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The Flowers Cherish You

Chapter Text

Disclaimer: All rights belong to their respective owners of which I am not one.

Chapter One

A flower blooms on this morn,

Celebrating the new life it bears witness to.

It watches and watches,

A protector in it's own right.

"You're doing so well, my love."

Haruno Mebuki smiles tiredly at her husband. Contractions are now minutes apart and soon, so soon, she will bring into this world a precious child of their own. The long awaited daughter she prayed every day to be born healthy, to be born strong.

"I hope she has your eyes." Haruno Kizashi gently pats his wife's forehead with a damp cloth. "Viridian. Like yours."

"My eyes...are so weird," Mebuki replies slowly while closing her eyes briefly.

"No," he shakes his head. "They're beautiful." He leans forward and presses a gentle kiss to her forehead.

"I hope she has hair like yours." She raises her hand to tug softly on a long pink tassel of hair. "Pretty like cherry blossoms."

Kizashi laughs. "She'd be a beauty."

"Of cour - ," Mebuki winces. "O-Of - oh! I t-think its time."

Just as she says that the door to their hospital room opens and a nurse walks in. "I believe it's time, Mebuki-san. Are you ready?" When she nods, the nurse calls in three more nurses and the process for delivery begins. Throughout it all, Mebuki clenches helplessly at her husband's hand while sobbing through the pain of childbirth. What seemed like hours only lasted several minutes.

And then the pain dulls.

"Oh my," the nurse whispers. "Oh my, oh my. She's beautiful." There is no signature wail from the bloody bundle in the nurse's arms. "Let me clean her off real quick."

It is quick.

"Our baby," Mebuki whispers. "She's alright?"

The nurse smiles. "She's perfectly healthy." And steps forward with a tiny bundle in her arms wrapped in a pale pink blanket. "Let's raise the bed so you can hold her." Once the bed is raised to a semi-comfortable position, the nurse leans over and places the child in the arms of her mother.

Pale green eyes gaze up at the face of her mother - incredibly calm - with pink-tinged skin. Soft pink truffles of hair cover a tiny head. "Oh, Kizashi. She's perfect. She's absolutely perfect."

"Beautiful. Just like her mama."

Mebuki pulls her daughter closer, sort of curling around her protectively. Kizashi gently strokes their child's soft cheeks and nose and then her forehead. A little large on the tiny head, but so utterly adorable.

"We need to name her, dear."

"We talked about Miaki and Kunishi as possible names, but I don't think those cut it anymore," Mebuki replies, voice still so full of wonder and joy.

"What about Sakura?" Kizashi whispers. "After her hair."

"Sakura..." Mebuki cups the cheek of their daughter. "What do you think, precious one?" Green eyes blink but the child doesn't move otherwise. "I think it suits you." She hugs the tiny bundle closer. "Welcome, Sakura. We've been waiting for you."

When Sakura was three, her mother told her the cherry blossom tree inside their garden bloomed the moment it saw her.

Small but quick for her age, Sakura runs along the pathway leading to the garden outside of her family's home. Moments ago, she learned that her mother is tending to the garden for the afternoon; taking care of the weeds while watering the flowers and vegetables. The garden is Sakura's most favorite place on the property. It's full of life and wonder, clearly loved by her mother. Upon entering the garden, she sees her mother standing above one of the white rose bushes with a watering can talking although there's no one around.

"Mommy?" Sakura calls out, unsure. "Who is mommy talking to?"

Mebuki turns around, smiling brightly. "Come here, Sakura!" Sakura listens immediately, dashing forward and slamming into the legs of her mother at full force. The strength behind it nearly sends both her and her mother to the ground. "My goodness, Sakura!" Mebuki laughs. "Watch that strength of yours!"

Sakura giggles quietly into her legs. "Sorry, mommy."

"Nevermind that," is the reply. "Help me water the roses."

Taking the somewhat still heavy watering can, Sakura turns to the rose bush and tilts her head. The roses don't look very happy. "Mommy, the roses are sad."

"I know, sweetie. They're very thirsty."

Sakura lifts the watering can and tilts it until a gentle sprinkle of water starts pouring out. "I will help them, mommy. I don't want them to be sad!"

Mebuki smiles while running her hand through Sakura's soft, long pink locks. "I don't want them to be sad either. I promised to take better care of them."

"You promised them?" Sakura asks, blinking up at her mother.

"Of course. These plants depend on us to survive for the most part. We have to tend to them to help keep them healthy and happy."

Sakura nods and places the watering can down. She reaches out and gently strokes the petals of a seemingly glowing white rose. "I promise to keep you healthy and happy." Something brushes her wrist. Sakura looks down to see some of the leaves of the rose bush jutting out. She smiles and returns the touch.

"Do you want to help me care for the sacred tree?" Mebuki asks while picking up the watering can and places it on the small table covered in gardening tools.

"Yes, please!" Sakura pivots and starts racing towards the large tree in the center of the garden. It's very old, according to her father. It's been in around for nearly a century. A cherry blossom tree that seems to bloom out of nowhere. The tree Sakura likes to nap under because she feels completely safe. Sakura always enjoys the stories associated with the tree too.

"Mommy?" Sakura asks as she clasps her hands together in front of her. "Will you tell me another story about the sacred tree?"

Mebuki laughs. "Of course, of course." She kneels before the tree, entwines her hands in front of her chest, and bows her head to offer the tree a small pray. Sakura quickly follows suit. "Hmmm, what story should I tell you today?" Mebuki asks after lifting her head.

"Surprise, surprise!" Sakura replies gleefully.

"Oh, alright." They're silent for a few moments with Mebuki gently peeling away the old bark from the tree so the new bark can grow in smoothly and Sakura taking the peels to a bucket that they would later dispose of via fire. "Have I told you about the day you came home?"

Eyes wide, Sakura shakes her head. "No! Tell me, please!"

Mebuki grins. She stops working to settle more comfortably on the ground, holding her arms out for Sakura to enter. When Sakura settles down comfortably in her mother's lap, she waits patiently for her mother to begin.

"Your daddy and I would come out here every night to pray to the sacred tree to bless us with a child befitting of our love. We didn't care for the gender of the child, knowing we would love unconditionally. When we find out I was with child, we continued to pray our thanks." Mebuki pauses to place a stray hair behind Sakura's ear. "When we find out that child would be a girl, we were overjoyed. When the time came for her birth, we left immediately for the hospital. Or, we would have if I had not stopped your daddy to have him inform the sacred tree of the oncoming birth. I felt it was necessary. This tree," she gently strokes the tree's trunk, "has blessed us with a child. It is the guardian which watches over our family."

Mebuki pulls her daughter closer. "That night, we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl with eyes just like her mommy's and hair just like her daddy's. We stayed in the hospital for a few days before coming home. We immediately took the baby girl to the garden, to the sacred tree to pray for her to be blessed with protection and love, to remain happy and healthy. The moment we entered the garden, however, the tree started to bloom with large cherry blossoms. Many of the petals fell off the tree to touch us with new petals taking their place. And that night, your daddy and I heard the loveliest sound in the world. A laugh of true and utter delight." She presses a kiss to Sakura's forehead. "Your laugh, Sakura. You didn't utter a sound at the hospital, but the moment those petals touched you, you were laughing. You were so happy...your daddy and I cried."

"I don't want you to cry, mommy."

"My silly little girl," Mebuki replies softly. "They were tears of happiness. We were overjoyed to hear you make a sound."

Sakura snuggles close, letting out a sleepy yawn.

Mebuki doesn't hesitate to stand up with Sakura in her arms. "Let's put you down for a nap." She kisses Sakura's head again when she nods against her neck.

As her mother begins to walk away, Sakura looks over her shoulder to gaze the tree. A couple of the branches are moving back and forth as if the tree is waving goodbye to them. Sakura smiles and offers a tiny wave of her own.

When Sakura was four, she fell out of a tree and the tree caught her and placed her gently on the ground.

With her momma and daddy making dinner, Sakura decides to go explore the garden in hopes of figuring out a way to convince her parents to allow her to enter the Shinobi Academy two years earlier than what is normal. She had been thinking about the Academy for the past week when she met a little boy at the park who stated he wanted to become a great shinobi like his older brother. The boy's mother smiled warmly at them but kept to herself for most of the visit allowing Sakura and the boy to play together. It was inspirational and oddly fascinating to watch the boy light up as he talked about his older brother who, apparently, is one of the greatest shinobi in Konoha.

She feels slightly guilty for forgetting the boy's name but remembers the red and white fan on the back of his shirt. If they meet up again, she'll just have to ask him again. Stopping in front of the sacred tree, she looks it up and down with determination.

"If I can climb you to the top," she starts out loud, "do you think momma and daddy will let me join the Academy?" It's so silly to think that climbing a tree would convince her parent's to let her join essentially what would dominate a great portion of her life. A few leaves drift down from the tree, landing on her head. She takes that as a sign.

Inch by inch, Sakura starts up the tree slowly. The branches are where she needs them to be every time as if moving on their own accord. When Sakura makes it to the first thickest branch, she stands on it and over looks the garden.

"Momma and I have been taking good care of you," she says out loud. "We want you all to be healthy and happy." She bites her lip. "If momma and daddy let me go to the Academy, I won't always be around to take care of you. Please don't hate me." A branch above her seemingly lowers its self just enough to rest on her head. Sakura sniffles. "Thank you for understanding."

She starts climbing again. This time, just a bit faster. The sun is setting over the Hokage Mountain and she's convinced that the top of the tree will give her the best view to watch. "Almost there," Sakura grunts. "Just two more...there!" She cries victoriously. She's on the top, sturdiest tree branch peeking over thick leaves and cherry blossoms. The sky is alight with various oranges and reds and purples. It's such a pretty sight. Sakura finds herself smiling at it.

Her mistake comes from taking a step too close to the edge. Sakura is too shocked to scream when she starts falling backward and can't seem to get a grip on any of the surrounding branches, her small hands to slick with sweat. She closes her eyes and waits for her body to slam into the ground, but something smooth wraps around her waist halting the fall. Next thing she knows, she's being placed on the ground with a lot of care. Opening her eyes, she sees one of the thicker tree branches hanging over her, almost as if it's worried.

"You caught me," Sakura whispers before breaking out into a grin. "You really caught me!" She scrambles to her feet and darts forward to wrap her skinny arms around the tree's trunk as best she can. "Thank you!" Another branch reaches out and gently pats her head.

When Sakura was five, she hid behind a bush to escape her bullies and the bush reached out to wipe away her tears.

Sakura loves attending the Academy. She loves it even more that she gets to attend with her park friend, Sasuke, and their mutual friend, Naruto. Upon meeting Sasuke at the park again, he was not alone. With him was an older boy whom Sasuke looked like and another little boy with spiky blonde hair and the bluest eyes Sakura has ever seen. Sasuke introduces them as his brother, Itachi, and his best friend, Naruto, respectfully. Both of the little boys got very excited when she told them she convinced her parents to let her join the Academy two years earlier than what is normal for the average child.

"We'll be in class together," Naruto replies happily. "I can't wait!"

"I wonder how hard the testing will be," Sasuke says after.

"Have you asked your brother?" Sakura asks. "He graduated early."

All three of the children glance over to where Sasuke's older brother is sitting on the park bench with varying looks of curiosity. The older boy looks up from the book he brought and tilts his head questioningly. When neither boy moves to ask him, Sakura takes the initiative.

"Itachi-nii?" Sakura calls out.

Itachi merely tilts his head again at the surprisingly comfortable address, offering an open look.

"What's it like attending the Academy?"

Sakura can't help but smile at the thoughtful look that over takes the older boy's face as he contemplates his words before answering.

"Not difficult if you stay on top of your work," he replies. "Classes vary from information gathering, stealth, weapons training, the practice of the three basic forms of shinobi fighting styles, and whatnot."

"Thank you," Sakura replies. She watches Itachi return her thanks with a nod before turning back to the boys. "We have to stay on top of everything! No one is allowed to fall behind, promise?" She holds out her pinky finger.

"Promise!" The boys say in unison and hook their pinkies around hers.

When they start the Academy together, they took everyone by surprise with the different areas they excelled in. Sasuke with weapons and basic ninjutsu, Naruto with ninjutsu and taijutsu, and Sakura with weapons and genjutsu. Stealth was a bit easier on her as well because they practiced in the forest behind the Academy and Sakura used that to her advantage.

"Hey, look! It's Forehead Girl!"

Of all the things she loves about the Academy, there is one thing she absolutely hates.

"Leave me alone," Sakura mumbles, hugging her lunch sack closer to herself.

Ami, Kasumi, and Fuki stand off to the side with varying looks of sickening glee. Lunch time started about 10 minutes ago and she hasn't found Sasuke and Naruto yet. The three always have lunch together. Unfortunately, neither Sasuke and Naruto know about her bullying problem (and she plans on keeping it that way). Ami and her friends never bother her in front of the boys. Obvious reasons being that Sasuke is the son of the head of the Uchiha clan and Naruto is the son of the Fourth Hokage. But when neither boy is around, Ami always zones in on her.

"Where ya' going, Forehead?" Ami asks, stepping closer. "Not off to Sasuke-kun and Naruto-kun, right?"

Sakura doesn't reply. She tries to moves away, but Fuki and Kasumi flank Ami's side making her appear bigger.

"She asked you a question," Fuki sneers.

"Did your mommy not teach you any manners?" Kasumi asks right after.

"I don't think so," Ami's smile widens. "Maybe we should teach her a lesson in manners?"

Sakura takes a step back. Ami's "lessons" usually involve her two followers holding her down as Ami writes on Sakura's forehead or rubbing dirt on her face while taunting her. Things easily fixed in the bathroom with soap and water but no less a scary experience.

"Leave me alone," Sakura says, taking another step back. The other students often turn a blind eye to her predicament and without Sasuke and Naruto, her confidence really lacks.

"No, I think we should teach you a lesson." Ami steps forward quickly and jabs her pointer finger hard against Sakura's forehead. "And I like those clips. I want them."

Sakura started styling her bangs to split to a far off side of her forehead to cover the majority of it. The hair clips she uses to keep them there were a gift from her dad when he returned from a mission from Suna last year. They're black with a single sand rose at the end of each.

"No," Sakura snaps, her forehead aching. "You can't have them."

Ami's smile morphs into a sneer. "If I want them, I'll get them." She takes another step forward.

Sakura tries to back away again, but Ami's hand shoots up and grips her hair and yanks hard. Sakura opens her mouth in a soundless cry. Fuki yanks Sakura's lunch out of her hand and throws it to the ground and stomps on it twice. Sakura ignores the sound of food being squashed in favor of trying to get Ami's hand off her hair.

"Look at your ugly hair too," Ami laughs. "Named after the cherry blossom, right? I don't see the resemblance." And then Ami rips her hair clips out of her hair and shoves Sakura back hard enough to have her tumble to the ground.

Tears well up in Sakura's eyes, both at the pain of being violated and losing her precious hair clips. In the moment that Ami gloats over the hair clips, Sakura scrambles to her feet and takes off running for the forest. Shouts of "Hey!" and "Get back here!" follow after her, Sakura's stamina is rather good and she gets ahead quickly.

The moment she hits the forest, tears stream down Sakura's face in hot trails. She lets out a quiet sob and hides behind a large bush. About a minute later, Ami and her friend's race past her hiding spot. Sakura continues to cry. She can't help being born with a bigger forehead than normal! She can't help but have pink hair! Sakura tenses when she hears shuffling and covers her face praying that no one finds her. Something brushes across her hands once, twice, and Sakura finally looks up. One of the small branches of the bush is jutted out directly in front of her face. She freezes as it comes closer and closes her eyes when it touches her face, moving back and forth.

It takes Sakura a moment to realize that the bush is wiping away her tears. She sniffles. "T-Thank you."


She freezes.


The bush parts ways to create a small circle and with it, Sakura can see Sasuke and Naruto running towards where she is.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto yells. "Where are you? Lunch is almost over!"

She feels something push her forward gently. Sakura turns around to see one of the tree roots urging her to join her friends. With a nod, she rubs her hands over her face and gets up and comes out from behind the bush.

"Sakura! Where have you been?"

Nature has always cared for Sakura and Sakura has always loved nature.

Her first friend outside of Sasuke and Naruto is Yamanaka Ino and Sakura comes to love her fiercely. Ino is the one to save her from Ami. Ino is the one to make her appreciate her looks. Ino becomes her best friend quickly. Sakura still loves Sasuke and Naruto a great deal, but being with Ino allows "girl time" as her mother puts it. Sakura remembers the day Ino stepped in save her. She'll never forget it.

During a class trip into the flower meadow by the Academy, Sakura is minding her business picking the flowers her teacher told her was required to for an up and coming project and with both Sasuke and Naruto out with the flu, she is determined to pick enough to bring to them after class is over.

"Looky here, girls. It's Forehead Girl."

Sakura freezes. Why today of all days? And in the middle of class?

"Please, leave me alone."

Ami leans over her and jabs her forehead roughly. "Why are you picking so many flowers, Forehead? Bringing them to Sasuke-kun and Naruto-kun? That's so...nice." She grins wickedly. "It'd be too bad if something were to happen to them." With that, Ami and her friends proceed to stomp on the pile next to Sakura despite her pleads for them to stop.

In a flash of white, Ami stops and starts choking.

"Picking on others just for fun? You're pathetic." Sakura looks over to see a girl with short blonde hair pulled to the side with a blue hair clip. Her sky blue eyes are glaring at Ami with such intense hatred that Sakura finds herself leaning away. The girl's aura is borderline suffocating. She stalks up to Ami and rips out her the hair clips she stole from Sakura. "By the way, that's a poisonous flower so you may want to go see the teacher."

Ami screeches and takes off running for their teacher; her friends right on her tail.

"Serves her right!" The girl states before turning to Sakura, angry face morphing into one of open-friendliness. Walking forward until she's directly in front of Sakura, she bends down and brushes some of her hair away. "So, it's a little bigger than normal. Nothing wrong with that! People come in all sorts of ways." The girl kneels in front of her while pulling out a red ribbon. "Hold still."

Sakura doesn't think she can move even if she wants to. She stares at the girl with a blank intensity while the girl runs her fingers through Sakura's hair, combing it back. Then she uses the red ribbon to keep Sakura's hair back.

"This is a gift," the girl states. "You don't have to use it after today, but you need to stop hiding your forehead. It's cute!"

"W-Why are you being so nice to me?"

"Because… I thought it would be a waste for you to wither away as a bud. There's no meaning to a flower unless it blooms. It might turn out to be… a flower more beautiful than a cosmo."

Sakura's eyes widen. "T-Thank you."

The girl grins. "No problem. My name is Yamanaka Ino. What's your name?"

"Haruno S-Sakura."

Ino nods. "I like your name. It suits you. And you have really pretty hair. Like cherry blossoms. That's where you got your name, right?"

Sakura nods. "My dad has the same hair color." She looks down at the ruined flowers and sighs. "Now I have to pick new ones."

"I'll help you," Ino replies immediately. "I'm getting my after class."

Not questioning what is said, Sakura beams. "Really? Thank you!"

They spend the remainder of the class period picking the perfect flowers for Sakura and her boys. Throughout it, Ino tells her the meanings behind each flower and Sakura listens happily while placing the flowers in her bag carefully. When they're done, Ino starts looking for a white daisy. She mentioned earlier that she hasn't found the perfect one to add to a collection of pressed flowers she's keeping. Sakura quickly offers her help.

"Aw, this one's no good. We'll have to keep looking," Ino says sadly. Sakura looks at her new friend and then down to the wilting daisy. When Ino starts walking away with her shoulders slump, Sakura kneels before the flower. There's something she's been wanting to try.

"Grow," Sakura whispers. "For Ino, please." She waits with bated breath for something - anything - to happen. After a bit, she starts standing up only for the something wonderful to happen. The wilted daisy glows for several seconds before life bleeds back into it and it's perfect for picking. "Thank you," she whispers and gently tugs the flower from the ground.

"Sakura, hurry up!" Ino calls. "It's time to go back to class to get our things and go home!"

Sakura races to her new friend and holds out the perfect daisy. "Here you go!"

Ino takes it and smiles at Sakura, some teeth showing. "It's perfect! Where did you find it?"

She hesitates in answering before shrugging. "I just kept looking."

"Are you sure you don't want to keep this one?" Ino asks.

Sakura shakes her head. "I got this one for you."

Ino holds it close to her chest. "It's the prettiest one I've ever seen. I can't wait to show my momma and daddy!"

With a flushed face, Sakura allows Ino to grab her hand and they take off running after their classmates. The trip back to the Academy goes smoothly. Ami and her friends stay away from them with Ami glaring hard at Ino and twice as hard at Sakura. They're dismissed for the day and Sakura follows after Ino to exit the building. If the boys were here, Itachi-nii would have them walk her home first then walk Naruto home and then finally bring Sasuke home. But since Sasuke and Naruto are sick, she doesn't expect to see him.

"Daddy!' Ino suddenly shouts and takes off running.

Sakura looks at the man crouching with a smile as he opens his arms for Ino to run straight into. Now she knows where Ino gets her pretty looks. He's very pretty. Sakura knows Ino will grow up pretty. The prettiest. She watches as Ino shows her dad the perfect daisy.

"Sakura-chan!" Ino calls over her shoulder. "Come meet my daddy!" She hurries over. "Daddy! This is my new friend, Sakura-chan!"

The man smiles kindly at her. "Hello, Sakura-chan. Thank you for finding this flower for Ino. My name is Yamanaka Inoichi."

"H-Hello, Inoichi-sama. My name is Haruno Sakura."

Inoichi tilts his head. "Your Kizashi's little girl."

"You know my daddy?" Sakura asks.

He laughs kindly. Sakura decides she likes that friendly laugh.

"When we were younger, your dad and his teammates and myself and my teammates were often paired together on stealth missions. He's fantastic company. Telling the best stories and being an all around joker who lightened up the mood when needed."

Sakura smiles. Her parents don't talk about their work much. From what she's gathered in her short years of life, her dad's a jonin who often deals with diplomats and her mother is a retired ANBU. Well, "retired" is a vague term. According to her mother, no one ever really retires from the lifestyle.

"I'm glad to hear that, sir. My daddy likes to tell really bad jokes. Momma rolls her eyes a lot."

Inoichi chuckles. "Some of his jokes can be very bad, but we laugh anyway."

Sakura's smile widens.

"Daddy!" Ino says excitedly. "We need to go home and press this flower! It's a present!"

Laughing, Inoichi picks up his daughter and holds her close. "Who's coming to get you, Sakura-chan?"

"I will be escorting her home, Yamanaka-sama," a smooth voice interrupts.

Sakura quickly around to see Itachi standing there in his usual dark clothing with a small bag in his left hand.

Dango, she thinks. He has a sweet tooth like me.

"Hi, Itachi-nii!" Sakura waves.

"Sakura-chan," he replies while holding out the bag. "These are for you." Sakura takes them carefully.

"I see that you're in safe hands," Inoichi says with a smile. "I hope you have a good day, Sakura-chan, Itachi-san."

"Bye, Sakura-chan!" Ino waves over her dad's shoulder. "See you in class on Monday!"

"Bye, Ino-chan! And thank you for helping me!"

Ino continues to wave for another minute before turning away. Sakura holds her bag of flowers in one hand and the bag of dango in the other.

"Shall we?" Itachi asks.


They walk to Sakura's house in mostly peaceful silence. Itachi isn't much of a conversationist, but he willingly and kindly answers her questions about Sasuke's health. Only Sasuke, because she's aware that Naruto is in good care with his parents. She states she looks forward to seeing them on Monday and Itachi replies that Sasuke won't stop asking after her and Naruto.

"He should focus on getting better," Sakura frowns cutely. "Not worry about us."

Itachi hums but doesn't reply. When the walls surrounding her home come into view, Sakura can barely make out the pink hair of her father standing at the gate to greet them.

"Sakura-chan!" The man calls out, voice full of laughter.

"Daddy!" Sakura greets when they arrive. With her hands full, she doesn't reach out to hug him like she normally does.

"Thank you for walking her home, Itachi-san. Would you like some tea?"

Itachi declines politely. "I must return home to watch over my brother."

"Of course, of course. I do hope Sasuke feels better soon." Kizashi looks down at Sakura. "Go change. We're leaving soon."

"Oh, okay." Sakura turns to Itachi and holds out the bag full of flowers. "There's four of each flower in here. They need to be split between Sasuke-chan and Naruto-chan. It's for our assignment due next week. They need to make an arrangement out of them."

Itachi takes the bag. "Thank you."

"Have a good day, Itachi-nii!"

With a small smile, Itachi disappears in a black flicker.

"Where are we going, daddy?" Sakura asks she takes his hand to be led inside.

"To the meadow. Now off you go. You can eat your dango on the way there."

They have a beautiful, strong bond.

Sometimes, when she pays attention to her surroundings, Sakura notices dead plants come back to life. It's odd, at first. But never scary. She loves seeing the life return in the flowers in her family's garden. Wilted roses returning to a full bloom, bright and beautiful. When she helps her mom take care of the sacred tree, seeing the new bark replace the old amazes her. Sometimes, it's the little things too. Like when she walks by a dead patch of grass only to turn around and see fresh green grass there. Most times, though, she asks them to grow and they do.

"Am I different?" Sakura asks her parents one day while they're seated under a tree in her parent's favorite meadow.

"Everyone is different, Sakura-chan!" Her mom laughs.

Sakura pouts and her parents coo at her.

"Will you tell me about our family? About both sides?" She settles with.

The atmosphere surrounding them after that changes. Sakura sees her parents tense and feels bad. She had no intention to make them uncomfortable but she has always been curious. Her dad had been somewhat forth coming with the Haruno family in the past, but her never talked about her mother's side of the family.

"Why so curious today, Blossom?" Mebuki asks carefully.

Sakura twiddles her thumbs and doesn't reply.

"Sakura?" Her dad asks. "Is something wrong?"

"Not wrong per se," she finally replies.

Her parents share a concerned look and that's enough for Sakura to finally speak up.

"I can make plants grow!"

The outburst has her dad nearly fall over on himself and her mom's eyes widen to an almost humorous size.

"You can make plants grow?!"

Sakura nods slowly. "Sometimes they grow on their own, but most times they grow when I ask them too!" She's on a roll now. "I made a new friend at the Academy a while back - her name is Ino - and we were looking for a daisy, but the only one we found was trampled so I asked it to grow and it did. The wilted roses are full of life again!"

"Honey, why didn't you say anything?"

She only shrugs.

"It's time, I think." Kizashi pulls their daughter into his lap.


"Sweetheart, she's old enough to learn. Besides," he tucks a strain of hair behind Sakura's ear, "our daughter can keep a secret."

Her mom sighs. "Momma?"

"Sakura, against my better judgment, I'm going to tell you something that you mustn't tell anyone else!"

With wide eyes, Sakura nods. "Yes, momma."

"Promise me, Sakura. You can't tell Naruto, Sasuke, Ino, Itachi, or anyone else."

"I promise, momma."

Mebuki stares at her daughter for a long, silent moment before nodding as if to convince herself this is a good idea. "You and I are descendants of the Senju clan."

"We learned about Senju Hashirama in the Academy. And Senju Tobirama."

"Of course. Hashirama was the first Hokage whereas Tobirama was the second."

Sakura's eyebrows furl. "We also learned about Hashirama's family. His only living descendant is around the age of 43."

"Senju Tsunade, a legendary sannin," her father supplies. "A very, very strong lady. A medical expert."

"We also learned that Tobirama had a family too, but their whereabouts are own known. They're believed to be d - " Sakura freezes, her gaze taking a calculating edge. "Momma?" She asks carefully.

"You heard the story of Tobirama's lost family," Mebuki states quietly. "Well, we're not lost. Not anymore. We were for a few decades, but found our way back to the village."

"How did we become lost?"

"There was a power struggle, a war, and political assassination attempts. Tobirama's wife feared herself and the safety of their child and fled the village in a vain attempt to keep herself and the child safe. Only the child survived. So on and so forth."

"Your grandmother made the choice to return to the village under a civilian name - Metsu - and then I met your mother in the Academy. I knew there was something unique about her. The leaves were always greener wherever she went."

Mebuki smiles at them before focusing on Sakura once again. "The Senju clan has a nature transformation kekkei genkai but only Hashirama naturally possessed it...until me and then you."

Sakura watches in utter amazement as her mom places a hand on the ground and slow lifts it. A bundle of purple flowers that seemingly came out of nowhere follows her hand as it's rising.

"I ask them to grow," Sakura says, eyes filled with joy. "And they grow for me or fix themselves if they're hurt."

"Yes, but you're also blessed by the sacred tree. It was one of the tree's Hashirama personally grew when the village was just forming and, by default, special in its unique way. A part of him is inside that tree, we believe. He loved nature so much."

"It caught me when I fell out of it." At the alarmed looks she receives, Sakura hastily continues. "I was trying to figure out a way to convince you both to let me join the Academy early." She blushes. "I also wanted a better view of the sunset."

"Please be more careful, Sakura. Your father and I don't want you to get hurt." Her mom reaches out to tap her nose. "When we get home, I'll pull out some of the old family scrolls for you to read."

"Okay!" Sakura is buzzing with excitement. She turns to her dad expectantly. "Your turn!"

Kizashi laughs. "Our side of the family specializes in genjutsu. Creating and dispelling them like we breathe. Not even the Uchiha with their Sharingan can trick us. Though, few don't know this. The Haruno clan has always been small."

Sakura nods. "That's one of my best classes at the Academy." She doesn't ask about the Sharingan. They sit in silence for a bit; each lost in their own thoughts. With a yawn, Sakura curls into her dad's embrace.

"I believe it's time to head home."

"Momma?" Sakura calls out sleepily.

"Yes, Flower?"

"Will you teach me how to control my powers?"

Her mother chuckles. "Of course, honey."

"Thank you." It's silent, and then: "Daddy?"

"Yes, honey?"

"Will you teach me how to improve my genjutsu?"


With a smile, Sakura falls into a peaceful sleep listening to the combined sounds of nature at it's finest and the soft words spoken between her parents.

But can such a bond withstand the tragedies that follow a shinobi's life?

It happens the day of her 8th birthday.

As always, Sakura wakes up early in the morning to make tea for her parents so that it's still warm by the time they roll out of bed. After that, she gets dressed in her green shirt with cherry blossoms outlining the collar and sleeves, puts on off-white shorts, and perfects the red ribbon holding her hair back. Following that, she makes a light breakfast for herself consisting of white rice, tilapia, and unsweetened tea. By the time she's done with that, her parents are up for the day and send her off with kisses and a packed lunch from the night before. She grabs her backpack and waits just outside her home for Sasuke and Naruto to show up and walk to the Academy with her. Itachi stopped walking the three of them to the Academy about a year ago due to the increased need for him to be on missions.

They're only three weeks away from graduation.


Sakura grins when she sees Naruto and Sasuke running towards her, each with varying looks of happiness on their face.

"Happy Birthday!" Naruto thrusts a small poorly wrapped, box-shaped gift in her face. "I hope you like it!"

"I like all your gifts, Naruto!" Sakura accepts it and opens it slowly. Once the wrapping paper is mostly collected at the bottom, she opens the lid to the box - only to stop and stare. Inside the box is a bracelet. An expensive looking one at that. It's thin, perhaps half an inch, but still so beautiful. The bracelet is a shimmery white color with pink cherry blossoms engraved into it. "Thank you, Naruto," she says softly. "I'll cherish it forever."

Naruto goes pink but smiles nonetheless. "I'm glad you like it!"

She doesn't hesitate to put it on. The moment it's one, Sasuke shoves his gift in her face next. This one is neatly wrapped with a bright red bow on top. Much like Naruto's gift, she takes her time opening it and once again, she stops to stare. It's a necklace this time. A pink cherry blossom pendant hangs from a thicker than average shimmery white chain. It takes her a moment to realize that the two pieces of jewelry go together.

"It's a set," Sasuke states. "He bought the bracelet and I bought the necklace."

Naruto places his hands behind his head and grins. "Neither of us had the money to buy the whole set so we split it."

Sakura just throws her arms around them and hugs them tightly. "They're so beautiful. I will love them forever."

Simultaneously, the boys turn red. She pulls out the necklace, hands the box back to Sasuke, and puts in on. Sakura is happy. So, so happy. The bracelet and necklace glitter in the sun in such a fantastic way.

"Let's go!" They race for the Academy with carefree smiles, laughing along the way.

Class is boring today, Sakura thinks. I know we're preparing for our final exams but this is ridiculous.

Of all the students to enter the same year she did, only Sasuke, Naruto, a few Uchiha kids, a couple of Hyuga, and two Inuzuka are graduating along side her. Ino won't be graduating for another year or so, preferring to take her time. Sakura has already promised to play with her after class or visit her house. Looking to her left, she rolls her eyes upon seeing Naruto asleep. She and Sasuke sure a playful exasperated look. Naruto has been falling asleep in class a lot lately. Sakura suspects that he's having trouble sleeping at home.

"This is ridiculous," one of the Hyuga, Neji (if she recalls correctly), mumbles behind her.

"Tell me about," Sakura replies under her breath.

Their usual instructor stepped out perhaps half an hour ago leaving his class to just wait there.

"Ah, Sakura-san," Neji replies. "Happy Birthday."

She turns around and offers him a kind smile. "Thank you, Neji-san."

He hums in response.

For the most part, everyone in the class remains silent. The Uchiha children talk among themselves in hushed voices. Sasuke, she realized a long time ago, doesn't interact with many - or any, really - of his family members. Neji doesn't speak to his relatives and they've made no attempt to speak to him. Or anyone else, really. And for once, the Inuzuka kids aren't roughhousing.

It's nearly an hour later when the door to their classroom opens and their instructor walks it...along with three ANBU, one she recognizes to be Sasuke's older brother from having seen his mask in the past.

"Sakura, please follow me," their teacher says, voice carefully leveled. "Class is dismissed for the remainder of the day."

Confused, and slightly worried, Sakura gathers up her supplies, waves goodbye to Sasuke and a barely awake Naruto, and quietly exits the classroom with eyes burning into her back. Soon after, the other students start filing out of class. Sakura walks directly behind her teacher, flanked on all sides by the ANBU, not knowing where she's being taken too but with each step, she feels dread bleeding into her body.

"Sensei?" She asks quietly. "Where are we going?"

"To staff room B."

Sakura remains silent during the rest of the trip. When they arrive at the staff room, one of the ANBU steps forward and opens the door. Sakura walks inside only to pause, shocked. Naruto's father is standing by the window, face carefully neutral, with his wife gazing at her in sympathy. It all clicks then and there. Of course, she would be escorted by ANBU if something bad happened to her family. Only...ANBU don't get involved unless attempted assassination or murder takes place.

Hoping that her voice doesn't crack, she simply asks: "When and how?" She doesn't have the heart to applaud herself for keeping her voice from wavering.

Minato's face twists into one of uncertainty. "This morning between 8 and 9." He hesitates briefly, debating if he should continue. Sakura stares at him silently, eyes imploring. "A break in. High level. We arrived too late." It's all he says. Sakura feels lightheaded. She left with Sasuke and Naruto just before that since classes at the Academy start at 8.

Sometime after she left home, someone...someone... A single tear rolls down her face.

"We're not - " But Sakura tunes him out by shaking her head and turning away. Tears sting behind her lashes. She wants to go home. She wants to walk through the front door and see her dad playing chess against himself and her mother preparing tea. But more than anything, she wants to see her parents one last time.

"I want to see them," she states softly.

"Sakura-chan - " Kushina, Naruto's mom, tries to speak but Sakura holds up her hand.

"Please. It's my right."

"Sakura-chan, it...won't be - "

"I understand."

She doesn't see husband and wife share a concerned, or fearful, look.

"Alright, Sakura-chan," the Hokage replies softly. "If that is what you wish."

Sakura finally looks at him and nods. She doesn't speak when he addresses two ANBU, Crow and Weasel, and orders them to escort her to the morgue. With a bow, Sakura follows the two ANBU out of the room. She ignores the heartbroken look on Naruto's mom's face, the concerned look on his dad's, and the pitiful look of her instructor.

On this day, Sakura forgets what it means to be truly happy.

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Weeds fill a garden,

When there's no heart involved,

The old tree starts fading...

Sakura becomes accustomed to many things since the death of her parents four years ago. For one, she knows that a member of Konoha's highest-security force, ANBU, follows her to and from her house every day. For another, her friends make it a habit to get her out of the old house she's grown up in as often as possible. She simply refused to leave it behind after that fateful night; going as far as to demand it be rebuilt when things settled down. That worries the Hokage, but Sakura ignores his worry. Her home remains her home until her death. Her parents put a lot of love into keeping the place updated and clean. She would never willingly abandon it.

The trip home from the morgue feels surreal. It's late into the evening by the time she leaves. The disfigured faces of her parents will haunt her for the rest of her life, she's convinced. Weasel and Crow remain silent as they follow her from the morgue to her home. She expects them too. ANBU never engage with civilians unless otherwise ordered by the Hokage or it is absolutely necessary. She remains silent, focused, and doesn't acknowledge them.

The gate leading into her family's property remains the same. The walls attached to them, surrounding the property, also remain the same. It's what she sees behind those walls that make her stop. The main house, her home, has several large holes in it; parts even knocked down. There is glass on the ground from the upstairs windows, things flung about the yard, but there are no weapons on the ground. Aside from her home, the few building on her family's property is all but destroyed. It's easy for her to deduce that this was done out of malice with no particular goal in mind.

She starts walking again. Books clutched tighter to her chest. The front door looks as if someone kicked it open with incredible speed; with half of it hanging off the formerly attached hinges. She steps inside silently. In the dark, she doesn't see much. The lights soon flicker on. Sakura glances behind herself quick enough to see Crow lower his hand.

It's as if a tornado tore through the place. And Sakura knows, she knows, that some of the damage was done deliberately. But much like outside, there are no weapons on the ground or embedded in the wall. She places her books on the floor near the door and walks forward. There's a closet near the kitchen, a giant hole in the door, but she opens it anyway. Inside is a broom, dustpan, and other cleaning supplies. Grabbing the broom and the dustpan, Sakura uses her foot to close the door.

"I'm going to clean," she tells Weasel and Crow. Her voice is rough from crying, from screaming, from pleading to anyone who will listen when she entered the room holding her parent's bodies. "Please don't get in my way."

Only silence follows. Sakura expects that. Under the watchful gaze of two ANBU members, she sets about sweeping up the glass and broken dishes. Sometime during her cleaning, the furniture in the living room is returned to their proper position, the table and chairs in the dining room are back where they should be, and any chunks of wall or ceiling have been removed. She glances at the two by the door. They moved, silently, and helped her without her noticing until the last second.

"Thank you," she calls out.

The Hokage sends Nara Shikaku to pick her up well after midnight. Shikaku is quick to dismiss the ANBU with a scroll and a wave of his hand. Sakura manages a polite wave and soft, "Thank you." After that, he helps Sakura pack an overnight bag with what clothes remained untouched in her bedroom and they head off to Naruto's home.

"Temporary," Shikaku answers her unspoken question. "Until your housing is officially decided."

"That is my home," Sakura replies. "It will remain my home."

Shikaku sighs. "I am aware, Sakura-san. But until it's repaired and deemed safe enough, you can't stay here."

"I hope it's fixed soon," is her only reply.

Now, at the age of 12, Sakura has lived in her home by herself for close to four years. It's original appearance restored under her watchful gaze, the outer buildings also fixed. In the four years she stayed, she continued to follow her daily routine of waking up in the early morning, tending to the garden, eating, and training with the scrolls that once belonged to her parents. They were well-hidden, Sakura comes to find about a month after she moves back into her home. Sealed away in a secret compartment hidden under her dresser.

She had dropped one of her hair clips and it ended up under her dresser. She felt the seal react to her chakra the moment her hand brushed across it. It took her a while to shove the dresser out of the way. Her small body didn't have the strength to move it in one go. But once the seal is revealed, Sakura recognizes it immediately. Her mother taught her a lot about the family seals; how to create and break them. It took her but a moment to break this one and open a world of knowledge relating to both sides of her family. Advanced techniques and more history. She learned more about the Senju family in one sitting than she ever did at the Academy.

Today, however, is a special day. Or, at least, that's what Naruto said the night before and Sakura strongly agrees. Today is the day she, along with Sasuke and Naruto, will meet their jounin sensei. She has been waiting for this day for a couple of years now. Not being assigned to a team right out of the Academy is expected for early entries. This happens a lot among the clans. Some families prefer to privately train their members after graduation before deeming them well enough to join a team, usually around the age of 12 and 13. The only one she knew who was placed on a team so far is Neji and that was during one of their brief encounters in the market place. Sakura trained by herself or with the boys. Sometimes with Ino.

At age 9, she figured she was ready to be placed on a team. The Hokage thought differently. At age 10, she knew she was ready to be placed on a team. Still, the Hokage disagreed. The only thing she requested, at the age of 11, was to be placed on a team with Naruto and Sasuke or with Ino. After that, the Hokage told her she would be placed on a team, with her boys, in one year.

"One year, today," Sakura states while sharpening her kunai one at a time. It's close to noon, but she learned last night from Naruto that she, along with him and Sasuke, wouldn't have to report to their designated meeting spot (the roof of the Academy, no less) until 1. Her boys plan on showing up soon, for a relatively calm lunch, before they head out together. Sasuke is bringing the lunch, courtesy of his mother, and Sakura will provide the utensils for them to eat. They switch every once and a while. She ponders what today's lunch will be -

There's a loud knock on her door.



"Sakura, open up! There's too much!"


Quickly, she sets down the kunai she's currently working on to open the door. Upon opening it, Sakura shakes her head. Both Sasuke and Naruto are carrying large food sacks stacked up high. She lets them in, taking one food sack from each.

"Before you ask," Sasuke starts while heading into the kitchen, "she doesn't want me to come home with leftovers."

"Are both your mother's under the impression that I barely eat?" It's an honest question. She still has leftovers from two nights ago when Naruto showed up with dinner for and, despite eating with her, there's still so much left. "I'm going to run out of space for all of this."

Sasuke pops his head out of the kitchen to look her directly in the eye. "You know why."

Naruto nods as he makes his way past her. "Just let them - us! - do this for you, Sakura-chan."

She sighs. "Alright, alright."

Walking between Sasuke and Naruto, Sakura thinks about what type of person their sensei will be. Will they be very stern and unforgiving during training or on missions? Will they be kind and nurturing? It has to be someone strong and extremely trusted. Naruto is the only son of the Hokage, Sasuke is the second child to the Head of the Uchiha clan, and Sakura's known family - the Haruno's - although small (smaller now) are known for being genjutsu experts. They're a group full of potential, a group that could become one of the best.

"Maybe we'll get a retired ANBU," Sasuke voices. "Someone with a lot of field experience and no time for nonsense."

"Mah mah, Sasuke! Don't jinx us!" Naruto cries. "Retired ANBU are too stern and boring. I want someone fun!"'

Sasuke and Sakura share a smirk.

"We might be stuck with a lot of D-Rank missions," Sakura muses, eyes glittering with mischief. "Weed pulling, cat chasing, house cleaning, and what not."

"Or maybe we'll never leave the village considering who your dad is," Sasuke grins. "You know, to keep you safe and all."

Naruto pales. "N-No way! We're gonna' get someone fun and exciting. It's gonna' be great. Just you wait and see!"

He eats his words three hours later when their jounin still hasn't shown up. Sakura keeps her cool by meditating. It wouldn't do well for her to snap at her sensei if - when! - he shows. Sasuke has his arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the rail outlining the roof. Even from where she is seated, Sakura can feel the waves of annoyance roll off him. The two of them remain silent. Naruto, on the other hand, has been very vocal about his displeasure of having an extremely tardy teacher.

"It's been hours!" Naruto hollers. "So many hours wasted away! We could have had our first mission by now!"

Sakura sighs. "They'll get here when they get here, Naruto."

"Sakura-chan," he whines. "I'm hungry again."

"I'm sorry, Naruto. We'll get ramen when all of this is over."

Sasuke snorts but doesn't say anything. When a bird lands on the ground before Sakura, she opens her eyes. It's a blue jay. Blue Jay's are not indigenous to Konoha, hailing from Earth Country, but the occasional one finds it's way to Konoha, to Sakura. She reaches out to it. The bird looks are her curiously before hopping onto her finger.

"Hello there, precious one. You're a little far from home, aren't you?" The bird chirps a few times. "Ah, I see. Well, I hope you make it home soon. I'm sure your family misses you a great deal." Sakura slowly raises her hand above her head. In one fell swoop, the blue jay takes off into the sky. Sakura smiles as it flies away.

"Ano, Sakura-chan..."

She looks at Naruto, head tilting. "Yes?"

"You, um, well...nevermind!"

Sakura blinks. "Are you sure - "


Closing her eyes, Sakura applauds herself for not jumping. She will not be making a bad impression on her first day with a jounin sensei. Although, Naruto's scream of, "You're late!" causes a small smile to form on her face. She nor Sasuke speak as Naruto rants - in typical Naruto fashion - about how terrible it is to make them wait and, "We could have been on a mission by now!"

"Ah, you see. A black cat crossed my path so I had to take a long way around."

At this, Sakura's eyes snap open in disbelief. She finally gets a good look at their sensei. Wild silver hair, half covered face by a mask, one eye staring at them while the other is covered with his forehead protector, standard jounin attire, and the aura of a laid back person. Sakura's not sure how she feels about this. It's as if the man doesn't take his job seriously.

"Lair!" Naruto yells again.

"Even if that were true, it would not take you three hours to find your way up here." Sakura stands up and pats her shorts free of any dust that's collected since she sat down.

"Is that right?" The man asks, clearly amused. Sakura only scowls. "Well, since I'm here. Let's do some introductions."

"And say what?" Sasuke asks with a raised eyebrow. "We already know each other. We just don't know you."

The man chuckles. "Yes, but I don't know any of you either. Why not tell me your likes, dislikes, hobbies, dreams and/or ambitions?"

"Why don't you go first, sensei?" Sakura smiles sweetly. "Show us how it's done."

"I'm Hatake Kakashi. Things I like and things I dislike…I don't feel like telling you that. My dreams for the future…never really thought about it. As for my hobbies… I have lots of hobbies." Sakura and Sasuke share an eye roll while Naruto mumbles "creepy" under his breath. "Alright, let's start with you. The Hokage's pride and joy."

Naruto glares at him but replies: "I'm Namikaze Naruto. I like instant ramen in a cup, and I really like the ramen my mom and Sakura-chan get me from the Ichiraku Noodle Shop. I hate the three minutes you have to wait after you pour the water in the ramen cup. My hobby is trying all types of ramen and comparing them and my dream is to be the Hokage one day! Only, I'm gonna' be different from dad! I'm gonna' be recognized for my own strength!"

Kakashi nods. "Alright. You there. Itachi's darling little brother."

Sasuke scowls, but answers anyway: "My name is Uchiha Sasuke. I like training with my brother and friends. And cooking. I dislike my fangirls. My hobbies revolve about my likes. My dream is to become captain of the ANBU."

"I see." Then Kakashi nods towards Sakura. "And you, Pinkette."

Feeling the corner of her mouth twitch, Sakura merely replies with, "I'm Haruno Sakura. I have likes and dislikes, a few hobbies, and you're not privy to my dream." And then she smiles innocently. "Sorry, sensei."

She's not sorry at all.

"No worries, Sakura-chan," Kakashi waves his hand dismissively. "Now, the three of you get home. Meet at Ground 3 tomorrow at 6 AM."

"We're going on a mission?!" Naruto asks excitedly.

"Nope. You're going to be tested. If you fail, you go back to the Academy. Some advice? Don't eat breakfast." And with that, Kakashi disappears in a plume of white smoke.

Sakura covers her face to keep her rage inside. Go back to the Academy? After entering early and graduating early? GO. BACK. TO. THE. ACADEMY?! Sakura want's to smack something. She spent two years asking to be placed on a team. And then when she finally gets what she wants, she had to wait another year! And now this? Failing this test could send them back to the Academy?

"Sakura, you need to calm down."



"I'm sorry," she replies.

"W-Was that your k-killing intent?" Naruto asks while poking his head out from behind Sasuke.

Sakura blinks before looking at Sasuke. He nods. "I guess so," she replies. "Sorry, Naruto." Then she smiles. "Are you still up for ramen?"

And just like that, Naruto jumps out from behind Sasuke and runs to her, grabbing her hands in the process. "Yes, Sakura-chan! Let's go! Let's go!" She laughs. Naruto will always love ramen. Turning to Sasuke, she tilts her head questioningly.

"Not today," he answers her unspoken question. "My brother should be back from his mission and he promised to teach me another fire type jutsu. Something about dragons or whatever."

"Alrighty!" Naruto cheers while letting go of Sakura's hands to pump his fists into the air. "I get to go on a date with Sakura-chan!"

"It's not a date, Naruto."

That doesn't stop him. "I get to eat ramen with Sakura-chan!" He takes off for the stairs.

Sakura only rolls her eyes. "See you in the morning," she addresses Sasuke.

"See you."

Namikaze Minato, current Hokage of Konohagakure, sits idly in his desk chair awaiting his former pupil's arrival to give him the run down of his new team. He pulled Kakashi from retirement about four months ago, telling him that he would be taking on a team for the next year or so depending and that there was no way he could refuse the order. Kakashi, being Kakashi, took it in stride. Not once did he complain about having to observe his former teacher's son or his former teammate's younger brother nor the girl he had watched clean her home the same day she was informed of her parent's murder.

"So, what do you think?" He asks out loud once he senses Kakashi behind him. "Think you're up for the task?"

"You wouldn't let me back out even if I wanted to."

Minato chuckles at this. "Of course not. It would do them some good to have you as a sensei and do you some good to be a mentor."

"We'll have to see. They have the bell test tomorrow."

The Hokage finally turns around in his seat to see Kakashi casually sitting on the window ledge behind his desk. "Your pre-test verdict?"

"50/50. Little Sasuke claims they know each, but how well? That's the biggest question. Will one pick up where the other two slack? Will they work together in order to gain the bells? So many possibilities, sensei."

"What's your general opinion, then?"

"You assigned me an interesting team. I'm looking forward to tomorrow."

"What's your opinion of young Sakura?"

Kakashi closes his book with a snap and sighs. That girl lost her family four years and shows no outward signs of distress or anger so far. And he has observed her plenty times in the last few months. She has stuck with the same day-by-day routine since returning to her house after it was repaired. It's concerning if he's honest. Upon observing her, she doesn't act out or react negatively when things don't go her way. Today, however, she didn't show much in terms of emotion. Though, she did get irritated. And the killing intent she showcased right after he left is troubling. It was bright, hot, and he knows that nearby shinobi felt it.

"She's a puzzle. On one hand, she's reserved. Even among Sasuke and Naruto at times. On the other, I believe she's far more capable than what she chooses to let others see."

"There is something incredibly unique about her," Minato agrees. "I can't put my finger on it but, to be honest, I really hope they pass tomorrow."

"Afraid of having your son rant and rave for another year?" Kakashi asks innocently.

"Not just him, but Kushina." Minato chuckles. "Let's hope things go well."

Sakura wakes up at 4 AM, two hours before she normally wakes up, and gets dressed in a loose black shirt and matching shorts. She ties her long hair back with the ribbon Ino gave her when they first met and sets out to jog around her property for half an hour. The moment she steps outside, she senses the ANBU member hiding in one of the trees near the gate. The ground ripples gently beneath her feet, informing her of her watcher like it always does. And Sakura is thankful for this. It took her awhile to get used to the spying, but after she caught the slightest bit of black clothing she just let it be.

Ignoring the ANBU, Sakura starts jogging at a steady pace. She keeps her focus dead ahead and thinks about what sort of test Kakashi will give them. A survival test makes the most sense. A retrieval test is a close second. Maybe he'll have them test their abilities against him and he'll determine if they'll be worth the trouble?

She scowls. "Stupid sensei. Stupid test. I am not going back to the Academy!" Sakura jogs by the ANBU a third time. "And neither is Sasuke and Naruto. We've waited too long." When thirty minutes pass, give or take a few minutes, Sakura walks back into her house to grab the gardening tools.

Still, under the same watchful gaze, she sets about caring for the garden. It's not a happy experience for her anymore. Most of her caring is done on autopilot because she can't stand to be in the garden for more than is necessary to care for it. She dutifully pulls out any weeds that have grown overnight - it wasn't like this before - and throws them in a bucket to be burned later, waters the roses and vegetables, and pulls off the old bark from the sacred tree. Every so often, she feels roots move under her feet or leaves drift down to caress her face.

"I'm sorry," she replies softly.

Every day, she apologizes to the tree. Every day, the tree accepts her apology. Her heart no longer beats for the garden, for the tree, and she will forever be sorry. Her happiness left her the day she found out about her parents and she only continues to care for this area of her property because her mother put so much love into it. Abandoning it would be an insult to her memory.

"I have a sensei now," Sakura whispers, hoping the ANBU isn't listening in. "I don't know what to make of him, but I can only hope myself and the boys pass his test today." Sakura places the last of the old bark into the bucket to be burned and gently pats the tree. "If you are willing, please watch over us today."

She picks up the bucket of weeds and the bucket of bark and walks back into her house. Once inside, she glances at the clock and realizes she has roughly 40 minutes to make it to Ground 3. Sakura walks to the fire place in the living room, lights the wood inside, and dumps both the weeds and bark into the fire. For a moment, she just watches the flames. Had her parents been alive, she may have been able to convince them to pull out the marshmallows. Shaking her head of what could have been, she opts to take a quick shower before heading out to Ground 3.

Her official shinobi outfit consists of a short-sleeved fishnet under shirt that stops just above her belly button, a red no-sleeved crop top that zips up in the middle, black shorts with fishnets attached to the bottom, and a red skirt to cover the shorts with the Haruno clan symbol in the bottom right corner. She bought this outfit when she went shopping with Ino a few weeks ago. Ino, her devious best friend, had convinced her to buy it. Her knee-high sandal boots were a gift from Ino's mother. Sakura finds them to be very comfortable. It was Naruto's mother, however, that sewed the Haruno clan symbol into her skirt upon Sakura's request.

After letting her hair air dry and with 15 minutes to spare, Sakura ties it back into a high ponytail, places her forehead protector on top of her head like a headband, grabs an apple, and heads out. She's quick to lock the door behind her and doesn't even bother opening the gate that leads onto her property. Instead, she jumps over it with practiced ease and continues toward Ground 3.

One of the downsides about leaving her home is that she sometimes loses track of the ANBU following her. If they aren't touching some part of living nature, she can't sense them. Inside her home, she doesn't care so much because she's never bothered, but canceling one's chakra signal is something Sakura hopes to learn from her new sensei. It would benefit her not to always be followed wherever she goes.

Ground 3, like any other training ground she has seen, is nothing special. There's a short, wooden pillar next to tall tree and couple of small boulders lying around. For the most part, it's just a big clearing surrounded by thick trees and large bushes. She's the first to arrive. A few minutes later, Sasuke shows up dragging a barely awake Naruto behind him.

"I want ramen," Naruto mumbles before yawning.

"Shut it," Sasuke snaps. "You'll get ramen later."

"Be nice, Sasuke. He's tired." Sakura sits down in front of the pillar and leans back. "Bring Naruto here." At her request, Sasuke more or less dumps Naruto next to her. She spends a few moments rearranging her friend until his head is pillowed on her leg as comfortable as it gets. "Kakashi-sensei was three hours late yesterday. Who knows when he'll show up." Sakura easily splits her apple in half with her bare hands and hands half to Sasuke. "Eat that," she commands.

For the next five minutes, Sakura struggles to get Naruto to eat the other half. Only when she manages to get him to eat a couple of bites did she notice Sasuke holding out half of his half. "It's only fair," he states. It's a little brown from the exposure, but Sakura accepts it anyway and eats it in two bites.

"Thank you," she replies. "Now buckle down. It's going to be a long morning." Sasuke sits next to Sakura on her free side. It takes only a few minutes for him to start nodding off. She smiles a little when his head drops to her shoulder.

It's okay, she thinks. I'll watch over you both.

Sasuke only manages roughly another hour of sleep before waking up, apologizing (with Sakura waving his apology away), and offers to let her rest too if she wants. When she declines, they sit there together watching over Naruto as he sleeps peacefully. For another two hours, they wait there in relative silence. Sakura's amazed her legs haven't fallen asleep by now. When the ground ripples just barely under her - Sasuke shows no sign of noticing - she knows someone is heading their way.

It better be sensei, Sakura thinks. Or I'm going to be really mad.

"Hello, my cute - "

"Hush!" Sakura snaps while glaring at the older man. "You made us wait damn near three hours before deciding to show up." Averting her eyes, she gently wakes up Naruto by shaking his shoulder. "Come on, Naruto. Sensei's here."

"Wha - huh?" Naruto sits up while rubbing his eyes. Once his focus is clear, he turns to look at their sensei. "You're late!" He yells while jumping to his feet. "We've been here for hours!"

"I take back what I was going to say. None of you are cute." Kakashi sniffs.

Sakura and Sasuke scoff simultaneously.

"So when are we taking this test?" Naruto asks. "I'm ready!"

"Are you now?" Kakashi tilts his head. "And what about your teammates? Do you think they're ready?"

Naruto doesn't bother looking at Sasuke and Sakura. "Psh, of course! What do you take us for old man?!"

Sakura looks away to hide her smile at the tick that forms at Kakashi's temple. "Old man?" She hears him mumble.

"Yeah! So when do we start?!"

At this, both Sasuke and Sakura get to their feet and flank Naruto. Together, the three stare at him in with a mixture of annoyance and determination. This mildly impresses Kakashi. To see them standing there as a united force as opposed to standing away from each other, he starts to feel a little hope for this team.

"Mah mah, let's get to business." He pulls two bells out of his pocket. "We'll be performing the bell test. In order for you to pass, you each must obtain a bell within a specified time limit. Simple enough?"

"There are only two bells, sensei," Sakura points out.

"Well, yes. Only two of you have the hope of passing. Those who do not obtain a bell will be required to return to the Academy." At this, he focuses on each of them specifically. Naruto's face crumbles into disbelief, Sasuke looks annoyed, and Sakura's face goes blank. He can't tell if she's distressed, angry, annoyed, or what not.

If they pass, this could be troublesome.

"So," he continues while pulling an alarm clock out of his pocket, "I'm giving you all until this alarm goes off to complete the test. That's fair, right?" He walks forward and places the alarm clock on top of the pillar.

"W-Wait," Naruto waves his hands.

"Hm, yes?"

"Are you s-serious about the 'going back to the Academy' thing?"

"Oh, very serious. Konoha has no need for shinobi who can't pass a simple test." At this, Kakashi finally sees a crack in Sakura's expression. She's pissed.

If they pass, I'll need to find a way for her to channel that anger. She's physically fit enough. Perhaps taijutsu?

"O-Oh," Naruto mumbles.

"No worries, Naruto-chan. I'm sure the son of the Hokage can get at least one of these bells." He's pouring salt into the wound but doesn't blink when Naruto's face shuts down. "Alrighty! Ready - I didn't say go."

It happens in a split second, but Sakura felt it more than she saw it. When her gaze lands on Naruto, she fights the violent urge to tackle their sensei to keep him from harming her friend. He has Naruto's hand twisted behind his back, kunai directly placed at the base of Naruto's neck.

"I didn't say go," Kakashi repeats. "Anyway - GO!" And with that, he disappears. The only sound is the ticking of the alarm clock.

For a moment, all three of them stand there.

"Only two of us have the hope of passing?" Sasuke asks quietly.

"How is that fair?" Naruto states.

"It's not."

"I hate this."

"May the best one win," Sakura holds out her pinky. They hook theirs to hers. "Good luck."

And they split up.

Kakashi silently confesses himself disappointed. From across the clearing, he has seen kids hook fingers and that would have made him happy...if he didn't enhance his hearing with chakra and heard the short conversation between them. So, they haven't caught on yet. There's still 59 minutes left so he's holding out hope that one of them will get it and regroup with the others.

But for now, he's going to mess with his former sensei's son.

When her sandals hit the highest tree branch, Sakura silently commands the thick leaves and other branches to form a cocoon around her so she can think of a way to stop her sensei without resulting in the use of her kekkei genkai.

I could trap him under a genjutsu, but for how long? Who knows how strong he is?

Sakura sighs and closes her eyes. "To think, after wasting four years, one or all of us could be forced back into the Academy." She can already picture the disapproving look on Sasuke's father's face and the disappointing looks on Naruto's parent's face. And she, with no parents to go home to, would just be angry at herself.

"Why put us on a three-man squad if one of us could end up going back to the Academy?"

"Graduated genin are placed into three-man squads to maximize work ethic and teamwork. These squads are selected based on performance and connection. You will benefit from your teammates as they will from you. Where you lack, your teammates will pick up. You'll play to each other's strengths while improving your weaknesses."

You will benefit from your teammates as they will from you.

Sakura's eyes snap open.

"Teamwork," she hisses at herself. "Sensei is testing our teamwork!" The cocoon starts unwrapping around her. "I need to find them. Damn it, how much time do we have left?!" Sakura quickly descends from the tree. Hitting the ground, she takes off running towards the pillar.

It feels like she's running forever - "S-Sakura?" She stops. "Help m-me." Before she is a badly bleeding Sasuke struggling to maintain his footing while gripping his side. Something feels off about this. The ground ripples underneath her. With wide eyes, Sakura forms the dispelling hand signs and yells, "Kai!" The image of a hurt Sasuke melts away and Sakura is left staring down at the head of Sasuke. The rest of his body buried under the ground.

"Don't tell Naruto," Sasuke mumbles as Sakura digs him up. "He'll never let me live it down."

"You're secret is safe with me. Now, come on! We need to find Naruto and fast!" Sakura grabs his hand and starts running towards the alarm clock.

"W-What? Sakura, there are only - "

"It doesn't matter," Sakura replies. Her grip doesn't loosen. "Sensei is testing our teamwork. We're supposed to get the bells together!"

Sasuke's eyes widen. "Shit! We need to get to Naruto. How much time do we have left?!" He's now running next to her, gripping her hand back just as tightly.

"Who knows, but we can regroup once we find him."

And they do find him; hanging upside down from a tree on the far offside no less. Sasuke throws a kunai to cut the rope and Sakura shoots forward to break Naruto's fall. He's really far up.

"Naruto, are you alright?"

"Y-Yeah. Kakashi-sensei can be scary."

"Don't focus on that right now. We need to make a plan."

"Wait, I thought - "

"We'll explain in a moment." She turns to Sasuke. "Can you see the alarm clock?"

"Yes. 14 minutes left."

Sakura nods while helping Naruto up. "Let's move. Quickly."

Kakashi watches them disappear into the tree. He feels a little proud that Sakura not only managed to break his genjutsu but also discovered the true intention behind the bell test. "14 minutes. Let's see what you three come up with."

"Are you both clear on the plan?"



"Then let's get to it."

10 minutes later found Sakura leaning heavily against the pillar the alarm clock is on top of, kunai gripped in both hands, while Naruto and Sasuke continue their vicious attacks against their sensei. Since the confrontation, they have missed the bells six times. For good reasons, but Sakura can feel the frustration building in her stomach. They're almost out of time.

Everything comes to a screeching halt when Kakashi has Sasuke pinned to the ground with his knee and Naruto's arm is twisted so that his own kunai is aimed at his throat. Frustration turns to anger when she sees Kakashi press down on Sasuke some more while forcing Naruto's kunai closer to his neck. She glances at the alarm clock. 30 seconds.

30 seconds.

"What do you do now, Sakura-chan?" Kakashi asks. "Who do you save?"

20 seconds.

"You'll have to pick."

10 seconds.

"No," she snaps, something vicious builds up in her chest. "I don't." And with that, she flings one of her kunai at the alarm clock with deadly accuracy. It hits the alarm clock effectively destroying. She pulls out a handful of senbon needles and throws them at Kakashi. They strike him only for a puff of white smoke to appear and a log drop next to Sasuke. Sakura shoots forward and takes a defensive stance between them. "I'll fight you all day if that means I can get the bells for the three us." She feels, rather than sees, Naruto help Sasuke get up. Soon they're back-to-back on high alert.

"You're not alone, Sakura-chan! We'll kick sensei's ass and be true genin together."

She sees Sasuke nod out of the corner of her eye.

"Is that so..." a voice drifts over the clearing. "If that's the case...then you all pass!"

"Don't let your guard down," Sasuke says quickly. "This could be a ruse."

"How can we pass without the bells?" Sakura actively scans the area despite knowing their sensei is behind her in the tree next to the pillar.

"You're willing to work together, all day if you must, to get these bells. Together. The purpose of this test is to showcase your teamwork. It took you some time, but you managed to come together, formulate a plan, and put it into action despite not succeeding. Let's gather around and talk about." There's a puff of smoke. At this, Sakura relaxes and turns to face Naruto and Sasuke. Together, they sit on the ground in front of their sensei who takes a seat after them. "Let's start with you, Sakura. You're the first one to figure it out."

"In the Academy, we learn about the importance of three-man squads graduated genin are placed in. We play on each other's strengths while improving our weaknesses. I realized we would benefit from each other if we worked together. That's the whole purpose of being placed on a team."

Kakashi nods. "You tied with a Hyuga for top scores in the Academy. You're book smart. Quick to realize. Quick to strategize." He points to Sasuke. "What can you add?"

"I engaged you almost immediately after with split and...lost. I realized you placed a genjutsu around but could not dispell it. I got lucky when Sakura came across me, dispelled the genjutsu, and helped me."

"You trusted her enough to follow her to find Naruto. Why?"

"She's my teammate. I had no reason not to trust her." His gaze flickers to Sakura. "I followed her because I trust her and together we found Naruto, got him down, and hide so we could come up with a plan."

"I see. And Naruto? Have anything to add?"

"Well, I tried to fight you but that, uh, didn't work." He scratches his cheek while avoiding eye contact with any of them. "And then I ran into one of your traps! I was just hanging there! And then, and then!" Naruto bounces. "Sakura-chan and Sasuke showed up and got me down and we went off to make a kickass plan. Believe it!" He shoots Kakashi a thumb's up.

Kakashi chuckles. "Now, how did you come up with your plan?"

"Sakura suggested we distract you with two against one and the last person goes for the bells. We were trying to come in hot so you wouldn't react fast enough."

"A good idea, yet you failed to get the bells a single time. Why is that?"

"Because," Sakura starts, gaining the attention of all of them, "we wouldn't risk each other to get the bells. When one of us went for the bells, you'd attack another one of us and whoever went for the bells would stop to help out the one being attacked."

"I'm passing you because you all worked together and refused to let any harm befall your teammates to the best of your ability. Realistically, if this were a mission, you are would have failed."

Sakura looks down.

"Sasuke, what is the fourth rule a shinobi must follow."

"The mission comes first."

"I understand," Sakura states. "But I don't agree."

"And why is that, Sakura-chan?" Kakashi asks. He's very curious about what her answer might be.

She doesn't raise her head to look him in the eye, instead focusing on the little white flowers in front of her. "While rules and regulations are important, they are not infallible. If I deem it necessary, I will break them."

"Can you give an example of when you think you'd need to break them?"

"If my teammates are kidnapped from the village or captured on a mission...I would drop everything, do anything, to get them back. That is my belief." She finally looks at him. "My ninja way."

No one speaks for a while after that. Sakura and Kakashi stay locked in a stare, but neither waivers. Naruto and Sasuke share a surprised, but understanding look. This is their Sakura. They know how she thinks.

"You're full of surprises today, Sakura-chan." Kakashi runs a hand through his hair and nods. "While those who break the rules of the ninja world are trash, those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash. You have to make the choice and you have to live with it. Am I understood?"

"Yes, sensei," comes the unison response.

"Good. Now, I need to report your success to the Hokage. We'll meet here tomorrow at 8 AM. Until then," he gives them a little wave before disappearing in a plume of white smoke.

"Alright, let's begin."

Minato gestures to Asuma first.

"As the temporary - now permanent - sensei of Team Ten, I am pleased to announce they have passed."

"I'm glad." Minato nods to Kurenai.

"As the temporary - now permanent - sensei of Team Eight, I am pleased to announce they have passed."

"Excellent." Without turning around, he addresses the final person in the room. "And you, Kakashi?"

"As the temporary - now permanent - sensei of Team Seven, I am pleased to announce they have passed."

"I'm glad to hear. Now, I want to hear your thoughts on each team. Kurenai, you may go first."

Nodding, Kurenai steps forward. "My team consists of Inuzuka Kiba, Hyuga Hinata, and Aburame Shino. As members of some of Konoha's most prominent clans, they showcased a variety of jutsu consistent with at-home training. However, their teamwork could use some work. They did not fall into balance until the final quarter of the time given to complete their test. I am impressed."

"Do you have any concerns?"

She nods. "Hyuga Hinata has not received the proper training from her clan despite graduating a year ago. Permission to investigate the matter once I am dismissed?"

"Granted. Asuma?"

"My team consists of Yamanaka Ino, Nara Shikamaru, and Akimichi Choji. They are the next generation Ino-Shika-Choji trio well-known in our village. As trained by their respective clans, they showcased a variety of jutsu consistent with at-home training. While their teamwork lacked in the beginning of the test, they made up for it in the end. They're a good team."

"Do you have any concerns?"

"If you know a way to keep Shikaku's kid awake during my talks, let me know."

That brings forth a round of chuckles.

"What about you Kakashi?"

"My team consists of Namikaze Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke, and Haruno Sakura. Despite being members of their respective clans, they didn't showcase any particular skill outside of taijutsu and weaponry for the majority of their test. However, once Haruno Sakura figured out the intention of the test, she reconnected with her teammates and they proceeded to work together. They'll make for an interesting team to mentor."

"Do you have any concerns?"

"A few. Though..." he looks at Asuma and Kurenai, "Permission to discuss those in a private conference?"

"Granted. Asuma, Kurenai, you are dismissed."

Once they file out, Kakashi snaps his book closed and moves to stand before the Hokage. "Haruno Sakura," he says. "There's something about her that I can't place my finger on."

"Do you believe she may become a threat to herself or the team?"

"I'm...not sure." Kakashi sighs. "I was there when her chakra went mad when she saw the condition her parents were in. She nearly caused the morgue to collapse. She didn't realize it. Walking her home that night, though, she was different. She showcased little emotion after leaving the morgue."

"The time she spent in my home, she acted as if it never happened. She still laughed. She still smiled. She does it now. She's constantly monitored in case of losing control of her chakra is a fit of anger or grief."

"I don't believe she properly mourned the deaths of her parents, sensei. Rather, she puts up a mask because it gets others to stop questioning her."

"What happened during the test?"

"It's not so much what happened during the test as what she said during our breakdown discussion of it."

"What did she say?" Minto leans forward in his seat.

"She repeated what you, back then, when you had us do the bell test. 'While rules and regulations are important, they are not infallible.' And then she stated that she would break the rules if she deemed it necessary. I asked for an example and she," Kakashi averts his gaze to the floor, "replied that if her teammates were kidnapped or captured, she would do everything and anything to get them back. Including dropping the mission."

"She has abandonment issues."

Kakashi nods. "Yes, but I believe this team will benefit her in the long run. She may be friends with your son and Sasuke, care deeply for them, but there's a wall between them and that has much to do with their separate experiences. Trust needs to be built between all of us, beyond what there is now, but she is capable of achieving a great deal. All three of them are."

"Let me repeat myself: Do you believe she may become a threat to herself or the team?"

"No, sensei," Kakashi answers clearly this time. "With the proper acknowledgment, training, and team building...I believe she will be okay."

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Learning to find our place,

Learning to meet each other's face,

Learning to work together,

It will make everything better.

Sakura has a hard time focusing on anything with Naruto and Sasuke engaged in one of their larger-than-life arguments over something incredibly petty - by her standards - while she is attempting to chop vegetables for an early, light lunch. Kakashi was a no-show at 8 AM. At 9, Sakura grew annoyed and challenged Sasuke to a spar with Naruto as the moderator - it ended in a draw. At 10, Sakura stated she would be returning home for lunch because they're wasting time just waiting there.

Of course, she invited her teammates. Sasuke is a decent cook, but Naruto - not so much. He's usually stuck with setting the table and washing dishes; not that he's made outward complaints...until today, that is.

" - maybe if you weren't so bad at this, you'd be able to help," Sasuke snaps.

"Shut up! I can cut some damn tomatoes!"

Patience, patience, patience...

"You butchered them the last time you tried to help, idiot!"

Patience, patience, pat -

Sakura's eyes flicker to the tree directly in front of her, a couple of feet away from the sink. The sacred tree, beautifully blossomed, looks back at her. It's who's hiding in the tree that has Sakura smirking to herself. She's always aware of whoever is in that tree. The connection between her and the tree runs deep despite the lack of happiness that Sakura feels when she enters the garden.

"Naruto, come take over for me. I need to step outside for a moment."

Simultaneously, Sasuke and Naruto turn to look at her. Sasuke's expression has her biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from cracking up. Naruto looks like Christmas came early.

"Okay!" Naruto shoots forward. Sakura hands him the knife carefully. "Please don't get into a fight while I'm outside."

Sasuke snorts while Naruto beams. "What do you take us for, Sakura-chan?! We can get this done!"

Shaking her head, Sakura unties the apron around her waist and tosses it over the back of one of the dining table chairs as she passes it to go outside. The moment she sets a bare foot on the lush green grass leading to the center of the garden, Sakura feels a little more at peace. The ground ripples in acknowledgment as she walks along the path to the sacred tree.

The moment she's before it, Sakura crosses her arms and looks up. "I'm not apologizing for not being at the meeting place when you finally decided to show up, sensei. You told us to meet at 8 and we waited until 10."

A moment of silence and then - "It was an order."

"I don't believe I should follow orders of the sensei who doesn't seem to care about the growth of me and my teammates."

In a flicker of black, Kakashi stands before her with his arms crossed over his chest as well. "What makes you think I don't care?"

"Yesterday, you didn't show up until three hours after the scheduled time. Today, I grew tired of waiting. You gave us a time to meet and didn't even show up yourself." Sakura turns around so that her back faces him. "If you don't want to take this seriously or have decided to not be our mentor, then please see the Hokage so he can find a suitable replacement. It's not fair that Sasuke, Naruto, and I are treated in such a manner."

"You're a particular young girl, Sakura-chan."

"So I've been told," she replies with an air of indifference and starts walking towards the house.

"I do take this team seriously," Kakashi calls after her and is rewarded with Sakura's halted form.

"If that's the case, then please join us for lunch." A moment of silence, then "Sensei." And she continues to walk towards the house without looking back once. Kakashi stands there for a moment before following after her.

Particular indeed, eh, Sakura-chan...

The moment they enter the house, Sakura makes a dash for the kitchen upon hearing a loud bang followed by a yelp of pain. Arriving, she just stares at her teammates with a bubbling mixture of relief and hilarity. Sasuke and Naruto had fallen at some point. It's the position they landed in that has Sakura wishing she were there to see it from the beginning. Faces merely an inch or two apart, Naruto and Sasuke were starring at each other completely frozen. Naruto is on all fours over Sasuke's body, both their knives are on the floor.

"If you two need alone time, Sakura-chan and I can pick up takeout."

Like a broken spell, Naruto scrambles off Sasuke in such a haste that he trips and lands on his butt. Sasuke is already on his feet, face bright red as he glares angerly at Naruto.

"Don't be weird, sensei!" Naruto yells.

Sasuke gives a stiff nod.

Sakura looks at the poorly chopped cucumbers and smashed tomatoes and sighs. The task was so simple, but Sasuke and Naruto - being Sasuke and Naruto - just had to turn everything into a competition. "Honestly, what am I going to do with you two?"

"Let's sell the idiot and replace him with a cat," Sasuke states as if speaking about the weather.

Sakura smiles to herself at Naruto's squawk of anger. "Ah, but a cat wouldn't perform well on missions," Kakashi interjects before another argument can break out.

Sasuke huffs. "Whatever." He moves back to the counter. "I can still save most of these," he directions this towards Sakura. "It's for the pasta anyway."

"What are you even doing here, sensei?" Naruto asks while he starts pulling dishes out of the upper cabinet, situation seemly forgotten. "We were going to head back in half an hour."

Kakashi moves to leans against the counter next to Sakura as she attempts to better chop the cucumbers to go in the pasta. "I was looking for my students because they weren't where they should have been." Sakura snorts knowing damn well Kakashi can hear it.

"We figured you'd be three hours late or something to that degree," Sasuke replies as he scraps the majority of the tomatoes into a large pot on the stove next to him and turns on the burner.

"My students have such little faith in me."

"Can you blame us?" Naruto starts grabbing glasses from the cabinet near Sasuke. "You're late twice."

Sakura laughs under her breath. "They have a point, sensei."

Kakashi sighs. "Such little faith. I actually have your first D-Rank, but since you weren't where you were supposed to be...maybe I just won't assign it."

At this, Sakura and Sasuke snort at the same time. "Wow, missing one D-Rank mission," Sasuke replies with an eye-roll.

"What is it?" Sakura asks while dumping the cucumbers in with the tomatoes before setting about to chop onions. "Pulling weeds? Chasing a cat? Painting a fence?"

Kakashi sniffs. "None of you are cute. I want my cute genin from yesterday."

"Will we go on this D-Rank mission after lunch?" Naruto asks as he moves to stand next to Sasuke and help clean up the mess from earlier.


"On what?"

"On how will lunch is." And with that, he takes a seat at the dining table.

Lunch goes as well as Sakura can imagine. It's kind of nice to have her sensei over for the meal. Naruto and Sasuke are on their best behavior - relatively speaking - and the conversation is polite. They enjoy lunch outside under the sacred tree. Unlike other days, where leaves would be falling to caress Sakura's cheeks and hair, today the tree only provides them with shade.

The ground of which they sit on is incredibly smooth. No bumps or rocks or weeds. Just nice, clean cut grass complimenting a beautiful, cloudless day. Kakashi is the fourth person she has invited into her garden. Earlier, he entered without permission and that sent her into a semi-unbalanced state. Even so, the tree did not question his presence nor forced him out.

If the sacred tree can trust her sensei, then maybe she can as well.

"Your first D-Rank mission is simple enough. Madam Ama Nekoyi's cat is missing and it's your duty to find the cat and return it to her safely."

"Sounds easy enough," Naruto mumbles.

Having been paying attention to Kakashi, Sakura notices the mischievous glint in his eyes. It only causes her to roll her eyes. Their sensei is going to make them pay for not being where he wanted them to be earlier. She snorts quietly, effectively earning his attention and actively choosing to ignore him.

You're going to learn that punctuality is key, sensei.

"You have exactly two hours to complete this mission once we start. Failure will result in a punishment often given to jonin who disobey directs orders from the Hokage."

Naruto snorts. "Yeah, as if dad will punish us too terribly."

"What's the punishment? If it's anything like what my brother had to deal with when he was a jonin, then I think I'll be fine." Sasuke politely slurps his drink.

Sakura only smiles at Kakashi, eyes glinting with amusement. Kakashi sighs. Not intimidated. Disrespectful. Absolutely no fun to be around when they're treating what he says and does as a joke.

"Please complete the mission within the time limit. I would hate to have to explain why you three ended up in the hospital should you fail your mission and receive the punishment." Ah, and here are the reactions he wanted.

Sasuke glares at him, clearly unamused. Naruto's eyes widen. Perhaps he's realizing his dad won't rescue him if he fails. Sakura, on the other hand, merely takes on a blank face. There's fury in her eyes. When they dart to Sasuke and Naruto and then back to him, Kakashi feels as though he should have burst into flames. Such intense anger is something they'll need to work on. If she reacts this way with her teammates, then she needs to challenge such anger into her abilities.

"Now, now. Finish eating. We don't have all day."

Kakashi quickly learns to be careful with his subtle threats. While the mission was a success with his cute little team getting it done in recording-breaking time, how they went about it is concerning. As genin, he excepted them to take a long time to locate the cat, create a plan to capture it, and then dutifully return it to its owner.

They find the cat - taking less than 10 minutes. Capturing it was too easy - the cat kept tripping over its self while running on the ground and didn't have much luck in the trees. Upon capturing it, Sakura easily knocked it out after it managed to scratch Naruto twice. They reported to Kakashi with the cat and together, the four of them returned the poor thing to its overbearing owner.

Now, he's aware that they aren't technically considered "fresh" genin. The three of them graduated at the same time. He's also aware that Sakura trains on her own or with the boys - and occasionally Yamanaka Ino - while Sasuke is with his brother and Naruto is under his mother (a capable kunoichi in her own right) and sometimes with his father.

Part of him feels duped. Yesterday's bell test gave him the impression that they weren't capable of moving beyond the basics just yet because they didn't showcase anything special. He expected Sasuke to try and hit him with a fire type jutsu or Naruto with his father's signature wind style weapon technique or Sakura make a dash at him with her incredible speed.

He's seen the test results in the Academy. Sakura, perhaps unknowingly, beat Uchiha Itachi's Academy record of hitting each target during weapon practice blindfolded and at such a speed, the gossip about it made it to the higher ranks. Sasuke's ability to adapt to situations should have been showcased yesterday and Naruto's strength should have been made known.

Did they not try their hardest? He studies each of his students. Naruto is laughing at something Sasuke said but his eyes scan the clearing every other minute or so. He's alert. Sasuke is shaking his head at Naruto's laughter but his hand stays firmly on his hip pouch. He's prepared. Sakura is smiling at both of them, body relaxed, but the look in her eyes are telling. She's willing.

Yes, perhaps he had been duped by his cute little students.

"So," Naruto begins, breaking Kakashi's train of thought. "When's our next mission?"

"Hmm, when I decide to assign one to you."

Sakura only pats Naruto's hand. "Don't take it to heart, Naruto. Sensei is just annoyed that we did so well for our first mission." She turns to Kakashi, grinning but says nothing.

"You're my least favorite," Kakashi states with a sniff. "You take the fun out of everything."

Sakura sniffs, pretending to be sad - Kakashi can see right through her actions - and turns away.

"Hey, don't be mean to Sakura-chan or else!" Naruto raises a clenched fist threateningly.

This had Kakashi laughing. "Or else what, Naruto?"

"Of else I'll tell my mom!"

And just like that, Kakashi stops and frowns under his mask. Namikaze Kushina's temper is famous around Konoha and those who have suffered under it have steered clear of her since. Not even his old sensei would do anything to upset his wife. At times, people joked that maybe Kushina should be Hokage with her ability to get her way.

"Mah mah, Naruto. No need to go to such an extreme. Anyway," he redirects the conversation, "your next mission will be tomorrow." He pulls out his orange book and begins reading. "I was lenient today, but you will meet in the correct place tomorrow to be assigned your next mission. Failure to do so will result in a personal punishment of my choice. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sensei."

"Wonderful." And with that, Kakashi flickers away.

"I can't believe you threatened to tell your mom," Sasuke says the moment Kakashi is out of sight. "That's pretty low."

Sakura knows better. Through vibrations of the ground - nature's way of informing her - she is pointed to their sensei's location quickly. Kakashi is hiding in the tree behind them, probably with his book still out, observing them. Why? She cares not to find out today. As long as Naruto and Sasuke remain safe, then she'll leave that to explore another day.

"Since it's not even noon yet, why don't we train?" Sakura suggests to break up the snickering coming from her boys. "Clearly sensei wasn't expecting us to do so well our first time and left with no other instruction than to meet tomorrow."

"How sad," Sasuke comments.

"Unfortunate," Naruto replies.

"That aside," Sakura begins as she crouches, "I'll race you two to Ground 3! Ready, set, go!" And she took off in a cloud of dust all while laughing at the shouts of her "not being fair" and to "hold on."

Silently, he observes them for the next five hours. A feat even for himself. This is his plan after all; an easier way for him to assess their abilities without risk of having what happened during the bell test repeated for his sake. Kakashi is now convinced that he has been duped by his precious students. Either that or these kids are beyond genin level.

"Training" consists of one-on-one spars between each other while the last one stands off to the side as moderator. What really gets to Kakashi is how brutal the sparring quickly becomes. For genin, at least. None of his students hold back against each other: Sakura literally sent Sasuke crashing into a tree twice with a smirk, Sasuke didn't hesitate to use fire style ninjutsu against Naruto (setting him on fire though it was taken care of quickly), and Naruto doesn't even blink when Sakura is struck by one of his kunai.

It's a completely different atmosphere around them. No holding back, no hiding.

"Have they always been this way?" He asks to the new presence behind him.

"Upon the death of her parents, Sakura requested that neither Sasuke nor Naruto holds back against her. That request, in turn, became a promise amongst the three of them. They take it to heart." Uchiha Itachi drops down to crouch next to Kakashi. "It will look brutal to first-time viewers, but it is how they are. They take their training seriously."

"It's as if their personalities change completely," Kakashi states quietly when Naruto sends Sakura flying across the clearing via punch. "They did not showcase this during their exam yesterday. At least, not until the end." To be fair, it took them a while to reconnect after figuring out the main point of the test. After that, they blended well together and their teamwork and determination caused him to pass them.

Now I see why you waited, sensei.

"You're an outsider entering into their territory," comes the semi-unexpected reply. "Sakura and Sasuke don't often showcase their abilities unless necessary. Naruto doesn't always take things seriously at first." And then, "Sasuke told me about the end of the exam."

A sudden thought struck Kakashi as Sasuke calls an end to the spar and Naruto and Sakura collapse to the ground, one grinning widely and the other much more reserved. "Has Sakura ever expressed any goals or dreams? Maybe an ambition?" He asks this because Sakura is close to Sasuke and Itachi and shares a brother-sister relationship with both. Over the years, she may have said something outright or in passing and Kakashi wouldn't put it behind Itachi to remember the "little" things.

"No." Damn it! "However..." Kakashi blinks at the hesitance. Itachi rarely - if ever, really - hesitates. "However, I believe she wishes to find those who murdered her parents and eliminate them." Itachi ends this by looking Kakashi directly in the eye. "She is reserved, but the most reserved people - "

" - have the uncanny habit of surprising you," Kakashi ends. "And not always in a good way."

Itachi nods. "If that is what she wishes to do then I believe," Itachi looks away and Kakashi follows his gaze to look at his team, "she is well on her way."

When Sakura calls it quits just after she and Sasuke clash with enough force to send both of them backward, they move. Or rather, Itachi silently bids him a good afternoon and drops down from their hiding spot to greet his brother and his brother's teammates and Kakashi adjusts his position. He watches as both Naruto and Sasuke are shocked by his sudden presence - Naruto being much more dramatic - while Sakura merely stands there. She didn't jump or look startled in any given way.

Either she knew he was up here, although I don't know how she would be able to know, or she's very good at masking her emotions when she wants too. And if that's the case, Kakashi wonders if she knows he's up here too. Impossible. He shifts silently, his legs tingle from his crouch, but in that moment Sakura's eyes snap to his location. Kakashi just stares. She knows. How does she know?

"Do you want to come over for dinner tonight, Sakura?" Sasuke asks.

Sakura looks away from the tree and nods towards Sasuke. "If I were to say no, your mother would show up on my doorstep wondering if I'm eating right. Usually with several boxes of food."

Kakashi leaves when his students break into varying loudnesses of laughter.

"So full of surprises."

Too many surprises.

"Already?" Minato asks, completely thrown off. "Can you explain your reasoning? It's only been two days and the second day isn't over yet."

Well, Kakashi thinks. I could have introduced the request better.

"Your son and his teammates are above genin level, sensei." At the blank face he receives, Kakashi sighs. "You know this already."

Minato nods while leaning back in his chair. "In terms of his abilities, Sasuke is very much a prodigy like his brother. Then again, the Uchiha often produce prodigies. Naruto may have struggled in school, but he adapts to a situation quickly - almost too quickly - and, believe it or not, is always on alert. Do not let that carefree smile fool you. Sakura was a top student. Her test scores tied with a Hyuga. As far as intelligence goes, the Hyuga have always been right up there with the Nara. But even more so, she's highly gifted and incredibly well-rounded."

"I don't understand, sensei. Why did you make them wait so long before placing them on a team together? They blend well together. The three of them graduated at the Academy at the age of eight."

"Itachi requested that his brother not be placed on a team at such a young age. Following that, his father marched in here and stated that Sasuke wouldn't be placed on a team until he deemed him ready." Together, they share an eye roll. "As for Naruto, Kushina simply wouldn't allow it. We also quickly agreed that Naruto wasn't ready yet."

"And Sakura?" Kakashi presses.

"She came in here every year on the anniversary of her parent's deaths and requested that I place her on a team." Minato rubs his forehead. "I told her she wasn't ready. I finally told her she would be placed on a team with Naruto and Sasuke when the time is right."

"She would have done fine on her own, sensei."

"Call me selfish, Kakashi, but I love Sakura like a daughter. I wasn't ready to throw her into the workforce like Hizuren did with Itachi. Like he did with you."

"This isn't about me or Itachi," Kakashi interrupts. He knows where a conversation like this will head if he allows his former sensei to reminisce the old days.

He barely conceals the flinch the bitter chuckle that exits his sensei's mouth brings forth. "I have to accept that our way of life is not pleasant. No. Beyond unpleasant. It's miserable. Even if times are peaceful. I'm trying to make it better, but progress takes time." Minato glances up at the ceiling. "The idea of placing a child, 12 or younger, on the battle field...we don't blink because this is the norm. I was trying to spare Sakura that experience for as long as I could but even my excuses lacked. She knew this too. She's a very bright girl." Finally, he sits up properly and staples his fingers together in front of his face, elbows resting on his desk. "Every village produces child soldiers." He says it bluntly. "In that regard, we're no better than places like Kiri and Iwa and Ame." Then he smiles albeit somewhat sadly. "We have the reputation of being the 'nice village,' but that mostly comes with how much we focus on creating and maintaining bonds. It's why we have these tests of teamwork. This belief that there is someone you can rely on, in and out of a mission, is why our village succeeds. At least, I am of that opinion. If we place children on the battle field, then it's our duty to look after them."

Kakashi nods, slowly grasping what his sensei is trying to communicate. "Sakura will benefit from her teammates and they from her. Their bond is what makes them a powerful force to be reckoned with."

"Indeed," Minato chuckles and with that chuckle, the tension in the room dissolves. "Kushina jokes that they may become the next Sannin."

"It's definitely a possibility, but are you sure you want Naruto to meet Jiraiya?"

"Haha, Kushina needs to be there or she'll get very angry." For a moment, Kakashi contemplates if he should mention that his son threatened him with his mother but ultimately decides not to. "But to answer your earlier question, I going to deny your request for the time-being. I would like for them to become better acquainted with you before your four go on a mission outside of the village. It will do all of you some good."

Kakashi blinks. He had completely forgotten why he showed in the first place during their conversation. Right...a request for his team to have a mission outside of Konoha. A little field work, he mentioned before.

"I trust your judgment, sensei."

Minato smiles a little. "Perhaps a month or so from now, but until then it will be D-Rank missions and training." Narrowing his eyes, he continues. "You have to train them, Kakashi. You passed them so now it's your duty as their mentor." Minato shuffles some papers on his desk. "Besides, if Kushina found out you were slacking in your duties...well, you know what'll happen."

With a sigh, Kakashi nods. "The problem is figuring out a training regimen. Have you seen your son spar with Sasuke and Sakura?" Receiving a nod, Kakashi runs a hand through his hair. "I observed them today. They spar as if they're battle trained."

"Naruto and Sasuke made a promise to never go easy on Sakura. Look at how early they started in this career. Four years since they graduated from the Academy and not once did they allow each other to slack. And yes," Minato picks up his writing utensil, "there have been times when Naruto has come home covered in bruises or ended up in the hospital because he and the other two go too hard at each other. Adapt to their way of thinking and I'm sure you'll do fine. You are dismissed." Kakashi salutes before disappearing from the office in a plume of white smoke.

Once he's gone, Minato puts down his pencil and turns his chair to gaze out the window at the barely setting sun. "You kids have the ability to be great. The greatest, really."

Dinner at Sasuke's house is always an adventure. Sakura has learned, over the years while being a guest in Sasuke's home, that each Uchiha closest to her friend brings a unique perspective of life. For example, Sasuke's older cousin - Shisui, though he prefers "ShiShi" for some reason - is part of the ANBU, yet he's probably the most playful person she knows. And that says a lot considering one of her best friends is Naruto. Itachi is also part of the ANBU, but he's incredibly kind and gentle and Sakura is never ashamed to call him "Itachi-nii."

Sakura doesn't have much to say about Sasuke's father. The older man is often staring down his nose at her and Naruto, mouth twisted in a grim look and eyes relatively blank. He's civil enough, makes quick conversation, and is polite, but Sakura doesn't feel anything for him. To her, he's just the head of a clan and the indifferent, boring father of one of her best friends.

As for Sasuke's mother...Sakura utterly adores Uchiha Mikoto. She can (often, really) be overbearing with her worrying nature. Though, if Sakura admits to herself, she's full of love and that love has helped Sakura in some of her darkest moments over the last four years. Naruto's mother (and sometimes Ino's mother) is also there, but Sakura will sooner turn to the Uchiha matriarch before the others. Mostly because Mikoto will know when to show up on her doorstep on a particularly bad day.

"Mother's tuition," she replies when Sakura asks while she's being served hot chocolate and homemade dumplings.

Part of her feels bad for preferring one mother-like figure over the others, but Sakura knows that neither of her two other friend's mothers has the same amount of free time like Sasuke's. Ino's mother, Yamanaka Yana, works between her flower shop and the civilian school. Namikaze Kushina may be a retired jonin, but she still plays a major part in maintaining the archives in the information department within the Hokage's tower.

Uchiha Mikoto, much like Ino's mother, never took the path of becoming a shinobi. Sakura silently believes this is because she wasn't allowed too. The Uchiha are well-known for disregarding their female members, preferring to marry them off when they come of age. However, upon seeing Mikoto's accuracy when throwing kunai (during a point some few years ago or so when she came outside to watch her son and his friends), Sakura believes she would have made a great kunoichi.

"I'm making chicken dumplings tonight, Sakura-chan! Your favorite!" Mikoto calls.

Sakura blinks, returning to the present. "That sounds wonderful, Mikoto-san."

"Hey, hey! Chicken dumplings are my favorite too, Auntie!" Shisui replies with a pout.

Sasuke rolls his eyes, Itachi hums, and Naruto just laughs. Mikoto and Sakura share an amused look. "Of course, ShiShi. Of course." Mikoto pats his head as she walks by with a bowl of raw chicken cut up into small bits. Dinner that night is surprisingly calm. However, at some point, Sakura falls under the calculating gaze of Sasuke's older brother. She acknowledge's this with a single eyebrow raised, but doesn't bother pursuing the matter when Itachi subtly shakes his head.

She trusts him to speak to her if there's a problem.

" - and then he just walks over to the tree, sits down, and falls asleep. Can you believe that?!" Ino asks. "When I try to wake him up, he just calls me 'troublesome' and goes back to sleep!"

Sakura runs a brush through her hair as Ino speaks about her team's test from two days, nodding and humming at the appropriate times to indicate that she's listening. Truth be told, Sakura isn't surprised. Nara Shikamaru has a reputation for being lazy and, despite having the title 'genius' attached to his name, he did poorly in regards to testing in the Academy.

"And when Asuma-sensei wakes him up, he gets up. Why couldn't he have done that for me?!" Ino huffs from her position on Sakura's bed, squeezing one of the pillows close to her chest. "I wasn't even rude, Sakura! I was very polite and I even said please."

"He's a Nara, Ino. What are two things you can always expect from a Nara?" Sakura turns and raises an eyebrow at Ino.

"Laziness and genius," they say in unison.

"But still!" Ino cries. "The very least he can do is acknowledge me!"

"Agreed. Perhaps you should make that apparent? A team performs better when the respect is equal."

"Yeah, yeah. I'll get on his case tomorrow. Now tell me, how'd it go with your sensei? What are they like? What sort of test did you and the boys do?"

Sakura places her brush down, gathers her long hair, and pulls it over her shoulder to put into a loose braid. From there, she gets up and walks over to her bed and flops down next to Ino. "His name is Hatake Kakashi. He's...unique, to put it simply. Three times now, he's been tardy to our meet-ups. The day we met him, he was late by three hours. The day he gave us our test, he was late again. So yesterday, after about two hours of waiting, I invited Sasuke and Naruto over for an early lunch. We figured he wouldn't be there for another hour or so, but turns out he showed up and got annoyed because we weren't there for him to assign us our first D-Rank mission."

Ino snorts. "He got a taste of his own medicine then?"

"In a sense, yes. He showed up at my house, I put my foot down, he took me seriously, and I invited him in for lunch. We ate lunch together as a team and then we were assigned a mission to capture a poor cat that had to be returned to a semi-terrible owner. After that one mission, he told us when we were to meet again and left. There were some threats of punishment if we failed to be where we were told to be, but..." Sakura shrugs. "I have a hard time taking his 'threats' seriously."

"One silly little D-Rank mission and you were done for the day? What a waste. Asuma-sensei said he'd assign us three to five each time we meet up."

"He's going to learn," Sakura states while rolling over to face Ino. "Naruto, Sasuke, and I aren't messing around. We each have goals we want to obtain and I won't tolerate a lack of interest or unstructured training."

At the very least, I don't want sensei to be the reason Sasuke and Naruto don't advance.

"A-Always so serious these days, Sakura." Ino yawns again.

Sakura reaches out and pokes Ino's nose, smiling when her friend's face scrunches up. "Can you blame me?"

"Of course not, but sometimes you have to slow down and enjoy the little things in life. Which reminds me," Ino yawns again, "I need help making flower arrangements tomorrow night for a wedding."

Shifting closer, Sakura moves her head so that it's resting against Ino's arm. "What time do you want me over?"

"Just come over for dinner and we can start after. My mom's been meaning to have you over for some time but Mikoto-san always gets to you first."

"I'm sorry."

Ino shrugs, blinking slowly at Sakura. "It's a part of life and I told her that. You're on a team with Sasuke and Naruto, you've known them longer, and it's convenient for you just to follow after least when food is concerned."

Sakura punches Ino's arm, grinning at the squeak she gets in return and shakes her head. "You three are my closest, most cherished friends and I'm sorry if it seems like I'm neglecting you. Also, as far as eating goes, I literally have so many leftovers that I fill bad for throwing them out when they go bad. It's overwhelming at times, but I know all of your moms mean well."

"Family," Ino replies sleepily. "You're family."

Chuckling, Sakura gets up. "Let's get under the covers and take a nap."

"You always have the best ideas."

"Look alive!" Kakashi calls after he appears in a plume of white smoke before them, almost three hours late on the following day. "I have several D-Rank missions for you three today. First, you'll be painting a fence. Second, pulling weeds from a garden. Third, filling out a shopping list and delivering groceries. Fourth, walking a group of dogs. And finally, retiling a roof."

"I don't know how to retile a roof!" Naruto replies immediately. "How do you do that, Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi pats Naruto's head playfully. "Have no fear, Naruto-kun! I will show you how."

Sakura rolls her eyes. This obvious false kindness is annoying to see. It's clear Kakashi is still annoyed with yesterday's happenings despite getting a good lunch out of it. And then she smiles.

"Alright, sensei. Where's the fence?"

He eyes her questionably. Just what are you up to?

"Follow after me." It only takes them but five minutes to appear before an old, but clearly well-loved home. Buckets of white paint and various types of brushes are on the step in front of the door. There is also a small pack of sand paper next to the supplies and some gloves.

"Good morning," Sakura politely greets the old man that steps outside. "My name is Haruno Sakura and these are my teammates, Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto, and our sensei, Hatake Kakashi. We are here to paint your fence."

Sakura feels Kakashi shift, just barely, next to her and stops herself from turning to the man and grinning widely.

"Ah, yes. Thank you for your help. These are all the supplies needed, I hope. Please let me know if you need more."

"This should be fine," Sasuke states while coming to stand next to Sakura. "We will have this done for you as soon as we can."

The old man smiles and points to the side of the house where a faded, paint-chipped fence is. "That one there, younglings. And thank you once again." He steps back into the house and closes the door.

"Alright, you know what you need to - " Kakashi stops when Sakura tosses him a pair of gloves.

"You're our sensei and, therefore, a part of this team. Our mission is your mission. You wouldn't abandon us on our mission, right, sensei? We are, after all, recently appointed genin."

You sneaky, sneaky girl. Truth be told, Kakashi is mildly impressed by this assertive attitude.

"Sakura-chan's right!" Naruto cheers as he tosses a paint brush at Kakashi. "You're on this team so you get to work too!"

"Of course, of course. I wouldn't leave you to do this all by yourself. What sort of sensei would I be?"

That's exactly what you would have done.

If Naruto tells his parents, I'm as good as dead.

To completely different thoughts taking place at the same time as Sakura and Kakashi settle at one end of the fence to sand it down, Sasuke takes the middle with a paint brush and bucket of white paint, declaring the condition of the fence good enough to paint over, and Naruto - already happily chipping away paint while humming loud enough for all of them to hear - takes the end.

"You're a sneaky one, Sakura-chan."

"I'm just learning to read you, sensei."

"And what conclusion have you come to so far?"

Sakura snaps on her gloves, the sound carrying away from them, and turns to look at him. It's not a prideful or smug look like Kakashi expects, but one of someone who understands - or is attempting to understand - when someone has gone through a painful experience.

"I've done my research on you, sensei. I know what you've lost, both team and family wise, and it's...heartbreaking, to say the least." Kakashi stiffens. "You have more than one mask." He immediately gets what she is implying. "You know what loss feels like."

"Plenty of people know what loss feels like, Sakura-chan." He watches as her eyes flicker past him to Sasuke and Naruto.

"Yes," she replies. "Some of us just learn what it feels like at too early an age."

"You speak far more grown up than I would expect."

"I was forced to grow up, sensei, but you know that. You did not come into this mentorship blind. I know this because all three of my best friends come from acclaimed clans and the Hokage happens to be the father of one of them and your former sensei."

At this, Kakashi chuckles. Less humoring her and more at the bluntness of her statement. "That is so." For a while, they sand down the fence in silence. Sakura focuses on the task at hand and Kakashi thinks about a possible training regimen all three of his students can take part in so he can assess their skills from a better position and go from there.

"How long will it take before we're assigned a mission outside of the village?" Sakura asks quietly.

"Think you're ready to handle what's out there?"

"The real question is," she pauses briefly to blow a stray hair out of her face, "will you be ready to lead us on a mission? Sasuke, Naruto, and I perform well together."

Okay, ouch. "Sharp tongue you have there, Sakura-chan. But even so, until I can learn to work well with you three and you three with me, there will be no out-of-village missions."

He's disappointed when she only hums.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

We're getting there,

Slowly, but surely.

And it's okay,

We can take our time.

Sakura blinks. "Do you mind repeating that, sensei?"

Undeterred by her surprise, Kakashi merely grins behind his mask. "I want you to attack me at full force, Sakura-chan."


Kakashi snaps his book closed and crossed his arms over his chest, appearing exasperated. "Why do you always question my orders, Sakura-chan? I'm your superior."

"Let's not forget our discussion the other day, sensei," Sakura replies, eyes gazing up at him blankly. "What is your logic?" Flanking her are Sasuke and Naruto, yet neither seems particularly worried or annoyed. There's almost an air of indifference around them.

"Sparring benefits the group as a whole. I can better assess your skills via one-on-one and determine that best method to help strengthen your weaknesses." He doesn't know how he feels when she cocks an unimpressed eyebrow at him.

What is her issue with me? I'm trying.

Sasuke hums. "You'll test us individually."

Thankful for the momentary distraction, Kakashi turns towards him. "Yes. That's what we'll do this afternoon and then I'll assign you a D-Rank mission that you'll have a limited time to complete. Sound good?"

Naruto yawns. "Okay, sensei." He turns to Sakura and gives her a thumbs up. "Kick his ass, Sakura-chan." Kakashi actually chuckles when Sakura returns his gesture and grins when Sasuke bumps her shoulder; his in a strange way of encouragement. His students can be endearing when they want to be.

"Alright, Sakura-chan. Go stand over there," he points to the side, "and you two can stay by that tree. Sasuke, I want you to count the number of hits I land on Sakura - if any - and Naruto you will do the same for Sakura in regards to myself. Am I understood?" At their silent nobs, Kakashi turns to Sakura. "Full force, okay?"

"Yes, sensei."

"Alright. Sasuke, tell us to go when you're ready for us to start."

"3, 2, 1 - Go!"

Sakura and Kakashi move at once. The first thing he takes into account is her speed. Academy reports placed her second next to Sasuke and Hyuga Neji, an Inuzuka taking first place. But it's been four years since she graduated and her speed has definitely increased over the years. During his observations, he has seen her jog around her family's compound in the early morning. He blocks a particularly vicious attack on his right.

She excelled in weapons. Beating Uchiha Itachi's Academy record for speed and accuracy was often talked about during her Academy days and is still mentioned from time-to-time among his peers. He wants to see her hit moving targets at double the speed she is moving now. Kakashi thinks it's possible the more she practices.

Her weapons are standard, but she may benefit from a tanto. Close range suits her well.

He lands a kick to her stomach.

"One," Sasuke calls, sounding bored.

Kakashi opens his mouth to make a taunting remark, but nothing comes out. There is, however, a sharp sting right under his exposed eye. He jumps away and raises a hand to his face, touches it briefly, and pulls away to see - yes, in fact - blood. That, in and of its self, impresses him.

"One!" Naruto calls out merrily.

"Please do me the courtesy of not holding back either, Kakashi-sensei."

"Of course, Sakura-chan."

And he doesn't.

As Sasuke bandages her left shoulder (it takes nearly an hour to convince her to let him), Sakura gazes at Kakashi throughout his spar with Naruto. Her eyes narrowing when Naruto is sent flying back, body slamming into the ground and proceeding to tumble. Sasuke calls out "45." She tenses when Kakashi appears in front of Naruto and taunts him in typical Kakashi fashion. It only serves to make Naruto more determined, she knows that, but it doesn't make the situation any less annoying.

"Relax," Sasuke mumbles from behind her. "The dummy will be fine."

"I know."

"Sometimes, I don't think you do."

Sakura turns her head towards him, eyes narrowing. "What do you mean?"

"You're overprotective," he replies simply. "Of me. Of Naruto. Hell, last month you nearly took off some recently promoted chunin's head because he flirted with Ino."

"Ino was clearly uncomfortable, Sasuke."

Sasuke brushes her hair over one shoulder to place bandages on her lower neck. "Yes, but you sent him into a wall."

She smiles and turns to look back at Naruto just in time to see him land a kick on Kakashi's left hip, causing him to take a step back. "Seven," she calls out. "He deserved it," she states after a moment of silence.

"I'm not disagreeing, but you didn't give Ino a chance to speak up."

Sakura shakes her head slightly. "You know next to nothing about girl-code, Sasuke."

He snorts but doesn't reply.

"That's it for us, Naruto. Go sit with Sakura-chan." Kakashi cracks his neck and the sound echoes across the clearing. "Sasuke, you're next. Naruto, count for Sasuke. Sakura, count for me."

"Why do you do that?" Sakura asks the moment they gather in a circle under a large tree that blocks out the sun. Halfway into the spar between Kakashi and Sasuke, the cool breeze vanished and the sun glared down at them with a great intensity.

"Do what?" Kakashi tilts his head innocently.

She frowns. "Antagonize us."

"Frankly speaking, Sakura-chan, you guys don't put forth your best without me making you angry. The bell test, for example, could have gone very differently if you three used the skills you learned from your families or with each other." He looks directly in her eyes.

You knew I was watching.

Sakura cocks an eyebrow. Problem?

Kakashi sighs. "This is my first time being a sensei. We," he gestures to himself and then to them, "need to figure out where we stand."

"You can start by showing up on time," Sasuke states. Sakura and Naruto - whose head is resting on her shoulder - nod.

"No promises," he replies quietly.

"If mornings don't work for you, sensei, we can meet in the afternoon." Sasuke stretches and then he, too, rests his head on Sakura's available shoulder.

"Yeah," Naruto says. "After lunch or something."

"And if you just happen to like showing up late, at least give us some sort of order or D-Rank mission to perform so we aren't just wasting time."

Kakashi smiles under his mask. "I can do that." He pulls up one knee and propers his arm on it. "Now, let's discuss our sparring. Sakura?" She blinks at him. "You did very well today. One more hit than Sasuke and more than twice than Naruto." He reaches up to brush the cut healing under his eye. "I've never had someone get my face during a spar."

"There's a first time for everything, sensei."

"I'm actually rather impressed with your evasion skills. They are beyond genin level. All of yours, in fact." Kakashi looks at them. "Naruto, you only managed to hit me seven times but you evaded over half of my offensive attacks. Sasuke, hitting me one less than Sakura is really good. Your offense could use some work though. Also, you rely too heavily on your weapons. And while your hand-to-hand is good Sakura," he looks at her sharply, "you studied ninjutsu for a reason. And Naruto, you're just impulsive."

Sakura feels Naruto sag a little and shoots Kakashi a dark look. It disappears when Sasuke presses into her side, clearing his throat pointedly. She sighs softly. "We'll work on that, Naruto."

Though only one eye is seen, Kakashi appears thoughtful as he looks back and forth between them. "Sakura-chan is right, Naruto. We'll work on it."

"What is our D-Rank mission?" Sasuke asks after the silence goes on for longer than he appreciates. "Pulling weeds?"

"Chasing after a cat?" Naruto.

"Painting a fence?" Sakura and she giggles.

The sound, Kakashi observes, causes Sasuke to smile faintly and Naruto turns his face into her shoulder, grinning widely.

I have high hopes for our teamwork.

Flowers surrounding her and Ino, Sakura listens patiently as Ino talks about her day while weaving white roses into the handle of a large basket. Earlier, Ino's mother mentioned something about wine and glasses and gave Sakura the basket to decorate however she wants. Sakura, of course, immediately asked for the roses in Ino's hand.

" - and then Asuma-sensei told Shikamaru he isn't allowed to sleep in the middle of missions anymore or he'd tell his mom. I mean, I know D-Rank missions can be boring and whatnot, but he still needs to do his share!"

"Agreed." Sakura grabs a black ribbon and loops it between the roses and finishes the basket off with a bow. "What do you think?"

Ino lowers the maid of honor's bouquet and looks at the basket, a large smile claims her lips. "It's perfect! You really have a knack for this~"

Sakura laughs a little and sets the basket aside. "What do you want me to do next?"

Gently pushing a basket full of varying flowers towards her, Ino directs her to make flower crowns. "The bride wants the bridal party in flower crowns with flower wristbands and flower anklets."

"A lot of flower-themed accessories," Sakura mumbles while pulling out the best of each type of flower.

"I know," Ino sighs. "I like flowers as much as the next person, but a completely flower-themed wedding - at the last minute - is asking a lot."

"Your mom is splitting the pay with you, right?" Sakura is halfway through a white rose and pink daisy flower crown.

Ino rolls her eyes. "There's a split for you, too! Go treat yourself for once, Sakura!"

"And do what? I'm not particularly outgoing unless - "

" - unless it's training with the boys or spending time with them or me. Yes, honey. I know. But maybe you can take a trip to the hot springs?! Or maybe indulge yourself with shopping?!"

Sakura smiles to herself. "I want Kakashi-sensei to take us on our first mission out of Konoha. Maybe I'll buy something for myself then?"

"Already? You've barely been a genin team for a week and you want to take your first C-Rank?" Placing her finished flower crown aside, Sakura pulls her knees to her chest and gazes at Ino silently. Not hearing her speak, Ino looks up and frowns. "What's wrong?"

"I feel restless," Sakura admits. "Anxious, perhaps. Like I need to be up and moving a lot. It's been like this more recently." She leans in. "I didn't tell Naruto or Sasuke, but I had a nightmare about my parents last night."

Ino placed her flowers in her basket and pushes it aside, patting the space next to her. Sakura doesn't move immediately, but Ino has always been patient with her, always supportive. Sakura doesn't get up right away, struggling to form her words; something that normally doesn't happen with her. But still, Ino sits there patiently, avoiding looking directly at Sakura but rather focusing on a point on the wall behind her.

"I saw their bodies, deformed, and their voice, like nails on a chalkboard," Sakura begins as she gets up. "I never got to properly say goodbye and it haunts me, Ino. I hate celebrating my birthday, you know?"

"I know," Ino brushes a stray hair behind her ear when Sakura sits next to her. "We've never celebrated your birthday on your actual birthday."

"I'm sorry," Sakura replies.

Ino only bumps their shoulders together. "Don't apologize. We understand, Sakura. We don't want you to feel uncomfortable."

"Girls, do you want a snack?!" Ino's mother calls from behind Ino's door.


Sakura nods. "Something sweet?"

"Ice cream?" Ino asks. At Sakura's nod, she calls out to her mother. "Ice cream!"

"I'll bring you both up some in a little bit, okay?!"


"So, this nightmare...? How often do you have it?"

"Every now and then. It feels like a warning or something. Like something bad is going to happen." Sakura sighs and drops onto her back. Ino follows her, curling into Sakura's side a little.

Yamanaka Yana juggles two bowls of ice cream in one hand (using half her arm as well) and knocks on the door. When she receives no reply, she opens the door and stops. A gentle smile appears on her face. Sakura and Ino are sleeping sideways on Ino's bed, hugging each other. Glancing around the room, she nods to herself.

"You two did well," she mumbles. "I'll wake you in an hour."

She retreats from the room quietly and walks into the living, handing one bowl to her husband.

"I thought these were for the girls," Inoichi states even though he's already digging his spoon into the treat.

Yana sits next to him and leans against the arm of the couch, hiking her feet onto the couch without a care. "They're taking a nap. They got pretty far in the arrangements and whatnot."

"Too many flowers for a wedding," Inoichi mumbles around his spoon. "Who needs that many flowers?"

She playfully kicks his leg. "Our wedding had so many flowers I think Shikaku choked on a few."

They fall into an easy laughter after that.

Sakura's hope for a mission outside of Konoha comes to be five days later when she and her teammates are summoned to the Hokage's office. It sort of annoys her because she is forced to leave Ino in the middle of shopping - several bags and all. But a summon by the Hokage is nothing to argue about and she knows better. Naruto, on the other hand, does not.

"Hey, old man!" Naruto bursts into the office a mere few minutes after Sakura arrived with Sasuke. Kakashi is present before any of them show up.

"I'm not old," Minato states clearly while Kakashi raises his book to cover his snicker. "Have some respect, Naruto."


Everyone proceeds to shake their head. "No respect. Not even from my own child."

Sasuke elbows Naruto when he shoves his way between him and Sakura. "Stop being rude."

"Shut up - "

"Boys," Sakura starts in an all too familiar tone that has them stopping. "Please let Lord Fourth speak."

"Thank you, Sakura." Minato pulls out a scroll. "You three have a mission - against my better judgment - that involves escorting our client, Tekuno Tazuna, to the Land of Waves. It's a simple mission that should only require light pack - "

"Yes!" Naruto pumps a fist into the air. "Finally, a mission out of Konoha!"

"Naruto," Minato sighs, exasperated. "Please let me finish. As I was saying, this will be a straight 'to and from' mission, no more than a week, and will require light packing. You represent Konoha, Team Seven, so cooperation is necessary. Please be polite to the client and do not dawdle." He rolls up the scroll and holds it out. Kakashi steps forward to claim it. "You will leave in one hour. Please meet at the west gate. You are dismissed. Sakura, stay behind."

Keeping her surprise from showing, Sakura waves off the curious looks from her boys and patiently waits until it is only her and the Hokage in the room. "Yes, Lord Fourth?"

"This mission falls on anniversary of - "

" - my parent's death. Yes, I am aware."

Minato has long since not mentioned Sakura's birthday and the anniverssary in the same sentence.

"If you would like to sit this one out, you may. I'm leaving the choice with you."

Sakura clenched her hands. It's nice to be given this chance to say no, seeing as Naruto's dad really does care about her, but - "And allow Naruto and Sasuke all the fun? I appreciate the concern, Lord Fourth, but I will attend this mission. Death is apart of our lifestyle and I will not allow it to get in the way of the objective."

"Very well, Sakura. You are dismissed."

She bows deeply and leaves through the door. For a moment, Minato sits there in silence.

"Watch over her. I want her emotional state detailed in the report you turn in. Am I clear?"

Kakashi appears at the window. "Yes, sensei."

"Good. I expect to see you and your team within the given time limit. You got your wish, Kakashi. Make good use of it."

"Yes, sensei."


Tingle. Tingle.

"Oh! Hello, Sakura-chan!" Yana steps around the counter within the Yamanaka Flower Shop and walks the few steps it takes to get to Sakura and hugs her gently. "What can I do for you?"

"Good afternoon, Yana-san. My team and I have been assigned a mission outside of Konoha and I will not be here to place flowers on my parent's grave on Friday. I want to do that today. We leave within the hour."

Yana nods quickly. "Of course. Allow me a few minutes, honey."

Sakura steps to the side so that Yana can collect the flowers for the usual arrangement. She watches the older woman bustle around the shop, moving swiftly while humming softly to herself.

"Is Ino with her teammates?"

"Yes," Yana chuckles. "Babysitting, I believe. She'll be quite jealous to learn that you'll be leaving long, dear?"

Sakura moves to the counter when Yana walks over with the necessary flowers. "A week."

"Hm, escort mission then?"

"Yes, ma'am."

With deft fingers, the small bouquet of flowers is wrapped neatly in white and pale blue tissue paper and tied together with a silver ribbon. As Sakura moves to pull out the money to pay for them, Yana waves her hand. "I never want your money, Sakura. You're a part of the family."

Sakura sighs before smiling good-naturedly. "Alright, Yana-san. Thank you." She gently picks up the flowers. "Please give Ino my regards."

"Of course, honey. Be safe!"

She leaves the flower shop and starts, at a brisk pace, walking towards Konoha's graveyard dedicated to fallen shinobi. Her parent's names are written on the diamond stone in the center, but their tombstones are on the 12th row, at the end. She's not even remotely surprised to see Kakashi standing before the stone when she arrives. His grey figure sticks out like a sore thumb, orange book pulled out.

Sakura stops right next to him and they stand there in silence for several minutes. The only sound that takes place between them is when Kakashi turns the page of his book. It's only broken when Sakura steps forward, places her palm flatly against the stone, and offers a soft prayer.

"Your fallen comrades are on here, sensei?" She asks.

"And my father, Sakura-chan. Though, not many people know that."


"Bottom row, last on the right side."

She finds the name easily. Hatake Sakumo. The tip of her finger brushes the craved name gently. She whispers a small prayer. Then Sakura gets back up and turns around. Kakashi is staring at her with something she can't quite understand. Appreciation? Thankfulness?

"I will see you at the gate, sensei." She starts walking away only to pause briefly. "Please don't be late." A smile adorns her face when she hears a chuckle.

"Watch over us, please. I love you both and I will see you when I return."

"These are the brats that are going to escort me?" Tazuna gawks. "Really?"

Sakura bristles long with Naruto but isn't vocal about her displeasure. Naruto, on the other hand, doesn't seem to care about his appearance. "Hey, we're not brats! We'll kick your ass, old man!"

"Ya' got spunk, kid, but that's about it."

Sasuke steps forward, eyes narrowed. "We assure you that we are fully capable of completing this mission."

"Sasuke it right, Tekuno-san. We are qualified."

Tazuna takes a large gulp from his back jug - Sakura is sure is alcohol - and sighs. "Alright, alright. Let's get going. We're wasting time standing here."

"Why the rush, old man?"

"Them bridges ain't gonna' build themselves, brat."

"Tch. Whatever."

Sakura sighs. "Let's just go."

"Agree," Kakashi replies. "Tekuno-san and I will lead. You three will follow. Move out."

"Sasuke," Sakura turns her back to him, "please pull out one of my hair ties in the middle pocket and give it to me." He does so silently, handing it to her before reaching forward to tug on a lock. "It's getting to be really long, Sakura."

"I want it to reach the same length as Kushina-san's hair."

"Why?" They start moving behind the others, Naruto slightly ahead of them.

"Because Kushina-san looks really pretty with her long hair."

"You don't need long hair to look pretty."

Sakura tilts her head curiously. "You like girls with long hair, Sasuke. I want mine to grow long too."

"You're not just some girl, Sakura." Then he blushes, but Sakura remains confused.

"Are you okay?"

Sasuke clears his throat. "Don't worry about it. I'll explain later."

"Alright." They lapse into silence after that.

Naruto throws his hands up into the air several hours later. "This is boring."

And he's right. At least, in Sakura's opinion. They have been walking for the past four hours and it's annoying. Their client is a civilian and, because this is unfortunately so, they must walk instead of travel by tree. Or run.

"I ain't a ninja, kid. Sorry."

"It's Namikaze Naruto, old man. Learn it. I'm going to be Hokage one day."

"Psh, sure you will be."

"He will," Sakura and Sasuke snap at the same time. "The best Hokage."

Tazuna turns around, surprised. "You really think he can?"

"Of course," Sakura replies.

"There's no reason to doubt him," Sasuke answers. "Naruto has the best potential."

The older man sends them a calculating look before throwing his head back, laughing loudly. "Treasure your teammates, brat. They'll be your pillar in life."

It's quite humbling to hear him say that. So much so that Naruto actually looks shocked at Tazuna's reply. Sakura shares a look with Sasuke before they both nod in approval towards the old man. He's not completely annoying, but first impressions are typically never the best. He even sends Naruto a thumbs up.

"We'll reach the coast in an hour or so and then we'll take a boat to the Land of Waves. It's a small island."

"If we can get there so quickly, why did Lord Fourth give us a week?" Sakura replies. "Sensei?"

"The Hokage works in mysterious ways, Sakura-chan." The sage tone has Sakura roll her eyes.

"He thinks we need more time because he's worried about us? Because we're minors? Newbies?"

Kakashi hums but doesn't reply.

Sakura is the first to sense them, but Naruto is the first one actively take notice, making a subtle gesture to Sakura and Sasuke before glancing at Kakashi who gazes back blankly. Subtly, they start closing in on Tazuna to box him while staying on high alert. The dock is about a mile out. While they walk, Sasuke's hand brushes his hip pouch a few times. Naruto keeps an easy smile on his face, arms behind his head as he walks. If anyone were to examine him closely, they would notice the tension in his hands.

"How much longer?" Sasuke asks casually. "I'm getting bored."

It's a farce. A way to throw their silent followers off.

"We'll see boats soon. Don't worry your pretty little head," Kakashi replies easily. Whoever is following disappears immediately after that.

This is not good.

"Who do you think it was?" Naruto asks in a whisper, unheard by Tazuna who is in the process of taking another swing of his alcohol. "Something feels off about this mission."

"You're the one who wanted something more engaging," Sasuke replies with a snort. "Well, there you go."

Sakura's eyes flicker to Kakashi who is staring blankly at Tazuna. If she didn't know any better, she'd think her sensei is angry. Angry about what, exactly? Escort missions, like all missions, have the possibility of involving combat.

"Let's hurry to the boat. Don't dawdle, my cute little students~" But there is tension in Kakashi's voice as he speaks.

She spends nearly the entire three-hour boat ride comforting a sea-sick Naruto, glaring along with Sasuke at a laughing Tazuna and silently hoping that Kakashi will figure out what to do with her sea-sick teammate once they reach shore.

He just pats Naruto's head.

Sakura frowns at him but is ignored.

Walking up the road to the village on the island, Sakura doesn't react when Sasuke catches her hand and grips tightly.

"We're being followed." He whispers it and his hold on her hand increases.

Sakura nods, tight-lipped. The same people, as far as she is aware, returned to their stalking the moment she and her teammates and their charge stepped off the boat. They pass a puddle and Sakura freezes.

"Something wrong, Sakur - "

There's a splash and then suddenly two large men covered in black cloaks, a claw-like contraption on each arm, emerge from the puddle. Immediately, they head straight for Kakashi who appears surprised. Sakura hears the scream rip from her mouth before even realizing it when Kakashi is ripped to shreds so easily, blood splattering over her and Naruto - the closest to him - before his body parts far to the ground.

"Hm, how pathetic."

She drops to her knees, sticky hot blood trailing down between her eyebrows and until it rolls to a stop under her left eye. She stares blankly ahead of her, hands trembles limply at her sides.

I didn't get to say goodbye.


I didn't get to say goodbye.

"Sakura, snap out of it!"

Momma. Papa. Kakashi-sensei.

"Kakashi-sensei!" Naruto's yell tears into her mind. The yell is followed by two screams, two separate thubs to the ground, and then nothing. Silence follows swiftly.

She blinks.

"Kakashi-sensei, what is wrong with her?!" Sasuke. Sasuke, who sounds panicked.

"She's gone into shock. Sakura, can you hear me?"

"I'm sorry," she whispers after a few moments. She blinks again before looking up. "I failed."

"We'll discuss this later," Kakashi replies. "Sasuke, use this to clean her up the best you can." Sakura sees Kakashi pull some sort of rag out of his hip pouch and hand it to Sasuke. "Naruto, your hand it poisoned."

"Maybe we should turn back," Sakura says quietly, eyes following Naruto. She is beginning to understand why Kakashi seemed angry earlier.

We really weren't ready for this.

"Perhaps, you're right, Sakura-chan. I thought you three were ready, but clearly, I was mistaken." His tone causes Sakura to bow her head.

"No," Naruto snaps angrily. Sakura looks up in time to see him stab his hand, removing the poison as he goes.

"Naruto - "

"I will not give up! Not now! Not later! And neither will Sasuke and Sakura-chan!" He turns to Kakashi, anger rolling off him in waves. "We can do this, sensei. Trust us."

Kakashi's eyes focus on her. "What if Sakura-chan freezes up again?"

"I'll protect her!"

"Me too," Sasuke replies as he wipes away the blood. "Teammates watch out for each other, covering each other. That's the purpose of being on a team."

Something, maybe pride or acceptance, shines briefly in Kakashi's eyes before he turns away. "Tekuno-san, let's have a little chat."

"I'm sorry," Sakura repeats when Sasuke pulls away.

"Stop apologizing and explain what happened. You just...screamed, Sakura. And then you fell." Her eyes flicker to Kakashi and Sasuke follows her gaze. "Oh, I see."

"Don't." Her request is soft-spoken.

Sasuke doesn't reply. Rather, he merely helps her up and they join Naruto off to the side. Naruto's hand, which has been bleeding profusely earlier, is well on its way to being fully healed. Sakura eyes it with curiosity but makes no comment. The three of them wait patiently as Kakashi and Tazuna speak in hushed voices. Finally, Kakashi turns around and walks towards them, a flustered Tazuna following behind.

"Against my better judgment, we will proceed with this mission. We'll continue in a diamond formation with Tekuno-san in the middle. Are we clear?"

"Yes, sensei."

"Good. Move out."

Before anyone can move an inch, Sakura jerks. Something's in the ground. Something dangerous. Her eyes widen. "Everyone, move - " she's cut off when the ground erupts. Something solid smacks her in the back of her head and she's left falling. Fading. Only the sounds of Naruto's and Sasuke's yelling float to her ear, but they are gone as quickly as they come. The world starts to fade away.

What is wrong with me?

She awakes to cruel laughter followed by a sharp pain in her stomach. Someone kicked her. The laughter continues as someone yanks her up by her hair and slaps her across the face. Hard. Sakura grunts, feeling blood trickle down the left side of her chin. A hand wraps around her throat and squeezes. Her eyes snap open as she claws at the hand.

"Oi, don't fuckin' kill her."

"Yeah, she a pretty one. Gonna' make us a fortune wit' her looks."

The laughter continues but Sakura only cares about breathing in deeply when she's let go and drops to the floor like a puppet cut from their strings.

"I wasn't gonna' kill her...just gonna' muss her up a bit. Some bruises make 'em look more appealin'!"

Sakura looks around. She's trapped in a stone room with a group of men - five, she counts - and ten girls. Some are clearly older than her while others are far younger.

Trafficking? Sex ring?

She's disgusted either way. Looking down, she curses under her breath. Her weapons? Gone. Her shoes? Gone. She can't feel her forehead protector. There's a small lump on the back of her head, still tender when she touches it. Sakura wipes her hand across her lips, ignoring the sting that follows. She ignores the pain and the stiffness in her muscles. Her eyes scan over the other girls.

She won't abandon them.

"Think we'll, ah, make more cause' she's a Konoha brat?"

"Absolutely~" The men file out one at a time, laughter following them. Sakura's eyes scan the room. No noticeable cameras within sight. It's dirty, old, and smells of mildew. There are two bar-covered windows and the only door behind them is sealed shut and locked.

"How long have you been here?" Sakura turns to the oldest seeming girl. "How long have I been here?"

"They dragged you in last night. We've all been here since five days ago," the girl answers softly. "They stormed through our village, picking us out, and then locking us in here. Told us they're gonna' sell us to the highest bidder."

"Listen," Sakura scooters towards her. "None of you will be sold as long as I'm here. My teammates are looking for me and they won't leave without me and I won't leave without all of you."

The girl reaches out her hand, some of the fingers clearly broken, but Sakura accepts it as gently as she can. "Thank you, miss." The other girls gather around them, some already crying while others have sparks of hope in their eyes.

Sakura nods. "Now, tell me what you know."

Body aching and head feeling heavy, Kakashi watches as Naruto and Sasuke spar in one of their more brutal fashion. Ever since waking up from that explosion and finding Sakura missing, they have both been in sour moods. Snapping and yelling and refusing to cooperate. They are essentially ignoring him at this point as well, not handling his order of telling them to remain put instead of looking for Sakura.

Following the explosion, they were attacked by Zabuza of the Hidden Mist and, while things went rather well, he still remains suspicious of the young hunter-nin who killed his opponent and took off with his body. The hunter-nin denied knowing anything about Sakura or her possible whereabouts.

" - go look for her," Naruto snarls when he lands a particularly vicious punch on Sasuke's jaw.


"Disobeying direct orders could ruin your career as shinobi," Sasuke manages through a clenched jaw before jerking his head to the side to spit out blood, but his eyes are screaming with urgency.


"Do you think I care more about my career than Sakura-chan?" Naruto jumps back, body twist gracefully in the air before landing. "Kakashi-sensei, let us go find Sakura-chan!"

"You lost a tremendous amount of blood and have only been conscious for two hours, Naruto. How do you think Sakura would feel if she found out you're pushing yourself to the breaking point in her name? What sort of lead do we have to go on? Barging into a random location could sentence her to death. Do you want her blood on your hands?" That seems to register with Naruto because he suddenly drops to the ground, hikes his knees up, and buries his face between.

I hate myself sometimes.

"We'll find her, dope." Sasuke sits down next to Naruto and leans against him slightly.

"What if we're too late?" Naruto replies.

Kakashi takes carefully measured steps towards them. "Have faith in Sakura, Naruto. She'll be fighting her way back to us soon enough. Now, I'm going to teach you both how to tree walk. This will no doubt be useful to you both in the future."

Fighting her way back to them, she wishes. An entire day has passed since she woke up, the windows aiding her deduction. Twice now, two different men have walked into the room in hopes of fiddling with a few of their prey. Twice now, she is kicked around and beat on for interfering. Fighting back endangered the lives of the other girls. She is outnumbered and her muscles remain stiff, aching. But with each hit, with each mouth near her face, she receives a bit more information and starts piecing it together. With the aid of the other captives, of course.

A man named Gato and his gang of semi-qualified ninja took over the Wave village, taxing its people to starvation, monopolizing the boating routes to and from the island, wreaking terror on the fearful people, stealing goods and now, apparently, selling young girl as - she swallows the bile building up in her throat. Tazuna's reaction upon seeing a group of genin and one jounin now makes sense. The man couldn't afford to pay for more than a 'simple' escort. Though she is angry about the situation, Sakura cannot help but pity the man.

"Don't aggravate them," the oldest girl - Tekka, Sakura learns - says while using what little clean area on her clothing she has to wipe the blood and dust off of Sakura's face.

"I'd much rather it be me than any of you."

"We don't want you to get hurt," another, probably the youngest amongst them, replies.

Sakura manages a gentle smile. "What's your name?"


"Talia, I won't allow any harm to come to any of you. If you see me get hurt again; move away, cover your ears, and close your eyes. Okay?" With a wobbly lip, Talia nods. "Good. Tekka," the older girl looks at her, "tell me about their routine. We didn't discuss this earlier. Do your best."

"They throw some nasty grub down here every morning, but I'm not stupid. I know they poisoned it. I have the girls eat the tiniest amounts so they won't be affected. They always get angry about that. B-Before you were brought in, they'd smack us around for a bit. After that, they'd come in and out to taunt us."

"Did Gato show up at any point?"

"He did last night. Something about finding fresh meat? Something exotic?" Tekka looks uncomfortable. "I think he meant you. You don't look like the rest of us. Your hair and eyes make you appear unique."

"We're going to get out of here. Do you hear me?" Sakura slides closer. "Alright, I have a plan."

For the next ten minutes, all the girls surround Sakura and listen carefully. Some appear nervous and others skeptical, but all were filled with determination when Sakura ends her speech. Each looking around with grim faces but eyes full of steal. Sakura looks at them feeling a sense of pride take over. A little motivation and some leadership and they'll be fine.

The familiar sound of rings, the click of the lock, and the door opens.

"Hello, ladies~"

Gato's wicked smile greets them. Then he steps aside to reveal a boy. A rather pretty boy with beautiful dark hair and dark grey eyes. His face is gentle, but Sakura is no fool. She can see the calculating look in the boy's eyes. When their eyes meet, Sakura resists the urge to cock an eyebrow arrogantly at the curious look that appears on the boy's face.

"The pink one, Haku. Make her look really nice~" The boy - Haku - dips his head and walks past Gato with a basket of cosmetics, hair supplies, and simple kimono tucked neatly. "You have one hour." He backs out of the room and closes the door, locking it.

Sakura remains where she is, looking up at the boy with clear defiance, as the other girls scoot back.

"Please cooperate," Haku states. His voice is soft; silky.

"And if I don't?"

Haku's dark eyes flicker between Sakura and the group of girls behind her. "If you don't, more harm will come to them."

"What difference does it make?" Sakura asks. By now, they are nose to nose. "When I'm gone, Gato will continue to harm them. He will continue to harm their village."

"I will use force if necessary."

"Then you'll have to use force," Sakura answers simply. "I will not abandon any of them."

Haku tilts his head. "You would use yourself to protect these girls? Why?"

"No one should have their free will be stolen. They did not choose to be here. I want to defend their right to choose."

He places the basket on the ground and kneels before Sakura, motioning her to do so as well. The look in his eyes at this moment is much more gentle, much more open. In that moment, Sakura doesn't deem him a threat. She sits on the floor, legs crossed. In the back of her mind, she knows her actions to be foolish. Submitting herself the way she is.

"Your teammates are looking for you, Sakura-san."

"When did you come into contact with them?"

"This morning," Haku nods. "And day or so ago. Your one teammate, Naruto? He is very determined to find you. You are...precious to him."

Sakura sighs. "He is precious to me too."

"He's very determined to find you," Haku repeats. "I also have someone precious to me. Like your teammate, I am determined to protect him."

"Was he in good health? Naruto?"

Haku pulls a compact from the basket and opens it. "He exhausted himself training the night away, I believe." Sakura closes her eyes. Whether to accept the powder pressed onto her face or accept that Naruto would do that when she is concerned, she doesn't know.

"Should you devise a plan to defeat Gato and his followers, I will not stand in your way. I hold no allegiance to him. I only want to protect my precious person."

"How old are you?" Sakura asks while Haku pulls out a small eyeshadow palette.

"I suspect I'm not much older than you, Sakura-san."

Sakura casts her eyes downward as he applies the eyeshadow. "Will you aid us in our escape?"

"What would you need?"

"The senbon needle sticking out of your basket, for one." She parts her lips so he can apply lipgloss to them.

"Anything else?"

Sakura nods. "If you happen to see my teammate again, please tell him I'm on my way."

The rest of the time is spent with minimal sound. Powder pressed into her skin, hair combed to a sort of greasy shine and pulled up into a traditional bun, and she did not even blink when he aided her in changing into the kimono. Her muscles are not so stiff anymore, but the fabric of the kimono is cheap and rough on the inside.

"You are very pretty, Sakura-san."

The lock to the door clicks and the door is thrown open to reveal Gato in much nicer clothing. "Good work, Haku. She looks lovely." Sakura tries not to recoil when Gato walks forward, takes her hand, and presses a kiss onto it. "My lady."

As Haku walks by Sakura, she feels something pressed into her free hand and grips it tightly, using her fingers to slide it up her arm. "Lord Gato," he says with a blandness that's almost insulting before disappearing through the door.

"Let us get going, my lady." Gato lets go of her hand to place it on the low of Sakura's back. "There are some people very interested in meeting you."

As she's being led away, Sakura looks over her shoulder. 'Remember our plan,' she mouths and offers a small smile at Tekka's determined nod. Gripping the large needle in her hand covered by the long sleeve of her kimono, Sakura walks with her head held high. No one will have a good night if she has anything to do about it.

Chapter Text

Warning(s): Some gore, sexual assault, brief mentions of child sex trafficking (no great amount of detail)

Chapter Five

She won't let you.

She will fight till the end.

You can't keep a lioness caged.

She is led into a room filled with bright lights and several men of varying shapes and sizes. She does not so much as blink when their eager, lustful gazes follow her every move. The whistles and catcalls over her eyes and hair and the continued use of "exotic" to describe her slowly grate on her nerves but, nevertheless, she remains silent.

"Got a right beauty there, Gato. How much you want for her?" This comes from a tall, muscular man with a black beard halfway down his chest. "I got loads of cash tonight."

"Hm, maybe we should just test her out?" A short man with double-chin steps forward. "She looks disobedient. The look in her eyes, I mean."

Another man shoves his way closer. "If anyone gets to have a go at her first, it's me. I can offer more."

"Hell no!"

"Get in line!"

"She's mine!"

Gato leans close to whisper in her ear. "You'll sell for a pretty coin, my dear. You should feel special." It takes everything in Sakura to not stab the man. "Gentlemen, please!" Gato lets go and spreads his hands out in front of him. "We'll be starting the auction soon." He then grabs Sakura again and pulls her to the front and makes her stand to face the room of disgraceful men.

"She's a pretty flower~" one man calls from the back.

"I always liked pretty things," another man replies.

Sakura subtly swallows the bile building up in her throat at the mere thought of any of these men touching her inappropriately.

"Ah, yes. This is Flower. Let's discuss Flower, shall we?" Gato moves pass Sakura to the table behind her, grabs something, and then stands in front of her. She continues to gaze forward, eyes focused on a stain on the wall. "Flower is a kunoichi from Konohagakure." There's a flash of blue and metal and Sakura sees red. Absolutely sees red. All noise fades away at the mere sight of her headband.

They...tainted it.

The proud symbol of Konoha, the symbol she wears in honor of her faith and devotion to her village, the symbol she swore to fight and protect, to uphold it's meaning - is barely legible under the deep scratches, under the utter abuse given to it.

They touched it with their filthy hands!

What's left of the blue fabric the metal is attached to it torn at the end. There's not enough to tie it onto her head anymore.

" - and this set of nice weapons. Brand new, it seems. That'll be extra if you, you know, want to play with her for a bit~"

Sakura's gaze snaps to the clearly filled weapon pouch. It, too, is in a terrible condition.

What fools.

"Now, let's start the bidding. Starting off with 10,000!"

Sakura blinks slowly. I'm going to kill all of you.



I'm going to kill all of you. Sakura gazes at each man, fury building in her chest. And I'm going to enjoy it.

Sasuke paces the small bedroom given to him and Naruto the first night they arrived at the bridge builder's home. Naruto has been missing all night, yet Kakashi doesn't seem worried at all. Both anger and fear course through his body. If Naruto goes missing the same way Sakura has...he doesn't know what he will do.

What would Itachi do in my situation?

He hears the steady footsteps of Tazuna walking outside the room, pausing, before walking back. Voices too soft for him to make out words can be heard from behind the door.

Itachi would do anything to ensure the mission is successful. Sasuke glances out the window at the cloudy sky. But I'm not Itachi.

There's a knock on the door.


It's Kakashi. He walks over to the door and opens it only to stare up at his sensei in equal parts shocked and concerned. Naruto, the lovable idiot and his and Sakura's best friend, is passed out on Kakashi's back. His face has some dirt on it and there's bruising around his left temple.

"Naruto will be taking a break today. We, on the other hand, still need to escort our charge to the bridge so that he and his associates can finish it."

"What about Sakura?!" Sasuke hisses despite moving aside so Kakashi can walk in. "Why are you still forgetting Sakura?!"

Kakashi lowers Naruto onto his side of the large futon and adjusts the blankets over the exhausted boy. "I'm not. Part of the reason we need to follow Tazuna is to keep an ear out for Sakura's location. Civilians, especially scared civilians, have this nasty habit of gossiping when pushed in the right direction."

It's not good enough in Sasuke's opinion, but he remains silent and only offers a nod. "When Naruto wakes up," Sasuke looks down at his teammate, "he won't be happy."

"No," Kakashi replies, "I suppose he won't be."

Since the bids towards her have only increased in the last half hour, Sakura ever so subtly moves backward towards the table her weapons were placed on. It really is incredibly foolish of Gato to simply place them back where he had them originally and turn his back to them, turn his back to her. The senbon needle Haku passed her earlier feels larger now. Heavier.

She grips it with a fierceness that surprises herself.

It's almost time. Tekka and the others are counting on me.

"65,000!" This snaps Sakura out of her inner monologue.

"65,000 going once! 65,000 going twice! So - "

"500,000 for Lil' Miss Flower."

Sakura looks through the crowd before her eyes land on the man who earlier insisted he should "have a go at her first" because he can "offer" more. Low murmurs set off in the crowd. Many of the other men take steps back.

"Ah, Mr. Hoshitan~" Gato takes a step forward. "That's quite the bid~"

"My new pet will be worth it."

His dark gaze follows the length of her body from head to shoulders - lingering on her chest and pelvis - before stopping at her feet only for him to repeat the process over and over again.

"Unless anyone has something to top Mr. Hoshitan's bid...?" Gato trails off to look around - Sakura is fully pressed against the table, her free hand swiftly placed behind her and on her weapon pouch. One second, two seconds, and she has a smoke bomb in her hand. - before looking over his shoulder to grin at her. "Then I believe you are now the proud owner of Flower."

Hoshitan walks forward at a leisure pace, hands stuffed in his pockets with a wicked smile on his face. "Hello, pet. You'll be coming home with me."

Sakura mumbles under her breath, eyes narrowing at the sight of this man who thinks she's property.

"What was that, honey?" Hoshitan leans down to hear her.

What a fool.

"I said," Sakura looks directly into his eyes, "I won't be going anywhere with you."

But the man only chuckles. "And what makes you think that, princess?"

"You'll be dead," she replies simply before jerking forward.

A curse rips from Hoshitan's mouth but, as he staggers back, Sakura yanks the large needle out of him and shoots forward to slice his neck. Blood spills over like a waterfall. A sort of gurgling sound escapes his mouth before he drops to the ground unmoving.

"What the fuck?!"

"She's a Konoha lapdog! What do you expect?!"

As one, several men dart for the door but Sakura's already throwing the smoke bomb at the ground. Black smoke, thick and suffocating, fills the room in a matter of seconds. Yells can be heard but Sakura pays them no mind. She has practiced with Sasuke and Sasuke's cousin, Shisui, on how to navigate through black smoke in a condensed area. Her weapons are in her hands before she even thinks. With closed eyes, she listens to the hollering, the footsteps, and moves. She knows Gato remains cowering near the table and is quick to bash the end of one of her kunai against his neck.

I'll save you for last.

Sakura is done wasting time.

You deserve this, she thinks while slashing through several near the door. I have no sympathy for people like you. Three more drop to the floor with a sickening, yet satisfying, thump. Whimpers follow soon and the yells grow frantic. The remaining men cannot find a way out. It would take several more minutes for the smoke to even start clearing up.

Something slams into her from behind.

Naruto wakes up with a gasp. Hand flying to his heart, he grips the shirt over it tightly. There's a thin layer of sweat over his forehead, droplets falling to the sheets pooled at his waist. Sunlight is streaming through half-opened curtains and it's almost unbearably quiet. Naruto, feeling the ache in his shoulders, throws off the blanket and sets his feet on the ground.

A sharp tingle runs across the bottom of his feet.

Slowly - surely - Naruto gets up, sways briefly, and steadily walks to the door. Sasuke's backpack is sitting at the end of the large futon, seemingly untouched for hours. He opens the door and calls out.

There's no reply.

Ten minutes later, he's out the front door in his remaining set of clean clothes.

Her body slams into the ground at such a force, she loses her breath. Her head cracks against the stone floor with a sickening thump, her vision swimming. The black smoke doesn't help her blurry vision. Someone is on top of her. Someone is gripping her hair tightly. Someone is groping her left breast. Someone is stroking her exposed collarbone.

"You're one smart bitch, little girl."

Lips are pressed against her left ear, the breath hot, the stubbly chin rough against the side of her face.

"Konoha trains you all well. But how well?"

His slipping his hand under the upper part of the kimono she wearing and grips hard. Sakura bites back a cry of pain. He grips harder.

"I'm going to take my time with you and then I'll the others - those alive, of course - have some fun with you and then I'll kill you." He kisses her ear. "And I'll enjoy it."

Sakura scrambles for anything laying near her. Her kunai is gone. Her senbon needle is gone. The smoke is slowly, but surely, clearing away. She can make out the rough outline of a much older man with evil grey eyes. He's leaning in closer. Sakura, in a desperate attempt to get away, slams her head forward and barely thinks when it collides with the man's forehead in a powerful blow.

"You bitch!" The man howls as he jerks away.

With trembling limbs, Sakura tries to push herself backward.

Get away from him.

"Nevermind. I'm just going to fucking kill you!"

Get away. Get away. Get away -

He's on her in a matter of seconds. His hands wrap around her throat and push. Her body jerks, the air cut off quickly, and she struggles. She struggles fiercely. Nails rip into his skin, nails claw at his face, but the pressure isn't letting up.

"You'll never see your home again, little girl."


"You'll never see your friends again."

Flashes of a laughing Naruto, of a smiling Ino, of a carefree Sasuke, fill her head.


"Is there a family that will mourn you?"

Mama. Papa.

In a final attempt of desperation, Sakura palms the floor for anything to stab this man with. Anything. Her vision is blackening. She can't breathe. She can't breathe - her hand connects with something. Something sharp. A blade! Sakura doesn't think. She doesn't think and grips the blade - not caring that it's biting into her skin and making everything sleek - and plunges it into the skin of the man on top of her.


Sakura doesn't think.

"You little - "

She rips the blade out before running it into the man again.

"S-Stop - "

She pounces on him the moment he falls off of her and keeps stabbing with a wild abandon. She's using both hands to grip the blade, not caring that it's tearing into her skin. The man's cries, the man's pleas, fall silent and then there's nothing but silence. There's no sound aside from her heavy breathing. The black smoke is gone, but Sakura doesn't realize this. Her entire body is trembling. The blade falls from her slippery grasp. The sound it makes when connecting with the floor grounds her.

Sakura finally looks around.

It's a complete bloodbath. Piles of men liter the stone floor, blood painting the walls. There are a few men pressed flatly against the wall closest to the door, but they aren't making a sound. Slowly, hands shaking, Sakura gets up and walks over to her weapon pouch. With her back turned away, she hears the frantic scramble for the door.

Thub. Thub. Thub. Thub.

Each man drops with a kunai sticking of his neck.

She hears a groan. With cold eyes, Sakura looks down to see Gato finally waking up. She waits patiently as he sits up, eyes still closed, and rubs the back of his head. Something satisfying fills the pit of her stomach when he opens his eyes and looks around. A small, gleeful smile forms on her face when he finally lays eyes on her.

"Gato-san," Sakura starts, "I apologize for the mess. I do intend to clean it up when I'm finished."

A whimper escapes his mouth and, like she figures, he starts pleading.

"I'll give you anything you want. A nice boat! All my money! Please don't kill me. I have two hired guards! They're wonderful and they work for a decent pay. They'll do anything I say. They're contracted to me but I can sign them over to you!"

Sakura, without looking, reaches behind her to grab the largest of her kunai. "I intend to claim your money." She shows him the kunai. "Just like I intend to claim your life."

"H-Have mercy."

She shakes her head slowly. "I have no mercy for people like you." His whimpers were cut off shortly after her statement.

"Sakura-san!" Tekka cannot help but cover her mouth at the sight of the young girl before her.

Bloodshot, green eyes stare calmly back at her. A once delightfully pale neck is now barely recognizable under ugly, deep purple bruises in the shape of fingers. Her kimono is practically drenched in blood and her hair is an absolute mess. There's an unreadable forehead protector sticking out of the upper part of he kimono and a faded pouch attached to her hip. With torn up hands, Sakura hands a decent sized pouch to Tekka.

"Supplies," Sakura whispers. Her voice sounds horrid. "Bread and some fruit I found. There are two water pouches in it. You all need to share."


"Talia," Sakura greets in a small voice. "You can't touch me, okay? I'm a mess." Her voice sounds terrible. Young Talia starts crying softly but nods regardless. "Gato and his men are dead," she states as loud as she can, ignoring the burning in her throat. "You are all free to return to your homes." Sakura silently regards the oldest among the group. "Please see to it that the younger ones are returned safely to their homes."

"What about you?" Tekka places the pouch over his shoulder.

Sakura smiles. It false. Hideous, even. "I need your help, Tekka." She turns to address the others in the room. "I want you all to follow me out." She tastes copper on her tongue but ignores it.

And they do. In a single-file order, they silently follow Sakura out of the room, passed a closed door where a clear puddle of blood is forming under the area where the door doesn't meet the ground and greet the sun with happy cries.

"What do you need me to do?" Tekka moves to stand next to Sakura. Sakura nods towards the tubs of gasoline near the front door and then raises an eyebrow at Tekka.

"It would be an honor, Sakura-san."

She rather likes the genuine grin that appears on Sakura's face.

While the other girls wait off to the side, Sakura and Tekka take great care in pouring gasoline in every room they come across. However, Sakura refuses to let Tekka enter the room with the blood puddle underneath the door. Tekka waits silently for Sakura to exit the room one final time with a bloody bag and another bag clearly filled with money. After that, all the girls watch as Sakura pulls a matchbox out of the pouch attached to her hip, strikes a match, and throws it at the building. It's almost immediately engulfed with flames.

Sakura watches the fire for a moment before turning to the other girls. For the next couple of minutes, she passes out coins to each girl but keeps the majority.

"It's not for me," she answers the questioning looks of the other girls, her voice in a dainty whisper. "Rather, I intend to repay someone for aiding us in our escape."

"Haku?" Tekka nods to the senbon needle Sakura has in her hair to keep it up. She came out of the room like that, but Tekka made no comment at the time.

Sakura nods before addressing them all. "You're free. Do you know how to find your way home?" At the low murmurs of reply, Sakura nods again. "Please escort the younger girls home." She lifts both bags and ignores the pain that laces over her palms and up her arms.

Talia steps forward only she's gripping Tekka's free hand. "T-Thank you, nee-chan."

"Where will you go?" Tekka grips the small hand to keep herself grounded.

"To find my teammates and to give this," she shakes both bags, "to Haku." They all watch as Sakura kicks off her sandals and clench her toes in the grass. "I have a debt to repay and I intend to fulfill it." When she leaps on too a tree branch, Talia lets go of Tekka's hand and races forward.

"I'll never forget you, nee-chan!" Talia yells. "I'll grow up to be strong like you!"

Sakura's kind smile is the last thing they see.

Sasuke grunts when his back meets the cold pavement.

"Please cease your movements. I do not wish to kill you."

The masked man - child? - drops in front of him, lean body towering over Sasuke with a killer's intent barely on the rains. A few feet away, Sasuke can hear Naruto swear and stumble on his feet.

"I can't let you kill the old man."

What are you doing Naruto?

"And I won't let you kill Sasuke."

Suddenly, Naruto is in front of Sasuke. The aura around him is bordering on a dangerous level. Sasuke can see the clenched fists of Naruto, how his teammate is barely keeping a hold on his control, and the way his body is trembling.

"If killing you ensure's Zabuza-san's victory," the hunter-nin falls into an unknown fighting stance, "then I will."

Sasuke's eyes flicker to Kakashi. From his position, he can clearly see the wound on Kakashi's left shoulder and the way his sensei is favoring his right leg. His fight with Zabuza is drawing to an end and Sasuke can't make heads or tails of who will win. Ice mirrors start forming around them in a sort of see-through dome and Sasuke freezes. There are large rectangular sheets of ice that resemble mirrors, yet he can still see Kakashi if he concentrates hard enough.

What is this?

The hunter-nin disappears in one of the mirrors just before a shower of needles eject from one of the other mirrors towards them. Sasuke forces his body to roll out of the way while Naruto jumps. This same attack is repeated seconds later and Sasuke is forced to roll again. Naruto calls out to the nin but is only met with silence. Quickly, despite his burning muscles, Sasuke gets his feet.

For several minutes, needles shoot out of the mirrors aiming for them, but Sasuke continues to dodge them; moving much quicker as time passes on.

"You're fast." It's whispered in his ear and Sasuke spins around only to see no know one there. "I'm impressed. I will end this quickly for the other."

Sasuke watches, eyes wide, as a shower of needles aims directly for Naruto. So many that Sasuke knows - he knows deep in his heart - that Naruto wouldn't be able to dodge them all. He moves without hesitating and feels - sweet lord - each needle penetrate his body all over. And then he's falling. Falling fast.

"No!" The scream comes from two different sources.

Someone catches him, holds him, and whoever it is...they're trembling.

"S-Sasuke! Why w-would you - ?"

A trickle of blood slides down the side of his mouth. "My body m-moved on its own." His vision is darkening. "Don't l-lose, Naruto. You need t-to find Sakura."

He goes limp.

The scream rips out of her with such a force, Sakura almost falls to her knees. She sees Sasuke falling - falling, falling, falling - until Naruto reaches out to catch him before he fully hits the ground. Hands gripping her bags tightly, she starts running down the hill she's atop of as fast as she can. Her lungs are burning, her hands on fire, but she doesn't stop.

Fear. Anger. Hatred.

The need to kill.

A heavy aura flows over the large clearing and slams into Sakura. She does drop this time, knees slamming into the iced ground so hard she drops a bag to muffle the cry she releases. Several yards away from him, Naruto is glowing. Naruto is glowing a dark, deadly orange. So much so that a tail forms at the base of his lower back.

Sakura can see him tremble with rage. The frightening aura only growing as she scrambles to her feet, grabs her bags, and starts racing forward despite the fear bubbling in her stomach. A wave of such intense killing intent washes over her and almost sends her to her knees again but she pushes past it. She races for her boys, desperation filling her every nerve.

She can't see a way to enter the dome.

"Naruto," she calls out in a raw voice. Blood eyes are on her in an instant, but it's not Naruto she sees in them. No. There's some demonic about the red eyes staring back at her. Something dark and frightening. Something that chills her to the bone. This isn't Naruto. Just something that has control of his body. She stops several feet away when he snarls at her. His teeth are pointed, his nails are sharper, and she knows that if the creature wanted to, he could rip her to shreds.

A senbon needle scraps the side of Naruto's face. Sakura knows instantly who is behind the white mask. Her eyes flash to Kakashi and Zabuza.

Is he your precious person, Haku?

Another howl erupts from this demonic Naruto, so loud and fierce, the ice mirrors rattle but do not break. No. She'll be forced to watch her teammate and Haku go toe-to-toe in the dome while Sasuke lays dying - or dead - at their feet. Sakura steps forward the few feet to be right up at the dome, drops her bags, and starts beating at the ice.

"Naruto! Naruto, stop! Haku, please! Please stop!"

She's desperate.

"Stop!" Sakura tastes copper in her mouth, her lips wet with crimson.

But neither care. Neither listens. Sakura watches as they clash in powerful blows, but she knows Haku won't win this. The demonic chakra pouring out of Naruto's body is too powerful, too deadly. She watches as Haku is pushed further and further into his ice mirrors. When a wave of chakra pulses out of Naruto's body, the ice mirrors start to crack.

Sakura jerks away when she hears a loud crackle and turns to the course of the sound. There's pale blue lightning around her sensei's hand and it steadily grows bigger. The man he is fighting is down on one knee, head bowed. As Kakashi advances on this man, Sakura sees her opportunity. She starts toward them, calling out as she does.

"Kakashi-sensei! Stop! You - ," she grasps at her burning throat, " - Stop!" A terrible coughing fit pushes out of her throat.

She sees him falter and then stop a few feet away from the kneeling man. He doesn't look at her, his body remains tense, but he has stopped like she pleaded. The sound of something shattering and then - "Haku?"


"B-But why?"

Sakura doesn't pay them the attention she so desperately wants too. Something in her gut tells her Haku won't attack again. Instead, she turns, grabs the bags she had been carrying, and starts for her sensei. Stopping next to him, half a foot away from his glowing hand, Sakura drops both bags in front of the man. The thubs cause the man to finally look up.

"Your contract with Gato is void." Her voice sounds horrid.

The man tilts his head. "He is dead?"

Sakura nods slowly. "That," she points to the damp bag, "is your proof."

"Haku. To me." In a flicker of black, Haku is standing before Sakura with a blank face. The man picks up the bloody bag and hands it to Haku while keeping his eyes focused on Sakura. "Confirm the death of our employer."

Haku takes the bag with a soft "Yes, Zabuza-san," and opens it. Sakura watches his face closely but sees no reaction. "She speaks the truth."

"And this bag?" The man - Zabuza, she corrects - gestures to the other bag.

"Your payment for your service," Sakura answers in a quiet voice. "Please allow me and my teammates to leave."

Zabuza grabs the bag and gets to his feet. "What is your name?"


A chuckle - one that greatly concerns Sakura - escapes Zabuza's mouth. "You and your teammates are free to go, Sakura. I, as you have said, no longer work with Gato and no longer have to carry out his commands."

Kakashi's blue lightening dissolves into nothing.

"S-Sakura-chan?" She hears Naruto speak accompanied by a thub.

Sakura wants to go to him, but her eyes remain on Zabuza. "You will not pursue us?"

"No. You are free to leave." Zabuza turns on his feet and walks towards a giant sword lying several feet away. Haku turns on the spot but Sakura shoots forward to grab his sleeve.

"This is yours, Haku-san." She pulls out the large needle he had passed her earlier in the day. "It was of great use to me." She can only manage to speak in a whisper.

Haku accepts the needle, staring down at it as if it were some otherworldly thing, before shaking his head slowly. He very gently grabs the hand that offered it and places the needle back in it. "Do not give away your trophies, Sakura-san. They showcase your survival."

"Haku, we're leaving."

But Haku doesn't follow immediately. "Your teammate, Sasuke," Sakura tenses. "I did not kill him. He will awake soon."

"Haku!" Zabuza snaps.

"Until we meet again, Sakura-san." Haku lifts her free hand, bloodied and bruised and completely torn apart - and very much aching - and presses a soft kiss onto the back of it regardless of its state. Sakura finds that she does not mind this for the feeling it leaves her is not disgust like Gato's did. When he lets go, Sakura takes a step back until she's at Kakashi's side and spares a few moments to watch Haku leave with Zabuza.

The moment they're out of sight, Sakura pivots on her heels and heads directly for her boys. She inhales sharply at the sight of Sasuke and smiles sadly at Naruto's exhausted form.

"Do you think you can carry Naruto?"

Kakashi is at her side in instantly.

"Yes, sensei," Sakura whispers her reply.

"Don't speak unless you have to, Sakura."

She nods.

In a couple of minutes, Naruto is situated on her back and Kakashi has Sasuke gathered in his arms as carefully as he can.

"Let's head back, Sakura."

She truly appreciates the deep comfort that settles in her bones at the gentle voice of her sensei.

Naruto takes one look at her, bursts into tears, and throws himself over her legs. Sasuke takes on look at her and then promptly refuses to keep eye contact or go near her. Sakura knows she makes quite the sight.

Upon arriving back at Tazuna's home, the family greeted them with utterly horrified faces and were quick to provide their assistance. Sakura refused to be touched by anyone until Naruto and Sasuke were looked at first. It was nearly an hour later before Tazuna's daughter approached her cautiously and offered a bath, fresh clothes, and bandages.

It was one of the worse experiences of her life.

When everything settled, Sakura was forced to acknowledge the reality of what happened to her - what nearly happened to her. She had to force herself to look in the mirror and assess the damage. Save for a small sliver of untouched skin, her neck is covered in deep purple and yellow - some parts bordering on green - hand-shaped bruises. Her eyes are bloodshot, her face is filthy, and there's a bruise on her forehead large enough that she can cover it with the palm of her hand.

Her hands.

During her struggle, she gripped a blade tight enough that it left deep cuts on her palms and half her fingers. She's surprised she doesn't need stitches, the cuts are healing over far quicker than she expects. From the side of her pinky down to her wrist, her hands were purpling from where she banged on Haku's ice dome. It took her a while to clean the blood and dirt out from beneath her fingernails.

When she stripped down to step in the bath, she saw the ugly bruises on the left side of her chest from when the man squeezed - squeezed, squeezed, squeezed - and forced herself to not cry. It was increasingly hard not to do so when she stepped into the piping hot water and settled against a smoothed, wooden corner to simply soak. She soaked for well over an hours before finding the will to actually bathe. Tazuna's daughter aided her in bandaging her hands and redressing when her stiff muscles failed to cooperate.

That had been several hours ago.

"Naruto," she manages to croak. "I'm okay. I'm okay." But Naruto only buries his face deeper against her stomach and continues to sob.

Sakura looks helplessly at Sasuke but only sees her other friend clenching the bed sheets pooled at his waist. "Sasuke?" He doesn't acknowledge her. His head is bowed. "Sasuke, please. Look at me." Her voice is horrid. She takes notice of his trembling shoulders.

Kakashi is nowhere near the room, but she can sense his chakra in the house.

Tears burned at the corners of her tears. "I'm okay," she repeats. "I'm okay. I'm okay." She buries one hand in Naruto's hair.

"No, you're not." Sasuke doesn't look at her. "Have you seen yourself, Sakura?" She cannot help but flinch at the harsh tone. "You look - You look - " She sees Sasuke runs a hand through his hair. "Have you seen your neck?!"

She shifts a little but keeps her hold on Naruto who has fallen silent by now. "Yes, Sasuke." It's said in a whisper. "I know exactly how I look." That finally gets her a reaction she can work with. Sasuke's head snaps up and his dark eyes bore into her own, eyes full of regret and anger.

"Sakura - "

"I don't blame you," she interrupts quietly. "What happened to me - it's not your fault or Naruto's."

Sasuke's eyes flash. "Then it's Kakashi's. He wouldn't let us find you!"

No, Sasuke.

Sakura shakes her head as best she can. "You had no leads. You would have wasted time and energy looking for me and that would have placed Tazuna-san's self and family in danger. We still had a mission to complete, Sasuke. You and Naruto," Sakura stops to breathe, "struggled against Haku. Imagine what would have happened if you both were on your own against him? Imagine if you ran across Zabuza?"

"Sakura-chan, we - "

She shushes him. "Kakashi-sensei made the right call. Hunter-nins. Mercenaries. They're out of our league right now. I don't want either of you to place yourself in unnecessary danger because of me."

Sasuke stands up and, for a moment, she believes he will walk out of the room, but Sasuke just walks over to her, settles next to her, and wraps an arm around her waist as best he can with Naruto's shoulder in the way. He leans his head against her shoulder in a surprising display of affection.

"If something were to happen to you," he breathes deeply, "Naruto and I wouldn't know what to do."

Naruto nods against her stomach. "We wouldn't know what to say to Ino either. Or our parents."

"I'll try harder to see where Kakashi-sensei is coming - "

"After this, I may no longer be your sensei."

Sakura feels Naruto jerk in surprise.

"What do you mean?" She whispers as their sensei walks into the room and takes a seat at the foot of her bed.

Kakashi sighs. "Returning to the village in your condition will probably get me blacklisted as a sensei and placed on probation if not outright stripped of my rank."

Sakura stares at him. "Because you continued the mission despite Tazuna-san's lie, am I correct?" She tries to clear her throat but it only sends her into a painful coughing fit.

Sasuke rubs a hand over her lower back. "Breath slowly, Sakura."

"Sakura is correct. This mission was supposed to be simple and last only a week. We won't make it back before the week is up because Sakura is in no condition to travel right now. When I file the report, of which Lord Fourth will demand first and foremost upon seeing her condition, and explain what happened he will be beyond livid." Kakashi pauses before continuing, voice much quieter. "I placed you three in danger."

"If it weren't for your d-decision," Sakura starts breathing heavily, "w-we wouldn't have - "

"Sakura-chan, you need to save your voice."

"No," Sakura whispers, closing her eyes. "This village w-was liberated, a tyrant was d-disposed of, and what would h-have been a child sex traffic r-ring was stopped." She opens her eyes and looks at Kakashi. "L-Lord Fourth will underst-stand this, sensei."

"Be that as it may, Sakura - "

She shakes her head as best she can. "I'll explain."

"Admirable," Kakashi replies.

Naruto sits up properly. "When will we be able to travel home, Kakashi-sensei?"

Kakashi looks directly in Sakura's eyes. "Two, maybe three, days. Sakura can hardly speak or move her head. Traveling by tree would not help her body. Her hands are torn up too. If push comes to shove, I'll carry her back. Now," he stands up, "I want Sakura to rest up as best she can. I assume you two will stay with her?"

Sasuke nods while Naruto shoots Kakashi a thumbs up. "We'll watch over Sakura-chan!"

"Can I-I get some water, s-sensei?"

He reaches forward and pats her head affectionately. "Of course. I'll be back in a few minutes."

The moment he's gone, Naruto starts peeling Sakura's sheets back. "It will be a tight squeeze, but we'll manage."

Sakura cracks a small smile. "Like old t-times?"

"Stop talking," Sasuke replies before Naruto can answer. "You need to rest your voice." He, too, shifts under the sheets until he's pillowing Sakura's left side, Naruto copying him on her other side.



Kakashi is suddenly looming over them, a glass of water with a straw in one hand and an extra blanket in the other. He holds it while she manages to down half of it before settling back against her pillows. The moment she stops, Naruto and Sasuke press closer. Kakashi spreads the extra blanket over them.

"I'll wake you three for dinner, okay?"

"Yes, sensei."

She's out before he can exit the room.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six - Part One

I stand in front of the mirror,

Not recognizing my own reflection.

Who is this girl?

"Give me one good reason on why I should allow you to continue to be Team Seven's instructor. In fact, give me one good reason on why I shouldn't strip you of your rank right here, right now."

Kakashi can only recall seeing his mentor this angry three times before now. The first time comes for Team Minato's first C-Rank mission out of Konoha which involved Obito nearly losing his leg and Rin with several broken ribs. The second time comes from the combined deaths of Obito and Rin. Kakashi refuses to call forth the details of those deaths. The third time comes from the near destruction of Konoha 12 years previously when he was forced to watch his sensei seal half of the Kyuubi inside his newborn son.

And now, Kakashi feels faint. The aura around his sensei is barely above suffocation. The intense sensation of anger has already sent surrounding chunin and jounin high-tailing it out of the Hokage Tower as fast as they can. The ANBU, which is assigned to the Hokage, is nowhere to be seen and Kakashi has no doubt that those who are required to stay in the Tower are having trouble operating. Having been back for just a couple of days, Kakashi had hoped this meeting would be pushed off for a bit longer.

He chooses to not reply in the end. It's clear Minato has more to say.

"You return past the time frame given and one of your students arrived in such poor condition that she is currently being hospitalized for," he pauses to pick up a sheet of his desk, "battered hands, torn throat, and near strangulation! Explain yourself, Kakashi! Why did you not return when you realized your client lied?!"

There is something truly terrifying about witnessing Namikaze Minato yell.

"I believed my team had the capability to complete the mission,"Kakashi answers after a moment. "And I was right."

Stern blue eyes bore into his own, into his soul. "And you continued knowing full well what the consequences could have been?"

"Yes, sensei."

While maintaining eye contact, Minato opens the top drawer of his desk, pulls out a thin stack of paper stapled together, and grabs a pen. "This packet lists the possible jobs you may enter once paperwork for your discharge has been completed." He starts writing on the first page, circling things, and whatnot. "I trusted you to look out for them, Kakashi. I am so utterly disappointed."

Kakashi averts his gaze to the floor.

He hears the desk chair's wheels roll and papers shift. "And now I will accompany you to the hospital - where I'm sure your former team is gathered - so that you may announce your withdrawal as their sensei." Kakashi feels the subtle brush against his shoulder followed by the light squeak of the office door being opened. "We will walk."

Of course, we will.

The idea of having to follow five or so steps behind the Hokage, in public view, is telling of his disservice to his team. As the pupil of the Hokage, it will also showcase the Hokage's dissatisfaction with him. And really, he deserves this. The entire trip to the hospital, Kakashi remains behind the Hokage and keeps a stoic face when the villagers start glancing at him alarmed and start whispering amongst themselves. Occasionally, Kakashi's eyes flicker to his discharge paper gripped tightly in his mentor's hand.

I haven't been the talk of the village for a while.

Kakashi immediately senses several panicking chakras the moment they enter the hospital. He knows them to be his stud - the children of prestigious clans. Sakura's chakra, in particular, is spiking before dropping and then spiking again. A clear sign that she is in some sort of danger. Her chakra outweighs the combined chakra of Sasuke and Naruto and their mutual friend, Yamanaka Ino (the Yamanaka girl having been Sakura's companion for years now).

"What is going on?!"

"Patient 213, Haruno, has been - "

Kakashi tunes out the rest of the rushed reply, fighting the urge to simply go to his students - damn it! - and ease their worries. All thoughts of not disobeying silent orders fly right out of his head when Sakura's chakra heightens to such a degree, that he hears ringing in his ears. The hospital walls shake, they groan as if something is squeezing them. He throws caution to the wind and races for Sakura's room. Not even a second later, his sensei is running next to him, running past him.

The door to Sakura's room is thrown open seconds before he arrives and Kakashi freezes upon seeing the inside. Far too many clones of Naruto stand between a crying Sakura - whom an equally crying Ino and clearly distraught Sasuke are trying to calm down - and several hospital staff members.

"Sensei," Naruto - the real Naruto - turns to him; his relief reflecting Kakashi's relief of seeing Naruto defend his female teammate from what he clearly believes are enemies. "She's been asking for you over and over again. We couldn't leave her though!"

His relief vanishes when Sakura let lets out a choked sob.

"Let me through."

He doesn't say this to Naruto nor any of the staff. No. He says this while looking directly at his mentor who is torn in equal parts worry and anger. Worry for Sakura is as clear as the sky presently and anger could revolve around several things. Anger at him? Obviously. Anger towards Sakura's current state? Yes. Anger at the hospital staff? Highly likely.

"Sensei." Please.

"Back away from the hospital bed," Minato states, maintaining eye contact with Kakashi. "All of you." There is hesitation, obviously, but the many poofing sounds of Naruto's clones disappearing and the shuffling of feet, child or adult-wise, follow soon after. The silence of the room is broken by Sakura's dry heaving and choked sounds. "Go to her, Kakashi." Something he can't identify flickers across Minato's eyes.

Instead, Kakashi takes measured steps towards Sakura with his hands out in front of him in a nonhostile gesture. "Sakura." Her eyes shoot to his face, but Kakashi knows she doesn't really see him. "We're in Konoha. It's Friday, April 12th. The current time is," he briefly glances at the clock on the wall, "11:46 AM. You're home. You're safe."

Sakura sucks in a shaky breath. "Home?" There are still tears streaming down her face.

"Yes, Sakura. Home."

"Naruto and Sasuke?"

"Safe and sound. They're behind me with Ino."


There's a soft, distressed sound. "I'm here, Sakura. I'm here with the boys and Kakashi-sensei and Naruto's dad."

Kakashi continues to approach her slowly until he's at her side. What happens next almost causes him to visibly startle. Sakura's hand, that has been gripping the bed sheets pooled at her waist, shoots out and grabs his pinky - his single pinky - and squeezes. Her grip it bordering on breakable tightness, but he makes no comment. The action, he knows, keeps her grounded.

"Safe?" Sakura asks again.


Reassured and completely exhausted, Sakura passes out all the while maintaining her stern grip on Kakashi's pinky.

"Why was she crying?" Kakashi asks while pulling a tissue from the box next to her bedside and gently wipes away the tear tracks under her eyes. "What could have possibly happened in the time span of two hours?" He visited Sakura with Naruto and Sasuke earlier this morning and only left when he was summoned to the Hokage's office for a verbal beatdown.

"I would like to know the answer to that as well."

One of the nurses stepped forward, stammering out a reply. "W-we came to g-give her - "

"Cut the shit, lady!" Naruto hisses.


But the sharp tone to his name didn't stop Naruto at all.

"You were holding her down!" Naruto cries softly, rage rolling off his body. "She kept telling you to let go, but you wouldn't listen!"

"Did you not read the paper we filled out?" This time, it is Sasuke who steps forward. His anger, Kakashi notes, is barely being rained in. "Kakashi-sensei specifically stated that Sakura should not be held down at all cost because of w-what happened to her, of what nearly happened to her!"

Kakashi balls the tissue in his hand tightly.

"Sakura-chan, what happened to you?" Naruto asked during dinner, soft and gentle. A private dinner, of course, and quickly granted upon Sakura's request to simply not leave the room provided for her to recover.

Having been provided paper to communicate, Sakura sets aside her spoon and picks up the pad of paper and pencil that came with it. For the next few minutes, Kakashi observes the way her hand trembles, how she hesitates several times, how she viciously scratches out details, and the area around her eyes steadily grow red; an indication that she may start crying.

When's she done, Sakura lays her pen down and simply stares at the paper blankly before handing the pad to Sasuke to either read silently or out loud. The moment it's out of her hands, Sakura immediately picks up her spoon again and resumes eating her soup.

"Do you want me to read out loud?" Sasuke asks, as softly as Naruto.

She shrugs.

Sasuke stares at her, eyes unreadable before he visibly swallows and starts reading out loud: "After the explosion, I was located by Gato's men and carried off unconscious. I awoke in a cellar with 10 or so other girls who have been kidnapped and were supposed to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, myself included - "

The hospital staff deliberately disobeyed me, Kakashi watches Naruto and Sasuke tag-team against the sputtering, red-faced nurse. But I put Sakura in this situation by continuing the mission.

"Calm down right now," Minato commands.

" - I killed them," Sasuke pauses after that, frowning at the paper.

At this point, Sakura's hands are shaking. She has wasn't holding her spoon anymore.


Kakashi sees Sakura's barely-there flinch and knows Sasuke saw it too if the boy's subtle shift closer to her is anything to go by. "Continue, Sasuke." He keeps a calm face when Sasuke looks at him surprised.

"I was tackled from behind and blacked out for a moment. When I came too, one of the remaining men was on top of me. He started to touch me inappropriately -," Sasuke stops immediately and quickly reads the rest silently before practically throwing the pad at Naruto and abandoning dinner.

Naruto catches it, anxiety written all over his face, and reads the rest. He, too, drops the pad and abandons dinner. Kakashi knows what is written on the paper. He knows and feels disgusted. But still, he reaches over and picks up the paper and reads the words himself. He can see the result of Sakura's shaky handwriting and the dark marks crossing whole sentences out.

"How far did that man go, Sakura?"

"He did not take my virginity, sensei." Sakura lifts her head to stare him directly in the eyes. Her voice cracks terribly. "I r-refused to go down w-without a fight."

"He deserved the death he got, Sakura." Kakashi nods to the senbon needle holding her hair up. "Proof of your survival."

Sakura's shoulders slump. "Sasuke and Naruto - "

" - are not mad at you. They are mad at the situation. They feel powerless, Sakura, and I did not help the situation." She shakes her head as best she can but Kakashi raises his hand to stop her from speaking. "True, there was no lead to your location but that doesn't change how they felt, how they feel now." He hesitates. "Doesn't change my actions either."

She sighs, face adopting an irritated expression.

"Kakashi-sensei - "


He blinks.

Bright lights.

White walls.

The steady sound of beeping machines.

The hospital.

"Forgive me," he replies without looking away from Sakura.

'Forgive me' can be taken in several different contexts, but he'll let each of them decide what he's asking forgiveness for. He hears shuffling until a smaller presence is standing next to him.

"She kept calling your name."

Yamanaka Ino.

"She did," Naruto insists. "Kept saying that you needed to be here. Said something along the lines of the team needs to be together or she won't heal properly."

Oh, Sakura. Kakashi blinks, an odd sensation building up in the back of his eyes. You kind child.

"Kakashi, a word?" It's a command above all else and the denial is barely refrained from slipping off his tongue. Guilt floods his veins when he forces Sakura to let go of his pinky but does find a little relief when Ino takes his place and soothes quickly furling pink brows.

"You'll be back soon, right?" Sasuke steps in his way. "If she wakes up and you're not here..."

Kakashi's pats his as a response and follows his sensei out of the room. He barely catches notice that none of the hospital staff are in the room either. Once he's out of the room, he waits to be handed the discharge papers - though impatient - and be dismissed; either ordered to leave at once or to say his final good-byes.

That doesn't happen, however, and Kakashi watches, with faintly wide eyes, as his discharge papers are ripped in half and pocketed in his sensei's white, fire Hokage jacket.

"Do not make me regret this, Kakashi," His sensei - no, Lord Fourth - states with a serious, almost chilly, tone. "I expect Team Seven in my office precisely at eight o'clock and we will discuss your continuation as their sensei with all of them present. I also want detailed accounts from all of them." He frowns.

"Sensei," he calls out as Minato is in mid-turn of walking away. "May I ask why you're giving me a second chance?"

"As a hailed genius, I'm sure you already know."

Kakashi bows to the fading back of his mentor. "Thank you, sensei."

Sasuke watches as Ino settles on one side of the large hospital bed, lithe body curling around Sakura's in a possessive manner, hair just barely brushing her exposed collarbone. He does feel a bit jealous but ultimately recognizes that Ino - of all people - should be allowed this time with Sakura, knowing full well the bond between the girls is far greater than what is seen.

"It's way past Sakura's birthday now," Naruto starts when Sasuke takes the available seat next to him next to the bed. "She's 13 now and we're still 12. We should have a party of some sort. My mom can bake a cake or maybe your mom can bake a cake or maybe Ino's mom can bake a cake - "

"Naruto, it's okay to still be upset about what we saw today."

Sasuke feels like a counselor of some sort.

"I've never seen her cry like that before." Sasuke glances down at Naruto's trembling hands, both gripping his knees. "I haven't heard her scream like that in so long. Not since the nightmares..."

And it's true. Sasuke can agree. Sakura's nightmares in the months following her parent's murder were terrible and constant. Whoever's house she was staying at was subjected to her screams. Sometimes, it was far worse if she was in her own home. Sasuke can recall seeing his mother rock Sakura back and forth in an attempt to soothe her cries. The night's they're at Naruto's place ended in much of the same manner.

Neither he nor Naruto slept over at Ino's house but he figures it ended the same way.

"We have to keep her safe, Sasuke." There's a desperate sort of look in Naruto's eye.

"I know - "

"You can't her safe forever."

Both their heads snap to the door. Kakashi is leaning against the door to Sakura's room. Neither heard him enter or close the door. Something like annoyance or anger sparks in Sasuke's chest.

"We can try."

"She'll do the same exact thing with you two. The same with Ino." Kakashi walks towards them. "It's the very nature of close teammates, but even more so considering your pre-assigned history. Sakura is just as protective."

Any anger, any snappish thoughts, drain out of Sasuke quickly. Kakashi is right. She would. They would. But how far will it be taken? How far is too far? Will she die for them? Them for her?

"Sakura's birthday passed, but I think you should still do some sort of celebration." Kakashi leans against the wall, by the only window in the room. "She will more than likely want to be close to those she loves."

"Yeah," Naruto mumbles. "I even bought her a gift a while back."

Sasuke nods. He, too, went shopping a while back for a gift for Sakura. His, most likely, is a lot more simplistic than Naruto.

"Monday, the three of us need to report to the Hokage's office. Be there no later than 8."

Naruto groans and rubs his face. "Dad said we'd be done for a while. Why so early?"

"He wants a recount of the events during our mission - "

"Isn't that your job?" Sasuke interrupts.

" - from you two. He will also have you three evaluate me as a sensei."

Sasuke freezes. He hasn't been subtle with his anger, his downright rude attitude, with their sensei. He places a good amount of blame for Sakura's condition on Kakashi - justifiably, in his opinion - but also owns up that some of the blame belongs to himself. Sasuke's gaze flickers to Sakura. The bruising around her neck has let up some - just barely - and she seems incredibly small in the large hospital bed. The red specs on her bandaged hands indicate that they will need to be changed soon.

Sakura trusts Kakashi-sensei. She trusted him to keep Naruto and I save. The question that remains, Sasuke glances at Kakashi out of the corner of his eye, is if I trust him?

Kakashi keeps his eyes directly on Sakura's sleeping form. Yamanaka Ino, despite being asleep right along with her, is careful not to brush against Sakura's collarbone or neck when she shifts in her sleep. For a brief moment, he feels stuck in a past that he's desperately trying to escape. Sakura shares a resemblance to Rin. He'll be the first to admit it. Delicate features often mistook as weak seeming until one fight's back with a deadly intent. Rin also looked small in the hospital bed when he managed to get her back to Konoha.

That was two years after Obito's death.

A wound that was just barely healing was once against wide open, bleeding profusely. He remembers holding Rin's broken hand while yelling at the doctor's to - "You're not trying hard enough!" - fix her, to save her - "Please." - but they couldn't. Rin died in her hospital three days after Kakashi carried her through Konoha's gates. Much like Obito's funeral, Kakashi cried for the loss of a good friend, a great shinobi, and a tender love that never reached its final stage.

"Be honest when Lord Fourth asks you questions." Kakashi's fingers twitch, a sudden need to have his book out. "Especially if they relate to me."

"Sakura-chan likes you," Naruto replies immediately. "I don't know how I feel about you, but she explained why you choose to keep us from looking for her. Sakura-chan is really smart and I trust her judgment."

"And you?" Kakashi moves his gaze from Sakura to Sasuke. "What is your opinion of me, Sasuke?"

"Lower than it was before," Sasuke answers, dark gaze unrepentant. "I blame you for Sakura's condition." Kakashi's nods. It's something they agree on. "But..." He raises an eyebrow at Sasuke's hesitance. "Sakura has no regrets about continuing the mission and did a lot for the people of Wave. My opinion of you is low, but Sakura wants you to remain our sensei because she sees something in you that we -," Sasuke motions between himself and Naruto, "- don't and I want the chance to see it too."

Naruto nods. "I can't speak for Sasuke, but I don't think you're a bad guy, sensei. I did beg for us to have a mission outside of Konoha and it was given to us. I was happy we continued up until Sakura-chan went missing."

Sasuke, Kakashi notes silently, gives a jerky nod in agreement.

"We learned tree climbing too," Naruto continues. "That's a plus, right? And Sakura found her way back to us. Our mission was still a success."

Leave it to Naruto to try and be uplifting.

"S-Sakura has a high opinion of Kakashi-sensei." All eyes snapped to Sakura's hospital bed. Ino is sitting up, ponytail somewhat sloppy, and yawns. "She said Kakashi-sensei kept you two from being reckless and therefore kept you both save. In Sakura's book, that's the best thing you can do for her." Ino's eyes fall to Kakashi. "She'll speak in your defense in front of Lord Fourth."

Mission details are usually hushed, especially if it's B-Rank and above, but Kakashi knows the amount of trust Sakura has in her only female friend. But considering what he and the boys just openly discussed, Kakashi's inclined to simply trust her word. She knows Sakura better than him. They all do, in fact. And Yamanaka's, after all, are Konoha's greatest secret keepers.

It all boils down to what Sakura thinks?

"Interesting," Kakashi murmurs under his breath.

"I like you, sensei."

"If Rin likes you, I like you!" Obito yells while shooting their sensei a big thumbs up. "She has a good understanding of character!"

Rin blushes, eyes gazing intently at the forest floor. "Oh, Obito."

"You've given us no reason to dislike you yet, Minato-sensei, so I agree with Rin." And then, after an afterthought, "And the idiot."


Kakashi stops himself from releasing a bitter chuckle.

It was like that for us too.

"The bandages on her hands will need to be changed soon," he hears Sasuke state quietly.

"Why aren't they healed?" Naruto demands in an equally quiet voice. "We've been back for two days!"

It's a good, fair question in Kakashi's unspoken opinion. Why aren't Sakura's hands healed by now? He doesn't know medical jutsu and mainly had to rely on changing the bandages on her hands when the blood soaks through too much and the bandages were limited between them. Sakura never complained through, but he chalks that up to ordering her not to speak unless she absolutely had to given the condition of her throat at the time.

"She wants them to scar over," Ino answers while gently stroking Sakura's messy pink hair. "She wouldn't tell me why, but I didn't push. A-After everything that's happened, I figured she's allowed to keep the reason to herself."

Kakashi automatically starts mentally listing reasons why Sakura would allow her hands to scar but remains silent. He knows a few other people with scarred hands that still do efficient work. Besides, torn hands can still hold a weapon and perform hand-to-hand combat and create signs. So, no. He won't voice his ideas. If anything, Sakura is giving him a great chance to do better as a sensei so remaining silent is paying in kind.

"I have a couple of guesses," and that's all Sasuke offers.

"We should plan her birthday party," Ino starts when the silence goes on too long. "I was thinking it can be green and white and involve lots of flowers."

"Sakura-chan does love her garden," Naruto throws out. "She makes me pull out weeds sometimes."

"At least you don't have to use the hose."

The way Sasuke says it indicates there's a story there. Kakashi plans to ask - "You looked like a drowning cat that one time!" - never mind. Naruto bumps shoulders with Sasuke. "It was seriously funny, Sasuke."

"It was your fault!"

"Keep being loud like that and I'll kick you both out!" Ino gets up, hands immediately going to her hips. "Complain on your own time."

Sasuke and Naruto avert their gazes to the floor, thoroughly reprimanded.

"We - "

"Keep safe." Everyone freezes on the spot. All eyes fall to Sakura who, with clenched fists and set jaw, seems to be stuck in some sort of nightmare. "Kakashi-sensei...keep"

He moves to stand next to her bed, hand reaching out to stroke her messy hair. "I promise to keep them safe."


Sakura is awake now, Kakashi knows, but she doesn't open her eyes.


She opens her eyes after that and locks them with Kakashi's. They're still clouded, he notes. Still tired and still dull. He will make the suggestion for her to speak to a counselor in a private moment. Especially if he wants her to be okay. Sakura, he considers, is a particular young girl but she's smart and strong and he fully believes she will overcome.

She'd make a good sensei, he briefly muses.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto's there, shoving Kakashi aside without a care but Kakashi doesn't mind. He steps back some more for Sasuke to also be right up against her hospital bed and observes his team silently.

Sasuke doesn't like me, Naruto doesn't know how he feels about me, and Sakura wants me to remain their sensei. Minato-sensei will have them evaluate me in his presence and I could still very well be discharged from all services. If I remain their sensei, there will be no out-of-Konoha missions for a while. Months, even. There is the chunin exams which, in terms of skill, they are somewhat ready. Will Minato-sensei allow me to enter them in if I deem them ready? He watches Sasuke lean over and take Sakura's hand as gently as possible. A good, close-knit team has better chances of survival, but more to lose.

" - and there will be lots of cake!" Naruto cheers.

Kakashi blinks.

"We'll make sure there's a separate one for Naruto since he ate most of it last time," Ino replies instantly.


"It's okay, Naruto." Sakura is smiling, although it's small. "You can eat all the cake you want."

"We're going to discuss your mission," Minato begins when Team Seven is present and at attention. "I have read the report your sensei has provided but I want to hear firsthand of what you experienced after Sakura was separated from you. Sasuke, you may begin."

He sees Sakura's barely-there shift out of the corner of his eye and fights back a small smile when Naruto subtly grips her hand, her returning the grip with a fierce hold.

"The explosion that separated us knocked Naruto and I unconscious, injured Kakashi-sensei, and did not harm Tazuna-san nearly as much. Naruto woke up before me and demanded to go look for Sakura. When I woke up, I demanded the same." Sasuke hesitates. "Kakashi-sensei ordered us to remain at Tazuna-san's home because we were injured and had no leads to Sakura's whereabouts." He looks to Naruto for continuation.

"I was angry," Naruto starts immediately. "I wanted to look for Sakura-chan, but I wasn't allowed to leave. Sensei said we still had a mission to complete and it was our duty to carry it out."

Minato flickers his gaze to Kakashi who, upon being under it, averts his eyes to the floor. "Continue," he orders.

"Because we weren't allowed to leave, Sasuke and I sparred together. I said some...mean things and he was just as much of an asshole." Sasuke snorts quietly. Minato sighs at his son's language. "It took us a while to finally accept that Kakashi-sensei was right. If we randomly barged into an area demanding her return, she could have been killed." His free hand is clenched tightly, trembling.

"To compromise, I think," Sasuke takes over, looking at Kakashi, "sensei taught us tree climbing. Wave is a highly forested island so the lessons would greatly benefit us."

Naruto nods. "I didn't get it right away and ended staying outside all night. I met a boy named Haku. Turns out he's a hunter-nin and he worked for the guy after our client. He healed a couple of scratches on my face with a healing balm and we talked about our precious people and I, ah, mentioned that Sakura-chan was missing and he told me that if he saw her, he'd let her know where we were."

This foolish child of mine, Minato thinks while shaking his head.

But what goes from there is the fight that involves Naruto, Sasuke, and this mysterious Haku (whom Kakashi could not give many details on and neither, apparently, can Naruto) and the brief thoughts of Kakashi's fight with Zabuza.

"I remember saying Sakura-chan's name before passing out. I r-remember crying when I saw the condition she was in after waking up in Tazuna-san's home."

And that's how Naruto ends his speech. Eyes staring at the ground, one hand gripping Sakura's and the other now gripping the bottom of Sasuke's shirt.

"It was hard to see her in such a state," Sasuke states. "I didn't know how to react. She could barely manage a few words and she couldn't turn her head more than an inch or so."

"And would you place blame on your sensei for her condition?" Minato knows he's being cruel, but disregards the bitter feelings in his stomach.

"He's part of the reason, yes."

Stapling his fingers together, he nods. Sakura is looking at Sasuke blankly. "Who else is to blame, Sasuke?"

"M - "

"Me," Naruto states. "I'm the one who asked for a mission outside of Konoha."

"But as your sensei, Kakashi should have returned you three back to the village when he realized our client lied."

Naruto shakes his head. "I'm the one that demanded we continue and I was happy that we did until Sakura-chan went missing."

"And who do you think should be blamed for the condition you returned in, Sakura?"

Without letting go of Naruto's hand, she locks eyes with him and states, in a soft but firm voice, "Gato and his men."

"You do not blame your sensei? You do not have to feel a sense of loyalty to him, Sakura. He was in the wr - "

"Forgive me," she interrupts. "It's not a matter of loyalty, Lord Fourth. In the grand scheme of things, his actions were wrong but that mainly falls on the fact that Naruto, Sasuke, and I are classified as genin. I prefer to think that the outcome of the mission has greater weight than simply continuing it." She pauses to take a shaky inhale. "The Land of Wave was liberated, a tyrant was dealt with, what would have been a child sex-trafficking ring was foiled - the men involved dead - and needless violence and death were stopped. If anything, I should be thanking Kakashi-sensei."

Now that had her teammates staring at her in open shock, Kakashi included.

"He kept Naruto and Sasuke safe. That's the most important thing to me, Lord Fourth. Even above our client's well-being." Sakura reaches down to grab Sasuke's hand and he takes it without hesitating. "Yes, I was hurt. Yes, I was almost," she pauses briefly, "raped - " Sasuke and Naruto flinch simultaneously, " - and yes, I was almost strangled to death, but I would go through it again if it meant Naruto and Sasuke were safe. Kakashi-sensei did that. How can I fault him for keeping my teammates safe?" Her voice takes on a softer tone. "I helped a group of young girls regain their free will. I would never take that back."

Minato watches as Sasuke turns towards her, face pulled into a frown but eyes filled with too many emotions.

"I won't speak for Sasuke and Naruto but I think we can learn a lot from him and he could learn a lot from us." She ends this with a determined glance at Kakashi.

Her words leave him conflicted and isn't it just like Sakura to speak like this? Fugaku didn't express any outward concern for Sasuke while Mikoto shifted her worry between her son and his teammates. He remembers seeing Mikoto and Kushina close to tears when he arrived at Sakura's hospital room the first time.

"Team Seven will stick to D-Rank missions for the rest of the month. A minimum of five a week. Reports will be filled out by a different person each time and will be delivered to me in person."

"And Team Seven's leader?" Sakura asks.

"Hatake Kakashi."

She bows deeply, still holding hands with her teammates, and smiles her thanks when she stands back up straight.

"Now, I believe there's a party you three don't want to miss. You better get going."

Naruto's eyes go wide. "Sakura-chan, you can't be late to your own birthday party! My mom will kill me!"

"Not unless my mom kills you first!" Sasuke snaps. "You pinky-promised her, idiot!"

Minato smiles. These kids...

"Dismissed. Kakashi, remain behind."

He watches as Kakashi waves off the concerned look on Sakura's face as she's being led out of the Hokage's office.

"I'm still disappointed," he begins. "I truly expected better of you, Kakashi. These kids are extraordinary in terms of skill and bond. You are to guide them on the right path. It is your duty as their mentor. Sakura regards you highly, it's clear Sasuke doesn't have a high opinion of you, and Naruto is...indifferent, to say the least. Those boys will follow Sakura to the end of the earth as you are now very aware." Kakashi nods. "She intends to follow you."

"I will do better in the future, sensei. I swear."

"I will hold you to that, Kakashi." Minato picks up a sheet of paper. "You may have noticed that I didn't have Sakura verbally recount the details during the separation. She provided this for me. The boys have read this?"

"Most of it. They aren't fully aware of what happened to Gato or his men. They could not bring themselves to finish reading it."

"I see. In your opinion, how do think they fair mentally?"

"Sasuke and Naruto are okay, I believe. Sasuke informed me that he spoke to his brother about the mission and I believed that helped. Naruto has a close bond with Umino Iruka at the Academy and also spoke to him. As for Sakura - "

"She will need to speak to someone. I do not, under any circumstances, want a repeat of what happened at the hospital."

Kakashi crossed his arms over his chest. "She has agreed to speak to Yamanaka Ino's father, Inoichi. When? I could not tell you. She may approach him at some point tonight since her birthday party will be held at the Yamanaka compound."

"You approached her about it?"

"No, sensei. She approached me. I merely made the suggestion."

Naruto is smearing frosting all over Sasuke's face when Sakura pulls him aside. She doesn't seem as tense as she was the last few nights, her eyes no longer glassy and personality no longer detached. They are inside Sakura's home, cake testing, and Ino's loud laughter covers the yelling between Sasuke and Naruto. When they've decided on a flavor, they are to inform Naruto's mom immediately.

"I have nightmares," she starts. "If I tell Naruto and Sasuke, they'll become even more overbearing. It's difficult, sometimes, to speak to them about this. I even have a hard time talking to Ino."

"They are sympathetic, but they cannot relate."

"I don't ever want them too." Her reply is snappish but she apologizes immediately after. "I think I need to talk to someone. Sometimes, I feel like I'm drowning."

Kakashi reaches out and puts her head. "The first step to receiving help is to recognize you need it." He sighs. "We can talk if you'd like but I might not be able to give you the help you need. A licensed counselor would be a better option, Sakura."

Naruto screams when Sasuke tackles him to the ground and rubs poorly frosted cake all over his face. Sakura bites her lip. "I don't know, sensei. I don't want to speak to someone new."

Ino starts yelling at the boys to knock it off and then an idea strikes him.

"Perhaps, you'd be willing to speak to Ino's father?"

"Iniochi-san is head of Konoha's Tactical Department."

"Yes, but he's also counseled plenty of shinobi who have experienced difficult times in their lives. He's legally required to keep all information to himself."

She shrugs. "He's a busy man."

"You're the best friend of his only child. He'll have time for you." Sakura turns away when Ino calls her over. "And Sakura," she pauses, "if not him, then try to see someone soon, okay? Holding off on this won't help you."

"I will speak to Inoichi-san."


Her lips twitch into a barely-there smile. "I promise, sensei."

"I'm glad to hear that," Minato replies. "I worry for her - for them - and forcing her to speak to someone could have been disastrous." He blinks, vaguely recalling the time he tried to force Kakashi to speak to someone after - well, he won't go there. "Your D-Rank missions start tomorrow at 10 AM. Figure out a way to inform your students. Dismissed."

As the party carried on, Sakura felt more and more anxious. Twice now, she's attempted to escape her friends to speak to Ino's dad privately and both times were foiled by Naruto insistence that she comments on the cake his mom baked her - it's lovely by all means and tastes wonderful - and Ino's need to have Sakura within her sight at all times. Sasuke doesn't recognize this, only rolling his eyes every so often at something Naruto says.

The only one who seems to sense her discomfort is Sasuke's older brother, Itachi, who is there to watch over his brother and to give Sakura a gift. He kindly excuses her from the small group before leading her into the hallway. In the room across from the one she and her friends are in, the adults are gathered. Sakura can hear them chat just as lively.

"Inoichi-san?" Itachi asks her. "He is the one you wish to speak to?"

"Ever perspective, Itachi-nii," she whispers in reply. "But I don't want to be a bother."

He raises an eyebrow at her. "The person of whom the party is for is unhappy. That is a problem."

"It can wait until another time," she replies. "Everyone else is happy."

"Tonight is about your happiness, Sakura-hime."

She can't help but smile easily at the title that slips through his lips. Years of being told stories by Sasuke's older brother, of being addressed as such, reminders of her parents.

"It makes sense," her dad says when she tells him. "You, your mom, and Lady Tsunade are descendants of Lord First and Lord Second. It's a fitting title, Sakura. Itachi-san is a clever boy."

"What did Sasuke tell you?"

"He did not disclose details pertaining to you if that is what's causing you worry."

Sakura bites her lower lip. "Can you please get Inoichi-san?"

"Of course." He pats her head affectionately before entering the room holding the adults. Cheerful greetings of "Itachi!" reach her ears as Sakura moves a little further down the hall hoping for a bit more privacy.

"Sakura-chan?" She turns around to see the concerned look face of Ino's dad. "What's the matter?"

"I'm sorry for taking up your time, Inoichi-san, but I have a problem." Damn, tears are already building behind her eyes. "P-Please."

"Of course, of course. Do you want to go to my office?"

She nods, not trusting herself to speak.

It's going to be a long night.

Chapter Text

Chapter Six - Part Two

It's always one step forward,

Two steps back,

She keeps trying.

Sakura stares out the window blankly. It's well past midnight, her birthday party had ended hours ago, and she is spending the night with Ino. The moon gazes down at her in an almost mocking fashion, pale light cast over her like a beacon, as if to pinpoint her exact location for monsters to snatch her away.

Her conversation with Inoichi hadn't been pleasant at all. No matter what the man said or did, he could not keep her calm during the majority of their time away from the party. Trembling hands gripped her clothes knees tightly, tears left sticky trails down her face, and her words were a mess.

It was an utter relief when he suggests peering into her mind, if only briefly.

"I'm not going to force myself into your mind, Sakura-chan. As you are aware, doing so can cause terrifying damage. You need to be absolutely sure."

She was so sure she could handle reliving those memories.

"Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan, I'm so sorry. I'm so, so sorry."

But she was wrong.

"What c-can I do, Inoichi-san? I f-feel gross even though I'm clean." The heartbroken look on the man's face is enough to cause Sakura to look away. "Please, don't t-tell Ino."

"Of course not, but I will be honest will you. You need to allow yourself the chance to heal. Traumatic experiences are not something you can just get over and pushing them away won't make the situation better. In my professional opinion, you should seek a counselor. You need to allow yourself to feel all the emotions you feel. Don't push them away."

Sakura bites her lip. "I hate it. I hate feeling this way."

Inoichi holds his hands out in a placating fashion as he approaches her. "I know, I know. But I'm serious. Don't bottle up your emotions. If you get mad, you get mad. If you feel sad, you feel sad. Let your mind cycle through the entire process." He's standing before her. "I'm going to hug you now, okay?"

Being hugged by Ino's dad reminds her of the hugs her own father used to give her. It's not the same but it helps. It's tender and kind and wholly fatherly.

But now, in the quiet of the night, Sakura feels restless. Naruto left with his mom and half of the remaining cake, promising to not let it go to waste and not without reminding his teammates of their D-Rank mission the following day. Sasuke and Itachi departed shortly after with Sasuke promising to pick her up in the morning for breakfast out in the village.

Sakura glances down at her wrist where Naruto's present rests. It's a simple sterling silver bracelet with the word "lovely" engraved on it. The weight of Sasuke's gift rests around her neck, chain cool against her bare skin. The pendant attached to the chain is in the shape of a cherry blossom. Like Naruto's gift, the chain and pendant are both made of sterling silver.

Ino's gift is an entirely new outfit. Black pants with matching kimono-style blouse and dark red obi. The symbol of her known clan painstakingly sewn on the back by Ino's mother. It's beautiful and Sakura opts to wear it in the morning despite Ino's reassurance that she doesn't have too until her neck is completely healed.

The gift from Sasuke's older brother will be cherished right along with those given by her closest friends. Itachi's gift is a teddy bear. The same teddy bear that is resting on the window ledge across from her. It's dark red in color, with a large white bow wrapped around its neck, and black almond-shaped eyes. The word "princess" is embroidered on the bear's left foot.

She hears Ino shift in her sleep.

Sakura's eyes the teddy bear across from her. Itachi has a particular eye for unique - or cute - things and he knows Sakura rather well by now. She reaches forward and picks it up gently. Like the first time she held it, it's soft and plushie. Shaking her head at the silly thought. She holds it to her chest as a means of comfort.

An hour later, when she's thoroughly exhausted, Sakura crawls into bed next to Ino who, upon sensing her body heat, moves closer to her. Sleep doesn't come easy, but she feels safe in the presence of one of her most cherished friends.

I don't want you to feel ashamed of your scars.

Although, your hands need to heal properly, Sakura.

These should come in handy until then.


Black gloves, beautifully crafted, rest in a silver box placed on her kitchen table so that it's the first thing she sees when she enters her home. The material around the wrist section is plushy and soft to the touch. Sakura feels her eyes sting. She uses a magnet to keep the message attached to the fridge and spends a moment to smile at it.

After a pleasant breakfast with Sasuke, Sakura returned home to relax by herself. D-Rank missions will start soon and she won't have much time to herself. With a sigh, she picks up the gloves, stroking the material, and brings them to her room. She's quick to change into old clothing, tying her hair up after.

Grabbing her gardening tools, she walks outside and greets the garden. The leaves shake in welcome and the flowers, once sleeping, awake to greet her. The tiny flowers on the tree bloom happily. Sakura starts with the roses. She carefully cuts a few out to place in a vase for her kitchen table.

Sakura starts singing under her breath. "Let the flower bloom / Let the petals glow / Let the beauty shine / Don't let it go / Let the flower bloom / Let the flower bloom."

She feels the ground ripple in warning. Someone is on her property and is hiding in one of the trees nearby. Whoever it is, they don't have any intention to bother her. She allows them to observe. The weeds are pulled and the rose bushes are trimmed. The moment she steps to the sacred tree, Sakura feels at ease.

"Hello," she whispers. "I'm sorry for being dismissive in the past. I really missed you." Sakura spends a while peeling off the old bark to allow new bark to grow in properly. "I'm neglectful. I really am the worse." She looks up at the tree and sighs, disappointed in herself. "I will do better. I promise."

She feels the ground ripple beneath her knees and sighs in relief. Whoever was observing her is gone now. Observations don't bother her so much anymore. Sakura knows Naruto's dad sends people to check up on her from time to time. But the tree doesn't touch her until she's by herself. A rain of leaves falls over her. Comforting.

A single tear rolls down Sakura's cheek.

"Thank you."

D-Rank missions aren't so terrible in Sakura's opinion. They're rather simple, really. Chase after a cat and return the poor thing to its overbearing owner. They complete those tasks in less than 20 minutes. Paint a fence for an elderly couple. That's done in an hour. Babysit a group of kids for the afternoon. Give them something to stay occupied and everything is golden.

"- and then we get to walk Lady Tanita's dogs tomorrow," Kakashi states. "Wear old clothes because they are very strong dogs and are likely to drag you through the mud if you don't have the strength to restrain them."

Naruto groans. "Why dogs? Why can't it be snails?"

"That would be quite boring," Kakashi answer. "Besides, dogs are wonderful creatures and we are not worthy of being on the same land as them."

Sakura laughs lightly. "You must really like dogs, Kakashi-sensei."

"Oh, I love them. I'll never be ashamed of saying that. I have a dog summon but - "

" - if you had a dog summon, why didn't you send them after Sakura?" Sasuke's question destroys the calm atmosphere. Sakura closes her eyes briefly, exhaling quietly.

"If you would allow me to finish speaking, Sasuke-chan?" Kakashi's voice is much more quiet. "I haven't summoned them since the death of my teammate, Rin. It's been years since I've seen them and I didn't bring the scroll with me. If you want to call me careless, you may. It would have benefitted us on our mission in Wave."

Sasuke averts his gaze to the ground. "Sorry."

"Do you remember what I told you at the hospital? Don't apologize for feeling the way you feel. Especially when it comes to me." Kakashi cracks his neck. "We really need to work on our team relationship which is why we're going to do some team bonding activities."

Curious, Sakura speaks up, "What sort of team bonding activities?"

"Have any of you three played two truths and one lie?"

"Nope." Naruto pops the 'p' and then grins. "But I know what it is. We tell two truths and one lie and, like, someone has to guess what the lie is."

Kakashi nods. "Sounds simple enough, right?"

They gather in a circle on the ground under a large tree that provides just enough shade to keep them out of the hot sun. Temperatures have been spiking over the last few days and not many people spend their time outside if they can help it. Sakura still wears the gloves Kakashi has given her despite the heat. His reaction to seeing them on her hands brings a little smile to her face.

"I'll begin," Kakashi says. "I graduated the Academy at the age of 5. My best friend was an Uchiha. I pay for my own meals when I eat out with others."

"You didn't graduate the Academy at 5!" Naruto answeres quickly.

"Your best friend wasn't an Uchiha."

Sakura shakes her head. "You're both wrong. When have you ever seen Kakashi-sensei pay for his lunch when we go out to eat?"

"Who was the Uchiha?" Sasuke asks straight away.

Sakura sees Kakashi's hand, the one immediately out of the view out Sasuke's imploring gaze, clench briefly. "His name was Uchiha Obito and he died a hero." Something like recognition, and maybe regret, appears on Sasuke's face.

"Alright!" The false cheer in Kakashi's voice sounds ugly to Sakura's ears. "Since Sakura got it correct, she gets to go next. Be creative. Naruto and Sasuke know plenty about you."

She taps a finger to her chin. "Okay. I own every book in the Live and Love* series." Sasuke snorts. "The sacred tree in my family's garden is magical. I prefer dogs to cats."

"You do not own every book in the Live and Love series," Kakashi answers immediately.


"The tree is magical?" Naruto asks. "How?"

Sakura shoots him a secretive smile. "My mother once told me that the tree bloomed the day I was born; the moment I was brought to the garden. The blossoms weren't fully grown but they bloomed anyway."

"Shisui is going to be upset when he finds out that you like dogs over cats."

She shrugs, smiling. "He's the one who decided to enter into a contract with leopards."

"Does this mean Kakashi-sensei gets to go again?"

"Afraid so, Naruto-chan. Sorry."

As Kakashi thinks about what to say, Sakura takes the opportunity to nudge a frowning Sasuke and offer him a concerned glance. He merely shakes his head and nods towards Kakashi who, impressively, ignores the obvious.

"Okay. Here we go. I've been in love before. I own a pet cactus. I've been on more than a 1000 missions."

"You don't own a pet cactus," Sasuke replies quickly.


Sakura blinks. "What's being in love like, sensei?"

"Forget that," Naruto butts in. "Over a 1000 missions?! How? You can't, uh, be more than 25 or whatever!"

"I started my career at quite the young age, Naruto-chan."

Naruto isn't deterred in the slightest. "What about your parents, sensei? How can they be okay with that?"

Oh, Naruto. Sakura closes her eyes. They don't know.

"I never met my mother and my father died when I was 6."

The response is immediate. "I'm sorry for being insensitive, sensei."

Sakura watches as Kakashi leans over and pats Naruto's head good-naturedly. "It's alright, Naruto-chan. It happened a long time ago. I miss my old man but I'm doing better these days."

You lost more than I did and you're still standing. You're an inspiration, sensei.

"I believe it's Sasuke-chan's turn now."

Team bonding becomes a constant in Sakura's life over the next month. After every mission, Kakashi instructs them through an activity where he gets to know them on a more personal level. Some of those cases end on a serious note where Kakashi reveals bits and pieces of his troubling pass. Sasuke seems to loosen up around the older man the more he talks about Uchiha Obito who was also known as "The Most UnUchiha Uchiha to ever Uchiha."

"He was more like Naruto than any other member of your family I've ever met, Sasuke-chan."

They even learn about Nohara Rin.

"She was a dedicated medic nin and a great friend. Obito loved her so much he was ready to die for her. I loved them so much more than they were aware of and I regret, to this day, that I never made that apparent."

Learning about their sensei really opened up Team Seven's eyes. Obito was tardy so their sensei is tardy - Sakura knows he visits the memorial stone - and Rin liked to read a lot so their sensei reads a lot. His material may not always be the most appropriate but Sakura won't pick on that.

"Who was your sensei?" Naruto asks during a cooldown from gardening. The sun is glaring down at them with a vicious anger. "Was he lame? Was he ugly?"

Kakashi stares at him. "You're joking, right?"

"Um, why would I be joking?" Naruto tilts his head to the side, genuinely confused. "Are you embarrassed by your sensei, sensei? Was he really bad at being a sensei?"

"Quite the contrary," Kakashi replies slowly. "He was, and is, a very good sensei."

"Oh, what does he do now? Is he retired or something?"

Kakashi's chuckle has Sakura very curious. "Quite the opposite, Naruto-chan. He's the most important person in the village."

There's something utterly fascinating about watching as Naruto's eyes slowly get bigger and bigger. "W-Wait! Wait just a damn minute! Dad?! My dad was your sensei?!"

"Yes? How can you not know this, Naruto? There are pictures of myself and my former team in your house."

Naruto shrugs. Kakashi's visible eye twitches. "Sorry, sensei. I just never really paid attention to the pictures on the wall. I'm usually with Sasuke or Sakura-chan most days."

"I don't know if I should feel insulted or not." Kakashi shakes his head. "When you get home tonight, ask your dad about his genin team. You might learn something interesting."

"What sort of team dynamic did you have?" Sakura yawns into the palm of her hand. "Sorry."

Kakashi waves her apology off. "We were much like all of you, but it took us a while to reach a point where we could fully rely on each other. The disappointing part of that is that we didn't come to that until the end of our time together. I suppose," he pauses to stroke his masked chin, "that's one thing I'm envious of when it comes to you three. You've come together long before my team and I did."

"I hope we can reach that point soon." Sakura doesn't pay attention to the various looks sent her way. "I like the idea of a team becoming a family."

"We'll be like one big family," Rin says followed with a giggle. "Since we're all oddballs of our families. We'll fit right in together."

"Sounds good, Sakura-chan."

Sakura bumps into Hyuga Neji while he's out with his younger cousin, Hinata, a few days later. Having little contact with Hinata but being placed in Neji's class during their days in the Academy, she's at ease with the boy. She hasn't seen much of him since their graduation, but, from what she recalls, he was a great conversationist.

"My apologies, Neji-san. I wasn't paying attention to where I was going."

The boy helps her right herself before letting go. "No need to apologize, Sakura-san. It was a simple accident." Neji bends down, along with his cousin, to pick up her fallen groceries. "I hope these are still usable." There are a couple of bruised lemons and peaches.

"Lemon cobbler and peach pie it seems." Sakura smiles faintly. "Though, I'm not much of a sweet tooth person." She blinks. "Unless, of course, it's dango."

Neji chuckles. "Sakura-san, I don't know if you remember, but this is my cousin, Hinata. Hinata-sama, this is Haruno Sakura. She was a classmate of mine when I attended the Academy."

"Pleased to meet you, Hinata-sama." Sakura takes the offered hand, marveling at the delicate skin, and shakes it. "I hope today has been pleasant for both of you?"

"On the contrary," Hinata states, before sighing, "it's been rather stressful." She shares a look with her cousin. "The elders of our clan are already speaking of marriage arrangements and it hasn't been a pleasant conversation with any of them."

Sympathy fills Sakura's heart. The situation surrounding Hinata is a delicate one. For one, Hinata is clearly not seeing proper training at home. Her hands are far too smooth and that speaks a lot to the lack of proper training. For another, if Hinata's genin sensei doesn't pick up with their training, Hinata will not stand a single fight. Of course, while the Hyuga are not nearly as misogynistic in their views of women as the Uchiha are, the need to keep the young girl confined benefits the clan because she remains soft, delicate, and pretty. Pretty enough to marry her off.

Sympathy is replaced by annoyance. The entire situation is not fair.

"As a shinobi, you're far too busy to be worrying about marriage."

"I wish our elders would see it that way, Sakura-san." Hinata hugs herself, eyes on the ground. "I feel as though my only freedom comes from spending time with nii-san and my younger sister." She shrugs, forcing a smile. "Well, that's enough of that. We," Hinata motions between herself and Neji, "heard you went on your first C-Rank out of Konoha. How was that?"

"You are not to mention mission details to anyone aside from a select few people," Lord Fourth states. "Not only would this cause an uproar among other genin teams, but would lead to unnecessary complications for our entire village."

Sakura smiles politely. "It was a simple escort mission, Hinata-san. There isn't much to say other than Wave is dark and gloomy and I have no desire to return at any point currently."

Hinata's girlish giggle is not enough to distract her from Neji's calculative look.

He knows I'm lying.

"Yes, Wave does seem to be a dreary place."

"Perhaps, not worse than Earth Country in this case." Sakura shares in Hinata's contagious laughter.

Sakura tilts her head thoughtfully. "We should get our teams together for a spar. I think it would be a good experience for all of us."

Neji nods slowly, but his express remains much of a calculative type. "Gai-sensei claims to be Kakashi-san's greatest rival so he'll be more than ecstatic at the idea of our teams sparring."

Hinata nods. "I'm not sure were Kurenai-sensei stands with Kakashi-san, but I'm sure she would agree to a friendly spar. Especially if it means Asuma-san will be there as well." She giggles again while Neji rolls his eye skyward. "There's something going on between them. It's endearing, to say the least."

"I'm sure it is." The two girls smile at one another. "Unfortunately, I really must be going. Put in a word with both your senseis, alright?" They nod together. "I bid you both a pleasant day."

"Goodbye, Sakura-san!" Hinata calls out.

"Good day," Neji states.

Sakura has Ino stay the night before Team Ten is sent on a trades run to an outpost two days away. They make dark hot chocolate loaded with wipe cream, sprinkles, and chocolate truffles. They braid each other's hair while discussing their teammates and senseis respectively. It's like they're kids again.

They play cards, Ino helps her clean up around her house, and then they make their way to the roof to watch the stars. It's a comfort to know that Ino will only be gone for less than a week, that her team will have additional jounin assigned, and that things are likely to run smoothly.

"Come back safely," Sakura says anyway while her head rests on Ino's shoulder. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you."

Ino nods as she rests her head on top. "I promise." Their pinkies connect after that and stay that way until they retreat to bed.

The following morning, bright and early, Sakura sees Ino off along with Ino's parents. Ino's hair, short and ruffled by her father, glows in the morning sun. Aside from her eyes, it's her most beautiful physical feature. They hug tightly and makes promises to meet up as soon as she gets back.

Sakura watches, along with Ino's and the rest of Team Ten's parents, as her friend and comrades leave with the promised extra jounin.

"How have you been, Sakura?" Inoichi asks after his bids his friends a 'good day' and walks on one side of her as his wife walks on the other side of her. She thinks they did it on purpose, but makes no outward sign of being uncomfortable or upset.

"As well as I can manage, Inoichi-san."

"Do - "

"Sakura-chan," Ino's mother cuts in smoothly. "Are you free this afternoon?"

Nodding, Sakura turns towards the woman. "Flower arrangements, Yana-san?" She smiles a little when a pretty flush appears on the older woman's cheeks.

Yana smiles sheepishly. "Only a few this time, but I need to be in the flower shop today and Inoichi has to leave for work soon."

"I can spare some time, but I have to meet with Kakashi-sensei and my teammates by 12 PM."

Yana waves her off, smiling morphing to an easy grin. "It's only a few arrangements, I promise."

"Okay, Yana-san. I would love to help."

"Thank you."

Sakura doesn't notice the exchanged looks over her head.

"Are we really babysitting a bunch of brats?" Naruto whines. "Those kids get handsy with Sakura-chan!"

Sasuke nods. "They're seven and nine. They know what they're doing." He glares at the floor when only silence meets their statements.

"Sakura won't be with you two today," Minato replies easily. "She has a separate mission today."

"Oh," Naruto responds. "Doing what?"

Minato grins. "Paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork."

Sakura remains unmoving nor is she bothered by the conversation around her. There's someone on the outside of the window in the Hokage's office. Whoever it is, they're containing their chakra like a lifeline. It's clear that both the Hokage and Kakashi are aware of whoever this person if. Subtle shifts in demeanor give them away.

"That sounds boring."

"Oh, it will be." Minato sends an apologetic look towards Sakura. "It's confidential, but she will meet up with you three later. Depending, of course, on how fast she gets her work done."

Naruto groans. "Sorry, Sakura-chan. I'd take babysitting over paperwork any day."

"We'll meet up later," Sasuke states. "For dinner."

Sakura nods. "Have fun." She grins a little. "Try not to pick on the kids too much, okay?"

"No promises," Naruto and Sasuke mutter under their breath.

"Dismissed," Minato's voice is full of merry. "Naruto can write the mission report." Kakashi and Sasuke manage to drag a protesting Naruto out of the room. "Now, Sakura, this is a list of papers that need to be copied and filed correctly. You'll also be filling out a checklist of damages and replacements." Sakura steps forward and takes the paper, looking it over for a moment.

"Permission to speak, Hokage-sama?"


Sakura folds the paper and puts it in her hip pouch. "Why have you assigned me a separate mission? This list is rather long. It would be quicker with teammates."

"Because I choose too." She frowns. "Because half of the paperwork that needs to be filled out and filed relates to your family."

"My family?"

Minato nods slowly. "Property, mostly. Not just the Haruno compound, but what's also in storage. You need to go through it all and much of it can't be accessed by those outside of the family. I don't expect you to get through it all today, but you need to within the month. It's quite a bit."

"May I ask another question?"

"Of course."

"Why did you wait until now to tell me about this?"

Minato laces his fingers together as he rests his elbows on his desk. "I think you know why, Sakura." His sky blue eyes flicker to the remaining marks on her neck and her gloved hands.

Sakura averts her gaze to the floor. "I appreciate your kindness, sir, but I'm not a fragile person. Going easy on me won't benefit me in the slightest, not in this career." She bows. "I will have a report for you when I'm done." She dismisses herself, rudely, and leaves the room.

A feeling of anger bubbles under her skin.

I'm not fragile.

I'm not fragile.

I'm not fragile.

Sakura starts sifting through the large boxes brought to her once she entered the large, empty meeting room. Plenty of the boxes have sealed scrolls in them so she sets them aside. Others have notes and books, personal or really old, and none of them could be open unless they have the blood of a Haruno flowing through them.

And then there's a box full of books and scrolls so old, Sakura's almost afraid to pick them up. Almost. The first book is a personal journal. As clear as day, it was well-loved (or well-used) by whoever owned it. Curiosity getting the better of her, Sakura picks it up gently, blows off the dust, and looks at the lock.

A little chakra could open it. It's technically mine, she thinks. But it's been in the family for years. With a little pulse of chakra, the lock snaps open. Placing the book on the table, she gingerly opens the cover to the first page.

Property of Senju Tobirama

It takes everything in her to not slam the cover closed. She flips the next page as gently as she can. There are long passages that describe life during the Warring States Era, about the Senju family in general, much focusing on the eldest of the Senju children, of a cousin names Toka, and much to do with the Uchiha. She skims the pages briefly, telling herself that she'll go back and read them thoroughly.

The further she goes in the book, the less it talks about life and experiences. Experimental jutsu' start popping up. Concoctions and chakra related exercises soon follow. There are doodles and sidenotes, plenty is scratched out and revised.

Great grandfather was a genius. This is something learned in the Academy. But how did this end up within the Haruno storage? Why wasn't it placed with the things that belonged to Great Uncle? She shakes her. I need to keep these safe. In the wrong hands, this could cause disaster.

"Do all of these belong to him?" Sakura wonders out loud. There are several journals, each with experiments or notes. Some go off on tangents of the Uchiha. Great Grandfather did not like the Uchiha, or he was just incredibly distrustful of them. Flashes of Uchiha Fugaku appear in her mind. He's cold, but a good man. Mikoto-san and Itachi-nii and Shishi-nii are kind. Sasuke is one of my best friends. If Great Grandfather saw the Uchiha today, would he still feel the same?

Sakura places the books back in the box. "I will take these home." She starts writing down her findings, being careful to leave out anything involving the Senju.

The night before Ino and her team are due back, Sakura has a nightmare. It leaves her choking on her own saliva, sweat-soaked clothes sticking to her like a second skin, and eyes red-rimmed with unshed tears. She throws her sheets off her body and walks out of her room.

Her feet carry her to a familiar, but unexpected place. Sakura slowly opens the door to her parent's bedroom. The air is stale and furniture covered with a thick layer of dust. She walks in, closes the door behind her, and moves towards the balcony. A dusty picture frame catches her eye as she moves past; Sakura plucks it up.

Once on the balcony, she takes a ginger seat in one of the two plush chairs. Some old leaves crunch as she sits down, but Sakura doesn't care one bit about them. She'll shower later anyway and do laundry later in the day. Swiping a hand across the dusty picture, Sakura stares down with mixed emotions.

The picture was taken during a picnic her mother planned as a surprise. She and her parents are squashed in the picture, smiling without a care in the world. There's frosting smeared on all of their faces and some dirt and twigs are in her hair. She remembers that day well - rolling around on the ground, feeling the earth's gentle caress.

Sakura hugs the picture to her chest. "I miss you both so much." Something brushes against her cheek. Looking up, Sakura smiles a little. A vine, with tiny little flowers, is hovering before her. "Thank you." She rubs her eyes and yawns, feeling tired and awake all at once (a tired body with an active mind).

"You haven't been sleeping well," Itachi comments while he and Sakura sit off to the side as Naruto and Sasuke spar. "Do you want to talk about?"

Sakura gathers her hair over her shoulder, sighing as she does. "Sasuke really didn't tell you what happened in Wave?"

"He said you were taken and seriously injured - I've been to your hospital room - but didn't provide more than that. There's a certain level of privacy placed on higher ranked missions, even if the missions don't start out that way. Not even I am privy to certain things."

"I was almost violated." Sakura pauses to suppress a shiver. "I killed a lot of people, nii-san."

Itachi doesn't outwardly react aside from the clenching of fists. "I'm sorry, Sakura-chan."

"I suppose all I can do now is learn to live with it." She shrugs, trying to stay nonchalant.

"And these?" Itachi takes her gloved hand and raised it to inspect them. "They're new."

Sakura nods. "A gift from Kakashi-sensei." She pulls her hand away and takes off one of the gloves to reveal her scarred hand. "They'll heal with a special balm Inoichi-san gave me but it will take some time. I don't mind it, though. I like the gloves."

Itachi reaches over and traces over one scar that crosses from thumb to wrist. "Scars are a part of everyday life, but your gloves conceal what you're not ready to show."

Sakura pulls away and puts her glove back on. "I think they're ugly. I go to sleep with the gloves on sometimes."

"They're not ugly."

"You're emotionally obligated to say that because of our relationship, Itachi-nii." She smiles a little when he taps the center of her forehead. "Don't think you can distract me."

Itachi smiles. "Nothing gets past you, Sakura-chan."

Chapter Text

WARNING: A very brief mention of suicide.

Chapter Seven

One step forward, two steps back.

Going through her parents old belongs takes a toll on Sakura's mental health, but she doesn't mention this to her teammates, sensei, or outside friends. She also brushes aside the concerned looks and questions, faking a smile so they would back off. She really hates herself sometimes. Ino has come over twice since being back, but even she knows when to not push Sakura.

"We are worried," Ino tells her. "But I know you don't want to talk about it. We're here if you want to talk or if you need a shoulder. You know this, right?"

"Of course," Sakura replies out loud while opening another box of scrolls. "You guys care too much, it seems. I don't know what to do with that sometimes." But no one is here with her now. Sakura rubs at her eyes. It's nearing midnight and she's hardly made a dent in the boxes.

There's a knock on the door. "Sakura, are you still in here?" She expects it to be the Lord Fourth, but then familiar red hair makes an appearance when the door opens all the way. Worried violet eyes meet Sakura's own tired green. "Sweetie, it's almost midnight. Why are you still here?"

"Kushina-san," Sakura acknowledges quietly. "I have too much to get through before I can stop. The next D-Rank mission myself and my teammates go on won't be until 2 PM tomorrow." She looks down. "We're dog sitting. I can sleep in or something. I'm okay. I promise."

Kushina steps in fully, frowning as she does. "Sakura-chan, I'm dragging my overworked husband home right now. I'm sure he will understand that you can't get much more done tonight. Working yourself to exhaustion won't benefit you in any way. You know this, sweetie." The woman walks forward and, in a slow motion - as if to let Sakura back away if she wanted too - with narrowed eyes, she taps the area under Sakura's eyes. "You're developing eyebags. You're too young to be developing eyebags."

"I have a hard time sleeping sometimes, Kushina-san. I'm working on it."

"Honey, I'm ready - Sakura, why in the world are you still here?"

Sakura closes her eyes when Naruto's dad shows up. "Good evening, Lord Fourth. I'm sorting through my parents' belongs like I've been told to."

Minato holds up his hand. "One, it's Minato-san when I'm off duty. You know this. Two, this is silly. You're not obligated to get this done in the first week. I gave you a month to get through everything. You shouldn't even be here right now. Goodness, you look exhausted. You're not sleeping well, are you?"

"I'm working on it," Sakura repeats her earlier statement. "And I'm going to start counseling soon." Even though 'soon' isn't really soon. That seemed to put both adults at ease. "It's something that I've decided to do recently."

"May I ask what caused you to take the step?"

Sakura shrugs as she starts packing up. "A conversation here and there, Minato-san. I know you guys worry so much so I want to ease those worries."

That, apparently, is the wrong thing to say.

"Sakura, you need to seek help because you want too. You're not obligated to do so, it's only a suggestion because you came back really hurt and what happened is not something easily forgotten, but I wouldn't order an evaluation." The 'even if I wanted too' goes unsaid.

"I know, sir, but if I don't then everyone remains worried. I'm not foolish. I know what I look like when I see them."

Minato sighs. "So, I've been informed that the teams are gathering for a friendly spar? Do you look forward to that?" It's a change of subject Sakura greatly appreciates.

"Very much, sir." Sakura starts placing boxes on the shelves to be sealed in place until a more suitable time. "I'm sure Sasuke and Naruto are looking forward to it as well."

Kushina giggles. "Honestly."

Being the only girls among the large group, Hinata and Tenten take too Sakura and Ino like flies to honey. The boys - mainly Kiba and Naruto and Neji and Sasuke - size each other up. A boy clad in a green jumpsuit marches right up to Sakura and grabs her hand.

"May I have the name of such a beautiful girl?"

Sakura blinks twice. "My name is Haruno Sakura. Who are you?"

"Honestly!" Tenten forces the boy to let go of Sakura's hand, shoving him away in the process. "Stop being creepy. Sakura, this is Lee. Lee, this is Sakura."

"Pleased to meet you, Flower."

Sakura freezes. "Lee-san, please don't call me 'Flower.' Sakura or Sakura-san is just fine."

Lee must have seen something in her eyes because he bows and apologizes immediately. "I'm so sorry, Sakura-san. Please, forgive me!"

"It's alright. And thank you," she smiles a little, "for understanding."

He salutes her. "Of course, Sakura-san!"

"Alright, alright!" Kakashi steps forward, clapping his hands. "That's enough mingling amongst you all. We're going to split you into pairs and take turns sparring. We have the whole day to do this."

A pretty woman, who earlier introduced herself as "Yuhi Kurenai," steps forward and smiles kindly at all of them. "You'll be observing each other, noting strengths and weaknesses, and whatnot. We'll discuss these spars at the end. There will be a sort of point system. Since the group is rather big and we don't actually want to be here all day; the first to 20 hits wins. That, or you have 30 to 40 minutes."

"Critiquing," Shikamaru confirms. "Sounds troublesome."

Sakura and Ino share an amused look.

"Shikamaru will be with Tenten," Asuma throws out, grinning around the cigarette hanging unlite from his lips. "Maybe she'll get you to move more."

"Wonderful pairing!" Gai boosts. "Lee will pair with Shino!"

"Yosh!" Lee raises his fist in excitement.

"Kiba will pair with Naruto." Kakashi plops his hand down on Naruto's head. "Try not to kill each other, please." Naruto and Kiba share a vicious grin. Kiba's dog, Akamaru, barks happily.

"Hinata will be paired with Sasuke."

Sakura feels Hinata shrinks behind her and reaches for her hand. "It'll be alright. Go all out on him and he'll return the favor. Try your best." Hinata nods slowly.

"Ino will be paired with Neji."

"Sweet," Ino mumbles. "He's hot."

Sakura rolls her eyes. "Don't get distracted, Ino."

"Of course not," Ino grins. "Hot or not, I'm gonna' kick his ass."

Asuma steps forward. "Which leaves Sakura with Choji. You know your partner now. Go seat with them."

It's a unanimous, yet unspoken, agreement that the afternoon was fruitful and - dare he says it - fun. Hyuga Hinata requires a rigorous training regimen, but Sasuke can see a lot of potential in her fighting style; something that is unique from the traditional Hyuga fighting style. He feels the burning stare of her cousin on his back but ignores it. He knows what it means to be overprotective.

Naruto's fight with Kiba was a good laugh. The two of them took the fight seriously, but their banter made it difficult for practically anyone to take either of them seriously. Sasuke rolls his eyes. Both are nursing several bruises, but are sharing a good laugh over it. The white puppy is even sitting on Naruto's lap.

Ino's fight with Neji really surprised everyone, but not necessarily in a bad way. While the Hyuga clearly has better agility, Ino wasn't a top student for nothing. She gave as good as she got, landing minor blows on Neji, but ultimately succumbed when she attempted to use her clan's jutsu on the boy. Even so, she laughs good-naturedly when she wakes up and thanks Neji for being a good sparring partner.

True to his word, Asuma was right about Tenten getting Shikamaru to move. As in, run for his life because Tenten is a maniac. As in, she throws weapons as well as she breathes and Shikamaru gets hit. He loses within half of the time period given. Everyone laughs.

Shino's and Lee's spar is hilarious. Far funnier than Shikamaru's and Tenten's. Lee is fast, Sasuke notes quickly, a clear taijutsu master. Taijutsu and only taijutsu. That seems to be his specialty. But, ultimately, Lee loses. Who knew the boy could be so afraid of bugs crawling all over his body. Sasuke suppresses a shiver. He wouldn't handle that well either. Either way, Lee accepts his defeat gracefully and assured Shino that their next spar will be better.

The fight between Sakura and Choji is great fun. Sasuke should be more self-aware and not doubt the plump boy's speed. He really is impressive and, judging by how Sakura reacted, he's a good fight. She wins in the end. Getting 20 hits in and knocking him out cold with the last one. Of course, Sakura being Sakura, she waits for him to wake up before thanking him for a good spar.

There are promises to meet up regularly after that.

Sakura enjoys her tea quietly. It's been a peaceful morning so far. The sky is empty save for a few birds here and there and she's expecting company later. Under Ino's gentle pressure and Tenten's strong encouragement, Sakura will be hosting "Girls Day." Something that has the boys scoff and their senseis smile as if someone told a joke.

There's tea brewing on the stove, cookies baking in the oven, and a select few board games on the table off to the side. Ino mentioned playing War at some point since there's a better chance of her winning with another person. Her home is cleaned, there are fresh flowers in a vase on the table, and not a single crocked picture frame.

Her front door opens. "Sakura-chan, we're here!" Trust Ino to always feel welcomed in her home. Sakura smiles a little and gets up to greet her friends.

"Welcome," she says as she walks into the living room. "I'm in the process of making tea - "

"And cookies," Tenten inhales deeply. "Chocolate-chip~"

Sakura laughs a little. "They're almost done. Please, make yourselves comfortable."

"Thank you for having us," Hinata replies in her soft, sweet voice. "It's been tiresome at my home so this is a much-needed break." They smile at each other. Sakura has full intentions of forming a strong friendship with these two girls. Strength in numbers and whatnot.

The teapot whistles. "I'll be right back."

"I've never seen a home so clean," she hears Tenten say. "How does she manage?"

"She's a neat freak," Ino answers. "Everything has a place except dust and dirt."

"This takes dedication."

"I like it," Hinata says. "It's homey. Well lived in. Well-loved."

Sakura can't help but smile at that comment. She does try very hard to keep things up and going around her property. Especially if only to keep the memory of her parents going. The tea is ready, the teacups already out and waiting, and the cookies look ready as well. She spends a moment setting everything up before bringing a tray to the table. Ino is in the seat next to her, Hinata across from her, and Tenten at the diagonal.

"Is this white tea?" Hinata asks.

"It is."

"My goodness."

Tenten blinks. "What's wrong with it?" She picks up her cup, gentle blows on the liquid, and takes a sip. "It tastes fine to me."

"White tea is among one of the most luxurious teas in existence," Ino states. "Normally served among high leveled politicians."

"Then why are we drinking it?!" Tenten quickly places her cup down.

"I grow it in my garden," Sakura states calmly. "It's a specialty among my clan. Although, I would appreciate it if you would keep this to yourselves. I don't particularly want to face a possible demand for it." She picks up a cookie. "Next time, we'll have black tea. I don't actually grow that in my garden."

Hinata giggles quietly. "Your secret is safe with us."

"Thank you."

Tenten was hanging over Ino, both laughing carefree. Hinata's red face is covered by her hands, but even her shoulders shake with the hilarity connected to the situation. Sakura has her eyes covered, but she's smiling. Their conversations have jumped topics for hours. They've moved to the living room, choosing not to play a board game and started discussing their teams.

"A-And," Tenten manages, "Lee got so confused, but still said N-Neji had the most beautiful arms he's ever seen! Neji w-was so red, he actually skipped out on training that day. He never does that. Gai-sensei was as confused as Lee. They b-both were concerned when I couldn't stop laughing."

"I remember that. Father, Uncle, and I were sitting outside when he came home. We could never figure out what embarrassed him so much."

Ino sucks in a deep breath. "I won't lie, Hinata. Your cousin is very, very pretty. Like, extremely so. His hair is very, very pretty. He takes great care of it. Anyone can tell."

"Be careful what you say to him," Hinata calms down. "He doesn't like being called pretty."

"Oh, I'll be careful." Ino waves her off. "I mean, he could always cut his hair."

"No!" Tenten waves her hands dramatically. "Don't even suggest that. It's too pretty. The prettiest. I would probably cry if he did." She slumps against the couch. "You know, you have a pretty teammate, Sakura. The Uchiha boy. He's really pretty. All dark hair and dark eyes. He's quite the looker." She's leering. "Any interest?"

Sakura blinks, confused. "Interest?"

"You dating?"

"Sakura and Sasuke? Good luck." Ino laughs. "Although, Uchiha children with pink hair sounds appealing."

Shaking her head, Sakura smiles a little. "Sasuke and I have a strong bond, Tenten, but we aren't like that. I can't speak for him, only for myself. I'm not interested in relationships right now. I only want to advance in my career and protect those important to me. That's it. Romance and other related things can wait. And they will. For a long time."

"It's good to have priorities, Sakura." Hinata idly picks at a loose string on her hoodie. "I wish my family would allow me to focus more on my chosen career as opposed to troublesome things like marriage."

"Goodness, you sound like Shikamaru." Ino sobers up quickly. "But I honestly don't get why they're pushing for a marriage contract so soon."

"Because they deem me as a failure. My younger sister can beat me in a spar and I have difficulty mastering many of my clan's signature jutsu'."

Sakura looks at her hands. "That's because your family doesn't take your training seriously. Instead of encouraging you if you fail, they look down on you. It's not right. A family shouldn't be treating a member - their heiress - that way. It's disgraceful. I would expect more from a noble clan."

"I'm really trying too," Hinata states. Her eyes glisten with unfallen tears. "Nii-san helps when he can, but our schedules are different and I don't want to take time away from him. The first time someone outside of my family took me seriously was Sasuke-san. Even Kiba and Shino hold back during spars."

"Then we start training together. Outside of our teams." Sakura crosses her arms over her chest. "I think we can learn and grow together. Bonds are important."

"Oh, Girls Day can become that. Training together could be fun."

"Do you mean it?" Hinata looks hopeful.

Sakura smiles kindly. "Absolutely."

"You're too kind, Sakura."

Kakashi silently observes his student. Each of them lost in their own thoughts. Today's D-Rank missions consisted chasing after a group of bunnies that belong to the pet store in the civilian distract and babysitting the children of a visiting politician. Both missions were uneventful. Boring, frankly. They left the four of them sluggish and annoyed.

"Alright!" He claps his hands. "Let's play a game."

Naruto yawns. "What game, sensei?" He's leaning on Sasuke's shoulder, eyes barely open to indicate his sleepiness. "Does it involve moving? I don't want to move."

"Afraid so, Naruto-chan~" Kakashi claps his hands again. "Up, up." When no one moves right away, his visible eyebrow twitches. "Or I can make you get up. Remember, you're stuck with me today for as long as I deem it. I could go find us several more D-Rank missions?"

Sakura sighs, shifting from her position next to Sasuke. "Yes, sensei. Of course, sensei." She gets up, smiling a bit at her boys when they both groan. "Up, guys. I don't want to chase after more animals today."

Rather, Kakashi thinks, they'll be chasing you.

"We're going to play tag."

"Tag?" Sasuke asks, frowning as he gets up. "Why are we going to play tag?"

"Agility training," Kakashi replies easily. "I want to see how fast and how long you guys last against your opponents."

Naruto yawns. "Opponents?"

Kakashi pulls out a scroll, opens it to reveal a summoning seal, and lays it on the ground. As he performs the hand signs to summon his ninken, he stares up at his students. One eyebrow raised when the familiar poof of white smoke appears.

"Hey, boss."

"My cute little students, meet your opponents for the game. This one is Pakkun," he points to the pug, "and these are Urushi, Bull, Shiba, Bisuke, Akino, Uhei, and Guruko. Guys, these are my adorable little students. Uchiha Sasuke, Namikaze Naruto, and Haruno Sakura. We're going to play tag today." He sees Pakkun sigh and rolls his eyes. "It's their job to avoid all of you at any cost for as long as they can. There is no time limit for now. If I think we've gone on long enough and not all - or none - of them are caught, then I'll stop the game."

Sasuke snorts. "This is sadistic."

"It's training," Kakashi corrects, sniffing hotly.

"So, we just chase these brat pups around until we catch them?" Pakkun asks. Naruto's yell of "Hey!" brings a smile to Kakashi's face. No one can see it though.

He nods. "That's the plan."

"Alright. Get in formation, guys." The dogs line up in front of Kakashi and wait for the order.

"Are my students ready?" He sees them tense. "Alright. On your mark," he sees Sakura brace herself for a leap, "get set," Sasuke tenses, "Go!" Naruto leaps ahead of them, taking for the trees. His students split up, something he wasn't entirely expecting, causing his dogs to split up.

Pakkun and Bull chase after Sakura. Shiba and Urushi chase after Sasuke and Naruto, unfortunately, gets the remaining three after himself.

"I'll give them an hour before they're caught." If they last longer than that, I'll be impressed.

Sasuke dives behind a wall and watches, breathing as controlled as he can get it, as the two dogs after him race by it. He can feel the sweat running down his back. It's a particularly hot day and to be running as he is, Sasuke shakes his head. There's no time to lose focus. Those dogs will find him soon enough.

Unless they're toying with him.

"Why is my darling little cousin hiding?"

It takes everything in Sasuke not to jump. "Go away, Shisui. I'm playing one of my sensei's sadistic games." But inside of leaving like he had hoped, Shisui just casually throws an arm around his shoulders and ruffles up his hair just for the hell of it.

"One of senpai's games? Let me're being chased by his dogs?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Sasuke tries to shrug off his arm. "Did you have him as a team leader or whatever?"

"Certainly." Shisui grins. "Senpai usually takes the role of team leader on missions. Whenever we have downtime during a mission, he would summon his dogs and have them chase us for his own amusement. He's kind of an asshole, really, but he stopped after a while. You really lucked out, kiddo."


Shisui's grin morphs into a smirk. "Be glad it's not raining." He flares his chakra brightly. "And you better run."

"I'm telling nii-san," Sasuke growls as he leaps out from behind the wall as soon as the howls are heard.

Naruto pants heavily bent over his knees. "Damn, Kakashi-sensei." His hair is greasy from sweat. He ditched the top part of his orange outfit half an hour ago to confuse the dogs. They bought it, briefly, before giving chase once again. Naruto is currently on top of the Hokage building.

"Naruto, what in the world are you doing?"

He snaps right up. "Dad! Hi!" Naruto scratches the back of his head. "Um, Kakashi-sensei is having us play a game with his dogs."

His father's face twists in confusion before settling. A quirked eyebrow followed by an amused smile is sent his way. "Are you playing tag?"

Naruto snorts. "It's hardly tag, dad! Those dogs are crazy. Hell, Kakashi-sensei is crazy!" He tries not to twitch at the stern look for his 'inappropriate language.' "Sorry, dad. I've been running for forever. Those dogs don't know when to give up!"

"You seem tired," his dad comments. "You can hide in my office for a bit. I have a meeting in a couple of hours, but you're welcomed inside. The AC is working too."


"Yes, son. Really."

Instead of throwing himself at his dad, Naruto grabs his hand and starts dragging him towards the side of the building where they can hop through the window into cool air and calmness. Gosh, he wants to take a nap. "Man, I'm tired. Today was so boring. Babysitting is boring, dad. And chasing bunnies. How much longer do we have to do this?"

"Another week and a half," comes the cool reply. "And then I might send you on another mission outside of Konoha. A quick one. Barely two days. We'll see. Whose supposed to be writing up the mission reports today?"

"Sakura-chan!"Naruto doesn't see his father glance where the two dogs are hiding.

He smiles in their direction. Even the dogs of his former student know better than to disrupt his office. Besides, it's not cheating. He's simply providing a resource - his office - until further notice. Naruto may not be aware of it, but Kakashi will figure it out soon enough.

When she made it to a safe distance, Sakura climbed one the large trees of another training ground. She easily maneuvers between thick branches and fluffy leaves. The trees help her as well, weaving together to make it nearly impossible for the dogs to find her, to follow after her.

"Kakashi-sensei can be cruel, can't he?" She says to a group of leaves to her left as if they can reply. "It's really hot today and we had to chase after bunnies and babysit. It's rather boring. I can't wait for these missions to be over." The branch above her rests gently on top of her head. "Thanks." Sakura laughs a little.

She settles against the base of the tree comfortably. "Looks like I'm taking a nap. Don't let them get me, please."

When his dogs come back empty-pawed (because saying empty-handed would just be silly), Kakashi is surprised. He silently expects Naruto to be among them and Sasuke soon after. Sakura, he assumed, would have the best of luck because of her ability to adjust to nearly any given situation.

"What happened?" It's been a little over an hour. "How did you lose them?"

Urushi flops down in front of him, rolling to his back. Kakashi crouches and scratches his stomach. "We chased the Uchiha pup to the civilian market and he made use of a spice cart." He turns away, groaning in the only way a dog can. "Chili powder is torture. I can't smell anything properly. He took off after that. We tried to keep him in sight but he disappeared among the civilians. It was a busy day in the market."

Akino huffs. "Your former master let his pup into his office to hide."

Kakashi shakes his head. "That's cheating."

"Tell me about it." Akino pushes against his hand. Kakashi complies with a head ruffle.

"And Sakura?"

Pakkun steps forward, scowling in frustration. "She climbed a tree. The further she climbed up it, the more difficult it was to follow her. It was like the tree was helping her out. Eventually, we just couldn't get to her. She was completely covered by leaves and branches. I think she fell asleep by the way."


"Looks like you guys failed."

"How will they know about the game being over?"

"When they decide to come find me," Kakashi replies, shrugging. "For now," he reaches into his pouch. "I have treats for you all."

"You're a good master, boss."

The kids do end up meeting up with him a few hours later, each refreshed from either a nap or cool down. They apologize to the dogs, Sakura even laughing when they're dog piled and declared losers. It's said in a joking manner. Even Sasuke laughs a little despite getting dog slobber on his face.

All in good fun, the kids pet the dogs and enjoy their time together.

"Sakura-chan?" Kakashi calls out when the kids gather to leave. "A bit of your time, please?"

"I'll meet you two at the ramen stand, okay?" Naruto grins and nods. Sasuke looks unsure, looking back and forth between his teammate and sensei. He nods slowly when Sakura bumps his shoulder comfortably. "It'll be okay. I'll be headed there in no time."

"Let's take a small walk," Kakashi offers. "Just a lap around the clearing."

"What is it that you wanted to talk about, sensei?" Sakura runs a hand through her long hair. "Was my performance displeasing today?"

Kakashi shakes his head. "On the contrary, you're rather clever. Though, Sasuke and Naruto were very clever today as well. Chili powder and hiding in the Hokage's office, I'm a little impressed. Even if one of them cheated."

"Sensei, you're delaying." She's not offended, but her curiosity is building.

"Are you seeing a therapist?"

Sakura freezes, looking up at him with wide eyes. "I spoke to Inoichi-san on my birthday, sensei."

"And you've only spoken about it once?" He carefully reaches towards her face, action slow and deliberate, and taps the delicate skin on her left eye. "It's purple here. You're not getting nearly as much sleep as you should be. This can be the result of many things, but it's rather clear you're attempting to simply push the situation during Wave away."

Her fists clench, but the black material of her gloves keep her nails from biting into her palm. "Sensei, I don't want to focus on it. It only causes unnecessary derailment towards my goal of being a good shinobi and a good teammate."

"You can't possibly be either when you're not taking care of yourself, Sakura."

He feels a little bad when she flinches.

"I don't want to waste time with someone who will only make me speak about things I'd rather forget."

"Therapists can't force you to do anything you don't want to, Sakura. If you walk in and refuse to speak, then you refuse to speak. A therapist is specially trained to handle situations with or without talking. Making the effort to go, even if you don't speak, isn't wasting your time either. Or theirs. You may see it that way, but that's not the case."

"It's hard. I can't bring myself to speak to Ino or the boys about it. I've known Sasuke's brother for years, and I trust him a lot, but I can't even speak to him about it."

Kakashi plops his hand down of her head, sort of burying his fingers into her pink hair. "It's easy for some and difficult for others."

"Okay, sensei. I will seek someone out." He narrows his eyes at her defeated reply.

"If that is the case, may I refer you to someone?"

"You know someone, sensei?"

He pulls her closer and pats her head, they start walking again. "Of course, Sakura-chan. He was, after all, my therapist at one point."

His name is Shirunai Genma and he's a former member of the Hokage's elite guard, now a therapist. Usually to veterans, but Kakashi states that he's a good friend and a good listener. He also states that Genma is easy going and never pushes. He knows the possible issues any shinobi can face.

Sakura takes one look at him and finds herself calm in his presence.

"You're Kakashi's kid?" She almost corrects him on instinct but calms herself when she recognizes the playful glint in his eyes and the way he casual chews on one end of a large senbon needle.

"Good afternoon, Shirunai-san. My name is Haruno Sakura and yes, I am one of Kakashi-sensei's student." She bows formally.

Genma waves away her formalities. "Take a seat, kiddo, and let me find your file real quick. And relax. I'm not for overly stiff formalities and I certainly don't want to be called Shirunai-san. Genma or Genma-san is fine." He shuffles through some folders on his desk before thrusting one into the air. "Found it." It's a thick folder.

Sakura suspects that a lot of her life is in that folder, not just relating to the Wave mission.

"Let's get started with the basics, kiddo. As you know, my name is Shirunai Genma. I used to work directly with the current Hokage but quit that about a decade ago. I wandered in-between tasks a non-active duty shinobi can take and decided to stick with this. Let's see, I'm 29 years ago and I'm not married. Is that enough to break the ice?"

She smiles a little. "Yes, Genma-san."

"Great. Now, tell me about yourself. Whatever you're comfortable with."

She bites her bottom lip briefly. "I graduated the Academy at the age of eight, I have a love for gardening, I like eating dango, and I read a lot."

"Good, good. I got your file here, but before I look into it, I want you to tell me why you want to be here."

"If I don't start working on my problems now, I won't become a good shinobi and I will become an unfit member of my team. This is necessary."

He stares at her before shrugging. "Good enough for me, kiddo. We'll look deeper into that as we start meeting regularly." She frowns but makes no comment. "Anyway, let's get through the important nitty gritty bits first." Sakura shifts at his serious look. "First and foremost, whatever is said in this room between you and me, whether it's good or bad, or even just about your day, stays in this room. That only changes if you give me written permission to discuss this outside of this room. Do you understand?"

"Yes, Genma-san."

"Good. Next, you are free to discuss previous or current suicidal thoughts. As I just mentioned, nothing leaves this room unless you give me permission. Discussing suicide does not make me red flag you. I'll listen to everything you say, I will make suggestions, and we'll move on. We're still clear?"

She nods.

"Third, you are not required to show up for our meetings. You have to make the conscious decision to come or not. Either way, someone is still paying for the time. I would suggest coming to our meetings even if only to discuss your day. You are also not required to stay for the full meeting. If you happen to be assigned a mission, a small heads up would be appreciated."

Sakura exhales quietly.

"As is the case with previous charges, you're not required to speak during our meetings. I can talk a lot and fill the silence like a personal mission of my mine. If you walk through that door and say you don't want to talk and decide to take a nap on the couch, that's fine with me. If you want to read a book instead, that's fine with me. If you don't want to talk and you don't want me to talk, that's fine too. Trust me, kiddo. We all have shit days and sometimes we just want silence."

How many times did Kakashi-sensei just show up and say nothing? The question is on the tip of her tongue, but she holds back.

"Finally, you're allowed to get angry and throw shit." Sakura blinks. "Sounds strange? Well, kiddo, it happens. Getting angry at yourself for the 'what ifs' and 'what should have beens' happens a lot when the talking gets deep. Getting mad at other people is justified. In other words, react naturally. If you get mad and want to throw shit, get mad and throw shit. I'd rather you do it in a controlled environment than disrupting the peace. If you break down, well," he lifts a box of tissues off his desk and shakes them, "these are here for a reason. If you want to stop talking, we'll stop talking."

"You're incredibly casual about this, Genma-san."

He grins. "Some people just need a place to vent and fuck shit up, kiddo. I provide the place."

Sakura finds herself returning the smile despite his crude words. "Do you pay to repair the damages?"

"Hell no, kid. I let others fix that. Now, let's create a schedule."

She thinks things will start looking up now.

"I like him," Sakura tells Kakashi a few days later. "He doesn't push and he's working with my schedule. He's also a little odd and likes to curse, but I like that he doesn't care what others think of him. Thank you for referring him to me, sensei."

Kakashi's visible eye crinkles indicating his smile. "I'm glad, Sakura-chan. Genma is an oddball, but people generally like him rather quickly. He's easy going and suited for the job. A lot of people didn't expect him to be so good at it, but, in times of war, everyone picks up new skills."

"Do you know why he retired from active duty, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Yes, but it's not my place to say. Build up some trust before asking him personal questions. It may not seem fair currently, but you never know. Our village is very odd and many unseen things can happen." There's something secretive about his word selection, but Sakura doesn't call him out on it.

"Can I - I mean - May I ask how long you saw him before...stopping?"

"You may," Kakashi pulls out his signature orange book. "On and off for three years. You need to keep in mind that I'm active duty. Even as your sensei, I'm active duty. If I received orders right now to leave on a mission, I would have just enough time to find you a suitable substitute before I left."

"I see," Sakura replies slowly.

Kakashi reaches out and pats her head. "You'll be okay, Sakura-chan. Now, what sort of schedule do you have set up? I need to know so we can work out a training schedule since the mandatory D-Rank missions are coming to an end."

"Oh," Sakura looks over to where Naruto and Sasuke are arguing over where to eat lunch. "Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. 8 PM to 10 PM."

"That late in the evening?"

She nods. "Training with the girls - Ino, Hinata, and Tenten - in the morning until we meet up, training and, or, missions with the team, personal reflection and training for myself, and the time in-between before starting my sessions."

"When do you start?"

"This Friday."

Flipping a page in his book, Kakashi nods. Satisfied. "That's good, Sakura-chan. Do the boys know?"

"They will find out today. They've been worried. Everyone has been - "

When Ino bursts into the clearing, startling Naruto and Sasuke to the point of tripping over themselves, and heads directly for Sakura. She bends over her knees, gasping for breath. "S-Sakura. Sakura, you need to get - " She inhales deeply. "Sakura, your compound is on fire!"

Sakura's heart stops for a moment.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

She's going to work on it.

She races for her home with little regard to her teammates, their sensei, and Ino. The moment she steps foot out of Training Ground 3, the black smoke is easily seen. It almost looks like a tornado with the way it twists up into the sky. She pumps chakra into her feet and takes to the roofs to get there faster. Sakura barely comprehends the familiar chakras directly on her tail. The cries of "Put the fire out!" grow louder as she draws near. She sees a variety of people. Different clans and civilians. Some using water-based jutsu to try and put the fire out while others run around with buckets of water.

Her is compound is nearly covered in flames. Save for the entrance to her home, Sakura cannot see where the fire begins and where it ends. Her heart pounding against her ribcage, she comes to an abrupt stop. The ground is rippling in agony; as if to cry out in pain. She hears shouting. She sees familiar faces.

The sacred tree! Sakura thinks suddenly, a sick feeling pooling in her stomach. My pictures! She makes a foolish choice then. One that will surely get her into a lot of trouble. She can already picture the sort of face Naruto's dad will make when he learns of this. Without looking around, Sakura darts forward, dodging the hands that reach out to stop her. There are cries for her to stop. Cries that tell there's nothing in her home worth risking her life. Sakura ignores them.

If she loses those pictures, she'll have nothing left.

Black smoke greets her along with extreme heat. Sakura looks around her living room, sees what's not on fire, and leaps over the couch darting for her bedroom. The moment the door is open, Sakura jumps out of the way. Flames lick at her bare knees but she pushes the pain aside. Some burns in exchange for the remaining items of her parents? She'll take it. Sakura can barely make out her bedside table. Using her dresser to avoid the floor, Sakura dives over her bed and grabs the only framed picture on it, holding it close to her chest.

She coughs. The smoke is thick, black, and she feels like an idiot. There's a ripple in the ground followed by the sound of something crumbling. Sakura squints through the smoke and flames and sees a hole in the wall. There's a ridiculously large tree root retreating into the ground. She sends a silent 'thank you' to her sacred tree. Sakura runs through the hole, hissing when fire kisses at her arms. The guest bedroom isn't nearly as bad as her bedroom. Sakura uses the bed to get to the door.

Raising her shirt to cover her mouth and nose, Sakura runs for her parent's room. She prays for a miracle. She prays that the pictures at the bedside table are okay. The moment Sakura opens the door, she slams it shut. The entire room is engulfed in flames. A helpless feeling crawls over her skin. Her coughing grows worse, her eyes stinging. The cover of her shirt doesn't protect her much. Just as she turns to run down the hall for the exit, a sharp crack is heard and the roof is caving in. Large chunks of wood and plaster fall from above. In a split second decision, she throws herself backward.

Sakura can't see five feet in front of her. She starts coughing. It's incredibly violent. Thick smoke fills her lungs; tiny tears trail down her face. How could she have been so stupid running into a burning building as she did?! She starts crawling backward, one hand still clutching her family picture to her chest. Her back meets the wall. Flames lick at her skin. The pain is building. By God, it hurts. She coughs. She can't see anything.

I don't want to die, she thinks desperately. I'm not ready to die.

"Sakura-hime," a voice to her left calls out to her. It's urgent and even sounds frightened. A cool material is wrapped around her. A blanket of some sort. Sakura feels herself being picked up. "You foolish girl. You foolish, foolish girl."

She places the voice a moment later. "N-Nii-san," she chokes out. The spike in Sasuke's older bother's chakra is almost comforting. "Save t-the s-sacred tree. Gard-den. Please." She wheezes. "Please." She attempts to inhale and gags.

"Stop talking. You'll make yourself sick."

Everything that follows is a blur for the most part. Sakura doesn't recognize she's outside until she hears too many voices at once. Her shaky inhale has her coughing again. She hears someone yell for everyone to "Back off! Give her room to breath for God's sake!" Sakura is rolled to her side when she gags again, dry heaving towards the ground.

"Why would she do that?!"

Sakura cracks her eyes open, hissing at the bright light that greets her.

"The tree," she croaks. "N-Nii-san save my tree." A fresh wave of tears rolls down her ashed covered cheeks. "P-Please."

"What is she talking about?!"

"Tree?! What tree?!"

"The one in the garden!"

In the distance, Sakura can vaguely hear Naruto call out her name. There's a shout from Sasuke quickly followed by Ino. A cool hand is pressed against Sakura's face, covering her eyes. She sighs in relief. It's a stark, but welcomed, contrast to the heat she threw herself in. "You foolish child," a male voice, much older than Itachi's, states. "Your intelligence is widely known and yet you do something this reckless." Chakra washes over her, cooling her body.

It doesn't stop the ache of her burns nor the pain in her throat, but it's enough that Sakura thinks she'll be okay.

"A f-fool I may be," Sakura struggles to say, "but e-even fools know that certain t-things can't be replaced." The hand is lowered from her face. She spends a few moments attempting to open her eyes. It's a difficult task. When Sakura does open her eyes she flinches at the bright sunlight and breathes slowly. Her throat hurts.

Finally, she looks into the eyes of the person who helped her.

Sakura has always sort of liked Neji's father and Hinata's uncle. Among the famous Hyuga twins, Hyuga Hizashi is seen much more around Konoha than his twin brother, the leader of the Hyuga clan. The man, during her Academy days, would always be right outside after classes ended for the day, standing under the same tree every day. He was really polite with the other parents and even to the children. She has spoken to him maybe four times in her entire life.

She didn't know he was some sort of medic nin.

"Hyuga-sama," she acknowledges. It's said in a raspy voice.

"I was a friend of your father," the man states, pale green glowing hand moves to rest on the side of her neck. Sakura allows the touch while maintaining eye contact with the man. She hasn't spoken specifically to anyone regarding her parents in a while. Not even to the boys or Ino. The parents of her friends have backed off a year or so ago. "And while I never had the pleasure to really know your mother, I knew of her skill."

Sakura blinks slowly. "Why are you telling me this, Hyuga-sama?" Her throat no longer hurts. Breathing is much easier.

"Because you were their only child and the possible loss of your life would have been very unfortunate." There's an unfamiliar emotion in his eyes. "And I don't mean the Haruno clan's genjutsu abilities."

Slowly, like moving through the fog, it clicks. Or, she thinks so. "I apologize for being reckless."

Hizashi stares at her before shaking his head. "You don't understand, but you may one day. Hopefully." He looks over her shoulder. "I healed what I could, but I'm not a trained medic. She needs to go to the hospital. I stopped the bleeding from her burns as best I can. See to it that she receives proper treatment, Itachi."

The arms around Sakura tighten briefly. "Of course, Hizashi-sama."

Pale eyes return to her face. "You'll be answering to a lot of people, Sakura." A sort of smirk appears on his face. "Our Hokage seems quite displeased with your actions." His eyes flicker over her shoulder again. "I would advise you to take her directly to the hospital, Itachi. Allow her to collect her thoughts before she's confronted. Your brother and their teammate are barely being held back by Kakashi."

Sakura wants to know why this man speaks so informally for being from such a highly regarded clan. He never spoke to her like this in their brief conversations when she was younger. For all the politeness she has observed, she was always under the impression that the Hyuga - much like the Uchiha and Aburame - were full of stiff members who only spoke when spoken too.

"Thank you for aiding her, Hizashi-sama." Itachi lifts her up effortlessly.

Sakura clutches her family portrait to her chest. "Be honest with me," she starts before Itachi can walk away, gaze staying firmly on the man, "is the tree in my garden gone?"

"It has stuffed great damage," the Hyuga answers honestly, "but it still stands."

She nods, turning her face away to bury against Itachi's chest, taking comfort in his strength. "Thank you for being honest." There's no reply and Sakura doesn't expect one.

"To the hospital, Sakura-hime."

Closing her eyes, Sakura doesn't reply.

"The burns were healed save for the ones on the back of her knees. The skin is typically thin and tender there and requires some more extensive healing. The nerves were damaged badly. The process is tedious and takes a longer time to do despite the small area. Other than that, she did inhale a lot of smoke. The swelling of her lungs has been reduced thanks to Hyuga Hizashi, but she'll need to stick to liquids and liquid-based foods for at least three days. That, and some mandatory rest would be all she needs to make a full recovery."

Minato nods slowly, blue gaze firmly planted on Sakura's sleeping form. The look on her face is that of someone who is going through a nightmare. He has a few ideas of what those nightmares may be. His son is speaking quietly to their other teammate. Both of the boys are sitting at her bedside; one peeling an apple with a small pocket knife while the other is gesturing to something in the book in his lap. From his angle behind the glass window, he can't read lips. Whatever it is, it seems important. He'll store that away for now and ask Naruto later.

The moment he dismisses the nurse, Minato sighs. "Report," he tells the figure that suddenly appears at his side.

"As you suspected," Inuzuka Tsume states immediately. "There were several accelerants all over the house ranging from gasoline to straw. My dogs could smell them miles away. Whoever did this wanted us to believe that she left the stove on while out but I have seen various ways a fire that size can start and there's absolutely no way it would have spread the way it did. They were careless or maybe they want to fool us. Also, whoever did this was looking for something. The bedroom of which we assume belonged to her parents was torn apart before the fire started. The dresser was knocked over and the bed was flipped against a wall." She sighs. "There are several sealed compartments under the floor in that room. Some seem to be tampered with, but accessing them was useless."

He tears his gaze away from the window. "Sealed compartments?"

Tsume nods. "I cannot tell you how, but the fire did not seep into the ground. The area around these sealed compartments are burnt to a crisp, some parts already caving in, but the area of the seal is fine." She cracks her neck easily. "Mebuki was particularly gifted in sealing - something she and Kushina had in common - and she would do anything to protect her family and their secrets."

"I am of the belief that those involved with the murder of Sakura's parents also did this." He sees Tsume clench her fists out of the corner of his eye. "Was anything salvaged?"

"Everything in those sealed compartments, a few books, and aesthetic pictures were taken off the wall. They're damaged, but not horribly so. The rest of the compound collapsed shortly after she was taken to the hospital. Too many broken dishes and burnt clothes."

Tsume moves pass him a little, lifting her hand to press against the glass. "I used to hold her when she was a baby." She turns around and leans against the window, arms crossing over her chest. It's a very casual appearance, but Minato can easily see the tension in her shoulders. "Mebuki was a good friend. One of my closest friends and someone destroyed her home and took nearly everything away from her daughter. What happens to her now? Where will she live?"

"That's her choice. I already have three families - myself included - who are more than happy to take her in, but it's ultimately her choice."

"She may choose to live on her own."

Minato sighs. "That's what concerns me."

"She's a target now, Hokage-sama. Someone is after something she may unknowingly have. We need someone to watch over her."

When Sakura is released from the hospital one week after her home was set on fire, with no one sugar-coating the condition it is currently in, she heads directly to what was formerly the Haruno compound. At her side are her teammates and Ino. Sakura knows Kakashi is keeping a distance by hiding between rooftops and trees. She very briefly caught a glimpse of him in the shadows.

The collapse of her compound shows her tarnished garden save for a couple of white rose bushes that somehow managed to survive the fire and the half-burnt tree. Sakura sucks in a shaky breath, forcing back tears at the sight of something so precious to her hurting so much. The ground ripples under her feet, acknowledging her sorrow. Sakura approaches the tree and places her hand on the damaged bark.

"I need to remove this bark so new bark can grow in its place." She turns to them. "Will you help me?"

Ino nods, eyes flickering between Sakura and the tree. "Absolutely." Sakura appreciates that Ino doesn't ask any questions. Naruto moves to her side, taking her hand in his as gently as possible.

"We're going to help you, Sakura-chan." Naruto looks determined. "No matter what."

"Thank you," Sakura replies. "I need to check the," she breathes heavily, "the compound as well. To look for anything that may have survived the fire." Realistically, she has already been told that what was salvaged was already placed in holding for her to pick up.

She is super lucky to not bring most of her family's important documents home; opting to keep them in storage until further notice.

"I'm going to start checking around your...compound," Sasuke states. "That way we start killing two birds with one stone." Sakura turns away at Sasuke's choice of words knowing he just wants to help and nods.

"Thank you, Sasuke."

Naruto moves past Sakura, hands on his hips. "So we just...start peeling it off?"

"Yes," she replies. "But be as gentle as you can when you do it."

"Okay," Ino claps her hands. "Let's get to work."

Minato stares up at the man before him, fingers entwined with his elbows resting on his desk. "This is a delicate situation. It is highly possible that she will be targeted next. Whoever committed the murder of her parents did not bother to hide their mess, but rather make it apparent, and recent actions have made it clear that someone within the village is after something the Haruno clan has or knows information about."

The man bows his head. "Of course, Hokage-sama."

"I'm trusting you to watch after her," Minato replies seriously. "There are very few Haruno left, save for the ones in Iron and they have made it clear," he lowers his eyes to the letter on his desk, eyeing it with disgust, "that they want nothing to do with her."

"Because of her father's marriage to a civilian," the man states, annoyance clear in his voice. "There are some terrible people in our world, Hokage-sama. Those who abandon family in their time of need are some of the worst."

Lifting his eyes, Minato regards the man silently for a moment. "This is not how I wanted to bring you back into the service, but you did state in your request for a leave that your return to active duty be gradual."

"This is fine, Hokage-sama. My wood-release could restore her compound and the other buildings on her property."

Minato sighs. "Very few people know about that. I'd rather keep it that way, but ultimately it's her choice on where she goes from here. And yours. She's very attached to the tree on her property so she may take you up on that offer."

"When do I get to meet her?"

"In a few days." Minato smiles a little while patting a single folder on his desk. "Everything is in here. also a student of Kakashi."

Silence - "I have to deal with senpai?"

"Yes, but I believe you'll be a good addition to their group, Yamato."

Yamato sighs. "Senpai won't hesitate to tease me." Then he blinks. "Do you not trust senpai to look after her himself?"

"I do, to a degree, but you'll come to learn the struggles of the group soon enough. And there is, however, another matter we must discuss before I dismiss you." The seriousness on his face brings Yamato to stand at attention, ever concerned about his Hokage.

Minato crosses his arms over his chest. "This will take a bit of time, but it's necessary."

"Yes, Hokage-sama."

"There are another one of those seals over here!" Naruto calls out. "In fact, there are no scorch marks touching it at all. The seal looks pretty intense." Sakura sees Naruto frown down at the ground. "I recognize some of the symbols used. My mom has been teaching me about seals, ya' know? Something about me being half Uzumaki." He shrugs.

Sakura walks over to him and they both crouch. "Can you tell me what you know?"

Naruto nods. "This one means protection." The symbol he points to looks similar to Yin-Yang. "Probably to protect whatever it's hiding from things like fire or water or bugs. These are security symbols." He points to the small markings - similar to crescent moons - surrounding the outer layer of the seal. "These are high class, too. I've only ever seen them on dad's important documents."

"What could your parents be hiding, Sakura?" Ino comes to crouch next to Sakura. "My dad uses symbols like these. Only highly important documents require such a level of security. Your family isn't exactly very big, to begin with."

"Every clan has it's secrets," Sasuke calls from behind all of them. "My clan uses similar seals. Especially my father and brother. Only a member of the clan can deactivate them." He moves around them and stares down at the seal. "A little bit of chakra should do it. There are some more over there and a few in what was your bedroom. Or your parents. I can't, uh, really tell." Then he crosses his arms over his chest. "This is a personal matter, Sakura. Clan secrets are classified. If you want us to leave, we can."

No one must know of your heritage. It's as if the statement was whispered in her ear. Sakura swallows before replying. "I need you guys to leave me for a bit." She licks her lips. "I would appreciate some boxes though."

"I'll go get you some boxes!" Naruto jumps up. "Come on, Sasuke!" Sakura watches, mildly amused, as Naruto drags a sputtering Sasuke away.

She tenses briefly when Ino places a hand on her shoulder. "I have to meet up with my team soon. Send word when you have living arrangements sorted out. My home is always open."

Sakura places her hand over Ino's and squeezes. "Thank you, Ino."

"No problem. I'll see you later."

The moment Ino is gone, Sakura turns her head towards the sacred tree and sighs. "Attempting to use genjutsu on me is silly, sensei. Like the Uchiha, my family specializes in it. I could see right through it the moment you cased it. Sasuke probably noticed as well." She had seen him shift, glancing at the tree with an unimpressed look, earlier.

"Mah mah, Sakura-chan. No need to be mean."

"Not being mean, sensei."

Kakashi flashsteps right next to her. "You missed your meeting with Genma on Friday, but don't worry," he says quickly when Sakura's head snaps up, "he is aware of the situation. Will you meet him tonight since it's Monday?"

She nods. "Of course. I didn't mean to forget, I - "

"Sakura, it's alright. Given recent circumstances, he understands. Things like this aren't new."

How often is someone's home set on fire? She wants to ask.

"Someone was looking for something in my home," Sakura whispers after a moment of silence, "and I'm positive it relates to whatever these seals are hiding."

"Are you going to send me away like you did the boys?" Kakashi pulls out his book, form slouching just a bit. "Because I can leave if you want. I'm just here to make sure things are okay for you and to inform you, and the boys, of our new training schedule."

Sakura looks down at the seal again. She wants to activate it and see what's underneath, but it wouldn't be fair to allow Kakashi to stay after sending the boys away to collect boxes for her. "Tell me the training schedule and I'll relate it to Sasuke and Naruto, but I do need you to leave, sensei."

"Of course, of course. Starting tomorrow, 8 AM to 11 AM, 1 PM to 5 PM, and 6 PM to 9:30 PM."

"Alright," Sakura chooses to not question the almost strange schedule, "I'll inform the boys."

Kakashi reaches forward and pats her head. "You'll be okay." She doesn't have to ask him to clarify what he means. "As for now, have you picked a place to stay until you make any permanent living arrangements?"

"When I lost my parents, I bounced around the homes of my friends." Sakura pauses. "But I'm sure you know that already." He cocks an eyebrow at her pointed stare. "It will probably be the same."

A moment of silence, and then - "You are aware that this situation won't be dropped, Sakura? Someone deliberately set your home on fire to cover up that they were looking for something. More than likely, it's what's under those seals. Because they could not get past them, they opted for an 'easier' way to access them."

"Whoever did it caused too big a reaction, sensei. They setup accelerants all over my home. They knew this place would be watched after the fire was put out."

"Yes," Kakashi nods, "but it's in-between moving what is sealed from one location to another that makes it easy for the culprit."

Sakura looks away. "I see. Then, I suppose, it would be safer if you were here."

"That's your choice," he replies. "I won't look nor ask about what you discover. Those boys will be back soon."

"They will be moved to storage until further notice." Sakura places her palm on the seal, sending a spark of chakra to it. "Sasuke says every clan has its secrets. My clan is no different."

Kakashi watches, silent as ever, as Sakura dutifully places sealed scroll after sealed scroll into one of the boxes the boys brought back before Sakura dismissed them with a half-hearted shrug and a promise to meet up later. He didn't bother informing them of their new training schedule, leaving that to Sakura. He also doesn't offer to help her remove them from the container under the ground and she doesn't ask. There are a grand total of seven sealed locations across the scorched floor of the once beautiful home. Four of them are clustered in what he believes was once the bedroom of her parents.

"This is the last one, sensei." Sakura closes the box and taps it shut. "Thank goodness Sasuke remembered to bring tap along."

"Thank goodness, indeed," Kakashi replies while forming hand signs at a quick speed. Two clones appear. "We'll carry these ones and you take that one. I'll follow you to storage and then leave you to meet up with Naruto and Sasuke."

Sakura blinks up at him. "That's a B-Rank jutsu, sensei."

"That it is," he answers. "Not something I should teach you given your current rank."

"'Should'?" She smiles a little. "There's a possibility."

He grins behind his mask, picking up a box as he does. "It all depends on the result of your training over the next month." They start walking away from the rubble, almost casually but not quite. "Some big things are coming up and I need you and the boys to be prepared."

"Like what?"

"You'll find out soon enough," he responds. Depending on your mental state by that time, I may not enter you three into the exams after all. Naruto and Sasuke won't do it without you. "For now, focus on caring for yourself."

She snorts. "Sensei is being purposely cryptic."

"My darling student should take her sensei's words seriously." Kakashi shifts his grip on the box he's holding. "And don't forget about your meeting tonight. But if you happen to run late, bring Genma some dango. He lets go of grudges pretty easily when offered something sweet."

Sakura laughs a little. "That makes two of us, sensei."

Itachi silently observes his brother. He can't help but worry a little at the way Sasuke almost violently sharpens his tanto - a recent gift he bestowed his brother - while lost in thought. It had been this way for the last hour and he's concerned that Sasuke might accidentally slice his finger being so lost in thought.

"Otouto, I believe your tanto is sharp enough." He frowns when Sasuke starts, blinking over at him as if he didn't realize Itachi was only a few feet away. "Perhaps, if you still feel the need to care for your weapons, you should move on to your kunai. Some appear rusted. Those should be replaced."

Sasuke looks down at his tanto, eyes the crisp sharpness, and places it back in its sheath. "Forgive me. I have a lot on my mind and recent events haven't really helped." When Sasuke doesn't meet his eyes after that, Itachi slides closer. "Things haven't been - they haven't - and I don't know how I feel about it."

Like any good older brother, Itachi waits for Sasuke to gather his thoughts. "Take your time." The silence rains on for several minutes. Itachi watches, mildly amused, as varying emotions flicker across Sasuke's face. Frustration. Annoyance. Worry. Sympathy.

"What," Sasuke starts quietly, "do you know about the Haruno clan?"

Raising an eyebrow, Itachi takes a moment to collect his thoughts. "Their genjutsu capabilities surpass that of our own clan, there are living members residing in the Land of Iron, and you are the team of Konoha's only member of the clan. Why do you ask?"

"Sakura's hiding something," Sasuke replies. "I think it's...dangerous."

"And you've come to this conclusion because of what happened to her home?"

Sasuke nods. "There were several seals on her floor. What was left of it, anyway. And I know," he states quickly when Itachi opens his mouth, "that every clan has their secrets, that they're entitled to them, but I...worry, I guess. Sakura has been closed off much more lately. I don't think she even realizes it."

"A lot has happened since you, her, and Naruto were placed on a team, Sasuke."

"One wrong thing after another," and yet, Sasuke shifts uncomfortably.

Itachi looks down at his lap. Unlike Sasuke, who brought his weapons to the open area at the entrance of their home to sharpen them, Itachi merely choose that spot to read a book. The sun's bright light is countered by the cool breeze that drifts by every now and then.

"Have you expressed your concern to Sakura?"

"And add unneeded worry to her already worried mind? No thank you, aniki. Sakura's guilt for reacting subconsciously is not something she needs right now. Or ever, to be honest."

"Just be her friend, Sasuke. That's what she needs the most. Drifting away happens when you lose someone or something important to you. Give her time and things should be okay."

Sasuke looks down at his hands, fingers clenching he's tanto's handle briefly, before relaxing. "Yes, aniki." He leans forward and taps Sasuke forehead. The small smile on Sasuke's face is worth so much more than everything Itachi owns.

Sakura walks into Genma's office and sits on the couch across from his desk. She doesn't speak and he doesn't greet her. His head is bowed over his desk, pencil flying across a seemingly important document. Sakura can make out bold words - 'Evaluation' and 'Urgent' - and wonders if it relates to her. Neither Naruto nor Sasuke have been subtle about her receiving "additional," if possible, help since her home was set on fire. Ino has been just as bad.

"Give me a moment to finish this up and then we'll get started, kiddo."

"Take your time, Genma-san." Sakura looks at the magazines on the small table next to the couch. There are a few self-help ones, some relating to cooking, plenty relating to tips and tricks for experienced shinobi, and some for gardening. Sakura picks up one that focuses on rose bushes.

She flips through it, stopping on a page full of various rose bushes. Some are clipped to look like objects or people, others make up barriers around homes. They're all pretty. The white and yellow ones especially.

"Alright, that's that." Sakura immediately closes the magazine and places it back on the table. "So, kiddo, let's start with the usually regarded boring stuff. On a scale of 1-to-10, how do you feel right now? 1 being the worst and 10 being so great you're ready to scream it from the rooftops."

Feeling her lips twitch, she responds in a subdued manner. "6, Genma-san."

"Hell of a lot better than I expected."

Sakura frowns. "Really?"

"Kiddo, everyone knows what happened last week. A fire appearing in the middle of the clan district is not something you can forget."


Genma sticks a senbon needle in his mouth and speaks around it. "Have you found a place to stay until everything is sorted out?"

"With a close friend," Sakura answers.

"Good, good. So, how has your day been?"

She shrugs a little. "Slow." It's the first word that comes to her head. "Very slow. Everyone seems to be walking on eggshells around me and it doesn't do me any good. I understand that they're worried and cautious about what to say to me and how to act, but it's still..." She trails off, shrugging again.

"It gets annoying, right?" Genma crosses his arms over his chest. "The constant worry they direct at you? You get annoyed with them."

"I don't want to think about it like that. There's enough negativity in my life. I don't need to direct it at well-meaning people."

Genma chews on his needle for a moment. "Well-meaning doesn't change the fact that it can become annoying. Remember what I said when we met the first time? Feel what you feel. Don't hold it back." Those words don't have the sort of reaction he's expecting but, at the same time, he expected something like this to happen at one point or another.

When the first tear rolls down Sakura's cheek, he makes no comment. He watches, still and silent, as tiny little tears roll down her face. "My f-family's hard work a-and dedication went into creating that h-home. I have only one - one - picture left of t-them. It's not fair!" She snaps, slapping her hands over her face. "It's not fair. What did I do?!" It's clear to him that she's losing sight of her reason for being there when she repeats the question over and over again.

"What could you have done?" Her head snaps up as if shocked by his question. "Kiddo, you weren't home - thank god - you didn't start the fire." Genma breathes in deeply. "I knew your dad, kiddo." Sakura's eyes widen. "Haruno Kizashi was a great guy. He could switch between hilarity and seriousness like flipping a light switch. I liked being assigned missions with him back when I was active duty. I was his senior in terms of rank, but I could always count on him." He shifts in his seat. "Knew your mom as well. Went to their wedding."

"Why are you telling me this, Genma-san?"

"Because I know damn well that they'd rather have that house gone than you gone." Then he cracks a smile, pulling open a drawer. "I know it's not much but I want you to have this." He pulls out a small photo album and slides it forward on his desk until it reaches the edge."

He watches as Sakura hesitates for a moment, seeming unsure to pick up the album. He waits. Patient. She needs to do this on her own. She leans forward and takes the album and places it in her lap. With trembling fingers, she flips open the cover. The first picture is of her father, Genma, and two other men. They're all sitting around a table, cards, and drinks about, with heads thrown back in laughter as the picture was taken.

The next picture is one of her father and mother, much younger - much, much younger - dressed in winter clothes. Again, Genma and the unknown men from the picture before are in it. Also among them is Inuzuka Tsume and a Hyuga. Every picture after that is of her parents among friends.

Every picture except the final one.

Sakura traces a hand over her mother's smiling face. Both of her parents are beaming. And how could they not? This was taken at their wedding. It's just them. Her father has her mother picked up bridal style and they're absolutely glowing. It's such a beautiful picture.

"Thank you, Genma-san." Sakura looks up at him and smiles. It's small but sincere. "But is it really okay I have these?" Leaving the open album to rest in her lap, she lifts her pointer fingers and rubs the knuckles against her eyes, erasing evidence of tears as she goes.

He waves away her concern after she lowers her hands. "I have copies. Those are the originals."

"This means a lot. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Now, we've got a few things that need to be covered. We'll have to end tonight about 15 minutes early because I need to be somewhere, but this won't be a regular thing. I usually stay for the full amount of time."

Closing the photo album and hugging it to her chest, Sakura nods.

"Eat up," Yana tells the girls. "I don't particularly like late evening dinners, but we'll make do for now. Oh," she notices Sakura's wilting form, "it's alright, honey. Things happen and what keeps you out late is more important than what I think. Eat up, eat up."

Me and my big mouth.

Sakura spares her another glance before picking up her spoon. She wanted something simple tonight; soup with broccoli and fish on the side. Yana keeps a close eye on her not-daughter (something that she sometimes refers to Sakura as when asked about her daughter's "favorite friend").

"When will daddy be home?" Ino asks before taking a bite of her fish.

"Soon - "

"Honey, I'm home," Inoichi calls out in a quiet voice. "I - oh. Good evening, girls. Why are you eating so late?"

Ino gets up to greet her dad. "Hi, daddy! Welcome home! Sakura just got back a little bit ago and I didn't want to eat without her."

Yana sees the way Sakura shifts her eyes to the ground to avoid looking at Ino and her father. The soft greeting of "Good evening, Inoichi-san," soon follows despite Sakura not looking at the man. Yana's eyes connect with her husband, offering a half-hearted shrug followed by a tiny smile.

He moves past Ino and ruffles Sakura's hair. "How's it going, Sakura-chan?"

"Surviving," Sakura answers. "My therapist gave me something that's really helping me deal with all the recent...stress."

"Really?" Ino moves forward. "Can I ask what?"

"A photo album of my parents. When they were younger," Sakura clarifies. "Mostly of dad, but it has a picture of my parent's wedding."

Yana sends a look at her husband. "That's nice, sweetie."

"May I ask who your therapist it?" Inoichi asks as he takes a seat across from Sakura while Yana sits next to him across from Ino.

"Shirunai Genma," she answers before places a spoonful of her soup in her mouth, eyes closing to savor the taste.

"I wasn't aware Genma would be taking on younger clients," Inoichi states while pouring himself a cup of tea, "but nevertheless, he's known for being very good at his job. Plenty of people in our line of business appreciate people who are equal parts laid back and attentive. Something that Genma is very good at being."

Sakura tilts her head, curious. "Kakashi-sensei recommended him to me. I like him."

"I'm glad you're getting help." Yana notices Ino's hand slipping under the table, sees the looks exchanged between her daughter and best friend, and looks down at her cooling tea. Sakura will be okay.

"A friend of my mother?" Sakura asks slowly. "How did you know her?"

Tsume grins, sharp teeth peeking through her lips. "She was my captain during my tense years."

"I'm pretty sure discussing such things are against protocol."

"Discussing what things?" Eyes flashing with amusement, Tsume pats the head of her faithful companion. "I was just dropping by to say hello and ask how you're doing and you decided to interrogate me. Can't I just be concerned for your well-being?"

Sakura rolls her eyes before narrowing them. "You seem familiar..."

I held you when you were a baby. I was at the hospital at the time of your birth. "My daughter, Hana, was a teacher's assistant for a while. She probably ended up in your classroom a few times. To get some experience. I also have a son named Kiba."

"Oh, on Hinata-san's team?"

Tsume nods. "Hyuga Hinata is one of his teammates."

"With the cute puppy!" Sakura looks away and laughs. "Akamaru, right?"

"That would be the one~" Tsume scratches Kuromaru behind his ears. "Where you headed to, kiddo?"

Sakura pulls her long hair back into a ponytail. "To meet up with my team. We have an interesting training schedule for the next month or so."

She nods. "Probably to get you ready for the exams."


"The...chunin exams," Tsume answers slowly. "Konoha is hosting this year's chunin exams. It's an opportunity for genin to rise in rank." She sees Sakura twitch, curiosity flashing across her eyes. "Rumor has it that Kakashi, Asuma, and Kurenai are sponsoring their teams." She grins widely, all pointed teeth showing. "Konoha's Rookie Nine, I hear."

"I didn't the chunin exams were around the corner, but it explains the training schedule. We don't really have any free time beyond breaking for lunch, dinner, and sleeping."

Tsume nods again. "Makes sense, kiddo."

Sakura glances up at the cloudless sky. "Sensei probably wanted to surprise us."

"Mah," Tsume waves her off. "Don't worry about it. That boy will get over it." She receives a barely heard snort.


"I got eleven years on him, kiddo. Eleven. So yes, he's a 'boy' in my eyes." Tsume counts it as a win when Sakura giggles behind her small, glove-covered hand. "I won't keep you any longer. I expect you to make it to the final round, kiddo. Show me what you got."

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

New faces, same problems.

His name is Yamato and only that. She and her teammates have been instructed to called him "Yamato-sensei" because he is now a "subset sensei" of their team. Kakashi calls him an "assistant" and Yamato answers back with an annoyed "senpai" which causes Kakashi's visible eyebrow to twitch in agitation. There's obvious history between them, Yamato seems just a few years younger than their sensei. Sakura recognizes the comfortable way they lean towards each other in spite of remaining professional.

"For much of our time together as Team Seven, Yamato-sensei will be present." Kakashi nods towards the other man. "He is proficient in taijutsu and earth-style based jutsu. You will respect him as your sensei. In the case that I am absent for whatever reason, you will follow his orders. Am I understood?"

"Yes, sensei."

Kakashi nods; satisfied. "For the next month, give or take a week or two, you will be following a rigorous training schedule. This is to prepare you three for the chunin exams set to take place by the end of May." He looks at each of them individually, but his eyes linger on her for a moment.

We are not doing this today, sensei. I am fine!

"What are the chunin exams?" Naruto asks, but the reality is that he knows what they are. Sakura knows the bare minimum of what the exams entail and Naruto only offered up the tiniest bit of information so the three of them can play along with Kakashi's charade of "mystery."

"Ah, well, that's an easy one. It tests your skills. If you pass the exams, you're almost guaranteed promotion to chunin." He says this in a sort of mocking tone as if this is an obvious thing. Sakura cocks an eyebrow at his tone. Well, she and the boys did want to mess around with their sensei.

"What does becoming chunin entail for us, sensei?" Sasuke asks this, head tilted to the side in an innocent manner and tone bordering on that of child-like curiosity. Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura sees Yamato cough into his fist with his head turned away. Still, there's a barely-there smile on his face. She almost sends an amused smile his way but refrains from doing so.

This is all fun and games after all.

"Advanced missions, for starters. With higher ranked missions comes higher pay," Kakashi answers easily, still in the mocking sort of voice. "C-Rank and some B-Rank missions depending on your particular skill set. Although, most first-year chunin are stuck with desk duty among other smaller forms of work. Still, it's better than completing D-Ranks missions."

"What sort of C-Rank and B-Rank missions?" Sakura asks with hands clasped behind her back as she bounces slightly back and forth on her feet. "Are they very difficult? What sort of supplies would be needed for a typical B-Rank mission?" She's being purposefully obtuse.

Kakashi chuckles. "You three are cute but you're wasting time."

"But they have questions, senpai. We must answer them to the best of our ability."

I think I'll like Yamato-sensei.

"What sort of B-Rank missions do you go on?!" Naruto asks with faux excitement.

"That's classified."

Sakura turns away and giggles. Yamato makes such a solemn face that Naruto actually backs up a couple of feet. She looks at Sasuke next to her, sees his smirk, and relaxes. Yamato is going to fit right in with them, sarcasm and all, and with the way he plays could be really interesting.

"We're doing 'no holds' taijutsu training; one-on-one and then a free-for-all."

"This could be interesting," she hears Sasuke mumble.

"You're just looking for an excuse to fight Naruto because he got the last chicken dumpling last night," Sakura whispers towards him. "I can't believe you two got into a fight about that."

Sasuke leans closer. "My mother only ever makes it when you're around. She won't even make them for aniki when he asks. She plays favorites with you." He frowns a little. "And I'm her son." Sakura finds his mild jealousy amusing and leans in close enough to bump his shoulder.

"I'll let you hit me once to make up for it." He blinks at her slowly, like she just spoke some sort of gibberish, before rolling his eyes heavenward.

"Yamato-sensei, if you would."

Yamato steps forward, clapping twice. "Alright. We've already decided on who goes first. Remove your weapon pouches for the time being."

Sakura looks at Naruto and Sasuke, confused. None of them did as ordered.

"Yamato-sensei gave you three an order." Sakura narrows her eyes at the carefully blank tone.

She feels Naruto press upright against her and Sasuke take her by the wrist. They are a three-man unit standing tall before their sensei and new sensei. "No."

"I could take them from you," Yamato states with a surrounding air of ease.

"You can try," Sasuke responds before Sakura can even open her mouth.

"You've got yourself a good team, senpai." Yamato's light laughter cools the tension building in Sakura's shoulders. "Smart enough to recognize that giving up means of fighting could cost them their lives. Not that I would attack you three unprovoked." He claps again. "Today's training will still focus on taijutsu. I've seen your Academy reports. Above average. That's fantastic."

Sakura breathes out slowly. "Thank you, Yamato-sensei."

"We'll begin now," Kakashi steps up. "Naruto versus Sasuke."

"Yes, sensei."

Nara Shikaku does not particularly enjoy attending the meetings involving Konoha's clan heads. For one, they are incredibly boring and, unless Tsume is present, incredibly dull in voice. Not that any of them raise their voice often. Maybe Tsume when Shibi says something that pisses her off or when Fugaku and Hiashi butt heads, but that sort of "action" is rare. He sincerely misses his bed. Or his sleep mat; freshly cleaned not even two hours ago. Next to him, silently munching on a honey roll, is his friend, Choza. The final member of their generations Ino-Shika-Cho lucked out moments before the meeting; called away for interrogation.

That lucky bastard.

"Before we can call this meeting to an end, there is another matter that requires our full attention." Tsume's voice, hard with barely concealed anger, pulls him away from his negative - but cleverly playful - thought of his friend. "And that is Haruno Sakura."

All tiredness zips from his body at the mention of little Sakura. Shikaku sits up straighter, bringing forth a quiet chuckle from Choza but he thoroughly ignores that. He rarely reacts like this, he knows. But given recent events involving Haruno Sakura, he's inclined to listen actively. He is aware that members of the Nara aided in attempting to put the fire out that nearly consumed all of her property. Walking by the empty space that once housed a small, bright family doesn't settle well with him.

"As you are all aware, a fire was set to Haruno Sakura's home nearing two weeks ago and the person or persons involved have not been apprehended. Because she is Konoha's only surviving Haruno, this places her under top priority security. It has also been brought to light that the Haruno clan of the Land of Iron refuse to have anything to do with her. Not that she would willingly leave the village." Shikaku is sure everyone in the room has heard the softer, angrier statement.

"Why would they refuse to take her in?" This is asked by Hiashi. There's no snide tone to his voice nor any cockiness. Just pure, unfiltered curiosity that does not usually come for the Hyuga.

"Haruno Kizashi chose to marry a civilian," Shikaku answers before Tsume can. "Despite her title and accomplishments within and out of Konoha, Haruno Mebuki, formerly Metsu, did not gain the approval of the current clan head, Haruno Gentana. We have all had the unfortunate displeasure of meeting the man."

His marriage to Yoshino was arranged. He's very glad they took only a little time to get along and only a little longer to fall for each other. Man, he sure is lucky.

Tsume nods. Whether it's to agree with his final comment or the information in general, he doesn't know. "That is the current consensus. However, no child has been born to the Haruno clan in over a decade so this may just be a fluke on their part."

"Has she been declared a bastard?" Shikaku asks.


Shikaku sighs. Haruno Sakura, like many cases with well-known clans, has become a pawn. Official declarations - in which a child out of wedlock or unapproved marriage is born - would mean that the child in question would have no affiliation with the clan. They would not be provided with knowledge of the clan nor be entitled to resources the clan may have access too. Unofficial declarations only mean one thing. If Haruno Sakura is needed by her clan then she will be called upon.

Until then, they have nothing to do with her.

"We need to think about this logically," he states. "Haruno Kizashi and his wife left behind an abundance of information relating to the Haruno clan. All, of which, is sealed away. Haruno Mebuki's sealing abilities rivaled the Yodaime's wife. The Yodaime's wife, as you all know, is an Uzumaki. The Uzumaki specialized in funjutsu."

"Sakura would be the only one to access that information," Tsume replies. "Only a Haruno can. Assuming that members of the clan don't march to Konoha to demand that information front and center. But we need to consider the very real possibility of that happening. The Haruno clan is small, but they're incredibly skilled. We cannot ignore that."

Shibi's voice cuts across the tension. "You're speaking as if they'd go to war for that information?"

"People have attempted to declare war for similar reasons," Fugaku states.

Shikaku is one of the few in the room to actually glance towards Hiashi after that statement. What is known as the "Hyuga Incident" has yet to fully pass among gossip across Konoha. Still brought up even among his own clan members every now and then, Shikaku is sympathetic towards the man across from him. He had nearly lost his daughter and brother within hours of the young girl's birthday.

"So, it's clear. Konoha cannot afford to lose it's only Haruno."

"What is considered 'top priority security'?" Hiashi asks. "Is she being followed by ANBU?" Because they're clan heads with clansmen in ANBU. They're entitled to some information.

Tsume crosses her arms over her chest. "The Yodaime has not been clear about that, but let's assume that is the case for caution's sake. Though, I assume that's been the case since the murder of her parents."

Fugaku leans forward in his seat, hands resting on the table in front of him. "Answer this if you are able. Will Haruno Gentana be present during the chunin exams?"

"The Haruno clan has attended every chunin exam for the last thirty years. I don't see why they would change that just because of Sakura."

"Which is why we must be careful," Fugaku responds. "She is the teammate to my younger son and the Yodaime's only child. I've seen her fight. No doubt she will catch their eye."

What a drag.

Because that brings forth more questions and concerns. They won't be leaving the meeting room for a while.

Sakura keeps a close eye on Yamato. There's something about him that seems familiar yet she's never met him before in her life. Aside from being friendly with a snarky comment here and there, he remains close to Kakashi and watches all of them with keen eyes; assessing them.

Her, specifically.

He watches as she spars with Sasuke. His raised eyebrow distracts her - because even she's allowed to mess up - thus allowing Sasuke to punch her square in the face. Sasuke's horrified look is quickly replaced with a twisted frown as she strikes back with acute accuracy to his chin. She can't let herself become distracted despite wanting to cup her face and close her eyes at the sting.

"Distraction could lead to death," Kakashi calls out. "Don't allow it to happen."

Easier said than done.

"Senpai, I think it's time for Sasuke and Sakura to quit." Sakura hears a sigh of relief from Sasuke, frowning at the sound, and that's when she thinks about their spar in total. Sasuke fought Naruto first and Naruto is a difficult opponent and they never hold back between spars. The number of times all of them have ended up in the hospital even before gaining Kakashi as a sensei is ridiculous.

"Maybe you're right, but Sakura hasn't received that full benefit of a consistent spar. What do we do about that?"

Yamato steps forward. "If Sakura is willing, I can take Sasuke's place?"

He says that as if that were the plan all along.

She nods slowly. "If that's okay with you and Kakashi-sensei, then that's fine. I think Sasuke is done for a little bit anyway." Sasuke jumps back as soon as Sakura says that, nodding. "Please don't hold back, Yamato-sensei. I won't benefit as a result."

"Of course." They stand roughly ten feet apart. "I would never want to insult you in such a way."

"Begin," Kakashi calls out. "No holds."

Sakura dives out of the way seconds before Yamato appears at her spot. "Not bad," he calls out. She throws herself away from the tree she landed by to avoid being collided into. Yamato is fast. Sakura glances at the tree and sees the dent. He's strong. She also pities that tree. The ground ripples in acknowledgment.

"Pay attention," he calls from right behind her. "Don't lose focus!"

She spends on her feet just in time to swing her foot at his face, but he blocks it. Sakura sees his punch coming and moves toward it, ignoring the shout from Naruto, and catches his fist as best she can. His hand is bigger than hers. Yamato freezes upon impact. Clearly, given the way his eyes widen, he wasn't expecting that. Sakura swings her foot, aiming for his knee, but he yanks his fist free and jumps out of the way.

"Just keeping you on your toes, sensei."

"I'm impressed." The simple praise brings a small smile to Sakura's face.

"Go, Sakura-chan!" Sakura's smile widens. "Did you see that, Sasuke?" Sakura is smart enough to not glance at her teammates. The fight is still on-going even if she nor Yamato are currently moving.

"Where did you get your gloves?" Yamato asks as they move in a slow circle, sizing each other up. He fixes his over gloves pointedly. "That's sturdy material. High class issued."

Cracking her knuckles effortlessly, she replies with a simple but heartfelt answer. "They were given to me by someone important." It's said loud enough so that the entire team hears. "I don't know how much you were told before being placed with our team, but my hands weren't in the best condition after a mission to Wave."

Yamato pauses. "And now?"

"They're fine," Sakura replies. "I just like to wear them."

"That's nice." He darts for her.

Kakashi watches as Naruto helps a limping Sakura to his home where he earlier mentioned dinner would be served. Sasuke is at her other side, hand going to her back every now and then to make sure she's steady. Sakura does have a few good inches on Naruto's height. Sasuke is keeping her from towering over the other boy. They're all sporting some bruises.

"What do you think? They'll only be gone an hour."

He feels Yamato come to stand next to his side, knows the other man is wiping his dirty hands clean with a spare towel given to him by Sasuke. "They're amazing, senpai."

"Don't call me that, but I agree. They are pretty extraordinary." Kakashi pulls out a folded piece of paper and hands it to Yamato without looking. "Orders from the Yodaime. I'm being sent on a mission in three days to investigate the disappearances of Konoha shinobi along the Yutagimo mountain passage. Given that traveling to said location is about a four-day trip, as you are aware, I hope you are prepared to teach in my absence. I do have a schedule step up and I expect updates As granted by the Yodaime." He sighs. "I don't want to leave, but I also can't challenge orders."

Yamato takes the paper and unfolds it, eyes narrowing as he reads before widening at the bold statement at the end. "Do you really think someone within our own village is targeting her?" It's a ridiculous question to ask. He knows Yamato was made aware of the entire situation surrounding his - their - only female student, but he answers for the sake of it. Yamato is only looking for details that may have been kept from him.

"Let's not pretend that there haven't been those among Konoha's officials who have been interested in the Haruno's clan genjutsu capabilities," Kakashi replies. "The amount of information hidden within the scrolls Sakura has locked in storage very clearly makes her a target."

Sensei, why are you sending me on a mission after all that's happened? Kakashi had to bite his tongue to not argue the moment he was assigned the mission.

"One of the orders listed is that I must accompany her to storage when she chooses to go. What about matters of privacy, senpai?"

Kakashi sighs. "Don't call me that. If she asks you to leave, merely wait outside the room until she's done. However, Sakura is incredibly diligent. You could be waiting outside the room for hours."

"I distinctly remember waiting outside of your hospital room several times when we were younger." Yamato folds up the sheet and pockets it. Then, in a casual tone: "I'll treat you to lunch if you tell me more about this team's dynamic. It's clear they're overprotective of each other. Naruto looked ready to launch himself at me when I kicked Sasuke in the chest."

He knows Yamato will attempt to grill him over lunch about everything up until obviously not satisfied with what he'd been thus far.

"And Sasuke looked ready to take your head when you put Sakura in a headlock." Kakashi runs a hand through his hair. "The boys have always been protective of Sakura and she to them. You are aware of how losing family can warp someone's views of protection. They consider each other family."

Yamato hums. "It was kind of you to give her those gloves." He looks away before Kakashi can react. "Gloves like that are very expensive and are only made upon request."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Kakashi starts walks to away. "I want sashimi. Oh, and I'm canceling training tomorrow. We have some things to work on and the kids deserve a break."

"Some things never change." Yamato shakes his head and follows after the man.

When Kakashi states that they won't meet up the following day after their evening training comes to an end, Team Seven takes the opportunity to split for most of the following day and then meet up in the evening.

That morning, Sakura waits outside of the Yamanaka Flower Shop along with Hinata and Tenten, quietly chatting with the girls until Ino is free to spend the day with them upon Tenten's insistence that they visit the clan district's new weapon shop, pick up a few things, and test them out. Sakura finds the idea interesting. Of course, she owns the standard weapon kit strongly suggested by the instructors of Konoha's Academy. But maybe she could find use in a sword or tanto?

"Bye!" Blinking, Sakura turns away from her conversation with Tenten to look at the door leading to the shop. It's open with only half of Ino's body visible. "I'll see you tonight!" And then Ino's outside and right next to her. "Hey, guys. Sorry about that. I was supposed to be off half an hour ago but then there was this last minute order and, well, you can understand how that's like."

"If you need me to come by later and help with any flower arrangements, I will," Sakura tells her.

Ino grins. "I'll keep that in mind, but I think we'll have it covered tonight. Thanks." Sakura nods before looking at the other girls, head tilted.

"To the weapon shop?"

Tenten shoots a fist into the air. "Yes! Let's go, let's go!" The walk is pleasant enough. Topics jump between their respective teams, their families (with each of the girls speaking carefully around Sakura), and the chunin exams. Mostly the chunin exams.

"We might end up fighting each other," Sakura throws out casually. "Kakashi-sensei and Yamato-sensei have explained that the chunin exams are done in three parts. They didn't specify what exactly we'll be tested on, but I have a general guess."

"Like what?" Ino asks. "Asuma-sensei has been silent about that."

"Information gathering," Sakura instantly replies. "Villages thrive on the information they collect."

Hinata nods slowly. "My father has mentioned something along those lines."

"Combat is obvious." The girls nod at Tenten's comment. "My older brother - he's a merchant in Suna by the way - says that high ranking officials will travel far and wide to watch the exams. It's how a village can increase their income for a few months."

"So," Ino stops to cross her arms over her chest, "what would the third part be?"

Tenten pulls out a kunai, balancing the tip at the end of her pointer finger. "Maybe it'll involve showcasing our abilities to hit a moving target."

"Oh," Hinata mumbles while twiddling her fingers.

Sakura moves to Hinata's side and gently bumps her shoulder. "Make sure your team is working on that. A team that lets one of their members falls behind is not a good team."

"And you'll have us!" Ino moves to Hinata's over side, throwing an arm around her shoulders. "These exams aren't going to change that we're friends. We'll probably fight each other, but as long as we give it our best then things will work out in the end. Have some faith!" Then she turns to Tenten. "How much longer?"

With Kakashi's sensei schedule, we'll have to work something out. Sakura observes her friends. I wonder if any of them would be opposed to training after midnight?

"Soon!" Tenten hooks an arm around Sakura's shoulders, who grabs Hinata's hand, who grabs the bottom of Ino's shirt, and the three of them follow quickly.

"It's pretty," Sakura tells Hinata. They're both standing before a single case where a glimmering black blade is on display. The sheath is right now to it. "I don't think I've seen a blade like this before." There's something oddly alluring about the weapon. None of the other weapons in the shop compare.

"One would think it would be locked up with the sacred artifacts of Konoha's founders," a voice calls behind. "If only it's origins were believed." Sakura turns to face the person speaking. A man, aged with a long white beard in the front, stands behind her and Hinata with his hands crossed over his chest. He isn't looking at them but rather the sword on display.

"Sir?" Hinata speaks before Sakura can. "What's the claimed origin of this sword?"

The old man moves forward, around them, and pulls out a ring of keys. A few moments later and the sword is out of the case and held before them. "It's said to have belonged to Senju Toka. Do you know the stories surrounding her?" Sakura forces herself to shake her head.

What she knows of Toka is what was described to her in her great grandfather's journals.

"Will you tell us, sir?"

"Senju Toka was known for her genjutsu abilities. The best among the Senju clan, frankly, but her swordplay was tiptop. As in, she was a leader during the Warring States Era. All enemies that came across her blade fail to it. She was not someone to be messed with. It was also said that she was on par with her cousin," the man pauses almost dramatically before proceeding, "the Nidaime."

Sakura shares a look with Hinata. "How did she die?"

The reality is that Sakura already knows how Senju Toka died.

"When peace talks were in process between the Senju and Uchiha, an assassin of unknown origins snuck into the Senju compound and attempted to slay the Nidaime while he was recovering from a particularly bad wound. Toka was injured as well and died saving him while also taking the assassin with her. Her death was mourned widely. She was very close to the Nidaime."

Sakura knows that as well. Her great-grandfather has often referred to her as "sister." The "unknown assassin" had no affiliation to any enemy clan or village at the time, but she's read all the theories created by her great-grandfather.

"May I hold it?"

The old man looks down at her, small silver eyes assessing her, before nodding. "Careful." It's the only word he offers. The moment the sword is in her hands, Sakura feels a spark of familiarity shoot up her arms. With a carefully neutral face, she steps away from the man and Hinata to swing the sword a few times. It's lighter than she originally thought, but the blade is sharp from obvious care.

"How much?" Sakura's no fool. Unlike the other weapons on display, this one does not have an obvious price listed on the front.

Without blinking, the man responds in a stiff tone. "¥10,000. No less."

"Would you be willing to place this on hold until I acquire the amount?" Sakura asks. "I don't carry that much on me, but I would like to buy this sword."

"I'll keep it up until noon tomorrow."

Sakura shakes her head. "Not necessary. Your shop closes at 8 PM. I will drop by after dinner to collect it. Around 7." She carefully hands the sword back to the man. "Thank you for allowing me to hold it."

"Of course," the man responds. He turns, takes the sheath from the case, and covers the sword. "It will be behind the front desk for you later."

"Thank you," she responds as he walks away.

"It's interesting, right?" Sakura turns back to Hinata, one eyebrow raised. "The history of the Senju clan, I mean." She starts moving towards the long metal chains hanging on the wall near the now empty display. "My grandfather used to tell me stories about the Senju. He says it's a shame they're dying out and will eventually go extinct." Sakura blinks. "Lady Tsunade is in her late 40s. She never married nor had children. When she passes, that's the end."

Sakura glances down when Hinata turns to look at her. "Do you consider that sad?" She's intrigued when Hinata doesn't answer immediately. She looks up in time to see Hinata bite her lower lip before cooling her expression.

"I wish I had the ability to leave the village and travel across the great countries without worrying about clan obligations." The sincerity, the longing, in her voice brings forth Sakura's sympathetic nature. "I wish my father would take my words and feelings into consideration. I don't wish to marry young nor bare any children before I'm 25. Assuming, of course, that I live that long."

I might as well...

"You are aware that your clan is purposely holding you back, right?" Hinata's pale gaze snaps to Sakura, but she doesn't respond. "I would go as far as stating your team is doing the same thing." She's looking for a specific reaction and Hinata does not disappoint.

"They would never!" Hinata cries softly. "Kiba and Shino respect me enough to not hold back!"

Sakura crosses her arms over her chest. "How do you say your spar with Sasuke went?"

"He hits hard. He moves fast."

"Yes, because he is a respectable being. Sasuke doesn't hold back when it comes to sparring. Especially not among peers. Among our team, we sometimes have to carry each other to our homes or to the hospital by the end of the day because that's how hard we hit. It's a great disrespect to each of us if one of us decides to hold back. Do you think Sasuke went easy on you?"

"I," Hinata hesitates. "No, I don't think so. I did have to be healed by my clan's healers. Our fight didn't last very long." She voice takes a bitter edge.

Finally, Sakura uncrosses her arms. "I'm not saying you and your teammates should be aiming to place each other in the hospital. Naruto, Sasuke, and I can be really rough with each other. We made a promise when we were younger, after my parents died, that we would never go easy on each other nor would we allow each other to fall behind. Sometimes, we go too far. It happens."

We get distracted or we try out new things. It doesn't always work out.

"What do I do?" Hinata asks after a moment of silence. "My clan won't take me seriously."

"You have to make them take you seriously. You're an heiress. Assert your status. Besides," Sakura looks toward Tenten and Ino, both who are laughing loudly at the other end of the store, "you have the three of us. We're friends and we won't let you fall behind. Talk to your sensei. Branch out. I have faith in you, Hinata."

"Thank you, Sakura-chan."

Naruto can't help but notice the way Sakura lags in the middle of her conversation with Sasuke. He gets the feeling Sasuke notices this too by the way his fingers occasionally twitch whenever Sakura trails off and seems to space out much more often than she normally does. Of course, as her supportive teammates and very close friends, they don't push the conversation. There have been plenty of times in which the three of them would just sit in comfortable, companionable silence.

The two of them always wait for her to come back and pick up the conversation; much like she does right now. "Forgive me, Sasuke. I just have a lot on my mind right now." It's true. Naruto shares a concerned like with Sasuke before nodding encouragingly at Sakura. "There's a lot in storage that I need to sort through and it seems like I don't have the time to go through them." She pauses to lick her lips. "Or the patience these days."

"We can't help you because you want your privacy, Sakura." Sasuke is tentative in the way he speaks to avoid offending her despite the curiosity Naruto knows he feels. He, himself, feels it but he's being respectful to not push her. Some things deserve to be private. "But if we need to talk to Kakashi-sensei and explain the situation to him, I'm sure we can work out a temporary schedule change until you're done."

"Yeah!" Naruto nods his head rapidly. "Kakashi-sensei will understand! Yamato-sensei will too. We just gotta' explain why this is more important."

He counts her tiny smile as a win.

Sakura doesn't greet Genma when she arrives for her therapy session and he doesn't offer her a greeting either. She moves towards the couch, drapes herself across it, and rolls to her side so that her back is to him. The only sound within in the entire room comes from pencil upon paper and the occasional shuffle of said papers.

For much of their first hour together, Sakura stares at the cushions of the couch and refuses to move. Maybe 20 minutes ago, Genma stopped moving all at once. She assumes he's either staring at her or reading something or has fallen asleep himself. Last night was not a good night. Avoiding the questions and concerns of her friends is becoming harder.

"I had a nightmare," she offers. "About my parents and friends. In my nightmare, I was walking home after dark. The moon looked funny and the trees were faded. The ground almost looked like water. I saw familiar buildings but no one was around. When I got home, I saw my parents at the gate leading onto our compound. They...used to do that when I was younger. Both or one of them." Sakura feels the sting in the back of her eyes. "They'd make sure one of them was there to greet me."

"Don't force it out, kiddo. Take all the time you need to get it out."

She eventually rolls onto her back and maintains eye contact with the ceiling. "When I got closer, the compound caught fire. My parents disappeared. I could," she swallows thickly, "hear their screams from inside. I ran into my home uncaring for myself. Every time I got closer to them, they end up further away. And not just them. I started seeing Naruto and Sasuke. I started seeing Ino and Kakashi. Their parents. Sasuke's older brother. I started seeing Tenten and Hinata. Everyone I've maintained a relationship with up until now."

Sakura hears the faintest scratch of a pencil to paper. "Take a break, kiddo. You'll accidentally throw yourself into a panic attack." She didn't even realize her heart was beating too fast. "That's right. Deep breaths."

"I started seeing the girls from Wave. The ones kidnapped. The ones that were meant to be sold at an auction. Everyone was screaming. Everyone was crying. I couldn't get to any of them in time. They just...burned." She's silent for a moment, hands coming up to wipe at fallen tears. "I miss my parents. I miss them every day. I miss my home. I want them back. I want my home back."

And finally, she rolls to her other side to face him. Genma stares at her, the large needle ever present in his mouth, but there's no sympathy. No pity. Only understanding. Only steadfast support.

"There's nothing wrong with that," he starts. "It's not a sign of weakness to miss things loss to you. It's certainly normal. Kiddo, you've been through one bad event after another. It's like you can never catch a break. However," Genma pauses as if to choose his next words carefully, "I think it would benefit you if you were tested for depression." He holds up a hand before Sakura can reply. "Let me explain my reasoning."

Sakura bites her lower lip and nods. "Yes, Genma-san."

"I've read your file," and he lifts up a manila folder with her name printed in bold letting across the top. "You lost your parents on your birthday, you had a bad reaction after you demanded to see their bodies; which is within your right, and you went directly home to clean up what was a fight scene. You were eight years old." She can see the anger now. "Nowhere in this file does it say you received any form of counseling. Not even a note of suggestion."

"Genma-san..." She honestly doesn't know what to say about that. It's the truth.

He sighs. "It is a failure by our system," he looks her directly in the eyes, "when those who suffer loss are not cared for. Now, I have a lot of respect for the Yodaime. He is our Hokage, a hero, and a good man. We have some classified history, but I have been in and out of his office for years in regards to consequences of unaided trauma. To think it took so long for this," he waves a hand around the room, "to be set up is ridiculous. Not wholly his fault, though. Konoha's elders can be very reluctant."

"Should you be telling me this, Genma-san?"

"The day I give a damn about what Elder Shimura, Utatane, and Mitokado say and how they feel about me is the day I take a dirt nap." She can't help it. She giggles. "But the reality of the matter still stands. Who lets a child clean up the area in which their parents die?" Sakura can honestly say she appreciates his blunt statements. "And then there was the matter of your mission in Wave."

"I," and Sakura doesn't know what to say.

Genma's quick to respond. "It's been said before, but allow me to reiterate. It was not, and never will be, your fault for what happened. I can take a guess at what you're feeling and I could be wrong. Either way, I know it's hard to talk about that particular situation. We can discuss that at any point."


"Then there's the situation involving your home. That's very serious. I'm under the impression that it's still be investigated?" She nods. "So you can see why I'm concerned and why I think it's necessary for you to be screened for depression."

She crossed her arms over her chest; unsure. "When you put it like that, I can hardly argue."

"You can say no," he replies immediately. "It won't change our schedule nor how I perceive you."

"But you highly recommend that I do?"

He nods once.

Sakura inhales quickly but exhales slowly. "Okay."

"Alright. Just a few things. This process is not done by me but by a Yamanaka."

"That makes sense, I suppose."

"Of course." It's said with a serious tone. "You both will be within one of the rooms of T&I with a glass mirror that allows others to see into the room and a recorder. The mirror obviously allows for observing. There have been some cases in which some shinobi have gone into panic attacks over the questioning." Sakura straightens her shoulders. "Results are not immediate although the Yamanaka assigned to you may give a conclusion based on his or her professional opinion. The recorder will be listened too by another qualified assessor who will also give their professional opinion. Are we good so far?"

She gives a single nod.

"Alright. Based on your results, other things can be determined."

"Other things?"

"Prescribing anti-depressants, for starters." Genma sends the needle to the other side of his mouth.

"I see. Hope for the best but prepare for the worse, Genma-san?"

"I just want you to be in the process of being okay, kiddo."

Sakura smiles a little. "In the process, huh?"

As true as it was said, Kakashi is sent on a mission three days after he introduced him and Yamato is left with three adorable brats who stare up at him expectedly; awaiting orders. Sakura stands between her teammates, her fingers brush their wrists every so often. He wonders how well she's sleeping at night given the signs of purple under her eyes and the way her hair is pulled back in a lazy ponytail, hardly with its full sheen.

"I hope you don't mind that you're stuck with only me, guys?"

Sasuke shrugs. "Are you going to send dogs after us?"

"What? No! Why would I do that?"

"Kakashi-sensei's dogs like to play tag," Sakura offers helpfully.

Yamato slaps a palm to his forehead. "Senpai can be such a jerk sometimes."

"How do you even know Kakashi-sensei?" Naruto asks. "I haven't seen you around the village before. I wanted to ask a couple of days ago, but never got around to it."

He shrugs easily. "I was put on reserve after a particularly bad mission. And to answer your question, I was put on a team in which senpai was the leader. He, too, liked to send his dogs after us in an excuse of calling it 'tag.' I just think it was his way to deal with insubordination and slowpokes."

"He doesn't like that you call him 'senpai,'" Sasuke points.

"I know."

Sasuke looks him up and down before smirking. "I think we'll get along just fine, Yamato-sensei."

Bringing back the dead? Shadow clones? Creating water through chakra?

Sakura doesn't know what to think aside from believing her great-grandfather was some crazy genius who didn't know how to stop once his mind was made up. She has access to all his notes, all his thoughts of why? and how? and, honestly, she finds herself a little impressed that he went above and beyond with his genius.

Even if she doesn't agree with the whole "bring back your deceased loved ones" jutsu.

But she gets it. She gets why her great-grandfather would go this far. He lost his two brothers at an incredibly young age and later his best friend and he was desperate. And God! He was super young when the idea came about. Losing a loved one is never easy and Sakura cannot find herself blaming the man.

"Bringer-of-Darkness?" Sakura asks herself quietly after she flips to the next page. "A genjutsu strong enough to blind someone?!"

This is useful information, but I have to be careful.

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

Standing at the edge of a cliff,

You have to make the choice.

Do you jump or not?

Sakura is led into a room on the top floor of T&I by Yamanaka Inoichi. The older man maintains a blank expression as he escorts her to a section in the back of the building labeled 'Evaluations.' Like any good gentleman, he opens the door under the sign and allows her to walk in first. There's a hall of doors, each one simply labeled by number. Next to each door is a hook with two small placks - red and green - which indicate if the room is occupied or not.

"Head to the last door on the left," Inoichi tells her quietly. "The evaluator is already inside."

Sakura nods. "Thank you for escorting me, Inoichi-san." As she beings to walk forward, Ino's dad calls out to her.

"If, at any point, you feel uncomfortable or wish to stop the evaluation," he starts, "press the button on the right arm of your chair and someone will be there immediately to escort you out of the room."

"Thank you for letting me know," Sakura says over her shoulder. "Have a good day, Inoichi-san."

"You as well, Sakura."

Even so, she feels eyes on her all the way until she opens the door and walks inside. One look around the room and she rolls her eyes. There are scattered pictures on the wall of nature and toys on the floor. A single mirror, unseeing to the other side, takes up most of the wall across from the door. The walls are stark white but the table is a deep brown color with matching plush chairs. Across from her, waiting patiently in his seat, is a Yamanaka with hair closer to Inoichi's than any other Yamanaka she has ever seen.

"Welcome, Sakura-san. I hope your morning has been pleasant thus far. Please have a seat."

"Better than most mornings, I suppose." The relaxed look on his face switches to calculative.

"What makes you say this?"

Are we jumping immediately into it? Sakura takes a seat in the chair closest to the evaluator and politely rests her hands in her lap. On top of the table, directly in front of the Yamanaka, is three separate papers and a clipboard. Instead of attempting to read them, Sakura looks at the evaluator expectantly. Her fingers clutch the bottom of her shirt underneath the table.

"Sometimes, if I go to bed really tired, I wake up confused because I'm not at home. It takes me a few moments to be aware of my surroundings and realize that I don't currently have a home." She doesn't speak in a bitter tone. Her tone is essentially neutral. "Today was different because I woke knowing I'd be here. Hence, a better morning."

"Oh?" The Yamanaka briefly looks genuinely surprised. "I can honestly say that you're one of very few who have said that." He picks up one of the papers, looks it over, and then hands it to her. "In a moment, I'm going to let you read this and then sign it if you agree. For right now, I'm going to explain a few things." His expression turns serious. "First, this evaluation needs to be 100% consensual on your part. The only exception is by order of the Hokage. You are here because you choose to be here, correct?"

Sakura nods.

"Second, you have to answer all the questions I ask you honestly. While you did spend some years in-between the homes of your friends, you primarily stayed in the Haruno Compound and cared for yourself. Do you know what this means?"

"I believe so, sir."

"Can you tell me what it means?" He switches between expressions easily. Curiosity is currently present.

Relaxing her fingers, Sakura nods once again. "I'm essentially emancipated. Even before I graduated the Academy and passed Kakashi-sensei's test, I was already seen as an adult in the eyes of the law. I would have provided for myself well enough if my friends never stepped in to look after me." She inhales and exhales slowly. "Lying during this evaluation and getting caught could very well end my career before it has barely begun."

"You're a bright young girl, Sakura-san."

"I haven't been told that since the fire."

"Well," he starts seriously, "you did run into a burning building with little thought of your well-being."

Sakura blinks once while looking into his eyes. "There are some things that can't be replaced, Yamanaka-san." He doesn't respond and she doesn't expect him too. "As you were saying?"

Amusement - brief as it is - flashes across his face.

"Third," he continues, "you need to understand that the results of your evaluation might make you feel angry or unsettled. This is common for many well-experienced shinobi. Your results determine the best course of action to take so that you can live your life to the fullest. Do you have any questions or concerns before I have you read and sign this?" He points to the paper in front of her.

"No, sir."

"Alright. My name is Yamanaka Daichi and you may refer to either when addressing me. Please read over this paper carefully and don't hesitate to ask questions if you become confused." He places a pencil in front of her.

Sakura is a "gifted reader" in speed, comprehension, and memory. She has the sheet, front and back, read in less than a minute. The information simply goes into detail about the three points the Yamanaka got across. There is a small bit on the sort of questions she'll be asked and what she needs to do if she wants to stop the evaluation.

If you, without hesitation, UNDERSTAND and CONSENT to your scheduled evaluation, sign your name.

She returns the paper and pencil to Daichi and sits back comfortably.

"Alright, let's begin." He picks up his clipboard and pulls out another pencil. "Can you describe your home life before your 8th birthday?" Although she doesn't react outwardly, Sakura's shocked by the almost casual tone of the question. "What was your relationship with your parents like? Did you see them often?"

"Wonderful," she answers honestly. "Compared to many others my age, I actually got to spend time with my parents before they were taken from me. My mom outranked my dad so she went on long missions sometimes but she always made up for being gone. We would play or train or she would tell me about her travels. What was permitted, of course. Sometimes, I'd learn a new jutsu or she would bring me a new book to read. I like challenging material. My dad was the same way. I lost a lot of my trinkets in the fire." Sakura glances at the window. "They weren't overbearing by any means. They placed a lot of trust in me to make the right decisions. They didn't censor a lot of topics. I would know of the political climate even before most of my classmates." She nods. "Overall, I would consider the time I had with them to be a blessing."

Daichi nods. "Currently, do you see any of the adults you're around a lot to be parental figures? By this, I don't mean that the parents of your friends assume the role when you're with them. Rather, do you regard any of the adults you're around to be close or on the same level you hold your parents too?"

"No," she answers but then she backtracks. "On the same level? No. I could never replace my parents in that way. That doesn't mean I don't deeply care for the parents of my friends, Yamanaka-san. They've been gracious to me."

"When you're faced with a difficult task, who do you go to?"

Sakura shrugs. "It depends on the difficult task I'm facing, Yamanaka-san. If it relates to training, I seek out my teammates or sensei. If it relates to confidence, I seek out Ino. When it comes to family matters - like dealing with requirements expected of me despite being the only member of my clan in Konoha - then I tend to seek the help of whoever is available that also happens to be a part of a clan. If I'm dealing with my nightmares, I hope Genma-san is available."

"And if he's not?"

Again, Sakura shrugs. "Sometimes, I talk to Itachi-nii."

"Can you tell me who you spend time with outside of the adults in your life?"

"Primarily with Uchiha Sasuke, Uzumaki Naruto, and Yamanaka Ino. More recently, I also spend time with Hyuga Hinata and Tenten."

Daichi makes a thoughtful sound as he writes something down. "How would you describe your relationship with each of them?

"Sasuke, Naruto, and Ino are my best friends, but I wouldn't classify them as best friends with each other. They're closer to friendly acquaintances with each other. We do really care about each other and we push each other to the limit so we can be the best we can be. I do that with Hinata and Tenten - they've recently become friends of mine - and I don't want them to feel like they can't be as good as those they admire. I don't want them to think they're worthless. When I'm uncomfortable with a topic, they don't push me. They wait until I'm ready to talk about it. There's mutual respect."

He hums. "How would you describe yourself?"

"Not good enough. Do better." When she sees his eyebrow raise, Sakura elaborates. "I froze during my mission in Wave, Yamanaka-san. That mission was life or death in every sense of the word for myself, my teammates, our charge, and; later on, the villagers. It was a disgusting rookie mistake. And while I do acknowledge that I'm a genin, it shouldn't be used as an excuse. Someone could have died. So," Sakura looks down, "I'm not good enough yet and I need to do better so there isn't a next time."

For a moment, it's silent. Sakura doesn't look at Daichi as he writes. Her gaze remains on the table. She is projecting a state of calm but her fingers returned to clenching the bottom of her shirt.

"She seems to be doing okay so far," Genma comments to the small group behind the window. "I can't detect any lying." He feels Inoichi shift next to him. "Do you suspect anything, Inoichi-san?"

"She's already starting to feel uncomfortable," he answers. "Normally, Sakura always places her hands on top of the table when she's in the presence of others. I've seen her arms tense twice now."

"She will be questioned about the mission in Wave," Minato states before looking to Genma. "Questions you specifically created, I'm told."

Genma nods. "While I do understand that the official report has been filed already, there's little to no reflection on her mental state. Kakashi inserted his own thoughts regarding his students in the report but I won't base my recommendations for help solely on that."

"Alright, Sakura-san," they all hear. "On a scale of 1-to-10, how would you rate the importance of your happiness?"

The important questions are now being asked.


Genma hears the Hokage inhale sharply but no words follow.

"Can you explain why?"

"I stopped being happy the day I lost my parents to a violent act, Yamanaka-san."

"You don't feel happy when you're with your friends?"


"Wow," Genma hears himself mumble.

"What do you feel then?"


"What makes you feel happy?"

"Nothing, in particular, Yamanaka-san."

Rubbing his temple, Genma starts to feel tired. "Come on, kiddo."

"Do you find joy in things?"

"Not particularly."

"And you don't find happiness in doing much of anything?"

"That is correct, sir."

The three men watch as Daichi writes something down on his clipboard, noting the way his brows furl unconsciously. Sakura, on the other hand, stares blankly at the table. She's infuriatingly polite and it sort of agitates Genma. He wasn't expecting a cry fest or yelling, but he did expect her to become defensive by now. At least, when it comes to questions about 'happiness.'

"On a scale of 1-to-10, how would you rate your trust in others?"


"Can you explain why?"

"Our lifestyle should not cause us to trust carelessly. Friend or enemy. Superior or subordinate. Master or student. At the end of the day, someone will always put their well-being, interest, or greed above your own or above someone you care about."

"Do you trust your village leaders?"

"To an extent."

"'To an extent?'"

"We're all expendable when it comes to the safety of our village, Yamanaka-san."

Out of the corner of his eye, Genma sees Inoichi's shoulders slump in defeat. He has no idea what the other man is thinking but the down expression on his face brings forth sympathy. The Hokage's face remains blank. Whatever the older man is thinking, it can't be good.

"I'm just viewing this from a realistic standpoint." Sakura turns her head to yawn into her shoulder. "Excuse me," she says immediately after.

"It's alright." He unclips the thin stack of paper from his clipboard, flips to the next page, and reclips it. "These days, do you often find yourself worrying about your future?"

"To a certain regard," she answers. "To elaborate, I intend to survive for as long as my friends need me. Realistically, however, I also can't predict the future. I don't have any intention to die nor fall behind in my training."

Daichi hums. "Do you believe you're sensitive to the feelings of others?"

"Depending on the person, my actions vary. I'm either told I'm too blunt or too much on the fence. I try not to offend if necessary."

"If necessary?"

"I don't like to beat around the bush. Some people, friends or comrades, need blunt answers because they're hurting themselves or others. Self-pity is something I don't like to tolerate. I try to hold myself accountable to that."

Nodding, Daichi writes something down on his clipboard, clicks his tongue, and moves on. "How often do you find yourself feeling angry?"

"Every day, Yamanaka-san."

Surprised, he leans forward just a bit and peers at her over his clipboard. "Every day?"

"My anger isn't directed at anyone besides myself."


At this, Sakura looks directly at the window. She has a pretty good idea who's behind it and she wonders how they're taking it. "The mission in Wave could have gone better if I weren't so careless with my actions. I'm well aware of how our Hokage feels about the mission and the choices of my sensei, but I hold no disdain towards Kakashi-sensei. Rather, I'm grateful he didn't allow Naruto and Sasuke to run around on unfamiliar territory and potentially get themselves hurt or worse."

"Sakura-san, it's - "

"I got caught," she interrupts. "I got caught and I was hurt. They intended to sell me as a toy. A plaything. A whore. I got angry. I got so angry." Her hands tremble in her lap. "I killed all of them, Yamanaka-san. Every single man in that room died and I burnt the entire building down. They could have had families. Wives and sisters and children and I didn't feel anything when I killed them. I try to justify it but thinking they'd rather be dead than have their actions found out."

When he doesn't reply, she continues.

"I was careless with my actions and it made me angry." Sakura finally looks away from the window. "At the same time, I may have never met those kidnapped girls." She looks at the silent Yamanaka. "Am I allowed to be angry and satisfied with my choices at the same time?"


Her lips twitch into a barely-there smile. "That's nice to hear."

"On a scale of 1-to-10, how would you rate your anger?"

"Eight or nine. I try not to let it show. I think I get irritated more than anything. Often, I leave the person or place to avoid causing a scene. I don't want anyone to be hurt as a result."

"Okay," he nods briefly while writing something down, "do you consider yourself indecisive?"

"Rarely," Sakura answers. "At least, not when it comes to training or life and death."

"How often do you cry, Sakura-san?"

Sakura doesn't answer.

"Sakura-san?" He inquires gently. "Please answer the question."

"Before the mission to Wave, not at all. After the mission to Wave, almost every night." She smiles bitterly.

"How much sleep do you think you get?"

"Four hours or less."

"How many times do you eat in one day?"

"Two or three times."

Monotone answers to seemingly simple questions.

Minato shakes his head while crossing his arms over his chest. Even if she hasn't known Kakashi that long, he still can't understand her defense over his former student. Kakashi made some bad choices in Wave. While, yes, he acknowledges that Kakashi wouldn't let Naruto or Sasuke run around carelessly, he still could have done something. Send an SOS by any means necessary. Use his dog summons. There were options and he didn't take advantage of them.

"Have you witnessed a traumatic event, Sakura-san?"

"I suppose," Sakura answers with a decidedly forced shrug. "During my brief time in captivity."

"Will you tell me about it?"

Sakura's gaze returns to the window. "I was painted up like a doll," she starts. "I was called 'Flower' by the man who intended to sell me. I was under the lustful gaze of an entire room filled with men twice or three times my age. I saw the state of my belongings and it made it upset. It wasn't until I - " She inhales, exhales, and stops speaking. Her eyes narrow at the window but Minato knows she's reliving the situation.


"It wasn't until I saw the state of my forehead protector that I got truly angry and made my decision."

"Decision?" Although everyone knew what the decision was, Daichi still asked the question.

"To kill them all," she responds. "I told myself I would kill them all and enjoy it."

Daichi's face falls perfectly blank as he quickly writes something down. "And then what happened?"

"I sold for 500, 000 and when the man who bought me told me he was going to 'have fun' with me, I told him I wasn't going anywhere with him. When he asked why, I stabbed him."

"Good job, kiddo." Minato silently agrees with Genma.

"Where did you get a weapon to do so, Sakura-san?"

"One of the...henchmen gave me a weapon. He couldn't have been much older than me. I hid it up the sleeve of the kimono I was made to wear. It also didn't benefit any of the men to place me so close to my weapon pouch where I could steal a smoke bomb and create an advantage for myself." Sakura tears her eyes away from the window and frowns at the table. "I was tackled from behind at some point. He fondled me a bit and then told me he would 'take his time' with me. I couldn't let that happen so I headbutt him out of deperation to get him off me. I couldn't get away quick enough and he proceeded to try and strangle me."

Minato closes his eyes.

"He almost succeeded, Yamanaka-san. If I didn't desperately feel around for something to stop him with, I would be six feet under or in a shallow grave. That's a simple fact."

"What did you kill him with?"

"A blade. I grabbed a blade and stabbed him over and over again until I couldn't hear him beg anymore. It tore up my hands." Sakura finally holds up her hands. "I wear gloves now."

"Could your hands not be healed?"

"There isn't much by way of healing in Wave and I didn't seek out a healer or asked from them to be healed when we got back," she answers, "I want to keep the scars. The gloves are merely a gift and I like wearing them." Sakura cracks her neck and the sound seems to echo around the room. "After that, I realized the leader was still alive and proceeded to kill him as well. I released the girls once I made sure all the men were dead, burnt down the building we were held in, and made the girls promise to get each other home safely while I started searching for my teammates. After that, everything within the mission report is what followed."

"Do you have flashbacks or nightmares of the event?"

"Flashbacks? No. The nightmares stopped about a week after I was released from the hospital."

"Do you tend to avoid thoughts or feelings about the event?"

"Don't most people, Yamanaka-san?" Sakura quickly follows the question up. "I rarely think about it these days and when I do, I talk it over with my teammates or Ino. I would talk to Kakashi-sensei but he's not here right now."

Daichi purses his lips briefly. Minato knows what's coming next. "In the last three months, have you attempted suicide?"


"In the last three months, have you had suicidal thoughts?"

Sakura tilts her head in consideration. "I think about death every day but I don't think that counts."

"Can you elaborate?"

"I don't think about how I can kill myself but I do think of the different ways I could die." She pauses to lick her lips. "I could die on a mission far away from home and no one would ever find my body. I could die for a comrade or friend by taking a hit meant for them. I could die in war. I could die from poison. I could die from suffocation or internal wounds. There are a lot of ways I could die but it won't be by suicide. Of that, I can assure you."

"In the last three months, have you attempted self-harm?"


Minato lets out a breath he didn't realize he was holding.

"How often do you feel guilty?"

"Every day, Yamanaka-san."

No one is surprised when there isn't a follow-up question.

"Would you say you hate yourself at this point in time?"

"No." A sigh of relief can be heard from Inoichi. "Rather," the three men tense, "I'm disappointed in myself."

"When you look in the mirror, what do you see?"

"Someone who isn't good enough yet."

"Don't think like that, kiddo." These were not the answers he was expecting.

"Can you elaborate, Sakura-san?"

Forcing herself to not shift in her seat, Sakura shrugs. "There's always room for improvement." She sees the brief flash of disappointment in the Yamanaka's dark blue eyes but she isn't lying. Rather, she isn't telling the whole truth.

"In your opinion, do you think your sessions with Genma-san have been beneficial?"

Sakura nods. "Genma-san is not what I expected but I think that's for the best."

Daichi smiles a little. "Explain, please."

"Genma-san's general aura and speech make him easily approachable. He doesn't push me into giving him answers to his questions. I like him. He..." Sakura trails off, biting her lower lip.


"He makes me feel as close to safe as possible. Like Kakashi-sensei does." She glances at the window. "I don't know how to explain, Yamanaka-san. Kakashi-sensei hasn't been my sensei for long but there's something about him that makes it seem like everything will be okay."

"And Genma-san makes you feel the same way?"

She nods.

"Okay," Daichi quickly jots something down. "I want to return to the question about nightmares." Sakura blinks. "If you don't have nightmares about what happened to you out of the village, do you have nightmares about other things?"

"Wouldn't you know this from Genma-san's reports on our sessions?"

Daichi shakes his head, face serious. "Please remember, Sakura-san, that records on your sessions with him remain private. Only the Hokage is permitted to see what is inside."

"I have nightmares about seeing my parents die or my friends die or the adults I care about die."

"How often do you have these nightmares, Sakura-san?"

"Almost every night. Some are worse than others."

"Will you describe them for me, please?"

Sakura closes her eyes. A sudden wave of anxiety overwhelms her. She breathes in, out, in, out, and nods. "Some of them involve my parents or friends dying in a fire." Sakura opens her eyes and places her hands on the table - finally - and stares down at them. "I run into my home and try to save them but they're always out of my reach. I can...hear their screams. I had a nightmare of Sasuke dying to save Naruto. I had a nightmare of Ino being in the same position as me when I was a-almost - when I was - when - " Sakura covers her face.

You are a shinobi. Do not show your tears.

"You don't have to finish that sentence," Daichi responds immediately. "Let's move on to the aftermath. When you wake up from a nightmare, what do you do?"

Sucking in a deep breath, Sakura lowers her hands. "I usually lay in my bed contemplating what I'd do if something ever happened to the people I care about. Every answer varies."

Nodding, Daichi marks a few things on his clipboard, unclips it, flips to the next page, and reclips it. "Aside from Genma-san, who do you discuss your nightmares with?"

"No one, I suppose. Genma-san is trained to access and react in certain ways. I don't like worrying my teammates or friends. Although," Sakura entwines her fingers, "they often know if there's something 'off' about me anyway. They just don't push me for answers."

Jotting down a few more words, Daichi flips his clipboard over and places it facedown on the table. Sakura doesn't react in any manner aside from sparing it a brief glance. "One final question, Sakura-san. Do you feel safe in our village?"

"I don't particularly feel safe anywhere. With someone I trust, it's a little bit different. It's the closest I can feel to safety." Sakura unlaces her fingers and folds her arms over the table, leaning against it. Her face is blank and the following words out of her mouth raise internal alarms. "My parents were murdered inside our home while I was at school. Just a few weeks ago, our home was burnt down. Someone wanted something from my parents and they didn't hand it over without a fight. Someone was looking for something inside my home and couldn't find it so they burnt the entire place down. Tell me, Yamanaka-san, how long do you think it will be before someone comes after me directly? How long do you think it will take before someone goes after someone I care about in order to get to me?"

Sakura is led out of T&I by Inoichi, handed a thin manilla folder, and is spoken too before sent on her way.

"Inside that folder is suggestions of how to improve your sleep. I would read them over and then discuss other options with Genma-san at your next session. By then, your results will be verified and you can take the next step to bettering your life." He places his hand on Sakura's shoulder. "You handled yourself well this morning, Sakura." Inoichi nods over her shoulder. "Go relax. Maybe be with your friends? Just take it easy for a bit."

She nods and bows slightly. "Have a good afternoon, Inoichi-san." Sakura watches him wave at her before entering the large building once again. With a sigh, she turns on her heel and starts walking with no specific goal in mind.

Roughly five minutes into walking in no particular direction, someone falls into step beside her. "Good afternoon, Yamato-sensei. I hope it's been pleasant so far."

"It could be better," Yamato replies. "Sasuke and Naruto approached me this morning about training this evening? They seemed a little...frazzled, I think. Maybe nervous? I tried to calm them down but they got into an argument over something that happened a couple of weeks ago. I'm not entirely sure. I'm sure senpai knows how to deal with that."

Sakura laughs softly. They move along the hustle and bustle of civilian and shinobi alike. "Kakashi-sensei doesn't really do much with that. I think he's used to me stepping in to stop the fight before it escalates. You'd be surprised how often they would end up in the hospital just to prove a point to each other." She frowns a little. "It can be annoying."

Yamato crosses his arms over his chest. "Believe me, Sakura. I fully understand what it's like to see teammates end up in the hospital because neither wanted to back down from a petty argument." He looks down at her. "I told them tonight would be alright and we can pick up tomorrow. Really, I'm supposed to be following a schedule he left behind but considering he can't even show up on time, I've elected to ignore a lot of it."

"Kakashi-sensei can be pretty scary when he's angry," Sakura states. "Are you sure what you're doing is okay?"

"He'll understand."

"If you say so, sensei. I'm not taking the fall for you."

Yamato laughs. "I'm not worried one bit. You should join if you're up to it. I know things...have been difficult lately."

Naruto yanks on Sasuke's arm the moment he spots pink hair. "Sasuke, look! It's Sakura-chan!" Sasuke, who was in the middle of a conversation with his older brother, pauses to look in the direction Naruto is pointing at. "Sakura-chan! Sakura-chan!" Naruto yanks harder on Sasuke's arm. Sakura's head perks up and she smiles when she sees Naruto waving at her.

"Idiot!" Sasuke snaps. "Stop pulling me!"

"Naruto-kun, please stop yanking on Sasuke's arm." Naruto freezes. "I know you're excited to see Sakura-hime, but you won't get anywhere if you and Sasuke get into another fight."

Sheepishly, Naruto lets go of Sasuke and rubs the back of his head. "Sorry, sorry."

"Honestly, Naruto. You shouldn't grab onto someone like that." Sakura stops in front of him. "You should - " She cut off abruptly when Naruto wraps her up in a hug and holds her tight against his chest.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto cries dramatically. "I've missed you!"

"You literally saw her yesterday, dumbass!" Itachi's polite cough - a warning to Sasuke - would have made Sakura laugh if her ribs weren't being squished.

"Naruto-kun, I think you got your feelings across. You can let Sakura-hime go now."

"Ah, sorry!" Naruto lets Sakura go and smiles widely at her. "It just feels like we haven't seen you a lot lately." He notices Sakura's smile dims a little and quickly backtracks. "But that's okay! You're here now and we're supposed to meet with Yamato-sensei tonight for training! He promised to teach us this super cool jutsu to use on Kakashi-sensei when he gets back."

"I look forward to it, Naruto."

He grins. Team Seven is gonna' kick some ass! Just you wait, Kakashi-sensei!

"Are you feeling well, Sakura-hime?"

Sakura looks up from her position on the edge of the engawa, leaning against a pillar comfortably. Itachi is staring down at her with gentle eyes but his lips are twisted into a frown of concern. She sighs. "Yes." She looks away. "No." Shoulders slumping, she looks down at her hands. "I don't know." Sakura feels Itachi briefly run his fingers through her hair, something he used to do when she was younger months after losing her parents, before taking a seat next to her.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"That's all I seem to be doing lately." Sakura shrugs. "It doesn't really make me feel better but I guess it's better than keeping it bottled up inside all the time." She glances up at him. "I had a depression and PTSD evaluation this morning. It took longer then I thought it would. My response to the final question before it was over was...probably not the best way to respond but I think it got my point across."

She hears Itachi inhales quietly. "Got your point across?"

I doubt much would change if I tell Itachi-nii. "I was asked if I felt safe in the village and I responded with pointing out how my parents were murdered in our home and someone set my home on fire. In both situations, someone was looking for something and they weren't hiding it. I asked the evaluator how long it would take before someone came after me or someone I care about to get to me?" Sakura clenches her fists. "I don't even let my guard down when I'm around others." Sakura looks at him. "I knew you were watching me from behind for a full minute." Itachi doesn't react to that statement and she doesn't expect him too.

"I think it's wise to be cautious," Itachi replies immediately. "But I suppose I can understand the concern about you not feeling safe in your own village. Good leaders want their inhabitants to feel safe in their village. The reality is that a shinobi's lifestyle makes it difficult to even want to lower our guard." She watches him gaze at the wall directly across from them. "Enemies can wear the face of your closest friend and your teacher could become your executioner."

Sakura wants to comment on the example but refrains from doing so. "Do you think I went overboard with my answer?"

"No." She does look at him directly this time. "You bring up a valid point about the issue of safety within our village and specifically where you are concerned."

"I've just made them feel more alert than they originally were, I think."

A brief moment of silence passes before Itachi starts speaking again. "You're aware that you're being watched."

"I would be surprised if they weren't watching me. I'm a target within my own village, nii-san. I've known about being followed for years now. I lived at home instead of an orphanage. I'm the only Haruno in the village. I wouldn't be surprised if you were assigned to check up on me every once and a while as well." Sakura cracks her stiff neck, inwardly wincing at the sound. "I'm not mad or anything, because I understand the worry, but it's troublesome to know I'm being followed every second of every day."

Itachi opens his mouth to reply but is cut off before he can get any words out.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto's voice calls within the Uchiha's home. "We have to leave to meet Yamato-sensei!"

Sighing, Sakura gets up and stretches as high as she can. A few satisfying pops can be heard from her back. "I feel like I can be safe around you, Itachi-nii. It's not...much, but it's there. Thank you for listening to me."

Itachi's dark eyes roam over her face but whatever he sees satisfies him. He smiles kindly. "Of course, Sakura-hime. Enjoy your evening."

"And you as well." She gives him a little wave accompanied by a small smile and walks back into the house to meet with her teammates.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

Sometimes, we make stupid choices.

Kakashi drags his sluggish form through the east gates of Konoha after he's been cleared to enter and heads for the Hokage Tower. His pace is slow and each step sends a jolt of electrified pain up his spine. He knows he'll immediately be ordered to go to the hospital after reporting and the thought of it makes his head hurt. That; and the anxiety of being away from his students doesn't help so much either.

Specifically, the idea of being away from Sakura while she's dealing with blow after blow in the form of loss (it doesn't help). Still, he trusts Yamato's work and believes in the man's unlimited patience to work with all three of his students. It's nearing 11 PM when he finally knocks on the office door and waits, momentarily, for his request to enter to be approved.

"Enter." Kakashi opens the door, dips his head respectfully, and closes the door behind him. "Kakashi? I wasn't expecting you for another week."

"The Yutagimo mountain passage has been destroyed," he answers dutifully. Then, heart heavy and fingers aching, he pulls out a scroll from his left pocket and walks forward to place it on the desk. "The bodies of our men are sealed within. I found all of the ones on the list you gave me before I left. They need to be examined for accurate cause of death." Kakashi keeps his voice monotone. Things like these are a part of a shinobi's life. Risks and possibility of death and everything in-between.

His former teacher inhales deeply and nods, dark blue eyes roaming over his face. "How was the passage destroyed?"

"I was engaged by unknown persons. They bore no village affiliation nor any former affiliation. They used Earth-based jutsu which caused massive avalanches and craters."

"How many?" Because this is routine by now.

"No more than 50, Hokage-sama."

Kakashi receives a nod. "I trust you to fill out the mission report as detailed as possible before submitting it to my office by tomorrow evening." A moment of silence passes around the room before Minato sighs - and even now, after all these years, it's hard to think about using his former teacher's given name - and leans back in his chair. "You need to go to the hospital, Kakashi. My eyes hurt just from looking at you."

"Tenzo's last update was brief even for him and I - "

"The last week or so hasn't been very pleasant for your students." Kakashi falls silent. "Sasuke and Naruto had a fight that resulted in both of them ending up in the hospital and, presently, the only time Sakura interacts with them is during training."

"She's distancing herself?"

Minato rubs at his temples. "It's...a bit more complicated than that."

"Hok - " Kakashi sighs. "Sensei, will you tell me?"

"She was evaluated for depression and her results are concerning."

Kakashi nods slowly. "Bipolar depression or dysthymia?"

"Dysthymia*. That's not...really the complicated part. It's how she reacted to the news that complicates the matter." Minato opens the top drawer of his desk and pulls out a sealed folder. It a flash of white light, the seal is broken and he's pulling out a thin stack of papers. "When she learned of her results, she shut down in a sense. It was like I was staring at an eight-year-old Sakura all over again; just days after she learned the news of her parents."

"Is she fit for active duty?" Kakashi can work with this information. We aren't so different, eh, Sakura-chan? "Will she be allowed to participate in the chunin exams?"

"Yes, to both your questions. Yamato keeps watch of her when she's on her own and his reports relatively stay the same. She maintains a steady routine even if she isn't with Naruto and Sasuke. She has also, apparently, made a significant dent in her family's hidden scrolls. She trains regularly on her own."

"Does she continue her appointments with Genma?"

"As far as I'm aware," comes the response.

"I'm surprised you willingly came to the hospital, Hatake." The head nurse sends him a hard look when he rubs the back of his head sheepishly. "Care to share why you're visiting tonight of your own free will?"

Kakashi grins. "Well, you know how it can be, Miss Temuka. Sometimes, I just have to do what I have to do. Even," he continues when she opens her to speak, "if it's something I really don't want to do."

Temuka sighs before writing something down on her clipboard. "Either way, it's just shocking."

"So, what's the damage?" He doesn't want to be here longer than he needs to be.

Someone starts running down the hall outside of the room. "Mild chakra exhaustion. A few torn muscles. Nothing that can't be fixed within the - "

A younger nurse, maybe an intern, rushes into the room. "Miss Temuka! An Uchiha appeared in the middle of the left wing with an unconscious girl in his arms. She's not breathing very well and the majority of her chakra pathways are locked!"

"Damn it!" Temuka whips towards Kakashi. "Your condition isn't severe enough to keep my attention, Hatake. I'll send someone in to heal you shortly." The older woman rushes out of the room while ordering for the first available Hyuga to meet her in the left wing. And Kakashi would have left it alone if it weren't for his highly sensitive ears picking up on 'pink hair' from down the hall.

He's on his feet seconds later and following them despite his aching, and wholly tired, body.

There's a crowd of yammering doctors and nurses. Kakashi senses two very familiar chakras (one far, far, concerningly weaker) and maneuvers his way through the crowd with ease until he's at the front. Body half propped up from the floor via lap and arms is Sakura. Her skin is boarding on sickly pale thus causing the purple under her eyes to stick out horribly. Her skin is damp with sweat and the shallow rise and fall of her chest is concerning.

The one propping her up, in a state not much better than Sakura's, is Shisui. His sharingan is activated and spinning rapidly as he gazes down at Sakura. His expression is twisted into a frown and Kakashi can see the way he tightens his hold on Sakura when Temuka kneels at his side, speaking gently. Whatever happened has shaken the younger man horribly.

"You need to let her go," Temuka states softly. "We can't help her if you don't."

But Shisui doesn't seem to hear. He just continues to stare down at Sakura. At this point, Kakashi intervenes because he's starting to lose the sense of Sakura's chakra overall.

"Shisui," he begins in his 'I am your captain and you best obey' voice, "give Sakura to Nurse Temuka. Now."

Red eyes snap to his face in an instant. Seconds tick by before the Uchiha slowly, but surely, loosens his hold. Kakashi maintains his gaze until red eyes fade to dark grey, almost similar to his own. Shisui looks around slowly, as if reality has finally set in, and gets up swiftly when Sakura is placed on a gurney and wheeled towards the specialist section of the hospital.

Kakashi recognizes the desperate look on the other man's face and moves forward to stop him from following. "What happened?" He asks after the crowd disperses and it's only them and a few wandering nurses in the hall. "What could have possibly put her in that condition?"

"She used kinjutsu," Shisui whispers. "I don't know what it's called but I know it's kinjutsu. I felt her chakra spike for a split second and then disappear completely. It only appeared again as you felt it now. I moved to her location and witnessed something...I've never seen before. I," he licks his lips, "saw needles shooting out of her mouth?"

"Why does that sound like a question?"

Shisui raises his hands and rubs his temples. "They looked like needles. Like senbon needles but thicker. But before the needles could be released, I hear a shrill sound - like an alarm - and it...practically knocked the breath out of me. I swear I couldn't hear for several minutes. She collapsed after that and she wasn't breathing. I tried to perform CPR on her but the moment I touched her, it felt like all my energy was sucked right out of me." Shisui leans heavily against the wall. "She barely started breathing by the time I got her here."

Maybe she wanted to test something she found in the sealed scrolls?

"You got her here in time," Kakashi replies when the anxious look on Shisui's face grows. "You did well."

Shisui covers his face and groans. "I just don't understand how she could have locked her chakra pathways, taichou."

"I'm not your taichou anymore." Kakashi replies immediately, much as he would to Yamato's 'senpai.' "Also, I wasn't there to witness it but Sakura likes to take the occasional risk. Either way, I will speak to her about it and she will learn what sort of consequences genin face when they try to perform jutsu clearly out of their league."

The wince from Shisui almost makes him smile under his mask. "I feel a little sorry for her but, like, I also get it. Just," he pauses in a clear indication of trying to find the right words to continue, "don't be too hard on her. She hasn't had the best week and no one really knows why."

"Sakura can handle anything I throw at her."

And that's the end of the conversation.



Somewhere in-between.

But also stupidity.



How could I be so stupid?


She feels like she's floating.


She's floating just beneath the surface of a feel-less pond.


Eyes slowly opening, she sees the glimmering surface.

"You're almost there."

Her eyes flutter close.


There's a ripple in the water.

"Stay awake."

A hand bursts through the water and grips her hand, pulling her up up up - Sakura shoots to a sitting position and gasps for breath (as if she was really underwater) and her hands fly to her throat. There's no water. There's no pain. Just shock. Just breathing. She's breathing. Then it all comes crashing into her. A deep ache in her bones settling as if waiting for her to wake.

"Sakura, focus on me. Focus on my voice."

She blinks. "Sen - " Sakura inhales, exhales, and tries again. "S-Sensei?"

"That's a good girl."

"Sensei, w-when did you get back?"

"Three nights ago."

Finally, Sakura can see. She can see Kakashi, she can see him in the standard jounin uniform, book out and resting on her bed, and she can see the way his arms are crossed over his chest in the telltale sign of disappointment. She also notices the steady beeping from her left, the white walls, and the sterile smell that only comes with medical equipment.

"How long have I been out?"

"Two nights, three days."

Sakura internally winces. God, he sounds so angry.

"What were you thinking, Sakura?!" And he jumps right into it.

"I was practicing," she states.

Kakashi hums. It's not a pleasant sound. "You were practicing?" He uncrosses his arms and picks up his book, opening it to a random section (or so she assumes). "Did you know practicing kinjutsu without expressed permission is against the law?"

"Yes, sensei."

It was kinjutsu? Explains why he's mad.

"Hm, and explain to me why it's against the law." A command.

She looks down at the white sheets pooled at her waist. "They can result in permanent damage and, in many cases, death. Performing kinjutsu unsupervised can result in an immediate strip of rank and arrestment." Sakura grips the sheets. "Am I going to jail?"

"No." Kakashi uses the nail of his thumb to flip to the next page. "Fortunately for you, Uchiha Shisui was in the area. Neither he nor I reported your use of kinjutsu and you should be incredibly grateful. We were also quick to create a reason for why you were in such a bad condition when Shisui brought you to the hospital. Kids are so reckless when they overhear parts of a conversation not meant for their ears and try to attempt something they're not ready for." It's a plausible excuse where she's concerned but Kakashi is still giving her the cold shoulder. "Had it not been for Shisui's compassion for your case and, ultimately, my desire to see you succeed in rank, I would have reported you to the Hokage immediately."

Sakura is no fool. She knows where this is going. "Then what is my punishment?"

"You'll work until you're ready to drop and then you'll work some more, and you'll - solely - help me out with some chores that really need to be done. I really want you to understand why you shouldn't make foolish decisions by yourself. We will also discuss the distance you're placing between yourself and them. Prepare yourself, Sakura, because the next few months will not be wholly pleasant in regards to training and mediocre tasks."

"Yes, sensei."

"By the way," he continues, "Naruto and Sasuke aren't aware of your condition."

"I'll tell them the truth." Sakura can trust them.

"Or not," Kakashi states.

Her eyes narrow. "Don't mess with them, sensei."

"You're not in a position to tell me what to do. Besides," a smile can barely be seen under his mask, "I do always like to tease my cute little students."

Ino watches, gaze half-lidded, as her dad reads over the various documents on his desk. She surprised him with a visit - new flowers to keep in the vase near the window - and had interrupted a seemingly serious conversation between him and some man who likes to chew on senbon needles. The unknown man was as polite as ever but he didn't stick around long. Ino doesn't think she's seen him around before.

"If you're bored, you can go home."

She sighs. "I mean, I could? But it's so hot outside right now! I would melt on the way."

Her dad chuckles, eyes playfully rolling at her comment. "You want to be a shinobi, right?" She nods. "Then you'll have to get used to all sorts of weather." He pauses to glance at her over a stack of papers. "Maybe I should strongly encourage Asuma to treat you to weather training. Misty winds and harsh winters and bleeding hot suns. It'll shape you up real quick."

"You spend most of your day in a building," Ino exclaims. "When was the last time you experienced harsh climate?!"

But he only laughs. "Youth these days." Then, to her amazement, he starts forming hand signs. "Pay attention, Ino. This technique will help you cool your body. Only use it sparingly, though. You shouldn't waste away your chakra just to avoid a hot day."

Ino focuses on the signs his hands' form, memorizing the order of which they come, and nods. "Maybe I can show this to Sakura? She's been a little hot-headed lately and I think it might have something to do with the heat."

"Is she already out of the hospital?"

She hums, attempting to re-create the pattern, until the words register. "Hospital?! She's in the hospital?!

Her dad looks bewildered. "She's been there for three days, Ino."

"I didn't know that!"

"You're her best friend," he replies slowly. Unsurely. Ino never experienced a time before now that made her want to flip a desk so badly.

"There are days that we don't talk!" Ino gets up and straightens out her clothes. "We all need time to ourselves! I don't push her!" She's out the door before waiting for a reply.

Sakura, what are you doing to yourself?!

"We want to see Sakura-chan!"

Sakura sighs as Naruto's voice drifts into her room from below the window.

"You can't avoid them forever, Sakura-chan~" She looks at her unwanted guest before turning away. "Aw, don't be like that!"

"I've only just managed to reassure Ino that I'll be fine and now Naruto and Sasuke are worried."

"In their defense, they've been a little more worried about you than Ino because they actually have to be around you most days. At least for now. Who knows where any of you will be after the chunin exams?"

She snorts. "Promotion would be nice."

"Not ignoring your friends would be nicer."

"Are you my babysitter or my therapist?" Snarky. She's being too snarky.

Shisui merely grins up at her - the height difference between bed and chair is almost funny - and motions to himself with enthusiasm. "Why can't I be a glorified babysitter and a therapist, Sakura-chan?"

"I'll let Genma-san know you're trying to steal his job."

She receives a wince in response. "No thanks, Sakura-chan. I might be fast but Genma has the power of perseverance at a level of which I will never achieve."

"Fine, just call them - "

"Sakura-chan!" But Naruto is leaping through the window with Sasuke right behind him. Both have small assortments of flowers. "Are you feeling any better? Are you hungry?! Do you want me to bring you ramen?! I can do it, Sakura-chan. Just for you, I would. Or maybe you want some of your fancy tea or maybe you want - "

"Breathe," Sasuke interrupts. "And give her a chance to respond."

Naruto breathes in deeply and nods. "How are you feeling, Sakura-chan? I can't believe you got scared of a chipmunk and fainted."

I will end you one day, Kakashi-sensei.

"Chipmunks can be quite scary, Naruto-chan."

You're next on my list, Shisui-nii.

"Why are you still here?" Sasuke directs his question to Shisui.

"I'm the handsome knight that rescued this fair maiden, Sasuke-chan!" He moves to place his hand on Sakura's shoulder but she dodges it effectively.

"Rude!" Shisui cries.

Sakura sighs. "I would like to speak to Naruto and Sasuke." When Shisui doesn't get up immediately, she rolls her eyes. "Alone, please."

Even though he's smiling, Sakura can see the caution in his eyes. She's sure Sasuke notices as well. Her teammate shifts closer to her bed while his eyes remain on Shisui, staring in that calculative way of his. Something eerily similar to his older brother when he's in what their mother would call a 'mood' or something along those lines. She doesn't pay attention much. Itachi has always been this private sort of person for the most part.

"Sure," Shisui replies happily. "I'll just go for a walk, maybe visit a friend, or go bother Itachi. Are you being discharged today?"

He already knows the answer but Sakura chooses to humor him.

"Within the hour."

"Hm, good. See you guys later."

The very moment he closes the door behind him, Naruto loses his worried look and merely frowns at her. Sasuke crosses his arms over his chest, dark eyes narrowed at her.

"I know a lot of people think I'm stupid," Naruto starts, "but I know damn well that you didn't faint from some chipmunk attack."

Sasuke cocks an eyebrow when she glances at him.

Sakura sighs. "I told Kakashi-sensei neither of you would fall for that. I don't know why he even tried."

"What really happened, Sakura?" Sasuke asks as he walks around to the table next to her bed and places the flowers on top of it. "You've been distant lately and we hardly see you."

When Naruto is close enough, he takes her hand and lays his small bundle of flowers in her lap. "We've missed you. Sasuke won't say it because he's too damn prideful," Sasuke snorts but doesn't deny it, "but I will. You hardly speak to us outside of training. I don't like it."

"I'm...dealing with a lot right now, Naruto." Sakura glances at their linked hands. She squeezes it. "I promise I'll tell you as soon as I figure out what's going on in my head."

"Will you at least tell us how you ended up here? I swear you're in here every other week!"

Sakura closes her eyes briefly. Now or never. "I was practicing kinjutsu."

"That's dangerous," Naruto tells her.

"And stupid," Sasuke throws out.

She ignores Sasuke. "I know. One of the scrolls I found really caught my interest and I wanted to try. I didn't know it was kinjutsu at the time. It wasn't labeled as such and I let my curiosity get the better of me."

"Are you really going to be okay?"

"I'll be out of this room soon enough, remember? How about we spar and then I treat you guys to ramen?"

"Sparring right after being released from the hospital?" Three pairs of eyes snap towards the window. Kakashi is crouched on the ledge, one hand up in a greeting. "Do you think that's very smart?"

Stretching, Sakura lets go of Naruto's hand and throws the bed sheet off her. "What am I supposed to do? Relax? The chunin exams are much too close for me to take any more time off, sensei. Besides, I think we're all due for a little friendly sparring." She looks at Naruto and Sasuke. "Wouldn't you say?"


Sasuke nods.

"Kids these days," Kakashi shakes his head woefully. "Too much energy. Always gotta' go, go, go!" And then there's a gleam in his eyes. "You know...Gai has been looking for a challenge for his students. Would your friendly sparring extend to them?"

"Today? No. I just want it to stay within the team. Tomorrow?" Sakura shrugs. "Tomorrow, we can do team versus team. Let's consider it a prelude to what the chunin exams might be like."

"Hm," Kakashi taps a gloved finger over his lower masked face. "You have an interesting idea, Sakura-chan. I like it!" He finally hops down from the window ledge. "Let's get your discharge paperwork filled out and move from - "

She's on her feet before he can even finish his sentence. "Where are my sandals? I need to get out of here."

Naruto laughs at her eager expression.

"Did you really think the chipmunk story would work with us?" Sasuke asks while he walks next to Kakashi. Sakura is practically being dragged out of the hospital by an excited Naruto. "Even for you, that's a poor attempt of a cover story."

Kakashi chuckles. "You kids are no fun these days." But his mood immediately shifts to serious. "Neither you nor Naruto can talk about what Sakura told you. Not to your parents or siblings or cousins. This stays between us."

"Shisui already knows," Sasuke points out. "It's obvious. I don't know if he told my brother."

"He didn't," Kakashi replies instantly. "There are some things not meant to be shared, Sasuke, and this is one of them. If Sakura is found out and reported, she'll be tried before the village council and the Hokage. Alone."

Sasuke nods. "My brother wouldn't do that." Kakashi only stares at him. "I won't say anything. Naruto understands, too."


"You still punch as hard as ever, Sakura-chan!"

"You've gotten faster, Sakura."

"Sasuke, I want you to try your fireball jutsu against me."

"Hey, asshole! Are you listening to Sakura-chan?!

"Naruto, you can't rely endlessly on your shadow clones!

"Sakura's right, idiot. You need to up your technique."

"Sasuke, you're speed is dropping. You need to catch up to Naruto. Sakura, move ahead. Naruto, stop looking behind yourself. You need to move faster." The sound of a page being turned quickly follows. "Maybe Yamato has been too soft on you guys. I remember a time when you were able to land hits on me - " Crack! Boom! The sound of pages being torn quickly follows. "You three have until I stop speaking to get as far away from me as possible."

Yamato gazes down at the members of Team Seven (his students?), each sprawled across the ground in various ways. They're obviously bone tired and in need of a warm bath, a good meal, and peaceful sleep. Sakura, in particular, hasn't spent much time with either Sasuke or Naruto recently and seems reluctant to move from her place between them.

"Where are you staying tonight, Sakura?" He asks when no one speaks for a full minute.

She sits up and cracks her neck. The sound even makes Kakashi raise a concerned eyebrow. "Genma-san says I'm not allowed to sleep on his couch tonight and I can't just invite myself over to anyone's house."

"You're always welcomed at my home," Sasuke throws out.

"Mine, too." Naruto yawns.

"Yeah, and Ino's." Sakura makes a disgusted faced when she touches her hair. "I want my home back, Yamato-sensei. I really miss my tea room and garden. I miss running the length of my property in the morning."

Yamato nods. This, he understands. "Soon," he promises. "I've been informed that you can move back in within the week. For tonight, pick a place."

"You're not allowed to go to a hotel," Naruto states. "You never 'overstay' your welcome or whatever it is that you said last time."

"My mom likes having you over," Sasuke nods in response to Naruto's comment. "Something about needing more girls around our home."

Sakura snorts. "Your mom just likes to use me to tag team against your father or brother. Both, really."

"Even so, she still likes you."

"And my mom loves you," Naruto states instantly.

She rolls her eyes. "Well, I can't do both."

"We could always camp outside!" Naruto grins. "You don't have to choose between anyone!"

"I- " Sakura pauses. "That's actually not a bad idea, Naruto. When's the last time we went camping?"

Sasuke answers. "The weekend before we graduated the Academy. My mom made smores."

"That would be a good bonding exercise, senpai." Yamato grins at Kakashi when his eyebrow twitches. "After all, it could help them in the long run."

"Go home and pack lightly," Kakashi states without looking at anyone. He looks at Sakura. "Or wherever you're keeping your things. Don't eat anything. You'll be catching your own food tonight."

"Yes, sensei."






Minato counts and re-counts and re-counts one more time. Five letters from Haruno Gentana, each requesting an audience with Sakura; among other things that relate to all things Haruno. Three of them mention the fire that burned down the Haruno compound - gossip spreads far too quickly - and the words leave a sour taste in his mouth. Words like 'reckless' and 'ill-equipped' and 'unfit' are thrown around as if this man was not belittling his nephew's only child.

"This man," he mumbles quietly before sighing. "Weasel." A tall figure dressed in a black hooded cloak, weasel-themed mask on their face, appears in front of him before he can so much as blink. "Inform your section to double its guard around Haruno Sakura. Diplomats, nobility, and influencers will begin arriving in Konoha soon and some of them are not fully welcomed."

"Hokage-sama?" Weasel's monotone voice immediately follows; it is clear that there are many questions within one.

Resisting the urge to sigh, he responds. "Members of the Haruno clan will be among those who arrive to view the chunin exams. They are not to be trusted alone with her for any reason." None of the letters specified a date at which they will arrive and that concerns him. "I am of the belief that they will attempt to convince her to return with them at some point during their stay. That is something that cannot happen."

"Please," Kizashi whispers, a thin trail of blood sliding past his red tainted lips. "I know she c-can't be safe forever but for as l-long as you can, watch over her. I beg you."

Not far from him, eyes open but unseeing, lies his wife. Even in death, Mebuki maintains a firm grip on a picture of Sakura. Her other hand, bruised and bleeding, is extended towards Kizashi. Members of ANBU have already surrounded her body, not moving to touch her. Minato knows the aura of mourning. These are Mebuki's subordinates.

"You have my word," Minato swears, gently taking his hand. "For as long as I can."

Kizashi smiles a little before his eyes closed and his hand goes limp.

"Do you have reason to believe they will harm her?" Weasel asks.

"Physically? No. But I wouldn't put it above them to attack her situation. Then, and now." Minato links his fingers together, brows furled to complete his serious expression. "Watch over her. This is your mission. Once they are outside of these walls, you will resume your duties. Am I clear?"

"Yes, Hokage-sama."