A/N: This chapter is very late for two reasons. One was that my work schedule sucked and robbed me of all creative writing time. That's been remedied, I'm currently out a job. So lots more writing time, and money anxiety-Yay! The other reason is because I got caught up on a lot of timeline issues within the story. It's unclear how much time passes from the Pain attack until the start of the war. And it felt like a lot was happening too quickly, but then others were nebulously slow and the pacing felt rough. So, somethings are different from canon in here timeline-wise, which I'll go over in the end note. Full disclosure, it's not my favorite chapter, and definitely feels more transitional...I don't know if that was avoidable. I'm sorry if this is not quite up to the quality of story you were hoping for after such a long break, but again, I have no idea how I would have avoided that. I do have actual plans for the war arc so, that should be better.

"Sakura's thoughts..."

"Inner Sakura..."


Standard disclaimers apply. Trigger warning for implied/referenced sexual abuse.

Everything around Sakura was dark. No matter what direction she turned, there was nothing. The darkness echoed around her, like a cave or a cavern.

"I'm a danger to you right now. Don't come find me again. When I'm safe, I'll find you." There was no mistaking that deep, soft, voice. Even with the distortion brought on by the emptiness she stood in.

"Sasuke-kun?" Sakura whirled around, but still couldn't see him, and the echoing space made it hard to pinpoint where the voice was coming from. The void pressed around her, as she began to move forward towards nothing, just in the hopes that something would happen.

"Don't come find me. When it's safe I'll come find you." Sasuke's voice repeated.

Sakura propelled herself forward through the nothingness. "Sasuke-kun!" She called, her voice echoing just as his did. "It's safe, damnit! Come find me now!" But even as she said it, a part of her wondered. Was Konoha safe for Sasuke? Danzo had ordered the death of all the Uchiha for some reason. Their friends had decided the only course of action available to them was to murder Sasuke. A sentiment that Danzo had approved. He was dead now, but…did that make Konoha any safer for Sasuke?

Ahead of her she saw a thin line of light, and belined towards it. "Sasuke-kun?" She called but received no reply. As she neared the line of light, it grew wider and wider, until it was the width of a doorway.

Sakura ran through it, hoping Sasuke was on the other end, but slowed to a stop as her eyes adjusted to the change of scenery. She was standing on the dock of what she instinctively knew was Tazuna's house, despite the structure looking nothing like the old man's house. Dreams were strange like that. The light source seemed to be coming from a very bright, abnormally close, full moon. Water pulsed against the dock in a soothing rhythm, one that felt like breathing. In fact…it didn't just feel like breathing, she was almost certain the water's rhythm matched her own inhales and exhales. Just like the chakra control meditation Tsunade had taught her so long ago.

"Haruno Sakura!"

She whipped around to see her mother standing in front of Tazuna's house at the other end of the dock, her hands on her hips and face stern.

"What the hell were you thinking taking a risk like that?!"

"I…wasn't really…it seemed like—" like what? Certainly not a good idea. But…it was the only idea she had at the time. It seemed like there were no other options. "It was all I could think to do…so much was going wrong and…"

Mebuki let out a long sigh. "You never did understand that when you're doing enough, you don't need to do more."

"I…didn't think it would be a risk. I thought he'd listen to me."

"But you were planning a mutual death if he didn't. You'd kill him and die in the process. A part of you was preparing for that."

"I…yeah. I was." There was no point in lying to herself. And her mom had always been able to see through her lies more than anyone else.

"Sakura-chan…I know how hard this is for you to grasp. Hokage-sama's said it before, Naruto's said it, Sasuke's said it…your life means so much more than you give it credit for. You matter to far more people than you realize. And I'm not just talking about your patience or other medics, who are relying on you. Your life has meant a great deal to many, and your death would shatter everyone you've come into contact with. Hokage-sama, Sasuke, Naruto, Kakashi, Ino, Shikamaru, Hinata—all your friends of course. But others too. Gaara, Ageha, Shizune, Ameno, Kazuma and Hatori…Everyone you have met, has been better for knowing you. And they will all feel it if you were to die. You should know this from me, but death doesn't hurt those who die, it hurts the ones they leave behind."

Sakura stood stone silent, taking in her mother's words.

"She's right dearie. I already told you, you shouldn't be throwing your life away for someone underserving." Lady Chiyo appeared next to her mother, and though the appearance was sudden, in dream fashion, Sakura somehow felt like the old woman had been there the whole time—that she was somehow aware of Chiyo's presence despite this being her first and sudden appearance.

"He is deserving." Sakura finally managed to make herself say.

"He may be. Or he may not. Only you can determine that. But if you've made that determination for yourself, then it shouldn't be a question of throwing your life away." Chiyo said sagely.

"It's a question of living." Mebuki agreed. "If someone is that deserving of your life, then they deserve to live it with you."

"But that's not…" the situation wasn't quite analogous. After all, in this situation, she'd been accounting for both her and Sasuke dying, not one living and the other dying for them. In her mind it had been all or nothing. They both live or they both die…but what would that do to Naruto. Naruto deserved to have them both alive. He deserved to live out life with them as a team…so maybe they were still right. She had gone about this the wrong way entirely.


"We know you are, Sakura-chan." Her dad was standing where Lady Chiyo had been only a breath before, and with the logic only natural to dreams, his presence wasn't a surprise, because somehow, he'd been standing there the whole time. "We knew things would be rough for you for a while, and that we might not see you much, but we didn't think it'd be that bad. You've barely been sleeping at all Kiddo." Her dad said worriedly. "You may be able to pull that off if you weren't working on that crazy seal, but you are, so you're draining yourself while starting from empty. The more exhausted you are, the less you can emotionally regulate, which is real bad news for you especially."

"I know…I used to go without much sleep a lot, so I thought it'd be fine. I didn't realize it would cloud my head or disrupt my coping the way it did."

Her mom and dad exchanged a sad look before joining her at her end of the dock. The two sat so their feet dangled in the water, and Sakura took the silent invitation in the space they left between themselves to join them.

Immediately, their arms were around her back, and her head was guided to her mom's shoulder.

"…I saw Sasuke-kun…" she murmured after a long silence where the sound and rhythm of the water reminded her she was still breathing.

"We know." Her dad said gently.

"…He's still in there…I saw it…"

"We did too." Her mom agreed.

"He…Konoha…was the village really responsible for the Uchiha massacre?"

"We don't know…I was a civilian. They don't really tell us much about the shinobi aspects of the village, which is most of it."

"And I was only a genin, a weak one—by choice of course—without clan backing. You know how much they share with shinobi like that."

"Nothing." Sakura whispered, staring at the way the moon wavered in the water's reflection. Had there been record of it? If it had been assigned to Itachi as a mission, had the Hokage—it would have been the Third Hokage at the time—been aware of it? If he had been, would he have left a record of it for the subsequent Hokage? Did Lady Tsunade know?

A flick to her cheek startled her, and she turned to face her dad, who was smiling with a mischievous glint in his eye.

"I can practically hear your brain churning, kiddo."

"You'll get your answers, figure things out, and come to the most logical and fitting conclusions, cause that's what you do. But don't do it right now. For now, just rest. Don't overwork yourself while asleep."

"Yeah…okay, mom." And sandwiched between her parents, listening to the water lap at the dock in the same rhythm as her breath, Sakura let herself relax for the first time in weeks.

When Sakura opened her eyes, the first thing she registered was that she was horizontal, and there was wooden ceiling over her head. Had they stopped in an inn on the way back to the village?

"Sakura-chan, you're finally awake!"

The second thing she registered was Naruto sitting next to her.

"Naruto…where did we stop? We need to get back to the village…" She pushed herself up, and felt a slight tug against her arm. Following the feeling, she finally registered the IV connecting her to a bag she immediately recognized as a nutrient bag.

"I didn't bring one of those with me…and I doubt Kakashi-sensei had one…"

"You've been out for a while Sakura-chan. We've been back in the village for two days already. You've been asleep for a whole week."

"A week?!"

"I need to check on Lady Tsunade! And all the patients I left behind when…"

Sakura made to stand up, and a wave of dizziness crashed over her.

"Whoa! Sakura-chan slow down! You haven't eaten for a week either, so eat first before you start runnin' around like crazy again, y'know!"

Sakura really looked at him as she settled back down on the futon. Naruto got up, leaned out a door, and she heard him say something to someone though she couldn't tell who he was talking to, and then he was back in the room and sitting next to her again.

"Have you been here the whole time?"

"Not the whole time, but most of the time. Kakashi-sensei's acting Hokage right now. Crazy, right? But he's been here as often as he can be too. Actually, he'll probably come back pretty soon. He's just in a meeting right now."

"Did you…mean what you said? To Sasuke-kun?"

Naruto stilled for a second before smiling and nodding. "Yeah, I guess we should talk about that, huh?"

"I'm sorry…I was trying to—"

"Know what I've noticed, Sakura-chan? You always look at me and see how hard I'm working and how much I'm carrying and seem to think, oh I shouldn't bother or distract him, I'll just carry this thing to make his life easier. And it's kinda funny 'cause I feel the same way about you. You're always working so hard and carrying so much and I don't wanna distract you or get in your way, so I try and carry something for you to make it easier…and it turns out, we just end up worrying each other more. Checkin' in with each other would probably fix a lot of that, doncha think?"

"Yeah…that would probably solve a lot of problems…"

"Great!" Naruto said cheerily. "So tell me honestly, Sakura-chan. How've you been?"

"…Lousy." Sakura chuckled sadly. "I was trying to hold everything together on the medical front, but there were so many injured—severely too, and we were so understaffed and lacking in resources. There was too much to do and too many patients to tend to, and I…I over did it. A lot…I don't think I've ever thought less clearly. Everyone was so busy and needed for the rebuilding efforts, and Tsunade-sama's comatose…There was so much pressure to get as many up as fast as possible, and I…felt like it was all up to me and me alone. No one was available to talk to, and I didn't have time to talk in the first place. It's been a while since I've felt that alone and responsible for…and then with Danzo replacing Tsunade-sama and everything with Sasuke-kun…I wasn't thinking clearly. When I heard you got beat up for by those Kumo-nin for Sasuke-kun, and then went to beg Raikage forgiveness while the Akatsuki's still after you…I thought you were putting yourself through so much pain, and Sai and Shikamaru…well…I didn't want you to hurt so much anymore. You're my teammate. And I'm a medic. You're one of my top priorities always, and if someone's in pain, if you're in pain…I want to heal it. I wasn't thinking clearly, but I thought if I just talked to him, I could bring him home and save you the pain…and if I couldn't…I'd deal with…I'd carry that pain too, so you wouldn't have to. Gods, even just saying it, it's the dumbest choice I could have made. I'm so sorry."

Naruto shook his head, a small sad smile in place. "You don't owe me an apology. I did the same thing. Killin' Pain…it didn't help. I still…Pervy Sage…I thought I'd feel better, but I still…really miss him. And Granny Tsunade was the only other person who'd miss him the way I do—I know you aren't a big fan of him, Sakura-chan. But Granny's in a coma. And you were so busy, and not just in your usual way—you had to be busy. There were too many who were hurt. So I thought I could make myself busy too—it seems to work for you. So I doubled down on the rebuilding and along the way everyone kept praising me and acknowledging me…and it was all I ever wanted, but Pervy Sage was still…he didn't get to see it. To see me make it. When you finally got a break for a sec, and offered to talk, it was like, thank gods, y'know? Immediately you did what you always do, and comforted and supported me, and it took me til that moment to get out of my own head and see how wrecked you were…Sakura-chan, you looked dreadful—not in like an ugly way. You're always pretty…but just…so tired and lonely. And you still put me before yourself in that moment. When you needed someone to lean on, you let me lean on you. And I'm always doing that. Always leaning on you whenever I'm upset or angry or frustrated or don't get something. So when those Kumo ninja attacked, and you were so tired and off-balance, I thought it was my chance to carry some stuff for you—all that emotional work could fall on me for once. And when Sasuke was declared a missing nin…I wanted to clear his name for my own reasons, but I thought I should handle it on my own, not push more on you with how much else everyone was shovelin' on ya. I wanted to carry it so you didn't have to. Really, what good is that though, without checking with ya? What if you wanted to carry it?"

"So, what you're saying is, in our attempts to support each other, we made everything about a thousand times messier."

"Sounds about right." Naruto laughed.

"Did you mean what you said to Sasuke-kun? We'll really do this together?"

"I don't go back on my word, Sakura-chan. You should know that already…but since we're tryin' radical honesty, I think Sasuke's gonna do everything he can to keep you out of it. You saw it. He's physically incapable of hating you. He'd never hurt you. The only reason he did this time around is because he thought you were a fake. So Sakura-chan, as far as it's up to me, we're doing this together. But the bastard will work actively against that."

"…Yeah. I know. I won't blame you for anything Sasuke-kun may do to not involve me. There's no controlling that. But that promise we made to each other, our amended promise…"

"We're brining him back together this time. You and I both."

"In that case, there's absolutely nothing you have to apologize for."

"Glad we're both on the same page about that." Naruto laughed. "Now about our friends—"

Sakura's stomach gave a loud growl, making Naruto pause. After a half second he seemed to settling on something. "That talk will definitely take a bit of planning, so let's hold off until you have some brain food. He should be back soon…"

"He?" Naruto didn't have to answer her. It was only a moment later when she heard Sai's voice at the door.

"Dickless? I got the food you asked for. Choji figured out who it was for and loaded the tray, but he also told Ino and Shikamaru and they both wanted to talk to her. Turning them away took a while…Ino's as persistent as she is beautiful."

"Wow, didn't particularly need to hear that last part, but thanks for fillin' me in. I was wonderin' what was takin' you so long." Naruto grumbled, rising to open the door and grab the tray from Sai.

"Why are you just waiting out there, Sai?" Sakura asked. Obviously he was the one Naruto had leaned out to speak to earlier, but why hadn't he just waited in the room?

Both Naruto and Sai froze. "Do…you want me to come in?" Sai asked slowly.

"Why wouldn't—" then she remembered what sent her down the dumbest path she'd ever walked in the first place.

"Oh. That's what this is. Cool, well. We should nip this in the bud."

"Sai, do you feel guilty?" Sakura asked. Thinking back on it, he'd showed signs of regret and trying to take back his words on the journey to find Naruto…she hadn't really been processing at the time though.

Naruto took the tray of food from Sai, and placed it down in front of Sakura, settling back down next to her and looking at where Sai stood motionless at the threshold of the door.

"Well? You comin' in asshole? It's not gonna get better if you don't work it out now."

After a second of hesitation more, Sai stepped into the room, staying right in front of the entrance, looking very ready to leave the second she may order it. Sakura had the vague impression of a dog with its tail between its legs.

"I've never felt guilt or remorse before…but Kakashi-sama and Yamato-taichou implied that I may be. I…there's a physical sensation I've been feeling since we left to find Naruto, but I can't place quite what it is, and a sense that I've made a mistake. Normally, if you're unavailable, I feel comfortable speaking to Ino about what my emotions are…but I've felt hesitant to voice them this time."

"What do you think your mistake was?" Sakura asked evenly, filing the Ino tidbit away. The food on the tray was triggering a hunger bordering on feral, but she held back for the sake of the importance of this conversation.

Sai cocked his head in thought. "I concluded that you were largely responsible for the pain Naruto was putting himself through, without having consulted him about it first, or considering the fact that you have no control over Naruto's actions, and then confronted you about that conclusion without taking into account the pain you were carrying or the situation you were in."

"I think this is progress…he's recognizing and finding fault with his own lack of empathy…I'm not sure what the next steps are though. Pig and I really need to set up a plan or some sort of checkpoint rubric…we just haven't had the time…"

Sakura pursed her lips and nodded. "Right. Okay. So…you think that was wrong, not checking with Naruto, or factoring in my circumstances before confronting me about it?"

"Yes." Sai agreed. "You've been consistently kind enough in factoring in my circumstances when speaking to me…I should have done the same for you, Sakura."

"Real name…he's serious."

"It's not always easy, but you should try and factor in others' circumstances before speaking, whether they've shown you kindness or not. But yes…you should especially extend that courtesy to people who have shown you kindness. That's what friendship is."

Sai nodded, his brow furrowed in consideration. "How does one make the guilt go away? I read that if one feels guilt they should apologize…but, I'm not sure if I'm capable of a sincere apology. A fake one feels like a disservice."

Sakura considered him for a second, picking her words carefully. "You're right, an insincere apology is never worth offering…What makes you think you're incapable of giving a sincere apology?"

"Because I don't feel…or rather, I don't understand what I feel. So how can my apology be sincere?"

"You were sincere when you begged me to think of Naruto and free him from his promise to me. Even if you don't understand your emotions, Sai, that doesn't make what you're feeling any less real. And what you've described sounds a lot like guilt and shame. You know where you went wrong…at this point you don't even need to voice an apology to me because I know you'll take this into account the next time you find yourself in a situation like this. That's the truest form of apology. Working to not make the same mistake again."

Sai's brows furrowed. He opened his mouth to say something, but closed it abruptly, unsure of the words he needed.

"In other words, I forgive you."

"…So you're saying, I am being sincere right now?"


"Then…I'd like to try and apologize, as practice. I know you just said you've forgiven me, so this may seem useless, but…"

"Alright let's try it out." Sakura offered. It wasn't a bad idea, having him become more familiar with the practice of genuine apology.

Sai's shoulders rose with his inhale. He was silent for a second, his brow furrowed and biting at his lip as he concentrated on the emotions he wished to express to her with his next words.

"Sakura…I'm sorry I compared you to a curse mark. That wasn't a fair or true burden to place on you. I was worried about Naruto, as my teammate…and my friend. But the shinobi world operates in teams of 3 or 4. You…You're my friend too. And I shouldn't have thrown all the blame and responsibility on one teammate for the sake of the other."

"Yeah, that's a pretty good apology, don't you think Naruto?"

"Sounded good to me! Good you're gettin' the practice in, since ya step in it so often." Naruto said casually, his hands lacing behind his head in that casual, relaxed stance of his.

"You're forgiven Sai, although you already know that. And I owe you an apology as well. I drugged you. I didn't share my plan with you, and drugged you to keep you out of it fully. That's just not something a good teammate or friend does. A team is supposed to work together and rely on each other. But I shut you out, when you don't have many people you know how to rely on in the first place. I'm sorry I betrayed you." When she said it out loud, it struck her again just how badly she'd acted. And she had been the one always pressing teamwork, and insisting her friends could trust and rely on her. She truly hadn't been in her right mind to carry out such a horrible, traitorous plan.

"It's interesting…normally I'd be the first to highlight your flaws, Hag, but throughout all of it, I was just…concerned?"

"Huh, you really are making progress, Sai." Naruto said brightly.

Sakura's stomach gave an exceedingly loud groan.

"You haven't eaten in a week. A medic should know better." Sai admonished, stepping further into the room and taking a seat on Sakura's other side.

"I haven't been conscious in a week." She shot him a dry glare, before beginning to eat, doing her best to pace herself and not just shove all the food in her face immediately. Choji had taken his job stocking her tray very seriously. There was traditional breakfast foods of rice, grilled fish, rolled omelettes, pickled plum onigri, miso soup, nori, natto, steamed and pickled vegetables, but also ochazuke, tamago keke gohan, ginger tofu, and in true Akamichi fashion, five pieces of grilled meat.

"The others want to speak to both of you…about Sasuke." Sai had at least done her the service of letting her get half way through the tray of food before he said it, but immediately she lowered her chopsticks, staring at the tray on her lap.

"We'll talk to them…we gotta few words for them too." Naruto answered firmly, his eyes stormy and serious. "Sasuke's not their concern. He's ours. Sakura-chan and I will take care of it."

"They won't accept that answer." Sai murmured.

"They're going to have to. They don't have to like or support us. But they'll have to accept it." Sakura said, steeling herself to face her friends.

"Do you?" Naruto asked, fixing Sai with a loaded stare.

"I…I'm not sure. I don't understand either of your faith in him…you consider him a friend…or I suppose more, in your case Hag. But he seems wholly underserving, and doesn't seem to feel the same way, from what I've seen. However, you both know how little I understand about these things. I may not agree with you…but I don't think it's my place to stop you…as your friend, I should support you."

Naruto and Sakura exchanged a glance before Naruto grinned. "That's good enough for me!"

"It probably won't go that smoothly with the others." Sakura warned.

"They'll give in eventually. You and I are the most stubborn people in the village, Sakura-chan. We'll just wear 'em down!"

"You've made that sound far more easy then it'll turn out to be." Sakura snorted, beginning to eat again.

"It has merit though. You two are stubborn to the point of frustration." Sai agreed.

"Like you're one to talk about causing frustration." Naruto muttered.

The door opened suddenly as Kakashi stepped in. "You're awake." He sighed, a hint of relief saturating the sound. "Ino came to me saying that Naruto and Sai were holding you hostage and begging me to let her see you, so I figured as much, but I wanted to see for myself."

"Well, I've rejoined the living. I should be able to get back to helping the medics within the next three hours."

"You can get back to that tomorrow." Kakashi denied.

"I've been away for a week. My last orders were to see to the medical care of the village. I'm fully rested this time, and I—"

"The medics have managed to keep things more or less in stasis without you. There's been very minimal progress on any of the more severe conditions and injuries, but nothing's worsened and the green ward has been emptying out. As acting Hokage, I order you to rest for the remainder of today. You can start your duties as a medic tomorrow."

"…Acting Hokage?"

"What's he talking about? When did that happen?"

Kakashi stared at her, long and unblinking for several seconds, before speaking again. "Naruto, Sai, can you give us a moment." It was an order, not a question. That didn't stop Naruto from trying to argue.


"You're both supposed to be helping with the preparations right now." Kakashi cut him off.

Naruto glared at his sensei for a second before relenting. He placed a hand on Sakura's shoulder, giving it a supportive squeeze.

"Find me after, once you're done eating, and we'll tell everyone about Sasuke."


"Preparations for what?"

Sai turned back to her before leaving. "What should I say to Ino?"

"About what?"

"My culpability in…what I said to you…"

"This sounds like you're ashamed."

"I wouldn't know…but the last time I felt so hesitant to divulge something was about your kekkei genkai to Danzo-sama, and the…feelings around that were different."

"Yes because that wasn't because of shame. You don't want Ino-pig to think less of you. But Ino-pig respects honesty…I would tell her. Explain everything, the same way you did to me. She may be mad at you for a bit, but after she thinks about it, she'll forgive you. And there's a chance she may not even get mad in the first place."

Sai blinked, and though his face remained stoically blank as ever, he still emanated skepticism. But then, he turned and left, after all, he had been ordered by his Hokage, and there were tasks to carry out to be ready.

Kakashi watched the door click closed and closed his eyes, following the two boys chakras as they drew solidly away, before taking Naruto's spot next to her.

"Do you understand how bad your decisions were? Things could have turned out very differently Sakura, and very badly. You could technically be labeled as a traitor for drugging fellow Konoha shinobi like that and running off on your own after a declared rogue ninja, one who at the time of your running to him, had just murdered the acting Hokage."

Once upon a time, she had offered to leave Konoha with Sasuke, which would have marked her a rogue ninja as well.

"How have I changed so much and so little at the same time?"

"I know…it was…a really bad choice that could have come with major consequences. I'll accept any demotion or punishment you want to give me…Hokage-sama…?" It felt strange calling him that, and she still wasn't sure when that happened. But it was certainly better than Danzo, and now that was within his authority to demote or punish her.

"Don't call me that. It's weird. I'd much prefer Kakashi-sensei from you and Naruto." He sighed closing his eye tiredly. When he next focused on her, his voice was sharper. "Would you do it again? Do not just say what you think I want to hear. Tell me honestly Sakura, if you could go back, would you make the same choice?"

Sakura stared down at her almost finished meal, really playing through his question. "Would I do it again in the future…no. I wouldn't. I would make the same choice, try to save Sasuke-kun and bring him home, rather than kill him. But the actions would look different. I'd tell Naruto about it and work out a plan with him. I'd think it through more. Approach more carefully. Do more research around Sasuke-kun's current circumstances. But, if I could go back…to the moment Sai and Shikamaru confronted me…I wouldn't change anything. I'd make the same exact choices again. Because those choices allowed me to clear some things up with Naruto. And Sai. And they made me see that Sasuke-kun's not a lost cause." Sakura shook her head a little. "Sensei, I know I fucked up. I won't make the same mistakes moving forward. But my feelings haven't changed."

Kakashi crossed his arms and nodded. "That's about what I expected…" He muttered. "Sakura…do you know how much you matter to me? I know you have a concept of what you mean to your friends and Tsunade-sama. But do you know what you are to me?"

Sakura opened her mouth, and realized she had no answer. She trusted Kakashi implicitly. Knew that while he wasn't the best teacher for her, he did his best to oversee, checkin on, provide exercises, and train her himself where he could. Knew that he offered himself up as a resource during the worst throws of puberty, despite how uncomfortable and ill prepared he was for it. Knew that he was always checking in on her emotionally, doing what he could to support her. He was more than a teacher to her. She loved him like a much older brother, or a younger uncle. But she wasn't sure where she stood to him.

"It's an unfair question, since I'm not even sure what the right word for it is. Little sister, niece, legal ward…? Whatever it is, you are more than just my student. You have to understand that. I have already lost everyone once before. Please, for the love of the gods, Sakura, do not make me go through losing you as well."

Her mother's words from her dream echoed in her head. Death doesn't hurt those who die, it hurts the ones they leave behind.

"I'm sorry I worried you sensei." She felt his hand on her head, giving her hair a light tussle.

"You're always worrying me. Almost more than Naruto, which I wouldn't have thought possible." Kakashi muttered. "Speaking of which. I understand that this time, you overworking yourself was an unavoidable situation. You've been comatose for a week, that's how exhausted you were. I also understand that in the coming days, you overworking yourself again is more of an inevitability. You need to promise me that you will take at least a half an hour every day to step away from working and eat a proper meal, and that you will get at bare minimum four hours of sleep a night—ideally you sleep more than that, but I'm not going to pretend the situation has significantly bettered then it was last week."

"I pro—"

"I mean it Sakura. I'm phrasing this as if you have a choice, but make no mistake, this is an order. I will do my best to step away when I can to ensure it, but if I can't I will send one of your friends to make sure you take a break, and I will issue a blanket order to the medical staff that they are to make sure you leave and don't come back for at least four hours."

"I understand. I promise sensei."

Kakashi gave a nod. "If you're starting to feel exhausted, unwell, or like your judgement is impeded, you must come talk to me. You are our best medic at the moment. It's unfair to you how much responsibility that puts on you, and the situation was so dire, that we all disregarded that. I'm so sorry Sakura. I won't let that happen to you again."

"I…don't mind having a lot of responsibility sensei."

"Yeah and that's part of how you end up comatose for a week. For as good as you are at taking care of others, you're lousy at taking care of yourself."

"Not as bad as I used to be." Sakura muttered.

"Still not good."

"No…I guess not…Sensei, what's going on? Preparations for what? When did you get named acting Hokage?"

"It's only temporary. The second Tsunade-sama wakes up, she's taking the title back. But they needed someone trusted to represent Konoha in the upcoming preparations…the five Kage have agreed to a temporary alliance, allying the great nations. And we've declared war on the Akatsuki, to protect the eight tails and Naruto."

Sakura grew very still. "War…with the Akatsuki. Yeah. Alright. Let's see 'em try to get to Naruto when all the great nations stand in the way. I won't let them touch him, Shannaro!"

"What can I do to help?"

"That'll come later. There's still one more thing I need to tell you, about Itachi. You were right. There was more to it." He stopped when he saw Sakura's eyes screw shut tightly, her brow furrowing as her brain kicked into high gear, her fingers drumming out a complex rhythm. He knew the signs of what it looked like when Sakura's brain was moving almost as fast as the fourth Hokage's jutsu.

"Sasuke-kun had a hard 180 on Itachi. I'm nearly positive the massacre was some sort of mission Itachi was forced to take by Danzo…and maybe the third Hokage? But Itachi was only thirteen at the time of the Massacre. It just doesn't add up. No matter how strong he was, he couldn't have killed an entire clan, strong enough to police other shinobi, by himself. He had to have an accomplice…What are the odds it was that Tobi—Madara guy?—Uchiha Madara was one of the founders of Konoha…is it the same guy? No. Can't be. There are records of his death. It has to be a name he took on for…street cred maybe? Or hero worship? So is he a real Uchiha, or is his Sharingan stolen? If he's real, why would he be motivated to help Itachi kill the clan? If it's stolen, maybe he got his Sharingan during the massacre, which would make Kakashi-sensei's jutsu a feature of all sharingan, so he could theoretically overpower Kakashi-sensei's jutsu especially if he had it for longer. But Sasuke-kun has the mangekyo sharingan.—He must have awoken it with Itachi's death.—And he didn't have that jutsu. Sasuke-kun's smart and capable enough to use that jutsu tactically. He wouldn't not use it if it was in his arsenal. Which circles back to it being unique to Kakashi-sensei and this Tobi guy's sharingan, implying they might be from the same source. But if Tobi got his sharingan from the same person Kakashi-sensei did, than that would have had to have been years before the massacre. So why would he aid Itachi in it? Unless…they struck a deal? If Tobi's the true shot caller of the Akatsuki, maybe that was Itachi's in. But why would he want in, if the Massacre was just a mission?…He told Sasuke-kun to kill him. To hate him more and to get strong enough to kill him…from guilt maybe? Maybe he couldn't stay because of the guilt. All of his politeness, his lean towards lack of violence…even just favoring genjutsu in combat…The massacre was a mission from Danzo…but why? And why on earth would he take that mission? Maybe…Sasuke-kun's 180'd on Itachi, and they used to be so close…No. Danzo couldn't have…but it's the same guy who beat emotions out of his agents to prioritize his missions above all else and even went so far as to put a curse seal on them to keep them from revealing anything about him. He was a monster. So yeah. Why would he be above using Sasuke-kun as collateral? So if Itachi had to pick between losing everyone including his precious, innocent, eight-year-old brother, or the clan but sparing his brother…he'd pick the latter. But still…what's the impetus for the mission? No wait, focus Sakura. There is something your missing, but lets assume Itachi takes the mission to spare Sasuke-kun. He can't do it alone, he gets help from Tobi or Madara or whatever he called himself. Tobi agrees under the condition…that Itachi joins the Akatsuki? Itachi agrees because he can't stay in Konoha and face Sasuke-kun and the guilt, maybe. That makes Tobi able to feed Sasuke-kun information about Itachi. The truth about him, which sets Sasuke-kun against Konoha."

"Sensei, whatever you heard, wherever you got this truth about Itachi…was the source Tobi?"

"…Yes. How'd you figure that out?"

"He's the only one who could…" She trailed off, her mind still whirling.

"There has to be more to the mission. The Uchiha were a powerful and renowned force to have in the village, so why get rid of them? Was their power scary to him? Maybe Danzo feared them, so that's why he ordered their death. Get rid of the potential problem. It's a pragmatic choice. One Danzo could probably easily make. If there's a threat, you remove it. It fits his philosophy. He viewed emotions as a threat to the success of the mission, so he got rid of them in his subordinates. The Uchiha compound was near the village outskirts…not exactly an affluent geographical spot nor a place of respect. The outskirts are always the first to go in an attack, I would know, after all, mom—focus Sakura. Maybe if there was some ill will, Danzo may have feared they would turn against Konoha. He was paranoid as fuck, it wouldn't have taken much ill will on the Uchiha's part for him to clock them as a threat, and take extreme action. But for something this extreme…Root operates in the shadows, under Danzo's sole command, but for something as big as wiping out a whole, very powerful clan, the Hokage would have had to have given clearance. And if Tobi's an accomplice, he would be privy to all of this, and able to redirect Sasuke-kun's hatred away from him and onto the Village…But why would he tell us? His information can't be trusted, because he's telling us for a reason. He puppeted the whole Akatsuki, he's puppeting Sasuke-kun…if he's telling us, it's to manipulate us somehow…he told Kakashi-sensei and Naruto…maybe to break Naruto's faith in the village? Why else would he? There's also no way to verify. Itachi's dead. Danzo's dead. The third's dead. Unless the mission was on record, which aside from being highly unlikely, was also likely destroyed in Pain's attack. So he may be falsifying the situation…"

"Sakura?" Kakashi asked. He hadn't even told her anything yet, but could see how rapidly her mind was placing things. Typically he didn't like to interrupt her while she was solving something, though he had no idea what she could be solving without him having said a word yet.

"If that's the case…I don't want to know his information. The only sources I'd trust, are Itachi or Danzo, both of which aren't options anymore. And as far as emotionally goes…I think I need to hear it from Sasuke-kun…uuuUUGGGHHH! I want answers though, shannaro!"

Kakashi watched perplexed as an almost pained look crossed her face. "Are you okay?"

"Hmmmmm, dammnit! Yeah. Don't tell me."

Kakashi's eye shot wide in surprise. "What?! You don't want to know?" Sakura was the most naturally curious person he'd ever met. He briefly wondered if maybe she'd come out of the coma with a fever or something.

Sakura passed her hands over her face in frustration. "No. Don't tell me. I have a theory. But I don't think Tobi is a reliable source of information, and the people who could verify what he says are all dead…so even though he's clearly being manipulated, I only want to hear it from Sasuke-kun, or if it ever became possible, Itachi. Which isn't possible so…I don't want to trust manipulated information. I'll just hold my theory for now."

"That…makes sense but you look like you're in physical pain."

"Yeah, cause I wanna know damnit!" Sakura huffed.

Kakashi chuckled, at how childish she managed to sound in that moment, despite the very real and solid analysis she'd made. "Are you sure? I've never known you to pass up answers."

"Even if everything he said is fully true, he told it to you in that way for a reason. He's got some sort of plan…I don't need to feed into it. Based on what happened at the bridge…just me showing up alive in front of Sasuke-kun threw a wrench in his plans. I'd rather keep being a wrench. Don't tell me anything. I'll hear it from Sasuke-kun."

"But why did Sasuke-kun go with him…even if Tobi did redirect the hatred Sasuke-kun had for him towards Konoha, he's still the one that aided in the murder of his clan. And…I guess told him I was dead, which was proved false when he saw me. So why go with him?…Sasuke-kun caught him in a lie. The lie was my death. And it had power over him. It was proved false…but maybe he's still scared of the potential for it? If he thought turning away from Tobi would put me in that man's crosshairs…maybe Sasuke-kun thinks if he stays close, he can keep tabs on Tobi and keep him away from me."

Sakura shook her head. There were war efforts she needed to aid. She could talk out her thoughts with Naruto during one of her mandatory meal breaks.

"Well in that case, I won't tell you. See if you can get Sasuke to tell you when next you cross paths. I want to continue your training with fan dancing, for at least an hour a day."

Sakura opened her mouth to counter about leaving her post for the extra hour, but Kakashi plowed on, not allowing her rebuttal. "War is coming. The better you are able to defend yourself at all ranges of combat the safer and more effective you'll be as a combat medic. Five and a half hours a day isn't a long time to be away from med camp. They may not make progress but they can hold things in stasis without you for those five and a half hours. I wish I could tell you to take at least three hours a day training, but I know it's not worth arguing. This is me picking my battles."

"…okay. Who's gonna train me? Will you have time if you're acting Hokage?"

"Probably not. I've assigned TenTen to work with you on this. She's a weapons expert, primarily specializing in mid and long range combat, so she should be able to help you well."

"She was the one to suggest adding kunai to the dancers barrage." Sakura agreed.

"If I do get the time, I'll join you two. Hopefully Tsunade-sama wakes up and takes over in time for me to actually aid in your training. Speaking of which, you're primary responsibilities in the hospital are going to be in the red and yellow wards, and only the most severe of the yellow ward cases. Do not worry about anything else. It'll be that, and checking in on Tsunade-sama's progress."

"Hospital?" She glanced around the room she was in again, actually taking stock of her surroundings. She was on futon on the floor, but across the room from her was a desk and a chair, with stacks of folders and forms covering it. Behind the desk were empty bookshelves, though there were a few boxes of what looked to be salvaged medical text books on the floor next to the shelves. In front of her desk, she recognized the box with her and Sasuke's salvaged items from their apartment and the Uchiha district. There was a window near the desk, with a semi-familiar view outside of it—different in the change of the building's skylines as they were being rebuilt, but the orientation to the Hokage monument was the same. She was in her newly reconstructed hospital office. "So they finally rebuilt it…"

"Apparently when you left, the medical staff struggled to keep supplies and inventory organized within the encampment, as well as the exposure which tents didn't fully help with staving off. They demanded priority be placed on rebuilding the hospital. Which they're right for. Instead of pressuring you to heal faster, we all should have been ensuring the resources for you, so your job would be easier. You were holding things together so competently, that while they were rebuilding it slowly, they didn't prioritize the hospital, until the medics complained about it."

"Damn. I should complain more."

"You really should." Kakashi agreed.

"Does Shizune-senpai have a progress report on Tsunade-sama's condition?"

"She is regaining chakra, though Shizune says she can't make an accurate estimate on when she'll wake up. She said your chakra scan is more refined than hers, and that you're more familiar with the layout of Tsunade-sama's chakra…I'm not sure what that means exactly but I trust that you know."

"It must be about the seal. Shizune-senpai said she wasn't able to do it, she may not know how to scan and measure around the seal mechanics, which I'm intimately familiar with, since mine's in progress. Still, Shishou's seal is a little different than mine, since I altered it, but hers was still the blue print I worked off of, so I should be able to navigate it just fine."

"Understood. I'll—"

"Nice try, but you're getting started tomorrow. For now, you're gonna finish that tray, find Naruto and clear things up with your classmates, and then you're going to come back to this room and relax. And when I say relax, I mean stretch, dance, read a book, chat with your friends, eat, drink tea, sleep more…but absolutely no work or training. That starts tomorrow."

"Fine." Sakura grumbled. She always had been bad at relaxing. It was probably a good thing Kakashi had given her a list to choose from.

Kakashi placed a hand on her head gently tussling her hair. "Rest up, Sakura."

"Thanks sensei." She watched his back as he left, leaving her alone for the first time since she woke up. As the silence settled around her, she really had the time to breathe in what happened at the bridge.

"Sasuke-kun's still in there…there's hope for him…but he's so dark now. At Orochimaru's hideout, he was kind of apathetic about the idea of needless killing…but, when was the turn? Was it right after he defeated Itachi? Or did it take more time than that? How long did it take from him to reach that point?…That woman…Karin…she would probably know…Would Kakashi-sensei let me talk with her? I should have asked him…she needed medical tension too. I would have classed her as a more severe yellow tag case. I hope they were able to treat her. I'll ask Kakashi-sensei if I can perform a medical check on her, and maybe we can talk after I've made sure she's okay."

Sakura quickly finished her meal and stared down at her empty tray, steeling herself to face her friends with Naruto.

Sakura found Naruto aiding with the rebuilding efforts.

"Sakura-chan! Give me one sec!" The shadow clones that were helping him hoist a beam into position, reshuffled so the real Naruto could step away. "Sai said he would gather everyone. Ready?"

"They're not gonna be happy about this."

"Yeah, well, it's not their call."

"Yeah. Let's do it."

Together they walked to the spot where their classmates and friends had first decided to kill Sasuke.

They all stood there, staring at Naruto and Sakura as they approached.

"Forehead—" Ino gasped, her eyes watering. She looked pale and incredibly worried.

"If Sai wanted to score points with her and practice comforting someone, now would be an excellent time for it."

"Hey Pig…"

"Naruto, you held off telling us anything on the way back from our journey. Will you tell us now?" Lee asked.

Naruto and Sakura exchanged a nod. Sakura took a deep breath.

"Lee, Kiba…I'm sorry. I shouldn't have knocked you out and snuck away. I was lying to you the whole time. It was never my intention to kill Sasuke-kun. I wanted to talk with him."

"And how did that turn out?" Kiba asked, his eyes narrowed protectively. They hadn't told him what happened. The only thing he knew, was that when Naruto and Kakashi had woken them up, Sakura was unconscious on Kakashi's back and never woke up once the whole five days back, or two days after. As far as he was aware, Sasuke had put Sakura into a coma.

"Well, that kinda depends." Sakura said. She took a deep breath before fixing all of them with a determined look. "You don't have to worry about Sasuke-kun anymore."

"You…You did it?!" TenTen gasped.

"That's not what she said." Shikamaru disagreed quietly. "What do you mean Sakura?"

"I mean it's not your problem."

"Sakura-chan and I will take care of Sasuke ourselves."

"You're going to fight Sasuke by yourselves?! You can't honestly think we'll go along with that?! Did you think about how dangerous that'll be?! You're our friends! We're not letting you risk your lives like that!" TenTen shouted, slamming the side of her fist into the wall behind her in frustration.

"Like TenTen says, Naruto," Neji agreed, "we can't always let you do what you want all by yourself. And Sakura, as the best medic in the village, we can't let you take on that level of risk, especially with—" He stopped when he felt a sharp tug on his sleeve, glancing at his cousin's set expression and minor shake of her head. "This problem is big. It involves the whole village."

"This isn't me just doing whatever I want." Naruto countered sharply.

"And I assure you, there's a very good reason I am the best medic in the village. It took me a roughly a year and a half to learn medical ninjutsu, but I trained with shishou for far longer than that, and it wasn't just medical ninjutsu I was learning. The standard rules don't apply to me."

"At least, they won't soon."

"So don't worry about my risk level."

"So we're all just pretending the weird thing that happened with your chakra during the Pain attack didn't happen? Or that it was the first time it did?!" TenTen had seen her friend in grievous pain. She never wanted to see Sakura like that again.

"Hey Naruto…When you say take care of Sasuke, I hope you don't mean that you're actually planning to protect him instead of killing him." Shikamaru cut in, pulling the conversation away from Sakura's curse.

"Nope…we're not gonna protect him."

"Sasuke was greatly weakened from the fight at the gokage summit…and against Danzo. Why didn't you just finish him off when you had the chance?" Neji pressed.

"Don't talk as if you were there." Sakura answered sharply. "It's more complicated than that. For one, Madara or Tobi—whatever he calls himself—was there."

"That's still no excuse for letting him get away! Naruto, you're real strong! You're the hero who took out Pain, remember?! You ought to have been able to—" whatever Kiba was about to insist, he didn't get to finish.

"It's not about strength. You can't beat Sasuke just by being strong…now I know…" Naruto trailed off, thinking about how deep Sasuke's hatred ran. But he was still in there. There was a part of him hate hadn't touched. But with what Konoha had done, what it had sanctioned…Naruto knew hate. He hated Pain for taking Pervy Sage. Sasuke…it wasn't just one to one. The governing power of the village he swore to protect, commissioned and forced his beloved big brother into murdering his entire clan. Naruto thought he'd been drowning in hate when he faced Pain…for Sasuke, did that ocean even have a bottom? He wasn't sure…but it did have a spot it didn't touch. And when Sasuke had reached that place, it wasn't just Sakura he'd recognized and treated with care. He'd turned to Naruto, as a friend. A trusted comrade to get the one he cared for to safety. There was still a place in Sasuke that saw Naruto as his best friend. The same place that cared so deeply for Sakura even still.

"What do you mean?" Choji asked.

"He means that Sasuke-kun isn't gone. He's close. But he's not there yet. Naruto won't protect Sasuke-kun. Neither will I. We're gonna save him." Sakura said fiercely.

Naruto put a supportive hand on her shoulder, giving it a light squeeze. "That's right. Sasuke's sinking, but he's not sunk. He's in deep though, so you can't fight him, ok? Leave it to Sakura-chan and I. That's all I can say."

"N-Naruto-kun…Sakura-chan…you know I s-support you both. Which is why…why I need to know…w-what makes you so sure there's hope for Sasuke-san." Hinata murmured, her voice quiet but carrying.

Naruto sent her a soft reassuring smile before turning to Sakura. She read the unspoken question in his face: how much do you want to tell them?

"Not everything. They don't get to know everything. But to make them understand…"

"After that last failed retrieval mission, Sasuke-kun was tricked into thinking I was dead. That's what pushed him to such an extreme. Once he learned I was alive…there was…hmm…a crack, I guess?"

"If it was just about you, then why didn't he come back when he learned you were alive?" Kiba asked, before immediately letting out a pained bark at the impact from the small rock Ino had thrown at his head, glaring at him icily.

"It's not just about Sakura-chan. He's being manipulated—urgh it doesn't really matter! All that matters is Sakura-chan and I are going to save him. Don't try fighting with him, you will die."

"And you two will not?" Lee asked.

"It doesn't matter either way." Naruto insisted. "But it's not your problem, it's ours. He's our teammate. This is a team 7 issue. So we'll deal with it."

"And if you can't save him?" Shikamaru asked quietly.

"I don't deal in what ifs." Sakura answered. The few times she'd tried, it never particularly turned out well for her. So why try? Kakashi had once told her she was someone who had only ever been able to live in the present. At the time she thought that was a problem that prevented her from understanding her teammates. Now, maybe it was a strength. If the choice was take what was happening in the moment and dealing with it, or dwelling on all the ways they might fail, she knew what she would pick any day.

"You know this could have international ramifications. It's because many nations view Sasuke as an enemy." Shino spoke for the first time.

"How can we claim we'll support our allies in the war if we don't do all we can for our own?" Naruto countered.

Hinata stepped forward before anyone else could argue. "Alright, Naruto-kun, Sakura-chan…I'll leave it to team 7."

Naruto sent her a beaming smile. Hinata always got it! She was the nicest person ever! "Thanks Hinata! We won't let you down!"

"Me too." Ino agreed, her voice much louder by nature. "I'm here for you forehead. If you, with that billboard-brow brain of yours, truly believe you two can save him, than my money's on you."

"I do…I know we can. Thank you, Pig."

"We've already discussed it, and I know my standing is not as strong as others here, but I've also already given my support." Sai voiced.

"I'm not sure I fully believe if Sasuke's savable or not…but if it were you or Ino, and I saw even the smallest chance, to save you guys, I'd take it." Choji said, directing his words to Shikamaru. "I support team 7 as well."

"This faith in your teammate is most youthful! I too will throw in my support and leave Sasuke-san to you two!" Lee agreed.

The only ones who hadn't yet given their clearance to stand down were Shikamaru, Neji, TenTen, Kiba, and Shino…more or less the ones Sakura expected would be the holdouts. She was a little surprised by TenTen though.

"Kiba's loyal above all else. He'll back down if Shino does too, because that's the majority of his team. Neji and Shikamaru will be won over if the logic's good enough…I don't know Shino all that well, but…I think he'd bend to a logical argument as well. TenTen, though…I thought she would have felt similarly to Choji…"

Sakura fixed Shikamaru with an unwavering look, one that he, interestingly, seemed hesitant to meet.

"That cycle of revenge you were talking about?" Shikamaru hid it well, but she saw him flinch the smallest bit. He felt as guilty as Sai. "Sasuke-kun's in it right now. Deeply. It goes deeper and farther than even I know, though I have some suspicions. But we saw it in him when I confronted him—you may not think there was ever anything more to Sasuke-kun than revenge, but Naruto and I saw it when we were all a team. That's still there. Naruto and I can break that cycle in him. But if you pursue this course, not only will you lose against him, you are going to feed into his cycle. The more Konoha turns against him, the darker and deeper he'll sink."

Naruto nodded. "Sakura-chan's right. Right now, Konoha's the target of his revenge."

"Why?! What did Konoha do to Sasuke?" Kiba growled in disbelief.

Naruto and Sakura exchanged another glance. Kakashi had sworn Naruto to secrecy about what Madara had revealed, while Sakura simply didn't feel it was right to tell everyone this way, especially while she lacked confirmation.

"That's not what's important. The important part is that Sasuke-kun perceives Konoha as his enemy at the moment—which he does have cause for, though he's also being manipulated further into it by Madara. If Konoha shinobi come at Sasuke-kun with the intent to kill, it will only push him further. The only ones he'll recognize and separate from Konoha on a personal level are Naruto and I. We are the only ones that can handle him without pushing him further into his hatred. And because of that, we're the only ones that can save him."

"She's right. Psychologically any move from Konoha towards him will only confirm his belief against us. But if he still holds his personal ties to Naruto and Forehead, and hasn't been able to break them, they don't necessarily flag as taking actions on behalf of Konoha." Ino backed her best friend.

"So maybe not me, Neji, or Lee, but you guys were classmates. Why wouldn't he have personal ties to any of you." TenTen countered.

"You don't know what Sasuke was like. It's because you weren't in class with him. Throughout the academy, Sasuke rarely spoke to anyone."

"He kept to himself. He didn't connect to any one of us." Kiba agreed, his eyes downcast. It made sense. They would all be part of Konoha to Sasuke. Everyone would except Sakura and Naruto. They were the only ones who ever spent significant time with him. And you'd have to be blind to not see how close they were back then. He'd seen the way Sasuke had been with them back at the chunin exams. They were right. He knew it.

"I give my support to team 7. It's because they are the only ones that won't push Sasuke to further hatred of Konoha." Shino said, and just as she expected, with both Shino and Hinata supporting them, Kiba backed down, and threw in his support as well.

Seeing the sense in the argument, and also acknowledging how little he knew about Sasuke's relationship with team 7, Neji also backed down, throwing in his support, leaving the only hold outs Shikamaru…and interestingly, TenTen.

Shikamaru leaned back against the wall, closing his eyes and assuming his thinking pose that was so familiar to Sakura and his team. He understood the argument very clearly. And he had observed up close how different and open Sasuke had become to Naruto and Sakura. Especially Sakura. He also knew Sakura could be blinded by her emotions for him, and Naruto always was so dead set on bringing Sasuke back. The question was, was this a head argument, or a heart argument they were making. And regardless of where the argument was coming from, what mattered was whether it was compelling or not…and it was.

"Okay." He finally said, looking up at Sakura and Naruto unwaveringly.

That left TenTen.

Sakura turned to her, her brow furrowing. "TenTen?"

"Look, I get it. He's your teammate. If it were Neji, or Lee, I'd have the same response. If you two want to handle Sasuke on your own, fine. Sakura, I can't sign off on this if you don't tell me what the hell happened with your chakra during the attack, because it wasn't the first time, was it? During the chunin exams when the sound ninja attacked you guys…you looked really messed up. And during that fight with the akatsuki to rescue Gaara. It happened then too, didn't it? You were messed up, Sakura. And you've both made it clear Sasuke's strong. I don't want that…thing happening to you again. So if you want me to give my okay, you have to tell me what that was."

Shikamaru stiffened, as did Hinata.

"That's not really—" Ino began, but stopped when Sakura stepped forward.

She gave a nervous look over her shoulder to Naruto, who was looking equally wide-eyed and unsure. She turned back, making direct eye contact with Shikamaru.

"Is this tactically smart?" She asked quietly.

Shikamaru pursed his lips. "We're going to war," he spoke after a moment, "with shinobi who may or may not be fully on board with being allies. It may not hurt to have as many of us as you trust know, in case something happens on the battlefield, to heighten your chances of being with as ally who can help you. I wouldn't reveal it to anyone other than those here."

"What are you talking about?" Kiba barked.

"So you know about…whatever this is?" TenTen demanded.

"Shino, can you make sure no one can overhear us right now?" Sakura asked.

Shino gave her an indecipherable look for a long moment, but then a thick swarm of bugs surrounded the twelve of them, loud buzzing blocking anyone from overhearing what was said within the swarm. "No one will overhear. It's because these particular beetles generate a very loud sound with their wings, especially when there's a proper swarm."

"Thank you…

Without her asking, Hinata activated her byakugan and Ino went into sensory mode.

"No additional chakra signatures present." Ino said.

"No one's hiding anywhere near here." Hinata agreed.

"Alright, well…" She felt another comforting squeeze at her shoulder, knowing it was from Naruto, and then she told them everything about the curse.

There was a long silence for a moment, and then Kiba whistled softly. "At the academy, the girls always used to call you walking jinx. Was that what that was about?"

"Not fully but…Ami's uncle was one of my dad's teammates. He died because my dad's chakra gave their position away. It was probably something she grew up with a vague sense about…although there were pettier things going on with that."

"So you knew about this. That's why you didn't want to bring her back then, the first time we tried to get Sasuke back." Kiba muttered, glancing at Shikamaru, who gave a small nod.

"So how much danger are you in?" TenTen pressed.

"Honestly, a lot, all the time. It doesn't really matter what's going on. It triggers with strong upper emotions, which can be brought on by anything, really. It comes down to my emotional regulation, which I've got a pretty firm grip on."

"Forehead's got a lot of ways to control it, even when she does have an attack as well. So long as she rids herself of a lot of the chakra…which was how she was able to keep everyone alive during the Pain attack."

"It's also how I beat Sasori, and kept myself alive when he stabbed me."

"And it's how she saved herself when we were genin and Gaara was goin' crazy and crushin' her to death." Naruto winced. "Oof, bad memory. The point is, before any of you go all overprotective, Sakura-chan has many ways of not only surviving but using the reactions."

"But if it happens and I'm struggling to control it, you just knock me out, either by force or with one of the sedatives I keep on me within the first few seconds of the attack."

"Did it happen when you confronted Sasuke?" TenTen wasn't backing down.

"No…There weren't any upper emotions in that interaction."

She felt Ino, Hinata, and Shikamarus' eyes lock on her, while Naruto gave her shoulder another squeeze.

"Do you think there would be?"

"…Not with Sasuke-kun."

She and TenTen stared each other down for a long a moment, before TenTen sighed, and smiled softly. "Okay. We're headed to war, so it's not like anything's particularly safe. It's a your team thing, so I'll leave it to you guys. It's what I would hope for if it was my team. I just wanted to make sure this wasn't going to trigger or make your reaction worse somehow."

"No, it wouldn't. It's also kind of pointless to try avoiding triggers. My dad tried that and it didn't turn out well for him."

"Well, war will probably have a lot of triggers, but if you were able to manage and utilize your reaction through the Pain attack, I think you've moved past the point where your reactions put you in critical danger. You would have to be caught completely by surprise to keep you from emotionally regulating or managing your attacks." Shikamaru said.

"Wait, do you mean…you don't think Sakura-chan will die from them?" Ino asked.

"No, I think you might be right…not that I want to get my hopes up…but, I think I'll set my clan record for survival…" Sakura spoke slowly as Shikamaru's words sunk in. He was right. She knew all of the ways to stop and survive the attacks. At this point she'd had several. Put herself through several, even force triggered some of them. She'd survived every attack. Even used them to her advantage. It was always agonizing. It always sucked. But not once, even through the worst of them, had her control slipped enough to become fatal.

"There's no certainties in anything ever. There's always a chance I could fuck up. But…I think, if I survive the war, I may actually make it passed thirty."

Naruto had perked up at this, his bright eyes lightening with joy. "You mean, your reactions are nothin' to worry about anymore?"

"I wouldn't go that far…if I'm not careful or lose focus I will die. It's just, I've gone through enough of these attacks that I've sort of trained my focus to hold through them."

Naruto was looking at her blankly.

"Muscle memory." She clarified. "I've gone through it enough that concentrating through them is sort or muscle memory at this point."

"Not really sure if that sucks or rules."

"Sorta both."

"Are my beetles still necessary? It's because this conversation seems to have more or less concluded." Shino interrupted.

"Yes. Thank you Shino." Sakura said. Their conversation was done. They'd convinced their ten friends to leave it to them, and now, these eleven all knew of her curse. She was less thrilled about that, but Shikamaru had made a good point. They were heading into war. It was best if she could guarantee that she was with at least one person who knew of her condition, which meant roping more people in. They more or less had all seen it by this point anyway.

"Well since that's all settled, I'm gettin' ramen before heading back to work. Wanna come, Sakura-chan?"

"I just ate, and Kakashi-sensei ordered me back to my room for more mandatory rest, so I'll pass." She leaned in closer and whispered, "ask Hinata-chan." Before addressing the group again. "Thank you, for stepping back, and for keeping my secret." With a bow of gratitude, she walked off, catching Sai move towards Ino, and Naruto towards Hinata as she left.

She hadn't made it very far when she was stopped by Shikamaru.

In a first for her, Shikamaru hesitated to speak, not from laziness in regards to starting a conversation, but from not knowing what to say. Finally he managed a small, "hey."

"Hey." Sakura answered.

Shikamaru shifted a little awkwardly. "Can I walk you back to your room?"

"Sure…although I have a feeling you're about to try apologizing, so do me a favor?"


Sakura began walking again, Shikamaru falling into step beside her. "Don't apologize for the group's decision or coming to me to talk about it."


"Is there still a part of you that believes this only ends with Sasuke-kun dead and that being Konoha's responsibility?"

Shikamaru inhaled sharply, and then nodded. "Yeah. I do…even leaving it to you and Naruto—which I understand is the only way you two don't fall into the revenge cycle, and get the argument for not building Sasuke's rage against Konoha—I still think one of you will have to kill him. I just don't…see how you can save him at this point. Even if you can, I don't see how the other nations forgive him."

"You're a tactician Shikamaru. You've been trained to see the whole board. Don't apologize to me for doing what you've been trained to do. Someone's gotta keep us grounded in reality."

Shikamaru let out a small huff. "Even if you reject it?"

"It's not rejecting. It's reevaluating with new information that you don't have and we're not at liberty to share."

"That is how information works." Shikamaru allowed. "Either way, tag teaming you with Sai like that, when you had so much going on…it wasn't fair of me. I'm your friend. I knew how tired you were, how hard you were working. Sakura…you didn't look good. I shouldn't have…I knew you weren't going to react well…I was preparing myself for you to hate me and never speak to me again. And I wouldn't have blamed you. Just because something's logical and tactical, doesn't mean it's fair. It wasn't fair to you. And when you didn't react well…I should have gone with you, tried to talk with you, let you rant and vent and go off. No matter what the right tactical move was, I should have been a better friend to you before, during and after."

"Even if it's a drag?" Sakura teased, earning a small smile from him.

"Especially if it's a drag…I'm sorry."

"Thank you. I'm okay."

"You're more forgiving than me."

"Eh, I don't know about that. Holding a grudge is a drag."

Shikamaru smirked. "Yeah, it can be…" His smirk fell as they slipped into a companionable silence, as they reached her room in the hospital, which she now clocked had her name on the door, confirming it was indeed her reconstructed office. After a second, he asked, "I don't have much time. My dad wants my help with war planning, but…do you want to play a round of Shogi?"

"Yeah. Actually, that sounds great." They settled into a single long game of shogi, catching up with each other in a way they hadn't had time to do in ages. She didn't tell him about her theory for what happened with Itachi and Konoha, but she did tell him about how Sasuke had that moment of clarity when she tried to heal his eyes.

Shikamaru blinked. Knowing this, it was a lot more evident why Naruto and Sakura were both so convinced Sasuke was save-able. He had actually wanted Sakura away from him for her own safety, and even recognized how exhausted she was with one look, despite years apart and declining sanity.

"Do you think it'll hold up? That part of him?" He asked after a long moment studying the board. If the pieces were the allied shinobi forces, what was the best move for them to force the Akatsuki's hand?

"It's held up this long. If anything, I think seeing and recognizing me may have reinforced it." Sakura glanced up at him, watching his brow furrow in thought as his eyes trailed lazily over the board. "Who do you think you're playing right now?"

Shikamaru looked up at her, blinking in mild surprise. "Sorry."

"It wasn't an accusation."

"For what it's worth, based on everything I know about Sasuke, and given what you've reported, I think you're right about seeing you reinforcing it. But I can also see a world where Sasuke can't hold both narratives."


"Hating Konoha for whatever reason, and you being a Konoha shinobi. He may not be able to hold both. Not that you would be the part of it that breaks for him…but, I could see him rewriting the narrative. Konoha holding you hostage or something like that."

"…I hadn't considered that…"

Sakura blinked rapidly, deciding abruptly that she didn't want to pursue that particular line of thought in the moment, in holding with not dealing in what ifs. "So, who are you playing right now?" She asked, doubling down.

Shikamaru stared at her for a while, before shaking his head gently with a small smile on his face. "Troublesome. You know me too well."

"Damn right I do, so will you answer the question already?"

"Akatsuki…the thing is, how do you strategize for an enemy you can't account for?"


"We know the Akatsuki operated in pairs. Our information was that there were eleven of them. But that's old intel. Since first learning that, Sasori's been killed, Hidan and Kakuzu have been killed, Itachi's been killed, intel suggests Deidere's been killed. Pain's killed. The ones we know are left are Tobi, Zetsu, and maybe Sasuke. Naruto said there was a woman there with Pain but that she left the organization when Pain died. How are they fighting a war with three—maybe less if Sasuke isn't really with them—against the entire allied nations?"

"That's…a very good point." Sakura murmured, her eyes also dropping to the board, studying the pieces, then she remembered it was her turn, and after a some consideration, made a move.

"Temari sent a hawk with everything that happened at the gokage summit, and Tobi single-handedly declared the war. He has to have some sort of plan…some secret source of manpower or something…"

"Orochimaru's also dead…" She muttered.


"Orochimaru also used to be a member of the Akatsuki, but he left…he's dead too. But…Kabuto isn't. Maybe he's joined up with them?"

"It's not a bad guess, but just Kabuto isn't enough manpower to confidently declare war."

"No…he's not. But maybe he brings all of sound with him—Orochimaru was the Otokage for all intent and purpose. And Orochimaru used to create all sorts of awful forbidden jutsu, that Kabuto may have access too."

"That's a possibility…it still doesn't seem like it would be enough."

"No…not against the collective power of five great nations." Sakura agreed.

"Still, it's somewhere to start looking into." Shikamaru looked up at her, and gave her a small smile. "It's good to have you back, Sakura. We really missed you…it was a drag."

"Sorry about that."

"Genuinely, it couldn't have been helped. You saved the entire village. And you didn't die. Thank you."

Sakura smiled genuinely. "Anytime."

She lost, but it was closer than either of them expected for how long it had been.

Ino half-waltzed half-stormed in a few hours later with another tray full of food, catching Sakura mid-stretch.

"I can't believe he said that to you! Who the hell does Sai think he is?! A curse mark?! Is he insane?!"


"Blaming you for Naruto's choices?! I absolutely can't believe him!"

"I can."

Ino deflated slightly, gazing deep and searching at her best friend. "Forehead, you can't really believe any of that."

"No. Of course not. Not now, at least. But at the time…it felt like it made sense. But I wasn't thinking clearly—I was too out of it. I know it's not true. And Sai does too—he sincerely apologized, for what it's worth. But I can also see why he would say it, with how much he doesn't get about social connections."

"I—I mean—I suppose—but you—FOREHEAD!" Ino suddenly had her arms suffocatingly tight around her, giving no indication of ever loosening her hold.

"Pig, I'm okay. It's okay now. I wasn't doing well before, but I feel way better now that I've slept. For a week." She winced a little at that. Her body must have been in a crazy amount of sleep debt for her to be out a whole week.

"Do you have any idea how worried I was?! I tried to help the medics but then I got pulled to help with sensory security and Intel gathering, and left you even more short staffed, and they kept sending me out and when I would get back to the tent you were never there—you were so busy and I could never seem to catch you. But the glimpses I got…holy hell Forehead, you looked so dead, and then when…when they all…when we decided to kill Sasuke-kun and I wanted to be the one to tell you, so I could do it softly and be there for you—I was so worried about you, but Shikamaru insisted he do it, and then Sai was a prick, and when you left the med camp was up in arms about what they were gonna do without you, and I got moved back in to med camp and god damn, how were you doing that all that?! It was horrible! You shouldn't have had to!"

"Pig! Listen to me! I'm okay. It was really hard. I wasn't alright, there really weren't alternatives, and I definitely don't blame any of you for that. The Sasuke-kun thing…honestly it was best that it was Shikamaru. Logic…logic and bluntness get through to me a lot better than sympathies. His timing wasn't great, what with Sai and all…but I'm glad it was Shikamaru who told me. And Sai…regretted it instantly. He kept trying to talk to me about it and get me to share the burden with him while we were traveling, and I kept shutting him out. He deeply regrets it. He already apologized to me, and I've forgiven him. I feel a lot better and more stable—on like every front. I'm really, really, okay now. I promise."

"I know." She said, her arms loosening the slightest amount. "But it should never have gotten that bad."

"That wasn't anyone's fault. The village was in ruins and everyone was injured. There wasn't an alternative. I knew it was coming anyway. Not that I was prepared for being that tired, but just…I knew it would be hard and there wasn't going to be much support. I don't blame you at all."

"That has been your life Forehead! And I swore to myself when we agreed to be friends again, that I wouldn't let you feel like that ever again."

"I know you never would Pig. It was out of any of our hands. I don't blame you for anything."

Ino gave her another firm squeeze before pulling back, studying her with worried eyes. "You look a lot better." She breathed quietly after a moment. "How are you feeling?"

"You just said I looked better."

"Not…physically. I meant how are you feeling emotionally."

"Ah. Well. Honestly…I feel better. Seeing Sasuke-kun…it hurt a lot, and I'm worried, but there was this moment where he sorta…broke through. Like it was him. Really him. Team 7's Sasuke-kun, and…I think I'm just, really relieved. It was really bad. He was really bad. But that one moment…just knowing he's still in there, I feel like I can breathe a little better. And also, Naruto and I actually talked through some things, and I feel like we're better than we've ever been. So, yeah. I'm actually doing pretty good. Better then I've been in a while."

"Good. That's good. I'm…I'm so glad you're okay."

"Me too, Pig. Also, we need to make some sort of formalized treatment plan for Sai."

"Ugh, I don't wanna talk about him." Ino huffed, pulling away from her fully and crossing her arms over her chest.

Sakura raised an eyebrow. "You really don't need to be pissed at him on my behalf. I've got that covered. Trust me, I don't pull my punches on Sai."

"It's not—not fully at least. Like, I get that he maybe doesn't know better, but you can't just tell someone they're a burden."

"Sasuke-kun did when we were kids. So did Shikamaru."

"WHAT?! When?!" Ino demanded, absolutely infuriated.

"Do you remember right before the first Chunin exams, when your team came across us and Ami?"

Ino nodded.

"Well, right before Ami had shown up, we were having an argument about how little I trained. He called me dead weight…looking back on it, I kinda think he may have been a bit worried but didn't know how to express it? It wasn't long after a really dangerous mission where he nearly died, and I think he was worried about how easy it would have been for an enemy to kill me."

"That asshole! You were dealing with so much back then, with your mom! You didn't have the time!"

"He wasn't fully wrong even though he was a dick about it. But he didn't know about mom. He found out the next day, and he never said anything like that again…in fact, he sorta…did the opposite. He became the one insisting that I was capable and skilled, boosting my confidence throughout the exams."

"Hm?" Ino pursed her lips, still not looking fully satisfied, but also studying Sakura in a way that set her slightly on edge. "And Shikamaru?"

"When Sasuke-kun left, and the boys went on the retrieval mission…I tried to go with them, and he stopped me. As he was right too. But he did it in a very logical and brutal way. And before you get mad, it is what I needed at the time. You know I don't like being handled."

"I'll still kick him where it hurts the second I walk out of here."

"Please don't. It may make more work for me."

"Don't worry. I'll heal him while he's on the ground moaning."

"So you can kick him again?"


Sakura's eyes narrowed. "Why are you looking at me like that?"

"Well, cause you never told me that bit about Sasuke-kun."

"I didn't…you loved him too and I…uh…it felt, I don't know, wrong?"

"I…Honestly, I'm not sure I did love him. I liked him. Hard crush—or more, infatuation?—on him. But…now, comparing it to how I feel about—" Ino stopped abruptly, her face coloring bright red.

"Ooooh, Pig's down bad!"

"How you feel about…" A glint of mischief, and a lightness she hadn't felt in a long time, danced through Sakura. "Sai?"

Ino turned even more red, and spluttered for a second. "Wh-What?! N-No! J-Just—I've had some time to reevaluate and I don't think I was truly in love with Sasuke-kun." She managed, recovering the longer she talked. "You, however, definitely are. And, based on this new information, and the fact that he asked you to live with him when—"

"He didn't really ask, it was more like he just brought me there."

"Same difference really. The point is, it definitely sounds like Sasuke-kun may have reciprocated your feelings back then."

"Well…It's not like I didn't have my suspicions about that, but I never thought I'd hear you say it."

"No but Forehead, given what you said about Sasuke-kun recognizing you, if he loves you, don't you realize what that means?"

"Um…that he…loves me? Sorry, I'm not sure where you're going with this."

"Love is a downer emotion. It's calming. If you have a calming effect on Sasuke-kun, that's huge. That's an actual way in—you and Naruto's whole thing about saving him, if he loves you, and that's able to give him clarity or an anchor through his current break with reality, it's actually possible. You actually do have a shot at saving him."

"This is a very fairytale narrative you're spinning."

"It's not. It's psychological. Listen, emotionally speaking, hate and love are equal opposites, with a very thin line between them. They both require a huge amount of emotional energy, grounded in some base form of care or importance. The only difference between love and hate are the perceived emotional effects that come from them. For instance, someone really matters to you, and the way they consistently respond to you brings about negative emotions, it breeds hate. Because they are so important to you, those negative emotions manifest into hate. It's vice versa with love. It's also why the two so easily transition into each other. If Sasuke-kun is currently filled with hatred, except for one piece of him, which still holds onto love for you, through all the hatred, there is a good chance, that that piece of him can actually flip and replace the hatred. That's how closely related the two emotions are."

"Wait…If the sharingan is brought about by trauma—by intense, extreme emotions, and a good amount of the clan have been able to awaken at least the first level sharingan, maybe…there's a brain chemistry thing to it…like something genetic with their limbic system, so that they feel emotions more intensely. But wait—yeah maybe you don't need trauma to awaken or strengthen the sharingan. I can get triggered by a positive emotion. Maybe they could too—focus Sakura…my version of the Body Pathway Derangement jutsu focuses more on bio-chemical manipulation. If the emotions are that closely intertwined maybe I could chemically rebalance them—"

Sakura shook her head, feeling dirty at the thought. That was emotional control. She would never do that to Sasuke. "But it is an interesting lead to look into for people struggling with bio-chemical in-balances."

"That was your thinking face. What were you thinking?"

"Ok so I have this jutsu I don't really like to use. But I can use it to essentially temporarily rewire the nervous system—at least that's how Shishou uses it. But mine's based more in the chemical rather than the electro aspect of it, and there could be potential uses for treatment with people who maybe struggle with emotional regulation."

Ino was giving her a blank look.


"You just can't shut the medic off, can you?"

"It was just a thought." Sakura muttered defensively.

"So you're saying if you can get close enough to Sasuke-kun, you could re-write his emotions."

"Hypothetically yes, but I never will."

"Why not? That solves all of our problems!"

"It's unethical!"

Ino let out a long breath. This was one of the very large differences between her and Sakura. Sakura was always very careful to never tread on even the slightest potential of boundaries, whether those boundaries be real or imagined, sometimes so much so that she rendered herself unable to step further into relationships. She was beautiful but never used it to her advantage. If she even so much as caught a whiff of the fact that her beauty may be used against an opponent, she hesitated to use it. Manipulation, while something she was intelligent enough to find very easy, was something she largely hesitated to use. The only way she ever allowed herself to utilize it was in the form of underestimation. But Ino had been raised and trained by the Yamanaka. Several of her bank of jutsu was for the purpose of manipulating and controlling others. Her mother had drilled into her how valuable looks were for females, and taught her all about how to use flirting to her advantage in social situations. Part of the value she used to place in popularity was slightly enforced on her by her family, as earning popularity was training in social manipulation and maneuvering. To her, it seemed like simple math. Sakura had a jutsu that could manipulate Sasuke's emotions. Sasuke needed his hate neutralized or turned to love, and he already had a piece of him that loved Sakura. It was a no brainer.

As the two girls looked at each other, the mutual lack of understanding became evident.

"What's unethical about it? We're ninja…" Ino finally voiced.

"It's not even something I'm positive I could pull off, but that aside…without consent…I can't just change someone's emotions against their will. Especially someone I love—like if Sasuke-kun and I ever did have a future together, what precedent would that set, if I just changed his emotions any time we fought or disagreed or…it's just…wrong. He would never trust me again—as well he shouldn't."

Ino was silent for a while staring straight ahead at Sakura's desk. "I guess it's kinda different for me. I wasn't taught that manipulation was bad. I was taught to be on guard against it, but also that it was a vital tool to use in any and all circumstances. You were the first one to even imply it was bad to do something without consent in our preliminary fight, when you threw me out of your mind."

"That makes sense, given your jutsu…Ino-chan, did you…ever try to manipulate me?"

Ino released a long breath. "Yeah. I did. When we first became friends, I reached out to you cause my cousin told me that getting everyone to like me was training. You were part of everyone. Promising you a gift right away, when you flat out said you could barely afford anything…I thought that would be an instant way to win you over. But when you showed up with your hair all clean and soft and shiny, I got really curious. Hanging out with you after that was less about trying to win you over and more because I genuinely liked spending time with you…There was also the time during the first chunin exam when I took over your body to memorize your answers and pass them off to my team. Those were the only times though."

"Why didn't you try more times?"

Ino pursed her lips. "I wanted to know you genuinely liked me…not cause of something I made you feel…Oh. Yeah, I hear it now. I'll drop it."

Sakura nodded, glad her friend understood. "I do think it is worth looking at for treatment purposes." She repeated, starting in on the tray of food Ino had brought her.

"Do you think it may help Sai? Jump starting his emotions?"

"I…don't know. It's not that he doesn't have emotions—cause he definitely does feel things. It's that he doesn't understand them. I think the better route with him is to help him name and understand what he does feel."

"It's not just feeling or not feeling though." Ino muttered. "He's talked to me about it some, but I also just sort of have a sense of these things. He doesn't have much of a sense of self, and as a result, his willpower's pretty weak."

"You have an innate sense of that?"

"It's partially how the mind transfer works. The weaker a targets willpower and sense of self is, the easier it is to take hold of them. Not that it's too hard for someone with a strong sense of self—you truly were an anomaly, being able to throw me out. Even my dad had never heard of someone doing that before—but the stronger someone's willpower and sense of self, the more effort it is to take hold of them. Sai…would be really easy to use mind transfer on."

"I…ugh I have no idea how to help with that. Are they done rebuilding the library yet?"

"Not yet. I will say, proximity to you and Naruto seems to help. He's been growing stronger willed the more time he spends with you two. Also his sense of self grows when engaging him with his art."

"It's a talent and skill he's sure of, so that makes sense, that he's tied his identity to it a little. I think, maybe we should really start looking at his art as part of treatment. And like giving him directives. So maybe having him do a self portrait without a mirror."

"The concept of home also can bring up a lot of emotional, personal history, and identity facets, so maybe asking him to draw a house as well…could be helpful diagnostically."

"Yeah. Yeah, that sounds…doable. And then maybe using those to direct focus in how we help him build himself from there. That could work, if it's diagnostic. I think it may also be worth making some sort of emotion or empathy chart, just to track what or when he seems to experience them so we can consult with that for tie backs, examples, and growth."

"Sounds smart…neither of us will probably have the time to do any of this until after the war though…assuming…things turn out okay."

Sakura shrugged. "It's not a problem until it's a problem. We'll deal with the war while we're in it, and the post war once we're out of it. You're right about not having time now, but at the very least I can broach the plan with him and see if he's on board to try."

"Good plan." Ino muttered, snagging a takoyaki ball from the food tray and popping it in her mouth.

Sakura sent her a dry glare before eating a takoyaki ball herself. "So does this mean you're still mad at him?"

"Yes. No. I don't know. It's frustrating. I know he genuinely doesn't know better. And when he told me, it came through loud and clear how bad he felt about it. But I got so mad at him for even thinking he could say shit like that! And it's not fair to him, but I feel…disappointed? Let down?"

"Cause you like him and want to expect the best of him." Sakura stated matter-of-factly.

Ino flushed and angrily stuffed another takoyaki into her mouth. "I shouldn't." She muttered, muffled by the food.

"It's not about shouldn't. Every one of our friends could give you a laundry list of reasons why I shouldn't still love Sasuke-kun. Emotions can't exactly be helped. And trust me on that, I would know."

"Yeah but placing expectations—"

"It's not ideal, but it's totally natural. I mean, you can't tell me you didn't imagine how perfect Sasuke-kun would be when you had a crush on him."

"Yeah in my head he was a total prince charming."

"Trust me, Sasuke-kun's far from prince charming."

"No but see, that's the thing. I never thought Sai was…unrealistic. Like, I know his circumstances, and even though he's crazy hot, I've never thought about him the way I did with Sasuke-kun. I didn't think my expectations of him were that high, so I don't know why I feel…so annoyed with him."

"Expectations can kinda just creep up, I guess…" Sakura shrugged.

"It's just that…you've put up with enough shit. I let people get away with bullying you for way too long when we were kids, because I was so worried about maintaining popularity. And for him to call you a curse mark…"

"What he said was really shitty, but it's not the same as Ami and her gang."

"I know." Ino sighed. "I'll…talk to him." Her eyes softened as she looked back at Sakura. "I'm so glad you're awake again. I missed you, Forehead."

"I missed you too, Pig."

Sakura hit the ground running the next day, easily bringing several of the high priority yellow ward cases down to lower priority, and successfully bumping several of the red ward down into the yellow ward level. The medics, with the exception of Chinen, were all thrilled to have her back, almost immediately defaulting to her leadership again after catching her up on the pressing cases. After her mandated lunch break, she went to check on Tsunade.

"Sakura-chan!" Shizune gasped when she walked into Tsunade's room. A second later the woman's arms were around her. "You have no idea how worried I've been about you!"

"Sorry senpai."

"Just be glad Tsunade-sama missed it, or she'd be furious with you."

"Yeah, she'd probably try to ground me from the war."

"She still might, once she wakes…speaking of…" Shizune glanced over her shoulder at Tsunade, her eyes saddening. "Her vitals are stable. We've got her hooked up to a nutrient IV drip, and I've been feeding her serums that promote chakra production. But her waking up comes down to chakra levels, and I'm not sure how to scan her seal to get an accurate read on her condition. I figure you'll understand the layout better."

"Yeah. I can do it." Sakura agreed, kneeling next to Tsunade.

"But given how the seal works, and how long it took her to create and activate, I'm not sure how she'd be able to refill it in only three weeks." Shizune muttered.

Sakura's eyes scanned over Tsunade's wizened form. "Actually, she should be able to wake up pretty soon. The problem with the seal formation is two-fold. Whatever percentage of your chakra you've decided to store at the start of formation, you need to keep suffusing that percentage of chakra at a constant and consistent rate until the seal's full. That's problem one. It's difficult, but once you have it, under ideal conditions, it's pretty manageable. Problem two is that conditions are never ideal. You don't have access to the percentage of chakra you're suffusing, meaning you're only left with the remaining percentage to get through day-to-day life. Day-to-day life, especially that of an active ninja, dictates that you can't be without access to at bare minimum twenty percent of your chakra, and use of jutsu will make it harder to keep the consistency of the suffusion rate."

"That's why I failed at it when Tsunade-sama tried to teach me. I couldn't maintain the rate or handle the reduced amount of chakra while trying to handle each day." Shizune agreed. "Tsunade-sama even said the only reason she'd been able to do it was because she wasn't an active ninja while forming it."

"Exactly. Shihou wasn't an active ninja, but she was still up and about at time of formation, and no ninja, active or retired would ever let themselves be without twenty percent of their chakra. She may have even left herself with more than that, which would mean a smaller percentage of chakra going in, and longer time needed to reach capacity. But in this case, Shishou's in an ideal."


Sakura leaned forward, placing her hand on her mentor's forehead and closing her eyes, as she released a small, steady stream of chakra into an incredibly delicate scan. She felt Tsunade's chakra amassing like a lightening storm—already immense, and only growing larger by the second. Pushing her scan past the threshold of the seal, she felt bolts of Tsunade's chakra racing to the seal.

"Yeah. That's what I thought." She murmured, bringing her scan back to the seal, which had almost reached capacity. "For Shishou, this coma has functioned more like a hibernation. With the seal formed but completely empty, she still needed the constant and consistent rate of infusion, but she wasn't bound by the percentage or rate she originally used. She could pick a new percentage and speed. Since she's been removed from day-to-day life, she hasn't needed to ration her chakra. All of it's been going to the seal. And because of her lineage, shishou naturally produces an incredible amount of chakra, all of which has been going straight to the seal. Left alone, it would probably be another four or five months until she wakes up."


Before Shizune could stop her, Sakura popped half a food pill, feeling her chakra levels, which had been on the low side after the morning of healing, rising rapidly. She grabbed Tsunade's hand, feeling the shock of her chakra and matching her own to Tsunade's lightening fast rhythm. She funneled most of the boost the food pill gave her into Tsunade, and placed her other hand on her forehead monitoring how quickly Tsunade's seal filled.

Sakura cut off her chakra share when she felt her chakra levels drop back to where they were before she took the food pill, and after confirming the state of the seal, she pulled her hand away.

"I can't say exactly when she'll wake up…if I had to guess, it'll be anytime within the next three months. It's hard to say with how much chakra Shishou naturally produces. I think I cut down the time a little bit by sharing with her though."

"You shouldn't have cut it down at all! You just woke up, don't start popping food pills again! If I didn't know better, I'd say you were addicted."

"This wasn't to be reckless! We're going to war, we need Shishou up as soon as possible! Besides, I'll be fine. I'm not starting from nothing and subsiding on them like before. I ate lunch. I'm low but not empty. Besides, I'm about to go do paper work and inventory for the next three hours, so I'll be fine."

"I just don't want you burning yourself out immediately."

"I won't. Kakashi-sensei's mandated breaks for me. I'm required to get a minimum of four hours of sleep and eat three times a day. So I won't be as ragged as before."

"What about your seal? Is it still…?"

"Still going strong. I wouldn't have had half the problems I have been if it wasn't."

"At this point, it's probably so ingrained in you that nothing short of an apocalypse would break it." Shizune murmured, utterly impressed. Truly it was a little terrifying how incredible Sakura's muscle memory and focus was, to have been going at the pace she had been and still maintaining the seal was a feat she wasn't positive Tsunade could have pulled off. "Well," she sighed, "you're not wrong about needing Tsunade-sama up as soon as possible. But don't try that again. You've done enough…all you needed to do was scan."

"t's better if it's her own chakra anyway." She said, neither agreeing nor denying Shizune's command.

Shizune nodded. "I'm glad you're okay, Sakura-chan. I'll be splitting time between war planning and helping at the hospital. But I'll help where ever I can."

"Sounds good. Thanks Senpai."

Shizune gave her one more hug before Sakura returned to her office to reinstate some order over the mountain of paperwork, patient files, and medical charts.

She met TenTen in a field far from the steadily reconstructing village.

TenTen shifted her weight a little awkwardly. "Hey…So, I know I came out pretty strong anti-Sasuke back there…that wasn't it. I was just…worried about you."

"I know."

"So, are we cool?"

"Of course! I get it."

"And you know, I do get it. If it were Lee or…Neji," her voice hitched a little, "I'd be the exact same way. I love my team more than anything. I wouldn't want anyone else interfering if one of them…I get it."

"Yeah. Thank you, for being worried about me. And it was fair, cause I never told you about my reactions…they're not exactly something I wanted everyone to know about."

"That…When Lee fought those sound ninja during the first chunin exams, you…were you having a reaction?"

"No…not then. It was an aftermath thing. I usually need to sleep it off after, and the longer I sustained the attack without doing anything about it, the longer the recovery time. It was my first time having a reaction, and after it, Naruto and Sasuke-kun were both down, so I forced myself to stay up and…I mean you saw. I wasn't doing well."

"Yeah, that's what I…I'm sorry. During that whole situation, I was kinda…mad at you? I thought you were weak and didn't put in the work, and was annoyed that Lee had become so obsessed with you to the extent that he got himself hurt for you. I was mad you hadn't done more to protect him. But…I mean, I was already walking that back when you were so quick to try and medically look out for him afterwards, but still. I was really quick to judge you and write you off while you were really…going through it. Sorry Sakura."

"I was really weak back then, even without the reaction screwing me over. That moment really helped it click for me. I've been so grateful to Lee-san for that, since then. And I should have been able to do more. The reaction gave me an out, but in reality without it, the situation would have looked pretty similar."

"Well, you're a far cry from weak now, but in pursuit of getting stronger, I'm here to help you with fan fighting, is that right?" TenTen asked brightly.

"Fan dance-fighting, yeah." Sakura agreed.

"Sick. Well, before we start, let's make sure you're properly equipped." TenTen summoned two battle fans from a scroll and held them out to Sakura. Unlike the fans she'd been using and breaking with Kakashi, these had steel frames and the cloth, while plain, was sturdy. "These are made to withstand chakra channeling and general combat."

"TenTen, I can't just take these…"

"Right, your whole owing thing. Alright then, give me a batch of your food pills. We'll call it even."

"You do know they taste like fertilizer, right?"

"Oh, I've heard the rumors, but they also give you a huge boost with a not nearly as bad crash as the standardized ones. Sounds like a life saver for war, so yeah. Give me a bottle or pack or whatever of those, and the fans are yours."

"Alright. Deal."

"Great! Now, let's see what you got."

TenTen summoned some wood and straw training dummies, positioning them at a mid-range distance from Sakura, before stepping back to throw weapons at her from behind them, watching her pink haired friends movements carefully.

"Well, I see your first problem. This is about mid-range combat. Stop trying to move closer."

Sakura paused assessing what her friend said. She was right.

"My instinct is to move forward, cause that's how I made dancer's style of taijutsu."

"You said you pulled off using your chakra in tandem with a fan once before right?"

"Yeah, when one of the Pain summons attacked the village. I was helping this kid who hurt her knee, and then this monster disgusting centipede popped up and I managed to do it."

"Hmm…" TenTen pulled out a scroll and summoned another straw dummy, walking up and placing it on the ground behind Sakura.

"What are you doing?" Sakura asked, studying the doll directly behind her.

"That is a patient, and you have to protect them." TenTen said, stepping away. "No moving from their side. You stay directly in front of them and protect them."

"Oh! That's really smart. Ok. Yeah. I think this'll help a lot."

Sakura assumed her position in front of her mock patient, pulling out her fans. TenTen again began firing from behind the various target dummies, this time not just aiming for Sakura, but aiming more for the target dummy behind her.

Sakura used the edges of her fans, careful positioning of her wrists, and well timed kicks to remain dancing in her spot, knocking the kunai and shuriken out of the air before they reached her fake patient.

"Ok, that's better but the weapons are going to keep coming if you don't start attacking!" TenTen called from behind one of the dummies.

"This feels familiar…" Sakura couldn't help recalling Kiba shouting something similar at her when she first made her Dancer's barrage. "Ok, channel the chakra into the fan in time with the motion of your arm, and at the trough of the sweep, release it all into the ground."

She mentally coached herself through the steps of the technique, while catching a kunai using chakra channeled into her foot and sending it back towards the dummy TenTen was hiding behind, and with her leg still kicked up, she swept her torso forward and down in a counter-balance, swiping one of her fans across the earth and releasing her chakra through it. The ground in front of her rose forward like a wave, rumbling outward until hit the practice dummy, shattering it, and continuing on for three meters passed it.

TenTen peaked out from behind a different practice dummy. "Now that's some mid-range combat! But I think you're skilled enough to measure the chakra output exactly, so you don't waste any."

"You mean having the strike end once it hits the target?"

"Yup. Just like throwing a kunai. It's real time measurement and distance assessment, but you've always been good at that sort of thing, right?"

"Before I could do anything else, I could do distance calculation and battle analysis." Sakura agreed.

"Okay, so things to work on: getting the power output exact. Since what you're doing is manipulating the earth through your raw chakra without jutsu as a median, I don't know how exact your control is, but I think you can also try dragging the earth up like a pillar or spike—Lee's done stuff like that before, so I don't think it needs to be a jutsu. So you can incorporate other manipulations of the earth, not just as a wave. Once you get more comfortable with it, I'll try more of a surround attack to have you protect against."

"Alright!" Sakura agreed. TenTen was a far more effective teacher than Sakura had expected. She wondered if that came about more because of Gai, Neji, Lee, or her own self teaching with weapons. TenTen was the only other one of her friends that had self taught much of her craft, in the same way Sakura had taught herself dance and chakra control. Combining their skills, they made a very effective, quick learning team.

Despite her exhaustion, the end of their training hour felt like it came too soon.

TenTen was such an effective teacher and training partner, that it was only a few weeks of training with her and Kakashi on rare occasion that he was available, before TenTen deemed Sakura proficient at her mid-range dancer's style taijutsu, which did focus far more heavily on channeling her chakra into the earth and directing it to aid her as needed (a more refined version of her cherry blossom impact). The only issue with it was that Sakura very much needed the visual of defending a patient. Without the stake added of actively protecting someone who was down, she would instinctively move forward and close distance, brining the battle to close range. She'd made so much advancement with it, that TenTen pitched she try to give herself another way to handle distanced combat, in the form of ribbon dancing. It was an idea that Sakura was very into, but the two immediately ran into issues when it came to finding ribbons that could sustain the chakra channeling. All of them immediately disintegrated on contact with the force of her chakra. TenTen was determined though, and having been put on weapons stocking and inventory as her primary war prep task, she swore that while she was out, she would locate a ribbon fabric that could withstand chakra channeling.

So far, she had yet to be successful, but she insisted that she would find something at the weapons maker she and Neji were being sent to.

Naruto consistently came to visit her during her mandatory lunch breaks, catching her up on his struggle with controlling the Nine-tails and meeting his dad, who apparently in a shocking turn of events, was the Fourth Hokage, through the seal that was used to trap the nine tails in him. He told her about the Great Toad Sage's vision of him having some sort of break through on an island with an octopus, which Sakura couldn't make heads or tails of, and that he would meet a young man with powerful eyes, which both of them didn't feel the need to comment further on.

"That's good though right? A break through…that means there's a good chance you can master it and get full control over the nine tails."

Naruto shifted. "Yeah, I guess." He lacked his usual brightness as he said it.

"What's wrong?"

"Well, for one thing, it's hard, painful and dangerous. I…when Hinata got hurt, I totally lost it. She's just…she's so strong, and nice, and…she should never have been in that danger for me in the first place. But losing control…I could have hurt her even more. I could have killed her…and I…that's just scary, y'know?"

"Do you know why Hinata-chan put herself in that danger for you?"

"Aaaahhh I really don't know if this is my place…"

The way Naruto was staring at her was enough prompting to continue. "Well…I mean, you really should talk to Hinata-chan about this directly, 'cause she's the only one who knows everything that was in her heart in that moment. But as for what I can say…She cares for you. She wanted to be there for you. You're very quick to jump into the line of fire for others, and I get that. I feel the same way. But, if you're going to do that, you have to accept that there will be people who want to do the same for you. Hinata-chan is one of those people."

Naruto shifted in his seat a little. "I understand it, y'know? But…I was so scared when he…I thought he killed her…and if it weren't for you…"

"He may have. And I would have been devastated. She's my friend. She's also a ninja, with a very strong creed in her heart. I don't want our friends in danger anymore than you. But I also can't lock them away because I want them safe. It's their choice. They've chosen to be ninja, and that means choosing danger."

"I know…it's just scary to think that going out of control…I've hurt you in the past when I lost control…and if I had hurt Hinata…"

"But you didn't. And if you can control it, you never have to worry about that again…You know, I've had similar fears, about having an attack when we're on a mission. About history repeating itself with what happened to my dad's team. It's not like I can suppress or stop it, even if I can harness it now. But if you get control over the nine-tails, you won't put me, or Hinata-chan, or anyone else at risk again. There won't be a losing control."

Naruto nodded, looking back down at his ramen. "Yeah…it also means I have to go find a random Island, and with the war prep efforts and everything, you can't come with me."

"Oh. I didn't think about that…"

"I mean, it finally feels like we got on the same page, like we're in this together. I don't wanna just up and leave you again, y'know?"

Sakura pursed her lips, stirring her ramen pensively. "I mean…it sucks. But it's training. The fact is, neither of us are really in a situation where we can train together. The skillsets, styles, and between your jinchuriki stuff, and my curse, there's not a whole lot of training we could do together, short of sparring. And it really does suck. But you need to be able to control the nine tails, the same way I needed to learn to control my curse. Hard, painful, and dangerous never stopped you—you're gonna be the Hokage after all."

Naruto flashed her a huge, proud grin. "You really think so Sakura-chan?"

"Naruto, I've thought you were stubborn and set enough to make it happen before you got ridiculously strong and combat smart. Now you're the hero of the village. You're going to be Hokage."

Naruto's smile softened and warmed. "Thanks Sakura-chan. But you're a village hero too. You could be in the running—we may end up as rivals for Hokage someday."

"Nope. No we won't. I don't want it, it's all yours. And I'm not really as recognized as a hero, which is fine by me."

"You've always been real bad with bein' the center of attention, Sakura-chan, even back when we were genin." Naruto observed. "But you should let people acknowledge you. You deserve it, y'know?"

"You know kids bullied me when we were kids. It went back longer than just our last few years in the academy. That much negative attention makes you want to avoid it all together. It's easier that way."

"Isn't that kinda letting them win though?"

Sakura fell silent at that. "Is it? Am I letting Ami and her gang win by shrinking from recognition? Hiding and side-stepping attention used to be survival…but when is it not anymore? When does it become…letting them win?"

She felt a warm hand on her shoulder, and turned to face Naruto, who was smiling at her softly. "You don't gotta do anything right now, Sakura-chan, but when you're out there kickin' ass and saving everyone during the war and they all acknowledge you as a hero, step into it, yeah?"

"Yeah. Alright." She smiled. "I don't really know what that looks like, though…"

"I know what you mean! It's been super weird, but some people have asked for my autograph. I bet for you, it'll look like a lot of love letters, since you're so pretty."

"Tell that to Hinata-chan more." Sakura muttered, leaning her cheek on her hand. "If that's the case, I really won't know what to do with it."

"Yeah, cause we all know the bastard's the jealous type."

Sakura's cheeks colored to match her hair. "That's not—I didn't—that's not what I—"

Naruto burst out laughing. "Don't worry, I know Sakura-chan. But I guess you are kinda spoken for."

"It really doesn't bother you? The fact that I love Sasuke-kun, and he might love me?" She wasn't sure what the status of Naruto's crush on her was. She'd gone through troughs and crests in how serious she thought Naruto was with it.

Naruto tilted his head, confused. It seemed a lot more sure than "might" to him, but he decided it wasn't worth pointing out. That was between her and the bastard. "Should it?"

"I don't know…doesn't it usually?" They both stared at each other, somewhat lost.

The fact was that neither were quite sure what it meant. They both knew they loved each other. They both knew it was different than the way Sakura loved Sasuke, and yet Naruto just assumed that he loved her the same way. But it didn't bother him at all that Sakura loved Sasuke or that the feelings were reciprocated. To him it was a fact, a crucial piece to both of his two best friends. But he also knew Sasuke would be jealous if it was the other way around, he'd seen Sasuke get jealous of boys around Sakura before any of them were even sure what he felt towards her. Was that normal when you loved someone? What did it mean that he didn't feel that? A sudden pang of sadness washed over him.

"This feels like one of those moments I would have asked Pervy sage about." Naruto said, his smile sad.

"Whatever advice he would give you surrounding the topic of women and romantic feelings, is…"

"Probably not the best advice to take?" He chuckled.

Sakura nodded. "In the end it doesn't really matter. I love you. We're teammates, no matter what. We'll figuring things out one step at a time." Sakura held out her fist, smiling reassuringly.

"Believe it, Sakura-chan!" Naruto agreed warmly, bumping his fist against hers. "I guess that starts with me figuring out the nine-tails." His voice grew notably more sullen.

"His enthusiasm evaporated fast."

"Naruto, you said you met your dad when you lost control last time…he had woven his chakra into the seal to be able to talk to you."

"Yeah, which was real cool of him! I'd have never got to know him otherwise."

"Do you think he may have done the same for your mom…like, if you learn how to control the nine-tails and fully release the seal, you may get to meet your mom?"

Naruto froze. "You…you really think so?"

"I don't know…I had no idea that whatever your dad pulled off was even possible. But…I mean, he sealed it in you while you were a new born baby, so your mom had to have been there, right? And if he could do it for himself, why not for her?"

Naruto sat very still, processing her words, and then shoveled his remaining ramen into his mouth. The second his bowl was drained, he abruptly stood up.


"I'm gonna go talk to Kakashi-sensei! I'll need his permission to go island and octopus hunting!"

Sakura checked her father's old watch, chewing on her lip. "I wish I could come with you, but my lunch break's almost up."

"I wish you could come too, Sakura-chan! I'll make sure I see you before I head out to say bye. I'm gonna get control of this damn fox and meet my mom no matter what!"

"Oh no, I hope I didn't just get his hopes up for nothing!"

"Naruto, you know it's just a theory, right? We don't know for sure if your dad did seal some piece of your mom in you…"

"I know it's not a definite Sakura-chan, but…It feels like somethin' dad would do, y'know?"

"Well…either way, if it makes him determined to get control over the nine-tails, it's not a bad thing."

"Mmhm." Sakura hummed and nodded, with a smile.

"I'll see ya later Sakura-chan!"

"See you, Naruto!"

Sakura turned back to her ramen, finishing it fast but far neater than Naruto. "He didn't pay did he? How much will that be?" She asked turning to Teuchi, the ramen stand owner.

"For Naruto? Nah, not this time. He's the hero of the village! The least I can do is comp him a few bowls."

Sakura smiled, leaving money for just her bowl, before heading back to the hospital.

It took longer then she hoped for her to get clearance to visit Karin, who was being held by interrogation. When she got there, Morino Ibiki stood staring grimly at the red haired woman from behind a one way glass window.

"Inoichi said you were coming. So far, all we've gotten is that she's unstable and has very mixed up feelings for Uchiha Sasuke." He informed her without ever turning to look at her.

"I'm just here to do a medical check on her."

Ibiki glanced at her from the side. "Liar. You want to talk to her about Uchiha. I saw those preliminaries you know."

"That was a long time ago."

"You're a good liar." He complimented. "If you weren't so suited for the medical unit, and didn't stand out so much physically, I'd say you'd be perfect for infiltration and information gathering."

"You know I didn't successfully gather any information during that exam you proctored." Sakura informed him.

"I'm aware. You didn't cheat once."

"Maybe I'm not as suited to information gathering as you think."

"Maybe you're about to prove yourself wrong." Ibiki countered, no longer looking at her, his eyes fixed on the red haired woman behind the glass.

Sakura took a deep breath before stepping into the room. Immediately Karin's eyes shot towards her.

"You!" The woman accused.

"Hi…" Sakura began awkwardly. "You're Karin, right? I'm Sakura."

The woman didn't say anything, staring at her blankly. Sakura stepped further into the room, sitting in the chair across from her.

"I'm a medical ninja…you…maybe you remember that…or already knew it? You're a sensor-type right?"

Karin said nothing, but she thought a lot. This girl was incredibly pretty, in a delicate, almost fairy-like way. Her chakra was just as soothing as she remembered, cool like a twilight in early spring, with an energizing lively quality to it. But it wasn't just it's quality. The rhythm of her chakra was quiet, contained, neat, and flowed in a way that was so quick and even, like a crystal clear stream. It was so different then Sasuke's, whose chakra raged like a shadowy supercell thunderstorm, or her other teammate, Naruto, whose chakra was large and warm like the sun, but disorganized and uncontained, spiking out in jagged sharp intervals. It was easy to see why he would like her. Her chakra was lovely and relaxing. Her eyes were endlessly kind, but also firm and resolute. Karin almost sighed. Sasuke had rebuffed her so many times, shut down every single one of her advances. She always wondered if it was because he might be gay or something. But he showed no interest in any men either, so she had wondered if he may not be interested in anyone at all. It didn't happen often, but there were people like that. As it turned out, Sasuke did happen to have an interest in women, or more accurately, Sasuke had an interest in a singular woman. And that interest wasn't of the heavily sexual nature Karin had approached him with. There was something gentler and deeply intimate in Sasuke's attraction to Sakura. Karin had seen it all in the way Sasuke was able to break from his darkness briefly for her.

"I'm just here to give you a medical check up…I'm sorry, I didn't get to fully heal you before…On the bridge. Um, for what it's worth, I wasn't going to kill you…I wanted to…heal you while making it look like you were dead so he wouldn't…"

"Kill me?" Karin spoke for the first time.

"When…he wasn't always like that…even after he left the village, when we ran into him at Orochimaru's hideout, he wasn't like that."

"No, he wasn't always like that…that was…a recent development. He'd been getting darker, but he was still…it was still him. Things changed when the Akatsuki got to him. Even after that…he was darker but still him."

"When did he stop being him?"

Karin inhaled sharply and didn't answer.

"Sorry. I said I was here to check up on you, and haven't done that yet. Can I touch you? Medical ninjutsu requires touch most of the time."

Karin drew back a little, looking confused. "Why are you asking?"

"When I healed her at the bridge, she was covered in bite marks…I…have a hard time believing all of those were consensual. The fact that she's asking why I'm asking…being taken advantage of must be her norm…"

"Cause it seems like something you should have a say in. It's your body. If you don't want me to touch or heal you, that should be your choice."

Karin blinked at her, her eyes narrowing dangerously for a long moment. "Are you…pitying me?" She asked, her voice dangerously low, a slow burning anger kindling brighter. "You saw the marks didn't you? When you were healing me at the bridge?" She hissed, the need to lash out growing. "I'll have you know, half of those were left by Sasuke-kun, and it was incredible every time." What a lie. Sasuke only ever bit her on her forearm, mostly at her own insistence, and only when the circumstances of battle called for it. But it felt good to say, knowing it would hurt the pink haired fairy girl who held his heart.


"It's okay. It's just like with Ami. Passivity's the best defense."

Karin's eyes narrowed as the girl gave no indication that the words bothered her, her expression the same neutral kindness it had been before.

"That's great. I'm glad the half left by Sasuke-kun were incredible for you…but there is another half as well. Were those as good?"

Karin looked as if she'd been slapped. "What's your deal?"

"I'm a medic. I came here to check up on you."

"Just because you know how to heal doesn't mean you're a saint!"

"Are you thinking of Kabuto?" Sakura asked after a moment.

Karin pursed her lips.

"Not a no, but…there's something…"

"Wait, were you thinking of yourself?" Sakura blinked. "Are you a medic too?"

"No." Karin whispered, looking down on her bite-ridded skin. "Not exactly."

Sakura stared at her for a long time, her gaze following Karin's to the bite marks, the gears in her head spinning rapidly. "Those bite marks…is it a kekkei genkai thing? You heal others when they bite you?"

Karin's eyes widened in shock. "How—"

"You looked at the marks when you said not exactly. Does it work on yourself? If you bite yourself can you heal?"

"No. It's not a heal exactly." For this girl to have figured out so much from a glance and context, what was the use in lying about it? She'd probably figure it out anyway. "It's a life-force transfer. My clan…has abnormally long life spans and vitality. I can share it if I'm bitten. It recharges their chakra and heals them—not like medical ninjutsu. It heals. But it's because it's renewing their life, not properly treating their body. I tend to heal quickly without it, but also, it's my life force. It's not like I can share it with myself."

"So you're probably fine now physically…" Sakura murmured, her brows furrowing. "It sounds…a little like Naruto…but Naruto heals fast cause of the nine-tails, right?"

"Karin…what clan are you from? You said you had a kekkei genkai?"

"You said I had a kekkei genkai? And why should I confirm or deny it? So you can use me or kill me as well?"

Sakura leaned in dropping her voice to a whisper and blocking her mouth with her hand. "You're crazy act is slipping and they're still monitoring you. Ibiki-sensei is right behind that glass right now."

Karin's eyes narrowed more, as she dipped her head forward so her hair blocked the side of her face from the glass. "I don't get you. What's your game here?"

"I don't have one. Honestly, I was worried about you, since I didn't do a full healing. I also wanted to ask you when Sasuke-kun got so…when he changed. That's it. I have no other games or questions. Honestly, if it were up to me, I'd let you go. I don't see the point of keeping you locked up in here. And…even if you went back to Sasuke-kun, you seem more reasonable than Tobi. I'd rather you be near Sasuke-kun then him."

"You're…completely serious. Even though you're in love with him." Karin observed.

"It's because I'm in love with him. You are too, right?"

"I just want him to be happy." She muttered glancing away from Sakura.

"I do too. If half of those bite marks you have came from Sasuke-kun, and it was something enjoyable for both of you…that's…that's okay. If he's happy with you, I'm okay. But I'd rather you be the one next to him than Tobi." She repeated.

Karin stared at the girl, her intelligent, kind, eyes completely earnest, and felt something in her melt. They had the same goal, her and this girl. That made them allies, as far as she was concerned.

"They weren't. The half the bite marks thing…that was a lie. All of the bites I have from Sasuke-kun are on my forearms."

The change was shocking. One moment, Sakura's jade eyes were soft, kind and earnest. The next they were glacially cold. "Who gave you the others?" Her voice had hardened as well, the threat in her tone audible. On Karin's behalf. That was new.

"Too many to count." Karin sighed. "Did you still want to do a check up?"

"Can I?"

Karin shifted closer to her, giving Sakura easy access to her chest for Sakura to check. A moment later she felt a rush of soothing, energizing chakra sift into her. "Were they Orochimaru's test subjects?"

"Not all of them. Some of them were from before I worked with them. Kusa-nin."

"What about the rest of your clan?"

"To my knowledge, they were all killed off, or ran and hid being absorbed into the other nations. But I think my mom and I were a rare instance of the latter. I think most of them are dead. Refugees aren't all that accepted. Their loyalty is called into question…ours was. So…we had to prove it. Until they sucked the life out of my mom entirely. So it all fell on me."

"You do what you have to, to survive…even if it's unfair and not right…" Sakura murmured in quiet agreement. "I'm sorry that happened to you."

Karin shrugged. It was strange, receiving understanding rather than contempt and disgust. Or being on the receiving end of usefulness evaluation.

"So…how much are you gonna tell them?" Karin asked.

"If I was gonna tell Ibiki-sensei anything, I wouldn't have made it so he couldn't hear me or read my lips. Interrogation isn't my job. I'm just hear to make sure you're okay."

"Sasuke-kun…he started to change when we joined with the Akatsuki, but even then…even when we attacked the eight tails, Sasuke-kun still cared about us. We fought as a team during that battle. And he would shout to make sure we were okay, give orders that were meant to protect us. It was after that, when he truly started to become…unrecognizable. The longer that man—Tobi, Madara, whatever he calls himself—was with him, whispering to him, the darker he seemed to get. The Gokage summit was the turning point. That was when his choices were becoming more erratic. He seemed to care about us less. It was all about his target. Danzo."

"Actually, that's a bit of a relief. He hasn't actually been that dark for too long…" Sakura pulled her hands away, completing her scan. "Clean bill of physical health…I wish I could figure out a way to get rid of the bite marks, but nothing I tried with jutsu seemed to work."

"Yeah…they don't fade." Karin muttered.

"It probably won't work, but you can give this a shot." Sakura said, holding out a jar of her ointment. "It's an ointment I made, and it tends to work well for most surface wounds and bruises, but if it's something with the kekkei genkai, I don't know if it'll do a lot…"

Karin took the jar from her, staring at it blankly for a long moment. "…Thanks. Sakura?"


"You were facing away, so you didn't see it, when he attacked us with the chidori, but his expression…even at his darkest…I don't think he could stomach the thought of killing you. And he wasn't even certain it was you at the time. In his darkest moments, he was ready to kill me without any remorse…in his darkest moments, the thought of killing you was detestable to him."

"…Thank you. For telling me." Sakura whispered. She cleared her throat and stood, no longer making any effort to mask her speech. "If you feel sick at all, tell one of the guards to come get me. I'll take care of it."


Sakura walked out, not looking at Ibiki as he stared after her.

A month and a half later, a breathless Shizune found her in the middle of her rounds, grabbed her wrist and began pulling her towards Tsunade's room.

"Senpai? What's wrong? What happened?"

"Hurry!" Shizune said, not answering but towing her even faster.

They reached Tsunade's room, where Sakura immediately felt the reason for Shizune's urgency. Sakura could actually sense Tsunade's chakra from where she stood in the doorway. She immediately settled next to her, placing a hand on her forehead to do a chakra scan. She could feel it immediately in how hot her forehead was. The purple diamond was growing bolder and larger. Sakura grabbed her hand and started sharing her chakra, but she barely started before feeling Tsunade's withered hand squeeze tightly around her own.

Tsunade began pushing herself up before she even opened her eyes. But she didn't need to see to know who was holding her hand and supporting her back as she pushed herself upright.

"Sakura?" She croaked. Her voice was rough…she wondered how long it had been since she used it. Last she knew Pain was attacking, Naruto had just shown up to fight him, and Sakura was having a chakra reaction that she was somehow channeling into Katsuyu to co-opt the network healing. The fact that she was alive and Sakura was next to her was encouraging, but she needed to know what happened to the Village. Her eyes cracked open, taking in Sakura's pink head and worried teary green eyes at her side, Shizune standing behind the girl with an equally worried and teary expression.

Tsunade slowly trailed her eyes down to Sakura's hand in hers, registering the seamless entry of chakra into her system. "Stop that!" She snapped ripping her hand away. If there was one thing she knew, it was that under normal circumstances, Sakura didn't have chakra to spare. She narrowed her amber eyes at the girl, studying her carefully. There was the possibility that it didn't matter anymore, if the seal had been broken. If it were ever going to break, it would be while Sakura was having a reaction that she was using to power a network healing not her own. But also if there was anyone who could maintain seal formation through that, it would be Sakura.

"You're…You're really okay…" Sakura choked out, the tears spilling over.

"Tsunade-sama!" Shizune dropped to her knees, hugging Tsunade tightly.

Tsunade blinked in bewilderment. "How long have I been out?" She figured it had to be at least half a year, if not longer…

"About three months."

"That's it?!"

"I've been sharing chakra with you to shorten the time range…"

"I thought you only did that once!" Shizune sniffled indignantly.

"Well…I've been stopping in before I go to sleep, and sorta sharing whatever I've got left for the day."

"Sakura-chan!" Shizune admonished.

"I'm sure I'll be giving you a very long lecture later, but for now, I need to be filled in." Tsunade cut in.

"I'll deal with this Sakura-chan. Go let Kakashi-sama know Tsunade-sama's woken up!"

"Right!" Sakura sprung up, thrilled for once that Naruto hadn't been given clearance for his island and octopus mission yet, so she could tell him the good news before he left.

Sakura ran from the room, rushing to the central office. She burst in without permission, Izumo and Kotetsu more shocked to see her out of the hospital then making any sort of effort to stop her.


"Sakura? What's wrong? Is everything okay?" He paused, really studying her for long moment. She looked tired, but in the way that Sakura always looked tired—not the way she looked in the weeks following Pain's attack. In fact, she was beaming with happiness and excitement—an expression he rarely saw on her.

"Shishou's awake!"
Kakashi's eye shot wide, and he couldn't help the relief that sagged into his body. The last thing he wanted was to be the Hokage during a war. He'd just been mercifully spared from any further war planning responsibility.

"She is?!" Izumo gasped.

"What magic did you work this time?" Kotetsu breathed.

"Not too much. This was mostly Shishou. I just occasionally shared my chakra."

"And how much time did that save?"

Sakura shrugged. That was something harder to estimate. Tsunade naturally produced a scarily large amount of chakra thanks to her lineage.

"Kotetsu, send word to all the Kage that The Fifth Hokage has awoken and will be resuming her post and taking over in heading Konoha's side of the war preparations. Izumo, go tell the elders the same. I'll go meet with Tsunade-sama." Kakashi ordered, rising from the desk he was at.

"You got it!" Kotetsu said, while Izumo nodded and both rushed off.

"Do you want to come? Or would you like to be the bearer of good news?"

"The latter, since it's so rarely the case." Sakura said, smiling wide.

"Well, then. Off you go. And Sakura? Thank you."

"For what?"

"Speeding it up. I don't care how much or how little you did, whether you saved us months, or days, or hours. Thank you. You have no idea how much I don't want to be in this position."

"Happy to help, Sensei!"

"Get going." He smiled.

Sakura ran out of the room, a graceful bounce to her step that he hadn't seen since he gave her money for the Land of Waves mission.

Tsunade had only been up a few hours before she was reinstated as acting Hokage. After being briefed and caught up on the war, war prep, the Sasuke situation, and the politics surrounding the alliance, Sakura was officially summoned to the Hokage's office.

Tsunade hadn't stayed in the hospital long. The sun was only just setting when Sakura stood in front of the Hokage's desk, Tsunade sat behind it in a way that was familiar and comforting. She was back to looked youthful, like a woman in her early thirty's, glowing healthily. It sparked a relief in Sakura that was so palpable it brought tears to her eyes.

"So…I heard you used your reaction to co-opt my network healing and keep the village alive when I went down. And then proceeded to run and organize med-base for the next two weeks, single handedly dealing with the red ward, and reducing severity of yellow ward cases."

"Yeah, and I'm sorry about aft—" Sakura suddenly found her head being pressed into Tsunade's warm chest in a suffocating hug.

"Thank you. You did so well."

Sakura felt something in her give way. Multiple people had acknowledged how much she carried during and after the attack. Many had apologized for how hard things had been for her. A few told her they were proud of her. No one had said those four incredibly simple words. Without even meaning to, a sob bubbled up in her throat, her eyes burning with tears.

Tsunade's arms tightened painfully around her, holding her as she shook. "You did so, so well." She whisper quietly into Sakura's soft pink hair.

She held her for what could have been minutes or hours. Sakura wasn't sure and didn't care. She was so relieved her teacher and surrogate mother was alive, awake, holding strong, and not just acknowledging how hard things must have been, or how proud she was…Tsunade was telling her she had done well. It had felt like she was barely surviving, holding things in stasis, never managing to get enough people up quickly enough, but Tsunade was telling her she had done so so well.

"I wish you—"

"I wish I had been up too, so I could have made things easier for you. But you did amazing."

Sakura pulled away a little to look up at her teacher. "Did Kakashi-sensei and Shizune-senpai tell you what happened?"

"How you left after Naruto and the confrontation with Sasuke? Yes. I heard."

"You're not mad? This is where you usually threaten to bench me…"

"Hard to be mad when the circumstances leading up to it have also been made clear to me in painful detail. So you know, I'm debating on summoning Sai and Shikamaru for the express purposes of punching them into the Hokage mount."

"Not worth the loss of personnel for war prep." Sakura laughed, looking up at Tsunade's warm amber eyes. She hadn't felt so secure since even before Pain's attack.

Tsunade's hand covered her forehead, and she felt a soft hum of chakra buzz through her.

"You're seal's still in progress…not just in progress, it's almost complete. It'll be ready for release in six-maybe seven months? That's incredible…Sakura, you pulled off a feat I couldn't have dreamed possible, maintaining your seal through everything that's happened." She rested her hand on Sakura's head, tussling her soft pink hair. "Kakashi explained what happened with Sasuke." She said after a long moment. "Sounds like that kid's a mess."

"…Yeah…He is…" Sakura swallowed hard and pursed her lips. "M'Lady…as Fifth Hokage, do you know anything about the Uchiha Massacre that isn't common knowledge? Like, if it was…a mission? Or maybe if Danzo had any connections to Itachi?"

Tsunade stared down at her, her eyes serious and calculating. "I didn't know anything other than common knowledge before. Kakashi has since reported to me what he learned, which hasn't yet been verified. He hasn't told you?"

"I asked him not to, given the source of the information. I have my own hypothesis, and I didn't want to fall into any trap or plan piece for Tobi."

"That must have been hard for you."

"It's immensely frustrating and I battle with myself over this decision daily." Sakura answered dryly.

"Well, I can't give you much, I'm afraid, but what did know before hand, was that Itachi was one of two Uchiha in the Anbu at the time. The other was Uchiha Shisui, a cousin of Itachi who was five years older than him, and the two were reportedly very close. Anbu always reports directly to the Hokage, but Danzo was very involved with the running of the Anbu at the time. We're not sure when exactly he started Root. He may have very well been nose deep in that secret organization by then. There was record of him disagreeing with the Hokage's trust in Shisui as an Anbu member, as well as very vocal disagreement in trusting the Uchiha at all. Especially after the Kyubi attack."

"Why? What did the Uchiha have to do with the Kyubi attack?"

"The only one reportedly able to control the Kyubi was Uchiha Madara. His sharingan was so powerful that he could ensnare even a great tailed-best."

"Uchiha Madara…that's the other name Tobi goes by…he wears a mask, but based on his body type, skill, power, and voice…he doesn't seem to be especially old. Odds are he's probably not the Madara of legend, who helped found Konoha…but, he's not so young that he couldn't have been involved in the kyubi attack. But then…"

"What's his target? Konoha at large, including his own clan? The Massacre happened eight years later, which was specific to the Uchiha…is it some sort of…self hatred? Or did he steal his sharingan? But…no. If it were self hatred as an Uchiha, I doubt he'd claim the name of one of the clans most prodigious members. So what then? The Uchiha were powerful, so the massacre definitely cut down on the village's power. If his hatred for the village was that intense, maybe he could turn on his own clan as well…? Gods, I need to figure out if this guy's sharingan is legit his or not."
"M'Lady, do you know where Kakashi-sensei got his sharingan? I know it came from his old teammate, who was his best friend, but do you know who his teammates were?"

Tsunade grew very quiet for a long moment. "Why do you ask?"

"Tobi's sharingan is capable of the same jutsu as Kakashi-sensei's. He's proficient enough with it to overpower Kakashi-sensei's kamui with his own. But Sasuke-kun, who has unlocked the Mangekyo Sharingan, hasn't demonstrated use of that particular ability, nor did Itachi. My theory was every sharingan contains a different ability. So the likelihood of Kakashi-sensei's singular sharingan possessing the same jutsu as this guys seemingly singular sharingan, implies they may have gotten it from the same source, or even that he is the source—assuming my original theory was correct. Kakashi-sensei insisted it wasn't possible for Tobi's sharingan to be from the same source as his…But I wanted to see if you maybe knew something?"

Tsunade sighed. "Unfortunately I can't confirm or deny your theory. There's not much written on the sharingan. Anything there was would have been with the Uchiha. Clans tend to safe guard any and all information pertaining to their kekkei genkai or jutsu styles. I didn't know any of Kakashi's old team personally. I only know their names from his file. His teammates were Nohara Rin, and Uchiha Obitio. Both died in the Third Shinobi World War. I don't know much about either of them—the only thing I know is that Nohara Rin was listed as a medic."

"If Kakashi-sensei got his sharingan from Obito, and Rin did the procedure to implant it…Obito probably gave it to him as he was dying…and Kakashi-sensei had the mangekyo for almost as long as he had the sharingan, so shortly thereafter, something happened to Rin, where she died, and Kakashi-sensei saw it and felt responsible for it. Wait, no, focus on Obito. Okay, so if Obito died, and it was a last wish to give Kakashi-sensei his sharingan, there wouldn't have been a lot of time to make the transfer. So Rin would have probably had to do the transplant right there, on the battle field—damn she must have been incredibly skilled to pull that off—Focus—so if she did the transplant in hostile territory, there probably wasn't time to take or dispose of Obito's body. His other eye would have been right there in enemy territory, free for the taking…but again…Tobi is someone familiar with the Uchiha on a more intimate level than a typical enemy…so what are the odds…what if Obito didn't really die…but Tobi's given no indication of recognition towards Kakashi-sensei, I mean, at least not vocally…So what? I'm a good liar…why couldn't he be? Tobi is an anagram of Obito, with one O dropped…is that a coincidence? The Uchiha are a well known and highly regarded and feared clan throughout all the Great Nations. It may be an enemy who was obsessed with the Uchiha, and maybe Obito in specific…"

"—kura? Sakura!"

Sakura jolted a little looking up at Tsunade. "Sorry?"

"You got lost in your head."

"Was Obito's body ever recovered?"

"Clearly you've never been in war before, and I wish it could stay that way." Tsunade murmured grimly. "Rarely are bodies lost in war—specifically in enemy territory—recovered. They're either left behind in the rush for survival, or they're destroyed to prevent enemies obtaining their jutsu." Tsunade's eyes had taken on a haunted look, and Sakura knew she was reliving painful experiences of the wars she been through. "Based on my understanding of events, Obito was one of the bodies abandoned in escape."

"So an enemy could have taken his Sharingan." Sakura pressed.

"Or all sharingan are capable of the spacial ninjutsu Kakashi's is. I know you're deductions are rarely wrong, but be careful with this one Sakura. Operating under incorrect information is more dangerous than operating with no information."

"I understand…I'll see if I can find anymore information about the sharingan, to back up my theory."

"Do what you can. I'll include this in your war prep tasks. But Kakashi's told me about your mandated schedule, and I'm inclined to enforce it. Combat training is beneficial, given that you're going to be bouncing between a field medic, and a med-camp doctor during the war—one of the few who will be serving both roles. The more combat styles you have at your disposal the better. I also don't want you burned out again. So the four hour minimum for being off the clock and hopefully asleep is still in play as well, and the half hour meal break."

"I'll make it work. I want answers."

Tsunade sighed. "I know you do, kid. I'll ask Kakashi to comply with any tests or examinations you want to run. Just be careful if you choose to ask him questions directly. It's a sensitive topic for him."

"I will be. Shishou?"


"I'm so glad you're back."

"Me too, kid."

With Tsunade back, after a brief argument with the other Kage, Naruto's request was not only approved, but assigned as an official mission. He was sent off to an Island in Kumo with Yamato and Gai to meet the eight-tails jinchuriki, and train to control the nine-tails. Naruto wasn't aware that this was meant to be a holding, to protect and keep him and the eight tails protected and out of the war entirely—something Tsunade had argued against, but since it happened to work well with Naruto's own request, and the other Kage were against her, Tsunade gave in. Sakura, and Sai saw him off.

"I'm gonna do it this time, Sakura-chan! Believe it! I'm gonna get control of the nine-tails, and maybe I'll get to meet my mom!" He said excitedly, holding her shoulders and bouncing on his heels.

"If you do, you'll have to tell me about her! I wanna know what she's like!"

"You'll be the first to know, Sakura-chan!"

"If you do meet her, you better tell her how much I've saved your ass." Sakura laughed, knowing and hoping that she likely wouldn't come up at all—Naruto would have much more important things to discuss with his mom.

"I'll tell her all about Team 7! Believe it!" Naruto cheered, putting his hands behind his head.

Sai stepped forward, putting his hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Be safe dickless, and stay aware. The Akatsuki will be coming after you."

"I know, I know, don't worry. I got this."

"And if it's Sasuke who comes after you?"

Naruto stretched. "Then I'll send a messenger toad to Sakura, try and bring her through with a reverse summoning or somethin' and then we'll do we gotta to save Sasuke."

"And if you can't get to Hag?"

"Then I'll handle him and be sure to bring Sakura-chan up as much as possible to mess with him."

"Your faith in the power of my name is overwhelming." Sakura muttered dryly, her cheeks tinting pink.

"Naruto-kun!" All of them turned to see Hinata rushing up to them. "I-I heard you were l-leaving and w-wanted to w-wish you success." Hinata was turning redder by the second, but she was able to look Naruto in the eye as she said it without looking away.

Naruto broke out into a beaming smiled, and Sakura wasn't entirely sure, but she thought maybe his cheeks looked a little pinker than usual.

"Thanks Hinata! Y'know, you always come see me off like this whenever I leave for training and stuff, and it's real nice of you! You're the best! I swear to you, I'm gonna learn to control this thing, and never put you in that kind of danger again."

"What—You didn't—I-I…I've never been s-scared of you, N-Naruto-kun. I've…I've never th-thought you were a d-danger to me. N-Not when we were kids…Not during Orochimaru's attack on Konoha, when you fought with Kazekage-sama…not when you fought Pain, and the Kyubi took over. You've…You've always been a source of hope for me…never danger. When I faced Pain…I…it was because…to me…you're worth protecting…you've…always been worth protecting. I…when we were younger…I was too scared of…my father…my family…everyone..to protect you from the way people looked at you, or what they said about you…but because of you, and all you've given me, I was able to get stronger…I was glad to be able to protect you, for once. I'll be glad to do it again…You…You've never been the danger for me." What she was saying to him seemed to catch up to her, her pearl eyes wide and face going redder by the second.

Naruto, in a very rare form for him, was struck completely silent.

Sai looked back and forth between the two of them, leaned in towards Sakura and not-quite-whispering asked, "Is this flirting?"

Hearing that, Hinata was a lost cause, her entire body flushing.

"Not now!" Sakura hissed, elbowing Sai hard in the ribs making him double over as he wheezed in pain.

Naruto finally found his voice. "That…means more to me than you realize. But seeing you in danger like that really bothered me, y'know? I thought you…died. And it…I kinda lost it. Nah, I did lose it. You were real hurt at the time, so maybe you don't realize how much of a danger I was to you, but I was. And I don't like that. I've already given you my word—I'm gonna learn to control this thing, and never put you in that kind of danger again. And you know our ninja way, Hinata. I'm not goin' back on that!"

"…Our?" Hinata whispered, looking faint. Sakura decided it was best she step in now, before Hinata end up in a hospital bed for the next few hours.

Sakura slung her hand over Hinata's shoulder. "You've got this, Naruto!"

Naruto's gaze lingered on Hinata a moment longer before dragging over to Sakura, where some tension in his body eased a little.

"Right! Thanks! When I get back, the damn fox won't be a problem anymore! Believe it!"

The two watched Naruto, Yamato, and Gai depart, Hinata sagging slightly against Sakura.

"Thank you for stepping in…"

"You know, what are you gonna do when he does return your feelings? You're gonna have to get used to being around him."

"I don't know if…"

"It'll happen. Trust me. He may not be there yet, but I really think he's gonna start leaning more and more towards you, even if he isn't fully aware of it as it happens."

"Hag, am I correct in presuming Hinata romantically and sexually likes Naruto?" Sai asked, looking between the two girls, to the orange of Naruto's coat shrinking into the distance.


"You should direct that question towards Hinata-chan, since it's about her, and she's standing right here. It's rude to talk about someone as if they're not present."

Sai blinked before turning to Hinata. "I apologize. I wasn't my intent to be rude. Hag and Ino are the ones I usually direct questions pertaining to emotions and relationships. Based on a book I read about social interaction and flirting, you showed several signs of interest and attraction."

"Um…no it's fine…I suppose I'm just not used to, uh, speaking so bluntly about it?"

"It makes you uncomfortable?"

"No—well…yes? I suppose…"

"Then…Should I not ask about it?"

"Uh…" Hinata glanced at Sakura, unsurely. She hadn't interacted much with Sai until now, and she wasn't quite sure how she was supposed to approach someone as blunt as him. In a way, it reminded her a little of Ino, though Ino was far more tactful and better at using her bluntness while still making the environment feel safe and warm. Sai…was certainly not accomplished at that latter part.

"If someone's uncomfortable with a topic, it's best to handle it with a lot of care moving forward, and if that feels like something you can't do, then it's best to back off until you feel better equipped." Sakura advised.

"You're…learning, right? It's…It's okay. What's your question, Sai-san?"

"You like Naruto sexually?"


"That's not handling it with care, Sai." Sakura sighed tiredly.

"It's not that…exactly. I…Naruto-kun matters a great deal to me. I…love him." Hinata breathed, her face horribly red, her gaze trained on the ground.

Sai looked over at Sakura, his brow furrowed. "The same way you love Sasuke?"

"I can't speak for how Hinata-chan feels, but that would be the most direct comparison you could make." Sakura allowed.

"But…Naruto loves you, Hag? Are you not bothered by that, Hinata?"

"It…I would be a little sad…but more than anything, so long as Naruto's happy…that's all that truly matters to me."

"And Naruto does love me. And I don't think either of us are fully sure in what way. I didn't lie to him, when I told him I loved him either. There are different kinds of love. I love Naruto. It's different then the way I love Sasuke-kun, but I do love him. There's been moments where I've thought Naruto may love me romantically, but more often, I think the love he has for me is more…I think it's closer to the love I have for him."

"I'm confused." Sai stated.

"It's confusing. Especially for the ones in the middle of it." Sakura agreed.

"Very confusing." Hinata added, in a surprising move that made Sakura inadvertently start giggling, which quickly spread to Hinata.

Sai looked between the two, completely lost, and when it became apparent he would get no further answers from either girl, he decided to simply ask Ino about it. Her answers tended to be more direct and straight forward.

The days were a blur of inactivity for Sasuke, as he waited for his eyes—Itachi's eyes to heal. The procedure had not only been intense physically, but had drained his chakra as well, and spent much of his time asleep, much to his own frustration. He knew Madara kept leaving the hideout, and his own inability to keep tabs on him made Sasuke consider the merits of simply killing the man the next time he walked in. Except that would definitely be a reckless move. There was no way he could beat Madara in his current condition, and Madara may turn his wrath on Sakura if he gave any indication of not being fully on board with him. With nothing to do but sleep often, hen he wasn't having nightmares of the night of the massacre, or Danzo, or his battle with Itachi, he dreamed of Sakura. Suddenly after such a sharp absence of her from his dreams, she was there more than she wasn't. Walking through shadowy woods, sitting on the ruins of the Naka shrine her feet kicking softly against the stones, sitting on his bed in his room in Orochimaru's hideout. Every time she appeared, he kept as far away as he could, hiding in the shadows cast by his mind. Even though he kept himself hidden from her, at least once per dream, she always seemed to look straight at him, through the shadows that cloaked him. She was frequently speaking to no one, or maybe to him. It was hard to hear what she said, her voice frequently carrying in a distorted way, as if through thick water. But sometimes he caught certain words. He heard her mention the sharingan. The name Obito. And more innocuous things—dancing, sword, medic, inventory, caseload, library, aloe…singular words that meant nothing without their context…context he wished he deserved. Those singular words he was sure crafted portraits of her day, portraits that he wished he could belong in. But he couldn't. He was a danger to her. Those around him, who were so desperate to hold and manipulate him, were a danger to her. And she was in Konoha. A corrupted rotten place that he would see completely destroyed. Her life couldn't contain him. It would ruin her. And yet he couldn't bring himself to look away from her, every time she danced through his mind. He told himself it was keeping tabs, to make sure she was okay and safe. But she was a dream. There was no keeping her safe and okay, she was a figment of his desperate imagination. But his dreams of her somehow always felt more real than his nightmares that came from his literal memory. So he kept watching, while waiting for his eyes—Itachi's eyes, to heal.

The days were a blur of activity. Sakura trained with TenTen, and Kakashi as much as he was able. TenTen had actually managed to aquire a flowy fabric that could withstand concentrations of chakra, which with the help of Hinata and Ino, they turned into two beautiful, long, flowing dance ribbons for Sakura. Sakura trained several new forms of her dance style taijutsu, including sword, fan, ribbon, as well as mastering her original styles. By far, ribbon was her favorite.

She took every opportunity she could during short breaks in those training sessions that Kakashi attended to examine his sharigan, which he complied with, though insisted there was no way Tobi could have acquired Obito's other eye. Unfortunately, none of these examinations and probes revealed anything new about the sharingan to prove or further her theory. She had half a mind to sneak out to the wrecked Uchiha district during her mandatory four hour minimum of sleep, in an attempt to find literally anything she could about the sharingan, but she had already dug through the wreckage and salvaged what little she could back in those first two weeks.

She "moved" out of her hospital office as a new apartment buildings were erected. With Sasuke's old apartment gone, Tsunade assigned her a new apartment residence closer to the hospital. Still, Sakura used her apartment more as a place to shower, often opting to take her four hour minimum of sleep in her hospital office anyway.

She steadily got the hospital under control. The most severe cases from the Pain attack now finally healed, and hospital capacity settling back to a normal level, all the while beginning to inventory and stockpile medical supplies for the war, partnering with Shizune and Shikamaru on those logistics.

Nights were interesting. It was strange. She didn't exactly dream of Sasuke, not the way she used to. And yet he was always in her dreams. She'd be sitting in the academy, seven again, staying in an empty classroom to avoid Ami during lunch, and feel someone watching her. Intuitively, she knew it was Sasuke. She felt his presence in the spot he used to always occupy back when they were in school. But when she turned to look, she was lone in the classroom. It was always the same, no matter where her dreams took her. Whether she was at the bridge team 7 used to meet, the shikotsu forest, the library, the cave where she killed Sasori…the spaces were always empty, like he was supposed to be there with her, in front of her, next to her, filling the space with their conversations. He wasn't there, and yet she could feel his eyes on her. Feel his presence filling the space. It never felt ominous or threatening, the weight of his unseen gaze never suffocating, his presence never hostile. But it was frustrating. If he was there, why wouldn't he just let her see him? Why wouldn't he talk with her? And she was asleep—it was her dream. Why was her own subconscious making it so difficult? She would often talk, about her day, about her sharingan questions, her theory about Tobi being some Uchiha obsessed weirdo who'd stolen Obito's eye and helped Itachi with the massacre from some reason. She knew he could hear her, hoped he would respond. He never did. And again, she wondered why she cared so much when the Sasuke in her dream was just that—a dream.

The days ticked down. Sakura received her official company assignment—she would be in the Third Company: Intermediate Range Combat Unit under Kakashi, before she would fall back to the medical unit in the evening to serve under Shizune, and then be sent back to the Third Company front come morning. When October rolled around, the Allied Shinobi Forces came together. It was time for War.

Author's note: This felt like the apology tour chapter, which felt unavoidable because that needed to be addressed. Pretty much all of the Konoha 12 shat the bed the last two chapters, so there needed to be a lot of air clearing. I really hope it didn't become too repetitive, but it felt like something that couldn't be skipped. Sakura is very forgiving in this chapter, and I feel like some people won't be a fan of that, but it feels true to her in my head. Especially with Shikamaru, I've written them to be very close and very understanding of how each other works. And they respect each other a lot. This Sakura appreciates blunt logic. She always has. And it was how Shikamaru was raised and trained, she respects that. I also used this chapter for a lot of canon relationship building. So I wanted to keep the momentum of the platonic relationship with Naruto and Sakura, and how much they're now sharing with each other, but I realized Naruto and Sakura have never really sat with his crush on her and addressed it. So they try to, but their teens and more specifically child soldiers. They don't fully understand love. So knowing they love each other, knowing that for Sakura, it's not romantic, and that on the whole it isn't for Naruto either, yet he still finds her attractive and had a crush on her. They don't know what that means. They're on the same page, but neither knows the language of the book. So they're stumbling through together. Meanwhile, Naruto is steadily growing more and more connected to Hinata. What she says impacts him stronger than most others. He still hasn't put together what it is he feels towards her, but he definitely feels something. I also wanted Sakura and Karin to have more interaction. I love that Kishimoto didn't pit them against each other-I think that was one of the few things he did right with his female characters. So I wanted to give them a moment to really bond. They're not exactly friends, but this gives Karin's future line about camaraderie among women more weight. So the biggest change in this timeline is that Kakashi does actually serve as acting Hokage briefly. I'm not sure how that works fully, politically. But since I sorta fucked up by setting up the Sakura downward spiral in the first two weeks after the Pain attack, it made no sense for Tsunade to be able to wake up given both canonically but also how hard I've been stressing the rules of the Strength of 100 seal formation/filling. I'm not sure what that time frame is supposed to be canonically for those events, but yeah, if Tsunade fully used up her entire seal. that took her three years to create and fill, I'm not clear on how she canonically wakes up that quick. So it's more spread out, and yeah that kinda fucks with the political system in Konoha and the war effort, but the rules for the seal are so important to this story that I'd rather Konoha politics get fucked up then the jutsu rules that have been a central point of this story. And even with that change, it's still sorta bullshit that she wakes up that quick. Honestly when I logically thought about it, I had no idea how it doesn't take Tsunade a full year to restock that seal, but...whatever. We're too far in, and I still want her around so...eeehhhh. Again, I fully get if this isn't your favorite chapter, cause it certainly wasn't mine. But also again, I don't know how I would have avoided it.

Thank you so much for your patience in waiting for this chapter, and for reading this far! Every comment means the world to me and keeps me writing-thank you so so much! :)