Effloresco Secundus

Chapter 24: Chain Reaction


There was a stark white ceiling above Sakura and it was rushing past very quickly. It took her several long moments to realize that she was lying on a gurney. Her ears were ringing and her vision was spotty.

"Haruno-san, you're going into surgery," said a freckled medic, leaning over her. The skin under the medic's eyes was dark and tightened with stress and her pupils were blown wide open. 'Overdosing on food pills cause symptoms similar to those of narcotics intake,' said Iruka's crisp voice in her head.

Sakura blacked out again.

When she came to, she was in a hospital bed with a plastic mask cupped over the lower portion of her face. When she glanced around the room through half-open eyes, the memories slowly came back to her. Kabuto. The pressure in her stomach. The awful bruises. Going into surgery. And the other Sakura, the first Sakura, and her hostile grin.

"You couldn't breathe properly," said Sasuke's voice to her right and Sakura carefully turned her head to look at her teammate, though exhaustion made it difficult to move. Sasuke's arms were bandaged and his face, though impassive, was a sallow white color that spoke of little sleep. "The blood in your stomach put pressure on your organs." He leaned over and carefully removed the oxygen mask.

"How long-?" Sakura croaked, coughing dryly.

Sasuke leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "You've been out for two days. I think they kept you unconscious on purpose." His hands clenched around each other. "Your heart stopped working."

Sakura's eyes closed briefly. Her body felt like it'd been squeezed through a tube. 'I almost died? It's been a while since the last time.' What a crass thought that was. But true. 'And… my magic didn't protect me from that. Not enough. I would have died if not for the medics.' But on the tail of that thought came the realization that she'd progressed in her magic, that it'd allowed her more power than she'd had access to for as long as she could remember.

"Where's-?"

"Naruto was kicked out. He was causing a ruckus."

Sakura tried to smile a little at that. She could imagine Naruto bouncing off the walls in worry. "You... alright?"

Sasuke snorted, looking away. "I broke my legs and burned my arms. The new skin is tender, but healed now. Naruto is fine too."

Sakura closed her eyes, relief making her fingers tingle. Then she steeled herself. "Me?"

Sasuke's expression darkened, eyes flickering red and then back to black. "...I don't know. They won't tell us. Kakashi said he wanted to talk to you first."

Sakura nodded, trying to keep from biting her lip or showing any other signs of her worry. 'That doesn't sound too good. Permanent damage?' She didn't want to ask about her mother. Sasuke hadn't said anything and hopefully, that meant only good things.

"That bastard Orochimaru..." Sasuke said and Sakura saw how mussed and greasy his hair was. How tensely he sat in his chair. 'He really hasn't slept. Probably not since we got to the hospital.' Sasuke turned dark eyes on her. "Kabuto told me he knew what kind of person I was. That I could 'reach my full potential under his master'. Like he honestly thought he could convince me to come voluntarily after trying to kill you." Sasuke's fists shook, and his eyes flared with Sharingan.

"They don't know you," said Sakura. Quietly, she cleared her throat.

"They think they do. He sounded so sure of himself." Sasuke looked down at his hands and unclenched them slowly. "They're all the same. Wanting to make me into something that suits their purposes."

Sakura untangled her left arm from the covers and put her hand on Sasuke's bandaged wrist. His arm tensed at the contact, but he didn't pull away. Sakura did, after only a few seconds.

Sasuke's gaze was on her like he was trying to read something in her face. It was like some strange premonition, but Sakura knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth. Sasuke was rarely easy to read, but in his weariness and anger, his expression was open. "We need-"

"- power," Sakura finished for him. His eyes widened. "The last time we ended up in the hospital, I realized that I wasn't strong enough. That we're not strong enough." And they'd made a promise that time at Kiba's funeral, that they wouldn't die.

"...There is someone I want to kill."

"I know," said Sakura, and thought of Mikoto's worried gaze. Of the promise she'd made.

Sasuke stared at her for a long moment before continuing. "I want to restore my clan."

"I know," said Sakura again. Then she narrowed her eyes at him. "We're doing it as a team. Our ambitions," she clarified when he gave her a blank look. "We're going to turn them into reality together. No going off on your own."

Something flitted over Sasuke's features, a cresting of dark thought, before he nodded. It was tempting to push the idea of togetherness until she was sure he agreed, but that would just put him on the defensive.

"How is the village?" she asked instead. It wasn't entirely to keep herself from thinking about her new host of mental problems, but she didn't ask purely out of concern either.

About three hundred Konoha deaths had been confirmed so far, Sasuke said, and a lot of buildings had collapsed in the fighting. But like Kakashi had said, the village had been prepared for something like this to happen. Many more shinobi than would usually have been in the village had been ready to counter the invasion.

"There is real talk of war," Sasuke finished with a quick glance at her.

Sakura coughed, slowly rising in bed to sit up against the headboard. Her stomach was completely without pain, and although she had bandages wrapped around her midsection down to her ribs, nothing felt out of place. "With who? Kumo? Oto? Suna?"

Kakashi appeared in the doorway before he could elaborate. "It is not certain that we will go to war over this," he said mildly, stepping into the room. "They invaded us without provocation, and did it with many of the Hidden Countries influential civilians here. If their invasion had succeeded, they could have spun the chaos into being Konoha's fault. That was most likely their intention. But as things stand, they have no plausible deniability. Depending on how they respond to our next move… We'll see." His half-lidded eye flicked to Sasuke. "Out. I need to speak to Sakura privately."

Sasuke gave him a narrow look, but obeyed the clear order. It was difficult not to, because Kakashi's body was set in severe angles and his body armor was grimy with old blood.

"You shouldn't be sitting up. The only reason you're not in pain is the IV in your arm." Kakashi sat down in the chair Sasuke had occupied, his long legs stretching out in front of him. The feigned casualness of the movement made Sakura's hackles rise. "I have some bad news."

Sakura breathed out, acknowledging and dismissing the tremble in her throat. "I thought so. It's not… it's not my mother, is it?"

"Your mother is fine." Kakashi leaned forward even further, but looked like he wasn't sure what to do next. How to make her brace herself, maybe. "Yakushi Kabuto was a traitor. You've figured that out."

'Pretty hard to misunderstand, considering he tried to kill us and all,' Sakura thought waspishly but didn't say. 'And what he said about Mizuki…'

"He works for Orochimaru. What he did to you was most likely on the traitor Sannin's orders." Kakashi's visible eye flickered down to her stomach and Sakura felt ice rush through her veins. There was the sense of time standing still, just for a moment, as Kakashi gathered his thoughts. "He took one of your ovaries, Sakura."

Sakura hesitated, the words rattling in her skull like marbles in a ceramic bowl. She sucked in a breath, mind spinning in every unpleasant direction imaginable. A chill came over her lips and with difficulty, she forced down the gorge rising in her throat. Logical connections came easily through the numbness of her shock. "Orochimaru… used to experiment…" she said and it came out thick and faint. Kakashi nodded slowly. Sakura blinked rapidly and sucked in another short breath, holding it in her lungs until they burned before she let it out. "Why?"

"I don't know. You have no bloodlimit." Kakashi broke off to look at her for a moment. Sakura stared back blankly. "Do you, Sakura?"

'...Can it be passed on? Has my magic evolved enough that I could pass it on to a child?' Frantically, she tried calling to mind what she'd read about how magic was inherited. It wasn't passed on entirely via genetics; the core developed from a potential to reality through exposure to a parent's ambient magic while in the womb. That was why mugglesborns were so much rarer than half-bloods and purebloods. At least, that was what she could recall reading. 'I know I wrote this down somewhere… I'll have to look through my archive.'

"Sakura," said Kakashi and Sakura jerked back into herself. He was still looking at her steadily, like he already knew the answer to his question. But he could be bluffing. 'Though my silence wasn't exactly inconspicuous.' Stupid. She was too badly shook up and let her mind run away with her.

"I don't want to talk about this." Her voice cracked like a pubescent boy's in the middle of the sentence. Newblood were a lot more vulnerable than clan-bred bloodlimit carriers.

Kakashi leaned back. "It's up to you. There are no laws that would require you to tell me." He looked like he'd had his suspicions confirmed anyway, and Sakura wished she knew if the jounin was truly on her side or not. Would he pass his suspicions on in a report? She kept the tremble out of her hands by clenching them into the bedspread.

"What can Orochimaru do with one of my- my ovaries?" she asked, tripping over the words. "Doesn't he need more parts to- to-" make a child out of my eggs. That familiar cold beat like a pulse in the back of her head and fury was beginning to simmer under the disgust and the fear. She only barely reined it in.

One of Kakashi's gloved hands pressed over her fingers for a moment. "Yakushi is a trained medic. And not the only medic under Orochimaru's control." The jounin paused, squeezed her hand a little too hard, and then said, "We know he's had successes with his experiments in the past. He has created children before. It takes time, and we know he doesn't always succeed, but… you should be aware."

Sakura stared blankly at her teacher and tried to process that. Kakashi sounded like he thought she should prepare herself for the worst case scenario.

"ANBU are in pursuit of Yakushi. Once we realized exactly what he had taken out of you and what it would likely be used for, Hokage-sama sent out teams of ANBU with the sole purpose to take it back from Yakushi."

"The Hokage suspects that I have a bloodlimit too, doesn't he?" said Sakura dully.

"Orochimaru is only interested in bloodlimits and jutsus. The only reason he would want to steal… what he stole from you, is if he thought you had a bloodlimit." Kakashi was speaking slowly and cautiously, eyes focused on her face, probably to gauge her reaction to his words.

"How many people suspect that now?" Sakura asked, and thought of how carefully she'd been trying to hide it and how quickly the shields around secrets could fall.

"The only ones who know with reasonable certainty are myself and the Hokage. The medics who treated you know that someone intentionally injured you in that specific way, but not who or why. Your teammates know that Yakushi hurt you on Orochimaru's say-so, but not why or how. The ANBU only know that Yakushi stole a valuable tissue sample, not from who or why."

"Will the information be passed along to anyone else?" Sakura said, leaning back and staring up into the ceiling. Her voice was blank, free of inflection, and not by conscious choice on her part. "I imagine many people would be interested. The Hokage has advisers, doesn't he?"

"When the village was first founded, the Shodai Hokage passed several laws concerning bloodlimit holders," said Kakashi. Sakura remembered reading about those laws, remembered thinking that they were basically bribes to entice clans into joining the village. "One of those laws was that nobody may spread information about an unknown bloodlimit or bloodlimit mutation without the bloodlimit holder's permission."

"I'm not stupid, Kakashi-sensei. I know the laws don't apply to the Hokage when he doesn't want them to." It was very bluntly put and probably the sort of thing she wasn't supposed to say out loud. Sakura didn't care. Her hands were hovering over the bandages around her stomach and hips.

"He has no reason to spread the information," said Kakashi, which was a subtle confirmation of her tired comment. 'It's true that the Hokage, and everybody else, tend to tread carefully when it comes to bloodlimit carriers.' Nobody wanted to alienate them, because they were a great boon to the village. Though of course that carefulness only stretched so far.

Kakashi leaned back, looked her over in that way he sometimes did, like he wasn't sure what to make of her but that she worried him. "I want you to consider meeting with a counselor."

Sakura twitched. "What? Why?"

"I told you and your teammates to talk to Yamanaka Inoichi after your first kill as a team, but you stuck to talking to each other. That was acceptable, since I saw that it worked for you. But this time I want you to talk to an actual mental health professional."

Sakura stared at him. 'People say the Yamanakas can go into people minds and rummage around. Or is that just a rumor?' "…I don't want anybody but me inside my head." And wasn't that just ironic?

Kakashi rolled his eyes. "It's not an interrogation, Sakura. I just want you to talk to him. Or else one of the other Yamanaka psychiatrists."

Sakura nodded reluctantly, because what else was she to do? She couldn't refuse without a solid reason and she had none that she could say out loud.

Kakashi quietly explained that she wasn't likely to feel any different after the ovary's removal, as the other was still in full working order. It should compensate hormonally, if not right away, then relatively soon. Sakura nodded dumbly throughout the explanation. She heard him open the door and speak into the corridor beyond. Then both Sasuke and Naruto were suddenly on her bed, looking worried and confused and angry. But they didn't say anything, didn't ask her anything. Naruto clasped his tanned hands around one of hers and Sasuke leaned on her shoulder.

Sakura held onto them tightly, but didn't cry. She had better things to do. The back of her head was sizzling with deep, burning cold. And Ginny's laugh was there too, a pale and tinny echo that seemed to come from somewhere far away. At least… She thought it was Ginny's laugh. If she listened closely, it sounded almost like a child's voice.

-.-.-.-

She was out of the hospital a week and a half later. Sasuke and Naruto kept close to her the whole time, like they were afraid she'd disappear if they left. They kept exchanging glances and looked at her like they had a million questions, but Kakashi must have warned them off. For that, Sakura was thankful.

An idea was brewing in the back of her mind, behind the thoughts of what Orochimaru and his pet medic might be doing with her missing piece right now. And behind the thoughts of the crazy little Sakura in her head and what that meant for her mental state and what to do about it and if there was anything to do about it at all. For once, Sakura didn't know where to turn. Her books would hold no answers. She couldn't ask anyone, or risk revealing herself. 'Risk revealing that I took the other Sakura's place, shoved her out of her own life and settled in comfortably to live it out myself.' It was cowardly, but she'd resigned herself to her own cowardice several months before. 'But that was before there was someone else there to call me out on it…'

If she'd been a heroic sort of person she'd now do her utmost to give the little Sakura in her head the body back. Or at least she'd do her best to allow the other Sakura some kind of life, free her from the prison of their mindscape. But Sakura had lost most of what heroism she'd possessed as Hermione, and now there was pragmatism and fear and a thread of pure selfishness in its place.

The curse mark was somehow functioning as a partial wand core, she'd long since established that. It was the closest she'd gotten to a wand core since finding the vine wood. It was unfortunately stuck in her neck, still warped into a bruise-like shape that nobody had really commented on. The curse was attached to a tenketsu, and tenketsu were actual physical nodes. Just having a few chips of wood under the skin of the curse mark on her arm had enabled her to use magic in a semi—controlled way against Orochimaru. If she could place a piece of the vine wood directly into the infected node…

It was strange, how calm she felt as she walked out of the hospital. It was the kind of calm that was actually some kind of rage, the sort of anger that numbed you, Sakura suspected. But the truth was that she mostly just felt… cold. A little tired, maybe. A lot exhausted, definitely. 'And the pressure to hurry up and get power is there too, admittedly.' She'd never have considered shoving more vine wood under her skin otherwise, especially not into one of the chakra matrix' most delicate tenketsu. 'Who knows what's really happening behind that pink door, what she's really doing to my mind?'

"I wonder what Kumo's gonna reply," said Naruto out of nowhere, and it took Sakura a moment to reorient herself into the conversation. They'd been talking about the demands Konoha had placed on the invading forces' respective villages. Suna was now weaker than ever, and it was generally assumed that they would have to bow to Konoha's demands. After all, Konoha did have their dead Kazekage's children as hostages. Apparently. How or when that had happened, Sakura wasn't sure.

"They'll never agree. Their reputation was hit the worst when the news spread," said Sasuke, looking thoughtful. Konoha had made sure the news of the failed invasion spread far and wide. They'd included a list of internationally important names killed by the invading forces, and Kumo and Suna was said to have suffered an abrupt drop in international mission requests. Oto and Shimo hadn't been hit as hard, them being smaller villages, but apparently several cities had broken off trade agreements with them.

"War does seem even more likely now," said Sakura. Her voice was low and stiff, but she was not going to let the way Orochimaru had fucked her over once again stop her from functioning. He was not going to win and she was not going to go over the worst case scenarios in her head over and over again. She wasn't. And she wasn't going to let the little Sakura stop her from living her life. Their life. She was not going to let guilt rise up and choke her; she'd made her bed long ago and she was damn well going to lie in its messy sheets. And so what if trying to engage herself in team discussions didn't come as easily to her right now? She'd get there. "Even if they've earned hostility from Fire, Wind, Hot Water, Pebbles, Rain and Rivers, it's not like Lightning or the island nations' care. None of their important civilians were killed. Lightning is wealthy enough that Kumo could survive on its domestic clientele alone."

They looked relieved whenever she spoke, and this time was no different. 'I should tell them what happened.' She'd been thinking that for days now, but couldn't bring herself to. Every time she opened her mouth to approach the subject, a lump appeared in her throat and she had to physically swallow it down.

"I heard that some of the western territories refused Kumo's offer to host them because of the invasion," said Naruto. Sakura nodded. Even if most Lightning clients didn't care much about the invasion, plenty of unaligned countries did.

They ended up at BBQ Eki with cups of hot tea and a platter of crackers. A TV was on, set to a Fire Capital station that broadcast internationally. When Sakura glanced at the screen, the news anchor turned out to be a severe-looking man with his mouth twisted into a frown as he spoke.

"Konohagakure's leader, the honorable Hokage Sarutobi Hiruzen-sama, has officially announced that the village expects compensation for the damage and deaths that the failed invasion by Kumogakure, Shimogakure, Sunagakure and Otogakure has caused them. The list of deceased also contains several notable figures from unaligned nations, such as Oh Akahana from Pebbles, Shihuang Kang and Bedi Datta of the Western Territories, Shizuyo the Wise and Kanamura Masayori of the Southern Islands and many, many more. Fire Country deaths include the Daimyo's consort's niece, Mika, several members of noble civilian clans as well as innumerable defenseless clan-less civilians in Konohagakure..."

"I wonder when Kakashi-sensei will be back?" said Naruto, biting into a cracker with a dissatisfied grimace. The jounin had said something about a mission in Hot Water and had been gone for two days already.

"The concerned villages are expected to send formal notes acceptance to Konohagakure within the next few days. Michiro-san, do you think the other Hidden Villages will accept this demand for compensation?"

Sakura turned her eyes from the TV. "Who knows? We should probably go to the mission room and take a mission or two today."

Sasuke frowned at her. "The results of the chunin exam are being announced today," he said. Sakura blinked. She'd forgotten about that, and as she thought back, had a feeling that this wasn't the first time one of her teammate's had to remind her.

"You'll definitely become a chunin, Sakura-chan," said Naruto with a sigh. "I heard the chunin gate guards talk about your match with Shikamaru."

Sasuke frowned harder. The invasion had interrupted the tournament and nobody had been particularly eager to start it up again right away. Plenty of buildings were still badly damaged, and most available genin had been tapped for D-ranks involving the reconstruction. Sakura's mother was overseeing two teams of genin on one of her work sites. 'And Sasuke never had the chance to fight...'

Sakura sat back in her chair. "I don't really care about the rank. They're having another chunin exam in three months, as I understood it. If we're not nominated now, we won't have to wait long for another try." Because these exams had been interrupted, the next round of the exams was going to occur in half the usual time. Or so the gossip said.

"Easy for you to say," Naruto muttered. "I wanted to show off my tactics and stuff in my second match, but instead I only got to-" Here he made a gesture that Sakura thought was supposed to convey how whimsical his first match had been.

"That's your own fault, idiot," Sasuke said with a snort. "You had the opportunity to show off your skills and decided to play around instead."

"Whatever, bastard." Naruto rolled his eyes and sank deeper into his chair. Finishing the crackers and their drinks took only a few more minutes, and they did so in silence.

When the platter and cups were empty they got up, left money on the table, and walked out of the restaurant with a collective nod to Azumi. The day was bright and cheerful, contrasting sharply with team seven's general mood.

They slid in behind the small crowd that had gathered in front of the mission room, where the results would be announced by the sickly proctor from the chunin exams. Sakura spotted Aburame Shino standing next to Kurenai in a corner, probably waiting to gain entrance to the mission room itself, and nodded briefly to him.

The examiner climbed up on a small dais and coughed briefly. His head and neck were bandaged and his face was tinged a deeper grey than before. But his voice was strong and formal when he spoke, holding up a slim scroll with both hands. "Of the chunin candidates from this year's first chunin exam, two genin have proven themselves especially capable. They have been slated for new ranks, as decided by the examiners, the jounin-sensei and Hokage-sama."

"The first of these two genin is Haruno Sakura. The second is Nara Shikamaru." The announcement was met with an approving buzz among the gathered people, and Sakura slipped discreetly behind her teammates and into the shadow. She was not going to broadcast her presence to a bunch of curious strangers.

"Congratulations, Shikamaru!" Ino cheered from somewhere in the crowd. She heard Shikamaru mutter something in return that made Chouji laugh.

"You deserved that," said Naruto, giving her an encouraging smile. His blue eyes were almost completely cheerful, and the disappointment only shone through if Sakura looked for it.

Sasuke nodded, but he was frowning. Sakura looked at him, held back a sharp sigh and said, "No, it isn't fair. But do you want to rise in rank or in power?"

Sasuke looked at her for a moment, like he was turning the thought over in his head, and then huffed. The tense expression flattened out into something less frustrated, though he still didn't look particularly pleased. "Three months isn't that long."

"The next time the exam rolls around, we're going to dominate the other contestants!" said Naruto with a grin. 'Probably true,' said Sakura, her thoughts lingering on what Kakashi had said when they were in the arena. That they were all easily chunin level.

"We're good enough at controlling elemental chakra that we could start practicing C-rank jutsu," said Sakura, and it was half a question directed at Sasuke. He was the one with the jutsu scrolls in his clan library. 'And Mikoto…' He nodded stiffly in agreement, and tomorrow's schedule was thus settled.

"Hey," said Shikamaru as his team passed them. Sakura looked up and nodded in greeting. Chouji's nose was red and swollen, probably from a recently healed break, and Ino's hair was very short. The back of Shikamaru's hands were covered in stitches and badly bruised. 'I guess medics can't be bothered to heal such unimportant injuries.' She absently rubbed the scar on her chin. 'I guess that's why nobody commented on thebruise on my neck while I was in the hospital. Both times I was in the hospital.' At least she hoped that was why.

"How are you guys?" Naruto hung off Sakura's shoulder, leaning forward with his usual enthusiastic smile.

"We're fine!" said Ino and explained how team 10 had been evacuating civilians during the invasion and how she'd learned a little healing. "They say I have real talent for it!" She smiled proudly at Naruto's encouraging little noise.

"You look pretty bad," said Shikamaru as their teammates continued talking. "I heard your team was allowed to stay and fight in the arena."

Sakura shrugged and Shikamaru raised a thin eyebrow, eyes narrow and thoughtful. "My old man says you three are the kind of team people will keep an eye on."

Sakura's brow creased. 'Is that a compliment or a warning?' She didn't particularly want people to pay close attention to her right now. Who knew what a perceptive jounin might notice about her. "What do you mean?"

Shikamaru hummed thoughtfully, eyes rolling up to look at the ceiling. "It's troublesome, but you guys make people pay attention."

Sakura didn't know what to say to that, and so stayed silent and tried not to fiddle with her new chunin vest. When team seven split up for the day half an hour later, she returned home to her mother for a celebratory dinner with Shikamaru's words still on her mind.

When she finally headed up to her room later that night, there was a scroll on her windowsill. It was a standard hospital scroll and not even sealed with chakra, but Sakura still put on gloves before opening it. It wasn't until she saw the little henohenomoheji doodled in a corner that she let herself relax and begin reading.

Patient Two-Four-Zero, Haruno Sakura…

The further Sakura read, the more her stomach knotted. 'This is why Kakashi suspected I had a bloodlimit. Orochimaru's interest in me probably crystallized the idea, but the suspicion was already there.'

She knew, from one of Madame Pomfrey's books, that the organ in the back of the brain known colloquially as a 'magical core' spread like the charts in the scroll showed. Like the mycelium and spores of a fungus, as the scroll put it. She'd only asked Kakashi how many people knew of what Kabuto had done and why, but she hadn't known to ask how many people had seen this file. The medics, obviously. Whoever wrote this journal entry. Whoever had access to medical files.

Sakura smacked the scroll to her night table, breathing fast, and forced all her focus to the point on the back of her skull. It was much easier to feed that wintry chill this time and it only took a minute of focus for her to feel like her entire skull was covered in frost. Her blood whooshed in her ears. 'I can't wait any longer. I have to get my magic back. I'm not strong enough to defend myself from the kind of piranhas that show up at the merest hint of a new and unclaimed bloodlimit.'

But she couldn't see the tenketsu. Just grabbing a knife and some chips of wood and having a go at the curse mark was a dangerous and stupid idea. She would probably just carve into a vein or nerve ending. And she knew she was freaking out. That's why her pulse was so loud in her ears. She knew that. 'Damn it. Calm down. I need a Hyuga for this.'

She let tried to force her magic to respond to her will, but she couldn't summon up the sheer need that had enabled her to explode the roof before and she had no wand to direct the flow of power. A minute later, she sank to the floor with a migraine pounding at her temples. 'What the hell am I doing?' Panicking, that was what. Not thinking things through logically, methodically. She exhaled harshly and tucked her face into the crook of her elbow. And breathed. And thought.

'I need a wand, or else some kind of magic that doesn't require a wand -' It came to her then, and it was so obvious that she wanted to punch herself in the face. Runes. Of course. She'd been so busy almost getting killed and being depressed and going to funerals and fighting invaders and getting organ-thieved to recognize that she had something now that she hadn't had the last time she'd tried to activate a rune array. She had a magical core again, an active magical core. 'Runes don't require a wand, stupid,' she thought to herself, and for the first time in days there was a sense of lightness in her, a sense that it wasn't hopeless and that she damn well could pull through this.

Getting up off the floor, she went to rift through her drawers for the basic runes she remembered writing down. Nothing too complicated, nothing that would drain her unfinished core too badly. Perhaps the Sun Array…

She dipped a brush in ink and carefully transcribed the three runes required inside two ellipses. Then took a deep breath. And let the small, shaky amount of magic she could draw on slip out of her.

The room lit up, like a sun was rising from the array on the paper. The light was clear and familiar and wonderful and - lasted only a few seconds. Sakura opened her mouth in shock, torn from her wild joy and thrown headfirst into confusion. 'What? It worked! It worked perfectly, I could feel it!'

A little voice in the back of her head spoke up. 'There is a reason why the Hogwarts electives aren't offered until third year. Even if you're thirteen, your core isn't that old. The growth is clearly accelerated, but it's nowhere near the stability of a thirteen-year-old witch's.' Sakura's internal voice was now a mix between a contemptuous Ginny and Hermione herself in the year before her death. But at least it wasn't a crazy child's voice, and she'd take what she could get on that front.

Sakura sat back and stared into the air. The urge to bawl like a baby warred with the urge to scream and throw things around. Saner heads prevailed, and she mechanically placed the materials back into their respective drawers. The crushing disappointment was a gargoyle sitting on her shoulders and laughing into her ear. 'But it's a start,' she thought to herself. 'So maybe I can't use any complex rune arrays for some time yet, and maybe the ones I can use right now are very limited in scope and time of effectiveness. But there must be a few arrays that are useful despite the short time they can remain activated. There must be.' And she still had the not-quite-accidental magic if she was truly in need, or scared, or filled with fury… not that that had helped her defend herself against Kabuto's organ-thievery, though.

Sakura sat down on her bed with her Ancient Rune album and pen and paper.

She was still sitting there, with a sheaf of paper full of writing beside her, when the sun began to peek over the horizon the next morning. With a grim smile, she skimmed what she had written, and thought, 'I can do this.'

And just the idea of a plan, a prepared course of action, was enough to make her feel less powerless.

-.-.-.-

Team seven spent most of the next few weeks in the Uchiha compound. There was much less talking than usual, the air stiff with concentration.

Sakura had completed a C-rank jutsu Mikoto had given her the instructions for that would let her move short distances underground, and was working on another one from Sasuke's library that would let her soften hard ground into soil. When she wasn't with her team, she obsessively went over her rune arrays to find the least powerful ones to try out. And at night she sometimes had strange dreams, hearing the murmur of little Sakura's voice in her ears as she woke up.

Hopefully they were just dreams and not… something else.

Naruto was trying to coat his arm in Wind chakra to form a gauntlet. Sasuke was focused on a technique that would enable him to split a Katon jutsu in two, and was so grimly concentrated that he would master in a day at most.

They worked silently, like they were in a collective trance, and would probably have continued working well into the night if not for the sudden bustle behind the walls around the compound.

There was a woman's voice, trembling with anger. "The nerve of those- those bastards!"

"Who do they think we are?" said a young man, sounding like he really wanted to curse. "Actually, who the hell do they think they are?"

Team seven exchanged a look and jumped on top of the wall to look down at the streets below. "Oi! What's going on?" Naruto shouted to the crowds below, a hand cupped around his mouth.

"Kumo's refusing to recompense us for their idiocy at the chunin exams!" shouted someone rushing by, carrying a wicker-basket filled to the brim with new kunai and panting heavily.

A woman leaned out of a window on the other side of the street, frowning harshly. "They've ordered Shimo to refuse too! The gall of these assholes…" She ducked back inside, still muttering.

"We should head to the tower," said Naruto quietly, digesting that, and Sasuke nodded. Sakura's lips pursed as she tried to parse what the village was about to be caught up in. 'This really looks like it's going to kick-start the war, no matter that Kakashi said differently. It's an overtly hostile action.'

They rushed in formation over the roof tops, passing and being passed by shinobi of all ranks, heading in or coming from the same direction team seven were going. Civilians were heading towards the city center, the sellers at the market place closing up early.

There were so many shinobi milling around the tower that actually getting inside was more than a little difficult. Team seven pushed through in formation, the same way they would have if they'd been on a mission, and against all odds made their way in. Sakura saw the grown-up version of Lee leaning against a wall, deep in conversation with another jounin. 'Gai. I think he was there on the roof, after Kabuto…' Other high-ranked shinobi were scattered among the crowds in small clusters, all looking unusually grim.

Kurenai spotted them a few seconds later, waving them towards her. She had several kunai in tied in rows to her legs and a belt with small bottles around her waist. "Hello, you three. Sakura, Naruto, good to see you again. Uchiha-kun, nice to meet you."

"Kurenai-sensei, do you know what's going on?" Naruto's voice was hushed, obviously trying to keep their conversation private. Sakura and Sasuke huddled in, until the four of them were in their own little bubble.

"Kumo ordered Shimogakure to refuse to make amends for the invasion. We're forcing the issue." She smiled grimly, her unpainted lips chapped and dry.

"How?" asked Sasuke, dark eyes intent.

"We've had shinobi stationed in Hot Water, close to Shimo's borders, since Hokage-sama decided we would demand compensation."

"This is not an unexpected development, then," said Sakura, tilting her head in consideration.

"Kumo's leader is a very passionate man," said Kurenai, emphasizing passionate like she meant hotheaded. "The previous Raikage was much less prone to predictable tantrums. He gave us reason to fear Kumo's influence. When his son took over… well. He's easier to deal with, in comparison."

Naruto's brows drew together. "So… we shouldn't worry too much?"

Kurenai pursed her lips. "The Raikage isn't stupid, merely… reactionary. While the timing of his attacks can be quite predictable, as in this instance, the attacks themselves can't be shrugged aside. Temper notwithstanding, the Yondaime Raikage was given the Raikage's hat for a reason. He has a good head for battle strategy."

"What are we supposed to do?"

"Kakashi was sent to Hot Water to be on stand-by, along with many of the other jounin. Everyone knows you three are good enough to be sent out on your own, but we can't risk putting all our eggs in one basket, so you won't be joining your teacher. I expect you'll be sent out with other teams to stand guard around the village perimeter."

"Are we expecting attacks to the village even while fighting Shimo and Kumo in Hot Water or Frost?" Sakura asked, frowning.

"It would be a good diversionary tactic, because it could potentially limit how many more shinobi we could send to the front lines."

Sakura frowned but nodded. "Who should we talk to about assignments?"

Kurenai gestured towards one end of the room, where two men were being swarmed by younger teams. "Yamanaka Santa and Shiranui Genma are handling all assignments for below-jounin shinobi."

Team seven pushed their way in that direction and Kurenai disappeared in a poof of smoke a second later. They had to shove people aside, mostly with knees and elbows, to get anywhere at all. In the short time they'd been speaking with Kurenai, two dozen more people had poured into the room

"Excuse me- Excuse me? Haruno Sakura-san?"

Sakura turned around, huffing when she got an elbow shoved into her stomach by a genin trying to get through. "Yes?"

He was a young man with tired, deep-set eyes and long brown hair that framed his face. She barely spared him a glance, though her guard was up. "My name is Juntoku Juichi, and I have a message for you from my master…"

Sakura followed her boys as they made their way to the front of the group gathered around Genma and Santa. "What? I don't know anyone from the Juntoku clan, and now is really not the time for this."

"But- It's about Yura-" He reached out as if to tug on her arm and Sakura skirted the movement. They were in the middle of something important here, for Merlin's sake.

"Team Kakashi, huh?" she heard Genma say. Sakura dismissed Juichi with an impatient glance and turned to greet Genma. His senbon was missing and he was sporting several bandages, as well as a black eye, but he was grinning at them. "Starting to get a bit of a rep now, aren't you? Good showing in the exams."

"Thanks," said Naruto and grinned back. Sasuke rolled his eyes at him and Sakura couldn't quite bring herself to smile.

"Unfortunately for you, that means you won't be sent on any of the cushy missions. You should know better than to get all noticed and stuff!" He threw Sasuke a small scroll and winked.

"You sound like Shikamaru," Naruto said with an eye-roll. Sakura agreed.

Genma nodded sagely. "The Naras know the way to true enlightenment."

"Pure laziness?" Sakura muttered, leaning over Sasuke's shoulder to read the mission parameters. 'Guarding a mine? I didn't even know we had a mine up there…' Apparently the mine had several entrances that allowed one to come within Konoha's walls, though why that was the case Sakura couldn't understand. It seemed like an unusually foolish security risk for a Hidden Village.

"We've never had a guard duty mission before," said Naruto thoughtfully. Sasuke snapped the scroll together and shoved it into his kunai pouch.

Genma raised his eyebrows. "Guess this mission will pop your cherries, then."


A/N: I actually got this out on time! Still really stressed, so I wasn't sure I'd make it. Several people figured out what Kabuto did to Sakura in the previous chapter, which made me prouder than it probably should have.

In this chapter we have: the fallout from the invasion and team seven's fight with Kabuto, serious talks with Kakashi, chunin promotions, rune experimentation and a sudden escalation of the simmering conflict with Kumo. Tell me your thoughts!

Thanks to Against-The-Current for her helpfulness and patience. I am unworthy of her.