A/N: Helloooo it's been a long while (again) and I'm sorry (again lol). I just hard such a tough time writing this chapter and in conjunction with everything else going on in the world, it was hard to feel motivated to write. Thank you to everyone who reviewed and supported this story thus far, I read through all of your comments and I'm so happy to see all the Sakura love (and all the pairings you hope for her hoho).

Another round of thanks to everyone who gave me feedback on the past/present content in each chapter! I feel like I'm going to gradually move into writing more of the present-day events, with some special appearances here and there of Sakura and the gang being cute kids. Separately, I was wondering how everyone felt about this site in general? I noticed a lot of new websites popping up over the years, and I'm wondering if I should move the story to a different platform like ao3 (I do like their tagging system a whole lot better).

With that all said, this chapter is ramping up to the final exams and the invasion- I promise we'll get there! The next chapter will be so jam packed with action and new happenings, I'm pretty excited for it myself.

And happy 2021! I hope you've been well and stay healthy!


Chapter 8


"Sakura-san… stand back."

"Don't! I'm begging you, don't do this!"

"Sakura!" Kakashi grabbed her arm, trying to pull her up. "We need to go!"

"No!" she screamed. Her eyes blurred with tears as she looked up at the back of Lee's familiar green tracksuit, which had faded over the years into a muted olive.

Lee didn't falter, even though she knew opening the Seventh Gate must have left him in a state of unbearable pain, he remained resolute in the face of Sasuke's Susanoo.

"Kakashi-san, I'm entrusting everyone to you," Lee said calmly, raising his thumb over his heart. "I'm ready to protect my nindō, just like Gai-sensei did."

Lightning crackled around them as Sasuke raised his sword, and the Susanoo moved in response, lifting its massive lightning blade into the air.

Sakura struggled against Kakashi's hold, trying to reach for Lee. "Stop! You don't have to do this! Please, please— no—"

"Eighth Gate: Release!"

An explosion of chakra threw her off her feet, and Sakura crashed back into Kakashi's chest, feeling a gut wrenching scream tear through her throat.


Steady arms wrapped around her waist, pulling her into the air as Kakashi started a desperate escape, taking to whatever trees were left in the vicinity.

"All able-bodied— move!" he ordered. "Get to the western border! Headcount your groups and stay together!"

Sakura clutched Kakashi's torn vest, willing herself to stop crying and go back. Her broken knee protested with every rough movement— another painful reminder of her current uselessness, and she screamed in despair.

"Let me down! I can still fight!" she cried, viciously wiping her eyes and preparing to release her yin seal. "Kakashi—"

"Don't be a fool, Sakura!" he rebuked. "Lee already made his choice! We need to honor that and live!"

Inwardly she knew that going back now would be undoing Lee's sacrifice. She might have shattered a part of Sasuke's Susanoo in exchange for her own leg, but eventually the fight would have only ended one way.

She turned to look over Kakashi's shoulder, watching the clash between Lee and Sasuke get further and further away. Sakura held back another sob, unable to stop her heart from breaking all over again.

"Why," she gritted her teeth, trying to control her trembling jaw. "Why is it like this? What is the point of living if all we can do is run?"

Kakashi's grip tightened in understanding. "We run so we can live, Sakura. Even if it's just one more day— one more week— it's our duty to uphold that to those who have given their lives for us."

Sakura clenched her hands, feeling utterly hopeless. In the same way she hated Sasuke for becoming a monster, she hated her own weakness for being unable to stop him time and time again.

"Look at the sky, Sakura-san. There's nowhere to go from here but up."

"Only you would say something so optimistic, Lee. What if things get worse?"

"Then we keep getting back up— so that we never lose sight of our dreams."

Sakura opened her eyes and stared out into the horizon, barely able to feel the raging chakra from earlier. The sun was beginning to rise over the treeline, and she could see the rest of her friends around them, all battered but alive.

Their temporary home and base was now demolished, with half their supplies and shelter reduced to ash. Sasuke was back on their trail, and just like Naruto, Lee was gone.

Yet within the weight of despair, there was a small fire that refused to die. It called quietly, then echoed louder in her soul.

Get up, Sakura.



Iruka thought he was a good teacher when push came to shove.

He might not have been the most astounding shinobi, but as someone who taught in the Academy, Iruka was proud of his temperament and patience when it came to wrangling students. Certainly not everyone was right for the job.

Iruka regarded himself lucky too. Most of his students were diligent and well mannered; he never worried about their performance outside of the classroom.


Because Haruno Sakura seemed alien compared to the rest of his troublesome kids.

In a classroom full of prestigious clan children, some heirs, and the Kyūbi Jinchūriki— Iruka later learned that the little pink haired girl was the most brilliant one in the room.

It wasn't obvious at first, and he would have overlooked her completely had it not been for her closeness to Naruto. Her skills seemed average at best, and she often spent lecture hours fooling around with Naruto and Sasuke or falling asleep.

This was one such occurrence.

Iruka had been speaking on the history of the Konoha-Iwa Trade Deal, granted not the most stimulating of topics, when he saw Sakura's pink head bobbing against her shoulder, asleep.

This girl! He narrowed his eyes in her direction, intentionally raising his voice without pause in his lecture.

Naruto seemed to notice his glare, and he quickly nudged Sakura with his elbow, trying to discreetly wake her.

Sakura continued to snore.

Lowering his hand from the chalkboard, Iruka slowly made his way towards her row, climbing up the stairs and watching Naruto grow more frantic with his nudging. Even Sasuke who was seated next to the blonde, noticed what was happening and threw his pencil at Sakura, which simply bounced off her head.

Iruka felt his forehead twitch in annoyance, his lecture all but stopped as he loomed over Sakura's dazed form. The classroom seemed to dip into a frigid atmosphere as all eyes turned to him.

"Sakura!" He yelled, smacking her head with a stack of papers in his hand. "Wake up!"

The rest of his reprimand soon died in his throat however, as Sakura abruptly poofed into a cloud of white smoke.

Iruka felt his heart drop to his stomach, utterly shocked, and deathly silence settled in the classroom.

Behind him, Chouji munched on his chips with extra excitement, Hinata gasped in surprise, Ino stopped brushing her hair, Akamaru whined in confusion, and Shikamaru opened one lazy eye in interest.

A clone, but certainly not the basic illusion they taught at the Academy, and even that was considered fourth year material. Yet, before she had fallen asleep Iruka clearly saw her talking and moving flawlessly, casting shadows and impacting the environment around her. Added by the fact that he couldn't even sense the difference in chakra—

Naruto burst out laughing, clutching his stomach with one hand and using the other to point in his direction.

"Iruka-sensei, your face!" He howled, falling out of his chair in laughter. "Sakura-chan fooled you good, dattebayo!"

Sasuke hit him aside the head. "We were fooled too, dobe! Where the hell is Sakura?"

Naruto suddenly gasped at the realization that he too, had been talking to a fake Sakura this entire time. "Eh? Ehhh? Sakura-chan skipped class without even inviting us!"

Iruka snapped back to reality and slammed the papers onto Sakura's now empty desk, glowering at the two boys.

"Don't try to play innocent, you two!" He grouched, ready to pounce. "Where's Sakura?!"

Naruto raised his hands in surrender. "Sensei, I swear, I'm not part of this! Teme—"

"Don't drag me into your mess!" Sasuke growled. "I don't know either!"

"You have five seconds to confess," Iruka threatened, ignoring Naruto's outcry. "Five, four—"

"But sensei—"

"Three, two—"

The classroom door suddenly slid open with a bang, and all eyes darted to the open doorway to see Sakura peeking her head inside with a cheshire grin on her face.

"Sorry, Iruka-sensei, I was, uh, in the bathroom," she said sheepishly.

It was nearing the end of the day, which meant Iruka had been entirely duped by Sakura's clone for hours, and her excuse had been a bathroom trip?

"Haruno Sakura!" He turned towards the door, his hackles rising in agitation as he walked down the steps. "You are so busted! I can't believe you—"

"Run!" Sakura suddenly yelled, looking behind him.

Iruka then realized his mistake.

He turned back around just in time to see Naruto leap out the open window with Sasuke in tow, scurrying away faster than he could react.


"Bye, Iruka-sensei!" Naruto yelled over his shoulder, laughing in the midst of his escape.

"Those little brats!" He hissed, clutching the edge of the window. He whirled back around to the doorway to see Sakura still standing there, an amused grin on her face.

"Sakura…" he said slowly, eye twitching with suppressed fury. He was going to go gray at this rate. "Get your butt back here right this instant!"

He dashed after her, intent on grabbing her by the scruff of her shirt, when Sakura once again poofed into a cloud of smoke and Iruka's hand passed through air.

Another clone!

In any other instance, Iruka would have probably been crying with pride over such a discovery. Being able to perform a Jōnin level jutsu at such a young age spoke mountains of her chakra control and potential.

Until he remembered that she used it to play pranks on him.

The evening bell suddenly rang through the halls, jolting Iruka to attention as he turned to look at his remaining students.

"Class dismissed!" Iruka shouted into the room. "I want a paper on the Konoha-Iwa Trade Deal on my desk by Monday!"

Ignoring their collective groans, Iruka quickly chased after the retreating figures of Naruto and Sasuke, knowing wherever they went, the real Sakura was bound to show up.

He suddenly had a foreboding sense of dread for the future once Naruto and Sasuke picked up on the new jutsu, imagining all the ways those three could torture him with pranks.

It was going to be a nightmare.



"Kisashi, over here!"

"What's going on? Who's funeral is this?"

"It's one of the elders, Shimura Danzō. He died suddenly from illness the other day. Did you not get my letter?"

"I didn't have time to read it. Which one is Danzō?"

"He was the one with a scar on his chin— wait, let me fix your tie."

Sakura glanced up as her parents quietly bickered over the state of her father's emergency funeral clothes, wondering how they might have reacted knowing Danzō's sudden death wasn't because of a fake illness, butdue to their sole daughter murdering him.

She smirked at the thought, finding the scenario all too ridiculous even for her own ears.

According to the official news, Danzō died in his sleep two nights ago, when in fact, it had been more than three weeks since Sakura killed him. Considering the time that went into investigating the case and the Hokage's final decision to utilize Shisui against the Uchiha Clan, Sakura knew that her first major interference had been a success.

"It's so hot," Naruto complained beside her, wiping the sweat from his brow. He shuffled uncomfortably in his black suit, opening yet another button in his dress shirt.

"I know," Sakura agreed, flapping a paper fan towards him. "Hang in there."

As if the heavens themselves were celebrating Danzō's passing, the sun burned brightly and not a single cloud blemished the clear blue sky all morning.

The attendees were quiet and solemn, but when Sakura looked around, she didn't see anyone actually mourning in sorrow. Danzō was a man usually hidden from the public eye, and even after his death, the truth of his schemes were forever buried with him.

Perhaps it was a final act of mercy from the Sandaime, and the ignorant mass would be able to send him off as a respected elder of Konoha.

"Sakura-chan, what do you think happens when we die?" Naruto asked softly.

She peered at the bright sky, thinking back on a conversation she once had with Kakashi's experience in limbo. "I guess you're reunited with the loved ones who went before you."

Naruto stared down at his feet, looking unusually somber. "Do you think my parents will be there?"

She smiled, wrapping an arm around his shoulders. "Of course, Naruto. I'm sure they're watching over you everyday."

"You really think so?"

"I do," she nodded gently. "They were willing to sacrifice themselves so that you could live. That's how much they loved you."

He frowned. "But why couldn't they love me enough to stay?"

Sakura squeezed his shoulder. "Maybe they didn't have a choice."

"Why not?" he asked, voice cracking with emotion. "Iruka-sensei told me that even though his parents died, he honors them by remembering their legacy. I don't even remember my parents."

Tears pooled at the edge of his eyes and he quickly wiped them away, trying to pull on a brave face. Moments like this reminded her that Naruto was still an eight-year old kid, facing the cruelties of the world all on his own. She could never fill the hole that was left behind by Minato and Kushina's absence.

Sakura pulled him into a tight hug. "You might not know their names or what they look like, but you remember what they've done for you… and that's more than enough."

He buried his face into her shoulder and sniffled. "Are you sure, Sakura-chan?"

"I'm sure," she affirmed. "You did nothing wrong, Naruto."

He took a deep sigh, and Sakura ran soothing circles along his back, waiting for his breathing to relax.

"I wish Hokage-jiji could hurry up and tell me about them," he mumbled. "It's not fair."

"He will one day," she consoled. "We can paint his Hokage Monument an ugly color everyday until he does."

Naruto snorted, evidently happy with the idea. "Heh! Sakura-chan is the best!"

He squeezed her tightly, taking one last breath before pulling away with a cheek splitting grin. His eyes were red and puffy, but his spirit didn't waver again.

Sakura ruffled his hair fondly. "The service should be done soon, shall we get some ramen before training?"

Naruto gasped in excitement before quickly covering his mouth to muffle himself.

She grinned. "We can grab Sasuke before leaving and play some games after. How's that sound?"

Naruto nodded rapidly before turning around to scan the crowd of people beside them, briefly standing up to get a better view.

"There's Sasuke-teme," Naruto whispered into her ear, pointing in the direction where the Uchiha were clustered.

Sakura followed the line of his hand, finding a familiar head of spiky black hair stick out amongst the clan. From their vantage point, she could see the side of Sasuke's face pulled into an expression of deep boredom and annoyance.

Compared to the look of pure rage and hatred he once had after killing Danzō in the past, it was an immense improvement.

Beside him sat Itachi and Shisui, and to Sakura's relief, the latter looked properly healed and recovered after what was likely the most difficult few weeks of his life.

Five days ago, Sarutobi gave the executive order and every Uchiha adult along with children above the age of four were secretly sentenced to face Shisui's Kotoamastukami.

Sasuke was the only exception.

The fact that the entire Uchiha Clan were even present at Danzō's funeral with an aura of sincere respect, said enough of Shisui's terrifying ability.

It was all over.

Sakura took a calming breath, settling her nerves before responding. "He looks as grumpy as ever, doesn't he?"

Naruto snickered, covering his laugh inside his hand. "He totally does, Sakura-chan!"

The ceremony continued for another half hour before Sarutobi finally stepped away from the altar, thanked all those who attended, and dismissed the crowd. Danzō had no remaining family or relatives, and the funeral had been opened to the public, causing many to come to pay their respects.

"It's finally over," Naruto groaned under his breath, immediately pulling apart the knot of his tie. "I'll go grab Sasuke-teme!"

She stretched her arms as Naruto quickly disappeared into the crowd, and she turned to see her parents in a low discussion.

"Sakura-chan, are you and Naruto-kun coming back with us?" Mebuki asked, gathering her things from the chair.

She shook her head. "We're going to get lunch at Ichiraku's and we'll be back later tonight."

Her mother nodded with a smile. "I have to help your tou-san organize some inventories, we'll see you at home in a few hours, okay? Don't get your dress stained with ramen."

With a kiss plopped on her forehead, her parents bid a temporary farewell and headed out with the masses, slowly disappearing from view.

Watching them leave, she wondered if they were finally easing up on their worries. Before the age of five, Sakura had gone home everyday in tears, dreadfully self-conscious about her forehead, her hair, and her lack of friends.

Until the day she didn't.

To Kisashi and Mebuki, Naruto may have been the village pariah, but he was also the first friend Sakura had ever brought home. She hoped that even by a miniscule amount, they were able to continue showing him parental love.


She turned at the voice, seeing Naruto's hand wave excitedly in the air as he returned, hauling Sasuke by the hand.

"Hey Sasuke," she greeted, catching his gaze.

"Sakura," he replied, scanning her face carefully. "You look normal."

She frowned. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Instead of answering her, Sasuke took one long look at Naruto before raising an eyebrow.

"Dobe, did you cry?"

Naruto slapped a hand over his face, covering his puffy eyes. "...It's sweat, teme."




Shikamaru stared intently at the shōgi board, calculating his next line of moves before glancing up at Sakura for the tenth time.

She raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"

"Sakura, you're turning blue," he said seriously, unable to concentrate on the game. "And you're sweating."

"I might have a slight stomach ache," she confessed, looking wholly undisturbed.

Shikamaru sent her a sharp look of disbelief. "We don't have to play if you're not feeling well."

"I'm fine," she waved a hand. "It's probably from the plant I ate earlier. I'm keeping track of my symptoms so I'm not worried."

He frowned. Three months ago, Sakura had started to harvest some plants around Konoha in order to study them. As far as he knew, medical textbooks were either passed down within a clan or kept tightly behind restricted access in the hospital, leaving Sakura no choice but to go out on her own. He had known she was recording her observations but not to the point of ingesting them.

"You're eating them too?" Shikamaru questioned with concern.

"Of course," she said simply. "First hand experience is the best way to learn, otherwise how will I know what's poisonous and what's not?"


"What?" she shrugged. "Our hospital is top notch. They have yet to fail me."

"Until you eat the wrong plant!" he argued, fighting the urge to smack his head against the table. "What did you eat?"

She dug through her bag, pulling out a familiar notebook and flipped through the pages, lifting if for him to see. "I ate this— which I found in Training Ground Fifty-Four."

The training ground in question was right behind the Nara compound, and it only took half a second for Shikamaru to recognize the drawing Sakura had done. A bell shaped purple flower surrounded by dark green leaves— one of the deadliest ingredients he knew of that went into making the Akimichi clan's Three Colored Pills.

Dread pooled in the pit of his stomach. "That's nightshade, Sakura! It's poisonous!"

Surprise flickered through her eyes, then she reached into her bag again and pulled out a pen. "So that's what it's called! What else do you know?"

"This is serious! Spit it out!" he demanded, stepping over the shōgi board and grabbing her shoulders in an effort to shake some sense into her.

"But it's already been an hour!" she protested.

"Then vomit it back out!" he hissed, trying to get a hold of his thoughts.

There wasn't much he studied about the actual pill making process, but Shikamaru knew that each of the three colored pills had a higher risk of killing the user.

"Shikamaru, calm down! I barely had a single leaf. I feel fine—"

"What do you mean you feel fine? You need to go to the hospital— you look terrible—"

"What's going on here?"

Shikamaru froze at his father's voice, looking up to find Shikaku standing in the doorway with a curious expression on his face.

"Sakura ate nightshade before coming here!" he explained quickly, pointing an accusatory finger at her. "And she keeps insisting that she's fine."

Shikaku frowned before approaching Sakura, and squatted down to observe her better. His eyes flickered to the open journal, where it had been haphazardly tossed on the ground during their scuffle.

"What part of the plant did you eat?" he asked calmly.

"Just the leaves," Sakura answered.

"Stare up into the light for me," Shikaku requested.

Sakura did so, and Shikamaru noticed how red her eyes were, unable to dilate properly in the light. He wondered how he had missed her initial appearance when she first came in half an hour ago, looking undeniably sick.

"Too bright?"

"It's pretty uncomfortable," she admitted quietly.

"All right, let's get you to the hospital," Shikaku said with a worried sigh, pulling Sakura by the arms over his shoulders and lifting her on his back.

"Shikaku-san, I can walk by myself!" Sakura cried, seemingly embarrassed. "I swear, I'm okay!"

"You might be now, until the poison starts hitting your nervous system," Shikaku replied. "Just sit tight. Shikamaru, you coming along?"

"Troublesome," he muttered, but pushed himself to his feet. "I'll bring her things."

He grabbed her journal from the floor before stuffing it back into her bag, and Shikamaru quickly slipped his shoes on at the door, grabbing Sakura's to take with him.

"I'm really fine," Sakura insisted, practically cowering behind Shikaku's back as they left the compound.

Shikamaru fought the urge to sigh. Apparently getting a piggyback ride was somehow much more terrifying than eating a deadly plant in her head.

"Sakura-chan, you're still only nine years old," Shikaku said seriously. "Listen to the adults here, all right? Nightshade is nothing to joke around with."

Properly chastised, Sakura settled into silence, unable to give another retort. Shikarmaru caught her eye, and he raised an expectant eyebrow at her, to which she answered back with mortified glare.

He smirked.

Ten minutes later, Shikaku handed Sakura off to a nurse in Poison Control, leaving both of them briefly waiting in the hall.

"Tou-chan, can we really not give Sakura access to our medical library?" Shikamaru asked, staring up at his father.

Shikaku hummed in thought. "Our research can only be shared outside the clan for special circumstances, but perhaps I can ask the elders to give Sakura-chan an exception."

He blinked in surprise. "How so?"

Shikaku sent him a teasing grin. "I'll just tell them you'll marry her in the future."


Lying in the hospital bed while listening to the sudden commotion outside, Sakura sighed in defeat.

The next time she worked to develop her poison immunity, she would have to do it out of sight from this father-son duo.

They were a troublesome pair, indeed.



"Senpai, don't you dare."

White eyes stared back, unfazed by the threat. "I'm afraid it's not our call to make, Shisui."

He slammed his fist down, shaking the wooden table. All eyes in the meeting room flickered to him.

"She's ten years old— ten," he repeated in disbelief. "There's no reason to pull her in that young."

"You were inaugurated twelve," Seīchi said simply. "And Itachi at eleven— that's barely any different. Besides, you know this order came straight from Araki-danchō."

"Itachi and I were already Chūnin by then," he snapped back. "She's still an Academy student!"

"One with enormous potential, nonetheless," a new voice replied, causing Shisui to stiffen his spine in recognition.

Clenching his fist, he spun around, coming face to face with the Anbu Commander. Senju Araki was a man who bore great resemblance to the Shodaime, and carried a noble presence in his shoulders that simply emanated authority wherever he went. He was a shinobi that many respected, and Shisui knew that he had to choose his next words wisely.

"Danchō," he muttered in greeting, lowering his head as every Anbu rose from their seats to do the same.

"At ease," he raised a hand, gaze running across the group that gathered in the room. "I had never expected such a commotion over a potential new recruit."

Shisui inwardly sighed, and he felt Itachi grip his shoulder in a firm grasp— a reminder to remain calm.

"I understand your concerns, Shisui, but you are allowing your personal attachments to get in the way," Araki said firmly. "Children have been sent into battle before, and it is our duty to nurture talent when it shows."

"That was war," he countered. "Just because they can, doesn't mean they should."

"Haruno is quite mature for her age," Seīchi remarked. "I'm certain that she'll be able to handle the stress of Anbu without breaking."

Shisui sent the Hyūga a scathing glare for such a blasé statement. "That's not the point, senpai."

"Enough," Araki raised his voice firmly, cutting off the rest of the argument. "The Sandaime has already approved of her recruitment and we will move forward as planned. Seīchi, I trust that you can meet Haruno and complete the offer."

"Yes, danchō," he nodded curtly.

"Everyone else is dismissed!" he ordered with a wave of his hand. "Back to your stations."

The room began to clear out as each Anbu flickered away one by one, and Shisui saw Seīchi throw him a knowing smile before he too, disappeared in a swirl of leaves. Only he and Itachi remained behind.

"You feel very strongly about this, Shisui," Araki said at last, addressing him with hard eyes.

"Danchō, if I could ask one thing," Itachi spoke up, cutting in for the first time. "What gave you the notion to recruit her?"

Shisui was curious about his reasons too, as it was rare for the Anbu Commander to make personal recommendations, and he couldn't think of a time Sakura would have ever interacted with him. Not only was she young, but she was also from a civilian family.

However, he wasn't blind to her talent, and Seīchi had been right about that. She was ready. It was true that Sakura was a prodigy, but she was still a child.

She didn't deserve the blood of Anbu on her hands.

"It was five years ago that I saw it," he answered slowly, as if lost in the memories. "Back then, I had been in charge of shadowing Uzumaki Naruto during a period of unrest within the village. He was being harassed and ostracized, with some encounters nearly escalating to violence, and the Sandaime feared for the boy's safety."

Shisui scowled, knowing the situation was hardly better today. At every anniversary of the Kyūbi's attack, the village mourned by outwardly despising the one who saved them.

"One night, the boy was approached by an older drunk man— one of our retired Chūnins— who managed to grab Uzumaki by the hair. Before I could step in, however, Haruno ran over, took the man's wrist and snapped it like paper. She had the Chūnin's throat under her heel within seconds, and for a moment I genuinely feared she would end the man's life. It was precise. It was ruthless. There was no hesitation in her killing intent."

Silence settled in the room as Shisui took in the information, trying to understand the magnitude of what Araki had seen. He glanced at Itachi, noting that he too looked contemplative, but unsurprised.

"A year later, I retired from the field, but I was able to see enough of her character," Araki concluded. "Haruno has the capacity for both extraordinary kindness and merciless cruelty— which is clearly instinctual and not learned from war. Paired with a lack of hesitation in any scenario and her genius, it makes her a deadly combination that needs proper guidance from a young age."

"You think she's going to turn evil?" Shisui asked, aghast at the ridiculous idea.

"Not necessarily, but prodigies without direction can often become self-destructive," Araki clarified. "Anbu can help give her a sense of purpose."

Shisui couldn't argue with that statement, but it didn't make him feel any better.

"I may not know her as well as my brother, but I know for certain that she is not aimless," Itachi said softly. "Rather than a mission, I believe it's the ties to her friends that will keep her grounded."

Araki nodded thoughtfully. "Perhaps. It's ultimately up to Haruno to decide her fate, so I hope the two of you will guide her well should she choose to join."

Shisui glared at his feet, feeling his stomach clench at the prospect.

"Yes, danchō," the both of them answered.

Araki gave a dismissive nod of farewell before he walked out the door, his footsteps echoing down the hallway and disappearing into his office.

Itachi placed a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go."

Shisui felt his feet move on their own as he and Itachi left Anbu Headquarters, and headed back towards the Uchiha district in silence, leaping over rooftops.

Seeing the Academy come into view, Shisui stopped on an apartment roof, glancing down to see a horde of children running out of the building. Some ran into the arms of their parents while others formed groups, sharing smiles and laughter without a single worry for the world.

"Can you imagine Sasuke joining Anbu right now?" he asked, already aware of what Itachi would say.

"Never," Itachi said firmly.

As if summoned by their conversation, a blur of orange streaked out the double doors and Naruto ran out of the Academy, Sasuke hot on his heels.

"Race you, teme!" the blonde yelled.

"Cheater!" Sasuke accused, three steps behind.

The two quickly disappeared down the road, undoubtedly headed towards their favorite training ground, and Shisui grinned at their antics.

Until he remembered why Sakura wasn't with them.

He turned back to the Academy, eyes spinning red as he tracked his focus across the long building, and settled on a room where he could see the active markings of a standard Anbu privacy seal.

"Shisui, don't," Itachi warned.

"I'm not gonna do anything," he muttered, more as a reassurance for himself than Itachi. "I know Seīchi-senpai is just following orders."

"Then you don't have to fight it either," Itachi pointed out.

Shisui frowned. "Wouldn't you do everything in your power to stop Sasuke from joining Anbu, if it was him in that office right now?"

"Of course I would," Itachi nodded. "But Sakura isn't your sister, nor mine. We have no jurisdiction over her life decisions."

"I know that," he sighed. "But someone has to look out for her."

The conversation settled into silence again, and Shisui continued to stare into the Academy with narrowed eyes, as if he could telepathically tell Sakura to refuse the offer. It would be an unprecedented choice, but he knew she would be so much better off for it.

When the sun started to set, Shisui saw movement in the room and he resharpened his focus, wondering what had happened. The privacy seal dropped, and there was a flicker of motion as Seīchi disappeared from the office. After a few beats of silence, a swirl of leaves settled on the roof as he reappeared behind them.

"You're going to scare the kids, Shisui," Seīchi raised an eyebrow, meeting his gaze directly. "Are you having fun spying on me?"

Shisui shut off his Sharingan with a blink. "You came alone."

Seīchi smiled wryly. "Indeed. She refused the offer."

"She… she did?" he asked, eyes wide with a mixture of joy and surprise.

"Didn't even hesitate," Seīchi shook his head. "I have to admit that perhaps you were right. She's an interesting kid— I'd hate to see her spunk die off and turn into a brick like Itachi over here."

"Senpai, you wound me," Itachi deadpanned.

"There's that famous humour," Seīchi grinned crookedly. "Well, if you two will excuse me now, I have a compound to visit."

"The compound?" Shisui repeated in shock. He might not have known Seīchi on a personal level, but he did know the Anbu Captain had a falling out with the Hyūga Clan Head many years ago, causing him to basically cut ties with the clan. "You're going home?"

"Ah," he nodded. "I guess I have Haruno to thank for that too."

With that, he disappeared in another whirlwind of leaves, leaving Shisui open-mouthed on the rooftop.

"Don't even think about it," Itachi warned, already reading his mind.

He glanced down, watching Sakura run out from the Academy, following Naruto and Sasuke's path towards the training ground and laughed in relief.




The forest was quiet in the remote regions near Takigakure, and for the second time in six months, Deidara found himself face down in dirt, thoroughly defeated.

"For a fourteen year old brat, you did well."

Deidara clenched his jaw, struggling to move his head to stare at the redhead above him.

Akasuna no Sasori.

He should have known not to underestimate his opponent again, yet here he was, brought down by poison.

"Fuck you," he hissed.

"It's over," Sasori said calmly. "You won't be able to move or meld chakra for the next three days."

Deidara cursed, trying to force chakra into his hands, but they refused to budge. If he could release the stitches on his chest, he'd be able to utilize C0 as his last resort, but nothing moved.

That damned Konoha Anbu had been right.

He had forgotten all about this supposed Akatsuki, and even threw away that stupid calling card the Anbu had given him, confident in his abilities to hold his own.

He had never expected to meet someone who outclassed him in every possible way.

"Tell your leader to fuck off, yeah," he spat, finding it hard to even breath.

Sasori appeared unmoved. "You can tell him yourself."

With a single hand seal, the Sandaime Kazekage disappeared back into it's scroll, and Sasori raised his fingers towards him, lifting him with chakra strings. Deidara's body suddenly moved on its own, his limbs pushing up against the ground to stand on his feet.

"What does Akatsuki want from me?" he gritted his teeth. "I work alone."

"Our leader believes your skills to be useful for our mission," Sasori answered. "Accept defeat and join."

Deidara growled under his breath, cursing his prior words. He had agreed to a fight on the condition Akatsuki leave him alone should he win— something he wouldn't have accepted had he known the shinobi in the puppet was Akasuna no Sasori.

Iwa had deep rooted scars from the Third Shinobi World War, and Sasori's name was one Deidara had grown up hearing regarding Iwa's slaughter across the Gokayama River.

"I don't know anything about the Yonbi or the Gobi, yeah," Deidara said stiffly. "Both jinchūriki left Iwa a long time ago."

Sasori stilled, looking carefully over his shoulder. "And where did you hear that we're looking for them?"

"Your organization is being tracked by Konoha Anbu, yeah, didn't you know?" Deidara mocked, feeling somewhat gratified by the knowledge drop.

"Ah," Sasori blinked, understanding dawning in his eyes. "You met the White Anbu."

"White Anbu?" Deidara frowned, thinking back to their encounter. Indeed, his flak jacket was white instead of gray, and the porcelain mask was empty of any markings. "You know him?"

"Some," Sasori answered vaguely. "You wouldn't be the first of Akatsuki to cross paths with him."

Deidara thought back on his own encounter, trying to speculate the shinobi's true identity once again. It was the first time he couldn't measure the true strength of an enemy even after they fought.

"Who the hell is he?" He asked gruffly.

"Not a legitimate Konoha Anbu," Sasori revealed. "His true identity is still a mystery, but his knowledge indicates that he must operate an extensive spy network of sorts."

So that was how the Anbu knew the Akatsuki would come for him.

Deidara quieted, inwardly regretting his rash decision to ignore the Anbu's offer of help. Had he kept the calling card and used it, perhaps he wouldn't be on the losing side today.

"Shit," he muttered under his breath, realizing the course of his missing-nin life was about to take a sharp turn.

"Let's go," Sasori called, sealing the last of his puppets.

Against his will, Deidara's body began to move, taking to the trees after Sasori as he was pulled along by chakra strings.

He recalled the White Anbu's words, and a knot of anxiety settled into the pit of his stomach.

"You're much better off not getting involved in an organization I am actively hunting. Unless you'd like to have another enemy."

Deidara groaned in defeat.

He was screwed.



Dear Pink,

I officially congratulate you for becoming a true shinobi of the ranks and entering the Chūnin Exams! I'd say it's about damn time! Shame I haven't been outside of Kumo in a while, otherwise I'd be there to demand a rematch.

Now that you're an official shinobi, I expect you to take some missions near Kumo. I want to meet these bratty teammates of yours and see if they're truly up to standard. The great B-sama will be more than happy to show them who's the real boss of the north.

Plus the infamous copy-nin is your Jōnin-sensei, eh? Of course, not as strong and awesome as I am, but he would be a worthy opponent to fight. As the one to best me in a race, it's only acceptable that your sensei matches my expectations.

Keeping this between you and me, I agree that it sucks to be inside the village all year round. Got any good ideas? Maybe I'll pretend to go missing for a few weeks and take a vacation in Yukigakure, whad'ya think?

(Darui, you breathe a word about this to A, I'm gonna gut you.)

In the meantime, check out this new rap! I got a sudden inspiration during our monthly council meeting the other day—

I'm Kumogakure's genius among shinobi,
I burst into the scene like calamity,
the bonsai that Sabu-chan taught me,
my eight tails the last thing you'll ever see,

Obviously not as great as hearing me sing in person, but how's that? Pretty amazing, ain't it? One of my finest rhymes if I say so myself.

I'm expecting good news of your promotion in the next letter, Pink.

From the greatest rapper to be,



A loud snort sounded above him.

"Are you still writing to that Konoha child?"

B glanced up as the large figure of the Raikage loomed above him, arms crossed with an expression of irritation.

"She's an interesting pipsqueak, brother," he defended, blowing on his palm as he sealed the letter inside a carrier scroll.

"What about a five year old brat could possibly be interesting?" A demanded with a huff, sitting down at his desk.

"She's twelve, ya know."

"Blah— does it matter?" A narrowed his eyes. "I honestly thought this fascination of yours would have gone by now. If you weren't my brother, I would have assumed you were ready to pack it to Konohagakure."

B grinned, stretching out his arms at the thought of his potential vacation. Yukigakure was too cold now that he considered it, but he preferred being by open water if possible.

"Too hot in Konoha," he said bluntly. "I'd prefer Kiri out of all the options."

The Raikage shot him a hard stare. "Are you never going to tell me what happened that day with the Konoha child, for you to keep doing this?"

B fell silent for a moment, stroking the back of his neck in thought. "I still don't know either, brother. It's at Gyūki's request."

A widened his eyes in shock. "Is the girl another jinchūriki? Why didn't you tell me this earlier?!"

He shook his head. "Nay, but Gyūki said her chakra felt very weird."

"Weird?" A repeated. "What the hell does that mean?"

B shrugged, not particularly bothered by the mystery. "Dunno. Gyūki tends to find certain people interesting, and he couldn't really explain himself either. I mean, she did beat me in that race."

"By cheating!" A grumbled, banging his elbow on the desk as he propped his chin up with his fist. "Hmph. She didn't seem like much to me— I could barely sense the girl."

"He said her spirit felt old, but that's about all he could describe," B said with an amused grin. "Not helpful, ain't it, brother?"

The Raikage sighed, clearly unwilling to admit it. "Doesn't matter. As long as she doesn't cause trouble in the future."

"I don't doubt she will," B cackled with glee. If there was one thing he greatly liked about Sakura, it was her unparalleled spunk and ambition. There was no way she would have challenged him otherwise. "I'm looking forward to the day we can have an all out fight."

A looked at him incredulously. "Didn't the brat say she's going to be a medic-nin? What kind of gratification is there beating someone so weak."

"Something tells me she ain't gonna be weak," B replied, getting to his feet with anticipation. "Speaking of, Konoha's having a joint Chūnin Exam soon, aren't they?"

"Don't even think about it, B! Kumo's not attending and no way in hell are you gonna sneak in there!"

He waved his hand, heading out the shared office space. "Fine, fine."

I'll find my own way.

Laughing inwardly, B made his way to the hawk tower, letter clutched in hand as he considered the upcoming exam. He heard reports that Iwagakure made the decision to join, and his grin stretched wider at the thought.

Something exciting was going to happen, he was sure of it; and there was no way he would skip out on an open invitation.

Pink was right— it was time for Killer B to take a vacation.



Kakashi was admittedly concerned when he noticed a hawk fly over the borders of Konoha, doing two clockwise laps followed by a half turn.

Code Blue.

Even far away in the desolate cliffs behind the Hokage Monument, he had noticed the bird circling the perimeter, and lifted his headband in order to get a sharper look. On the hawk's nin vest was a white stripe along its belly, and he gave a quick sigh of relief.

A white band meant the threat wasn't immediate, but the fact that Code Blue was being used at all gave Kakashi a deep sense of unease.

Suddenly he was fourteen again, staring up at the same hawk as the Kyūbi ravaged the village in a battle against the Yondaime.

"Kakashi-sensei! Look at this! I did it, dattebayo!"

He turned, blinking as the image of Minato faded into Naruto, holding a perfectly stable Rasengan in his hand.

It had only taken him six days.

"Mah, Naruto, you've really done it," he said in awe, nodding in approval. "Congratulations."

Naruto flushed at the praise, scratching the back of his head as the Rasengan dissipated into the air. A goofy grin stretched from ear to ear. "Thanks, sensei! I still need a kage bunshin to help me, but I guess I have the rest of the month to practice, 'ttebayo! I can't wait to show Sakura-chan and Sasuke-teme tomorrow!"

Kakashi glanced back at the hawk, knowing he needed to get a move on.

"Sensei, why do you have your Sharingan out?" Naruto blinked in confusion, finally realizing something was amiss.

He inwardly sighed and lowered his headband. Kakashi had originally planned for them to camp in the mountains for the entire month with weekly visits from Sakura and Sasuke, but evidently something big had happened in the village.

"Naruto, as a reward for mastering the Rasengan, why don't you take an early break today?" He suggested, avoiding his initial question. "We'll meet back here tomorrow to continue your training."

Naruto gasped in delight, sufficiently distracted. "You really mean it?"

He nodded, giving Naruto a casual wave. "Of course. Don't forget to have Sakura take a look at your hand. You've injured the tenketsu there."

"Sensei, what about you?" Naruto asked with a frown. "Did something happen?"

How perceptive, he thought ruefully. "Actually, I just remembered that I might have left my stove on."


Without another comment, Kakashi flickered off the cliffs, leaving nothing but a poof of smoke in his wake.

He rushed down the rocky terrain, slowing his freefall with chakra coated feet to control his momentum, and skid towards the base of the cliff. At his top speed, he could return to the village within ten minutes and make it to the meeting.

Code Blue was specifically reserved for village wide disasters with each stripe indicating its urgency. A white band meant an impending threat, and required all elite forces to immediately group in the Council Chamber for a briefing. Yellow indicated an urgent threat, likely in the same day, while red was reserved for immediate danger requiring evacuation of all civilians.

He hoped to never see Code Blue again in his lifetime, but Kakashi knew he wasn't one to be so lucky.

He approached the North Gate at neck-breaking speed, barely slowing down enough for the guard to catch a glimpse of his face, and continued towards the Hokage Tower.


He turned at the voice, noticing Asuma hurriedly run towards him from across the street.

"What's going on?" Asuma asked, stepping into stride as they both entered the building.

"No idea," Kakashi replied honestly. "I was in the north mountains with Naruto all week."

Asuma sighed. "Same here. I was inside with Shikamaru until Yoshino-san came to alert me."

Walking into the back corridor, Kakashi slid his hand over the hidden seal and unlocked the latch, and the wall opened up to another short hallway, manned by two Anbu guards. He recognized their masks and gave them a curt nod, before heading into the underground chamber.

As he expected, the room was already full.

Sarutobi sat in the center of the round table, flanked by both council members, and glanced up at their appearance. "Asuma, Kakashi, have a seat."

Grabbing a tatami from the pile, he moved to an empty corner and sat quietly, as Asuma headed near Kurenai. Kakashi glanced around, taking a catalogue of everyone who was in the room, including all the Anbu stationed along the walls— a few he recognized, many he didn't. Sitting at the far corner of the table with the Hokage was Senju Araki, a familiar face that Kakashi hadn't seen since he left Anbu.

"I'll give him one more minute," Sarutobi sighed, leaning heavily into his folded hands.

Kakashi frowned, wondering who else there was to wait for, when the door behind him opened once more.

"Well, well, I never thought I'd see this dreary chamber again—"

"You're late, Jiraiya," Koharu reprimanded, her face wrinkling deeper into an expression of distaste.

The white haired Sannin walked in, and everyone in the room seemed to straighten a little further. It was rare to see any of the Sandaime's students in Konoha, and after Orochimaru's infamous defection, there was a considerable amount of mystery regarding the whereabouts of the remaining two.

"I was very busy," Jiraiya defended, plopping himself onto the floor near the table. "You see, I was at the hot springs when—"

"Jiraiya, enough," Sarutobi raised a hand in warning, clearly aware of what his student was alluring to. "This meeting is a matter of utmost importance, and now that everyone has gathered, we will begin."

A soft yellow barrier rippled along the walls, erecting the final privacy seal within the chamber and Sarutobi took a deep breath.

"The council and I have found reasonable suspicion to believe that a Fourth Shinobi World War could start right here in Konoha in a matter of three weeks."

Kakashi froze in shock, but as expected of elite shinobi, there wasn't a single outburst against such a terrifying claim. The room remained quiet in response, waiting for the Hokage to continue.

"As you all know, Orochimaru infiltrated the second stage of the Chūnin Exams ten days ago, and deliberately attacked one of our Genin teams. I assumed his motive was to obtain the Sharingan, but I fear it's not so simple anymore."

"And the Uchiha?" Jiraiya spoke up, his eyes hard. "I heard the boy was cursed with juinjutsu."

"That is unfortunately the case, but he is alive for now," Sarutobi replied firmly. "While protecting the boy, Anbu discovered a man named Kabuto Yakushi, who was confirmed to be Orochimaru's spy."

"That Genin?" Anko cried in disbelief, nearly rising from her seat.

"He was no Genin," Araki camly intervened. "He killed two of my Anbu before escaping."

"Then where is the bastard now?" Anko asked viciously, seemingly ready to go after the spy herself.

"Dead," Hayate answered softly. "Or at least, presumed dead."

All eyes turned to him as Hayate reached into a bag and pulled out a pair of bloody round glasses, placing it on the table before the Hokage. "The lab results came back just a half-hour ago," Hayate continued. "The blood is confirmed to be his."

"That doesn't mean the spy's dead for certain," Ibiki countered, crossing his arms.

Hayate stared back at Ibiki, and Kakashi noticed that his fingers were trembling ever so slightly. "He was taken by the White Anbu."

Such a simple statement seemed to plummet the temperature of the room by a significant degree, as every shinobi tensed upon hearing that name.

"And that is where things become even more complicated," Sarutobi continued, briefly closing his eyes as if he could stave off the impending exhaustion. "Through direct contact with Hayate, I received a missive from the mysterious Anbu yesterday morning. He claims that Orochimaru has murdered the Kazekage, and has taken on his identity."

"A message only meant to throw us into false chaos, I'm sure," Koharu intoned.

Sarutobi shook his head. "I've already dispatched Anbu to investigate, but I'm afraid our hands are tied on this matter."

"If this is true, then it means that Suna is currently unaware that their Kazekage has been replaced," Homura elaborated. "If Konoha is the one to relay the discovery, we will be the first to receive Suna's revenge as suspected accomplices— not to mention our past ties with Orochimaru."

"I don't want to believe it, but I'll admit it's very possible," Anko spoke up. "Just like he killed and imitated those Grass-nin, this is just another one of his favored tactics."

Low discussion broke out across the room.

"So he's using Suna to start a war?"

"Our treaty has never been more than a verbal agreement anyway. When has that ever stopped the other nations?"

"What of Suna's forces? They can't possibly think to overtake us with a bunch of Genin."

"Sensei," Jiraiya raised a hand, quieting the chamber once more. He was one of the few who remained calm, seemingly unaffected by the news. "If we believe the White Anbu's testimony to be true, I suggest we pull our forces out of Suna immediately. There will be no explaining our knowledge should they be caught, much less the high potential of our intentions backfiring."

"You have all forgotten that this is the same shinobi who murdered Danzō," Koharu snapped. "He is a crazed vigilante at best, and our enemy at worst. We cannot trust his information nor his intentions."

"Whether we trust him or not, let's agree to pull Anbu out of Suna, shall we?" Jiraiya pressed. "We'll need every possible shinobi in Konoha should an invasion happen."

"I concur," Araki nodded.

Sarutobi turned to face Jiraiya. "Very well. Then have you found anything regarding this possibility?"

Jiraiya sighed, rubbing his face. "Unfortunately, the things I've heard do line up with this intel. Previously active missing-nin are now going underground, with their last known direction to be Otogakure. We know Suna and Oto have been in contact for diplomatic affairs recently, and if they really banded together to betray Konoha, then Orochimaru is most definitely involved."

"I see," Sarutobi murmured, face setting into a deep frown. "And you, Araki? Any new updates from the scout team?"

Araki shook his head. "None. Anbu are still unable to find anything more than the small hideout we discussed. The origins of Otogakure and its leader are still beyond our knowledge. However, they did discover traces of a silver haired young man in a nearby village, whose description matches Kabuto Yakushi's."

"That still doesn't prove Orochimaru has replaced the Kazekage," Koharu pointed out.

Jiraiya crossed his arms with a huff. "The Kazekage is known to be a reclusive man. If his own children can't tell their father apart from an imposter, it'll be impossible to confirm that ourselves."

"Border reports from Squad One indicate no suspicious movement since Suna's arrival either," Araki added. "If Orochimaru is really impersonating the Kazekage, he's been in Konoha this whole time and never left. It makes perfect sense."

"So it's like this," Sarutobi said grimly. "With the added presence of Iwa shinobi in the exams, this could very well turn into a full scale war should they be dragged in. After all, the old blood between our nations is still felt by many."

"Then what will you decide, Hokage?" Homura asked.

Kakashi held his breath, already aware of the answer.

"We prepare for war," Sarutobi said darkly. "We can not fully trust this intel, but nor can we set it aside. Border will keep an eye out, giving particular attention to Suna's movements. Although unconfirmed, I'm certain Kabuto was in connection with a liaison. Anbu will continue to investigate Otogakure and their possible connection with Orochimaru, and all Jōnins will stay alert and observe the village with today's discussion in mind. Any and all suspicious activity should be reported to the Jōnin Commander, and I will follow up with Shikaku. Is everyone understood?"

"Hai, Hokage-sama!"

For the first time since the meeting, a genuine smile stretched across Sarutobi's face and he leaned back into his chair. "Let's not needlessly fear. If the time comes, I trust everyone here to protect this village with all of our strength. That is our duty as shinobi of Konoha."

Kakashi stretched his legs as he pushed himself off the floor, approaching the round table with apprehension.

Everyone in the Council Chamber had been dismissed except for him and Jiraiya, and Kakashi briefly wondered if calling his name was a mistake on the Hokage's part.

"The both of you, come close and take a look at this," Sarutobi said wearily, sliding a small piece of paper across the desk. "Tell me what you see."

Still bewildered, Kakashi peered down at the sheet, finding a small black symbol stamped on thick sealing paper. At first glance, he would have passed it for an custom explosive tag, but at closer inspection, he could sense there was a hidden layer of fuinjutsu held within the black mark.

"A seal?" he questioned softly, lifting up his headband.

Just as he expected, a deeper network appeared under his Sharingan, and Kakashi noticed a strong barrier within the multitude of complex formations. He was unable to deconstruct what he saw, but he knew whatever this was, it was far more advanced than an explosive tag.

"And you, Jiraiya?" Sarutobi asked.

"Kakashi is right. I would have to break it apart to be sure of what it does, but it's certainly a complex seal," he answered, pressing his fingers atop the paper.

"Careful," Sarutobi warned. "This is the only clue we have towards finding the White Anbu. I wanted to see if we could deconstruct the fuinjutsu without damaging it."

Jiraiya shook his head. "Likely impossible, especially with a seal of this caliber. How do you suppose it can be traced back to him?"

Sarutobi grimaced. "I suspect that this is a Hiraishin seal."

Kakashi widened his eyes, looking up to meet the Hokage's solemn gaze. "Hiraishin… then Shisui's report from four years ago would make sense."

"That's correct," Sarutobi nodded. "We've always attributed his escape to a third party summoning, but I was able to witness it with my own eyes. Have you ever studied Minato's Hiraishin?"

Kakashi finally realized why he had been asked to stay. "I have. But the formations were incredibly difficult, and I wasn't able to fully grasp the extent of the technique before he passed."

"Do you think it's possible for Minato to have taught another student?"

Kakashi hesitated, suddenly hating himself for being so distant as a child. "I'm not sure. The amount of years it would take to learn Hiraishin, much less develop your own formula— I can't imagine it happened without anyone knowing."

"I see," Sarutobi folded his hands together. "I thought this would be an excellent clue to tracking that Anbu down, but it seems we're going in circles."

"Hokage-sama, why would you carry this with you?" Kakashi questioned, staring warily at the seal. An unknown shinobi having direct access to the Hokage at any given moment seemed like a disaster waiting to happen.

"To be honest, the Anbu left me this seal along with a personal note, and warned me that Orochimaru would target me specifically— which I don't doubt," Sarutobi explained. "He likely intends to interfere should Orochimaru and I fight."

Kakashi frowned in concern. No matter the situation, it was a highly dangerous move.

"I don't think this seal is as simple as it seems," Jiraiya said slowly. "There's no chakra structure inside, at least not that I can sense."

"Nothing?" Sarutobi asked in surprise. "Then how can he use it?"

"My guess is that you would have to activate the shiki with your own chakra," Jiraiya said. "As of right now, that seal is a closed port."

The Hokage closed his eyes in realization. "Which also means tracing it back to him is impossible."

"Yes," Jiraiya confirmed. "Nevertheless, it appears as if the White Anbu is offering you a choice, sensei."

"How can we be certain that he won't appear to help Orochimaru instead?" Kakashi asked.

"Indeed, we will have to wait and see," Sarutobi muttered. "Very well, the two of you are dismissed. Jirayia, make sure you are not late again to tomorrow's briefing with Araki."

The Sannin grumbled, scratching the back of his head. "Fine."

Feeling heavy hearted, Kakashi gave a final bow to the Hokage and a nod to Jiraiya before leaving the chamber. The tension that he felt from four years ago, on the day Danzō died, was returning twice-fold.

"Kakashi, a moment."

He skidded to a halt, looking back to see Jiraiya step into the hall. "Jiraiya-sama?"

The Sannin looked much more relaxed than Kakashi would have expected after such a discussion, and he leaned against the wall with his arms crossed. "I heard you've taken Naruto under your wing. How is the boy doing?"

"Better than I could have imagined," he said bluntly, thinking back on their few months together. "He has a lot of drive and good innate talent— much like Kushina."

"Any incidents with the Kyūbi?" Jiraiya asked, a little more serious than before.

"He reported using the Kyūbi's chakra during his encounter with Orochimaru, but nothing to the extent of releasing tails," Kakashi said thoughtfully. "I know he's wary of trying anything more."

"I see," Jiriaya nodded slowly. "And you're training him for the final match?"

"Well, I was planning on using the month to teach him the Rasengan, but he just mastered it this morning," he admitted, still in shock over Naruto's rapid development.

Jiraiya gave a knowing smile. "Then it seems only right that I entrust you with this."

He reached behind his back, and unhooked a large scroll, swinging it around and presented it to Kakashi.


"The Toad Summoning Contract," Jiraiya said firmly. "Have Naruto train on this for the rest of the month. The boy needs to learn how to properly summon the Kyūbi's chakra before his fear settles into a mental blockage."

Kakashi blinked in shock, slowly taking the enormous scroll from his hands. "Jiraiya-sama… I don't know if I—"

"You can," Jiraiya encouraged. "If Konoha really gets attacked within the next three weeks, at least the toads will be at his side to help."

Kakashi tightened his grip on the scroll. "I understand."

"Besides, one more connection to Minato wouldn't hurt," Jiraiya smiled, eyes softening. "He's going to discover the truth of his past one day, and whatever the Yondaime wanted him to be prepared for— we need to be ready too."

Kakashi heard the unspoken words. At his current strength, it still wasn't enough to protect Naruto. The man who released the Kyūbi on Konoha was still out there, and it would only be a matter of time before he struck again.

"Whatever it takes," Kakashi said resolutely. "I won't let him down."

"Good," Jiraiya nodded in satisfaction. "You can return the contract scroll with whichever frog Naruto manages to summon first. They know I've entrusted it with you."

Jiraiya's expression suddenly turned nervous, and he clapped down on Kakashi's shoulder.

"Unless he manages to summon Gamabubta— which in that case, I suggest you just run."

Kakashi shivered, recalling the moment Minato had once summoned the boss toad during the Third Shinobi World War, and felt cold sweat run down his back.

"Will do, Jiraiya-sama."



Sakura was surprised to find absolutely no resistance in her mission to visit Gaara.

Even as the Kazekage's son, his information was readily available in the roster with the rest of the hospital patients, and Sakura was able to find his charts with little effort.

She scanned through the papers, taking note of the medic-nin's initial diagnosis as well as his long term recovery plan. To her relief, he was reported to be healing faster than anticipated, although the medics couldn't deduce why.

Shukaku was doing a good job then.

Sakura stood outside of Gaara's room for a solid ten minutes, wondering how their interaction would play out. Would he be angry? Attack her? Demand to finish their fight?

In reality, none of that concern came to pass.

When Sakura opened the door, only silence greeted her as Gaara lay on the bed with his eyes closed, chest rising and falling with deep breaths.

He was pretending to sleep.

If Sakura hadn't known Gaara was unable to sleep, she would have been fooled by the act. She slowly approached his bedside, waiting for him to acknowledge her with bated breath.

He continued to ignore her.

Deciding to play along, Sakura gave a quiet sigh of relief, knowing that perhaps he was giving her an open opportunity.

Pulling out a small vase from the cabinet, Sakura gently organized the flowers she had bought from Ino's shop, and set it on the stand beside the window, before turning to assess Gaara's bandaged torso with her own eyes.

Slowly, she moved a hand over his abdomen, intent on getting her own diagnosis if he allowed it. She hovered over his skin for a moment, waiting to see if his sand would react first, and once again received nothing.

Taking a deep breath, she pressed her hand against the bandages and spread out her chakra, visualizing the internal injuries with a gentle probe. His broken ribs were reset and mending well, as were the torn sections of his liver and stomach. The pneumothorax in his right lung was in the worst condition, and Sakura knew from his report that he had refused treatment to help reinflate it.

She could tell the injury was bothering Gaara the most, as even with him pretending to sleep, his breathing was unstable and shallow.

Bringing both hands over his chest, she guided her chakra into his lung and ballooned it against the edges, forcing it to gently rise up into his ribcage. Sakura worked precariously, afraid of inflicting any discomfort in his meditative state. Such a procedure was normally done within five minutes with supplementary oxygen, but Sakura had no such support. There was a large air leak that should have gone through surgery to heal, but he had apparently refused to go under.

She was sure Shukaku would have fully healed him in another week, but Sakura couldn't stand by, especially knowing she had injured him in the first place.

She pooled chakra around the laceration, confident that she had a good grasp of the internal injury without having to cut him open. The only downside to such a method was that it cost double the amount of chakra and much more time.

Within an hour, Sakura sealed off the final air leak, running her chakra along the borders of his lung to double check her work. By the sound of Gaara's breathing, which had evened out to a deeper wavelength, she had done her job well.

Pulling the last of her chakra from his chest, Sakura glanced towards his face, noting he was still quiet. She fell back into the visitor chair with a sigh, feeling prematurely exhausted by the events she knew were to come.

Now that she had Jiraiya fully on her side, the burden of protecting Konoha from the shadows was shared between them, finally giving Sakura a peace of mind; yet Gaara was a prime example of how her intervention still failed to change certain parts of history.

Even with all their preparation, what if it wasn't enough?

Jiraiya seemed confident that the Sandaime would follow through with war preparations, but the scale of this invasion seemed to be far bigger than what she remembered. Sakura had crippled Orochimaru first by jailbreaking his Northern Hideout and removing Jugo and Kimimaro from his list of assets, and saved the Uchiha clan. But this in turn seemed to have made his plans bigger to compensate for his loss.

With Orochimaru and Suna already in Konoha, it would be useless even if they canceled the exams. She could only hope that the Hokage took her warning seriously.

Jiraiya had agreed with her on the most important matter though— although communication and trust would be easier if Sakura bore all her secrets to the Sandaime, there was too much that could go wrong should Sarutobi decide to take matters into his own hands.

In all truth, Sakura held no love or respect for the Sandaime, knowing he had once turned a blind eye to Naruto's suffering, to Sasuke's trauma, and allowed corruption to fester in Konoha right beneath his nose. There was no predicting where his morals ended when it came to sacrificing for the greater good.

She could acknowledge his strength as a shinobi, but it didn't mean she could trust him with the future.

Sakura stared across at Gaara's resting face, wondering if he was nervous at all. Jinchūriki or not, he could very well lose his life against a stronger opponent. The struggles of Suna and their reasons for betraying Konoha were real and valid, and just like every Shinobi World War, Genin barely out of childhood wouldn't be spared.

War doesn't discriminate, Sakura. It takes, and takes, and takes until there's nothing left.

She glanced out the open window, taking a moment to listen to the sounds of Konoha below. Even early in the morning, the streets were vibrant with activity, reflecting a time of peace and prosperity amongst the village.

"Gaara," she called softly. "When you wake up, you should take a stroll around Konoha. The morning market has a lot of fun shops. The view is amazing from the Hokage Monument, especially on top of the Yondaime's head. My favorite training ground is right by the Kita River, and it has the Konoha Memorial Stone near it too."

Sakura walked towards the window, letting the cool breeze caress her face. With her back to him, she couldn't tell if Gaara had decided to open his eyes, but she knew that he was listening.

"I'm glad you're here though," she continued, a soft smile on her face. "And I'm excited for your match with my team. To be honest, Sasuke can be pretty big-headed, and Naruto acts like an idiot, but they're family now, and I wouldn't trade them for the world."

Sakura stepped on the ledge and lifted herself onto the window, using chakra to steady her footing. "I hope after all of this is over, regardless of what happens… we can be friends again, Gaara. That offer at least, will stand the test of time no matter what."

She gave one last glance over her shoulder, meeting his open eyes. There was no bloodlust in his gaze, only wonder.

"Why?" he asked, his voice barely a whisper.

Sakura just grinned, pointing to the side of her forehead in a mirror of Gaara's scar. "Because having the love of friends is much less lonely than just loving yourself. I promise that it's a love that will last a lifetime."

Before he could respond, Sakura vaulted off the window ledge, scaling down the side of the hospital wall.

For the things she couldn't change by her own power, she would just have to leave it to Naruto and Sasuke.



Sasuke hit the dirt with another painful groan, trying to right his balance as a wave of kunai came flying his way. He jumped left, dodging the first four, but the fifth nicked his shoulder, leaving behind a trail of blood as he collapsed against a tree, panting in exhaustion.

"That was better."

He craned his neck to see Itachi land before him, as immaculate and unruffled as ever.

"I couldn't see the last one," he muttered, wiping the sweat from his face.

"You're growing too dependent," Itachi reminded gently. "React with your body's natural instinct, not with your eyes, Sasuke."

He grunted in agreement, pushing himself to his feet.

"Let's take a break, eh?" Shisui called, waving from the treeline behind Itachi. "I called in an order for lunch!"

"Lunch?" Sasuke frowned, knowing both his parents were currently out of the house for clan business. "From where?"

A new chakra signature suddenly appeared behind the shoji door, and Sakura stuck her head out, a wide grin on her face. "From me! Did you forget that I was visiting today?"

She dangled a plastic bag, a takeout from one of Sasuke's favorite restaurants, and he sighed in relief, disabling his sharingan with a blink. For the first time since they were kids, the three of them were training apart from each other, and although they made time to catch up every week, it was still a stark difference to their old routine. He would never admit it out loud, but he missed training with Naruto and Sakura.

"You made it, Sakura-chan!" Shisui swooped down from his perch and landed beside her, eyes narrowed in on the food. "This is an excellent choice."

She raised a brow. "Of course! Mikoto-san's recommendation."

Sasuke pushed himself to the door, following Itachi towards the kitchen in order to wash his hands. He was the only one covered in dirt and blood, but knew his mother would lecture him for hours on the off chance she returned home and saw him eating in such a manner. Itachi grabbed a small folding table from the dining room and Shisui stuffed a few cushions under his arm, migrating back towards the patio where Sakura was waiting.

"How's the training so far?" Sakura asked with eager eyes, sorting out the food onto the table.

"Not bad," Shisui replied. "As the most neutral party here, I'd say he's doing alright."

Sasuke snorted, arriving to sit besides Sakura. "Neutral? You nearly cut my arm in half."

Sakura gave him a quick glance before pressing a glowing green hand against his shoulder, her other hand still setting up the food. Within seconds, his injury knitted back together and Sasuke was inwardly impressed to find her healing much faster than before.

"The least biased," Shisui corrected, sticking out his tongue. "You're lucky Sakura-chan is here to heal you."

"He's doing fine," Itachi cut in, voice soft but firm. "We're seeing improvements everyday."

Sasuke forced himself not to squirm or blush under such a compliment, and he straightened his spine, biting his cheeks as to not break out into an undignified grin. "Thanks, nii-san."

Sakura shot him a knowing smile. "What were you doing earlier?"

"Sharingan reaction training," Sasuke answered, chewing through the rest of his omusubi before continuing. "Because of our insight ability, it's hard for our bodies to catch up and react to the vast amount of information we take in. So the training is to close that gap."

"Right, so just because you can predict where attacks will fall doesn't mean you can dodge them," Sakura summarized.

"Yeah," he confirmed. "The more I utilize my insight, the faster I can master the Sharingan."

She raised her brows in surprise. "Was that a second tomoe I saw in your eyes earlier?"

Sasuke smirked as he flicked his sharingan back on, proudly showing off his latest advancement. "Of course."

Sakura gasped and quickly ruffled his hair before he could dodge, her knuckles digging into his scalp. "Nice work, Sasuke!"

"Hey!" He cried, half-heartedly swatting her hand away. "It's nothing to make a fuss about. I still need my third."

"Just accept the compliment, you idiot," she sighed fondly. "A small milestone is still a milestone."

"Hmph," Sasuke relented, fighting back a flush of embarrassment before changing topics. "How's the hospital for you these days?"

Sakura shrugged. "A bit slow. I'm shadowing Nanao-san right now, but she doesn't have time to teach me, so I'm stuck doing self-study."

Shisui frowned. "What's the point of being under a medic-nin if she isn't even going to teach you?"

"To be honest the hospital structure is a mess," Sakura confessed, clearly exasperated. "The current system is barely keeping up with the influx of patients, and there's only a handful of medics that can do what Nanao-san does. The last time she took a break due to chakra exhaustion, a Chūnin died because the medic on call didn't perform the surgery right."

"How do you know all this?" Sasuke asked, throwing her a concerned stare. He knew how tricky politics could get within a clan; the last thing he wanted was for Sakura to get dragged into a fight over finances and manpower.

"Paperwork," she answered dully. "Most of my time there is going through mountains and mountains of patient and clinical documents. It's easy to see how we're falling apart from the inside."

Shisui grinned mischievously. "Sounds like you could use a punching bag to release some stress."

"Are you offering yourself?" Sakura looked pointedly at him.

Shisui gasped. "Sakura-chan, you would punch this adorable face of mine?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes, itching to throw something at him. "Gross, Shisui."

A wicked gleam passed Sakura's eyes. "Are you suggesting that you'd be too slow to evade me, Shunshin no Shisui?"

Shisui froze, Itachi gave the tiniest smirk into his food, and Sasuke burst out laughing.

"Why does no one here respect me," Shisui muttered, glaring between the two Uchiha brothers. "Fine. I'll do it."

Sakura's eyebrows shot up into her hairline, clearly not having expected such an outcome. "Really?"

Shisui raised a finger. "Movement chakra and taijutsu only. I won't use my sharingan either. If you can land one hit on me, I'll buy you dango."

"I want to referee!" Sasuke lifted a hand.

"But first," Itachi interrupted, gesturing to the table. "Finish your lunch, Sasuke."

Fighting the urge to argue back, he turned back to his food, clearing the rest of his plate in a matter of minutes.

Half an hour later, Sasuke stood on the patio stairs, looking out at the two people before him. Sakura was to his left, in the middle of stretching out her limbs, and Shisui stood on the right, removing his katana and weapons pouch. Itachi sat behind him, eyes spinning a lazy red as he prepared to observe the spar.

Excitement bubbled in his stomach as he glanced between the two, hand raised towards the sky. His Sharingan was also active, intent on getting a clear visual of everything that happened. "Ready?"

They nodded.


Dust and dirt kicked up as both disappeared in a flicker, meeting each other head on in a flurry of blows.

Sasuke watched in awe as each of their movements reflected with perfect clarity in his eyes, and he was able to follow every strike down to the momentum of their bodies. He could anticipate where Sakura would hit and predict the angle at which Shisui dodged, all before it happened.

Their bodies flickered into blurs as each picked up in speed, clashing at different areas in the field, and Sasuke tracked a second behind, barely able to keep up. A sudden twisting kick managed to catch Sakura in the chest, and unable to dodge in time, she raised her arms to absorb the blow, getting pushed back a dozen feet.

She skid across the dirt, using a hand to steady her balance and gazed up at Shisui with a sharp grin, unperturbed by the hit. "Shit, you are fast."

"Language, Sakura-chan," Shisui returned the grin, cocking his head to the side in a daring manner.

Sakura disappeared and Shisui immediately followed, matching her one to one. It was obvious Shisui had the upper hand in speed, but where Sakura lacked, she made up with impressive taijutsu combinations, nearly catching the former off guard at multiple points.

Sasuke frowned, feeling a sudden sense of inadequacy twist his stomach.

"Nii-san," he called quietly, keeping his eyes trained on the fight before him. "Do you really think I can win? If Naruto loses…"

For Sasuke, who lost to Sakura on a near daily basis— would he really be able to stand a chance against Gaara?

"You all have different strengths and weaknesses," Itachi replied. "Just because Sakura lost doesn't mean you and Naruto are doomed to the same fate."

"But it has to count for something," he argued, crossing his arms. "You know she's the best of us."

Itachi turned away from the spar to shoot him a long stare. "What are her strengths, Sasuke?"

He shrugged. "Kind of everything really, but I guess she's the best at taijutsu."

"And why do you think she didn't fully utilize her strengths against Gaara?"

Sasuke jolted at the implication, not having considered such a thing. "Nii-san, are you suggesting she lost on purpose?"

"Whatever Sakura's intentions were, they are her own," Itachi supplied. "You know her better than I, so the most important thing to remember is that she believes in your victory— for you and Naruto both."

Sasuke looked down, feeling his cheeks redden at such a statement. It was rare to hear something so sentimental from his stoic older brother.

A sudden gasp caught his attention and Sasuke turned back to see Sakura pinned under Shisui's elbow, their limbs tangled in a mess on the grass.

"I saw that, cheater!" Sakura hissed. "Using your Sharingan when you said you wouldn't—"

Shisui grinned, black eyes blinking innocently. "What do you mean, Sakura-chan?"

Sakura scowled. "Referee!"

Sasuke froze in surprise, realizing that he had turned away from the spar at the wrong time. If Shisui really activated his Sharingan, he definitely missed it. "Uh…"

Understanding dawned in Sakura's face and she rolled her eyes.

"Uchiha Sasuke, you are the worst referee ever!"



"Sakura, I need to ask you for a favor."

She cocked her head, waiting for Tenten to elaborate. "What is it?"

Tenten sighed, staring down at her drink. "Well… it's about Lee. I think he's having a hard time deciding what to do for the final Chūnin Exams."

"What do you mean," Sakura frowned. "He's fighting Neji, no?"

"That seems to be the main problem," Tenten shrugged. "It's true that Lee has always wanted to fight Neji on equal ground, but I think he's finally realizing what that actually means."

Sakura caught on. "He's questioning the moral limitations of an official match against a teammate."

"Yes," Tenten nodded, fidgeting with the straw in a display of nerves. "To be honest, the technique that you saw in the preliminaries, when Lee had opened the Second Gate to combat Kankuro's poison— it's originally something Gai-sensei had forbidden him from using. He said only in times of protecting something or someone precious was Lee allowed to open the Eight Gates."

Sakura felt her chest grow numb, and she pushed away her drink.

"Please! I'm begging you, don't do this! Lee! Stop—"

She forced down the memory. "What do you want me to do?"

"I'm not sure myself," Tenten admitted. "But I was hoping you could give him some advice… especially as someone who's beaten Neji in the past. He would listen to you, I think."

"What about Gai-sensei?" Sakura raised a brow. "He's the one who initially permitted Lee to use the Eight Gates in the preliminaries."

Tenten slapped her own face in exasperation. "That stupid sensei of ours was no help! He told Lee that the answer resided in his own heart and that he wouldn't influence his decision!"

"Ah," Sakura grimaced. "That probably made it even more difficult."

"Exactly!" Tenten sighed again. "I wouldn't normally worry about this, but this isn't a practice match anymore. Someone could really get hurt… and I don't want that for either of them."

Sakura exhaled softly. "Boys are stupid, aren't they?"

Tenten smiled. "Without a doubt."

Sakura considered their situation carefully. Neji was a formidable opponent, but Lee had incredible potential as well. If Lee wanted to use the gates, he would have to do it before Neji sealed off the majority of his tenketsu. If she remembered correctly, the fact that Lee could open up to five gates was a training secret only known between him and Gai.

"I don't think Gai-sensei is too far off though," she said with a small smile. "Ultimately, Lee wants to win to prove his nindō of hard work, right? That's something precious to him."

Tenten's eyes widened in understanding.

"No one would blame him for standing up for his own nindō," Sakura added. "And I have a feeling Neji won't respect half-hearted attempts."

"Of course," Tenten agreed.

Sakura leaned forward. "Tell Lee that this isn't just a fight between teammates or rivals. If he wants to stand by his beliefs, he better be ready to open every gate without holding back."



"Gaaaah! Why is this so hard!?"

Naruto screamed into the air, clutching his hair in frustration as he stared down at yet another baby frog. He collapsed onto the ground, feeling exhausted beyond measure and depleted of chakra.

"Take it easy, Naruto," Kakashi advised. "It's only been a week, and this is a completely different type of challenge compared to the Rasengan."

"This stupid fox is so stingy!" he complained, hoping the Kyūbi heard him. "I'm pulling but he's just not giving!"

Pukkun padded close, giving a comforting nudge with his paw. Ever since Kakashi had demonstrated the summoning technique, the pug had stuck around for a few hours every day, and Naruto took a great liking to the ninken.

"Mah," Kakashi peaked over the spine of his Icha Icha. "I don't think the Kyūbi would be so vindictive, especially since he's sealed in you."

Naruto grumbled. "Last week he almost bit my head off because I called him a stupid chump for not telling me his name. I bet he's still mad about that."

Kakashi sent him an unimpressed look. "It would probably help your meditation sessions if you didn't insult him, you know."

"He insulted me first, dattebayo!" Naruto shook his fist, feeling wronged. "He always insults me! I can't just stand there and take it!"

"All right then, let's try a different approach. Why don't you think back on your encounter with Orochimaru?" Kakashi suggested. "You said you released the Kyūbi's chakra as easily as your own."

Naruto stared off to the side, recalling the moment with ease. Orochimaru had just murdered another Genin team, he had argued with Sasuke about fighting or fleeing, they were attacked, Sakura was hurt, and Naruto had felt white hot fire erupt in his belly, ignited by—

"Anger," he said softly. "I was pissed at Orochimaru. I wanted to kill him no matter what."

He had never voiced those emotions out loud, and it took Naruto a moment to realize how dark his thoughts had been, even if it was against someone like Orochimaru.

"Perhaps it's not anger alone, Naruto," Kakashi said. "I suspect any spike in emotion, as long as it's intense enough, will allow you to bypass the seal."

He huffed, confused and dejected. "Then why won't it work, sensei? Do I just not want it enough?"

"How did you learn to draw the Kyūbi's power in the first place?" Kakashi asked instead.

Naruto sat up, scratching his head for the memory. "Hmmm, Sakura-chan helped me figure out the seal a little bit, and we learned that it weakens the most when I'm in danger. I've just never tried summoning so much of the Kyūbi's chakra before."

"Danger?" Kakashi repeated, sounding mildly concerned.

Naruto shrugged. "It works the best when I'm about to die. Sakura-chan usually helps me."

Kakashi narrowed his one eye. "And how exactly does she help you?"

Naruto thought back to her complicated explanation, trying to remember the exact words she used. "Uh, she sends chakra to my brain and tells my heart to stop beating."

"...She what?"

"It worked great every time!" Naruto defended, realizing how horrifying that sounded. "And I always trust her to bring me back!"

Kakashi pressed his face into his hand with an exasperated sigh. "Sakura!"

Miles away in a remote training ground, Sakura sneezed.



"I don't want to."

Temari opened her mouth in shock. "Gaara! This isn't something you can suddenly refuse. You're supposed to be our main attack force."

Green eyes narrowed up at her and Temari took a subconscious step back, nervous under his sudden killing intent.

"I can do it without releasing the Ichibi," he said simply.

Temari glanced at Kankuro, the two sharing a similar look of disbelief. While willful in his own way, Gaara was never one to disobey the parameters of a mission, especially when it concerned the well being of Suna.

Why now?

"Baki-sensei won't see it that way," Kankuro said carefully, trying to placate him. "You know what the Kazekage has ordered, Gaara."

"I know what he said," Gaara replied curtly.

Temari stared at her youngest brother as if he was an imposter, unable to believe he was being so adamant about this. When the three of them had first received the mission back in Suna, Gaara seemed to have no issue at the prospect of releasing Shukaku.

Temari was just about to spout another retort when she noticed a strange leather necklace hanging off of Gaara's neck, visible through the wide collar of the hospital garb. She glanced discreetly, inwardly wondering if she had ever seen him wear accessories of any kind.

She glanced at the vase of fresh white daisies on the table beside him, then like a jigsaw, everything suddenly fell into place.

"Listen, Gaara—"

Temari quickly slapped a hand over Kankuro's shoulder, cutting in before he could finish.

"We'll bring it up with Baki-sensei," she said instead, shooting Kankuro a warning glare. "If Shukaku isn't up to it, there's nothing we can do. Kankuro and I will be back for your discharge tomorrow morning then."

"Fine," Gaara clipped.

Kankuro turned to her in disbelief. "Temari—"

Without warning, she yanked Kankuro by the arm and stepped outside of the hospital, disabling the privacy seal on the door as they left.

She dragged her brother down the hall, heading towards the back stairwell.

"Temari, what the hell! You know Baki-sensei will never accept this!"

She released his arm but kept heading down the steps, intent on returning to their lodging.

"Of course I know that," she snapped back. "But I think I've figured out why he's suddenly changed his mind."

They stepped out of the hospital through the side entrance and headed towards Kikyo Castle, taking a back road. There weren't many people in the streets, but Temari was careful with her next words.

"Why?" Kankuro asked, also glancing around their vicinity. "He doesn't care about anyone here."

Temari sighed. "That's where you're wrong. Didn't you see what was around Gaara's neck?"

Kankuro scrunched his face in thought. "The necklace? What about it?"

"I'm pretty sure it's the same one that Sakura gave to him when we were kids," she explained quietly.

As the first and only gift Gaara had ever received from a friend, her brother had treasured the trinket above anything else and refused to part with it.

Until the Yashamaru incident happened.

Kankuro blinked in shock. "No way, I thought he threw it out after..."

"I did too," Temari admitted. "The fact that he kept it all this time, and now, put it back on— he still cares. I think he's refusing because he doesn't want to lose control."

"Shukaku would kill her without a second thought," Kankuro finished.

"That's right," she agreed. "If he stays awake, he can at least avoid intentionally hurting her."

"He seemed plenty willing during the Chūnin Exams," he muttered.

Which was true. Gaara's bloodlust during that match was no less than what she had seen for enemies he had mercilessly killed in the past.

Something had changed.

"I don't get it either," she muttered. "He's not one to change his mind so easily too."

If what Temari theorized was right, she suspected that Sakura not only visited her youngest brother but had a cordial conversation with him.

Which she once thought was impossible.

The one time Temari brought up Sakura's name after the Yashamaru incident, Gaara had blown up in rage, nearly killing her along with several Anbu.

What on earth happened inside that hospital room?

"What are we going to tell Baki-sensei?" Kankuro asked, lowering his voice significantly. "If he learns that Sakura might be the root of Gaara's hesitance, he'll probably kill her."

Then Gaara would have nothing tying him to Konoha.

"That's why we don't tell him that, idiot," Temari hissed. "The mission is paramount, but you know we owe Sakura at least a chance to survive. We can say the problem lies in Shukaku instead."

"As if he'll believe that," Kankuro scowled in response.

"Probably, but it's not like he can force Gaara to sleep and check either," Temari argued. "Shukaku will kill him."

"But he can't win against the Kazekage," Kankuro pointed out. "He'll be furious the moment Baki reports the news, and when has he ever shown fatherly concern for Gaara, or any of us for that matter?"

Temari couldn't fight against such logic, and clenched her hands in long suppressed anger. Their father was a sore spot for all three of them, with Gaara carrying the deepest scars, and she knew at the end of the day, they were his tools first and his children second.

"He won't risk it while we're in Konoha," Temari said firmly, trying to convince herself as well. "Chiyo-sama isn't here to assess the seal, and there's no way he'll choose to tamper with it now and potentially blow our cover."

"I suppose," he murmured. "I hope you're prepared then."

The two finally arrived at their temporary home, and nodded at the Suna guards by the doorway as they passed.

Temari took a deep breath, knowing Baki was waiting for them upstairs. "Just leave it to me."



Sakura looked down at the steaming hot water, seeing the reflection of her unimpressed expression staring back. Across from her, Jiraiya yawned as he stretched, leaning back against the rocks as he draped a damp towel over his face.

"Jiraiya-sama, are we really going to discuss the fate of Konoha while soaking in the hot springs?"

"Of course. I could see your tense shoulders from a mile away," the Sannin flapped his hand casually. "Relax."

When Jiraiya had asked her to meet in a remote mountain village outside of Konoha, relaxing in the hot springs had been the last thing on her mind. The final Chūnin Exam matches were scheduled for tomorrow, which meant the invasion would happen in less than twenty-four hours now.

How on earth could she relax?

So many things could go wrong— so many possibilities and enemies that were outside the realm of her preparations—

"Akatsuki is moving," she reminded, bringing up Jiraiya's latest intel.

Now that he knew who to track and where, his spy network was more accurate and well utilized than it had ever been. While Sakura had her own summons and clones occasionally moving around the major countries where she knew incidents would occur, it was still nothing compared to Jiraiya's extensive reach.

"But we know that they're not coming for Naruto," Jiraiya said simply. "That's one solace we can be relieved about."

After Yagura's death, Isobu went with him, and it would take at least three years for the Bijū to reform— the same reason why the jinchūriki weren't hunted earlier in the past. The ten-tails statue would take more time to prepare, and Akatsuki were still in the midst of building their reputation as a mercenary group.

"Weirdly enough, not knowing makes it even worse," she muttered, leaning back to copy Jiraiya's position. Trying to stave off her anxiety, she threw a small towel over her eyes and sighed as the heat of the water soaked into her bones.

"We've prepared all that we can, and the only thing to do is adapt when the situation arises," he replied. "Whether Akatsuki is coming out of personal grudges or a hired mission, it doesn't matter."

"How are you not nervous at all?"

He grunted. "I am nervous. But I also have faith in Konoha and our shinobi— that even if something completely out of our expectations happened, that they would be able to handle it."

Sakura didn't speak, going through all the nuances and plans that they had set in motion for the hundredth time. Yet there was always the lingering thought of, what if?

"Do you still mourn for Orochimaru?" she asked suddenly, thinking of tomorrow's most important target.

"Mourn the loss of my teammate? Everyday," Jiraiya said bluntly. "Neither Tsunade nor I had the strength to keep going after him, even before he officially betrayed Konoha. It's both regret and resignation."

Sakura knew he was speaking for the both of them. She had mourned Sasuke when he left, and mourned him even more the day he killed Naruto— because she knew the teammate that she longed for had gone beyond a point of no return.

"Are you still adamant about fighting him tomorrow?"

Jiraiya huffed. "It's me, or Hiruzen-sensei. I don't want to let it drag on any longer."

"I could take him alone," she said stubbornly.

"You could, but at what cost?" he shot back. "You're not back at your full strength, and I distinctly remember you saying that your yin seal would take another six months to stabilize."

As much as she hated to admit it, Jiraiya was right. The fuinjutsu alone to seal Orochimaru would take a considerable amount of chakra, and without being able to activate her reserves, she would be terribly limited on the off chance she received a serious injury.

"I'm sorry," she whispered.

The water sloshed as Jiraiya seemed to move, and a soft splat echoed in the night as he tossed the towel off his face. "For what?"

Sakura yanked off her own towel, meeting Jiraiya's confused gaze. "For asking you to kill your own teammate. For not being strong enough to do it on my own."

"Are you kidding?" he scowled, crossing his arms. "Don't be stupid, Sakura. Saving the world isn't something you can do on your own. And besides, you're gonna do the killing— I'm just there to support."

She blinked rapidly, feeling her chest tighten. "I was sure I could have caught him off guard like I did with Danzō if we met normally in the forest, but of course, it didn't go my way."

"You're not anybody's reincarnation, and neither were you blessed with the natural ability to fight a damn goddess," Jiraiya said directly. "But you're the only one here now, and that makes your strength all worthwhile— so shut up and enjoy the hot springs."

Sakura sunk into the water, trying to hide her sudden tears amidst the rising steam. Jiraiya was right. Whatever tomorrow would bring, she would face it with everything she had, even if it meant her strength came at a cost.

But until then— she would allow herself a small moment of weakness.

"Thank you."