Please leave a comment or PM if you have any questions, suggestions, or concerns. Also, I'm (still) in need of a beta for this story- someone who knows Naruto far better than I do. If you want to, please PM me.
Most shinobi recognized two types of bloodlines. The first were those like the Yamanaka: an inheritance, a special gift, actually passed down from ancestor to descendent through inherently biological means that were, to a greater or lesser extent, improved through practice. The second were less bloodlines and more secrets; jutsu that someone within the clan developed and then refused to teach anyone outside the family to give the clan an edge. The latter were far rarer now, in the time of Hidden Villages—the Villages wanted any technique they could for the village as a whole, not any one specific clan within, and so only those whose family use was great enough were allowed to both become part of a village and keep their secrets. The Uchiha and their ability to mimic just about any other jutsu drove that interpretation of the bloodline particularly far from Fire's lands (the number of Konoha clans that could claim such didn't even number in double digits), but other nations still had clans who could move underground in a way no one else knew how or nearly fly in a way no one else learned. Claiming a bloodline, even the second type, meant your family could do something unique, something all but impossible to mimic and therefore infinitely valuable.
The Sarutobi clan claimed the first kind of bloodline. It was the luck of the Sarutobi, they said, that the majority of their kin were born able to control all five elements equally well.
This claim was widely disputed, but only behind closed doors and with undertones within subtexts within metaphors. After all, anyone could (when given enough time) seem equally gifted in all five elements, and while there was chakra paper to test one's affinity—and Fire, the home of the trees the paper was made from, tested most—one was, given enough training before the test, able to make the paper say whatever one wanted.
If the Sarutobi's claim to a bloodline was treated with no small amount of distrust within Konoha (and really only allowed to stand due to the truly extraordinary amount of power each member tended to possess), outside of Fire's borders the assertion was outright scorned. It was something chinmoku had had to learn about before their diplomatic mission, especially given one of the Emissaries was a Sarutobi, but at the time it hadn't seemed that important. Just a blip on the radar, really, an expected attempt to subvert the picture of power Konoha portrayed.
But sometimes taking things for a given had unexpected consequences.
Those without (genetic) bloodlines were rarely, if ever, targeted as a family. Specific individuals might be, should they grow powerful enough on their own, but without the secret hidden in their blood the opposing side rarely saw the point in spending time and resources to focus on one family in particular.
When planning for possible retaliatory targets Konoha had taken that into account. They'd looked at the Uchiha, at the Yamanaka, at the Hyuuga. They'd looked at the Akimichi, and Nara, and Senju. They had not looked at the Sarutobi. After all, Iwa did not recognize that the clan had a bloodline, and clans without bloodlines weren't targeted.
…Apparently having a member of the clan as the Village Head changed that.
Konoha really hadn't seen it coming.
There were only two nations, after all, which were not recognized as having an individual with a bloodline leading the village: Konoha, which claimed it did, and Kirigakure, which did so intentionally and, regardless, didn't let the Kage's family onto the battlefield.
Every time that a Kage's clan had been targeted before, then, part of the reason was because of the abilities of that family, political ties notwithstanding.
And everyone knew that.
By the time every Sarutobi was pulled from the frontlines they already faced heavy losses, heavier than any other family in the space of just a few days.
The first attacks had been merely probes, tests of defense to lead the way for far harsher attempts to follow.
Konoha, and the Sarutobi in particular, had fought back, of course, had even managed to kill another of the new bloodline before they, too, were pulled from the frontlines.
But Iwa had been far more blatantly successful; Konoha had been unable to completely kill a mere five that were known to be battle-capable while Iwa (despite failing fully at killing those higher up) had managed to catch Konoha completely by surprise and all but decimate a relatively large clan within a much shorter period of time.
But hey, at least Sakura was instrumental in stopping one assassin.
Two weeks after the day she was stabbed Sakura was still in the hospital for doing just that.
It had been mercury.
A lot of mercury.
At the very least the treatment was already known and fairly straightforward: using chakra the mercury would be slowly drained from the system over the course of a week or two, and then another week or two would be spent equally bed-ridden due to the effects of having someone else's chakra in one's system until, at last, Sakura could walk free.
They'd just finished the last of the metal removal the day before, so now she was in the 'recovery' portion of the process.
In the meantime life in the Second Brigade's Second Battalion went on. They'd brought in a new sensor—a little Hyuuga girl, barely out of the academy and not meant to go to the frontlines for at least another six months—and re-arranged shifts so that there were more guards constantly around Headquarters (the newbie, too, was never allowed to sense alone—the other sensors would just have to deal with the exhaustion through chakra pills until she was trained up or Sakura could rejoin.) All other Sarutobi were shipped home, too, and took over the work of those sent to the frontlines to replace them.
Sakura, despite not being allowed to walk, much less leave the Hospital, was also busy.
She still, after all, had her primary specialization: research.
Her magnum opus—her invention which was meant to get her her promotion—finally got its first prototype, and it had been sent to her all the way from Konohagakure. (She had no doubt that recent events had conspired in her favor to allow that.)
No, really, it was terrible.
The typewriter barely worked, what one could type was limited, it took forever to use the thing, and it was far too expensive and difficult to produce to be worth the cost.
Sakura kind of loved it.
She spent several days tinkering with it, creating draft after draft on how to improve it enough to be feasible, and creating an entirely new petition for an entirely new prototype of the revised design.
Then, because she had the time and her notes had already been taken before the war ruined everything, she finished two other proposals: one for a ballpoint pen, and the other for band-aids.
The pain of being stabbed sucked, the incredibly long process of dealing with the subsequent poisoning without lasting effects was, if anything, worse, and the effects of the Sarutobi targeting as a whole—especially when compounded with the similar effects of the new bloodline—did not bode well for the already faltering momentum of Konoha.
On the other hand, Sakura was finally able to do exactly what she wanted to do all day and, selfishly, she felt no particular desire to recover quicker, despite the general mood of the Hospital being that every day spent there was somehow several hundred times worse than the previous.
At least the medics approved of her band-aid design.
Sakura was finally back on her regular schedule as the cold months began to set in.
This was unfortunate.
While not nearly as arid as the desert below, the Land of Earth did have a rather large set of mountains in what once had been described as a 'T' arrangement. To the east of that 'T', towards the Land of Fire, was the steppe. To the west, at least theoretically, sat a savannah and a giant lake.
Given that all of Iwa's more important population centers were east of their mountains, Sakura found it quite doubtful that the latter geography would ever matter in this war.
The former mattered quite a bit.
In the summers the steppe's worst temperatures could, with little to no effort, kill someone not proficient in the use of chakra. On those days any who could stayed inside, and those who couldn't relied heavily on any shade they could come across.
The winters were a different matter.
While October wasn't yet the portion of the year so cold that even chakra wasn't sufficient protection (furs of all sorts were already being brought to the frontline, and questions of whether or not a peace could be forced—unlikely, as Iwa would want to push their home-field advantage, but still considered if for no other reason than how useful it would be) it was still headed in that direction.
And most of the furs hadn't yet arrived.
Sakura, given that she spent the entirety of her shift standing still outside (to act as both a visual and chakra-based alarm system), was one of the lucky few who had already been clothed in a dense jacket and, given that she had to use all her chakra in her work, a warm hat and gloves besides.
Most others weren't so lucky.
The war had started well.
It had started with months of near continuous (if quite small) victories on both fronts, though admittedly hers more than the main, of successfully keeping Kumo out of the war as desired and keeping Mizu too leery to join in too.
With Suna's forces acting as auxiliary protection Kuna had started to pick up momentum. In the middle of summer, in the heat of the steppe, their victory had seemed most imminent—Suna's shinobi were dominating in their natural element, the First Brigade was getting ever closer to the actual border of the Land of Earth, and it had been months—what could possibly stop them?
And then, of course, the bloodline had appeared.
And then Konoha's only partially successful counter.
And then Iwa's arguably more successful reaction.
And now it was cold, and Suna's shinobi were becoming less and less useful by the minute (deserts might get cold, they told Konoha, but only really at night, and no one smart fought in the night. Sakura had snorted into her soup hearing that, but thankfully her reaction hadn't been heard over the bustle of the market.) Konoha's shinobi were seeing a similar drop in efficacy; the cold made their bones weary, the bloodline placed them constantly on alert, and the abrupt end of their forward momentum left them flatfooted and uncomfortable.
So it was October, and it was cold, and everything felt just a bit too much like things were going downhill.
Except, of course, for their actual combat position because they'd been forced to retreat somewhat in the past few weeks and no longer had the higher ground—no, the way forward was entirely uphill.
Still, as mentioned before, Sakura's own take on the matter was rather more positive than most of her comrades.
She'd enjoyed her time off, enjoyed her warm clothes, at the very least felt like she was more informed about the bloodline than most (though even she knew that was unlikely to be true in reality), and had been relatively instrumental in keeping Iwa's mission to kill all Sarutobi less than perfectly successful.
And then the next Yamanaka letter arrived.
This one was thick.
That was unusual.
Thick meant more checks, meant there was more to be said, meant there was more to be said to the Yamanaka specifically versus the camp at large.
The last thick envelope had come with the announcement that Yamanaka Douri's oldest son had completely flunked his family's specialized training (read: torture) and would therefore not be allowed to pursue the ninja life as a career.
It had been thick because it included an addendum from Douri's wife explaining that his oldest had not only flunked, he'd done so in a mere four days. This had apparently gotten around and in a short matter of time the boy had found himself shunned from the clan at large and, with his withdrawal from the academy, most of his other friends too.
His wife had wanted advice.
It was an understandable desire, but seeing as they could not, in fact, easily send messages back it was one that went unanswered.
The letter that arrived mid-October was equally thick—three pages worth, probably. Sakura had been surprised when she'd seen it—having a firstborn son 'fail' so badly at being Yamanaka was something that would be considered worthy of such an effort, certainly, but not twice in a row.
And then Douri handed it to her before even pouring out the tea.
She started on the first page.
And then her eye, as usual, caught on the second paragraph.
(It was almost always the second paragraph. Sometimes it would switch up, but whoever usually wrote the letters was very, very fond of putting hidden messages into the second paragraph, in either the second or last sentence.)
This one drew attention to the fourth paragraph, which was about deaths.
She read that paragraph after the third.
And then, in a rush, she finished that page, then the next, then the next.
And then she stared at the pages as they went limp in her hands.
As the others began to enter Douri carefully removed the papers from said hands and nodded to each in turn. Yamanaka Kimi sat up instead of throwing herself on the cot, apparently alert to the somber mood, and Yamanaka Aisha fidgeted nervously beside Sakura.
Douri began, as usual. He went over the general war's outlook from the Yamanaka perspective—which was, if anything, more bleak than the average outlook because the Yamanaka were able to take into account how little most prisoners of war knew and were therefore able to tell Konoha. He went over the major events in the Yamanaka.
And then, quietly, he went over three last people, the people who'd caused the large letter.
"Yamanaka Aoi, brother of Yamanaka Sakura, has failed to report in for over three months. He is presumed dead. Nara Shin, genin teammate of Yamanaka Sakura, and Mitokado Supaku, genin sensei of Yamanaka Sakura, have also failed to send any messages for the last month. They are also presumed dead."
Aisha threw her arms around Sakura, pushing the other girl violently to one side and then pulling her into an embrace to straighten her.
"No bodies have been found, but funerals will be held at the end of the year assuming no changes."
"Do you want to stay in my tent tonight?" Yamanaka Aisha said. "I share it with loads of people, so you wouldn't be alone."
"No, thank you." Yamanaka Sakura said. After a pause, she added "I saw no evidence of additional messages in the letters."
Douri hesitated, then nodded. "Significant time off cannot be given, however I will arrange with your supervisor—"
"—Sensei Inuzuka so that you get your shifts off for the next two days. I… am sorry, Sakura."
Sakura stood and left.
She'd wondered, since the war had begun, who she would lose first.
She'd considered that it might be her sister Ayame—frontline always seemed so dangerous—or perhaps her brother Fujio; he'd been assigned to one of the prisons, and being constantly around enemies you weren't able to kill had always felt inherently unsafe to Sakura, upper hand or no.
She hadn't expected Aoi. It had been so long since he had gone undercover that the idea that he'd somehow get caught seemed preposterous.
She hadn't expected Shin. He was only a year older than her, so young, and primarily a paperwork ninja besides. No matter what his secret apprenticeship was he was still the boy who wrote novels and bad poetry and studied language in his free time.
She hadn't expected Sensei. Sensei, silent sensei who knew how to play the game of the court without getting inextricably involved, who'd always understood her desire to invent and Shin's to write and Juro's to care and never, ever second-guessed any of them, who always seemed to know when they needed a bit more attention or when he should back off entirely.
They might still be alive, she knew—that was the fun of no body—but…
For them to notify Sakura, that meant it was unlikely.
For them to notify Sakura, that meant that, truly, she was probably currently living in a world without Aoi, without Shin, without Sensei.
She got back to her cot.
She closed her eyes, tried to imagine never seeing Shin's face again.
She opened them.
She closed her eyes, trying to imagine never hearing Sensei's sigh again.
She opened them.
She closed her eyes, trying to picture the last time she saw Aoi all those years ago when he was still a child.
She opened them.
And then Sasaki Nao started snoring beside her.
She wondered who else was finding out today. Would the message have reached her parents? Her siblings? What about Juro? When did the Akimichi send their letters out?
She wondered how they died.
In Aoi's case he'd likely gotten caught, which meant torture. Perhaps he hadn't, of course; perhaps he'd guessed that they were on to him and avoided any of the usual or back-up ways of sending signals in favor of fleeing the area.
It was possible.
It was just very unlikely.
In Sensei' and Shin's case…
Shin, she'd guessed years ago, had decided to go the diplomacy route after all.
She wasn't entirely sure about the reason for the secrecy—certainly the other emissaries did nothing to hide their affiliation—but it was what fit best with what she knew of her best friend, his interests, and what he spent his time and effort studying.
Diplomacy was many things, but when it was deadly it tended to be pretty blatantly deadly—the bodies easily found.
She wondered what it meant that neither of their bodies had been found.
She wondered if they'd been together when they did.
She wondered if, somehow, they might still be alive.
It was possible.
It was just very unlikely.