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Chapter Text

The sun set on the horizon, casting the path and the buildings into brazen shades of gold. Despite the beauty of the scene before her, however, Sakura was otherwise occupied.

Hours had passed since the retrieval squad had departed. And though she had long wiped away those tears and had even managed to finish the grocery errands her mother had rudely barked at her on her way out (didn’t she care that Sakura was absolutely miserable?), she could no longer ignore the sinking feeling in her stomach that had been present all afternoon.

Weak, the Voice snarled in her head. Weak, weak, weak!

Sakura scowled.

Since the events of a few hours earlier, the Voice—that insidious force that had helped Sakura shove Ino out during the Chunin exams—had been unusually active. And while she was no stranger to it whispering outrageous things, it had never been this vocal.

Righteous indignation alone kept her back straight as she continued her trip back home. Weak? Sakura had done absolutely nothing wrong; she had tried convincing Sasuke with her deep love for him, and when that had failed, there had been no other option. She couldn’t hurt the boy she liked, kunoichi or not.

Fighting and scars and blood had never interested her beyond what was minimally required to beat Ino. It was because of Ino, really, that she had decided to become a kunoichi in the first place. Sakura couldn't really remember ever having had conscious preoccupations with the shinobi lifestyle until meeting her. In the name of competition, nonetheless, she had risen to the top in their academics tests. With regard to taijutu and the more physical aspects of their training, though...well, she had more or less resigned herself to letting Ino take the prize--not unlike how she was content now to let Naruto take up the mantle of bringing Sasuke back.

Sakura couldn’t let her muscles get too big, after all. She couldn’t let her body get scarred, because that’s not what a lady was supposed to look like. Brawling and getting dirty were all well and good for boys, but a decent girl simply didn't demean herself like that. She was happy, in fact, to let Ino win in that particular arena. Incidentally, her mother had made her peace with Sakura’s lifestyle with compromises like these, and her father--a civilian merchant--had yet to say anything otherwise.

And who needed taijutsu anyway? Sakura was good at being a kunoichi. Her Academy teachers told her so. She had about an average amount of chakra, they said, but she also had excellent chakra control, which would make her a good medic-nin if she ever chose it—

Why don’t you make your precious Sasuke-kun bleed yourself? Pretty, pretty blood, I bet he has.

Sakura paled in revulsion at the Voice’s words. “You are violent and crazy!” For as far as she could see, the road was abandoned. Still, she lowered her voice. “I would never do that to Sasuke-kun—or anybody!”

You’re not going to be able to keep me locked away forever.

Oh, yes she was, Sakura thought vehemently to herself.

Her toes stubbed against a rock in her path, and she heard a tearing sound below her. Scowling downwards, she saw that her sandal had gotten caught and torn. She bent to her knees to try and fix the sandal. If she could grab that loose end and make a make-shift knot over here…

The milk bottle lay forgotten at her side, attention devoted to the sandal she was attempting to salvage. The sooner she fixed it, the sooner she could make the rest of the trip home and spend the rest of the evening crying into her pillow. Biting her lip, she grabbed both ends and stretched them toward each other to tie.

She paused when she heard footsteps.

“What’s that?” Sakura whispered, heart pulsing rapidly in her chest. Fingers shaking, she stood up from her kneeling position.


Years later, Sakura would think back to that night. She would think, mainly, about how quickly it all happened—how protracted build ups and prolonged suspense were attributes of stories and kabuki, not real life.

Because in real life, Sakura encountered none of those things.

“Look what we have here.”

From the park’s bushes on either side of her stepped three grown men. Civilians; they wore no hitai-ate. But they were lean and muscled, with a look in their eyes that made her hand go straight for her pouch. Her stomach churned when she realized that she had left it at home.

 “Pink hair,” one of them rasped, inching closer. “That’s rare, isn’t it?”

“What do you want?” Sakura demanded. Her mind fumbled to understand what was happening before her. She had walked this path so many times without a problem. Why now?

The third man stepped forward. By the way the other two gave way for them, it appeared that he was the leader. He was the biggest of the three, with black hair and wide, dark eyes.

“I’m a ninja,” Sakura warned. “Don’t come any closer.”

“Really?” the third man drawled, white teeth flashing. “Don’t look it.”

Sakura’s heart plunged into her stomach. No Kunai or shuriken. If they stepped closer, she would—she would have to fight them hand-to-hand.

When the first man laughed nastily and made a grab for her waist, Sakura darted back. She saw the second man move from behind her, but wasn’t fast enough to avoid it. He fisted her hair, thick, calloused hands scraping and drawing blood from her scalp to restrain her.

Sakura twisted—ignoring the sharp pain of hair being ripped from her scalp—to send one leg flying high. Her foot landed squarely on his face, but her strength must have been nothing compared to his mass, and he only staggered back.

“You little bitch,” he snarled. Lunging forward, he punched her right in the stomach. Sakura’s mind went blank with the pain. Thick, cloying liquid dribbled from her mouth.

No. No. This couldn't be happening. Everything had just been so--

“Don’t damage the organs,” the third man hissed. She felt his hands wrap around her arms.

Organ traffickers, she processed in terror. Beginning to cry now, she scrabbled wildly against him, nails flying like claws as she searched for his face. She heard him curse behind her when her nails raked against his cheek. Another hand reached his eyes, and he dropped her reflexively.

When the next came at her, she was more prepared. She feinted to the side like she had been trained at the academy and lashed out with one hand, pushing fingers through his eyeballs and into his head. He released a scream and crumpled to his knees.

One down, the Voice growled in her head, Two more.

But unlike the first, the second man managed to catch her arms. The third man grabbed her legs, neutralizing their maneuverability as easily as the man holding her arms.

“Get off!” Sakura screamed.

“You’ve been more trouble than I anticipated,” the third man chuckled darkly.

“Help! Help!”

She felt the man behind her bend down, sniffing her hair and grunting at the scent of her shampoo. “Hey, she smells good…What do you think?”

“I think it’s only fair compensation, given what she’s done to our friend over there.”

Sakura’s eyes flew open in primal panic at the implication laden in their tone. Wilder than ever, she raged against their hold on her. She could no longer see through the tears in her eyes, the world a blur. Why couldn’t she fight them? Why wouldn’t Sasuke-kun help her?

She felt hands begin tearing at her clothes, and she screamed, loud and high. “No, no, no…let go! Please, please, help! Sasuke-kun!”

He’s not here, the Voice roared.

“Help—help me,” Sakura choked out, limbs twisting, “Kakashi-sensei! Kakashi-sensei!

They’re not here, Sakura-chan, the Voice told her remorselessly, mockingly. Sakura stilled at the Voice, suddenly numb to the hands at the Voice’s unbelievable coldness. Without warning, it was like her consciousness had been transported to another plane, where it was only her and the Voice. A colder, monstrous version of herself with sharp teeth and terrifying eyes gazed back at her in her mind’s eye, smiling slightly. The creature’s mouth opened:

If you want this to stop

Sakura’s jaw tightened, breath heaving.

—LET ME OUT!

It was a deafening, primal roar, so guttural that she could feel its force vibrate through her bones.

After that, Sakura knew only darkness.

Chapter Text

She woke to find herself staring without comprehension at two dead bodies.

Milk…she could smell its sweet sourness in the air…

Liquid, coating her hands. Not milk.

A groan sounded to her left. Nerves frayed, her head snapped painfully to its origin. The first man, the one who had attacked first, stirred. Blood streamed from his closed eyes as he fought to get himself to his knees. He whimpered, hands searching around him for the other men. When he encountered dead weight, he let out a horrified groan.

A loud choking noise emerged from Sakura’s throat, her eyes bugging in terror and revulsion as she understood what had happened. Her hands snapped to her neck and left inadvertent, morbid handprints. She couldn’t breathe. She abandoned the destroyed milk and fled, sprinting as hard as she could.

She stopped only when her stomach could no longer keep down its contents. When she straightened, despite what she had expended, the thick, cloying scent of copper clogged her nostrils. She could feel it, the slickness on her face, dripping down her chin.

When she had reached up to wipe her mouth, she had coated her face in blood. Their blood.

Sakura sobbed, wanting the stickiness to vanish from her fingers.

Had she killed them? No, not her. She couldn’t have. But—but if not her, then who? Who else could have done it?

Her heart pounded in her chest.

Oh god—oh god, she had done it. It had to have been her. Couldn’t have been anyone else.

She gasped for breath. She sank to her knees and wiped her hands furiously in the ground. What had she done what had she done what she done—

Salty tears mixed into mud in the dirt below her. Eventually, some still-rational part of her realized she needed to get home before her parents noticed anything amiss. Because if anyone found out—

No one could ever find out. Not her mother . Not Ino. Not Sasuke-kun.

Somehow, she mustered the strength to pick herself up, to force her limbs into motion before the first rays of dawn. She stumbled home and scrubbed and scrubbed until her fingers were bleeding.    

When she woke up the next morning, she remembered something vaguely about cold water and bleach and a painful throbbing in her hands. Her father read the newspaper and her mother sipped her coffee and complaining about the milk she had forgotten to pick up again and Sakura…

Sakura was a convulsing, bleeding mess—oozing red and puss and tissue and bone. An open wound.


 

Sakura was no stranger to death. She had been there when Gato and Zabuza and Haku had died—she’d smelled the stench of burning, rotting bodies before. But she had never killed anyone.

She could hardly have imagined until that point what a distinction that would make.  

Unsurprisingly, as she had resorted to in the past to cope with more mundane sources of stress (her mother’s nagging, Sasuke not liking her, etcetera) she developed a routine to ward off insanity. She dragged herself home. She took a cold shower to wash off again the blood from her skin and hands long after its visible disappearance (she knew it was still there, in the lines of her hands and skin). Then, she grabbed a handful of sleeping pills and went to bed.

 


Two weeks later, the retrieval squad returned. A day later, Naruto announced that he was going to leave Konoha to travel with and learn from the legendary sannin Jiraiya.

The announcement weighed heavily on Sakura’s chest as she exited Shikamaru’s hospital room, leaving Ino alone with her teammate. Without the weight of the flowers she had been carrying, her hands began to tremble uncontrollably.

They stilled momentarily when she caught sight of a tall figure leaning nonchalantly against the corridor outside of Naruto’s hospital room.

“Kakashi-sensei,” Sakura burst out in dazed shock. She tried to cover it. “H-how are you?”

Dark eyes rose slowly to survey her.

“Neither especially good nor especially bad,” Kakashi returned evenly. The book remained in front of his face.

“Oh.” The following words tumbled out in a rush, chinks in her tenuous calm. “I was wondering when we were going to start training again.” Was her voice higher than usual?

The book finally lowered. Sakura blinked.

Why did the suggestions of smile on his face look so… fake, she thought with sudden discomfort. Were his lips even curving beneath the mask? She felt unsettled, suddenly painfully aware that she had never had anything resembling a rapport with Kakashi, which even Naruto had been able to boast.

“I believe the Hokage has disbanded Team Seven, as two thirds of our team has left or will be leaving Konoha.”

Sakura stared uncomprehendingly. “Are—are you saying you won’t be teaching me anymore?”

He inclined his head, eyes crinkling further. “Precisely so. The godaime has decided that I return to my ANBU duties full-time.”

The hair rose on her arms.

She would have missed it if she hadn’t been looking at him so closely. Just for an instant, there was the minutest change in his demeanor. She couldn't explain it, except that the hair on her arms rose.

(And, perhaps,she had the sudden sense that the man before her wasn’t the one she thought she had known).

Her voice was small when she found it. “Who’s training me from now, then?”

Kakashi’s gaze landed somewhere above her head. He gave another fake, little smile, eyes crinkling above his mask. “I’m sure you’ll find someone. Gai is always eager to take on another student.”

Sakura felt her fingers begin to tremble again. She shoved them under her armpits in a futile attempt to still them. She had killed—She—she needed to be taught how to—

“Wait,” Sakura tried desperately, “I’m sure you could train me when you’re not on missions. I don’t mind waiting around. I can practice when you’re gone—”

He was pretending to smile. He had to be. How else could his eyes be so cold? “To be honest, Sakura-chan, given your skillset and temperament, I would advise you to pursue becoming a medic-nin. I would bother the hokage about that—they say she’s the best.”

With a nonchalant wave, he vanished, leaving Sakura by herself.

A medic-nin waits for the injury, the Voice snarled. If you had waited to be hurt in the park that night, you know what would have happened. I want other people’s pretty, pretty blood—I can’t get it if you’re dead.

Sakura flinched as the Voice echoed in her head.

 


 

The hokage.

In the madness of the next week, through nights she couldn't sleep and mornings she felt sick and lunches where couldn't meet anyone's gaze, she latched onto those words like a starving man glimpsing food. She needed something. She needed someone. (To give her directions and to tell her how to train and what to wear and how to move on--)

When the dark-haired woman at the front desk saw her a week later, she didn’t look surprised. She smiled at Sakura. “If you’re here to see Tsunade-sama, she’s on the door to the right.”

Sakura moved to the instructed door. Pushing it open, she reached a circular room with a panoramic view of Konoha. Sitting in front of the large window was the Godaime. Tsunade looked up from a thick stack of papers with a menacing scowl on her face.

“Haruno Sakura,” the woman noted coolly. “How may I help you?”

Sakura paused, suddenly overwhelmed. She could feel, with uncomfortable sensitivity, the tendrils of hair plastered to her neck.

“I…I want you to take me on as your apprentice," she strangled out.

Want?”

“I need it,” Sakura returned immediately, desperation seeping into her voice and rendering it sharp. "Please."

The Hokage planted both hands on her desk and stood up with sudden force. “Even if I were inclined, it would be far from easy. What I have achieved in medical ninjutsu has taken me what has been a lifetime for most shinobi. To be my successor in the hospital—”

“I don’t want that.”

Shock registered on Tsunade’s face, eyes widening. Then, her gaze narrowed. “Then what do you want from me?”

“Training in taijutsu. Ninjutsu.” Sakura said softly. “Some medical ninjutsu as well.”

Teach me to fight so that the Voice leaves me alone, she thought. Teach me to fight so that they do too in my nightmares.

Tsunade examined her harshly and demanded, “Why not accept the title?”

 “I—I don’t think I have the right…temperament.” Letting herself into a hospital room with civilians, into surgery when she had killed like—like that…It made Sakura want to vomit, the very idea of her being someone’s doctor.

The Hokage’s jaw tightened, and she leaned back, crossing her arms. “On the contrary,” the woman told her, “I’ve been told you have the perfect temperament. Excellent chakra control, academically strong, non-confrontational tendencies. You prefer to avoid fighting, isn’t that right? And frankly, your taijutsu and other ninjutsu have not developed much beyond your Academy days.”

Sakura didn’t know what else to say. So she said nothing.

“The other old fools on the council would have been thrown out of this office for sheer impertinence.” Tsunade gazed at her in silence for a moment. Then, unexpectedly, she sighed.

“Alright, I’ll take you on.”

Before she could even blink in disbelief, Sakura was unceremoniously booted out of the office and told to return at five the next morning.


To her surprise, the hokage kept her word. The next day, Tsunade drew up an official contract stating that she had taken Sakura on as an apprentice. Later, she heard that she had declared Hinata her protege in the hospital.

For a while, Sakura felt like she was stuck in a daze. It had all happened so anti-climatically--so....easily--that it took some time for reality to sink in.

The Hokage started them both on medical ninjutsu, but separately. Sakura's lessons were purely fundamental; Hinata's were likely far more complex. As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, she started to wonder how the soft-spoken, reserved girl was doing under such an intense scrutiny. Sakura, for that matter, was having difficulty. Perhaps because it had been a long time since someone else had catered their lessons specifically toward her. Or—she was forced to acknowledge—maybe it was because Sakura had never truly been interested in being a shinobi before or meeting anyone else's expectations.

“Place your hands above the fish,” she was instructed for nearly one week straight.

“Okay,” Sakura responded, usually nervous.

“Apply chakra.”

“I am.”

“Not correctly.”

“I—I’m sorry—”

“No point apologizing. Pull your hands away. Try again.”

“Okay.” A pause as she shifted.

After failure followed what usually seemed like a random question: “What is the most standardized chakra point on any antigonia?”

To which she responded with the requisite answer (she had always been good at memorizing): “The vessel beneath its eye.”

It was always the missing piece.

“Enter the chakra system through there and then feel the rest out.”

“…Ah.”

"Master this, and then it won't take you long to learn how to can scan a human."

It was grueling. It was demanding. It was everything Sakura wanted.

But it wasn't every day, because the hokage was a busy woman. And the most disappointing part, was that no matter how much she occupied herself during the day, the nightmares didn't stop.


After she completed basic medical training, Tsunade started to take her out to the training fields three times a week.

The first time she saw her mentor shatter a boulder with her muscled, human arm, Sakura’s jaw dropped. She didn’t even feel the slivers of rock as they sliced her skin.

For weeks, she worked hard, training for hours outside of her scheduled time with Tsunade, to learn the same monstrous strength. If she had been stronger that night, she wondered in a growing frenzy, would it have gotten as far? Would the Voice have needed to have taken over? Would she have had to kill those men? Would she have these nightmares now? (The what-ifs were incessant.)

The Voice, in turn, was derisive about what it perceived to be insufficient diligence.

Lazy bitch.

Sakura clenched her teeth until blood flooded her mouth, moving through katas in her backyard even despite the pain, no matter what it said.

If you can concentrate chakra in your fists to make your punches stronger, what else do you think can do?

The Voice was a satanic presence, whispering dangerous, insidious things to her when she was exhausted, weak, and desperate to be more. And though she had promised herself to never, ever listen to it again, promised to convince herself so strongly of its non-existence that she would forget it was there entirely, it had driven her nearly mad.

With sweat and tears and a migraine that threatened to split her head from its insistent raging, Sakura inevitably gave in.

She ended up in the hospital the next day, waiting for Hinata to attend to her.

“How can I help you today, Sakura-san?” the Hyuuga heir asked quietly, veins protruding around her eyes as she scanned Sakura.

“I was…experimenting with concentrating chakra in other parts of my body.”

Hinata’s eyes widened. “As your attending physician, Sakura-san, and because Tsunade-sama wants me to handle all your injuries for my training, I must warn you that what you are doing is extremely d-dangerous. Even one instant of distraction and you could risk permanently injuring yourself.”

Sakura nodded evasively at that. She knew that the chakra paths were thickest in the hands and feet, making it easiest for concentrating chakra there, while other locations were narrower and therefore riskier. It hadn’t been rationality that had led her here. She tilted her head back as the cool sensation of Hinata’s chakra began working on her legs.

In the middle of her work, Hinata paused and asked with slight hesitance, “H-how is Naruto-kun?”

Sakura opened her eyes and spotted the slightly pink tinge to the other girl’s face. It reminded her of Sasuke (the-way-he-left), which reminded her of—

“He writes to Iruka-sensei regularly,” she answered stiltedly, “Iruka-sensei fills me in whenever we run into each other. You should visit him.”

“Oh,” Hinata murmured, gaze falling shyly. “I couldn’t do that.”

“From what I’ve heard, he’s doing fine.”

Hinata nodded and then pulled away to lift her clipboard. She marked some things down and then looked back. “That’s all, Sakura-san. No more training for today, but you should be fine by tomorrow.”

“Thanks,” Sakura said, sliding off the hospital bed. She left the room and made her way to the hospital entrance.

The hot summer sun beat down on her as she stepped outside. Her old short-sleeved qipao dress, unfortunately, would have fared better in the hot weather than what she was wearing. But Sakura had turned fourteen and grown several inches over the summer, also outgrowing the dress. Keeping in mind what was sustainable for the amount of money she was currently making, she now wore the standard issue black pants and black short-sleeved shirt common among shinobi along with a grey flak jacket.

Without the recourse of training to occupy her mind, she searched desperately for something to do.

Ultimately, she decided to make her way to the archive library. 

She flashed her ID to the chunin stationed at the desk, who waved her in without looking. She was a familiar face here; if training grounds had been Sasuke and Naruto's territory, this had previously been hers. At first, she traced her old path without thought, heading towards the upper most floor without much consideration. As a genin still, most of the library’s contents remained inaccessible to Sakura. 

But she paused half way to her destination. Because today, of all days, the desk stationed in the front of the third landing was conspicuously empty. In the back of her mind, she wondered if it had anything to do with the curvaceous redhead Sakura had seen around the jounin on previous visits.

She didn't think about that for very long, though, when she realized what she was feeling: a vague sentiment, an echo of something she wanted before, childishly, selfishly. She had always wanted to know what was there. 

After a blink, she moved.

Spurred by a burst of curiosity, probably for the first time in months, Sakura left the stairs for the long lines of scrolls. She found kanji indicating the categorization of shelves for the floor. Her gaze paused at the sign erected near the back-right corner.

‘SUMMONING SCROLLS’

Sakura's eyebrows rose.

Tsunade had a slug summon. The hokage had talked about it the previous day, fondly, as though it were a companion rather than a weapon, something to confide in rather than simply weaponize...

If she were to pick a scroll here, Sakura thought abruptly. If she made a contract with a summon...it would be bound to her. Like the slug was to Tsunade.

Sworn to secrecy, even.

And then, maybe, she could finally say the words (I killed them) with no one else the wiser, no one to look at her differently, no one else to ever know--

Urgency gripped with sudden ferocity.

The shelf of scrolls towered above her. How tall, she could not say. The scrolls themselves had been shrunken down in order to all fit within the racks. Unlike other sections of the floor, the library hadn’t bothered to place special barrier jutsus here. Strange.

Sakura snapped out a hand to touch one of the scrolls. She hissed almost instantly, dropping it as a burning sensation coursed through her hand.

So the scrolls themselves prevented unwanted user? Fine. One of them, out of the thousands there, had to accept her.

Scowling, Sakura passed her hand over more scrolls. In minutes, she finished scanning all the racks she could reach from the floor. Her gaze moved upward. With a quick glance to make sure the desk was still empty, she directed chakra toward her legs and began walking up the tall shelf to access the higher levels.

At each new level, Sakura crouched and passed her hands over the scrolls. Welts, red and livid, criss-crossed her hands now from the thousands of scrolls she must have touched.

Just as she began to contemplate leaving, however, her hand passed over one scroll without any pain. Blinking, she touched it again to make sure she had not imagined it. Her hand felt exactly the same as it had before.

Without thinking much of it, Sakura grabbed the scroll. She slipped it into her flak jacket and flipped off the shelf, landing silently on the granite floor once again. She made her way down the staircase and then swiftly out the entrance.

Back outside, heart pounding and feeling vaguely delirious, Sakura sprinted to the edge of the village to a lone training ground she knew teams rarely visited. While the Voice’s chilling laughter echoed triumphantly in her head, she pulled out the scroll silently and tilted it to read the etching on the end of the wooden roller: 烏

Crow, Sakura mouthed to herself with slight surprise.

Rolling it out, she found out that the scroll was far longer than she had initially thought.

There were instructions, she noted.She followed them. She bit into her thumb, signed her name, impressed her bloodied finger prints into the paper, and made the hand signs: boar, dog, bird, monkey, and ram.

She slammed her hand down into the ground.

For a moment, nothing happened—then smoke burst forth from the scroll and blocked her vision. When the smoke dissipated, she saw the profile of a lone, normal-sized crow, sitting right where her hand had made contact with the ground.


 

 

"Milk…she could smell its sweet sourness in the air…

Liquid, coating her hands. Not milk."

- an incredible sketch of younger Sakura by SweetGazelle

Chapter Text

Its feathers were an inky, seamless black that gleamed under the sunlight. It was a fine-looking crow, she supposed, as far as crows went. Then the crow turned. And the eye that met her was not black, like the one that she had seen before, but a terribly, familiar red.

Sharingan, the Voice snarled.

Strangely, her mind went immediately not to the obvious suspect, but to Kakashi.

“H-how,” Sakura stammered, taking a step back. A second later, she was in a world of red, blood dripping at the corners of the landscape, the crow in front of her.

“You summoned me,” she heard in her head. The crow gazed placidly at her, but did not open its beak once.

“You’ve placed me in a genjutsu,” she accused haltingly. When she reached for her kunai, she found that her pouch had disappeared.

“This is how I am able to communicate with you,” the crow answered tonelessly, “You should be able to break out of it any time—a mild genjutsu like this is nothing for a genjutsu user.”

Sakura stiffened. “I’m not a genjutsu user.”

The crow’s wings flashed out at that and the landscape seemed to explode in a flurry of black feathers. Their heavy, soft brush spilled around her, suffocating her in its sheer volume.

A second later, she could breathe again.

She stood at the exact training field she had been on minutes before. But the colors of the sky and the grass and the trees had become horribly distorted.

“You are a genjutsu user,” the crow corrected coolly. “And your perfect chakra control enables you to excel in the field, on par with those possessing dojutsus. I am extremely picky—I would not have allowed the contract otherwise.”

Genjutsu? She had been successfully placed her under a genjutsu almost five minutes into the bell test. Admittedly, she remembered an off-the-cuff remark about her possibly being well-suited for genjutsu, but had never been told anything about it beyond that.

“What have you learned?”

“About genjutsu?” Sakura responded, disarmed. “I—I can usually tell if they’re there? Who are you? What are you called?”

The crow’s wings flashed out again, and she reflexively flinched. However, nothing happened this time. A crow’s features were not ones that were especially capable of emoting. Nevertheless, she felt the weight of the crow’s burning gaze on her.

“What are your elemental affinities?”

“What?”

The crow’s sharingan seemed to grow redder. “Has no one taught you anything?”

Sakura’s mouth opened and then closed soundlessly.

The crow flapped its wings and took brief flight, before landing on her shoulder. Sakura turned her head to meet its gaze. Somehow, the crow’s voice was louder now.

“Your body does not seem the type to put on significant muscle mass,” the creature noted clinically, “But, like my other human, this does not mean you cannot gain strength.”

“Other human?” Sakura caught immediately. “Do you have several other contractors?”

The crow cocked its head to the side. It seemed amused.

“One other,” it answered. “For how much longer, I do not know.”

This bird kills its contractors, the Voice growled. In the genjutsu, however, the Voice’s words echoed around Sakura and the crow instead of remaining in her head.

The crow turned on her shoulder.  “Interesting. And not true. The contract does not allow it. Do you know what you are?” the crow questioned lightly, seemingly at the Voice. Enraged silence responded to the question.

“No, then,” the crow murmured. It met her gaze evenly. “I have carried multiple names. My other human calls me Shisui. If it suits, take it. Or—don’t.”

Not even a minute of reflection led Sakura to the conclusion that the crow seemed more trouble than it was worth. Tsunade had spoken of the slug as a kind, almost maternal creature—the crow, Shisui, or whatever it was called, was decidedly not that. Perhaps naively, Sakura assumed that could be the end of it. Unless she summoned it, she hardly imagined they would ever meet again; and after this, she decided she was never making those hand signs again.

“Nice meeting you,” Sakura muttered, eyeing the space around the crow shiftily. Not. “It’s been a rather long day, so I think I’ll be heading home now.”

The crow gazed back placidly.

“Are you going to dispel the genjutsu?” she asked sharply.

“No,” it returned calmly. And the world dripped like melting paint all around her again. Faceless shinobi, dark shadowy forms spilling from the summons’s wings, materialized in front of her.

Sakura sprung back in confusion, eyes round as she sought the crow. “What—?

Even as her body moved, she didn’t truly believe what was clearly imminent until it happened. The next thing Sakura knew was a rushing sound in her ears as she went flying back into a boulder. The shattering, mind-numbing pain hit her a second later.

She coughed, blood spilling from her mouth. When she saw the shinobi who had dealt the blow to her solar plexus rushing forward, however, she scrambled into a crouch, arms poised in front of her defensively.

What transpired was less of a battle and more of a glorified beatdown. Each time Sakura thought she found an opening, an opportunity to move from the crouch into a more offensive stance, another shinobi stepped in and beat her back down. Within minutes, every bone in her body felt like it had shattered. With the last bit of her strength, her arms locked tightly around her rib cage and her head. When the shinobi stopped, it took her a long dazed moment to realize they had, so terrible was the pain. On the brink of consciousness, she looked blearily out. The crow was perched above her.

 “Training,” the crow said coldly, head cocked to the side. “Learn the water release technique properly by next time.”

Next time?

When Sakura blinked, she found herself back on the training ground, somehow physically unharmed but aching, still feeling the echo of every one of the injuries.


 

The next day, Tsunade had scarcely left the training field before it made its appearance. It was more instinct than reason that led Sakura to dart in the opposite direction (though she was sure that reason would have led her to the same course of action as well). But it was too late. By the next blink, she found herself in the same oddly real yet undeniably distorted imitation of reality, the crow perched on a lone boulder before her.

“Did you do what I asked?”

Sakura bristled, unwilling to admit that, yes, she had. In the twenty four hours or so since had last seen the diabolical thing, she had been terrified of being caught like this again and beaten within an inch of her life. She was surprised to find, however, that despite her former fear, anger now dominated.

“I asked you a question,” it said coldly.

It seemed anger also granted her a kind of temerity that made her former concerns of self-preservation concerningly null and void. She bared her teeth, ignoring the part of herself—some remnant of her old self—that was mollified by the behavior.

The crow shifted with transparent mockery. “For your sake later, I hope that is a ‘yes.’ But for now: katas. Yesterday, you demonstrated you knew none.”

In the face of this ludicrous charge, Sakura said curtly, “I learned the academy katas.”

If the crow had eyebrows, she had the sense that it would be raising one.

One wing lifted nonchalantly and two faceless shinobi misted into corporality in front of her. Throat drying, Sakura took a shaky step back, bravado shaken.

“Go on,” Shisui said genially, “demonstrate your mastery.”

Break them! The Voice crooned. Kill them, crush—

Not at all correlated to the Voice’s goading, she convinced herself, she somehow mustered something considerably like courage but not quite the genuine article. Grounding her heels into the dirt, she launched forward.

Remarkably, the shinobi remained motionless. That is, until the moment her foot was a centimeter from the first’s face. Then, a hand lashed out with punishing force and grasped her ankle.

“What do you call this?” the crow called from above her.

Sakura winced at the pressure of the shinobi’s grip on her. Gritting her teeth, she bit out, “Mae tobi geri.”

“I don’t think so,” Shisui murmured indifferently. It flapped its wings. At this apparent command, the shinobi yanked her ankle up. Agony burst through Sakura’s pelvis, black spots flashing through her vision.

That,” the crow murmured, “is mae tobi geri.”

When the shinobi still didn’t let her ankle go, Sakura turned a vicious glare on the summon. “Alright. I get it.”

“Do you?” Shisui remarked. “Excellent.”

With another flap of wings, the shinobi let go. As she brought her leg down, however, it spoke again.

“Hold the position.”

She froze.

The crow tutted. “No, no, you let your leg drop. Put it back where it was.”

“That’s impossible,” Sakura grinded out. “I’m not that flexible—"

“And yet your leg was there before,” Shisui said unfeelingly. “Move it back.”

Aware of the lethal shinobi beside her who could attack at the crow’s slightest indication, she released a pained grunt as she strained and stretched her foot a few inches higher. Each inch was a slow, gruesome struggle.

She managed for two minutes. “I can’t hold it up anymore. I just can’t.”

“I understand. You’re still weak,” Shisui condemned with false kindness. “Why don’t have your friend help you, then?”

“My friend?”

“I believe you refer to it as the Voice.”

YES! Let me out! LET ME OUT—

“No.” Sakura said with dangerous calm.

“No?”

“No.”

The crow gazed at her for a long moment, gaze unreadable. Finally, it tilted its head. “Very well. Let’s move onto something else then.”

Faster than her eyes could keep track of, one of the shinobi left its partner to shunshin behind her. Its hands took possession of her arms and locked them behind her. Sakura let out an enraged cry, struggling to break free.

The other shinobi strode forward almost lazily. An arm’s length away from her, it came to a stop and lifted its hand with deliberation. Then, it punched her in the face.

Her entire body recoiled from the blow and a low, guttural whine escaped her lips. When she opened her eyes, she felt disoriented and had to blink several times. The shinobi drew its fist back and planted it in the same exact place, in the same exact way.

Thud.

And that felt like a broken nose—the thought rose above the cloud of pain. Fury set in. “What’s the point of this? Are you just going to have that thing punch me until I pass out?”

The crow gazed back without malice. “If that’s what it takes for you to learn to take a punch.”

Thud.

“Why don’t you trying planting your feet.”

Thud.

“Lean into the punch.”

Thud.

“Can’t even stand your ground then, can you?”

Thud.

“You lack a muscled frame to stabilize yourself—”

Thud.

“—your shoulders and arms are too soft now—”

Thud.

“—your legs too thin—”

Thud.

That was the last thing Sakura heard.

When she did return to the land of the conscious, it was with a loud, ugly choked noise. Then, she scrabbled to sit up, angling her head down so as not to choke on the blood pooling behind her nose and into her throat.

“Back?” Shisui greeted her, “Let’s review the water release technique.”

Sakura kept her head down, but darted slitted eyes up at the crow. “This is how you’re going to play this? Every single time?”

“If I need to break you, I will break you. Every single time.”

Chapter Text

Over time, Sakura grew accustomed to returning to consciousness abruptly and with little warning. True to the crow’s word, each session’s end was prefaced by a gruesome beat-down, followed by a lecture or comparatively more benign lesson—every single time.

Fortunately, it was a fact of human nature that one could adapt to and, importantly, could maintain sanity in the face of, any routine, no matter how terrible. No different from the rest of her species, Sakura had grown accustomed to the periods of unconsciousness—had even disturbingly grown to like the brief, mindless rest they provided.

She was greatly unsettled, therefore, when it came to the point that her unconsciousness was no longer greeted by the typical condescending lecture and instead by a kick to the stomach.

After the first unexpected act of violence, Sakura shifted uselessly, trying to recover her stolen breath. Following a second, she managed a strangled: “I…passed…out…what…are…you doing, you....stupid crow?”

The faceless shinobi drove a kunai into her abdomen. Pain paralyzed her so that she could barely even breathe.

Sakura looked up at it, uncomprehending.

“Stop,” she choked out, blood bubbling through her lips, “…Did you hear me!? I’m done…I’m done…”

It didn’t stop.

She passed out.

When she woke up again, punches rained down on her face until her eyes were swollen shut. There were two figures above her—she could sense their chakra, despite her lack of vision. In moments, she passed out again. Funny. Had she ever thought she was doing a lot of that these days? Because she was. She really was.

When she woke up again with five faceless shinobi mauling her, Sakura wondered—in all seriousness—how it was possible she wasn’t dead yet.

I’m still here, the Voice whispered, almost sibilant.

Despite how wrecked her body felt, Sakura’s body made a spasm—ever so slightly—at the sound. Strangely, the Voice had remained utterly silent until now. She wondered if it had only been biding its time.

I’ll kill them, the Voice crooned, excitement rendering its voice higher than normal, I’ll kill them all!

And Sakura—Sakura couldn’t hold it back anymore. She screamed until the only breath left in her was a gasp.

 


The blood of five faceless shinobi soaked the ground beneath her—her own body, in turn, battered and torn, generously deposited its own funds.

Five shinobi. When she hadn’t even defeated one before.

And, like before, she remembered nothing.

Without warning, the pain vanished from her body, and Sakura could see again. She looked down to see her body as clean and unharmed as it had been when she had entered the genjutsu.

The line between the Voice and her must have been blurring because when Sakura moved, it was with a mindless need to hurt that she had only ever associated with the other entity. Making rapid hand motions, Sakura screamed and released a gale of fire right where the crow stood. But, it was the crow’s genjutsu and, with a flap of its wings, Shisui generated a gust of wind so strong it blew the fire into non-existence.

The crow’s mismatched eyes dissected her ruthlessly. “You would use a jutsu that I taught you against me?”

Sakura released an inhuman, ugly noise, chest heaving.

But Shisui was stoic in the face of it. “That thing, what you call the Voice—it represents the splitting of yourself. You are stronger, more ruthless, when you let it possess you. Rejoin the two parts permanently.”

No!” Sakura snarled. “I—I’m not stupid. I’ll make use of it when I need to—but I control it.”

“That is killing intent, you ignorant child,” the crow responded, derision now apparent. “Like most foolish shinobi, you have suppressed it more often than you embrace it, to the extent that you’ve split your consciousness.”

You—”

“Don’t be naïve,” the crow cut off coldly, “You’re in the wrong occupation if you want to stay a child. Every human being, in their deepest self, relishes violence. As a shinobi, by nature of your cause, you must embody that violence.”

“I won’t.”

“Then you are a coward,” Shisui condemned remorselessly, “you are a pathetic, groveling kunoichi, despite the time and effort I have afforded you when no one else would deign to look your way, who shies away from your calling—”

“I won’t,” she hissed. Bizarrely, Naruto appeared in her mind’s eye.

The sharingan in the crow’s eye spun wildly. Despite her stony expression, fear pulsed through Sakura as she was certain she would be thrown back into the torture from before.

“You’re very different from him,” it charged bitterly, finally. “But in other ways—unerringly similar.”

It took a second for her to catch on, her eyes narrowing slightly when she did. “You’re talking about your other human.”

The crow didn’t acknowledge this identification. Instead, it cocked its head to the side, appearing disgusted. “Only a fool believes a shinobi’s violence can be driven by anything other than blood lust. Don't be a fool.”

The crow gave her one last disparaging glance. In the next breath, the genjutsu fractured and she sat alone in the training field Team Seven had used to practice in.

When Sakura’s gaze found the boulder next to her, she drove her first into it.

 


 “You can’t attack me tomorrow,” Sakura told Shisui tonelessly a week later, scrubbing blood from her hands into her clothes. Not real blood, she reminded herself. Her stomach remained steady.

The crow cocked its head coldly. “Oh? Why is that?”

“I need money,” she responded. “I need to take a mission.”

“Both of your parents are alive.”

Sakura’s expression tightened, wondering when Shisui had gathered that information. She had never mentioned her living situation to him. “They’ve refused to fund my shinobi career since the Chunin Exams.”

“Very well,” it concluded at last, eyes glinting. “I will see you after.”

 


That night, after picking up new kunai with the last of her monetary reserves, Sakura returned home with Ichiraku Ramen takeout in hand. After slurping the noodles, she scrubbed her clothes of any remaining dirt / blood (her own) and folded them neatly by her bed.

At six the next morning, Sakura stood at the front of a long line of shinobi to receive her next assignment from the Mission Assignment Desk.

A chunin Sakura had been handed missions by several times before waved his hand, urging her to step forward. She blinked for a moment at the unexpectedly familiar smile he sent her way.

“I have the perfect mission for you,” he confided in her. He reached to the side and seemed to unearth a specific scroll from underneath a pile of similar looking scrolls. “Here you go.”

Sakura bowed politely and left the room. Turning a corner, she found a nook and opened the scroll to scan its contents. C Rank escort mission from the Hidden Grass Village to the Land of Wind. Four-man squad. Meeting place at the gate.

Reaching outside, Sakura shunshined to the roof and proceeded to the gate via rooftops to avoid unnecessary traffic. When she reached the gate, she saw three figures—all a few years older than herself—waiting.

The girl was the first to notice her presence. She smiled, sharp features shifting to accommodate the expression with seeming natural ease. Her hair—red—was shorn almost to her scalp on one side and jagged and chin length on the other. She wore bulky, unisex ninja-wear.

“Hey,” she greeted, stepping aside to reveal the two figures behind her. The boy to her left was tall and lanky with mop-like brown hair. The boy to her right was shorter, bulkier, with dark brows, and viewed her with an unreadable expression.

Sakura bowed. “I am Haruno Sakura. I will be a part of the four-man squad for this mission.”

The girl flashed her a dazzling smile. “Nice to meet you, Sakura-san. I’m Noriko. This here is Reizo—” she pointed to the lanky boy—“and the other one is Torio.”

“Oh,” Sakura said, a strange feeling sprouting in her chest at the apparent familiarity they shared. “Were you all on the same genin team?”

The C ranks she had sparingly been on had mostly been with other chunin or genin whose teams had not all made the transition from genin rank to above. No one on the missions had known any of the other members.

“Something like that,” the shorter boy said. Torio, Sakura recalled.

“We should leave,” Reizo announced indifferently. A look passed between him and Noriko and she nodded with a wide smile.

“Ready, Sakura-san?” Noriko asked her, nudging her playfully. Sakura stared.

As they raced through the trees, she felt her stride slowing slightly to match Noriko’s, who had chosen to hang at the back.

“Are you all chunin?” Sakura asked.

The other girl hummed back in affirmation. “You?”

Sakura’s lips turned down slightly. “Genin. I’m planning to take the next exam, though.”  

“You’ll get there,” Noriko shrugged, smiling. “How about the rest of your team?”

Sakura felt her pace falter, but she quickly recovered. “Genin too. They found other teachers, though, so our team has…disbanded.”

Noriko didn’t react immediately, which took Sakura by some surprise—genin teams disbanding before members had reached chunin level was highly unusual. The other girl must have noticed something in her expression, because she asked, “Do you miss it?”

Sakura stiffened slightly at the question. In the past year, she had come to face the obvious truth that their team had been dysfunctional. At its best moments, Sakura had been on the sidelines watching her teammates push past their resentment to work together; at its worst, none of them had been on the same page, pursuing vastly different goals. And Kakashi—

Her jaw tightened. Tsunade had used her to clean up some file work a few months ago—genin team file work submitted for the Hokage’s perusal, specifically—and she had learned exactly what her former teacher thought of her.

Haruno Sakura is unsuited to become a shinobi, she had found written in short, lazy strokes. She lacks the means to either succeed or survive in this field. I have seen some skill in chakra control—perhaps a career as a low-ranking medic-nin, if at all.

Cold, condescending words, hidden all along under a mask of indifference.

Each word had been an unexpected blow to Sakura. She had known her sensei hadn’t thought much of her, but she hadn’t known he had thought so little. Had he thought of her as an idiot the entire time?

“I don’t know,” Sakura answered at last, features strained. She and Noriko fell into silence. Her mind continued to brood over the derogatory notes.  Naruto and Sasuke had each warranted four pages. She had been given three sentences.

It didn’t matter, she found herself reflecting coldly. With blood on her hands, it was too late for her turn back.

Chapter Text

That night, they made camp about half way between Konoha and the Hidden Grass Village. Torio and Reizo pitched a tent that they would share, while Noriko and Sakura shared their own tent. Torio had first watch, but before that, they sat around a modest fire chewing some meat they had cooked after hunting down a wild boar.

“Nice weather, eh?” Noriko chirped, smiling widely as she bit into her meat with enthusiasm. The dark sky above them was ominously thick with clouds, cloaking the moon almost entirely.

Reizo’s eyes flicked upwards boredly. “It looks like it’s about to pour.”

“Right,” she agreed easily. “But it’s not raining yet.”

She beamed at all of them. Sakura watched on in silence, chewing her meat.

Torio got up suddenly. “I’m off to watch.”

“Better you than me!” Noriko called mischievously.

He sent her a glare. “Fucking trees…give me knots in my neck…” He disappeared from view.

Sakura’s head tilted strangely at that. “He still gets knots in his neck?” Most academy pre-genin were used to that, and these were chunin.

“Neck problems,” Reizo explained casually.

“I could take a look, if he wanted,” Sakura offered after a second. “I have some medical training.”

“He’s had it checked out,” Noriko answered after a moment, with an apologetic smile. “Kind of a chronic thing.”

Sakura nodded.

“Hey!” Noriko cried suddenly, grabbing her hand. “Let’s head to our tent!”

Sakura allowed the other girl to tug her, a little bemused by her actions. The Sakura of a year ago, the one with stick thin legs and arms, the one who had complained about lacking breasts on a regular basis to Ino, would have giggled happily along with her. A self-admittedly gloomier, more cynical Sakura was now struggling to figure out how to not act like a socially inept fool.

They sat down on their respective pallets and immediately Noriko began speaking again.

“So,” she said, grinning aggressively, “what’s got you down?”

“Nothing,” Sakura answered immediately. But after a moment, she revealed stiffly (and how couldn’t she, when Noriko had been so nice and earnest the entire time, and when a huge part of her longed for what had been commonplace to her before—the idle chit chat, the confiding of inane complaints and worries): “I guess it’s my team situation.”

Once again, Noriko looked a little blank but hummed sympathetically nevertheless. “Hm…well, tell me about them!”

At the other’s urging, Sakura felt a wealth of emotions she had been bottling down for more than a year rush forth.

“Well, one of them,” she started hesitantly, “he used to annoy me. A lot.”

Noriko nodded encouragingly.

“The other genin,” Sakura began swallowing hard. “I liked him—” the words felt sour now, made her lips twist—“But he left to be with his…new teacher.”

“You said ‘liked,’” the other girl noted, reaching over to sharpen some of her kunai. “Do you not like him anymore?”

Sakura didn’t answer.

“And your team leader?” Noriko asked, easily changing tacks.

Sakura’s mouth flattened. “Right. Well Kakashi—”

She broke off when the other girl stiffened almost violently beside her. The kunai in her hands trembled before she swung her head around with an amazed expression. “Your jounin sensei was the Copy-nin?”

“…Yes.”

“Da-amn,” she sighed, dragging the word out with wide, shining eyes. “Do you have any idea what his kill count is?”

“His—”

“His kill count,” Noriko repeated, face hidden now by her hair. “I know ANBU members are supposed to be anonymous, but everyone knows he’s an ANBU captain. They talk about him in the chunin locker rooms all the time—in all the gory detail. Still don’t know what ANBU mask he wears, though.”

“What…kinds of stories?” Sakura asked before she could stop herself. The impending, unexpected dump of information had called forth a dark, uncomfortable tightness in her chest.

“They’re horrible, if they’re true,” the girl murmured. “He’s killed a lot of people in a lot of horrible ways. But—” she laughed coolly—“in ANBU, being a monster means you’re an ANBU legend. I suppose.”

Sakura flinched slightly at her words, but quickly hid the reaction. “He’s…that good?” She had always known he wasn’t the ‘average’ shinobi, but…nothing to this extent.  

Noriko’s voice was oddly thick. “People talk about the kages with respect, but the way they talk about him…the way I’ve heard it, no one measures up at killing. Not even that Uchiha who murdered his entire clan.”

 “And he’s only twenty-two,” she ended with a loud huff. She shook her hair back and a playful expression danced across her face.

He was? In her defense, it was impossible to tell with the mask. Strangely, she had always received the impression he was older. Must have been the magnitude of his condescension.

“How old are you, Noriko-san?” she asked softly.

“Me?” Noriko straightened slightly, “Eighteen.”

“Do you want to be a jounin?” Sakura asked, hoping she wasn’t being too nosy. But she was also trying to subtly change the topic of the conversation. She…didn’t want to talk about him.

The other girl shrugged. “I’m not interested in titles—only in serving my village as fully as I can.”

For the first time since she had met her, Sakura found Noriko’s demeanor to be entirely serious.

“Anyway,” Noriko coughed, strange expression vanishing to reveal another, bright smile, “I bet the copy-nin taught you so many things.”

“...not at all.”

“Why not?”

“Apparently,” Sakura said stoically, “he didn't think I had any potential.”


Despite the rain, they somehow managed to make better pace the next day. Or, perhaps, it was because they were less concerned about leaving obvious tracks and were able to forgo doubling back maneuvers that they made better pace.

It wasn’t until they were close to the pick-up location that Sakura noticed her temporary teammates begin to act strangely. Reizo, who had been slumped over and lackadaisical until then, suddenly became alert. Noriko as well—whose smile seemed a permanent fixture on her face—grew grim, palming the handle of her chokuto almost anxiously. Only Torio remained just as he had before.

Sakura straightened as well as they neared the small palace. She hadn’t expected them to be the type of team that took an escort mission so seriously, but it was a good model to follow by principle, she supposed.

“This is the plan,” Torio announced. They were shadowed by trees next to the entrance of the palace. The palace seemed to tower in the foreground, a white and red architectural masterpiece that glistened under the pelting of the rain.

Sakura returned her attention back to Torio as he continued. “Noriko, you enter through the third level, Reizo, the second, and I’ll take the ground level. Haruno, you wait at the entrance in case we need to make a quick escape with the princess—keep watch and make sure to misdirect anyone entering.”

Sakura frowned. “You’re infiltrating? I thought this was supposed to be a simple, uh, pick-up and drop-off.”

“We received new intel,” Reizo said curtly.

“What did it say?”

She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned to find Noriko grinning at her. “Don’t worry about it, Sakura-chan. We got this. Just stay here and everything will be fine.”

The taller girl nodded at her and then shunshined away, followed shortly by the other two shinobi. Sakura sighed heavily and slumped against the tree, a dark scowl on her face. The water had turned the ground into slushy mud, the thick scent prominent of it nullifying everything else. The scent of dirt in Konoha was much sweeter, she thought arrogantly to herself.

Minutes passed. As she saw civilians near the entrance of the palace, she cast a simple, quick genjutsu that led them astray.

I smell blood, the Voice crooned.

Sakura continued flipping her kunai, gritting her teeth. “You’re imagining it.”

Maybe. The Voice laughed nastily in her head. It’s been so long since I’ve smelled real blood other than our own.

A crow cawed somewhere behind her and Sakura flinched, gaze darting through the thick nesting of trees. Suddenly, the slight uncomfortable feeling she had been ignoring had ballooned, and she grabbed her kunai tightly.

Something was wrong. When she thought about it—the way Torio, Noriko, and Reizo had acted had not only been unusual; it had also been against protocol. If they had received new information, why had she not been made aware of it? And pointedly, she had been with them the entire time. She would have noticed a messenger hawk.

Torio, Noriko, and Reizo had decided that this mission would require infiltration when the assignment itself had said nothing of it.

That didn’t bode well. With this acknowledgment, other odd facts she had previously dismissed began to stick out glaringly. Noriko’s lack of shock at her genin team status—as though she was unaware of Konoha’s shinobi system. Torio’s inexplicable neck pains, though he should have been well-acclimated to perching on trees in Konoha.

Sakura gritted her teeth.

In a flash, she disappeared from the tree and reappeared at the palace entrance. The large protruding roof sheltered her from the rain, allowing the smells from within to permeate the air around her. Pushing the door open slightly, kunai clenched in hand, she entered the grand entrance of the building and stiffened. Dead bodies—guards, she catalogued—lined the double staircase leading up to the second floor.

Bending, she checked the pulse of the first guard. Nothing. All of the guards had been stabbed at vital points—savagely and deeply.

There’s more, the Voice chanted, There’s more! Go up!

For a seemingly eternal moment, Sakura was overwhelmed by the mindless panic flooding her veins. Terror pulsed through her bloodstream and rendered her limbs immobile. She was an infinitesimal step away from succumbing to her fear—the magnitude of what had happened in the park, of what was happening again, threatening to bury her under an intangible weight.

For a moment, it was almost as though she had. But then, a strange sense of unreality washed over her. She straightened, stiff and nearly robotic, and made her way up the staircase with her chakra suppressed.

As she approached the landing, she could hear the fighting grow increasingly more defined—short, sharp metallic clangs, gasps and cries, abrupt silences.

At the second level, she found Reizo and Torio cutting down both armed guards along with what were clearly civilian servants and maids.

A hand grasped her foot, and Sakura looked down to see a maid with a gaping wound in her stomach. “Please,” she gasped, pretty features contorted in pain. She spluttered some blood and passed away.

Sakura’s mind was blank—preternaturally calm. And the Voice breathed heavily in her mind, otherwise oddly silent.

She closed the gap between her and the foreign shinobi. Reizo’s head snapped up just as she lunged with her kunai, slashing neatly through the tendon in his arm with medical accuracy, rendering it useless. As she did so, she met Torio’s gaze and made rapid hand signs with her other hand, casting him under a genjutsu.

Reizo swung at her with his one working arm, hand adorned by bladed knuckles that were charged with chakra. She evaded his blows with ease, body moving instinctively from hours of sweat and blood. Sakura had been trained by a crow with a sharingan whose shadow shinobi moved a lot quicker than these nin.

“Who are you?” Sakura interrogated lifelessly, kunai flashing through the air. When they met flesh, it was at strategic locations designed to cause heavy bleeding that would weaken him but not kill him—she still needed him to speak.

Reizo gazed back at her coolly. “You were supposed to wait outside.”

“So that you could kill me at the end,” she interpreted.

“You’re not the only one who has been lying, Haruno,” Reizo accused, lips peeling back to reveal bared teeth. “You’re no genin, are you? Was the Hokage onto us from the beginning?”

He made rapid hand signs and barbed, metal chains exploded from him. One rammed into Sakura’s side, causing pain to lance through her. With fierce concentration, she maintained the genjutsu on Torio and wove her way through the chains with ruthless efficiency. In seconds, Sakura stood a foot from him and her kunai sank into the older boy’s throat.

Like a knife through butter, the Voice moaned, orgasmic pleasure laced through its voice.

The dying shinobi choked out a curse and blood. It landed on her face.

Blood. Real blood.

Sakura reached up to wipe it away with a trembling hand, gaze unseeing.

But she snapped to attention when her head collided into the wall beside her with brutish force. Sakura’s eyes flashed open, regretting the moment of carelessness as she found Torio’s livid form in front of her.

He was a block of muscle as he came at her with powerful jabs and kicks. If one of them landed as intended, the muscle and bone underneath her skin could easily crumble. But Torio didn’t know what Sakura’s seemingly insignificant muscle definition belied.

Blocking both arms with a raised forearm, she concentrated chakra into her left hand and planted it in the other boy’s chest, right between his ribs, right in front of his heart. She felt the flesh and bone bend beneath her knuckles, felt bone crush into his heart, felt the squelch of blood exploding from the rapidly beating muscle.

Like an oversized rag doll, he crumpled on himself and slid to the ground.

The remaining alive on the floor whispered their fervent gratitude to her, watching fearfully all the while in case her mission was to attack them too. But Sakura paid them no attention. There was one more left—on the third floor.

Closing her eyes and channeling chakra into her ears, she heard panicked cries in the northwest corner of the third floor and set off. Dead bodies lining the hall of the third level blurred past her, a gory landscape, and she reached at last a large pair of brass doors—the entrance, she guessed, to the princess’s living quarters.

There was no time for subterfuge or a covert entrance. She slammed the doors open and attached herself to the ceiling, knowing that a shinobi’s first instinct would be to send shuriken and send them low.

As she gazed down, she found a scene that matched the level below in brutality. Ladies in waiting were strewn all along the grandiose room, their blood painting the walls in an uncaring pattern. The only living civilian left was a dark haired, beautiful woman with tearing blue eyes. Poised at the smooth, unblemished arch of the princess’s throat was the razor-sharp edge of Noriko’s chokuto.

“Sakura-chan,” the redheaded shinobi greeted almost pleasantly.

“Noriko-san.” After a moment, Sakura dropped from the ceiling and landed in a crouch, straightening quickly.

The grinning girl looked at her with curiosity. “If you had waited outside, there was a chance you could have survived this. Now, I have no choice.”

Sakura’s lips tightened. “If you’re going to kill me, can’t you at least tell me why?”

Just kill her, the Voice raged, prowling restlessly in her mind.

Noriko tilted her head, eyes flashing. “Because I hate Konoha. And when the Mizukage offered me this mission, I took it gladly.

Noriko’s chokuto flashed through the air as she raced forward. Sakura ducked, missing the first swipe just barely. Twirling the kunai in her hands, she maneuvered them to block the sharp blade of the thin sword.

“What has Konoha done to you?” Sakura asked, steeling herself for the next swing of the blade. Anger and—no, no, it wasn’t there—anguish bled into her tone; against her will, her numbness was beginning to fade.

Noriko was strong. Much stronger than the other two shinobi had been. And she had thought—Sakura had thought they had been friends. Unbidden, an irrational, childish hurt stung in her chest.

“You should ask your copy-nin,” Noriko hissed, lashing out with her foot. Sakura felt her pulse spike at the moniker and forcibly cloaked herself in impersonal detachment once more.

That would explain why she had been oddly knowledgeable of Kakashi alone.

Sakura’s kunai crossed under Noriko’s blade, locking it in place. “And how exactly did he hurt you?”

Noriko yanked herself back with a dark laugh. “I’ve never met him before.”

Sakura’s lack of comprehension flashed across her face. At the back of her mind, she considered how to end the fight quickly without putting the princess at risk—ninjutsu was useless here. And Noriko had yet to make eye contact, unfortunately wary of genjutsu. She was forced to step back again, side stepping the other girl’s deadly swipes.

“I fail to see why we’re here, then,” Sakura snapped, “if he did nothing.”

Noriko’s face contorted into something almost inhuman with the force of her immense anger. She gave a dark, tortured laugh. “Nothing?”

Sakura’s smooth rhythm of feint then lunge faltered at the sight of the other girl’s face. Her eyes were wet, shining with rigidly kept back tears, lips twisted in a vicious snarl.

He murdered the woman I loved.”

Following this confession, the savagery of Noriko’s kenjutsu increased tenfold. “He left her body there…to be eaten by the vultures...a hole in her chest…they couldn’t touch her…I couldn’t touch her…because her body was so charged with electricity…”

Sakura’s body was on autopilot now, avoiding the weapon mindlessly while her mind processed the words confessed to her. A year ago, she would have bent over with nausea at this revelation.

“Her face was charred off,” Noriko whispered, tears streaming now openly. “She was an ANBU captain, and he mowed her down, one out of a hundred, as though she were nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” Sakura said softly. She feinted again and lashed out with her kunai. In the other girl’s grief, she managed to sever a vein in her leg. She would lose all feeling in it soon.

“Your apology means nothing,” Noriko raged, speed decreasing as her body succumbed to the wound. She mustered a garish, sad smile. “I liked you, you know? I was going to tell them to let you live. But then you told me you were his student.”

“I can’t let you live, Sakura-chan,” she continued, “You understand, don’t you? I have to kill you—for her.”

The Voice was spitting fury in her mind, bemoaning how long it was taking, how little blood there was, but Sakura ignored it. Turmoil broiled within her. Organ traffickers and faceless genjustu shinobi and—Noriko. It—it wasn’t a matched set.

Noriko released a war cry that sounded more like a wail of grief, driving her blade to the left and then switching midway to slash it diagonally to the right.

Eyes stinging, Sakura felt the edge of the chokuto to bite into her shoulder. If Noriko had been uninjured and calm, this would have been suicide for Sakura. But with one leg numb, Noriko was slow to muster the force to pull it back.

Sakura grasped the blade and used the wall to kick off, wrapping her legs around the other girl’s neck. Hanging upside down—finish it, finish it, the Voice urged—she dragged her kunai upward from stomach to chest. Deep; dangerously deep.

With a thick squelch, Sakura pulled the metal weapons out and pushed off of her. She tied the other girl’s hands together to prevent her from forming any hand signs and then stepped back. Noriko buckled to her knees, looking down at her wounds in seeming shock.

“Here,” Sakura commanded the princess urgently. “Gather your necessary valuables in that”—she pointed to an embroidered messenger bag sitting on the bed, half-filled probably from previous packing—“we're leaving now.”

Nodding shakily, the princess ran to her dresser to gather a few small objects, a pouch of money, and a change of clothes, and placed them in the sack. Sakura bent to lift the princess so that they could jump through the window, thus avoiding the carnage decorating the levels below, but they were stopped by a sharp command.

“Finish it!” Noriko demanded.

Finish it, the Voice echoed remorselessly.

Sakura paused, then straightened. “You’ll survive,” she clarified, in case the other girl thought she had been left to suffer a slow death. “As soon as you work out that knot and get to the nearest healer, you’ll be fine. But I can’t promise you won’t have breathing problems from now on.”

Yet, her words only seemed to enrage Noriko more. The anger quickly fractured.  “I can’t live like this,” Noriko panted, breath hitching with hysteria, “I couldn’t even kill you. How will I be able to kill him, when she couldn’t? Just finish it. Let me see her again.”

Sakura’s face was numb. Her hands no longer felt like her own as she gazed at them—in consideration? She couldn’t. No. She bent down again to pick up the princess.

She made it to the window this time.

“If you have any respect for me,” Noriko hissed, forcing her to stop, “if anything I said to you or was for you in the last twenty-four hours meant anything to you, you will do it. You owe me that much.”

Let me out, the Voice breathed. Let me do it! I’ll do it for you!

Sakura wished she had left without listening. Her fingers trembled around the princess’s slim legs.

“Don’t make me beg,” Noriko choked out.

Sakura let out a low, almost inaudible whimper. Then, slowly, she put the princess back down and turned. Noriko looked back at her, brown eyes wide and agonized. The other girl’s features relaxed as she read Sakura’s decision on her face. Had she thought the smile natural on Noriko’s face? Sakura could see now that it had been forced the entire time.

It was Sakura, not the Voice, who stepped forward, angling her kunai to slash across the other girl’s throat. She stopped when Noriko spoke with soft urgency.

“Not like that,” the Mist nin rasped, “With the chokuto. It was hers.”

Sakura picked up the fallen sword and held it directly above her heart.

“She also had green—” were Noriko’s last words.

Sakura plunged the sword down with chakra-induced strength to make the blow quick. The marble floor below her cracked. Noriko was dead immediately. The princess let out a soft cry from her position at the window. Sakura spared her a short glance, before pulling the chokuto out from the body beneath it.

She held it in her hand for a long moment. Sakura didn’t pause to consider her actions. She pulled the scabbard from girl’s waist and sheathed the sword, before swinging it over her shoulder.

She picked up the princess and then leapt through the window.


Sakura carried the princess—Mako, she was reminded—a considerable distance with the sunlight that was left. When nightfall halted their journey, with the princess’s monetary resources, a henge on herself, and a change in clothing for the princess (purchased from a vendor several villages back), they stopped to spend the night in an inn.

“Take a bath,” Sakura told Mako stiffly. “I’ll go down and get some food for the both of us. I’ll leave a bunshin here to watch over you.”

The young woman nodded at her, face still pale from what had happened earlier in the day. Understandable—in less than ten minutes, she had probably seen her closest companions get mercilessly killed.

Sakura made her way down the wooden staircase to the ground floor: a functional pub that served both alcohol and food. Her footsteps landed heavier than usual to suit the henge of the stocky, brown-haired man she donned (two civilian women traveling alone drew unwanted attention). When she reached the pub, she found it decently populated. She walked to the wooden counter and ordered two bowls of white rice and vegetables.

As she waited, a woman with grey lines in her hair sat down on the platform at the front of the pub, koto in her lap. She seemed unaffected by the jeers of the inebriated in the pub and began strumming the strings of the koto. The voice that emerged was older than the woman looked—thick and cracked. “In search of new lands, I build a new house. I thatch the house with reed stalks, gathered neatly in bundles.”

Sakura’s brows furrowed.

“I wish to dress my children and loved ones… in the one kimono that I own. As for me, I will wear vines… that I plucked deep in the mountains.”

Without warning, Noriko’s dying face flashed through her mind. Sakura turned away from the singer immediately. She pointed at the premium sake the pub owner advertised and swallowed it in one go. She coughed violently afterward, but even that wasn’t enough to drown out the next words.  

“The light of the full moon shines down, illuminating the world with its divine light,” the singer crooned, “When my lover sneaks in to visit me, I wish that the clouds would hide that light just a little.”

“It’s a folk song called Obokuri Eeumi,” the woman beside her sighed, gaze fixed on the singer. “She sings it every week.”

Sakura’s expression was blank. She gathered the bowls that had just been placed in front of her and left the counter to go back upstairs.

She had thought, foolishly, that the crow had beat the tears out of her.


 As though ignorant of how it had started, the rest of the mission passed without a single hitch. Sakura delivered the shaken princess to her betrothed in the Land of Wind the next day and immediately began travelling back to Konoha. Without the princess’s finances, she spent the nights in trees and left a bunshin to keep watch. It was the sort of isolation she needed, though, to pretend that what she had done would sit right with her one day. One day—when Noriko’s face would be but a blur in her memory.

Her isolation was disturbed half way back by the crow’s appearance.  

(One moment, it was endless green before her; the next, she was in the ever-familiar world of red and black feathers that Shisui most often chose for its genjutsus.)

“You should have noticed they were foreign earlier.”

Sakura’s shoulders tensed at the implication in those words.

“Were they even shinobi from the Mist?” she asked tonelessly, a storm brewing unseen. “What a story: an eighteen year-old girl’s lover killed by my former jounin captain. A resulting, mad quest for vengeance, only to end in failure and tragedy.”

“Oh, she was real. They all were.” The crow flapped its wings. “The only genjutsu I applied was to keep that infiltration team from discovery by the ANBU and getting you on the mission.”

Sakura’s chest burned. “Why did you do it?”

“To teach you a lesson,” Shisui returned indifferently. “As always.”

Sakura stared down at the crow. Could it kill her if it wanted? No, she remembered, the contract prevented that. Everything the crow did was in the name of teaching her to survive, well within the limits of the contract. A terrible, humorless joke.

She yanked her gaze away, face tight.

“Bring the chokuto with you tomorrow,” it commanded.


 

"For a seemingly eternal moment, Sakura was overwhelmed by the mindless panic flooding her veins. Terror pulsed through her bloodstream and rendered her limbs immobile. She was an infinitesimal step away from succumbing to her fear—the magnitude of what had happened in the park, of what was happening again, threatening to bury her under an intangible weight."

- another gorgeous sketch by SweetGazelle

 

Chapter Text

A YEAR LATER

 

Sakura was in desperate need of a shower.

"I've got blood all over me," the ANBU in front of her sighed.

"Same," the woman behind her muttered, "I don't know how I'm ever going to wash this out."

The leader of their squad, a short, stocky man, glanced back at Sakura. "I think Crow is going to have the most trouble tonight."

As the squad of ten ANBUs laughed around her, Sakura's gaze flicked down to survey her blood splattered form with forced stoicism. Almost there, she reminded herself. Three hours and they would be back in Konoha. Then, she could burn the clothes. And sleep. And get up for another session with the crow. And then probably be maneuvered into another soul-crushing ANBU mission.

She scowled beneath her mask.

"You've got to tell me what gets you so revved up," the ANBU with the rat mask said, swinging his arm over her shoulder. "Fucked up childhood? Abusive relationship?"

Sakura removed herself from the hold in her next leap through the thick cluster of trees.

"Well, you don't kill like that unless there's something," someone else said, voice low and knowing.

Sakura never thought she would have wished for the newcomer ANBUs from her first mission a month ago again, who were so indoctrinated with protocol that they scarcely said a word to each other the entire mission. Unfortunately, this squad consisted of mostly well-experienced ANBU. And apparently, experienced ANBU were obnoxious.

"Leave her alone," a softer, quieter voice interrupted. Sakura turned and saw blue eyes staring at her though a coyote mask.

"Yeah, yeah," rat mask scoffed. For a brief period of time, the conversation lapsed into blissful silence. But then his gaze shifted to the coyote ANBU—the shinobi who had stopped the previous discussion. "You're another newbie, aren't you?"

"Yes, senpai."

"How old are you?"

Coyote didn't answer immediately. After a moment: "I believe disclosing my age is against protocol."

"Seventeen, I'd guess," Snake cut in, a smug tone to her voice. "His voice's broken but not fully deepened yet. Look at him—what a bean pole."

"Looks like all the new recruits are," another ANBU observed. "Crow isn't much better."

"I thought she was a man at first," the rat ANBU snickered, "Not quite sure she doesn't actually have a dick, if I'm honest."

At any other time, Sakura would have simply sneered. But there was blood from more people than she could count on her clothes, she hadn't slept in over thirty hours, all she really wanted to do was go home and knock herself into unconsciousness, and this idiot wouldn't shut up about her.

"If I did, senpai, you can be sure it's bigger than yours."

The ANBU stiffened beside her abruptly. The rest of the ANBU paused in reaction, a well-oiled machine, positioned at various odd points among the trees.

But Sakura was beyond being concerned. Of course, it wasn't really Rat that was the source of the fury broiling inside her (she knew that). Rat was simply: the vent. One she would gladly use.

She straightened to her henge's full height—the same as her own height, but the henge had a slightly wirier build—a few centimeters above him. When Sakura saw the ANBU's eyes narrow, she began to move to her own chokuto slowly, warning.

"Calm down, Rat, Crow," their leader muttered. "We don't have time—"

He was cut off by a kunai to the throat.

The ANBU stared at each other for a fraction of a second, before shunshining to different positions just as a rain of shuriken landed in their former positions.

"Coyote, hang back!" Snake shouted, taking charge as second-in-command. She made hand signals that directed the rest of the team into strategic positions cloaked by foliage.

Sakura crouched behind Tiger in the lower branches of a giant maple. She couldn't sense any chakra in the vicinity—either of those on her squad or of enemy-nin. Clearly testing the waters, Snake leapt from her hidden position to another and then immediately shunshined again. The branch she had last placed her feet on was severed by something like a invisible ax an instant after she left.

"They're invisible?" Tiger whispered incredulously.

Rat and another ANBU leapt out, now, but they weren't as quick as Snake. The invisible shinobi—there was no telling how many of them—swiped at the two shinobi, their actions only observable through the blood leaking from the ANBUs and the rush of air as they maneuvered their weapons.

"Genjutsu," Sakura breathed with abrupt certainty. It had to be. They had cast a complex genjutsu that made them indistinguishable from their surroundings—hence why none of them were using ninjutsu or it would disrupt the flow of chakra maintaining the delicate illusion.

"The rest need to know," Tiger muttered. "But we can't use hand signs if they can't see us."

Sakura made a split-second decision, ignoring the way Tiger's eyes widened at her and seemed to scream 'don't.' She shunshined away from her position and landed in the middle of a clearing where she was certain everyone would be able to see her.

She barely had time to make the hand signals for 'genjutsu,' before she felt movement in the air beside her. Focusing all her attention on what she could hear, she moved instinctively to avoid the swipes of blades. A blade soon glanced her midsection, however, and she realized that evasion wouldn't be enough, not with more and more of them congregating around her.

She dug her fingers into the wound on her stomach, hoping it would be enough to jolt her out of the genjutsu. But her efforts did not amount to anything. Gritting her teeth, Sakura sent a surge of chakra to the pain receptors in her body instead. The result was a surge of the most mind-numbing pain she had ever felt in her life—just for a fraction of a second. Her head swam; by luck, she didn't pass out.

When she blearily opened her eyes again, she could see just barely the outlines—a sort of shimmery mirage—of figures racing silently through the trees, many with projections that looked like blades. The genjutsu must have been incredibly layered, that she hadn't broken through all of it even with that.

But it was enough.

Let me do it, the Voice whispered to her, words thick with excitement. Counting the number of figures and the brutality it would require, Sakura's lips tightened. She didn't allow the Voice out often, as a rule, but it did prove somewhat more manageable after being given some tightly-reined freedom. And Sakura could take it out for walks, like some domesticated beast, if that's what it took to keep it relatively compliant within its leash.

After brief consideration, and she wasn't entirely sure if it was hers or the Voice's, Sakura felt herself fade from the present—

—and was stunned when she returned to consciousness shortly later with enemy bodies strewn across the forest floor, but significantly more still alive around her.

Had the Voice given up?

Sakura exhaled sharply, hand tightening on her chokuto as her surroundings filtered in once more.

What had happened? She had thought she had—

A deafening, high-pitched noise pierced the air, and with a roar of enraged betrayal, the Voice felt itself being dragged back and back and back and back—

She knew that sound. Like birds, but louder. Crouching low on her branch, her eyes widened as she saw an ANBU not part of her squad blur toward them with unbelievable speed, a bolt of lightning crackling in his hand.

Just as he passed her, time seemed to lose any meaning, slowing to a sluggish pace. And Sakura's heart stopped in her chest, because she could have sworn that for an instant, the pair of black and red eyes met hers.

Then, he was a blur once more, his hand plunging through chest after chest. Sakura's breath froze; even the Voice was silent, carefully watching the massacre occurring before them. That was exactly what it was: a massacre. At the speed he was moving, the shinobi had no chance of surviving. They didn't even have a chance to react before the blood burst from them.

A minute later, the twisted pile of bodies the Voice had assembled was double in size. Silence rang around them.

He killed her— monster! For the first time in a long while, she heard Noriko's voice echo through her head, clear like a bell.

Sakura swallowed, the action producing a sharp pain in her dry throat.

Four more ANBU, two brown-haired men, a blonde woman, and a black-haired woman, flashed into existence beside the man's now lazily slouched form, flanking him.

The former second-in-command, now leader, of Sakura's squad stepped forward, shoulders stiff. He bowed sharply. "Taichou."

The other ANBU on her squad fell into line beside him. Belatedly, Sakura joined them at the very end. She postponed an incredulous consideration of her luck—of all the squads, after two years of no contact, now hers was the one to run into him?— to scan her teammates, noting some severe but largely manageable injuries. Coyote, the squad's designated medic-nin, would be able to handle them.

"We expected more fatalities," the dark-haired woman of the newly arrived squad spoke, voice a monotone.

"We were attacked approximately ten minutes ago—"

"Your mid-level squad accomplished this in ten minutes?" the brown-haired man wearing a bear mask pressed harshly.

It took a moment for Sakura to realize that all her teammates' gazes were now accusingly on her. Her face formed a snarl beneath her mask; they were going to shatter any hopes of anonymity she would have hoped to have maintained in front of this particular audience.

"Crow did it, taichou," Rat spoke up, his voice a nasally rasp from what was undoubtedly a mild chest injury. "She killed every single one of those shinobi before you arrived."

Fucking rat. Her muscles tightened as her former captain's gaze fell on her. She didn't know how she could have ever been blind to it before. How had she ever thought him a lackadaisical, unobservant shinobi? She could sense his presently obvious lethality on a cellular level. Aggression and killing intent radiated from him, saturating the air. Sakura's eyes widened before she forced herself to calm down instead of darting away and trying her luck with fleeing.

A second later, he was directly in front of her. She kept her head bowed, using the pretense of rank and formality to avoid his gaze.

"Remove your mask."

Sakura stiffened. "That's against protocol, taichou."

Without warning, she felt a gloved hand yank her head up until she was looking directly into his eyes. Daring her to resist, he raised his other hand and pulled her mask off, revealing the nondescript features of her henge: tanned skin, thin brown hair, and dark eyes.

"How did someone inconsequential like you kill so many?" Kakashi questioned with feral interest, the metallic scent of blood wafting off of him as he leaned closer. His hand was almost choking her.

Sakura's eyes almost bugged out at his demeanor. He was nothing like the Kakashi she had known, and yet, perhaps the compilation of every deviance in personality, every note or look that had ever struck her as suspicious, as too sharp, from before. Menacing and terrifying, his presence crackled through the immediate area like the electricity he had just produced. The peaceful atmosphere that always arose after a battle won—no matter how devastating the cost—fractured in the face of it, driving every shinobi around to be on-guard as though the bloodshed was still impending.

"I'm a genjutsu user," Sakura bit out against the painful, calloused hold. She ignored the way her heart raced in her chest, aware of what those hands had accomplished. He wore the ANBU uniform like a second skin, the pale span of his actual skin visible only at his muscled upper arms, which were exposed between his flak jacket and elbow length arm guards, and his hands—which were on her. "I wasn't able to dispel the genjutsu entirely, but…enough."

Kakashi's gaze passed over her form and the amount of blood splattered on her. "Had fun, did you?" he mocked.

Her body stiffened at the accusation. He felt it immediately. His body became flush with hers.

"Your name," he demanded, guttural, into her ear.

"Saori," she hissed when his hand tightened warningly. Her anger bled into her voice. "Saori Mori."

Like a hound scenting blood, Kakashi reacted to her hostility, pressing closer. "Do we have a problem, Saori Mori?"

Sakura wanted to laugh loudly in his face.

"You've made me break two of ANBU's first-level rules," she sneered. "And I want you to get off me."

Around her, her teammates looked at her like she had gone insane. Rat seemed to vibrate with excitement at her impending fortune. Fucker, she thought poisonously.

He stared at her for one, seemingly eternal moment, before he snapped his head away, suddenly the cool, dismissive captain he had been when he had first spoke. "Get back to Konoha and debrief."

Sakura spun and left without a second look, palms fisted and trembling at her sides.


"You have perfect chakra control—use it. If you maximize the efficiency of your chakra-use, you will be toe-to-toe with opponents of even the greatest chakra reserves."

Sakura ducked a fist encased in volatile chakra and flipped over a spinning kick from another opponent, trying her best to forget everything that had happened the previous day.

After two and a half years, after no contact, she had seen him—like that

Blood on her clothes. Wash. Scrub. Rinse. Repeat.

"Didn't you say I was a genjutsu user?" she bit out, making fast hand signs to release a water dragon that collided through ten of the shinobi. "When are you going to teach me advanced genjutsu?"

"I have already taught you some genjutsu," the crow answered calmly, watching the battle below with unreadable eyes. "Anything beyond what you currently know will require you refining your precision in chakra consumption so that perfection is instinctive."

Sakura snarled and exhaled high pressure streams from her mouth, skewering the rest of the faceless shinobi remaining around her. "And then I'll be able to make genjutsus like yours?"

"That would require the sharingan," Shisui answered coolly. "You will need to summon me before you can place anyone under this level of genjutsu."

"Convenient," Sakura muttered. With the shinobi remaining, she unsheathed the chokuto and charged forward, lining the blade with her chakra. As the crow had promised, it had 'taught' her how to use the weapon—primarily by conjuring shinobi to pummel her until she learned to move correctly.

Learning the chokuto, though, had come in use in the missions Sakura had been assigned in the past year. Of course, that had been Shisui's influence as well. Ever since the crow had determined missions could also be used as lessons, it had continued to influence the assignments handed to her.

She didn't know how it was possible—the level of duplicity required, let alone the pervasiveness of genjutsu required. Yet, the crow had maneuvered her into harder and harder missions. Conveniently, Sakura was sixteen now and tall—even without a henge, she did not overtly appear unusual on these missions.

Though her official rank left her lacking; she had, incredibly enough, managed to miss the chunin exams twice more and so was still technically a genin.

She blinked, distracted from her thoughts, as the shinobi surrounding her suddenly vanished. Her gaze went to the crow, wary.

Shisui cocked its head to the side in visible annoyance. "Someone is approaching."

It turned its gaze to fix one, glowing red eye on her. The genjutsu released its hold on her and Sakura found herself standing alone on the rundown training ground she had made her own over the past two and a half years.

Footsteps, increasing in volume with considerable speed, sounded behind her and she turned to find three figures racing toward her. She slipped her kunai back into her flak jacket. It was the boy who had followed Naruto around all the time—he and his genin teammates.

"Oy," the boy shouted loudly, "He's back! Naruto-nichan is back!"

He turned and pointed upward. Sakura followed his finger to find a lone figure standing on top of a tall wooden pole, above the buildings surrounding him, a good distance away. The figure's back was facing her but she knew that it was Naruto.

Sakura bent her knees and sent chakra to her legs. When she opened her eyes again, she stood in front of the tall pole, her hair settling around her belatedly from the sudden burst of speed.

Her gaze flicked to her right. Jiraiya stood beside her.

"Naruto," the sannin bellowed, "Get down!"

"Yeah, yeah," the heard the familiar, abrasive voice bellow back, only slightly lower than it had been two years ago. But when Sakura examined his face, she found a solemner expression than she was used to, as her former teammate surveyed his village.

After one long look, Naruto took a casual step off the top of the pole. When he landed on the ground, his gaze found Sakura.

Neither of them said anything at first. Sakura took her time to survey the boy who had annoyed her so much in the Academy and later on Team Seven, and he did the same in turn. Like before, whatever thoughts arose from his perusal were visible on his face. Chagrin at her height—she was still taller than he was. Surprise—at her clothing, she guessed; Sakura's pants and loose shirt hid the slight but definite muscle definition she had gained. It hadn't occurred to her, but she supposed she did look very different from before he had left. She no longer wore the dress—and she had once loved that dress.

Naruto had abandoned his ridiculous—and impractical—neon orange and dark blue jumpsuit for something only slightly less ridiculous. He had also grown taller and broader in the shoulders. But the biggest change she could find was in his now pensive demeanor.

This impression subsided when his face cracked into a familiar crooked grin. "Sakura-chan!"

"Naruto."

His gaze shifted to behind her and his grin remained. "Konohamaru!"

That had been the boy's name. Sakura turned and found Konohamaru gasping for breath with his two teammates just behind him.

"Boss!" the younger boy panted. "Look! I perfected it!"

He made quick hand signs and a buxom brunette appeared before them, intimates barely covered by bits of mist. Jiraiya choked beside her.

Naruto scoffed loudly, the gesture exaggerated and overblown like a kabuki actor's. "I've moved beyond such low-level jutsu. Check this out!"

His hands met in rapid formations and multiple women popped into existence. Despite the unique features of each women, they all shared one thing in common—nudity.

Jiraiya's grin was wide and greedy until he seemed to remember Sakura was there. "Run, Naruto," he informed the other gravely. "If she's anything like her mentor, you won't be living much longer."

Naruto's gaze shot to her with trepidation. Sakura viewed the generous bosoms of the women with indifference and not a little medical skepticism.

"Boss," Konohamaru chirped, "the gang and I have to head back to meet up with Ebisu-sensei! But we'll catch up later!"

As Naruto waved them away, Jiraiya spoke up again. "And that's our cue to see Tsunade."

Sakura blinked slowly. She had purposefully left bottles of saké all around Tsunade's office the previous night so that she could sleep in before her training with the crow. "She drank heavily last night," she said after a pause. "She'll probably be passed out for another hour."

Jiraiya clearly knew the hokage well, because he didn't seem surprised and did not question her further about it. "Let's meet at her office at sundown, in that case."

Naruto straightened excitedly. "Want to eat at Ichiraku Ramen, ero-sennin? They have the best ramen in all of Konoha—no—in all the great five shinobi nations!"

"No way," Jiraiya scoffed loudly. "I'm heading to the bathhouse to sample some of Konoha's…fairer offerings. Catch you later."

He disappeared with a pop, leaving Naruto and Sakura alone. With a complex expression, Naruto reached at his side and pulled out his frog wallet. Sakura noticed that when he jostled it, it made no noise.

Naruto caught her looking at him and immediately beamed widely. "Ah, it's so great to be back. I can't even wait to see Tsunade-bachan and—"

"You know," Sakura interrupted, "I'm feeling a little hungry. Let's go."

His eyes bugged, before lowering. "Ahh, I can't. Gama-chan is empty, see?" He squished the wallet demonstratively.

"I'll cover it," Sakura said, already setting off in direction of the restaurant. But she didn't hear footsteps follow her, so she was forced to turn around again. Naruto gazed back at her in utter amazement.

"Hey, Sakura-chan," Naruto asked dazedly, "are you asking me out on a date—"

"No. We're—were—teammates, and we're grabbing a meal together."

"Okay," Naruto said easily. And strangely, his expression did not change—as though her offer of companionship was all he had really been after in the first place.

Sakura frowned as they made their way to the finest ramen establishment in Konoha. Ayame took their order and conveyed it to Teuchi, who prepared their meal behind her. Naruto settled into the stool beside her with a groan, inhaling the smell of the restaurant with great satisfaction.

"How've you been?" he asked after they had settled down. The blue eyes that looked at her were serious now. Sakura wasn't able to stare into them for very long, inevitably averting her gaze under such piercing examination.

"Fine. It's been fine," she said shortly. She quickly shifted the topic of conversation. "What did you learn while you were away?"

It was a fortunate thing that even three ANBU missions paid a mini-fortune or Sakura probably would have been eaten out of her house with the amount of ramen Naruto consumed in between enthusiastic retellings of his adventures.

She leaned forward and listened with determined intentness to Naruto's wild tales of narrow escapes and grueling training and rasengan developments and editing Icha Icha drafts. It was endless chatter, perhaps for the first time welcomed. A month ago, the crow had managed to place Sakura on her first ANBU mission, and even after two more, the memories of the dead and the dying undeniably had yet to lose their hold on her: kept her scrubbing her skin in the shower for longer than she realized, made her burn the clothes she had worn each time, made her fingers spasm each time she reached for her blade—

"And then, it EXPLODED!" Naruto wiped his mouth with a blissed-out groan. Sakura gazed outside and found a thin sliver of the sun resting above the horizon.

"We should head to the tower," she commented, placing down the money. Naruto nodded distractedly, rubbing his protruding stomach lazily.

Given Naruto's condition, they decided to walk there instead of employing chakra. Just as the thin sliver of gold disappeared, the two entered the building and made their way up the spiraling levels to the top level, where the hokage's office was situated.

They found Jiraiya already there, leering at the golden-haired woman sitting at her desk. Tsunade's attention moved instantly to the newcomers of her office. As she saw Naruto, her stern expression melted into a reluctantly fond smile.

"So, you're finally back. A little more grown up too, I hope?"

Naruto struck a pose, thumbs up. "Believe it!"

"Willing to bet on it?" the Godaime challenged, teeth bared. That golden gaze unexpectedly snapped to her.

Sakura shrugged. "Sure. I'll place money opposite whatever you gamble on."

Tsunade glared viciously. "Brat," she chewed out. She leaned back into her chair and surveyed them both over her intertwined hands.

"Do you think I would have come back, if I had not come back with results?" Jiraiya interjected into the silence silkily.

Tsunade met this proclamation with a sly smile on her own lips. "If that's the case: I want to see these 'results' as soon as possible."

Sakura watched as Naruto straightened beside her, a fierce expression on his face. He looked ready to battle any monster Tsunade might decide to summon before him.

"I'm placing you two back on a team," the Godaime barked commandingly.

"Really?" Naruto asked eagerly, almost vibrating with excitement.

"Really?" Sakura sighed.

"And not just you two. You see, despite his position and usefulness in ANBU, I've called him back to Konoha too." There was a mean grin on Tsunade's face.

"Who?" Naruto burst out, eyes wide.

"Come in!" Tsunade called out.

A figure blurred into existence in the room.

"Well," the figure that had caused Naruto to pale and pull out his kunai drawled. "Is that anyway to greet your old sensei?"

 


 

Sakura's palms broke into a cold sweat. Her mouth—conversely—dried almost painfully.

She should have suspected this, that Tsunade might call Team Seven back together now that Naruto was back. It was exactly the sentimental kind of thing she had learned her mentor was inclined to do. Rationalization, however, did not help temper her visceral reaction to Kakashi's presence in front of her for the second time in twenty four hours after two and a half years.

Sakura's teeth bit into the side of her cheek.

Haruno Sakura is unsuited to become a shinobi.

She exhaled sharply, the air searing her throat.

Monster, Noriko whispered, as though right behind her. At this point, Sakura didn't know who she was talking about.

Kakashi stepped forward, familiar gaze framed by silver-white hair and a black mask. He looked no different from before, and at the same time, worlds different—a sculpture now ostensibly molded by a knife instead of the human hands that had long been assumed. His hitai-ate was absent from his forehead, as ANBU procedure dictated.

He smiled, the resulting narrowing of his gaze harder and cruder than his former, fake eye-crinkling grins. Sakura exhaled. Even Naruto looked a bit bemused, edging slightly away.

"How long has he been away from civilian life?" Jiraiya muttered under his breath to Tsunade. Sakura noticed that Kakashi's attention snapped to him as soon as he opened his mouth, tracking his words with a chilling smile.

"Two and a half years," Tsunade returned. She pursed her lips, returning the ANBU captain's gaze unflinchingly. "He'll adjust."

Jiraiya's lips twisted ironically, his following words barely audible. Sakura caught them only because she was closest. "Do rabid dogs ever return quietly to the kennel?"

Sakura watched her mentor turn a hard gaze on Kakashi again, with the slightest tightness around her eyes.

She shifted her weight. Almost immediately, Kakashi's gaze landed on her. She was struck by how different this glance was from what she had faced hours earlier. Before, in another's features, she had been weighed and examined with relentless scrutiny.

Now, his gaze related an enormous nothingness, an indifference, toward her—toward Sakura—transparent in a way it had never quite been before.

Very much aware of the attention of Tsunade and Jiraiya on her, she forced a smile to her face after an awkward pause. "Hi…Kakashi-sensei."

The word sensei choked her on its way out.

"Wait, wait," Naruto said with wide eyes, "does that mean Team Seven is reinstated?"

The godaime nodded firmly.

Kakashi's gaze settled on uncaringly her, like a wolf discarding a piece of meat it found not to be up to par. "Her studies would better be pursued under your guidance."

"My decision is final," Tsunade barked, unwavering. "Team Seven is active once again."

Kakashi's eyes were shuttered.

Sakura kept her expression as unaffected as humanly possible through it all.

 


 

"Sakura," Naruto waved to her tiredly the next morning, five am sharp. His eyes widened when she neared. "Hey! You're wearing a dress again!"

She was, in fact, wearing a dress, red like the one from almost three years ago. The dress was silk and, paired with flashy high boots, even more grossly luxurious than her first. But fitting nevertheless, she felt. Despite its fragility—and here, exactly, was the irony—she wagered its continued well-being.

As she stood beside Naruto, she kept her gaze pointedly away from where she knew Kakashi was positioned in the tree to their left.

"Ah, why did I even show up this early? I forgot, he never shows up on time—AH!"

Naruto flinched back as Kakashi appeared in front of them, arms flying back wildly. Long, dangerous limbs were hidden once again under deceptively loose cloth; Sakura's nose twitched at the scent he carried beneath the standard jounin uniform.

Blood, the Voice clarified helpfully with unholy glee, It's all over him—

"Okay," Naruto puffed self-importantly, "Let's hurry up and start the training for a new knockout jutsu! I need more in my repertoire."

Sakura confirmed, if it hadn't already been so, that whatever thin veneer of harmlessness Kakashi had maintained two years earlier with a team of genin had clearly been just that: a veneer. It was blatant in the forest two days before and blatant in the way he looked at Naruto now.

"Why don't you show me first what you can do?" he proposed, eyes glinting.

Sakura stiffened, something foreign curling in her stomach. Naruto shivered, wariness flashing across his features. Then, he inhaled beside her and recovered with characteristic boldness: "Alright. Let's do this!"

Naruto made the hand signs for a kage bunshin. The bunshin began rotating its hands rapidly around the boy's open palm, producing a rotating sphere of highly volatile wind. Rasengan. She had seen it before, but never at this size.

"How'd you like that, sensei?" Naruto grinned arrogantly, looking down at his creation.

"Interesting," Kakashi murmured, straightening to his full height. And to Sakura, it really did look like he was interested: a cruel, voracious interest that communicated his own enormous capacity for violence and a consequent interest in others' capacities for it as well. He approached Naruto, his slow stalk forward more reminiscent of a wolf's gait than the hunting dogs he was known for.

He didn't look at her as he walked past.

"Do you know your chakra nature, boy?"

Boy? Sakura's eyebrow twitched.

Being entirely ignored, she took the time to consider leisurely: what could ANBU do to a person with time, but leave behind the rawest, hardest edges of a character if only to survive. And if so, what, in times of commanded complacency, could keep that cultivated cruelty in check...

"Cool!" Naruto roared. He thrust a split parchment up triumphantly. "Look, Sakura-chan, I have a wind nature!"

Honestly, any idiot could have guessed from the size of his rasengan.

Her forced, detached calm was utterly annihilated as the chirping of birds crackled through the air with sudden, deafening volume. Lightning sprung from Kakashi's hand.

Sakura's heart thumped wildly, her blood pulsed wildly, as she responded instinctively to it, eyes narrowing. The Voice jolted as well, remembering equally as well what that lightning was capable of.

"After chakra transformation," the man murmured in a voice that belied the savage intensity of his body language—

"Wait," Naruto paused, brow furrowing, "what about Sak—wow."

And whatever his initial, earnest misgivings, Naruto was immediately distracted, while Sakura remained on high-alert and struggled to keep her own killing intent and weapons out of sight.

When she walked back home three hours later, she didn't bother controlling the ugly smile on her face. As predicted, not one stitch had pulled on her red dress.

 


 

"Sakura," Naruto sighed, dragging out her name. He was collapsed against the counter of Ichiraku Ramen. "That man…that's not Kakashi-sensei."

Sakura paused in sipping the broth of her ramen.

"He's…" Naruto appeared to struggle for words. "Meaner. And not lazy! He never shows up late, and he makes me train until I can barely stand anymore. And—" he paused, before adding—"he pretends like you aren't there."

She looked at Naruto for a long moment. Blue, impassioned eyes gazed back, righteously indignant, clear of the blood and the muck and the guilt that Sakura had begun to bathe in.

"Well," she said after a pause, with remarkable pretense of indifference, "he didn't exactly ever think I was his most talented student."

Naruto skipped right past the obvious explosive hidden in that answer. "But now it's like he hates you!"

Sakura's gaze made another pass over the restaurant and paused on its newest occupant. Hinata Hyuuga had just stepped in, her cream-colored jacket still rippling from the light breeze. Her gaze alighted on Sakura with a polite smile; when she found Naruto, two bright spots of color flared in her cheeks.

"Hey Hinata!" Naruto cheered, "Come join us!"

"A-are you sure?" the dark-haired girl questioned. "I would hate to interrupt."

"Not at all," Sakura said. She watched as Hinata hesitated, before tentatively taking a seat to her right.

As the other girl placed her order—sending sly glances to her left where Naruto sat as she did so—Naruto resumed slurping his own ramen with gusto. Apparently, Sakura and his previous conversation had been placed on the back burner.

"How have you been?"

"Well," Hinata responded to her. "Just finished a six-hour surgery."

"You just got here from surgery?" Naruto demanded, eyes widening.

Hinata took one look at him, and the red flush returned. "Y-yes. Open heart surgery."

Naruto's expression twisted jokingly. "Your hands must have been covered all over in blood. Gross."

To Sakura's surprise, Hinata didn't giggle along or blush at with this statement. Instead, she suddenly stiffened.

"A-actually it isn't, Naruto-kun. It's no more blood than you've had on your own hands while protecting Konoha. O-only instead of h-hurting people, I'm saving them."

Hinata's features were almost…sharp. At first, Naruto gazed back, his jaw slack. Sakura glanced at him and Hinata, wondering with distant incredulity if she needed to intervene.

But then Naruto straightened abruptly, a strange look on his face. "You're…right, Hinata. I shouldn't have said that."

Hinata's expression softened again. "Thank you, Naruto-kun." The blush returned.

Ayame brought Hinata's order to the table and, with gentle grace, Hinata reached forward to accept the bowl. As she ate, Naruto's gaze remained on her, even though a full, untouched bowl of ramen had just been placed in front of him as well.

Sakura gazed down at her own bowl with a blank gaze, mind somewhere else.


The next morning was Saturday—which meant no Team Seven training, thankfully. At the crow's command, Sakura found herself at the ANBU locker rooms at six am, brown hair washed and dampening her shoulders.

"Crow," the captain with the panther mask called from behind her—it was the one who had given her her assignments for the previous ANBU missions.

Sakura turned as she finished pulling her arm guards up in sharp movements. "Yes?"

"A special request was placed for you for a mission today."

She felt her muscles lock, the tan skin around the dark eyes of her henge tightening. "What?"

"Relax," the slim woman said sardonically. "Clearly you're moving up the ranks and quickly too. I've never even been assigned on a mission with him, and I've been in this shithole a damn while longer than you have."

Sakura forced her shoulders to relax, but the painful set of her jaw—hidden by the mask—remained. Someone requesting her meant that she had stuck out too much. And that was...problematic.

"Who?" she demanded lowly.

The panther mask cocked to the side. "Hatake Kakashi."

It felt like the mask was laughing at her.


 

 

Daring her to resist, he raised his other hand and pulled her mask off, revealing the nondescript features of her henge: tanned skin, thin brown hair, and dark eyes.

"How did someone inconsequential like you kill so many?" Kakashi questioned with feral interest, the metallic scent of blood wafting off of him as he leaned closer.

https://images-wixmp-ed30a86b8c4ca887773594c2.wixmp.com/f/4ed3db0e-c85e-466a-80af-a2e818c4c091/de3odex-69f63b10-c019-4240-b31c-f6b8b861fb66.png?token=eyJ0eXAiOiJKV1QiLCJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiJ9.eyJzdWIiOiJ1cm46YXBwOiIsImlzcyI6InVybjphcHA6Iiwib2JqIjpbW3sicGF0aCI6IlwvZlwvNGVkM2RiMGUtYzg1ZS00NjZhLTgwYWYtYTJlODE4YzRjMDkxXC9kZTNvZGV4LTY5ZjYzYjEwLWMwMTktNDI0MC1iMzFjLWY2YjhiODYxZmI2Ni5wbmcifV1dLCJhdWQiOlsidXJuOnNlcnZpY2U6ZmlsZS5kb3dubG9hZCJdfQ.EzgTBRFrtg0GpUTTC5HcPYPiL-IQ1TUbfbVvV7lD22o

- gorgeous artwork of Sakura disguised as Crow created for this fic by ZiggyZag1212

Chapter Text

The trees were thick, barren, and provided no coverage from the wind. Along with increased winds, snow had just begun to dust the tips of the leaves, signifying their movement north. Sakura knew that her bone-deep discomfort was easily visible in the tense line down her spine. Hopefully it would be chocked up to mission nerves.

A special request was placed for you for a mission today.

She cringed just remembering the words.

Now, two hours later, she raced through the trees with the same ANBU members who had been with Kakashi in the forest: two brown-haired men with bear and raccoon masks and two women, Snail and Hyena.

Retrieval mission, high-level, Hyena had curtly explained to her. Assets had been detained in a prison in the Land of Snow. Diplomatic efforts had failed.

The copy-nin had not said a word the entire time.

She was beginning to wonder if he even noticed she was there (a rather familiar thought, actually).

“Three hours,” Bear called out. A burst of chilly wind shuffled through the trees again, prompting a violent shiver to wrack through her body.

Sakura kept a sly grip on her weapons.

True to Bear’s words, they reached the prison just as the sun set. Sakura almost missed the prison entirely, so deeply entrenched it was into one of the mountains. The cavernous entrance glowed dimly, evidence of torches and habitation. If there were shinobi guarding the entrance, they were well hidden.

“Snail with Bear. Hyena and Raccoon with the new one,” a guttural voice emerged from behind for the first time.

Her body instinctively stiffened at its sound. She relaxed immediately after, hoping to hide the reaction.

For a fleeting moment, Kakashi’s eyes landed on her. Then, he vanished. Tortured screams echoed through the mountains a second later.

Raccoon gave a signal, and she and Panther entered the now sentry-less prison. The cave was poorly lit, but there was enough light to catch on the spilt blood coating the walls.

As they moved, her ears popped from the combination of their speed and the narrowness of the tunnels branching downward. They passed an opening into the level Snail and Bear had taken—a flash of evenly matched combat and piteous groans of inmates pleading to be released—before they arrived at the bottom.

Sakura ducked a scythe and grasped Raccoon’s waist in the next instant, twisting to swing him behind her and into the enemy-nin attempting to sneak up on them. Close confines and the threat of collapsing the tunnels prohibited large ninjutsu use, but Hyena’s hands immediately began flashing through signs for Earth-release jutsus, making ample use of the element surrounding them.

Sakura almost did the same, but stilled as she remembered her own lack of finesse with earth elemental justu. In the end, she pulled the chokuto from her back.

When they had cleared enough of a path, Hyena pushed forward to find the Konoha shinobi in their cells. Raccoon and Sakura both shifted to pick up the slack.

“I’ve got eyes on her,” the man signaled.

Sakura signaled back the affirmative. She grimaced when her blade nicked a vein and blood sprayed all over the ground. Some landed on her pant leg.

Making a mess, the Voice whispered.

She inhaled sharply. The smell was never going to go away, and even if it did, she would always know it was there—

Raccoon made the hand sign to exit. Gritting her teeth to reestablish focus—everything was happening so quickly, too quickly—Sakura turned and saw Hyena with four injured Konoha shinobi. She shunshined to the other woman and grabbed two of the shinobi before continuing to the exit path they had opened up.

If Sakura had thought traveling through the tunnels before was a struggle, it was worse now with more people. She stopped only when she burst through to fresh air and stood on the opposite mountain. The woman in her left arm gave a loud grunt, coughing up blood; the man in her right was unconscious. A quick visual scan suggested that neither was in immediate critical danger, though bones would need to be reset.

“We need to find better cover,” Hyena murmured. Her form vibrated then disappeared. Hefting the two bodies up again, Sakura crouched low into the snow and followed.

They traveled for half an hour before they reached a cave well-hidden and well-sheltered from the weather outside. Once they settled the prisoners down—wrapped their wounds and covered them with blankets for protection from the cold—they could do nothing but wait for the rest.

Half an hour passed by silently. Just as the snow finally seemed to slow, the Voice stirred and Sakura stilled in mid-motion along with the other ANBU.

Snail arrived first, an unconscious woman clutched in her arms. Then Bear, two men—both conscious and looking in comparatively healthy condition—propped on each shoulder.

When Sakura’s gaze went to the mouth of the cave again, she found Kakashi standing there. His entrance had been soundless. He looked remarkably like the demons depicted in the tapestries all along the hokage's office: bathed in blood, monstrous not because of malice but because of seeming indifference.

One of the men whom Bear had carried in stood up. “We need to move. Now.”

“We have to wait. Most of the other prisoners need bandaging and rest before we can move again.” Hyena negated almost immediately.  

“There’s no point in bringing them,” he declared, pointing demonstratively at the man Sakura had carried in. “Look at him! He’s just dead-weight.”

 “Our mission is to—”

“Then the parameters have changed. I am a member of the council, and I outrank all of you here—”

The sound of a blade being unsheathed cut him off. The man stopped speaking abruptly, a soft, choked noise emitting from his mouth. He backed away from Kakashi.

“I’ll take second watch, taichou,” Snail voiced over the man, beginning to pull out bedrolls for the former prisoners to lay on.

Rabid dog,” the councilman hissed, face deathly pale.

The blade didn’t move for a long moment, still pointed in the man’s direction. After a moment, and without a word of acknowledgement, Kakashi disappeared from sight. Sakura’s eyebrow twitched.

Sakura rolled onto her heels, using the momentum from the motion to stand up. One by one, she and the other ANBU rolled out the thin pallets.

She watched as Snail slid a kunai under the pallet they were sharing before lying down. Sakura padded her own stash of kunai, shifting them on her person so that the edges wouldn’t cut her, and then joined her.


 The next morning, they left by dawn. By evening, they reached Konoha and deposited the prisoners at the hospital.

Kakashi disappeared between one spring breeze and the next. As soon as he did, she began to breathe easier.  When she turned, Bear caught her gaze. The other ANBU uniformly paused in their movements, suddenly all paying attention to her as well.

“Everyone scouted for the squad runs a test mission like this, quick, in-and-out —” Snail began bluntly—“The usual missions are…much messier.”.

“Just a heads up,” Raccoon added with private irony. “Kami knows I would have appreciated one.”

Sakura’s lips turned downward.

“You have no right to complain,” Hyena scoffed. “There were complications with my first. I didn’t even get a baby mission like you did.”

“Don’t bother getting your hopes up,” Bear drawled to her, “It’s too early to tell whether he wants you back.”

Sakura cracked her neck, considering that with bubbling hope. Kakashi hadn’t given even the slightest hint he was particularly aware of her presence, hadn’t looked at her more times than she could count on one hand.

She didn’t spare them another glance as she left ANBU headquarters. Once a suitable distance away, she entered an abandoned courtyard and removed the henge, changing into clothes she had sealed into a small scroll she kept on her person. The scrolls were intended for shinobi specializing in undercover missions, but had ultimately become an entirely quotidian convenience among all ninja. Only a few years ago, she had used them to pack for sleepovers with Ino. Funny, how times changed.

Dusting off her clothes when she finished putting them on, she shoved her hands into her pockets and reentered the bustling main street.


—ah!” Sato moaned, back arching.

“Hey.”

“Let me,” the shorter man growled, dark eyes shadowed by hair. “Let me touch you.”

 “Sakura.”

Sato found himself stilling at the other man’s expression. Seichi wasn’t the most expressive person he had ever met, quite the opposite, in fact, but—

“Sakura.”

Today, Sakura thought to herself darkly, sucked. And her latest attempt at distraction—which had been heavily championed by the bookstore’s newest employee—had failed utterly to distract her from that fact.

In many ways, though, it was a wonder today hadn’t happened sooner. “A challenge,” the copy-nin had said when Naruto arrogantly demanded one at training, tasting the word like it was a delicacy. “A taijutsu bout, then?”

Sakura had heard enough in the copy nin’s voice  to be immediately on-guard. Naruto had bull-dozed right past all signs of danger to enthusiastic reciprocation.

When their beloved jounin captain had left the training ground half an hour ago, he had left his student a broken mess at its center.

“You mind?” Naruto asked now roughly.

She reached out a hand coated in green chakra without responding.

Her face felt stiff. It was no coincidence that Naruto hadn’t looked at her for the last half an hour; not even when she had first tried to approach him to heal him. He had recognized exactly the way Kakashi was looking at him by the end, the disregard Kakashi directed her way on the rare occasion he looked at her during these training sessions.…

“That’s all I can do for now,” Sakura said curtly, finishing up with the fractured rib. “Check in with Hinata tomorrow at the hospital.”

“R-right,” Naruto coughed out. “I guess it’s home for me. See you tomorrow.”

He turned, but ended up staggering to the side instead of forward. When he took another step and almost landed on his face in the dirt, Sakura rolled her eyes. Gripping his wrist, she threw his arm over her shoulder and took his body weight onto her frame.

“What—what are you doing?!”

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“But I’m getting blood and dirt all over you.”

“I noticed.”

“…You promise you won’t hit me later?”

“Why would I hit you for that?”

“Who else would you hit?”

Sakura didn’t answer, nudging Naruto to the side so that he avoided a protruding rock he undoubtedly would have tripped on. When the normally boisterous figure next to her continued to be uncharacteristically silent, she turned to examine him.

Blue eyes squinted back at her. “You know, you’re really different now. You don’t yell at me as much.”

She didn’t miss a beat. “Have you ever thought that maybe it’s because you’ve become less of an idiot?”

“I’m not an idiot!” Naruto cried dramatically.

Her lips tightened. “You’re right. You’re not. You’re just…really oblivious.”

“Oblivious?” Naruto echoed, brows furrowing. “Hey, I know lots of things, okay? Like the book you’re reading! I mean, I don’t really see their great value, but I personally edited every scene of every book that the ero-sennin has published since I was thirteen—”

He came to a sudden stop, eyes widening in recognition as he looked around. “We’re here.”

She looked up at a tall, pale colored complex with rust brown roofing.

“You live right next to the civilian prison.”

“Yep,” he hummed unconcernedly, “it gets a little noisy whenever there’s a riot, but otherwise it’s great. Really keeps the mortgage rates down.”

Her mouth twitched.

“…which apartment?”

He pointed.

Sakura eyed the long spiraling of stairs up to Naruto’s floor and then lifted him in her arms. He was gaping by the time she put him down.

Naruto reached behind a conspicuous potted plant and pulled out a key. He wedged it into the lock and shoved the door open. The table she caught sight of was stacked almost to the ceiling with empty ramen cups.

“You’ll be good from here?”

Naruto blinked back slowly. Then he smiled widely. “Don’t worry about me! I can barely even feel anything anymore!”

Even if he hadn’t winced near the end of his sentence, she probably would not have believed him.

“Go to the hospital tomorrow.”

He scratched his head sheepishly and then nodded. Sakura gave him one last glance and then turned to jump over the railing and onto the street below. She landed with a thud, not bothering to disguise the sound.

A familiar, chilling caw sounded behind her.

In an instant, her shoulders tensed, hunching slightly. She felt the solid pressure of clawed feet curving around her shoulder. The caw sounded again, this time directly by her ear.

Sakura turn her head to the side to meet the crow’s mismatched gaze. Clutched in its beak was a small cylinder—a scroll. When its gaze continued to burn into her, she reluctantly reached up a hand to retrieve it. She unrolled the parchment, reading it quickly as each line was revealed. It wasn’t long.

“Are you the one making this happen?” Sakura demanded lowly. She hadn’t asked it until now—but it was now too possible to ignore. “Do you think it’s funny, putting me on ANBU missions with Kakashi?”

“I put you in ANBU, but this happened without my interference,” Shisui returned, placidly, “As always, ensure that you are not found out or risk my…disappointment.” He released a loud, shrill caw and took off from her shoulder.

Numb, she rolled the scroll back up and stuffed it into her pack. After finding an abandoned restroom, pulling out the scroll sealed with her uniform and applying the same henge, she made her way to the ANBU headquarters.

It hadn’t even been two days. Two days.

Snail’s back was the first to greet her. When the other woman heard the sound of the locker room opening, she turned, eyes widening in recognition. “So you’re back after all.”

Bear came to stand beside her, surveying her evenly. Behind the both of them, Raccoon offered a small nod.

“Right,” Sakura muttered, stomach sinking the entire while, “what’s this one about?”

“We don’t know yet,” Bear answered, sounding equally displeased about this turn of events.

Raccoon snapped his shin guards on, the metal on metal creating a clang. The door open swung open behind Sakura. Sakura turned, gaze falling first on long, pale limbs before the she made her way to the straight, long black hair and hyena mask.

“Details?” Raccoon prompted.

Hyena was silent for a moment. Then, in a blunt tone, she began.


“Messy,” had been the first word out of Hyena’s mouth. Later, Sakura knew exactly how much of an understatement that had been.

Messy. The word did a laughable job of describing what transpired.

Even ‘horrific’ scarcely did justice. But she would use it for now. It had been beyond anything Sakura could have ever imagined; she had already stopped three times in the three hours they had spent traveling back to stumble over to a bush and vomit.

(Fire, hot, suffocating, the sweet-sick smell of burning of flesh, the rhythmic cadence of their screams—)

The urge to burn the clothes she was wearing—even though she knew they were clean (they had all been forced to change with the sheer amount of blood on them)—persisted like a drumbeat, paired with each breath.

She jerked when she felt something bump against her hip. Looking down, she saw that Raccoon was offering his canteen to her. They were alone at the back, a good mile behind the nearest ANBU in the formation. In the dark, Sakura tried her best to meet the other man’s gaze, but it was impossible, especially at the pace they were moving.

Her head threatened to split. She felt like any second the world might suddenly tilt to the side and leave her adrift, senseless in a void. She grabbed the canteen and lifted it to her mouth. She ended up choking on more of its contents than she swallowed, but it was enough to remove some of the awful taste.

Taking another swill, Sakura spat the water out and handed the canteen back. It reassured her that the hand that reached out to grasp the water wasn’t entirely steady either. The growing nausea in her gut surged again. She scanned the forest for miles ahead, looking for the best location to make her next vomiting pit stop.

She managed the next few minutes until there by inhaling and exhaling deeply, eyes closed.

When the proper amount of time passed and her gaze darted to her chosen point again, she found that their squad had veered off-course. They were leaving the thick of the trees for a sparser stretch of forest. And sparse flora usually meant that—

Streams of lanterns glinted through the leaves. Civilization. For some reason, they were heading straight toward it.

A tall, brass gate soon emerged, proclaiming proudly: Tanzaku Quarters.

Her eyes narrowed. That was the infamous den Naruto had retrieved Tsunade from years ago, famous for gambling, drinking, and—

“Who wants to…gamble now?” she bit out.

Raccoon finally turned his head. When his voice emerged, slightly muffled from beneath his mask. “There’s no point trying to be coy for courtesy's sake, Crow.”

Sakura’s face was torn between too many disparate reactions. “But—”

“For some of us, it’s required to…maintain that subtle distinction between ANBU and more disturbing psychological disorders.”

There was a darkly, knowing quality to his voice. Sakura’s mouth pursed, torn between incredulity and something else.

 


 

Her progression from there—the outskirts of Tanzaku Quarters—to the foyer of its finest house of oiran was less of a willing descent into lechery and more a result of herding. But even she had to admit that the building they arrived at was resplendent: crimson and obscene even against the licentiousness of the nearby brothels and bars. The scent of alcohol was thick in the air throughout the entire district but only thickened, joined now by a scent of expensive, heady perfume, when they passed through the entrance.

Civilians flinched away as they entered. Sakura was almost apologetic—the aura of  imminent violence about her team had become deadly accompaniment to the shamisen that greeted its other visitors.

A woman emerged from a curtained passage, slim and swan-necked. Her lips were painted blood-red and her hair was drawn back from her face. A few wisps escaped in delicate curls to brush her cheeks. She smiled, peering up at them through her lashes.

Oiran weren’t exactly discussed in polite company, but Ino had been more than an ample resource to anyone around in her younger years. Sakura knew, though not much, at least that they were the highest ranked of their kind. According to popular gossip, there were daimyo who had gone without the touch of the oiran they lusted after, so sparing the elite were with their favor.

“My girls have always enjoyed visits of your kind,” the woman continued, making suggestive eye contact with each member of the squad. Her gaze passed over Sakura, of course, but missed—

Sakura turned, eyes narrowed, to find that Kakashi was not there.

The woman approached Hyena, a distinctly lustful smile curving on her lips. Hyena returned this glance by tilting her head to the side, long hair falling over one shoulder as she did so.

“I assume you have no objection...” the woman murmured, already loosening her obi. The cloth parted to reveal a dangerously deepening path of skin. Sakura yanked her gaze to the side, observing the courtyard-like structure of the building. Every level looked out onto the open ground floor, she noted with great interest.

Hyena, the owner, and the rest were gone before Sakura’s next blink. Which left just her and the owner’s assistant behind.

A hesitant cough sounded. Sakura’s gaze moved back to the left.

“The divans on each floor outside the rooms,” she interrupted before he could speak, “I’ll just take one of those. Just to rest.”

He looked unsure. She wondered if she would have to pull the chokuto out to convince him. Because there was no way she was stumbling out now into the drunk and high masses to try to find somewhere else to sleep.

Perhaps it was her glare, but he relented. “O-of course. The divans on the top floor are… most comfortable.”

Sakura gave a quick nod and launched herself upward. When her feet settled once again on lush carpeting, she found that the highest level was possibly the most extravagant of them all.

Sakura swung her chokuto off her back and uncaringly stabbed it upright into the floor. It would be easily accessible in her reclined position.

The divan she had chosen, at the end of the hall, was long but narrow. She shifted for a moment, trying to get comfortable. She wouldn’t be able to sleep like this, exposed and so out in the open. But she would take what she could get.

She shifted onto her side and closed her eyes.

And opened them a second later.

Moans: distinctly female, breathy, and high with ecstasy. She could tune out the noises from the other rooms, but these—were louder than the rest.

Sakura growled and shifted onto her other side. As though at the behest of a sadistic conductor, the moans steadily rose in pitch and urgency. She shut her eyes determinedly.

A long, drawn-out wail pierced the air. It lasted longer than human lungs had any right to allow.

Sakura’s eyes flicked open and glared violently at the ceiling. One of the golden doors on the floor swung open a scarce thirty seconds later. It was the precise door behind which those noises had emerged.

A figure stood in the open entryway, silhouetted by the dim lighting inside. The woman’s pink lips were downturned in a light pout, ostensibly at her departure from the room. As she made her way down the hall, her kimono was untied, revealing firm breasts and full, curved hips. She seemed considerably unconcerned by this. Her movements were slow, and at each step forward, her eyelids fluttered tellingly, features drawn with echoes of pleasure.

Sakura remained in her reclining position, reluctant to hear the shrill scream that would result from startling her.

When the woman’s eyes inevitably fell on her, however, the pout abruptly vanished from her lips and was replaced instead with a haughty smirk.

It was an arrogant expression and entirely self-satisfied. She passed by with a gentle brush of air, kimono and long, black hair fluttering behind her.

The smell of rich, jasmine perfume reached Sakura’s nose—and then something else. Sakura’s brows furrowed as she sniffed lightly in an attempt to identify it. It smelled…familiar: smoke, metal, pine, and—

She straightened urgently, eyes flying to door that had yet to close.

A pair of mismatched eyes, half-lidded, gazed back.

She stared soundlessly, her mouth tight behind her mask and face hot, then turned sharply away.

When she looked back, the open door revealed an empty room. The bed, some irreverent, unconscionable part of her brain noted, hadn’t been used.

What had been the point? Due diligence? The poorly guised savagery in his eyes had not abated at all.


 

 

“R-right,” Naruto coughed out, a strange expression on his face. It lingered, then disappeared. “I guess it’s home for me. See you tomorrow.”

He turned, but ended up staggering to the side instead of forward. When he took another step and almost landed on his face in the dirt, Sakura rolled her eyes. Gripping his wrist, she threw his arm over her shoulder and took his body weight onto her frame.

“What—what are you doing?!”

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

“But I’m getting blood and dirt all over you.”

“I noticed.”

“…You promise you won’t hit me later?”

“Why would I hit you for that?”

“Who else would you hit?”

- beautiful artwork of the bromance that should have been by an artist called jam-art

Chapter Text

The mission ended with a swift and altogether uneventful journey back. (And she tried—really tried—not to think about what she had seen. All of it.)

Sakura settled back at home, burned her uniform, and showered. She tried to sleep after, because she’d been running on a sleep deficit the past few days; but it was midday and her body clock wouldn’t let her.

Eventually, she threw on some clothes and went to the grocery store across the village. She hadn’t visited it in years, not ever since she’d purchased that unfortunate bottle of milk.

Sakura should have known by now to stay away from that store.

“Watch out!” an ink-covered Naruto bellowed. “He’s the devil's spawn! Run—”

“That’s not a very nice introduction, dickless,” a cool, monotonous voice intoned, stepping off a giant, ink creature.

A wide, plastic smile stretched across the newcomer’s face. His skin was as pale as parchment. eyes and hair as dark as possible in contrast. “I’m Sai.”

“What he is,” Naruto growled, trying to shake off the ink on him like a wet dog, “is the devil’s spawn. There’s no way I’m letting Tsunade baa-chan make him a part of Team Seven.”

“Haruno Sakura,” she returned, ignoring Naruto’s betrayed look. What was there to feel betrayed for?

New members might have seemed like a curve ball to Naruto, but she had spent the past few years on make-shift teams for one-off missions—because Team Seven had disbanded and Tsunade hadn’t been the type to abscond from Konoha with her protégé. Well, Tsunade might have been, before…but not as Hokage.

 “Sakura,” Naruto said softly, face deadly serious. “He’s not part of this team. I’m not letting anyone replace Sasuke—”

“You mean the traitor?” Sai interjected, smiling kindly.

When Naruto gave a wordless scream of rage, air hissed through Sakura’s teeth and she stepped forward to catch the back of his shirt, ignoring the clenching in her own chest at Sai’s words. Sai’s smile flickered slightly when Naruto was unable to pull free.

“Interesting,” the black haired boy commented. “The reports I’ve read indicate that you lack talent as a shinobi, Haruno-san.”

“It’s Sakura. And when we get to the training grounds in a few minutes,” Sakura smiled back humorlessly, “I’m sure our captain will readily assure you that’s just the case. Come on.”

It didn’t take much effort to drag Naruto the rest of the way to the training ground. Sai followed behind them at a sedate pace, dark, unreadable eyes taking in everything from the street vendors to the stray dogs with equal interest.

Sakura kept a disinterested eye on him the entire way. Sai was somehow…both extraordinarily unusual and extraordinarily ordinary. She wasn’t blind. He had much of the classical beauty that had made Sasuke a fan-favorite among her peers, herself once included. But his expression was so unrelentingly bland, that it rendered him somehow…forgettable at the same time.

Sai’s gaze slid to hers, catching her mid-perusal. He returned the look frankly, without the self-consciousness most would have shown.

“Man, can’t he forget once?” Naruto muttered as the field—and Kakashi—came into sight. He had stiffened somewhat, apparently remembering their last training session. “Or at least come to training late, like he used to.”

“The legendary copy-nin…” Sai noted softly, attention shifting away from her.

“Yeah, yeah,” Naruto scoffed, flapping his hand, “So what?”

“He looks like he has a big dick,” he added after some consideration.

Naruto choked on the saliva in his mouth. Sakura, in turn, hastily let go of Naruto. (No. She had not heard that.)

She moved onto the field. The moment she escaped the shadowy comfort of the inner village's tall buildings for the open expanse, she began to feel the full brunt of the sun. She could almost see the pulsating wave of heat coating the earth.

“Taichou,” Sai greeted, bowing sharply. “I am eager to prove my worth to this team.”

Kakashi’s head cocked to the side as he straightened to his full height, centimeters above all of them.

His hand flashed out of sight for a second. She felt more than saw Naruto flinch beside her on reflex. A second later, yards of cloth unfurled in the air—orange, gold, crimson—and then landed in her hands.

“Nice, uh, kimono,” Naruto said blankly.

Sai reached for the scroll resting on the boulder beside them. “An escort mission,” he filled in, dark eyes scanning the document. “For the daimyo’s daughter. The royal family has been receiving threats in light of the oldest son’s upcoming marriage, and they want shinobi on top of their full guard detail. They also want a body double for her travel to the wedding.”

Both his and Naruto’s gaze shot to her. Sakura looked down at the kimono in her hands.

Kakashi’s eyes rested on Sai indifferently. “You'll run point.”

“And what will you be doing?” Naruto demanded, squinting.

“Watching from afar,” the Copy-nin said, spinning a kunai in his hand lazily. “Don’t fuck it up.”

From her experience under him in ANBU, Sakura wondered meanly if any action on his part could only end in mass-bloodshed, and that was why he was distancing himself—

That’s a tad unfair, the Voice mocked. We’re not much better, are we?

Sai smiled stiffly at her, and she went behind a tree to change.


Harasa Mihiko, she learned, was the daimyo’s eldest child and only daughter. Sakura hadn’t encountered many upper class women on her missions so far.

But the last had been the princess who had watched her kill Noriko.

Other than their shared social status, Mihiko and Mako shared nothing in common. Mako had been, if not meek, then mild-mannered—and understandably shell-shocked by the slaughter of her ladies-in-waiting. She had spent most of the mission afterwards crying softly into her handkerchief, uncaring of her audience. She had also been beautiful.

As Sakura surveyed her, she knew that Mihiko was not beautiful. She was too jarring for beauty: red hair, straight as straw, plummeted down her back to the backs of her knees; bark brown eyes beneath thin, arched eyebrows peered out at them, clinical. She wasn’t beautiful, but there was something…compelling about her nevertheless.

If one could only look past her arrogance, of course. Sakura swore that one could sense Mihiko’s extreme condescension from almost two kilometers back. It permeated those around her too. She felt the skeptical scrutiny of Mihiko’s samurai guard keenly. She knew she didn’t look exactly like Mihiko. But, per the mission specs, she had changed her hair to match hers, and the kimono hid any obvious differences in their figures.

The daimyo’s daughter’s face wasn’t exactly one that was publicized; most royal women were heavily sheltered before marriage.

“My lady,” Sai greeted calmly. He blinked for a second and then bowed slightly. Naruto coughed before he and Sakura followed suit.

Mihiko’s brown eyes slowly passed over them sharply. “I was told the copy-nin would be here.”

“He will be keeping perimeter,” Sai responded. It wasn’t strictly true—Kakashi had only said he would be watching from afar. It sounded better, though.

Mihiko’s face tightened slightly. Without warning, the daimyo’s daughter’s attention moved to her.

“You,” Mihiko said softly. “Follow.”

She spun immediately after this declaration, red hair fanning out behind her. Two of her guards—tall, bulky men who tied their hair in the way of the samurai—bent to help her into the palanquin. It was the largest one Sakura had ever seen; most fit two to four individuals. This, however, had enough space for at least ten, which she guessed from the ten foot soldiers carrying it.

Sakura followed. The heavy curtain fell behind her with a loud swish, just brushing the back of her kimono.

The daimyo’s daughter was already seated, lounging on cushions with feet bare on the tatami mat. Two ladies-in-waiting sat to her left in seiza. To the right, a woman wielded a brush over a large piece of parchment.

“The black-haired one would have looked better in a kimono,” Mihiko remarked coolly.

Sakura blinked, not sure how to grace that with a response. Most probably prompted by the awkward silence, the painter’s eyes left the painting, darting up from beneath a thick curtain of lashes to analyze the palanquin’s newest occupant.

Sakura blinked.

The woman wielding the brush was not, in fact, a woman at all. Or at least, not a born one.

Sakura wasn’t immediately sure what betrayed it. On the whole, the performance of femininity was startlingly convincing: long black hair, tied low at the base of the neck, paired with a narrow, angular face. As the painter shifted, the loosely tied kimono revealed planes of chest that were flatter than they should have been, affirming her intuition.

She? He? Until told otherwise, she settled for 'he' for now.

He continued to stare. The daimyo’s daughter noticed.

“Do you like what you see?” Mihiko murmured. The painter averted his gaze back to his painting.

The silence that followed was charged.

“Do tell, Asahi,” Mihiko said, voice artfully distant, "She captured your attention, after all, when you’re supposed to be hard at work for me. I wonder what it could have been.” Her posture indicated what would have seemed to be utter disinterest in the matter. “Her eyes are too pale to prompt poetry. Her features are too hard, too sharp to allude to what I have observed is a desired softness in women.”

Until this point, the daimyo’s daughter’s face had undergone only the minutest shifts to communicate her displeasure. It was a surprise, therefore, when she suddenly stood up and stalked forward, wrapping a slim hand around Asahi’s long throat.

“She distracted you,” Mihiko said coldly. “So pay the girl her due compliment. Tell her what you liked.”

A strand of hair of the painter’s hair fell forward. The voice that emerged was not what she expected at all, a smooth, low tenor that did not attempt to disguise itself .

“I only thought that the shinobi’s disguise did you no justice, Mihiko-sama,” Asahi said, head raising slowly.

His gaze shocked Sakura, who had thought him timid until now.

Two spots of red appeared on Mihiko’s cheeks. Her hand spasmed, before she dug her nails into the painter’s skin.

“Don’t think your poisonous words will have any effect on me,” the daimyo’s daughter said stiffly. “Try again.”

His head rolled to the side, and he peered up at her through his lashes. In a swift movement, he shifted to his knees, putting his head a scant few inches below hers. Mihiko’s companions gasped, sharing scandalized looks.

“I’m an artist,” the painter breathed. “I saw a blank—untouched—canvas.”

“Then paint it,” Mihiko breathed back, nostrils flaring, “if you’re so eager.”

“You know it’s not the canvas I want.”

A loud slap echoed through the room. Asahi’s head snapped to the side like a rag doll’s.

“Don’t overstep,” Mihiko said stonily. A glitter of challenge flashed through her eyes. “Tattoo her, if you want so badly to ‘paint her skin.’ Then, finish the portrait. My dear brother’s wedding approaches, and it would be regrettable to turn up empty handed.”

Baffled by most of what had just transpired, Sakura’s head snapped up at that. “With all due respect, tattoos are identifying markers in my line of work.”

Mihiko looked at her like an errant fly had suddenly spoken. “Your black ops force wears them. Shall I ask your captain, the copy-nin, for permission?”

“My lady,” one of the women sitting still in seiza interrupted to Sakura’s immense gratitude. “You can’t let him touch her!”

Another lady-in-waiting nudged her frantically, attempting to silence her. But the original woman did not back down, flicking a disgusted glance at Asahi.

“He was a kagema,” the woman whispered. “He’s held women and been held by men.”

The third lady-in-waiting, apparently not in the know, gave a horrified gasp. The former kagema in question had returned to his painting dutifully, a smug tilt to his lips.

“And?” For all her ladies-in-waiting’s horror, the daimyo’s daughter looked unperturbed and even annoyed.

And?” the third lady-in-waiting echoed incredulously, eyes as round as coins.

 “It’s not right!” the second woman finally exclaimed. “For a man like that to touch an honest woman. He shouldn’t even be in here with us.”

Mihiko’s eyes narrowed. Then she laughed riotously, if a bit haughtily.

“What’s ‘not right,’” she announced, “is that he’s like the rest of his kind. He may try to hide it with his pretty kimonos and his elaborate fans, but in the end, he too thinks his penis is godsend. Alas, he’s the best painter in the Land of Fire. And brother dear does deserve the best for his wedding. His own blessed cock has granted him that unearned status.”

Sakura shifted her weight slightly. Her ankle was a bit sore from her previous mission.

The red-haired woman caught onto the movement like a viper. Her voice was a hiss. “You disagree, shinobi? An idiot he unquestionably is, and yet, my soon-to-be-wed brother will be the one to succeed my father—a boy who believes his bodily desires are sooner grounds for war than poverty or draught. Do you think any other kind of man exists in this world?”

“Mihiko-sama,” her companion gasped, “You shouldn’t speak like that, especially—”

“Shouldn’t I?” Mihiko continued ruthlessly.

She and Mihiko locked gazes, for a moment. But the moment passed—as quickly as though it had never even existed—when the palanquin lurched to a sudden stop and jerked as it hit the ground.

Sakura was immediately on guard. There had been no sounds of commotion outside, but this was not a planned to stop. Seconds before the curtains shielding the entrance opened, Sakura lunged forward and shoved Mihiko into a wardrobe. She acted not a moment too soon.

A large man with skin as rich as the earth entered through the curtain with a smaller, purple-haired woman. They were both armed and wore no hitai-ate.

“Who are you?” Sakura demanded imperiously, carrying herself just as Mihiko had done seconds before.

The ladies in waiting scattered from their neat line in belated reaction, clinging to each other in fear.

From the corner of her eyes, she saw Asahi shift his body slightly to cover the wardrobe.

“Our fine lady been asking for this, hasn’t she?” the purple-haired woman giggled, eyes widening at Sakura. “Take a look at this room, Jirou.”

“Shut up and grab her,” the man responded gruffly. His gaze passed over the other occupants of the palanquin without interest.

Sakura shifted her weight, taut with tension as her mind worked rapidly. Should she fight and resist capture? But there had been no sounds of a fight outside, as though they had been allowed into the palanquin. Was that her new team member’s—Sai’s—aim? Was he an enemy who had infiltrated Konoha?

The woman stalked toward her. “I hope daddy pays up, sweetheart,” she crooned, gripping her hands painfully and tying them together tightly with wire.

Sakura allowed it, letting a pained grunt spill from her lips as she was gagged and promptly tossed over the woman’s shoulder. She couldn’t see Sai or Naruto anywhere, but she did sense mostly-hidden chakra. Her eyes narrowed.

The two enemy shinobi didn’t dilly-dally. Paying no mind to the samurai and foot soldiers they had knocked out to break in, they took off into the trees.

Just before her view of the palanquin disappeared, she saw a lone figure finally step out from the shadows of the trees. It was Sai.

He gave a wide, plastic smile as his hand to his lips in a silencing motion.

Sakura squinted at him before he disappeared. A second later, dozens of more shinobi from the surrounding trees abandoned branches to follow them.

The new shinobi punched the man’s shoulder in celebration, jeered that “they hadn’t even been needed as back up,” why the hell had he made them all come?

One even let his hand pass roughly over Sakura’s bottom.

And she abruptly understood what Sai had done.

As long as these shinobi thought they had the real deal, Mihiko and the rest of her entourage could travel safely to the wedding without delay. The samurai and the foot soldiers had only been knocked out. They had probably been told not to put up a fight.

The enemy shinobi’s numbers vastly outranked theirs, and rather than engaging in an prolonged battle, Sai had clearly decided to readily offer Sakura to distract them.

Fucking Sai. Maybe Naruto had had the right idea after all.


They traveled for a little more than an hour until they reached a sprawling camp. The entire way, Sakura screamed and cried and clawed at her captors, playing her role aptly while biding her time.

Belatedly, she wondered how Sai had made Naruto agree to this. Granted, it wasn’t like she was actually in much danger.

But the idea of Naruto being complicit in this plan…

She hastily distracted herself from her thoughts, welcoming the sharp pain in her knees as the enemy shinobi tossed her into a cage at the middle of the camp. When she looked up, she was surrounded by what looked to be the entire group, counting upwards of fifty.

“Why am I here? Who are you?” Sakura asked, her voice a hoarse rasp from the gag.

The man who had aided in her capture responded. “As long as your family provides payment before the deadline, no harm will come to you.”

“And if they don’t?” she demanded, straightening to her feet. “When’s the deadline?”

How long until Mihiko and her entourage reached the wedding? About two days. Then, another four until she made her way back to the palace.

Sakura would have to keep this farce up for six days, minimum.

“Two days,” the man responded, after a short pause. Too little time for a courier to reach the camp. They must have arranged a drop off location, Sakura guessed.

“Oh, tell her the truth, Jirou,” the woman who had carried her cut in, a wide smile on her face. “That’s just the soft deadline. After that, we start cutting off body parts. Sending them. Don’t worry, Mihiko-sama, nothing vital, at first. But we’ll keeping cutting until nothing’s left. That’s the hard deadline.”

She let the panic show on her face, because it was a fitting response for a daimyo’s daughter. Pointedly, though—there was no way she was going to be able to keep up this sham for as long as she needed to.

They left her, then, presumably to let her hysterically sob without imposing on them.

Sakura appreciated the space. It allowed her to consider her options.

If she stayed, she would either have to invent a jutsu to help her fake-sacrifice body parts (unlikely) or actually sacrifice them (which, no, she was not willing). Maybe Sai had kindly sent a hawk requesting an extraction team, but they wouldn’t reach in time, not with the time it would take for the bird to travel and for most teams to actually come.

The only kind of team that could reach fast enough was an ANBU team. But they wouldn’t send ANBU for Sakura Haruno. The only rare time ANBU performed extraction (not just to protect information or punish treason) was if it was one of their own. Which ‘Sakura’ was not. It was the harsh reality of there always being more demand for ANBU than there was supply.

Nonetheless, she could escape by herself—she was more than capable of it.

But…if Sakura broke free, even this group wouldn’t be stupid enough to miss the skill of another shinobi; they would know they had been duped and descend on Mihiko and her entourage on her way back.

She supposed, with some generosity, that this had all happened because Sai did not know for sure what Kakashi was capable of. It was probably that uncertainty—the chance that the stories were tall tales, as many shinobi accounts admittedly did become—that had made the latest Team Seven member doubt whether their team would be enough to oppose the larger numbers.

If she was being generous: it wasn’t a surprise Sai had assumed the worst. The infamous copy-nin had hardly shown that he was in the least bit inclined to intervene in any violent altercation. He didn’t know that Kakashi was one of the most devastating forces anyone could encounter in a violent altercation and seemingly always willing to do so.

The point stood, that Sakura had been sacrificed quite pointlessly.

She scoffed, shifting herself until she was lying on her back and staring at the twilight sky. The sky was cloudless here, a fiery blend of smoky orange—so beautiful it burned—and a deep, resilient blue.

It was almost…nice, like this. Quiet.

And the infernal crow wasn’t here. Sakura could always find it within herself to appreciate that.

There were guards positioned a short distance from her around the cage. One woman and three men. She cataloged the kunai on their bodies as she enjoyed the light breeze.

She closed her eyes.

When she opened them, it was dark.

Chapter Text

The camp was mostly silent. The shinobi had cooked meat and eaten around the fire hours ago. Sakura had been given some food as well, had been made to bow with her hands tied behind her back to eat it.

Now, she sat boredly inside her cage, counting stars to pass the time.

Outside her cage, the shinobi guarding her (a different set now) traded bawdy stories to keep themselves entertained. Only one held back. It was the purple-haired woman from the beginning of this debacle—Akane.

Akane had assumed her shift with a wide smile as soon as dinner had finished.

Sakura hadn’t noticed it at first, too preoccupied with other things. But now she saw that there was definitely something off about the older woman. Akane had been staring at her intently for the last two hours—which was not in and of itself unusual, perhaps, because Sakura was her prisoner. But it was the content of her gaze.

“And once there was a lady who bathed in rose petals,” one of the shinobi bellowed, having succumbed to the sake in his bottle, “and one day she put them in her genitals....”

Akane gave Sakura brief, hungry look before walking over to the man. She tossed a kunai into the air and caught it by the blade.  

“Akane-san,” the bigger man gulped, fearful at her sudden presence. “Was there something you wanted?”

“What I want,” Akane murmured, a smile stretching now across her face now, “is for you and your friends to be gone.”

Sakura’s lips twitched, hiding a smirk. Akane wanted to be alone? Well, that would make escape considerably easier.

At first, the man blinked without comprehension. Then, he stammered. “B-but Jirou told us that four of us had to watch her at all times.”

Akane arched a brow, tutting now. “Do you really think I can’t handle one itty, bitty lady all by myself?”

Her kunai traced its way delicately down the line of his throat, down his chest and stomach, until it rested between his legs.

“I’m leaving,” the man gave in immediately. The other men readily obeyed, abandoning the cage and heading towards the edges of the camp. After a moment, Akane withdrew her blade and the man followed, the stink of his sweat trailing behind him.

The purple haired rogue-nin turned back around slowly, black eyes gleaming. Sakura watched unflinchingly in the shadowed part of the cage.

“Finally.” Akane gave a breathy sigh, taking a moment to palm herself. Then, she reached to her belt to pull out the key.

Sakura waited with what she believed to be admirable patience.

“Are you scared, darling?” Great. She wanted to talk.

“Terrified,” Sakura said a little too forcefully. Akane paused, lips twisting.

She corrected herself hastily. “Please. Please don’t do this to me. What do you want? I’ll give you anything—money, weapons, whatever. Please don’t hurt me.”

The words tasted like blood in her mouth. That was because she bit into her tongue saying them.

Akane was panting now, fumbling to fit the key into the lock, jamming it in and wrenching it to the side in her impatience. And then the purple haired woman was in front of her. The door of the cage was open behind her.

But still, Sakura waited. She wanted to escape with as little disruption as possible. She hadn’t watched the men as they left, but she had been listening. And she hadn’t heard them enter their tents; she couldn’t verify that they weren’t still watching.

Sakura had heard their footsteps heading away, and now—nothing.

As she puzzled over this, Akane drew a fist back and punched her in the face. The motion sent Sakura into the side of the cage with a loud clang. Akane gave a delighted giggle.

Gut her, the Voice snarled.

Sakura glowered at the tree in front of her. The purple haired woman packed more of a punch than she’d thought.

A hand curled into her hair, stroking delicately. “Oh, I’m sorry, Mihiko-sama. Did I hurt you?”

The hand slipped down to cup her face as Akane looked down at her.

“You look so pretty, you know,” the woman gasped, fingers digging greedily into her cheeks, “So, so pretty. I wish I could keep you forever. But climax is the little death, after all, and—god—you’re going to bleed so good for me—”

She was stopped by a terrible coughing fit. After a moment, blood began to spill from her mouth.

Sakura looked down. A hand protruded from Akane’s chest. Its counterpart didn’t bother trying to cover the woman’s mouth.

Rage— jealous and petty—burned through Sakura. She knew exactly whom that hand belonged to. Of course, he had shown up, just at this moment.

Akane gaped at her, black eyes panicked and suddenly childish. “What—” The woman collapsed limply.

The tall figure stood like a specter over Akane’s collapsed form. His tanto was coated to the hilt in blood. Finally, she realized why she hadn’t heard those men return to those tents.

(He had killed them all. There was no one else was alive in the camp. No one to follow them.)

She hadn’t thought to do that.

“Get out,” the figure said softly.

Sakura gazed back with remarkable stoicism, or so she thought. Glancing down at Akane’s dead body, she gathered the ends of her kimono and stepped over the pool of blood steadily spreading. She didn’t quite manage it. As her left foot landed, she felt the—

“I know your kind.” Kakashi’s eyes passed over the dried tracks of fake tears and blood on her face.

Our kind, the Voice whispered, something like trepidation in its own voice.

She shook her head minutely, brain processing his words through what seemed to be haze of noise.

“When you are dead,” the copy-nin continued tonelessly, “your parents will be the only ones to remember your name. You’ll waste your life here on something that was never meant for you--that you were never capable of handling. And that our esteemed hokage never mustered telling you this herself is a disservice to the combat shinobi who have died far more admirably than you will and are still just that, detritus for the worms, for all we remember them.”

Sakura shuddered an exhale.

It was the most he had ever said to her.


It took only an hour for them to reach where the others had made camp. They traveled in silence, Sakura striving as much as she could to contain her anger and largely mutilating her hands in this endeavor.

As soon as Sakura broke into the clearing, she felt a heavy force drive into her solar plexus. It took her a few seconds to realize that she was not, in fact, being attacked.

She spat coarse, blonde hair out of her mouth. After a moment, the grip relented slightly. “That—that—” Naruto didn’t seem to be able to find a word bad enough for Sai, “He made sure I wasn’t here. When I found out what he had done…”

“Haruno-san,” their newest team member greeted politely, expression untroubled.

“You,” Naruto growled, hands contorted into claws, “Don’t you dare—”

“Shut up, dickless,” Sai said with a smile. He turned to Kakashi now, bowing. “Taichou.”

Kakashi’s gaze flicked up, pausing his wiping of the bloodstained tanto against the tree behind Sakura.

Sai bowed sharply. “As I was uncertain of how much you intended to intervene, I conducted the team in the most effective way to ensure success in our mission regardless. I trust that you have found my leadership satisfactory.”

Naruto was almost incoherent in his rage. “You sacrificed a teammate!”

If Haruno-san had been injured,” Sai interrupted smoothly, “that would have been most unfortunate. But as it stands, the mission would have gone on unimpeded—”

Kakashi had suddenly appeared in front of him, inches from his face.

Sakura watched the altogether bizarre scene occurring before her with annoyance.

“Taichou?” Sai’s smile had dropped.

“I know what you are,” the copy-nin said. Interestingly, Sai's eyes darkened.

Kakashi leaned in, then, to convey to him something Sakura could not hear. 

“I don’t understand, taichou. I have always received positive…feedback.”

The clouds had stretched to cover the moon, and she couldn’t see Kakashi’s face now either.

“I will correct myself,” Sai said after a pregnant pause.

The copy-nin's gaze bore into him for one second longer, then he flickered and disappeared.

And Naruto shoved Sai back against a tree.

Sai’s voice was as monotonous as ever, but he was clearly still distracted by what had transpired with Kakashi. “I do not understand your anger.”

Naruto snarled. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”

“The mission is my sole priority. It should be yours as well,” the dark haired boy began calmly.

“Naruto,” Sakura cut him off before he could respond to this charge. She took a step forward and pulled him off Sai. “I’d like to speak with him alone.”

Naruto’s hand tightened at his sides. He looked like he wanted to argue, but something on her face must have told him it would be futile. He left without another word. Sakura, despite herself, was shocked by his quick acceptance. She hadn't expected him to--hadn't given him enough credit. It made her wonder how unfair, in other ways, she may have been in the past.

No, that wasn’t quite right.

What it really made her wonder was if she had been as bad as Kakashi. If they had—her teeth gritted—both played a part in making Team Seven as dysfunctional as it had been.  

“And what is your complaint, Haruno-san?” Sai asked delicately. He had recovered slightly, returning to his normal color and begun smoothing his clothes.

Sakura’s lips twisted wryly. Suddenly at ease, was he?

Her eyes scanned the thick forest surrounding them, checking for any hint of chakra. Her gaze caught something in the trees—but it wasn’t a shinobi. After a brief pause, she clenched her fist and drove it toward Sai’s midsection.

He blocked the blow, hands snapping from his sides to catch her fist. Her eyebrow arched; without pause, she twisted and brought her forearm against his throat, pinning him to the tree like he had been just a minute before.

Sai’s face still revealed little, but his eyes had narrowed slightly.

“You’re ANBU, aren’t you?” Sakura demanded lowly. I know what you are, Kakashi had said. Not quite familiarity, but something like it.

His lips stretched in a thin, meaningless smile that Sakura was quickly beginning to get sick of. It reminded her of his smile, when he had—

“That would require me to violate protocol, Haruno-san, if it were true.”

And now she was hearing her own words echoed back to her.

“As I said before,” Sai said, “I do not understand your anger.”

And that was…a good question, she thought to herself. She hadn’t truly been placed in danger. How could what had happened in the last twelve hours compare to what she had faced on ANBU missions in the past?

But it persisted, nevertheless.

“I do not understand your displeasure,” he repeated, eyes flickering over face, “or why the copy-nin considers me to be scum.”

Is that what Kakashi had told him? Sakura scoffed. Then, her mind processed belatedly what he had said. Something in them…

Piercing hunger,  

the taste of failure.

And—

those who abandon their comrades are worse than scum

Air hissed out through her teeth. That.

“Do you not believe that completion of the mission is the highest obligation of a shinobi, Haruno-san?” Sai asked calmly.

Sakura’s eyes snapped to his, distracted. “No.”

“Oh?” He looked puzzled now, an odd innocence about him. “Then what is?”

She stared at him expressionlessly for what could have been as long as a minute. She hadn’t thought her refusal through, only knew it—instinctively—to be true. Now, she searched for an explanation. He waited patiently.

“Peace." She wanted to get back to punching Sai. It had popped out of her mouth as soon it had crossed her mind, and it had crossed her mind because it was Shisui’s ‘other human’s’ stance. The crow lamented about it constantly, she recalled with a scowl. Let Sai wrestle with it now.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t finished.

“A shinobi maintains order precisely by completing his,” he tilted his head to her, “or her mission. This is why the mission is of the utmost importance. Above any individual. Isn’t that right?”

Sakura’s eyebrow twitched. She wasn’t interested in a philosophical debate now—why did he have so many questions? “Order…is different from peace.”

“Then what is peace?”

Sakura searched the sky above her for an answer, wondering how she’d ended up here.

“It doesn’t always mean completing the mission.”

“Like when a teammate’s safety is at stake,” Sai pondered, “Is that why Naruto and Kakashi-taichou believe I am…‘scum’?”

Sakura’s face contorted almost on reflex to a sneer at the copy-nin’s mention. But Sai was already speaking again, something like an epiphany dawning on him.

“Enforcing peace as a shinobi means…” the black-haired shinobi murmured, eyes widening slightly. “I see. If one values a teammate, then that teammate must not be sacrificed. Taichou and dickless will uphold this value while completing their missions—despite their missions. There are…certain values that cannot be sacrificed to maintain the peace, because those also contribute to the state of peace.”

His words had Sakura’s gaze fixated on a small ant crawling up the curves of the bark.

She turned her head and locked gazes with an unflinching, black pair of eyes. She backed away from him, letting her forearm slide from his throat. Somehow, abruptly, her anger had receded, leaving behind only a sense of confusion.

“Teammates,” the other shinobi pressed, “are they something all shinobi must hold…precious?”

Sakura’s arm paused, half way down from Sai’s throat.

“Would you die for a teammate?” Sai pressed.

She grunted. “That’s beside—”

“For dickless?”

“Yes.”

Her mouth seemed to have taken free reign. Die? For Naruto?

Annoying, noisy, obnoxious, all-around miscreant Naruto. The bottom-last of their class, whose apartment to this day probably violated several health codes.

…who would also readily die for her and for any of his teammates to protect them. Maybe even Sai, if the circumstances were dire enough, because he possessed precisely that kind of sentimentality.

She laughed, a bit humorlessly—and a bit surprised—to herself.

This was an unexpected development, she knew, considering where she had begun. In the beginning, she had wanted to be a shinobi to be like Ino. Then, she had thrown herself into it—there was no point disguising it for anything it wasn’t—for survival.

Sakura completed her own ANBU missions because she was forced to by the crow, not because of patriotism. She reconciled herself to the violence she committed because she had been coerced to do it; when she wasn’t actively killing people, she used violence only to protect herself.

But…

But, she thought with a farce of a smile, she wasn’t managing very well, was she? The mountains of burned uniforms, the chafed skin around her hands from hours of scrubbing, the nights of insomnia—they could attest to that fact.

“I see,” Sai said for a second time, interrupting her thoughts. Then he bowed from the waist. “I am grateful for this conversation. I see that I have much to learn.”

She surveyed him closely, even as he left. He had walked away with answers; Sakura felt like she had only been burdened by questions she didn’t have the time to contemplate. A frustrating outcome for an interaction she had seen going in an altogether different direction.

She reached up hands to shove her hair behind her ears. “You can come out now.”

Her words were met at first with silence. Then a soft rustle sounded behind her—silk brushing leaves—and a figure emerged.

Sakura leaned back against the tree, crossing her arms across her chest.

The painter from the palanquin (Asahi, she remembered) returned her gaze evenly. Amongst the tall pine trees and the endless expanse of the sky—the battleground of so many shinobi, of blood and steel—his lounging, silken clad presence seemed utterly at odds.

“Interesting conversation you were having there. One might have thought you were scholars and not shinobi,” he commented lightly. “Did you both know I was here?”

Sakura inclined her head slightly. Yes. And a genin would been able to tell.

“What are you doing out here?” she asked. “It’s late. As you saw, the woods are not always safe.”

He didn’t respond immediately, taking the time to remove a leaf that had fallen from the canopy above him onto his shoulder.

Then he looked up, blue eyes piercing. “I think you are like me, Haruno-san.”

She was nonplussed at first. Then, understanding dawned.

“I don’t mean that,” Asahi laughed gently. “Well, not exactly that. You and I, Haruno-san—I have the sense that you too are not what you seem.”

Are you a woman?” Sakura asked bluntly.

But Asahi just ran a smooth hand down the length of his—her?—loose braid. It looked like a black snake curling its way down his shoulder.

“Woman, man,” he considered them lazily, “Both suit. I also, incidentally, like to fuck both.”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Why are you here?”

“Well, I owe you.” The painter’s voice was still playful, but delivered through suddenly tight lips.

“Do you?”

“Of course. You saved the only daughter of the royal house that is my benefactor.” Vulgarity followed. “She has the most sinful ankles, you know. It would have been such a loss. She could make a killing with those in my old line of work.”

Sakura paid no attention to the words. She arched a brow, waiting.

Eventually, Asahi reached pulled out a scroll. Sakura took it and opened it.

“What is this?” she asked after a moment.

“For your back, I would think,” the painter said, blue eyes glinting. “Give it to an ANBU tattoo artist. They’ll do it justice.”

Sakura closed it and tucked it indifferently to her belt. “If that’s all—good night.”

“Good night, Haruno-san.”

The painter turned in a swirl of silk and headed back toward the palanquin.

“I noticed,” Sakura called out a few seconds later.

The delicate face turned back in question.

“You moved when they entered. In front of her.”

Pink lips curled beneath warning, blue eyes. “Did I?”

“Don’t be alarmed, Asahi-san,” Sakura said wryly. “I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.” The painter had seen her threaten Sai, after all. And it wouldn’t do to have that kind of thing going around.

 The former kagema’s eyes fluttered. “Well, then. I hope you enjoy your gift.”


Sakura wasn’t actually surprised to find herself in Tsunade’s office with the copy-nin less than two hours after returning from their mission.

The hokage looked up from the mountains of paper on her desk with a fierce glare, amber eyes flashing in warning at their entrance. Sakura’s gaze drifted to the untouched sake settled on the window sill. Apparently, Tsunade had been too busy to drink herself today to her usual mellow buzz, which didn’t exactly bode well for her current mood.

But if her jounin captain was concerned, he certainly didn’t show it. He seemed impervious to Shizune’s glower as he tracked mud onto the previously pristine floor, settling against the side of bookcase with feline grace.

Tsunade glanced at him and then to Sakura. She addressed her remarks to the latter. “Why are you here?”

Sakura kept the glare off her face with difficulty, striving for indifference. “I’m afraid you’ll have to ask him, Tsunade-sama.”

The older woman scoffed, wisps of blond hair flaring with the exhalation of breath. Then she turned to Kakashi and demanded: “Well?”

Kakashi’s head rolled to meet hers lazily, but his eyes were steely. “I want her off.”

Tsunade repeated the word soundlessly. “Off. Off? Off what, Hatake? The roster for the yearly Konoha fly fishing competition? You’re going to need to be more specific.”

The copy-nin’s eyes crinkled. The look in them was not pleasant. “Team Seven.”

The hokage’s lips thinned into a tight line. “Not this again.”

“I want her off,” Kakashi continued uncaringly, voice cold. “Now.”

Tsunade’s hands tightened into vicious fists, like she wished she could strangle him. Sakura sorely wished the same.

“Why?” the woman snapped finally, temper tenuously held back.

He pushed away from the bookshelf, standing at his full, imposing height as he delivered his words. “She’s a liability.”

“She’s my student,” Tsunade said warningly.

“So make her a full medic-nin.”

“I believe with time,” the hokage said through gritted teeth, “she can be more than that.”

Kakashi looked imperiously down at the leader of one of the most powerful shinobi villages in the world.

“There isn’t enough time in a human’s life span for her to achieve that.”

Sakura saw the blow land. Tsunade wasn’t quick enough to hide her flinch, or the flicker of doubt that passed through her features. Sakura’s stomach clenched. She knew she hadn’t been as available to meet with Tsunade for lessons in recent years, thanks to the Crow. But she had tried her best.

Only, now even the woman who had given her her first life line couldn’t speak up for her.

“Tsunade-sama,” she said lowly. Her mentor’s attention went to her immediately.

“Yes,” Tsunade said, blinking rapidly. “You. What do you have to say?”

“I’m staying,” she said unflinchingly, back straight.

Leaving Team Seven wasn’t going to remove her from active shinobi life. The crow would probably kill itself before it let that happen. Ironically, in fact, Team Seven offered a mostly benign distraction to the other parts of her life (despite Kakashi being their jounin captain). Sai was a piece of shit, possibly with potential redeeming qualities she had yet to find. And Naruto was—well, she owed a lot to Naruto.

The point was, she wasn’t leaving Team Seven.

Funnily enough, her words were all it took.

“Alright,” Tsunade breathed, reaching behind for her sake and taking a deep gulp. “That settles it. She stays.”

The temperature in the room dropped ten degrees.

“I would,” Kakashi said stiltedly, eyes slitted, “advise you to revise that decision, hokage-sama.”

The hokage looked up at him with a thunderous look on her face. “I would advise you to remember where you stand in this hierarchy, Hatake. You’re not here yet; and if your current inability to curb your more insubordinate and frankly violent tendencies continues, you never will be.”

The sound of a blade being unsheathed cut through the air in a brutal hiss. Tsunade was standing now; Shizune’s hands were sheathed in blue chakra.

“I might as well kill her now then. Save us the trouble of having to transport the body back,,” Kakashi said lazily. He tilted his head to the side, looking down at the hokage callously.

“Sakura, see yourself out.” Tsunade bit out. “Your taichou and I have a few matters to discuss.”

Sakura looked at her mentor in disbelief. Leave? That was the last thing she wanted to do right now. Did Kakashi really intend to use his blade against her? Execute Sakura to save their opponents the trouble?

Let him try, the Voice snarled, we’ll tear into him before he knows which way’s up.

She pretended she didn’t hear the slight trepidation in the Voice’s words.

“Get out, Sakura,” Tsunade growled again, slamming both hands flat against the wood of her desk.

Sakura’s eyes jerked back to her at the loud noise. At Tsunade’s expression, Sakura grimaced and then gave in.

She spun on her heel and didn’t look back.


 

"She hastily distracted herself from her thoughts, welcoming the sharp pain in her knees as the enemy shinobi tossed her into a cage at the middle of the camp. When she looked up, she was surrounded by what looked to be the entire group, counting upwards of fifty."

- a gorgeous sketch of Sakura disguised as Mihiko created for this fic by SweetGazelle

 

Chapter Text

Kakashi was a feral, out-of-control menace that threatened to do Konoha just as much if not more harm than he did good.

This was what Sakura had decided in the past week.

He needs to be put down, the Voice growled.

Sakura would like very much to be the one who put him down.

Unfortunately, this was an impossible task at the moment.

“Your genjutsu technique is improving,” the crow commented, interrupting her thoughts. The words were delivered indifferently.

Sakura straightened, wiping sweat off her face. “You said before that I could use you to produce better genjutsus. How do I do that?”

Shisui’s wings fluttered rapidly, propelling it into brief flight before it landed on the bench next to her. It cocked its head to the side; the spinning sharingan bored into her.

“I suppose you’re nearly there,” it settled with. Something like a garish smile crossed the crow’s features—only it wasn’t quite a smile, because it was not human.

“There are rituals,” Shisui told her, “that allow a summon and its summoner to share certain abilities, as if they are one.”

“Your eye,” Sakura guessed, a sour feeling in her stomach.

“The sharingan is a tool of illusion. Born of hatred and despair, the self learns to deceive and to see deception. When Uchihas confront this phenomenon, their eyes learn to do the same. Your eyes will see through mine, will use mine, to do the same.”

Sakura leaned back into the bench, keeping her voice deliberately light. “Your other…contractee. Did he give you that sharingan?”

It pecked punishingly at her, drawing blood. For Shisui, she knew, this was its literal manifestation of biting amusement.

“You’ve grown bolder.”

Sakura listed off to the blue sky. “You have a sharingan. You’ve taught me fire techniques that only… they know.”  That she had only ever seen Sasuke use.

“This is true.”

Her gaze flicked to it and then away. “So it is true.”

Not Sasuke, she knew. That left…the other one. I-ta-chi. Weasel.

Sakura paused, a metallic taste in her mouth.

“If your other master and I were ever to fight each other, who would you protect?”

The crow smirked. Then, Shisui descended from her shoulder to her lap, digging claws into her skin through layers of cloth.

“Shall I tell you a secret?”

Sakura peered down at it dryly.

“I hold secrets very dearly, girl,” the crow said in a deathly whisper. “I tell you this because, at that critical moment, you must remember this.”

She was unimpressed. “Go on, then.”

It looked up at her, eyes burning straight through her. “You will never stand on opposite sides.”

Sakura blinked at it. “Right.”

“It is true.”

“Well, I don’t believe it.”

“You will come to,” the crow said genially. The crow cawed loudly, a cruel laugh. When she blinked again, she was alone, sitting on a bench in the middle of an abandoned park. Shisui had broken the genjutsu and left.

It couldn’t be true, she decided. God, the crow had been feeding her rot since the beginning. Peace—sure, only if Sasuke’s brother had a truly twisted conception of it.

So she resolved to forget about Shisui’s words entirely, and headed to the bookstore on the other side of the park.


“We need to talk,” Naruto announced.

Sakura coughed under her breath. It was a stunning coincidence, after all, that she, Naruto, and Sai had ended up in the same exact bookstore at 5 o’clock that afternoon. So much so, that it could not be a coincidence at all.

She placed the book in her hand back onto its shelf.

Sakura hadn’t seen either of them for days, because Team Seven’s training had been called off indefinitely. She suspected it had to do with something like a strong-arming effort on Kakashi’s part against Tsunade.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

Naruto straightened sharply. “Nothing. Well—a lot, actually. We need to talk if this is going to work.”

“Did you have such a discussion with the traitor Uchiha?” Sai asked innocently.

Naruto’s features contorted in a snarl. “Don’t call him that.”

“Ok.” Sakura said swiftly. “Let’s talk. The park’s right out there.”

“This is fine with me as well,” Sai said now, nodding seriously. “I read that communication is critical to the progression of any relationship—”

“Cool.” Naruto said with forced calm.

“—certainly before any sexual activity,” Sai added casually.

“No sexual activity,” the blonde burst out, eyes wide in alarm.

“Of course. Not with that small dick.”

“I’m going to kill you—”

Sakura grabbed them both by the collar and dragged them out of the bookstore to the park nearby. When she dumped them on the ground, Naruto rubbed the front of his neck ruefully.

But Sai had something to say. “You do that a lot, I’ve noticed. Are you into that kind of thing, Sakura-san?”

Sakura ignored him.

“Well?” she prompted Naruto.

He sighed, and his expression grew hard. “We don’t abandon teammates, no matter what. We don’t sacrifice teammates, no matter what. I won’t watch anyone else do it. Okay?”

He looked only at Sai.

“I understand, now,” Sai responded slowly. His brows were furrowed. “Mostly. I’m still working out the minutiae of the rationale, but—I will act accordingly.”

Naruto looked skeptical, but he clenched his jaw and nodded sharply.

Sai nodded back solemnly.

“Ok, next.” Naruto swallowed sharply. “Honesty.”

She stiffened. Then, she saw Naruto himself blanche. That was unexpected.

He looked back at both of them. His face was full of fear.

“Naruto?” she asked quietly.

He told them the story of the nine-tailed beast.

She didn’t know what she looked like by the end, but her insides ached with shock. Now that she knew, of course, she could see the signs.

“Do you think I’m a monster?” It was clearly a question that had been weighing on him some time.

Sakura glared. “No. What it did is not what you did.” If only she could say the same about her and the Voice.

“Indeed,” Sai said blankly.

“And what about you Sai?” Sakura said sharply. “Why don’t you tell us who you actually are.”

Sai smiled generously. “I can’t say.”

“You don’t get to do that,” Naruto growled.

“I can’t say,” Sai repeated.

“And I said that you don’t get to do that—”

“Naruto,” Sakura cut him off, “I think he literally can’t. He must be sealed.”

Naruto’s mouth opened and closed. “What?”

“I know he’s ANBU, though.”

The blonde pivoted with incredible speed, face red. “He’s ANBU? Gaara’s already kazekage, Sai is in ANBU, and look at me—”

“Stay away from ANBU,” Sakura cut him off sharply.

He recoiled, looking hurt. “You know, I am working hard.”

She exhaled impatiently. “I don’t mean that. I just mean that you would hate ANBU. From what I know of it.”

“Oh. Really? I mean, I don’t actually know what ANBU does, just heard someone mention it….” He looked pensive now. “Well, straight to hokage was the original plan anyway. Yeah, I can make that work.”

“Sure, dickless,” Sai scoffed.

“Shut up.”

Sai’s attention thankfully moved to her before the matter could escalate.

“I suppose I owe you an apology, Sakura-san. I would like to repay you,” the boy said stoically. 

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I insist,” Sai said seriously. “I do not believe we can begin again as a team until I have repaid you. The book I’m reading says that no relationship can progress before all wrongs in the past have been properly addressed.”

“That’s right,” Naruto said stubbornly.

Sakura looked tiredly at the both of them. “Fine,” she sighed. “What’s on the table?”

He pursed his lips. “I could kill someone for you,” he considered.

We can do that ourselves, the Voice rumbled throatily.

“Hey!” Naruto shouted.

“Something else.”

“Well. I am also…rather good at art.”

Sakura laughed under her breath. Funny, that. She had never thought about it before (beyond the mandatory ANBU tattoo her false identity had been required to have). But then the painter—Asahi—had given her that scroll. And she had yet to remove it from her pack.

She never would have taken the initiative to search out a shinobi to do the job—this was true. But now such a shinobi had practically fallen into her lap. And he owed her a favor. And she just wanted that favor over with. (And, somehow, the idea of marking her body in a way that wasn’t a scar or a burn wasn’t entirely…unappealing).

“Have you ever done a tattoo?” Naruto gaped at her.

“I have…come across it,” Sai answered.

“In that case.” She pulled the scroll out and unrolled it. “This. I guess on my back. And then we call it quits.”

“Wow,” Naruto breathed.

It was impressive. Mihiko hadn’t been lying when she suggested Asahi was talented; he was clearly the kind of artist rumored to sell their soul to be granted such talent.

“Ah,” Sai said calmly.

Two figures met their gazes, drawn in a style intended to evoke the art of the temples. One figure’s face was hidden—the woman’s. Her left arm arched above her head before bending down, wielding a fan that covered most of her face and revealed only smiling lips, simply painted. Her dress was also tied simply, but from cloth in hues of such deep blues and reds that it looked bafflingly indulgent. Most curiously of all, her right hand thrust forward an amulet as her body curved toward her companion, as though she would just as easily dance with it as attack it into submission. For the woman faced a demon--the second central figure of the artpiece--in turn rendered in vicious reds and blacks. Its body was covered in ancient armor, a violent smile decorating its face, telling both of bloodthirst and of amusement. It, too, curved toward its opponent, caught indefinitely in a state of both attraction and repulsion.

And between the two figures were elements of smoke and other iconography common to the genre.

Those were Sai’s words, not her own. He had picked up the painting and begun to explain its composition with something like passion in his voice.

The painting, he continued, was in the deep, rich colors of classic irezumi, but with such devastating elegance that it surpassed all that he had seen before—

“How long will it take?” she interrupted.

Sai paused. “Two hours because of the complexity. But it will be done by sunset.”

She paused now. “Do I have to do anything to prevent infection?”

She didn’t know much about tattoos. Shinobi wore them like scars. In the civilian world, only criminals had them.

“Not with this method,” Sai said. “Now, then. Shirt off, please.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Naruto said hastily. “You’re doing it here?”

Sai looked at him without comprehension. “I prefer natural lighting. Also, this is an abandoned park. That means no one maintains it. Which means no one comes here.”

“But we’re here,” Naruto argued with panic, gaze darting around as though he expected someone to jump out of the bushes. “People come here. We’re people.”

“We’ll sense them,” Sakura said. Then she remembered who she was talking to and corrected herself. “Sai or I will.”

“But Sakura—”

She turned away from them and pulled off her flak jacket, then the shirt beneath. The ANBU tattoo on her arm was hidden by the jutsu she almost always used before she left the house.

“Do I need to remove this?” Sakura asked, referring to her bound chest.

Sai seemed paused to think about this. Finally, he said, “No. I can work around it. One hand makes the jutsus; the other needs to be in contact with the skin where they’re being applied. I will have to reach under the bandage for those parts on your back, but I do not need to remove it.”

“Good.” She put her flak jacket down on the grass and then lay on her stomach on top of it. “Go on.”

She heard Sai pull some more things out of his satchel, before a cool hand rested on her lower back. A second later, a painful, burning sensation made her skin throb violently. She gritted her teeth, but withstood it without flinching.

“I’ve been told it hurts more this way,” Sai said conversationally. “About a thousand times more. Usually, only shinobi can stand this. And some civilian women who have been through labor. They’ve said that was worse, actually—”

“Why do you have so many scars?” Naruto burst out, sounding disturbed.

Sakura paused, nostrils flaring. “I’m a shinobi,” she said lightly, after a moment. “Don’t you have scars?”

“No,” Naruto said. “I don’t have any.”

“That’s probably because of the tailed-beast,” Sai intoned helpfully.

“Right. The scars are normal,” Sakura grunted. 

“Oh,” Naruto said, sounding calmer. “Huh. Who knew Kurama would be useful that way!”

The conversation elapsed into silence for a while. Until Naruto spoke up again, two hours later.

“So. Can I get one too? Like a dragon or something? You know—cool.”


Three days later, her back felt just as it had every other day of her life.

A good thing—because three days later, she was called for another mission with the copy-nin’s ANBU team.

She stumbled out of her bed that morning in a foul temper. She had fallen asleep later the previous night than she had wanted. Then, she had woken up late. As a result, she was forced to forgo breakfast, instead showering hastily and then hurriedly applying the jutsus to change her build and her features.

Although she had done it many times, watching her features morph into the olive-toned, inconspicuous ones of Saori Mori was still an unnerving experience. Avoiding her reflection, she tied the thin brown hair on her head up in a ponytail and set her mask in place.

She scanned herself one more time to make sure nothing would betray her; then she left her apartment and traveled the roofs of Konoha to ANBU headquarters.

Just as she passed through the doors, she realized that it hadn’t even occurred to her to cover the newest addition to her back. She hesitated for a moment, debated sneaking into a stall to fix it. Her gaze fell on the clock. Ultimately, she continued inside. The only people who knew it existed on ‘Haruno Sakura’ were Sai and Naruto, after all.

“Meeting room 13A,” Panther called out from behind her, sipping the last of her morning coffee beneath her mask.

“Thanks,” Sakura muttered, sending her a distracted wave without turning back.

Stalking her way down the hall, she stopped at the worn, wooden door and gently pushed it open.

“Late,” a low, rough voice said coldly.

Sakura scoffed below her breath.  She realized only when Hyena stared at her with incredulous eyes that she hadn’t done as good a job at hiding her animosity as she might have wanted. Moving away from the door, she sat down at the opposite end of the table without another sound. Bear straightened in his chair, sending Sakura a warning look.

“Right,” Kakashi’s second-in-command said. “Let’s get started, then. Taichou?”

To Sakura’s immense surprise, Kakashi stood up. The tilted chair he had effortlessly been balancing on—with both feet on the table—smacked to the ground with a dull thud.

“Scout teams have pinpointed Kino’s location.”

Sakura had never heard the name ‘Kino’ before, but it was clear the rest of Kakashi’s team had. They all straightened in their chairs. Hyena picked up the scroll resting on the table.

“Finally,” Bear growled.

Even Snail sounded cold. “Mouse died for that bastard.”

“Where’s he been?” Raccoon asked quietly.

“Deep undercover for the past six months,”  Hyena read from the scroll, eyes angry behind her mask. “Posing as a butcher just on the other side of the border.

“Smart,” Raccoon said softly, shoulder tight. “We were looking for someone running—strangers passing through villages. And he went straight there and just settled down.”

The amount of killing intent in the room was the most she had ever felt from Bear, Hyena, Snail, or Raccoon. And she had been on slaughter missions with them before.

“What’s our play?” Snail asked.

“Kino was a genjutsu specialist,” the copy-nin remarked coolly. “Crow and I will infiltrate. We will execute him.”

Silence met his words.

“What about us?” Bear demanded, voice rough.

“You will dismantle his network of contacts, the ones who helped hide him,” Kakashi answered. His tone brooked no argument.

Bear and Snail looked like they very much wanted to argue. The skin around their eyes was pinched. And yet, Sakura found, they voiced no protest. Whoever Kino was—he was obviously someone they wanted to face themselves. Possibly, for closure. But Kakashi seemed to run his team as tyrannically he did Team Seven.

Sakura scowled behind her mask. She wondered why she had been chosen to assist Kakashi.

“We leave in ten,” he finished, departing from the room.

Hyena patted Bear’s arm and Snail’s shoulder and then followed.


Four hours later, Sakura and the copy-nin stood beneath a giant oak tree, a kilometer away from a modest shack at the edge of a modest village.

A gust of wind blew, rustling the matching black hair on her and Kakashi’s head. They both stood almost a meter shorter than usual—just a brother and his sister, running a small errand.

Quietly, Sakura followed the copy-nin as he stalked to the door and knocked.

The wooden door swung open, revealing a large, grizzled man with red hair and a face with long, smile lines.

“Well, what d’you want?” the man asked, squinting down at them.

“Kaa-san wants cow meat,” Kakashi said impetuously. “Let us in already, it’s cold.”

The man raised an eyebrow. After a moment, his gaze left him and turned to Sakura.

“Please, sir?” she asked. “He gets annoying when he nags.”

“Does he?” Kino chuckled. “Well then, I guess I better get you two what you need, then.”

He turned his back to them to go inside.

A second later, she ducked just as Kino’s arm snapped back out, hurling a fuuma shuriken that would have decapitated her.

“Kaido!” the red-haired man bellowed. “Run!

Sakura didn’t know who Kaido was. At the moment, she didn’t particularly care. Releasing the jutsu disguising her features, she felt herself grow to her usual height as she darted between exploding kunai.

Which—honestly—was rather juvenile for an ex-ANBU. She knew sometimes simple could be best. But, for god’s sake, Kino knew he was facing the copy-nin now. Kunai were hardly going to kill him

Speaking of which, Kakashi merely stood placidly beside her at his full height, black mask beneath tell-tale steely grey and sharingan red eyes. The fuuma shuriken was held aloft almost lazily in his hand.

“Switching to new toys now?” the copy-nin asked tonelessly.

Kino made rapid hand signals. Sakura felt the brief, jarring moment when the genjutsu slipped over her. The world vibrated for a moment, a buzz sounded in her ears. And then she found herself in the middle of a battlefield.

A mountain of bodies towered over her. Faces she knew peered at her from out of the pile, features twisted in agony. Every face she knew was there: Naruto, Sasuke, Ino, the rest of her year, her parents, her primary school teacher, even Sai

Calloused hands grabbed her from behind, cutting off the circulation in her shoulders.

“You’re just like me,” it whispered, voice inhuman. “A monster.

“Kai,” Sakura said coldly, clapping her hands together.

The world melted way, dark colors running like viscous oil as they withdrew. She saw that Kakashi had broken the genjutsu before she had, probably because of the sharingan. He spun the fuuma shuriken—a weapon she had never seen him use before—with deadly skill.

Sakura squinted at him, wondering why he hadn’t attacked yet.

Kino barked out a loud laugh. “Alas, I’m no match for Konoha’s rabid dog, am I?”

Kakashi’s voice was arctic. “You should have thought of that before you betrayed Konoha.”

The large man shrugged. “I’m a simple man, you know? They offered me a cushier deal. Of course, I do appreciate the irony of how it all turned out, seeing where I am now.”

“Mouse died because of you,” Sakura said stiffly, feeling duty-bound to relay Snail’s words in her absence.

Kino grimaced at her. “Do I know you? Don’t remember. Mouse—yes, that was regrettable. Liked her, you know.”

He looked up at the sky for a moment, something eerily nostalgic on his face. “Mouse,” he muttered. “Funny woman.”

His head dropped to Kakashi abruptly. “You going to kill me now?”

But Sakura’s gaze narrowed, now, remembering something she had previously ignored. “Why don’t you tell us who Kaido is?”

At those words, Kino’s entire demeanor changed. Something terrifying possessed the man’s face, twisting it into something unbelievably angry. “You piece of shit. You’d go so low?”

Sakura’s jaw slackened, shocked by his sudden vitriol. His large frame trembled and then suddenly he was in front of her, on the offensive as though he hadn’t seemed ready to accept death seconds earlier.

He was a physically imposing man. She was stronger. Each contact shattered bones beneath his skin. He noticed quickly, making hand signals in a shift to ninjutsu instead.

Halfway through the second sign, his head suddenly jerked to the left. Instinctively, Sakura’s head followed. A pale hand flashed over his shoulder through where his head had been, cased in crackling electricity.

His fingers speared the space millimeters from where her own head formerly was.

Scowling, Sakura’s hands snapped forward and grabbed the copy-nin’s wrist (below the still crackling chakra). Propping her foot on Kino’s thigh, she hefted upward and flipped Kakashi over the taller man’s shoulder.

He twisted midair—a terrifying blur—his other hand already lunging out to finish the job. This time, the blow landed, gliding through bone, flesh, and blood like they were little more than butter.

Kino gave a terrible groan, crumpling to his knees. Kakashi pulled his hand out, towering over him like a vengeful demon.

Sakura hung back, wiping her blade clear of blood on the grass.

“You going to make it a slow one, taichou?” Kino hissed. “Gonna let me bleed slowly?”

Kakashi was silent for a moment. For a long time, they simply stared at each other.

“I see. You’re a man now, aren’t you,” the man laughed humorlessly. “No longer the boy-captain who commanded ANBU hand spans taller than he was.”

Kakashi was silent still. But a second later, his hand lit up again, the deafening sound of a thousand birds filling the forest.

Kino grinned like a shark.

But as his hand arced downwards, a form blurred into existence in front of Kino’s. Kino roared, a sudden wordless vocalization of terror.

And Kakashi’s hand froze.

In a terribly unfunny repetition of events, another boy glared up at the copy-nin, protecting the man behind him from chidori.

“Kaido,” Kino hissed. “I told you to run.”

“Move, boy,” Kakashi commanded, face unreadable.

“NO!” Kaido screamed, arms flung out in front of the large man. He had red hair too. “Can’t you leave him alone? Can’t you all just leave him alone!

“Is he your father?” Sakura asked with difficulty.

“He’s all I have left,” the boy spat at her. “I don’t care what he did. I—He’s all I have left. Please.

“I can’t,” Kakashi answered callously, gazing straight ahead of him.

Her body tensed at his words, wondering why the copy-nin hadn’t lied. Why he hadn’t said something else just to get the boy away.

“Then,” Kaido panted, chest heaving, “then you’re forcing me to do this.”

He opened his palm, revealing an explosive that—with one small hand sign—would blast them all straight to hell.

Fuck, the Voice grumbled.

“Hey, look at me,” Sakura said softly. Even though she was farther away, she crouched low so that she was near the boy’s height. “He’s already dying. Don’t risk your life now. Mourn him. Then avenge him, if you have to.”

The boy’s trembling shoulders stilled abruptly. “A-already dying?” he asked woodenly.

“Move, boy,” Kakashi repeated, voice dark and uncharacteristically urgent now.

“Run, Kaido!” Kino shouted, face puce. “For god’s sake, you stupid boy—”

“I can’t,” Kaido wept, “I can’t leave you. I’d rather...you know I’d rather.”

Move.”

Sakura froze at this softer imperative, piercing even through Kino’s wordless bellowing. It had been almost soundless, a harsh whisper. She had only just heard it.

It was unmistakable.

(The sound of the terrible copy-nin, killer of thousands—had she imagined it?—begging.)

But the boy had already chosen. His fingers twitched infinitesimally, rotating in just the right directions—and Kakashi’s tanto swung out, swift and ruthless, decapitating him.

And Kino screamed.

The sound was terrible, as though his own heart had been scooped out of his chest. Sakura flinched. She had heard men and women burn alive—and even then, they hadn’t sounded like that.

The terrible noise stopped only when Kakashi cut off his head too.

Kakashi held the dripping tanto in his hand, staring at the two fallen heads like he had never seen anything like them before.

She stood silently behind him. Her ears were…ringing. She wondered if there had been an explosion, only she hadn’t noticed.

The wind blew again, rattling the rickety shutter doors of the shack. Goosebumps sprouted all along her arms.

Between that breeze and the next, the rest of the ANBU team appeared.

“The targets were dealt with, taichou,” Hyena murmured.

Bear leaned forward with interest, pupils dilated. Considering his personal animus against Kino, Sakura supposed, she shouldn’t have been surprised.

“God, I wish I’d been here for this,” the ANBU said, voice low and mean. “Who the fuck’s next to him? Did you give them hell, taich—”

Kakashi’s crackling fist landed in the tree right to the left of his head. Singed chunks of hair fell in clumps onto Bear’s uniform. But it didn’t stop there. The lightning in the copy-nin’s hands only seemed to grow brighter, bigger. Black spots flashed across her vision. And the noise was painful now, like knives stabbing her ear drums—

Dazedly, Sakura felt a hand fasten around her upper arm. They were shunshining, she realized belatedly, she and the person holding her.

When the ground beneath her feet settled again, she found herself kilometers away from where she had been seconds ago.

In the distance, great bolts of electricity lit the sky, brightening the dark clouds above for seconds at a time. It seemed as though the heavens had released lightning, but without rain or thunder as nature normally dictated.

“Fuck,” she heard Bear curse behind her. She turned and saw them all: Bear, Hyena, Snail, and Raccoon.

“I thought you were dead meat,” Snail said shakily.

“He almost was,” Hyena said coldly.

Bear’s shoulders tightened. Sakura watched them all like they were bizarre puppets she had seen move of their own volition.

“Well,” she asked impatiently. “Shouldn’t we go back?”

All eyes snapped to her, incredulous.

“No,” Raccoon said quiet, reasonable. “We wait here.”

Her lips twisted. “How long?”

“Until it passes,” Hyena answered gravely.

“But he’s going to alert every enemy-nin in a fifty kilometer radius that we’re here.”

The team shrugged like it was used to this. “He takes care of it.”

Sakura exhaled. “You can’t be serious.”

“Crow,” Snail said with forced calm. “I know you haven’t been on this team for long. But trying to intervene in that is a fool’s errand. You’ll end up dead, trust me.”

She should, Sakura thought, stepping away. She should trust them, their expert opinion on how to handle this. They’d probably been on this team for ages, knew Kakashi like the back of their hands.

She should, honestly, trust them and do exactly as they say.

Only, the sound of Kakashi whispering Move was echoing like a broken track record in her mind, over and over again, an alien, disturbing thing that had her teeth on edge.

And beneath that—

those who abandon their comrades are worse than scum

God, Sakura thought, tilting her head up to the sky. She really, really wanted to kill him.

Before she had consciously decided it, her body flickered and then disappeared.

 


 

Naturally, he did try to kill her.

He was quick too—too quick. She couldn’t even see his face. In a blur, he was zig-zagging toward her, and she moved forward, flesh, bone, and muscle all burning, to meet him.

The weather had also changed for the worse in the seconds it had taken her to arrive there. As though called by the false-lightning, rain poured from the heavens, masking both their scents and making it exceptionally hard to see.

As it happened, however, Sakura didn’t need her other senses. Soon, his body was so close that it didn’t matter.

She defended with her shoulders hunched, frame tight and aggressive like a brawler’s, before feinting to the side and then twisting over him—heat burning through her clothes at the contact.

Without pause, Sakura gathered chakra into her fist and drove it at his midsection. He shifted with blinding speed. The blow didn’t make contact, her arm merely brushing along his ribcage. Unfortunately, the momentum of the punch carried her forward, and he took the opportunity to her cage her in.

A second later, she yanked her head to the side, the side of his hand just glancing her hair. The rush of air sent the rest of the strands flying back. His fist went into the tree.

Sakura twisted and her own fist finally landed. A swift, brutal uppercut that he avoided the full force of with lightning quickness, but still skimmed his cheekbone.

He snarled, a guttural, animalistic sound, sharingan spinning madly in his eye.

“Stop,” Sakura growled.

Pushing off against the tree, she snapped her neck back and then forward, drilling her forehead into his. He grunted.

And then punishing arms wrapped around her midsection and tossed her into a boulder.

Sakura’s back hit the rock with a thunderous crack—like lightning—shattering it. She landed on the ground on top of the rubble, cursing furiously.

“Calm the fuck down,” she snapped.

A bit ironic, isn’t that, the Voice whispered, sounding riveted by ongoing events. If Sakura had had the time, she might have rolled her eyes.

She dropped down a millisecond later. A ball of fire scalded the air above her.

“Seriously?” she hissed, heart rate pulsing at the look of unholy rage in the other’s eyes.

She sidestepped his kunai and slipped into space between his arms. She reached up to grab wet, white-silver hair, fingers knotting in the long locks with one hand. With the other, she punched him in the face.

She didn’t use her full strength, obviously. But she put enough force that it had to hurt.

His mask was in tatters around his neck. She noticed only when she saw his teeth. Because Kakashi was baring his teeth at her, like he wanted very much to tear out her throat.

Only, then, inexplicably, incomprehensibly

His mouth was on hers.

 


 

It burned. Burned like a brand, like fire on metal.

(It didn’t actually seem…amorous.)

Kakashi’s lips were hot. And he kissed her like he was trying to use her mouth to breathe. As though he couldn’t figure out how to breathe himself.

That was the only reason Sakura didn’t shove him away.

He was holding her, she noticed, calloused hands cutting off the circulation in her upper arms just like they had in Kino’s genjutsu. Still, Sakura didn’t pull away.

His lips moved savagely against hers, ragged breath fueled greedily by hers, and she didn’t pull away.

Only when his hands moved mechanically down to her waist, maneuvering to slip under her flak jacket—soullessly, mechanically—did she react.

She grabbed his wrists with deadly strength. When mismatched eyes shifted down to her, she looked up at him neutrally. His whole face was exposed to her now, unmasked. His hair hung low, brushing high cheekbones, wetted by the rain.

Sakura was paralyzed by a curious mixture of shock and horror, at what she saw on his face,

He left immediately. And when he left—as brutally and silently as his mouth had landed on hers—she did not follow. 


 

Two figures met their gazes, drawn in a style intended to evoke the art of the temples. One figure’s face was hidden—the woman’s. Her left arm arched above her head before bending down, wielding a fan that covered most of her face and revealed only smiling lips, simply painted. Her dress was also tied simply, but from cloth in hues of such deep blues and reds that it looked bafflingly indulgent. Most curiously of all, her right hand thrust forward an amulet as her body curved toward her companion, as though she would just as easily dance with it as attack it into submission. For the woman faced a demon--the second central figure of the artpiece--in turn rendered in vicious reds and blacks. Its body was covered in ancient armor, a violent smile decorating its face, telling both of bloodthirst and of amusement. It, too, curved toward its opponent, caught indefinitely in a state of both attraction and repulsion.

- an INCREDIBLE AMAZING INSANELY BEAUTIFUL depiction of Sakura's tattoo by SweetGazelle

Chapter Text

Holiday Season Special! (And to celebrate reaching 200 comments :) )

 

~omake one~

 

Sai was perfectly content as he sat by himself at the bar. Swirling the dark liquid in his cup for a moment, he tilted his head back and downed it in one smooth motion.

The world was loud around him—louder than he was accustomed to. Drunken laughter and banter met his ears wherever he turned. Belatedly, he wondered if ‘bar-hopping’ was an activity meant to be conducted with others. The book he had read had not explicitly indicated it to be so; yet, he could hardly ignore the evidence before him. The booths lining the sides of the bar were filled with groups of both shinobi and civilians who had clearly arrived together.

Perhaps…he should have invited his teammates? ‘Bar-hopping’ seemed to be a form of bonding. And they were, in truth, still curiously alien to him: strange creatures that scarcely seemed human, at least, in the way that Sai was. But then, Sai had yet to meet many people who were human like he was.

He was beginning to wonder, in fact, if he was the deviance rather than the norm.

Naruto—was he what the average human embodied? Loud and impulsive; by the textbook, an obvious victim of small penis syndrome. Was Sai, too, meant to live life compensating for something?

Tapping his fingers idly, he considered his other teammate. Haruno Sakura was just as puzzling as Naruto. Possibly more so. She was reserved most of the time, but possibly had anger issues as well. He remembered that she had slammed him into a tree. That had been unexpected. Unprecedented, as well, given what he had read about her from mission files and ROOT intel.

Haruno Sakura was hiding something, Sai guessed. But as long as it did not interfere with his mission, he did not know why he should particularly care.

He frowned, examining an oddity within himself, that he was curious despite the fact he had no reason to be.

That was strange. And yet, his art—not originally his, but delivered by his hands—decorated her back. It did seem concerning that his art, usually entirely subject to his control, might operate with motives mysterious to him. Sakura, of course, was not herself art; but the art existed on her, she merely its canvas. A walking, talking canvas—he wondered who had ever decided tattoos should exist.

An immobile, silent canvas, after all, could only be inherently superior in the endeavor of creating a flawless composition of ink strokes. It seemed counterintuitive that a canvas should distract from that composition.

But he digressed now. The point stood that he was inexplicably invested in the thoughts and motives of not only Sakura but Naruto too, when he had no reason to be.

A trill of sharp, bell-like laughter pierced the air near him, interrupting his thoughts.

Sai cocked his head to the side and examined the source of the noise. It belonged to a blonde girl his own age. She had soft, delicate features of the sort popularly classified as ‘attractive,’ though Sai personally did not see their appeal. Long, healthy hair as well—she flipped it now over her shoulder as she talked to the boy sitting across from her. She was sitting next to another boy her age with short brown hair, but her attention did not seem to focus much on him, other than a glance every now and then.

Those glances were platonic, Sai decided after moment. But not the ones directed to the boy across from her. Her face blushed an interesting hue of pale pink every time she addressed him. Her laughter seemed to become only more trill-like as the conversation continued. Her pupils grew more dilated with time, her limbs curving suggestively as she imbibed more alcohol as well.

She was exhibiting the common courting practices of individuals his age, Sai reflected. He found this incredibly interesting. He knew he would find other examples if he continued to examine around the room. Yet, he settled with observing this one. He would prioritize proximity and depth of observation over diverse sampling just now.

Curious, his gaze moved left to the object of her amorous attention. The boy across from her, also Sai’s age, nursed a tall glass of what he knew to be bitter-sweet alcohol.

It was hard to tell from where Sai was sitting, but the boy did not seem to possess much musculature. Nor, he found with slight puzzlement, did he have many of the features commonly deemed ‘handsome.’ Intrigued, he wondered what drew the clearly socially desirable female to this particular male.

Tapping his fingers still, it took him a moment to realize his examination had been noticed. The boy’s eyebrow twitched in a small, miniscule moment. Then dark, cat-like eyes slid lazily to their right—sliding straight past the blonde girl, past the girl whose hands were inching their way down her partner’s pants against the wall, without pause, to Sai.

The girl continued to chatter. If the boy next to her noticed his friend’s sudden inattention, he did not show it.

The eyes that met his were razor-sharp, despite the amount of alcohol consumed in the glass before them. A slight chill swept over his body. Sai tilted his head to the side, captivated by his body’s reaction. He felt the urge to look away. That was odd. Was this embarrassment?

To luxuriate in the novelty of this feeling, Sai continued to return the stare. The eyes boring into his were unnervingly penetrating.

Deciding that a period of contemplation and reviewal was now due, Sai turned in his seat without hesitation to face his empty cup and the bartender again.

“Another drink?” the smirking woman asked.

Sai paused to consider the question, then nodded. He liked the sweet taste of the sake offered here.

She reached down to pull out the bottle. As she poured, the end of the bottle brushed her prominent breasts. His gaze flicked to them for a moment, then back to the cup.

She caught the movement. “Not interested?” she asked, pointing at her chest.

Sai’s gaze darted up briefly, unbothered by the question. “Not particularly.”

She huffed a laugh. Sai idly wondered if it were fake or genuine—he was unable to tell the difference as of yet. Her gaze moved to somewhere above him.

Grunt-like sounds began to emerge from his left.

He twisted slightly to look over. It seemed the girl against the wall had successfully made her way into her partner’s pants at last. Her arm moving in a telling up and down motion. The man’s expression was contorted in a tense display of ecstasy as he panted against the peeling wall.

Most averted their eyes from the sight in exaggerated horror, Sai observed. In truth, however, their body language betrayed them. The shifting of thighs, rubbing covertly together; the slight hitch in their breaths, unnecessary pauses in their story-telling.  

Sai was no stranger to this conduct, though it usually arose within him independent of an individual, occurring instead as the periodic if not rare result of his body’s natural call for sexual activity. He tended to address it in the usual hand to groin manner. (This was not to say Sai had never had sex with another person. Some ROOT missions in the recent past had made him a well-experienced participant in a variety of sexual acts.)

Despite the contradictory evidence in front him, Sai himself didn’t particularly see the appeal of sex with another person. He was entirely sure he had never worn such a ravished expression as the man before him. One’s body was known best, addressed with the most efficacy, only by oneself. This was what Sai had learned in his own experience.

It was oddly frustrating, therefore, that the man against the wall existed in front of Sai in the way he did. He was proving an exception to Sai’s rule. The man continued to writhe against the wall, causing clientele to nervously stutter their disapproval, until he reached completion. When he at last spent himself into his partner’s hand, he gave a loud, debauched cry before mouthing at her neck in worshipful gratitude.

While most around him continued to pretend to look away, Sai watched without qualms. The girl brushed her partner’s hair back with a strong, possessive hand, the other twisting in sly, quick movements, though he must have been oversensitive. He gave more soft, breathy cries, mouth slack with bliss. Sai’s gaze narrowed, wondering if the man were a masterful actor, and if so, what his agenda could possibly be.

“Noisy pair,” a smooth voice—intricately modulated—commented from behind him.

Sai turned and found a pair of dark, cat-like eyes examining him piercingly from the boy suddenly in the stool beside him.

“You’re the new one on Team Seven,” the boy said lazily, sipping the last of his drink. He exhaled lowly, the bitter-sweet scent of his breath curling into Sai’s nose.

“Sai,” he answered with careful blankness. When in doubt, he resorted to this state—a fortress of impenetrability. As manners dictated, he returned: “Your name?”

“Shikamaru.”

“And why are you here?” Sai asked without pause.

The boy’s—Shikamaru’s—lips curved. “To get another drink, of course.”

He faced forward and waved a hand nonchalantly, as though the effort even this required was somewhat distasteful to him. The smirking woman from earlier noticed the motion and drew closer.

“If it isn’t my favorite,” the woman purred, eyelashes fluttering.

Sai watched this with persisting confusion. The reason for this boy’s—Shikamaru’s—apparently pervasive appeal still escaped him.

“Mirai-san,” Shikamaru returned, nodding without making eye contact. He seemed suddenly distracted by a crack in his glass. “The same.” He handed the glass forward.

Mirai pouted and took the glass. “You know you can’t keep treating all us girls like this, right, Shikamaru? Is the Nara clan going to end with you?”

Shikamaru flashed his teeth in a convincing semblance of a smile. “You’re beginning to sound like my mother. You should know that’s hardly advancing the right agenda.”

That was undoubtedly an insult. Yet, Mirai received it with surprisingly good humor. She rolled her eyes. “Watching the scene over there was like watching a dog get kicked. Put that dear girl out of her misery.”

The boy’s smile widened, but Sai felt that it has suddenly become…sharp. Was it real? Fake? It annoyed him that he could not tell.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Even more puzzling—Shikamaru was clearly a fellow novice at social interaction. Why was he so sought after? “You may wish to take some lessons in understanding social cues,” Sai offered. “If you want, there are some helpful books I can suggest.”

Mirai covered her mouth behind the bar. Sai did not know why.

Shikamaru’s gaze slid to him leisurely.

“The girl across from you was peacocking,” Sai explained patiently. “She was repeatedly displacing her hair and laughing excessively. Her pupils were dilated as well. I don’t know how you could have possibly misunderstood. Are you generally obtuse?”

Mirai burst into laughter.

“Pea-cock-ing,” Shikamaru said slowly, leaning back in his chair.

The pout returned to the bartender’s face. “Maybe this one does have a point. You’re being deliberately obtuse, Shikamaru.”

The boy’s face cat-like eyes flashed. “What a pain.”

Mirai’s pout grew more pronounced. “What she feels is—”

“Troublesome,” Shikamaru cut her off. “She’s like an actual serial killer when she’s horny. I’m just the latest victim, the closest person with a penis she hasn’t tried yet, so she fancies herself infatuated with me.”

“Actually,” Sai interrupted, “I believe that that is natural, not a demonstration of psychopathic behavior as you seem to be suggesting. I’ve read that it is quite advantageous to choose a long-term partner that is sexually compatible; this would seem to require some sampling, of course, to make such a determination.”

Shikamaru leaned forward. The bitter-sweet smell of the alcohol followed him. “Well,” the boy drawled, getting uncomfortably close to Sai’s face (even in Sai’s perception), “then it makes sense that I don’t fuck what I’m uninterested in permanently tying myself to, right?”

“Ah!” Mirai cried triumphantly, slamming down the cup for the customer beside them with this statement. The customer jumped in his seat, looking alarmed. She pointed an accusing finger at Shikamaru. “You know what I think? I think you’re scared of women.”

The boy had propped his elbow against the counter and leaned his face into his hand; after a delayed moment, he shifted his gaze from Sai to the bartender “If you’re asking whether it is the utmost priority of my life to avoid entanglements with them,” Shikamaru said coolly, “then—yes.”

Why?” Mirai demanded.

“In my experience, women are overly emotional,” Shikamaru answered immediately, tone unbothered. “They are prone to bouts of irrationality I cannot comprehend. To try to understand them is a futile endeavor—it would mean engaging in a path wrought with inconvenience and conflict.”

The bartender looked at him silence for a moment, lips pursed.

Then she placed Shikamaru’s filled glass in front of him stiffly. “People may call you terrifyingly smart, Nara-san. You probably have all the best scrolls in the world in those clan grounds of yours—generations of money and knowledge passed down as well. I certainly didn’t have that upbringing, you can be sure of that.”

Shikamaru inclined his head.

“So you really do have no excuse for your instances of stupidity,” she finished, flipping her hair with a sniff. She turned to Sai now. “And you?” 

“What about me?” Sai responded with a smile.

“Well, while we’re at it, cutie,” she said, flashing a pretty grin again. It looked vaguely dangerous. “Do you have anything to add to the matter?”

Sai blinked. Words-wise, that had been a question. But it had been delivered in the tone of a threat. How…puzzling.

“Are you asking for my commentary on his thoughts?” he clarified.

“Sure,” Mirai returned. “And if I like the answer, you get to walk without paying.”

That seemed fairly promising. All he had to do was give the right answer. Sadly, Sai genuinely did not know what the ‘right answer’ meant to Mirai. He only had his own thoughts to rely on.

“Well,” he began slowly, smiling all the way through, “I disagree with this Shikamaru-san on almost all counts.”

For the second time that night, Shikamaru’s cat-like eyes snapped to his with incredible speed. The black of his irises, Sai noticed distantly, were indiscernible from those of his pupils.

“Promising start,” he thought he heard the bartender say under her breath.

“Oh?” Shikamaru prompted, face unreadable.

“Yes,” Sai said, smiling still. “In my experience, I have observed very emotional persons possessing penises. My teammate, Naruto, for example. Initially, I too believed his emotions led him to act irrationally; now, however, I understand that there is compelling reasoning to his strongest emotional outbursts. In summary: I do not believe emotions correlate with irrationality. Additionally, my female teammate, Sakura, is generally very quiet during training and missions—this also is contrary to your statements.”

He watched as Shikamaru’s eyebrow arched at this last statement.

“I should also say that I disagree vehemently with your methodology,” Sai continued evenly. “You’ve decided, from what seems to be obvious, incomplete sampling and observation, that females are ‘inherently’ incomprehensible to you. I have clearly done more diverse sampling and careful observation—I have found that most if not all individuals, regardless of gender, are completely incomprehensible to me without concerted effort to understand them. I have resolved myself, therefore, to trying to understand them. With this resolve, I have in fact made progress and learned a considerable amount. I would suggest you attempt to do the same.”

The bartender was staring at him, lips slightly open.

Sai turned to smile at her. “Respectfully, Mirai-san, I must disagree with you on one point, even if I must pay for my alcohol as a result. I do not think Shikamaru-san is as smart as you suggest. The gaps in his logic do not seem to be instances of rare oversight, but rather, founded from structural issues with his way of processing information—”

“Ah,” Shikamaru cut in lowly, taking a sip from his glass. His gaze was oddly bright. “Have I been found out?”

Despite the lengthiness and breadth of Sai’s answer, Mirai looked confused. “It is toosimplistic, too clearly…wrong. It makes no…”—suddenly, her eyes widened—“Wait a second.”

Sai was not following her thought process, so he returned to his drink.

“You don’t actually believe any of it, do you?” Mirai guessed, sounding exasperated.

Sai stilled now, the rim of the cup an inch away from his lips. Was she suggesting that they had not been having a debate in good faith?

“And it was working so well,” Shikamaru said boredly. “What a pain.” It seemed to be a phrase he used often.

“It did,” the bartender agreed, sounding impressed despite herself. “I went completely dry down there.”

“Is that medically possible?” Sai inquired politely, trying to move past his annoyance. It couldn’t serve him now, after all. But—why did people never say what they meant?

Mirai didn’t answer, turning her attention back to Shikamaru. Suspicion made her mouth purse again. “You know, I did hear once that you refused to fight a girl to the end in your chunin competition.”

“If I’ve ever refused to hit a girl,” the boy drawled, “it was for the same reason I have ever refused to hit anyone else. First, it probably required too much effort. Second, I was probably likely to receive uncomfortable injuries in that effort. My mind has always been the tool that is going win real battles; not my body. Accordingly, I don’t see the point in putting my limbs through that kind of trial by fire.”

“You pretend to be a sexist to ward off unwanted romantic advances,” Sai concluded blankly. So, he had wasted his breath after all. How…inefficient.

Shikamaru nodded. After a moment, he added wryly, “And sometimes, to goad female opponents.”

“Fine,” Mirai said, resting her hands on her ample hips. “But tell me this—what’s wrong with Ino-chan? She’s a sweet girl. And she’s your age.”

“She is also beautiful,” Sai added distractedly, still frowning.

Shikamaru’s eyes seemed to bore into him especially penetratingly now. “You think so?”

“Yes.”

He seemed oddly intent. “For what reasons?”

“That is,” Sai began reluctantly (was this a false debate too?), “she has features that are commonly praised in the texts I have read.” Then, he listed: “Small nose, full lips, unblemished skin, long, richly colored hair…”

Shikamaru took a careful sip from his glass. When he spoke again, his lips brushed the glass. “Perhaps,”—he rested his cheek leisurely into the palm of his hand again—“the question I meant to ask is: do you find her to be beautiful?”

Sai paused, brows furrowing. “I do not know what it means to find someone beautiful.”

He had never considered that, before. Maybe…

Maybe, this had something to do with what was wrong with him—with what made him different. And naturally, having just witnessed a sexual act he himself could not reproduce with comparable pleasure, Sai’s mind went there first.

Was Sai unable to enjoy sex with other people because he had not until now found them…beautiful? What did it mean to find someone beautiful? Was that the same thing for every person? Was it the same for Sai as it was for other people?

Some of his confusion must have shown on his face, because Shikamaru’s lips curled.

“For me,” the boy said simply, “I find it in a glance.”

“I don’t…understand what that means.”

“If that glance compels me,” Shikamaru said lazily, eyes dark like pools of ink, “if it draws me in. If the words that follow are ones so earnest I can’t put up a pretense before them. Then—I cannot look away.”

Sai’s limbs felt oddly heavy where he sat. If he hadn’t known better, he would thought he had been drugged.

“Compels you,” he latched onto with difficulty. “I must examine, then, what compels me?”

Shikamaru hummed. His eyelashes, Sai thought to himself, looked like strokes of ink as well.

“I like to paint,” Sai said. “I like only to paint certain things—those that compel me. So is what I want to paint what I find beautiful?”

“What would you like to paint?” Shikamaru asked.

The alcohol must have gotten to him, he theorized. What was this odd feeling? A sort of reluctance… Shame? No. Embarrassment? But Sai had never felt embarrassed before.

“Beasts, birds, rivers, mountains—” his brother –"and…”

“And?”

“Your eyes,” his mouth said quite directly. “I think I would like to paint your eyes.”

Shikamaru was silent for a moment. Then, he let out a breath of air and looked up at the ceiling. “Do you look at everyone like that?”

“Like what?”

A second later, there was a hand—firm, unabashed—lifting his chin up. “I can’t find a word for it,” Shikamaru said, smiling to himself as though amused by a private joke. “Irreverent?”

“Ah,” Sai said, wondering if he had angered the other boy. Smiles could be lies, after all. “If I have upset you—”

Shikamaru closed the distance between them. Sai watched his progress without comprehension.

It would have been an exaggeration to say their lips met; when the distance became the breath between molecules, the contact was unfailingly soft. Despite the strong grip of the hand that had curved to the side of his face, the kiss was terribly gentle, the gentlest he’d ever been given—it was almost unbearable, like being presented with a sweet, but being only allowed to just glance it with your tongue.

And yet—even in that brief, ephemeral brush of lips—the slightest taste of bitter-sweetness was imprinted, like the slightest trace of paint from a brush onto a canvas.

Sai drew back, blinking slowly. His tongue flicked out, unthinkingly, to follow the curve of his own lip. Shikamaru traced the motion with a dark gaze.

“Does that answer your question, Mirai-san?” the boy asked uncaringly.

Without waiting for an answer, he drew closer again. Sai watched him with calmly this time. When the other boy took too long, he tilted his head up in silent demand. For the sake of observation, of course, he was obligated to put himself through this again.

(So what if he wondered, suddenly: if this boy held him, would he achieve what the man against the wall had?)

“Yes,” the woman said very belatedly, sounding dazed. “That, ah, explains quite a bit.”

Neither ended up paying for their drinks.

 


 

~omake two~

 

Ino had spent most of her life loathing Konoha’s Torture and Interrogation Force.

As a child, T&I had taken stolen her father at odd hours of the night, only to return him looking troubled and wan days later. Although neither she nor her mom ever brought it up, the following nights had been ones of restless sleep for all of them, perturbed by her father’s shouts as he relived the things he had seen.

(The things he had done).

This was not to say her mother was without her own demons. All in all, in fact, both her parents looked much happier when they were at the clan flower shop.

From a young age, Ino had thus learned where the recipe for happiness could be found for a Yamanaka. It was undoubtedly the flower shop. It was where both of her parents would retire, contentedly tending to variations of flora for the rest of their days. Almost all Yamanakas did.

Being allergic to flowers was, indeed, an unheard of condition among members of her clan.

Ino hadn’t realized she was until she was ten.

She had finally been given permission to work in the shop, but the longer hours had only revealed what she had missed during shorter visits. After her first shift, red, blotchy hives had sprouted all along her skin beneath her clothes. Ino had been angry and ashamed; she had hidden the traitor marks from her parents and friends. She hid them still, now, and continued to work in small shifts at the shop. Some jutsus were handy in covering up the symptoms.

But the dream of the flower shop had been stricken down, nevertheless. Cruelly so.

Perhaps, still, she considered now, if certain events had not occurred as they had—perhaps it was possible that she still could have avoided T&I.

The facts were: on paper, Ino had been the top ‘kunoichi’ in her year. But that hadn’t really meant much; she had never tested at the same level as the top of her class. Like Shikamaru, she had been distracted by other things while at the academy (though not the same things): boys, dresses, crushes. Anything other than learning the skills that she knew would send her straight to T&I.

By all accounts, no one could have thought Ino would have ended up here—even her own father had believed she wouldn’t make it, had seemed happier for it. She didn’t have the grades, the track record, or the necessary recommendations.

Promotion of ‘elite chunin’ into the department should have passed over her. It had in the regular recruiting cycle.

Of course, then Ino had gone and fucked everything up.

It had been a late night out—the alcohol had been sweet but heady. She had been walking back humming to herself, when she had seen the man beating his son right there in the open, unafraid of censure, confident in his own perverted power.

The boy couldn’t have been more than seven, too. He hadn’t even begged for it to stop, only kept grasping at his father’s pant leg, as though yearning for the one morsel of painless contact to ground himself. To survive the barrage.

Ino had entered the man’s mind and broken him.

Unfortunately, Morino Ibiki (the man she knows now she had always hated, though she hadn’t known it was him before, calling her father out every night) had seen it all.

Morino, the sick fuck, had calmly told her that he’d seen her break the law (apparently, what she should have done was call a military police force officer?). There had also been the slightly underage drinking. So, he posed, she could either get written up and risk jail-time—or he could negotiate a deal if she agreed to use her talents in a well-regulated setting.

And thus: just as her father had begun retreating from T&I, allowing a new generation to take his place, Ino had been handed the ugly, grey uniform after all.

Months had passed since. She still didn’t know how to tell him; he came into their headquarters so rarely, it had been laughably easy avoiding him. Ino didn’t want him to see her here, not when he had been so happy thinking she had escaped.

Also: it was a god ugly uniform. The fewer people who saw her in it, the better.

Really, Ino was confident she could pull off almost anything, but the baggy, grey button down jacket paired with loose grey pants did nothing for her. Worse, she wasn’t allowed to wear earrings or any jewelry—apparently, those were too great a danger near high-risk prisoners determined to escape.

Ino felt suffocated here—unsexed, caged, leashed. If she dressed more flamboyantly these days than was practical on missions, it was because she felt it to be well-deserved compensation.

Ino knew she was pretty, and she liked flaunting it. She liked boys a lot, too (always had), and she liked when they looked at her like they hadn’t seen anything so beautiful before. There was something especially exciting when daimyos’ sons and courtiers knelt before her. For all the magnificent, unparalleled artwork around them, it was Ino they viewed as the exotic flower.

Yes, Ino liked being the most beautiful thing in the room. Which was why today had taken a turn for the worse the precise moment Hyuuga Neji had walked into their headquarters.

It was possibly a little known fact that Ino hated Neji. To be fair, there were very few circumstances where her animosity could come up. He was a jounin and she was still a chunin. They rarely encountered each other.

Just three years ago, Neji had merely been an uptight, cargo-shorts wearing prude. Sasuke had been the threat if at all, though his features were usually too contorted in annoyance for that to amount to much. He had been uptight as well, but the sexy kind of uptight; the kind that threatened to just say ‘fuck it’ and one day make him a rogue-nin. (Of course, it became very un-sexy when Sasuke went and did just that. And also when she had lost Sakura over him. They didn’t talk much these days. Ino regretted that more than she did losing Sasuke.)

But Neji had to be a surprise, didn’t he? In three years the older boy had gone on to make happy with Hinata, take a mild chill pill, and in thus doing, manage to fuck up everything for Ino.

Because in the last three years, Hyuuga Neji had (there was no other word for it) blossomed.

Ino surveyed him now as they waited for Morino to let them into the interrogation room. She still couldn’t bring herself to deny it.

He was the stark opposite to her, skin pale where Ino was bronzed. His hair was a heavy curtain of midnight black-blue, unlike her blonde locks, though equally long. Where she was soft, gentle curves, he was prolonged, sloping lines and angles, an intricate composition of lean muscle and profound delicacy. If they stood side to side, she had no idea who would come out on top. She had no wish to find out.

To make matters worse, he looked otherworldly in his cream, kimono with billowing sleeves. His fashion sense, unfortunately, had also apparently improved with time.

She scowled to herself, wishing she could burn the grey clothes off her body right now.

The older boy’s glance rested on her expression with indifference. “Yamanaka. I had no idea you worked here.”

“Please, call me Ino,” she responded dully. “It’s a bit new. Just something I’m trying out.”

“And how did you find yourself here?” Neji asked with distant politeness.

Thankfully, the door in front of them opened. She had been about to barf.

“Great,” Morino grunted. “Glad you could make it here on such short notice, Hyuuga Neji.”

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Morino-san. I always make time for matters that concern my clan. I am honored to represent them today in this capacity,” Neji said, bowing. His hair looked silken as it slipped over his shoulder. Ino glared at it. What did he use? Freshly laid eggs? Milk? Honey from the heavens?

“Ino,” she heard belatedly. Morino was snapping his hand in front of her face.

She sniffed. “What, old man?”

He looked frustratingly unbothered, though Neji’s eyes narrowed disapprovingly. Still a prude.

“I’ve gotten all I can out of him. We need you to go one year back,” the man instructed. “The seventh day of the seventh month of that year.”

“Piece of cake,” Ino muttered.

The worst thing was it was. She was unprecedentedly good at this (Morino’s words, not her own).

She stalked into the room. The man was chained to a steel chair in the middle. He had clearly been roughed up, purple bruises and open wounds spotting every inch of skin that was visible.

He coughed, spitting up some blood onto the floor. “Ah,” he began to leer, “aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”

Ino giggled. “That’s so sweet of you to say.”

She could feel Neji’s gaze on her, disapproving.

Without a further word, Morino shut the door behind them, leaving her in charge. He knew she got results; he would review the video tape later if he needed.

This left her in the middle of the room with Neji at its corner. She didn’t exactly know why Neji was here, but apparently, somewhere, this man had made a powerful enemy in the Hyuuga.

“God, those tits,” he grunted, shifting to lean closer. “Wish I could see them. Must be things of beauty.”

Ino’s smile twitched slightly. She hated that word—‘tit.’

“They don’t fit very well in the uniform,” she pouted, leaning forward so that her hair just brushed the ends of his fingers. “The buttons are kind of…tight.”

The man gave a small, nasty grin. He knew she wasn’t the lascivious, airhead she was pretending to be; she knew he wasn’t as enslaved to his cock as he was pretending to be. They were playing a game, and both knew it.

The difference was that he thought he could play it better. But he was wrong. Ino knew exactly how to do this.

The enemy-nin’s gaze caught onto Neji exactly as she had guessed it would. “And who’s that?” he grinned, revealing bloody teeth. “Boy or a girl? Fucking pretty too, huh.”

“Boy,” Ino said easily, sitting primly on the steel table she was supposed to interrogate him from. She smiled back at him. “Doesn’t really matter to you, does it?”

“No,” the man returned with a jeer. “It doesn’t.”

The older boy was beginning to look slightly pinched.

Ino rolled her eyes, then began to fold her sleeves up slightly. The motion brought the man’s insincere attention back to her. “Going to hit me, darling?”

“Nope,” she said with a smile. “That isn’t really my style.”

“Oh?” he indulged with a mocking smile. “What is your style, then?”

“Gentle persuasion. Also, it’s Ino.”

“Hiro,” the man said with a flippant smirk. His gaze went calculatingly to the corner again. “His?”

Ino tilted her neck back, letting the light from the fluorescent lamp hanging above caress the column of her throat. She looked at Neji, letting her voice become throaty. “Neji. Speaking of which, why don’t you step forward? We’re feeling a bit lonely here.”

Two spots of red appeared on Neji’s face. Ino knew they were from fury. In the harsh light of the interrogation room, it only served to heighten his beauty, the stark pale against the pink-vermillion.

“My, my,” the man returned flawlessly; his voice was a convincing rasp. “You are a pretty thing aren’t you, Neji. I’d probably kill my own mother to get those lips around my cock.”

“Hm,” Ino hummed, drawing slightly closer to the prisoner. “I wonder if his cheeks would go red like that then, too.”

“Yamanaka,” Neji said tightly. “Stop.”

The man’s grin widened. Ino smirked behind the ‘offended’ hand at her mouth.

“Not used to this kind of thing, are you?” the man said lightly. His eyes were still calculating. Ino watched him with razor focus, though she pretended to play with her hair.

“He isn’t,” she agreed. “But he is very tempting, nevertheless. Or maybe because of it?”

“Because of it,” the man agreed with a dark, knowing smile.

Ah, he still thought he was ahead of Ino.

“What would you do to him, if you could?” she asked innocently, biting her lower lip.

He raised an eyebrow at her, looking lazy for a moment before he switched seamlessly back into his lecherous persona. “Where to start. He’s got a tight ass with slim hips like that. It’d be a true shame to loosen him.”

“You think?” Ino pondered. She slipped off the chair and walked toward Neji. He watched her approach with a tight frown.

“What would you do, Ino-chan?” the prisoner asked with fake interest.

“Me?” she echoed. With quick fingers, she reached up and broke the tie holding Neji’s hair together. His hair cascaded around him, thick, dark, and silken.

He gave an outraged hiss, but he was cornered by her body against the wall.

With a lone finger, she penetrated the space between two locks of hair, and then brushed just upward. The upper lock twisted sinuously through her fingers.

She turned to look at the prisoner. The man’s cool gaze flickered between the shocked anger on Neji’s face and the seductive twine of his hair around her fingers.

“I think you should loosen him, shinobi-san,” Ino said quietly. “I think his mouth would slip open, making another pretty, pink hole, just like that. I think he would struggle to keep his moans inside, but he wouldn’t be able to, with his mouth helplessly gaping like that.”

The man didn’t respond. He watched silently from the chair.

Yamanaka,” Neji snarled under his breath. “I don’t care if I start a clan war, you are dead—”

She slipped her two fingers into his open mouth. He stopped abruptly, eyes flaring in incredulous rage. He looked almost too disbelieving of her gall to even move.

“I think you would wet your fingers just like this, and he would glare at you, furious, as he does now,” Ino whispered. She used her other hand to grab Neji’s hair and yank, just harshly enough. “And then you would pull his hair just like this, and he would keen for you—”

Neji’s palms were glowing when they hit her hard in her midsection, with such devastating force, that she skidded all the way across the room until she collided with the table at its center. The steel table was nailed to the ground and, still, the nails protested under the duress forced on them, making a high-pitched screeching noise.

Ino let herself lean against the table’s surface, elbows level with its surface and face contorted slightly with pain. Her hair had become unkempt too, she knew, slipping in tendrils from her own hair tie.

“I think he would play rough with you, shinobi-san,” Ino moaned. She pushed against the surface and slid behind the prisoner, dropping her head to relay her words just by his ear.

“Look at him,” she instructed in a murmur. “Isn’t he the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen? Those coveted, Hyuuga eyes glaring up at you as you would fill his mouth. As pale as he is, but his cheeks flushed with so much vitriol—”

And there, for the first time—for just an instant—instinctive, visceral lust flickered through the prisoner’s eyes.

Ino sneered openly now. “Got you.”

She made the hand signs and, in the brief instant of weakness birthed by his authentic lust, it was child’s play to break into his mind and take over.

In seconds, she had what she needed.

Hiro was mindless with anger in his chair, pulling furiously against his chains. Pain pulled at his features, because Ino had not been gentle.

“You fucking bitch,” he spat, saliva dripping from his mouth. “You fucking cunt—”

Ino glared. She hated that word too.

“After you, Neji-san,” Ino said lightly, holding open the door. He didn’t move as quickly as she would have liked, and so she went through anyway and let go of the door.

An instant later, she heard the door shut behind her. Another, and there was a body blocking her path.

“What just happened in there?” Neji asked, features cold.

Ino looked at him. “Lust tends to make minds vulnerable,” she explained monotonously, “especially for shinobi like him, who train to reject every other emotion but choose to indulge in sex; when they feel sexual hunger—one of the few emotions they allow—it feels all the more potent to them, leaves them all the more crippled, because their minds are otherwise so undisciplined in operating with emotion.”

“That may be the case,” Neji returned cuttingly, “but that does not explain why you chose to exploit me in that manner. You very well know that was not my intended purpose in the room, whatever your ulterior motives.”

“I have no idea why you were in the room with me. To ensure T&I was doing its best with your sworn enemy? I don’t care,” Ino snapped back. “But I did my job in there. We have many, many prisoners here, Hyuga-san, and my duty is to break them as quickly as I can. You were there. I used you. I played the heavy-handed femme fatale; he knew to guard himself against me. But in my heavy-handedness, I also made you seem all the more appealing, all the more credible; it made him vulnerable to you, because all your reactions were authentic. You sped up the work greatly.”

His face was unreadable, now.

She drew back after a moment. “I am sorry,” she said bluntly. “That I made you feel uncomfortable with my words. And for sticking my fingers in your mouth. And for…pulling your hair. I would have asked for your permission ahead of time, if that wouldn’t have ruined the overall effect. I am willing to…compensate you for that, as long as what you decide it is reasonable. You can also write me up for unethical conduct; I won’t stop you.”

The older boy looked like a statue, now, for all that Ino could comprehend of his motives and thoughts from his face.

She sighed wearily. “Alright. If it needs to be the face, then it needs to be the face. But let me know, so I can clench my teeth ahead of time.”

When he moved toward in her a sudden burst of motion, she locked her teeth together and shut her eyes.

She opened them a second later when she felt hands on her abdomen. Without causing pain. If anything, the area was starting to feel better.

“Are you…” Ino felt very disturbed. “Healing me?”

“My cousin taught me the basics.”

“Why?” she asked, eyebrows climbing to the top of her forehead.

“I thought it would be useful.”

“No—why are you healing me?”

Neji looked at her, unblinking. “Because you thought you were doing your job. I didn’t, and I hurt you for it.”

“Of course I was—” Ino cut herself off, gaze narrowing. “What do you mean thought?”

“You were doing your job,” Neji allowed after a moment. “You were also unaware of what…I knew. I didn’t realize that.”

Ino was lost now. “What the hell are you talking about?”

The older boy looked down at her, silken hair still curtained around his pale, aristocratic features. “As you may know, the byakugan allows its user to see into the intricate mechanisms of the human body.”

“Yes, yes,” she waved off, “we all learned this in the academy.”

“We can sense heartbeats, sense lies,” Neji paused for a moment. “We can also learn, with time, to recognize…certain responses.”

Ino stilled. Her ears were filled with a rushing noise, like she had been caught out, before she even knew what the ludicrous charge was.

“Oh?” she demanded. “And what did you see?”

“Yamanaka-san,” Neji said after another brief pause. “You became wet.”

What.

What.”

“Between your legs.” As if that was the part that needed clarification.

She went deaf for a moment—the sound of the air-conditioning whirring, the rustle of leaves in the breeze outside the window—nothing.

“The hell?!” she snarled. God, she was going to slam that pretty boy against the wall. “Do you fucking get off on lies? You think I like non-consensual bad touches? Or are you going to say it’s when you shoved me? News flash, that’s called acting. I didn’t like that any more than I did when—”

“It occurred,” the older boy interrupted calmly, “when you touched my hair.”

Well, she didn’t have a fucking hair fetish either. Ino broke off, calming down abruptly as reason returned to her brain. “Look, you’re beautiful. I won’t deny it. But actually, I hate you because of it. So there’s really no way I’d ever—”

She stopped when a hand, pale and slim, reached up and embedded itself in the roots of her hair. After a brief pause, he moved his hand parallel to the ground, pulling the strands gently with him so that they fanned out before falling again.

“Again,” he said calmly.

“No.” It had. This time, she had felt it. A hot, molten pulse between her thighs. God, Ino thought, could this day get any worse?

“Also, when I touched you to heal your abdomen,” he added.

“Fuck you,” she responded, equally determinedly.

He looked at her coolly for a long, examining moment. Then: “Possibly. Only after a considerable amount of consideration and some time.”

Ino gaped. Where the hell had the prudish, virginal Neji gone? Wasn’t she supposed to be the sex fiend? God, she had even considered fucking Shikamaru at one point during a dry spell (speaking of which, she could hardly live it down now). But this—no. This was the line. There had to be a line.

She couldn’t fuck someone prettier than her. An ego like Ino’s wouldn’t be able to take that kind of blow. Never.

“Never,” she vowed, staggering back. She must have looked terrified. Her eyelids hurt from her eyes being so wide.

“Hm,” Neji hummed. It wasn’t in agreement. If anything, he looked mildly arrogant now, like he had been posed with an intriguing challenge.

Fuck. 

T&I was intended to be Ino’s personal hell, wasn’t it?

She should have just done the easy thing and gone to jail.

Chapter Text

“This is such a waste of time,” she heard someone mutter behind her. “Cover for me. I’m going to slip out the back—"

“This is a mandatory training all shinobi must go through to remain a part of the hokage’s forces. No need to whisper, you are entirely free to leave. Just make sure you take your hitai-ate off first.”

Despite the coolly delivered threat, the room’s inhabitants still darted skeptical looks at each other. Sakura commiserated. Really—had no other shinobi-owned space been free other than a classroom in the Academy for this particular ‘training’?

Perhaps, Tsunade truly was that sadistic.

Her gaze passed over her fellow members in Team Seven, then Team Eight, Team Ten, and Team Guy. All that was missing from the scenery was Iruka. And, in point of fact, every few seconds Kiba would peek over his shoulder—like he was concerned the teacher might just pop out of the wall work, catch him unawares, and smack him with a folder like he used to on a daily basis.  

“Why is Team Guy here?” Naruto pondered moodily. “Didn’t they have to do this last year?”

Sai’s mouth twitched. “They must have missed the date last year due to a mission, like I did.”

Naruto gave an annoyed groan beside them. Unfortunately, the noise was loud enough to catch the attention of their ‘instructor.’

“You,” the man said, his silky voice grating against Sakura’s ears much like a too-sweet dessert. “Since you have so much to say, I’ll leave it to you to introduce the topic of today’s training.”

Kiba was abruptly assailed by a loud coughing fit. Shino patted his back stoically.

Naruto’s face scrunched into a look of intense concentration. “…when two people like each other very much—"

The instructor didn’t bother letting him finish.

“You?”

Sai’s head lifted, his face unreadable. “The topic of today’s conversation is sex, an issue I have found inexplicably makes many of my peers bashful, though I am sure they regularly engage in said activity. I have also found, in my experience, that definitions are often subjective determinations,” He added after a short pause. “I once read that everything in the world is about sex except sex, and that sex itself is ultimately about power. If this is in fact the case, then I suppose today’s discussion will translate into a discussion on the nature of power.”

“Is that so? Yes, I suppose many scholars have indeed found sex and power to be…inextricable,” the instructor commented softly, eyes glinting.

It was a dangerous line of thought, Sakura realized too late. Her lips throbbed in hateful remembrance.

Fuck. And she had thought she had managed to wipe it from her mind entirely.

It had been two nights since she had returned home with a drenched uniform cold as ice, the door still swinging shut behind her as she made the hand signs to remove her disguise (sloppy, she knew, but at the moment, she could not bring herself to care). Two nights, since she had pulled off her uniform and tossed it into the corner of the room. Undid the binding around her chest. Filled the tub in her cramped bathroom to near the top. Leaned back, letting her head partially submerge in the water, just until her ears.

Forgotten shortly after. Now, her mind suddenly wouldn’t let her ignore it any longer—mysteriously prompted again—and turned the puzzle over with almost manic energy.

The theory wasn’t implausible, was it? It had long seemed to Sakura that the copy-nin was a force, almost above all else, of arrogance and egotism. Perhaps, his….actions had in fact been driven by some impulse to overpower her, to resort to other means when fists had failed. She would be remiss, after all, to forget the oiran, and how he had taken her: obligatorily, meaninglessly. Why did the copy-nin touch an oiran in the first place, if not to exert his power over a being obligated to comply—

Move.”

Her lips tightened. A soft imperative, which from any other would have been a man begging a boy to save his own life—but not Kakashi, because that simply did not make sense, did it? And what place exactly, Sakura reflected coldly, did that admitted oddity have in this?

“For civilians, we may settle this as a matter of opinion,” the instructor said nonchalantly—she blinked, having managed to forget where she was—"As shinobi, however, what is true is that you will face sex as an instrument of power; it will be weaponized against you.”

“As you all know,” he continued smoothly, “there are shinobi branches that utilize and practice seduction for the purposes of information gathering and assassination. Konoha, as it happens, is one of them—it is the branch I belong to and, perhaps, one that some of you may join in the future.”

Based on the discomfited expressions of the particular people in the room, this appeared generally unlikely.

“Sex may also, however, be weaponized against you far more literally—and I use the term ‘sex’ loosely here,” he continued, still remarkably calm. “That is, as a form of violence and a means of denigrating your person—without any pretense or appeal to your consent. I am here to warn you. At worst, to prepare you.”

Her gaze shot up as the instructor pivoted and walked slowly through the aisle in the middle of the room. “A common misconception,” he continued quietly, “is that women alone are victims of sexual assault. If you believe this, I will have to disillusion you: the kind that engages in such behavior often does not care to discriminate.”

Finally, the instructor had every member of the room watching him with rapt, grim fascination.

“Whatever gender you ascribe to, you are not impervious.”

He gave a humorless smile. “Now that I finally have your full attention, let us begin.”


Two hours later, Sakura and Naruto sat on either side of Sai at the counter of Ichiraku Ramen. Unlike usual, their group was entirely silent.

His words had been enough, hadn’t they? To bludgeon reality over them all—and there had been so much blindness in that room, her own too, conveniently pretending what had almost happened hadn’t.

Caught unawares, without weapons, thirteen and ill-prepared—civilians, not shinobi, but that mattered little. She hadn’t been able to handle the reality of it then, so she’d buried it within her, housed it inside like a hidden shard that only grew sharper with time.

It pierced her again, now, as keenly as kunai blade deep within where she could not soothe the pain.

Lighthearted conversation and laughter drifted around them, but Sakura felt largely distanced from it. Lifting her gaze from her bowl of ramen felt like lifting a tree with the effort it suddenly required, when she finished her meal. She made brief eye contact with Teuchi, who shot her a look of concern before directing his gaze meaningfully to Naruto.

Sakura surveyed her fellow teammate and understood. Naruto had barely even stirred the spoon in his still-full bowl. They sat in silence for some time more, until Naruto himself broke the silence.

“That was…” he began, quietly.

Sakura nodded, unsure what to say in response. The training had been eye-opening for everyone, if in different ways—all sobering.

Her gaze flitted over the restaurant, before following the trail of condensation her glass had made as it was placed in front of her. A minute movement to the left suddenly caught her attention. It took her a moment to realize what she was looking at.

Then, her focus zeroed in on the way Sai’s too-pale hands gripped the bowl in front of him. And the way they trembled, just ever so slightly.

She looked now slowly upwards from beneath her lashes. Had they been like that the entire time?

The horrible, unspeakable tightness only continued to gather in her chest.

She heard a shattering sound. Oh—that had been her. Her hand, which had been clutching the bowl, had clenched too tightly.

“Who?” Her voice was deathly quiet.

He jerked like he had been electrocuted, eyes widening.

For a long moment, it looked as though he would deny it altogether, plastering yet another plastic smile on his face. But then, consideringly, his glance flickered between her and Naruto.

“A woman,” Sai said finally, blankly. He blinked again, looking down at his hands as though he were seeing them for the first time. “It was not like that. I agreed to it. I didn’t find it enjoyable, certainly, but then—until fairly recently, I had thought it impossible for my body to even derive pleasure from sex with another person.”

Naruto’s eyes were slitted, his fingers curled into tight fists. It had been part of a mission, Sakura read between the lines.

“But you’re not part of the seduction branch.”

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that Sai lacked the necessary social skills to have been that type of black ops member.

Sai’s coal black eyes drilled into her.

No words had to pass between them.

Whatever line of work Sai had belonged to, it had been the dark underbelly of Konoha’s operations, under the radar and unregulated. There had been no training, no vetting, nothing. And that was saying something, given what Sakura had already found to be the case in ANBU.

As children, they had all been told that the mysterious, masked ANBU—while enigmatic and frightening to the common citizen of Konoha—were the trusted confidantes of the hokages: eyes, ears, and, indeed, extension of heart. The hokage alone was supposed to know the faces behind the masks, the ANBU as the humans they were: their histories and their personal sacrifices for their village, when no public monument could recognize them.

Sakura knew now, of course, that this wasn’t the exact case. She had no clue what went on with the captains—but she knew none of her peers met with the hokage on a personal basis. Pointedly, the organization was simply too big for Tsunade, or any hokage, to micromanage and track every ANBU to that mythologized extent. What Tsunade knew in detail was no doubt determined by a need-to-know basis, given how spread thin she was.

And look what had managed to slip through the cracks. Her teeth bit into her lip, drawing the iron taste of blood to her tongue.

“I know you can’t tell us about your…background,” Sakura said lowly, turning to face Sai fully.

“We’ll figure it out ourselves.” Naruto’s back was ramrod straight, as stiff as though a string had been drawn up from his tailbone through to the top of his head.

Sai’s mouth parted slightly, a small sound escaping. His eyes widened, as though shocked by the involuntary noise.

“And what if…” He paused, face smoothing. “What if what you learn changes what you may think of me.”

Sai seemed to be under the misapprehension that whatever his teammates had thought of him so far had been generally positive. She didn’t bother correcting him.

His face tensed as Naruto gripped his shoulder with bruising strength.

“We don’t care,” Naruto said slowly, vehemently. His blue eyes blazed. “What happened in the past doesn’t matter.”

Sakura blinked. Naruto’s gaze slid to her and he stared at her fiercely, daring her to—she didn’t know.

She removed her hand from the counter and, after a moment of hesitation, slipped it down to near her side. Curling, she slid her fingers into the cool, smooth ones next to hers. She didn’t look away from the bowl in front of her as she did it, face stoic. But she felt the pulse of breath beside her stutter. After a moment, the fingers entwined in hers tightened their hold.

They finished the meal with no more conversation, parting ways silently just as it became twilight.


The next day, Sakura received summons via the crow.

But of all the things she had expected, the last perhaps was the sea of individuals crowded in the locker rooms when she arrived. Sakura had been prepared to charge directly to her assigned locker to pull on her armor for another unsavory mission. Shortly after entering, she realized that would be patently impossible.

The room was packed beyond the point of maximum capacity, the conversation between its numerous inmates culminating into something deafening. The movement of bodies eventually moved her in an entirely different direction than she had originally intended. Fortunately, it was there that she found Hyena and Snail.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, shooting a glare as she was knocked forward once more.

“Rounds,” Hyena answered shortly, tying her hair up with a leather band with sharp, economic twists of her wrist.

“Rounds. What are…rounds?”

“Black ops members have to periodically defend their positions in ANBU,” Snail explained delicately. “So we have rounds of spars in the training stadium without warning few times a year.”

“To determine fitness,” Hyena summarized shortly, rolling her shoulders as though already priming her body. “Weed out the weak; reshuffle, if appropriate, those who stay.”

“And every ANBU member has to go through this?” Sakura demanded.

“Not every person,” Snail allowed. “I suppose the captains have their own system among themselves.”

“But for the rest of us, yes,” finished Hyena. “So you better get armor on.” She handed Sakura what seemed like a spare set from her locker.

Sakura strapped them on blindly. A thought suddenly occurred to her, and her eyes widened. “Wait. So that means I could be moved off of this team?”

Hyena looked at her strangely for her tone. “If you don’t perform to standards.”

“And what will happen then?”

“You don’t need to be concerned, Crow-chan, you’ll do fine!” Snail said with a cheerful punch to her shoulder. After a moment, she let her hand swing down. “You definitely won’t be kicked out—that only happens to ANBU who are no longer physically capable of the role, and you still have all your body parts.”

“My bet? You’ll be booted off to a lower team,” a new voice added—Bear, Sakura’s identified sourly—“Don’t know how you got here, Crow, but you’re certainly going to face the due trial by fire now.”

Sakura shrugged dismissively, eyes narrowed from behind her mask. Get booted off to a lower team? Excellent.

A loud bell rang through the room, cutting through the noise easily.

Snail nudged her. “People are heading out now. Finish strapping up and follow.”

Nodding, Sakura finished tying her arm guards and fell into line behind her other teammates. They crossed through the lobby she had entered just ten minutes ago into the other section of the headquarters, which housed a giant stadium (that she had until now wondered at its purpose entirely).

When they entered, Sakura’s mouth fell open.

Had she thought the locker rooms had contained all the ANBU? Clearly, most had already entered the stadium. Not all the seats were filled, but there were certainly more ANBU gathered in one place than she had ever seen in her life.

“So how does this work,” Sakura muttered, still gaping. “Is there one bout at a time? Who chooses who you fight?”

“It’s randomized,” Hyena muttered back, leading them to where Raccoon sat. “And there are usually four to five spars at one time.”

“Or we’d never fucking get out of here,” Bear grunted.

“We each do three bouts in a row, short breaks in between of course,” Snail explained cheerily. She pointed downwards where a long line of ANBU sat separate from the normal stadium seat, looking directly onto the fighting grounds. “After, the captains vote on whether or not we stay. If yes, then they decide where we go until the next rounds.”

Hyena settled down into her seat with a short sigh of relief, rubbing her recently sprained ankle. She saw Sakura watching and added briefly, “Any of the captains can make a bid on you if they think you’re more suitable for their team. Your current team captain can argue to keep you or let you go. They argue their cases before the group, but ultimately, all the captains vote, and majority decides.”

“Ah,” Sakura said, leaning back.

One of the figures among the captains stood up, and the stadium fell into silence.

“Some of you have been here for years; for others, this is your first time going through rounds. No matter the outcome, know that in carrying the will of fire, your past year of service has been—”

“Always wondered why he’s commander,” Bear said, bumping shoulders with Raccoon for all the world like he was at the movie theaters, talking just quietly enough so as not to get shushed. “You know?”

“Everyone knows you don’t put your best soldier anywhere other than at the center of the battlefield,” Raccoon offered without pause, as though he’d answered this question many times. After a short pause, he added. “Plus, the taichou is…young. He might have more experience than most of us, but—”

“He hasn’t been alive long enough to match the commander’s years,” Hyena finished, nodding in agreement.

Sakura’s scowled, so grateful for yet another reminder of how ‘prodigious’ their precious taichou was. She tapped her fingers lightly against her knees. “So…how many rounds have you been through?”

All four turned to look at her in one, eerily synchronized motion.

“Five under the copy-nin,” Hyena answered first. “Fifteen or so before that.”

“Five as well, twenty before that,” said Snail.

Bear soundlessly held both hands with all fingers stretched. He didn’t offer anything else.

Raccoon leaned toward her so that she could hear his muffled words. “Two with this team,” she heard. “Twelve before.”

In case it had been uncertain before, it was abundantly clear now how much her teammates’ experience outclassed hers.

“Why am I on this team again?” she asked aloud.

No one was able to answer her.

“It’s not that you’re not an excellent shinobi, Crow-chan,” Snail explained hurriedly. “It’s just that, well, on the past few missions most of us have each been doing our own thing. None of us have really had the chance to observe the full extent of your skills.”

“As I said,” Bear said, the pleasure in his voice gratingly apparent, “there’s no time like the present.”

Sakura cracked her neck and shifted to look back to the fighting grounds. The commander had apparently just finished his speech and was in the process of sitting back down. Just as five pairs of names flashed on the screen, the large brass doors to the stadium cracked open again to admit one more figure.

Mismatched eyes scanned the crowds of ANBU—who abruptly went silent, even more quickly than they had for the commander—before he shunshined to an empty seat on the judging panel and reclined into his seat. His temperament was one of a predator long impatient with complacency, feet on the long table but vibrating with pent up energy.

It would take an idiot to miss that this was the last place the copy-nin wanted to be right now.

Sakura’s mouth went tight at the first sight of Kakashi in days. He hadn’t even bothered to wear the ANBU mask—not that it mattered much, she realized after a moment. It wasn’t like he ever bothered to disguise his hair.

They all watched as the commander shifted in his chair to say something to Kakashi. But the copy-nin barely even tilted his head to acknowledge the words, attention seemingly focused somewhere else. After a moment, the commander appeared to give up and shifted to the center of his seat again.

“Are the combatants ready?” the older man boomed.

Ten figures walked onto the fighting grounds in response.

Shinobi on either side of the stadium erected tall barriers, protecting the audience from the combatants and the respective fights from interfering with each other.

Coins were handed out to each pair, and then flipped. Genjutsu, taijustsu, ninjutsu, or kenjutsu, Sakura noted, were spar options given to the combatants.

And then the rounds began.


Randomization, she learned soon, was both a good thing and a bad thing. Some of the pairs on the grounds proved themselves to be so unevenly matched that the spar ended in less than a minute. Others, however, suffered from the lack of disparity and dragged on for almost half an hour.

By noon Sakura was stir-crazy, ready to create a small explosion so that she could escape and grab something to fill her stomach. She regretted immensely now skipping breakfast that morning.

Snail’s stomach grumbled loudly beside hers as well. She rubbed it apologetically.

Protein bars were passed around.

By mid-afternoon, only Raccoon had been called to the fighting grounds. He had won the first coin toss and finished a taijutsu bout with fair ease. The second, though, had been rougher—kenjutsu and not his choice; his opponent, a heavy-set man wielding a blade the width of Raccoon himself, had emerged the winner. But at the third bout, she had learned that ninjutsu was, in fact, Raccoon’s real forte.

“Will he be alright?” she heard Bear ask Hyena.

She had nodded without hesitation. “His ninjutsu is good enough to compensate for his kenjutsu. No one’s going to take him if taichou makes it clear he wants him to stay.”

Whether Kakashi had, in fact, ‘made it clear’ was a bit suspect to Sakura. In truth, the commander had seemingly directed another question to the copy-nin again, Kakashi had not responded, and no one else at the table had consequently bothered to speak up.

So, on Kakashi’s team Raccoon apparently stayed.

By early evening, the sky outside had deepened into the purple-pink-orange of twilight. With the dimmed lighting where they were sitting, it was easy, somehow despite the noise, for Sakura to imagine herself comfortably in her own room, just about to sleep. (She was…tired.) The sounds were loud but also fairly repetitive—white noise, really.

The spars in front of her all started to become the same.

She didn’t exactly remember when she fell asleep. In truth, she wasn’t really surprised that she had; she hadn’t been getting much sleep the past few nights, for some reason or the other.

Next thing she knew, she was being roughly jabbed awake, from both sides of her.

“Huh?” she grunted, snapping up in her seat. “What?”

Bear looked at her like she’d been running around with her head cut off.

The board,” Hyena hissed, looking both mildly concerned and generally disapproving.

Her gaze snapped downwards and landed on the list of the next ten names.

Hers was listed there.

“Oh,” she sighed tiredly. “Right, then.”

Swinging herself onto the staircase, she didn’t bother to shunshin and merely walked the rest of the way down. In the distance, she could see another figure already where she was supposed to be.

Sighing again, she hastened her pace.

As she stepped onto the fighting grounds, the full force of the stadium lights beat down on her. Sakura grimaced with discomfort; the sheer heat radiating from the strength of the light was a force to reckon with.

There was also—uncomfortably—a sort of nervous energy in the air, which she hadn’t been able to feel from where she had been sitting, distant from the action. She felt it now. The hairs on her arms pricked and blood started pumping heavily through her body.

The Voice growled in her head, emerging from total silence without warning. She hissed warningly under breath back at it—no need to get excited, she wasn’t letting it out now.

Tightening her arm guards, she didn’t quite look at her opponent yet, looking instead to the two names blazoned above the part of the grounds sectioned off to them.

Crow vs. Robin

Her eyes moved downwards to the ANBU in question.

Well, she knew why he was called Robin now. He had shoulder length red hair that gleamed in the light like flashing silk. It looked…oddly familiar, actually—

“No,” Sakura whispered aloud. She took a stumbling step back.

But she couldn’t unsee it now. She blinked rapidly.

It was the same exact color.

“Hey there, Crow,” Robin greeted, shrugging his shoulders. “You look around my age. But…”

He was seemed a few years older than her. Just like Noriko had been. Sakura’s hands trembled at her sides.

“As your senior, I think I’ll pick first,” he said with a wink. He gestured to the shinobi handling the coin toss. “Heads.”

The shinobi threw the coin and snatched it from the air in a blink of an eyes. The head of the hokage gleamed brightly.

“Taijutsu,” Robin decided affably.

Sakura couldn’t move her eyes off him, completely oblivious to all the other coin tosses going on around them. Eventually, a dull gong rang through the stadium, signifying the start of the spars.

“Ready?” the young man asked, a smirk in his voice. He didn’t wait for an answer. In an instant, his entire form was a blur. A blur that was rushing toward her.

And all Sakura could see was the ghostly mirage of Noriko’s face manifesting above his mask, just because he had similar fucking hair.

Move, you worthless carcass, the Voice snarled.

Sakura blinked dazedly, but it was too late. A fist landed in her stomach and sent her careening into the opposite of the stadium. Metal railing crumpled beneath her back. The air rushed out of her as pain seeped in.

She was shaken. Sakura had a spare moment to curse beneath her breath, before Robin was on her again.

He was quick—but not that quick, not really. Certainly not near the quickest she had ever faced. But each time he twisted, the air catching strands of his hair to send them fanning out, Sakura felt like a boulder had been dropped on her all over again, and she was dazed, and precious seconds went by, and—

Wow. She hadn’t gotten her ass kicked like this in a long time.

And it was the truth—she was getting her ass kicked.

You worthless piece of shit, what is the point of you if you can’t even handle shit like this yourself? LET ME OUT! LET ME—

Sakura, out of the sheer rage the Voice managed to incite in her, found some clarity and landed a few well-placed blows at key points in Robin’s midsection.

But they lacked her usual strength, because still, some part of her couldn’t let go. And when she looked up again—a terrible, fatal mistake—it was Noriko’s dying face that look back at her, a beaming smile drowning in tears.

Sakura groaned.

A fist landed soundly, truly solidly, planting into the side of her head. The force of it vibrated through her entire body, but Sakura was oblivious to it—only knew that her vision was going black.

When light returned, she was blinking up at the towering dome of the stadium.

“Robin, 1 win, Crow, 0 wins!” she heard a woman cry out.

A hand manifested above her. She gazed blankly at it. After a moment, it reached down and heaved her up.

Sakura managed to land on her feet. Everything around her, however, was a deluge of sensory and auditory information she had trouble processing.

“Stadium locker rooms,” she heard someone say. “Until you’re called for the next bout.”

Robotically, she followed the figure ahead of her to a set of doors tucked into one of the walls. She kept her eyes on her feet and very carefully did not look at his hair. The brass doors opened and closed with a small creak of protest. And then she was in silence, in a cool, dark room, where there was a table filled with bandages.

“So,” the ANBU next to her began with a slow smile. “No hard feelings?”

Sakura focused hard on his voice. A little higher than that of a fully grown man—but definitely lower than Noriko’s. This was just another shinobi with dark red hair. It was just dark red hair; she’d seen other people with red hair after Noriko and hadn’t reacted like this. Why the fuck now?

Inhaling, Sakura steeled herself and then looked up. Her vision swam.

“No hard feelings,” she returned, looking down again.

He gave a short laugh. “Great. Have to say though, I wiped the floor with you—”

He broke off, his gaze widening at something behind her. Sakura twisted to follow his glance and then froze.

Tremulous awe glowed in Robin’s eyes. “Sir, it is an honor to finally meet you.”

“Scram.” The word emerged in a dark rasp. Sakura grew even stiffer.

As for Robin—she wasn’t sure what the ANBU thought. Whatever it was, he blinked for a few seconds in confusion. Then, the request processed. With a swift bow and a suspicious glance her way, Robin exited the room.

Sakura looked back at Kakashi with ire, waiting. “What?” she demanded finally, tone flat.

Another she hadn’t really expected today was—this. Kakashi shoving her roughly into the lockers.

“What the fuck was that out there?” A guttural demand, harsh on her ears.

“Excuse me?” she gasped, mostly from incredulity.

She lifted her hands and shoved him back—he skidded a few inches. "Who the hell do you think you are?”

“I’m your captain,” he said coldly back. “And you answer to me.”

Sakura let out a harsh bark of laughter. “You think I give a fuck what you think?”

The Voice seared through her veins, and for one terrible moment, Sakura couldn’t quite draw the line between it and herself.

Fingers clenched her chin beneath the surface of her mask, pulling her forward. And then the heat of him—the heat of his rage—scalded her there first, spreading after until her whole face felt like it was burning.

“Is that so?” he mocked, his voice low and dark. “And where was this when that dime-a-dozen was tossing you around?”

Sakura stared up at him, speechless, and then pulled back, shoving his hand away from her. “Why do you even care?” she snapped. “I can count the number of times you’ve spoken to me—”

The fingers on her chin tightened their hold warningly.

“Drop it,” Sakura gritted out.

“Maybe I was unclear before,” Kakashi told her. “You answer to me, shinobi.”

Sakura was breathless with fury.

“You want to know the truth so badly?” she said, eyes spitting venom. “It’s as simple as this: I saw a ghost.”

Her throat closed getting the words out.

Kakashi’s expression did not shift, didn’t reveal even the minutest twitch of the eye.

Her eyes stung fiercely and she shoved against the copy-nin, driving him into the opposite row of lockers, hands knotted in his flak jacket. “Did you hear me?” she grunted out, “I said I saw a ghost. Someone I killed. Right fucking there. Haunting me.”

His hands snapped to her wrists. Not pulling, not yet. But enough to make her feel his strength.

Her mouth was coated with blood—probably her teeth too—and she knew the same dark brown-red dripped from her nose, but she couldn’t feel any of those things just now. Not really. She only felt hate. And, perhaps, a terrible, agonizing emptiness where happiness and peace once could have been.

“Don’t pretend now, taichou, that you don't know what that's like,” Sakura whispered, mouth trembling. “Don’t.”

Kakashi’s dark grey and red eyes traced the pattern on her mask.

“Pretend?” he said tonelessly.

“That I wasn't there,” she hissed, and her diaphragm was twitching now—struggling—couldn’t find its proper rhythm.

She didn’t get to gloat over his response—didn’t even get to look at his face to see if there was any. Something was crumbling inside her, an inestimable force wreaking havoc on her insides suddenly. Sakura doubled over, not knowing how to fight it when it was herself, trying her best to hold herself together. Her forehead scraped against the rough material of flak jacket.

He’d felt this too. She knew he had. This feeling, like there was no more air left. Or maybe that there never had been, and she’d just been pretending the whole time.

But all the while, he felt like a wall of stone, his hands still circled like chains around her wrists.

Sakura closed her eyes, fighting for breath fiercely, fighting the pain. “You’re going to deny it?”

With difficulty, she craned her head upward—unable yet to straighten her back—to survey him.

“Stop rambling,” he said tightly, controlled.

“Rambling,” she smiled humorlessly. Then, her mouth flattened, and her eyes were stony. Because she knew he was lying. She knew it.

His voice may have been controlled. But his gaze revealed everything.

“Fine,” she said softly. “You want me to win? I’ll win the next two in less than a minute: kenjutsu, genjutsu, taijutsu, ninjutsu, it doesn’t matter. I’ll do it.”

Sakura used the hold he still had on her to yank him closer, until his eyes were level with hers and nothing so arbitrary as height could distance them any longer.

“And when I’m back on the team, I’ll have all the time in the world to make you tell the truth.”

Chapter Text

Sakura stilled, the tendons in her forearm tensed as she held the chokuto’s edge a scarce millimeter from skin.

The world was silent around her. She watched the pale column of skin beneath the blade retreat—swallowing, some part of her remembered—with rapt attention.

Then, slowly, sound filtered in: shouts from the crowd, the sound of mouths chewing on ration bars, the clangs and thuds from the other fights around them.

“Crow, two wins, Mouse, two wins!”

Sakura blinked. It took her another moment to pull back the blade and offer a hand to the newly-dubbed Mouse. The man ignored it and flipped into a low crouch before standing.

The shinobi who had announced their respective standing scores gestured them to the space in front of the long platform where the ANBU captains sat.

“Wait there until the other matches are finished,” she said brusquely. Sakura and Mouse made their way to where she had indicated.

Mouse watched the other matches intently as they waited. Sakura, in the same time, struggled to make sense of what had happened the last two matches. She had vowed to both win and finish the bouts in less than a minute. She hadn’t expected this drive to inadvertently catapult her into such a bizarre headspace, where now she could scarcely even recall the details of what had went down. She had been hyper-focusing—myopic, and now distance somehow made what she had been looking at blurry.

Almost fifteen minutes went by before the sound of the gong being struck thundered through the stadium, announcing that everyone in Sakura’s set of bouts had all finished their assigned three. Nine other individuals lined up alongside her.

She fought to keep her frame steady and unflinching when Robin sidled up next to her.

“Hey you,” he said lazily, “You know, I think this might just be the year the copy-nin takes me. Speaking of which, how did that chat go? Didn’t look too good when I left.”

Sakura shrugged in response, gaze drilling straight forward. 

An ANBU with a monkey mask, who stood at the very right end of the line, was the first to go. Her score was announced—one win, two losses—and then her time in ANBU—four months. Following a gesture from the commander, the captains began their discussion.

The noise of the stadium was enough that their words had been impossible to hear from the seats; but here, every word was perfectly audible, to all ten of them. Monkey hadn’t done any worse than most of the first year ANBU, but the captains didn’t hold back in highlighting the flaws of her fights. In the end, both her current captain and two others made bids for her.

When the matter was settled, the captains’ attention went to the ANBU to the left of her. Sakura realized, a little too belatedly, that this ordering meant she would be the last to go.

She stared stoically at a beam holding the dome aloft as she waited (she was very carefully not glancing at Kakashi). It was easy to ignore the proceedings—that was, until the captains’ next subject was the figure next to her.

Robin straightened to his full height.

“Robin, three wins and no losses,” the commander announced as prologue to the discussion.

“Damn right,” the redhead beside her murmured, voice thick with satisfaction.

“Strong candidate,” a clinical, yet melodious voice noted. “Won in taijutsu, ninjutsu, and then kenjutsu—clearly well-balanced.”

“He’s young too,” another captain said bluntly. “A good part of his tenure is still ahead of him.”

A few other captains chipped in with similar remarks, while the others nodded in silence.

A female captain with a cat mask swiftly prompted. “Who’s interested?”

“I’ll take him,” the same woman with the clinical tone offered. “I could use someone as versatile as he is.”

“His strength merits a higher level team,” another captain argued.

“He is very strong,” the commander nodded slowly.

“My team has been down one since Squirrel retired,” a new voice intoned. “I could take him in.”

“Perhaps,” the commander said ambivalently. “But now that I think about it, that team of his would be a good place…”

All of the captains—and all ten ANBU lined up before them—shifted to see who he was talking about.

Kakashi’s head rolled carelessly to meet the address. “Did you say something?”

The commander didn’t even blink. “That kid,” the older man repeated, deep bass voice resonating, “he should be placed on your team.”

If it were possible, Robin’s back straightened even more beside her. Sakura watched as Kakashi’s mismatched eyes narrowed above his exposed black mask. He didn’t even bother looking at the ANBU in question.

“No.”

“Excuse me?” the commander said, tone flat. It wasn’t a question.

“It appears you’re becoming hard of hearing in your advanced years,” Kakashi drawled disinterestedly. His tone became a fraction deadlier. “I said no.”

Robin’s shoulders were tight now.

“And as you are well-aware, this is a democratic process,” the commander responded icily. “One in which my opinion has weighty influence over that of others’, because they trust my judgement, my years of experience. So you will have to convince the council of your peers—by which I mean, you will first have to convince me—if you want anything else, Kakashi.”

“My team already has six members.”

“At least one spot has marked itself so far as ripe for switching.”

The copy-nin’s demeanor appeared to become even more irreverent. “Oh?”

“I believe he’s referring to Crow,” the woman with the cat mask offered lightly, abundantly aware that her fellow captain was already aware. For the benefit of the rest of the captains, ostensibly, she pointed at Sakura.

Sakura stared at the lone finger pointed in her direction, glum. Yes, she’d initially wanted to get kicked off Kakashi’s team. But then, in the heat of the moment, she’d gone and made that promise. Now, it was a matter of pride; now, Sakura needed to be on this team. And, of course, very obligingly, the chances of that were looking increasingly dismal.

“Two wins and one loss,” the commander recounted coolly. “Not a bad record by any means. Her two wins were finished admittedly quick, but she’s not the first to finish a bout in less than a minute. And pointedly, her one loss is to this ANBU here. It’s clear which one is better.”

Kakashi swung his propped feet to the ground, soundlessly. He then leaned against the table, the pale of his forearms a jarring contrast to the steel surface beneath.

“Deaf as well as blind, then,” Kakashi said coldly. “My current shinobi beat a kenjutsu specialist at kenjutsu and, before that, that one over there—” he pointed at a heavy set man with a shock of purple hair—“whose taijutsu is only slightly more pathetic than—alas, I can’t remember his name. Her loss to him was only fluke.”

“Robin,” the captain seated next to him muttered helpfully.

“Robin,” Kakashi repeated slowly, his tongue flicking mockingly over the syllables. “You want to place someone on my team? At least choose one who would survive more than a day.”

“His ninjutsu bout,” a gruff-voice captain added. “He did exceptionally well there.”

“Yes,” the commander built on this intently, voice booming, “his jutsus were complex and highly suited for the combat work your team works in. Not to mention, his kekkei genkai—”

“Now, I would hope you knew better than that, commander,” the copy-nin said coldly. The title was delivered with as little regard as possible.

“She’s two years his junior,” the commander growled, “and Crow is still a first year ANBU. What have we seen today? She beat a kenjutsu specialist—great, but kenjutsu isn’t the firepower we need on our elite teams. And as you stated so eloquently, neither Robin nor he—” Sakura’s gaze snapped for a second to the heavy set man she had fought in her second bout—"are taijutsu prodigies. So she lost to one and beat the other. What does that amount to? We simply have to believe you when you say she’s skilled enough? Well, I ask then: what makes her unique, copy-nin? What makes her stand from the pack? Robin’s skills will improve with time, will become finely honed under your team’s influence, and his kekkei genkai is unique. How will she compare then?”

Sakura’s lips felt like they were bloodless. That’s probably why she could scarcely tell when they opened of their own volition.

Fuck this. Fuck. She had driven herself into this corner now, hadn’t she, where suddenly she couldn’t bear not being on this team.

Sakura coughed loudly.

The commander looked at her immediately; despite the mask, she could see the way the skin around his eye was contorted upwards, as though he were raising an incredulous brow at her gall.

Sakura’s mouth twitched. “Some shinobi are born with weapons in their body. The rest of us  have to build them or find them outside of ourselves. Even so, I wouldn’t dismiss diligence and talent so easily in the face of a bloodline limit…”

Should she?

“…especially because these renowned, supposedly all-powerful clans regularly produce idiots.”

That had been a little more direct than she had intended. Oh well.

There was choked laughter from the ANBU seated throughout the stadium. The captains controlled themselves better.

“Enough.” The commander slammed both his palms flat on the table. “Seeing as this asshole here will seemingly do anything to make sure that Robin doesn’t get on his team, can anyone else here—someone I actually trust not to lie to my face—attest to this rookie’s skill? I’m not putting this ANBU back on the most combative team there is in this organization only to serve her as cannon fodder. I am not in the habit of serving mere body parts of fellow shinobi to the parents who raised them after only months of service.”

The air within the stadium suddenly became thick and bone-cold as Kakashi’s killing intent washed over the stadium’s occupants without remorse. Even Sakura, who was more used to this than most others, fought to control her instinctive urge to lash out in defense.

The broader, older man didn’t shift an inch, but Sakura could see that his whole body was tense. “Settle down, soldier—”

“She was on my team before, commander,” a familiar voice barked out.

It was Tiger, from her one of her first ANBU teams, standing some rows above them.

“I was Rabbit’s second-in-command,” she continued, “and Crow was one of eight others. We were attacked a hundred kilometers out in the thick of the forest by a battalion of the invisible shinobi.”

The ‘invisible shinobi’—as they had been aptly dubbed—had been enemy combats against Sakura on her last mission before Kakashi. She hadn’t realized, however, that there were more of them.

Based on how countless heads in the stadium suddenly snapped in her direction at this news, it seemed that the invisible shinobi were a pervasive problem. Knowing how they had mowed down her first ANBU team, she readily understood how deadly they could be.

“We were not prepared for the attack,” Tiger said after a brief pause. “It would have been a slaughter. Rabbit was already down. The rest of us were in disarray. We would have been slaughtered if not for Crow.”

“What happened?” the commander requested with ill-hidden impatience.

“She’s a genjutsu user,” Tiger said faintly, “She could see them without a dojutsu. And after she could see them—I don’t know how to describe it…”

Sakura’s skin crawled with discomfort. It didn’t help that what Tiger was describing was the Voice. For the worst of her to be exposed inadvertently like this, no matter how unknowing the audience was…

Tiger’s voice emerged again, controlled, her words succinct. “They were meant to slaughter us. Single-handedly, she began to decimate them.”

“How many?” the captain with the cat mask asked.

“Between fifty to sixty,” the woman responded after a moment of consideration, “and then the copy-nin’s team crossed paths with ours and finished the rest. After that, Crow was…essentially moved to his team.”

The commander stared at her stonily for a long while, apparently at a loss for words. Sakura could read from the set of his shoulders that this wasn’t the outcome he had wanted—whether that had anything to do with Sakura herself or merely wanting to impose his will over Kakashi, she did not know.

At last, he gave a low grunt. “Fine. Crow remains on the team. Any opposed?”

Not a single hand went up.

“Now, as for Robin…”

Sakura couldn’t quite ignore the glare burning into from her left.


Snail whooped as they muscled their way into the bar through the heavy crowd, “What did I say? I knew we would all make it through!”

Bear grunted beside Sakura, shooting her a look. “Some of us, barely.”

“Get over yourself, Bear,” Hyena said dryly, sweeping a scratched hand through her hair—a purely lucky shot, she maintained. “Tonight’s the one night you don’t have to pay to get over that massive stick up your ass. Luxuriate in it.”

That seemed to be, indeed, the attitude of every ANBU now populating The Shush-ya, the largest bar in Konoha, which was also conveniently operated by shinobi for shinobi. It seemed that it was tradition for the ANBU to treat themselves to an open bar and have the entire place to themselves following every set of rounds; the hokage, apparently, generously covered the cost.

Sakura observed around her as the music picked up, a thudding drum intermixed with the sultry wails of the biwa. Alcohol passed easily through the masses—whole bottles were handed around rather than glasses, and masks shifted just slightly to imbibe them.

Snail was the first to get her hands on a bottle. Taking a long swill, more than enough for her short stature, she passed the bottle next to Sakura. Sakura looked at it skeptically for a moment, then shrugged and drank some herself. The rich, bitter taste went down with some difficulty, burning the entire way. When she lifted her lips from the rim of the bottle, she grimaced and rubbed at her lips.

“Easy there,” Raccoon remarked with some amusement. She handed him the bottle, but he only passed it onto Hyena. “I’m good tonight.”

Hyena took her own portion and then passed it to Bear, only to find that he’d already gotten his hands on another bottle. Rolling her eyes, she placed the near-empty bottle on a vacated table.

Sakura examined the bottle with interest. She could already feel the effects.

She had had alcohol for the first time years ago, so she was no stranger to it. Truthfully, she knew her tolerance much better now. Sure enough, she felt only a certain extra warmth and light buzz, but nothing more. If she still needed to kill, she could do it without a second thought.

A second after that reflection pulsed through her mind, Sakura flinched.

Fuck. Was this how it was going to be the rest of her life? To kill or to be killed.

It’s a dog eat dog world, the Voice crooned, before giving a shrill laugh. Sakura hissed as the sound scratched against the walls of her brain.

“I’m going to dance,” Snail called out, pointing to the mass of congregated bodies at the center of the large open space. She gave them a short wave and then disappeared into the throng of shadowed figures.

There was something pleasantly bizarre about it all, Sakura reflected to herself. They all wore the same ANBU uniforms they had fought in earlier today, complete with bandages and newly won scars as well. ANBU captains were present also, though they seemed to keep entirely to themselves. The contrast between the actual rounds and the atmosphere of…whatever this was, however, was—laughable.

The next few minutes passed by easily with sporadic conversation between Hyena, Bear, Raccoon, and herself—none of them seemed desiring of a prolonged discussion, content to relax mainly in silence. Unfortunately as time passed, the temperature of the bar steadily increased as more bodies were crammed into the space.

“I’ll be back,” Sakura told them, fanning herself.

Muscling her way through the bodies was a task that took longer than she would have thought (sadly, she couldn’t exactly drive her fist into the ground to make the sea of bodies part, though part of her considered it). Eventually, she reached an open space of the wooden counter.

“How can I help you?” a short man asked swiftly, hands busy at work preparing two different drinks.

“A glass of ice.”

He didn’t blink an eye at the request. Hand darting out with impressive speed, he procured a glass and used a kunai blade to slide a large cube of ice into smaller slivers. He handed the cold glass to her.

Sakura took it gratefully, allowing her hot palms to rest against the cool surface for a little while.

The music twisted in and out of the space around her—sometimes distinct and keening, other times muffled and incomprehensible. Closing her eyes, she sucked on one ice chip at a time, enjoying the spread of liquid each time the ice melted.

She felt a body slide into the small space between her and her former neighbor. Sakura’s hands spasmed for her weapons instinctively at the imposition, before she eased them consciously.

“A glass umeshu, please. Actually? Make that two. One for me and one for her.”

Out of distant curiosity, Sakura darted a look to her newest neighbor. That’s how she realized by ‘her,’ the newcomer ANBU meant Sakura.

“Unless you’re opposed?” the girl—she sounded only a few years older—behind the tortoise mask intoned lightly, tilting her head to the side.

Sakura considered that for a moment. She was still far from drunk; one glass wouldn’t push her significantly closer there either. “Sure.”

“Excellent,” the word was drawn slowly, delicately, “Two glasses of umeshu then.”

The same short man silently went about preparing the drinks. Sakura returned her attention to the ice chips, surveying another one with almost academic interest.

“Crow, right?” the voice beside her prompted again, pointing at her mask.

Sakura turned to look again at her. Apparently, she was waiting for an answer. “Yes,” she said slowly. Then, she felt obligated to return: “Tortoise?”

Tortoise hummed in assent, reaching out to collect the two glasses from the bartender. Holding one, she slid the other to Sakura.

Sakura took a sip without much ceremony, surprised to find that she actually enjoyed the taste. She had come to believe that all alcohol tasted generally shitty, desirable only because of its impact.

“Good, isn’t it?” Tortoise prompted.

“It is.”

The aftertaste was also pleasant.

“You have beautiful hair.”

Sakura saw the hand move toward her head—slow enough that she could shift comfortably to avoid the impending contact, which is why she ultimately allowed it. Foreign fingers curled through the strands of her hair, pulling gently so that there was a light tension at the base of her scalp.

“It’s fake. A jutsu to disguise more identifiable hair.”

The fingers let go of her hair as Tortoise gave a short laugh. “Hmmm,” she said, cupping her chin in her hand, “you really don’t know how this works, do you?”

Sakura’s brows furrowed.

Tortoise surveyed her for a long moment. She had unusual eyes, Sakura noted—purple, if they were real—that stood out all the more because of her black hair.

The girl leaned forward, and Sakura saw her mask shift the minutest bit, as though she were smiling below the porcelain.

“I want to kiss you,” she asked straightforwardly. “Can I?”

Sakura tossed another ice chip into her mouth, unblinking. “Why?”

“Hmmm,” Tortoise hummed again, tapping her nails against the wood. “Because I like your voice, I think. A little low, a little arrogant. And I’m in—how should I put it?—that sort of mood.”

Sakura glanced down at the glass in her hand, swirled its contents.

It wasn’t something she had explicitly contemplated before. It wasn’t the alcohol that made her consider her it now. The truth was…

This fascination of lips on lips. She’d ascribed to it as a young teenager, because that’s what children did. Abstractly, it was a ridiculous thing—evolutionarily, the contact was completely arbitrary. Then, recently, she’d experienced the contact once and it had felt…

She didn’t really want to think about now, but—would it feel the same with Tortoise too?

“Why not?” she wondered after a short pause.

Sakura knew by the way the mask shifted again that Tortoise was smiling again.

The other girl shifted closer to her on her chair, knees slotting into place between Sakura’s perched legs. Tilting her head to the side—making eye contact the entire time—she slowly slid her mask upwards to reveal her lips. Sakura watched the subtle adjustment with interest; she was a little intrigued by how this would happen, whether or not their masks would still knock into each other.

“May I?” Tortoise asked lightly, purple eyes gleaming.

Sakura nodded, and a tanned hand rose to brush the edge of Sakura’s mask, nudging it slightly upward. The increased exposure provided a new depth of sensory information. The air had become slightly humid, and she could taste the smell of incense, blood, and alcohol on her tongue.

With a curve to her lips, Tortoise approached until her eyes bore straight into Sakura’s. Belatedly, she realized that this was because their lips were now touching. They shifted. A breath passed between their lips. It was swallowed. There was nothing shy or tentative about the contact.

A tongue curled lightly against Sakura’s lips. After a moment, Sakura’s mouth parted. In the same instant, Sakura’s hand left her glass to grasp a hip, hand curling into the flak jacket there.

She had thought their masks would collide; she found the solution now, though her body moved her there unthinkingly. She pushed forward, compelling Tortoise to tilt her head slightly back, and the other girl slanted her mouth beneath Sakura’s.

This was—pleasant, Sakura reflected. Her heart didn’t pound, her blood didn’t rush violently through her veins; it was a gentle, trickling kind of warmth, like sinking into a warm bath. Tortoise made a small, breathy sound, and then stood, slotting her body more firmly into the spaces of Sakura’s.

Somewhere, somehow, even though the other ANBU had instigated the contact, Sakura had assumed control of the kiss—based on the sounds emerging from Tortoise’s throat, she preferred it this way. Tortoise’s moans, indeed, were a constant, throaty accompaniment to the strings singing smoothly in the background.

Curiously, Sakura let her tongue graze the roof of the mouth beneath hers. A strangled sound of pleasure was her reward. Smirking—and maybe feeling a little more now the alcohol buzzing through her system—her hand left Tortoise’s hip to grasp her chin, pressing more intently.   

People had been passing behind them the entire time. The bar was busy, naturally, and more than one ANBU had found their way to the counter to order drinks. So, the fact that a group of shinobi paused right behind them right at that moment wasn’t an immediate cry for Sakura’s full attention.

When the sound of low voices and laughter sounded, her eyes flashed in irritation, but she paid no more mind to it.

Then she heard a few jeers, clearly from the individuals standing right behind them

Sakura tensed, pulling her mouth from Tortoise’s. Before she could turn, a strong hand slid from her hair to her upper arm, stopping her. Sakura looked at the ANBU, whose purple eyes were locked on the jeering shinobi.

“Don’t,” the girl said softly, eyes wide.

Sakura’s gaze narrowed.

“Just ignore it,” she pressed.

Despite her stiffness, Sakura let the other girl pull her forward again. Their lips met once more. Tortoise gave a small sigh and locked her hands behind Sakura’s head.

“Hey ladies,” a low, male voice called out amidst riotous laughter, “why don’t you remove those masks and give us a real show?”

In the space between one breath and the next, Sakura ripped through Tortoise’s locked hands. A second later, she had the ANBU pinned against the bar wall by the throat.

“Crow, don’t—!” she heard behind her.

“The fuck do you think you’re doing, kunoichi?” the man growled, the stink of alcohol thick on his breath.

Sakura didn’t know where the sudden burst of temper had come from, but she was seeing red. “Just thought I’d give you the show you asked for.”

“Easy there,” a slow, lazy voice added from behind her—one of the friends—“it’s Crow, isn’t it? I remember you from earlier today. Nice speech.”

“But you know,” the man continued, laughing still, but there was edge of warning to it now, “your quota for insubordination without consequence is about filled up, don’t you think?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name?”

Leave it,” Tortoise said lowly, purple eyes pleading. “Crow, they’re—”

“You can call me taichou. Him too.”

“—ANBU captains.”

“You should listen to your friend,” the man said flatly.

Sakura’s mouth flattened. So they outranked both of them? She angled her head back, to survey the small group. She recognized them now—each one an ANBU captain who had sat at the table beside the commander. Fine. She didn’t actually give a fuck.

But then she darted a glance to the other girl, who obviously did.

“No harm done,” she said reluctantly, after a long pause. She brushed off his shoulders, mostly for show, and stepped back. “He’s all yours.”

She turned, shoulders tight and struggling to control her temper. Tortoise was pale, her purple eyes still wide, but her body slowly began to relax—

“Sluts these days, you know, someone just has to teach them a proper lesson—”

Sakura’s face was contorted into a snarl. Without even turning to look, her hand snapped back and grabbed the new person who had spoken. She saw his hands move with blinding speed, no doubt to pull out weapons; before he could, she threw him toward the counter.

He slid down the length of the wood, knocking empty and filled drinks alike that had been placed there.

He would have slid further, if not for a pale, scarred arm stopping him. The owner of the arm coolly picked up the cup of sake that had just been placed in front of him and smoothly tossed it back.

Though other ANBU captains crowded around the counter around him, his feet were outstretched to prop on the adjacent stool, taking two seats for himself. His gaze was half-lidded, the hitai-ate positioned to cover the sharingan—but his lone, charcoal eye drilled into Sakura, dark and intense, looking for all the world as though he had been watching the entire time.

Sakura’s spine snapped straight, face hot. How long had he been there—

She felt a hand knot itself into her hair, cutting off the thought. Silently, she reached up to cup the side of the man’s head and drove it into a stool with a loud clang.

“Crow,” Tortoise begged, “Stop it. It isn’t worth it…”

Shut up, the Voice growled. Sakura, at this point, largely agreed. She had tried walking away. They were the ones who hadn’t let her peaceably do that much.

The man who had intervened earlier now stepped forward. He was tall with a dangerous grace to his movements.

“Look, Crow,” he said lightly, “my friends here have had some drink. They like to talk—” he shrugged—“it didn’t really need to come to this. But now, this has become a matter of insubordination. One that I have to deal with.”

He made a show of pulling out his weapons and piling them on the nearest table. “I’ll go easy on you, alright?” he said mildly, “Just fists.”

Sakura cocked her head to the side, dropping the unconscious man in her hand so he hit the floor. Then, without pause, she began stripping herself of her weapons too.

“Are you crazy?” an unwanted Samaritan hissed behind her, “Keep the weapons or you won’t stand a chance!”

“You should listen to him,” the man said amusedly.

Sakura tossed the last kunai. “Oh,” she said, “Thought he was talking to you.”

He shrugged again. “It’s your face.”

Without any further preamble, he feinted and lashed out with enough force to crush her skull against the wall behind. Sakura twisted, kicking off the same wall to drive her elbow backwards.

He evaded with a fluid motion she vaguely recognized. Her gaze moved from his palms briefly to his eyes. Pale orbs peered out between dark lashes.

Hyuuga.

Immediately, Sakura created more space between her body and his. She considered her situation. He could see into the chakra points of her body; her medical knowledge of the body made her more competitive than most, but she couldn’t expect to pinpoint at the same level as he could. There was no point competing on that front.

No weapons? Fine. That didn’t rule out—

“Maa, look at the damage you’re doing to that wall.”

Sakura was instantly an impressive example of abruptly, arrested motion. Gaping, she turned in the direction of the copy-nin, who still was seated nonchalantly on two seats.

“Taichou,” the man next to her said a little belatedly, stiff as well. Some part of Sakura’s mind was functional enough to realize this as strange; this man and Kakashi were the same rank, there was no need for the honorific.

Most of her mind, however, was devoted to the shock of hearing something as close to the lazy, nonchalant jounin captain from before as she had in years.

 “Taichou,” the man repeated again, “Crow’s actions were insubordinate—"

“Renya,” the copy-nin interrupted in a mild, scolding tone—the ANBU captain flinched, Sakura continued to gape—“you know the hokage isn’t going to be too pleased having to cover additional costs. You should learn to relax. Have a spa day. Read a book. Take a nap.”

Kakashi swiped another cup of sake, one that was not his (but other than a squeak, the shinobi didn’t muster any further protest). He circled the contents with sharp, subtle motions of the wrist.

Then he looked up again, and his face—or what was visible of it—had transformed. The guise of the disinterested bystander had been all but cast off.

“Didn’t anyone teach you not to make a mess?” he questioned softly, darkly.

Sakura was finally yanked out of her state of shock by that ridiculous remark. Unable to control herself, she scoffed lightly beneath her breath.

His gaze snapped to her instantly.

“You,” he muttered, pacing toward her.

Her lips twitched. “I try, taichou.”

“Perhaps you’ve forgotten. I’ve thrown you into a tree.” A warning, she interpreted.

Sakura’s gaze narrowed. “As I recall, my fist made contact. With your face. Multiple times.”

His eyebrow twitched. “You shattered a boulder. When I threw you into that as well.”

“A testament to my strength,” she sneered.

Kakashi’s attention drilled into her. He didn’t seem to remember that the Hyuuga even existed any more.

“Follow,” he demanded. He spun on his heel and moved toward the exit of the bar.

Sakura watched him brows raised. A hand brushed her arm, and she jolted, looking to her side.

“Are you okay?” Tortoise murmured, voice low and sweet, “I was so worried—”

Follow,” the copy-nin snarled behind him, cutting her off.

Sakura let air hiss loudly through her teeth. Sliding her hands into the pockets of her flak jacket, she gave an awkward, apologetic nod to the girl and then left her and the bar.

The cool, outside air hit her with a welcome chill, drying the slight dampness on her skin. She tilted her head back and inhaled. Her head was rushing a little—the alcohol, no doubt.

When she opened her eyes again, she saw Kakashi standing in front of her in the narrow alley way.

“…another unwarranted lecture, taichou?”

His voice was low, derisive, when it emerged. “If you can’t muster the respect, shinobi, you might try skipping the title altogether.”

“I see,” Sakura nodded sagely. “Like how you used ‘commander’ earlier today.”

His gaze was slitted as he peered down at her, the breadth of his shoulders silhouetted by the moonlight. Suddenly, his nostrils flared.

“You stink of her,” he said, disgusted.

Taken aback, it took her a moment to understand whom he was referring to. Then, she was confused that he mentioned it. Were they merely going for the obvious? Fine.

“And you’re a coward who can’t tell the truth.”

“Don’t test me,” Kakashi said, voice dangerous. He leaned closer, nostrils flaring once again.

And that was only fuel to the fire. Hot, fiery blood pumped through her veins; she had burned through the alcohol now; all that was left was the headiness from an unfinished fight.

“Coward,” she charged coldly. “There’s nothing to test—”

Her mask was ripped off her face. Sakura’s eyes widened at the new sensation of cool air on her cheeks and forehead.

Her gaze moved, and she found Kakashi holding the mask in his hand. He stared at it intensely.

“Has anyone ever told you, Saori Mori, that you’re the kind where your voice says one thing,” he commented lowly. “but your face says something entirely else.”

Kakashi’s eyes slowly moved from her mask in his hand to Sakura’s face. And as soon as his eyes landed there she was—

A manic sort of agitated rage made Sakura pale, made her lips tight and her fists clench.

He took a step closer to her, silent.

“Stop,” she called out loud—commanded. The hoarse, venomous word echoed in the alley way.

Kakashi stilled immediately.

She breathed rapidly, ribcage heaving like she couldn’t intake enough air quickly enough.

She saw a pair of lips curl beneath the black mask. And then he leaned, a movement so swift and sharp it was a blur, until his face was a scarce inch from hers.

The pair of charcoal and red eyes—the tomoe spinning in a dizzying revolution—were hot on her.

“Coward,” he breathed.

Sakura gritted her teeth. Sneering, she straightened to her full height. “I’m not.”

Raising an eyebrow, gaze still just as forcible, he raised an arm slowly—slow enough that she could move, find a kunai and attempt to stab him, or run, if she wanted. Sakura jerked her chin upward and merely stared at it in contempt.

“Go on,” she goaded.

She wasn’t sure what she expected. A punch, perhaps. Maybe a slap, though that somehow seemed uncharacteristic. She had thought he wanted to put her in place, and while Sakura was never a glutton for punishment, she wouldn’t be called a coward in the face of it either. Did she think it would be rightful punishment? No. But Kakashi was her ‘taichou’; and more importantly, she would get her own later.

Or, she would have gotten her own, that is—if that had been what he had done.

Instead, his hand reached chin first, a searing, brief touch. And Sakura recoiled. Until, glaring, she held herself steady once more.

Still mocking, he then moved to the back of her neck, touching her there just as briefly. The muscles in her upper back clenched, provoked by the contact.

Sakura exhaled a sharp breath, angry and confused.

Then his hand, calloused and scarred, paused in front of her mouth. And that’s when she realized what he was doing.

He was touching her where Tortoise had. Erasing the scent.

Kakashi held himself still with the dedicated patience of a practiced predator. Or at least, that’s what Sakura tried to make herself believe.

Because there was something unnerving, now, about the content of his gaze; the way his lips were clearly parted beneath the black mask; the way the arm possessed by this raised hand was an object of tight restraint, as though repressing a—a helpless urge, that his hand, fingers, and every limb had been made a slave to.

He waited. And Sakura didn’t know why. It made her angrier still.

“Go on,” she snarled. “Go on.”

(Later, she wouldn’t know why she said it.)

He did. Without blinking, without moving otherwise an inch—though it seemed like an entirely new animation could be seen in his features—the tips of calloused fingers grazed her lips, scalding them.

And Sakura burned. Hot, molten, uncontrollable. In the next breath, she shunshined to her tiny apartment thirty blocks away.


 

 

"This was—pleasant, Sakura reflected. Her heart didn’t pound, her blood didn’t rush violently through her veins; it was a gentle, trickling kind of warmth, like sinking into a warm bath. Tortoise made a small, breathy sound, and then stood, slotting her body more firmly into the spaces of Sakura’s."

https://64.media.tumblr.com/5227ced1e1edd823cd89dbf0461fd4e3/8e4023d6c2f67e29-2e/s640x960/920fdb6b2945f61b200188d227463e65e87bf174.png

- from SweetGazelle, whom I shall eternally worship

Chapter Text

Sakura’s fingers knotted in the hair of the woman pressed hotly against her.

“I—” the woman’s eyes fluttered helplessly, “I’m going to—”

“Me too,” the man behind Sakura whined, his hands tight on her hips.

“Not yet,” Sakura hissed, teeth clenched.

“I can’t,” he gasped for breath. He moved against her with desperate force. Sakura snarled into the open air, needing the burning there—

The man behind her muffled his cries into her dull pink hair as he climaxed.

Let’s gut him, the Voice said rasped.

“Touch me,” the woman pleaded against her lips, interrupting her thoughts. Her blue eyes glistened.

Sakura shelved her own frustration for the moment. She shifted closer, hand sliding through long brown hair, down the valley between breasts, to the hot, silken space between two, smooth thighs. The woman—Hitomi, she recalled—threw her head back as she keened, hair plastered to her neck with sweat.

Fingers curled into Sakura, quick and greedy. Air hissed from between Sakura’s teeth, as that—

the pulsing below her abdomen, a throbbing that made the hair on her skin rise and her skin feel hot (scalded) and uncomfortably tight

The man (Raido, he had declared shortly before the ongoing proceedings) shifted to mouth at Hitomi’s neck. Eyes locked onto Sakura’s mouth, the other woman gave a shrill cry as she came.

For a moment, the only sound in the room was that of ragged breaths. Then, the man and woman crumpled against the cool sheets of the bed, faces slack with pleasure.

Sakura leaned back against the headboard beside them. Glancing down, she contemplated herself. Had she—?

She had. Somewhere along the way. It had been so silent, so mild and underwhelming in its nature, that she had hardly noticed it.

But there was a slight soreness, deeply, invisibly—in the muscles she had never worked before, yes. Otherwise, nothing about her situation had changed. (She still felt…that infernal knot of seething, insatiable hunger in her lower abdomen, which had been brought to life as soon as those fingers had grazed her lips—)

Sakura shifted from the bed to stand, aware they probably watched. Once, she would have blushed and been horrified by the prospect of this. Now, her body had served so many more infinitely more important purposes, that she could hardly remember why she could have felt self-conscious of something so insignificant.

“You could stay…” Raido asked suggestively, his tone suggesting more would follow than just sleep.

After straightening the disarray of pale pink hair on her head, Sakura silently finished pulling on the clothes she had discarded a little more than ten minutes ago. The grey-green pants and black shirt weren’t normally what she wore when undisguised, but they were all that she had managed to grab.

She would have had the presence of mind to change into her usual clothes, too, if she hadn’t been—

She frowned privately, taking the moment now to finally reflect on how she had arrived here. This certainly hadn’t been the plan. She had shunshined home. That had been the plan.

Only, then, she had noticed leaving hadn’t been enough to escape consequence entirely from her…previous encounter. It became immediately evident that things weren’t quite alright. Her hand had barely grazed the door knob, really, before she had been distracted by this lamentable itch in…

In her cunt, she thought coolly. She had killed people. What was the sense in shying away from this?  

First, she had thought to ignore it. That soon appeared patently ostensibly as every step she took, every chance in which the inner skin of her thigh grazed herit was impossibly distracting. How long would it last? How could she possibly sleep like this?

And then had she thought: an itch. Well, an itch could be scratched, couldn’t it?

Why shouldn’t she scratch it?

It was entirely natural, though the timing was a bit unfortunate (poor timing, that was all it was, she assured herself). All she needed to do was visit another bar to find someone to do the job. To discover what all the fuss was about.

That was how she had ended up here.

“Some other time,” she answered finally. Sakura perched on the open window sill and then launched onto the nearby roof before taking off in a sprint to her apartment.

Even the vision Konoha presented at night—grim, somehow, but also beautiful—was not enough to distract her.

As she landed her apartment building, her thoughts took another direction altogether, sensing a foreign chakra presence right in front of her door. Her hands immediately went for her weapons, then stilled. She knew that chakra very well.

The figure in front of her door stopped his loud knocking, spinning to her with a pale face when she suddenly appeared.

“Naruto?” Sakura asked cautiously. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s Gaara,” he said urgently, voice cracking as he spoke, “He’s been kidnapped by that—that group called Akatsuki.”

Sakura’s mouth parted; then her eyes fell to the scroll held tightly in Naruto’s hand.

“We were supposed to leave ten minutes ago, but you weren’t there,” he said in a rush. “I thought you must have missed the summons because you were sleeping. Kakashi-sensei said we should leave without you, but the rest—”

She unlocked the door to her apartment and retrieved the pack hanging on the hook inside, precisely for emergencies like these. She wished she would have had the time to at least…shower, but—

“I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Naruto exhaled like a great burden had been relieved off his shoulders. Exiting the same way she had just entered, the two of them took to the roofs again and moved in the direction of the forest.

“Are we the only team being sent?” Sakura asked.

“Team 10, Team Guy also,” Naruto said grimly. “And Hinata—the message said Gaara’s brother had been poisoned.”

They travelled the rest of the distance in silence. As they came upon the edge of the forest, Sakura swallowed hard, forcing blankness on her face.

“I told you your student would eventually find her way,” Gai boomed.

“She’s cost us irretrievable time,” Kakashi bit out. Sakura tried very hard not to look at him “We leave now.

He took off onto the trees. After a moment, they all followed.


They reached Suna at sunset. By dawn, Hinata was able to concoct and administer an antidote to Kankuro’s poisoning.

“He’s still in danger, though,” she told them softly. “The poison’s fighting back. I will need to watch him for the next few days.”

“The rest of us need to head out. We’re wasting our time here.”

“We need a medic-nin,” Asuma responded lowly to Kakashi’s looming, thunderous presence by the window sill. “You might comfortable fighting without one, but the rest of us can’t just step into battle against the Akatsuki without a healer.”

“We have one,” Sai pointed out. “Sakura-san has learned how to treat battle wounds in combat situations specifically.”

“Truly?” Gai boomed, eyes wide in wonder. “The presence of such vital youth really does bring tears to these eyes!”

“She has?” Asuma responded, looking confused.

“Yes,” Sakura said, “Tsunade-sama taught me herself.” She glared at Kakashi (or more accurately, around him, she still couldn’t quite make eye contact). Would he deny it? Did he think Naruto and Sai’s training wounds had been healed by some anonymous, benevolent benefactor?

“She’s a lousy fighter,” Kakashi said coldly. “We keep her to the back.”

Sakura’s shoulders tightened with the strain of restraining herself. A hand landed on her shoulder, and she straightened, blinking as she looked back at Naruto.

“Team 7 and Team 10 will track the Akatsuki to where they’re keeping the kazakage,” Kakashi commanded. “Team Guy and the kazekage’s sister will watch the boundary of the villages, in case the current weakness of the Hidden Sand should be revealed.”

The respective teams nodded, accepting their roles without argument.

“What Kankuro managed,” Asuma murmured, handing forward a scrap of black cloth.

A wolf-dog with sharp teeth appeared in a burst of smoke, summoned by the copy-nin. With hungry eyes, it stalked toward the torn fragment of a mask and inhaled.

Sakura along with the rest of her team and Team 10 raced to keep pace when it darted. They were quickly out the hospital doors and soon under the blazing, desert sun.

Traveling in Suna was harder than in Konoha, what with the ever-shifting sand beneath their feet rather than solid ground. Near midday, thankfully, they began to reach thick settlements of trees and warm, red-brown dirt. On more familiar territory, their pace consequently picked up. But abruptly, just as they seemed to settle into the quicker cadence, the wolf-dog paused and made eye contact with its owner.

After a moment of silent communication, Kakashi stoically summoned another summon and signaled Team 10 to follow the smaller canine.

Sakura watched them depart with a narrowed gaze. When she turned back, she saw what Kakashi had already taken off, a speck in the distance.

Naruto cracked his neck and bent his knees, preparing to follow, but she stopped him with a hand to the shoulder.

“The Akatsuki are after jinchuruki, right?”

Naruto stiffened. Sai drew closer, eyes wide with interest.

“I don’t care what Asuma or Kakashi said,” she said gruffly, “You stay behind Sai and me, got it?”

“But Sakura—”

“What she says is a valid strategy, dickless,” Sai said indifferently. “Yes, Sakura-san is functionally our medic-nin today, but it also hardly makes sense to serve you up to them on a platter.”

“But—”

“There is no literal platter, of course,” Sai said pleasantly, “It’s only a turn of phrase. Idiomatic.”

“I know that,” Naruto huffed indignantly.

Sakura’s hand tightened with bruising strength on Naruto’s shoulder; he let out a grunt of pain. “No buts,” she said pleasantly. Not willing to listen to any other protests, she leapt into the trees again. She heard Sai and Naruto follow behind her.

As it happened, they didn’t end up travelling much farther. Sakura first saw the deceivingly relaxed expanse of Kakashi’s back as he stood in an open space with few overhanging trees.

Then, she saw the second figure in front of him.


The first thought that came to mind when she saw Uchiha Itachi was not how much he looked like his younger brother, but that whoever had composed Itachi had done so with the notion of a shinobi as far from their mind as possible.

Calm, dark eyes peered thoughtfully at them from a pallid complexion, as though the man himself had never been built for the outdoors; the sensitive curve of his mouth and the long lines beneath his gaze would have seemed to profess to hours of introspection rather than physical training. He was neither tall nor short, neither slim nor broad. To Sakura, he looked more a poet or a philosopher than the weapon of destruction he was said to have become.

It was possible to see, in one instant, that this man was Sasuke’s brother and that—also—he was worlds apart from the boy she had grown up with.  

In the next instant, her gaze landed on the small, unassuming creature perched on his shoulder—unassuming, that is, except for the spinning sharingan that looked back at her, somehow both unreadable and mocking.

The Voice shifted restlessly in the back of her mind, a slumbering beast prodded awake by her panic. Clenching her fists, she forced herself to calm down. She had known for a long time now that Itachi was Shisui’s other summoner. Now, the day had come that she and Itachi would stand on opposite sides of the battlefield. But whom the crow would fight for, she did not know.

Her frown deepened. If Shisui would abide by some sort of first-come-first-serve basis, of course, then she had already lost that battle…

“Sakura,” Naruto muttered, voice strained, “that’s him. He’s why Sasuke left. I can’t…just stand back here and watch—”

If Itachi came for Naruto on Akatsuki’s quest to extract all the tailed beasts, he would have to claw his way over her dead body.

“You can and you will,” she answered darkly.

The man who was Uchiha Itachi surveyed them all with a cool, indifferent eyes. No killing intent radiated from him; he seemed for all the world like he had merely been contemplating the weather in this empty space of forest before they had stumbled upon him.

Then his gaze flashed to Kakashi, and his almond-shaped eyes narrowed a bit. It was the first, slight evidence of fracturing in the man’s seeming impenetrable calm, but it was enough.

Now, Sakura knew that while Itachi thought very little of them, he was wary of the copy-nin.

Her eyes widened. There was….familiarity there.

“Nearly a decade has passed since I left, but I remember fighting under your command once,” the man said dispassionately, confirming her suspicions. “You do remarkably well for a man with a borrowed eye. The Akatsuki would readily embrace your skill.”

“It has been some years,” Kakashi remarked coolly. “But you might remember Kino. You may also have heard that he recently…left.”

Itachi was silent, dark eyes emotionless.

“I hunted him down. Killed him in front of his own son,” the copy-nin said, vicious pleasure saturating his words. He cocked his head to the side, voice lowering a fraction. “Is there any witness you would like to request for yourself?”

Naruto made a noise behind her. Sai blinked impassively.

But Sakura paused because, suddenly, everything before her had ceased to make sense.

She knew how Kakashi had been after he had killed Kino’s son and Kino. This ostensible bloodthirstiness and sadism was disingenuous. It had to be. The realization was abrupt and devastating, though she didn’t have the luxury to fully comprehend it now. Still, if Kakashi had lied now, feigning this devotion to savagery and blood lust, then when else had he--

“You!” Naruto growled, “What have you done to him? What have you done to Gaara!”

“Quiet, Naruto,” Sai said, warning bleeding into his normally bland voice.

Sakura caught motion in her peripheral. She whipped her head around to catch Itachi’s hand swiftly rise. Before he could complete the motion, Kakashi attacked.

“Don’t look into his eyes,” Sakura hissed to Naruto and Sai, well-aware of the sharingan’s capabilities. She had more experience resisting the sharingan, but she knew it was best also to exercise caution.

“How can we know then—”

“Watch his feet and his body,” Sai advised.

Sakura lips tightened as the fight between the two shinobi ensued. It was an odd feeling, to be in an altercation of this caliber—especially with Kakashi—and not be expected to fight at his side. It gave her the rare opportunity to survey him from a distance. For Kakashi in combat was terrifying and…somehow disturbingly beautiful, though she was reluctant to admit that. Both participants twisted and lashed out with inhuman grace; it seemed almost choreographed, like they were taking turns in a deadly dance.

Then, abruptly, Kakashi pulled away.

Itachi blinked slowly in response.

Kakashi let out a foul curse and tilted his head up—as though listening to some distant sound or scenting something in the breeze. He stiffened. His irritated gaze settled on Naruto, Sai, and her.

Naruto pushed against her restraining hand. “What’s happening?” he asked unsurely.

“This is a convincing copy, not worth my time,” Kakashi snarled. “The real one is likely guarding the kazekage.”  

“Save Gaara,” Naruto demanded shakily. 

Kakashi’s body was a statue.

“I have Kurama,” the boy beside persuaded desperately. “We’ll be able to hold out until you get back!”

Sakura watched the complex evolution of the content of the copy-nin’s gaze with rapt attention. It was clear the moment he made his decision, though his frame was tense with repressed fury.

“No stupidity,” he commanded coldly. Then, he disappeared with the next breeze.

Which left them standing in the sparsely covered expanse of forest with Itachi, alone.

Naruto tried to rush forward, no doubt to stand in front of them and play the rough-tough save-the-world type of idiot he was so often wont to do. Sakura grabbed him and hauled him back.

“Sakura—!”

“Not today, Naruto,” she said, unblinking. She made a few, short hand signs and, in less than a second—before he had even known what hit him—Naruto was unconscious and on the ground with a dreamy smile on his lips. Before Sai had the chance to process what had happened, she caught his chin in her hand and forced his eyes onto hers. Just as his gaze began to widen, his eyelids slid shut. He fell beside his teammate.

Then her gaze darted up and she made eye contact with Itachi. His expression did not betray any surprise, though she sensed that this was not what he had predicted.

Sakura inhaled and then exhaled. The sound seemed to thunder in her ears.

“I do not know you,” the man commented distantly.

“I’m not surprised by that,” she responded, standing in front of the unconscious bodies of her teammates.

“That was a foolish thing you did,” he said disinterestedly. “The three of you would not have been enough to defeat me. You are…but an insect.”

“So I’ve been hearing.”

“Do you have a death wish?” he asked. The question was entirely absent of malice, merely curious.

She could feel the crow’s heavy gaze on her.

“Is a shinobi a weapon for peace?” she asked instead. Part of her was incredulous at herself. What was she testing for? Sanity?

He stilled, and a wild hope surged in her chest. Then, his expression smoothed again. “The members of Akatsuki are teachers to the world of the true meaning of suffering, so that the world may finally turn away from warfare and conflict forevermore.”

She gazed at the crow accusingly. It blinked back at her, placid.

What a joke, she thought, scoffing. Even if she was generous and believed that Itachi’s ideals once, perhaps, may have been compelling and admirable, in the time since they had clearly become twisted. Akatsuki was no place for the sane.

 “Ready?” she asked. She didn’t really expect an answer.


A few minutes later, she had the small pleasure of seeing surprise flash through fake-Itachi’s dark eyes as her fist drove through his midsection. It didn’t feel like much of a victory, though.

It had almost felt…too easy.

But then, she hadn’t been fighting the actual man. The black cloaked figure slowly melted into the corpse of a former shinobi of the sand. Sakura frowned down at it. He had died fighting for his village, and then for his body to be so grossly misused without his consent— Her stomach turned.

She made the hand formations to wake the two figures behind her.

“I told you I would do it!” Naruto crowed once he stood, unaware that he had been unconscious at all. He pumped his fist in the air. “One rasengan was all it took!”

Sakura nodded, watching Sai closely. Her genjutsu had clearly worked on Naruto, leaving him with doctored memories of the fight. She wasn’t so sure how the same had worked for Sai. For the moment, he said nothing.

The sound of an unnatural breeze gathering made them all tense. They relaxed slightly when they realized the form that appeared.

Over Kakashi’s shoulder was an unconscious boy with red hair, dressed in the long robes of a hokage.

Naruto darted forward, blue eyes wide. “Is he—?”

“Barely.” His gaze then passed over the corpse that had been Itachi. His sharingan gleamed with feral interest as he surveyed her teammate.

“All in a day’s work,” Naruto beamed back.


The journey back to Suna frustratingly seemed to take longer than the trip from there. Once back, she decided to have an early night in. Scraping sand from her skin, she soaked for a little in the bath in the corner of her small room. She hadn’t had time to pack much, so she pulled on the same uniform she had been wearing before back onto her slightly-wet skin (it was hard to dry quickly when the air was so hot).

At first, she paced for a little, trying to work through her thoughts. Itachi, Itachi, Itachi—either the crow was a liar or it had been mistaken. There was no third option.

Eventually, however—when no clear conclusion emerged—she settled onto her bed and tried to force herself to sleep.

It didn’t work.

Restless, she left the bed she had been given to open the window. The warm breeze caressed the locks of her hair, gently sending them away from the damp expanse of her neck.

Then, a loud banging on her door interrupted her momentary peace. Scowling, Sakura stormed toward the door and yanked it open.

She blinked dumbly up at the irreverent, cool gaze that looked straight past her to seemingly survey her room. After narrowing his eyes, the copy-nin reached wordlessly behind himself to shove someone else into her.

The figure in her arms groaned before straightening. “I really appreciate the sensitivity,” the boy drawled, “Damaged goods and all, here, you know.”

“Shikamaru,” Sakura said blankly. A second later, her gaze fell to the wound in his side. She led him immediately to the table at the middle of the room, sweeping its contents onto the floor.

“Take it easy,” the lanky boy hissed, catlike eyes narrowing. “God, why is everyone so pushy with the crippled today—”

“You’re hardly crippled,” Sakura said, tearing off the cloth obstructing her gaze from the wound. As she worked, her gaze flicked up to the cluster of individuals Kakashi had ostensibly brought to her room.

The man himself loomed in the corner of the room, as pleasant a presence as a poltergeist, watching her like he expected her to faint from the blood any moment. An unconscious body was draped over his shoulder—ostensibly why he had been forced to come in the first place.

“Just a bit of knitting up, not even beyond my limited skill,” she said with saccharine sweetness. Then, the fake smile slid off her face. This was well within Hinata’s capabilities. “Were there any complications with Kankuro?”

“The kazekage’s brother is fine,” Shikamaru said lazily. “Lee went and got himself impaled though. He and that Suna old lady are working on him.”

“His injury is taking more time to heal than Hinata-sama initially thought,” Neji explained calmly, still hovering near the door. He held his left arm gingerly. “She thought it best to send half of us here. Asuma-sensei, Tenten, and Kiba-san remain there.”

Sakura cracked her knuckles. “This is going to sting. Try not to move.”

Shikamaru gave a derisive laugh, cut off by a wince as her hand made contact. Sakura shut her eyes as she scoped out the wound with her chakra. Not dire, but there was some internal damage.

Steadily, she directed the flow of energy into sealing the wound. It was enough to get him into fighting-shape but there would be some discomfort, a consequence of working more quickly than she would have liked because of the line behind Shikamaru.

“You’re good enough for now,” Sakura said a few minutes later. “But you should spend the night in the infirmary in case there are any internal complications.”

Shikamaru hummed uncaringly. “No need.”

Her eyebrow arched. “I might not be a full-on medic-nin, but I’m not stupid enough to send you alone to your room to pass away quietly in your sleep.”

“On the contrary, I don’t think there’s a more desirable method of dying,” Shikamaru said idly. “The point is moot, however, as I won’t be alone.”

None of the shinobi in the room—certainly not the one passed out over Kakashi’s shoulder, whose face Sakura still couldn’t see—seemed to hear or care about this remark. Sakura, herself, was no different.

“Curious?” Shikamaru asked, an odd, sharp smile on his face.

“That will do, I suppose,” she said, “And—no. I don’t really care about who is or isn’t your bed, Shikamaru.”

She paused, evaluating that statement a little. “Unless it’s either one of my parents,” she corrected consideringly.

“Really?” he said, almost silently now. The words were only for her ears. His eyes were cool and measuring as he gazed at her. “Funnily enough, he seems to care about you. And Naruto. He tries to hide it, but he happens to be really, really bad at that—to those who look, at least.”

Sakura froze, her hands gripping the end of the table she had been leaning on. Sai?

“And you’ve been looking a lot these days, I take it,” she said coolly, voice equally low. “Did he want me to know?”

“He wants you to know him,” was the offered response, delivered so boredly one might have almost been fooled.

“And you know all this,” Sakura said slowly, “because…?”

“I look.” Equally nonchalant.

She surveyed him for a moment. Then she smiled just as pleasantly. “Well, that’s wonderful. And in case you ever try to forget how wonderful, please remember all the hard work I just did.”

“Which you can just as easily undo?” Shikamaru guessed.

Perhaps, if he had known exactly what ‘work’ Sakura had accomplished with her hands, he would have demonstrated more wariness than amusement.

“Precisely,” she finished curtly.

Shikamaru exited the room with a lazy wave, leaving her with the three other occupants of her room.

“Neji-san,” she prompted, trying to keep the latent irritation out of her voice. She had forgotten that also—how annoying Shikamaru could be to talk to. No wonder he and Sai had drifted to each other.

The Hyuuga’s face was unreadable. Now, Sakura had trouble hiding her exasperation. What was he waiting for—an official summons? “You’re next.”

“You can address Yamanaka-san first,” Neji said stiffly.

Sakura blinked first in incomprehension. Then her head snapped to the unconscious body tossed over Kakashi’s shoulder.

“Put her down on the table.”

A second later, Ino’s unconscious body was on the table and her former carrier was back in his original corner of the room, gazing coldly back.

Sakura’s fingers probed at the other girl’s throat and then along her pressure points. There were no injuries—at least, none that she could find visually.

“How long has she been like this?”

“Since the end of the battle,” Neji answered, an odd quality to his voice. “Shortly after using the mind transfer jutsu.”

Ah. She drew her hand back and delivered a resounding slap across Ino’s face.

The blonde girl surged up like a corpse rising from the dead, a truly dramatic, wheezing gasp emerging as well that soon transitioned into a short series of sneezes.

Bitch,” she complained. “What the hell was that?”

“Catharsis,” Sakura muttered. Clearing her throat, she said, “I imagine Hinata was just too kind to do this herself. You’re good to go.”

Ino grumbled a few more times, rubbing her red cheek.

“I have a broken arm to fix,” Sakura pressed blandly.

Ino’s blue gaze went to the figure behind her. Sighing dramatically, she stood up. Before she left, however, something strange flickered through her expression as her eyes settled on Sakura one last time—was it sorrow? Sakura’s throat felt dry.

But then, as though the look had never existed, the odd expression disappeared, and Ino smiled prettily.

“A beauty needs her beauty rest,” she said primly, before stalking out, a long, rippling stream of blonde hair following her. “Later, forehead.”

Sakura watched silently for a moment, watching the back disappear behind the door. She turned to face her final patient.

“You,” Sakura said impatiently, pointing at Neji.

With a smooth, swift grace that spoke of a very particular sort upbringing, the Hyuuga settled serenely on the table, holding his injured arm aloft in front of him.

She prodded at it as considerately as she could; unfortunately, his winces were necessary to determining how clean the break had been.

Her examination revealed that it was a messy one. She frowned. Applying chakra, the jagged breaks in the formerly smooth bone began to close. She knew the other boy tried to hold himself as still as he could, but it was a painful, draining process, and he began to shake.

“You need to be still,” Sakura warned.

“I—” Neji said stiltedly, “am trying.”

Sakura didn’t look up, but her jaw clenched as she directed her words to the figure in the corner of the room. “Hold him still.”

When Neji continued to tremble, unaided by any other force, Sakura’s head snapped up, seething.

“What are you waiting for?” she snarled, forgetting herself.

The copy-nin surveyed her coolly for a moment. Then, without a single word, he sauntered to the table and placed one, long-fingered hand firmly on Neji’s shoulder.

The color drained from the boy’s face. Sakura couldn’t tell if it was fear or pain. Probably pain, she decided.

Sakura pressed on, watching Neji’s face warily. To heal him as quickly as she was, she was drawing in part on his energy as well. Unfortunately, that meant he was likely to pass out at any moment.

“My vision is going black,” the Hyuuga said lightly.

“That’s to be expected,” Sakura returned with some bluntness.

“Some forewarning would have been appreciated—” Neji slumped over before he could finish the words.

“Hold him up,” Sakura said stiffly, trying her best to avoid Kakashi’s presence in every other regard. She didn’t look up to see his reaction, but Neji’s body was propped up as she finished healing him.

At last, she pulled her hands away and straightened. “Done,” she announced—perhaps, redundantly, but she felt the sudden need to break the silence.

But scarcely a second later, she found out that something else would have broken the silence for her. She only had a brief moment to prepare herself, before the door crashed onto the ground with a loud thud, denting the clay floor so that particles of red drifted upward in a small cloud.

It was the lady who had been helping Hinata, Sakura identified. Only, that had not been the entrance of an ally, but someone with rather hostile intentions. Not thinking twice, she grabbed Neji by the collar and tossed him onto the bed behind her and Kakashi.

Her hand immediately went for the kunai on her leg holsters, only to find when she looked back up that she was staring at a back. Kakashi’s back.

Sakura’s gaze brushed the ends of his hair, cut messily above the pale column of his neck.

“Copy-nin,” the woman croaked, her voice hoarse.

“Lady Chiyo.” Sakura couldn’t see his face, but she could guess what he looked like by the way his head was tilted. She’d faced it one too many times, that infuriating look that was simultaneously disinterested and somehow relentlessly threatening. 

“Konoha’s dogs have always been a plague on my family,” the older woman said softly. She folded her hands neatly in front of her, straightening to her full height—which was not much, but her presence seemed to expand to fill the room. “I shouldn’t even be surprised, should I?”

Sakura shifted to the right. She was tall enough to just see her over Kakashi’s shoulder, but not tall enough to have a comfortable view.

She only had a second to look—to take in the creased face, the dark eyes, and silver hair—before her vision was blocked again. Blinking, Sakura gaped once more at the back in front of her once more.

 “Your protégé, I assume,” Chiyo demanded, cold.

“A nuisance inflicted on me by the hokage,” Kakashi said coolly, a grating disdain in his voice. “Have to obey certain rules, you see, or I’ll get in trouble for the others I break. Getting more to the point: are you here to kill me, Lady Chiyo, for killing your traitor grandson?”

A choked, stifled noise echoed through the room, before the woman’s voice emerged harder than before.

“Have you no shame, boy?”

“It was the Akatsuki that attacked your kage,” Kakashi said, uncaring. “Sasori is Akatsuki.”

“The White Fang took my son and his wife,” Chiyo said slowly, deadly, “And now—you. You’ve taken my grandson from me. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, copy-nin, that the others got away and that he alone is dead. You hunted him, didn’t you? Like the dog you are. Like your father was.”

Sakura watched as Kakashi’s shoulders curved just slightly—just infinitesimally. But she understood, in that minute change, that something had shifted. His killing intent had been an insidious, thrumming presence the moment Chiyo had entered the room; now, it had grown into its full-fledged form now, making it difficult to breathe, let alone move.

Sakura gritted her teeth against it. The White Fang. She had heard the name before—she hadn’t known he was Kakashi’s father. Now that she thought about it, she’d never even considered whether or not the copy-nin had parents.

“Did you even give Sasori a chance?” Chiyo asked, voice strained; Sakura could finally hear the grief in her voice, the pain desperately trying to be hidden. “Did you even try to—to resolve the conflict some other way? To talk him down?”

Kakashi didn’t answer her questions. Instead, he watched her silently. More than ever, Sakura wished she could see his face. Was his silence admission? Or had Sasori been like Kaido—

“Of course you didn’t. You’ve surpassed even your father in your bloodshed,” the old woman snarled.

Sakura heard a deep, slow inhale, before the following words.

“At least he had the good sense to kill himself.”

Sakura’s mouth flattened. Whatever her personal qualms with the copy-nin, that had crossed a line. She expected Kakashi to erupt any moment now. She had no idea what to do—stop him? Fight Chiyo?

Of course, Kakashi found it suitable now to defy expectations.

“Leave,” the copy-nin said, voice deathly soft.

Both Chiyo and Sakura gaped at him in shock. The older woman recovered first. Her face contorted as she took a short step forward. “You fool, you think—”

“You’re acting in grief,” Kakashi cut her off, turning to glance at the window. Sakura could see his profile, now. He looked like stone. “You should know better.”

The older woman physically recoiled from him like she’d been slapped.

“Your kage is weak, if you may recall,” he continued lowly, emotionless. “You bring war on your village, and it will be slaughter.”

The small woman stared at him for a long time, eyes dark and beady.

“Bide my time—is it?” she sighed finally. She gave an unpleasant smile. “You must know, son of the White Fang, that you had a better chance of surviving now than you will against my poison in the future.”

“Do I,” he voiced indifferently.

“Until that day,” Lady Chiyo said, acting as though she hadn’t heard his words. She gave a shallow bow, before departing the room as abruptly as she had entered it.

For a long time, both she and Kakashi remained exactly as they were, silent. Sakura was still processing what had happened—or rather, what hadn’t happened.

Because: how could someone so…incendiary as the copy-nin tolerate words like that? Was it Chiyo’s age? Sakura doubted it; she had seen Kakashi kill older. Had it been that she was a woman? That was even more ridiculous to contemplate, because for all his flaws (and there were many), Kakashi had never been a chauvinist.

He believed Sakura to be a silly, frivolous girl, but that had less so to do with her being a girl and more to do with believing her to be…well, utterly useless.

As this thought crossed her mind, Sakura’s mood took a sharp downturn again.

“Good night,  Kakashi-sensei.” Get out, she thought.

He gaze latched onto her with sudden intensity, like he had forgotten she was even there. Sakura tried to maintain the smile on her face.

His head snapped away dismissively, and he took a step. But there was something odd about that step, a slight swaying—

Sakura’s eyes fell on a small scratch she had missed earlier on his upper arm, almost entirely unnoticeable. Hardly a millimeter in width, that was all his opponent had been able to get. But it was enough: the scratch was raised and an unusual color.

“The blade that grazed you there. It was poisoned.”

He paid her no attention, moving straight towards the door as thought that moment of instability had only been imagined.

“You’re breaking the poison in your system down with your chakra, aren’t you?” she guessed, eyes narrow. She straightened to her full height. “You’re draining yourself unnecessarily.”

He paused finally, turning toward her. His jaw could have cut through diamond with how tightly it was clenched.

“You saw me heal them,” she said stiffly, hating that she had to do this—to persuade him to let her heal him. Given the chance, she would have let him walk; if only there would be no consequences for such a decision. “Hinata’s the expert, but I can do the job well enough.”

His eyelids lowered to half-mast as he contemplated her. In that moment, Sakura felt like an insect pinned beneath a magnifying glass.

“It’s up to you,” she muttered. “You can travel and fight at full strength tomorrow. Or not. To each their own, I suppose.”

Sakura was almost entirely certain that he would have hit her then, if he could have mustered the act, that is. Instead, he settled for glowering at her, the full force of his ire conveyed through the rapidly spinning sharingan.

“Onto the table,” she gestured, mostly to be annoying.

He didn’t shift an inch. Instead, his head rotated carelessly to face the window again.

Because he wasn’t looking, Sakura allowed her face to become something truly fearsome.

“Your shirt needs to be off,” she said through clenched teeth.

It was like Kakashi couldn’t hear her. Or, alternatively—that something truly fascinating was happening outside the window that consumed all his attention. Just to double check, Sakura glanced quickly.

Nothing but night sky.

Stalking forward, she grabbed ahold of Kakashi’s flak jacket—making sure to knot her fingers into the black cloth of the shirt beneath too—and rent the layers of clothing in two.

A guttural snarl emerged from somewhere deep in the copy-nin’s throat, his head shifting with lightning quickness. Sakura didn’t flinch, even when his face ended up a scarce few inches from hers.

“I need to track how far the poison has spread,” she explained stiffly.

His shoulders were hunched inward, like he intended to intimidate her with his larger size. Sakura would have sneered, if her attention hadn’t turned immediately to the task at hand.

She cracked her fingers before flexing them, lit with green chakra. She surveyed the entry point of the poison and then shifted her fingers through a short sequence of jutsus. A second later, the expanse of pale, scarred skin was lit by an intersection of glowing lines, where the poison coated his veins.

The glow was admittedly faint; Kakashi’s chakra was doing a good job of breaking it down through brute force.

She concentrated the next ten minutes on drawing the poison out, vein by vein, depositing the blue, viscous fluid into the potted plant in the corner of the room.

But sometimes, every few seconds, she would get distracted

Distracted by, that is…

She was trying her best, she reflected bitterly. To ignore it. But increasingly, it was becoming impossible to.

It was—nothing. And simultaneously, everything. The smell of him: smoke, metal, pine, and— The heat of him, his skin almost feverish every time her finger tips glanced it. The lean, scarred expanse of his flesh gleaming in the dim lighting.

It had all meant nothing to her, until the point when it abruptly did.

And now, now Sakura wanted him. She resented him, wanted to stab him several times, and also—apparently, now—to fuck him. What a devastating, soul-crushing development.

Sakura couldn’t exactly skirt around it anymore. Not when she was trying so determinedly hard to suppress it. God knew what he could smell on her already, from her previous activities—but she was determined to finish her work before he could smell this.

“Done,” she said a little too loudly.

He disappeared before her tongue had even curled to make the ‘n,’ taking Neji unconscious body with him.

Sakura cursed loudly and collapsed flat on her back onto the bed. Then, after a moment of hateful consideration, her hand left its former position at the edge of the bed to move somewhere else.

Chapter Text

Two trees away, Snail sat perched on a tree in a bright red kimono. Nestled between her thighs was a small mirror, which she peered down at to line her eyes and paint her lips.

Between every exchange for another makeup tool, she directed a discreet glance Sakura’s way.

Hyena was sharpening her tanto against a rock a few meters away. Sakura could sense her cool attention on her as well, well-hidden by the curtain of her black hair.

Raccoon was slightly more polite about it, Sakura appreciated wryly. He had turned the opposite way as he slipped on his purple hakama, though he glanced at her occasionally as well through her reflection in the nearby river.

“So what happened?” a low voice demanded a scarce foot from her.

All three figures’ heads jerked up.

Sakura finished tying her obi, then met the brown-haired man’s equally unabashed nosiness with a narrow glare. Her mask was down, as were Raccoon’s and Snail’s; Bear looked at these features, unimpressed. 

“Everyone here’s wondering, alright? I’m just the only one with the balls to pursue the issue. I mean, we didn’t really think he’d kill you when he called you outside the bar, but—”

“Crow, I think you tied your obi incorrectly,” Snail interrupted abruptly.

Sakura glanced down at the obi with the sort of familiarity one normally directed toward foreign animals only glimpsed in rare scrolls.

“Does it matter?” Bear drawled. “It’s not like anyone’s going to look at her with you there.”

He said it like Sakura was meant to take offense, but it was rather the point. Sakura and Raccoon had been chosen for their respective roles precisely to make Snail stand out. And Snail was, without question, very pretty (or, the face she used for ANBU missions was). Being petite, with a soft, tremulous voice and a certain air of innocence—almost certainly false, given what the shinobi did on a daily basis—lent her an easy transition to her assigned role on this particular mission.

Snail slipped down from the tree, kimono fluttering in the wind as she descended. She reached Sakura and firmly took grasp of her obi, fixing it quickly.

“Done?” Hyena spoke finally, sliding her tanto back into its sheathe.

“Just a minute,” Snail responded. Sakura felt the cool sensation of the red liquid on the older woman’s lips being applied to her own with a steady hand. After, she grasped the thin hair on Sakura’s head and knotted it loosely at the top of her head, sliding a hair comb to hold it in place.

“Get moving.”

Sakura kept her limbs loose with great effort at the sound of this new voice. She looked up from beneath her lashes.

Kakashi stood as tall as ever, but his skin had abandoned its pale cast in favor of something closer to the color of sand. Other than that—and the fact that his eyes were amber and his hair black—his face and build remained largely unchanged.

Of course, the others probably didn’t have any point of comparison. But if the copy-nin remembered that she had seen him unmasked (or anything from that day at all, for that matter), he did a remarkable job of hiding it.

Bear hastily took his place atop the horse tied to the carriage, complaining beneath his breath about the animal’s smell. After a brief pause, Sakura, Raccoon, and Snail made their way into the modest vehicle. Hyena gave a nod their way and then disappeared into the trees.

Kakashi tracked her progress before entering the rickety carriage as well, sliding into place beside Snail. Sakura thanked the heavens that it was Racoon beside her, and not him. She gazed studiously out the window.

“Move,” Kakashi demanded curtly. Bear lifted the reigns and prompted the horse into motion. The carriage made a concerning creaking noise before following.

“You have the drug?”

“Yes, taichou,” Snail answered.

“The aphrodisiac-sedative combination will keep him occupied for thirty minutes maximum.”

“I understand.”

“It’s critical that he believes a sexual encounter transpired and that our ‘visit’ goes unnoticed,” Kakashi continued stoically.

“Understood, taichou.”

Sakura knew from Tsunade that drugs like the one Snail was carrying were exceptionally precious. Villages had to keep their use of such compounds discreet, as they left traces that could easily be deconstructed and analyzed given the slightest suspicion. If discovered, targets could build immunity and years of work and research became abruptly useless.

Sakura’s gaze fell unbidden on the copy-nin. Like many other villages’ special ops, there were branches of ANBU that engaged in actual seduction. Kakashi’s team was not one of them—hence the drug.

Was this mission, like the previous, meant to end in a bloodbath too, she wondered idly. Was that why their team had been chosen?

She couldn’t rule out the possibility for sure. In an unusual turn of events, everyone had been informed of their roles for the mission and just that. The target of the drug, indeed, seemed to be only one minor step in a multi-layered, complex plan that only Kakashi knew the entirety of.

Which was fine with her. It was an odd mission when Sakura didn’t have to kill someone.

Boring, you mean, the Voice offered.

Sakura gazed peacefully out the carriage.


Almost a full day later, they reached the unassuming establishment they had been searching for. After a brief conversation with the owner—and after a few coins changed hands—they were allowed to enter and display their ‘wares’ among the private rooms. They struck gold on the third.

Seated in front of them on a tatami mat, their target sipped his sake indifferently along with his fellow accountants.

From her demure position, Sakura could see that the copy-nin’s shoulders were slumped and his back slightly curved, making him seem far less imposing than usual. His voice, when he spoke, was a carefully modulated tenor, higher and smoother.

“So fine a group, and yet so lacking in suitable entertainment. Please, allow me to present to you my finest.” It was a silkiness she had never heard before. Sakura detested it.

At the sounds of jeers, Snail stepped in front of Sakura and Raccoon, curtsying. The shoulder of her kimono slid down and revealed a naked shoulder.

Hachiro, their target, was a handsome man, which didn’t bode especially well; he might turn them away altogether if his libido was satiated sufficiently elsewhere. But the man beside Hachiro nudged him, a slightly fearful smile on his lips. “Hachiro-san, you work so hard. Perhaps, one of them may help you…relax.”

Hachiro tilted his head, seeming unconcerned by this.

“Gods!” another man laughed riotously, clearly drunk. He swayed, even seated. “Such a tight ass.”

The first man’s eyes widened in panic.

Hachiro sipped his saké casually. “If you don’t like your job, I can easily relieve you of it.”

The drunk man seemed to abruptly sober. “H-Hachiro-san, don’t take what I said the wrong way,” the man laughed nervously. “I-In fact! Tonight will be on me! Pick any one of them, I’ll pay for it.”

Hachiro smiled unfeelingly. “No matter the price?”

The man swallowed with ostensible difficulty. “Any…one.” Clearly, he was willing to take a blow to keep his job.

“What was your name again?”

“Nazako, at your service, sir,” Kakashi said, bowing smoothly.

“Who is your most expensive whore, Nazako?” Hachiro asked lazily, sipping his wine.

“Why, let me introduce you,” Kakashi answered, voice like velvet.

As soon as Snail was within reach of Kakashi, he wrapped his arm around her midsection and spun her around. His forearm pressed right into her ribcage, right beneath her breasts, bolstering them to make them more prominent.

His other hand moved swiftly up to grasp her chin and tilt her head to the side, displaying the long line of her neck.

Sakura’s lips tightened darkly at the sight, before she gathered the wherewithal to avert her gaze to the floor meekly.

“This is Odori,” Kakashi said with a slow, indulgent smile. “Odori-chan is unmistakably the best I can offer. She comes with superlative reviews.”

He delivered the words hotly against Snail’s cheek. Snail's cheeks flushed a pretty pink.

Kakashi pushed her forward, and she moved swiftly to kneel by Hachiro’s side, resting her head against his chest. The act was deceptively innocuous, for in doing so and leaning slightly forward, she slyly allowed him a good look down the gaps of her loosely tied kimono.

He didn’t look.

“How much is she?”

Kakashi’s gaze shifted between them with the pretense of calculation, before listing an obscenely high price. The man who had offered to pay looked like he might keel over.

“I’ll take that one,” Hachiro said. “For the price you just stated.”

Sakura heard only silence in response to this proclamation. She lifted her head just slightly. Her gaze landed first on a finger pointed in her direction. Then, it moved to the owner of that finger.

She blinked incredulously at it. Her eyes darted to Kakashi.

He wasn’t looking at her. He was staring, with exceptional stillness, at Hachiro.

“What!” the man cried out, looking on the verge on tears at this prospect. “She's the least becoming of the lot!”

You’re kidding me, Sakura thought.

“Didn’t you know?” Hachiro said lightly. “It’s the whores that are unremarkable that work harder to make a living. I only want to get my money’s worth, Akiro-san. Forgive me, I misspoke—your money’s worth.”

Sakura’s mouth twisted with incredulity.

Without a further glance, the accountant gestured for ‘Odori’ to move away from him. Snail stood up with a ferocious pout. As she turned to stomp her way to Kakashi, the panic in her eyes was clear.

Sakura stared at him hard as well, trying to find some silent signal telling her what to do. Would they attempt to move the drug from Snail to her? She knew it was probably too risky, could possibly jeopardize the whole thing, but—

But when she looked at him, Kakashi genuinely appeared uncaring, even bored. It was only when Hachiro’s attention went to him again that the copy-nin’s expression changed, suddenly becoming animated with a greedy smile that befitted his character.

Sakura’s lips tightened. She read the message loud and clear. It seemed that this was no longer the copy-nin’s—or Snail’s—problem but hers. Oh yes, the mighty Kakashi probably had infinitely more important aspects of this mission to address.

Raccoon’s hiss beside her jolted her into motion. She stood up swiftly, perhaps a little more swiftly than a civilian should have, and walked over to the man.

He stood up as well.

“Akiro, I’ll leave you to take care of payment,” Hachiro smiled. He placed a few coins onto the table. “For the drink and the mediocre shamisen.” The geisha behind him flinched.

As she and the man crossed the room to exit, Sakura flicked a glance to her captain, jaw clenched.

His back faced her as he casually negotiated with Akiro for payment.


The most immediate issue, Sakura decided calmly, was that she did not have the drug.

No, the sole vial was contained somewhere on Snail’s person—which would go entirely unperturbed tonight. She was beginning to theorize that she possibly had murdered an innocent orphan in a previous life; how else could she have earned herself laughably horrible luck in this one?

Snail had been the most likely choice, if at all (they had known from intel Hachiro preferred women to men). Placing the one available dose on her had been the smartest choice. And yet—here Sakura was. Because of her shitty luck.

The rickshaw slowed to a stop. A second later, the runner stepped forward to help her down. She heard Hachiro follow behind her, unaided.

Genjutsu was the only feasible option. She had an advantage in the fact that he didn’t seem suspicious of her; but then, his face was remarkably inscrutable.

A servant greeted them at the door.

“Take her to the bedroom and draw a bath,” Hachiro ordered lazily.

The servant bowed low and then directed Sakura up a staircase to a relatively austere master bedroom. It contained the bare minimum—a large mattress, bedecked by simple, unremarkable sheets and cushions. A similarly unremarkable dresser lined one wall, with a modest, serviceable mirror. Window-doors on the opposite side opened up onto a small balcony.

The bedroom was separated by no more obstacle than a curtain from the bathroom. When the servant finished drawing the curtain back, Sakura’s gaze found the porcelain tub at its center. He filled it with steaming water. Tendrils of steam floated toward the ceiling.

“Undress,” the servant said, as he rotated the valves shut.

Sakura pretended she hadn’t heard, continuing to survey the steam idly. The servant left the room.

As she heard footsteps approach the door, she seated herself on the bed. When Hachiro at last entered, he cast her a nonchalant glance before removing his hakama. Without a word, he slid into the tub and leaned his head against the porcelain edge.

Sakura watched him closely. As more time passed, with her presence essentially ignored, she began to consider new possibilities. Perhaps, he had simply intended to purchase her time using Akiro’s money without touching her at all.

Then, slowly, his head tilted upwards.

His gaze passed over her body—slow and deliberate. He stood and rivulets of water streamed down the expanse of his body and onto the cold floor. He moved forward, at a sedate pace.

As his path neared the side of the room with the dresser, Sakura moved as well. It was more the unexpected nature of the act than the use of much strength on her part that made Hachiro take a step back as she collided with him. As she had mostly expected, he responded with force. She felt hands grasp at her waist, and then her back was shoved hard—hard enough to leave concerning bruises on a civilian—against the dresser in retaliation.

Sakura let out a small cry, feigning pain she had long ceased becoming susceptible to.

“I wanted to t-touch you,” she explained, adopting a stutter. To control his hands so he wouldn’t detect her telling musculature.

“You try something like that again, and I’ll give you to the servant outside and anyone who passes by this house until dawn. Understood?” he said coolly.

Sakura’s temper flared. Outwardly, she nodded and shrank back against the dresser.

His hands latched onto the sides of her kimono and pulled, ripping the cheap material. Her fists tightened instinctively as his cold hands met the surface of her flesh. She hid the action with a gasp.

As he palmed her breasts, his teeth glanced a vulnerable part of Sakura’s neck that—in any other situation—would have made her tear his throat out. With her teeth.

Instead, however, relegated to the role she was tonight, Sakura clenched her teeth and gave a low, strangled moan, throwing her head back.

When she opened her eyes again, she made eye contact with Kakashi.


Her head snapped back up with painful quickness. The apparition did not disappear.

There he was, completely visible through the window-doors that led to the balcony. He had removed the henge and wore his mask again. His posture, she noticed, was almost relaxed as he leaned against the railing of the balcony.

Hachiro did not cease his rough handling of her body, but Sakura had become all but numb to it. Her body was cold, almost sensationless, as she examined the figment outside the window.

It was dark outside, but somehow she could see his eyes with unerring clarity. The vermillion of the sharingan and stark grey of his regular eye told a different story.

Despite his relaxed posture, Kakashi’s gaze was savage and intent on her.

Hands gripped her knees and wrested them apart. Sakura’s face contorted into a snarl, forgetting ‘who’ and where she was. She regained control of her expression just in time as Hachiro’s eyes passed over her face. His hand moved simultaneously to slide between her thighs.

Sakura tangled one hand in Hachiro’s hair—holding his head firmly in place so that he could not look behind him; with the other, she made performed a one-handed genjutsu.

His eyes slid shut, and he crumpled toward the floor. Before he could fall completely, she picked him up with one hand on his collar and threw him onto the bed. Hair fell into her eyes with the motion. An object entered the peripheral of her vision. Her hand snapped out, snatching the incoming object out of the air. She turned it over. It was her hair comb.

Her head slowly moved up from her open palm. Kakashi now stood inside the bedroom with her.

Stoically, she grabbed the damaged halves of her kimono and pulled them together. After a moment, she paused, eyes narrowing. Her obi was strewn on the ground barely a meter from her. She looked up to examine the room’s only other conscious occupant.

She didn’t know what possessed her to do it. Madness, possibly. (Probably).  

“Pick it up,” she said.

Sakura couldn’t see Kakashi’s face, as it was cast in the shadows. But his eyes glowed—with something ineffable and dangerous—as he surveyed her. And then, as her own eyes lowered in a blink, he became a blur of motion.

By the time her lashes had lifted again, he was down on one knee, his head level with her knees as she perched on the dresser still. His head was cocked to the side, his nostrils flared, as his fingers grazed over the white obi.

Sakura yanked her chin up and raised her hand, palm open in wordless demand.

Kakashi’s mismatched eyes burned into her from his position, unmoving. The clouds must have shifted, because abruptly, moonlight was cast into the room again. It lit half his face. But the half she saw was enough to make her still. There was insanity on the visible half of his face, a barely restrained something that had her mouth twisting.

“Give it,” she whispered, the words harsh in the utter quiet.

His head was still tilted, his eyes still burning in that peculiar, scalding manner, as his hand lifted slowly—a mockery of his earlier speed. The heavy material of the obi made a sibilant noise as it slid from the floor.

Sakura watched its progression with determined focus. She was immediately aware, therefore, when the copy-nin’s hand stopped again, barely above her knee.

His hand hovered there, the heat from his radiating from his palm and making the hair on Sakura’s leg rise.

Kakashi’s face was half obscured by the black mask, but when her eyes darted to him, she knew what he was going to say before he even said it.

Shock made her numb. Dust particles that had had floated through the air, steadily, gradually, stopped their natural trajectory. The whistle of the wind through the trees dissipated into sudden, deathly silence.

“I want you.”

The dresser shook suddenly with the force of both the copy-nin’s palms settling on it, framing her body. He looked deranged by the confession, like he would have liked nothing more than to make it untrue.

And, abruptly, Sakura came back to herself.  

His eyes were half-lidded, feral, as he peered up at her from between her legs. “I want to fuck you.” Her ears burned.

“Find an oiran,” she snapped.

“I did,” he spat back.

A humorless laugh bubbled up. But she felt the seemingly ever-present knot now between her legs clench, so exquisitely, painfully tight. 

She watched his hands spasm on either side of her, his nails digging long cracks into the marble surface of the dresser.

“I don’t feel the same,” she tried, attempting to sound indifferent.

But she knew her fingers trembled too much, frenetic and uncontrollable, like an addict long deprived. Sakura watched as his nostrils flared, and he looked up at her, gaze terrible and knowing.

“I can smell you,” he said, voice a rasp. For one, devastating second, his hot gaze flickered toward that part between her legs, which was undeniably wet.

Her shoulders trembled violently. “So?” she told him coldly.

His eyelids slid down further. “Let me touch you,” he whispered, gaze simultaneously livid and hungry.

The last of Sakura’s cool control snapped. Her hands knotted in the hair at the back of his neck, but it didn’t feel so much that she was pulling him up as her hands were following his motion upward. In an instant, the eyes that had drilled into her from below were level with her. His palms, coarse, rough, and blazing with unnatural heat settled on the tensed muscle of her thighs.

“You want to touch me?” she hissed. “Touch me.

His eyes flashed with victory.

And then hands slid up her legs, electrifying the skin, muscle, and tissue there. He flicked aside her kimono with disparagement, like it was contemptible for obstructing him. Without hesitation or the pretense of propriety, he cupped her, the weight and heat of his palm against her a fatal blow.

She felt like she might burn, like she was liable to become ash at any moment.

The moment his fingers drove into her, Sakura’s head crashed into the mirror’s dresser, shattering it. Glass shards fell over both her and him, as the perverse fullness stole words—all semblance of language—momentarily from her. She grasped at his shoulders with bruising strength, and he took it, eyes dark, wild with equal greediness.

The roughness of the skin on his hands felt glorious inside her, the width of his knuckles spreading and twisting— wrecking.

His fingers curled, and Sakura’s mouth fell open in a soundless gasp, a mere breath of air exhaled.

The world consisted only of that hot, desperate space between her legs and his fingers. And then—the iron heat of cock pressing urgently against her. Her gaze flicked down to it, rapt, then back up to his face.

The copy-nin’s face was a beautiful painting of both insatiability and starvation, the tension in his jaw visible even through the black mask. Sakura’s hands snapped to his hips and dragged him hard against her, cradling him—his cock, she thought, and a new rush of heat flooded her core—between her thighs.

She watched him, heady with—she didn’t know what it was. An odd sense of power, perhaps. And also, a keen knowledge that—

She locked her legs behind his back, possessive and also half-wondrous. And, like that, Kakashi’s face was suddenly in front of hers, his ragged breath a hot caress against her lips. For a long moment, Sakura glared at him, and he glared back at her equally resentfully.

Then, his mask was gone, and his mouth was on hers, filthy and dirty and harsh, as his tongue dragged forcefully against her own.

The full force of his body was driving her against the dresser as he rutted against her, his snarls swallowed by Sakura’s mouth. His fingers, belying the savagery of his mouth, were calamitously deft inside her, manipulating that particular spot in her to the point of madness—her madness. And Sakura felt like she was dying—the most terrible, hateful death possible because it seemed both so thunderous and terribly sweet, and she wanted it so, so badly. Her only consolation was that there was equal desperation on his face, in the dangerous tightness of his jaw, in the strained veins of his neck and arms, in the hardness of his cock.

Look at me,” he growled into her ear, his newly revealed mouth—firm and sensuous—hot on her.

Sakura suddenly felt like she couldn’t direct her gaze anywhere else.

“Look at me,” he repeated again even though she already had, and he knew it. She saw white as she came, gaze blindly locked on his. Dimly, she felt the body rutting against abruptly still, tight against her. Possibly, he said something. Possibly, he was entirely silent. She was deaf to the world and didn’t know.

He left immediately; the loss of his lips first, his fingers a second later; the double door windows parted and shut soundlessly, and Sakura didn’t really care.

Disbelieving of what had transpired, she left the dresser and staggered toward the bed. She settled on it, cheeks red, marks trailing from her neck and down, and smelling like sex. This, ironically, could only aid her whenever Hachiro woke up.

But Sakura didn’t have it in her to be grateful right now.

She was livid—at herself, at Kakashi, at the fucking ceiling above that had seen it all.

So she had known before this how regrettably undiscerning her libido was—she cringed just thinking about it—fine. But she had never, ever intended to act on it. Her body was supposed to defer to her mind, which very, very strongly maintained a decided stance of antagonism toward the individual she had just—

It had clearly been a lapse of judgement for the both of them. At this acknowledgement, she began to calm down. Neither of them had touched each other just now because they liked each other.  This had just been…a shared momentary lapse in judgement, and it would never be repeated.

Perhaps, even, this had been a necessary evil in order to purge herself of that misdirected lust. Now, she would be able to pretend this all had never happened.

Sakura settled back against the pillows and waited for Hachiro to wake up.


 

 

 

She didn’t know what possessed her to do it. Madness, possibly. (Probably).  

“Pick it up,” she commanded.

Sakura couldn’t see Kakashi’s face, as it was cast in the shadows. But his eyes glowed—with something ineffable and dangerous—as he surveyed her.

- more artwork by the ridiculously talented SweetGazelle

Chapter Text

A sullen Bear rolled up to Hachiro’s estate on horseback halfway between dawn and noon the next day, pulling with him the same rickety carriage they had arrived in. As the carriage creaked to a stop, Hachiro placed a cool hand on the back of Sakura’s neck, as though she were cattle that he was ensuring wouldn’t run.

The door to the carriage swung open. Sakura directly at the sun and wondered if the act would be able to blind her for the next few painful minutes.

“Hachiro-san, I trust Tomo-chan treated you well?”

Sakura scowled.

The hand on her neck tightened slightly. “Very,” Hachiro said to Kakashi. “She exceeded expectations.”

That distracted her, if for a moment. How effective had that genjutsu been exactly?

Hachiro’s hand shifted from her neck to her chin, lifting her face to look up at him. “It’s so rare to find a whore that obeys so well. I’m almost tempted to keep this one.”

Nope. Bowing, Sakura pulled away with a shaky laugh and walked backwards the entire way until she was in the carriage.

“I’m so sorry,” Snail said immediately, face tormented. “I can’t believe that happened—”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Sakura said quickly.

Before she could explain, the door swung open again and Kakashi entered. She gritted her teeth as the man settled in beside her, the full side of his body flush against her own. The copy-nin surveyed the expressions of her team members.

“Who’s been hanged?” he rasped disinterestedly, voice finally settling into its normal tone.

“Genjutsu,” Sakura blurted, eyes wide. “I used a genjutsu.”

Snail gaped for a bit, then grabbed Sakura’s hands. “I’m so glad,” she said fervently. “I couldn’t sleep all night, just thinking…”

Not for the first time, Sakura was touched by Snail’s warmth. It wasn’t what one usually saw in ANBU.

Still, she was beginning to realize that for all the mythology surrounding ANBU members being heartless, soulless machines—especially in the lower ranks—it was just that: mythology. Sakura guessed now that, when it mattered, everyone just hid it well. After all, Raccoon had offered his water to her after her first truly awful mission, had tried to console her in his own quiet way. Even Bear, whom Sakura detested mightily, had exposed his humanity as much as his teammates had during the Kino mission. And one more, Sakura forced herself to acknowledge. For all his arrogance, his condescension, his seeming sheer disregard for the lives around him except for their capacity to enact violence—Kakashi had betrayed himself that day as well.

She leaned against the side of the carriage.

Trying to save Kino: that had been the first crack. Another: that he had come after her when she had been ‘kidnapped’ by Akane.

But then—everything he had said to her after killing Akane, while Akane’s corpse was still warm.

She shifted in her seat, shoulders tightening. If she were the girl Kakashi imagined, someone who had never been given any reason, real reason, to change from the thirteen year old she had once been... Perhaps, she would have simply aged a few more years and earned a few more meaningless credentials after, still ultimately the same, farce of a shinobi. Possibly, she would have been lucky and found some legitimate path, though still, never on par with her teammates’.

It almost physically hurt her to admit it. But now that she could, Sakura assured herself, she could identify every reason for loathing Kakashi that was undeniably valid.

He had never given her genin self a reason to change. He had taken one look at her and declared her a lost cause, unworthy of his effort, when he couldn’t have possibly known what she was capable of. And whatever his rationale had been, in that park that night it had almost cost her everything. Why had he never given her the chance he had Naruto? Sasuke, for god’s sake, had been fucked up enough to leave Konoha and join Orochimaru. Had it been her personality? Her particular brand of ineptitude?

She huffed loudly and rested her head tiredly against the side of the carriage. Her timing was poor, however, as one of the wheels hit a rock on the road just then, jostling all of them. Sakura’s head hit the edge of the door with a resounding thud.

“My bad,” Bear called from outside, not sounding very apologetic at all.

“Did he do that before you could perform the genjutsu?” Snail demanded angrily. Belatedly, Sakura realized the other woman was speaking to her. At her confused expression, Snail reached out to brush a spot on the side of her neck that had been just revealed by her disrupted kimono.

“Yes,” she settled with, voice a bit too tight, the entire while uncomfortably aware of the heat of the body pressed against her.

She rested her right back against the edge of the carriage and hoped for several other giant rocks on their path back to Konoha to concuss her memory out of her.


They stopped twice, primarily to feed the horse. Sakura took each break as a chance to escape the confines of the carriage and hope for a different arrangement upon her return. Unfortunately, Snail and Raccoon seemed determined to stay where they were.

Coming back from the second break—which had been rather unnecessary, they were quite close now—Sakura stared blankly for a moment at the open space left to her before settling into it stoically.

Sakura inhaled sharply. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she looked at him at last. She wasn’t sure what she expected to find; Kakashi looked as unperturbed as ever. Here, she had been sitting and barely maintaining the pretense of normalcy, especially under Snail’s questioning, and here he was—

Maybe, she wondered suddenly, face darkening, the copy-nin fucked all his teammates. Maybe this was all quite normal for him. Maybe Snail had blushed when he’d held her in front of Hachiro not just because of his proximity, but because of remembrance of something more.

What if this was some fucked up rite of passage, she contemplated icily. Was that why Bear and the others had been so nosy at the beginning of the mission about what had happened when they left the bar? Had this all happened to them too?

She wasn’t aware she was glaring at him until mismatched eyes flicked in her direction, meeting hers and then narrowing at what they found.

Slightly, fractionally, Kakashi’s right brow arched.

Sakura turned her gaze away, expression thunderous as she surveyed the window. The entire carriage was silent as they completed the last leg of their journey, except for the random curse from Bear.

They reached ANBU headquarters at sunset. Despite the cooling effect of night, the air was especially humid—it had probably rained during the day. Sakura’s kimono was sticking to her slightly, and she shifted to create some separation.

“I’m out of here,” Bear said, just as the carriage came to a full stop. They all heard the distinctive noise of shunshining.

“Ah, thank the gods,” Snail said, nudging at Raccoon.

“I’m moving,” he said good-naturedly, swinging open the door.

“See you, Crow. Taichou,” Snail said cheerily. She took off at a hasty pace north of the headquarters, fanning herself.

Sakura, who had been waiting impatiently, anxiously, the entire time, moved quickly for the door.

Only to be stopped. Jaw tight, she lowered her gaze slowly to the cause. The pale, long fingers on the sleeve of her kimono were only slightly curled, holding her almost lazily.

Swallowing, she smoothed her expression into something suitably distant. “Taichou?”

The copy-nin’s face scanned her face coolly.

She stared at him guilelessly. Just after the gap became uncomfortably long, she smiled sharply and said: “Oh, don’t worry, just the usual pre-menstruation phenomenon.”

If Kakashi had displayed then the usual squeamishness most men demonstrated whenever the topic of menstruation came up, her temper might have improved. To her dismay, he didn’t even blink. Instead, his eyes glinted with what looked like mockery to Sakura.

She shifted her weight forward, resting her elbows combatively on her knees. “Did you want to know the details of my flow as well?” she pressed with a sweet smile, “In the past five months: heavy, regular, regular, light—”

“You’re lying,” Kakashi interrupted.

Sakura’s lips twisted. “Excuse me?”

He stared at her for a long moment, head tilted back and lids slanted down. “You have a tell.”

Her shoulders tightened. “Really?” she asked, voice as deadly as it was quiet. “And how would you know?”

Next thing she knew, she had left her side of the carriage and was pressed against Kakashi, her hands knotted in the collar of his black shirt.

“What are you playing at?” Sakura whispered coldly.

He lowered his head, and even though he was only a hand’s span taller than her, it abruptly felt like more. “I could ask the same of you.”

And suddenly, he was inhaling, dragging his nose from her hairline down her neck, until his gaze darted back up, barely restrained. “You walk in here, you sit next to me the entire time, smelling like that—”

Like what?” Sakura demanded through clenched teeth.

His lips pressed hotly against her ear, electrifying even despite the mask. “Like my fingers weren’t enough,” he snarled.

Sakura reared back, something like fight or flight shrieking in the back of her mind. Fight won. She crowded him against his seat, tightening her hold on him. “Shut up,” she raged, vicious. “Shut the fuck up.”

He didn’t seem to hear her. “What is it about you?” Kakashi demanded, eyes slitted. “You’re not beautiful—” his gaze roved over her features with a sort of frustrated madness—“everything about you is unextraordinary—”

I could you kill you pretty well, Sakura was about to say. As you’ve seen, I could make you dead in some truly extraordinary ways

 “And yet,” he drawled coldly. “And yet.”

He cut himself off, eyes narrowing at her.

But she was smarter this time. Fumbling, Sakura’s fingers found the handle to the door. She yanked it, stumbled out, and shunshined away.

Coward, the Voice whispered. And Sakura did what she usually did—that is, she ignored it.


When she received summons the next morning for Team Seven training, she threw the scroll straight into her trash bin.

She wouldn’t, she decided coolly. She couldn’t. Not today.

She strolled into her bathroom and went about her morning activities calmly: washed her face, brushed her teeth, patted ineffectually at her hair. It was a warm day. Nice. Her refrigerator was also near-empty. What better time to make a trip to the grocery store?

She made a quick list, taking stock of the contents of her pantry and refrigerator. Tomatoes, cucumber, cauliflower, egg…

As she went to grab her wallet, she finally paused. If she didn’t show, she confronted at last, reluctantly—well, what would happen? She didn’t have a note from a medic.

Sakura shrugged to herself. She could forge one.

But if the issue ever circulated to Tsunade? She frowned. The hospital records would not be on her side.

And worse, it dawned on her suddenly, if she didn’t show—Kakashi the captain of Team Seven could have the perfect excuse. This was precisely the sort of opportunity he was probably waiting for. He would undoubtedly present this to Tsunade as evidence that ‘Haruno Sakura’ needed to be removed from active combat duty.

Ultimately, as though it were the eve of her execution, Sakura gravely made breakfast with the last of her supplies. Her food tasted like sawdust in her mouth. She chewed it slowly.

“Are you alright, dear?” her neighbor asked when she finally left. Mrs. Ito petted her white cat with long red-painted nails as she posed the question; the cat looked rather harassed by the contact.

Sakura blinked at her and nodded, leaving the complex without another word. As she walked, she noted the cloudiness of the sky. Although the sun had definitely peeked out when she had first woken, it seemed the weather had taken an unexpected turn.

Ironic, she thought sourly. Sakura tried to walk as slowly as possible, but reaching her destination was inevitable, if lamentable.

When she arrived at the training grounds, it was to an odd tableau.

Naruto, perched on a giant rock, crouched in a bizarre position as he surveyed another figure with suspicion. Sai stood beside the same rock with a rather sedate expression, looking as though his mind were miles away.

And the man in front of them, who gazed back at the two with exquisite blankness, was decidedly not Kakashi.

“Who are you?” Sakura asked.

“My question exactly!” Naruto trumpeted, lunging to his feet with a finger pointed in the stranger’s direction.

Said stranger merely blinked. He had short, tufty brown hair the color of over-steeped sobacha and dark, glittering eyes. “Call me Yamato,” he said without any aplomb.

Sakura rubbed her eyes tiredly, aware that they were ringed by black. At this point, she didn’t even care who the strange man on Team Seven’s training grounds was.

“Where is Kakashi-san?” Sai intoned, finally looking somewhat interested in the scene before him.

“He is otherwise occupied,” Yamato explained—which explained, really, nothing at all. “Therefore, I will be your stand-in captain for the foreseeable future.”

Foreseeable future? Sakura’s mood brightened abruptly. It seemed the gods really did care; this was proof that miracles happened, if nothing else.

“Whaaat?” Naruto exclaimed, sputtering. “But—”

“Yamato-san, is it? Great,” Sakura said, smiling sweetly, “I look forward to being under your care.”

Yamato blinked, for a moment almost seeming touched, before his expression smoothed over. “Yes,” he announced, clearing his throat, “I look forward to being under your care as well.”

“Sa-ku-raaa,” Naruto complained, jumping down from the boulder. “I was really sure he was going to teach me a kick ass jutsu this time!” He kicked up dirt onto her shin guards as he landed. Sakura glared at him.

“I think we can all agree that a brief change of leadership may benefit your immediate well-being, dickless,” Sai said delicately. He sidled to Sakura’s other side as he bowed.

Yamato inclined his head a bit belatedly. Something odd passed between them, a coded message Sakura couldn’t read.

“Ah,” Sai said softly. He looked uncharacteristically grim. “We have much in common.”

“Sakura,” Naruto muttered urgently into her ear, “I think he just—”

“Yes.”

Short of looking at them directly, Sai couldn’t have made it more obvious that this was a hint for them. What Sai couldn’t tell them about himself, Yamato maybe could.

“The hokage has given us a mission,” the older man continued, unblinking. “As you might recall, Kakashi-senpai killed the Akatsuki operative Sasori during your last team mission. Before doing so, he was able to extract critical information about Orochimaru. Another shinobi pursued this information.”

Sakura straightened. Kakashi-senpai? That suggested that Yamato had been under Kakashi’s command at some point, because the man was otherwise clearly older than Kakashi.

Naruto was unnaturally quiet beside her. Belatedly, she realized the name that Yamato had mentioned that would be of especial interest to him: Orochimaru.

“This shinobi was to go to Tenchi bridge in the Village Hidden in the Grass at high noon to meet a spy Sasori had planted as one of Orochimaru’s subordinates. She did—” Yamato paused shortly, before continuing bluntly—“It was a trap. An altercation occurred. She did not survive. However, her summons were able to track Kabuto back to Orochimaru’s hideout and convey their information.”

“So our mission is?” Sai prompted calmly.

“To validate this information; not to engage.”

Sakura frowned. “Tsunade-sama wants us,” she began slowly, “ to investigate the hideout of the man who killed the sandaime. The three of us. And you.”

If she remembered anything from that day in the Forest of Death other than the bite with the curse mark, it was that Orochimaru had not only wanted Sasuke, but Naruto too.

And it was obvious, now, in retrospect why the copy-nin had been assigned the captain of Team Seven despite his unparalleled success in ANBU—he had been charged with guarding and training the last Uchiha in Konoha and its only jinchuruki, two of the village’s most sought after and thus vulnerable individuals.

Why the hell would Tsunade suddenly want to dangle Naruto in front of Orochimaru, in his very own hideout, without Kakashi on the same mission?

Yamato was more observant than she had expected, because he asked quietly, “Is there a problem, Haruno-san?”

But nothing she said now was going to change anything. All she could hope was that the four of them were enough. She pasted a smile on her face. “Not at all.”

There wasn’t much to do other than to double-check their packs were mission ready before they left. As they ran, Yamato kept a slightly faster pace. This created some separation between himself and the three of them, which allowed them to talk openly.

“Orochimaru,” Sai said slowly, expression blank. “That would be the person your former teammate defected for, yes?”

“Yes,” Naruto affirmed moodily.

“We’re meant to investigate, not engage,” the dark-haired boy said slowly.

Sakura darted a look at Naruto from the corner of her eye. His lips were pursed, his blue eyes darker than usual.

“Naruto,” she said, voice warning.

“He’s—he’d be right there,” he burst out. “It’s been three years. Who knows what’s happened during that time.”

“Exactly.”

Naruto spun on her, angry. “I don’t get it, Sakura,” he accused. “You begged me to bring him back. You made me promise. And now you seem so…like you don’t even care.”

“I grew up,” she hissed, nostrils flaring. “I realized that I never should have asked you to make that promise and that you should never have agreed to it. I realized that if I wanted something, I should have damn well done it myself. And I realized that, in the end, what you or I possibly wanted then or want now doesn’t matter in the least.”

“Why not?”

“Because if Sasuke doesn’t want to come back, what’s the point?” Sakura said coolly. “What do you think will happen? You break all his bones, you drag him back to Konoha, and as soon he’s healed, he tries to escape? Are you going to keep him locked up for his whole life?”

“Of course not,” Naruto argued, face reddening. “That’s why we have to convince him. Whether that happens before or after we bring him back to Konoha—that doesn’t matter. Being home will change his mind.”

“And if it doesn’t, how long will you wait? Months? Years? His whole life?”

Naruto’s brow furrowed. He turned suddenly to Sai. “You’ve been awful quiet. What do you think?”

Sai blinked, clearly not having expected to be consulted. He considered the question very seriously, answering only after some careful thought.

“I believe people are entitled to making their own mistakes,” Sai said softly. “I believe that they must also face the consequences of those mistakes in order to learn from them. However, I believe also, as the saying goes, that no man is an island. It is, perhaps, the responsibility of friends to help each other recognize our own transgressions.”

“Another time,” Sakura snapped. “When we have better reinforcements, then Naruto can make his case. We aren’t prepared for that kind of mission. If we infiltrate now and Sasuke is deaf to what Naruto has to say, we’re in the middle of enemy territory and vastly outnumbered.”

“So you elect to abandon a former friend until then,” Sai considered, voice devoid of judgement. He considered her with oddly penetrating eyes.

Sakura’s mouth flattened.

“It doesn’t matter,” Naruto spoke up finally. His voice was hoarse. “The risks, the odds…As soon as any of that starts to matter, I violate my oath: the promise I made when I figured out what it means to be a ninja—what it means to me to be a ninja.”

Sakura felt a headache coming. She had the sense that she didn’t exactly have the moral higher ground here, certainly not in Naruto’s book. But when she had seen so many men and women die, most by her own hand—when she had seen their final moments, their final regrets, their final words—how could she want anything other than to selfishly protect those whom she considered most precious to her, no matter the cost?

Perhaps, Sasuke had once been one of those individuals. Then, he had left and, demonstrably, not looked back since. That night in the park had changed everything for Sakura, too. Despite what she had deluded herself of before, she was no longer interested in persuading herself that she and Sasuke had ever shared a legitimate bond. Sakura and Sasuke had hardly been teammates, let alone friends.

In truth, Sasuke felt like—a toy from her childhood: one she had one-sidedly obsessed over and played with years ago, only now, she could hardly figure out what had drawn her to it in the first place. If anything, she could only see how immature she had been, to play with it.

It wasn’t that she had an active desire to harm him, though she tried to best not to think about how she had once acted toward him and how he had once treated her. But if she had to choose between Sasuke and Naruto, she would choose Naruto.

Her gaze fell without thought on the black-haired boy to her left. She would choose Sai too.

“It’s settled, then,” Naruto announced gruffly.

It wasn’t settled, but she felt that it would benefit her to leave that as a surprise for later. She didn’t respond, turning her head the other way.

“You are very determined, dickless,” Sai observed with his usual bluntness. But his tone was slightly off to Sakura’s ears. “I suppose I must have been a considerably unsuitable replacement.”

Naruto’s head whipped around on his neck so quickly, she thought she heard a crack.

“You’re a part of Team Seven, proper,” he muttered gruffly. “Nothing changes that.”

She caught Sai’s gaze. He seemed, if plastic was malleable enough to allow such a thing, deeply conflicted. She faced ahead again, frowning, wishing she could know what was going on through his head.


Sakura, really, really wished she had known what was going through Sai’s head three hours later, when they took a short water break in the final stretch to Orochimaru’s hideout and, after, could no longer find him.

“I don’t understand,” Naruto said, waving his hands in demonstration, “He was right there. I looked away for one second and—”

“He’s gone,” Yamato murmured, eyes narrow as he gaze through the thicket of bushes.

Naruto’s face was tight as he turned to their interim captain. “You know who Sai really is, don’t you?”

The older man blinked, gazing somewhere above both their heads. Finally, he sighed. “I guessed as soon as I saw him—everyone had that look in Root. I suspect he is an active member that was assigned to your team with his own mission.”

“What is Root?” Sakura pressed.

“An autonomous subdivision of ANBU with no oversight from either the hokage or the council. It was supposed to have officially disbanded years ago, but apparently its leader has still been operating underground in the time since.”

“If what you’re saying is true, how did Sai end up there?” Naruto demanded. “What’s his mission?”

The ex-Root member gave Naruto a blank look. “I’ve never seen him in my life, not until today. I have no idea. I had no idea, even then, how people ended up in Root. It seemed to be something that a person…fell into. And by that point, it was already too late to leave.”

Sakura’s fingers shook. A subdivision of ANBU with no oversight? There would have been nothing to stop Sai from being sent on missions without the proper training or the necessary backup. ANBU as a whole was already notoriously bad at both those things. But without even the pretense of accountability—what would be allowed in Root?

“Who’s the leader of Root?”

The Voice thrummed with frenetic energy inside her. Bloodthirst? it murmured greedily, It’s been far too long.

Yamato stared at her hard, as though weighing the consequences of giving her this information. He seemed to decide in her favor, for after a brief pause, he admitted carefully: “Shimura Danzo.”

“We need to go after Sai,” Naruto said grimly. He locked gazes with Sakura, a question on his face that it infuriated her he asked.

“Of course,” she answered angrily. She knotted her hair to keep it away from her face. She emptied her satchel of everything that could function as a weapon, and tied the satchel itself high up in the trees for safekeeping.

“If only we knew where he went,” he muttered, gaze roving over the expanse of green.

“We do,” Yamato remarked. 

“He left tracks, idiot.”

“What?” Naruto exclaimed. He looked around him skeptically. “Where?”

Sakura rolled her eyes. She grabbed his head and turned it in the right direction.

“If he left tracks,” Naruto began. His voice lowered, gaze sharp. “Do you think he meant to?”

“I don’t know.” She straightened. “We’ll have ask him when we find him.”

Yamato wordlessly took off in the direction of the tracks. She and Naruto followed. Part of her wasn’t even surprised when the location they reached was precisely that of Orochimaru’s alleged hideout. Though why Sai was here was beyond her.

“We’ll go in,” Naruto said strongly. He turned his head to Sakura, though his eyes remained fixed ahead. “You can stay here and keep watch—”

“I’m going in,” Sakura said shortly. She shifted, cracking her neck.

Yamato gave her an unreadable look. “Haruno, this will be more dangerous than almost any other mission you’ve been on,” he informed her.

Sakura eyes widened briefly in shock. He’d seen her official file, she guessed, which admittedly didn’t amount to much. “I should find it character-building, then,” she muttered.

He gave her one final look and left it at that. The entrance to the hideout was exceptionally discreet to her own eyes, but Yamato made short work of whatever was hiding it. After that, it was almost laughably easy to enter.

Which suggested, Sakura considered, that its occupants were fairly certain no one would ever made it back out.

They were immediately confronted by a fork of three possible paths. The tunnels were so dimly lit, that it was impossible to see more than a meter ahead. They looked at each other in silent agreement before parting ways. Sakura took the middle path, a long winding tunnel that at times seemed almost to circle back. Every now and then, a door appeared.

Sometimes she heard a strange scratching or groaning behind them, as though they held back wild animals rather than humans—but the heartbeats she detected were human.

Her face was grim as she sprinted through the seemingly endless tunnel. She’d heard, of course, the circumstances of Orochimaru’s defection from Konoha. He had been Tsunade’s teammate. Before he had left, the pair of them had been the village’s most promising candidates for medical and scientific advancement. Now, there was only Tsunade.

Despite what he had done, there was still a thread of regret in Tsunade’s voice whenever she mentioned him. Perhaps, Sakura considered distractedly, what she felt for Orochimaru was similar to what Naruto felt for Sasuke.

Sakura reached another fork and skidded to a halt. Three paths again. She was about to turn to the left one, when the sound of an explosion rocked the ground beneath her feet. She blindly chose the tunnel she was closest to, fearing that the walls might start caving in. As she ran, she began to see brightening natural light ahead of her.

Each step she took, the bark brown color of the tunnel’s walls became more and more visible until, at last, she burst through into open daylight.

The explosion she had heard had made a crater right at the center of the labyrinth of tunnels. At the middle stood Sai, only his profile visible to Sakura. But from his strained jaw and furrowed brows, as he looked somewhere up, he seemed almost—

Fearful.

Sakura was at his side in less than a second, moving quicker than she knew was supposed to be capable of and uncaring who saw. Sai had already started to turn his head, but she grabbed him by the collar and forced him the rest of the way.

“I thought Naruto was the trigger-happy idiot,” she hissed. “If I’d known you were liable to run into here as well, please note that I would have given you the same exact speech too.”

“Sakura-san,” Sai said softly, dispassionately.

“So this is my replacement.” Her hands loosened slightly on Sai’s shirt. She knew that voice.

I bet he still has pretty, pretty blood, the Voice whispered.

For a long time, his farewell had become synonymous with her recollection of those men coming after her. Only now did the association slide fully into place. The last time she had seen her former teammate, she realized abruptly, had been hours before the first time the Voice had ever taken over her. Hours before the first time she had ever killed anyone.

Part of her, she found with some shock, had resentfully, childishly hoped to go her entire life never seeing Sasuke again.

Slowly, she lifted her gaze from Sai toward the sky until she found him, silhouetted by the sun.

“Sasuke,” another voice identified, choked. On the opposite side of the crater, Naruto had just emerged. The wind rustled Sasuke’s garments, disrupting the rope around his waist and the loose, white long-sleeved shirt he wore. The shirt only barely covered his front, revealing musculature that spoke of years of harsh training in the time he’d been gone.

Sakura watched them size each other up, Naruto’s face contorted by grief, Sasuke’s smooth with implacable calm. Just as before, they seemed to be suddenly in their own world, and no other person existed to them.

“Naruto, is it?” Sasuke said coolly, posing it like it was a guess. Sakura almost rolled her eyes.

Naruto recoiled like he’d been struck. He breathed rapidly. “You…back then…why didn’t you kill me?”

She felt Sai stiffen beneath her hands. Blinking—belatedly realizing she was still holding him tightly—she let him go. 

“A whim,” Sasuke commented, voice distant as he looked at the horizon. “I didn’t particularly care whether you were alive or dead. It made no difference to me.”

Then his gaze lowered and sharpened. “But it seems you’ve come to make yourself an annoyance now. And pests? Those require exterminating.”

In an instant, he had descended from his lofty position to stand immediately in front of Naruto, draping a longer, heavier arm over his shoulder.

“Tell me, Naruto, do you still want to be hokage after all these years?” Sasuke drawled, “Pity. You should have spent more time training instead of chasing after me. Because this time, at my whim, you will lose your life.”

He drew out his katana slowly, precisely. She was about to move when Sai’s hand fell on her shoulder.

“I’ll go first,” Sai said under his breath, dark eyes gleaming.

“No,” Sakura said immediately. Her eyes narrowed. “Why?”

He gave a small smile. “You’ve hidden it well, Sakura-san. But small things betrayed you over these past few months. I think both you and I know why you should wait.”

“I’m not sure—"

“The person most likely to land the final blow,” Sai finished conversationally, “should take every measure to ensure they hold out until the end, yes?”

Sakura’s mouth slackened. She was still gaping as Sai pulled from her grasp to shoot towards Naruto and Sasuke. He reached just in time, sliding behind Naruto with one hand latching onto Sasuke’s wrist, the other hand swinging out with his tantō only to be stopped by Naruto himself.

All three figures froze for a moment, taking stock of their situation. Sasuke was the first to act, his hands coming together in a blur. Lightning crackled through the air. It was tightly controlled, quieter than she was used to; his comparative inexperience showed (Sakura had seen Kakashi use chidori in ways that begged suspension of disbelief), but he wielded it with concerning mastery nonetheless.

The lightning expanded, knocking Naruto first—and hard—then Sai. They flew a few meters back and landed hard, curling in on themselves.

Sasuke’s katana hissed through the air as he spun it, adjusting his hold. He examined Naruto and then Sai. He moved towards Sai.

Sakura shunshined in front of Sai, picking up his fallen tantō in the same quick motion. The blade was shorter than she was used to, she considered as she looked down at it. No matter. A sharp edge was a sharp edge.

“I hate cleaning excess blood off my blade,” he continued indifferently. “But if you think your standing in front of him will stop me, you’re mistaken.”

“Your last words to me were ‘thank you,’” Sakura muttered, trying to keep an eye on Sai and Naruto’s condition. “I wonder: where did all that gratitude go?”

Sasuke looked down at her, bored. “Do you even know what to do with that?”

His blood looks prettier by the second, the Voice cajoled.

“Leave her alone, Sasuke!” Naruto cried out from somewhere behind her. “Sakura, I can’t get up yet. You have to—you need to—" Whatever he intended to say was cut off as he dissolved into violent coughing, eyes shut as he grimaced in pain.

She heard Sai groan into consciousness behind her, shifting on the ground. Sakura watched Sasuke closely, tantō held deceptively loosely in her hand.

“Go on then.” The Voice purred in the back of her mind.

When Sasuke had said he didn’t care—to her at least—he had truly meant it. His limbs shifted from utter stillness to stunning motion ruthlessly, his katana slashing downward to make what would surely be a killing blow.

The last thing she heard was Sai’s quick inhalation, a sound of undeniable apprehension despite what he had told her earlier—and then Sakura’s focus sharpened to nothing else but the oncoming figure.

She abandoned her improper position: shifted her weight, planted her feet, and brought her tantō up unblinking. Sasuke’s blade drove into hers with ferocious force from above. A loud clang thundered through the crater, but her arms didn’t buckle a millimeter. Sasuke’s expression was still disinterested, but she could see that it was clearly a thin veneer now. His eyes flashed tellingly with something like annoyance and surprise.

Sakura leaned back and shifted her blade under Sasuke’s to its flat side, causing his to slip. His mouth tightened as he shifted his stance to counteract his instability. She pivoted on her feet, about to strike, when she heard Yamato shout from behind her, running toward them.

Her gaze darted to Sai, and she made a split-second decision. She leaned back to grab him and then shunshined to Naruto, allowing Yamato to replace her. She healed the most debilitating of their injuries, all the while watching the fight closely. When wood emerged from Yamato’s hands, her eyes widened. She’d never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, his makeshift dome didn’t imprison Sasuke for long, and he sliced through the top, soaring through the air to land where he had started.

Yamato staggered back with a grimace, clutching where Sasuke’s sword had pierced his chest.

“None of you are a match for me,” Sasuke said coldly. His gaze flicked for a second to Sakura, expression stiff. “Luck will not sustain you.”

But Sakura’s attention was elsewhere now. “Can you stand?” she asked, helping Sai up.

“Yes,” he exhaled, face paler than usual. “He took me by surprise. I’m still weak, however; I don’t know how much use I’ll be fighting.”

She considered him for a second and then bared her teeth in a brash smile, like she would have beneath her ANBU mask to Snail or Bear. “That one up there?” she said lightly. “I can take him.”

Sai straightened suddenly, eyes widening before narrowing. “And what about that one?”

Sakura followed his gaze. Standing beside Sasuke, seemingly from out of nowhere, was Orochimaru.

“Fuck,” she said aloud. Yamato had been stabbed in the chest and was on the ground, Sai and Naruto were healed now but still weak. Which left her to handle both Sasuke and Orochimaru and also heal Yamato, before his injury worsened.

But then, unexpectedly, Yamato straightened, his face regaining some of its former color. “Apologies. I didn’t want to do anything too rough to your former teammate in front of you, but I believe I have no choice but to get serious now.”

Sakura’s frown dissipated slightly. Sasuke looked down at them disinterestedly, his hands flowing through hand signs until his entire body was coated with rippling, white chakra.

“Serious?” Naruto asked, voice cracked. His attention was fixed on Sasuke, mouth downturned.

“I can’t just let those who left the village in the same way as Orochimaru run loose,” Yamato clarified calmly. He looked at them then, brow furrowing. “Don’t look so concerned, Naruto. If Orochimaru himself is here, that means reinforcement is well on its way.”

She arched an eyebrow. Reinforcement?—someone had been tracking Orochimaru, she pieced together. She had assumed that the sannin had emerged from inside the base, but that clearly wasn’t the case. If  Orochimaru had been aware of being tracked, then he had only to returned here due to a signal from someone on the base.

“What reinforcement?” Sai asked politely. As Naruto nodded vigorously in support of the question, the Voice suddenly became quite vocal in her mind.

Get your head out of the clouds, it seethed. Pay attention.

She stiffened, head finally snapping to the left. “No,” she hissed, face reddening.

He’s coming, the Voice murmured.

Lamentably, it was true. And now that she had noticed it, it felt like waiting for a tidal wave. His killing intent crackled through the air with such intensity, that his abrupt appearance in the crater—the dust settling like after-thought around him—was almost anti-climactic. 

Nevertheless, there Kakashi stood, as arrogant and discomfiting (for her) as ever. The pale of his scarred arms gleamed under the sun—he was wearing his ANBU uniform. His face, however, was covered only by the black mask.

And Sakura’s face had blossomed into a full-fledged vicious scowl. ‘For the foreseeable future’ her ass. Where had her reprieve gone? She had thought she had days, potentially weeks, free of him—

“You’ve been hunting me, copy-nin,” Orochimaru said, voice as oily and silky as it had been the first time she’d heard it.

Kakashi’s eyes crinkled in a savage smile. “You’ve been running.”

“Are you okay?” Sai asked her, pointing to her trembling shoulders.

Sakura gave a humorless chuckle. “Nope,” she grunted. “Now I actually do want to stab something, but the chance of that happening has become considerably less likely with him here.”

“Because he doesn’t leave leftovers,” the other boy guessed, face questioning.

“Let’s go with that.”

Sasuke made a sudden motion forward, and Sakura’s face grew grim. Kakashi’s attention slid to his former student, eyebrow arching like an errant cat had tried to swat at him.

The last person she expected, however, acted to stop him. She blinked rapidly, wondering if she had imagined it. But when she opened her eyes again, Orochimaru’s hand remained on Sasuke’s wrist.

Sasuke’s head turned slowly to face him, eyes unreadable.

“It would be…myopic of us to forget the Akatsuki,” Orochimaru stated, amber eyes glinting. “Your former captain, you may not have heard, has made a name now as an Akatsuki-killer. With the Akatsuki out of the way, you must realize your revenge would become that much easier.”

“I don’t need his help,” Sasuke said in a monotone.

“Of course not,” Orochimaru said, bowing his head. His gaze lifted again, chiding. “But we will let the copy-nin do his job, because it is convenient for us.”

Sasuke stared at him silently for a little. “That’s a pathetic reason,” he remarked. You are running, was what he didn’t say but what everyone understood was being accused.

Orochimaru didn’t award this with a response. He faced forward again, locking eyes with Kakashi, gaze narrowing. And then he snapped his fingers, and both he and his protégé’s bodies became consumed by fire as they quickly disappeared.

“Sasuke!” Naruto roared, leaping forward. Kakashi coolly grabbed him by the back of his neck, holding him in place. He didn’t seem very unconcerned that the person he had been tracking was vanishing before his eyes.

“Kakashi-senpai,” Yamato said softly, bowing. Sakura was taken aback by the solemn deference in his regard.

“Tenzou,” Kakashi acknowledged, gaze haughty as it then passed over the rest of them. It landed, finally, on Sai.

In an instant, the copy-nin towered over him, his shoulder just inches from Sakura, who also stood beside Sai.

“Someone looks guilty,” Kakashi noted softly, sharingan glowing. “Doesn’t he?”

Chapter Text

Sakura didn’t mean to fall asleep. Dusk loomed in the horizon, and with it, Tsunade’s decision about Sai. But no matter how much much she wondered how Sai was doing or how Naruto was holding up or what in the hell Kakashi was thinking, really, at any time—her body simply couldn’t keep up.

She’d become a terrible sleeper over the last few years, prone to long periods of time without rest altogether. When her body did inevitably give into exhaustion, therefore, Sakura was somewhat used to closing her eyes and waking up only to find the moon peeking through her curtains once more.

That was, partly, why she woke up with the feeling of terror. Was it dusk yet? When she felt a breeze wash over her (she hadn’t opened the window?) she tripped out of her bed and stumbled over, terrified of what she would find once she pulled open the curtain—

Perched on the ledge was a singular creature, almost as black as the expanse of sky behind it. If not for the unusual coloring of one of its eyes, she would have had trouble distinguishing it in the darkness.

“Not now,” Sakura began, voice hoarse from lack of use. But she was too late. Before she knew it, she had already been transported to the discomfiting dream-illusion plane of Shisui’s genjutsus.

For a moment, she stared at it, speechless with rage. She quickly broke out of her stupor.

“You,” she stalked toward it, voice low and dangerous, “I've put up with your shit for years now, I’ve done almost everything you’ve wanted, sure, to some extent, because I started to see something in it for myself, but also because you made it very clear that you weren’t interested in giving me much of a choice. I accepted that back then, but I’m stronger now—you made me that way—and you are going to listen to me, when I say that I don’t have time for this—”

“We’re hours from dusk,” the crow interrupted calmly. “I can make months of time one minute in the real world. I have no interest in making you hate me, despite what you might believe. ”

Sakura wrestled with what to say next. In the end, she demanded, “Well, why are you here?”

The crow turned its head until just its red eye gleamed at her, almost accusingly. “It’s time.”

It took a few moments for Sakura to understand. Her eyes caught on the sharingan and widened, a passerby viewing an impending collision.

“Why now?”

“Because you’re ready.”

Her face twisted at that. “Am I?” she challenged. “Or do you just need me to be?”

Shisui gazed indifferently at her.

“I don’t understand how you can possibly believe I would trust you anymore,” she muttered.

“And once again, I am shown that humans truly are the most ungrateful of living beings,” was the creature’s swift response. “I have given you every tool you possess now. I taught you to survive, when others would have left you groveling in the dirt. I taught you to become someone who would hunt those who would ever dare to harm you.”

“And?” Sakura snapped, “Don’t paint yourself as a selfless benefactor. The entire time, you’ve made countless demands. I’ve shed blood for you, and I still don’t know why. All those missions, forcing me into ANBU, making me live with this—”

Illusions, scent distorters, disguises, lies, secrets: all manners of means used to make sure no one would ever know Sakura and Saori Mori were the same person. Sakura wouldn’t be surprised if she spent the latter half of her life (assuming she hadn’t lived past the half-mark already) spending the admitted small fortune she had made on therapists.

“Don’t be naïve,” Shisui snapped back. “Nothing is free in this world. Your anonymity was part of the price for your training. And of course, your training serves its own end.”

“What end?” Sakura exclaimed, frustration taking over. “Why, of all people, me?”

The crow shifted its weight—in other circumstances, she would have read it as hesitance, perhaps even discomfort. Now, though, she saw only layers upon layers of deception, and that Shisui was likely delicately manufacturing a very superficial reveal.

“I needed someone who could use my sharingan to fight another with the sharingan. You had the chakra control and seemed...easily moldable. Of course, even I err now and again.”

Sakura blinked dumbly. “You want me to fight Itachi?”

The crow was silent for a long pause, but Sakura read a lot in that silence about its estimation of her.

“Not Itachi,” it revealed tonelessly. “Sasuke.”

And that—well, that wasn’t what she had expected. Though, given how bizarrely protective Shisui was of Itachi, and the fact that Sasuke wanted to avenge his clan…

“Itachi can’t handle Sasuke himself?” Sakura asked doubtfully.

“Itachi doesn’t want to handle Sasuke,” Shisui cut her off brusquely. “Not in any way that ends with his survival, at least.”

She squinted at it. “Not sure how you missed this, but: Itachi is part of the Akatsuki. I don’t think he’ll have any trouble—”

“Is today the day you want to cross me, Sakura?” the crow asked softly.

Sakura looked at it stoically. “To be perfectly honest, I don’t mind the odds.”

“Is today that day?”

Sakura didn’t believe she needed a sharingan to confront Sasuke. Something else was at play here, something Shisui was still hiding. Eyes narrowed, she evaluated the crow.

“Fine,” she said finally, softly. “Get on with it.”


 

She wasn’t quite sure what she expected. In the end, the ritual amounted to a small fire, copious provisions of blood, chanting, and a small seal placed at the space just beneath her rib cage. At first, nothing seemed to happen, and Sakura wondered if it all been a part of an elaborate prank, because the crow did seem to possess some an ill-informed sense of humor.

But then a searing, terrible pain suddenly split her head at the focal point her left eye socket. She stumbled back.

“If the fighting can be stopped, I’d like to stop it.”

“Me too.”

A solemn pact, made between one breeze and the next, beneath the yellow-green canopy of leaves.

She curled over her knees, eyes scrunched.

They were cousins, but somehow—until this moment—Shisui couldn’t remember having really ever spoken to Itachi. Had not realized until today that the ally he had been searching for could possibly be his own blood. Well, it was no surprise it had taken so long to find him. Shisui had many, many cousins.

They didn’t understand each other at first. At least, not beyond this one tenet they shared. Potentially, this was because of Itachi being so…odd. Naturally talented, yes, but glum too.

“What is the purpose of a shinobi?” Itachi asked him again and again. “What is the meaning of a village?”

It was the sole content of their first conversations. Itachi really wasn’t verbose—precisely, Shisui guessed from the few remarks he did share, because he spent so much time thinking. And if his mood was somber, this was quickly revealed to be a result of so many of his cousin’s thoughts being decidedly unhappy ones.

Shisui himself, of course, wasn’t built for such sustained introspection; and, more pointedly, he was considerably better at concealing his own bouts of grimness with noncommittal smiles. Still, clan members began to mention their names as a pair, a scarce breath of pause between—a phenomenon that baffled him every time he observed it. Because no matter how outwardly comparable they were, there was no question as to how crucially they were dissimilar as well. Shisui was cognizant enough of himself to realize that his decisiveness at times veered into impulsiveness; his judgement, admittedly, was swift and unforgiving. But Itachi, especially as he grew older, was increasingly quiet and somber, reflecting and reevaluating in cycles.

There were other differences as well. The fact that no matter how much time Itachi time spent with his lofty philosophizing, his love for his family was as steadfast as the mountains surrounding Konoha. Shisui watched it all with confusion, and if he was being strictly honest with himself, not a little resentment. Since learning about the coup, Shisui had long-forsaken his clan. A quick, clean—and mostly unobserved—break. Itachi’s persisting love—even knowing about the coup and resolving to prevent it—would be a profound weakness, Shisui guessed.

It wasn’t a sudden progression, but slow, like the water trickling out of the spout in front of his house.

(Until, one day, the earth below started to bevel, to cave in and crumble.)

They spent time together. They talked. But the final blow was when he could see the way Itachi listened to him carefully, looked to him for guidance, as though Shisui were—

Shisui had no family. Not anymore. Except, maybe, for Itachi.

A blind man would have been able to tell that the care he had nurtured for Itachi was one his cousin really only returned similarly toward Sasuke. Still, Shisui didn’t bother resenting him for it. Itachi would shoulder the world for his little brother, if that was what the universe required of him. And, possibly, Shisui would do the same for Itachi, simply because he had no one else left.

Sakura groaned, eyes fluttering. Blood began to seep from her closed eye.

Months passed, seasons came and went. Shisui grew wiser and harder.

He entered a state of self-imposed isolation, and Itachi—a bit baffled—let him. He couldn’t help but hate himself a little during it. It was only because he had allowed himself to care so much, that he felt such a keen sense of loss after.

He began to share less and less. He began to tell Itachi “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine,” even though Shisui knew better.

“Shisui,” Sakura snarled the crow, “what…" Her throat closed on the words.

“Something didn’t feel right, so I came back.”

“I’m glad.”

They were of a height then. It struck him keenly as he continued to speak: explained Danzo’s involvement, the inevitability of the coup and what must happen to the Uchiha. He knew that, silently, Itachi was being broken down, piece by piece, by each word. But, now, it was beyond whatever Shisui wanted—it was necessary.

“They’ll come after my left eye too.” It was almost night, the oranges and blues of dusk so beautiful his heart hurt. Had he ever paid attention before? “I need you…to take it.”

“Shisui.” It was the first time Shisui had ever seen anything like anger on his cousin’s face. He wished he would have had the time to see more.

(Who would have known they would end up here, years after they made a pact with beneath the yellow-green canopy of leaves, with Shisui’s death the price of their clan’s salvation?)

“You’re the only one I can trust. Protect the village, and the Uchiha name as well.”

“I will, but where will you—”

The wind rustled through the leaves, the edge of the cliff brushed against his heels, and his head exploded with pain as he removed his eye.

What he didn’t say was “You’ll be forced to walk down a long, dark path, one that’s filled with pain and suffering, and you’ll only have to take it because I was too weak.”

“Don’t worry, Itachi,” Shisui smiled instead, softly, fiercely. “It will be fine.”

And then he plunged off the cliff.

Sakura’s eyes snapped open. The world was split in front of her. On one side, she seemed to peer through a dusty, near-opaque window. But the other: she saw with a clarity she could never have even conceived of before. It was as though she had been blind before and only now was seeing for the first time, color and texture little more than abstract concepts to her until this moment.

Her face was wet, she realized, wiping it. Blood. Then her gaze moved upwards. In place of the crow’s left eye was an empty socket.

“Was that…even real?” she asked tonelessly. “Or just another one of your attempts at stringing me along.”

The creature met her gaze without reservation.

“Is he really dead?” she asked softly, confused by the tight feeling in her chest. These…feelings, they weren’t hers.

“Yes,” Shisui said, blunt.

“And Itachi,” she exhaled, hands tightening into fists at her side.

“Yes,” he repeated again.

Even saying the name now inspired something in her that had not been there before—it was a foreign emotion, alien to her. And yet, its hold was compelling.

Sakura groaned and rubbed at her eyes furiously. “Is this going to stay here forever now,” she demanded. “It hurts—”

“Already unbearable?” Shisui mocked. The crow, Sakura reflected, was nothing like its namesake. And yet—

“You saw these memories too,” she realized abruptly. “Did you know—?”

“That this imprint would be tied to the eye when I accepted it? That something of the original Shisui’s outlook, his sensitivity, his motivations could remain in what I considered then only to be an ownerless weapon?” the crow finished for her, curt. “No.”

“And now you’ve infected me too,” Sakura noted with a humorless smile. It soon fell flat.

Danzo.

“Something still doesn’t make sense,” she muttered. “How did someone like Itachi end up massacring his whole clan?”

“He was left with no other choice.”

Something about the crow’s words were fierce, impenetrable, though he was as unreadable as ever.

“But—”

Enough,” Shisui snapped at last. “No matter how much time we have, there is much to do. And you’ll have to master the basics before you can get anywhere near the mangekyou sharingan.”


When Sakura entered the real world again, she felt like she had aged far more than the time she had actually spent in the genjutsu—and even that had been months.

She was relieved, as well, that the world was blurrier around her and that her regular left eye was in its usual place. With a few hand signs—that was all the ritual now required—she could access Shisui’s eye when she needed; and Sakura was determined to keep that time to as minimal as possible.

The streets of Konoha were mostly abandoned, the only sounds from birds and the few shopkeepers who were still closing up. She reached the door to Tsunade’s office just as Naruto did. Once seeing the other, both paused.

As the sun set in the horizon, they shared a grim look. They entered.

The sight of Sai chained with ANBU guards on either side of him proved to be a little too much for Naruto.

“Look here, Tsunade-baa-chan,” Naruto growled, “I know technically you’re the hokage, but the way I see it—”

Sakura’s voice rose sharply. “He was coerced. And he was sealed to prevent him from telling anyone—”

“And that’s why he’s only being suspended from active duty for the foreseeable future,” Tsunade cut them both off irately, rubbing the bridge of her nose.

Sai straightened, blinking like a newborn chick: wondering and a bit lost.

“Come on, baa-chan,” Naruto groaned, but his face was regaining its usual pallor now. “It’s just Sai. He already went through T&I and everything.”

“Well ‘just Sai’ was working for an organization that I thought was long-dead. So just Sai is going to make sure he keeps an extremely low profile until I can manage looking at him without getting a migraine from the requisite anger, understand?”

Her amber eyes narrowed on Naruto and Sakura. “And you two—keep an eye on him. That’s an order.”

Sakura examined the clock above the hokage’s head, foot tapping rapidly. “Sure. But if Sai really is such a security risk, then why isn’t our jounin captain here?”

Tsunade’s lips curled humorlessly as she looked at Sakura. “If he were a security risk, Sai’s throat would be slit and he’d be lying in a ditch somewhere at your captain’s hands. As it stands, regardless of what Sai wants, the people previously in charge of him may attempt to make contact with him again when he is alone.”

“Ah,” Naruto remarked, brow clearing. “Well. See you later then!” It was clear his plan was to leave before Tsunade can change her mind.

“Make sure later isn’t too soon, brat,” Tsunade muttered. She swirled her cup and downed it in one go.

“Impressive,” Sai reflected as the ANBU removed the chains from his wrists. Sakura couldn’t quite stifle her laugh, and she quickly found her mentor’s ill-tempered attention on her.

“Get out of here,” the hokage snapped, “Give me some peace. Out!”

They high-tailed it out of the building before objects could be thrown in their direction. Once they were a few blocks away, they slowed down to a more moderate pace. Her gaze darted to Naruto, considering. Then, she recalled the near-level of toxicity in his apartment’s air.

“You’ll have to stay over at my place,” Sakura sighed, resigned.

Sai nodded peaceably, but Naruto’s eyes widened. “You’re having a sleep-over,” he exclaimed, hands flying out, “Without me?!”

“You can come along,” Sai generously granted, nodding his head in self-affirmation. Sakura’s mouth moved soundlessly for a few seconds, aghast yet again at the true failure of Sai’s social skills, this time in offering her meager apartment up like it was his own.

But then her eyes landed on Naruto, and she grunted and gave up.

“Let’s do takeout from Ichiraku’s!”


They made their way over to the ramen place. Thankfully, given the late time, there wasn’t much of a line ahead of them. Within twenty minutes, they were shouldering their way through Sakura’s door with full cartons of ramen in their hands.

Her apartment was by no means big, but she had some open space near the foot of her futon where she planned to lay out two mission pallets she had. She started pulling out some extra pillows and quilts as Naruto and Sai began digging into their dinners.

“You know,” Naruto slurped loudly, “your place looks a lot different from what I imagined.”

“Really?” Sai responded. “What did you expect?”

“A lot more pink,” Naruto confided.

Sakura was in the middle of rolling her eyes when Sai chose to chip in. “From what I’ve seen, Sakura seems to wear more red than pink,” the black-haired boy said, forehead scrunching contemplatively. “That, for example.”

Her head swiveled too late in the direction Sai pointed to. A lacy, more-sheer-than-solid-material bra in crimson red—and which clearly belonged to a much more blessed woman than Sakura—hung from the edge of her dresser.

Her hand twitched belatedly to remove it.

“A sleepover?” the blonde tried, face a little red. While the size discrepancy had clearly gone above Sai’s head, it hadn’t Naruto’s, apparently. Great. The one time Naruto opted to be observant of the details.

Sakura felt her cheeks heat up a little despite herself. “Of a…sort.”

Sai’s head shifted slowly from her to Naruto, expression sage. “I think that was a euphemism for intimate relations—”

“I got that, Sai,” Naruto said a little high-pitched, digging intently into his ramen. “Thanks!”

The conversation lapsed into a brief period of silence. Sakura dumped the quilts in her arms onto their respective pallets and then went to retrieve pillows.

“So you like girls?” Naruto spoke up again, clearing his throat and clearly making a concerted effort into looking as relaxed as possible. It didn’t help that he leaned his chin into his hand, only for his elbow to slip against the lacquer surface of her coffee table.

“Yes.” She dropped the pillows. They landed with twin thuds.

“Oh.” Then, his face scrunched up in confusion. “Wait a minute, but you were crazy about the teme when we were—”

“I didn’t say I liked them exclusively, idiot,” she snapped, grabbing her own ramen with a little too much force. She settled down on an unoccupied side of her coffee table and began eating viciously.

“Oh.” Naruto’s expression took on an introspective look.

“I never liked anyone,” Sai said primly. “Until Shikamaru, that is.”

At this, their other teammate’s calm fractured. “What? You and Shikamaru? Since when?”

“Around the same time as Yamanaka-san and Hyuuga-san, I believe.”

“WHAT?! HINATA IS SEEING INO—!”

“Obviously not, dickless. The other Hyuuga close to our age.”

Naruto exhaled a giant sigh of relief, fanning himself like an elderly civilian who had just been put through the paces climbing his own staircase. “You can’t scare me like that, Sai. Like, Hinata is way more adventurous than I thought, but I don’t think I could ever be on board with—”

“Too. Much. Information,” Sakura grunted.

“Er, right.”

Somehow, they managed to scarf down the rest of their ramen without any more outbursts or mishaps.

They spoke some more: inane, idle conversation, really. Sakura had some ice cream in her freezer that hadn’t yet gone bad, so she grabbed that too and served it to them. Not long after, though, Naruto began to yawn loudly—wide, jaw-cracking yawns—and they started to settle down for sleep.

“Thank you. Both of you, for…” Sai paused for a while, as though he too weren’t sure what to say. “Standing by me,” he settled with finally.

Sakura, who had just stepped into her bathroom to change into a pair of sleep pants and a loose shirt, stilled. “You don’t have to thank us,” she said at last.

“Yeah,” Naruto echoed, voice dark. “Don’t. Or maybe wait until we’ve actually done something to make up for what happened to you.”

Sakura stepped out from the bathroom, eyes narrowed. “Exactly.”

Sai’s dark eyes surveyed them carefully. “Are you going to kill him?”

“Um, well,” Naruto said a little uncomfortably, “maybe that’s—”

Sakura’s gaze flicked to Sai. “The thought has crossed my mind,” she commented calmly, eyes locked onto him. “Will someone like him stop unless he’s dead?”

The boy shook his head slowly.

Sakura’s lips twitched humorlessly, head tilting back.

“You can’t,” Naruto said lowly, standing up. “Planning someone’s murder like that: that’s a line you can’t ever uncross. That’s what the black ops are for. Not us.”

“Until now, the black ops have done nothing,” Sai observed, voice unprejudiced.

“Tsunade knows the truth now,” he argued, “so they will.”

And that was…probably true. But if that particular mission was deemed to be a particular classification, it might actually be passed to her team—and then, in some way, it could actually be Sakura’s responsibility to kill Danzo.

Sai seemed to sense that there was more truth than exaggeration to her words. He looked at her solemnly, even as he stretched out along the pallet. He had, since joining their team, grown leaps and bounds in reading the people around him: she and Naruto especially. And, in equal turns, Sakura felt some measure of discomfort and some measure of relief in being seen.

“It’s a non-issue now, anyway,” she finished diplomatically. She walked to the opposite end of the room to grab a hair tie from her nightstand.

Naruto, for a moment, looked like he didn’t want to let the issue go. But another yawn broke out—this time from Sai—and his shoulders slackened a little. Sighing, he shook his head and settled down onto the pallet.

Sakura moved towards her bed as well, but paused as she heard a scratching noise at the window. Her gaze landed on Shisui waiting impatiently at the window.

She exhaled, disbelieving. Sakura stalked toward the window and yanked it open. Again? She hoped her expression conveyed the monumentality of pain she would bring to it if it pulled anything now.

Giving her an unreadable glance, the crow turned away from her and offered up a scroll. Her throat tightened.

Red. Red scrolls were—

She snatched it blindly and unraveled it, fingers trembling.

“Sakura,” Naruto mumbled tiredly. “What is it?”

“Just a message from the hospital. They have a shortage of medic-nins today, so they need me to come in.” Pitch-perfect. Unfailingly even.

“Will it be all night?” Sai, this time.

“Probably,” Sakura said, almost soundless.

“Feel free to take the bed,” she added a second later.

She grabbed her ANBU mask, her back covering her actions, and left the apartment.


“No,” Bear said blankly. “Just—no.”

They all looked at Raccoon’s dead body, swathed in ceremonial cloth and ornamentation, with disbelief.

“We just saw him,” Snail whispered, eyes shining. “Just the other day.”

“Yeah,” Hyena said, tone formal and distant. But it only took one look at her face to realize that she was struggling too. Everyone liked Raccoon. Raccoon was likable. Even when it had been the last thing Sakura had wanted—being on this team—she had liked Raccoon.

“Fuck this,” Sakura choked out.

The other ANBU members stiffened, looking almost hostile to her interjection. Unconsciously, her hands tightened at her sides. She could understand. She was too new: almost a voyeur here compared to them—to the grief they probably shared.

But then, unexpectedly, Bear grunted out an earnest: “Yeah.”

Sakura stared at him, taken aback. Once she recovered, she could do nothing more than nod tightly.

“All it takes is one slip,” Hyena remarked.

“Shut up,” Bear growled, shoulders trembling. “Why was he even on this team, if he had…”

They all tensed.

It was custom as part of the ceremony to—at least here, in the privacy of the ANBU headquarters—commemorate the lives the fallen operatives had lived outside of the headquarters. A hollow attempt at softening what was objectively a shitty end, Sakura thought. Because there would be no recognition for any of them outside these walls; at least, not for what they had done as ANBU. Even in death, relatives and loved ones could become targets of revenge, and names and identities could be dangerous. Apparently Raccoon—calm, likable Raccoon—had left behind a two year old daughter, for whom he had been sole guardian.

“Piece of shit,” Hyena managed, eyes scrunched.

Snail recoiled. Her hand tightened around the other woman’s bicep. “You shouldn’t—”

“No, that is some bullshit,” the black-haired woman raged. “How the hell could he have been so irresponsible? What’s going to happen to his kid?”

“He must have had his reasons,” Snail said softly.

“Well, fuck his reasons!”

Sakura rocked onto her heels and then back forward again, blinking rapidly. All of them were wrapped and suffocated in the misery of this place, in each other’s misery. She could see the others shifting as well, perhaps victims of the same discomfort.

“I need to be alone,” Bear whispered.

“And I need to get out of here,” hissed Hyena.

Snail nodded shakily, and Sakura offered no protest. The two nodded stiffly to them in farewell, before disappearing.

“Crow,” the other woman said quietly, after an eternity of staring at Raccoon’s unbreathing form. “I’m not sure if you’ve been in ANBU long enough on any one team before to grow close to someone like this, to…experience a team member’s death that matters. What I can tell you, is that we all…manage only because we have our support mechanisms, whatever they are. And whatever works for you, it might not be what works for anyone else. But…if—if you need—”

“Thanks,” Sakura interrupted, chest aching from the strain Snail was clearly going through—to try to be helpful, to be nice, even now. And she meant it. “I’ve got it handled.”

That last part—that was the part she wasn’t sure of.


“A bottle,” Sakura demanded, seated perhaps ill-advisedly at an ill-reputed inn she had seen self-respecting individuals only skirt around during daylight hours. Probably contributing to its poor reputation, the inn was outfitted with a sizable bar. Another contributing factor: its clientele.

“You paying now or charging to a room?” the bartender asked, raising a brow.

“To my room,” she grunted, writing the number down on the parchment handed to her.

She ignored the glances around her. She still wore Saori Mori's face along with sleep pants and a baggy shirt, clothes she had put on to go to sleep. She knew she made an odd visual ultimately, at odds with the inn’s other occupants, who composed the non-shinobi half of Konoha’s seedy underbelly: thugs and loan sharks and the like. Whatever.

“What’s a nice girl like you doing here—”

“Thanks,” Sakura bit out, grabbing the bottle from the bartender before he had actually made the motion to hand it to her. She twisted the cap loose and brought it to her lips, swallowing the burning liquid like it was water.

“Take it easy there, lady,” a boy—younger than her—with a scar bisecting his eyebrow warned. An older woman stood beside him with a thin smile, watching indifferently.

“You his mom?” Sakura sneered, jerking the bottle at him.

Her smile widened. “If I am?”

She swung forward, the alcohol hitting her hard and burning through her veins, until her face was inches from the other woman’s.

“That’s fucked up,” she spat.

A hand, from somewhere behind her, landed on her shoulder.

Sakura shook it off violently, eyes slitted. “Don’t touch me.”

A tall boulder of a man bumped into her from the right, and she honed in on him like a moth to a flame.

“Look at you,” she sang, giggling, “you look like exactly like the kind of thing good people think goes bump in the night—” the smile fell from her face, and she craned upward with a ugly snarl—“want to go?”

“Hey,” the bartender snapped, fingers connecting in front of her face. “I’m not having any of that here. Go back on up.”

Sakura twisted violently, nostrils flaring. “What?”

“I said go the hell back on up,” the man repeated, liking he was talking to a child. “I’m not having the authorities over here because a stupid girl tried to rebel and got murdered.”

A bark of laughter burst out of her, sharp and animal. “Fine,” Sakura allowed, “But I’m taking this—and this with me.”

She grabbed her own bottle and her enraged neighbor’s and made her way toward the rickety stairs, uncaring of the shouts behind her. The stairs curved ever so slightly—which made them a little tricky to navigate—but she reached the landing of her floor in less than five minutes. All in all: a win.

Glowering at nothing in particular, Sakura shoved the key into her door; after a bit of noisy scrabbling, the lock twisted finally, and she stumbled in.

There was already someone in the room.

In one instant, Sakura burned all the alcohol from her body and twisted in the direction of the foreign presence. Through the door-less, worn frame of the entrance to the tub, a lone, pale figure with silver-grey sat in bloodied water.

The blood drained from Sakura’s face.

He turned, slowly, emotionlessly. His face, she saw, was covered in blood too—just like the uniform he still wore, which painted the water around him an ugly brown-red.

“Where were you?” Sakura whispered, ice-cold. Her lips felt bloodless too, numb. Why are you here now?

He stared at her, right through her, as though she had said nothing.

Anger lanced through her veins and she stalked forward, hands slamming into the sides of the tub.

Where the fuck were you! When the rest of us were there—"

“They’re dead,” he said, eyes at last sharpening. His voice was a rasp, almost inaudible.

Sakura rocked back for the second time that night, this time more violently than the first. “What?”

“I killed them,” he stated, now clinically. Simple. Factual.

She glanced downward, into the water. Blood of the ones who had killed Raccoon, then. Not just anyone’s blood. She kneeled blankly, palming it.

And then she couldn’t stop herself, couldn’t stop the words and hated their pleading quality.

“How did it—how did it make you feel?” Did it help? she needed to know.

Did it feel good? the Voice wanted.

He twisted in one fluid, deadly motion to face her, and his gaze was cruel.

“Don’t test me, shinobi,” Kakashi snarled, each word like a knife.

Sakura grabbed him by his matted hair. Shinobi? She would have laughed, if she had had it within her now to find anything humorous.

“Don’t even try it, asshole,” she hissed, gaze boring into his. “Tell me the fucking truth.”

She rested her forehead against his, and there was nothing but desperation and resentment in the act, that she needed him to say it.

“You came here,” she rasped, accusing.

His sharingan spun, a dizzying endless loop of motion. And then…and then

“Like suffocating.”

And then he was gasping, trembling: full-body tremors shook through him, and all Sakura could do was watch. His hands sliced into the water and then drove toward his face, scrubbing desperately. And the entire time he was silent. Disconcertingly silent.

It took her a long time, longer than she would like to admit, to understand what she was seeing—that this was, perhaps, what lay beneath it all: an injured, self-loathing animal, at last cornered. An animal, Sakura could see, that was as liable to lash out, deadly and uncaring, as it was to curl in on itself, cowering from its own violence.

His breathing was erratic; his hands attempted to rend and also to cleanse and failed at both. For every portion of skin he cleaned of blood, he opened long, crimson lines elsewhere, until Sakura could no longer watch and stopped him.

He snarled and snapped, and Sakura held the straining pale muscle of his biceps effortlessly.

“Who are you,” the copy-nin growled, surfacing at last. His eyes, when they met hers, possessed their sharp, predatory edge once more. “Who are you?”

Sakura’s hands curled and then began to scrub, working to remove the blood from him as well.

“I don’t know,” she returned, angry and confused. Her hands passed over his skin, and each self-made wound she encountered, she closed.

He grabbed her wrist, lifting the inner part to his nose. “Your scent,” he said darkly, his regular eye metallic in the flickering light, “Why do you wear distorters?”

Sakura’s pulse stuttered.

“Why do you think? When there are trackers like you out there,” she bit out, “I try my best to make your job as hard as possible whenever you decide to kill me.”

“Am I going to have to kill you?” His lashes, long and dark, dripped water.

“You’ve threatened it more than once.”

“And you’ve never believed it.”

“And you pretended,” she whispered, livid. “The perfect shinobi; the perfect weapon, blood-hungry and remorseless. You’ve pretended—and you’ve let us all believe it, when it never existed.”

She shoved away from him before he could respond, before he could try to lie again. Even without words, all it would take was one condescending, uncaring look, one distant sneer. And she didn’t care to see it. She made quick hand signs to summon of a blast of air that dried her in seconds. Moving to the bed, she yanked the thin comforter over herself and shut her eyes.

It was silent for so long, that she was almost certain that he had left. Possibly through the window, though she hadn’t heard it open. That seemed to be his modus operandi. She didn’t open her eyes to check.

An infinity passed, before she felt a brush of air near the side of the bed—as though there were someone standing beside it. She stiffened in response, debating how to react. But he moved with incomprehensible speed. A hand landed on the middle of her back, brief, so transitory it had to have been a blur to the eye, and with such terrifyingly controlled force that it was enough to displace her from the center of the bed to the side.

Another body—hard, compact—settled beside hers.

(Heat, some part of her noted, radiated from him like a furnace.)

Seriously?” Sakura drew herself up onto her elbows, incensed. He didn’t say anything. Just stared at her, eyes lidded. She watched him, lips thin.

Get out, she meant to say. “How long did you know him,” was what came out instead. She paled in the dark.

His face could have been chiseled from stone.

“A year."

Sakura turned over onto her side, away from him. “Is that long?”

“Longer than most.”

Sakura’s lips curled. “How long do you give me?”

The distance between them disappeared. Abruptly, she felt the full force of his body against her, crushing her as though to punish her, weighing down on her as though he meant to be oppressive. She saw red and twisted, about to spit vitriol.

She would have done it too. Had she not then noticed it: his hands, and the way they curled around her ribcage carefully—softly.

And she realized then that his…hold had not been what she had thought it had been.

Chapter Text

Sakura woke flat on her stomach, her face embedded deeply into a pillow. It was a gentle progression to consciousness—for which she was grateful, because it didn’t happen often like this. Usually, waking was more of a jarring process, thanks to the mother down the hall who was always screaming for her son to get up or ‘goddammit, Shiki, you’re going to be late again!’

No screams now, however.

In fact, there wasn’t much noise at all. Except, she realized gradually, a soft sibilant hiss—but metallic. Like metal sliding against metal.

Her gaze narrowed. Then, she shifted onto her forearms and swung her head around. 

He stood at the opposite corner of the room, looking tall and hard against the dull cream of the walls. His hands worked coldly—as callous as they had been soft before—as he strapped on his armor. She shifted to a sitting position, her tousled hair settling against her neck a second later. Kakashi’s head tilted in her direction, as he tightened the straps of his arm guard. His hands did not pause.

Air expelled from her in a sharp, furious burst. “Look at me.”

When he did, his gaze was distant.

Her nails dug into the sheets around her.

Indifferently, he slid his hitai-ate into place. And Sakura was about to become deranged. She wanted—she needed to see what she had seen before. Because if the copy-nin could break down, it meant—it meant that no one could be alright when they had done, what she and all ANBU had done. It meant that it was okay to feel what she felt, to experience the constant—

But it seemed, in this moment, that it all could have very well been part of a fool’s dream, born from nothing more than desperation.

The copy-nin’s eyes were dark. A bird had landed silently on the window sill. There was no message attached to its leg.

His form flickered, and he disappeared out the window.

(The bird itself had been the message, Sakura would realize later, fists deep into the trunks of some unfortunate trees.)


It didn’t take long after that for her to realize that Kakashi had decided to operate in the world like she didn’t exist.

Sakura watched him like a hawk, so much so that she was nudged more than one time (by Bear of all people) for her stare becoming a little too much glower. But she glowered more. Because mission after mission—it continued.

And she hated stake outs. Those had basically been the last three Team Seven missions, which hadn’t helped improve her mood. As it happened, they frequently gave her ample time and quiet to think about everything she didn’t want to think about.

For once, the jarring contrast between ANBU missions and her other missions was welcome.

“You need to get new kunai,” Hyena advised, examining the state of her blades as Sakura sheathed them.

“They are new.”

“You get that much blood on them?” Bear observed, unholy glee on his face.

They all straightened as the metal door to the locker rooms swung open.

But it wasn’t Kakashi. Instead, it was a familiar short, compact figure with silken, blood-red hair. Sakura’s stomach soured at the sight of it.

“The copy-nin’s team, right?” said the boy who had made her eat dirt during rounds, an arrogance in his voice that was youthful enough to earn some forgiveness. His eyes scanned them, finding Sakura last. “And the one who took my place. Got here in the end, though—wish the circumstances could have been better, of course.”

He bowed his head to them, but the movement was too cursory to be truly sympathetic.

“Why are all the new ones babies,” Bear groaned, adding to Sakura, “No offense.”

Sakura shrugged it off, finishing sharpening her chokuto. She slid it into the sheath strapped on her back.

“Shut up, Bear,” Hyena said calmly. She turned to Robin. “You read through the brief?”

“Yes ma’am,” he drawled. “Man, this team gets all the big shots. Spread the wealth, you know? Let the rest of us earn a name. ”

Snail laughed, though no one else did.

“Who did you get assigned, Robin?” she asked.

Despite the mask, it was easy to sense the way his face twisted into a frown. “Ran Osamu. Now Tsuruga Taiki—”

“—is the copy-nin’s assignment,” Hyena said curtly. 

Sakura listened in without really understanding. Neither name was familiar to her—nor was the name that she had been assigned as her target in the ambush.

“Of course,” Robin said too quickly, eyes gleaming, “But have you heard the stories? Now that’s a kenjutsu expert if you’ve ever heard of one.”

The door swung open again, though only partially. This time it was Kakashi.

“It’s time.” The door shut again.

“Charming,” Robin muttered next to her.

Sakura looked at him, wondering what she had been like to the others when she had first joined the ANBU team.


They traveled more quickly than usual and more grimly than they had in the past (for several reasons). Sakura didn’t know who had retrieved the information necessary for the imminent ambush, but it had been communicated to them that the person had died for it.

By the time the moon was high in the sky, they were hidden in the trees. They waited.

There was something about the moon and the light breeze that left her in a considerably reflective mood. Kakashi was—and she didn’t think this to be a coincidence—positioned on the farthest possible tree from her out of all her teammates. Her anger grew, until she wondered suddenly what the point of all of it was.

Why did she care so much? She knew that it was a façade now, though confusion and incredulity had made her doubt herself initially. It couldn’t, she thought heatedly, have anything to do with—with whatever else had happened. That had been a lapse of judgement and insignificant—

Look at me. The hoarse, livid demand he had made curled into her ears, like he was behind her, right now. Sakura hissed, strangling her rising arousal viciously.

Enough, she thought coldly. It was time she washed her hands of all this business. Pride or not, Sakura was going to find a new team. She didn’t care how it happened; only that it needed to.

Newly resolved, her grip tightened on her hilt of her chokuto. Just in time, too, as six figures burst into the area beneath them.

Sakura spotted her target—a rail thin girl with purple hair—and launched off her branch. The sensation of free-fall was briefly peaceful, before her opponent recognized her approach and attacked.

As Sakura’s hands shifted through multiple jutsus, she darted quick glances around to gauge the situation. Hyena and Bear were fighting as a pair against their targets, who had teamed up at the first notice of attack--her teammates, thankfully, seemed to be having the upper hand. Robin rushed forward as she watched, engaging his target in combat.

Sakura heard a telling spark and returned her attention to her opponent, raising a wall of earth just in time to absorb the impact of the resulting blast. She twisted to avoid the debris and caught a brief glimpse of Kakashi fighting Tsuruga Taiki.

A piercing bird cry rang from somewhere beyond in the trees. Sakura watched sourly as the girl she was fighting shaped her fingers to amplify her own responding call. Sakura was there the next second, her blade sliding smoothly into her stomach and then up.

Unfortunately, it was too late, as proven minutes later when a second Sound squad broke through the trees to their precise location, moving with a swiftness and deadliness that matched the first—which meant that they were decidedly outnumbered now.

Sakura growled and flipped her blade, joining the fray anew. She guarded Bear and Hyena’s backs, warding off two shinobi, but carefully watched Snail, who fought farther away. Another shinobi was approaching her and quickly. By his uniform, he was the captain of the second team.

Kakashi crossed her vision in a black blur to cut him off, fists crackling with lightning. Already knowing what she would see, Sakura looked back and Tsuruga Taiki bleeding and unconscious on the forest floor.

Show-off, she thought uncharitably.

She cracked her knuckles. Sakura wasn’t the most patient of fighters as it was, and now, she felt incentivized to end this as quickly and impressively as possible. A swift, dizzying genjutsu, perhaps?

A triumphant cry sounded through the air, interrupting her thoughts. Robin lifted his mask partway to flash her a quick, cocky grin. His target was strewn along the ground, kunai drilled through every one of his vital organs. Blood seeped lazily into the ground.

“On to the next one, I guess?” he called out.

So messy. She turned her head away, fingers moving through a genjutsu.

Boring, the Voice grumbled.

It wasn’t the most exciting of fights, Sakura allowed, but at least her uniform was clean. With luck, she wouldn’t even have to wash it until after the next mission.

“Robin, don’t—!” she heard Hyena cry. She had a sudden vision of him tilting the dead body so that the blood poured out more dramatically. Idiot, she thought. 

Death cries sounded a few meters ahead of her, and her eyes drifted to Kakashi again, unconsciously. His katana was speared through one shinobi’s chest, and his other hand still crackled with electricity in the chest of another. Sakura would have turned her head away then, most likely scowling, if not for the expression on his face. She would have expected cold satisfaction—or even indifference—before the look on his face as his eyes went toward—

Sakura’s gaze followed his and in an instant, the world stopped.

The scene in front of her presented as a still—a single frame of reality. Robin, on his knees, and his mask torn from his face; but it wasn’t his face Sakura saw, but the flash of his hair.

Bright and unreal, like silk.

And Tsuruga Taiki stood above him, apparently not-so-dead, with his blade angled down to drive into—not Robin’s—but Noriko’s heart. Just like Sakura had done.

The slip from Sakura to the Voice was seamless in a way it had never been before. Sakura choked, paled, and the Voice trembled into life, sliding into her limbs with a fury.

And she was gone.


When Sakura returned, she blinked and found a heart in her hands.

It was still pumping. And with each pump, blood poured from it all down her front—as well as onto the ripped open chest of the man collapsed at her feet. She stared dumbly.

She heard a few strangled noises from something beneath the body of the dead man. With a quick heave, the body was thrust off, and then Sakura saw it—the vermillion strands in that same exact fucking color—and the terror set in.

“Fuck, that’s gross. Would you mind throwing that thing somewhere else, please? Like, sometime soon—”

Sakura’s face contorted in grief and fury as she grasped the face beneath that hair punishingly between her hands. Why? Why had Noriko forced this guilt onto her? Why couldn’t she have just walked away that day—

New hands, burning with heat and strong, locked onto her biceps, and Sakura snarled.

“Let go,” were the words snapped harshly in her ear.

She lunged out of the hold —“Why did you ask me to do it?”—but the fiend caught her at the last possible moment, drawing her body forcefully close to his.

Sakura turned her crazed gaze to him at last. Kakashi’s gaze was a study in restraint, revealing absolutely nothing. It was enough to jar her back to reality. She inhaled rapidly and then—wide-eyed—swung her head around again.

She could see Robin now, sputtering and scrabbling away, beneath the curtain of red hair. Robin, not Noriko. Beside him was Tsuruga Taiki, his heart dropped next to him like an afterthought. It was sickening—not the sight, because she had long become desensitized to that--but the lack of control. She hadn't commanded the Voice to do that. She had not allowed the Voice to take over.

Sakura crumpled, held from the ground only by Kakashi. The forest was silent around her. All the targets had been eliminated, and now it was just her teammates who stared at her. She didn’t want to see their faces. She couldn’t. She needed to leave. Now.

“Let go of me.”

The fingers around her arms didn’t twitch.

Terror pierced through Sakura. “You,” she panted, bitter. “Let go of me—”

He didn’t let go. Instead, she felt the air around the both of them vibrate as her body was disassembled and then reassembled. They had shunshined somewhere else, and by the looks of it, far from where they had previously been in the forest.

She realized the irony of their situation, distantly. She wasn’t in the mood to be amused by it.

“Can’t you fucking listen,” Sakura spat. She spun and shoved him up against a tree. She wasn’t gentle—but his expression did not change. She knew because she had ripped off his mask, baring his face to the world. Sakura wanted him angry, she wanted him to fight her, but all the while, he remained implacably calm.

But, some part of her noted with vicious satisfaction, he was finally looking at her.

“So I exist now?” she mocked. “You pretend for three weeks, but now, now that I’ve clearly lost it, you to start paying attention?”

A hand raised toward her face, and Sakura regarded it with livid warning. But it moved slowly, unfailingly slow, as it settled at the base of her neck. Sakura recoiled in confusion, and his fingers slid into the gaps of her hair.

And next thing she knew, she was shoving herself forward. Her lips met his—harshly, cruelly, at first. Her hands, dripping blood and clawed, acted to tear at him. But he bore it all unflinchingly…and Sakura could have screamed, except everything inside her fractured and then fell apart at this unexpected submission.

She was in pieces, rent into a thousand pieces by his sudden, terrible tenderness, derived not from what he did, but from what he did not do. Warmth surged through her, slow and heavy like the trickle of honey, and she fell into him, her fingers yearning now, stumbling, faltering, awkward because they no longer sought to destroy. Her hands, as they stroked artlessly at his face, left streaks of blood; she knew this, because she could feel the unnatural slick and glide. But he did not flinch. She licked his teeth, because she suddenly hungered for the way they glanced her lips every now and then, and he did not flinch.

In this moment, she realized, absent of everything else—of what he had been to her or what he could be—she... Because of the way he held her, because of the way he moved beneath her hands...

It was hateful. She loathed it. If she could have, she would have buried her fingers in her own chest just to rip the sentiment out.

But it persisted.

Don’t leave, she almost said.

“Am I weak?” she forced out instead.

His eyes, as he looked at her, were incomprehensible.

“Or am I monstrous?”

His breath brushed her face, causing her jaw to slacken. “Are those the only options?” he asked, almost soundless.

"Are those yours?" she asked.

Something—an echo of many nights ago, before he had crawled into a bed beside her—flashed over his face.

He drew back, abruptly, cold. “We are not the same.”

Sakura followed him, unrelenting. “Is there an award for the violence we've accomplished? Should we be applauded?”

Kakashi’s face darkened further; both of his eyes could have been black.

She looked at him for a long moment, and then she turned her head. Just as she made the motion, she felt fingers curl around her neck once again. She stilled, chest tight--waiting.

“You know me outside of ANBU, don’t you?” he said lowly. “Don’t lie. Coyness doesn’t suit you.”

She stiffened as she realized the precise placement of the pads of his fingers. His fingers kept track of her pulse.

And, just like that, hatred returned, washing aside the...softness that had been plaguing her. Even now, the copy-nin was a predator: he had spotted weakness, hadn't he, and then gone for the jugular. How long had he been waiting? The swing from her previous bizarre calm to what followed was staggering. Fear pulsed through her—then anger, hot and heady, which was much better. “Should I kiss you instead?” she threatened, baring her teeth.

His eyes slanted down, surveying her coolly. But then, with something like softness again, he grasped her chin and his lips slid over hers, just briefly, an ephemeral contact that was gone too soon.

Sakura stared at him, disarmed.

“Your antagonism,” he murmured, “It’s always been personal. You wear scent distorters not just for anyone; you wear them for me.”

She fought through the return of the molasses, struggled for vitriol. “Point of fact, then—I could be anyone. A man. A woman. Your next door neighbor.”

The returning smile on his face was mean. “Besides the point. I’ve never wanted to want you.”

She could have been offended by that, except that it would have been hypocritical. She leaned away, first, then pulled completely away.

“I told you not to be coy,” he warned lowly, eyes tracking her motion.

Before he could reach her, she shunshined away.


Was he looking now? She leaned back onto her bed, glowering. The thought persisted.

Did he look at every face around him now and wonder if it was her? Not important. Because he would never look at Sakura of all people and wonder—of that, she was certain.

“What a mess,” she said aloud. She repeated it, just to hear the sound of her demise out loud.

Lust, with difficulty, she had been able to tolerate. This…feeling that overwhlemed her now, however, was more and less somehow, but infinitely worse: contradictory and inestimable, simultaneously vicious and trembling. And it was foreign, like nothing she had ever felt before. She didn’t know if she wanted to hurt Kakashi or consume him until no one could tell the difference between her and him. The hunger she felt was surely unconscionable.

But it had been born the moment he had held her in her madness, double-fold, triple-fold, to anything she had experienced before. Sakura didn’t know how to reconcile it all to herself: that she hated, still, the man she had only ever known as ‘Sakura,’ but could feel this way—so decisively—about someone she had met as ‘Saori Mori.’ It was—

Contemptible.

“And you,” she said, voice cool. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten.”

I was beginning to wonder if you’d gone senile, the Voice hissed. More and more, it seems like it.

“I won’t lose control like that ever again. So appreciate the memory while it’s still fresh.”

But it will happen, the Voice corrected, sneering. Anytime it becomes too much, I’ll be there, and that’s when you won’t be able to fight me. Sakura’s first instinct was to lash out in retaliation, but she contemplated the words with careful restraint instead. It could never become ‘too much’ ever again.

The door to her apartment creaked open, interrupting her introspection.

“Just because you have a key now doesn’t mean you can’t knock, you know."

Her eyess narrowed. Sai's suspension had been removed for a week now, but both Sai and Naruto had continued to inhabit her meager apartment like it was a free hotel.

“Fine,” Naruto allowed, eyes narrowing, “but did you take a look at the scroll on the table like I asked?”

Sakura’s mouth opened and closed. She hadn’t.

“I did,” Sai said, expression grim. “It’s far trickier than the previous, but I believe with no less than five attempts, we shall be able to perfect it. It will require a lot of energy and fortitude of mind, however.”

They were, of course, talking about the latest tonkatsu ramen recipe Naruto had found.

“I have full faith we’ll continue to live up to expectations,” Sai assured.

“And surpass,” Naruto said, very serious. “We have to be ambitious, Sai.”

Sakura grunted, standing now. “Both of you are tracking dirt all over the place. Why?”

Naruto scratched his cheek. “Well, you see, there was this bet with Tsunade—”

“We would rather not disclose the details,” Sai interjected quickly.

“But we won,” her blonde teammate finished, looking shifty now. “Ah…so.”

“So what?”

“What Naruto is trying but failing to relay,” Sai said calmly, “is that Tsunade has agreed to give us the next month to track Sasuke and bring him back.”

Chapter Text

Shopping.”

Naruto blinked at her. “Ah…what? Did you hear me? Tsunade baa-chan finally said we can go after Sasuke.”

“I need to go…” Sakura paused, stared blankly into space for a moment. “Shopping.”

“For what?”

Sai was a little too astute, Sakura thought. She picked up her wallet and gave a firm two-fingered over her shoulder. She made sure to keep her pace casual—neither too slow nor too fast. When she had fully exited the apartment building, however, she shunshined into an alley a kilometer away that she knew would be abandoned.

She hadn’t even fully corporealized before her fist was swinging. It landed with a satisfying crunch into the brick wall work, causing the neat hierarchal stacks to crumble in on themselves.

“Fuck,” she whispered, the word swallowed by the sound of her small act of destruction. Couldn't she have one crisis at a time?

But Sasuke wasn't a crisis—Sasuke was like a seasonal cold that she couldn’t get rid of. No matter how hard she tried to forget about him, he kept coming back. And now there was the added complication of Shisui, the crow’s, expectations.

And the actual Shisui’s as well.

Sakura cursed under her breath. The ritual for the sharingan had messed up everything. She wished she had known the outcome then and had decided to rebel against the crow that day after all.

Biceps straining against an invisible force, Sakura stood for one moment in utter stillness, before mustering the will to push off from the wall. Her fingers twitched lifelessly, and soon, her visage was that of Saori Mori’s. She affixed her ANBU mask and rejoined the crowd on the streets.

It didn’t take her long to find Kanami and Kane’s. Operated by a brother and sister, the weapons shop was a veritable fortress, extending half a kilometer in total. It was the premiere source of weapons in the Hidden Village; in point of fact, every weapon cost enough to outvalue gold in its equivalent weight. While technically, any shinobi could purchase weapons from Kanami and Kane’s, the cost was greatly subsidized for ANBU. Sakura couldn’t afford weapons here as herself, but she could as Saori Mori.

As always, not long after stepping one foot inside, Kanami appeared with all the forewarning of a sudden apparition. Unsurprisingly, she looked just as she had her first visit. Sakura had been here many times over the past three years, and yet, she had never actually observed the aging process in the other woman. Her hair was pure white—from time, Sakura knew, because paintings on the wall showed her once with midnight black locks—but only a few lines on her face otherwise betrayed her.

“Crow-san,” the handsome woman greeted, tilting her head down. Sakura returned the gesture.

“How can my sister and I help you today?” Sakura’s gaze flicked to the left and found Kane. Like his sister, he too wore his hair long, but it still contained streaks of black.

“Just browsing,” she muttered.

“Is there a particular section we can direct you toward?” Kane asked politely. To be fair, the shop was large enough with so many hidden rooms that, if she had to guess, very few shinobi in existence understood the whole layout.

“I'm looking for a katana,” she said after a short pause.

Kanami’s green gaze was penetrating. “You’ve never once purchased a long blade from us,” the woman noted quietly, her infamous memory proving itself one more.

“I wasn’t interested until now,” she said shortly, hoping that would end the conversation.

It did. Without another word, the pair directed her through a seeming maze of rooms until they reached a large, red hall. Here, blades gleamed brilliantly against their crimson backdrop. Other individuals, most clothed in the characteristic black and grey of black ops forces, also roamed the displays.

“Call once you’ve made your choice,” Kanami said softly. She disappeared with her brother, the slight smell of cinnamon left in the air after their departure.

Sakura turned on her heel. Stretching her hand out stiffly, she grabbed the first blade she found and spun it in her hand. It whistled through the air, catching the light like a flash of lightning. She flipped it, testing the feel of the handle. Too decorative, she decided. Carrying something so flashy in ANBU was a bad omen. She placed the katana back and stalked past its neighbors—each more extravagant than the last (were these for daimyos or actual shinobi?)—until she reached set of more understated set katanas.

Her gaze flicked impatiently over the row of blades, stopping only when she saw a slim, generally modest blade, which only stood out because of its unusual color: grey-black, like charcoal.

The Voice hummed impatiently in the back of her mind.

Slowly, she made her way to it. Her fingers wrapped around the simple handle, and she lifted the katana to test its swing. It seemed to sing through the air.

Delicious, the Voice moaned.

“Found it?”

“Fuck!” Sakura choked out, eyes flaring wide. She stopped herself just in time, the blade a scarce millimeter from the Kane’s throat.

He raised a brow, giving the appearance that this tended to happen to him often.

“You would think, by now, that you and your sister would learn to stop appearing out of nowhere—”

“Or that you ANBU would learn to pay more attention to your surroundings,” he responded evenly, scrawling out the price on a piece of parchment.

“We do,” Sakura said sourly, “We just tend to swing first and ask questions after.” She handed over the requested amount of money, unable to help the wave of gloom that swept over her at her now mostly empty pouch.

“Enjoy your purchase,” he responded, his form starting to blur tellingly.

“Wait, Kane-san, I’m finally done! Here, I’ve got all the money pulled out…” A hand promptly dropped a blur of coins into the older man’s open one just as he vanished.

The new masked face turned belatedly to look at Sakura. She blinked back.

“Oh,” Tortoise said.


“I’m sorry,” Sakura said, awkwardly clearing her throat as they leaned against a lamp post outside the weapons shop. “I hope… what I did that night didn’t have any repercussions for you.”

Tortoise stared at her silently for a moment. “None, actually,” she said finally. “Which was surprising.”

Sakura nodded in agreement. Neither of them had been punished—unlikely, all in all. Tortoise, of course, had truly done nothing. But Sakura…well, she had been outright insubordinate.

“Let’s head into the forest. I have more to say, and we have no privacy here.”

After a moment of consideration, Sakura followed her, until they were well masked by a thick spread of trees from the dirt paths of Konoha, at least visibly. 

“There were no repercussions,” Tortoise said lightly, “But that doesn’t make what you did okay.”

Sakura raised a brow.

“You didn’t know we would both go unpunished when you did it,” the other woman pointed out. “When you went after those ANBU captains.”

“I didn’t,” Sakura acknowledged.

“And I asked you to stop.”

“I did try,” she attempted blandly.

“No, you didn’t. Not really,” Tortoise returned, “You clearly have a temper.”

Her words, Sakura reflected somewhat apologetically, had no more effect on her than that of a stern teacher on a particularly uncaring, errant student.

“You didn’t actually do anything,” Sakura pointed out. “They can’t demote you for getting frisky in a club, you know.”

Tortoise was silent in response to that, which she took to mean she had won that point. Maybe, Sakura would have felt differently now if the stakes had been different. As it stood, however, nothing she had done could have harmed anything more than Tortoise’s paranoid sensibilities. Which she had, in fact, initially attempted to appease.

The black-haired ANBU let out a huff of incredulous laughter. “You really are an asshole, aren’t you?”

Sakura wasn’t sure how to respond to that. Or if she was meant to. Purple eyes rested with some strange emotion on Sakura’s face.

Tortoise gave another incredulous exhale. “It’s still kind of hot.”

Suddenly, she was pushing Sakura back against a tree. Sakura let it happen, mostly because she had not expected it at all—first Kane sneaking up on her, now this?—but when fingers brushed the bottom of her mask, her hand snapped up instinctively to shackle her wrist.

“It’s all fake anyway, isn’t it?” Tortoise breathed, pupils dilating. “Look, I’ll do mine first.”

True to her words, and without an iota of hesitation, one hand curled around the bottom of her mask and pulled up. Large purple eyes and arched brows were revealed above a soft, sensitive mouth.

“Now you.” And Tortoise was pulling again, and this time Sakura’s face—Saori Mori's fake face—met the cool air.

The other woman pressed forward eagerly, until soft, gently warm lips brushed Sakura’s. She stayed like that for only a moment, though, before tilting her head so that their lips slotted more firmly together.

Sakura drew back a second later, blinking.

“Is something wrong?” Tortoise asked, a soft, seductive hunger in her voice.

“No. Or rather,” she said, brow furrowing. Why had she pulled away? It hadn’t been unpleasant.

“Shh,” the ANBU murmured, leaning in again. As their tongues curled together, the shorter woman’s body curled into hers, angling up so that her breasts brushed against her own. It felt nice. Very nice. But it still wasn’t—

She pushed back, holding Tortoise back now by her hips, which were… Well, quite nice as well, actually. But there had been a reason she had moved away—

Sakura’s breath caught in her throat and her head jerked to the side.

He stood there in full ANBU regalia—even with the porcelain mask, for once. Rather than limiting the force of his gaze, the red lining framing the openings for eyes made his all the more prominent, all the more potent.

Horror set in. She knew there must had been something like naked panic on her face. She had expected him to come after her, of course—but not like this, not so soon. She hadn’t even thought about it when she had put on the disguise. So stupid.

Tortoise shifted, noticing him too, Her body was positioned just barely behind Sakura’s now as she darted glances between the two of them. “Is he in one of those episodes of madness that everyone talks about?” the other woman whispered.

Sakura couldn’t quite remove her gaze from Kakashi.

Tortoise’s form stiffened against her. “Or,” she said, voice returning to normal volume now, “is there—is there something between the two of you?”

She scowled and found her voice. “No—”

“Yes,” Kakashi said, with something like savagery. “Leave.”

Sakura stiffened as well, stance becoming more combative. Tortoise pressed more closely into her, her breath a nervous flutter against Sakura’s neck. She felt Kakashi’s eyes examine the motion.

“You wouldn't,” Sakura said, voice soft and eyes hard.

Kakashi’s eyes roved over her, filled warning.

“Crow,” Tortoise began.

“You should probably leave,” Sakura said calmly, eyes flicking to her.

The other woman nodded and began to move—only to halt again as she realized she wasn’t being followed. Tortoise looked at her incredulously. “You’re staying,” she said, lips turning down.

She waited, but Sakura remained still, silent. With one final glance, with the air of something like accusation, Tortoise shunshined away.

Sakura’s mouth tightened as she turned back. “You shouldn’t have followed me.”  

“As I said before,” Kakashi observed coolly, eyes darkening, “timidity doesn't suit you.”

Air hissed out from between her teeth. “I think we can both acknowledge that this, whatever this is, is a terrible idea—”

The mask—both masks—slid off Kakashi’s face, until she was staring directly at the harsh cruelty of his features, their heartless beauty. Her breath caught, and his eyes flashed knowingly.

“And yet it’s going to happen,” he was behind her now, his breath just brushing her ear, “isn’t it?”

Sakura tensed. He was so close, but he wasn’t actually touching her. The distance, precisely because it was so little, made her want to—

“You know it too,” he whispered, voice simultaneously ravenous and livid, “or you wouldn’t have pushed her away. Left us here, alone.”

“That had nothing to do with you.”

“I can smell it,” he hissed, dragging his nose up the line of her neck.

Sakura cursed with feeling.

Kakashi laughed coldly. She could feel the planes of his chest against her shoulder blades, against the muscles and scars of her back. She had moved into him.

Very well, she thought reluctantly. There was no denying now how this was going to end.

She shifted, teeth bared. “Don’t ask me questions I won’t answer.”

“Don’t touch anyone else,” he demanded. “Don’t let them touch you.” His hands manipulated her with unmistakable sadism, just shy of genuine pleasure.

“Don’t,” she choked out.

“Don’t what,” he breathed above her mouth, just millimeters away, holding himself back. Holding himself back from her, even as she strained to take him. Devour him. Have him.

“Don’t be…” she strained for him, nostrils flaring with rage, “cruel.”

His callous expression diminished. Perhaps, it was her words. Or maybe her voice, which betrayed more than she intended it to.

“Then don’t drive me mad.” And he kissed her.


Despite what some part of her, insidious and rebellious and against greater reason, had always contemplated, it was not hard and fast and punishing; nor, however, was it slow and sweet. Mostly, perhaps, because that would have required constancy and predictability, and neither of them were the sort to ascribe to such pillars.

If there were such pillars—pillars of fucking.

Mostly, indeed, she was incredulous that he fit in her: the entire, obscenely thick length of him—because of course, yes, the bastard was significantly larger than anything she had ever thought could comfortably fit. But she was arrogant, too, that she was strong enough then to take the full punishing, brunt of his thrusts and match him, overpower him at times, knot her hands in his silver mess of hair and make him kneel for her, until he flipped her over and drove into her from behind.

And then, also—even then, though she might never have imagined it, had never allowed it before—it was glorious.

She could do no more that pant, voice gone and thoughts in total disarray, as her fingers scrambled for purchase on some surface—any surface—to tide her through it all. But the bark beneath her fingers merely gave way until she was on the ground again, and he was still behind her, slower now, even more powerful, twisting his hips so that the molten length of him only just brushed that part inside of her, and she screamed at him, raged at him, cursed at him for more, and he held her through it all, the sound of his low breathing sounding like begging to her ears.

Her fingers touched him greedily, harshly enough—she knew—to leave bruises on his pale skin. And she was all the more glad for it, unconscionably pleased, because then anyone who ever saw him would know…

His thumb, calloused and rough and divine, kneaded the locus of nerves above where they were joined, and Sakura cried out.

“Kakashi,” she spat out, like it was hateful.

He groaned against her mouth, and she locked her legs around him more strongly, forcing his hips into her, so that he was deeper in her than he had been before. His sharingan spun in a dizzying blur, as though memorizing her broken expression at the resulting bliss.

The sight of it inspired a burst of insanity.

“Bet no one’s made you wrecked like this,”—mindless filth spilled from her mouth—“wish you could say my name, wish I could make you scream it for me—”

“Give it,” he demanded.

“No questions,” she warned, eyes flashing. Then, because it felt too good, her head fell back again.

Something like delighted dread washed over Sakura as he moved, transfixed and still seemingly resentful of this fact. As she watched, his hand drifted silkily lower, and then, a long, solitary finger slid inside her along his cock, spreading her impossibly wider. It was more than too much.

It burned like hell. Her nails sank into his arms as her whole body tensed in exquisite restraint.

Snarling--and it was a noise of defeat, this there was no doubt--he wrested her thighs apart, biceps flexing, as he thrust furiously into her. And this was infinitely worse and infinitely better, and she was against a tree for fuck’s sake, her pants rucked down to her knees, her shirt torn and hanging desperately to her arms, his clothes no better, and she wanted to ruin him. Ruin him so thoroughly that she owned him, so that he would be hers, so that she could—

She didn’t know who came first. But then he leaned into her, and that was no good, because they were on the ground now, and he was shuddering around her.

She felt him behind her, his breath caressing the side of her damp neck. Long, calloused fingers curled around her hip, helping him press his cock greedily into her, even though he had just come.

And it was just as Sakura realized she couldn’t bear the thought of emptiness, that she realized the monumentality of the mistake she had made. She wrenched his hand from her and moved forward, forcing him to slip out of her—ignoring the feeling of his cock dragging against her walls, causing unintended spasms of pleasure—before she stood up.

She began adjusting her clothes, using minor jutsus to fix the damage done. Kakashi’s eyes didn’t leave her once, claiming her nakedness with presumptuous authority.

“This was a mistake,” she told him.

She turned to leave. She didn’t make it.

“Fuck,” Sakura gritted out, fist colliding with the trunk of a tree. It cracked and split. She breathed heavily. “You won’t thank me for this. I know I can’t thank you.”

He moved with lethal grace to a seated position on the forest floor, his elbows resting on his knees. His expression did not change.  

“What was it?” she demanded, disgusted. “This body? This face? Artifice. You know that.”

His mouth curled now—at last, a reaction. “It was a fuck,” Kakashi said, suddenly distant. “Don't imagine it was more than that.”

Her face twisted.

“Good. It won’t happen again,” she promised.

His eyes followed her as she left, and she pretended—to herself—that she didn’t notice.


“You look like you didn’t sleep at all,” Naruto observed.

Sakura glared at him. It didn’t appear to have any affect.

“New katana?” Sai remarked quietly. She shifted her glare to him as she swung it over her shoulder. They exited the door of her apartment.

“Wait, Sakura,” the black-haired boy murmured as Naruto marched cheerily ahead of them, “I think you should…hold off.”

“Hold off on what,” she snapped.

“Your plans with Sasuke,” Sai said bluntly. He squinted ahead, his gaze landing squarely on Naruto. “Perhaps…he’s right. Perhaps there is a chance.”

She paused, felt several expressions flash across her face. She settled on indifference. “There are no plans,” Sakura said, “The new katana is just that. A new katana.”

Sai’s mouth twisted slightly. “I may not have been friends with you as long as Naruto,” he said quietly, “but I think of all your acquaintances, I fare the best in identifying when you lie.”

Sakura kept her face even. “What do you think I’m going to do, Sai?”

“Kill him,” the other boy said without hesitation.

She looked away from him for a second, to the rising run. “Hm,” she intoned.

Sai watched her closely, seeming paler than usual.

“And if I tried,” she said softly, “would you fight me?”

She watched his features spasm, something remarkably—on anyone else, she would have identified it as such—like pain flashing across them.

Sakura was aruptly seized by a terrible urgency.

“You shouldn’t,” she whispered back, gripping his shoulder until he looked up at her again. “If that time ever comes, don’t do anything to endanger your safety here.”

“But—”

“But, of course,” Sakura said, drawing back, “this is all in the hypothetical. A silly conversation, really.”

He fell silent.

Eventually, as he always did, Naruto whined for them to walk faster. After a moment of inaction, they picked up their pace. They reached the outskirts of Konoha just as the sun was fully risen. Two figures met them there: Yamato, who seemed to have become a new addition to their team, looking somber and square-jawed. And beside him, the copy-nin.

And when Sakura stood in front of them, she bowed her head and gave each a polite greeting, she felt absolutely nothing.

Chapter Text

It took Naruto twenty minutes to notice. His nose twitched like a squirrel’s, before his eyes widened.

“Did Kakashi-sensei ditch us?”

Sai wasn’t alone in turning to him with something like disgusted awe. Yamato in particular seemed to have a hard time finding words as they all flitted between the cedar trees. Sakura, sadly, was used to it by now.

“Dickless, he left us two minutes after we left Konoha.”

“No way,” Naruto scoffed. But he seemed then to reconsider his incredulity, past experience clearly passing through his mind. “Why?”

Now that was a better question—one Sakura had been too stubborn to ask. She turned her attention to Yamato who, feeling her gaze, seemed to straighten.

“He’s tracking ahead of us,” the older man said simply. “He’ll join us at night.”

Sai and Sakura exchanged a glance. “Ahead?” Sai pressed.

Yamato stared at the black-haired boy in a decidedly blank manner, which Sakura belatedly interpreted as calculation. “To take measure of the situation,” he said slowly. “If it proves too dangerous, he will send one of his summons with the instruction to turn back.”

“That was not part of the deal,” Naruto growled, blue eyes flashing. “Tsunade baa-chan said we could go after Sasuke—”

“Not necessarily that you would be the ones to confront him,” Yamato cut him off, as steadfast as the wood that sprouted from his palms. “Sasuke was last seen with Orochimaru, a known threat to Konoha and someone—pointedly—who has expressed concerning interest in you in the past. Our hokage may be a gambling woman, certainly more so than I can comfortably condone, but she is not foolhardy.”

Sai coughed politely beside her. Sakura ignored him. “And what about Kakashi? You herd the rest of us back, and he deals with Orochimaru and Sasuke by himself?”

“That’s certainly the way senpai prefers to do things,” Yamato considered. “It’s proven effective in the past.”

Sakura scowled. He wasn’t a god, Kakashi.

“Why do you call him senpai?” Her words lashed out with ill-disguised annoyance. “He’s younger than you, isn’t he? And you aren’t on his ANBU team anymore.”

“Oh? How did you know that?” His voice was sharper, now, just minutely.

Sakura regretted her words, thinking fast. “At Orochimaru’s hideout…It looked like that the two of you hadn’t seen each other in some time.”

Yamato watched her silently for a few more, torturous seconds, before nodding. “It is true. I hadn’t seen Kakashi-senpai for some years until then—” he paused, before continuing—“I suppose it’s no secret that he is an ANBU captain. And I’ve already told you of my own involvement in Root and ANBU.”

“Yes. And?” Naruto said sourly, his mind still clearly dwelling on the previous exchange.

“He, one could say,” Yamato seemed to hesitate over wording, “facilitated my leaving of Root. Soon after that, he became my ANBU captain. He was even younger then, of course—most if not all his age were genin. Still, somehow, even then, he always seemed…untouchable. Light years beyond anyone I knew. He still seems that way to me, to this day.”

Crescents formed on Sakura’s palms where her fingernails pressed in.

“You’re not wearing a dress,” Naruto said abruptly. He looked at her with something like accusation, as though departure from normalcy was a crime. She had made a habit of wearing them to training. God knew they weren't getting any use elsewhere.

“It seemed a little impractical for a long term mission,” she managed distractedly. “We have no idea what climates we’ll be traveling in, and besides—”

“Sai didn’t bother changing,” Naruto countered. “And he has his whole stomach out.”

“It’s my best feature,” Sai explained without blinking.

Yamato made an odd sound beside them.

“Don’t be stupid, Sai,” Sakura muttered. “That’s obviously your face.”

Naruto grunted in reluctant agreement.

“Truly,” the ex-Root member sighed, shaking his face toward the sky.


When night came, it arrived with a welcome breeze that chilled the air. Sakura lifted the short, uneven hair from the back of her neck, luxuriating in the brief freedom this gave her damp skin. In the distance, she could hear Naruto’s crowing voice intermixed with Sai’s softer tones as they splashed themselves in the nearby stream, hidden by the trees. Her body thrummed with the prospect of her turn.

“You manage well.”

Sakura turned quickly. She hadn’t heard anyone approach.

“Your anger earlier was telling,” Yamato revealed, looking a bit uncomfortable. “I realize that things must not have been…easy. That Kakashi-senpai must not have made them easy.”

She blinked at him, at first disarmed.

“On the contrary,” Sakura said, “learning from Kakashi has been exceptionally easy–” she kept her voice light—“he hardly ever teaches me anything.”

The older man’s face didn’t change. He shifted his weight slightly, so that he leaned against the tree behind him.

“You’ve known him many years now, haven’t you, Yamato-san,” Sakura demanded as it suddenly occurred to her. “He was even your captain, one time.”

She gave him time to respond. But he remained silent.

“I have ideas, of course,” she continued, voice hardening. “That he’s prejudiced against civilians. Or maybe—maybe it’s women he has a problem with: silly girls, he’s been thinking, better for them to stay at home and be daughters and wives than to play at shinobi—”

She had said it, not because she believed it, but because she had hoped it would provoke a response from him. It did.

“No,” he said shortly. “He wouldn’t have welcomed the sandaime’s very own grandson any more than he welcomed you.”

 “Why?”

He watched her, face unusually hard, for what seemed like an eternity. Then, Yamato looked past her into the trees. “Could you even understand?” he questioned, wryly. “When you have a mother and a father and a home and everything that is alien to him—alien to most of the shinobi whose names go down in history. When only broken men and women seem to survive in this line of work.”

Her mouth flattened. “So I was too coddled for him to teach? Too sheltered for him to even attempt it?”

Yamato’s expression was unreadable. “Not at all. Anyone can be broken.”

“Anyone can be broken,” the man repeated. He turned to look at Sakura. “So should he have done that to you?”

“And well-adjusted people have no value in violent conflict,” Sakura voiced incredulously. Never mind that as each day passed she increasingly seemed to be neither.

“From personal experience, when that conflict reaches certain stakes, it is a burden that they are ill-equipped to handle,” Yamato said softly. A strange smile appeared on his face. “I suppose I’ve exposed myself too, now. Maybe I would have shunned you as well, but more gently. Maybe, for that reason, I would have succeeded.”

He paused, then blinked rapidly, frowning. “Or perhaps, all this is what I think and not Kakashi-senpai at all. It’s hard to know.”

Sakura’s frustrated exhale was drowned out by the noise of Naruto and Sai’s return. The former stomped loudly, shaking the water out of his hair as he did so that it sprayed in every direction. She twisted slightly to avoid it.

“The stream is all yours, Sakura-san,” Sai said, gazing first at Sakura then at Yamato. Afraid of what he might see, she turned and marched swiftly to the water.

She didn’t bother folding her clothes, instead tossing them all onto the grass as she waded into the water. The cool temperature of the water was a pleasant surprise, retaining less heat from the day than she had expected. A full moon shone that night, rendering her reflection with unusual clarity.

She twisted to wash her back. The long stretch of irezumi reflected onto the water, colors astonishingly vivid.

Her gaze flicked away—only to return, her lips twisting.

It was, admittedly, odd. Sometimes, she went for long stretches forgetting that the tattoo existed entirely. Fitting, she supposed, because the decision had been a whim; when one treated one’s body conscientiously as means of survival, what went on it often hardly seemed to matter. Most days, that was precisely how Sakura felt.

But then, other times, she could hardly stop thinking about the irezumi—trying to touch it, steal glances at it. This mark after all, unlike most every other on her body, was something she had ultimately chosen. And somehow, sometimes, that made all the difference.

(Sakura’s alone. Not Saori Mori’s. Not the Crow’s or the ANBU’s.)

She didn’t know how long she stared at it, lost in thought. But she was abruptly forced back into reality as a familiar song of killing intent encroached their area of the forest. Sakura straightened and walked toward her clothes, roughly tugging them on after making the signs for a gust of wind to dry her body. Her hair, still wet, dampened her shirt—but she bore it stoically as she made her way back to their camp.

She found Sai and Yamato already sprawled on their pallets, the latter already snoring lightly. Sakura’s eyes flicked through the trees, locating Kakashi quickly.

Sai caught the motion. “He’s on first-watch.”

“Naruto?”

The black-haired boy silently pointed to a hill just at the edge of their line of sight. Alone, crouched on the branches of the very top of a tree, was a figure distinctly clad in black and orange.

 “You should talk to him.”

“Why me?” she asked. Why did tonight’s theme seem to be frustrating, uncomfortable conversation?

“Because only you could understand,” Sai answered. “Sasuke was your teammate as well.”

“As you know,” she responded, “having known Sasuke—to whatever extent I did—I have a decidedly different opinion from Naruto’s.”

Sai looked at her, eyes narrowing slightly.

“Is it really so hard for you to understand, Sakura?” Sai wondered calmly. “Naruto’s simultaneous frustration with the traitor and his…captivation?”

Sakura scoffed. “Yes, I’m not interested in making friends with anyone who’s run me through—”

“You show it too,” Sai said, softly.

“Excuse me?” The words emerged harsh and cold.

“I am admittedly a novice in this area, but—it seems to me often that you can’t help yourself,” the boy explained without inflection. “Most of the time you glare and, in those moments, I think it’s because you hate him. But other times, it’s different. The quality of your gaze, the way you stare at Kakashi-san…”

Sakura’s stomach dropped to the floor.

He broke off, face twisting. “I’m…not sure quite how to categorize it. It requires more studying. But, indeed, based on these factors alone, an observer might conclude that you are just obsessed with the taichou as dickless is with the traitor—”

“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” Sakura spat out.

Sai inclined his head. “That may be true. Still. Talk to Naruto.”

The manipulative little twit. At this point, Sakura was grateful for the chance to escape—exactly as he had no doubt intended. She let him have this victory and launched herself through the trees until she reached Naruto.

It was a tall tree—well-chosen, as it provided an excellent vantage point from which to observe the expanse of forest below. Not that Naruto seemed to notice. The blonde was slow to respond, even by his usual standards. When he did look up, it was with a grim expression. For a long time, they stared at each other in silence.

Realizing that this wouldn’t be quick, Sakura heaved a sigh and settled onto the branch. A knot in the tree dug into her back, but she managed, for the most part, to ignore it. She stared steadfastly at Naruto instead.

Woodland creatures rustled through the wilderness, a cacophony of noise, but Naruto was silent. As another second passed, the unease within Sakura grew.

“Hey,” she said loudly.

His distant gaze finally gained from focus. He looked paler than usual—but maybe that was the moonlight.

“You know,” he said slowly, the words stilted, almost dazed, “sometimes…I think I may have forgotten what he was really like.”

Sakura had been about to shift her weight, that knot a little too annoying after all. She paused now.

“Maybe I am chasing after something that doesn’t exist,” he whispered, “maybe I’ve just imagined it, and everyone’s right, and I’m just…”

Sakura knew, in an abstract sort of way, she that should have been pleased by this. Instead, she felt discomfited.

“Well, you know what I think,” she settled with.

But he waited—his head tilted to the side, listening, but not quite looking at her. As though she needed to say more. And she could have cursed out loud. “I don’t know what to say, Naruto,” she said, relenting despite herself, despite reason. “You know what I think, but we both know that you knew him best.”

“Did I?” he asked with unusual cynicism. It tested her forced calm. 

“You did,” she snapped now. “And it was obviously reciprocated. Back then.”

He exhaled sharply, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t know what’s real anymore. But…it used to feel like he was the only in the whole world who could understand,” he said, voice rough.

She opened her mouth to speak again, but ultimately refrained. A myriad of expressions were passing over Naruto’s vibrant features, and it was impossible to keep track of them.

“I don’t know what’s right, Sakura. But I feel—I feel like I owe it to that Sasuke to chase him to the ends of the earth, even if only the ghost of him exists. That’s how I feel, and I can’t change it.”

Sakura met his burning gaze. “Naruto, did you—”

He read her face immediately, reddening slightly. “It’s not like that.  But it doesn’t feel…any…less strong, okay? The way you feel about your hand or…or your foot…Sasuke was that. Looking at him was like like looking into the mirror, but everything I saw there was better. And it made me see, in myself, every failing, every flaw—but also that I was…that maybe I could be more than what everyone else saw...”

He broke off.

“Get some sleep,” she muttered.

He shrugged. “Probably not going to happen tonight.”

She could understand that. Some nights, Sakura was so wired she couldn’t even keep her hands still, her fingers vibrating with frenetic energy like some part of her still thought she was in active combat. She wondered how long it would take for her limbs to rid themselves of those instincts. Probably never.

When we’re dead, the Voice whispered.

Sakura stood up.

“Try,” she insisted. She stepped off the tree.


The week passed in a blur of mind-numbing monotony. As the following week began, she realized that the second Sasuke retrieval mission had now become her longest mission with Team Seven. The realization arose, perhaps not unexpectedly, as a result of growing frustration with her situation. Long-conditioned by the Crow and ANBU missions to live by a certain standard of vigilance, it was hard to adjust her trigger-happy reflexes to the ordinary, the mundane, now surrounding her—certainly for such an extended amount of time. They passed through village after village, and maybe—possibly—Sakura was beginning to understand a little of why Kakashi grated so ruthlessly against the cadence of the quotidian.

Or—not. Definitely not. She took that thought back.

“Oi, oi,” Naruto panted, eyes wide, “I think it’s ready!”

Sai smacked his approaching hand away.

He and Yamato had been delegated the task of grilling the meat at the yakiniku restaurant they had stumbled upon—for good reason, because Naruto’s impatience when hungry always led to undercooked or bland food and Sakura—

Well, apparently no one liked Sakura’s cooking. She sipped her water indifferently.

Her gaze passed over the occupants of the small restaurant, mostly obligatorily. She didn’t actually expect to find anything interesting.

“I’m heading to the restroom,” Sai said with ostensible reluctance, darting a skeptical glance Naruto’s way. “Don’t fuck it up, dickless.” Or else, he left unsaid.

Naruto eagerly grabbed the prongs, his stomach grumbling loudly as Sai departed. Sakura couldn’t quite stop herself from salivating too.

“It’s night time, and we’re finally at a restaurant,” Naruto pondered. “Why didn’t Kakashi join us? It’s meat.”

Yamato looked abruptly grave, an oddly humorous contrast to his current task. His next words, however, removed the bizarre humor from the situation entirely. “He believes we’re getting closer.”

“To Sasuke?” she found herself asking. As though it needed clarifying.

“Are we actually close? It feels like we’ve been moving randomly,” Naruto said skeptically. “North and north and north, then south, then west, now back east…”

“From what I understand from senpai,” Yamato said carefully, “Sasuke is no longer with Orochimaru. It seems that your former teammate is currently tracking someone else—hence our somewhat circuitous route.”

“No longer with Orochimaru,” Sakura repeated blankly.

The meat was all but forgotten. Naruto’s face grew increasingly red. “He’s been—He left? Why?”

Yamato looked a bit shifty-eyed now. “It’s hard to say—”

He was cut off by the muffled hiss of a kunai nailing neatly into the chunk of meat currently burning on their grill. Naruto grunted, and Sakura’s panicked eyes found a kunai embedded in his shoulder.

Her nostrils flared, the Voice awakening with growing scent of blood. What the fuck?

As cries of pain and terror sounded all throughout the restaurant, Yamato moved without hesitation, grabbing the platter and upending the meat to shield them from the next volley. Sakura launched herself into a crouch on the table, fitting her body behind the large silver disk; she felt Naruto settle beside her.

An attack on the singular yakiniku restaurant they had chosen? How shitty exactly was their luck…

“The meat,” Naruto mourned.

“Quiet,” Yamato hushed, looking strained. He peered over the platter to examine the situation. His jaw tightened.

“What is it?” Sakura voiced, urgent. She shifted slightly as well and understood immediately. Her hands fisted at her sides.

“These shinobi have been garnering bit of a name for themselves. They use genjutsu to simulate invisibility,” Yamato said grimly.

…the ‘invisible’ shinobi. Sakura would have given anything to have encountered in any other situation—even alone would have been preferable.

“If we don’t manage this situation carefully,” Yamato instructed, “this will become a slaughterhouse. Now, listen carefully, we know that they take shinobi and civilian bodies for experiment—”

“Sai,” Naruto blurted, just as Sakura jerked in the direction of the bathroom. They all strained with their senses to find his chakra; in an emergency situation like this, he should have flared his chakra a few times intermittently, just enough for those attuned to it to find him.

She didn’t detect anything.

“Likely, he has been captured,” was the blunt conclusion relayed to them. Naruto made a low, wounded noise. Sakura snarled and shifted for the katana on her back, uncaring of Shisui’s commands now—laying low was simply no longer an option.

But…kidnapped? Her mind worked quickly. The necessary course of action here was not to fight. The opposite, in fact. She dropped her katana to the ground.

Yamato blinked slowly at her. “Sakura, what are you—”

“I’ll find him,” Sakura hissed to Naruto, “stay safe.”

She launched herself into the chaos.


Just as Yamato had predicted, their objective had been to grab and dart with as many still-living bodies as they could. This, she supposed, had saved her from considerable amounts of injury in the willful act of being kidnapped. She had only taken one kunai to her leg before she was deemed easy-pickings and struck over the head.

She winced now as they dragged her down a seeming labyrinth of prison cells, at least fifty miles from where the restaurant had been, still feeling the force of the blow. If she hadn’t regained consciousness quickly enough, she wouldn’t have had time to heal herself from the resulting concussion before they had put the chakra-dampening chains across her wrists. That had been luck and nothing else.

Getting captured—purposefully—was a just as inadvisable experience the second time as the first, she reflected with some private amusement.

“This one is a shinobi too,” the man herding her growled.

She was unceremoniously tossed into a dank cell, lit only by a torch hanging almost out of sight in the corridor. She skidded on her knees, stopping her momentum with increased friction as she applied more pressure to her toes. Small divots appeared in the rocky ground beneath her until she stopped.

It took some time for her eyes to adjust to the new lighting. When they did, she found Sai almost immediately. Eyes closed, leaning against the back wall of the cell, a darkening bruise livid against the skin of his cheek, he sat there seemingly indifferent to the bodies around him in the same cell. She made a beeline for her teammate, ignoring the people she had to push out of the way. Some pushed back, threatening violence; she ignored them, dogged in her pursuit.

“Sai,” she whispered, voice soft. She reached for his cheek.

His eyes snapped open, then widened. “Sakura.”

He pushed away from the wall, grimacing. She frowned. “Where are you hurt?”

“Broken ribs, shoulder out of alignment,” he recounted calmly. “Blow to the head as well—I think I’m concussed.” His eyelids slid downward.

“No sleeping,” she commanded. She slid in the small space between him and the corner, glaring out at the gazes that measured them, some frightened, some desperate, others clinical. She could imagine it wouldn’t take long for them to turn on each other—the weakest would fall prey to the stronger, be the first served up when the guards came knocking.

Right now, Sai looked vulnerable, and the hawks circled.

“We…have no chakra,” the boy beside her said blearily. He straightened. “How did you get captured? You were with Yamato-san and dickless—"

“I wasn’t letting you get captured alone,” Sakura muttered, shoulders tensing as her gaze darted over the cell. “Sounded like too much fun.”

Sai made a small noise. She turned to look at him. She didn’t think she’d ever seen him look so young.

“You don’t have any chakra,” he repeated, gaze sharpening. “There’s no straightforward exit strategy here. You’ve only invited unnecessary torture—possible death—on to yourself. For what reason?”

Her chest ached and her head hurt. “You know why,” she said simply, in a tone that brooked no argument.

His glance cut downwards. “It isn’t worth—”

“Shut up,” she growled.

A man, by a considerable margin the largest of the bunch, had emerged from the crowd. His gaze flicked over Sai, cataloguing his injuries. Sakura peered up at him indifferently. The man’s eyes, dark and beetle-like, drifted to her.

“Don’t do yourself a disservice here, girl,” he said told her, voice smooth. “You’re only going to become collateral damage if you try getting in the way—” his mouth curved into a cold smile—“Without him you’ll last…well, longer. Maybe.”

“Sakura,” Sai said softly from behind her.

“Shut up,” Sakura said again, softly now as well. She stood and cracked her neck, one quick snap to the left and then to the right. She eyed the men and women flanking her challenger with a raised brow. 

The Voice cackled inside her. No jutsu, just fist and bone and blood and desperation…

Against her will, it goaded her, if just slightly.

“Hey Sai,” she called out, “what would Naruto say? Something loud, stupid, and straight out of a mafia movie, right…Let’s see…”

She smirked at her teammate. “Want to rumble?”

She could hear Sai’s choked, incredulous laugh as she feinted, twisting to avoid the man’s heavy fist. Using the same momentum, she kicked off the back wall and drove her elbow back, right into his solar plexus. She felt him buckle and then stumble back.

Sakura waited, fists drawn up, impatient. “Come on, old man,” she groaned, “I’m going to fall asleep over here.”

He snarled and charged toward her. She latched a hand onto his collar and yanked his head straight into her knee.

This isn’t even interesting, the Voice grumbled.  

He went down like a sack of potatoes.

The other shinobi in the cell watched in silence. Sakura sighed and then pushed her short, uneven hair back, uncaring that she had probably laced blood into the strands.

“This is going to be a slug fest, isn’t it,” she remarked.

Three of them came for her next.


Even though it was gross, even though she was well-versed in medical ninjutsu, she couldn’t stop herself from picking at her split knuckles.

“You shouldn’t,” Sai spoke aloud.  

She hadn’t noticed him waking up. It was hard to tell what time of the day it was, but she reckoned he had slept at least the past five hours (once she had determined that he had managed to escape a concussion). Thankfully, he had finally regained some color.

Sakura became abruptly aware of herself, crouched and vibrating with ill-managed energy. The prison cell was getting to her: the dark, the absence of her chakra, and the fearful watchfulness of every other cellmate in here towards her. Each time she accidentally glanced at one of them, they flinched.

“Are you scared?” she asked.

“No,” Sai answered easily. “Just resigned.”

“Resigned to what?”

He shifted his weight. “Even with your abilities—without chakra, you cannot protect me for long if those rogue-nin choose me as their next subject. And given that we have no idea how long we’ll be here...”

“The situation isn’t that dire, Sai. We’ll be out of here soon.”

“What do you mean?”

“Obviously, Kakashi will be here soon.”

Sai blinked at her. “He will?”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Undoubtedly. He loves stealing the thunder when it comes to this sort of thing.”

Sai’s gaze suddenly seemed incredibly penetrating. She drew back a little, frowning.

“I really don’t understand,” the boy said lightly.

“Understand what?” she asked, picking at her split knuckles again.

“How your face can express so much resentment for him, when you still believe that he will…abandon the trail he’s been pursuing for the past week, neglect the mission he has been assigned by the hokage, to pursue us—without any doubt.”

Sakura felt adrift, not quite sure how to manage this accusation of inconsistency. “He told you himself, didn’t he? His 'philosophy' that anyone who abandons their teammates is scum. Never mind that he’s a walking catastrophe—”

“Yes, I’ve heard it,” Sai said unflinchingly. “He’s an instructor; it is his duty to propagate such lessons. Often, lessons can be ideals, compromised in the most strenuous of circumstances. This is one such circumstance. But, still, you believe he will follow through…unflinchingly.”

“So?” Sakura returned, feeling defensive. “It’s just one not-shitty thing he manages to remain faithful to. Don’t make a huge deal out of it.”

“In the work we operate in,” Sai considered aloud, “how can it be as insignificant as you suggest?”

“If Naruto were here, he would be telling you the same exact thing,” said Sakura shortly.

“Naruto is still naïve to the worst parts of what it means to be a shinobi. You are not. He isn't either.”

She opened her mouth to retort with, but she was cut off by shouts from further down the corridor. She jolted in place, recognizing what those sounds meant. He had, as ever, impeccable timing, Sakura reflected sourly.

The other occupants of the cell began to shift restlessly, eyes flaring with alarm.

“Don’t move,” she barked, face still dark from her previous exchange with Sai. They froze immediately, crowding the back wall away from her. Sakura stared at them for a moment, unnerved by their immediate obedience, until she shook herself out of her momentary stupor.

She stretched out a hand. With difficulty, Sai pulled himself up. Sakura slung his arm over her shoulders and supported most of his weight.

“H-here, just here,” they heard a voice cry out, accompanied by stumbling footsteps, “please, I’m begging you, don’t hurt me—look, look they’re right here, we haven’t even touched them. Unharmed!”

A short, square jawed man appeared in front of their cell, panic wracking his frame so violently that only survival instinct seemed to keep him upright. A moment later, the copy-nin himself appeared in front of the cell, surveying the contents of their cell almost leisurely.

His entire demeanor of laziness was betrayed, however, by the savage gleam in his eyes. And then there was the blood that coated his uniform in broad, crude strokes, vermillion and telling. He had killed his way here—there had been no subterfuge. The Voice hissed within her, both livid at its perceived competition and reluctantly admiring. And Sakura…Well, Sakura stood there, face blank, trying to ignore Sai’s words about why, when she had doubted almost everything else, she had not for one instant doubted this.

Kakashi’s gaze passed over them. He paused at the livid bruise on Sai’s face.

“I did not authorize that—!” the man tried to plead. Kakashi’s blade slid clean through his throat; he didn’t even bother looking as he killed him.

As one hand slid the blade back into its sheath, his other tensed to produce a familiar spark of lightning. When the high pitched chirping abated, Sakura looked over and found the bars of the cell all but melted. Kakashi stepped forward, one long leg followed by another, until he stood fully inside the cell with all of them. No one moved, but the temperature seemed to drop. Sakura’s jaw clenched to the point of pain.

He grabbed Sai’s chains first, fist tightening with chakra until they crumbled into small particles. Without pause, he moved to Sakura next. His fingertips just grazed the insides of her wrist, and her face went pale, her gaze flying up to the ceiling to hide what it might reveal.

“Injuries,” Kakashi demanded, voice low and dangerous.

“Broken rib, shoulder out of alignment,” Sai listed hastily, before adding tentatively, “possibly a fractured cheekbone.”

She felt the weight of that gaze on her next. Her nostrils flared. “Nothing. Just a few scrapes and bruises. I can heal him now.”

She didn’t wait for permission. Hands flaring with green, she found Sai’s injuries with business-like directness. The boy’s frame quickly relaxed under her hands.

“Are Naruto and Yamato-san far?” Sai asked, sounding a bit drugged.

Kakashi’s attention flicked over the other inmates of their cell. Like with Sakura—though in his case from fear of reputation alone—they shrunk back. 

His mismatched gaze landed on Sai again, narrowing. “Close,” he said shortly.

Sai nodded, hissing lightly as Sakura finished the last of her work. She stepped back after, discreetly trying to wipe the blood from her hair. Would he think it was her own? If Kakashi noticed it, he didn’t show. He cast one final glance over the cell and left. Belatedly, Sai and Sakura followed.

Like the copy-nin had said, they did not have to travel far. The encampment was easy to spot from even a distance, the smoke from a live fire curling its way into the twilight sky. As they approached, Naruto burst through the trees. His strained face found Kakashi first, then moved left, settling on her and Sai. He careened into them a second later, his arms swinging out to engulf them both. Sakura returned the embrace halfheartedly, locating Yamato over his shoulder. He watched them carefully.

“You must be hungry,” Yamato said, voice quiet. “Come.”

Naruto and Sai shifted immediately, arms still slung around each other.

“I’ll join you in a second,” she said almost soundlessly. Sai’s eyes narrowed as he looked back. Naruto waved an errant hand and continued to pull him away.

Yamato stayed, eyes wide. “Senpai,” he started.

“Leave.”

Sakura’s lips turn downward. Yamato stared at them both, dark eyes unreadable. He looked at Sakura last, his expression changing slightly, before he obeyed.

Sakura watched his back, determinedly not looking at the figure opposite her. The last time the two of them had been alone— No. No. She couldn’t think about it.

Blood rose in her cheeks. It was unfair. She resented the fact that she alone had to bear the burden of the truth; Kakashi remained in blissful, fucking ignorance. Anger was better, she realized. Anger, now, could save her.

“Was there something you wanted?” she said stiffly.

She peered up and found him watching her intently, sharingan spinning. “No injuries,” the copy-nin said slowly.

She understood the point being made; Sai had had a list. Sakura controlled her expression with immense effort. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to suggest.”

His eyebrow arched just slightly, deadly. “You and I had a conversation,” he said lowly.

She just barely flinched. “Yes,” she said, voice slightly rough. “About what happens to shinobi like me. I recall.”

She hadn’t abandoned Sai. She had protected him, had tried to. Why did he misconstrue her every time? Sakura wished she could have raised the fisted hands at her sides and used them, to show him the weight she carried, could carry, had carried. She wanted him to—

To know the truth.

This time, she did flinch—fully. She scrambled to cover her slip, to distract herself from her nonsensical thoughts, shifting her gaze. Then her brain processed what she had been seeing, and her eyes returned.

The condescension was proclaimed loud and clear on his face as he looked at her.

“Why do you hate me?” she demanded.

She knew her face was red. Her heartbeat was thudding in her ears, and she was truly caught in that infernal state now, of want: wanting him to know her rage, her hatred, her lacerations—all of it.

With insufferable languidness, his head turned to look back at her.

Sakura exhaled sharply. It was too late to stop. “Why do you want me to fail?”

His eyes were unbearable. She couldn’t stand them. In an instant, however, it all became worse. He removed the distance between them, until he was right in front of her. And then, his face was contorted as he looked down at her, terrifying in its savagery.

“The day you get someone killed,” Kakashi said coldly, “you will understand what hatred means--what failure means. ”

Sakura stared up at him, her face pale.

His face flashed with disgust, and she could have happily sunk a kunai in his chest. You don’t see me, she wanted to snarl back at him. It was on the tip of her tongue, she could taste it, bloody and metallic: look at me, look at me, look at me—

Sakura’s vision was overwhelmed by red. She didn’t see him leave. But when she looked again, he was gone.

She laughed, at first disbelieving, then with cruelty.

“You stupid, stupid fool,” she whispered to herself.


 

"Hey Sai,” she called out, “what would Naruto say? Something loud, stupid, and straight out of a mafia movie, right…Let’s see…”

She smirked at her teammate. “Want to rumble?”

She could hear Sai’s choked, incredulous laugh as she feinted, twisting to avoid the man’s heavy fist. Using the same momentum, she kicked off the back wall and drove her elbow back, right into his solar plexus. She felt him buckle and then stumble back.

https://media.discordapp.net/attachments/851289092741529620/851293571629711400/215-2.png?width=706&height=988

- by the glorious SweetGazelle

Chapter Text

The wind whistled through the trees. Sakura tilted her head back, allowing the gust to whip the hair back from her face. The guttural protest of displaced branches did little to appease the primal rage burning in her chest.

Her face contorted in the dark.

This— She had let this happen. Barbed wire had wound around the pulsating, meaningless mass in her chest, and she had done laughably little to deter it, had decidedly enabled it. If she could have, if the mass had been vestigial, she would have torn it out herself. She raged at the bark beneath her fingers instead, wreaking pointless violence. She was determined to do so until dawn. The lone tree she had chosen as her resting place was perfect for this task, as far she could manage from the rest of the team.

This isn’t satisfying, the Voice growled, if you’re going to tear up our fists before they’ve even healed, at least do it on someone’s face—

Sakura’s head snapped to the side.  She waited, though some part of her already knew what she would find. A few moments passed before the moon peaked through the canopy of gray-black clouds, casting light on the black feathers of a crow.

“Shisui.”

“Human,” it returned.

She watched it quietly, anger still smoldering in her chest, as it encroached on her space. She shifted seamlessly into a crouch, hand on the katana Yamato had returned to her only an hour ago.

It paused. “You dare?”

“Oh, I dare,” she said. Her gaze was dark, intent upon the creature before her. “It just so happens that tonight, I don’t actually happen to have the patience for your brand of purposeless cruelty."

“And once again, you’ve managed to get it all quite wrong,” the crow said equally coldly, sharingan spinning with malevolence. “It doesn’t matter what you think or feel. All that matters is what I demand of you, human, and you will give it.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because that, Sakura, is your payment.”

She smiled humorlessly at it. “That’s not going to work anymore, Shisui. I’m no longer scared of you.”

She hadn’t been for a while now. And she had killed and killed and killed until she had forgotten what it felt like to have clean hands—what was one more on her ledger? Her mouth firmed, and she began to pull out the blade. The soft, sibilant hiss, which had once disturbed her, was nothing more than static noise.

Shisui’s gaze flashed. It extended its wings, and feathers seemed to sprout from the end, flying into the air in dizzying amounts.

“Listen, then,” it cajoled. “For Itachi.”

Those two words had a profound effect on Sakura that she could not have anticipated. A torrent of emotions, none of which were truly her own, overwhelmed her—terror, desperation, and rage. Uchiha Shisui’s legacy, she recognized belatedly: the memories that had somehow become partially her own.

She loathed the creature in front of her for it.

Her hand released the handle of the katana without conscious permission. It slid back into its sheath with a high pitched ringing sound.

“Sasuke is chasing Itachi,” the Crow continued calmly. “And the copy-nin is chasing Sasuke. Between them, Itachi will not survive.”

Sakura straightened, voice hard. “He’s managed to evade capture for almost a decade now.”

“He’s sick.”

Her heart had no reason to drop at that, not a single legitimate reason. She didn’t know Itachi, had never even truly met him.

Still, Sakura found herself stalking the length of the branch until she was in front of the crow, eyes pinched. “Sick?”

“Sick from an ordinary, human disease that he could have had treated but has refused to,” it relayed stoically. “He won’t survive an attack from the copy-nin, and he doesn’t want to survive an attack from his brother. He will die unless you extract him.”

“Extract him,” she echoed blankly. She blinked, and then her gaze sharpened. “You want me to take him and—run?”

Shisui’s head cocked to the side.

Sakura’s mouth worked soundlessly. This wasn’t— But he was— She let out a frustrated hiss.

Fine.” She regretted the word, mostly because she knew it meant the crow had gotten its way.

“Good,” it said blandly. “Your plan?”

She arched a brow in warning. It didn’t blink.

“I’ll slip away at dawn,” she muttered, picking at some of the bark she had decimated. “A new disguise…not Saori Mori. Black hair, maybe, this time; I’ve never used black hair—”

“No,” Shisui snapped. “No disguise.”

Sakura didn’t know how to react to that but to laugh. The alternative was too ludicrous to consider.

“You want to make me a traitor?” she asked scathingly. “After all this time? That’s your grand plan?”

“No, you fool,” the crow said icily. “You’ve built credibility now as a shinobi of Konoha, if a well-meaning, inept one. Your mediocrity, your perceived simplicity, the fact that you are the hokage’s protégé— Itachi has been alienated by Konoha for too long, but its doors will crack open, if at all, for you and not a stranger.”

It stared at her with chilling ferocity. “Tomorrow, you will extract Itachi, and then you’ll do everything you power and mine to bring him to Konoha to make him…safe.

A curious thing happened to creature’s voice as it shaped that final word, but she didn’t have the chance to examine it. Without warning, its wings snapped out. In seconds, it had dissipated in a burst of feathers, swept away by the breeze.

Leaving Sakura there alone, with nothing but her thoughts. She wondered if she imagined the taste of blood on her tongue, or if she had actually bitten it at some point and had not noticed.

(Shisui had alluded that saving Itachi would mean not only crossing Sasuke, but also crossing…)

She bared her teeth at squirrel staring at her. It scuttled off, alarmed by the jolt of killing intent she sent into the air. She settled back against the thick trunk of the tree. A bell could have rung from the heavens in that moment, and she would not have blinked twice. On the contrary, probably would have thought it fitting. Tomorrow was to be…doomsday after all—or something like it.

She contemplated that for a moment.

How disturbingly normal this night was.

Some wind, yes, perhaps stronger than normal. A neither too-clear nor too-obscured sky. A moon caught somewhere between waning and waxing. A taste of rain, possibly, but it was too slight to tell.

Sakura’s mouth twisted as she shifted her weight, wondering how on earth she was going to pass the time until then. When a bird chirped, she contemplated whether or not she was, in fact, above throwing kunai at woodland creatures. There was going to be no sleep for her tonight. Every sense was on high-alert, preemptively activated for what would come once the sun rose.

She forced her fingers to relax, slid them down from the handle of her katana toward her lap. She paused midway, eyes widening infinitesimally. Tilted her head to the side, considering.

Something made her feel reckless. A careless curl manifested across her lips. Her fingers slipped beneath the band of her pants.

It was, some part of her recognized, the worst of times, the most terrible of times to do this. And she did it, nevertheless.

Her body moved, positioning itself unthinkingly into a better position, to a better angle, as she pressed fully into herself in one hungry, ruthless thrust. Her head hit the bark hard.

Fuck.

As it happened, that was the general idea. A flurry of sensations and scenes washed over her. Hands entwined in her hair, a sultry moan—moans, male, female—, fingers digging greedily into her skin, rough, gentle, soft, coarse, and…

What the fuck?

She could feel herself dripping in a steady stream around her fingers—that’s how ready she was. She hadn't expected her body to be so ready; she had thought, laughably, that she was doing something unexpected, implulsive--not succumbing to a need whose sly hold had escaped her entirely.

It flashed through her mind, at that precise moment, painfully clear and vivid in detail. A mouth, hard and cruel, on the thinner side—and yet, with a persisting sensuousness, an unmistakable generosity. A slight curve, too: an ephemeral impression of arrogance and condescension, of irreverence. A subtle parting, and the flash of tongue. The visions changed, and suddenly it was him, and he was between her legs, his head resting indolently against the inside of her thigh like he was bored, his hands curled firmly against the tensing muscles of her thighs, steel against steel.

His mismatched eyes stared at her, there, until she could feel it throb in agony, and then—only then—would that gaze slide up, hot and challenging, until it found hers.

“Fuck you,” she would whisper.

And that imperious, enigmatic face would finally lower, without shame, with feral, cunning intent. And fuck—it would finally be right.

Her lips parted silently, stifling furiously the noise she wanted to make with a fist to her mouth.

Because she knew how it would go. For hours, and then hours upon that. His head there firmly between her legs, driving her mad, like this task required it all—his legendary strength, his ruthlessness, his feared intelligence—this precise task.

And how could Sakura withstand that?

She came with sudden ferocity, her teeth biting into her fist until she drew blood.


When she woke up in the morning, she tried and failed to convince herself that it had never happened.

It didn’t get much better from there.

Near-hysteria was Yamato’s greeting once she joined them.

To be fair, it wasn’t really his fault.

Admittedly, it was rare to observe (beyond the obvious fact of Sasuke leaving and Sai joining) the differences each Team Seven member had undergone in the last three or so years. No one knew Sai well enough from before to realize what he had been prior to Team Seven. Sakura herself was essentially a sleeper cell at the crow’s behest.

And Naruto: well, there were days where you could hear him in pissing contests with just about any other hotheaded shinobi in the village, and on those days, one could easily imagine that no time had passed at all.

Of course, Sakura was forced to acknowledge now, time had passed.

Because the fact that Naruto had managed to sneak past all of them (granted, they had been separated: Yamato had gone to check the perimeter, Sai to find kindling, and Sakura had only recently opted to leave her isolated tree) would have been entirely beyond the scope of possibility three years ago.

“Kakashi-senpai entrusted me with keeping an eye on all of you. And given Naruto’s condition, in particular—I alone possess the capability of containing him without harming him if he loses control." Yamato looked like he was going to have a panic attack.

“The dickless can’t track for shit,” Sai reasoned. “Even given the fact that he’s miraculously managed to leave, I doubt he’ll have any idea where to go to locate Kakashi—”

A massive explosion rocked the ground beneath them. A mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke could be seen kilometers in the distance, even above the trees—it was rapidly expanding.

“I correct myself: he might know where to go,” the black-haired boy said with a blank smile.

“We have to go find him,” said Sakura quickly.

“I’ll go,” Yamato declared curtly. “You two turn back and head toward Konoha.”

Sakura nodded immediately. Sai’s eyes drilled into her from the side with confusion. Ultimately, however, he remained silent. If Yamato had had the luxury of time, he might have interrogated them more rigorously. As it was, his face rapidly paled as more time passed and the noise of the far-away battle continued.

He gave them a sharp tilt of the head, before he was off.

Sakura’s placating smile dropped. She exhaled, and the sound was somehow deafening in the silence between her and Sai.

He stared at her expressionlessly.

“You're still going, aren’t you,” Sai said finally. “And you’re going to tell me to stay. Which, I don't believe you have the right to ask of me.”

Sakura considered that. “Maybe not. But it would be better if you listened.”

His mouth curved into a full smile, teeth bared. It looked painful. “That’s not what being on this team has taught me.”

“Do I have to say it outright?” she said softly.

He took a slow step forward. “You think that I’ll try to stop you.”

“You should,” she said stoically. “You’re on thin ice already because of Root.”

“I’m not going to fight you,” Sai said firmly.

She fought against the softening of her voice, kept it hard. “You can’t help me.”

His eyes flicked to her hands. Sakura read his actions immediately for what they were. She was willing to use genjutsu to subdue him, and he knew it.

Sai’s face contorted. “Is that what it will take?”

“Yes,” she answered unflinchingly. “Don’t intervene—no matter what happens.”

“Fine,” he negotiated. “If you won’t let me stand by you, you can’t stop me from standing by Naruto.”

Sakura’s gaze softened. “Promise?”

Sai’s dark eyes flashed. “Promise.”

Sakura drew back, wiping her expression of all feeling. She couldn’t afford to lose any more time. She launched herself into the trees.

As she passed through the tall evergreens, the air became thick with smoke and dust. Leaves, branches, and other debris hurtled through the air. She darted between them, maintaining her speed though finding footing became harder as the damage increased. She passed through the final remnants of some trees, stopping short when the ground ahead of her became abruptly barren.

This, she realized, was where the blast had begun; and it had destroyed almost everything living in its vicinity. This part of the forest was now lifeless—except for the tableau of figures that had survived the blast and still spanned the field.

She found Sasuke immediately.

Clothing as black as his hair—indeed, the garments of an executioner—covered him from head to toe, a jarring contrast to the extreme paleness of his skin. Even from her position hidden in the trees, she could identify stains of blood along his arms and open chest. His katana was stained with blood as well.

He flicked his blade, and droplets of blood rained from the metal onto the scalded stubs of grass below.

“I see you haven’t learned from our last encounters, Naruto,” her former teammate said lowly, sharingan spinning.

Her mouth thinned at the pained look on Naruto’s face. No injuries, she concluded as she scanned his body. At least, no physical ones, she corrected. Yamato’s hand rested on his shoulder, his own expression a mixture of stress and foreboding.  

And then beside them, though she could only see the smallest sliver of his profile, was—

Sakura leaned a little further out from the branches, risking exposure for closer examination. Because there was a tension, a hawkish watchfulness, that she could read in an instant in that body, and it wasn’t directed at Sasuke.

She craned her head further to complete the revolution she had started, and she found two more figures. A tall, muscular man with colorless eyes and grey skin, cloaked in the characteristic black and red cloak of the Akatsuki, and next to him, Itachi.

Almost indistinguishable from his cloak, perched on that shoulder, was the crow.

She felt Sai reach the field, his chakra a de facto siren to every figure already there. A small sound of shock emerged from his lips as he too took in the scene.

Kakashi’s gaze darkened and snapped towards him as he broke through the trees and into the clearing, his killing intent suddenly exploding across the field.

“Tenzo,” Kakashi snarled.

Yamato’s confusion dissipated when he saw Sai; his face reddened, and he looked torn between murderous rage and sheer terror.

“Come. Here,” Yamato strangled out. Sai flickered from his position to just beside Naruto. She watched as his hand rose—just slightly, discreetly—to grasp Naruto’s arm, bolstering him. She ground her teeth, wishing she could do the same.

Yamato was stockier in build, but it was hard to remember that fact looking at the two ANBU now. Kakashi towered over the older man, his sharingan glowing an unholy red. The older man’s head was bowed.

Yamato seemed to regress to old habits. “Taichou, I should have—”

“Not now,” Kakashi growled, his gaze scanning the figures around them. “Sasuke will go after Itachi first, and I will help him. When Itachi is subdued, I will deal with Sasuke. You, Naruto, and Sai keep Kisame in check; make sure he does not interfere.”

“But—” Naruto began to protest. One look at Kakashi’s face silenced him. “Fine,” he muttered sourly.

Without another word, Sai and Naruto veered toward Kisame. There was a mix of disappointment and resignation on Naruto’s face, while trepidation had washed over Sai’s features . But Yamato was right behind them—and that brought a measure of relief to Sakura.

She felt a small, almost unnoticeable genjutsu suddenly take hold over her. She didn’t even blink, because she was so used to it by now.

“Pay attention,” Shisui’s voice instructed coolly in her mind.

She turned rigidly toward the fight she would inevitably join. She understood why the crow had intervened a second later. This fight had already begun.

Sasuke was a blur in the air, so fast that Sakura could only distinguish him by the black streak of his clothing and hair; he wielded his blade with a surety that spoke of hours of practice and many more hours of real use. And yet, despite the exponential growth he had visibly undergone under Orochimaru’s tutelage, he was met unfailingly by Itachi again and again. For if Sasuke had gained mastery, Itachi had made his craft as natural to him as breathing. His eyes glowed and bled tears—Sakura winced sympathetically, as she now knew how that felt—and he fended Sasuke off effortlessly.

While Sasuke was made little progress, however, someone else was.

Kakashi watched with a savage kind of boredom as Sasuke attempted to each blow, then lunged with the feral calculation of a more experienced predator, wielding his sole sharingan with a terrible efficacy. When it was Kakashi who attacked, then—only then—Itachi gave ground, skidding several meters back.

Sakura couldn’t help but stare, heart pounding.

Kakashi’s reflexes were, admittedly, probably the kind that occurred in nature as often as lightning struck the same spot twice. Often, she knew, it was implied that the copy-nin was nothing but animal instinct when he fought: this was an accusation of both lack of self-control and incomprehensible physicality. But it was a prodigious intelligence that had made him a prodigy feared even in his own village—potentially beyond all the terrible dojutsus and missing-nin of their generation—and that was on overt display here.

Right now, Kakashi was far more than Sasuke’s match; and he was easily more than the sick, weakened Itachi’s too.

Sakura would be lying to herself now if she didn’t acknowledge a lance of nervousness piercing her somewhere in her core. Even so, there was also an…undeniable, certain amoral thrill in knowing that she had never truly tested herself against Kakashi—not since that moment in another forest, and then, Kakashi had not been in his right mind—

And that she would now.

She generated small amounts of chakra to warm her muscles. Her shoulder blades shifted beneath the weight of the sheath on her back, which, generic, hid the unusual blade contained within.

“Faster,” the crow snapped.

Sakura’s features shifted to a glare as she skirted the surviving undergrowth along the edges of the field. Her glower strengthened as Kakashi made a long incision in Itachi’s side, causing the latter to take a step back.

As he retreated, the older Uchiha coughed into his sleeve. Sakura had enough medical training to know what accompanied a cough that sounded like that, though it was disguised by the black of his Akatsuki cloak.

He was very sick, and he was coughing up blood. The crow had not lied.

“I don’t need your help,” Sasuke declared icily. “Your misplaced sense of obligation as my old captain is meaningless.”

Her ex-teammate’s dismissive tone, as well as his rather off-base assumption, took her aback. That was when she realized that the last time Sasuke had spoken to Kakashi, the copy-nin had convincingly been performing a benign, laid-back jounin captain.

Sasuke was decidedly ill-prepared, she reflected, for Kakashi’s deadly gaze slowly to turn from Itachi to him, mismatched eyes glinting. As well as for the decidedly predatory way the katana rotated slowly in his hand, until the blade pointed in another direction.

“You,” the copy-nin murmured, voice thick with mockery, “talk big for a whelp.”

He covered the distance between them faster than it took for Sakura to blink. When he stilled, hair and clothes settling into place a second later, his blade was inches from Sasuke’s eye, held back only by the latter’s blade. Sasuke’s katana had slotted into place just in time, catching the copy-nin’s blade near its tip.

Sakura thought for a brief moment that Sasuke had managed it, until she spotted a second glint of metal. Kakashi’s second hand loosely handled a kunai that just ever so slightly pressed into Sasuke’s ribcage, exactly where it could be driven into his heart.

“Unlike Naruto, you know, I could have broken every bone in your body when you threatened to leave. I gave you the chance to choose then. You are here now, in front of me, because of that choice.”

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed.

“Your brother may be a more pressing threat to Konoha, but I haven’t forgotten that you are a traitor too, Sasuke,” Kakashi finished with dark amusement, “I serve my village whether I eliminate you or him—remember that.”

A small, almost negligible movement caught her attention from the corner of her eye; her head twisted to its source. Itachi’s expression was as implacable as ever, but she had seen it. In that fraction of a second, he had leaned forward at Kakashi’s words—toward Sasuke. To intervene, even as the blood from his cough still stained his sleeve.

Sakura’s frown deepened.

“Do it,” Shisui whispered. She turned and found him by her shoulder. “The copy-nin will underestimate you today. You will never have this advantage again as long as you live. Today, every disguise you have worn, every deception I have made you enact, will bear its natural reward—it has all been for this advantage, at this critical moment.”

She stared at it for what felt like an eternity. Finally, however, she exhaled and made the hand signs. Because, yes, even she wanted to save Itachi—even she knew that whatever ending he deserved, it was not this.

When she opened her eyes again, one of them had been replaced by the crow’s sharingan. For the first time outside of a genjutsu, Sakura forced its transition to the mangekyou sharingan. She was not prepared for the pain that followed. Somehow, when she had practiced it in Shisui’s genjutsu, it had been subdued, maintaining that odd dream-like quality even the most nightmarish illusions somehow possessed. Now, however, the pain was brutal and real. Her knees buckled slightly.

Sakura bared her teeth in response.

The crow’s talons dug into her shoulder; a feathered wing grazed the nape of her neck.

“Perform, human,” it hissed. “Not for me, but for yourself—because this is the conclusion you have hungered for.”

This was, perhaps, the best motivational speech the crow could have given in that moment. Sakura’s muscles tightened in acute anticipation.

Itachi was still watching the pair across from him intently—biding his time. Her eyes slid left. Sasuke was still suspended between the two blades, one which pressed into his ribs. And Kakashi—

Kakashi’s head was cocked back. He had noticed Itachi’s unusual behavior and watched now with a predatorial sort of curiosity, eyebrow arched. He hadn’t put it together yet, Sakura guessed. Possibly, she acknowledged, because he hadn’t been handed the missing pieces Shisui had provided her.

Sakura shook her head until a few strands of hair fell forward to hide the sharingan. She stepped onto the field, feet settling onto the ground between them.

Slowly—almost lazily—charcoal and red eyes shifted from their original subject to her. Sakura’s jaw hardened in preparation.

“Why come out now,” he said languidly, “when you were doing such a good job of hiding?”

Sakura’s nostrils flared. Had he noticed her, even though she had been suppressing her chakra? Or was he merely theorizing based on his impression of her as a coward?

Stifling her temper, she turned to look at Itachi briefly. His face revealed nothing at her abrupt appearance. She glanced irately at the crow, which was now perched on the ground between them. Had Shisui not told Itachi why she was here?

Probably not, she considered glumly. It seemed from the crow’s desperation that the older Uchiha had no wish to survive, and possibly would not welcome her help.

Kakashi’s gaze was derisive now. “Go back to wherever you were cowering.”

Sakura stared back, unmoving.

His features altered slightly, sharpening.

“Not a genjutsu—he wouldn’t have chosen you,” the copy-nin appraised her laconically. His voice lowered into a mocking rasp. “So perhaps you really are just that stupid.”

Her eyelids slid to half-mast over her eyes. “No, taichou.”

“Then what are you doing?” And this time, there was no mocking amusement in his words: only the usual, unmistakable disgust and possibly, beneath that, a thread of warning.

She could hardly look at him, so she stared around him, in the space between his hair and his shoulder, the gap between his arm and his side—

Do it, Shisui’s voice echoed in her mind.

Sakura’s head snapped up, eyes narrowed.

His eyes narrowed fractionally as well as she raised her head, displacing the hair that covered her eye. And then, suddenly, the upper half of his face was terrible to behold as it contorted, even more so because it somehow retained an ineffable, wrathful beauty.

And it felt—it felt.

Blissful, euphoric—like vindication—to see him hurt, this man who had been the captain of Team Seven, who had erased her from his view like she was nothing, who would have had her weak and at the mercy of the others for the rest of her life.

Sakura would have rejoiced whole-heartedly, might have even given in to the inclination to laugh…if only that were it.

Because there was more. There was that smaller, detestable part of her that survived, indifferent to the fact that she tried to repress it. That remembered that this man had fucked her harshly, gloriously, but kissed her with insufferable tenderness and gazed at her like—

“He’s breaking it,” the crow thundered.

Sakura’s eyes widened. Her face paled abruptly as her gaze snapped to the man in question. Kakashi’s body should have crumpled by now; he should have gradually lost control over his limbs as he increasingly succumbed to her genjutsu.

He remained firmly upright.

Worse, his sharingan, as though in instinctive response, had shifted and transformed into a similar pin-wheel design as her own. She hadn’t known that he had— She looked at the crow with hot accusation.

“I did not know that he had the mangekyou,” Shisui stated sourly, “A simulation of mere physical pain will not be enough for someone like him. Find something else.”

Sakura’s nails dug into her palms. How fucking strong was he?

“You’ve watched him for years, girl,” it accused cuttingly. 

Her fingers twitched futilely for her blade, wishing she could silence it. As it happened, her mind only relayed back desperation as she contemplated the problem.

If she wanted to guess at Kakashi’s innermost thoughts…If she were to guess what would truly make him vulnerable… She had to remember the fractures in his mask, she concluded coldly. It arrived to her like a drop of water into an empty vessel, and it swelled like a tidal wave, gaining traction and fuel, the genjutsu she had to conjure.

Her stomach turned. Sakura looked down at it detached shock.

Her eyes flicked to Itachi—whose sleeve covered his mouth again, even though he was utterly silent.

And then Sakura’s stolen sharingan spun violently as she conjured a new genjutsu, constructing her memories with flawless detail: the leaves that had fallen from those trees, the smell the grass and dirt had retained just hours after a fresh rain, the heat of the sun as it had beat down on them. The way Haku’s face had crumpled in both agony and relief; the desperation that had painted every single feature on Kaido’s face, even until his last moments. She drew on their deaths with abhorrent, irreverent clarity. She layered, detail upon detail, until she herself had difficulty removing herself from what she had created, as compelled by it as actual reality.  

(She was sickened.)

She didn’t have a chance to see for herself if it worked. In the instant she enforced the genjutsu, Sasuke broke free from Kakashi’s hold and sailed through the air. His katana caught the sunlight, reflecting a painfully bright light, as it drove unerringly toward Itachi.

Which was also, she noted blankly, toward her. Because she stood between them, and the sight of her didn’t see to deter him in the least.

He was going to mow right through her to Itachi.

And she didn’t even care; not one ounce of her felt a single thing about it. Because after what she had done—

All that mattered was this: her limbs were loose and ready. And just as Sasuke’s blade was about to sink into her breast, her hand lashed out with chakra-enhanced strength, diverting it. She saw the instability in his right leg as his arm recoiled upward from the blow. She unsheathed her own blade and struck with surgical precision into the meat of his thigh just above his knee, in one, uninterrupted motion.

Sasuke hissed and darted backward.

His face contorted into an ugly expression. “Who are you?”

Sakura felt soulless. She dodged his right hook and delivered a resounding smack to his face. His head whipped to the side.

“I’m sorry,” she said silkily, “did that hurt Sasuke-kun?”

“You can’t be Sakura,” he responded coldly, as his hands rapidly weaved through a series of familiar hand signs. A second later, he roared, and it was fire that left his mouth, not breath.

She launched herself above the flame, and in the same motion, met fire with fire; the combined heat threatened to scald her eyebrows off.

“Really?” she smirked meanly. “Why not?”

Sasuke circled around her, his sharingans transparently scanning her for any sign of weakness. She rocked back onto her heels and then rushed forward in a burst of speed. He dodged her kunai, but that was alright, because she was already making hand signs for a more complex jutsu. Water pulled from the seemingly barren ground to create a writhing, water beast. It shot through the air toward Sasuke.

A gigantic, humanoid form appeared around the black-haired boy’s body, protecting him from the blast. Water rained harmlessly down on him. His long black hair was plastered to his head as he looked up, mouth tight with rage.

“Sakura could never do this. Who are you?”

Sakura could have screamed or laughed with equal enthusiasm. She slowly straightened from the crouch she had landed in, her face obscured by her unruly hair. Annoyed, she swiped the hair back.

A tingling awareness of something behind her cut through her momentary annoyance. Sakura forced her shoulders to relax.

“I’m not going to hurt him,” she informed the figure behind her stiffly. She revised a second later: “Not seriously.”

Knowing how unconvincing she probably sounded, she didn’t give Itachi time to debate the issue. She shunshined into Sasuke’s personal space. He reacted instantly, the kunai in his hand already rotating to target her vital points. But Sakura was stronger than he was; she glanced his arm with her fingertips and she felt the bone beneath fracture. His strategy immediately switched from deflection to evasion.

A high-pitched noise pierced the air: chidori, one-handed at that, Sakura acknowledged with distant, reluctant admiration. His fist was a blur, and she twisted just in time. The electricity caught her hair instead of her head; singed stands fell to the ground.

But he hadn’t retreated quickly enough. Sakura grabbed his wrist locking him in place.

“I’ve seen bigger,” she sneered. She head-butted him, and he went down instantly. She followed him swiftly, catching him around the waist. She should have felt victorious. She felt empty.

When Sakura looked up, she saw—as she expected—Itachi directly in front of her.

“Haruno Sakura,” he said slowly. He hadn’t known her name the last time.

Up close, she could see the blood on his sleeve, the severity of the wound Kakashi had made in his side, and the way he was swaying lightly on his feet.

A breath of air brushed her arm, interrupting her examination. She looked down, disturbed, at the unconscious body in her hands. She wasn’t quite sure why she had caught Sasuke at all. Sakura dropped him abruptly.

When she opened her mouth to respond to Itachi finally, a jolt of piercing pain entered her brain. Her temples throbbed with a vengeance.

“H-he’s breaking it again,” she hissed haltingly at Shisui. “I can feel it. I don’t think—fuck—I can hold him much longer.”

The crow shifted its weight crossly on the Uchiha’s shoulder. Itachi’s eyes widened.

Sakura laughed weakly. “Did you know Shisui had another human?” She didn’t wait for him to respond. “Never mind. What matters is that Kakashi is going to hunt us down when he breaks that genjutsu, and we don’t have much fucking time left.”

The man swaying opposite her took in this information with remarkable calm, mouth tightening only fractionally. He was rapidly paling, however, so Sakura guessed he was not going to belong much longer to the world of consciousness anyway.

Maybe it was Shisui’s memories—a persisting remembrance of that remarkable intelligence and that steadfastness and that gentle introspection—that made Sakura resist the very notion of forcing him. Even though it would be easy now, given his illness and his wounds.

“As you can see, Shisui has been concocting an objectively terrible plan,” she said roughly. “And I might be an idiot for reasons you can’t yet understand for going along with it, but I’d like to remind you that you’re too weak to fight me right now.”

He looked at her evenly. She wondered if he could even perceive her still, or if he was already seeing black from the amount of blood loss

Another lance of pain struck her. Panic drove her heartbeat to pound even faster, her pupils to dilate just a little more. She didn’t know if Itachi would have given assent or not. He passed out first. Sakura let out a long, passionate curse as she swung him over shoulder, but was also selfishly grateful for it.

She hadn’t technically forced him, she assured herself. She cast one final glance backward, and then she ran.

Chapter Text

In. Out. In. Out. Inoutinoutinout—

An elementary technique to pacify the body, alleviate a state of extreme stress or panic. It appeared to be failing.

He was starting to understand that he had effectively lost complete control of his own lungs—they kept seizing, almost as though he were about to cough, only then the cough never came, nor that final sense of relief, caught instead in an infinite state of suspension.

Admittedly, it was among his lesser concerns at the moment.

(Naruto and Yamato had been fully distracted by Kisame during their fight, but Sai had not. He had said he wouldn’t interfere, but that hadn’t meant he couldn’t watch. He had possibly received more wounds on his body as a result, but the point had been—)

He didn’t think he’d ever felt more caged (caged by a promise) than when Sakura had given him that final glance before she had run, Itachi slung over her back.

And he didn’t think he’d ever felt more terror than when their captain had followed.

Sai swallowed.

Kakashi’s face when the genjutsu’s hold had broken at last—he would…never be able to describe it. All Sai knew was that he had never understood the exercise of comparing a human to a demon for the purpose of description until now. And that, perhaps, no words, not even Sai’s own brush, could begin to conjure the instinctual fear that had overcome him at that sight.

The copy-nin had followed her tracks without hesitation, without a glance their way, and he hadn’t bothered disguising his killing intent in those few seconds before disappearing; it had been unfathomably strong, stronger than anything Sai had ever felt. Everyone remaining on the field had frozen instantly.

A few seconds passed before any of them were able to move again.

Their own fight, Sai recalled, had not lasted must longer after that. Kisame had discovered his partner’s disappearance belatedly and had taken off—to where, Sai had no idea.

Then Naruto had spotted Sasuke.

“What the—” Naruto muttered, crouched as he examined his former teammate. He stabbed his cheek with a finger, then brought his fists up defensively as though expecting retaliation. The traitor Uchiha didn’t move.

“It doesn’t appear as though Kakashi did this,” Yamato observed. “Sasuke looks...” He gazed down meaningfully.

“More living than dead,” Naruto acknowledged.

Sai was distantly aware of his mouth opening and relaying something—but the words seemed to plummet into some deep, unseen crevice in the ground, for all the reaction they gained. Maybe he had only imagined that he had said them.

Then Naruto’s blue eyes narrowed and his head swung around.

“What.” The singular utterance was short and dangerous.

Yamato huffed a small laugh. His smile dropped once he realized no one else was laughing. “You’re…serious?”

Sai stared unblinkingly. “Yes.”

The expression on Naruto’s face was forbidding. He stalked toward Sai, shoulders—certainly broader than his own—high.

“No,” he said simply, forcefully. “Sakura?”

Sai’s eyebrow arched slightly. “Why not?” Did Naruto feel threatened, he wondered. Once Sasuke had left, everyone had regarded Naruto to be the strongest member of Team Seven (likely, Naruto himself as well). Sai had believed it initially too.

Several expressions flitted across Naruto’s face, before he settled on something between hostility and vulnerability. “I’m her teammate. And if—if she was capable of that—I should have known. She should have told me. Showed me.”

The raw emotion in Naruto’s voice seemed…somewhat more intense than his words—until, belatedly, Sai remembered that the notion of teammate for Naruto was utterly synonymous to that of friend. Sai wasn’t accustomed to the role of the comforter, but Naruto was his…friend too, and he was willing to try. He shifted forward, just about to bring up his hand—

“But you knew.”

There was accusation in Naruto’s voice.

“She never told me anything directly,” Sai said slowly. “I pieced most of it together on my end, and I had an…educated intuition that something would happen today. I know you both had to cover my back just now; it was because I was perhaps paying more attention to their fight than ours.”

Naruto didn’t appear appeased. At this moment, Sai realized his accusation had been directed inwards. “You would think after losing one teammate that I’d be good at keeping the remaining ones I have," the blonde boy said, "But here we are again, and I’m…just as blindsided.”

A firm hand landed on his shoulder. It wasn’t Sai’s.

“Often, it’s easier for those who maintain secrets to identify others of their kind,” Yamato said calmly. “We look more harshly at those around us; sometimes, I wonder, if because we’re so revolted by the notion of being looked at ourselves.”

Sai felt his eyes widen.

“So Sakura…knocked out Sasuke and took Itachi,” Naruto summarized roughly, “And Kakashi is following them. And we don’t know what he’s planning to do, and we also don’t know why any of this happened. In fact, we don’t know anything else.”

“That seems to be about right,” Yamato allowed, stress lines more prominent on his face than usual.

He wondered if this would be a good time to mention that he was ninety nine point nine percent certain Sakura and their captain had had sex at some point.


“Run faster.”

Another jolt of chakra the legs, a burst of speed—and the world became static noise.


Naruto ate his stew without tasting any of it.

“Seconds?” someone prompted.

He jolted to attention, stiffening. His gaze passed over the narrow tent which had been built to fit two bodies, not three—certainly not four—and found Sai sitting not far from him, expression seemingly as calm as ever.

He knew, of course, that this wasn’t true. He had spent hours and hours with that initial, blank Sai: that had been true, implacable calm. Naruto knew that every blink, twitch, microcosmic shift now communicated something.

Sai felt just as unbalanced as he did; he just did a much better job of hiding it.

“No,” Naruto said finally, rubbing his eyes. “No, I’m good—”

The previously unconscious figure between them tensed, then flipped into a sitting position.

Sai placed the vessel down with a dull thud.

“Get these off me,” the figure demanded, lifting his chakra-binding shackles.

Naruto stared at him for a moment. Eventually, his gaze flicked back to Sai. “As I was saying, feel free to finish the rest.”

Naruto.

“I think I will,” Sai said calmly. He ladled the rest of the stew into his wooden bowl and began eating. Naruto raised his own bowl and started eating again.

“If you take me to Konoha,” Sasuke threatened, eyes slitted, “you won’t be doing yourself any favors. I’ll burn that village down if that’s what it takes to break out.”

And Naruto erupted. Before he knew it, he was standing, the bowl had gone flying into the side of the tent, and all he could see was red.

“Believe it or not, Sasuke—” was the red because of the kyuubi? He couldn’t tell—“the world doesn’t revolve around you.”

Sasuke watched him, expression unchanging. And Naruto wanted to hit him as hard as he could right in that smug face. He might have, if the other boy hadn’t been defenseless.

He stared at him, the sound of a war drum thudding in his ears.

And it all came out. “Ino, Shikamaru, Choji: they had dinner at each other’s houses every night of the week. Hinata still makes ointments for Kiba and Shino before they head out on missions. We could have had that too, but you—you couldn’t stand the thought of it. Why? You ruined that for us. And for what? This?

Sai stood silently, edging not quite between them, but close.

“Don’t presume to know how I feel,” his former teammate said coldly. “You’ve never had what I had, what I lost—”

“You think I can’t say the same thing?” Naruto hissed back. “You’ve never been ostracized or ridiculed or dismissed, you’ve never known what it was like to be looked at like a monster by everyone around you, you’ve— Should we keep comparing grievances, Sasuke? Should we argue about what was worse? Is there any point?”

Sai’s hand wrapped around his upper arm, restraining him before he launched forward. Naruto’s frame trembled.

“How do we keep making the same mistakes over and over again,” he choked out, gaze averted to the ground, “and now, Sakura—”

“Where is she?” Sasuke demanded.

Sai smiled politely. “Sakura took Itachi and ran. None of us know where or why.”

Every angle of Sasuke’s features hardened. “That’s not possible.”

“Yet, it happened.”

“It wasn’t Sakura,” Sasuke responded, face abruptly unreadable.

But there was a look in his eyes that Naruto recognized—a darkness that had been there on that roof when they had aimed the rasengan and the chidori at each other. And that was how Naruto realized, even despite the contrary words, that Sasuke knew he had fought Sakura.

“Can we knock him out again?” Sai asked.


“Split the kage bunshins.”

“I’ve already made ten.”

“I don’t care. Every half hour, make each clone summon four more and then send them in the cardinal directions.”

Thud. Thud. Thud.

Feet or heart? It was impossible to tell.

“Are you kidding me? You want me to fractionalize my chakra stores exponentially--

“Do it.”


He stubbed his cigarette on the ground and was vaguely gratified that there was no one to see it. Sometimes, there would be months without a single one, and he’d think then that he had truly shaken the habit. Then—there would be a day like this one. 

Civilian background, likely coddled, had been Yamato’s first impression. A well-meaning girl, certainly, but hardly useful. A distant sort of pity had once followed, knowing how his senpai must have treated someone like that.

That pity had transformed into something sharper and decidedly more complex now. Traitors always brought the worst taste to the mouth, didn’t they? That bittersweet mix of revulsion and denial.

He could hear the chatter of voices from inside the tent. Not calm, but better than it might have been. Yamato had been meticulous about keeping his expression as smooth as possible in front of them—or, as much as was believable given circumstances.

Out here, though, there was no need to hide. So his fingers trembled, and he swiftly lit another cigarette and brought it to his mouth.

He hadn’t been prepared for this assignment, he reflected blandly. He had left his ANBU team wanting something less emotionally taxing (because someone had died in front of him one too many times, and he had wanted to know what it was like to not care as much, because, surely, hearing about a teammate’s death was better than being there to witness it). It was a cruel joke that he ended up in the middle of this mess.

He had no justification for feeling anything at all, granted. Team Seven was, perhaps more so than any team he had been on, profoundly flawed. Sai made Yamato look like a social butterfly and reminded him of times he would rather forget. Naruto, determined and principled as he was, saw primarily in tunnel-vision and dangerously so. And Sakura—

He exhaled smoke, watched as it traced lazy spirals in the air.

In less than twenty four hours, Haruno Sakura would be dead.

Worse, he could picture…exactly how it would happen. A hole in the chest from chidori or raikiri—depending on how much of a fight she put up—her body still charged with electricity for hours afterwards. Strangling was possible as well; Yamato had seen it once.

Or, perhaps, beheading—

Yamato took another inhale and then stubbed the cigarette, before making his way into the tent.

—that was how he had heard Kino had been killed, after all.


“We need to stop.”

And as much as Sakura would have liked to disagree with Shisui, she couldn’t: she had been on foot for almost sixteen hours now, her chakra had been depleted by the small army of clones she had sent out to leave false trails, and then—well, then there was Itachi.

The sour-rust smell of blood still coated her collar, fresh as it had been hours ago. Itachi was still bleeding. Sakura had done her best given the time frame with Itachi’s battle wounds—on any average shinobi, that might have been enough. But Itachi’s condition wasn’t anywhere near what a medical professional might consider an ideal state of health, and it was clear now that the duress of Sakura’s running as fast as she could was undoing much of her healing.

Sakura didn’t want to delay getting back to Konoha. On the other hand, what was the point of talking to Tsunade if all she brought back was a corpse?

“Closest covering?” Sakura muttered.

The crow’s sharingan was locked straight ahead. “We hit the mountains in ten kilometers or so. Continue north.”

It was impossible for her to see any mountains through the thick of the trees, but Sakura took Shisui at its word. She clenched her jaw and sent a jolt of chakra to her legs, boosting her speed. She made it to the cave in the mountain’s side just as the first droplets began to fall from the sky in a gentle drizzle.

Debris—rubble, branches that had been blown in by the wind, and more—littered the ground. She swiftly cleared a space for Itachi to lie down. With some careful maneuvering, she shifted him from her back to the ground, gently placing his head down last.

“Thirty minutes,” she said curtly. “That’s all.”

“Are all of your clones still intact?”

“Yes, none of them have returned yet.”

She paused to look down at Itachi. His eyeballs were rolling beneath his eyelids, and his frame had started shivering violently. She shrugged her flak jacket off to cover him.

“He needs a fire,” Shisui informed her. It had settled in the deepest parts of the cave, vigilant by its human’s side.

Sakura glanced at the crow out of the side of her eyes, mouth curling. Again, she would have liked to disagree. Instead, she turned and stepped off the edge of the cave, plummeting to the forest floor once again—and quickly found that the rain had already drenched the ground near the base of the mountains.

Knowing she would have a better chance of finding dry kindling where there was denser foliage, she circled within a tight radius of the mountains. But it soon became clear that the fundamental task of scouring the ground for something as simple as dry kindling had somehow become infinitely hard; more than once, she realized belatedly that she had looked down and seen absolutely nothing.

She was…a mess, she reflected sourly—still as knotted and tensed and anxious just as she had been as she weaved that genjutsu; her mind couldn’t focus now that the weight of Itachi’s body had been removed from her back.

After a moment of consideration, she cupped some of the fallen water and rubbed it against the imprints of blood Itachi had left on her, hoping it would help.

It wasn’t an immediate remedy, for sure. Slowly, still, she felt her body begin to respond. Fractionally, her shoulders started to loosen just a little, her breath came a little easier, and she no longer felt quite as much as though she were balancing on a kunai’s edge.

She spotted a large maple tree a kilometer south, its trunk a lighter brown than its smaller neighbors,’ and propelled herself toward it until she stood beneath its thick branches. She made a quick pass with her fingers over the mix of fallen leaves and branches below. She was gratified to find them mostly dry, having been shielded by the thick overcast of the tree’s remaining foliage.

Unfortunately, the tree she had found was a large one, with correspondingly large branches. She began splitting the wood into quarters so that she could easily tuck them beneath her arm.

A crack sounded behind her.

She twisted around, teeth bared in warning, and—

All the blood drained from her face.

(It wasn’t possible. How? How? Every single kage bunshin had split, and then those had split, and so on and so forth, just like the crow had said, and still.)

He was right there. Somehow, some way, in defiance of all probabilistic chance that he should be miles away with a kage bunshin in Suna or the Land of Tea or the middle of an ocean, he was right there, eyes dark and burning like he had been watching her for some time. As though, indeed, he had made that noise intentionally.

There was a choking noise coming from somewhere. Coincidentally, she couldn’t find the air to inhale. Her hand scrabbled against the tree for purchase. She bent her head, forcing her exhales to slow down, to slow it all down, so that her fucking brain could think.

But it was too late, because now Kakashi’s face was right above hers, and she couldn’t deny it—every line, angle, and feature was drawn with barely constrained rage. His hand wrapped around her throat while the other yanked at her hair, forcing her head up.

There was no other explanation for the way that dark gaze lingered over the bridge of her nose, the cut of her jaw— every feature that was congruous with her ANBU double that he had never noticed before.

He knew. He knew.

Sakura shuddered for breath, and she felt his chest expand with hers—because they were so close, because his examination was so ruthlessly intent—and his breath, as it washed over her face, felt like it could scald her.

Her head whipped to the side, teeth cutting into the side of her mouth from the force of an unexpected fist. Sakura rocked on her feet as she spat out blood.

His eyelids were almost fully shut as he looked down at her.

That might have been slightly fair, she considered humorlessly. She peered up at him, swiping the remaining blood from her mouth slowly.

The waiting had been the torture, she decided. She had known she would have to confront him; she just hadn’t known it would be so soon.

“Who taught you,” he said, deep, arrogant voice almost soundless, as he forced her head to the side, “to betray?”

Her mouth flattened.

He had positioned her head away from him so that she couldn’t see him, even as his gaze perused her freely, collected information she would know nothing about. Thankfully, she didn’t need to see him to drive her elbow into his solar plexus or to duck when his hand swung out with a kunai.

“Still so afraid to give me credit?” she observed tonelessly.

Her feet shifted automatically, pivoting to sidestep his next attack. His left leg, hidden from her sight because of the way he held his body, whipped out with blinding speed, building force from the brutal power with which he twisted his own body. She brought her arms in tight to withstand the shock of his kick, skidding several meters back into the trunk of another tree.

She exhaled for a moment,

Then, she launched herself back in, careening through the air right again into hard muscle. They struggled for a moment, and maybe, she forgot herself for an instant—possibly, her heartrate stuttered when his fingers brushed her hair, maybe her face went a bit hot, and—

He shoved her back by the throat into a tree, and she felt the trunk crumble beneath her shoulders. Muscle memory kicked in. Sakura followed the motion backwards, breaking his hold and tossing him over.

Slowly, she brought her fists back up, shoulders tight.

Despite the violence in his face, he moved with a deadly calm. He took a step to his left, and she shifted incrementally. He took another, and she realized that he was circling her.

He hadn’t used a single jutsu yet.

The discovery broke her cold calm for a moment.

Was it arrogance? the bitter, seething part of her prompted. Her face tightened further as she evaded the copy-nin’s swipes. His fists flew with blinding speed, but she was attuned to the way his body moved now from hours and hours of observation, and she evaded until she saw opportunity.

A kunai sank into the muscle of her shoulder (like a kiss), and Sakura bore it with a snarl. She deflected his brutal upper cut, and her hand lashed out, just barely glancing cloth—just enough to rip the mask clean off his face.

The face that looked down at her was as she had never seen it before, terrible to behold, afflicted by an inhuman sort of wrathful beauty.

Sakura held the black cotton mask in her hand.

“It’s not a bell,” she announced, looking coolly down at it. “Is it enough for you to take me seriously, though?”

Her gaze flicked upward, her face contorting into a sneer.

And then she mouthed the fatal word.

(Sen-sei.)

Chapter Text

It would be really impressive if I just did two updates in two days, but this isn't another update yet--sorry for the false alarm!

BUT: I thought it would be fun to share some of the images that I draw inspiration from for this fic. Totally ignore this if you prefer to imagine your own characters / I definitely feel that way for some fics and fandoms, but otherwise, you can take this as a very non-serious notion of 'casting' for the fic hahaha.

Also, as you may notice, a lot of these characters appear a bit older than they actually appear in Shippuden, I guess because that's how I prefer to imagine them? Also, a lot of the guys are shirtless, because... Well, I have no good explanation for that *coughs*

I take precisely 0% credit for all of these images!


SAKURA

Note: First image found here and the second is a sketch by the RIDICULOUSLY talented SweetGazelle


KAKASHI

Wallpaper look, mask, Naruto, Naruto, Sharingan, Kakashi Hatake images for  desktop, section сёнэн - download

Note: I definitely imagine younger than he is depicted in canon; as I've mentioned in an earlier author's note, the Kakashi in this fic is like 24/25 (found here)


SAI

No larger size available Sai Naruto, Naruto Boys, Naruto Team 7, Naruto Art, Kakashi, Nagato Uzumaki, Inojin, Shikamaru, Naruto Shippuden

Note: found here


NARUTO

Pixiv Id 371266 - Zerochan Anime Image Board

Note: found here


SASUKE

Note: found here by CrystalDragon14


ITACHI

Image discovered by Sabrina Batista. Find images and videos about naruto, itachi and uchiha on We Heart It - the app to get lost in what you love. Naruto Shippuden Sasuke, Naruto Kakashi, Fan Art Naruto, Naruto Shuppuden, Wallpaper Naruto Shippuden, Naruto Wallpaper, Boruto, Wallpapers Naruto, Animes Wallpapers

Note: Itachi - apparent pacifist, low-key philosopher, possibly a great shamisen player? (found here)


SHISUI AND THE CROW

naruto whatsapp | Itachi uchiha, Uchiha, Shisui

Note: found here


TSUNADE

Tsunade render [Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2] by maxiuchiha22 on DeviantArt

Note: found here by Maxiuchiha22


YAMATO

Anbu Yamato render [Naruto Online] by maxiuchiha22 on DeviantArt

Note: found here by Maxiuchiha22


TORTOISE

Note: not sure who this actually is, but hope she gets more than Tortoise does in this fic LOL (found here)


HINATA

Pin em Hinata's

Note: sadly, I couldn't find a good image of Hinata in a medic-nin outfit, but I'm down for this otherwise!


INO

Note: This is EXACTLY how I imagine T&I Ino, and I am SO glad this image exists in the world. (found here)


 

Anyway, this was just a bit of fun! Hope you enjoyed it for whatever it's worth :)

Chapter Text

(Sen-sei.)

She could have dropped a bomb into a minefield, and it might have had less disastrous of an impact. It took just a fraction of a second; and then, his state of inexpression fractured completely. Red eye—insidious as blood—and black, both so dark the pupils were undiscernible, contorted like he might just kill her. Kakashi took a sudden, menacing step forward.

“You’re going to kill me.” The observation escaped her without her consent. 

Fight, the Voice whispered, trembling.

His face was averted from hers. The words reached her ears slowly, through a thick, rushing sound.

“You don’t have the chakra to fight me now.”

She gritted her teeth.  

“Not the best strategy to waste it on all those clones, was it.”

The wind whistled through the trees, sending a scattering of leaves fluttering down between them.

“But then,” he said darkly. “I suppose your sensei is to blame. And we can both agree that that wasn’t me.”

She flipped the kunai in her hand.

“So who was it?” he demanded, coldly. “That you would devote yourself so thoroughly to their cause?”

It took her a second to parse the meaning of his words. Sakura felt her own kunai dig into her own fingers.

“I suppose it’s hard to deviate from such long-standing precedent. But as always, you’re wrong about me.” A flash of motion caught her eye.

He watched her, features drawn harsher by lividity. “Oh?” His voice was dangerous. “And what are you?”

STRONG, the Voice roared.

Two minutes, she calculated. That was as much of a head start as she needed. They were a stone’s throw from the outskirts of the village.

“Capable of so much more than you’ve given me credit for,” she said bitterly.

Shisui burst forward with a shower of feathers, cawing loudly in attack.

Sakura ran toward the cave.

Coward, the Voice spat. It didn’t sound as upset as it usually did though. Apparently, even the bloodthirsty creature in her brain recognized a fight it wasn’t likely to win.

She hurtled through the trees and, at an admittedly ambitious distance, launched herself into the mouth of the cave. She landed inelegantly, upsetting the gravel on the cave floor. Itachi grunted, shifting away from her.

She picked him up and settled him onto her back. She hit the ground sprinting. There was no time for doubling back or circuitous routes. It was straight to Konoha now.

 “What,” he asked weakly, voice almost soundless, “are you doing?”

“Running from certain death,” she muttered, “We’re not that far.”

A thunderous explosion sounded a few kilometers behind them.

“Fuck,” Sakura hissed. She pumped chakra into her legs and raced faster. They were so close.

So close.

“Pretend you’re unconscious,” she hissed. He bent his head marginally just as the first sentry peeked his head out. Maybe Itachi had some self-preservation instinct after all.

“Haruno Sakura,” the guard instructed, recognizing her on sight and by chakra signature like he was trained to. He squinted at the person on her back. “Identify your passenger.”

“Emergency,” she called out, bending her knees in preparation, “He needs immediate medical attention.”

“You know the rules,” he responded indifferently.

“Sorry,” Sakura called out as she barreled through him.

There were ANBU on her in less than five seconds.

“Cease and desist, Haruno Sakura, or we will be forced to engage.”

“Maybe…next… time,” she huffed, charging forward. In seconds, she was cut off by a new squad of ANBU stationed further inside the village.

As the squad attacked, she maneuvered her body, protecting Itachi from the cross fire. As one ANBU attacked her from above, Sakura brought her katana up. The full brunt of the strike rocked Itachi's body.

She smiled humorlessly. The man’s eyes widened above her arms. She swarmed her muscles with a sliver of chakra and tossed him effortlessly backwards.

She twisted and caught another ANBU’s wrist before she was speared through the stomach. She swung this ANBU into the air too, just in time to duck beneath some heavy-duty earth ninjutsu. She shoved the heel of her hand blindly into another person’s throat, sending him backward, choking.

Every shinobi in her vicinity suddenly jolted. The electric, roiling killing intent had overwhelmed the air--far beyond any of their own.

She didn’t have any time left.

Her glance darted backward at the veritable legion of ANBU gathering behind her. Having cleared a path through now unconscious bodies, she was somewhat ahead. And she was one building leap away from the hokage’s office now.

She exhaled, and then sprinted off the roof. She careened through the air—and then through glass—into the office.

Sakura rolled onto her knees instantly, shaking glass off her and unconscious figure on her back. She lifted her head to find Tsunade leaning against her desk, arms crossed like she had been waiting for her the entire while. The hokage’s amber eyes—cool and warning—belied her otherwise relaxed appearance.

“You’ve been causing quite the stir, Sakura,” Tsunade said lightly, gaze flashing. “And with such a… choice guest.”

“He’s more valuable alive than dead—and he needs healing now. I can explain,” Sakura said urgently.

Tsunade’s gaze flicked down, narrowing.

“I’m not a traitor,” Sakura said, staring hard into her mentor’s eyes. After a moment, she dropped into seiza—slowly, though, because Itachi was still on her back.

“For the chance you gave me then, for the trust you believed I deserved then,” she reminded, gaze still connected with the hokage’s.

For the rest of her life, she would never know what made Tsunade’s mind in that moment. In her position, Sakura knew she almost certainly would have turned an ostensible traitor, protége or not, away. But perhaps, there was a god above watching in that moment, and in one of its many whims, it had decided in that singular moment to move Tsunade’s mind.

“Get off the damned ground, girl. Fuck, I don’t get paid nearly enough for this,” the hokage snapped, waving errantly at a wide-eyed Shizune. “Take him to the hospital. As she’s said, at the very least, we’ll have a living Akatsuki member we can interrogate.”

The hokage’s assistant obeyed without a second of hesitation, vanishing a second later with Itachi in her hands.

In the next instant, Tsunade’s right hand snapped up to make a signal to the ANBU to stand back. Sakura’s pinched face turned toward the window, watching as one by one, the black ops members blended back into the shadows of the village—that is, all except for two.

A broad-shouldered, menacing figure, whom Sakura recognized immediately as the commander of the ANBU, remained on the rooftop, arms crossed. Beside him, crouched low, was Kakashi, the muscles in his arms tensed in acute, savage restraint.

Sakura swallowed heavily.

The blonde-haired woman sent her a long, examining look.

“Start talking,” she said at last, coldly. “And I should remind you that—while I’m a damn sight nicer than those two—I didn’t become hokage because of all people I’ve graciously healed.

Sakura sat down in the chair across from the hokage.


“Let me just make sure I have all the facts straight.”

The clock hit the hour, emitting a sharp, clicking noise.

“Four years ago, you broke into our archives, stole a summoning scroll, forged a contract, only to realize that your summon not only had its own agenda and but was also willing to abuse you and threaten you to accomplish it. Do I…have that all right?”

She hadn’t reached for her sake for an entire hour. Sakura didn’t think she had ever seen that before.

“And then we have your consequent series of offenses,” Tsunade continued, without waiting for even a nod, “Identity fraud, credential fraud—believe it or not, it’s against the rules for a genin to be on ANBU missions—and just recently, insubordination on an S-rank mission, in which you turned on your own team captain...Hm?”

“…Yes,” Sakura muttered after a considering pause.

“And why should I let you keep your head?” Tsunade asked with a poisonous smile. A small, rush of air signified Shizune’s return. Sakura exhaled sharply.

“Report,” the hokage demanded.

“Uchiha Itachi is in stable condition,” Shizune said lowly. “Because of his fragile constitution at the moment, T&I was only able to do a preliminary scan in terms of interrogation.”

“What did they find?”

“From what they’ve seen,” the black-haired woman said carefully, all emotion meticulously removed from her features, “it seems that Danzo secretly ordered Itachi to eliminate the Uchiha clan. After the massacre, Itachi infiltrated the Akatsuki to prevent them from moving against Konoha. As a public traitor, his true status was clearly never documented…consequently, the knowledge was never passed to you following the Sandaime’s death.”

Tsunade stared for what felt like an eternity, face reddening steadily. At last, she said, voice deadly, “And I see dear old Danzo never saw fit to inform me.”

Shizune nodded slowly. “That appears to be the case.”

“So what will happen now?” Sakura demanded. Her eyes switched rapidly between the two women.

But both were silent, staring silently at each other instead. Finally, the hokage’s eyes narrowed. “Itachi will be safe—there’s no doubt about that. Those old codgers have been slobbering all over themselves for a decade now to get the sharingan back.”

“Well, that’s a relief.” She reached toward her aching shoulder, rubbing it distractedly.

“But you, Sakura, the council will happily sacrifice on the altar of bureaucracy.”

Sakura stopped rubbing her shoulder.

“Identity fraud, credential fraud, insubordination on an S-rank mission,” Shizune recited almost apologetically. “The council will almost certainly demand life-long imprisonment, regardless of your motives.”

Ah. Sakura carefully smoothed her expression and took a small, soundless step back.

Tsunade caught the motion immediately. “It should go without saying,” the woman said shortly, “that complying with the council’s demands is almost categorically the bane of my existence. You’re no traitor; fortunately for you, I don’t condone punishing mere stupidity.” 

She turned to the windows and arched an imperious brow. Sakura, who had forgotten altogether about the figures outside the office who had been watching them this entire time, stiffened so quickly that she felt her back crack in protest.

“Commander,” the hokage greeted in her usual no-nonsense way. Her amber eyes flicked to Kakashi next, who leaned silently against the edge of the window. Her lips pursed. “Hatake. I assumed you followed along our conversation.”

The commander bowed his head immediately in confirmation. The man next to him remained upright, gaze cold. He did not look at Sakura.

“Saori Mori,” the hokage said swiftly, “died on a solo assassination mission in the Land of Waves at noon today. She fought nobly and bravely in service of her village.”

A dull ringing sound echoed in her ears. Sakura winced. “Tsunade—”

“That is the price you pay, unless you want to suffer the council's pettiness,” the woman said warningly. Amber eyes examined her. “No goodbyes, no closure with former teammates. Saori Mori dies right here in this room.”

She shut her mouth stiffly.

“In fact,” Tsunade said bluntly, “don’t ever mention her name again. Forget she even existed. That is an order to all three of you. Let her…fade into anonymity like so many ANBU do.”

“As for Haruno Sakura,” The hokage stood suddenly, gaze flashing as she crossed her arms. “Haruno Sakura was following my orders this entire time, to the very point where she led my ANBU on a merry chase through the village and then crashed through this window. I suspected there was a traitor in our midst. I strategically withheld my suspicions and my protégé’s progress from the council, and she carried out my will when I deemed her prepared, as is my prerogative. And lo and behold, we have concrete evidence now of Danzo’s treachery.”

“Of course,” Shizune hummed, “Sakura cannot be tried if she didn’t break any laws.”

“It’s legal grey area,” the commander said gruffly. “The hokage might have some leeway during times of war, but to go above the council during a professed state of peace is—”

“With Itachi back in the village and the younger one on his way as well, I don't think they'll press the issue,” Tsunade said derisively.

Shizune’s eyebrows arched high on her forehead. “The younger one?”

“Yes,” Tsunade said, clearing her throat. “According to Sakura, the rest of Team Seven should be bringing young Uchiha Sasuke back now. An ungrateful brat, I recall, considering all the healing I did for him.”

“Tsunade-sama,” the assistant responded lightly, after a long pause, “the council might finally like you.”

The hokage’s expression shifted into one of disgust. “Well, this will at least silence their usual nagging for a little while. Now, until Sasuke comes...”

It took an hour and a half on the dot. And when Sasuke did arrive, it was with great tumult; he was dragged kicking and cursing into the hokage’s office.

“You should tell him,” Shizune prompted, looking slightly pityingly at the younger Uchiha as he twisted, face red.

Glaring, Tsunade finished off her cup of soju. After swallowing with gusto, and without a breath of pause, she delivered the truth ruthlessly. As generally unsympathetic as she was (and she was), even Sakura winced, wondering if her mentor might have handled the issue a little more delicately.

“You’re lying,” Sasuke hissed, face twisted in hatred.

“Apologies, Hokage-sama,” Sai said with a bright smile. “We haven’t quite managed to get him house-trained yet.”

The hokage wasn’t impressed. “To what end?”

“This man, Danzo,” Sasuke accused nastily, “you must want him out of the picture. Pin a crime on him so that he stops angling for your seat—”

“That would be awfully crafty,” Tsunade agreed, “if Danzo were remotely the type to angle for something like the hokage’s seat. Unfortunately, a man like him never likes public attention or oversight; it rather hampers his generally unpalatable agendas.”

Sasuke glared.

“Danzo acted without approval,” the older woman said, a little more softly now. “Itachi never should have been placed in that situation. I wasn’t in Konoha when it happened, but I do truly regret—

“Lies,” Sasuke charged unblinkingly, the veins in his forehead straining.

“She isn’t lying, Sasuke,” Sakura interrupted at last. “Itachi—”

“You shut your fucking mouth.”

Sakura turned slowly, eyebrows flying high in deadly warning. 

“Sasuke,” Naruto muttered urgently. His gaze darted to her, a little pleading. “Sakura.”

“As it stands,” Shizune interrupted swiftly, “although Sasuke defected, he has done very little in the way of endangering Konoha. There were no deaths as a result of his defection and no critical intelligence was leaked, correct?”

“Right,” Tsunade confirmed, sending a warning look Sakura’s way. Reluctantly, Sakura forced her gaze away from Sasuke. “The council will want keep him and weaponize him for Konoha. This will be a sham of a trial. Aren't you lucky?"

“Anyone else, and you would be executed, boy,” the ANBU commander grunted.

“Exactly,” the hokage said, eyes suddenly rapt at the copy-nin. She stared at him for a long time, unblinking. At last, she sighed. “You’re still the one who’s most qualified to keep the last Uchiha in line.”

“No one is keeping me in line. Get these cuffs off me."

“You mean,” Naruto stammered, “Sasuke, he’ll be back on Team Seven?”

“He shouldn’t be,” Tsunade hissed irately.

Naruto crowed in joy. Sakura’s mouth flattened. Really? How…ludicrously unfair. If Sakura had abandoned the village like Tsunade had originally suspected, she would have been greeted by a swift death upon return by the council.

“You. All of you. You’re going to be on your best fucking behavior from now on,” the hokage said dangerously. “Take the chunin exams; save a few kittens for the village. Not one fucking toe out of line.”

Naruto nodded rapidly.

“And someone take Sasuke to see his brother when he’s conscious,” Tsunade snapped. “If no one else can convince him of the truth....”

Shizune nodded with some skepticism.

Tsunade released a frustrated gust of breath. “Dismissed,” she spat out, waving a wild arm at the door. “Get out. All of you.”

Kakashi disappeared instantly. She stared for a moment, heart in her throat, then left without a backward glance.


As she walked home, the dusk golds and reds faded into a rich black-blue, enfolding the houses and shops in shadow. It had been almost a month since she had traced this path home, she considered. After almost a month of limited airflow, the air in her room must have turned a little stale. After climbing the three staircases leading up to her place, she opened the door and made straight for the sole window to crack it open.

She paused there, examining the scene outside through the glass. It took her a few seconds to find her watchers. The ANBU blended with the cover of night, masks angled skillfully away from the moonlight which might otherwise have revealed them. Having been one of them, however, Sakura was well aware of the tricks of the trade.

She would have liked to have said goodbye, she reflected. To Snail especially, but also to Hyena—even to Bear.

But there was no use thinking about useless things. It wasn't as though there was anything she could change. She stalked to the bathroom and ran the hot water.

Her reflection looked…wan. Exactly like she’d had the bare minimum of sleep these last forty eight hours. Sighing, she pulled off her clothes and sank into the tub, skin prickling with brief pain before pleasure sank in.

And Kakashi

No, some part of her asserted with near violence.

The water quickly turned brown. Sakura examined it with a sort of fascinated disgust, continuing to scrub her skin and hair with equal vigor. She froze when the door to her bathroom suddenly swung open.

Sakura blinked back at her intruder.

“What the fuck are you still doing here?” Ino hissed. “God, I came here just in case, but I didn’t think—you can’t actually be that stupid—"

...of anyone to come bursting into her bathroom uninvited right now (and part of her, yes, had been expecting someone), Ino was very nearly on the bottom of the list.

“Excuse me?” Sakura asked slowly.

Ino uttered a noise of outrage. “In less than an hour, there’s going to be a warrant for your capture and interrogation. And I might crack open people’s minds for a living, but I stomped over your sandcastles when we were four. It’s not happening.”

“I...haven’t done anything wrong.”

“As all guilty people say,” Ino snapped, before her expression forcibly cleared. “Not that it matters. Now get the fuck up and leave.”

Sakura stared. “Even if I did, I’d have ANBU on me in less than a second. They’ve got four squads lined up outside my window.”

“I know!” Ino hissed, her fist snapping out to collide with mirror. Shards rained down from the point of impact. Sakura felt like her mind was moving through molasses.

What was Ino proposing, in the case that Sakura was actually guilty? That they would fight their way out of here? Together?

“We haven’t,” she started. She tried again. “We haven’t been like that in...years. Why are you…”

“Been what?”

Sakura swept back the damp hair from her face. “We haven’t even given each other the time of day. ”

“And I would have called you bitch to your face if you’d asked for it,” Ino sneered. “Probably.”

Sakura’s eyes narrowed as pulled a towel over her body. “You’re not making sense, Ino. You’re the one that decided that—”

“Oh fuck him,” Ino exclaimed.

Sakura, startled, twisted to look at the other girl.

“You think Sasuke really had anything to do with it?” the other girl ranted, sweeping her hair back. “It was about you and me, foreheard, and the fact that you’d won, and that I’m too proud to tolerate it. It was never meant to be…”

Sakura exhaled. “I wasn’t lying,” she said, toweling her hair slowly. “Despite what it looks like, I was…acting on Tsunade’s private orders.”

Ino’s eyes widened. “What?”

“I understand that’s probably not what your colleagues have been saying, but it’s the truth. I haven’t committed any crimes.”

“Oh,” Ino said faintly.

After a pause, she straightened her clothes and brushed back hair, until once again she looked impeccable. “Fine.” Her pointer finger raised to point to the back corner of Sakura’s bedroom. “Now explain that.”

Sakura followed her finger until she reached a particular damning article of clothing hanging still from her wardrobe. She held back a tortured groan. The crimson, busty piece of lingerie was offensively bright even in the dimly lit room.

She rubbed the space between her nose and her eyes. “It’s mine,” she tried.

Ino gave a shrill laugh. “Don’t even try it, forehead. In your dreams.”

Sakura’s hand lowered. She stared blankly at the other girl. “Seriously? Now?”

Ino’s mouth gaped incredulously. “I would never have guessed.”

“Thanks,” she returned shortly.

“It makes sense of course, now that I think about it,” the blonde sniffed, sweeping the heavy curtain of her hair over one shoulder, “Growing up around me must have been formative.”

Sakura rolled her eyes.

“Right,” Ino said, looking pleased now. “Well, now that you’re not actually about to die—I hope you rot in a ditch, bitch. Huh. That rhymed.”

She turned on her heel and made for the door. Before it shut fully, though, pale, long-nailed fingers wrapped around the edge of the door, keeping it open by a sliver. “Dinner,” the disembodied voice said a second later, “Friday.”

The door shut.

Stalking forward, Sakura yanked the curtains shut. She slid into her bed and shut her eyes.


While Sakura may not have been dragged into a cell by T&I, she was subpoenaed to testify before the council the next day. (She honestly wasn’t sure which one, given the choice, she would have preferred).

It was clear, by the time of her entrance into the circular room, that proceedings had long been underway. Sakura found a rather tired, if stoic, Itachi at the witness stand before the gathering of council elders, bandaged and sickly. A short distance behind him, in an area clearly designated for other witnesses to wait, was Sasuke.

Sasuke’s dark gaze flicked from his brother to her.

Sakura paused to look at him. “You look calmer today.”

His dark hair, which had grown longer in his time away from Konoha, hid his expression.

She shrugged to herself and then sat in the chair beside him, arms crossed.

“Obviously, Itachi will join our ANBU forces again,” a silver-haired councilwoman with purple, beady eyes intoned to nods around her. “With his inside knowledge against the Akatsuki, we will be able to move openly against them with far more efficacy.”

Tsunade cleared her throat with barely restrained annoyance. “As I’ve said repeatedly, Itachi cannot be cleared for active duty until he passes his physical readiness tests—and that will be some time yet.”

“Surely within the month.”

“I think that Uchiha-san’s condition has perhaps been understated thus far,” Shizune cut in politely, sending a warning glance at the hokage, “He has a rare lung disease that, while not incurable, has progressed for years without any treatment. It will take him at least a year to reach a state remotely resembling battle readiness.”

The council did not look pleased to hear this news.

“But as for the younger one,” an older man now spoke, voice a deep bass, “his health is in a far better state, and his sharingan will be invaluable. We might reconsider given these circumstances, hokage-sama, the terms you have set—”

Sakura started tuning them out, bending over to pick at a hangnail on her toe. She felt a burning sensation on the side of her face, as though someone were looking at her.

“How did you do it,” Sasuke asked, almost soundlessly. She looked up, and he still faced the council—she wondered if she’d imagined the sensation of being surveyed. “You were the weakest one when I left.”

Sakura sighed and leaned back on the uncomfortable bench.

“Then?” he pressed emotionlessly.

She pursed her lips, staring at him. “Why do you think people try to become strong?”

"Self-respect," he sneered out of the corner of his mouth.

“Survival, I think," she said curtly, unfazed.

“And what tragic event happened to you, Sakura,” Sasuke said coldly, turning toward her at last, “that forced such a dramatic change in your priorities?”

Sakura’s eyes narrowed. “I was almost raped and sold for parts by organ traffickers,” she returned equally coldly.

She blinked a second later, surprised and a bit alarmed that Sasuke was the first living person she had revealed this to. And she couldn’t even see his face.

“Kakashi?” he declared boredly, like he suspected she was lying.

Sakura’s lips contorted into a snarl. “Evidently,” she said with great difficulty, “not there.”

They lapsed into silence again. The chatter of the council members filled the quiet: dull, static noise.

“But that wasn’t the point,” she said lowly.

Sasuke’s dark eyes examined her coolly.

Sakura’s lips tightened. “He never took me seriously the way he did the two of you, never paid attention to me and taught me like he did—”

“You were constantly falling over yourself to catch my attention.”

“Believe it or not, being a stupid teenager isn’t a crime. It’s—”

“Normal? The shinobi life isn’t for normal,” Sasuke said cuttingly, “It isn’t for frivolous, lovesick girls like you and the Yamanaka or for lazy dumbasses like the Nara. All of you were equally pathetic.”

“There are different brands of ineptitude,” Sakura sneered, “and he was more than willing to try with yours and Naruto’s.”

But her ears burned. She didn’t want to acknowledge the potential truth in what Sasuke said—the possibility that Kakashi trying might have changed nothing. Because that meant that those organ traffickers had been necessary, that something terrible like that had needed to happen: that Yamato was right and that shinobi, the ones who were strong and survived the worst, could never also be happy, well-adjusted people. And how the fuck was that fair?

(She had been right, as a child, to never want to be good at this).

“Sakura,” Tsunade beckoned shortly. She stood up immediately and stalked toward the witness stand. She didn’t make eye contact with Sasuke again the entire trial.


Thud. Thud. Thud.

Sakura jolted out of her bed, snarling like a wet cat.

“Sakuraaaa,” she heard a familiar voice whine through the door. The sound of a key being turned in a lock reached her ears, and then the door was open, revealing Naruto—bright-eyed and beaming.

“Do you know how many hours of sleep I’ve had this week, Naruto?” she hissed. “Do you?” She could have cried—just burst into ugly, strangled sobs—because of how tired she was.

“But everything with Sasuke’s finally smoothed over, and it’s our first team practice together. Don’t you want to head over together?” Naruto smiled fiercely. It looked painful.

“And?” Sakura grunted. “It’s going to be a shitshow.”

“It’s not.”

“It is.

“It’s NOT,” Naruto snapped, face reddening.

To be fair, she reminded herself as she considered murder, Naruto wasn't aware of even a half a dozen of the reasons her attendance of any Team Seven practice would be catastrophic.

A soft set of knocks on the open door turned both their heads.

“Naruto told me to be here at six in the morning sharp,” Sai said with a bland smile. His eyes flicked over the both of them, and the smile slowly dissipated.

Naruto took a shuddering breath. He straightened to his full height. “Look, Sakura, there’s a lot of shit I’m ignoring right now, and some of that is the—some of that is the stuff you never told me, even though I’ve always been honest with you, even though we made a pact to be honest. But like I said, I’m ignoring that. Because if I think about that, I could…”

He broke off, his expression strained. There was an edge to his features that Sakura wasn’t accustomed to seeing.

“Just come to the fucking practice.”

“Yeah,” she found herself saying. “Okay.”

Fuck.

Feeling resigned to her fate, and distinctly like she had been emotionally manipulated, Sakura dragged her weary body to the bathroom. After washing her face and brushing her teeth, she rustled around in the closet. She pulled out a top blindly and tugged it over her head. The material settled loosely around her frame, the sleeves reaching just short of her wrists. Still rubbing sleep out of her eyes, she pulled on a pair of standard issue black pants and stumbled out the door with them

“I think he got about as much sleep as you did last night,” Sai noted as they walked.

“And you?” Sakura asked, eyes fixed straight ahead, barely open.

“Probably the same,” he responded sedately. “Shikamaru and I were up until—”

Not the same,” she said shortly. “But seriously. Are you happy about this? Sasuke being back, the negligible punishment for what he’s done?”

“It does seem unfair,” Sai agreed. He blinked calmly at her. “But other than that, I don’t have any other feelings on the matter. You, however, I think, have many feelings. Some of which don’t overtly appear to be…entirely fair.”

Sakura arched an eyebrow at him. They stared at each other for a moment, until she finally turned her head away.

Just as dawn broke, they stood in front of their assigned training ground. Sakura peered down at her watch—they were early.

Even so, the training ground itself was not deserted.

Sasuke leaned against a post at the edge of the grounds, expression stoic. Sakura’s gaze flicked down. Metal bracelets inscribed with characters too small for her to read shackled his wrists. They were small enough to not impede his mobility, but they had almost undoubtedly been created to restrict his chakra use.

“Who’s that?” Naruto asked loudly, pointing at the masked woman crouched on a tree above him.

“His guard, undoubtedly." Sakura gave her a cheery wave.

“You’re somewhat of an asshole,” Sai observed.

Feeling a sharp gaze on her, she turned her head slightly to meet it. Yamato, looking a great deal more recovered from the trials of the previous few, examined her with open incredulity.

“Dolphin.”  

Sakura's shoulders grew painfully tight.

The ANBU stepped off her branch, landing crouched with her head bowed. “Taichou,” she greeted.

“Report,” Kakashi commanded.

In any other situation, Sakura thought longingly, she might have been tempted to close her eyes and catch some sleep.

“In summary, since yesterday, he has used three jutsus, all low-level, made eye contact with ten people, and communicated directly with three,” the woman finished, gaze travelling up at last to meet Kakashi’s.

His gaze, however, was directed at Sasuke.

“It’s my opinion that one in your position,” Kakashi said silkily, head tilting lazily to the side, “should be fully informed about the kind of scrutiny you're under. It influences the kind of decisions you make, doesn't it?"

Dolphin's head raised slowly, shock passing quietly through her eyes, perhaps at his bluntness.

"As you can see, Dolphin will report every single one of your movements. Give me the slightest suspicion about your loyalties,” Kakashi murmured, almost in a tone of challenge--like he was daring Sasuke--“and your throat will be slit before you even make it past the gate.”

Sasuke’s jaw visibly tightened.

“And in case it should need stating, there are many up to the task. Your own teammate has proven herself more than capable, hasn’t she?”

Sakura's head twisted sharply to look at him. Her heart had dropped somewhere into her stomach. She hadn't expected him to acknowledge her. She hadn't expected him to even address her presence there.

“In fact, I think it’s fair to say that Haruno is heads and shoulders above all of you,” Kakashi continued coolly, his gaze still directed toward Sasuke.

Sakura stared after him, unsmiling.

Yamato cleared his throat. “And let that be motivation to make you all work harder. Naruto, Sai, pair up for a warm up spar. Sasuke, once you’re finished here, spar with Sakura.”

Naruto crowed, dragging Sai away. Face strained, Yamato followed them.

“Understood?” Kakashi asked leisurely.  

After a long silence, Sasuke nodded . He shot a dark glance at Kakashi and then turned on his heel.

Sakura moved to follow him. Without her conscious consent, a fraction of a second later, her feet pivoted on the dirt ground, spinning back around.

Kakashi gave no reaction to her sudden movement other than to move his gaze, which had been fixed somewhere above her head, unconcernedly to her.

Sakura’s lips twisted, as she tried to find the proper words. She stared past him too, mouth working.

She swallowed, ignoring the pain from the rough sensation against her dry throat. “Saori Mori—” she started, nostrils flared.

“Who?” he responded, voice emotionless.

Sakura’s mouth snapped shut, strangling any other words that might have followed. Her gaze roamed rapidly over his features. True to his words, there was not one sign of recognition on his face. Not even the slightest muscle had twitched out of place.

Don’t ever mention her name again. Forget she even existed. That is an order to all three of you.

It seemed, Sakura realized with an inappropriate sense of hilarity, that this would be the one command in recent memory that Kakashi would obey.

A trickle of sweat escaped her hairline and traced its way down her cheek. The sun beat down unforgivingly on her face.

If she followed his lead, she considered distantly, this would be it. They would both treat that as though it had never happened—exactly like the absurd anomaly it was. And there was so little to lose, she considered. Wasn’t it better, in the end, to forget?

What could possibly be said that wasn’t better left unsaid?

She thrust her hands into the pockets of her pants.

“Right.” She forced her numb lips into a smile.

His dark gaze didn’t change.

She turned around and walked towards Sasuke.


 

“You’re going to kill me.” The observation escaped her without her consent. 

Fight, the Voice whispered, trembling.

https://64.media.tumblr.com/b74b90c82ef1f02f4f684005c101b625/63f3e2cfc586fd76-b2/s1280x1920/f31e5139fd0fb7bf97b175a4fd3c8795a5ecb09d.png

- by the ridiculously talented izanamimami for this fic

Chapter Text

A boulder tore through the air in their direction. Unblinking, Sakura shunshined in front of the rest. Tensing her arm, she swarmed chakra in her fist obliterated it into thousands of pieces. A sixth sense made her drop to a crouch a second later. A hand landed roughly—impersonal and fleeting—between her shoulder blades. Gaze flicking up, she saw Kakashi hurtle over her.

He mowed through the right flank of the rogue-nin in seconds, brute muscle and taijutsu. Sakura stared blankly ahead as she took down the center, shoulders tight as she lashed out with fists and elbows into throats and eyes.

Not enough, the Voice roared, a starved beast.

A month had passed since she had careened through the glass into Tsunade's office with an S-Rank nin on her back, and in that time, this was all that they had managed to encounter. Even as part of Sakura might have trembled to do more, these rogue-nin, frankly, weren’t shitty enough. Anything more would have been...gross overkill. She hadn't realized until now how much of an outlet ANBU missions had been, and now, without--

“So this is a chunin mission,” Sai observed with something like polite disappointment.

It could be said that even their newly-won chunin designation was (decidedly) ill-fitting.

Her hair blew forward as Sasuke rushed by her and then curved toward the left flank, katana drawn in a tight angle against his body. Naruto and Sai followed suit—Naruto on the ground and Sai above, held aloft by a bird the latter had conjured.

“Should I—?!” the blonde slowed down, brows furrowed.

“Does this look like it’s worth a nine tailed beast?” Sasuke snapped.

“Fine! Kage-bunshin then.”

She rolled her eyes. Naruto quite literally alternated between three strategies in battle, and it was a wonder—in some ways—that he had made it this far. Then again, as she saw a hundred doubles of the blonde emerge and overwhelm the remaining shinobi, it wasn’t that much of a wonder after all.

Sasuke wiped his blade on the trunk of a tree, a mildly irritated look on his face.

“There’s a stream southwest of here,” she muttered after a pause.

Naruto gave her an encouraging thumbs up. Sasuke gave no indication of having heard and turned to sheathe his katana.

Kakashi approached. He came to a standstill a meter in front of them, backlit by the sun.

“There are three types of choking,” the copy-nin said with lazy derision. “The first, as we all know, the literal. The second kind, when you fail to perform because of fear, Naruto, you fortunately haven’t repeated since that mission in the Land Of Waves. The third? That’s when you lose precious seconds deciding what the fuck to do. Doesn’t matter how much chakra you have; those few seconds are the difference between living and someone just quick enough or just lucky enough slitting your throat.”

Naruto’s expression grew grim. “I’m not—"

“You’re a missile with no finesse,” Kakashi said coldly. “You weren’t built for close combat. You might fare well on an open field, one-on-one, with a similarly straightforward, honor-preoccupied opponent, but if I locked you in a room with any one of the other people on this team, let’s just say I wouldn’t bet on you.”

The copy-nin’s gaze snapped to Sai next with savage interest. “You’re not nearly as aggressive as you should be, long-range.”

Sai nodded, unperturbed. “Subterfuge and close-combat make the majority of my field experience. I will address the deficiency.”

Kakashi’s head cocked to the side then to survey Sasuke. “As for you—a little slow without the sharingan, aren’t you,” he said slowly, with something like private mocking amusement, “Haruno and I cleared through more than twice the bodies you did. Naruto might have done as much, if he hadn’t wasted those seconds.”

Haruno. She scoffed internally. Sasuke received this all without any expression.

Kakashi’s gaze flicked over all of them. “Retrieve your weapons. We’re heading out.” 

The Uchiha’s head raised suddenly, eyes narrowed. “And what about her? Nothing?”

The copy-nin’s eyebrow arched. Sakura had minimal difficulty keeping her expression placid as Kakashi’s eyes coolly cut to her. She had had practice the entire month to adjust to abruptly not being ignored.

“Nothing,” he said indifferently. “Unlike you, she didn’t make any stupid mistakes.” He launched himself into the trees.

“How did you know?” Sasuke asked coolly, head turning suddenly to examine her. “In that precise moment, to drop to the ground? He didn’t say anything or make any signals.”

Leaves crackled on the forest floor as Sai came to stand next to her. Sakura’s stoic expression hid her perturbation.

“Never mind that Naruto and I were also there next to you. He calculated his jump with complete confidence that you would be prepared for it.”

There was, of course, no good way to explain this. In the hours she had spent on Kakashi’s ANBU squad, one learned quickly to adapt to the movements of the others as easily as breathing. More pointedly, Kakashi and she—both on the aggressive, confrontational end of the spectrum—usually led the first attack, just as they had now. She couldn’t exactly say that.

“They discussed it while you were taking a piss earlier,” Sai said blandly.

Naruto—who had not observed any such plan—fortunately did not say anything to contradict him. His lips tightened slightly, however, and his gaze locked with Sakura’s. It promised a long conversation later.

Sai gave her a long look as well that she didn’t feel like reading into.


They returned to the village just as the sun set. Sakura went straight home and stood under the scalding rain of her shower head for what felt like hours.

By the time she left her place, she had long resolved to blame her lateness on their team’s delayed return (and not the long shower she had leisurely strolled home to take).

“Table for two…under the name Ino.”

The host, looking oddly strained, led her inside. “Your dinner partner has arrived, ma’am—”

“You’re dripping,” the blonde said distastefully as she looked Sakura up and down. “At an establishment of this caliber, forehead, they might just make you pay for carpet damage.”

That would explain the strained expression. Sakura gave Ino a bland look, before tying her hair up into a tight knot. Strands shorter than the rest fell out seconds later. She scowled.

Did you cut your hair with garden shears?” Ino asked with interest. “I have a cousin who does that—too into flowers, we’ve always thought. No one knows how to tell him, though…It just makes for very awkward family gatherings.”

Not for the first time, Sakura felt an abrupt sense of grief for the way in which she had been maneuvered into these weekly dinners. Still, as it turned out: almost anything was better than Ino banging on her door for hours on end because Sakura had ‘forgotten.'

“It’s lost pigment too,” Ino said factually, sipping at her wine. “Too much time in the sun, I rather think. Never too late to go medic-nin, you know.”

Sakura reached for her water. She started chugging it diligently.

“Not that you have the temperament for it anymore,” Ino acknowledged after a pause, blue eyes assessing her.

That was the other problem with these dinners. It was the persisting examination—the fact that Ino had only grown sharper eyed and more cunning in the years they had been estranged. T&I had had no small part in cultivating those qualities, Sakura could imagine.

“What is this place?” Sakura asked blandly, flipping through the menu. “Never heard of it.”

Ino gave a cough-laugh. “Never been wine-and-dined, have you, Sakura?”

Sakura’s eyes lifted belatedly from the menu to survey the restaurant’s clientele. Everywhere she looked, she found extremely well-dressed individuals—another explanation for the host’s demeanor as he had escorted Sakura in—with immediately telling bashful looks on their faces.

The restaurant seemed to subsist primarily on amorous couples.

“And why did you decide to meet here?” Sakura asked dryly.

“Oh, just killing two birds with one stone,” Ino said easily, closing her menu and signaling the waiter with a delicate flick of red nails. “One could even say I’m still technically on the clock.”

The waiter eagerly rushed toward their table.

“You’d be surprised how helpful it is to know who’s fucking who in the village,” Ino said without an ounce as shame. The waiter reddened. “Comes in handy during interrogation. Nothing like threatening to reveal an affair to make a hardened shinobi—”

“I’ll have the sukiyaki,” Sakura cut in smoothly.

“Ah,” Ino said, apparently noticing the waiter for the first time. She gave a beatific smile. “Sashimi, please. And I’ll have ponzu on the side.”

“Excellent. I will direct these orders towards the chef right away,” he said, bowing low. He left with a slightly dazed smile.

Ino turned back to Sakura with raised eyebrows.

“So?” she demanded. “On a mission with the team, were you?”

Sakura nodded perfunctorily. “And your team,” she asked swiftly. “Been on any missions with them recently?”

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing,” Ino said with a small smile. She cupped her chin in her hand. “But—yes. We usually take on something once every week. The rest of the time, I devote to being old Morino’s dearest dogsbody.”

Sakura’s lips quirked infinitesimally at the poisonous look on the blonde’s face. A flash of familiar blonde crossed her peripheral.

Ino followed her gaze and gave a low whistle. “Would you look at that,” she said, a jeer on her face.

Sakura rubbed tiredly at the bridge of her nose. Perfect. Of all the places for Naruto to choose for a date night with Hinata on this particular night, it had to be here.

“Have you ever seen him out of that atrocious jumpsuit before?” She cursed Ino’s loud voice as the pair suddenly turned to them, wide-eyed. Hinata smiled shyly once the shock passed and gave a small wave.

Naruto’s blue eyes seeming unusually bright. He turned to a waiter next to them and then pointed to Sakura and Ino’s table.

Sakura stood. “No,” she said a little too forcefully. She gentled her tone a second later. “No. We shouldn’t interrupt the two of you—”

“Nonsense,” Hinata said softly. She had made eye contact with Naruto and something passed silently between them. “We insist.”

A pair of servers quickly and seamlessly assembled an extra table and joined it to theirs. Hinata took off her coat, revealing a gossamer-thin yukata as deep as the color of red wine. Sakura heard Naruto choke on his own saliva.

A server swiftly delivered a small plate of wagyu beef to the table, courtesy of the chef.

Naruto cleared his throat loudly. “You look…good,” he said roughly, brushing at his closely shorn hair.

“You too,” Hinata returned, cheeks pink.

Sakura sawed noisily through the meat. Ino smacked her across the arm.

“So,” Naruto announced, turning his gaze to them. “I haven’t seen the two of you like this in a long time.”

“The gossip hasn’t been scandalous enough until now,” Ino said with a sniff.

“Don’t listen to her,” she sighed tiredly. She straightened a second later. “Really Ino and I shouldn’t be ruining your night. It’s not too late to—”

“I think I should probably be apologizing ahead of time for ruining your and Ino’s night, actually,” Naruto said with uncharacteristic gravity. He looked up from his folded napkin a second later, eyebrows raised.

Sakura let out an incredulous huff of air, then leaned back. “Really?” she asked curtly.

“Really,” Naruto said with a firm smile.

Now?” In front of them, she meant.

“Sai keeps covering for you,” he explained simply, crossing his arms.

Sakura glowered at him. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Hinata attempt to draw Ino politely into their own side-conversation.

“So?”

Sakura averted her gaze.

“Did you think I would react badly?” he continued intently. “If I knew…that you weren’t.”

He stopped.

“Weak?” she finished for him, tone flat.

It was odd, to hear him admit it, even implicitly; in the near-decade she had known him, he had never alluded to anything like it, even though for most of that time, it had actually been true.

“It wasn’t like that,” she said lowly. “I didn’t choose Sai as a confidante. I never really told him anything.”

“He noticed it on his own,” Naruto summarized, like he had heard this before. His gaze lowered. “I keep wondering about that: the fact that I didn’t. Sai’s asked me about it too, that maybe I was…seeing something that didn’t exist, because some part of me wanted to keep seeing it.”

“No,” Sakura said bluntly, and she meant it. “How were you supposed to notice something that I was actively hiding? Sai probably doesn’t even realize that he had an advantage. He had no preconceptions about me. Not to mention he's much more adept at uncovering secrets than you.”

“And why were you actively hiding it?” Naruto pressed.

Her fingers tightened around her napkin. “That,” she said forcefully, “I can’t tell.”

His eyes bore stubbornly into hers.

“Hokage’s orders,” Sakura said through unmoving lips, wary of anyone who might be watching. Naruto’s eyes narrowed. “Maybe someday, when you’re hokage, you can ask me.”

He struggled, features shifting between frustration and resignation.

“So,” Ino said slyly, “can I stop pretending now to not be eavesdropping?”

“Ino,” Hinata cajoled gently.

The blonde girl rolled her eyes. “Don’t pretend you weren’t trying to listening too.”

With remarkable timing, a waitress placed Sakura and Ino’s food on the table with a flourish.

“But I want to hear the really juicy stuff now,” Ino said with frightening intensity. She grabbed Sakura and Naruto’s hands. “Tell me.”

“About…what?”

“Sasuke, of course!” she cried out triumphantly.

“He’s pretty much the same as ever,” Naruto said dismissively. “Just as arrogant and lame. More so, really, now that he’s back.”

“I don’t care about his personality,” Ino sighed, examining her nails. “I haven’t gotten to see him yet. How does he look?”

He squinted.

“Taller,” Sakura said boredly.

“I, ah, crossed him in the hospital before he went in for his medical examinations to be cleared for active duty,” Hinata said, looking very hard at the tablecloth. “He seems to be—very healthy.”

Ino smiled knowingly. “A fine specimen for medical study, was he?”

Naruto was red-faced. “What’s so good about that idiot? He has hair that looks like a duck’s ass.”

The conversation lapsed into silence. Sakura speared a cube of meat and brought it to her mouth.

“By the way,” Hinata said abruptly, turning to face Ino, “I just wanted to congratulate you and Neji, personally, as well as relay our clan’s gratitude as well. My father is very pleased.”

At the very least, Sakura would reflect later, the dinner had been well worth it just to see the way Ino’s face paled with mortification in that moment.


The next day found Sakura making a midday trip to the grocery store. All the non-perishables she had stocked up on before the ‘Second Sasuke Retrieval Mission’ had run out that morning. Well, that was almost true. More to the point, she was sick of living off tasteless noodles and nuts.

Her mouth watered as she stepped into the store. She could probably kill now for a piping, hot cup of mugicha tea. She went straight for the tea aisle. Crouching low, thrusting her hand blindly toward the back of the bottom shelf, she rustled around until she triumphantly pulled out what seemed to be the last bag—

“Haruno Sakura.”

Sakura’s smug gaze snapped from the tea leaves to the man standing in the middle of the aisle. She paused.

She had known she had had a lot of explaining to do to the people around her. All she had been doing this past month, for the most part, was explaining. But not at a grocery store at 7 am while she was starving. Not to this particular person.

She blinked, but he was still there. Lo and behold, not a cruel figment of her imagination.

The light lines on Itachi’s face were all the more prominent under the fluorescent lighting of the grocery store. He looked very much like he had recently been retrieved forcibly from the brink of death. He also held a crate of tomatoes.

She stood up reluctantly.

“Should you be out right now?” She searched around for a nurse-caretaker in their vicinity.

He gave her a small, distant smile. “Apparently I’ve been recovering at an astonishing rate.”

Sakura’s mouth opened and then shut. (He didn’t look it.)

What she was supposed to do then, of course, was to make discrete arrangements for a suitably private area and a mutually convenient time for them to meet. Because, clearly, they were long overdue a conversation.

“Do I need to be worried?” she muttered instead, in the narrow, otherwise deserted, aisle of a grocery store.

Itachi’s face revealed, frustratingly, very little. Instead, he gave her that same, placid look. Sakura started to wish fervently that she could read his mind. It took her an instant to realize that it was a sentiment she had felt before and keenly. Not her, she corrected after a second. Shisui, the man.

“Most of the time,” the man said calmly, unblinking, “I feel nothing.”

Sakura paused, examining him through narrow eyes.

“Other times, however, there is” Itachi disclosed evenly, “anger.”

Something about the way he said it—as though it were utterly foreign to him—made her a bit unnerved.

“Not that this is a conversation for a grocery store,” she said genially. “But are you threatening me?”

“Am I?” he said finally, with something like clinical curiosity.

The smile left Sakura’s face.

“I’m not pretending I was your savior,” she said roughly. “I’ve not been expecting gratitude.”

“You weren’t that,” Itachi agreed. His voice held an edge right now. “If you were looking for it, you likely would not find it.”

Sakura turned her face away, shoulders tight. It was absurd. What was there to regret about survival? Without her and the crow’s interference, Itachi had been slated for a cruel, untimely death. And yet, she acknowledged uncomfortably, maybe--to him--there was something undeniably cruel about what she had done. That she had intervened as she had and possibly robbed him of…the freedom to choose—to follow through with a plan he had set for himself, that he had lived for, for years.

“Sasuke,” she said shortly, changing the subject abruptly. “He’s living with you?”

Something shifted in his face, subtly. “Yes.”

“The tomatoes are for him, I’m guessing.”

“…yes,” he repeated again, monotonously. His eyes followed her.

“Legacy of an unfortunate preoccupation when I was younger,” Sakura explained shortly. “If I recall, he liked them sliced into even quarters.”

His gaze flickered.

She scowled at nothing in particular, not sure why she had admitted to that.

“When I’m not around,” the older Uchiha said indifferently, looking somewhere past her, gaze unreadable, “watch him.”

She stared at him for a moment, mouth agape. “Me,” she said, sounding a little strangled. She dropped the bag of tea leaves into her basket. God, she needed to leave before this conversation had any more surprising twists. “Right. Okay.”

His words sank in a second later. She looked at him sharply. Something of that old Shisui surged in her, pained and panicked. When I’m not around

She bared her teeth in a nasty smile. “But if you’re ever out of the picture, for any reason, I might just forget that promise. Might just let my hand slip, if you catch my drift.”

“You’re not,” Itachi observed after a pause, “an exceptionally good liar.”

Sakura shrugged insouciantly. “I’ve managed so far. Makes one wonder, doesn’t it?”

She gave a little wave and calmly completed the rest of her grocery list. When she exited the store, she spotted—as she had predicted—a small, stout man waiting on a bench in medic-nin robes. Sakura passed seamlessly through the crowd to the other side of the street.

She rested her bags on the bench and pulled out the bottle of milk she had just purchased, taking a quick sip. The older man looked up from her book, the thin moustache above his lips shivering slightly with a passing breeze.

“If he isn’t already,” Sakura said, smiling into the street and nodding politely at an old Academy teacher, “put him on suicide watch.”

She dropped the bottle back in as she picked up her shopping bags and then made her way home.


She didn’t sleep particularly well that night. In fact, she barely slept at all.

She found herself tossing and turning, eyes wide open the entire time. There wasn’t one particular thought—it was all of them. She couldn’t seem to quiet her mind. It had become possessed of something entirely out of her control.

A strange fear beckoned Sakura…but, perhaps, not unexpected. Maybe, even, a long time coming. She had more downtime than ever, without ANBU: more free time, more energy—more time to reflect.

It was corrosive.

How far away was she, some unsightly, shivering part of her whispered. How many bodies? How much blood? In ounces or in quarts?

For the first time in a very long time, she wished she were…closer. To her parents, maybe. To someone. She wished (in that irrational, unmitigated way that can only happen in the privacy of one’s own thoughts) that there was someone who would come now, if she asked, and could lie to her, if she needed, and that she would believe them. Could believe them--that it was alright.

She leaned back in her bed and forced her eyes shut, even though sleep wouldn’t come for hours, and even then, not for long.

This continued for the next few nights.


The universe, it seemed, had a knack of holding Sakura to her promises, with very little consideration or regard for her altogether.

It took less than a week.

“Be still, Sasuke,” Sakura hissed, her fist landing with unbridled strength in the midsection of a tall woman with bright, white hair. She felt her ribcage compress beneath her knuckles, felt them cave in, and then shatter.

Not wasting a spare second, she shunshined through the swarm of sound shinobi in the narrow cave. Their team had been split as soon as they had been ambushed—she and Sasuke were only in one of many in a network of caves the sound shinobi now populated like bees in a hive.

Sakura bared her teeth in frustration as she brought a chakra lit hand to the wound on Sasuke’s leg.

Watch him.

“Get off me—”

“Don’t move,” she snarled. She forced her fingers into the wound, past the exposed muscle and bone to the artery that had been all but shredded.

“They must’ve been tracking us for days,” Sasuke exhaled, face contorted in rage, “Kabuto, that sniveling, worthless—he must have found out my chakra was sealed.”

Despite whatever he was capable of at his peak, she acknowledged sourly, a chakra-bound Sasuke had been a more than achievable target in the middle of this small army of shinobi.

Just one lucky shinobi with enough medical knowledge to make a crude, surgical incision was all that had been necessary.

“Stop moving,” she ordered. “This injury will kill you in the next minute unless I hold the frayed ends of your artery together exactly like this.”

A heavyset man wielding a chakra-lit spear emerged at the forefront of the clamoring pack heading straight for them. Sakura watched him with careful anticipation, timing her crouch for the precise moment he was in arm’s reach. She lashed her foot out with chakra-induced strength, sending the lower half of his leg snapping in the opposite direction of his femur.

She caught the sword of the next sound shinobi on the shoulder guard of her flak jacket. Her hand latched in the same motion onto the front of the woman’s face. She squeezed, until she felt the consciousness leave beneath her hands, shoved her back a second later.

Her gaze flicked up in annoyance to survey the rest. They had been biding their time as their comrades attacked, would attack in the next few seconds. To keep her right hand still, she had to keep the entire right side of her body stationary; that meant no twisting or rotating. That left her with one hand and one leg, all on the left.

Which wasn’t sustainable, Sakura realized with thin lips.

As the first woman moved, body beginning to blur in the telling signs of shunshin, Sakura made a split-second decision. Her left hand burrowed into the floor of the cave with thunderous strength. The resulting sound was deafening, like a clap of thunder.

And then the entire cavernous structure around them began collapsing.  

The rock fell like rainfall: at first, slow and unpredictable. Then, suddenly, faster and blurring. She saw a boulder as big as a horse drop directly on the man mid-shunshin to them, crushing him to death.

Sakura gritted her teeth and raised her left forearm, muscle tensed in preparation as the rest came down on them, chakra-lit fingers still wrapped tightly around the artery in Sasuke’s thigh.

The first boulder was nothing. Her arm didn’t shift a millimeter. The second and the third, directly on top of that, were similarly insignificant. It was the fourth that made her left foot shift back slightly. Then the next few came, and her arm buckled toward her head a centimeter before she steeled herself, gritted her teeth, and forced her forearm back up.

Ten seconds—ten infinite, torturous seconds—passed until everything stilled. By then, it felt like she was holding up a mountain, her forearm just scarce millimeters above the crown of her head. Beneath her forearm, until the boulder right above her gave out, she and Sasuke were shielded from the rest.

Agony seared through her body. She panted, breathless.

“What did you do?” she heard Sasuke hiss in the utter darkness.

She could have let him die, some part of her realized dully. Could have just let him bleed to death as she took on the rest of the sound shinobi. It wouldn’t have even been hard, she mourned. She was exceptionally good at the killing aspect of her job. This wouldn't have even required any extra effort on her part.

(She hadn't thought, when she had made that first choice—even the next—that she would be putting herself on the chopping block with him. And yet here she was, risking her life for Sasuke. Almost entirely unintentionally.)

Fuck.

She felt the artery finally finish knitting together at the exact time her left arm buckled. Sasuke gave a hoarse roar of pain as she wrenched her other hand out of his leg and brought it up to support the piles of rock above them. 

He shifted immediately, brushing her leg. “Try…to…minimize movement,” she strangled out to him.

This was your plan to save us?”

Ungrateful bastard.

“You can’t hold that forever.”

She knew.

“A minute, if at all.”

“Sasuke, even if we’re both about to die now,” Sakura whispered hoarsely, “you’re well on your way to convincing me to strangle you in the fraction of a second I’d have before those rocks crush us.”

Silence met her words.

Then, tonelessly: “Save your breath.”

Alluding to their diminishing oxygen supplies issue, she understood glumly. Her legs bent against her will, her feet sinking well into what remained of the cave floor. She could feel the muscles in her forearms tearing, the skin there scraped raw.

She let out a coarse, ugly cry as her shoulders started to tremble violently.

“Sakura,” was all Sasuke said. She didn’t have the brain power to analyze the way he said it.

Her eyes stung with frustration, because she could feel it. It felt like fighting the ocean. There was no way she could win. There was only the time until she gave in.

(The muscle in her right forearm tore just as she heard it.)

A shrill, sing-song screech, like the chirping of the birds.

She blinked dazedly in the darkness, trying to understand. There was a low, guttural rumbling sound growing louder and closer, like something was coming straight toward them.

Until that split second the boulder above her shattered, she didn’t even realize that her load had begun to lighten. It went from everything, abruptly, to nothing—too quick even for her to luxuriate in the change. Dust and debris from the decimate rock filled the air. Her panting breaths turned ragged.

Sakura looked up and encountered then—what seemed for one, irrational second—the face of divine rage itself. The face above her was luminous (a consequence of the raikiri, she would later rationalize), sharper and harder by the starkness of the darkness around them.

She inhaled, soundlessly—and then the oxygen rushed back into her brain.

“Sakura! Sasuke!” she heard Naruto cry. He careened down from somewhere higher, kicking off one boulder onto another until he reached them. His gaze flitted between her and Sasuke.

Sakura knew she looked far worse than Sasuke at the moment. She wasn’t surprised when Naruto moved like a bullet straight toward her.

Don’t touch her.” Kakashi caught him viciously by the collar and swung him a few meters away.

As Naruto stared in confusion, Sai touched ground beside him, silent and pale. His dark eyes seemed larger than usual.

“What’s broken?” the man inches from her demanded, eyes roving over her body.

Sakura opened her mouth and tasted blood. Her nose had bled. She hadn’t even noticed.

“His femoral artery,” she wheezed, trying to sound firm. “I knitted it together, but the hold is tenuous at best—”

“Not him,” the copy-nin snarled. She saw black spots and blinked slowly. A hand came into view, snapping harshly. “Look at me. Talk.”

“My arms…the muscles. They’re torn. My triceps too. I think I dislocated both shoulders”—she shifted experimentally, and held back a scream of pain—“my left knee too.”

Blessed green chakra crossed the field of her vision, and then it was supplied directly to her body. A dopey smile crossed Sakura’s face. Out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Sai helping lift Sasuke gingerly onto Naruto’s back.

“Feels nice,” Sakura commented, eyes barely open.

The muscle in her arms finished knitting together. Muscle was always easier than veins or arteries.

“Nice,” she sighed again.

The skin on her forearms sealed.

“Should she be conscious for this?” she heard Sai murmur.

Hands grasped her thigh and her calf firmly, then moved quickly, aligning her knee back into place. Sakura swore viciously, forcibly ripped from the happy place she had been before.

Her eyes widened in horror. “Don’t you dare,” she managed to get out.

He slid her shoulders back into place in lightning quick succession.

“You absolute worthless piece of trash fucker,” she choked out.

But he had already turned to face the rest of their team. “Full speed back to Konoha," he commanded abruptly, voice returned seamlessly to its usual indifference. Sakura wondered if she had imagined there being anything different before. “I’ll take Sasuke. His current condition will require more finesse than you two are capable of giving.”

Sai brushed her shoulder with his own. “So,” he said almost soundlessly, “how does one go in less than a month from trying to kill Uchiha Sasuke to almost dying to save him?”


 

“Not that this is a conversation for a grocery store,” she said genially. “But are you threatening me?”

https://i.ibb.co/8xLDG9B/193.png

a beautiful sketch by SweetGazelle

Chapter Text

Sasuke had been dying because of his injuries; her primary concern had been an oncoming avalanche of rocks.

And yet, both Sasuke and she were held overnight for twenty four hour observation—because Kakashi apparently had never undergone any official medical ninjutsu training in his near two decades of being a combat shinobi. And that made his healing suspect.

Sakura spent the night glowering at the vase of daffodils an overexcited nurse had left at her bedside. 

Twenty four hours later, she was generally unsurprised to find herself filling out a thick packet of the hospital’s discharge paperwork. That Sasuke had been deemed to be in sufficient condition as well and was filling the same beside her was a bit surprising, but she took it all in stride—she had done a better job than she had though in those circumstances. Or (more likely) Hinata was an excellent healer.

As they waited for the nurse to check their documents over, Sakura rested her chin in her hand. She couldn’t help the curl of distaste on her mouth.

“A thank you,” she considered, “could be appreciated.”

He leaned back into his chair across from her, dark eyes unreadable. “Your actions were unnecessary and unwanted.”

It had occurred to her, sometime during the past half hour (and between contemptuous glances directed her way), that given…recent actions, he might still somehow think her still a devoted fan.

“I really don’t know how it’s escaped your notice, Sasuke,” Sakura said, smile dropping, “but I don’t actually like you very much.”

The contempt didn’t leave his expression.

Sakura arched an eyebrow. “You put a hole through Naruto’s chest, and have tried in the time since to put a hole through mine. That’s not very nice. Kind of makes me want to put one through yours too.”

Sasuke raised an eyebrow back. “What an animus to overcome yesterday, then.”

“You’re back on Team Seven now,” she retorted. Sakura rotated her shoulders to get some residual soreness out of them. “So, yes, I tried to save your life. Because that’s what I owe you as a teammate. Same as what you owe me and every other person on this team too.”

Sasuke’s mouth thinned. “I pay my debts.”

“Paperwork looks good,” the nurse called out, giving them a nod. “You’re all set to go.”

“Amazing,” Sakura announced, giving a wave to the nurse as she walked toward the exit.

She swung open the door to leave the medical ward with extra vigor, pausing when she realized that the recognized the two individuals on the other side.

Naruto and Sai stood side by side, locked deep in conversation. It took a few seconds for them to see her and Sasuke.

“They’ve let you out already?” Sai asked.

Sakura gave a grunt of assent.

“Right,” the blonde beside him declared abruptly, “so we should have dinner together.”

Sasuke scoffed. Sakura was polite enough to not do the same out loud. “We just got out of here, Naruto. This isn’t the time for…whatever it is you think it’s the time for.”

“It’s my idea,” Sai interjected calmly.

That brought Sakura up short. “Yours?” she clarified.

“Yeah,” Naruto affirmed. “I support it too, though. Obviously.”

“And I rather think you owe me a dinner, Sakura,” Sai said, smiling slightly.

Her mouth flattened. It was the least of what she owed him. Naruto’s smile widened as he read the resignation on her face.

“And because you owe me and Sasuke owes you,” Sai continued, equally assuredly, “I believe he might owe me a dinner too.”

Sasuke’s gaze narrowed.

“If I have to go, you’re coming too,” Sakura muttered. “You pay your debts, don’t you?”

Naruto turned on his heel with business-like focus, making straight for the door. Sai tilted his head, a curve to his lips.


She was modestly surprised when he brought them into a crowded bar, dim lit with pulsing lights and music.

“Uh, Sai,” Naruto said, hands in his pockets as he surveyed the establishment he had unsuspectingly entered. “I thought we said dinner?”

A pair of giggling chunin—a green-haired girl and a rail thin boy—brushed past them. Sakura’s gaze tracked the pair with some interest, before a new figure appeared before them.

“Sai,” the bartender greeted, a wide smile across her full lips. Her eyebrows raised a second later. “And…friends?”

“Mirai-san,” Sai said, bowing his head in acknowledgement. “You have the table I requested?”

“Of course,” she said, still sounding a little shocked. She cleared her throat, pointing above the bar counter to a point to their left. Sakura turned her head and located what looked to be the last free table in the establishment, a circular booth with plush red seating.

Sakura followed Sai and Naruto followed Sakura. Sasuke sat down on the very edge of the curved cushion with an air of extreme detestation.

A waitress passed by, depositing a tall bottle of shochu and three glasses. “Mirai-san said on the house.”

“I know that you just left the hospital,” Sai announced, unblinking, “However, you were both cleared for discharge, so I see no reason you cannot partake in this…team-building exercise.”

“Team-building exercise,” Sakura echoed with polite disbelief.

“Precisely,” Sai confirmed, dark eyes glinting. His gaze shifted toward Sasuke. “Unless you just happen to have weak stomachs.”

Sakura rolled her eyes.

“Ha,” Naruto barked out a laugh. He jabbed a thumb in Sasuke’s direction “One time, this bastard forgot to bring water on a mission, so he stole a water pouch off of one of our assignments. He started chugging it—only it wasn’t water—and spewed his guts out for the next hour. I had to hold his duck ass hair back the entire—”

A glass clanked loudly against the ebony finish of the table. “Pour,” Sasuke hissed.

“Of course,” Sai said with a plastic smile. He tipped the heavy bottle over with elegant ease, filling all four cups to the brim.

“How on earth did you find this place?” Sakura sniffed at the cup.

“I had read that bar-hopping was a socializing activity commonly practiced by both civilian and shinobi. I conducted some research into locations preferred by shinobi in our rough age group, and this location was referenced most frequently.”

Naruto grunted.

“I discovered ‘pin pon pan’ in a similar manner,” Sai stated.

His words were met with blank stares.

“I, too, was unfamiliar with this exercise,” Sai acknowledged, tipping his head, “It is, however—I have observed it to be—extremely popular among shinobi our age. We must sit in a circular formation, as we are now. Someone begins the game by saying ‘pin,’ and the person to their left has to follow with ‘pon,’ while the person to their left must follow with ‘pan’. Once the ‘pin, pon, pan’ has been said, the person who said ‘pan’ must immediately point to a random member of the group who starts the cycle again. If you’re caught unaware and lose the cycle, you lose and must drink.”

“And what exactly is the point of this?” Sasuke asked, lips curling.

“Obviously, to test our comparative reflexes.”

“Sounds good to me,” Naruto agreed sagely.

“Then,” Sai prompted, “shall we start?”


At minute ten, Naruto lost his patience and elbowed Sasuke in the gut. The advent of violence introduced new rules into the game.

Within one hour, three bottles were empty.

“Fuck,” she said out loud, rubbing her eyes as the room spun.

Naruto smiled at nothing in particular. He frowned, rubbing at his ribcage. “You all have really jab—jab-by…fingers.”

A choked noise—vaguely like laughter—emerged from the least likely of sources. Sasuke grimaced a second later, as though in pain.

“Leave,” Sakura said suddenly, sitting bolt upright. “Time to leave.”

“I can’t,” Naruto whined, head burrowed in Sai’s lap.

Sakura pulled him up with one hand and then swung him onto her back. She rocked forward slightly but stabilized herself with concerted effort.

“Sakura,” he whispered, a tone of horror to the words, “I think I might throw up.”

Don’t,” she hissed.

“Okay,” Naruto hiccupped. He rested his head on her shoulder and shut his eyes.

Sakura shook him. “Don’t go to sleep either,” she muttered. Her gaze shot to Sai, then to Sasuke. “Can you get him?”

“Don’t touch me,” Sasuke snapped, batting the other boy’s hand away. He stood—and then veered to the side.

He cast his arm about for some means of stabilization.

In the end—and determinedly not looking at him—Sasuke’s arm ended up swung over Sai’s neck, using the other boy’s bodyweight to keep himself upright.

“They look alike,” Naruto whispered confidentially to her.

“Huh?” Sakura demanded, squinting at them. She grew disturbed. “Whatever.”

They stumbled out of the bar and onto the moonlit dirt road with more or less success, if not grace (more than one threat had been shouted at them because of an unintentionally upturned drink).

They paused once there, examining their respective passengers.

Sai blinked at Sasuke. “I have no idea where he lives.”

He turned to her with a questioning look. She had nothing to offer him.

“I believe I can help with that,” a new figure interjected smoothly, emerging from the shadows. Sakura turned (a little slower than usual). Sai stiffened.

Itachi stood before them, in a simple white shirt and black pants, expression revealing nothing.

“Ha,” Sakura breathed out in delighted astonishment, straightening. “Were you waiting out there? Does Sasuke have a curfew? Did he break it?”

“Sakura,” Sai muttered, seeming abruptly sober, “perhaps don’t antagonize the person who went on a murderous killing spree for—”

“Nii-san?”

Itachi’s mouth parted fractionally.

“What are you doing here?” Sasuke asked blearily. He seemed suddenly to realize Sai next to him and shoved him away. He stumbled for balance.

Itachi caught him, hands wrapping firmly around his brother’s upper arms. His sharingan spun—and then Sasuke collapsed, unconscious. He handled Sasuke with infinite care, shifting him in his hold.

“About Naruto,” Sai said lightly.

Sakura twisted to follow his gaze. Naruto’s face was scrunched up and paler than usual, like he was trying valiantly to hold something back.

“If you don’t mind,” Sakura said with a bright smile, depositing the blonde next to Sasuke. Naruto swayed forward and then moaned piteously as he collapsed against Itachi.

The older Uchiha stared down at both his charges, gaze narrow.

“Feel free to do the same—” Sakura waved her hands, in vague reference to the sharingan trick Itachi had pulled—“to him too. Have a great night.”

“How did you meet it?”

Sakura stilled.

“The crow,” Itachi said slowly.

Her shoulders tightened. “By accident. Have you seen…it recently?”

She could feel Sai’s curious eyes burning into both of them.

“No,” Itachi returned softly. The older man’s mouth curved without feeling. “Licking its wounds, no doubt.”

Even though Shisui had won those wounds fending Kakashi off for her, she felt no pity for it.

“Good,” she said shortly. She nodded her farewell to Sai and made her way home.


Seven hours later, Kakashi’s dark gaze assessed them with transparent disgust. Denial was pointless, of course, when their captain could smell better than a dog in heat.

“Just a late night,” Sai tried very calmly, gaze protected from the sun by a pale hand.  

Sasuke winced at the noise. Naruto was still cowering from any and all sunlight. And Sakura fervently wished that she had just thrown her alarm clock into the wall like she had wanted to that morning and never left her bed.

“The hokage has received intel on the location of a sleeper cell of sound operatives close to the village,” Kakashi stated coldly, crouching on the boulder.

“They’re after Sasuke?” Naruto demanded, straightening.

Kakashi’s expression didn’t change. “Apparently. We’re capturing them for interrogation before they can ever reach Konoha soil.”

“Oh?” Sasuke questioned through gritted teeth. “And I hope that the hokage has decided in her infinite wisdom to take off these shackles this time, given our last mission.”

The copy-nin’s feet hit the grass soundlessly. “Don’t worry, Uchiha,” Kakashi rasped, eyes glinting with cruel amusement. “In her infinite wisdom, the hokage has assigned us assistance to compensate for your…current handicaps.”

But there was something off about his demeanor, Sakura noted distantly.

She understood only when three figures made their presence known, emerging from the shifting shadows beneath the gently swaying trees. The blood rushed out of Sakura’s face.

Hyena body-flickered to Kakashi’s right, head lowered slightly in deference. Snail and Bear blurred into corporeality at Hyena’s shoulders.

“ANBU,” Naruto muttered, mouth agape. “A mission with real ANBU.”

Sai turned a polite smile toward the newest occupants of the training ground. “You are Kakashi-taichou’s ANBU team?”

Sakura fought hard to regain control of her expression, look fiercely at the ground.

“We are,” Snail said, bowing lightly. “We look forward to working with you, Team Seven.”

“I am Sai,” Sai said pleasantly. “These are my teammates: Naruto, Sakura, and Sasuke. We apologize ahead of time for how ungrateful Sasuke will undoubtedly be during this mission.”

Sasuke’s head rolled back to give the black-haired boy a dark, considering look. That disrupted Sakura momentarily from her stupor.

“Back off,” she said tonelessly.

Sasuke’s eyes flashed, like that made him consider it more.

An unexpected figure intervened. “Drop it, Sasuke,” Naruto said lowly, face hard. He shifted his position slightly, so that the breadth of his shoulders blocked Sai from his line of sight.

Sai looked like he had been struck over the head. Sakura was also…mildly surprised. She didn’t think she had ever heard Naruto take that tone with Sasuke.

“I’m sick of fucking brats,” Bear growled, annoyance thick in his voice. “We just got the redhaired one off the squad, and now this.”

“Bear,” Hyena snapped.

“They can never handle themselves,” the man continued, venomous, “just marching onto that field with a temper and no brain and a fucking expiration date—”

Enough,” Snail barked out, hair swinging forward. Something more than anger rang in her voice—something sharper, harder, grating like broken glass.

Sakura’s lips thinned. She didn’t know if the grief in Snail’s was for her—it could have been for anything, given how frequently terrible things happened in ANBU—but it made her…wonder. What they had been told. If there had been a ceremony at the headquarters for her. If they had said anything.

Maybe it was better, she thought bitterly, not to know.

(She had…missed them.)

“Don’t betray yourself,” Kakashi commanded lowly. Sakura’s head snapped up. He wasn’t looking at her.

“It will be sunset when we infiltrate,” the copy-nin informed them, expression unreadable. “Make sure your henges are flawless. Give no indication that you are shinobi.”

“Our relationship with the hidden village in the Land of Steam is tenuous and cannot be compromised,” Hyena explained.

Naruto shifted uncomfortably, scratching his head. “Ah, I’ve never been on this kind of a mission before…”

“Yeah?” Bear said irately. “We’re here to keep you in check too.”


Sakura inhaled the scent of the warm ocean deeply, yukata fluttering in the gentle breeze. Holding onto her arm, Snail stared silently at the reflection of the moon onto the crystal clear waves as they walked.

“What a handsome young couple,” an old woman called out, emerging from her stall. Examples of her wares—light, gossamer scarves—dangled from her thin arms. “Just married?”

“We’re good,” Sakura said shortly, determined to follow the route Hyena had indicated on their map. The inn the sound-nin were purportedly occupying couldn’t be far.

“Honeymooners,” Snail responded with a sweet smile, making a show of eyeing one of the scarves. Sakura grimaced. She supposed one of the sound-nin could be in their vicinity.

“See?” the woman tsked, “The lady is interested. You’ll learn quickly, young man, that the key to a good marriage is saying yes to your young lady. Always.”

Sakura nodded impatiently.

Snail patted Sakura’s face, pouting. “Don’t look so glum, Yakiro. Indulge me for a few minutes, and then we’ll head to the inn.”

“Honeymooners indeed, I see,” the old woman commented, grinning wickedly. The smirk persisted as she asked, “What colors do you like, miss? With rich, brown hair like that, this pink one would look stunning.”

“You think?” Snail asked shyly, her henge’s round face blushing lightly.

“He’ll go wild when he sees you in it,” the woman whispered confidentially—and not every quietly.

Sakura kept her expression blank with minimal effort.

After some back and forth, coins exchanged hands, and they walked away from the beaming shopkeeper at a leisurely pace.

Snail craned up to brush a kiss on her cheek. “Naruto and Bear ahead at 12 o’clock,” she murmured by her ear.

They were all on schedule, then. Sakura smiled down at her and then subtly sped up their pace.

The inn—loudly proclaimed ‘Secret Lovers’ Paradise’ on a bright flashing sign—was not in fact an inn at all, but a love hotel. Sakura could see how this was strategic. No one questioned or paid attention to the comings and goings of a love hotel’s occupants, employees often being paid precisely not to.

“Ten thousand yen for a room,” the squat man at the luridly colored front desk stated. “No negotiating.”

“We’re honeymooners,” Snail cajoled, blinking prettily. “Can’t we get a discount?”

“Ha,” the man said, unsmiling. “Keep the fantasies to the bedroom.”

As Sakura handed over the required amount of money, she surveyed the area discreetly to locate easy exits.

“First floor room, please,” Sakura asked. When the squat man looked like he was about to protest, she said firmly, “I’m scared of heights. Deathly.”

He released a beleaguered sigh and then bent down to rummage for a different key from the one he had been about to hand them. “Don’t complain to me about the noise,” the man said crassly. “The first floor has been bizarrely popular tonight, kami knows why. When you put a second mortgage on your house to pay for a first-class ocean view—”

“Have a great night!” Snail called out cheerily, tugging Sakura forward. They climbed the plush red staircase until they reached a hallway.

A door cracked open soundlessly just as their feet brushed the carpet, revealing a silver-haired woman with red, hawkish eyes. There was something instantly sensuous about how she carried herself, like she had been born beautiful, knew it, and had had years of practice at it.

She scoffed internally—what else would she expected of a female henge from the copy-nin? She slipped quickly behind the door, tugging Snail behind her.

A man was tied and gagged on the bed, unconscious.

“Are all of the targets in the hotel?” Snail asked, eyes scanning the unconscious sound-nin.

“According to him—” Kakashi’s red eyes flicked disparagingly to the sound-nin as well—“two left around sunset to gather supplies. Hyena and Sasuke are after them.”

“Where is Sai?” Sakura kept her voice as even as possible.

“Handling the woman on the floor above us,” Kakashi said shortly, sliding kunai beneath the thin material of his dress. His--or the henge's--leg extended with the motion, long and toned. Sakura had a hard time removing her eyes from it. “There are seven in total. Six sound shinobi and an A-rank mercenary Kabuto hired to spearhead the infiltration.”

“How are we getting the bodies out?” Snail started tying her henge’s thick hair back from her face.

“Laundry chute. Naruto and Bear are stationed there to collect them. Haruno—take the twins in 612. Snail, 334 and 214. I’ll handle the mercenary in 701.”

“Taichou,” Snail asked hesitantly, sending Sakura a strange look. “Wouldn’t it be better for me to take 612? I might be better back up. In case the A-rank mercenary gets too noisy.”

“She’ll do,” Kakashi said distantly. Snail bowed her head sharply and then slipped out the door.

She yanked her gaze away as Kakashi turned towards her again.

“Enter through the window,” he ordered. He slid into the hallway as well a second later.

Sakura glowered for a moment. Then she shifted stiffly over to the window and pushed it open. Bracing her foot on the ledge, she swung herself on to the top of the window frame.

Nudging her toes and fingers into the grooves where the ocean wind had naturally eroded the building’s façade, she pulled herself up the side of the building. It was dark, thankfully, or she would have been more concerned about being detected by civilians. The breeze was stronger the higher she climbed, and she became increasingly grateful for the male henge’s short hair.

Five levels up and shifted five rooms to the right positioned her exactly where 612 would be. Sakura loosened a kunai from her sleeve. She used it to pick the lock and then rolled into the room.

The first occupant—who had been exiting the bathroom, door still swinging shut behind him—she caught in a genjutsu, dropping him to his knees. The second, seated on the bed, she struck with blunt fingers to the throat; this twin was quicker, managing to side-step the full force of the strike. Only two fingers landed, damaging his larynx enough to keep him from making noise, but not to killl him.

He flipped over to the other side of the bed, eyes slitted. He was rangy in build, but his features were delicate, even doll-like, beneath lime green hair.

Sakura leisurely strolled over to his brother and dropped a heavy fist on the top of his head. He crumpled like a sack of potatoes.

She raised her head again to the twin across the room, arching an eyebrow. “Come on.”

As his form began to flicker with impressive speed, it occurred to her that she might have underestimated her opponent slightly. She had gotten the drop on his twin, but not this one.

Tubes emerged from beneath his sleeves, emitting a high pressure of air that she couldn’t hear but caused piercing agony in her ears. Sakura scowled and flung a pair of kunai at him; as he evaded them, she slid over the bed and twisted, flinging her leg around with the momentum of her body.

The green-haired shinobi ducked her leg and shoved his palm into her midsection. Sakura’s body was blasted back by a violent pulse of air. She managed to latch onto his wrist before she was fully blown back. Using this hold, she flung herself up, feet skating across the ceiling, until she landed on the carpeted floor behind him.

Before he could turn, she grabbed his throat from behind and squeezed until she felt his body relax into a state of unconsciousness. His body dropped with a heavy thud.

Thankfully, the noise was probably nothing out of the ordinary in the likes of a love hotel. She lifted the twin she had knocked out first onto her back and located the laundry chute at the end of the hallway. Wary of any opening doors, she shifted him from off her back and sat him onto the edge of the chute. She pushed him down.

A middle-aged man exited one of the rooms and passed by her with heavy, slightly clumsy footsteps, waving drunkenly. She waved back absentmindedly.

She hadn’t heard any unusual sounds above her, she considered, head cocking to the side as she turned back toward the room. It seemed the A-rank mercenary upstairs was being handled without much difficulty. Once she got the second twin down the chute—and assuming everything else had gone generally to schedule—they could be out of the Land of Steam and back on their way to Konoha.

Opening the door and shutting it quickly beside her, Sakura approached the second twin, who lay prone along the bed. His eyes scrunched at the sound of her footsteps, a telling sign of impending consciousness.

Just as she was about to hit him over the head—just enough to knock him out but not enough to make him unusable for interrogators—a scratching noise reached her ears from the bathroom.

Sakura froze.

Twins, Kakashi had said. Two sound-nin.

Was there a third combatant in the bathroom, unaccounted for? She hadn't sensed any other chakra.

She shunshined to the bathroom door and nudged it open. Her nostrils flared, put off by the smell.

She found nothing out of the ordinary. Then, she looked down.

A girl, scantily clad and thin—so thin that she couldn’t have seen a good meal in months, maybe even in years—was stretched along the pale pink tub. Her wrists, bony and scarred, were shackled to the faucets. Each breath she took sounded painful, outlining the painful definition in her ribs.

Round, blue eyes, framed by messy, smudge eyeliner like bruises, met hers, bleary and dilated from drugs.

Sakura took an unwitting step back, shoulder blades thudding with the door. The girl flinched at the noise, wrists tugging helplessly at her shackles in a futile motion to cover her head.

“No,” Sakura said, “I’m not—”

It didn’t matter what she said. At the sound of her voice, the girl in the tub began crying, the noise muffled because the gag in her mouth. Her body shifted, and suddenly Sakura was able to see the welts and purple bruises all along her legs.

She had ripped out the still-beating hearts from grown men and women. She had smelled the sweet-rotten incense of burning flesh. She had been party to the violence that had evoked the most agonized screams she had ever heard in her life.

But she had not been inured against this.

She bent over the toilet. Nothing came up as she panted through the nausea, eyes firmly shut.

“You’ve been more trouble than I anticipated.”

Hands restraining her arms. Other hands on her legs. The sharp pain of hair being ripped from her scalp. She couldn’t move, couldn’t fight—

The man behind her bending down, sniffing her hair, grunting at what he smelled.

“What do you think?”

Thick, cloying liquid dribbling from her mouth.

“I think it’s only fair compensation, given what she’s done to our friend over there.”

Hands on her legs, pulling—

Sakura’s eyes snapped open, the phantom taste of blood and milk on her tongue.

The Voice nudged within her, insidious and hungry.

The girl continued to whimper in the tub. Sakura pivoted on her knees and grasped her head.

“Quiet,” she instructed. The girl looked even more frightened. “I’m going to remove the gag. I’m going to untie you. But you can’t scream.”

Blue eyes watched her, wide, as she snapped the metal like it was a cracker. Giving her a warning look, Sakura slowly removed the gag.

“W-who are you?” the girl stammered, voice weak.

Sakura stood, expression dead. “Don’t come out. Not until I say.”

She exited the bathroom and shut the door behind her. The sound-nin on the bed had regained enough consciousness to roll onto his side. Purple eyes opened sluggishly, enraged.

You saw, the Voice coaxed. You saw what they did to her.

Sakura folded up the sleeves of her yukata.

It’s exactly what those traffickers would have done to you, the Voice whispered in her head. That would have been YOU, if not for ME.

The sound-nin sat up, hands clawing at the bedsheets.

Sakura struck his face viciously, watched stoically as his head smacked against the headboard.

“I’ll kill you for this,” the man choked out, blood dripping into his eyes. “I’ll slit you from groin to your throat—"

She used the back of the same hand to hit him again, harder. He cursed through the damaged remains of his vocal chords.

Sakura’s shoulders rolled back, her fists braced loosely in front of her. The Voice started to laugh wildly in her head.

She heard nothing else.

Her fists were weightless, there was the feeling of something dripping into the grooves of her fingers, beneath her nails, into the lines in her palms, and discomfort too, because her mouth was stretched wide like she was grinning—

Grinning.

“Stop,” a harsh voice ordered in her ear. Hands wrapped like manacles around her forearms.

The feeling of being restrained agreed as well with her as a hot poker down her throat.

She tensed her muscles and broke the hold, whipping around. The entire lighting of the room was done in a deep red, casting the lithe female body in front of her into a monochrome of crimson.

Sakura bared her teeth, fist clenched as she started to turn back to the sound-nin.

“You’re scaring her,” Kakashi said, almost soundless.

Her head snapped to the bathroom. The door was ajar. A gaunt, slight figure trembled in the doorway. Blue eyes were watching her with something like hard-won clarity, a sort of petrified focus cutting through the haze of drugs.

It wasn’t the sound-nin she was watching with fear.  

The air rushed out of her lungs. Sakura swiped the hair back from her face. Damp fingers intertwined with short, brown strands. Her henge's.

“I’m not,” she said hoarsely. She took a small step toward her.

Something in the frail figure snapped. A desperate sort of violence seemed to come over her, compelling her forward with clawed hands. The girl-from-the-bathroom didn’t scream—she didn’t even have the energy for that; ragged pants filled Sakura’s ears as she was attacked, nails scrabbling weakly at her face, palms hysterically shoving her into the bed.

Sakura let herself be pushed back, numb.

Pulling a bathrobe off from one of the hooks, the girl tied it clumsily around herself and sprinted out the door, shoving it shut behind her with all of her meager might. The final thud echoed thunderously in the room.

For a few, infinite moments, Sakura could hear only her heartbeat. Then she pulled herself off the bed, teetering onto her feet.

Kakashi watched her, silent.

“This is your fault,” she whispered. She began to wipe the blood on her hands onto the bedsheets, slowly at first, and then in a frenzy of motion.

“Sakura,” he said sharply.

She jolted at the sound of her name (not Haruno?). Then, she ripped her hands out of the bedsheets and lifted one hand, pointing a lone, quivering finger at him.

“This is your fault,” she said lowly.

The copy-nin’s gaze shifted to the unconscious figure on the bed. “You’ll need to heal him on our way back or he’ll be useless.”

“Look at me,” Sakura demanded, voice guttural.

After a long pause, red eyes flicked up to meet hers. Kakashi’s jaw—softer, more delicate in his henge—tightened.

“This is your fault,” she repeated into his face. She clenched her teeth until it hurt.

He stared at her, expressionless. But his gaze—it wasn’t skeptical or disbelieving. It felt, instead, like he was merely been waiting—that, maybe, he had been all this while.

The air burned in Sakura’s lungs.

“And mine,” she garbled out, rocking on her feet. She shoved the meat of her palms into her eyes. “I was weak and stupid, and you let me be.”

“I let you be,” said Kakashi without pause or particular inflection. 

“But they didn’t,” Sakura panted. “They didn’t let that brainless, oblivious, moron of a girl be. They held my arms and my legs and they pulled my hair when I tried to scream—”

The body against her convulsed—every muscle abruptly, ferociously activated.

“And for what they tried,” she said, as unflinching as rock, voice cold, “I killed them.”

The ocean wind blew, rattling the not-quite shut window.

“And then,” she said hoarsely, “I got into the habit of it.”

She exhaled—and maybe she imagined it, that he exhaled with her. That it felt like—in that moment—they were the same entity, united by this singular thing, this affliction—or was it something else? She didn’t know. She couldn’t think.

How could she? She gritted her teeth in futile resistance, because the air burned in her lungs. Was her own breath poison to her? What had it been like to breathe without pain? Was this how it all ended? To be ruined from the inside out?

It was something like the desire to live that drove her forward—not lust or veneration. She surged against him, lips landing painfully on his—only they were different, fuller, not-his, until suddenly they were—

He forced her head away; her neck snapped to the side.

“Don’t,” he told her, voice brutal.

The henge had…dissipated. Sakura’s eyes trailed over his restored features: the patrician nose, the thin lips, the pale, scarred skin, the mismatched eyes. Hers had not.

Her gaze roved over him, eyes narrow. “Don’t?”

She shifted forward, testing him. She found herself flipped and shoved into the wall, cheek scraping against the rough wallpaper.

Sakura inhaled and exhaled, breath even. Then, she stepped away, cool.

His expression was tightly restrained—and forbidding.

She stared at him as she bent down to pick up the body of the sound-nin. She stared at him even as she lifted that body onto her back, bile rising in her throat. She didn’t break his gaze until she left the room to send that final body down the laundry chute. He didn’t look away either.

Chapter Text

“Apologies for the wait.”

Sakura nodded brusquely and tossed back the cup that had been slid in her direction. Mirai, Sakura vaguely remembered Sai calling her, raised her eyebrows.

“Have a lot to forget, do you?”

Sakura kept her tone unaffected with determined effort. “Maybe I’m just looking for a good time.”

“Oh,” the buxom woman sighed sagely. “Is that why you’re downing shots away from your friends at the table?”

Sakura pushed away from the counter, scowling slightly.

Naruto remained just as she had left him, with an expression of mild disgust on his features. Sai nodded at her in greeting. She nodded back and began chewing on some of the food they had ordered.

“It’s unnatural,” Naruto said after a long silence.

Sai calmly sipped his glass of water. “On the contrary, it’s rather normal.”

“You didn’t know him,” the blonde retorted, biting into some chicken. “In the academy, he acted like girls were bacteria. He didn’t let them within three feet of him—just ask Sakura!”

Sakura shot him a glare, none too pleased to be invoked in this context.

“I, too, had virtually no sexual interest until very recently,” Sai countered with a smile.

“You’re different,” Naruto said carefully, brows furrowing. “Sasuke is…”

Sasuke was, in all likelihood, manifesting some sort of unnecessary crisis in response to the fact that he had all but gotten away with being a rogue-nin, rejoined a team far more adept than he had left it, learned the truth about his brother, now lived with said brother, and (consequently) had something resembling a family and a functional team for the first time in over ten years.

Sakura sighed, aware that she was probably…deliberately being ungenerous. She didn’t care, though.

“The way I see it, Sasuke’s starting to give Sakura a run for his money,” Sai commented casually.

“What are you talking about?” Naruto scoffed. “She’s never stepped out in the middle on us.”

“What do you think that long bathroom break last time with the visiting Suna chunin was, dickless?” Sai rolled his eyes.

Sakura coughed into her fist.

Naruto turned red. “It was just a bathroom break, wasn’t it? Because you guys weren’t feeling too well—” he turned toward her—“Wasn’t it?”

Sakura lifted her head, staring at him. “I’m not sure what you want me to say,” she said finally.

Naruto’s mouth turned down.

Her mood darkened. “I’m not a monk, Naruto.”

He blinked back at her defensive tone, expression lightening. “Er— What?”

“You seem to constantly expect the best of me, and I have no idea why,” Sakura continued, and it was the alcohol that smoothed the way for the words she would have normally left unvoiced. “I’m mean, rude, and, yes, I lie. A lot.”

Naruto’s expression grew grim. He straightened in his chair as Sai watched them both, dark eyes bright. “Sakura—”

But she was on a roll now. “And do you even remember how I used to treat you? I was selfish, and I treated you like dirt. Sasuke was better than me. And I don’t think— I don’t think I’ve ever apologized for that, somehow.”

“You could now,” Sai suggested.

Her glance cut to him. “I am sorry,” she said curtly, not able to look at Naruto. “But the point is: I never set that bar high. So I’m not sure why you try to be—Why you try to make me be—”

She couldn’t find the right words, so she gave up. She leaned back into her chair and tilted her head back.

“I was just surprised, is all,” she heard Naruto say, voice calm.

Sakura stared at the ceiling.

“I miss things that happen around me. I can be…self-involved. We both know that, don’t we?”

After a pause, Sakura rolled her head to look at him. “You've had to be,” she said quietly. “How else were you supposed to survive when no one else was going to look after you. I remember.”

“And what about you?” Naruto asked sharply.

She flinched, eyes narrowing.

The blonde sighed noisily. “That’s not what I mean. Don’t look at me like that,” he stated evenly. “I’m not demanding answers anymore. What I mean is— I’m not holding you to any bar, Sakura, whatever that means. I’m not holding any of us to that. I just want…”

Sai placed his chopsticks down on his plate, solemn.

“I just want more,” Naruto finished, eyes burning. “For all of us. Everything we don’t have or we’ve lost—we can make it ourselves. I don’t have a mom or a dad or siblings, but I’ve got a team, haven’t I? Who said that couldn’t be enough?”

Sakura’s fingers gripped the edge of the table, creating small dents.

“Team Seven: a team by, for, and of the orphans,” Sai considered.

“No,” Naruto said distractedly, “Sakura has parents.”

Sai’s gaze paused on Sakura. “Really? You never talk about them.”

Sakura shrugged stiffly. “I don’t see them much, day-to-day. I see my mom every few weeks or so—she’ll call me over for a meal.”

“And your dad?” Naruto asked, brow furrowing.

“My father is the head of our family merchant business, so he spends most of the seasons of the year traveling,” she answered easily.

Sai’s mouth pursed. “You call your mother ‘mom’,” he said lightly, “and you call him father.”

Sakura paused. “We’re not particularly close.” Of the facts pertaining to her personal life, this was among the least consequential to her. “I probably haven’t seen him in years because of his business and then my timing with missions.”

“Oh,” Naruto said, expression looking a little lost.

Sasuke chose this moment to return to their table. Nothing about his person revealed what had transpired; even his hair was impeccable.

“Were her knees alright?” Sai asked politely. “I can’t imagine twenty minutes on the tile in those back restrooms is particularly comfortable.”

“Speaking of which,” Naruto said wearily, “apparently, you and Sakura might want to start up a list. Or you might…double-pollinate or something.”

“I don’t pollinate, Naruto,” Sakura said irately.

Sasuke’s black eyes flicked to her. They shared a quiet moment of mutual disgust.


The next morning, Sakura woke to the sound of scratching against her window. Fully prepared to see the crow beckoning at her window, she flipped over in her bed with malice. Her glare dropped as she located an unfamiliar hawk. Rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she stumbled over to the window and crack it open. The bird hopped in with an indignant caw. Her fingers fumbled with the string for a long minute, until she was finally able to release the scroll from the hawk’s body and open it.

Name: Haruno Sakura

Rank: Chunin

Team Designation: 7

Your name has been suggested for psychological review. Please book an appointment within the next two weeks at your convenience. We look forward to your visit.

Regards,

Chako Yo

Sakura crumpled the parchment in her fist. Blood rushed in her ears, and her tight control over killing intent slipped. She heard a muffled shriek from the room below her.

She tossed the scroll into the trash and stalked over to her wardrobe, blindly pulling on some clothes. She spared a minute to splash water on her face and clean her mouth before heading toward the door. After a moment of hesitation, she bent to retrieve the scroll and then left.

“Hey!” a man in standard issue uniform called out as she exited her building. “Keep it under control, will you?”

She didn’t spare him a second glance, senses sharpening as she scanned around her. Sakura wasn’t a chakra sensor, but Kakashi didn’t exactly keep his head down on a daily basis; when he wasn’t purposefully suppressing his chakra, there was always an edge of impending violence, of barely-there restraint about him, although she was beginning to doubt that the latter was actually true—nevertheless, it made him easily locatable.

Sakura’s jaw tightened as she found him.

Uncaring of who saw her, she propelled herself through the village along the rooftops until she reached the hokage’s tower.

The crowd parted before her as she walked in. Sakura scowled and at last tried to tamp down on the killing intent she had been leaking. She walked toward the start of the spiral staircase that wrapped around the inside of the whole building. Although Sakura had come here often while studying under Tsunade, there were parts of the tower she had never seen. She had never known the purpose of the third floor, for example—which she seemed to be heading directly towards.

She pushed open the double set of doors positioned by the landing and entered a hallway of more doors—each with a schedule posted above the knob. Sakura’s eyes narrowed as she spotted ‘Chunin-Team Captains' Mandatory Meeting.’

She made a bee-line towards this room and swung open the door.

The first man, closest to the door, she didn’t recognize. Sakura scanned over the rest of those seated around the large, square-shaped table that filled the room.

She paused on a familiar face composed of sharp features and red eyes. Hinata’s captain, Kurenai, she remembered. Her eyes shifted left next to find Ino, Shikamaru, and Chouji’s captain, Asuma, tanned and gruff-faced beside her. And then, finally, on the other side of both of them was Kakashi. He was almost ten years younger than everyone else in the room. Rather than this fact keeping him at attention, however, he was sprawled over a chair that was positioned the wrong way, opposite the table—so that his feet could rest on the large window sill.

The familiar woman, Kurenai, evaluated her calmly. “Haruno Sakura, right?”

Sakura’s fingers thrummed on the door in impatience. He had yet to turn, even though he certainly could sense her in the room—had probably known the moment she had entered the tower.

“As the sign says,” another jounin captain said, head tilting to the side, “this is a meeting for captains of chunin teams.”

“Good,” Sakura returned shortly, arms crossing as she leaned against the door. “I’m on a chunin team, and I’m looking for my captain.”

“Another time, perhaps,” Kurenai said, voice lightly warning.

Sakura didn’t move.

Asuma sighed loudly and stood up. He gave her a vaguely annoyed look as he moved to stand in front of her, the dense mass of his body blocking her sight of the room.

He raised his eyebrow as he looked down at her, a cigarette caught between his lips. “Do I have to move you or are you going to move yourself?”

“Taichou,” she called out, stoic.

The older man grunted. “The former then.”

He stretched out a wide, tanned hand—presumably for her shoulder—and Sakura’s gaze tracked it until a body shunshined between them and a new face looked down at her.

A lone dark eye gazed at her, disinterested. The hitai-ate was lowered, covering his sharingan. “What,” he drawled. Sakura’s mouth tightened.

“This,” she said through gritted teeth, holding up the scroll.

Kakashi stared at it dispassionately. Sakura flicked the loose knot she had tied, and the scroll rolled down, revealing its contents. His body blocked the others from being able to read it.

“Hatake,” Kurenai said sharply. “We still have items on the agenda to discuss. Remove your student from the room—”

“—so we can end this meeting and get on with our lives,” Asuma finished boredly.

Kakashi’s face was equally bland. “Carry on without me.”

Sakura turned on her heel and opened the door, ignoring the protests that arose behind her. She didn’t turn until she heard the door shut will an echoing thud behind her.

He moved past her, the upper half of his face unreadable, to a door on the opposite of the room at the end of the hall. He opened it and entered. She followed.

Sakura closed it behind her, the muscles in arm tensed in acute restraint. The other hand, in which she held the scroll, she raised.

“What is this?” she asked, voice blank.

“Don’t waste my time with stupid questions,” Kakashi answered, voice distant. “Ask the ones you mean.”

Her shoulders tightened.

“Alright then,” she admitted, voice dark. “Why?”

“It is the duty of a jounin captain to report potential cause for trauma of any kind directly to the center of psychological services—”

It took her a moment to breathe through her rage.

“I don’t resent your suggesting my name,” she said tightly, looking down at her knuckles. “I resent that you’ve suggested it knowing that I won’t pass a review—” her mouth twisted—“That no ANBU would.”

Accordingly, as informal policy, no ANBU were ever asked.

“You’re not ANBU," he said tonelessly.

Sakura’s nostrils flared. “I’m not ANBU anymore. But the brand’s still on my shoulder. And its other legacies, evidently, persist.”

“So take the time off,” Kakashi ordered, eyes directed somewhere past her.

Sakura’s chest hurt. “I can’t.”

His gaze at last met hers, his brow dark.

“Don’t take this away from me,” she hissed.

It terrified her, that he could—and that now, with something like reasonable justification, Tsunade might let him. Sakura didn’t know what she would do without ANBU and Team Seven. Probably go crazy.

“I’m good at what I do,” she argued. “I have the most experience on Team Seven. When I was in ANBU, you trusted me as your back up. I might have lost control that…that one time, but I’ve never compromised a mission—”

Sakura’s mouth snapped shut.

That singular, dark eye roved over her, a strange quality in it.

“Are you punishing me?” she demanded, voice strangled.

A moment of silence range between them—and then Kakashi leaned forward, seething. Air hissed through the gaps around the window as the breeze shook the trees just outside, scattering the light. Her nails dug into the wood of the table. She wasn’t conscious of her body acting, but in the next instant, she had pinned his hand beneath hers, flat onto the same table. His body reacted instinctively, twisting to evade the restriction. Sakura pressed down with punishing strength.

His eyes flew to hers. Her fingers flexed.

“What do you do?” she said, mouth barely opening.

His gaze narrowed.

Slowly, unconsciously, the pads of her fingers began to travel. His eyes tightened imperceptibly.

"How do you sleep without waking up and pretending—”

She traced the grooves around knuckles, followed the ridges of scars—so many scars—pressed into callouses.

(She wanted to touch him—his throat. To see if it trembled.)

The sound of the doorknob turning reached their ears. He reacted without batting an eye, wrist twisting away. She saw the moment Kurenai felt the killing intent in the air, oozing insidiously through the room like oil contaminating water. The older woman’s muscles tensed slightly.

“Hatake,” Kurenai said carefully, red eyes passing fleetingly over her and settling on him. “Your presence is required.”

Kakashi’s head tilted back, eyes coolly surveying her. A minute might have passed, before he pushed off the table and exited the room without another word. After a long, complex look Sakura’s way, Kurenai left as well.

She stared for a moment at the empty room until, disturbed, she too opened the door and exited. Sakura bowed her head and steered herself single-mindedly toward the exit.

She paused only when, perhaps inevitably, she bumped into someone. “Sorry,” she muttered.

“Sakura?”

Sakura lifted her head. Iruka smiled at her, wide and unreserved. The words died in her throat as she made eye contact with the person right behind him.

“Itachi?” she blurted.

“I know I taught you better than that, Sakura,” Iruka said sternly.

Sakura kept her expression neutral with concerted effort at the oddly nostalgic rebuke. “Itachi-san,” she submitted stiffly, “…why are you here?”

“I am filing some paperwork under Iruka-san’s guidance,” Itachi said, expression placid.

Sakura’s gaze burned into him.

Iruka at last took pity on her. “As per the hokage’s command, Itachi-san will be joining the Academy as an assistant instructor until he is combat-ready.”

Her mouth dropped. “Really? An S-rank nin?”

There was no way Tsunade had come up with that on her own. Someone had to have convinced her. Strenuously.

“Sakura,” Iruka warned sharply, eyebrow arching. “Formerly S-rank, to be clear.”

“Right,” she said blankly.

Her baffled gaze settled on Itachi. He was looking at Iruka through the corner of his gaze, an odd expression on his face: a little wary, perhaps. Sakura’s brow furrowed. Itachi, an instructor at the Academy? Surrounded by bratty, impatient children who cried and whined…

Maybe, actually, it was oddly fitting. Certainly more than being a massacring traitor had been.

“Survive the week, and I’ll buy you dango,” she tossed over back, still bemused, as she left. The words left her mouth without much thought.

It was only once she exited the building that she realized that the words had been familiar—and not her own. 

ANBU?! Your balls haven't even descended yet, Itachi. Listen--you better survive the week or I won't be buying you anymore dango. Remember that, okay? Dango.


She ended up returning to the hokage tower within the hour, summoned along with the rest of Team Seven. She felt strange, still, from the encounter she and Kakashi had had less than an hour ago. She tried not to stare at him.

“This one,” Tsunade admitted, “is complicated.”

“Complicated how?” Naruto demanded.

 “There will be some…politics to navigate and be wary of,” the hokage responded, inclining her head. “The risk of potential conflict is extremely low, but secrecy is extremely important to the client—hence the mission rank.”

“To be honest, I’m not exactly sure this is the appropriate team to send.” Her amber eyes flickered between Sakura and Kakashi, before landing dubiously on Naruto. “But,” she sighed, “you’re the only ones at-hand on such short notice and with a high-profile enough name to appease this client.”

Sakura’s head fell to the side, surveying Kakashi out of the corner of her eyes. Damn it. She twisted her head the other way.

“Will the ANBU be joining us again?” Sai asked curiously.

“No,” Tsunade said shortly, glancing absent-mindedly at Sasuke. “As I said, the risk of conflict is minimal.”

She gave a huge sigh, rubbing at her forehead.

“The client is the daimyo,” Shizune explained.

Slowly, Sakura turned back toward the hokage and her assistant.

“The daimyo, as we all know, is happily married,” Tsunade said carefully. “So I needn’t stress anymore how critical it is that this all be kept under the wraps.”

Tsunade and Shizune shared a glance.

“A few months ago, the daimyo privately gifted a ruby necklace, a very recognizable family heirloom, to the lady Okomo Aimi as a token of his…fervent affections,” Shizune said carefully. “Unfortunately, the relationship has now turned sour, and Okomo wants to out their affair. Recent reports have suggested that Okomo is planning to part with the heirloom publicly in an auction hosted by the court tonight, which both the daimyo and his family will be attending..”

“For obvious reasons,” Tsunade grunted, “this cannot happen.”

“So we have to retrieve the heirloom from her entourage before it has a chance to be put up for auction,” Sai summarized.

“Precisely,” the hokage said, eyes glinting. “Good luck.”


It went perfectly.

That was, until Naruto fumbled the drop-off and deposited the necklace in the wrong man’s pocket.

Sakura didn’t know if it was worse or better that she hadn’t been there to seen it. While the failed extraction had been occurring, she had been diverting Okomo’s bodyguards using genjutsu from entering the auction hall.

“Moron,” Sasuke hissed. “You had one job.”

“I forgot what your henge looked like,” Naruto groaned miserably. “I remembered the red hair, and there were only three people with red hair in the room. What were the chances…”

Sakura leaned back against the tapestry in the abandoned corridor they were currently occupying.

“And how were Okomo’s guards?” Sai asked, conversational.

“Fine,” Sakura said. “Not that it matters…anymore.”

“With this idiot’s luck, that merchant is already well on his way home,” Sasuke grunted sourly.

Naruto punched him in the shoulder.

“How’s your brother doing, Sasuke?” Sai asked offhandedly.

The Uchiha yanked his head away from Naruto to glare at him.

“Do you not talk?” Sai wondered.

This didn’t get a response either. A discomfiting, burning sensation curled in her stomach, like indigestion.

“Really?” Naruto pressed, momentarily distracted from his own plight.

“So what?” Sasuke returned coolly.

“Have you been ignoring him?” Sai inquired. “Even given your shared living situation?”

Sasuke’s features looked harder and crueler than she had seen them in sometime. He stepped toward Sai, muscles tight, like he was prepared for a fight. “I don’t have to explain myself to you—"

"Quiet,” Kakashi commanded indifferently from behind them. They all turned to find the copy-nin standing a few feet behind them.

Naruto yanked Sasuke back. Glowering, the black-haired boy allowed the motion.

“Any updates?” Naruto asked hopefully.

“The merchant hasn’t left yet—he’s spending the night down the hall and leaving tomorrow morning,” Kakashi said shortly. “He’s a Konoha citizen, so we have grounds to confiscate the necklace from him.”

“So no fighting,” the blonde clarified, looking relieved.

“Not unless he protests,” Kakashi said, voice dark, like he wouldn’t mind much if the merchant did.

He stalked down the hall, and they followed, sticking to the shadows as the moonlight peeked through the clouds outside. He stopped in front of a heavy, mahogany door with a peacock handle.

“Knock,” the copy-nin ordered Naruto.

He shuffled forward, stretching forward a tentative hand. Blinking, he rapped lightly against the wood.

“Civilian,” Sasuke snapped impatiently. “Remember?”

“Louder, dickless,” Sai advised.

“Ah, right,” he laughed sheepishly, scratching at his head.

With a bright smile, Naruto drove his fist into the door. A resounding thud echoed down the hall. Sakura winced.

Kakashi’s head rolled to look down at him, eyes sharp and scathing.

There was a moment of silence, in which she began to doubt the merchant was even in the room— then footsteps sounded from behind the door, balanced and even, approaching.

The door opened, revealing a tall man in his early forties with hair the color of copper.

“An item from the auction was misplaced,” Kakashi drawled without any introduction, “We’ll need to search your possessions—”

“This is unexpected,” the man in the door observed.

Sakura blinked, before bowing her head stiffly. “Father.”

Chapter Text

“It’s so slippery,” the girl with pink ribbons grunted. “Why is this so hard?”

Itachi stared straight ahead. “Polishing any skill necessitates time and concerted effort.”

“…you use a lot of complicated words, Mr. Itachi.”

At this moment, the boy with the tell-tale marks of the Inuzuka lost his temper and launched himself at the girl he had been squabbling with. Fifteen seconds. Even less time than Itachi had calculated.

“Wait!” the girl—Imori, he reminded himself—cried as he began to move. “I’m almost done! Just need to tie it and…”

Itachi stood.

“Hey!” Imori shouted, outraged. “What did you do that for?”

“One braid was your condition to stop antagonizing—” he couldn’t remember the name, so he pointed at the girl currently glowering from the swings—“that one. The terms of our verbal contract were satisfied.”

“Huh? I didn’t do any ant-no-geez-ing,” the girl sniffed. Her face turned up suspiciously a second later. “What’s that mean?”

Round eyes the color of cement examined with him with brewing resentment—but, curiously, still absent of fear. He had slit grown men’s throats at her age; his name had already been in the bingo book. And yet, this girl didn’t seem to know him from the nidaime.

His name must have fallen out of conversation over the years. It seemed only the adults now remembered.

He walked over to the bickering pair and lifted the Inuzuka by the collar of his shirt. The boy, muddied and bleeding from the nose, didn’t take well to the intervention, growling and swiping at him.

As Itachi calmly stretched his arm so the boy’s fists were out of reach, a slight hissing sound reached his ears. He tilted his head to the side. A kunai flew past and landed with a loud thud in the tree five meters ahead.

Itachi turned his head slowly in the direction the kunai had originated from. A round-faced child with missing teeth gave him a sheepish grin.

“Ah, sorry about that Itachi-san. Just trying to get some extra practice in before Iruka-sensei tests us later today!”

“Weapons are not allowed during recess.”

Let go,” Inuzuka yipped like a puppy, face twisting, “Did you hear me?!”

“Aw, see, I know that. And normally, I totally wouldn’t have brought them outside. But, see, like I was saying, Iruka-sensei said there’s a test and—”

“Weapons are not allowed during recess.”

I HATE YOU!” the boy in his hand roared, veins bulging in his neck with the effort.

Itachi dropped him.

“Ugh, finally,” Inuzuka huffed, scowling. He stuck out his tongue and turned on his heel.

Itachi slowly retracted his hand, observing it in cool examination. He hadn’t intended to let go.

“All right,” a tenor voice called out from the building—it was a voice that had not been built for volume, Itachi reflected, but must have learned it over the years—“Let’s pack it up. Break time is over!”

The children rushed by him in a cacophony of groans, tracking dirt into the Academy building.

“Thank you for watching them,” Iruka said, smiling. The skin beneath his eyes wrinkled.

“It was the task that was assigned to me.”

“Ah, yes. I suppose it was. Still,” the Academy instructor insisted, voice warm.

Itachi stepped into the building and followed Iruka back into the classroom. Small bodies hastily arranged themselves back into their seats at the sight of their teacher.

“Did you give Itachi-san a hard time?” Iruka asked sternly, arms crossed.

“No,” the class chorused. Muffled giggles emerged among the seats.

Iruka turned sharply to him, brown eyes unusually steely. “Do you have anything to say to that, Itachi-san?” he asked quietly.

Itachi’s head cocked to the side.

Iruka waited.

“No,” Itachi said shortly. “I had everything in hand. They were fine.”

“I see.”

Iruka stepped forward and moved onto another topic—a history lesson, Itachi catalogued in the back of his mind. And yet, those two short words, the manner in which they had been delivered, were stuck in his mind. Iruka had seemed disappointed, as though Itachi’s feedback had been less than satisfactory.

Itachi’s eyes narrowed as he gazed over the class. Had Iruka wanted him to struggle? Why convince the hokage, then, to give him this position in the first place? The academy instructor and he had met briefly in the hospital when he had been recovering; it could hardly have been called a conversation, more of an accidental encounter, what had transpired between them. He knew that Iruka had advocated for him to be here; he still had no understanding of why.

On paper, Itachi acknowledged, his skills and battle experience were top of the line. But that didn’t excuse the unspeakable crimes he had committed, even if they had been in the name of Konoha. What parent would want an undisputed mass murderer teaching their child to handle a kunai?

“Break out into groups of three and discuss,” Iruka commanded. “In the last ten minutes, we’ll rejoin and one person from each group will summarize what you each discussed.”

Brief bickering broke out as the class arranged itself into smaller groups. Iruka walked away from the chalkboard toward the back corner of the room where Itachi stood.

“Next time, I would suggest that corner instead,” Iruka said lightly, pointing. “Hyuuga Ryoichi likes to sneak out when my back is turned.”

Itachi’s gaze moved to the black-haired boy who, even now, was darting evaluating looks back at them and then at the door.

“Noted,” Itachi said tonelessly.

He felt Iruka’s eyes burning into him from the side.

“Have you been enjoying your first day at the Academy?” the brown-skinned man asked. His voice was still warm, like they were friends. It was unwarranted.

“It’s better than other roles I’ve been assigned in the past,” Itachi said finally.

Instead of being discomfited, a low, surprised chuckle broke out from the figure beside him. “I wouldn’t dare contest that,” Iruka admitted easily.

“Do you enjoy your job here, Iruka-san?” Itachi asked disinterestedly.

Iruka’s brow furrowed in consideration, as though he had never received this question before and it required careful forethought. Itachi imagined this was implausible.

“In full disclosure,” Iruka said smiling. “Most days don’t go without a moment where I want to strangle their scrawny little necks. Somehow, miraculously, I manage to hold myself back.”

Itachi stared ahead.

“Really,” Iruka insisted. “But, you know, every now and then, there’s a redeeming moment. Inuzuka-kun, yesterday, remembering the name of the shodaime. Or when Nanami finally managed to land the kunai at the bull’s eye mark last week. They pretend they don’t listen—well, most of them time, they’re really not listening. But…ah, I’m not explaining this well. It sounds cheesy when I mention it like that, doesn’t it?”

Itachi didn’t indicate either way. “And you believe it’s all worth it,” he asked clinically. “Whatever lessons you impart to them.”

Iruka raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean?”

Itachi surveyed him. “That Hyuuga will likely be cannon fodder for whatever clan dispute rises within the next five years—” he turned to scan the classroom—“That girl there, as another example, has skills that will only thrive in T&I, but her foreign background will hold her back from ever getting hired in the department. And that boy—given his fervent determination to be a combat shinobi, I would give him two years before he is crippled or killed in action.”

“And what,” Iruka said carefully, coldly, “would be your basis for that?”

He had angered the other man.

“His mentality,” Itachi responded evenly.

“A lot can change between now and their graduation.”

“Perhaps,” Itachi acknowledged, inclining his head. “In my experience, desired change—especially when systemic—rarely occurs soon enough.”

He waited for the explosion. Iruka, he had learned from eavesdropping on the children, had an infamously loud temper. Contrarily, however, the man across for him seemed to be immeasurably calm.

“How many years did you spend in the Academy, Itachi-san?” Iruka asked.

“Four months.”

“So your experience comprises four months in the Academy,” the instructor summarized, nodding. “And your teachers? Do you remember them?”

“Not in particular.”

Iruka turned to look at him directly in the eyes, voice hard like iron. “Then they failed you.”

Itachi’s eyes narrowed.

The man next to him straightened, somehow seeming larger than before, although he was almost a hand’s span shorter than Itachi and slighter. “You’re right,” he said. “I can’t change decades of clan tradition. I can’t change what does or doesn’t happen at home. Sometimes, what I do in class is enough to shift their priorities; forgive my saying, but my experience is a little more considerable in this area. Then again, sometimes it isn’t enough. I can’t make every child want to practice, and I certainly can’t force every child to learn anything they don’t want to learn, no matter how much I might want them to. They pass the test, and I have to let them go. Those are the rules.”

He turned toward the class, gaze grim.

“But,” Iruka said softly. “I can care for them. I can nurture them—subject them to my attention until they’re suffocating, begging me to leave this Academy. And in doing that, I can teach them that they matter,” Iruka’s voice, so soft, grew harsh, “because once they leave, they might never meet an adult who will give them that ever again. And maybe they shouldn’t; the battlefield isn’t a place to be treated like a child or coddled. But here, for at least while...”

He panted raggedly for a moment, the force of his passion for this subject apparently having taken some of his breath away.

“It’s all I can give,” Iruka revealed, voice calming into something like cynicism. It seemed at odds with him; Itachi was, possibly, unnerved. “And, many times, it isn’t enough. Sometimes, they die. Or they leave, like your brother.”

Itachi’s body stiffened slightly at the mention of his brother. Somehow, Iruka seemed to catch it.

“And sometimes, they come back,” he said, gently. He paused for a little, before saying in an obviously, deliberately conversational tone, “I had heard from Naruto that the team is now functioning reasonably well. I know this is private—forgive a teacher’s overbearing nature—but how are things at home?”

“You’re right,” Itachi said, bowing his head expressionlessly. “You are overstepping.”

Iruka immediately nodded, without malice. “Of course. Apologies.”

Silence lapsed again between them. Itachi stared straight ahead, still, but now saw nothing.

“We don’t talk,” he found himself saying.

Iruka was quiet.

“It is to my taste,” Itachi recovered, expression smoothing. “We coexist peacefully and without any unnecessary distractions.”

One of the girls on the right side of the classroom began tugging at the ponytail of another. Iruka pulled an eraser from his pocket and tossed it through the air. It hit the girl right at the nape of her neck. Her hand rose a second later to cover the spot.

“Ow, sensei!” she scowled. “Got it, got it.”

Iruka gave a pleased smile. He turned a second later to Itachi. He hummed for a moment, still smiling.

“You know, even when Sasuke didn’t know the truth, even when you were the brother who had murdered his whole clan, part of him still worshipped you—” Iruka’s eyes crinkled—"I’d go as far as to say that he loved you nearly as much as he hated you.”

Itachi’s mouth tightened.

“I think it will only be a matter of time,” the academy instructor said sincerely.

He knew nothing, though, of what Itachi had done. Iruka saw a fellow man in front of him, when that couldn’t have been further from the truth.

A dark churning sensation was born in his chest—but it wasn’t unfamiliar, not these days, at least. He still didn’t know how to shield himself against it. It overcame him and left him lost at sea.

“I tortured him,” he found himself relaying, tone factual. He heard his voice as someone else’s in his ears. “After seeing the dead bodies of our clan members and the dead bodies of our parents, I made Sasuke relive it for three days, helpless to do anything to stop me.”

So that he would kill me for what I had done.

He barely finished the thought before he felt his breathing start to rise in his chest, faster, harsher. But Itachi managed his body meticulously, asserting his unbending will once more, making the loss of control imperceptible to the human eye.

His insides hurt, like there were nails scraping against the walls of his chest, but no one would know. It was a kind of pain he was used to. He had fought through worse.

“Has your impression of me changed, sensei?” Itachi asked coldly.

“I think,” Iruka started softly.

Something like satisfaction, neither warm nor triumphant, settled in his chest.

“Despite your obvious talent, I think that if I had been your teacher…I would have pushed you to become anything but a combat shinobi.”

The teacher’s eyes paused on his hands, for some undiscernible reason. Itachi ‘s gaze flicked downwards as well.

“I think, Itachi-san,” Iruka said, voice stronger now, eyes molten like bronze ore, “that you care far more than maybe anyone has ever given you credit for.”

A chair screeched against the floor. Itachi did nothing for a moment. His mouth parted, but he paused before he spoke.

“Imagining me this way no doubt makes my actions more palatable,” he said, unblinking. “Sometimes, however, there merely exists a shinobi and an order. And to have feelings about an order, when that order serves a higher purpose than any one individual, would be unproductive.”

Iruka’s mouth firmed in challenge. “Then why is Sasuke alive?”

And this was— It was. Nothing less than a blow, unanticipated and thus unmitigated.

This small, slight man in front of him—to the practiced eye weak, vulnerable. Something had whittled him over time it seemed, silently, secretly, and rendered him sharper and shrewder than he had any right to be--maybe his teaching, possibly his unprecedented proximity to more than one hokage. Or maybe, it was something entirely else, unknowable to him.

Whatever it was, Itachi watched now, warier.

Iruka smiled, unapologetic.

The bell rang, shrill and loud. Cheers rose from the class. Without pause, the teacher turned back toward his class.

“Ah, look at that. Sensei lost track of time, apologies,” Iruka said, smiling at them. “We’ll shift the discussion to tomorrow. Have a good day, everyone!”

The noise of chairs being scooted back and satchels being opened and closed filled the room. One pair of feet, in bright yellow sandals, stopped right in front of them.

“Yes, Imori-chan?” Iruka asked.

The girl who had negotiated with him earlier raised her hand and glared at Itachi. “You. Yeah, I’m talking to you. Next time,” she warned, “I’ll make two braids with red ribbons on each end. And I’ll make you wear them for the rest of the day.

She turned on her heels and flounced away.

“Also, another observation, if I may,” Iruka said, mouth curving. “That is what happens when you tell the kids ‘they were fine.’”

Without another word, the smaller man moved past him to clean up the leftover scraps scattered along the rows of desks, humming as he went.

Itachi remained where he was, but his gaze followed...captive.

Chapter Text

“This would be the one,” Sakura’s father said, handing over a dark green kimono.

Kakashi took ahold of the kimono and tossed it to Naruto. “Search it.”

Naruto leaned forward precariously, barely catching it. He began rummaging studiously through the folds. Her father watched Naruto’s brutish ransack from behind his desk. The red of his hair was softer in the room’s lighting than in natural daylight—at least, from what she remembered.

Sakura’s fingers plucked idly at the loose threads at her wrist.

The body next to her shifted, thoughtful. “Your father satisfies almost maximally the requirements of conventional attractiveness for his gender, and you do not," Sai muttered. "But you do look very alike. Interesting.”

“Found it,” Naruto grunted, raising his hand triumphantly. The object in his hand gave a metallic clink as it was jostled. The necklace gleamed, large ruby gems beset by diamond and gold, and at the center: the damning daimyo’s crest.

“I see the reason for your urgency.” Her father’s eyes--pale like her own--evaluated the necklace closely.

It would have been helpful to know more about him now. Their more substantial interactions, if any had occurred, had been when she was too young to be particularly observant. From his expression, it seemed he had come to conclusions that weren’t far from the truth. If there had been a thief—a thief who had yet to be caught—there certainly would not have been an auction in the palace in the very first place. Thus, the necklace must have been willingly parted with, only now to be urgently retrieved. Information like that could sell.

“We will require assurance, of course, as a citizen of Konoha, that you will not disclose either our presence here tonight nor the necklace’s.” Sakura forced her lips into a stiff smile.

Her father turned his head at last away from the necklace. His eyes paused on her, expression still warm.

Everyone else in the room seemed content to watch.

“That is,” she continued, “as a citizen of Konoha, you must uphold the oath of protecting to the best of your abilities the confidentiality of our operations. Anything less and you risk treason.”

“Sakura,” Naruto said softly.

She looked between them. Had she been too blunt? “Sorry,” she said slowly.

She settled back.

“Of course,” her father said easily, “I would hardly want to cause trouble to my daughter’s team.”

Sakura paused at pulling at the loose thread. She was a bit bemused at the sound of those words together: “my daughter’s team.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know all your names,” he continued casually. “You must forgive me.”

“My name is Sai,” the dark-haired boy said. “I am a recent addition to Team Seven.” He nodded to the others. “Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke are her original teammates. Our captain—”

“The copy-nin’s reputation does actually precede him, even among hapless merchants,” her father said, inclining his head in acknowledgment. Kakashi didn’t look to care either way.

The smile on her father’s face widened as he turned back toward all of them. “As I said, I am happy to comply. You’ll present the necklace to the daimyo in the morning, I assume?”

Sasuke nodded shortly.

“Then let me arrange you rooms for the night.”

“Really?” Naruto asked, eyes wide.

“Of course,” her father said, voice sympathetic. "You are my daughter's teammates. I appreciate your taking care of her. Allow me to demonstrate that appreciation." He pulled on a velvet rope by the desk. A servant entered within the minute, cued by a bell they hadn’t been able to hear.

“How may I assist you, Haruno-sama?” the stout man asked, bowing.

“My guests will need some rooms for the night.”

That the servant nodded and didn’t ask any more questions—in the daimyo’s very own palace—gave Sakura pause. Over the years (and before she had been more or less kicked out of the house) her mom had always given her the sense that they lived more modestly than they strictly needed to. How much more modestly, she now began to question, if her father could comfortably order a daimyo’s servants.

“Follow me, please.” The servant bowed to them now.

“Sakura,” her father called out as she shifted toward the door. “A few minutes of your time, if you are able.”

Sakura’s confused gaze met Sai’s even one, before she turned around. “Sure.”

She remained where she was even as the others moved past her. The heat of Kakashi’s body caused the hairs on her arm to prickle as he passed by. The door shut with a small rush of air behind her.

Her father looked at her, the smile still on his face like an afterthought. He stared at her for a moment, before he gestured to the chair in front of the desk. "Have a seat.”

Sakura stepped forward to the opposite side of the room. As she crossed the central area, she caught something she had missed before. Perfume. Her nostrils flared as she identified it. A woman’s, probably, given the floral notes.

He seemed to read the discovery on her face easily and asked, unperturbed, “Does that upset you?”

She turned toward her father, hands loosely settled on the armrests of her chair as she lowered herself into it. She didn't respond. Given what she knew of her parents’ marriage, it was entirely possible there was some arrangement between them that Sakura didn’t know of.

Her father, Seiji Kizashi, had been nineteen years old when he had married her mother, a woman more than ten years his senior. Sakura had learned from a loose-tongued aunt some years ago that their marriage had been both rushed—because her grandfather had been on his deathbed—and controversial. Rather than choosing a distant cousin within the family or a second son from a comparable business, the old man had bestowed his daughter on an accountant who had worked for him for less than a year. Sakura’s mother had been the eldest of three daughters, none of whom had apparently been interested in the business nor had any particular business acumen—so the oldest had been married off to a no-name accountant who could lead the business.

Her aunt’s characterization of her mother hadn’t surprised Sakura, unflattering though it was. Haruno Mebuki had never struck Sakura as particularly ambitious beyond desiring a means to live without having to do much. She had always seemed content to spend her days at home, inviting her friends over on occasion and maintaining her appearance with militant dedication. It was plausible that she had never wanted more.

“You’ve grown,” her father observed. His chin rested on his interlocked hands.

Sakura’s fingers absently traced the grains of the wood in her chair.

“Franky, I didn’t expect you to still be a shinobi.”

Sakura stared back in turn. As she waited for him to continue, a wave of fatigue seemed to overcome her, a quick rush that sank into her limbs and didn’t leave. She was unsurprised. Now that the mission-high had passed, there was nothing staving off the consequences of poor sleep.

He leaned back in his chair.

“Your grandfather couldn’t find his successor from within his own family,” he said amusedly, voice low and compelling, apropos of nothing as far as Sakura could tell, “having been raised in the lap of luxury, they hardly knew how to work to achieve it. Unsurprising, as luxury has rarely built character. Or so I have found.”

He smiled at her for a moment. Then, seamlessly, the genial smile that had been present all evening faded, and so too the most obvious marks of contrivance. His gaze shifted to peruse the room around them, pausing on the lavish chandelier suspended from the ceiling with something like vague distaste.

“I do not believe in garish displays of fortune such as these,” he finished. “I did not grow up with them, and it would not have served me to. Our house is purposefully a modest one; there are no maids or servants, like there are here. You know this.”

“Your house,” Sakura corrected indifferently, bowing her head. She had been more or less kicked out.

Her father inclined his head in acknowledgement. His gaze seemed to grow even more intent. After a moment, his eyes averted from her to somewhere past her. He huffed a hearty, but nearly soundless, laugh.

“I will admit,” he said, tone almost conversational, “that I have no interest in child-rearing. The limited time I have spent in your vicinity hasn’t inspired anything of the sort either.”

His gaze returned instantly to her, as though to survey her reaction to those words. Sakura didn’t react.

“But you are here now,” he said factually. “And you are, somehow, changed. I did not expect that.”

Sakura blinked at her father, and wondered if he sensed the violence that sat across from him—if any iota of his consciousness was wary of it. If he noticed, he gave no impression of it. He stood and placidly roamed the room, examining the paintings that lined the walls with eyes that still communicated vague disgust.

“Success in my line of work is contingent upon taking calculated risks, playing the odds. Predicting the future, one could say. My predictions for you had not been flattering, when I bothered to contemplate them. You were a spoiled child,” he said simply. “Coddled and catered to with no understanding of the world and of consequences. You demanded to go to the Academy with scarce comprehension of what it was, and your mother let you.”

She twisted in her chair to keep him in sight, unthinking and automatic, because that was how she had been trained. His back faced her now, silhouetted by a large tapestry.

His voice emerged, still light. “When you failed your chunin exams it was further evident that your upbringing had not been to your benefit.”

Sakura stood too, finally, and crossed her arms, leaning against the desk. It was more comfortable than twisting and craning to see him.

“And so you kicked me out,” she summarized, tipping her head again.

Her father turned back to look at her, hair redder against the backdrop of the tapestry than it had before. “Until you were of age, it was my legal right to remove you from the shinobi track if I decided. But I’ve let you do what you want. For better or worse, I have always let you choose. I believe in giving people choice, you see--even children.”

“But if you were to choose to continue to be a shinobi,” he continued pleasantly, “it was going to be without the safety net of your family’s wealth. It was going to be…an honest choice. Abandon your shinobi career or forsake our financial support.”

Her mother had delivered these words for him, face pale.

“As I said, frankly, I expected you to return home, apologetic and beseeching.”

Sakura’s head tilted back. Eventually, she said, with some wryness, “Would it surprise you to know that being forced to fend for myself financially has had no considerable impact on me?” It had been among the smaller upheavals in her life.

Her father stepped away from the tapestry, turning to face her fully. “No,” he said, lips curving. “On the contrary, it would make more sense. So?”

Was this latent parental interest?

Sakura pushed off the desk. “There was a freak accident,” she said shortly.

Her father tracked her movement with raised eyebrows. “Is someone blackmailing you?” he asked after a moment.

She paused at the question. “If someone were,” she asked, softer than she intended, suddenly tired again, “would you help me?”

She regretted voicing the question. It sounded weak.

She headed towards the door. Her feet were lethargic, dragging on the ground. She was going to sleep as soon as possible—as tired as she was, she thought she could manage it. A handful of hours in more than a week now were not going to sustain her much longer.

She opened the door. “I’m not being blackmailed,” she said lowly. “Rather, I’ve gotten in too deep. I’m sure I don’t have to explain what that means.”

Sakura stepped into the hallway.

“Are you Haruno-sama’s guest?” the servant asked. She looked like she had been waiting.

“Yes. Can you point me to my room?” Sakura tried to convince herself she wasn’t swaying on her feet

“Yes! Munakata-san said…” The servant rubbed at her forehead. Her eyes widened triumphantly. “That's right! The seventh room—the one with the white peacock painted on the door.”

The sounded a little too hopeful to pass as confidence. Sakura sighed privately. What was the worse that could happen, that she ended up in a room far grander than the one that had been intended for her? So be it.

Sakura bowed lightly and walked towards blearily to the door. The room she entered was pitch black, the curtains drawn tightly shut against even the slightest sliver of moonlight (an unexpected blessing)—even with the lighting from the hallway, diminishing as it was as the door shut behind her, she just barely made out the shape of a bed at the center. Her heart instantly throbbed with longing for it.

She was too tired to do more than remove the outer layer of her clothing and her boots, leaving them scattered along the floor. Stumbling toward the left side of the bed, she collapsed on her front. She fell asleep as soon as her face hit the pillow.


Sakura felt…warm—which was not a state her small, poorly heated apartment achieved these days. Toes ice-cold and approaching numbness, fingers stiff. That was more familiar.

Her body shifted with drowsy, honey-like contentment. She was just about to fall into sleep again, when something—not her—caused the bed to shift jarringly beneath her.

Sakura’s eyes snapped open.

She glowered in the dark and snatched the kunai she had stashed beneath her pillow, crouching as she moved silently across the expanse of the mattress. Fuck, she still couldn’t see anything. She pulsed chakra into her fingers. The green light illuminated the figure beside her.

She dropped the kunai, blinked twice for good measure. The absurd (impossible) creature she saw in front of her did not disappear.

Blood, the Voice moaned.

Pale, scarred hands clawed at their owner, staining the bedsheets Sakura had slept obliviously on just minutes before a deep vermillion. A nightmare, she processed with staggering stupidity. In sleep, astonishingly, his face was removed of all feigned arrogance or imperiousness, unguarded from voyeuristic eyes like hers.

The Voice pleasured in the sight, aroused by the blood. Sakura lunged forward without thought and latched onto his wrists. He surged up, limbs driving toward her center of mass with lethal power. She pressed clumsily forward, until her head knocked into his, and his eyes could look nowhere but into her own.

He looked back. Eventually, he saw her.

His face changed, then.

He shoved her away, breath ragged. Sakura let herself fall back, hands knotting in the disturbed sheets. Her hand, still lit by chakra, cast everything in the room into gradations of green. She saw him stand and stagger toward a basin of water at the corner of the room. He thrust his hands into the water and then onto his face with cruel efficiency.

Kakashi turned partially, just the profile of his face of his visible, sharingan blazing, to rasp, “Get out.”

Sakura shifted into a standing position as well. She didn’t have the words, yet, to explain the servant’s mistake—that she hadn’t meant to come here. She couldn’t do anything more than gape at him.

He turned his face to her.

"I didn't--" she started, voice far too loud of the haunting silence of the room.

"Is this what you were hoping to find?" he asked, voice deadly soft. "No?"

She stared, struck dumb.

“You asked me how I slept. Take a long, good look at what I have to offer you.” He stalked toward the blood staining the bedsheets, thick and cloying in the air. “Look,” he snarled.

She turned stiffly and looked at it. Somehow, even in the green lighting, the blood looked redder than ever.

He angled his head, so that he looked down at her through the corner of his eyes. “Leave.”

She stared into his blank face. She had seen him gasping for breath, desperate, just a few minutes ago.

“I just wanted to sleep,” she found herself saying. Her mouth tasted like iron. She had seen something that she had not been given permission to. It felt like a violation. “The servant mixed up the rooms. I didn’t notice when I came in, I wouldn’t have—”

I have nightmares too, she almost said. They get worse too, and when I wake up...

He stared at her. Then, he turned, like he was about to leave instead of her.

“Stay,” she started.

It doesn’t mean anything. You’re just a body. Any body would do.

His face was dark with warning.

“…I’ll leave,” she finished.

She picked up the haori she had discarded on the floor earlier and left without a backward glance. The hall was deserted, now. There was no servant waiting to assist her.

How had it happened? How had he slept through her entering the room?

She walked blindly.

Her senses couldn’t have missed him, she knew; she hadn’t survived in ANBU for nothing. No, some part of her mind must have known and permitted it. Some part of her mind must have known he was there and let her fall into that kind of sleep, without a second thought.

(But how had he not noticed?)


“The hokage assured me that this would be dealt with discreetly and quickly,” the daimyo announced the next morning. “I am glad to see that her words were trustworthy. I must say, I wasn’t certain in the beginning of this female kage—”

The advisor beside him, slim with fine, greying hair, interjected smoothly, “His majesty merely means that the rules of inheritance practiced by shinobi villages are dissimilar to ours and thus unfamiliar.”

“As he says,” the daimyo said, looking unbothered. “Still, despite this, you have done credit to both your village and to the Land of Fire. I am pleased.”

Sakura bowed her stiffly along with the others. She saw a piece of straw flutter down from her hair to the ground. She frowned. She thought she had shaken them all out.

They straightened from their bows. Sakura spotted a dead leaf clinging to her to her shirt and brushed it to the ground as well. Excellent. More damning evidence that she had slept outdoors, like some exiled husband, victim to his spouse's temper.

“We’re gratified to hear it,” Kakashi said tonelessly, eyes surveying the courtroom with the irritability of one utterly disinterested in his current surroundings. “With your seal, we’ll be on our way.”

Unexpectedly, the daimyo turned towards his advisor, brows furrowed. They appeared to communicate silently.

The advisor bowed toward them. “There was one more agreement between the hokage and the daimyo. This too must be satisfied before the daimyo will grant his seal of approval.”

Sakura’s mouth turned down. She wanted to leave this godforsaken place. Now. 

“Did I miss this?” Naruto muttered.

“No,” Sai murmured back. “We weren’t informed of a second objective.”

Her gaze went to Kakashi.

“And this agreement is?” the copy-nin said blandly.

The advisor nodded to the guards behind them, and the curtained entrance was drawn back. A woman stood there, exquisitely dressed and tall.

“My third daughter,” the daimyo announced. “The lady Himiko.”

Rich brown hair curtained the woman’s heart-shaped face, oiled so that the strands gleamed under the chandeliers. She looked to be Kakashi’s age.

“The daimyo has been searching for some time for a suitable match for his dear Himiko, who has been sheltered and protected as a jewel of our court,” the advisor said, voice carrying with ease in the hall. “The hokage, in her esteemed wisdom, has agreed to my lord’s request that there be an introduction. The Hatakes are one of few shinobi clans that are also recognized among feudal nobility, as seven generations ago, the then-daimyo gave your clan a title.”

Sasuke let out a harsh, disbelieving sound.

“You are an appropriate match for my daughter,” the daimyo summarized shortly.

Kakashi stared at the feudal lord with moderate condescension—it was more self-control than he usually applied. “The circumstances of my father’s death,” he said coldly, “infamously cast my clan into disgrace.”

The daimyo straightened, voice booming. “The shinobi villages and our royal court have different understandings of what disgraces a man. The title holds.”

The woman passed by them soundlessly, the silken cloth of her kimono trailing her. Sakura’s gaze caught the end of her skirt.

When the daimyo’s daughter reached the front of the court, she turned to face them. Sakura watched as the woman analyzed the copy-nin, scanned the harsh beauty of the upper-half of his face, the lanky lines of his body—where lean muscle hinted at brutal strength—then the cut of his hips, lingering, below lowered lashes, like she was imagining how it might feel to lock her legs around them as he fucked into her.

Sheltered, was she?

“Show him the gardens, Himiko,” the daimyo ordered, looking very pleased with himself. “And escort him to the banquet tonight. An introduction was promised, and I will have that introduction before I stamp my seal.”

“I am honored to meet you, copy-nin,” Himiko said, bowing. Her voice was soft, like the brush of a feather on skin. Kakashi’s gaze snapped to her.

Sakura almost missed the advisor’s attention shifting to her as he bent to whisper something in the daimyo’s ear.

“The merchant Haruno’s daughter?” the ruler muttered. He waved his hand. “Very well. The entire team may attend the banquet. I will have rooms prepared for them all to the stay the night.”

“Kakashi-sama, if you will follow me.” Himiko fluttered by them once more, giving the copy-nin a side-long glance as she did. Sakura stared at Kakashi’s back. He wasn’t the obedient sort. He wouldn’t just follow, just like that—

His hooded gaze bore into the daimyo until the older man shifted uncomfortably. Sakura waited, breath paused, for the chaos that would arise from his dissent.

Kakashi turned with feline grace and followed, head cocking to the side as his cool gaze rested on Himiko’s narrow shoulders—without much pause, the daimyo, his advisor, and his guards exited as well, their aim accomplished.

Silence filled the court, empty of all except for them.

Naruto brushed against her shoulder. “Kakashi’s important? How come no one ever told me?!”

“Are you stupid, dickless?”

“For reasons other than being the shinobi who knows a thousand jutsus or whatever,” Naruto growled.

Sakura watched absentmindedly as they bickered, straightening her haori.

“Do you have something against that woman?” Sasuke drawled to her, trying to look as disinterested in the question as possible.

She raised her eyebrows. “Of course not.”

On the contrary, Sakura adored a woman who knew what she wanted.

 “Well, your face looks like you could happily kick that vase of potted plants right over there into her face,” the Uchiha said indifferently. “You might want to figure that out before we have to show up in front of the daimyo and the full court tonight.”


They had nothing to do but waste their time, and they couldn’t agree on how to spend it. They parted ways--Naruto to the central market, Sasuke to somewhere unknown, Sai to examine the local paints. Sakura went to the parapets.

The wind whistled through the air, scattering her hair and sending a jolt of pain into her already numb ears. How long had she been here, she wondered, when it felt like an eternity had passed. The sun began to set, and she soon found her answer.

Too long. Certainly for this kind of weather in the thick of winter. But the view was astonishing, and she had needed relative quiet to sharpen the katana, to hear the soft hiss of the blade carefully to make sure it was just right. It was peaceful here. So much so, that it was almost intolerable.

Time passed.

She returned to awareness when she heard the soft brush of feet landing on stone behind her.

“Well?” Sakura asked.

She slid the katana back into its sheathe and hopped off the parapet, settling soundlessly back on the dark stone.

“I have a theory.”

Sakura couldn’t help but smile incredulously at his forwardness. In a way, it was refreshing that Sai hid behind neither false bravado nor false insecurity—

“That you and Kakashi had s--”

She blinked and found Sai struggling for breath, face reddening as he was squashed against the parapets. She glanced down and dumbly found her hand at his throat.

She let go. He slid down, coughing.

“I’m sorry,” she said, nails digging into her palm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”

Sai regained his normal color. “That was odd,” he said, voice unusually rough. “You didn’t look like you were even aware of what you were doing.”

Sakura paled at those words. Had the Voice taken control without her knowledge, without her even noticing? Or had it been her, entirely? She didn't know which was worse.

“You didn’t do any permanent damage, but I’ll accept your apology,” Sai said calmly, “with the compensation of some measure of the truth.”

Sakura’s mouth tightened.

He stepped toward her. “Do you trust me?” he asked, curious.

“I do,” Sakura said reluctantly.

He was silent for a moment, merely surveying her and then turning, to survey the view. “From your reaction, I can see that I was right. I guessed it a while ago.”

She shifted her gaze toward the neat little rows of domes and roofs visible from their height.

“It’s not what you think,” she said eventually.

“As in?”

“He didn’t know it was me.”

“Ah. I thought he was just better at hiding it. So you used a jutsu to disguise your true features. But he has the sharingan, so he would have known. For him to not question it—” His forehead smoothed. “No one asks questions in ANBU.”

Sakura followed the last sliver of sun as it melted out of sight.

"Then he found out the truth,” Sai said, nodding. “His behavior toward you changed markedly after you brought Sasuke’s brother back to Konoha.”

The wind blew furiously. She shuffled tentatively closer to Sai so that they could both share their warmth.

“Forgive me, for my forwardness. Are you in love with him?”

“No.”

She felt him turn to stare at her.

“What?”

“I’m surprised,” Sai admitted. “That sounded believable.”

Sakura brushed the hair out of her face.

“Have you been in love before?” he asked reasonably. “How would you know?”

“Why are you skeptical?” she asked.

Sai seemed to hesitate. “When we're at training,” he started slowly, “your gaze doesn’t leave him for more than seconds at a time. Even mid-spar, you follow him as though you've been ordered to have him under your suveillance. During missions, when he reacts, even if it’s as slight as the minutest shifting of his body, you react too. And when you saw the way that daimyo’s daughter looked at him—”

“You’re right, that I can't look away,” Sakura said. She turned to look at him. "The pertinent oddity here, though, is that I don’t know if I want to hurt him or dissect him. Cut into him so he bleeds or so that he’s in pieces and can hide nothing from me.”

Sai glanced at her. “I see.”

“Do you?” she requested, smiling without humor.

His head tilted to the side. “We should head to the banquet.”

Sakura watched him turn without another word to climb down the staircase that had led them to the parapets. After a second, she made her way down the same staircase.

This palace may have been larger than the other palaces Sakura had seen, but they all seemed to have the same structure, more or less. The banquet hall, unlike the throne room, was never far from the main entrance. Possibly, though, it was the smell of freshly cooked delicacies—fragrant and heady—that helped them most on their way.

The guards gave them a cursory nod as they entered. Sakura caught sight of Sasuke and Naruto’s contrasting hair within seconds of entering the banquet hall. Sasuke’s eyes narrowed at the sight of them. Naruto waved with a grin.

“Try those,” he ordered, nodding toward a platter of puff pastries.

Sai studied one of the pastries, then placed it thoughtfully in his mouth.

“Good, right?”

They sat down and began serving themselves food. Sasuke and Sai ate calmly, almost disinterestedly, but Sakura and Naruto consumed the items on their plate without any pretense. Her stomach was full only after a third serving—and even then, she wished that she had more room if only to taste more of the food.

“That was almost as good as Ichiraku’s,” Naruto allowed.

She couldn’t help lowering her head and allowing her gaze to dart left, to the head of the table.

To where they sat.

Kakashi leaned back in his chair, long limbs sprawled. The food on his plate was untouched. The daimyo’s daughter conversed diligently with the other high-ranking nobles at the head table, apparently unaware of his utter abandonment of propriety. But the weight of her body in her chair was shifted towards him, the curve of her breast emphasized for his perusal, the shoulder propped to create shadow in her delicate collar bone—a silent, educated seduction.

Sakura sipped coolly at the soup she had ladled into her bowl. A hip brushed into her shoulder. Her gaze flew up. A quick, unapologetic smile from a handsome face was directed down at her before the man continued on his way.

She followed his back with detached interest.

“It doesn’t appear as though the daimyo was honest,” Sasuke said coolly.

Sai nodded carefully, watching her. “I doubt he’s going to let us leave until there’s a more…binding agreement between them.”

Sakura tipped the last of her soup down her throat, maintaining her blank expression.

“Whatever,” Naruto dismissed easily. “As long as they feed us like this, I can stay here as long as the geezer likes.”

Himiko stood as though to leave, swiftly but elegantly. She bowed to the other men and women seated at the table. Then she bent her long neck to whisper in Kakashi’s ear, finally acknowledging him. Her lips curved as she spoke. The copy-nin’s head rolled up a second later.

She saw his eyebrow arch, slow and lazy.

They left. The clamor of the banquet subsided just slightly at the sight they made. The daimyo watched them, a triumphant smile on his face.

A more binding agreement.

“Sakura,” Sai said softly, warning.

She turned to look at him, head falling to the side. “Yes?”

“Have some bread,” Naruto encouraged, passing a roll to her. She took it and bit into it; it could have been dust for all she noted of the taste.

The Voice crooned in the back of her head.

Something terrible was growing in her chest—dark and seething and, she noted, with an edge of self-loathing. It was jealousy.

She hadn’t known it before, though as a preteen she had thought she had. This was what painted the silent, perpetual roar on every Hannya mask. This was what men and women held onto in their afterlives that transformed them into oni.

Sakura’s nostrils flared with impotent rage. Jealousy? Over that man? If she could have could looked the sentiment in its face, she would have spat at it. What had he done to deserve her jealousy? Fucked her? Scores of women and men had done the same, and she hadn’t given them a second thought.

She rested her chin in her hand, eyes narrow. He was as lost, hopeless, and fucked up as she was. What did he possess to make her jealous?


The banquet continued for two more hours. As time passed, the servants dimmed the lamps. Sakura’s fingers danced over the flickering candle in front of her empty plate.

“I think I’m done,” Naruto announced at last.

“Finally,” Sasuke scowled. He stood and dragged Naruto up with him. Sai and Sakura stood as well.

“Where are you going?” Sasuke demanded.

Sakura blinked at him, body facing the opposite direction. “My...room’s in the other wing of the palace.”

“Oh,” Naruto frowned. He shrugged a second later. “See you tomorrow!” He roped his arms around both Sasuke and Sai as he ambled away.

Sai’s head turned back fractionally to make eye contact with her.

She took off in the opposite direction.

She arbitrarily took a left down one of the offshoot corridors and entered a part of the palace that was less lavishly decorated, though still impeccably clean. The tapestries were duller here, and the halls less well-lit. Likely, she was nearing the servants’ quarters. She walked aimlessly for ten or so minutes, somehow not encountering another living soul, until she heard soft footsteps heading her way at a furious pace. Her brows furrowed. The steps were too soft to be those of an adult.

A small boy, barely more than five, nearly crashed into her—would have, if she hadn’t stopped him with a finger to the forehead.

“Get out of my way!” he shouted, shrill voice echoing down the hall

Her hand fell when she saw his face. His nose had been bloodied, and his eye was swollen shut. Tears streamed down his face, mixing with the blood.

“Who did this to you?” She lifted his face up by the chin.

He smacked her hand away and struggled against her. “I need to get help! Get out of my way, lady!”

Sakura raised her eyebrows. “I'm usually the help.”

“You?” he demanded, swollen eye straining to get a good look at her.

“Yep,” she said. “Shinobi.”

His battered face scrunched up. He thrust his hand into his worn pocket and pulled out five measly ryo. “I’ll pay you this much,” he said urgently, “to kill a man.”

Sakura stared down at it. “Ha,” she joked, folding his fingers back over the coins. “Save your money. It doesn’t even take that much to get me going.”

“Quickly, then! Follow me, shinobi-san!” He tugged her by the hand, running at the quickest speed his small, underdeveloped body could manage. He took her down a long, winding hall, where the doors started to become fewer and farther apart.

“Where are you taking me,” Sakura asked wryly, “all the way to the Land of Snow—?”

Her mouth snapped shut. The boy stilled too.

Around the bend was a small, dust-covered window. Two hands grasped the frame, fingers bleeding and desperate, as a broad, finely dressed man—the same man who had bumped into her earlier—thrust violently into their owner.

“He’s the one,” the boy whispered, swollen eyes wide with murderous hatred. “Kill him.

Violence and sex, intertwined in this depraved form—it grew wherever it could find a nourishment. In abandoned parks. In love hotels. Even in palaces, it seemed.

Like maggots.

The Voice panted.

Sakura glanced down at the small boy.

He gave a war cry, shoulders high, and charged. The noble lifted his head from the servant’s shoulder, gaze irritated, and backhanded him across the face. He resumed pumping his hips into the boy clutching the window. The broken figure against the window shouted.

“Don't, otouto,” he begged. Blood ran down his temple from where he too had been beaten. "Don’t look.”

Face shadowed by her hair, Sakura kneeled to help the smaller boy back up.

“What’s this?” the noble drawled, head tilting back. “The brat’s brought help this time, has he?”

His gaze passed over her face. “Or were you meant to tempt me away from this one? Apologies, but I’ll pass.” He yanked the boy in his arms back by the hair. Miserable eyes locked onto hers, bright and purple. “Have a preference for those eyes, you see?”

Sakura pushed the boy behind her, and relayed her warning softly.

The noble paused, gaze narrowing. “What did you say to me?”

“I’ll only say it once more."

Cold spread throughout her limbs.

“Get off him,” she said tonelessly. “Or I’ll cut it off.”

The noble laughed loudly, sweat dripping from his face. His pupils were dilated with inebriation. “I could have your head for that. Do you know who I am?”

The small boy roared behind her. The Voice roared with it, beyond words, a senseless scream of rage in her head.

The man’s mouth spread in that same, frank, unapologetic smile, and it was as superficially charming as before. “You can’t do anything to me—”

Sakura stood between them and her wrist flicked down on his out-thrust, the kunai slicing through blood and tissue faster than a blink of an eye.

The mutilated organ hit the ground.

The noble screamed. The sound echoed like thunder down the maze of corridors. Sakura stared as he fell.

“Aniki! Aniki!”

“No, no, no,” the older boy cried, even as the smaller boy barreled tearfully into his stomach. He gripped her arm weakly. “What have you done? That’s Lord Botsudou’s son. Benkei, his only son…”

Sakura turned toward him. She felt like her head was under water.

The man whose name was Benkei screamed still, his vocal chords straining—it didn’t seem like he could stop any more than he could stop breathing. There would be guards soon, she processed slowly. The small boy still needed healing. His older brother too. Was there enough time—?

She tore absentmindedly at her top and rolled the scrap of cloth into a ball, bending to stuff it in his mouth. There were witnesses to the act--ones she couldn't kill. Her actions would be known and would offend the daimyo, which--if she survived--would undoubtedly put her in trouble with the council.

There was still time to run, she considered.

A shadow fell over her.

Fingers possessed her wrists and turned them over, exposing the blood on her hands.

She looked up. Kakashi’s gaze met hers. He had located the source of the scream faster than anyone else in the castle.

Her mouth parted. “Where did you come from—”

Wordlessly, he pulled her forward. She shifted from her crouched position to a kneeling one, knees hitting the ground. He dragged her bloodied hands across his flak jacket. The stains transferred easily onto the harsh, olive-grey material.

“W-what are you doing?” one of the boys whispered.

“When they come, stay quiet,” Kakashi instructed, voice level.

The clamoring of approaching guards registered in her sluggish mind. Sakura reacted instantly, muscles tensing to move back. But Kakashi held her fast. She tried to comprehend what he was doing. Her fingers felt scraped raw against the material of his flak jacket.

At the last instant, he pushed her away.

“Benkei-sama,” one of the guards muttered as they were surrounded. The guard at the front, ostensibly their leader, signaled with right hand. One of the guards kneeled to slow the noble’s bleeding.

The man who had signaled now stepped forward. The insignia on his breast caught the light.

“Who is responsible for this?” the captain demanded. Although he wore the uniform of the guard, his hair was drawn up tight in a topknot, as was the way of the samurai. A man of honor, then—or so they said.

Sakura’s mouth tightened, eyes flashing. She didn’t regret what she had done. “I—"

“I am,” Kakashi said coldly.

Her head whipped around, face stricken.

“I see,” the captain said, eyes settling on the blood on the copy-nin’s clothing. “Arrest him.”

Chapter Text

“Hatake,” the daimyo sighed in front of the full court. “This is a regrettable turn of events.”

Sakura struggled to the front, pushing through the masses of whispering nobles.

“I had wanted to call you a son,” the daimyo said, the skin around his eyes taut with ire. “And this is how you repay my generosity: by castrating the only son of one of my dearest friends, not to mention one of the wealthiest nobles in this country. I understand shinobi ways are not our own, but even you must know that this is among the highest offenses in our land.”

“Konoha’s hound seems to be as wild as they say,” the advisor lamented beside him. “We must only be grateful that this transpired before Himiko-sama was inextricably bound to him before the gods.”

Sakura lost her patience and began to shove, causing men and women to fall over. She found her way at last to the front. The ruckus caught the daimyo’s attention, as voices raised at her from behind.

“It wasn’t him,” Sakura said, glaring at Kakashi--currently propped up by two burly guards with all the impression of being bored--before she made eye contact with the daimyo. “It was me.”

“Pardon?” The advisor’s eyes widened.

The daimyo stood. “What is this?” he demanded. He turned toward Kakashi. “What does this girl say?”

“Oh, yes,” Kakashi rasped, gaze dismissing her imperiously, “she did it.”

His words rang with stunning insincerity.

Sakura bared her teeth. “He only arrived onto the scene after. This—this is some misguided attempt to – I have no fucking idea. But he didn’t do it.”

“Watch your words, girl,” the daimyo instructed, voice thunderous. “My judgement is the rule of law and the divine, and these should not be treated so lightly.”

She bowed deeply, hair settling messily around her. “Sorry,” she said through gritted teeth. Just listen.

“Jinrai,” the daimyo demanded, “describe the scene you encountered.”

The captain stepped forward, kneeling. “Yes, daimyo-sama. When we arrived, there were two servants, this girl, and the copy-nin present. Benkei-sama was bleeding on the floor, and his blood was on the copy-nin. Given this evidence, as well as his immediate confession, I determined there were grounds to make an arrest.”

“I see.”

“There was blood on me too,” Sakura shouted. “Look beneath my nails. It’s still there—”

“Daimyo-sama, I believe we can settle this matter simply,” Kakashi said, raising his head lazily. “Why not just ask the victim?”

Sakura’s eyes narrowed. The daimyo nodded, brow furrowed. “Yes, yes, bring Benkei in.”

The court dissolved into meaningless noise as they waited. A minute passed before the doors parted, and a man reclining gingerly among a careful arrangement of cushions was carried in. His face was paler than parchment--he looked, indeed, like he had recently had his cock cut off.

“Benkei-sama, we thank you for your presence in this trying time, but such is the course of pursuing justice. It waits for none,” the advisor greeted gravely. “Now, we have a question. Our captain arrested the copy-nin, but the girl now says that she did it. Please settle the matter for the court. Which one did this to you?”

Benkei raised his head blearily, eyes opening a beat later.

“The copy-nin or the girl?” the daimyo urged impatiently.

Sakura saw the noble flinch as he looked at her, then turn slowly in the other direction, toward Kakashi. His gaze passed once more between them, lips thinning. He glanced at his peers, all watching him closely.

“The copy-nin,” Benkei decided.

Sakura panted with rage and made to lunge for him. A hand caught her wrist and pulled her back. She turned, murderous.

“Don’t,” Sai said shortly. “If it’s you, it will be worse.” Sasuke grunted in agreement.

The daimyo’s advisor leaned to whisper something in the old man’s ear. The daimyo’s brow furrowed. He whispered back. They went back and forth like this a few more times.

“The servants?” Sasuke grunted.

“Smuggled out,” Sai said softly. “Where’s Naruto?”

“I locked him in his room,” Sasuke muttered back.

“…That was probably a smart choice.”

The daimyo’s head lifted.

“Hatake,” the daimyo announced. “The punishment for castrating an only son is death. However, in recognition of the good your family did mine seven generations ago, I will not pass this sentence.”

Sai sighed softly. Sakura waited.

“Instead, I sentence you to a thousand lashes.”

Sakura stiffened.

Sai’s nails dug into her shoulder. “If it had been you, you would have been executed, even if you are a rich merchant’s child—because you’re a rich merchant’s daughter.”

“This isn’t a battle you can win,” Sasuke hissed callously. “It’s better this way.”

She knew. That’s why, for all her anger, she stayed where she was.

The daimyo snapped his fingers, and a large, hulking man stepped forward. A whip was coiled around his thick wrist. The two guards forced Kakashi onto his knees and stripped him of his flak jacket and black under shirt.

His muscles twisted and flexed as he was moved into position, rolling as effortlessly as intricate cogs in a incomprehensibly complex machine. Other than scars, there was only one marking on him: the ANBU tattoo, red like blood, on his left upper arm.

Without aplomb, the large man drew back his fist and released the whip. It struck flesh with a large, thunderous crack. Kakashi didn’t flinch.

The skin rose, red and inflamed.

“One.”

He released the whip again.

“Two.”

Sakura watched, face strained.

“Three.”

At fifty, blood began to drip steadily from the wound.

At two hundred, lines covered every section of his back.

At five hundred, she could no longer see—even with chakra sharpening her vision—a single millimeter of untouched flesh.

At seven hundred, the skin on his back no longer resembled anything belonging to a human’s.

And all the while, Kakashi stared straight ahead, expression unchanging.

“Thousand,” the man called out at last. He stepped back.

Sakura’s gaze flew to the daimyo, hateful.

“As this court can attest, Hatake Kakashi has received his punishment of a thousand lashes. The matter is settled. This court is adjourned.”

Noise rose from the nobles once more as they slowly filed their way out. As each paused to stare back at the sight they had witnessed, they whispered to each other, marveling, that they had seen a man as great as the copy-nin brought to his knees.

Sakura stepped onto the dais where Kakashi had been whipped.

“Hatake-san, if you will follow us,” one of the palace healers said with well-hidden fear, “we will apply our ointments immediately.”

“I’ll take care of him,” Sakura snapped.

The healer turned to her bemused. “Are you his medic-nin? I can apply our ointments before handing him over to you. They’re made from the finest ingredients money can purchase, surely they’ll be—”

“She’ll take care of it,” Kakashi said, cool.

The woman flinched subtly. She bowed her head a second later, gesturing her assistants away. “Understood. We will lead you to a healing room.”

He walked at a moderate pace behind the cohort of healers as they nervously guided them to the infirmary. Sakura’s gaze was stuck on the open wound on his back. Blood trailed him on the floor.

“Will this room do?” the healer asked, opening a door.

“Yes.” She shut the door loudly behind her and Kakashi.

He faced the window, away from her.

Her fingers lit up with chakra. She kneaded them into the center of his back, where the damage was the worst. A sibilant hiss escaped his mouth. Sakura’s face remained stoic. The healing part wasn’t hard, though it needed to be done quickly. Whip lashes weren’t complicated injuries; it was the bleeding that one needed to be concerned about. With a thousand lashes, it was the bleeding that could kill a shinobi.

Scabs formed over his back, red and brown, unsightly as she managed to stop the gushing blood.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said colorlessly.

She waited for him to turn around, waited for him to meet her words with his own. When he did not, her hands curled over his shoulders. Mouth tight, she forced him around.

His hair fell in disarray over his eyes, matted with sweat.

“Did you realize the wrong of your ways at long-last and think this would wipe the slate clean?”

She flicked the remaining blood on her hands off. It splattered against the white floor.

“Or did you think,” she asked dispassionately, “with this, that you could be finished with me?”

Kakashi stared somewhere past her. She gripped his chin and yanked his gaze down to hers.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” she whispered. “The marks on your back might fade with time, but you’re going to remember them forever. You’ll remember that each and every one of those lashes made you mine.”

His jaw flexed beneath her fingers. For a moment, his sharingan burned into her, intensely, unreservedly. Then, with ironclad control, his expression shifted. “My intervention was the best course of action for the situation,” he said with perfect indifference.

She laughed, mocking. “You shouldn’t have let me see you bend for someone else like that,” she said. “I would have been able to walk away before. Easily, in comparison to this--you just fucked me, after all. But not now.”

It wasn’t about being indebted; it wasn’t even about gratitude. No, because those, she easily could have dealt with and dismissed. This was something she could not wrestle with, something she could not strangle into submission.

It had Sakura—unwilling, spiteful—at its mercy.

She let go of him, stepped back. “Consider these your fair warnings,” she warned lowly. “I’ll kill the next one who tries to do anything like this to you, I don’t care who they are.”

Rage burned through her. She wouldn't be made to watch again.

“And if that daimyo’s daughter, Himiko, fucked you,” she added through thin lips, “make sure I never find out.”

His head bent over hers, forced there by her.

“Or I’ll fuck her too,” she threatened.

The face that looked down at her was cold, but his eyes flashed. He couldn’t hide everything. 

Sakura went to the door. “Rest,” she said.

She left.


Naruto, as expected, brooded as they returned to Konoha. Kakashi, also as expected, strove to create as much distance between them as he could. It didn’t work for either of them as well as they might have hoped.

“Shirt off,” Sakura ordered briskly.

Sat on a tree stump, Kakashi pulled off his shirt in one fluid motion, staring straight ahead like she wasn’t there. Demeanor clinical, she applied chakra to where the scabbing had broken.

“You can’t ignore us forever, dickless,” Sai said calmly, crouched on a similar tree stump.

“I know I probably would have made things worse,” Naruto acknowledged, face red. “But I’m still mad.”

Sasuke unconcernedly cleaned dirt from beneath his nails using the edge of a kunai.

Sai turned to look at Sasuke, dark eyes narrow. He then darted a considering look Naruto’s way. Naruto glanced between the two of them in turn, before sagging slightly.

“Done,” Sakura told them, cracking her knuckles. “We should be able to continue the rest of the way back without any more stops—”

Kakashi was a blur as he took off into the trees.

“Something,” Sasuke said slowly after a moment, “is off about him.”

“Indeed,” Sai said, eyes resting on her.


Sakura twisted the key into the lock guarding her apartment. As she pushed the door open, the motion sent a folded piece of parchment skidding forward. She eyed it briefly, but moved to the table to set down her mission pack.

As soon as they had crossed the village border, they had been surrounded by ANBU who had informed the copy-nin that he had been summoned by the council. He was probably already testifying in front of Tsunade for the mess their mission had become, Sakura reflected. Her expression blackened. She went into the bathroom.

A long bath allowed her to get the last of the blood—Kakashi’s blood—off her hands. She soaked until her skin pruned.

When she exited the bathroom, the folded piece of parchment caught her gaze once more. Finally, she bent and opened it.

Dinner at 9. I look forward to seeing you.

It was her mother’s handwriting.

Sakura’s eyes went to the small clock. She sighed. She passed a brush quickly over her hair before stepping out.

Her former house was on the opposite side of the village in a much wealthier neighborhood than the one she currently lived in. It was the kind of neighborhood that didn’t see much change in occupancy, where everyone knew each other. For years, now, she had gotten used to the sly side-glances every time she returned. She received the same glances now.

Sakura arched her eyebrows every now and again, just to see them turn hastily away. At last, she reached the three-story house that had been her childhood home. She knocked on the door.

The door opened. Her mom stood in the doorway in a pale yellow yukata, golden hair trailing over her shoulder.

“I said nine.”

Sakura scratched her head. “I came over as soon as I could.”

“And that’s what you chose to wear?”

She debated arguing.

Her mother sighed. “I have spare yukatas upstairs. You will change before we eat.”

She stifled another groan. “Is that really necessary? If we can just make the meal quick—”

Sakura.

“Fine,” she said sourly.

They both climbed the spiral staircase onto the second level. She was curtly directed into her mother’s room and handed a soft, powder blue yukata. Sakura stared at it distastefully.

“Change,” her mother ordered, “and then come down to the dining room.” She shut the door behind her.

Sakura removed her pants and shirt and slipped on the yukata. It was short on her, as she had expected, because it was her mother’s. She tugged it lower. The hem didn’t budge.

Rolling her eyes, she eased the door open and followed the staircase down to the first level. When she entered the dining room, however, she was shocked into stillness.

“Sakura,” her father greeted. He sat at the head of the table.

Sakura’s eyes flew to her mother’s, accusing.

Haruno Mebuki sipped calmly at her tea. She set the cup down. “Your father, as you can see, has returned from his trip.”

Sakura’s face turned back toward her father. The timing, she thought, was unerring.

“Sit down, Sakura,” her mother ordered shortly.

She sat.

Her mother’s features—as they focused on her from the opposite end of the dining table—were strained, but their beauty was highlighted by the passing rays of the setting sun through the window. Haruno Mebuki, as it happened, possessed the kind of allure that only grew more refined with age.

“A full family dinner,” Sakura commented. “You might have included that in the note.”

“Would you have done, then, something to that hair?”

“Is there something wrong with it?” her father asked disinterestedly.

She stared at them. Both her parents, here, together. It was the fulfillment of a wish she had pointedly never had. Apparently, this was how they were together—cool, detached. Their only commonality was probably her.

Her mother’s mouth tightened, scandalized. “She already has that forehead and all those scars. Not to mention her coloring is so unusual. If she keeps butchering her hair like that, no one’s going to look at her twice.”

Sakura stretched her legs beneath the table, blowing hair lazily out of her face. To be clear, she had inherited neither of her parents’ good looks so straightforwardly, but rather had received an unassuming combination of the two—which seemed to have the effect of being more off-putting than entrancing. It didn’t seem to have affected her in that regard though. She wondered if that was appropriate to share.

“But,” her mother said dangerously, long-nailed fingers resting gently against her forehead, “none of that compares to the rumors going around about you right at this moment.”

That caught Sakura’s attention. “Rumors?”

“That you were involved in that horrific accident that happened recently at the daimyo’s court. My daughter. Castration!”

Sakura blinked. “Ah…yes. Actually, I did do that.”

Her mother’s beautiful, porcelain face reddened. “What?

“That should be enough,” her father said calmly.

Sakura’s gaze snapped to him, unkind. “Yes, enough of that. Why exactly are you here?”

His head tipped forward. “There’s malice in your voice,” he observed. “There wasn’t before. Why?”

“Because before you were a stranger I encountered on a mission. You weren’t in this house pretending to be my father,” she said curtly.

“He is your father, Sakura,” her mother snapped.

“In his own words, he has little interest in child-rearing.” Sakura rested her elbows on the table.

“You’re quick,” her father noted, unperturbed.

This remark, neither expected nor desired, left her momentarily at a loss. Her mother also seemed a bit bemused.

“I’ve thought over our conversation,” he said, “and I’ve realized that you warrant more perusal. An option exists that I had not known before.”

“Option,” Sakura said blankly.

“Yes,” he said simply, coolly. “For one, regarding the matter of succession.”

Her mouth flattened.

“Unlike your grandfather, I do not intend to be similarly rushed into any decision-making on my deathbed,” her father said conversationally. “Now, there are three possibilities. First, I hand over the business to someone almost certainly not within this family, and this family loses its ability to reap its rewards from this business. Second, you marry a partner that I select for you; that person will work under me until the time arrives for a change of leadership, and you remain free to do as you please. Third and finally, if you are willing, you abandon your current lifestyle to apprentice under me and, if you prove capable enough, take over the business following my departure.”

Sakura’s mother gaped. She shook her head, glaring at her husband. “What do you mean hand it over to someone not in our family? There are so many cousins, you have your pick—”

“I would have the pick of morons,” he said indifferently.

Sakura lifted her head slowly from the table. “I think,” she said carefully, “you took my words lightly, the last time we spoke.”

He watched her, silent.

Her chest ached inexplicably. “I will not be turning back from this,” she breathed harshly. "There is no turning back. Not anymore.”

Her mother’s voice was low. “As he has said, Sakura, there are other options to keep this business within the family.”

“I might owe you for giving me a roof and for raising me,” Sakura said slowly back to her. “But I do not owe you a marriage.”

Sakura.” Her mother’s shoulders shook. “Think about the rest of your family, you foolish girl—”

She didn’t waver. “Why? They haven’t done anything for me.”

“Then think about me.”

“I can provide for you for the rest of my life,” Sakura said simply. “I can make enough money to sustain your current lifestyle. That is within my capabilities.”

“Very well,” her father said peaceably. “I see you have made your mind.”

Sakura watched him, tired and wary. He seemed content now—but she sensed that this was the least of why he had returned.

He didn’t speak again for the rest of the meal. As soon as there was no more food on her plate, Sakura bowed her head swiftly and left for her home.


It poured the next day. She woke up to the incessant pattering of rain droplets against her window. Finding it impossible to return to sleep, Sakura rolled out of bed.

She sipped her morning tea staring out the window. Clouds, dark and infinite, consumed the sky, and the dirt paths were muddy. It was an obnoxiously bleak picture.

She set the cup down.

Suddenly—no, she corrected, for a few minutes now—the apartment and its unforgiving silence had begun to make her feel alien in her skin.

She grabbed an umbrella and left.

The streets were mostly abandoned. It had been a day like this, she remembered, that the sandaime’s funeral had been held. It had been the first time in her narrow existence that she had been forced to confront death beyond the quotidian—because the sandaime hadn’t been just a man.

He had been a symbol for the village, of course. And both civilians and shinobi had been united in their mourning, though most of them had not known him at all. Perhaps, he had managed to mean so much precisely because they had not known him—because he was nothing to them and therefore could become everything.

She watched the droplets slide off the edges of her umbrella.

They said the God of Shinobi, women and men like him, became stars when they died, their lives recorded in the skies for even when feeble human minds failed.

As she looked up, all Sakura could see was the thick overcast of the clouds.

She walked on.

A child zipped past her, laughing maniacally; another followed her and splashed water onto her pants. A stout woman waved a decorative fan at her from beneath the covering of her stall. An instructor from the Academy hurried by, papers clutched in hand.

The smell of grass, even above that of mud, rose in her nose.

She walked aimlessly, circuitously, indirectly. She walked until she found herself at the outskirts of the village. Through training field after training field she walked, and then she reached the cemetery.

There, she found the few who had braved the weather to mourn the dead. A small family huddled beneath an umbrella placed a wreath of white flowers on top of a stone. A young couple hovered by another stone that seemed more recently erected. They were protected from the rain by a pair of matching umbrellas, their faces wet with tears.

Farther away, almost a speck in the distance, there was one other figure in the cemetery. He stood without an umbrella, doused by the downpour.

She paused, feet finally stilling.

He stood like he was stone himself. He didn’t carry flowers, he didn’t cry, and if he said anything, she couldn’t hear it.

She waited for him to move. Once he left, she told herself, she would continue on.

Eventually, the family and the couple left. Other people came. Then they left too. All the while, he remained, in the same exact position.

Well after the sun had set, when there was no other living person in the cemetery except for the two of them, she watched his frame shake all of a sudden, like a bell had been rung. Only then, did he step back slowly. He turned and left, shoulders slouched, hands nestled deep within his pockets.

Sakura didn’t realize that she had begun to follow him until she stood on a rooftop while he entered the tall apartment complex opposite her. He was soon out of her sight. Disturbed by her own behavior, she turned to leave.

She froze as she heard a door open and shut in one of the apartments, distinct even from her distance. The window for one particular apartment had been wide open, the rain pouring in, she recalled.

She turned and saw that it was Kakashi’s apartment.

Even now, he didn’t shut the window. Instead, he pulled off his flak jacket and shirt and sprawled flat on the bed. The rain, cold and biting, continued to pour onto him, but he could only have been numb to it now, after having stood in it for so long, his bed having been exposed to the same.

Sakura dropped the umbrella and launched herself across the open air between the two buildings. She settled silently on the window sill, crouching with her hands poised on the edges of the window frame.

Pale eyelids, one smooth and the other scarred, raised swiftly. The sharingan spun at her.

Rain pelted her back.

“I’m coming in,” she said tonelessly. She stepped into the room and swung the double window shut behind her. The apartment she entered was cold, minimalistic and absent of any of the usual markers of an inhabited home. It could have been a show house. Other than the rain, it was pristine.

He stared at her, lashes dripping water.

She stared back at him, mouth hard.

He might have mocked her or snarled at her; but he seemed to be in a strange mood. He said nothing. His gaze went unfeelingly to the ceiling.

What had Tsunade done? What had the council said in response to their recent mission?

(None of it mattered. This was...something else.)

Sakura’s breaths filled up the silence in the room.

Her shirt dripped water onto the floor, despite the umbrella she had used. She yanked it off. She shook off her boots, muddied and also damp. She wore, now, only her chest-binding and the standard issue shinobi pants.

She placed one knee on the ice-cold bed and then lay down flat, beside him. She watched the ceiling as well.

They lay there for what felt like an eternity.

There was a weight on her chest. It had been there ever since she had woken up, as incommensurable as the cave that had almost crushed her. Or maybe, it had been there for years--silently, slyly growing. She didn't know how to remove it. Nor did she know how to outmaneuver it, if it even could be outmaneuvered.

“My father has come back to Konoha,” she found herself admitting. “And I don’t know why.”

Her ears burned after. She didn't know why she had said that. It was a lapse in judgment; she had been in the rain too long. She glared. That was all she would say.

Her hands tangled in the wet bed sheets. She said more.

“Then there’s Danzo, who has yet to be apprehended. And the fact that the council seems to care more about the Uchihas being back than the massacre or what he did to those like Sai," her voice broke.

Her gaze narrowed at the ceiling.

She shivered in the cold. A thump sounded from the apartment above, paired with a sharp clang. A dropped pot or something like it.

She exhaled.

“Also,” she said hoarsely, “I’m no longer in ANBU now. And I don’t think I can take it much longer. I can’t sleep at night. I think about all the things I’ve done. I think about all the things I want to do. I want to kill. I want to kill so badly that I don’t even think about it consciously anymore. That man, in the palace, I should have killed him instead of castrated him, because what he did... to that servant, and his brother who had to—”

Her voice wavered as her head swam. She couldn’t go on. She had held onto control, however tenuously, until now, because of the whirlwind of events that had required it—but no more.

Her eyes burned again, and she brought her forearm up, covering them. She pressed the flesh into her eyes, wanting the pain to disappear.

Her breath was ragged, ugly, like she was on the verge of hyperventilating. (She was.)

“I’ll make it easy for you,” she whispered. “Tomorrow, I'll act like this never happened. ”

So let me stay.

She turned onto her side and shut her eyes. Slowly, almost unnoticeably, the cold bed sheets had begun to warm beneath her body. She waited for his cruelty, for his usual, casual weaponization of words; she waited, even, for his brutish strength, the mete and measure of his violence against hers—

He turned toward her. The heat of his body burned feverishly all along her back like a live torch. She froze, every muscle locked into place in painful attention. But he didn't do any of what she had anticipated. Instead, against her back, trembling--desperately, deliriously--he was like a man who had finally been given permission.

The confession was swift and terrible.

“I killed my best friend. And then I killed the woman he loved.”

She didn’t turn to look at him. She stared straight ahead. They shook together in the silence.


 

Scabs formed over his back, red and brown, unsightly as she managed to stop the gushing blood.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said colorlessly.

She waited for him to turn around, waited for him to meet her words with his own. When he did not, her hands curled over his shoulders. Mouth tight, she forced him around.

His hair fell in disarray over his eyes, matted with sweat.

https://64.media.tumblr.com/829fac3be01a100b61768e7a58a00524/69c0493ac0c9d248-e8/s500x750/90a6b6163f26d59ae063c9d29d1c59b1d8eec395.jpg

- breath-stealing artwork by an artist called ZhaoLuna

Chapter Text

Sakura woke up with her face buried into the side of a neck. The skin against her cheek burned. The rest of her body, covered only by a thin blanket in the icy room, was numb from cold.

She rearranged herself beneath the blanket, shifting unthinkingly towards the source of heat beside her. The surge of warmth against her front, particularly through the thin layer of her chest binding, had her back muscles twisting in wordless pleasure. This close, she could smell rain; her abdomen tightened at the bitterness of metal and pine beneath that.

Her eyes opened drowsily.

His face was right above hers, as magnetically, frustratingly flawless as it had been the last time she had seen it. He looked, however, like someone else. Angular features soft with sleep, unguarded, possibly even…

Sustained consciousness compelled reason to return. And reason pierced through her prior thoughts, sharp and unforgiving.

Sakura leaned her body away, watching him closely for any signs of waking. There were dark, obvious shadows beneath his eyes, all the more prominent because of his pale skin—which probably explained why he had yet to wake up.

An incredulous breath of air left her.

Never mind the utter absurdity that Kakashi had allowed this. What about her? This time, both of them had known. It hadn't been a mistake.

She was composed of more than limbs and raw instinct—but last night did nothing to indicate this was true. The words from the palace still pulsated in her mind, insistent, unintended, as subconscious as a heartbeat.

They had driven her here. Her hands loosened from the sheets.

A soft, scratching sound reached her ears from behind drawn curtains, grabbing her attention. Sakura turned toward it. A small shadow was imposed onto the cloth, shifting slightly.

In a blur of speed—perturbing as little around her as possible—she withdrew from the bed, pausing only to pull on her shirt. Moving silently, she cracked open the window from the side and curled her body around the edge, shutting it soundlessly after.  

An annoyed hawk waited for her on the ledge. It ruffled its feathers punishingly at her, before turning to present its cargo. It had tracked her chakra here, she realized.

Realizing she was out in the open, Sakura withdrew the scroll and launched herself over roofs to create as much space as she could between herself and the damning location. Once she was closer to the center of the village, she opened the scroll to examine its contents.

It was a summons from Tsunade.

She scoured lower and determined, as had probably been signaled by the hawk’s displeasure, that she had been expected some time ago. At the center of the village now, she was a stone’s throw from the Hokage’s tower. Her head raised to look glumly at the red building. Shinobi were already bustling in and out of the main doors.

As she expected, she found the ground floor already crowded when she walked in, though populated mostly by genin teams. At this time of year, Sakura knew, they were clamoring for escort missions to balmier, warmer climates. She had been exactly that kind of genin, once. The thought put a sour look on her face as she entered Tsunade’s office.

Shizune opened the door without any particular expression. The hokage was ostensibly waiting for her behind her desk, not a bottle in sight. She looked about as welcoming as a prodded lion.

Sakura bowed after a second of consideration.

“Obsequiousness doesn’t work on me, as you know.”

Sakura straightened and considered that, possibly, entering with sake could have worked. Definitely next time. She lowered herself into the chair opposite Tsunade.

A few seconds of silence passed. Sakura shifted experimentally.

The hokage watched her with glinting eyes the entire while. “You used to be so compliant--constantly seeking my approval, flawlessly law-abiding. Timely,” the older woman observed. “And then you began neglecting my tutelage.”

At the look on her face, Sakura felt compelled to remind, “My neglect wasn’t exactly a conscious choice…Tsunade-sama.”

“Of course it wasn’t. No willing student would leave the likes of me.”

“Our hokage did wonder, though,” Shizune announced in a monotone. “She was simply too proud to chase after you or ask.”

Tsunade’s eyebrow twitched.  

“Of course, hokage-sama,” her diligent assistant said, blank-faced. She bowed with a small smile that only Sakura saw before leaving them alone in the office.

The hokage turned her glare onto Sakura.

“You have that infuriating look on your face,” she declared, “God, I hate it. Cocksure and brazen, because you’re so sure you’ve faced far worse than your hokage.”

She jolted slightly as hands slammed down on the desk with a thunderous clap.

“But that’s the least of my problems,” Tsunade growled. “Can you tell me why Hatake submitted your name for psychological review?”

Ah. Fuck.

She felt momentarily cast at sea. In her bewildered state, her mouth shifted instinctively into a sneer. It wasn’t entirely hollow. She was resentful, still, of course.

Sakura didn’t know what, precisely, to say. Better to stay on the offense, she decided. “Didn’t you ask him?”

“I’d be a fool to treat anything that comes out of his mouth as anything less than ninety percent bullshit,” Tsunade scoffed, not quite answering her.

“And mine?” She kept the sneer on her face with dedicated effort.

The hokage didn’t appear to hear her. She pointed a finger instead to say, “You know you won’t pass review. He knows you won’t pass review. Am I living under a rock here? Can someone tell me what the hell I’m missing?”

They stared at each other.

It occurred to her that she could divert this conversation.

“Why didn’t you mention the second part of our mission before we left?” Sakura charged.

“What mission?” the hokage retorted facetiously.

Her mouth curled. “Our last one. Even normal civilians wouldn’t react well to having a marriage meeting forced on them. Why would you agree to it?”

Tsunade gave a loud, fake laugh. “You’ll have to forgive me, I’ve blocked the entire thing from my memory because it sent me into a massive five-day migraine.”

Sakura scoffed. “You can’t honestly tell me that the daimyo strong-armed you.

“That spineless toad? Of course not.”

Then?”

Her voice grew sharp. “Because that brat is next-in-line for this seat, and he needs to start acting like it!”

Sakura’s left foot slid off her lap.

What?

What?

“Pardon me?” were the inexplicably courteous words out of her mouth.

“Diplomacy,” the hokage scowled. “He’s more than capable of it. The aim of that mission was to force him to exercise some after all those years in ANBU. But what did I get for my efforts? A public scandal, ten hours of badgering from the council, and—”

“Hokage?” Sakura hissed. “You want him to be hokage?”

“Ironically,” the hokage said sharply, “he’s the successor that both the council and I happen to agree on.”

“If you’re already talking about it with the council…You want this to happen soon?”

Tsunade’s lips thinned in warning. “Careful, Sakura. We’re getting into territory that truly isn’t your business, if any of this even was before.”

Sakura exhaled sharply, the taste of iron in her mouth.

The hokage went on to oblige, vaguely, “I hardly want to take one of the strongest players off the board preemptively—it could serve none of us to have him immobilized as kage at the wrong time. The situation is being carefully monitored.”

Sakura couldn’t help but stand now, body stiff with incredulity. “Why not just stay on for—for the rest of your life?”

For a long few seconds, the hokage didn’t answer. Her gaze drifted somewhere beyond Sakura, and her expression hardened.

“No one can stand to sit in this seat for very long,” the older woman said, voice soft. She cleared her throat immediately after, tone becoming more brisk. “I have no idea how the sandaime did it, but I doubt—between you and me—that he was remotely at peace when he passed.”

Perhaps it was the phantom at her back, the ghostly touch of a body that had curled against hers the previous night. Something within Sakura felt scraped raw at these words.

“But you said it yourself. Kakashi has spent more years than not in ANBU. He’s—”

“Kakashi has always done what was needed for this village. Unlike me, he has never run away. He will withstand it, precisely because it is required of him.” Tsunade’s gaze was hard to read.

Disturbed, Sakura stepped back.

“Appeased?” Tsunade asked wearily. “Good. Now, let’s get back to what I actually called you here to talk about.”

She felt like her neck had been twisted violently the other way around. Sakura gritted her teeth. “Will I have to go for the review?”

“I’ll waive it,” the hokage said briefly, “on the condition that you talk.”

Sakura’s mind was somewhere else entirely, so her mouth operated without much finesse. “My experiences in ANBU have, obviously, affected me in ways that are...less than positive. It came up during one of the missions. Kakashi informed me that he was operating by the rule-book as a chunin taichou in submitting my name for review.”

“That’s it?” Tsunade asked suspiciously.

“That’s what he told me,” she evaded.

The hokage squinted at her, resembling Naruto rather unnervingly in the moment. Finally, she settled back in her chair. “Fine.”

“Is that all?” She eyed the door.

“No. Now, about ANBU.”

Sakura’s gaze snapped to Tsunade’s face. “Yes?”

“I’ve had a chance to review your track record. It is…admittedly impressive.” The hokage’s eyebrows were raised high on her unnaturally smooth forehead.

“Thanks.”

Tsunade’s lips curved. “Between you and me, I think I might like you better now. In other ways, though, just looking at you is quite annoying.”

Sakura’s expression didn’t change.

Her features became harsher once again. “It has occurred to me that your potential could be better utilized. The psych review recommendation gave me some pause, but from what you have said and other investigation I’ve done into the matter, it’s my opinion that you’re hardly a looser cannon than the copy-nin.”

Sakura’s heart was beating rather loudly in her ears now. “And?”

“And I thought to myself—what did the sandaime do when he wanted Hatake to keep himself in check?” Tsunade stated coolly. “Oh yes, as undisciplined Kakashi is now as ANBU captain, he's still a far cry from what he used to be. Having a squad to look after did make him, comparatively, something like responsible.”

Her brain felt like it was operating staggeringly slowly. “I don’t…”

“You were on the most combative team in ANBU, under its most exacting captain, and you managed to handle yourself unprecedentedly well,” Tsunade snapped, waving her hand. “For obvious security reasons, I cannot send you back to your old team. You are, however, very, very far from being a green newbie. So, I have two options. Either I place you on another top-level combative team and embrace that you will only grow as a pain in my ass without someone of Hatake’s caliber to curtail you as needed—or I follow well-established precedent.”

Sakura’s brain had reached a conclusion that was too absurd for her to entertain seriously.

Tsunade looked inordinately pleased with herself. “I pride myself on occasion, within the variety of management styles, as being a people-grower—meaning, Sakura, that I do try now and then to invest in leadership pipelines. Granted, the team hierarchies at the mid-level of ANBU are relatively flat, so the title will be more of a suggestion, per se, than a strict designation.” The hokage’s gaze bore into her. “But, the point is, you have the skill to captain a mid-level team.”

Sakura’s fingers broke through the wood. A long crack split down the center of the hokage’s desk.

“Scared?” Tsunade murmured. “Good.”

“Impossible,” she said, tone flat. “Me? Look after—? You just called me a loose cannon. And I haven’t even become a jounin yet.”

“Field promotion. The paperwork will be done tomorrow.” Tsunade dismissed.

“Put me back in ANBU,” Sakura snarled, “on a team.”

The other woman was unyielding. “You’ll be on a team, Sakura, as a captain. It will do you good, and that’s the end of this discussion.”

Her body shook with impotent rage.


“You’re early,” Sai greeted as he swung open his door.

Sakura brushed by his shoulder. The smell emanating from inside her teammate’s apartment had her nostrils flaring. She found Naruto in the kitchen, a pink apron tied over his black and orange jumpsuit, muttering to himself as he leaned over a pot.

“It should be ready in a minute,” Sai murmured by her as she heard the door creak shut. “Take a seat. I have to go make sure Naruto doesn’t ruin anything.”

She was familiar with Sai’s relatively new apartment, so she didn’t need help guiding herself to the living area. As she turned the corner, she was shocked to see Sasuke seemingly dozing on the couches, apparently early as well.

His eyes opened instantly. Sakura recognized vaguely that the gaze resting on her was baleful.

She dumped herself in the opposite couch just as a loud cheer sounded from the hallway behind them. Naruto rushed into the room while Sai walked slowly behind him, pot in his hands.

With a flick of his foot, Sasuke sent the coffee table sliding in their direction. Sai stopped the table with his foot and placed the pot down in one fluid motion.

Bowls were passed around hurriedly. At the first spoon in her mouth, she groaned in pained pleasure.

“Careful,” Naruto said cheerily. “It’s spicy.”

They lowered their heads to their bowls with single-minded determination; it became, somehow, a bizarre exercise in masochism. They refilled their glasses desperately, even Sasuke, more times than any of them had care to count. But once their bowls were all emptied, Sakura couldn’t deny feeling a certain sense of triumph.

“Five years ago,” Sasuke observed out loud, sprawled along the length of one of the couches, “I would have thought that the only thing that could motivate me to eat Naruto’s cooking was a sudden, fervent desire for the stupidest kind of death possible.”

“The first few times, I believe the fumes emerging from his experiments had measurable toxicity,” Sai commented. He allowed, after, “But he has improved.”

“Whatever,” Naruto said, rolling his eyes. He grinned a beat later. “I’m thinking whenever I retire from hokage, though, I’ll set up shop next to Ichiraku’s. What do you think? You in, Sai?”

“We’ll see,” Sai said with a fake smile. “On the topic of hokage, actually, I’ve heard a curious rumor recently.”

“Hey, I just asked you to be my restaurant partner,” Naruto whined. He let out a sigh after. “Yeah?”

“They’re saying Kakashi-san will be kage next,” Sai announced. Sakura’s shoulders tightened.

Really?” Naruto exclaimed, sounding both excited and put-out.

“It’s true,” she admitted curtly. “I talked to Tsunade today.”

“Did she say anything else?” Naruto asked.

Sakura watched the ceiling. She didn’t really have any reason to lie, she thought. “Yeah. I’ve been field promoted to jounin. She also wants me to join ANBU.”

The easy atmosphere of the room suddenly disappeared. Sakura wasn’t surprised. She could feel the weight of their gazes on her, like prodding fingers.

“Didn’t you say ANBU was the worst kind of place a shinobi could go?” Naruto asked sharply.

“I said ANBU was the worst kind of place you could go, actually,” she corrected.

“But you already know what ANBU is like, don’t you?” Sasuke said coolly.

Her silence, she understood, was as good as admission. She heard Naruto make a harsh noise.

“Does this mean you’ll be moved officially off Team Seven?” Sai asked.

Sakura’s mouth parted. This hadn’t occurred to her. She examined the ceiling fan with concerted effort. “I don’t know,” she said through gritted teeth.

Sai, Naruto, even possibly-better-dead-than-living Sasuke—she had gotten used to them. She didn’t try dissecting her reluctance any more than that.

“You’ve also been in ANBU,” Sasuke drawled toward Sai, shifting the conversation. “haven’t you.”

“Interesting proposition. What would be our giveaways, then, Sakura and mine?” Sai returned curiously. “Are there similarities you find between us and your formerly ANBU brother?”

Sasuke’s gaze narrowed.

“How is your brother doing, by the way?” Sakura said swiftly, eager to divert the subject.

“Are you still ignoring him?” Sai asked with interest.

“If I were,” Sasuke returned, equally coldly, “as I’ve said before, it would be none of your business.”

Her eyes narrowed.

Naruto attempted to intervene. “He has, uh, said that before—”

“Are you stupid?” Sakura hissed.

Sasuke’s dark eyes darkened further.

Her mouth thinned as she tried to find the right words. “I might not like you, but I did go through a lot of effort to save his life. I only had to talk to him for five minutes to know—”

Naruto’s gaze darted between them.

“You’re the only thing keeping him here,” Sakura told him bluntly. 

Sasuke’s face paled, eyes dark like beetles against the pallor of his skin.

“Sasuke—” Naruto muttered, reaching a hand toward the other’s shoulder.

“You think I don’t know?”

The blonde’s arm froze.

“I know Itachi better than anyone else in the world. Why do you think he stayed away when I was growing up, even when attacking me would have been a better cover story?” The black-haired boy’s voice was bitter.

Naruto twisted toward her, expression forbidding. Careful, his face told her.

Sakura’s eyes narrowed more. “Do you want him dead?”

Sasuke’s face contorted.

She had never been accused of having patience.

“You can’t have it both ways, Sasuke,” she said curtly.

“Fuck off,” Sasuke snarled. He seemed, abruptly, to lose all semblance of cool. He launched to his feet, cheeks flushed with ire. “Do you think this is easy? He killed our parents. He killed our whole clan—everyone. He made me relive my clan’s murder for days.”

“But he was coerced into doing that,” Sai reasoned.

“So?” Sasuke raged, turning toward him. “So none of it was his idea? He was forced to do it? Does that erase everything I went through? Does that erase the years I spent in that compound, going insane because of the memories, of all of them, surrounding me, when I couldn’t look anywhere without remembering?”

Sakura’s features shifted.

“You’re right. We don’t know what it’s like. We cannot pretend to know how you feel,” Sai acknowledged.

“I’ll concede that,” Sakura said sharply. She paused, choosing her words carefully. “Still, it might be more efficient to direct your anger for all those things at a much more deserving source.”

“Who?” Sasuke spat at her.

Sakura’s voice became as sharp as a blade. “Danzo.”

Sai stiffened instantly. She caught the motion, watched as his fingers curled into the cushion just slightly.  

A door in the back of the room cracked open. Sakura, who had sensed a presence there earlier, did not react. Sasuke and Naruto, however, spun with weapons drawn out.

Shikamaru stood in the frame of the door, head sticking straight up as he rubbed at his eyes.

His eyes, when they opened—swift and catlike—shifted solely to Sai, sharpening at what he saw there. A few seconds later, he had closed the distance between them.

“Your voices were too loud,” Shikamaru said bluntly.

Sai’s mouth curved down in subtle apology.

Shikamaru’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Troublesome,” he murmured again. The way Sai’s head tilted up was not entirely dissimilar to how a sunflower craned instinctively toward the sun. Shikamaru’s voice, in turn, was uncharacteristically gentle as he spoke to Sai. His gaze when it shifted to them, however, was not.

“Whatever you were talking about, it’s going to wait until tomorrow,” Shikamaru informed them.

“I can’t see why you have any say in this conversation,” Sasuke returned, demeanor icy.

“I do. Get out,” Shikamaru said pleasantly.

Despite her annoyance at the interruption as well, though, Sakura had seen the strain on Sai’s face as well. The sight of it, with startling efficacy, diminished any fight she might have put up.

“Another time,” she agreed softly. Shikamaru’s head turned briefly from Sai to nod in her direction.

Naruto glared at Sasuke until he moved. They gathered their things and stepped out of the apartment into a hallway.

Naruto began contorting himself to pull his jacket back on.

“I need a drink,” Sasuke muttered.

“Can’t this time. Hinata’s coming over tonight, and I promised her I would be back around now,” Naruto shrugged apologetically, zipping up his jacket.

“I have plans too,” Sakura said blandly. She explained briefly, “A bath. Sleep.”

“Whatever,” Sasuke stated with disgust at both of them.

They left Sai’s building.


As the moon reached its highest point in the sky, Sakura’s head tipped back over the edge of the tub. Water lapped at her collar bones. Here, there were no eyes to observe her. Her face accordingly hid none of what she felt—pale and bleak, as she caught sight of it in her reflection, 

Didn’t you say ANBU was the worst kind of place a shinobi could go?

With the crow no longer holding the metaphorical blade to her throat— It was an apt question, she considered darkly.

ANBU was not the origin of her trauma (trauma, trauma, trauma—it seemed more meaningless the more she fumbled over the word in her mouth, more terrible each time she thought it). But ANBU had contributed to it, exacerbated it. She couldn’t deny that she enjoyed doing what she was…good at. Perhaps, that was human nature.

Don’t lie, the Voice whispered, tender.

She sat up abruptly, upsetting the water so that it splashed onto the tile, and reached for her shampoo. She poured the scentless liquid liberally onto her palm and then attacked her hair, hands punishing.

Her movements eventually slowed, short hair piled in a knotted mess at the top of her head.

Sakura exhaled sharply.

The ugly truth was that she enjoyed the violence too. She did.

Her hands fell from her hair.

Was it an addiction then, she thought wildly. Insidious, cheap thrills and adrenaline rushes to cater to her…worst nature? ANBU made her miserable, to be certain, as an addiction would—miserable with it and miserable without it.

Pointedly, Sakura had been forced to quit, and it was still in her options to stay away.

Her fingers gripped the edges of the tub; with a small push, she submerged herself lower. Water curled against the tips of her ears. She stared, unseeing, across the surface of the water.

(Kakashi had always done what was needed for this village, Tsunade had said.)

ANBU had existed long before Sakura. It would undeniably exist—in some shape or form—after her too. People like Naruto—they never would be able to stand ANBU. Itachi was proof. But…she could stand it. She was built that way, torn between unconscionable exhilaration and relentless misery, because she could. She didn’t have grand notions of the village and duty like Naruto and Itachi did. But, perhaps, she understood her place in ANBU juxtaposed against theirs.

Sakura could be—needed to be—ANBU, so that shinobi like them never would have to be.

Trying for heroism now, are we? the Voice mocked, shrieking with laughter.

She shoved her head into the water, rinsing off the shampoo. Her expression grew dour underwater.

When she emerged, she stood and wrapped a towel around herself.

Perhaps, she contemplated, everyone operated within the confines of their own moral logic and hoped for the best. Perhaps, the gods above watched the measly humans below and saw them as humans saw mice scrambling in the dark, with the same sort of derisive pity.

She dried herself and pulled on a large shirt and shorts, before heading straight toward the bed. Her hair dripped water onto her pillow as she lay down. She pushed it all to the top, so she wouldn’t be able to feel the wetness.

She shut her eyes firmly. A small shiver wracked through her body from the cold. She cursed and curled against herself.

Unsurprisingly, sleep did not come. Instead, her mind began to wander dangerously, emboldened, perhaps, by her earlier introspection.

She hadn’t given it a thought, then. There had not seemed to be another option, not one that could be seriously entertained. She had promised that it would be as though it had not happened.

Still, she found herself wondering perilously now: what if she had stayed?

Stayed there, face pressed into the glorious warmth of his neck until he had woken and seen the lazy pleasure on her face, the arrogance of the ownership she had assumed, the exploitative comfort she had reaped from his body.

The greed on her face because she had wanted—wanted—so much more?

She shoved her face under the pillow, muffling the strangled, lustful noise that emerged.


The next day, a bleary-eyed Sakura received a curt missive telling her to report to the ANBU commander’s office immediately. The note came with a mask, porcelain white with orange and black markings around the eyes and mouth.

She tied the mask to her face and walked toward the headquarters.

As she entered the building, she felt cool eyes pause on her hair. She hadn’t bothered to disguise it—what was the point? She stared straight ahead and continued to her destination. When she knocked on the commander’s door—an elaborate brass monstrosity—the door swung open instantly.

She found two figures in the room: the commander, who stood in front of his desk, planted there with a wide stance, and an ANBU kneeling in front of him, mid-report.

“Dismissed,” the commander told the woman, cutting her off. She rose to bow before exiting through the door behind Sakura.

The commander’s attention shifted to her, weighty and cutting. “You’re late.”

Sakura, privately, felt this was unfair, considering the missive hadn’t detailed a time. She didn’t believe that the man opposite from her would appreciate her voicing so, however.  

The commander snapped at the ANBU stationed by the door. He bowed as well and left. Only the two of them remained in the office.

“Haruno, isn’t it,” he said, low voice reverberating.

He didn’t wait for her to respond.

“I’m sure I don’t need to stress that no one in the black ops can know that you were Crow. You will make sure that any news of potentially identifying techniques or jutsu do not reach your previous teammates. In fact, you will stay away from your previous teammates. Entirely.”

His head tipped down, so that his gaze bore into hers, oppressive. He didn’t appear to like her very much, she observed without much surprise. Not unexpected, given the stunt she had pulled with Itachi.

“It might be within the hokage’s power to promote you to ANBU captain,” he continued, voice smooth. “However, even she can’t interfere with our internal practices for maintainingquality assurance.”

He cast his hand behind him toward something out of her sight. A loud, high-pitched bell rang throughout the entire headquarters. She watched without reacting—frankly, because she wasn’t exactly sure what was happening in front of her.

He crossed his arms. “That,” he said, “is the bell I ring when it’s time for evaluations.”

Sakura shifted her weight, fingers thrumming impatiently against her sides. “Rounds?”

“No,” he said with pleasure. “That's for the rest of ANBU. This is for the captains.”

She recalled vaguely that Snail had mentioned the captains having their own system for rooting out unfit members. Sakura’s gaze narrowed behind her mask.

“Any questions?”

“Yes,” Sakura said blandly. She pointed at her mask. “What is this?”

He stared at her, his dislike for her seeming to grow right before her eyes. “Salamander,” he growled.

“Thanks,” she said pleasantly. “Just wanted to make sure I’ll know when it’s my turn.”

She twisted her heel into the door, blasting it open. She heard the brass dent behind her with vague pleasure as she stalked toward the stadium adjoining the headquarters.

ANBU with insignias marking their status as captains swarmed around her as she crossed the lobby, exiting locker rooms and meeting rooms with disgruntled muttering.

“We just had the last one two weeks ago,” a man grunted beside her. “Why?”

“Right?” another agreed, voice disgruntled. “I’m still recovering from a fractured rib. Fuck this.”

Sakura didn’t feel moved, per se, to inform them that she apparently was the cause. She smoothed her hair back and continued at a sedate pace.

They flooded more or less swiftly into the stadium. Where the rounds had felt like a hectic, overwhelming experience with so many bouts going on at once and the audience’s attention split, there were far, far fewer people here. Even as she sat, she felt like she was instantly subject to scrutiny. 

“New?” the woman seated beside her asked.

Her hair, no doubt, had given her away. She nodded shortly.

“Each person does two bouts. Matches are drawn randomly. One fight at a time, so there’s a ten minute time limit. Longer than that, it’s a draw,” was the helpful, if curt, overview.

So, in summation, really not that different from rounds, Sakura confirmed.

As the commander entered the stadium, the force of his domineering presence made any ongoing discussion subside instantly. The captains beside Sakura straightened in their seats. Sakura didn’t move other than to cross her legs.

“Is everyone here?” the commander barked at his assistant.

The man shook nervously, scanning them. “Ah…no. I believe…uh…”

“Spit it out.”

“I believe the copy-nin is missing, sir,” the assistant said in a rush.

The commander stiffened, rising to his full height.

“Are the bouts restricted by kenjutsu, genjutsu, etcetera?” Sakura whispered as the thought occurred to her.

The woman who had answered previously glared through her mask, pressuring her to be silent. The man on the other side of her shook his head infinitesimally.

Sakura leaned back, appeased.

“GO!” the commander bellowed. “Send someone to hunt him down. Send all the available ANBU if you have to, just get him here—"

The large brass doors to the stadium shifted open. The man in question slipped nonchalantly in.

It was a good thing, she considered distantly, that the mask hid her face from the others; otherwise, she would have no acceptable explanation for the expression that crossed it.

She yanked her gaze to the other side of the stadium.

“You’re late,” the commander accused, voice thunderous.

She didn’t hear Kakashi respond.

The commander’s body trembled, as though he were about to explode. Through some silent exercise of considerable will, he appeared to restrain himself, gesturing toward his assistant.

“The names,” the older man growled.

The assistant hoisted the metal urn he was carrying up. The commander reached into the opening to pull out two pieces of paper.

“Panther and Jackal,” the commander roared.

Two individuals, one of whom was the woman beside her, jumped onto the stadium. The timer hanging above them gave a shrill beep, signaling the start of a countdown.

It lasted about five minutes, all in all. It wasn’t a terribly interesting fight; they both appeared to be purist kenjutsu users, which Sakura could admire in abstraction, but found hard to appreciate in practice.

By the third match, she was blinking away sleep. What was it about these situations that made her body think it was suitable to relax? She pinched her inner thigh to keep herself awake.

The commander thrust his hand into the urn again to pull out two more names.

“Salamander and Boar.” There was an edge of vicious satisfaction in his voice.

Sakura straightened slowly in her seat. The commander’s eyes crinkled, like he was smiling. She scoffed below her breath, then jumped the railing. Her feet settled onto the stadium floor.

She raised her head to evaluate her opponent.

‘Boar’ was a petite woman with minimal musculature and pin straight black hair. She landed on the stadium lightly—as weightless as a bird. She had two sheathes strapped across her back, and a long, thin scar that bisected her throat.

As Sakura tied her hair back, she was aware of the other woman looking her fill in return, perusing her musculature and ganglier build.

She stepped forward, knees slightly bent just as the buzzer went off. 

The ground surged beneath her, forcing Sakura to vault upwards. She didn’t linger as a sitting duck, instead running along the railing, parallel to the ground. She wrapped around the stadium, until she was behind Boar.

Boar pivoted instantly, drawing the twin blades from her back, as Sakura propelled herself off the railing, katana drawn as well.

They collided with a loud clang that echoed through the stadium. Sakura’s chakra-imbued hand moved unthinkingly, weaving through the blades. She stopped herself at the last moment, a millimeter from the other woman’s ribs, eyes widening as she remembered that this was a bout not a real battle. She neither wanted to maim nor kill her opponent.

Her fist dropped and she ducked, the rush of air from a swiping blade blowing her hair back. The ground beneath her began to crumble again, and this time, Sakura let herself go with it. Boar, unfortunately, did not know that Earth was one of her elemental affinities—had no reason to expect it, as Sakura hadn’t used any earth jutsu in response to her prior attacks.

Sakura utilized that advantage now, traveling beneath the ground and forcing a hand to the surface where Boar was. Her hand wrapped around the woman’s ankle, causing Boar to stumble forward. Sakura shunshined above ground with hands forming quick signs. She made eye contact with Boar just as the last sign formed.

Boar stopped dead in her tracks, eyes dazed.

Sakura stretched her katana out, so that the blade hovered above her throat. She swung her head to the commander in the same motion.

“Victory to Salamander,” the commander hissed. He looked comfortingly outraged.

Sakura bowed formally.

“Sit down,” he hissed.

She released the genjutsu. Boar stumbled back, shaking her head. Sakura returned to her seat.

“Does the commander decide alone who stays on as captain and who gets kicked out?” she muttered.

“Not officially,” Jackal muttered back to her, regard apparently warmed somewhat by her recent performance. “There’s a discussion at the end with all the captains. Majority decides.”

The majority, she sensed, was almost always informed by the commander’s opinion.

Sakura leaned back and shut her eyes. She didn’t sleep, though. She was perfectly aware of when Boar was called up again and, this time, emerged victorious. The following bouts passed admittedly in a blur. At one point, she felt the man beside her get up as ‘Baboon’ was called. Remarkably—or perhaps not that remarkably, there weren’t that many of them—his name was called again right after.

When he returned to his seat, he pulled something from his flak jacket and began munching on it.

“How new are you?” he asked conversationally, apparently relaxed now that his turn was done.  

Sakura opened her eyes to gaze longingly at the sandwich in his hands. “Promoted this morning.”

“Serious?”

“Deadly,” she returned. “Don’t even know my team yet.”

“…you have terrible luck.”

“Probably,” she agreed.

At that moment, the commander pulled out two names with vicious flourish. Sakura scratched behind her ear.

“Salamander,” he shouted, “and Dog.”

She gave a long sigh as she stood. It had been an hour, and still, not nearly long enough—

The sandwich fell from Baboon’s hands. She was belatedly aware that a hush had fallen over all the captains as she frowned at the fallen food.

“Damn,” Jackal whispered to her. Sakura blinked back.

“That’s some real shitty luck,” Baboon muttered to her, gaze apologetic.

Sakura’s face screwed up in confusion.

Dog.

As in dog mask.

Her head jerked toward the other side of the stadium. Kakashi’s head rose with deadly slowness, eyes snapping open.

An incredulous huff of air left Sakura’s mouth.

In her defense, no one ever called him that.

Chapter Text

There was a rushing noise in her ears—gentle and repetitive, like the waves on a beach. She realized it as the sound of her breathing. The rushing noise grew louder with each step she took, coalescing into a voiceless roar.

Her mouth parted.

The counter went off.

Hands, feet, eyes, the Voice growled, watch them—

The shrill screech of chidori filled her ears. Her body moved instinctively, twisting to the side.

Time seemed to slow as his body brushed by hers. A hand, lit by lightning, tore through the air exactly where she had been. Even as his momentum carried him forward, his eyes instantly located her in his peripheral, his head already beginning to turn.

Adrenaline surged belatedly through her veins, but with fervor, as though to make up for the delay. She grabbed the outstretched wrist and leaned back, muscles tensing to whip him around her into one of the stadium’s walls. Mismatched eyes burned into hers before he went soaring through the air. Just as it seemed as though he might barrel into the stadium’s wall, he executed a mid-air flip and landed feet first on the side of the stadium.

I won’t abide a repeat of that time, the Voice seethed. LET ME OUT!

Sakura snarled, muscles rippling as she crouched in preparation for Kakashi’s counterattack.

He landed with a thunderous boom, the earth beneath her groaning before mutating into a wall that rushed toward her. Sakura dug her heels into the ground and sprinted toward the wall. She barreled through it, then ducked just in time as a blast of water hurtled where her head had been. 

When the blast sputtered out, she lifted the bottom of her mask and roared. Fire burst from her mouth. A combating flame battered against her a second later, just as strong as her own. He had copied and returned the same jutsu.

Her feet skidded back. The skin on her forearms began to blister underneath the combined heat of their respective fire jutsu. In some silent recognition of their stalemate, they both released the jutsu.

Finding him as uninjured as she was (and not quite surprised by it), Sakura’s brows furrowed.

She shifted left. He mirrored the motion. She was vaguely aware that at some point, she had begun grinning like a lunatic beneath her mask, high on adrenaline.

She snapped her head to either side, cracking her neck, as she brought her fists up, tight and close. Kakashi stared, eyes hot on her.

She could feel the Voice humming in the back of her mind.

Her right foot slid forward in the dirt and then sharply to the right, stabilizing herself as her fist flew to block his first strike. She was already pivoting as his wrist flicked to send the heel of his palm into her larynx. She evaded this, but caught the second fist just barely on her shoulder.

Sakura recoiled and sprung forward in the same breath, forearm locking with forearm, breath harsh against each other’s faces. She shifted an elbow to deflect a fist, only for that fist to twist and fly dangerously close to her side.

Her eyes narrowed as she realized the advantage of his sharingan. It wasn’t that he moved faster than her, but that he could see everything. He could predict from the minutest twitches in her muscles her next movement.

The sharingan isn’t the byakugan, the Voice reminded her in a hiss.

This was…true.

She let him sink a blow deep into her core and used his proximity to wrap steely hands on his upper arms. Their eyes met as she twisted, hair flying in wild disarray in the air. She settled with a solid thud on the ground behind him. He tensed instantly, with animalistic responsiveness. She couldn’t see his face, but she could guess the look on it now.

Before he could pivot, she pressed a hand firmly on the center of his back. This way, she would be able to sense any motions he telegraphed.

Though, Sakura predicted sourly, he would probably be able do the same with her.

He was.

When he counterattacked—with absolutely no visible warning to the normal human eye—Sakura adjusted herself seamlessly. But as she loaded her fist with chakra, he was able to detect the motion of her strike by virtue of the same means, from just one measly hand on his back, and shifted by a hair to avoid the contact. Her fingers sunk into open air.

Sakura scowled.

There were few better words to describe what transpired next: they proceeded, ostensibly, to do their utmost to beat the shit out of each other.

She fought with rounded shoulders, quick and brutish, while he weaved with more elegance, with, perhaps, a greater aestheticism in the eyes of the audience, through his attacks. He had an edge on her in terms of experience—but being the underdog for most of the past decade had hardened her against intimidation, had made her belligerent, scrappy, and mean.

Her attention was consumed entirely by the task of trying to tear him apart, so much so that Time seemed to become an abstract concept until the counter returned to Sakura’s line of sight. Her eyes widened as she read the time there.

Kakashi took advantage of this moment of distraction. An elbow snapped brutally into her cheekbone. Her head recoiled back as she hissed.

In a last ditch effort to get even, Sakura launched forward with a burst of speed. She wasn’t surprised to find the path in front of her fist instantly cleared. She hadn’t really expected it to work—but…she also hadn’t thought beyond that.

More specifically, she forgot about the chakra continuing to build in her fist, growing exponentially stronger each passing second, until it was too late. It was too late to stop herself. Her momentum carried her forward; to dampen the effect of the blow, she buried her hand deep into the ground. Her fist made contact with the ground with a thunderous clap.

The stadium began to rumble. Just as the counter went off at the ten minute mark, a large crack appeared where her fist had struck.

Oops. Her mouth twisted apologetically.

It, sadly, didn’t stop there.

As she gaped, the crack rapidly grew, stretching along the stadium and through the seating. Shinobi shunshined away from the area as the entire side of the stadium split, infrastructure crumbling. When the debris settled on the ground and the structure seemed to stabilize, the ANBU captains were utterly silent.

The commander seemed similarly speechless. He had turned to face the destroyed side of the stadium. His assistant quivered at his side.

“It does not appear as though we will be able to finish the evaluations today, sir,” the assistant said nervously.

This was...decidedly not the ‘above reproof’ behavior she had been aiming for. Sakura frowned.

The commander did not respond. The assistant leaned forward, tentative. “As for, um, Salamander. She won her first spar and just tied her second. With the, uh, copy-nin. Shall I arrange for her to meet her team today…as the hokage instructed?”

The commander straightened all at once and then turned viciously in her direction. “Fine,” he said with vehemence.

Sakura blinked. Fine?

“Tidy yourself up, Salamander, before you enter my office.” He shifted to face the rest of the captains, voice low, seething growl. “Evaluations will be continued once reparations have been made. Get out.”

Her mouth turned down. Disciplinary action, then.

The other captains moved immediately. He snapped his fingers at her when she failed to comply instantly as well. Sakura’s mouth twisted.

She made an about-face and exited through the back of the stadium. Adrenaline still buzzed through her, her skin still prickled, like she was having an allergic reaction. Her pace quickened.

There were locker rooms at the back of the stadium that hadn’t been updated in recent years and were thus less frequently used. She headed straight toward them.

The steel door squeaked unforgivingly as she forced it open. She went to the sink and twisted the tap, thrusting her hands—which seemed to burn with heat—beneath the cool water. She inhaled and exhaled as slowly as she could, trying to force the heart rate thundering in her ears down.

Contrarily, her heartbeat seemed to grow even louder and quicker in her ears.

A metallic squeal rang behind her. Her body reacted immediately, without conscious thought. She turned and surged forward.

They met like an avalanche—with senseless, destructive force, to which to ascribe notions of agency or willpower would have been meaningless. His fingers curved around the muscle of her thighs, driving her back. She slammed against the counter and then onto it.

His mouth sank down on hers, hard. And then—then—Sakura felt like she was being burned alive. Hunger devoured every inch of her, until she couldn’t tell if she was the thing being devoured or the thing doing the devouring. She pulled him impossibly tighter, pressing every part of her savagely into him, as though through sheer determination she might be able to meld him to her—because then, possibly, she might stop wanting him, like he was something she was somehow, perversely, missing.

Her fingers knotted in his hair and yanked his head back. His eyes angled down at her, mouth contorted in a snarl.

She had been backed all the way into the mirror. She straightened now, pushing forward. His body—he had been bent over her, almost bearing down on her before—flexed with hers, straightening as well. Their ragged breaths filled the communal bathroom.

Sakura’s gaze flicked back up to catch his. He tensed against her, testing the strength of her hold. Her eyes narrowed.

She pressed her lips into his throat. His sharingan spun dizzyingly in response.

Desire boiling in her veins, she slid upward, to the place where his jaw met his neck, then brushed softly against his lips, careful, controlled. Because there was something delicious, she was finding, about the torture of holding back, something blissful and painful that made it all the better.

Her breath rattled in her chest, and—

And a soft, percussive noise sounded behind the door, like the contact of a palm against the metal surface. She yanked herself away just in time, pulling her mask down over her face.

The figure entered just as Sakura walked swiftly past her to the door, head bowed.

Fuck. Fuck.

Her face burned as she walked blindly down the hall. The doors passed by her in a blur. She stopped only when she heard a squeak emerge from a few feet ahead of her. Sakura stiffened as her gaze landed on the commander's assistant.

His eyes were round with relief. “I was looking all over for you! He’s not pleased that you’ve made him wait.”

He grabbed the sleeve of her uniform, as though she were a toddler who needed guiding. (Possibly, in her state of mind, she did). As he tugged her to the commander’s office, Sakura strove valiantly to regain control of her features. The assistant might have been too frazzled to notice anything amiss, but the commander would not be.

She managed to unclench her jaw by the time the assistant eased the door open into the office. The man in question looked less than delighted to see her.

Right. She had just decimated one half of the stadium. Fuck.

“I told you to tidy yourself up,” the commander growled. He eyed the dust scattered over her uniform from the evaluations distastefully.

She soldiered past this remark. “About the stadium. Sorry.”

The broad-shouldered man grabbed a file from his desk and threw it to Sakura. She caught it before it hit her face.

“Read,” he ordered.

Slowly, she flicked open the file and bent her head to read. These were stats, she recognized belatedly. The image pasted on the upper left of the first page was…regrettably familiar.

“What’s this?” she demanded.

“Your team.” The commander’s eyes glinted. “Problem?”

“He’s fought beside me.” That was saying the least of it.

“For one mission,” the commander finished smoothly. “Hardly enough for him to recognize you. His tenure on Hatake’s team was regrettably short, and there aren’t any spots available on the other high ranking teams at the moment.”

She lowered her head unenthusedly to the profile.

There wasn’t anything particularly shocking on it, other than that it was Robin, whom she had never thought she would have to see again, let alone be responsible for. She reviewed his kill rate (rather in spite of the cockiness she had witnessed the last time, she guessed) and his specializations cursorily, before stiffly turning to the next page.

A fox mask stared back at her on this page, nut brown skin peeking through its small openings. He was a slim man. Unassuming. She gave a brief pass over the background provided: a kenjutsu expert in his early thirties. His stats remained stable throughout his described tenure—no unexpected dips or mess-ups.

“Why isn’t he a captain?” Sakura said unthinkingly.

The commander’s eyes narrowed. He didn’t seem displeased, however. “Never wanted it,” he responded curtly. “And he performs well where he is.”

She stared at him blankly, before lowering her head to peruse the last profile contained in the file. Here, she found a young woman, just around Sakura’s age, with a deer mask, pale blonde hair, and wide-set green eyes.

“Deer has a unique skill set,” the commander intoned. “She’s looking to diversify.”

Sakura shortly found the history the older man had been alluding to. Until the previous month, Deer had cultivated a prolific career in the seduction and information gathering division.

“Consider yourself briefed,” the commander grunted, tearing the file away from her. “Now get down to meeting room 17B.”

Sakura’s eyes tracked the file, displeased. “Are they waiting there?”

“Yes.” He threw another file her way. She caught it, unblinking. “And that’s your first mission.”

Her nails dug into the manila paper. “Already?”

The man gave a loud, unkind laugh. “As much as I hate to admit it, if you can go toe-to-toe with that menace Hatake, I have no compunctions throwing you in head-first as I would any other new captain. You’ll either sink or you’ll swim.”

He snapped his hand and the door swung open, the assistant peering in with a darting gaze, as though he expected to find damage somewhere.

She brushed past him, returning to the hallway once more to head in the opposite direction now. The meeting room she came upon was adorned by a neon yellow ‘IN USE’ sign. She entered without knocking.

She found three figures seated around a round table. One slouched into the table; the other two sat with stiff backs

“You’re younger than me.” Robin was the first to speak, displeasure clear in his voice.

“Right,” Sakura said under breath. The eerie familiarity of his hair color summoned a discomfort that she was able to brush aside mostly, for the moment. She did her utmost to avoid looking directly at it. “I assume you’ve introduced yourselves to each other.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Fox, the oldest, said. His regard was utterly impersonal, and still, somehow the most welcoming of them all.

“I think the only ambiguous mask is yours,” Deer stated evenly.

“It’s a salamander.”

“Whatever,” Robin grunted, fingers rapping against the table top with pent-up energy. “You have a mission for us or what?”

Annoyance easily nudged her trepidation aside, her temper poor as it was. Sakura straightened to her full height, mouth curling.

“Patience, Robin,” Fox remarked. “Our taichou still needs to lay the ground rules.”

It would have been a stretch to say Robin settled at the older man’s words, but his mouth remained shut. Sakura observed this with raised eyebrows.  

“Quite,” she said curtly. “I’ll address the obvious first. We all know I’m not the youngest captain this organization has ever had. But I am younger than usual. If you’re thinking I’m new to the position, you would be right.”

Robin stiffened in his seat.

“I’ve heard, however,” Sakura said coolly, “that midlevel teams are less hierarchical than others in ANBU”—she crossed her arms, leaning back into the wall—“So I don’t see any reason we can’t all have input in decisions this team makes.”

Robin’s eyes lit with interest. He wasn’t the only one. Deer also, she noted, looked particularly attentive.

“As captain, though, I will assign mission roles,” Sakura finished dispassionately, “and I will reserve the right to make the final call on any decision-making. I guess you’ll just have to trust that I’m not an idiot, and that I will listen to you as the situation calls for it.”

Robin scoffed under his breath. Sakura pretended not to notice. The sad reality of being captain instead of team member was that she probably didn’t have the liberty any longer to lash out as she desired. Or, well, she had the impression that that’s what being captain should mean.

“Fox will be my second,” she added, returning her attention to them. The dark-skinned man nodded briefly. “He has the most experience out of all of us. If anything happens to me or I’m not present, he assumes command.”

“You’ve reviewed our files?” Deer asked with sudden sharpness in her tone.

“Yes,” Sakura acknowledged openly. “In the commander’s office just now. I’ll place more weight on the abilities I see you demonstrate during missions, obviously. Speaking of which—”

She tossed the file onto the table. Deer opened it, and all three of them leaned in to review its contents.

Sakura sighed. “Our first mission. Fox will take point. Robin will assist him. Deer and I will be back up.”


Sakura leaned back boredly into the tree trunk behind her, eyes fixed on the small camp Fox and Robin were currently infiltrating. A mosquito buzzed near her ear. Her eyes grew slitted in irritation, and she caught it and crushed it before it could bite her.

Deer shifted her weight on the branch below her.

“Problem?” Sakura grunted.

There was, evidently. That had been clear for the last two hours.

“No, taichou,” Deer said stoically.

Well. This captaining thing was going superbly well.

She found herself, bizarrely, missing the bluntness of Sasuke’s disgust for her. Even Sai’s unfiltered straightforwardness seemed suddenly exceptionally desirable.

She dropped silently from her branch to Deer’s, settling in a crouch. Deer stiffened instantly, spinning a beat too late. Her eyes were narrowed in resentment.

“Not very convincing. Speak your piece, then,” Sakura said, eyebrows lifting. “I did say I would listen.”

“Can I trust you aren’t an idiot, though?” Deer charged boldly.

Sakura was mildly impressed.

“I suppose you’ll have to risk it,” she reponded silkily. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

“You could send me on a suicide mission.”

“Hm. I guess that’s true.”

Deer glared at her, green eyes—darker than Sakura’s—almost black under the sparse moonlight peeking through the leaves.

A few seconds of silence passed. Some of Sakura’s humor began to fade.

“To be honest,” she said straightforwardly, “if I were the sort to want you dead for saying something I didn’t want to hear, it would be far more efficient for me to just do the job myself.”

She held the other woman’s stare for a second longer before cracking her neck. “If I were the sort, of course.”

Deer seemed to come to a decision in the next few seconds. Her voice, when she spoke, was tightly restrained with resentment. “You’re pigeon-holing me.”

Sakura wasn’t sure what she had been expecting to hear, but it hadn’t been this. “…pigeon-holing?”

“Back-up this time, back-up next,” Deer sneered, restraint apparently gone. “You’re going to make me back-up every single time, until there’s a cock that needs to be sucked—because, then, my presence is convenient—aren’t you?”

Sakura blinked.

“I’ve already been through three captains like you just this month. I’m beginning to think you’re all the same.”

“I assigned you as back-up because I want Robin to be overwhelmed,” Sakura explained slowly.

Deer stopped. “What?”

“With the combatants split between just the two of them, he’s going to see rather quickly that he can’t take on as much as Fox. He’s going to respect Fox because of it. That's going to keep him line, until he’s willing to listen to me.”

Deer stood on the branch. Her gaze was still hostile, still unconvinced. She processed this for a few moments, stating finally, “If you’re concerned about Robin’s obedience, why not send yourself in instead of Fox, then?”

“Who do you think he would find it easier to respect—an older, experienced ANBU?” Sakura returned evenly. “Or me? I’d have to ground him into the dirt outside the headquarters and probably send him to the hospital for a week to get the same amount of respect as Fox is about to win now. I’m not altogether opposed, but I doubt our mission schedule is forgiving enough to allow for a week’s bed rest.”

Deer drew back, shoulder suddenly drawn in. “So this assignment had nothing to do with my prior role in ANBU?” she checked.

“It had very little to do with you at all,” Sakura assured.

Deer exhaled carefully.

Sakura’s lips pursed. She turned her head from the other woman back to the small camp, fingers tapping absentmindedly against the bark beneath her hands. She cleared her throat. “To be clear, though—from what I saw in your file, you’ve excelled at whatever you were doing in the seduction and information gathering division. Are you no longer…comfortable exercising those skills?”

Deer paused. They watched as alarmed figures began running out of their tents. “I’m interested in broadening my skillset is all,” she finally said.

“Understood,” Sakura said, eyes glinting as combat broke out in the camp.

They both watched as Robin’s triumphant crowing diminished as more bodies piled on top of him. Fox seemed to be exasperated, flicking his gaze over every few seconds and shaking his head.

“That looks like it hurt,” Deer observed conversationally as a kunai sank particularly deeply into Robin’s thigh.

"Good,” Sakura muttered back.


As she had predicted, Fox managed to save the day—and Robin along with it—without either Deer’s or her interference. Mission completed, they made quick time under the cover of night and returned to the headquarters a little past midnight. Most covert operations were undertaken around this time, so none of them were surprised to find the locker rooms crowded.

“That blade needs replacing,” Fox said as Robin wiped his katana with a spare cloth.

Robin’s face looked rather miserable at the moment, with an assortment of bruises in various stages of development blossoming across his face. But, perhaps knowing he owed those bruises—or, the fact that they were only bruises—to the man in front of him, he nodded grudgingly, his arrogance much quieter now.

Sakura, on the whole, was satisfied.

“Did the commander mention anything about what our mission schedule will look like?” Deer asked.

“Typically, the cadence is two or three missions per week,” Fox offered, scrubbing blood from his arms.

“I haven’t been given reason to think our cadence would be any different,” Sakura shrugged, shutting the locker.

“Send a bird with a message. I’m out of here,” Robin grunted, rubbing gingerly at his swollen eye. Deer followed behind him, tossing a wave as they exited.

Sakura waved lazily back, before leaning into the lockers behind her. She watched Fox with interest.

His head tipped up, gaze calm. “Taichou.”

“Salamander,” Sakura insisted blandly.

“You look like you have a question.”

“I have many.”

Fox stared at her politely.

“But I think now is rather not the time to ask all of them,” Sakura said wryly.

He seemed amused, now. “Most new captains I’ve worked under have considered it a weakness to consult me.”

Sakura considered that. Her lips quirked. “I think my, uh, education has taught me that I’d prefer to be the one asking questions to having to learn the necessary lessons the hard way.”

“I will strive to make myself, then, an ample resource to you,” Fox said smoothly.

“You’re very easy-going, aren’t you?” Sakura noted.

“Is that unusual?”

“Not particularly, I guess.” Raccoon had been similarly even-keeled, similarly affable if not affectionate. She had missed that. Sakura averted her gaze. “Just wondering why you’ve never elected to be captain yourself. The commander suggested you’ve been offered the position in the past.”

Fox was silent for a long, telling moment. His voice was just as calm, however, when he spoke again. “Never been interested.”

“Hm,” Sakura hummed, before shrugging. “Alright.” Perhaps, his qualms were very much like her own—she had been coerced into this position herself, after all.

“See you later, Fox,” she nodded, swinging her katana over her shoulder.

“Goodbye, Salamander.”

She pushed her way through the mass of bodies between her and the door. The air outside was a welcome change to the humid mix of sweat and other bodily fluids that filled the locker rooms. She swept her hair back from her face and made her way to the front of the headquarters.

Other teams, returning from their own missions, passed her by as she walked. She more or less ignored them, until one group entered the same corridor, one that the others gave an instinctive wide berth.

They were drenched in blood, such that very little of even their masks remained white. But it wasn’t the blood that deterred the ANBU around them from nearing. It was Kakashi’s mismatched gaze, livid, stared militantly ahead as he stalked down the hall, the others flanking him.

He stared right through her.

Sakura’s gaze flicked to the front of her as well.

Just as he crossed her, her hand snapped out and latched onto his upper arm. She shunshined them in the same breath.


Plink. Plink.

Droplets of water hit the base of the sink from the tap she hadn’t fully shut that morning. A hand wrapped around her wrist punishingly, brutal in its unrestrained strength, as they corporealized. He shuddered against her, his claim to control so tenuous that it set her own teeth on edge.

Pain registered distantly in the back of her mind.

She ignored it—didn’t bother with the light, instead shifting toward the tap to fill the tub with water. He flinched at the noise, teeth flashing, like a rabid animal. She moved swiftly, pulling off bloody clothing, uncaring if she tore the material.

In a quick flash of movement, she yanked off his mask. His hand snapped to her neck in the same motion. Sakura’s eyes flicked coolly down to the fingers spanning her throat. She stepped forward, and he maneuvered back, eyes feral. Shoulders tight, she pressed forward, walking him into the tub.

He tipped inside with a muffled splash, water spilling over the sides because she had filled it too high. The water in the tub began to turn pink.

As heat sank into his skin, his head tilted back. But the caged look didn’t leave his face. His muscles flexed in the water, like he was readying himself to surge upward at any given moment.

“Stay,” she barked.

Sakura grabbed the bottoms of her shirt and flak jacket and pulled them off over her head together, allowing her mask to go with them. The porcelain clattered to the floor with a small clink, like glass.

His hands, which had curled around the sides of the tub to lift himself up, stilled. He watched her, gaze sharp as a blade.

Swiftly, stoically, she pulled the rest off.

“Fuck,” she choked out as she stepped into the water, knee-deep.

It was hot. She dug her nails into the palms of her hand as she lowered herself. Folding herself in half to fit, she pushed back to the opposite edge of the tub. She rested her elbows on the rim as she stretched her legs.

She stared at him through watering eyes, wincing against the heat. The pattering of the leaking sink echoed in the small bathroom. She was too tired to do anything other than tip her head back, resting against the edge of the tub.

Minutes passed. The water dripping from the sink tap became white noise. His every muscle was cold, immobile against her.

“Calmer?” she asked, though with little confidence that this was the case. He had only resumed an appearance of something like his usual callous control.

“You listed the ways I wronged you, once. Have you forgotten them?”

She hoisted herself up by her elbows.

“Or,” he continued coldly, “do you think that I am someone who is secretly kind and compassionate—that I’ve simply been hiding it all this time?”

Sakura’s eyes shifted from the ceiling to him. “No,” she said shortly.

His lip curled. “You think a good person would have followed you after today's fight?”

“I haven’t forgotten,” she hissed lowly.

“So you have no self-respect,” he mocked with empty cruelty.

“I have entirely too much. You owe me a debt, Kakashi.”

Sakura stood in the tub. Rivulets of water streamed down her body. She leaned forward, hands settling on either side of him, so that her face hovered above his.

“I told you that you were mine, didn’t I?” she said scathingly. She spoke, then, without thought, without plan—rhetoric flowed from her mouth, canny and cunning, born purely in the moment. “I’ll accept payment in worship.”

He caught her arm. “Don’t,” he warned, the word barely human.

Don’t what? Demean him? Tempt him?

(What was he so terrified of?)

They stared at each other, neither one blinking, until she exhaled, pulling back. She wrapped a towel around herself and exited the bathroom. She angled her head downward, staring at the droplets on the floor behind her. He had followed, like a ghost at her back.

She pushed back her sheets and slid into her bed, skin still damp. He stood in the same place, preternaturally still.

Her face, she knew, was pale with rage. Her voice revealed the full extent of her bitterness. “As you once told me, why postpone the inevitable?”

Her eyes traced the hostility in his body as he settled onto the bed.

Good, she thought. He recognized it too.

(They already knew how this ended.)

A foot—as wide as a chasm, for all intents and purposes—separated them. Sakura didn’t care. Her muscles relaxed incrementally from the their usual state of cold-numb, warmed by the sheer heat his body radiated beside her. She shut her eyes and fell asleep.


Hands branded her skin, in her dreams—calloused and demanding, gripping her tightly. They ripped her from unconsciousness, and suddenly, she was opening her eyes and gasping in the darkness of her apartment bedroom.

She woke up to Kakashi hovering over her, eyes shut like he was straining against immense pain.

“What—”

Sluggish warmth surged through as she realized what had woken him. She exhaled sharply below him, eyes narrowing. But she didn’t burn with mortification. Instead, she stared at him solemnly. Then, with defiance, her hand shifted downwards to where she had become wet.

He seemed to make a decision, then—and whatever remnants of resistance that had stared back out her from his eyes until now disappeared with violent efficiency.

He moved instantly. She shoved him back with her foot on his shoulder.

His gaze flew to hers, seething. Sakura stared at him, somber. Then she thrust her fingers lazily into herself, head falling to the side.

“Apologies for the inconvenience—” she drawled.

She didn’t get to finish the hoarse, smugly-intended remark. He shoved her leg to the side—she let him—and forced her own fingers out from her. They glistened with evidence of how wet she was.

He stared at it without expression. But as she watched, he lifted her fingers to his mouth with torturous slowness. He licked, first, the long, indecent length of her middle finger, then her pointer and ring fingers. He stared at her the entire while, gaze dark, watching her watch him.

An involuntary, strangled noise left her mouth.

He leaned forward on his hands, bearing down with the full force of his weight, forcing her legs apart. He bent his head, eyes flicking up to her again, as his mouth hovered over her. Then, he gave a long, slow drag of his tongue.

Her hands tightened in his hair, pushing him greedily into her. In outrageous response, he kissed her there—messily, shamelessly. She gasped helplessly, feeling like she had been punched in the gut.

Before she could recover her breath, his hands tightened around her hips. She was so shamelessly wet that he simply slid in, even as it burned where she stretched to accommodate him. Her body bowed, receiving him.

She cursed loudly and with feeling. His hand curled roughly around her face, forcing her gaze onto his.

He moved slowly, but with unassuming power, backing her straight into the headboard. He paused there, hip bones pressed against her. Just when she thought he was fully inside her, he moved sharply, savagely, forward, thrusting the rest of his cock into her.

Fuck,” Sakura hissed, head snapping back into the headboard.

She expected, then, for it to be furious and mindless—to tear at each other until the whole room was destroyed. Hadn’t it been that way the last time? But he didn’t move, now, as she expected. Instead, eyes focused on her face, he pressed tighter still against her, until she was pinned into the bed.

Her head lifted sharply. His gaze roved over her relentlessly, like she was a stranger that he was determined to commit to memory. For impossibly long, neither of them seemed willing to breathe.

When he did move, it was slowly. So slowly, that even in the dim lighting, she could see the way each muscle contorted in his back with precise control. She exhaled loudly, teeth flashing, as her hips curved with his, equally leisurely.

For all that it was slow, however, it was not gentle. It felt, rather, like they were testing each other—as though they had never done this before.

Seeking something like control, she pressed a palm into his chest and shoved him back. He complied wordlessly, pulling her on top of him. (This, too, was unexpected.) She hovered above him, as she had in the tub earlier. With furrowed eyebrows, searching him in turn, she sank back down on him.

His mouth parted beneath her. Sakura stared at it, feeling almost dazed. She pressed forward. His mouth tasted like steel and blood. He kissed her lazily, without rush, as though his cock wasn’t inside her and there was nothing else they might do, except this.

Kakashi,” she muttered, voice rough.

“Look,” he returned, hands tight around her hips, lifting them up for her perusal.

She was otherwise occupied.

He brushed her lips again, grazing, before his voice sharpened with command. “Look.”

Snarling, she looked to where they were joined. His cock, thick and soaked in her wetness, pulled back torturously slowly.

He thrust into her shallowly—not quite all the way.

She tightened breathlessly around him. He flexed before he caught himself. Eyes flashing, he pressed the base of his calloused palm ruthlessly into the locus of nerves above where they were joined. Sakura’s hips bucked violently against him. His face glowed with savage satisfaction.

“If you do not move,” she seethed, “I will walk out of here, naked as I am, and find the first willing person to take your place—”

And then, he was driving her back into the wrecked headboard.

“Fuck, fuck,” she gasped nonsensically.

She could hear the backboard crumbling behind her. She braced herself against the wall, muscles tensing to return his thrusts as viciously as he dealt them. She fucked him with all the insatiable hunger within her, until she felt like she could strangle someone, because all it did was feed her hunger more—

Her eyes flew wide open.

Had he—?

He growled it again, pressing the utterance possessively into the skin of her throat.

Sakura’s jaw clenched.

She felt her body start to tip over the edge, entirely without her permission. A hoarse cry left her mouth as she trembled through orgasm, nails digging into his back.

He stiffened against her, snarling almost hatefully as she closed around him. But the consequences of her orgasm proved too much to resist. He pressed his cock unabashedly into her, fucking his cum viciously into her body, mouth firmly entrenched in her neck. He hissed her name again as he did, and she covered her face with her arm, unwilling to let him see the expression that crossed her face.

She had the delirious, pathetic thought that she could kill him if he left.

She fell asleep.


Sakura slept like the dead. She couldn’t account for anything that happened in the aftermath—not reliably, at least. If Kakashi had been determined to leave, she would have been no obstacle to him, delirious feelings or otherwise.

As it was, she had a vague, bizarre recollection of eggs and a sibilant hiss like frying at some point. She must have pulled her comforter over her head and fallen back asleep at the disruption, because when she woke up, it was staring at the inside of the blanket. She was certain, however, that those observations had been part of some bizarre dream.

Sitting up—and hissing slightly at the soreness in particular parts of her body—Sakura shoved the comforter off of her. As she pulled on clothes, her eyes passed over the apartment. There was absolutely no evidence that another human had been there…except for the very obvious yolk-splattered pan and spatula strewn across her stove top.

Her jaw slackened. Not her imagination, then.

Another realization occurred to her—if this was, indeed, reality. She went straight to her fridge. Flinging the door open, she found the carton of eggs inside (the only item food that was as of yet unexpired), opened and empty.  

Her last fucking eggs. That bastard—

“I confess: this, I did not expect.”

She spun around, hair whipping around her face.

Lo and behold—it wasn’t dead, as part of her had optimistically expected. The crow sat perched on her window sill, not a feather out of place. A myriad of emotions crossed her face. She settled on stoicism.

At her continued silence, the Shisui’s wings fanned out. It hopped down from the window onto her bed.

“Now, I can’t say I know the copy-nin terribly well,” the crow said indifferently. “But it strikes me that he isn’t someone who typically stays overnight. Pity, he didn’t leave any of those eggs for you.”

“You were watching,” Sakura noted, voice dangerous. Not long enough to see it all, she sensed by its words, but enough to have seen him in her apartment--to know, nevertheless. Her teeth clenched in acute restraint.

“If I had known,” Shisui continued blandly, paying no attention to her words, “the possibilities would have been...diverse. Possibly, I need not have gone through my recent bout of healing.”

“If it had been me,” she said softly, eyes narrowing as she stepped forward from the kitchen, “I would have made sure there was none of you left.”

“Alas, I can’t say I’ve missed your prolific, unimaginative threats. I might add, however, that you’re playing with fire, entangling with the copy-nin,” the crow informed her calmly. “If not for my benefit, evidently, to what end?”

Her expression went blank.

“What is your endgame, human?” it asked, with some impatience now, as though it were indeed the instructor it pretended to be.

When she didn’t respond once again, its gaze grew frigid, understanding immediately. “More the fool you, then.”

“Indeed. Why are you back, Shisui?” she asked, cold.

The crow’s sharingan spun dizzyingly. “We have unfinished business, naturally.”

She leaned back just slightly, so that the katana strapped behind her mirror was in her peripheral.

“Uchiha Shisui had two dying wishes that this sharingan has driven me to fulfill. First, that Itachi be safe.”

Her fingers curved around the mirror’s edge.

“Second, that Danzo pay for what he has done.”

Her mouth pursed, fingers stilling.

“Caught your attention, I see,” the crow said with satisfaction.

God damn it. Her fingers dropped from the mirror.  

“Very well,” she snapped. “I’m listening.”


 

Deer seemed to come to a decision in the next few seconds. Her voice, when she spoke, was tightly restrained with resentment. “You’re pigeon-holing me."

- a stunning depiction of Deer by SweetGazelle

Chapter Text

Sakura stormed down the halls of the academy with little patience for the angry shouts of the young pre-genin being shoved aside. Thankfully, they seemed to wise up as she went on; perhaps warned by the cries of their brethren, the crowds of little bodies began to part in front of her, wide eyes tracking her passage with mixed affront and fear.

As she swung the door open to Iruka’s classroom, a boy scuttled out beneath her arm. Her head turned instinctively to follow it. Hyuuga eyes, atypically mischievous, met hers above a smug mouth as he sprinted away.

“Great,” she heard Iruka sigh. “Care to tell me why you’ve become party to Ryoichi’s regular escape attempts this time, Sakura?”

“I need to talk to Itachi,” she said, still staring after the escaped student.

Iruka’s eyebrow raised sharply. “Itachi-?”

“Itachi-san.” Her eyes darted to the man in question, mouth tight. “It’s important.”

Itachi held her gaze evenly. “A moment, Iruka-san, if you do not mind.”

“Oh. Of course not,” Iruka said after a pause, looking nonplussed. “Take your time.”

Itachi bowed without expression to the class. She left without another glance, but heard him follow her. They walked out on to the training ground the academy maintained alongside its playground. Sakura spun around to face him as soon as they were out of hearing of the small class enjoying their recess.

“Shisui paid me a visit,” she said.

Itachi nodded, unfazed.

“Apparently in the time the council has been taking deciding what the fuck to do about Danzo,” Sakura said urgently, “Danzo decided to strategically exit Konoha last night.”

“Does this surprise you?” Itachi asked, still calm. “Danzo wasn’t the only one who thought the Uchihas were too dangerous to control. Many council members, I wager, are uncertain punishing him is even the appropriate course of action.”

These words were delivered detachedly. For someone like Sakura, whose default condition was, constantly, one of malcontent and indignation, it was unthinkable.

She crossed her arms, lowering her voice as a round-faced girl darted past them. “Did you know that he’s been collecting sharingans like Naruto hoards ramen coupons?” she hissed.

He reacted, now, subtly. “I had strong suspicions that Shisui—my cousin’s—hadn’t been all he was after,” he said shortly.  

She had enough sense to wince slightly at this. Itachi had, of course, been commanded to massacre his clan, making every other sharingan (other than his and Sasuke’s) ripe for the picking.

“Obviously, something needs to be done,” she said.

A strange look crossed Itachi’s face. “You don’t trust the hokage?”

Her mouth flattened. “I think that, for all of Tsunade’s strengths, managing the council is not one of them.”

Sakura sighed, dropping her crossed arms. “You know the crow,” she muttered. “When given the chance, it chooses to be as ambiguous and unclear as possible. It seemed, though, that whatever Danzo’s exit from Konoha was—it wasn’t a decision fueled by desperation. He was prepared for it.”

“That very well may be the case. But what is your aim,” he said stoically, “coming here to the academy today and telling me this?”

She stared at him, blinking rapidly. She rocked backward onto her heels and then back forward. “We have no idea how many sharingans Danzo has. Still, it seems like the only people who have a fighting chance of bringing him in are strong genjutsu users—ones with sharingans as well. Don’t you think?”

“As you know, I am unfit for combat for at least the next year,” Itachi said slowly.

“Right,” Sakura agreed, frowning.

“And who else, exactly, do you imagine taking part in this operation? Sasuke can be convinced with time, perhaps. He has seemed more…receptive to my presence recently. But Danzo will have Root behind him. And if Danzo was prepared to leave Konoha last night, then he won’t be taking more than a year to retaliate.”

As unreadable as Itachi was, Sakura saw a subtle sort of strain—one that had not been there in the classroom—pass over his features at the mention of returning to combat. It made him look slightly ill.

She directed her gaze towards the swing sets. “There’s someone else in Konoha who has a sharingan.”

“You think the copy-nin will step out of line for our noble cause?” Itachi said with cool skepticism.

Sakura tilted her head, looking back at him. “My sense was that the common impression of him was not one of a stringent rule follower.”

“At surface level, perhaps,” Itachi allowed, expression blank. “Despite appearances, however, Hatake-san has proven through the years to take his loyalty to the village very seriously. I watched him when he was my ANBU captain. If he doesn’t gain any personal satisfaction from it, I see no reason to assume he will exercise any effort to go against orders.”

She evaluated him silently, eyebrows raised.

“Does my impression offend you?” he asked.

“No. Surprises me.”

Itachi arched an eyebrow in turn. “Why?”

“Because you’re wrong,” Sakura said curtly. She was already turning away.

Give it to him, the ghost of Shisui whispered, the words like lingering fingers in the corners of her brain.

A boy sprinted forward in front of them, right into a girl nearly half a foot taller than him. They both stumbled back, before the girl socked him across the face. And Sakura reached rigidly into her satchel and pulled out two sticks of dango.

She didn’t make eye contact with him, glaring instead at the tussling pair. “As promised.”

“How,” he said, voice almost soundless.

When she met his gaze, she found that his sharingans had activated. But he did not look angry—he looked, rather, like someone had grabbed ahold of that vital organ in his chest and twisted it. Had Itachi’s face always been capable of this kind of expressiveness?

Sakura swallowed, throat dry. How to explain that some cheap, bastardized echo of Shisui existed inside her?

“The crow says,” she said haltingly, “that Shisui’s sharingan contains an imprint of who he was. His memories, his motives, his aims—”

“Which you received when you used his sharingan,” he deftly pieced together. The shadows beneath his eyes seems to darken.

“Yes.”

“It is an advanced technique, to use the sharingan as a means of…preservation. Few Uchiha were capable of it. Remarkable, still, that you have withstood using his sharingan. Not many survive.”

“Yes, few can—” she said, before his words registered. She spun toward him. “Excuse me?”

“The sharingan doesn’t always take,” Itachi explained sedately. “Even within our clan not every Uchiha was able to awaken it. Implanting one into a non-Uchiha has proven historically to be, almost exclusively, a death sentence. Examples of the contrary have been rare.”

She exhaled slowly. She was killing that thing. The crow. At first opportunity.

“Good to know,” she said tightly. She shoved the dango into his hand. “Enjoy.”


Team Seven practice was cancelled. That’s how Sakura figured out that Kakashi had likely left for a mission rather than due to having a sudden crisis of conscience after using the last of her eggs.

Eggs, she remembered, that she would need to replace at some point. Bastard.

Sai spotted her first, dark eyes examining her with far too much interest. Sakura slid past him into a seat beside Sasuke.

It had become a practice of theirs to meet here on days that training was cancelled. Sakura couldn’t quite remember who had started it, but she was confident that it was Naruto. Her gaze flicked to Sai, whose largely blank expression relayed a mild impression of satisfaction. Possibly with Sai’s approval, she edited.

“What are you ordering?” Naruto asked distractedly, perusing the menu as he always did (why was beyond her, because he always ordered the same item).

Sakura cracked her neck, lifting her menu. Sasuke didn’t respond. He ordered the same item every time too; unlike Naruto, he didn’t bother with the ceremony of menu-viewing.  

“You look, pardon the colloquial phrasing, well-fucked,” Sai said suddenly.

Naruto coughed violently. She lifted her head from the menu slowly. “I’ll have a Pork Chashu ramen, Teuchi-san. Thanks.”

“Ramen with boiled eggs and menma,” Sasuke added in a monotone.

Sai flashed a polite smile. “Miso ramen, please.”

“The usual,” Naruto choked out, sliding over his menu.

Sasuke rolled his eyes.

“Saw your brother this morning,” Sakura said conversationally.

The Uchiha’s constant conveyance of effortless disinterest shattered suddenly.

“Um,” she said, shifting back in her seat.

“You—” he said with such vitriol, that he seemed unable to even finish the words.

The pieces snapped into place in her brain. Her face screwed up in disgust. “No.”

“I always suspected it,” Sasuke said, voice thick with disgust. “The sudden interest in Itachi, risking your life to save his, constantly asking about him. You’re like a dog in heat.”

“It isn’t your brother,” Sai interjected placidly.

“If you want to be a prude, Sasuke,” she seethed, “you might consider changing certain aspects of your current lifestyle. And, as Sai stated—” and now, her stomach did turn, because of what Shisui felt (would have felt?) at the prospect—“No.”

Some of her own feelings of illness must have translated to her face, because this seemed to give him pause.

“Who, then?”

“None of your business.”

“I swear if you—”

“I’ve finally chosen a design for my tattoo,” Naruto announced loudly, in seeming effort to distract them.

And somehow, this was shocking enough to divert all of their attentions.

“This was something you were deciding?” Sai asked after a long pause.

“Yeah.”

Sasuke made a dismissive noise. Slowly, the color was easing back into his face.

“What?” Naruto growled back.

“You couldn’t pull it off.”

“Well, Sakura has one! So why wouldn’t I?”

Sasuke’s gaze returned to her. He seemed vaguely tired of having to look at her. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” Sai answered for her, “and it’s a beautiful piece. I didn’t realized that you wanted one too, Naruto.”

“I do,” Naruto said, looking more invested now, beyond merely distracting them. “I said it before.”

“Yes, well, I don’t think either of us took you seriously,” Sakura muttered. Naruto said a lot of things.  

“It will be exceptionally painful,” Sai stated serenely.

“I can handle pain!”

“Can you?” Sai wondered.

Naruto growled wordlessly.

“If you are determined, I do have some of my own suggestions,” Sai said smoothly. “A well-endowed dick perhaps? To make up for your lack of?”

“Why not be honest?” Sasuke asked, mouth curving derisively.

“Shut up,” Naruto hissed. “I’ve chosen something important.”

“Oh,” Sai said, mouth rounding. “Not a fire-breathing dragon, then? That was my second guess.”

“No,” the blonde said curtly. Sasuke looked like he wanted to say something else, but Sakura kicked him under the table, mostly because she still felt vindictive.

Naruto’s fingers tapped on the wooden countertop, eyes lowered.

“A, uh, tree. I’ve got it here—” he dug into one of his many pockets and searched for a few seconds, pulling out numerous miscellaneous objects before, finally, a folded photograph, “This one. Had Konohamaru take a picture of it.”

They leaned forward to look at it.

Sasuke’s eyes narrowed. “That’s from the academy.”

“Yeah,” Naruto responded, rubbing at his neck. “Where I met Iruka. And, you know.”

He stared at her and Sasuke with blue, clear eyes for a long moment. His lips quirked a little. With that odd smile, he turned to Sai.

“I didn’t meet you there,” the blonde boy said slowly, “but I’d like for you to do it.”

Sai blinked. “But I can’t. That is, I can’t do the transfer jutsu using a photograph—or I can, but it won’t look right. You’ll need to get someone to convey it into line strokes and—”

“I want you to draw it, Sai,” Naruto said, the skin creasing under his eyes as he smiled.

“Oh,” Sai said, looking like he had been dealt an unexpected blow. “Oh.”

“Well?”

Sai cleared his throat, blinking rapidly. “I suppose I could manage that.”

Naruto grabbed him by the shoulders, giddy pleasure flooding his features like he was a child. “Yes! Can we do it now?” he demanded, impatiently.

“What? Here?” Sai said softly, still looking disarmed. “We can’t. I haven’t prepared anything. I haven’t outlined it on canvas yet or—”

“Can’t you just do it directly?”

“You want me to freehand it?” Sai asked, sounding disbelieving.

“Sure,” Naruto shrugged excitedly, “Why not?”

Sai’s head ducked down, lashes shadowing his eyes. “What if I…mess up?”

Naruto stared at him, nonplussed, before giving a loud laugh. “Why are you worried about that? It’s just a tree, you know.” It wasn’t. He did stiffen a second later, though. “But no hidden dicks. Or I will murder you.”

Sai straightened, these words restoring him to some semblance of normalcy. “We’ll see,” he said with his usual, infuriating plastic smile. “Where do you want it?”

“But,” Sakura sighed. “We just ordered food.”

“I want it on my upper arm.”

They didn’t seem to hear.

Naruto shrugged off his shirt in front of all of Ichiraku’s clientele. Teuchi and Ayame delivered their bowls with raised eyebrows but made no comment. It was a testament to how bizarre Naruto was on a daily basis that none of the others blinked twice.

As Sai worked, Sakura consumed the contents of not only her bowl of ramen but also Sai’s. Sasuke, in turn, ate Naruto’s as well. She didn’t know what caused Naruto more pain—the actual tattoo being branded on his skin or the sight of someone else devouring his precious ramen. (It was probably why Sasuke did it.)

When Sai did finish—nearly an hour later—he wiped a stray bead of sweat off his forehead and finally allowed Naruto to look.

The blonde stood immediately, eyes snapping to his bicep. “It’s perfect.” His loud joy matured into something softer. “Thank you.”

Sai nodded, looking oddly fragile. He hid it swiftly, averting his face.

Sakura stared at it, eyes wide. Sai had used sparse, but bold strokes to realize that characteristic knotted, winding trunk of the academy tree; he had reserved, however, the full-force of his complex artistry for the canopy of leaves that creeped its way up Naruto’s shoulder. The tattoo was entirely in black, as seemed to be Sai’s preferred style, but lacked nothing in either character or impressiveness. If anything, the simple, stark contrast between the tattoo and Naruto’s tanned skin made it all the more stunning.

Naruto marveled at his tattoo, tilting his arm to observe from different angles. His he