"The first thing we have to do," Tsunade instructed, striding across the training ground towards Sakura, "is to get you to sign the scroll as a successor to the Kuchiyose no Jutsu."
Sakura nodded attentively. This was all news to her. Naruto had been summoning the toads for years but he'd never actually mentioned what was required to enter into the technique. She was slightly relieved she only had to sign something, as in truth she'd expected things to be far more difficult. Her fantasies had led her to other, more gruesome things...
"Are you ready, Sakura?" Tsunade's voice was muffled behind the obscuring hood of her thick cloak. Mist ghosted through the clearing and the full moon barely filtered through the crowding circle of surrounding trees. As if to top it off, the scene was limned in yellow from the lantern Tsunade held.
"Y-Yes, of course," Sakura stuttered in reply. After a moment, the Hokage set off at a steady clip and Sakura was forced to run to catch up. "Um, Tsunade-sama?" she started, pausing and looking around, pretending very hard that she wasn't intimidated by the creepy surrounds. "Where exactly are we going? And why did we have to meet at midnight?"
Tsunade stopped. "Where are we going?" she echoed, her voice barely a sigh in the still tableau of the forest. She turned and raised the lantern, lifting an arm and bringing a pale hand to her face. With one smooth motion, she pushed her hood back, revealing her flushed face and bright, feverish eyes.
Sakura backed away, suddenly uncertain of Tsunade and her strange, unsettling behaviour.
"Where are we going?" Tsunade repeated, louder this time, licking her lips and widening her eyes. "We're going to dine with the Slug God, Sakura. And then? Then we're going to offer him your soul!" Throwing back her head, she let out a high-pitched cackle, the mad, high-pitched laughter pealing through the clearing until Sakura clapped her hands to her cheeks and let out a terrified, bloodcurdling scream—
She blinked and the vestiges of the fantasy – no, nightmare – faded. They were in the clearing, the moonlight washing serenely over them and Tsunade was watching her, concern apparent on her face.
"You went pale," the Hokage told her, brows drawing together as she tilted her head. "Are you feeling okay? I don't want to initiate this if you're not feeling up to it."
Now there was something she didn't get to see every day - nice Tsunade. Smiling back at her teacher, Sakura shook her head. "It's nothing; I'm fine. Just thinking about what's to come, I guess." Squashing the remnants of her imaginings – and suspecting those late-night horror movie marathonswithIno had something to do with it – she kept the smile going and added, "Thank you for worrying about me."
"Ah, yes." Clearing her throat, Tsunade stepped back and glanced around. "Well, I do have a meeting scheduled this evening with the Daimyo of Stick Country. He, er, enjoys negotiating over good sake and under a well-fed moon."
The truth comes out. Rolling her eyes (after first making certain that Tsunade wouldn't see) Sakura felt her smile widen. "I'll try not to take up too much of your time," she replied dryly.
"Good." Tsunade picked a spot on the ground and knelt. Without preamble she slapped a hand to the earth with much less force than Sakura was used to seeing from her. No cracks spread out from the unexpected assault; instead she could sense chakra sizzling at the point of impact, directed in on itself rather than forcing out. A small puff of smoke hovered above Tsunade's head for a moment, but it disappeared as quickly as it appeared, and then she was standing with a large scroll held in her arms.
Sakura blinked. It was nearly as big as the one Jiraiya kept strapped to his back at times, and she was surprised to realise she'd never bothered to ask the Sannin (or Naruto, who was a far less perverted choice) what it was for.
You don't think about a lot of things, pointed out the voice in her head.
Like? she countered irritably.
There was an excellent response to that, Sakura knew, a simply marvellous retort that could silence the voice forever. But she wasn't quite sure what that response was, and, well, she didn't have time for it now anyway. Tsunade was unrolling the scroll and Sakura put all unnecessary thought from her mind before going to stand beside her teacher, ready for whatever was going to happen from this point on. She took her first look at the parchment.
It was a list of names – a long list. And they were all marked in a faded brown ink that looked a lot like—
"Is that...blood?" Sakura asked, slightly unnerved. Naruto had always bitten his thumb before summoning anything, but the observation had apparently wandered through her head without managing to connect. The power that blood added to a jutsu had been something they'd learned back at the Academy – it established a stronger connection to the use of one's chakra. In overlooking this, she'd been a lot more distracted than she'd previously thought.
Tsunade nodded. "Yes. It's required to open the path between our reality and the plane on which the Summons live."
"They live on another plane?" Sakura echoed faintly. She hadn't ever thought about it, but there probably wasn't a slug village anywhere close.
"I'm afraid I didn't really listen when this was handed down to me." Tsunade stretched and picked up a couple of nearby stones, using them to anchor the edges of the scroll. She smoothed out the parchment until a blank space was glaring at Sakura, adding to her already-uncomfortable level of not-ready-for-this.
Beside the waiting spot was a scrawled copy of Tsunade's name, and Sakura felt her eyebrows rise at the childish slant to the signature. "When was this passed on to you?" The rolled-up section obscured the rest of the names, but the blood – ink, she told herself, ink – was kind of faded...
Tsunade scowled. "I knew how to summon before that idiot Toad-Sannin knew how to fasten his sandals."
Oh. So it was pretty old, then. Sakura knelt and interlocked her fingers in an effort to stop them from shaking. She didn't mind blood, she really didn't; after all, she dealt with it at the hospital every day. And if it was going to make her stronger, then she was wiling to do anything to achieve her goal. It was just that the idea of tying her blood, herself to an object of power like the scroll vaguely frightened her.
Are you going to spend your entire life wallowing in regret?
The voice had a point, but she'd never give it the satisfaction of knowing. Without another word or further ado, she pulled a kunai from her hippack and slid the edge across her right palm. The blade skimmed the flesh and left a stinging path, but in seconds bright blood was welling to the surface and dripping to the ground. She waited a moment before dipping a finger into the blood, dragging a fingertip over the smooth surface of the paper, sketching the five characters as neatly as she could. When she was convinced her name was legible, she pressed the fingers and thumb of her right hand into what remained pooled in her palm, and when they were all coated she pressed them against the parchment too. Drawing back, she took in her name and fingerprints and felt a small thrill of pride at seeing them next to Tsunade's, locked in forever beside the strongest kunoichi that Konoha had ever known.
With a quick application of chakra, her wound was closed and the only sign that anything momentous had just happened was the rusty patch of blood that stained her hand.
"Good." Tsunade removed the rocks and rolled up the scroll. "That's all sorted, at least." She hit the ground and the scroll disappeared again. Remaining in a kneeling position, she indicated for Sakura to watch what she did next.
Sakura, for her part, was all eyes. She was definitely ready to become stronger, and this was how she was going to do it. All she had to do was emulate Tsunade and soon she too would have the power of...slugs.
For some reason, it didn't sound very impressive when she put it that way.
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" cried Tsunade, hitting the ground for the third time. Sakura watched as dark lines spread out from the point of contact, arcing out in symbols and images before bumping the edge of a circle. Smoke puffed into existence. It expanded for a moment before fading as quickly as it appeared, leaving in its wake a slug the size of a terrier.
It goggled at them. "Hello, Tsunade-hime," it squeaked, eyes wobbling between her and Sakura.
Tsunade bowed her head in greeting. "Hello, Kazuyu," she said respectfully. She stuck her hand out at Sakura and beckoned forward, and taking the hint, Sakura stepped forward until she was face to...knee...with the slug. "This is my apprentice, Haruno Sakura. She has entered into the summoning agreement and will now work hard to learn the ways with which to call you."
The slug goggled some more and Sakura hoped it had other expressions. "It has been a long time," it squeaked. "Katsuyu had mentioned nothing of an apprentice and we feared the scroll would never be passed down."
The Hokage scowled. "Of course it would be passed down. I just wanted to wait until she was ready."
"So you are ready now, Sakura-hime?"
She blinked at the suffix. It was the first time anything had addressed her with such respect, and while it was a tad odd coming from a slug of all things, it was still vaguely gratifying. Usually she was just plain old Sakura; only Naruto still persisted with 'Sakura-chan'.
"Sakura?" Tsunade prompted, forcing her to return to the present. The slug's eyes wobbled about on its...head?... and she shook herself before replying.
"Ah, I think so." She nodded at the slug. "Yes, I'm ready to learn."
"Very well. You know my name and appearance now. I will return to my home and you will attempt to call me forth. Good luck, Sakura-hime." The slug lowered its neck region and dropped its waving eyes, and then in a puff of smoke she and Tsunade were alone in the clearing again.
Tsunade let out a deep breath and pushed to her feet, flipping a long ponytail back over her shoulder. "To tell you the truth, Sakura," she said, stretching her arms out in front of her, "I don't really like Kazuyu. A bit too...formal, if you know what I mean."
Sakura did. "Well, at least she was polite." A thought occurred to her. "Was Kazuyu a boy or a girl?" What with the wobbling eyes, squeaky voice and no discernible appendages, it had been rather hard to tell.
Grinning, Tsunade cracked her neck. "Ah, the joys of slug genetics. All slugs are hermaphroditic, actually. They can use either sexual organ but remain female once impregnated."
Oh. "Well, I guess you learn something new every day," Sakura returned weakly. Dropping to a crouch, she eyed the patch of dirt in front of her, aware of Tsunade's eyes on her back. It was now or never, she supposed. Time to add a new skill to the old arsenal. And hey, if Naruto could do it, surely she could.
Swallowing, she brought a thumb to her mouth and bit lightly on the fleshy pad. When the sharp taste of blood filled her mouth she closed her eyes and took a deep breath.
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" she cried, slapping her palm to the ground.
Naruto glared at his forearms.
Currently, he wasn't on good terms with his forearms. Like the rest of him, they were belligerent in the face of authority and were choosing not to cooperate with him on this task. His forearms were ignoring his commands and his chakra wasn't doing what he told it to and he felt irritated and impatient and it was all his forearms' fault.
"How's it going?"
He hadn't felt Yamato's approach but he was getting strangely accustomed to the other man sneaking up on him. Kakashi had done it for years, after all. Maybe he was fated to have teachers capable of surprising him forever. Now that's a destiny I want to change, he thought grimly.
"He seems to be having a great deal of trouble," Sai piped in helpfully from his position at the edge of the small clearing. He had books piled to either side of him, sorted into read and unread stacks. Currently he was immersed in How To Win Friends and Influence Ninjas, but he seemed to pay more attention to Naruto's progress (or lack thereof) than whatever his self-help texts were telling him.
Naruto scowled. "That's not true!" he protested. "I've been doing it like you showed me, Taicho, but my forearms won't do what I tell them to."
Sai snapped his book shut. "Your forearms?" he echoed incredulously.
"Mokuton Bunshin no Jutsu!" Yamato stepped out of himself and had his clone assume a thoughtful expression identical to his own. "Hmm," they said in unison.
Naruto shifted from one foot to the other, distracted from his problem for a moment. "Any reason you only instruct me with clones?"
Both Yamatos shrugged. "Two brains are better than one," the original told him seriously. "But really, Naruto, I think you're trying too hard. You're forcing the technique and if you do that, not only will it not work, but you'll also run the risk of straining yourself and your body. Try to keep in mind the fact that chakra is assembling over and in contact with your skin. Raw, powerful chakra can and does burn."
Swallowing, Naruto nodded. He hadn't concerned himself at all with the safety aspect. His concentration had been entirely focused on forming his chakra into solid panels of defense. As usual, he had ignored the big picture. I really need to work on that, huh.
Pasting a grin on his face, he assumed an air of spirited nonchalance. "Ah well, that means I just have to get it right the first time."
"You have to actually get it," Sai drawled, flipping a page.
Big picture, Naruto reminded himself fiercely, pouring all his willpower into not reacting to his teammate's words. "Don't you worry about that," he said, drawing up to his full height and planting his hands on his hips. "I'm gonna nail this technique; I have to. For Sasuke, to show that determination can beat whatever crazy stuff Orochimaru has taught him, and for Sakura-chan, so we can set off together and bring Sasuke back."
Yamato tilted his head at the proclamation and his bunshin nodded thoughtfully, scratching at his chin. "And for yourself?" he asked, fixing him with an unreadable look. "Tell me again why you're doing this."
Naruto grinned, a feral baring of teeth that stretched his lips taut. "I'm righting a wrong, Yamato-taicho. I'm making us whole again."
Silence filled the clearing for a moment. Naruto waited with baited breath, hoping that Yamato (who had never been flighty but was somewhat unpredictable) wouldn't retract his offer of training.
After an age, the original gave an almost-imperceptible nod and Naruto allowed himself to relax. For the moment he could continue the training, but it was obvious even to him that he had to start getting some results, and soon.
Taking a deep breath, he eased back into his concentrating stance. He locked his hips and knees before bringing his arms up, stretching out his forearms and keeping his elbows close to his chest. Closing his eyes, he centred himself, willing stray thoughts and muscle aches to disappear. He emptied his mind until all that was left was the background hum of his chakra and the image drawn on the backs of both eyelids - an image of himself successful with a chakra kote on each arm.
Distantly he heard the rustle of paper as Sai exchanged his book for a sketchpad, and then the quiet skitch of an inkpot being opened. The noises faded gradually as Naruto slowed his breath, the steady thump of his heartbeat receding as he inched closer and closer to total calm. And then--
"I'm only saying this as a friend, Naruto-kun, but I have to let you know this before you start showing off to other people. The way you're standing, all stiff, with your face screwed up like that?"
Naruto exhaled, a slow, controlled release of breath, and inclined his head slightly in Sai's direction. The calm was coming, gradually filling him with relaxation and a sense of purpose. Finally he could see why his teachers had always tried to make him meditate - this was really working! It felt like he'd be able to do anything, just as soon as he reached his centre and attained the meditative state.
"Well," Sai continued brightly, "it looks like you're about to excrete something awkwardly shaped and very hard."
There was silence once more in the clearing as the previously zen parts of Naruto's brain struggled to recollect what the word excrete meant.
And then he remembered. Eyes snapping open, he lunged for Sai, but the other boy had apparently anticipated Naruto's reaction and was already up and moving. Naruto stepped into a higher gear, irritation giving him wings and boosting his usually impressive speed into something faster and more focused.
"Sai, you piece of shit!" Naruto bellowed, more angry at himself for getting distracted than what Sai had actually said. "I'm going to make you pay for my loss of calm!"
Sai's laughter floated back to him, loud to Naruto's suddenly sensitive ears. "Funny you should say that, Naruto-kun," he called out. "From your stance, I rather thought you'd be making something else pay."
Oh, that was it. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" Naruto cried, the annoyance on his face mirrored by the clones as they puffed into existence. "Let's get him!"
"All right!" the kage bunshin cheered in unison. They set off in different directions, and Naruto jumped up with them, keeping to his course.
This was seriously going to waste some time, but he knew he'd feel better after pounding Sai. It was just a shame - training had been going so well.
Training wasn't going so well.
No, Sakura correctly herself sourly, that was a weak statement. To say that it wasn't going so well was to imply - at least indirectly - that it was, in part, going okay. In fact, to use the word training was incorrect as well, because training implied a present, helpful mentor, as well as the assumption that the student - through repetition, application of knowledge and rigorous physical drills - was somehow improving.
Which Sakura was not.
Tsunade's patience had lasted all of a day. They hadn't done anything further that night in the moonlit forest - there had been an air of ritual to what had passed between them and Tsunade had sent her home after the first failed attempt.
"It's okay," she'd said, when Sakura had done the hand-slapping thing to no effect. "I didn't expect you to master it immediately. At least you know the motions from watching that obnoxious teammate of yours." She'd said that with an almost-indulgent smile and Sakura pondered tiredly what it was about Naruto that made everyone who knew him care for him so much. He was like an overgrown puppy, in some respects, and suddenly she wanted a pet of her own
"But you'll need to practice," Tsunade had added, and Sakura felt her spirits plummet at the reminder that she was about to get an animal. It just wasn't cuddly or cute or in any way something that she ever would have picked. In fact, slugs were pretty much just gross, she thought queasily, remembering the way the way Kazuyu's sticky, googly eyes had wobbled on their eye-stalks.
They arranged to meet the next day (well, the same day, Sakura amended, glancing at the moon), after a good night's rest on her part and a good night's drinking on Tsunade's. The alcohol, unfortunately, did nothing to take the edge off her sensei's temper, as the appointed time came and went and Sakura still hadn't made any progress.
"You don't like them, do you?" Tsunade was either scarily perceptive, or Sakura's lip had curled one too many times and she'd given away her revulsion. Looking down at the ground, she let her hair fall forward to obscure her face, surreptitiously taking the opportunity to check the position of her lip. Yup, curled. She had to work on hiding her emotions with a bit more skill.
After a moment of silence it dawned on her that Tsunade was probably waiting for an answer, despite how rhetorical the question had appeared. She sat back up again and gave a broad, vapid smile. "That's not it at all, Tsunade-sama!" she lied brightly. "Slugs are beautiful creatures, in their own...slimy...way! Um, and they're so...damp!" Wincing, Sakura suspected that Tsunade didn't believe a word of that.
"I don't believe a word of that," Tsunade snapped, tapping one sandalled foot in an impatient tic. "And I'm well aware that slugs are not as aesthetically pleasing, as, say, dogs."
Sakura could have slapped herself. Dogs. Why on earth had she agreed to Tsunade's Kuchiyose no Jutsu when she could have sought out Kakashi and had him teach her instead? She could have spent her days cavorting with puppies, flying across the training grounds with a pack of dogs at her heels, racing off into battle with her loyal hounds at her side. She was a complete and utter idiot because she'd known from the start what form Tsunade's summons took. All because I didn't consider the big picture, she chatised herself moodily.
Yes, you are an idiot, the smug voice in her head replied.
Sakura was still kicking herself. The images of triumphant battle scrolling through her mind had been replaced by enemies voluntarily surrendering because her summons looked so useless and gross. Slugs, slugs, disgusting slugs.
Not to mention boring and slow, snapped the voice.
Shut up, Sakura replied tiredly. Come back and bother me when I have more time.
I'll hold you to that, promised the voice, leaving her alone in her mind. Sakura ended the dialogue with herself to find Tsunade's face very close to her own, a steely glint in the older woman's brown eyes.
"Did you hear a word I said?" Tsunade asked, very carefully, and Sakura felt a trickle of ice-cold fear slither its way down her back.
She froze. There was probably no good answer to that question, since, 'Why yes, Tsunade-sama, I was listening the whole time' wouldn't hold up to further scrutiny and 'Not really, no' might not be quite suicidal, but would guarantee she'd be in for a whole world of pain. Tsunade had never been the most patient of instructors, and frequently through Sakura's medical training the older woman had stomped off in a fit of frustration. They always patched things up at some point, but days could pass before Tsunade had time to spare from her Hokage duties. And while the instances had grown infrequent over the years, Sakura had gotten to the point where she could sense a walk-off about to occur.
Tsunade let out a huff of breath and tossed a ponytail back over her shoulder. She glanced over at the village, the Hokage tower visible over the line of trees. "The Kuchiyose no Jutsu reacts differently to each signatory," she said quietly, so that Sakura had to strain to hear over the pounding in her ears. "Unfortunately, since I cannot force you to master it-" (Sakura drooped in relief) "- all I can do is set you on the path and wait for your skills to do the rest." She looked back and Sakura swallowed, acutely aware of the trust Tsunade was showing her by allowing her to sign her family's scroll. What have I been doing? Sakura thought regretfully. Here I am, disappointed in my animal's looks when I should be thrilled at the privilege of learning to summon at all!
She nodded. "Thank you, Tsunade-sama. I'll practice alone and keep you updated on my progress." Wondering how to reassure her master, she fished around for an idea and latched on to the first one she could - doing whatever Naruto would do in a situation like this. "I'll definitely learn how to summon!" she declared, sounding a great deal more confident than she felt. Deciding to eschew the thumbs-up, she beamed and raised her eyebrows, a combination she'd practiced in front of the mirror as it seemed to minimise her forehead somewhat.
Tsunade raised her own eyebrows at the display before nodding. "Do your best." Turning on her heel, she set off for the village, walking instead of using a jutsu to show Sakura...well, Sakura wasn't quite sure what, but she felt reassured, nonetheless. Waiting until her teacher had gone out of sight, she turned to the patch of ground she'd been repeatedly spanking and wearily dropped to her haunches again.
"Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
Whoever designed the Kuchiyose no Jutsu, Sakura thought muzzily as she lay face down on her bedroom floor, deserved to be resurrected, tortured until death, and then resurrected again for a repeat procedure. She'd been practicing for three days and not a single slug, or piece of slug, or whiff of slug had appeared. All she'd managed to do was sacrifice several litres of blood, graze the skin of her palm until it was scraped absolutely raw and somehow acquire the worst headache in the history of the world. A team of midget stonemasons were hammering against the walls of her skull and it was near impossible to concentrate, let alone attain the state of mind required to successfully call the summons. Even with all her book learning, even with all her chakra-training, Sakura was forced to face the terrible, inconceivable truth.
In this, Naruto was smarter than her.
Man, it stung. They were teammates, of course, and beyond that, friends. They were close, they were like family, but for all his spirit, kindness and enthusiasm, Sakura had always thought that he was a bit dim. He was clever in his own way, but she was clever in the normal way. Frankly, it galled her to admit that the technique apparently preferred his brand of intelligence over hers.
Why? she thought plaintively, rolling over and bringing her hand up to her face. Investigating the palm - she performed slight chakra healings each night to take the worst edge off the pain - she looked for signs of abnormality, but found none. Her palm appeared perfectly normal, so the tool wasn't the problem. The problem was the kunoichi who wielded it.
She was doing something wrong. She had to be. The process made perfect sense in her head, and she was certain she was applying the precise amount of chakra required each time. Each time the blood needed was given, and each time she came up with absolutely nothing.
Sakura was so frustrated she wanted to cry. All her grand ambitions of rescuing Sasuke were shrivelling up into nothing, and her vow to improve herself until she could stand beside Naruto as an equal was appearing more unlikely with each failed attempt. She couldn't even swallow her pride and ask him for pointers as he'd sequestered himself away for training with Sai and Yamato, and since one of them was doing well it didn't seem right to interrupt. Tsunade had done as much as she could, so once again, Sakura was alone.
Never alone, came the spooky murmur of the voice in her head. Ignoring the disturbing interruption, she let her hands fall to the ground again and looked up. Above her head, the ceiling stretched out, a clear, unblemished expanse of white that (dust notwithstanding) suddenly seemed as pure as untouched snow. White, she thought, letting her eyes unfocus, the edges of the room blurring until all she could see was white. Empty, she thought, and let her mind empty also, pushing out the fear and frustration and anger until there was nothing left.
Stretching a hand up, she reached for the faraway ceiling. She was gradually feeling distant from her body, strangely calm and contented, a complete reversal of her emotions from only minutes before.
If only you could do this all the time, said the voice thoughtfully.
Sakura's eyes snapped open. Shut up! she rallied furiously. All you ever do is badger me and demean me! And I'm arguing with... is this even my subconscious?
It couldn't, of course, but she almost thought the voice shrugged. You tell me, it rejoined. We're in your head.
"Argh!" Sakura sat up. She felt like punching something, hitting something, doing something to make this stupid feeling of uselessness go away. It was just like three years ago; she was getting left behind again. Even though she'd done her best to fix it, to work on it, nothing she did made the slightest bit of difference. Sasuke was still gone and Naruto's level was still out of reach. She couldn't even summon a slug larvae or egg or whatever the hell a slug came into the world as.
The mechanics of the summoning was easy enough, the words weren't difficult and chakra control had always been her strongest skill, but it just wasn't enough.
"Dammit!" Giving in to her childish impulse, she got to her knees and slapped the floor so hard the house shook (luckily her mother was out shopping and her father was on a business trip), grazing her already tender palm. The sting barely registered; she was so angry at her own uselessness. "I can't do anything!" she shouted at her room, feeling desperation building behind the surface fury - how was she to protect her team if she couldn't do this? "I can't help my friends, can't live up to expectations, and I can't even do the Kuchiyose no Jutsu--"
Her palms tingled. Something clicked deep inside. Black lines spread across the floorboards, pictures and symbols bumping the edges of a circle. Sakura felt the jutsu lock and had just enough time to feel very, very scared. "Oh, shi--"
And then something puffed into existence and the world came tumbling down.
Thanks so much to everyone who has waited patiently for this chapter. I've had a lot going on and this story was, frankly, the least of my concerns. I glanced over the draft of this chapter a few days ago and remembered how much I'd enjoyed writing it, so I'm hoping that I'll be able to stick to a regular posting schedule this time. I've applied some edits to the first chapter as well, so feel free to have a look at that one if you need a refresher at all.
Thanks for reading, and a big thank you to Molly, Char and DS, who all help me so much with appreciating and betaing my work.