Sakura's hand fidgets around Ino's as she stares up at the surprisingly nondescript building. It is a bit shabby, certainly not befitting the reputation spoken of among civilians in hushed tones.
Konohagakure Intelligence Division.
Sakura swallows and clutches tighter to Ino, willing herself to walk through the door. Why, oh why, does she have to be here?
"Relax, Sakura-chan!" Ino says, watching Sakura with those guileless, confident blue eyes. When she looks at Sakura that way, she feels like she can do anything. "You'll be working with my dad most of the day and everything he does is boring!"
Sakura thinks back to whispers snatched among parents on the playgrounds and in the civilian markets, away from shinobi. It is surprisingly simple for a child enrolled in the Academy to eavesdrop on such adult conversations. In the moment, Sakura felt giddy, really feeling like a true ninja as she gathers information to share with Ino. Now, remembering the tawdry tales of severed limbs and hypnosis, Sakura regrets her eagerness.
She never expected to be assigned a field experience assignment with Konohagakure Intelligence Division.
"Sakura," Ino says, taking in her stiffness and pallor. "Seriously, tou-chan has already promised me that he'll keep an eye on you. You'll just be sorting paperwork. You won't be anywhere near the actual action."
"Promise?" Sakura asks.
"Promise," Ino replies, tucking Sakura's hand into the crook of her arm and dragging her forward. "C'mon. I have to head over to my assignment too. Genma-senpai is surprisingly a stickler about punctuality. I don't want him tattling to Mizuki-sensei!"
Somehow, Sakura's feet begin to move and they pass through the heavy doors into the building. There is an artificial cheer about the place, an austere colorfulness perhaps sharpened by the lack of natural light. There are no windows, though Sakura didn't really expect there to be any. The halls are silent even as they pass by people. Most wear masks and walk with a lethal grace. Some wear leather aprons and gloves. These Sakura turns her gaze away from. It is strange to see Anbu walking around beneath the florescent lights, as they so often work in shadows. Sakura and Ino head up a few flights of stairs, making their way into an open office space.
"Tou-chan!" Ino exclaims, releasing Sakura and bounding toward her father. They embrace, Inoichi chuckling as he ruffles his daughter's hair. "I brought Sakura!"
"Hello, Sakura-kun," Inoichi greets, reclaiming his seat and smiling at her kindly. Sakura has always liked Ino's father, the laugh lines in his face making him kind. "I'm glad you were able to make it. Ino, I'll see you at dinner. You should hurry along to your post."
With one last squeeze of encouragement, Ino is gone and Sakura is left feeling bereft.
"Come with me," Inoichi says, leading Sakura across the hall. They enter into a small, cramped room, furnished with a chair, desk, and stacks upon stacks of documents. They're nearly swimming in papers. "Take a seat," Inoichi says, taking pity on the girl. He sees the way she folded in on herself the moment Ino left her side. He waits for her to take a seat in the sole chair in the room before he pushes a large stack of documents her way. "While you are here, Sakura-kun, you will be sorting the missives that come in from our informants." He points to the top left corner of one of the documents. "Feel along the edges there."
Sakura does so. "There's...raised dots?"
Inoichi nods. "Yes, that let's us know which department the document goes to. Can you tell me the pattern on that one?"
Sakura concentrates, running the pad of her finger across the paper. "There's a vertical line of three dots, followed by two single dots."
"Well done, Sakura-kun!" Inoichi praises, taking the file and discreetly double-checking it as he places it into one of the boxes. "That is the signature for the quartermaster." He passes her a scroll. "This displays all of the codes as well as the departments each code is meant for. You will be sorting these during your time here. With the preparations for the chunin exams, we've become a bit backlogged. Take your time; there's no need to rush."
Sakura looks over at the large pile of documents, finding them quite daunting despite Inoichi's encouragement. She picks up the next one, blinking as she realizes that she cannot read any of the text. The symbols are neither hiragana or katakana. They don't even seem to be kanji.
It's strange, especially as Sakura prides herself on being an excellent reader. Her bedroom stacked full of books and worn library card are testament to her love of reading. She's one of the very few people in her class who can even read kanji.
"Yamanaka-san," Sakura begins, voice barely above a whisper. Inoichi turns his attention her way regardless. "What are these?"
"Ah," Inoichi says. "All of these documents are written in code to keep prying eyes from reading their contents." Sakura flushes guiltily. "You do not need to concern yourself with that, just make sure they are sorted into the right piles and someone else will decipher the codes."
Sakura nods meekly and takes a seat, running her fingertips along the next document. Two horizontal dots followed by a cluster of four all bunched together. She checks the scroll he gave her. "This is for the Council of Elders. Where do I need to place it?"
"Council of Elders: Shimura, Utatane, Mitokado," Inoichi replies almost to himself, stepping away from her and rummaging around for a series of small boxes stacked upon each other. He comes back, placing down the boxes with a smile to Sakura. "This here is where you'll place the documents once they are sorted."
Sakura looks at the boxes, taking in the names that go alongside each of the individual boxes. She slips the document for the Council into their respective box.
Inoichi looks her over, making sure she's settled. Sakura looks small, swallowed by the large chair and the disorganized pile of documents around her. Still, she seems comfortable enough, already running her fingers over the next document. "I have to get back to my duties," he says, waiting until she looks up at him. "I'll be right across the hall if you need anything."
Sakura nods, watching as Inoichi leaves the room. Then she turns back to the documents at hand, a determined smile set upon her face.
It is time to get started.
"How's your assignment going?" Sakura asks, passing Ino a bento box.
Ino sighs, showcasing stained fingers. "I think my hands are going numb from all of the polishing and sharpening I've been doing. Genma-senpai is a perfectionist, but now I know the right balance to both short and long form kunai and shuriken." She changes the position on her chopsticks, holding them like a weapon. "I can throw a kunai perfectly now."
"That's great," Sakura replies, as she finishes a bite of sticky rice. "Could you show me later?"
"Of course," Ino says. "Tou-chan says you've been doing a good job with the Intelligence Division."
It's a leading statement, one that makes Sakura light up. "It was scary at first, but the people there are really nice." She pauses, nose wrinkling. "There's one lady, Anko-san, she's kind of scary, but she's also funny and secretly nice. I think she's the one who leaves me umeboshi sometimes."
"And how's the work itself? Tou-chan said that you sort documents. It sounds kind of boring," Ino says.
"No, not at all!" Sakura replies, emphatically. "All of the documents are written in code. All sorts of different codes. Remember when Mizuki-sensei covered cryptography?"
"My ears are burning!" a voice sings out behind them.
Both girls jump, turning to look at Mizuki who is crouched behind them, giving them a quizzical smile.
They are seated out on a grassy hill on the Academy property, where many students hang out between and after classes. It's one of Sakura's favorite places in Konoha, allowing her to look out over the downtown merchant section of the civilian sector. It's comforting, as the Haruno clan has a shop among the section, run by her aunt and uncle. When her parents are out of town, being able to see the Haruno shop is soothing.
"Hi Mizuki-sensei," Ino greets. "We're just talking about our field experience assignments."
"You're working with Shiranui-san in the armory, aren't you Ino?" Mizuki says, stroking his chin. "Sakura, you're in the Intelligence Division with Yamanaka-san?" Both of them nod. "Cryptography, huh? You cracked any codes, Sakura?" His smile is kind and teasing.
Sakura bites her lip. "Not really," she says. "I can tell which codes are the same and even the patterns, but not really any of the words." That isn't quite right. She has managed to decipher certain small words and even repeated code names but she has yet to figure out the contents of any of them.
"Well, if you want to get better at cryptography, there's some books I can suggest for you," Mizuki says. He has a soft spot for Sakura, the quiet, intelligent first-generation student studying to be a shinobi. There's a common ground between them; she's a younger reflection of who he once was, before all the destruction and pain.
"That would be great!" Sakura exclaims, grinning up at him.
"Just make sure to share any secrets you learn with me," he says, winking.
She is almost vibrating wiggling with excitement and anticipation as they head back to class after Mizuki promises to compile a list.
It is time to get to work.
Sakura frowns down at the document before surreptitiously glancing up and around. No one is in the room with her, however, Sakura cannot help feeling a guilty squeeze as she scribbles something on her sheet of paper. She's cycling through substitution ciphers, seeing if any stick.
The rest of her sheet is filled with blotted out letters, crossed out nonsense words that she attempted a variation on the same substitution cipher on. Cipher cracking, at least the process of learning it, is slow going.
This is a document for the Council of Civilians; Sakura assumes that it has the least amount of security when compared to the documents for the Hokage or clan heads.
There is a slight murmur and Sakura pauses, fighting to keep her expression neutral as a pair of conversing adults, both wearing gloves and aprons covered in a dark, viscous liquid, pass by. Once she is certain they are gone, Sakura returns to her paper.
Sakura's guilt is assuaged slightly by the knowledge that deceit and deception are the bread and butter of shinobi. While many in Konoha are trained for full-frontal assault, the class of shinobi is dedicated to stealth and espionage. Konoha is still in the mindset of gearing students up to be soldiers, not shinobi.
Sakura does not want to have a career as cannon fodder.
So really, Sakura thinks to herself, this is just applied practice of the skills that will be vital to her one day. In fact, they may just be vital now.
Sakura's victorious smile is so wide that it hurts her cheeks. This is the first time she has decrypted a full word.
At least, she believes it to be the intended word.
The encryption leaves no spaces between any of the letters so she'll have to continue the process to see if the rest of the message aside from "Report," makes sense.
Still, it is rewarding to see some progress.
With determination fueling her, Sakura sets to her task once more with fervor, silent room filling with the sound of her pen scratching away.
Sakura inhales deeply, settling further into her seat as she takes in the scents of old paper and warmth and coziness. The library is a second home to her, more so when her parents are out of town as they are right now. She rubs her fingers along the parchment within the book, enjoying the coarse texture of the heavy paper.
There are only a few people in the library at midmorning like this and Sakura likes the quiet. A couple of civilians and a chunin guard who is on break are the only other occupants of the library.
Sakura bends her head back over her book, picking up where she left off on scytales and their function within cryptography. Apparently, scytales fell out of fashion in Konoha during its early days, when the First Hokage ruled, but they are still popular in Iwa and Suna. She wonders if there are any scytales in the Intelligence Division's storage or if she herself could create one. She wants to try it out with Ino.
The slight rustling of clothing draws Sakura out of her reading. She looks up, blinking as a boy takes the seat across from her. The boy is tall and lithe, wearing a partial mask that obscures his eyes and ears but leaves his nose and mouth clear. Between his dark hair neatly combed hair and mask, Sakura guesses that he's an Aburame. She's never seen him before, even though he's certainly of age to attend the Academy, as all good clan children do.
"Hello," Sakura greets warily, shifting her book closer to her chest. "I'm Sakura."
He cocks his head to his side, assessing her. She can feel the weight of his gaze and she flushes. "I know," he replies.
"You do?" Sakura asks with a frown. "How?"
"You come to the library quite often. Every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at the very least, if not more often. I am at the library everyday; it was not difficult to observe the most frequent purveyors of the library, including yourself. I overheard the librarian say your name," he says, a slight smile on his face as he gives the explanation. He doesn't seem or sound smug, though Sakura cannot be sure.
"Alright," Sakura says, bringing the book even closer to her chest. She isn't sure how she feels about this, this invasion of her sanctuary. She hasn't noticed the boy's attention over the past months, but now, sitting in front of him, he doesn't seem to have ill intentions. "Obviously, I have not been nearly as observant. What is your name?"
His smile widens. "What do you believe it to be?"
Sakura straightens up, putting the book down on the table as she chooses to engage in his offered game. It is her turn to look him over. "I know that you are of the Aburame clan," she says, concentrating on him. As she pays him closer attention, Sakura hears the slightest buzzing noise emanating from beneath his skin. Her mouth pulls down into a thoughtful frown. Shino is already a host as well, but she has never heard him buzz like that. Perhaps this boy's control is lacking?
"You don't attend the Academy, even though you're older than me. Did your parents choose not to enroll you? No, you are from one of the founding clans; all children are enrolled unless they are found to be lacking or dangerous to other students." She hears the buzzing increase ever so slightly in pitch as a frown tugs away the boy's smile. Got him. "You struggle to control your bugs, which is why you are not enrolled in the Academy."
Sakura looks at the boy and, for a moment, she fears she's overstepped. Then his scowl clears away and he begins to clap. "Bravo," he says. "You may not yet be self-aware, but you do possess skills in observation. In time, you will hone your self- and situational awareness or you won't make it far in this career. But still, you haven't answered my question. What is my name?"
"The only Aburame that I have met is Shino," Sakura says, pausing at the boy's nearly imperceptible flinch. "Shibi-sama is the clan head," she continues, again catching the way he flinches.
Whoever he is, he is much more closely related to the clan head than she thought. Sakura stops for a moment, closing her eyes as she pictures the genograms that they made in class a year ago. Sakura enjoyed making hers at the time, but the main interest in the class was clan children comparing genograms to each other, side by side. It was a competition of sorts for them, a measurement of how successful their clan was.
As such, Sakura made special note at the time of the genograms of the four noble clans of Konoha, Choji's, Ino's, Hinata's, and Shino's, as well as Sasuke's genogram since the Uchiha ran the Konoha Military Police Force.
There is only one person this boy can be.
"You are Aburame Torune," Sakura says, opening her eyes once more. "Shibi-sama has adopted you, right? Shino is your cousin and now adopted brother."
He nods, a bright smile gracing his features. Her victory feels like a triumph for him. "Well done."
"So why approach me now?" Sakura asks, looking at him with new eyes. Aburame Torune, the adopted son of the clan head. "You've been watching me for weeks, months even. What changed?"
He turns his gaze downward, embarrassed. "I just thought it was time to introduce myself." His eyes light on her stack of books. "How is your study of codes going?"
"Well," Sakura says, looking down over her selection of titles. Most are Mizuki's recommendations, but some she has gathered based on citations within other cryptography books. Sakura has made a fine dent in the library's collection and she believes she can finish them all within the next month. "I've learned transposition and substitution ciphers well; at this point, I can usually recognize them on sight." She gestures down to her current book, on the history of subterfuge. "Now I'm getting some historical examples of steganography."
Torune nods, though he doesn't really seem to understand. Sakura doesn't mind. In fact, she bites her lip, warring with herself for a moment.
"Would you like to go stick hunting with me?"
"Stick hunting?" he repeats, obviously lost. "Why sticks?"
"We need them to create scytales," Sakura says, nodding decisively. She stands, packing away her things. "We'll need to find three sticks of equal thickness. One for Ino. One for me. One for you."
Torune's responding grin is a breathtaking thing as his buzzing picks up in frequency. There's something soothing, almost melodic about the hum. "Lead the way."
The two children head for the door eagerly, leaving behind a neat towering pile of books.
Sakura keeps her concentration on the documents before her, ignoring the uproar outside the door. She is well-used to how loud Anko and her associates can be at this point and she barely flinches when they get started.
That is, until a large man barges into the room.
"Where is it?" he roars.
Sakura's hand immediately goes to the kunai strapped at her calf, pausing as Inoichi charges in after the man. She keeps her grip on the kunai, watching, assessing as Torune often reminds her to do.
Ibiki stops, blinking at her. "Who are you?"
"Ibiki, I need you to calm down. This is Haruno Sakura, she's the Academy student assigned to Konoha's Intelligence Division for her field assignment," Inoichi says, getting between Ibiki and Sakura, hands up in a placating gesture.
"I don't have time to be calm," Ibiki says, voice slightly lowered from the bellow it was but moments ago. He is huge and hulking, making the small room feel even smaller. He wears a thick black leather trench coat, one that is similar enough to the leather aprons worn by other Torture and Interrogation Force operatives: his job is obviously related to wetwork. The only aspects of him exposed, his face and hands, are heavily scarred. "I need a document right now!"
They both round on Sakura, looking at the stacks and stacks of unsorted documents.
"Which document do you need, Ibiki?" Inoichi asks, pinching the bridge of his nose.
"I need Fox's report on his infiltration of Kirigakure's hunter-nin," Ibiki says, cold gaze on Sakura. Sakura realizes with a start that the shininess of his leather coat is fresh blood. She turns her gaze down to the remaining documents, searching. "The report is for the Council of Elders."
Inoichi glances at the boxes, sighing. "These things take time; everything is in code. Sakura-kun hasn't sorted those—"
"Here!" Sakura calls, interrupting Inoichi in her excitement. She'll be mortified later, when she's out of the moment and aware of the possible ramifications of interrupting a clan head. She picks up the scroll, proffering it to Ibiki. "This is the document you need."
Sakura's smile fades at the stunned silence that greets her. Ibiki snatches the document from her, running his finger along the border to make sure it is addressed correctly. He squints at the document, frown making his scarring even more severe.
"I'm no code breaker, but I do recognize Fox's unique handle here," he tells Inoichi. He raises his eyes, locking onto Sakura. She swallows, tempted to duck her head and hide away. She resists, however, and stays steady. "How did you figure it out so quickly?"
"I've…" Sakura squeaks. She stops, clearing her throat. "I've been studying ciphers in my free time."
"Since you started here."
It isn't a question, but Sakura nods anyway. "I wanted to do a better and more efficient job here."
"That's why Ino has a scytale!" Inoichi exclaims.
"I made one for her," Sakura says softly. "We write messages to each other."
Ibiki moves suddenly, striding forward and slamming his hands down on the table before Sakura. She bites the inside of her cheek to keep from jumping. His face is impassive and Sakura bites down on her cheek until it bleeds.
Then, he grins, the pull warping his scars into an expression even more terrifying than his scowl. It looks uncomfortable on his face, as if the muscles are unused to it. Sakura gets the sad feeling that he doesn't smile too much.
Inoichi makes a noise, as if he wants to interfere.
"There's someone I want you to meet, girl," Ibiki says, amusement thick in his voice.
Sakura, reading the apparent mischievousness in his face, gulps.
Sakura willingly goes along with Ibiki, allowing him to tug her along through the Intelligence Division with Inoichi on their tails. She hasn’t been to this section of the Intelligence Division before, these upper floors that have actual windows in their walls. Sakura looks around avidly, basking in the natural light even as Ibiki pulls her toward the end of the hall. There are no people walking around these halls, though Sakura notes that the rooms that line the hall are marked with a simple, beautiful sign:
Her eyes round and her hands twitch with the desire to get a hold of the documents within and crack open their secrets.
Her pace slows and Ibiki glances down at her. He catches the focus of her attention and chuckles, a low, rasping sound that emerges from his chest with an almost rusty quality. Sakura privately wonders how many years it’s been since he’s laughed at something so simple, something not involved with T&I. From the look on Inoichi’s face, it may have been before she was born.
“There’ll be time for that later,” Ibiki says gruffly, releasing her arm and, with only the briefest of hesitations, ruffling her hair. “Right now, however, I need to make introductions.”
“Why are we here?” Inoichi demands. “Sakura-kun is here on an Academy class assignment,” he continues, stressing Sakura’s current rank and standing within Konoha. As an Academy student, she is not yet anyone by shinobi standards. “Whatever you’re plotting needs to stop.”
Ibiki crosses his arms, scowling at Inoichi. Somehow, it is less terrifying than his laugh. “She’s got skill; all the more so for being a mere Academy student. Let’s let our Strategist decide whether or not she can be useful elsewhere. Besides, the Academy’s lessons have been subpar and lacking in recent years; I’m sure she needs herself a challenge.”
Inoichi frowns, turning red as he glances between the disparate duo, but he bites his tongue. Instead, he gives Ibiki a stern look before stepping to the side.
Ibiki strides forward, slamming a hand on the door before sailing through, not giving the occupant a chance to respond. Sakura meekly steps in behind him, taking a moment to assess the room. It is more spacious than the room that she’s been working in, but it is filled from floor to ceiling with all sorts of papers: dusty tomes, huge scrolls, and loose leaf paper. Her eyes go wide as she reads some of the titles, realizing that some of them are more advanced texts on cryptography.
Her fingers itch to get a hold of them.
A drawn out sigh interrupts her daydreaming and Sakura snaps to attention guiltily. She looks to the sole occupant of the room, nearly obscured by the documents on his desk. He is dark haired and scarred, with the signature small pupils of the Nara clan.
Nara Shikaku, the Jonin Commander of Konohagakure.
Sakura swallows, mouth and throat suddenly dry. She knows she has to be in major trouble to be brought before the Jonin Commander. Will she be expelled? Kicked out of Konoha? Her thoughts whirl as she remembers whispers from the marketplace. Tortured?
Without conscious thought, Sakura shrinks back against Ibiki’s leg, trying to hide in his shadow. He glances down at her, eyes going distant as he remembers another who once stood in her shoes. He gruffly shakes the errant sentiment away, placing a hand on Sakura’s shoulder and shoving her out in front of him.
Shikaku glances among the three of them, taking in the terror on Sakura’s face, the resignation on Inoichi’s, before finally settling on Ibiki. “Why did you bring an Academy student into my office?”
From the way Shikaku pales, Sakura gets the feeling it isn’t a normal occurrence, at least outside of the interrogation room.
Ibiki places both hands on Sakura’s shoulders. “This here is a new protege for you!”
A few things happen at the same time:
Inoichi exclaims something, probably along the lines of, “Absolutely not! She’s a child!”
Shikaku’s gaze transfers to Sakura and she receives the full brunt of his attention and scrutiny. His eyes are keen and Sakura remembers why, in a village full of Hyuga, Uchiha, and Aburame, the Nara are still considered the most intelligent clan.
Ibiki’s hands tighten on Sakura’s shoulders, almost to the point of pain, but it reminds Sakura of the confidence in his voice as he introduced her as a new protege. Ibiki doesn’t even know her full name, yet he has confidence in her.
Maybe, maybe she can confidence in herself as well.
She straightens beneath Shikaku’s gaze, meeting his eyes head on.
His brow quirks slightly, but he gives her a smile that relaxes the lines and scars of his face. He has a kind, tranquil look about him.
Sakura thinks that she may like him.
“Ibiki, you so rarely take an interest in anything outside the interrogation room,” Shikaku says, voice dry. “What games are you playing today?”
“No games,” Ibiki replies. “She’s here on a field experience assignment from the Academy. She sorts the coded documents by recipient.” He strides forward, placing the document from Fox in Shikaku’s hands. “I needed a document pulled that hadn’t been sorted yet. She’s competent enough at code to know at least some of their content. She pulled this for me when I came in asking for it from Inoichi.”
Sakura sees the way interest lights Shikaku’s eyes. He turns to Inoichi. “Is this true?”
Inoichi hesitates for a moment before nodding. “Sakura-kun has been teaching herself ciphers in her free time it seems.”
Shikaku hums, glancing down at the document for a few long moments before lifting his gaze to Sakura. “So I see.”
He leaves it at that and Sakura resists the urge to fidget beneath his penetrating eyes.
“Is that it?” Ibiki demands after a few moments of silence go by.
“Not quite,” Shikaku says, a slow smile curling up his lips. “Sakura-san, tomorrow when you report for your assignment, come here to my office. I’ll have work for you.”
Sakura’s never experienced the peculiar intertwining of dread and excitement before, not until this moment.
She thinks she may like it.
And that it is a sensation she’ll need to get used to. She’s certain she will be feeling it quite frequently moving forward.
“Yes Nara-san,” Sakura says, bowing slightly before she is hurried out the door by a shell-shocked Inoichi and a giggling—giggling—Ibiki.
Just wait until she tells Ino!
“Lift your elbow,” Ino instructs, circling Sakura. “Almost got it—” Ino grabs Sakura’s arm, adjusting it to her standards. “Perfect. Now, hold that position.”
Sakura does as Ino says, though she cannot help asking, “Don’t I need to be holding a kunai?”
“Not yet,” Ino replies. “Genma-senpai says you have to master the forms first. Hold that position.”
Sakura hums in agreement, afraid to nod and break form. Her arm feels awkward to be held at this angle, away from her body. She still doesn’t feel at home in her body. Sakura wonders if it is because she’s so used to hunching over and curling inward. She rarely stands with her shoulders put back or sits with her legs spread wide. She’s spent years trying to make herself smaller and less noticeable; it’s hard to unlearn old habits. But to be a shinobi…to have the confidence needed to push through…learning new habits is necessary.
“It reminds me a bit of what Nara-san is teaching me,” Sakura says, holding the form to the best of her ability.
“Shikaku-oji?” Ino says, tapping Sakura’s arm to get her to raise it again. “What about codes is similar to weapons?”
“Well, they aren’t that similar, but Nara-san and Shiranui-san’s approaches are,” Sakura replies. “Nara-san isn’t letting me decipher any codes right now. Currently, he’s having me read about the history of codes among the different nations. I’ve been learning all about the syntax of multiple languages so that I can understand how codes are created. If I can master these skills, cipher cracking will become simpler. I’ll understand the actual mechanics behind the process.”
“That’s almost exactly what Genma-senpai said!” Ino exclaims. She assesses Sakura’s posture for a moment, nods, and turns a handstand, holding herself up with her legs pressed together. “It’s wise advice, but it’s kind of boring, honestly.”
Sakura wrinkles her nose, thinking of the dry writing she’s been pouring over for the past few weeks. Her arm throbs, reminding her of the tense posture she’s been holding. “It can be. Nara-san says it builds character.”
Ino is silent for a long moment. “You’ve held the position long enough now, Sakura.” Sakura drops her arm, rubbing it absently. Ino looks up at her from her handstand and grins. “There are ways to practice and learn while having fun. Wanna race on our hands to that tree and back?”
Sakura rolls into a handstand of her own. “You’re on!”
“This one is honeysuckle,” Sakura says, pride filling her voice as she identifies the orange flowers on the bush. She reaches forward, gently plucking the flower from the stem. “Ino says that in the language of flowers it signifies happiness and devoted affection.”
Torune hums, kneeling down at her side. “The moths like to pollinate these flowers after dusk. During the day, they tend to be dominated by hummingbirds.” Sakura sees his smile peek out from behind his high collar as the near constant buzz beneath his skin kicks up a notch. “The Aburame insects have their choice of any flower they want.”
“Oh yeah?” Sakura asks, turning the pistil and petals toward Torune, placing the bottom end of the flower up by her lips. “So can I.”
She closes her teeth around the flower, sucking on the receptacle. Sakura taste the sweetness of the honeysuckle and grins around it. The smile widens at Torune’s wide-eyed stare as she picks another and offers it his way.
“Ino may know the language of flowers and you may know which insects like each one, but I know a couple of secrets myself,” Sakura says.
Before becoming friends with Ino, Sakura was a loner, an observer. She listened to the stories of others, in the Haruno shop, and in the streets as well. She also spent time alone in the forests of Konoha. Not outside the walls and certainly not the Forty-Fourth Training Ground, but she knew her way about the copses of Konoha. She even explored a bit into the Nara Forest, not far by any means, but still enough to feel confident navigating through parts of it.
Right now, however, Sakura and Torune are on Aburame property, exploring the sprawling estates full of untouched wildlife. Sakura enjoys the tranquility, the quiet song of life that thrums all around them. It’s an uncultured paradise and Sakura loves every inch of it.
Torune takes the flower from Sakura, copying her motions tentatively. He pauses, glancing over at her. “It’s sweet.”
Sakura giggles at the wonder in his tone. “Of course it is. Don’t your insects let you know how they like their meal?”
Torune sits silently for so long that Sakura begins to worry that she’s crossed some unknown boundary. Finally he says, fists clenched tightly, “They don’t consume pollen.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize,” Sakura says, reaching out and taking one of his gloved hands in both of hers. She runs her hands over his fist, patiently waiting for it to relax beneath her touch. When it finally does, Sakura laces their fingers together. “What do they eat?”
“They’re different than the usual Aburame insects. They aren’t kikaichū,” Torune says, gaze down and focused on their joined hands.
Sakura, sensing his rising tension, places her free hand on his knee. “I’d guessed that they were different,” she says softly. “You don’t need to tell me if you don’t want to.”
“I want to,” he replies, tightening his hold on her hand. “Friends share secrets, don’t they?”
“They do,” Sakura says. “But that’s sharing secrets, choosing to tell those secrets when you feel comfortable. Friends do not force friends to tell secrets.”
“Okay,” Torune says, breath rattling out of his chest as he exhales. The buzz beneath his skin has reached a point where Sakura can feel the vibrations in his hand and knee. “I want to share this with you though. I just haven’t done this before. Some of my relatives are…intimidated by them, by me.”
Sakura swallows at that; the Aburame are known for being apathetic in the face of even the most dire circumstances. For them to fear Torune, a child…
“Torune, you are my friend,” Sakura says, her headband suddenly weighty beneath her words and promise. Ino has taught her the meaning of friendship and Sakura suddenly realizes the duty she owes her friends. “I will not turn away from you, whatever you tell me.”
Torune nods shakily, reaching out with his other hand and grabbing hers from his knee. They sit like this, facing each other, surrounded by the fresh, sweet scent of honeysuckles and the constant thrum beneath his skin.
“I carry the rinkaichū, like my father and mother before me,” Torune says, head bent in fear. “Both my father and mother are gone; so I am the last and only host. The rinkaichū are different than the kikaichū; they feed on living flesh, not chakra. With a mere touch, I may infect and kill someone.”
Torune goes to release her hands, but Sakura grips them tightly.
“So?” Sakura asks, keeping their fingers intertwined. “That’s a useful variation to the Aburame kekkei genkai. I know it will come in handy out in the field.”
“Aren’t you scared of me?” Torune asks, body buzzing with agitation. “Why aren’t you angry? I’ve touched you—I’m still touching you—and I didn’t tell you. I’ve endangered you because I’m selfish.”
“I’m not afraid, Torune,” Sakura says. “You aren’t a scary person. Even if others say you lack control, I know the truth. You can control yourself, when it counts. I trust you with my life.”
Torune stays quiet so Sakura does too, waiting until he is ready. She’s said what she needed to say. Besides, she thinks something of what she said got through since he is no longer struggling to escape her touch. She notes idly that the sun is beginning to set over them.
Finally, in the barest of whispers, Torune says, “Really? Do you mean that?”
“I do,” Sakura replies, making her voice as firm as she can, imitating the way Ibiki and Shikaku speak. When they talk, people listen intently. “You know, I think it’s amazing that you alone are capable of carrying on your parents’ legacy. It’s almost like they’re still standing with you.”
Torune sniffles and, when he draws one hand away, Sakura lets him, keeping her gaze averted out of consideration as he removes his goggles. She rustles in her pocket, withdrawing her weapon cleaning cloth. It’s a coarse cloth, certainly not suited to touching skin, but it is clean and unmarked by the usual stains of oil. She passes it to him and accepts his quiet thanks.
“I didn’t think of it like that,” Torune says eventually, voice hoarse and still sniffling a bit.
Sakura hums, looking up at him. He looks mostly put together, though Sakura cannot see his red-rimmed eyes behind the goggles. She leans in, drawing him into a hug. As she embraces him for a long time, smiling as he melts into the hug, she nestles her chin onto his shoulder and looks beyond.
The dusty wings of moths beat as they descend upon the honeysuckles, drawing free their pollen. Sakura smiles and closes her eyes, knowing that, regardless of what happens from here, her bond with Torune is firmly forged.
She won’t be shaken from her friends. Not now, not ever.
“You seem pensive.”
Sakura looks up from the dusty tome, startled by the interruption. Her thoughtful frown turns sheepish as she meets Shikaku’s piercing gaze.
“Sorry,” she says, ducking her head. “I suppose my thoughts wandered.”
“Where to?” he asks, folding his hands on his desk.
“It’s foolish,” she demurs.
“Tell me anyway.”
Sakura takes a deep breath, keeping her eyes focused on a point beyond Shikaku’s forehead. She cannot look into the banked fires, his eyes like hot coals. Calm and settled, for the moment, but easily stoked into a blazing crescendo of flames.
“I’ve enjoyed the reading you’ve assigned, truly,” she begins, not wanting to appear in any way ungrateful. “It has vastly improved my knowledge of cryptography. However, what these books describe is so different from the ciphers used in the missives that go through the Intelligence Division. I’ve checked.”
Shikaku hums, expression unreadable. “What do you mean by ‘different?’”
“They are…simple by comparison,” Sakura admits, wondering if she’s in trouble here. “They use transposition ciphers or substitution ciphers. None of them use any of the languages you’re teaching me or even the literary stylings found in this book.” She holds up the book entitled Embedded Poetry and Stories: An Analysis. “I do not mean to be pert and I doubt it is my place, but is it safe? If someone like me can decrypt the codes, what does that mean for Konoha?”
In the silence that ensues, Sakura works up the courage to look Shikaku in the eye. She does, surprised to see the shock writ upon his features.
“Sir?” she ventures, hesitant.
Shikaku’s shoulders begin to shake as peals of laughter burst forth. Sakura feels the flush creep up her neck, around her ears, and fill her cheeks, as a mixture of embarrassment and confusion settles into the pit of her gut.
“I’m not laughing at you,” he says between chuckles. “It’s just…I am unused to such astute observations coming from the mouth of a six year old. At least, regarding these matters. If Shikamaru applied himself…” He trails off for a moment before shaking his head. “But I digress. Sakura, you are right. The codes Konoha currently employs among its elite shinobi are simple. The current opinion is that, should a missive be intercepted, the ciphers are good enough to keep prying eyes out.” He rolls his eyes, indicating his opinion on the issue. “They think the Konoha dialect is enough to confuse enemy code breakers, nervemind the fact that there are always spies within the village and we have our fair share of traitors. Just as you know the Iwa dialect from the texts you’ve read, so to do other nations know ours. We aren’t particularly unique.”
“So why don’t they care to change?” Sakura asks, flabbergasted and horrified.
To think that enemies could so easily decipher sensitive village information…
“Who can say? The Councils and other officials are still war-minded; most of them suffered through two of the three Shinobi World Wars and countless other skirmishes. They aren’t acclimated to peace time and focus solely on our military strength. They believe that sending missives with Summons will keep them safe, but there’s always a risk at hand. Konoha’s officials do not care to ‘waste time’ on ‘exercises of futile intelligence.’” He seems to be quoting specifically from words told to him in the past. “They forget that such exercises are the primary information source in both war and peace time. In fact, this type of espionage can either cause or prevent war.”
“Cause or prevent war?” Sakura repeats, astonished.
What Shikaku does, what she’s doing, can have that monumental an impact?
Shikaku smiles and it is a bitter thing. “The Councils scoff, but wars have been started for less than a deciphered letter. It’s also possible that, should our codes be broken, forgeries take their place and throw the upper echelons of Konoha’s elite into disarray.”
Sakura blinks, more than a little shell-shocked.
“Some of the higher officials, the true war dogs who were in the thick of it, use more complicated ciphers. Hokage-sama, Shimura-san, and so on. I’ll let you take a look at some of them sometime. You’ll be able to see that, with those they’ve personally had a hand in creating, bits of their personality are imbued into the codes. Still, they don’t bother to keep up with the current literature on cryptography. Language is fluid and constantly changing. So too is cryptography. I’m having you read these histories so that one day you can create ciphers of your own.” Shikaku grins, scars stretching in his happiness. “You’ve shown more than just a penchant for it; you have a true gift. I look forward to the codes you yourself create. I know they’ll be magnificent.”
Sakura doesn’t speak, thunderstruck by all the possibilities that seem to have opened up before her. Her very own code…She never realized that she could make any herself, rather than borrowing from the work of others. To make—to create—codes all her own, with her own signature, own brand…Well, the possibilities seem endless.
Shikaku smirks at her over-wide eyes. “Your eyes are growing larger than your stomach; don’t get greedy. Pace yourself, we have time enough.”
Sakura nods, returning to her reading with a new fervor and fresh perspective. She wants—needs—to learn everything there is about cryptography.
“That’s ten,” Ino says, tone unreadable.
“Did I…did I do alright?” Sakura asks, almost fearful of the answer.
“Why don’t you see for yourself?” Ino says.
Sakura reaches up, removing the kerchief from her eyes. Before her, forty yards away, are the ten targets. Each of her kunai struck their mark. Sakura claps in excitement, prancing forward to examine the targets more closely. She managed to nail the very center of the target on four of the targets, the other six hit within the two next smallest circles.
“Ino!” she exclaims, turning back to her friend.
Ino cannot contain her own exhilaration. “You did it!”
“We did it,” Sakura corrects, the force of her smile almost hurting her cheeks. She looks across the field at her friend and bows. “Thank you, Ino-sensei.”
Sakura yelps as, still bowed over, a weight hits her in the side, knocking her over. Sakura tumbles to the ground, entangled in Ino’s limbs. They look at each other for a long moment, stunned breathless by the unexpected fall. Then, and Sakura cannot say who exactly starts, they begin to snicker. Snickers evolve into giggles which turn to guffaws and finally become outright cackling. They lay on the ground against each other, content as the laughter dies off.
“I’m trying to imagine Mizuki-sensei’s face during the quarter’s final,” Ino says.
“Mizuki-sensei’s? What about Iruka-sensei’s?” Sakura sits up, pulling a face at Ino that sets off their fit once more. “Sasuke-san won’t be pleased.”
“Why’s that?” Ino asks, propping herself up on her elbows to look over at Sakura.
“You’re better with weapons than he is,” Sakura says. “He might even challenge you to a spar.”
Ino huffs, though a slight flush rises to her cheeks. “Let him try. Tou-chan’s been teaching me secret clan techniques and spar moves. Sasuke-san can’t even activate his kekkei genkai yet. I can beat any of the boys in our class.”
“You’ll beat him,” Sakura says, confident. “You can beat any of them.”
They fall into a satisfied silence, just basking in Sakura’s victory and each other’s presence.
Because they are propped up against one another, Sakura can feel Ino’s muscles suddenly tense. “What is it?” Sakura asks.
“Speaking of displeased boys reminded me of something,” Ino says. “We had an Ino-Shika-Cho barbecue last week. I hung out with Shikamaru and Choji the whole time. Shikamaru seemed a bit off. He kept asking me questions about you.”
“Apparently Shikaku-oji has mentioned you a couple times at home. Since Shikamaru’s so upset, I’m guessing he gave you praise.”
“Shikamaru’s upset?” Sakura asks, sitting up straight after fighting back feelings of pride. She enjoys being praised for her skill.
“Don’t worry about it, Sakura,” Ino says, pulling on Sakura’s hand until she reclines once more. “Shikamaru just really admires his father, though he’d never admit it. He’s just jealous that Shikaku-oji has noticed one of his peers.”
“What should I do?” Sakura says, picking at her fingernails. She hates the thought that someone is angry with her; the people pleaser in her demanding that she fix the issue.
Ino flaps a hand. “Don’t worry about it; Shikamaru will either get over it or confront you.”
“Calm down,” Ino says. “This is Shikamaru we’re talking about. He’s pretty lazy and he knows you’re my best friend. He won’t do anything terrible; he knows I’ll make him regret it.”
Sakura smiles, grabbing Ino’s hand. “Thank you, Ino, for always protecting me.”
“Of course!” Ino replies, squeezing Sakura’s hand in turn. “I always have your back.”
They stay like that for a while, time seeming to stand still aside from the movement of the sun and clouds in the sky. Finally, Ino stands with a sigh, patting down her clothes and collecting her gear.
“I have to go home for dinner,” she admits, looking put out. “Tou-chan is cooking tonight and I don’t want to miss it.”
“I’m sure it will be good!” Sakura replies, trying not to think of her own home, empty right now as her parents travel through Iron. They’re establishing ties with the samurai that reside there, hoping to attain firsthand access to Iron exports. It is an arduous and lengthy process, but Sakura knows better than to complain. She glances at the targets, pushing aside the thought of withdrawing leftovers from the fridge that her aunt left her. “I think I’ll stay here a bit longer and continue to practice.”
Ino gives her a hug and they exchange farewells, Sakura watching as Ino moves away.
Once Ino is no longer in sight, Sakura sets about practicing once more. She withdraws her kunai from the target, deciding to work with her shuriken instead.
“You don’t need her.”
Sakura jumps, turning with kunai ready in hand.
“Torune?” Sakura asks, confusion giving her pause. “What are you doing here?”
He glances at her for a moment, before returning his attention to his feet. She cannot really see much of his expression, obscured as it is by goggles and high collar, but she’s certain that he’s angry. She’s never seen him like this.
“The Yamanaka,” Torune bites out. “You don’t need her.”
Sakura cocks her head to the side for a moment, regarding him, before turning back to the task at hand. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
“I’ll watch your back,” Torune says. Sakura suddenly realizes that she can feel the way his entire body is vibrating with the force of the rinkaichū within him, even with the distance between them and her back to him. “I’m strong, I can protect you.”
“Ino is strong too,” Sakura replies, yanking hard on one of the kunai. It is firmly wedged into the wood and, though she’s proud of the force she put behind the throw, it is causing some trouble now. Ino is the top girl in their class in every area except academics, which Sakura herself dominates. “Plus, as a shinobi I need to be able to watch my own back.”
“Sakura!” he exclaims before cutting himself off in frustration.
“What’s really bothering you, Torune?” Sakura asks, abandoning the kunai to regard him fully. “You’ve never had any issues with Ino before.”
“Is she your best friend?” Torune blurts out.
“She’s my first friend,” Sakura says.
“That isn’t an answer.”
Sakura sighs, sitting down and crossing her legs. She pats the ground beside her, to indicate where he should sit. Torune obeys and Sakura begins plucking at the dandelions that grow around the base of the target.
“Ino is my precious person,” Sakura says, focusing on her hands. “She saved me from bullies and gave me this ribbon.” Sakura gestures to her head. “She’s bossy and likes to gossip and to get into my business and I love her with all my heart. When she’s sad, I want to cheer her up. When she’s injured, I want to heal her. When she’s happy, I want to make her even happier. I want to protect her and pay her back for all of the help she’s given me.”
“Oh,” Torune says, subdued. His buzzing has completely subsided.
“Torune, you are also my precious person,” she continues as she weaves the strands together. “You are quiet and you daydream and sometimes talking to you is hard because I don’t know what you feel about what I’m saying and I love you with all my heart. When you’re hurt, I want to hold your hand. When you’re frightened, I want to scare your fears away. When you’re fighting, I want to stand and protect your back. It makes me smile when I see you smile.”
Torune sniffles slightly, rubbing at his nose. “Really?”
“Really,” Sakura replies. She ties the ends of the stands to each other and nods to herself. Sakura lifts her creation in her hands and leans over, placing it on his head. “There. It won’t last as long as the ribbon, but…” She shrugs. “I’ll get you something that lasts later. This is a symbol of our bond. Dandelions mean long-lasting happiness, youthful joy, and wish fulfillment. My wish is this: that you and I will be friends forever.” Sakura grins at him. “So don’t worry about ‘best’ or anything like that. Both of you are my precious people.”
Torune throws his arms around her, dragging her into a hug. It is awkward and slightly uncomfortable, but wholehearted and warm, just like Torune is. “You’re my precious person too,” he says against her ear. “Thank you for being my friend, Sakura.”
Sakura opens her mouth to reply, but her stomach beats her to it, growling loudly. She flushes, drawing away from Torune. “Sorry about that. I guess I’m hungry.”
“Want to come to dinner with me? Oji-sama will cook.”
“Are you sure that’s alright?” Sakura asks. “I’d hate to impose.”
“It won’t!” Torune says, cutting her off. “Oji-sama always cooks too much. He’d be happy to have you.”
Sakura thinks back to her vacant and quiet home and realizes that there is no contest. “Of course, Torune, thank you for the invitation.”
Sakura follows Torune through the residential district towards the Aburame compound. While not quite as large as the Uchiha or Hyuga estates, the Aburame still own a sprawling property that encompasses an area below the Hokage Rock and out into the forest. The sun is setting and Sakura and Torune have to weave their way among civilians making their way home for the evening after a long day of work.
"Are you really sure it's alright for me to come over unannounced like this?" Sakura presses, nerves rising as they get closer to his home. The Aburame are one of the four noble clans of Konoha and her parents have impressed upon her their importance even among the civilian sector. The noble clans have power within all sectors of Konoha and can easily make trade difficult for a clan, even one as established as the Haruno, should they choose. She really cannot afford to offend their clan leader, for the sake of her parents. Even if she's pursuing an unconventional path for a Haruno, Sakura knows her duty to her family. "I don't want to be in the way."
"You won't be in the way," Torune insists, squeezing her hand in his gloved one. He pauses, flushing as he contemplates revealing something somewhat embarrassing to her. Still, he wants to set her at ease. "Oji-sama has wanted you to come over for a while now."
"He has?" Sakura asks, blinking in surprise.
"I…I may have mentioned you once or twice—" Or seventy times… "He's glad that I've made a friend and he's quite curious as to what you're like," Torune explains, keeping his gaze averted.
"Really?" Sakura says, feeling flattered. She's not used to her friends talking about her to others. At least, speaking about her to her knowledge. "Well, if you're certain."
"I am," he replies firmly, adjusting his grip on her hand. "C'mon."
Sakura follows him as they exit the civilian residential district and enter the Aburame lands. She and Torune have spent a number of afternoons exploring the sprawling estate's gardens, but she has never been into any of the houses on the property. They head toward the main house and Sakura takes in the odd architecture of the building. It is designed differently than anything else she's seen in Konoha, all smoothed edges and curved domes. She loves the open quality about it; large hexagonal windows set in sensible steel frames, showcasing the interior of the home. Sakura's steps falter as she takes in all the glass; Konoha doesn't have much in the way of glass work and these windows are works of art.
Torune chuckles under his breath and gives her a moment to take it in before tugging lightly at her wrist.
Sakura gives him a chagrined smile and follows him up to the front door.
Torune's insects begin to buzz at the door and Sakura watches with astonishment as the locks disengage and Torune pushes the door open. He glances askance at Sakura.
"It's keyed into my biometrics," Torune explains, knowing that Sakura loves to learn. "It's the same with oji-sama and Shino. The door won't open for anyone else."
"The sounds your insects make are unique to each person?" Sakura asks as she slips off her shoes, lining them up alongside the pairs already by the door.
"Yes," Torune replies, doing the same. "It's like the way that everyone has a unique chakra signature."
Sakura nods, impressed by the creativity that the Aburame use. "Are there protection measures if someone forces the door?" she asks, curiosity insatiable. "Or the windows?" she adds as the brilliant light of sunset streaks across her face, reminding her of the house's design.
"Of course," Torune says, unbothered by all of her questions. He's used to it now, finds it charming in fact. "All of the shinobi clans take such precautions for their homes. Even the higher ranked ninja, those that aren't attached to clans, have security measures in place. It comes with the paranoia. We however have some more…personalized protection because of our kekkei genkai."
"Do you happen to know any general techniques?" Sakura asks, already brainstorming ways to apply it to her own bedroom. It may be wise to safeguard her work with Shikaku and perhaps even her weaponry. No one really goes into her bedroom, but it is far better to be safe.
And it will be good practice for the future.
"I don't know any general ones, only specialized ones," Torune says apologetically. "Perhaps oji-sama knows some! We can ask him during dinner. Speaking of—" He grabs her hand once more and draws her through the sprawling house, past the minimalistic decor within most of the rooms. She begins to hear the sound of clinking pots and notes that the decor in this area of the house is more comfortable, more personal and homey. "Oji-sama!" he calls. "I'm home. And I've brought a guest!"
All sound cuts off abruptly for a long moment before someone calls, "Who's this now?"
Sakura's hands spasm with nerves as the Aburame clan head, Shibi, steps out, wiping his hands against his purple striped apron.
Thankfully, Torune doesn't experience the same compunctions as Sakura, drawing her forward with a proud smile."This is my friend Sakura," he says. "Her parents are away on a trip so I invited her to dinner tonight."
"I'm sorry for the short notice," Sakura says, ducking her head in embarrassment. She should have known better! "If I'm imposing—"
"It's no imposition at all, Sakura-san," Shibi says. It's slight but, considering her friendship with Torune and her familiarity with his expressions, Sakura can tell Shibi's face softens with compassion. "I am so thrilled to finally meet you Sakura; Torune mentions you often."
Shibi hides a smile as both children fluster, leading them into the kitchen. It doesn't escape his notice that they are holding hands. Shibi cannot remember the last time Torune willingly engaged in physical contact, perhaps before his sister and brother-in-law's untimely deaths. It is heartening to see and regardless of what Sakura may actually be like in regards to her personality, Shibi is inclined to like her for that alone.
"Haruno-san?" Shino says from his seat at the island in the kitchen, a clear look of surprise on his face. "What are you doing here?"
"Hello Shino-san," Sakura greets weakly. "Torune invited me over for dinner."
"Torune?" Shino repeats incredulously, looking to his cousin. "How long have the two of you known each other?"
"Four months," Sakura says at the same time that Torune says, "Five months."
Torune and Sakura glance at each other.
"Four months," Torune corrects hastily, blushing.
Shibi raises a brow at his nephew but says nothing. Sakura doesn't seem bothered by it so he won't interfere, even though he knows his nephew's proclivity to observe without interaction or detection. It's a fine skill to develop as a shinobi and it doesn't appear to impede their friendship. So he keeps his silence, bustling over to the oven to finish preparing dinner.
"Neither of you mentioned it," Shino says.
"I told oji-sama," Torune replies, stepping up closer to Sakura.
She looks between them, confused for a moment by the tension between them.
"Sorry Shino-san," Sakura says. "I didn't even think about bringing it up. I've been so busy with this field experience assignment and training; there's been little time to even think about things. Sorry."
Shino looks between the contrition on Sakura's face and the stormy look in Torune's eyes. "It's alright, Haruno-san. It wasn't really my business."
"Will you set the table?" Shibi asks the room at large.
The three children look at each other before hustling further into the kitchen, Sakura following the Aburame children's lead as they collect place mats, plates, and utensils for dinner. Sakura smiles to herself as she works alongside the boys, a warm feeling settling into her gut as they set a fourth place at the table. She looks at it until that feeling threatens to burn, to spill over through her eyes before moving on; afraid to name what she is feeling for fear that the spell will break.
Torune notices her pause and, after scrutinizing her for scant seconds, pushes her gently into a seat at the table.
Sakura sits still, watching the small family unit move around the kitchen, orbiting each other with ease without ever colliding. They fit together, three pieces within the same puzzle. A delicious smell wafts up from the oven as Shibi removes the food, though Sakura is quickly distracted by Shino as he ladles precise, pristine amounts of rice into the bowls around the table.
Sakura lifts her bowl to him, giving him a slight smile. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," he says before stepping away once more.
Torune claims the seat beside her, offering her support in the confident look he sends her way. She lets it bolster her as his uncle and cousin make their way to the table, bringing with them the entree and side dishes.
Torune takes her plate, piling it with different foods, explaining each of them and why he thinks she'll enjoy them. Sakura doesn't have the heart to tell him that she recognizes most of the items. Still, there is a novelty to all of this, joining a group of people for food.
She isn't used to this, to sitting down to dinner with a family.
She's gone out to dinner with her parents a handful of times after a successful deal or trip. Those memories, filled with delicious foods and celebratory talk, are cherished close to her heart. This homeyness is new and unfamiliar, different in a good way.
Sakura finds that she likes it.
She likes it a lot.
A sensation like giddiness settles in her and it does not fade, not even as Shibi asks, "So Sakura-san, are you enjoying school?"
Sakura swallows around her bite of spiced pork and nods. "Yes, Aburame-sama. We've just started learning some more complicated kata. I think we'll start sparring soon."
Shibi laughs slightly, turning his attention to Shino before Sakura can begin to feel embarrassed. "Shino told me the exact same thing earlier this week!"
"Really?" Sakura asks eagerly as she turns toward Shino, happy to discuss curriculum. She loves learning. "Who do you think will lead it, Mizuki-sensei or Iruka-sensei?"
"I think they might be bringing someone else in," Shino says, hiding the fluster he feels under Sakura's enthusiastic eyes. He's unused to receiving such attention from anyone outside his immediate family unit and never from someone who wears their emotions so blatantly. He isn't used to looking into another person's eyes. Sakura's are pretty, as a thin ring of grey surrounds her pupil while the rest of her iris is a vibrant, brilliant green that makes him think of the rolling hills and verdant leaves of Konoha. Meeting her gaze feels like he's staring into the sun. It's scalding. "From what I understand of previous years, Hokage-sama rotates higher leveled shinobi who are off duty in to lead the teaching on those topics. If none are available then the Academy teachers lead."
Sakura hums her understanding, twirling her chopsticks in her hand. Shibi notes the deftness to her hand, a lightness that belies weapon training that hasn't yet been offered to her cohort of Academy students. His eyes light with interest.
She has potential.
"That makes sense," Sakura says, brow wrinkling slightly as she thinks. "It's probably beneficial on both sides," she adds, thinking to her experience with the Intelligence Division and specifically with the members of T&I. "It gives the students a chance to learn from specialized teachers and it gives the shinobi something that is light." She pauses, thinking of Anko and Ibiki and the stilted, stifled kindness they direct her way. "It gives them something human."
"Exactly so," Shibi says, impressed. He is beginning to understand the interest that the Jonin Commander has displayed in this clanless, precocious child. She possesses a knack for puzzles, an ability to unravel the logic behind things. It will doubtless be an asset in the coming years. "How are you finding your field experience assignment? You are with the Intelligence Division correct?"
Sakura absolutely lights up. "Yes. I've been assigned to ciphers with Nara-san. Torune's been staying with me in the library while I do research."
Torune, who has been slouched over with a distinctly put out look on his face, straightens and the buzz beneath his skin dies down. Shibi stifles a snort behind his hand, barely able to believe that this boy is his reticent, professional nephew. In the past, Torune was an almost silent shadow, weighed down by the legacy of his parents' technique. He's never seen Torune sulk before, nor has he seen Torune grin unabashedly the way he does when speaking of or being around Sakura. Sakura brings the child out in Torune and Shibi does not begrudge it. In fact, he welcomes it and welcomes her. He nods to himself, mind made up.
"Sakura-san, would you like to join us for meditation after dinner?" Shibi asks.
Both Shino and Torune look at him, shock writ across their features. It is rare for the Aburame to meditate with outsiders, generally only sharing that honor with family members. It is a vulnerable time for them as hive and host separate from each other. To make an offer to an outsider indicates a deep sense of trust.
Sakura's eyes flick among the three Aburame, gleaning the significance of the event though not the reason for it. She ducks her head to him. "I would be honored, Aburame-sama."
"Please," Shibi says, casting her a smile. "Call me Shibi-oji."
"And call me Sakura," she replies, responding grin almost blinding.
Shibi casts his gaze around the three children at the table as they begin to chatter with each other, excitement clear in their gestures. He can tell that Shino is still hesitant, still unsure of where he fits in the obviously strong relationship between Torune and Sakura. But Shibi can see the hope that sparks in Shino as he interacts with his cousin and his cousin's best friend. Shibi is not worried; it will sort itself in time.
For now, Shibi is satisfied with the knowledge that Sakura fits into their family unit easily, like a piece to their personal puzzle that they never knew they were missing until she arrived.
Sakura fiddles with the basket she carries, doubting herself for the eighth time since she started the walk from her house to the Intelligence Division. She knows she'll be late today, but she had to stop off at home to get what she needed. She thought this was a good idea last night but, in the light of day, she is not nearly so sure.
"Oi, what's got you pacing back and forth out here?"
Sakura nearly jumps out of her skin, looking up, up, up until she meets Ibiki's inquisitive gaze. "Hello Ibiki-san," she says with a weak smile. "How are you today?"
He hums in response, eyes focused on the basket she carries. "What's that?"
Sakura wilts a bit, trying to cover the basket. "It's nothing."
That, of course, is the wrong thing to say to the commanding officer of the Torture and Interrogation Force. Ibiki knows the art to lying and subterfuge, something that Sakura is not even close to mastering at this point. So, uninterested in prolonging the inevitable, Ibiki plucks the basket out of Sakura's grip, holding it high above her. Sakura pouts but, knowing Ibiki, keeps quiet as he sates his curiosity.
Ibiki opens the basket, teasing smile falling away as he examines the contents. "This is a lot of food," he says, taking in the traditional bento boxes. Some of the vegetables look slightly overcooked, but he can tell that all of this is home cooked. "You seem to be increasing your appetite; did the Academy start you all on sparring?"
"Not yet," Sakura says, flushing with embarrassment. "It's…I made lunch for everyone today. I noticed that everyone tends to get take-out for lunch and I thought it would be nice to make food." She cuts off her rambling, keeping herself from mentioning the way she feels when she eats homemade meals at the Aburame compound. Sakura wants to share that feeling with those she works with and she's spent the past couple of weeks practicing cooking large batches with Ino and her mother, Aiko. "I brought enough for T&I and the Analysis Team."
She glances up through lowered lashes at Ibiki, surprised that he hasn't spoken or laughed at her for the way she flounders. Ibiki stares at the basket, throat working hard for a moment; how long has it been since someone cooked for him? Memories flit through his mind of his mother and of Idate sitting around a table before he swallows, shaking his head roughly.
He claps a hand down on her head, tousling her hair roughly and knocking her bow askew before bending at the waist and lifting her in one arm with a single smooth motion. Sakura yelps, hands scrabbling against his hat for a moment before she settles somewhat uncomfortably. As Ibiki stands to his full height, Sakura finds herself perched upon his shoulder. She balances one hand lightly on his hat, frowning slightly at the odd texture she feels even through his hat. His head is not smooth, instead it is rough and uneven, skin hard.
Sakura does not mention it, surprised that he even trusts her to be this close to him.
Ibiki loops one hand around her legs, using the other to carry the basket as he strides into the Intelligence Division building, a wide and disturbing grin stretching his face. He ignores the way that the shinobi from other branches of the Intelligence Division stop and watch the disparate duo as he moves onto the T&I floor.
"Fall in!" he yells. "We've got a visitor!"
The T&I Force comes together in unison, some leaving interrogation rooms and others entering from the lounge area. To their credit, they do not even blink at the fact that Ibiki has brought a child onto their floor. They are well used to the antics of their eccentric leader.
Besides, they all know Sakura, at least peripherally.
"You called?" Mozuku says, a smirk lighting his face. Ibiki reminds himself to get Anko to spar with Mozuku later; it'll beat the smugness out of him.
"The kid brought us a gift," Ibiki says, the gruffness of his voice belying the gentleness with which he sets Sakura down.
Sakura takes the basket back from Ibiki and, red in the face, presents it to the Force. "I made lunch," she mumbles, chagrin getting the best of her.
She doesn't anticipate the smiles that she receives from the Force as they congregate around her, accepting bento boxes with a pat on her head and a few kind words. Ibiki sends Shinobu off to alert the Analysis Team who, upon arrival, also heap platitudes on her.
"So this is what you and Ino have been up to the past few visits. She was very secretive about it all," Inoichi says as he accepts a box from her and casts a wary eye around at his colleagues. He is still unsure if Sakura should be exposed to the darker side of the Intelligence Division, which includes his T&I co-workers. In his experience, they are not the most stable bunch. "I was quite put out this morning when Aiko and Ino refused to make me lunch. Now I understand why."
"Ino will be cooking for the Guard Platoon tomorrow," Sakura says, remembering Ino's excitement over her plans. "I'm sure she'll make a box for you too!"
Inoichi smiles, crouching and placing a hand on Sakura's shoulder. "You are a good friend to my daughter, Sakura-kun," he says. Up until this point, Ino has been completely uninterested in learning how to cook from either him or Aiko. He guesses that Sakura has something to do with the change. She has a lot to do with many of his daughter's changes; their friendship helps each of them improve. "Thank you."
Sakura is still trying to process this development when Shikaku enters the room, moving with a languid grace that is wholly Nara in nature. He saunters over her way, keen eyes taking in her ease among some of the shinobi most feared by civilians. (Shinobi know that there are others, those who live and lurk in the shadows, who should be truly feared.) He steps up beside Sakura, waiting for her to finish conversation with one of Ibiki's men, Shinobu perhaps, before approaching.
"Good afternoon, Nara-san," Sakura greets him, pulling a bento box out of her basket. "Would you care for some lunch?"
"I would, thank you," Shikaku says, accepting it. He eyes it, taking in its homemade nature. It presents as good an opportunity as any to do something he's been meaning to do for some time now. "Sakura, I would like to return the favor. Would you do me the honor of joining my family for dinner in a few days?"
"Ah, welcome," a tall dark-haired woman says, as she opens the door. "You must be Sakura."
"Hello," Sakura greets, ducking her head slightly. "Thank you for having me here today, Nara-san."
"Call me Yoshino," the woman says, stepping back to usher Sakura in. "No need to stand on etiquette."
Sakura smiles weakly at Yoshino's brusqueness, just as she presents her with the small house warming gift. When her parents—home briefly before an expedition to Suna—discovered she was invited to the Nara compound, they chose a fine shochu they picked up in Tea to bring as a gift. They insisted the need for such formalities and, appalled as they were by the fact that Sakura visited the Aburame compound without such gifts, they already made her take a reparation of sorts to Shibi. So, Sakura raises the bottle with a flush in her cheeks, waiting as Yoshino plucks it from her hand.
"Usually I find these little presents pointless," Yoshino says bluntly, hefting the bottle and eying the script written on it. Sakura blushes, shamed. "However, this one absolutely has a point. A point I quite enjoy in fact. You have good taste." Her smile softens. "At least, your parents do."
"I'm glad you like it," Sakura says, shoulders relaxing slightly.
"C'mon now," Yoshino says, sashaying down the hall with a buoyant sort of grace that Sakura finds herself envious of. "Shikaku and Shikamaru are already sitting down at the table."
Sakura follows Yoshino, after she slips off her shoes. The Nara home is very traditional in nature, all wood floors and paper screens. The further she gets into the house, the more detailed the paintings on the paper screens. There is a beautiful, simplistic symmetry to the art and Sakura pauses without thinking to peruse a piece of art depicting a deer with stars among its antlers.
"You like it?" Yoshino asks.
Sakura jumps and glances askance at Yoshino whose expression is unreadable. "It's lovely," she says, taking in the steady confidence in the strokes of the painting.
Yoshino smiles and it is somehow softer than the one she gave Sakura earlier. "I do them myself. I need something to do; I get so stir-crazy cooped up in here!"
"I thought you were an active agent," Sakura replies. She's seen the current active roster in her time sorting documents and Yoshino's name is on them.
"Oh, I am," Yoshino replies. "I'm active with the chunin rotation now. It's truthfully all a bit mundane, I'm used to something more active." Sakura nods hesitantly, unable to understand her belief that being a chunin is mundane. Sakura often feels overwhelmed as an Academy student and she can barely imagine the workload of a chunin operative. Yoshino's smile widens. "I've spent the majority of my life on the jonin rotation, even while I was pregnant with Shikamaru. I switched to chunin as a way to slow down for Shikaku's sake."
"My ears are burning," Shikaku says dryly as the duo walks into the dining room.
"Just discussing the sacrifices I make for you," Yoshino replies cheerfully as she takes the seat across from him. She holds up the bottle of shochu. "Look what Sakura brought us."
Shikaku's eyes crease upwards as he smiles. "That's a nice blend. We've visited that distillery a couple of times haven't we, Yoshino?"
Yoshino hums in agreement and murmurs something in reply, but Sakura isn't paying attention. No, Sakura is watching Shikamaru who sits directly across from her. He stares at her with his brows drawn down over his fiery eyes. Sakura has never seen him like this, those sloe eyes of his looking so like the burning coals she sees so often in his father's gaze. Shikamaru has always been a sedate presence in the classroom, answering questions when called upon, but not contributing much beyond that. His answers, though reluctant, are always concise and intelligent, displaying a depth of knowledge beyond what is available in their textbooks. But Shikamaru displays such an apathy in class that he is overlooked in favor of more eager students like Sakura or Ino and the louder students like Naruto and Kiba.
She doubts any of the teachers would ignore him if he gave them a look like this.
She certainly can't ignore him.
Sakura gulps, hiding it as a deep sip of her water. From the flare of satisfaction that twists his expression, Sakura doubts she passed it off too well.
She glances askance, taking in the amusement on Shikaku's face as he meets her eyes. Sakura pauses mid-sip, returning her glass to the table and picking up her chopsticks instead. She turns her attention to her rice, hoping her downturn face masks at least some of the thoughts flitting through her mind. Ibiki says that she telegraphs what she thinks in her expression and she hopes against hope that she doesn't now as she works to figure this dinner out.
Shikaku expected this. And, in truth, based upon Ino's offhanded warning, so did Sakura. It still manages to startle her though, to see such a complete shift in Shikamaru's personality. It is odd to her that Shikaku wanted this to happen. Sakura wonders why Shikaku would orchestrate this meeting in such a fashion, in such a controlled environment.
An environment he controls.
Sakura's eyes narrow with contemplation as she deftly lifts a slice of tuna to her lips.
If that is the game he wishes to play…
Sakura turns her eyes back to Shikamaru, meeting his gaze directly, without fear. She channels the confidence of Ibiki and Anko, of the T&I Force agents in general, a blistering confidence that burns those who stand in their way. It is different from the confidence she's seen exhibited by clan leaders like Shibi and Shikaku. The confidence of clan leaders is smooth and slick, leaving the individual implacable and unruffled in the face of any challenges. The confidence she channels runs hot where the clan leaders', at least the ones she knows, runs cold.
Shikamaru's eyes widen ever so slightly, highlighting the smallness of his pupils and irises within the white of the sclera.
Sakura realizes that she has never looked at him head on like this, that usually she lets her gaze slip and slide along the right side of his face. It is a habit she has with anyone she is not close to and she thinks it may be time to break that habit.
"How are you finding your field experience assignment?" Sakura asks.
She sees Yoshino cover her mouth as mirth fills her eyes, but Sakura's attention still remains on Shikamaru. He frowns at her, but replies, "I've been working with the curators of the Forty-Fourth Training Ground in preparation of the upcoming chunin exams. It's troublesome."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Sakura says mildly, continuing to consume the dinner. "Ino loves her field experience assignment. She's learning a lot with Shiranui-san and Tatami-san." She glances at Shikaku. "She also likes working with the Quartermaster."
"Chōza enjoys working with her too," Shikaku replies. "She's apparently become quite the weapons' expert."
Shikamaru sighs. "As she likes to display during training."
"She's proud of her skills," Sakura says, a stalwart defender of her friend even in this. "Why shouldn't she utilize them as much as possible?"
"Indeed," Shikaku adds. "It is important for shinobi to utilize all the skills they've obtained and continue to improve upon them lest they atrophy." He nods and gives a wry twist to his lips. Sakura would describe his expression as devious. "Take Sakura for example. Her field experience assignment has her sorting documents, something that is of limited use to shinobi. Yet she's managed to take advantage of her surroundings and use them for all their worth. She's turned a disadvantageous situation into an advantageous one."
Sakura watches Shikamaru's face flicker through multiple expressions as Shikaku speaks: anger, chagrin, disappointment, and guilt before finally settling into one of determination.
"Sakura, would you like to play a game with me after dinner?" Shikamaru asks.
Sakura assesses each of the Nara around her, taking in the satisfaction and amusement on Shikaku and Yoshino's faces. Briefly, she considers the fact that visiting at the Aburame compound is so much more simple and enjoyable, comfortable in a way she's never been among a family before. This type of layered conversation, full of nuances often missed by outsiders, is more at home among the Haruno clan during family reunions. And, apparently, it is just a part of the Nara household. Sakura nods to Shikamaru. "Of course," she replies before cocking her head. "What game shall we be playing?"
Shikamaru's responding grin is pure triumph. "Shogi."
Dinner passes rather mundanely after that and Sakura quickly finds herself sitting across from Shikamaru over a wooden board, bracketed by his parents.
"You'll have to explain the rules," Sakura says, looking at the somewhat familiar pieces. She's seen people play shogi in the marketplace as she hung around the Haruno shop, though she never had the patience to try and learn it herself. After all, who would she play with? "I'm afraid I'm new to the game."
"Shogi is known as the game of generals," Shikaku explains as Shikamaru places out the pieces with a haste that speaks to enthusiasm. "You have twenty pieces: one king, one rook, one bishop, two gold generals, two silver generals, two knights, two lances, and nine pawns. The object of the game is to force your opponent into checkmate." Shikaku proceeds to explain the intricacies of the game and Sakura nods along, head swimming with the overload of information. "Yoshino and I will be here to be of assistance should you forget the rules, though we won't make suggestions for you."
"You won't?" Sakura asks, startled.
Yoshino shakes her head. "Shogi is a game of strategy. Each player develops a characteristic style, something as unique to them as their fingerprints. All three of us play differently, though certainly we've influenced each other since we play against each other so often."
"Though changing my style doesn't tend to help my chances," Shikaku says dryly, pouring shochu for himself and Yoshino and watermelon juice for Shikamaru and Sakura.
Yoshino smiles at him, stroking a thumb across his cheekbone. "You handle yourself well enough." She returns her attention to Sakura. "You are new to the game and you'll learn best by making your own mistakes. We don't want to make you replicate our styles; we want you to struggle through and find your own path."
"Like code," Sakura says softly, missing the way Shikaku's eyes light with a mix of pride and delight.
Shikamaru does not. "Let's begin." He tosses five of his pawns, four landing as unpromoted pawns and one landing as a promoted pawn. "I move first."
Sakura swallows, steeling herself as they begin.
Thus begins a dizzying four and a half hours spent with half-remembered rules and anxious scrambling to keep up with Shikamaru's strategy. Yoshino and Shikaku gently prompt her with rules about the movements of the pieces but, as promised, they do not attempt to offer advice to defeat Shikamaru.
So, Sakura is not at all surprised when her king is pinned between two of his gold generals and his rook.
"Checkmate," Shikamaru says, a breathtaking grin overtaking his face.
The sheer joy in the expression, something that is unfiltered and pure, makes Sakura feel happy as well, despite knowing that Shikamaru is not a fan of her.
"Congratulations, Shikamaru," Sakura says, giving him a large smile. She offers him her hand. "You deserve it."
"Thanks," he says, schooling his surprise as he shakes her hand. "You weren't terrible yourself."
Sakura smiles slightly before abruptly ending the handshake, as she slaps a hand over her mouth as she yawns. Mortified, Sakura gives the family a shaky smile. "Sorry, I suppose I'm more tired than I expected."
Yoshino waves her apology away. "I apologize for keeping you so long. It is quite late and you two have class tomorrow morning. I'll escort you home."
"Thank you for your hospitality," Sakura says, nodding to each of them. "I need to wash up first, but I will be grateful for your escort home."
All three Nara watch as Sakura scurries out of the room before returning their attention among the family unit.
"There were three openings for you to end the game earlier," Shikaku says, knocking the wind from Shikamaru's sails.
"Sakura-chan had five opportunities to end the game," Yoshino adds, plucking the bottle of shochu from Shikaku's side. She gives him a wry smile before tossing the bottle back and taking a number of long gulps. "If she played aggressively or with a surer hand, she would've won." She takes a seat next to Shikamaru, rearranging the board to show him what she means. Shikamaru watches intently, despite the heat rising to his neck and cheeks. He hates being corrected, even though he knows it is necessary for improvement. And, despite all of his vocal claims about wanting to be ordinary, a small kernel deep within him wishes to be extraordinary. "Considering the fact that this is her first time playing, I believe Sakura-chan will soon make a formidable opponent for you, Shikamaru."
Shikamaru looks down at the shogi board, taking in the pieces. Despite not knowing the game, Sakura learned quickly and possesses a keen mind, something that he's known since they entered the Academy. But this is the first time he actually appreciates it rather than resents it. Sakura has proven herself to be interesting, something that makes Shikamaru excited to return to the Academy tomorrow for the first time since he started.
"I believe you may be right," Shikamaru says, something strange stirring in his gut. Could it be…anticipation?
All he knows is that, for the first time ever, something has caught his attention. And he is not going to let it slip away.
Sakura places the lid on the box, smiling at the neatly lined papers within the box. She scoots the box away, turning to the next one.
"You doing alright in here, Sakura?" Shikaku asks, popping his head in. He whistles lowly as he takes in the storm of organization that Sakura leaves in her wake. The comparison between her work and the boxes and documents that have yet to be touched is astonishing. This is the first time that the Intelligence Division has had a free hand able to sort through the Archives documents and already Shikaku can see how much better it is than just throwing the documents in the room and forgetting about them. "It's looking good."
"Thanks," Sakura says softly, grabbing a new empty box. "It's going well, I think."
"Alright," Shikaku says. "Just giving you a fifteen minute warning; you're joining Inoichi and me for lunch. Finish up what you're doing right now and we'll head out."
Sakura nods, waiting until Shikaku leaves to look over her kingdom of dust and documents. She is working only on the low-level documents contained within this room, as the higher-level documents are kept on another floor completely. She's been able to understand all of the codes she's found so far and so she sorts the documents by where the information is gathered from and then by the type of information. Shikaku is allowing her to sort the documents as she pleases and Sakura is certain that this is yet another test on his part.
Everything is a test with Shikaku.
Sometimes, the constant maneuvering of the Nara clan tires her out, though she does her best not to let them know. She is thankful for her years spent observing Haruno family gatherings. No one does mind games and psychological warfare half as well as a long established clan full of cutthroat merchants. Not all clans are like the Aburame, accepting her with openness and warmth. She can hardly believe the civilian perception of the Aburame as distant and remote operatives now that she knows Torune, Shino, and Shibi so well.
Sakura decides not to start on another box just yet, instead grabbing the pile of documents that will be placed within the box. A few of the loose leaf sheets slip free.
She places the pile down beside an empty box and moves through the room picking up the fallen papers. Sakura glances over each of them, nodding at the information from Suna.
The second to last piece of paper, however, is different.
Sakura frowns down at the unfamiliar paper covered in an even more unfamiliar cipher. She doesn't recognize the type of cipher, though the formatting of the writing makes it appear to be a recipe of some sort.
It feels so out of place with missives regarding the culture of Suna, though Sakura supposes it may be a recipe on how to properly cook gizzard.
That still doesn't explain the advanced cipher.
The paper itself is old and crinkled and, from the smell, appears to have been here for at least a couple of decades.
Sakura stares down at the paper, memorizing the cipher and its format. While she isn't allowed to remove any documents from the room, no one has said anything about memorizing the cipher and taking it out of the room that way.
Sakura isn't entirely certain whether Shikaku forgot to make a rule regarding the ciphers or if this is yet another test.
Regardless, Sakura feels more like a ninja as she replaces the paper among the pile of documents and grabs her bag.
She exits the room with a large smile on her face, greeting both Shikaku and Inoichi.
She has a puzzle to solve.
I wanted to get at least one more chapter out prior to the beginning of the school semester! I hope y'all enjoy. Let me know what you think!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Sakura wakes bright and early, eager for class. This is by no means unusual, Sakura thrives in the academic environment, blossoming under the praise she receives from the teachers. Ino affectionately calls her a teacher's pet, but Sakura knows there are others in her class who think the same, though without any of the affection added to the term.
She knows from her readings that her current talents and most likely her Academy evaluations have her slotted as a paper ninja, all theory and no technique.
Once this may have bothered her. Before the field assignment, before the ciphers, before Shikaku, Sakura may have dispaired.
Now, however, Sakura knows the truth. If she wants longevity in this career, she'll need all the intelligence she can get. With no kekkei genkai and no shinobi clan backing her, she must rely on herself. It's how the smaller shinobi clans begin; Sarutobi Hiruzen is a first-generation ninja as was Hatake Sakumo. Both clans are now highly revered within Konoha. In the era of Konoha's founding, many shinobi clans were founded on the will of a single individual. They survive and thrive through intelligence and sheer stubbornness.
Sakura thinks, should she survive long enough, she can ensure that Haruno is a name known within shinobi circles as well as merchant ones.
A paper ninja can be rooted in both theory and technique.
So Sakura rushes out the front door, excited because today is the day they start sparring.
She arrives fifteen minutes as is her habit and offers Iruka-sensei a smile and a soft-spoken hello as she passes by the teacher's lounge. As is usual, she offers him her assistance in setting up for the day. As always, he denies her, sending her off with words of gratitude and a ruffle to her hair. Sakura adjusts her bow as she walks into the classroom, wondering why everyone likes to mess with her hair.
Sakura pauses when she realizes that she is not alone. Shino sits at the back of the classroom in the corner as he normally does when class is in session. He lights up upon seeing her, though his shoulders begin to hunch inward as she continues to just stand there.
The hurt she reads in his expression is enough to snap her out of her confusion and she nearly trips over herself to run to him, falling gracelessly into the middle seat.
"Good morning! How are you today, Shino?" Sakura asks, giving him a large smile.
"I am well," he replies, ducking his chin into his collar. "Why? Because my hive and I rested well last night." Silence stretches for a few moments before he asks, "And yourself?"
"I'm excited," Sakura says, bouncing a bit in her seat. "We start sparring today! It'll be nice to put these katas to use."
Shino nods, unsure how to continue the conversation. He is not well-versed in this, usually his father chooses the topics of conversation at home. Envy curls in his gut at the ease with which Sakura and Torune converse. At the dinners she attends laughter abounds, not like this stilted silence that hangs between them.
"Shino, could I see your kikaichū?" Sakura asks, unaware of his inner turmoil. Unlike Torune, Shino has control over his hive and it does not stir despite his shifting emotions. When Shino startles, Sakura scratches her cheek, wishing her face did not feel so hot. "It's just—I haven't seen them up close. Torune refuses to show his." Her eyes go wide. "Am I not allowed to see them? Are you not allowed to let them out outside of combat? I just thought, since you let them out during meditation—"
Shino holds up a hand to stop her rambling, unable to hide his smile. Sage above, he's never heard anyone speak so fast! "I can show you my kikaichū. Torune won't show you his because that is his personal preference. Why? I suspect he is concerned about controlling them around you."
"That's silly," Sakura huffs, though there is a softness to her eyes that indicates that she is not in any way angry. "Torune wouldn't hurt me." Shino privately agrees but understands Torune's self-doubts. Then she bolts upright, eyes glittering as she processes Shino's words. "You will?"
Shino's head spins from all the directions this conversation has gone—he's used to linear discussions—but he nods as he catches up. "I'll show you my kikaichū."
Sakura perches her chin on her hands, waiting expectantly. Shino fidgets beneath the weight of her excitement, wondering if he needs to perform this with a flourish. Perhaps this is the reason Torune doesn't share his rinkaichū with Sakura: he doesn't wish to disappoint her.
Still, Shino can't renege.
Shino extends his hand, calling one of his kikaichū forth. The kikaichū, a male drone, one of the least intimidating of Shino's hive, crawls out onto the table. He stops before Sakura, wings twitching at the anticipation and anxiety coming off his host.
"It's beautiful," Sakura whispers, ignorant of the way Shino sighs in relief. "May I touch it?"
"Him," Shino cannot help but correct. Thankfully, she doesn't seem upset by the correction. "He's a drone."
Sakura nods absently, attention on the beetle crawling into the palm of her hand. The kikaichū's exoskeleton is black, though there are lines of iridescence that show through in purple hues. His eyes are a bright, crystalline blue. The antennae twitch, tickling Sakura's palm.
"What are you doing?"
Sakura and Shino jerk back as Ino enters the room, expression twisted in distaste. Sakura handles the kikaichū gently, adjusting her hand so Ino can see him.
Ino blanches and aims a glare at Shino. He meets her gaze solidly, bolstered by the tenderness with which Sakura treats his kikaichū. "Don't make Sakura handle your insects! It could consume her chakra!"
"He will not," Shino says stiffly. "Why? Because I have control over my hive and intend no harm to Sakura."
"Look Ino," Sakura says, hoping to diffuse the tension. "He's quite sweet." The kikaichū moves up her arm, antennae waving. "Would you like to hold him?"
Ino's nose wrinkles before she can help it. "I'd rather not."
Sakur shrugs, eyes flicking between the two of them. Tensions run high with Ino's dislike of the kikaichū and Shino's anger over her slights. She isn't quite sure what to do, but she knows she must do something. They're both her friends and she doesn't want them fighting.
"I like insects," Sakura says, watching the kikaichū on her arm. She feels their eyes and attention on her. "They used to scare me; I once stumbled into a bee's nest and receive three stings before I got away. But I started observing the insects while in the forest, at first because I was wary and wanted to avoid them and later because I saw that they're beautiful." She smiles, running a finger along the kikaichū's antenna. "The butterflies and moths have gorgeous wing patterns. Fireflies are nature's candlelight and helped light my way when I went home after dark. And bees pollinate plants and flowers which allows them to survive." Sakura looks at Ino, pleading for her to understand. "You taught me to see the beauty of flowers. Shino and Torune are teaching me the beauty of insects."
Sakura bites her lip as she finishes, waiting for Ino's response.
Ino's eyes flicker between them, taking in Sakura's desire for peace and the muted admiration with which Shino regards Sakura. Finally, she looks at the kikaichū which perches placidly on Sakura's forearm. Ino sighs, taking the empty seat beside Sakura. "So, Shino, what do you know about flowers?"
"That looks boring."
Sakura's eyes snap up to the door, proud of the fact that she doesn't flinch. She's getting better at this, less jumpy at least. "Ibiki-san!" she exclaims, grinning in greeting. His firmed mouth softens to a smirk. "It is not boring!"
Ibiki hums, striding into the tiny office that Sakura occupies. As always, it makes the room feel even smaller, but it no longer provokes anxiety in Sakura. She trusts Ibiki; he won't hurt her. He plucks the book out of her hands, raising his brows at her. "The Development of Linguistics in Kusagakure: A Complex Analysis of International Linguistic Influence? Really, Sakura?" He flips through a couple of pages, frowning at the stuffy, pretentious language used throughout the book. "What does this even have to do with ciphers?"
"Ciphers are a created language," Sakura says, making grabby hands as she pouts up at Ibiki. She knows from experience that she has no way to get the book back from the towering man outside of his decision to return it to her. "It's important to understand how other languages impact and influence each other." Her countenance brightens with interest. "It's amazing actually. Kusagakure is a haven to many civilians and shinobi fleeing from other nations; it's a veritable melting pot of cultures. You can see the way language in Kusagakure changed following the Third—"
"Okay, okay," Ibiki says, unwilling to listen to a lecture on information he doesn't need. He has people for that. "You need a break. You're practically becoming one with your desk!"
Sakura crosses her arms, neck beginning to ache from looking up at him. "I'm not getting my book back until I go with you."
It isn't a question. She knows him too well.
"Nope," he says, spitefully cheerful in crushing her dreams. He raises one hand, forming it into different hand seals before slapping it upon the book. It disappears in a puff of smoke. "C'mon! The faster you join me, the faster you'll get your book back."
"I'm okay with going slowly," Sakura says guilelessly, gathering up her belongings. She frowns as she realizes how strewn about her things are. "I like spending time with you, Ibiki."
Bent over as she is, Sakura misses the delightful way Ibiki's ears and scars darken with embarrassment. "Damn it, kid!"
Sakura whirls, clutching her pencils and notebooks close to her chest, as she shakes a finger at him. "Don't say that word! It isn't kind!"
Ibiki looks down at her before scrubbing a hand over his mouth. "Sorry about that, kid. Let me help you get your stuff."
Sakura allows him to help, not mentioning the fact that it takes longer with Ibiki trying to reach into tight corners of the room. Plus, he doesn't know the organization of her bag so she keeps going back after him, fixing it. She doesn't mention it, remembering advice from her mother: "Accept all kindness with gratitude." So, when they finally manage to get her bag packed the way she likes best, Sakura says, "Thank you for your help, Ibiki-san!"
"Don't mention it kid," Ibiki replies. He clears his throat, gesturing toward the door. "C'mon. I want to show you something." Sakura cocks her head to the side, but he just shakes his head. "It's a surprise."
Sakura nods and follows him, curiosity burning in the pit of her gut. She enjoys surprises, at least, she enjoys unraveling them. She doesn't so much enjoy the process of being surprised. They head down to the first floor and Sakura notices the way that eyes rove over them before dismissing them as non-threats. Seeing Sakura nearly running alongside Ibiki to keep up with his long-legged strides is common in the Intelligence Division.
"Not that way," Ibiki says, a hand coming down onto her shoulder and redirecting her from the entrance. "We're going this way."
Sakura allows Ibiki to push her along toward the opposite end of the building. He turns her down multiple halls until they find themselves standing before a nondescript door. She glances up at Ibiki, squinting as she remembers Inoichi's constant warnings. She's already broken most of those warnings by going off with Ibiki alone without telling anyone. "You aren't planning to interrogate me, right?" she asks.
"What?" he asks, blanching. His fingers flex around her shoulder before releasing like she's scalded him. "Why would you ask that?"
Sakura grins up at him, unwilling to keep the joke going. "I was just teasing you," she explains, patting his arm. "Nara-san is teaching me how to lie. How'd I do?"
Ibiki frowns severely at the satisfied look on her face, nudging her in the side. He underestimates his strength and Sakura stumbles to the side slightly, unprepared. "Don't act so cheeky, brat," he mutters. "Now, any idea where we're heading?"
Sakura eyes the door, humming to herself. The door itself doesn't give much away, though Sakura can see the wear to it. It's obviously used quite often, which indicates that whatever is on the other side of the door most likely is utilized by more than a single department of the Intelligence Division. At the base of the door, there is slight discoloration, not just the usual faded color brought on by use. The floor is ever so slightly tinged in green.
"We're going outside," Sakura says, still examining the door. "Somewhere still on the Division's grounds. I'm not entirely certain what its purpose is, perhaps recreation?"
Ibiki whistles, ruffling Sakura's hair. "I see those lessons with the Nara are going well."
Sakura shrugs slightly, adjusting her bow. "They give me a headache sometimes," she confides. "Every conversation has so many layers!"
"Trust me," Ibiki replies with a snort. "Shikaku constantly gives me migraines with his cryptic bull—" He eyes her and clears his throat, "—nonsense. I'm sure his brat is just as bad."
"I guess," Sakura says, thinking about the burning coals that are Shikamaru's eyes. "He doesn't like me much."
"No?" Ibiki says. "His loss."
Sakura looks up at him in surprise, but Ibiki has thrown open the door, exposing Sakura to a field of green. She steps out, basking in the heat of the sunlight. She's a bit astonished to realize that she's been cooped up inside the building for over two hours already. Technically, the field experience assignment only demands ten hours a week, two for every school day. However, since Ibiki first meddled, her time spent at the Intelligence Division is much more extensive.
"Is this a training ground?" Sakura asks, thinking of the ones that they toured as a class a few months ago.
The training grounds are accessible only by shinobi, their dog tags keyed into the seals that border the grounds. The seals, erected originally at Uzumaki Mito's insistence, act as a barrier and keep any jutsus from going outside of the training grounds. It keeps Konoha from having to shell out money for extensive damages to the village as a whole, instead keeping it relegated to a handful of miles.
"A private training ground," Ibiki says. "These grounds are only accessible to members of the Intelligence Division. A lot of members stay here overnight, sometimes for days on end when there's a difficult per—case to crack. This is a place to for them to let off steam."
Sakura glances over at Ibiki. "That doesn't explain why you brought me here though."
Ibiki grins. "I'm going to teach you something new."
"Really?" Sakura asks, excited. "You mean it?"
"Of course," Ibiki says, amused by the way that Sakura positively wriggles in anticipation. "I'm going to teach you how to tree walk."
Sakura's eyes go wide. Tree walking is one of the most essential chakra-control skills taught to Konoha shinobi. None of the Academy students have yet to learn it, even among the older students. She knows that a couple of clan kids in upper years, ones who are nearing their graduation date, have learned the ability as they love to show off during free time.
"Is it okay for me to learn?" Sakura asks, hating herself for asking the question but knowing that she has to act responsibly. "Is it legal?"
"Kid, I'm a tokujō," Ibiki says with an eyeroll, using the slang for tokubetsu jōnin. "I outrank all of those anxious chūnin teachers over at the Academy. They like to make a big fuss about a whole lot of nothing. If I say it's alright for you to learn, it's alright for you to learn."
Sakura nods, accepting the brusque explanation. And, knowing that he is trying to be nice to her, she says, "Thank you so much Ibiki-san. I really appreciate you taking the time."
Ibiki waves off her gratitude, but Sakura knows he likes it as he hides his soft smile behind his popped collar. He leads her off to one of the large trees on the property, taking a seat beneath it and crossing his arms. "Listen up," he says, holding up a finger. "I'm only going to explain this once." Ibiki pauses, surveying her as she kneels across from him. "Wait a second; you love to read. Have you already read the theory on tree walking?"
"Yes," she replies, averting her gaze. "You have to channel the perfect amount of chakra into your foot. Kind of coat it in chakra so it sticks to the surface of the object you're walking on. Put in too little chakra and it will not stick. Put in too much chakra and your foot will most likely go through the surface." She wrinkles her nose. "If you do it very improperly, the chakra can reverberate throughout the foot and cause damage to both the foot and chakra coils."
"Got it in one, kid," Ibiki says. "That's a nice summation. Now, I'm guessing you decided not to try this technique out by yourself because you were concerned about the outcome." She nods. "Those scrolls do a good job of dissuading untested people from trying out techniques. There isn't really any risk of harm for you."
"But children aren't really supposed to use chakra that much," Sakura says. "My chakra coils are still developing. If I did anything to damage them now…"
"You won't," Ibiki replies, voice brooking no argument. Something stirs in Sakura at the confidence he exudes. Pride perhaps? Happiness at being taken and treated seriously? "Besides, if anything goes wrong, that's why I'm here. I'm your supervisor; I'm supervising." Sakura swallows against the gorge rising in her throat and nods, determined not to disappoint Ibiki. He chuckles. "There's that fire of yours. Keep that fire burning in your gut; you'll need it." Ibiki gestures to the tree. "Go on."
Sakura steps around Ibiki, staring at the tree. It is a large, old oak tree, the first available branch is ten feet up. She focuses on that branch, field of vision narrowing in on it alone. As she focuses, Sakura reaches into herself, following the instructions listed in countless books and scrolls. It takes some time, but she manages to fall into a cool, dark part of herself, lit by a tiny ball of green fire. Sakura reaches out tentatively, flinching as the fire breaks apart into thousands of little bits as she touches it. Sparks light up her arm, leaving a tingling sensation in their wake.
Sakura concentrates, drawing those sparks down toward the soles of her feet. She opens her eyes, surprised to find she closed them. Ibiki sits in the periphery of her vision, but Sakura doesn't pay attention to him, eyes on her chosen branch. She lifts a foot, placing it against the trunk of the tree and, taking a deep breath, pushes off her other foot.
The first foot sticks.
Sakura exhales, pressing down her other foot, up and up and up, until she is at the branch. She perches on it, coming out of her trance-like state as she peers down at Ibiki. Her body heaves as she pants, soaked in sweat. She's never realized just how heavy her eyelids are until just now. However, Ibiki is grinning up at her maniacally and she is unable to do anything but reciprocate.
"You did it!" Ibiki yells, looking so proud of her accomplishment.
Sakura nods, wavering, feeling off-balanced. Her nod tips her forward and she suddenly find herself pitching forward. She's so exhausted that she doesn't even scream. Ibiki leaps to his feet, dashing forward and catching Sakura easily.
He stares down at her, grin softening. "You alright kid?"
Sakura squints at him blearily, hand patting his cheek a bit harshly. Her coordination is ungainly. "I'm alright."
Ibiki holds her for a moment longer before setting her on the ground. Sakura giggles and pitches forward, wrapping her arms around Ibiki. She only comes up to his waist, so her arms encircle his legs. Ibiki goes stiff all over. He hasn't hugged anyone in years. He forgot how warm they are.
Hesitantly, Ibiki reaches down and pats Sakura's back.
The hug lasts for a long while before Sakura's arms go slack. She doesn't step away though.
Ibiki pulls her away, snorting as he realizes that she is fast asleep. He nudges her shoulder until she rouses. "C'mon kid. Let's get you home."
"Okay," she says, before brightening. "Thank you Ibiki-san!"
He lifts her, knowing that she's in no condition to make her way home alone. "It's just Ibiki, kid. Drop the 'san.'"
Shikamaru's eyes flick to the other end of the room, fixating on the opposite back corner. Up until this point, Sakura has religiously seated herself in the middle section of the second row, a perfect vantage point to get the attention of whoever is teaching them at the moment. Now, however, as of a few weeks ago, Sakura is rooted in the very back row on the other side of the room. Shikamaru chooses the back because he can nap easily and undetected, but he knows that can't be Sakura's reasoning.
He guesses it's because of her neighbor.
Apparently, at some point since Sakura pseudo-apprenticed herself to his father, she also befriended the Aburame heir. He would accuse her of attempting to get herself into the good graces of as many of the shinobi clans as she can, but he knows from observation that she is without artifice when it comes to her relationships. She is frustratingly, infuriatingly genuine. It makes her soft for a shinobi-in-training, but it suits her well.
Something twists in his gut as he watches her laugh with Shino and Ino and he scowls, wishing that the teacher would scold them. Alas, the current teacher is Rinko-sensei, a jōnin currently on leave because of her rampant alcoholism. Konoha doesn't care what its shinobi's vices are, as long as they don't interfere with the job. Unfortunately for Rinko-sensei, she botched a number of missions while drunk, leaving her consigned to Academy duties. It's obvious that she considers it scut work, ignoring the students as she reads, monotone, from their book on traps.
Sakura leans back, face filled with mirth as she laughs helplessly and that thing in his gut lurches, tightens, and lightens all at once. It's quite disconcerting. He wonders if breakfast is sitting poorly with him, after all, his mother is not known for her good cooking. Still, it's rather hard to avoid the truth as a thought flits through his mind: Why hasn't she ever looked like that around me?
He swallows, slumping his too warm face into his crossed arms. Shikamaru is heartily glad when a new voice cuts through the monotonous drone crisply: "That's enough, Rinko. I'll take it from here."
Hayate coughs into his fist at the end of his sentence, looking upon Rinko with barely concealed dislike.
Rinko disappears and Hayate claps once. "Alright students, let's get to work on those spars. Come on now, let's head outside."
The students eagerly scramble to their feet, heading out the door to the Academy training field. Shikamaru slouches out the door, smiling slightly at Chōji and nodding toward Sakura. Chōji shakes his head, but leaves him be. Shikamaru follows after Sakura, sidling up beside her as Hayate announces that they need pairs.
"You're sparring with me," Shikamaru says, not phrasing it like a question.
"Excuse you!" Ino says, indignant on Sakura's behalf. "Don't talk to Sakura that way!"
"That is quite unnecessary, Shikamaru-san," Shino says. "Why? Because Chōji is your usual sparring partner and Sakura can spar with myself or Ino."
Shikamaru points to Chōji who stands beside Kiba. "We're the only ones left unpaired," he says, gesturing to the rest of the class. "I have to spar with one of the three of you. Might as well be Sakura."
"Not necessary," Ino says through gritted teeth.
Sakura looks among the three of them, taking in their varying expressions of disdain. She isn't sure what exactly is provoking this animosity as the three of them have always at least been cordial. While Shikamaru was undoubtedly rude, his words haven't provoked such an extreme response. "I can spar with Shikamaru first," Sakura says, keeping her spine straight as they all turn their glares on her. "We can all rotate through with each of the spars."
"See, it's fine," Shikamaru says, triumphant smile pulling up his lips. He glances at Hayate who watches them with raised eyebrows. "Let's go, Hayate is getting impatient."
Sakura squares up across from Shikamaru, exhaling sharply as he delivers a sharp high kick to her braced arms. It's done with more force than they are currently taught to do, so Sakura isn't exactly prepared for it. Her brows snap together as she stares at Shikamaru who only gives her a placid look in return. She nearly rolls her eyes but holds it back, correcting her brace to better withstand the force of his blows.
Yet another Nara mind game.
Sakura sighs, resigning herself to adding another level of intrigue in her dealings with Shikamaru. It is a tangled web they weave and Sakura idly wonders what will happen when one of the strands finally gives way.
Will the puzzle finally be complete?
She grins, startling Shikamaru into dealing a much softer blow.
Sakura looks forward to it.
"Torune!" Sakura exclaims, catching sight of him standing at the edge of the Academy's grounds. She nearly sprints as she leaves the throng of students and skids to a stop in front of Torune with a wide grin. She actually manages to outpace Sasuke, who throws himself at his brother scant seconds later. Sakura gets the feeling, from the haughty look that Sasuke throws her way, that he'll challenge her to a race tomorrow. But that's a problem for tomorrow. "How are you?"
"I'm well," Torune says, radiating contentment at Sakura's visible pleasure. It calms his lingering anxieties regarding their friendship. He knows that she has started up a friendship with his cousin and he doesn't begrudge it. Still, Torune does not care for the hours wherein he is separated from Sakura by the Academy. At least, it has given him a focus to improve his control over his rinkaichū. "And yourself?"
"I'm doing well," Sakura replies, taking his hand guilelessly. "Better now that you're here."
The rinkaichū within him take up a hearty, happy buzz and Torune tightens his hand around hers. Shino and Ino approach at a more sedate pace and Torune notes that they are seemingly at ease with each other. Torune is glad of that, that Sakura's handful of friends get along. He knows that if they did not, it would cause Sakura undue stress.
"How was class today, Ino?" Torune asks in a tentative overture toward friendship. He doesn't know Ino like he knows Sakura but he is willing to try. For Sakura, he will try anything.
"It was fine," Ino says, smiling in turn. As a socially savvy individual, she recognizes the gesture for what it is. "We had weapons' training today with Uzuki-sensei which was pretty amazing. Genma-senpai still won't let me use a tanto, always grumbles something about tou-chan and 'interrogation.'" Ino rolls her eyes, her tone indicating that this is quite an old argument. "But, after Uzuki-sensei saw how good I am at kunai throwing—"
"Best in the class!" Sakura cuts in with excitement.
Ino gives her a soft smile, one that Torune is almost certain he wears on his face whenever Sakura compliments him. "Thanks Sakura. Anyway, once she saw how good I am at kunai throwing she let me use her tanto!"
"Did you technically 'use it?'" Shino queries. "Not really. She let you handle it."
"I got a few practice swings in before she asked for it back," Ino argues. "It might not have been target practice, but I got to test its weight." She sighs, reminiscing. "It was so, so shiny. And so deadly."
"Shiranui-san will be jealous," Sakura remarks. "He hasn't been pleased by the fact that you're now receiving weapons' training at the Academy. Seems to think that it's sub-par."
"That's his problem," Ino says with a flick of her hair. "He should've thought of that when he decided not to teach me to use the tanto."
"You are ruthless," Torune says, admiration filtering into his tone.
Ino gives him a sharp smile. "It comes of growing up alongside Shikamaru and Chōji; someone has to make threats to get them moving."
Torune hums in agreement but Shino looks contemplative. "I'm not sure if that is still the case. Shikamaru seems singularly motivated recently."
"Oh?" Torune says, curiosity piqued.
He glances around at the students filtering past them. Most have left, some casting curious glances to the cluster of four students. He notes that some of the civilian-born trainees cast Sakura unsavory looks, probably since she's standing among clan children. Torune turns glares their way, scowling. They all back down, but Torune knows that Sakura will have to deal with their petty jealousy still. Torune's eyes light on Shikamaru who is seated on the steps of the Academy alongside Chōji. Ostensibly, the two of them are playing some sort of card game, but Torune feels the weight of Shikamaru's gaze on their little group from his periphery. Shikamaru turns and meets his eyes directly.
"He's jealous," Ino says. "Shikaku-oji has a new protege and Shikamaru is waking up to the fact that he has competition."
"Sakura?" Torune says, turning her way. Something curdles in his gut at the implications. "Is this true?"
Sakura shrugs, eyes skittering away from him. She rubs her arm with the hand she still has free. "Maybe. He's been challenging me to shogi on a near daily basis."
"Not to mention the spars," Shino adds.
"Spars?" Torune asks, rinkaichū rumbling with agitation.
"I speak of the daily spars," Shino says, uncaring of the way Torune's rinkaichū stir. Ino takes a half-step back in concern but, noticing the way Sakura continues holding Torune's hand, firms her stance. If Sakura is unconcerned, then neither is she. "You know we've recently added spars to our regimen at the Academy. Any chance he gets, Shikamaru pairs off with Sakura. Why? Most likely to work out his untoward aggression toward her."
"What?" Torune hisses, dropping Sakura's hand and grabbing her arms instead to draw her close. Sakura gasps, a hot flash of pain shooting up her arm. Torune immediately drops his hands away, the buzz of his rinkaichū ratcheting with his anxiety. "I am so, so sorry."
"It's fine," Sakura reassures, one hand bracing against her injured arm as she grabs the other. "I just missed a block and have a bruise."
Torune accepts her hand, squeezing tightly. He cocks his head as he stares at her. He then glances to Shino and Ino.
"Shikamaru was her sparring partner today," Shino says.
"He punched far harder than necessary," Ino adds, setting her jaw.
"I see," Torune says, turning fully to face Shikamaru. He doesn't approach him, knowing that it'll upset Sakura. Still, he stares implacably at Shikamaru, trusting him to understand the implicit threat. Shikamaru's smart, the scion of the Nara. Though, perhaps not, if he chooses to antagonize Sakura of all people. Shikamaru huffs, turning his back on Shikamaru and draping a gentle arm across Sakura's shoulders. "Let's go."
"Training?" Sakura asks, slumping against him for a moment in relief. She doesn't want to stir up conflict, not over her.
Torune shakes his head, heading off the Academy grounds with Shino and Ino flanking him. "Not today. Let's go get some dango."
Sakura's smile is more than enough of a response.
Shino glances back, noticing Shikamaru's suddenly stiff posture. He tucks his chin into the collar to hide his smirk as he keeps pace with his cousin and friends.
"Welcome, welcome, Sakura-chan!" Shibi calls, as she raises a hand to knock on the door.
She looks up, blinking in surprise when she sees Shibi standing upon the roof. "Shibi-oji?" she says, puzzled.
"I'm just working on the garden," Shibi explains. "We keep it on the roof." Sakura nods, noticing that he wears gloves just like Ino's mom and dad do when they garden. "Come on inside; Shino will be down in a moment to let you in."
Sakura nods, scurrying up the steps into the shade. Summer is coming to a close and fall is on the way, but the weather seems determined to remind them of its force with its sweltering, humid heat. Ino is even more popular than usual in class with the aloe vera succulent she brings into class daily. Sakura presses a finger to her nose, rubbing at the peeling skin. She has freckles coming in and she isn't entirely sure how she feels about them.
"Sakura," Shino greets, pulling open the door. "It is good to see you well."
"You too," Sakura replies, smiling at him.
"Would you step up into the doorway?" Shino asks.
"Why?" Sakura asks, immediately wary.
Shino doesn't seem the type, but Sakura has seen far too many pranks pulled by Naruto involving doors and items placed above them. The worst was the bucket of wash water they used to clean the floor; Mizuki-sensei was the victim. He went from red to deathly pale and back again before calmly sentencing Naruto to suspension. Something about the encounter made Sakura feel weird, raising goosebumps on her arms. Ino felt the same way at the time, which reassured Sakura.
"It's nothing bad," Shino assures her, seeing her reticence. "Otou-san changed our biometrics to include you. It took longer than we expected because you don't have a hive."
Sakura nods in understanding, curious. "How'd you do it then? I don't have the same kekkei genkai."
Shino shrugs, unbothered by her questions. Sakura always asks questions, but she doesn't demand answers. It usually sounds more like her thinking aloud. "I'm not sure. It certainly puzzled the clan security expert. She eventually figured it out however." He ducks his head slightly, scratching his cheek. "Most people who aren't Aburame by birth marry into the family and take on a hive of their own. This was a unique situation."
"If it's too much trouble—" Sakura says, flabbergasted that they would go to such lengths for her of all people.
"It is not," Shino interrupts unapologetically. He has noticed her habit of self-deprecation. He doesn't care for it and he knows that Torune and Ino do not either. It's unspoken, but each of them wants to break her of it. "We want you to have access to our grounds at any time you have need for them. Otou-san knows that you will not abuse the privilege. Besides, between otou-san and Torune, one of us is almost always home."
Sakura flushes, ducking her head in gratitude. "Thank you Shino. How do I go about this?"
"Step into the doorway," Shino says, watching as she does so. He touches a hand to the seal placed on the interior of the door. "Now hum please." He continues, knowing that she'll ask questions, "It's the closest that humans can come to making the buzz of our kikaichū."
Sakura nods and starts to hum, low and heavy in her chest. She watches with blatant fascination as the lines in the doorway and along the floor, what she initially believed to be mere grouting, turn from gray to a brilliant, flashing blue before fading once more.
"Come on in," Shino says. "You are now keyed into the biometrics."
Sakura steps inside, following Shino as he heads through the sprawling house and up the winding staircase. He takes her down one of the halls she hasn't visited before, exiting through the door at the end. They emerge onto the roof and Sakura stares in surprise at all of the foliage around her. It's a veritable jungle here, filled with plants that Sakura has never seen before, not even in the Yamanaka Flower Shop.
"Wow," she says, tiptoeing closer to one plant with bright yellow flowers. "It's all so beautiful."
"Thank you," Shibi says, poking his head up from one of the rows. "We take pride in our flowers." He maneuvers around the row, carrying a bucket with him. Sakura sees some of his kikaichū flitting among the flowering plants. He gives her a conspiratorial smile. "You're close with the Yamanaka heiress; how do our plants compare?"
"Inoichi-san would be green with envy if he saw these plants," Sakura confesses. "They're so vibrant. I can't believe that they aren't wilting in this heat!"
"It's our kikaichū," Shibi says. "They—" He cuts himself off, frowning. He puts the bucket down, stripping off his gloves as he comes and kneels before Sakura. She fidgets, but she does not flinch away. Sakura trusts him. "Sakura," Shibi begins, face and voice kept purposefully neutral. "Have you been using your chakra?"
"Twice," Sakura says, averting her gaze. She doesn't want to see the disappointment in his face. Sakura doesn't like disappointing people, it's why she strives so hard in class. Her voice is barely a whisper when she says, "I did some tree walking. Ibiki taught me."
"Sakura, look at me."
Sakura looks up.
Shibi places a gentle hand on her shoulder, keeping his position open and deferential. "Sakura, I am not angry or disappointed with you. I was just worried; I don't want you to be hurt. Using chakra at your age, even under adult supervision—though Ibiki hardly qualifies—is quite dangerous. The potential reverberation through your underdeveloped chakra coils—"
"You can tree walk?" Shino asks, cutting off Shibi's lecture. He's heard it all before, as has Sakura at the Academy. "You actually did it?"
Sakura bites her lip, warring between guilt and pride before pride wins out and she nods. "I did."
"Wait," Shibi says. "You actually walked up the tree?"
"How many tries did it take?" Shibi asks.
"I did it on the first try," she replies. "Did I do something wrong?"
"No," Shibi says, patting her shoulder before letting her go. "No, you did not. You did something extraordinary. It appears that you have excellent chakra control so far, though I recommend that you do not use it much right now. You still risk the chance of damage. Let's head down to the meditation room; Torune is already there working on his control. We'll get you started on some chakra control exercises."
Sakura follows Shibi and Shino back downstairs as they move to a room that she is quite familiar with at this point. It is a spacious, circular room, with wide windows that look out over a babbling brook and bridge. Torune is seated upon a straw mat, legs crossed and arms relaxed against his knees. His rinkaichū, imperceptible to Sakura's eyes at this distance, send up a happy hum as they step into the room.
Torune shifts, raising his head to look back at them. "Hello Sakura! Sorry I couldn't greet you; Shibi-oji has me on a strict meditation regimen." He looks intently at Sakura. "If I improve my control enough, I should be able to attend the Academy next year!"
Sakura glances between him and Shibi, almost unable to believe that it is true. When Shibi nods, she turns back to Torune, going down to her knees and throwing her arms around him. Torune catches her with a quick exhale, falling onto his back with the force of her weight. He wraps his arms around her, joining her in laughing the moment he catches his breath.
Sakura suddenly realizes what she's done as she flushes and draws away, seating herself on her knees. Torune immediately mourns the loss of the embrace, but he doesn't say anything, still grinning at her.
"We'd be in the same year?" Sakura asks, pushing her hair behind her ear.
"If he keeps up his concentrated study in meditation, he will," Shibi says, watching them with fondness. Sakura brings out emotions in his two children that he rarely sees. "Speaking of, Sakura, we need to start you on a different type of meditation."
"Why?" Torune asks, concerned.
"I used chakra," Sakura says.
Torune's eyes flit over her, assessing her. "You seem uninjured," he says, shoulders relaxing.
Sakura nods and promises to tell him about everything later. Right now, Shibi seems ready to start meditation.
She takes a seat, nestled among the three Aburame. As their kikaichū and rinkaichū trail out of their bodies filling the room with a pleasant buzzing, Sakura's eyes slide shut, truly content. She isn't sure when the hum of insects became a sound of comfort and reassurance, probably sometime shortly after her friendship with Torune kindled, but Sakura isn't complaining.
The notebook falls back to the table with a thump as Sakura releases a frustrated grunt. It just doesn't make much sense to her. Code usually comes easy to her, a puzzle laid out that is just hers for the taking. This cipher though is difficult, recalcitrant. Aside from the formatting, she's barely learned anything about it.
Sakura stands up, pacing around her room. She keeps her steps light, even though she's the only person in the house. While stomping may be a stress reliever in the short run, she knows that a shinobi steps silently. She isn't there quite yet, but it's good practice even if it would be satisfying to stomp. There's no one here to see her and she hesitates for a moment, before thinking of how Ino, Torune, and Shino would react if they found out. So, instead she paces, turning her roving eyes all over her room.
Her room is straight and orderly, painted a pale green and decorated with billowy silver and green wall hangings that depict the different countries and cities the Haruno occupy. The bedding is white as is the furniture. All in all, it is a picturesque room, not exactly fit for a six year old, but Sakura loves it. It is her room. She especially enjoys the book shelves, filled with books ranging from folk tales to historical narratives to textbooks on human anatomy to how-to-books on beekeeping. Her parents always bring her a new book home from wherever they've been traveling. It's actually become a thing among the clan, all of the extended family gives her books as gifts whenever the occasion arises.
Which leads to a full wall dedicated to shelving which is stuffed to the seams with books and overflowing to her wardrobe and desk.
Her eyes flit over the different titles, amusement lifting her lips at the discordant hodgepodge. She doesn't alphabetize or sort by subject like most people do; she sorts by the person who gifted it to her and by the occasion for which it was gifted. It makes for an eclectic collection, one that she can navigate easily.
Sakura stares among the different books, brows drawing together as she purses her lips.
She immediately moves back to her desk, footfalls heavy in her eagerness. Sakura snatches up her notebook, scrutinizing the page where she recreated the scrap she originally saw in the Archives. Her eyes trace over it for a long moment before turning her gaze back to her books. She closes her eyes for a moment, visualizing the original piece of paper. Her recreation of the original does not capture the handwriting involved. Still, as she thinks back to it, there seemed to be two hands at play, quite similar in nature, but a difference in slant and boldness.
Sakura reexamines the paper, looking at the place where the handwriting initially changed. It takes a number of minutes, but Sakura can see the variation in the code. There are two ciphers at work here.
There are two ciphers at work here!
The first section, based on formatting alone looks like a recipe. The second cipher appears to be endnotes, perhaps someone adding to the recipe or critiquing it?
Regardless, this is the farthest she's gotten on this particular puzzle.
Sakura drops the notebook on the desk, dancing around in delight. There's no one there to see it, so she indulges a bit, giggling wildly as she spins.
She's getting somewhere, finally.
After her period of celebration, Sakura picks up her notebook, ripping out this page and the two that follow it to make sure none of the impressions from bearing down too hard are left on the remaining pages. She takes the pages, heading downstairs to the fireplace and getting it lit. She watches as the pages curl up and crisp beneath the flames, blackening and then disintegrating.
It may be overkill, in fact, Sakura is sure it is. Who care what a civilian-born Academy student does in her free time? Still, Sakura does it anyway, because Ibiki and Shikaku have instilled a healthy sense of paranoia in her when it comes to sensitive matters. And an unknown cipher pilfered from the Intelligence Division's Archives is sensitive material, even if it is only a recipe.
She stares into the flames as the paper is turned to ash, destroying the physical evidence of her work. She keeps it lodged firmly within her mind though, a secret held by her alone.
Iruka looks up from the papers he's grading, frowning thoughtfully. Shikamaru has been getting consistently good grades recently. Stellar grades really. He's always known the boy to be capable, hell all of the teachers do. He's a Nara after all. However, like most Nara, he constantly underachieves. His lazy streak certainly does not help. In the last two months or so, however, his grades have improved to the point where he is one of the top students in the class.
Iruka surveys the group of students relaxing outdoors during their lunch. He finds Shikamaru who is surprisingly not napping, but seated low in the branches of a tree. Chōji, ever his stalwart companion, is seated at the base of the tree, seemingly ignoring his friend as he eats lunch. Shikamaru stares out intently toward the grassy knoll that overlooks the Academy. Iruka follows his gaze, alighting on a cluster of students seated together, meditating from the looks of things.
Sakura, Ino, and Shino are that cluster of students. That trio is rather new as well. Sakura and Ino have been attached at the hip since entering the Academy and Iruka sees the mutually beneficial nature to the relationship: Ino protects Sakura and instills her with a sense of confidence while Sakura grounds Ino and keeps her from acting rashly. They come together as a set, though now Shino has apparently joined them. He isn't sure if it'll last, he's seen relationships rise and fall within a week at the Academy, but thus far it appears ironclad.
Iruka taps the pencil against his chin, scrutinizing the trio. Sakura has changed as well recently. She seems more confident, more focused. She's switched her seating arrangement, moving to the back of the classroom now rather than the front row she used to occupy. Sakura participates less in class as well, not seeking to answer every question asked. She still keeps up with the material, the assignments make that clear, but Sakura appears to have found some sort of outside source for validation and confidence, while maintaining her place as the top student in the academic area.
Iruka looks back down over the papers he's grading, shuffling through until he comes across both Sakura and Shikamaru's documents. He stares down over them both, smiling at the well thought out responses. Sakura's paper edges Shikamaru's out just a bit, with the way she ties the concepts together more concretely than Shikamaru.
"If she isn't careful, Shikamaru is going to take her spot," Iruka says, turning back to the grading.
"Whose spot is Shikamaru taking?" Mizuki asks, falling into the seat beside Iruka.
"Sakura's," Iruka replies, not bothering to lift his eyes from the papers. "Shikamaru is excelling academically."
Mizuki snorts. "Yes, because of Sakura."
That makes Iruka look up. "Beg your pardon?" Iruka says. "Is she tutoring him?"
"No, nothing like that," Mizuki says. "Haven't you heard? Sakura's assignment sorting documents for the Intelligence Division has been tweaked. She's working directly under Jōnin Commander Nara-sama. Shikamaru is trying to kindle a rivalry with Sakura."
"Really?" Iruka says, looking back out over the students with new eyes. "You think it'll be anything like Hatake-san and Might's rivalry?"
"Sakura certainly doesn't seem interested in getting a rival," Mizuki says. "Hell, I doubt she's even noticed. Shikamaru lacks Might's flair for the dramatic. I don't think we'll see any yelling matches between the two of them anytime soon."
"At least there's that," Iruka sighs. "Do you think these changes are permanent?"
"What do you mean?" Mizuki asks, tossing his hair over his shoulder.
"Well," Iruka begins, staring out at Sakura's implacable expression, "all of these changes began around the same time as the field assignment which ends in a couple of weeks. Do you think things will go back to how they were?"
Mizuki chuckles, shaking his head. "No. I think things are going to continue to change, for better or for worse. I look forward to seeing how it all plays out."
Iruka laughs as well, turning his attention back to grading homework. "Well, whatever happens from here, it promises to be interesting."
The tall grasses rustle as Sakura steps among them, smiling to herself. The Nara forest is quite different than the Aburame grounds, as the Nara allow their land to grow wild and unkempt. She likes the way the grasses tickle up against her legs and the way that the trees grow large and twisting. Shikaku has given her leave to explore the Nara property and she has spent a handful of afternoons making her way deeper and deeper into the forest.
The trees loom high above her head, casting fanciful, whimsical shadows. It can be a bit creepy, but Sakura finds the darkness gentle, tranquil. She just isn't afraid here.
The snapping of a branch has Sakura whirling around, heart racing.
"It's just me," Shikamaru says, slouching toward her.
Sakura doesn't relax, still watching him warily. "Are you following me?"
"Oka-san wants you to come by for dinner," Shikamaru says, side-stepping the question. "What are you doing out here? Only clan members are allowed into the forest."
"Shikaku-san gave me permission," Sakura replies quietly.
Shikamaru hums, assessing her. He doesn't like the way her shoulders are raised defensively. She doesn't act like that around Ino or Shino. Her face is set in an impassive expression, not displaying her teeth. In nature, baring teeth is a sign of aggression, even among deer, but when Sakura does it, it's nice. It's sweet even. Her smiles are warm and Shikamaru has wondered more times than he would care to admit how it would feel to have that smile directed his way. She's smiled at him once like that, after their first shogi game.
He wants her to do it again.
"Would you play shogi with me after dinner?" Shikamaru asks. "Please."
Sakura's brows furrow in confusion and she opens her mouth to respond before her eyes go wide. Shikamaru turns, breath catching as a large buck moves toward them. His antlers curve wickedly and his eyes shine with intellect. Shikamaru has only seen him a scant handful of times in his life.
"Rikumaru," Shikamaru says.
Rikumaru stops near them and Sakura glances over to Shikamaru.
"What should we do?" Sakura asks in a whisper.
"Rikumaru is the leader of the Nara herd," Shikamaru explains. "The general procedure is to bow to him."
Sakura swallows but nods, stepping forward. She stops a couple of feet before Rikumaru, meeting his gaze. His eyes are a deep, beautiful brow, lined with thick eyelashes. She bows low in the traditional Konoha style. Sakura holds this position for a couple of long moments, before tentatively lifting her gaze. Rikumaru's head is bowed in her direction, antlers displayed prominently.
Sakura glances askance at Shikamaru who nods at her, seemingly in encouragement. She moves upright as Rikumaru does, holding perfectly still as he plods closer to her. He stops right in front of Sakura, warm breath fanning across her face. Sakura does not dare to breathe as he lowers his head, nuzzling against her forehead. She reaches up, hands shaking as she begins to pet his neck. His fur is thick and luxurious and Sakura leans into him, inhaling the earthy animal scent.
She begins to giggle as Rikumaru starts to root around with her hair, pushing it into disarray.
Sakura turns slightly, keeping her position to look at Shikamaru with a large smile.
Shikamaru watches Sakura and Rikumaru together, keeping quiet in his surprise. To his knowledge, Rikumaru has never appeared before someone outside the Nara clan and certainly he's never embraced anyone like this. Shikamaru has never seen Rikumaru play with anyone's hair or allow anyone to hug him. Still, Shikamaru finds that he cannot focus on such alarming facts when Sakura turns a brilliant, blinding smile his way.
Well, he was right about one thing: her smiles do make him feel warm.
FYI Mizuki absolutely released killing intent after Naruto pranked him. It was brief and none of the kids (except probably Naruto) understood it, but it happened. He might have soft spot for Sakura, but Mizuki is not a good person. He's actually pretty dang awful.
And Shikamaru is making progress slowly but surely. Soon enough, he might even be an actual person with feelings! You best believe that Shikaku and Yoshino were watching the encounter with glee.
Sakura picks up the sunglasses as gently as she can, holding them like spun sugar. The frame is a deep, burnished gold and she perches them on the bridge of her nose. She glances into the mirror and giggles.
"Are these to the young lady's liking?"
Sakura turns, showing the glasses to the store owner, Muta. "I don't think they suit me too well."
"Perhaps not," he says affably, hiding a smile behind his collar. It is a subtle thing, but Sakura knows the Aburame well.
She hears Shino snicker and she turns, grinning at him. "What? I can't pull them off?"
"Try these," Shino says, proffering another pair of glasses to her.
She takes them and looks them over. They are aviator frames done in silver with reflective bluish green lens. Sakura tries them on, appreciating the light feel. It almost feels like she's wearing nothing at all. When she looks into the mirror, she cannot help but smile.
She looks back at Shino and shrugs. "What do you think?"
"I think you two are losing track of why we're here," Shibi says drily.
Sakura whirls toward him, missing the awestruck look on Shino's face as he quickly schools it to indifference. She scratches at her neck, giving Shibi a sheepish smile. "Sorry."
"No need to apologize!" Shibi says, clapping a gentle hand to her shoulder. "I was only teasing anyway. You know, with the glasses, you really look like an Aburame now. All we need to do now is kit you out with a hive of your own."
Sakura flushes, pleased by the compliment even as she pulls off the sunglasses. Shibi has reminded her of their true purpose in the shop. She returns her attention to Muta who is watching their encounter avidly. Sakura isn't surprised, Shibi is the clan leader after all. "Aburame-san, we're actually here on a specific mission today."
"Are you ma'am?" he replies, vastly amused. "And what would that mission be?"
"Do you know Torune?" Muta nods. "Well, Torune's birthday is coming up soon; it'll be here in a little under a month! I was wanting to get him a new pair of sunglasses." Sakura pauses, brow furrowing. "Well, his are different than Shino and Shibi-oji's; they're embedded in a headpiece? I was hoping to commission something similar but different."
Muta leans against the counter, giving her a fond look. It is rare for children of other clans to befriend Aburame children, it's practically unheard of for civilian children to do the same. Sakura's obvious dedication to the Aburame children is admirable and truthfully adorable. "Is that so? That is certainly doable. Have you seen any frames you'd like to base them on?"
"Actually," Sakura begins, rifling in her pouch. She pulls out a slightly crinkled folded sheet of paper and places it on the counter, smoothing it out. She unfolds it, presenting it to the shop owner. "I've done a couple of sketches. Shino and Ino helped but I drew them myself." She's honestly a bit proud of that. She isn't the strongest artist, but she's drawn the headpiece over and over again until it looks right. "I was thinking, if it isn't too much trouble, the main part of the headpiece could be done in leather."
"That wouldn't be too hard," he replies. Muta points to the design embellished along the sides of the headpiece. "Now what are these?"
"Sunflowers," Sakura says, excitement sparkling in her eyes. "They're one of my favorite flowers and Torune likes them a lot too. They represent warmth, adoration, dedication, and dedicated love."
"They're very well rendered," Muta praises. "Unfortunately I don't have much experience with leather working, not with fine details like this." He frowns. "No one else in my shop does either."
"That's okay!" Sakura says. "I've got a person."
"Who does she have?" Shino asks. "She has a craftswoman whose specialty is leather working. She does commission work for the Haruno."
Muta's eyebrows go up. "Well, it seems like you have it all planned out," he says, glancing between Sakura and Shino. "Why don't you and Shino-kun go take a look at the goggle lens? You'll need to choose a style to set in the headpiece."
Sakura and Shino scamper off to the far wall, speaking happily with each other.
"She's an odd one," Muta says. "Never in all of my years have I seen a civilian so easily accept and even embrace the odder Aburame habits. Even those who marry into the clan tend to be find aspects off-putting."
"Sakura is a treasured friend to Shino and Torune," Shibi says. "We're honored to have her with us." He glances at the children with a smile before turning back to Muta and leaning in. "Please make sure you charge her a tenth of the wholesale price. I will be covering the rest."
"Of course," Muta says, bowing slightly in deference to the clan leader. Laughter rings out from across the room and he looks over, seeing Sakura pull faces at Shino while wearing a pair of particularly ostentatious goggles. Muta's never seen Shino laugh before and certainly not this hard and loud. It's a welcome sight. "You know, being the scion of a well-established merchant clan, Haruno-san will probably realize that she's getting a criminally low price."
Shibi chuckles, shaking his head. "I'm betting on it. And as a merchant's child, Sakura will undoubtedly be quite pleased with the outcome."
Muta watches the two children, chest warm with affection. "We shall see."
A rich, earthy scent fills Sakura's nostrils as she pushes through the swinging door of the shop. Heat billows over Sakura, but she makes her way past the roaring brazier toward the rhythmic sounds at the back of the shop. Wet leather, in various stages of drying, is strung up all around the shop and Sakura ducks and dodges around the pieces.
"Sarasa-san!" Sakura calls out. "Sarasa-san!"
The sound stops as a head pops out from behind some hanging leathers.
"Ah, hello Sakura-chan! How may I assist the Haruno today?"
Sakura smiles back at Sarasa, glad to see the woman. Sarasa is an immigrant from Cloud and it shows in her dark skin, wild riot of curls, and hardy nature. She is Sakura's favorite of the different craftsmen that the Haruno keep on retainer, probably because of Sarasa's genuine kindness. Generally, the craftsmen treat her politely, overly so. Once they realize that she is attending the Academy and no longer in line for inheriting the Haruno branch, they tend to ignore her, tolerating the way she sits in and watches them perform their craft.
As long as she stays out of their way, they allow it.
And Sakura enjoys that, getting to watch them work a magic all their own and listen in on their conversations. She knows the steps necessary to forge delicate gold chain links for jewelry and heavy industrial pipes as well as the arduous process that it takes to make raw wool into fine, dyed cloth. She appreciates what they allow her to learn, just by sitting in their shops.
Sarasa is different, she seems to like Sakura as she is. She sees Sakura as a person, not a dead end to an in with the Haruno clan.
"I need some leather working done," Sakura says. "Personal project."
Sarasa's eyebrows rise. "Personal project you say? You planning to drop out of the Academy and be my apprentice? There's still time for the change in career."
"No," Sakura says, sticking out her tongue at Sarasa. It's an old argument, a playful argument. "I have a gift that I'm preparing for a friend." She pulls out the wrapped headpiece, reverently placing it on the table and unwrapping it. "I want to detail sunflowers here and here." Sakura points to the spots before fishing her sketches out of her pack. "Something that looks kind of like this?"
Sarasa whistles low in her throat as she examines Sakura's drawings. "You sure you don't want to be my apprentice? You have the potential and I know you learn fast…"
Sakura laughs and just shakes her head. She doesn't mention the fact that her parents would probably approve less of that career than of her current trajectory to be a shinobi. The Haruno are merchants, not artisans. They specialize in bartering, haggling, and trading; there is no time to dedicate to apprenticeship in a single craft. Being a shinobi is different though, still odd and different to the Haruno, but her parents see the opportunity it offers them.
Most shinobi clans have a few specific artisans on retainer—blacksmiths mainly—but none in Konoha have official ties to any merchant clans. Sakura's enrollment in the Academy offers in-roads for the Haruno among the shinobi clans. Sakura displays her clan sign prominently on all of her clothing and she is proud of her heritage. She is sowing seeds merely with her presence among them. Already, her parents comment on the uptick of purchases made by the Yamanaka, the Aburame, and even the Nara. Sakura feels a twinge of—guilt, shame maybe—something over that fact, though she tries to shake it away. She isn't doing anything wrong—she isn't using them—but it is sometimes hard to overcome that feeling. She doesn't tell them to buy from her clan, doesn't press them for it, but it is hard to argue the results.
Sakura supposes the skill cultivated by her family will be of use in the field, manipulating people without even truly manipulating them, but she doesn't care for it.
That isn't what friendship is. Or, at least, it isn't what friendship should be.
She won't use her friends for a stepping stone. She won't.
"Thank you for the offer Sarasa," Sakura says softly, refocusing on the leather worker. "I must decline it once more. Do you think something like this will be doable?"
Sarasa hums, scrutinizing the sheet of paper. "Are you wanting it painted or stamped?"
"Stamped," Sakura replies. "It'll be a bit more discrete."
Sarasa nods and whips out a measuring tape. "Allow me to draw up a couple of sketches of my own from your design and we can go over them. When do you need this by?"
"Two weeks," Sakura says. "I know it's short notice, but I only now received the completed headpiece. I can pay extra for the rush order."
Sarasa glances at her, a smile tugging at her lips. "That won't be necessary. It will be tight though. However, I will need you to come in three times a week to give me a hand with it and a couple of other projects. In fact, if you can manage coming by four times a week, I'll have you do all the work stamping the leather and won't charge you a thing. You'll just have to assist for the next month when you can. Do we have a deal?"
Sakura looks up at Sarasa, knowing that she is getting the better end of the deal. Sarasa's leather working is a thing of beauty and Sakura knows that she will lose a substantial amount of time assisting Sakura on her gift for Torune. And why? Because she likes Sakura?
Is this what friendship is? A series of compromises and sacrifices for the other person? Sakura thinks of Ino, of Torune, of Shino; she would make silent sacrifices for any of them, even if there is no gain for herself. Perhaps Sarasa is thinking the same thing.
Sakura isn't sure what Sarasa is really getting out of this deal, but she is a merchant down to the marrow.
"Deal," she says as they shake on it.
Shikaku steps into the Kage Tower, nodding at the chunin who stand sentry. It's early in the day and Shikaku makes no comment on the obvious surprise directed his way by those few he passes. He isn't usually up and about the village until mid-morning, yet here he is, actively seeking out the Hokage shortly after sunrise.
But what he wants is worth it.
He steps into the doorway of the Hokage's office, rapping his knuckles against the frame. "Hokage-sama," he greets.
"Nara-san," Hiruzen says, eyes widening even as he puffs on his ever-present pipe. "This is a wonderful surprise."
Shikaku chuckles under his breath, even as he shuts the door behind him, activating the no-noise seal in place there. "I happen to be full of them. Look, I've even brought paperwork." He brandishes a stack of documents, sauntering over and placing them on Hiruzen's desk.
"Well, it isn't a matter of the paperwork," Hiruzen says. "It's a matter of it being filled out completely." He scans through the documents, humming in appreciation. "Which I see you've done. And what is the auspicious occasion that's getting you to turn in properly filled out paperwork?"
Shikaku knows that Hiruzen read the title of the documents he just handed over, doubtless he wants a more personal explanation. "I am seeking to extend Haruno Sakura's Academy field experience assignment. As you know, Sakura was assigned to the Konoha Intelligence Division to sort coded documents. I was not a part of the assigning committee but I assume she was assigned there because of her quick mind and lack of shinobi clan connections." His lips twist wryly when Hiruzen nods. Civilian-born shinobi have to fight every step of the way to be educated and succeed nearly as well as their clan counterparts. "No relatives kicking up a fuss over the humdrum nature of the assignment. She displayed a natural gift for code and caught Morino Ibiki's attention. He brought her to me and we've been exploring a pseudo-internship ever since. I would like to make it official."
"Why?" Hiruzen asks simply.
"Why what?" Shikaku returns.
"Why do you wish to extend the field assignment into an internship?" Hiruzen says, watching Shikaku with keen eyes.
Shikaku holds Hiruzen's eyes steadily, even as he turns Hiruzen's angle over in his mind. "She has shown herself a diligent pupil, willing and eager to learn. She retains the knowledge put in her path and the Academy curriculum certainly isn't challenging her. Her current academic scores indicate a student who thinks on the level of someone more than twice her age. If it weren't for her civilian background and her lack of physical prowess, I would not be surprised to see her graduate within the next year or so." If she were a clan child, she would have been raised to the intricacies of the shinobi ways, weaned on stories of chakra and elemental manipulation. As it is, Sakura has not yet received formal training in the discipline of chakra manipulation or learned more than the rudimentary skills of sparring. Shikaku wonders at what her skills could be if she was born to an established shinobi clan. "As it is, she displays the tactical skill necessary to be a code breaker and creator. As you well know, we will need one in the upcoming days. Jiraiya and I won't be enough to cut it; we're stretched thin as it is. Sakura is the new blood we need."
Hiruzen's eyes shift from flinty to mournful as he leans back in his chair, drawing his pipe from his mouth to exhale a number of smoke rings. "So you believe war is on the horizon."
"You've read the same reports that I have; Suna and Iwa's relations with us are falling even as their alliance grows stronger. Kiri is increasingly militant, but political unrest is stirring on their home front. Kumo has been quiet since the Hyūga Affair—" Hiruzen winces, "—but you know as well as I that they are biding their time to make another attempt on the Hyūga. They're bitter that Kiri's managed what they have not. War is coming, whether we are prepared or not." Shikaku frowns. "I would prefer for us to be prepared."
"And you believe that Sakura-kun will assist in this pursuit?" Hiruzen asks, folding his fingers together.
"I do," Shikaku replies firmly.
Hiruzen blinks, slumping slightly as he sighs. "You are determined," he mutters. "Is this truly the best course of action for Sakura-kun? Taking her on as an apprentice will not go unnoticed by the Councils or by the other clan leaders. You will bring much attention, undue or otherwise, upon her if we move forward."
"I can handle it," Shikaku says.
"But can she?" Hiruzen puffs on his pipe, staring at the ensuing smoke rings. "These field experience assignments are new to the Academy, a way for us to connect the youth with the various shinobi infrastructures within Konoha. You are not the first to request an extension of the assignment."
"Who else?" Shikaku asks, voice light but eyes sharp.
Hiruzen chuckles, undoubtedly catching Shikaku's interest. "Akimichi-san approached me last week with a petition to extend Naruto-kun's assignment indefinitely."
"Chōza did?" Shikaku asks, pondering this new development. He isn't exactly surprised. Chōza is a fiercely protective individual and Naruto, as the reviled jinchūriki of Konoha, is starved for affection. It is an explosive combination and Shikaku is not surprised by the bond that formed between them. He won't even blink if Chōza decides to more formally draw the child into his clan as a ward. "And your response?"
"I allowed it," Hiruzen says. "Naruto-kun needs a champion, someone who can offer him safe haven." The frown lines around his mouth deepen. "I cannot be that person for him; I cannot offer such protections. Chōza can. He's well connected as the Quartermaster and as the Akimichi head. He's well liked in both shinobi and civilian sectors. No one will protest his mentorship of Naruto-kun, at least, not for long." Both Hiruzen and Shikaku smirk, knowing how powerful the Akimichi truly are. "It's helpful that Chōza is Akimichi; he's one of the four noble clans of Konoha, but the Akimichi aren't ambitious, not bloodthirsty. Few will cry treason for Chōza's interest in Naruto-kun, despite his jinchūriki status."
"And yet you protest my interest in extending an internship to a civilian girl," Shikaku says dryly.
"Sakura-kun is different. She is, in some ways, more vulnerable to being preyed upon than Naruto-kun. The state is specifically involved in Naruto-kun's affairs; you know as well as I that we have a rotation stationed on him at all times. As jinchūriki, Naruto-kun is a high profile target. Sakura-kun, on the other hand, has formidable ties in the merchanting world, in the civilian world, but that offers her little protection from shinobi. This internship will draw the eyes of our enemies, both within and without Konoha. Sakura-kun will not be afforded the same protections as Naruto-kun. Will you risk it?"
Will you risk her?
Shikaku holds Hiruzen's eyes, unshakable. "I can handle it and so can she. You know as well as I the heights that civilian-born shinobi can attain." Shikaku's gaze roves the office before landing on the Hokage's hat, placed atop a pile of paperwork on the desk. "Sakura understands the risks of this world and she wants to rise above them. I can help her with that."
Hiruzen sighs but picks up his seal, pressing it to the paper. "I hope you know what you are doing, Nara-san. You were born to this world; you knew nothing else. Sakura-kun will face a choice. You do not know the toll this world and her choices may take on her."
Sakura loops a string of twinkling lights around the lattice, glancing at Shino for guidance.
"Looks good!" he calls before redirecting his attention to Ino. "Yours does too."
"And Torune will be arriving soon?" Sakura asks, hopping off the step ladder and giving the teenager (she believes him to be a second cousin of Shino) assisting her a smile. "He knows to come up here?"
"Otou-san has him sufficiently distracted," Shino replies. "They're visiting a few of the insect habitats around the grounds. It's otou-san's job to visit each habitat every couple of days and make sure everything is alright. Torune is overjoyed to get a chance to accompany him; they're visiting a couple of the rarer insects."
"You keep more than kikaichū on your grounds?" Ino asks, surprised.
"Of course!" Sakura and Shino reply at the same time.
They glance at each other, clearly startled before bursting into laughter.
Sakura doesn't catch the approving smiles that cross the faces of the nearby Aburame family members, but Ino does. She frowns, wondering if what she overheard her father and Shikaku-oji discussing may actually be true. She thought they were, as her mother puts it, acting like "gossiping hens" but perhaps there is a grain of truth to it. Do clans enter betrothal contracts with civilians?
"We have many habitats on our grounds," Shino says after Sakura gestures for him to explain rather than her. It's his family after all. "We can only act as host to a fraction of the insects we keep here, but we keep others for a multitude of purposes. What purposes? We keep them for conservation efforts, observation, study, breeding, and cross-breeding as the need arises." One of the older family members hums lightly and Shino falls silent. Ino realizes suddenly that he overshared. "In any case, there are a number of rare specimens among the habitats and Torune gets to visit them today."
"That's lovely," Sakura says. "He deserves a fun day. He's been working so hard with meditation."
"He has," Shino replies softly, smiling at Sakura. "He has quite the incentive too."
Sakura nods, watching as Shino cocks his head.
"They're here," he says, moving closer to the door. "They've just entered the house."
Anticipation grows in Sakura's belly as she focuses her attention on the door, willing Torune to walk through it. She can't wait to see his expression; he's going to be so startled! She barely contains a gasp when a flicker of something reaches out to her. It's like nothing she has ever experienced or even heard described. She has a sudden awareness of another, of something beyond herself, yet it is familiar and warm. Her brows furrow as she concentrates, trying to figure out why it is familiar. She isn't able to keep from gasping this time as she puzzles it out.
She's feeling Torune's presence. It is warm and vibrates softly, mimicking the buzzing that he almost constantly puts off. His presence is a somehow decidedly purple energy. Her eyes slide shut as she tries to figure out where he is. It takes a few moments, but she pinpoints his location to being on the other side of the door.
She opens her eyes, meeting his gaze right as he steps through the door.
"Happy birthday!" she cries alongside the Aburame present and Ino, grin wide and dancing across her face.
Just as she hypothesized, Torune is absolutely stunned and Shibi even has to place his hands on Torune's shoulders, guiding his nephew through the doorway and into the rooftop garden. The moment Torune regains control of his facilities, he beelines his way to Sakura, throwing his arms around her shoulders. Sakura grunts at the hard impact, stumbling for a moment before firming up her stance. She wraps her arms around Torune in return, squeezing slightly. She can feel his rinkaichū buzzing in his excitement, can sense the resulting anxiety from his extended family, but she focuses on the weight and warmth of his body against hers. It is familiar and welcome. "Happy birthday," she says again.
Torune tightens his grip on her, sensing the amusement of his extended family. He's glad they are there—glad that they approve of his friendship with Sakura—but he wishes for a moment that it was just them. If he closes his eyes and nestles his face into her shoulder, he can almost believe that they are.
"It's the happiest yet."
Shikaku glances up at the soft knock at his door frame. There's only one person whose knock sounds so tentative, despite all their work together.
"Come in, Sakura," Shikaku calls, shuffling through some of his papers and setting them aside. He stifles a fond smile at her bashful posture, indicating the seat before him. It wouldn't do for anyone to start calling him soft. "Have a seat."
Sakura perches on the chair, watching him with wide eyes. She squirms a little in her seat beneath Shikaku's gaze.
"You aren't in trouble," Shikaku says with a slight chuckle. Sakura's shoulders relax immediately, though he notes that she still looks alert. "I have a question for you."
"Is this a question with an actual answer?" Sakura replies, a bit of bite in her voice.
Shikaku chuckles outright at that. It is good to see she has some fire within her. He knows the Nara as a clan will approve. They like gumption. "I certainly hope so," Shikaku says. "This question is more of a proposition than anything." He clears his throat, watching her face to gauge her emotions. "As you know, your field experience assignment is coming to an end."
"One more week," Sakura says, biting her lip.
It's a nervous gesture on her part, he's seen it often enough across a shogi board. It tells Shikaku that she's conflicted about the end of her assignment.
"I would like to extend your time at the Intelligence Division," Shikaku says, leaning forward. "I would like to offer you an internship. The question is do you accept?"
Sakura's brows furrow. "What does an internship entail?"
"Well, it is the same thing you are doing now," Shikaku says. "You continue to work with me. Sometimes you'll be spirited away by Ibiki for whatever nonsense he has cooked up. The only thing that changes is you'll receive a stipend."
"A stipend?" Sakura repeats, eyes going wide. "I'll be paid to examine ciphers."
"A small stipend," Shikaku clarifies. "The Intelligence Division sets aside funds for supplementary personnel. We've allocated such funds for you. This is different from a field experience assignment in that the Academy doesn't have the hours built into the curriculum. Once the field experience assignment ends, the Academy will increase its workload to fill those empty hours. You'll have to balance your course work with your work here."
Sakura is silent for several long moments, pondering the responsibilities. Shikaku waits patiently, contenting himself with considering the vast array of emotions that stray across Sakura's features. At some point in her training, Sakura will need to learn how to suppress such tells. For now though, it makes for great entertainment.
"I think I can do that," Sakura says finally. "There might be an adjustment period, but I think I can balance my work."
"I believe you'll do just fine," Shikaku says.
He knows that the current academic curriculum at the Academy is far below Shikamaru and Sakura's capacities. The real question that has yet to be determined is if Sakura can balance her Intelligence Division duties with her social life. Shikaku knows all too well (both from his own observations and Shikamaru's rants) that a good portion of Sakura's time is spent with the Aburame and Ino. He wonders idly if she'll be more careful with her time and relationships. Truthfully, he is excited to see how it all plays out.
Shikaku offers Sakura his hand. "Do you accept?"
Sakura stands from her seat, the weight of her new responsibility and resolution lighting her eyes as she grasps his hand firmly. "I accept."
"Oka-sama, I am not sure a kimono is appropriate for this event," Sakura says mildly, looking at the growing pile of silk layers spread across her bed. She has a wide array of formal clothing and her mother is going through it with a systematic, somewhat chaotic precision. "Ino-chan said that these gatherings take place outdoors."
Mebuki's expression is smooth when she turns to regard her daughter, but Sakura can still tell she is getting frazzled. "It is important that you carry yourself and the Haruno name well. Presentation is the majority of the negotiation."
Sakura nods, hiding a smile at her mother's oft used advice. "Yes, oka-sama," she chimes. Sakura glances at her closet, resisting an urge to fidget. "May I wear a yukata perhaps?"
Mebuki purses her lips, turning back and delving into the closet. She pulls free a handful of yukata, ranging in color from a misty gray to a rich burgundy. Mebuki flicks through them, glancing over the designs and colors, before pulling free a deep purple yukata. The pattern is subtler than some of the others, faint constellations of stars stitched in white and pale blue. She holds it in front of Sakura and smiles.
"It brings out your eyes," Mebuki says, brushing a strand of hair out of Sakura's face.
Sakura looks into the mirror and resists the urge to shrug. She doesn't see what her mother does, but she trusts Mebuki's judgment.
There's a reason her mother inherited the role of clan head, despite six siblings being in line before her.
Sakura begins to shed her casual wear, removing the heavy sweater and khakis that she chooses to wear outside of school and training. Her mother helps her into the cotton garment and sets about tying her obi. Sakura watches her mother in the mirror, enraptured by her lithe movements. Sakura has seen registered shinobi in action at the Academy, yet she doesn't think any of them can match her mother for grace. Sakura is convinced that, no matter how far she progresses as a shinobi, she will never be a match for her mother's elegance. It's something extraordinary, beyond even the reach and mastery of chakra.
Mebuki smooths her hands over the perfect bow she's tied in the obi, meeting Sakura's eyes through the mirror. "Perhaps we can retire the ribbon this evening for one of my hair pieces," she says as she runs an affectionate hand through Sakura's hair.
"Really?" Sakura asks, bouncing in her seat.
Mebuki's lips tug into an amused smile as she drops a kiss on the back of Sakura's head before ducking out of the room. She reenters with a beautiful illustrated lacquered box. She places it in front of Sakura, pulling a stool up to the vanity. Sakura switches seats with her mother, eyes never leaving the designs on the box. The box itself is a work of art; one of the many engagement gifts Kizashi presented to Mebuki during their courtship. It details the history of the Haruno, their coalition in the Warring States Era through their meteoric rise to influence across all of the nations. The Haruno take pride in having holdings within each of the nations, no matter how great or small.
Sakura traces a gentle fingertip across a section depicting the Haruno coming to the Land of Fire, not daring to touch the box itself.
Mebuki laughs, reaching past her to open the box. "If I left you to your own devices, you would miss the meeting altogether."
Sakura flushes but doesn't rebut her mother, knowing it to be true. She loses herself in pretty things far too easily.
"Now," Mebuki says, rifling through the contents of the box. "Your hair is short, which leaves a comb out of the question. Perhaps some pins?" She casts Sakura a smile, lifting a circlet of precious metals out of the box. "How about a tiara?"
"Oka-sama!" Sakura protests, giggling.
"Perhaps not a tiara," Mebuki says decisively, voice overly formal. Sakura giggles harder. "No diadems or crowns either; not for this first visit at least. Pins are our best option." She removes a shelving unit from the box, setting it before Sakura. "Which would you prefer?"
Sakura looks over the glittering array of pins, some simple and some unbelievably complex in nature. She sifts through the pins with deft fingers, lingering on one in particular.
Mebuki looks over her shoulder at her choice, nodding in satisfaction. "Well, it is certainly on theme."
Sakura lifts her chosen pins from the velvety lining of the shelf, passing them to her mother. The pins, wrought in sterling silver, twinkle as they catch the light. One is crested with a crescent moon. The other has three stars along its side, forming one of the brightest constellations that Sakura can see in the night sky. They are simple in comparison to many of the pins in Mebuki's box, but they are perfectly suited to Sakura.
Sakura sits still as Mebuki pulls and teases her hair until it is swept away from her face. Mebuki tucks the pins into Sakura's hair, their emblems displayed on the right side of Sakura's head.
Mebuki scrutinizes Sakura is the mirror for a long moment before nodding decisively. Sakura thinks that, if her mother were a different woman, she would be teary eyed. But her mother is not a different woman, but Sakura feels the weight of her love all the same. "You're ready, Sakura."
Sakura hops to her feet and turns to her mother with a luminous smile. With great care, she wraps her arms around her mother in a hug, mindful of her attire and hair to keep from mussing it.
"Well," Mebuki says, voice thick with emotion. "You should probably head out now. I know the Nara are known for laziness and sometimes even tardiness, but the Akimichi and Yamanaka are punctual. The Haruno must be as well. You'll be visiting on the Yamanaka grounds, correct?"
"Yes, oka-sama," Sakura replies dutifully.
"Wonderful," Mebuki says. "You know the way. If at any point you run into trouble…"
"Ask one of the Uchiha in uniform for help," Sakura says.
"Any of the Konoha Military Police Force will do," Mebuki replies, amused.
"Most of them are Uchiha, aren't they?" Sakura asks. They're the ones that she sees the most in uniform during her walks. Certainly, Sasuke brags enough about his family's feats within the Force.
Mebuki pauses, but she finally nods, smile wry. "You're quite observant, Sakura. Yes, most of the Force are Uchiha. They are proud of their role leading the Military Police Force and they mandate that each Uchiha serves at least four years in the Force before being allowed to choose another career. Many stay on the Force, rotating time between police duties and shinobi duties. Not many non-Uchiha make it through the specialized training for the Force, nor do many care to. They prefer to take missions outside the walls of Konoha." She gives Sakura one last hug, passes Sakura her clutch, and sends her out the door.
Sakura sets out down the well-cobbled streets of the residential district, enjoying the heat of the sun against the back of her neck. She likes this time of day, in the late afternoon hours just before the sun begins to set. There's a warmth to everything around her from the hours spent soaking in the sunlight.
She cuts through side streets and weaves along the main streets of Konoha, making her way around the daily hustle and bustle that makes Konoha come alive. She waves to the merchants she knows and a few even wave in turn, though many just nod their acknowledgment. It's more than she expects, especially considering that she is unaccompanied by either of her parents and the prestige brought by the Haruno name.
The foot traffic lightens up significantly when Sakura crosses into the shinobi clan districts, as most of those traveling through this area flit across the rooftops. She looks up at the rooftops, watching the flickering shadows that signify the people crossing there.
One day, she will be one of them.
For now, she walks as silently as she can across the ground, feet still rasping against the stones. She moves slowly, wishing to keep from dirtying her clothing.
"Everything alright, miss?"
Sakura draws her gaze from the rooftops, meeting the dark eyes of the Uchiha officer with a chagrined smile. "Yes sir," she replies.
He gives her a slight smile and Sakura can tell that he is around her parents' ages, probably in his early thirties. "You watching the ninja do the 'ninja dash.'"
Sakura's forehead wrinkles at the odd terminology before looking back at the running shinobi. Some of them flicker in and out of view, moving at speeds beyond Sakura's eyesight. "Oh, you mean the Shunshin?"
He blinks at that but nods. "Yes, the Shunshin. Where are you heading today, young miss?"
"To the Yamanaka," Sakura replies dutifully. She shuffles her feet slightly. She is curious about something, but she doesn't want to overstep her boundaries. "Sir, do you enjoy your job?"
"I do indeed," he says. "I get to meet polite strangers like yourself after all. May I escort you to your destination?"
"Are you sure?" Sakura asks. "Will you get in trouble for leaving your post?"
He chuckles, shaking his head. "It's kind of you to ask. No, I'm allowed to patrol this whole sector. Besides, there are other officers here." He points up to a position on a balcony where a woman waves lazily at Sakura. "So I am well within my rights to keep you company on your stroll."
"Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it," Sakura says. "I suppose I should introduce myself; I'm Sakura."
"A pleasure to meet you Sakura," he replies, sketching something like a bow. "My name is Kagami."
Sakura bows to him in turn, barely keeping herself from giggling. They set off down the path, Kagami peppering their conversation with questions about her schooling, her interests, and her goals.
It is all rather superficial talk, small talk really, and Sakura wrestles with herself the entire time about asking one specific question.
Finally, near the end of their walk, she musters up her courage and asks, "Have you manifested the Sharingan?"
Kagami blinks, obviously surprised by the question. Still, he rallies quickly. "I have."
"May I—" Sakura trails off, swallowing. "May I see them please?"
He stares down at her incredulously. "Do you know what you are requesting? The Sharingan is a weapon; most fear it."
Sakura meets his dark gaze directly. In doing so, she can see his surprise. Few people, especially not civilians, willingly meet a Uchiha's gaze. After all, it could spell their death.
Kagami sighs and his eyes flicker, shifting from their deep gray to a bright vermilion. Sakura watches with fascination, despite the innate, visceral urge to avert her eyes. Red is the color of blood, of danger, of death. The Sharingan's color is a warning and a threat all at once. Sakura watches as his pupil splits, the center dot shrinking as the two other dots take on a sort of teardrop shape, placed within a dark red ring around the central pupil.
The red of his eyes fades back to a simple, unassuming gray.
"Satisfied?" Kagami asks, cocking a brow.
"Thank you, Kagami-san," Sakura says, understanding that he feels a bit uncomfortable. "I really appreciate you showing me." She pauses, rifling through her bag. "Here," Sakura says, pulling free a piece of candy kept there. "It isn't much, but it's a token of my gratitude."
Kagami takes it from her, chuckling. "You sure you're six years old?"
Sakura shrugs. "Pretty sure."
He laughs heartily before glancing around them. "Well, I believe this is your destination. I hope to see you around, Sakura."
Sakura watches him walk away before turning back to the Yamanaka grounds. The entrance to their grounds are marked by something similar to a torii gate, however, rather than being painted the tradition bright red, this is painted in shades of cream with accents of gold. Sakura is pretty sure that Ino has mentioned it before, something about it representing her clan's kekkei genkai. There are no doors barring entry so Sakura steps through the gate, moving across the colorful tiles that make up the walkway.
Sakura is momentarily entranced by the dizzying patterns splayed out through the individual tiles, but she shakes it off with an ease that comes of multiple visits. As her eyes rove across the numerous plants on display, she catches something out of place.
Lingering beneath the leafy fronds of an enormous fern is one of her classmates.
His eyes are downcast but not in fear; he stares wondrously at the tiles, seemingly enraptured. He looks a bit uncomfortable in his clothing, a burgundy shirt tucked into dark pants. Sakura has never seen him in such nice clothing, usually he dresses in threadbare hand-me-downs. Her keen eyes pick out the high quality of the garments and their durability. In fact, they look to her like shinobi wares, both fire- and grime-resistant.
Someone has a benefactor.
"Hello Naruto," she calls softly, not wishing to startle him. He jumps anyway, bright blue eyes darting up to her face. Upon seeing her, his posture relaxes somewhat. "Do you like the tiles?"
"They're pretty," he replies, returning his attention to them. At the moment, they are arranged to create a spiraling, unfurling sunburst. "I didn't know something like this could be pretty."
"Something like what?" Sakura asks.
"Something in this shape," Naruto says guilelessly. "I have something similar—" He cuts himself off, eyes going wide. "Nothing! Never mind!"
Sakura casts him an odd look, but she lets the matter drop. It isn't any of her business, despite the sharp, nagging weight of curiosity pressing down on her. "You know, the Yamanaka replace the tiles with every season. They paint each one by hand and then arrange them according to their chosen style for that season and year."
"Wow," Naruto says. "They make really good art!"
"Many of them are artists of some sort," Sakura says, remembering her previous encounters with Ino's clan. "Some of them do flower arranging, others sculpt."
Naruto nods, keeping his eyes on the tiles.
"So, are you going in?" Sakura asks. "For the barbecue?"
Naruto fidgets. "I'm supposed to meet Chōza-oji, but I don't know where I'm supposed to go."
Sakura files away the fact that he calls the Akimichi clan head by his given name with no suffixes. "Would you like to go together? I've been here before so I know where they're gathering."
Naruto nods shyly and that settles matters.
Sakura sets off across the tiled path, passing by the different houses and buildings that the Yamanaka keep on their grounds. Naruto speaks to her excitedly, chattering about everything he sees. Sakura does her best to chime in on the things she knows about. The further they go, the louder noises become, indicating that the barbecue is well under way at this point. The path winds up a gentle slope into a thicket of trees. Technically, this area is part of the Nara forest, but the Nara gave this land over to the Yamanaka to use as they please.
Currently, it is strewn with many tables and chairs as the Yamanaka, Akimichi, and Nara celebrate their bonds the best way they know how: a party.
Sakura can feel Naruto shrink closer to her, talk petering off as he takes in the crowd. Without hesitating, Sakura grabs his hand, seeking to offer him some sort of comfort. She is oblivious to the way his eyes go wide and focus on their joined hands as she catches sight of the clan heads lounging together at one of the tables, fanning themselves with beautifully decorated fans. Naruto fumbles slightly, but manages to intertwine their fingers together.
She moves toward the clan heads, bowing to them as she comes alongside them. It is a bit awkward considering the way she still holds Naruto's hand, but he does not seem in the mood to let it go. So, she manages as gracefully as she can, channeling all of her mother's poise and her own manners training as she says, "Thank you, Yamanaka-san, Akimichi-san, and Nara-san, for having me as a guest at such a lovely event. It is a great honor."
Both Inoichi and Chōza smile, but Shikaku merely heaves a sigh. "Addressing me last, Sakura? I thought I was your favorite."
"She addressed us in the order of those who contributed to this shindig," Chōza says dryly. "Inoichi is hosting and we're of course cooking. What did you contribute?"
"My stellar company," Shikaku replies, finally giving Sakura a small smile. "Glad you were able to make it."
Sakura squeezes Naruto's hand, trying to prompt him. "Thanks for having me, Chōza-oji!" he says, before glancing at Inoichi. "You have a nice compound. I like the tiles."
That seems to be the end of his talk with the clan heads. Sakura's cheeks warm in secondhand embarrassment when all three of them chuckle, but she's relieved to see that they seem to take no offense.
"Ino and the other children are over there," Inoichi says, gesturing to a table further up the hill.
"Have fun and enjoy yourselves," Chōza adds, eyes warm as he regards Naruto.
Well, that dispels any of Sakura's lingering doubts as to the identity of Naruto's benefactor.
"I'm sure Shikamaru is raring for a game, Sakura. It's been over a week," Shikaku says.
Sakura stifles a groan, nodding respectfully to the trio of clan heads before heading up toward Ino.
"What game is he talking about, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asks, eyes glittering with excitement. He still hasn't released her hand. "Is it a ninja game?"
"Nara-san was referring to shogi," Sakura replies, enjoying his questions and the enthusiasm with which he asks them. It's nice to see someone else with such inquisitive curiosity. "It's a board game all about strategy, so I suppose it is somewhat related to being a ninja."
Naruto's face screws up with distaste. "Strategy? That sounds boring like the Academy lessons."
"It's actually quite important for shinobi," Sakura says, stung by his offhand remark. She knows it isn't directed at her, but she loves everything they learn at the Academy. "Being a ninja is a lot more than awesome jutsus and techniques. You like listening to the stories about legendary heroes, right?" Naruto nods. "Because they use cool jutsus and face the enemy head-on, right?" He nods again, eager. "In just about every single one of those cases, the hero perishes at the end just as they defeat the enemy. They die because they expended all of themselves with their full-frontal assault. It makes for a good ballad, but with a little bit of strategy and planning, it is possible they could have lived. The unsung heroes plan out their attacks and take down their opponent with simple techniques. It is less flashy certainly, but the hero walks away with their life."
Naruto doesn't reply, brows furrowed as he processes everything she just said. Sakura leaves him be, knowing that it takes time to think things through.
So Sakura waves with her free hand to Ino, grinning when she waves in return.
"Sakura!" Ino exclaims, jumping up from her perch on top of the table and rushing over to Sakura. "Finally. Shikamaru and Chōji are so boring."
"Troublesome," Shikamaru drawls, not even looking their direction.
"Hello Sakura, hi Naruto," Chōji greets, offering them a shy smile. Sakura catches the way that Shikamaru snaps to attention, eyes assessing Naruto and her. She does not notice, however, the way his gaze lingers on their joined hands nor the way his lips pull further down into a scowl. "I'm glad you were able to make it."
"Thanks Chōji," Sakura says. "I'm glad to be here. The barbecue smells delicious."
"It always is," Chōji replies. "Oba-san makes the best barbecue. It should be ready in another thirty minutes."
Shikamaru sits up languidly at that, directing a challenging look at Sakura. "That's more than enough time for a game of shogi." His eyes flash with contempt as he continues to focus on Sakura and Naruto's hands. He sneers. "At least, with you as an opponent."
Sakura recoils slightly from the venom in his voice, surprised. From the looks on everyone else's faces, they are shocked as well. She also knows that his cruel words are blatantly untrue. Their games average three to five hours. So where is this all coming from?
"Hey!" Naruto pipes up, stepping in front of Sakura just as Ino snaps, "Shikamaru!"
Chōji directs a quelling look at Shikamaru.
"What is your problem?" Naruto demands, still holding onto Sakura's hand. "Sakura-chan is the nicest person in our class!" Sakura flushes at the blatantly untrue statement. "Why are you being so mean?"
"Shikamaru, I've left this alone for long enough, but you have crossed the line," Ino says, face set with determination. "Apologize to Sakura now."
Shikamaru opens his mouth to respond and, from the stormy look on his face, Sakura gets the feeling that it is going to be absolutely scathing and will end in someone's tears. Either hers or Chōji's, it's a toss up.
Sakura pulls her hand free of Naruto's to clap her hands together to get everyone's attention. "How about we play a game?" Sakura says, desperate to cut through the tension. "A game that we can all play." She looks at Chōji pleadingly, hoping that he has an idea.
"Lambs and Tigers," Chōji blurts. "One person will be the tiger and chase down the lambs. Every lamb that is caught by the tiger is then 'dead' and out of the game until all of the lambs are caught. Then someone else becomes the tiger and the game starts anew. Since dinner will be ready soon, it'll put a time limit on the tiger. If the lambs can survive until dinner is ready, they win."
"Shikamaru's the tiger," Naruto declares, posture daring Shikamaru to disagree.
"Fine by me," he replies, staring at Naruto with disdain.
"Great," Sakura says, voice strained. "So excited."
Chōji gives her an empathetic smile.
"You're going to lose, Shikamaru," Naruto says, crossing his arms.
Shikamaru scoffs. Sakura swallows, recognizing the fire in his eyes. She's only ever seen it across a shogi board. It bodes ill for this upcoming game to see his determination. "As if. All of the lambs will be slaughtered with time to spare."
"This is going to be just…so fun," Sakura says, despairing.
She mentally apologizes to her mother. She knows already that she will be unkempt by the end of this game. She's just glad she wore a yukata instead of a kimono.
This Kagami is not the Kagami of Hiruzen's childhood, he's probably the grandson. So Sakura has met Shisui's dad! And Sakura and Naruto have finally encountered each other. Combining Shikamaru's jerk-ish behavior and Naruto's confrontational personality results in something absolutely explosive. We're going to have a merry old time next chapter when they play the game.
Also, no doubt, all of the parents are watching this go down with vague horror and amusement. They'll step in if it becomes necessary, though Sakura does a decent job of deescalating the situation.
Sakura scampers away from the table as Shikamaru puts his head down, counting loudly. She looks around, seeking out a place to hide. Naruto squeezes her hand.
"Should we hide together, Sakura-chan?" he asks, ready to follow her lead.
Sakura hesitates, thinking, and then shaking her head. "No," she says. "We should split up. Shikamaru has to catch each of us so it'd be best if we are all as far apart as we can be."
Naruto nods, accepting her words. He grins. "Shikamaru is going to have a hard time catching me!" he exclaims. "I'm great at running."
Sakura smiles in turn, remembering all of the races at the Academy. Naruto is usually ranked among the top five for speed, alongside Ino, Sasuke, Kiba, and Ami. "You'll do great Naruto. Just make sure not to get caught."
"What about you, Sakura-chan? You aren't exactly fast," he says, watching her with concern.
Sakura ignores the twinge of hurt at his bluntness, knowing that he is just worried. She slips her hand free of his and shrugs. "I might not be as fast but I have a plan on my side. Speed isn't going to factor into catching me."
"Okay Sakura-chan," Naruto says, taking her word at face value. "Don't get slaughtered!"
He takes off at an impressive pace, disappearing further into the Nara Forest. Sakura watches him go and follows at a slower rate, attentive to the care of her yukata. She can still hear Shikamaru counting as she comes across a large tree with low branches. Sakura squares up with the tree, shifting her clothes and slipping free of her shoes as she jumps and grasps the lowest hanging branch. She's just glad that she is wearing shorts beneath her yukata.
As a child of Konoha, Sakura, like so many other children, is a decent tree climber. Children in Konoha learn to walk, to climb, and lastly to run. Before Sakura made friends, when she still ran from bullies, she always hid either in the library or in the trees. So, Sakura presses her toes into the grooves of the bark, pulling herself up onto the branch. Despite the stifling nature of her clothes, Sakura manages to climb the tree at a quick pace. She makes her way about twenty maybe thirty feet up the tree and looks around from her perch.
She cannot see Ino, but she does notice that Chōji seated back at the table where they initially gathered, apparently caught by Shikamaru. Naruto is being chased by Shikamaru, running at his top speed. And yet, somehow, Shikamaru is clearly gaining on him. He's usually ranked dead last in the races, undoubtedly because he refuses to participate.
Sakura swallows, anxiety spiking at Shikamaru's clear show of skill. She cannot help but wonder what other skills Shikamaru hides behind a veneer of laziness. She reluctantly pulls her attention away from the chase and looks at the nearby trees. Sakura shifts along her branch, channeling a little bit of her chakra to her feet. It isn't exactly the same as tree walking—it doesn't require as much chakra—but it does keep her feet stuck firmly to the tree. It offers her a sense of security, just in case her balance is off. Sakura curls her toes against the bark, preparing herself.
She's seen shinobi do this all the time and she's even practiced this a little bit with Ibiki. But Ibiki isn't here, leaving her without her safety net.
Sakura takes a deep breath, widening her stance and leaps.
Her heart lifts along with her, exhilaration pumping through her veins. It's like she's flying.
Sakura lands a bit awkwardly on the branch of the next tree, though her feet and grip are solid. She lets out a small exclamation of celebration as she regains her balance. As she surveys the ground beneath her, Sakura notices that she's caught Shikamaru's eye.
He smiles, but it isn't nice. It's vicious, mean, and triumphant. "Found you," he says.
"But you haven't caught me yet," Sakura replies.
She hears Naruto laugh and cheer from the nearby table, but her attention is focused solely on Shikamaru. The determined gleam in his eyes and the set of his jaw have her immediately wary.
"I'll change that very shortly," Shikamaru says, as he sets about scaling the tree.
Sakura watches him, noting his progression. He isn't as competent a climber as she is, but he still moves at a quick enough pace. Sakura dares to glance away from him for a brief moment, assessing the table. Both Naruto and Chōji sit there, watching the encounter avidly. Sakura notes that Chōji is even sharing a snack with Naruto, a rare sight indeed for the Akimichi heir. The clan heads and their wives have drifted closer, paying close attention to the game unfolding high in the trees.
Ino is nowhere to be seen.
Sakura's lips unfurl into a smile, even as her shoulders straighten. There are only about ten or so minutes before dinner will start. If she can keep him occupied for most of that time, stall him, Ino will win and, by association, all of the lambs will win.
Sakura comes to this conclusion in a matter of seconds and she returns her gaze to Shikamaru to assess his trajectory. He's about ten feet up the tree and ascending rapidly.
Sakura turns from him and starts to climb higher in the tree, getting about another ten or so feet up before stopping once more. She reinforces the chakra at her feet, ensuring that she keeps a firm grip on the tree. She looks down at Shikamaru and, channeling Sasuke and even Shikamaru at their most haughty, directs a smirk at him. "Best of luck, tiger."
Then, she starts to run, eyes on the adjacent tree. At the end of the branch, Sakura launches herself from her current branch to the next, landing with confidence. She looks back at Shikamaru, taking in the surprise in his features. Apparently, he didn't see her first jump. However, his expression quickly settles back into stubbornness as he assesses the tree.
He begins to climb at a quicker rate, eyes on her the entire time. Sakura watches him in turn, sizing him up. There's a flash of yellow out of the corner of her eye and Sakura catches sight of Ino on the ground, moving closer to the trees that Shikamaru and Sakura are in.
Shikamaru's eyes flick in the same direction as Ino announces her presence, "Hey! You can't catch me, Shikamaru!"
Sakura can see the calculation in his face, his wavering attention as a seemingly easier target presents herself. Sakura isn't willing to let Ino be caught though. "C'mon tiger!" she calls. "You scared?"
Shikamaru's shoulders hike as he scowls up at Sakura, ignoring Ino completely even as she shouts and jeers at him. He rushes along the tree branch, throwing himself to the same tree Sakura is in. He hits his desired branch with a thump, but he scrabbles for a good hold and pulls himself to his feet. "You wish," Shikamaru says, glaring up at Sakura.
Sakura shivers slightly at the ferocity crackling in his gaze, but she supposes it's a good thing. Her attempt to distract him is working well, maybe too well. He immediately sets to climbing closer to her and Sakura looks around, trying to find her next target. There aren't any good, solid branches nearby, except in the tree she just vacated.
She shrugs to herself and adjusts her yukata, the bow at the back starting to come loose. Shikamaru is closing in, only seven or so feet below her. Sakura starts to run along the branch, gaze on the next tree.
"Not this time!" Shikamaru says, moving his hands quickly through a number of hand signs.
His shadow lengthens, snaking through the shadow of the tree and attaching to Sakura's. Sakura immediately stops moving, one foot still in the air.
"What?" Sakura says, fear spiking through her. She doesn't understand what is happening, why she is incapable of moving. "What's happening?"
"Hey stop that!" Ino calls from beneath the tree. "No using hiden in this game!"
"We never made that rule," Shikamaru lobs back. "I'll use anything I have at my disposal."
"Hiden?" Sakura repeats, heart racing. She's heard a bit about the Nara and their connection with shadows. To escape him, she'll have to sever their connection, but Sakura is incapable of moving. She doesn't know how to get free. She's never felt so defenseless, so vulnerable before. Even when she's faced down Kiba or Sasuke in the sparring ring, overwhelmingly outmatched, at least she still controlled her movements, weak though they were. But now, she has no autonomy, no freedom. She cannot even physically struggle, though mentally she tries to overcome whatever it is that is possessing her body.
Suddenly, her feet begin to move, heading back toward the trunk of the tree. "What's happening?" she demands, fear coloring her voice.
"I'm catching you," Shikamaru says from somewhere below, tone making it clear that he thinks her question is foolish. "Now let's go."
Sakura's body continues to move against her will, closer and closer to the trunk of the tree. However, she notices that the chakra she was using earlier has dissipated in the wake of Shikamaru catching her shadow, leaving her solely to rely on her balance and Shikamaru's good will.
And Sakura knows that Shikamaru has no good will to spare her.
"Shikamaru please," she says, breath hitching as anxiety presses down on her chest. "You win. Please let me go."
Shikamaru is silent, but her feet continue to move. Sakura's chest goes tight with anxiety as she contemplates the ground so far below her. It didn't seem so high when she was in control of her body, but now…
Her foot catches on a knob sticking up from the branch and she pitches forward. The abrupt movement, something caused by the environment and not by Sakura or Shikamaru's wills, breaks their connection. Sakura, straining as she is against their connection, falls hard to the side. Her eyes go wide, arms splaying to try and catch herself against the trunk or the branch, but she misses.
And suddenly, Sakura is falling.
Her stomach swoops as she learns the downsides that come of trying to fly. She doesn't scream, unable to vocalize around the visceral fear that clutches her lungs and holds them fast. She turns, trying to catch herself on one of the branches or even against the tree itself.
As she turns, she briefly meets Shikamaru's eyes as he reaches out to her. Sakura starts to reach back, but, remembering what it felt to be powerless, feelings that he caused, she hesitates.
And she plummets past him.
Sakura thinks that she hears Shikamaru scream her name, but her blood is pumping through her ears and she cannot hear anything above her heartbeat.
The limbs and branches strike at her, lashing and stinging her skin. Her fingers ache with all of her near misses, the bark tearing away at the skin there.
Still, she persists.
Sakura twists herself around as best she can, aiming for the trunk of the tree. She hits the trunk of the tree roughly head first. She attempts to channel chakra to her hands and feet, anything to help her stop her descent. And then, she manages to get her whole body against the trunk. She screams as the trunk tears her yukata, catching the soft flesh at her shins and forearms. Her chakra flickers, sputters, and dies. Sakura grits her teeth and concentrates, pushing chakra into her hands and feet.
Her fall comes to a sudden halt.
Breathing heavily, adrenaline high, Sakura looks around, realizing that she's about four feet from the ground. Yoshino stands below her, watching Sakura carefully.
"Sakura-chan, allow me to carry you the rest of the way down," Yoshino says, voice sounding as if it is coming from a far distant.
"No," Sakura says firmly, barely able to hear herself over the ringing in her ears. She cannot give her agency up to anyone. She won't let anyone hold her, trap her, again. "No."
Sakura makes an agonizingly slow climb down the rest of the tree. She does not tree walk, instead moving down each branch one at a time. The moment she touches the ground, she is crowded by Ino, Naruto, Chōji, and the parents. Sakura's breaths are short and shallow, unable to handle all the people crowding her, suffocating her.
She can't breathe.
"Back up!" Ino shouts, turning to glare at everyone else. "Sakura needs space."
Ino approaches Sakura alone, assisting Sakura to sit down and slumping against the tree trunk. Ino kneels beside her, gently touching Sakura's hair. She begins to pet Sakura's hair. As she does so, the pins in Sakura's hair come free, falling into Sakura's hands.
Sakura looks down at the pins. They are tarnished; the stars on one pin bent with one of them broken completely free and the moon pin snapped in half. She stares at the pins, scraped, raw hands beginning to tremble.
And, as the adrenaline begins to fade and the injuries begin to smart and flare with pain, Sakura bursts into tears.
They are not quiet, controlled tears. They are loud and messy and Sakura's chest aches with the force of her sobbing. She buries her face in her scuffed and bleeding knees, shoulders heaving.
Ino stays with her, stroking through her hair and humming softly.
The skin is rubbed away on the soft inside flesh of her forearms, abraded by the rough bark of the tree. Her shins and knees are in a similar state. These injuries are shallow, but cover a large amount of skin. Some of her wounds come from the lashings she received from smaller, individual branches. These wounds are deeper and bleed openly. And all of Sakura's muscles throb from overexertion. She's ruined her outfit, her mother's beautiful, borrowed pins.
"Sakura-san," Aiko calls. Sakura looks up through bleary, red-rimmed eyes at Ino's mother. Her voice is soft and soothing. "Sakura-san, please allow me to look at your injuries. That was quite the nasty fall. I can treat your wounds."
"Yes Yamanaka-san," Sakura hiccups, trying valiantly to get her crying under control.
Yoshino lands nearby, carrying Shikamaru with her. He scrambles out of her hold, moving toward Sakura. He is blocked by Naruto, Chōza, and Inoichi.
"I-I need to talk to her," Shikamaru says, peeking at Sakura behind them.
"No!" Naruto nearly yells, his eyebrows furrowed in contempt. "You've already hurt her enough."
"I have to apologize," Shikamaru snaps, desperation clawing at his breast as Aiko and Ino assist Sakura to her feet and lead her toward their home.
Chōza places a staying hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Not right now, Shikamaru. There is a time and a place for apologies. Sakura is in no state to hear one right now, much less accept one."
"But I didn't mean to," Shikamaru says, eyes stinging as Sakura's back grows smaller and smaller as she moves away from him. He cannot get her terrified face out of his mind, how close he came to catching her hand, the fact that she turned away, unable to trust him to help her… "I didn't mean to."
"Intention means little in the face of action," Inoichi says with a severe frown, directed more toward Yoshino and Shikaku than to Shikamaru. "Every action or inaction we take has consequences." His eerie pale eyes refocus on Shikamaru sharply. "Your hiden is a weapon, it is not a toy to be used against others."
Shikamaru looks around, taking in the range of expressions, from the recrimination in Naruto's eyes to the disappointment in Chōji's to the resignation and guilt in his parents' faces. He returns his gaze to his shaking hands, clenching them into fists.
This, all of this, is his fault.
Shikamaru closes his eyes against the memory of terror lining Sakura's face as acrid bile rises in his throat.
Please let me go.
He has no idea how to fix this.
A few days after the unfortunate incident at the Ino-Shika-Cho get-together, Sakura grabs a large sweater and pants. She places them on her bed, flexing her bandaged hands. Ino's mother knows a few simple medical ninjutsu and she was able to treat and heal the deep cuts, leaving behind only shallow marks. Aiko did what she could for the large portions of skin abraded by the tree, but she is unfamiliar with the technique used to regrow skin across such large expanses. So, she and Ino bandaged up Sakura's hands, arms, and legs, and took Sakura home.
Sakura's palms sting as she shifts her muscles, but she ignores the pain as she shrugs out of her pajamas and shifts into her chosen outfit. She's glad that the weather has been cooling off as it allows her to get full coverage of her skin without piquing anyone's attention. Though, considering who she is about to visit, Sakura knows that she'll be heavily scrutinized.
She leaves her bedroom and heads downstairs.
"Sakura!" Mebuki calls, stepping out to meet her daughter. Her lips purse as she looks Sakura over. "Where are you heading, dear?"
"I'm going to visit Torune and Shino," Sakura replies dutifully.
"Will that Nara brat be there?" Kizashi fairly growls, coming out to stand by Mebuki. As a man who, in his youth, trained in Iron as a samurai, he is broad in shoulder and quite intimidating with his crossed scarred arms and stormy gaze.
"No, otou-sama," Sakura says, shoulders instinctively hunching. Her heart rate picks up as she remembers falling, falling, falling— "I haven't seen him since the dinner."
"Good," Kizashi says. "If I have my way you won't see him again."
"He still attends the Academy," Sakura says.
"For now," Kizashi replies, eyes flinty.
"Otou-sama," Sakura protests, anxiety spiking. She knows that, should it come down to it, she'll be expelled long before Shikamaru. He is a shinobi clan heir and Sakura is just a civilian. There won't even be a contest. And, despite everything, Sakura wants to stay at the Academy, even if it means she has to face Shikamaru every day. "Please, don't!"
Kizashi looks down at her before sighing. "Very well," he says.
"However, we will no longer deal with the Nara," Mebuki says, voice brooking no argument.
"Oka-sama," Sakura begins.
Mebuki raises a hand. "We will not deal with a family that allows a child of theirs to torment one of the Haruno clan. Especially considering that child is set to one day inherit their clan. We will not deal with a clan lacking integrity."
Sakura nods, feeling miserable. Her interactions with Shikamaru have cost her parents a very lucrative deal working with the Nara.
Kizashi kneels beside her, cupping her shoulder. "It is no loss for us," he says, lifting her chin to meeting her eyes. "We do not abide poor merchanting ties; we cut free the excess weight. It is a service to us to learn such things of a potential partner so early into negotiations. So shed that weight of misplaced guilt, Sakura, and we'll begin to move forward!"
"Yes, otou-sama," Sakura says, smiling at her parents.
"Would you like me to walk you to the Aburame compound?" Kizashi asks, concern clouding his features.
"Thank you for the offer, otou-sama," Sakura says, politeness always coming first. "However, I think I will be alright to walk by myself."
She doesn't want to be coddled, she just wants everything to go back to how it was. Yet, the sting of her injuries reminds her that things are different now. Still, she can do this herself.
"Alright, dear," Mebuki says, casting her husband a firm look when he opens his mouth to respond. He shuts his mouth. "We'll see you when you get home."
Sakura tells her parents goodbye as she heads out the door. She makes her way through the districts of Konoha, anxiety mounting as she navigates the crowds. It was never like this before she fell, but there's this almost frenzied feeling that creeps up her spine, demanding that she run and flee. Sakura fights against those feelings and she makes it safely onto the Aburame grounds.
The moment she crosses into their territory, something settles within her. Sakura is safe here. No one will hurt her on these grounds.
Sakura makes her way to her home away from home, humming until the door opens. She enters the Aburame home, inhaling the scents that greet her.
"Sakura!" Torune exclaims from far away. Sakura hears the rhythmic thumping of feet as he runs her way. He suddenly appears, decked out in his birthday present from her, hair askew as he grins. "You're here!"
He rushes forward, sweeping her up into a hug.
Immediately, Sakura groans in pain as the hug presses down upon her raw skin.
Torune releases her, hands fluttering around her as he looks her over. "Sakura?"
His voice is soft and tentative, obviously worried that he's done something to hurt her. Sakura's heart aches for him and she opens her mouth.
"Sakura, what's wrong?" Shino demands, moving into the foyer, accompanied by his father.
Sakura closes her eyes, crossing her arms defensively. She wasn't expecting it to come out so early, but why should she be surprised?
"Sakura," Shibi says. "Are you alright, dear?"
"There…there was an accident," Sakura says, unwilling to open her eyes. "I was injured."
"How injured?" Shino asks, quiet but firm.
Sakura hesitates for a moment before rolling up her sleeves, displaying her bandages.
"Who did this?" Torune asks.
"It was an accident," Sakura protests.
"Who did this?" Torune repeats, voice rising.
"It happened during a game with Shikamaru."
Everything is silent.
Sakura cracks an eye open, mouth going dry as she takes in their expressions. She has never seen such banked, controlled rage before.
"Did it now?" Torune says, bugs beginning to rattle furiously. "And how exactly did the accident occur?"
"We were playing Lambs and Tigers," Sakura says. "Shikamaru was the tiger. I climbed up a tree and he chased me. He used his hiden—"
"He what?" Shibi nearly barks, furious.
Sakura flinches at his raised voice, folding in on herself.
Torune's rinkaichū quiet down as he pulls Sakura into a very gentle hug, running gloved hands through her hair. "It's alright, Sakura. Shibi-oji isn't angry with you."
He continues to murmur sweet comforts to Sakura until she calms.
"I apologize for raising my voice, Sakura," Shibi says, kneeling so that he is lower than her. "I am in no way angry with you. I am just appalled at the fact that a clan-raised child dared to use his hiden in such an unregulated manner. It is beyond inappropriate."
"How are you feeling, Sakura?" Shino asks, moving closer.
"I'm…I'm doing better," Sakura hedges.
"Have you seen Shikamaru since then?" Shino says.
Sakura ducks and shakes her head.
"I should demand a clan audience with the Nara," Shibi mutters. "It is apparent that their parenting is lacking if Shikamaru believes that he can use his hiden as a plaything."
"Please don't," Sakura replies, gripping Torune's arms around her. She doesn't know much about clan politics, but she knows that one clan calling another to an audience is a big deal. An audience has not been called in over a decade. She's almost certain that the Aburame have never called another clan to an audience. "Please don't do that. It was…it was an accident."
"It was an escalation of behaviors Shikamaru already exhibited," Shino says. "He has harassed and bullied Sakura since the field experience assignments began. He has left her with bruises in their spars at the Academy."
Shibi's lips flatten into a frown. "Well, at the very least I can speak with the Academy instructors and ensure that Sakura is no longer paired with Shikamaru." Shibi looks at Sakura. "Would you like that, Sakura?"
Sakura contemplates that, an end to the constant barrage that she faces from Shikamaru. Her shoulders begin to shake with relief. "Yes, Shibi-oji. That would be—" She exhales shakily and firms her voice and shoulders. "That would be wonderful."
Shibi takes her hand and squeezes it gently. "It shall be done. Now, let's head to the kitchen. We can go ahead and get dinner started."
Sakura nods, catching both Torune and Shino's hands in hers as they relocate to the kitchen. Things may be bad right now, but Sakura knows that it will pass. And she'll have her family around her to help her along.
So Sakura's fall was absolutely based on something that happened to me. Except, of course, I fell because of my own dumb self. The tree scraped up my arms, legs, and stomach. I even got a small branch stuck in my left arm; there's still a scar even over a decade later! So, fun times. There's going to be some interesting repercussions in the upcoming chapters from what happened. I'm excited to share them with you!
Thank you to the reviewers that pointed out the differences between kekkei genkai and hiden. I've made the necessary edits to the past chapter. Truthfully, I hadn't even realized there was such a thing as hiden but it certainly leaves room for some interesting possibilities in the future.
Shikaku, Yoshino, and Shikamaru make their way home in oppressive silence. Shikamaru slouches even more than usual beneath the weight of the looks he receives on all ends from the Yamanaka, Nara, and Akimichi relatives who witnessed the incident. His neck and ears are hot with embarrassment and shame, but he doesn't say a word, keeping his gaze locked on his feet.
Ino's recriminations and Chōji's disappointed frown weigh heavy in his mind, yet even they are not at the forefront. No, his thoughts center around Sakura, the way she shied away from both him and his family.
No one has ever looked at him the way she did.
Shikamaru is used to garnering looks of all sorts; as the Nara clan heir and prodigy in his own right, Shikamaru receives a lot of attention. He's used to looks of awe, to looks of jealousy, even to looks of resentment. But never a look like that; that look of mingled fear and revulsion.
No one has ever been terrified of him.
Shikamaru's stomach twists, threatening to rebel at that realization.
She hates him and he cannot fault her for it.
He drove her to this state.
Something in his chest eases and lightens as they cross onto Nara grounds. Just as quickly though, his stomach drops with dread. He is not looking forward to this discussion, whatever it may entail. He despises disappointing his parents and he knows he has. After all, he disappointed himself.
They make their way into the house, removing their shoes and replacing them with slippers. As a single unit, they move into the tatami-lined room that overlooks their sand garden.
Shikamaru kneels, concise movements only faltering when he sees the shoji board set neatly to the side of the room. How many hours has he spent bent over the board, poring over every inch of his games with Sakura? How often has he stared at the boards after the fact, puzzling out strategies for his next game against her? How often has he sat in class, mapping out his mistakes and planning his moves for future scenarios?
And now, because of his actions, he doubts that Sakura will ever willingly sit across the board from him.
He pauses, thinking for a moment. Did she even enjoy their games to begin with? He remembers the furrow she wore between her brows for most of their games, the way she often shifted in her seat. Guilt heats the back of his neck as he realizes that their games were not nearly as fun for her as they were for him. He made their games uncomfortable.
Yoshino and Shikaku seat themselves silently across from him, expressions implacable.
Shikamaru lowers his head, ready to hear their disappointment—
"I'm sorry," Shikaku says.
Shikamaru looks up, eyes wide. "What?"
"You are not the only one at fault today," Shikaku says, scars severe with his frown. "This rivalry of yours is not one solely of your own making."
"We had a hand in it as well," Yoshino says, unusually subdued.
"What do you mean?" Shikamaru asks, hands twitching in his lap.
"Shikamaru, you are our son," Shikaku says. "We love you. We have been concerned about your performance at the Academy though."
"You are brilliant," Yoshino says, giving Shikamaru a shaky smile. "There is no denying that fact. However, my son, you are rudderless; aimless. You have become so jaded already and you have yet to graduate. You are so young to be so tainted by apathy. So, when the opportunity arose…"
"We took it," Shikaku says. "Sakura brought a spark out of you that I had not seen in months. She inspired you to greater achievements and it was refreshing to see." He sighs. "I underestimated your resentment toward her, wrote it off as an envy you would outgrow. So we encouraged and fostered that rivalry, unaware of its dark depths."
"So," Shikamaru begins, eyes burning slightly as his memories are reframed. He is stung by his own ignorance through this whole debacle. How did he miss his parents' intentions? "Every compliment given to Sakura in my presence, every time you invited her to visit, it was all for this rivalry?"
"None of the compliments that Sakura was given were unearned," Yoshino says. "But yes, the phrasing was certainly pointed. Nothing was inauthentic, but things nearly always had dual-purposes."
"While we are culpable, you are not without blame," Shikaku says, frown deepening. "It was the height of impropriety to use your hiden technique on Sakura. What were you thinking?"
Shikaku's voice doesn't rise, but Shikamaru's ears are still nearly level with his shoulders by the time that Shikaku finishes speaking. His disappointment is far worse than anger.
"I wasn't," Shikamaru says sullenly, eyes downcast. "It was an impulsive decision I made in the moment."
"Clan children are not allowed to use their clan techniques, be they kekkei genkai or hiden, outside of training until they graduate," Yoshino says, rubbing her forehead. "There can be heavy consequences."
"Consequences?" Shikamaru repeats, meeting his mother's gaze with alarm. "What consequences?"
"Sakura, should she choose, is well within her rights to press charges formally," Yoshino says. "If her suit goes before the Councils, you may have your chakra conditionally constrained."
Shikamaru swallows against his suddenly dry mouth. Chakra constraints are only utilized against threats to the state, which can range from terrorists to shinobi suffering post-traumatic stress to people who are unable to control their chakra. Shikamaru has heard his parents discuss criminals held at the Intelligence Division and restrained with heavy chakra constraints. "What do you mean by conditional?"
"Your chakra would be constrained and restricted anytime you leave clan grounds," Shikaku says, rubbing the furrow of his brow.
"Have such cases gone before the Councils before?" Shikamaru asks.
"Yes," Yoshino replies. "Understand that there is a long history of tensions between established clans and civilians in Konoha. Civilians often fear shinobi and those who do not have dealings with them find shinobi distasteful. They fear shinobi for they do not understand them. However, the majority of our shinobi forces are made up of civilian-born individuals. It is rare to see them rise beyond the rank of chūnin. And that is in no small part thanks to shinobi clans."
"What do you—" Shikamaru trails off, mulling over his mother's words.
Shikaku nods. "The clans often seek to protect their own interests; to keep their traditions as they are. They promote the status quo, as it leaves them in a position of power." He shrugs slightly, a bitter twist to his lips. "The Nara have taken part in the past as well. Clans tend to take two stances toward powerful civilian-born shinobi. The first is to weed out those with potential, exert influence early on to keep them from advancing through the ranks. Think of the make-up of your class; only a fifth are clan-born students. Yet only a handful of the civilian-born students will graduate to genin. And fewer still will reach chūnin."
"And the second?" Shikamaru asks.
"The second stance is to subsume the individual into the clan," Yoshino says. "They suss out the potential in the individual, determine if they are a good fit for the clan and if they able to bring new skills into the clan. Then they will approach the individual, offering a mutualistic relationship wherein the individual offers their services to the clan in return for the clan's connections and friendship. It isn't pretty, but it is the nature of these things."
Shikamaru does not ask the question heavy on his tongue about his parents' plans for Sakura. He knows already that he will not like the answer. Instead, he goes with a less loaded question. "But what about the Hokage?" Shikamaru says. "The Sarutobi weren't a shinobi clan until Hokage-sama made them one."
"Why do you think such strictures are put in place?" Yoshino poses, not expecting an answer. "Hiruzen-sama has firsthand experience of the old song and dance that shinobi clans play. Clans receive preferential treatment, even more now that Konoha has been established for so long. Hiruzen-sama does what he can to even those odds. He and Danzō-sama have enacted legislation to give civilian-born shinobi rights, but there is still disparity."
"As for the cases that have gone before the Councils, every case has ruled in the favor of the civilian-born shinobi. The exact consequences have depended on the specific circumstances. In this case, with Sakura having the backing of both the Aburame and the Yamanaka…" Yoshino trails off for a moment, shaking her head. "Well, I would expect the conditional constraints on your chakra would last for at least a year, if not more."
Shikamaru's heart squeezes at that thought, trying to wrap his mind around how those constraints would feel. How powerless he would feel. Is that how Sakura felt when he used his hiden technique against her? "Do you—" Shikamaru stops for a moment, clearing his throat as it tightens. "Do you think Sakura will forgive me?"
"I'm not sure," Shikaku says, hand scrubbing his mouth to hide the pleased tilt to his lips. This is a step in the right direction for his son. Perhaps good will come of this whole mishap after all. "There is only one way for you to find out."
"May I speak with you please?"
Sakura nearly jumps out of her skin, whirling to find Shikamaru lounging in the shadow of a building, watching her with an unreadable expression. Sakura immediately casts her own eyes down to her shadow, skipping back several steps to make sure her shadow stays separate from the building's. "What are you doing here?" Sakura asks. It is early morning, the normal time that Sakura makes her way to the Academy. Shikamaru is rarely, if ever, on time to class. He intercepted her in the civilian district, her district. "What do you want?"
"I would like to speak with you please," Shikamaru says, contrition shining in his eyes.
Sakura frowns, uneasy all the same. She doesn't appreciate that he ambushed her like this. She glances around, eyes lighting on one shop in particular. "Not here. Follow me."
She turns slightly, unwilling to give Shikamaru her open back entirely as she leads him the short distance to their destination. Shikamaru seems to pick up on the tension as he makes sure to keep back a few paces, holding his shadow separate from hers. Sakura's heart still kicks up a few notches as she stares at his shadow, arms and shins stinging with the reminder of what Shikamaru did.
"Sarasa-san," Sakura calls as she enters the shop. "May I come in?"
"Of course," Sarasa replies, the rhythmic thumping of her hammer ceasing. "Come in, come in!"
Sakura steps through the front of the shop, eyes tracking Shikamaru's movements as she glides into the back, welcoming the sweltering heat of the furnace. She navigates the numerous leather pieces with practiced ease, making her way toward the furnace. Sarasa pauses in her work when she catches sight of Sakura, assessing the situation. Her lips purse as she hefts the weighty hammer she's using.
"Everything alright, Sakura-chan?" she asks, watching Shikamaru with suspicion.
"Everything is fine, Sarasa-san," Sakura replies. "I just need to have a short conversation with my companion if that's alright by you."
"Of course," Sarasa says, beginning anew the rhythmic thumping as she pounds the leather. "Let me know if you need any assistance."
Sakura nods, continuing until she is right next to the blazing furnace. The heat is sweltering, nearly unbearable, but the bright fire is intense enough to keep her shadow short, nearly nonexistent. She crosses her arms, cocking a brow at Shikamaru.
"Well?" she asks, shifting her weight slightly. "What did you want to say to me?"
Shikamaru wets his lips, glancing around the shop. The heavy scent of wet leather and the loudness of the hammer and the furnace muddle his head, scattering his thoughts. He feels off-balanced, standing here in the backroom of a merchanting shop. There's something alien about this environment and Shikamaru's stomach twists at the ease with which Sakura moves in this unknown world. Still, she does not seem at ease with him right now, watching him cautiously. He notices how short their shadows are and admiration curdles low and sour in his gut, appreciating her ingenuity and hating that she even has to use it. "I am here to apologize."
Sakura blinks, looking surprised for a moment before schooling her features. The pit in Shikamaru's stomach tightens as he realizes that she was not expecting this.
"What I did to you is inexcusable," Shikamaru says. "We were playing a game; we weren't in combat or even sparring. There are no excuses for my actions, so I can only say that I am so sorry for using my hiden technique against you."
Sakura watches him, noting his sincerity. She does not speak for a while, just rubbing her arms where the bandages are still wrapped. She keeps herself still even as sweat begins to dampen her clothes and Shikamaru's fidgeting increases. "Thank you for the apology, Shikamaru-san. At this time, I am unable to forgive you."
"What?" Shikamaru asks, snapping to attention. "But I apologized."
It is Sakura's turn to squirm, unwilling to meet his frustrated gaze. She's all too used to the unpleasantness that usually ensues when his expression looks like that. "I appreciate the fact that you've apologized, but I am not in a place right now where I can forgive you."
"Why not?" Shikamaru bites out, trying to keep his tone calm. He's never been in this situation before and he knows he is floundering.
Sakura's eyes meet his for a moment, dart away, and then rejoin his firmly. "Shikamaru-san, you have been tormenting me for months now. Every encounter between us is a competition, one in which you take pride in watching or making me fail. Every spar we have leaves me with bruises at best," she says, rubbing her arms harder, grounding herself in the sting. "Every single game of shoji we play is filled with taunts against my intelligence and my worth. You make me feel bad, Shikamaru-san, about who I am as a person." She pauses, biting her lip. "I don't feel like a person after our encounters; I feel like trash. You constantly belittle and berate me and why? Because I get to work with your father? Because I'm an easy target?
Sakura takes a deep breath, shaking her head. "You terrify me. I don't feel good when you are around. And that isn't even mentioning the incident at the Yamanaka compound." Sakura rolls up her sleeves, revealing her still bandaged arms. "I could've died, Shikamaru-san. Your impulsive decision nearly cost me my life. I wasn't able to control my body, Shikamaru-san. Do you know what that feels like? I was absolutely powerless, helpless in the hands of someone who despises me. I was wholly at the mercy of your goodwill and I fell. You made me fall. So no, Shikamaru-san, I am not ready to forgive you. I do not know if I ever will be."
"How—how do I fix this?" Shikamaru asks, eyes stinging. He didn't know. How could he have known that Sakura felt this way about him? He thought of Sakura as a rival, as someone he must beat to show his skill. He wanted to be her equal, prove himself to her and to his father. It is clear to him now that, in Sakura's eyes, he is her tormentor, the fuel for her nightmares. "What would you like me to do?"
"There isn't something to do," Sakura says, looking tired.
"I could teach you the Nara hiden," Shikamaru says, desperate to make amends. His vision clouds with tears as he stares at Sakura. "You could use it on me; make me feel the same way you felt. That way we would be even."
Sakura rears back, only remembering that the furnace is behind her just in time. "I don't want to get even, Shikamaru-san. I never want to put anyone through that experience." She shivers, haunted still by that forced helplessness. Her heart squeezes slightly at his tears, but she holds herself firm. She will not compromise herself for his comfort. She cannot. "No one deserves to feel that way."
"What about pressing charges?" Shikamaru says, crying in earnest now. He ignores his tears and the way they tickle and scratch at his throat, focusing on Sakura. "You can take your suit before the Councils. Once you present the evidence, they'll conditionally constrain my chakra; leave me unable to use my chakra outside of the Nara compound. That way you can be safe."
Sakura shakes her head firmly, anxiety spiking. "No, Shikamaru-san. I don't want to extend this experience. I do not want to have to go before a group of strangers and rehash the incident for them. I just want this whole thing to die down and be over with."
"But it will punish me," Shikamaru says. "And you can feel safe."
"No I won't," Sakura replies. "You hurt me enough long before chakra was thrown into the mix. I refuse to press charges; it is not my responsibility to make your guilt go away. Only you can do that."
"Your forgiveness would help," Shikamaru says, raising a hand in supplication toward her as the other rubs his drying eyes.
"It just takes time, Shikamaru," Sakura sighs. "I'm not there yet. And you can't demand that I get there or try to hasten things along. That's just bullying me even more. Please, Shikamaru, if you want me to ever possibly forgive you, I need you to give me space and leave me alone." Sakura looks at him, taking him in with furrowed brows. His eyes are red with tears and his hand is reached toward her as if asking her for salvation. But Sakura isn't a person who has the strength to offer him that. "Can you do that?"
"I—" Shikamaru cuts himself off, drawing his entreating hand back to his body. This goes against all of his desires and wants, but Shikamaru figures that his selfishness is what started this mess in the first place. Putting Sakura and her needs first may just get him out of it. "Of course," he says, voice ragged with emotion. He cannot remember the last time he cried. "Whatever you need. I truly am sorry, Sakura."
"I know," Sakura says gently. "But sometimes that isn't enough."
Happy 2019! It's been a bit, but life has been wild on my end of things. I went to Europe over winter break to visit a friend. Three weeks and six different countries. Very little writing got done but I've got so many ideas! I'm glad to be back and hope to get back into the groove of things. Let me know what you think of this chapter!
Sakura takes a seat in the chair before Shikaku’s desk, looking wistfully around the room. It has been a handful of weeks since she was last in here, though everything looks nearly the same. Yet, it all feels different. The chair in which she sits—which she has come to think of as her chair—is suddenly uncomfortable, unfamiliar. And these feelings of discomfort, Sakura knows, stem from the man who seats himself opposite her.
Sakura raises her gaze to meet his, looking into Shikaku’s familiar sloe eyes. Her heart squeezes slightly as she reminisces all of the hours wiled away speaking of ciphers and code. She admired him so much; he created languages all his own. She wanted to be him. And now?
She can barely force herself to look at him.
How did they get to this point?
“You wished to speak with me,” Sakura says in a leading manner when she realizes that he won’t speak first. Her parents have taught her the necessary skills in negotiation and she knows that she needs to get him to play his cards first. He is the one who called this meeting; he is interested in getting something from her. Sakura knows that this gives her a measure of power. And she is not in the most charitable of moods.
“Yes,” Shikaku says, folding his hands in front of him. His expression is inscrutable for a moment before he sighs, softening in a way. “I would like to formally apologize to you, Sakura. What happened on the Yamanaka grounds was unconscionable and inexcusable. I extend to you the deepest regrets of both Yoshino and myself.”
Sakura stares at him, wondering what goes on behind his intelligent, calculating eyes. He is watching her every move, every shift and Sakura wonders what exactly he sees. Can he see the rage of injustice roiling within her, barely contained beneath her skin? “What outcome would have been unregrettable for you?”
He blinks, surprise flitting across his face before it is locked away once more. But Sakura has seen and recognizes it as a chink in his armor. It is a weakness, one that—as a merchant child—Sakura knows to leverage and exploit. “What do you mean?”
Sakura leans forward, pressing her advantage. “From the beginning, you have pitted me against Shikamaru. Before I even came to your home, you built me up as his adversary, a rival he had to topple for your affection. You wished to inspire Shikamaru out of his laziness with a challenge. Yet the approach he took—the approach you took—resulted in an escalating series of bullying, even violent encounters.” Sakura pauses, considering Shikaku. “I know you received at least one report from Iruka-sensei about Shikamaru’s behavior during sparring. Every time I walked away from a sparring match with Shikamaru I had bone-deep bruises at best. You knew he was escalating. How could he not, with the constant reminders of my apprenticeship with you that you dropped whenever I came to visit? Perhaps this was not the outcome that you wanted, but how could this not be the outcome you expected?”
“Sakura, it was never my intention for you to get injured,” Shikaku says, voice slightly raised.
“But it was your intention to use me as a pawn to better your son,” Sakura replies. His resounding silence speaks volumes. “You were willing to have me be a stepping stone in the path for your son’s success. With a mindset like that, it is little wonder that I ended up injured as I was.”
“My intention was twofold, that is true,” Shikaku says in low tones, voice gravelly with upset. Sakura cannot tell if the upset stems from an anger over the way she paints him or from a frustration that she does not dance to his tune. Truthfully, Sakura doesn’t care. “I saw an opportunity to better Shikamaru, to refine him in fire. Any compliments I gave you were true, however. You have a gift for ciphers and I would see them improved.”
“Those two goals conflict,” Sakura says after a long moment, refusing to be mollified by the sincerity shining in Shikaku’s eyes. He doesn’t seem to understand and Sakura truthfully is unsure how to make him understand. But she needs him to; he has to see what he has done, the injustices wrought upon both her and, to a lesser extent, Shikamaru. There’s a sense of desperation beating against Sakura’s breast as she remembers the accounts told her of clan-born versus first generation shinobi and how the clan-born always, always come out on top. Shikaku, oblivious as he may be, is contributing to the problem and Sakura cannot abide that ignorance. He has to learn for the sake of her safety and the safety of other first generation shinobi. “Because Shikamaru and I are in conflict, thanks in no small part to you. And you know as well as I which of those goals supersedes the other.”
Shikaku is silent, unable to contradict her.
Sakura laughs, a low, bitter sound. “And that is what upsets me. You wish to refine Shikamaru in fire? I will not set myself ablaze to keep your son warm and I am not the anvil to temper him against.” She pauses, gathering her scattered, whirling thoughts. “I am a pawn,” Sakura says blandly, unbothered by her own words. “I’m just not yours. I serve the wills of my parents and the Haruno. My parents allowed me to pursue my selfish dream; how can I not offer myself in return? It is not an even trade; they are certainly losing out, but I am a child of merchants and I will always stack the odds in my favor. Outside of the Haruno and my duties to them, I serve the will of the state. That is the agreement my parents signed when I joined the Academy and the agreement I’ll sign if I graduate. You are not the state. I do not serve you or your interests.”
Shikaku watches her, crossing his arms. “And what of your internship?” he asks.
Sakura tilts her head slightly, resisting the urge to shrug. “My contract is with the Intelligence Division as a whole, not with you specifically. I can work with Inoichi-san, Ibiki, and Anko-san. They’ve already agreed to let me shadow them here.”
Shikaku blanches. “You’re shadowing Ibiki and Anko’s work?”
Sakura shakes her head. “I won’t be shadowing their interrogation work, at least not right now; they’ll let me sit in their offices and work on ciphers.”
“That is a stopgap measure,” Shikaku replies. “None of them have in-depth training in code.”
“I know,” Sakura says blandly. “I will not compromise my safety; I’ll do enough of that once I’ve graduated.” Sakura swallows, waffling for a moment as she tries to decide if she should make this bid or not. She’s been toeing the line of appropriateness and this may just push Shikaku over it. It is a gambit, but it may just be worth it. “If you care about my education as you claim, perhaps you can arrange for me to work with another individual who works in ciphers.”
Shikaku’s eyes blaze for a moment and Sakura fears that she has made the leap across that line. Then, his shoulders slump as he sighs, closing his eyes. “I will see what I can do.” He opens his eyes and looks at her again. “I am sorry for all of this, Sakura. I never intend—” He cuts himself off, shaking his head. “Well, I suppose that does not matter. I lost sight of what truly mattered and you were scathed in the aftermath. I am sorry.”
“I know,” Sakura says, getting to her feet. She looks into Shikaku’s eyes, heart heavy as she considers the man who was her first mentor, the first person to really try to foster her intelligence in a focused manner. He is the one who truly opened up the world of codes and ciphers to her. He introduced her to a lifelong passion; there is no way for her to repay him. But then, there is no way for him to make up for the pain caused by his machinations. She hates how things have soured between them, tainting her memories, but she does not know how to fix this. Sakura isn’t sure if she even should. “But I cannot forgive you right now.”
“I know,” Shikaku says, watching her with sad eyes. “I wish you well, Sakura. I know you will do great things. I’ll be watching.”
Sakura leaves his office, feeling subdued but lighter. She knows the sadness will linger for a while, but, in time, the clouds will pass.
And Sakura will continue moving forward.
Sakura turns, shoulders slouching in an instinctive attempt to make herself smaller at the anger in the voice. She swallows nervously when she realizes that a handful of her classmates, ones she never speaks to, are around her.
“Yes?” she asks, proud that her voice doesn’t waver.
“You’ve been hanging around with those clan kids,” the ring leader, Ami, the girl who once tormented Sakura, drawls. “It wasn’t that big a deal when it was just the Yamanaka heiress, but now you’ve extended to the Aburame and even the Nara.” She narrows her eyes. “Don’t think we haven’t noticed.”
Sakura flexes her hands, surprised at the sweat that coats them. “I am friends with Ino and Shino.” She doesn’t mention Torune, knowing that Ami doesn’t know him. Her brow furrows. She and Shikamaru are by no means close, nor is she a fan of the Nara. “I worked with Shikamaru-san’s father.”
“Friends?” Ami says, forcing a laugh. “Don’t make me laugh.”
“If you ask, I’m sure they’ll be friends with you too,” Sakura says earnestly, looking around at her fellow students. She notes that the ones gathered are all civilian-born like she is. “It can be intimidating because they’re from shinobi clans, but they are really nice! I’m sure Ino and Shino want more friends.”
Some of the students shift, doubt clouding their expressions but Ami remains resolute. She sneers at Sakura. “You’ve always been pathetic Sakura, with your large forehead and subpar looks, but this is beyond all. Desperately forcing your affections on clan kids because of their pedigree? There are words for girls like you.” Her eyes glitter as her lips curl viciously. “Whore.”
The other kids in the circle gasp, spot of color burning in their cheeks. Sakura frowns, feeling her own face suffuse with color. She doesn’t know the meaning of the word, but based on context she knows it is bad and cruel.
“I am not,” she says, glaring at Ami. “Take it back!”
Sakura sees Ami’s composure slip a bit, probably a combination of the other students’ discomfort and the force of Sakura’s reply. Ami obviously did not expect any opposition to her methods.
“I will not,” Ami says, angling her head haughtily. “It’s true.”
Sakura considers Ami for a moment, surprised at how small she is, how fragile. Once upon a time the bully seemed larger than life to Sakura, but now?
Now Sakura sees Ami as she truly is: a civilian student with unearned pride and underdeveloped shinobi skills.
Sakura has faced down the Nara scion and survived the encounter with new scars and new eyes; she has befriended some of the most terrifying and unstable members of the Torture and Interrogation unit; she has aired her grievances with grace and poise to the Jonin Commander of Konoha and emerged the victor. Sakura is forged in fire and blood; her mettle is ironclad.
“I’m sorry that you feel that way, Ami,” Sakura says firmly, squaring her shoulders and meeting Ami’s eyes. “I’m sorry that you’ve obviously never experienced real friendship, since you really think I am trying to use Ino and Shino for gain. I won’t apologize though for being friends with them and I won’t stop being friends with them just because you don’t like it. You’re just going to have to get over it.”
Ami’s face goes pale before approaching a violent shade of purple as the other civilian students snicker under their breath. “You—you—” Her voice shakes but her hands are steady as she reaches into her weapons pouch and withdraws a kunai.
Sakura immediately does the same, watching Ami warily. They have barely covered the basics of kunai training and Sakura can see that Ami handles her kunai poorly; the weight unbalanced in her hand. Ami’s kunai is also blunted at the edges, obviously one of the ones on loan from the Academy. Sakura is immensely grateful to Ino and Ino’s training with Shiranui-san: Sakura holds the kunai properly. It is sharp, the kunai standard among active shinobi.
“Ami, we are not supposed to use our kunai outside of training,” Sakura says, keeping her gaze on Ami. In her periphery, the other students move away, getting themselves out of danger. “This isn’t safe.”
But Ami doesn’t listen to her, striking out at Sakura in a wild, uncoordinated manner. Sakura, acting on her training with Ino, catches the blow on her kunai, deflecting it back toward Ami.
There is a jarring sensation—Ami put a lot of her strength into the blow—but it is nowhere near as jarring as Ami’s response.
Ami yelps as her hand is forced into an awkward position, fumbling with her kunai. With the poor hold Ami has on it, as well as the force of Sakura’s deflection, the kunai is turned inward, catching Ami’s wrist and palm. The bluntness of the kunai prevents major injury but it digs into the meat of Ami’s palm, drawing blood.
Ami’s yelp becomes a scream and Sakura flinches back, jolted by the noise and the blood coating Ami’s hand.
“I…” Sakura doesn’t know what to say, turning her gaze helplessly to the others.
They watch her charily, with a fear that was not present before. Sakura swallows, tucking her kunai away, as she puts her emptied hands up to show that she’s harmless.
“Ami,” Sakura begins.
“You freak!” Ami screams, fear and revulsion in her face. She cradles her bleeding hand close. “I’ve always known you were a freak but it looks like you’re a monster too!”
Sakura cringes, words of apology turning to ash on her tongue. Ami doesn’t want to hear it right now.
So, Sakura turns and leaves, unsurprised that none of them try to stop her. The moment she gets out of their line of sight she begins to run, tears blurring her vision. Her feet carry her to the Aburame grounds but she doesn’t head toward the residences.
Instead, Sakura moves into the forest, taking refuge among the trees. She channels chakra into her feet, climbing up one of the large spruces. She gets above the lower branches, nestling herself into the foliage where no one can see her. Once Sakura is situated into a nook where two branches emerge from the trunk, she draws her knees into her chest and begins to sob.
She cannot get their expressions of disgust and fear out of her mind. She’s a monster masquerading in human flesh. What type of person attacks someone like that? Another child?
She is uncomfortably reminded of what Shikamaru did to her; the helplessness she experienced at his hands. Did she just do the same to Ami?
It’s what I’m training for, a cool, rational part of herself whispers. It is what I’ll do once I graduate from the Academy.
They sugarcoat it, the instructors do, skirting around the topic of death and focusing instead on techniques. But those techniques are merely the tools the students who graduate will implement in killing.
Can she do that?
Sakura squeezes her knees even harder, remembering the blood coating Ami’s hand. The bright, violent red that she caused.
Can she do that?
She jolts as she realizes she’s dug her fingernails into her knees. She withdraws her fingers, staring at the raised red welts.
Sakura thinks of her friends: of Ino’s generous confidence which bolsters her, of Torune’s wonderful buzzing which lulls and calms her, of Shino’s quirky and cute speaking habits which endear her. She closes her eyes, wiping away the tacky residue on her face.
For them, for their safety, for their happiness, she can do this, no matter how awful it is.
“Why are you crying?”
Sakura shrieks, limbs flailing for a moment before she turns and braces herself against the trunk. She peeks over beside her, astonished to see a boy perched on a branch near her.
He is of a similar age to her, with combed and shiny black hair. He is the palest individual she’s ever seen. The oddest things about him though is his lack of expression. It isn’t just muted; Sakura’s learned to read all of the Aburame expressions, however small and obscured though they may be.
His face is absolutely blank.
“Can I help you?” Sakura asks warily.
“Why are you crying?” he repeats. “I’ve never seen you do it before.”
“You haven’t,” Sakura says, alert and frightened by his words. “And how long have you been following me?”
“Three weeks, four days, and nine hours,” he replies flatly.
“Oh,” Sakura says, stunned. And then she calculates it in her head. “That was around the time that Shikaku-san extended my Academy field experience assignment into an internship, correct?” She blinks, reevaluating the boy before her. He is a spy of some sort, though she has no idea who would want her followed and observed. “Who do you work for?”
“I cannot say,” he replies, opening his mouth wide and pulling down his tongue to show her. There is a pattern of lines in black imprinted there. A seal. “I am not allowed.”
Sakura stares at him for a long moment, racking her mind to try to come up with the people in Konoha who use seals. She comes up with none, as she’s never really looked into it. At least she has a place to start. Sakura regards the boy, conflicted for a moment before sighing. “I’m Sakura, as I’m sure you know. What is your name?”
“I am designated 000347,” he replies.
“That’s your name?” Sakura asks, aghast.
“It is what I am called,” he says. “I have answered a number of your questions. As this is not an interview, social niceties dictate you reciprocate. Again, I ask, why are—now were—you crying?”
“I was crying about what happened earlier. You saw?” He nods. “I hurt that girl.”
“Incorrect, she hurt herself. She was incompetent in handling a kunai; her grip on it is what caused it to gouge her skin when you deflected it,” 000347 says, giving the assessment coolly. “She provoked you when she chose to attack. You mounted a sufficient defense of yourself; she has to face the consequences of her actions.”
“Alright,” Sakura says, a bit stunned at the clinical dissection of the event. “Sure. Still, she ended up injured in part because of my defense. When Ami cut herself, they all looked at me with fear. They looked at me like I’m a monster.”
“A monster?” 000347 repeats, eyes widening slightly.
As this is the first time she’s seen him react to anything, Sakura thinks it’s a good sign. “Because I hurt. Because she bled. They are civilian-born students, unused to violence. They aren’t prepared for what the Academy will make us. We’re being training to one day be monsters.” Sakura sighs. “There’s a reason that there are so few civilian-born shinobi in our active forces.”
“And you’re alright with that?” he asks, tone shifting ever so slightly.
“If it means protecting my friends then yes. My friends are all from shinobi clans; they cannot escape this violent life. They won’t even try. And why would they? It is their heritage and legacy. So I’m going to follow them into that life.” Sakura looks down at her hands, taking in the calluses developing there. One day, they will be hard and firm and she’ll be able to stand equal with her friends. “I will act as their shield and protection.” She looks up into 000347’s sloe eyes that are fixated on her. “I will become a monster for them.”
000347 swallows at the force in her words and gaze. “You’ll let yourself be destroyed for them?”
“Friendship is a powerful thing,” Sakura says, shrugging. She clears her throat and shifts the topic away from the heaviness. “000347 is not a name. I won’t call you that.”
“Then what will you call me?” he asks.
Sakura assesses the awkward boy, stunted in so many regards. He is odd undoubtedly, dangerous assuredly, and working for an unknown entity who is keeping tabs on her which is both concerning and creepy. And yet there is a fire in him, muffled beneath the brush certainly, but burning still.
And quiet fires are some of the most perilous of all, accruing unseen power until it billows over completely and destroys everything in its wake.
Sakura sees hope in him.
“I’ll call you Celandine,” Sakura decides. “It’s a yellow flower. Its symbolic meaning is ‘joys to come.’”
“What are you doing, kid?”
Sakura startles, nearly dropping the scroll she is reading. Anko catches it with deft fingers, quickly surveying its contents.
“Reading up on ways to break grabs,” Anko says flatly, expression unreadable. “Y’know, these ordinary defensive maneuvers won’t protect you against the Nara hiden,” Anko continues dryly.
Sakura flinches slightly, shoulders hunching inward in an attempt to protect herself.
Anko crouches beside her, eyes gentling even though her voice remains hard. “Yeah kid, I heard. Hell, I think the whole gossip mill of Konoha heard. That shit gets churned out pretty quickly. Konoha would collapse without the steady, ever-present heartbeat of gossip.”
“Oh,” Sakura says in a small voice, keeping her gaze on her hands fisted in her lap.
“Hey it’s—I’m not attempting to make you feel bad,” Anko says, clearing her throat. Sakura sees Anko’s hands flutter awkwardly in her periphery before Anko fists them against her sides. “It’s smart.”
Sakura finally looks up, meeting Anko’s gaze. “Really?”
Anko nods, leveraging herself down into a seated position beside Sakura. She clears her throat, directing her eyes to the far wall. This part never gets easier for her over the years; still tightening her throat in that awful, prickling way. “You were hurt—betrayed.” Anko's face twitches for a moment, an old, personal pain showing before it settles once more into a placid expression. “It is not an unusual experience, especially as one of the few kuniochi of Konoha.”
Sakura swallows at Anko’s words, something about them ringing strangely true. She thinks about the makeup of her class; the proportion skewing male by far majority. In fact, very few of the shinobi that Sakura has encountered in her daily life or even at the Academy are women. As she contemplates further, she lingers on the history forged by Konoha in blood and iron.
Only a handful of the named individuals were women.
Yet, Sakura knows, she knows, deep in her marrow that this country runs on the backs of women as well as men; women like her mother, like Sarasa, like Aiko, like Anko herself. And somehow, their stories, their legends, their burdens, go unsung.
Something wells in Sakura’s eyes as a bitter sense of unfairness settles into her. “Is it?”
Anko glances at Sakura in her periphery. She sighs at the sheen in Sakura’s eyes, forcing her body to relax, hands unfurling palm up. “There are far too many monsters within this world, seeking to prey on those that they see as easy victims. Yes, you fell victim this time but you survived. You’ve survived and you’re training to become a monster all your own.”
Sakura squeezes her hands tight, the sting keeping her tears at bay. “I don’t know if I want to be a monster.”
“You won’t be a monster like them. A monster is strong; it can protect itself. It can protect others should it choose. You can make yourself into a monster who can protect those who are seen as prey.”
“What if I become the other type of monster?” Sakura asks, staring hard at her clenched hands. She is reminded of Shikamaru, of the shocked horror in his face during and after the incident. She thinks of Shikaku, of his stilted but seemingly heartfelt apology regarding the circumstances his machinations wrought. They didn’t intend to hurt her, but they did. It doesn’t change the fact that she still bolts upright, chest heaving, in the middle of the night from lurking nightmares. She still cannot bring herself to forgive either of them, the trauma of the incident still too raw. “What if I do not mean to, but I do?”
Anko shrugs. “You realize it and make a conscious decision about it. You either decide to continue to prey on the weak or you own up to your mistake and make reparations for it. You grow and continue to learn.” Anko inclines her head toward the scroll beside them. “You’re already seeking to prevent it from ever happening again.” Her mouth stretches into a dangerous smile, one with a sharp knife’s edge. “You’re already on the right track.”
Sakura mulls this over in silence for several long moments, considering the weight of Anko’s words. She glances askance at Anko for a moment, wondering at the jagged, festering wound that she still carries. Reading between the lines, Sakura thinks that Anko perhaps considers herself a monster of the second order. Finally, her shoulders straighten out of her slump as she considers the mantle that Anko offers to share with her. Sakura smiles and places her hand in Anko’s palm. Sakura can feel the way Anko twitches beneath her touch before stilling eerily. Sakura isn’t sure if Anko is even breathing. “I’ve got a lot of work to do, if I want to be big and strong enough to become a monster that eats monsters.”
Anko laughs her wild, raucous crow’s laugh, intertwining her callused fingers with Sakura’s in a tight squeeze as she begins to breathe once more. “Oh yes. I think you’ll be just fine.”
“My, oh my, something smells amazing!”
Sakura continues to whisk the sauce as she glances up at her father’s booming voice, grinning. “Welcome home, otou-sama!” she chimes, returning her attention to her cooking. “How was your guild meeting?”
“Ah, it went well enough,” Kizashi says, moving around the island of the kitchen to ruffle Sakura’s unbound hair. “I wish your mother was present; she has a unique ability to get all of these pompous artisan guild leaders to shut up.”
“Oka-sama is terrifying,” Sakura says sagely. No one, not even Anko or Ibiki before she got to know them, is as scary as Mebuki when she chooses to be. Sakura has never had that terrifying presence directed her way, but she has seen it emerge sometimes with obstinate family members and difficult clients.
“She is,” Kizashi drawls in a lovesick sigh.
Sakura wrinkles her nose a bit at that, shaking her head. Her parents are strange, but she loves them nevertheless. She guesses that maybe love makes you a little bit odd to those who are on the outside looking in. She doesn’t quite understand it, but the sight of her tall, powerful father acting so lovelorn over her mother warms her through to her toes.
“You’re making quite a spread here,” Kizashi says with a low whistle. There are multiple platters of already prepared food and he inhales the scents of spice. “You’re using those spices we brought back from Suna? I’m not certain most Konoha palates can handle that sort of heat.”
Sakura smiles up at her father a little mischievously. “Well, they’re all shinobi-in-training or certified shinobi; it’ll be a practice in managing pain.”
Kizashi laughs outright, patting Sakura on the shoulder. “You sure Morino-san and Mitarashi-san aren’t training you in any torture techniques? Because you are downright devious.”
“I get it from you, otou-sama,” Sakura replies.
Kizashi chucks her under her chin, smile softening. “You sure do. I’m going to wash up; holler if you need anything at all.”
“I will,” Sakura says, shifting to remove the saucepan from the stovetop and place it to the side to cool slightly. “I think everything is almost ready. If I know anything about the Aburame, they will be frustratingly punctual.”
Kizashi huffs a slight laugh. “In that case, they’ll probably arrive before your mother. That Council meeting is bound to run long.”
There’s something unusual in his usually steady voice, a threadiness or lilt that snags Sakura’s attention. “What is the Council convening on today?”
Kizashi clears his throat, gaze skittering away for a moment before returning to Sakura. His background as a samurai-in-training in Iron serves him ill here; as his straightforward, honest manner fights the subterfuge he attempts to commit. “Uh...that is...I don’t know?”
Sakura channels the posture of people in the Intelligence Division, keeping her stance solid as she arches an unimpressed brow. Her father actually fidgets beneath her stare before wilting slightly.
“Ah, Sakura-chan,” he says, almost whining.
“Otou-sama,” Sakura replies evenly.
Kizashi cracks beneath her steady questioning, scrubbing his hand across his mouth. “They’re discussing the introduction of new legislation regarding civilian-born students at the Academy; new protections as it were.” He raises his hands as he notices the curiosity sparking in her eyes. “I don’t know any more than that. This is all in the early stages of development. You can speak with your mother about it after the dinner.”
Sakura nods, tamping down on the questions that brim and nearly bubble over the surface. She manages to restrain herself, lifting her arms to her father. He picks her up in a hug and she busses a kiss across his cheek. “Thank you, otou-sama.”
“You’re welcome, Sakura-chan,” Kizashi says, twirling her around once. No matter how amazing tree walking is, it still does not compare to the giddiness that fills her when her father spins with her. He sets her down. “You are just too smart for your own good.”
Sakura doesn’t argue with him, his words ringing true.
She hums to herself as Kizashi heads upstairs. Sakura looks up and around briefly before moving to one of high cupboards. She shimmies up onto the counter, utilizing a bit of her chakra to stick firmly as she opens the cupboard and starts drawing out plates for the dinner. Her chakra-laced feet assist her in staying balanced even as she piles more plates onto a tall stack. She places one hand firmly over the stack of plates as she climbs back down and sets the table for dinner.
A strict pattern of knocks on the door draws Sakura attention and she leaps toward it, throwing the door open without hesitation. After all, she knows full well who knocks like that.
“Shino!” she exclaims with a ebullient smile. She notices that both Torune and Shino look a bit surprised, but she isn’t sure why. “Torune, Shibi-oji! Welcome to my house. Please, come in!”
“Thank you Sakura,” Shibi says, smoothly stepping between his stunned wards to enter her home. He smirks slightly at the antics of his children, amused by the fumbling of their youth. He peers around with a soft lilt to his mouth. “You have a beautiful home.”
“Otou-sama has impeccable taste,” Sakura replies with a giggle. “Oka-sama says that’s why she married him.”
“Revealing all my secrets, Sakura?” Kizashi asks drily, coming down the stairs. “You are a sly one.” He turns his attention to the Aburame clan, a more serious mien overtaking him. “Aburame-sama,” he greets, grasping Shibi’s hand without hesitation. “It is wonderful to see you again.”
“I am glad you seem in good health,” Shibi says, impressed by the fact that Kizashi displays no fear in making skin-to-skin contact with an Aburame. Most people, civilians and shinobi alike, display fear and distrust of the Aburame, perhaps based out of the very base fear of insects. It seems that Sakura is not the only Haruno with a spine of steel. Shibi cannot help but find his respect for Kizashi grow. “Thank you for inviting us into your home.”
“Of course,” Kizashi says, releasing Shibi’s hand and looking to the Aburame children. “I wanted the opportunity to meet all of Sakura’s friends.” Shino and Torune fidget a little bit but hold fast beneath the weight of Kizashi’s stare, keeping their expressions open and earnest. “Besides, this was all Sakura’s idea; she wanted to cook for you all.”
“Otou-sama,” Sakura says, catching his hand as her cheeks flush.
“You cooked for us?” Torune asks, looking dumbfounded for a short moment as he processes this information. He directs a dazzling smile to Sakura as he quickly draws her into an embrace. “I know it will be delicious.”
“I hope so,” Sakura replies softly.
“It will be good,” Shino says. “How do I know this? You are dedicated, meticulous, and methodical; you are more than capable of preparing a successful meal.”
Laughter bubbles out of Sakura as she claps her hands together. “Thank you Shino!”
“You are welcome,” Shino replies.
Shibi notices something in Kizashi’s face softening toward the Aburame children at their visible show of support to his daughter. Truthfully, the clear display of the bond among the three of them melts something within Shibi himself.
Uncertain times linger ahead, especially for Sakura, Shibi knows this well. There are storms in her future and some of them are already darkening their horizon. Yet, some of the tension and heaviness in his heart eases because he knows that the union among Sakura, Shino, and Torune will serve them well.
“Lead on, Sakura,” Shibi says. “I look forward to tasting this dinner you’ve prepared.”
Sakura gingerly turns through the pages of the tome, tracing over the curling characters. She’s read lots of handwritten reports and scrolls, but this is her first time reading through a handwritten bound book like this. It’s quite a deal different from the plain but legible writing in the reports. The author of this book, who writes under an apparent pseudonym, clearly has an artistic hand. The letters are written with a flourish, a whimsical lilt to them that immediately engages her.
She found this book among the historical archives of the Intelligence Division and it immediately caught her attention. All of the other documents available in the archive are nonfiction; yet this text…
It is entitled the Journey to the West .
Sakura knows the general story, but she has never read it through in its entirety. Yet, as she began to delve into this handwritten text, she noticed there are some glaring inconsistencies with the actual story.
Which is what brings her here, doing something of an informal text analysis as she compares the handwritten book to a copy of Journey to the West that she was able to check out from the library.
The handwritten book picks up after Tang Sanzang, the travelling monk, has gathered together his disciples Monkey King, Pigsy, and Sandy. The dynamics of the traveling group are slightly off compared to the actual tale, as there is even stronger animosity between Monkey King and Pigsy. Pigsy is characterized as much more taciturn, severe individual, very focused on their mission. He clashes with Monkey King, not because of Pigsy’s laziness as in the original story, but seemingly from jealousy.
The handwritten story is much shorter than the other and written almost in episodic format, following the misadventures of Tang Sanzang and his disciples. Sakura finds herself engaged in the story, especially interested in the character of Sandy who provides some much needed levity throughout as tensions continue to mount between Tang Sanzang and his numerous opponents.
Another point of deviation from the original is the fact that this story is woven from the perspective of Yulong, the steed of Tang Sanzang. Yulong offers further insight into the characters of the story, bringing them more to life for Sakura than the original tale does. She appreciates Yulong’s voice as it draws her into the plight of the characters. She loses herself for hours on end in the story as the struggles and triumphs of Tang Sanzang’s group unfurl as they face off with uncountable enemies.
Yet, it all comes to a head abruptly with the deaths of Tang Sanzang and Sandy in an ambush from twin dragons. The details of this battle are scarce at best, but the scene that follows leaves Sakura feeling unsatisfied and even a little uncomfortable.
Monkey King and Pigsy are the only two of the original four left and they take to the task of burying their fallen comrades. A heavy silence lingers between them throughout the grueling job of digging the grave, but, as they cover the bodies once more, a new bond is forged in blood between Monkey King and Pigsy.
They swear upon their lives and the honor of their fallen friends that they will have vengeance upon the dragons, even if they have to sunder the heavens apart to make it happen.
Sakura flips through the next few pages, a chill passing through her as she realizes that they are perfectly blank, leaving their story unfinished.
Sakura checks the rest of the book, finding it empty before closing it. She drums her fingers across the surface of the tome as she thinks about everything she just read, left with more questions than when she first began.
Why is this book here?
Why is it the only fictional book in the historical archives?
Why is the story different from the original tale?
Why are the characters so changed from the original?
Why do Tang Sanzang and Sandy die?
Sakura frowns at the cover of the book before shaking her head and standing. Her legs are shaky after being seated so long in an odd position. She stretches, deciding to head over to the Academy to train a bit on the training grounds to exercise her physical capabilities rather than her replete mental facilities.
She places the book back on the shelf, leaving behind the historical archives room and all of her unanswered questions.
For now at least.
“Good morning, Naruto,” Sakura greets, startled to find him in the classroom. It’s odd for anyone to arrive before her and Naruto does not have the most stellar record for class attendance besides. “You’re here pretty early. How are you this morning?”
“Fine, fine,” Naruto replies, brimming with energy. “I wanted to make sure I got here in time.”
“In time for what?” Sakura asks.
“To make sure I could sit beside you today,” Naruto says guilelessly. “You’re always sitting with Ino and Shino in the back before I get here.”
“You usually arrive around third period,” Sakura cannot help but point out, charmed though she is by the simple request.
Embarrassment filters across Naruto’s face for a moment as he scratches his cheek. “School’s pretty boring; I like exploring the village more! Chōza-oji made me promise to come to class more often though.”
“That’s good!” Sakura says, making her way to one of the tables in the middle of the room. This way she can sit with all of her friends. Her heart sings at the thought of even having to consider such seating logistics when it comes to her friends. The memories of her friendless days are still fresh and painful in her mind.
“Lessons are so interesting,” Sakura continues, unable to hide the excitement in her voice as she chooses a seat. “Learning all the aspects that encompass becoming a shinobi; the skills, the knowledge, the tools, and the history necessary to be a good shinobi. Did you know that Konoha consistently lowers the age of graduation from the Academy in the two to three years before a War begins? And we haven’t had a war in decades because the chunin exams took their place. The exams make for greater profit and entertainment for the nations; there’s a severe uptick in tourism and wealth within the village that hosts the exams.”
Naruto’s eyes go wide and he plops down into the chair beside her. “How’d you learn all of that Sakura-chan? Chōza-oji only recently told me about the fact that the chunin exams have shinobi from all of the villages competing together.”
“I’ve read about it,” Sakura replies, purposefully keeping her answer a bit bland. She learned most of the information that she has in coded documents from the Intelligence Division. The resources on the exams available in the public library are frustratingly vague. Truthfully, some of her knowledge is drawn from conversations she overhears among her extended family; each branch is excited when the exams are announced to be held within their nation. “There are some amazing books that can supplement the lessons we receive here.”
“Yeah,” Naruto drawls, rubbing the back of his neck. His brows pucker in a crestfallen expression.
“What’s wrong?” Sakura asks, catching the noticeable change. Naruto’s cheeks flush a bright red. Sakura reaches out and places her hand over Naruto’s. “Naruto?”
Naruto turns toward her, looking so ashamed that Sakura immediately wants to comfort him and take away all of his problems. “I’m not very good at reading. I haven’t read a book in over a year.”
Sakura restrains herself from reacting, trying to put herself into his shoes. She cannot imagine a world without reading. However, Naruto is an orphan; his parents did not foster and encourage a love of reading in him. He’s never had his father read him a bedtime story or his mother weave a tale with the most fantastic voice acting. Sakura’s throat tightens a moment with that realization and she squeezes Naruto’s hand.
“Books are pretty great,” Sakura confides. “Before Ino, they were my only friends.” She pauses, watching Naruto beneath her lashes. “Would you like to practice reading with me? If you don’t like it we can stop but-”
“Are you serious?” Naruto interrupts. “You’ll teach me to read?”
Sakura nods, not even given a chance to be nervous as Naruto throws his arms around her, drawing her into an uncoordinated hug. “Thank you, thank you!” Naruto says, breath tickling Sakura’s ear. “I won’t let you down. I’ll be here early every day! You won’t regret choosing to help me.”
Sakura laughs into Naruto’s hair, embracing him in turn. “I won’t ever regret it.”
“I knew you were the right choice,” Naruto says, almost to himself.
“Right choice?” Sakura repeats.
“For my first friend,” Naruto says, pulling away and grinning pure sunshine at her.
And then nothing will do but to pull Naruto into another hug, if only to hide her misty eyes.
School is absolutely wrecking me right now but I managed to get this typed out in an afternoon. Apologies for any errors and hope y'all enjoy!
“Are you sure we won’t get into trouble?” Sakura whispers, looking around furtively.
“You don’t have to whisper, Sakura,” Torune says. Sakura can’t tell for certain, but she gets the distinct feeling that he is rolling his eyes at her. “These are the Aburame grounds and you’re walking with the two prospective clan heads.”
Sakura glances between him and Shino for a moment, still keeping to the shadows as they plow forward. Something feels illicit about this adventure and Sakura really doesn’t want to get either of them into trouble. “Both of you are prospective clan heads?” Sakura asks, surprised. “It isn’t automatically Shino as an only child?”
“That’s otou-sama’s doing,” Shino says, trailing a branch idly along the dirt path in inscrutable patterns as they walk. “He wanted to give us both the opportunity to try our hand at clan head should we wish it. Toki-oba shared clan head duties with otou-sama while she lived. Torune and I may do something similar.” Shino shrugs. “Otou-sama is open to whatever decision we make.”
“That’s kind of him. How does the rest of the family feel?” Sakura says, thinking about the strife and tension within the many branches of the Haruno clan. Her parents fought long and hard for her to pursue her dreams, framing it within the way it could benefit the clan as a whole. Hers is a selfish dream but her parents made sacrifices to see it come true.
“Oh, they don’t mind,” Torune says, a sly smile creeping across his face. “Truthfully, they’re relieved that there are two candidates.”
Sakura scrunches her nose. “And why’s that?”
“Because they know the position of clan head is more hassle than it’s worth,” Shino says, voice deepening in an imitation of words oft-spoken by Shibi.
Sakura bursts into delighted laughter, clapping in approval. Shino ducks his head a bit shyly, still unused to Sakura’s enthusiasm. He welcomes it though, his chest lightening with every peal of laughter that Sakura makes. “Does Shibi-oji really say that?”
“It’s true,” Torune says, sidling up beside Sakura. “He usually only says it after a long day of council meetings. Shibi-oji has to deal with a lot of pompous village leaders who ‘spew enough hot air to humidify and sustain a greenhouse for centuries.’”
Sakura giggles at Torune’s impression of Shibi, just as scarily accurate as Shino’s. “Your clan is so different from any other one that I’ve ever encountered. There’s a strange lack of arrogance.”
“Hard to be arrogant when the village considers your entire clan a band of weirdos,” Torune says. Once, a statement like this and the hurt behind it would have stirred up his hive. Now, his insects remain silent.
Nevertheless, Sakura reaches out and grabs his hand, squeezing. “The village and my extended family call me a freak. We can be freaks and weirdos together.”
Torune smiles at her, hurt melting away in the face of her earnestness. Even though anger surges at the thought of people bullying Sakura and calling her names, he tamps it down, focusing on the moment. He laces his fingers with hers, bumping her shoulder. “Sounds good to me.”
Shino bites his lip, feeling like an outsider as Sakura and Torune regard each other quietly. They seem to have a language all their own, unknowable to anyone but the two of them. He turns his eyes away from them, focusing on the designs he is drawing with his stick.
Shino glances up, surprised to see Sakura stretching out her free hand toward him, wriggling her fingers in an inviting fashion.
“C’mon,” she says, brow puckering slightly. “Freaks and weirdos stick together, right?”
“Right,” Shino says, dropping his branch and hastily taking her hand. The loneliness of feeling left out drops away as he grabs her hand, tangible evidence of their connection. Sakura is his friend and he is hers; that is a fact. He shakes himself of his fears, returning to the here and now. “What were we speaking of?”
Sakura’s face crinkles in thought. “The Aburame being a humble clan?”
“Right,” Shino says. “As Torune so put it, we aren’t exactly the best loved clan in the village. We’re seen as something of a fringe clan, mysterious and strange to both civilians and shinobi alike.” He huffs. “For some reason, most people are creeped out by insects and by us in turn.”
“But the clan is also highly respected because of our proven caliber as shinobi,” Torune says, picking up the thread. “We’ve produced some of the best, most consistent, and most precise shinobi of Konoha. Our clan was responsible for removing the threat that the Kamizuru clan posed Konoha during our conflict with Iwa. So we’re well-established with tons of connections inside and outside of the village.”
“So no one questions us when we act strangely because they already see us as strange,” Shino says.
“And no one tries to mess with us or the way that we do things because we’re too respected and intimidating,” Torune finishes.
“That sounds-” Sakura trails off, thinking hard for a moment. From their words, it seems that both boys have complete control over determining the direction of their futures. To Sakura, whose future has been more or less decided since birth, be it by her clan or by her country, it sounds terrifying. “That sounds untethered.”
Shino hums. “It’s nice because no one in the family really cares about politics. They’re all focused on their own personal projects, things like crossbreeding insects, finding new breeds entirely, growing plants, and developing medicines.”
“It frustrates the Uchiha and Hyuga to no end,” Torune says, snorting in laughter. “We’ve been around as long as they have, turning out shinobi just as lethal if not more so, yet we never try to play the game of politics.” He shakes his head. “Both Fugaku-san and Hiashi-san have approached Shibi-oji to try and get him to throw his sway behind them during council meetings on certain issues. He never agrees.”
“A life without politics,” Sakura says, contemplating the words as she tastes them on her tongue. She can barely imagine it. Since she can remember, Sakura has been involved in some realm of politics, from a prospective clan head in merchant circles to a civilian-born training to be a shinobi. Who would she be without the constant maneuvering? Certainly, Sakura does not think her sense of self would be as forged and refined as it is now. She was and still is tested in the fires of challenge and near constant frustrations and setbacks. “It sounds...peaceful.”
“It can be,” Torune says, stopping abruptly. “We’re here.”
Sakura looks around, seeing just a continued expanse of the forest. “Where?”
Shino and Torune laugh, pointing upward in unison.
Sakura directs her gaze skyward, seeing only a leafy blanket created among the branches. She looks back at them, wondering if they’re teasing her. “I don’t see anything.”
“That’s alright, Sakura,” Torune says, picking up on the uncertainty in her voice. “Look up once more.”
Sakura does as directed and Torune’s hive begins to buzz. The leaves above them begin to shake and furl, revealing a structure high in the trees. Sakura gasps as an entire building is revealed among the trees, with bridges connecting from one tree to the next. Sakura does notice one little problem. “How do we get up there?”
The cousins give her sheepish looks. “Well, technically people are supposed to tree walk to get up there,” Shino says.
“But since Shibi-oji doesn’t like us using chakra outside the home-”
“And we haven’t trained in tree walking,” Shino interrupts, knowing that Torune is trying to seem a bit more impressive to Sakura.
Torune gives Shino a dirty look. “And we haven’t actually trained in tree walking,” Torune grumbles. “We have a ladder we climb.”
He leads Sakura over to one of the large trees, placing his hand on one of the gnarled knots of the trunk. He indicates to another a bit above it. “It can be climbed using these raised bumps on the tree. There are also a few shallow indentations for hand grooves. See?”
Sakura nods, mouth going dry as she contemplates the building above them. It suddenly seems much further away than she initially calculated. “That’s...that’s pretty innovative.”
“Otou-sama always looks out for us,” Shino says. “I’ll climb first and you can follow. Make sure to watch where I place my hands and feet.”
Sakura watches intently as Shino scales the tree deftly, swinging from hand hold to hand hold. It seems something outside the realm of a civilian child’s capabilities, but it is well within the purview of an Academy student. Sakura fidgets slightly as she observes Shino’s trajectory, something within her panicking the higher he gets. She swallows against her dry throat as Shino reaches the top and beckons down to her.
“Your turn!” he calls, placing his arms and chin on the railing of the tree walkway.
Sakura approaches the tree, rubbing her sweaty hands against her pants. She is no stranger to tree climbing; in fact, before she made friends, it was the main activity she performed. When Ami called her names, the first source of comfort she turned to was climbing into a tree for shelter.
So why does she feel so anxious?
Sakura readies herself to climb, placing one foot into the lowest hold to leverage herself up. Yet, when she maneuvers her hands into place, she notices their fine trembling. She takes a deep breath, trying to center herself, to release all of her pent-up energy. Sakura draws on the techniques that Shibi has taught her in meditation, but calm remains beyond her grasp.
A warm, ungloved hand presses over hers, drawing it away from the rough bark.
Sakura opens her eyes, meeting her reflection in Torune’s goggles. She can see the fear in her own eyes, as the remembrance of the terror of freefall overwhelms her. Her shaking extends up her hands to her shoulders as Torune envelops her in a hug.
“I have you,” Torune murmurs fiercely against her ear, wrapping his arms tight around her. He wishes he could protect her from the dangers of the world; keep her safe from anything that would dare to threaten her. “No one is going to take away your control here. You can climb the tree by hand, by chakra, or even not at all. No one is going to force you to bend to their will.”
Sakura nods into Torune’s shoulder, breathing thickly through her nose. The scents of sweat and cardamom fill her nostrils, reinforcing Torune’s presence for her. The pressure of his hug, his solid, calm reassurance both verbally and physically, grounds her. Sakura exhales deeply, eyes hot with tears as her heartbeat begins to return to baseline. She reaches up, clinging to Torune in turn.
“Thank you,” she whispers hoarsely against his shoulder.
“Of course,” Torune replies, carding a hand through her hair in what he hopes is a soothing motion. From his faint lingering memories, Torune thinks that his mother used to comfort him in a similar manner.
After several long, restorative moments, Sakura pulls away from Torune, pressing a clumsy kiss to Torune’s cheek. “Thank you, Torune.”
“Any time,” he replies, a pleased flush filling his cheeks. “What would you like to do?”
Sakura turns her attention back to the tree and to Shino waiting patiently for them high above. She smiles, brows furrowing in determination. “I’m going to climb. My own way.”
Torune grins at her, gently wiping away the tear tracks on Sakura’s face. “I know you will. I’ll come up after you.”
Sakura nods, stepping out of Torune’s embrace to square up with the tree once more. She reaches into herself, drawing on her meditation techniques to access her pool of chakra. She pulls the chakra down toward her feet, smiling at the tickling sensation that flows into her toes.
She begins her ascent, fighting her nerves with every step. The heavy scent of resin teases out the memory of that game of Lambs and Tigers that went so terribly, horribly wrong. Her muscles threaten to lock up on her, much as they did when Shikamaru used his hiden technique on her. Still, the reminders of Shino above her and Torune below her buoy her and give her courage to continue forward.
Sakura doesn’t try to force her mind away from her fall at Shikamaru’s hands. She cannot prevent the flow of those memories or the fears that linger from them. But she can control her body and keep moving. So she focuses on putting one foot in front of the other, listening to the hum of chakra within her body as it interacts with the strange, inscrutable chakra of the tree.
And, in doing so, Sakura finds herself at her destination, pulled up onto the platform by a relieved Shino. She collapses into the hug he offers her and the two of them turn to watch Torune climb. Her limbs shake with latent anxiety and relief, but something settles within her. Her memories cannot control her. She is her own master and nothing, not even her own fears, can define who she is.
Torune’s head crests the platform and he scrabbles up, running a hand through his wild hair before offering it to Sakura. “You ready to explore the observatory?”
“Absolutely,” she replies, taking his hand and grabbing Shino’s as Torune leads the way along the crisscrossing walkways to one of the smaller buildings.
“We have a couple of habitats here, all with different crossbreeds of the basic Aburame kikaichū, but we’re going to show you our favorite. The kikaichū that reside here are all still in experimental stages of development. None of the breeds are stable enough to be placed into a host,” Shino explains as they walk. “The queens born within the next four or so generations should be strong enough to support a hive, but we’ll have to see.”
“How long is a generation for kikaichū?” Sakura asks.
“Usually three to five years,” Torune says. “The estimations are usually off by a generation or two both directions because every breed has its own peculiar trajectory of development. So we’ll see how this breed actually turns out.”
“And what breed is this?” Sakura asks as Shino opens the door to the circular building, gesturing her in.
“They aren’t yet named,” Torune replies in a hushed tone.
They move into the building, which is dark inside. They stand in a foyer, blocked off from the rest of the building by a heavy curtain.
“Is there a light switch?” Sakura asks, looking around. “Or windows?”
“No,” Shino says, sidling past her as the door swings shut, leaving them in pitch darkness. “We won’t need light in a moment.”
Sakura hears a rustling ahead of her as Shino draws the curtain away. She startles as dozens and dozens of bright blue lights fill her vision. The blue of them is strange, a hue that Sakura has never seen before now. It is beautiful, reminding her of Ino’s eyes in a way. She rubs her eyes, just to make certain that her eyes aren’t tricking her.
The lights remain when she removes her hands and Sakura darts forward, inspecting the dancing lights up close.
Sakura gasps as she realizes that the pretty blue lights emanate from kikaichū. Their lights intensify whenever they draw near to any of the humans in the room and Sakura can see the shadowy silhouettes of her friends.
“How is this possible?” Sakura asks, awed by the way that one of the kikaichū lands on her open palm. She can tell it is a female, the glow of her ebbing and brightening in a pattern known only to her.
“They’ve been crossbred with several genera of the Pyrophorini. They’re a sort of click beetle with bioluminescent properties,” Shino says eagerly, always happy to speak about the Aburame kikaichū. “We’re currently working with their physiology to make it so they can change the color of the light they emit so they can communicate with individuals without hives. It’ll be useful for any Aburame who works a lot with non-Aburame shinobi and civilians.”
“Absolutely,” Sakura says, entranced by the movement of the kikaichū across her hand. “They’re absolutely gorgeous.”
“Indeed they are,” Torune says, warmed by Sakura’s unflagging enthusiasm. He bustles up beside her, taking her free hand. “Freaks and weirdos?”
Sakura grins, leaning against him. “Freaks and weirdos.”
“You’ve gotta stop.”
Shikaku looks up, refusing to jump at the sight of Anko posed in a provocative and intimidating position on his desk. “Pardon?”
Anko scowls, the storm on her face boding ill for any who dare attempt to stand in her way. Shikaku is uncomfortably aware of just how volatile Anko is; a dangerous combination of instability, skill, trauma, and aggression. Few dare to cross her and none who do remain unscathed. “You’ve gotta stop tailing Sakura.”
Shikaku bristles, closing his book and giving Anko his full attention. She may be a threat, but he is no one to be trifled with either. “I do not appreciate the insinuation.”
Anko snorts, crossing her arms and uncrossing her legs. Shikaku averts his eyes. “I’ll stop beating around the damn bush. I know you’ve been lingering in the areas she haunts here in the Intelligence Division. When the hell have you ever gone to the Archives? Definitely not within Sakura’s lifetime before she apprenticed here. You think you’re being clever when you come down for this treatise or that, but you’re only prolonging that girl’s torment.”
Shikaku’s eyes narrow. “You’re treading on very thin ice, Mitarashi.”
Anko leans forward, staring him down in turn. “Read my lips, Shikaku. I. Don’t. Care. Go ahead and try to make my life hell; I relish the challenge. Things have been a bit mundane recently in any case; I could do with some assassination attempts of either myself or my character.” Anko’s grin is sharp and serrated. “Truthfully, I prefer the assassination attempts on myself, but I’ll cede you creative reign.”
Shikaku stares at her, incredulous. Then he sighs, sitting back in his seat. There was no reasoning with someone as reckless and self-destructive as Anko. He waves a hand to her, already feeling a tension migraine coming on. “Proceed.”
“Sakura isn’t yours. You don’t have a claim to her. You aren’t blood. Even if you were, you have no bond. You might have-- once ,” Anko says quickly, voice rising as she sees the way Shikaku’s eyes light to pounce, to disagree, to dismiss everything she’s said thus far because of one thing she’s gotten wrong. “The bond you had was a soap bubble; a pretty fragile thing, ephemeral. It was never built to last; not with the way you schemed. Sakura isn’t a game piece to be moved across a board. She’s a child who trusted you.”
“One training to be a ninja,” Shikaku points out. He shuts his mouth with a clack as Anko levels him with a venomous stare, one that threatens to bite off his tongue and saute it for dinner.
“Just because we like to start the propaganda young doesn’t make her any less of a child. She may be learning the skills of a professional killer, but she doesn’t yet have the mental capacity to process the gravity of the situation.” Anko’s smile is bitter but unwavering. “You know as well as I how quickly the child prodigies of Konoha are chewed up and spat out by the machine. Kakashi is a shadow of a man and Itachi?” Anko barks a laugh. “Well, I can’t tell where the Uchiha crazy ends and the prodigy crazy begins in him. And none of the prodigies in recent years have had to deal with the hardship and triumph of girlhood. Hell, Tsunade herself didn’t have to deal with a lot of that shit because of her lineage. Sure, she received pressures of a different sort, but she was protected from being preyed upon until such a time as she could punish those who dared to try.
“Sakura doesn’t have that luxury. She was an anonymous civilian girl training at the Academy; she was competent certainly, but she did not catch the eye of higher-ups. But her skill caught your eye and you drew her, oblivious and unwitting, into a den of vipers. She had no connections among the clans aside from you and that left her vulnerable and beholden to you.
“And you took full advantage of her. She’s a fucking child, Shikaku. You took her in, trained her up, all to set her up as your son’s adversary. Sure, you were trying to motivate your son to take his training seriously, but you placed Sakura in the static role of obstacle. And you know what, that’s fine. It’s shitty as hell, but it’s fine . Sakura served her purpose to your machinations in an extraordinarily idiotic encounter with your son. But then you have the gall-the audacity -to claim that your relationship was more than that; that you have a claim on who Sakura will become.
“Whatever lessons Sakura learned under your tutelage are her due for your treatment of her. She doesn’t owe you shit. That flimsy bond you had popped just like a soap bubble when exposed to pressure. And the pressure you exerted over that bubble was a fucking blacksmith’s anvil. So any accomplishments that Sakura has now or in the future are not because of you, but in spite of you.” Anko takes a deep breath, gauging Shikaku’s expression. He doesn’t reveal much, but Anko caught flickers of shame and guilt as she spoke. It will have to be enough. “Leave the past in the past and let the girl live her life free of you and your machinations. If I catch a hint of you sniffing around Sakura again…” Anko trails off, knowing that Shikaku is smart enough to fill in the blanks creatively.
Anko disappears in a miniature whirlwind, throwing the room into absolute disarray. Shikaku glances around for a moment before placing his head against his desk with a long, drawn-out sigh.
Here we are with a new chapter! Apologies on the wait for this one; school is quite crazy at the moment. Thankfully there are only a few weeks left before break.
Sakura furrows her brow, watching Mizuki-sensei intently as he holds up a large leaf. She’s poised to take notes as needed, ignoring the scoffs that come from some of the less academically inclined students. To be fair, few of her classmates match Sakura’s passion for academics. Just because they will not be tested on the theory behind this technique does not mean it is unimportant.
“Over the next few days we will begin to access your chakra,” Mizuki says. “Now, we are just accessing chakra at this point; we will not even contemplate channeling it until next month.” His smile firms into a scowl as he stares them all down, trying to impress upon them the importance of these rules. Even though some of the clan children have received training in chakra manipulation, they were always under vigilant supervision from their parents. Mizuki alone could not supervise thirty children attempting to wield their chakra. His frown fades to a smile as they all nod. “I thought we could end today with a small demonstration of what we’ll be working on for the next month. When we start manipulating chakra, your first task will be to push your chakra into a leaf.”
Mizuki makes an exaggerated flourish to the leaf in his hand. A couple of the children giggle and his smile widens. “Now, what you will be doing is burning away the center of the leaf with pure chakra and keeping that chakra there, not allowing it to spread elsewhere.” Mizuki draws on his chakra, enacting his words.
There is a smattering of gasps and clapping, mainly from civilian-born children. The clan children are jaded to such simple feats of chakra, but there is awe in the faces of the civilian children. Mizuki feels a slight pang of nostalgia, remembering his own joy when he was introduced to chakra. Where has that magic gone for him?
He shakes himself of these errant thoughts, looking over his students. “Can anyone tell me why we complete this task? What does it help build?”
Most of the students shuffle a bit, breaking off eye contact in hopes of not being called on. Sakura, an exemplary student as always, meets his gaze and smiles eagerly. Mizuki doesn’t fight the urge to return the smile, nodding at her. “Sakura?”
“These exercises will help build our chakra control,” Sakura says. “Developing chakra control will help us when it comes to putting chakra into the jutsus we do. It’ll also help keep us from injuring our chakra coils as we practice.”
“Exactly right, Sakura,” Mizuki replies. “Chakra control is foundational to every ninjutsu you will perform if you become shinobi. An individual with smaller chakra reserves may very well beat someone with greater reserves because they have better chakra control. Your ability to control your chakra and employ it to your will may be the deciding factor in the survival of you and your unit.” He pauses, voice gentling. “I’m not trying to scare you; I only wish to impress upon you the importance of these sometimes tedious exercises. They’re needed to perform the awesome ninjutsus you see shinobi perform. And that’ll be it for today! Uzuki-san will start proctoring the afternoon spars in fifteen minutes.”
Most of the students scramble to their feet and scamper outside, but Sakura lingers. Mizuki greets her kindly, well-used to Sakura staying after lessons to ask questions. Once, he believed she stayed afterwards out of a reluctance to attend to the more physical side of Academy training. He has seen her vast improvement in that area over the past few months and yet still she stays, excited to speak with him one-on-one.
Mizuki truly doesn’t mind it. All of the Academy instructors play favorites. It’s a behavior that isn’t frowned upon; after all, the entire infrastructure of Konoha’s shinobi world relies upon it. What else but nepotism would have the succession of Hokage determined based on familial or mentorship bond? So Suzume dotes upon the Hyuga students who come through, Daikoku sings the praises of the Uchiha, Iruka shows a soft spot for the Uzumaki brat, and Mizuki?
Well, Mizuki is civilian-born and civilian-bred; he doesn’t care to kowtow to any of the clan children that he teaches. The clans have done nothing for him but prevent him from rising among the shinobi ranks. His refusal to attach himself to any of the clans has garnered him no favors.
So Mizuki’s favorite student is Sakura. Her intelligence, her curiosity, and her dedication seem a reflection to him of the boy he once was. And Mizuki would prefer to keep her spirit from being crushed by the system if at all possible. Loathe as he is admit it, her friendship with Shino is wise, even though he doubts there is any calculation to it. Of all of the clans, the Aburame clan is the most decent, though that is not saying much.
“May I help you, Sakura?” he asks.
“Maybe,” Sakura replies, fingers fidgeting but back straight. Her parents have taught her well in regards to her posture. “During my field experience assignment I received a bit of chakra control training. I was wondering if there are any books I could read on additional techniques. I checked the library, but all of the books for chakra manipulation are restricted access to genin and above only.”
Mizuki rubs his chin, pondering her question. “I’m afraid the Academy doesn’t have any reading material available to your age group, Sakura-chan. There is a fear regarding damaged chakra coils. Have you asked Shino? He may be able to lend you a book from the Aburame clan’s library.”
Sakura’s nose crinkles. “We looked through the available books at his house; everything related to chakra control is specific to hive hosts. Ino offered too, but the chakra control in her family scrolls concerns uses related to the mind.” Sakura’s face falls a bit. “I can’t do any of those exercises.”
I’m not a clan child , lingers unspoken but understood between them.
Again, Mizuki marvels at the discrepancies between civilian and clan children. The Academy, in theory, should put all of the students on equal playing ground by the time they graduate. The students should become rounded, prepared individuals, ready to be genin. And yet everything is set up to the clan children’s advantage, from the spars where they can practice their family techniques to the focused attentions given by Academy teachers. The basic repertoire of ninjutsus and fundamental skills learned at the Academy are nice, but the implicit understanding is that the knowledge gained from the Academy is not enough. Clan children receive ample supplemental training at home, both in secret techniques, clan-specific jutsus, and practical knowledge passed on by family members. Civilian-raised children?
Well, they earn the privilege of acting as fodder on missions. Or, if they manage to scrape by, they can make it to the illustrious rank of chunin.
“I’m not allowed to pass any of the books on to you,” Mizuki says, words coating his tongue bitterly. “However, we can get some practice in over these next few months, depending on how you progress.”
It is a paltry platitude, nowhere near what he would like to offer her, but Sakura stares up at him as if he offered her the world.
“Thank you Mizuki-sensei!” Sakura says, throwing herself at his legs in a hug before darting away.
Mizuki watches her go, smile slowly falling away. One day, sooner more likely than later, Konoha will snuff out the bright spark that makes Sakura Sakura. And Mizuki knows there is little he can do to prevent it.
Ibiki pens out a summary to his most recent interrogation session, a scowl stretching his scars. The Kumo nin was recalcitrant and unruly, unsurprising truthfully, but something about him stuck with Ibiki. Maybe it was his soft spoken tone, gentle, but firm in his convictions even as Ibiki systematically tries to break him to pieces. Maybe it’s the fact that his eyes were the same shade of brown as Idate’s. Hell, maybe it’s the fact that Ibiki is running on two hours of sleep for the past thirty-seven hours.
Still, something about this prisoner clings to him, refusing to let go.
Ibiki startles at the rasp of paper in the corner of his office and he looks up, suddenly remembering Sakura’s presence. Her attention is focused on the large book she’s holding, something about agriculture in the Land of Tea or some other drivel. He’s never seen anyone as voracious a reader as Sakura is; Ibiki thinks that she would be happy to read about grass growing.
Hell, that’s probably what she’s reading about right now.
Ibiki scrubs a hand over his jaw, the bristles of his unshaven face prickling against his hand. The tightness of his scowl eases as he watches her, utterly absorbed in her reading. Such single-minded focus won’t serve her well in the field, where she’ll have to maintain multiple domains of attention, but, for now, it’s alright. Something in his chest warms as he realizes the absolute trust Sakura has in him, to so willingly relax in his presence like this.
If someone had told him a year ago that an Academy student would feel so comfortable around him, he would’ve laughed in their face before dragging them before one of the Yamanaka to assess if they were a plant. After all, no one felt comfortable around him; in what world would an Academy student?
And yet, despite all of the odds, Haruno Sakura has wormed her way into his life. He knows that she was intimidated when they first met, his loud, abrasive nature making her uneasy. But she shed those fears quickly, offering him simple kindnesses that fell by the wayside long ago for him. When was the last time someone gave him a guileless smile? Brought him a homemade lunch? He thinks it was sometime before Idate disappeared, before Ibiki made chūnin and was slated for the role of commanding officer of T&I.
Ibiki stares down unseeingly at his hands.
It’s been a long time since he’s felt human.
Sometimes, it feels like the blood will never be washed clean.
He scrutinizes his hands intensely, hearing for a moment the screams of the Kumo nin in his mind. His hands are spotless; he wore his thick gloves during the session and fastidiously cleaned up thereafter.
Still, it doesn’t prevent the creeping, crawling sensation of iron coating and flaking off his skin.
Ibiki shakes his head roughly, scrambling that train of thought.
He doesn’t have a clue as to why Sakura likes him or why she chooses to stick around. He knows he isn’t good company; his social life is nonexistent outside of interactions with some of the more unstable members of the Intelligence Division. But he’ll do what he can to encourage her to stay. He knows that he’s unworthy of her kindness and friendship, but he’ll accept whatever scraps she offers. Ibiki may be forever bloodstained, but he doesn’t mind.
He’ll be better able to protect Sakura that way.
Less morals to hinder him, after all.
“What are you nerds doing in here?” Anko asks, popping in unannounced as is her wont.
Sakura nearly jumps clear out of her skin, but Ibiki merely sighs, shaking his head. “We’re working, Anko. A task you are entirely unfamiliar with.”
Anko’s eyes take on a manic gleam as she sizes him up, but Ibiki just watches her in turn. He’s just as unhinged and dangerous as she is, only in a different way. Anko smirks, mania easing in her eyes, as if she knows his thoughts.
“The work I do is much more fun, old man,” Anko taunts.
“I’m three years older,” Ibiki says.
“And a helluva a lot uglier,” Anko snipes back.
Ibiki snorts, choosing not to rise to her verbal jabs. Anko’s attention shifts beyond him to Sakura, who sits quietly with her book closed in her lap.
“How are you doing, kid?” she asks, smirk softening into almost verging on a smile.
“I’m well,” Sakura replies. “And you, Anko-san?”
“Doing fine,” Anko says, flapping a hand to dismiss Sakura’s concern.
“Oh!” Sakura perks up, rustling through her bag. She pulls out a small, wrapped package. “I have something for you, Anko-san.”
“You do?” Anko asks, true surprise flitting across her features before her expression settles to apathy.
Sakura jumps to her feet and rushes toward Anko, offering the package to her. Anko takes it and opens it with deft, eager fingers. “Dango?” Anko asks, pulling out one of the sweets.
Sakura nods enthusiastically. “Sarasa-san bought me some from a nearby vendor for helping her out with some of the detailing on this leather bag commission she was working on. She needed my help because I have tinier fingers for the fine details.” Sakura raises her hands, wiggling said fingers. “And the vendor gave me a lot so I thought you might like some too!”
Ibiki notices the way Anko’s lips start to curl into a secret smile before she firms them, keeping her expression neutral. Still, her hands betray her as she gently, reverently, takes a stick of dango and presses it to her lips. “So you help in a leather shop?”
Sakura lights up and begins to speak about the various projects she’s assisted on in the merchant district. Most of the jargon flies over Ibiki’s head, but he enjoys the clear enthusiasm Sakura has for the topic, her eyes sparkling and hands gesticulating wildly.
Anko’s eyes cut to him and she tilts her head slightly, eyes narrowing.
He nods in turn.
No matter their differences, no matter Anko’s general dislike of him, they are united in this.
Sakura is an important person to both of them.
And Ibiki thinks there is very little they would not do for her sake.
Sakura curls her toes in the grass, luxuriating in the heat of the ground beneath her and the sun above. It has been a long day and her body aches with the satisfaction of the all-out spars she participated in, leaving her exhausted. Her eyes slip shut as she enjoys the simple pleasure of relaxing.
Truthfully, she is a bit frustrated. Though Sakura knows that she made the right move in withdrawing from apprenticeship with Shikaku, her progress in learning ciphers has slowed. If she were honest with herself, her learning has outright stalled. She does not regret her decision to cut ties with Shikaku, but she hadn’t realized the true dirth in cipher knowledge. No one else has that knowledge or, if they do, they do not care to share it with an Academy student.
Sakura purses her lips, pulling up a bit of grass. She’s gotten complacent, used to being handed the knowledge as she asks for it. Not too long ago she was finding work arounds to get basic shinobi knowledge before she entered the Academy. She just needs to get creative again.
Grass falls on her face and Sakura startles upright, sneezing. Eyes smarting, she meets Celadine’s passive gaze.
“Are you well?” he asks.
“I’m fine,” Sakura says, rubbing at her nose. “What are you doing here?”
“Watching you,” he replies.
“Right,” Sakura huffs, shaking her head. “Your superior didn’t pull you off detail when the news got around?”
Celandine cocks his head.
Sakura flings herself back down onto her back, staring up at the sky. “I’m no longer the apprentice of Nara Shikaku.”
Celandine remains silent for a long moment and Sakura turns her attention to him. “It matters not. You are still interesting.”
“To you or to your superior?”
“Both,” Celandine says.
“Huh,” Sakura mutters.
She doesn’t think that she should enjoy his company as much as she does. He’s undoubtedly odd, his mannerisms flat and restrained. He holds himself a lot like some of the high-level shinobi that she catches glimpses of sometimes; though she’s never seen one as young as Celandine. Sakura knows that all of her friends-Torune especially-would be against her continued association with him if they knew.
But they don’t know.
Sakura pats the ground beside her. Celandine just stares at her and she clears her throat, offering him a tentative smile. “Sit down with me if you like.”
Celandine takes the seat with a sublime sense of grace that Sakura doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to accomplish, no matter her years of training. She takes a moment to feel envious before refocusing.
“I’ve been meaning to ask; are you allowed to speak with me? It doesn’t exactly seem like the best idea as your target.”
Celandine’s eyes slant away from her, a strange lilt to his lips. “I received no orders regarding not speaking to you.”
Sakura cannot keep herself from laughing at that, rolling onto her side as she does so. Celandine watches her quietly, his chest feeling light. They spend several long moments like this until Sakura manages to calm herself.
“I see you enjoy bending the rules to fit your needs,” Sakura says. “I can understand that.”
“Your clothing is green,” Celandine says blandly.
Sakura looks down at herself, groaning at the sight of grass stains across the bright yellow fabric of her shirt. “Otou-sama won’t be pleased,” Sakura says as she gingerly pats the stains. “Looks like otou-sama and I will be doing the washing early this week.”
“Your father washes the clothes? Why not hire someone else for that task?” Celandine asks.
“Otou-sama likes to do it himself when he’s in the village; he says it’s relaxing,” Sakura replies. “I like helping him. We go down to the river to wash and usually eat our lunches afterwards.”
“Aren’t there more important things that both of you need to do?”
It’s a question that Mebuki asks Kizashi often as well. So, Sakura draws on her father’s steadfast reply, “What’s more important than spending time with family?”
Celandine falls silent and, from the slight furrow of his brow, Sakura can tell he’s pondering something. She plucks out several pieces of grass, eying them for quality. She chooses the greenest and plumpest among them, cupping it between her hands and pressing her thumbs up against her mouth. Glancing askance at Celandine, she grins when she realizes that he is still contemplating something.
Sakura blows hard into her hands and ensuing sound tramples the quiet between them. She notices with glee the way that Celandine jumps, turning a doleful look on her.
“What are you doing?” Celandine asks.
“Playing a grass whistle,” Sakura says, grin widening. “Well, more like a grass trumpet.”
“How do you do it?” he asks, peering down at her hands with interest.
Sakura’s grin softens at the spark of interest in her eyes and she opens her hands, placing the blade of grass into his. “Here,” she says, cupping his hands around it. “Let me show you.”
“Torune, slow down a bit!” Sakura says, through drawn-out, breathless giggles. She tugs at his gloved hand, digging in her heels. “I can’t quite keep up with you.”
“Sorry,” Torune replies, chagrined as his pace slows. “I’m just excited.”
Sakura laughs, shaking her head. “You sure that’s it? Shino seemed a bit frustrated when we left.”
“I wanted to spend a little time alone with you,” Torune says. “Shino gets to spend most of the day with you at school. It’s my turn.”
Sakura’s expression softens as she adjusts her grip on Torune’s hand to squeeze it. “I’m not complaining. I was just teasing. It has been a long time since we last hung out alone.”
Torune turns a bright smile on her before continuing on through the forest. It’s an area of the Aburame estate that Sakura has yet to visit, but she doesn’t find that particularly surprising; their grounds are absolutely sprawling.
“Shino told me that you beat Kiba in a spar yesterday,” Torune says, pride clear in his voice. “The Inuzuka are notorious brawlers; I know that Kiba is one of the strongest contenders in your class in the spars. He’s a difficult opponent. You’ve improved.”
Sakura tickles her fingers across the palm of his hand. She’s convinced him to remove his gloves whenever they’re alone. “It’s thanks to you and Ino. I used that move you and Shibi-oji showed me and flipped Kiba over.” Sakura giggles, warmth bubbling in her gut. “I wish you could’ve seen his face.” Torune turns to her as she pulls an exaggerated look of surprise. He snorts in surprise, bringing his free hand up to his mouth as he guffaws. “It was pretty amazing.”
“I have no doubt,” Torune says, smile warm even as he ignores the slight sting he feels at the reminder that he is not a student at the Academy with Sakura. Sakura is his best friend in all the world; it’s so difficult to know that there is a huge portion of Sakura’s life that he has no part in. At least, not yet. “I’m glad that you’ve had a chance to prove yourself to your classmates.”
“It feels good,” Sakura admits, squeezing his hand. “My spar partners are definitely more wary now, but honestly, that doesn’t matter. I don’t really care what they think of me. They can think of me as a no-name civilian kid or as a threat. All that matters to me is that the people who matter think well of me.” She grins at him, the muscles in her cheeks hurting with the force of it. “You and your opinion matter to me.”
Torune’s smile quivers for a few moments before it firms once more. He never smiled this much before he met Sakura. He doesn’t quite know how she does it; with a few bright words, Sakura manages to banish the clouds of doubt. Sakura is the sun and he is helplessly and happily caught in her orbit. “Thanks.”
“Thank you,” Sakura says in turn.
A low buzzing fills her ears and she glances quizzically at Torune for a long moment, wondering if something set him off. He has a much better handle on his emotions now and his hive rarely acts up without his explicit command. But the hand beneath hers does not hum nor does his chest.
Instead, the slow, steady buzz seems to come from up ahead.
“What’s that?” Sakura asks, starting to get excited.
“An Aburame clan secret,” Torune replies.
“Should I...close my eyes?” Sakura says, footsteps faltering for a moment.
“What? No. Of course not!” Torune giggles, shaking his head at her. “It wouldn’t be a good surprise if you weren’t able to even look at it.”
“You’re right,” Sakura says, relaxing. Excitement quickly thrums through her again, filling her. “So what is it?”
They crest a rolling slope and Torune gestures with his free hand. There are numerous large, wooden boxes placed across the open landscape, seemingly the source of the buzzing. Sakura eyes the unfamiliar boxes, cocking her head slightly. She’s never seen the like, such alien boxes standing freely.
“What are they?” Sakura asks, darting forward.
“Hives,” he replies, following along with her, pleased by her curiosity. He just knew she would like these!
Sakura draws her eyes away from the boxes-- hives --and frowns at him. “Like you are? Like the Aburame? Except on the outside rather than the inside?”
Torune laughs freely, loving the way her mind works. She’s just so good at puzzling things out, turning them over and over within her head to assess it from all angles until the pieces all fit perfectly. “Yes, it is a lot like that. It’s actually where Aburame Shinko-sama got the idea originally; she observed the way certain insects--ants, bees, termites, and the like--support each other. They have this whole society, with ranks and labor divisions and cooperative childcare. When Shinko-sama saw it she set about setting up a different type of hive; one that existed within her body.”
“The Aburame have female leaders?” Sakura asks, intrigued by the idea.
It’s true of many civilian clans, the Haruno included, but she’s noticed that the shinobi clans are male-dominated aside from the Inuzuka which have always been matriarchal. Sakura doesn’t know much about the varied histories of the shinobi clans, aside from the general information disseminated to the Konoha populace. But the shinobi clans are very private of their personal history and lineage and with good reason; knowledge is power and any little scrap of it may mean a disadvantage when faced with an opponent.
The fact that Torune and his family so casually share information of their clan with her fills her with such warmth that it makes her toes tingle. She understands the value of knowledge, the weighty responsibility of it settling on her shoulders.
“Of course,” Torune replies, wrinkling his nose in slight offense. “It’s the usual thing really. My mother shared the clan duties with Shibi-oji. She would’ve been declared clan head except for she enjoyed the field far too much and received specialized missions for her rinkaichū.” His smile goes wry. “Shibi-oji says she was terrifying in the clan councils, always taking any of the arrogant clans down a peg or five as needed. He called her a spitfire.”
Sakura squeezes his hand, trying to show her silent appreciation for the precious memories that he shares with her. From the deepening of his smile as he regards her, Sakura thinks he understands.
“She sounds amazing; they both do,” Sakura replies.
Torune’s smile is shy. “My mother’s name was Nozumi.”
“Nozumi-san,” Sakura murmurs, smile unfurling slow, steady, and strong. “A beautiful name for a wonderful woman.”
Torune ducks his head, clearing his throat. “The Aburame do not care for the gender of their leader; historically I believe that the position has more often been held by a woman.” Sakura recognizes the subject change for what it is and accepts it just as easily as they make their way down the hill among the hives. He shakes his head, chuckling in amusement. “Of course the Aburame are accepting of female leaders; hives are usually led by queens.”
“Remember to practice your forms before going to bed,” Iruka calls as the students stand and scramble away from their desks as quickly as possible. For training that may save their lives one day, these children still did not care for their lessons altogether too much. “It’s important that you hone your flexibility!”
He shakes his head to himself as most of the students are out the door before he’s even finished speaking. His job is usually a thankless one, but he enjoys it nevertheless. Iruka is glad that he is still on mission rotation though; it gives him a chance to practice the skills he so often espouses to his students.
“Iruka-sensei,” Sakura says politely, approaching him with all the manners of a clan-born child. He often forgets that Sakura is of a clan herself, regardless of it being a civilian merchant one. She receives clan training just as Sasuke, Chōji, and Hinata do; just of a different sort. “I enjoyed the lesson today. Do you know of any exercises that could be used to develop arm strength that you could share?”
Iruka’s smile widens and becomes a good deal more fond. Sakura is a good student; a sweet and enthusiastic one whose curiosity is insatiable. “I do know of a few, most involve weights of some sort. I could give a demonstration in a couple of days. There is one that you could do in the mornings and evenings outside of school that does not require weights.” Iruka comes around his desk, kneeling on the floor. “Allow me to demonstrate.”
Sakura spends the next twenty or so minutes with Iruka as he shows her how to do a push up. She manages three and a half before her arms go hot, weak, and limp. She sits up, panting as Iruka chuckles.
“They take a while to get used to, but they are an effective way of increasing your arm strength,” Iruka says, raising a hand to muffle his chuckles. “I’d suggest starting with fifteen in the morning and fifteen in the evening and working your way up from there.” When she goggles at him in disbelief, Iruka bursts into outright laughter. “I know, it seems a lot, but it takes consistent application and practice for you to see results. Considering your performance so far, I have no doubt they’ll be useful.”
“Thank you Iruka-sensei,” Sakura says, flushing beneath his praise. “That is kind of you to say.”
Iruka hums, patting Sakura’s shoulder (he knows she dislikes having her hair ruffled when she wears her bow) before heading out the door.
Sakura sits down in a chair for a few long moments, waiting for her breathing to return to normal. Those push ups took more from her than she expected, but she is glad of it. Sakura stands after she recovers and moves to her box in the back of the classroom. She rifles through it, taking out the books on code she stores there and replacing the textbooks she utilized throughout the day.
A small maroon book falls out of the box and Sakura stares down at it, puzzled. She has never seen the book before and she bends down, lifting it tentatively. Sakura glances around the empty classroom, wondering if someone placed it in her box by mistake. The box to the left of hers is Naruto’s and she’s never seen him with any books, be it a required textbook or a book read for pleasure. The box to the right of hers is Kiba’s and it is more disorganized even than Naruto’s.
Sakura frowns to herself, opening the unmarked cover of the book. The first page reads Thieves’ Cant Throughout Konoha .
Definitely not a book that Kiba or Naruto would be interested in reading.
Sakura flips through the first couple of pages; no author is given nor a publication date, but the words are typed, not handwritten. She’s seen a few books like this in Shikaku’s office; books published only for clan libraries, not mass production. The anonymity is necessary for the protection of the authors. Sakura frowns, turning to the first chapter of the book. There, tucked among the pages, is a card.
Perhaps you will find this of use in your study of ciphers.
She brings it close to her chest, a smile curling up the corners of her lips. It is nice to know that she has someone in her corner, whoever this mysterious benefactor is.
Sakura chews on the end of her writing utensil, brow furrowed at her journal. She is seated outdoors in a park, surrounded by books and sunshine. She’s been trying to create a cipher of her own, a hodgepodge of techniques from Konoha during the Second War, Kumo during the reign of the Third Raikage, and multiple dialects of thieves’ cant from all over Fire. Sakura doesn’t think that the cipher will be usable in the long run, but she knows it is good practice. It’s an ambitious project, she knows, but at least she is not creating the cipher from scratch.
Still, she did not realize just how difficult it would be.
She growls in frustration, flipping back to the book on thieves’ cant. Why must this all be so difficult?
“That’s some intense concentration there, kid. What did that book ever do to you?”
Sakura startles, hands automatically relaxing and smoothing along the pages of the book. She hadn’t realized that she was white-knuckling the book in her anger. The book, one left in her school box, is a precious gift and she does not wish to damage it in any way.
Sakura looks up...and up and up at the massive man looming over her. Sakura’s heart immediately begins to race in surprise, though she notes that his posture is open and disengaged, intentionally unthreatening. And yet...Sakura scrambles to her feet, uncomfortable but curious about the subtle glint in his eyes. It reminds her of the artisans who treat with her mother; this is a man who wants or expects something of her.
Now on her feet, she assesses him. Everything about him is large: his height, his muscles, his wild white hair, and even his nose. He grins down at her, white teeth shining. “That’s quite the odd array of books you have there,” he says, gesturing to the small pile around her. “Some hefty reading for a squirt like you.” He squints down at her, frowning slightly. “Shouldn’t you be in school?”
“It’s a half day,” Sakura replies flatly, not caring for the way that he calls attention to her height so dismissively.
The mountain of a man bends, grabbing up her book on Second War ciphers. Sakura bites her lip to keep from protesting, though she cannot keep from attempting to grab it from him. He glances at her, amused, before lifting it out of reach. Sakura looks around the park, to see if there are any around who would come to her aid.
There are a handful milling about the park, but all of their gazes are carefully averted.
Sakura frowns up at the man as he pages through the book rapidly. She opens her mouth to say something, she isn’t sure what, but she pauses when she sees the expression on his face. There’s something wistful about it, a nostalgic sadness that verges on resentful bitterness. The words die in Sakura’s throat, unable to interrupt the oddly heavy moment.
Sakura casts her gaze back down to her own book, considering the dialects as she continues to stand awkwardly, waiting for...something. She actually gets caught up in the book, following a rabbit trail on a fascinating distinction between western and eastern Fire thieves’ cant in the way they address their hierarchy so she jumps when the man speaks again.
“The western thieves’ guild stole most of their cant from the languages of the nomadic tribes of Wind, who do not have much of a hierarchy in terms of the way their communities are assembled. This ended up being reflected a good deal in the guild, the hierarchy is less strict and more fluid. They adopted words for color from the common tongue to address the different leaders. The eastern guild--”
“How do you know all of this?” Sakura bursts out, unable to bridle her curiosity. She’s never heard a whisper of nomadic tribes in Wind in any of the books that she’s read and her ignorance nags at her.
The man looks surprised, shaggy eyebrows shooting up. He scratches his cheek, smile sheepish. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to go off on a tangent like that. I understand it is not all that interesting--”
“But it is!” Sakura interrupts yet again, eyes sparkling. She feels a flicker of embarrassment for her rudeness, but tamps it down quickly. The man doesn’t seem to mind her so she won’t mind it either. (Though his own manners are rather lacking.) “Why would they choose to utilize words about color? And why in the common tongue? Isn’t that too easy for enemies to decipher? What color symbolizes top rank? Being that the guild is located in Fire, I would say red would be leader, but if most of the cant came from Wind wouldn’t the color be blue?”
The man’s eyes go wide and his jaw slackens and Sakura feels her shoulders start to creep up near her ears as she realizes that she’s rambling again about things that just aren’t--
The man bursts into laughter, placing his hands on his knees as he doubles over, shoulders shaking with the force of it. “Sage Almighty! You’re a riot, kid.” Sakura flushes, eyes darting away. “Hey now, that wasn’t an insult; I’m just quite reminded of…” His smile twists, wry and distant. “Well, a reflection of some sort.”
He hands her back her book, giving her a tentative if somewhat rough pat on the head. “To answer your questions, they chose color words because they are easy to remember; most members are illiterate and it makes it easier to identify ranks with armbands. They use the common tongue for the same reason; they care little for if their enemies decipher it because the hierarchy is so fluid. As for the leading rank, well, being thieves, the color most important to them is black, for the shadows.” He glances up toward the Hokage monument. “Much like shinobi, electing shadows as their leaders.”
Sakura nods, thankful for his succinct answers and fingers itching to get ahold of more information.
“I have a handful of journals on the topic of ciphers from the Second War; I lend those to you if you like,” he says, somewhat awkwardly.
“Would you?” Sakura asks, breathless.
The man nods abruptly, watching her with an odd look. “Well, where should I be able to find you?”
“The Academy,” Sakura says. She flushes, realizing her faux pas as she offers her hand. “I’m Haruno Sakura.”
He takes it, shaking it firmly. “I’m Jiraiya. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Woo! Glad to get this chapter out; it's been a while! I think my writing style has shifted just a bit, let me know what you think of the difference (if there even is one at all, lol). Now that this hectic semester is over, I'm hoping to get chapters out a bit faster but we'll see.
Also, I have in my notes specifically that Jiraiya isn't going to be gross so...no perversion from him in this story.
Hope you all enjoyed!
Welp, my hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule just didn't happen this summer, lol. I spent some time out of the country, had some summer classes, fell in love with a new fandom (dragging a friend into it with me), and am now in the process of an unexpected but probably beneficial move. So that's my summer so far. Hope you all enjoy this chapter!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“We need nicknames,” Sakura says, glancing up from the book she’s reading.
“Nicknames?” Ino repeats, focus remaining on the kunai she twirls between her fingers deftly. It isn’t a practice kunai and Sakura is sure that Inoichi would not be happy if he found out. “That’s a bit random isn’t it? What brought this on?”
Sakura squeezes the book, a journal on loan from Jiraiya, for a moment before her grip eases. “Maybe nicknames isn’t the right word for it. Codenames, rather.”
“Codenames?” Torune asks, shifting along the grass so he can look up toward Sakura. “Was there something about that in the journal?”
“Yeah,” Sakura says. “Well, it’s come up before in my training. Codenames get used during wartime.” She touches the cover of the journal. “All of the ranking officers received them.”
“And you’re getting a head start for us?” Shino asks, lips quirking.
“Well, as clan children you’ll undoubtedly rank,” Sakura replies, puffing her cheeks up at Shino’s teasing. “You know, if we go to war again.”
“You think we will?” Ino says, cornflower blue eyes going wide.
Sakura shrugs, deflating a bit. She’s heard some whispers among the agents at T&I, but nothing conclusive. There’s also the fact that the Academy even started the field experience assignments to begin with. All of the clan children ended up in positions that were out of their comfort zone: Ino, slotted for her mind specialty, was mentored by a weapon master; Shikamaru, slotted for strategy, was put to physical work clearing the Forty-Fourth Training Ground; Shino, slotted for sabotage and clean up, was assigned to work in a political setting in the fire daimyō’s fort in Konoha. The list went on in a similar manner. All of the clan children were being tested and, in Sakura’s opinion, refined to be better rounded. The civilian children were placed in less desirable circumstances, Sakura included. By chance and happenstance, Sakura was afforded a much better position in the end. In Sakura’s mind, that indicated a vested interest in raising up strong clan heirs to protect Konoha. “I think it’s possible.”
Ino hums, eyes narrowing speculatively on Sakura. Sakura meets her gaze boldly, knowing well how easily Ino could implement her jutsu and use it against Sakura. But Sakura trusts her friend. “You think it’s probable.”
Sakura chuckles, shaking her head wryly. Ino is too smart for her own good. “It seems likely. Konoha doesn’t usually have long periods of peace. It’s pretty amazing that there hasn’t been a war in our lifetime.”
“So, codenames then,” Torune says. “Is there usually a sort of rhyme or reason to them? A theme that unites them?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” Sakura replies, astonished. “How’d you--?”
“I’ve been your friend long enough to recognize patterns,” Torune says with a huff, though a smile peeks through. “You cryptographers love unified ciphers that apply across multiple situations. The more universal, the better.”
Sakura grins at him, reaching over and grabbing his hand. “You’ve got me all figured out, don’t you?”
Torune laughs in delight. “Not even close.”
“Well, in any case, we should probably use some sort of key that unifies the codenames,” Sakura says. She glances around at the others. “Any ideas?”
Silence ensues and Sakura lies back against the grass, staring up at the sky as she thinks.
“We could do insects,” Shino says after a while. “Torune would be Bee because he’s so noisy and Ino would be Wasp because…” He trails off, giggling. “Well, that one is self-explanatory.”
“Absolutely not!” Ino says, pulling up grass and throwing it on him. Her brows are furrowed, but her lips twitch with a smile. “You best watch your words or I’ll give you a nasty sting with a kunai!”
Shino immediately shuts his mouth, but Sakura can see his shoulders trembling with laughter.
“Bee doesn’t suit me anymore,” Torune says, squeezing Sakura’s hand. “I hardly ever buzz anymore.”
“That’s true,” Ino says, turning away from attacking Shino to tap on her chin. “Why not flowers? They already have underlying meanings attached to them. And the specific names of the flowers are less likely to come up in daily conversation.”
“That’s true,” Sakura says, mind flashing for a moment to Celandine. She thinks he might appreciate having others with similar names as him. “That’s a really good idea, Ino!” She pauses, pondering. “Now what should they be?”
Everyone lapses into silence once more. Torune sits up after several moments, touching his goggles. More specifically, touching the leatherwork that Sakura did on it. “Sunflower for me,” he says, tone brooking no arguments. “Longevity, loyalty, and adoration.”
Sakura is impressed by the fact that Torune knows the meaning in the language of flowers for sunflower, but she sees Ino’s smile flatten a little at the last word. Did he get something wrong? “That makes sense,” Ino says with a nod. “And we can call you Helianthus as well; it’s the more technical name and could obscure the origin from outsiders more.”
“Helianthus,” Sakura repeats, trying out the long, unfamiliar word. It doesn’t exactly roll off her tongue, but something about it suits Torune. It’s complex but elegant, just like Torune himself is. “It suits you.”
“If we’re going for more obscure names, I suppose Ivy doesn’t work for me,” Shino sighs.
“Dependence, endurance, and faithfulness,” Ino says, parsing out the meaning. Her smile takes on a teasing light. “Can you live up to that type of name?”
“Of course,” Shino says readily. “I’m the heir of the Aburame; I must be these things to lead the clan.”
“In that case, Hedera would be your codename,” Ino says. “It’s the technical name.” She glances between the cousins. “Helianthus and Hedera; the shared first syllable is a nice indicator of your familial bond.”
“So now it’s Ino’s turn,” Sakura says. She cycles through her limited knowledge of the language of flowers, trying to come up with a flower that accurately represents her first friend. She comes up with nothing. What flower represents Ino’s strength, the way she’s a veritable force of nature? “Ino, is there a flower that means conviction and strength?”
“Gladiolus,” Ino says immediately. “Strength of character, honor, and conviction. Gladiolus is the ‘sword lily.’”
“That’s perfect for you!” Sakura exclaims, clapping her hands. “You’re so strong and determined.” She gestures to Ino’s now ever-present kunai pouch. “And you certainly carry enough knives around with you.”
Ino stares at Sakura for several moments, surprised, before grinning. Her cheeks flush as she watches Sakura. “That--well, that’s really sweet of you. Do you really see me like that?”
“Of course,” Sakura replies. “You’re so strong, Ino. It’s inspiring.”
“Gladiolus,” Ino says. “Wasn’t what I was expecting, certainly, but I’ll definitely take it!”
“What about you, Sakura?” Torune asks.
“What about me?” Sakura says.
“Your codename,” Torune replies. “You said that all ranked officers receive them.”
Sakura blushes at the inadvertent compliment, the unwavering faith in Torune’s voice. He thinks she’ll rank in the future and he doesn’t think she’s foolish for making plans about it. “Well, I’m not really sure.” She curls her lip a little bit. “Definitely not cherry blossom; it’s far too obvious.”
“What’s a flower that represents courage?” Shino asks, looking at Ino.
“Both borage and protea mean courage,” Ino replies.
“Borage,” Torune says. “It has a nice ring to it.”
Hands slam down on Sakura’s desk. “Are you alright with this?”
Sakura jumps, turning from her conversation with Ino and Shino to meet Shikamaru’s furious eyes. She swallows, arms stinging in a reminder of the last time she incurred his wrath. His eyes burn as fiercely as smoldering coals, a single spark threatening to set them both aflame. She’s a bit surprised that he’s approached her; he’s let her be for the weeks since his apology. However, she won’t back down from his anger, even knowing what he is capable of.
“Alright with what?” she asks, directing a pointed look at his hands on the desk.
Shikamaru seems to recognize his position because he flushes, the anger dimming as he straightens his posture. “Sorry,” he says, the word coming easier and quicker than his first apology. “I overreacted.”
Sakura hums her assent, still eyeing him warily. “What brought you over here?” she asks, eyes flicking around the room.
Iruka-sensei is not here, none of the teachers are, as this is the free time for students. It’s really meant as a time for students to smooze and establish ties among each other without direct supervision. But Sakura knows that someone is observing; when Sasuke and Kiba’s last argument devolved to fisticuffs, a teacher was “conveniently” nearby. There is no such interference for scuffles among civilian students; either because they aren’t worth the hassle or such fighting will “toughen” them up. Sakura doesn’t know. So she isn’t sure what will happen if a civilian goes up against a clan child during this free time; if there will be interference or not.
She does know that she’ll be the one facing repercussions.
“My father,” Shikamaru says, folding his arms behind his back. “Have you not heard?”
“Obviously not,” Ino bites out, glaring at Shikamaru. “Stop dallying and state whatever has you so riled.”
Shikamaru glares at Ino, lip curling. Their relationship, splintered by Shikamaru’s attack on Sakura in that game gone so wrong, is still contentious as ever. Sakura feels bad for Chōji, always having to mediate between them whenever they have to interact at Ino-Shika-Chō reunions, which occur often. Sakura wonders if they’ll ever restore their friendship and, if not, if it’ll be taken into consideration when team assignments happen. Shikamaru swings his attention back over to Sakura, expression softening. “My father has taken on a new apprentice.”
Sakura blinks, processing the information. She feels a slight sting in her heart, a pressure that squeezes her tight for a moment. She respected Shikaku, looked up to him. He introduced her to the world of codes and ciphers and Sakura will never be able to repay him for that knowledge. But she has also known the pain of her hero being knocked from his shiny pedestal. Truthfully, it hurt far more when she realized that Shikaku did not have her best interests at heart. She is the one who cut ties with him because she couldn’t accept the actions he chose. So this? This is the natural progression of things.
“That’s good,” Sakura says finally. She can see Shino and Ino relax in her periphery.
“Is that all you have to say?” Shikamaru says, incredulous.
Sakura scratches her cheek. “Offer him my congratulations, I suppose,” she says, unsure what he’s getting at.
Shikamaru flushes, brows furrowing in his frustration. “He replaced you!”
“We cut ties,” Sakura replies mildly. “It makes sense that he found a new apprentice.”
“You aren’t planning to return?” Shikamaru asks.
“No,” Sakura says, squirming a bit beneath Shikamaru’s keen eyes. “I’m not. I will be forever thankful to Nara-san for the education he provided me. He assisted me in honing my interest into a passion. But our time working together is over. We’ve parted ways. I wish him well with his new apprentice and hope that their partnership will progress in a fruitful manner.”
“Oh,” Shikamaru says, deflating. “I see.”
“Are you alright?” Sakura asks after several moments, reading the lost look in his eyes. They aren’t friends, but Sakura doesn’t consider him her enemy either.
“I’m fine,” he says with a sigh. He shakes his head, focusing on Sakura once more. “I’m fine. I apologize for my...outburst. It’s just...she isn’t you.”
Sakura cocks her head, assessing him. She doesn’t really know how to respond to that last statement. So, she chooses to ignore it. “I forgive you for your outburst. And…” She pauses, not sure if she’s reading him right. “Thank you for your concern.”
Shikamaru’s face darkens to a violent red as he nods, scurrying over to his seat. Sakura watches him go, quizzical, but thankful that it did not come to blows.
Shikamaru is still hot-tempered, but, Sakura thinks, he might be growing.
“So this is what borage looks like,” Sakura says, scrutinizing the plant. The petals are a deep blue shade and number five in all, shaping the flower into a star. At the center are small white petals, that make the blue all the more stark. The stem and unbloomed buds are fuzzy and Sakura runs a finger over them. “Not what I was expecting.”
“It’s a beautiful flower and suits you,” Ino says firmly.
“I believe you,” Sakura says with a laugh. “Just, it looks a little unassuming to mean ‘courage.’”
“Maybe so,” Ino says, kneeling down in the soil to cup the flower.
They are in one of the many gardens that the Yamanaka clan owns and cultivates. This one belongs specifically to Ino. When she comes of age, she will be given a greenhouse, should she prove her worth as a gardener. Sakura’s understanding about this proving is that Ino will have to handrear a difficult flower. Ino, an overachiever by nature, plans to breed a new flower entirely through cross-cultivation.
“Still, it reminds me of you,” Ino says. “It’s a hardy flower, but still gorgeous.” She glances up at Sakura for a moment, before looking down at the cluster of borage plants. “Borage is often used as a companion plant.”
“Companion plant?” Sakura repeats the unfamiliar phrase.
“Companion plants are plants that are placed with different crops,” Ino says. “Borage specifically acts as a protector to tomatoes, spinach, legumes, brassicas, and strawberries.”
“It protects other plants,” Sakura says, charmed by the idea.
“It does,” Ino says, glancing at Sakura. “Sometimes at a cost to itself, as pests might attack it instead of the ‘more valuable’ plants.”
“Oh,” Sakura says, lips pursing. She doesn’t like the sound of that. She holds onto her forearm, remembering her encounter with the Nara clan. In fact, the treatment of civilian-born shinobi in comparison to clan-born shinobi could be classed in a similar manner.
“My aunt claims that tomatoes grown among borage plants grow faster and taste better than those that grow alone,” Ino says. “The insects that usually lay eggs in tomatoes are confused by the borage and sometimes even infest the borage.”
“I see,” Sakura says evenly, watching her friend. From the gleam in Ino’s eyes, her words aren’t spoken without thought; she wants Sakura to listen to the subtext in her words. Clans threaten to consume civilians who are of use to them, to further their own flourishing. “Why bring this up now?”
“Your birthday is coming up,” Ino says, taking up her pruning shears. “Another year older and another year closer to adulthood. You need to be careful who you allow close.”
Sakura frowns at Ino. “Are you concerned by those who are already around me?” she asks, voice tight and cold.
“Not for the reasons you think,” Ino replies. “But yes. You need to step carefully among the clans you allow close to you. I do not believe that they will harm you intentionally, but keep in mind that the clan as a whole may have designs upon your person.”
Sakura thinks on that for a moment, watching Ino prune the borage. “Marriage?” she gasps, voice louder than she expected it to be. She clears her throat, adjusting her expression as she glances around the thankfully empty garden. “You think that marriage is on the table?”
“Yes,” Ino says.
“But we’re still so young,” Sakura says, but it is a token protest at best.
Even among merchant clans, betrothals happen at a young age. Her parents avoided it, her mother’s original betrothed died in his adolescence, leaving Mebuki free to pursue Kizashi. She fought fiercely for the right to marry him, despite the fact that he did not come of a traditionally lucrative family. They often joked that it was the toughest negotiation of their lives, but there is a kernel of truth hidden within. They fought tooth and nail for the sake of love, which was why Sakura herself is not betrothed.
Not yet, at least.
Her parents want her to be involved in the decision, but marriage is expected of her.
“You know that doesn’t matter,” Ino says drily. “Such negotiations occur among clans as soon as the sex of the child is known. The Aburame are not known for prenatal betrothals, but betrothals in adolescence aren’t unheard of.”
“You think Shibi-ōji will propose that?” Sakura says. “With Torune or Shino?”
Ino shrugs, the motion graceful. “I do not know what the future holds. I just want you to be careful. You have a tendency to give more of yourself than you should. I don’t want you to use yourself up. You may be represented by borage, but you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself.” Ino stands, cupping Sakura’s face with a tenderness that mirrors the way she handled the borage. “There are no plants more valuable than you, Sakura.”
Sakura stares down at the cipher that she still hasn’t managed to break, trying to figure out its meaning. She has made so little progress on it and yet…
She isn’t willing to give up.
Sakura eyes the second cipher specifically, paying close attention to one word that reoccurs throughout the code the most. It is oddly familiar to her, niggling at something that is just on the tip of her tongue. Sakura just stares down at it, willing the understanding to just occur.
Of course, it does not, remaining ever elusive.
Sakura sighs, rifling through the books that she has on code in search of inspiration.
Her eyes catch on one in particular, one on animals in a Suna code. One of the words looks oddly familiar.
“You need to trap your room.”
Sakura nearly jumps out of her skin, flinching violently as she covers her work. “Celandine!” she exclaims, placing a hand on her chest. “What have I said about sneaking up on me?”
Celandine is seated on her bed, legs crossed as he stares blankly at her. “I did not sneak up on you. I sat upon your bed and called out to you from a respectful distance. I did not tap your shoulder or engage in unwanted physical contact.”
Sakura sighs, touching her brow. She can almost feel the wrinkles threatening to set in. “Next time, knock on the window or the door, however you get in.” She glances to the side, puffing out her cheeks in frustration. “And I do have traps in my room.”
“I will take your advice into consideration and adjust as requested,” Celandine says. “You need better traps; I did not even have to disable the traps to pass them by.”
“I’ll work on it,” Sakura says.
“You need to get better at them now,” Celandine says.
Sakura stares at him, surprised. He has never spoken back to her like this. He didn’t raise his voice or anything, but Sakura can tell he’s getting worked up. “What brought you by today?” she asks, discomfited by the way that Celandine’s black eyes glitter with intent.
“I came to warn you,” Celandine says, standing lithely.
“Warn me of what?” Sakura asks.
“You need to be more careful,” Celandine says, approaching her. “You are drawing too much attention with too little protection of yourself.”
“What do you mean?” Sakura asks.
Up close, Sakura can see the tightness of Celandine’s jaw and the way his fingers tremble. Sakura reaches out with both hands, one taking his and the other touching his jaw. He flinches but does not move further. Sakura keeps her touch gentle. “What do you mean?” she repeats.
“You are being watched,” Celandine says. “My master wishes--” He cuts off immediately as his entire form shudders in pain. Sakura embraces him, holding him up. “My master wants you.”
Blood trickles from Celandine’s mouth.
“Stop!” Sakura says, panicked by the clear torture speaking brings him. “Don’t say anymore. Don’t hurt yourself further.”
“I must warn you,” Celandine says, determination blazing in his dark gaze. He clings to Sakura, refusing to release her. He will take comfort where he can get it. Sakura holds him in turn, willing to support him for as long as he needs. “You need to get the Sannin to declare you his official apprentice. It is imperative that you publicly receive his support. Do you understand?”
It is so strange to hear Celandine speak in such a monotone voice despite the desperation and pain with which he clutches her.
“I do,” Sakura replies, running a hand down his back. She imitates the movements of her mother, the way her mother soothes Sakura after a nightmare. Slowly, the trembling eases before ceasing entirely. “I will do as you ask, Celandine.”
“Good,” Celandine says. “Good.”
They stay like that, embraced, for longer than either could say.
For the first time in a very long time, Celandine feels...safe.
Writing this chapter reminded me so much of writing Borage, which is a oneshot that features Sakura, Ino, Shikamaru, and the language of flowers. I returned to some of my favorite flower meanings here because I’m a basic bitch, lol. Y’all should check it out if you enjoy urban fantasy AUs.
Sakura meets her own gaze in her mirror, taking a deep breath. She’s practiced her speech a couple of times now, with each iteration only getting slightly less awkward. She latches onto a memory of her mother speaking to artisans and politicians, gaining footholds in territories formerly unopened to the Haruno clan.
Haruno Mebuki is living proof that a person can be formidable using only their words. Sakura aspires to be the same.
She clears her throat, forcibly stilling the nervous shuffling of her feet. “Jiraiya-sama, I am approaching you today with a proposition.” She schools her features, trying to embody her father’s steady calmness. “I believe it to be mutually beneficial.”
Sakura takes a deep breath. “I am here to petition you for apprenticeship.” She pauses, catching the way her lips twitch toward a frown. It’s awkward to speak while watching herself so keenly, but she knows Jiraiya will regard her with even deeper intent.
Her nerves hum with anxiety. This petition is a long shot, a gamble that Sakura sincerely doubts will pay off. None of the Sannin have ever taken on formal apprenticeships. In the time before his betrayal, Orochimaru took on a single genin team, of which Anko was a member. He also collaborated fairly often with the shinobi involved in research development; but he never took on an official apprentice.
From the whispers around the Intelligence Division, Anko was slated to become his apprentice officially before he left; in fact, a date was already selected. A week and a half from the day the Hokage discovered his unsanctioned research labs. So Orochimaru never took on an apprentice.
As for Tsunade-hime, she worked closely with the medic-nin in Konoha before and during the Second Shinobi World War. She never took on a genin team or apprentice though and she left the village shortly following the War. Sakura’s heard that Tsunade-hime trains medic-nin and doctors wherever she travels and that she is accompanied everywhere she travels by a relative of her deceased fiance. The companion is basically an apprentice, though she was never registered as such in Konoha’s public records.
Jiraiya though...of the three Sannin, he’s perhaps the hardest to assess. He’s the only one who’s remained a fixture within the village; an ever-traveling fixture true, but a fixture nonetheless. He led a single team in Konoha and took special interest in one of those students. Of them all, Jiraiya is probably the one who came closest to formal apprenticeship, however, the Third Shinobi World War derailed it all.
And Jiraiya’s would-be apprentice thrived through that hardship, ascending to the role of Yondaime Hokage.
Sakura exhales shakily, meeting her own gaze once more. Such thoughts only serve to make her more nervous. Instead, she turns her thoughts toward Celandine, his absolute anguish as he forced himself to speak to her. Sakura doesn’t know his reason for it, why he would dare to skirt his master’s orders, but Sakura knows the desperation she saw in his face and the terror that cracked his voice. For Celandine’s sake, for his sacrifice, she’ll give this her best try.
Sakura refuses to linger on the fact that Celandine has yet to reappear since then. She can only assume the consequences of his actions and her imagination is unfortunately quite vivid.
So she refocuses on her attention to her notes, taking it from the top. She’ll do her best to be prepared to combat any counter arguments from one of the keenest minds of Konoha.
And so, it is with a stomach full of fluttering kikaichū that Sakura approaches Jiraiya’s office a few days later. It’s located in the Intelligence Division and Sakura truly isn’t certain if it’s merely a converted closet that Jiraiya is given when he’s actually in Konoha. It’s smaller even than the room she worked in at the beginning of her field assignment and it seems a poor fit for a man as large as Jiraiya. He doesn’t seem to mind it, but Sakura does notice that most of her encounters with him take place out in the village rather than in his office.
In fact, she sincerely doubts that he’s actually physically here at the moment; rather, it seems likely that he uses a simple seal that lets him know when a person comes by so he can teleport back.
Sakura knocks on the unmarked door, feeling the slightest tug on her chakra before a voice calls, “Sakura! Come in!”
Sakura pushes open the door, cocking an eyebrow at Jiraiya’s unkempt appearance. He just offers a crooked grin and no explanation.
“What brings you by my illustrious abode today?” he asks.
Sakura stares at him, drawing upon all her courage. She digs her nails into her palms for a moment, centering herself. The worst thing Jiraiya can do is say no; Sakura will just have to figure out how to handle Celandine’s shadowy master some other way. Sakura takes a deep breath and begins to speak, “Jiraiya-sama, I stand before you with nothing but my own skills and prowess today. I submit myself humbly before you for judgment. If you deem me worthy and teachable, I petition you to take me on as your apprentice.”
Sakura breaks his surprised gaze as she prostrates herself before him. She has just recited the formal plea for mentorship as detailed in the Second Shinobi World War. There was little manpower available for teaching; children sent out for the slaughter as Konoha, Ame, Suna, and Iwa engaged in acts of mutually assured destruction. Those children who survived their first brush with war sought out teachers anywhere they could and a formal rite emerged. The use of these words demanded a response; it could not be deflected or avoided. Jiraiya, as a shinobi who made his name during this War, had to respond.
“Stand and meet my gaze,” Jiraiya says, all the joviality of his voice gone.
Sakura straightens and suppresses the urge to wince. Jiraiya scowls down at her, visage absolutely foreboding. She isn’t sure what exactly she said that set him off, but it is apparent that he is quite angry.
“Why do you request such a thing?” Jiraiya demands. “Do you even know what you’re asking?”
“I do,” Sakura replies, passing on his first question for now. She doesn’t want to get Celandine in trouble; she doubts that he acts within the proper channels of Konoha. “I’ll be officially and publicly linked to you and all that entails. If this information leaks to other nations, my name may be added to yours in their bingo books. I can be used as leverage.”
Jiraiya’s jaw ticks and he closes the book he was reading rather loudly, his dark eyes flashing with a storm. “You’re better informed on the consequences than most genin; why the hell are you trying to pursue this? You know the costs to yourself!”
Sakura doesn’t flinch at his language; she’s heard worse in the company of Ibiki and Anko even though they try to censor themselves around her. “There are benefits to apprenticeship as well,” she says softly. “By that same merit, I’ll be afforded protection by association with your name.” Jiraiya’s eyes narrow at that and Sakura sees suspicion replace the anger in his gaze. “I’ll have access to opportunities I could not otherwise receive; make connections with people far out of my reach.” Sakura scuffs a foot along the floor. “I plan to make Haruno a shinobi name, much like Hokage-sama did with Sarutobi. As things currently stand, I will not get far.”
Jiraiya leans back, crossing his arms across his chest. “And what do I get out of such an arrangement?”
Sakura’s thought on this quite a bit. She knows that she doesn’t have much to offer Jiraiya; she’s a civilian-born Academy student. She has no delusions of grandeur. Without a doubt, she’s receiving the better end of the deal. But from speaking with her parents and Shibi-oji, she knows that there are some things that she can offer.
“Connections,” Sakura replies. She taps her shoulder, where the crest of the Haruno clan is emblazoned. “The Haruno clan is a flourishing merchant clan; we have footholds in all the major shinobi villages and most of the elemental nations as a whole. Haruno Mebuki and Kizashi, my parents, are constantly expanding our clan’s influence; in the time since oka-sama took up the role of trade broker, the Haruno clan has successfully entered seven new territories, three of which were openly hostile beforehand.”
Jiraiya hums. “And what connections would a merchant clan bring me?”
Sakura resists the urge to fidget. It isn’t exactly open knowledge in Konoha, but because of her association with the Intelligence Division, Sakura knows that Jiraiya serves as Konoha’s Spymaster. Technically though, she isn’t supposed to know that. Sakura compromises by speaking a different truth, “My family can secure regulated goods; items that would not be shared willingly with foreign shinobi. Nations underestimate civilians; it isn’t difficult to ferret out secrets.
“More than just that, I will ensure your knowledge isn’t lost. If you take me on as your apprentice, I will take on your teachings, your legacy, and carry it forward even after you’re gone. All those things you’ve learned will be passed on to the next generation.”
Jiraiya still looks unconvinced. Sakura braces herself, deciding to play her last card. It isn’t much, but she thinks Jiraiya is the sort to respond to raw truths over prettied lies. “I don’t have much to offer you right now. I’m a no-name, no-rank nobody in the eyes of Konoha as a whole and it’ll stay that way for more than a handful of years. But I don’t want it to stay that way. I want to create a legacy, to learn more about ciphers and use that knowledge for Konoha’s sake.” Sakura takes a deep breath, throat dry. This is a much more one-sided conversation than she expected. “I’m still reconciling myself with the likelihood that I’ll one day die for Konoha. I’m not there yet, but I will be by the time I graduate. If I’m to die though, I don’t want that death to be meaningless; losing my life as cannon fodder.” Sakura holds Jiraiya’s eyes even as her own burn. She is not yet desensitized to speaking of her mortality. “I’d rather my death have meaning.”
Jiraiya sits silently for a long moment, assessing her with inscrutable eyes. Finally, he rubs at the bridge of his nose, breaking eye contact. “I’d rather your life have meaning. I’ll take you on.” There’s a bitter twist to his lips. “I’ve never done this officially, but I think I remember how the responding rite goes. I have judged your skills and prowess and find them worthy and you teachable. You shall be my apprentice; you shall share my triumphs, my teachings, and my sorrows. Do you accept?”
There’s a roar in Sakura’s ears, a bell tolling her relief and the change she’s wrought with this single conversation. She is peripherally aware of the fact that Jiraiya is now standing, towering above her with an arm outstretched. She takes his offered hand. “I do.”
“Then I, Jiraiya, the Sannin, the Toad Sage, take you, Sakura, the nameless, the rankless as my apprentice.” Jiraiya sighs, dropping her hand. “Let’s head over to the Kage Tower; we’ll need to repeat the rites before witnesses and submit the official paperwork.”
“Thank you, Jiraiya,” Sakura says, still dumbstruck. In her heart of hearts, she never expected such an outcome. After all, who is she in comparison to the likes of Jiraiya or even his almost apprentice Namikaze Minato?
“Don’t mention it, kid,” Jiraiya says, expression still edged with sadness. “ Seriously , don’t mention it.”
Jiraiya looks certain that he’s signed her bounty notice, but Sakura knows the truth. This deal, while dangerous, is the only thing that will keep her safe from Celandine’s unknown, shadowy master.
At least, she hopes so.
“We’re so proud of you, Sakura.”
Sakura beams beneath the weight of her parents’ gazes, resisting the urge to preen. They are seated in one of the finer dining establishments of Konoha, celebrating the mid-year student evaluations. Sakura placed first in all academic-based category and about mid-range for the physical-based. She’s even managed to beat out some of the clan children in physical performance, which she’s never done before. She’s surprised to see how much she’s improved, undoubtedly a result of Ino, Shino, and Torune’s attention to her training and form. Even Shibi-oji offers her brief lessons and, paired with the scarily self-directed study from Ibiki and Anko, it’s paid off.
“You’ve done so well,” Mebuki says. She’s dressed elegantly, hair loose and unfettered, spilling over her rich maroon kimono. “I am only sad that we won’t be present for the demonstrations next week. Yamanaka-san mentioned that he will ‘crystallize’ the memory and share it with us. Still, it is unacceptable to be kept away.”
Kizashi’s eyes twinkle as he leans forward. “What your mother isn’t telling you is that she tried to reschedule the trip; she made four members of the Suna branch cry before the branch head put her foot down.”
Sakura laughs, uncertain if her father is joking or not.
“I will be having words with Sabina when we arrive,” Mebuki grumbles, shaking her head.
Sakura stops laughing; apparently, it wasn’t a joke. Sabina is Sakura’s second cousin and, from her fuzzy memories, a stubborn, gruff woman unafraid to state her views. Sakura has no doubts that they’ll have it out. When she glances anxiously at Kizashi, he offers a wink to reassure her.
“It’s their way of saying they love each other,” Kizashi says with a wry shake of his head.
“We’ll see who’s laughing when we raise the taxes on luxury goods from Fire,” Mebuki says, poised even as she plots.
“And on that note…” Kizashi says, raising his eyebrows as the server brings up their dishes. Mebuki immediately stops, reclaiming fully her role as the impeccable Haruno clan head. The server, an Akimichi considering his facial markings, places the dishes smoothly and quietly, starting with Mebuki.
Sakura smiles as a dish of rice and umeboshi is placed in front of her. It’s a larger portion than usual; a treat for her success at the Academy.
Mebuki waits until the server finishes, offering a word of thanks before directing a soft smile at her daughter. “Sakura, you’ve done well. This is not the career we ever imagined you would pursue,” She exchanges an amused, knowing glance with Kizashi, “but we decided before having children that we would allow them certain freedoms. After all, we spent years fighting for our own; how could we not offer the same to our children?
“We may not have planned for it, but it is apparent that you are passionate in your pursuit. We’re so glad to see you succeed and, even more than that, to see you happy.” Mebuki lifts her cup toward Sakura. “Congratulations Sakura.”
“Thank you,” Sakura says, face hurting from the force of her smile. “Truly, it would not be possible without the sacrifices you’ve both made for me. I know the path I’ve chosen is an unconventional and difficult one; you’ve already fought for me countless times. I can only hope that I can live up to your expectations.”
They smile at her and Kizashi raises his glass, face uncharacteristically solemn. “I’m not much for speeches, but know this: we love you, Sakura. Now, let’s dig in.”
Sakura stifles a snort at her father’s pithy speech and follows his advice. They settle into a comfortable quiet, conversation easy and mellow among the three of them. Sakura savors this time, one of their rare family dinners. It’s different from the dinners she has in the Aburame household, it’s more polite and refined, but it isn’t better or worse.
It’s just different.
She’ll have time to ponder over the different types of family dinners over the next few weeks as she’ll be staying with both the Yamanaka and Aburame, switching off between them. Sakura worried that she’s inconveniencing them, but from the way that both Torune and Ino complain about the fact that she isn’t staying with him/her for the whole time...well, her worries are quickly assuaged.
Sakura smiles as she reminisces over the way Shino groaned about Torune and Ino’s dramatics, before she is abruptly drawn out of her memory by a loud voice.
Sakura glances around, frowning as the voice grows increasingly angry. Her eyes catch on a large man, his body corded in large muscles. He doesn’t have the build of a shinobi though, perhaps that of a craftsman, maybe a blacksmith or welder. His face is ruddy with blood, eyes dazed from alcohol, but tongue still far too sharp.
Sakura’s surprised at the vitriol spilling from his mouth and she shifts in her seat to see the object of his ire.
Naruto is tucked away at one of the corner tables of the restaurant with Chōji. Naruto looks shamefaced but resigned and Chōji appears white-faced and terrified. He’s dressed smartly in shinobi-wear and Sakura even notices that Naruto bears the Akimichi crest on the shoulder of his shirt. She isn’t sure if he’s borrowing the shirt or if he’s officially a ward of the Akimichi, but that isn’t the most pressing matter.
No, the grown man now screaming insults at a child is the issue.
Sakura glances at her parents. Mebuki watches the unfolding situation, lips curled in disgust, but Kizashi meets Sakura’s gaze, expression unreadable. He reads the question in her eyes and nods slightly.
Sakura’s hands go clammy as she stands from her seat. She hates drawing attention to herself, but no one is interfering with this man, averting their gazes from the incident instead.
Sakura is not willing to be a bystander, especially as she remembers how quickly Naruto leapt to defend her following the Nara fiasco.
She glides across the restaurant, not marching or storming, presenting herself with a grace she doesn’t feel. Sakura knows that confrontations, especially public ones, are all about presentation. This man has already offered her a great advantage by being drunk and disorderly. Sakura notices that her parents flank her, several paces back.
They support her actions, but they’ll allow her to initiate.
“Sir,” Sakura says as she gets close enough. He doesn’t seem to hear. Sakura raises her voice. “Sir!” He rounds on her, eyes bulging. “You are causing a scene. What cause have you to quarrel with this child?”
The man narrows his eyes at her. “This is none of your business, girl. Scram!”
Sakura feels no fear despite the way this man looms. She can see at least five openings where she could incapacitate him. She meets his unfocused gaze calmly. “You’ve made it my business by screaming your hatred within this public establishment.” Sakura sweeps a wide hand, looking around the restaurant to invite the other patrons to see her side of things. She sees some scattered nods. “These boys were enjoying a quiet dinner before you interrupted.”
The man sneers. “Do you know what that thing is? It’s a monster .”
“It would be wise for you to hold your tongue,” Kizashi says coldly, stepping up beside Sakura. He clicks his tongue. “Considering your previous actions, wisdom does not seem your strong suit.”
The man rears back, affronted, before starting forward.
“Stop,” Mebuki says, her voice the softest of all, yet full of poison. The entire restaurant falls silent. “Satetsu Akome, you bring shame upon the iron-workers of Konoha. How would Guildmistress Tamahagane respond if she heard the fool you made of yourself in public, in an Akimichi establishment no less?”
Despite the drunken flush, Akome pales. “You wouldn’t dare--”
Mebuki’s eyes flash even as Kizashi shakes his head, mouthing the word, “Idiot.”
“You dare presume to command Haruno Mebuki, the head of the Haruno clan?” Mebuki asks. All of the color drains from Akome’s face. “I will be speaking with Guildmistress Tamahagane of the slights you paid to a child, to the Akimichi, and to the Haruno. You will see consequences for your recklessness.”
“That seems a more than fair recompense,” a new voice rumbles.
Sakura starts, turning to see the broad, imposing figure of Chōza. She’s only seen him jovial, so the fierce scowl on his face is a stark contrast. He nods to a few of the servers, who step forward and grab Akome.
“Take him to the Uchiha and report him for drunk and disorderly as well as threatening the Hokage’s peace,” Chōza says. He pays the man no more attention after that, turning instead to Naruto and Chōji. His countenance softens entirely. “Are you well?”
Naruto nods absently, eyes wide as he stares fixedly at the Haruno clan. Chōji looks shaken, but he nods hesitantly as well.
Chōza turns his gaze to Sakura and she’s surprised by the gleam in his eyes as he assesses her family. “I thank you for the action you took. A server told me what was going on and I was coming out to intervene only to find that it was not required.” His expression is shrewd. “Thank you for caring for my ward.”
“Satetsu Akome does not deserve his mastery, if this is the way he behaves toward innocents and superiors,” Mebuki says, lips twisting. “After I speak with Tamahagane, I doubt he’ll keep it.” She turns her gaze to Naruto, expression carefully neutral. Sakura is surprised that her mother is concealing her feelings and cannot help but wonder what she feels the need to conceal. “I am sorry that you were subjected to such bile.”
Naruto nods, staying silent.
Chōza claps. “In any case, allow us to repay your hospitality with our own. Come, finish your dinner; everything you eat tonight is free, including the dessert.”
“You hear that Sakura,” Kizashi says, a teasing edge to his smile. “All you can eat dango.”
They all laugh, tension breaking, just as Kizashi intended.
“Whatever you like,” Chōza says. “Even if it isn’t on the menu.” He winks at Sakura.
This seems to break the trance holding Naruto still as he springs forward, clinging to Sakura’s hand as he begins to speak a mile a minute, eyes sparkling as he recounts her actions of mere minutes ago. Already, he exaggerates it, painting her as more of a hero than she actually is. Still, it makes everyone smile and they end up sitting together, sharing in all sorts of delicious food.
And yes, Sakura eats far too much dango.
Sakura tries not to dwell on the interest in Chōza’s eyes every time she caught him looking at her. She has no doubt he’ll recount the incident to Shikaku. And unlike Naruto’s story of heroism, Sakura does not know how she’ll be portrayed.
Sakura nestles back into the mountain of cushions that surround her, trying to find a comfortable position. She knows herself well enough to know that she won’t be moving for at least a few hours; this always happens when she gets engrossed in a good book.
And though she’s never read it, The Diaspora of Uzushio promises to be a good read.
After all, every book that’s shown up in her box at the Academy proves excellent. She’s yet to discover the culprit, despite the rudimentary traps (Mizuki-sensei prevented her from using stronger ones, though he also graciously chose not to ask questions) she placed. The traps were disturbed though, taken apart and reassembled with something of a clumsy hand.
Sakura wonders if her patron is teasing her.
Still, she chooses not to get Ino, Shino, or Torune involved in trying to catch the person; after all, the donor is giving her support. Although her curiosity burns, hot and visceral, Sakura doesn’t want to chase them away.
So she keeps at this little game of tigers and lambs, appreciative of the clear thoughtfulness of whoever her anonymous patron is.
For the time being, Sakura shoves her curiosity aside and settles her attention on the book. It’s a newer book than most that Sakura’s been given, the binding on it crisp and tight. It appears to be nearly unused and Sakura traces a finger over the gold leaf that forms a spiral on the spine. It looks strangely familiar…
Sakura shakes off the odd sensation of deja vu when nothing comes to mind, instead gingerly opening the book.
The strong scent of sandalwood wafts from the book and Sakura pauses, brows puckering. She’s never come across a book, especially a new one like this, with such a strong scent.
“What are you doing, Sakura?”
Sakura closes the book, looking up at Torune with a smile. “Reading,” she says. “Well,” she amends ruefully. “Preparing to read.”
Torune frowns, throwing his arms wide. “But this is your first night here! I thought it would be special.”
Sakura raises her eyebrows at him, amused. He’s really cute when he pouts. “What did you have on your schedule for this evening?”
“How does one make a night ‘special?’” Shino asks, stepping into the room. “Does it require specific activities? Is there a spectrum of specialness?”
“I’m being serious,” Torune says, sprawling out on the cushions beside Sakura. “Your teasing wounds me.” His smile belies that statement as he ruffles Sakura’s hair. “It’s our first sleepover; I wanted to do something fun.”
Sakura reaches up, catching his hand both to stop him from messing up her hair and to offer her support. Torune melts into the cushions, his weight drawing him closer to Sakura.
Torune lets out a yelp as Shino drops across him, the breath knocked from his chest. The moment he’s able to breathe again, he elbows Shino, rolling out from under him all while keeping a hold of Sakura’s hand. Torune grabs a cushion in his free hand, launching it into Shino’s face.
All three fall silent and still for a moment, just watching each other. Then Sakura devolves into helpless giggles, clutching the book close to her chest. Torune and Shino watch her for a long moment before exchanging a wordless look. Torune tugs Sakura toward and behind him even as he lifts a cushion to shield himself. Shino arms himself with cushions, demanding to know if this was “special enough” for Torune.
Sakura wriggles free from the fray for a few moments to tuck The Diaspora of Uzushio away in a safe place. In those scant seconds, the Aburame boys desecrate her reading mountain, utilizing the cushions as ammunition. Sakura cannot find it in herself to feel irritated, especially considering the wide grins both of them sport.
She picks up a few stray cushions, considering their heft and making quick mental calculations about their flight trajectory (a feat made much easier given Ino’s thorough weaponry instruction). Sakura eyes the boys for a long moment, smirking as she realizes just how defenseless they’ve left themselves to her in their focus on decimating each other.
Sakura throws the cushions overhand, watching eagerly as they sail into Torune and Shino at nearly the same time. Both of them jump, startled, before rounding on Sakura with mouths agape.
Sakura laughs, almost doubling over with the force of it. Their expressions are just too funny.
She still has enough presence of mind to drop to the floor when they retaliate, the cushions flying harmlessly above Sakura’s prone body.
The room falls silent for a moment as Sakura raises her head to meet their gazes.
She’s never found them quite so foreboding before.
“Mercy?” Sakura asks, cocking her head to the side with a pleading look in her eyes.
“Oh Sakura,” Shino tuts, shaking his head as he lifts a cushion.
“You know that the Aburame hold grudges,” Torune finishes with a matching, menacing grin.
Sakura squirms, planting her hands on the floor to leverage herself into a roll away from them. She’s hit with their cushions, but it puts her into a more defensible position. She sniffs at them, eyes sparkling in the face of a new challenge. “I’ll have you know that the Haruno are much the same.” She takes a cushion, aiming it at Torune. “We just don’t play fair.” She throws it at him, putting a bit of chakra behind the strength of her throw.
“Can you believe oji-san kicked us out?” Shino asks. “This late at night?”
Torune snorts. “Oji-san kicks me out all the time in the evening when I get too ‘restless.’ He likes his sleep.”
“But we’re children!” Shino says, aghast.
“Who attend the Academy,” Sakura chimes in.
“And we’re staying on Aburame land,” Torune says. From his tone, Sakura is positive that he’s rolling his eyes. “We’re staying in the backyard. Seriously Shino, I think you’re the only person who would complain about their parents making them leave the house.”
“Not true. Why? Consider the case of Nara Shikamaru,” Shino argues, crossing his arms.
Sakura ignores their back-and-forth bickering, training her eyes on the sky above. Her home is in the middle of the merchant district and artificial lights line the street. It makes her feel safe whenever she walks the streets at night. However, it does obscure her view of the night sky. She’d no idea that there were quite so many in the sky; that she could see them this clearly.
Sakura hardly notices when Torune grabs her hand, offering her subtle guidance without drawing her attention away from the stars. Honestly, it isn’t until he’s gently guiding her into a sitting position that Sakura realizes that they’ve walked a good distance from their house, flouting Shibi-oji’s words. They’re on the rise of a hill, the gentle slope giving them a better view to the property and sky above.
“This isn’t the backyard,” she says, voice a bit dry.
“Sure it is,” Torune says easily, seating himself right beside her. “It’s still on the Aburame property. Since oji-san is the clan head, the whole property falls under his purview, making this our backyard.”
Sakura exchanges a look with Shino, catching the way his eyebrows rise above his sunglasses. She snorts, descending into laughter as Shino shakes his head.
“This is why otou-san won’t let you go to the Academy; you’ll drive the teachers to insanity in the first week,” Shino says.
“Oh whatever,” Torune says. “I’ll be going to the Academy at the start of the next term. The teachers will love me.”
“Not as much as they love Sakura,” Shino says dryly.
“Well Sakura is a teacher’s dream,” Torune says.
“Stop,” Sakura says, nudging him with her elbow. She can feel a flush fill her cheeks. “Don’t be mean.”
“Just stating the truth,” Torune says, but he subsides, turning his gaze upward.
Sakura lays out on her back, the grass tickling the back of her neck. It makes it much easier to stare at the stars without straining her neck. There’s a soft thump as Torune situates himself beside her. A rasp of fabric and the feel of warmth at the top of her head draw her notice and she shifts, noticing Shino sprawled directly across from her. He smiles at her, taking her free hand.
They lay in silence for a while, hands entangled, just watching the clear sky.
“Huh,” Torune says, breaking the quiet.
“What?” Shino grouses, voice rough with sleep. Sakura wouldn’t be surprised if he was sleeping.
“I’ve never realized how beautiful the stars are,” Torune says.
Shino doesn’t respond for a while. “Yeah,” he says. “They remind me of Sakura.”
That catches Sakura’s attention. “How so?”
“They, uh, remind me of your freckles,” Shino says, sounding embarrassed. “It’s like stars on your skin.”
Sakura flushes, chagrined but pleased by the compliment. She doesn’t love her freckles, they set her apart from most of her classmates. It’s something common in people in Iron, but in Konoha? Not so much. Her freckles aren’t often a source of cruel remarks, there are easier things to pick apart instead, but she’s never been proud of them.
“Thanks Shino.” Sakura squeezes Shino’s hand, turning her attention back to the stars.
She thinks that, perhaps, she can come to love her freckles.
If only for her love of stars.
“What do you know about cryptanalysis?” Jiraiya asks as he fiddles with a handheld box puzzle.
Sakura’s noticed that Jiraiya finds it difficult to sit still; he always occupies his hands with something. It makes Sakura wonder how he came to the position of Spymaster; a decent portion of his job consists of deskwork. Then again, this may explain his decision to “wander” outside of Konoha, diving into the applied side of a Spymaster’s job. Thanks to this inability to stay put, Jiraiya has an extensive web of informants across different nations, all of whom send him tidbits and updates that may or may not be an asset to Konoha. And it’s his duty to figure out the importance of each of the messages.
Up until this point, Jiraiya avoided the deskwork, spending his time elsewhere. Now though, Konoha has called its erstwhile son home and he’s making up for lost time; plowing through decades of backlogged documents and information.
Sakura thinks he hates it, but he does it well.
“Cryptanalysis refers to the actual analysis of ciphers; the process of trying to uncover the hidden systems,” Sakura says.
She knows the definition sounds stiff and formal, but she figures it’s best to start there. She still isn’t sure where she stands with Jiraiya; he’s officially declared her his apprentice with all the benefits and costs that entails. He’s put himself out there for her and she knows she hasn’t yet proved herself to him.
And she’s desperate to show him that his decision isn’t a poor one; that she’s a good decision.
Jiraiya glances up at her, hands still shifting over the cube. “Yes,” he says. “What experience do you have in actually doing cryptanalysis?”
“Not much,” Sakura says honestly. “I’ve had experience with recognizing and cracking substitution and transposition ciphers. I’ve developed a few myself, utilizing scytales with my friends. But most of my training has been geared around language analysis. And some has delved into historical and cultural influences.”
“That’s good,” Jiraiya says. Sakura fights not to preen at the positive response. “You need a strong foundation to really delve into cryptanalysis. I know you had a semi-formal arrangement with Shikaku; regardless of how it ended, he set you on the right track.”
Sakura nods, ducking her head. Even though it ended painfully, she does appreciate the way Shikaku introduced her into this new world of cryptography and ciphers. Maybe one day, when it isn’t so raw and visceral, she will tell him, thank him for what he did.
“However, I do disagree with some of Shikaku’s teaching philosophy. He’s a rather cautious individual; he wanted to give you the breadth of literature so that you could assess every influence on a cipher. That’s not exactly wrong; however, I do not think you can truly grasp cryptography until you get into the more applied side. So, I think the best place for this apprenticeship to start is with cryptanalysis. Still, keep up all your...extracurricular reading.” There’s a gleam of amusement in his eyes and Sakura wonders if he’s remembering their first encounter. “It’ll help embed each individual cipher within its context.”
“Makes sense to me,” Sakura says as a thrum of excitement runs through her.
“So to start, as you said, cryptanalysis is the process of figuring out a cipher. There are two main approaches. The first, which you’ve had the most experience with, is solving the key to the cipher. For substitution ciphers, that means figuring out the process involved in the substitution.”
Sakura nods. “And the second?”
Jiraiya smirks, hands stilling over the puzzle box. “You break the system.”
Sakura stares at him, wide-eyed, as goosebumps rise on her neck. One question fills her mind. “ How ?’
“Well,” Jiraiya says, leaning back in his chair. “To break the system, you have to know the system. How are ciphers developed?”
Sakura’s brows furrow as she contemplates his question. She considers what she knows about cryptography, all of the language and cultural influences that inform the development. It all boils down to one thing really.
“They’re developed by people,” Sakura says. “The developer is the system.”
Jiraiya’s triumphant grin verges on manic. “ Exactly . To break the system, you have to break the developer.”
Sakura’s mind flashes to T&I, to Ibiki and Anko’s job. She blanches, knowing that she is nowhere near ready to try something similar. “Are you speaking metaphorically or literally?”
“Metaphorically,” Jiraiya says with a snort. “I suppose I should’ve considered how closely you’ve worked with Torture & Interrogation. Those particular skills aren’t required for this sort of breaking...consider it in a similar vein to cracking a specific code. When you are breaking the system, you try to suss out the creator of the system.
“From there, it’s all too easy to break the system,” Jiraiya says. “You consider their background, their values, their heritage...why are these important?”
“Because understanding where the creator came from will allow us to figure out the influences that played into the cipher,” Sakura says. “A cipher contains the developer’s unique signature, even if they try to hide it.”
“All people have their own biases,” Jiraiya adds. “The thing is, it’s often hard to recognize those biases in ourselves. Now, say you stumbled across a cipher of mine and connected it to me, what would your next steps be?”
“Well, I know you’re from Konoha, however, you’ve also traveled around most of the elemental nations and even beyond. So while you might be more influenced by Konoha culture, you’ve been exposed to many others,” Sakura says, looking to Jiraiya for support. He nods, only smiling a bit to indicate she’s moving in the right direction. “So it would be easier for you to mask those cultural influences or at least mix them together.
“The other major thing that I know about you that could be useful is that you write novels,” Sakura continues. “I would want to compare the cipher with your writing and see if you utilize some sort of book cipher.”
“Very good start,” Jiraiya praises. “Indeed, I do have a proclivity toward utilizing book ciphers. Really, just more literature-based ciphers in general, because it’s an area I have quite a bit of knowledge in. By knowing the developer, you can know your cipher.”
“But how do you figure out the developer?” Sakura asks, thoughts swirling around the cipher she’s yet to crack. “If you have the cipher but no idea you created it?”
Jiraiya’s smile takes on an added edge. “Well, that’s where the fun begins. This is where you begin sleuthing; where did you find the cipher? What condition was it in? Are there any identifiers on the cipher itself?” He stands, still messing with the cube. “It helps to have an intensive spy network that can suss out some of the information. C’mon, we’re going to get you some practical experience.”
“Practical?” Sakura repeats.
“I planted a cipher in the library. You must find it and determine who read it,” Jiraiya says.
Sakura blinks, staring up at him with a mix of fear and excitement. The excitement is winning out. “What are the parameters of this assignment?”
“Parameters?” It’s Jiraiya’s turn to blink before he bursts into laughter. “Alright. Sure. Let’s make this official. I’ll give you a week. Track down the cipher, figure out the developer, and crack the code. Easy right? We’ll meet back here a week from today.” He ruffles her hair. “See you then, kid.”
Jiraiya leaves the room, leaving Sakura slightly out of sorts. Sakura looks around, catching sight of the completed puzzle box placed on his desk. She picks it up and considers it before pocketing it.
Jiraiya definitely has a different mentorship style than Sakura is used to. Still, she doesn’t dislike it.
In fact, as she leaves his small office, the buzz of exhilaration in the pit of her stomach, Sakura thinks she likes it. At the very least, she enjoys the challenge.
She only hopes she can meet his expectations.
They’re outside for lunch when it happens.
Sakura sits beneath her favorite tree, eating lunch with Shino, Torune, and Ino, as they discuss life and the katas that they’re currently learning. They bandy about their codenames, enjoying the inside secrets they share. It’s silly and lighthearted, but Sakura loves it.
It is as Sakura is halfway through eating her bento box, lovingly prepared by Shibi-oji that a yell rings out.
Their conversation immediately peters away as they hop to their feet, looking around for the source. Down the hill from where they are, they see several upperclassmen surrounding Chōji. Sakura frowns, taking in the aggressive postures of the older students and the way Chōji hunches a bit.
“Has Chōji had a problem with bullying?” Sakura asks, already starting down the hill.
“When he was younger,” Ino replies, face a storm. “I didn’t realize it was still an issue.”
Her tone implies it won’t be for long.
Sakura sees Shikamaru leap down from the tree he was perched in, approaching the group around Chōji with a fierce scowl twisting his face. It’s a look similar to the one he directed at her during their game and before her fall and Sakura’s footsteps falter for a moment before she presses forward. The look is different from any he’s directed her way; it’s far more intense and fueled with vitriol.
However, neither Sakura’s group nor Shikamaru are the first to make it to Chōji’s side.
“Leave him alone!” Naruto bellows, placing himself in front of Chōji and spreading his arms.
One of the students, seemingly the leader of the group of bullies, takes a step back, revulsion and fear crossing her face. She firms her stance though, wanting to save face before her posse, as she crosses her arms. “And what are you going to do about it? You’re nobody!”
Naruto draws himself up, staring at her in challenge. Sakura is a bit surprised that he doesn’t immediately leap to fighting her; it’s Naruto’s general MO. Instead, he cocks his head to the side and scoffs.
“I might be nobody, but the same goes for you. What type of fool decides to bully the heir to one of the Four Noble Clans of Konoha?” Naruto asks, blue eyes blazing. Sakura slows, staying nearby but waiting for Naruto to finish. “Your years at the Academy are meant to forge connections with those who will one day be your comrades. Yet you treat the heir to the Akimichi like this? Even if you graduate, you won’t make it very far.”
The girl pales as Naruto connects the dots for her. “I…”
“He’s right,” Shikamaru drawls. “The Akimichi have established connections with many other clans. Would any of those clans choose to stand with you rather than the Akimichi?” His dark eyes glitter. “The Nara certainly won’t.”
“Neither will the Yamanaka,” Ino says, coming up beside Chōji and placing a hand on his shoulder. She eyes each of the bullies in turn. “You know, the Yamanaka have pretty good memory skills; I wonder if I’ll remember you when I inherit?”
Some of the students draw away from the ringleader.
Shino and Torune do not add anything to the conversation, allowing their mere presence at Chōji’s side to fill in the gaps.
“I may not be from a clan that matters, but the Uzumaki will remember as well,” Naruto says. “I suggest leaving before you further sabotage your future careers.”
“If you even make it that far,” Shikamaru adds.
The bullies leave and Naruto immediately turns to Chōji.
“Are you alright?” Naruto asks, touching Chōji’s shoulder.
He nods, not trusting himself to speak aloud. He’s surprised that so many people stuck up for him. He expected Shikamaru, but for Naruto, Ino, Sakura, Shino, and Torune to do the same…
Well, it makes him realize he has more friends than he knew.
And the first to stand up for him was Naruto, the boy that his father has all but adopted. The boy who offers his friendship to Chōji unconditionally. The boy who does not mind Chōji’s shyness or other proclivities.
The boy that Chōji would be glad to call a brother.
Chōji leans forward, wrapping his arms around Naruto in a tight hug. “Thank you,” he says, trying to put all of his emotions into it.
From the way Naruto embraces him in turn, soft, tentative but warm, Chōji thinks he understands.