.

Thankfully, the door opened.

A man with long blond hair and a padded army vest came in. This seemed weird until I noticed the Konoha forehead protector he wore; it was another cosplayer. Actually no, scratch that: still weird.

"Hello, Sakura. Sorry to keep you waiting. I meant to be here when you awoke, but it seems you caused quite a stir. It was difficult to find who should speak with you first. We decided a familiar face may be best, and it's within my area of expertise, after all." He smiled kindly and sat himself down in the chair.

"I'm– uh, I'm not Sakura?" I hadn't meant for it to come out as a question.

"No?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.

"No, and I don't actually know you. I'm sorry. I'm very confused right now. Why are you wearing that? Were you also at the convention?" I made a conscious effort to make my breaths even and steady. I hadn't started panicking yet, and I didn't want to start.

"I apologise for confusing you. How about you start by telling me the last thing you remember?"

Deep breath in. Slow breath out. "The last thing I remember was getting out of the shower… after that, I sat down in bed and was reading for a little bit, and I think I might have fallen asleep?"

He nodded.

"And then when I woke up again, I was in a field? With some cosplayers? And I was speaking Japanese, and I'm still doing it and I don't know how, and then this guy put a piece of paper on my head and I woke up here, and I'm not wearing my own clothes and my hair doesn't look right and my body–" I gulped in a deep breath.

"Easy now. We're not in a rush. You're doing just fine. Why don't you tell me how you feel right now?"

I swallowed. "Actually, pretty good? I don't know if I'm just in shock, but I've got anxiety and depression. So, um, not being a complete mess right now is way better than I would expect. I actually feel better than I usually do."

"How do you feel physically?"

I rubbed at my arms. "Also pretty great. I usually feel more fatigued. I do feel kinda static-y, though, or like," I frowned, trying to pinpoint the sensation. "Like my body is filled with adrenaline, except not. Or like..." I had a flash of inspiration from a childhood memory. "Or like I'm doing reiki, all over myself, except actually believing in it."

He raised his eyebrows. "Reiki?"

"Yeah, like, it's a healing thing. You're supposed to take in energy, I guess, and you can use it to heal through your hands. I don't seriously believe in it anymore, but like, the sensation I'm feeling now is similar to the… the psychosomatic response I got from that."

He nodded thoughtfully. "Show me."

I stared. "It's not real."

"I understand, but I believe it may be important. Could you please show me how you would make healing energy in your hands?"

"Uh, sure."

Deep breath in, slow breath out. I rubbed my palms together and slowly pulled them apart by a few inches, concentrating on the feel of body heat between them to centre me. I didn't need to visualise the energy as my eyes unfocused; I could feel it running through me, the way I always used to.

Between my palms, a soft blue-green glow took form.

I didn't faint. I didn't scramble backwards. I didn't even start cussing up a storm. I just jolted and the light disappeared.

The blond man smiled and said, "Mystical Palm Technique. It appears you are a natural. Why didn't you think it would be real?"

Yeah; my hands were trembling. "I don't understand anything right now."

He nodded, took down a note, and flipped to another page, passing me his clipboard. "I have ideas about what could be causing this, but we'll need to perform a few procedures to be sure. This is a consent form."

I accepted the clipboard and immediately signed on the line at the bottom marked for a name. The name I remembered having, anyway.

"You should read it carefully." He scratched the back of his head, a line between his brows.

"You could literally punch me in the face right now if you think it'll help with whatever's going on with me." I thrust the clipboard back at him.

"Very well. A procedure we have in mind may be intrusive." He flipped to another page and held out the clipboard. "If you'd prefer to be asleep for that part–"

I reached over and signed my name upside down.

"… Very well. Please wait here for a moment and we will proceed shortly." He put the pen in a jacket pocket and was out the door.

The room was silent.

"Frick," I said. And this time, at least, it came out in English.

The wait wasn't long; whatever hospital I was at, it was efficient. Long before I expected, the man reappeared with another; this one wearing something a little closer to the hospital scrubs I had initially expected. He was wheeling a cart with random supplies on it; nothing that looked sharp, thankfully.

The blond man spoke first. "Since I did not introduce myself before: I am Inoichi, and this is Migaki." The dark-haired man in scrubs inclined his head. Inoichi continued, "First, we'll give you full anaesthesia, and then we're going to perform a medical jutsu that will allow us to search for the source of the inconsistency in your memories. If this does not work or we come across a block, we'll upgrade the severity of your case and transfer you somewhere we can more effectively apply the technique. Do you have any questions?"

...That all sounded incredibly sketchy, but, "Punching. Literally. Don't care."

He nodded. "Very well." He placed a palm over my forehead and I was unconscious. Again.

When I awoke, I was in yet another place. In a bed, at least, and a million times more comfortable. I yawned, stretching my arms, taking in my surroundings. This was a much more normal-looking hospital room.

"Hello, Sakura." It was Inoichi again, this time dressed a little more casually. The forehead-thing was gone, at least. He held out a glass of water.

I accepted it wordlessly and drained half of it. I scooted back in the bed and set the glass down on a table that was teeming with flowers. "My name isn't Sakura, it's–" He shook his head minutely and I cut myself off.

"Sakura-chan," he said gently, and something about the diminutive made me feel small. "I'm afraid I have unpleasant news."

My stomach lurched and the water I'd just chugged down threatened to come back up. "Bad?"

He nodded. "I'm sorry, but we have reason to believe you have been the victim of an invasive genjutsu. This technique seems to have either erased or masked most of your true memories while layering a false identity overtop."

"What?" Somehow, my throat felt dry again. "What does that mean? Do I have amnesia?"

"It may be a little more severe than that." He paused, taking a deep breath. The show of emotion unsettled me. "Sakura, I couldn't find any genjutsu blocks in your mind. The only traces of your true memories included only the most basic information, and even these were separated from yourself to make it seem like they weren't real."

I didn't want to realise what he was saying. I would have loved nothing more than for it to have not sunken in. But it had, even before he spoke again.

"Your only true memories were enclosed in a cartoon, on the edge of your periphery; something the caster intended you to believe was not particularly interesting to you. Potentially with the hope that you would never recover them."

"You're telling me Naruto is real."

He smiled. "He is very real. He is your teammate."

Another voice cut in, "Maa, he's been pacing around the hospital lobby for almost six hours now, pestering everyone with questions."

Chapter Text

I swivelled my head around. The Kakashi-cosplayer– No. Kakashi of the Sharingan. Kakashi. My sensei. I was Sakura. Kakashi was in my hospital room. Naruto is real. I am, literally, Sakura. I am–

"Maa, it's nice to see my cute student feeling better." He smiled, or at least one of his eyes seemed to indicate so, what with two-thirds of his face being covered. He snapped a book closed and walked over to ruffle my hair.

I stared at him. "Kakashi-san," I began. Closed my mouth. Somehow, using -san here felt impolite. I tried again, "Kakashi-sensei, you're… you're early. For that to be true, I mean."

There was a silence; a thrum of surprise.

"Oh, and she remembers me first! And my wonderful habits!" He pressed a hand to his cheek, as though to conceal a blush. Through like a million layers of fabric.

Inoichi sighed. "Kakashi, this truly isn't–"

Kakashi sat in the chair opposite the bed, looking for all the world like he had just been invited to do so. "You wouldn't want my poor genin to hear bad news without the one person she remembers nearby?" he drawled. "She would be traumatised. And how would her poor sensei know how to help her with her training if he's not informed?"

"Please let him stay." The words tumbled out of my mouth. During his monologue, I'd had a horrible recollection. "I have parents, right? I don't remember my parents. If I'm going to have an adult figure around, he's genuinely the least frightening person I can imagine in that place." And wasn't that a scary thought.

Inoichi seemed to deflate. "Very well."

Something else occurred to me. "Actually… I signed a consent form myself. Am I considered an adult? In charge of my own medical decisions?"

He nodded. "Yes. You've graduated as a full-fledged ninja, and have been accepted into a ninja squad under your jounin-sensei. Under the eyes of the law, you are an emancipated adult with full rights. In the case of any medical emergency in which you are unable to make your own decisions, that is when your next of kin would be consulted."

"Uh, can I make him in charge of that instead?" I asked, jerking a thumb toward Kakashi. Even he looked surprised by this.

"May I ask why?"

"I may not remember everything, but I do know he's trustworthy." It was one of the very few things I knew about this place at all.

"No." To my surprise, it wasn't Inoichi who'd spoken, but Kakashi.

I put my chin on my knees. "Why not? I'm an adult, right?"

Inoichi shook his head slowly. "You are an emancipated adult with severe, possibly unrecoverable amnesia." He said it gently, but firmly. "It's one thing for him to hear your medical information and be available for your recovery, but it would be unthinkable to give your sensei a family's rights. You've only known him for one day."

I almost said, 'I'm an adult, not an adult who makes reasonable personal decisions', but fortunately ignored the urge. It probably wouldn't help me out much, here.

"Okay, I get it. But what other problems am I looking at? If I can't recover? Will I stay a ninja? You said I could still train."

"Well, your sensei did say he would train you; if he continues to agree, you can remain a ninja this way. If he should decide you are unable to operate in your team, you will still have options: you can return to the academy for remedial education, or apply for a civil position within Konoha." He smiled. "However, I agree it would be a good idea to try to keep your life as close as possible to the one you have forgotten. Even if you have no conscious memories, you may still hold unconscious memories. For example, you can still form chakra, and said you can speak a language you don't recall knowing. You may have other similar memories as well, such as for throwing kunai."

"Or hand-seals. Try to make a Tiger hand-seal!" Kakashi-sensei cut in.

Inoichi looked annoyed, but I found myself twisting my hands together.

I stared at my hands and the position I had formed them into. The shape was certainly familiar. Well, that's embarrassing. "Uh, probably not, then." Sailor Mars? Really? That's the first thing I could think of?

"Ah, no. That is the correct seal. Please demonstrate an Ox hand-seal."

"Oh!" And so I found myself demonstrating various weird, twisty hand-seals. It was shocking how easily they came as soon as I heard the word; it felt almost like Sign Language. How on earth do I know this?

Kakashi crossed his arms and nodded. "Perfect. So why don't you tell us about her chakra, now?"

I turned to look at Inoichi. That certainly didn't sound good. If chakra worked anything like what they thought it did in my world, except observable, then having a problem with it was probably a physical medical problem. "My chakra?"

He put his head in his hands. "Kakashi, she's already had to hear so much today."

I raised my eyebrows. "Please tell me absolutely everything. I don't want to be any more in the dark than I already am."

He folded his hands and sighed. "We've noticed some disturbances in your chakra coils. For unknown reasons, they are attempting to develop to a level too large for a twelve-year-old of your height and weight."

"Well, I mean that makes sense. After all, I'm–"

Oh.

My.

God?

"Sakura?"

"I'm..." What? Excuse me, what? "How old am I?"

Inoichi blinked, and then understanding dawned on him. "You're twelve. The internal age the genjutsu put you under was inaccurate by some number of years."

No.

"I understand this may be very jarring, but..." his voice faded into the distance.

You've got to be kidding me.

It just wasn't fair. Everything about this was completely unreal; like I was having some sort of complete mental breakdown, or stuck in some weird-ass dream that wouldn't quit, but this? Seriously? What if it's real? It felt real, and this, THIS, was just too awful to even be considered.

My voice came out small and weak. "I'm going to have to go through puberty again?"

As it turned out, the amount of sympathy I received for this horrifying realisation was precisely zero. The two men instead wanted to focus on the strange growth in my chakra coils and the repercussions it may have on my brain and body.

"After all, when you told me you had amnesia and I sensed your new fluctuations in chakra, I thought you were an imposter and took you straight to the Torture and Interrogation office~!" Kakashi chirped, proving immediately that it was perfectly rational to trust him above all others in this new life.

Thanks, honourable Shishou.

What this meant for me in the meantime was apparently as many body-and-brain scans as the hospital had available, along with some blood and DNA tests. I'd had some memory of MRIs in my past-life (fake-life?), and wow was I not excited.

"Can you like, knock me out again for this?"

Inoichi frowned. "I assure you the scans will not be painful, and the scans we have scheduled shouldn't take above five or six hours at the most."

"You're not selling me on this at all. That sounds incredibly boring. I honestly don't want to be awake to be stuck in loud tubes for six hours. Plus, knocking people out seems simple for you guys. Compared to what I thought was real life, anyway."

"Absolutely not," Inoichi said.

And sensei slapped another piece of paper on my forehead, knocking me out immediately.

What an absolute legend.

The Good News: I was asleep for six hours of super-boring tests.

The Bad News: Inoichi and the other doctors were incredibly unimpressed with Kakashi-sensei and he was kicked out until further notice.

The Worse News: I was an idiot and did not realise that due to all the sleep I'd had during the day, I'd be wide awake in my hospital room all night long. With nothing but my thoughts for company.

The Worst News: As a consequence, I had time to digest everything that had happened to me over the last 24 hours.

This more or less boiled down to repeating the same question to myself over and over again: What is real?

I've remembered my dreams around the same amount as any other person, and this did not feel like a dream at all. I even tried some of the tricks I could remember about how to tell if you're in a dream, and none of them did anything. Pinching my arm, looking at my hands, trying to read, trying to read a clock, holding my breath. Nothing.

And if this was all real, did that mean they were right? Was I Sakura Haruno, the victim of some sort of weird magic spell? Was my entire life up until this point a lie? Or did I just wake up teleported into another world, where Naruto was a real thing? Hell, a real person. With a whole world of ninja and magic and violence. A world I was expected to be a part of.

When I was a child, I would dream about this sort of thing, constantly. But I was too realistic. I knew that if I, say, woke up as a Hogwarts student, I wouldn't be anybody except myself. I wouldn't be able to study hundreds of books and become the best witch ever. I wouldn't train hard every day to become a star Quidditch player. If I woke up and Gandalf was at my front door, I wouldn't want to go on a long and perilous journey. It was too hard to dream; not when I was limited to dreaming about being me.

So why?

I felt a lump rising in my throat; my eyes started to sting.

Why do I feel like I can do this? Why aren't I frightened? Where is this determination coming from?

Why did I truly, really believe that I would train hard, study hard, and try my hardest to become an excellent ninja? In one of the fantasy-realms I knew the least about, why did I feel so confident? Like, yes, I'll wake up tomorrow and ask the first person I see if I can get started right away. Why did I want to jump out of this hospital bed right now to work on it?

When I thought about it that way, the answer was obvious. It was one of the very first things I'd noticed upon waking up here.

I don't hurt.

I'd been plagued my whole life with fatigue that just never seemed to lift; with an attention span that could never focus on what it wanted to, with aching anxiety that plagued my every thought, and with a depression that told me nothing mattered.

Was it because I woke up with someone else's body? Someone else's mind? If it was, then how could I be thinking the thoughts I was having right now? How could I remember a different life with someone else's mind?

Or had everything really been a spell– a jutsu– and they gave me a life where I felt so hopeless, they hoped it would stick when I woke up?

I rolled over on my side and tucked my legs up toward my chest. Regardless of the why of it, I was here now, and this was how I felt. It hurt, a little, to know that my determination might not be my own, but…

"Let's see if this new brain knows how to sleep," I mumbled.

It did.

Chapter Text

I awoke to a gentle hand on my forehead. "Sakura, darling? It's morning."

I rubbed at my eyes. A man and woman were seated by my bedside; it was the woman's voice I'd heard.

She smiled softly at me. Her eyes were shiny and a little red, but her shoulders were relaxed..

"How are you feeling?"

"Pretty good. Sleepy. Slept too much yesterday, I guess." I pushed myself upright, stretched my back and kneaded my hands together, trying to get my blood flowing.

I gave the best smile I could to the couple sitting beside me. Judging from the man's dusty-pink hair, I had a good guess as to who these folks were. "I'm sorry. You're… my parents, yeah?"

The woman pressed her lips together, her eyebrows curving upward and inward. The man put one hand on her back and the other over mine. "Don't you apologise." His voice came out gruff, but his palm over my hand was gentle. "It's not your fault. They told us everything."

I stared down at our hands and swallowed thickly. This isn't what I wanted to go through first thing in the morning, but I should have expected it. In the end, it was probably for the best to have this conversation sooner rather than later.

"I..." My voice came out thick. I cleared my throat. "I remember being someone else. I feel like I took something away from you. You don't have to be so..." So what? Kind? Nice? Worried?

"Now I don't know what those awful people did to you," the woman's voice came out much harsher. I jumped a little. "But you are my child and no ninja spy is going to take that away!"

Oh.

Because if they didn't believe I was their real daughter, then their daughter was essentially dead.

The man seemed to sense my train of thought and let go of my hand to rub a light noogie against my head. "Stop that, you're you. I'd recognise that worrywart face anywhere." He laughed. "Your family will be here to help you figure things out."

"That's right," the woman huffed. "And if we can't find your old memories, we'll just have to make new ones."

They stayed by my side for a good while; intermittently assuring me (that I was very smart and I'd feel better in no time), trying to remind me of things I liked (apparently the colour pink, sweets, word puzzles, and studying), and bickering between themselves (my new father-figure was an expert at dad jokes, and my mother-figure was not impressed).

It felt weird to have parents, even if they didn't feel like mine. For almost as long as I could remember, it was always me, my little brother, and my big sister raising us. Even though she was much older than us, I still always felt a little guilty that she'd needed to be the one to take care of us; pushing aside college and her own goals for two kids she didn't ask for. She made it through and eventually finished Nursing school, but sometimes I'd wonder what she'd be doing right now if she didn't have to spend her time worrying about me.

Something about having parents made me feel less guilty.

I wonder what Sis is doing now? Was Sis ever even real?

"Sakura!"

"Oh! Sorry, what?" I'd started spacing out while they argued.

A nurse in the doorway cleared her throat. She was holding a tray with food.

Kizashi– the name I learned belonged to the father-figure– stood up to take the tray and set it on my lap for her. It had rice, rolled egg, and a small bowl of miso soup.

Mebuki, the mother-figure, thanked her. The nurse waved her off with a smile.

"After Haruno-chan is done eating, the doctor will come in and go over the results of yesterday's chakra scans."

She left and I started digging into the food. It was surprisingly tasty, especially the soup. Mebuki looked a little concerned when I asked her what it was called, but otherwise, breakfast was a relaxed affair.

I wiped my hands on a napkin. "Um..." This was going to be awkward.

"Finish chewing first and then spit it out," Kizashi grinned. Mebuki slapped him on the shoulder.

"Um, I was just wondering… Do I live with you? They said I'm more-or-less an adult with a job, so I wasn't sure where I'd go after this, and..."

It was loudly and defiantly explained to me that yes, I was going to their house after this, and yes, I lived there. I was also given to understand that they'd tie me up and drag me back if I tried to move out before I was at least sixteen.

Well. That solved one problem, at least.

"And, um… I'm going to keep being a ninja. Is that okay?" I kept my gaze on the empty tray, now sitting on the side table. They were parents, after all, and all the parents in books tried to keep their kids from doing dangerous things, especially after something went wrong.

Kizashi laughed; the sound made me jump. I stared at him.

"Of course we never wanted you to be a ninja, but we gave up convincing you to stop a long time ago. Just make sure you find the ninja that did this to you and kick their ass!"

"Kizashi!"

"Will do," I smiled, a little shakily. These people were wonderful.

Before long, the nurse came back to collect the empty breakfast tray, a doctor in tow. I recognised him; he was the dark-haired man I'd met with Inoichi. What was his name again?

"Haruno-san, Haruno-san," he nodded curtly. "My name is Migaki. I'm the specialist assigned to your daughter's case. Hello again, Sakura-san."

"Hello, Migaki-san."

He walked to the opposite side of the bed and took a seat. "How are you feeling this morning, Sakura?"

"Same as yesterday. I just can't wait to get out of this bed." I hadn't been paying attention, but now that he mentioned it, yeah. I still felt energised. It was… awesome.

"Very good." He opened up a folder and put a few scans on my lap. The parents leaned over to get a closer look. "We've looked over the chakra scans and have reason to hope the fluctuations won't be detrimental."

He pointed to an image of a brain scan; it had washed-out patches over it, brighter in some areas, dimmer in others.

"Mind-produced chakra is primarily produced in the ventricles of the brain," he traced his finger over a path that went over the brightest splotches. "These are the same areas that produce cerebral-spinal fluid; while the release of chakra and fluid does not always match, this still gave rise to the term 'chakra gates'." He pointed out small delineations between areas. "As you can see, you're getting extra chakra in some areas, and less chakra in others. The areas which create mental chakra are brighter, and the areas which create physical are dimmer."

"Is that dangerous?" Mebuki broke in.

He shook his head. "No, the areas producing less chakra are producing a level normal for a girl her age. If you'll look here," he pointed to one of the areas of the brain that looked lighter than the others. "The higher concentrations of chakra are directed toward the areas of the brain most involved in memory. As it is your own body's chakra and not that of an outside force, this is a clear case of the body trying to regulate itself."

I thought I was following, but, "So what does that mean for me?"

He pointed to the full-body scan. "As the rest of your body's chakra pathways are operating normally, and the chakra you're overdeveloping is purely mental, there will be a slight imbalance. This may rectify over time as your body reconciles the new information it has been forced to process, or as it tries to recover information it has lost. You may find mental tasks come to you more easily than physical tasks for a short time."

I shrugged. "Well, I'm used to that."

"The more things change," Kizashi muttered. His wife shot him a glare.

"So," he continued. "We want you to come back at least once a month to monitor changes in chakra levels, but otherwise, you are a perfectly healthy young woman. All other tests came out clear."

There was a quiet whoosh in the room as three people blew out breaths of relief.

"Am I going to be allowed to train? And keep doing… ninja stuff?"

The corner of his mouth twitched. "I'd recommend taking it easy for at least the remainder of the day, but yes, I clear you to restart your ninja training tomorrow. Please try to keep your schedule as close as the one you were most used to before your onset of amnesia. Make sure to ask your parents and friends for help as you need it; community support is always beneficial in cases of memory loss."

I bowed. "Thank you, Doctor."

"We will ask you to go through one more brain scan before you go, just to double-check if your levels have changed through the night."

I sighed and flopped back down on the bed. Where's Kakashi when you need him?

"That works!" a cheerful voice called. All four occupants in the room jumped and stared toward the doorway, where a man was leaning and reading an orange book. "Your first day of training starts tomorrow morning at eight. Training Ground 3. Don't be late!" Without looking up he flipped a salute and left the room.

"...Who was that?" Mebuki asked.

"My sensei. I'm starting to get the feeling he, uh, does that sometimes." I shrugged. Internally, I whined: Come back and punch me out or something, sensei, please..?

He did not.

I survived. The scan itself only took a couple of minutes. Apparently when I wasn't subjected to every test known to man, the whole thing took much less time. Before I knew it, Mebuki and Kizashi were by my side and walking toward the hospital exit. I had fresh, clean clothes that Mebuki was kind enough to bring with her. I was starting to get a good feeling about all of this.

Sure, it was surreal and kind of terrifying. But I knew I could figure things out if I just took it one step at a time. I was very fortunate. Even if I held doubts about who I was and what was coming next in life, I knew there were people around me to help me see it through. Already, I had begun to love them.

"SAKURA-CHAN!" a voice wailed out as soon as we reached the hospital lobby.

Oh, right. Naruto was a person who existed.

This was particularly hard to ignore as he became a 40-kilo bowling ball of Emotional Boy. He knocked into me and held me several inches up off the ground. "SAKURA-CHAN!"

"Yikes," I coughed. "Alright! It's okay, I get it, put me down! I'm fine!"

While this was reasonable Naruto behaviour from what little I knew of him, what he did next threw me off completely. He pressed a big, gross, moist kiss to the side of my cheek.

And I reacted as any other girl would do in that situation.

Without thinking, I launched my knee up into his stomach, and as he released his hold on me I spun to the side and whipped my leg out, throwing him across the room. He smacked into the wall and crumbled onto the floor. He stared back at me with wide, tear-filled eyes.

I blinked. "Oh." I didn't feel particularly bad about this, but, "Sorry, you kind of went a lot further than I was going for? And..." Irritation quickly bubbled up under the shock. "And what was that all about, anyway? You can't just do that to girls! It's rude!"

"Sensei said," he sniffed, scrubbing at his eyes, "Sensei said you were brain-washed by evil pirate-ninjas, and the only way to save you was through true love's kiss!"

...

Goddammit, Kakashi.

My shoulders dropped. "My true love is breakfast, and I've already had it. I'm fine, Naruto. Why would you believe something as stupid as that? And what is a pirate-ninja supposed to be?" I stomped over and hauled him up by the arm.

"Pirate-ninjas are horrible, evil, thieving ninjas who steal pretty girls away from their home! Obviously!" He pouted. Then brightened. "Wait, you're all better? For real?!"

"Uh, not really. I still can't remember anything." I scratched the back of my neck. "But the next person to try to kiss me is getting their mouth ripped off." I jabbed a finger into his chest. "Don't believe Sensei when he tells you weird things like that, he's just messing with you!"

There was a strange noise coming from behind me. I spun around and raised my eyebrows. Kizashi was doubled over choking out laughter; Mebuki had her head in her hands.

"Um, anyway…" I turned back to face Naruto and bowed. "Thank you for coming to visit me, but I'm going to be okay. I was just heading out the door. I'll see you tomorrow at training, though?"

"You bet!" He beamed and crossed his arms behind his head, all sadness forgotten. "We'll get you better in no time! You can believe it!"

I smiled. For a silly, hyper kid, he was pretty cool. His words echoed my earlier thoughts as I'd been walking out with my parents.

Things were difficult right now and I was confused, but I had wonderful people around me and a true desire to work hard and figure things out. As long as I was willing to try, everything would turn out okay, right?

...Right?

Chapter Text

The rest of the day and night went as smoothly as can be imagined, for a given level of 'smoothly'. Sakura's parents were perfectly happy to drag me around the house, show me where things were, guide me to my room, and point out various bits and bobs, talking about how I'd spent my free time.

The strangest thing was how familiar it felt. It wasn't until I was alone in the room going over the bookshelf, running my fingers over the titles on the spines, that I started to get an idea why.

We're similar after all, aren't we? Even the way the bookshelf was organised felt familiar to me; novels toward the top, heavier reading and nonfiction in the middle, textbooks on the bottom. And there were a lot of textbooks. I picked up a book titled Chakra: Form & Function and paged through; it was a pretty standard introductory medical text. Usually, girls around this age weren't interested in this kind of thing; I should know. Was she interested in bio-med too?

I stretched out on the bed on my stomach, looking at the diagrams with half-focus. I didn't know very much about her or anything about this place. Mostly just what I picked up from my little brother watching episodes in the background while I studied, or from the pure osmosis of pop culture one obtains from an internet connection.

I knew that they were ninja– mercenaries– who went out on various missions for Konoha. The story revolved around Naruto: the loud-mouthed and kind-hearted star of the show with some sort of special magic power, Sasuke: the emo boy who took everything too seriously and had magic eyeball powers, and Sakura: some whiny girl who yelled at Naruto a lot and had a crush on the grumpy one. She didn't seem to have any other purpose to the story, from what I'd seen.

No wonder I hadn't liked her much, if she was really me.

Hopefully, she was way cooler than my memory of her made me think, but if we were that similar, maybe not.

"Nah, screw that kind of thinking!" I said. Sulking wasn't going to help me; I needed to figure out as much as I could about this place and the new life I was in. I pushed myself up and looked again at the bookshelf. Maybe by studying, she knew a lot of jutsus. Was that a thing you studied, or a thing you just learned from someone and practised?

I walked over to the bookshelf and replaced my medical book with a few others. 101 Chakra Control Exercises, From Hara to Hand-Seals, and Katas for the Modern Kunoichi seemed promising, but I couldn't find any books that sounded like they'd explain how to do jutsus or throw weapons, or anything useful in combat.

The jutsus I could understand. That might just be something I'd have to ask Sensei about. But nothing on fighting? At all? Even I owned a couple of books on archery; my sister and brother were fanatics and tried to drag me out to shoot with them constantly. I was starting to wish I'd agreed more, now.

With a feeling rather like stepping off a small cliff, I opened to the first chapter of Katas for the Modern Kunoichi.

Two hours later, Mebuki opened the door. "Sakura-chan, lunch is ready… Sakura-chan?"

I was standing with one leg in the air, a heavy textbook on top of my leg, and trying to keep myself balanced while I was bent sideways with a palm on the ground. "Seriously?" I asked through gritted teeth. My leg started to shake. "We're supposed to learn fighting stances through yoga?"

Mebuki plucked the book off my leg and set it on my bed. "After lunch, you can. That does look an awful lot like how you kicked your poor teammate," she mused.

I carefully folded myself down to the floor, trying not to bend the wrong way, breathing deeply. "I'm not sure I deserve this."

"No woman ever does, darling." She clucked her tongue and left the room.

And so it went for the rest of the day, right up until bed. I ached all over, and I hadn't even done any real training yet. Overall, though...

At least my body hurts for an actual reason, this time. Seriously, it was hard to complain given that. And my mind felt so clear the whole day; any time I'd picked up a book to read through, focus came easily, no matter the subject.

Could it be the chakra thing? Didn't that doctor say I'd have an easier time with mental tasks? But that didn't explain physical tasks being doable in the first place for me. Maybe this body was just built better than mine. As much as I'd judged Sakura for not being much of a fighter, it was obvious she was in better condition than I was. Even the stances had felt vaguely familiar; there was some sort of muscle memory involved, something that didn't come from me.

I rolled onto my side in bed, nuzzling my face into the pillow. I felt my body slowly relax, the ache fading away to something barely noticeable. We'll just have to see how I hold up compared to the others, tomorrow.

And so there was evening and morning, my first day.

When I woke up, it was six in the morning; my alarm wasn't set to go off for another hour. I shut it off and stumbled into the bathroom, washing up for the day. It didn't take long for me to wake up; my body still felt great and I was buzzing with energy.

I tied the forehead protector on like a headband and stared at myself in the mirror, frowning. My hair was very long in the front; it kept wanting to fall into my eyes. That would get very inconvenient during missions, wouldn't it? Even during training, I was going to get sweaty; pulling it back in a ponytail wouldn't help much.

Humming, I pulled the headband back off and dug around for a pair of scissors. Hopefully, Sakura's parents weren't the type to get angry over D.I.Y. haircuts. If they were okay with the whole ninja thing, I highly doubted it.

It didn't take long for me to find out.

"Morning, Mebuki-san," I chirped. I was sitting at the kitchen table, munching on an apple and going over my Hand-Seal text. It seemed like they were important for directing chakra in jutsus.

"Sakura! Your hair!"

I looked up. She was in a dressing gown halfway toward the teapot, gaping.

"Oh. Does it bother you?" Oops.

"No, it's just… so short."

"A woman needs hair to match her temper!" Another voice exclaimed. Kizashi had arrived; it looked like he'd been up for some time.

I was spared any further discussion over the hair as they started bickering. I threw the apple core into compost, grabbed my book, and trotted back up the stairs to get ready. Fortunately, I had some idea of what to wear; my little brother had worn a Naruto costume for Halloween the past three years in a row, and somehow I almost always ended up being the one re-tying everything on it to keep from slipping.

Plus, I had the outfit I'd awoken in to give some idea. That helped.

Tights: Check. (Longer ones were available, thankfully.)

Shorts: Check. (Though if I grew another inch I'd be out of options that weren't ridiculously tight.)

Comfortable Shirt: Check. (No way was I wearing a dress.)

Weapon Pouch: Check. (Actual weapons in pouch: Check. Thank goodness.)

Watch: Check. (She hadn't been wearing one before but luckily owned one.)

Forehead-Protector…

I ran back into the bathroom, snatched it up, and paused. Memories of having to re-tie my brother's twenty times in one night made me hesitant to wear it on my forehead. Wearing it as a headband as before wouldn't be a bad plan, but I didn't have hair that needed pulling back anymore. I remembered seeing some shinobi on the street on the way home; not all of them wore them on their head.

Nodding to myself, I wrapped it around my waist. Perfect.

"Okay, I'm off!" I called, opening the door. Stopped. "Actually, do you know where Training Ground 3 is?"

To my relief, the place wasn't difficult to find. What bothered me more was that as I was walking, I found myself spacing out, yet found myself walking the path I needed to. I never turned onto the wrong street. Was this also muscle memory, or..?

I wandered down a path in the training grounds that was leading toward a clearing. It was the same one as before, with the wooden poles planted in the ground.

Someone was already there. I checked my watch; it was barely after seven. I'd expected to be alone; I was going to take this time to think.

As I got close, I found it was the dark-haired guy. Sasuke? That was the grouchy kid Sakura had a big crush on, right? Hopefully, this wouldn't be awkward.

I walked up to where he was leaning against a wooden pole, staring off into the woods.

"Good morning. You are Sasuke-san, right?"

He looked up. Blinked. "… Still can't remember?"

"Nope." I shrugged. "Kakashi didn't tell you?"

He gave me a flat look that I took to mean 'Have you met Kakashi yet?'

I snorted. "Alright, good point." I looked around; there were a ton of trees in the area. I could get some good kunai-throwing practice in before the others arrived.

"Your hair's gone."

I turned back to face him; he wasn't looking at me. "It's not gone, just short. I thought it'd get in the way." I paused. "Why do you keep your hair so long? Won't it be inconvenient?"

"Hn," he grunted.

"Fair," I shrugged. I guessed it wasn't my business. No wonder Sakura liked this guy so much: he was totally emotionally unavailable. "Well, if you're not too busy sitting, can you watch me throw kunai and tell me if I'm completely messing it up?"

It turned out that training was a better way to engage him than small-talk. I couldn't blame him.

He slouched over and we made our way closer to the trees; not very far away from my target, but I had no idea if I'd have the muscle memory for this and wanted to start small. I dug a kunai out of my pouch, and without much thought, threw it toward the centre of the tree.

It spun a few times in the air and flopped onto the ground about two metres in front of me.

"… That was terrible," Sasuke remarked.

"Yeah."

"Why are you throwing it like that?"

"That's the only way I remember how to throw them?"

My sister, upon realising my complete lack of motivation for archery, had tried taking me out for knife throwing on a few occasions. I sucked at it. I was hoping I would suck less at it now, but…

"You never hold a kunai by the blade. You'd just cut your hands open. If you used poisons you'd probably kill yourself."

I shrugged haplessly. "How do you throw them, then?"

'Invitation to Show Off' was evidently also a good way to energise him. He promptly pulled out three kunai and whipped them into the tree I'd been aiming at. They thunked into the tree in a perfect line.

"Can you do that in like, slow motion?"

He pulled out another kunai, held the handle between two fingers, and whipped out his arm and wrist. The kunai landed perfectly above one of the others.

He folded his arms. "Your turn."

I mimicked him as well as I could, flinging out my arm and wrist and–

Thup!

The kunai very barely nudged itself into the bark at the base of the next tree over.

"Still pretty bad," Sasuke remarked.

Another kunai out of my pouch- thup!

"At least that one was in the right tree. It's supposed to go in by the other end, though."

Argh… Kunai. Swing arm, wrist, thup!

"… How did you manage to throw that kunai behind you? If you're throwing weapons like that on a mission, you're more likely to hit yourself than an enemy." He sighed. "Even in the academy, your throwing wasn't that terrible."

I palmed another kunai, but instead of throwing, practised making the throwing arc with my arm a few times. "What was I like?"

"… Hm. Nothing special for kunai or taijutsu, but not the worst. You usually picked things up fast, though. Iruka-sensei always said it was because you had good chakra-control."

I paused in my attempts. That was… a lot more information than I'd expected. It didn't seem likely Sakura was friends with him during school; which meant he'd probably been keeping tabs on a lot of people. But there was something a lot more important in what he said. "What's chakra got to do with weapons or fighting?"

He paused in inspecting the edge of one of his kunai. "Everything. Obviously. Aren't you supposed to be smart?"

"Don't you know what 'amnesia' means?" I shot back. Clenched my teeth. Exhaled through my nose. "… Sorry. I appreciate you helping me like this."

He shrugged, looking away. "Better than having a liability." He weighed his kunai in his hand for a moment, before flicking it at the tree again. Thump! "There are two types of chakra; spiritual and physical."

"Oh!" Recollection flooded my mind. My brain– and body– produced mental and physical chakra, the doctor had said. He'd said mental tasks would come more easily for me, so I assumed chakra ran on automatic, but... "So chakra… do you have to try to use it on purpose when you're doing a physical task?"

He crossed his arms. "Not usually, but Iruka-sensei said that if you can direct your chakra, it can help. It's supposed to be difficult, but I think that's what you were doing."

Was that a compliment? Not for me, though. For Sakura.

Either way, I'd take it. I frowned and pulled out another kunai. Deep breath in, slow breath out. I directed my chakra until my hand started to grow warm, and flung the kunai outward.

Thunk!

It hit the tree, but barely. Another few centimetres would have been a complete miss.

"Your aim is still terrible, but at least the kunai went in the right tree this time." Sasuke sighed and walked forward to start collecting his kunai. I hung my head and followed.

When I got to the last kunai I'd thrown (the one that'd made it into the same tree as Sasuke's), I was pleased to see it was buried deeper than any of his. I grabbed the handle and tried to yank it out. It wouldn't budge. Frowning, I tried directing chakra into it…

Oh! It's working!

"Wait, what?"

Sasuke paused in removing his kunai, staring at the same thing I was.

As I'd started pulling the kunai from the tree, the hole it had made in the bark slowly began to seal back up. I pulled the kunai out the rest of the way, and we watched as the hole closed up completely.

"That's..." Sasuke began.

My eyelid started to twitch. "That's..."

"Hey, guys! What's going on?"

I almost jumped out of my skin. "Naruto!"

The blonde boy trotted up to us, grinning. "Hey, Sakura-chan! Are you ready for training? Wow! What happened to your hair? And why were you guys glaring at a tree?"

We stared at him. Then each other. Then the tree.

"I just… tried to take a kunai out, and the hole in the tree closed up."

"Only hers. Not mine," Sasuke added. "So it's not the tree. It was her. She just healed the tree with a kunai." He shook his head slowly. "That's..."

I shook my head. "That's just..."

Naruto grinned broadly. "Funky!"

Chapter Text

Sasuke sighed and shook his head. "Really? That's the first thing you say?"

"Heh," Naruto scratched his head. "Well, it is! Why did that happen, anyway? Was it a cool jutsu?"

"Uh, Inoichi-san said I'm a natural at Mystical Palm Technique, so I looked it up." I rubbed my forehead. "But this isn't how it works at all. Healing with chakra is dangerous… you're supposed to put a certain amount of chakra in, and it helps convince the body's tissues to heal. If you use even slightly too little or too much, then-" I waved my hands vaguely. "Real bad things."

"Maybe it wasn't Mystical Palm Technique."

"Yeah! It was Mystical Kunai Technique! You're a badass, Sakura!"

Sasuke and I both elected to ignore this.

"Maybe it happened because it was a tree?" I hedged. "Or because it was recent damage? But it's not like I was actively trying to do anything. There's no way something like this can work without intent; that's the whole point of the technique!"

Sasuke smirked. "Well, in the meantime, if we get hurt, try not to stab us to help out."

"I'll resist the urge." I rolled my eyes. This was going to be another issue I'd have to ask Kakashi-sensei for help with. I reflexively checked my watch. It was already eight o'clock. "Sensei is usually late, right?"

My knowledge of Kakashi was scarce, but revealing: 1) He was willing and able to do a lot of murder for his team. 2) He constantly ignored people in favour of reading, and 3) He was always, without fail, late.

Naruto frowned. "Well, we only met him twice, but he didn't get here for hours! So you're right, he'll probably be late again. That jerk!"

I shrugged. "Sasuke and I already went ahead and started training. It couldn't hurt to do more on our own, right?" Plus, Sasuke would probably appreciate training with someone who knew what the hell they were doing. I could stay out of their way and keep working with kunai on my own, now that I had a feel for it.

"Sounds awesome! What do you guys want to do?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke crossed his arms thoughtfully. "We already started with kunai. What else have you forgotten, Sakura?"

Oh. I honestly hadn't expected him to want to keep helping me; I'd gotten the impression I was annoying him more than anything. "Um… jutsu? I know all the seals, but my books at home were scarce on the method."

"At least you remember the seals! Those were hard to learn!" Naruto said.

I frowned. "It's weird. I don't know why I remember them; it's like my hands are moving on their own. Almost like I'm using Sign Language."

Sasuke raised his eyebrows. "You know a sign language? That could be good for infiltration missions where we can't talk without losing cover. What does it look like?"

"Well," I automatically raised my hands to sign as I spoke. I hesitated. "It's..." I blinked.

"Test," I said in English as an experiment. It worked.

[Test,] I tried to sign, and it came to me, but sluggishly; like recalling a word on the tip of my tongue.

"I'm sorry," I mumbled, frowning, almost glaring at my hands. "I've been signing for as long as I've been talking; my sister is deaf. I don't know why it's so hard to make my hands..." It wasn't fair. Sign was a language like any other, so why were my hands hesitating?

Naruto shuffled from foot to foot. "Sakura-chan? Are you okay? You don't need to show us right now if you're having trouble remembering. It's okay!"

"But I shouldn't forget!" My voice came out high-pitched. "It's all I can remember!"

What if I'm starting to forget my life? What if I forget everything from both worlds?If I'm left with nothing?

Sasuke looked away and shoved his hands in his pockets. "It's not important right now. We'll train in jutsu. Don't lose your focus." His voice was quiet and held none of the usual firmness I had grown used to hearing from him. He looked almost as awkward as Naruto; each of them different embodiments of pre-teen boys faced with an upset girl.

"Yeah, okay..." I let my shoulders sag. "So, jutsu." I let myself be engrossed in the new task. Sasuke was right; I needed to keep my head in the game. "How many did we learn in school? How are you supposed to move your chakra around for them? Why are the hand-seals important?"

Jutsu- spells- were in equal measure easier and harder to grasp than I'd expected. It quickly became clear why reading books hadn't helped me at all.

Surprisingly, Naruto's explanation helped me more than Sasuke's attempts. It was a subject he'd always struggled with; it was easier for him to see where I was coming from.

"The hand-seals help you remember the shape the chakra is supposed to be in. But you're also supposed to keep what you're doing in mind, and you're supposed to remember where to push the chakra, and you can't let it get all mixed up!" he grumbled. He'd known from experience.

"So for this replacement technique, it was..."

"Tiger, Boar, Ox, Dog, Snake," Sasuke said, demonstrating as he spoke.

Naruto chipped in to gripe: "And you're supposed to do 'em fast in the middle of fighting! It's a lot!"

"Where do I built up the chakra?"

"Your stomach and your hands. You build half the energy in your hands, and focus the energy of the stomach toward the object you want to replace with." Sasuke demonstrated the seals lightning-quick and disappeared to be replaced with a tree branch. I craned my neck around and found him standing behind me. "Each seal represents the shape chakra makes as it's created in different parts the body. By mirroring the shapes in a certain order," he shrugged. "You complete the jutsu."

I sighed. "I still can't understand why that works, but… Together, Naruto?"

"You bet! First one to do it wins!" He held up his hands in the Tiger Seal. "On three! One, two, three!"

I flipped through the seals as quickly as I could, trying to focus on building up the chakra in my hands and stomach, but as I reached the end I realised I'd forgotten to pick a target. I stopped myself, worried about what would happen if I completed it incorrectly. With my luck: get cut in half.

Naruto completed his; "REPLACEMENT!"

He did not move.

"Oh, whoops! I forgot to pick a thing to replace with, heh." He scratched the back of his head.

"… Idiot," Sasuke muttered.

"Me neither," I admitted. "Wanna try again?"

"You bet!"

Thus did Kakashi-sensei find us, two hours later, in respective states of panting, beaming, and smirking. Once Naruto and I got the hang of it, we started trying to replace with each other before the other could. This was very fun until Sasuke joined in. It almost felt like he was toying with us; it took him less than half the time to complete the jutsu.

It was a relief when Sensei arrived. I was sure he'd give us more exhausting training on top of what we were doing on our own, but it would have to be better than the nausea I was starting to get.

"Sensei! You're late!" Naruto exclaimed, pointing an accusing finger. His smile didn't quite fade away even through the shout, he had just gotten Sasuke twice.

"Maa, I was on my way when I found a helpless puppy. I had to nurse it back to health and find its home," Sensei drawled.

I clasped my hands. "Really? That's good of you, Sensei." I knew he was always late, but I never imagined it would be for reasons like that. I felt ashamed at my earlier poking fun at him. Who would have thought he'd be such a kind, gentle-

"He's lying," Sasuke deadpanned.

Kakashi-sensei grinned.

Oh.

Goddammit, Kakashi.

"Heh, obviously! We knew that!" Naruto shouted, wiping hastily at an eye.

"Maa, enough of that. We have important matters to discuss." Kakashi-sensei waved us over to a patch of grass and pointed us around until we were sitting in a semi-circle.

He crouched down in front of us, his one visible eye slackened, brow raised. "By now, you boys are aware of Sakura's amnesia."

Both Naruto and Sasuke wore expressions that I chose to understand as 'Yes, thank you Sensei. You are very wise and warned us appropriately.'

"There is an ongoing inquiry, so I'm not allowed to say much more... Suffice to say, we suspect enemy interference." His eye crinkled into a smile that held zero warmth. "And as it is a conflict of interest, I am not being updated with any results of the investigation."

If a statement like that in such an icy tone gave me the warm-fuzzies, I must be getting into the shinobi-mindset.

"In the meantime." He clapped his hands together. "Currently, Sakura has almost none of her memories. She only remembers a false identity." He looked at me.

There was a silence that I belatedly realised was an invitation to talk. "Uh, yeah. Sorry." I half-bowed.

Sensei waved it off. "For the sake of your team, I think a new round of introductions is in order. The boys will be familiar with this: likes, dislikes, and goals for the future."

Naruto bounced up onto his knees. "Oh, I remember this! Yeah!" He waved at me, even though we'd already met and just spent hours training together. "Nice to meet you again! I am Naruto Uzumaki! I like ramen! I dislike the long waiting time for ramen to be ready! My dream is to be the Hokage! You can believe it!" He beamed.

I couldn't help but grin back. I returned his wave. "Hi, Naruto."

I noticed everyone staring at me again and realised I'd set myself up to go next. "Oh! Um. My name is… Sakura Haruno? And… should I be telling you what I like, or what I've heard I like?"

"Just be yourself. You can keep us updated," Kakashi drawled.

My cheeks flushed. Right. There wouldn't be much point in reintroductions otherwise. "Um, my likes are… reading and learning new things. Um, I dislike trying new things and failing." I carefully avoided eye-contact with Sasuke. "My goal for the future..."

I stopped. It wasn't something I had been thinking of, so I was surprised to find out I did have a goal.

"My goal is to find out what happened to me and why."

"Good. And after that?" Kakashi prompted.

I blinked. The boys looked just as startled. It seemed they hadn't been asked this, either.

"Oh, I didn't..." I frowned and looked down toward my knees. Now that I thought about it, all the frantic reading I'd been doing, my practising jutsu until I was almost ready to fall over, my overall drive to learn to be a great shinobi: none of this had anything to do with my spoken goal. It was coming from somewhere else.

"I do have another goal. I don't know how to put it into words yet, but I know it's something I want above everything else. Maybe even more than the first goal." I looked around at them. "When I find the words, I'll let you know."

Kakashi smiled. "Very good. It's important to keep your horizons open. If you settle on one thing, you will get tunnel vision. You risk losing opportunities to improve yourself."

Sasuke clenched his fists. It didn't go unnoticed.

"Sasuke! Your turn," Kakashi ordered.

His mouth parted slightly before closing, his brows furrowed. After a moment, he began: "I'm Sasuke Uchiha. I don't like many things and I dislike most things. As for my goal, there is a man I want to kill." His voice started strong but dropped as he went on. He nearly whispered the last words: "I'm... an avenger."

I stared at him. We were all staring. But there was no way I could let that go. There was only one thing on the planet that could possibly be said to a declaration like that: "Shut up, you're twelve."

His head shot up to glare at me. "You're twelve, too."

"I am not. What part of remembering a different life can't you understand?" This guy was seriously starting to exasperate me.

"Yeah, Sasuke!" Naruto leapt to my defence. "You need to back off! Stop acting like you know everything!"

"Exactly," I huffed. "I'm fourteen!"

Chapter Text

Nobody was particularly impressed with me after our assembly. Both Sasuke and Naruto had tried to convince me there was little difference between our ages. I couldn't find a polite way to tell them that they were, in all practical terms, infants.

"Why were you so worried about… having to relive being a teenager?" Sensei asked, bemused. For some reason, he didn't seem comfortable using the word 'puberty'.

I crossed my arms. "Ask me when I start my first period." I ignored the various expressions of discomfort from the boys as another fun thought occurred to me: has this body started hers yet?

It hadn't even been the real reason at all, but now that I thought about it, it was fortunate I had a mother to ask for help with these things. Something told me Kakashi wouldn't be happy to explain to me what ninja girls usually did for this. They probably didn't get much opportunity to care for themselves on missions.

The real reason I was terrified of puberty was something I was even less excited about telling them. Because I still didn't know if it would happen or not.

In the real world, puberty was when my mind started to break.

And if Sakura and I were as similar as I thought we were, then my current clear-mindedness had an expiration date.

"It's not important," I said. "You're here to train us, Sensei. So can we train?" One thing was for certain; I was going to take advantage of every second I had until it was gone.

"Am I?" Kakashi drawled.

Even the boys seemed taken aback.

"You said we were meeting here for training!" Naruto jumped to his feet. "What the hell?"

"What's the point of having a sensei if you won't train us?" If looks could kill, Sasuke's glare would vaporise.

Kakashi put his hands up in front of him. "Maa, maa. Your dedication is to be admired." He raised his eyebrow. "I said training started at eight, and you were training until I arrived. Today has been successful."

We all gaped at him.

"That's what you meant?!" Naruto shouted.

I put my head in my hands. "You could have been a little more specific, Sensei..."

"There's only so much we can do on our own. You're supposed to teach us." Sasuke was not impressed.

"Well, there was this jutsu I was thinking about showing you..." Sensei drawled. We all perked up. "But you're all on the verge of chakra exhaustion, so it would be pointless." We sagged where we sat.

"Right… the replacement training, heh. But I still feel fine, Sensei!" Naruto said.

"Your teammates are not," Kakashi scolded.

And he was right. I hadn't been paying much attention since chakra wasn't a sensation I was used to, but my body did feel heavier. Almost like going from swimming in salt water to standing on dry land; there had been something keeping me up that was missing now. I looked over at Sasuke and he was slouched over where he was sitting, elbows on his knees. His posture had been almost ramrod straight, earlier.

"Is there anything we can do that doesn't take a lot of chakra?" I asked guiltily. The boys wouldn't have been practising that technique if it hadn't been for me.

"Taijutsu," Kakashi said, pulling out his little orange book. He began reading, even as the silence stretched on.

Taijutsu. Translation: sparring. That definitely sounded like something a teacher should be helping us with.

"Well?" I asked, breaking the silence.

"Hmm?" Sensei hummed, not looking up.

"Aren't you going to teach us?" Naruto asked.

"No."

We all drooped again.

"Then why even bring it up?" Sasuke groused.

"Because all three of you need to work on your taijutsu. So work on it. You clearly want me around, so I'll stick around." He didn't look up from his book once.

"You mean you want us to practise on our own," I said.

"That's bullshit! You're our sensei and you're going to help us!" Naruto ran up to him and his leg flew out to kick Sensei in the head; it all happened so fast there wasn't a chance to stop him.

Next thing we knew, Naruto was on the ground groaning, having kicked the wooden pole behind Sensei instead. I hadn't even seen him move.

Sensei peeked up from his book. "How much experience do you have fighting together?"

"… None," Sasuke crossed his arms.

"And how much experience fighting does Sakura remember at all?"

I scratched my head. "Uh, very limited." My little brother and I beating each other up for sport, while enjoyable, probably didn't count as proper martial arts.

"Hmm," Sensei hummed. "If I took you three out on a mission like this, you would be hopeless." He turned a page. "Consider it a teamwork exercise."

And so the three of us trooped away from the centre of the field toward a larger clearing, disgusted but reconciled.

"You know," I said. "I can't tell if he's being a good teacher or a terrible one."

"He's just lazy," Sasuke said.

"Hmph. We don't need him! We're going to be the best ninja team in Konoha! We're better off without him! You can believe it!" Naruto shouted.

I smiled. "You bet."

"Alright, Sakura! Show me what you've got!"

For a moment it was like I had double vision.

'C'mon, sis! Show me what you got!' A short blond boy in front of me, fists raised in front of him, eyes sparkling in excitement.

The similarity between Naruto and my eight-year-old brother almost made me laugh. "Prepare your ass to meet grass!" I crowed, running forward to meet him.

His fists were up and knees bent forward for balance. I crouched and spun on one foot, trying to kick behind his knees. He yelped and jumped into the air; as my foot met the empty space I let my momentum continue to jump away from him before he could retaliate. We faced each other again, fists raised.

Sasuke made a noise of disgust. "Stop hesitating!" he called. "If you do that in a real fight-"

I took his advice immediately and ran forward as though to shoulder-ram Naruto, spinning at the last minute to slam an elbow into his back.

"Ow!" He growled and rolled with the hit to elbow me in the chest.

"Ow, hey!" I yelled.

Sasuke sighed and sat down, propping his chin in his hand. He stayed in that position for the twenty minutes it took me and Naruto to beat each other up until we were both sat on the ground glaring at each other.

"That was sloppy," Sasuke said. He sounded nearly as bored as sensei.

"Rematch!" Naruto shouted, jumping to his feet.

I let myself fall back into the grass. "Sasuke's turn. I'm whooped." Stupid energetic brat. My stamina might have been better than I was used to, but it was nothing in comparison to Naruto's energy. I'd have to do a lot more exercise if I wanted to build up physical chakra as the books instructed. Ugh.

I rolled over on my side, propping my chin in my hand to watch the boys fight. Sasuke was smirking and Naruto had a feral look in his eye. I grinned. This was going to be a good one.

My grin faded five minutes later. Naruto was getting his ass kicked. Sasuke wasn't kidding about not hesitating; he didn't pause for a moment and Naruto kept getting blindsided.

Ten minutes later, Naruto was still getting his ass kicked, but he landed a hit or two on Sasuke. That was something.

Thirty minutes later I stopped holding my chin up and drooped onto the grass. I checked my watch and looked to where Sensei had been sitting; he was long gone.

An hour later I fell asleep.

I awoke to a shove in the shoulder. "Ow, rude, why," I grumbled, looking up at my attacker. It was a very winded and grouchy Sasuke; a beaming Naruto was behind him. I blinked.

"Sorry, guys, it was a good fight. I was just so tired." I raised an eyebrow at Naruto. "You won?"

"Heh-heh. You can believe it!"

Sasuke was still panting; sweat was beaded on his forehead. "He didn't win, it's just time for lunch."

I snorted. "He's energetic, isn't he?" In a battle of attrition, it looked like Naruto was at the top.

"Hn," Sasuke grunted.

"He just wanted us to stop 'cus he knew he was getting his ass kicked!" Naruto was gleeful. "He's lucky I'm so hungry! Let's go get ramen!"

"Sounds like a plan." I hauled myself up and reached down to drag Sasuke up as well. He didn't seem pleased with the gesture. I wasn't sure if it hurt his pride or he just wasn't touchy-feely. Possibly both; my brother and I kicking each other's asses was more or less the extent of our physical affection. It drove my sister nuts. It wouldn't surprise me if Sasuke was that type as well.

Why hug when you could grapple?

Sasuke squirmed under my grip. "I'm fine, I don't need your help. You can let me go."

"Nice try, loser." I slung my other arm through Naruto's; he seemed much happier with the gesture. "You're not ditching us, we're going out to eat together. Lead the way, Naruto." I was glad there was already some cash in one of the weapon pockets; I wouldn't have thought to bring some on my own.

"Hell yeah! Ichiraku, here we come!"

We made it to our destination together, even though Sasuke had twisted out of my grip before we left the training ground. Fortunately, he stuck with us, sending us suspicious glares the whole time.

"Stop being such a dweeb," I groused, fitting myself into a booth between both boys. "We're not going to poison your ramen or anything."

Naruto gaped. "Who would poison ramen? That's just evil!"

Sasuke and I exchanged a glance. There was a silent agreement between us: check Naruto's food if a stranger tries to feed him on a mission. Yikes.

I hummed and glanced over the board, still weirded out that I could read it at all. "This is a lot more complicated than the ramen I'm used to. What should I get, Naruto-sama?" I grinned and bowed. "You seem to know your stuff."

Sasuke rolled his eyes as Naruto puffed out his chest. "You can believe it! Hey, Nee-chan!" he called, summoning the approach of a lady; she looked to be at least five years older than us. Naruto must come here a lot if he was calling her his big sister; they didn't look related at all.

"It's my best customer!" She smiled at him. "And who are these two? Friends of yours?"

"You can believe it! These are my teammates." He pointed a thumb in my direction. "Sakura-chan was just asking what kind of ramen she should get. She's never had real ramen before!"

I ducked my head. "Only cup noodle, yeah."

The woman smiled. "Nice to meet you, I'm Ayame. What kind of foods do you like best?"

I frowned and thought for a moment. I didn't know a lot about Japanese food. "I like breakfast foods; eggs and that kind of thing. And I like miso soup."

She smiled. "What kind of meat?"

"Chicken?" I asked. She nodded.

"I'll get you our miso ramen with chicken and egg. Along with some vegetables. You ninja work hard, you need your nutrition!" She grinned at Naruto, who pouted. This was clearly a familiar conversation between them.

I stared at her in wonder. "You can put miso in ramen?"

"Believe it!" Naruto crowed.

"Ramen is the best!"

Sasuke dropped his head onto the table. I could almost feel the regret for recent life decisions radiating off of him.

I patted his arm consolingly. "You're just tired. You'll feel better when you eat."

In short order, we were doing just that. There was a companionable silence that was only marked by the sounds of three people wolfing down food as fast as they could chew. I hadn't realised until the food was in front of me, but I was famished.

Once we were all on a second bowl, we slowed our pace. I asked the boys between mouthfuls: "Kakashi left before setting up more training; do you think he'll take us on a mission tomorrow?"

Naruto gulped half an egg down whole and frowned. "He's probably gonna be all like," He scrunched up his face and his voice dropped in a poor imitation of Kakashi. "Maa, you kids can go on missions yourself!"

Even Sasuke smirked at that.

"Wanna meet up for training again tomorrow? I still kinda suck at everything, and I don't think we practised enough taijutsu yet." We'd only succeeded in wearing ourselves out.

"Sure!" Naruto said. "Same time? I hate getting up early but I'm definitely gonna sleep early tonight!"

My sore muscles agreed with him.

"Same time, same place," Sasuke smirked. "I want a rematch, Dead-Last."

"Hey!" Naruto and I exclaimed. We looked at each other.

"Tag-team?" I asked.

"Tag-team!" Naruto shouted.

It was early evening by the time we finished eating and went our separate ways. Even under the exhaustion, I was excited to make Sasuke regret more of his life choices. Kakashi-sensei wanted teamwork? He'd get it.

I smiled all the way home, losing myself in the swell of the town, chattering villagers and running schoolchildren around me. I was so lost in my thoughts, I hadn't even noticed that my feet took me home on their own, treading their way down unfamiliar streets.

I may have even had a chance to figure it out, but my next distraction of the day was waiting on my doorstep as soon as I returned. A girl with long, platinum blonde hair was slouched over in front of the door, head in her hands.

"Hello?" I asked. The girl's head snapped up and she jumped up to her feet. I only had a glimpse of the tears in her eyes before she tackled me in a hug.

"There you are, Billboard-Brow!"

I stood stock-still as the girl sobbed into my shoulder. That one glimpse of her face had been painfully, achingly familiar.

"You're so dumb!" she yelled, muffled against my shirt. "How do you get attacked with your sensei right there?"

My throat was dry. This wasn't right. She was too short, too young. She spoke with words instead of hands. But I couldn't mistake that face, that expression.

"… Sis?"

Chapter Text

Volume 2. To the Right!

Chapter 7: Mirror, Mirror


The girl leaned back and rubbed at her eyes. "What?"

The word had come out in English; Sis was more of a nickname than anything else, I guess.

I stared at the girl in front of me. Sharp features, thin eyebrows, which I'd recognised. Wide blue eyes where I expected brown. They were similar, at least. I had no way of telling if this was what Sis might have looked like when she was twelve; she'd already been fifteen when I was born.

The girl knocked a hand gently against my forehead. "Hey, do you even remember me? I'm Ino. Your best friend. Well, and rival," she chattered on, the tears slowly subsiding. "Dad told me everything."

"Who's your dad?" Though her name rang a bell.

"Inoichi Yamanaka. He was the first person who..." She trailed off. "You don't remember me at all, do you?" Her lip started to tremble.

I scrunched up my brows. "Ino-Pig..." I said experimentally. It felt right. It shouldn't have felt right; 'Pig' was the sign I always used on my sister when I was annoyed at her, a pun on her real name.

And my mind knew in Japanese, Ino meant boar.

My eyes started to sting; I rubbed my knuckles against my face. "I'm so confused."

The hug she wrapped me in next was far more gentle. "I can tell," her voice was shaky. "If you'd cut your hair like that." She snorted. "Are you trying to give Sasuke to me, or what?"

I returned her hug now, staring sightlessly at the house behind her. "What's he got to do with it?"

Ino sighed and released her hold on me. "Let's go inside, we've got to talk." Her eyes were still watering.

I shuffled anxiously. "I can… make you tea?" Even though I was as bad off as she was, I still never quite knew what to do with crying people.

"That's just like you," she laughed. "Thinking a tea party will make me feel better."

I stared at her.

[That is you, Fat-Brain!], my sister signed through tears and laughter. I'd found her slouched over the dining room table, beer bottle in hand, crying over her latest breakup. I didn't know what to do, so I made a cup of tea and put it in front of her. [See problem, give tea!]

"Yeah," I said, voice cracking. "That's me, alright."

It wasn't long before we were seated at the kitchen table, tea in hand.

"You really have forgotten everything, haven't you?" Ino asked, looking far more composed. She held a formal posture and sipped at her tea daintily; she wasn't kidding when she called it a 'tea party'.

"Yeah, I'm sorry." I rubbed at my hair. "Uh, as for Sasuke, I remember liking him, but he seems like a bratty kid to me, so." I waved my hand vaguely. "Have at it? You seem nice, so I'm not interested in being rivals with you. I just wish I remembered having a best friend."

Of course, there was no way in hell I was going to tell her how much she reminded me of my sister.

Ino scoffed, the sound a strange juxtaposition against her formal way of holding herself. "How pathetic do you think I am? I'm not taking advantage of my friend having amnesia. You'll remember soon and we can fight for real." She sipped her tea. "In the meantime, you're better off having me watch out for you. You can be pretty hopeless sometimes. Like that hair." She gave me a scandalised expression.

"What's wrong with my hair?" I asked. "We're ninja, long hair would get in the way. Lots of girls have pixie-cuts."

Ino huffed. "It's not that, even if you managed to make it a lot more even than I would expect from you." She looked me over. "And I see you made the fashionable choice of tying your Konoha headband around your waist like me. But that hair," She rolled her eyes. "There's no way you're going to impress Sasuke-kun with that. At least give me a real challenge!"

"He's a twelve-year-old emotionally unavailable dweeb who thinks he's an Avenger!" I whined. "I really, seriously don't care!" I paused. "Uh, not to be mean. He's been helpful with training. But seriously, Ino."

She squinted at me. "You really are hopeless."

"Ino-chan! What a surprise!" Mebuki came through the door. "We didn't expect you! Were you the one who left the flowers at the hospital for Sakura-chan? Did they come from your shop? Oh, they were beautiful," she gushed.

Ino's antagonistic expression melted away into something softer, more sheepish. "Yes, well. Dad told me she had an accident and couldn't remember anything, so I thought I'd bring her some daffodils. They've always been her favourite. They wouldn't let me in so I made dad take them in for me."

I stared at her. I vaguely remembered that there had been a bunch of flowers on the bedside table when I'd woken up in the hospital.

I swallowed thickly. Daffodils were my favourite too. They were the first flowers that bloomed after winter and were my reminder that spring would come soon. Why couldn't I have remembered someone like Ino? She must have been someone precious to me.

It was the first time I'd genuinely thought of myself as possibly being Sakura. Maybe that's why she reminds me of Sis.

"Thanks, Ino. I appreciate it." My voice came out in a mumble.

"Well, don't let me get in the way of you girls," Mebuki said. "I'm sure you have plenty of catching up to do!"

Ino's face fell in an instant. "No, you should stay here, Obachan." Her voice was flat. It was unnerving. "I didn't just come here to visit. There's something you need to know."

I felt goosebumps rise along my arms. That did not sound good at all.

Ino looked down at her tea. "My dad told me what happened because we're friends. I'm not supposed to mention it to anyone. I wasn't even supposed to tell you I knew." She looked up. "I didn't know why until earlier today… I wasn't supposed to find out, but we had one of the elders visit our house this afternoon."

"One of the elders?" Mebuki asked weakly.

Ino sighed. "Dad works with T&I, you know… Torture and Interrogation. And he's part of Jounin Command." Her eyes hardened. "I wasn't supposed to hear, but it was too fishy to pass up. I did a Mind-Body Switch with a squirrel I'd seen outside my window."

"Mind-Body Switch?"

She nodded. "It's part of my family's Blood Limit. We can take over the minds of other people. Or animals, in this case; genjutsu techniques work on anything with a brain. It's risky in combat because our real bodies are vulnerable, but I was in my room so..."

She took a sip of tea. "But that's not important. I listened to everything. I don't know which elder it was, but he was telling dad that having an enemy attacking like this, especially having the first victim being a genin right out of the academy- it makes Konoha look weak." Her expression was sharp. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

My mouth felt dry. "They don't want me telling people what happened."

Ino nodded. "Or anybody else you've talked to spreading it around. You'll probably get a visit from someone tonight. I wanted to warn you." She looked down. "If you need to tell someone you lost your memories, tell them it was a training accident. Those are common enough. They'll assume it was a concussion, or that you had a mind-related ability like mine and something went wrong."

I let out a slow breath. Who knew so far? Kakashi, of course, and the boys. My parents. I hadn't told anyone else yet, had I? It didn't come up when we were eating ramen, I don't think we mentioned it in front of anyone.

I told her as much. Her shoulders sagged in relief.

"Good. Keep it that way. They probably had people tailing you, so that brings down the number of people they're going to have to follow up with." She frowned. "I didn't sense anyone around when we were talking outside though, so they might have stopped by now."

Yikes.

She shook her head. "They're all freaking out, you know. Security has gone up. Not just in Konoha, but in all of the outposts as well. They're having Intel people checking on anyone who's had memory problems in the last month… and with ninja being what they are, that's a lot."

I winced. "Concussions. Yeah, that sounds about right."

Mebuki put a hand to her chest. "Thank you for telling us, Ino-chan. Fortunately, her father and I haven't brought up the details with our friends yet… we were hoping it might wear off." She smiled at me apologetically and ran her fingers through my hair.

Ino sighed. "Good." She drained the last of her tea and stood up. "I'd better get going. If anyone is coming back to watch you and I'm here for longer than a get-well visit..." Her smile looked forced.

"Oh, yes of course." I scrambled up, and we met each other in a hug.

"Thank you," I whispered.

"Be good," she muttered back.

As she was walking out the front door, she called back loudly, "And don't forget, Sasuke is mine!"

"We'll see about that!" I yelled, playing along.

As the door closed, Mebuki and I looked at each other.

"Can you..?"

"I'll talk to your father," she said. "Why don't you go have a rest while I get some dinner ready."

I nodded blankly and took her advice; all the energy I'd had during the day was flushed out of me. I wasn't tired enough to sleep, but I couldn't find the focus to read, either. I lay on my bed and stared at the ceiling.

It wasn't fair. I hadn't done anything wrong, and just having this happen to me was messing up the lives of everyone I came in contact with. Not just them, but everyone in the village. Being interrogated because of me.

I rolled over to face the wall. The worst part was… I didn't even know what happened. I still felt like me, but as more time went on, the less convincing that felt. I had mistaken Ino for my sister and had seen my brother in Naruto. If I really was Sakura and had a jutsu cast on me, isn't that what they'd do? Trick me into thinking the people I knew were someone else?

That would explain why Naruto and Ino were familiar; I had someone close enough to compare them to in the life I had. Maybe I hadn't had enough adults around to compare to parents or Kakashi.

I flung an arm over my face as I felt my thoughts fall into the familiar spiral.

I knew I should stop blaming myself, stop making myself anxious. I should find something to make myself feel better, more in control, like my therapists always said.

But while the energy this body gave me wasn't gone, I still had my own mind. My body wasn't going into fight-or-flight; I didn't feel too heavy to sit up. But that didn't stop me from feeling hopeless.

"What's the point of all of this?" I asked the empty room. What am I supposed to do? I don't even know who I am anymore.

Even amid misfortune, my good luck streak started back up in the form of a knock at my door. "Sakura-chan?"

I took a deep breath and walked over to the door, trying to school my face into something that looked more sleepy than distressed. Maybe I could convince her I was napping.

When I opened the door, I found Mebuki standing with a relieved smile. "We have a visitor," she said. "Inoichi-san has come for a visit."

Oh.

Oh my God. I seriously lucked out. I kept owing the Yamanaka family more and more.

My shoulders dropped as her relief reflected into me. "That's awesome. Is he staying for dinner?"

She waved me along as we trooped downstairs. "We'll have to ask him."

Inoichi Yamanaka had the kind of face that seemed like it could look right through you. As he took in our expressions, a slow grin spread across his face. "Hello, Sakura-chan. It's good to see you looking so well."

"Hello, Yamanaka-san." I bowed. "It's good to see you! Will you be staying for dinner?"

His smile turned apologetic. "I would love to, but I'm afraid I only have time for a quick visit. I simply wanted to check in on you and talk with you and your parents for a moment."

"That's good of you!" Kizashi called; he must have come home while I'd been sulking. He walked into the kitchen and slung an arm around my shoulder. "Her memory is still gone, but she's been working hard as always."

"And Ino-chan was kind enough to visit," Mebuki chimed in. "It was sweet to see them teasing each other like always," she continued blithely.

I didn't look at her. Man, she's a smooth operator. Inoichi should be offering her a job.

Inoichi smiled. "So I heard. She's been fussing over visiting you all day." He scratched his head. "I'm glad you girls are, uh, still getting along."

"So what did you need to talk about?" Kizashi cut in. "Does she need to see more of those head-doctors of yours? She's always been a head-case!"

"Kizashi!" Mebuki rebuked.

"Well, yes," Inoichi smiled. I blinked, taken aback, but he continued, "Her doctors at Konoha Hospital have suggested she visit with a psychologist when she makes her chakra-scan appointments. She's welcome to go more often if she chooses, but they want to keep up with her at least monthly as she becomes reacquainted with her daily life."

"Oh. Sure, I guess I can do that. I mean, being a ninja can be dangerous, so it's probably a good idea anyway..."

Inoichi nodded gravely. "Quite so. But I also wanted to talk to you three about something else."

I stiffened. "… Bad?" I echoed one of our earlier conversations.

He raised his eyebrows and the serious look lifted from his face. "Not that bad, I assure you," he said. "But as we believe your injury may have been an attack, there is an investigation ongoing. I was sent to ask that you not let on the source of your amnesia."

"Why not?" Kizashi asked.

"We don't want the wrong person to find out we know, if it's an infiltrator." He looked at me. "So be very careful whom you tell. I'm assuming you've already told your team?"

I nodded.

He sighed. "We thought that may be the case. I'll talk to them. Your sensei already knows," he said, tone leaning toward sharpness.

I pursed my lips to fight back a grin. Sensei was probably making it a point to randomly appear around Inoichi again.

Glad he doesn't only do it to me.

The visit ended shortly after as Inoichi left to badger my teammates. Dinner was a quiet affair, but not a strained one. If it weren't for Ino's earlier visit, we'd never have known how serious the situation was. And nobody was in the mood to bring that up.

Later, after a long shower, as I tried to scrub away my aches and pains, I found myself sitting on my bed, staring blankly at the bookshelf.

I wrung my hands together, took a deep breath, and walked over to grab a book on chakra control exercises.

I read all night until I fell asleep with the book in my hands.

Chapter Text

I snorted awake at six in the morning again, punching for an alarm clock that wasn't yet sounding. This can't be healthy, I thought groggily, stumbling toward the bathroom. I never wake up this early. I'm dying. This is how it ends.

I splashed water onto my face and rubbed my arms to get my blood flowing. I still felt sore from training yesterday, but I could feel the comforting glow of chakra buzzing inside of me. Just like the book said… food and sleep brings it back. I brushed my teeth and tried to make myself look sentient, eventually walking back to my room with barely a stumble.

Instead of dressing normally as I had before, I held my palms over my clothes and gently pulsed chakra through to pick up each article of clothing. I'd been reading and practising with 101 Chakra Control Exercises all night and blazed through every exercise in the first half, until my chakra started to ache. I wanted to keep up with it. The boys were probably perfect at this by now.

The action helped wake me up; I grabbed another book and trooped down to the kitchen, putting on a kettle for tea. I picked out some leftovers for breakfast; after yesterday I knew I'd need more than an apple for energy.

This was how Mebuki found me, just as yesterday. She poured herself a cup of tea and sat across from me. "So what are we reading today?"

"Chakra: Form and Function," I said, skimming through the text. I was idly trying to stick my feet to the wall beside me as I read on. "It's interesting stuff."

"Has your chakra been bothering you?" she asked sympathetically.

I hummed. "Not in my body, no. I feel fine. But it was doing weird stuff when I was practising kunai yesterday, so I want to check and see if I'm doing something wrong."

She hummed and sipped her tea.

"Oh, that reminds me," I put the book down. "What do ninja girls do for their periods, anyway?

As it turned out, they asked their mother what to do and set an appointment with the hospital. She said she'd have something set up for me and we could go after training sometime in the next week. She assured me I wouldn't have to deal with blood until I was ready to have the procedure reversed, if I decided I wanted children.

That's one more crisis averted. I was starting to like this place.

In short order I was waving goodbye and heading out toward training. I took a quick detour to order some lunches for myself and the guys; I felt I owed them for helping me get up to speed on our training. Plus, with food on hand, we could get our energy back up if Sensei decided to appear to take us on a mission.

He knows the time and place, I thought to myself. He should figure out where we are. Everything is going as planned, right? Yeah, I was still annoyed about that.

So it came as a surprise when I found Kakashi already there when I arrived at seven-fifteen. I double-checked my watch to be sure.

"Sensei!" I called as I approached. He was sitting in front of a stone marked with many tiny names; I'd noticed it the other day before training. Some kind of memorial.

"Maa, my busiest bee." His eye crinkled into a smile. "And carrying so much luggage!"

I dropped my pack onto the ground and sat cross-legged next to him. "Just lunch and some books; I was going to read until the boys arrived." I studied the memorial in front of us; there were a lot of names. "I don't want to be rude, but did you know..?"

He nodded. "My dearest friends have their names listed here. This memorial lists the names of shinobi who have fallen while performing their duty."

I adjusted my posture until I was sitting on my heels; it felt more respectful, somehow. I bowed toward the memorial, the gesture feeling both alien and natural. "I'm sorry. It's hard. I know."

He glanced sideways at me. "Have you lost someone, Sakura?"

Everyone I know, technically. "In my other life. My parents."

We sat side-by-side in wordless commiseration.

After a while, I said quietly, "My mother was sick. They ruled my father's as a suicide. He blamed himself."

He rested a hand on my shoulder. "Don't make the same mistake."

I looked down. "I know that now. I was just a kid. Only eight. There was nothing I could do." Seeing my little brother reach the same age finally made that clear to me, after all this time.

He squeezed my shoulder, and gently pushed me to face away from the stone. "What books did you bring? I hope something to make your Sensei proud." He smiled.

"I don't want to hear that from a man who only reads Make Out Paradise," I scoffed, digging through my bag, taking out a few books and setting them in a stack. I passed one book in particular to him. "Here, it's a book on chakra. There's something I wanted to ask you about. You might know better than my books; none of them cover my problem very well."

"Problem?" He raised an eyebrow, flipping idly through the pages.

I nodded. "Yesterday, while we were training..."

As the story poured out, Kakashi's face grew more and more perplexed.

"...And no matter what I read, putting chakra into an object just can't do that. I'm stumped. I've been trying to think of different experiments I could try to see if they go the same way, but none of the chakra control exercises have gone weird like that."

"I think this is something you need to show me."

After we made our way into the copse of trees and I demonstrated with a kunai several times, he held up a hand to halt me.

"Now I want you to use chakra while you put the kunai in."

I did as he asked.

He put a hand over it, paused for a moment, and drew the kunai out. The hole in the tree remained where it had cut through.

"Did you use chakra too?" I asked.

He nodded. "Show me again."

This time he held a hand over my arm as I repeated the exercise. He frowned at the smooth tree bark I left behind. After a pause, he stabbed the tree again, pulling the kunai back out. "Try again. Just your hand, no kunai."

I placed my hand over the hole and ran the chakra through. It was a strange sensation. As my chakra passed into the tree, it felt almost like that chakra tasted different, or smelled different. It was hard to pinpoint the sensation.

I removed my hand; the hole remained.

"That felt weird," I admitted. "Do trees have chakra? It felt… different."

He nodded. "Everything has chakra. Anything alive has more." He studied me seriously. "If you can sense it clearly once it touches your own chakra, pay close attention from now on to what you touch. It's a very good skill to have, especially if you can improve your range."

"You said you took me to T&I because you could sense fluctuations in my chakra. Do you mean like that?"

He gave me a considering look. "If you can hone this skill, it could become the greatest tool in your arsenal. You'll be better able to tell friend from foe, or when someone has undergone sudden changes." His eyes darkened. "Serious life events or changes within a person can completely change their chakra signature. Never ignore it."

I shivered. "Yes, Sensei. I'll work hard."

He smiled. "I know you will." He started walking back toward the Memorial Stone; I followed behind him. "You may have the least practice of your team, but that means you have the greatest potential. Your world is still open. Don't squander it. In the meantime, be careful where you imbue your chakra. Feel only, don't push. You don't want to injure someone by accidentally trying to heal them."

"Yes, Sensei."

Once we were back in view of the stone, I realised we were no longer alone; Sasuke and Naruto had arrived.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto jumped up and pointed an accusing finger at Kakashi. "Sensei, you made her late!"

"Maa, I had arrived very early, but had to help repair a poor girl's broken heart over long-lost loves from ages past."

"Liar," Sasuke huffed.

I gave Kakashi a considering look. I wondered just how often he wasn't lying.

"Maa, maa. Enough of that. Gather around, Team Seven. It's time for another meeting."

We resumed the semi-circle we had taken yesterday, sitting around Kakashi-sensei as he sat in front of us.

"Bad news, Team. We're grounded."

"Grounded?" Naruto exclaimed. "What did I do?!"

Kakashi shook his head. "Nothing any of you have done. Now, I'm not supposed to be telling you this, but as it directly involves you, they've left me with no choice," he drawled.

My skin crawled. That sounded familiar.

"We're temporarily banned from taking missions."

We all gaped at him.

"Why?" I asked. "That's the entire point of us being a ninja team!"

Kakashi waved his hand. "You are correct. Unfortunately, since one of my genin has been the target of an attack, they don't want us running around, in case the perpetrator tries to strike again." He paused. "Konoha is on high-alert. We are likely not the only ones to feel the effect, but as far as I know, we are the only team who are unable to take any missions."

The air thrummed with disappointment. I looked at the boys; Naruto's face was a mask of incredulity, while Sasuke was glaring at Kakashi suspiciously. "No missions at all?"

Kakashi's eye crinkled up into a smile. "Of course not. After all, who would expect little old me to look after my genin while they embarked on something as dangerous as D Ranks?"

The air seemed to crystalise around him. Brr.

I wrung my hands together. Once again, lives were getting messed up because of me. Now it was my Sensei and my teammates. "Do you need me to hurt someone for you, Sensei?" I asked. "Because I will absolutely hurt someone for you if you need me to."

He patted my head affectionately. "Our delicate flower is always a balm on this old man's soul. No need, Sakura. This is only temporary, I'm sure."

I eyed him critically. He was definitely younger than my sister, at the least. He couldn't be older than twenty-five at the most. "Okay, but if this goes on for longer than a week, I'll march down to the mission-people and yell and cry and make everyone feel bad about themselves."

"Why do I feel like you're not lying?" Sasuke asked, sounding more intrigued than anything.

"I can yell and cry too!" Naruto said. "We'll cause a big scene! And then we'll prank the whole office!"

"Damn straight!" We high-fived.

"I feel like I should be stopping this," Kakashi muttered. "It's probably my job to stop this."

"Lazy as always," Sasuke grumbled, crossing his arms. "Let them do it. They'll probably do something worse if we try to stop them."

"This is about honour!" I retorted. "This is totally up your alley, Zuko!"

He furrowed his eyebrows. "...Zuko?"

I waved him off. "It'd take me like, five years to explain. Just trust me, it fits."

"I have literally never trusted anyone less than you," he shot back.

"Liar. Naruto and I are your best friends now. You're stuck with us forever."

As Sasuke slouched and reflected on his terrible life choices, Sensei gestured at us to simmer down and refocus.

"The fact is, they're right about one thing: you're all targets. Especially you, Sakura-chan. You're going to need my help if you're going to be defended when you're on your own. Konoha can't be considered the safe-haven you're used to."

Naruto cottoned on first. "You're going to train us? For real?!"

Sasuke jerked out of his pity party to stare at Sensei.

"Yes, of course. I'm your teacher, after all. When have I ever let you fend for yourselves without my instruction?"

We all carefully kept silent and avoided looking at one-another.

"So what are we going to learn today?" I asked breathlessly. This is what I'd been waiting for.

His eye curved into a smile. "I'm glad you asked, because you're the one who brought the lesson plan."

"… What?"

He reached behind him and pulled up my copy of 101 Chakra Control Exercises. "Make sure you train hard!" He beamed, dropping the book in front of us before disappearing in a puff of smoke.

There was a lengthy silence as we stared at the book in front of us.

"… I think I actually hate him," Sasuke said, his voice mild.

"I still can't tell if he's being a great teacher or the worst," I admitted.

"A book, Sensei?" Naruto whined, inching away as though the book would crack open at any second and snap at his fingers.

I reached out to take the book first. "These were all pretty easy for me, but if Sensei thinks it's important… What chakra-control exercises do you boys know?"

Sasuke shrugged. "Just leaf sticking. That's what they taught at the academy."

I stared at him. Leaf-Sticking was literally the first exercise the book listed; I'd used it just getting dressed his morning. It was the easiest and least-useful exercise. "Naruto?"

The boy in question shrugged. "Same here. It didn't seem important."

I frowned. "How can you tell when you're using too much chakra for your jutsus, then?" I hadn't noticed until after my practices, but the main reason I'd been exhausted yesterday was from overpowering the jutsu, too worried about using too little and failing. The overexertion was likely making the jutsu harder to control, at that.

The boys shrugged.

They'll kill me if I told them Sensei was right, again, I mused, paging through the book. I'm definitely leaning toward him being a great teacher.

"Okay, here's an index." I dragged my finger across a row of exercises. "These ones are harder, but they seem the most useful. Silent Foot, Tree Walking, Water Walking, Snow Walking, and Air Pocket."

The boys leaned over, silently reading the descriptions.

Sasuke spoke first. "We can't learn snow walking yet. They all seem useful, though. We should go in order."

"Have you learned these, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked.

"Just the first one; I was practising in my bedroom last night, so there wasn't much to test myself on. The book said that Silent Foot translates well into the others, though. The feet are one of the hardest places to channel chakra, and once you get that down, the others should come easily."

Sasuke smirked. "Excited to teach us for a change?"

"Maybe a little," I admitted. It felt pretty good from this side of the helping hand. No wonder they hadn't complained when I needed their help.

It wasn't much long after that we found ourselves practising our Silent Foot around the trees. At least, I was practising, Sasuke was glaring murderously at the ground, and both of us were trying to listen to ourselves over the sound of Naruto causing mini-explosions under his feet.

"You know," I called back to him. "Even if you don't get it right, Foot Explosion Technique could come in handy." I paused. "Please use as little chakra as possible and work your way up, though. I can't hear."

There was a distant grumbling; Sasuke and I had banned him to a few dozen metres away to help us out.

Sasuke stepped on a twig which gave a light crack!

"Slowly," I murmured, focusing on my feet, trying to get a feel for the chakra embedded in the leaves and earth. It held a faint taste of petrichor, and I could practically feel the bacteria churning away in the soil. "Give your chakra time to feel around. You can speed up later."

He grunted in acknowledgement.

A couple hours later I had managed to make my steps entirely silent, and Sasuke had his down to a light whisper. We hadn't heard any explosions in a while.

"I think that's enough for now; I brought us lunch. Want to go find Naruto?" I asked.

"GOTCHA!" A pair of hands grabbed around my middle and lifted me into the air.

I screeched.

"Naruto!" I yelped. "Put me down! You jerk!"

"Idiot," Sasuke said idly. Then frowned. "We didn't hear you. I didn't expect you to figure that out before I did."

"Heh heh," Naruto set me down and scratched the back of his head. "When I kept messing up I moved further away, and since I didn't have anyone to practise with I made a whole bunch of clones. I guess having lots of us working on it at once made the whole thing go by faster!" He beamed.

I closed my eyes. "Wait. Are you saying that your clones remember stuff you're working on?" My mind whirled. If I could get used to making illusionary clones, I could read two books at once.

"Huh? Don't they always do that?" Naruto asked.

"They don't," Sasuke said, unintentionally getting his revenge for all my teasing by crushing my hopes and dreams.

"Huh! Well I guess my Shadow Clones are extra awesome and can do more stuff!"

"I have never envied anyone more in my life," I said. "We're going to eat. I'll pick your brain about this later."

"Sounds gross!" Naruto wrinkled his nose, before perking up. "Lunch? Want to go to Ichiraku again?"

"Nah," I said, leading them as we headed back to the Memorial Stone. "I bought us lunch. Since you guys were cool about helping me the other day."

"Sakura-chan..." Naruto wailed. "I think I love you even more than the old Sakura!"

"… I'm pretty sure I should be offended."

"She is less annoying," Sasuke remarked, seating himself by the stone as I passed out lunches.

"… Okay, I am offended. I don't know if I'm really Sakura or not, or if any of this is real," I groused, opening my bento box. "But we're definitely damn similar. And if I get my memories back or me and Sakura switch places again, you're getting your asses kicked."

"I'm okay with that!" Naruto chirped. "How about you, Bastard?"

Sasuke grunted, already digging into his food.

"I actually hate you both," I said.

"Nah, we're your only friends. You're stuck with us, remember?" Naruto grinned. Even Sasuke smirked.

"Hate."

Chapter Text

The next few days followed the same pattern, save a few key differences. For one, Ino started making it a habit of meeting me at my house after dinner every day, talking to me about her team, complaining about her D-Rank missions (to my silent envy), and bringing up stories of the childhood I couldn't remember.

The other change, far more concerning as the days went on: Kakashi was entirely absent.

Sensei, what on earth are you doing?

Training fell into an easy routine. Sasuke and I would show up early and work on our kunai throwing (straight lines for me, thrown objects to knock out of the air for him), and when Naruto arrived the boys would move onto Tree Walking exercises while I threw kunai and supervised. Chakra control exercises came to me easily, so my time was better spent on physical efforts.

It was during this part of our training, on the third day with no Sensei in sight, that Naruto started getting antsy and asking unfortunate questions.

"Ne, Sakura? You had a whole other life, right? Was your name Sakura there too?"

I glanced around the clearing. We were alone, fortunately.

"Naruto, didn't Inoichi-san talk to you? We're not supposed to talk about that," I deflected.

Sasuke flipped backwards on the tree branch he'd been sitting on, holding on with his knees. "Nobody is around. It's fine."

I threw another kunai into the tree. Thud! "Look, it's not important. It's a stupid name. 'Sakura' is fine, just call me that."

This was evidently the worst way to stave off curious pre-teen boys.

"C'mon, tell us!" Naruto wheedled, jumping down from his tree. "There's nobody around, I've got clones all over the place!"

"That bad?" Sasuke asked.

Thud!

"Look, it's not important."

I could feel their eyes boring into me. They weren't going to let this go. Better to get it over with. "… Fine. It was Karin." I threw another kunai.

"Karin? That's a super pretty name! Why are you so embarrassed about it?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke lost interest and resumed trying to hold himself under the tree branch by the soles of his feet.

I mumbled my response.

"What was that?" Naruto pressed.

"… It's short for Sakarin. It's a dumb name. My parents were jerks. Just drop it."

Sasuke dropped out of his tree, landing in a crouch like a cat. "… Those are similar names. Sakura. Sakarin."

I huffed and walked forward to gather my kunai. "Saccharine. The language where I come from, it means sweet. My sister said my great aunts and uncles kept pronouncing it Sakarin, so it stuck before I was even born. It's a dumb name. Forget I ever told you."

It was hard to say what was worse: all the boys in elementary school calling me 'Sack' and scrawling dirty things in my schoolbooks, or the girls constantly dropping sweets on my desk for the 'sweet girl'.

Going to a new middle school and going by Karin was the best thing that'd ever happened to me. Next to waking up in a world where nobody knew my real name, at least. I wouldn't have told the boys to begin with if they'd known English.

"Wow, so you must really like sweet things!"

I whirled around and threw my next kunai at him. Pop! He vanished in a puff of smoke.

"His dodging needs work," Sasuke mused.

"Stupid boys with their stupid clones that ask stupid- dammit, he remembers everything his clones hear, doesn't he?"

"You knew it wasn't the real Naruto?" Sasuke sounded impressed.

"… Sure, let's go with that."

Apart from the real Naruto running back to us and complaining, the rest of this part of practice went off without a hitch. Following was Jutsu practice, eating lunch once our chakra levels dipped, and then into taijutsu.

Sasuke grabbed my ankle in mid-kick and flipped me onto the ground. "You're moving too slowly."

I sat up and rubbed at my calf. I wasn't getting winded as quickly, but nothing could stop the lactic acid buildup in my muscles each day. "Yeah, I know. Maybe you should switch with Naruto; he's getting good, I'd probably be fine with a clone..."

We both looked toward where Naruto was brawling with several of himself at once. Every few seconds, another clone would vanish in a puff.

Sasuke snorted. "He still can't dodge. Get up."

I bowed my head in acceptance and climbed to my feet, reconciling to a new batch of bruises. As I started to fall into stance, I paused.

"Did you just… feel something?" For a moment the air had seemed to shiver.

"Hn?" Sasuke glanced around suspiciously.

There was a sudden chain of popping noises from behind us. "OW!... Wait, hey, Sensei! YOU'RE LATE!"

"Sensei!" I cried. I ran toward them, Sasuke on my heels.

Kakashi was standing over a fallen Naruto with a smile in his eye. "Maa, I leave you for three days and you still get blindsided so easily..."

"Sensei! Where were you? What happened?" I asked breathlessly, skidding to a halt in front of them. He didn't look injured, so it couldn't have been anything serious. Had he just been avoiding us this whole time?

"Settle down, kids. It's time for another meeting."

We followed him curiously and sat in the familiar semi-circle in front of the Memorial Stone, Kakashi at our head. His smile didn't fade.

"Good news, Team. The embargo has been lifted."

"YES!" I exclaimed, pumping my fist into the air. "Sensei, how did you do it?"

"Huh? What's that mean?" Naruto asked.

Sasuke crossed his arms. "We're allowed to take missions again."

"What?! YES!" Naruto leaned over to give me a high-five. "Yeah, Sensei, what did you do?"

"Maa, what makes you think I was involved?" he drawled.

We stared at him. He suddenly disappears for three days after hearing we were banned from missions, and as soon as he returns, we're allowed on missions again? In what world wouldn't Kakashi have been involved?

"… Let's just say a certain Konoha operative caught a team of foreign ninja skulking outside our walls."

Oof. Sucks to be them.

Sasuke glanced over at me, then back to Kakashi. "Did this team have anything to do with what happened?"

"Who can say?" Sensei said. "But it's enough of a lead to give T&I something to work with."

Double-Oof.

This did not seem to satisfy Sasuke. If anything, his glare had intensified. "Where were they from?"

"Not important." Kakashi raised an eyebrow. "For now, focus on taking missions in your pay grade."

"Hell yeah!" Naruto whooped. "Oh man, I can't wait! We're gonna save princesses! Stop evil pirate-ninjas! Save cities from giant monsters!"

I carefully didn't look at him. From what Ino had said, D-Ranks ran more along the lines of grunt work. Babysitting, finding lost pets, digging up vegetables…

"I hope you are prepared," Kakashi said. "How have you been doing with your chakra control?"

"We're awesome! We're ready to learn cool jutsus now, Sensei! Believe it!"

"Oh-ho ho..." Kakashi chuckled darkly. "We'll see about that. I have a new trick that you may find nearly impossible..."

"Bring it on!" Naruto jumped to his feet. "I ain't scared! We've been working our butts off, no thanks to you!"

"Then follow me."

We followed Sensei into the forest, twisting and turning through the trails as the trees became taller and wider. Eventually, we stopped before a broad-bodied tree that stretched upward for several storeys.

"Now..." Kakashi smiled, dark amusement colouring his voice. "Climb to the top of this tree… without using your hands."

We all exchanged glances. Sensei worked in mysterious ways; there was probably a point to all this.

Almost in unison, we ran forward and made our way up to the top, each picking a branch to sit upon.

"Now what?" I yelled back down. Was he going to teach us a flying jutsu? This seemed like a dangerous way to start something like that.

Sensei stared up at us. He was too far away for me to make out the expression on his face. "… Come back down."

Bemused, we climbed back down and lined up in front of him.

"Was that supposed to be a metaphor or something?" I asked.

Sensei pinched the bridge of his nose. "Since when do they teach tree-walking in the academy?"

We shuffled and looked at each other. Naruto spoke first. "They don't, we taught ourselves. It was in Sakura's book! You're the one who said to learn from it!"

Kakashi sighed. "… I didn't think you'd pick the hardest exercises to do first. Have you started water-walking yet?"

I nodded. "Kinda. The boys were having trouble with it though, so they're trying to perfect their tree-walking first," I said, with an apologetic glance in their direction. Neither looked offended. Perhaps exceeding Kakashi's expectations had lifted their sense of pride.

"I take it you've already succeeded, Sakura?"

"Well, yeah. I've been focusing on other stuff."

Kakashi sighed again. "I suppose you leave me with no choice…"

My heart started thundering in my chest. Was this it? Had we exceeded his expectations so much, he was finally willing to train us in real jutsu?

"There is nothing to do… but to leave you three to your current training schedule. It's better than anything I had planned."

We drooped.

Sensei smiled. "After training tomorrow, meet me at the missions desk. Noon on the dot. Don't be late!"


We weren't, tempting though it was. It was decided between us to leave early and pick up lunch so we could eat outside the office.

I found myself sitting between the boys on a bench while we waited, making our way through char-siu bowls.

"… And so you should remember not to get too excited," I finished between mouthfuls.

"What if their Sensei is taking them on boring missions on purpose? We train a lot and Kakashi knows we're strong, right?"

I shook my head. "For the last time, Naruto, that's not how D-Ranks work. They start us off at the lowest level and we only get bigger missions after we prove ourselves." I fished the last few grains of rice from the bottom of my bowl. "Just be grateful we're getting missions at all."

Sasuke crossed his arms. "How many D-Ranks have they done so far? How many does it take?"

"Dunno," I said, snagging Naruto's empty bowl and throwing ours away together. "Ino said they've done two a day since the day after graduation, and they haven't taken any C-Ranks yet."

"Hn. So six days times two missions each day… Twelve missions, to get caught up with everyone else."

"We've spent those days building up our stamina," I said. "If the missions don't take very long, we might be able to do more than they would in a single day."

"Yeah! Let's do ten missions today!" Naruto cheered, jumping up to his feet on the bench.

"Maa, eager as always."

"Sensei!" I checked my watch. "You're early! It's only twelve-thirty!" I hadn't expected him to show until at least two in the afternoon. His early arrival greatly increased the number of missions we could feasibly do in one day.

"C'mon, Sensei, hurry up!" Naruto grabbed his arm and dragged him bodily inside the building, Sasuke and myself following.

And so began our first day of D-Ranks.

Initially, I thought Naruto was being wildly enthusiastic about getting ten missions done in a single day, but… they were pretty easy. Most of the jobs they had available were task-based, not time-based. Our training came into play far more than I would have expected. At first, I thought they were supposed to be basic jobs meant to ensure we wouldn't mess up something simple, but as we went on, I could see different skills coming into play that might be important on future missions.

Our first D-Rank involved digging up yams in a field. It would have been a daunting, depressing task a few days prior, but between Hand-Seal training increasing our dexterity, general training on moving quickly while performing complex actions, and Naruto's completely overpowered Shadow-Clone technique, we had the field cleared in a half-hour.

"Well, I'll be." The farmer who had hired us mopped sweat off his brow. "You're not the first ninja I've hired, but you damn sure are the quickest. Normally that takes the kids a couple of hours. It's nice to have professionals, I'll have to hire you more often."

"Well, anything else we can help with while we're here?" I asked. From what I'd heard, it was possible to add extra missions onto an already-approved contract.

The farmer scratched his head. "Well, if you're sure, I wouldn't mind some help getting the produce and equipment back to the storehouse. Your work so far has certainly been worth the pay."

It didn't take long at all, and the client was pleased with us. With his signature marking two missions complete and a glowing review to boot, we were ready to move onto our next mission.

The next mission we received was familiar to me; Ino had complained constantly about getting stuck with it. 'The Infamous Tora Mission' it was called in genin circles. Apparently, the Daimyo's Wife had a cat with a penchant for escaping, and we were next in a long line of rescuers.

We collected intel from the Daimyo's Wife on Tora's last known location, went to the training ground the cat was last seen in and spread out in a line to comb the forest.

"I hear something," I heard Sasuke say from several metres to my left. I closed my eyes. I couldn't hear anything, but I could almost feel something was different…

I walked in a diagonal line between us and up into a tree.

"Mreow!"

"Mission Complete!" I called down, hugging the spooked cat against my chest, one hand gently holding the scruff. "Poor baby."

The Daimyo's Wife was overjoyed. As it turned out, "about fifteen minutes" was also considered a very short time for this mission.

What were they even doing? I grumbled to myself. We didn't even need clones this time.

We were trying to avoid exhausting Naruto. Once we figured out how useful his clones could be in a pinch, we'd avoided deploying them unnecessarily.

Next was removing an old tree from a client's yard. Too easy. Zero clones, thirty minutes.

Next came removing furniture from a shop's showroom and painting the walls. With only one extra clone to help out, we were finished in less than an hour. Piece of cake.

"So what's next?" I asked when we were back at the missions desk. It was early evening, so we'd probably have time to squeeze in at least two more missions if they went the same way as the others. Kakashi looked almost painfully bored.

"Give us something harder, would ya?" Naruto jeered.

"Naruto! Don't brag!" A man at the desk shouted, throwing a new mission scroll at his head. His name was Iruka-sensei. He was apparently one of our teachers at the academy and something of a big brother to Naruto.

"Ow, I'm sorry, geez!" Naruto rubbed his head and unfurled the next scroll. "Huh? That farmer guy again?"

The Hokage, leader of the village, a hero among heroes, and for some reason fixture of the missions office, smiled. "He was very impressed with your results and came to commission your team in particular."

Iruka-sensei smiled. "So don't go around knocking the easy jobs. If you do the little jobs well, the bigger jobs will fall into place for you without you even noticing."

"Precisely." The Hokage puffed on his pipe. "It will be considered an extended D-Rank mission, with the potential of upgrading to C-Rank. Very rare to be given to a genin team on their first day. He has requested your help bringing in the rest of the harvest from his fields, and then to help deliver the produce to several villages beyond the outer perimeters of Konoha. While this should not be dangerous, we may upgrade your mission to C-Rank if you come across any bandits." He folded his hands together. "This is expected to take at least a week." His mouth twitched. "But this is not a maximum, should you find yourselves done sooner."

"He expects you in the fields at ten in the morning," Iruka continued. "If you continue impressing your clients, you'll be considered for increased levels of responsibility in your missions. I expect you to continue working hard. Get some rest, you've done enough for one day."

Sensei let out a long breath. "Finally."

When I turned around to look at him, he was already gone.

I groaned. "What a wimp."

"Lazy," Sasuke grumbled.

"Alright, Team! Let's get dinner! Ichiraku?"

"Ichiraku!" I cheered, grabbing Sasuke's arm before he could escape.

It was a damn good day.

When Ino came to visit that evening, I was more grateful than ever that we'd been accepted into D-Ranks today. I'd have been painfully jealous otherwise.

"… And Shikamaru keeps grumbling about it, but I'm going to make sure he works hard! I'm so excited! Our first C-Rank!"

I grinned at her over my teacup, crossed my ankles, and leaned back onto the grass. There was a cool breeze, the soft sound of crickets, and the moon shone brightly in the sky. A perfect evening for relaxing and chatting outside.

"When are they giving you the details?"

"We're meeting our client at the missions desk in the morning. Hokage-sama says the mission should only take a few weeks, but I'm going to pack extra supplies just in case." She scrunched up her nose. "Unlike your boys, I'm stuck with the laziest team ever. It's all the way in the Land of Waves, we'll be lucky to get there in a month with how those boys drag their feet!"

I snorted. "It's just escorting, I'm sure they'll do fine."

She nudged my shoulder. "I bet by the time I'm back you'll have already done five C-Ranks."

"I'll try my best, Ino-senpai." I grinned and knocked back the rest of my tea. Putting the cup aside, I sprawled on the ground, comfortable and content, enjoying the stretch after a long day of work.

Despite the ups and downs, life here was starting to look up.

Chapter Text

"Sakura-chan? Are you saving up for something special?"

"Mm?" I looked up from my book; my voice came out mumbled around a mouthful of toast. Mebuki and I were having our early morning tea before we left for work and training.

"Because if there's something you need, you know your father and I would be happy to help, don't you?"

I swallowed my food and cleared my throat. "Uh, I'm not really. Where's this coming from?"

Mebuki frowned. "You received five payslips in the mail this morning for missions… Didn't you have your first mission yesterday? What on earth have you been doing, child?"

I hid my grin with a sip of tea. "Oh, you know. This and that."

"Sakura!"

I snorted out my next mouthful of tea and dissolved into helpless giggles. That had been the exact tone of voice she usually reserved for Kizashi.

Slowly, her look of consternation eased into something gentler. "Oh, it's good to hear you laugh again, Sakura-chan. Your father and I have been so worried… Your doctors were right, training has been good for you."

I rubbed the tears of laughter away and gave her a wide smile. "Yeah," I rubbed at my eyes again. "Yeah." I cleared my throat. "Don't worry so much. We're just going on lots of missions and working hard so we can get better ones..." I hummed. "Now that you mention it, maybe if I save up a lot of money, I can find classes on using medical chakra. Inoichi-san said I had a knack for it."

Mebuki frowned thoughtfully. "I'm not sure where such classes would be offered… perhaps at the hospital? I doubt they would charge you, but they may ask that you volunteer time with them… Would you like me to ask around?"

I nodded. "I've been pretty busy lately, but I'm sure I can find the time somewhere. It would be useful. I've always-" I stopped myself. Thought it over again and decided. "I remember wanting to be a medical researcher or doctor, in my other life. I don't know if I ever wanted anything like that here, but..."

Mebuki smiled, stood, and kissed the crown of my hair. "I'm sure you can do anything you set your mind to. You're a smart girl, Sakura-chan. There are a lot of active-duty ninjas who are also medic-nin. You don't have to decide between the two if you don't want to."

My shoulders relaxed as a weight I hadn't noticed lifted. There was a strong part of me that had always wanted to learn everything the world had to offer, and the case was still out on whether the ninja path would lead me in that direction. My new life had soft, vulnerable spots that I was still working my way around, trying to balance who I was and who I wanted to become.

Furthermore… Mebuki had never wanted her daughter to be a ninja, and even with this clear way of averting that path, she'd remained supportive.

"Thank you."


I'd expected to be alone in the training grounds that morning. With how we'd been training every single day, and having a mission later on in the morning, I'd expected the boys to look forward to a break.

Instead, I'd found that not only Sasuke but Naruto had arrived early.

"Hey, Sakura!" Naruto called, looking up from a fight with Sasuke. He promptly got knocked in the jaw. I winced.

"Cheap move," I chastised Sasuke as I approached closer.

"It's a fight. Both of you need to learn how to handle distraction and stop hesitating."

"Hey," I said, genuinely hurt. "I've been doing a lot better!"

Sasuke shrugged. "Yeah, I know."

I blinked at him and then let out a wide smile. "Senpai noticed me!"

His puzzled look did nothing to dispel my glee; if anything, it made it even better.

"Ne, Sakura! I acknowledge you too!" Naruto prompted.

"And I, you, brat!" I laughed, catching his head under my arm for a noogie. "It's a warm-fuzzy family all around!"

Sasuke made a noise of disgust. It was shaping up to be a beautiful morning.

In a short time, we all found ourselves sitting around doing basic chakra control exercises. We had a lot of work later in the morning; it was decided that we should avoid wearing ourselves out either physically or chakra-wise.

The boys were trying to balance tree branches in their palms by the tip of the branch, channelling chakra through to support the weight evenly. Their steps through the woods were uneven and slow; I thought it was odd since they seemed to be doing well with the exercise, but then realised I couldn't hear their footfalls. They were trying to do Silent Foot at the same time.

I might have been able to tell sooner, but I'd gotten used to using Silent Foot full-time. It seemed like a good habit to have, and it gave me the added benefit of keeping up my training on sensing the chakra under my feet.

I'd been starting to worry I had let the chakra-sensing fall on the periphery of my training; something I ran in the background instead of focusing on implicitly. Thus, as the boys wandered around doing chakra control, I found myself with both palms firmly planted on a tree trunk. Feeling with my chakra, not pushing.

I had been worrying for nothing. It was almost an addictive sensation; it was no wonder using it in the background came so naturally to me. Now that I'd gotten accustomed to feeling the environment around me, not doing it would feel akin to scratching out my own eyes.

A smile lingered on my lips as I held my eyes closed and felt through the tree-rings, to ants crawling under the bark, to the temperate patience of nutrient flowing through xylem and phloem tubes…

"Hey, Naruto? Can you stand still for a sec? I wanna try something," I said, finally removing my hands. Now that I was fully accustomed to it, I was no longer worried about pushing my chakra by accident. I wanted to see what the chakra of people felt like, not just plants and dirt.

"Huh? Sure."

I walked over to where he was balancing his branch and placed a hand over his arm, as Sensei had done with me not so long ago. I closed my eyes and let my chakra reach-

"Whoa! That's weird. Whatcha doing?"

"Huh," I breathed. "It's like… Sensei was telling me to work on my chakra sensing, so I wanted to see what your chakra felt like compared to the tree."

"Cool! What's it like?" He scrunched up his nose thoughtfully. "Well, I think I can feel your chakra too but it just kinda feels weird."

I hummed. "It's like..." The tugging feel of his chakra flowing through him, directing toward his hand to support the branch, overwhelming in its current. "It's like falling through the air in a cloud of leaves... Or running through the woods, or like a strong sea breeze… It's hard to describe. It's nice, though."

"Cool~!" He drew out the word. "Your chakra just feels like you, but like, way more nosy."

I glared at him. "Thanks."

"Try Sasuke-Bastard next!"

Sasuke looked back at us and shrugged. I took that as permission and walked over to place my hand on his shoulder.

He blinked. "He's right, that feels weird."

"Shh," I hushed, concentrating. I frowned. "If Naruto's chakra is leaves in a sea breeze, you're more like smoke from burning leaves." I could almost smell it, the same way I could almost smell the sea-salt and foliage in Naruto's. "Like burning leaves in a storm, or static in smoke. Huh."

"Mine's way better then, right?" Naruto prompted.

I let go of Sasuke and backed off. "Nah, they're both completely different. I can't compare them like that. They're both nice." I shrugged awkwardly.

For some reason, it felt like trying to compare them both on deeply personal traits. It was a little embarrassing. I would have almost regretted bringing it up, but I felt like I knew something about them now, and it was something I'd rather know.

"I wonder what your chakra's like?" Naruto mused.

I shrugged. "I'll have to ask Sensei later if you guys can't tell." I checked my watch. "Speaking of which, we'd better get on our way; we don't want to be late for our first big mission."

"Does this count as a big mission?" Sasuke asked, letting his tree branch fall to the ground as we began strolling out of the woods.

Naruto put his hands behind his head. "Yeah, I think so! Hokage and Iruka-sensei were making a big deal out of it."

I nodded. "If we make this guy happy, it's going to make us look a lot better to clients. Remember what they said yesterday? The more we impress the clients, the better the missions we'll get."

Sasuke grunted. "Plus, if they spread the word around..."

"People will hear about how awesome Team 7 is and ask for us specifically." I grinned.

"Hell yeah!" Naruto pumped a fist in the air. "We're gonna be the most famous team in Konoha! You can believe it!"


We were nearing the old man's farm grounds when we caught sight of a woman staring up a tree on the side of the street.

"Baby, come down!" she wailed. The other pedestrians were giving her a wide berth.

"Oh!" I exclaimed, recognition dawning. "Isn't that the Daimyo's wife?"

Sasuke grunted. "Her cat must have gotten loose again."

We approached closer; she had tear-marks running down her face, spoiling her makeup. She turned at the sound of a shouted greeting from Naruto. She looked just as surprised to see us as we had been to see her.

"Oh! It's you again! I was just taking my baby home after we went shopping and a loud noise scared poor Tora-chan up a tree! I was about to give up and go to the Missions Desk again..."

"Don't worry, Obachan! I'll rescue Tora for you!" Naruto crowed.

I grabbed the scruff of his jacket before he could run up the tree. "Hold on. You still haven't learned to combine Silent Foot and Tree Walking yet. Let me handle this."

In due time, Tora was back in the arms of a very grateful woman. "Oh, I'll be sure to go down to the desk and let them know-"

Naruto scoffed indignantly and I waved her off. "This one's on the house, Obachan. It wouldn't be right to take your money for something like this."

"Feel free to tell everyone how awesome Team 7 is, though!" Naruto chimed.

"Oh, you!"

Naruto wailed as she pinched his cheek, and before long she was tottering away gaily, cat-in-arm.

I patted Naruto's cheek affectionately over the pink-pinched skin, with more force than strictly necessary. "Someone needs to get Tora-chan a harness..."

"Ow… ow! Sakura-chan!"

"Let's go," Sasuke cut in. For once, he was the one grabbing us by the arms and hauling us forward. "We're going to be late if you keep this up."

"Hell no! I'm not gonna be like Sensei! You can believe it!"

"Oh, yeah? Wanna race, brat?" I quirked an eyebrow at him. Ever since my conversation with Sasuke about using chakra to enhance muscle, I'd been trying to remember to use it with every physical action I did. A sprint would be a great way of testing myself.

"You know it! On three! One, two- Oi! Sasuke-Bastard! CHEATER!"

It wasn't long after that we found ourselves in the fields, arriving several minutes early at that. Naruto and I had made it in an exact tie; neither of us was in the mood to include Sasuke in the rankings. Kakashi was already there, sitting in the shade, reading. I wanted to accuse him of being early, but I didn't want to discourage him from good habits. Something told me he wasn't going to involve himself in the task at hand anyway.

Now that we weren't focused on just one patch, looking out at the extended fields was daunting. I didn't have the best eye for measurement, but the edge of the fields had to be well over a hundred yards away.

"Well, we have over a week to pick these vegetables and deliver them, so we should just focus on harvesting for today..." I gave Naruto a sly smile. "Which means we don't have to worry about conserving chakra for later."

"Yes!" Naruto laughed; his voice echoed back the same word twice, five times, a dozen times, twenty times.

I watched the Narutos running around and arranging themselves to different lines of the field we were working in. I slid my gaze over to Sasuke. "He may be a brat, but he really is the Most Valuable Player on this team. I hope you're alright with that."

"Hn," he grunted, working his way over to a row of his own.

"Don't get me wrong; you're my favourite training partner, but this kid does work."

Sasuke did not deign to reply. I followed his lead and went to work on my own row.

Five o'clock found us lined up in front of the old farmer again, sans nineteen Narutos. The farmer was shaking his head slowly, gazing at the sorted piles of vegetables in the crates behind us.

"Seven hours and every single field… twenty-four ninja for the price of four, well, I'll be..."

"Kakashi hardly counts," Naruto grumbled under his breath. I elbowed him, but gently. He had been too helpful to get annoyed with. Even if each individual Naruto moved slowly, it would still have taken us days to get through it all without him.

"Well!" The farmer put his hand on his hips. "Just throw some tarps over the crates for today; no point taking them all the way to storage. We'll put a wagon together in the morning and get on our first delivery; three days early!" He guffawed. "You ninja are really something!"

"Thank you, Ojiisan." I bowed. "It's always a pleasure to work for you."

"And don't forget to tell all your friends how awesome Team 7 is!" Naruto said. This time, Sasuke elbowed his other side. Naruto had taken our remarks about satisfied customers far too closely to heart.

"Oh, don't you doubt it, kiddo. Finish up and head on home, I'll see you the same time tomorrow. Get lots of rest, you deserve it!"

We covered the crates, cleaned up our tools, and made our way back out to the main streets of town. As soon as the old farmer had turned his back, Kakashi had disappeared again.

I cracked my knuckles "Good job, Team 7!… Is what Kakashi-sensei should be saying right now, I mean."

Sasuke grunted. "The client was happy, that's enough."

"Yeah, we don't need him!" Naruto was floating on cloud nine; it was amazing what a tiny bit of praise did for that kid's mood.

"Thanks again, Naruto. Without your clone-trick, that would have taken forever." I smiled widely at him. "How about I treat you boys to ramen tonight?"

"YES!" Naruto punched a fist in the air, simultaneously grabbing Sasuke's arm in a death grip. "Ichiraku, here we come!"

"… Why do you both always feel the need to grab me? I'm not going anywhere."

I shrugged. "You just kinda have that look."

"Yeah, that look," Naruto parroted.

"What kind of look?" Sasuke scowled.

"Yeah, that one! That's the look!"


Dinner with the boys was always fun, but it was lonely to come back home and spend the evening without Ino around. Maybe I should stop taking Naruto to Ichiraku and just bring the boys straight home for dinner. They'd make the house feel more lively.

I stretched my arms forward and turned another page in my book, skimming idly.

[… which hold a limited amount relative to their molecular structure. Unlike isotopic…]

I pulled back and pushed my legs in a split, bending forward to stretch my hamstrings, and turned another page.

[… and the residual energy… as heat or other output depending… common conductors of chakra variants…]

I froze, staring at the spread of pages in front of me.

It was right here, all along, in the very first book I'd cracked open in this room; Chakra: Form & Function.

"It can't be that simple," I mumbled to myself. I lunged forward sharply to snatch up the book and winced in pain as I overstretched a muscle. I curled up in a ball and cursed silently to myself.

"So dumb..." After I managed to massage my muscles into something more 'sore' than 'agonising', I picked my book back up and read through the chapter carefully. Twice.

I put the book down.

Chakra changed depending on its shape, makeup, purpose, container, and position.

If you purposefully concentrate some of your body's chakra into a certain muscle group, that muscle group would use the energy of the chakra to perform its natural function, to greater effect. No chakra would be wasted, as the chakra would be operating within its natural channels.

If you push chakra into a kunai and throw it, the chakra will reinforce the molecular structure of the kunai, helping the bonds along the edge of the blade stay tightly bound. Greater levels of chakra imbued in the blade would instead radiate outward, to be loaned toward the energy being expended in its flight; an extra jolt of energy to the existing kinetic energy.

If you're a natural at Mystical Palm Technique, but have no idea how to measure the energies, putting your chakra into a kunai lodged within damaged wooden cellular structures will fill the metal's molecular structure. The only energy that would radiate outward would be the precise amount of energy not needed to remove the kunai from its position, and the only form of chakra that would be accepted into the wood would be that chakra that could be used to repair the damaged structures. If you surpass this amount, the wood would simply break.

If you had good chakra control, you had an instinct for the exact amount of chakra that you can put into an object before causing strain, damage, or in more extreme cases, explosions.

These key factors in mind, thus when holding just a palm against that same damaged section of wood, the result would not be the same. Without an object to direct the path of chakra and act as both conductor and limiter, the energy would flood beyond the cellular structures and radiate outward to dissipate as heat, instead of running the minimum amount needed for the damaged cells to complete their natural healing cycle.

Which is a very long way of saying…

For completely normal, non-weird, scientifically-backed reasons…

Until I reached an immaculate level of chakra control...

I could only heal things with kunai.

Mystical Kunai Technique.

My head thudded against the book in disgust.

"Seriously?"

Chapter Text

"I'm cute," I mused, staring into my bathroom mirror.

My physical appearance wasn't something I'd been paying much attention to. This body never felt like mine, so it hadn't seemed important. Yet this morning I found myself staring into the mirror, trying to trace my face out of the one I saw in front of me. Trying to find something I recognised.

If anything, Sakura and I were perfect opposites. She had fair skin and pink hair, where I had pink cheeks and white hair. It was something that had always bothered me; I'd always felt like a corpse that had been covered in blush. I'd wished I'd inherited my father's skin tone, as my siblings had.

I stared through the mirror into Sakura's eyes, and my own eyes stared back.

Goosebumps crawled up my arms. I'd been used to seeing my eyes in the mirror all my life, it hadn't occurred to me to be confused at still having them.

I leaned closer to the mirror, looking at every tiny transition in the iris that formed the green colouration. Identical.

"That's got to mean something, right?" I asked my reflection.

It did not have an answer for me.

I splashed cold water against my face and completed my morning ablutions, trying to drive the issue out of my mind. Nothing had changed; worrying about it now wouldn't make a difference.

I grabbed breakfast on the way out the door, letting Mebuki know I'd likely be home late. Today would be the first day of deliveries, and I had no idea how far the first town was from Konoha.

Not long after I found myself at the training grounds, well before either of the boys. Skipping my morning tea had left me here far earlier than usual; a glance at my watch told me it was only six-thirty.

I knelt in front of the Memorial Stone, running my hands through the grass. After a moment of contemplation, I gently pulsed chakra into the soil. I closed my eyes, trying to sense for anything injured, anything broken… perhaps a blade of grass perked up a little. Perhaps a few bugs in the soil moved a little more quickly. Perhaps not.

I pulled a kunai from my pouch and sank it into the earth, letting a light pulse of chakra travel down the metal.

The difference was incredible.

I felt the edge against a worm that had been scratched in the passing of the kunai, and let the chakra bleed outward and into the damaged tissue; just the tiniest trickle, a hair's-breadth of power. I could feel the tiny chakra system of the worm's body as cellular walls joined together.

I let more chakra trickle outward from the blade, tasting, feeling around the dirt…

"What are you doing?"

I startled and let a burst of chakra into the blade, feeling as bonds holding the soil together split, the kunai slicing in an arc out of the ground.

I dropped the kunai as though it had burned me and turned to face him. "Sasuke!"

He knelt next to me, eyes studying the small path of destruction I had left; the soil was overturned onto the grass around it, a sharp crevice in the earth as though it were the site of a tiny earthquake. "What was that?"

"As soon as I figure it out, I'll let you know." I replaced the kunai into my pouch. My next words came out a little shaky: "Just try not to startle me when you see me doing weird stuff with kunai next time, okay?"

Good thing I wasn't testing it on myself. I have a feeling nothing's going to grow in that patch of dirt for a while.

My initial idea had been to lay the kunai flat-side down against a small scratch I had on my arm.

Yeah. Going to put that idea on the back-burner for a while.

"I don't want to know, do I?" he asked.

I shook my head.

We sat side by side for a few moments longer, studying the ruined ground in front of us. He was the first to break the silence. "You said Sensei was teaching you how to sense chakra..."

I snorted. "I wouldn't call it teaching. It was more like he gave me some good advice."

"Coming from Sensei, that's the same thing. How do you do it?"

I gave him a sidelong look. The expression on his face was unreadable, but I thought I knew him well enough to understand where he was coming from. Any instruction from Kakashi was precious at this point.

"Well… you and Naruto have been working on your chakra control a lot. Since you've gotten the hang on paying close attention to it, maybe this will come more easily now." I put my hands on the ground. "Copy me."

He did.

"Now pretend you're just starting out learning Silent Foot again, but with your hands. You're not pushing your chakra into the ground yet. You're just feeling around."

Sasuke closed his eyes in concentration. A few blades of grass began to curl around his fingers.

"Feel, don't push."

He grunted in acquiescence. After several moments, his eyes opened. "… That's weird. It's alive." He frowned. "It sounds obvious, but..."

"Feeling it makes it clear, doesn't it?" I felt through the dirt and let my chakra wander. "Sensei said everything has chakra and living things have the most."

Sasuke removed his hands from the ground. "It felt like… trying to listen in the middle of a crowd."

I nodded sympathetically. "There's a lot going on in there. Here," I reached my hand over, palm side up.

He stared at me quizzically for a moment before realising. "You're sure?"

"I trust you to not explode me. Just, uh, don't explode me, please."

This hurt his pride enough to overcome his hesitation. He gripped onto my wrist and closed his eyes.

Huh. The boys were right. It's weirder from this side. My chakra felt agitated in the area he held; it made it difficult to concentrate on separating the feeling between his chakra and mine.

After a short moment, he let go. "Huh."

"So what's it feel like?" I pounced. In a way, it almost felt like an opportunity to learn your horoscope sign or animagus form. Chakra was the sum of your spiritual and physical energy; it was something that marked who you inherently were.

He shrugged uncomfortably. "… Dirt?"

I stared.

He glanced away. "Wet dirt?"

"… Wet dirt," I echoed.

Sasuke grunted and pulled out a kunai, stabbing it into the ground and dragging it upward. He'd done it right next to where I had. The effect was barely noticeable compared to the path of destruction mine had left. He frowned and studied the area thoughtfully, clearly having moved on from pondering chakra descriptions.

I sighed. I guess I was the one expecting something like poetry from a pre-teen boy. Typical.

I hid a smile and stood up, dusting off my knees. I gestured him toward the clearing with one hand, pulling out a handful of kunai with the other. "Want to throw stuff for me to hit, this time?"


Once Naruto arrived we continued the same casual pattern of yesterday, conserving our energy with light chakra control exercises.

I bounced experimentally on the surface of the stream, then tried to push myself along as though I were skating. It was a rare sensation, feeling my feet balance atop the water's fragile surface tension, work against the natural flow of water, and propel myself along the surface.

There was a tiny splash in front of me; Naruto had broken through the puddle I had set up for them again.

"You overdid it," Sasuke said, fighting to keep steady over the rippling water.

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto groused, stepping back onto the surface. This time, he held steady. It had been the only time he'd fallen in the last hour.

"You guys are doing awesome today," I said. "You'll probably be good to move to the stream by tomorrow. And if you can do that…" I hinted.

"You think I'll be ready?" Naruto beamed. "Awesome!"

When he'd arrived, I'd explain the chakra-sensing exercises Sasuke and I had gone through. I promised Naruto I'd help him work on it once he proved he could stand on water without exploding it.

"Just don't fall in," Sasuke said. "I don't want to hear you complaining all day tomorrow if your clothes get wet."

I grinned and checked my watch. "I think that's enough for today, though. We should head out to meet the farmer." I walked out of the water and onto the grass as though it were the most natural thing in the world. In a way, it was.

It was incredible what a week in a magical place could do to one's worldview.


Before long we found ourselves back in the fields, gathered around the farmer as he showed off the cart of goods we'd be delivering.

I had originally been expecting a wagon, but our cargo was instead stacked on what looked like a long, flat palanquin. The produce was arranged in several stacks of small crates, each holding different vegetables. There weren't many of them; perhaps a few dozen. There was still so much room left on the cart that several people could comfortably sit on either side of the crates.

"We're starting with our smallest delivery; I know a grocer in a town just outside of Konoha. They're more of a commercial district, so we're the closest farm around… at least, the closest with this kind of quality!" The farmer gave a big, toothy grin.

I gave the vegetables a considering look. They didn't look much different to the produce I remembered seeing in supermarkets, but then again I was trying to compare fresh vegetables to those where half the products were covered in shiny wax.

"The, uh, tomatoes are really big!" I tried.

Sasuke grunted in agreement, making me feel slightly less awkward.

"Whatever, old man, let's go!" Naruto grinned, splitting himself off with three more clones.

I stared at him. "Naruto… there's four of us and four places to carry the cart. It would have been fine."

All four Narutos shrugged. "We've got this!"

Sensei sat on the edge of the cart as the Narutos foisted it in the air, pulling out his orange book.

"Lazy." Sasuke crossed his arms as we trooped off after them, the old man leading the way.

"At least walk, Sensei…" I said weakly. "The client is walking..."

"Ne, old man, get on board. Just tell us where to go!" Naruto hooted. "Don't want you wearing out!"

He demurred, but after several minutes back-and-forth with four enthusiastic Narutos, relented.

And so we found ourselves exiting Konoha's gates into the big, wide world… or at least starting toward a town a few hours away. With the old man on the cart, we were free to go much faster than we otherwise would have been restricted to.

It was strange. In a previous life, running for hours on end would have decimated me completely. Chakra is a wonderful, beautiful thing.

The town we eventually arrived in felt closer to a small city; it was jarring to think such a busy place was so near to our ninja village. Throngs of people walked down the streets, numerous hotels lining the walkways. This must have been something of a tourist attraction.

"It's a bit of a gambling town," the old man explained, pointing us down a side street to a quieter section dominated by smaller shops and houses. "But the folks who live and work here got to eat too, and they need something to serve in those fancy casinos of theirs, eh?"

The transfer of crates into the storeroom of the grocer took no time at all, the old farmer chattering away happily about the recent weather, ideas for new crop rotations, and plenty of compliments about his "little helpers."

I gently stood on Naruto's foot as his mouth popped open to protest. He shut it with a snap.

A half-hour later found us back on our way toward Konoha, the cart now carrying only the farmer and Kakashi-sensei.

"That was a bit anticlimactic," I said. We were making our way back in a light jog; it was only early evening yet and we weren't in a particular rush. The sun was setting and the sound of crickets had started to fill the air.

"If there are any bandits, this is the time of day we'd be most likely to see them," Sasuke said.

I snorted. "Yeah, to steal from our big empty cart."

Sasuke frowned. "That's worse. Empty cargo means someone got paid. Don't lose your focus."

"Oh. Right."

All in all, though, it was looking the same as any other D-Rank mission we had done. We'd be back in Konoha in only a few hours, and-

Three Narutos vanished in a puff of smoke and the cart fell to the ground, skidding forward several metres before halting.

"AGH!" Naruto cried.

I spun to face him and saw an arrow lodged into his shoulder, and red, red, he was bleeding- and something massive was charging forward into the cart and Sensei flying forward to meet it and-

Something slammed into my back and wrapped around me, knocking me onto the ground. I writhed helplessly, trying to break free of the hold, before realising it wasn't arms that held me but a strange cocoon. I fought furiously against it, craning my neck around to try to see from my position on the ground.

"Sakura!" a voice growled- Sasuke!- and a presence I'd barely noticed was yanked away, the cocoon I was held in dragging along after. I had finally twisted to where I could see the man standing only a few feet away. His back was facing me, but I could see six arms attached to his body.

Unnatural! my mind panicked.

A few yards ahead of him, I could make out Sasuke, hurling shuriken that were summarily knocked out the air like so many flies.

"I'd suggest you stay out of the way of this," the man spat- literally- and a ball of webbing struck Sasuke's chest, and it was spreading over him, and the man was pulling out kunai with each of his hands-

"NO!" Hardly knowing what I was doing, I felt my chakra flood out from my arms and legs, from the same muscles I was so used to channelling it through, and I pushed.

A smell like burning hair filled the air, and I felt as the tiny bonds in the webbing, the chakra in the webbing, split apart and snap around my skin.

The man gave a strange grunting noise, but without hesitation I was reaching into my weapons pouch and throwing three kunai with all my strength, hand already dipping back down for another-

They thudded in a perfect line down his back.

He was still. I froze.

And then, slowly, he turned.

"You, little thief," he began, and lightning-quick had a hand around my throat and was lifting me into the air. Black spots burst in my vision as the blood to my head was choked off. "Are starting to get on my nerves."

And then with another of his hands, a glass bottle of something was being pressed against my mouth.

"Don't think for a second I need that body of yours functional."

The liquid splashed onto my tongue, burning like acid. I choked and coughed reflexively, my tongue swelling up against the burning, my mouth and throat on fire.

His cruel face swam in front of me, the darkness now starting to colour the edges of my vision.

I clenched at something in my hand- I still had a kunai. Without thought, I shoved it with all my strength into his stomach.

He laughed.

"You don't learn from your mistakes, do you?"

I pulsed my chakra into the kunai.

I felt as his body accepted the chakra as part of himself, his flesh trying to seal the kunai within him.

I gathered up all the chakra I could until it nearly blistered in my hands, and shoved.

Bonds in tissue, breaking. Cellular walls, bursting. Blood separating; white, red, plasma. They, too, fell apart. Veins rupturing, tangling within themselves, trying to find purchase.

With chakra pulsing in my muscles, I dragged the kunai upward into his chest.

And then there was red.

Red as the fissure ripped through flesh, so much like the upturned earth not long ago.

Red as his body crumpled wetly to the ground, and I was on my back, the black edges still in my vision, my mouth burning with the acid still lingering on my tongue. And then the world was shaking, and red, red eyes above me.

Red eyes, a mouth moving, trying to speak from too far away. Red, red eyes trying to tell me something. A silent command I didn't know how to meet.

I tried to move my lips, but they were numb with the burning. Tried to move my arms, but my tendons had become yarn in my flesh. Tried to move at all, but my body was a brick.

Red eyes staring into my own, until they were overpowered by the darkness.

Red, black, and then nothing at all.


"All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison." - Paracelsus

Chapter Text

Volume 3: Criss-Cross

Chapter 12. Fire


Sasuke stared down at what was, he was just now realising, the corpse of his best friend.

Not far away lie the bloodied body of her killer. He was well dead. There was no revenge to be found there. No one he could punish for doing this. All he had left was Sakura's body.

He stared through the red haze of the sharingan- the copy-wheel eyes- that had activated at the moment of her fall. His family's bloodlimit. A powerful ability that was said to be able to see all, with such great speed and detail as to allow its user to predict every movement of an enemy.

It had activated too late. His sharingan could only show him, in perfect detail, his friend's corpse. Her ashen skin. The blood spilling from her mouth. Her bloated neck. Her half-lidded, lifeless, staring eyes...

It was too late. He was too late. He had been too weak.

He lifted his hands from her shoulders. They were covered in blood. He didn't know whose blood.

He raised his head, looked around. There was Naruto- alive, so very alive, he hadn't lost everyone yet- and the old farmer was there, stemming the flow of blood around Naruto's wounds, one hand clutching a handful of bloodied arrows.

Further away, Kakashi. Two copies of him. Behind and in front of a woman; one Kakshi holding her weakly struggling form, another whipping through a long series of handseals.

Sasuke rose to his feet and walked toward them in a daze.

Kakashi's hand shot out and grabbed the woman's face. She convulsed as though electrified, before falling. And then there was only one Kakashi, turning to face him.

"Sasuke. Don't."

Don't what?

Without noticing, Sasuke had taken out a handful of shuriken. His feet continued carrying him forward.

"Sasuke, it's over. Go take care of Sakura."

"She's dead." Sasuke didn't feel his mouth form the words. "Get out of my way."

And finally, Kakashi's eyes met his. Sharingan red. His Konoha headband had been lifted; his right eye held the same black Sasuke was used to seeing, the other eye burning red with his family's bloodlimit.

Sasuke froze in his tracks.

That eye.

"She's dead," Sasuke repeated.

'Mother and father are dead!'

"They killed her. This one needs to die, too."

'There is no value in killing the likes of you... Foolish little brother, if you wish to kill me, then Hate me, Detest me, Curse me, and survive in an unsightly way.'

Kakashi stepped forward, blocking the woman from view. "Sasuke. Look at Sakura."

"I saw her!" he roared, fist tightening around his shuriken. He had seen her clearly, all too clearly. Every pore of her pale flesh, every mote of dust in her half-closed eyes.

Kakashi was in front of him in a flash, grabbing him by the shoulders and shoving him around in a circle. "Look! Properly!"

It didn't hurt any less from a distance. Still pale. Still unmoving. But… there was something else. A haze around her, just barely visible. Something green, with a warm brown undertone. And something else, something wrong; a strange icy current...

Sasuke's eyes widened. He craned his neck to look back at Kakashi. And there, too, was a haze; stronger, a sparking flow of white that seemed to envelop his body.

"Chakra. She's..."

Kakashi nodded. "Chakra. She's still alive."

And then Sasuke was breaking from his hold in an all-out sprint and what had he been doing he had left her, left her to die-!

And Sasuke was in front of her, hands on her shoulders, watching as her chakra seemed to fade by the second, and he didn't know what to do-

"Easy, young man." The old farmer and Naruto were abruptly crouching by her other side.

"What happened to her?" Naruto cried. "Is she..?"

"She'll be fine," the farmer said, putting a hand under her chin and popping her mouth open. He inspected the inside of her mouth closely before reaching to rummage inside a pocket. He removed a small pouch and unbuttoned it, taking a small bottle of pills, removing one and reaching out-

Sasuke grabbed his wrist lightning-quick.

"Easy, boy. It's just an antivenom. Sublingual tablets."

He relaxed his grip and let go, watching as the man pried open her mouth again and lifted her tongue, pressing the small pill beneath it. He put the container away and studied the inside of her mouth, pressing gently along the sides of her neck, craning down to listen to her breathing.

It was no wonder Sasuke had thought she was dead. Her lungs were barely moving.

The old man removed a tiny capped pen from his pouch, popping off the cover to reveal a needle. He pressed it into the side of her neck and replaced it in his pouch. He leaned down to listen to her chest again.

Her body began to shudder, and faster than he would have expected the old man could move, he was lifting and spinning her over his arm and thudding a palm against her back.

There was a choked coughing noise and something landed wetly onto the ground.

She began to breathe normally.

"Just a clot. Easy, kid, it was just a clot."

It took Sasuke a moment to realise the man hadn't been speaking to him; tears were streaming down Naruto's face and he was raising his hands as though to do something, anything.

Sasuke's eyes burned and itched, but there were no tears forthcoming. They had run out long ago; he had not cried in years.

I was useless.

In a daze, Sasuke followed as they put Sakura's body on the cart, laying her on her side in case she needed to cough up anything else.

"My wife never lets me leave the house without an antivenom and an allergy shot," the old man was saying. "There are too many snakes out in the fields, and this wouldn't be the first time I've seen someone get this bad..."

"It wasn't a snake," Sasuke mumbled. "He put something in her mouth."

"Many shinobi poisons utilize venom."

"Sensei!" Naruto shouted.

Sasuke turned to stare at him. The sharingan was now covered, leaving behind one eye that blazed coldly outward. Beyond him, the bodies were gone.

Kakashi noticed the direction of his gaze. "I have my summons carrying them to the nearest outpost; we should be met with some Black Ops members soon." His usual drawl was gone. "I have other nin-dogs scouting the area for the fallen Black Ops members."

"What?" Naruto asked.

The pieces fell into place in Sasuke's mind. "Those headbands... those ninja were from a foreign village..." He clenched his fist. "The Black Ops were using Sakura as bait."

Kakashi nodded once. "They were from the same village as the previous shinobi team that were found around our walls." He walked forward and lifted one leg of the palanquin, nodding to Naruto. He took the hint and made several clones to take up their positions at the other legs. The real Naruto remained beside Sakura.

"That symbol on their headbands; it was a music note." Sasuke said slowly. "Otogakure. The village hidden in Sound."

Kakashi didn't reply. There was no need to.

"What do you guys mean Sakura-chan was bait?" Naruto asked, grasping one of her hands.

"I was suspicious that they would let us out of Konoha so soon after deciding to lift our ban on missions. But I did not think the enemy would attack her when she was so well-protected." He shook his head. "We'd already caught two team members. It was foolish of me to expect there would only be one left, and more foolish to expect our backup to make a difference. They must have pulled some Black Ops members after we reached the outer town without issue." He made a noise of disgust. "The sound ninja would have been waiting for an opportunity just like that."

"You keep saying Black Ops this, Black Ops that. What are Black Ops supposed to be?" Naruto prodded.

"ANBU," Sasuke said. "The elite of Konoha. Technically, nobody is supposed to know they exist, but..."

"On the contrary," Kakashi said. "It is very much to our benefit that we are known for having a strong ANBU base. It is only their deeds that are meant to remain unknown."

"Like using a genin for bait," Sasuke bit out.

"No," Kakashi said. "ANBU operate alone. It would have taken something unusual; that order would have had to come from someone with enough authority to overrule their custom. And I intend to find out whom."

Suddenly, a small pug jumped onto the cart, directly in front of Kakashi. Its mouth opened: "All bodies have been recovered and the nearest outpost has taken our report. You have a team covering you and they'll be awaiting your full report in the village."

"I sensed their arrival. Thank you, Pakkun."

Naruto stared. "You're a dog!"

The dog growled. "Hey! Don't you act like I'm just some cute dog!"

"I didn't say anything about cute," Naruto grumbled.

Sasuke ignored them and looked back at Sakura. He wasn't sure if she looked better, or if it was just that his sharingan had deactivated at some point without him noticing. Still, her neck was less swollen, and her chest was rising up and down in even, steady breaths.

The old farmer caught his gaze. "She'll need medical attention, and quickly, but she'll make it through."

Naruto's grip tightened on her hand. "I'm sorry, Sakura..." he mumbled. "I was useless. I just froze, I wasn't able to fight at all..."

The old man shook his head. "You saved my life, kid. If you hadn't grabbed me when you did, I'd have been the one filled with arrows. And something tells me I wouldn't have recovered as quickly." He gave Naruto a considering look.

Sasuke stared. Naruto did? Naruto could barely dodge a kick. How had he managed to act so rapidly?

If Naruto hadn't saved the old man's life, Sakura might be dead now. In comparison, all Sasuke had managed to do was get her hurt worse. He had tried to save her and ended up the one needing to be saved.

Weak. "I nearly got her killed. And then I left her for dead." He didn't know why he was telling them this. He just couldn't stop himself before the words spilt out.

The farmer shook his head again. "Listen, boy. I may not have those fancy eyes your clan had..."

Sasuke looked up sharply. But yes, now that he thought of it, the Uchiha clan had been famous while they'd been alive. The sharingan was well-known; a boast of Konoha's strength. This man's age meant he had probably lived and worked alongside numerous members of his family. They had been many, before…

The man continued, not noticing Sasuke's look. "But I'm on in my years, so I know a thing or two about ninja. You can't live this long in a town full of Konoha shinobi without understanding the Will of Fire. And you kids have it."

"The Will of Fire..." Naruto said.

He nodded. "The one thing special to Konoha and precious to everyone who lives in her walls. It's the Will of Fire in our land that protects every one of us… Not only shinobi but even an old geezer like myself." He smiled. "It burns in all of us. The will to protect something precious."

Everyone in Konoha… something precious… the will to protect…

Sasuke looked between Naruto and Sakura, then the farmer, and Kakashi beside them holding up the side of the litter and running in a full-sprint toward Konoha.

Sasuke flicked his eyes over the path ahead of them that lead to the village where he was born and raised. The town where his family had spent their entire lives, until they were gone.

The old man grunted. "Well, maybe you kids are a little young yet..."

"Give us some credit," Sasuke smirked.

Naruto caught his eye and smirked back. "Yeah, even we can understand something like that."

Chapter Text

Naruto sat at Sakura's bedside, clutching one of her hands. He tried to ignore the needles sticking out of her arms, but his eyes were repeatedly drawn toward them.

'We've cleared the venom out, but it's done something strange to her chakra system. For now, the best thing we can give her is plenty of hydration and rest. We have a full medical team going over her chakra scans.'

Sasuke was sitting on the other side of her hospital bed, arms crossed, staring out the window. He'd barely spoken a word since they'd arrived. Naruto couldn't blame him; what was there to say?

Kakashi hadn't been able to come with them; he'd procured a Chunin- journeyman ninja- from the front gate of Konoha to help them take her to the hospital, and said he'd come back to check on her later if he had the time. He'd said he needed to report to the Hokage directly at once.

With the squad of ANBU operatives that had trickled out of the forest behind them, clad in their creepy blank animal masks, the Chunin at the gate hadn't argued.

The old farmer had parted ways with them at the hospital entrance; he'd said not to worry about the mission until everybody was healthy again. His face had a strange, strained expression. It was then that Naruto noticed how tired the old man looked.

Naruto sighed. For an old civilian man, he'd kept a cooler head than any one of them. He wasn't joking when he said he's spent his whole life with ninja, huh?

In a way, every citizen of Konoha was like that. It was probably the same for civilians in other Hidden Villages, too.

"Naruto..?" A soft voice broke him out of his reverie.

"Sakura!"

Sasuke startled and turned to face the bed as well.

Sakura had a strange, gentle smile on her pale face. Her words came out slurred as she spoke. "Naruto, you didn't tell me your dad was Cloud Strife… what a hottie."

Naruto's jaw dropped.

"Oh, Sebastian." She had turned to Sasuke now and was giving him a bright smile. "My husband... I can't wait to get back to Stardew again… I miss our frog children so much..." Her voice trailed off into a whisper and her eyelids fluttered shut.

They stared.

"You saw my father?!" Naruto shouted.

"She's just talking in her sleep. Let her rest." Sasuke huffed and rubbed at his eyes irritably. He'd been doing that a lot today.

"Easy for you to say," Naruto grumbled. "You get to be her husband. She said my dad is hot… I don't even know my dad!"

"She doesn't either. Idiot." Sasuke frowned, then stood. "… I'll let one of the nurses know she was awake."

Naruto scrunched up his face. "Yeah, the way they were talking before didn't make it sound like she would." He brightened. "Maybe she's already all better!"

Sasuke didn't reply as he walked out the door.

Naruto turned back to Sakura and resumed his hold on her hand. "Ne, Sakura-chan? You're gonna be just fine."

She didn't reply.

He squeezed her hand gently. "And if you promise to get better fast, we'll both gang up on Sasuke again next time we spar."

He grinned broadly. As time passed, his grin faded.

"Ne, Sakura? I'm sorry for always bothering you in school..." He tried, furrowing his brow. He was having a difficult time finding the words he wanted.

"I mean, I still like you the best out of any kunoichi ever, you can believe it! But being on a team together and training and working hard… I wish I'd just asked you for help, instead. I feel like we could have been friends way sooner... At first, I thought you were a lot different, after what happened… but I'm starting to see that this is who you were all along."

He laughed. "Iruka-sensei was right, I guess. I'm not good at paying attention sometimes… Even Sasuke-Bastard isn't all that bad. He acts all cocky, but… you should have seen him on the way back, Sakura. He was really worried!" He dropped his voice to a whisper. "… But that's a secret between us, okay?"

The door opened and Naruto leaned back.

Sasuke returned to his chair silently and the woman who had joined him ushered Naruto aside so she could put a hand over Sakura-chan's head.

Naruto stared. This lady had the same eyes as one of his classmate's… that one weird girl back in school. What was her name?

"My name is Hyuuga; I am one of Haruno-san's doctors… Please do not be startled, if you haven't seen my family's bloodlimit… It will allow me to see Haruno-san's chakra system..." Her voice was soft.

"Huh?" Naruto asked.

"Byakugan!" The veins around the woman's eyes bulged and Naruto nearly startled out of his seat.

"… I see." Her hand moved down Sakura's head to hover over her neck, her heart, and her stomach.

Her eyes went back to normal. "This follows her scans… it is no wonder she is incoherent when she wakes..."

"Obachan? What's going on?" Naruto asked.

"… There is a foreign chakra in her system, but it almost appears that her body is producing it on its own… I have never seen anything like this."

Sasuke's head snapped up. "I saw it."

"What?! Why didn't you say anything?" Naruto shouted.

"Her sensei reported something similar… we had expected it to simply be residual chakra from the fight."

"What does it mean?" Sasuke asked, voice sharp.

The woman removed her hand. "I do not know."


The minutes seemed to drag on as doctor after doctor entered and left the room, frowning and muttering, poring over different readouts. Naruto and Sasuke kept their silent vigil, even as it became increasingly clear that Sakura wouldn't be waking again anytime soon.

An hour later, Sakura's parents appeared.

"Oh, hello boys… I remember you, Naruto. And you must be Sasuke?" Mebuki asked after a short introduction.

Naruto and Sasuke swiftly vacated their seats so her parents could sit, standing awkwardly at the foot of the bed.

Kizashi held Sakura's hand, but his gaze didn't leave them. "So… These are the boys that my little girl is running off to meet at seven in the morning every day." His eyes sharpened. "Which one of you is the boyfriend?"

Naruto scoffed and jerked a thumb in Sasuke's direction. "Why don't you ask her husband over here. I can't believe the new Sakura has as bad taste as the old Sakura..."

Sasuke glared daggers at him. "Idiot. She treats both of us like children; she once called me a 'literal infant'. She isn't like that, not anymore."

Naruto narrowed his eyes. Not one to be outdone, he retorted, "She once called me a yowling brat."

"She called me a treacherous bitch."

"Wait, when did that happen?"

"Taijutsu training."

"Yeah, well one time she called me an overgrown fetus-"

"Stop, we understand!" Mebuki broke in, holding up her hands. "Please, Kizashi. This isn't the time."

All three males in the room wilted at that and mumbled apologies.

Mebuki stroked Sakura's hair with a sigh. "Thank you, boys, for staying with her. Hospital visits are never easy. You should go home and get some rest, we'll take it from here… Oh!" Her head turned to face them, a note of apology in her eye. "I'm so sorry, I was so distracted… I saw your sensei in the lobby, he was talking about a mission. You should go speak with him before you leave."

"A mission? Now?" Even Sasuke sounded startled by this.

"No rest for the wicked, eh, boys?" Kizashi asked.

"Of course he was too lazy to tell us himself..." Naruto grumbled. He grabbed Sasuke's arm and yanked him out of the room.

Sasuke twisted out of his grip. "Enough. I'm not going to run off."

"Heh, sorry." Naruto scratched his head. "Habit."

In short order, they found themselves in the hospital lobby, where sure enough, Kakashi was leaning casually against a wall. He glanced up and waved, looking for all the world like they had just happened to bump into each other.

"Maa, excellent. I was just looking for you."

Neither Sasuke nor Naruto bothered to point out the blatant lie in this.

Kakashi scratched a finger against his cheek. "We got a special mission request, from the Daimyo's Wife..."

"Wait, really?" Naruto asked. "Man, Sakura was right! She needs a harness for her cat!"

Sasuke furrowed his brows. "… We're short a team member. Why not send someone else? There are plenty of ninja who can handle it."

"Not that we need more than one person to grab a cat," Naruto grumbled.

Kakashi shook his head slowly. "This isn't a cat retrieval mission."

Both boys perked up at this. Kakashi continued, "I spoke with her directly, and this is the kind of mission that you would fight for the chance to do..."

Naruto bounced on his toes. "What is it? What's the mission, Sensei? Are we rescuing a princess?! I'm ready!"

"Idiot," Sasuke muttered.

Kakashi's eye crinkled up in a grin. "Yes, Naruto. We are rescuing a princess. Perhaps even two princesses."

Both boys stared at him.

"Meet me at the Daimyo's Mansion at ten in the morning sharp. Don't be late!" He vanished in a puff of smoke.

Sasuke crossed his arms. "… That wasn't right."

Naruto bounced in place, his expression torn. "Finally, we get to rescue princesses! Ugh, I feel so bad going without Sakura-chan though, it just feels wrong, you know?"

Sasuke frowned thoughtfully. "That's not what I meant… What do you think Kakashi counts as a princess?"

"Huh?" Naruto frowned. "A princess is a princess."

"No," Sasuke shook his head. "Were you even listening? He used the word hime. That can refer to just about anything. If it were daughters of kings specifically, he would have used ojo."

Naruto stopped fidgeting and could almost feel the lightbulb blinking on in his head. "You don't think… one of the princesses could be Sakura-chan?!"

Sasuke shot him a sidelong glance. "You're not as stupid as you look… Idiot."

"Heh, thanks I- wait, what do you mean looking stupid? And who are you calling an idiot?! Sasuke!"

Sasuke was already walking out the door.


Ten o'clock found the three active members of Team 7 standing outside the Daimyo's Mansion. Sasuke and Naruto were a little rough around the edges; without Sakura around to set the pace of training and keep the peace, they'd spent the entire time in antagonistic sparring.

Naruto rubbed his shoulder moodily. He didn't have to use live kunai… That bastard…

Even with Sakura in the hospital to darken their mood, the possibility that they'd soon be able to do something about it had made them more energetic than ever as the time drew near. They'd begun pulling out tricks and moves that would normally have Sakura grabbing them and yelling that if they wanted a deathmatch so badly, use clones, not each other!

He missed her a lot, already.

"I need to warn you both now… The Lady Fire was in something of a mood. Be on your best behaviour," Kakashi said quietly as they were admitted entrance.

"What's that mean?" Naruto asked, but was hushed.

The room they were ushered into was sparse and formal. The Daimyo's wife sat regally on a dais in the centre, guards set twenty paces on every side. Before her were four tatami mats, several lacquered trays, cups, and a teapot.

"Oh no," Naruto groaned quietly. "This isn't a cha-no-yu, is it? I don't know how to do those!"

Sasuke eyed the equipment critically. "It's not a formal tea ceremony… just be polite."

I don't know how to do that either! Naruto wailed internally.

Sasuke and Kakashi bowed; Naruto aped them. He heard the rustle of silk as the Lady bowed, and rose when the others did.

Alright, just do what they do! He felt more confident at the thought.

"Please, won't you join me for tea?" she asked, her voice gentle and sibilant. It was such a sharp contrast to how she normally acted with her cat that Naruto almost laughed, but since the others weren't laughing, he clamped his teeth over his lips.

"It would be our honour," Sasuke said, and in no time they were all seated in front of her.

Naruto felt his eyes starting to glaze over at all the bowing and scraping, and all the "oh no I insist you take the first cup" this and "I couldn't possibly, you are my honoured guest" that, and he couldn't understand why people did this.

Isn't this what girls had to learn in kunoichi class? Naruto grumbled to himself. No wonder Sakura-chan was always in such a bad mood! He flicked a glance over to Sasuke. And if he had to learn this crap too, I guess I can see why he's always so grumpy…

After thirty years (by Naruto's rough estimate), the Lady finally came to the point.

"I am a proud woman, you know," she said, taking a sip of tea. "I have never considered this a vice, where one has something to truly take pride in." She smiled, and though the expression made her look closer to her usual self, it held a sharpness that upset Naruto's stomach. "So you can imagine my surprise when my husband told me that my favourite genin team, the one I had spoken so highly of to him, had been the victim of a ruthless attack not fifteen miles from our Shinobi village."

Kakashi winced and began to apologise, but she waved him off and continued: "And beyond that, to hear the sweetest little girl, fresh out of the academy, had been the victim of an attack not once, but twice." Her voice grew louder, "And not only do our medics lack the knowledge to treat either problem, but they know of a medic who could, right within our very borders!"

Naruto didn't completely understand, but he felt his shoulders relaxing. Sure, the Lady was angry, but that was way better than the weird formality. She seemed closer to the Lady he had met.

"You're saying you know someone who can help Sakura?" Sasuke asked, voice intent.

The Lady huffed and drew herself to her full height. "Not just her, but someone with the knowledge who could help every citizen in Fire Country!" She drew out her fan and fluttered it at her face rapidly. "And one day she goes missing, and nobody even bothers to try to find her! Not once!"

Kakashi scratched his head sheepishly. It seemed the formal part of the tea-party was over. "Maa, she is no ordinary shinobi… She is a legendary sannin… And she'd already done so much for us..."

The Lady snapped her fan shut. "She revolutionised the medical system in this nation. She was the one who suggested a shinobi medic be added to every four-man squad, during the war… Oh yes, I heard a good amount about her." She smiled. "A very good amount. My informant was very thorough. Such a charming man..." At this, she clutched her cheeks and giggled, and yes, Naruto thought, there was the Lady he was used to.

"Informant?" Sasuke asked.

"You don't think I'd send out a squad of ninja with one member short, do you?"

The door slammed open.

"YES, IT IS I! NONE OTHER THAN THE SAGE OF TOADS HIMSELF, WORLD-RENOWNED LADIES MAN AND CAPTURER OF A THOUSAND HEARTS!"

Three heads swivelled around.

The man who stood at the entrance was a head taller than the door-frame; he would have had to stoop to enter the room. Long, shaggy white hair framed his face and flowed down his back, red lines were marked under his eyes, and he wore a strange horned forehead protector with the kanji for 'oil' written on it.

"YES, IT IS NONE OTHER THAN THE MADNESS OF THE VILLAGE HIMSELF! JIRAIYA!"

Chapter Text

Kakashi lifted his hands and applauded stoically. Naruto and Sasuke looked at each other, and then back to the man.

The Daimyo's wife fanned herself frantically. "Isn't he just like a hero out of storybooks?"

The man walked forward and eased himself onto the fourth tatami mat. The 'smile' he gave her was closer to a leer. "I'm always happy to be a hero for my first muse, my first patron, and the most revered philanthropist of the arts!"

"Huh? What's that mean?" Naruto scratched his neck, head darting between the two.

"Jiraiya is the author of many prestigious works of literature," Kakashi said.

The huge man took the Lady's outstretched hand into his, pressing a noisy kiss against it. "And this wonderful lady you see before you not only inspired some of my earlier works, but she also financed my book series when I first published!"

"What books?" Sasuke asked, darting a suspicious glance at Kakashi.

"Why, the Icha-Icha series, of course," the Fire Lady sighed.

Kakashi cheerfully took out his battered orange copy of Icha-Icha Paradise- Make Out Paradise- to both the Lady and Jiraiya's delight.

"… YOU WROTE THOSE PERVY BOOKS?" Naruto bellowed at Jiraiya. Then, "YOU'RE READING HIS PERVY BOOKS?" with an accusing finger at Kakashi. Then, after a beat, "WAIT, THE DAIMYO'S WIFE READS THOSE PERVY BOOKS AND THEY'RE ABOUT HER?"

"Only a brief inspiration, from the blossom of my youth," the Lady said, her eyes sparkling.

"Naruto, don't be impolite," Kakashi rebuked. "You're speaking to the wife of your Daimyo and to one of the legendary sannin. Show some respect."

"Sannin? Three-nin? What's that even mean?" Naruto groused.

"… Did you attend a single class at school, or were you too busy skipping?" Sasuke asked. "The Legendary Three- the sannin- were named from their involvement in the Second Shinobi War. They were the only survivors after defeating Hanzo the Salamander." He spoke matter-of-factly, but his face held a flat, unimpressed expression.

"And as the woman we are seeking out was also a sannin, having Jiraiya to help us will go a long way." Kakashi admonished. "Remember, she ran away from Konoha. If convincing her to come back will be difficult, that's nothing compared to how difficult it would be to find her in the first place."

"And this is where I come in," The Lady Fire said importantly, withdrawing a scroll from her sleeve. "I've been exchanging messages by hawk with my good friend, the Mayor of Tanzaku Gai..."

"Hey!" Naruto said. "That's that big town where we delivered- uh..."

She nodded crisply. "The mayor was also dismayed to learn of this attack so close to his beloved city. He has agreed to help us in any way he can… Which is where Jiraiya's information comes into play."

Jiraiya nodded. "This woman we're looking for, she's a gambler. She may be a Legendary Sannin, but she's also known by another name: The Legendary Sucker. She travels to different cities, gambling away all of her money with her notorious bad luck, and then puts on a jutsu disguise to hide her appearance… Only to do it all over again in the next town. It's the only way she can keep ahead of her debt collectors."

Naruto scrunched up his face. "How are we supposed to find someone like that? Especially if she's hiding what she looks like!"

Jiraiya grinned. "It'll be easier than you think. One," He held up a finger. "She only uses the jutsu to disguise herself as herself at different ages. It's enough to fool most civilians, but not me. Two," He held up another finger. "The Mayor of Tanzaku Gai has agreed to help us, while helping his city in the process..."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

The Daimyo's Wife smiled. "You see, ninja attacks are bad for business when you're a tourist attraction… it frightens all the travellers away. What better way to draw them back in than with a Festival of Luck?"

"A Festival of Luck?" Sasuke asked.

"A week-long event of gambling," Jiraiya said enthusiastically. "Ending with a lottery for a very heavy purse, put up by the Mayor himself. She won't be able to resist, like a fly to honey..."

"I may have also put forth a few ryo toward the project," the Lady said slyly, passing her scroll to Kakashi.

He unravelled it to reveal a flyer advertising the event. His eyes widened as he read on. "… A few ryo, huh?"

Sasuke and Naruto craned their necks to look. Their jaws dropped.

"That's..." Naruto began. "That's a whole lotta zeroes."

"So no pressure," the Lady said mildly. "But please do succeed. I don't take kindly to Konoha's brightest stars fading away into the night. Bring her home, where she belongs. Her people yet have need of her, and if she is a true shinobi of Konoha, she needs them as well."

"As poetic as ever, Lady," Jiraiya said, wiping at a suspiciously dry eye.

"The festival begins in five days," Kakashi said, crossing his arms. "That leaves enough time for our target to catch word about the festival… And we depart in two days, at ten in the morning. That will give us three days to scout the area and organise a plan."

"We're gonna leave Sakura like that for more than five days?!" Naruto exclaimed. Sasuke crossed his arms beside him.

"It's either five days or forever," Kakashi said bluntly. "I spoke with her doctors; there were no changes overnight. If you want to hold out for a miracle, you're welcome to stay here. Personally, I intend to do everything I can for my team. If you're interested in joining me, meet me at the village gate two days from now."

There was a pause.

Naruto jumped to his feet. "You hear that, Sasuke-Bastard? We only have two days to train before we leave! Let's go!"

With that, the three adults were left with echoing footfalls as the boys sprinted out of the room.

"That was cruel, Hatake-san..." The Lady said gently.

Jiraiya sighed. "Kids have to learn sometime, and sooner is better than later… But that noisy kid. He truly is the spitting image of his father."

"His attitude reminds me a little more of his father's sensei," The Lady said, eyes sparkling as she poured another cup of tea.

Kakashi sighed. "Jiraiya-sama… isn't it time the boy's been told?"

Jiraiya looked down, hair sliding forward to frame his face. "You know what the Hokage thinks of that… And he's right. It would be far too dangerous for him."

"The more time goes on..." The Lady said, a note of worry in her voice. "The older he becomes, the harder it will be to hide. Even with so few knowing now, at this rate, others will discover the truth before he does..."

A pall of silence fell over the room.


The next day, at six in the morning, Kakashi Hatake found himself once more shrouded in the trees of Training Ground 3, watching his genin as they worked hard at training.

When he had first assigned his team this training ground, he had not realised they would continually meet back at the same place, day after day, and earlier each day at that.

He was well-known, perhaps even notorious, for being late to all things. But very few knew the reason: he would come to this same ground, every morning, and kneel before the Memorial Stone. He would find himself lost in thought for hours on end, reliving the same mistakes over and over again.

When he had finally taken on his first genin team, he did not think they would break him of his habit. He had no reason to suspect.

On several occasions, he'd considered guiding them toward a different training ground. It would have been very easy; he'd only have to make the suggestion, find one closer to their homes, one with more equipment. And yet…

As the days drew on and he said nothing, he found his heart had become lighter.

Instead of spending the first hours of his day caught in the hopeless web of guilt, he found himself watching as his students trained relentlessly for hours on end. Guiding one-another, helping each member improve where they were lacking, and forming a bond much stronger than that of a cohesive team unit.

No, they were forming a family.

And despite the great chunks of time he spent away from them, he felt himself being drawn further into their tangle each day. Where he had before been obsessed with the deaths of his teammates, now his obsession had become the lives of this team.

He loved them. He was not too proud or stoic to admit it to himself, despite his years of ANBU training and the ruthless treatise of the shinobi mindset. With his years, he had learned that the bonds between team members were far more important than arbitrary rules and tradition.

When he had first received word of their mission ban, he'd felt as though ice had been poured into his lungs. The mandate had come from the Hokage himself, and he was never one to hold back able ninja lightly. For such extreme measures to be taken, his team was in far greater danger than he had imagined.

It was the evening after he relayed the message to his team that he found himself appearing on Inoichi Yamanaka's back doorstep, where the man was quietly sitting, gazing at the moon.

"Hatake," the man sighed. "For the last time, I can't-"

"If they were yours, you wouldn't hesitate," Kakashi said quietly.

Inoichi turned to stare at him.

"… If it were your own daughter, you would stop at nothing." Kakashi eased himself to sit beside the man. "And she's almost like your daughter, isn't she?"

Inoichi hung his head. "… Some things are more important than regulation. Eh, Kakashi?"

And so, with all the information available in hand, Kakashi spent the following days and nights roaming the forests outside the walls of Konoha, his tracking dogs scattered around him to catch the scent of the intruders.

It wasn't long before he had caught two of them. Most shinobi villages worked in groups of three, he knew. There would still be one missing… But it was enough. At first.


The evening after the second attack, after giving his reports, Kakashi found himself in the middle of T&I, holding the commanding officer Ibiki Morino by his lapels against the wall.

"What do you MEAN disappeared?" he shouted, all composure gone.

Ibiki raised a hand to stay the rush of shinobi who had run forward to interfere. He spoke calmly. "Exactly how it sounds. Both the two ninja from before and the two you've just brought in. Disappeared into thin air, before my very eyes."

"You're lying!"

Ibiki swiftly headbutted him, and he fell to the floor, groaning in pain.

"Do not try to get a read on me, Hatake. The appearance of composure is not the same as being pleased. You should know this more than anyone."

Kakashi rose to his feet. "Then what happened?"

Ibiki sighed. "… I've only had one theory, judging by the residual chakra left behind from their departure. And it is a ploy I hope no other enemy ninja have the intelligence or gall to recreate..."

Kakashi frowned. He could not think of a single technique that could teleport four individual shinobi away from private holding cells.

"A human summoning scroll."

Kakashi's breath caught in his chest.

Ibiki continued, "Whomever sent them out had a backup plan, and summoned their return before we could break through the genjutsu blocks in their minds." Ibiki snarled, "The very same variety of summoning scrolls we were planning on using in the upcoming Chunin exams… we have infiltrators."

Kakashi cursed.


The only thing left was to try to repair the damage that had already been done.

It was the clashing of many fortunes that had led to the Retrieval Plan.

Kakashi was walking out of headquarters with a slouch in his step. He'd intended to go to the hospital, but he didn't know what he could possibly do once he arrived. He'd already gotten word of Sakura's condition; there was nothing he could do to change anything.

He was lost in his misery when a hand caught his arm.

"Hatake, right? Leader of Team 7?"

He had been about to bite off a misdirection when he caught sight of the man's face. "Jiraiya-sama?"

The man's mouth was pressed into a hard line. "I was in the village investigating some strange rumours, and I found only greater mysteries. There is a certain lady I was already planning to seek out, and I think she may prove the answer to one of your problems… Perhaps more."

Kakashi frowned. "More?"

Jiraiya nodded solemnly. "I came to investigate rumours of an attack on Konoha genin… And who should I find in the middle of it, but a genin with powers rumoured to match those of my dear friend. Perhaps you can guess the child I speak of when I tell you my friend's name: Tsunade."

And Kakashi had understood. All too clearly.

He had caught flickers of Sakura's fight out of the corner of his eye. He had known, in small measure, of the child's extraordinary chakra control- but to see her burst free of a cocoon his sharingan showed was crawling with chakra… That bordered on Hyuuga level chakra-control of the body. If not exceeding it.

And indeed, there was another woman famous for her impressive chakra control, tightly bound to pull off feats of strength ordinarily impossible for anyone without a bloodlimit ability.

And then after, to see the flash of red as blood spilt forth- at that moment, he thought he had failed. Thought he'd already managed to get his student killed. But then, at a second short glance from his sharingan, he saw Sakura on the ground, chakra still whole.

With new chakra intertwining within hers, cold and menacing. What had before been an occasional flicker, something that he thought was a trick of his imagination, was now banding around her body like grasping threads.

She wasn't dead yet, but if he did not find this Legendary Healer and Master of Chakra-Control, it may not be much longer before she was.

Kakashi looked Jiraiya square in the eyes.

"Tell me everything you know, and I'll return the favour."

Chapter Text

On the evening after their meeting with the Daimyo, the skies darkened and rain fell in a downpour over the Land of Fire. Many residents in lower lands found themselves throwing sandbags against their door-frames to stem the rush of water as it pooled on the surface, water falling too quickly onto sun-baked earth to be absorbed into the soil.

In the village of Konoha, while most residents were fortunate enough to live on raised foundations, many shops found themselves continually sweeping water out their doors. They laughed with the customers who had braved the downpour, who had apologised for dripping on already soaked floors.

By and large, however, most residents avoided going outdoors for longer than minimally required. Though it was mid-spring and temperate, the rain had an icy, sharp feeling as it landed on the pedestrians below.

On the outskirts of the town, in Training Ground 3, there were two young men who would not have stayed inside even if there had been a typhoon.

It would have been a curious sight to most onlookers. Not only were the boys braving the elements, but they were standing ramrod straight on a stream that roiled with the influx of rain, the water an opaque brown from disquieted sediment.

Much more curious was that if anyone had looked closely they would note that, despite being drenched, there was no water rolling off the boy's faces. It was as though they had been caught in the rain previously, before standing under an invisible umbrella.

They did, in fact, have an onlooker. However, rather than confusion, or even chill from the rain, Kakashi Hatake quietly left the trees with a feeling of warmth rising in his chest.

The boys never saw him.

And neither they nor Kakashi noticed the other onlooker.


After many hours balancing on the stream, Sasuke's legs started to shake. He had been careful not to lock his knees while he kept position, so it was a clear sign of chakra exhaustion.

"Enough," he said quietly, the first word either had spoken since they had stepped upon the water.

Naruto nodded, and they both picked their way across the roiling stream. Walking came surprisingly easy compared to the effort needed to keep still against the current. Much more difficult to hold was the shell of chakra they'd had to maintain over themselves. The book they'd originally seen the technique described in had stated that a perfect Air Pocket was a thin film of chakra that completely covered the body while filtering clean air into it. So far, all either boy could accomplish was a dense shell over their heads, much like a reversed fishbowl. It blocked the worst of the rain while still providing adequate air.

The boys shivered as they squelched their way out of the field toward town; each too exhausted to even attempt to apply the Silent Foot technique as they normally might. Without a word being spoken between them, their feet carried them through the streets to a ramen stand.

Somehow, despite not speaking or even indicating with gesture, they both automatically left the seat between them open. Their shivers eased as they made their way through several bowls of hot food.

The seat remained empty through their meal.


A woman sat at her daughter's bedside in a hospital room. The girl's sleep had been more fitful today. She would frequently wake in starts, speaking of shapes and figures that were not there. Her muttering would grow increasingly incomprehensible, before finally falling back into an uneasy slumber.

Mebuki was not dismayed. Anxiety and fear could come after the danger had passed, when there was room for worry. For now, she was patient and stroked her daughter's hair. For now, she was yet needed.

She was a citizen of Konoha and a mother.


Two days after the meeting, in the early hours of the morning, the rain stopped.


"Eh? What the hell were you kids doing?" Jiraiya asked, taking in the bedraggled forms of the two genin that had joined them.

"Training, obviously!" Naruto retorted, wiping sweat from his face.

"Hn," Sasuke grunted. At first glance, he seemed to be crossing his arms, but upon closer inspection, he was cradling an elbow like it was made of spun glass.

"… Training?" Jiraiya squinted at them. "Just what kind of mission do you think this is? If you were going to train in preparation, you should have been working on your stealth, infiltration, information gathering, that kinda thing..."

Both boys looked away. Neither replied.

Jiraiya sighed. "Well, Kakashi, your kids work hard at least, I'll give them that. As for working smart..."

Kakashi shrugged. "I tried my best, Jiraiya-sama."

Naruto snorted quietly and Sasuke twitched.

"Well. If you're all packed and ready to go, let's be on our way." He eyed them critically. "But next time, try not to exhaust yourselves before a serious mission. Eh, kids?"

Soon after they were out of the village gates. Both of the genin were eager to reach their destination, but to their surprise, the jounin lead them forward in something akin to a light jog.

"Hey! Why are we going so slow?" Naruto complained.

"While we have plenty of time to prepare, this is just as good a time as any to begin," Jiraiya said. "Now first: when we arrive, we'll check into a hotel at the heart of town. Soon after, we have a meeting scheduled with the Mayor. He's going to have some maps for us, information on the different events, a list of informants to keep contact with, that kinda thing. There should be upward of thirty informants to be our eyes and ears where we can't be ourselves. We're not going to be working in the dark, here."

Kakashi nodded. "The first step toward a solid plan is to know what tools you'll have in hand."

"Whoa," Naruto said. "That's a whole lot of people helping out!"

Sasuke frowned. "Why are so many people invested in the plan? I can understand the Lady Fire… but why is the Mayor going so far to help? Why not just stop at planning the festival?"

"Hah!" Jiraiya cackled. "Because the Lady's finding herself a healer to help all of Fire Country, and he just so happens to govern a part of it!"

"Wait, I'm still kinda confused," Naruto said. "I feel like we're forgetting something."

Sasuke connected the dots of Naruto's incomplete thought. "… Why are you helping, Jiraiya-san?"

"What?" Jiraiya asked, tone heavy with incredulity. "Is it so hard to believe I'd like to help out a dear old friend while catching up with another in the process?"

Sasuke frowned. "… If Sakura ever ran away from Konoha..."

"Hey!" Naruto hollered. "Sakura would never do anything like that!"

"If she ran off," Sasuke continued, "Naruto, how would you feel about going to get her?"

Naruto scoffed. "What a dumb question! Of course I'd go find her. I wouldn't hesitate, not for a second! And neither would you!"

"Exactly." Sasuke narrowed his eyes. "So what's changed, Jiraiya?"

Both boys noticeably slowed in their run to stare at the sannin. The adults carried their speed for a few paces before likewise slowing, until the whole party was at a halt.

"Well, see, how can I put this..." Jiraiya huffed, putting his chin in one hand. "Ah, yes. For one, you should know that I have another nickname, The Hermit Sage. I spend much of my time travelling the land, seeking knowledge, and generally keeping to myself. So it would be unfair to try to restrict her freedom as well, you see?"

They nodded slowly.

When he hesitated to continue, Naruto prodded, "That was 'for one'. What's the other thing?"

Jiraiya furrowed his brow. "Well… how can I say this delicately? She's a little, uh, assertive when she gets mad."

There was a pause that lasted the exact length of time it took two boys to run through a mental scenario involving a certain pink-haired teammate. And fists.

"Heh, heh..." Naruto laughed nervously, scratching the back of his head. "But she must totally miss you, right? You're teammates! She won't be mad just because you ask her for help!"

"And you didn't answer our question." Sasuke's gaze sharpened. "What changed?"

Jiraiya boomed out a laugh and gave a thumbs up. "Well, I haven't asked her out in a while, so I figured I'd get her mad all at once instead of spreading it out! Anyway, enough dallying, kids!"

With two mortified genin in tow, the jounin finally led them onward at a full run. The rest of the journey continued on more casual topics; Jiraiya and Kakashi filled them in on the history of the city, the castle in the centre that claimed the attention of many tourists, and the frequent festivals that were held. They were only half an hour from the city when they came across a problem.

"That's not good." Kakashi scratched his head.

The path they'd been running ended abruptly ahead of them, obscured for several hundred metres in floodwater. The current was rapid and the water ran deep, splashing up against the sides of the trees up to the underside of the first branches.

"The flooding must have been caused by the run-off of rain; this is a low-lying path. We'll need to circle around to find an alternate route or bridge. The water here is too deep to ford, and we don't want to lose any brats along the way..." Jiraiya said.

Naruto and Sasuke exchanged a glance.

Wordlessly, before either of the men could react, they walked forward onto the surface of the rushing water… and continued onward.

Jiraiya stood on the bank as though carved from stone.

"Hey, slowpokes, hurry it up! We don't wanna lose any brats!" Naruto had twisted around to stick out his tongue, nearly faltering into the water before Sasuke caught him and hauled him back onto the surface.

"Watch what you're doing. Idiot."

Jiraiya let out a whistle, and the two men followed the genin onto the water. "Hatake, your kids are good. They've only been out of the academy a few weeks, and they're already Water Walking like shinobi with years of experience."

Naruto grinned at the praise. "We just had a really good teacher!"

Kakashi scratched the back of his neck. "Maa, you kids..."

"He means Sakura," Sasuke said.


Naruto, for all his energy, was the first to collapse onto his futon when they entered their rooms. "So boring..." he whined piteously. "So many maps… so many lists of names..."

Sasuke kicked him idly and sat upon the futon next to his. "Don't fall asleep yet. We still need to plan." He folded his fingers together, staring off into the distance. "And we need this to work the first time. We won't get another chance like this."

Naruto scoffed. "What's there to plan? We look around, see if we find her, or wait for one of the people to tell us on the radio that they found her." He groaned. "I can't believe it took that guy four hours to just explain that..."

Kakashi sighed. "Even with the pictures Jiraiya gave them, we can't rely on them. They're not shinobi; they haven't received specific training in facial recognition."

"She has a big diamond on her forehead!" Naruto shouted. "What's so hard about that?"

Jiraiya chuckled. "You've never been to a festival, have you?" He shook his head. "Or even held a deck of cards."

"Cards? What's that got to do with it?"

Sasuke put his head in his hands. "… I didn't think of that."

"Think of what?" Naruto prompted.

"The four suits of a card deck," Kakashi replied. "Spades, Clubs, Hearts… Diamonds."

"Even the children are going to be covered in face paint," Sasuke said. "The informants won't be able to go ten feet without finding twenty people covered in diamonds."

"Oh..." Naruto scowled. "Well, it doesn't matter!" He jumped up to his feet. "We don't need help! We'll find her on our own, even if we have to talk to every single person in the crowd! You can believe it!"

"I'm glad you're taking this seriously, Naruto," Kakashi said. He removed an oversized scroll from his back, and in one swift motion, unrolled it over the floor. The map was the very same as the one the Mayor had shown them; it was covered in many different coloured dots and lines. "So please sit down and we'll come up with a plan."

Naruto conceded, drooping.

The following days came and went in a blur of activity. Tanzaku Gai was more than ideal for their mission. It was a walled city set in the heart of a forest, with only one point of entry and exit for the main population- all other doors were restricted solely to the Tanzaku Guard. Their target would have no reason not to use the main entrance, and with five of their informants stationed there as guards, and one of their team members hidden in a watchtower, sighting her would be guaranteed.

"I'll take the gate watchtower," Jiraiya said. "I will recognise her the most easily, and I'll be able to radio you with her direction of travel."

"Remember to keep a calm head," Kakashi said. "We won't act immediately. The best course would be to find what hotel she stays in so we can track her movements."

Sasuke frowned. "It would probably be best to face her in the evening, somewhere in public..."

Jiraiya nodded. "She's a heavy drinker, so catching her in a bar will be easy. And with enough witnesses, she'll probably be willing to at least hear you kids out without causing a scene… And I like to think your story might just be enough to convince her."

"And if it isn't?" Sasuke asked.

Jiraiya grinned. "Well, if your way doesn't work first, we can try it my way. And let's just say I've been keeping an ace up my sleeve."

He and Kakashi exchanged a meaningful look that went unnoticed by either genin.

"Alright! Tomorrow is the first day! I'm ready, you can believe it!" Naruto said, punching a fist into his hand. "… Hang on, what's this lady's name, anyway?"

 

Chapter Text

"Lady Tsunade… don't you think that was a bit much?" Shizune asked, readjusting her hold on Ton-Ton, Tsunade's pet pig.

Tsunade popped another mochi in her mouth, looking around the crowded streets with interest. "With a number like this? There's no way I can lose on it! I can already feel my luck turning around. I'm gonna win it big!" She flourished the piece of paper under Shizune's nose, showing off her lottery number for the umpteenth time: 777.

Shizune sighed. "The odds of getting that number are small… but wouldn't the odds of it being selected be even smaller?"

"Statistics, Shizune. If you understand statistics, you'll understand gambling. You're just as likely to draw a hand in a perfect sequence of a royal flush as any other combination. It's just the luck of the draw!" She grinned. "And if you want more luck, put more money on it!"

"My Lady, I don't think-"

"Come on. Was I more likely to win when I didn't buy more entries for my number?" Tsunade gave her the most reproachful look she could muster, while still being in such a wonderful mood.

"But look around us! There are probably thousands of people buying numbers and chances… and if ten of them buy a hundred each..."

"As I said, you can try to push luck your way, but in the end, the dice will fall where they fall." Tsunade reached over to feed Ton-Ton one of her mochi; the pig gave a little squeal of delight.

"Not only that," Shizune said, the anxiety creeping her voice upward. "But with so much money… Did you know, they said not only Tanzaku's Mayor but also the Daimyo's Wife put money toward the prize?"

"And fifteen others! Hah!" Tsunade laughed jubilantly. "That's the kind of prize I want! I wouldn't even know what to do with it all!"

"But that's my point!" Shizune said, looking around quickly. She lowered her voice, "With that kind of money on the line… isn't it very likely to be rigged? It's probably just a way to draw in the crowd… they only announced this festival five days ago, and look at all the people..."

Tsunade clucked her tongue impatiently. "Sometimes I wonder if you listen to a single word I say. What kind of apprentice doesn't know the gambling structure of a city like this? The City of Festivals?"

"Structures..?"

She ate another mochi with relish. "That's right, structures. This town's famous, Shizune. They can't afford to cheat; they'd be faced with the rage of every gambler from here to Snow Country." She tossed her empty mochi basket in the bin, walking up to admire the designs displayed in front of a face-painting stall. "Listen, nobody cheats in Tanzaku Gai. Least of all the guys in charge. The stakes are always fair. Ooh," she pointed at one design. "Let's both get this one?"

Shizune absorbed her words slowly and was about to reply when she saw what the Lady was pointing at. She muffled a shocked giggle. "You can't be serious?"

"You know I always like trying a new look!"

"Well, it may help with those kids..."

Tsunade grinned. "Heh, you sensed them too?"

Shizune tried to look stern and failed miserably. "It's your fault for trying to look like a teenager! You always manage to pick up a little fan club."

"They probably think you're my Auntie," Tsunade grinned. "Come on. It'll be fun."

"Oh, alright. I'm sure Ton-Ton would like to get prettied up too. Wouldn't you Ton-Ton?"

"Uiee!"

They emerged from the stall twenty minutes later, their faces completely covered with spades and clubs. Tsunade appraised herself in a mirror. "Hmm, should have figured the seal would show through."

Shizune laughed, admiring the red hearts on Ton-Ton's cheeks. "If you're not going to henge into anything else, those kids are probably still going to follow you, even with that look..."

Tsunade closed her eyes. "Hmm. Those chakra signatures are pretty strong, even for kids. Definitely shinobi. Their sensei should have taught them better! It's impolite for ninja to trail ninja."

Shizune glanced around, but couldn't quite pinpoint where the children were. "Well, they're doing a good job blending in, at least." She followed Tsunade through the crowd. "I'm just surprised they haven't tried to talk to you yet… Perhaps they recognise you?"

Tsunade snorted. "If they were thirty, maybe. Trust me, they're not after an ancient relic, just a pretty face. They are starting to get on my nerves a little… want to work a little harder to shake them?"

Shizune hummed. "We could probably fool them with a simple henge… Where's a good place to transform?" She gazed around the street thoughtfully.

"There!" Tsunade pointed, delight making her voice bright. "It's perfect!"

After following the direction she was pointing in, Shizune let out a surprised laugh. "But what if they're girls? It won't work!"

"Hah! Even girls of that age avoid a place like this. Come on!"

Co-conspirators, the women walked into the lingerie shop.

"Hello, Ladies!" An elderly woman at the counter waved merrily. "My, what a sweet little pet you have there. Let me know if you'd like any help finding anything!"

"Thanks, Obaasama." Shizune bowed politely. She smiled, perusing a rack of swimsuits. "You know, I had my doubts about coming to this festival… but since you're focused on just the lottery, I suppose we did get to do a lot of sightseeing. It's been very enjoyable."

"I didn't even spend all my cash! I've got a great feeling about the entries I bought, I'm putting all of my luck there. That gives us the rest of the week for your sightseeing. You wanted to see the castle, right?"

Shizune shook her head. "Yes, yes… But you only kept some of your money because I begged and because you don't want your pockets too empty to afford your nightcap."

"Hah, you caught me," Tsunade said. "I guess I-"

She had been so distracted with her conversation and tracking the chakra signatures of the children lurking outside, that she ran straight into someone.

A very tall and broad someone. Someone with familiar chakra that she'd never have missed on any other day. And yes, now that she turned to see his face, it was unmistakable.

Her mouth dropped. "What are you doing here?!"

"Hey, long time no see," Jiraiya said with a grin. "What's a pretty lady like you doing in a place like this? Do you need help picking something out?" He leered.

Tsunade cracked her knuckles and was just deciding where to punch when Shizune ran forward. "Oh! Jiraiya-sama! You also came for the festival?"

"That's right," he grinned. "I just got sidetracked by some, heh-heh, research opportunities." He rubbed his hands together. "But hey, what luck to run into you here! You should join me and the kids for drinks tonight!"

"Kids?" Tsunade asked suspiciously. "What the hell have you been up to? You finally get some after all this time?"

Jiraiya pressed a hand to his heart, his face a mask of shock. "You wound me. I get more than some." His grin returned. "But no, not my kids. Just kids." He waved his hand airily. "I was visiting Konohagakure, you know. Found a few stray genin, decided to take them and their sensei out on a little adventure. Just as a treat."

Tsunade narrowed her eyes further. "You? Treating someone? Just who are these kids?"

Jiraiya winked. "Kids you'd definitely be interested in meeting. Trust me."

Suspicious but thoroughly intrigued, Tsunade followed him out the door, Shizune in tow. She was met with two surprises: the children he ushered toward him out of the crowd were the same chakra signals that were tailing her earlier. The second surprise…

Whew. Tsunade thought. Yeah, I can see why he was interested in dragging these kids along. Blondie over there looks just like the guy. And maybe, just a little bit like… Her heart sank into her stomach, as it always did when she remembered her little brother. He would have been around the same age, too.

She gathered herself and crossed her arms, raising an eyebrow. "So these are the little bratlings? I would have thought you'd teach them stealth a little better, Jiraiya." She leaned down until she was eye-level with the boys. "You know it's impolite to stalk a lady… and it's dangerous to stalk a shinobi."

The dark-haired kid put a palm to his face and the blond kid scratched his head sheepishly. It was the blond who spoke first: "Ne, Obaachan, we didn't mean anything bad by it!"

Her eyes widened in outrage. "Who are you calling Granny you little brat?!" Her jutsu still had her appearance matching her age at seventeen. No way this kid can see through it. A little snot-nose like that?

The dark-haired kid sighed. "Jiraiya-sama was telling us stories about working with his team… he mentioned a teammate who sounded similar to you. We thought you might be related. Don't listen to Naruto, he's an idiot."

"Ha, that's where you're wrong, kid. This is Tsunade in the flesh. She looks good for her age, doesn't she?" He waggled his eyebrows.

Naruto squinted at her. "Why're you trying to look so young? That's so weird!"

Jiraiya thumped a fist over his head. "Be polite to the lady! She just agreed to meet us for drinks later. If you're lucky, she might tell you even better stories."

Once they had agreed on a meeting place, the women left to visit the castle on their own. Tsunade was lost in memory when Shizune spoke up quietly, "This has been a strange day, hasn't it?"

"Hmm?" Tsunade hummed, pulled from her reverie.

"Running into Jiraiya, and those children tailing us being his travelling companions… Your lottery numbers… There have been a lot of coincidences today. I feel like we're in a storybook." She shook her head.

Tsunade smiled. "It's not like you to flutter away into sensibility… You're usually more pragmatic."

Shizune smiled. "Well, it's been an unusual day."

Without much more thought on the matter, the women continued about their day into the evening, unaware of just how many eyes were tracking their every move.

They were the first to arrive at the bar, unsurprisingly. They found a booth and ordered plenty of food and drinks. At Shizune's nagging, Tsunade even arranged for something non-alcoholic for the kids.

"Well, Jiraiya doesn't know it yet, but he's footing the bill," Tsunade said smugly. "May as well get all the fixings."

Shizune sipped absently at her tea, having also forgone the sake. Tsunade smiled against her cup. Well, I guess it's better she only picked up on my skill, not my habits… They had travelled together since she left Konoha all those years ago; Shizune as her apprentice in the medical arts. I can't cut it as a healer anymore, and I don't think I could have picked anyone better to pass it along to. She's as unlike me as they can come.

"Hey, Obaachan!" a chipper voice rang out across the bar. She craned her head around to glower at the blond kid. He was with his little dark-haired friend again, Jiraiya beside them, and- oh, Kakashi Hatake, she thought. He must be the kids' sensei. Wow, speaking of kids looking just like their fathers… He's almost a mirror image of the White Fang. There was something deeply unsettling at seeing the two together; tiny echoes of Konoha's past…

Ah, and another one. I knew that dark-haired kid looked familiar. He must be an Uchiha.

"Well, don't just stand around." She gestured them over her shoulder, and turned back to the table, lifting the bottle of sake out of its warming bowl to pour extra cups.

The boys were quickly offered tea by Shizune as they took their places around the table; Jiraiya and Kakashi accepted their sake cups with nods of varying enthusiasm.

She sipped her sake slowly, focusing on the light burn as it reached her stomach. Shizune was right… now that I'm looking at them all at once, it really has been a day for coincidences.

"So how'd you decide to take these brats out gambling?" she asked, feeling her cheeks begin to warm as the drink took hold of her. She poured another cup; the damn things were always too small…

"Not for the gambling, you think I'd let genin fall into any of the Shinobi's Vices?" Jiraiya asked. "No, we're just here for the festival, a few history lessons… And I was interested to hear how Konoha's training has changed over the years. They're pretty good."

"What are shinobi's vices?" the blond asked.

"Oh, Naruto. So young. The three vices," he counted them off his fingers. "Drinking, women, and money. Any of them can lead to your downfall."

The Uchiha glared at the adults. "… Right."

Hah, Tsunade thought. Perceptive kid.

"Can't deny it's good advice," she raised her cup and clicked it against Jiraiya's.

Naruto began to fidget. "So~!" he drew out the word, staring at the older men. They ignored him. He frowned at them.

"What's up, kid? Something on your mind?" Tsunade asked. The kid seemed to be waiting for something.

"It's just that… you're a healer, right?" His gaze flicked over to the men, who continued ignoring him. When he was not stopped, he continued slowly. "Like, a really good one?"

Tsunade frowned. She didn't like where this was going. "… Used to be. I'm retired." She clapped a hand on Shizune's shoulder. "If you need advice or something, ask this one. Shizune's my apprentice."

The boy, Naruto, frowned. "Can she… can she help people who are really, really sick?"

Oh. She definitely didn't like where this was going.

She narrowed her eyes at the boy. "… What are you asking, kid?" She looked at the men, who were steadfastly looking away. Not even subtle.

Shizune shifted uncomfortably beside her. "Why don't you tell us what's wrong? Is it a family member, or a friend?"

"Our teammate," the black-haired boy broke in. "She has some kind of… poisoned chakra."

Tsunade froze. Her lips felt numb when she spoke. "Poisoned chakra." Hopefully, the boy was just explaining the problem incorrectly. There were very few things that could result in chakra that was said to be poisonous…

Her eyes moved to the blond unwillingly. Uzumaki Naruto. Was she hurt by your chakra? If she was… she would be dead long before you made it this far. Her eyes strayed over to Jiraiya.

All at once, the illusion of the accidental meeting was shattered.

"You..." she said. "You knew I'd be somewhere like here, didn't you?" she asked pointlessly. "Jiraiya… you know I'm retired. I can't."

"Why not?" the dark-haired boy asked sharply.

"Sasuke..." Kakashi warned.

Tsunade held up her hand. "I know how you must feel, but I can't help you. You can ask Shizune if she'd like to look for you, but chakra poisoning is very serious. It may be better to prepare yourselves." It was harsh, but it was life. There was a reason she had abandoned her path as a shinobi.

The boy rose to his feet. "Then stop being retired. Come back to Konoha."

"Sasuke!" Kakashi's voice was sharp now.

"No." The boy shook his head. "What's stopping you? Someone could die. You just said it yourself! You could save so many people. What kind of shinobi are you?" He glared.

She glared right back. "You're a bit young to try telling me what I am, kid." She slugged another cup of liquor down. "Shinobi die. That's who they are, that's what they do. It doesn't have anything to do with me."

"Sannin?" The boy sneered. "You're no legendary sannin. We must have gotten the wrong person. This is just some common coward."

She rose to her feet as well, her height towering over the boy. "It's better to be a coward than dead. All shinobi would be better off if they just gave it up." She pointed a finger at his face. "Look at you! You're still young. You've still got a chance. Your teammate is dying? Let that be a lesson to you!"

He clenched his fists. "Is that what Konoha means to you? You'll just abandon them to die? Your friends, comrades, everyone?!" His voice had climbed until half the patrons in the bar were staring.

Her heart thudded painfully in her chest. "Shut up, you brat! Who do you think you're talking to?"

He continued as though she hadn't spoken. "You can help them! Protect them! How can that mean nothing to you? How can you be such a coward? How can you leave them to die?!"

"Shut up!"

The memory played back in her mind, as it always did; a broken record. I want to protect them… that's why I want to be their Hokage…

In front of her, the boy's eyes had changed to red. Of course, this boy is an Uchiha. The nerve, to try to threaten me with his sharingan.

No… There was something wrong; that was no ordinary sharingan. The irises held black shapes like pinwheels and were almost painful to look upon. Tsunade lowered her head to stare at her hands. For a moment they appeared to be covered in blood. Tsunade blinked and rubbed at her eyes, hands trembling. "Just… Shut up!"

She pushed away from the table and stormed away, out into the cool night air.

"I'm not done with you!"

To her shock, the genin had followed her. Close behind him were the rest, faces varying masks of shock.

"Sasuke, don't you think you're being a little harsh?" Naruto asked hesitantly. "I mean, I want her to help Sakura too, but..."

"This is about more than Sakura," Sasuke said.

Tsunade turned to face him. She didn't speak, only looked him over critically. Her tipsy mind continued helpfully playing back her memories, on repeat.

I'll protect it! Because I am the grandson of the founder of Konoha, the First Hokage!

She rubbed her forehead, unwittingly smearing the facepaint from earlier in the day. Nawaki…

"I don't know how you can bear to look at her," Sasuke mocked, looking toward Jiraiya. "If one of my teammates had ever become so pathetic, had given up completely like this… I'd drag them back to Konoha if I had to break every bone in their body."

Naruto shuddered theatrically.

Tsunade looked up slowly to stare down the Uchiha. "You want to give it a try, you brat?" She lifted a finger. "I wouldn't even need to fight with my whole body… one finger would do."

Sasuke fell into a fighting stance, a smirk tugging at his lips. And then he was charging forward, eyes blazing, whirling around in a kick-

Tsunade blocked it with one finger, twisting out of the way of the shuriken that had been hidden in his turning movement. Her finger snapped up to break the wire that had been attached to the shuriken, and then she was leaping into the air as the boy let out a Great Fireball.

Oh, definitely an Uchiha.

Without her noticing, a slow smile had begun to spread over her lips.

She landed with a crash, slamming her index finger onto the ground. The force of the chakra she fed into the blow caused a fissure to open in the ground, snaking up to under the boy's feet. He'd only barely managed to jump aside in time, before running forward again.

She smirked, and raising her finger back up, poked it square in his forehead.

There was a pause as the force absorbed and transferred; she saw his eyes widen and fade back to black.

She paused in the follow-up flick she was going to smack the boy with. There was something wrong in the look in the boy's eyes, and he had frozen in place as though stunned.

She raised her hand… and pressed it over his hair, ruffling it gently. She looked away from him, from everyone, off into the distance. "Look… kid. I'll… I'll think about what you said."

"What?" The boy's voice came out soft and somewhat strangled.

She crossed her arms. "Meet me back here in a week. Let me see if I won my lotto and we'll… We'll see." She strode away from him, nodding at Shizune. The woman's eyes were like saucers. "Come along, Shizune. We should get some rest. Plenty more sightseeing to do tomorrow." She cast a look at Jiraiya, who looked equally stunned. "That's the closest thing to a date you're getting from me, so you're paying."

She smirked as the man slumped.

"Tsunade..." Shizune said quietly, as they made their way down the streets. The group had made no move to follow them.

"Go ahead, spit it out."

"I'm… glad."

Tsunade looked over. Even Ton-Ton was giving her a strange face.

"Look, I haven't promised anything. Don't get ahead of yourself."

The women walked in companionable silence all the way back to their hotel room. Both women froze as Shizune flicked on the light.

"Sorry to intrude again, Tsunade..."

"Jiraiya..." her voice came out in a low growl. "What the hell do you think you're doing here?! I've had enough of you for one night!"

He held up his hands. "I'm being serious right now. It's important this time. Why don't you sit down?"

"Awfully bold of you to invite me to sit in my own hotel room!" she shouted, slamming the door behind her.

"Ah, but consider… I brought wine and scratch-off tickets..."

Tsunade stared at him silently before sighing and slumping into the chair next to him at the little table. Shizune gave them both a worried glance, folding herself down beside her.

"Jiraiya-sama… Is it very serious?" Shizune asked tentatively.

He nodded soberly, pouring out the wine into three cups. "It's about the girl… the teammate of those kids. The one with the chakra problem." He stared at her seriously.

Tsunade took the offered cup, and swallowed half in one gulp. "… Was it from the jinchuriki's biju?" she asked. "Is the seal weakening?"

"No, and yes."

She stared at him. "What?"

Jiraiya sighed. "It's faint, but… I can just barely detect the chakra of the biju, trying to come alive in the boy..." He shook his head. "But that is my problem. The problem I wanted to share with you, if you'd let me, is about that girl's chakra… It's familiar."

Tsunade's hand tightened around her cup. "No… not him." She shook her head. "She'd just be a genin. A kid. What could he want with her? Why not Naruto, or the Uchiha?"

Jiraiya studied the top of the table. "That's not all… This chakra, her sensei said he could sense the barest flickers of it within her for weeks." He looked back up at her, his eyes cold. "He said she'd been the victim of some sort of attack… something that destroyed her memories and laid a false identity overtop. Something like a dream, like a completely different world."

Tsunade downed the rest of her wine in one gulp. "Shit."

Jiraiya nodded. "Yes. Furthermore..."

"There's more?!"

He looked her square in the eye. "I've heard rumours of her developing her own strength technique. Controlling the chakra in her muscles to the extent of the Hyuuga. Healing trees without even trying to..."

Her jaw dropped. "Who… is she?"

Jiraiya smiled, an expression between gentle and pained. "I'm sure the boys would be delighted if you came with us to find out..."

Tsunade put her head in her hands. "… You wanted to cover all your bases with the guilt, didn't you?" She muttered. "I think I'm starting to see that kid's perspective on his teammates." Her lips curled. "Even after years, you still feel somehow responsible for them… don't you?"


Three days later, she agreed to join them.

The boys all admitted to being on a mission to retrieve her. To working with the Lady Fire and the Mayor of the city, specifically to track her and convince her to come back.

When Tsunade won the lottery, it was sworn up and down that it hadn't been rigged.

Shizune hugged her enthusiastically, exclaiming her joy, saying she'd be able to pay off all of her debts. The relief at the reprieve from financial worries, and delight at Tsunade agreeing to at least try at her profession again, had raised the young woman to a level delight she had never seen in her.

Tsunade's stomach clenched.

The Legendary Sucker won it big.

She focused on keeping her breathing even, trying to choke back the dread that rose in her.

Nothing good ever happens when I win.

Luck may be in statistics… but the universe always brings me into balance.

It was with a heavy heart that Tsunade followed them back toward Konoha, wondering whether there would be more deaths following her attempt than lives saved.

All along her journey, she thought of turning away. Running.

But when she looked at the Uchiha and the Uzumaki… she couldn't.

Chapter Text

Volume 4 – The Chakra Slide

Chapter 17 – Coming Out


[Hey, Sis,] I signed as she walked through the door. [How was Parent-Teacher Meeting? How grounded am I?]

My sister sighed and dropped her purse on the dining room chair. She raised an eyebrow at me before signing, [Not one homework assignment? All year?]

I scrunched up my nose. We were doing this again. [Already said before! B-O-R-I-N-G. I do better things, more exciting things. Physics, chemistry, medical studies-]

[You expect to get into medical school? When not trying at school now?]

I rolled my eyes. [Yes, they will say, 'No medical research for you! Such terrible Middle School grades!']

She shook her head and gave me a swift poke on the forehead. She ignored my pout and signed, [If you would study, you'd already graduate school by now. You'd be in college.]

Ugh, Sis, you're such a nag all the time, I thought to myself. Why are you still poking me in the forehead? It was starting to really hurt now. I get it already, lay off…

Suddenly, I wasn't in my dining room anymore. I scrunched up my eyes, trying to reach up to rub at them, but my arms felt like lead. My eyelids creaked open a fraction, blurring against the light in the room. Sis was still there, but I was laying down.

I tried to bring my arms up again, to sign this time, but they were hurting so badly I decided against it.

"Sis?" I asked. "Can't sign, sorry for making you lip-read… where am I?" The words felt strange as they came out of my mouth, but I couldn't quite place why.

My vision cleared a little more; Sis was giving me a strange look. She looked a little older, somehow. I let my eyes cast around the room, and found it to be a hospital. Again… hadn't I recently been in the hospital? And what was that thing on Sis's forehead?

"What's the last thing you remember?" Sis asked. I jolted. I seldom heard my sister speak; she'd lost her hearing when she was five, and she always hated talking when she couldn't listen to herself. The most I'd usually catch from her was overhearing her humming while cooking or reading.

"I… I'm sorry, what did you say?" My head throbbed right in the centre of my forehead; no wonder I'd been remembering my sister picking on me. How did I end up in the hospital?

"What do you remember?" she repeated.

I thought back. Actually… Sis wasn't real, was she? Wasn't she? The last thing I remember… I'd been with my team in a forest. We were attacked. Was that a dream? Was it real?

I think it was, I thought. No wonder talking feels weird… It's in Japanese again, isn't it? Well, whatever was going on, Sis would understand me. She was the only one in our family who knew the language.

She watched me patiently. I took a deep breath and began slowly telling her the story of what had happened. When she didn't interrupt me or accuse me of making things up, my words began rushing out faster; I frequently had to backtrack and add in information to the gaps. She listened wordlessly until my throat was dry from the effort of speaking.

"I see," she said finally. "And you keep calling me something… do you think you recognise me?"

I furrowed my brows. "You're… You look like my sister. I mistook another girl, Ino, for you earlier… Wait." I stared intently at her, my eyes tracing the shapes of her face, her jawline, lips, eyebrows; everything. "You look a little different than I remember, too." My stomach churned. "Am I wrong? Again?"

The woman reached behind her, pulling a chair to my bedside. She sat with a quiet huff, gazing at me with crossed arms. "My name is Tsunade. You are still in Konoha. As to whether I am a relative of yours, well..." She shrugged. "When it comes to ninja, who so rarely leave their home country over many generations, who can say?"

I let this sink in, letting my eyes roam over her face. With having a Polish mother, and a Dutch-Japanese father, I wasn't used to seeing people who looked like my siblings and myself... That's too much coincidence, even for me. I'd spent a ridiculous amount of time studying the brain. Even if humans would pattern match anything- up to and including religious figures in toast- I didn't think I'd manage to mistake strangers for my sister so easily.

My thoughts felt muddled and I was having a hard time keeping everything straight. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to reorient myself. Reprioritise.

"Are you a doctor?" I asked. "Do you know what's going on with me, yet? They said I had some kind of mind-jutsu used on me… and when I was asleep, I had the strangest dreams." They were getting harder to remember now; some strange combination of both of my lives. "Wait, how long have I been asleep? That man- he made me drink something. What was it?"

Wordlessly, the woman reached to the bedside and lifted something, putting it in front of my eyes.

I stared into the mirror. Well. I guess that's why my head hurts. In the middle of my forehead was a tattoo, somewhat like the woman had. But instead of a diamond, it was a black triangle, with some strange scrawled kanji around it. I squinted, trying to see more clearly, but it was like someone had taken a large circle of text and shrunk it down. Well, not just like it, I thought. That's probably exactly what they did. Nobody can write that small.

"What is that?" I asked, voice blank.

"A seal," she said, placing the mirror back on the table. Her eyes were serious. "You are a very lucky young woman. You have teammates who care very much for you..."

Suddenly, the aching pain in my limbs and head didn't matter. I shot upright in bed, ignoring the pain that shot through me, looking frantically around the room. "Where are they? What happened? Where are Naruto and Sasuke?!"

She grabbed my shoulders and pushed me back into the bed. "Easy, kid. I just got finished re-stabilizing your muscles. Between those chakra burns and the venom, you're lucky you didn't have to deal with more atrophy. Not even taking into account being half-comatose for several weeks."

"Weeks?" I winced at the shrill sound of my own voice; my head throbbed. "Burns?"

She sighed and lifted my arm, showing me the many tiny pink lines that covered my skin. "Your teammates are fine. Yes, weeks. And yes, burns. You didn't think your muscles and skin would enjoy trying to overpower chakra webbing by brute force?"

My mouth hung open. The memory of the strange cocoon flooded my mind; how I had pushed myself out of it, feeling the lines snap across my skin like steel wires.

The woman sighed again. "Okay, my turn to talk. Listen closely." When I made no move to speak, she continued, "The poison you were given was intended to affect the chakra production in your brain. It was in the same area that your previous doctors noticed an overproduction of spiritual chakra-"

"I thought it was mental chakra?" I asked, immediately feeling guilty for interrupting.

She didn't seem angry. "Mental, spiritual- these two terms are usually interchangeable. It's unsurprising that your medical team thought it would be a simple matter of your body trying to process memory." She took the chart off the end of my bed and began paging through it absently. "Even in medical terms, it's usually fine to treat them as the same. In this instance, however, the distinction may be important." She frowned. "Spiritual and Mental chakra each combine to form what I like to call Mind chakra. Together, they form what makes you… Well, you."

She pulled a scan from the file and showed it to me. "I've heard you're a smart girl, so I'll tell you this straight out. When you were fed that little potion, the part of your brain overproducing chakra," she pointed it out on the scan, "starting producing chakra that was distinctly not yours. It belonged to another shinobi."

I stared at the little blob of light on the brain scan.

She continued, "This chakra was trying to overproduce itself in your brain to counter it; instead of mental chakra to heal your brain, you were producing spiritual chakra to protect your self."

"Then who..." I tangled my fingers into the blankets. "Who am I, anyway? Which life was real?"

She put the scan back into the file and reattached it to the foot of my bed. "You're you. Whatever memories you recall, your spirit is your spirit." She crossed her arms. "Your sensei noticed fluctuations in your chakra, not an entirely different person taking over your body if that's what you're worried about."

"Then what happened? Who did this? Why do I remember two different lives?"

She crossed her arms. "That foreign chakra… I recognise it." She looked away. "That seal on your forehead is the work of myself and my old teammate. We are probably the only shinobi in the world who would have recognised what was happening to you, let alone having an idea of how to stop it. And you're not the first one he's marked." Her eyes sharpened. "The seal on your forehead was the work of myself and my teammate. His seal, if he used one, is not visible to either of us. The method is different from what we've seen before. We suspect… he may have gained a new power, from another missing ninja. As for why he targeted you in particular," The smile she gave me was much less gentle than her earlier expressions. "That is something I'm interested to find out."

I shook my head. "I don't even know who I was before this."

"It doesn't matter," she said crisply. "Your spirit has not changed; there are going to be aspects that won't rely on memory." Her gaze grew piercing. "So why don't you tell me a little about yourself? Your likes, dislikes… hobbies?"

That was… ridiculously familiar. That was the same line Kakashi-sensei had given my team, not so very long ago… "Um. My name is," I paused. "My name is Sakarin Hirano. I enjoy studying everything I can. I dislike failing. My hobbies are… Well, studying and learning new things."

"What in particular do you prefer learning?"

I blinked. "Well… everything. I've always wanted to learn everything in the world." I shrugged. "I guess I focus more on medical studies, the human body, that kinda thing. I wanted to be a medical researcher."

Her focus sharpened further. "Would it be accurate to say," she said softly. "That you wanted to discover a way to become immortal?"

I raised my eyebrows. "Well, yeah."

Her face morphed into a mask of contempt. "… I see. I suggest you don't."

What? I pushed myself up on my elbows. "Why the hell not? Isn't that what pretty much every medical researcher is trying to do? Stop people from getting sick and dying?" I felt my brows furrowing into a glare. "Hell, isn't that what shinobi are for? Keeping people from dying?"

The woman leaned away, her features melting into confusion. "… So you do not want immortality for yourself? You would not harm anyone, in your quest to live forever?"

I scoffed. "That would defeat the whole point. Like, sure, it'd help me study if I had more time to do it, but," I pushed myself into a sitting position. My muscles were starting to calm down a little; it was no longer so painful. "Just think about it. I learn from books, right? If I find any good discoveries, I'll write them down and someone can carry on with it. I just hope I can figure stuff out sooner than that. I want to help the people I know now."

"I see," she said. "I'd heard you had your mother asking around the hospital, asking for classes for medical jutsu… Would you say you want your future to be in medical research, or as a shinobi?" Her mouth pressed into a thin line. "I've heard you are also trying to develop your own techniques, in fighting."

"Both, I guess?" I looked down, rubbing at my arms thoughtfully, watching the pink marks on my skin flush and fade. "Sensei asked me that too, and I spoke with Mebuki-san as well, and…" I frowned, trying to phrase myself. "I told Sensei my goal was to find out what happened to me, and also something else. I still don't know how to put it. I guess you could say my other goal is to be strong enough to be relied on." I swallowed. "I guess I'm already failing at that, aren't I? If I ended up here..."

"You are young," the woman said quietly. She looked out the window. "I think that's enough for today. There's more I wish to discuss with you, but it can wait." Her eyes flicked over to me. "Do not tell your teammates about the nature of this attack. It is highly classified. We will have jounin working on it."

I curled my fists around my blanket. "Does Sensei know? Or my parents?"

"Yes to the former, no to the latter. I am sorry," she said, and it sounded like she meant it. She gave a slight smile. "Speaking of which… why don't we let your visitors in to see you? After we remove all these tubes, of course."

Hesitantly, I smiled back.


When my visitors arrived, I was surprised to see not my parents, but a very distressed Naruto and exhausted Sasuke trailing along behind him.

"Sakura!" Naruto wailed, throwing his arms around me. I winced and was quietly grateful that all the needles and tubes had been removed.

"Back off, Idiot. You're hurting her," Sasuke glared, taking a seat on the other side of my bed. He gave me a wary look. "You're back to normal now? When we left, you weren't making sense, and they said it was getting a lot worse..."

Naruto's grip on me tightened. I patted him on the back awkwardly. "Yeah, I'm okay. Well. As okay as I was before we were attacked, I mean." I changed my pats on Naruto's back to an affectionate hug. "Hey… that lady, I think her name was Tsunade? She said you guys are the reason I'm alright now… Thank you. I'm sorry."

Naruto finally let go and dropped into his seat, but took my hand in his. "We didn't do anything! When you got hurt, it was that old farmer who saved you! And then after that, Obaachan and that Pervy Sage were the ones who fixed you!" His face looked distressed and I noticed he was avoiding eye contact. It took me a moment to realise he was staring at the black marks on my forehead.

I glanced over at Sasuke; he looked just as unhappy.

"What happened?" I asked. "After I- after I was knocked out? Is the old farmer okay?" My stomach twisted.

"He's fine," Sasuke said quietly. "Our mission was cancelled… Kakashi said he asked a friend to finish it with his team."

"And right after we left the hospital when you got hurt, Sensei gave us a mission!" Naruto said.

I listened patiently as they told their story. I couldn't help but smile when they told me they'd been continuing their chakra-control training and had already finished Water-Walking and begun Air Pocket. Even I was having a difficult time with the latter. As their story went on, I felt my smile slipping more and more. I stared at Sasuke in a mixture of horror and exasperation.

"Do you know her or something?" I furrowed my brows. "That's… extreme. Why would you say such things to her? Why fight her?" I recognised the nagging tone entering my voice. I sound more like my sister every day.

He scoffed and looked out the window. "I don't need to know her. She's a shinobi."

He didn't continue. That was probably all I was going to get out of him. I looked at Naruto; he looked just as confused and shrugged haplessly.

I sighed. "So how long, exactly, was I unconscious?" I asked. Tsunade hadn't been very specific in the details.

"Hmm," Naruto hummed. "Well, we got our mission the day after you got hurt, and we left a couple of days later..." His face screwed up in concentration.

"One day for the mission, five days for the festival to start, seven days for the festival to end, and two days for Tsunade and Jiraiya to heal you," Sasuke said. "Fifteen days total."

I put my hands over my eyes and groaned. "So just over two weeks… You guys are going to be way ahead of me in training!" Even if I had the best chakra control, Sasuke was ridiculously good with kunai and taijutsu, and Naruto had me beat several times over with how many jutsu he could do before getting tired.

Sasuke made a sound of disgust. "You mean we finally had time to catch up with you." He shook his head. "Someone with amnesia shouldn't be as far ahead as you were..."

Naruto scrunched up his face. "Yeah, it was totally unfair! You couldn't remember anything but you kept learning everything so fast. I still probably can't do any jutsu as fast as you!"

"At least her throwing and sparring are still terrible," Sasuke said.

I stared at them both, mouth agape. "Are you… are you picking on me? And admitting to not being the biggest, baddest ninjas ever?" A choked laugh burst out of me. "I'm not sure if I should feel proud or annoyed..."

"Hey! Be proud! We've been working hard!" Naruto scowled.

I smiled at him. "I'm very proud. And grateful. You're both dorks. Thank you." While I had a feeling I wasn't getting the whole story, it was abundantly clear that they had gone to ridiculous lengths to find this healer for me.

I tried my best to hold onto my smile as I remembered my conversation with her. What would have happened to me, otherwise?

Naruto ducked his head, not expecting the praise. "Well, we're the biggest, baddest ninjas. Remember?" He grinned. "But like we said, it was that old farmer guy and Tsunade and that pervy Sage..."

I looked first at Naruto and then at Sasuke, who was staring resolutely out the window. I sighed. "You're both idiots. You think helping people only includes medicine and fighting or whatever." I rolled my eyes. "It doesn't always have to be that extreme, you know." I frowned. Come to think of it, that sounded an awful lot like me. Wanting to study medicine and learn to fight…

"Ugh, stop lecturing, you're starting to sound like Iruka-sensei!" Despite the words, Naruto was beaming. "Oh! That reminds me! Obaachan said she'll probably let you go home tonight or tomorrow. Do you think you'll be able to train?"

I confirmed that once I was cleared to walk out on my own, I'd be back at training. What I would do at training would mostly depend on how much my body hated me. Something told me Tsunade would be unimpressed if I came back to the hospital immediately with damaged muscles, and she did not seem like the type of woman I wanted angry at me.

Our conversation continued on the same line: talking about different things to try in training, new chakra control exercises and how we could try using them in a fight, and finally ending on us wondering whether we'd be grounded from missions again.

Naruto was loudly boasting of all the pranks he would pull on the missions office when his stomach let out a loud growl. "Oh, oops! Wow, I guess we were here for a while..." He looked over at the clock; he was right, it had been several hours already.

I made a shooing gesture. "Go on, go home and eat. I'll see you guys at training tomorrow after they let me out."

"Okay… but if you're still hurt just stay home, okay?" Naruto prodded. "We'll come to visit after training if you don't show up. I'll bring you ramen!"

I grinned. "Deal."

With that, Naruto started walking out the door, but Sasuke lingered behind.

"You should go eat too, Sasuke," I chided.

"Your mother caught us downstairs when you were still sleeping. She said to give you some books if you woke up," he said, digging through his backpack. Naruto waved at us and left the room.

It was quiet without him around. Sasuke piled up several books onto my bedside table; I tilted my head to read the titles. "Hmm. She got me some new ones."

Sasuke grunted deposited the last book, closed his backpack, and turned toward the door. But instead of following Naruto, he stood still and crossed his arms.

I raised my eyebrows. He wasn't looking at me. "Something up?"

He continued staring at the wall. After a moment, he said, quietly: "I don't like cutting my hair."

"Huh?"

His eyes flickered to me and then back at the wall. "Shorter hair makes me look like my brother. I hate him. So I keep it longer."

A memory of our first meeting played back in my head. He'd asked me why I cut my hair short, hadn't he? And when I asked why he would keep such long hair when it was so inconvenient, he hadn't said anything. But why tell me now?

"Oh," I said simply.

He crossed his arms. "… And I don't hate it when you show up early for training."

I blinked. "Thank you?" Coming from Sasuke, that was probably supposed to be a compliment.

He nodded once and walked over to the door, before stopping again.

"I still can't sense chakra as well as you," he said. "But… I learned how to see it instead." He shrugged uncomfortably. "Your chakra is brown and green. It's like… moss on a tree." He opened his mouth as though to say something else, before shaking his head and opening the door. He left without another word, the door softly clicking shut behind him.

I beamed.

Chapter Text

I had not been expecting my next visitor in the slightest.

"Sakura!"

I dropped the book I had been paging through at the call, gaping at the open doorway. "Ino!"

She rushed over to my side, depositing a massive vase of daffodils at my bedside table without a glance. She leaned down to give me a gentle hug before sitting next to me. "What on earth happened to you? I just got home when I heard!"

I shook my head slowly, mind whirling. Tsunade had told me not to tell anyone the nature of the attack. After everything Ino had gone through last time I was injured, it might even be dangerous to let her know.

I hesitated a moment too long before answering: "I'm okay, don't fuss so much! We got attacked during our last mission, but I'm fine now." I shrugged nonchalantly. "Did you hear Tsunade is back in Konoha now?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Yes, I've heard. And don't try telling me you're fine; nobody fine ends up with a giant seal on their forehead."

Oh. Right. I absently rubbed at the seal with some chagrin. "Um... it's classified. Sorry." Even saying that much might be giving too much away, but it was the only thing I could think of to say to Ino where she wouldn't keep pushing. 'Classified' is something she would understand, being the daughter of an Intel member.

She sighed, reaching forward to push my hair away, studying the seal. "And here I thought I was going to surprise you with my mission... But then you get attacked and two of the legendary Sannin are back in the village."

I frowned. "Did something happen on your mission? Is everyone okay?"

She nodded soberly, reaching down to take one of my hands. "Sakura, there's something I need to tell you..."

My heart fell into my stomach. I wasn't sure how many more shocks I could take. But this was Ino; I had to hear her out.

I breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. "Okay. What is it?"

She dropped her head. "I'm giving up on Sasuke."

I blinked. "What?"

She shook her head, still not looking up. "I still can't believe it, but... I met somebody even better. He's the most gentle, kind, loyal guy I've ever met in my life." She clasped her hands together. "And so gorgeous. We're getting married."

"Um..." Okay, this was better than expected but still weird. "Okay? So, uh, does he know you're both getting married yet?" This was Ino, after all. His opinion on the matter might not hold weight in her mind.

She scoffed, finally looking up. "Of course he does! I told him almost as soon as I saw that pretty face!" She flicked her hair over her shoulder.

"... And what did he say?"

"Well," she began, furrowing her eyebrows. "The first time he said his only goal was to support his master. And since his master was a Missing Nin who was trying to kill our client, I realised it was going to make things very difficult for us."

I stared.

"After we dealt with that, I tried bringing it up again on our way back," she continued. "But he said he 'was flattered, but had other priorities that held his attention.' Ugh, he's so polite, but such a tease!" She huffed. "So I might have to wait a while. I guess it's fine, we should spend our time getting to know each other and-"

"Ino," I cut her off.

"What?" she asked, tilting her head innocently.

"Missing Nin?" I asked. "Trying to kill your client? 'Dealt with that'?"

She waved her hand airily. "You have the weirdest priorities. Some rich mafia guy was controlling the economy in Land of Waves, and he'd hired the Missing Nin to kill our client." She shrugged. "Our client was trying to build a bridge to avoid shipping tariffs from the rich guy's company."

"Yes, that's the part I want to hear about," I said, working hard to keep the exasperation out of my voice.

She hummed. "Well, when we first brought him down, Haku-" she cut herself off. "Haku is my future husband, just so you know. The Missing Nin's name is Zabuza, some S-Ranked Swordsman guy, but anyway..."

My head started to hurt in places other than my forehead.

She continued blithely, "When we first brought Zabuza down, Haku used this amazing technique that tricked us into thinking Zabuza was dead, right? He was pretending to be a Hunter from the Hidden Mist Village, saying he was there to track and kill Zabuza. But after he picked up Zabuza's body and left, Shikamaru pointed out that Hunter-Nin always destroy bodies on the spot, to protect village secrets," she said. "So it was clear he and Haku were partners, and Haku was just trying to save his Master's life by tricking us."

"Right. Of course."

"Shikamaru's pretty smart sometimes. If only he wasn't so lazy..." She sighed. "But anyway, after that, Asuma-sensei said the technique he used would probably keep Zabuza out of commission for at least a week." She studied her fingernails thoughtfully. "So while Shikamaru and Chouji kept guard on the bridge builder, Sensei and I split off to do some infiltration work."

I nodded. After something like that, it made sense to try to get more details about who they were facing. It had clearly become more than a simple C-Rank at that point.

"So we spied on the mafia guy at his secret base, it was ridiculously easy to find," she rolled her eyes. "It wasn't even really a secret; I think he was depending on his henchmen to protect him. He didn't even seem to consider spies at all."

I grinned. "Even if he did, he probably didn't consider ninja spies."

She smiled back. "You've got that right. We discovered that the mafia guy- Gato was his name- had been hiring missing ninja and killing them and their targets off when they were weakened to avoid paying them." She scoffed. "I'm surprised he managed to stay alive as long as he did."

I winced. "Yeah. You have to be arrogant to betray so many ninja…"Not to mention, what did he plan to do if they succeeded?

She nodded. "So after we found that out, we went to spy on Zabuza and Haku." Her expression turned sheepish. "We had no trouble gathering information on Gato, but the ninja found us out pretty quickly."

I hissed in a breath. "Oh, no."

She shook her head rapidly. "It was okay! We had enough time to overhear them talking. The reason they were working with Gato was to save up money, they were funding some kind of secret militia..." She folded her hands together. "I can't go into too much more detail, that part actually is classified, but... After they caught us, we told them what we'd overheard from Gato."

"Oh," I breathed.

"Yeah, they weren't very happy." She smirked. "So we made a plan with them, where we'd pretend to defeat them and be weakened ourselves. And when Gato arrived to strike the killing blow..."

I let out a sharp laugh that lacked any humour. "Oh, wow. That must have been a bad day for him."

Her smile was just as mirthless. "Yeah, so the problem was solved, right there." Her smile faded. "They were going to leave immediately, to find a new client, but Shikamaru stopped them."

My eyebrows shot up. "Shikamaru did?"

She nodded, absently spinning a strand of hair around her finger. "I can't tell you much more, but... he told them it would be beneficial to both sides if they came back with us. As allies."

I frowned. They're from some kind of secret militia, she said... "Yeah, I probably don't want to know, do I?"

She rolled her eyes. "Well, Team 10 has been shoved out of the loop for now regardless. I doubt they're going to give me any more information about it, either."

We sat in silent contemplation, mulling that over.

She had been trusting me a lot, telling me this story, giving me this information. I should trust her too.

"Ino..." I began. "Let's say you had been subjected to a few mental attacks, and someone put a seal on you to protect your mind from the effects. Let's say you're not supposed to tell people what the seal is for, or why it's there. Even if you cover it up with, say, a headband, there's a high chance someone would eventually see it... What would you tell people who asked?"

She looked at me for a long moment, before giving me a small smile. "I would say that person shouldn't cover it up. Seals are like battle scars; it shows what you've been through, and makes people hesitate to attack." The smile turned apologetic. "As for what that person should tell people, like their parents... Well, most people don't understand medical jutsu; it's a very difficult branch. Seals even more so. It shouldn't surprise people to hear it was a medical seal, especially if they knew about one mental attack... Or even just a training accident," she added carelessly. "So as long as that person didn't try to totally brush it off, people wouldn't take it too seriously."

I smiled. "Yeah. Thanks."

We talked together for a while, but before long Ino had to leave for dinner. I ate quietly alone in my room, reading over the texts Mebuki had left for me. I wasn't surprised she'd included my chakra texts since I mentioned them often, but the new books in the stack were a little surprising. They didn't seem like the kind of thing she would select if she were picking them out for me. The introductory text on medical jutsu I could understand, but the others were strange: a book on different taijutsu forms throughout the elemental nations, a book on herbs and poisons, and lastly, a book about different seals and sealing styles.

Mebuki seems more like the type to avoid talking about bad things, I thought. Even after the first accident, she mostly acted like nothing was wrong, hardly ever bringing it up... Something I had been infinitely grateful for at the time. I guess she's changed her mind and wants me to know how to protect myself if it happens again... The thought made my heart ache, a little. She had gone through so much because of me.

Not to mention, with the medical textbook... I didn't really want to have to take a class on medical jutsu. Classroom settings were almost painfully boring to me. With a book, I could read as quickly or slowly through each section as I liked, re-read, and practise at my whim. In a class with many other people involved, a teacher had to ensure everyone was caught up on the material before moving on. Which was perfectly fair, and the optimal way to teach a room full of people, but it was rare to find a class small enough to make it balanced.

Perhaps Mebuki had noticed my hesitation at finding medical classes; how little effort I was putting into finding them for myself, despite their necessity. Perhaps she noticed how seriously I took my reading and personal training.

My hands tightened on the book with the raw impact of being understood.

I was so lost in thought, I hadn't even noticed the next visitor arrive. I jumped when I heard the door snap shut, but relaxed when I saw who it was.

"How are you feeling?" Tsunade asked.

I played with the edge of the book, fluttering the pages between my fingers. "Better. My muscles don't hurt anymore, and my head is starting to feel better."

"Very good." She walked over beside me and hovered her hands over my forehead; the light that emitted from her hands was a soft green colour.

"Is that Mystical Palm Technique?" I asked.

She raised her eyebrows, still concentrating on the task at hand. "Yes. I would suggest not using it without proper guidance. However," she sighed. "Considering the Daimyo's wife and Hokage are both trying to talk me into opening classes, you might even get a chance."

"Classes?" From what I'd heard, Tsunade was a legendary medic. I may have not enjoyed classes, but I was no fool.

She snorted, lowering her hands. "When I told them the Medic Training program needed an overhaul, I didn't think they'd try to talk me into it. I'm trying to pawn the job onto my apprentice, Shizune, but we'll see." She smiled. "The seal is holding up nicely; it's completely repressed the foreign chakra. You should feel much better in the morning." She held up a stern finger. "But listen closely: you must never let yourself become too low on chakra."

I furrowed my brows. "What happens if I do?"

Tsunade crossed her arms. "If you become chakra exhausted, your body will automatically try to draw on the foreign chakra, even with the seal in place. That poison you were given tricked your body into thinking that chakra was part of your own system."

Chills crawled up my spine. "... What happens if I draw on it?"

Her face went blank. "Then you can say goodbye to whomever you are, memories or no memories." Her eyes flickered up to the seal on my forehead. "I don't know who you would become, if you ever managed to wake at all, but I don't want to find out."

Yikes. "Got it," I said, mouth dry.

"See that you do," she said crisply. "In the meantime... I clear you to go home tonight. However, I want to see you at least twice a week for two weeks. And no missions; you're on medical leave."

I swallowed. I had almost been expecting it, but... "For how long? The two weeks?"

"Until I damn well say so."

"Yes, Tsunade-sama." I bowed as well as I could, while still being in a hospital bed. It couldn't hurt to be polite. "Can I train, at least?"

Her gaze softened. "Yes, but only light training. Let your body readjust and don't push yourself too hard too fast. If you're careful, you should be back in fighting condition after two weeks." She studied me thoughtfully. "After that time, I'll take you to review and we'll see about missions."

I bowed again. "Thank you, Tsunade-sama."

She smirked. "And while you're at it, maybe teach that blondie on your team the proper way to address his superiors."

That evening I was discharged, as promised. Mebuki and Kizashi were equal parts overjoyed and exasperated; I was given to understand that I wasn't allowed to get injured again for at least a year. I assured them as well as I could without making an explicit promise. I was a ninja; getting hurt was part of the deal. I wasn't good enough to avoid it. Yet.

I spent most of the night eating far more than I usually did. Which was fair; my chakra still felt agitated and probably needed the energy to replenish itself. After sealing away the foreign chakra that had been overtaking my body, I probably had a huge deficit in my system.

I fell asleep early that night, clutching my book on medical jutsu like it was the only thing holding me together.

Chapter Text

The following morning I awoke early; my alarm clock showed it to be just after five.

I really was exhausted, I thought to myself, stumbling into the wash-room. I don't think I've ever fallen asleep that early. I could feel the comforting chakra that filled my system, putting a spring in my step. I'd been feeling so dreadful before, I hadn't noticed its lack. No wonder I felt like hot garbage, I mused.

I got dressed and filled my satchel with books, traipsed down the stairs and began making breakfast. I was a little more familiar with the cooking styles now, and it also didn't seem western-style food was unheard of here. Plus, I could tell I'd want the extra energy more than ever.

It was also, privately, a small gesture of thanks to Mebuki and Kizashi.

When Mebuki came down the stairs for tea, she blinked in surprise at the spread of food. "Huh. Hit your head a few times and you become a master chef," she muttered, pouring her tea and taking her place across from me at the table. I had to smile; her wit was always a little sharper in the morning.

She started tucking into the food quietly as I continued reading, having already eaten. After several minutes, she looked up and frowned. "That's a new book, isn't it? What's it about?"

I blinked, glancing between her and the text. "I thought it was from you. Sasuke said-" I stopped. Thought back. Actually, he had never said all the books were from Mebuki. "Uh, never mind. This one's about taijutsu, different kinds of fighting styles. I've been paging through to find something that might suit me better than what I'm using now."

She nodded, too sleepy yet to notice my change in expression. "That sounds nice, darling."

I turned back to my book, eyes unfocused. Did Sasuke give me books? Did the most emotionally unavailable dweeb on the planet give me presents? And good ones at that? Surely not. The boys hadn't even known for sure I'd be awake. Sasuke had probably brought his own books to read while they visited and accidentally left them on my bedside table with the ones Mebuki gave him.

... Which was absolutely something Naruto would do (if he was making an effort to read, to begin with) but not the sort of mistake I'd expect from Sasuke.

I snapped my book shut and threw it into the satchel. "I'm going to go down to the training field; my doctor said some light physical therapy would do me good." It hadn't been precisely what she'd said, but I didn't want to draw out the conversation with needless worries.

"Have a good day, darling," Mebuki mumbled, still half-asleep.

I walked through town in a daze, peering through shop windows helplessly. I need to get the boys something. Anything. After everything they had done for me, I wanted to do something nice for them. Unfortunately, I didn't have a strong idea of what they liked other than food.

Kunai? No, they have kunai, that's ridiculous. Books? I don't know which books Sasuke already owns and Naruto hates reading. Fashionable jewellery? A pet cat? My brain's automatic suggestions were growing more ridiculous the more desperate I became.

I had been standing in the middle of the street swivelling my head around desperately when I heard a voice call out. "Hey, Sakura?"

I whirled around and came face to face with a boy around my age. He had a tired expression that I automatically pegged as resting bitch face, and the most incredible gravity-defying hair pulled back in a high ponytail.

"Um, who's asking?" I queried nervously.

He sighed. "Shikamaru. Ino's teammate. I saw you walking around; your steps were uneven and you looked confused. It'd be troublesome... but Ino said you were having memory problems, and she'd kill me if I didn't help. Do you need someone to take you back to the hospital?" He looked very much like he was hoping for a negative.

My face burned in humiliation. "Oh, um, I'm not lost. I was just looking for something..." I frowned. "How did you recognise me?"

He shoved his hands in his pockets. "Ino talks about you a lot. A girl my age walking around the streets in confusion, with the clear outlines of several textbooks in her backpack..."

I winced. Wow. Called out.

"Short, pink hair," he continued.

I slapped a palm to my face. Right. There probably weren't a lot of people roaming around with pink hair, were there?

"A giant seal on her forehead..."

Okay, I get it, I'm instantly recognisable.

"Not to mention, I went to school with you for six years," he finished. He gave a slow blink. "I'd have to be pretty clueless to not recognise you. I'm not the one with amnesia."

"Oh my God, just forget I asked."

Shikamaru frowned, crossing his arms. "So what were you looking for?"

I removed my hands from my face, slightly more composed. I studied him thoughtfully. "Hey, you're a teenage boy. What do teenage boys like?"

He regarded me warily. "In what context?"

I gestured vaguely. "Like, presents. My teammates did a nice thing for me, so I wanted to get them something as a thank you. But I can't think of what they like other than food, so..."

He shrugged. "Food is great. Everybody has different tastes in the things they like. If you're trying to find something that both Naruto and Sasuke would like, lunch is your best bet."He raised an eyebrow. "You shouldn't need to ask me to figure something like that out. Aren't you supposed to be smart?"

"But I get them food all the time!" I repeated, my voice a whine.

He snorted. His next words came out in such a low grumble, I wasn't sure I was supposed to hear it. "Then you're the perfect woman. They should be grateful." He stared into the distance as though recalling something painful, before shaking his head. "Speaking of which, I'm going to training. Ino will kill me if I'm late. See ya." He waved a hand lazily and slouched off.

I stared after him as he left, brows furrowed. Perfect woman? That's a new one. I shook it off. Boys are weird. Especially coming from Shikamaru, who had Ino on his team. Ino's the greatest girl on the planet. What a weirdo, I thought she said he was smart?

I shook my head in disgust, but took his advice and walked into a shop to pick up lunches. He's right about one thing, though. Everybody likes to eat.

When I arrived at our training ground, I was relieved to find that only Sasuke had shown up so far. This was going to be awkward enough without Naruto as a witness. It was a little surprising to see Sasuke hadn't started training yet, though. He was sitting against one of the wooden poles, staring off into the forest, as he had been on the first day I'd met him.

As I approached him I unzipped my backpack, digging around for the books. When he turned around to face me, I was already holding the small stack in front of me. "Thank you for letting me borrow these. They let me out pretty early, though, so I didn't get much reading done." I smiled awkwardly. "I'll probably ask to borrow them again eventually. They're pretty good."

Sasuke stared at me flatly, not moving from his position. He turned away to face the forest again. "I've already read them. Keep them." Without looking back at me, he stood up and began walking toward the clearing. "Come on. I've been stuck with the idiot for two weeks; I need someone different to spar with."

I stood frozen in place with my hands outstretched holding the books. After a moment, I slowly clutched them to my chest protectively. I stuffed them back in my backpack with the distinct feeling of getting away with something.

Books sorted, I ran after him in a light jog. After so long sitting around, it felt wonderful to finally move around. "Hey! Don't be so mean about Naruto. He's really good! I bet you guys have been getting far ahead of me in training."

Sasuke scoffed, finally looking at me only to roll his eyes. "You'd complain too if you were stuck with him for two weeks." He crossed his arms. "Plus we need you to go over that Air Pocket move with us... Sensei was useless."

I raised my eyebrows. "Wait, Sensei was around for training?"

He uncrossed his arms and slid his feet into a fighting stance. "Like I said. Sensei was useless."

Oh. So that's a no. Right.

I also moved into stance, subtly shifting my weight, a small smirk tugging at my lips. I was excited to put the moves in that taijutsu book into practice.

As usual, Sasuke was the first to act, rushing forward in a sweeping kick. I rammed a knee to the underside of his, and in a twist of motion, jammed an elbow into his armpit. He hissed in a breath, and I took advantage of his momentary hesitation to whirl around in a kick to slam my shin into his back.

Right before the blow could land, he reached around and grabbed my ankle, and with a deft twist of his arm, my weight was unbalanced. I toppled onto the ground.

"Ow, okay, point to you," I said, raising my hands in front of me. I had been doing fine moving around and directing my bones into the hits. But when I fell to the ground, the force impacted my muscles far worse than usual. I rubbed tenderly at the arm that had taken the weight of my fall.

"What was that supposed to be?" Sasuke muttered, glowering as he rotated his shoulder experimentally.

I huffed out a laugh. "It was in that book you gave me. The Taijutsu one. They call it Ninja Art of the Eight Limbs."

He shook his head. "Of course you read a book in less than twelve hours." I could almost feel the annoyance radiating off of him. "And of course just reading something instantly made your taijutsu better, even after being in the hospital..."

I grinned sheepishly. "Well, I don't think I'm going to take you by surprise again anytime soon, and I think it might be a bit before my muscles are ready for another round…"

He finally noticed the delicate way I was holding myself, still on the ground. He huffed out a sigh and sat across from me. "… So how are we supposed to be directing chakra for Air Pocket?"

Relieved at the opportunity to be useful when I could barely move, I was more than happy to go over chakra technique with him until Naruto arrived.

"Sakura-chan!" I heard him call out.

I rolled my head back lazily and gave him a grin as he approached. "Hey, Stranger. It's good to be back in action."

He squatted down and frowned. "Why're you on the ground like that? Are you okay?"

I nodded. "Yeah, I'm okay. Sasuke just beat me up," I said placidly. "He's rude like that."

"What?!" He exclaimed, jumping up and pointing an accusing finger at Sasuke. "How could you do something like that, Bastard? She only just got better!"

Sasuke glared at me, unimpressed. "Idiot. We spar all the time. That's why we're here."

I smirked at him, knowing full well he would never admit to being more beat up than I was. It would never happen again, so I wanted to savour the moment.

"Yeah, Naruto, I'm just teasing." I smiled at him brilliantly. "Sit with us, we're going over Air Pocket."

After we went over the basics of the technique, I followed the boys over to the stream and half-watched and directed them until they didn't need my help. I spent the rest of my time reading. After my talk with Tsunade, I was hesitant to use my chakra again.

I knew, on an intellectual level, that using chakra was generally fine. Even living and existing used chakra. But… this morning also reminded me all too clearly that I had a blind spot when it came to my chakra levels. For someone with supposed talent in sensing chakra in other things, I mused, It's pretty incredible that I manage to miss when I'm almost out of it. I could tell when my chakra levels were full; I could tell when I was feeling great. But somehow, I had trouble noticing when I felt awful.

It made sense, in a way. In my previous life, I always felt dreadful; I was always in some measure of pain. Only having it removed made me realise what a huge difference it made.

Perhaps that's why, other than missing my siblings, I didn't miss my old life too much. I hadn't had much else going for me.

Thinking of my sister made me frown. I remembered waking up early some mornings, and aching so much I didn't want to go to school. At first, she thought I was just trying to avoid it (and bless her heart, wasn't angry). But eventually, her Nursing instincts kicked in, and one morning she pressed her fingertips against certain muscles on my body, fingerspelling with one hand to ask me when I hurt.

It hurt everywhere, every day, just not always a lot.

I had spent the last month of my old life trying to wriggle out of doctors appointments. I knew what she thought; I'd read every single one of her schoolbooks and every other textbook I could get my hands on. And fibromyalgia wasn't curable, so I didn't really want to know.

… That was pretty close to the way my muscles felt now. I winced, paging through my new book on medical jutsu. Yeah, going to take the doctor's advice on this one. Don't want to go through that again.

I was positive overworking my muscles now wouldn't lead to a new fibro diagnosis, but I didn't want to be reminded of it either. That was one thing I was more than happy to leave in my past life.

Half lost in thought, half leafing through my book, my fingers froze on a page. Something had caught my eye. I read over the page carefully, frowning.

It was in one of the first sections of the book, on countering Genjutsu- illusionary- techniques. I'd read about them before; after all, my doctors all thought I'd been the victim of a Genjutsu attack. I'd even tried the counter, one night alone in my bedroom. The textbook way to counter was the Genjutsu Kai- literally Genjutsu Dissipation. It involved disrupting your chakra flow to shock your system into cancelling the technique. Another way involved subjecting the body to pain. It made sense; Genjutsu typically overwhelmed the mind to bend reality. And as my therapists often told me, if I found myself dissociating from reality, the best thing I could do was pay close attention to the real environment around me. (Though they would never suggest pain as an option. But then, they hadn't been ninja.)

It was the third method of countering that bothered me: helping an ally under a genjutsu by pushing chakra into their system, thus disrupting the attack.

Something that I was told never to do, or else I'd hurt someone.

Frowning, I brought up one of my hands and trickled chakra into it until it began to glow. Blue-green.

I glanced over at the boys, eyes tracing over to Naruto. He always tended to overuse his chakra when learning a new technique. Sure enough, his feet were glowing where he had submerged them in the water, attempting to create a chakra shell to keep them dry.

The glow of his chakra was blue.

Tsunade, using Mystical Palm, had chakra that glowed green.

Shikamaru's words from earlier played in my mind: Aren't you supposed to be smart?

I let the chakra fade from my fingers. I opened my mouth, then closed it. Thought deeply. Unfortunately, Japanese didn't have a good selection of curse words.

"Well, fuck," I mumbled in English.

Chapter Text

I had never seen any chakra colour except blue in other people, until I met Tsunade. Chakra was visible so rarely, it hadn't even occurred to me that my chakra might be the colour it was for a reason. I did not know what it meant, but I did know precisely one person who could see and understand other chakra colours.

"Sasuke!" I called out, my voice cracking slightly.

He was by my side in a blur of motion, one hand gripping my shoulder roughly, his eyes flashing around the clearing.

Red eyes.

All other thought stuttered to a halt, drifting away to where I couldn't reach them anymore. Red eyes. I'd known, in a previous life, that he had some kind of eye power that made his eyes red.

(Red.)

But I had only seen it once, and the memory flooded back into me. Red eyes. Red blood.

(Red.)

The smell of the blood, and other terrible smells. You see gore on television, but you can never imagine the smell.

(Red. The sound of something large falling wetly to the ground.)

The smell…

"What is it?" Sasuke asked, focusing on me now. Naruto trotted up behind him, his face a mask of concern.

I blinked several times as the conflicting images warred. (Red eyes and blood.) Red eyes and my friend Sasuke, crouching in front of me now (rough hands on my shoulders, shaking me) with a tense expression on his face.

"Ne, Sakura-chan? Are you sick again? If training is too much right now, we can take you home!" Naruto said, kneeling on my other side. (Naruto crying out in pain, arrow in his shoulder, red blood.)

I tried to respond but words were failing me, as though I'd forgotten how to speak.

Sasuke shook his head. "She isn't sick the way she was before." The red eyes studied me carefully (red blood, bodily tissue tearing under my kunai). "And I don't think it's… I don't think it's a genjutsu."

"Sorry," I finally mumbled, my lips numb. I didn't know what I was apologising for. For the blood? For making them worried? For killing someone? For overreacting?

Three Narutos bursting into smoke. Naruto crying out. Sensei rushing forward-

"Sensei?" I muttered.

A vibrating current in the air I could recognise immediately, like the hum of electronics coming alive after a power-outage. Something that meant safety.

A hand plopped onto my head and tousled my hair. I could feel the chakra seeping through slowly, like a warm blanket on a cold day, chakra that was saying Home over now Safety it's done Protected safe safe safe.

I blinked and saw the two boys in front of me clearly. I felt the damp grass under my knees. The sky was a vibrant blue above us. The sun was well-risen now, and I could feel the heat of it touching my skin.

I craned my neck around under the hair-ruffle. "Hi, Sensei."

Kakashi's eye crinkled up into a smile. "Maa, it's good to see all of my cute students together again." He lifted his hand from my head, and I could feel my hair lift and crackle like it had been rubbed against a balloon. I frowned and smoothed it absently.

My hands were not shaking.

"Ne, Sensei," Naruto said. "I think Sakura-chan might be sick again!"

"I'm not sick," I said. "Sorry for- for that. I just-" Just what? "I had a... moment. I'm fine now." I kept my gaze firmly on Sensei. I didn't want to look at the boys just yet.

I heard Sasuke from beside me. "What is a moment supposed to be?"

"Ah..." Sensei nodded sagely. "We call it the Shinobi's Self-Induced Genjutsu."

For a moment my lips started to twitch downward, before I caught his meaning. Then they half-curved upward, in a strange approximation of a smile.

Right. And both kinds are cancelled in much the same way. I guess I'm not the first person who thought about it like that. Had it really only been minutes ago, when I'd been comparing genjutsu to dissociation?

"Huh? Why would Sakura put a genjutsu on herself? How does that even work?"

Finally, I looked at him. I couldn't help but smile at his puzzled expression. "He just means… I was remembering something and spaced out for a minute." More to give my hands something to do than anything else, I gathered up my books and stuffed them back into my satchel. "Sensei, if you're here, that means we're having a meeting, right?" I gave him an imploring look; I did not want to keep talking about this.

Maybe this is it, just like my last life. Maybe I hit puberty, and suddenly I can't even think anymore. So much for becoming a ninja. Becoming someone reliable.

I clamped down on that thought. Hard.

"Yes," Sensei said. "We have a good bit to talk about. No need to move, we can have our meeting her. Gather round, Team 7." He hardly needed to tell us; we were already all sitting next to each other.

He folded himself on the ground in front of us, crossing his arms. We waited for him to speak, but he said nothing.

I hesitated a moment, before, "Um. Tsunade says I'm on medical leave. For at least two weeks. So I won't be allowed on missions."

The boys bristled beside me, but Sensei nodded encouragingly. "I'm going to keep training. She said I'm allowed," I said. The words sounded strangely childish in my ears.

Kakashi nodded. "I know how important training is to the three of you. That's why, while Sakura will be unable to join missions with us, I've come up with an alternative..."

We stared at him.

He clapped his hands together. "You all know the value of hard work," he said, a strange, terrifying joy radiating through his voice. "So we're going to be training with another team, and rotating members throughout. My friend's genin are a year older than you… So he wanted to give them each a taste of leadership while running missions with you two," he nodded his head at Naruto and Sasuke, "while joining our training so everyone has a chance to learn to acclimate to new team members. At least until Sakura is discharged from medical leave."

Sasuke crossed his arms. "… This is just a way for you to get out of training and missions, isn't it?"

Kakashi's eye widened. "I assure you, I would not miss out on this training for the world."

I rubbed at my arms absentmindedly. "Training with another team would be interesting… seeing how their style works. And it means you guys won't be taking missions with total strangers; you'll have a chance to get to know each other."

Naruto huffed. "I don't care about other ninja! We can wait and just train hard! By the time we're done, we'll be able to do twenty missions in a single day! You can believe it!"

Sensei raised an eyebrow. "And if her medical leave lasts a month?"

Sasuke shrugged. "Then we'll have a month of training." He frowned thoughtfully. "It wouldn't hurt to train with them anyway, even if we wait on missions..."

Kakashi hummed. "I know your last mission paid well, but I'm not sure I want Naruto on my doorstep when you boys can't pay your rent..."

My head snapped over to the boys. Wait. Rent? What? They're just kids!

Sasuke snorted. "I don't have rent. If something that extreme happened, he could stay in one of the houses," he said reluctantly. And then after a pause, "On the other side of the compound."

"Wait, what?" I broke in.

Both of the boys looked at me. Their confusion reflected mine.

"Wait, hang on..." I squinted at them. "You boys don't… live alone, do you?"

Naruto scratched his head and said "Yeah" at the same time Sasuke grunted "Hn" (Which I translated to "Yes, but it's none of your damned business").

"Oh my God." My mind just couldn't wrap around it. "Kakashi! They can't live on their own! They're just kids!"

Sensei blinked slowly. "Remember that conversation we had several weeks ago? About graduating from the academy? You're all emancipated adults."

"Holy shit," I muttered in English. "What am I supposed to do? My parents said I can't move out until I'm sixteen, so how am I supposed to make sure you guys are eating?" Did Naruto even keep food in his house? Did he live entirely off of cup noodle? Does he know how to check expiration dates?

Sensei smiled. "It's nice to see you feeling so energetic again."

Sasuke buried his head in his hands. "… If we agree to take missions, will you stop that?"

"Absolutely not!" I yelled. Oh my God, did they lose their parents too? Do they not have any family? Do they just not get along? Didn't Sasuke say he had a brother he hated..?

"Heh-heh, Sakura-chan, please don't worry so much..." Naruto chuckled with a smile that seemed frozen in place. "I know how to do laundry and stuff, and Iruka-sensei visits and takes me out for ramen, and even the old man does sometimes..."

"I deliver vegetables once a week so he doesn't die of malnutrition!" Kakashi added cheerfully.

"That is not making me feel better!" I rose myself up onto my knees. "Okay! Look." I glowered at the boys. "You are each giving me your address, and every other morning I'll switch off meeting you at your houses, making sure you have food, and then we're walking to training together."

As Naruto brightened in delight and Sasuke's eyes widened in horror, I raised my hand before they could interrupt me. "And we are going to train with Sensei's friend's team, I am going to finish this physical therapy as soon as possible, and I'm going to buy us a house so you don't die from being helpless boys."

Naruto gave a toothy grin. "Hey! You can stay at the house Sasuke gives me!"

Sasuke shot him an icy glare. "… If that ever happens," he grumbled, "she can stay near one of the old training fields. You get a dog kennel on the outskirts."

"This," Kakashi interjected. "Is not how I envisioned this conversation would go." He scratched his head thoughtfully. "But this works for me. My friend's team will be meeting us here at six in the morning tomorrow. Don't be late."

We all turned to stare.

"Six in the morning?" I asked. "As in, zero-six-hundred? As in, before sunrise? At the training field?" I did some quick mental calculations in my head. Assuming the boys lived equidistant from the training fields as me, plus half that distance at an optimistic minimum to meet them… "Man, and I thought I was getting up early before. You guys better have coffee waiting for me when I get to your places. Naruto, you're first." So much for early morning tea.

Kakashi nodded. "Excellent! Enjoy the rest of your training. Ah, and Sakura," he rummaged around in a vest pocket for a scroll. "Just some care instructions from Tsunade. They can wait until you get home."

He dropped the scroll wordlessly in my lap before vanishing in a puff of smoke.

There was a pause; the quiet sound of three people adjusting from an extended period of emotional whiplash.

Naruto beamed. "So you're walking with me first because you like me best, right?"

I casually elbowed Sasuke in the side as he opened his mouth to say something sharp, and reached to take out a blank notebook. "Here, write your addresses down. Don't lie, I'll ask Sensei if I end up at the wrong house."

The boys (cheerfully, grudgingly) scrawled their addresses into the notebook.

When Sasuke handed me my pen back, he frowned. "So what was that earlier, anyway? Before… all that happened, you were yelling out. Was that just… you remembering something?" His look was wary.

"Oh!" I had completely forgotten, with everything that had happened. "It was… it was just this dumb question about chakra. You just appeared so suddenly, I guess I thought we were being attacked, or something," I admitted.

He thankfully let this pass without comment, cracking his neck. "Since when do you need to ask me about chakra?"

"It's just this weird thing. When I form chakra in my hands, it's this blue-green colour." I demonstrated for him. "But when I see other people form chakra, it's blue, or green. But you said you see completely different colours."

He raised his eyebrows. "Oh." His frown returned. "When did you see green chakra? When people form enough chakra to be visible, it's almost always blue..."

"When Tsunade-sama was using Mystical Healing Palm, it was green. I wasn't sure if it was just her chakra, or-"

He shook his head. "No, her chakra… her other chakra is a kind of gold colour." He shrugged. "It's not exactly something I see, it's just.. a sharingan thing. But it's different from how chakra looks when people form it."

Auras, I thought to myself. Might as well be, since we're in a world with magic…

Naruto scrunched up his face. "So if Obaachan's chakra is green, and regular chakra is blue, and Sakura-chan's chakra is blue-green..." He jumped up to his feet. "Maybe Sakura's related to Obaachan!" he exclaimed.

"No," Sasuke said flatly. "It means Sakura keeps trying to form healing chakra when she wants regular chakra."

Oh. Well when he put it that way, it seemed obvious. Here I thought my chakra was just broken, and that's why I couldn't use it to interact with things… I suppose, in a way, it was.

(Aren't you supposed to be smart?) Shikamaru's voice taunted in my head.

Sasuke sighed. "At first I thought it was Wood Release. And Tsunade is a Senju, but..."

Wood release. That was… a special bloodline limit ability the first Hokage had. He's the one who made all the trees around Konoha, supposedly. "I didn't even consider that," I admitted.

"Huh? Wood release?" Naruto asked. "Why'd you think that? Oh! Is it because she was doing weird stuff to trees? Oh, man! Sakura, you're so cool!"

I shook my head. "No. When my chakra is interacting with trees, it doesn't feel much different from anything else, really. Pretty much the same as any living thing."

(Red blood, on my hands.) I shook my head more forcefully. "So Sasuke's probably right… I'm going to need to learn how to separate it."

Naruto's stomach chose that moment to grumble. Loudly. "Heh, sorry… Hey, why don't we all take a break and go to Ichiraku?"

Wordlessly, I dug around in my satchel and unearthed the boxed lunches, slightly crushed from the books. "Uh, I already got us food. As thanks. For everything you two did, I mean." I bowed awkwardly. "Sorry, I didn't know what you guys liked other than food."

"… You really don't think we can feed ourselves, do you?" Sasuke asked.

I elected to ignore this.

The rest of the training day was much more relaxed. The boys switched off from chakra control to sparring with each other, while some Naruto clones kept me company while I practised kunai. Or rather, were very enthusiastic kunai targets. I still refused to use live kunai on either of the boys when we sparred, despite their protests that they went all out in their sparring with one-another while I was in hospital. (Which was yet another thing that I was carefully not thinking about.)

By early evening, we called it a day. I walked with Naruto on his way home to give me an idea for where to go in the morning. Fortunately he lived in a district I was familiar with. I was happy to let his cheerful chatter wash over me, never needing a complex answer from me, nor even demanding that I partake in the conversation much at all.

"… And Sensei is always nagging me about vegetables, and so does Ayame-neesan from the ramen shop, so you really don't have to worry so much! Yanno, ramen really does have everything in it already, ne? It has noodles, meat, vegetables..."

"Fruit?" I queried.

"Ugh, Sakura-chan! C'mon! Fruit would be super gross in ramen!" He laughed.

"Naruto," I said warningly.

He waved a hand. "Yeah, yeah, okay. I'll get some fruit juice or something..."

I smiled. Sometimes, having a hyperactive talking partner could be nice.

"Okay, this is my apartment!" He gestured grandly. "But now that you know where it is, I'm gonna walk you home now! It's dangerous for girls to walk alone!"

My mouth twitched. "… Naruto, I just spent three hours impaling your clones with kunai. You remember your clones being hit with kunai. I think I'll be fine."

He huffed and crossed his arms. "And what are you gonna do if there are pirate-ninja?"

I cracked and finally laughed. "Naruto, what are you going to do if there are pirate-ninja?"

In the end, I conceded and he walked home with me. It was a cool evening with a lovely sunset, a light breeze in the air. It was hardly night or dangerous, but considering I'd just been in hospital and kicked up a huge fuss over the boys, I wasn't of a mind to argue. It wasn't like I actually minded.

We made it back to my house (no pirate-ninjas in sight, thankfully), he ducked in his head quickly to say hello and goodbye to my parents, and before long I was showered and in bed. Ino hadn't shown up that evening, but I hadn't really been expecting her to. After just coming off a mission that long, I would want to just curl up in my own bed too.

I reached in my pack to take out the boys' addresses and my books, and paused when I saw the scroll from Tsunade. I'd entirely forgotten about it.

I unrolled it lazily and let my eyes scan over the page, expecting it to just be the dates I'd be visiting Tsunade at hospital over the next two weeks. And they were. What I was not expecting, however, was the hospital's recommendation to see a psychologist. Upgraded from once-monthly to once-weekly. With a helpful address of a doctor who specialised in rehabilitating field ninja. And the precise dates and times I was expected to be there.

I groaned.

No wonder Sensei brushed off me having a breakdown at training. I should have known better. No matter what Naruto and Sasuke seemed to think, the man was nosy. He would never let something like that drop.

I let the scroll flutter onto the floor, set my alarm for four in the morning, shut off the light, and cursed myself to sleep.

Chapter Text

I awoke repeatedly punching the alarm clock for a snooze button. It did not have a snooze button. I sat upright, taking the alarm into my hands, trying to read the buttons on the back and make sense of them. My stomach rolled with the nausea of too early. I felt cold.

Beep! Beep! Beep!

I charged my hands with chakra and blasted it into the clock. It shut up. I dropped it onto the floor. I shuffled into the bathroom.

I dunked my head into the sink and turned both faucets on high.

Cold water, then hot, then warm. After a minute, the nausea subsided. I towelled my hair. I washed up. I went to my room and dressed. I stumbled down the stairs, too tired to muffle my steps with Silent Foot.

"Good morning, Sakura-chan!"

"Good morning, kiddo!"

I blinked blearily at the image of Naruto and my father sitting at the kitchen table. There was something wrong here. I couldn't put my finger on it. Why were they smiling?

I mumbled something that was neither English nor Japanese. I needed something. What did I need? Something warm.

"Here, Sakura-chan!" Naruto hopped up from the table and poured a cup of hot water from the teapot on the stove, before digging around his backpack and taking out a box with large writing: INSTANT COFFEE.

I made another mouth-sound and slumped into the chair next to Naruto's. I was expecting him to take a jar of powder out of the box, but instead, it came in tiny cups that reminded me of the coffee creamers I used to see at restaurants. He peeled the little cup open and poured a dark, viscous liquid into the hot water and stirred it with a spoon.

"Hey, Sakura's-Father-san, where do you keep your sugar and-"

I reached out lightning-quick and chugged down a quarter of the coffee in several gulps. It… wasn't bad.

"… Uh. Milk?" Naruto finished.

"I'm good," I croaked.

Naruto shot me a look that could only be described as Kid Witnessing Someone Drinking Black Coffee.

Kizashi chuckled. "She reminds me so much of her mother, back when she had the midnight shift, ah. Just leave her be, kiddo. She'll come to life in a few minutes."

"Just like that?" Naruto asked in disbelief.

I ignored them and picked up the box the coffee had come in thoughtfully, reading the back. From the advertising, it seemed to be geared toward field ninja who didn't have access to a hot drink on the move. No wonder it tasted fine; it must have been actual, concentrated coffee. I smiled slightly (or at least attempted to). It was funny to imagine someone like Kakashi having these… he would probably drink it straight, though.

After several quiet sips of coffee, I tuned back into the conversation. Kizashi was saying, "… Remember my first apartment too. I was a bit older, of course. The first time my sister visited, she told me, 'Kiza-chan, how long has this soup been in your fridge? What else have you been eating?'. Oh, she was so angry when I told her I bought the bulk container when I moved in and kept microwaving it… I still hold that it killed any bacteria, though."

Naruto nodded sagely. "Makes sense!"

I shot out a fist and pressed a rough noogie against his hair. "You'd better have real food when I get there. And why are you at my house?"

Naruto gave me a bug-eyed look. "Wow! You were right, Sakura's-Father-san! She's totally awake!"

"What are you doing here?" I repeated, draining the last of my coffee. I could finally feel the chakra buzzing pleasantly under my skin.

"Oh! I woke up extra early for training, and then I went to pick up coffee and juice like you told me. And I thought, hey! Might as well go make sure Sakura woke up on time!" He beamed.

I glanced down at his satchel. Sure enough, there was also a gallon of apple juice sitting inside. I grunted, stood up and stretched, and walked over to the stairs. "Okay, let me get my pack and we'll go."

I bumped into Mebuki halfway down the hall. She stared at me blearily. "What's that noise?"

"Men."

"Ah."

In short order, I was walking with Naruto through town, listening with half an ear to his chatter, breathing deeply the cool morning air. By the time we reached his flat, I was well and truly awake and in a great mood- if a little uneasy at what I might find.

He walked me up the stairs and unlocked his door, and threw it open with a flourish. "Ta-da! This is my house!" He ushered me in with a grin. I noticed he didn't take off his shoes, but I slid mine off out of habitual politeness.

His apartment was… shockingly tidy. To be sure, there was a great deal of clutter: a few unopened scrolls on his table, a few figurines surrounding a potted plant on the window, wildly clashing mugs stacked in his sink. There were several pieces of paper taped around the room, with writing such as "Do Your Best!" and "Beat Sasuke!" (this one with a shockingly rude drawing) and "#1 NINJA!" and "Become Hokage!"

It was the kind of clutter that didn't look dirty so much as lived in. A home.

"Here, Sakura-chan! Please sit down!" He pulled out the single chair by his table and patted it excitedly. Before I even sat he was striding around his house and showing off random things like a child at show-and-tell. "This is Ukki-chan," he said, pointing to the potted plant on the windowsill. "I gave Sensei a plant too! But his is named Ukki-san." He proceeded to introduce me to five other houseplants. "And these are my mugs," he opened up a cupboard, "I like my Frog one best, but I need to wash it! I have extra though so you can have coffee every time you visit!" He threw open another cupboard door, "This is where I keep my ramen!" There were many multi-coloured packets and cups. He threw open another cupboard, "And this is where I keep other stuff! I have tea and hot chocolate if you ever want something other than coffee!" He opened his fridge. "These are the vegetables Sensei got for me! He threw away my milk a few days ago because it expired, but I got a new one!" He hefted the apple juice onto the lower shelf. "And he gets mad when I don't eat the vegetables so I cut them up and put them in my ramen! And here are some eggs, I also like eggs in ramen! There's meat in the freezer too, 'cuz I don't eat it fast enough to keep it in the fridge-"

I listened in a daze as he continued showing off every tiny facet of his home. He had special hand-labelled jars for spices. His different chopstick sets each had names. At one point he rummaged in his backpack and showed off his wallet; it was frog-shaped and frankly adorable. Its name was Gama-chan.

"Man, it's so cool to have someone visit! I mean, Sensei and Iruka-sensei visit too, but like-"

"Naruto," I interrupted.

"Yeah? What's up?"

I put my head in my hands. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but… you're probably the most well-adjusted person on our team." I closed my eyes. Even at the age of fourteen in my previous life, I hadn't had my shit together anywhere near as much as Naruto did now.

"Huh? Is that good? That's good, right?" He tilted his head to the side.

I stood up and slung my backpack on with a sigh. "Yes, Naruto, it's very good. I'm not worried about you anymore..." I hesitated. I looked around the cluttered, homey apartment. At Naruto's happy, grinning face; it was an expression that would better fit a child who had just experienced ten Christmases in a row. "I'll make sure to visit lots, though."

He may have been ridiculously well-adjusted, but he was still alone.

I slung my arm through his. "C'mon, we should head out. Don't wanna be late."

He gave me a smile that could have melted glaciers.


When we arrived at our training ground, I was a little surprised to see there were already several people there. A look at my watch told me we were still a quarter-hour early, yet. I had to smile, a little. Sasuke was here, sure, but there were three other genin around our age… Kakashi had said we valued hard work, hadn't he? He must have set us up specifically with a team that would train hard with us.

I jumped slightly as one of the genin suddenly appeared in front of me. The boy gave me a huge smile; he had glossy hair in a bowl cut and the most intense eyebrows I had ever seen in my life.

"Hi! You're Sakura-san, aren't you?"

I shrugged. "Yeah." I'd have asked how he'd known, but had learned my lesson the hard way with Shikamaru.

The boy's smile widened even further and he gave me a thumbs-up. "Would you like to go out with me? I'll protect you with my life!" His smile turned to a glare in a flash as he looked at Naruto. "And I'll defeat this one to show how serious I am! He is not good enough for you!"

Naruto and I both looked at each other, our linked arms, back at the boy, and back to each other.

He unfurled his arm from mine and cracked his knuckles. "Don't worry, Sakura-chan, I'll beat him up for you. He's annoying..."

I shrugged and looked back at the boy. "Fighting won't be necessary. I don't know you. I don't even know your name. So I don't want to go out with you. Sorry about that." There was a part of me that wondered if this was a trick from the opposing team. Girls used to have boys pretend to ask me out in middle school as a prank. I frowned. It probably would have hurt more if I actually, like, cared. But it was still rude.

I crossed my arms. "And don't be mean to my teammates. They're my best friends. If you keep talking down to them, I'll kick your ass."

"Yeah! You tell him, Sakura-chan!"

I grabbed Naruto's head under my arm and gave him a noogie. "And don't let yourself get dragged into stupid fights! A ninja should have an even temper!"

"You're one to talk," a voice said. I looked up and found the others had come over to us, Sasuke at their head. He looked distinctly ruffled; they must have already started sparring before we arrived.

I released Naruto from my grip. "Good morning, Sasuke." I quickly bowed to the other two behind him; a girl with twin hair buns piled above her headband, and a boy with long hair and pale eyes. "Nice to meet you. I am Haruno Sakura, and this is Uzumaki Naruto."

The boy inclined his head and the girl bowed equally. She was the one who spoke, "I am Ten-Ten, this is Hyuuga Neji," she gestured to the boy with pale eyes, "and this is Rock Lee." She clapped a hand over the bowl-cut boy's shoulder. "Nice to meet you!"

I glanced around the clearing. "Have either of the Sensei arrived? I know we're a little early..."

Sasuke blanched. "Sensei arrived when I did, surprisingly… But he's… occupied."

I heard a loud and distinct explosion. I looked over toward the forest where, distantly, I could see a large cloud of smoke and the tell-tale signs of trees falling. "… Occupied?"

"Did you not hear?" Lee gasped. "Your Sensei, Hatake Kakashi, and our Sensei, Maito Gai, are rivals of all eternity!"

Ten-Ten shook her head. "As soon as Kakashi-sensei got here, Gai-sensei dragged him off into the woods to fight. It's just that..." Her face had a strange, pinched expression.

"Just?" I prodded.

Neji sighed. "They went to play Rock, Paper, Scissors… I don't know how it ended up like this…"

"It's been more than a half-hour," Ten-Ten fretted.

There was silence as the six of us gazed off into the distant trees, listening to the muffled whump as a spiralling tower of fire burst from the canopy, along with a crackling sound like a lightning bolt striking the ground.

I nodded slowly. "That one was a draw."

Five faces shot back to stare at me. "How did you know?" Ten-Ten asked.

I shook my head. "It's not Rock Paper Scissors. It's… something else, with elements."

There was a pause.

"Byakugan!" Neji exclaimed, the veins around his eyes bulging out. I pale eyes scanned the distance carefully.

There were two more far-off noises I couldn't identify.

Neji let the strange eye-jutsu fade, shaking his head. "She's right. Those were both earth pillars."

I nodded. "So instead of Rock-beats-Scissors-beats-Paper, and so on… Fire-beats-Wind-beats-Lightning-beats-Earth," I sucked in a breath, "-beats-Water-beats-Fire. It's exactly the kind of ridiculous rock-paper-scissors you would expect from insane, elite jounin..."

"And with many more opportunities to have a draw," Neji concluded.

Two massive water-spouts erupted in the distance.

I scratched my head. "This might take a while, so do you want to start training without them?"

They did.

 

Chapter Text

"So what kind of training do you usually do?" I asked. "I know you were already training when we got here."

Ten-Ten rolled her eyes. "We weren't training yet. That was just Lee and Sasuke-san getting into a fight." She grinned. "Our training changes from day to day, depending on what we want to focus on and what our missions are. I'm our long-range specialist; I work with thrown weapons, mostly!" she said. "Lee is our taijutsu specialist! And Neji, of course, has the Byakugan."

Right, that eye-thing he'd used before. "Huh. So how's that work?" I asked him.

He frowned at me- or rather, he was frowning at my forehead. He did not reply. In his place, Ten-Ten smiled and said, "With his Byakugan, Neji can see everything around him at 360 degrees, up to fifty metres! He can also see an opponent's chakra system all the way down to their pathway's tenketsu!"

My eyebrows shot up. That was… ridiculous. The tenketsu of the chakra system were where chakra emitted; they were tiny. Like, almost microscopic.

"Not only that," she went on. "But he's a genius with the Hyuuga clan's Gentle Fist taijutsu. So he can directly hit a tenketsu point and temporarily shut off chakra flow in an opponent's system!" She smiled. "So even if I say Lee is our taijutsu specialist," she patted Lee's shoulder consolingly. "Neji still manages to bring him down, too. He's so fast, and his vision is so good, I can't hit him with kunai no matter where I hide!"

That was terrifying.

"Sakura, you're not training with him," Sasuke said roughly. I turned to stare at him; he was glaring daggers at Neji. "Sakura has an… illness with her chakra. It wouldn't be a good idea."

Oh. Shit. Right.

"I agree," Neji said softly. "I would not recommend it."

"What? Sakura-san also cannot use chakra? We are the same!" Lee shouted merrily. His eyes were practically sparkling. "Together, we will become excellent ninja, even if we only use taijutsu!"

"Um," I said, twisting my hands together. "I can use chakra. I just need to be very careful to not use too much. I could get... very sick."

Sasuke and Naruto stared at me. Oops. I guess I haven't told them about that, have I? I gave them an apologetic smile. "I'll be fine, though," I said, pointing toward the seal on my forehead. "Tsunade-sama took care of me, so as long as I'm careful, I'll be fine. She didn't say anything about chakra-blocks, so it probably wouldn't matter. I could probably spar with Neji-san."

Neji's face clouded over. "No, we will not. If you're destined to be at a disadvantage in your chakra, you should not fight against it."

I furrowed my eyebrows. "There's a difference between working against something and working with it. Otherwise, how could I expect to get better?"

"YES!" a loud voice exclaimed from directly behind me. "WHAT YOUTHFUL VIGOUR!"

I emitted a high-pitched noise, spun around, tripped, and fell spectacularly onto the ground like a drunken ballerina. Sasuke and Naruto likewise jumped, but the other team behind us remained unfazed.

The man who stood before me looked like a much older and more muscular version of Lee. Brows, bowl-cut, green spandex suit and all. I gaped at him. Stunned silence seemed to be my theme for the day.

"LIKE A BEAUTIFUL FLOWER BLOSSOMING ON THE TREE! THE SPRINGTIME OF YOUR YOUTH HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN!" he cried, striking a dramatic pose. Behind him, I saw a mirage of ocean waves; seagulls flocked in the distance.

I brought my hands in the seal to dispel the genjutsu and whispered "Kai!". It did not fade. I glanced sideways at Sasuke; our eyes met. His attempt at breaking it hadn't worked either. We both went back to staring at who could only be Gai-sensei.

"Sensei!" Lee cried, confirming my hunch. "I, too, will work hard with great youthful vigour! I will overcome every obstacle I face!"

Gai burst into tears, throwing his arms around the boy. "LEE, I AM SO PROUD! YOU ARE TRULY A GENIUS OF HARD WORK!"

Lee also began crying. "Sensei, I will not let you down! If I cannot defeat Neji in a fight today, I will do three-hundred chin-ups!"

Slowly, I rose to my feet and shuffled closer to my teammates. I cast my eyes around desperately for Kakashi. He was nowhere in sight.

Already regretting the action, I called out, "Um, Gai-sensei? Where is Kakashi-sensei? He promised he wouldn't miss training..."

The embrace and ocean illusion vanished instantly. "Ah, yes. Unfortunately, my Great Rival said he was running late to a very important meeting." He sighed. "He can be very forgetful! But no matter, children. I, Maito Gai, have agreed to be your Sensei for the day!" He began to literally sparkle. I did not bother trying to break the genjutsu.

"That's great, Sensei!" I said, my voice high-pitched. "We, um, we're very excited to train, so we've already figured out what we'd like to do today! I'm going to-" I cast my mind around before settling on the least-intense of the three. "Going to be training with Ten-Ten-san today! I need to work on my throwing accuracy!"

The look of utter betrayal from Sasuke was delicious, but since I was planning on walking home with him that night and didn't want to die, "And Sasuke is sparring with Neji, and Naruto is sparring with Lee! Because- because Sasuke excels as a long-range fighter, so he's a good match for Byakugan. And Naruto has this Shadow Clone technique, so he'd- he'd get some great practice in perfecting his, uh, coordination with his clones against a tough taijutsu specialist!" For ad-libbing, it was pretty decent reasoning.

Fortunately, neither Naruto nor Team Gai called me out on my bullshit. I'd been most worried about Naruto and Lee, however…

"Yosh!" Lee exclaimed. "Yes! I will defeat you, Uzumaki Naruto, and I will claim Sakura-san's heart!"

Naruto growled. "You stay away from Sakura-chan, you weirdo!"

I whirled around and caught Ten-Ten's arm with mine. "So yeah, we're gonna go train, bye!" She followed me willingly enough off to the other side of the clearing, toward the trees I normally practised my throwing around. I released her from my grip.

"Um… I'm very sorry about that," I bowed. "Your sensei seems very nice and supportive. I just… It's just too early."

She smiled back, unoffended. "It's okay! Gai-sensei can be a little overwhelming when you first meet him. Don't worry, though, he is a great teacher." She hummed. "I'm a little sad I didn't get to learn from Kakashi-sensei though. Gai-sensei says that his great rival would be an excellent teacher..."

I smiled. "He really is. Naruto and Sasuke might disagree with me, though. He has a very hands-off approach."

"How so?" she asked.

"Well, instead of directing every little thing, he just tells us what to work on next and leaves us to ourselves."

She raised an eyebrow. "That sounds… less hands-off and more like a spectator's approach."

I shrugged. She was allowed to be wrong if she wanted. "Anyway, mind if I do some stretches before we start on anything? Tsunade-sama says I need to be careful. I had some muscle strain and I overdid it in training yesterday."

"Of course!" She sat on the ground and began stretching. "So you got to talk to Tsunade-sama directly? She's my idol! You said she made that seal for you- oh!" She put a hand to her mouth. "I'm sorry, that's a very rude question, isn't it?"

I shook my head. "No, no, it's fine! Yeah, she and Jiraiya-sama. It's just a medical thing to keep my chakra working the way it should." I shrugged nonchalantly. "My main problem right now is just re-training my muscles."

She nodded, stretching forward to touch her toes. "So you guys never got to tell us what fighting style you have..."

"Oh! Sasuke mostly works with kunai, shuriken, and ninja-wire, but he's very strong in taijutsu and jutsu as well. Naruto says he graduated at the top of our year."

Ten-Ten grinned. "So did Neji for our year! That was a good match."

I smiled back. "And let's see… like I said, Naruto has this excellent Shadow Clone jutsu… all the clones he makes are solid, so they can attack, but they also get dispelled easily if they're hit. He can make loads at once, though, so it doesn't hold him back much."

"Wow..." she drew out the word. "I'm jealous, that sounds like an awesome jutsu. Maybe he'll teach me."

I sighed. "Sensei said it would take way more chakra than Sasuke and I have. Naruto has great chakra-reserves, I guess." I moved out of my stretch and rose to my feet, leaning forward to stretch my back.

"So what about you?" Ten-Ten asked.

I would have shrugged, but I was unable to in my position. "Eh, a mediocre all-rounder, I guess. I'm not particularly good at anything except chakra-control, but that's not really useful in a fight."

Ten-Ten hummed. "You think? Sensei says that if I can get better at chakra control, it'll help a lot with my throwing." She leaned back until her hands were on the ground, her body in an arch.

"How so? Sasuke told me I should direct chakra into my muscles, and that's helped a lot, but my aim is still really sloppy..."

She let herself fall gently to the ground, frowning at me. "You can direct chakra out of your muscles? I thought only Hyuuga could do that..."

I shook my head, letting myself slump down onto the ground next to her. "Nah. I'm still forming the chakra in my hands, feet, and stomach, I just… push it around from there, I guess. I've never really given it much thought."

Ten-Ten smiled. "That's pretty great chakra control. I can use it in my hands when I throw, and that helps with my aim, but I can only get so much range..."

I grinned. "I can throw pretty far, but my aim is terrible. I'm good for hitting anything within, oh, four metres. After that, I'm more likely to spend my training hunting for lost kunai." I stood up. "I'll help you with chakra in muscles if you show me your trick for aiming?"

"Deal!"

It was a surprisingly easy arrangement, for both of us. Ten-Ten was familiar with the Leaf Sticking exercise; all we needed to do was attach several leaves to the major muscle groups in her arms so she could familiarise herself with directing chakra to them continuously. Her suggestion for me was likewise simple, and genius in its simplicity.

"So while you're holding your weapon, direct some chakra into it. Then when you're looking at your target, imagine a line of chakra extending from your weapon to where you're aiming. You're not directing real chakra there, but if you can visualise it clearly enough every time, your body will find its way into directing it along that line."

"Just like that?" I asked.

Ten-Ten shrugged, then stooped down to pick up a fallen leaf. "That's how I started, anyway. It didn't work immediately, but over time it became second-nature."

I nodded, hefting the kunai in my hands. "I guess it's the same with how I directed chakra in my muscles… it didn't always work perfectly, but I just got used to using it."

She nodded. "Give it a try. Throw a kunai into the straw doll in the middle," she nodded her head to the group she had set up. Each straw doll held a target board.

It was perhaps ten metres away. Which was further than I could normally hit a target, but that was the point. I took a deep breath and channelled chakra to my hand, imagining an invisible thread leading toward the centre of the bullseye. I snapped my arm out in an arc.

Thud! The kunai buried itself slightly above the doll's head.

My face split into a wide grin. "Did you see that? I've never gotten that close at this distance! Ten-Ten, you're a genius!"

"Oh? Who is a genius?" Gai-sensei landed in the clearing, coming from… somewhere. "What are our wonderful kunoichi up to?" He asked, glancing between my smiling face and Ten-Ten's leafy appearance.

I ecstatically began to ramble out the story of how we'd decided our practice. He listened with a very serious expression, nodding frequently.

"Wonderful, wise suggestions on either side!" he exclaimed. "How marvellous! To support one-another where the other has lack, to create perfection together! A beautiful plan befitting any kunoichi of the leaf!" He held his chin fiercely as tears trickled down his cheeks.

Well. He was certainly emotionally available and a supportive sensei. I smiled. "Thank you, Gai-sensei!"

"Should we try anything else, Sensei?" Ten-Ten asked.

Gai hummed and studied us both seriously, before giving a single nod. "Ten-Ten, when you become accustomed to your leaves, tell me and I will find weights for you. We will start with light weights and work our way upward. Sakura," he nodded at me. "Instead of using kunai, with which you have familiarity, switch between as many thrown weapons as possible. This will ensure you are adjusting to the different weights and aerodynamics every time. If you both practise this way continuously, there will not be an object too large or a distance too far for you to throw!"

My jaw dropped. That was… fantastic advice. I'd gotten used to using kunai because they were what I'd started with, but there were loads of weapons available to ninja. Shuriken, senbon- hell, I could probably throw arrows if I wanted. I had the strength and chakra for it.

I bowed. "Thank you, Gai-sensei! You're the best!"

He promptly burst into tears, clasping my hands within his. "To hear the student of my greatest rival say that I am a better sensei than he-"

Uh. I didn't say that.

"Sakura, I give you my oath!" He stood tall and pressed a fist to his chest. "By the time you are ready for missions again, you will be a genius of thrown weaponry! Or else I will balance atop the Hokage mountain by one hand for twelve hours!"

Oh no. I need to stop this, now. "But Gai-sensei, just a short time with Ten-Ten has already given me great genius in thrown weaponry!" I exclaimed. Now, how do I distract him? "Um, Sensei! Kakashi-sensei said your team will be joining mine on missions so they can learn leadership, right? How will that work?"

He dropped out of his dramatic pose and gave a thumbs up. "Ah, what a wonderful question! Yes, when your team goes on missions, one-by-one, each member of my team will be joining yours! They have excellent teamwork with each other, but need to learn to adjust quickly in the field and work with new personalities! It is the only way they can become excellent Chunin!"

"Chunin?" I asked. I knew there were genin, chunin, and jounin, but… "How do Genin become Chunin, anyway? Is it just when you say they're ready, Sensei?"

He tilted a hand back and forth. "Yes, and no! I wish to prepare my team for the upcoming Chunin exam that will take place next month. Indeed, they may not enter without a Sensei's approval, but whether they succeed is up to them! The Chunin exams can be very dangerous, so I am preparing them so they can survive! They will become excellent Chunin, or else I'll-"

"Dangerous?" I interrupted. "How can an exam be dangerous?"

Ten-Ten broke in, "The Chunin exams take place every six months, rotating between the different hidden villages. Next month is Konoha's turn. Some people say the exams are only to promote genin, but others say it is an opportunity to advertise the village, or even as a replacement for war… The exams are different every time, but they're always a serious test of a shinobi's ability. People can even die during them."

Yikes, I thought. That is probably what the original Olympics were like…

"And you're all entering?" I asked her.

She looked toward Gai with a warm smile. "If Sensei says we are ready when it's time, then we'll be ready."

Chapter Text

We had only been training for a few hours when Gai-sensei called a halt, gathering our teams together. He announced that he was taking the other Team 7 members and one of his own on their first mission together. Lee, unsurprisingly, volunteered to join them first. With great enthusiasm.

I smiled sympathetically at the boys' retreating backs; something told me they might struggle with accepting Lee as their team leader. Especially given how, from what few glances I gave their spar, Lee had been kicking Naruto's ass.

Yeah, he wasn't going to be very happy.

With only Ten-Ten, Neji, and myself remaining, the training field was left significantly quieter. It was almost lonely, in a way. We trained together for a good while; Ten-Ten had convinced me against my better judgement to use Neji as a throwing target to help him work on his dodging and blocking. I felt significantly better after the two demonstrated and Neji proved her earlier point correct in that he could see anything.

After that, the two begged off, and I was left alone. It seemed Team Gai normally spent more time on missions than training. A look at my watch showed it to be only barely after noon.

I considered staying and training on my own, but without anyone else around it felt strangely pointless, even if I knew it wasn't. I couldn't be certain when Naruto, Sasuke, and Lee would be finished with their mission. For all I knew, it could be another multi-day one. It looked like my initial plan to walk home with Sasuke wasn't going to fly; I'd have to just find my way to his place on my own in the morning.

I slung my pack over my shoulder and left, deciding to use the unexpected free time to get my head on straight. I'd been spending my time trying not to think about everything that had happened, which I knew damn well was a good sign that I really needed to.

Instead of going straight home, I stopped in a small park in town; a patch of grass and trees barely larger than any of the stores themselves. Perhaps Konoha didn't see much need for actual parks within the town proper, given the immense amount of trees and greenery that naturally occurred. It probably wouldn't take long for any given person to find a much larger park if they were willing to walk just a little farther.

It wasn't that I couldn't have just sat in the training ground, but… I enjoyed having people around me even when I didn't want to speak to them. Though I didn't consider myself a terribly social creature, a part of me felt strange without some liveliness around. Perhaps it was from living with a younger brother. We may have mostly signed at home, but he was noisy. It had gotten to the point where I felt uncomfortable studying if he wasn't running around or watching television in the background.

I smiled faintly at a group of small children throwing large paper shuriken at one-another while their mothers looked on. I wondered if they would go on to the ninja academy or a civilian school. I wondered how they decided.

I sighed and dug a notebook out of my pack, setting it on my lap only to stare down at it blankly. After some thought, I began scrawling.

Tuesdays, Thursdays – Tsunade (2 weeks) 3 :30 PM

Wednesdays – Therapy (indefinite) 4 :00 PM

Frowning, I added a note below.

[What if missions ? Ask Tsunade tomorrow.]

I spun my pen idly in one hand. Maybe it had been Kakashi-sensei who had decided the time our training would begin. He had almost certainly looked at the scroll Tsunade had prepared for me, if not heard from her directly. And he knew how long we tended to train for; perhaps he wanted to make sure my evenings were free for it.

I loved my wayward Sensei deeply, but I wished he'd talk to me about these things.

I pursed my lips and looked up from my notebook, thinking. A teenager had arrived at the park and was painting in a sketchbook under a tree nearby. The kids had moved on from paper shuriken to simply shrieking and chasing each other.

Even if the teenager was wearing a Konoha headband, I still doubted anyone here would be interested in peeking at my notebook. All the same, I decided to switch the language I was writing in to a combination of English and Dutch for the next section. They didn't seem to be known languages around here, but mixing them might keep me on the safe side if some expert-level cryptographers got their hands on it.

Paranoia, thy name is Shinobi.

What was the other chakra Tsu. found? She said another ninja? Who? Why? Is it likely she knows? That she will tell me? Will I be allowed to talk to the therapist about what happened?

How can spiritual chakra be any different from mental? Brain = self.

I furrowed my brows on the last line. Unless this world was much different than mine in ways other than chakra... Spirit just wasn't a thing. Metaphorically, sure, but not an actual physical entity. There was no observable evidence for the existence of spirits, souls, or anything like them. After all, if there was some sort of afterlife, I wouldn't have cared quite the same way about people dying.

So if physical, mental, and spiritual chakra were supposed to be different, wherein lies the difference?

Absently, I rubbed at my head.

Furthermore… whether it was a genjutsu that replaces memory, or I magically just took over this girl's body… Brains simply could not do that. Not so quickly, anyway. It didn't matter that magic was involved. Brains were a physical object. The personality didn't lie in some mystical soul. It wasn't an ethereal liquid that you just dumped into someone's skull.

… Wasn't it?

If you looked at a brain closely, sure, it was physical… but what was physicality? What was the nature of the mind? At the end of the day, axons and dendrites, chemical and electrical signals… molecules, then atoms, then quarks, and so on.

I groaned internally, wishing, not for the first time, that my focus had been physics instead of medicine.

Is chakra some quantum bullshit? I scrawled into my notebook before snapping it shut. I wasn't sure I wanted to know.

One thing was certain: I was looking forward to meeting Tsunade-sama again much more than I had been an hour ago.

I tossed the notebook into my bag and stretched, looking around the park. The kids were still running around, but the teenager I had seen had vanished. I hadn't even heard him move. I looked around uncomfortably, but the streets hardly looked any different; I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting.

Paranoia, indeed.

Just once hearing from Ino about being tailed weeks ago, and I was already assuming it was a constant. I scoffed lightly to myself, starting my trek home. You're not that special, lighten up.

Surprisingly, halfway to my house, I ran into Ino herself.

"Oh, hey!" I exclaimed. "I was just thinking about you. How are you? Still winding down from the mission?"

She beamed at me ecstatically, a much stronger reaction than I would have anticipated. "Ooh. I was going to visit you tonight! I didn't think I'd catch you this early, I thought you'd be at training for hours. It's nice to see you relaxing a little! I was beginning to worry you never took a day off."

My smile turned awkward.

She narrowed her eyes. "You'd better be taking days off, Sakura! Especially if you're just getting out of the hospital!" She huffed. "But fortunately for you, I've got plans to make you relax. There's this barbecue place my team likes to eat at; you're going tonight."

I raised my eyebrows. "Am I?"

She smiled, grabbing my hand to scribble an address onto it. "Yes. You are."

I blinked at her in bemusement but shrugged. "Well, I can hardly argue with that logic, can I?"

"No, you can't. Make sure you're there at six." She clasped her hands together. "If you're free now though, want to go shopping with me? We hardly get to see each other during the day!"

I smiled. "Sure. I was thinking of picking up some new weapons."

"Oh! What kind? I know a really good place," she chattered, grabbing my hand again and dragging me down the street. "Were you thinking of a sword? A bow?"

I shrugged. "That wasn't the plan, but now that you mentioned it I might like a bow." It had been a long time since I had tried one out, after all, and I'd been planning on getting arrows anyway. It would probably surprise an enemy if I lost my bow and the arrows kept flying…

"Ooh, that's an evil smile. What are you thinking?" she asked.

"Pretty flowers and sunsets," I said dryly.

I had never been one for shopping trips before, but shopping for weaponry was fun. It was kind of hilarious to think about what it must have looked like from the outside; two girls running around an armoury cooing over knives.

"You should have told me you were learning about poisons!" Ino chided. "We work with a lot of herbs in the shop, you should come by sometime if you want to start making your own."

It was definitely not a scene I'd expect to see in my old world, even given my siblings' love of weaponry.

We eventually walked out of the shop weighed down with bags and boxes, wallets significantly lighter. So much for saving up for a house, I mused. Though having weapons for more dangerous missions would pay for themselves.

After I had decided on getting a bow, Ino had decided to get one as well. "It's a weapon suited for a kunoichi, isn't it?" she sighed. "Something so delicate and deadly. It would work well with my jutsu, too, I've always been the long-range type." She grinned. "And since we got senbon too… Maybe Haku-kun will help me work on my throwing if I ask him. He's incredibly accurate! That's how he does that near-death trick of his, he blocks off certain chakra points in the body..."

I grinned. "He should meet Ten-Ten." I'd already told her the gist of my experience with Team Gai.

She wrinkled her nose. "My Haku-kun is already perfect, he doesn't need help."

I poked her shoulder. "You're just worried they might get along too well, aren't you?"

She huffed indignantly. "He isn't like that. Don't be ridiculous."

We dropped off our respective purchases at home, hers first followed by mine. As we were parting at my front door, she crossed her arms and gave me a serious look. "Don't you dare skip out on dinner tonight!"

I waved a hand airily. "I won't, I won't. See you later, Ino."

I threw my purchases in my room and collapsed onto my bed, feeling more exhausted than I ever did after training. It had been a fun day but draining. I wished I'd argued with Ino more about dinner with her team; I wasn't going to have much time to rest before I'd need to leave again. By my rough estimation, I'd have just enough time to lay in bed and regret my decisions, plus or minus five minutes.

A far shorter time later than I'd have liked, I found myself leaving home and walking down to the barbecue place, stopping frequently to ask for directions. By the time I found the place I was already a couple of minutes late. I hoped I wasn't turning into Sensei.

The interior of the restaurant was warm and relaxed, filled with many low-lying tables with cushions. I looked around curiously but couldn't find any sign of Ino. I was beginning to worry I had come to the wrong place after all when I caught sight of Shikamaru in the corner.

I breathed a sigh of relief and walked over to where he was sitting. "Hey, Shikamaru. Nobody else is here yet?"

He looked up at me with raised brows. "I'm assuming Ino invited you?"

I nodded, taking the cushion across from him. "Yeah, I ran into her after training." I swivelled my head around. "Are they usually this late? I never took Ino as the type."

He frowned. "No, they're not. But we usually come here straight after missions, so it's not like they'd get many opportunities." He furrowed his brows. "But they're never late for anything else."

"Huh. If it's not for a mission, was dinner today supposed to be a special occasion?" I asked.

He shrugged. "Not that I know of. We already celebrated Choji's birthday. Ino just told me to be here tonight, so I showed up. It's too troublesome to ask questions with her."

"Yeah, I know the feeling." I scratched my cheek absently, looking out the window. "I hope they're okay."

He grunted, reaching over to dig around in his pouch. He procured a small unfolding game board. "If it's a last-minute mission or something, they'll know where to find me. We can wait another fifteen minutes and see if they show up." He started setting up the game board between us. "Want to play shogi?"

I shrugged. "I've never played, but if you explain the rules I can figure it out as we go." It looked fairly similar to a chessboard, with a slightly different setup and some changed pieces.

It was an interesting game. I lost the first round quickly, but the second round went on long enough to last the fifteen-minute wait and then some. I still lost, but it hadn't been quite as embarrassing.

He cracked his back and started putting the pieces away. "Looks like they're not showing. How troublesome..."

"I'm sure they had a good reason," I said, swiping up my bag around my shoulders. "I guess I'll just pick up some food to take home so the staff doesn't get annoyed..." I shrugged. "Either way, good game."

He and I both ordered food for our families and went our separate ways. I considered stopping at Ino's house before heading home, but if it was something serious she probably didn't need me bothering her right now. I'd just check in on her before my appointment the next day.

Mebuki was more than a little surprised when I'd arrived with food; I'd left her a note saying I'd be out for the night. She seemed content with my explanation, and dinner with her and Kizashi was a pleasant, relaxed affair.

All the same, I was very happy to finally get to sleep that night. Fortunately, my alarm clock wasn't completely broken from my rough treatment of it that morning; it would be able to wake me again.

I rolled over on my side, and for the first time in a while, fell asleep without thinking of much of anything.

 

Chapter Text

The following morning, I turned off the alarm clock without looking at it. Despite how groggy I felt, I was conscious enough to notice this was odd. I'd struggled with it the previous morning, and the clock itself had a complex array of switches on the back that normally tripped me up just setting it.

As I swung my feet over the side of the bed, it felt as though the whole world had spun with me. I clenched my eyes shut and hunched over, a sense of vertigo attacking my senses. Nausea rose in me. It felt like an inner-ear imbalance; being unable to place where I was positioned in space.

Am I ill?

I let my eyes creak open and slowly slid from the bed to rest on my knees. I curled and uncurled my fists. my vision was doing something strange; not so much double-vision, as what appeared to be after-images of my movements trailing behind. I felt my lips part as I stared transfixed at the visual trailing before my nausea redoubled. I let myself fall to the ground, my sense of self still reeling somewhere behind me.

I'm not a doctor, I thought, but I diagnose this as 'Bad.'

I reached sluggishly to rub at my forehead and felt something dry and flaky on my skin. I cracked my eyes back open, trying to bring my hand into focus. Was that… dried blood?

I upgrade this diagnosis to 'Very Bad.'

I let myself continue as a pathetic ball on the floor for several minutes; eventually, the nausea faded. I began to have a better sense of where I was in space. I took a deep breath and pushed myself up. The visual trailing was gone.

"I just can't catch a break," I mumbled to myself. My voice sounded strangely high in my ears. I stood carefully and tottered over to the floor-length mirror in my room. I looked… strange. And it wasn't just the dried blood on my head, which was disturbing in its own right.

Somehow, the person in the mirror looked both more familiar than ever and less. For a moment, the image of myself seemed to waver, like I was staring at dozens of copies of myself. I scrunched my eyes shut and shook my head gently, and when I looked again, it was just me.

Okay, Sakarin, don't panic, I thought. This might well be a normal thing that happens when people get too little sleep or something. Unlikely, but possible. I knew it was possible to suffer from visual hallucinations and dizziness with too little sleep or food. That would explain the nausea as well. Maybe my chakra was still recovering, and it was taking more energy to do so than normal.

"This is fine," I murmured, gathering my clothes up and taking them into the washroom. I began wiping the dried, flaking blood from my head. "Totally normal. And maybe seals are like… wounds. Or fresh tattoos. The bleeding is probably normal."

I stared at my forehead in the mirror. There were light pink marks around the edges of the seal, but no visible wound.

"Everything is fine," I told my reflection. I didn't think she was buying it.

After I composed myself (or at least, my appearance), I went back to my room to inspect my pillowcase. Fortunately, there was very little blood on it. I swiftly changed the cover with one I found in the closet and rinsed the stain as well as I could in the bathroom sink before tossing it in with my laundry. I was more grateful than ever that Mebuki let me care for my own things.

I packed my satchel with a few of my new weapons and went downstairs into the kitchen, where Kizashi was already sitting and finishing his breakfast.

"Good morning, Saku– what happened to your head?" he asked.

Right. The pink marks.

I shrugged. "Probably some side-effect from the medical seal. I have a check-up today at the hospital, so I'll ask them about it later. It's probably nothing."

He frowned. "Ask if there's anything else you need to look out for while you're there," he said. "If there were any side-effects, they should have told you before you left in the first place." I raised my eyebrows. I'd never heard him use such a serious tone. That was until he went on: "After all, forewarned is forearmed. Or forehead, in this case!" he chuckled.

I groaned. "Yeah, okay, thank you."

"By the way, your boyfriend is waiting for you outside. Didn't want to come in. Weird kid."

"Oh?" I threw a few pieces of fruit into my satchel. "Well, better not leave him waiting, I guess?" He was clearly teasing, so there was no need to attempt to correct him. It would probably only end in more terrible dad-jokes.

I was more than a little surprised when I walked out the front door. I had been expecting Naruto or possibly even Lee, but it was Sasuke who was waiting outside.

"Uh," I said eloquently, closing the door behind me. "Is everything okay?"

He thrust out an arm toward me; he was holding a coffee thermos. He had another thermos in his other hand; it had his name engraved on it. Which was slightly hilarious, but still not quite as strange as Sasuke appearing on my doorstep, to begin with.

I reached out wordlessly and took the thermos, studying him carefully. He had dark rings under his eyes. "Did you sleep?"

He grunted, turning to walk down the front steps. I followed behind him, cracking open the thermos and sniffing curiously. Coffee. Hot coffee.

I took a small sip and quickened my footsteps to match pace with him. "Thank you. Also, what's going on?"

His eyes flicked over to me, looking dull and glassy. "Got back from our mission late."

Ah. In hindsight, Gai-sensei did seem like more of a taskmaster than Kakashi. "How'd it go?"

His eyes rolled back so far I was almost afraid they'd get stuck inside his skull. "Don't ask. Ever."

"Uh, got it." We walked silently for a block before I continued. "Also, where are we going?"

He took a swig from his own coffee. "Did you change your mind about inspecting my house?"

"Oh! No, I did not."

He grunted.

"… So why are you walking with me? I know I didn't get a chance to make you show me where it was last night, but I could have figured it out."

He cast me a gimlet eye. "I'm walking with you because you keep getting attacked."

"Oh. Um." First Naruto, now Sasuke? I was beginning to wonder if I had gotten their personalities entirely wrong. "Uh, look, it's not that I don't appreciate, uh, you guys being weirdly overprotective," That had sounded a lot better in my head. "But I don't think it's necessary? I mean, if someone was breaking into Konoha just to attack me, I'm probably already in trouble."

He grunted.

What a meaningful conversation. If there was one thing I'd gotten right about his and Naruto's personalities, at least, it was that they were opposites in terms of conversational partners.

I chattered on, unable to stop myself without opposing input. "Like the thing happened out on the road, and it's probably fine here in Konoha, and I mean it already happened in Konoha anyway but like both times I was with you guys and Sensei so I don't think–"

He stopped and turned to face me. "I slept four hours last night. Please stop or I'm going straight to training instead, without you."

"Right. Okay. Fair. Shutting up." I raised my hands apologetically. "Sorry."

"I didn't mean it like– ugh," he sighed. "I don't know how you both are so energetic in the morning..."

He calls this energetic? "How long have you been awake?"

"An hour."

"And you're still tired?" I was grumpy first thing in the morning too, but I was usually awake after twenty minutes or so.

He grunted.

"Right. Not much sleep. Got it. Letting you wake up. Drink some coffee. Coffee's great." I took another small sip from the thermos he'd given me. It did taste quite nice if a little strong. I turned my focus toward trying to memorise our route as he led me further toward the edge of town; an area I'd not visited before.

Some minutes later, he stopped in front of a high arch. "Through here," he muttered.

We walked into a ghost town. There was no other way I could describe it. Small shops lined the streets, closed and empty. The place had an abandoned feel, though nothing was boarded up and the place seemed in good condition. The patches of grass and flowers lining the pathway looked tended to. The place just… lacked people.

"What is this place?" I asked, voice soft. It seemed wrong somehow to speak at a normal volume.

"Uchiha Compound," was his laconic reply.

My head swivelled around the barren streets, the empty homes without light. "Your family lives here?"

"No. Nobody lives here." He paused a beat. "Just me."

"Why?" I breathed. It was not a specific question; it was all-encompassing.

We stopped in front of one of the houses. Sasuke stilled for a moment before continuing to stride normally up to the front door. "They're dead. Come on."

With a detached feeling, I followed him through the door. I slid off my shoes next to his as he guided me further into the house, into a small kitchen and eating area.

"Sit down," he ordered. As I complied, he took the coffee thermos from me and refilled it from a pot on the counter. He refilled his own and sat across from me. He wouldn't meet my eyes; he looked straight past me to the wall. Still looking so tired.

I sat quietly, sipping the coffee, looking at the sparse furnishings around me. Everything looked… hollow. There was little for decoration. Nothing set out on the kitchen counters apart from the coffee pot. It looked new.

He sighed. "They were killed. All of them. This place was filled with people, before."

My hand froze in mid-air as I'd been about to set down the coffee thermos. "What?"

His gaze finally met mine. "I told you, I'm an avenger." He rubbed tiredly at one eye. "My brother… killed them all."

'Shorter hair makes me look like my brother. I hate him.'

'There is a man I want to kill.'

'I'm… an avenger.'

"No," I breathed. I couldn't even imagine it. The fencing surrounding this compound ran for so far… How many people? Hundreds? And his family? His brother killed them all?

And I'd mocked him.

"I'm so sorry," I said. "I'm so, so sorry." His brother. What must have that been like? How old had he been? How would I feel, if it had been my elder sister? Had he had other siblings? Why did this happen?

He huffed out a sigh. "I don't need your pity."

"No, I mean… I'm sorry for teasing you. When we met." I swallowed thickly. "I didn't know you. I didn't understand." If someone I loved and trusted had killed my family… "I'm beginning to, just a little now. Probably not properly," I said. "I won't make the mistake of assuming like that again, but–"

"Stop, it's fine." He slumped forward, one hand resting on his chin. "I don't care. It's too early. Look around or whatever you came to do, and then we'll leave for training."

"Oh, right." It had fallen so far into the back of my mind, it fell on my priority scale somewhere around the level of a mote of dust on my shoulder.

I stood up shakily and walked over to the refrigerator, creaking it open. It was… empty. And unplugged.

I stared blankly at it for a moment, before turning to a cupboard. One plate, one cup. Another cupboard: empty. Another: empty.

"They're in that one," he said, waving vaguely at the cupboard directly behind him.

"What are?" I murmured. I walked over behind him and opened the cupboard. It was stacked with dozens of plain, identical boxes. I frowned and leaned closer to read the text: NINJA RATION BARS (40) COUNT.

"Holy shit," I breathed in English. Unsurprisingly, he did not react.

Was this all he had been eating? For how long?

Had it been only a few days ago that I'd thought Naruto was going to be the least capable of caring for himself? Not for the first time, it struck me what complete opposites these boys were. And how very, very little I'd understood about them.

"Sasuke," I said, voice cracking. "Please tell me you have real food in the house somewhere. Or that you just don't know how to cook so you eat out all the time. Please tell me you eat food other than ration bars."

He leaned back in his chair and turned to look at me. "They're nutritionally complete. Why bother?"

My fragile composure finally broke.

I grabbed him by the shoulders. "Sasuke! What the hell? This is so unhealthy! You only eat ration bars? You live in an empty house? Was this your family's old house? You live in the compound where your entire extended family were killed? Who was taking care of you?!"

He had frozen in place and was staring at me with wide eyes. "The… The Hokage tower sent someone once a week for the first few years. I filed for emancipation when I was ten."

Guiltily, I loosened my grip on his shoulders lightly. "How old were you when it happened? Have you seen a psychologist? Why didn't they place you in a different house?"

He blinked. "I didn't want to leave the compound. And how would any other house be better? They all have someone who died in them." He gently batted my hands away. "I stopped going to the psychologists when I was ten. They said… since I wasn't at risk of hurting myself or anyone else," his lips twitched. "I didn't have to keep going."

I slumped. "Right. Shinobi village. Having a vendetta is a completely normal and healthy way of coping with trauma, so long as it's not against anyone we like." I rubbed at my temples. "How silly of me."

Sasuke sighed. "You're going to keep going about this, aren't you?"

I cracked one eye open. "How angry will you be if I suggest Naruto comes to live with you?"

He stared at me flatly. "Naruto."

I raised an eyebrow at him. "I visited his house. He's way healthier than you are. He decorates, cooks his own food, puts motivational posters around his house-" Well, maybe I shouldn't tell him about the rude Sasuke-drawing he had made. "He even has houseplants."

"You want Naruto to move in with me… because he has houseplants?"

"Sasuke, I don't know how to explain this to you… But people who have more than one healthy houseplant have their lives on lock."

"I think you have pretty low standards." His lips twitched up in a smirk.

I was not amused. "If I do, that should tell you a hell of a lot about how well you're doing for yourself."

The smirk vanished to be replaced with his earlier exhausted expression. "Is there anything else I can do that will make you… Stop being like this?"

I frowned. "Like what?"

"Like I'm some sort of abandoned cat in a gutter."

My eyes widened. "Yes," I breathed. The memory of thinking of the very same idea not so long ago flooded back in, and I couldn't believe how long it took me to reconsider it in this new light.

"What?" he asked warily.

"I'm getting you a pet cat."

Chapter Text

Sasuke and I argued the whole way to the training field, but in the end, I won by dint of him being completely unwilling to go with my alternative (namely, having Naruto move in with him). That wasn't to say I'd given up on my idea; it just meant I'd have to plan more thoroughly to make it happen.

Training followed a similar pattern as the previous day. We split off into the same groupings, Ten-Ten and I working on our throwing styles. She was amused when I removed a small armoury from my satchel.

"If I didn't know better, I'd say you have a storage seal on your bag."

"What's a storage seal?" I asked, drawing out arrows, senbon, shuriken, twin dao shortswords…

Ten-Ten unravelled one of her scrolls. "They're the seals I've been using for my weapons. It's just more convenient than walking around with that much metal on me. Would you like to learn how to make them?"

I hesitated a moment before replying. "I've got a book on seals at home, and I'm going to be honest… they're a little over my head. Too much physics and mathematics." I shrugged. "It's not that I'm bad with either of those things, but..."

She smiled. "Yeah, I guess I can see why they might be a little confusing. But let me know if you ever change your mind."

I smiled back wanly. I'd always been able to stay thirty paces ahead of my schoolmates, and as such, learning something that didn't come easily to me was almost physically painful. "I'll keep that in mind."

She nodded at the twin swords I'd pulled out of the bag, readjusting the weights on her arms before throwing a handful of kunai. "Are you going to throw those? I don't know if that would work well in battle unless you plan on tying a chain onto them..."

I shook my head, unsheathing the blades and hefting them experimentally. "Nah, I just wanted to try them out..." I wanted very badly to tell her that my little brother loved playing Beat Saber at the local arcade. I wanted to tell her Zuko in Avatar looked incredibly cool with twin swords. But unfortunately, Ten-Ten was among the many that I wasn't allowed to tell about my other memories. As far as she knew, I simply had amnesia. "I just thought they might be fun. Want to throw some non-pointy objects at me?"

She grinned and put away her kunai. "Sure, let me look around a bit..." After a few moments searching around she returned with an armful of pinecones. "You ready?"

I shrugged, falling into stance with the swords. "Probably not, but I'll give it a shot."

She whipped her arm out lightning-quick and a pinecone sailed toward my left shoulder. On pure instinct, I twisted the blade through its path and cut it clean in half. I didn't have time to be impressed with myself as she sent another two cones sailing for my face, and I arced the other blade to intercept both. She dropped the armful and with both hands flung four at me with once, and hardly knowing what I was doing, I twirled both blades around and caught two with each.

She stopped and stared at me.

I stared back.

"I think," she said hesitantly. "You might be more of a short-range fighter."

I looked blankly at the dao in my hands. I genuinely never expected skill in video games to translate to anything useful in real life… Man, if only Sis knew. I shook my head. "I'm not sure I want to be a short-range fighter. I'd like my enemies far, far away."

She smiled and chucked another pinecone my way. I darted a blade out in reflex and neatly bisected it lengthwise.

"Well, it can't hurt to do well at both, right?"

We continued with this for several minutes when I felt an ominous presence from behind me. I sheathed the swords and turned around to find Sasuke glaring daggers at me, Neji several paces behind him.

"… What's with that face?" I asked.

"Seriously? Seriously? Since when are you a master swordswoman?"

I shrugged, confused in the face of his anger. "I don't know, I just wanted to try it out."

He put a palm to his face. "How are you so good at so many things? Have you even held a sword before?"

I scratched my head. "Uh, kinda. Um. A lifetime ago," I hinted. I hoped he'd never ask for the details, but then again, he'd probably consider a video game about cutting things up as a form of training. He didn't seem the type to understand entertainment.

"I actually hate you," he grumbled. "We're switching. Ten-Ten, you take Neji. Sakura, you're showing me how to use swords."

"Nope!" I said. "We're here to learn how to work with other people. Go get beat up by Neji, I need to learn how to throw things. We'll slice things up another day."

"Hate," he repeated, but he relented.

Once he was gone, Ten-Ten frowned at me. "Are you two dating or something? You seem to argue a lot."

I arched an eyebrow. "Ten-Ten. My friend. If the first thing you think when you see people arguing is dating, I'm worried for you." Sometimes I thought the people my age in Konoha were more mature than the kids I used to go to school with. Namely, they were a bunch of child-soldiers. But moments like this reminded me that they were, in fact, still kids. Dating. Seriously. Don't people ever think of anything else? We're practically army units.

"Anyway," I continued. "Show me the wrist motion for throwing senbon. I want to see if it works with arrows."

We resumed the same practice we'd been doing the previous day, with the changes Gai had suggested. I switched between as many weapons as I could, and though the different weights and shapes tripped me up a little, I slowly became more accustomed to adjusting on the fly. Ten-Ten also seemed to be growing more comfortable with her weights; the senbon she threw were driving further and further into our targets.

In due time, Gai-sensei collected Team 7 and Neji for a mission. Lee joined Ten-Ten and me for practice for a while; he seemed to enjoy trying out my swords. Even if he couldn't use chakra, I supposed there was no reason he couldn't expand from taijutsu to weaponry.

Before long we were all going our separate ways. I considered staying longer for more training, but I wanted to make sure I visited Ino before my appointment at the hospital. I checked the Yamanaka Flower Shop first since it was nearer to our training ground than her house. Fortunately, her mother said she was arranging flowers in the back and let me through to her. She was kneeling on a cushion on the floor, carefully arranging blossoms in a vase. She looked up at the sound of the door opening. Her eyes widened.

"Hey, Ino," I called out. "Where were you last night?"

She sprang to her feet, nearly toppling the vase over, and threw her arms around me. "Sakura! I'm so, so sorry!"

My eyebrows jumped to my hairline as I patted her back awkwardly. "Geez, Ino. It was just dinner, it's no big deal. I was just worried, that's all." I gently pushed her back to see her face; she was distressed. "What happened, anyway? Where were you guys?"

"Huh?" she asked shakily.

I frowned. "Dinner last night. Nobody ever showed up except for Shikamaru. I was worried something had happened."

Her face smoothed out into a mask of surprise. "Of course we didn't! What kind of date would that have been?"

I released my grip on her and stared. "Wait. Date? You said to meet your team there for dinner, didn't you?"

She frowned. "No, I told you to go there so you could relax! You were supposed to have a nice date with Shikamaru!" She huffed and covered her face with her hands. "I didn't think he'd make you play shogi the whole time! You didn't even eat together!"

"Ino," I said patiently. "Why were you trying to set me up on a date?"

She groaned. "I thought it would be a nice surprise for you two… It's just you're both so smart, and Shikamaru told me you were perfect and that I should learn to be more like you! It was the nicest thing I'd ever heard him say about a girl! He usually hates women!"

"Ino." I rubbed at my temple. "Why, for the love of… Why on earth would I want to go out with someone who was rude to you and hates women?" I could feel a headache growing. This hadn't been what I'd expected at all, and honestly, I should have.

Perhaps Shikamaru and I weren't so smart after all.

Her eyebrows drew inward. "Not like hate-hate! He just has trouble with girls! He's intelligent about most things, but he can be strange about this kind of thing… I thought it would have been the perfect match!" Her face scrunched up. "I can't believe it went that poorly."

I sighed and patted her on the shoulder. "Well, for one thing, telling us might have been a good plan. For another… Ino, I'm not interested in dating anyone. I have other stuff going on."

Why, oh why, does it always come down to dating with people? They're young! They're soldiers!

She frowned. "You really have changed a lot. I thought if you were over Sasuke, maybe you just needed a little push..." She slumped forward.

"Ino," I sighed. I leaned forward to give her a light hug. "I appreciate that you want me to be happy; just don't set me up on dates. And it wasn't terrible. We just played shogi, it was nice. The only bad thing was being worried about you. So please be honest with me next time, okay?"

She sighed and returned the hug. "I understand. I still think it could be a good match, though." She leaned back and grinned. "You had a good time with him? Did you talk about things other than shogi then? That's all he mentioned, so..."

I groaned.

Eventually, I managed to sidetrack her attention over to herbs and poisons for a while. She went over the different plant varieties that grew locally to Konoha, and which had medical or poisonous qualities, and also which local plants would be edible.

Though the visit started on a rough note, we were both happy and relaxed by the time I left.

I checked my watch and decided to return home for a quick lunch, before heading out again for the hospital. It was a fairly busy building, but the receptionist signed me in easily and directed me to the floor and room I'd be waiting for Tsunade in.

To my surprise, it wasn't a regular hospital room but what appeared to be her office. I sat on a bench in a small waiting area, half-heartedly reading through magazines while I waited. It wasn't long before she arrived, snapping the door behind her closed with a tense expression.

"Good, you're already here. Come on, kid." She led me through into her office; it was much bigger than I would have expected, but then again, the hospital staff were probably pulling out all the niceties to keep her around.

She directed me to a chair and sat behind her desk, pouring out a drink from a porcelain flask.

"Is that… alcohol?" I asked incredulously.

"You'd need a pick-me-up too if you had to deal with the people I do," she grumbled. She knocked back the drink with a pleased sigh, leaning back and shuffling through some papers. "Alright, kid. Lay it on me. What the heck happened to your head?"

"Oh!" My hand flew up to my forehead. With all the excitement of the day, I had completely forgotten about that morning's incident. "Um, I woke up dizzy and disoriented, and there was this dried blood over the seal but no visible wounds..." She frowned as I rambled through my explanation.

"So is that normal?" I asked.

She sighed, propping her chin up in one hand. Something about her unprofessional demeanour was relaxing. Although… "Nothing normal about it," she said. "That seal you have is unique." She stood from her desk and walked around to put her hands over my head, frowning. I could feel the gentle flow of her chakra poking around my skull; it felt oddly curious. Eventually, she moved her hands away. "Why didn't you come in immediately?"

I shrugged haplessly. "How am I supposed to know what's normal?"

She snorted. "By asking your doctor, of course."

Oh. Right.

"But you don't know either, do you?"

She sighed. "I couldn't detect any differences in your seal or your chakra."

My stomach dropped. She doesn't believe me.

Before my discomfort could grow, she continued. "Is there anything else unusual that has happened? As the seal directly affects your spiritual chakra, any change in your thoughts or feelings may prove enlightening."

Oh. She does believe me. Well… "Um, about that. What's the difference between spiritual, mental, and physical chakra anyway?" I waved a hand vaguely. "I mean, the mind is in the brain, and that's also physical, so..."

She rubbed her temples. "See, this is why I keep telling them, you can't just cut off structured education when you kids turn twelve. Sensei can only do so much."

I shrugged. "If it helps, I have zero memories from schooling here. So if it's something obvious, I might just be missing it, on like, a cultural level."

She poured another drink. "No, I still receive these questions from full-grown adults working under me. People are so eager to see chakra as something mysterious, but there's no such thing as a part of the world being mysterious; it's only our lack of knowledge." She took a small sip from her cup. "Think to what you do know about chakra. It's just a composition of energy. And what is energy?"

Shit. Physics. "Um, it's like… light or heat, right?" I shrugged. "And you can get it from metabolic reactions or generate different types of energy from outside forces."

She nodded. "A good enough explanation for where we're going with this. Now think to yourself: how would a body produce this energy? Where would it produce it? How might that energy turn out differently, depending on how it's created?"

I frowned and thought. After a moment, I replied slowly: "My doctors said… both mental and physical chakra are formed in the brain. So… two things are happening in the brain that produce different kinds of energy? And- and other points in the body produce different types as well?"

She nodded.

"So… different processes in the body and different actions? So learning something new might produce mental chakra, and running and lifting weights would produce physical?" I frowned. "But why does the body make that distinction? It seems like the sort of labels we would put on something that is fundamentally the same."

She smiled. "I can tell these visits are going to be a treat." I couldn't tell if she was being serious or sarcastic. "The reason we know they are different is that we can feel, see, and measure the difference. That's why people use the words 'mental' and 'spiritual' interchangeably, and we often use 'energy' and 'chakra' interchangeably. It's an old habit from when we didn't know better."

"Oh!" I had almost forgotten. "That reminds me! When I produce chakra in my hands, to the point where I can see it, it looks… weird." I frowned. "I have no trouble using jutsu, or redirecting the chakra in my body to other points, like for strengthening muscle… But when I try to produce pure chakra outside my body it looks like, well, this." I demonstrated for her, a soft blue-green light glowing between my palms. "We- my team thought it might be a mixture of regular and healing chakra."

Tsunade let out a slow breath. "And how long has this been happening?"

I shrugged. "Ever since I woke up here. Inoichi-san asked me to demonstrate how I would make healing chakra. I told you about that story when I woke in the hospital last time… I thought it might just be a mental block since I started that way, but it's stayed like that ever since."

She smiled slightly. "It likely is a mental block. The harder you try to 'fix' it, the harder you're going to make it on yourself."

I furrowed my brows. "How so? How am I supposed to fix it if I don't try?"

She chuckled softly. "Just what do you think healing chakra is? It's the pure intent to fix something."

Oh.

Oh my God.

"So you're saying," I said in a strained voice. "I won't be able to use normal chakra until I calm down and stop worrying about doing it perfectly."

She smiled. "Precisely."

"I think that might be physically impossible for me."

"Good," she said dryly. "If you've already given up, you should find it much easier to stop trying so hard."

I sighed. Okay, right. I deserved that one.

Her smile faded. "What worries me more is this little trick you mentioned, about directing chakra to your muscles." She rose from her seat again. "Could you please show me so I may sense it?"

She lay a hand on my arm as I demonstrated, directing chakra into the muscle groups and flexing my arm.

"Hmm," she hummed. "I was worried you were exhausting your chakra supply, but you're very efficient."

I shrugged. Normally I'd be pleased with the praise, but: "I'm just directing the chakra where it naturally wants to go anyway."

"So not increasing your strength directly," she murmured.

"But giving my muscles more energy to work with," I finished. "I think it's been helping with lactic acid buildup as well, but that took longer."

Tsunade crossed her arms and studied me seriously. Her eyes seemed to pierce through me, her mouth set in a firm line. I squirmed in my seat. Had I said something wrong?

"I think," she said lightly. "That for your next visit, I'd like you to meet me at Training Ground 12."

Chapter Text

The rest of my visit with Tsunade went much more along the lines of what I'd been initially expecting. There came a regular check-up, the jotting of notes of my blood pressure, height and weight to update my medical chart. Afterwards, I was summarily threatened that I would come back the moment I noticed any strong personality change or someone close to me reported one.

"And, uh..." I hesitated as I was leaving. "Since I'm in therapy until presumably forever… What do I do if I have a long mission and I can't go?"

Tsunade didn't look up from her desk, where she had turned to work on her notes. "Then you will call their office and reschedule like a good girl, won't you?"

I sagged in relief. "Yes, of course. Thank you." I had been nervous that it would result in yet another thing to keep me away from missions. Having to reschedule a new appointment was something I was perfectly happy to do. "And I'm allowed to talk to my therapist about… everything?"

"Please do," she said crisply. "That's what they're for."

"Right, good. Awesome. Thanks."

I walked out of her office and through the waiting room with a spring in my step but paused as soon as I exited into the hall.

"Hello," a woman said. She was lying on a stretcher with her leg propped up. "I'm waiting for Tsunade."

I stared blankly at her leg. "Where's your attendant?"

She shrugged. "They just told me Tsunade would be taking care of me."

"Right," I said hollowly, eyes still glued to her leg. "I'll uh, go let her know." I backed slowly through the waiting room before whirling around and flinging Tsunade's door open.

Her eyes rose to mine, and while her flat expression from earlier hadn't changed, there was a spark of concern in her eyes. "Did you have some more questions?"

"Tsunade, someone left a woman with a compound fracture out in the hallway."

She closed her eyes and put her head in both hands. "Which bone?"

"Tibia. I'd say that's a guess, but I got a clear look of it jutting out of her skin," I said. "I think she's already been given pain medication and what kind of hospital is this?" My voice climbed higher and faster as I spoke on. "Why are they leaving people outside your office? What is your check-in procedure?"

Tsunade groaned and stood from her desk. She muttered in a low voice as she passed me in the doorway, "And this, kid, is why I have alcohol."

Other than the crushing of any remaining faith I had in Konoha's organisational structures, I left the hospital without further incident.

It was a warm spring day with a gentle sun and scattered clouds. With the day I had been having, I decided I deserved to treat myself to my favourite kind of lunch date: one where I was alone. I sat outside of a small cafe, mulling over everything that had happened.

For one, I'd neglected to ask Tsunade about just whose chakra I had trying to invade my brain. I would have assumed it was some sort of weird spiritual link between my old life and this one, but she'd said before that she recognised the foreign chakra. Therefore, not just a part of me.

Which was unfortunate, because if it was me, then I'd have a definitive answer as to whether my other life was real or not.

I stared out into the streets, chewing vacantly. While it was comforting that Konoha had some version of HIPPA that would let me talk to my therapist, I was nonetheless growing more disturbed by how the town as a whole operated. I had almost been willing to suspend my disbelief on the whole child soldiers thing, given the town at least seemed to start us off small. Most genin likely wouldn't face truly dangerous situations until they were far older. The problem was that there were no restrictions in place; Team Gai being a grand example. It didn't seem to be discouraged for younger ninja to try to fling themselves into more dangerous roles. If anything, it seemed like there was a great encouragement.

And of course, even if you weren't looking at the young genin directly, you could look at cases such as Naruto and Sasuke. Even before becoming shinobi, they'd been forced into adulthood far too young. Who knew how many more children like them there were? In a village of ninja, there was probably a higher percentage of orphans than a peaceful population would have. And from my reading, I'd had the impression the town was still in recovery from war.

Even if Sasuke's case was a little extreme, cases like Naruto were likely common. Though I'd never been told about Naruto's parents, there was a high likelihood they had either been ninja or civilians caught in the crossfire.

Plus, with the hospital being a complete mess even with people like Tsunade trying to twist it into order, that would also affect the mortality rate.

I twisted my noodles idly around my chopsticks. So given what I know, what kind of place is Konoha for the average child right now?

"You're killin' me, Smalls," I mumbled in English. I pushed the last of my noodles into my mouth and cleaned up before trekking out on the streets.

Kakashi had been right about not getting too attached to a single goal; it never took you long to find a new one. Just what on earth had I thought I was accomplishing by learning to throw senbon and swing swords? What did I think the result would be? This wasn't a game. Those exercises were all for killing people.

(Red blood)

And killing people was the exact opposite of everything I believed in. Everything that made me… Well, me.

Why did Sakura want to be a ninja originally? I wondered. From what I'd gleaned, we'd been incredibly similar. When I'd awoken in the hospital the second time, Tsunade had said my spiritual chakra signature hadn't changed. While Kakashi had been worried I was an imposter, at first, it had only been due to a strange fluctuation in my chakra.

So if our "spirit" was the same… What was Sakura's goal?

Maybe I'd have to ask Naruto or Sasuke what she'd originally said, the first time they'd made introductions. Or my parents.

I stopped in the middle of the street.

When did I start thinking of them as my parents?

I frowned. It could just be a natural development from having them play a parental role in my life, but it could also be the sort of thing that Tsunade would consider a change in my personality. Were there any other differences in how I viewed the world lately..?

Come to think of it, Ino had been reminding me less and less of my sister the more I spent time with her. Tsunade also. And Naruto didn't remind me of my brother at all anymore. Was that also just because I'd gotten used to them?

It's slight, but it's a thing to keep an eye on.

Because goodness knows I needed more problems to worry about.

"Are you okay, young lady?" A passing woman had stopped to give me a worried look.

Oops. Standing in the middle of the street and spacing out is probably not a good look. "I'm fine! I was just… Actually, do you know where the nearest pet supply shop is?"

I had a lot of problems. Konoha had a lot of problems. I couldn't even begin to guess how long it would take to deal with both to my satisfaction. But at least when it came to my friends, there were small things I could do immediately.

It wasn't much later that I found myself strolling into Uchiha Compound, arms laden with various pet supplies. I hadn't wanted to get the cat itself without Sasuke. For one, I didn't even know when he'd be home. For another, it was the kind of decision that really should come down to him.

I hefted the bag of cat litter more securely in my arms and walked up to his front door. I doubted it would be unlocked, but I could at least stack the items outside for him to bring in later.

To my surprise, his door creaked open. A dishevelled and exhausted Sasuke walked out to stare at me. "What are you... Oh."

I readjusted the litter bag again. "Yeah, I just wanted to get some stuff for you, for the cat. Um..."

He reached forward and took the cat litter and cat food bags to my immediate relief. They hadn't been particularly heavy, but my arms had been getting tired after walking for so long.

He sighed and jerked his head toward the interior of the house. "Alright, come on."

I followed him in and swiftly kicked off my shoes, following him down the hall. "You're back really early! Easy mission?"

He grunted. "Not really. Neji's annoying, but he's pretty decent at planning things out."

"Ah, gotcha." That honestly put his previous mission with Lee into perspective. Maybe it hadn't been a matter of Gai-sensei being a taskmaster so much as Lee doing things… inefficiently. Yeah, I can see them running behind schedule if Lee felt the need to do three-hundred squats after every setback.

I unloaded the shopping bags to the floor and we began sorting through them.

"Seriously, Sakura?" Sasuke asked, holding up a sequin-encrusted food bowl.

"It was on sale," I defended. It had, in fact, been one of the more expensive ones.

He shot me a look that clearly said he'd seen through the lie, but he let it pass and we finished setting everything up.

Supplies in place, he crossed his arms and sighed. "Okay, let's get this over with."

I raised my eyebrows. "What, getting the cat? It can wait, Sasuke. You look exhausted. I already feel bad enough for waking you up. Sorry if I was making too much noise or something earlier, I guess everything just got heavy after a while."

He shook his head. "Wasn't that. It was… I think I've just gotten used to your chakra." He shrugged. "Yours and Naruto's, anyway." He grabbed a satchel off the table and swung it over his shoulder. "And stop panicking, it's fine."

"Huh?"

"You're wringing your hands again." He nodded once in my direction, and sure enough, I had been twisting my hands together without noticing.

"Oh," I said. I felt my face grow warm. I'd honestly never really paid much attention to it, but now that I thought about it, it was something I did often. I pulled my hands apart and flexed them before putting them to my sides. It felt awkward, but he was already walking out the door, so at least I didn't have a witness.

I slipped on my shoes and followed him out. "So what kind of cat are you thinking of? A kitten? A quiet one, a playful one?"

He grunted. "Wasn't thinking about it." He frowned. "Do you know any places that have cats? Or are we just going to walk around until we find a stray?"

My lips twitched. "They have some rescues at the pet supply store. I think the local ninjas are pretty good about getting the strays to shelters. Come on."

A short time later, we found ourselves standing in front of a long row of cages.

"Oh, Sasuke, look at these guys!" I cooed, walking over to where a bunch of cream and orange cats were rubbing up against the bars. "Look how fluffy they are! And they're so sweet!"

"… Is this cat for me or you?"

I shot him a half-hearted glare. "I want visitation rights. I need to make sure you remember to feed it."

"It's a cat," he grumbled. "Cats hunt."

When my glare became genuine, he rolled his eyes. "Fine. Sure. Visit whenever, don't respect my personal space, give me cats."

"Perfect!" I turned back and resumed murmuring at the kittens. He sighed and shuffled closer to the cages reluctantly before pausing.

"I'm getting this one."

"Hmm?" I turned to face him again and saw that a small dark paw had darted from the cage and had claws buried in his sleeve. "Uh. Just like that?"

He shrugged, disentangling the claws from his shirt. "She seems to think so. Don't see any point in arguing."

And that's how I found myself walking out of a pet supply store with Sasuke, a small black cat wrapped around his neck like a scarf and purring like an engine.

"So do you have a name in mind yet?" I asked, reaching over to scratch her head. She mostly ignored me, all of her attention focused on kneading her claws through Sasuke's shirt.

"Sarada," he said.

"Huh. Does that mean something?" My internal vocabulary bank was drawing a blank. If anything, it mostly sounded like 'salad'.

He shrugged, the cat around his shoulders shifting with the movement like a liquid. "Just a name."

I smiled. "It's a nice name."

I walked with them and saw them get settled in at home. Seeing him carefully fill her food and water and nonchalantly scratching between her shoulder blades (to her purring delight) convinced me more than ever that this had been an excellent idea.

The highlight was watching him gently place her in the litter box, muttering, "Make sure you know where it is and how to use it, or I'm dropping you off with Naruto to learn together." It would have been a little concerning, but there was something nice in knowing that if nobody else, Sasuke at least felt comfortable making conversation with a cat.

It was early evening by the time I left, but I was thankfully able to convince Sasuke that I'd survive the twenty-minute walk alone without getting attacked. I closed the door behind me with the distinct feeling that Sasuke would be sleeping that night with a purring mass lying on him.

I smiled as I walked home.

A cat was definitely the right choice for him. It was a common misconception that cats only purred when they were happy. Cats were often found to do so when they were anxious or injured. It was a known phenomenon that cats purred at a frequency that lent well to tissue and bone regeneration. As such, another very common place to find them purring was with another cat, when the other cat was sick, injured, or upset.

Or with their human, when the human was unwell.

I smiled more widely, glad we'd found Sasuke a new family member who wanted to take care of him.

Chapter Text

The following day I awoke before my alarm went off. I stared blearily at the digits, '3:30'. It took a long time to realise that, yes, I had become the sort of person where waking at this time was normal.

I was feeling nauseous, but nowhere near the level I had during the previous morning. When I checked in the bathroom mirror, there was a small amount of flaking blood on my forehead that wiped away easily. I couldn't tell if it was an after-effect of the previous day or new; the pink marks looked identical to how they'd been the last morning.

As the room and my body seemed to be staying exactly where they should, I was perfectly happy to accept this.

It wasn't long before I was seated in front of Kizashi-san at the table as we both nursed cups of coffee. He was a little more chipper in the morning than Mebuki-san, but he still spent more of his time reading the morning paper than talking. It must have been a habit from such a long time of waking before anyone else.

"Um," I began. I kind of wanted to try calling him otousan, 'father', but I was worried that he would think the old Sakura was back. I didn't want to give him false hope. "Um, Kizashi-san."

"Hmm? Spit it out." He grinned. "But not the coffee, if you please."

"What… why did I become a ninja? What were my goals?" I twisted my hands around for a moment before forcing them to still.

"Ah, I guess you wouldn't remember, huh?" He scratched his chin. "I couldn't say. It surprised your mother and myself, that's for sure. You were such a quiet, shy kid." He snorted. "Can't say it ended up bad for you. You were only in the ninja academy for a week or so, met that Ino kid, and it all snowballed from there."

"What do you mean?" From the looks of it, kids started school here when they were five or so. I couldn't even remember myself at that age.

He shrugged. "You got confident. Hopeful. I told your mother, it was almost like reverse stage-fright with you. You'd spend most of your time all quiet and shy, people-pleasing, I guess. But as soon as anything big came up, you were a little typhoon." He reached over and ruffled my hair. "Come to think of it, just telling us you wanted into the ninja academy might have been the start of that."

"Confident… and hopeful?" I tested the words out, trying to find how they might relate to me. If Sakura and I were so similar, they should. But it didn't sound like me at all.

"What, you're calling your old man a liar?" He raised his eyebrows. "You haven't changed a bit, either. I bet if something were important enough to you, you'd march right down to the Hokage himself to demand it. And if that didn't work, you'd tear the whole city apart to make it happen." He laughed.

I opened my mouth to protest but hesitated. When it's important. It was all too easy to imagine a scenario like that. If it would affect the people I cared about…

[Fat-Brain, what is all this crap?]

I looked around the dining room table where I had piles of books, notes, and electronics. Honestly, things had gotten a lot messier than I intended. But that didn't matter right now.

[Try these out!] I signed, passing her a set of earphones. [I think I got the balance right!]

She sighed and smiled, plugging in the earphones. [And here I thought you were studying.]

I ignored her and brought up a music video. [Tell me how much you hear this time.]

She snorted as I hit the play button. Several seconds passed before her eyebrows shot up. [W-O-W] she spelled out slowly. [What did you do?]

I shoved my neuroanatomy book in front of her. [Trying to trick your brain better!]

She grinned. [It's still hard to hear it, but more clear.] She reached over and ruffled my hair. [Is this why you're getting into bio-med? Are you going to be an audio-engineer for the deaf?]

Suddenly, a high-pitched buzz came from one of the earphones. I reached over and yanked it out; the last thing I wanted was to hurt her ears even more. I smiled at her sheepishly. [Not the main reason.] I hesitated. [Maybe I should get better at physics. Electronics are hard.]

"Eh, Sakura-chan?"

"Hmm?" I hummed, pulled from my reverie.

"I asked, well, why you were asking. Did something happen?"

I ran my hand through my hair. He and Mebuki had been so supportive. It wouldn't be right to completely leave him in the dark. "It's just… Tsunade-sama said my personality would be the same as it was before this all happened. And after everything that happened, I just got to thinking that-" my breath caught. I twisted my hands together. Deep breath in, slow breath out. "That I don't know if being a ninja is so great. I don't- I don't want to hurt people, you know?"

Kizashi let out a slow breath and put his hand over mine. "How long have you been worrying about this?"

I ducked my head. "I think the whole time. I think I was just avoiding thinking about it. But after everything else, I couldn't forget it anymore." I swallowed thickly. "I'm not supposed to talk about what happened, and I don't want Mebuki-san to know, but… We were attacked. And the man that attacked me..." My breath was coming in shudders now. "I killed him."

I heard Kizashi rise to his feet as my eyes stayed firmly on my lap. He walked around the table and put his hands on my shoulders.

"Was he going to hurt you?" he asked quietly.

"Yes," I breathed. "He was going to kill Sasuke. And me."

His hands squeezed my shoulders gently. "Then the only difference being a ninja made was that you could protect yourself and your friends, wasn't it?"

I had been holding back the burning in my eyes, but against my will, the tears started rolling down. "How could I have done it?"

"When you're frightened, Sakura-"

"No, I mean," I reached up hastily to scrub at my face. "If I were strong like Sensei, maybe I could have stopped him without killing him. But I don't know how."

Kizashi pulled me into his arms as my body began to shudder. "I don't know," he said softly. "I can't teach you that. But you're my daughter." I could almost hear the smile enter his voice. "I already told you, didn't I? When it's important, you know how to find your confidence and hope." He leaned back and snagged a towel from the table.

I accepted the proffered cloth and wiped my face and nose. Finally, my eyes rose to meet his.

He had a strange, sad smile. "Whatever it is you need to do, you'll find it. And that's a promise from your father."

I smiled back shakily, another voice echoing in my mind. "I will. You… you can believe it."

As I was getting dressed later, all I could think was that it was a good thing I'd had this conversation with Kizashi today. I would have my first day of therapy, later on.

It was with some trepidation that I left my house that morning, but fortunately, there were no errant boys on my front doorstep. Perhaps they'd finally calmed down and realised I was not on the brink of enemy attack every second of every day.

Even with my talk with Kizashi, I still left the house far earlier than I normally did. Well, as long as we're having difficult conversations… I stopped into a local bakery and bought a box of red-bean buns. There was a certain farmer I needed to thank.

I had almost been expecting the farmer to still be asleep when I arrived, but I found him by the outer entrance shovelling soil into a wheelbarrow. It made sense, in a way; working earlier in the day probably helped to keep him from overheating in the afternoon sun.

"Um, hello," I called out weakly. I gripped the bakery box more tightly.

The old man swiped an arm over his brow and squinted. After a brief pause, his face split into a wide, toothy grin. "Well hello there, young lady. Glad to see you're feeling better." He brushed the dirt off his hands and threw his gloves into the wheelbarrow.

"Um, thank you." I bowed, thrusting the box out toward him. "They said you saved me. I got you these. Thank you."

He chuckled softly and I peeked up toward him. His expression was warm. "I just did what any'd do in that situation. But if it makes you happy, then you're welcome." He accepted the box and peered inside; his face lit up further. "Red-bean buns, huh? Why don't you sit down with me and share 'em?"

I gave him a small smile.

It was a short, companionable breakfast. He teased me a little, saying that it was normally clients that felt the need to thank their ninja rescuers. He laughed at my spluttering and assured me that he had no qualms about the role reversal. "These things, they're scary when they happen. So it's always a good thing to have a nice little story about what happened after, isn't it?"

I chewed thoughtfully. "I guess that's how people get brave, isn't it? That way next time something bad happens, you remember that it won't last forever… or something."

"You got it, kid." He grinned. "I always told my grandkids, it's not becoming an adult that makes life easier, it's experience."

I smiled and shrugged. "And experience is just desensitisation."

He burst out laughing.

The conversation wound its way to medical supplies and he told me of a few local shops that would have good med-kits. It'd be a good idea, no matter where I was heading in my ninja career. I was quietly furious with myself for not thinking of it sooner. I'd have to remember to pick one up before I went home that evening.

The whole conversation only lasted about fifteen minutes, but there was a sense of relief from speaking with him. It hadn't been difficult or unpleasant, but somehow the thought of coming had kept being pushed to the back of my priority list, and I'd felt more awkward about coming the more time went on.

By the time I left, I felt lighter on my feet. I started toward the training field, but after checking my watch and finding it still ridiculously early, I veered toward Naruto's house to check on him and see if he wanted to walk together.

I hadn't forgotten my promise to visit him regularly, plus I had another matter I wanted to discuss with him.

"Sakura-chan!" he exclaimed, throwing the door open. He'd answered on the first knock. "Come on in! Oh man, it's good to see you. Missions have been so boring without you, and training without you and even the bastard sucks. Lee is such a pain to train with," he rambled, half-dragging me inside.

I couldn't help but smile. "Good to see you too, Naruto."

"Do you want coffee or tea or something?" he asked, already rummaging around a cupboard.

I kicked off my shoes and walked in after him. "Tea is good. I already had coffee with my father, and I think I'm finally getting used to waking up before the sun."

"Ugh, it's the worst!" he exclaimed. He dumped some water from a kettle on the stove into a mug and in seconds I had a cup of tea pressed into my hands. He must have already had the hot water ready.

I smiled at the mug; it was shaped like a koi fish. "Thank you."

He ushered me into the one available chair, before sitting atop the table and drinking from his frog-shaped mug. "At least Neji got us back home early yesterday," he grumbled. "When we went to take a mission with Lee, it took forever!"

"Sasuke said something similar. How come it took so long?" I asked, genuinely intrigued. I'd been wondering often how the missions had been going without me. If I was being honest with myself, I felt a little left out.

"Well first, the old man listed off a whole bunch of missions, right? I guess since Lee was there and his team has been doing missions more, we were allowed to do more or something."

My mouth twitched at him referring to the Hokage as 'old man'. "Yeah, that's how I figured it works."

"But like, he told Hokage he wanted the hardest and longest mission so he could show off being a leader or something!" he groused. "And I don't mind doing a hard mission, 'cuz they're usually super easy, but we ended up with this crappy C-rank where we had to hand out messages to all of the outposts!"

I raised my eyebrows. "I'm guessing there's a lot of them?"

"Like forty!" he agreed. "And he kept running off without us, and sometimes he'd go to the wrong place!" He grinned. "Man, Gai-sensei got so mad at him! I thought they were just huggy all the time..."

It was genuinely difficult to imagine Gai-sensei being angry, but the mental image I came up with was not pleasant. "Yikes." I put my chin in my hand. "So what was the mission with Neji like?"

He scoffed. "Almost worse. He just asked the old man for whatever mission was the most important." He rolled his eyes. "Neji's really full of himself, it was so annoying. He kept bossing us around for every little thing, even just normal stuff like remembering to protect the cargo. Like we'd forget something like that." He made a noise of disgust.

"Protecting cargo?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, we were just delivering some medical stuff to one of the towns. We ran into some bandits but the fight only lasted like five seconds." He frowned.

"How disappointing," I drawled.

"I know! And like, I have shadow clones so I can fight and protect cargo at the same time! He doesn't need to tell me that!"

I smiled. "At least it was more interesting than your mission with Lee, I guess."

Naruto shook his head. "Nah, not really. I mean, with Lee we had that whole thing with explosives."

I blinked. "Come again?"

He shrugged. "Yeah, I guess someone infiltrated the messaging system and was trying to send people exploding notes or something, that's one of the reasons the mission took so long."

I was beginning to wonder, between my interactions with Naruto and Ino, whether having heavily skewed priorities was simply a ninja thing.

It took some prying to get some semblance of a full story out of him, but before long we had to leave for training. I continued pestering him on the road.

"So, do you think if Neji was on the first mission, he'd have been able to find the letters with exploding notes faster? He has that Byakugan thing."

Naruto huffed. "Neji wouldn't have wanted to open the letter even when Sasuke said it had weird chakra in it! He's such a stickler."

"He wouldn't have to," I pointed out. "Byakugan."

"Sasuke found them fast enough anyway," Naruto argued. "Besides, the only thing that slowed us down was Lee."

We argued all the way down to the field before I realised I'd forgotten that I wanted to ask him something. "Hey, Naruto, wait." I snagged the back of his jacket as he had begun running toward the others.

"Huh? What's up?"

"Have you ever visited Sasuke's house?"

He scratched his head. "Uh, no. I figured he'd get mad if I tried, and he's a jerk anyway, so why would I bother?"

I released his jacket and began twisting my hands together. "It's just that, do you remember how I said I'd visit both of your houses? When I went to visit him, the whole area was empty." I chewed on my lip for a moment before saying, "He said his entire extended family was killed, and he still lives in the compound where they lived before. And his house is empty too, he has no decorations or practically anything, and he eats nothing but food bars, and I made him get a cat but I don't know if that'll be enough-"

"Sakura, hey," Naruto cut me off, patting me on the shoulder. "Yeah, I can see why you're worried, but this is Sasuke you're talking about."

"I know," I said, "He's really tough and all, and I guess minimalistic living isn't bad in itself, but… I told him he should have you move in with him, but he refused."

Naruto's face morphed between several expressions before deciding on a grin. "So you got him a cat instead?"

I smiled back weakly. "I guess I got a little overbearing. But he seems to like her! He named her Sarada."

Naruto huffed out a laugh and grabbed me by the elbow, pulling me toward the field. "C'mon, we're gonna be late! And don't worry so much, okay? It'll probably just make him cranky. I'll talk to him later, so don't waste your time freaking out about him." He rolled his eyes.

I felt my shoulders relax as I followed him into the field. Naruto was right. Sasuke would probably be just fine, and worrying wasn't going to help in any case.

Chapter Text

The rest of the group had already arrived by the time Naruto and I had, but they hadn't begun training yet. They were all sequestered in the middle of the field. As we got closer, Sasuke broke off from conversation with Ten-Ten and walked over to me.

"We're switching partners around."

I raised my eyebrows. "Okay?"

He leaned back a little, frowning. "You're not going to argue?"

I shrugged. "As long as we're still working with Team Gai instead of each other. I miss training with you guys too, but that's the whole point of this."

He crossed his arms. "Fine. I'll train with Ten-Ten." I couldn't blame him for that one.

I nodded. "Alright, then I'll train with Lee and Naruto can train with Neji. Everybody else okay with that?"

Naruto made a loud noise of disgust. When I looked at him askance he quickly put his hands behind his head. "Sure! Sounds great." He smiled widely.

"… Right." I knew he didn't like Neji much, so I was a little surprised he would even attempt to pretend otherwise. I smiled back at him. I gave him a lot of flack, and he could be a little dramatic, but he was good with people when he needed to be.

"Sakura-san! I am looking forward to our training together today!" Lee gave me a massive grin and his signature thumbs up.

"Definitely!" I smiled back. He'd been a little overwhelming when I'd first met him, but as I got used to him, I'd come to enjoy his company. I was a little surprised he and Naruto didn't get along better; they were both such sun-shiny people. "What would you like to work on today?" I asked, following him toward one of the clearings.

He put his hand on his chin. "I would like to borrow your swords again if that is okay! But you are a wonderful, gentle lady, so you do not like using live weaponry in training with people." He frowned. "So I do not know how to involve you! Should I use sticks instead?"

I hummed. "The balance would be off for you, it wouldn't be good training." I found myself copying his gesture, putting my hand on my chin. "But I haven't been working on my jutsu for a while, and I've barely practised making illusionary clones. Using them would be ideal, but they aren't like Naruto's Shadow Clones. They're not solid so you wouldn't be able to hit them," I shrugged.

Lee beamed. "I believe this is a good starting place! You will be able to practise avoiding me with your clones! They are often used as a decoy, so I believe ninja would prefer they are never hit!"

I nodded. "And you could practise trying to hit a constantly moving target..." I frowned. Lee was fast. But then again, they were illusionary clones. Logically, there was no reason they had to be restricted by my own body's capabilities. I could make them move as fast as I wanted. The only reason not to do so would be if an enemy already had an idea of how I normally acted, but even then, it would be a good distraction technique to make my opponent think I'm better than they thought.

If Kakashi were around, I'd ask him if this was a typical usage. If it was, then there were probably loads of tips he'd have on hand for me. But he wasn't here.

Dammit, Kakashi. I'm starting to think Ten-Ten has a point about you.

I smiled at Lee. "Alright. Let's do this!" I took off my pack and handed him my swords, before walking several paces away to ready my clone. I whipped through the hand-seals and directed my chakra, ending with a call, "Clone!" It wasn't necessary to call out what you were doing with techniques, but it helped focus your energy if you had the opportunity.

A cloud of smoke emerged beside me and dissipated just as quickly.

… And sometimes, focusing your energy only helped so much. "Oof. Hang on, I'll try again." I was too distracted thinking about the different applications for clones in combat. I needed to focus.

Hand-seals, chakra, "Clone!" Fortunately, this time the smoke was in the shape of a person, and as it cleared-

"Shit."

"Sakura-san? Why make a different person for a clone?" Lee asked.

"Uh." I stared at the pink-cheeked blonde girl in front of me. It was a perfect clone of me… before I woke up here. It was weird enough to see a copy of myself, but after not seeing my real face in a mirror for months? The actual weirdest.

"Is she a relative?" Lee asked. "You are very similar!"

I raised my eyebrows at him. Other than the eye colour, I hadn't thought both versions of me looked similar.

Come to think of it… Huh.

"I'm just trying something out," I told him. "She's just… a character from a book I read."

"Incredible!" Lee exclaimed. "You have a very good imagination! Making up the appearance of a person must be difficult! I can see why you would make her look similar to you! She is very pretty as well!" He grinned widely at me.

Oh, Lee. You unintentionally smooth goof. He could be overwhelming and forward, but I had to appreciate his extravagant sincerity.

I smiled at him and ran through the seals again. In a moment, the clone was replaced with the pink-haired edition of myself. If nothing else, it would be much easier to imagine this version of me doing athletic feats.

"Well, let's get started."

It was the first time I'd spent more than a couple of seconds directing an illusionary clone. It felt a little like playing a video game, or perhaps like directing a dream. I had to envision the action the clone would take while directing intent through a chakra connection. And directing anything through chakra always felt strange.

And to think, people like Sensei can probably pull this off without even looking at it… I could kind of understand why, since there was something like a ghost of feeling through the chakra connection. I could tell where the illusion was, but I couldn't see through its eyes. Maybe that was why ninja typically preferred using a transformation technique on themselves, even if it's riskier.

I put my hands back into the final seal for the technique to help with my focus. I was trying to make my clone outrun Lee across the field, but the motions the clone made were jerky and unrealistic. It was difficult to envision what it should look like.

Lee closed in on the clone and swiped out with the Dao; in a panic, I launched her underground. Lee's sword plunged toward her, but the sudden change threw him off-balance and he half-cut the earth and tripped onto the ground.

"Oh! Sorry, Lee!"

He pulled the dao out of the ground and spun around to give a cheery wave. I jogged over to him.

"Hey, sorry. You alright? I didn't mean to throw you off that much."

He gave a thumbs-up. "I am fine! It is good to be prepared for the unexpected in a battle! I will need to be more careful!"

It wasn't long before Gai-sensei called a halt to gather the team for their mission. Following the pattern of the previous two days, this time it was Ten-Ten's turn to lead.

I smiled a little sadly after them as they walked off; it was getting harder to be left out of missions like this.

The remaining boys and I gathered together in the middle of the field. Neji crossed his arms. "I saw you were training with illusionary clones." He frowned. "Have you injured yourself again, Sakura-san?"

I flushed. "No, I just- you know I don't like training with live weaponry. And I don't have a lot of training in jutsu so… I just wanted to see how far I could push the limits of the clones." Unconsciously, I began twisting my hands together. "I thought it would be good if I could make them faster than me, but..."

Neji shook his head. "I saw. It was not a convincing illusion. Practice with the standard method before attempting to perfect the technique."

"I think you still did an excellent job, Sakura-san! If you continue practising, you will become a genius of illusionary clones!" Lee beamed. I smiled back weakly.

Neji threw him a glance. "Lee. You need to practice with a real target if you want to learn to use weaponry. You'll train with me while Sakura-san works on her clone technique."

Lee began exclaiming as I nodded slowly. Neji could be very brusque, but in this instance, he was completely right. I was lucky enough to pick up on a lot of techniques quickly, or if I was being honest with myself, too used to picking up on new things quickly. If I kept trying to rush through something I lacked skill in, all I had to gain were poor habits.

Reconciled, I left the boys to their spar and walked to the edge of the field to work with my clones. I began with one; I had her walk normally around the field, then jogging, then running. I practised having her sit, lay down, feign sleep, and make hand-seals.

On a whim, I tried having her pull a kunai from her pouch, and had a moment of pause when it worked. After careful consideration, I had her try another weapon. Aha.

She unsheathed an entire Dao from a pocket.

Then an explosive tag (of which I had none as they were expensive), and, feeling sillier as I went on: a stick of dynamite, a dictionary, a high-heeled shoe…

I started giggling helplessly. Oh man, what kind of nonsense can I do with this? My mind whirled. Could I make animals, then? It was normal usage to create mirages of different people, so why not? Could I make illusions of simple objects? Could I feign explosions? Waterfalls? How big could I make them? How small? Could I feign a line of text on a sheet of paper?

And what about the Transformation Technique? That completely changed your shape, right? Could I just bring items into existence whenever I wanted? Would they hold the correct physical properties? Could I just spawn in weapons whenever I needed them?

My excitement was cut short by a howl.

The illusion vanished in a blink as I whipped my head around toward the source. It had been one of the boys.

"Lee!"

I ran in an all-out sprint back to the centre of the field, where Neji was kneeling over Lee and-

[Red blood]

Lee was lying on the ground, one of his legs gushing red.

Neji's face was a white mask as I approached, his hands clamped tightly over the red, the veins in his temples bulging as he looked for something in the distance.

I found myself kneeling next to Lee, who was half-propped on one of his elbows staring blankly at the long, deep tear in his calf.

[Red blood]

"You'll be fine. Neji, do you see anyone nearby?" I heard my voice as though from a distance, my hands strangely steady as they untied the band from around my waist.

Neji's head rotated slightly from side-to-side. "No."

"Okay." I removed the metal Konoha plate from my headband, shoving it absently in a pocket. "Lee, I'm making a tourniquet. It's going to be uncomfortable, but it will slow down the bleeding, okay?"

He nodded blankly as I wrapped the cloth above his knee, pulling it tightly before fixing it in a knot.

Neji's eyes were now fixed on the wound. "It's… slowing now."

A corner of my mind started screaming at me for not getting the med-kit before I went to training today. I ignored it, pulling out a kunai and cutting at my tights. After a fumbling moment, I managed to extract a strip of material.

"Neji. Hands."

He moved his hands out of the way, helping to hold down the material as I wrapped it around the gash.

"I have bandages on my hands," Lee said absently. "You can use them. You didn't have to break your clothes," he mumbled.

I shook my head. "Your bandages have too much dirt on them. And my tights have elastic. It'll help." I pursed my lips together. "The hospital is pretty far from here, especially if we're carrying you, but I don't think we have a choice. I haven't learned how-"

I stopped. I'd been about to say, 'I haven't learned how to heal yet', but… Haven't I? My problem hadn't been making healing energy, it had been getting rid of it and producing regular chakra. I hadn't actually tried to make pure healing chakra yet.

Wordlessly, I raised a hand. Tsunade said it was the pure intent to fix…

A bright, green glow radiated out from my palm. It began bluer, like the green of the sea, before blazing brightly into emerald.

Even as the colour transitioned further, I grabbed my kunai back up and nicked a small cut against my calf.

"Sakura?"

I pressed the flat edge of the kunai over the cut, as I had envisioned doing so long ago. Pressing my palm over cool metal, I carefully, gently let the chakra seep through.

Oh.

I tossed the kunai aside, tugging the metal plate from my pocket, and placed it over Lee's leg where the blood was seeping out from the fabric. I placed both palms over, took a deep breath, and let distraction fall away to focus.

And it had been obvious. It was like rubbing sleep out of my eyes, like finding the solution to a puzzlehad been directly in front of me all along.

It was like realising you had been trying to heal with knives and trying to hurt with bandages.

This chakra had a purpose. It already knew where to go. It was exactly like the chakra I had been directing to my muscles for weeks. I had been spending all this time clumsily mixing chakra that was trying to exert force with chakra that was trying to join a tide.

No wonder I had been struggling.

I didn't have to push with the chakra at all. I just let it build in my hands and allowed it to trickle out as it saw fit. I doubted I'd needed the metal plate to limit it.

I could feel it as it flowed into his system, such a tiny amount at a time; coaxing cells here and there, exerting the smallest amount of pressure to convince loose ends to join. Not a push into the system, so much as an ebb and flow. It was helping gather platelets from further in the body to the correct location. I could feel that his chakra already knew on some level how the body was supposed to be. Like it just needed a reminder, a little extra help getting the message around.

It was unlike anything in my world. It was entrancing. Absorbing. A combination of perfect stillness and constant focus.

I felt, as though from a great distance, a strange note of difference in chakra flow. But it wasn't from my hands or the wound; it was from somewhere else. I kept my focus.

Steadily, that far-away feeling grew stronger. It was oddly familiar. Like static.

"Sakura." I heard the voice as though at a great distance. "That's enough, Sakura. You need to stop."

"Hmm?" I hummed. My voice felt strange, as though I had forgotten I'd had my own body.

"Sakura. Stop. That's enough."

The buzzing, static feeling intensified. I might not have been able to switch my focus, if not for how strangely reassuring that feeling was, how familiar…

"Sensei?" I mumbled. Blinking, I began to focus on the scene in front of me. I had been healing, and Lee was…

"Sakura. You need to stop. Now."

"It's not done," I heard myself say. And it wasn't, there was just a little more to go...

"Stop."

I both heard and felt the command through the buzzing feeling- Sensei's chakra- and it was so earnest, I complied almost unconsciously. I let the light fade from my palms, so light now it was nearly golden. I blinked slowly, reality coming back into focus. Lee was sitting upright, staring at me with wide eyes. Sensei was sitting on my other side, one palm resting gently on my back.

I pulled my hands away from the wound. Neji had already removed the tourniquet. I unravelled the makeshift bandage from Lee's leg.

Apart from the dried blood on his skin, it was completely healed.

"Huh." I looked up at Kakashi. "Sensei, you're late."

He hung his head and huffed out a sigh. He also began wavering back and forth. And so did the ground. And the sky. And the air?

"Sensei, I don't feel great," I said. Stiffly, I rose a hand to rub at my forehead. It was wet. "Huh?" I brought a bloody hand back in front of my eyes.

"I don't imagine you do," Sensei said. "Come on, I'll take you to the hospital."

I was startled by the sharp pang of annoyance I felt. Almost resentment. This was just Sensei trying to help, after all. Even if it was completely unnecessary. "Relax, I've got this."

I let the chakra pulse into my hand again.

Huh. Definitely looking more gold than green. Weird.

And without bothering to grab a piece of metal, I placed my palm over my forehead-

"Sakura!"

-And let the chakra seep through.

That's when everything froze and fell apart.

Chapter Text

Chakra: Form and Function

An essay by Haruno Sakura

What is chakra?

Sit down and buckle up, children, for I am about to learn you a thing.

Before we go any further, I would like to impress upon you that people who think they are smart are complete fools. You want to know why? Because we get bored. Why read chapter one of an introduction when we can skip to the juicy bits? Why listen to someone explain something we have no idea about when we could guess? Could experiment? Wouldn't that be so much more interesting?

If you want to write a realistic horror film, kill the genius first. Trust me.

Now, chakra. One of my teachers would be quick to tell you that chakra isn't mysterious, it simply is. If you think it's mysterious, that just means you don't understand it. Right, I'm totally on board with this. But you want to know what fatal mistake I made?

I guessed.

I hate not understanding things, so without even thinking about it, I rack up on assumptions. Tons. I don't even notice I'm doing it, that's the scary part.

Want to know what I assumed chakra was? Energy. Seems reasonable, right? I wasn't even wrong! The main mistake I made was all of the background assumptions I had about how energy worked. When I think of energy, I think of steam engines. I think of a kid throwing a ball. I think of a boulder rolling down a hill. Just, bam! Thing, plus energy, equals thing doing a thing. Simple! Obvious!

And since I had this assumption so close to heart, I didn't even bother adding all the other things I knew about chakra. I knew that intent changed what chakra does. I knew that chakra came in different forms, depending upon that intent, and the origin of the chakra itself. And you know what I thought? That can't be right! These people must just be superstitious fools!

I didn't even think it directly. I was entirely under the impression that I respected the knowledge of the people around me. And my brain assumed they were fools anyway. I've spent my entire life training myself to know exactly what my mind was doing, and I still made this mistake.

And that's how I almost died.

Let's back up a bit. Let's take all this giant mess, and pick it apart. Let's find the glaringly obvious thing I was missing, just because I felt too smart to ask. Or to flip back to the introductory section of all those big, huge books I read.

So. Chakra. It's energy, and it changes depending on origin and intent. You can use it to perform jutsu, by focusing your body's energy in certain formations and concentrating on an outcome. You can use it to heal, by sharing your chakra with an underlying intent to right something gone awry. You can use it to increase the force of a punch, use it to strengthen a blade, use it to stick yourself to a wall.

The human body, all living things, and even non-living things contain chakra.

The chakra of the body contains different varieties.

Chakra has its own word; we do not call it "energy".

Why? How can the chakra know to act in this way?

As it turns out, for the same reason electrical and chemical pulses in your brain can turn into a thought. For the same reason a computer can spit out information by plugging it in and running electricity through precisely placed silicone and metal.

Chakra is information that hasn't been processed yet.

Want to know how I found out? By taking a fistful of "fixing" chakra and applying it directly to 1) a seal on my forehead that is specifically in place to regulate my chakra, and 2) the (dysfunctional) brain behind it.

Oops.

In conclusion, I'm the worst. Please give this essay an F in order to pay proper respects. Thank you for attending my DED Talk.

Chapter Text

Technology is an incredible thing. With current technology, scientists can use artificial-intelligence programs to take the signals from the brain and reconstruct the image the mind sees. This is doubly impressive, considering all of the "noise" our mind piles on top- emotions, related memories, etc. On the flip side, attempting to image something the brain imagines or remembers is a little messier. If you close your eyes and try to imagine the face of a relative, for example, you're not going to get a pixel-perfect image. There's going to be many layers to it; different expressions competing to be on that face, misremembered fractions, and the mind just plugging the holes in a way that you frankly don't notice. Even imagining something simple, like your hand, your mind's eye is likely going to jump around and try to imagine little pieces at once, or else just imagine a blurry, distorted object.

It's fortunate that even the vaguest memories and dreams don't present to us that way, isn't it? That our mind fills in the blanks? Wouldn't it be very unfortunate if you could separate yourself and see directly into someone else's memory, like the Pensieve from Harry Potter? Realistically, it would look horrifying. Good thing that never happens!

Anyway, guess what happened to me?


As soon as the chakra from my hand absorbed into the seal and my brain, I knew I'd messed up. It wasn't like healing the flesh of my leg. Where before there had been a calm separation, now there was chaos. My chakra tried to feel to "fix" both seal and mind, while my mind and the seal tried to- well, honestly, I couldn't tell what it was doing. I felt like I was being pushed and pulled at the same time, both physically and mentally, and then the world around me went dark. Not just visually, but all physicality: I couldn't feel anything, hear anything, smell or taste.

And then with something like an electric shock and a strange tugging sensation, I was in my bedroom. My old bedroom.

The first thing I noticed was the smell. It smelled like home. Smell is one of the strongest types of memory we have; have you ever smelled something that sharply brought up a memory of somewhere else?

I hadn't even realised how much I'd missed that smell, or that it was gone in the first place. It made sense, in a way; I'd been living in a different body, in a different life. Of course, I and everything around me would smell different.

The next thing I noticed was that I wasn't in control of my body; it was moving on its own. I could still sense; I could smell, and I could feel. But the feeling was strange; it was the memory of feeling. A shadow of pressure, and the slide of my bedsheets as I sat up in bed. The dull thud of someone knocking on my door.

And everything around me looked wrong. It was definitely my room, but strange and disjointed, with features that seemed to shift. I couldn't focus my attention myself; the eyes moved on their own accord to focus on the door. Whatever the eyes fixed on became less disjointed, more solid.

Without any input, I sat up and shuffled over to the door to open it, the light behind the door flaring strangely. And then I saw my sister, my real sister. The image held a dreamlike quality; disjointed as everything was. My eyes flickered automatically to her eyes. Dark brown iris, thin eyebrows, gentle concern.

My hands flashed up and I could feel myself signing. [Hey, I'm awake.]

My eyes flickered to her smile, to her hands. [Good,] she signed. [I have the day off today. I made breakfast, and I thought I'd help you study this afternoon.]

I wanted to smile, to thank her, but I felt my mouth twist into a scowl. [I don't need help studying.]

Her expression didn't change from her gentle smile. [I know, you're very smart. But you still need help getting yourself organised. You haven't turned in any homework-]

I snapped the door shut in her face. I put my back to it, sliding down to the floor to put my head between my knees, ignoring the next gentle knock.

Before I had a chance to process anything that had happened, I found myself sitting in my desk at school. The classroom was empty, and my homeroom teacher was sitting on top of another desk in front of me.

"I'm only saying this because I'm worried about you," she said, her voice sounding far away.

I had my chin on one fist, my eyes fixed firmly out the window. The image was blurry; a memory of light, some green, but no solid details stored away. "What does it matter if I talk to them? They're all idiots anyway." My voice sounded weak. Whiny. Harsh.

"You just haven't gotten to know them better. I'm sure if you tried, you'd find yourself more friends than you'd expect."

"They're all idiots and a waste of time. This isn't affecting my grades, so why does it matter?"

Her next words were soft. "It isn't healthy to isolate yourself like this. Wouldn't you be so much happier if you learned to understand your peers?"

I shook my head. "What's there to understand? They're shallow, pointlessly cruel, and willfully ignorant." I rubbed a hand against my eye. "I already tried to understand them. I want to understand them. But I just can't."

And then back into the darkness, and then onto another scene. And another. And another.

My brother asking me to play with him, and me telling him to piss off, that he was annoying. Even though he was eight years old and of course he was annoying, he was just a kid, why on earth would I say something like that?

Refusing to go with my siblings to Japan for my grandfather's funeral, still enraged at him for not helping my sister more when my parents died. Eventually giving in and staying in the guest room at my great-aunt's house, staring out the window to the rain while everyone else left for the wake.

It went on and on. One scene after another. I began to wonder if I were dead, and if this is what people called the afterlife: nothing but your memories repeating. Heaven or hell, depending on who you had been while you lived. And mine would be hell.

It went on and on until, finally, it stopped.

I woke up crying in a Konoha hospital bed. Where before I had been a mere observer of my memories, my guilt and horror trapped inside, now my feelings had room to come out physically. I wanted to scream, to curl up in a little ball and just die, but all that came out were choked little sobs.

I didn't remember any of that. How could I forget any of that?

No wonder I had been so much happier in this life. I hadn't been me. I thought I had woken up here with all my memories and personality, but it simply wasn't true.

I'd been a terrible person.

And the worst part was, I didn't even know how I'd felt about it in my previous life. Only my own horror at the memories, looking back. It was no wonder I'd been depressed, if my previous self had felt any measure of the pure guilt I was feeling now.

Why couldn't it have been Sakura's memories? But maybe hers weren't any better. From what I'd remembered, she hadn't been much nicer, had she? But then again, who could say if any of my previous memories were real?

I wanted them to not be real, but… The last thing that happened before all this, I had put healing chakra up against my seal and my mind. And the next thing I knew, I had access to memories I hadn't had before.

If someone had used a Genjutsu on me, they wouldn't have bothered hiding them away. Hadn't one of my first doctors said that they couldn't find any Genjutsu blocks in my mind? Or was that Inoichi-san?

If, on the other hand, one mind had been combined with another, wouldn't the effect feel something like this?

That's when I noticed I was strapped to the hospital bed.

Tsunade's earlier words to me came pouring back in. When I'd asked what would happen if I'd become chakra-exhausted. "I don't know who you'd be when you woke up, but I don't want to find out." It had been something like that, hadn't it?

God, I wish I hadn't found out either.

The door to my room swung open, and a doctor entered. His eyebrows darted up when he saw me and he hastily paced over to my bedside. "Sorry, Haruno-chan. We just finished going over your scans, we hoped to get you out of these restraints before you awoke."

"Hello, Migaki-san," I mumbled. "And it's okay, I understand why they were there." I swallowed thickly. "How long have I been out this time?"

He quickly and expertly unbuckled the restraints. "Only a few hours. How are you feeling?"

I reached up and rubbed the old tears away. "Terrible. Is Tsunade-sama around?"

Migaki ducked his head and walked to the other side of the room, pouring a glass of water. He brought it over to me and helped me sit up so I could drink. "She's… occupied. She said she'll be in later to see you. Could you describe to me a little more clearly how you're feeling?"

I sipped slowly at the water. "Physically normal. A little tired. The seal stings a bit. Emotionally exhausted. I got… some of my old memories back. Not from this life. The other one."

He nodded slowly, staring down at a chart. "I suppose I can see that. Jiraiya-sama himself had to come in to re-balance your seal. We were thinking that the ulterior chakra's purpose may be to re-cast the genjutsu on you." He looked up to me, eyes firm. "You're a very lucky young lady."

Re-cast the genjutsu? That was something that I hadn't even considered. I didn't enjoy having more variables thrown into my identity-crisis.

Misunderstanding my scowl, Migaki chuckled softly. "Yes, I'm sure you don't feel very lucky now, but it's true." He completed a few notes on his chart and walked toward the door. "Tsunade will come in later, but for now, your sensei would like to visit. Should I let him in?"

Sensei. I swallowed past a lump in my throat. "Yes, please."

It was only a few minutes before Kakashi entered the room, his single eye crinkled up in a bright smile. "Hello, Sakura-chan. Are they charging you rent for your hospital bed yet?"

I rolled my eyes. "Nice to see you too, Sensei."

He folded himself into the chair next to my bed, still smiling merrily. "So, do you want the bad news or the bad news?"

I scowled. "People in the hospital only want good news, Sensei."

He thought about this for a moment, rubbing his chin. "Well, they might be naming a new law after you?"

I curled my knees up to my chest. "Please tell me you're joking."

He shrugged. "I don't think they're actually putting your name on it, but..."

"Oh my god." I chugged a few gulps of water, setting the empty glass on the table. "Okay, forget good news. Please tell me what's going on."

Sensei's smile faded. He scratched the back of his neck uneasily. "Lee is also in the hospital. He's in a coma."

My breath caught in my chest. "What? Why?"

He let out a slow sigh. "Tsunade will know more, she's with him now. From what I understand, whatever kind of healing you did on him was… different."

"Different?" I parroted blankly.

He nodded slowly. "As you know, Rock Lee is very limited in the chakra he can use. He can manipulate it through his body for water-walking and strength, but he can't recombine and mix his chakra to produce jutsu. The chakra pathways in his body are simply weaker in those areas, despite his training."

I fiddled with the edge of my blanket. "What did I do?" I didn't remember manipulating anything in particular when I healed him; I just let my chakra do what it wanted since it seemed to know what it was doing.

Sensei scratched his neck again. "It seems like your chakra was attempting to 'heal' the chakra pathways, to make them more like your own. It's caused a disturbance in his chakra flow. There were no immediate effects, but by the time we got to the hospital, Neji noticed the distortion and Lee was admitted instantly."

I felt sick to my stomach. "I didn't mean to." I hugged my knees closer to my chest. "What's going to happen to him? Can Tsunade fix it?" Here I'd been, so worried about myself.

Sensei shrugged. "We'll know when we know." He hesitated for a moment, before reaching over to ruffle my hair gently. "That's why I wanted to talk to you first, before Tsunade."

I let my face drop onto my knees. "She's going to kill me. And I deserve it. I already knew you're not supposed to heal people without training."

"I wanted to tell you that you did the right thing."

My head darted up. "What?"

Sensei stared at me firmly. "It was a field decision, and the right one. You knew you couldn't get him to the hospital in time and used the tools you had at your disposal, even if it was against the rules. You made the right choice. Lee is still alive."

I shook my head. "What does that matter now? I messed up his chakra, Sensei. He could die!"

His gaze was unwavering. "If he dies, then he will have lived several hours longer than he would have otherwise. It was the right call." He stood up and put a bracing hand on my shoulder. The reassuring weight seemed to push through my whole body. "Being a ninja isn't easy. This isn't going to be the first decision of this kind you'll make. You have the spark of leadership, Sakura. You make decisions when other people would waste time thinking and talking themselves in circles." He sighed. "I wanted to talk to you before anyone else because there will still be consequences. I want you to accept them and move on, without giving up. Will you?"

I took in a deep, shuddering breath. "Yes, Sensei."

After he left, I found myself curling into a ball on the bed, lost in my thoughts. Going over everything.

I may have killed or maimed Lee from being too confident in my skills. But if I hadn't tried, he would have bled out.

In my old life, I found my brother and sister annoying and constantly pushed them out. But I loved them and wanted them to be happy.

I'd hated my peers, found them completely incomprehensible, yet I wanted to become a medical researcher, to help people just like them.

No matter how much distaste I held in my heart, and no matter how lost I'd felt, I had still been hoping for a future where I could help them. Where I could see people smiling back at me.

Was that so very different to who I was now?

I don't know.

 

Chapter Text

It was a half-hour later that Tsunade arrived.

She shut the door behind her with unusual softness and walked straight to the end of the bed to pick up my medical chart. Her expression was dull as she read over the information.

It was a long moment before she spoke. "I'm not angry anymore," she said, her voice matter-of-fact. "I'm annoyed, but I keep reminding myself that you are only a child. Even if you are a sweet-faced, precocious menace."

I curled my fists around the edge of my blanket. "You should be angry," I said.

Tsunade rolled her eyes, settling herself in the chair at my bedside. "I'm not here to listen to your teenage angst, you have a perfectly good therapist for that. Just accept that I'm not mad and call it a day."

I met her eyes squarely. "You should be angry because if it happened again, I wouldn't do anything different." I swallowed thickly. "I'll accept whatever punishment you have for me. Just tell me if Lee is going to be okay, please."

After my conversation with Sensei, I went over the events of earlier in the day, again and again, trying to find out what I could have done to prevent this. And he was right: there was nothing else I could have done that would have worked out better. As calm as I had acted at the time, the cut on Lee's leg had gone through a vein and an artery through to the bone. Even with the tourniquet slowing the bleeding, it only helped so much, and he'd already lost too much blood too quickly. It was amazing he hadn't fainted on the way to the hospital, and I would bet my last two missions' pay that he'd had blood transfusions the moment he was admitted. Healing didn't replace blood.

No, there wasn't anything I could have done differently. That didn't mean I had to like it.

Tsunade pursed her lips and collected another clipboard. "He will live. Whether he will be able to continue as a ninja remains to be seen." She rose her eyes to mine again, unblinking. "Your sensei stopped you before you attempted to change the chakra connections above his stomach. If your efforts had reached his heart, he would have died." She let out a slow breath. "Fortunately we had a Hyuuga doctor on staff to help me heal through his chakra pathways and tenketsu. We were able to manipulate those in his abdomen in such a way as to accept the different flows from above and below. It was too dangerous to attempt to restore his chakra pathways to their previous state, especially since his original system was so unusual. If he can learn to work with his chakra again at all, it will take months of rehabilitation."

I let out a breath of my own.

"And as for your punishment… that will depend. I've already taken reports from your sensei and the young Hyuuga. I'd like yours as well." She rested the clipboard on her knee, clicking open a pen. "From the beginning, please."

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and began.

Tsunade was an expert in taking reports. She listened carefully, interrupting only when I stumbled over any details. After I finished, she went through what she had written and had me expand upon anything she wanted to be clarified.

Neither of us mentioned my trying to heal my head. That, I knew, would come later.

"And one more thing. When you were speaking to the boys before you began healing, did you say the words 'I never learned how'?"

I frowned. "Yeah, something like that. I forgot about that. I was going to tell them I never learned how to heal, but that's when I remembered I might be able to. That was right before I tested it on myself."

She nodded slowly. "I see." She wrote another line at the bottom of her clipboard, before standing with a back-cracking stretch. "That should do for now."

"And my punishment?" I asked. "I heard something about a law being named after me? Am I going to court?" I worked hard to keep my voice level.

Tsunade snorted. "Yes, but only because I need a decent precedent to get a law in place to prevent unlicensed healers from practising. Somehow, they never managed to start one in my absence. It should only be a small case, maybe one or two elders. It's not a large enough issue to involve the Hokage or a full council." She shrugged. "And since you informed the boys, even obliquely, that you were untrained before healing, you won't be punished too severely. I'm going to recommend your sentence to be mandatory training with a healer. I've volunteered myself to train you personally since I was already going to drag you out to the training fields." She smiled sharply. "So don't worry about getting off too lightly, either."

I winced.

She collected her things and walked toward the door. "Of course, I originally had much worse in mind, but the young Hyuuga defended you quite vehemently. He plans to appear as your star witness, and had some… rather sharp things to say to me, the jounin leading the investigation, and everyone else in the room in general."

I stared. Neji did?

She noticed my look and smiled. It was the first genuinely positive expression I'd seen on her face today. "Yes, he seems quite grateful for your efforts. That said, I will also be back later to discuss that other matter. For that, you can start apologising by writing an essay on how foolish you were. Does that sound fair?"

I grimaced. "Yes, Tsunade-sama." I smiled weakly. "Uh, for Lee, I wouldn't have done anything differently. But for what I did to myself, yeah, bad idea. Sorry."

"Good." She opened the door and paused. "Well, speaking of whom. Go on in, kid." She ushered Neji through and closed the door behind her with a snap.

Neji and I stared at each other in silence for a moment. Finally, still standing by the door, he bowed. As an equal. I returned the bow clumsily, taken aback.

As he straightened he said, "You were correct in your assessment that training with live steel, when inexperienced, is not safe to do." His voice was soft and clipped. "It is good for training in a weapon one has experience with, but not otherwise. In the future, we will use weighted training swords." His face was a blank mask. "I wished to tell you this, and also to thank you for your efforts in saving my teammate. I am aware that he lives only through your intervention. I have also asked to be present at your hearing, to convey this information."

"Thank you, Neji. I appreciate it."

He nodded once and left as quickly as he came.

Well.

"Well," I said to the empty room. "I guess I'd better work on my essay." I saw a stack of paper on my bedside table; Tsunade must have left it while she was here. With a deep sigh, I got to work. It was hardly a stunning piece of literature, but I thought it had about the right quality that Tsunade would be looking for. I had scarcely finished writing when another person came through the door.

The man was young, perhaps in his early twenties, but that didn't mean much in terms of ninja. He was dressed professionally, his Konoha-plate attached neatly around his waist.

The man adjusted his glasses and smiled warmly. "Haruno Sakura, correct?"

"Yes?" I asked warily. Are they going to arrest me formally? I thought they'd at least wait until I was out of the hospital...

His smile grew. "I understood from Tsunade-sama that you were unable to attend our appointment at my office, and was invited to visit and have it here."

My eyebrows shot up and I looked at the clock; it was four in the evening. "Oh! You're the therapist!" I bowed hastily. "I am so, so sorry. I completely forgot, what with everything that happened."

He waved me off with a grin, settling himself into the chair next to my bed. "You will not be the first ninja to miss an appointment due to a training accident, I assure you. Normally I would have called to reschedule, but Tsunade-sama was quite insistent that you have your first appointment promptly. And I am not one to argue."

I winced. "Again, I'm so sorry about all the trouble-"

He chuckled warmly. "You are also not the first ninja to have their appointment in a hospital bed. It's no trouble at all, truly. And if you will not mind me saying, I do find your case fascinating. Forgive me, but from the standpoint of my profession, this is a very rare opportunity." He raised an eyebrow. "I understand that you have been affected by a technique that has falsified your entire store of memory. And from what you have said to others, this false-self was also afflicted with mental illness." He shook his head slowly. "Not to mention being a civilian in your previous life. You poor girl, even attempting to adjust must have been so jarring for you."

I felt my shoulders begin to relax a little. He was just so nice. "How much do you already know about it?"

"Only as much as I have said, along with your most recent records from hospital visits." He inclined his head. "I hope you do not mind, but as this is a classified case, the information came as part of the package. I would be unable to begin to treat you otherwise."

I shrugged. "That's fair. Man, I don't even know where to start..."

"That will all depend on how you are coping now. There are many strategies I can introduce to you to help you move forward, but it will depend upon which will most fit your situation." He smiled a little. "Why not start with today? You've recently undergone a stressful ordeal, have you not?"

I nodded slowly. "I guess I could start with when I woke up. I'd almost forgotten about it with everything, but I had this big conversation with my father about being a ninja..."

He was a perfect listener, as Tsunade was. He nodded as I finished. "As I expected, coming from a civilian life must be very jarring. I think that was very clever of you, deciding to find out what originally moved you onto the ninja path. Any path is difficult to walk if we do not know why we're on it. But have you found any of your own reasons to be a ninja?" He frowned. "It is important to know where we are coming from, but only to better understand where we are going."

I toyed with the edge of the blanket, mulling that over. "I guess it's hard to consider myself doing anything different to what I am now. I hate violence, but I like doing so many different jobs. It gives me an opportunity to learn to do a lot of things I wouldn't have tried otherwise. Maybe if I can stay as a Genin, instead of becoming Chunin, I won't have to fight people?"

He shook his head, smiling sadly. "Young lady, I am a Chunin ninja, and I am a therapist. Your path as a ninja entirely depends upon your experience. Yes, we are expected to be able to fight and defend, but at the end of the day a shinobi is one who is expected to be the best in whatever it is they do."

I sat back at that, reeling. Now that he mentioned it… all of my doctors were ninja. The government officials were ninja. Naruto's teacher, Iruka, was a ninja. The owner of the barbeque place I'd gone to was a ninja.

"Wait, so if ninja just means a specialist, then… Why are we all trained to fight?"

He blinked and cocked his head to the side. "We must fight because the nations outside of us fight. This may be hard for you to believe, but Konoha is… To our world, Konoha would be considered a very peaceful nation." He gestured with his hand. "For us, to be able to fight is an honour to our profession and our communities. And one who has the wisdom to strike first is often able to make it the final strike." He blinked slowly. "Even to our civilians, to fight, to kill, or to die to protect ourselves and one-another is honourable. And sacred."

I stared at him. That… made sense. I was essentially living in feudal Japan, wasn't I? Even when I spoke with my father, the first thing he'd asked was if I'd killed out of defence.

I swallowed, my throat dry. "And if I'm afraid to kill?"

He frowned. "Many people dislike to kill, fearing death themselves. Though once you die, you will either go to the Afterworld or be reborn, in which case, you will no longer be frightened. Of course, it is still a sad thing to leave our loved ones behind."

"That's-" I struggled for the right words. "And that's a known… thing?"

He shrugged. "Some people disagree on when we reach the Afterworld, why some of us are reborn, and some on how long it takes to be reborn. Some say 49 days, some say immediately, some say it depends on the person. Of course, it may not- Haruno-san, are you feeling unwell?"

I had my head in my hands. "I hate that I can't immediately dismiss that. You have no idea how much it physically pains me that I have to consider this seriously. I didn't even realise there was religion in this world and honestly, I should have."

"That is not what we would consider religion. Philosophy, perhaps." I could hear the smile enter his voice. "And as much as I'd like to further explore your fear of death, we are limited for time. I'd like to understand your situation a little better. Why don't you finish telling me about your day?"

With a sigh, I sat back and continued my story. Unlike with Tsunade, I included the details of my self-inflicted chakra pulse and the terrible memories that came with it.

He watched me intently throughout. By the time I was finished, he had a thoughtful frown, his eyebrows angled sharply inward and upward. "That's… fascinating. And the only false memories you retrieved were those related with guilt?"

I blinked. "I… I hadn't thought of it that way before." My mind began to churn. If they were only memories that I felt guilty about, maybe that meant that the 'me' from before felt guilty about them as well. "I don't know why I would have only just gotten those memories now, and I don't know what else I might be missing." I pulled my knees closer to my chest. "Honestly, if it weren't for how horrible they made me feel, and how afraid I am of Tsunade, I'd ask her if I could do it again."

He shook his head. "I would certainly not recommend filling your head with more false memories."

I looked away and mumbled. "They feel real enough to me."

I heard him sigh. "Yes, I suppose that is the crux of your problem, isn't it?" He sat back. "You still believe the memories you have are true, don't you? Have you spoken to anyone about this?"

I peeked back at him, but his expression was soft, non-judgmental. "I don't really talk about it. Maybe I should, with Tsunade-sama at least. If I could just get proof, one way or the other… I don't know."

He smiled. "Well. Perhaps that is one bright point to being a ninja for you. It is much more likely that you'll obtain the answers you seek if you stay on the ninja path, it seems."

"Yeah, I guess." Hadn't that been the original goal I told Kakashi about? I want to find out what happened to me and why. Maybe the therapist was right. If I'd immediately asked to cease being a ninja, I wouldn't have learned anything about chakra. I would never have met Tsunade. And, frankly, I would have missed out on being friends with Naruto and Sasuke.

Sure, it wasn't a sensible reason to want to be a ninja. But it was important to me.

The therapist checked his watch. "I think that will be enough for today."

I glanced over at the clock and started when I realised two hours had passed. "Oh no, I'm so sorry! I didn't mean to keep you here for so long-"

He waved me off with a smile. "I like to have longer visits when I meet a client initially. Even so, I feel like we will have much to talk about in our next meeting." He stood from his seat and rifled through his satchel, procuring a scroll. "I'll leave this with you. Based on what I've learned of your situation, I think you would benefit most from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This scroll contains two sets of exercises: one for when you are feeling anxious, which will walk you through whether the root of your anxiety is based in reality. The other is for when you are questioning reality in general, though you may not find much use for it until you've found your truth." He smiled widely. "Consider it like homework. A bright girl like you, I'm sure you'll have no trouble with it."

Homework.

I gave him my brightest smile in return. "I'll try to remember to look it at as soon as I get home," I lied.

"Excellent. Well, I'll be off. I'll see you at my office next week, Haruno-san."

"Thank you- Oh! Oh no, I'm so sorry, I forgot to ask you for your name." My cheeks flushed. I managed to talk to the man for two hours and hadn't even considered it once.

He laughed softly, pushing his glasses further up his nose. "It is no trouble, and there is no need to be so formal. My name is Kabuto."

I smiled. "Thank you, and it was a pleasure to meet you, Kabuto-san."

Chapter Text

Volume 5 – The Ninja Path

Chapter 32 – Potentials


I was scribbling on a piece of paper when Tsunade next entered the room. I was slow to look up at the sound of the door opening, finishing a final scrawl before meeting her tired expression.

This did not go unnoticed. "Still working on that essay?" she asked.

I rocked back in my seat a little, gesturing to the bedside table. "No, I finished that a while ago. Right now I'm just jotting down notes. There are some things I want to ask you about and I knew I'd forget if I didn't write them down."

She closed her eyes and raised her eyebrows; I could almost see her headache forming. "I see. I thought that might be the case." She shook it off and sat down in the chair by my bedside, picking up my essay. "If it's alright with you, I'd like to go over this first."

I nodded.

She was a fast reader. Occasionally her eyebrows would jump, or she'd give a quiet snort, but otherwise had nothing to say as her eyes danced down the page. At last, she folded up the paper and pushed it into her pocket. "I must admit, as serious as this all is, I'd be happy to frame this and put it on my wall. If it weren't for the massive security breach it would cause." She smiled thinly. "Overall it's a good essay, and I accept your apology."

My shoulders relaxed. "Thank you. So, since we're on the same page about how I was acting thoughtlessly: want to tell me how you think I almost died? I already nearly killed Lee, I'm sure I wouldn't leave myself out of the fun."

"Oh, you nearly killed yourself in several ways," she said lightly. "Honestly, it's impressive. For one, you chakra-exhausted yourself."

I winced. "Yes. I'm sorry."

"Which we thought would result in the foreign chakra in your seal taking over your body completely. Thankfully, this appears to not have been the case."

"It's always a good day when I'm not getting body-snatched," I said, a sick feeling beginning to roil in my stomach.

"For another, I'd like to know just how long you've been using natural energy. And also how you've survived it."

I blinked. "Natural energy?"

"You know," she said, waving her arm around her. "All that chakra buzzing around in the air, naturally generated by the environment. Instead of using your chakra. If your sensei had been anyone else on the planet, I wouldn't have believed him when he told me. He'd never felt you use a technique chakra-intensive enough to notice you doing so before."

I squirmed uncomfortably under her stare. "I think I remember reading about Natural chakra, briefly, but my books didn't go into detail. I've always noticed it, but I wasn't consciously trying to use it." I swallowed. "It just felt like… like letting my chakra do whatever it wanted, just with the intent of helping Lee behind it. It was looking at his body and where it was hurt, and trying to help spread the message to his other cells what had gone wrong, to kind of coax his chakra into helping with healing, and… apparently to try to make his systems look more like my own. I thought the method had been the main problem, but if it was the energy itself that I was using-"

"That," said Tsunade sharply, "is not how healing is typically done. For one thing, you used Yang-release. You were giving his body your own life's energy to heal with. Had his wounds been desperate, you would have died. Most medics use Yin-release, which heals in a similar way but returns most of the chakra to the user's body afterwards. This is why healing requires months and years of training. Not only did you fail to regulate the chakra that was healing your patient, resulting in unintended consequences, but you failed to regulate your own chakra. You used everything you had, in places it wasn't even needed until you used all of your chakra and began draining your life energy. When your body's screaming to you went unheeded, you automatically started pulling on the chakra in your seal, which thankfully also didn't kill you. And when that didn't help sufficiently, you started pulling chakra out of the air, which in any other untrained person, would have turned them to stone."

I gaped. "Turned them into stone?"

"And then," she ground on. "As if this wasn't enough of a disaster, you decided to shove this lovely cocktail of energy into the seal Jiraiya and I gave to you to protect you. And into a brain that has an invisible seal we can't reach. And, somehow, you also managed not to die then," she growled. "For someone who wants to live forever, you sure seem to lack any sort of self-preservation instinct."

I clamped my jaw shut, stunned. I knew I had been reckless, and I spoke lightly about almost dying but when she put it like that… It had been more than a close shave, hadn't it? I'd been so out of touch with what I'd been doing that I nearly destroyed myself on every level possible.

I imagined what Kizashi and Mebuki's faces would look like if Tsunade had to tell them their daughter was dead. What kind of faces Naruto and Sasuke would make. And sensei. My poor, flighty, protective sensei. All the people who had been trying to support and protect me as I continually managed to get myself into life-or-death scenarios, hardly bothering to look after this precious gift they had given me. Including Tsunade.

And here I thought I was trying to become someone who could be relied on.

I took a deep breath; it failed to keep the tremble out of my voice as I spoke. "I'm sorry." I clasped my hands together and fell into a bow so low my forehead touched my knees. "I'll try harder, I really will. I'll learn everything I can, I'll go to classes, I'll never do things I haven't trained in again. I'll ask people for help when I can't do something myself. I promise."

I heard Tsunade let out a loud sigh. "I accept your apology but stop grovelling. You're cramping my style."

It was easy to hear the smile in her voice, but it did little to quench my shame as I rose to face her again. "What do I need to do now?" I asked.

She crossed her arms, leaning back in her chair. "Not much else has changed. Your friend should hopefully recover in the coming weeks. At some point, you will join me on a trip to the Hokage tower to try and convince some idiots to put medical laws in place. And of course, you'll be joining me regularly at the training grounds so I can pound some sense into you. We were already planning on that, but I simply didn't account for how quickly it would take you to do, well, something like this." She shook her head. "You are a brilliant little menace, you know that?"

"Yes, Tsunade-sama."

"Good girl. And on that note, the rest can wait until we train together. I'll work out a schedule with your sensei. Now, why don't you tell me what's on your mind? You had some questions for me?"

"Oh!" Sure enough, I had nearly forgotten; my sheet of paper was already crumpled and creased in my lap. I smoothed it absently. "Um, first of all… I have some strange ninja's chakra in my system and apparently have had it since the first time I, uh, woke up here. Do you know whose it is?"

Tsunade closed her eyes and sighed. "You can't ever ask the easy questions, can you?" She scrubbed a palm across her face. "Well, considering everything that's happened, there's no harm in telling you. His name is Orochimaru. I honestly expected you to look it up for yourself once I told you he was my old teammate."

I fought against a blush of embarrassment. "I guess you guys are famous and I could have asked someone, but… Honestly, I totally forgot you told me he was a teammate, to begin with."

She gave a small, lopsided smile. "You can be forgiven. You had just awoken from a coma, after all."

I nodded blankly. "And he's famous, I guess? You and Jiraiya are part of the legendary three, so I guess that makes him the third." I frowned. "I haven't read much history yet, so I don't know what that entails."

"He's a powerful, genius missing-nin from Konoha. He's killed hundreds, perhaps even thousands."

"Right. And for some reason, he decided to cast a genjutsu on me?" I asked sceptically. "And somehow, it's in an invisible seal he put on me and the jutsu just… recast itself when I was chakra exhausted?"

Tsunade furrowed her brow. "Recast?"

I shrugged. "When I woke up with more memories, Migaki-san said they thought the genjutsu was recast?"

Tsunade made a noise of comprehension. "Migaki-san, while a very intelligent man, was incorrect. A seal alone could not re-cast a genjutsu. It could continually cast, but we know that's not the case. It is far more likely that the memories were included in the original genjutsu overwrite, and the connections in your mind weren't strong enough to uncover them until you attempted to heal yourself."

I twisted my blanket between my fingertips, my eyes drifting back to the sheet of paper I had scribbled on. "Why is everyone so sure it's a genjutsu? My therapist says that reincarnation is generally accepted here… is it so hard to believe my memories might be real? Maybe I just died in my other life and my reincarnation got messed up."

Tsunade blinked once before slowly shaking her head. "Impossible. For one, you wouldn't remember your previous life's memories out of the blue. For another- I read your files, Sakura. You remembered your friends and Sensei as fictional characters."

I shook my head. "But what if I got partial memories back? Then it would make sense that they'd get jumbled up with my current memories, wouldn't it? If you somehow overloaded a brain like that, it seems like something it would do."

This gave her pause. "It's not that you're not making logical sense," she said slowly. "But we can tell that you were assaulted, twice, from the same source of a foreign chakra. And I don't believe Orochimaru capable of forcing a still-living person into a reincarnation, let alone a partial reincarnation from a world that doesn't mesh with reality."

"This Orochimaru guy," I worked hard to keep the annoyance out of my voice. "What on earth would he have to gain by attacking me? I was just a normal, average, ninja girl! There wouldn't be any point!"

My irritation seemed to zap into her. Tsunade slapped her hand on the edge of her seat. "Have you ever paused to consider you might not have been the target?"

"I- what?"

She took a deep breath. "Naruto is… special. I can't go into detail right now, but Orochimaru would have plenty of motivation to try to disarm him. As for Sasuke Uchiha… Orochimaru himself may not normally deal in genjutsu, but there is a ninja out there whom I could believe capable of such a feat, should they deign to work together. Between the two, they would have much good reason indeed to attack the Uchiha."

I swallowed past the dryness in my throat. "And on the road, when those ninja tried to- to kidnap me?"

Tsunade grimaced. "He's been known to enjoy working with test subjects. If he targeted the wrong individual, I imagine he would make the most of it."

I scrunched up my blanket so tightly my knuckles turned white. "I believe you," I said softly. "On another note, in your opinion as a medical shinobi, is reincarnation real?" I glanced up at her.

Her brows pulled inward in confusion. "I haven't studied spirit to the extent of some, but yes, to some degree. And most likely, after some number of cycles, we eventually go on to the Pure Land." She shrugged awkwardly. "But again, I do not think your case has anything to do with reincarnation."

I swallowed and nodded.

If reincarnation was real and hadn't been the case for me, then my family never existed. I'd never see them again. As much as I fought tooth and nail against the concept, once I learned to accept the possibility, it was hard to get rid of when it meant they'd be gone. I knew it was important not to cloud my judgement. But even so, the genjutsu explanation seemed off. My world simply didn't seem like one someone would come up with, even myself.

I'd read studies in my previous life of amnesiacs creating false memories to fill in the blanks, often after head trauma. But the reason they did so was to present a flow of events that made sense.

If Sakura Haruno had been attacked by a genjutsu, and her brain had scrambled to make a sensible narrative to combine the false memories and her own, it wouldn't combine the way it did. I was sure of it.

I looked up and summarised this to Tsunade; she listened patiently. I ended with saying: "So while a genjutsu seems like the most logical explanation, and Orochimaru throwing reincarnated memories at me seems the least likely explanation… Neither of them makes full sense of the matter. Is it possible we're both missing something?"

She let out a breath and nodded. "Yes. Absolutely."

I couldn't help but gape at her. Without noticing, I had been tensing for a complete denial. It had never occurred to me that telling an adult that I was concerned, that I thought they might be wrong, might be met with acceptance.

Tsunade seemed to read my train of thought and smiled. "Yes, adults can be wiser than you and still not have all the answers." She crossed her legs and leaned back. "So let's level with each other. Let our explanations battle it out, and see if we can find some new ideas. Hit me."

I nearly wanted to cry. I did the next best thing: taking her up on it for all it was worth. "Okay! Right! So..." My thoughts fluttered a moment before they landed. "I guess what I should be asking is how Orochimaru would have managed to attack me when he was nowhere near me?"

Tsunade leaned back and sighed. "I can hardly imagine, and all too readily imagine. He could have secreted into the town and the field where you were training, keeping himself undercover. He could have sent someone else with a special artefact or seal to transfer. He could have set a seal on you months or weeks prior with some sort of time-release. He could have simply figured out how to direct a jutsu from kilometres away." She threw her hands up in frustration. "He could have turned himself invisible and impermeable and tapped you on the forehead for all I know."

My eyes widened in alarm. "Wait, really?"

"Probably not that last one, but you get the idea. He's a mad genius, in the truest sense of the phrase. I can only predict him to a certain point."

"… Yikes."

"And the worst part is not the genjutsu. That aspect is easy enough to understand," she went on vehemently. It was clear that talking about this with me was serving more than myself; it must have been bothering her. "But I have no way of telling what else he's done. He's made curse seals before, but they've always been visible. We've at least had something to study. But he's managed to implant something into your mind so deeply that your chakra is keeping it running. We can only guess what it's doing."

"Great. Fantastic." I let myself fall back onto my pillows. "Want to tell me some guesses? I'd kind of enjoy knowing what's going on in my brain," I said sharply. "I'd kind of enjoy knowing a while ago, actually."

She snorted. "Giving you a hundred frantic guesses was not going to help you. For all we knew, he was trying to completely take over your body- which, by the way, he has done before."

I shuddered. She continued, "Considering you weren't able to keep yourself from chakra exhaustion, and thankfully didn't become an unwitting sleeper agent, then yes. It is now a better time to tell you what I know. I just hate to tell you, what I've already told you is most of it."

"Sure," I said. "It only completely changed my self-identity. No big deal." I stopped myself. "I'm sorry. I'm uh, also supposed to tell you about major personality changes, right? I'm not normally- I mean, in this life I haven't been such a sharp person, but after today, I remember being much more misanthropic. And uh, I'm acting more like it now. So do with that what you will. And uh, sorry for being a jerk."

She gave me a small smile. "I think we both have reason to be frustrated today. I won't take offence." She paused. "My main concern for personality changes was due to worrying about you becoming a sleeper agent, as I've mentioned. Another reason is due to what we've seen and heard of Orochimaru's other curse marks. Other than giving him a method to outright take over someone's body, we've also heard it can somehow activate a twisted version of sage-mode."

"Sage mode?"

She raised an eyebrow. "Using natural energy."

I gasped in a sharp breath, but she immediately held up a hand. "I don't think that's what happened to you today. Your sensei has seen other shinobi going into sage-mode before, and felt them radiating with natural energy. He tells me that what you did felt close to that. Those who have been inflicted with Orochimaru's curse mark give off a much more- I suppose you could call it tainted chakra."

"So what do you think is going on with me?"

She held out her hands, palms open. "Think? I don't know what to think. My old, evil teammate has had a genjutsu placed on you to replace your memories. He's sealed a part of his chakra into you, somehow, and it seems to be doing you no harm, somehow. You are incredibly bright, talented with chakra control, learned how to heal without instruction, and somehow managed to utilise natural chakra on pure instinct without turning yourself to stone or dying. I must confess, while you do seem similar to him in some aspects, I can't imagine him trying to manipulate a girl into being a less selfish version of himself."

"Wait," I said. "You think he specifically chose to give me memories that would make me more like him? And screwed up?" That gave an entirely new perspective on why the choice in memories seemed so weird if they were a genjutsu.

She shrugged haplessly. "That's the only explanation I can come up with."

I sighed. "Let's backtrack a little. Why are you so certain there's a seal at all? You already said there didn't need to be one to cast a genjutsu on me. How do you know he didn't just cast one and just scamper?"

She raised her eyebrows. "And you think his chakra is still seeping off of you months after the fact?" She shook her head. "Jiraiya is a master of sealwork and he agrees with me completely. The pattern of chakra emitted only makes sense with a seal in place that has some stored up. It's not something Orochimaru hasn't done before."

I frowned. "On his previous seals, you said they were emitting tainted natural chakra, not Orochimaru's chakra. Why do we think it's stored? What if it's an open connection?" I rubbed at my forehead absently. "It would make more sense to do his original seals that way too- it'd have less chakra cost to make the cursed seals if it was just drawing chakra from the environment."

She froze.

"Tsunade-sama?"

She let out a strained laugh. "Yes, that is exactly how he would think, isn't it?"

I straightened a little. "And you think he's trying to make me more like him. What if it's the chakra? If it's pure spiritual chakra- did you check before you sealed it?"

"It doesn't have to be," she said breathlessly. "All chakra has a spiritual component. Between the memories and the fact that it was planted in your mind, I'd naturally assumed-"

"But it didn't even have to be on purpose, but if he was targeting Naruto or Sasuke-"

"And his cursed seals are already known to affect the personality of the subjects they're cast on!"

"So instead of chakra-exhaustion pulling on the chakra to allow him to take me over directly, he'd instead try to make some sort of messed up clone!"

"So a new version of the cursed seal! Perhaps."

"But why the different memories, whether by genjutsu or freaky spirit reincarnation magic?"

She snapped her fingers. "Because by scrambling the memory he'd have a more malleable slate to work with! His previous subjects fought against his seals, their will was too strong-"

I made a loud noise. "And by giving me memories of someone with a sapped will, I wouldn't fight as hard against the influence, especially if I'm constantly questioning who I am!"

We both beamed at each other, which just as quickly morphed into dual expressions of horror.

"Well," Tsunade began. "This has certainly been… food for thought. I thought he would try to take you over all at once as soon as your chakra ran low enough to him to overrun you." She shook her head. "That's why I kept you off missions, so it would at least be within the confines of Konoha."

"For what it's worth, I don't have any desire to go on a murder spree and/or conduct obscene experimentations on the townsfolk." I shook my head a little. "No matter how he went about it, he picked the memories of someone with strong ethics. Maybe that's enough to overcome my lack of willpower? Or maybe since I didn't already have mental illness in this life, it didn't make me susceptible enough? Or since the original version of Sakura was so strong-willed, I inherited some of that?"

Tsunade groaned. "Before we get too carried away, I'll have to have a talk with Jiraiya about the possibility of an open chakra-link. We'll probably have to have a look at you again."

I let out a whine.

"Not immediately." She rolled her eyes. "As long as you don't exhaust yourself again, you shouldn't be in too much danger. And we've already ascertained you're not liable to instantly turn into a menace; it was likely intended to be more gradual than that." She pinched the bridge of her nose between her fingers. "When I talk to your sensei about scheduling, I'll find a day where Jiraiya is available and bring you back down."

"Wait… does this mean I'll be allowed on missions again?"

She glanced up at me past her hand. "So long as you promise not to commit atrocities or do anything to raise my blood pressure any higher."

I squirmed in my seat. "I'll try my best, Tsunade-sama."

Chapter Text

"Are you serious? I can take missions, but I can't even walk home on my own?"

The man behind the hospital's front desk winced. "Sorry, Haruno-chan, but you know we have rules for a reason."

I sighed. "Sorry, Sato-san. I didn't mean to go all cranky-ninja on you. I know; it's not your fault. It's just annoying." I'd been to the hospital so often that I knew the receptionist well.

I hadn't been surprised when I didn't see my family in the front office. I remembered being told that next of kin were only contacted in medical emergencies when I'd be unable to make my own decisions. I hadn't been surprised not to see Naruto or Sasuke either; it was still early evening, and they were likely still on their mission.

I had been surprised to learn that it mattered. For some unfathomable reason, you needed an escort home if you almost died several hours previously.

"Do you know if my sensei is still around? He could probably walk with me. If not, maybe I can try to track down Tsunade-"

Sato's eyes widened. "Don't you dare, Sakura-chan. Just give me a minute to page around, and if your sensei isn't here, I'll send out a hawk. If I can't get hold ofhim I'll walk you home do not put me in Tsunade-sama's line of fire."

I snorted and rolled my eyes, but paused when I felt a familiar presence approach. I turned my head to see Ten-Ten sidle up.

"Sorry, Sakura! Kakashi-sensei sent me here to walk you home. I was just checking on Lee..." She turned to the receptionist and gave him her ninja registration number.

"Alright, Haruno-chan. Hopefully, I won't see you later," Sato called cheerfully.

I made a point of sticking my tongue out at him before following Ten-Ten. She paused before we reached the doors, turning toward me and taking one of my hands. "Neji told me what happened… thank you."

My cheeks flushed; I quickly looked away. "Don't thank me unless he gets better, please." I scrubbed my free hand over my face. "Your mission is over then?" I asked lightly, trying to fight a frown.

She understood what I hadn't asked. "Yes, Kakashi-sensei told us as soon as we got back to Konoha. Gai-sensei is up with Lee now, and Kakashi said Naruto-san and Sasuke-san needed to attend an emergency meeting with him. I'm sorry, I don't know more."

I had to smile a little at her adding -san to both Naruto and Sasuke's names; Team Gai was always so polite. But my concern increased as she went on. It had to be something serious to keep the three most overbearing people on the planet from me when I was in the hospital.

Ten-Ten squeezed my hand. "Before we leave, would you like to borrow some clothes? I keep backups in my sealing scrolls..."

I glanced down at the remains of my outfit. One of the Nurse's Aids had been kind enough to wash out the worst of the blood for me, but my tights were long gone. "Eh, the blood is barely noticeable. It's not bad enough to freak out the civilians, and honestly, I'm outgrowing these anyway." Even after only a few months of training, I was gaining weight and muscle quickly and would need to replace my wardrobe soon. I had been starting to get the sinking feeling that the previous Sakura might have been trying to diet.

Ten-Ten gave my hand a gentle tug, and we walked out of the hospital together. "I know we haven't been friends long, Sakura, but-" She paused. "Can I call you by your name?"

"Yes." I smiled. So polite.

"Sakura," she said more firmly. "But I can tell… that is to say, you look like you're thinking of a thousand things at once. Are you okay?"

I blinked. "You can tell that easily?" I thought I had been acting as normally as could be expected.

She smiled a little, starting to swing our hands together as we walked. The gesture of affection was nice, after spending so much time with awkward teenage boys. "You are a person who shows their emotions pretty loudly, Sakura. Besides, after a day like this, and everything that has happened..." Her smile grew fixed. "It can be nice to talk to someone a little. Me too, you know."

I flushed again. Right. Ten-Ten wouldn't be feeling much better than I was, right now. She'd essentially had two team members almost die when she was nowhere near to do anything about it.

Pursing my lips a moment, I began: "It's… there's just so much, you know? I feel like I have five different trains of thought at once. Like, the part that's worrying about you, the part that's worrying about Lee, the part that's busy worrying about Sasuke and Naruto and Sensei, and worrying about me and like… the rest of me is just trying to be normal, and getting distracted, and just-"

Ten-Ten laughed. "Everything is just so messed up!"

I couldn't help the giggling that burst out of me. "Like, what are we even supposed to be doing?"

We stopped to catch our breath, and Ten-Ten burst out between snorts of laughter: "Like, Lee almost chops his leg in half during training and nearly bleeds to death, and we were supposed to be going to the Chunin exams next month? And then you almost destabilised your medical seal, almost died, but then they found out you'll probably be safe for missions so I won't even get to train with you anymore-"

"Oh, shut up!" I laughed, shoving her in the shoulder. "While Lee's out-of-it we'll keep training and doing missions together. You can't help being surrounded by dumbasses like us."

"Did you really tell Kakashi, 'Don't worry, I got this'?" she asked breathlessly.

My face was flaming red as I flailed and said, "Listen, it seemed like a good idea at the time!"

She reached over and squished my cheeks.

"Ten-Ten!"

"And now, as soon as I finished babysitting your teammates, they're off doing who-knows-what! I just can't keep up!"

I flailed my arms again until she released me, and I took the opportunity to hook my arm through hers and resume the march toward my house. "You're not wrong, though. It does feel like we're all constantly babysitting each other, doesn't it?"

"I guess that's what being a team is all about," she said, rubbing the tears from her eyes.

The rest of the conversation as we made our way was more sedated, and our steps grew slower as we approached my front door.

"What will you tell them?" Ten-Ten asked quietly.

"Partial truth. I'll have to be honest about a lot of it," I admitted. "I just won't go into detail."

She nodded, pulling a scroll from her pack. "Here, it's a sealing scroll. I was going to give this to you in case we couldn't train together again, but… Either way, I want you to have it. I know you don't like doing sealwork yourself."

I flushed again, this time for an entirely different reason. "Thank you. Um. I probably will end up asking you to explain seals to me sometime. I need to stop avoiding working on things I'm bad at."

Her smile was gentle. "Okay." No questions asked, no prying, no teasing.

After a brief exchange of murmured promises to meet back up at training, we said our goodbyes. She walked away, and I was alone again.

Time to face the music.


I told my parents the truth. About Lee, at least.

"That poor boy," Mebuki said as we finished washing up the dinner dishes. "But is it necessary for you to go to a hearing? If it's not against the law, you shouldn't be in trouble."

I shrugged, drying my hands. "Konoha uses a lot of precedent-based law, instead of just using precedent to base punishment. I won't get into any real trouble, and it'll end with me getting one-on-one lessons with Tsunade-sama. Really, you couldn't ask for a better outcome."

Mebuki hummed her agreement and I turned awkwardly, tugging at my shirt again. I found myself wishing through dinner that I'd taken Ten-Ten up on her offer of a change of clothes- I'd had to carefully angle myself to mask the faint ghost of bloodstains on my shorts. Once the dishes were away and Mebuki was distracted, I snatched up my bag to make my escape. I spun around to leave, accidentally snagging my satchel against a chair. The scrolls that I'd shoved in top fell onto the floor.

"Huh, what are those?" Kizashi asked, peering down from his seat.

"Ah, those," I mumbled, caught in my mistruth. "Ah, well one is a sealing scroll from Ten-Ten, and the other was actually from my therapist. My appointment was today, that's the other reason I took so long getting home." I crouched down to clean up, holding my satchel carefully over the darkest stain.

"What's a sealing scroll?" Kizashi asked, picking one of the scrolls up from where it rolled under his chair. Mebuki reached over to take it and hand it back to me.

"Oh, I think that's the one from the therapist. That one has exercises for me to-"

As Mebuki gripped onto the scroll Kizashi held and pulled it toward her, it unravelled. There was a light like a flashbang, a surge of chakra, and then I couldn't feel my parents' chakra anymore.

They had disappeared in a flash.

I froze, still crouched on the floor, hand paused in mid-air.

"Kizashi? Mebuki?"

The house was eerily silent. I stared in disbelief at where they'd been sitting a moment before. I jumped to my feet, feeling the silent press of their lack of presence shove at me.

My head twisted around crazily as I looked around the kitchen, still unable to process. "Okaasan? Otousan?" (Mother? Father?)

Silence.

"Dad? Mom?"

Nothing.

Even the scroll was gone.

Nothing, except the faintest trace of chakra. Kabuto-san's chakra.

"No, no, no," I started mumbling to myself. Without thought, I was feeling carefully through the air around me, desperately trying to find any trace of my parents' chakra. Nothing except the faint imprint left behind from being in the house only a moment sooner, like the lingering scent of perfume. "This can't be real, this can't… Dad? Mom?"

But of course, nobody was here.

There was a sudden flutter of chakra directly outside the front door, starting small and expanding in strength, followed by loud animistic scratching at the wood. I paused for a fraction of a second as I tasted the feel of the chakra, before ripping the door open.

A dog sat on my front doorstep.

"I know you," I blurted out. And somehow, I did. The dog was wearing a Konoha headband, and while it held its own chakra signature- and even this was oddly familiar- there was also an undercurrent of static.

"You- you have some of Sensei's chakra. Are you his dog? Can you get him? Can you understand me?"

The dog pushed past me through the door. "Yeah, I can hear you, calm down. I'll handle this."

I froze in shock as the pug walked into my kitchen, sniffing around the floor. "It's faint," he rumbled in a low voice. "But definitely some kind of seal. Whoever put it in place will be long gone. What set it off?" He turned to face me.

"It- it was a scroll I got from my therapist, Kabuto-san. He said it was mental health exercises. My parents accidentally opened it and-"

The dog let out a low grumble. "Got it." He trotted forward and pushed against my legs.

"Huh? What are you- my parents-" I felt dizzy.

"Grab some gear, we're getting you out of here. Got any mission packs ready?"

I blinked, reeling for a moment, before stumbling up to the hall closet and digging out the third pack hanging from the door-hooks. "A few, this one is for long-term?"

"Very good. Smart kid." He nudged against my legs again and shoved me out the door, where several more dogs were waiting. "Go with them; they'll take you somewhere safe. I'll find Kakashi. Just get out of here, we don't know if the scroll will have had a signal on it. Move!"

Almost in a trance, I followed the two dogs onto the rooftops and joined them in a sprint. One dog led, the other fell back to run behind me. Somehow, I could tell they were holding back to match my speed.

They took me to Uchiha Compound.


Sasuke and Naruto were as surprised to see me as I'd been to see them.

"You're here?" I asked them dazedly, putting a palm against the larger dog's shoulder for support. The boys were in front of Sasuke's house, clearly in the middle of transporting a small pile of boxes inside.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. "Wasn't somebody taking you home? We were going to go see you when we finished here and- aren't those Sensei's dogs?"

"What happened to you?" Sasuke asked, eyes flashing red.

I looked down at the dog, but it just grinned back at me, tongue lolling out. The other dog sat silently, looking out as though on watch.

"Uh, I guess you don't all talk?" I asked the dogs, feeling a bit silly. The second dog let out a soft bark.

I clutched my mission pack to my chest. "Can we go inside, Sasuke?"


That evening found me sitting in front of Sasuke's fireplace, leaning against him, satchel thrown carelessly on the floor as Naruto quietly pulled blankets and bedding out from the boxes. I pet the dog half-sprawled across my lap absently, watching the flames dance in front of me.

I told them about my parents first, before going back and telling them everything. Absolutely everything. My conversation with Sensei, with my therapist, and every conversation with Tsunade. Including the parts about my memories, about Orochimaru. Including everything she told me to keep to myself, and that they might have been the original targets, instead of me.

Everything.

I couldn't help but feel that this had all come far too late.

"I don't understand why this is all happening," I mumbled, head now resting completely on Sasuke's shoulder. He was tolerating it the way a cat might when lifted by a toddler. More reconciled than anything. "And Naruto is moving in with you, then? For real? What was your meeting about? You said you were coming to see me?" I took in a deep breath. "I guess given everything, it would be safer for you two to stick together..."

I felt Sasuke nod. "Yeah, that's why."

"We were going to ask you to come with us," Naruto said, uncharacteristically quiet.

"What happened?" I repeated. "And why does Tsunade think you guys would be targets? Do you know?"

Sasuke slumped forward, and with the sudden lack of support, I had to straighten up. Naruto stopped what he was doing and moved over to sprawl across my legs beside Kakashi's dog. It was oddly comforting.

"Ne, Sakura-chan," Naruto said, voice distant. "Do you remember the Daimyo's wife?"

I blinked. "The Fire Lady? Of course. How could I forget?"

He nodded. "Did you know she was the one who sent us on that mission to get Tsunade?"

I gaped.

Naruto smiled slightly. "You were right, you know. Being nice to clients made them like us more." His eyes moved to stare at the ceiling. "After our mission, Sensei came and told us what happened to you and Lee. And he said we had to go to a meeting with the Daimyo's Wife. Jiraiya was there too. They wanted to talk to us separately, but…"

"But talking separately obviously hasn't been helping us," Sasuke cut in.

I furrowed my brows. "I don't understand. Did something else happen?"

"Kinda..." Naruto trailed off. "Ne, do you know what the Kyuubi is?"

I cocked my head to the side. "Never heard of- wait no, it was a kinda… folklore thing? They went over it briefly in one of my history books, it was like a metaphor for a natural disaster, right?"

"Not a metaphor," he said. He reached down and tugged his shirt up to reveal his stomach. It held a large spiral seal I'd never seen before. "Do you know what a jinchuuriki is?"

"… Not a metaphor?"

He continued as if I hadn't spoken. "A long time ago, there were biju, giant chakra monsters we called 'tailed beasts'. Some ninja villages learned how to seal them away into people, called jinchuuriki. That way, they'd be able to control their power. Konoha's biju, Kyuubi, broke out and nearly destroyed the village almost twelve years ago." His eyes moved over to meet mine. "Instead of sealing it back into the old jinchuuriki, they sealed it into me." He swallowed. "The old jinchuuriki was my mother, and she was dying. She was gonna let it die with her, but the Fourth Hokage said that since the Kyuubi would just come back anyway, and Konoha wouldn't be able to protect itself. So they decided to seal it into me, so I could- could protect everyone." He swallowed. "And the Fourth Hokage was my father. I just found out. They never told me." His voice was rough. "He was the Hokage, and they wanted me to use it to protect Konoha. And everyone knew I had it, and they hated me, and I didn't find out I had the Kyuubi until I got my headband. And I didn't find out why they did it or who my parents were until now."

My breath had turned into a strange clawing thing in my chest. I swallowed back the nausea. "You were the Hokage's son. Why would they hate you? Why didn't they take care of you?" I remembered his apartment; the warm, homey decorations. The single chair at his table, because he never expected anyone else to sit beside him. The plants and figurines and drawings, all scattered around to show a companion in every corner. The cute names he put on every possession, trying to form a barricade around the aching loneliness that seemed to linger in the very walls.

Why?

Naruto shook his head. "They didn't know that, just that I was the jinchuuriki. And they kept it a secret from all the kids too, everyone too young to remember. I guess they thought it would keep the other villages from finding out. But the kids knew their parents hated me, even if they didn't know why, so they hated me too." Next to him, Kakashi's dog gave a low groan. Naruto pat its head absently. "They blamed me for killing so many people, but nobody told them the Hokage was my father. The old man- the current Hokage- he wanted to keep that a secret, too. He thought I'd get assassinated." He smiled hollowly.

"Naruto..." I began quietly, but couldn't find what to say.

His smile changed a little, some of his usual warmth entering it. His voice drifted away from the frightening monotone. "That's why the Daimyo's Wife called us. She said all these secrets were stupid and were going to get us all killed. So I guess she talked Sensei and Jiraiya into it-"

"Sensei wanted to talk to us too," Sasuke cut in.

Naruto nodded. "Yeah, you're right. He and the pervy sage were still kinda scared of breaking the Hokage's rules though, but I think they were more scared of her." He gave a real grin this time, but it faltered as his eyes moved over to Sasuke.

I tore my eyes away from him to follow his gaze. "And you had to go with him, right? What did they have to say to you?" I wasn't sure I even wanted to know, but then again, that might have been what had gotten us into this whole mess.

Sasuke ran a hand through his hair. "They had the same idea you and Tsunade did. About Naruto or myself being a target, and how my brother was probably involved. I didn't think he would, but of course, why wouldn't he?" He slammed a fist against the floor. "Genjutsu. I should have known, it was right there... Those with strong Sharingan were always known to create incredible genjutsu."

I gaped. "Wait, the other guy Tsunade was talking about was your brother?"

He snorted humourlessly. "So if this Orochimaru guy is trying to get at the Kyuubi to hurt Konoha, and he started working with my brother to get rid of me, the last Uchiha left…" His eyes finally met mine. "Konoha always relied on us before. If I died, my brother would be the last one left with the skill, other than Kakashi."

The pieces slid further into place as he spoke. "So they probably weren't too worried about who they got. You, Naruto, Kakashi; all would have been perfect targets. I just happened to be in the middle."

"Not for long," Sasuke said, shaking his head. "Word is already spreading that Tsunade is interested in you. The Chunin at the gate were asking us about it when we were on our mission." He smiled mirthlessly. "So you're already a good target on your own."

"And then Kabuto-san- maybe it wasn't him, maybe somebody switched the scrolls," I said helplessly. "But someone was hoping to… I don't know, kill me? Seal me away? Teleport me? I don't know what it did." I wanted to curl into a ball, but couldn't with the dog and Naruto still sprawled over my legs.

I settled for snagging one of the blankets and draping it over my shoulders. "This is so messed up. I want Sensei," I murmured, not caring that I sounded childish.

"He'll be here," Naruto said. Even Sasuke grunted in agreement.

Because no matter what happened, how silly and flighty he could get, Kakashi was always there for us when we needed him.

And if there were ever a time we needed a sensei's help, it was now.

Chapter Text

Chapter 34 – Results, Part 2

We were right; Kakashi came back to us that night.

He was late, not appearing until midnight, with us still sat around the dying fire with growing circles under our eyes. But he arrived all the same.

I felt the brush of static chakra approaching the house before either of the boys and was surprised when I noticed the other chakra with him. Warm, sweet chakra that seemed to seep through you to linger in your bones. A rare chakra that didn't hold an elemental feeling. It reminded me of…

"Sensei and Inoichi-san are here!"

Sasuke frowned up at me, pushing himself swiftly from the floor. "Who?"

I had to hold myself back from darting out the door. "Ah, Ino's dad, he works in T&I and-"

In a heartbeat both he and Naruto were in front of me, yanking the door open. I pursed my lips. "And he's really nice!" I called after them.

Sensei and Inoichi were already walking up the path to the house, footfalls unusually loud to signal their approach. Sensei reached forward to ruffle both of the boys' hair, to their obvious annoyance. He peered up toward me.

"Sakura-chan." One of his dogs, the larger one, rushed up to rub its head eagerly against his legs, tongue lolling out. The smaller dog that had been guarding the outside sat next to me, stoic as a statue.

"Sensei," I greeted, my stomach beginning to churn again. "Do we have news?" The small dog moved just enough to give my hand a single, dignified lick.

Inoichi spoke up first. "We do. We're going to ask that you come with us to speak privately, Sakura-chan." His face held a soft expression, his eyebrows pulling very slightly inward. For the first time, I noticed that his chakra was not radiating naturally- it felt somehow charged with emotion and intent. It gave a supporting impression, as though the chakra itself was trying to steady me upright.

Ever distractible, even in the most vital of situations, I opened my mouth to ask how he did it when Naruto cut in.

"Not alone! We're not doing that anymore."

Sasuke looked back at me and nodded. "We hear everything together now. New team rule."

I looked between both their faces and nodded.

Sensei sighed. "I'm sure Sakura has already told you what happened, so you should understand that this-"

"Consider it a team-work exercise," Sasuke cut in.

Sensei deflated. "Well, we can't argue with that, can we, Yamanaka?"

Inoichi raised his eyebrows at him. "We absolutely can. The security implications of this incident reach far beyond what has occurred here. There's no good reason-"

"We believe Kabuto was a spy sent by the Hidden Sound village."

Inoichi scowled at him. "Which even Sakura doesn't necessarily need to know."

"It turns out, Tsunade specifically asked him not to visit you today; she was confused to hear about it but didn't think much of it at the time. The receptionist even had him signed into the building under a completely different name."

I blinked. "Who the hell is he and what does the Hidden Sound village have to do with this?"

Sasuke made a strangled sound. When I looked to him, he had the most apologetic expression I'd ever seen on him- actually, probably the only apologetic expression.

"We thought you knew. The ninja who attacked us had headbands from Otogakure- the Hidden Sound village."

I twisted my hands together, less in anxiety so much as thought. "So that's where Orochimaru is?"

Sasuke looked between Naruto and me and nodded. "Has to be, if we're putting everything together right. Which means my brother is likely still there, too." He crossed his arms. "When do we leave?"

Inoichi gaped. "We're not sending you out there. Having the three targets they seem the most desperate to harm step foot in their base of operations? Do you think we're idiots?"

Naruto scowled. "Exactly! If we're the three biggest targets then why weren't you gonna tell us what's going on? This is bullshit! The Fire Lady was right. Keeping all these secrets is what's gonna get people killed!"

"We weren't going to tell you to prevent you from doing something as foolish as this!" Inoichi snapped. "You are first-year genin! You're still young enough to think of yourselves as immortal! You've barely taken any missions, and you've not had enough experience to learn how to survive such a mission. Something on the scale of infiltrating another shinobi village- if that's what we decide to do- would be the work of a jounin team."

"Or ANBU," Kakashi agreed softly.

"Fine," I said sharply. Sasuke and Naruto gave me startled looks. "So tell me what happened to my parents."

Inoichi gave me a flummoxed look before regaining his footing. "Ah- we are… We are not sure yet. We will inform you if we get any news." Kakashi crossed his arms and looked away.

I gritted my teeth. "So what, exactly, did you come here to tell me? That my therapist gave me a trapped-scroll? I figured that out for myself, thank you." As much as I'd been trying to deny it, there was no ignoring the obvious.

Kakashi let out a breath. "Yes. We are fortunate in that, at least, he seemed so willing to blow his cover so soon after making contact with you." He furrowed his brows. "Which tells us that he had no information he cared to gain from you directly, and any harm that he's done was already considered finished. We're working through the roster of other ninja he's seen."

"How did he manage to infiltrate so far?" I asked. "He told me he was a chunin; wouldn't he have appeared in the exams under another village?"

Inoichi shook his head. "Not necessarily, no. He paperwork was entirely in order; he's had the most convincing fakes I've ever seen. The paper trail works back to his birth. For all we know, he may well have been born and raised in Konoha. The Sound Village was only recently founded- they only have infrequent contact with the other hidden villages, the oldest record we found was little over a decade ago." He frowned. "Of course, they may be much older, and merely staying out of the affairs of the lands outside themselves. Not all ninja villages have their sole income through running missions. We think they may be self-stable."

Kakashi nodded. "And if Orochimaru and Uchiha Itachi have indeed made a home there, it isn't beyond the realm of possibility that it is granting asylum other missing-nin. We have a contact in some underground circles who has agreed to try to find more ties." Inoichi glowered at him; this was probably more information we weren't meant to have.

"Where is the Sound Village anyway? I've never even heard of it before now," I said.

"Most Hidden Villages are exactly that, Hidden. We know the general area of most, and a few we are on good enough terms with to know the exact location. Otogakure is not one of them," Inoichi said.

"We've had conflicting reports," Kakashi added. "Either their information control is top-notch, or they have multiple outposts of unknown size." His eyes slid over to meet mine. "But nice try."

I scowled. "My parents, Sensei!"

His expression didn't waver. "We're working on it. I know it's not your style, but please rely on us a little. We know what we're doing."

My anxiety bubbled over into frustration and I whirled around, driving a kick into one of the large, decorative rocks that lined the walkway. My foot seemed to press into it like clay before the stone fractured and burst outward, littering the ground with tiny shards.

I didn't feel any better.

"Tell me when you know whether my parents are dead or not," I shot at them, storming back into the house. I knew even as I said it that it wasn't fair, but I was past caring. This new life was the first time I'd had the opportunity to not be helpless, and somehow, it kept happening time and time again.

So very much outside of my control, and yet, somehow, my fault.

I collapsed back in front of the fire, my hands curled into fists. "Dammit," I muttered, teeth clenched and eyes burning. "Godverdomme!"

It was a long while before Sasuke and Naruto re-entered the house, by which time I hadn't so much calmed down as run out of energy. Without a word, they began rolling out futons.

"Anything else?" I finally asked.

"Nothing useful," Sasuke said, dropping my bag beside me. Sensei must have retrieved it from my house; I could see Ten-Ten's scroll peeking through the top. "The Sound Village will be banned from the upcoming Chunin exams, but that's about it. We're hoping Sensei will be more talkative when Inoichi isn't around." He rubbed at an eye. "Get some sleep. We'll figure something out in the morning." He walked over to the couch and collapsed on it, barely pausing to draw a blanket over himself. Naruto took the futon closest the door and was snoring within seconds.

For long minutes I sat quietly between the tide of their chakra, the soft warm thrum of Sasuke's and the cool flow of Naruto's, listening to the sounds of their breathing steady and even out, the fire still crackling before me.

I crawled onto the futon in the middle of the room and continued concentrating on their chakra, trying not to let my mind wander. Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.


It may have been hours or only minutes before my eyes opened again. My sleeping mind, free of the iron control I'd been pushing over it, had become a forest of thousands of sprouting thoughts, all twisting their own way.

One of them was stronger than the others, and I grasped it with both hands, so concentrated on the idea that my mind thrust its way out of sleep.

And so there I was, sitting quietly in Sasuke's kitchen, several books arrayed around me and rapidly scrawling into a notebook. I was so focused on my thoughts that I didn't even sense Sasuke until he pulled out the chair beside me.

I gave him a look askance.

"I woke up in a cold sweat," Sasuke admitted, crossing his arms. "It doesn't feel right, as a ninja, to leave nobody on watch when there's an obvious danger." He raised his eyes to meet mine. "And you?"

"I woke up in a cold sweat, too." I wrung my hands in agitation. "I just realised molecular genetics and chakra might behave similarly as self-regulatory systems."

He was silent a moment, before: "We're both very different people."

"Not really," I shrugged, mind still whirring as I flipped through my copy of Chakra: Form and Function. Eventually, I found the chart I was looking for. "Anyway, do you happen to own a bulletin board, multicoloured push pins, and string?"

Sasuke ran a hand over his face, shoving his chair back. "I'm going back to sleep. Wake us up if anything extreme happens."

"Sure." I began rummaging around in my bag for another notebook.

He walked toward the door before pausing. "Conclusions about chakra do not count as 'extreme'."

"Goodnight, Sasuke."

Okay, so Chakra is information that hasn't been processed yet. What else is similar to this? DNA. Forget my earlier ideas- forget computers, forget neurons- boo, blah, boring. No, DNA fits much better.

Ninety-five percent of DNA doesn't create proteins until it gets an outside signal, like hormones, right? And even those strands can be cut and combined in different ways, depending on what particular enzymes are around.

Which sounds an awful lot like Chakra. What changes what Chakra does?

Shape. Makeup. Intent. Container. Position.

Which is something a ninja can influence, but what does the environment do?

Chakra is already whirring in the background of a normal human body, after all- even plant bodies. What is normally sending cues to the chakra to tell it how to behave? What role does chakra play in day-to-day living?

The memory of healing Lee, the chakra helping to send out signals throughout his body's cells.

What if Chakra is both the signal and the signalled?

My mind whirred faster.

Checks and balances. Hormone A is activated, causing more production of Chakra A which performs Function B. Chakra B notices too much production of Chakra A, so it influences Hormone B…

Okay, so maybe Neurons weren't such a shit example, after all. But still. It's wonderfully, deliciously multi-purpose. With so, so much room for different functions and expression.

And Sasuke even told me in the beginning that the reason we form hand-seals is because they mirror the shape chakra makes as it's formed in the body. So by focusing our intent, we must be signalling to our body what chakra needs to be produced... which would be similar to how the amino acids in DNA influence protein shape. Proteins do different things and fit in different places depending on their shape.

And if something goes wrong and there's a mutation in the gene, the effect goes awry.

Like exploding foot technique, if you're not focusing your chakra correctly.

Or ripping open a man, instead of healing him.

Like changing a full system, instead of concentrating on healing the sub-systems that you should be working on.

And all living things will have DNA or RNA- So perhaps where there's DNA or RNA, chakra follows.

But Sensei told me non-living things have chakra as well, even if it's less. Why would a rock- Oh, duh.

The same way a rock can be warm on a sunny day, dumbass. You've literally read about how putting chakra into a kunai can linger in its molecular structures.

I stared down at my blank notebook. "I should be writing this down."

I did so and beamed at what I'd written. Then grimaced.

"Then why," I muttered. "Why and where the hell do elements come in?!"

Is it like how there are twenty variants of amino acids? But why would they display as elements? Is this something ninja just decided because it was the first thing they thought to use chakra for-

No, very bad. Don't keep assuming everyone else is a fool. Cut the hubris, that's how you die.

Not to mention, when I feel chakra, it always has some sort of elemental tone, whether loud or quiet. Even if other ninja might feel different overall, they would similarly have that elemental undertone.

There were very few exceptions to this, and even chakras like Inoichi's may still have an underlying element to it. I hadn't been around him often enough to become familiar with his chakra signature.

What function of the universe decided on those very human-sounding categories?

Think bloodline abilities. My chakra nature is clearly toward water and earth. The first Hokage had the same, but he skillfully learned to mix them and form Wood Release.

It was eerily similar to how enzymes might cut and paste a strain of DNA to make a particular protein, but only under certain circumstances.

But still, why elements?

"Maybe," I said to myself hesitantly. "I should ask someone."

But it's not just elements. Other strange things are happening. Like, for example, giant chakra monsters. Like the Kyuubi.

Not only that, but souls exist as well. If souls exist, there's no way chakra isn't involved.

I groaned. Why is chakra so weird? I recalled some thoughts I had previously and flipped back my notebook to the page in question. It read:

'Is chakra some quantum bullshit?'

I really, really hoped not. I hadn't been lying to Ten-Ten; while I wasn't exactly bad with maths, it was hardly my strongest subject. And weird reductionistic physics not only included a lot of maths, but it was unlikely the ninja world had any books on the matter...

I paused. But if my memories are a construct made by Orochimaru, then I have to assume everything I know about the world is something he already knows.

Scooting my chair back slightly, I rubbed my palms over my eyes. I was trying not to think about him, about my parents, trying to focus on something I might have some modicum of control over- but unfortunately, that just wasn't how brains worked.

Funny how I feel like I'll have better luck figuring out the true nature of the universe than finding out what happened to my parents.

The saddest part was if Orochimaru's mind did work similar to mine- if my personality really was supposed to be based on his- then he was the person most likely to have the answers to my questions.

What a fun meeting that would be. "Say, Orochimaru, I know you want to murder me and stuff, but would you mind letting me know what's going on with my parents and explaining to me what chakra is? Thanks."

I noticed the sky was beginning to lighten. I glanced down at the heavily scrawled chaos of my notes, filled with many lines, arrows, and question marks.

I snapped it closed and shoved my work to the other side of the table. I got up and walked through the other side of the kitchen into a small study filled with bookshelves; I was sure Sasuke wouldn't mind if I borrowed an atlas.

I'd just have to track down Tsunade tomorrow to ask my questions; getting answers out of her, at least, wasn't like pulling teeth. She'd not mind teaching me something so fundamental, and we were supposed to be meeting that evening anyway.

Before that, of course, I'd have to see the Hokage.

I set the atlas down on the kitchen table, as well as a few other map scrolls. The different dates of publication were going to be vital.

Now, what territories have shifted recently, and what seems like a strategic place for Konoha missing-nin to gather?

It was several hours before the boys awoke again, and when they did, I had the beginnings of a plan.