Chapter 5: Team
'mono no aware'
a sensitivity toward things;
that is at the root of life
A roar echoes in the silent forest. The dirt itself seems to come alive, grains of rock turning like sunflowers toward the sun. A violent burst of chakra blooms and makes the air heavy with potential; in the distance, a shadow rises formed like man from the dust, with breath of not life but death inhabiting its bones.
Quick, they slide through the trees above unknowing and unsuspecting combatants. Enemy children point and chatter beneath them curiously, unaware of certain death passing over their heads—but they are fortunate. The team has no thoughts to spare for the weedlings.
His hand finds his sword. His chakra flexes in his veins, eager, ready. He recalls: his brother's smile the morning before, full of unapologetic arrogance, ignorant of the danger he walked toward so willingly. Fifteen, and just old enough to be eagerly spreading his own wings, yet young enough to be mistakenly convinced of his own invincibility.
He is not worried.
Two minutes, Sparrow signals from the leading point position, veins bulging under his mask.
Hearing the far-off roar, Kankuro flinches in his seat. His hand jerks, adding a sharp peak to the middle of his signature.
"Temari," he says, his voice hushed so that the chuunin outside the door will not hear him. "Sister, it's gone wrong. How did it go wrong? Why is this happening?" He can hear his voice rise and break with the weight of held-back tears. "We shouldn't have left. We should have—we should have found a way. To control him. No, this shouldn't have happened. Why—
"Shut your damn mouth," she snaps back in a hiss, for the third time since they left the boundaries of the forest to the sound of two gongs. A Konoha nin had met them at the boundary armed with a considering gaze; four days in, few of the remaining competitors are willingly surrendering by leaving the arena.
She is sure they are watching them, and that is just one worry to add to a lengthy anthology.
"Temari, what are we going to do?" His heart is in his throat, along with the nutrient bar he had for lunch. It is beating, pumping in his neck, threatening to jump out.
Everything is wrong.
"Shut up!" Temari lashes out, and Kankuro hears the same desperation that lives in him echoing in his sister's voice. His calm, collected older sister, who always had a plan to steal the cake from the kitchen, to rope the other kids into obeying, to handle their dad—his sister is trembling before him, elbows knocking into the table, breath unsteady and heavy.
"Is there a problem in here?" The chuunin asks from the doorway.
"No," Temari says, her voice flat. "There are no problems. I'm done with these forms."
Kankuro has never been able to catch his sister in a lie, but he knows she is lying now.
Sakura sees the scene in fragments, swelling to the beat of her blood and the pound of her feet. Hinata, veins bulging, hands directing a slowly flickering chakra shield over Choji, who is carrying an unconscious Shino on his back. Shino's face is tinged green, and his body is wracked with slight tremors—chakra exhaustion, and quite severe, Sakura notes with a rush of relief. Relief, because it is not fatal.
Ino, beautifully vivacious Ino, is lying too still on the ground, blood dripping from the side of her mouth, face slack. Another footstep, her breath catching, Sakura hopes hopes hopes that it is Yamanaka backlash. Kiba, in front of his teammate, desperate chakra-driven whirling into a claw.
And every blink interlaced with the pain of sand, every scene pointing to the monster. Naruto's voice floats over on the wind, almost reverent, almost despairing:
The One-Tailed Beast.
Over the rush of the wind in her ears, Sakura hears his high-pitched, maniacal laughter. While batting unconcernedly at Kiba, he looks over at them and smiles. It is all teeth and not one iota of comfort.
"Plan," Sakura demands in a harsh escape of air.
For once, it is not Shikamaru who answers. He has caught up, his footsteps veering toward his team members. His mouth is a drawn stress line, his eyebrows furrowed. He looks young, old, and lost.
"Target the jinchuuriki," Naruto says into the silence, voice pitched low, something like commiseration shadowing his words.
Sasuke's response is quick, as if he has expected this direction of thought. "Who," he asks.
"Suna, male," Naruto responds, "Redheaded and tattooed on his forehead. He'll be," he pauses and grimaces, "In the body somewhere, probably." His eyes dart toward Sakura.
It is not unknown among the shinobi populace that the Yondaime's son is the jinchuuriki of the Nine-Tailed Fox. Despite some lingering judgment and apprehension, nobody speaks of it, not even in private where the walls should not have ears. The Yondaime made his stance on the laws concerning the jinchuuriki exceedingly clear with the first and only vocal dissenters. If there are any more people who would like nothing better than to stone Uzumaki Naruto, they are at least smart enough not to voice those opinions.
Sakura does not acknowledge Naruto's slight discomfort.
"Pincer and illusion approach," she signs with a whistle instead, and both her teammates acknowledge. "Go to your team, Shikamaru," she says.
He doesn't look at her as he splits off from them, speeding toward Akamaru. They both know that his chakra reserves are not sufficient to restrain something of this size.
Their conversation has taken a matter of seconds, and it is only seconds more before they are close enough that the very density of sand in the air has thickened to the point where chakra must be used for every step. Hands held behind her in subtle half-signs for concentration, Sakura weaves the layers of an area-effect genjutsu showing herself breaking off to tend to Ino.
It is where she would like to be, but there are other tasks at hand.
Approaching angled from two sides, Naruto and Sasuke bring out their kill shots. Naruto, right hand wreathed in a perfect blue Rasengan; Sasuke, a spear of white-blue fire crackling in his left hand.
Shukaku is still laughing, his eyes rolling skyward. His voice, booming out over the entire arena, sounds strangely hollow and crazed. "Ore-sama will deign to play with you!"
Faster than either of her teammates and hidden under a perfectly woven layer of illusory chakra, Sakura launches off a tree and lands with chakra-padded softness against the side of the One-Tailed's torso. She heads immediately toward the concentration of chakra near his head with the speed honed by sprints up the side of a mountain and tuned by the addition of chakra.
She feels a shift in the sands beneath her, the roar of released chakra, and a horrifying crack; a glance that she cannot afford to spare reveals Naruto disappearing into a ball of pure attack chakra and Sasuke pinned by talon and claw to a tree trunk. Shukaku's laughter is ever echoing in her ears, and protect them at all costs protect, protect, the Hokage's words. She is a layer of gauze, but enough—A burst of chakra powers her even faster, faster than she's ever gone, sprinting up the mountain that is Shukaku's body, homing in toward the mass of chakra within that must be the jinchuuriki.
Shukaku's laughter pauses, a surprised and pleased tone breaking out of him as he turns his attention inwards. "Trying to trick Ore-sama?" He sounds amused and not at all concerned, laughter rising again.
A giant paw reaches up toward her—Sakura forms the wonderful terrible green chakra in her hand as she reaches the half-buried boy—the ground beneath her rumbles in laughter. There is fire branded in her back, sands of grain writhing beneath her skin, digging furrows and trenches into fabric and muscle.
A thick layer of sand forms beneath her fingertips and Shukaku howls in laughter and the words Ore-sama's perfect defense don't quite register in her mind as her brows knit. The chakra travels through the barrier, weakened but not entirely gone, and the redheaded boy opens his eyes, blood trickling from his orifices. He coughs once, twice, and then collapses forward. A defense indeed, to turn her touch-transmitted Zangbao into this.
Sakura feels her lips tilt up as the world collapses around her to the music of Shukaku's shrieks and falling sand.
Naruto explained the Rasengan to Sakura one Monday afternoon, and it is an encounter he might never forget.
The sky is steel grey, forged with blue; there is the acrid taste of rain on every breath. Sakura is bent over Sasuke's hand, green light running over the searing burn from a fire held too close, too long.
He has outlined the concept many times before to Sasuke, who has a long-suffering expression on his face as he gesticulates while trying to put into words the "swirling fast chakra in circles in different directions so they hold each other together kinda like when a wind gets stuck between two buildings and swirls a bunch of leaves—no wait, that's not right…"
Finally, he holds out his hand, contorting his face in concentration. The Rasengan forms, a perfect blue sphere that, as always, reminds Naruto of his father's eyes when he is looking straight at him (not at anybody else, not at the guards or the other shinobi or his mom's pictures on the mantle, but just at him). He smiles into it, controlled chaos on his palm, and turns to Sakura. "See?"
She, half-smiling, puts down Sasuke's healed hand. "It sounds like some of the chakra control exercises, to be honest."
"It's way cooler that those," Naruto protests, grimacing. Chakra control exercises are not awesome. Chakra control exercises long afternoons smelling the distinct aroma of chakra-burnt leaves as leaf after leaf burns off from his forehead in flames. Rasengan is his father's smile when he finally forms it in his hand.
When he shakes himself from his thoughts, he sees his favorite expression on Sasuke—that kind of fishlike gaping astonishment he has, occasionally, when somebody breaks his rigid glass ceilings of possibility. And, more improbably, he sees Sakura, frowning at a faint bluish ball in her hand. It wavers and then solidifies. And then she holds the pint-sized Rasengan in her hand to the ground, driving it in.
Naruto thought he was accustomed enough to the impossible being done, and he was wrong.
Her hand comes back up a normal Sakura hand (as normal as such a hand can be when Naruto has seen her touch people and heal them or knock them out), but Naruto can't stop staring at it. It is small, and slightly calloused, and remarkably deceptive.
"No," he breathes. And then, trying to restore equilibrium and not put on a fish face himself, he takes a stab at humor. "Sakura! I can't tell you about my super special secret moves if you do stuff like that."
She is panting lightly, her hand slightly trembling, her face a little pale. "Don't worry, Naruto," she says. "I would probably keel over if I tried to use that in a fight. That is an insane amount of chakra."
It's true that Sakura's version of the Rasengan is small, and a little too faint, and takes a lot out of her. But there is also something ridiculously prodigious in her control and direction of the chakra in her hand in a form that took Naruto the tutelage of his father and several long weeks to learn.
They make a mess out of the clearing that day, leaving a trail of pockmarks in the ground. Sasuke shows them Lanxing, the blue ball of delayed explosive fire that his brother showed him. Sakura shows them a technique that looks like a string of chakra and transfers medical jutsu across a distance. She "picked it up from a mentor in the hospital," and if it were not for the flash of lonely distance in her eyes, Naruto definitely would have gotten to the bottom of that vague statement.
As they wreak havoc, he keeps coming back to Sakura, with the baby Rasengan in her hand. Sakura who, despite her hard shell and penchant for keeping herself a mystery, is water at heart—fluid, accepting, wanting. Always trying so hard.
He keeps wondering what his teammate would be like if she had somebody—somebody who would do things like teach her a Rasengan or Lanxing—somebody to rely on, somebody to belong to. How much more formidable would she be? How much more improbable and exceptional would she be?
But then again, he thinks, watching her manipulate her barely visible chakra strings, maybe it was the very lack of this that made her into who she is.
Maybe Sakura is not the vine that grows best with a tree, but the tree that finds strength in weathering the storm.
Or, perhaps, he thinks, watching Sasuke laugh while trying to talk her through manipulating explosive chakra down that chakra string, perhaps even trees need a grove to call home. Maybe she is with them now, part of Team 7, and stronger for it.
Most severe is Naruto, with third-degree chakra burns every inch of exposed skin. He waves Sakura's hand off as, before her eyes, his skin knits back up together in bursts of reddish-purple chakra. He doesn't meet her eyes, but if he had, he would have seen nothing but detached interest and perhaps a bit of unwanted pain.
Sakura has seen such miraculous regeneration before, after all.
Sasuke's hand is littered with heat burns and his throat bruised. Ino wakes up by herself, bandaged up by her teammates, with a splitting migraine, and the unconscious Shino is carefully laid at the center of the group to recuperate.
By the end of it all, Sakura turns and finds Naruto inexplicably close to the tied-up Suna nin. He is staring at his unconscious fellow jinchuuriki with an expression as if he has countless things to say and, for once, no words with which to say them. To Sakura, the space of silence that goes unnoticed among the other teens is more tellingly poignant than any words she could possibly overhear. There is a camaraderie there, a kind of empathetic commiseration that makes her turn her eyes away, feeling as if she has looked on something private.
The rapidly approaching veiled chakra signatures make her alert, but the twinge in the ink on her arm lets her relax again. She is, perhaps, the only person not surprised when the team of ANBU touches down in the clearing.
"We'll take the jinchuuriki," one of them, female, says to the group as a whole. Sakura sees Kiba sag, as if in relief that there is no longer any chance of contention.
There is a pause, and then Naruto says quietly but firmly, "His name is Gaara." Several of the masked faces visibly shift to consider him, and after moment's consideration, he adds with all the authority of a boy who from childhood has known masked soldiers, "And I want to talk to him before you take him."
The heads swivel around as if seeking direction, and after a beat, the one that stands closest to them says, "Quickly."
A different ANBU walks over to Gaara and injects a bolt of medical chakra—crude, Sakura notes, but effective in waking the boy up. Her attention diverts from Naruto's quiet speaking toward what looks to be the leader of the team.
Familiar, she thinks, and then she knows. Flashes of black fire, strands of silver hair falling to the floor—the monster under her bed with the scroll that she received her twelfth birthday and every awkward but precious pat of encouragement when nobody believed in her—
The ANBU with whom she killed her mentor walks toward them. Sasuke, she notes with not-quite-idle curiosity, is turning red beside her. Her own pulse is raging against her skin.
And the voice that echoes out from behind the mask carries, perhaps, just the slightest tinge of approval: "Work to double the sprints. You are still too slow."
"What?" Sasuke asks, his brows puckered, but Sakura knows immediately that the statement was directed at her. Knows not just because of the words, but because of the two Uchiha policeman in the street that sunny day in the restaurant with Hana, the black fire burning at the edges of the cut, the spinning pinwheel eyes behind the mask. Knows because his attention and his very chakra is directed at her. She jerks her head down in a quick but respectful nod that nearly escapes all the Genin's attention, but for Sasuke, who turns to her and repeats, voice rising in both pitch and incredulity, "What?"
And while the ANBU team carries a docile Gaara off, while Sasuke grabs her shoulder to turn her attention to him, Sakura connects a couple of horrifying dots to a name familiar to all shinobi and all bingo books.
Uchiha Itachi of the Sharingan, the heir and pinnacle of the Uchiha clan, Konoha's Bloodless Three Thousand Crows.
"Taken down by a bunch of children?" The voice breaks off into a snarl. "That useless fool." Silence reigns for a pause, and then, "No matter. We will proceed without him. Yes, that is the best way."
The end, when it comes, is anticlimactic. One gong rings, and Sakura sees more than half the group tense or startle at the sound. Not a minute goes by before another flash lights up the sky; after a couple more minutes, two more booms come in quick succession. She meets Shikamaru's grave eyes from across the clearing; they've come to the same conclusion. Groups thrown out of the arena always come all at once; these are dead, and gone down with a fight.
It has been one day since the attack, and though everybody is conscious and functioning now, there is a wariness among them that did not exist before. Their group is gathered closer; their movements are smoother and sharper. Nobody suggests splitting the group again to whittle down the numbers in the arena. The game is no longer a fun game, the forest no longer a backyard playground in which they are heirs and heiresses, kings and queens. They gather, grim and watchful eyes far older than just days ago.
Death became real to them that day.
She looks over to where Naruto sits, unnaturally still, in his vigil over the camp perimeter. Earlier, she had spoken to him as privately as she could in the newly cautious and wary atmosphere.
He'd said, "The only real demons in this world are people, Sakura."
He'd said, "I believe he can be more than what he thinks he has to be."
"Shit," he says now, rising from his crouch on the branch, "That is a really large bomb." They all look up to the sky as the shadow sweeps over them, to the paper-white winged clay creation above.
"He's not going to blow it," Sasuke reasons, "He's standing on it."
"What if it's a trick," Choji mutters, hunching forward, shoulders stiff. His hands are shaking.
They all flinch at the lightworks that erupt in the sky, though all it turns out to be are some small firecracker bombs set off close to the large bird that Deidara is standing on. His laughter echoes over the distance.
"Alright, kiddos," He yells, chakra projection carrying his voice clear to where they are, "It's done, yeah. Get back to the tents."
They come out of the forest in waves, some of them still the children that walked into the trees, and some of them no longer quite as young as before. Among the white tents, Tsunade scribbles on a sheet of paper and hands it to the dark-haired medic standing beside her. It is an IOU.
They do not yet know what is coming.
The twelve 'finalists' that gather are a ragged group. Three of those final twelve places are taken up by their team, now a well-oiled machine of nine tried and found true by fire. Six other very young Konoha genin who seem to have made their own large team take up another two places. Two genin from Iwa, with one member of their team conspicuously absent, take another place. Four are gathered from Sound, though not together; one team of three and one lone genin. Two genin from Kumo, each from a different team, claim two more spots, and the remaining two are lone genin from Kiri and from Kusa.
There is a celebratory tone in the air, but for their group of nine, which remains quietly watchful and wary. None of the other genin have come into contact with a rampaging Tailed Beast, after all.
The girl wearing the Kiri headband looks at them, sneers, and spits on the ground. "Weaklings that can't survive by themselves," she taunts.
"Just smarter than you," a Hyuuga girl from the other Konoha group parries, "Which isn't saying much."
As the tension reaches a boiling point, Sasori's soundless but emphatic appearance silences the crowd. His eyes flick over them slowly and disinterestedly, as his tail makes an abrupt gesture to the right.
"Draw your numbers," he says.
Though they all proceed obediently, one of the Kumo genin asks in a defiant but meek tone, "What is this for?"
In response, Sasori's tail flicks up, pointing toward them, glinting with the sheen of poison. "Some of you are all brawns and no brain," he hisses in remark. Then, "For the exhibition matches in two weeks. The Exams need winners."
The plurality of the last word is not lost on anybody.
As the 'random' match pairings are announced, Sakura notes with amusement that none of the opponents are from the same village. Team 7 is facing the lone genin from Sound; many of the other Konoha teams are also up against single participants.
"This won't be much of an exhibition," Sasuke says. Some of the surrounding genin are turning to stare at him, and Sakura knows without looking that his smile is sharpness and a purely predatory knife edge, honed by hours of continuous tension. "It'll be over in two rounds, since there will only be Konoha nin left."
But in reality, the exhibition matches never even start.
In the sixteenth year of Namikaze Minato's Hokageship, prior to the third stage of the International Chuunin Exams, Konoha shuts down its borders and declares all foreign nationals within its walls to be temporary detainees. Prisoners of war.
Minutes after the release of this news and the ANBU-enforced apprehension of said detainees, who are mostly genin teams and their associated jonin, rumors spring up among the populace concerning the warmongering actions of other nations. Iwa's unnatural presence in this Exam is noted, and the Kumo contingent's belligerent activities are spoken of. The rate of death in this year's Exams, higher than ever before, is cited often. And, most compelling of all, eight of the major clans have released news of a Tailed Beast attack directed at Konoha's own clan children during the Exam.
Those in the know recognize it as a masterfully executed maneuver as Konoha's citizens begin to pick up arms. It's a grassroots movement to blow the bellows of war. Those in the know also know that the truth, and its relevance, is written by the victors.
There is a violence present in the potential of the day; there is ozone in the air that was not there previously. There is war, hovering, red like fresh-spilled blood yet to come on the horizon.
At dawn on the day before the Declaration, Sakura arrives in the reception area outside the Hokage's office. There are many shinobi passing through, and she is flagged down by one of several black-clad nin.
"Sakura Haruno, 7:06am" he verifies, and she nods and accepts the mission scroll from him.
At home, she unrolls it and reads it. A simple two lines above the Hokage's seal: Your mission is complete. And, Report to 119 Blaze Road at 0600 tomorrow for next assignment.
With a shadow of excitement, and an echo of remembered pain from the ink on her arm, she recognizes the address.
The day before the Declaration, Sakura spends her morning like any other. Sasuke and Naruto are set on practicing combinations for the matches despite Kakashi's extremely casual attitude. During lunchtime, Kakashi snags the last portion of the fried rice Sakura has brought.
When Naruto complains loudly, he curves his visible eye in a smile and says, "Well, I could hardly pass up what might be my last Sakura-made meal, could I?" Sasuke and Naruto act offended by what they assume to be rather macabre humor, but Sakura knows what Kakashi is really saying.
"I've received notice of another assignment," she says. It is half an admission of something they have long suspected, and yet Naruto and Sasuke turn astonished eyes on her. Suddenly her mouth is desert dry, her heart running heavily. "I," she starts, and then finds no words with which to continue.
In the warmth of the summer sun, smelling not antimicrobial cleaning solution but fried rice and fresh grass and wind, Sakura has perhaps never been more lost and yet at home. She knows, then, that these three people are to her what nobody else is. Once, she watched people like them from the mission counter and thought that they were of different worlds. They shone with the glint of history's favor and birth-gifted advantages. They were the ones who would live to be legends, heroes in battle tales, records in bingo books with capitalized nicknames, unlike little medic girls working in the white operating rooms and stealing lives in the sly night. She once compared herself to legends like Copycat Kakashi and only knew herself to be fragile. They were the heroes of legend, and she was part of the unnamed expendable masses.
Instead, it turned out that they are as much flesh and blood and darkness as she. Or perhaps, rather, she is made of the same light as they.
"Even when I'm not around as often," she says, finally, "I hope you'll still consider me part of this family."
Under the quiet lights of early evening, the city is brimming with an uncontainable energy that is half-fear and half-excitement. War is coming, Konoha knows, and she believes herself to be ready and capable of it.
The target of war is yet unclear, but the word among the populace is that Sound, Iwa, and Suna have formed a three-way alliance against Konoha. The Kiri shinobi, who are still free to roam the streets, generally agree that their Kage is either currently or will be soon participating in talks with Konoha. The Kumo shinobi, who are much more heavily watched, are generally spitting in rage and hatred against anybody and everybody, including other Kumo shinobi.
Sakura watches two of them snarl at each other like cats in the rain for a couple minutes, unwilling to admit to herself that she is delaying her decision. She is standing in front of the restaurant, under gauzy yellowed lights, where Sasuke and Naruto have planned to eat. They are probably somewhere within its walls.
She has not missed a single Friday night dinner, but she is no longer so sure it is her place.
The hand that lands on her shoulder is warm and startling; she is so lost in her thoughts that Sasuke manages to sneak up on her. She feels his amusement at even her aborted startled movement. He's proud of shocking her, the git.
They are both standing behind her, and she turns around to face them and the heavy silence. But Naruto smiles, and it breaks across his face brighter than the restaurant lights. In that moment they are just friends meeting by chance, two fifteen year old adults and one sixteen year old killer, wreathed in the aroma of good food and pleasant company.
"Well?" He says, "Are we going to stand here all night or are we going to go in? I'm hungry."
Sitting around nearly empty dinner plates that night, Sasuke tells her, "Drop by the team trainings whenever you have time."
"Yeah, don't slack off," Naruto adds with a chortle. "And if you ever don't show up on a Friday dinner without a warning you'd better be dead. And you'd better be coming to my Team 7 birthday lunch Sunday."
Sakura turns their words over again and again in her head. They're not sweet statements, but they're amazing to her. It took Kabuto one year and three months to begin to introduce her as his student. It has taken these boys—her boys—a little under two months to accept her into their team.
Sakura knows a lot of things that she is not, anymore. She is no longer daughter, nor student, nor niece, nor protégé. Each one is a loss, an unforgotten wound that would perhaps never fully close.
But she also is; she is shinobi, and friend, and now, team member. She is a part of Team 7.
It means more to her than she had wanted to admit.
Sakura gives herself a full hour after her morning practice rituals to prepare herself for the assignment meeting. She cools down after the last of the routines, the sprints up the Hokage mountain, and stretches. She takes a nice, long shower and opens a new bar of scentless soap. She has an omelet complete with veggies for breakfast.
But perhaps nothing could have prepared her to arrive at the doors and be greeted by an all too familiar smile.
Lanxing: (蓝星) lit. "blue star," Romanized from Chinese, my language of choice. I will stick to canon when I can, and will give anything new a Chinese name.
Zangbao: (脏爆) characters involved in the words for "organ" and "explosion"
To my patient, wonderful, and dear reader:
My very sincere thanks to the friends who have left reviews and PMs. I have read through every single one so many times—each word you leave is indescribably precious to me. It is because of these notes that I continued to write; because of the readers that I feel I have come to know through the words you leave.
I'll be very honest with you, because though honesty is vulnerability, such is the way that steel is forged ;) It was very difficult for me to write and post this chapter. Because of unavoidable events this year, I have not put metaphorical pen to paper for months on end. As a result, I am insecure and afraid of not achieving the standards I want for this story. More than that, I am afraid of disappointing you.