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Posted originally on the Archive of Our Own at

http://download.archiveofourown.org/works/5397653.

Rating: Teen And Up Audiences


Archive Warning: Rape/Non-Con
Category: Gen, Multi
Fandom: Naruto
Character: Haruno Sakura, Sasori (Naruto), Uzumaki Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke,
Uchiha Itachi, Hatake Kakashi, Morino Ibiki, Shiranui Genma,
Hoshigaki Kisame, Gaara (Naruto)
Additional Tags: Time Travel
Stats: Published: 2015-12-10 Updated: 2017-06-09 Chapters: 71/72 Words:
278060

Stumble
by writer168

Summary

Sakura wanted to die.

Sasori was fine with staying dead.

But it seemed fate had other plans for them, because when they both wake up younger
with blood pulsing through their veins, they had to remember how to live again.

Time Travel AU
Out of the Void

Sakura opened her eyes to a sky of silver and blue.

"Oh? To think you'd last a little longer," a lofty voice mused. Sakura sat up with a wince, rubbing
the back of her head and glancing at her surroundings. At last, her eyes landed to the owner of the
greeting. Her eyebrows furrowed immediately as she slowly pieced together what exactly
happened to her.

"SAKURA-CHAN!!!"

"Sa... Sakura? No-- I didn't-- NO! Sakura! Wake up-- I'm sorry! I didn't mean-- I..."

She expected to have a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach when realization finally hit. Instead,
it felt as if the weight of her burdens had been carried off her shoulders, leaving her feeling like
she completed a mission and there was nothing more for her to do. A sigh escaped her lips before
a small grin made its way onto her face.

"Hearing that from you is such an honor." she drawled, "Where exactly are we, Sasori-san?"

He chuckled from his spot beside her and motioned to the hues of color that flowed freely around
them.

"This is the Void. People come here when they aren't allowed to pass on." he said. Sakura gave
him an odd look.

"So, Purgatory?"

"Not quite. Purgatory is where people go to atone for their sins before going to Heaven. The Void
is neither one of the two. I'd say it's the same level as Purgatory, but we don't go anywhere. This is
our final destination, but don't take my word for it, it's more of a theory than fact," he continued.
She drew her legs to her chest and set her chin on her knees.

"I'll believe it. You must've had a lot of time to think, after all."

It was silent for a little while.

"... How old are you?" Sasori asked.

"Twenty-three."

He turned his head away from her and winced. He really was expecting her to live for much
longer than a mere eight years after his demise. She had a lot of promise when they first met.
Haruno Sakura was an exceptionally strong kunoichi with so much potential that in his dying
seconds he knew that one day, she'd turn out like Tsunade.

Apparently not.

"It was the Fourth Shinobi World War. Seven years, it raged on. People were dying, villages were
being destroyed, and no one had any hope," she began. Her eyes became incredibly distant.
"Many of my friends had already died. Neji, Ino, Chouji, Lee... I was the leading medic on the
battlefield. So many bodies and injured piled into the tents that we kept expanding the camp every
week. That is, until, the camp was bombed. I was the only survivor."
Being in the Void for years gave Sasori too much time to think. In doing so, it gave him the
opportunity to think about every single decision he ever made and every single thing he ever did.
When three Earth years passed, he became aware of all his mistakes in his time: not forgiving his
grandmother, killing Komushi, turning himself into a puppet, creating other human puppets...
There were many more, but those four, at the very least, were the absolute worst things he did to
himself.

Sakura continued with her story.

"And that happened only the second year of the war. I did the very best that I could, but in the
fifth year, I gave up all hope of the war ever ending, but I still did my job. The smell of corpses
became a 24/7 deal and people dying... I just couldn't find the heart for them anymore. In the
seventh year, things were looking unbelievably bright. I sought out Naruto for the first time in two
years and found him fighting Sasuke to the death. Naruto was the future of Konoha-- I wasn't
about to let him die. So I jumped in between them."

She tapped her chest then her stomach.

"A rasengan to the stomach and a chidori to the heart."

Sasori could already see the horror on their faces after they realized they hurt-- no, murdered--
their teammate in one of the most terrible ways possible. He glanced at the person that would most
likely be his only companion in this endless oblivion. Maybe this all wasn't a bad thing. He had a
grudge against her previously, but he figured long ago that the grudge was hopeless. Shinobi were
tools to carry out missions, and he had to admit, his death wasn't completely her fault.

"Sasori-san?"

He looked at her.

"Being here for as long as you have, has wanting to change the past ever crossed your mind?" she
questioned. Sasori shrugged.

"I would if I could, but what shinobi deserves a second chance?"

"The ones who are able to make a change."

Their heads shot up at the unfamiliar voice, eyes scanning the endless space around them. Yet
there was no one. A puff of smoke appeared in front of them and revealed two identical dog tag
necklaces with the kanji for time and a turquoise scroll. Sasori and Sakura exchanged looks. The
voice returned.

"Take the necklaces, then put them on. Read the scroll that will return the life withdrawn. But
be warned, the road will have changed. Take back what had already been rearranged. Fix
what has been broken in the past. And create a future that is sure to last."

Sasori picked up the necklaces, giving one to Sakura, and unsealed the scroll. Inside were two
sentences. Suddenly, their voices rang in unison that neither had control over.

"Kill me once, but don't fail me twice. Take away my death and return my life."

And Void was empty once more.

::

Edited 4/1/17
5;20

Sasori cracked open his eyes and looked around. The room he was in was cluttered with wooden
body parts and blueprints. He turned his gaze down at his hands that he opened and closed a few
times. No puppet joints. He eased out of his bed and observed the room a little longer. A glass
container sat on his desk and a wooden husk of himself was strung up in the corner of the room.
Nostalgia overflowed in his veins as he reached up to the sanded cheek of the puppet. That life
had passed.

He picked up a discarded storage scroll on his desk and sealed his puppet form inside.

He wasn't about to dive into it a second time. He left the confines of his quarters and walked
throughout the base, identifying all the members. No Itachi. No Deidara. No Hidan. Sasori paused
mid-step when he realized the predicament he was in.

'I'm in the past like the poem said... Far in the past. But if the world is as follows, how has the
road changed?' he thought. Orochimaru spotted him from down the hallway and raised a hand in
greeting.

"What are you dawdling for? We have to get information on Kisame-kun's possible new partner,"
he said.

"Uchiha Itachi?" Sasori asked. It was true that they'd gather information on new members far in
advance, but wasn't it kind of early?

Orochimaru blinked and raised and eyebrow.

"Those toxic fumes haven't gotten to your head, have they? Leader-sama just briefed us ten
minutes ago. We're looking for Iwa no Deidara, an expert in explosives," he explained. Sasori's
brow furrowed in confusion. No, that wasn't right. Deidara was his partner after Orochimaru
defected. Hell, it was Itachi who fought and decided the brat's fate.

"What about Uchiha Itachi? Wasn't he discussed?"

"We discussed about him two weeks ago, don't you remember? But there's absolutely no way he
could go rogue. He's pacifistic and the Uchiha Clan is nothing but good to the village. Honestly,"
sighed Orochimaru, "where has your mind gone? Maybe you should go out for some fresh air
more often."

He turned and waved his hand forward.

"Now come on, we're about to leave."

That's when Sasori realized another thing. Orochimaru was different-- a little more talkative, laid
back, and a little less creepy if it were even possible.

"Get over here, dollboy!" Kisame called. "I thought you hate to keep people waiting!"

He snapped out of his thoughts and walked down the hallway, meeting with Kisame and
Orochimaru in the forest.

"How much longer until we bring Deidara into the organization?" he questioned. Orochimaru
gave him a slightly exasperated glance.
"Wow, you really didn't listen in the meeting, did you? We're waiting six years for him."

"Six...? Why so long?"

"Well," Kisame added. "it's because the kid's only eight years old."

Sasori's eyes widened. 'If Deidara is only eight... Hold on. How old does that make Sakura?!'

::

She looked at herself in the mirror at the ungodly hour of four in the morning. The skies outside
were still dark and the rest of the village had yet to stir. Sakura's hair was short and messy and
everything about her just seemed... small. Her room was pink and fluffy with stuffed animals on
her bed and strewn across the floor.

"I'm five years old," she whispered to herself. "It worked, but I'm far too young..."

Her initial instinct would've been to run around her room giddily, tears in her eyes as she thanked
the gods for the opportunity to fix the future and to be alive again. She should've been so
overfilled with joy and so happy with her current situation that it was all unreal. But she wasn't
She felt... neutral. Not happy, not sad. Just there.

Empty with remnants of fire in her soul.

"Fifty-two deaths this week," Shizune informed. "Forty-eight of them unidentified."

"Burn the forty-eight."

"What?! Sakur--"

"We don't have time to bury them, Shizune-senpai," Sakura added on monotonously. "People are
being rushed in every day. We have to focus on the ones that are still alive and that still have a
chance, not the ones that are already gone."

Shizune stared at her, frozen and wide-eyed. When she made no move to carry out the order,
Sakura sighed and rolled up her sleeves.

"Nevermind, then," she said as she walked towards the tent's exit. "I'll burn them myself."

There was no such thing as a good war, Sakura learned very, very soon in her deployment as head
medic. She was on the good side-- or what she believed to be the good side-- but every passing
minute hit her like a chakra-laced punch. Every passing minute, the war stripped her of her
naivety. Her hope. Her beliefs. Her joy.

War scarred her for seven whole years.

Not only the war, but also the...

Sakura quickly shook her head and withdrew into herself, running her fingers along her neck and
finding no horrid scar.

There was absolutely no way she could get back all that she'd lost no matter how long she'd be in
this kind world. With a sigh, she turned off her lights and crawled back into bed. But she was five
years old. She could take some time to herself and recover.

That early morning was the first time she'd been in a real bed for seven years.
She woke up a mere four hours later feeling groggy but fully rested, oddly enough. Her parents
would be preparing for work at this hour. Even though her parents were both genin, they had
easily taken up civilian jobs, her mother a civilian school teacher and her father a chef. So Sakura
sat up in her bed and thought for a bit.

The first thing she had to do, undoubtedly, was find Sasori. She needed to make sure he still
remembered everything that happened and talk to him about the things that they needed to change.
Secondly, she needed to scope out Konoha. Re-familiarize herself with her surroundings. Third,
she needed to know what was different. Whoever it was in the void said that "the road will have
changed". What could have possibly changed?

Sakura laid back down in bed and feigned sleep when she detected her parent's chakra making its
way to her room. The door creaked open and her parents padded in quietly.

"Sakura-chan, Mama and Papa are going to work," Mebuki cooed.

Sakura rolled over and rubbed at her eyes.

"Mmkay..."

"Akiyama-san from next door is going to check in on you from time to time, like always," Kizashi
added. "Be a good girl, okay?"

She nodded. They each placed a kiss on her forehead before leaving her room and shutting the
door silently behind them. When Sakura was sure the two had left the apartment, she slipped out
of her bed to get changed. Her closet options didn't amount to much, and she settled with a red
shirt and green shorts, something similar to what she'd wear in the Academy.

After creating a clone to appease Akiyama-san, she opened her window and hopped out.

::

Sasori stared at the world map with a sigh. He supposed that Iwa was a fair distance away from
Konoha. It was far, but certainly not the farthest. At most it would take a week to travel there?
That was alright. He could send a summons until he was able to go and visit Sakura himself. Light
chirping brought him out of his planning, making him stare up at the trees.

Ah, its been awhile since he'd seen a bird.

"Are... Are you okay?" Kisame asked him warily. Sasori had been spacing out for the past ten
minutes and it almost looked like he was admiring nature. The aforementioned looked at him.

"Of course. Why wouldn't I be?"

Kisame and Orochimaru shared a glance.

"It's nothing." Orochimaru answered, "As I was saying... We'll wait until nightfall until we
infiltrate the village. And that's, I'd say, about four hours from now."

The two of them waited for some irritated comment about how they shouldn't be wasting their
time, but Sasori was back to staring around and above him, occasionally touching the trees or the
grass. When he looked back up, a small smile was on his face.

"Nature's nice."

Kisame choked on his spit.


::

Uchiha Mikoto was walking down the street with books in her arms. The matriarch insisted that
she could be out and about the village on her own without her sons or someone to accompany her.
She was only going to the library to borrow some books for Itachi and Sasuke to enjoy. But
perhaps she shouldn't have denied that help. The books were stacked so high that she could barely
see over them, much less keep them balanced as she walked. She was doing a pretty good job for
herself until someone carelessly bumped into her.

The books went flying, but before Mikoto could snatch them all back, another did. Small hands
shot out with incredible speed to catch some of the books while a foot caught the remaining one.
Mikoto's eyes zeroed in on a young girl who miraculously managed to balance the books on her
hands, head, and foot.

"You dropped these, oba-san?"

"Oh, thank you, dear!"

Mikoto hurried to grab all the books before grinning at the little girl gratefully. She looked about
the same age as her Sasuke.

"That was quite an impressive catch. Are you in the Academy?"

Sakura shook her head.

"Not yet. I'm not old enough. Kaa-san says I'll be able to join next year, though," she replied.
Sakura glanced ahead of her before offering a polite smile. "I'm going to head off. Be more
careful, oba-san. Take care."

She waved at the older woman before continuing down the busy street. Mikoto curiously noted
that the girl didn't make a single sound as she walked.

::

Edited: 4/1/17
Just a Kid

It was actually two weeks later when Sasori managed to journey to Konoha. It was two am when
he arrived at her apartment where he found her knee deep in blank scrolls and ink. She greeted
him with a wave as he settled beside her on her bed.

"Hello again, Sasori-san," she said, not looking up from what she was doing. "What took you so
long to get here?"

"Orochimaru and Kisame were convinced that I was under some sort of genjutsu or that I was a
henge and kept watch over me for a whole week after I told them that I wasn't going to transfer
into my puppet body after all. They looked rather... horrified... when I told them that I wasn't
going to because there's more to life than trying to live forever."

He looked up to see Sakura pause her work and squint at him disbelievingly.

"I don't know you that well, but I also think there's something wrong with what you just said."

Sasori chuckled lightly, making Sakura jerk to the side in alarm. If she were a lesser person, she
would've assumed that he was under some sort of genjutsu or was a henge as well.

"I couldn't have said it better myself. I was only in the void for eight years, but time runs
differently there. It might as well have been eighty. With my thoughts and I alone for decades, I
came to know the things I'd done wrong. For one, I wasn't living fully enough. I kept myself
inside and with my puppets. But now that I have another chance, I'll do all the things I failed to do
the first time," he said. Sakura considered his words for a moment before smirking softly and
looking back down at her scrolls.

"It's amazing how much death can change a person, hm?"

Sasori peered at her work from over her shoulder and allowed himself to raise a brow in surprise.
Seals were delicately painted on the paper, some even he couldn't recognize. Each line was drawn
particularly and cautiously to leave no room for stray marks or mistakes. He was impressed.

"So what is so important that it has to keep a little girl past her bedtime?" he questioned. She
flashed him an irked glare before motioning towards her scroll.

"I'm practicing protection seals. Once I find Naruto, I'm placing these in his goggles and around
his apartment. He's only five years old and I have to make sure he's completely safe."

She waited for the ink to dry before rolling it up and placing it under her bed. She capped her ink
and gathered up the other scrolls before tucking them under as well. She turned her body to face
Sasori completely and crossed her legs in front of her.

"What information have you gathered, Sasori-san?"

"The Akatsuki no longer desire to have Uchiha Itachi in our ranks. According to Orochimaru,
'He's pacifistic and the Uchiha Clan is nothing but good to the village.' If that much is true, then
the massacre shouldn't be a problem in the future," he informed. A sigh of relief escaped her lips
as she brought a hand up to massage her throbbing forehead.

"Thank God, Sasuke will be safe., she whispered. "I have nothing on my end. If I find anything,
I'll send one of my summons. Probably Kou-chan, a Havana Brown cat. If you carry this tag
around, he'll be able to locate you."
Sakura leaned over her bed and rummaged around her nightstand drawer before pulling out
another seal covered slip of paper. He took it and studied it closely.

"Cats? What happened with slugs?" he asked.

"At the moment, cats are more... efficient. They can hide in plain sight without the slightest
suspicion. A lot of them are also tied in with the Uchiha, courtesy of their position with the clan's
weapon supplier, Nekobaa. I can gather a lot of information from them if the cats understand the
situation we're in. We can never be too careful," she explained. To Sasori, she suddenly looked
older. Even with her small stature and obvious young age, he could still see war carved in her
bones and the weariness swimming in her eyes. And... something else he couldn't quite put his
finger on. Fear? Apprehension?

"I see. Then here."

He gave her an almost identical tag.

"You'll be seeing a summons of mine, Yori-san. You aren't averse to scorpions, are you?" he
teased. Sakura shook her head before rubbing at her temples some more. Sasori frowned before
turning to look at her clock. 3:34 am. He had to get going. He stood up and stretched his limbs
and cracked open her window.

"Sakura-san, you know that the war never happened here. Your friends are alive and the village is
safe."

She sighed.

"I know."

"You don't have to worry more than you should. You're a kid again. Shouldn't you enjoy it?"

She gazed at herself in the mirror across the room, taking in the bags under her eyes and the rigid
guard in her form. For a moment, she saw her twenty-three year old self-- tired with no longer a
sense of hope. Fire flashed in the background for a mere second to take her back to that
godforsaken field and that cruel, cruel smile—

"... It's hard, Sasori-san."

"I know."

Later on at an appropriate time in the morning, Sakura went through her usual routine. She waited
for her parents to leave, created a clone in her stead, and left stealthily through her window. These
past two weeks had proven unfruitful. Konoha itself remained unchanged as every street and
every store was in the same place it had always been. She saw a few of her former friends among
the crowds, but other than that, she was really left with nothing.

She walked through a couple of playgrounds to see if her best friend was anywhere to be found.
At the sixth one, she was starting to think that she should call it a day. But at the seventh, she only
saw one boy in the area. He was alone on one of the swings with his head bowed down and his
feet kicking up dust.

'Naruto...'

Sakura walked up in front of the swing set and smiled.


"Hi, I'm Sakura. Do you need someone to push you?"

Naruto flinched and jerked his head up. His eyes narrowed distrustfully at the girl who oh-so
bravely stepped up to him when no one else would. He looked back at the ground.

"S'okay. I just like sittin' by m'self," he mumbled. Sakura took a seat on the swing next to him, the
fond smile still on her face.

"Why?" she questioned. "I bet you'll be a lot happier if you had someone to play with."

"No one likes me and I don' have any friends. But that's fine 'cause I don' like 'em neither," he
grumbled. Sakura remembered Naruto's hardships back in her time. The adults always looked at
him in hate and blamed him for the attack on the village like he was the one who had done it, not
the demon inside of him. All the other kids, despite their ages, avoided him like the plague. Sakura
couldn't say that she wasn't one of them.

"Look, it's Naruto!"

"Dead last!"

"Get out of here, no one wants you here, freak!"

"Yeah, freak!"

"My tou-san says your a monster!"

"My kaa-san says the same thing, so it has to be true!"

"Monster! Monster! Monster!"

"Freak!"

She'd be damned if she was going to make that same mistake twice.

"Well, you look really nice. Can I be your friend?"

Naruto's head shot up and whipped to the side, blue eyes wide and mouth hung agape. His hands
tightened around the swing's metal chains.

"You... You're just messing with me, aren't you?!" he accused, jumping off the swing and
pointing a finger at her angrily. "No one wants ta' be my friend, 'ttebayo! 'Specially not someone
like you!"

Sakura stood up as well, eyebrows drawn together.

"Someone... like me?"

"Yeah, someone like you! Someone so nice and-and so pretty! You prob'ly got lotsa friends and
you're jus' playin' a prank on me 'cause I'm ME!"

He turned and ran out of the playground, leaving Sakura with her eyes glittering with shock and
determination.

The following morning, Sakura didn't create a clone and leave out the window like she normally
did. After her parents had gone, she spent most of her day in the kitchen fixing up two bentos.
When Akiyama-san, the elderly lady from next door, came in to check on her, she regarded the
girl with delighted curiosity.
"What's this? Making something for you and a friend, Sa-chan?"

Sakura bobbed her head before tilting her head to the side and making a quick decision.

"I'm trying to get him to be my friend. He doesn't trust very easily, but I don't blame him. The
people hate him and I just don't get it. I hear the things they say about him. What's so bad about
Naruto? He's just a boy and he's always alone!"

Akiyama-san smiled.

"Naruto? Uzumaki Naruto?"

"I think that's his last name."

Sakura waited for an angry comment or a look of disgust, but was given a pat on the head and a
slight chuckle.

"That boy deserves a good friend. Make sure you're back before your parents get home," she said.
Sakura inwardly mused at Akiyama-san's gracious acceptance and for once in a long time, left the
apartment the normal way. She went back to the playground she met Naruto at yesterday and saw
him on that same swing.

"Ah, Naruto!" she called. He flinched and looked at her.

"You from yesterday! Whaddya' want?! To make fun of me some more?!" he growled. His eyes
went to the two bento boxes in her hands and looked at them suspiciously.

"I was making lunch and I thought about you. I was wondering if you were hungry..."

The anger was wiped off his face in an instant.

"You're... You're goin' really far for a joke, dattebayo," he murmured. Sakura shook her head and
sat next to him just like the day before.

"It's not a joke. I really, really want to make friends with you," she said sincerely. She held out
one of the bentos and a set of chopsticks, willing him to take it. When he did, all traces of mistrust
were wiped off his face and he grinned the brilliant grin Sakura was so accustomed to.

"I'm real sorry for yellin' at you yesterday, Sakura-chan," he apologized as he popped a piece of
tempura in his mouth. "It's just that I never had anyone been so nice ta' me before 'cept the old
man. But one day, all the people are gonna respect me 'cause I'm gonna be Hokage, 'ttebayo!"

Sakura smiled wistfully. She didn't live long enough to see him become Hokage in the other
world, but she was going to this time. Absolutely.

"Do your best, Naruto."

::

Sasori sat utterly confused in an Akatsuki meeting.

'We're a mercenary group?'

::

Edited: 4/1/17
Interest

Sasori wasn't the type to get confused. Ever. But sitting in a meeting for two hours while Pein, no-
- Yahiko, talked about plans he had never even heard of before really could throw someone in a
loop. Yahiko discussed about finances and the new jobs the organization would be receiving, but
he said absolutely nothing concerning the bijuu. So once the meeting came to an end and the rest
of the Akatsuki members filed out of the room, Sasori approached his leader.

"Pei--Yahiko-sama, could I ask your opinion on something?"

Yahiko frowned while Konan curiously turned her attention to the conversation.

"... Go ahead."

"This is a purely hypothetical question, but if you ever had the option to capture all nine of the
tailed beasts and use their power for your own desire and will, would you?" he asked. Yahiko
stared at him for a long moment, his face devoid of any emotion.

"Have you gone mad?"

Sasori raised his hands in defense.

"Like I said, hypothetical question. Would you do it?"

"Of course not," he answered immediately. "If that type of power fell into the wrong hands, do
you know what kind of damage it would cause to the people? Terrible, horrible amounts. People
who don't deserve it certainly shouldn't receive it."

"Ah, I see. Good day, then, P--Yahiko-sama," Sasori bid before leaving the room. Yahiko's brown
eyes burned into his subordinate's back even after he had left the room. Konan walked up to her
partner, an uncharacteristic worrisome twinge in her eyes.

"Do you think Sasori-san found out about him?"

"I wouldn't put it past him, but should've been highly improbable. No one could know who he is.
For now... we'll watch him. He's been a curious case these last few weeks, anyways."

::

Sakura was standing in a weapon's shop with sweat and dirt matting every inch of her visible self.
She had just finished subjecting herself to hours of push ups, crunches, punching and running up
trees in Training Ground 44. She would've come to the weapon shop earlier in the day, but she
spent the later portion of her training session wrestling an enormous centipede to the ground and
tearing off its head.

Stupid bastard shouldn't have messed with her.

Now she was perusing the shelves of the weapon shop looking for a weapon that suited her
fighting style. Aside from kunai and senbon, which she bought in bulk a week prior with the
money she won in bar bets (in henge form, of course), she needed a special weapon she could
utilize on the battlefield. Sakura never really found a weapon for herself in the other life due to the
fact that she never had the time, but she was determined to find something doable this time.

Swords were out of the question. She never seemed to handle them well and tended to show her
clumsiness when she handled them. She needed something that moved along with her body
smoothly and efficiently. After all, she was more rounded for taijutsu than anything else. At the
corner of the shop, Sakura found something she could work with. Retractable wrist blades. She
took them off the shelf and brought them to the counter.

"Afternoon, little lady. You look a bit roughed up. Tough day?"

She smiled at him.

"You could say that. How much for the blades, oji-san?"

"2,500 ryo. How are the senbon and kunai I sold you some time ago?"

"Great, actually. You really have good wares at this store."

Sakura pulled out her wallet from her pants pocket only to frown when she opened it. Crisp bills
that added up to 2,000 stared back up at her. She almost sighed. Looks like she'd have to go back
to those bars and hustle more of those—

"Here you go. 2,500."

A hand extended over Sakura's head with the right amount of money in its grip. Sakura quickly
turned around, recognizing the long gone voice, and stared up at her savior. Shiranui Genma
grinned down at her with that signature senbon hanging from his lips.

"You didn't need to do that. Seriously," she said. "I mean, I really appreciate it but 2,500 ryo is
way too much to pay for a stranger!"

Genma waved her off.

"Nah, it's no big deal," he said. He set down a pack of senbon on the counter for the cashier to
ring up. Sakura's eyes widened.

"No, it is a big deal! Look, I'll pay you back tom—"

"Not necessary, kid. Think of it as a gift from a generous benefactor."

He winked at her, paid for his senbon, and walked out the door. Without a moment's haste, Sakura
swiped her blades off the counter top, bid the shop-keep good day, and ran out of the door to
catch up with Genma.

"Hold on a minute!"

He slowed his step and waited for her to catch up, musing at the fact that her feet made no sound
as she ran. Sakura momentarily forgot that she was caked in filth and stared at him with dead set
eyes.

"I don't like owing debts, Shinobi-san."

If he had any sort of surprise, he didn't show it. Quietly, he studied the grime that clung to her like
a second skin and took the blades he bought for her in consideration.

"Tell you what. If I ever need a single favor, just one, I'll let you know and we'll be even. Sound
good?" Genma offered. He spit into his hand and held it out, a teasing grin on his face. To his
utter amazement, she spit into her own hand without hesitation and tightly gripped his in a firm
shake.
"Haruno Sakura. I'm entering the Academy next term," she introduced. Genma nodded,
impressed.

"Shiranui Genma. I'm an ANBU turned Tokubetsu Jounin. Nice to meet you."

"Likewise."

As they went their separate ways, Sakura felt a small puff of air next to her ear and looked at her
shoulder. A deathstalker scorpion perched on her, bobbing its tail up and down.

"Hello, Haruno-san. My name is Yori, one of Sasori-san's summons."

"Ah, a pleasure to finally meet you," she greeted, "Does Sasori-san have something for me?"

She held her open palm up to her shoulder and let the scorpion crawl on. Once he did, there was a
wisp of smoke and a small sheet of rolled paper appeared in his pincers.

"Here."

Sakura read through it with unmasked surprise.

Pein is different and his name is now "Yahiko". The chakra receivers that were embedded into his
body before are no long there and his rinnegan is absent. The Akatsuki also seem to have no
desire to the bijuu, so the boy is safe. I apologize in advance for sporadic replies if you ever send
me information. It seems I'm being watched for my "odd" behavior.

Me? Odd? They must be joking.

Sakura nearly rolled her eyes before setting the note aflame, letting the ash drift down to her feet.
She looked at the scorpion who was waiting patiently.

"I don't think I have anything to send to him right now. But if it isn't too much trouble, Yori-san,
do you think I can extract some venom from your tail?"

::

Something about Haruno Sakura intrigued him the moment he first saw her. All Genma was
planning to do was buy a pack of senbon and be on his merry way, but when he laid eyes on a
little runt who looked like she fell into a river and crawled in the mud, he decided to stay just a bit
longer. He watched as she inspected each weapon she came across with a critical and experienced
eye. Strange.

When she picked out the retractable wrist blades, he mused over her choice. They weren't a
popular weapon among the shinobi as they stuck on the user and was incapable of being thrown
or manipulated to a great extent.

"You could say that. How much for the blades, oji-san?"

"2,500 ryo. How are the senbon and kunai I sold you some time ago?"

"Great, actually. You really have good wares at this store."

There was something strange about the way she said that, especially the use of the word 'wares'.
He supposed it would be normal if she was in one of the clans, but he couldn't recall any children
with bright pink hair. A sense of generosity washed over him when he saw the girl peer into her
wallet and frown, so he took out 2,500 out of his own wallet and paid for her weapon. He waved
off any sort of concern she had over the money, paid for his own senbon, and walked out the door
fully expecting her to follow. She did.

"Hold on a minute!"

When she caught up to him, he breathing wasn't labored. Actually, she didn't even look like she
ran over to him with her breathing so calm and even. Her footsteps were silent as well, usually the
mark of a seasoned shinobi. She looked up him with eyes far too old for someone as young as her.

"I don't like owing debts, Shinobi-san."

The steel in her voice was unmistakable. After observing her for a few seconds more, he gave her
his offer before spitting into his hand and holding it out to her. Genma did this often with his
friends and co-workers, but they had yet to spit into their own hands and shake back. But she did
so without hesitation, much to his wonderment.

"Haruno Sakura. I'm entering the Academy next term," she introduced.

Now he was really interested.

It wasn't until a week later when he actually needed a favor done. Aside from that, he wanted to
test a theory. Genma had taken the time a few days before to look into the Haruno name. Haruno
Kizashi and Haruno Mebuki had both advanced to genin status before dropping out of the shinobi
lifestyle, practically making them civilian. Their backgrounds were nothing spectacular as they
had stemmed from civilian families anyways.

He sought her out soon after with a couple of folders in his hands. He looked at all the possible
places she could be at and eventually found her at a playground with the Uzumaki boy. She
played with him in the sand and when Naruto wasn't looking, sent dirty glares at the children and
adults that dared to look at her friend the wrong way. Genma held a fist to his mouth to keep in his
amused laughter.

What a cute kid.

She played with Naruto for a few minutes longer before they both stopped and turned towards the
sound of a scuffle near the slides. A group of older kids were surrounding someone and taunting
them mercilessly.

"Fatty! Fatty!" one mocked.

"Why're you crying, tubby? 'Cause your friend's not here?" another teased. Sakura got up to her
feet angrily and stomped over, Naruto following not too far behind.

"Leave him alone you jackasses!" her voice shrilled, "Or I'll make you pay!"

She pushed through the group of bullies and kneeled down in front of the sniffling boy. 'Akimichi.'
Genma recognized, 'And Chouza-sensei's son, if I'm not mistaken.' Sakura put her hands on his
shoulders, making him look up at her with his red-rimmed eyes..

"What's your name?" she questioned softly. He rubbed at his face.

"Ch-Chouji..." he whispered just barely enough for her to hear.

"Alright, Chouji. Give me just a minute, okay?"

Sakura stood back up and faced the bullies with irate eyes that could send a chill down anyone's
spine. It did to Genma's. The presumed leader of the bullies gulped and stood toe to toe and leered
down at her.

"You better leave him alone from now on," she spat. The bully shoved her, causing Naruto to
growl as he helped Chouji to his feet.

"And what's a stupid little girl gonna do 'bout it?"

Genma really didn't know what he was expecting, but when she reeled her fist back and decked
him clean onto the ground without breaking a sweat he nearly keeled over in laughter. Naruto
stared at her with new-found respect, Chouji ceased his crying to gape at his savior, and the bullies
picked up their friend before making a hasty retreat. Sakura huffed before turning back around and
smiling.

"Are you okay, Chouji? They didn't hurt you too bad, did they?" she questioned. Chouji shook
his head, eyes still wide from her display of strength. Her smiled turned into a grin.

"Good."

"Sakura-chan, you were so cool, dattebayo!" Naruto praised loudly. "I think ya' broke his nose
and that made it better!"

Genma finally calmed down and wiped the tears from his eyes before walking towards the three
kids while tapping the folders on his shoulder.

"Well, well. Not bad, Sakura-chan," he greeted. Naruto and Chouji blinked up at him nervously
and backed up a few steps. Sakura scoffed and crossed her arms.

"He's lucky that I didn't break his entire face, Shiranui-san," she said, making Genma bark out
another laugh. "So you finally have that favor for me?"

He handed her the folders and his... ID authorization card?

"I need you to go to the T&I building and deliver these documents for me."

::

Edited: 4/1/17
Red

Sakura accepted the documents and the ID before looking at Genma's smiling face suspiciously.

"You're sending a kid, who isn't even in the Academy yet, mind you, to the T&I building. Alone.
You haven't been drinking recently, have you?"

He put his hand to his heart in mock hurt.

"Me? Drinking? Don't wound me, Sakura-chan. I just thought that you could take it, is all. But if
you can't, I can come up with another favor," he said as he extended his hand. Sakura batted his
hand away halfheartedly and tucked the folders under her arm.

"I can deal with it," she replied with a sigh. "I just hope you know that you can get in trouble for
this. You think Morino-san'll be amused when he sees little ol' me waltz into his office?"

"You know Morino-san?" he questioned incredulously.

"Never met him, but I have ears too, you know."

Not only was she a cute little kid, but she was weird too. He watched as she gazed at his ID card,
turning it this way and that, almost as if she was checking if it was real. As she did so, Genma saw
the look in her eyes. They looked exhausted and far away for a few moments. But that couldn't
be, could it? It didn't add up.

'She's a little girl, for god's sake!'

Before she looked back up at him, something flashed in those dark green irises that Genma
wouldn't have caught if he hadn't been keenly observing her.

"I'll have this delivered after I walk my friends home," she informed lightly while pocketing the
card. At the mention of 'friends', Chouji's cheeks reddened as he looked down at his feet. "I'll give
your ID back the next time we see each other?"

Genma nodded and raised a hand in goodbye before walking down the street. Sakura turned to
Chouji with a bright grin.

"Sorry for all that. My name's Haruno Sakura by the way."

Naruto bounced up beside her, his thousand watt smile lighting up his face.

"And I'm Uzumaki Naruto, Future Hokage, dattebayo!!" he exclaimed, spreading his arms wide.
Sakura lowered one of his arms so that she could see. Chouji, still blushing, looked up at the two
of them.

"I-I'm Akimichi Cho-Chouji... Nice to meet you N-Naruto, Sakura..."

::

Chouza was a little worried. Shikamaru was out with his father in the Nara Forests all day today,
leaving his son alone. He knew what the other kids said about Chouji and how seriously the boy
took those comments to heart, so he hoped that his son wasn't being tormented somewhere. Just
when he was about to get up from his seat on the porch of the main house, he heard laughter from
the entrance of the Akimichi Compound.
Chouza grinned when he saw Chouji flanked by a pink haired girl and Uzumaki Naruto. He knew
the truth about Naruto, as all the clan heads did, and held nothing against the boy. In fact, he was
quite glad that Chouji managed to befriend him.

"Sorry I'm late, tou-chan," the boy apologized sheepishly. "Naruto, Sakura, and I were... on the
swings for a little bit before they walked me home."

He knew a lie when he saw one, but he let it slide.

"That's alright, Chouji. I'm happy that you've made new friends."

Chouji blushed and looked down at his feet while the other two giggled at his reaction. Chouza
patted his head affectionately and looked at the mismatched pair next to his son.

"Would you two like to stay for dinner?"

Naruto's eyes flew wide in panic at that as he inched closer to Sakura.

"N-No thanks, oji-san, I, erm, already ate, 'ttebayo," he stammered. Sakura frowned before
offering the Akimichi Head a polite smile.

"I'm sorry, Akimichi-san, but I'm afraid I have an errand to run," she said, motioning to the folders
in her other arm. Chouza cast her a curious eye.

"Maybe next time, then."

The two bid Chouji and his father goodbye, Naruto a bit louder than necessary, before walking
down the lantern lit streets as they talked amongst themselves.

"Why'd that weird guy make you go on an errand for him, Sakura-chan?" Chouza heard Naruto
ask.

"Like I said, I owed Shiranui-san a favor. And he's not weird, just a little bit... out there," she
replied. Chouza closed the front door and sent his son upstairs to wash up.

'Shiranui-san? Is she talking about Genma?'

::

The district he lived in was nowhere near as nice or safe as everywhere else in Konoha, but it was
lit up with neon lights and flashing signs. The second they entered the area, Naruto grabbed her
hand and stopped.

"You don't have to walk me to my apartment, Sakura-chan," he warned quietly. "It's not safe for
you here."

That's when Sakura realized just exactly where she was. The Akasen. The Red Light District.
Rage churned in her stomach as she let the information seep in. He was six. Naruto was only six.
He saved the whole village by serving as the Kyuubi's vessel against his will. He was a hero-- the
future Hokage! This was the boy who was going to save the Elemental Nations and end the war
to bring on a new era of peace. Why in all seven fucking hells could everyone let him, a child,
live in the Akasen?!

"S-Sakura-chan?" Naruto squeaked.

"How long have you lived here, Naruto?" she asked. His eyes darted in every direction but hers.
Sakura's lips were pressed in a firm line and her eyes were stone cold that wouldn't accept any lie.
Naruto's hand squeezed tighter around her's.

"Since... Since they kicked me out of the orphanage two years ago. I lived on the streets for a lil'
bit until the owner of Magenta, Mari-san, let me stay in the apartment above the bar," he
confessed. Sakura bit her cheek.

"And what exactly is Magenta?"

He scratched the back of his head.

"Um... a trans-vezz-tite bar, I think?" he mumbled. "I dun' really know what means, but the nee-
sans there are nice to me so it's okay. All I gotta do is wash dishes sometimes or go on errands for
Mari-san."

"Let me see where you live." Sakura demanded. Naruto shook his head.

"No! What happens if you get hurt, Sakura-chan? Sure you can hand it over ta' those bastards
who made funa' Chouji, but the adults here aren't like them! They—"

"I'm worried about you, Naruto!" she shouted. Naruto's jaw dropped a fraction and his eyebrows
raised up to his hairline. "I know you haven't known me for a long time but I'm your friend and I
want to know if you're okay! Now that I know that you live here, I'm so, so worried about you...
Let me check up on you. Please."

She blanched when his bottom lip started to quiver and went still when he lunged to bring her into
a bone-crushing hug. He cried into her shoulder as he held onto her for dear life.

"... Why do you care so much?" he whimpered. Sakura wrapped her arms around him.

"I told you, Naruto. I'm your friend."

When he pulled away, he immediately blubbered apologies about the tears and snot on her shirt,
but she assured him it was fine and followed him on his way to the apartment. They went down
the alleyways and side streets of the district before walking behind a pink, neon-lit building. A
blonde woman with two pigtails was loitering around the stairs, sporting platform heels and a skin-
tight leather dress. She raised the two fingers holding her cigarette in greeting.

"Yo, Naru-chan."

"Hi, Mari-san."

Naruto pulled Sakura up the stairs and brought her into his apartment.

"Well, this is it, dattebayo."

He flipped on the lights and led her to the kitchen. The place was an absolute mess with instant
ramen cups and chip bags littering the floor. Dishes sat in the sink, unwashed, and his table was
piled with even more trash.

"You need to clean your apartment," she deadpanned. Naruto chuckled sheepishly.

"Hehe... maybe one day, Sakura-chan," he said. She opened his refrigerator, frowning when she
saw a couple of moldy carrots in an otherwise empty space. This was unacceptable. She shut the
fridge with an audible snap and turned around.
"Naruto, can I place stickers around your apartment?"

"E-Eh? Stickers?"

"Mm. Stickers."

"Oh, um... sure. Go ahead."

Sakura took out her well-practiced protection seals that she stuck in the inside of her shirt and
stuck them on sort of obvious places: the corner of his window, beneath his bed, on the floor
outside his bathroom, on his fridge, and on his front door.

"Sorry I can't stay too long because of the whole T&I thing I have to do, but I'll come back
tomorrow morning. Is that alright with you?" she asked. Naruto grinned and bobbed his head.

"Of course, Sakura-chan! But—"

"I can walk myself out of the district, don't worry." she assured. "I'll even stick to the shadows so
no one sees me."

"Well... I guess..." he mumbled uncertainly. Sakura gave him another hug before waving and
leaving the apartment. As she went down the stairs, she saw Mari still at the stairs. When the
woman caught sight of her, she flicked her cigarette onto the ground and crushed it with the toe of
her heels.

"You gunna' take care of that boy?" she asked. Sakura nodded.

"Yes, ma'am."

"Good."

Mari saluted her before strutting into the building. Sakura glanced around her, making sure no one
was around, and bounded on the roof tops to the T&I building. The sun was nearly down when
she landed at the front doors of her desired location. She pushed the glass doors open and walked
up to the receptionist. Kotetsu.

He peered at her from over his desk.

"Oh? You lost or something?"

She fished out Genma's ID from her pocket and handed it over.

"Shiranui-san wanted me to deliver some documents for him. As a favor, of course," she said.
Kotetsu stared at the card incredulously before turning his gaze to the little girl who was waiting
patiently with the folders in her hands and her eyes drifting curiously about the room. He
reluctantly gave back the ID and slowly pointed to the stairs.

"Morino-san's office is on third floor, last door at the end of the hall. Do you want me to go with
you...?"

"No thank you... Hagane-san." Sakura replied as she read the name on the desk, "I'm sure I can
handle it."

Kotetsu watched her go with a dropped jaw and a skeptical eye.

::
"Do you see this wonderfully sleek fur, nya? So brown! So purrfectly shampooed! It's like the
most finely woven silk that was made from the hands of tired, yet beautiful seamstress who spent
day and night making such a fabulous cloth! Feel my fur, nya! Feel it!"

Sasori stared at the Havana Brown cat stretched before him.

"... Are you Kou-chan?"

"That is absolutely, positively my name, Sasori-kun! Now feel my fur and I'll give you Sakura-
chan's message."

He stroked Kou's backside before nodding, impressed.

"Wow. Your fur is soft."

Kou giggled gleefully before there was a puff of smoke and a scroll appeared in his tail.

"Here, nya!"

Sure, I'd never regard you as odd, Sasori-san. Something has yet to happen in Konoha, but
maybe it's just me. I'm only five after all. Nothing really happens until my genin days, which
would be between six to seven years in the future. I'll try to lower the wait time and get Naruto
and Sasuke to graduate two years earlier.

Also, could you send me all the poisons and their antidotes at your disposal? I'm going to try and
build up an immunity to them.

Sasori burned the note after committing the words to memory. He had many poisons back at the
base—about seven strong ones in total.

"Thank you, Kou-chan. That'll be all."

"Nya!"

He was about to turn away and make his lengthy journey back to Amegakure from Wind Country
when he heard quiet sniffles in the distance. Curious, he leapt through the trees to the source and
saw someone at a river bank.

It was a small boy with deep red hair that nearly matched his own.

::

Edited: 4/1/17
T&I

In her time, Sakura never really had the chance or reason to visit the T&I building. The people in
that line of work never crossed paths with the hospital or were in need of medics, and now that
she looked back on it, the two had very different sets of morals. Sure they were both shinobi, but
one tortured for information and the other healed wounds and refused to inflict harm on patients. It
wasn't until the war started that the sectors had started working closely together.

On the third floor, she received odd glances from the shinobi she passed in the hallway. They
whispered to each other and Sakura resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Did they think she couldn't
hear them? When she arrived at the office, she knocked twice and leaned back on her heels as she
waited. An entire minute later, she heard Ibiki speak.

"Come in."

Sakura opened the door to see Ibiki scribbling something on a piece of paper. He was completely
engrossed in his work and didn't bother raising his gaze.

"You finally have those documents for me, Shiranui?"

"Shiranui-san told me to deliver these for him."

Ibiki's hand froze for a few seconds before he set down the pen and leaned back in his seat. He
raised an eyebrow.

"And who the hell are you?"

"Haruno Sakura. I'm joining the Academy next term, nice to meet you."

Immediately, Ibiki could tell something was off about her. She held herself in a dignified manner
like an aged and hardened shinobi who had breathed the air of war for years. Her words were
well enunciated in a way that didn't suit her small self, making Ibiki begin to understand why
Shiranui would even think to send her to his office in the first place.

He took the folders she offered him and placed it to the side without breaking eye contact. He
stayed quiet a bit more, intensifying his gaze-- daring her to flinch or look away.

She didn't.

Oh? How interesting.

"Will that be all, Morino-san?" she asked.

"... Come back here tomorrow. We'll have a talk."

Sakura couldn't mask the surprise on her face.

::

Undoubtedly, it was a boy. His knees were pressed to his chest with his arms wound tight around
his knees and his face pressed in the crook of his elbow. It seemed that he was crying silently to
himself with his shoulders shaking slightly and hiccup sounding noises echoing through the empty
forest. Sasori jumped down from his perch and landed on the other side of the river.
"Are you alright?"

The boy's head shot up as fear danced in his sea foam green eyes. The sand around Sasori began
to shift threateningly.

"Did tou-sama send you to find me?" he questioned apprehensively, "Or Yashamaru?"

"...No." Sasori replied smoothly, cautiously eyeing the sand around him, "I don't know either of
the them. I'm just asking if you're alright."

The sand shifted for a little longer before it finally dropped. Sasori released the breath he didn't
know he was holding and properly crossed his legs.

"I'm okay. I just needed to leave for a little bit." the boy answered solemnly. The older man didn't
say a word and merely sat on the opposite side of the river with a small smile on his face. He
pulled out a small puppet prototype from one of the pockets in his cloak and attached a few chakra
strings to it. Once in control, he sent the puppet to walk across the river to dance for the little boy.
When Sasori heard the small giggles that bubbled from his lips, his smile grew wider.

"So, what's your name?"

The boy looked up.

"G-Gaara." he introduced shyly, "What's yours?"

"Hiruko." Sasori answered. He glanced behind Gaara before standing and dusting himself off, "I
have to leave. It seems that somebody has come to get you after all. Perhaps your tou-sama or that
Yashamaru?"

Gaara's face dropped.

"Do you have to go, Hiruko? You can't go back to the village with me?"

Sasori shook his head and watched as the boy's bottom lip trembled. He walked across the river
and crouched in front of the boy.

"Will... Will I ever see you again?" Gaara sniffed. Sasori tousled his hair lightly.

"Of course. I don't know when, but I'll come back one day." he promised. Gaara looked up when
the hand was lifted from his head and saw no one. Maybe Hiruko was a figment of imagination.
He wouldn't be surprised if he was-- no one was ever nice to him like that. But the puppet that
danced for him was still at his feet and Gaara smiled.

"Gaara-sama!"

A wooden arm touched his shoulder. He turned around to see one of his father's ANBU:
Komushi, the infamous leader of the Kugutsu Butai.

::

The next day at eight in the morning, Sakura stood outside Naruto's apartment with grocery bags
occupying both her hands. Naruto answered the door with a groggy yawn. She raised an eyebrow
at his purple pajamas and odd sleeping cap before greeting him.

"Good morning, Naruto."

"G'mornin' Sak'ra-chan. You're real early..."


"G'mornin' Sak'ra-chan. You're real early..."

"A good shinobi rises with the sun." she chided lightly, "And you do want to become a good
shinobi, don't you?"

He gave her some incoherent grumbles before stepping to the side and letting her in. The place
was just as much as a pig sty as the day before, Sakura noted dryly, and there seemed to be more
ramen cups piled on his kitchen table.

But her first priority was the fridge.

She removed the putrid carrots from the top shelf and set them on Naruto's overflowing trash can.
The fridge could do with a good cleaning as well, but Sakura decided that she could save that bit
after the rest of the apartment was absolutely sparkling. She placed the items from the grocery
bags inside and shut the door, then turned around and saw Naruto napping quietly at the
overcrowded table. She exhaled through her nose.

'I suppose there's no harm in letting him sleep more. He's only a kid, after all.'

Sakura returned her attention to the mess that surrounded her and folded up the sleeves of her blue
shirt. She might as well get started now.

It was second year of the war. Shizune and a handful of others were sent to the nearest village to
gather more supplies that were generously donated to their cause. That left Sakura in charge of
the five medics they currently had on hand in the main camp. Luckily enough, only one or two
shinobi in their care was in critical condition while everyone else had mild enough injuries.

Ino was out surveying the extension of the camp, making sure everything went according to plan.
Kiba, as well as other members of the Inuzuka Clan, served as messengers between all the
battlefields. But Kiba specifically delivered messages through the infirmary camp circuits. He was
somewhere in the middle of the camp, resting up with Akamaru and preparing for their next
round of deliveries.

Sakura stepped out of one of the tents, breathing out a deep sigh. She had just finished examining
Neji and deemed him completely stable. Both his legs were broken and even with extensive
healing, he wouldn't be back out for another month if he wanted both legs functioning correctly.

She stretched an arm over her head and looked up at the sky. Her eyes widened when she saw
white blobs falling from the sky. They expanded on top and around the camp, creating a mile
radius of those odd falling things. In the midst of them was the outline of a large bird.

Deidara.

She tried to open her mouth to scream a warning, but the soft shout of triumph from the skies
made her voice turn to syrup in her throat.

"Katsu!"

The next thing she knew, her vision was blurry, her ears were bleeding, and she was buried under
pieces of rock and dirt. She summoned chakra to her hands and pulled herself out of the rubble.

Everything was destroyed. Everything.

And if the sickening feeling in the pit of her stomach said anything...

She was probably alone as well.


Naruto stirred about an hour later, having woken up to the scent of some kind of citrus. He
blinked and blearily looked around the kitchen.

"Sakura-chan...? ACK! I fell asleep! Sakura-chan, why didn't you wake me up?!" he exclaimed.
Naruto jumped out of his seat and immediately toppled onto the waxed wooden floor. He
marveled at the squeaky clean luster as he slowly got up onto his feet. Sakura poked her head in
the room.

"Good morning again, Naruto." she smiled, "Now that you're really up, you can go clean the
bathroom."

She gave him an armful of cleaning supplies before going back to wax Naruto's bedroom floor.

"N-No, Sakura-chan, wait! I'll finish waxing, dattebayo!" Naruto called, setting down the cleaning
supplies and chasing after her, "I'll finish waxing, clean the bathroom, and-and do all the other
things ya' need me ta' do! You already did a lot so I want you ta' take a break, okay?"

She couldn't say no to his blinding grin. Sakura settled at the kitchen table while surveying her
handiwork. The trash she collected filled up five whole garbage bags that she left next to the
dumpster behind Magenta. It didn't even take that long to clean up thanks to a couple of her clones
(not like she was going to tell Naruto that). Most of the time she spent cleaning the tables and
windows, waxing the kitchen floor, and placing more modified protection seals around the
apartment.

It wasn't for another hour and a half until Naruto finished cleaning the rest of the apartment and
burst into the kitchen with a cheery call of:

"Sakura-chan~! I finished!" he chirped, "So what are we gonna do know? Practice with kunai and
shuriken? Oh! Oh! Maybe we can go to the park again? Or-Or-Or--!"

"I'm going to teach you how to cook." she interrupted. Naruto paused and looked at her curiously.

"Eh?"

"I'm going to teach you how to cook." she repeated. She stood and pulled the fridge door open
and gestured to its contents, "I got some stuff for you before I came over. I can't let you live off
instant ramen for the rest of your life, now can I?"

When Sakura looked back at him, his eyes were glued to his feet and his arms were crossed tightly
over his chest. She couldn't see his eyes but she guessed that he again was on the verge of tears.
She took a step forward.

"Naruto?"

"All the other kids hate me n'stuff, and the grown ups hate me even more, dattebayo. But you're
so... different. Why aren't you like everyone else? Why do you gotta be so... so..."

He brought a hand to his face and rubbed at his eyes. At the same moment, he raised his head and
gave her a dazzling smile as tears streamed down his cheeks.

"So whattya' gonna teach me, Sakura-chan?"

::

She left his apartment in the early afternoon after she was content that he retained the recipe for
Kitsune Udon and Sumashijiru. She had to admit, she did feel guilty for making Naruto cry a
second time but was relieved that she could instill the thought that she fully intended to stay his
friend. Once she was out of the Akasen, she looked up at the sky and sighed.

'Now to Morino-san.'

This time, she didn't take the rooftop route and took her sweet time walking towards the T&I
building. Sakura couldn't fathom the reason why Ibiki would want to see her again. For one, her
actions did count as strange for a five year old. She tried to act like a kid. Really, she did. But after
seeing war with her own eyes, it was hard for her to transition back into a carefree life.

No. She wouldn't believe it.

Sakura limped through what was left of the camp and sought out any other survivors. Not a single
person was above the rubble, making her wince at thought of everyone being crushed under the
upturned dirt and charred wood.

Please, let there be at least one. Anybody. Please.

A hand poked out near one of the tents. Sakura rushed over as quickly as she could and dug
through the wreckage with bare hands. Blood bloomed on her palms and fingers from the ferocity
of her digging, but the pain was numbed. She couldn't feel a single thing.

Eventually, she found someone. Long blonde hair. Purple outfit. Sakura placed her hand on the
idle body and felt for a pulse. Nothing.

And that's how Shizune and the rest of the supply group found her-- in the midst of destruction, a
body cradled her arms, and mouth turned upwards: screaming curses at the sky.

When she stepped through the doors, Kotetsu waved her towards the stairs with a smile.

"Morino-san's up in his office, as usual. Remember the way?"

"Of course. Have a good afternoon, Hagane-san."

Sakura walked back onto the third floor and was treated with the same curious stares she was
given the day before. Ibiki's office door was wide open with the aforementioned sitting behind his
desk. Genma was there as well leaned against the back wall. He raised his hand in greeting.

"Hey, Sakura-chan!"

"Shiranui-san. Morino-san." she acknowledged, "What can I do for you?"

Ibiki and Genma exchanged subtle glances. Sakura narrowed her eyes.

"You've caught our attention, to be frank. You're far more mature than any other kid your age and
from what I can sense, you're muting your chakra intentionally. That's a chuunin-level skill." Ibiki
explained, "You also come from a civilian family. Tell me, what else are you able to do?"

She considered lying, but then she remembered she was in the goddamn T&I building.

"I can walk up trees, walk on water, and I'm practicing taijutsu. I'm also learning how to utilize my
wrist blades." she admitted. Genma looked thoroughly impressed while Ibiki maintained his blank
mask.

"Hm. How would you feel if we were to bring you into the intelligence sector?" he asked. Sakura
blinked.
"You want to recruit me?"

::

Kugutsu Butai: Puppet Brigade


Kitsune Udon: Udon noodles in hot dashi soup, topped with fried tofu
Sumashijiru: Clear soup with tofu. Also called Suimono.
Omake: In Her Time

Kakashi was standing on the sidelines at the Valley of the End, watching as Naruto and Sasuke
finally battled it out. He wanted to interfere, but knew that he couldn't. Those two were chakra
powerhouses that couldn't be stopped no matter how much anyone tried. They were entering the
thirty-fourth hour of the fight.

Their fight was drawing close to the end. He could feel it.

Suddenly, Sakura made her arrival beside him. Kakashi's head whipped over at his other student,
taking in war-worn appearance. There were heavy bags under hardened, lethargic eyes. Multiple
scars that decorated what he could see of her arms and a horrid burn mark that angrily wrapped
around her neck like a noose. He hadn't seen her for three whole years and winced, keeping
himself from imagining what kind of hell she had been through.

"Kakashi. A surprise to see you here." she greeted apathetically, causing Kakashi to wince, "I
heard Naruto and Sasuke were fighting and came as soon as I could. Is it impossible to stop
them?"

He sighed.

"Unless you want to die in the crossfire, then yes. Impossible."

They lapsed into silence. An hour passed as they watched as Naruto and Sasuke attacked with
animalistic vigor. Their chakras were running low and they were wearing thin from the taijutsu
attacks they subjected themselves to. Eventually, they broke apart, one at each end and panting
heavily. Sakura straightened.

"They're going to kill each other." she said. Kakashi's hands tightened into fists.

"Aa. They are."

"... I'm sorry, Kakashi."

He collapsed onto the ground with a yelp and immediately looked down at his body. Aside from
his neck and eyes, he couldn't move. At all. He was paralyzed. Kakashi's eyes went up to Sakura,
who looked unremorseful as she offered him a tired smile.

"It's only temporary, I promise."

She turned towards the Valley of the End.

"I know it's not my place to ask for a favor, but... tell everyone I'm sorry. Tell Naruto that I believe
that he'll become Hokage, and tell Sasuke that I believe one day that he'll be happy. And you,
Kakashi..."

Sakura mouthed the words to him before sprinting off.

It was like the scene was ripped from his memory before it forced him to watch it replay before his
very eyes. It was like they were on the hospital rooftop again. Naruto was on the left side, arm
outstretched in front of him and rasengan spinning wildly in his palm. Sasuke was coming down
from the right, chidori crackling and its light engulfing nearly the entirety of his body. And Sakura
was running towards the middle of them before their jutsu could clash.
But in his memory, he was able to stop them before things could go too far.

Time slowed down as he could only watch as she slid between the two of them, her front facing to
the left. Naruto's arm pierced her stomach, and Sasuke's pierced her heart. Naruto began to shake,
his eyes looking over the shoulder of the woman he called his best friend and saw his hand and
forearm coated in her blood.

"Ah... A-Ah..."

Sasuke had a similar look on his face as his sharingan faded from existence and his gaze
hypnotized by the white circle on the back of the person he'd perforated. His eyes then went to the
short crop of pink hair, then to the other side of the body.

A heart was in his hand.

"...No..." he breathed. He and Naruto retracted their arms from her at the same time and lowered
her unmoving body onto the ground. Her eyes were unfocused and torpid, staring up at absolutely
nothing.

"Sa... Sakura-chan?" Naruto whispered. She wasn't breathing and she was bleeding out so
profusely that her blood was pooling around their knees. Tears started to drip down his cheeks as
he called out her name like a prayer.

"SAKURA-CHAN!!!" he screamed. Sasuke was frozen as he stared down at the face of the
woman who once told him that she loved him.

"Sa... Sakura?" he mumbled, "No-- I didn't-- NO! Sakura! Wake up-- I'm sorry! I didn't mean--
I..."

Kakashi looked away.

::

Tsunade walked up to the entrance of the main infirmary camp and placed her hands on her hips.
With the war over, she was able to help out the other medics and heal the shinobi that were injured
in the last moments of battle. Sakura was with her as well, but had bolted off a couple of hours
ago the moment she heard that Sasuke and Naruto were fighting at the Valley of the End. Now
Kakashi was standing before, looking everywhere but her eyes. She smirked.

"What? You found my apprentice?" she asked. Kakashi's gaze sank lower.

"Ho... Hokage-sama..." he began quietly. Tsunade's face dropped instantly.

"What happened, Kakashi?"

He didn't continue, merely turning to look back behind him. Sasuke was walking up the pathway,
Naruto lingering slightly behind and carrying something in his arms. Tsunade scowled at the sight
of the Uchiha and his blood-stained pants before focusing on what, or who, in this case, Naruto
was carrying. Her face slowly twisted into that of pure, unadulterated horror once she saw
Sakura's stationary body.

"...She isn't."

"We didn't mean to, Baa-chan." Naruto said as his bottom lip began to quiver, "Sasuke and I were
fighting and Sakura-chan... S-Sakura-chan..."
Her tightened his hold on her body and began to sob into her hair. Tsunade wasn't having any of
that. Her hands flared a spring green as she placed them on Sakura.

Pulse: None.

"Sakura, you aren't dead."

Breathing: None.

"Sakura, I swear to god!"

Heart: Absent.

"I did not give you permission to die!"

Possibility of survival due to sustained injuries: 0.00%.

"If this is some sick JOKE I'll--"

Kakashi placed a hand on her shoulder, his eyes looking the saddest she had ever seen them.
Tsunade heaved in a ragged breath and withdrew her hands. She pressed a hand to her mouth and
turned around.

"Take her to the makeshift morgue. We'll send her body back to Konoha along with the others
tomorrow morning."

::

Her funeral was so big that it surprised even Sasuke. The remainder of the Konoha 11 attended:
Shino, Shikamaru, Tenten, Hinata, and of course, Naruto. Neji, Ino, and Kiba perished in that
infirmary camp bombing five years prior. Chouji and Lee both died on the battlefield in the sixth
year. Outside of the Konoha 11, Sai was killed on the battlefield in the fifth year due to an ambush
against the squad he was a part of. No one from the squad survived.

But aside from the typical people one would expect, many other shinobi, even civilians, attended
the funeral as well. Tenten grew intrigued at the sheer amount of people who were attending and
approached a teenager who was standing alone in the crowd.

"Quite a lot of people, isn't it?" Tenten remarked quietly. The teenager bobbed her head.

"I knew there would be. I think they're all here for the same reason I am." she replied. Tenten
peered at her curiously.

"And what reason would that be?"

"Well... for me, at least, Haruno-sensei saved my life. It was during the attack on Konoha at the
beginning of the war. An enormous centipede came after me and my baa-chan and she saved us."

She smiled at the memory.

"I wouldn't be alive today if it weren't for Haruno-sensei. The very least I could do for her is give
her my thanks one last time." she said. Tenten ran her eyes through the people. People of all ages
and sizes were here. These were all her patients?

'You really are an amazing person, Sakura.'

At night, only Kakashi was left. Naruto had to leave at about sundown. He couldn't bear the sight
of Sakura being lowered in her casket that he ran off, tears threatening to fall down his face again.
Sasuke had to go with ANBU, as he still wouldn't be pardoned from his actions and had to
receive some sort of punishment. But Kakashi...

For hours, he stared at her gravestone. A part of him still couldn't believe that she was gone or that
she'd go so far as to run in between two lethal jutsu. He was there-- he could've stopped her if he
hadn't let his guard down when she appeared. She could have lived, but...

... but then Naruto and Sasuke would've died.

Kakashi pulled down his mask and ran a hand over his face.

"I let you down, Sakura. I neglected your potential and let you grow up by yourself. You knew
that, and yet, you were still kind in your last moments." he sighed, "You didn't need to apologize.
I was the one who needed to say sorry. Not you. Especially you."

He wilted at the thought of her name being one of the many that would be carved in the memorial
stone.

"I know it's not my place to ask for a favor, but... tell everyone I'm sorry. Tell Naruto that I believe
that he'll become Hokage, and tell Sasuke that I believe one day that he'll be happy. And you,
Kakashi..."

Sakura mouthed the words to him before sprinting off.

"... thank you for being my sensei."

Kakashi slumped forward. He didn't think that she'd be one of the ghosts that would haunt him.
Rin, even Obito... He pulled himself onto his feet and checked his pocket watch.

12:04 am.

His eyes fell shut as he pushed away the urge to cry.

"Happy Birthday, Haruno Sakura."


Intelligence

"Hm. How would you feel if we were to bring you into the intelligence sector?" he asked. Sakura
blinked.

"You want to recruit me?"

::

"Recruit is a strong word, Sakura-chan." Genma said, "You're just a suitable person that we want
to join our forces."

"... You realize that's the definition or recruit, right, Shiranui-san?"

He scratched the back of his head sheepishly. Sakura turned her gaze to the window as she
considered their offer. She could deny it, but she had to say, an offer like this could really help her
along the way and give her the extra training she needed to increase a lot of aspects about herself.
For one, if she had training within this sector, she could raise her chakra capacity even further than
she had done for herself. The capacity she had now wasn't satisfying, as she could only train on
the water's surface for about forty-five minutes before she ran dangerously low.

"I would accept the offer," she said, "But you'd have to ask my parents first, and I don't know
what they'll say."

She wasn't lying that time. Content with the answer, Ibiki stood.

"Shiranui, show Haruno around the building. I'll be no more than an hour."

He sauntered out of the office, leaving Genma to smile down at the small girl.

"So, Sakura-chan. Shall we get going? The building's pre~tty big."

::

It took a lot to get Ibiki genuinely interested. He had been in the T&I for a number of years and
had seen his fair share of different personalities and attitudes, but never had he seen a child like
that Haruno Sakura. He knew how kids acted as he once had a younger brother himself. Kids
were supposed to be a bit ignorant, carefree, and have a bit of naivety no matter who they were.
Hell, even Uchiha kids acted like normal kids-- and their entire clan had sticks up their asses.

Something was severely wrong with her. Really. And he was going to figure out what it was.

The particular aspect about her that bothered him the most were her eyes. They looked... tired. Not
the I-didn't-get-enough-sleep kind of tired, but the I've-seen-too-much kind of tired. But what
could she have seen? There was something else unsettling about her eyes. Along with that tired
look was something sort of... haunted.

The only time he'd seen that kind of haunted look was from a war veteran who had seen their
friends die around them. Or he'd see that look in victims of things like abuse or trauma.

Ibiki walked down a residential street to an apartment complex chock full of civilians. He quietly
slipped through the small crowds of people and went to the fifth floor and the last door down the
hall. It was a Saturday-- they should be home. He knocked twice. A blonde woman answered the
door, eyes widening in surprise when she saw the hitai-ate on his forehead.
"What can I do for you, Shinobi-san?"

"My name is Morino Ibiki, and I have a few questions to ask you about your daughter-- Haruno
Sakura."

She stepped to the side and let him in. Once through the threshold, Ibiki observed the decor. It
looked like any normal, caring household. Mebuki led him to the kitchen and motioned him to sit
down as she bustled about to get him tea. She soon poured two cups and sat down across from
him.

"So what is it about Sakura? She's not in trouble, is she?"

"Not at all, Haruno-san. It's actually quite the opposite. Your daughter has shown shown some
exceptional qualities for a shinobi despite her young age. My associate and I believe she has great
potential to develop her skills in the intelligence sector, and even though she has yet to start the
Academy, we would like to bring her under an internship of sorts." he said. Ibiki anticipated her to
give him an absolute look of disgust or shock, but she only sighed.

"Lately, Sakura has been so mature and withdrawn. It was as if one day, she woke up a
completely different person. I don't know what goes through that girl's head anymore. I even
found multiple scrolls filled with protection seals under her bed."

Ibiki wasn't aware that Sakura was capable of making her own seals. That information only tacked
on more of his interest.

"She even went out of her way to make friends with Uzumaki Naruto. And he's quite a nice boy.
A bit loud, but who isn't?"

His interest furthered even more. Mebuki sighed again and took a sip of her tea.

"I'll let her take the internship if that's what she wants." she complied, "I know she'll just go with it
anyways if we decide to deny it. All I ask is that you send something like progress reports every
now and then."

Ibiki gave her a strange look.

"Progress reports? Won't she just tell you the things she's learned or the things she's done?" he
asked. Mebuki shook her head, a sad smile on her face.

"Sakura tells us things, but never goes into detail about the things she does. You see," she
explained, "On weekdays we don't get to see her in the day because of our jobs, and my husband
sometimes longer because there would be days he'd be forced to take on extra hours on the
weekends, like today. On those days, she leaves bunshins and goes off to do who knows what. I
don't think she realizes that I'd sometimes see her out and about the village even when our
neighbor says she's been in the apartment all day."

Mebuki looked thoroughly dejected at this as her eyes clouded over. Ibiki leaned back slightly in
his seat, mulling over what he just learned. Making seals, befriending the village pariah, and
having the ability to make clones... Sakura was very quickly edging into child prodigy territory.

"I hope that you and your associate could help Sakura develop her skills and bring her out of her
shell."

Ibiki inclined his head.


"We'll try our very best, Haruno-san."

Mebuki smiled and took another sip of her tea.

::

"So first floor's just the lobby. Sometimes you'll see Hagane Kotetsu as the receptionist, other
times Kamizuki Izumo or Tobitake Tonbo. A lot of the times, the desk is empty though. We fill it
if we can. Second floor is where our holding cells are. Top notch stuff. Third are the offices, as
you could see, and the basement is where all the nasty stuff goes down." Genma grinned, "We
could take a quick peek if you're up for it."

Sakura shrugged.

"Sure."

He pouted at her lack of enthusiasm but led her down the cement steps to the dark hallway.
Chakra enhanced two-way mirrors and doors lined both sides. As they walked down, Sakura
could see metal tables and chairs in some, and just a single chair in others. The interrogation rooms
couldn't be bothered to be cleaned either with aged bloodstains coating the walls and floor. She
grimaced.

"How unhigee-- unhygii--... un-hy-gee..."

"Unhygienic?" Genma supplied with a wide grin.

"Yeah. That. Shut up, Shiranui-san."

She walked a little ways ahead of him, cheeks coloring as she inwardly cursed her
underdeveloped vocabulary. Looking to the right, she saw that the second to last room was
occupied with none other than Shikamaru's father, alive and well, and some poor bastard being
subjected to his interrogation tactics. But she already missed most of the action. Genma walked up
beside her.

"Ah. That's Nara Shikaku. He doesn't do interrogation all that much and normally works with the
Cryptanalysis Team the next building over. That guy is a prime example of a real genius 'cept he's
a real lazy sack of bones. Can't get him do anything around here." he grumbled, "It's a real
wonder how someone got him to do his job, much less an interrogation."

Shikaku knocked the prisoner out before giving a wide yawn before walking out. When saw
Genma, he raised a hand in a lazy wave.

"Afternoon, Genma."

His eyes then trailed down at the short, pink-haired girl.

"And who's this young lady?"

"Haruno Sakura. Nice to meet you, Nara-san." she greeted. He raised an eyebrow at her. It was
odd to see someone so young in the building. And by the looks of it, she was about the same age
as his son.

"Nice to meet you too, Sakura-chan." he replied slowly. He lifted his eyes back to Genma who
easily explained the situation.

"When we get her parent's permission, we'll get her to train a bit and work under the Intelligence
Sector. I'm just showing her around." he chirped.

"Really?" Shikaku mused. He glanced back down at the girl who returned the look with hard,
calculating eyes. An involuntary shiver ran down his spine. Strange, "I'm going to report my
findings to Inoichi. Have fun, you two."

He stuffed both hands of his pockets and started his trek out of the basement. He did throw one
curious glance over his shoulder before disappearing up the steps. Sakura tore her eyes away from
his retreated form and looked back into the interrogation room.

"So are you just going to leave him in there?" she questioned. Genma bobbed his head.

"Yup. He'll probably be in there for a couple of hours before an actual interrogator comes down
her to finish up."

She stayed quiet before glancing up at him.

"Have you ever accidentally swallowed that senbon? Seems like you have."

Genma pulled a face before turning away and scratching his cheek.

"Maybe once."

She smiled a bit at that. Suddenly, she heard the door open and the light tapping of footsteps that
followed. Genma's name was called out by a voice Sakura thought held an uncanny familiarity.
How? This voice was cheerful and light-hearted and nothing like the voice back in her world.
Someone in a green flak jacket came into view, Uchiha clan crests in blue four pointed stars
stitched onto the shoulders of his black long sleeved shirt, and orange goggles stuck on his
forehead on top of his hitai-ate.

Genma grinned.

"What's up, Obito?"

::

Sasori stood in the kitchen, staring intently at the burning pot sitting on the stove. What did he do
wrong? He was pretty sure he followed the recipe... Kisame walked in a few minutes later and
paused, eyes first going to the fire, then to the confused man standing in front of it.

"... What are you doing?" he asked.

"I was trying to cook noodles." Sasori answered. Kisame looked to the counter and saw the
package of uncooked noodles sitting there; unopened.

"The noodles aren't even in-- did you just burn boiling water?"

"There's not just water in there. I put oil in too."

"... But... The noodles aren't..."

Kisame simply shut his mouth, turned on his heel, and walked back out of the kitchen. It was six
in the morning and it was far too early for him to deal with Sasori's recent weirdness. As he
walked to his room, he heard Sasori call after him.

"Where are you going? Tell me what I did wrong with the noodles!"
Sasuke

'No, no, no, this wasn't happening. He's not here, he's not alive, he won't do anything-- but what if
he does? What if it happens again? All of it? He wouldn't, he wouldn't, please don't let him!!!'

"You're real hard to find, you know?" Obito whined, "I was out looking all over Konoha for you!
You weren't at any of the restaurants, the bars, the training grounds but you end up in the bowels
of the T&I building!"

His complaining was short lived when he saw the little girl at Genma's side. His lips stretched into
a friendly grin.

"Uchiha Obito." he introduced happily as he put out a hand, "And you?"

Sakura swallowed down her fear and kept a neutral facade as she took his hand and gave a firm
shake. The memories started up again. Him, his mocking smirk, the look of pleasure lit up in his
sharingan when he'd--

She frantically tried to erase the image of the man who started the Fourth Shinobi World War. He
wasn't the same as he was back in her time. It was impossible.

"Haruno Sakura."

It took all of her willpower to stop the quiver in her words.

She was grateful when there was an interruption of the door opening and the sound of footsteps
coming their way. Ibiki graced the three of them with his presence, acknowledging Obito with a
glance and the slight tilt of his head. His gaze then flickered to Sakura.

"You have your parents approval. Come with me. Shiranui, join us when you finish your
business." he said. She nodded, waved at Genma and Obito, and left with the head interrogator.

::

"Eh? She has something to do for you guys?" Obito asked once he and Genma were alone in the
basement. Genma nodded.

"Yup. We're bringing her into the intelligence sector."

Obito made a displeased face.

"Already? She's so young..."

He didn't like when young kids were brought into the shinobi lifestyle at such a young age. He
knew two people who had been subjected into that kind of thing. One of them was his cousin, the
prodigy of the clan, and the other was his best friend, the prodigy of his team. And by the looks of
it, this girl-- Haruno Sakura-- was starting out far earlier than the two. Even slightly earlier than
Kakashi.

"We aren't going to force her do interrogations if that's what you're thinking, and we're not going
to turn her into some killing machine. This was purely her choice and if she wants out, she's out."

Obito wasn't convinced. Genma sighed and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Lighten up, goggles. It's not the end of the world. So why'd you come looking for me anyways?"

"Hm? Oh, right. You've got a mission with me, Aoba, and Raido. Real easy A-rank to Ishigakure.
We meet at the gates tomorrow morning at seven." he provided. Genma groaned. It wasn't that he
didn't like going on missions, it was just that Ishigakure was so humid that taking a shower in the
hottest months of the year was wasted effort.

"Fine, whatever." he grumbled, "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get back up to Morino-san's
office before he bites my head off for being late."

"I still don't like it!"

Genma was already up the stairs.

"Deal with it, red eye!"

He left the basement and took his sweet time on his way to Ibiki's office. Maybe Obito did have a
point. She was just a little girl just under six years old who wasn't even in the Academy yet and
they were already bringing her into one of Konoha's forces. But what could he say? It was hard to
find talent like hers. And if they were able to cultivate such skill from such a young age, she could
become a great asset to Konoha.

'Damn, when did I start thinking like Ibiki?'

When he entered the office, Sakura was sitting on the chair in front of Ibiki's desk. She had a
clipboard in her hands and was writing something intently. Genma looked over her shoulder, eyes
widening when he recognized the paper she was working on. It was the chuunin exams written
test-- the one from last year. She had already answered eight out of nine questions, and as far as he
could see, all eight of them were most likely right.

Jeez, where did this kid come from?

Her pencil tapped her cheek a few times before she scribbled in the last answer. Again, correct.
She gave the pencil and clipboard to Ibiki.

"Finished already?"

"The questions weren't that hard. I've seen kinda the same ones in books I've read." she replied
with a light smile. Ibiki grunted and quickly scanned her answers. Thinking his eyes had
somehow deceived him, he went back to the beginning and reread her answers.

"Well I'll be fucking damned." he mused, "You got all of them right."

Genma let out a low whistle and leaned against Sakura's chair.

"Holy crap, kid, you're a genius. What's next? You can use elemental jutsu?" he joked. Well, she
did pick up quite a few in the war, but it wasn't like she was going to tell them something like that.
Ibiki put her exam paper in an empty folder and locked it in one of his drawers.

"The next thing we'd like to test are your physical skills and see how advanced you really are." he
said. He and Genma led her to the training grounds that Sakura recognized as the place the former
Team Seven would sometimes meet up. Her chest ached at the sight and she sighed, looking up at
the sky to try and forget.

"How deep are your chakra levels?" Ibiki asked. Sakura forced her gaze back down.
"Still kinda low. I know I've got a long ways to go, but I'm trying to reach maxium cipa--
maximim-- max--"

"Maximum capacity?" Genma grinned, throwing a back a teasing glance. She visibly wilted and
hung her head.

"Yeah." she sighed. She needed to stop using large words and embarrassing herself like this. They
stopped on a red bridge that stretched over a thin river. Ibiki gestured to the water.

"Stand on the water."

Sakura did as told, hefting herself over the railing and dropping silently onto the river's surface.
She waited patiently for the next order but grew suspicious when they stood there with matching
smirks on their faces. She saw Genma's hand flinch and instantly brought out her kunai. She
blocked six senbon that were shot at her and caught the seventh one between her fingers.

"Your reaction time is pretty good too." Ibiki commented with an impressed nod, "Looks like you
can hold your own with the unexpected."

She looked at the senbon in her hand, glaring at the purple liquid dripping from the tip.

"I guess it's okay to test me, but why'd you use poison senbon? What if it hit me?!" Sakura
exclaimed. Genma shrugged.

"Luckily it didn't, then."

For the next hour, she was asked to perform certain jutsu. Most of them were Academy and genin
level techniques with one or two chuunin techniques thrown into the mix. They had also asked for
her to handle weapons such as kunai and senbon and even her wrist blades.

"You know," Genma said, "At this rate I don't think you even have to go to the Academy. You
could graduate in one semester and be in a genin team around this time next year."

Sakura shook her head.

"I won't graduate early. There's someone I don't want to leave behind."

::

It wasn't quite that late, but if she didn't get home soon she knew her parents would get worried.
As Sakura walked towards her apartment, she passed by the playground where she usually met
Naruto. She did indeed see him at the swings, but he wasn't alone. He looked like he was arguing
amiably with a black haired boy.

'Sasuke.'

She walked over to the both of them.

"--so 'nnoying, 'ttebayo!" Naruto growled as he grabbed fistfuls of blonde hair, "All you do's act
all high an' mighty when you're just a bastard!"

"I don't even know what that means so joke's on you, idiot!" Sasuke hissed. She were glaring at
each other so intensely that they didn't notice Sakura walked up to them.

"What did I tell you about getting into fights, Naruto?" she chastised. He whipped towards her
and pointed an accusing finger at Sasuke.
"That bastard--"

"Language."

"--said he could swing better than me! 'Course I don't care 'bout that stuff 'cause I know I'm super
awes'me, but then he said that he's better 'cause he's an Uchiwa--"

"It's Uchiha!" Sasuke corrected vehemently.

"--an' all Uchiwa's are better than ev'ryone else!"

Sakura raised an eyebrow. She didn't think that Sasuke acted pretentious even at a very young
age. Frowning inwardly, she noted that his clan seemed to be relentless in implementing their
values into their clan members even at such a young age. Sakura saw a glimpse of that sort of
upbringing in the Sasuke from her time and bit back a cringe.

She knew the real reason why Itachi carried out the massacre, and she had to say, he wasn't
completely wrong in doing so. There were a million of other ways he could have done it and the
path he chose was unethical, but she saw exactly why he did it. And she didn't blame him.

"Well that's just his opinion. You can't fight everyone on every little thing." she said. Naruto
pouted. She then turned to Sasuke, "And you can't just go telling people that you're better because
you think you are."

He glowered at her.

"I don't think I am, I know I am!"

"You're not even in the Academy yet." Sakura countered smoothly. Sasuke clenched his fists.

"Like you can say somefin' about it! I bet you aren't either! But I'm a Uchiha and the Uchiha are
always better." he snapped. She bit the inside of her cheek and stood in front of him defiantly,
hands crossed over her chest and eyes narrowed a fraction.

"I don't believe you."

Sasuke bared his teeth and threw a fist forward. Sakura quickly blocked it and knocked him onto
the ground faster than Naruto had ever seen. Sasuke stared at her in shock when he realized the
situation he was in in. She was on top of him, one foot near his arm and the other folded in a way
so that it was over his legs. Her left hand was pressed on his stomach and her right was tightened
into a fist that was held in front of his face.

Did he just lose...? Just like that?!

Sakura was still in that position for a few moments before she got up and dusted herself off. She
extended a hand to help him up.

"See what I mean?" she asked. Sasuke, once recovered from shock, slapped her hand away and
got up himself.

"Whatever! You guys are losers anyways!" he snarled. He turned and ran away from the
playground. Naruto didn't mind as he bounced in front of Sakura with a hopeful look in his eyes.

"Ne, ne, Sakura-chan, can you teach me how to do that?!"

She slowly dragged her gaze away from Sasuke's retreating form and smiled.
"Only if you get better at throwing kunai."

"Oh, come on, Sakura-chan!!"

As he continued to whine to her, Sakura couldn't help but think she went too far. But he really did
need to get put in his place and she'd be damned if she was ever going to let him turn into the
person she knew.

And the first thing that she had to do was wipe away that stupid arrogance of his.
Studious

Sasori was graced with Kou-chan's ever flamboyant presence once more, this time owing the
summons a quick fur brushing. He complied without reluctance.

Uchiha Obito is part of the Konoha Keimu Butai, meaning that there must be someone else
pulling the strings in the Akatsuki. You could make the assumption that your leader, Yahiko, really
is the one in charge this time. Speaking of your leader, the name "Yahiko" seems familiar. I
believe he was one of Jiraiya's old students. Perhaps you could research something about that?
Also, I've begun an internship under Konoha's Intelligence Sector. I know I can learn more from
them.

Try not to cause too much trouble.

He frowned after reading the note. He wasn't too bothered by the entire Yahiko situation, as he
was sure that he could dig up that information somewhere-- probably in the Amegakure Archives.
What Sasori was concerned about was the way Sakura was throwing herself into work instead of
enjoying her restarted life.

When he first met her, she was barely fifteen with determination in her eyes and optimism
pumping through her veins. She was so lively and naive that we would scoff at how she the world
with bright, shining hope. Now, there was none of that. When Sasori saw her for the first time in
this timeline, she looked like she had given up.

Sakura told him how she threw herself in front of Naruto and Sasuke so that they would become
the great shinobi she knew they'd be one day. What would stop her from doing the same thing the
second time around?

He shook his head and sighed.

She needed to be the kid she was and remember that history had yet to write itself.

But for now, he supposed he could push through with his research on Yahiko. Sasori had to be
extremely cautious, though. He was starting to draw too much attention.

::

The mornings her hers to do whatever she pleased. At five o'clock pm every weekday, she would
report to the T&I building for three hours before she was allowed to go home. Once she entered
the Academy, she would only be there Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. Sakura couldn't
complain with the schedule as it worked well with what she already had going.

Most of her mornings were spent at Training Ground 44, and her early afternoons were dedicated
to hanging out with Naruto, sometimes Chouji. On Saturdays, she would go grocery shopping
with her mother and help her cook dinner in the afternoon. On Sundays, she'd either train some
more or do chores around the house before Kizashi would whip up a big Sunday night dinner.

"How's your internship with Morino-san, sweetheart?" Mebuki asked during one of their calm
Sunday dinners.

"Fine. Morino-san said he wants me to focus on tactical and strategic in-tel-li-gience." she
answered, now quite used to the way she pronounced her larger words, "I'm pretty much just
studying now."
Sakura took a bite of rice as she noticed the way her parents exchanged glances. She sighed
inwardly-- that was the look she'd see before she'd receive some sort of lecture. Her father cleared
his throat and leaned forward on the table.

"So, Sakura-chan, what have you been doing when we're at work? You must be really bored
being all alone at home." Kizashi said. Sakura finished chewing her food, hands tightening around
her chopsticks. They knew.

"... I..."

She could lie, but that would just make her case worse, wouldn't it? Then again, if she told them
what she really did outside the apartment, she could get into even more trouble. Her eyes suddenly
grew wide as she considered her train of thought. She was treating her parents like an obstacle.

"... I train after you leave for work." she admitted with a sigh, "And I leave a clone in my place so
I don't get in trouble. After I train, I play with Naruto. I'm sorry I didn't say anything."

Sakura braced herself for the berating or the yelling that was sure to follow from her confession.
Instead, she was gathered up from her seat and brought into a tight hug by both her mother and
her father. She blinked.

"Um?"

"Oh, sweetheart..." Mebuki murmured sadly, "Why did you have to grow up so fast?"

Sakura didn't reply, simply melting in their embrace.

::

Sakura hissed at a total of five people today. A new record.

Her and Naruto were sitting in the sandbox trying to make castles. The playground was empty, as
per usual, but they didn't mind. Naruto was just glad that there was someone he could spend his
time with and he didn't care about other people anymore as long as he had his 'Sakura-chan'. Oh--
and Chouji too!

But Chouji couldn't come by today, saying that he promised to go somewhere with this one kid
named Shikamaru.

Naruto happily hummed to himself as he patted the sides of his castle to make it stand upright.
Sakura wasn't doing that much, simply building castles just like he was but without all the
struggle. He started to whine.

"Sakura-chaaaaan! How are you getting your castles to look like that?"

It wasn't like she was going to tell him she was using her chakra.

They played for about an hour or so until Sakura felt a chakra signature slowly approaching her
location. It was small like a child's, but more developed in a shinobi's sense. But aside from that,
she could recognize that specific one anywhere. When that person came up to the sandbox,
Naruto sneered.

"Oh great! What d'ya want now, asshole?!"

Sakura jabbed him in the stomach.


"Language, Naruto." she chided. She looked up at Sasuke, "So? What is it?"

Sasuke pouted with his hands clasped behind his back. He kept his eyes down as he kicked at
pebble on the ground.

"I... I'm sorry. For yest'rday." he apologized, puffing out his cheeks, "I was being a meanie and...
uh... yeah."

Sakura wanted to laugh at how cute that apology sounded, but managed to keep it from bubbling
out of her throat. Naruto blinked owlishly for a few seconds before stubbornly turning back to his
sand castle. Nobody had apologized to him before and he never thought he'd be receiving one
anytime soon. Especially from him. Sakura gestured to the sandbox.

"You wanna play with us?"

Sasuke brightened up.

::

Mikoto was prepping dinner when her mind wandered back to the strange little girl she met those
few weeks ago. She herself was a jounin before she retired and had children, so she knew what
was normal and what wasn't in the shinobi community. That girl, whoever she was, definitely
belonged to the latter. The girl was able to catch every single one of her books and walk away
without making the slightest sound.

It shouldn't have been possible. Mikoto glanced at the clock, frowning at the time. It was 4:30 and
her youngest son still hadn't come home. Fugaku would be home late because of extra paperwork
and Itachi wasn't due back to Konoha for another few days. She untied her apron and hung it up
before walking to the front door and slipping on her shoes.

She walked out of the house, intent on looking for Sasuke no matter how long it took. Luckily, it
didn't take too long. Mikoto's heart warmed as she saw her son laughing and smiling with kids his
own age. One of them was the Kyuubi boy, she noted a little nervously, but he looked just as
happy as Sasuke so she decided to leave it be. And the other child...

It was her. The strange one.

Mikoto stared at the girl, inspecting her thoroughly. At first glance, she looked like any other kid
one would see in the village. But the more she observed her, the more she noticed the beginning
of defining muscles in her arms. And when Mikoto saw the flicker of green that flashed in her
direction, she knew that the girl could sense chakra as well.

Who was she?

Suddenly, the tokubetsu jounin Mikoto recognized as Shiranui Genma came up to the three
children. He grinned, raised a hand in greeting, and exchanged a couple of words with them. The
girl soon stood, waved goodbye to the two boys, and walked down the street with Genma at her
side. Mikoto straightened.

That was certainly something she wasn't expecting..

::

"Heya, Sasuke-chan!!"

"Ugh."
Sasuke lumbered past an opened-armed Obito. He wilted when the boy passed him and went up
the stairs. Why did he have to be like that? They were cousins! With slumped shoulders, he
trudged down the hall and sat at the kitchen counter. Mikoto smiled.

"No luck?"

"I don't understand!" he pouted, "Why does Sasuke-chan hate me? I didn't do anything!"

For some odd reason, ever since Sasuke was a baby he hated one person and one person only--
his very own cousin Uchiha Obito. When he was sixth months old, Sasuke's favorite teething toy
had been Obito's arm. When he was one year old, he threw up on only Obito. And when he
would cry, Obito getting hurt in any shape of form would always cheer him up. No one knew
why, and the only one who had a problem with it was the one being hated on.

"There's always something, right?" Mikoto grinned, "Besides, I don't think you have to try as hard
to befriend him anymore. It seems that Sasuke-kun made some friends outside the clan."

Obito's eyebrows raised.

"Really? Who?"

"One of them is the Uzumaki boy and the other is this... odd... girl. I have no clue who she is. She
has pink hair--"

"-- green eyes, about the same age as Sasuke-chan, and is way too mature for a kid?" he guessed.
The matriarch slowly nodded, dark eyes brimming with interest, "Yeah, that's Haruno Sakura. I
met her not too long ago. She's being brought into the Intelligence sector under Genma and
Morino-san."

She frowned.

"I really don't like it." he continued, "She's starting out younger than Itachi-chan and Kakashi ever
did. I know how bad Kakashi got once he got into ANBU and Itachi-chan's well on his way
there, but... I just don't want her to end up like them, you know? I'm tryin' to get Kakashi out of
his shell and Itachi-chan just loves to piss me the hell off. What if she ends up like that? What'll
happen then?"

Mikoto looked down worriedly. She could very well see the source of Obito's worries. Prodigies
that were like both her eldest son and Hatake Kakashi were rare and talented, yes, but they were
the worst kind. They always grew up to be reclusive and would risk their lives day to day for the
cause they believed in. Prodigies like that had the best physical form and were more intelligent
than the most advanced shinobi, but their mental state was unstable. Uncomfortably so.

"... It's her choice, isn't it?" Mikoto asked. Obito sighed.

"Yeah."

"Then we shouldn't worry. Maybe Naruto and Sasuke won't let her get that far, ne?"

He really hoped so.


Academy

Hiruzen leaned back in his seat with a small smile on his face as he took a puff of his pipe. Naruto
babbled on and on about his day. He was glad that the boy looked more happy recently. Though
he did notice that Naruto always seemed to mention a "Haruno Sakura-chan" over and over, and
even more recently, his stories began to include an "Uchiwa Sasuke".

"Oh? And how did you meet Sasuke-kun?"

Naruto's face brightened.

"It was the bestest, jiji! Firs' I was at the park on the swings 'cuz I had nothin' else to do, right?
Then Sasuke came up and said he better-er on the swings than I was 'cuz he was an Uchiwa!
'Course I told him he was a bastard and all--"

Hiruzen frowned at the boy's language.

"-- but then Sakura-chan came and told him off! Sasuke got real pissed and tried ta' deck her but
then BAM! Sakura-chan threw him on the ground and scared him off! She was sooooo cool,
dattebayo!! But he came back the next day and said he was sorry for bein' a meanie."

After his explanation, Naruto glanced over at the clock. He panicked.

"AHHH! I'mma be late! I'mma be late!!!" he exclaimed. He fell off the chair.

"Late for--?"

"Studyin'! I told Sakura-chan and Sasuke we'd study for the 'cademy at my place and I'm gonna
be late!! Later, jiji!"

After Naruto ran out of the office, the Sandaime took another long drag before smiling. He knew
where Naruto lived and was greatly displeased at the fact, but his hands were tied on the matter.
As much as he wanted to give that boy a loving adoptive family, he couldn't because of the sheer
fact that no one wanted to house him and that child services only allowed for him to live in the
least costly place possible-- the Akasen.

If Naruto had been able to make friends and show them where he lived and that they haven't run
off, Hiruzen knew the boy was in good hands. He didn't have to worry that much anymore. His
friends, though, raised some concern.

Fugaku would more than likely accept Naruto being friends with his youngest son, but that didn't
mean that the rest of the clan could simply accept that. Then there was that Haruno Sakura. He
had never heard the name before, but he felt that he should have. If she had been able to take
down someone in the blink of an eye, a shinobi should have noticed that talent by now. And if
there was a shinobi who did, who was it?

Hiruzen rolled his shoulders before turning his attention back to his paperwork. The one on the
top of the pile was the T&I monthly report. He read through the normally monotonous writing, but
towards the end of it, saw an unusual entry.

... Haruno Sakura has been placed into the system. Though she has yet to begin the first
year of the Academy, she will start an altered internship under the care of Morino Ibiki and
Shiranui Genma. Parental permission had been granted. This will include...
Well. It seemed that he found his answer.

::

Sasuke was a little nervous when Sakura dragged him through the sides of the Akasen. He often
passed by the entrance of this place, but his mother always told him never to step foot in the
district. There were lots of bad people here, he recalled his mother saying, a lot of them didn't like
children and wouldn't hesitate to try and hurt one. If that was true...

"Sakura, why does Naruto live here?" he whispered as he grabbed onto her shirt, "Kaa-san says
it's bad."

She grimaced.

"Because social services don't like him." she replied bitterly. She vowed that she'd get Naruto out
of this place one day. It didn't matter what she had to do-- Naruto wasn't living in this district for
the rest of his childhood. They soon made it to the back of Magenta where she saw Mari-san in
her usual place by the stairs, a cigarette between her lips. She silently waved at the two kids who
walked up the stairs.

"Wh-Who was that?" Sasuke murmured as his cheeks went red.

"Naruto's landlord, Mari-san." she said, smiling at the look on his face, "Why? You like her or
something?"

"What?! N-No way, girls are gross!!"

Sakura raised an eyebrow at him.

"W-Well I mean... other girls, but uh, not you?"

She let a small chuckle slip past her lips before punching him in the shoulder. He whined
something about her punching him so hard all the time. She paid no mind to it as she leaned back
against the railing. Naruto wasn't back yet, but she could feel his chakra signature weaving
through the streets near the apartment. Sasuke looked at her.

"Aren't you gonna knock?"

"He's not back."

"Huh? How do you--"

"I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I'M SORRY I WAS TALKIN' TA' JIJI!!"

Naruto came stumbling up the stairs, tripping on the last one up and face-planting on the ledge. He
got up like nothing happened and grinned at the two standing at his front door.

"Now we can study, 'ttebayo!!"

::

"Can we stop studyin'? Please?" Naruto groaned. He was splayed across his floor with numerous
books strewn around him and his face buried in scrolls. Sakura lowered the paper she was writing
on, an assignment from Ibiki, and raised an eyebrow.

"It's been fifteen minutes."


"Well it felt like an hour, 'ttebayo!"

"What? Can't read?" Sasuke asked. Naruto's head shot up out of the papers, not minding the
imprints of ink that covered his cheeks.

"'Course I can read, bastard--"

"Language."

"-- sorry, and I just don't like ta' do it!" he snarled. Sakura looked back down at her work as the
two started up their usual banter. The paper were questions on everything she knew about seals
and such, but she wasn't sure about what to put and what not to put. She knew Ibiki had gone to
her apartment to ask her parents permission, but did he see all the seals underneath her bed? Did
her mother even know about those? Probably.

So filling it out with all the correct answers it was.

Naruto pulled himself out of the pile of study material and walked into the hallway.

"I'm gonna pee!"

"Gross, you didn't need to say that out loud!" Sasuke said. The blonde stuck his tongue out at him
before disappearing from view. After a short while, Sasuke reached over and tugged on Sakura's
shirt sleeve.

"Ne, Sakura..."

She raised her eyes.

"Hm?

He glanced around the small apartment.

"Why's Naruto allowed to live here? Where's his mom and dad? Doesn't he got any? And why's
there seals on the windows? I saw nii-san make these once, but he's already a real shinobi." he
said. Sakura tucked her pencil behind her ear.

"Naruto's an orphan." she replied. He cocked his head.

"What's that?"

"Means his parents are gone." she explained. His eyes went wide, "But don't say stuff about it,
okay?"

Sasuke nodded mutely and went back to his studying, luckily not pushing on about the seals. This
timeline unfortunately hadn't spared Minato's and Kushina's lives like she wished it would have.
She wanted Naruto to have the childhood he deserved, especially without the hostility of some of
these damned villagers. She even already had the goal of trying to find someone to take Naruto in.

But for now, there was the Academy.

And she hoped that the three of them attending there would be for the best.

::

But it wasn't. Of course it wasn't. It had had to be because of their goddamn shitty sensei.
The desks were set up in rows of three with four tables in each of the three sections. Sasuke,
Naruto, and Sakura were sat in the first row on the right side, Chouji sitting directly behind them
with his friend Shikamaru. It was the second week of school and they had gotten back their first
tests. Sasuke received a 95%, Sakura a 100%, and Naruto...

A 27%?!

When Sakura saw this, she took the paper from his hands and scanned through his answers with a
medic's eye. The more she read, the angrier she got. His answers were correct. Most of them. But
the teacher had marked them off saying that he 'didn't explain enough' or he 'spelled something
wrong' or something 'wasn't legible'.

Half the class had horrible handwriting because they were six. Years. Old. Their teacher's hostility
towards Naruto was painfully obvious and was doing everything possible to flunk him out of the
class.

"Hey, you shoulda got a B on that." Chouji said.

"Yeah, what happened?" Sasuke frowned, leaning over Sakura's shoulder to glare at the paper,
"Why did sensei mark you down on two? Same for five, six, and eight..."

"... It's fine. I don't mind." Naruto mumbled. He didn't know why the adults hated him so much
but he was used to it. He didn't want anyone else to worry about it. He reached over to the get the
paper back from Sakura when she slammed her fists on the desk and stood up from her seat.

"WHAT THE HELL GIVES?!" she yelled. She had kept quiet for Naruto's sake, but this was
just crossing the line. He was going to fail if this became a normal occurrence. The whole class
went silent as the teacher turned around with his eyebrows reaching his hairline.

"Sakura!"

"And you call yourself a teacher!" she accused, "Is this how you're gonna grade his work?! Like
it's supposed to be ANBU level?! I don't know what's with all you people and hating Naruto for
no apparent reason, but it's crossing the line when you make him start to fail!"

Sasuke openly gaped at her and Naruto pulled at her arm.

"Sakura-chan!" he exclaimed, "Sit down! S'okay! Really!"

But she didn't relent. She bared her teeth at the teacher, glaring at him so intensely that he might as
well have burst into flames. He walked over to her and crossed his arms.

"Sakura, I'm going to need you to calm down--"

"No! I won't!" she snarled, shoving the paper in his face, "I've had to deal with your shit for two
weeks straight and I'm fucking done!"

The entire class gasped in shock. She yelled at the teacher and said a bad word. Their sensei went
red in the face.

"Detention!" he snapped. Sasuke stood up.

"You can't give 'er detention like that! She's right and you shoulda been more fair to Naruto!" he
growled. The teacher's face contorted into a haughty sneer.

"You can join her in detention as well, Sasuke."


The boy plopped back down into his seat with an angry huff. Then came the unexpected.
Shikamaru had woken up the moment Sakura opened her mouth to defend her friend and knew
perfectly well which direction this all was headed. But what he hadn't accounted for was the
moment when Chouji took a stand as well, regarding the teacher nervously but defiantly.

Shikamaru straightened up in his seat.

"Naruto gotta B. Not an F." Chouji said. He flinched when his sensei's eyes flickered up to him
and narrowed distastefully.

"Then detention for you too." he hissed. Chouji quickly sat back down and twiddled his fingers
under the desk, not seeing how Shikamaru stared at him in disbelief. The teacher cast a peeved
eye to the other students.

"Anyone else?"

Nothing. He nodded in disgusting approval.

"Good."
Monster

Sakura fumed silently in her seat, Sasuke to her right and Chouji to her left. The bell had rung ten
minutes ago and she had just finished convincing Naruto to go home to rest a while, also assuring
him that it wasn't even close to his fault that his friends had ended up with detention. He
reluctantly did end up leaving while vowing to stay outside the Academy until their sensei let them
leave.

He stood in front of them, her more so than the other two, and scowled down at them. Sasuke was
glaring to the side at the door while Chouji scooted closer to Sakura with his hands gripping his
pants and his eyes trained to the ground. Sakura kept her chin jutted out and meeting his irritate
gaze with her stone cold one.

"You three had created a huge disruption today. And that's unacceptable." he said, "Sasuke,
Chouji, you'll be staying her for another hour."

Not a word.

"And you, Sakura..."

He placed his palms on the desktop and leaned forward.

"For yelling at a teacher, showing blatant disrespect, and cussing, we'll be having a parent teacher
conference tomorrow on Saturday." he concluded. Sakura shrugged.

"Cool." she replied with her eyes still locked on his. They had darkened a considerable amount
and flashed with a promise of death. A shiver lazily curled up his spine as he coughed and
produced a set of packets.

"Now I can't just let you sit here and do nothing. You'll be working on these practice problems the
entire hour. You may leave at 4:15."

He passed out the work then sat on his desk to observe them keenly. Sakura stared at him for a
moment longer before picking up her pencil and starting the work. Simple, as always. And it gave
her enough time to think about her next set of plans

::

Naruto sat on the swing outside of the Academy, pushing himself back and forth as he looked at
the door guiltily. Sakura didn't have to stand up for him like that. He knew she was one of the best
friends he ever had, besides Mari-san, and much more protective than he ever thought she'd be.
But... But she didn't have to stand up for him. Sasuke didn't. Chouji really didn't.

He felt even guiltier when he couldn't stop a warm feeling from pooling into his chest. It was nice
to know that someone cared about him enough to stand against an authority. Naruto wilted.

Why did they have to care so much?

::

Shikamaru stepped into his house with an abnormally concentrated expression. His father was
sitting at the dinner table with Chouza and Inoichi who were sharing a beer and probably talking
about some stories about work. Shikaku noticed his son's entrance and waved him over.
"Welcome home. Chouji-kun's not with you?" he asked. His eyebrow raised when Shikamaru's
face deepened in seriousness.

"He got detention." he said.

"Detention?" Inoichi exclaimed, "Chouji-kun? What did he do?"

Chouza leaned forward curiously. His son wasn't even close to being a troublemaker. Chouji was
far too shy and self-conscious to speak up about anything, much less do something that would
land him on the bad side of a teacher.

"He and two others defended Naruto. Sensei graded his test really hard and gave him an F when
he shoulda gotta B."

Chouza blinked. He was aware that his son had become good friends with the boy, but he never
imagined that they'd be good enough friends for Chouji to move from his comfort zone.

"Who were the other two?"

"Uchiha Sasuke and Haruno Sakura? I think that's their names. I was sleepin' until Sakura yelled
at him and said the f-word. Troublesome."

Shikamaru stared at the orange in his hands, frowning when it reminded him of the boy who
Chouji stood up for.

"I dunno why the grown-ups hate Naruto so much. He's loud a lot but he's not bad. He wouldn't
do something wrong." he mumbled. He retreated to his room, not seeing the clan head's surprised
faces.

"An Uchiha stood up for him too? And Fugaku's son, nonetheless." Inoichi whistled. Shikaku
stared at the darkened glass of his bottle.

"The girl... Haruno Sakura." he mentioned, "I met her about a few months ago in the T&I
building in the basement. As far as I've heard, Ibiki and Genma had taken her in. I don't know
how capable she is, but she must be at least chuunin level."

"The pink-haired one?"

"Yeah. Her."

Inoichi reclined in his seat. Before the Academy term started, he saw her pass his office nearly
everyday. He didn't think too much of it until he was told she was here as a student. A child hadn't
been trained in that sector all the years he'd been a part of it, and he didn't think they'd start now.

'Especially with a girl Ino's age.'

::

The teacher collected their worksheets the second the clock struck 4:15 and sent them on their
way. Except for Sakura. He asked her to stay after a little longer. With a slight glare from Sasuke,
he and Chouji left the room to meet with Naruto and wait for her to come out. Sakura crossed her
arms as her sensei motioned her to stand in front of his desk. He shifted in his seat and laced his
fingers together.

"I get that you've gotten protective over Naruto, but maybe it would be best if you would
reconsider." he said. Her finger twitched, "Nothing good comes out of that... boy. You'd be much
safer if you just stay away from him. He's a waste of time."

How prideful he must have felt by thinking he was doing the right thing. But how frightful he
must've become when the atmosphere dampened with hostility. Sakura's entire being filled with a
calm rage as she regarded the man like he was an insignificant cockroach.

"Naruto's the least of your worries, sir."

She bared her teeth.

"Yell at me all you want, give me all the work in the entire world, and give detention every day
for the whole year, I don't care."

Her eyes took form of a monster's.

"As long as I'm around, I'm not gonna let anything happen to him. It doesn't matter what I have to
say or what I have to do, but if something happens to him..."

Fear scratched at his lungs.

"... You're gonna see who the real demon is."

The air cleared with that and she took her leave. The teacher watched her go, not able to stop his
hands from shaking. She wasn't normal, and now he knew that for a fact. Her intelligence was off
the charts, her physical prowess was far higher than any six year old should be, and he didn't think
there was anything he could do to curb that attitude of hers. He looked out the classroom window
to see Sakura meet up with the boys who waited for her.

Green flickered in his direction, and there was only one thing that came to mind.

Dangerous.

::

"Y-You're back!"

In the backdrop of a setting sun and the sound of a gently running river, Gaara sat on the bank
with his puppet clutched closely to his chest. Sasori sat down beside him with a relaxed sigh as he
stretched out his legs in front of him. It's been some time since he'd gone to visit the boy-- a few
months, at least.

"I've had some spare time, so I decided to drop by for a visit." he said. He patted Gaara's head
lightly, "How are things?"

The boy deflated. He tucked his knees closer to him and stared down at the puppet in his hands.
He never showed it to anyone in fear of them taking it away. Komushi was the only one who
knew only because he was there the day it was given to him.

"Tou-sama still doesn't like me." he mumbled, "But I got Yashamaru. I... I hurt him sometimes,
but he's still there. More than tou-sama. I like him, but no one else likes me, except him and Kaa-
san."

Kaa-san. Sasori could assume the mother he was referring to the tailed beast locked inside him.
Then there was Yashamaru-- a close associate of the Kazekage, if he wasn't mistaken. And if
memory served him true, he also died at the hands of the boy's Ichibi.
Perhaps he could prevent that.

"Just because your father isn't nice to you doesn't mean he doesn't love you." Sasori said, picking
his words out carefully, "It might be difficult for him because of who he thinks you are, not who
you really are."

Gaara's shoulders dropped as he looked up at Sasori.

"Then who am I, Hiruko?" he asked. The older man vaguely remembered the alias he gave as he
patted the boy's head again, a light smile on his face.

"No one else but you. Keep that in mind."

The boy turned his attention to the river. It was one of the only ones near Sunagakure and
contrasted greatly with the arid topography of the country. He came here all the time to clear his
mind and hopefully be without Kaa-san for a little bit. It was lonely, yeah, but it calmed him down
enough to the point where he could continuously tell himself to lower his incidents back at home.

"But-- But what if I can't?"

"I believe in you." Sasori said.

Gaara stared at the older man. He was amazed in the faith this man placed in him despite this
being only their second meeting. Carefully, he leaned into Sasori's arm and breathed a sigh of
relief when he didn't move away.

"You... You're gonna leave soon, aren't you?"

"Mm."

"But then you'll come back a-again, right?"

"I will..."

The stars twinkled overhead.

"...I promise."

::

Gaara sat on the ledge of the rooftop of his father's building as he stared down at his hands. After
talking with Hiruko, he felt much happier. Hiruko was his second real friend who was so open
with him and didn't look at him like he was a monster.

But those things he said... were they true? Did his father really love him?

If his father loved him, why did he look at him with the same eyes as everyone else? Like he
wasn't wanted?

Suddenly, sand shot up behind him and curled into a shield to block the projectiles launched in his
direction. Gaara whipped around to see a shinobi poised in an offensive position, kunai hovering
in the air before them. His eyes widened.

'Why...'

The boy clenched his teeth and stepped down from the ledge.
'Why is it always me?!'

The shinobi sent even more kunai towards him-- a futile attempt. The shield furthered it's reach
and blocked Gaara's front.

'What did I ever do to deserve this?!'

With an open, his hand shot upwards. Sand wrapped around the enemy like an angry serpent and
drug him up above ground. They would've been crushed so easily if Gaara hadn't paused his
actions. The title of Monster ran through his head, angering him. Lifting a rage he wouldn't think
to contain. But Hiruko's easy, knowing voice flowed through those thoughts and slowly crumbled
them to bits and pieces.

He was human.

Human.

The sand diffused abruptly and retreated back to where it came from, dropping the shinobi and
leaving them unharmed. Gaara stepped forward reluctantly but his eyes had hardened and his lips
were pressed in a thin line.

"I'm not a monster." he murmured. The shinobi, even masked, seemed to be confused for a few
brief moments before they stood up.

"You are." the stranger said. Gaara froze. He knew that voice, "Because of that, your kaa-san
never loved you, and in turn, you killed her. Isn't that what monsters do?"

The shinobi tugged the cloth off his face, revealing none other than Yashamaru. Gaara fell to his
knees, the feeling of betrayal seeping into his veins.

"She named you because you were a self-loving carnage. You're nothing but the filth that killed
her-- the filth that killed my sister." he hissed.

::

Unbeknownst to Gaara, his heart was breaking with every word he spoke. He regretted the
decision of accepting this mission from Rasa. All he wanted was to teach his nephew what it
meant to feel pain and love, but now he could see that he was going too far. He loved Gaara to
death, and he couldn't bear to have any more orchestrated attacks against him.

The boy's fists clenched as the sand swirled again. Yashamaru waited for another attack, but was
thoroughly surprised when the grains dropped again.

"No."

Would he have to do it? He had never seen Gaara show such restraint before, much less keep his
sand at bay. This would be one last test. To help the boy grow and understand. So he zipped open
his flak jacket, exposing numerous explosive tags stuck against his torso.

"If that's how it's going to be..."

The sand rose up again and shot towards him as his hand came up and formed a seal.

"... then please die."

"YASHAMARU!"
There was a loud explosion before the village went silent once more.
Getting There

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. He wrapped his arms around his friend and pulled her close,
like an apology or something of the sort. Sasuke stepped up to her with angrily blazing eyes.

"He didn't say nothing else, did he?" he asked. She shook her head as she patted down Naruto's
unruly blonde hair.

"No. He just mentioned the parent teacher conference again." she replied. Naruto let her go,
taking on a disgruntled expression as he looked down at the ground. She tousled his hair a little
harder and gave him a smile, silently assuring him that he didn't do anything wrong. She slung an
arm over his shoulders and gestured to the other two.

"Alright, whose house are we gonna go to first? Because it's getting kinda late and I want to make
sure you guys get back okay." Sakura said, instantly earning her protests that she didn't need to
fuss over them, "I think we'll go to Sasuke's. It's closer to the Academy. Then we'll go to Chouji's
place and drop him off, then I'll take Naruto back."

After receiving murmurs of consent, Sakura ushered them in the direction of the Uchiha
compound. There was an ulterior motive behind this route, and she was thankful the three of them
weren't sharp enough to be suspicious. She had insisted that they walk each other home many
times before so it wasn't too strange that she'd do this. They just had never been to the compound
before.

Sakura looked at Sasuke as he started to speak and thought to what Sasori told her. The Uchiha
Clan was on good terms with Konoha and Uchiha Itachi was far too pacifistic to be of any use to
the Akatsuki.

And she wanted to see that for herself.

::

Fugaku heard rumors on a daily basis and, contrary to popular belief, quite enjoyed listening to
them. He learned things about people he never heard of and little secrets from other members of
the clan, something catching wind of drama and scandals within the ranks. He was drinking his
afternoon tea out in the backyard when a few Academy students passed the front of the main
house.

"... didn't think Sasuke would get detention."

"Right? Like he'd stand up for that freak."

"Chouji did too."

"Sakura started it. Man, she's scary!"

He placed his cup down on the low table to his side and stared down at the koi pond before him.
Mikoto informed him of his youngest son's new group of friends-- the village pariah and an odd
girl who was to grow under Ibiki's tutelage, according to Obito. Admittedly, he was more curious
about her and her potential more than anything else.

He stood up as he picked up his tea and teapot and walked into the house. It was empty. His wife
had probably gone to visit another family in the compound and his eldest was out on a month long
mission-- his first one since becoming a jounin. Eleven years old and already someone of such
high status... He was proud. Of course he was. But he couldn't help but think that Itachi was just a
little too young to be in such a position. As the pride of the Uchiha, he had to be a powerful
symbol of Konohagakure.

Though...

... A child is just a child in the end.

Fugaku raised his head when the door clicked open and a flood of voices washed in. He
straightened himself before quietly pacing towards them. He was met with the sight of his son,
first and foremost, with the widest smile he had seen in a long time.

"That's not fair, Sasuke!" the little blonde boy growled, "Rematch! I'll even kick this stupid rock
in ya' head!"

"Dobe."

"Wha--?! Sakura-chan! I'mma punch him!"

Sasuke laughed then looked ahead of him. The boy's face dropped as he quickly met his father's
gaze and tried to make a neutral face.

"O-Otou-sama." he said, "Sorry I'm late, sir... I won't be next time."

Fugaku inclined his head and moved his eyes to the three standing behind him. The other two
boys bowed their heads in fear, but the girl reflected a sheen of coldness in those green irises. He
tucked that bit of information away for later.

"Are these your friends?" he asked. Sasuke nodded and half turned to introduce them.

"Yessir. Uzumaki Naruto, Akimichi Chouji, and Haruno Sakura."

Naruto forced out a timid hello while Chouji stuttered out a greeting that one could barely hear.
Sakura was the only one to keep her calm. She lifted her chin, pridefully but respectfully, and put
on a child-like smile that completely covered her whole demeanor before it. Fugaku raised an
eyebrow.

"Nice to meet you too, Uchiha-sama."

There was no fear in her voice, nor a trace of the jaded individual he was sure he saw moments
before. Sasuke bid her friends goodbye and Fugaku watched them go with a keen eye. He'd have
to keep a closer eye on them from now on.

::

"Oh, aren't you two just darlings!"

"K-Kaa-chan!"

Akimichi Chiharu, Chouji's exuberant mother, bent over both Naruto and Sakura to pinch their
cheeks and tell them how cute they were. Naruto flushed positively red with embarrassment as he
tried to find some cover behind his pink-haired friend.

"Uh, k-kaa-chan! They gotta... um... gotta go real s-soon so they can't stay long!" Chouji
exclaimed. Naruto threw him a look of utter gratitude, his cheek squished against Sakura's
shoulder. Chiharu pouted and drew back.
"Alright, Chouji-kun. Naruto-kun, Sakura-chan, come by anytime you like. We'd love to have
you over!"

::

"Final stop."

"Thanks for walkin' me, Sakura-chan."

They stood in front of Naruto's apartment. The sun was still up but was starting its move
downwards this Friday evening. Naruto fished his key out of his pocket and opened his door,
twisting around to give Sakura one last apologetic look.

"About what ya' said ta' sensei..."

"Don't worry about it, okay? You're more than worth it."

Naruto pursed his lips and nodded mutely. She told him goodnight and began her trek to the T&I
building. Still, she needed to find someone for him. Civilians were off the list. There were a few
good ones out there, but none were strong enough to protect him if something went awry. In turn,
there were barely any shinobi sympathetic to Naruto's cause to be accepting enough to take him
in.

But she had to keep looking no matter what. He was going to get out of there before it came time
for them to graduate the Academy, and if she had to sneak into the Hokage's office and dig around
for candidates, she would.

Sakura walked through the glass doors she was so accustomed to, noting that the reception desk
was empty. She then took the already memorized route to Ibiki's office.

"You're late."

"Mhm."

She hopped onto the couch to the left of his desk, sprawling out on the pillow-less leather like a
cat. Genma was gone on a mission and would stay absent for the next couple of weeks. Usually,
he'd be the one to accompany her to the training grounds to help her improve on her taijutsu and
the use of her wrist blades. Ibiki would stick to the intelligence portion of her internship and teach
her more advanced algorithms and strategies, sometimes things on seals.

Sakura pulled out a pink sheet from her pocket and tossed it on his desk. He held it open with one
hand and scanned through it casually.

"Detention already? I'm not surprised." he said. His eyes trailed down to the bottom, "And a
parent teacher conference tomorrow... Kid, I will make you run a hundred laps around Konoha if
it's because of some dumbass reason."

She scoffed.

"It was all in good faith, old man."

"Cheeky. Do these warm-ups and tell me what happened."

Ibiki handed her a clipboard without moving his eyes from the pink sheet. She took the pencil that
was linked to the clasp and recounted her story, unconcerned by how rude or irritated she
probably sounded. Sakura knew he wasn't a stickler for those types of things. When she finished,
he took up a thoughtful look.

"Aren't your parents out of town?"

"At the border to visit some friends. Won't be back 'till the beginning of next month."

"... Huh."

::

Yashamaru blearily pried his eyes open, feeling a dulled pain ripple through his body. He moved
his eyes to the side and saw an IV drip hooked up to his arm.

'Where am I?'

It took him a few moments of staring at the ceiling to realize that he was in the hospital and now
where near being on the brink of life and death. Everything came rushing up to him in that
moment, making him remember what he'd done. The mission. The explosives. Gaara.

"He's fine."

The Kazekage was leaned against the window with his arms crossed and his eyes closed in a
serene-like manner.

"Rasa-sama...?"

"A part of the building blew off from the explosion, but no one was killed. Apparently, they were
taken off your body and projected upwards to divert the intensity of the blast, ultimately sparing
your life. Gaara was there but ran off and locked himself in his room once reinforcements came."
Rasa informed. He was 100% sure his son wouldn't be capable of holding his own against
psychological attacks like Yashamaru had inflicted, but he begrudgingly admitted that he was
impressed.

The demon didn't make its appearance, thus assuring that Suna could now use him as a weapon if
they wished.

Yashamaru shifted himself to an upright position.

"May I see Gaara-sama?"

"That wouldn't be the ideal move at the moment. He may not have released his monster, but his
emotional state is fragile. It will be a while until he'll talk with anyone." he said. Yashamaru
clamped his mouth shut and looked down at his sheets.

He was supposed to die and fulfill his mission.

When did Gaara-sama grow enough to save his life...?

Rasa moved to leave the room through the window, unaware of the flash of red and black in the
midst of the sandstorm that arose the previous hour.

::

Sakura angled her clipboard to shield her face from Ibiki's view when she felt something crawling
on the back of her shirt. A scorpion crawled over her shoulder and down her arm to place a small
scrap of paper in her fingers. She wrote 'Thank you, Yori-san' on her worksheet before he went
back down behind her and disappeared in the cover of her body. After unraveling it with her
back down behind her and disappeared in the cover of her body. After unraveling it with her
thumb and forefinger, she read the single line Sasori presented.

The Godaime Kazekage will be fine.


Conference

He honestly didn't know what to make of this situation. All he wanted was to speak to Sakura's
parents about her recent behavior, not be stared down by a man he knew could kill him in the most
terrifying ways possible.

Morino Ibiki, clothed in his trench coat an all, sat against the table closest to the teacher's desk in
the painfully empty classroom. His arms were crossed over his chest and his face stayed wholly
unamused at the ordeal. Sakura was in the chair behind and to his right, seeming bored and a tad
bit irritated.

"Tou-san and kaa-san aren't in Konoha right now. She he's here instead." she supplied.

"Kizashi-san and Mebuki-san are civilian citizens and not too well versed in shinobi activities.
They've entrusted me to manage her education, as I'm the overseer of her studies." Ibiki said. The
teacher gulped and sorted some papers. That explained a lot, actually. Her smarts, intimidation,
and rage... Maybe being under the head torturer didn't make her into how she was now, but it sure
gave more insight to her background.

"I-I see... well, um, I suppose I'll get right to the point, then. Sakura does exceedingly well in all
aspects of Academy, curriculum, though the only problems are her disruptions in class, especially
when it comes to Naruto."

Sakura's eyes narrowed.

"Nothing's wrong with him."

The teacher sighed.

"Sakura--"

He snapped his mouth shut when Ibiki reached over and clonked her at the back of the head. She
rubbed at her pink hair and mustered up the audacity to glare at him.

"What the hell, old man?!"

"You've got that cheek again, and I got enough of that yesterday. Now go and stand out in the
hallway-- I have a few things to say to your sensei." he said. Sakura grumbled as she hopped off
her seat and strode out the door while closing the door behind her. The teacher stared after her for
a few moments before some sick feeling dropped in his stomach.

He was alone in a room with one of the most dangerous men in Konoha. He then turned his head
to see a pair of black eyes piercing through him.

'... Shit.'

::

Sakura patiently waited outside the hallway with a bored glint in her eyes. She appreciated Ibiki
coming down in place of her parents, but he really didn't have to. Her plan was to make clones
and henge them, though once more, the trouble was saved by this twisted timeline.

Speaking of her parents...


"Konoha was attacked!"

An uproar spread through the medical unit like wildfire, but Sakura kept her mouth
uncharacteristically shut as she continued her duties. The war had reached the middle of its fifth
year and Sai had just been killed. When told of it, Sakura looked blank-faced despite the despair
the surged through her body.

Hands down, she was hopeless. This wasn't a war any longer, this was worldwide graveyard and
everyone she held dear were dying off one by one.

It only made her wonder when she'd be next.

"Haruno-sensei, the casualty list!" a shinobi informed, presenting her with a thick collection of
papers. She sat down at her makeshift desk and scanned through the list. She would have to make
a distinction between shinobi and civilian to account how much of their forces they'd lost. It was
near the end of the stack when she noticed two names that only tacked onto losing Sai.

Haruno Kizashi

Haruno Mebuki

Sakura stared at the names a little longer than the rest before highlighting the names in yellow
and continued on her task.

A small sigh escaped her lips. Her parents died in their home during the night only because they
had the misfortune of living in the attacked district. The had done nothing wrong, yet suffered the
unjust death of an elaborate fire jutsu.

Sakura let the back of her head lean against the wall and stared at the ceiling. She already placed
the unsuspecting protection seals around the apartment to keep intruders out as put chakra trip
wires up that would alert her if anything happened. She wouldn't let them die this time around, she
swore. Her parents would get to live to their old age.

The sound of footsteps echoed down the hallway, making her turn her head ever so slightly.
Someone came down the hallway dressed in typical ANBU gear with a dog-resembling mask
hanging from his waist. He held himself in a highly dignified manner-- like someone who knew
how to hold their power and exercised just how dangerous they were on a regular basis.

Not only that, but his chakra seemed unsettling in a troubled sort of manner. It was very tense and
dark, something she decided to keep in mind and look up later. His eyes, both black and
unnerving, slid over to her for a few seconds before he looked back ahead of him and walked
down the hall. Sakura's fingers twitched at their cold, dark blankness and the oblivious offending
air he seemed to maintain wherever he went.

She held her tongue.

'I see that Kakashi's different.'

::

"You smell really sweet, nya!"

Uchiha Itachi was taking a short break at a dango stand the route back to Konohagakure. There
wasn't anyone else around, and he was waiting for the rest of his team to meet him back here. As
he took a bite of the treat, a brown cat appeared in his lap and stared at him with big green eyes.
Itachi blinked.
"... Hello."

"Nya! You smell like honey and cantaloupe. I haven't smelt a shinobi like you before. Do you like
eating sweet things a lot? 'Cause you really seem like you do." the cat purred. His tail flickered
back and forth, brushing against Itachi's arms every now and then.

"I suppose... Are you one of Nekobaa-sama's cats?"

The cat jumped onto Itachi's shoulders and stretched out.

"Sometimes."

He returned to the comfort of Itachi's lap and flashed a sharp grin, showing off white pointed teeth
that added to his look of mischief.

"My name's Kou, but you call me Kou-chan, nya! Nice to meet ya', 'tachi-chan!"

::

"Singling out Naruto in class?" Ibiki questioned. The teacher scratched the back of his head as he
reclined in his chair. Sakura had become very apparent at his bias against that thing and jumped at
every moment he would treat him unfairly. She, out of everyone else, had the gall to defend him at
all costs.

"I don't believe that monster should become a shinobi. He destroyed Konoha once already, and I
won't stand to see it happen again." he replied. Ibiki cracked his neck, eliciting a nervous flinch
from the other man. He himself didn't have a positive image of Naruto, but didn't have a negative
image of him either. The interrogation and intelligence sectors were less likely to hold it against
him because they knew more than anyone that the world wasn't painted black and white, because
the nature of their work.

Their points of view many times differed from the others and this was undoubtedly one of them.

"Is that so?" he mused, "And it's just Sakura who calls you out on it?"

"Yes. Though recently, Akimichi Chouji and Uchiha Sasuke have spoken out as well. I would
have let it slide considering which families they come from, but they crossed the line after taking
up Sakura's example yesterday." he said with irritation. Ibiki couldn't help but feel smug at the
other's distaste, but it was washed away with his question.

"Does... Is Sakura aware of him?"

"What makes you say that?"

The teacher flinched again when the interrogator's gaze intensified. He shifted in his chair and
diverted his eyes to the side.

"I had a short discussion with her after detention, and she implied that she knew about the demon.
I don't know if you've disclosed that information with her or..."

"I haven't. I'll bring the topic up with her later." Ibiki inputted, "But there is something you need to
understand about Haruno Sakura."

He pushed himself off the student desk and strode to close the distance between them. The teacher
moved his chair back as Ibiki placed both hands on the wooden surface and leaned forward, an
ominous look in his expression.

"You and I both know that she's not an ordinary kid, even more so that she's caught even my
attention. You've only known for her two weeks, but I think you're starting to get an idea of her.
She has an attitude that can't be stifled no matter what you do, and she'll stand up for what's right
despite the consequences. Giver her detention, extra work, tell her to run a million goddamn miles
and she'll sure as hell do it if it means doing what she thinks is right." And you know you can't
expel her because she's so far at the top of the class that she'll be considered a prodigy."

He straightened and tucked his hands into his baggy pockets.

"She's not going to stop. And if you're not willing to change your stance on Naruto, then expect
hell every single day."

He walked out of the room, leaving the teacher to finally breathe and think.

When Ibiki stepped out of the room, he found Sakura inspecting her wrist blades. He was aware
that the room was not sound proofed whatsoever and that she probably heard that entire
conversation. She acknowledged him by sliding the blades back beneath her bandages and
looking up.

"Done?"

He grunted.

"Turned out to be more fun than I thought. I think I see why you like acting up all the damn time."

"I wouldn't have to act up if he treated Naruto like everyone else." she huffed. Ibiki walked down
the hallway with her, donning a small frown quite typical of him. There was no possible way she
could've found out about the Kyuubi. The people's lips were sealed and it wasn't a flattering topic
to talk about anyways, and if that didn't stop them from talking about it, the Sandaime would.

The question still remained.

Who told her about the demon, and why was she okay with it when most of Konoha wasn't?

"Well, I guess I'll be on my way, old man." she said. They were out at the front of the Academy,
the morning sun hanging in the bright blue sky. He looked down at her with furrowed eyebrows.

"You got somewhere to be?"

"Yup. Since Sasuke's with his family and Naruto's with Mari-san, I'm gonna go look for
something. That's fine, right?" Sakura asked. Ibiki stared at her for a few moments before sighing
and waving her off.

"Get outta here, runt. But be at my office sometime in the late afternoon. We've got some things to
talk about. Got it?"

She lazily saluted him and walked down the growing street of people. And he watched after,
eventually losing sight of her in the crowds. He'd have to go talk with the Hokage now,
unfortunately, and ask permission to disclose information of the Kyuubi attack. Could she be
trusted with the information? Probably so. The only goals she had (as far as he could see) were to
get stronger and protect her friends.

The task had a simple road ahead and kept her busy most days. He wasn't complaining about that.
But... there was something about the motivation behind her cause that wasn't right. Or normal,
he'd put it as. She was too young to set herself at such a high standard and was leaning more and
more into becoming an elite shinobi, like Hatake or Fugaku's eldest.

He pressed his lips into a grim line.

The resemblance was uncanny.


Buzzing

Deidara was very bright for his age. Creativity wise, at least. he was already making small
sculptures and figurines before he began to train as a shinobi, and by the time he graduated the
Academy at eight years old, he became the disciple of the Sandaime Tsuchikage.

Sasori kept himself hidden between the masses of thick green bamboo shoots as he observed a
training session between Deidara and his sensei. The old man looked exasperated with the
detonated ground and plantation around him, but the boy seemed to be pleased with his
handiwork.

"I told you to not blow up the entire training grounds!"

"C'mon, it's not that bad, un."

"We used to have nice grass here, boy. A rarity if you haven't noticed. Now they're all up in the
bamboo!" he sighed, "I shouldn't have given you those explosive tags..."

He gestured to the forestry that they were enclosed in. Onoki's eyes slowly moved up and caught
a patch of black hidden a little ways away. An intruder? Observer? They didn't seem aggressive,
but his old age and vast experiences taught him to be extra careful around those types.

"Next is your punishment." he said, glancing back at the little blonde.

"Sensei!"

"Quit that whining. Got to the rock--"

"I don't like that rock, hm! It's big and ugly and--"

"--I know. That's why you're going to balance yourself at the top and meditate."

"But sensei!"

"Meditate."

Deidara pouted and trudged to the other side of the training grounds to that stupid rock. That
unsymmetrical, gaudy, out of place... The Tsuchikage shook his head and placed his hands on his
hips. That boy was going to be an excellent member of the Bakuha Butai one day and it was
already showing. Annoyingly, though. Onoki made route to follow after.

::

Sasori drew an amused smile as he watched Deidara stalk off and grumble to himself. Some things
never change, do they? He took a silent step back to leave the grounds when what felt like a kunai
tip touched the base of his skull. His shoulders slumped.

"Dammit." he muttered.

"Akasuna no Sasori, is it? I've heard that name plenty. You killed the Sandaime Kazekage. He
was a good friend of mine, and I didn't appreciate him being taken before his time." a lofty voice
hummed. Sasori inclined his head slightly to see Onoki floating there, an arm extended without a
care in the world, "So, what are you here for? Reconnaissance? Assassination?"
His eyes trailed down to the unfamiliar cloak.

"Then again, it's possible that you weren't after me."

The younger considered his options. He didn't want to attack or try to escape and cause an
international incident, so keeping still was probably his best choice. He relaxed and dropped his
guard.

"You're right."

Sasori stood up slowly and kept his arms stretched out from his body. His palms were opened to
show that he wasn't a threat, something Onoki could never recall a shinobi ever doing in his
presence. The man turned around.

"I wasn't here for you." he conceded simply. The Tsuchikage raised an eyebrow. The action was
completely unprecedented, though it did match up rather well with the missing-nin's cool and
carefree attitude, "I'll be honest. I mean, you're not going to like it but I'll tell you straight up."

Onoki's eyebrow raised even higher as Sasori pointed a finger towards himself.

"I'm an Akatsuki. A mercenary business, if you will. We've been looking for future members and
keep tabs on the younger ones to see if they'll defect or not. Deidara's one of those on watch." he
said. Onoki's hand twitched at the notion.

"You think he's going to betray the village?"

"Smart people tend to do questionable things." he mentioned, immediately thinking to a certain


someone, "And people like Deidara? Free-flowing and irritated when they're restricted or forced
into whatever it may be. Right? Tell me that I didn't hit it right on the mark."

Onoki let his hand fall and tucked his kunai away with a heavy sigh. There wasn't a single fault in
this stranger's words. Deidara, although hot-headed and reckless, was of the intelligent sort among
his peers. He knew the things he talked about and never made a decision without considering the
outcomes even if he made the wrong choice. He eyed Sasori carefully.

"Then your reason for being here?"

"I don't want him to join the Akatsuki." he admitted. He stood by that belief in its purest
sentiment. Deidara was young when he first joined the organization, merely fourteen years old,
and was still just a brat. He had a sustainable future ahead of him if he hadn't left and become a
terrorist for hire.

Onoki's eyes narrowed considerably.

"I find that hard to believe."

"I don't blame you. Trust me or don't trust me, your choice. But I want to make sure that he
doesn't go down the same path I did." Sasori said. His arms were still held out and he had on the
most blunt face he'd ever given, both in this life and the last. The Tsuchikage was old enough to
see who was lying and was was genuine. It was unusual for missing-nin to be the latter.

"Why?"

Why? Because Sakura told him that Deidara came to kill hundreds by bombing villages and
medical units. Because he was constrained to a life that caused the Fourth Shinobi World War:
seven years of bloodshed that ravaged the land. Because he succumbed to hatred and resentment,
bitter about his loss to Itachi and to the position he upheld in the Akatsuki. Because if he left, he'd
turn to suicide in attempt to destroy an enemy because he had nothing left to lose.

"Because..."

Sasori suddenly looked very, very tired.

"... He reminds me of a kid I knew."

::

Shino wasn't expecting much when he walked into the forests near the Academy. All he wanted
to do was find some variation of a beetle already in his colony, as it was supposed to be more
sensitive to chakra though less inclined to see and smell. They weren't the most practical to use on
the battlefield, but they were good to alert the user of anyone nearby.

About halfway into the forest, he saw someone hanging upside down like a sloth on one of the
branches. They were slowly crawling towards a hornet's nest hanging precariously at the end.
Shino squinted at the person through his darkened glasses, recognizing them almost immediately.

"Haruno Sakura?"

Sakura cast a glance down at him and smiled in greeting before inching a bit closer to the nest.

"Oh, hey. Didn't think anyone'd be here. You out to do something too?" she asked. He didn't
answer right away and stared at the nest a little longer.

"Those hornet stings dissolve tissue." he said. He was surprised when she nodded in assent and
closed even more of the distance between her and the hornets. He was starting to get worried
about what might happen next.

"I know. That means I can make a really good poison! If I can get some of the hornets and extract
the venom..."

She lowered her voice to a whisper as she edged closer. Shino took a step forward with a slightly
raised hand.

"The Aburame can't control these bugs. They're very angry all the time and they spray a phre-
remone that--"

Sakura yelped when dozens of hornets flew out at her. She pushed herself off the branch and
landed on the ground with a quiet thud. She make a hasty retreat out of the forest, grabbing the
sleeve of Shino's jacket and tugging him out of the forest with her. His eyes went wide at the
sudden movement but kept his mouth shut at the sight of angry hornets heading his way and ran.

Eventually, they dove for cover inside the weapon's shop Sakura frequented most. The man
behind the counter looked over with unmasked amusement and flipped to another page of his
newspaper as he laughed.

"Trouble again, little lady?"

"Nothing too bad, oji-san." she answered. Sakura sprung back onto her feet and helped Shino to
his.

"You've even brought a friend along. Need to use the back door?" he asked. He laughed once
more at the innocent smile she gave and jabbed a thumb at the doorway behind him, "Go on, go
on. And don't cause trouble you can't handle, y'hear?"

"No promises. Thanks for the help!"

Sakura gestured for Shino to follow, both of them walking around the counter they could just
barely see over and exiting into a dimmed alleyway. She placed her hands on her hips as she
looked from left to right. Right, she decided. It would lead towards the middle-class districts and
kept far from the denser forests.

"Sorry for dragging you around like this." she apologized, "I didn't think the hornets would be like
that."

Shino shook his head and adjusted his crooked glasses.

"It's fine."

"Let me make it up to you."

"You don--"

"Look! A candy stall! Pick what you want, my treat." she exclaimed. That large smile was back
on her face as she turned to look at him. Shino stayed quiet for a bit. He never really talked to her
before, and he didn't think that would ever change. The only people she'd talk to in class were
Sasuke, Chouji, and Naruto, maybe even Hinata on occasion. She was openly friendly with
anyone that didn't tease Chouji or Naruto, which weren't a lot of students, and wouldn't stand it if
the teacher openly showed his bias. She even stood up in front of the whole class and yelled at
him.

But... there was something Shino didn't think was quite right with her. Sakura was nice and all,
but maybe she was a little too nice? She was always smiling and stuff, and it made him wonder if
she ever got sad. Ever. Shino's eyes trailed through the selection of sweets, his previous thoughts
receding to the back of his head.

"... winter melon."

"Okay! One bag of winter melon candy and one bag of dried pineapples." she said, walking up to
the vendor. He missed the quick glance she threw to the side, "And a bag of lychee gummies,
please."

"Shino and Sakura? What're you guys doing here?"

Shikamaru strolled up to them with his hands stuffed in his pockets and a small pouch at his side.
Shino twisted his head to the left.

"Running." he replied. Shikamaru scrunched up his nose. Running took way too much energy
and he definitely didn't have the willpower for it. Sakura paced over to them and handed the
winter melon candy over to Shino and the lychee to Shikamaru, who took the red bag with
surprise.

"Oh. Thanks." he said. It must've been some weird coincidence because he really liked lychee
gummies and he couldn't recall ever telling her that. Maybe Chouji told her? As he opened the
bag, one of the things he planned on doing popped into his head.

"Hey, Sakura..."

She popped a pineapple into her mouth.


"Hm?"

"Chouji told me 'bout what happened at detention. An' why he did it. He says it's 'cause you guys
are friends that even beat up the bullies." he began. A thoughtful look formed on his face, "He's
not good at making friends 'cause he's shy and doesn't like talking to no one. But I didn't think
he'd ever do something like that. Even for Naruto."

Shino silently chewed on his candy while looking between the two of them.

"I just wanna say I'm happy that you're his friend. He smiles more."

Sakura waved her hand and ate another pineapple.

"Chouji's really nice. Sasuke and Naruto like him too, so we're still gonna hang out a lot." she
assured. He scratched the back of his head, his expression melting into one that was happily
relieved. Shino turned his head to look down the street he and Sakura came from and grew
alarmed. He shoved his candy into his jacket and lightly pushed the other two in the other
direction.

"Shin--?"

"Hornets. Run. Now."

"Wha--?!"

"NOW."

::

Bakuha Butai: Explosion Corps


Management

Shibi didn't think anyone would be in when he got home from the clan meeting. Around this time,
Shino would be out finding new species and not be back until sundown. But as soon as he entered
his house, he saw two pairs of unfamiliar sandals beside his son's. He stared at them for a few
seconds before following the faint hum of voices in the backyard. Though first he approached his
charge, the son of the late Aburame Shikuro, who sat curled up with a book near the window.

"Torune, does Shino have classmates over?"

The nine year old looked up and nodded.

"They ran in soaking wet carrying a jar of killer hornets. Now he's showing them some of his
colonies." he replied. Shinobi nodded as Torune returned to his book and slid the door open.
Outside, he was able to get a better look at the two kids. As far as he knew, Shino didn't hang out
with too many others because they tended to think bugs were creepy.

One thing he noticed was that they were wearing some of Shino's old clothes. Soaking wet,
Torune had said? It was a good tactic to run away from those hornets, he had to admit. Not his
primary course of action, but good nonetheless. The boy he recognized as a Nara, Shikaku's son,
maybe? He couldn't remember too well. The girl he did recognize at all, but that was fine and
didn't matter as long as they were good to his son.

"So that one's a girl beetle?"

"Yes. This kabutomushi'll lay eggs soon then die."

"Eh?! So short!"

Shikamaru and Sakura stared in awe at the horned beetle traipsing along the ground. Shino turned
his head at the approach of his father.

"Welcome back, tou-san."

"Shino." Shibi acknowledged, patting the boy's head, "And these are?"

The boy stood up first and offered a slight bow to his elder.

"Nara Shikamaru." he introduced, "Nice to meet you."

The girl was second. Shibi watched as she got to her feet with an elegance that matched that of the
unbridled wind; smooth and unbending in its most natural state. His eyes narrowed the tiniest
fraction as she smiled and introduced herself as any polite little girl would.

"And I'm Haruno Sakura. Nice to meet you too." she greeted. The man nodded to the two of
them, his eyes lingering on Sakura for a little longer.

"It's a pleasure." he replied.

Hm.

::
Genma took his time walking through the hallways of the Kage Tower. He was the one to give
the mission report on his team's behalf and it wouldn't take too long to give it anyways. His month
long assignment that was supposed to last the next few weeks was cut incredibly short at the
convenience of their target dying of a stroke.

He wasn't complaining in the slightest. Even only being gone for a week, he was already starting
to miss the little brat he and Ibiki took under their wings. She was a quick learner, didn't whine at
anything, and caused just enough trouble to get him a good laugh in his days. The twerp was
really starting to grow on him. A little twisted in the head, but hey, nothing her good ol' sensei
couldn't fix, right?

He knocked twice on the door to the office and entered. Genma was surprised to see Ibiki
standing in the room with his ever-so-serious frown on his face. Hiruzen waved him in and
motioned for the door to be shut.

"You came in at an opportune time, Genma." the Hokage said, "It would be good for you to have
an ear in this conversation."

Genma crossed his arms and kept to the side, looking from his boss to his leader. This had to be
about what he had been thinking of earlier. The only business he and Ibiki were ever a part of that
would be Hokage-level importance was their training of Haruno Sakura. He didn't think there was
anything noteworthy, though. Did something happen when he was away? Damn, he always
missed the good things.

"... Sakura's capable enough to handle the truth. She acts like his protector already, so she might as
well know what she's getting into." Ibiki seemed to continue from a previous point, "From what
I've seen, there isn't anything she can't handle. Shiranui can attest to that."

The aforementioned bobbed his head.

"Still don't know what we're talking about, but yeah. Kid's got the brains and the brawn."

Hiruzen sighed.

"That may be true, but this isn't your normal piece of information like a passing rumor or a life
story. This the Kyuubi attack and all the chaos and taboo it brought with it. Sakura may be a
mature young lady, but there is a reason why the newer generations no nothing about the attack or
the demon's existence." he said. Genma blinked before slowing turning towards the Sandaime.

"I know what her sensei told me at the parent teacher conference. She most likely threatened him
with the implication of knowing about the demon and knew what she was getting into by bringing
it up with the man."

Genma moved himself back to facing Ibiki. He felt a surge of mixed feelings and he didn't know
which one to pick. Appalled that they were thinking about telling Sakura about the that incident or
proud that she got in trouble during the second week of school.

Hiruzen sighed once more and pulled his pipe from his mouth to breathe out smoke.

"Fine." he relented, "If you're that assured in her, you may tell her about it. But it must be
disclosed with her parents and if this backfires, it's all on you."

"I will accept all the blame, Hokage-sama." Ibiki said.

"Good. Then you're dismissed."


He looked at the gaping Genma and jerked his head towards the door. Once the were in the
hallway, the older man turned to his boss.

"Whoa, whoa, wait. What the hell happened when I was gone?!"

::

Shikaku yawned as he entered the Nara Clan's research facility. It was hidden in the mountains
about an hour's walk out the village and behind the Hokage Monument. The place held numerous
medicines and held their master book of healing, holding knowledge for generations upon
generations.

Only a few Nara went there from time to time, but most of the time it stayed empty and lightly
guarded. He nodded to the one or two other clansmen in the building before making his way to
the room that held the ingredient stock.

He stopped when he spotted his own son-- that lazy kid who even complained about lifting his
hand to move a shogi piece-- walking through the aisles and sifting through everything the clan
had to offer. Shikaku looked at the table to see the master book opened with an odd yellow-grey
liquid in a vial beside it.

"Shikamaru, what are you doing here?"

"Huh? Just, uh, something troublesome for a friend. Don't worry 'bout it, it's nothing." he replied,
not looking up from his searching. Shikaku approached the master book and scanned the page it
was opened to the Insect section, more specifically the one about Killer Hornets. How to store the
venom, combine it with other items to make a far more potent elixir, how to make the antidote...

"Is your friend interested in poisons?"

"I guess. She's weird like that."

Haruno Sakura. It had to be. Her name was frequenting its presence more and more that it made
him want to look into her background. He picked up the vial and swirled it around a couple of
times, then looked back at the book.

"She extracted this too?" he asked. Shikamaru shook his head and picked out a small jar from the
bottom shelf.

"No, that was Shino. He knows allota 'bout bugs and taught us how to do it."

Shikaku put the venom back down and sat in the chair beside the table. Aburame Shino?
Shikamaru never talked about him or made any indication of having known him. Those two really
must be something to get his son to actually get up and do something.

He wasn't complaining. It was just everything was just a little bit... odd.

::

The sun was setting on the horizon. Sakura was sat in Ibiki's office on his couch, both her sensei
standing in front of her. They had just finished giving her the whole story of the Kyuubi attack
and were waiting pensively for her reply. She stared at the ground for a few moments, thinking
about what she should say or what reaction would lead her in the right type of light. Eventually,
her head shot up with hardened eyes.

"Then that means I have to take care of him more, doesn't it?!" she exclaimed. Genma narrowed
his eyes and started forward.

"... What?"

"That's why people are mean to him, right?" she hissed, "Why everyone acts like he doesn't
belong? These asses don't know what they're talking about. I knew I should've put more seals in
his house!"

Ibiki pressed his lips together and looked to the side, pushing down his desire to laugh. That
explained her mother's finding of protection seals under her daughter's bed. She was a good
person inside and out, it seemed, and the Hokage was worried over nothing.

"You put seals in his house?" Genma questioned incredulously.

"Yeah. He lives in a pretty rough place."

"Holy shit, kid. You're insane. But I gotta, say, you're real chill for a six year old." he whistled.
Ibiki went to sit back at his desk. Maybe it was because she was so young that she had yet to
absorb just how heavy the information was. Or maybe it would take just a few more hours to
realize what exactly she heard.

As she and Genma kept up their exchange, Ibiki glanced down at the progress report hidden
behind some folders. He'd have to hand this over to Sakura's mother soon. But the last time they'd
seen each other, a coincidental passing in the streets, she said she was concerned about Sakura's
well-being.

He cast a cursory stare her way, then picked up a pen to start his work.

::

Poison-tipped kunai lay concealed in Sakura's clothing as she sat at her desk, chin propped up in
her palm and half-lidded eyes pointing towards the empty front of the classroom. There were bags
under her eyes from lack of sleep the previous night but was well concealed by some lightening
balms and healing chakra. The tiredness was part of her routine now, and had been far into the
war.

"You're Haruno Sakura, aren't you? The Godaime's darling apprentice."

Their teacher hadn't arrived yet, and something was telling her that the asshole hadn't stuck around
for much longer.

"So what if I am?" Sakura snarled, "Someone like you ain't got shit on me!"

She could barely hear Sasuke and Naruto arguing beside her, or the calm conversation Chouji and
Shikamaru were having behind her.

Obito laughed, half insane half heartily. Black flames surrounded them-- burning down trees and
grass and filling the air with the Devil's breath. He slid into an offensive position and held out a
tanto before him.

"Didn't your mentor tell you to not be naive? Or maybe Kakashi didn't lecture you hard enough.
I'm your worst enemy, sweetheart."

Sakura's fingers tapped on her legs as she watched the door slide open.

"What, because you've got pretty black flames surrounding us? Your scare tactic won't work
when I get over there and bring you down!"

Their new teacher smiled at the bunch of them, a perky sixteen year old with a hop in his step.
The room quieted down when he turned towards the chalkboard and wrote his name down.

Obito laughed again.

"Oh, Sakura-chan. Then I suppose I'll take this time to teach you the reason why your parents told
you not to play with fire."

"Good morning, class! I'm going to be your new teacher, Iruka-sensei!"

::

Kabutomushi: Japanese Rhinoceros Beetle


Fire

Warning: Implied Rape

::

"Extra training?"

"Yes, has Sakura-chan been doing anything too advanced for her? Maybe additional jutsu
exercises, or... or working when she should be resting?" Mebuki questioned. Ibiki couldn't
remember a time where Sakura had been doing something she couldn't handle. Lately, she's
mostly been practicing her seals and working on higher level problem solving. Genma's been
rather lazy as well, teaching chakra control and better utilization of her wrist blades.

"She hasn't." he replied, "Why?"

"I don't think she's been sleeping enough. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and see
her light beneath her door. I'm not quite sure how long it's been going on or how she's able to look
completely fine every morning... I'm just so worried about her, Morino-san. And I know she won't
confide in me for any of it."

Ibiki thought it over for a few moments.

"Does she drink anything caffeinated?"

"Not really. She prefers juice drinks."

"What about medications?"

"Nothing but regular vitamins."

"Her sleeping conditions?"

"We normally keep the temperature at around 23°C (74°F)..." she answered. He considered her
words and made sure to keep them stored safely in his memory. The first thing that came to his
mind would have been that Sakura was under copious amounts of stress, but there wasn't anything
that came to mind that would make a six year old suffer from it.

Stress in kids was completely normal as far as he knew. It happened when kids had a schedule
that was too packed. Ibiki immediately ruled that cause out. Sakura was far more intelligent than
her classmates, excelled in every single subject, and had no issue with anything he and Genma
taught her.

He glanced around the kitchen. Her parents seemed like normal, middle-class civilians that
probably had no monetary problems and were able to provide a safe, loving environment for her.

"Both parents live in this house, correct?" he asked. Mebuki nodded.

"My husband and I work on the weekdays and get home by six. Sometimes my husband works
on Saturday, but most of the time, we're off on the weekends and spend more time with her then."
she said. All this information was getting Ibiki more and more confused.

"Family problems?"
"None that I can think of. Morino-san, all these questions you're asking..."

"I'm sorry if they were intrusive, but it's better to get answers out of you than Sakura."

Mebuki saddened.

"I understand."

::

Dressed in his ANBU gear and porcelain mask nowhere in sight, Kakashi walked down the street
with his hands stuffed in his pockets. He slid through the crowds like a foreboding shadow that no
one dared to bother. He looked like the world was heavy on his shoulders, but was too stubborn to
do anything about it and carried on the weight like it didn't matter.

His eyes were pools of thunderstorms, always troubled and never close to a resolution. Years it
probably brewed, but not a single thing was capable of returning them to the calm sunny day they
used to be.

"OOOiiiiii! Kakaaaassshhhiiiii!"

A silent sigh slipped through his face mask as a cheerful Obito popped at his side and fell into step
beside him.

"I haven't seen you in forever! Did you go on a mission or something?" he asked. Kakashi cast
him a short stare before giving a quiet grunt of assent. Obito flexed his fingers and made his grin
wider.

"So you wanna go get something to eat with my otouto and I? I mean, we haven't hung out in a
long time." he said. Kakashi kept his eyes forward.

"I'm busy."

"Oh. Well, how about--"

"I don't have time, Obito." he answered, cutting him off, "Maybe next time."

He disappeared in a cloud of smoke, leaving his oldest friend and ex-teammate by himself on the
street. The Uchiha's shoulders sagged forward and he sighed heavily.

"That's what you always say." he mumbled. He scratched the back of his head and walked back
down the street. Kakashi had never been the same ever since Rin had been crushed underneath
that rock eight years ago. He knew Kakashi relentlessly blamed himself for that incident to this
day no matter how many times he told him otherwise.

"Did Hatake-san say no again, nii-san?"

Obito looked down at his fourteen year old brother.

"Yeah. But it's okay, you know how he is. Come on, Shisui. Let's get dango and bring some back
for obaa-chan."

::

Two hours later, and the fire was still sky high. Darkness everywhere... horrible, burning
darkness. The ground was torn to pieces, and one could barely call it a battle ground. Obito was
at one end, leaning against the tree while holding his stomach and holding his fractured leg.
at one end, leaning against the tree while holding his stomach and holding his fractured leg.
Sakura was at the other end on her hands and knees, blood coating her fingers.

She hated sharingan fire. Hated it. Hated that it couldn't be put out no matter what you did, and
you had to remove what it was burning to get rid of it, because it only gets put out when it's
finished burning what it's on.

And that's how she ended up with a neck coated in red liquid and a pile of burning skin hurled to
the side.

Obito scoffed.

"You're more like Tsunade than I thought."

Sakura raised her head, black lines crawling down her face.

"More than you know." she growled.

Sakura was snapped back to reality when Iruka clapped his hands together and regarded the
whole class with a wide smile, her hand unconsciously coming up to rub at her neck.

"Alright, everyone! Pass your worksheets down the aisles and I'll come and collect them!" he
chirped. He assigned the class some simple icebreaker questions to get to know them better since
he joined the classroom a couple of weeks into the year. People asked where their old sensei went
to which he gave a vague reply of 'he had a sudden decision to change careers'.

She almost laughed out loud at the excuse.

But Sakura was happy with the change of educator. In this specific timeline, the teacher stayed
with the same group of students until graduation to ensure the student-teacher connection
remained strong and that the students would be comfortable with someone they knew and
hopefully learned better that way. She had no qualms with the curriculum as long as Iruka wasn't
shit like the other sensei was.

Sakura gave her paper a quick once over before handing it down to her left.

Name: Haruno Sakura

Directions: Finish the sentence.

1) I feel happy when... I'm with my friends.

2) I feel sad when... I can't help.

3) I help at home by... doing my chores and carrying kaa-san's grocery bags.

4) My friends like me because... we're friends.

5) I like to... train.

6) My favorite food is... umeboshi.

7) My favorite animals are... slugs.

8) My hero is... I don't believe in heroes.

The icebreaker was as simple as she thought it would be, though she hoped it didn't make Naruto
uncomfortable. The whole class started to relax and casually converse amongst themselves when
Iruka announced the last fifteen minutes of class to be free time, so he could read through their
papers.

Unwittingly, Sakura was brought back into one of her worst memories of the war at the sight of
the scented candle flickering innocently at the edge of Iruka's desk.

Devastation couldn't even begin to describe the landscape. It had looked extremely ugly before,
but now it looked as if a meteorite shattered the Earth and left dark flames as it's mark on the
surface. Sakura lay at the center of all the wreckage with low chakra and barely any will to move.

She fought her hardest. She attacked him as brutally at she could. She used every ounce of
knowledge given to her the past years of her life.

... Why wasn't it enough?

Obito limped over to her with a haggard appearance and blood smeared across his body. His
mouth was twisted in an enraged expression. He crouched down, placing a knee on her stomach
and a hand on her freshly healed throat.

"You just turned out to be an annoyance, didn't you?" he hissed, "Impairing my health and
delaying my plans... I should kill you for this."

His hand tightened.

"But I won't. It won't do this inconvenience any justice."

Obito leaned forward, their noses almost touching and their harsh breath mingling together. He
smirked.

"At least you're a pretty little thing. You're a virgin, aren't you?"

He laughed when her face contorted into pure horror.

"What am I asking? It won't matter when I'm done with you."

"Sakura-chan!"

She pushed down the horrid thought and turned to Naruto. The little ball of sunshine was
frightened as he pointed accusingly at Sasuke.

"He-He never had ramen! Ever! He's crazy, Sakura-chan! CRAZY, 'ttebayo!" he cried. Sakura
smiled and pinched his cheek.

"We can go after school today. How does that sound?" she grinned. Naruto brightened up
considerably and spun around back to his black-haired friend.

"There! Now you're gonna see how awesome ramen is!" he exclaimed. Sakura looked behind her.

"Chouji, Shikamaru, want to come with us? Oh, and Shino! You too!"

::

Iruka read through each of the icebreaker papers with amusement. Each set of answers gave a lot
of insight to the student's background and upbringing.
Name: Uchiha Sasuke

Directions: Finish the sentence.

1) I feel happy when... aniki's home and playng with naruto and sakura

2) I feel sad when... no ones home

3) I help at home by... lisening to to-sama

4) My friends like me because... im awsom

5) I like to... train and be with friends

6) My favorite food is... tomatoz

7) My favorite animals are... cats

8) My hero is... aniki

There were a few exceptions with more adult sounding answers if anything, but there was one
paper in particular that caught his attention. Naruto's.

Name: Uzumaki Naruto

Directions: Finish the sentence.

1) I feel happy when... im with sakra-chan and saske

2) I feel sad when... __________________

3) I help at home by... __________________

4) My friends like me because... i dont no

5) I like to... eet ramen and be with sakra-chan and saske

6) My favorite food is... ramen

7) My favorite animals are... fockses cuz thats wat evriwon calls me but i stil like them

8) My hero is... sakra-chan

He knew about Naruto-- about what resided in him and about what the demon did. He would try
his hardest not to be biased towards him. Iruka understood what it was like to be a lonely child
since he himself lost his parents during the Kyuubi attack, but he couldn't imagine living the way
Naruto did everyday.

And his hero being another student? That never happened before.

Iruka looked up at the petite girl talking between Sasuke, Naruto, Shikamaru, and Chouji. He
might only be a chuunin, but he knew an advanced shinobi when he saw one. From what he'd
seen in the records, she had top marks in every single subject whether it be academically or
physically. She was also the one the previous sensei warned him about.
It was something along the lines of her being aggressive if anything happened to her friends,
especially to Naruto.

He saw that there was only a minute until the bell rang and that the kids were packing and lining
up at the door.

"Uh, Sakura? Can you stay behind for a few minutes? You're not in trouble, I promise." he called
over the sea of students. She bobbed her head and said a few things to her friends before walking
over to his desk. Iruka waited until the bell rang and for all the students to clear about, then turned
to the little girl standing patiently.

"Yes, Iruka-sensei?"

"You're close to Naruto, aren't you?" he asked. Suspicion passed through her eyes so quickly that
Iruka thought he was seeing things.

"Yeah..." she answered slowly.

"A-Ah, it's nothing bad, I'm just a little worried about him. I know he's having a hard time by
himself because of the Ky-- I mean, because of how he is-- I mean, not because of how he is, but
his situation and, um..."

Sakura's lip twitched.

"What I'm trying to say is that I was wondering about his home life. If he's okay or not. It must be
really hard for him at his age." Iruka said. He blinked nervously when Sakura peered at him for a
long while before answering.

"You have no idea where he lives, do you?"

"No?"

Sakura stared at him a little longer then nodded to herself.

"Come back to school tonight at eight. I think there's something you should know about Naruto."
Neon

In the end, everyone Sakura asked to go out for ramen came. Teuchi was pleasantly surprised
when five other kids along with his best customer came and filled in all his seats. Their seating
from right to left in his perspective went as follows: the sleepy kid, the chubby one, the tiny
Uchiha, Naruto, the girl, and sunglasses. He grinned at the blonde.

"Brought your friends over, Naruto-kun?"

"Yep!" he exclaimed, reaching over to pat Sasuke on the back and earning him an annoyed glare
from the former, "He's never had ramen before, so he should try the bestest place in all of Konoha,
dattebayo!"

Teuchi laughed and started taking orders from Shikamaru's end.

"So what'll you be having?" he asked.

"Mm... pork ramen."

"Ch-Chicken, please."

"Me too."

"Beef, please!"

"Tempura."

"Fish... please."

The man smiled and turned to his kitchen to prepare their meals. The six of them immediately lit
up in clustered conversation paired between who they sat with. Sakura spun her seat a little to her
right to face Shino.

"Did the kabutomushi lay her eggs yet?" she asked. He blinked, surprised that she remembered
something he'd think would be insignificant for her. He adjusted his glasses.

"She did. Yesterday." Shino replied.

"Really?" she mused, "When the larvae turn into adults, tell me so we could go see more of
them?"

He averted his gaze and nodded. Shikamaru caught wind of the conversation from down the bar
and remembered something. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a tube wrapped in cloth
and made a move for it to be passed down the line.

"Sakura. Here's that thing you wanted. It was a pain." he complained. The weird bundle earned
numerous stares as Sakura's eyes lit up and she untied it to inspect the contents. Naruto donned a
weary expression at the blackish goop she was swirling around.

"Ewwwww, that's gross." he commented, wrinkling his nose. Sasuke pushed his face aside to get
a better look at the concoction.

"What's that?"
Content with the mixture, Sakura wrapped it back up and tucked it into a hidden pocket in the
hem of her shirt.

"It's a poison." she answered, "Shino and Shikamaru helped me get it. Right?"

Shikamaru frowned.

"You made me exercise then you pulled us in a lake."

"We were getting chased by hornets, what did you want me to do?!" Sakura pouted. Teuchi
turned around and started placing their ramen in front of them. Shino reached for a pair of
chopsticks and broke them apart.

"Tell us first." he murmured. Shikamaru nodded in agreement and took a pair of chopsticks
himself. Sakura rolled her eyes.

"You're welcome." she sniffed. There was a chorus of itadakimasu's before they went to dig into
their ramen. After slurping up his first few bites, Chouji glanced curiously at Sakura.

"Hornets?" he asked, "That doesn't sound safe."

"Sakura-chan never does nothin' safe."

Sakura huffed and went back to her ramen. For a moment, Chouji was old. In his late teens, early
twenties-- dead on the ground not too far from Lee. The sight was vivid and fresh, the scent of
death hanging heavy in her nose. It took her some seconds to recollect herself and force a smile
onto her face.

Nothing was wrong.

And nothing was going to be wrong.

::

Mikoto went off to attend a meeting with some of the Uchiha clan shinobi and intended to come
back before the Academy let out. But it had gone far longer than she anticipated and she was
rushing home to greet Sasuke. As she passed the ramen stand, she heard laughter.

"Stop lyin'!"

"I'm not!"

"You're too troublesome to do somethin' like that."

She slowed down and lifted the cloth tarp to peek into the ramen bar. Immediately, she saw her
son in the midst of other Academy students. The strange girl, Haruno Sakura, was there with him
once more along with Naruto. Mikoto stepped away from the restaurant and continued her way to
the compound.

It wasn't that Mikoto had anything against the boy. She knew he was Kushina's son and meant to
harm in any way shape or form, but he drew dangerous attention. People could come and hurt him
at any moment, so what would happen if Sasuke was with him at the wrong place at the wrong
time?

Then again, there was Sakura. The enigma. If she was constantly around those two and was that
advanced as Obito said she was, she wouldn't dawdle upon it. They seemed the safest (and
happiest) around the girl so she wouldn't do anything to butt in.

Mikoto frowned. She wanted to know more about the girl; why were they all drawn to her? Why
was she so mature? And... what exactly made her this way?

::

Yashamaru didn't know what to do. For the most part, his wounds had healed and he was no
longer confined to bed rest. He made an effort to talk to Gaara and apologize for everything he
said that night, but he couldn't find him anywhere. He was never in his room when he checked
nor was he in any other place he normally frequented.

He shouldn't be surprised by this development. He didn't deserve for Gaara to forgive him for
taking up that mission. Yashamaru raked a hand through his blonde hair as he slipped out the
village gates. If only he hadn't doubted the boy. Gaara put all his faith and trust into him and he
ruined it with just a few heartbreaking sentences.

If--

"I don't know what to do, Hiruko."

"What's wrong?"

Yashamaru stopped, eyes widening. He nearly forgot this place, one of Gaara's most secretive
hideaways: the oasis just a bit away from the village with the Rafu River running through it. He
crept over silently and pressed himself against the bark of a tree before peering around it. Gaara sat
at the edge of the river, gazing up sadly at the hooded figure beside him.

"Yashamaru wants to talk to me again." he murmured, "I see him ask people sometimes. But...
But he's going to try and kill me again, isn't he?"

Gaara clutched his puppet closer.

"He is, isn't he? He'll try again and again and again an' again..."

He started to shake as tears fell down his cheeks. Remorse coursed through Yashamaru's insides,
yet he remained in his spot and waited. 'Hiruko' reached over and gently patted the boy's head to
calm him down.

"I'm sure he wouldn't do that again." he said, "I know how hard it is when someone betrays you
like that. I learned that the hard way back in my younger days."

The boy rubbed at his eyes.

"S-So were y-you mad?"

"Mhm. But I've had a long, long time to think about it... And trust me, I've had a lot of experience
with these things." 'Hiruko' hummed. Yashamaru was sure that this man had probably sensed him
by now and had no clue as to why he kept acting like nothing was happening, "But eventually, I
let it go. Forgave them."

Gaara blinked.

"Huh? Why?"

"Because when you forgive someone, you're not doing it for them. You're doing it for yourself."
'Hiruko' stood.

"Take it from me. At least listen to what he has to say before deciding to forgive him or not. In the
end, it's your choice." he smiled. He turned his head, allowing Yashamaru to see the soft, big
brother like expression on the lower half of his face. Gaara stood up as well and latched onto the
man's baggy sleeve.

"You're leaving? Already?" he asked.

"Sorry, Gaara. I'll come back soon, okay?"

Gaara nodded and let go, letting the man disappear from sight. Yashamaru had already gone by
making a hasty retreat back to the village.

::

"Nya! Is that dango? Lemme taste, lemme taste, lemme taste, lemme taste!" Kou purred. He
trotted around Itachi's legs relentlessly and whipped his tail around in anticipation. Itachi stalled at
the sudden appearance of the feline. He looked at the windows and doors before lowering his
dango stick and letting the cat munch on it.

"Hello again. Did you need something?"

"A snack. But this dango is sooo good, nya!"

The cat padded about the kitchen in the main house and jumped up onto the counter top. He sat on
the granite with a sharp grin, bright eyes pinning the eleven year old boy to the spot. Itachi was...
curious, to say the least. This summons had made it a point to pop out of nowhere and hang
around for a few minutes, then leave as mysteriously as he came. It made him wonder.

"Kou-san."

He leaned forward.

"Hm?"

"Why are you here, exactly?" the Uchiha questioned, "I doubt anyone in my family had
summoned you, and Nekobaa-sama would never interfere in business that isn't hers."

Kou bobbed his head.

"True. True."

"Then--"

"Then nothing!" the cat exclaimed, striking a fabulous pose, "No need to worry, 'tachi-chan. I'm a
summon closely tied to your clan. There's only so many people I can contract with, nya."

Kou leapt off the counter and strut out the kitchen with his tail raised in the air.

"Bye bye!"

Itachi was left in the middle of his home with a dango stick in his hand and a whirring mind.
Someone must be keeping an eye on him, he deduced. It couldn't have been someone from the
clan, as no one would dare spy on the main house. And Nekobaa-sama had secluded herself in an
abandoned city for a reason she would sell her weapons, nothing more or less.
With Kou being a summon, he couldn't hope to track them without violating some code of
conduct.

The light pitter-patter of footsteps come from the front door.

"Aniki! You're home!" Sasuke grinned. Mikoto walked behind him as he jumped into his older
brother's arms. Itachi smiled.

"How was your day, Sasuke? Did you have fun?"

Sasuke pouted.

"It was okay. I like Iruka-sensei better than the other sensei 'cause he's nice and fair." he said,
surprising Itachi, "But then I had ramen with Naruto and Sakura and Chouji and Shikamaru and
Shino! I had a lotta fun!"

"Did you? That's great."

Sasuke wriggled out of Itachi's grip and made way towards his room.

"I gotta do my homework. I'll be in my room kaa-san, aniki!" he shouted from the top of the stairs.
Itachi stared after him with a raised eyebrow before turning to his mother.

"He's with his friends more often."

"It's a good thing." Mikoto sighed, "I won't have to worry too much anymore."

::

It was quiet near the Academy. In the absence of kids and other teachers, a sort of eerie feeling
crawled up Iruka's spine. He sat down on the makeshift swing and looked up at the stars,
marveling at their twinkle. He didn't know why he agreed to a meeting on a night like this. Six
year olds shouldn't be let out at night, shouldn't they?

"Sensei."

Iruka jumped and scrambled to his feet. Behind him stood Sakura dressed in a pair of black unisex
pants and a loose green shirt. Had he not known any better, he would've thought she was a little
boy who happened to have eccentric pink hair.

"Sa-Sakura! I didn't hear you-- I mean-- how long did, uh, did you just get here?" he asked with
an embarrassed grin. She nodded.

"Yeah. Follow me. I'll show you where Naruto lives." she said. She turned on her heel and went
off. Iruka jogged a bit to catch up with her. Sakura was just as quiet as her surroundings, oddly
enough. She was completely different than how she was in class. More serious and more mature,
she held herself like a higher shinobi-- as if she were his equal. Sakura made no indication of small
talk and kept a little ways ahead to guide him through the thinning streets.

"Um, Sakura? Are you over at Naruto's a lot?" he questioned.

"It depends. I teach him how to cook, how to clean... He can't live off ramen for the rest of his life,
but I guess the orphanage never wanted to teach him any of that." she sighed. She made a sharp
turn down a narrow road, causing Iruka to nearly trip over his own feet. His eyebrows furrowed.

"He doesn't live at the orphanage?"


"They kicked him out."

Neon lights invaded his vision as the street of the Akasen came into view. Crowds of people were
strung alongside the buildings with numerous provocative individuals coaxing others from the
doorways. Panicked, Iruka opened his mouth to warn Sakura about what they were getting into
only to be cut off.

"If you don't make a scene, they won't care." she mentioned quietly. Her expression darkened a
considerable amount, "Keep up, sensei."

Sakura made an abrupt left into a maze of dingy alleyways. These were the backs of the clubs,
casinos, and love hotels. All that could really be seen here were the dumpsters and unconscious
drunks, and the occasional sight of a raunchy couple in the shadows who thought no one would
be looking.

Iruka blushed every time.

Eventually, they came upon Magenta's back street. Iruka eyed the steel staircase that hugged the
edge of the building and led up to the third floor. A single window was lit up-- curtains drawn and
a short shadow passing by every now and again. His shoulders dropped.

"Not... here." he mumbled, "Surely... He can't be allowed to live her. He's-- Naruto's just a boy."

...

"I know."

Sakura turned her head to observe his wide eyes.

"You see a boy, sensei. But you know that's not what everyone else thinks." she said. His surprise
diverted to her and she looked away.

"You--"

"Don't be too hard on him, okay? He's had it rough his whole life and there's only so much I can
do for him. You understand, right?"

Her back was turned to him, blocking his view of her face. Her fists were clenched at her sides
and he could see her veins emerging from her arm.

"Right."

Sakura's head lowered as she began her walk away from the apartment.

"Goodnight, sensei."

For a long while, he couldn't take his eyes off her. Now he knew what is was about her that made
the other sensei retire, and why he gave him fair warning against her. But he was able to tear his
eyes away from her small form and leave the Akasen in the opposite direction.

"Goodnight, Sakura."
Forgiveness

Everything was going by smoothly. After the initial shock of her existence, Sakura managed to
make herself fade into the rest of the Academy students despite her outstanding excellence. The
school days went by normally and without incident with Iruka's fair and open way of teaching.
Naruto was treated as any other student and was held up to the exact same standard-- the way
Sakura would've had it if she were in charge of education.

She, Sasuke, and Naruto stayed as close to each other as ever. They mostly hung out at Naruto's
apartment whenever they could because of how convenient it was to stay away from prying eyes
and judgmental whispers. Sakura was confident enough to say they were close enough to stand at
each other's backs in any situation. It was also safe to say that they could rely on Shikamaru,
Chouji, and Shino as well.

Sakura did make her trip to the Aburame Household alongside Shikamaru every now and then to
study up on more insects (and more possible poisons). The time Chouji tagged along with them,
he and Shino hit it off immediately. One clan dealt with bugs and the other with butterflies, so they
had plenty to talk about.

Her internship under Ibiki and Genma went as expected. Her chakra reserves grew substantially
and her muscle mass was easily seen on her arms and legs, leading her to wear pants and long
sleeves to avoid even more suspicion. She could now freely use chuunin level techniques in their
presence, leading up to her quickly learning to use her wrist blades.

One thing she didn't think to account for was how much more... involved they were in her life.
Sakura noticed that she was spending a lot of her free time at the T&I building. If she wasn't
lounging on Ibiki's office couch, she'd be lazing around on the rooftop or training grounds with
Genma.

It was during those moments when she caught up with her sleep. Luckily enough, they never
questioned it.

"Alright everyone-- outside!" Iruka called to his class of second years, "We're going to learn about
kunai and shuriken safety!"

Sakura stood from her seat and trailed beside Naruto and Sasuke on their way towards the training
grounds. The two were unaware of the slight change in her expression; the way it had gotten
weary and filled with hopeless acceptance.

She couldn't sleep anymore. She couldn't stop getting all those flashbacks from the war. She
couldn't stop hearing, stop... stop seeing all her friends dead and suffering even though she knew
they were all alive and innocent again. And when she saw or even thought of a fire--

Someone poked her shoulder.

"Oi, Sakura."

Ino came into view with platinum blonde hair pulled up in a short ponytail and sky blue eyes
widened in worry.

"Are you okay?" she asked, "You, I dunno, you don't look okay. Your jaw's tight, your fist's
balled, and you're... distracted?"

Sakura's finger twitched. How could she forget? The Yamanaka prided themselves in being
Sakura's finger twitched. How could she forget? The Yamanaka prided themselves in being
experts in the human mind, as it was the clan specialty. That meant they knew about telling signs,
when a person was lying, and reading body language. Not to mention that her father was one of
the most prominent figures with T&I. It wouldn't be wrong to start teaching his seven year old
daughter a trick or two.

"I'm fine." she answered, voice unwavering, "I'm just thinking about some things."

Ino stared at her for a few seconds.

"... Okay."

Reluctantly, she turned back to one of her friends and continued her conversation with another
girl. Thought she did keep a close eye on Sakura as the class settled themselves on the training
grounds. And when Iruka began his long spiel on what to do and what not to do with the
weapons, Ino saw that Sakura was again off in her own world-- jaw tight, fists balled, and...
distracted.

::

"Gaara, correct?"

Gaara jumped and looked over his shoulder. Standing in the soft lighting of the public library was
Chiyo: the famed puppet-master and poison user as well as one of Rasa's advisors. She peered into
the fearful eyes of the Kazekage's son.

"Y-Yes, ma'am."

"I see. What are you doing here so early then, child?"

Gaara shifted his weight from foot to foot and cast his line of sight at anything but her. The book
he picked out from the shelf was held tightly against his side.

"I wanted to know about, um, f-forgiveness." he said, "I thought the library would have
something."

There was no visible change in her face but something told him that she didn't quite believe what
she was hearing. In a quick boost of confidence, he raised the book he was holding to show her
the cover. A heartbeat passed before she gently took it from his hands and read the title.

Forgive

A book on how to free yourself.

Honda Kayo

Chiyo handed him back the book. The Yashamaru incident, she supposed. She had advised
against the course of action because it had the potential to psychologically damage Gaara to the
point of no return, but in the end it was Rasa's decision. Not a good one, but his nonetheless.

"I'll leave you to it. Don't stay in too long, your father may look for you later." she mentioned. The
boy's eyes darted to the ground as she walked away. When he was sure she was gone, he went
over to the most secluded table at the library and sat down to read the book. Gaara flipped through
the first few pages, stopping at the introduction.

There are some things that you need to understand before continuing through this book. Here are
the main seven points you need to consider to open your heart to forgiving.
1.) When you forgive someone, that doesn't mean you have to be okay with what they did.

That wouldn't be a problem for him. It had been a year and a half now and he had yet to approach
Yashamaru and talk about what happened. Since then, they rarely spoke to one another.

2.) When you forgive someone, you don't have to tell them that they're forgiven. If you show that
you have gotten past the problem they should be able to see it for themselves.

He missed Yashamaru. He wasn't going to lie about that.

3.) Forgiving someone doesn't mean everything's going to be solved. There are still going to be
problems, and there are things that still need to be worked out.

But somehow, it didn't seem right to approach him and tell him that everything would be fine.

4.) After forgiving someone, you can still talk about it. Have feelings about it? That's perfectly
normal. Want to talk about it? By all means, go ahead. Communication is key. Nothing's wrong
with it.

Gaara wasn't exactly comfortable communicating with people. The only person he ever opened up
with had been Hiruko, and he only came by one or two times a month.

5.) I'm sure you've heard the phrase "forgive and forget". Forgiving is what should be done. But
you should never forget-- you learn and grow from it.

The things that Yashamaru said... that he was filth, a monster, and a self-loving carnage-- how
could he forget that?

6.) Forgiving someone doesn't mean you need to keep them in your life. It can be hard; I know it
can be. But if you think that removing that person from your life is your best course of action, no
one is stopping you.

Did he want to patch it up with him? It had been a long time and his uncle was the very first
person who tried to reach out to him. If he was able to give him a chance, he felt he should be able
to return the gesture.

7.) Forgiveness isn't for the other person.

Gaara sunk into the wooden chair. Just as Hiruko said. He didn't even read the rest of the book
when the shut the cover and hopped from his seat. He walked near the Kage Tower, avoiding the
constant stares of everyone else, and approached the apartment he stayed at multiple times when
he was younger.

He stretched his hand above his head, fingers curled into a loose fist. A minute passed and he still
stood there-- waiting with an arm held high. Did he really want to talk to him again? Was he ready
to talk about what happened?

He didn't know. At all.

"...Gaara... sama?"

Yashamaru paused at the end of the corridor with a couple of grocery bags in one hand and his
house key in the other. Gaara yanked his arm back down and turned to the side, holding his hands
behind his back.

"H-H-Hi." he mumbled. His eyes were glued to his feet, "I-I, um..."
A sudden dread spilled over his face as he broke into a run down the hall.

"I'm s-sorry!"

"Gaara-sama!"

Yashamaru spun around to catch another glimpse of him, but he was already gone.

::

Itachi was having a relatively nice day. Neither Shisui nor Obito had dropped by so far, giving
him a quiet time to drink some tea and reflect on his thoughts. His father had yet to return from his
police duties and his mother was in the living room, curled up on the couch with a book in her
hands. He hadn't received free time like this ever since he joined ANBU, so perhaps he could
finally catch up on time lost with Sasuke.

It's been so long since he'd actually spent time with his younger brother that he felt real guilt over
not being home that much anymore.

When Sasuke came home from the Academy, he stepped through the door in a frenzy and a wide
grin on his face. The boy struggled to take of his sandals and fell over once before eventually
kicking them off and running to the living room. He greeted his mother first and kissed her on the
cheek, then ran into the kitchen. Sasuke skidded to a stop at the sight of his older brother at the
table.

"Aniki!" he exclaimed. Itachi smiled and beckoned him over.

"Welcome home, otouto. How was school?" he asked, tousling his hair. Sasuke pouted and lightly
swatted at the appendage.

"School was fine. Kinda boring 'cause he was talking about shuriken and kunai and what to do
but I knew about that." he answered. Seeming to remember something, he rushed over to the
pantry and looked around inside. Itachi watched him curiously.

"Hm. I don't have have anymore duties for today. Would you like to join me for training?"

Sasuke emerged from the pantry with an armful of potatoes. He placed them on the table, removed
all his papers from his book bag, and slid the vegetables into it.

"Sorry, Aniki. I'm busy."

Itachi blinked.

"What?"

"Yeah, I got allota things to do. I'll see you later!"

He slung the bag over his shoulder and ran back out the house, stepping back into his sandals and
bolting out the door. Itachi and Mikoto shared a confused look, though his mother's lips quirked
up into an amused smile and a small chuckle before she turned back to her book. Her eldest son,
on the other hand, moved his stare back to the closed door.

Well... maybe this was a one time thing.

...
But it wasn't, of course. He's been having a lot of shit luck lately, and this definitely wasn't
helping.

ANBU had been giving him more guard duty lately which meant that he was out of the house at
two o'clock am every day and back at three o'clock pm sharp. And every day, he'd ask if Sasuke
would want to go out on a walk or if he'd be up for learning another jutsu. But alas, he kept on
getting turned down.

"I'm gonna work in a study group today!"

"We're gonna go and get ramen again, sorry Aniki."

"Naruto said he was gonna show us a cool bug he found yesterday, so me, Sakura, and Shino are
going to the training grounds."

"I can't today, Sakura said she would help me with throwing kunai!"

"Naruto got sick so me and Sakura are gonna take care of him."

Just like that, a whole school week had passed and Itachi was in the living room with drooping
shoulders and defeated expression. It was Saturday and Sasuke wasn't even home! Now he was
stuck with his annoying cousins laughing over his misfortune.

"Karma sucks, ne, Itachi?" Shisui grinned. He didn't even cringe when a blistering glare was shot
in his direction. Obito patted his head.

"Don't worry about it, Itachi-chan. It's not bad that Sasuke has friends now, is it?"

"... No." the youngest begrudgingly admitted, "Though it wouldn't hurt if he were home more
often. But I will have to thank Naruto and Sakura in the future."

Obito cocked his head and hummed thoughtfully.

"It's that Sakura, isn't it?" he murmured to himself.

::

"Why would you be here in the daytime?"

"I was in the neighborhood and dropped by to see how your day was going and this is the
greeting I get? Ungrateful brat."

"I hope you get caught."

"I hope you're too short to reach things."

"How tall are you again? 4'8"?"

"From this moment on I'm disowning you."

Sakura rolled her eyes and leaned against the tree she was taking refuge in. Sasori sat on the
branch next to her, his Akatsuki cloak folded in a way to hide the clouds and draped over the
branch behind him. His life had been going quite easily so far, surprisingly enough to him. The
Akatsuki was as lenient as ever with their members and let them roam around as they pleased.

There were less missions, though. Since the tailed beasts were no longer a part of the Akatsuki's
missions, they stayed a for-hire mercenary group to raise funds for themselves and Amegakure's
orphanages and charities. Yahiko, he discovered some time ago, was the hard-working leader of
the village when he took control of it from Sanshouo no Hanzo years ago.

"How are Gaara and Deidara?" she questioned.

"Alright, I suppose. I'm trying out some emotional building with Gaara and working with Onoki
in assuring that Deidara never leaves Iwagakure. So far so good. I haven't been able to find Hidan,
though. I've been too caught up with the other two." he said. Sakura gazed up at the leaves.

"Hidan... the one with the voodoo doll jutsu?"

"Mhm. And the one who was defeated by the Nara boy. I'll check up on him in a few years and
see what he's been up to. Maybe I'll even go and try to stop him from joining in the Akatsuki. I
should take you along for that one."

She shrugged.

"If I'm out of the Academy by then, why not?"

Sasori gazed into her face for a few moments, eyes narrowed and searching.

"You're wearing lightening balm around your eyes again." he commented, "You're still not getting
enough sleep, are you?"

She rubbed her eyes and sighed. Nothing could get past him.

"No. Sorry."

"We've been back for about two years. I think it would be best if you got some therapy or
something along the lines of that..."

He saw the murkiness of her eyes.

"... But I know none of them would understand. Here, I have some of my personally made
sleeping pills if you want to try them out. Half a pill every other night." he instructed. Sasori
reached into his cloak pocket and pulled out a small bottle filled with circular blue pills. He took
her hand and made her hold onto the container.

"Thanks."

"Sakura, look me in the eyes."

Green clashed with brown.

"Half a pill every other night. Do not take them everyday and do not take more than half a pill.
Alright?"

It was a few long moments of his dead serious look piercing through her soul before she
nonchalantly pocketed the bottle waved him off.

"I'm a medic, Sasori-san. No need to tell me twice."


Anomaly

Hinata felt ashamed to admit it, but she was a little envious of Haruno Sakura. Don't get her
wrong, she had nothing against her classmate. In fact, she really looked up to her as a person.
Sakura had amazing amounts of intelligence, was the most physically fit out of everyone in their
year, was able to make friends with some of the more difficult cases, and had every ounce of
courage to stand up for Naruto when no one else would.

Not to mention that she was really pretty.

She glanced at the pink haired girl in the front row. Sakura was turned around in her seat so she
could talk to Chouji and Shikamaru. To her right was Naruto, puzzling over a worksheet on his
desk. Sasuke was trying to help him by talking through it step by step.

'It must be nice.'

Hinata didn't have very many friends. Well... not a friend at all when she thought about it. She
was sure that everyone else thought she was too quiet and too weird to hang out with. It wasn't
that she didn't want to talk to others, but it was that it made her too nervous and she didn't know
how to talk to other people. The thought scared her. A lot.

Sakura managed to to do it so naturally-- like she didn't even try to be friends with them. Hinata
straightened in her seat when Iruka called attention to the front of the room.

"Everyone! For the next assignment I'll be partnering you guys up." he said. He picked up a sheet
of paper from his desk, "First is Naruto and Chouji."

The list went on with Hinata fidgeting nervously in her seat.

"... Sakura and Hinata..."

Hinata's eyes widened. Was that going to be okay? She was silent when all the other pairs were
called out, and stayed in her spot when the class shifted to sit with their partners. At her right,
Shino stood to sit next to Sasuke and was replaced with Sakura who greeted her with a sweet
smile.

"Hey, Hinata. Haven't talked to you in a while."

"A-Ah, h-h-hm..."

She looked at the assignment placed in front of them, blushing absolutely red in embarrassment.
Sakura made no inclination of being bothered at the stuttering and picked up her pencil to point at
the first question.

"This one's about probability. You're good at solving stuff like this, yeah?" she asked. Hinata's
head shot up. Sharp green eyes regarded her openly, appearing both warm and cold, calculating
and lackadaisical. There was something so kind and frightening about her eyes that Hinata
couldn't say anything in return, opting to pressing her lips together and nodding.

"Okay, so do you want to split up the work fifty-fifty or work on each one together? I'm fine with
either one, so you can choose."

Hinata flustered even more under the pressure of trying to make a quick decision. She stumbled
over getting her words out for a couple of seconds, then fell into a shameful silence. Usually at this
point, the other kids would start to mock her or move their attention elsewhere. But Sakura looked
as patient as ever and waited for her to continue on with what she was saying.

"I... um... sp-split..."

"You can take the first ten and I'll take the last ten. Then I'll turn it into Iruka-sensei for us
afterwards." Sakura said. Hinata nodded and set to work. She glanced at her partner's paper from
time to time to see how fast or well she was getting her work done.

Sakura was a genius. Ten questions were finished within a minute; all work was shown and all
answers were most likely 100% correct.

"You're re-really smart, Sakura-s-san." Hinata found herself saying as she moved onto her next
problem. The other girl cracked her neck.

"Thanks. I do a lot of outside studying in my spare time. Sometimes in a group with Naruto,
Sasuke, Chouji, Shikamaru, Shino..."

A sudden gleam that sparked in Sakura's eyes.

"... Actually, we have a study group on Saturday. You should come."

Hinata stopped writing and slowly looked up. Her cloudy white eyes had gone as large as saucers.

"M-Me?" she stammered. Sakura gave a charming lopsided grin that made the Hyuuga's face a
darker red than it already was.

"Yeah. The people who have the most trouble on their work are Chouji and Naruto, but you have
to make sure Naruto doesn't get distracted. We've got to keep Shikamaru awake and Sasuke and
Shino are always competing to get the most answers, so it's not as bad as it looks. Plus, it gets kind
of boring being the only girl in the group and I think you're pretty cool."

Hinata's jaw slackened.

Her?

Being called cool?

By Sakura?!

She couldn't stop the bubble of shock and happiness from bursting in her chest. It only increased
tenfold when an arm was slung over her shoulder in a friendly gesture.

"You're a pretty sweet girl too, so maybe the boys would clean up their act a little bit. If you gave
a big smile for them, do you think you can get one of them to blush?"

Sakura's sly grin, suggestive words, and physical contact must've been too much for her.

...

Because she fainted.

::

She didn't mean to make a scene out of the whole thing. Really. She was excited to see Hinata
again because she hadn't been one of the casualties during the war. Hinata had always an
enthusiastic ray on the battlefield, always encouraging others during the fighting and being an
optimistic nurse in lifting wounded shinobi spirits. Sakura was always thankful for her helping as
best she could around the medical unit. She, regardless of what happened, never lost a bit of hope.

Though she couldn't say the same for herself.

She had given up on herself a long time ago.

But on a happier note, the nurse's office looked really nice. Sakura insisted on carrying her all the
way here (it was her fault, anyways) and surprised her whole class by carrying her bridal style like
she weighed nothing. The nurse was currently out to restock on some of the medication.

Sakura sat on the stool beside the bed and stared outside the window. Blue skies, rustling leaves,
and peace written in the walls... She sighed and rubbed at her tired eyes. How much could she
really make things change in this timeline? Say there was no Uchiha Massacre and Sasuke was
really saved, say Naruto found a loving home and he no longer had to suffer by himself, say the
war would never happened and her and Sasori would never have to live through that hell ever
again.

... What would happen next?

"Mm... S... Sakura-san?"

She spun around and greeted Hinata.

"Hey again. You fainted."

Not the best choice of words, but she just couldn't help herself. Hinata went just as red as she was
before as she tucked her legs beneath herself and bowed her head.

"I-I'm so sorry for cau-causing trouble!"

Sakura raised both hands in defense.

"Don't worry, it's no big deal. I shouldn't have made fun of you in the first place." she admitted
sheepishly. She stood to stretch her legs before walking out the door.

"Oh, and Hinata?"

The Hyuuga looked up.

"The study group's meeting in front of the Academy at twelve, then we're going to Shikamaru's.
You're coming Saturday, right?" Sakura questioned. Hinata's entire expression lit up significantly
as she nodded.

"Y-Yes!"

::

The Academy let out five minutes ago and Sakura was taking a leisurely pace to the T&I building.
Genma was a million shades of excited the day before, babbling constantly about a new training
regime he was going to try out today as a result of talking with Gai. He actually got so irritatingly
happy over it that Ibiki kicked him out of the office.

"Let me talk to my favorite student!"

"Shut the fuck up, Shiranui."


Anything that had to do with Gai was bound to be fantastic. But she wasn't complaining on any
part of it. She needed to get stronger as fast as possible to ensure she was capable enough to
protect the people she was closest to. There was still a long ways to go, as one could clearly see,
and there were still things in this world she had yet to discover.

"You! With the pink hair! Could you please stand right there, no wait-- a little to the left, great!
Right there! Keep still for a few minutes, please?"

She couldn't believe her luck. Right across the street on a plain wood bench was a miniature Sai.
His tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth in pure concentration as he drew in a sketchbook
propped against his bent knees. He wore a simple gray shirt and black pants with... an oddly
normal emotional disposition.

"What are you drawing?" she asked. He kept scribbling in his book, providing no answer. Sakura
narrowed her eyes.

"Oi!"

His head slowly raised, but his eyes were kept on his paper.

"Sorry, it's just that the way the light hits your hair's so different! You can move now, I'm done,
and it's that I've never seen hair like yours before! Did you dye it? Nah, it looks too nice to be
dyed. So it's natural! But how? I--"

Sakura crossed the street after getting over the shock of being attacked by an onslaught of words.
She took a seat beside him and let him keep talking until he felt like he said everything. Sai
suddenly paused and offered an apologetic smile.

"Sorry. I ramble. A lot. Don't mean to. But I do."

His smile turned into a grin.

"I'm Shimura Sai! What's your name?"

There were suddenly images of Danzo in her mind-- his arm of sharingan eyes and his constant
campaign to remove Tsunade from her seat as Godaime. That man was a poison to the village as a
whole and deserved the beheading he received.

In the old timeline, at least.

"Haruno Sakura." she replied smoothly, "Do you attend the Academy?"

"The Shinobi Academy? No, I'm a civilian. Ji-san wanted me to go a couple years ago, and nii-
san too, but... I want to be an artist. And they're cool with it, so I'm gonna try my hardest!" he
exclaimed. Sakura couldn't help but smile herself and looked down at his drawing. Not exactly
professional, but quite impressive for an eight year old. She was relieved to know that she
wouldn't have to fuss over him too much this time around and that he'd probably lead a relatively
normal life. And not die in that horrific ambush.

"So, what about you?"

Sakura turned her head.

"Hm?"

"When you're older! What do you want to be? Or, I guess, what kind of shinobi?"
She was quiet. It was a nice day outside with chirping birds and a warm, calming air. It felt like
nothing bad was or never would go wrong again.

"A good one. That's enough for me."

::

She was really late and she hoped Genma and Ibiki wouldn't get on her ass for it. This Sai was
more than pleasant to talk to even if he talked a little too much, but everything other than that was
just fine. Perfectly, actually. He lived with another boy named Shin and were both adopted by
councilman Danzo about four years ago. Danzo was a kind but strict man who wanted excellence
in everything they strove for regardless of what it might be. He was a far cry from the man she
knew, but at least it worked.

Sakura stepped through T&I's glass doors to see Kotetsu and Raido talking around the
receptionist's desk.

"So he finally came back, huh? It's been two or three years since he left."

"I'm just surprised as you. I heard he had no leads again. You think he'd give up on finding
Tsunade?"

"You know he won't. But maybe this time he'll take up the spot of Hokage."

He fingers twitched. The two stopped their conversation to wave Sakura by before going back to
what they were talking about. She climbed the stairs to the third floor of the building with gears
spinning wildly in her mind.

'Were they talking about Jiraiya?'

No other person came to mind when it came to the topic of Tsunade. As Sakura walked down the
hallway, all she could hear were snippets of comments about this stranger and how he'd been
trying for so long to find Tsunade even though she was more than a lost cause.

She would have to see this for herself because she also heard that he was in the building. Sakura
silently made her way to the office and opened the door. Genma was in and so was Ibiki, but there
was a another man standing with his back facing her.

She stilled.

This man definitely was not Jiraiya.

She had never seen him before in either this timeline or the last. Nothing about him was familiar.
Not a detail on his person struck a chord within her. And when he turned around, she was even
more at a loss at his kind teal eyes and the light-colored hair that swayed against his back.

"You must be Sakura." he said. She had never heard that voice before. Not once. Her brain kept
up a relentless search to pinpoint who it was standing before her. But her face was plain and
respectful, giving a nod of agreement.

"I am. Nice to meet you...?"

The man smiled and held out his hand. She took it.

"Kato Dan." he introduced, "Nice to meet you too, Sakura-chan."


::

Sasori learned a lot about himself in those eighty or so years he spent in the Void. Once of those
things he kept thinking about were the state of his parents and every time his grandmother lied to
him about it. He remembered how confused he was as a young boy.

Would his parents ever come back?

Were they safe?

Did they... leave?

Did they leave him?

Was it his fault because they didn't want him anymore?

He knew now that it wasn't their fault, or even Chiyo's for giving him the sliver of false hope in
his childhood. How does someone approach a small kid and tell them that their parents are dead
when he spends his days by the window, waiting for them to come home?

Sasori opened that same window he stayed by and slipped into his own room. It looked just as he
left it, save for the layer of dust that collected over everything. Even the picture of him and his
parents were still sitting on the nightstand.

He removed it from the frame and pocketed it.

He didn't want to dawdle too much on those memories. There was only one thing he came for and
he was going to leave just as quickly as he came. Sasori made his way down the faintly
recognizable hallways down to his old work room Wooden limbs and puppet models suspended
from the ceiling as the scent of sawdust filled his nose. He approached the end of the dark room to
where the only finished prototypes hung: mother and father.

They looked just like he left them-- a perfect likening to their human counterparts. He reached up
to the hooks and untied them from their spots.

"No need to keep watch over me." he said, "This is the only thing I came for, I assure you."

Chiyo stood in the doorway, warily watching her grandson take down the puppets. Her fingers
flexed over her own scrolls.

"... You came all this way, sneaking past village security and around all villagers just to take your
old puppets?" she questioned. Sasori crouched on the ground and opened a storage scroll. He then
took an ink bottle and a brush and wrote down a few notes before sealing the two puppets inside.

"Not just the puppets. I'm thinking of visiting their graves and paying my respects. I don't think I
have in a while, or even at all."

He rolled up the scroll and tucked it into his belt. Chiyo took a step forward with her arm
outstretched.

"About your parents--"

"Killed by Hatake Sakumo, the White Fang of Konoha. I know." he interrupted, waving a hand,
"I don't blame you for not telling me, you didn't know how."

She blinked.
"How did you...?"

"I became more knowledgeable recently. Things happened, time passed, and I came to appreciate
things a little bit more. Of course I still hate liars, but there's always a reason, isn't there?"

Chiyo didn't know what to say, and Sasori could see that as clearly as anyone else. He flipped his
hood over his head and strode past his grandmother.

"Sasori."

He stopped a few inches behind her.

"I'm... I'm sorry. For everything I ever did to you and every lie I told. I should have never done
something like this, and I know I'm too late for apologies. Years-- decades, even. I know you
don't have to ever forgive me for it, and I'm sorry. I never meant for it to be this way." she
whispered. He took her shoulder and gently spun her around, giving a genuine smile.

"It's alright, baa-sama."

And he was gone.


Cognizant

Find anything and everything you know about Kato Dan including the relationship between him
and Tsunade. He could go and possibly become the Godaime Hokage. I heard that he had been
gone from between two to three years, so it was from before when we arrived. I don't now
whether to regard him as a suspicious person or not, and I'm hoping for the latter. Reports on
Suna and Iwa would be appreciated.

~ H.S.

--

Kato Dan, age 44. Renowned jounin of Konohagakure most known for his advocacy of having
med-nin assigned to each team. Born December 4th, Blood Type A, registration number 002973,
biological uncle to Shizune: Tsunade's first apprentice. Two jutsu he's known for is the Chakra
Transfer Jutsu and the Reika no Jutsu, where the user's spirit materializes and takes possession of
a target and decays said target from the inside out. He fought in the Second Shinobi World War
and killed countless shinobi until suffering a fatal wound.

He was healed by Tsunade.

The two established a romantic relationship before and after that particular war. And here's when
I run into complications with that information. No one knows exactly what happened between the
two of them that caused both her and Shizune to leave over ten years ago, but he's been looking
for them ever since. He's had no leads and there aren't any local reports of Tsunade sightings as
far as I've seen.

I remember him from stories of my younger years. He was supposed to die in the war.

But he'll be a fine enough Kage. Nothing bad in his history, though I suggest you keep tabs on
him just in case.

Suna: no progression. He's just as I've left him and has yet to make amends with his uncle.

Iwa: no progression. The Tsuchikage continues to train him and there's no sign of him wanting to
abandon his village.

You've got nothing to worry about. Things are going smoothly on my end. By the way, how have
the pills been working? I'd like to hear that they're being used appropriately.

~ Marionette

--

They're sleeping pills, not L-pills. Contrary to popular belief, I actually know how to use them.

There also aren't any immediate enemies in Konoha. I'll have eyes on Dan soon enough. As of
right now, I'm already monitoring the Uchiha Clan as a whole, Uchiha Itachi, Uchiha Obito,
Danzo, and a few other students in my year. The village is peaceful.

A bit... too peaceful to be comfortable.

Keep your ears open for any new piece of information.


~ H.S.

--

Peace isn't a bad thing. I hope you don't forget that.

Remember that you're young again and you don't have anything you've sworn yourself to. You're
what, seven years old? Seven year olds aren't supposed to have any obligation to the world. We've
already both felt what death is like and have succumbed to the hopelessness.

Start over. Help yourself. Look to the brighter side of things. I don't think we'll ever get this
chance again.

~ Marionette

--

If I don't get stronger than I can't protect everyone else form a fate they all could have. It doesn't
matter if I have to die all over again for them to be safe because they have to be safe. And they
will be. I don't know why we were brought back or who thought it was a great idea for it to be the
two of us, but I'm going to make the most of it.

When I was a young girl, I was vain and only cared of how people thought of me. I was weak and
only wanted for people to notice my looks. I was never at my best and only did I accept it did I
realize people died on my watch because of it.

You saw it for yourself. If Chiyo-baa-sama wasn't there then I would have never stood a chance
against you.

Look, I know you're concerned but I'm not going to let everything happen all over again.

~ H.S.

--

And it won't. I promise.

Life isn't supposed to be a mission.

~ Marionette

--

But mine is.

~ H.S.

::

"Some of your friends are coming over today, right?" Shikaku asked. He was sat at the kitchen
island as his wife Yoshino took out ingredients to make a cake. He made a constant motion to
sneak some of the chocolate chips into his mouth, but Yoshino kept smacking his hand with her
spoon.

"Yeah." Shikamaru replied as he scratched the back of his head, "It's my turn."
"Turn?"

"We take turns going to each other's places now for studying. First we went to Chouji's. Now it's
me."

In all honesty, his son having more friends was a godsend. They boy was more active and was
more inclined to do things without his parents having to force him-- something they never thought
was possible.

"Do you think they'll enjoy sweets?" Yoshino questioned. After glaring her husband into a pouty,
glumly accepting state and moving the chocolate chips to another table, she turned around and
pre-heated the oven. Her son nodded.

"They eating anything. Like potatoes."

"... Potatoes?"

Shikamaru sighed.

"It's a really long story."

Ding-Dong.

The boy padded out of the kitchen and to the front door. Shikaku propped up his chin and
watched as his son left the area. He didn't know exactly who was coming over except for Chouji
and most likely that Haruno Sakura girl. Still, he was very curious about her. He had yet to find
out what it was that caused Shiranui Genma and Morino Ibiki of all people to take an interest in
her and bring her under their care.

A prodigy? And she had to be of Hatake Kakashi or Uchiha caliber. Though, he'd never heard of
such a phenomenon occurring in the civilian sector.

He straightened in his seat when a flood of voices poured into the house. Shikamaru re-emerged
into his parent's sight with a mass of six Academy students following close behind him. Shikaku
and Yoshino couldn't restrain their surprise.

He had this many friends?!

"Tou-san, Kaa-san, we'll be in the living room." the boy said.

"A-Alright."

His father quickly scanned a critical eye over the mismatched bunch, his incredulity growing with
each passing millisecond. The first one to catch his eye was the blonde jinchuriki, happily chatting
to Chouji. Naruto, he remembered. He wasn't the scared, timid thing he sometimes spotted
ambling alone in public and taking in the villagers hate without backlash.

Second was Fugaku's youngest; Sasuke. For having a high placement in such a prestigious clan,
especially in the head household, it was hard to believe that Fugaku would even allow one of his
own to mingle with a stretch of different classes. He was talking to Shikamaru and the third person
he noticed-- one of the reclusive Aburame. Shino, he presumed. That boy held some odd looking
bug in his hand and was explaining something about it's functions.

Fourth was the Hyuuga girl. Main house, definitely, and more likely than not the heir. She was a
powerful asset as one of Konoha's noble clans and should have a branch member to be at her side.
How was she even allowed to come? Her face was pink as she talked excitedly with the only
other girl of the group; Sakura. She was wholly attentive to what her friend was saying.

Which made Shikaku frown the slightest bit.

As she passed the doorway, he sent a nearly invisible shadow thread her direction. His frown
deepened when she intentionally sidestepped just a centimeter to the right to avoid it and walk
forward like nothing happened. There was a flicker of narrowed green his way before she
disappeared from view.

Shikaku rubbed at his chin.

He couldn't let this slip by.

::

Fuck.

She made it even further up on his watch list. What was she supposed to do? Just let the shadow
jutsu catch her and not uphold Ibiki's and Genma's teachings?

Sakura tapped her pencil against her notebook as she casually watched the group study the
curriculum. They were working through the set of practice problems she herself had created to
steer them towards an A on next week's test. All of them looked engaged enough and were
melding well with each other, but she could tell that Sasuke and Naruto were taking it much more
serious than the rest of them.

If those two kept this up, then they'd be able to graduate earlier than they did in the other timeline.
She leaned to the right.

"Shikamaru, can I use the bathroom?"

He pointed behind him.

"To the left of that hallway and the last door on the right." he said. Sakura stood and silently made
her way out of the living room. Outside, the sun was still high up in the sky. It probably had been
an hour or so since they came to the house and she guessed that they had another two or three
hours until the study session was over.

Halfway down the hall, she saw Shikaku. He was cross-legged on the back porch and staring out
into the vastness of the Nara forest.

"Sakura."

"Nara-san."

He lazily raised an arm and motioned two fingers in his direction. She obliged to the simple
command and sat down a few feet from him. There was a calm silence around them until Shikaku
decided to break it.

"I'm curious. To how all these different Academy students from different backgrounds can come
together and work without boundaries. They seven year olds who are still naive about the world
despite where they are in society."

She laced her fingers together.

"Is that all you're curious about?"


"No." he admitted. She then felt a sharp glance in her direction, "I'm also curious to how
advanced one of those seven year olds could be to notice and avoid one of the clan's secret
techniques within the span of a second, and how you were able to reach out to six others in such a
short period of time. I don't know how you would you take it, but I think anyone would be more
than suspicious."

Sakura didn't meet his eye but tilted her head in thought. She took her time to carefully pick out
her words.

"I wouldn't call myself suspicious, but more... cognizant. Of my own intellectual acuity and
interpersonal skills."

Shikaku noted that she no longer presented herself as one of the Academy students, but rather a
seasoned shinobi just as experienced as he.

"How?"

"I'm young, Nara-san, as you can clearly see. But I'd like to consider myself a quick, observant
learner. When I was five, I was able to cultivate my own transportation-protection seals from
studying ones akin to the Hiraishin. The ones the Yondaime utilized."

It wasn't a lie. During the war, the intelligence faction were scrambling and working together to
find a way to somehow combat the space-time ninjutsu that the sharingan users employed. In her
spare time, she would contribute to these studies to try and advance their favor. Most of her
learning occurred after the medical unit bombing.

His face was drenched in pure shock, yet she continued.

"Not too long after, I met Naruto. Shy and aggressive; of course he was. People treat him like he's
the plague. Why do they act like that? What brought them on to hate a helpless little boy? The
only way to find out the right answers is to ask the right questions. So I did. I approached people
of all ages and backgrounds and asked them what they valued and what they feared. Merchants,
the elderly, little kids, civilians, shinobi, teachers, strippers, sex workers..."

That agglomeration of people she mentioned had been those very same types she met on a three
week assignment to Konoha. She handled numerous cases while she was there and met quite a
number of interesting souls. Listening to their stories really opened her mind to their perception of
the world.

"You learn a lot about a person when you ask them those two things. You learn that no one is
ever the same and you can't talk with a mentality that everyone's going to be okay with what you
say. So with that in mind, I learned how to approach a variety of others and brought them together
based on a common goal. Then everything else will follow."

Sakura turned your head.

"Does that answer your question, Nara-san?"

::

"It was wonderful meeting all of you." Yoshino smiled. The diverse group of kids were sat on the
ground as the pulled on their sandals and prepared themselves to leave. They eventually stood and
presented their cheery faces up to her.

"Thank you for having us!" they chorused. The front door popped open and they trickled out,
saying their goodbyes to Shikamaru and waving as they left. Shikaku hung just a little bit behind
his wife and son, deep concentration swimming in his eyes.

What happened to that girl?

::

They all split to go to their respective homes once they arrived at their first meeting spot. Sakura,
though, accompanied Hinata back to the Hyuuga Estate because she promised Hiashi that she'd
bring his daughter back before dark. Now that she thought about it, her meeting with him could've
gone better.

"Who are you?"

Sakura's face was blank as she regarded the Hyuuga Head in a respectful manner and bowed her
head. His pearly white eyes narrowed at the sight of her.

"Haruno Sakura, sir. I'm a friend of Hinata's and I'm here to pick her up." she replied. Hiashi's
narrowed even further, scanning the seven year old from her bright pink hair to her arm
bandages, then to the weights around her ankles. She didn't look like much, but he knew
appearances could be deceiving. He, being one of the most able-bodied shinobi in sensing chakra
even without the Byakugan, could see the immensely great chakra control this girl possessed.

"And you're a classmate of her's as well."

"Yes, sir."

"Why are you in her year if you're so advanced?"

She twitched. She knew there wasn't anything wrong behind his questioning, but he just happened
to be one of the more prideful and less polite of the clan heads. She put up a small smile and
tightly held her hands behind her back.

"I'm not sure I understand your question."

"I will not repeat myself."

Sakura's jaw shifted, causing Hiashi to raise an eyebrow.

"... I'm not interested in getting ahead for my own personal gain, Hyuuga-sama. There are two
others I want to graduate alongside." she said. She profusely thanked her lucky stars when Hinata
came to the door, stopping her father from asking any more questions, "It was nice meeting you,
sir. I'll be sure to bring her back safe and sound."

"Hm."

"Sorry for ma-making you wait, S-Sakura-san!" she exclaimed. Sakura waved her off before
bowing to Hiashi and leaving with her. She could feel his burning gaze on her back until she was
far off from the estate.

"Tha-Thank you from walking me back." Hinata stammered. She took a key from her pocket and
opened her front door, shyly avoiding the other girl's affable stare. Sakura grinned and tousled her
short black hair, laughing when her face flamed up.

"It's no problem. Have a good evening, Hinata."

"Y-Y-You too, Sak-kura-san!"


Sakura ambled away from the estate with her hands stuffed in her pockets and a careless
expression on her face. She had a lot of time to spare since her parents were having the day to
themselves since it was their wedding anniversary (she made the two of them a big breakfast to
celebrate before leaving for the Academy), and there was no need for her at the T&I building
today.

Just as she was about to leave the reaches of the Hyuuga Estate, she passed by a boy a little taller
than herself. He cast her a sidelong glance, distrusting and piercing, before furthering his steps and
turning into the residence.

Neji. Cold as ever.

She always wondered about that.

Sakura tucked that piece of information at the back of her mind and wandered into the busy
Konoha streets. None of her summons had anything to report and just recently she had sent one of
them out to try and see if they could seek any trail of Tsunade. Perhaps she could go ask
Nekomata for help? He was the boss of the ninneko underworld and was bound so know
something.

"Sakura-chan?"

She looked over her shoulder to see Dan, a positive smile on his face.

"Ah, so it is! I suppose it would be since I haven't come to know any other pink-haired Academy
students." he said. There was a small collection of books held in one arm, "How has your day
been?"

"Fine. I haven't done much. And you, Kato-san?"

He gestured to the books in his grip.

"I've been doing some cleaning at my place and stumbled across some interesting books. I was
going to drop these off at the Archives... but now that I think about it, maybe you can find some
use in them. Well, this one, at least." he decided. Dan handed her an old, timeworn journal that
she immediately began to eye with interest.

"Whose is it?"

"Uzumaki Mito's. Maybe you've heard of her? The wife of the Shodai Hokage?"

She turned the cover to a yellowed page, gazing at the incredibly neat handwriting. Uzumaki. She
was a revered fuuinjutsu user and the first jinchuriki for the nine-tails.

"I have. She was the first person to seal--"

Sakura stopped. Dan leaned forward curiously, head titled to the side.

"Seal...?"

She shut the book and looked up at him with blank eyes.

"Seal chakra well enough to form the Yin Seal on her forehead. I've read about it, and heard that
it's the pinnacle of chakra control. I imagine she was an amazing kunoichi." she continued. His
smile stayed true and apparent on his face.
"I'm sure she was."

She looked back down to the journal.

"Are you sure this is alright for me to have?"

"Of course! I went through it already and it's perfectly fine for you to read through." he answered.
Sakura thumbed through it for a few seconds before nodding.

"I'll make sure to take care of it. Thank you, Kato-san."

They talked for a little while longer before Sakura bid him goodbye and went on her way home.
Once she was gone, Dan's smile slowly slipped off his face as he changed his original route
towards the Hokage Tower.

He knew exactly what she was going to say.

And he didn't know how to feel about that.


Ceremonious

Class was out early today so that everyone would be able to attend one of the country's most
important ceremonies: the inauguration of the next Hokage: The Godaime.

Sakura stayed at the edges of the large crowd, lingering away from others and taking refuge in the
shadow of the weapon's shop. The Sandaime was giving a speech about Konoha and how it was
a great Hidden Village that needed a great leader to lead them forward even more so than they
already were. Mito's journal was kept between her folders, bookmarked on the explanation of how
she managed to seal all of the Kyuubi within herself, by herself.

Mito's work was her heaven sent. Here, she would have a reason to regaining her Yin seal. She
had already begun the process of collecting chakra in two places on her body; the center of her
forehead and the base of her spine above the tailbone. That way, she'd have even more of an
expansive chakra reserve to dip into. With her past experiences and her knowledge of the
technique, she deduced that it would take her at least an entire year to build them up enough to
where they'd start showing. Of course, this meant that she would have to not use chakra on a
normal basis if she wanted to pull this off smoothly.

So stamina taijutsu training it was.

Up on the Hokage Tower, Dan stepped into view. Once he arrived at the railing, he regarded the
sea of people with a wide smile. His voice boomed over the vast audience for a while before they
erupted into applause and cheers.

There wasn't anything wrong with him taking up the position, it just... Sakura didn't know how to
feel about it. That was Tsunade's spot he was taking and she had yet to discover how his morals
were aligned. What changes would be made to Konoha's policies? How different were the genin
teams going to be arranged, or, would there be anything that would change?

Too many questions swirled uncomfortably in her mind and she didn't like the state it left her in.
The other changes of this timeline were doable, for they didn't necessarily sway personalities or
attitudes. She knew her and Sasori would alter the course to make for a better future, but she didn't
want to speculate too much on things they couldn't control-- and she hated that.

She suddenly felt a prickly feeling at the back of her neck.

Sakura's eyes snapped above her to scan the ledges and rooftops for any sign of life. There would
be tons of ANBU lurking, no doubt, to act as security measures for the ceremony. But that didn't
give an excuse as to why one of them kept their eyes on her longer than necessary. Now feeling
unsafe, she slipped from her cover beside the building to walk the alleyways towards her home.

::

Kakashi's eyes narrowed as he stood on the other side of the building from where he kept his post.
His porcelain dog mask kept strapped to his face, hiding the constant inscrutable nature of his
expression. But even this time he couldn't help but shift his jaw and glance back to where he once
was.

The girl saw him.

That little, no-name Academy student knew he was there.

That was impossible. Should someone like her exist, he thought that all upper-ranked shinobi
That was impossible. Should someone like her exist, he thought that all upper-ranked shinobi
should've been informed of her. And from the looks of it, she didn't come from any well-known
shinobi family. If she were, then he was assured he would've caught wind of her one way or
another. Unless they were keeping her off the radar?

He silently flickered back to that girl's previous location after he was sure she had left. He knew
that she wasn't supposed to be any of his concern and that he was here for one reason and one
reason only, but...

Kakashi looked to the Hokage Tower. The ceremony had just ended, leaving him to report back
his findings to his superior.

He then looked the direction the girl left.

...

His superior could wait. Just this once.

Driven by suspicion, Kakashi took to the rooftops and trailed after her. The girl took an unusual
route of alleys and back lots to reach the civilian sector and enter one of the apartment complexes.
He watched her from a far off distance, letting a frown befall his lips. So that's how it was; how
foolish of him to think otherwise. He turned his back on the complex, taking one last glimpse at it
before returning to HQ.

The girl was more than likely one of those unfortunate enough to carry the title of prodigy.

::

Ibiki took a rag from his back pocket to wipe the blood from his hands and the small spatter on his
cheek. The action itself wasn't tedious, but it took time to weed the information they wanted out of
the person they were working on. That meant he had even more papers piled up for him,
inevitably doubling his desk work.

Sometimes it sucked being the T&I Director. In addition to all the extra time he was putting in, he
now had to deal with the matter of his dwindling interrogation force. There just weren't enough
efficient bodies for the job and lately, they've had a surge of shinobi in need of "questioning".
Hell, all their holding cells were filled! He was lucky he had the tokubetsu jounin to try to subdue
the problem.

It was hard to get people into the force. Shinobi the might be, but many of them still stood by the
fact that one shouldn't torture a person for information. Konoha shinobi held a sort of honor to
them, believing that there shouldn't be blood on their hands where blood wasn't due. It was a
downfall in Ibiki's eyes. Konoha was too nice and peace-loving where only the elite had the
mental capability to get the job done.

He paused for a moment when a pair calculative green eyes flashed in his mind.

No, he couldn't do that.

... Could he?

When thinking of suitable candidates for recruitment, he could help himself from thinking of his
student. Sakura was supposed to be exclusive in intelligence because of her advanced smarts and
talent. That was all. But her abnormal ability didn't just have to apply to one specialized part of the
sector. One could plainly see that she could be lethal with any path, or paths, she chose.

Her parents wouldn't agree to it, surely. Mebuki and Kizashi were law abiding citizens with good
hearts that wanted nothing but the best for their daughter.

"Shiranui." Ibiki said as he entered his office. Genma looked up from his spot on the couch,
capping his pen and rolling the scroll on his lap.

"Yeah?"

"How is Sakura progressing in her physical training?" he asked. The other man leaned back in his
seat and stretched his arms over his head.

"Man, I feel like there's nothing to teach the kid. Remember what I told you before? Was able to
tree walk her first try, walked on water the first try, created three clones on her second try, has
100% throwing accuracy-- I bet her that if she was able to use the Shinju Zanshu Jutsu, you know
the one where you hide underground and pull your enemy neck deep into the ground, that I would
buy her lunch for a whole week. Brat caught me not even an hour after the training session." he
grumbled, "She's a freakin' machine. I don't know, I think we're gonna have to up her lessons to
jounin level."

Ibiki sat behind his desk and began to slowly tap his fingers on the wooden surface.

"And we will."

Genma moved his attention to his friend. There was a contemplative gleam to the interrogator's
face, one people rarely saw. He hadn't known Ibiki too well until he discovered Sakura and
directed her to the first person he thought could handle her. That probably wasn't the best course
of action, he admitted, but it all worked out in the end as far as he was concerned. In the year and
a half he began to get to know the guy, he'd been able to pick out some tells about what he might
be thinking.

That expression right now, for example, was far from good.

He sat up immediately, a grave look on his face.

"Morino-san, she's seven. Putting her in intelligence was one thing-- one big-ass leap at that-- and
you know we barely scraped by with it. But interrogation? Sorry to say, but that's kind of real
fucked up."

Ibiki sighed.

"I know it sounds bad--"

"No kidding."

"--but think about it. Sakura's unnaturally gifted with both brains and brawn. You think she'll be
beneath everyone's notice? The second she graduates, her files will be available to every elite who
wants a look. Her internship, grades, abilities, observations, everything will be listed. You know
well enough that either ROOT or Team Ro will come to try and stuff her into their ranks."

Genma lips thinned at the thought.

"Not to mention her mental stability. You've noticed it, haven't you?" Ibiki questioned, "She
always looks like she's been to hell and back, adding to the fact that she rarely gets any sleep."

They could clearly see it in her face every time they saw her. Something in her had broken, and
whatever it was looked like it was eating her very being. They hadn't conducted a mental health
assessment on her yet but they could safely say that there was a diagnosis that needed to be made.
"You think that torturing people is going to be a good outlet for her?"

"If not that, what else do you think she's going to do? I'm not saying we should make her an
interrogator full time, but the option should be opened. Give her choices. Let her grow in several
different reaches. Then she'll become a well-rounded shinobi that'll help her survive the fucked
world we're getting her into."

Genma exhaled harshly and flopped back against the couch.

"I hate you sometimes."

::

Mebuki hummed a quiet tune as she unlocked the door of the apartment and stepped through the
threshold. She spotted Sakura's sandals neatly set beside the entryway. She'd almost forgotten that
her daughter would be come home right after the ceremony wrapped up. And really, she didn't
expect that of her. Sakura rarely went straight home from school, opting to make sure her friends
got back safely, study with Morino-san and Shiranui-san, or stop by the library.

Well, if Sakura was happy, she was happy.

She set her pair of shoes beside the smaller ones and placed her things down before heading
towards Sakura's room. Mebuki knocked twice then peeked inside, smiling when she saw her little
girl working away on her bed.

"Welcome back, kaa-san."

"I'm back, sweetheart!" she exclaimed. Her eyes swept around the room, heart clenching at what
she saw. The shelves that used to be filled with small trinkets and plushies how held weapon care
kits and books; books that were titled things such as Higher Level Chakra Control, The Basics of
Healing, Herbs Around the Elemental Nations, The Code of Medical Shinobi, and Advanced
Seals. Mebuki's gaze moved to the study desk. Once, it a place always kept neat and clean
because it had no real use in the past. Now, it was a mess of inked paper and notes that she was
sure she herself would never understand.

"... Did you eat already?" she questioned. She willed herself to keep up an easy smile as she went
further into the room to sit at the edge of the bed.

"Not yet."

"Oh? Then how about we go over to your tou-san's restaurants and have lunch?"

"Okay. May I finish this work first?"

Mebuki smoothed down vibrant pink hair and planted a kiss on her forehead.

"Of course you can," she said. She glanced at the work in her small hands, seeing the vast
mathematical calculations befitting of someone with a civilian college degree. It pained her to
think that her baby was not a child any longer, an that there really wasn't any left to call her
childhood a normal one. Mebuki placed a second kiss atop the fluff of hair before leaving and
quietly closing the door behind her.

In doing so, she missed the apologetic look plastered to her retreating form.

'I'm sorry I'm not the daughter you wanted, kaa-san. But I can't afford to mess up this time.'
::

"Gaara-sama!" Komushi exclaimed. He placed both hands on his hips and looked around the
Kazekage household. He was sent over to check on the youngest son because he hadn't been seen
around for a couple of days. This was a regular occurrence, but since he had such a powerful
being within himself, he had to be checked on by an elite shinobi on a routine basis.

"Gaara-sama, are you home?!"

He turned the knob of each door and peeked into the rooms for a few seconds before moving on
to the next. At the second to last door he checked, he had to think for some moments as he
backtracked and re-opened it. The room was free of clutter and practically devoid of personality.
A bed and a nightstand were placed against one wall, a wardrobe sat by the wall across from it,
but no pictures or posters to be seen. A sad looking place to be.

Though the one thing that caught his attention was the single object sitting on the nightstand.
Komushi picked it up with shaking hands, holding it up to the light to make sure it really was what
he thought it to be.

"Hiruko's prototype." he whispered, "Sasori took it when he left, w-why...?"

There was an engraving of a scorpion on the puppet's leg; Sasori's signature. Gaara wasn't
supposed to be in possession of a foreign item, this one especially, as the only way he could've
possibly obtained it by being gifted...

Komushi carefully set the puppet back in its place and hastily left the room.

::

"Haruno Sakura."

"Here."

"Hyuuga Hinata."

"H-Here!"

"Inuzuka Kiba."

...

Iruka looked around the chatter filled room to see an empty desk near the window. He sighed as
he marked the absent box on his roster. Kiba was one of the lower-performing students in class,
earning lots of D's and F's on both assignments and tests. Mostly tests. He knew the boy was
ditching school rather than being sick because he did make it a habit to cut class after lunch hour
every now and then, and it only got worse once he was given Akamaru.

"Do you want me to get him, sensei?"

He looked at Sakura.

"Huh?"

"Do you want me to get him?" she repeated, "Kiba, I mean. I might know where he'd be."

Iruka scratched the back of his head. There'd be no real use of keeping her in class, would there?
She would get perfect marks regardless of what she was given and was the most physically fit of
She would get perfect marks regardless of what she was given and was the most physically fit of
everyone in class. There were even a few moments after the last bell where she'd come up to his
desk and give pointers on the lessons and what he should with them.

He cracked a sheepish grin.

"Would you, please?"

She nodded and removed herself from her seat. Naruto leaned over his desk, pouting when she
started walking towards the door.

"Sakura-chaaaaan, where're you goin'?" he whined.

"I'll be right back, Naruto," she said. Sakura slipped into the hallway and outside the Academy's
front doors.

She was never that close to Kiba. They were acquaintances at best, talking more to each other
during the war because of their roles. He worked as one of the Allied Force's messengers and she
would be the one of the receiving ends of his rounds. Normally, he was the one who went from
infirmary camp to infirmary camp to be the medics' connecting voice.

He was a short-tempered and impulsive person, but he was of the kind sort and completed his
duties with vigor.

"Here's the inventory list from Camp B, Sakura!"

"Thank you Kiba-san, Akamaru. Want to stay for lunch? Some traveling chefs stopped by with a
generous donation of meats."

"Aw, hell yeah!"

She turned a corner to the largest market plaza of the village. It wasn't that busy this early on one
of the weekdays, it also being only a few days after the Kage ceremony. Arms crossed over her
chest, she relaxed slightly (only slightly) to expand her senses and try to pinpoint Kiba's distinct
chakra reading. Sakura suddenly flinched when she caught wind of an incredibly powerful
signature approaching her from behind.

"Could you be Sakura-san?"

She grit her teeth as she turned around at a normal pace, her eyes fearlessly raising to who called
her out.

Uchiha Itachi peered down at her.

"That's me. You must be Sasuke's older brother-- Itachi-san, right?" she replied. Sakura nearly
flinched a second time when he smiled.

"You'd be correct. Why aren't you at the Academy? Classes have barely started and I doubt
Umino-san would let his students leave unattended."

She was aware that his eyes had gone down to observe her hands, most likely because of the use
of arm wrappings at her young age. If she could take a guess, she would say that he probably
could tell that she wore concealed wrist blades.

"I'm looking for a classmate. He has a tendency to skip out and is on the verge of having the word
'truant' in his files. Have you seen an Inuzuka around? One with a small, tannish-white dog."
Itachi pointed towards the east.

"He was walking down to the sunflower beds, I believe. I suggest you catch up to him before he
decides to leave," he said. Sakura nodded.

"Thank you. I guess I'll be seeing you around, Itachi-san."

She shunshinned from her spot, leaving the elder boy with a curious look on his face.

::

Kiba was indeed at the sunflower beds. He and Akamaru were sprawled out on the ground facing
the sun with peaceful expressions on their faces. She halted her movement towards them, an
involuntary frown surfacing onto her lips.

They looked happy, and she wanted to leave them as such.

She then heard an annoyed sigh.

"Shouldn't you be at school?" Kiba grumbled.

"I was going to ask you the same thing," she answered, "I told sensei I'd bring you back to class.
You've been missing a lot of lessons."

"So what? I ain't good at that kind of stuff and it's not like I'll get better at it anyways. I ain't like
you either, always being smarter and stronger than everyone else. I know I can't ever be like that
so I'm not gonna try," he huffed. Akamaru picked up his head gave a high pitched white, causing
the boy to shoot up into a sitting position.

"Huh? Whose side are you on?!"

Sakura unconsciously started rubbing her neck. So it was sort of her fault, eh? Of course it was.
She took a few more steps and took a seat next to him.

"You could always ask for help."

He whipped his head around to narrow his eyes at her.

"What're you talking about?"

"I could help you with the work. Or, we. Naruto, Sasuke, Shikamaru, Chouji, Shino, Hinata, and
I. It's good to work in groups sometimes and not just be on your own," she smiled, "Our study
group's meeting up again this Friday after class. You and Akamaru are more than welcome."

Akamaru popped up to his feet and barked happily, tongue hanging out of his mouth. Kiba's stare
lingered on his best friend's for a few moments before relenting.

"Fine. But I'm not gonna go back to class today."

Sakura stood and dusted herself off.

"You are."

"Then make me."

...
And that's how one hour into Iruka's lecture, the door was thrown open and Sakura casually
strolled in with Kiba thrown over her shoulder-- him yelling at her to put him down because
dammit, he got the point.

Akamaru trotted behind them, tail wagging enthusiastically.


Loss

Warning: Multiple Mentions of Implied Rape, much like what occurred in the chapter Fire
. But worse.

::

"Not so high and mighty now are you?" Obito sneered, fingers digging into Sakura's bleeding,
skinless neck. Even with pain filling her from her head to her toes, she looked up at him with teary
eyes and mustered up the strength to spit in his face.

"Fuck... you..."

He laughed.

"Haven't you already?"

And the black fire swirled around them, with blistering heat seeping into the hatred that emanated
between them. She could see the darkness growing in her peripheral vision, slowly crawling from
tree to tree and darkening--

Sakura woke up.

Her room was dark, illuminated only by the moonlight that poured in through her window. Her
clothes, a simple ensemble of a loose tank top and spandex shorts, were completely soaked
through with her sweat. Red lines were littered all over her neck as a result of the unconscious and
relentless scratching she had done in her sleep.

It was two in the morning and she knew that she wouldn't be getting anymore sleep. Sakura held a
glowing green hand to her torn skin as she slid off the bed and went to let fresh air into her room.
She then plopped down on the window seat and leaned against the wall, using her free hand to
rub at the dark bags under her eyes.

Sometimes she wondered why she was one of the two sent back in time. Why her? Why the one
who couldn't make a change to anything in the first timeline? If anything, Naruto should've been
the one given the opportunity to fix the world. He was the chosen one-- always had been, always
will be.

Even Sasuke would've been hell of a better choice than her. And he tried to kill her once.

She heaved a heavy sigh and sunk further against the wall. She was eight years old now, but it
felt like she was in her 20's again-- that jaded individual that had nothing else to lose.

She honestly hoped that Sasori was having a much better time with his end.

"Sakura-san."

Turning her head, she saw Yori on the pillow beside her. A rolled note lay in the pincer he offered
up to her.

"Thank you. All good news from him, I hope," she said. Yori moved itself at an angle, looking
suspiciously doubting for an arachnid.

"I wouldn't necessarily call it... good," he murmured. Sakura repressed the urge to groan as she
reluctantly opened it.

Apparently, the Godaime Kazekage ran away.

She blinked.

::

Sasori didn't know how to take this situation. He and Orochimaru had taken a quick mission on
Wind Country's border where they'd caught wind of a small panic within the Sunagakure area.
Gaara would normally have moments where he'd disappear for a few days at a time, reappearing
when his caretakers would look for him under the order of his father. But two weeks had passed
since last anyone had seen him.

It was an ANBU would made the report this time, an all elite were supposed to be on the lookout
for the eight year old boy.

"That's unfortunate," Orochimaru hummed from his seat in the late-night cafe. Sasori was across
from him, a calculating look in his eyes, "We should keep a look out for the boy. He holds the
Ichibi inside him, no?"

The shorter man said nothing, merely glancing at their surroundings. The sannin sighed and
leaned back against his chair. Three years had passed since Sasori suddenly lost his sanity. No one
knew what it was because he was perfectly competent in fighting and completing his missions, but
sometimes he had to wonder what the hell was going through his head.

"Are you listening to me?"

Sasori pointed to the walls.

"I appreciate this coral color, but I think a mantis green would look better with the cafe layout," he
commented as he tilted his head. Orochimaru hung his head.

"I worry about you sometimes. Honestly."

As he let the matter go and continued to eat his dish, Sasori drew himself back to what he was
really thinking about. The last time he paid him a visit was about two months ago. Nothing
seemed wrong with him. Well, nothing more than from what regularly troubled him.

He stood.

"Our mission's in a few day, right? Don't expect to see me until then."

Sasori grabbed his straw hat and cloak before leaving the establishment. He wanted to find Gaara
as quickly as possible to ensure his safety and make sure that no one could capture him for their
own destructive purposes. Not that they really could considering Shukaku wouldn't let a damn
thing happen to his host.

He took to the tree lines and began his search towards Sunagakure. He couldn't have gotten far at
any circumstance. Gaara was a small, completely inexperienced individual who more than likely
had a limited knowledge on chakra and didn't know how to mold it correctly.

He frowned as he pulled a small tag, slicing the skin of his thumb and rubbing it on the seal as he
run. There was a small puff of air before a sleek brown cat appeared in midair. It hissed as it
narrowly avoided smashing into a tree.
"What is this?!" Kou exclaimed, appalled at what almost happened to him, "If you need to
summon me, you could've been the least bit considerate and stopped, Sasori-kun! I just had my
luxurious fur cleaned and brushed, nya!"

"Sorry. I need you to do something for me, please."

The cat kept up pace with his summoner, tail fluffed up and head held high.

"Fine, but there better be some hamachi in my near future," he sniffed. Sasori waved a hand and
kept moving from tree to tree.

"I need you to look for a red haired boy-- eight years old, black rings around his eyes, and tailed
beast chakra inside him. Don't approach him, just inform me of his whereabouts," he said. Kou
nodded and disappeared to fulfill his duty.

Gaara. Still, he hadn't reached back out to Yashamaru and still he hadn't built a connection with
his father. He was starting to worry about the deeper emotional bonds the boy wasn't making. He
knew that he had two older siblings, Temari and Kankuro, but Gaara never mentioned their names
whenever they met up with each other. He felt that he was being too relied upon and that he
would be the only receiving end of Gaara's emotion relief. It wasn't exactly a bad thing, it was just
that it wasn't safe for the boy's general well-being.

Sasori jumped down onto the ground when the forests ended, meeting the endless hills of sand. A
warm breeze blew through his cloak as his eyes grazed over the darkened horizon. It still had to be
early morning. Four o'clock, maybe.

He really hoped Gaara was safe.

"Sasori-kun~!"

He turned around, seeing Kou on a tree branch.

"You're going the wrong way! The child made it outside the border and isn't looking too well."

Brown eyes narrowed.

"Show me."

Forty minutes passed when he was led to the base of a cliff edge. The smell of blood immediately
invaded his nose, making even him cringe at the intensity. Dead hunter-nins turned the ground red
as Gaara curled in on himself, shaking and head buried in his knees. Like the time he first saw
him.

"Gaara?" he called out softly. The shaking stopped, "Gaara, are you alright?"

The boy's head slowly raised. Sea foam green eyes turned into slits.

"You."

An enormous arm of sand shot in his direction. Sasori narrowly avoided the attack and watched as
it burst though a line of trees.

"You lied to me!"

The arm swept sideways in attempt to collide with the Akatsuki member.

"You're not Hiruko, you're Sasori! You're a criminal! You left Suna years ago! Why did you
"You're not Hiruko, you're Sasori! You're a criminal! You left Suna years ago! Why did you
come back and talk to me?! Why?!"

Another sand arm came at him. Sasori silently cursed himself as he dodged the appendages
relentlessly trying to kill him. Puppets would be useless against the opponent, and he was at a loss
of what to do. Fuck, he never should have lied like that. It was even against his own previous
beliefs.

"You want to kill me, don't you? You want to kill me just like Yashamaru did!"

The arms grew out into spikes and tried to puncture through the older man. Sasori jumped onto the
sand creation and ran up the length, using a kunai to deflect the sharp pinpoint attacks.

"You kept telling me to forgive them! You said you believed in me! Why?! Why you?! You--
You and Yashamaru are the same!"

Claws emerged from the sand extensions and swiped at him. It missed, just barely, and smacked
into the cliff side.

"You're all LIARS!" Gaara roared. When Sasori narrowly escaped being thrown into the rock
formation, he caught a glimpse of the boy's eyes. They were angry and terribly betrayed, hitting
him harder than any attack could. It distracted him enough to get hit by the second sand arm as it
rained from above and slammed him onto the ground. Red liquid erupted from his mouth as the
sand clung to him, growing tighter and tighter to cut off his oxygen supply.

"G-Gaara..." he gasped. His gaze strained to angle at the boy's location. The cliff the eight year
old pushed himself up to began to crumble from the previous impact it suffered. The top of it
cracked bit by bit until the very tip began to slide off.

"Shit!"

He tried to pull himself free of his hardened confines. Gaara looked up, complete and utter terror
crossing his features. The fear must've made his Shukaku-laden attacks weaken because Sasori
was able to rip himself free and run to grab the Kazekage's son-- taking the boy into his arms
before he could be crushed to death. His back cracked against the back of a tree, him holding the
small body against his chest.

Sasori slid down onto the grass with more blood dribbling down his chin.

"I'm sorry," he whispered. Gaara said nothing, though his arms slowly reached up and wrapped
around the man's neck. He then dug his face into his collarbone. Sasori threaded his finger's
through Gaara's hair, murmuring soothingly to calm him down.

"I'll get you back home, okay?"

The muted echo of sobs filled the forest, the sun rising steadily in the distance.

::

"Isn't this fun?"

"Stop... ghk... talking... monST--"

A hand pressed onto Sakura's mouth to stop her screams.

Sakura sat in front of the door, pulling on her sandals and checking to see if her bandages were
wrapped correctly. Kizashi came around the corner with a huge grin on his face.
"Off to another day at the Academy, eh?"

She stood up and hoisted her shoulder bag on her shoulder, then smiled up at her ever-cheerful
father. He always managed to be happy regardless of the circumstance and was always able to
light up the room when people were down.

"Yeah. Then I'm going to my friend Kiba's for the study group after school," she replied. Mebuki
came around the corner next with a demeanor equally as bright as her husband's.

"Then you're heading to your other friend... Hinata-chan's house for a sleepover?" she questioned.
The two didn't notice the odd gleam in their daughter's eyes before she nodded.

"Mm. I'll be back tomorrow morning, I promise."

Her father reached over and tousled her hair.

"Have fun, kiddo," he bid. Sakura adjusted the strap on her shoulder as she opened the front door.
She was thankful her parents were rather ignorant on shinobi affairs, seeing that Hiashi would
never let an outsider stay over at the Hyuuga Estate.

"Oh, and Sakura!"

She looked over her shoulder.

"We love you, sweetheart," Mebuki smiled. Sakura couldn't keep the warmth out of her chest as a
grin of her own involuntarily made its way onto her face.

"I love you too."

She stepped out the door and closed it behind her. As she walked down the hall, she waved at
Akiyama-san then walked down the stairs of the complex. She saw both Naruto and Sasuke
waiting for her once she was out of the building.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto yelled, "It was my idea to pick you up, dattebayo!"

Sasuke glared at him.

"No it wasn't, dobe!" he protested. Naruto's smile fell off his face as he whipped towards the other
boy.

"Call me dobe ONE more time--!"

Sakura sighed. In a content sort of way.

Maybe today wouldn't be as bad as she thought.

::

"Morino-san, I'm sorry--"

"He was a good kid."

"I can't believe he would've--"

"He didn't deserve--"

"What happened to Idate wasn't your fault."


Ibiki had just returned from a mission regarding the theft of a classified scroll and a legendary
lightning chakra sword at the hands of his younger brother. That boy, who failed his chuunin
exams and went against it, had been the one to go against his own village. Ibiki immediately knew
that something was wrong and went to seek out the truth for himself.

It wasn't long until he found out everything was orchestrated by former Konoha shinobi Rokusho
Aoi.

But even when he went after his brother and sought to bring him home, one thing led to another
and he arrived at Konoha's gates alone and empty handed. His teammates were dead and so was
his brother.

He failed. Horribly, miserably, unforgivably.

Ibiki toyed with a pen on his desk, staring blankly at the empty paper in front of him. He was fresh
out out of the hospital and covered from head to toe in bandages, mostly obscured by his baggy
clothing. He didn't look any different or out of the ordinary, save for a new face scar, and he really
had to chalk it up to his hard-earned skills in interrogation.

"Morning, Morino-san."

Genma entered the office with his typical senbon stuck out his mouth. He raised a hand in a lazy
greeting and took a seat on the couch.

"Sorry about Idate," he said. Ibiki should his head as he opened his drawer, sifting around and
avoiding making eye contact.

"He wasn't cut out to be a shinobi anyways."

The tokubetsu jounin said nothing in return, understanding completely. Ibiki took out a notepad
and Sakura's decently thick file. He flipped it open to the first page-- a short biography and
outdated description.

"Did you talk to Sakura about her new practice?" he questioned, "I need to get her scheduled for
both a physical and psychological examination. The year we agreed to wait on passed a week
ago."

Genma paused as he scratched the back of his head.

"Already? Damn..."

He sighed, flopping backwards in exasperation at the stare in his direction.

"Fine! I'll ask her tomorrow."

"Hm."

They lapsed into a wave of silence, Genma with his eyes closed to catch up on some sleep and
Ibiki with his thoughts he would never admit as guilt.

::

Her throat burned. Not just from the skin that was ripped off, but also from the exhaustion of her
incessant snarls and enraged resistance. Obito still had her pinned to her ground, unconcerned
with the scratch marks on his cheeks and forearms.
"Pathetic."

"Shut the fuck up."

She wheezed when he increased pressure on her chest. Her vision went blurry for a split second
before refocusing on his cruel crimson eyes. She could see the reflection of fire in his irises as they
lit up in glee.

"Now, now, Sakura-chan. No need to be so rude. We've already... connected, haven't we?"

He leaned forward so that the tip of their noses were nearly touching.

"Or should I enlighten you again?"

"Sakura-chan!"

She turned to Naruto. He gripped the straps of his green backpack in the group of eight babbling
Academy on their way to the Inuzuka House. Kiba was talking to Hinata and letting her hold
Akamaru in her arms. Chouji and Shino were enjoying the comforting silence they shared
between each other. Sasuke and Shikamaru, surprisingly, were in the midst of a heated argument
about if tomatoes were fruits or vegetables.

"What's up?"

"You're goin' to the sky again," he said. He always told her that when she was off in her own
world. Sakura smiled and slung an arm over his shoulders, bringing him into a side hug.

"Sorry, sorry."

Naruto frowned.

"You've been doin' that a lot... Are you okay?"

She smiled a little wider and pinched his cheeks until he started to whine. He missed the pain that
flashed in her face-- that fraction of a second where she looked like she was back in the middle of
a broken clearing bordered by Amaterasu.

"Why wouldn't I be okay?"

The group arrived at Kiba's place not too long later. There were four large dogs lazing around the
front of the house. They got to their feet at the sight of the bunch of kids led towards the house by
Kiba. They circled around the newcomers, poking at them and sizing them up. One of the dogs
stood taller than the others with a black patch over its right eyes. Kiba turned around to face his
now huddled friends.

"The older dog's my kaa-san's partner. He's Kuromaru," he introduced. Kuromaru's bright yellow
eye looked at each child individually, linger on Sakura the longest, "The other three are the
Haimaru Brothers-- Masaru, Masashi, and Masato. They work with my aneki."

"Are... Are they all this b-big?" Chouji squeaked as Masato leaned in real close to his face. The
boy clung onto Shikamaru's shoulder in slight fear.

"Not all of them, but a lot." he replied. Before he turned the door knob so he could let them into
his house, he spun around.

"I'm just gonna warn you guys 'bout my kaa-san. She's really tough and all, but she can get a little
scary sometimes," he said. Sasuke tilted his head.

"How scary?"

"So scary that tou-san ran away."

Kiba pushed open the door. There were a few smaller dogs in the hallway and an older woman
carrying a pug. Inuzuka Tsume, Sakura recalled. Her short brown hair was spiked and wilder than
her son's would ever grow to be. The clan's fang markings ran down her cheeks, accentuating her
piercing narrow eyes. She grinned at the sight of them.

"Finally doin' some studyin', eh? A miracle."

She set the pug down and set her hands on her hips.

"And take a look at that bunch with ya! Some strappin' shinobi and kunoichi you'd all turn out to
be, I bet."

Tsume's voice easily carried through the house. She sounded strong and confident and definitely
not fooled very easily. Kiba turned red at his mother's declaration as he ushered the other seven to
the other end of the house.

"We're studyin' in the backyard!"

Sakura was at the rear of the group, allowing Tsume to stop her without really catching the others'
attention. The girl looked upward to see that still-feisty grin on the woman's face, but noticed the
serious tone that hid behind it.

"You've got a pretty strong cat scent on you." You smell like cat summons.

Sakura shrugged.

"Konoha has a lot of strays." I know.

"What about stray dogs? Still friendly with them?" Will you be a problem in the future?

"Of course." I won't.

The Inuzuka crossed her arms over her chest and peered down at the girl. Sakura stared back,
completely unaffected by the fierce stare.

"What's your name kid?" Tsume asked.

"Haruno Sakura," she introduced, "Nice to meet you, ma'am."

::

Gaara hadn't said a single word since Sasori held him close and told him that he was sorry for
what he'd done. He began telling the boy stories about his youth and the reasons why he left his
village. He was positive that the words were being heard and that he was slowly beginning to
refill that feeling of trust. Sasori wrapped him in the remains of his cloak, Akatsuki clouds shielded
from view, and held him in his arms the entire journey.

It was nearly dark at this point. About half the day spent on the road with only each other as
company. They'd make it back to Sunagakure by nightfall, he deduced. Just a couple more hours
until Gaara would be safe and sound.
"Are you hungry?" Sasori questioned, "It'll still be a while until I get you back. We could even go
get your favorite. Salted beef tongue, right?"

He felt a minuscule nod against his shoulder. Sasori patted Gaara's back as he changed his route to
the nearest restaurant he could stop at. The bundle shifted for a moment before a pair of misty eyes
poked out from the mess of dark red hair. They were obviously puffy even though they were
naturally rimmed with black.

"Sa... Sasori?"

Sasori paused and used his hand to brush the kid's bangs away from his face.

"Hm?"

"... Don't lie anymore, okay?"

The Akatsuki member hugged him, eyes shadowing over in guilt.

"Okay."

::

"Maybe I should've put you through Tsukuyomi. But then again, I don't think I'd be having as
much fun as I am now. Why just hurt someone mentally when you can do it physically as well?"
Obito grinned. He waited for that haughty retort-- that wrathful counter that kept him going to
inflict more and more pain on her. But there was nothing. He looked into her eyes and saw that
they were blank.

Dead.

And it made him want to laugh.

"So you give up here? Twelve hours into our quaint get together?"

Dulled green eyes flickered to his.

"Why don't you just kill me already, Uchiha? You've won. You've had your fill."

He raise an eyebrow.

"Had my fill?" he repeated, flashing pearly white teeth, "No, no. I don't think you understand."

"We defeated evil, dattebayo!" Naruto exclaimed. He stood and shot his hands towards the sky,
then glaring triumphantly at the five homemade worksheets they'd all just completed. They were
all sprawled on the grass surrounded by enormous numbers of Inuzuka dogs. The sunlight was
orange and the clouds were pink, telling them all that it was about time to get home.

"We were distracted for an hour." Shino commented. Naruto stuck his tongue out.

"We still did it, so it's fine!"

Sasuke was busy organizing his notebooks and papers in his book bag, pouting the whole while
and mumbling to himself.

"I can't believe tomato's a fruit..."

Kiba nearly threw his binder at him as Shikamaru hung his head and sighed.
"Freakin' shut up already!"

Chouji stood himself and dusted the grass off his pants. Then, he helped Hinata to her feet and
gave her a wide smile.

"You're really good at those math problems. I didn't know you could use a short cut like that," he
said. Hinata lit up immensely.

"I-I liked how you did t-the science o-ones!"

Sakura unearthed herself from the heap of dogs that vowed to 'remove the cat stink', as Kiba
translated, and had piled on her the entire study session. She stared at all the fur that stuck to her
clothes, making an irked note that she seriously had to wash them when she got home tomorrow.
The eight of them went through all the pleasantries of thanking Tsume for letting them came over
and telling Kiba they'd see him at school on Monday. The group slowly broke up to go their own
ways, though none of them noticed Sakura went a completely different route than usual.

There was only one reason why she lied to her parents about staying at the Hyuuga Estate. This
day would mark one of the most important days she had to keep an extraordinarily close eye on to
make sure nothing could go wrong or that she could stop the proceedings in time, if they ever
happened.

Because this was the night of the Uchiha Massacre, or it was supposed to be. She vowed to
herself that she would stand guard the entire night to early morning.

Sakura perched herself on a well-leafed tree half a mile away from the compound and settled on a
branch, opening a book on her lap to pass the time.

She was going to be here a while.

::

Sunagakure was just in the distance, Sasori noted with heavy-hearted relief. Gaara had fallen
asleep some time ago and he was in the middle of devising a plan on how to return him safely
without being caught by the guard. It was nighttime, making guard more high alert than usual. He
took a few more steps towards his destination before he stopped.

"Turn around," a voice ordered, "Now."

Sasori complied.

But his blood froze at the sight of the only person in the village to have called him 'friend'.
Komushi, the person he remembered poisoning in the other timeline, stood a few meters away
armed with a tanto and an unrolled puppet scroll.

"Komushi." he breathed.

"Sasori," the other returned, swallowing down his nostalgia, "Put Gaara-sama down immediately
and step away, or I'll be forced to apprehend you."

Sasori's eyes went to stare at the shinobi's right forearm. He remembered making that arm all those
years ago in that dark work room. Why he was alive, he didn't know, but he was glad Komushi
was given the life he always deserved.

"Do you still have the arm I made for you?"


The Suna shinobi faltered, then quickly regained his composure.

"Sasori, you can't just--"

"Do you?"

Komushi grit his teeth and exhaled to the side. If this was a diversion it was working well, but he
didn't know why the attacks hadn't started yet.

"Yeah," he replied, "... I do."

He didn't know what to do when the kindest smile stretched over Sasori's face. In all the years
he'd known the man, there wasn't a shred of happiness in him. Not since his parents died. Then up
to the point of his defection, he was holed away-- alone. Komushi took a step backwards when
Sasori began to walk up to him.

"Here."

Sasori carefully handed the boy off, who shifted and blearily cracked open his eyes. Komushi was
absolutely stunned to silence when Gaara grabbed the Akatsuki's hand, bottom lip quivering and
tears threatening to fall down his cheeks.

"You're gonna go already?" he whimpered. Sasori gently patted his head.

"You know I have to."

He raised his stare to the shell-shocked Kugutsu Butai leader. He moved his hand to pat
Komushi's head as well, grinning when absolute fear crossed his old friend's face.

"Take good care of that arm of yours. Maintenance is key."

He was about to shunshin away when his upper arm was caught in a death grip. Komushi stared
him down with his bold black eyes, disbelieving and trying to comprehend was really was
happening before him.

"You.."

Sasori raised an eyebrow.

"You can't be him. Sasori doesn't smile, he doesn't take care of kids or help them get back when
they're lost! He doesn't do things for others just for the fun of it, he-- You're not him, are you? Tell
me you're not."

Sasori clapped his old friend's white knuckled hand.

"Think what you want," he said. In the snap of one's fingers, all that was left of him was a wisp of
white smoke. Gaara's attention switched to Komushi and looked at him with pleading eyes. He
gripped at the cloak still wrapped around his body.

"Don't tell," he begged, "Don't tell that it was him! He-He found me and saved me and is a really,
really good person, okay? Don't tell, Komushi. Please."

"I..."

Komushi looked around him. Nothing but sand and Sunagakure half an hour away. He sighed,
raking a hand through his hair.
"Let's get you home, Gaara-sama. Rasa-sama must be worried."

::

"Breaking people is my hobby, Sakura-chan. I don't just 'have my fill'."

She guessed it was around early morning. Nothing happened near the compound save for the few
individuals sneaking out, or going to/returning from missions. Sasuke was safe, Itachi wasn't even
in the village, and everything that shouldn't happen, didn't.

"There's a reason why it's this place."

Sakura shut her book and stuffed it into her bag. It was safe to saw that this crisis was one of the
things the timeline was kind enough to change. Making sure her chakra was still concealed, she
leapt down from the tree and stretched her arms over her head.

"There's a reason why there's this fire."

They sky's view was obscured as she stayed at her post, so it was a relief for her to meet the
starless night. As she turned around to head back towards Konoha, she could make out smoke
billowing up from somewhere in the village.

More specifically, the civilian districts.

"And there's definitely a reason why it's you."

She ran.

"Ripping walls apart is hard nowadays, making the prize sweeter than you could ever imagine. I
was at a loss at what I should've gone to do during the war. Make some chaos, yes. Murder
whoever comes my path, it's only half as fun as you'd think. But when you take on individual,
especially one of the driving forces of the opposing cause... Then you get something interesting."

This never happened in the other time. There was never a report of a large fire or-- or any major
happening to the civilians until the war. Sakura forced chakra into her legs to speed up. What was
going on? Why was there a fire of all things?

"I'll make sure to drive you insane."

When a building burns, it has such a distinct smell to it. Whether it be wood or plastic, everything
comes to meld together into something unbearable. Sakura stood in front of the complex she called
her safe haven-- its raging flames reflecting off glassy eyes.

"It won't matter if I lose the war, nor when the Allies execute me."

Water-natured shinobi were making quick work of containing the destruction and pulling out the
bodies the could recover. They were lined up to the side with a medic assessing each one,
covering the one he was positive in nothing else he could be done.

"In the future, you'll be desperate for freedom from your memories. From your failures. From
me."

Sakura willed herself to move towards the bodies.

"I won't kill you now."

The medic noticed her arrival but kept on working. He suddenly looked nervous as he covered the
The medic noticed her arrival but kept on working. He suddenly looked nervous as he covered the
person he finished evaluating the most current body.

"Where are you parents?" the medic asked. He didn't look into her eyes.

"Can I check the bodies and see?"

He turned away and nodded. She walked to the beginning of the line of bodies and brought each
sheet down enough to see their faces. First one, the construction worker on the third floor. Second,
the little boy on the fourth floor. Third, his older sister. Fourth, the vase maker.

"Because I know for a fact that in the midst of smiles and celebration..."

Fifth, the little girl who'd show her a new type of butterfly she found one on her flowers. Sixth,
the kind old man with the blue cane. Seventh, Akiyama-san.

"... with Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi, or whoever else that hasn't already died..."

Eighth, the boy who liked making mud pies. Ninth, the shy librarian who had a hobby of
collecting marbles. Tenth, the girl who quit school to take care of her cousin.

Obito gently stroked her face-- mockingly, with a pityingly disgusting smile on his face.

Eleventh. And Twelfth. Sakura slowly brought the sheets down heart dropping at the sight of both
her parents. Kizashi and Mebuki looked as if they were asleep, just asleep, and that they would
wake up at any moments. But they were just as pale as the cloth that covered them.

She fell to her knees, holding her stomach and her heart: feeling the dull throb of pain from just
before her death at the end of the war.

"... I'll be able to see your pretty face again when you do the honors yourself."

::

Haimaru Brothers: These are Hana's dogs, but were never formally named. First
appearance: Naruto Episode #79

Rokusho Aoi: Ex-Konoha shinobi. First appearance: Naruto Episode #102

Morino Idate: Ibiki's actual younger brother. First appearance: Naruto Episode #102

Komushi: Sasori's only mentioned associate. First (and only?) appearance: Naruto
Shippuuden Episode #319
Hollow

Ibiki came to the office early to review some files to send to the Hokage when he saw a little girl
sitting on the couch. Her hands and clothes were dusted with soot, and a pile of ragged books and
unsharpened weapons by her feet. Dirtied bangs covered the front of her face; the bandages on
knuckles ripped, revealing scars caked in dried blood.

"Sakura?"

"Ibiki-san," she returned quietly. The tone in her voice was that of defeat, like when one gave up
on life or was swimming in guilt about what they'd done. He took a seat beside her. There had
been news of a fire around the civilian district, as he saw a brief overview of the incident in the
morning newspaper. The street names he couldn't remember, but he felt a sense of familiarity
behind them.

Now he knew why.

"You weren't home last night?" she asked. Sakura shook her head.

"I was out. I didn't know," she murmured, "I should've stayed home. I could've helped. They
would've been alive."

"The building wasn't inspected properly, Sakura. There was faulty electric wiring and the heating
units malfunctioned in the middle of the night. You couldn't have known about it. And if you
stayed, you properly would've been caught in it too," Ibiki said.

"As long as they would've been fine."

"Just your parents?"

"All of them."

Ibiki's eyes moved to her. Her stare was glued to her lap and aside from her mouth, was
completely unmoving. She was truly a child undeserving of what fate had in store for her.

"Do you have anywhere to go?"

She shook her head again. Ibiki stood first, then bent over to pick up her books. He took her book
bag and other weapons, slinging the former over his shoulder. Sakura finally looked up, confusion
wholly apparent in her forlorn eyes.

"Ibiki-san?"

"Come on."

The streets were still kind of empty this early in the morning giving the perfect atmosphere for
Ibiki to guide her down the road. It was silent as the two didn't speak a word to each other, but is
was expected. Both had lost their only family members in the past day or so, leaving them alone
with only them, he noted with distaste. At least he was old enough to understand and deal with his
emotions, but Sakura? She was eight.

They entered one of the many residential shinobi districts spotted around the village. Sakura,
despite churning in her overwhelming guilt, couldn't help but eye the one story house they
approached. She knew nothing about his home life or what he did outside of his job and was
actually surprised at what she was seeing.

When they entered, it was as sparsely decorated as she expected. No clutter and absolutely no dust
to be found. He opened one of the doors down the hallway and set her things down on top of the
metal desk beside the door.

"I know it isn't much, but you can change it as much as you'd like later on," he said, "I have some
errands to run, but I'll be back soon."

He turned to leave.

"Ibiki-san."

He stopped.

"... Thank you."

He continued walking.

"Make yourself at home, kid."

Sakura sat at the edge of the bed, looking around the room. It was much larger than her last one
with a bigger bed, bigger closet, and bigger windows that let her see the few flowers that grew on
the ground outside. She appreciated everything Ibiki did, but going as far as giving her a place to
stay was something she didn't account for.

Slowly, she reached into her pocket and took out the note Yori had given her an hour before Ibiki
to the office.

Meet me at the Forest of Death when you have the chance.

::

He was about to update her about everything that happened to Gaara. After, he wanted to discuss
some more plans they'd have to collaborate on to make sure they'd implement in the near future.
But it wasn't like her to be two hours late.

Sasori turned around when he noticed her presence appear near the cave he was taking refuge in.
He opened his mouth to make his customary snide comment, abruptly stopping when he saw the
sheer misery in her entire being. Downcast eyes, slumped shoulders, dirtied mangled appearance...

He went to her side immediately.

"Are you okay?"

They both sat down against the damp wall of the cave. Sakura crossed her legs and folded her
hands in her lap.

"... Yeah."

The back of her head tapped the rock wall.

"Is that what you want me to say?"

Sasori became hyper aware as he gave her a wary look. He'd never seen her look so despondent.
Of course he knew that there was damage left over from the war, but he didn't know to what
extent it was. She always hid behind her smiles and certainty that he'd never been able to figure
out the depth of that trauma. He could see now, in the utter guilt in herself, that it ran much deeper
than he could see.

"That's what I would like," he hummed, "But I can see that's not the case. You don't have to tell
me anything about it if you don't want to."

Nothing was said between them for a while. Sakura exhaled heavily and sunk further into herself.
She didn't raise her head when she began to speak.

"March 24th. The war was officially over, ending in the Allies' victory. People were crying,
celebrating, talking about seeing their families. Me? I couldn't."

She could tell that the entire camp had the highest spirits than at any other point in the war. What
could she say? After seven long, grueling years, the world was finally free. Obito was dead and
they were all able to move on.

Sakura stood in the shadows of the main medical tent, staring out at all the smiling faces as she
traced the scar around her neck. She would be lying if she said that she shared in their feelings of
relief and ultimate victory. She felt unbearably empty compared to how she was as a teenager. In
those younger years, she wasn't constantly kept awake by the cruel voice that haunted her for the
past three years.

"I'll make sure to drive you insane."

She retreated back into the tent and looked around her. She grabbed her issued vest from her
chair and zipped it up. Next, she tied her kunai pouch around her right thigh. As she was about to
leave without anyone's notice, she thought of Shizune.

She deserved an explanation, at the very least.

Sakura whipped up a quick note and placed it on the makeshift desk, then left.

I know we won the war, senpai.

But mine isn't over yet.

It would take her two days of non-stop travel to get to the Valley of the End. She took to tapping
into her Yin seal to insure she could make it before anything drastic happened to either Naruto or
Sasuke. All the while she ran, the echo of that horrid voice coiled around her ear drums.

"It won't matter if I lose the war, nor when the Allies execute me."

But before she could, she had to make a stop at one of the small towns on the outskirts of Fire
Country. She knocked on the door of a cozy house painted smokey green that she went to on an
irregular basis. An older woman with slight wrinkles creasing her face answered, smiling at her
visitor.

"Sakura."

"Yuka-san."

Yuka stepped to the side and gestured towards a room, though she knew there was no need.
Sakura quickly murmured a 'thank you' and hurried into the house and towards the room. Her
eyes landed on a little girl no older than three laying in bed, sleeping soundly and hugging a
pillow.
"Sachiko." she murmured.

Five full heartbeats passed until Sasori realized what she was talking about. His eyes flew wide as
he gaped at her with disbelief.

"You had a daughter," he whispered. Sakura nodded.

"She was conceived under... undesirable circumstances," she began. Anger spiked in the pit of
Sasori's stomach for a split second, understanding exactly what she meant, "But I didn't have the
heart to get rid of her when I found out. I didn't tell anyone about it and gave to her in a small
civilian town. I couldn't take care of her because of the war and there was no one else in Konoha,
so I had no choice but to find someone to do it. That's how I met Yuka-san-- an inn keeper."

Sakura stood in the doorway. This was how she always visited. Never once had she met Sachiko
face to face, introduced herself, nor made herself known that she was actually her mother. For a
little over two years, the girl grew up thinking that her parents had died when she was a newborn,
forcing her to be left in the care of her grandmother. Sakura strode forward and silently collapsed
on the chair beside the bed.

"You look more worried than usual." Yuka mentioned quietly from the other side of the room. The
Konoha shinobi bit her lip as she reached over to stroke Sachiko's sleek black hair.

"I..."

Tears began to fall.

"I think I know what'll happen to me next."

She hastily wiped her face with her sleeve and pulled out a small scroll from her kunai pouch. A
small box was summoned from it, inside: her Konoha headband, Mebuki and Kizashi's rings and
wedding portrait, a vial of her blood made to be preserved, various pictures of her and everyone
else in Konoha including her copy of Team Seven's photo, and a letter explaining why she was
never there.

It was locked with with various seals and chakra webs that could only be opened with a specially
made key.

"Yuka-san, I'd like to ask you to do one last thing for me."

The older woman smiled sadly.

"Anything, dear."

Sakura handed her the box as well at the key strung on a chain alongside a cherry blossom
pendant. It was the one her parents gave her when she was just a little girl herself.

"Give this box to her when she's old enough. Inside, I've explained everything up to this point,"
she said. The tears started up again, "I know she'll be angry with me, but tell her how much I love
her. Tell her I wish I couldn't been there and that if things went differently, I would've been here
for her. And tell her that I'm so, so sorry. I'm sorry I did this. I... I..."

Yuka gripped her shoulder, eyes molded in a definite promise.

"She'll grow up knowing that you loved her more than anything." the woman swore. Sakura
thanked her profusely, then moved back to the bed. She placed a painstakingly gentle kiss on
Sachiko's forehead before murmuring an apology and shunshinning away.
"I couldn't take care of her. I know I have post-traumatic stress disorder from my experiences in
the war, and I wouldn't be able to provide all the support she needed in the most crucial years of
her life. I'd rather have her curious about me than knowing me then losing me," Sakura sighed,
"So to her, I never existed."

Sasori kept quiet to let her continue. He, personally, thought it unfair to Sachiko to have never
known her mother, but he understood the course of action. Sakura had to prioritize herself first
before lending her heart out to another. And after the fighting, the deaths-- the rape? She was
emotionally compromised.

And in all these years in the new timeline, he never knew.

She was back on the trail to the Valley of the End, Yin seal working in overdrive. The place was in
her sights now and she could feel the enormous chakra clashing into each other.

"In the future, you'll be desperate for freedom from your memories. From your failures. From
me."

Sakura faltered a bit, a frown on her lips. Obito told her three years ago that her resolve would
come to this. She accepted with a bitter, sickening feeling that he was right about everything he
told her that day.

"I won't kill you now."

She landed beside her old sensei on the sidelines of the canyon. Naruto and Sasuke were battling
it out near the waterfall, both looking exhausted and determined not to lose. She kept her eyes
locked on their actions.

"Kakashi. A surprise to see you here." she greeted. She saw him wince in her peripheral vision
and felt his stare on her exposed scars and ignored him, "I heard Naruto and Sasuke were
fighting and came as soon as I could. Is it impossible to stop them?"

"Because I know for a fact that in the midst of smiles and celebration..."

Sakura's fingers curled into white-knuckled fists.

"... with Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi, or whoever else that hasn't already died..."

She straightened as she noticed a sudden change in the fighting. Each was at one end of the
valley, panting and summoning the last reserves of their chakra.

"They're going to kill each other," she said.

"Aa. They are," Kakashi replied. Sakura would be damned if this was how the war was going to
end. This wasn't going to be one of those war stories where the hero died so that every else could
live. Naruto was the sole person to bring the Shinobi Nations to peace. And Sasuke, well, he could
get that second chance Naruto always talked about.

She sent medical chakra to the tips of her fingers.

"... I'm sorry, Kakashi."

She forced her chakra into the base of his neck, shocking his nerves and sending most of his body
into paralysis. She offered him a tired smile.
"It's only temporary, I promise."

Sakura looked back to the Valley of the End.

"I know it's not my place to ask for a favor, but... tell everyone I'm sorry. Tell Naruto that I believe
he'll become Hokage, and tell Sasuke that I believe one day that he'll be happy. And you,
Kakashi... thank you for being my sensei."

She sprinted towards the battle.

Her life? It wasn't important now. She healed thousands in the war, became the third person in
the world to establish the Yin seal, had a beautiful daughter that would grow up in safety, and
would use this moment to finally rid of the ghost that bedeviled her without mercy for the better of
three whole years.

The fluorescent blue of the rasengan and the illuminating chidori came closer to one another,
and she sped up.

At least with this, she could make up for being that useless little kunoichi who only had the eyes
for boys and being nothing but a dead weight to the team.

"... I'll be able to see your pretty face again when you do the honors yourself."

And maybe with this...

She could be free?

"Sakura..."

She turned away from him fully, facing the entrance of the cave. The white symbol on her back
was smeared with ash with a hole torn to break the circle.

"I didn't jump in between them for the sake of it, Sasori-san. It wasn't a last second decision, or a
desperate choice. I wanted to die."

She buried her face in her hands. Her voice came out in a broken trickle, like water pipe after a
rainy day.

"What did I do to deserve to come back?"

::

Orochimaru carefully observed his partner. Ever since Sasori had come back from an errand, he'd
been strangely quiet and troubled, keeping to himself and knitting his eyebrows whenever it
seemed like something crossed his mind. It was a sudden change to how the man started
presenting himself in an aloof and wondrous way.

"She changed all of a sudden," Sasori finally said. Orochimaru glanced to the side but didn't
question it and let him speak.

"Her smile was different, and so was her soul. Once, she poured her heart into everything she did.
Poured and poured and poured and poured..."

Sasori looked up at the bright, sunny sky.

"... Until even I didn't realize that she was already hollow."
The Mental Health Examination

Warning: This chapter is about Sakura answering questions about her mental health. The
subject may be unpleasant.

::

"What?!"

"How many times do I have to tell you, Shiranui? Her parents are gone and she's staying at my
place for the time being," Ibiki repeated. Genma scratched the back of his head as he messed with
the senbon in his mouth. That was more than a horrible development in their plans and an even
worse feeling on him for her, considering that he'd been one of her sensei for the past three years.

"Now I seriously don't want to put her into interrogation," he sighed. He and Ibiki turned a corner
and entered a shinobi attire store, the latter reluctantly agreeing with the statement. Ibiki was sure
that she was messed up before, but now? It might be too big of a risk to take.

"We'll give her the choice. Whether she wants to take it or not."

"You're still going to do it?!"

"It's her decision."

The moved to the clothes for younger shinobi section and picked out some green and navy blue
shirts along with some black pants-- what Sakura could wear in the meantime until everything was
figured out.

"Then who's going to take care of her now? She has no home to go to and I doubt the orphanages
would allow her to train or study with us with the schedule we've set up," Genma said. Ibiki
brought the clothes to the cashier and pulled his wallet from his pocket. His face had turned
contemplative as he and the other left the store with what they bought.

"I will."

Genma nearly tripped over his own feet.

"Wha--?!"

"We want to keep her in our loop, don't we? She's a good kid with good work ethic, supreme
intellect, and actually listens to what she's told. Besides, we've basically been taking care of her for
the past three years. This is the least I can do for her."

With unusual seriousness, Genma observed the head interrogator. This man became leader of his
sector at eighteen years old-- the youngest Konoha's ever had. Ibiki had already established quite a
name of himself by then, thus being dubbed as one of the more notorious shinobi in the ranks. He
wasn't known for his kindness, definitely, not even towards those he knew.

"You know she's not Idate, right?"

Ibiki kept on walking, his face betraying not a single emotion.

"Yeah."
They stopped when they saw Sakura down the street. She still wore her clothes from earlier but
had cleared off most of the ash that clung to her prior. It looked as if there were more scratches on
her arms and legs, as well as some dirt smeared in her hair. Her eyes were just as flat and lifeless
as they were an hour or so since Ibiki left her back at his house. He and Genma exchanged
glances before flanking her.

"Hey, Sakura," the tokubetsu jounin grinned, "Lookin' a bit roughed up there. did you go to work
up a sweat at our usual training grounds?"

She shook her head.

"Training Ground 44. I go there when I have the time," she replied. Genma ran into one of the
vendor carts, earning him some laughs from bystanders and a pointed stare from his superior. Ibiki
looked back to his student with furrowed brows.

"How many times have you gone?"

"A few times a month. Since I was five."

Genma quickly caught back up to them. Training Ground 44, infamously nicknamed the Forest of
Death, was only used by the village to test genin to see if they were fit enough for a chuunin
nomination. No Academy student knew of its existence and a genin would only know about it if
they happened to overhear conversations between older shinobi. Before either of the two could
ask another question, she raised her eyes.

Dull. Blank. Vacant.

It made shivers run down their spines.

"About that new interrogation internship you two always mention when I'm not around--"

Genma's eye twitched. She knew about that?

"--When can I start?"

::

Sakura was absent. Again.

Naruto sat with his chin on the desk, pouting as Iruka gave his lecture. It was Wednesday, the
third consecutive day where she failed to show up. He and Sasuke first went by her apartment on
Monday to pick her up on their way to school, but when they got there the building was being
reconstructed. They were told there had been a fire and that only a pink-haired girl survived.

"Then where is she?" Naruto asked. One of the construction workers opened his mouth to tell the
thing to scram, but was silenced by Sasuke's now-mastered Uchiha's glare.

"U-Uh, haven't heard about her. There were rumors that she saw her place, identified the bodies,
then just up and left," the worker answered. Naruto, unaware about what transpired between one
of his best friends and the civilian, frowned and nodded.

"Oh. Thanks."

Sasuke tugged the blonde towards the Academy after that, throwing another angry glare behind
him before he turned his attention to Naruto.
Since then, all they could really do was keep a look out for her on the streets and hoped that she'd
come back soon. Everyone from their usual study group voiced their own concerns and promised
that they'd keep a look out for her as well.

When the last bell rang, Naruto and Sasuke grouped together by their desks and began to talk
about what they were going to do now.

"She could be all alone, dattebayo!" Naruto exclaimed, "Y'heard what that guy said on Monday!
Nobody got out 'cept her, and we don't know where she went! What if she's hurt?"

"She's not, dobe. You know Sakura's super strong and that'll never happen to her. She's just...
busy, I guess. But she's def'nitely okay." Sasuke affirmed. He still had some doubt lingering at the
edge of his mind. He refused to believe that anything bad could ever happen to her. If she was
able to take any of her classmates down in seconds and absolutely excelled in every subject, then
she was invincible!

Chouji overheard the two and shyly popped up next to Sasuke.

"Maybe she's with bandana guy," he suggested. Naruto and Sasuke looked at each other, light
bulbs seemingly going off atop their heads.

"Chouji, you're a genius!"

Both the boy's arms were grabbed as the other two bolted out the classroom while dragging their
chubby friend with them. Shikamaru only sighed, took Chouji's things, and made his way to the
Akimichi Residence.

"Troublesome."

::

No lie, the building looked kinda scary.

Three young boys standing in front of the ominous facility was an odd enough sight, but when
two of them were the sons of main branch members of two of two of the four noble clans, and the
other was the host of one of the most (if not the most) powerful being on earth, people were going
to stare. Naruto decided to take the lead and walked through the glass doors first.

Izumo was at the reception desk today with his feet propped up and his fingers laced behind his
head. At the sound of the door, he swept his feet to the side and glanced over at the visitors.

"Oi," he called, "This ain't a place for kids."

The huddle jumped and faced the older nin.

"Yeah, b-but, uh... is Haruno Sakura here?" Naruto questioned timidly. Izumo leaned over the
desk and rested his cheek on his palm.

"So you're Sakura's friends, eh? They said she'd be gone from school the whole week, I think," he
said. The trio of student's eyebrows rose.

"T-The whole week?!" Chouji stammered, "But she's okay, right?"

"She's just taking some tests."

"Tests?"
"Nothing you need to worry about," a new voice intervened. Genma came down the stairs, hands
stuffed in his pockets and his trademark senbon hanging out the corner of his mouth, "Sorry to
keep her from the Academy for so long. Sakura-chan'll be back on Monday, no worries. She just
can't see anyone right now."

He smiled at the three of them, watching as they reluctantly bowed their heads and exited the
building. Once they left, the corners of his lips dropped as he went down into the basement.

The Hokage and Ibiki were in the dimmed hallway, silent and looking through one of the two-
way mirrors of an interrogation room. Dan personally asked to come and oversee Sakura's
examination to enter the sector. This was regular protocol for inductees, and since she was an
under-aged orphan enlisting in the force.

He gave his own concerns with this course of action, even opting to have her wait a few years
because he felt that she was too young for her circumstances. Dan had always been kindhearted,
Genma supposed, so he could understand why he was so reluctant to allow it.

But for now, all they could do was watch and see how it would play out.

::

Inside the room was a steel table with a single light hanging above it. Face down on the table was
a black square, indiscernible of what it truly was. On one end was a passive Sakura-- patient as
ever and looking more spirited than she was a few days ago. On the other was Inoichi. He had on
his fatherly disposition to try and lighted the situation a little bit. Not that he needed to.

"I have quite a bit of questions to ask," Inoichi said, "I need you to answer these with a hundred
percent honesty This will go on your permanent record and any lies discovered can result in
punishment or termination of your internship under Morino-san and Shiranui-san."

She nodded. Inoichi wrote a few things down on his forms. The examination was intended to
measure seven things in the very least: aggression, hostility, disregard for authority, personal
relationships, perception or right and wrong, and ego problems. He hesitated turning the page. He,
alongside Dan, was very reluctant in letting her into the system.

"Alright then, Sakura. We'll get started," he began, "How was your relationship with your family?
Was it a two parent household, where they shinobi...?"

"My parents were Haruno Mebuki and Haruno Kizashi. My father was a chef and my mother was
a school teacher; civilians. I wasn't very... close to them as I wanted, but they're good people."

She tilted her head.

"Or, were," she added. Inoichi wrote down her answers with a stiff hand and continued to the
next question.

"Who do you normally hang out with?"

"Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke. It's the two of them most of the time, but an occasion I'll
hang out with Hyuuga Hinata, Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba, Akimichi Chouji, and Nara
Shikamaru."

The sound of pen on metal was the only noise in the room.

"Mhm... so, how would you describe yourself?" Inoichi asked. He raised his eyes, seeing her
brows knit in concentration. It was odd, to say the least. Many children her age would start to list
the things that they thought were good at, or prided themselves as being. It took a few seconds for
her to come up with an answer.

"Pessimistic. Stressed. Tired, I guess? There's really nothing more I have to say."

Inoichi pressed his lips together, wrote down her answers, and turned to the next page. These
words were nothing he expected, and it only fueled the ever dropping feeling in his stomach. The
first set of questions were the basics-- the icebreakers, he dubbed it as. The next he wasn't sure if
he could sit through with a straight face.

He restrained a sigh.

"We'll head on to the next ones, Sakura," he told her, flipping the page.

::

He didn't like it.

Dan didn't like the apathy in her eyes; her indifference, and the way it looked so similar to how
Tsunade's was before she tried to--

He quickly stopped himself as he loosely crossed his arms and continued to watch the questioning.
No, he shouldn't be thinking like this. Sakura was nothing like Tsunade and would never turn into
someone like her, he was sure.

She was a good child. Disturbed, but brimming with potential that could be cultivated for the
greater good in the most pacifistic way an interrogator could be. He watched as Inoichi read the
first question to the real examination.

"On a scale of one to ten, how much do you trust others?"

"One."

Inoichi stopped writing.

"One?" he asked.

"I don't believe shinobi should trust others so... freely," she explained, "I know it's not a nice place
out there and I don't expect it to be. It should take years to build up a single thread of trust and
even I know that you shouldn't give your 100%."

That answer made Dan shift his weight to his other foot. Inoichi's reaction was more noticeable.
He adjusted his position in the metal seat and peered across the desk curiously, to hide his
discomfort.

"So you don't trust your friends."

"I would try keep my life out of their hands, if that's what you mean."

Dan ran a hand through the bundled hair draped over his shoulder. This wasn't right; her manner,
her demeanor, nor the way she presented herself. He could see her muscles tense under her
shoulders that hadn't let up for even a second since she entered the basement.

Oh, how he wished she could've lived as a normal child.

::
"Do you think you're sensitive to what others think?"

"I try not to offend."

"Then I suppose you're quite the lady in social situations."

"Lady might be pushing it, Yamanaka-san."

The lighter questions were nicer, Inoichi noted with slight relief. Her answers weren't at all heavy
as well. He wanted to carry out this testing like any other candidate about to join their ranks, but
he was always reminded of his own daughter. They were the same age, same class, and should've
had the same mindset of any other eight year old girl.

He cleared his throat.

"What about worrying? Do you do that a lot?" he asked. Sakura looked distant for a few
moments, thinking about who knows what in a far off world.

"Yeah."

"What does a young Academy student like you have to worry about?" Inoichi hummed, "Besides
everything you have to deal with T&I."

She stared back at him.

"Everything."

They told her she couldn't lie, so she wouldn't.

::

Ibiki frowned a lot. All the time, actually. He frowned so many times a day that he barely noticed
himself doing it. But in this moment, Sakura's answers were sending him into deeper thought with
each word she uttered. He felt his mouth dip down with the answers he wasn't expecting.

It unsettled him that the unforeseen was everything.

Her case was starting to be the worst ones he'd come across. He suspected a certain trauma within
her, whatever it was, but he couldn't imagine that the reality of it was deeply ingrained in her
subconscious; always there as a memory she couldn't forget.

Ibiki was starting to suspect that the cause wasn't just because of the death of her parents. The
Yamanaka Head scratched the back of his head-- a common nervous tick. Ibiki couldn't blame
him.

"I see. What about indecisiveness? Do you have a hard time making decisions?"

"No," she answered immediately, "I like to plan things and pick the best outcome for every
decision I make. I won't allow myself to make room for error." Not again.

Inoichi leaned back in his seat, crossing his legs and tapping his pen against his knee. Ibiki noticed
it as one of those poses the man would use when he felt that a conversation would take a turn in
an interesting direction. It was obvious that the interrogator and the two other spectators beside
him were already intrigued by the proceedings, probably not in a good way.

"How often do you cry, Sakura?"


The tiniest of smirks made its way onto her face.

"Would you believe me if I said I was a big crybaby before?"

"Not really."

"Well, I was. Years ago," she mentioned casually, eyes moving to the two-way mirror at her right
side. Her eyes went to Genma, then Dan, then to Ibiki like she had known from the very start that
they've been standing there, "But not anymore."

"... Alright. Next question."

Ibiki pursed his lips.

::

"Your parents were kind to you, weren't they?" Inoichi questioned, "Nice people, civilians, like
you said. You said you weren't that close to them?"

"Yes. They never truly understood the shinobi world but supported me anyways. The old-- er,
Ibiki-san took care of most of that for me. I spend less time at home and more time training. My
parents kept the encouragement there. Never yelled at me or raised a hand."

He flipped a page. At least that answer was completely well and good. Here, the questions would
take a turn based on what he deemed appropriate. If they had a clean mental state, the examination
would end with a few more questions. But if he sensed there was some affliction...

Inoichi reorganized his papers to take a specific set out and moved to the first question given.

"How would you rate your temper on a scale from one to ten?"

::

Genma's ears perked up at the starting question. He recognized it as the beginning of the PTSD
screening. The entire inquisition had been moving along bumpily, for lack of a better term, and he
hated to agree that Sakura was suffering so severely. The more he thought about it, the more he
began to realize that he barely knew a thing about her.

She never talked about herself or her experiences; only about the things her friends did or the
training and studying they themselves provided for her. She... She never talked about what she
loved. What she liked to do; to eat; to relax. Whenever he or Ibiki was with her, all she'd ever do
was talk about some whimsical topic or sleep.

Inside the room, Sakura flexed her fingers.

"Temper?" she repeated, "An eight. I don't take too well to idiots."

On the see-through side of the mirror, Genma moved the senbon to the other side of his mouth. He
saw Inoichi write that down, making a note on the side about possible anger management program
if she were to be admitted.

"Is your guard ever lowered? I can see that it's not the case right now, but what do you have to
say? Don't you have some time to relax? Konoha's a safe enough place for that much," the blonde
said. Sakura shrugged her shoulders and kept her eyes glued to her interrogator.

"It's like what I said about trust. I don't believe in having so much, so I'll always have my guard
up. Always. Of course there are times when I slip up and make mistakes--"

Genma remembered the dead look in her eyes a week ago.

"--but I'm working to make sure it never happens again."

::

Her voice sounded like steel against his ears. Not only did she make a promise, but made it a fact
that she wouldn't screw up again. Inoichi had to force himself to break their eye contact and write
down her answers. He jotted down a few more pointers in the margins about possible stress
conditions she could be suffering.

"I've noticed that you're distant," he said. He saw her jaw tighten in his peripheral vision, "More
separated than a lot of kids. Is there a reason for that?"

Sakura looked down. He knew that she was aware of the three other pairs of eyes observing her in
this moment, preventing her from letting anything slip by him.

"Connections make it harder for you to do what you have to. If nothing can hold you back, then
it's okay."

The tension washed away in one fluid motion and replaced by melancholy. She kept her face
turned away from all who could see. For a few seconds, all Inoichi could do was stare. He was
known for being able to keep calm under the most agonizing pressure, but the thought of Ino
going through the same thing as Sakura made his heart clench at the notion.

He moved to his next inquiry.

"How's your sleep schedule? And how often do you have nightmares? If you have any."

He hated that the answer he expected was the answer he got.

"I don't sleep a lot. Four hours if I'm lucky," she sighed, hoping that the concealer under her eyes
still kept up, "I have nightmares every day."

His fatherly traits seeped out as he forgot his purpose for a moment.

"About what?"

"Um, I'd rather not talk about it. If that's okay," Sakura said. Inoichi blinked before waving a hand
and admitting his mistake.

"Sorry, sorry, I overstepped my boundaries. Let's just move onto the next question," he said. He
tapped the evaluation paper with the end of his pen, "Have you witnessed a traumatic event?"

::

Sakura wanted to play this out as quickly as she good with the least possible revelations about
herself. She thought that she had reached the end of it all until Inoichi hit her with the PTSD
questionnaire. How could she skirt around the subject now, with her sensei and the Godaime
watching her all at one time?

"I have," she returned impassively. She kept her face as straight-laced as she could so that she
couldn't reveal more than necessary.

"Do you ever re-experience it?"


"Do you ever re-experience it?"

Suddenly, she felt those gloved hands wrap around her neck.

"Yes."

"Do you ever have flashbacks of that event?"

A cruel grin flashed in her vision along with a pair of blood red eyes, black tomoe spinning;
mocking her weakness and inability to free herself from his grip. Whispers of his silky, sickening
voice waltzed in her ears.

"Y-Yes."

That stammer didn't go unnoticed, and she cursed herself for the slip up.

"When reminded of it, do you avoid thoughts, fee--"

"Yes," she hissed.

His eyebrows rose as he gawked at her. She could only imagine how she appeared to them now;
horribly enraged at the voice that started to swirl in her head. She hadn't meant to direct her anger
at him. Once she caught the blunder, she donned that emotionless mask.

"Sorry."

Inoichi said nothing and wrote down the answers. She saw him open his mouth and pause at the
next question. Sakura pushed down the urge to drop her head. She was a medic who worked at
the hospital for a time; she knew what the examination entailed.

"Do you have any thoughts of self-harm or suicide?"

Her arm unconsciously wrapped around her stomach.

"Yes," she murmured. Inoichi bit his lip as his eyes trailed to the next one.

"Have you attempted self-harm or suicide?"

His blue-green eyes met hers. They were sad-- gazing at her in hope that she hadn't gone that far.
Sakura kept her eyes down to inspect the hem of her shirt.

Before, she hoped that too.

"I have, Yamanaka-san."

::

Horrified. That was the only way to described the way they felt.

Dan had to keep his appearances merely because he was the Godaime Hokage: a symbol and an
example to the people of who they should look up to and hold their loyalty towards. He was to
keep an even temperament in all situations, but this...

This?

This was one of the worst things he'd ever have to hear. He closed his eyes and let out a silent
sigh, mentally counting to fifteen to calm his nerves.
Ibiki was faring no better but was able to keep a stone cold face the entire time. Inside, the desire
to be her guardian only grew. Now, he wanted to protect her like he was never able to do with
Idate. She deserved none of this. None whatsoever. Kami knows what other kind of horrid things
happened to her when no one was around to see.

Genma probably had the most open reaction out of the three of them. His senbon slipped from
between his lips, making a small clinking sound when it hit the concrete floor. Sakura looked so
small in that chair-- so defenseless and hopeless.

In the room, Inoichi snapped himself out of his reverie and went to the next question. Four more.
Four more and she could leave.

"Are you afraid of anything?"

"Not really."

"What about guilt? Do you feel it often?"

She gave a small smile, making their stomachs drop farther than they already had.

"All the time," she responded. Inoichi bit his lip. The examination was nearing its end, thank
kami. He didn't know how much more he could put her through.

"Then... do you hate yourself?" he asked. Her head tilted towards the ceiling as she truly thought
about what to say.

"... I don't know," Sakura settled on, "I don't have an answer for that."

Inoichi set down his pen for the final question. He reached over to pick up that black square and
set it up in front of her. It was a plain fifteen cm by fifteen cm mirror lined with a black, plastic
frame. The girl appeared confused as she stared at herself. Why look into this mirror when there
was a huge one to her side, she probably didn't know.

Inoichi gestured to it.

"When you look in the mirror, who do you see?"

Dan, Ibiki, and Genma leaned closer to the two-way mirror in anticipation. Sakura stared and
stared and stared and stared; for a minute, almost.

Then she looked at Inoichi.

"No one important."

...

Inoichi picked up the mirror and placed it on top of all the other papers and stood, offering the
eight year old a forced smile.

"This concludes the examination, Sakura. Thank you for your time."
Omake II: The Happy Child

Her name was Sachiko and she was fourteen years old.

She could happily say that she was content with her life on Fire Country's border. The small town
she lived in was full of the kindest people she'd come to know, and she was thoroughly satisfied
with helping her grandmother at the inn.

But...

There was something that nagged the back of her head. Who were her parents? What were their
names? How come her grandmother never spoke about them?

Sachiko unconsciously gripped at the key pendant hanging beneath her shirt. She was told that
this was a memento from her late mother, and yet she still knew nothing about her. She tucked a
few strands of black-bobbed hair behind her ear as she quietly made her way to her grandmother.
Yuka was in the kitchen of the inn, preparing breakfast for the guests.

"Sachiko-chan," she greeted, "What are you doing in here? Didn't you say that you were going to
take your herbal remedies down to the clinic?"

Oh, her remedies. For as long as she could remember, she had always been interested in
medicines, herbs, and healing. Things of the like. She was far from being a shinobi even if she
carefully worked from night to night on how to collect special chakra to her hands.

"Sensei wasn't there yet so I came back," Sachiko replied, "Um, baa-chan? Can I ask you
something?"

Yuka looked over curiously.

"What is it, dear?"

"My... kaa-san. Can you tell me about her? Please, baa-chan? I-It's been bothering me for so long
and I want to know more about her. I have to."

The elderly woman saw the small fire in those bright green eyes and sighed as she turned the stove
flame off. Sachiko followed as Yuka walked over to their storage closet. It was filled with things
like winter blankets, towels, thick jackets...

The teen watched in wonder as a small box was pulled off the top shelf. Gray spotted the brown
wood as well as the odd paper slips that were plastered on the seams. Yuka placed it in Sachiko's
hands, tapping it lightly and sighing once more-- wistfully.

"Your mother told me to give this to you when you were old enough. Just before she disappeared,
she said that everything you wanted to know was here. And that key I gave you on your third
birthday?"

Sachiko touched the chain.

"It was hers. And it's the only thing that can open this."

She ran her hands over the film of dust, quietly thanking her grandmother. Yuka patted her head
and returned to the kitchen, throwing a sad look over her shoulder as she watched the teen hurry
to her room.
As soon as Sachiko reached her room, she closed her door and leapt onto her bed. She pulled the
key off her neck, staring at it's odd shape and worn look before placing it in the lock and twisting.
There were plenty of things to expect when she opened it, like it just popping open, but an
expansive spiderweb of blue shot over the box. It stayed as such for a few seconds as the slips of
paper burned off, taking the glowing lights with it.

Her mother... was a shinobi?

She slowly pried open the box and peered inside.

Photos. So many photos. Photos of people around her age, of kids, of teenagers, of adults... The
first one she picked up was of a married couple, the note on the frame reading:

Haruno Kizashi & Haruno Mebuki

Your grandparents on their wedding day

Wasn't Yuka her grandmother? Maybe on father's side. She sifted through more photos and saw
many different people. Blonde hair blue eyed ones, pale eyed ones, even one with one eye always
covered! Though in every picture, she always saw the pretty pink-haired one.

"K... Kaa-san...?" Sachiko murmured. It had to be. She had the exact same eyes she did. She tore
her eyes away and picked up two other things from inside: a heavily used, unpolished Konoha
hitai-ate and a thick envelope.

To Sachiko, from your mother, Haruno Sakura

With shaky hands, she lifted open the flap and took the letter inside. Twenty pages? Thirty? All
handwritten and tear-stained. Sachiko swallowed down her uncertainty and fear as she readjusted
herself on the bed and looking at the very first line.

Sachiko,

I wonder how old you are right now, reading this. I've asked Yuka-san to give this to you when
you were old enough to understand, but I know that at any age you'd be angry with me for not
being there when you needed me the most.

The first thing I wanted to make sure you know is that I love you. This might just be a stranger's
words to you but to me, they're one of the only ones I truly stand for. I love you. I love you. I love
you, my beautiful daughter. I didn't want to leave you all alone, but I just couldn't stay. I'll explain
myself later on in this letter, I promise.

The second thing I wanted to tell you is that I'm sorry. For everything. You don't have to forgive
me for what I've done, but I hope you take the time to ready what I have to say.

Where do I start...

How about from the very beginning?

When I was twelve years old, I graduated the Shinobi Academy in Konohagakure. My genin
teammates were Uzumaki Naruto and Uchiha Sasuke, and my sensei was Hatake Kakashi.

::

"Kakashi-senpai."
"Stop nagging me, Tenzou."

"We're two days late! And it's Yamato."

"Then it won't hurt to delay two more. Tenzou."

Yamato rubbed his face with his hands and gave an exasperated sigh. Eleven years after the war
and still he had to deal with his superior's bullshit. The two of them were making a short,
diplomatic mission west from the Valley of the End. Kakashi, the recently retired Hokage, still
maintained his lazy disposition and lack of motivation-- ultimately leading them to stop at a border
inn for the night. Yamato followed the other exasperatedly though the doors of the quaint looking
building.

An older woman was wiping down a table when she saw new customers.

"Welcome! Room for two?" she questioned. Yamato nodded as she moved to the reception desk.
A roster was placed for them to sign, "I'll be leading you to where you'll be staying."

The woman led them up some stairs and down a hallway, sliding open a door for them and
bowing respectfully.

"My name is Yuka, and you may ask for me or my granddaughter Sachiko if you need anything.
Please enjoy your stay."

Yuka dismissed herself, leaving Yamato to sigh and take a seat near the window and Kakashi to
look up at the ceiling thoughtfully. Sachiko. He remembered a conversation with his old student
years and years ago about favorite names. In a flash, he frowned, quickly erasing the memory
from his head.

"... Where did that come from...?" Kakashi mouthed to himself. He was saddened to admit that it
had been a very long time since he reflected on his failure to the save the only student he
abandoned. If he had a chance to do it over, he would. Kami knew he would. He desperately
wanted to make up for everything he never did.

"Senpai," Yamato called. Kakashi spun around casually, "Do you want to stop by there before we
head back to Konoha?"

A quiet sigh.

"If it isn't too much trouble."

::

It was in the calm evening when there was a quiet knock on their door. Yamato stood and opened
the door to see a young teen. Her eyes were puffy from freshly made tears with a box clung tightly
to her chest, folded papers in one hand. His eyes widened.

"A-Are you Yamato-san and H-Hatake Kakashi-san?" she sniffed as she clutched the box even
tighter. He gaped at the girl for a few moments, not exactly knowing what to make of this.
Eventually, he nodded and stepped to the side and let her shuffle in. Kakashi sat up and stashed
his book away, curiously observing at the misery shrouding the teen.

She suddenly thrust the box in front of her and dropped her head.

"P-Please take a look at this!"


Aloof as always, Kakashi slowly took the offered object and popped it open.

What he saw first made his heart stop. He stared, unmoving, for a whole ten seconds until
Yamato's concern brought him to look into the box as well. Team Seven's infamous genin picture
stared back along with an old red hitai-ate and a bunch of other pictures.

"These... things..."

The girl gulped.

"They belonged to my mother," she whispered. Kakashi's eye shot up, sharpening considerably,
"I... I saw your names on the roster and th-thought you could help me learn about her...?"

Yamato stared at the other. It had been a long time since he'd seen such a strained but unreadable
expression on the man's face. He too couldn't believe that this girl standing was his old friend's
child.

"Is your name Sachiko?" Kakashi asked. She nodded, unknowingly making his heart sink.

"Yes, sir."

"... How old were you when Sakura passed?"

Sachiko fumbled with the letters she held and hurriedly picked out one of the last pages. Biting her
lip, she scanned the penned lines.

"T-Two," she replied. Kakashi and Yamato exchanged sorrowful glances. it was in the time
period where most shinobi forces were sent to the front lines to fight the most important battles of
the war. That had lasted three long years in which they hadn't seen Sakura for that entire time. It
was a large enough span for the girl to come into existence.

"Who was your father?"

She sorted through the papers once more and pulled out a single sheet to hand to them. Kakashi
lifted his headband as he took it, not noticing the way Sachiko flinched as he read through the
page.

I've already lied to you so much that you don't deserve for me to lie about your father. I don't
know what he was like when he was Kakashi-sensei's teammate, but he wasn't a good man when
I first encountered him. Far from it.

Kakashi froze.

No.

That didn't... wouldn't--

He tortured me for twelve hours. Every second I can recall what he did to me, and I can tell you
that I never fully recovered. He took away my will to live and my passion to end the war. Could
he have been saved from what he'd done? Maybe. But that moment made me realize that I had
nothing left to offer to the cause. I couldn't protect the people I loved because I couldn't come to
protect myself.

Yamato covered his mouth with his hand.

I found out I was pregnant with you a month later. I was so... scared to admit to everyone what
happened to me, so I hid it. Hid you. I didn't utter a single word about your existence and gave
birth to you in that small town on the border where I hope you're still safe in today.

You were the most beautiful soul I'd ever have the opportunity of meeting, but again...

I'm sorry, Sachiko.

You were born not only as my daughter, but Uchiha Obito's as well.

They couldn't say a single thing. For eleven years, her intention was lost to them. They-- Kakashi-
- never knew why Sakura threw herself between the rasengan and chidori. Perhaps it was her last
stand to act as the catalyst to drive Team Seven towards its final resolution, or it could have been
her overwhelming love for the both of them.

It was neither. And with that realization, Kakashi felt worse than when he watched her die.

"Was he really a bad man?" Sachiko questioned, her voice quiet, "What did my Uchiha-san do?
And why did he hurt my kaa-san?"

Yamato turned to look at her nervously when Kakashi wouldn't speak.

"Well, he... just wasn't exactly a good person. I don't know about what he was thinking, but, uh,
do you know who Naruto is?"

Sachiko nodded. He was always mentioned in her mother's letters as the one who gave her hope,
the one who'd be future Hokage, and the one who always fought for Sasuke? Yeah, that was his
name. And he was an Uchiha too if she wasn't mistaken.

"Sakura and Naruto were close, so I'd think Obito did it to hit close to home," Yamato continued,
"I guess he failed in that sense because she didn't tell anyone, but I never thought she'd been able
to go through all that by herself..."

She hugged her arms to, making herself seem smaller than she already was.

"Why did she die?"

Kakashi raised his eyes that moment and surprised her with the amount of pain that flooded them.

"I couldn't stop her."

Her bottom lip started to quiver.

"I'm sorry."

He drew his gaze back to the box. Gingerly, he sifted through the pictures-- the memories-- and
saw a vial of blood at the very bottom. A small note was attached to the cap as well as a seal of
preservation.

If I'm still in the records, use this to confirm our relation.

This could be his chance. For all the times he wronged Sakura liked failing to teach her, or not
taking the opportunity to pay attention to her as much as he did with the rest of Team Seven... he
could finally make it up to her. Indirectly, of course But if he could bring the girl up as a student
like he never did to Sakura--

Knock. Knock.
Yamato moved away to open the door, revealing Yuka on the other side.

"I'm sorry to intrude," she apologized, "But I need to borrow Sachiko-chan for a few moments, if
that's alright."

She faced the teen.

"Sensei called about your medicine, how you were supposed to deliver today?"

Sachiko quickly bowed to the other adults and excused herself before taking off down the
hallway. How could she forget? Her mother's box had taken up all the time out of her day that
she'd forgotten about her duties!

At her leaving, Yuka's smile slipped off her face as she regarded the two shinobi with firm lips
and a pensive gleam in her brown eyes.

"Now that you know of her roots, do you plan on taking her to Konoha?" she questioned. The
heavy silence that followed was piercing and pulling on the thin string between tolerable and
unbearable, but it was enough of an answer for her. Yuka sighed, the tiniest smile returning to her
lips.

"I promised Sakura that I would raised her daughter with the love she was never able to give
herself," she said, "I hope you come to treat her with that same respect."

To Yamato's surprise, Kakashi assured her with unshakable determination.

"We will."

Yuka bowed to them, closing the door with a quiet click and setting off down the hallway. Once
down in the lobby, she sat at the chair by the window and gazed out into the night. It was
cloudless and blue, faded stars streaking the remnants of night.

Sachiko was a very bright girl with brimming intelligence that took after her mother, she was sure.
They even shared the same round green eyes, though the teen's was much more vibrant than she
had ever seen Sakura's. There was so much potential in that girl that she knew she couldn't keep
her helping out at this old inn.

She sighed again.

"Sachiko-chan was never meant to be a small town girl, anyways."

::

To be continued in Omake III: The Flower That Wasn't Pink


Assignment

"When you look in the mirror, who do you see?"

Dan, Ibiki, and Genma leaned closer to the two-way mirror in anticipation. Sakura stared and
stared and stared and stared; for a minute, almost.

Then she looked at Inoichi.

"No one important."

...

Inoichi picked up the mirror and placed it on top of all the other papers and stood, offering the
eight year old a forced smile.

"This concludes the examination, Sakura. Thank you for your time."

::

"Sakura-san?"

She let the glass doors of T&I close behind her as she looked up.

"Itachi-san."

He was the last person she expected to see at the sector. Pacifistic, Sasori said he was. If that were
true, then this was the one place he would have avoided in all of Konoha. He glanced at his
surroundings for a few moments before returning his attention back to her. The harness in his gaze
was unmistakable though his small smile still remained.

"Sasuke has expressed his worry about you. He says you've been absent from the Academy for
three days now," he said. Sakura shrugged.

"I've been doing a little of this, a little of that," she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand,
"Nothing he or Naruto need to worry about. I'll be back Monday morning no problem."

Itachi accepted her answer with the slight tilt of his head, but it looked as if he wanted to say more
about the subject. He settled on staring at the Torture and Interrogation sign at the side of the
door. The bags under his eyes were more pronounced all of a sudden even if he wasn't placing his
attention directly on her.

"You're so young."

"So were you."

Black, as dark as shadows, flickered down to her.

"I had no choice. You can get out while you still can."

There was something about his words that began to piss her off. She knew that in the other
timeline that no one suffered as much as he did. At thirteen, Itachi killed his parents and hurt the
one he loved the most in the process. He chose the livelihood of thousands of people over a
couple hundred of his own blood. He was Konoha's scapegoat that deserved everything he never
got, and she respected that of him.

"I don't have that opportunity," she said.

"You do."

But this Itachi?

"I don't think you understand, Itachi-san."

"What is there to not?"

Sakura grit her teeth. This Itachi knew jack shit about his misery in the other timeline and because
of his ignorance, it gave every reason for her not to get upset. But she was aware of who she was
before.

She remembered her death-- feeling every breathing moment.

She accepted the fact that her daughter would never exist this time around; the only creation she
dared to call truly beautiful.

She involuntarily let her parents die this time around because she was too damn focused on
Sasuke's happiness to tend to her own.

Yes, she shouldn't be mad, though there was only so much that she could take from others. Sakura
took one firm step forward, eyes taking on the blistering heat of anger. Itachi didn't account for her
to react this way-- or actually look intimidating while doing so.

"Never assume things of people," she sneered, "I'm sure that even a genius like you doesn't know
the whole world, so I'd appreciate you'd cut that everyone-has-a-choice shit and take a few steps
back. Re-evaluate yourself before coming to me."

His eyebrows furrowed.

"I... apologize for my callousness."

Sakura turned her head as Ibiki strode out the building. She glanced at the Uchiha heir one last
time.

"Have a nice day, Itachi-san," she bid. She walked to her sensei's side, leaving the recently
promoted ANBU Captain to silently watch her go.

::

"Oh, Shikamaru! Chouji isn't with you?"

"Naruto, Sasuke, and him went to look for bandana guy."

Chouza took his son's backpack from the boy's grasp and tilted his head. Shiranui Genma, his
former student? He'd been mentioned occasionally by Chouji because of his ties with Haruno
Sakura. He poked around for some information on it a year or two ago and found that Genma had
started mentoring the girl, but was at a loss of what exactly he was teaching due to the undisclosed
information.

It was strange that nothing but her name was documented in the files. Even Inoichi had some
suspicion about it.
"The one with the senbon in his mouth?"

"Not him. The other one."

The other--

Chouza stalled. Ibiki. Shikamaru had to be talking about Ibiki. The youngest to become head of
interrogation, known not for using physical pain in his sessions but known for getting information
through inflicting severe mental trauma.

"What do they have to do with Ibiki?" he asked, trying to keep himself as calm as possible. That
man was not known for his kindness and definitely wouldn't try to hesitate or shield mere children
from the work he did. What would happen to Chouji if he saw those terrible practices? Shikamaru
scratched the back of his head.

"They're looking for Sakura. I mean, she's with him a lot so I guess it's smart to look for him," he
said, "Who is he?"

The Akimichi Head let out a nervous chuckle.

"He's one of the elite. No one you need to worry about."

Shikamaru narrowed his eyes.

He never said he was worried.

::

"The sun is burning and spirits are at an all time high-- we can only be young for so long! What
do you say to that, my shining eternal rival? Shall we engage in an invigorating taijutsu session?!"

Green. A lot of it.

Too much, actually.

Gai, with his usual thousand watt smile, struck a pose in the middle of a pretty busy street.
Kakashi didn't even blink at the sight before side stepping the oddity and continuing on his way
with his hands shoved deeply in his pockets. Though Konoha's Sublime Green Beast of Prey was
unperturbed as he jobbed to catch up with his long time friend.

"Come on, Kakashi! When's the last time we had a battle of youth, man to man?"

Two blank eyes.

"Uh, fist to fist?"

No response.

"I suppose janken will do just fine then. Janken! A clash for the ultimate fate of destiny!"

Kakashi finally let out a tired sigh. He raised a gloved hand to pinch the bridge of his nose and
shook his head.

"ANBU is taxing. I'm on duty," he said. Gai looked all around him. ANBU? All Hatake had been
doing was meandering the streets not doing anything in particular. He opened his mouth to retort,
but when he moved his eyes back ahead of him, there was nothing but empty space. He clenched
his fists.

"You win this round!" Gai shouted, raising his arms towards the sky in an admittance of defeat. he
didn't know how it happened so suddenly, but ever since that happened, all Kakashi ever did was
work then hole himself in his apartment. He'd spend no time with his old friends, always taking up
any and all available ANBU duties.

Gai crossed his arms as an unusually serious expression blossomed on his face. Anyone could see
that Kakashi was still caught up in the past. With his father, the Yondaime... Rin.

The taijutsu master glanced at the Hokage Tower with determination in his gaze. What he had in
mind might be a bit of a stretch, but he was starting to lose out at all other options. He turned the
opposite direction and began his march onward.

But he had to get Obito first.

::

Iruka wasn't quite sure how he ended up here.

The Akasen looked much different in the day time. The signs were unlit and nearly all the
businesses were closed. They'd open in a few hours, he guessed, but it probably wasn't the night
time appeal that brought him back. Here he stood at the back of Magenta, staring up Naruto's
window. The apartment was empty, and he couldn't help but feel that how it always was.

"You aren't thinkin' of wreckin' the place, are you? 'Cause I gotta mean left hook."

A taller, slightly older man with long blonde hair tied up in a ponytail and a cigarette hanging from
his lips strolled up beside him. Iruka quickly waved his hands in front of himself.

"O-Oh no, nothing like that! It's, uh, actually-- I'm Umino Iruka, Naruto-kun's sensei," he
introduced. The blonde blew a cloud of smoke in the air.

"Ah. Sakura-chan or Sasuke-chan tell you 'bout his place?"

"Sakura did. A while back."

So Sasuke knew about Naruto's situation too, huh? It made sense. Those three had a lot of other
friends but always stuck together like they were incapable of being apart. Great friends they might
be, though Iruka believed that it wasn't enough for Naruto. The love and support he needed from
home was painfully absent just as much the backbone of encouragement was.

The stranger tilted his head.

"So why're you here, sensei?" the blonde questioned, "Class ended, right? Naru-chan ain't back
yet and you've takin' to starin' atta' window."

"I... I'm not too sure. I just sort of wandered here," he admitted sheepishly, "Naruto-kun's been
doing extremely well with his lessons lately and was wondering if he was getting any support
from home. Besides his friends of course."

The man flicked the ash off his cigarette before placing it back in his mouth.

"We let him in the bar before openin' and take some food up every now and then. It's not much,
but what can we do? Kid's an orphan," he shrugged. Iruka mumbled something, making the
blonde lean forward.
"Nothing! Just--Just let my thoughts run, is all!"

He cleared his throat.

"Well, I have to head back and grade papers... Um, I never got your name?"

The stranger gestured to the building.

"I'm the owner, Mari."

::

"You talk to Itachi?"

"I do hang out with his little brother all the time. So I'm bound to talk to him sometimes," she said.
They were headed back to Ibiki's house.

"I've got a plan for you. Want to hear it?"

Sakura cocked her head to show she was listening.

"You'll be going on one last test before you'll fully admitted to the system: a field mission with
whoever Hokage-sama chooses. Genma and I have no say in that," he informed, "But when you
pass, I'm sure you will, you'll have another sensei to listen to. She's unconventional and batshit
crazy, but she knows what she's doing. Most of the time."

Sakura supposed he was talking about none other than the infamous Mitarashi Anko. She was the
only renowned kunoichi from interrogation force she could recall, and the only real interaction
they had was during Team Seven's first chuunin exams. She kept her mouth shut to let him
continue.

"As for you guardianship-- I'll have to sign your papers to ensure you don't get moved to an
orphanage on any accounts. You can stay in the room you've been in for the past half week until
you're no longer a minor. Sixteen in Konoha's laws."

She stopped beside Ibiki when he pulled out his key.

"You're taking custody of me? Wow. I knew you were an old man, but I didn't expect you to be a
nice old man," she mused. Ibiki scoffed as he held the door open for her to step inside.

"I'm not nice. I just know where my priorities are."

A debt of gratitude was one of the hardest things to pay back, if it could be paid back at all. She
would be forever thankful of what Ibiki was doing for her even if he wouldn't fully admit to it
himself. It would be harder to contact Sasori in these conditions, now living in a shinobi district,
but it's not like anything was impossible. Al she had to do was keep her obvious interests out in
the open, destroy all messages Sasori ever sent her like normal, and keep her sleeping pills hidden.

Nothing she couldn't handle.

::

At about dawn the next day, Sakura was sitting at the edge of her bed adjusting her wrist blades
when something crashed through her window. She took a split second to figure out what was
happening before continuing to fix her weapons.
"Ibiki!" a voice roared, "Put me back on the roster, you bastard!"

As the dust cleared, the outline of the intruder became more pronounced. Anko angrily took a step
towards the bed, stopping when who she expected to be bulky and irritated turned out to be extra
small and pink. She narrowed her eyes.

"You're not Ibiki."

"He's down the hall."

The door slowly opened to reveal the wholly disgruntled person in question. Anko pointed at him
accusingly.

"Fucker! Give me work to do!" she barked. Ibiki surveyed the broken glass and sighed. He
walked over to pick up the larger pieces, then went back out the door.

"I don't think you understand what the term 'inactive' means," he said, voice drifting from
somewhere near the kitchen, "The charge assigned to you nearly died because you lost your
temper and beat him half to death with a piece of bread. Hokage-sama removed for from your
duties for three weeks for a reason, including from interrogation."

Sakura couldn't say she was surprised. Anko had a certain semblance to Naruto with that same
amount of reckless and disregard for authority. She picked up some pieces of glass and followed
the others. After disposing of it, she went around the protesting woman to get some fruits for her
breakfast.

"Give me a case!"

"No."

"Fucking goddammit, Ibiki!"

It was at that moment when Anko realized the very thing that wasn't quite right. Light brown eyes
drifted over to the fridge. Sakura stared back blankly as she bit into her apple. Bewildered, the
kunoichi gestured to her animatedly.

"And what the hell is this? Are you kidnapping little girls now?!" she exclaimed. Ibiki rolled his
eyes and leaned against the counter.

"Anko, Haruno Sakura. A soon-to-be T&I apprentice," he introduced, "Sakura, Mitarashi Anko.
A future sensei."

First there was shock, then there was a satisfied and almost maniacal type of grin. Anko rubbed
her hands together like someone ready for a hard battle. Sakura, on the other hand, was perfectly
unamused with what she was getting into. Once under her tutelage, it'd be even harder for her to
move around as she pleased. Contacting her summons would take a little longer and convening
with Sasori would have to be delayed.

"So you're the messed up little intern, hm?" she hummed, "I've heard lots of rumors about you."

"All bad, I'm guessing."

Anko fluffed up her tan trench coat, grin growing wider.

"Oho, I think I'm gonna have a fun time training you, tidbit."
"Which you can talk about later on after her final examination," Ibiki interrupted. He pointed to a
bird sitting on the windowsill, "Sakura, go to Hokage-sama's office."

Sakura nodded and thanked him when she took the fully stocked kunai pouch he held out to her.
She excused herself from their presence and left the house. When the click of the door met her
ears, Anko plopped down on one of the stools.

"Oh yeah..." she drawled, "Kid's definitely fucked up."

::

Dan was against this. When he saw her, all he could see was a little girl who believed she had no
other choice but to serve her village to her best ability. She was an eight year old who should be
learning how to throw shuriken at tree stumps, not learning which veins and arteries were the best
to cut for slow torture. She could even be learning how to read fun, adventurous stories instead of
those anatomy books she carried around.

He gave a lengthy sigh as he thought to yesterday.

Sakura stood up to leave the interrogation room, but was stopped at the second of Inoichi's sigh.

"You... do know that if you pass, you'll become the youngest to ever join the sector. A lot of
pressure is going to be on your shoulders. Are you ready for that responsibility?" he asked. She
gave a nonchalant shrug as she rubbed her neck.

"It won't be a problem."

On the other side of the mirror, the three observers collected themselves enough to disappear.
Dan was lost in his thoughts the rest of the day, researching and checking up on other students to
make sure there weren't any other cases like her.

People like her don't grow up well with normal functioning mentalities. They were warped to the
point where their self-worth was startlingly low. They were the most effective on missions
because of their lack of restraint, but it meant putting themselves in the most danger from their
detached attitude toward their own person.

Hatake Kakashi is one.

Uchiha Itachi is another.

Unfortunately, Sakura's home was close if not already on that list. Dan straightened when there
was a knock on his door and the aforementioned stepped in.

"Good morning," he smiled, "Are you ready for the final test?"

"Yes, sir," she replied. He gave her a small mission scroll from his well-organized desk as well as
a small red bag.

"You and your partner will take a trip to Port City and deliver this jade bracelet to the client.
Complete it as quickly and efficiently as possible and return to Konoha immediately upon
completion," Dan explained. Sakura's eyebrows furrowed.

"Partner?"

"Someone to help monitor your examination. He'll be assessing the decisions you make and be the
primary judge to whether you pass or fail. Good luck."
She bowed respectfully and turned to leave the office.

"Oh, and one more thing..."

She was only able to take one step before her muscles involuntarily seized up and and she forgot
how to breathe.

"Your partner, Uchiha Obito, will be waiting for you at the gates."
The Mission

Warning: This might be a little worse in terms of imagery. You've been warned.

::

Deidara peered through the glass of one of the shops on the street. A box of special explosive clay
sat in his grip, just as Onoki had asked him to. He was supposed to drop this off at the office to
have it inspected, but...

That tanto looked really cool. Severely cool, actually. But he didn't think it was quite his style.
Deidara was one who loved bright colors and explosions, and swords didn't fit that criteria. He
sighed. He was destined to be in the Kugutsu Butai like his sensei told him a million times before.

"Oh? Interested in kenjutsu?"

Beside him was a rather short man with red hair tied at the nape of his neck and brown eyes that
shone curiously. Deidara wasn't quite sure who he was, but he'd seen him around with Onoki
every now and then. Maybe he was an associate from another village who never wore his hitai-ate
or any discerning piece of clothing to show his allegiances.

"Not really, un. Not my thing."

"Can't say that when you haven't tried, can you?" the stranger hummed, "I would learn how to use
a sword if I were still in my younger years."

Deidara pushed on with the conversation despite himself.

"What's stopping you from doing it now, hm?" he asked. The stranger suddenly sagged forward
as long, drawn out sigh escaped his lips. The boy jerked to the side at the abrupt movement.

"I'm busy. Tired. A little lazy--"

"Old, un?"

An irked glare.

"Brat."

Deidara grinned. He didn't know what it was about this man that left him at ease, but he felt safe.
He was sure the stranger was a shinobi even with his lax attitude and lack of concern with his
surroundings. Who was he, anyways? he was about to open his mouth and ask when he saw a
small bug crawl onto the top of that mussed hair.

"Uh."

The boy pointed to his own head. The stranger narrowed his eyes as he reached up with an open
head. With one touch, he sagged even further.

"Please tell me you have good news, Yori..." he mumbled. Deidara watched as the man took the
bug-- no, scorpion-- and extract a small note from its pincers. A summon. A few seconds later that
laid back stance straightened and his kind eyes sharpened, "... Dammit ."

He spun on his heel.


"Be a good kid, Deidara. Onoki-sama expects those explosives to be put to good use."

And then he was gone.

::

"Morino Ibiki?"

"That's what tou-san said. Troublesome."

"Then we'll find out what happened to Sakura-chan, dattebayo!"

"We have to be careful, okay?"

Sasuke, Shikamaru, Naruto, and Chouji gathered an hour before classes started. It was an
uneventful Thursday morning, the sun already over the horizon at seven am, and the teachers had
yet to make their appearance at the Academy. The four of them made a plan to head out, find her
immediately, and cut class for the day. Until Chouji voiced against it.

"But Sakura would want us to go to class. She'd be mad if we didn't."

...

So they'd go before or after school to keep up with their studies. They set off into the village after
coming to a consensus of going back to the T&I building to figure out what happened to their
friend. Naruto headed the group, complete determination blazing in his eyes. He was worried
about her. They all were. Her unforeseen disappearance wasn't natural-- especially since she
always stressed attendance and punctuality.

"What if they turn away again?" Chouji asked as they approached familiar glass doors, "That guy
told us she'd be gone 'cause she was taking lotsa tests."

"If we see that she's fine then it's good, right?"

"If you see that who's fine?" a new voice interrupted. The four of them froze, slowing turning
around and looking up at who called them out. A grumpy looking man eyed them suspiciously
with his arms crossed over his chest and an unbecoming downturn to his mouth, "Kids aren't
supposed to be here. Leave or I'll make you leave."

Chouji held onto Shikamaru's upper arm. He quivered slightly, the stern look in the man's eyes
making him almost week to his knees. Sasuke, whose Uchiha blood kept a heavy stream of pride
pumping through his veins, refused to be deterred.

"Do you know where Haruno Sakura is?"

Ibiki cocked an eyebrow.

"Not here. Now get lost."

Naruto butt in.

"But where is she?! You know, don't 'cha?!" he exclaimed as he hoisted himself a little higher by
pushing himself up on Sasuke's shoulders, "Can ya' tell us where she went?!"

The man kept his serious demeanor.


"No."

"What?! That's bull crap, dattebayo!"

What did amuse Ibiki, though, was that the boy promptly received two good smacks to the back of
the head and a noise of disapproval at the word. Some odd friends Sakura kept around, especially
since she was able to bring together three children from prominent shinobi families and the
Kyuubi host. The leader of T&I cleared his throat.

"You can't see her. And she'll be gone from school another week."

"What?! Why?!"

"It's not like the girl's dead or anything. Scram," he said. He stepped around the group of young
boys to enter the building to tend to his duties. Naruto, unaccepting of that answer, turned to him
as Shikamaru's hand shot out and snatched his collar to prevent him from going any further.

"But Sakura-chan's house burned down! How're you gonna tell me that she's okay?! Huh?!"

Ibiki paused with his hands just centimeters from the door. He sighed before returning his attention
to the bunch once more.

"Look. You can't see her because she's not here. And she won't be here for a while. Now it's
either you get your asses back to the Academy and stay away from this building, or you keep
coming back and keep getting kicked out. Now what's it gonna be?"

::

There was nothing she could do to force herself to look at him.

Thankfully, Obito didn't make any new attempts at small talk. He tried to at the beginning of their
journey to ease the tension, him probably thinking she was fearful or nervous about taking her
very first mission outside the village. Though all replies were clipped one word answers that left
no room for comment. He eased off her eventually and kept quietly to the side.

Port City was still a few days away. The bracelet she had to deliver was settled safely in her
pocket and a communicator was fastened around her neck with the receiver tucked into her right
ear. The measures taken to ensure her safety on this C-rank looked unnecessary, leading her to
believe that there was another use to the device.

"Sakura?"

She flinched, moving her head so her left ear faced him.

"We can take a break if you want," Obito said. He was aware that she was keeping her distance
by staying a few feet to the side and never once looking towards him. She shook her head while
picking up the pace. He frowned.

"Sakura," he called again. She stopped this time, "Are... Are you afraid of me?"

He didn't see the way fear clawed at the edge of her eyes, nor how much they widened at the
question. But what he did see was how her hand snaked to her neck for her nails to dig harshly
into her skin.

Obito titled his head innocently, like a child idly observing an anomaly. That cruel grin surfaced
as his fingers caressed her collarbone. They traveled up, latching onto the collar of her shirt.
"Sakura-chan," he purred, "Are you afraid of me?"

Obito's frown deepened. Inoichi briefed her situation to him, explaining the uncomfortable depth
of her trauma as well as the symptoms she exhibited: anger issues, low self-worth, insomnia,
frequent flashbacks, and possible depression. It saddened him to think that she practically
embodied who Kakashi was right after Rin's death. He hated seeing people like this when he was
sure they didn't deserve it.

"Oh... if there's any problem, just let me know, okay?"

She nodded.

Their tense silence carried on for the rest of the day, only climbing higher if Obito decided to try
an alleviate her troubles with small jokes or funny stories. None of it worked, and he just couldn't
understand.

Why? Why was she like this? Not even Itachi had gotten this bad and he was scarred for life when
he saw the aftermath of the Third Shinobi World War (He told Fugaku not to show the four year
old, but he insisted).

He'd get to the bottom of it one way or the other.

::

Genma shared a visual jutsu with the mouse summon he placed in Obito's flak jacket before he set
off on the mission, and made sure both his and Sakura's communicators relayed their
conversations back to Ibiki's office at T&I. A TV was set up for the summon's feed connected
through various chakra channels attached to Genma's body. Two speakers served to broadcast all
sounds in Obito's vicinity. Everything would be recorded and stored for future reference.

Ibiki and Genma would be camped out in the office until their return to Konoha's gates. Not an
interaction or uttered word would be missed. Inoichi would be called in when the actual mission
took place to assess her actions and decisions made to ensure success.

"I feel dirty listening in like this. And having my eye chakra being hooked up to the damn thing
again."

"You've done this exam before."

"Yeah, but before didn't involve spying on a suicidal eight year olds!" Genma bit out, "Morino-
san, I don't want her in the sector anymore. Her mental state might get even worse and we'll turn
her into those robotic ANBU!"

Ibiki turned a knob on one of the control panels on his desk to lower the sound of Obito telling a
story of how he once got his foot stuck in a door.

"The two of us turned out fine," he replied.

"Only because we got out before the system could scrub the emotions out of us. I know you've
seen her type before. If she, for some grand reason, doesn't die by being reckless on the battlefield,
then she's going to do it herself. That's why I said suicidal ."

They were interrupted by a new line of conversation. Two pairs of eyes raised to the TV screen.

Sakura stood in the frame with her back towards the summon's vision.
"Are... Are you afraid of me?"

She didn't move.

"No," she answered. Her voice wavered, "Not you ."

Genma picked up the folder with all the questions asked by Inoichi the day before and flipped
through it. He read the last couple of answers.

"She said she wasn't really afraid of anything," he said as his brows knit together. Ibiki kept his
eyes glued to the screen.

"Anything," he reiterated, "The question never asked about any one . You don't like it, but we'll
wait it out. If things get worse, we'll pull her from the program."

:: ( A/N: For clarification on the bold passage and future bold passages-- it's what appears on the
TV screen from Genma's mouse summon's perspective in Obito's flak jacket. So essentially, it's
Obito's perspective also seen from everyone watching the screen.) ::

When nightfall met them, Obito asked if she needed a sleeping bag for the night. She shook her
head once, setting her pack down to take out a thick rope with a hook at each end. She situated
them into the bark of steady trees, creating an incredibly thin hammock.

"...There?"

"Here."

Obito was stunned when he saw she was able to balance herself on the rope with ankles crossed
and arms draped across her stomach. It was a habit she picked up during field missions where
sleeping bags were too much of a hassle for quick escapes and the ground was bad for worn
muscles. Not to mention the hooks and rope served as good enough weapons when needed.

"Well... if you're sure," he relented, "Shout if you need anything."

He faced away from her and the fire with a plainly painted frown on his lips. After signing the
summon to cut off the jutsu from Genma for the night and shutting off his communicator, he let his
mind wander to his partner for the mission. Obito was assured that she had already passed the
conduct portion of the exam. No inappropriate or outlandish actions had been taken so far-- the
beginning of the perfect candidate of the elite.

There was no right for him to tell Sakura what was right or wrong, he knew that. But he wanted
her to know that there was nothing to be scared of. She was going to be safe around him, and he
couldn't pinpoint the reason why she felt the exact opposite.

He let out a soft exhale as he shut his eyes.

Tomorrow. He'd worry about it tomorrow.

And as the morning came, Obito sat up in his sleeping bag displaying a wide yawn. The fire now
sat as a pile of burnt wood to his left. Sakura rope bed was gone and her pack was propped up
against a tree, but she was nowhere in sight.

"Sakura?"
She appeared a few seconds later with two rabbits in one hand, each sustaining a small hole in the
side of their necks.

"Breakfast," she said. She restarted the fire with the mouth ember she spat into the pit. Obito noted
that she didn't spare any emotion when she skinned the animals properly, washed the carcasses
with the water from her canteen, then put them on stakes for them to cook. The sun was already
up at what he supposed was eight. Silence pervaded their air as it had done most times before, but
this time, it made him tilt his head.

"You know, you remind me of someone."

Sakura couldn't stop herself from raising her eyes. She looked at him, just not at him.

"Who?"

"My old teammate, Kakashi. You wouldn't know him, but he's a real genius and prodigy just like
you. And just like you, you both can keep quiet for forever," he sighed. He made a quick decision
at the moment, glancing to his left and right, "I'm gonna tell you a secret and maybe you could
help me with it. Promise not to tell anyone?"

She nodded slowly, eyes moving towards the grass beneath her to inspect their green. It's not like
she had anyone to tell it to. This was her old sensei she was going to learn about, and if she knew
any better, the information was likely to help her in the future.

"When were were still in a team, we had another teammate named Rin. She was a really sweet girl
and was a talented medic. I'll admit that I had a bit of a crush on her back in the day," he grinned,
a light blush crossing his cheeks. Sakura's fingers twitched.

"Rin. Did Kakashi ever talk about her?"

One gloved hand grabbed a fistful of hair while the other started undoing her green vest. Sakura
clawed at his hands and hissed, trying desperately to kick him off her but unable to muster enough
strength to do anything about it.

"She was a medic, just like you. She cared for her comrades and ensured our safety."

His grin turned a little less vicious and a little more bitter.

"No one was there to save her," he murmured, "Just like how no one's here to save you."

"Anyway, we went on this mission once. It was supposed to be simple to go destroy Kannabi
Bridge. Long story short, we were trapped in a cavern and it was going to collapse. Kakashi was
knocked down, a boulder fell, and Rin was the closest one to him..."

Obito closed his eyes.

"He never forgave himself after that day. It's not his fault. I keep telling him that but he just won't
listen to me. Or anyone, for that matter," he exhaled. He blinked when Sakura actually replied to
him, speaking quietly and still avoiding his gaze.

"Guilt is hard, Uchiha-san. Everyone's telling him that he wasn't the one who did it, right? That he
had nothing to do with it."

"Yeah."

"Maybe that's the problem."


She stood and hefted the pack on her shoulders as she turned towards the path, starting forward
and flipping on her communicator. Obito, aghast at the answer given, hurriedly packed his things
and followed after.

It would take two more days to get to Port City.

And two more days of a straining silence.

::

Take out boxes were stacked on the floor beside the couch, begging to be discarded but receiving
no such answer. The scent of ramen and fried meats was clearly noticeable and would take days to
air out of the office. Even Inoichi had to wrinkle his nose when he stepped into the room.

"This place smells like the back of a C grade restaurant," he commented. The TV showed nothing
but trees and a pathway and the sound was on low, being nothing but chirping birds or the
occasional rustling of leaves. Ibiki glared at the blonde from his spot slouched in the chair behind
his desk.

"Tough."

Genma was faring no better with him sprawled on the couch in sheer boredom. He couldn't do
much because of his chakra pathways constantly being used to direct the images on the screen.
Inoichi pulled up a chair next to the open window, the room growing quiet as the city came into
view.

"Do you know where the client said you should meet him?" Obito questioned. The screen
turned, showing Sakura surveying her surroundings.

"Near a hotel. He wants the package to be delivered in secret where no one would find
out."

"Good. I can take your bag while you complete the mission. If that's okay with you."

She was reluctant in slipping the straps off her shoulders and handing him her things. Her
eyes narrowed when her hand nearly touched his.

Inoichi noted that.

A few more words were exchanged as Sakura set off and disappeared into the crowd. The
screen was still for a few seconds before a supposed shunshin was used and the view was
positioned high above the rooftops.

"Eyes on target," he whispered for the other examiners to hear. The sight followed the
head of pink hair weaving through the streets. She seemed like she was right on track to the
client near the center of the city.

Until she suddenly dashed into a narrow alleyway.

Obito sputtered.

He leapt onto the rooftops on the other side of the street and peered down onto the path she
went down. Or, supposedly had.
"She's gone!"

Inoichi glanced at the couch.

"You taught her how to lose a tracker?" he asked. Genma scratched the top of his head.

"I taught her a lot of advanced stuff I don't remember. Probably? I mean, kid's talented and does a
lot of outside studying."

Obito opted to head towards the meeting place instead of trying to pinpoint her current
location. When he did, there was a faint noise of surprise at the fact that she arrived before
he did. A burly man towered over her as she calmly explained the reason for being there.

Ibiki would admit to being the one that hired the so-called "client" for Sakura's exam. He wanted
to test her bravery and willingness to carry out missions even in the most undesirable of situations.
Granted, it probably wasn't the best course of action once he took her trauma into account, but he
believed she was capable in doing it.

He told the "client" to wait for her in a gang-frequented alleyway where all the city's worst could
be there for her to see. Doing this might not be the most ethical thing he could've done, but it was
necessary. She needed to be able to get through something as small as this to be able to stay in a
sector like T&I.

That's why he didn't tell Genma, Obito, or Inoichi about it.

"You're a child."

"And you have arm muscles the size of my torso."

"What?"

"I thought we were pointing out the obvious."

The client scoffed and held out his hand. Sakura slipped the red bag out of her pocket and
placed it in his huge palms. He didn't even check to make sure the bracelet was inside as he
stuffed it in a pouch on the inside lining of his vest.

"Best get out of here, kid. People 'round these parts won't take to kindly to pink little girls
that prance around their territory," he said, jerking his head towards the exit of the alley.
Sakura nodded.

"Have a nice day, sir."

The view on the screen made a move backwards as Obito's voice filtered through the speakers.

"That was... anti-climatic. But mission completed, I guess? Sure she made some remarks
but she sounded more diplomatic if anything."

"She didn't demonstrate any symptoms of her trauma, which surprised me. But I did notice that
there's something wrong between her and Uchiha-san," Inoichi said. He looked over his notes
again, "Is there a reason for that? Did you see anything in her travels?"

Ibiki held his temple as he thought back the last few days.

"The first day, you could tell that she was afraid of someone. A specific person, not just your
everyday fear."

The blonde nodded and jotted down more notes. It was just by chance that he happened to look
out the window right after writing them down.

"Huh."

"What?"

"It seems that you've got a few visitors. Uzumaki Naruto, Uchiha Sasuke, Shikamaru-kun and
Chouji-kun?" Inoichi observed. He narrowed his eyes at their obvious determined faces as they sat
cross-legged near the trees by the building. Ibiki let out a deep sigh, standing sluggishly then
striding towards the door.

"I'll get rid of them. Again."

::

They stayed in Port City for the night before heading back to Konoha the next morning. Obito
sang her praises, imminently proud that she was able to handle the mission so easily for someone
so inexperienced. His smiles and encouraging words sent absolute shivers down her spine for the
next couple of days of the journey.

"Dear, dear, Sakura-chan... you've performed so well for me. You did good. Better than good.
You're making me not want to stop."

The tears were fresh on her face.

"Please... s-stop..."

Obito laughed, deep baritone swirling around the fire that surrounded them.

"Begging? I never pegged your for the type to stoop so low," he sighed, "But I suppose it's
expected. I'll just continue our little get together until you don't have anymore tears to spare."

Two whole days of memories was making her more paranoid than she'd like. Her nights
especially had flashbacks incessantly plaguing her thoughts. She was with Obito for far too long
and it was starting to strip down the walls she spent building ever since being placed into this
timeline.

But they were nearing Konoha. The moon was full against the deep navy backdrop of sky and
they were merely miles away from the village.

Just a few miles and she would've been home.

Just a few miles and her mission would be over.

Just a few miles and everything would've gone according to plan.

As Sakura was distracted with her own thoughts, she didn't notice that there was a sound to the
right of them. On reflex, Obito grabbed both her shoulders and brought her closer to him and
away from the possible threat.

Then everything fell apart.

::
Deidara let out a small sigh of relief as he plopped down in his chair at the sentry station. It was
his turn sit through this round as a chuunin of Iwagakure, meaning that he had to take on the
boring watchman jobs expected of them.

He set his chin on the table and blew a strand of hair out of his face. Training was just as tiring as
any day, but had to be cut short because of the Kage duties Onoki had to tend do. It was the same
day by day routine: get up, run errands, maybe a mission if he was lucky, train if his sensei had the
time, do whatever for an hour or something, then get saddled with guard duty.

Like was supposed to be an explosion, though it seemed his wasn't. It was that same monotonous
thing he hated and swore to himself he'd never let get that far.

His pastel blue eyes drifted out the slightly opened gates.

Maybe things would be better if he just...

He sat up and smacked both his cheeks with his palms. Don't think like that. Bad Deidara. He was
an Iwagakure shinobi and he would be faithful to it until the day he died.

... Right?

::

Genma's eyes were wide and his jaw unhinged, and Ibiki was intensely focused on what was
unfolding. The TV provided the only current light in the room.

On that screen was Obito's hand with a fresh, deep cut on the back of it. It stayed there for
a second or two before the view raised, showing Sakura on the other end of the path. Her
back was against the tree, shaking with both hands curled around a red-stained kunai.
Beads of sweat dripped down her face and there was a heavy heaving of her chest.

The kunai suddenly dropped from her grip as her hands grab her neck. She stared right at
both Obito and the summon, absolute fear in her eyes like she's begging for her life.

"Sa-Sakura?" he exclaimed, uncaring of his injury, "What happened?! What's wrong?!"

He took a step forward.

"STAY AWAY!" she screamed. Her hands moved up to grab at her hair as she slid down
onto the ground. Tears suddenly formed in her eyes, the warmth silently dripping down her
cheeks as her heaving quickened. Obito kept his distance from her and crouched down to
make himself appear less intimidating, an assumption made from how the screen lowered.

She was having a panic attack.

"F-Focus on your breathing! Take a deep breath through your nose, count to five, and
breathe out through your nose. Can you hear me? Take a deep breath through your nose,
count to five, and breathe out through your nose..."

She looked like she was trying. As she did, her tears flowed out even faster.

"It's alright. It's just me. Uchiha Obito. Just a Konoha shinobi, a friend of Genma, and your
partner for the mission. You remember, don't you? I'm not going to do anything to you. I
promise."
To Ibiki and Genma, it felt like hours until her breathing got into check. Once she was calm, she
stayed deathly silent.

Obito started to talk to her in a much softer tone.

"What's wrong, Sakura?" he asked. Her shaking slowly started up again though not as
intense as before.

"He looked like you," she whispered.

Everything stopped.

"W... What?"

"His eyes were black. His hair was black. He smiled. But he was taller. He had scars. He
wanted to hurt me."

"Sa--"

"He was stronger than me," she choked.

Genma started to shake his head. No. No, this wasn't going on right now. He hoped to every
single deity out there that she wasn't going to say what he thought she was.

"He held me down. He wouldn't let go. He wouldn't stop. I told him to stop," she
whimpered, burying her face in her knees, " I told him to stop. "

Obito quietly gasped in disbelief.

Ibiki now stood, a normally impassive face cracked by eyes as wide as saucers.

"He's dead. Dead... But if he's dead..."

Sakura's shaking halted.

"Why can I still hear him?"

And her shoulders slumped forward.

" Why can I still feel him on me? "

Suddenly, the smell of old take out was no longer noticeable.

::

Obito waited at the other side of the path, painfully looking away at the sight before him. It took a
while until Sakura passed out from exhaustion of her panic attack. When he was sure that she was
out, he very reluctantly went over and took her into his arms.

...

Just a few miles left to Konoha.

...
Bearing the weight of what he witnessed, he wasn't able to detect the pair of brown eyes carefully
watching him from the shadows. Sasori had seen the whole thing as well but didn't dare step foot
to stop anything. The note he acquired earlier was crumpled in his grasped.

If worse comes to worst, I'll have an episode. If I do, make sure no one sees.

"I'm sorry, Sakura," he murmured as Obito darted off, "But if no one saw, you wouldn't have
gotten any help on your own."
Challenge

"What type of sick fuck--"

"Shiranui."

"No! You saw what happened out there! Sakura had a panic attack and someone, some lowlife
piece of fucking shit, did... did that to her! She's absolutely not getting into T&I now! I want her
to be safe and this isn't the right place for her!"

"I was going to say that you're in a hospital and you're going to get us kicked out if you keep
shouting," Ibiki said. The two were in the sterile white hallways just outside the room Sakura was
in. Currently, she was being checked up on by the resident psychologist. Genma crossed his arms
and lowered his voice to an angry whisper.

"How can you be so calm about this? No one deserves what she went through!"

"That's true, but if we're going to speak to her as her sensei, then we have to be calm. For her
sake. She's been through a lot and she doesn't need even more stress from us."

The senbon wielding jounin grumbled in agreement. The door opened and the psychologist exited
the room.

"Haruno-san's perfectly stable and can be discharged later today," the psychologist informed, "All
we need is her guardian to fill out all the necessary paperwork. Before I leave, there are some
things that need to be addressed about her situation."

Genma internally prepared himself for the worst. The psychologist lowered her voice so that the
sparse numbers of passer-bys and Sakura couldn't hear what she had to say.

"I looked over Yamanaka-san's assessment of her and, unfortunately, agree with all his findings.
Her trauma is deeply rooted in her mind and will probably take years to overcome. She hasn't said
a word about any incident, but there is the case of her bandaged neck," she informed. Ibiki's brow
knit.

"She came back physically unharmed."

"She did. The injury came after she arrived at the hospital."

At their confused stares, she continued.

"When a nurse came to check her vitals, he saw Haruno-san scratching at her neck until it bled in
her unconscious state. After examining the wounds, we noticed that build up of scar tissue that
suggested her neck was scratched a numerous amount of times before, as well as was healed over
just as much. Does she know medical ninjutsu?" she asked. They were aware of the books she
read on the subject, but they never saw her even remotely practice it.

"She's... familiar with the concept."

"It's either she's been healing herself or getting help from someone who didn't document it. My
guess is the former."

The psychologist glanced at her wrist watch.


"I'll have a nurse deliver the documents for her release to you. If you'll excuse me, I have to finish
my rounds."

At her leaving, Ibiki and Genma slipped into the room. Sakura didn't even glance up at their
entrance, keeping her eyes glued to her hands.

"Did I fail the mission?" she asked, voice hoarse. Genma pursed his lips in return. That wasn't a
question she should've concerned herself with, especially since she was the one admitted for an
unprecedented mental breakdown. He pulled up a stool beside her bed and mustered up a bright
grin.

"Nah, you did awesome, kid. I can say that you've carried out that C-rank better than half the
chuunin brats I know," he said. She wasn't too convinced.

"But I had an episode. And I heard what you said out there... you weren't trying to be quiet," she
mentioned. Genma shrunk a bit under his superior's scathing glare as he took the senbon from his
lips and tucked it away.

"We're still more than willing to train you. Come by as much as you do now, but you won't have
to worry about at that T&I business. A lot of shady shit goes on in there, you know? You
wouldn't have liked it anyways."

Sakura's hand went up the chain around her neck-- that same one that held the kanji for time. She
could keep out of the sector and risk getting rid of channels of information at her fingertips, or she
could join them and possibly worsen her mental state by learning how to suppress more and
learned to live with it.

... Actually, that didn't sound like that bad of an idea.

"Let me join T&I. Please. I promise I won't make trouble with anymore episodes and I'll keep my
panic att--"

"Kid, we don't want you to keep everything bottled up like that!"

She shut her mouth at Genma's weary expression. He scratched the back of his head: a nervous
tick. Ibiki took this moment to step in.

"What he's trying to say is that we want you to recuperate outside of stressors like T&I. Now's not
a good time for you to stock your plate with everything that's been going on, so we're trying to
spare you that much. You understand, don't you?"

No. She didn't. Her plate's been stacked ever since she got back three years ago and everything
had been going just fine. Naruto wasn't always alone and nothing was driving Sasuke to throw his
life away. Most of Konoha Twelve was weaved together so tightly that their friendship was
guaranteed. Al she had left was to get Ino into the mix.

Where was the problem?

"But I can do it. I won't let any of this hold me back."

Genma and Ibiki exchanged glances. She was known for being stubborn when she stood for
something as seen early on in her years when she decided to verbally attack the first Academy
teacher she ever had. There was also their shared line of thinking. If she wasn't in T&I, ANBU
would snatch her up at the slightest opportunity.

She was already on their watch list, after all.


"... Are you sure you want to do this?"

She gave a firm nod, causing Genma to reel back in his chair with a sight. He loved the kid, but
damn, she was a handful sometimes. The head interrogator took a seat at the edge of the bed with
crossed arms.

"There's one condition," he said.

"Condition...?"

::

"Sakura," Inoichi greeted, "Have you ever had therapy before?"

The room was a stark contrast to the rest of the T&I building. The walls were splotched with
cooling colors with various old but surprisingly comfortable brown chairs. Sakura settled herself
into one of the sagging cushions, still bandaged from her hospital release.

"No."

"Well, then I can tell you that it's not as bad as it sounds. We're going to meet up every Thursday
after school for an hour and a half. I can't promise you that these sessions will go by smoothly.
There's a problem at hand, and you out of everyone are more than knowing of it."

It didn't take a genius to deduce that every session henceforward was going to be a challenge. At
the mention of it, her eyes glazed over into coldness and her face took on the appearance of a
blank slate. She was going to be one who need the information pried from them in order to make
any sort of progress. Not that it was bad, but it was expected.

"Is there anything you want to tell me about him?"

She could keep her mouth shut. There was every right in her hands to withhold what he wanted to
know. Sakura's trauma didn't lie within any realms he knew and there was no clear path to his
understanding. Two options lay before her. Make it up on the spot or say nothing.

"... He..."

"It won't matter if I lose the war, nor when the Allies execute me."

"He's dead."

Inoichi marked that down on his clipboard. The act was strangely reminiscent of the mental exam
he performed on her a little over a week ago.

"How did he die?" he asked. Sakura shifted in her seat. There were a million different things she
could've said-- that he died from disease, was murdered, or had already been apprehended by the
police.

"In the future, you'll be desperate for freedom from your memories. From your failures. From
me."

"I killed him."

::

"Sakura-chan! Where'd you go? Why were you gone so long?! What happened? Why didn' ya
say nothin'? Why dya' have bandages?! Didya' go to the hospital? Why dya' look like a boy?!"

Naruto tackled her the second he saw her waiting outside his apartment. With her awesomely
awesome strength (as he dubbed it), she was able to stay standing when he jumped and latched
onto her. His energy was contagious.

"Let's get Sasuke first."

"Then let's go! You owe an esplanation, 'ttebayo!"

"Explanation," she corrected, "And yeah. I do."

Sasuke's reaction to seeing her was something the old him would never have done. He ran up to
her, took hold of her shoulders, and spun her around to look for injuries. After deeming she was
safe enough and frowning at her bandages, he crossed his arms.

"Where'd you go?"

Sakura sighed, a tired smile on her face. She told them about Ibiki and Genma, about how she was
doing some studying with them that lead for the two to have her take a series of tests. She didn't
disclose what they were about or that she even went out of the village to complete its final
components, just that she couldn't find the time to spare for them.

Sasuke said it didn't matter as long as she okay.

Naruto gave her a big bear hug.

"But why do you look like a boy?"

Her hair was indeed cut a little shorter for preference and her clothes were part of the a darker
color palette, courtesy of Ibiki's and Genma's "shopping spree". She shrugged.

"Who knows."

The Academy was now only a few minutes away, but both her boys had gone decidedly quiet.
her eyes casually moved to the skyline.

"You guys know what happened to my house, right?" she asked. Naruto nervously cast his stare
to his feet.

"Uh... y-yeah. I mean, A guy told us somethin' and... there was a fire?" he stammered.

"I'm the only one who survived," she said, "You don't have to worry about it. I live with Ibiki-san
at the edge of one of the shinobi districts."

Sasuke tapped her shoulder.

"Are you sure you're okay?" he pressed. She pinched his cheek, sending him a few steps to the
side with a huge pout on his face accompanied by Naruto's bark of laughter.

"Of course I am. Now tell me, how bad did your grades get the two weeks I was gone?"

As they entered the Academy, Sakura tried to keep her mind off the little scorpion in her pocket.
Yori waited patiently for her to send a reply to his master. The note sent was crumpled in beside
him. Read, but quickly discarded.

I'm sorry.
::

Hyuuga Hanabi adored her older sister. She didn't care what father said, all that mattered was
what she thought of her. Hinata always managed to have a kind smile on her face and spoke
encouraging words whatever the circumstance. Really, there was no other person she could say
she loved as much as she loved Hinata.

But then her father decided to up her training after she turned four. She couldn't be with her older
sister as much anymore. Her training conflicted with Hinata's coming home from the Academy,
and whenever she though she finally had time to play, her sister would be at that... that study
group! Why were they so special? She was her sister so she deserved more attention than any of
them!

Then there was that Sakura.

Hanabi folder her arms as she sat on the engawa of the Estate. Sakura-san this, Sakura-san that,
Sakura-san was so strong, Sakura-san was so smart-- but Hinata was already all those things! She
didn't need to look up to anyone else.

As she sulked by her lonesome, a shoji door slid open behind her.

"Hanabi-chan?"

The four year old perked up and spun around.

"Nee-sama!"

Hinata had to return a smile at the little girl's sparkling grin. She sat on the raised wooden outdoor
corridor, facing the vast open space that served more of their father's lessons. Hiashi was a strict
man, to say the very least, and demanded excellence in his children.

"Nee-sama, are you busy? We'll play? Or-Or we'll train, right?! Nee-sama?!" Hanabi questioned,
practically bouncing in place. The bouncing stopped when what she recognized as the 'sorry
smile' crept onto her sister's face.

"Sorry, Hanabi-chan. One of my friend's birthdays is coming up soon and we're planning for it.
Sakura-san's coming by and we'll--"

Hanabi suddenly shot up to her feet. Hinata clutched a hand to her chest, surprised, when the girl's
face burst into an angry red.

"S'always Sakura!" she seethed, "Sakura, Sakura, Sakura! Wa' so great 'bout her? You always
talk but she's no good!"

"O-Oh? I didn't know I talked about her so m-much... I'm sorry, Ha-Hanabi-chan. I didn't know,
um, we can hang out to-tomorrow," she suggested nervously, pale cheeks growing pink at the
realization of how many times she actually talked about her, "How's that? We c-can do everything
you want."

The red in Hanabi's face receded, but the angry frown was still on her face.

"But nee-sama! You din' answer!"

Hinata had to give a silent murmur of thanks when there was a knock on the front door. She got
up to hurry over to it, Hanabi following just a step or two behind. She clutched the hem of her
older sister's skirt as the door opened and pearly eyes landing on someone with bright pink hair.
Boy? Or girl?

That person raised a hand and smiled in greeting.

"Hey, Hinata! Ready to go?"

Ah. A girl.

"I-In a moment, Sakura-san, I-I just have to..."

Hanabi's eyes flashed dangerously. She stalked up to the door and glared as hard as a little girl
could muster. Nine year old Sakura raised an eyebrow.

"Are you Hanabi-san?" she asked. She wasn't too familiar with the youngest child of the main and
rarely had any interaction with the other timeline. She was kept in a safe place during the war,
being the heiress of the clan and all. The girl pointed an accusing finger at her.

"Why're you special?!"

"I'm special?"

"Nee-sama says you are!"

"Did she?"

Hinata was off to the sidelines when all the blood shot to her face in utter embarrassment. Her
hands were weakly stretched out in front of her, words not being able to be forced out of her
mouth. If it were possible, she got even redder as Hanabi just couldn't find the will to shut up.

"Yeah!" Hanabi growled, "Says you're strong an' smart! Says you're pretty too but boys can't be
pretty and you look like a boy!"

Sakura laughed a bit to Hinata's absolute mortification.

"Well, your sister's very sweet. I think she's strong, smart, and pretty too," she smiled. Hanabi
nodded vigorously, face still clouded in anger.

"Thas' right! So stop stealin' her!"

"Why? I like her."

"I like her more!!"

Sakura bit back a grin. She'd have to take to teasing the little Hyuuga more often. But... She raised
her eyes and saw the prone, passed out figure on the genkan.

Maybe she'd teach Hinata how to not faint so much.


Appearance

I need a favor.

~H.S.

--

Anything.

~Marionette

--

Find or make a man fitting the "Tobi" description. Hair, height, scars, everything. Make sure it's
recorded that his throat was slit in a small, no-name civilian village four years ago. Konoha make
look into my therapy case to prove validity.

~H.S.

--

I'll work on it immediately. You've been in therapy with the blond for a year now, right? How are
your sessions?

~Marionette

--

T&I hasn't provided me with any new information. Things have been going smoothly as of late,
but expect a kick off by the end of this Academy year. Naruto and Sasuke have been working hard
to catch up to me so th at we'll graduate sooner. I don't know who our sensei will be, though.

~H.S.

--

That's good to hear. What about your sessions?

~Marionette

--

There have been no updates on anyone I'm keeping tabs on. The clans are quiet and meet to
discuss matters with the Hokage twice a month. I may be scheduled to help guard it as part of my
training. If I hear anything, I'll let you know.

~H.S.

--

Your sessions.

~Marionette
--

How are Suna and Iwa?

~H.S.

--

I know you're still angry about what I did to you. I admit it. I shouldn't have taken it so far. But the
one thing we can't deny is that there is something wrong with you, and the the problem is that
you'd rather suffer than help yourself.

We have a chance to save everyone.

How are we going to do it if you aren't willing to save yourself?

~Marionette

--

I don't care what happens to me as long as they're happy.

~H.S.

::

Sasori read over their last correspondence with a sigh before burning the evidence. She had a steel
will just as hard as her head, an it'd probably take a hit from a sledgehammer to finally knock
some sense into her. He slid a plate of fish to Kou from across the table and leaned back to stare at
the ceiling.

Nothing was happening in the Akatsuki. Unlike in Sakura's circumstances, there was nothing he
could proactively do for or towards the organization. The bijuu weren't needed, he was still at a
loss at the sudden change in leadership, and driving Gaara's and Deidara's paths were going by
slower than he first anticipated. There was only so much time he could spare in going solo to
monitor them.

While he spent half the time with the kids, the other half was used to find out what Yahiko and
Konan were hiding. It took nearly two years of poking around with Sakura's help to understand
this timeline's Akatsuki origins.

It all started with three children: Konan, Yahiko, and Nagato. War plagued their country, taking
what they loved and leaving them orphans. Weeks of surviving led them to find Jiraiya and the
sannin: getting their name from Sanshouo no Hanzo after being able to keep their lives.

So Jiraiya trained the three for as long as he could, left them to their own devices with the best of
luck, and returned to Konoha. Konan, Yahiko, and Nagato continued to improve their skills that
led them to form the Akatsuki-- a service to those who couldn't afford to ask shinobi villages for
help. Granted, they had gained a reputation as 'mercenaries' due to an incident involving three
tubes of toothpaste at a zoo, but that was besides the point.

Akatsuki started with just the three of them. First came Zetsu, then Kakuzu, then Nagato broke
away. No reason was given except that an argument escalated to places nothing should have gone,
tearing the original three apart. Nothing was known about his current status. That in itself was a
little troubling considering he was the one who'd previously taken on Pein's persona.
"Sasori-kun~! More fish, nya~!"

"You have some."

"But I finished it!"

"And it's your fault."

Kou whined as he slunk over to rub his fur all over the man's facial region. That was the sight
Kisame had unfortunately walked in on. He stared blankly.

"You know, I can pinpoint the exact moment you lost your shit," he said, taking a seat at the table,
"Am I going to regret asking what you're doing?"

Sasori pried the cat from his face. At the continued whining, he sighed and ambled over to the
fridge to get more fish.

"Just received a message from a contact, though apparently their summon feels entitled to more
than one whole decently sized mackerel."

Kisame wordlessly eyed the cat's devilish grin. It took a while to get used to Sasori's strangeness,
but when it settled, he still felt that there was something was wrong with it.

One day four years ago, Sasori woke up confused. He asked a million questions he should have
already known and looked around the base like he hadn't been in it before. Sasori helped build it.
There was no excuse to not knowing where he was.

The brown cat gave a shriek of happiness when another plat of fish slid towards his direction.

"Oh Sasori-kun, you're a dear!"

"Thank you. And your fur is as shiny as ever."

People didn't change overnight. Shinobi, especially, had the hardest times changing the monsters
they'd grown into. Akasuna no Sasori gained his name by turning the sand red when he traveled
Wind Country picking out bodies to use for his specialized jutsu. He even earned himself a
reputation of being as sick and heartless as they'd come.

So imagine his disbelief when the man started acting like an eccentric human being. It was like a
switch was flipped in his head, and he realized that there was more to life than being locked up in
a room turning people into puppets.

"You're not really Sasori, are you?"

The one in question curiously turned his head. His eyes shone with something he couldn't
decipher-- amusement, maybe?

"What makes you say something like that?"

A smile that made Kisame shift in his seat bloomed across the other man's face. There wasn't a
fraction of threatening undertone in his expression, only a growing enjoyment. Mockery. Kisame's
fingers twitched, almost itching to reach for Samehada. Then he realized that the familiar weight
that rested against his back was absent and sitting in the common room.

"You're... weird," he tried to explain. He was never one for words and tried to use hand motions
to get his reasoning across, "Ever since that day years ago, you've been weird."
Sasori cocked an eyebrow.

"You can't justify calling someone weird by saying they're weird."

Kisame sighed.

"Sasori-san, I've known you for six years. For the first two, you only talked when you needed to.
I'm pretty sure you hated everyone and everything. Then you just... I don't know, changed or
something. One day, you're the S-Class everyone's scared of. The next day, you, it's like you had
amnesia or whatever! You got weird."

Kou kept chewing on his food from his spot on the table. He looked to be paying no mind to the
conversation as his tail swished back and forth, but his ears were perked up and aimed at the two
missing-nin. Sasori hummed and tilted his head.

"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me."

"Probably 'cause you've gone insane, but I'll listen."

His smile widened.

"I'm supposed to be dead, but I was brought back into another timeline after spending eighty years
in a place called the 'Void'. Well, it was only eight, but time doesn't work the same there than it
does here. The person who came back with me said that following my death, a war broke out
where over half the shinobi population died. I assume them and I are here to make sure the same
doesn't happen here, but it's only been four years and it hasn't been nearly enough to do what I
want. I guess you could also say the personality change came form years and years of nothing to
do but think," he answered. Kisame stared for a good ten seconds.

"... You're on meds, aren't you?"

Sasori pulled a small bottle from his pocket.

"Just gummy vitamins. I'm inclined towards the grape ones."

The ex-Kiri nin shook his head at the bizarre story before getting up and lumbering out the
kitchen, saying something about going outside to air out the crazy. When his departure was
assured, Kou sat up from his meal.

"Eighty years, " he purred, "That must've been quite the experience. Before, I heard you wanted
eternity. Did you get that in the Void?"

Sasori turned his head to face the window. It was a clear day outside-- bright and sunny in Tea
Country. Orochimaru was off in the nearest village, probably to gather supplies or subjects for his
experiments. At the moment, he was the only Akatsuki member in the house.

Sasori's eyes snapped open. The only thing he could see was the vastness of silver and blue, a
world he didn't recognize. First, he moved his fingers. There was no signature crack of wooden
joints, nor the feeling of having no feeling.

"What... is this?"

" You. "

He cringed. The voice enclosed him with their tenor, rattling his brain and piercing through his
eardrums.
" Eternity. "

"What?"

" You wanted eternity, did you not? "

Sasori spun around and looked for where or who the voice was coming from. Yet still, there was
nothing around him but the steady flow of ever-blending color. His lips turned down into a
displeased scowl as he began to walk and find a way out of the damned place. This was a game,
wasn't it? Fine. He'd play with whatever trapped him in here.

"If I do?" he bit out. There was a bout of silence before the voice spoke up again.

" Then it will be given to you. Five stages of the dead and dying, Sasori. Then you will
understand, " it said.

"Five stages?" he repeated, incredulous, "Of-- dead? I'm dead? Wait, what are you talking
about?!"

He received no answer.

"I did. Not in the most orthodox way, of course," he admitted. Kou slunk over to Sasori's relaxed
figure and jumped onto his shoulders, causing him to mumble something about 'fish breath'. The
cat stretched his body to relieve the pressure in his muscles.

"And what did you think, nya?"

Sasori glanced to the side, eyes growing heavy with the memories of eighty years he wanted to
forget.

"... Nothing, really."

::

Hinata still brimmed an embarrassed pink as she and Sakura walked down the street to meet up
with the rest of their friends.

"Your sister likes you a lot," Sakura mentioned, causing Hinata to darken a little more, "But she's
mad at me. I hope I'm not taking all your time away from her. We stay after school sometimes and
have study sessions on Fridays or Saturdays. You can miss a few if you want to hang out with
Hanabi-san."

They turned a corner to the direction of the Academy in the cool, Saturday afternoon.

"Hanabi-chan... s-she's stronger than me. She's o-only four years old, but-but she's not scared of
anything and does better with t-training than I ever did... um, she can't look up to me forever. I'm
not g-good enough for that," she mumbled. She looked so sad in that moment that Sakura had to
sling an arm around her shoulders and pull her closer.

Hinata squeaked.

"C'mon, Hinata. What's that supposed to mean? You do awesome on tests and assignments and if
we do a little more physical training, you'll be even more awesome than you already are!" Sakura
encouraged. The Hyuuga flushed even further.

"B-But you, Sasuke-s-san, and N-Naruto-san are going to graduate at the end of the year..."
The other girl lifted a bandaged hand and waved it off.

"So what? Just because we get to graduate early doesn't mean we're better than anyone else. And
we can still hang out on our off day. Sounds good, right?"

She tucked some stray black hairs behind her ear and nodded, a cute little smile weaseling its way
onto her face. As the two of them neared the Academy, someone stepped out the front doors with
her hands planted on her hips and her lips pursed.

"We've been waiting for you guys! And I told you not to be late too!"

Sakura stuck her tongue out.

"We're only five minutes late, Ino."

Ino stuck out her tongue out with even greater force in retaliation. She brought Ino to the group by
chance about half a year ago. Somehow, Ino learned her father was Sakura's psychiatrist and
tagged along to the T&I building every Thursday. It slowly bled into a routine and next thing they
knew, she was part of their study group. Thankfully she had enough impatience to get Shikamaru
and Kiba to actually do their work.

Sakura's eyes roamed around the Academy's hallways as she thought about the whole other team
of Konoha Twelve. Neji, Lee, Tenten, and Gai... Two of whom had died in the war. She hadn't
seen any of them these past years save for that split second she passed by Neji a while back.

White a little digging and eavesdropping, she deduced she had nothing to worry about. Lee still
had his chakra coils ruined, Tenten was the daughter of a well-known weapon making family, and
Neji was still bitter about the loss of his father and being born as a branch member. They still
remained a year ahead of the future rookie nine (now more than likely the rookie six) and would
probably stay aligned with Maito Gai in the future.

Ino, Hinata, and Sakura stepped into their usual classroom to see Sasuke, Shino, and Chouji
hovering around the chalkboard to write down their own ideas for their planning. Shikamaru, of
course, was asleep at a desk, Kiba following suit beside him. Akamaru kept that happy smiling
expression as his tail wagged back and forth.

"Shika! Kiba!" Ino shouted, stomping over to the desks, "What did I say 'bout sleeping? Huh? We
have a meeting to plan Naruto's birthday, so slack off some other time! Sensei let us use his
board!"

"And he's turning ten. Two digits. We have to make sure everything goes by smoothly," Sakura
added. She walked up to the chalkboard and read everything listed down. Balloons, confetti, cake,
presents... She winced, thinking of the disaster that would come if she let everyone try to make
food. Hopefully, Chouji could get someone from the Akimichi Clan to help them out. They've
always been some of the best cooks in all of Konoha. And had a mean barbecue recipe.

Besides, it's not like she'd trust any of them in the kitchen. She was positive that letting eight nine
year olds around stove tops and ovens was far from responsible.

Especially after the potato incident.

Chouji set his piece of chalk down and turned towards Sakura.

"So for Naruto's presents... what are we going to get him?" he asked. She shrugged as she picked
up the chalk he set down and wrote details of her own next to the ideas already listed. Her neat
linear handwriting contrasted greatly with the much larger, sloppier ones.

"You still have two weeks to decide. Naruto's not used to getting things and I don't think he's ever
had a party before, so I'm sure he'd like whatever you give him. Just put real thought into it," she
replied. A newly awakened Kiba brandished a wide yawn.

"Like miso ramen?"

"Or maybe new kunai!"

"What? That's boring!"

"Hey, whose house are we gonna do it at?"

The group slowly crowded themselves around the board and started up an argument about what
they should and shouldn't be doing for the party. They were so engrossed in the discussion that
they failed to notice Sakura turn her head towards the classroom door then slip into the hallway.
Iruka greeted her with a nervous smile, dark fingers tightening around some papers.

"Looks like you guys are, uh, having fun planning for Naruto's birthday. October 10th, right?" he
questioned. She nodded slowly, suspicion growing. He fidgeted under her narrowed gaze before
succumbing to the pressure and sticking out the paper for her to take.

"I-I-- This is what-- here, um-- for Naruto's birthday!"

Sakura read the title on the first page. Immediately, she cracked a smile as she read through the
official documentation.

"Don't tell me you're doing this because he accidentally called you 'kaa-chan' that one time."

She remembered that only because she had to apologize afterwards for letting out a small laugh.
Iruka had been praising him about a problem he solved correctly, causing the boy to let out the
blunder. Their sensei went pink first as he bumped into a desk, then Naruto, after realizing what
he'd done, turned as red as Sasuke's favorite tomatoes and hid behind Sakura's shoulder the rest of
the day.

"No, no, of course not!" he assured, "I mean, I was surprised when he did it, but this... I've been
planning this for a long time. Do you think he'll agree? I even talked to Mari-san about it..."

Sakura nodded.

"It'll be the best gift someone could give him."

Iruka grinned, taking the papers back and carefully tucking them into his flak vest. Something like
this he couldn't lose now. He had to get through a hell of a lot of paperwork and interviews, even
with the Godaime, to get approval for it.

"I'll tell him after your guys' party for him, then. I'll see you all on Monday," he said as he turned
around to head home. He looked over his shoulder after a thought, "And let me know if you need
any help for it!"

Sakura waved and watched as he turned a corner and disappeared. A breath of relief escaped her.
That was one more thing she didn't have to worry about, letting her focus on more important
things like graduation or where to get more information on clans.

She spun on her heel to re-enter the classroom, but froze.


The window. The subtle chakra. Someone outside.

Her eyes flashed as they move to stare out and across the field. In the shade of a tree, a man stood.
His one eye bore into her: patient and waiting. He lifted a hand to sign her with the standard code
taught to every newly honored chuunin.

-Do you know who I am, young one?-

She held in a breath and signed back.

-Yes.-

-Who?-

Sakura bit the inside of her cheek.

-Shimura Danzo.-
It Killed Her

-Meet me behind the Hokage Tower. Tell no one. Come alone. Am I understood?-

Sakura nodded. Danzo inclined his head then slowly retreated into the darkened treeline. She
glanced in the classroom, seeing all the happy faces and hearing all their laughter. She stayed for a
few moments-- content that they all managed to get along so well. Anything Danzo had to say to
her better not interfere with everything she had going now.

She held her neck and started off down the hallway. The only eyes that followed her were those
of Akamaru, who in turn pawed at Kiba's calves and whined. The Inuzuka pulled himself away
from the group to poke his head out the door.

"Sakura? Where're you going?"

She raised a hand without turning around.

"Something came up. I'll try to be back in an hour, yeah? If not, I'll explain everything tomorrow,"
she called. She didn't need to see the thoughtful frown on his face to know that he would have a
hard time fully believing what she told him. Eventually, he reluctantly ducked his head back into
the room. In that empty hallway, her fingers molded into the tiger seal and she disappeared,
leaving nothing but a few leaves from where she once was.

She re-appeared at the shadowed rear of the tower. There wasn't a time she recalled being here
outside the years she spent training with Tsunade, but it looked more lush than the last time all that
time ago. The Hokage's personal training grounds consisted of a wide, open clearing and trees that
swept against the rooftops.

But the clearing wasn't empty. There was a plain black shoulder bag in the very center--

"That's mine," she said.

"It is."

Danzo made himself visible to her far left, most of him shrouded in the building's overcast. He
lifted his wooden cane and pointed it towards the bag.

"Get it."

Sakura approached the edge of the field. There was nothing she could do to escape his watchful
eye. The only conclusion she could draw was that this was a test. Obviously. Her file and
reputation must have circulated within the higher ups, much to her distaste. And now, it was either
she fail and shame both Ibiki and Genma's teachings, or succeed and make it further into their
radar.

She resisted a sigh.

Honestly, fuck everything.

::

"Hokage-sama?"

"Over here, Uchiha-san."


Fugaku, in all the grace of head of a noble clan, strode down the hall. Dan stood in front of one of
the windows that faced the southern end of the village. His eyes were troubled oceans as they
darted back and forth at whatever, or whoever, he was watching. Fugaku came up to the window
and peered out himself, stoic facade cracking when he recognized who it was.

"Haruno Sakura?"

He saw her dodge two projectiles by activating another trap and twisting out the immediate danger
zone. Dan looked at him.

"You know her?"

"Sasuke's fond of her company. And of what I've heard, Obito is familiar with her as well," he
replied. Down below, jets of fire made themselves known. Grass singed at their touch yet still
failed to harm her. She substituted herself with an explosive tag, erupting in a series of traps going
off all at once.

"I never expected such connections," the Godaime mused, though mostly to himself, "Who else
does she keep in her circle?"

Most of the grounds were destroyed and most, if not all, traps were used. All was barren until a
hand popped out from the debris. Another followed, then came the rest of Sakura's unscathed
body. She shrugged the bag over her shoulder as she confronted Danzo. Fugaku's eyebrows
creased at the display of such skill.

"I did not anticipate for her to be this advanced."

Nostalgia filled Dan's vision as he remembered someone he tried so hard to forget.

"Neither did I."

::

Danzo wasn't a man impressed very often. He could count the handful of times he experienced
such a feeling brought on from remarkable talent with only the most recent coming from his son's
most recent art work. Sakura left the destruction and kept her arms at her side. Emerald showed
nothing but a curious waiting for another declaration or order.

"Councilman?"

He forcibly removed the awe from his being.

"Close your eyes."

She did so without question. He held onto her shoulder with his free hand and transported the both
of them into the bowels of the village. There was a constant chill in the air with steel walkways on
various levels suspended over what seemed like an endless pit. The whole place could be
described as being modeled after spiderwebs stacked upon spiderwebs. There was no clear route
of entrance or exit anywhere in this domain, and one could only hope that fate would never bring
them down to the chambers of this frozen hell.

"Open your eyes. Follow me."

Sakura didn't know where she was and followed silently. She made sure to commit every single
thing to memory despite not knowing what anything was. If she had to make an educated guess
with Danzo's presence as well as the few masked ANBU she spotted on the other levels, there
was one place that came to mind.

ROOT Headquarters.

She was in the belly of the beast, and there was nothing she could do about it. She followed
Danzo through the weaving paths until they came into what she assumed was his office where he
motioned her to sit in the only chair in front of his desk. The room was as bland and cold as the
rest of the depths.

"Do you know why you're here, Haruno?"

She looked him dead in the eye.

"Because of my extraordinary sense of self?" she presumed. His blank, brown eye erased all
future jabs she thought she'd try out. So there were people who didn't want to bite into a bit of fun,
even just a little bit. Fine. Fair enough, "Sorry. I guess I'm here because I was able to get my bag
back even with all the traps that were set up."

Danzo took a thick folder and dropped it in front of her. It was her file-- most likely obtained
through illegal means-- with complete copies of all information, observations, medical records, and
a single VCR tape.

"Haruno Sakura, nine years old, about to graduate as a fourth year Academy student even though
she had the capability to graduate after one year. Apprentice to Morino Ibiki and Shiranui Genma
and works under the T&I sector. Also documented to have severe post-traumatic stress disorder
and has been seeing Yamanaka Inoichi for therapy sessions every Thursday after lessons. Is my
information wrong so far?"

Sakura pressed her lips together.

"No, sir."

"Then I will continue. She has also been able to use high chuunin to low jounin techniques as
seen and confirmed by others at T&I. Her usual selection of friends include Hyuuga Hinata,
Aburame Shino, Inuzuka Kiba, Akimichi Chouji, Nara Shikamaru, Yamanaka Ino, Uchiha
Sasuke, and Uzumaki Naruto," he listed, his voice lingering on that last name longer than she
found comfortable, "Speaking of that child, Naruto, you're close to him. Very much so."

Her fingers curled around her seat.

"Is... there a problem with it?" she questioned. Her eyes were seething flames as he drew his
hands together and rested his chin on his knuckles. As a seasoned shinobi, there was nothing the
girl could do to intimidate him. If anything, he should be the one doing the intimidation.

There was something he needed to know-- needed to see from the Academy student that Hiruzen
off-handedly mentioned he had never seen before in a child.

"No. But you do know that he's nothing but a waste."

Her seat began to splinter in her iron grip.

"If that's what you believe councilman, but I have to disagree with you," she answered. Her smile
was sweet and unbelievably strained. Danzo took note of it, making the decision to push her even
further. Where was it? How far did he have to dig?

What else could he say to see that frigid rage she inflicted on the very first Academy sensei she
had?

"He can't even maintain a decent bunshin for more than five minutes. Do you think he can
graduate alongside you? A mediocre shinobi at best."

"Then I'll train him," she seethed, "Through day and night, rain and hail, blood and bone marrow!
What I've been doing with him for years!"

Danzo scoffed.

"Please. Him? The only thing he's good for is keeping the Kyuubi in a cage," he dismissed, "Do
you want me to begin with the Uchiha as well? He's second rate. The spare heir if Itachi were to
become an invalid, which I doubt would ever happen. The boy will never be good enough. Ever.
And I can only foresee that he'll be nothing but an embarrassment to the clan."

"Uchiha-sama loves him."

"People learn to live with their shame."

Sakura's eyes were completely wide at this point, jaw hung slightly agape. Is this what he brought
her in for? To mock the people she loved the most? He was trying to wind her up, she was
positive about it now. No. No, she wouldn't let him have the pleasure of seeing her yell
obscenities in his face. She ducked her head down and stayed.

Danzo eyed her bowed over figure, then dared to persist.

"What about the Nara boy? Shikaku's son but has nothing to show for it. I don't see why you'd
surround yourself with such weak, pathetic people with nothing more to their names but a
renowned clan. Take that away, and what are they? Nothing. Useless. Garbage. Like that timid
Hyuuga. Hinata, right? What was Hiashi thinking, spawning such an incompetent first born? The
youngest will have to take her rightful spot as heir eventually. Maybe even a branch member will
take the spot? Either way, it's despicable. Truly."

Not a word from her. Perhaps Hiruzen was wrong after all. There was no notable rage in this
young girl. Just another accepting, tight-lipped brat who'd probably fit the ANBU mold just as any
prodigy would. A suck up. Someone who didn't stand up for themselves even when they knew it
wasn't right.

He was about to dismiss her when her bangs fell to the side, revealing the unholy gleam that
surged in her irises.

"Are you done?" she questioned, "Are you done insulting mere children who can't even begin to
embody your words, much less stand here in this office to defend themselves? Are you done
going off on your digression of lies of kids you don't even know? Are you done insulting the
people who are worth more than a hundred of you? Are you done boasting about your absolute,
uppity bullshit, councilman?"

Danzo smirked.

There it was. What he had been searching for.

"Yes. You may leave now, Haruno," he replied, "Kinoe."

An ANBU member appeared. They wore a cat-like mask detailed with intricate lines of red and
green. They knelt on the floor with one hand planted on the ground and the other draped across a
bent knee, patiently awaiting an order.
"Return Haruno to the Hokage Tower," he commanded, "We're done here."

Kinoe, or whatever their real name was, nodded once and took Sakura's shoulder to lead her out
of the office. She and Danzo maintained burning eye contact until the door shut with a short click.
He smiled.

She was far from matching the model of a typical Konoha soldier. She was showing to be a
rebellious figure who placed her morals and beliefs above the authorities who opposed it. That
kind of person in the rankings was more dangerous than not, but it was different. Unique.

That in itself was an interesting enough idea to get behind.

::

Kinoe made her close her eyes again and placed her back to the newly repaired training grounds.
What was odd was that the ROOT member didn't immediately disappear once they completed
their objective. Rather, the dark depths of the mask bore into her.

"When you said that to Danzo-sama..."

She knew that voice.

"... it was... refreshing."

They vanished. Sakura took in her surroundings, a small part of her anger leaving with the
operative. She re-adjusted the strap on her shoulder as she headed back towards the Academy.

"Refreshing? Huh. Glad you kept your your sense of humor, Yamato-taichou."

::

Pacing around was getting him absolutely nowhere.

Sasori was spending all his time muttering curses to himself. Him? Dead? Killed by the luck of
some puny pink haired brat and a dying hag? What kind of madness was this?! He certainly
wasn't dead, that's for sure. He was Akasuna no Sasori: a man feared across the shinobi nations.

He wouldn't have died by some little wench's "will of fire". He wouldn't have! Absolutely not!

His eyes darted about the silvery blue hues, mouth turned down in a perpetually discontented
frown. There was no way he was going to spend all this damned time in this place. He would find
a way out. He would return to exact his revenge.

And nothing was going to stop him.

Sasori rolled over in his bed with a sigh. Those were the thoughts he had during the first sixteen
years of being stuck alone in the Void. He knew he understood nothing, keeping a singular feeling
in his heart that specific period of time.

Denial.

And in accordance to what the voice told him, it was only the first stage he had to go through,
even if he didn't know it at the time.

::
Maybe he was the one going crazy.

First, Kisame thought Sasori was really losing his marbles with talk of time travel or being caught
in a rift between life and death for eighty or whatever years-- that also contributing to him losing
his shit. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that it was kind of a valid argument
for the case.

It backed the fact that he knew about things he shouldn't have known. For instance, there was the
time Sasori was sent to get takeout for dinner. When he came back and gave them each their share
(they only thing they requested was something that didn't suck), they all got their favorite dishes
from that specific restaurant.

There was no small talk in the Akatsuki. Not much, anyways. Partners knowing partners was to
be expected, but knowing the likes of everyone in the organization? No one cared enough to pay
attention to that kind of stuff.

They brushed off as a creepy coincidence.

But then there was another time when Kisame decided to try that weird jello they kept at the back
of the fridge. He was about to take a bite of it when Sasori walked into the kitchen.

"I don't think you should eat that."

Kisame looked at the cup.

"Why? It's expired?"

"No. It has an unhealthy amount of milk in it. Unless you want a day full of cramps and diarrhea,
I'd set that down. I told Orochimaru to get the other brand, but he didn't listen," Sasori yawned.
He opened a cupboard to take a few protein bars out. When he turned, Kisame was staring
straight through him, "What?"

"How did you know?"

"Know...?"

"That I was lactose intolerant. I never said anything about it. Ever."

The redhead shrugged.

"Old man's intuition."

Sasori might appear like he was ignorant of everything, but he definitely wasn't ignorant about
people. He knew the personal things that weren't really secrets but were never spoken in a typical
conversation. Hell, Sasori even knew how to properly handle Samehada without him having to
say a word about it!

Kisame reclined on the couch and rubbed his eyes.

Seriously. Was that guy's insanity contagious?

::

"Um... where're we going, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked as he held onto his friend's hand, looking
around curiously, "Shino's? I thought we were all gonna meet up for lunch! But--But we're
skippin' school, 'ttebayo! You always said that we should never skip school 'cause it's bad an' we
gotta get our ed'cation. But you're skippin' school too!"

His eyes sparkled.

"So it's okay to skip school now, huh?!"

He received a chop to the head.

"No, it's not okay."

"But--!"

"We're skipping only today because it's special. October 10th. Does that ring any bells?" she
questioned. Naruto squinted and thought real hard about it before scratching the back of his head
sheepishly.

"Uh... am I supposed to know that day?"

Sakura merely let out a small smile and tugged him forward as she quickened her pace towards the
Aburame Household.

"You'll see."

She stopped meters from the back gate.

"But first, let me put this blindfold on you. No, like-- Naruto! Let me tie it! There's no lake I'm
going to push you into!" she exclaimed. Once she fastened the navy blue cloth over his pouting
face, she gently led him to Shino's backyard. She grinned at everything set up around them: the
people, the decorations, the giddy, suspenseful faces...

"Sakura-chan!" he whined, "What's goin' on?"

"This."

She took his blindfold off.

::

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY, NARUTO!"

An enormous, orange banner hung between two trees with that very phrase painted on in gigantic,
sweeping strokes with a bowl of ramen right after the exclamation point. A long picnic table sat
under that banner and was covered with boxes, a few plants with bows tied onto it, aluminum
trays, and cake that looked like his favorite frog coin purse.

Balloons were tied all around the backyard, colored like sunshine and the faintly shining rainbow
after a rainy day. But those weren't the things that made Naruto's breath hitch in his throat or made
his hands shake in disbelief.

It was the fact that all his friends had run towards him, throwing confetti in the air and shouting
'Happy Birthday' as loud as they could, not caring if the neighbors heard. Their incredibly happy
smiles were some of the most genuine he had ever seen and were directed at him. For once, he felt
that he didn't have to worry about everyone else looking at him like he was stain on the world or a
disgusting street rat.

Sasuke, Hinata, Shino, Kiba, Chouji, Shikamaru, Ino, Sakura...


All of them.

All of them skipped school for his birthday. That one time of the year that everyone was sadder
than usual or were angrier at him for some reason. People had to hate him. That's just the way it
was. He wasn't meant to have friends or have people like him for him. But ever since he met
Sakura at the park when they were five...

Ever since he knew what it was like to be...

Be...!

A teardrop fell next to his feet. Followed by another, then another, and another. Sasuke, alarmed,
reached out to touch his shoulder.

"N-Naruto?!"

Streams of tears started to pour out of his eyes and he couldn't stop himself from hiccuping.

"I... I never had..."

He rubbed his face in his orange vest.

"N-Never had anyone.. no o-one-- ever... Why?" he sobbed. Naruto's voice cracked at the
question, tears falling even faster. Sakura mussed his hair and flashed him a wide grin.

"Because we love you, silly. What other reason is there?"

She hugged him when his bottom lip quivered and buried his face in his shirt.

"Come on. You've got a birthday to celebrate!"

::

Danzo quietly stepped into his two-story house in the far reaches of the village. He saw a pair of
shoes neatly placed in the top right hand corner of the genkan. His youngest nephew was home,
as usual, and his oldest was probably off with his ROOT duties.

He made his way over to the only lit up room upstairs. He pushed the door open to a sight that
he'd become accustomed to ever since he'd brought the two boys under his guardianship. The ten
year old was hunched over his study desk with pencil shavings all over the surface. Multiple jars
of colored water lined the edges of the table.

"Sai."

Sai looked up from his drawing and smiled.

"Welcome home, ji-san!"

Danzo patted his pitch black hair as he looked over the boy's shoulder. Why Sai had decided to be
a civilian artists instead of an ink utilizing shinobi, he would never understand, but it was never his
choice to make and he respected the child's decision.

"What art have you made today?"

"Oh, you remember that friend I made a long time ago? The one I drew across the street and we
talked a bunch after? We hung out a while ago-- well, I was drawing and she was training and we
talked at the same time! Then I asked her to do some poses and she did it and now I have a lot of
references! See, ji-san! Look at all the cool poses she did!"

He handed the man a thick, worn sketchbook at which Danzo cautiously took into his own hands.
He sat down on Sai's messy bed and turned to the first pages. Flowers. How quaint. The next few
pages were filled with similar things with rough sketches of different body parts or birds and
various types of bugs.

By the middle of the book he came upon the full drawings of people around the village.
Merchants, chatting civilians, a kid running with his pet dog, shinobi lounging around--

Haruno Sakura meditating on an open field.

Danzo's eye sharpened. He quickly turned to the next few pages. More civilians, a vendor at a
candy stall, a waitress serving tea, the Hokage Tower, a happy couple--

Haruno Sakura performing a roundhouse kick. The next pages:

Haruno Sakura punching a training dummy, Haruno Sakura launching kunai, Haruno Sakura
poised in a handstand, Haruno Sakura uppercutting with wrist blades...

"Sakura's cool, huh, ji-san?" Sai grinned, "She said she was going to graduate at the end of the
school year! She also said that she won't have as much free as she does now, but that's okay 'cause
she promised we'd still hang out even when she becomes a super strong shinobi!"

His nephew didn't have very many friends. Or any at all, actually. Danzo knew that much. He
was of the quirky sort who preferred a pencil and a notebook over any social outing. Because of
his love for the arts, the teachers at his school had expressed their concerns over his lack of
communication with the other kids, or that when he tried he only warded them off with his slightly
off putting babbling. For the past few years, Shin had been trying all sorts of ways to get his little
brother to get out there and make friends, to no avail.

But it all turned out he had a friend after all. One that Danzo had already left a startlingly horrible
impression on.

"Do you two get along well?"

"Yeah! Er, I mean, I really think so. She doesn't avoid me and likes my drawings. And she doesn't
think I'm weird either."

The smile on his face wasn't as bright as the ones he'd given before, and it made Danzo return his
gaze back to the sketchbook.

"What else makes her a good friend, Sai?"

So Sai went on another tangent on how Sakura was unlike the other kids at school, and Danzo
listened.

He listened even as the sun started to droop down the horizon.

::

Naruto cried a second time when he finished opening all his presents. He was tugged into group
hug immediately, much to Sasuke's and Kiba's chagrin, Shikamaru's complete uncaring for it, and
Shino's stoicism on the idea.

He received a red scarf from Hinata, a necklace with the whirlpool symbol from Sasuke, a bonsai
tree from Shino, cans of spray paint from Kiba (where he had been appropriately smacked in the
back of the head by Ino), a habanero chili plant from Chouji, Tales of a Gutsy Shinobi from
Shikamaru (Sakura had to hide her surprise), forever-preserved white egret orchids from Ino, and
a set of "special" kunai from Sakura.

He sniffed and wiped at his red eyes, saying how he'd never gotten anything like this before and
that they didn't need to do this for him.

"Of course we had to," Shino protested quietly, "Because you deserve it."

His was answered with with a bone crushing hug. The Aburame awkwardly patted his back in
return, throwing looks at his friends in a silent plea for help. He was given none.

Though now night time had struck, and and all good things had to come to an end. The leftovers
were split amongst themselves, but Naruto was ordered to keep all of his frog cake because it was
his favorite flavor. In the midst of the clean up, the birthday boy called them to attention.

"Uh, guys?"

Eight pairs of eyes were on him. Naruto swallowed as he tugged nervously at the hem of his vest.

"I--I just wanted to say thanks. I... I never had friends like you guys before. And I d-didn't think I
would. The adults and other kids really hate me, but you guys still stayed after hearing all that
stuff. I just wanted you guys to know that-- that you guys are the best, dattebayo! You're the
bestest people I know!!"

Sakura's lips tilted up as the rest of them crowded around him. Finally, something truly good had
happened in this damn timeline.

But the day wasn't over yet. There was still one more present he had to get.

::

"You sure 'bout helping me carry my stuff home, Sakura-chan? It's late. Don't you have ta' go
with bandana guy and senbon guy?"

She shrugged.

"Nah, those two won't get mad. I told them about your birthday," she said. He wore the red scarf
as well as the necklace he was gifted. The book and kunai were tucked safely within his vest, the
habanero plant nestled in his arms. Sakura carried both the bonsai tree and the egret orchids with
the cans of spray paint balanced on the vase. A clone she made carried all the leftover food. they
weaved around the alleyways and climbed up the metal stairs to his apartment door.

Iruka was sitting on the railing, toying with a faded paper as he tapped his feet. Naruto's brow
furrowed.

"Sensei?"

The clone set the leftovers beside the door and poofed away. The real Sakura carefully placed the
plants and cans right next them and threw the two a smile.

"I'll see you guys tomorrow. Sensei, Naruto," she bid. She waved before leaving from where she
came. Once she was gone, the blond looked up at the chuunin with curious blue eyes. He cocked
his head to the side.
"So whatcha' doin' here, Iruka-sensei?"

"I... um..."

The paper crumpled slightly in his grip.

"I-I have something to ask you. I was waiting for the right moment, a-and I thought it was a good
idea to ask it on your birthday," he said. At the boy's wide-eyed stare, Iruka quickly gestured to
the things on the floor, "Why don't we take care of all this stuff? It'll get-- I mean-- I think it's
better to talk about it inside!"

An odd look was shot his way, but Naruto complied and opened the door anyways. As they
hauled in every last one of his gifts, Iruka took the time to look inside the apartment. It was
surprisingly clean for a child, but he supposed the hygiene had to be Sakura's doing. No one else
would take the time to make sure their friends had safe households.

"So? Why're you here, sensei?"

Iruka stilled. He took a few seconds to collect himself and to push down the nervous waves he
was feeling, then crouched down in front of the boy. He held out the paper for Naruto to take and
clasped his hands together in anxiousness.

"Huh? This is..."

I, Kato Dan, the Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure, hereby allow Uzumaki Naruto to be sent
through the process of official adoption. Umino Iruka is the party opting for Uzumaki Naruto's
adoption, but will further--

There were only two things that caught Naruto's eye from that introduction. His name and the
words 'official adoption'.

"You..."

He glanced up in disbelief.

"... a... adopt... me?"

"I've been thinking about this for a long time, Naruto. You're a good kid who needs a good home
and... Look. I might not be the best person in the world and I make mistakes like everyone else,
but I promise you that I'll take care of you. What do you say to that?"

Naruto didn't move. Iruka didn't know what to do when he saw him staring blankly at the official
papers. About a minute passed and a word still hadn't been said, causing the man to shift slightly
from foot to foot.

"Naru--"

"But you hate the fox," Naruto whispered.

"What? Naruto--"

"I know how everyone stares at me. The people at the shop, the other teachers, even that
construction worker in front of Sakura-chan's old apartment. They hate me because I'm the fox.
They look at me because I'm the fox. Don't you hate the fox too, sensei?"

Iruka pursed his lips.


"I do."

"Then--"

"But that's different," he cut off, "You're talking about the fox. Do you know what I see when I
look at you?"

Naruto shook his head.

"I see Uzumaki Naruto, citizen of Konohagakure, and one of the best students in my class. I also
see a hardworking kid who needs a family, and I'll be damned if I let anything stand in my way to
give that to you."

...

And there, in the middle of that apartment crammed in the heart of the Akasen, was where Naruto
cried for the third time that day.

::

Inoichi fiddled with his drink as he sat with Chouza and Shikaku. It was just another typical
Thursday drinking night with the guys. The Yamanaka had been somewhat distracted that entire
time, going into deep thought every now and then or being unusually clumsy with the things he
handled. Chouza finally had enough of this and pinned his long time friend with a pointed stare.

"Alright, what's been up with you lately? The only thing that affects you like this is either Ino or
work, and I know Ino hasn't done anything. What happened at work?" he questioned. Shikaku
leaned forward, he too wondering the reason for the other man's peculiar behavior. Inoichi sighed.

"It's one of my patients. A recent recruit in the T&I sector," he said. He wasn't allowed to give out
names or personal details of the case due to patient confidentiality, but he knew his friends were
smart enough to pick up the obvious hints he laid out. Shikaku's eyes narrowed.

"Go on."

"You both know that I can't disclose much more information than that, but... I hate her case. That's
the only way I can really put it."

"Hate?" Chouza repeated.

"Her very being was absolutely destroyed. I've never seen anything so severe."

Inoichi looked back down at his drink.

"The cause of her trauma... it... it killed her. It just killed her. And I hate it because I don't think
she'll recover from what she went through. The therapy hasn't done a thing and I'm not even
considering prescribing her any medication. Bottom line, what she lost she's never going to get
back, and I can't do anything to fix it."
Living

Ibiki walked into the living room to see Sakura curled up on the corner of the couch, pale and
sniffling as she read through the old beat up journal she always seemed to carry around. He raised
an eyebrow at the display.

"You're sick?" he asked. She shook her head once as she held up a vial of an opaque orange
liquid.

"No, mithridatism. Heard of it, old man?"

"The practice where you're poisoning yourself with non-lethal doses? Yeah, but I don't know
anyone that does it. Just make sure the poison you're taking won't do more than give you a cold.
Get worse doing this and you won't be doing it anymore."

"Okay," she replied, rubbing at her eyes, "You're back early. Do you have something for me or is
Anko-san going to break another part of the house again?"

Ever since being admitted into T&I, Anko had been breaking into the house at any chance she
got. That had resulted in even more broken windows, holes in walls, tampered vents, and various
markings from explosions. Ibiki, as expected, was far from pleased from having to repair the
damages at least once a week. He rolled his eyes.

"I threatened to take her off the roster again if she kept it up. That should keep her down for at
least a few weeks, but I'm not here just to give you the good news. I'm here to take you to your
first interrogation," he said. Sakura shut the journal and casually let her gaze drift up to him.

"Really?"

"Come on."

She placed Mito's journal on the coffee table as she slid off the couch, tugged on a gray sweater,
and pulled a navy blue beanie over her head. She disregarded Ibiki's snort and mutters of
something like "damn kids and their poisons" before following him out of the house. By now, the
neighbors were used to seeing her out and about the Morino residence. Most of them didn't really
care, seeing as most shinobi tended to their own problems and could care less about some odd kid
moving into the house of the infamous interrogator. If she thought about it she'd say that there was
no official meeting in this shinobi district.

Compared to the warm, welcoming streets of civilian communities, Sakura could say that shinobi
were far quieter and more distant from each other. There was no idle chatter in front of doors or
people walking their dogs as they waved at acquaintances. People only hung outside their homes
to either tend to a small garden or get the mail.

But she supposed this was how it always would be. Experienced shinobi lived in these parts, and
the pain carved in their bones through years of staying in the career held enough reason as to why
they wouldn't take the time to even say hello to a stranger.

"So what type of interrogation is it?" she questioned, "Waterboarding? Sensory bombardment?
And how did you get Genma-san to go along with it?"

Ibiki snorted.

"Do you really think that I was going to give you the fun stuff on your first go? Because I'm not,
and that's the only reason Shiranui agreed to it. Your charge is a woman who was found
unconscious in front of the Northern gates two days ago when you were at the blond brat's
birthday party. Just woke up an hour ago and hasn't been seen by Hokage-sama yet."

They rounded a row of houses to walk down the longer path to the hospital. The road was lined
with stiff trees and covered in crunchy, warm colored leaves. Winter had already begun nipping at
their feet and would blow its first winds in the next few or so weeks. Ibiki inclined his head.

"All I want you to do is use five of the twenty-one question types I taught you. Nothing too big.
Try to be as unbiased as possible. Find out how she got at the gates and what she was doing prior
to getting there," he explained. The two of them slowly came upon one of the hospital buildings
where Sakura stopped a few meters away from the entrance, her eyes surveying all the windows
above her.

"Which room is hers?"

Ibiki pointed towards the right.

"Fifth floor. The one with an aloe plant by the window."

Sakura nodded and walked forward to press a foot against the side of the building and beginning
to carefully walk up the wall.

"Don't do anything stupid," he called lowly, "She's not like any regular kunoichi-- she's Hokage-
sama's niece."

::

Of all the places she could've woken up in, Konoha Hospital was very far down the list of
possibilities. Shizune gazed around the room of the place she come to be familiar with in her
younger years with a slight downturn to her lips. Her ribs still had a long way to fully healing and
her left arm had a relatively long gash down the length. If her chakra replenished just a bit faster,
she could have herself healed and find a way out before the Hokage could come in to check up on
her. Or before they sent in an interrogator.

Her head jerked to the side when the window slid open and a little girl tumbled in, hitting the
ground with an "ow" and a sneeze. She then stood up and stretched her arms over her head and
sniffled a bit as she did so. Shizune regarded the newcomer with a curious stare.

"Um, hello."

"Hi," the girl yawned. She sat down on the stool next to the bed, "I'm Sakura."

"Oh, uh... nice to meet you, Sakura. I'm Kato Shizune," the woman replied, still confused. Did the
girl come from the pediatric ward or something like that? Though if that were true, she probably
wouldn't have crawled through the window of the same building to escape. Sakura's eyes lit up
with recognition.

"Kato? Hokage-sama has that name too! Did you know that?"

Shizune froze.

"I--no... Dan-oji became... became Hokage?" she whispered.

"He's your uncle? I didn't know Hokage-sama had family members. But he's a really nice guy. He
gave me a journal a long time ago before he took office. It was written by Uzumaki Mito and it
had a lot of stuff about chakra control and healing. I didn't know those two things go together like
that," Sakura said. Shizune guessed at this point that the girl was mostly harmless if not a bit of a
precocious thinker. Just an odd girl who had a cold.

"Chakra control and healing go hand in hand perfectly, Sakura-san. In order to heal, you need
great amounts of chakra control. If you want to be smart about it, you have to realize that early
on."

"Realize it early on?" Sakura repeated, "So you realized it early on, didn't you?"

Shizune nodded.

"I had to. My mentor was very adamant about it."

"They seem like a really tough person," the girl asked. The woman scratched the back of her
head, thinking that perhaps she was talking too much about the subject, "That's good, right? To
have a good mentor like that. I'm trying to learn about healing, but all I know is from the books I
read. But I can do this!"

Sakura held up her hands as they started to glow a faint green. Shizune, stunned and mesmerized,
couldn't stop herself from reaching out to hold the girl's wrists.

"You're so young... how old are you, exactly?"

"Nine, Kato-san. I graduate the Academy the end of the school year."

Shizune frowned. That was a surprise considering they were no longer in times of war. Because
of the lack of a needs of swarms of new recruits for the front lines, Academy students were
expected to take every single year required to graduate. Her being promoted to genin three years
ahead of the appropriate time meant that her previous assumptions were incorrect. This certainly
wasn't just a precocious girl-- there was something more. Something she wasn't grasping.

"So if you're a medic, how come I haven't seen you here before? I'm at the hospital a lot and I'm
sure I would've seen you by now. Are you a Konoha shinobi?"

"I was-- but that was a long time ago," she said. She juggled the thought in her mind for a bit,
deciding whether or not she should actually come out and say it, "I left with my mentor quite a
while back and haven't been here since."

It looked as if a light bulb suddenly lit up over the child's head.

"If you left a long time ago and practice healing, then that means you're Tsunade-sama's student,
right?" Sakura exclaimed, "I read a lot about her!"

A puzzled look took over the youth's expression.

"But nobody's ever found you guys. How did you get here?" she asked. Shizune shifted in her
spot on the hospital bed, feeling the slight softness of the white sheets against her tired, previously
blood-stained fingers. She offered the girl a sad and disarming smile.

"I'm sorry, I don't really remember that part."

Sakura stood and walked over to the other side of the room where she took some tissues and blew
her nose. When she turned to face the patient, her eyes had lost their child-like shine and her
mouth flattened into a hard line.
"You are in one of the greatest shinobi villages the world has come to know. There are thousands
of operatives, those including interrogators who will not hesitate to split your brain open to get the
information they want. I am going to ask you the question a second time. Are you going to lie to
me again?" she asked, her head cocked to the side. The air in Shizune's throat rushed out in one
moment.

The cold tone, the demanding air that left no room for argument, that bluntness of a threat if they
didn't get what they wanted...

She sounded exactly like Tsunade.

"... No," the woman relented, "I won't."

"So, Kato-san, how did you get here and what did you do to get here?"

The seriousness left her face as quickly as it came as she sat back down on the stool. She waited
quietly for the woman to collect herself and tell the reasoning of her being here.

"Tsunade-sama and I were traveling as per usual, but I don't remember what country we were in
at the time. Some people came demanding that she pay a debt I'd never heard of though I'm sure
they only came because the price on her head is so high. I was injured during that battle and the
last thing I remember was Tsunade-sama yelling at me before everything went black. Then..." she
frowned, "... Then I ended up here."

Sakura stared at her for a long while, grinning only when she was content with the answer.

"Thank you for your cooperation."

The door slid open. Dan stepped into the room, Ibiki leaning in the doorway looking casually
intimidating. If his outfit said anything, it was that he was an interrogator of the village. And a
high ranking one, at that. He jerked his head to the side.

"C'mon, kid. We're done here," he said. The girl nodded and took one last look at the surprised
Shizune.

"Have a good rest of your day, Kato-san."

::

"I-I tried talking to nee-san and Kankuro again."

"And what did you do?"

"I.. left before they said anything," Gaara admitted. He sat at the river like he did so many times
before, the only person he considered his friend at his side as they basked in the pale moonlight.
Sasori patted his head.

"At least you tried this time. You've made a lot of progress, and that's good," he said, "I'm sure
you and your siblings will start being friends sooner or later if you really try. The only thing I'm
concerned about is how you and your uncle are doing."

Gaara leaned against his gourd of sand. Yashamaru, huh? Still after all these years, he had tried
and tried and tried to rebuild the relationship he lost. But he just couldn't do it. His uncle tried to
blow himself up in hopes to commit a murder suicide. And what, he was just going to forgive
that? Yashamaru was the only person he trusted back then and he didn't even care.
"He tried to kill me, Sasori. He hates me."

"Well if he hated you so much, how come he's trying so hard to come back into your life? You
can run away as much as you want, but the problem is going to catch up eventually. It could be
the next few weeks-- next few years, even. But that doesn't change the fact that it'll jump you
when you least expect it."

The nine year old tried to hide himself behind his gourd even more. Sasori was right. Like always.

"But..."

A sense of dread swirled in his stomach.

"... It's hard, Sasori."

"Sakura-san, you know that the war never happened here. Your friends are alive and the village
is safe."

She sighed.

"I know."

"You don't have to worry more than you should. You're a kid again. Shouldn't you enjoy it?"

She gazed at herself in the mirror across the room, taking in the bags under her eyes and the rigid
guard in her form. For a moment, she saw her twenty-three year old self-- tired with no longer a
sense of hope.

"... It's hard, Sasori-san."

"I know."

Sasori blinked away the memory of four years ago. A frown immediately creased his face as he
looked at the boy-- his sadness was deathly similar to that of Sakura's. Granted, their trauma lay on
two completely different planes, but there was an unfortunate semblance between them.

Sakura's was much harsher and more ingrained in her soul than Gaara's. He kept that constant
persistence of trying to get her help and telling her that she'd make it through. That she'd get better.
That Obito was gone and Sachiko would have loved her all the same.

But they both knew just how bad it was. Four years had passed and her condition was only
getting worse. He wasn't able to watch over her even at this point-- who would stop her from
trying to kill herself again if the chance arose?

Sasori looked at Gaara. He wouldn't let the boy get even remotely close to Sakura's level of hurt.
He hated to think it, but she might be too far gone for a full recovery. He would still try and
persevere, of course, but he also had to make sure Gaara would patch things up with his family as
quickly as possible.

'Then there's also Deidara to worry about.'

He sighed. So much to do, so much to do. But at least in this time he learned how to be a patient
person.

"Sasori?"

He glanced over.
He glanced over.

"Hm."

"Why do you look like that? You look sad. And tired."

"I was just thinking of someone," he hummed, looking towards the glistening waters, "Her heart's
very, very sick. So thinking about it makes me a little sad sometimes."

Gaara scooted closer to him, eyes wide with curiosity.

"Her heart's sick? So she has a disease?"

"Something like that."

A disease was one way to put it. The virus in her bloodstream were her memories that latched
onto every cell to feed off her happiness and will to live. She tried to take a medicine for it as well,
trying to cure her illness with dreams of blood and darkness only for her to wake up, idly noting
that the pills didn't work but she'd continue to take them anyways.

So yes; a disease. The kind that killed one from the inside out.

But would it be considered a murderer if the person dying was already dead?

"How did she get the disease?" the boy questioned. Sasori shut his eyes as the image of a fifteen
year old Sakura came to mind. Her eyes were fire and her resolve was true, and sometimes he
wondered how that version of her, who had so easily defeated him, perished so quickly.

"She gave too much of herself to the people she loved."

Gaara's brow furrowed.

"Well if she was getting so sick, why didn't they see? Didn't they give it back to her?"

Sasori repressed a hollow chuckle as he thought of the rasengan and the chidori.

"They gave something back to her. But it only made things worse," he sighed, "Maybe you'll
meet her one day. I'm sure you'll be good friends."

He stood up and stretched.

"But enough that. Instead, we'll talk about your situation. Let's do a little role playing to get you
talking to your uncle again. You be you, and I'll be Yashamaru. What will you say to me if I walk
about to you?"

Gaara stood up nervously, unconsciously throwing a look over his shoulder. The Akatsuki
member crossed his arms.

"And no, running away isn't an option."

::

"Six question types instead of five. Not bad. I even appreciated that threat at the end of the
interrogation," Ibiki mused. Sakura shrugged. Closed, echo, double-bind, tag, probing, and
Columbo questions were never too hard to grasp.

"Everyone knows Hokage-sama has been looking for Senju-san and Kato-san for a long time. It's
not like he wasn't going to get the information sooner or later," she replied. The two of them took
the route down to the T&I building, where the interrogator raised an eyebrow at her still being at
her side.

"It's a Saturday. You're never free on a Saturday."

She shrugged again, this time holding the crook of her elbow up to her face and sneezing. She
grumbled to herself about possibly taking too much poison.

"True, but everyone's busy. Sasuke is training with Uchiha-san, Hinata is with her younger sister,
Shino is out on errands with his father, Kiba's lazy, Chouji, Shikamaru, and Ino are doing their
Ino-Shika-Cho training, and Naruto's moving," she informed. Ibiki delves into his curiosity on that
last statement.

"Moving?"

"He was adopted two days ago," she smiled. It was small one, but happier than many of the ones
she gave, "By our sensei: Umino Iruka. He told me about it a couple weeks ago."

"What's he like?"

"He's an optimistic nineteen who thinks math is fun. What do you think?"

Ibiki grunted, "I'd rather take a brat who likes math over a crazy bitch who stabs people's eyes
with dango sticks. The roster threat didn't work, by the way. Don't be surprised if she hauls you
out of the building like she did last time."

Sakura groaned. He spared her one last side glance before looking to the road ahead of him. Just
recently, Inoichi had provided him with a progress report about how her therapy sessions were
playing out. Unfortunately, just as all the other times, there was little to no progress. She told
nothing they didn't already know.

It had already been a year. Was there nothing that could be done for her to get better?

"Sakura."

She turned to look at him.

"Yeah, old man?"

He stopped walking. They're just a few blocks away from T&I now and on one of the older roads
that hugged the towering walls. Ibiki's face was as plain as always, letting nothing past that
impervious mask of his.

"Why won't you let Yamanaka help you?" he asked. She moved her gaze to the ground, "I don't
know if others see it, but you barely sleep, you never talk about yourself, and once someone tries
to break through your shell you retreat. I'm the head of interrogation. How long did you think it
would take me to figure out that you refuse to get close to people because you're afraid?"

Her eyes snapped up to him.

"I'm not afraid--"

"Then why did you take a step back when I asked the question?"

He'd caught her. Sakura locks eyes with him for a few seconds before shutting her eyes and
turning her whole face with a heavy sigh. There's nothing she could say or do now. She was
backed in a corner with no where else to run.

"... Can we talk about this later?"

"Later," he agreed. Sakura reduced the urge to fully berate herself right in front of him.

Head of interrogation.

How could she be so stupid?

::

No one said a word. Shizune had her eyes on the bandages that covered her arm and Dan had his
out the window to gaze at the blue skies in the distance. The silence was nothing new to them, as
it had been left to boil for over a decade once she had decided to leave with Tsunade that faithful
day. Surprisingly, it was the younger who spoke first with her voice filled with a particular sort of
hardness to them.

"We're not in a time of war," she said, "Why are you allowing a young girl to be part of a sector
like T&I? I thought you were against that sort."

"I am."

"Then why did you let her?"

"I couldn't stop her. You've known her for only a few minutes, but you've seen what kind of
person she is. Many have tried to persuade her from it, but her decision stands firm. Besides, it's
my job as Hokage to promote growth, not prevent it," he returned. Shizune did not react to her
uncle's words, only gripping her sheets even tighter.

"Tsunade-sama is alive and well."

Dan's eyes softened.

"But you know that even now, she doesn't want to be found."

His robes fluttered a bit behind him as he walked around the bed and sat on the chair. He was
every bit as kind as the day she left him, she noted wistfully, and looked to hold nothing against
her even after her blatant betrayal of him.

"That's... fine. For now," he said, "But I have my niece back. And that's more than enough."

Dan smiled, and it was hard not to return it.


Deserving

She had gotten good at hiding her worry and surprise.

It was like when Ibiki told her Shizune had appeared-- she didn't tense or make an a face near
relief but had accepted it with a curious and interested facade. Or it was when she learned
Tsunade was still alive and well. Her heart filled with the thought that her mentor was off living
her wandering life, but she kept her face at its most neutral as she kept her pulse to a normal beat.

The one thing she couldn't hope to hide was her fear. It was most apparent the days she spent on
that examination mission. She knew Obito would never hurt her and that he was as innocent as
they came, but everything was too overwhelming and it all fell to pieces with the snap of one's
fingers. She couldn't control it. She let herself go.

And look at where it had brought her! That one slip up earned her weekly therapy sessions and
offered everyone a look at just how bad she let her trauma take over. Now...

Sakura folded her hands in her lap as she inspected a spec of dust on the table. Ibiki sat on the
other end, arms crossed and a blank look to his features. There were no stars in the sky that night,
only clouds that taken their time to crawl over the country for the extremely rare chance of rain.
Chance. It didn't always mean it would happen.

"So," Ibiki began, "Do you want me to ask questions or are you willing to tell me everything
yourself?"

She didn't raise her head.

"Ask me. It's easier for you to find out what you want to know that way."

He nodded in agreement. Ibiki then reached into his overcoat to dig in the many hidden pockets he
had. Finally finding the thing he'd been searching for, he pulled it out and set it in the center of the
table.

Clink.

"First, how about you tell me what these are?"

Sakura's hand clasped around her eyes as she let out a strangled sigh. The glass bottle he placed in
front of her was half filled with circular blue pills.

How many times was she going to fuck up? Just how many?

"Those are my sleeping pills."

"Highly potent and very much illegal. How did you get your hands on these?"

"From a friend."

"Who's your friend?"

Sakura stared at him, tight-lipped. There was no possible way she would ever rat Sasori out even
for the sake of possibly being prosecuted for having unregulated substances. Ibiki had most likely
taken a sample and ran it through various tests at the lab. She imagined that they hadn't gotten very
far in deciphering the medicine's blueprint-- it was made by one of the most infamous poison
experts of their time. She could only hope the ingredients he used didn't come from only one
traceable area.

Ibiki sighed inwardly.

"At least tell me you friend isn't in any way a danger to Konoha."

She crossed her arms.

"They aren't. They know how important the village is to me," she said. Her voice was even and
didn't show any discomfort or nervousness that was clearly present in her physical being. But he
knew better. Her tone may not have given anything away, but there was no underlying sincerity
when she talked about the village. yes, she was strong and yes, she was a force to be reckoned
with.

Did her fierce loyalty apply to the system and the village as a whole?

No. It was obvious that she didn't.

"What makes you so sure?" she questioned, "By the looks of it, your friend isn't our normal
branding if they're able to get their hands on pills like those, civilian or shinobi. And if I had to
guess, they're not a part of Konoha."

There was no change in Sakura's face, so he prompted her further.

"Isn't your friend afraid of the consequences that come with these actions?"

"If I'm not, what reason would they have to be?" she countered. Her eyes met his for a brief
moment before she looked back down at the table's surface. Ibiki glanced at the pill bottle.
Sometimes she was a contradiction-- acting fearless in any situation but holding a horrible,
unconquerable fear away from prying eyes. He believed that she truly would stand for herself no
matter the circumstances that came her way, but the panic attack that bore her soul said otherwise.

He cast the topic aside and brought up a new one.

"Tell me why you're resorted to using illegal drugs," he said. Ibiki wasn't a man to beg and
couldn't remember a time when he'd actually done so. He certainly wasn't doing such at the
moment, but there was an underlying plead in his voice. He'd known Sakura for a long time now,
nearly five years. An interrogator he might be, but it didn't mean he took pleasure in seeing people
he was acquainted with drowning in their pain.

"... I can't sleep. You know that," she murmured, "What else do you want me to say?"

"I want you to say why you chose pills over Yamanaka's help. He wants to see you get better with
every session you've had together, but you won't let him You're distant, closed off, and because of
it you're hurting yourself. How long do you think it'll be 'till this eats you al--"

Sakura slammed her fist on the table, the sound resonating through the rest of the house. She was
on her feet with teeth flashing and eyes pulsing with years of suffering and unshed tears.

"Don't talk about me like you know me! Do you know how hard it is? To live with what I've been
through?!" she hissed, "Do you know what it's like to live every second of every day
remembering that things that happened to me? Every time I try to forget and close my eyes, I see
him laughing. He's laughing because he knows he's won and I couldn't do a damn thing about it
no matter how much I tried!"
Her fingers curled to press into the calloused palms of her hands.

"I know it hurts. I know what it's doing to me. How many times do you think I've tried to..."

She let the words die on her lips as she sat back down.

"I wasn't strong enough, so this is my punishment for what I couldn't do."

She looked like an empty shell of a person, perhaps a sinner accepting eternal damnation without a
wish for redemption. There was no hope in her being and her mind was warped to the point where
she was becoming more of a danger to herself than to others.

But she was broken. Horribly so. That was the only way he could describe it. Perhaps she was
thinking of her parents. They had been the most recent death to her, after all.

Unbeknownst to him, he was far off the mark. Sakura's mind filled with a single scene: her older
self stood in the snow beside an inn, tears frozen on her cheeks as she peered through the window
as it gave her a perfect view of the crib across the room and the quiet, black-haired baby sleeping
inside.

"Why does not being strong enough mean that you're unworthy of getting better?" he asked. He
didn't expect the hollow chuckle that slipped out her lips.

"Look at me," she whispered. Her head raised, a completely miserable smile complementing the
agony threaded through her irises, "Do you think I deserve something like that?"

She did. She, out of everyone he knew, deserved all the help and happiness she could get. But
when she looked at him like that, Ibiki couldn't bring himself to say a word.

::

Iruka was surprised at how responsible Naruto was, or showed himself to be. They spent most of
the day packing and cleaning the apartment, then moving it across the village to the much better
housing districts. There wasn't much to pack, Iruka noted with slight distaste, and made a note to
buy more clothes and school materials for the boy.

That wasn't the only strange thing about the apartment. He noticed the protection seals at every
window and doorway, Naruto affectionately dubbing them "Sakura-chan's stickers!". Of course
Sakura had been taking care of him even before the Academy. He'd more more shocked if she
didn't.

"Sensei! Sensei!" Naruto called. Iruka set down the box of the boy's recent birthday gifts and
walked into the kitchen. He stopped in his tracks when he saw the dining room table set up with
two plates of curry rice steaming and waiting to be eaten.

"You... made this?"

"Yeah!" the blond exclaimed. He scurried to stand in front of Iruka, then shyly glanced to the side
at the astonished look on his new caretaker's face, "I, um... I-It's a thank you. For, you know,
adopting me and stuff. Is that okay?"

Iruka smiled, knelt down and brought him into a hug.

"Oh, Naruto... there's nothing you need to thank me for."

::
Sixteen years he'd been here. Or at least, that's how long he counted.

At this point, he accepted the fact that he was stuck in this gray-blue place he'd never get out of. It
didn't matter how much he searched or how far he walked, he never got anywhere and he never
got tired. An impossibility. But an impossibility that had all this time to seep into his mind and
make it known that this is where he'd be for the rest of his life. Or what remained of it.

Once he figured out that much, he was livid.

He fought his wars and he battled the demons that were ferocious shinobi and kunoichi-- what
more was there to this? Wasn't it his time to die? What more was there to this?

"SIXTEEN YEARS!!" Sasori screamed, "WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!"

And so he screamed and screamed towards the world that trapped him, his throat not getting any
wearier, his lungs not losing a single breath, and his rage seeping into every part of his undead
being.

Sasori blinked away the memory and went back to fixing one of his puppets. He and Orochimaru
had just finished a joint mission with Kisame and they were on their next few days of rest and
recovery. Orochimaru was down in his research lab and he and the ex-Kiri nin were in the
kitchen, Kisame leaning against the fridge and he working on the table.

He was also aware of the pair of eyes that drilled into the back of his head.

"Something you need, Kisame?" he questioned airily. Sasori heard something shift behind him
and heard maybe the sound of a glass being set down on the counter.

"If you really were from the future, hypothetically, of course, just what are you trying to change?"

"Preventing a war and the death of half the shinobi population. And stopping people from making
wrong decisions, sometimes steering them onto a different path than before. Hypothetically
speaking," he answered. There was more uncomfortable shifting.

"So hypothetically, you know about what's going to happen."

"This world's different from what I know, but there are some consistencies. We're looking at
individuals rather than the bigger picture at this point, and it's working as far as I know," he said.
He placed his work down before he tipped his head back, smiling at the gravely serious
expression on his associate's face, "Hypothetically."

Kisame looked away.

"Yeah... hypothetically."

::

"Don't leave me here," Sakura growled under her breath. She crossed her arms over her chest,
"Dying isn't on my to-do list today. I have a schedule."

Genma blinked at the shuriken shot in his direction, mildly thankful that a thick two-way mirror
stood between him and the currently occupied interrogation room. He sighed and toyed with the
senbon in his mouth.

"It ain't my fault, kid. She found my apartment and raided the place clean before hauling me off to
find you. I don't like leaving you with her, but Hokage-sama gave me a mission today."
"A whole day with Anko-san?"

"Morino-san already confiscated her explosive tags so you won't have to worry about it like last
time."

Because last time she was with Anko for a whole twenty-four hours, the jounin decided to train
her by planting explosive tags all over the training grounds and having her dodge each blast to
come out unscathed. What Sakura didn't think to account for was that Anko was truly, honestly,
crazy, and that she'd actually use over two-hundred tags. Needless to say, the resulting blasts
mutilated the training grounds and took out part of Konoha's surrounding walls.

Dan was sure to give them a stern reprimanding, additionally assigning Anko guard duty for a
month and barring her from taking any mission above a C until he saw fit.

Sakura groaned.

"I guess I don't have a choice."

"Good luck kid. You'll need it," Genma bid. He gave her shoulder a firm squeeze before heading
out of the building. Sakura opened the door and walked up beside Anko, where she was hoisting
up the woman being interrogated. Her painted lips were stained redder with the blood she
coughed up, and her fair skin burned at the places that were bound to the chair.

"Sakura! Had enough gossip?" Anko grinned. She let the captured Kiri-nin slump down, the
exposed green eye of the prisoner void of feeling. The eye was trained on Sakura, though a flicker
of curiosity appeared before fading as quickly as it came.

"Ah, shit. Right. Well, stay with the captive for a few minutes while I get a few things. 'Kay?
'Kay."

Sakura watched her go with a raised brow. If Ibiki caught wind of her being left alone with a
dangerous kunoichi under Anko's watch, then he'd definitely kill her. Absolutely. She cast her
stare back at the woman bound to the chair and took a step closer.

"I heard something snap earlier. I think your arm is broken."

The kunoichi merely stared. After waiting a few more seconds for a reply and getting nothing,
Sakura let her hand glow a soft green as she placed it on the woman's forehead. She was rewarded
a surprised glance for the action and a slightly agape mouth when she started to feel the internal
damage start to repair.

"She can go a little overboard sometimes," the girl said, "I read the file. You shouldn't be
interrogated this bad for what you did."

She withdrew her hand a second before Anko burst into the room, a maniacal light in her eyes.

"Alright, let's go! We gotta get a move on for training!" she crowed. Her eyes then went up to the
kunoichi whose ankle-length auburn hair still looked neat despite the earlier torture, "I'm done
with you for today. Be sure to thank the gods for that one."

Inoichi made his appearance and entered the room, nodding to Sakura in greeting before laying his
tools down on the table to have his turn at interrogation. Anko began to babble as she and her
student made their way out, the girl not listening to a single word she said. That sole green eye
was still on her back, watching her until she disappeared from view.
Sakura didn't mind. That kunoichi in particular could help her in the future some way, somehow
with her particular skill set. She was formidable in the old timeline and held a rare chakra nature
that was found in only a handful of shinobi across the nations.

Terumi Mei.

Sakura wondered how much longer she would humor the interrogators until she made her escape.

::

Anko prided herself as someone people generalized without realizing just how much she was
capable of. For example, people said she was loud, crude, and reckless. And it was true. But what
people didn't think to describe her was observant-- as it was probably the last thing people ever
though of her.

They all seemed to forget that she was a pupil of Orochimaru back in the day, so he would make
sure she knew how to act as a normal shinobi should. Quiet, stealthy, and vigilant were only some
of the things she was capable of but didn't care to show on a normal basis, hence why many didn't
think she knew what the meaning of those words were.

When she trained Sakura, she had to abandon her usual persona sometimes. The girl was just so
serious and dangerous that she had to keep herself on high alert just in case things went South.
That, and she was on the suicide watch list. Anko couldn't afford to take her eyes off her.

Plus, this training wasn't the normal kind. They were going to be one of many shinobi "training"
in those fields as a Clans of Konoha meeting took place near their general area. Her and the girl
were going to be part of the guards for the day and wouldn't leave their post until each one of the
clan heads returned safely to their home.

"Is the meeting in the Nara Research Facility?" Sakura questioned. Anko looked at her and saw
that the girl's gaze was pointed to the general area. The tokubetsu jounin gave a sharp grin as she
barked out a laugh.

"What meeting are you talking about, pipsqueak? We're here to train."

Sakura wasn't supposed to know what was going on, much less where it was taking place. Anko
abruptly shunshinned to the far end of the path, leaving Haruno to stop in her tracks in look ahead
suspiciously.

"Anko-san?"

"Training starts now!"

The woman held wires in her mouth as her hands went through four distinct seals: snake, dragon,
rabbit, then tiger. Sakura very suddenly became aware of the chakra wire encircling her, as well as
the tens of kunai that were lodged into the trees to hold them taut.

"Katon: Ryuka no Jutsu!"

Flames surged along each of the wires before converging and erupting where Sakura stood.
Before the attack could even finish, a bandaged arm ejected up from the ground and made a grab
at Anko's ankle. She leapt away before it could latch.

But it only had been a clone, and the real Sakura was above her with her left heel driving
downwards. The assault broke ground, causing Anko's grin to widen.
"Not bad! Ibiki teach you that?"

Sakura's fist launched towards her face.

"Learned it myself!"

Anko moved to the side, narrowly avoiding the blade that shot out from underneath the bandages.
Those damn things! She always forgot the brat had those on 24/7. She kicked Sakura towards the
ground and jumped away to take refuge on a high branch.

"Really?" the woman mused, "You're a real handful, you know that? What else did you learn
between now and the last time we fought?"

A strange light passed over Sakura's face before she grit her teeth and dug her feet into the loose
dirt beneath her.

"Something that's probably going to hurt like a bitch."

Anko wanted to smile at the comment until she saw what was happening. No, not saw. Felt. An
abnormally large amount of chakra swirled within Sakura's small body before it expelled all at
once-- in waves of pure, uncontrolled chakra.

The nine year old's eyes fluttered shut just as she fell into a heap onto the ground.

::

The meetings were as boring as ever. The clan heads, the council, and the Hokage talked about
village economics and relations with other villages. They also spoke of politics, budgets,
promotions, rankings, and notable people within the system.

Then they felt it.

A ripple of chakra passed through the room, strong but troubled, that made the Nara Research
Facility grow silent just before inquiring murmurs fluttered around. Hiashi activated his byakugan
and directed towards the source of flood of energy.

'Haruno Sakura?'

Anko was knelt down beside her, gazing at the prone figure in an awed stupor. He didn't
understand why she couldn't be a normal person for once and send the child to the hospital as
quickly as possible until he saw just what the interrogator was gawking at.

Sakura's forehead.

...

There was a diamond on it.

"Hyuuga-san?"

Hiashi let his doujutsu fade, refacing the group with his same stoic expression.

"... Just one of the guards. She tried a new jutsu, made a mistake, and discharged her chakra
instead of harnessing it."

He couldn't raise alarm, now could he?


Concern

Anko was panicking.

Normally, it took a lot to get her worked up like this. She had seen too many things over the the
course of her life and killed just as many people along with it. Nothing ever happened to the point
where she was left not knowing what to do. Then came this little brat so chock full of mystery,
secrecy, and downright unexplainable bullshit that left her gaping like a goddamn fish. The girl
was full of surprises. But this surprise? Fuck, this could get her in serious trouble.

She had to get Sakura out of here. No one could see and no one could have even a lingering
suspicion of what was happening. Doing the first thing that came to mind, Anko yanked spare
bandages out of her pack and messily wrapped them around to cover Sakura's forehead. A second
passed before she whipped out a kunai as well and pressed the edge into her palm. The blood she
smeared on the wrappings and in pink hair to heighten the illusion of injury.

"Mitarashi-san?"

She forced a grin onto her face and spun around, Sakura's body held close to her own.

"If you felt that chakra, don't worry about it. There was a little accident," she said. The shinobi
glanced warily at the prone child.

"... Alright. Should I inform the others within proximity to take over these grounds while you take
her to receive medical attention?" he asked. Anko nodded once, already moving towards Konoha.

"Yep. I'll try to be back in an hour or something."

She broke into a sprint after those words. She took the shortest route to her apartment rather than
the hospital like she said, and carefully deposited her student on the couch. The bandage was off
and her panic returned as she stared at the purple diamond.

This shouldn't have been possible. The Yin seal was revered as the pinnacle of chakra control that
had only been achieved by two known people: Uzumaki Mito and Senju Tsunade. They were
kunoichi that made a world-renowned name for themselves, very well being some of the most
powerful shinobi who ever lived.

How the fuck did a nine year old manage a feat that nearly all the world failed to achieve?

Anko paced in front of the couch. She couldn't just leave it on her forehead like that. It would be
too much of a mess to hide or make up an excuse to why Sakura suddenly started wearing
bandanas or headbands on a day to day basis. Questions would turn to rumors that would leak to
other sectors...

She let out a breath. Seal it. She had to seal the seal. The diamond was too showy, as civilians
would see it, as it would also be too shocking to be revealed to the entirety of the shinobi
community. Plain and simple, things would change if Sakura was discovered.

Power like hers was a rarity to come by, and people had a right to fear her since she unlocked it at
such a young age. More than likely though, she'd be harnessed for that very power. Clans,
especially noble ones, would no doubt fight to get her into their families to exploit her abilities as
much as possible. And what of ROOT? Danzo? He'd kill to get someone like her in his ranks.

"Goddammit, kid. You're definitely as much trouble as you're worth."


Sakura still lay unconscious, Anko oblivious to the matching diamond on the girl's lower back.

::

"There's a problem and you need to come with me. Now."

Anko burst into Ibiki's office, shocking the interrogator. The woman never used doors. It's either
she came through a crevice in the building or landed in his personal space in a puff of smoke. Her
face was drawn into an unnaturally serious state; lips pinned down and eyes flashing. Ibiki stood.

"What's wrong?"

"I... can't. Not here."

Oh no. He followed her to the shinobi residential districts. He'd only been to her place a handful
of times and vaguely remembered the apartment building where many of the other jounin lived.
They didn't even stop to take off their sandals when they stormed into the door on the third floor.

"You're going to help me seal it," she said.

"Seal what?" Ibiki demanded, "What the hell--"

The words died on his tongue as Sakura's unmoving body came into view. He checked her for
broken bones and open wounds until his eyes trailed up to her forehead. His mouth went dry at
seeing the splotch of purple.

"What did she..."

"I don't know. One second we're fighting and the next she's out cold with the damned thing on
her!"

She rubbed her hand over her eyes, clearly distressed.

"Ibiki, do you know what the fuck happened?!"

He thought back to the times he'd seen Sakura with her nose stuck in that raggedy old journal. She
said it once belonged to Uzumaki Mito, and that it detailed her life and the struggles she met at the
founding of Konoha.

Mito. The only explanation.

"She read it in a journal given to her by Hokage-sama some years ago.

Anko's curses resonated through the apartment as she opened every cabinet and drawer to take out
what she needed for the sealing process. Ink, chakra paper, brushes, blood... Too far in their
frenzy to hide Sakura's new secret, they failed to notice the brown cat lazily stretched out on the
window sill.

::

Gai and Obito stood at attention in the Hokage's office, waiting for Dan to finish reading through
their request. He set down the paper a few minutes later.

"You two must really care for Hatake-san to worry about his work in ANBU and bring it to my
attention," he said. He laced his fingers together, "But what do you think he'll gain if he becomes
a genin sensei?"
"It will help him get better sir. After the... incident, he's been throwing himself into his work. If he
has some students to look after, well, maybe he'll start to live again," Obito answered. Dan nodded
thoughtfully before turning his head to the other.

"And you, Maito-san?"

There as a brilliant flash of pearly white teeth.

"All we wish is for my eternal rival's fire to return to his youthful self! He still needs the light in
his eyes, Hokage-sama!"

The Godaime looked down at the files littered across his desk. Academy graduation was just
around the corner and he was in the process of assigning each student to a jounin. All of them had
been appointed, actually, save for the special cases.

He lifted the folders of the three early graduates.

"This year's class has already be signed off to their respective sensei."

"But--"

Dan held up a hand, effectively making Obito's mouth shut.

"Though there are unassigned students. Three, to be exact, and will be in need of a capable sensei.
They're ahead of their peers by two years and can cause quite the trouble when they're together,
but I'm sure Hatake-san can handle them," he informed. Dan extended the folders for the two
jounin who both read the files with wide eyes.

Uzumaki Naruto, the jinchuriki.

Uchiha Sasuke, Itachi's younger brother.

And Haruno Sakura, the...

Gai's eyebrows furrowed at the name and picture of the far too serious girl with an obnoxiously
bright head of pink hair. He'd never heard the name before, and if he did, he definitely wouldn't
forget that ridiculous hair. He glanced at his friend to see if his friend to see if he had recognized
her, his eyes widening when he saw the uncharacteristic tightness that washed over the Uchiha's
features.

"Is it okay? For her to be under Kakashi?" Obito questioned. His gaze never left her picture. Dan
tilted his head curiously.

"What makes you think otherwise?"

Because she was traumatized just as much if not worse than his best friend. He remembered the
raw fear and piercing shrieks when she had that panic attack-- shouting at him, crying, whispering
why she could still feel whoever dared to touch her. Kakashi was someone who couldn't handle
his own emotions now, so what would he do if Sakura went through something like that again?

But his reasoning didn't make it up his throat, a shake of his head replacing it instead.

"It's nothing. Forget I said anything."

Shizune, who had been standing to her uncle's right ever since the discussion of Kakashi's future
began, turned.
"Should I send for Hatake-san?" she asked. Dan smiled.

"Yes, thank you, Shizune."

::

"Tell me, Hatake-san, how long have you been in ANBU?"

The wind was a calm one, blowing through the strands of their hairs and giving slight comfort
from the warming sun. The one in question knelt down on the roof of the Hokage Tower with his
mask still on and attention fully focused on this leader.

"I joined in Yondaime-sama's time, so about twelve years now," Kakashi monotonously replied.
Dan turned as a bittersweet smile touched his lips.

"I recall Minato-san's tenure. I'd met him personally a few times, but I was mostly off on my own
business outside Konoha, as you may have already known," he said, "He mentioned you some of
those times. There's a certain... sadness in your heart that he wanted to heal you from, and he
thought that keeping you close by putting you in ANBU would help."

Kakashi ducked his head.

"I figured he did something like that."

"But then there was his unfortunate passing and Sarutobi-sama took over once more," Dan
continued, "He stayed in power until I came back from my journeys and then I became Hokage.
The same ANBU under Minato-san moved to Sarutobi-sama, then to me. But I'm afraid that you
being at my side will only make that sadness worse, and according to your friends, it already has."

The ANBU member couldn't help but tense up in slight annoyance. Those friends were more than
likely to be either Gai or Obito, or worse: the both of them. They were always the ones who
hovered over him and tried to get him back in his spirits again despite his attempts to withdraw as
much as he could.

"Take off your mask, please."

Kakashi did so without hesitation. Dan stepped closer to him, a frown slowly growing at the sight
of two empty abysses for eyes.

"Twelve long years... I've read over the missions you've completed in that time. Many of them are
things far from being proud of."

He extended his hand to take Kakashi's mask and carelessly discarded it behind him.

"You are hereby relieved from your ANBU duties and will be taking up a new position, effective
immediately," he declared. Kakashi bowed his head again.

"Yes, sir!"

"And you will meet your new genin team in two day's time," Dan grinned. Hatake immediately
froze. Him. In charge of a group of kids. No, no, he couldn't take up a responsibility like that. He
was someone who couldn't be trusted to look after kids, he knew that much. He was one of
ANBU's best-- a trained killer whose blood stained his hands no matter how many times he tried
to wash it off. And the Godaime should know that of him by now.

So he mustered up himself and gave the most intelligible answer he could think of:
"Huh?"

::

Hiashi tapped his fingers against his tea cup as he watched Hinata teach her younger sister a new
gentle fist move. Though he watched them intently with every cause to look for mistakes or
miscalculations in their stances, his mind was off somewhere else.

"Hyuuga-san?"

Hiashi let his doujutsu fade, refacing the group with his same stoic expression.

"... Just one of the guards. She tried a new jutsu, made a mistake, and discharged her chakra
instead of harnessing it."

He didn't know why he lied. Sure, a part of him had done it to make sure he didn't cause a stir
within the meeting, but another part of him wanted to keep it a secret and out of reach from all the
other clan heads and council members. The girl had the Yin seal and it would be in any reasonable
person's right mind to want to have that power flourish under a clan's watch.

If not by blood, then by marriage. Why not? Hinata was already enamored enough with the girl as
it was.

That aside, he thought back to the impossibility the Haruno seemed to achieve. There wasn't a
single drop of shinobi blood in her lineage, nor was there documentation he could access to tell
more about just what she was capable of.

If she had the gall to stick her chin out at him, knowing fully well of the consequences, then she
was something else all together. He would have to keep a closer eye on her from now on,
especially since she was already an important person to his heir.

So Hiashi would bide his time- slowly, carefully, subtly. He would unravel the mystery that was
Haruno Sakura and find out just what drove her to cultivate such a technique.

She was a child.

Expelling chakra like that had over a fifty percent chance of killing her where she stood.
Impression

Naruto couldn't stop bouncing in his seat. He couldn't. After all the hard work he did studying past
midnight everyday and practicing his upper class-men material, he was finally going to graduate!
Two years ahead of his friends too! He glanced to his right at Sasuke, then to his left at Sakura
before grinning.

This was going to be the start of it all. At last, they were going to be the shinobi they'd always
dreamed of.

Sasuke felt a proud bubble swell in his chest. He might not be as advanced as his aniki was, but he
was doing much better than many of his other clan members. His father and mother certainly had
been proud when he ran home a few months ago saying that he'd graduate early with the two
people he cared about the most (though he'd never readily admit it). There was nothing that could
make him happier.

Though it couldn't be said that their optimism was shared. Sakura was detailing a poison's antidote
as her boys eagerly awaited the arrived of their new sensei, her free hand holding her right bicep.
A few months ago, she was careless. She was sure she could reveal the Yin seal and have her
trump card just as she had before, but there were things she sorely misjudged like the fact that she
was creating two seals instead of one, or that she was no longer in an adult's body thus unable to
take the same amount of strain.

The seals had exhausted her body to the point of sending her into unconsciousness for two whole
days. When she woke up, she was in an unfamiliar apartment with two faces glowering down at
her.

Sakura blinked awake, squinting at the shadows glaring down at her in the candle-lit darkness.
First she saw Anko with a scowl on her lips and a tired look in her eyes.

"You've got a shit ton of explaining to do, kid."

Did she?

"First, you're gonna tell us why in your right mind you'd attempt that freaking mother of all
chakra control--"

Ah. That.

"--And second, you're gonna tell us how the hell you were able to do it," she finished. Sakura
pushed herself into a sitting position and winced when she became aware of the burning sensation
curling around her right arm. Her head tilted downwards and she saw a design encasing the
entirety of her bicep. They were like... dark veins; tendrils winding down to the crook of her
elbow. Not jagged nor curved, rather a bit reminiscent of neurons.

"Did you... seal my Yin seal?" she questioned incredulously. Ibiki stepped into her line of sight
with that same frown and tired look.

"Unfortunately, no. Something like that can't be sealed," he said. "The next best thing we could do
was mask it. Now talk."

Sakura sighed, then proceeded to feed them her lie.

Her entire right arm was wrapped to cover both her blade and the unaccounted for seal, but she
had to admit that it was better than to try explaining why she suddenly decided to cover her
forehead when she, on multiple occasions, said how much she liked it despite it being a smidge
too large. So her new hitai-ate sat as a headband just like in her older days.

Just thinking about it made the grip on her arm grow tighter.

"Ne, ne, who do you think our sensei's gonna be?" Naruto asked, "I saw jiji yesterday and he said
he knew but would tell me! You think they're super cool?"

Sasuke grunted.

"They'll be good, whoever it is. Aren't they all?"

Sakura folded her paper and tucked it into her pocket.

"We'll be the judges of that," she added. By now, it was common knowledge that she didn't care
too much for status if she wanted to get her point across. Her very first Academy sensei had been
a prime example and perfect display of it.

She moved her stare to the clock mounted above the door. Their sensei was supposed to meet
them two o'clock sharp and there were sixteen minutes left until his expected arrival. But the exact
moment the hand struck 1:45 pm, the door snapped open to reveal Kakashi in his standard jounin
attire.

"You're early, 'ttebayo!" Naruto exclaimed before he could stop himself. The man didn't even
spare him a look as he walked to the center of the room.

"When you're on time, you're late. When you're early, you're on time. Consider that my first
lesson to you," he said. Sakura crossed her arms over her midsection and leaned back against the
other desk. Oh, he was going to be one of those, was he?

With one swift motion, he turned to face them with feet positioned to be perfectly aligned to the tip
of his shoulders and hands clasped behind his back.

"My name is Hatake Kakashi. I will be the one to train you until your ascension to chuunin level
and I expect you three to listen to what I say. Am I clear?"

"Yes, sir!" Naruto and Sasuke both chorused. Kakashi looked at the sole student who refused an
answer.

"Am I clear?" he repeated, piercing black eyes boring into her. Sakura smiled.

"Yes. You are."

His gaze lingered on her a bit longer before he looked to regard them collectively.

"You each will introduce yourself. I've refused to read over any of your records to eliminate any
possible bias towards you three. I don't even know your names," he began. Sakura didn't even
blink. This was very new, "So what I will rely on are your first impressions. Say your likes,
dislikes, goals-- things of the sort. Don't make a mistake of yourselves. You. Start us off."

Sasuke sat up, a determined lightning in his expression befitting of an Uchiha. He was a boy
nearly ten years old who sought not only to make his parents proud, but to become a shinobi even
Itachi would be more than proud of. This was going to be his first step into that reality.

"I'm Uchiha Sasuke. I like training, tomatoes, and sitting by the lake in the morning. I don't like
miso ramen--"

There was a betrayed gasp from Naruto.

"--but still, Naruto's one of my best friends. Even if he's a dobe most of the time. My other best
friend is Sakura and she's cool because she's nice and invincible. And when I'm older, I want to be
a shinobi just like my aniki."

Sakura swore Kakashi let a flicker of surprise show before he moved on to the next student.

"Next."

Naruto sent Sasuke a scathing glare before grinning brilliantly.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto! I like all ramen 'cause I'm not a hater," he enunciated loudly, making sure
Sasuke got an earful of it, "I also like Sakura-chan, Iruka-sensei, and sometimes Sasuke. My best
friends are Sasuke and Sakura-chan too! There's also Chouji, Shika, Hinata, Shino, Kiba, Chouji,
Ino... anyway, I don't like bullies! And when I'm older, I..."

The blond fell into a thoughtful silence. Ever since meeting Sakura and Sasuke, he never really
considered the future anymore. It was never the 'when I'm stronger, they'll see' like back then.
Now, all he cared about was Iruka and all the friends he never imagined having.

He wanted to be Hokage because he wanted to be accepted. To be loved.

But he already had all of that.

"... I want to be a am-bass-a-door. To make peace," he smiled. Kakashi noticed the way Sakura's
eyes widened as she fought the urge to whip her head to her right. A reaction he didn't quite
expect from her, seeing that he was starting to expect some trouble with the unconventional vibes
she was sending out. He looked at her fully.

"And you."

Sakura relaxed in her seat after a few moments as the corner of her mouth quirked up.

"Me? My name is Haruno Sakura. My likes are- well, I have many likes. I have lots of dislikes,
too. So many dislikes that I just can't name them all."

Kakashi's eyes narrowed. Naruto giggled. Sasuke pursed his lips to keep from grinning.

"These two knuckleheads are my best friends too. And what do I want to be when I'm older?
Huh," she drawled. She feigned musing for a couple of seconds before beaming uncaringly.
"We'll get there when we get there. Why rush?"

::

That girl was definitely making fun of him. Not only were her answers completely and utterly
useless for his future analysis, but she respected him in a way that almost like a direct attack in
undermining his authority. Not that it was hostile. Merely teasing and unorthodox for a young
graduate like herself.

But that wasn't what particularly nagged him. Kakashi remembered her from a few years back at
the Godaime's inauguration. She was the no name who sensed his presence that day, and she was
the kid that might be the most problematic of the three. It was true that he refused to take even a
peek at any of their files. He wanted to find their faults through trial and error. But with her on the
team, he felt a twinge of regret at making the decision.

He'd stick with it, though, and not read their records unless absolutely necessary. Kakashi glanced
out the window. It would still be light out for about four more hours-- more than enough time to
figure if he'd take them off or send them back to the Academy.

"We'll head out to Training Ground Six so I can determine whether or not you will continue as
genin. No questions, no comments. Move out," he ordered. Sasuke and Naruto jumped out their
seats and hurried to the grounds while bickering their way out the door in hushed tones. Sakura
followed at a much leisurely pace.

"What about you? Anything you'd like us to know about you?"

He raised his chin.

"There is nothing you need to know about me," he said. She shrugged, a cat-like grin appearing
on her face before she disappeared into the hallway.

Kakashi unconsciously reached into his pocket and took hold of the two silver bells that made
temporary residence there the past few days. He already failed his old team twice. He wasn't about
to fail a third time by passing a time that possibly wasn't worth his salt.

But he'd have to see for himself if Dan's utter faith in them was worthwhile.

::

"You're shitting me. I'm-A-Lone-Wolf-So-I-Don't-Need-No-Goddamn-Friends is her sensei?"


Anko snorted, "That's as bad as slotting me in a babysitting job. And that's saying something."

Genma held up his hands in defense.

"Godaime's call, not mine. But as the rumor goes, he was taken off duty just for the assignment.
As had as it looks, maybe it'll be alright."

"Alright? Kakashi's messed up. Sakura's messed up. You put those two together and you're gonna
get fucked up. Even more so with her having that thing to deal with. How long until you think he
notices?" she groaned. She plopped down on the couch in Ibiki's office. Things had been slow
down at T&I and there wasn't much to do but fill out paperwork or laze around. She preferred the
latter.

"Thing? You mean the..." Genma trailed off as he gestured vaguely to his forehead. Anko rolled
her eyes then sneered.

"No, the fucking wings she grew!"

"Okay, damn. The thing. Got it," he sighed. Once he returned from his mission, he was plucked
from the streets by Anko and Ibiki and was hastily informed about the new problem that arose.
Sakura, of course, was smack in the center of it. Of course she was. He wasn't complaining-- it
was because of her that the sector started to get interesting, "But I dunno. Maybe it's good that
they're together. It could... help both of them."

She scoffed.

"By what? Having them at each other's throats? Sakura won't take shit from no one and Kakashi's
got a pole up his ass. I think you know exactly where that road's headed."
Genma took a granola bar from his pouch and slipped the senbon from his mouth to take a bite.
With Sakura's track record, it was stupid to think no other incidents would make themselves
known. So he'd for those in earnest and see just how bad it would blow up in their faces.

::

Could you could get me a double kodachi? The finest made one you can find, preferably. I'm
thinking of giving it to Iwa and teaching him a few lessons in swordsmanship for a change. He
has been interested no matter how much he tries to deny it.

Also, the poison. I hope you have it decoded by now.

Oh, and congrats on graduating. Finally a big kid now?

~Marionette

Sakura quickly shoved the note in her packet as Yori took refuge in her kunai pouch and Kakashi
entered the clearing. Deidara and swords? She supposed it wasn't a bad idea. He had always been
a long to mid-range fighter and dabbling in swordsmanship could only benefit him in the long run.

The three recent graduates stood in a line, two of them waiting nervously for the next set of
instructions. Kakashi was silent as he paced back and forth before them. It didn't seem like he was
thinking of any particular thing, perhaps testing their patience. Not that he needed to, though. Her
boys were more than intimidated out of their wits to speak out of turn.

"There will only be one assessment to resolve the question of whether or not you will study under
my jurisdiction," he finally announced, stopping his movement. He held up a pair of shimmering
silver bells, "You all will fight to take these from me and will have until sundown to do so.
Whoever gets a bell passes."

"Uh... Kakashi-sensei?"

He looked at Naruto.

"There's two bells, but there's three of us," the boy mentioned with a wrinkled brow. Sakura
watched for a few seconds as realization dawned on their faces. Sasuke was the first. His pale
expression went from confusion, fear, then subsequently: anger.

"I won't do it," he said. He didn't flinch when the man's gaze intensified. Kakashi leaned forward,
soulless eyes crackling with lightning.

"Excuse me?"

The tone was soft, held up by a promise of a threat. Sasuke swallowed and stepped up.

"Naruto and Sakura are my best friends. Today, we became a team. I would never take a test
where only two of us pass. It's not right."

Kakashi twirled the bells around his finger, a mocking light taking form at the edges of his
calculating stare. Itachi's younger brother wasn't what he normally saw in a typical Uchiha brat. It
was hard to find a member who actively cared for those outside the clan.

"Do you really think the world is nice enough actually be concerned? They'll pick off your
teammates one by one until no one's left. You should get used to leaving them behind," he
drawled. An inhuman growl escaped Naruto's lungs as his whiskered cheeks reddened in rage, all
trails of fear left to crumble to dust.
"What?! Bullshit! They're my team and I won't let you take them away from me, dattebayo! So
you can go shove it up your ass if you think we're gonna-"

Sakura covered his mouth with her hand and reduced him to muffled cries of indignation. She
smiled up at the older man. There wasn't a hint of apology to be shown.

"What he's trying to say is that we're not taking your test. It's either we pass together or we fail
together, and we're sticking by it if that's alright with you," she chirped. She looked so happy at
their blatant stance against his course of action that for a moment...

Kakashi silently sucked in a sharp breath.

For a moment, he saw Rin. He saw her brown eyes in Sakura's green ones, brimming with untold
knowledge and determination. He saw her smile in Sakura's teasing one, making him witness that
insurmountable spirit.

He saw Rin's soul-- the one he forcibly ripped from her, just as jagged and broken as the one
whose arms were now wrapped protectively around Naruto and Sasuke's shoulders.

Kakashi blinked.

Just then... what had...?

He mentally shook away the memory. It probably was just a spur of the moment kind of deal; he'd
been having instances like that ever since he was removed from his ANBU duty a little over a
week ago. He was positive that it was just the withdrawal from his normally tedious workings of
his old job catching up to him.

He coolly regarded the mismatched bunch of children, quite tiny children who were far from
reaching the tops of his shoulders, who cast the most tenacious looks they could muster. A
whisper of hope wrapped around his heart as he observed them.

"Are you sure this is the path you want to take? There will be times when your teammates will
drag you back or let you down. Are you prepared for something like that? What if your
commander orders you otherwise?"

Naruto hissed at him.

"People who abandon their friends are worse than scum!"

People who...

Kakashi turned his head to examine the distant horizon and not at all to hide the ghost of a smile
that tried to push past his well-constructed mask of stoicism.

"Odd," he commented. Sasuke's eyes narrowed.

"What is?"

"It seems like you passed the test. I'm thinking of rewriting it since there's obviously too many
holes if three early graduates managed."

Five seconds passed without any movement. The next fifteen seconds were filled with Naruto's
babbling about if this was some other trick Bastard-sensei was trying to pull on them. The
following thirty seconds after were taken by his cheers and Sasuke's giddiness about telling the
rest of his family about what they did today.
"We're done for the day," Kakashi continued, "Report back to this training ground at six o'clock.
Anyone late will receive punishment. Dismissed."

"Yes, sir!"

Naruto and Sasuke scrambled to hurry and tell the good news to their respective homes. Sakura
called out to them, saying that she'd catch up in a minute, and lagged behind to meet the stone cold
attention of her "new" teacher. He crossed his arms.

"Something you needed, Sakura?" he asked. She shrugged.

"Nothing. Just wanted to wish you good luck on your new genin team. It's your first year, isn't it?
That's always the hardest," she said. Kakashi can't help but silently grit his teeth. What was that
supposed to mean? "No pressure or anything. It's okay to feel embarrassed if you mess up every
now and then. It's natural."

"What are you implying?"

"Me? Imply something? I wouldn't dream of it, Kakashi. Like I said, I'm just wishing you good
luck for your new time. Kami knows you'll be needing it," she grinned. He doesn't know what to
be annoyed about first: the fact that she openly making fun of him or using his first name like she'd
known him for years. And like hell he'd let some smart-ass brat use his name so familiarly like
that.

"You will address me as Kakashi-sensei, Sakura."

Her grin grew wider as she turned and raised a hand in goodbye.

"I'll see you at training tomorrow, Kakashi!"

...

Now he honestly regretted swearing to not look at her file.

::

"It take it that the test took a different turn than your expectations."

"We were on the brink of failure last time," Sakura murmured, nodding at the scorpion perched on
her shoulder. "Plus, Kakashi was way happier back then and nowhere near the level of asshole
he's at now. Here, let me write Sasori-san's reply and you can take it to him."

She fished a pen and a slip of notepad paper from her pouch. She then sat on a bench lined on one
of the busier streets, waiting for Sai to meet up with her like they always did on Tuesdays.

You're hilarious. Ha.

It'll take some time to find the kodachi you want. I'll have to go to lots of shops to see what they
have, or maybe I'll have my regular place an order for it to be specially made. Your poison's also
been deciphered, no problem. I'll attach my analysis to the note.

The best sword makers were undoubtedly in Mizu no Kuni, as the Kirigakure lay there and held
the Seven Legendary Swordsman. It would be at least three weeks for everything to be in order.

Today, we had our test to assure our genin status. My sensei is the same, but he's strikingly
different from before. Both his eyes are accounted for and the death of the Yondaime and his
other teammate still runs deep, which reminds me of something important.

We had introductions with likes, dislikes, and all things of the sort. Naruto no longer wants to
become Hokage. He wants to be an ambassador instead.

If he doesn't want to take up the position, I fear someone else needs to unless we want a rampant
dictator on our hands. The Godaime won't be leading twenty years from now so we need to pick
and cultivate a candidate as soon as possible.

"I don't suppose you have any ideas, do you?" she mumbled. Yori gave a thoughtful hum.

"I'm not too current with Konoha's politics, but I am aware that there's a strong clan system.
Whoever you and Sasori choose needs to appease them all," he said. Sakura rubbed her neck and
sighed. Of course her preferred choice of Rokudaime had to pass the structure of clans and council
members. In the old timeline, Naruto was more than capable of taking the spot of Hokage once the
war was over and Tsunade decided to retire.

He... would've been a great Hokage. Granted, she hadn't exactly lived to see it come to fruition,
though it was something she was sure had happened. He and Sasuke would've both been happy in
a world no longer ravaged by war.

But that was all behind her. She wanted a bloodless future for this timeline. The only problem was
to pick the perfect person to continue Kato Dan's peaceful reign.

A politically suitable one too. Dan was able to get by with his good reputation and tranquil
demeanor along with lots of other personality points that has him on the good side of the general
public. We need someone like him, but with a stronger intimidation factor. Dan's not exactly
putting pressure on any other Hidden Village.

Sakura looked up and saw Sasuke across the way. His mother stood to his left and his brother was
at his right, him probably talking about how he passed the test just half an hour ago. She muted
her chakra to make it less obvious that she was there as she bit the end of her pen. Successor to the
Godaime, successor to the Godaime...

Would a quiet, insightful person fit well with something like that?

I don't, she began to write, then stopped herself. The idea was crazy and there was hardly a
backing she could gather to make the notion work, at least not now. It's not like she presently had
anything against the man in this particular timeline. If he was as hardworking and honest as she
heard, there was nothing stopping him from earning a future nomination.

Scratch that. I think we have our guy.

Itachi turned his head to meet her inquisitive gaze, tilting his head in greeting. She smiled in return
and went back to writing.

Uchiha Itachi: Rokudaime Hokage. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?

~H.S.
Omake III: The Flower That Wasn't Pink

"Ko-Konoha?! Baa-chan, who's going to... to help you with the inn? Or the laundry, or to cook,
or to help you cl-clean the house--"

"Hush, Sachiko-chan. I'll be alright."

"But Konoha--!"

"Is your mother's home, and naturally, yours as well," Yuka said. "I'm old, but not an old fool,
dear. You've read your mother's letter to you a million times now and likely to do so a million
times more. You want to know who she was, don't you?"

Sachiko grasped the hem of her shirt and looked at her feet. She did want to know more about her
mother. The mountains of paper she read over and over again told of a beautiful village where the
sun never ceased to shine and the trees gleamed a spring green. She also remembered the people,
both of those who perished in the war and those who probably still lived on to this day.

Did she want to know more?

Yes. That's all she ever wanted.

"Am... I going with Yamato-san and Hatake-san?" Sachiko asked. Yuka pat the girl's hair and
planted a kiss on her forehead.

"I promise that they'll take good care of you. Your mother's sensei and team leader, you said? The
won't be anything but good to you."

The fourteen year old nodded mutely as she leaned on her grandmother's shoulder. Tomorrow,
she would leave with those two strangers that her mother had written so fondly of, especially the
silver haired one. Sachiko could still recall how sad and guilt-ridden he looked when he
apologized to her.

"I couldn't stop her."

What had her mother done?

::

They left at first light, heading East instead of South. Sachiko knew her geography well enough to
know that they weren't headed towards Konoha. She kept her mouth shut, though, and listened to
the quiet words spoken between the two adults.

"Nanadaime-sama will have our heads when we get back."

"Naruto'll understand. What we really have to worry about is when he and Sasuke find out about
Sakura. You know how they get."

She flinched at the mention of those names. There was rarely a passage either of them weren't at
least alluded to. They were the people whom her mother believed in time and time again. She
wrote about them like they were heroes-- Naruto more so than others.

Heroes.
Then why didn't they save her mother if she loved them so much?

Sachiko noticed Kakashi's and Yamato's slowed steps as they came to a river side. Two enormous
statues stood at either edge of a connecting waterfall, a state of disrepair evident in their cracks and
crumbling foundations.

"This is the Valley of the End, Sachiko-san," Yamato informed, his voice the barest of murmurs.
"The... last place Sakura was seen. Alive."

Kakashi had ghosted away from the group at some point and walked to the center of the lake.
Both his eyes were visible and downcast as he imbibed his surroundings with regret laced in his
empty stare. At Sachiko's questioning glance, Yamato sighed and motioned her to sit on a rock
beside him.

"You've heard of the Fourth Shinobi World War, right?"

She nodded. She read about it in the few shinobi history books in the town library.

"Well, this incident happened a little bit after when everyone was celebrating, so we never what
truly happened save for the four who were actually there. Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi-senpai, and
Sakura. It..."

He took a deep breath.

"No one knows all the details except them, but I can give you a brief overview," he said. "Naruto
and Sasuke fought for hours with years of pent up emotion. Kakashi-senpai watched from the
sidelines. Thirty-four hours in, Sakura came. I heard she was different from what senpai saw of
her because neither of us had seen her three years prior. She stood next to him and spectated her
old teammates' battle to the death. But with Sakura being Sakura, she wouldn't let that pass."

Yamato had a wistful look in his eyes.

"I'd known her since she was a teenager, you know? She was talented medic, determined, and had
the scariest temper. If Naruto and Sai had riled her up all the time, they wouldn't have had to be
the receiving end of it."

When I was fifteen, Sai became a part of the team along with Yamato-taichou. He was pale with
eyes and hair the color of the darkest in-- the same ink he utilized for his jutsu. Sai was rude and
outright disrespectful when I first met him. He even gave me the nickname 'Ugly'!

I punched him plenty of times for his troubles.

It was probably more endearing than Naruto's, but Sai had good intentions. His emotions were
compromised when he was younger, so there's no blaming him. He was a good man.

If you go to Konoha, could you do me a favor? Visit his grave, give him momen tofu, and tell him
that I would've loved to see his book.

Sachiko refrained from reaching into the box inside her bag and kept listening.

"But she was someone who fought for what she thought was right. She wanted Naruto to be
Hokage and Sasuke to come back home. So as those two scraped together the last of their chakra
and charged at each other for the killing blow, Sakura... She jumped."

I didn't want to leave you, Sachiko. I want to be with you more than anything, but I also had to
think of all the wrongs I committed in the past. I want you to be the happiest you could be, but If I
was there, that wouldn't have been the case.

I remember what Obito told me.

He'd make sure to drive me insane. It won't matter if he loses the war, nor when the Allies execute
him. In the future, I'd be desperate for freedom from my memories. From my failures. From him.
He wouldn't kill me then. Because he knew for a fact that in the midst of smiles and celebration
with Naruto, Sasuke, Kakashi, or whoever else that hadn't already died, he'd be able to see my
face again when I do the honors myself.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry.

I love you more than I ever loved myself, but I even now, I still can't prove him wrong.

She didn't doubt that her mother loved her. War was hard on anyone, and with what her mother
went through, she understood how she fell into suicide's unforgiving grasp. Yamato talked about it
like she did it purely for Naruto and Sasuke's sake, though Sachiko knew that wasn't true.

Her mother wanted to die.

And all he was telling her was that she did it out of love.

A sliver of a powerful emotion she didn't immediately recognize curled around her spine and dug
its nails into her throat. She ducked her head down once she realized that rage was the perpetrator.
Rage at... Yamato? No, no it couldn't. She just met him and she had no right to be upset with him,
so she squashed the anger and looked up at him.

"So what, um, did they do? H-Her injuries, I mean."

"Naruto had a sphere of chakra in a hand, and Sasuke had a concentration of lightning in his,"
came Kakashi's voice. He walked off the river and onto the bank. "One shot of either, and the one
who was hit would be dead."

There was a cloud of remorse and disgrace that he carried on his shoulders.

"Naruto's hand went through her stomach. Sasuke's hand went through her heart. And me? I was
on the sidelines, paralyzed and unable to do anything because I let my guard down and she got
me. I could've stopped her," he mumbled bitterly. "I could've stopped her, but I couldn't. I'm
sorry."

She said nothing, nodding meekly and keeping her eyes on her hands. For the slightest moment,
red spiked the edge of her vision. Why was he apologizing to her? She didn't need to hear those
words over and over again from him. Her mother deserved the apology. Not her.

"... I-It's okay."

Was it?

Kakashi bowed his head.

"Sakura was a hero," he said. Sachiko stared at him with those all too bright eyes that were the
exact same shade and likeness as the mother she never got to know.

Hero. There was that word again.


She trailed just a bit behind the two as they made their journey to Konoha, mouthing the word
multiple times to digest it, but it never did. Every time she did it, its remnants left an undesired
feeling on her tongue. Saying it wasn't right. Just as Yuka mentioned, she read that letter more
times than she cared to remember.

Every line was carved into her heart and every tear stain burned into her soul. She could recite her
mother's only words to her if she wanted to forwards, backwards, side to side. Even though she
didn't know Haruno Sakura, she knew who she was. What she did. What she felt. Why she
wanted so vehemently to die.

Her mother was not a hero.

She was a person. A person, scared with no one to help her, whose demons were too strong for
her to keep living.

::

The gates were tall, imposing, and unlike anything she'd ever seen before. Past them was the
famed Hokage Monument sculpted with seven grand faces. Behind them were more buildings that
touched the sky-- behemoths compared to the older districts that she now assumed was
downtown. A brown-haired lady came to meet them at the gates with two braided buns and red
tassel earrings.

"Kakashi-senpai! Yamato-senpai! The Nanadaime's been waiting for you!" she smiled. Sachiko's
eyes flickered over in recognition.

Then we get to the last member of Team Gai: Tenten. She's not the best with ninjutsu or genjutsu,
but give her any weapon you can think of and she'll beat you to the ground. Tenten's the
best weapons-master you'll meet in your life, well, if you ever get the chance. I regret not getting
to know her better, and I promised myself I would have if I made it out of the war.

I imagine it's hard for her now. Lee and Neji? They're both gone now. Like I mentioned early, Lee
went down fighting in the sixth year and Neji had gone in that infirmary camp bombing in the
second year. She has Gai-sensei, at least. I bet he's still going on and on about youth.

Tenten... I don't know what to say to her. If you ever get the chance, tell her that I wish I was there
for her.

Tenten peered down at the girl and tilted her head. Her rich chocolate gaze narrowed a bit as some
nagging thought nudged the back of her head.

"Have we met before?"

Sachiko quickly shook her head.

"N-No, I-I'm, uh, I'm sorry Ten-miss! Sorry, miss, we haven't met!" the girl exclaimed. Her face
flushed pink as she stepped to hide partially behind Kakashi, who had chuckled good-naturedly at
the woman's amused expression.

"I'll explain the situation to you once we finish confirming something," he promised. "Tenzou,
talk to Naruto, would you? I'll take Sachiko-san to the hospital to get that blood work done."

Yamato nodded once and shunshinned away as Kakashi bid Tenten goodbye and let Sachiko to
the hospital. The lone member of Team Nine watched their departure curiously, albeit
suspiciously. The girl had known her name, obviously, and was strikingly familiar.
Familiar as in twelve years ago familiar.

::

At the hospital, they were met with a woman older than Tenten. Her hair was black and her face
was kinder than most. Sachiko couldn't hear the short conversation they had, but when the
woman's brow pulled together and the vial of blood was suddenly placed into her hand, she
frowned.

"You want me to compare this sample with the young lady's? Why?"

"I'd rather not say until we know for sure. It's urgent, Shizune-san. I think it would be best to do
this maternity test as quickly as possible."

Shizune.

Shizune-senpai was Tsunade-shishou's first apprentice, someone who followed even after the
decision of leaving Konoha. She was the one who helped me learn medical ninjutsu when shishou
was too busy with her Kage duties.

She was also when of the main figures in the war. I was the one who called most of the shots,
but... she's a dear friend of mine. Someone I could've said goodbye to, but was so ashamed to
show my face before I went to see you for the last time. I left her a short and that was far from
fair. She deserved more from me.

Tell her I miss her. And tell her that if she keeps stressing herself, she really will get wrinkles
before gray hairs.

Shizune warily eyed the preservation seal on the vial, noting that no ordinary shinobi could have
made it and started off down the hallway, motioning for the other two to follow. Sachiko scurried
ahead and clasped her hands together when the woman spared her a glance and a small smile.

"I don't think I got your name, sweetheart."

The girl scratched the side of her neck-- a nervous tick of hers for as long as she could remember.

"Sachiko, miss."

Sachiko; a polite girl with a quiet voice and eyes the color of a painful memory. It wasn't very
long until her blood was drawn and the three of them stood in an unoccupied lab to run the DNA
analysis. Shizune, monitoring the machines, inclined her head towards the man.

"Kakashi-san, what's this about?" she asked.

"Yes, but it has nothing to do with me if that's what you're implying. It's... someone we knew and
I have to be positive before explaining anything."

The machine ran for a few minutes before a green M A T C H lit up on the wide screen it was
attached to. Kakashi's heart actually dropped to rattle against his stomach. So it was true. Sakura
died not only to leave behind the people she loved, but the legacy no one knew of as well.

As Shizune went to remove the blood samples, the machine started up again and ran comparisons
between the other DNA records in the system. The recognition feature activated on the first
sample- the one with the preservation seal- and searched the database for who it belonged to.

Shizune let the next few minutes pass in silence, her confusion weighing heavily in the air, then
watched as a picture popped up on the screen.

Her limbs went numb.

DNA VERIFIED

99% MATCH: HARUNO SAKURA

::

Clarification: The first sample (which was Sakura's) was recognized in the system and gave the
100% match after verifying Sachiko was her daughter.

::

To be continued in Omake IV: Hero


Worry

That's it. You've officially lost it. Next chance I get I'm going to Konoha and personally checking
you for any abnormal brain activity or some mental illness your shrink hasn't found out about yet.

Expect me within the week, crazy.

~Marionette

What a hypocrite he was, calling her crazy when all his marbles weren't exactly in the jar
themselves. She sighed a bit at the mention of her shrink, as she was about to walk into her
appointment when she got the message. She didn't know why Ibiki kept insisting on her meeting
with Inoichi every week. over a year of sessions had given her not even the slightest help with her
problem.

They believed her story about the man in the civilian village and did their own investigating some
time ago. Sasori had done a quick job of finding her "predator" and implementing fake memories
in the small, unsuspecting population that lived there.

The investigators found no reason to believe anything other than her story, so her account went by
without another question. Since then, she'd been treated for PTSD due to that incident and the
death of her parents. Ibiki forbid her from receiving any medical prescriptions, understandably,
which left her with four other options they tried: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
(EMDR), Cognitive Therapy, Group Therapy, and brief Psychodynamic Psychotherapy.

"Good afternoon, Sakura," Inoichi greeted. "Go on and have a seat, then we'll get started."

He got out his clipboard and her file, flipping to the back towards her session notes.

"I heard you passed your genin test a couple of days ago. Good job. Why don't you tell me about
it?"

EMDR had Sakura focus on other stimuli as Inoichi got her to talk about the bare minimum of her
trauma, but it only led to her reliving some of the memories by having the stimuli somehow
connect to what she was trying to forget. It was still a process in the works, so it was no surprise
that it didn't work.

"There's not much to say. Naruto and Sasuke are my teammates like I thought and they were
really excited when we met our sensei for the first time. He's Hatake Kakashi and Anko-san keeps
telling me that he needs friends. And frankly, I agree."

Inoichi's lips quirked up.

"I asked about him. Rumors say he was taken out of ANBU just to teach us," she continued.
"Apparently, the reasons aren't clear why, but I have my own assumptions. He trains as hard as I
expected and Sasuke and Naruto are having a hard time keeping up. I mean, it's only our second
day training so I'll wait a little longer before making suggestions."

Next they tried Cognitive Therapy. He tried to get the girl to open up and talk about how she felt
about the trauma and its aftermath, but her vague descriptions and unwillingness to delve into
detail hardly left him much to work with. He wanted to help her cope with her anger, fear, and
guilt, but anytime he mentioned them, it only seemed to take root even deeper.

"Are you sure that's a good idea? I doubt he'd take counsel from his student."
She huffed.

"Kakashi will take it if he knows what's good for him."

"Kakashi? He lets you call him that?" he chuckled. "I met him a few times myself, and I don't
think he appreciates that."

Following that attempt, they leapt into Group Therapy. She was the youngest in those meetings
with five other PTSD sufferers and kept a tight lip whenever she was asked to speak up. She told
him once that she wasn't grateful for the pitying glances the other attendees sent her. Just because
she was young didn't mean she needed them to feel sorry for her. After two sessions, Inoichi
pulled her out of the group and tried something else.

"He doesn't. Come on, Yamanaka-san. Keep up. I disrespect with a purpose... except for this one,
which I did because its fun."

Inoichi shook his head in amusement as he wrote a few things down. Fifteen minutes had gone by
with small talk about what happened the past week. There was nothing notable besides the fact
that she graduated two years ahead of the norm. They both knew they couldn't keep this small talk
going on forever with the reason for these weekly visits bubbling under the surface.

The last attempt he tried was brief Psychodynamic Psychotherapy. He tried, once more, to help
her deal with the emotional conflicts she fought through every day of her life. He tried to make her
aware of the emotions she had unhealthily learned to live with the past five years. He tried to raise
her self-esteem to help her into that happy ten year old girl she was supposed to be. But, he failed.
Like with all his other attempts.

So the went to the fifth therapy style he hoped he wouldn't have to use.

"Sakura, you and I both recognize that therapy has done little to nothing for you. I accept the fact
that you won't talk about it. It's personal. I understand. But, you can't keep this bottled up forever
no matter how much you think you can. If you keep it in too long, you may respond to a stimulus
in an unintended way."

He didn't need to elaborate for them both to think to her panic attack two years ago. Sakura
rubbed her neck, saying nothing.

"We'll try a different approach: exposure therapy. Do you know what that does?" he asked.

Exposure therapy dealt with primarily anxiety disorders; fears, more often than not. It would
gradually diminish them by subjecting her to what she was afraid of. Be it desensitization or
flooding, she would learn to overcome the fear with time and repetitive action.

She stared at him, unblinkingly.

"You want me to be near Uchiha-san."

"Something along the lines of that. Obito-san has agreed to come to these sessions starting next
week and will be sitting on that sofa in the corner."

Inoichi pointed to the cushions on the far right.

"He'll gradually move closer and closer to you until he's sitting right beside you. We'll see where
we go from there. Okay?"
Sakura slowly nodded, eyes half lidded and pointed towards the wall. Thirty minutes left. It was
enough time to ready herself for the weeks to come if Obito was going to be sat in the room from
now on. She wouldn't allow herself to lose her calm when he came.

She wouldn't.

::

"Are you actually laying there and doing nothing?" Ibiki mused. "Huh. I never thought I'd see the
day where you chose to stay inside instead of doing something you're not supposed to. What's the
occasion?"

Sakura moved the couch pillow from her face and fixed him with a groggy glare.

"Why's it so hard to believe that I'm capable of taking breaks?"

"Because you don't."

"Oh, great explanation, old man. I never knew you were a master of reasoning," she drawled.
Ibiki picked up another pillow at the end of the couch and tossed it at her face and taking its place.
There was a comfortable silence between the both of them for a little while before Sakura lifted
her head to peer at him. "But you're right, I don't take breaks. I'm actually thinking about a few
things."

"And the world gives a collective gasp of fear."

She glared again.

"Anyway, I was thinking about why our team was assigned the way it was. I know the three of us
are best friends and those two listen to what I say, but... there's no dynamic, you know? Naruto
and Sasuke are always bickering- in a good way, of course, but sometimes I feel like them being
rivals and friends isn't going to be fine when we're older. I guess Hokage-sama sees me as a
mediator, but I won't be around forever."

Ibiki crossed his arms and leaned back. That was something he never heard before, let alone
considered. Sakura might try to hide it as hard as she could, but she was prone to worry even over
the most insignificant of things. He didn't know why she'd concern herself with the details.

"What brought this on?" he questioned. She girl rubbed at her eyes, showing the dark bags she
went through great means to conceal from others aside from himself. It was actually the seventh
month of her living in the house when Ibiki first saw the dutiful concealers and chakra
replenishing pills (which he confiscated) she kept in the bathroom. Recently, he'd been getting her
to try natural sleep remedies to help.

She shrugged.

"We're best friends, not a team. When we finally get out into the field, do you know how many
problems that'll cause? Emotions get in the way and things aren't done in the most effective way
because of it. Naruto and Sasuke don't know what it's like out there."

He looked at her.

"And you do?"

"Better than them."


A brazen assertion, but he couldn't find himself disagreeing with her. He'd known her long
enough to understand there was a wisdom beneath her snark and skill. She knew more than she let
on and lived through enough to make such a statement. But he knew where she was going with
this and he didn't like it one bit.

"I want you to remember that it's alright to take care of yourself before taking care of others."

She gave another shrug and placed the pillow back onto her face. Still, he could hear her bitter
undertone and see that guilty smile that paired up nicely with her reply.

"Well..."

"Sakura."

"Kidding. I won't put my life on the line once we start taking field missions. Promise."

Ibiki didn't believe her.

::

"Fifteen more laps."

Naruto, quickly forgetting about the hellfire that curled around his muscles and the buckets of
sweat seeping out of every pore in his body, jerked his head at the toned figure watching their
progress from the shadows. His legs trembled in exhaustion.

"We... We just... thirty around Konoha..."

"Did I stutter?" Kakashi questioned coolly. "I said twenty more. Or, I'll have you meditate in 10°C
(50°F) water for an hour. Do you want a repeat of what happened last time?"

Last time, Naruto had gotten so tired that he lost consciousness in the middle of the lake. If Sakura
hadn't been there to fish him out and make sure water hadn't gotten into his lungs, he would've
drowned.

The boy shook his head and forced himself to run another lap. Sasuke wasn't too far behind him
and heard the threat his sensei had given, so he merely swallowed his pride and focused on how to
keep running without collapsing. Kakashi watched the both of them slowly round the village's
walls as he crossed his arms.

Their obedience nearly made up for the insolence of the third one.

"Kakashi, are you trying to get them to hate you? Because its hard for them to hold a grudge even
with your sadistic tendencies."

He withheld a sigh. Nearly.

Sakura slowed to a leisurely stride as she completed her twentieth lap. She had kept a lagging pace
behind the other two and hardly looked as drained as her teammates, confirming his assumption
that she went as fast as she did for their sake. If he had to make a guess, it would be that she was
unfazed with his stamina training because she had something similar done to her before.

"You have fifteen more laps to complete. I suggest you see to it without your normal brand of
unnecessary remarks," he said. Of course, she paid no mind to his direction and stretched an arm
over her head.
"I know you're trying to mold us into top-notch shinobi, but you shouldn't run them ragged every
day. It's Monday. We graduated six days ago."

He didn't look at her. He wouldn't give her the satisfaction that he was actually taking that into
deliberation.

"The sooner you learn your lessons, the better off you'll be in the future," he settled on. She gave a
lengthy sigh and poked his flak jacket.

"We graduated six days ago," she repeated. "Even if you wanted us to take the upcoming chuunin
exams, it's four months away. I don't think we'll be able to compete if most of the team dies of
fatigue the first week of training."

Kakashi crossed his arms.

"Spit it out."

"I want you to understand what you're doing to Sasuke and Naruto. Sure, you're doing this to
assess your team and gauge their strengths and weaknesses, but you won't be able to get good
results if they don't get time to adjust and recuperate. You've got us training thirteen hours straight
with a five minute break here and there and a thirty minute lunch. It's not exactly healthy, you
know."

Along with the insolence came a degree of knowing he certainly didn't want or ask for.
Annoyingly enough, whatever she seemed to say never seemed to be on unfounded ground.
There was always evidence to back her claims, even with that smile he was completely sure was
used to make fun of him.

Yet his pride wouldn't let his gaze drop to her no matter how right she was.

"Continue with your laps, Sakura," he ordered. She grinned and mock saluted him before jogging
to catch up with her boys. Kakashi watched her go blankly, idly wondering how insight could be
crammed in an impudent ten year old girl.

He waited two more hours until the three of them finished running. Sakura emerged from the
exercise with a slight sheen of sweat dampening her clothes. Sasuke leaned against a tree to take
gulps of ragged breaths and to try to keep himself from falling onto the ground. Though Naruto
was more conspicuous of his tiredness and promptly crumpled on the soft grass with a soft thud.

He didn't get up.

"N-Naruto...?" Sasuke mumbled. He too slid to the ground, chin dropping against his chest as he
succumbed to sleep. Sakura gestured to them.

"See? What did I tell you?"

Without waiting for a reply, she made two clones and had them each hoist a boy against their back
with the clones' hands holding them up by their thighs and draping the sweaty arms over red cloth
shoulders to keep them in place. Kakashi didn't bat an eye.

"So," the real Sakura started. "Are we meeting at six in the morning like usual? I'll try to get them
to the grounds on time if we are."

The man shook his head.

"No... Seeing the state these two are in, I doubt they'll be able to be in optimal condition for what I
have planned. Training will continue on Wednesday," he said. Sakura waved her clones to send
her boys home as she leaned forward a bit, a wide grin crawling onto her face.

"Kakashi, are you giving us the day off?"

"I said no such thing."

"Aw, you listened to my advice!"

"I didn't."

His denial didn't stop her from sliding up beside him and nudging his side. He frowned at her
friendly demeanor.

"Don't get all shy on me, Kakashi. We both know what this means," she grinned. Kakashi raised
an eyebrow despite himself, making Sakura grin wider. "It means you're starting to like me!"

He blinked once before snorting at the ridiculous comment. There was no way he'd ever stoop
low enough to start enjoying a brat's company. Black eyes eventually slid to her smiling face and
narrowed slightly. She was stronger and far more skilled than her counterparts, but that didn't
make any sense. She would've already made a name for herself much like he did at a young age.

It was either she learned everything one her own, or she was being kept under wraps by other
shinobi. It didn't matter which it was, it just meant he couldn't underestimate her. Not when she
acted like she could see through his intentions.

"Instead of insisting on lies, perhaps you should take the day to catch up on your sleep."

Her smile turned a little less genuine.

"Sleep?"

"The seat moved some of the concealer from under your eyes," he informed quietly. "Have you
worried about those two so much that you forgot to worry about yourself?"

Surprisingly, her reaction was something he didn't expect. Sakura's shoulders dropped as she put
both hands up in weary defeat.

"Okay. You caught me. I'm a certified mother hen. Arrest me. But don't put me in the T&I cells. I
know they're nasty as hell."

Kakashi felt he found another aspect of her. She was selfless, yes, and tried to hide it under humor
to mask how bad it really was. He searched her gaze and saw how the green- that had been jovial
a minute ago- had iced over into a controlled smoothness.

"Is that the reason for your presumably unusual sleep schedule?"

She gave a noncommittal shrug.

"Don't worry about it, Kakashi. I've already got an old man at my back who nags me all the time,"
she sighed. She rested her hands behind her head and slowly strolled off the grounds. "See you
around- oh, and don't do anything I wouldn't do!"

He waited until she was gone before letting out a tired sigh and running a hand through his silver
hair.

Him. A sensei.
Him. A sensei.

If this wasn't the worst decision ever made, he didn't know what was.

::

All therapies mentioned are possible treatments for PTSD. For more information,
see http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/treatment/therapy-med/treatment-ptsd.asp
Bonds

"Going somewhere?"

Sasori fastened his puppet scrolls around his waist, not once looking up at the man leaning against
the living room door frame. The Akatsuki recently assigned to the safe house in River Country-
himself, Kakuzu, and Kisame- were ordered to stay out of the public's scrutiny as the next set of
missions were laid out and distributed.

In other words, it was free time.

"Just paying a friend a quick visit," he replied. Kisame raised an eyebrow.

"You have friends?"

"Now you're just being rude."

He tucked Sakura's most recent note into the inner lining of his cloak as he slipped it on. Kisame
stepped aside and Sasori walked passed to pick his kunai pouch from of the sofa. He was ready to
head off towards Konoha and check if Sakura really had begun to lose some of her sense.

He wouldn't let her go crazy. He knew he was already too far gone and she had to be the one to
keep the sanity between them.

"Is the friend you're visiting Deidara or the Kazekage's youngest son?" Kisame asked. Sasori
stopped a few feet away from the door.

Ah.

He turned, hair brushing against his lashes.

"I thought I did such a great job keeping that a secret," he said. "And if you know, Yahiko-sama
must be aware by now. Well, I suppose I could make this trip before I'm brought into questioning
and detained for the next month. And it's neither of those two, if you're still wondering."

He managed to take another step before being stopped by the sheer force of the ex-Kiri nin's next
few words.

"I didn't tell anyone."

Sasori spun around.

"What? What do you mean, 'I didn't tell anyone'? My actions are obviously suspicious and
should've been reported a long time ago."

Kisame waved his hand about nonchalantly.

"What you're doing must be important if you're sneaking around. It's your business. I was just...
curious," he said. Ever since their quaint conversation on hypotheticals, the hulking swordsman
was very quiet and contemplative around Sasori. The latter thought it was odd, but didn't question
it and chalked it up to him being weird again.

"And you're going to let me keep doing it?"


"Yeah."

"Because it's none of your business?"

The taller man nodded.

"Pretty much."

"... Huh," the puppet-master muttered, glancing at the door. "Well... I'll bring back a souvenir, I
guess."

::

It was 6:30 am.

On Wednesday.

The morning after the team's first day off.

Kakashi, being the kind man that he was, expected his genin to show on time after being graced
with his leniency.

...

So where the hell were they?

He tapped an irritated finger on his bicep as he stood in the middle of the training field. He told
them their very first meeting that being early meant being on time. Fifteen minutes prior than what
was set, preferably. But no. They were thirty minutes later than late, making the grand total of
forty five minutes they could have training!

There had better be a damn good explanation or one hundred laps around Konoha was in order.

Kakashi turned his head towards a thicket of bushes just before an blue and green blob tumbled
out. It quickly shot up to its feet and exclaimed:

"We didn't mean to, dattebayo!"

The man towered over him.

"You have five seconds."

"But-!"

"Four."

"W-W-W-Wait!"

"Three."

"Kakash-!"

"Two."

"We couldn't leave 'im!" Naruto cried, his face red from the running ahead he did and the panic
that rose when a death glare was aimed at him. "He was scared an' alone an' hurt an' his kaa-san
wasn' movin' so we had ta' do somethin'! He woulda' died, Kakashi-sensei!"
The jounin refused the urge to cock an eyebrow and looked up at the bushes once more. Sasuke
and Sakura came out at a more justified pace with a bundle tucked in the girl's arms. And quite a
large bundle it was, seeing as she had to peer all the way to the side to see in front of her.

"Sensei, we have to get him help," Sasuke stated firmly, eyes holding a steady determination that
wouldn't allow for an unacceptable answer. The bundle moved slightly.

"Yeah, Kakashi," Sakura added. "Don't get your panties in a twist. Don't you know how long it'll
take for you to untangle them?"

The bundle, wrapped in Naruto's orange vest, wriggled until the hood fell away and a head
popped out of the masses. Two powder blue eyes peered up from a white furred head. Its black
nose twitched as it stared at the subtly surprised Kakashi. A baby deer- a white one- with a loosely
bandaged front leg was what kept them so long. If he could say anything about it, there would be
a slightly darkened patch on its crown that resembled the sun.

"... What did you think to achieve by bringing it here?"

"Its name is Yuki. And we're going to find him some help. I'm pretty sure the wound on his leg is
going to need stitches and we want to make sure he doesn't have any more injuries," Sakura said.
Kakashi's eyes roamed from the fawn to his three students.

"Perhaps you won't find the help for it."

"Nu-uh!" Naruto protested. "Hana-san's a vet and she told us we could come by anytime! Kiba
took us to her office once and we know where it is. We'll go there and make sure Yuki's alright,
yeah?"

A tie to the Inuzuka's wasn't something he considered a possibility. Again, an interesting perk that
came with the early graduates, but he wouldn't complain. The more connections a shinobi had, the
more abilities and techniques they were able to utilize.

He was going to open his mouth and deny their request. They were more than half an hour late,
breaking a rule outright. And they had done it for an animal, no less. But he caught Sakura's gaze
from above the other heads, her previous words ringing through his ears.

Are you trying to get them to hate you?

"... Fine," he relented. He purposely moved his eyes to avoid seeing the girl's gleeful grin. "We'll
go to the Inuzuka Veterinary Clinic."

::

When Hana went to work that morning, her three canine companions rushed forward to the back
entrance of the clinic. The Haimaru Brothers had taken quite a liking to Kiba's friends the past few
years and would readily greet them if their paths ever crossed, even the odd girl that always
carried the smell of cats. Masaru, Masashi, and Masato poked their noses at the ten year olds with
familiarity while eyeing the other animal and the strange man.

"Ah, the three squirts," Hana hummed. She waved at them before fishing for her key.
"Congratulations on graduating. Since you're here with your sensei, did you get a mission?"

Sasuke shook his head.

"We found a deer when we went to the training field. His mom's dead and his leg's hurt."
Hana unlocked the door and held it open to let them in.

"Alright, come on in. I'll see what I can do for you."

Kakashi lingered near the back of the group, the dog triplets tailing his heels. He'd never been
inside the clinic before as his summons were rarely injured and returned to their homes if they did.
Besides, he wasn't known for his personable attitude with other shinobi. He was an ANBU for his
village first and foremost and he didn't have time for anything else.

... Though he'd probably have to find a new excuse with the department change.

He stopped outside the examination room and leaned back against the wall, watching as his
students patiently waited Hana to look over the fawn. Why they had taken the time to help a wild
animal, he couldn't fathom. It should've been left in the forest to learn to fend for itself since it was
a circumstance it couldn't refuse.

Those whose futures were doomed from the beginning had to learn to live with their curses. There
was no hope in changing that, and he was determined to have his team understand it before it was
too late.

"Oi, Kakashi!"

He repressed the urge to sigh and turned a cold stare to his group's little pseudo-leader.

"Address me properly."

"Yeah, sure, whatever, Anyway, Kakashi," Sakura began. The deer was back in her arms and
Sasuke and Naruto hung back to talk to Hana. "Yuki's not hurt anywhere else and his leg'll heal
naturally. We'll probably drop him off at the Nara Forest and have him recuperate there."

He regarded her with a raised eyebrow.

"You need permission to step on those grounds."

"Nara-san lets as hang out there all the time!" Naruto exclaimed, running up beside Sakura.
"When we're with Shikamaru, he says we gotta check on the deer. Rikumaru's my favorite."

The Nara too? They were a family of geniuses that contained the best strategists Konoha had to
offer. Not to mention they used deer antlers in numerous medicinal concoctions that came at a
quite expensive price if one didn't have ties to the clan.

"Can we go look for Nara-san, sensei?" Sasuke questioned. The man was met with another round
of hopeful eyes, the third, of course, observing him carefully to see what kind of answer he'd give.
Kakashi leveled his stare.

"... We'll go," he said. He didn't miss the way Sakura's lips pulled up in a proud grin, or the way
Hana's eyes widened at his show of compliance. As the team made their way out of the clinic,
Hana called out her goodbye.

"Don't cause too much trouble for Hatake-san, you hear? I heard about what happened with the
potatoes!"

The Haimaru Brothers yipped in agreement.

::
Sasuke and Naruto walked a bit ahead of the group, occasionally nudging each other and arguing
about where to find Shikaku. It left Kakashi and Sakura to take their time while watching for any
mishaps the two boys could get into.

"You know we're missing your precious training time, right? Those 'life or death' sessions or
whatever you call them."

The Hatake glanced down at the fawn, whose blue eyes stared at him intently.

"I have a schedule. I will follow that schedule. You don't need to know anything about it- just
follow what you're told and there won't be a problem."

"Cut the crap, Kakashi. You're doing this because you like us, huh?"

The audacity astounded him.

"Actually, I bet that in seven days we can get you to admit you like us!" Sakura continued. At
Kakashi's dead stare, she beamed. "Seriously, I mean it. A week from tomorrow, , you'll see that
you like us so much that we'll be the best thing that's ever happened to you. Stakes! I'll even hold
up stakes to show you how right I am!"

He took a look at Naruto, who was bristling at something said to him, then Sasuke, whose smug
smirk displayed his victory in whatever argument he got himself into. Kakashi returned his
attention to her.

"Stakes?"

"If I win, you have to go up to Dan-sama and tell him that no matter what happens, we'll always
be your team," she stated. An odd stipulation, he admitted, and once he couldn't even see how it
would benefit her.

"And if I win?"

"If you win, I'll call you by your proper title and won't give anymore of my lovely commentary.
Deal?"

A chance to be free from her unappreciated snark? It took him a while to digest her conditions
before he- irritatingly- started weighing out his options. He could join this childish game and have
a 50/50 shot at finally getting her to curb her ridiculous attitude. It would save him the trouble of
enacting disciplinary measures. But on the other hand, he was going to lower himself to a point
where he'd be making bets with a ten year old.

If he backed out, though, it would look even worse on him.

Well, at least he had nothing to lose.

"Deal," Kakashi said. "The bet will end at noon, a week from tomorrow."

Sakura didn't grin this time. Rather, her eyes lit up with something he'd never seen on her before.
She turned and walked ahead before he could say anything about it.

Those eyes...

Surely, they couldn't have looked as sad as he thought he'd seen.

Day 1: Thursday
"Where's Sakura?"

Sasuke and Naruto exchanged glances. Around 5:45 in the morning, the two of them came by
themselves on certain circumstances. They would have normally met up with Sakura halfway to
the training grounds, but a note tacked onto a nearby tree acted as her substitute instead.

Naruto scratched the back of his head.

"She, uh... won't be here today. 'Cause she's at her shrink."

"Therapist," Sasuke corrected. "Sakura's going to be with her therapist the whole day, but she'll be
back tomorrow."

Kakashi might not be too taken with the girl, but that didn't mean he'd not think that piece of
information wasn't something to keep in mind. A therapist?

Why?

::

Inoichi asked her to come early where afterwards, she could sneak the day away answering
practice cases in Ibiki's office. That, and the only time Obito was free were the fear early hours he
had until the official start of a separate mission of his.

Sakura's palms dampened with sweat as she sat on the worn couch. Obito said nothing from his
spot against the wall, but his mere presence- especially after what happened a couple of years ago-
was enough to set her on edge.

"I hope you don't mind me taking you out of your genin team for the day," Inoichi said, pulling
her out of her thoughts. "Will your sensei get upset?"

"Kakashi can live with it," she snorted. She flinched as Obito's gaze shot up at the name. Inoichi
clicked his pen and jotted down some notes.

Patient susceptible to sudden movements.

Consistent response with documented panic attack at 8 years old.

"I guess you wouldn't have it any other way. Let's proceed the session as we normally do-
anything interesting happen this past week?"

Sakura's eyes flickered to her right, then moved to the spot on the wall to avoid both their gazes.

"Nothing really."

The Yamanaka lifted a page on his clipboard and moved his pen.

Exposure therapy will last through several future sessions.

Day 2: Friday

Naruto grumbled to himself as he bent over to pick up another piece of plastic stuck beneath the
river rocks. He knew they were genin and they had to take the lowest ranking of missions and
yeah, sure, he knew something like this had to be done. Shinobi were commissioned to do any
and all jobs, Iruka told him all the time, and he was grateful that the job market was pretty decent
towards beginners.
It was just...

"ARGH! This is so damn boring!"

Sakura chucked a small pebble at him.

"You're serving the community, Naruto."

"Well the community's stupid, 'ttebayo!" he shouted. He spun around, splashing water to the sides
as he glared up at his sensei who was standing in the shade of the treeline and watching them with
blank eyes. "What 'bout you, sensei? If we gotta 'serve the community', you gotta do it to!"

"He doesn't have to, Naruto. Kakashi's our team leader no matter how much he sucks at it, and we
have to listen. He's kind of in charge of us," she said.

"How's that fair?" Sasuke asked. He tossed an empty can into the trash basket he carried on his
back. Three hours they'd spent mulling around the river to take whatever trash they happened to
stumble across. Their feet were starting to prune and the water had gotten slightly warmer than
when they first started, but it was still cold.

"Life's not supposed to be fair. Look you two, the sooner we get this clean up done, the sooner we
can see Shino's new colony. Do we want to keep him waiting or no?"

Much to Kakashi's interest, their complaints and they continued with their work. He didn't know
how to feel about Sakura's blatant... authority over the two, even when she never acted above
them or said anything that implied it. She simply acted as if she knew better or that she held a
certain wisdom that the two had yet to understand.

She glanced his direction before turning away, making him narrow his eyes.

No, it wasn't an act. She probably did know better. How, he had yet to figure out.

Naruto trudged downstream, following a slip of paper he couldn't care to run after. Sasuke looked
over his shoulder.

"Careful, dobe. You're getting close to the waterfall."

The older boy turned until he was walking backwards and stuck his tongue out.

"I know there's a waterfall! I'm not dumb enough to-- AHH!!"

Naruto slipped on some of the smoother rocks on the river bottom and tipped backwards. Sasuke
threw his basket to the bank and lunged forward, hand outstretched to try and grab the other boy's
hand before he fell off the edge. He managed, but the momentum brought him forward instead of
back.

Kakashi didn't hear the slosh of water of someone hastily running through the river.

Kakashi didn't sense any sort of chakra collecting at someone's expense.

Kakashi didn't see anyone else move.

But yet, she was there. Sakura, somehow, had silently gotten to the other end of the river faster
than the naked eye could track and grasped Sasuke's hand before he and Naruto could take the
whole waterfall down. The soles of her feet glowed a light blue as she stood above the steady
river current, and the weight of two ten year old boys hadn't hindered her in the slightest.
"Can you two take something seriously for once?" she sighed. She looked up at Kakashi. "Yo,
Kakashi! If you can give me a little help, I'll take back that comment of you being a sucky sensei!"

She shouldn't have been capable of doing that.

"You got over there just fine," he mentioned lightly, "You're more than capable of helping them
up yourself."

She shouldn't have gotten by without him knowing.

"Why, Kakashi! If you didn't say that to be such an asshole I'd say that was a compliment!"
Sakura grinned. She used her free hand to hook under Sasuke's bicep to hoist both her boys back
a safe distance away from the waterfall. Naruto sputtered incredulously, tumbling onto land and
kissing the ground like he hadn't seen it in a hundred years.

"Idiot!" Sasuke growled. "I said you were getting close to the waterfall! If Sakura wasn't there
then you would've died!"

"Sakura-chan's always gonna be there so it wasn't that bad, bastard! We're okay, right?!" he shot
back.

The only female on the team lost the shine in her eyes at that short sentence. She suddenly stepped
away from them both and adjusted the straps of the trash basket, returning to her duties with a
small frown on her face.

Neither Sasuke or Naruto noticed.

...

But Kakashi did.

Day 3: Saturday

Weeds.

Stupid, stringy, annoying weeds.

At least there weren't any waterfalls to accidentally fall over this time.

A civilian who ran a close-by persimmon farm had requested their services to help clean up his
grounds so that his profits wouldn't decline from the mild infestation. It was a simple enough task
even if the land was so expansive, but the plucking wasn't the problem that had Sakura's hand
twitch every time it made itself known.

It was the shitty civilian who wouldn't keep his mouth shut.

"Koichi, you stupid, stupid boy!" the civilian roared. "Any simpleton can get this job done, yet
you can't! What's so hard about it?!"

The five year old Koichi, whose light brown hair stood at odd ends, looked up at his father with
watery gray eyes.

"I-I'm so... so..."

"A question, boy! How many times do I have to tell you to give me an answer when I ask you a
question?!"
The genin team was across the field, but the civilian's voice cut through the air like a butcher
hacking at a rotten cut. They had only been working a short time, but there wasn't one second
where the man hadn't found fault with the little boy.

"Go tend to the fruit and be useful for once you worthless brat!"

Koichi ducked his head, nearly tripping over his own feet as he ran as fast as he could to the trees
just a few meters away from the weed-pulling trio. As the civilian disappeared into his house,
Naruto dropped his weeds.

"Koichi, are you okay?"

"Y-Yeah. S'okay, Shinobi-san. I don' mind."

Sakura grit her teeth but said nothing. Sasuke patted her shoulder. The three of them didn't need to
be warned about what would happen if she snapped and lost her cool in the middle of the mission.
Dan would definitely be upset with them and probably move them off the roster for a week or
two.

Kakashi sat on the wooden fence beside them. He had a book about some sort of philosophy held
against his knee and read without a care in the the world. On the outside, he was nonchalant and
uncaring as ever.

Inside?

Probably as irritated as the rest of his team.

But it wasn't their place to step into matters that weren't their own. Of course it was wrong and the
boy's father shouldn't be acting so harsh, but what could they do? This was a job and he was a
client. Nothing in their contract said they had to look into their employer's personal life.

All that had to be done was pull all of the weeds, have the civilian's approval, then probably never
come back.

::

"What did I tell you?! Tend to the fruit! The FRUIT! So what is all this crap you're showing me
you little shit?!"

Some of the fruits were nearly ripe, so Koichi had hauled a ladder all the way to the tree and
began picked the persimmons. Though he had picked one too much, the weight causing him to
topple off the ladder and drop onto the ground.

The civilian was more concerned about the bruises on the fruit than the bruises on his son's back.

"I di-didn't mean t-t-to!" Koichi cried. The civilian's face burned with rage as he raised his hand,
knuckles pointed towards the ground.

"Raising your voice at me?! You insolent cur!"

SMACK!

Kakashi's eyes widened. Because there, stood in front of a cowering little boy, was Naruto with
his face jerked to the left. His cheek gleamed an angry red. The man's eyes widened further when
the civilian recoiled in disgust, not in surprise or shock, but disgust when he got a good look at the
genin's face.
"The demon defending the good-for-nothing. Fitting," the civilian hissed. He had no time to react
when a fist appeared in his vision and clocked him clear in the jaw, sending him sailing into the
dirt and letting an audible crack ring in everyone's ears.

"Say that again, filth. I fucking dare you," Sakura snarled. Her bandaged hand stayed balled even
as the sorry excuse of a man held his chin and pointed an accusing finger at her.

"You hit me!"

"I returned the favor."

"I'll report you!" he shouted. "I'll report the lot of you!"

"To who?" Sasuke questioned smoothly, speaking up for the first time. He stepped up to stand on
the other side of Naruto and placed a pale hand atop Koichi's quivering head. "Uchiha Fugaku is
head of the Uchiha and the Police Commissioner, the highest possible rank, of the Konoha Keimu
Butai."

The civilian gave him a dirty look.

"I know that!" he snapped. Sasuke raised his chin.

"Then who's he going to believe- a lowly farmer or his own son?"

A few moments passed before the threat sunk in and the civilian's face gained an unhealthy pallor.
He knew he was going to lose this battle, so he whipped his head towards their sensei. Kakashi's
face returned to its usual blankness.

"There are your students and they'll be held responsible! Do something about them!" the civilian
demanded. The jounin raised an eyebrow.

"You raised a hand to your own child, hit my student, then refused to apologize for your
wrongdoing by insulting him instead. I say the reactions were warranted," he said. "If you believe
not, report it to Hokage-sama. I'm sure he'll listen to your claims after you've been handled by
child services."

Sakura retracted her hand and pulled out bruise salve from her pouch to tend to both Koichi and
Naruto.

Weeds.

It was always the stupid, stringy, annoying weeds.

Day 4: Sunday

"You've eaten at Ichiraku's right, sensei?"

Kakashi looked up from sharpening his kunai. This was their hour break for lunch when they'd
normally run off the minute they were dismissed and came back a minute before they were
counted as late.

"No."

"WHAT?!" Naruto shrieked. The man held himself to keep from flinching at the horrible volume
the boy's voice had risen to. "Everyone's tried Ichiraku's! It's the best ramen in Konoha!"
"I'm not too fond of ramen," Kakashi replied. Naruto's mouth dropped to the ground, his hand
clutching his heart like he'd been stabbed a million times. Without another word, he grabbed his
teacher's hand and pulled him to his feet.

"Sakura-chan! Sasuke! Sensei doesn't like ramen! He's possessed, dattebayo! POSSESSED! We
gotta give him ramen to save his life!" he yelled. No correlation, but Kakashi expected nothing
less of the him. Given what had happened just yesterday, he supposed he could let himself be
dragged off to who knows where. The ramen shop?

That's where he found himself not ten minutes later, sitting on one of the stools in the stall with
Sasuke and Naruto on one side of him and Sakura on the other.

"Ah, my best customers!" Teuchi greeted with his cheery grin. "Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura. Nice to
see you three again! Here to treat your sensei to lunch?"

"Yup!" Naruto chirped. "He's gotta try the best! So we'll have four miso, one chicken, and one
tempura please!"

Sakura poked Kakashi's side.

"Naruto usually eats three bowls. It's actually pretty scary, if you ask me," she whispered. The
man spared her a quick glance.

"You're here often?"

"Mostly. Sometimes we can get him to the other stalls, but Ichiraku's will always be his favorite.
He only brings people he likes here," she smiled. "You think you can guess what that means?"

Kakashi resisted the urge to roll his eyes, but failed to stop the feeling that he was beginning to
think of the three as tolerable. The only people he found tolerable were Obito and, to a very
special extent, Gai. He wasn't about to put those three brats on their level.

Sakura pressed her hands to her mouth and hit her fist against the counter, shoulders shaking with
laughter and tears threatening to trickle from her eyes. Kakashi blinked at her for a second before
looking to his other side. Sasuke was in a similar state, trying hard to keep himself from falling off
his stool.

Naruto had stuck a pair of chopsticks up his nose and began giving his best impression of the
Daimyou's wife.

Kakashi pressed his lips together and refused the quirk that threatened to take the edge of his
mouth.

Nope. Not tolerable. Absolutely not at all.

Day 5: Monday

Kakashi stood merely fifty meters ahead of her, observing the way Naruto and Sasuke sparred
with taijutsu only. She should be paying attention by drawing chakra to her ears to hear any
conversation they might be having.

Instead, she was whisper-yelling up at the thee beside her.

"You're crazy!" she hissed. "You're going to get caught, then you're going to get me in trouble,
and then I'm going to have to bail your dumbass out!"
"I'm crazy? Me? I'm not the one who wants to make Uchiha Itachi the Rokudaime Hokage. You
need to explain that to me right now or I'm not leaving," Sasori returned. She made a choking
motion in his direction, looked at Kakashi to make sure he still hadn't become suspicious, and
looked back.

"A literal ANBU is right there!"

"And? We could probably take him down, no problem." he shrugged. Sakura was tempted to
break the tree he took refuge in, but didn't for the sake of not getting caught. He should realize
how lucky he was that she wasn't going to.

"Seriously, can we do this later? My plan is long-winded and will take a while to explain. And
honestly, I'd prefer to stay on Kakashi's good side for at least a week. That means no conspiring
with, oh, I don't know, S-Class criminals!"

Sasori waved a hand.

"Unimportant. Well, I guess I'll have to wait out on telling you about Kisame suspecting I'm
actually a time-traveler."

...

"What?"

"I was joking, but I think I said too much."

Sakura pressed a palm to her forehead, foreseeing the headache that would come in a few minutes.
Eighty years in the Void, was it? It must have been a hell of a time to turn one of the greatest
geniuses the shinobi world had come to know into a complete, utter idiot.

"Sakura," Kakashi called out. "What are you doing?"

She met his even gaze with a bland stare.

"There's a stupid squirrel in the tree, Kakashi. I'm trying to get it to go away," she said. Luckily,
he was used to her oddness and turned back to the sparring duo.

Sasori chucked an acorn at her head the same second.

Day 6: Tuesday

Ibiki tugged on his trench coat as he opened the fridge to get himself a glass of orange juice and a
piece of onigiri. When he shut the door, Sakura appeared right next to him holding out a pen and a
piece of notepad paper.

"Write down Kakashi's address for me?"

He took the pen and paper while taking a bite of his breakfast.

"Pour me some juice. Isn't it an off day for your team? Don't tell me you're choosing to bother
Hatake over being a decent citizen of the village," he said. Sakura took a glass from the cabinet,
poured a cup, then put the rest of it back into the fridge.

"I'm always a decent citizen, for your information. The time the Hokage Monument was painted
orange was a moment of weakness," she countered. Ibiki handed her the paper, downing his drink
in one gulp and setting it in the sink.
"Of course it was. Will you be back tonight or tomorrow morning?"

"Hm... probably tomorrow morning."

He nodded. After putting on his sandals, he opened the front door for her to step out before doing
so himself and locking the door.

"Don't get arrested."

"Wouldn't dream of it. See you tomorrow, old man!"

::

He was probably going to spend his afternoon visiting the memorial stone or scouting for a spare
mission the Hokage might have in store. Those plans were genin-free, giving him at least 24 hours
to clear his mind and think up a new training regime to work on their dynamic, or lack thereof.

It was going to be a good day.

Until they showed up at his doorstep. With grocery bags. And shit-eating grins.

"Afternoon, sensei!" Naruto exclaimed. He let himself in despite the twitching of his teacher's left
eye. "Did you eat yet? Well, if you did that's okay. The food's gonna take a while anyway."

"We'll make sure to make it the best we can. Don't worry, we've had lots of practice so it's safe to
eat," Sasuke assured. He too came into the apartment and followed his rival into the kitchen.
Kakashi very slowly turned to the last, most obvious culprit of the group.

"Where did you get my address?"

"I talked to none-of-your-business. They were very helpful," she answered cheekily. She also let
herself into the apartment and set her plastic bags onto the counter. He watched in hopelessness at
his team raided his kitchen for cooking supplies and other things they might need for whatever the
hell they were doing.

"Hey sensei," Naruto called, "How do you work your oven?"

"Get out of my house."

::

He should've known better. Really. Since it was technically an off day for all of them, Sakura
found an even greater reason to not listen to him and urged her boys to continue without listening
to a word their sensei said. When it came down to listening to either him or her, the choice was
obvious. And always would be.

But that didn't mean they could crash at his place for the night.

Dinner was actually quite nice, much to his surprise, when they made salt-broiled saury with a
side of miso soup with eggplant (he didn't complain when they made his favorite dishes) and
followed it up with sponge cakes for dessert. Afterwards, they played some old movies on his TV
until Naruto and Sasuke fell asleep on his couch.

He considered kicking them out, but they would probably find a way through the window or
trigger all his traps while trying.
"So why aren't you asleep?"

Sakura tilted her head to look at him.

"Hm?"

"You already invaded my apartment and took over my kitchen and my couch," he pointed out.
"And as the tyrant you are, I expected you to declare victory. Is it that you don't want to sleep or
you can't?"

She gave a humorless laugh and swung her legs off the armrest and onto the ground. Propping her
cheek with her palm, she regarded the man she knew years and years ago with eyes that appeared
too tired to keep going on.

"You ask a lot of questions. Did you know that?"

He glimpsed at the clock sitting above the TV. 11:59 pm.

"No one's ever told me that before. Perhaps it's because I tend not to associate with others," he
said. "But you knew that. I don't know why, but you do. You always seem to know something
everyone else doesn't."

Day 7: Wednesday

From her silence, he could see an unnatural guilt in her eyes. It didn't matter how many jokes she
made or every comment she quipped to deflect attention away from herself, whatever she was
trying to hide would always show itself at the end of the day.

It was... familiar. Her suffering and everything she would never tell a soul. It was the same look he
saw in himself when his father committed suicide, leaving his only son to find his lifeless body
curled up on the floor in the middle of the night. It was the same look he saw in himself when Rin
took death in his place. It was the same look he saw in himself every day of his ANBU life,
wondering who he would kill next and if he'd ever forget what happened to him.

All those years of pain and the inability to forget, he saw in this ten year old girl. She carried an
unfathomable weight no one else knew of, maybe because no one else could see. But he did. He
knew it was there because he saw it for himself.

"How many people have you lost?" he asked, voice no higher than a murmur. Sakura turned her
gaze to Naruto, an empty smile growing on her face at the sight of drool trickling down his chin.
Then she looked at Sasuke who looked as prim and proper as he did when he was awake.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't like to count."

With nothing else to say to her, he retired to his room knowing that he wouldn't be the only one to
stay awake the rest of the morning.

Thursday

At noon, Kakashi went to the Hokage Tower to tell Dan something of utmost importance,
knowing exactly how it would play out. He would knock on the office door twice and let himself
in. A few pleasantries out be exchanged before Dan would go on to ask why he had come.

"I'm here about my team," Kakashi would say. The Godaime would grow confused and ask if he
was displeased with his genin and if he wished for a change of status. Kakashi would shake his
head no and surprise his superior and his niece, but not as much as he would with his request.
He would ask to make the assignment official, where the graduates wouldn't be called Team
Kakashi any longer. They would be called Squadron Seven only after he'd help them grow into
the shinobi they were always meant to be.

"Why?" Dan would ask, astounded that things had taken such a turn. Kakashi would then give a
shrug of his shoulders and then look out the window.

"Because no matter what happens, we'll always be a team," he would answer. But when it did
happen, he would never admit to wanting to make himself better after seeing how much happier
he could be.

::

Aw, everything's happy!

...

For now.
Outset

"What's the matter with you? Showing up at my training session like that could've gotten us both
killed!" Sakura hissed. Kakashi had called an early day half past eleven in the morning, leaving
the three ample time to spend with their families. Sasuke and Naruto, at least. Sasori rolled his
eyes and motioned her to join him on his tree branch.

"We're fine, aren't we? I visited and you now we can sort all this stuff out. You've gone crazy, and
I'm here to find out why."

"Who was it who told Kisame who we really were because he was making a joke?"

"I came here to pay you a nice visit and I'm honestly feeling so attacked right now."

She sighed and went to sit beside him on the branch. They had, possibly, thirty minutes until
Kakashi finished with his meeting.

"We'll make this quick. I tell you about my plan for Itachi-san, you tell me about Hoshigaki, then
you'll hang around for a few days if anything happens," she said. He gestured towards her and
leaned back against the trunk.

"Children first."

Sakura scoffed.

"Ever since Dan-sama became Hokage, he's taking a more amicable and less domineering tenure
than Tsunade's. He's looking for world peace, she didn't," the girl explained. She pointed towards
the compound lying on the outskirts of Konoha. "Clans are important here and there are four
noble ones: the Uchiha, the Hyuuga, the Akimichi, and the Aburame. The only ones to worry
about are the the first two."

She brought up her hand and held up four fingers.

"The Akimichi are big on defensive maneuvers and mass destruction, but are a kind people. I met
Akimichi-san five years ago, and he appreciates that I've become friends with his son. He loves it
when Naruto, Shikamaru, and I come over. He's far from being a problem and he never makes
rash decisions."

Her pinky went down, leaving three fingers.

"The Aburame specialize in reconnaissance and infiltration. Aburame-san doesn't like sitting
through the clan meetings or being involved in village politics as long as the clan is safe and
happy. Him and his son are my sources for insect-based poisons, antidotes, and medication. If you
give him enough reason for something, he wouldn't think too much of it and back if up if it
benefits the majority. Which leaves us with the Hyuuga and the Uchiha."

Her ring finger went down next.

"The Hyuuga and the Uchiha, arguably, are the most powerful clans in the village. Their relations
with each other are rocky, but Sasuke and Hinata are close friends now, as well as members of
their clans' main houses. Rivalry can be satiated for now, but can be advanced with two things.
Marriage and positions of power."

Sasori looked at her like she'd grown a second head. Not because of the pan she had so
ingeniously created, but because she hadn't included him in her plotting from the very beginning.
How inconsiderate.

"Itachi-san agrees most with Dan-sama's ideals. He loves his clan, but he loves his village even
more hence the massacre in the other timeline," Sakura continued. He followed along closely,
having been told of those circumstances a few years back. "If you put him in position of Hokage,
tensions between Konoha in his clan would dissipate. The Hyuuga, not to be left out, would be
offered a high position with great influence. ANBU Director, maybe? I'm thinking of putting Neji
in that one."

He gave her a blank stare.

"That leaves Sasuke with possible claim as clan head, and either Hinata or Hanabi leading the
Hyuuga. We still have years to work out the bugs, but that's all relative. There. Your turn," she
said. She waved her hand for him to elaborate on his accidental reveal. He shrugged.

"What can I say? I made a long joke about you and I coming back to the past from the Void to
change things for the better. He wasn't supposed to take me seriously, but he started putting the
pieces together as to why I act so different. But!" Sasori interjected when she opened her mouth to
call him an idiot. She crossed her arms and waited. "He can help us. He knows I've been going to
see Deidara and Gaara when I can, and he won't report me. If we need the backup, he's our guy."

Sakura eyed him.

"You trust him?" she asked. Sasori tilted his head to look up the green leaves suspended
motionless above them. He didn't necessarily 'trust' Kisame in the past, nor did he see any reason
to start to. The Akatsuki was built off of people whose personal goals coincidentally aligned to a
greater end. There was no need for trust because there was no need to be one giant team.

"... No," he answered carefully. "I would try to keep my life out of his hands, if that's what you
mean."

"So you don't trust your friends."

"I would try to keep my life out of their hands, if that's what you mean."

Sakura blinked away the sudden memory of her mental health examination before letting out
another sigh.

"Yeah. That's what I mean."

::

"I'm actually quite pleased with how you feel about your team, Hatake-san," Dan smiled. He took
the stack of papers Shizune offered him and glanced down. "Actually, such sentiments would do
well with what I'm planning with Kiri."

Kakashi's brow furrowed.

"We have no alliance with Chigiri," he said. Chigiri- the 'Bloody Mist', as many outside the
village liked to call it, took its reputation from the ritual of Academy students slaughtering each
other in order to graduate. It was barbaric and obscene, leading the other nations to steer clear of
both its ventures and its ruthless Mizukage.

Dan nodded.
"Kiri hasn't engaged in that test for years now after Yagura-san dismantled it right after taking up
his position as Yondaime. I know our villages' relations haven't been on the best of terms for a
very long time, and the other Kage haven't made a move towards peace. So, I proposed a way to
reduce the hostility."

Kato Dan had always been known for his good heart and his dedication on creating peace.
Sometimes, such dedication led to decisions questioned by many but never voiced out because his
people trusted him so much.

A blind faith.

Kakashi wasn't too comfortable with the idea.

"What do you plan on doing, Hokage-sama?" he asked.

"Yagura-san and I have been talking, and we've decided that the best influences start with the
younger generations. C-rank missions are the highest we're willing to go for collaborations until
we've built the program's reputation high enough, but we'll manage," Dan explained. The jounin
didn't like where this was going. "And since you have fully accepted your team and they are the
first genin team to graduate ahead of schedule in five years, you're the perfect candidates."

Kakashi's pinky finger twitched, unnoticed by the other occupants of the room.

"What... do you have in mind?"

::

"A guard mission in Nami no Kuni?" Ibiki questioned, reading through the mission copy his ward
received an hour ago. "This is a C-rank. Hokage-sama normally wouldn't allow something like
this."

"Shouldn't be a problem for you and your skill set, but I have my doubts on the Uchiha and
Umino's kid," Genma added.

Sakura shrugged as her eyes hovered towards the office window. The mission surprised her, to
say the least, but she was lucky Sasori was still lurking around the village. She might need his
back-up if things happened the same way as last time. But with these conditions, things might go
even worse than before.

"I'm not complaining. Hokage-sama's doing it to improve Konoha's relationship with Kiri."

"You're slated to protect a bridge builder," Ibiki read.

"Better than falling off waterfalls, old man."

This wasn't supposed to happen. Two years early, nonetheless. What was she going to do this
time around? There was no course of action to take, nothing she could foresee, and had no idea
what to plan for. All that was detailed in the description was that they were to stay a few weeks to
make sure Tazuna and his construction workers finished their bridge without anything going
wrong. Like Ibiki said, it shouldn't be a problem for her, at least, but their joint team...

Genma looked over the interrogator's shoulder and moved his senbon to the other corner of his
mouth.

"Huh. Well, I guess it can be too bad. Who're the representatives you're working with?" he asked.
Sakura bit the inside of her cheek.
"Momochi Zabuza and his apprentice, Haku."

::

"A mission outside the country?! This is gonna be AWESOME, dattebayo!" Naruto cheered.
Sakura shoot her head at his exuberance and slung her pack over bother her shoulders. She
couldn't share the same excitement when this was the mission that gave her team a harsh reality
check by exposing the Kyuubi and allowing Sasuke to awaken the first tomoe of his sharingan.

And he nearly lost his life in the fight against Haku!

Not only that, but there were two deaths that could've been prevented if they were skilled enough
to have done something about it.

"Sakura-chan, did you bring the box with you?" Naruto asked. Sakura slipped her hand into the
pack on her hip and pulled out a glass case that fit into the the palm of her hand. At Kakashi's
silent question, she took out a picture of a spiky caterpillar.

"We're going to Nami no Kuni, yeah? I heard that they have the lonomia obliq-er, the Giant
Silkworm Moth around there. Makes for good poisons that cause blood hemorrhages and anti-
clotting properties," she informed. The man shook his head and chalked it up to being one of her
more peculiar quirks. Here, he wasn't even sure that she was supposed to be a genin with the
things she liked to occupy herself with.

But there were more pressing matters at the moment. They would reach Nami no Kuni within the
next week and meet Tazuna as well as the Kiri shinobi they'd be working with for about a month.
He heard more than enough stories about Zabuza and his reputation, since his generation was still
a part of those savage blood matches.

He didn't know what type of people the Kiri shinobi would be, and he wasn't sure if he wanted to
find out.

"I... don't want to go against your better judgment, Hokage-sama," Kakashi said. He flexed his
fingers. "But I'm not sure my team is experienced enough to take the job. If Momochi is content
enough to bring one student as opposed to my three, it means this Haku is more advanced than
them. What of the off-chance there's a betrayal or ulterior motive?"

That was his utmost concern. Kakashi was confident in his skills to fend for himself if things with
Zabuza went awry, but if Haku faced his genin...

"It won't be a problem. If worst comes to worst, I'm positive your team can hold their own," Dan
assured. Kakashi's eyebrows pulled down into a crease.

"How?"

The Godaime smiled, his eyes shining with something teasing.

"Haruno Sakura is your student. Perhaps it's something you should ask her, as I can't give you an
answer myself."

Sakura would be the one to level the playing field? That shouldn't be. Her skills were certainly
higher than average and could be paired with any other chuunin. There wasn't a thing noteworthy
about her other than her unusual capacity at such a young age.

Unless she was hiding her true potential.


His eyes slanted to the left and met the aforementioned's neutral gaze.

"Something you need, Kakashi?"

He stared at her for a few moments before looking back ahead of him, towards the west, and
towards the most challenging mission their team had yet.

"... Nothing. Keep forward."

::

A traveling monk stood on a cliff's edge that overlooked calmly undulating waters and a sunset
that pulsed a blushing amber. He couldn't recall the last time he'd seen light when all he'd known
to comfort him was darkness the years that passed him by with no hope and no one to save him

So for years, he took at least and hour to appreciate what his soul had taken for granted.

"Shishou?"

The monk turned at the voice of his young disciple.

"Hm?"

"If we don't set out soon, we might not make it to the fishing village before nightfall," the boy
said. He ducked his head. "Not to mean any disrespect. I... I heard from some locals that there's
been a lot of bad people here ever since that shipping baron came into power..."

The monk dipped his head before taking one last look at the horizon.

"I've heard. That's why I wanted us to come here in the first place," he hummed. His disciple
looked up, rust colored eyes shining with curiosity.

"Why?"

"There's a rumor that Gato will fall."

The monk pulled down his hat so that it's shadowed tendrils wrapped around his face.

"And I want to see who'll make it happen."


Heavy

The traveling monk sighed as he sat down on one of the many benches planted on the side of a
road in Nami no Kuni. His disciple was kind enough to offer to get their lunch from a vendor just
a block away. Their travels these past years have been as fruitless with him mostly stopping bandit
attacks on merchants or small civilian villages.

There was nothing more he could do considering he had no set affiliation and that he and his
disciple lived a nomadic lifestyle. It was a far cry from how he lived his life before, but this was
his penance for the things he'd done. Definitely not a soul crushing one either. He was starting to
really enjoy himself.

"Shishou, I got our food!"

The monk scooted over to make room for the thirteen year old boy.

"Thanks. Did you see any trouble along the way?"

The boy scratched his cheek as he opened his bento.

"Well, I saw a couple. I think they were married and the wife didn't look like she wanted to be
there. She was forcing herself to smile and whenever the husband raised his hand or made a
sudden movement, she would flinch or duck her head. I asked her if she was okay, but the
husband cut me off and said she was fine before grabbing her wrist and dragging her away," he
frowned. "I don't think he's being good to her. Should we help?"

The monk opened his own bento and broke apart his chopsticks.

"We can't assume such a personal thing of them. If the husband ever acted out in public, then it's
been made a public matter and we'll intervene."

The boy looked less than pleased, but nodded regardless. The monk patted his disciple's head and
let out the words he used to speak so rashly in the years behind him.

"Divine punishment awaits those ignorant to the pain of others. If we aren't able to help the wife,
the husband will pay his dues."

::

Iruka sat at a small cafe tucked into a street corner not too far from the Akasen. He stared down at
his cup of tea worriedly, his thoughts meandering back to Naruto and the mission he had left for
not too long ago. His adopted son was only ten years old, after all, and despite already achieving
genin status and dutifully completing every D-rank assigned to the team (he was extremely proud
at what the three had done for son of that persimmon farmer), he was still worried about them
taking on a C-rank.

With Kiri shinobi, no less.

Weren't those the guys that ate iron nails for breakfast?

"Lookin' a lil' worried there."

Iruka smiled at the familiar voice and turned his head to his companion for the morning. He stood
a bit to peck Mari on the cheek before the taller man took a seat across from him.
"Yeah, sorry," the Academy sensei apologized. "It's just, Naruto, you know? I know he's got
Sasuke, Sakura, and Hatake-san with him, but... There's Kiri-nin. A guard mission. A dictatorial
shipping magnate! What if something happens to him?! What if something happens to any of
them?!"

Mari reached across the table and laid a hand atop Iruka's. The darker one was shaking, in fear
more likely than not.

"Naru-chan's gonna be okay. He's tough kid. Sasuke and Sakura-chan too. And that Hatake
fellow-- he's strong, ain't he? He'll protect 'em," Mari murmured. At his partner's worried gaze, the
blond man tightened his grip. "Hey, nothin's gonna happen. Come to the bar after work and have
a couple a' drinks, then stay the night. Yeah?"

Iruka turned his hand to hold the other properly.

"Yeah."

"And when Naruto-chan comes home, he'll have the two of us waitin' for 'im."

The younger man nodded. He was so happy he had someone so supportive of him and who loved
Naruto just as much as he did. It didn't matter that Mari had a bar inside the red light district or that
Iruka was a teacher at the Shinobi Academy.

What they had now was more than enough.

::

The first night traveling towards Nami no Kuni, sleep evaded her.

Sakura volunteered to take up watch the whole night, much to her boys' dismay and Kakashi's
curious calculations. He already knew she had trouble sleeping, but he was beginning to think that
there was somethings more behind her restless nights. Insomnia could be a perfect cause for such.
She didn't have the looks of someone suffering from it because of a medical condition like asthma
or lower back pain, so that left the other reason.

A psychiatric disorder.

As night settled in the the fire slowly died down to a flicker of a flame, Kakashi raised his eyes at
Sakura, who had herself perched up on a high branch just out of range. Her face, the one that
always seemed to be mocking him in some way shape or form, had lost all its shine and was
darkened with the stacks of days she hadn't slept. The bags he saw under her eyes were more
pronounced now and glowing with the frustrated expression that showed through clenched teeth
and a hopeless stare.

He blinked. This couldn't be his student he was looking at. She looked so much older and so
much sadder than she always appeared to be.

Oh, but it was no matter what angle he saw her from. That confident little brat that lectured him
when he was the one who was supposed to give the lectures had lost all the spirit in her bones. He
turned his head and saw Naruto and Sasuke passed out in their sleeping bags, blissfully unaware
of the way their friend probably wallowed in her sorrows night after night. If they knew, they
wouldn't have let her take shift the whole night.

"... it... doesn't... sense..."


Kakashi raised his head against the moonlight and the dead silent forest.

"How... do... this...?"

She was talking to herself?

"I can't. I can't do this," she whispered fiercely. "None of... any... damn sense. It wasn't... this
way! If everything was different from... the point of... being here?!"

Thin threads of chakra crawled to Kakashi's ears as he strained to listen in on what she was
saying. Her arm extended, and if he hadn't been staring directly at the movement, he would have
missed the four inch long shadow that crept up her arm.

It was shaped like a...

... scorpion?

Her voice lowered until he could hear her no more, but still he saw her shoulders droop in defeat
and her hands reach up to hold her face-- guilty and unforgiving of herself. Kakashi tore his eyes
away and instead watch the last remnants of the fire die down into embers and ash.

::

"Didja get any sleep last night, Sakura-chan?"

"Yeah, a few hours," she replied. "The stars were nice out so I stayed up watching them. But
don't worry, I'm fully rested."

A lie.

"That's good," Sasuke said. "I know you don't sleep a lot, but at least you got some last night."

"Yeah, it was pretty refreshing."

The lie continued.

She didn't want to worry them, he could tell that much. She also spent all of the night before
awake and whispering to that scorpion no matter what time in the night he woke to check up on
her. Sakura would be in that same tree on that same branch with the same miserable expression on
her face.

A drop of water fell onto his nose.

The skies were slowly turning a cool gray, the clouds heavy with summer's rare showers and the
promise of rumbling thunder.

"It's only a light shower, but it'll pour soon. We keep moving until then," Kakashi ordered. Sasuke
and Naruto gave their customary 'Yes, sensei', then quickening their pace to get farther along
before they had to talk shelter. The man was about to follow their move when he saw Sakura
standing beside him, idle. Her head was tilted back and her eyes were fixed on the heavens.
Horrible loss echoed in every corner of her features.

"Sakura."

"It... wasn't..."

He took a step towards her.


"Sakura," he repeated. "We're moving out."

Her eyes dropped to meet his, real confusion and defeat in her stare. She then angrily faced the
small puddles forming on the ground.

"Sorry, I..."

She rubbed her eyes and stalked forward.

"Sorry."

Kakashi watched her go knowing fully well that he couldn't put aside what he witnessed. For
certain now he knew that there was something not quite right with her. She hid something behind
that insufferable attitude of hers-- something that he wasn't sure he wanted to know for himself.

Unbeknownst to him, the scorpion he spotted hours ago clung to the collar of Sakura's shirt and
had handed off a small note from someone he would have never guessed.

What's wrong?

Sakura held up a slip of paper for Yori to take and ran a hand through her damp hair.

::

It wasn't supposed to rain.

Sasori lurked about a kilometer away from the genin team in case something went wrong, as it
always did. His Akatsuki cloak was replaced with one of black waterproof material equipped with
a hanging hood. Orochimaru and Kisame already knew he'd be on extended leave for an uncertain
amount of time. A month, perhaps. Maybe longer.

But apparently, it wasn't supposed to rain.

With Hatake Kakashi around, he couldn't get closer than he was already. His range of action was
severely limited due to this, leading them to come to the consensus to exchange summons for the
time being.

Kou popped up through the front of Sasori's cloak. The top of his furred head bumped against the
man's chin as sharp eyes scanned their surroundings.

"Ugh, the weather's gotten so dreary. How uncute," Kou sighed. "So what did Sakura-chan say?
Is she in trouble?"

Sasori patted down soft brown fur.

"No. For now, at least. The mission she's on is two years earlier than normal and things are bound
to be different. Example: Momochi and Haku were the enemies and lost their lives trying to raise
money to over overthrow Yagura in the other timeline. Here, Yagura's views have changed and
Momochi never defected."

He continued on with the cat hanging from the clasp of his cloak.

"Isn't that a good thing?" Kou questioned. Sasori shook his head and kept moving forward.
Before setting off on the mission, Sakura detailed everything she remembered when she took the
mission over fifteen years ago.
"We were sent back with the idea that we could change the past. Play Gods. I think you can
imagine how irritating things are when you're actually the deity of a world you never knew."

He stopped and pulled out a scope from his back pouch when the group a kilometer away halted.
It was something he planned to give Deidara the next time he planned a trip to Iwa, but a few uses
before being handed off to its permanent owner wouldn't hurt.

Sasori situated the piece on his right eye and toyed with the buttons to get a better look ahead of
him. The Oni Kyodai- Demon Brothers- he presumed, had unsuspectingly emerged from one of
the various puddles that littered the path.

Kakashi feigned being cut in half, scaring the wits out of Naruto and prompting Sasuke and
Sakura into action. The Uchiha took one of the gauntlet wearers, manipulating a chain to his own
will and binding him to a nearby tree. The other assailant had the grand misfortune of having
Sakura as his enemy.

She moved quickly and quietly, her movements creating an interval of about three seconds before-

"Sasori-kun?"

He hummed and pressed a few buttons on the scope.

"She snapped his neck. Quite a clean kill, even for her."

::

There was something wholly unsettling with watching a student kill a man like she was crushing a
roach beneath her shoe. Sakura's form was flawless as she appeared behind her opponent like a
cool breeze and swung her leg to slam her heel against the back of his head. As he sailed to the
ground, her arms shot out to wrap around his face and neck to twist it to the left.

Dead. Gone. Just like that.

And she didn't even bat an eye.

Kakashi stepped out from the shadows he hid in and approached Sasuke's attacker first. Gozu, he
believed, stared at his twin brother in disbelief after having witnessed the entire murder.

"An ex-Kiri shinobi," Kakashi noted as he tapped the hitai-ate. "Chuunin level, if I'm not
mistaken. Did you hope to accomplish something by getting rid of us?"

Gozu tore his gaze away from the prone form of his brother and glared at the jounin dead straight
through his pupils. Giving no answer was the greatest weapon to use when there was absolutely
no way out of the situation, and Kakashi respected that of him.

"Fine."

When he turned to check on his team, a kunai could be seen protruding from Gozu's stomach. He
walked over to Sakura who was knelt by the dead body. She had already taken the liberty of
frisking for any hidden weapons or information they could use in the future.

"Not a thing on him. No mission scroll, job offer, identification... but this is Meizu, right? One of
the twins who left their village about a year ago," Sakura said. She was given a hardened look
from her teacher.

"How do you know that?"


"I'm not deaf or blind," she shrugged. "Meaning I see things and hear things just as well as you
do. And it's me you're talking to, Kakashi. Are you really that surprised?" That and the old man
gave me an international bingo book not too long ago, but you don't need to know that.

Now that he thought it over, there wasn't anything too shocking about her knowledge. She had
already proved time and time again by displaying what she was capable of. Granted, he still knew
nothing about the kid like her true potential, her home life, or the reason she was put into therapy.

"What are we going to do with the bodies?" asked Sakura. "Leave them? Bury them? Burn
them?"

A war memory came back to her. It was one she hadn't thought of since the day she was first sent
back and it left lingering smoke and ash handprints on her skin that she couldn't wash off.

"Fifty-two deaths this week," Shizune informed. "Forty-eight of them unidentified."

"Burn the forty-eight."

"What?! Sakur--"

"We don't have time to bury them, Shizune-senpai," Sakura added on monotonously. "People are
being rushed in every day. We have to focus on the ones that are still alive and that still have a
chance, not the ones that are already gone."

Shizune stared at her, frozen and wide-eyed. When she made no move to carry out the order,
Sakura sighed and rolled up her sleeves.

"Nevermind, then," she said as she walked towards the tent's exit. "I'll burn them myself."

A flicker of confusion flashed in Kakashi's eyes as he crossed his arms.

"Body burning is normally considered for A-ranks and S-ranks. With what just happened, this
mission turned into a high C. Low B, at best. Where did you get the notion of burning?" he
questioned. Sakura pressed her lips together and glanced towards Sasori's far off direction. The
bastard was probably giddy with her slip up.

"Just a joke, Kakashi. Don't take it seriously," she waved off. She turned as Naruto slowly walked
towards her. His eyes were wide and blue, a little fearful as it flickered from his best friend to the
dead body on the ground.

"S-Sakura-chan... did you... d-did you kill him?" he croaked. His voice was shaking and quiet--
distant, even. And it was breaking Sakura's heart.

"It was us or them. I didn't have a choice."

"But you killed him! They might have been bad guys, but... but... you didn't have to! And you...
you did it like it was nothing."

Sasuke stood silent on the sidelines, his face blank.

"You did it like it was nothing," Shizune whispered disbelievingly. "Forty-eight people. And you
burned all of them without hesitation."

There was no moon in the sky that night. Of the starless horizon and misty midnight backdrop, the
only light for miles was the bonfire in the middle of the forest with the scent of blood and burning
flesh heavy in the air.
"War is never pretty, senpai. And we can't afford to waste time when the camp's low on medics
and our supply's limited."

When Sakura turned from the fire, the shadows of unsteady flame danced across her worn face.

"Let's get back," she continued solemnly. "We still have our jobs to do."

"We're shinobi, Naruto," she spoke quietly. There was a small tilt to her lips, but it didn't reach her
eyes. "Sometimes, sacrifices need to be made."

"But we didn't have to this time, did we? A-And you killed him so fast and you didn't react to
none of it!" he exclaimed. Kakashi's eyes narrowed slightly. Naruto had a point. There was no
way a first kill would be so easily taken, especially when delivered by someone fresh out of the
Academy. Then again, she was an early graduated with skills far beyond her rank. The boy
gulped. "Sakura-chan... you... he wasn't the first one... was he?"

Sakura exhaled and picked up the pack she dropped when Meizu attacked her.

"We'll be late if we keep delaying. It won't look good on Konoha's image," she murmured.

::

Sasori stashed the scope back into his back and ran a hand down his face.

"I'm getting a bad feeling about all of this. If the mission was critical back in our timeline, the
something's going to happen here too," he sighed. Kou's tail flickered, brushing against the man's
torso.

"You and Sakura-chan have it so hard, nya," the cat purred. "But it doesn't make sense, you
know."

"What doesn't?"

"The fact that you two were sent back to change things. I mean, why change something you have
no idea about? If the path goes in a different direction, then the destination should change too.
Unless it just loops around back to where you should be? Ah~ dimensions and time travel are so
tricky and ugly! Your thoughts, Sasori-kun?"

But he'd stopped listening, having been struck with a sudden epiphany. Paths. Destinations. What
he and Sakura had been sent back to do in the first place.

Maybe they weren't supposed to change a thing.

::

A/N: The war flashback with Shizune is and includes the continuation of the one from Chapter
2: 5;20

::

Clarification on: Mari

Mari is a transvestite and the owner of Magenta, a transvestite bar.

A simple definition of transvestite by Merriam-Webster: "a person who likes to dress like a person
of the opposite sex".
So in this story's circumstance, Mari is a man who dresses like a woman, mostly at his job and
when he's at home.

And I've just been informed that the term "cross-dresser" is a more acceptable term and will be
used from now on.

Link: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/transvestite
Reminder

Sasuke had never been scared of Sakura before. Ever since she threw him onto the ground and
knocked his pride back into its place, she was a friend he wouldn't trade for the world. Sakura was
tough. Smart. Stubborn. Kind. Invincible.

But she had no reaction to killing that man with her bare hands. Team Kakashi- the students, at
least- thought themselves to be a family who were just as close as the ones they had at home.
Though when Sasuke thought to their lives outside from being a shinobi, Sakura seemed to know
everything about him Naruto. The same couldn't be said about her.

Her favorite color?

Red.

Her favorite foods?

Mochi and anmitsu.

Her favorite book?

Anything on medicine.

What about her home life? What's it like?

Well, uh...

What does she want to do when she's older?

She never--

Who's her hero? What's her dream? Why does she always look tired? Why's she in therapy?

I d--

What is she afraid of?

I DON'T KNOW!

Sasuke kept walking in the unusually quiet aura of his team. A day had passed since the incident
and only now he realized that five years later, Sakura was still a stranger no mater how many time
she said she loved them. He glanced back, seeing both her and Kakashi reading their own books
as they walked, the sidled up beside Naruto.

"Hey, dobe. You still worried about yesterday?" he asked. Naruto must have been too deep into
his thoughts to notice the insult and pursed his lips.

"I'm not worried about nothin'," he mumbled. "Sakura-chan's still Sakura-chan and that's not
gonna change. It's... I didn't know she could kill people like that. Didn't you get scared?"

It wasn't that he was afraid of the dead body left to the side of the path. His father drilled the
responsibilities and consequences of their profession into him and his older brother from a very
young age. Sasuke understood that death was all a part of the job and was as inevitable as the sun
rising up every morning.
But did seeing it in action for the first time scare him?

"A bit," Sasuke admitted with a shrug. "But what can we do about it? It's not like that's the only
time she's going to do it."

Naruto ducked his head, nodding slightly. Out of everyone he new, Sakura was on that list of
people he'd love for the rest of his life. She was the last person he should've been afraid of. He'd
known her for five or six years now and had shown time and time again that she'd stand up for
him no matter what. Especially that time when she yelled at their old sensei!

Bottom line, he shouldn't have acted the way he did. Most people didn't like it when others were
afraid of them.

Naruto hand clenched the front of his jacket right above his belly button.

He knew that better than anyone else.

::

"What will you do if they start to fear you?"

Sakura turned a page of her book on poisons.

"You sure have been a chatterbox since we left the village. What's up with you? Sick and
suffering from delusions?"

"Fear," he restated, ignoring her jab, "is a very impractical concept. It makes people shy away
from dong what's right and masking what they want to think. I don't know the full extent of your
potential, but from what I've seen it's not something to be taking lightly. You're strong."

Her fingers curled around her book's spine. Oh, how long she yearned to hear those two words in
the years behind her. She remembered counting her callouses from the hours she spent training on
Tsunade's personal sparring grounds, wondering when she'd be seen as one of those who could
hold up Konoha on their shoulders.

Finally hearing it left her more sunken than she'd like to admit.

"Aw, was that a compliment?"

He moved his gaze away from his poem anthology and took a good look at her face. She didn't
need to force her smile for him to know that she was faking it.

"Do you understand what I've told you?" he questioned instead. Sakura silently snapped her book
shut and tucked it away in the pocket on the side of her pack. Her voice came out hushed and tired
so her lips wouldn't move and cease to carry over to the boys in front of them.

"I... wasn't always this way," she uttered softly. He, for a split moment, paused. "Back then, the
old me had fear as her surname."

The smile was back on her face as she walked further ahead. She didn't need to be told about
being afraid when the war solidified her unease, stuffing it into her rib cage with hopes she
wouldn't bloody her fingers trying to tear it out.

Though it made no difference regardless. It didn't matter what she did or what she thought of, she
couldn't erase what she had trying so hard to forget.
And Kakashi? He didn't like it.

Because she looked just as he did years ago on that stormy night.

The house was dark with only lightning illuminating the shadow filled halls. He called out for his
father, wondering what he could be doing this late at night. Perhaps his father had gone to check
the integrity of their traps to see if the strong winds had managed to shift their positions. But when
he saw a crack of an open door and pushed it open to see just what his father had been up to-

There Hatake Sakumo was. On the ground, a kunai still tight in his bloodied grip.

"Tou...san?"

Kakashi did not yell. Or cry. Or breathe.

Because he had wondered just when this would happen.

He moved his eyes back to his book. God, he hoped that Sakura wouldn't turn out to be someone
like him.

::

Their boat lay waiting for them at the tip of an empty pier just where a light fog began extending
its fingers towards land. The escort, dressed in normal civilian clothing and armed only with an
oar, took one look at their hitai-ates before waving them on.

"Quickly," he urged. "Before the weather gets too bad."

Naruto hopped right onto at the bow- front and center to see everything that could be seen (or lack
thereof)- as the rest of team climbed in more gently, to not rock the boat as the former did. Sakura
and Sasuke sat near the edges opposite each other, and Kakashi took the seat closest to the escort
that provided him a vantage point to watch over all three of his students.

The escort took no more time and started the motor to start them forward. Ten minutes into the
silence and the hum of the machine, it was shut off so the oar would be used instead.

"... It's too foggy," Sasuke said. "You should stop trying to look out, dobe. You won't see a
thing."

Naruto scrunched up his face and leaned forward, persevering. The escort kept on rowing as he
eyed the unseeable path ahead.

"We'll be able to see the bridge soon. Once we pass the bridge, we'll be in Nami no Kuni."

It took a few moments, but when the monolith of a bridge stuck out above the mist, it was actually
quite impressive. It was nearly finished, stretching out for who knows how long. Naruto's eyes
shined at the sight.

"IT'S HUGE, DATTEBAYO!"

"K-Kid! Keep it d-down!" the escort exclaimed, albeit quietly. "I was able to sneak this boat out
earlier, but we'll be in a mess of trouble if we get caught!"

Naruto slapped his hands over his mouth and shrunk down. Sakura looked away from the water
for the first time she got on the boat and glanced up at the escort.

"Trouble?" she asked.


"Trouble?" she asked.

"It would be best that you tell us what's going on before we arrive," Kakashi said. "We were
attacked by missing-nin before coming here. And if I'm not mistaken, we're here to guard Tazuna-
san as he finishes the bridge we just passed. If we don't get our answer, we don't act out of our
contract."

Sakura restrained a huff. He could've phrased it better.

The escort grew nervous, his hands shaking around his oar.

"It's... Our village couldn't afford to pay for a higher ranking mission. Everyone pitched in to
scrape together all the funds we could, and we jumped at the chance to get two villages for the
price of one, even if it was just a C-rank. We need all the help we could get. Tazuna-san...
Tazuna-san is being targeted by a monster. If they get him, then they'll come for the rest of us."

Naruto's shoulders tensed as Sasuke perked up.

"Monster?"

"A shipping magnate," the escort gulped. "Gato."

"As in the CEO of the Gato Company? One of the richest men in the world?" the kunoichi
questioned, "Makes sense. He's the leader of a shipping company on the surface, dealer of
contraband underneath. Does most of his stuff with illegal drugs. Not to mention he tries to
monopolize smaller nations and numerous enterprises."

As the escort nodded, Kakashi narrowed his eyes and stared her down.

"How do you know that?"

"How you do not?"

"That's not an answer."

"It is. It's yours," she retorted. His eye twitched and she looked back up at the escort. "Continue,
please."

"Uh, well... Nami no Kuni caught Gato's attention about a year ago. He used money and murder
to push his way in and bought out the country's maritime transportation and shipping before we
knew what was happening. He took over our ocean. That gave him control over government,
finance, the people... everything."

Sakura listened carefully. It sounded about right.

"But there's one thing that Gato fears, and that's the completion of the bridge," he continued. "See,
if it's built, it removes Gato's influence and returns the country's economic stability. Tazuna-san
would've gone to Konoha himself for the mission, but it's too dangerous for him to leave now
when the bridge is so close to being finished. If you leave the mission, he'll die. And we'll follow
right after."

The boat entered a tunnel, the only lights being the old orange ones that flickered on and off along
the high ceiling. Sunlight, if Sakura recalled correctly, shone as an arch of promise at the end of
the darkness.

"Are we gonna stay for the mission, sensei?" Naruto asked. Kakashi folded his arms.
"We aren't the only ones slated for it. We'll discuss it with the Kiri nin when we meet up," he said.
When the boat left the tunnel, the fog that pervaded the ocean completely disappeared and was
replaced with blue skies and still water. The village, as it turned out, was a floating village
surrounded by mangrove trees.

Sakura inspected the various placed they could land and spotted two figures. The smaller one sat
on one of the wooden beams with the taller one standing just off to the side, an enormous sword
strapped to his back.

"Oh, the representatives are waiting for us. How nice," she mused.

"Be quiet and stay quiet."

"Wow. Asshole."

Kakashi glared at her, then wiped his expression clean as the boat docked a ways away from the
figures. Naruto, just as he'd been the first one onto the boat, was the first one off and looked
around with a wide grin. The forests they walked through just to get here got boring after the first
day, so it was nice to see a sunny place surrounded by the ocean.

But it was kinda humid.

He spun on his heel and stuck his hand out in front of the lone female of the team.

"C'mon, Sakura-chan! Let's go start the mission!"

She stared at the offered appendage for a few seconds. What a big heart he had, still reaching out
to her even when he saw what she was capable of. The corner of her lips quirked up and she took
his hand.

"Yeah."

::

"Hi!"

Ibiki looked down and blinked. A boy with incredibly pale skin smiled at him, a sketchbook in
one hand and a compilation of some sorts in the other. Both were held up for the man to take.

"I know Sakura's on a mission 'cause she told me that she was gonna be gone, for like, a month or
something like that? She said she was gonna make me back some ink made from poison
caterpillars! Isn't that cool? Then after, she said-"

"Kid," Ibiki interrupted.

"Oh, sorry, sorry. My name's Shimura Sai!" the boy exclaimed. "Nice to meet you! The
sketchbook something for Sakura. I was gonna wait until she came back, but I didn't want it to get
dirty or lose it or anything so I thought I should leave it with you. You're her guardian right?
That's what she said. You're Morino Ibiki right? Oh yeah, and this compilation thing is something
ji-san said I should give to Sakura too. I told him that she wasn't here but then he said that I should
just give it to you anyways because it's only fair that you know about it too. I have no idea what
he's talking about-"

Goddamn, the kid had a bigger mouth on him than Anko, and that was saying something. Ibiki
held both items, taking notice of the note taped on the front of the odd compilation.
Haruno Sakura,

Potential of your magnitude would be wasted if you do keep deciding on staying in the Torture
and Interrogation Sector. Have you ever thought of that? There is only so much than those three
could possibly teach you.

Shiranui Genma, Mitarashi Anko, and Morino Ibiki.

You cannot grow in a place that decided to hide the diamond of your skill.

He seized up.

Our first meeting did not turn into the best of scenarios, but it has assured me that you were
bound to be a candidate once you realize how valuable of an asset you can become to the village.
Under my jurisdiction, you will flourish and you will succeed.

Do not think that meeting will be our last.

Ibiki looked back down at Sai, who managed to ramble on about a topic completely unrelated to
what they were talking about before. Something about how squirrel tails were unbelievably bushy.
He snapped his fingers to catch the boy's attention.

"Kid, you said this compilation was from your ji-san. Who's he?"

God, he hoped it wasn't that man. Anyone but that reprehensible louse who caused nothing but
trouble with his ROOT faction.

"My ji-san? Uh, Councilman Danzo. I mean, I think he's one of the council members. He never
really tells me about his job."

Ibiki hastily ripped the note off and read the title of whatever Danzo decided to give his ward.

The Compendium of Forbidden Jutsu

He grit his teeth.

::

Kakashi was still blank faced when the representatives met up with them on the dock. Zabuza
gave off a fine aura of intimidation dressed in his Kirigakure flak jacket, bandages covering the
bottom half of his face and hanging loosely around his shoulders. Haku was also completely
different than from what Sakura remembered, of course, because of the two year gap and
circumstances between the meetings. He had on a short blue kimono and a dark grey split skirt, his
black hair brushing against his collarbone.

"Hatake," Zabuza greeted tonelessly.

"Momochi," Kakashi returned.

The jounin stared at each other, distrust obvious and the air around them culminating with tension.
Naruto, oblivious to the fact that two previously warring countries depended on the outcome of
this mission to see if a peace treaty would arise, stepped up to Haku and saluted.

"I'm Uzumaki Naruto, dattebayo! And you look very pretty-"

Sasuke elbowed him.


"You know he's a guy, right?"

"-handsome! Very pretty handsome!" he grinned. His tanned cheeks flushed red at the blunder,
but dimmed when the other genin let out a laugh and a good-natured smile.

"Thank you, Naruto-san. I'm Haku. And your teammates...?"

"Uchiha Sasuke," the one to Naruto's left grunted. The one on the right was a little more
exuberant than her grump of a friend and little more mellow than the knucklehead at her side, but
faltered when she saw his brown eyes glimmer with soft excitement.

"Haruno Sakura," she introduced, a bit distantly. "I hope we'll have a good mission together."

::

Sakura was falling apart on the inside.

How could she be thinking way? Haku was different from her. His age was different, his hair was
different, his stature was different, his eye color was different-

But his eyes! They were the same! They were the same as the muted green she would catch
glimpses of every now and again in the last years of the war. They were kind, full of hope, open-

Why?

Why was her mind betraying her like this? Why did seeing Haku strike up painful reminders of
those she let down? Why did he bring forth her need to protect that someone she would never see
again?

Why do you have her eyes?

Sakura bit the inside of her cheek and glanced away to hear what Kakashi and Zabuza had to say.
But her mind remained adrift.

Why do you have Sachiko's eyes?


Development

"What game are you playing?"

Danzo slowed his walk from the Hokage's office and half turned to glance at the call from behind
him. Ibiki stood with a sheet of paper crumpled in his angry fist. When the councilman said
nothing, he took another step forward.

"I don't know where your interest in Sakura came up but I'm warning you right now that it's not
going to do you any good. She won't take an interest in ROOT or consider it for a second. She
knows perfectly well what type of people you churn out and she won't let herself stoop that low."

The older man smirked.

"We'll see, Morino," he said. "And if I were you, I would fix that insolent tone of yours. I may not
be in a magnanimous mood next time."

He turned back forwards and started his leave, his cane clacking on the floors with equally
separated intervals. Ibiki gripped the note harder.

"Forbidden jutsu or not, she won't turn into Tsunade."

Danzo didn't stop his retreat.

"As I said, we'll see."

::

They stared at each other for what seemed like hours of which were actually seconds filled with
an intense and distrusting air. Both instructors were ANBU turned jounin, taking on disciples for
the first time in their careers and slowly adjusting to what it was like to look after others besides
themselves. But, each had their own tumultuous reputations at their backs. Zabuza with his
position as one of the Seven Swordsman and his success in slaughtering his classmates for
graduation; Kakashi with his running streak of 327 B-Rank missions where he came out
unscathed and his mastery of his lightning jutsu.

They were never meant to get along.

"You know, Kakashi, now would be a good time for you to start making friends. Did you forget
what kind of mission this was or do I need to read you the intro of How to be a Good
Diplomat: Idiot Edition like I did before we left?"

There was a snort from the black-haired boy and a snicker from the blond one. The girl, with the
most absurd hair Zabuza had ever seen, flashed a cheeky grin at her sensei despite the irritated
glare he cast her way.

"I told you to be quiet."

"And I think it's reasonable to assume that I never listen to a word you say," she returned. She
looked up at the taller man. "Speaking of diplomacy, you probably should talk to me about that
stuff because Kakashi doesn't like people."

"Yeah, Sakura-chan's a great speaker! And she's really smart, dattebayo!" Naruto vouched.
Kakashi's left eye began to twitch as he crossed his arms and kept the straightest face he could
master.

"You're aware of how the mission was compromised, I'm assuming," he said. He was doing a
fantastic job of ignoring his entertaining genin, Zabuza noted with a raised brow.

"We were attacked by ex-Kusa-nin before our arrival yesterday. They had no useful information
on them and were disposed of. Yourself?" the Kiri shinobi asked.

"Ambushed by the Demon Brothers. Both were taken care of: Gozu by a kunai through the
stomach and Meizu by snapping his neck," Kakashi informed. He unintentionally lowered his
voice when he spoke the last part, causing Zabuza's eyebrow to travel a bit higher. "We can talk
about the rest of it once we meet up with the client, but the mission does breach what's detailed in
the contract. If you aren't willing to stay, we aren't either."

Zabuza glanced at his student. Haku's reply was a hopeful, wide-eyed stare that simply couldn't be
said no to.

"... We'll stay. By the looks of it, the country isn't getting the help it needs."

"Awesome!!" Naruto exclaimed. He punched a fist into the air. "We get to stay! Let's go, let's go,
let's go- that Taganu can't wait for us forever!"

"Tazuna," Sasuke corrected. His friend paid him no mind.

"We found his house when we got here, but decided to wait until you guys got here. His house is
on the other end of this platform. I can lead you there," Haku said. Sakura gestured forward with a
wide grin, all traces of her earlier discomfort hidden beneath her happy facade.

"Lead the way!"

As the four of them walked off, chatting cheerfully amongst each other, Zabuza slowly turned to
the only one left on the dock.

"Your team is certainly... eccentric."

"If Sakura ends up dead, I take full responsibility," Kakashi deadpanned. He strode towards the
genin, completely suppressing the need to trap the girl in a headlock and tossing her into the
ocean. It wouldn't be proper and certainly wouldn't reflect his professional status. One could
dream, though.

With a shift the kubikiribocho against his back, Zabuza followed at a slower pace.

Yes. Eccentric was the right word to use.

::

A Clans of Konoha meeting was being held in one of the conference rooms in the Hokage Tower.
In secret, as always, and filled with the council members and the heads of all nine influential clans:
the Aburame, Akimichi, Hyuuga, Inuzuka, Nara, Sarutobi, Shimura, Uchiha, and Yamanaka.

There used to be fourteen seats to be filled, but the five unused ones only occurred due to certain
circumstances. The Kohaku and Kurama clans never attended due to their dwindling size and their
stations near the borders, the Uzumaki were desolate (save for Naruto, but his situation was
trickier than most), the Senju were so dispersed that there were no known direct descendants
(Tsunade was another case that was rarely discussed), and the current head of the Hatake refused
to return after what happened with his father.
So it left twelve people in total. And among these twelve people, items of particular interest were
necessary to be reviewed here and were not allowed to be spoken to others outside those in the
current forum.

ROOT was one of those items.

Whoever was considered for a position in the organization underwent review and had to get
approval of 7/12 of the members in order to join.

"I don't have a list of candidates at this time," Danzo said, being both the Shimura representative
and a councilman. "I only have one in mind. The one I have chosen already knows of the interest
I have set and has refused the offer. For now. Her future has yet to be decided."

Utatane Koharu, the only councilwoman, turned to him.

"Her name?"

Danzo looked all around the table, preparing to gauge the reactions.

"Haruno Sakura."

Nine pairs of eyes sharpened immediately.

::

Meeting Tazuna went better than the first time around. Turns out he was the same drunk old man
from Sakura's previous timeline who lived with his sweet daughter, Tsunami, and his surprisingly
enthusiastic grandson, Inari. Sakura kept her antics down a bit when they introduced themselves
while trying to figure out why Inari wasn't the same bratty kid as before.

Everything was advanced two years. Why hadn't this?

As she contemplated the difference, sat between Sasuke and Haku, her eyes flickered up to a
picture frame that hung proudly on the wall. Tazuna was smiling on the left, Tsunami laughing on
the right, Inari grinning in the middle... and a man standing behind them all, tousling the boy's
already messy brown hair.

"Kaa-san!" six year old Inari called out, finally looking away from staring up at the shinobi in
awe. "When's tou-san getting back?"

"Kaiza said his fishing trip would take a while. Maybe by dinner?"

Sakura subtly slid her hand to the top of her pocket and tapped the scorpion with a short message
in a revised morse code that only she and Sasori knew.

There's something I can change.

"Sakura."

She looked up at Kakashi.

"Did you listen to a word that was said?"

"Nope," she grinned. She pointed to Sasuke. "A fifteen word or less summary, please."

"Tazuna-san works tomorrow. Today's free. Tree climbing exercise. You and Haku-san are
excused," he complied before taking a sip of tea. Sasuke wasn't always one for too many words
anyways and Naruto had selective hearing, so their system worked out well. Kakashi was
exasperated, of course, but Haku looked positively amused.

"If that's all, then I'm going into the forest to find those caterpillars," she informed as she stood.
She met Haku's eyes-- hopeful and full of love. She averted her gaze. "Wanna come with me? I
can teach you how to catch them."

Haku brightened.

"I'd love to, Sakura-san!"

He looked at Zabuza, who gave the barest dip of his head, before following after the younger girl
with a radiant smile. Inari watched them go with pink-tinted cheeks.

"I like Sakura-san. She's funny," he said. Kakashi pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Please don't encourage her."

::

"That's... probably not good."

"What's the matter, Sasori-kun?"

He had to be extra careful when the genin team landed in the corruption that was Nami no Kuni.
With both Zabuza and Kakashi to watch out for, he had to keep careful control of his chakra to
make sure he wouldn't be discovered.

He was given a small break when Sakura removed herself from everyone else's general vicinity,
taking the Kiri genin with her to gather those poison caterpillars. He watched her interact with the
boy- Haku?- in the forests a little ways away from the lake and river system.

She looked... oddly disconcerted but happy enough to have him around. Near the beginning, she
made subtle motions in avoiding meeting Haku's gaze, but kept normal demeanor in directing him
what to look for in the caterpillar and what to do if he found any. As time passed and their time
together neared an hour, Sakura began smiling more and gaining some genuine happiness.

"Do you see anything weird in the way she's acting?" Sasori asked. Kou poked his head up over
his shoulder from his spot nestled in the hood. The cat cocked his head and hummed.

"Sakura-chan looks positively elated. Doesn't look like a bad thing, if you ask me, nya."

"It's not bad that she's happy. What's bad is the reason behind her current happiness," Sasori
sighed. "Believe me, the last thing I want to do is take it away from her, but she's displacing her
feelings."

Displacement was a defense mechanism. Simply put, it shifted a person's actions towards a target
to a substitute target if for some reason, access to the intended target was unavailable. The
mechanism was normally meant to let out pent-up feelings when a person was barred from doing
it elsewhere. Examples include cases where a husband who might direct his anger at his wife
because his he's furious at his boss, or when a woman is so ecstatic at winning the lottery that she
kisses the nearest person she sees.

It could be used for any emotion on the spectrum.


"Displa... oh."

Sakura spared a cursory glance towards the treeline before giving the glass box to Haku, which
was filled with seven or eight of the spiked insects.

"Can you take this to Tazuna-san's for me? There's a couple of things I need to take care of before
heading back."

"Of course, Sakura-san!" he smiled. "Where do you want me to put it? With the rest of your
things?"

"Anywhere Naruto won't see it. It doesn't matter how many times you tell him to not to do
something 'cause he'll do it anyways. I always have to keep an eye on him, especially after what
happened at the waterfall-- did I ever say anything about that?"

Haku leaned closer to her.

"Is it worse than the potato incident?"

"Nothing's worse than the potato incident."

The clearing rang out with their joined laughter and she reached up to ruffle up his black hair. He
waved and walked down the path they first arrived on, leaving her to stand in silence until he was
far from any sort of awareness. She leaned against a tree.

"Glad to see you haven't been detected. I'm surprised you even made it this far."

"Yes, because I'm obviously nowhere near S-rank level, have less than thirty years of experience
to brag about, and never took out an entire nation single-handedly, armed with only the
Sandaime," he drawled from his perch on the branch above. Sakura scrunched her nose.

"Alright, sarcastic, no need to brag. And hi, Kou-chan."

The cat popped up from the hood.

"Good afternoon, dearest!" he exclaimed, then snuggled back into the warm cloth. It just felt to
nice against his wonderfully sleek fur. After all, he deserved the comfort after painstakingly
tagging along on the journey right after Itachi so lovingly-without being coerced whatsoever-
brushed his coat of bistre brown.

When Sakura looked back to Sasori, she saw the concern floating warily in his eyes. She turned
away.

"... The more you do it, the more it's going to hurt you in the end," he said, voice softer than the
cotton cloths she kept in her medicinal pack. "He's not her."

"I can't help it, Sasori. He just..."

"I know."

"I've... for so long..."

"I know."

Sakura steadied herself against the tree as she tried her hardest to keep any tears from dripping
down her face.
"He has her eyes," she whispered. His lips formed a sullen line. He hoped the mission wouldn't
dare deepen the wounds she already had to live with.

::

Shibi stood outside the conference room a bit after the meeting ended, hands in the pockets of his
tan coat and his mind lingering back to what just transpired. Danzo had thrown them all into a
loop saying that he wanted Sakura in his ranks. It was no secret that the clan heads knew her
personally considering that all their kids were in the same group of friends.

He was never one to really pay attention during these Clans of Konoha meetings because of their
boring, monotonous nature. But the ROOT thing nearly caught him off guard and made him
disagree with the decision right off the bat. Shino was already lonely, having lost Torune to the
tight-lipped, time-consuming nature of the job, and he wasn't about to allow another one of his
closest friends to be taken to the organization.

ROOT made people... lose their emotions. He didn't want that for her.

Inoichi had been another one to reject the proposal immediately. When questioned by Mitokado
Homura, the third and final of the council, his face grew stony.

"My reasons fall under patient confidentiality. I'm not allowed to say."

That sent questioning murmurs through everyone and left the matter to be officially decided in
next month's session.

Shibi had a feeling there was something off about her from the very beginning, but he just couldn't
put his finger on it. Though one thing he knew for sure was that she was forthright and had her
moral compass worn on her shoulder.

Danzo had no reason to bring her in.

"Sticking around for something, Aburame-san?"

He shifted his glasses, the red tassel wriggling a bit.

"I just had a question, Danzo-sama," he said. The councilman made a motion for him to continue.
"I'm interested in why you find Sakura so intriguing. I understand that she's more advanced that
her peers and that she's different that most, but she doesn't fit-"

"-the mold. I'm aware. But there was something I wanted to test."

"... Test?"

Danzo's normally impassive face twisted into something darker. Something that Shibi felt that he
should've expected from such a foul man, but was still uncomfortable in witnessing.

"I wanted to see how far 'faulty electric wiring' and 'malfunctioned heating units' drove a person.
She has managed to catch my attention for far longer than you all are possibly imagining," he said.
Shibi's eyebrows knit as the older man took his leave.

What did broken household commodities have to do with anything?


Mirror

Kaiza was a good man.

After he came back home the day the shinobi arrived, he greeted them all with a chipper attitude
and utmost respect for them willing to stay and protect Tazuna as well as the rest of the people.
When asked what he thought of Gato and his reign, his response had been that their fishing village
had to find the courage to stand up on both their feet and fight back.

"I know everyone's scared of him, but I won't let that get me down," he'd said. "Until they find
that something to help them stand up for themselves, I'll be there to do that for them! I'll protect
this town with these arms!"

Sakura was curious. Sasuke was impressed. Haku was amazed. Naruto had stars in his eyes.
Though Kakashi and Zabuza had no reaction to his strong proclamation. There was always the
one person who first rose to lead the change, and Kaiza happened to be one of them.

So for the first six days of the official start of the Konoha-Kiri joint mission, the shinobi had settled
into a routine. Kakashi and Zabuza would take a rotation of three genin everyday for simple
practices and exercises. Whichever jounin and single genin not in the rotation would accompany
Tazuna and his workers on the bridge.

On the seventh day of the mission, a slightly humid Tuesday, Zabuza and Sakura stationed
themselves on the railing closest to the unfinished side of the bridge, being the ones out of rotation
this time around.

"Hey, Momochi. I have a question."

He glanced at the girl to his left. It didn't take him long to realize that Kakashi's exasperation of her
was not unfounded. Haruno Sakura was cheeky, blunt, and had an enormous problem of not
using honorifics when needed. At least she used some respect in speaking with him compared to
her first name usage with her teacher.

"What?"

"I'm not going to beat around the bush here. You're one of the Seven Swordsman and Kiri's huge
on weapon making. I need a top-notch double kodachi. And when I say top-notch, I mean top-
notch . Meaning, spring steel- probably the 5160 over the 9260- or tool steels like the L6 Bainite
or S7 Shock. And none of that folded steel. I've heard those aren't as durable as a shinobi would
like," she said. Zabuza straightened. "I'll take any price as long at the kodachi turn out well."

Not to mention the girl was also way too intelligent for a genin. He was positive steel types were
never taught in any sort of Academy setting, and he had to internally applaud her for the ones she
mentioned. The 5160 spring steel had critically important heat treatment stages and were rumored
to take off animal heads with a single slice from a civilian hand. The 9260 spring steel held a
reputation for durability and being able to be molded back to its original form even from being
bent at a 90 degree angle.

L6 Bainites could be called the toughest steels on the market, but were prone to rusting and had to
be particularly taken care of. The same properties could be said about the S7 Shocks', being tough
and damage resistant, but they were even rarer than L6 Bainites and were hardly put out onto the
production lines.
And those were just the properties without them being modified by chakra or jutsu.

"I didn't take you for the type to be interested in swordsmanship."

"I do have a small thing with them, as you can see-"

Sakura flicked her hand to extend one of her wrist blades, let him observe them for a few
moments, then retracted it.

"-but the kodachi isn't for me. I've got a friend requesting the best of the best for a gift. Just trying
to help in any way I can."

"A damn expensive gift," Zabuza snorted. She shrugged.

"They can be over the top when they want to be."

Their day went without much to worry about. Sakura loved small talk and used it to fill in the time
spent lazily keeping an eye out for the bridge builders. Inari even managed to come by to hand-
deliver the lunch his mother made for the both of them.

"Good afternoon, Inari-kun!" she greeted. He blushed. "Tell Tsunami-san we said thank you,
alright?"

"Okay!"

Before he turned to leave, Zabuza called out to him.

"Wait. Kaiza said he had something to show us today. Is he back yet?" he asked. At the sight of
Inari's tilted head and pursed lips, Sakura began to pay extra attention to him. For the days she
spent in the country, the would take hours formulating different scenarios and instances of whether
or not he was going to die in this world or not. For his family's sake, she would take any measures
to ensure his safety.

"It's weird 'cause tou-san hasn't come home, but kaa-san says he's really busy so we shouldn't
worry. He'll come back safe and sound, like always."

The two exchanged glances.

"Make sure you make it home safe!" she said. Inari cheerfully waved in return as he ran back.
There was quiet between the both of them for a moment before she opened the top of the bento
and broke apart her pair of chopsticks.

"When do the builders finish up today?"

Zabuza undid the bandage wrappings over his face.

"In a couple of hours. We'll tell Tazuna that we'll be a little late in meeting up with everyone else.
Will Hatake be fine with you taking a detour?"

Sakura scoffed.

"Like I've said many times before: he's going to have to deal with it."

::

"I. HATE. EVERY. THING. DA. TTE. BA. YO."


"Naru-"

"I'M DRINKIN' SO MUCH OF THE WATER THAT I SWEAR I'M GONNA BE PISSIN'
SALT FOR A WHOLE YEAR! JUST SALT!"

"Dobe, I swear to-"

"I'M GONNA KILL THE OCEAN! I'M GONNA KILL THE WHOLE DAMN THING!"

Naruto's sopping wet jacket and pants were piled along with Sasuke's shirt at the edge of the dock
they decided to train at. Haku sat cross-legged leaning against a wooden beam with a towel
draped across his shoulders. He was able to achieve water walking after two hours had passed and
was allowed to rest and spectate the failure of the other two.

They were... frustrated, to say the least.

"The chances of you killing the ocean are the same as you not being an idiot," Sasuke hissed.
"Never going to happen. Now shut up , your stupid voice is ruining my concentration."

"Concentration? HA! Is that why you look so constipated?!"

"Dobe!"

Kakashi turned a page of his book.

::

Construction ended at about seven once it began to get harder to see the work in the light of the
setting sun. After making sure Tazuna made it home without trouble, Zabuza and Sakura took to
scouting the streets from the shadows.

The poverty they could see was nearly unbearable. Children sat huddled at street corners, dirtied
with a battered cup stationed in front of them with low hopes that someone somewhere would
help them. Men were hanging around doors, holding grim acceptance that they were going to die
under the reign of an iron fist. Women were walking the streets in the highest heels they could
find, more than likely with the aim to earn money the only way it seemed possible for people of
their likes.

"Gato's a little shit," Sakura huffed. She and Zabuza were crouched behind a roof to scan the
streets below. "These people are miserable. Kaiza-san and his family look like the only ones who
still know how to happy."

"That's why they're the ones on Gato's list. Can't have someone that inspires people when you
want to kill a whole country," Zabuza replied. They moved from the streets to the more secluded
area of the town where all shipping and packaging of products were managed. By this time, all
plants should've been closed due to the work curfew Gato imposed on the people.

But one of them had three armed men standing outside the entrance.

Sakura dropped down first, knocking two of them out with the blow to the head and elbowing the
third's face while breaking his nose. Zabuza appeared beside her.

"I doubt you're a genin."

"I'll take that as one of the many compliments Kakashi has failed to admit giving me."
He snorted quietly as he opened the iron door and peered inside. Even with the towering boxes
stacked all over the building, the soft lantern glow gave all visibility to what was happening on the
warehouse floor. Mercenaries of all shapes and sizes, samurai and shinobi alike, created a ring
around the center of the open space.

Kaiza was knelt on the ground, welts and cuts over his body as he carried a slender log on his
back that kept his arms stretched and tied. His assaulter struck him with a bamboo stick as Gato
watched with a disgusting smile on his face.

"I heard you were going to protect this town with those arm of yours," Gato smirked. "That's what
you said, right?"

Kaiza didn't speak.

"Fine. If that's how it's going to be, then I'd like to see you try," he grinned. He jerked his chin and
motioned two of his lackeys forward. They were the biggest ones in the warehouse with each one
holding gigantic wooden mallets poised to destroy both Kaiza's arms.

But just as they were to deal the blow, all the lights went out.

::

8:56 pm.

Still, nearly two hours from when they were due back, Zabuza and Sakura had yet to return.

Naruto stationed himself at the window, his eyes glued to the darkness outside with worry and a
pinch of curiosity for where his best friend could've disappeared to. Sasuke and Haku were a little
less concerned at the problem, them sitting at the table with cups of cooling tea sat in front of
them.

Kakashi?

He stood on the roof of the house with both his black eyes peeled for any sign of them. Thirty
minutes from when they were due back, he wouldn't have been worried. He imagined Sakura
would have gone on some short adventure to save another wounded animal or help one of the kids
on the streets. He couldn't put it past her.

But, she was aware of the gravity of the situation. The mission was vital to Konoha's political
relations and she wouldn't screw around with that even for the sake of her strange quirks. He
turned at the sight of Zabuza abruptly appearing beside him with an unconscious body on his
back.

"Momochi. Report."

"Kaiza was tortured in one of the warehouses at the west end. Gato was to have both his arms
disabled, then hold a public execution for him tomorrow morning. We got there before anything
went down," Zabuza said, shifting the man against his swordless back. "I gotta say, your kunoichi
ain't half bad. Saw her kill a guy by jamming one of her wrist blades through his eye socket on our
way out."

Wrist blades?

"And just where exactly is she?"

"Here!" a new voice chirped. Sakura stepped out of a cloud of smoke on the other side of her
teacher. "Sorry I didn't catch up, Momochi. I listened in on more of their plans. Gato's pissed, of
course, and he's gathering all his men to storm the bridge on Monday. On the same day, he's
sending two mercenaries to eliminate Tazuna's whole family."

She looked relatively unarmed save for the shredded bandages on her right arm and a small rip on
the hem of her shirt. Kakashi narrowed his eyes as he spotted dark lines etched into the bicep she
always kept hidden, but held his tongue and moved his attention to Kaiza.

"Do you know where Kaiza-san can get the medical attention he needs?"

"Haku could probably clean him up a bit and dress his wounds. Nothing too serious as far as I can
tell," the Kiri-nin replied. "I'll head into the house. And clean those blades, girl. A rusty weapon
won't do you any good."

Sakura was about to deliver one of her cheeky retorts but stopped when Kakashi rounded on her
with the stormy eyes he had when they first met. She held her hands up in defense.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. 'Sakura, why didn't you inform me of your whereabouts?' Because Inari-
kun said his tou-san wasn't back yet and we were suspicious. Nothing happened. 'I didn't give you
permission.' He could've died! Can you get off my back? I'm okay! 'You're in trouble regardless
because I can't have one of my cute little genin risking their life because I care about them so
much even if I'm too much of an asshole to admit it.' That's how this conversation would've gone,
right?"

She was smiling, but Kakashi didn't feel the need to reciprocate the act. She had once again
insulted him by her horrible rendition of mimicking his voice and insinuating that he secretly cared
for the lot of them. He didn't. He was just worried. He didn't like the thought of her not following
his orders and going off on her own accord to possibly get herself killed.

He was just like her when he was younger. And being reckless cost him...

He sighed.

"Don't do it again. Next time, there will be consequences. Now you said that Gato planned to
attack on Monday?"

::

The only sounds in the office was the scritch-scratch of pen on wood and the the occasional thud
of metal into a wall. Genma, after marveling over his art of a duck made of senbon, turned over on
the couch and pouted.

"It's only been a little over a week and I'm already starting to miss the brat. It's real quiet without
her here."

Ibiki set down his pen.

"She'll be back at the end of the month. Then you can whine to her and stop complaining to me."

"Don't give me that, Morino. I bet you miss her just as much as I do."

"Hardly."

He didn't look up from the stack of papers in front of him. In all actuality, he was too busy with
things besides work to dawdle on things like missing his ward. He had compiled a list of all
missions Danzo distributed over the last six years, looking for even one that might have anything
to do with Sakura.

ROOT being all up in her business was something he never wanted to happen, and he wasn't
about to let that slide now.

"I talked to Kinoe today," Genma said. Ibiki finally glanced up from his endeavor. The
experiment that lived? "I asked about any weird instances that might've crossed his mind, and he
said something strange went down about a year ago. Danzo talked about recruitment possibility
with the candidate at HQ."

Ibiki straightened. No one outside the organization got to see the inside of the place without being
killed right after. He pressed his fingers into his forehead to try and obviate his oncoming
headache.

"Tell me she didn't."

"I would, but I'd be lying."

He withheld a prolonged sigh and returned to reading through the mission reports. It wouldn't be
too hard to gather more of those classified mission reports. After all, being head of T&I wasn't his
only job in Konoha.

::

Sakura stretched her arms over her head. This was the day Gato's men would swarm the bridge,
and she swore to herself that both Zabuza and Haku would get out alive and in one piece. They
hadn't exactly been informed by the jounin the plan they were going to carry out, but it definitely
would have to be better than what took place in the other timeline.

As she situated her kunai pouch against her thigh and adjusted her wrist blades, she felt several
chakra signatures leaving the house as one of the stronger ones stepped into the room.

"We're heading out?"

Kakashi closed the door behind him.

"I sent Naruto and Sasuke along with Momochi and Haku-san to scope out the place early," he
said. Sakura paused, suspicion rising in her bones. "There's something I need to speak to you
about before we engage with Gato's men."

No.

"Kakashi, I hope you're not doing what I think you're doing..."

He wouldn't dare .

"You're staying behind to keep Tsunami-san, Kaiza-san, and Inari safe. The likelihood of Gato
sending his personal body guards, Zori and Waraji, are high if he's dispatching all his men to the
bridge. You have-"

"Are you shitting me?! You guys need me there!" Sakura exclaimed. Her eyes blazed with a fire
she never before directed at her teacher-- not now, and not in the life behind her. Kakashi shifted
slightly backwards with the surprise of her outburst.

"Momochi and I agreed that this course of action is for the best," he tried to conciliate. "We need
all the people we can have out there to fight, but we can't help all the people when the rest of
Tazuna's family is being targeted. They need all the help they can get, especially since Kaiza-san
still can't move around with all his injuries. You're the only one skilled enough to handle them
without assistance."

She didn't know what was worse: having her past repeat itself or the reason behind them doing
this to her again.

"I can leave a clone here and go with you guys!"

"Sakura, that won't-"

"You said it yourself! I'm already strong and you're damn well aware that you don't even know
half of what I'm capable of!"

"Sa-"

"I can help you against Gato and his men! There's over eighty of them and only two coming here!
You're asking me to wait for these assholes to come, and who says how long they'll get here? One
hour? Six hours? Chances are by the time I get to the bridge, Naruto and Sasuke are well on their
way to their graves because you don't know what the hell you're doing !"

Something inside Kakashi snapped.

“Just do as you're told," he hissed. Sakura glared at him.

"The hell I will! I'm a part of this team and I'm a part of this mission-- I think it's a little late for you
to start coddling me! You saw me kill Meizu and now you're worried about me getting to trouble?
I'm not the one you're supposed to be concerned about! Naruto and Sasuke-"

"-are under my watch so you should focus on the task you've been given," he growled. "God, for
once in your time as my student, would you just listen to me?!"

Incredulous, her fingers curled into fists and she spoke in a softer but nonetheless angry tone.

"Why are you doing this?"

He crossed his arms.

"Me needing to explain myself is the last thing you need to bother with. Go find Inari and his
parents and protect them."

Then, beyond all his expectations, her seething gaze tore away from his as she turned and stalked
out of the room without another word. Kakashi let his shoulders drop at her departure as he
unlatched the window and made his exit from there.

Haruno Sakura was the type to be reckless on the battlefield. He saw it in their D-rank missions--
her quick thinking in saving her friends, her attack on the client that abused his son, her disregard
for authority, her absolute selflessness, and most recently in her remorseless murder of missing-nin
Meizu.

She was a shinobi quick to act on her emotions and morality. If it came down to it, she would
always pick the other person and never herself.

So why was he doing this?

He already lost Rin on her account to save her teammates.


He wasn't about to let that play over a second time.

::

"Are you upset, Sakura-san?"

She stepped away from peering out the window and regarded the little boy with a small smile.
Fourteen minutes and thirty-nine seconds later, she was still stuck in the house doing nothing and
being attacked by no one.

"It's nothing," she answered as she patted his head. "Just waiting for those mercenaries to show
up. You should go back and stay in that room with your parents. It's dangerous."

"But... But you sounded really angry when Hatake-san was here. I heard you yelling. Did you
guys get into a fight?"

Sakura gently pushed him in the direction of the safe room.

"Don't worry your little head over it, Inari-kun. It'll all be over soon," she said. He reluctantly
nodded before trotting back to where Kaiza and Tsunami were. She must've been more than
enraged with that whole fiasco with Kakashi sixteen minutes and three seconds ago for it to ring
throughout the house, but her fury refused to recede to where it should stay and lay dormant.

Though it had been years since she strove to become a better person. Despite the war. Despite
everything .

But it all doesn't matter, does it?

No matter how strong she'd get, she would always end up getting left behind.

"Frowns like that are so unbecoming of you. Did you know that? I'd very much prefer that look
you have when you yank my chain-- literally. Remember when you did that when you and Chiyo-
baa-chan fought against me? Good times."

Sakura spun around. There, sprawled out at the low table in the kitchen, was a cheeky looking
Sasori in all his glory.

"Of all the stupid- there are people in here that can't know you're here!" she whisper-yelled. He
pouted and tapped the back of his hood so that Kou would crawl out.

"Oh, I see how it is. No 'Nice to see you's or 'How was your day's to the person who
accompanied you all this way from the good of his heart. It's not like I put up a small genjutsu
over that family so that they don't leave the room like a decent S-Class criminal would," he huffed.
"By the way, what are you doing cooped up in here? I saw the next Great Shinobi World War
about to start at that bridge and you weren't there."

She grit her teeth.

"Kakashi ordered me to stay here and protect Inari-kun's family from the mercenaries sent to get
them."

His eyebrows rose.

"And you listened?"

"We had a falling out. If I leave, Inari-kun's family dies. If I stay, Sasuke might get a repeat of his
near-death experience and Zabuza and Haku might really perish for sure. So Kakashi really struck
me with a lose/lose situation. And get this-- his reason for doing it is because I'm strong," she
grumbled. Sasori couldn't stop the downward tilt to his lips. What a bullshit reason.

"Well, it doesn't matter what he thinks. What he didn't account for was that there would be a small
loophole in his plans. If he wants a real person in the house to protect this family, then he'll get
one."

Sakura looked at him with some confusion, but it dropped at his hands flew into three familiar
seals: dog-boar-ram. There was a small cloud of smoke that dissipated into an exact copy of
herself, save for the half-lidded stare and the ever amused smirk.

"You'd... protect them?" she questioned. "For me?"

He grinned and made a shooing motion with his hands.

"Let's say you're one of those special cases. Now get outta here and wipe that dumb smile off your
face, your team can't wait around for their knight in shining armor forever."

She hurried over to the door and practically jumped into her sandals.

"I'll make it up to you! I promise!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever! Just focus on coming back in one piece!"

::

This was going to be the end of him. Sasuke was fully accepting of it.

Gato's men didn't exactly add up to eighty or even ninety like they'd expected. The number could
easily be estimated to be in the higher one hundreds, lower two hundreds, and he could effectively
say that they were screwed.

The good side was that the thugs didn't have too much skill over them as genin and were chuunin,
low jounin at best, so fights were just a tad under fair. The bad side was that the fights were
completely unfair in the regard that they were being swarmed and were on the losing end because
of it.

Him, Naruto, and Haku had been ordered to stick together to increase the chance of them bringing
down enemies and lowering the possibility of being caught off guard or injured. Again, there was
the good side and the bad side. The good part was that Haku had incredible ice abilities and that
they all pretty much had off the chart stamina.

The bad part was that Sakura wasn't there to help them.

"We're so dead," Naruto moaned as he punched a thug in the head. "I don't know how much
longer we can keep this up. There's too many!"

Haku produced some senbon and shot them as he kicked in the chest of someone that tried to
sneak up on him from behind.

"We have to keep trying, Naruto-san! We can't let ou-"

He stopped short when a thug managed to grab hold of his neck. Sasuke sprung into action and
flung a couple of shuriken and knocking him to the ground. Haku gave him a quick nod.
"Thank you."

"No pr-"

"SASUKE! LOOK OUT!"

A sword slashed downward from above him, a sure dead hit to split him from his temple to his
navel. The glinting silver of the blade reflected the black depths of his eyes, showing him an abyss
that had no light to save him.

So. Was this how he was going to die?

"Oi! Better move those feet unless you want to become Ino's next home-cooked disaster!" a voice
crowed giddily from above. Before they knew it, a foot came swinging down to smash the sword
wielder's face into the concrete ground. "CHA!"

Naruto whipped his neck to the right.

"Sakura-chan!" he cried. "You came! You really came!!"

She flashed him a grin and flicked both her wrists so that her blades made themselves known.

"Of course I did. Why wouldn't I?"

In the far distance, Kakashi punted one of his assailants over the railing as he spun to check up on
the genin. Not very surprised but upset all the same, he watched Sakura make a mad dash in his
direction, cutting down those who stood in her way.

She landed beside him.

"I told you to stay back," he intoned. "And I doubt the mercenaries had come to fulfill their
mission. What happened to Tazuna's family?"

Lightning ignited his hand as he jabbed it through one of the men. Sakura scoffed and decapitated
the nearest of the thugs.

"I know you think lowly of me, but cut me some slack. They're the safest they could ever be
without me having to be there," she spat. She dropped onto her hands and spun around to catch a
few of the thugs in a chakra-induced whirlwind kick before popping back up and reaching behind
her to pull out a man's throat. "I hate it when people doubt me."

Kakashi turned away to shield the aghast look in his eyes. Four people dead in less than two
minutes, half of them with their blood splattered all over her apparel.

"I'll deal with you later. Stay with the other genin."

Once he got back to Konoha, he was going to read her file. And maybe... maybe push through
with the decision he came to weeks ago.

"So she did come through, huh?"

He avoided a punch to the face and ignored Zabuza's comment. The man shook his head.

"Fucking Hatake."

::
"Yo, Morino. Is the A/C on in here?"

"No. Why?"

"I dunno. I'm getting goosebumps-- can you feel that chill?"

"Mm. But the building gets drafty from time to time. It'll pass."

"Man, I hope so. It feels… off."

::

"Look, I just want you guys to say you're sorry. It's not that hard," Sasori drawled. Zori and
Waraji dangled from a tree branch, utterly humiliated and tied together with a great expanse of
rope. They were a little into the forest Waraji hocked a loogie in which he leaned to the side to
avoid. "Geez, I guess you've skipped out on your etiquette classes. I mean, you're already fucked
over. Might as well tell me what's up."

Zori's dark purple beanie slipped off his head.

"Doesn't matter. You're too late, little bitch," he taunted. Sasori punched him in the face and rolled
his eyes. Just because he currently had pink hair didn't mean that he was a bitch. He was an
asshole at best. Probably even a bastard.

"Too late for what?"

Waraji flashed him a dark grin.

"Sorry, girlie. The next time you see your teammates, some of their bits'll be there, there, and
waaay over there while their blood turns the ocean red!"

Sasori halfheartedly backhanded him. Even if he'd been a criminal for much of his life, he still
found it kind of annoying when people in his line of work gave cryptic threats instead of keeping
their mouths shut like the good ones do.

"Ugh, you're all so irritating."

Suddenly, a deafening blast bounced in his eardrums followed by three more of the same
magnitude. He turned around to see the end of the bridge crumble into the waves below. Mere
seconds passed before a fifth explosion went off-- not on the bridge exactly, but on a crane that
carried something metal that collapsed onto whoever had the misfortune of being below it.

And it was then that Sasori's stomach churned in a way that made him feel horribly sick.

"Ha!" Zori laughed. "What I tell you? You're too late!"

Sasori slowly cracked his neck.

"I hope you're praying she's not dead," he whispered. Waraji sneered.

"You ain't the least bit threatening, kid."

As he took his sweet time in facing them again, his Sakura facade melted away to display bright
red hair and eyes that descended into infuriated madness. The smiles on the captives' faces quickly
dropped at the sight of a man prominently featured on every single wanted list across the black
market.
And by the heavens, they'd never seen someone look so livid.

"Because if she is, not even God can save you now."

"Sasori-kun..."

Kou stood on the branch the two mercenaries were tied on with his stare glued onto the bridge.
His ears were flat against the back of his head, fur sticking up on end, tail tucked between his legs
and back arched. Yori, from his place on the cat summon's head, stayed absolutely silent.

"...Sasori-kun... I can't feel Sakura-chan's chakra ..."

::

When the first explosion went off, everything at the end of the bridge tilted to the right. Boxes
were flying and a couple of cranes came crashing down. Gato's men didn't even falter in their
attacks and kept going despite the growing chaos that surrounded them.

Zabuza met Kakashi's gaze.

"I'm going to check for more bombs and defuse them!" he shouted over the tumultuous battle.
"Take care of everything up here!"

Kakashi couldn't get a reply out as another explosion rocked the bridge. He and the Kiri-nin
fought on the safer side, but the kids-

Oh god.

Oh god, no.

He twisted his head towards the four genin who were hundreds of meters away from where he
was. The four of them he could still recognize with the far distance, doing much better with
Sakura there to help them attack the thugs. No matter how many men he cut down or how many
he threw into the ocean.

There were so many of them.

More still streamed onto the bridge to fight the battle.

Some had taken to the boats and fired flaming arrows into the discord.

The mission had long foregone its B-rank status and was snug in the center of being an A-rank,
too far beyond any of the genin's capabilities. If they retreated now, they could save their lives but
they'd doom the country into its downfall.

If they didn't leave...

...which one of his students was going to die first?

A third and fourth explosion shook the bridge's foundation. Kakashi pushed through some thugs
that thought it had been a good idea to pile atop him. With these incredible numbers, even he
could begrudgingly admit that he was repulsively impressed. These thugs were not simply meant
to stir fear in the hearts of the locals.

They were here to slaughter.

"I have to get to them," he found himself muttering. "They don't stand a chance. They're going to
die."

Kakashi jumped onto the railing and began running from there, strategically avoiding arrows and
any weapons the thugs were chucking or slashing at him. The closer he got, the easier it was to
see how the four were doing.

Sasuke had an arrow lodged into his shoulder. It wasn't too deep, and could be dealt with without
any instant medical treatment. His visible pallor was littered with cuts and bruises and a relatively
long gash ran from his right knee to his ankle that caused him to limp. He practically propped
himself up on his blond friend to help with the pain.

Naruto was known to not be as good at dodging as the rest of his teammates. Suffice to say, he
looked absolutely exhausted with his beloved orange jacket ripped in numerous places and a
second degree burn proudly showing on the entirety of his left cheek. His right eye was partially
closed due to the swelling of an oncoming black eye, but he wasn't letting up.

Haku was doing a little better than the two boys. He had long given up using ninjutsu techniques
and stuck to his seemingly infinite amount of senbon and taijutsu. It seemed that he was keeping
off his left foot, his ankle probably sprained or broken, but he persisted in attacking every man
possible. Blood spilled down from his face from some sort of injury on his head.

Sakura was trying the best she could to help her boys and her new friend. There was blood on her
clothes and in her hair, but if the feeling in Kakashi's nerves said anything, it was safe to assume
that most of it wasn't hers. The bandage on her right bicep was now cleanly off, giving him an
eyeful of the dark markings that encased her entire upper arm.

Poison?

That's not important right now.

A seal?

Save your team.

There was a fifth explosion. Strangely, it did not thrum through the steel and concrete foundations
like the four other ones had done. Small vibrations instead shook the ground the stood one. A
crane, one that carried steel bars and metal scraps, plunged downward towards-

-towards Haku that stood beneath it.

Kakashi could never forget the feeling of seeing Rin crushed under that boulder. A terrifying
feeling took hold of his lungs and he couldn't breathe-- he drowned with every breath he took and
his legs turned into a jelly he couldn't find the power to stand on. Obito's face in that moment was
the second hardest thing to look at with his red puffy eyes and the endless tears that just wouldn't
stop no matter how many times he rubbed at them, or how long it took him to scream his voice
hoarse.

He vowed to himself that never again in his entire life would he feel that or see that on another
person's face.

Haku looked up at the metal, frozen out of his wits, and unaware of the blur that shot in his
direction.

And before his brain could catch up to his vocal chords, Kakashi found himself screaming.

"SAKURA!!"
::

After Naruto got kicked out of the orphanage, he'd spent a bit of time wandering the streets of the
Akasen. The people there were much nicer than any other shinobi or civilian he met and wouldn't
kick him around if they saw him loitering around their business. In that time before Mari took him
in, he saw many things children weren't supposed to.

Abuse. Prostitution. Murder.

He was sure nothing else would surprise him when he got older. The first instance of that being
proved wrong was when his precious Sakura killed a man the same way the murderer did when
he was hiding behind a dumpster. He was scared on both accounts, but Sakura was his best friend.
She said she would be there for him no matter what and she told him that she loved him many
times before.

And he loved her too. She was one of the people he loved more than anything in the world. She
said she would always be there for them no matter what happened.

Then she pushed Haku out of the way.

Sasuke tried to hold her back-- grab her before she could do anything drastic, but she was too
quick for his weakened reflexes. She'd left them to both watch in horror as she disappeared
beneath a mountain of rust and silver. They were sure that she would've gotten away from it. She
always did, didn't she?

Their Sakura-chan was strong.

Their Sakura-chan was determined.

Their Sakura-chan was invincible .

But they could see pink hair and a hand that stuck out from all the metal that crushed her. Haku
was thrown against the railing of the bridge, only his side nicked but a fresh stream of tears
pouring down his face. He was safe.

But...

But...

When had everything gone silent?

Naruto turned away from his friend- his protector- and faced the mass of Gato's men who waited
for the next move to be made.

"...I won't forgive you," he whispered. Shuddering tension began to rise as something positively
gruesome dampened the air. "I won't show mercy."

A blast of pure orange chakra burst into a column that reached for the sky. The wounds he
sustained had disappeared in a wisp of steam. Blond hair became spikier and wild, fingernails
grew to a sharpened tipped length, and eyes the same color as freshly spilled blood took over what
was normally azure blue. Then, to nearly everyone's terror, an apparition of a fox's head hovered
over Naruto's form, complete with serrated sets of teeth and eyes that showed Hell itself.

" DEATH WILL BE THE ONLY APOLOGY FOR WHAT YOU'VE DONE! " he roared.
Four orange tails whipped up and stretched as far as the eye could see as he charged forward,
revenge and pain being the only things that could be clearly seen in his features.

Sasuke was taking much slower in digesting what was going on. He saw Sakura run towards
Haku and made every fiber of his being reach out to grab her and keep her out of harms way. Had
he been able to take hold of even just the hem of her shirt, he could've delayed her enough to keep
her from having all of that metal fall onto her.

He failed.

He failed, and now one of the people he kept in his heart was dying, if not already dead.

"I... let her die..." he muttered. "I let... I let Sakura... die?"

His eyes burned.

"I couldn't have... but I did ."

His left eye glowed red and began spinning with two tomoe.

"I let my best friend die."

Sasuke stood onto unstable legs and faced the thugs that had not already been flattened by
Naruto's uncontrollable rampage.

"I let her die," he told them. "But you wanted to kill her."

His right eye gleamed with a six-pointed pinwheel.

::

When Zabuza finished defusing all the bombs stuck on the pillars beneath the bridge, he didn't
expect the rush of malevolent chakra that sent a prickling feeling up his skin. He climbed back
onto the bridge from the destroyed end was saw a scene beyond his wildest imagination.

Kakashi and Haku were both frantically digging up a pile of metal debris. Behind them, the
orange aura that saturated the air was gradually fading, collecting into the Uzumaki boy who stood
amongst a pile of dead bodies. The Uchiha wasn't too far behind him with blood on his hands--
the very same color his mismatched eyes had turned into.

What the fuck?! He was gone for a couple of fucking minutes and everything went wrong!

He paused thoughts as Kakashi finally caught what he was looking for, gingerly pulling his arms
backwards and slowly hauling a body away from the rubble. That body, particularly small in
nature, had bright pink hair caked in dust and blood and had two steel shards impaled through pale
flesh.

One through the stomach and one through the chest.

"... Oh, hell."

Zabuza rushed over to them the same seconds Sasuke and Naruto did. The boys promptly
crumpled at her side as Haku shakily dumped out his mess of medical supplies and began
searching for a pulse, if there was any left.

"Sa... Sakura-chan?" Naruto whispered. They couldn't see her breathing and there was so much
blood on her that they didn't know if it was hers or the thugs she ruthlessly cut down. Tears started
to drip down his cheeks as he called out her name like a prayer.
to drip down his cheeks as he called out her name like a prayer.

"SAKURA-CHAN!!!" he screamed. Sasuke was frozen, finally out of his furor, as he stared
down at the face of the girl who once told him that she'd protect those she cared about no matter
the cost.

"Sa... Sakura?" he mumbled. "No- I didn't- NO! Sakura! Wake up- I'm sorry! I didn't mean- I..."

Kakashi couldn't look away. He extended his hand to extract the metal from her body, but was
stopped when Haku practically launched himself to grab his arm.

"No! If you take-If you take it out it'll make things wor-worse!"

The jounin recoiled jerkily, as if acid had been dumped onto him.

"She wa-wasn't hit in any vital points an-and there's a pul-pulse!" Haku exclaimed after some
agonizing moments. But he was still sobbing. "It's so weak, though. S-So weak- but even if we
can get her to stop bleeding out a lot, she'll only have a two days at b-best. The closest... The
closest hospital that c-could help her is Konoha ."

Kakashi bowed his head. Damn it! Of course it was! The only place that could help her was a
three to four days travel away and he had two others who were just about ready to enter the world
of unconsciousness right alongside her.

"Haku can patch her up the best he can," Zabuza intervened. "After that, you're gonna head
straight for Konoha no stopping for anything. I got a supply of chakra pills in my pack that'll help
you along the way. Forget about the mission, we'll stay behind."

The jounin felt his heart beating in his throat. In all his years, he never thought he'd find his saving
grace in someone who was once a part of Chigiri in its prime.

"I need a favor, then."

The swordsman looked at him.

"Shoot."

"Use my blood and summon my ninken with this scroll," he said as he held it out. "They'll help
carry Naruto and Sasuke. They can--"

"Who cares about us, sensei?!" Naruto cried. He brushed the hair away from Sakura's face and
sniffed. "We're not the ones who're gonna die here! Just GO!"

Kakashi carefully gathered the girl in his arms and threw Zabuza a pleading glance.

"My blood- the ninken'll know-"

"I got it, Hatake!" Zabuza barked, throwing the bottle of chakra pills for him to catch. "Get out of
here before she's gone!"

Following orders was always his strong suit to the higher-ups in Konoha. Whenever they gave
him a command, he pulled it through with his greatest ability and without question. Ever since he
was six years old, it was one of the things he took pride in.

But nothing made him run faster than the yells and shouts that resonated so soundly within himself
and followed his entire dead break towards the village.
Hurry.

Take care of her.

Save Sakura.

And, along with it, was that little voice at the back of his head that lingered just behind his already
piled up torment.

You let it happen again.

::

A/N: Hey guys, next week's update may be a little late or a day early. I'll be out of town so I'll
be busy. Thanks for understanding! :D
Wish

A/N: Be Not Defeated by the Rain, poem by Kenji Miyazawa. Translated by Hart Larrabee.

The poem is centered, underlined, and italicized.

Link: http://tomoanthology.blogspot.com/2012/08/kenji-miyazawas-poem-ame-ni-mo-
makezu.html

::

Unbeaten by rain

Unbeaten by wind

Bested by neither snow nor summer heat

::

Kakashi didn't stop one moment on his entire journey towards Konoha. It didn't matter how long
his muscles were screaming at him to stop or how hard his lungs cried for him slow down and
breathe. Every second wasted was another step Sakura had towards her death and there was
absolutely no way he'd sit around and wait for it to come for her.

There were so many questions he had knocking around his head he left alone in favor of reaching
the village as quick as he could. Was Naruto's seal broken? Had Sasuke really unlocked the
Mangekyo in one eye? Did Zabuza summon his ninken like he was asked? What were the states
of those two now?

He desperately wanted to turn back and check, but the red stains on his arms and flak jacket told
him that he couldn't.

Haruno Sakura, the little tyrant that always had something to say, was dying.

"... Ka... shi...?"

He picked up his pace.

"I know you don't like following my orders, especially after that display back there, but for god's
sake stop talking. You can't afford to lose any of your energy," he said. Kakashi tried his hardest
to keep the strain in his voice from being heard, but he was sure she knew it was there either way.
"Haku's fine. Naruto's fine. Sasuke's fine. You're the only one who got injured so severely that
you need medical attention right away."

"... H... Heh..."

When he looked down, her chapped lips curled up the tiniest bit even as her eyes stayed shut.

"Y... You do... ca... re..."

Her head lolled against his chest.

::
Strong of body

Free of desire

Never angry

::

Something dashed past the gate sentries and said one word: "hospital". It took Kotetsu and Izumo
a few seconds to determine that no, it wasn't a threat, and that it certainly had been Hatake
Kakashi in a panicked state they thought they'd never see on such an impassive and monotonous
being. The few more seconds that ticked after that is when they realize it wasn't just him who
passed them by.

"He... No way, he wasn't carrying Sakura, was he?" Izumo asked, now wary of the unexpected
display. "Should we tell Morino and Shiranui?"

"I doubt it would help things, seeing how frantic Hatake looked. If it was her, the hospital would
notify them. But shit, I've never seen him look like that before," Kotetsu said. "Didn't they just go
on a C-rank? You think they ran into bandits on the way back?"

"They were slated to be gone for a whole month. It's been, what, two weeks? Something
definitely went wrong."

They kept an uneasiness in the darkness of the earlier morning for another two hours or so before
another party showed up to throw off their regard for Team Kakashi's "simple mission". Eight
ninken appeared at the gates, the largest carrying an unconscious black haired boy and some of the
smaller ones lending their bodies to keep the blond one upright.

"Sakura-chan," the latter croaked miserably. His eyes were puffy and red. "Did sensei bring her
back in time? Please! Did she... did she..."

Izumo appeared behind him, catching his body as he pitched backward. Kotetsu took it upon
himself to carefully lift Sasuke from the bulldog's back.

"Fuck, what happened out there?"

The little pug shook his head.

"All I know is what went down, shouldn't have. Take 'em to the hospital; Naruto's only exhausted
but Sasuke's got some injuries to take care of, 'specially those eyes of his."

::

Always smiling quietly

Dining daily on four cups of brown rice

Some miso and a few vegetables

::

The Mangekyo Sharingan, as known by many, was obtained by witnessing the death of a loved
one. Though contrary to popular belief, they didn't have to be the ones committing the act to have
it awakened. It could simply be explained by being brought on by the trauma that came with the
death of said someone, but the magnitude of the pain and loss the user had to feel needed to be far
beyond normal emotional boundaries.

That was the reason why the Uchiha strayed away from the practice of their ancestors. Those who
had it today attained it by the means of pure accident, like Uchiha Shisui, who had gotten it in
both eyes because he "allowed his friend and rival to die".

Such expectations hadn't even been in mind as Fugaku, Mikoto, and Itachi rushed to the hospital
as soon as someone had come to inform them that the youngest member of their immediate family
had come back two weeks earlier than expected and in an unconscious state.

"He's not in any danger," a doctor ensured the three of them. Mikoto looked most visibly relieved
by the news. "Uchiha-san has numerous cuts and bruises, an injury from a projectile behind his
left shoulder, and a half a centimeter gash from his right knee down to his right ankle, which will
both heal without any scarring."

Fugaku glanced to through the plexiglass window to where his son lay calmly in his room, the
EKG machine showing no abnormalities in his heartbeat.

"But?" he prompted. The doctor flipped through her clipboard.

"But, as we were examining him, we found that a high amount of chakra had been channeled
through his optic nerves, his right eye more so than this left, suggesting that he activated his
sharingan. Our assumptions had been accurate when he woke up for a few brief moments. His left
eye has the normal sharingan, but his right has a pinwheel pattern we've never encountered before.
I'm assuming that winds down to classified clan knowledge?"

She took their sudden frigid expressions as a 'yes'. Itachi took a small step forward.

"What are the rest of his team's conditions?" he questioned, unable to set aside the nauseating
feeling in the pit of his stomach. His beloved little brother-- how could something like that
happen? On a C-rank mission, no less? The doctor flicked through more of her pages.

"Uzumaki-san is suffering from severe chakra exhaustion and is miraculously uninjured-"

If the Kyuubi could be called miraculous.

"-Hatake-san is going through the very same, though the severity level is greater than the boy's,
along with mild cuts and bruising, and... oh. It seems that Haruno-san has taken the brunt of the
injuries. In fact, she's currently in the ICU after going through emergency surgery."

Mikoto held up a hand to her mouth.

"That poor dear. Will she be alright?"

"Her injuries are extensive, Uchiha-sama. Only time will tell."

The doctor quietly excused herself, telling the three they could go and stay with Sasuke until
visiting hours ended at ten in the evening.

Meanwhile, in a room down the hall, Naruto lay in a much similar state as his rival. Iruka had
pushed his chair as close to the bed as possible and held his son's hand in his. He was so thankful
that he managed to return home unharmed, or as unharmed as a shinobi could get on missions like
the ones he just came from.

But even if Naruto was safe and sound, it didn't mean the same for his friends and teammates.
Iruka, being the soft soul he was, also cared deeply for both Sasuke and Sakura. They were still
his students as well as the rest of Naruto's family, so there was no help in thinking that they
weren't like a niece a nephew to him.

Sasuke would be fine, surely, with minor physical injuries and only the state of his eyes to worry
about. Sakura's situation was much more dire with her lengthy list of injuries. When being told of
it, Iruka couldn't help but feel bile rise up in his throat. Being wounded like that would have
certainly killed any normal shinobi.

Then again, Sakura wasn't exactly normal, was she?

"How is he, 'ruka?"

The door opened and in stepped Mari dressed in simple civilian clothing and his hair tied together
in a messy bun. It seemed that he had been able to get off work early like he'd told Iruka just
before the latter ran off towards the hospital.

"Naruto's going to be just fine. He just exhausted his chakra and is overly fatigued. The doctor
said he can be discharged in a few days."

Mari breathed a sigh of relief.

"Thank god. How 'bout Sasuke-chan and Sakura-chan?"

"Sasuke's fine. Sakura's in the I-ICU."

The older man cursed under his breath as he pulled up another chair to the bed, facing Iruka and
taking Naruto's hand as well.

"Look, I know this has gotta be a real heavy hitter for ya'," he said. "Why don'tcha just take a rest
back home? I'll stay an' watch 'im."

"But..."

"Don't worry 'bout a thing, honey. Get some sleep, take some breakfast or somethin', and take
some time to yourself. You've been 'ere for hours and you had a busy day at school. I'll make sure
Naru-chan'll be just fine," Mari promised. Iruka reluctantly stood up and placed a kiss on both his
partner's cheek and Naruto's forehead.

"... Okay," he conceded. "But I'll be back before classes start later today."

Mari waved him out of the room with an assuring smile. A minute ticked by, the dark sky outside
still milling around when he reached over to tousle the head of messy blond hair.

"He's gone. You don't haf'ta keep pretendin' like that."

A few seconds passed before Naruto warily opened his eyes and stared straight above at the
ceiling. Even with the bare moonlight and the glow of the heart monitor, Mari didn't have to strain
his eyes to the tears that were welling up in his boy's eyes. He wiped some of them away with the
pad of his thumb.

"What's wrong, Naru-chan? Somethin' hurt?"

Naruto's tears ran faster.

"I... I don't..."

He hiccuped.
He hiccuped.

"I don't... d-don't want Sa-Sakura-chan... t-to... hic... to d-die..."

::

Observing all things

With dispassion

But remembering well

::

"I don't know how much more my heart can take."

"And you say I'm the old man."

"I'm being serious! I swear to god my heart stopped when we sat through her mental examination,
I thought I was hallucinating when she went on that mission two years ago, I spent days trying to
convince myself that you were lying about the sleeping pills, I nearly lost my mind when you told
me about the whole sealing fiasco, and now there's this!" Genma cried. He grabbed at the hair
hastily tucked beneath his bandana. "She's going to kill me one day!"

Ibiki sighed. That was one way to put it. He'd been walking home from a long and uneventful day
at T&I when a hospital intern appeared and told him the state of his ward. Immediately, he
practically hauled Genma along to the hospital with him without knowing just exactly what
Sakura had gotten herself into. The only thing the intern told him was that her situation was
'critical'.

"You know what she's like."

"Yeah, well she needs to tone it down."

The two of them breezed through the hospital entrance, Ibiki approaching the receptionist.

"We're looking for Haruno Sakura. I'm her guardian, Morino Ibiki," he said, flashing his T&I ID
card. The man behind the desk nodded and typed a few things into his computer.

"You'll find her on floor four, room two," the receptionist politely informed. Ibiki and Genma
exchanged glances before hurrying up the stairs, deeming the elevator too slow for their demand
to know what exactly happened to their student. Floor four was the ICU. If a shinobi had
managed their way in there, there was no telling the true extent of 'critical'.

When they reached her room, 'critical' couldn't even begin to justify the circumstance she was in.

"What the fuck..." Genma whispered disbelievingly. Sakura was hooked onto several machines to
regulate her organ functions, it seemed, and a blood bag hung over just to the side of her head.
The parts of her body that weren't covered blankets were swathed in bandages, particularly her
arm that had been casted and set in a sling. An oxygen mask was placed over the lower half of her
face, but even with it it didn't look like she was breathing.

"Morino-san, I take it."

The doctor handed Ibiki the clipboard, which he readily took and flipped through.

"What the hell happened to her?"


"She finished surgery about an hour ago. We had several medics tend to the list of injuries on page
three. The most prominent ones sustained was to her torso where we had to extract two metal
shards that completely pierced her through- from her left lumbar region, barely hitting her left
kidney and descending colon, and from below her left clavicle where the shard punctured a lung
and missed her heart by millimeters," the doctor explained as he cast a glance at his patient. "With
injuries as considerable as hers, it's a wonder that she made it this far. And quite the luck she had
not getting a fatal hit."

"Do you know when she'll wake up?" Genma asked. The doctor shook his head.

"When, or if for any matter, all depends on her. We've done all we can and we'll continue to help
her, but she's the only one who can pull through this."

That wasn't a comforting thought in the slightest. Sakura already problem doing all of that when
she was healthy and well (for lack of a better term)-- so her deciding whether to live or not while
on the brink of death was hardly fair. Ibiki gave the clipboard back.

"The rest of her team?"

"Still unconscious as far as I'm aware."

Genma leaned against the wall before letting his head drop into his hands. Why was it that Sakura
was the one getting into all these situations? She could've been a simple shinobi who had every
single one of her peers, still more advanced than the rest but with a truer smile on her face.

She could've been a happy child with parents that loved her and still be apprenticed to T&I but be
that much more naive and innocent, looking like the didn't carry the whole world on her
shoulders. But instead, she had turned to this life.

A little girl wracked with guilt who still thought that she wasn't enough and that she'd never be
enough.

"Hey, Morino. I'm gonna see if I can get any more information about... this," Genma said. Ibiki
shrugged a shoulder as he sat in one of the chairs outside Sakura's room.

"I'll be here."

Down on the second floor was where the rest of Team Kakashi was being held. First he checked
the team leader, finding that not only was he unconscious like that one doctor told him, but
probably would be for the next several days if his charts had anything to say about it. Next he
went to Sasuke's room, but after seeing all of his family bunched at his side, slowly backtracked to
the last person he could hear the story from.

But as he approached Naruto's room, he could hear quiet sniffling.

"W-We were all fighting on the bridge, ya' know? Since Sa-Sakura-chan came... we-we were
doin' lots more 'cause she's super strong. We thought we were gonna win until..."

"'til?" an unfamiliar voice questioned.

"... until... until the bombs went off."

Genma stopped by the door and kept out of sight. There were more sniffles, then Naruto's rough
voice floated back out to the nearly empty hallway.

"The firs' one made the bridge start to shake, but we still had ta' fight. Then there was another one,
then a third one, then one after that, but w-we thought we were gonna be okay. I had Sasuke and
Sakura-chan and our new friend Haku, so we were go-gonna be okay."

Some sheets rustled and it sounded like the boy started weeping again.

"But then there was the la-last bomb. It wasn't on the bridge like the rest of 'em 'ca-cause it was on
one of those really big crane thingies and it ha-had lotsa metal on it. S-So the metal went down
and Haku... Haku was standing right there! And Sakura-chan pushed him away so she'd be the
one who died instead!"

The sound of his sobs had strengthened, but was soon muffled. Whoever was in the room with
him had probably hugged him.

"I thought she d-died there and I got so... so mad at those bastards 'cause they were the ones that
ki-killed her, but I saw her... I saw her run an'-an' I don't get it!!"

"You don't get what, Naru-chan?"

"Why did Sa-Sakura-chan just throw herself und-under the metal like that?" Naruto whimpered.
"She knew she cou-coulda died but she did... she did it anyway. Why? Doesn't sh-she care 'bout
what happens to her?"

Genma pursed his lips and slipped away.

::

Living in a small, thatched-roof house

In the meadow beneath the canopy of pines

::

When Sakura opened her eyes, the first thing she saw was a small aloe plant sitting on the table
beside her. She thought it looked so cute in its tiny purple pot with a little caption written with
black ink saying 'Feel Better' and- oh.

This was the hospital, wasn't it?

She slowly turned her neck, which was stiff from disuse, to the right and saw her boys slumped in
the chairs lined up next to the window. Naruto had his head tipped back and drool leaking out the
corner of his mouth and Sasuke had his arms crossed over his chest, eyebrows cinched together
and chin against his chest.

"Psst. Sasuke."

Sakura coughed, voice scratchy and dry from disuse. Sasuke shifted.

"Mm... what?"

"Did my caterpillars make it back okay?"

"You're in the hospital, Sakura," he grumbled. "You shouldn't care about those stupid cater..."

He blinked himself awake and rubbed at his face to get the crust out from around his eyes. Next
his head jerked up and his hand slammed straight into Naruto's stomach-- voluntarily or
involuntarily, she couldn't tell.
"You're up!"

At those words, Naruto slid off his chair and hit the floor with a nice dull thud. He opened his
mouth to snipe some bitter rebuttal at the way his person was treated, but when he saw an amused
pair of emerald eyes, he shot to his feet like he hadn't been rudely assaulted just seconds ago.

"Sakura-chan!!"

They fussed over her like she'd never known them to do so before, asking if she needed some
water, more pillows, was in pain... To which the answers were 'yes', 'no thank you', and 'it's
nothing I can't handle'. And as Sasuke walked to the other side of the room to get her pack and
ensure that her caterpillars were in fact fine, her eyes fell onto the calendar tacked up on the wall.

Two weeks.

That was how long it took her spare seal to work.

::

Going east to nurse the sick child

::

She was surprised at the myriad of people that came to visit her over the next three days since her
consciousness. She soon discovered Yori had hidden in the expanse of sheets the entirety of her
admittance and left when he had the chance to inform Sasori that he definitely didn't need to (and
he quoted his summoner word for word) "cut a damn bitch" because she healing at a slow but
steady rate.

After Sasuke and Naruto had to be pried away from her side to have check ups on injuries of their
own, Hinata popped her head into the room.

With an adorably pink face and her hands clasped around a red box, she hurried over to Sakura's
beside and placed the gift on the table right beside the aloe plant.

"These are anmitsu on-onigiri! Your, u-um, your favorite!" she squeaked. Sakura looked at the
box, delicately wrapped in red and silver ribbon, before holding both her arms out with a wide
grin. Hinata cocked her head.

"Sakura-san?"

"Thanks, Hinata! Come over here and give me a big hug!"

The Hyuuga's face burst into a tremendously loud shade of red as she backed up.

"I-I... a... a... getbettersoonSakura-san!"

She scurried out the room. Sakura laughed to herself (causing a small coughing fit) then settled
back into her pillows. She did admit that was kind of mean, but she hadn't seen the other girl in so
long that she missed how easy it was to make her blush.

Though aside from her, she really didn't expect much more visitors after that.

But it seemed like the world loved to prove her absolutely wrong.

Kiba came in a few hours later with Akamaru sitting on his head and a fist-full of 'Get-Well-Soon'
balloons in his right hand. He greeted her with an ecstatic wave as he tied them to her bed and
balloons in his right hand. He greeted her with an ecstatic wave as he tied them to her bed and
plopped down into the seat next to her. When asked about why he brought so many balloons, he
made a face.

"Well 'cause the more balloons you give someone, the happier they're gonna be. Duh."

Akamaru barked in agreement. Then Hana came in a few minutes later, even more balloons in her
grasp.

"Kiba! You didn't get enough!"

An hour after that, Chouji came in. He had a whole plate of freshly made dango, which he and his
mom made for her, and set it on the table next to Hinata's onigiri. He told Sakura about how glad
he was that she was okay and that he and all her friends came to visit her every day until the day
she woke up.

She frowned.

"Why would you guys do that?" For me?

"What are you talking about? We all got scared when we found out what happened. We had to
make sure you were alright."

Something flashed in Sakura's eyes, and if he saw it, he didn't say anything about it.

The next morning, she woke up to the sight of a huge bouquet of white lilies waddling its way
into her room. They were placed on the table right alongside the aloe plant, the half-eaten onigiri,
and the mostly filled dango plate. She would've eaten more of the food, but her situation didn't
exactly allow for a healthy appetite.

Ino jumped out from right behind them with an almost accusatory glare.

"How could you almost die like that, forehead?!"

"Sorry. I'll ask permission next time."

"Don't even joke about that!"

Ino hefted herself up next to Sakura's feet and crossed her arms with a huff. She went on to
chastise her bedridden friend about how bad it was to get injured so extensively like that and she
was forever banned from ever getting so hurt again.

"Pale blue isn't even your color," the blonde sniffed, eyeing the sheets and hospital gown
distastefully. "If you never have to come back here again, it won't be a problem."

Sakura couldn't remember the last time Ino had been the one troubling over her, not the other way
around.

Almost immediately after she left about two hours later, Shikamaru came sauntering in with a
wooden board tucked under his arm and a bag held in one of his hands. Without saying a word,
he placed the board on her lap and began arranging the shogi pieces he pulled out from said bag.

"I knew Ino was going to come and see you," he said. "So I thought it would be better if you had
some time to get some of your brain cells back."

Sakura laughed.
Hours later near the end of visiting hours, someone she never expected to spare her the time of
day. Hyuuga Hanabi came stomping up to her side and cast one long look at all tubes and
bandages imposing on her "rival" before thrusting a cup into her pale hands.

"Hanabi-san?"

"Nee-sama's sad that you're here. So get better."

The one hospitalized peered down at the cup and saw that it was one of of her favorite desserts--
anmitsu from the shop a block away from the Academy, and smiled.

"Thank you, Hanabi-san. It's sweet that you came to see me."

Hanabi pinkened and turned away with a scoff.

"I didn't do this for you and you're still my rival!"

Sakura's smile widened.

"Yes, yes, of course. My mistake."

On the third day, Sai came in to greet the day with her. He babbled on and on about how excited
he was to finally see her awake and on her way to recovery.

"So I was doing some research outside of school and you know what I read? That there's a whole
color psychology that's supposed to do a lot of things for somebody!" he grinned. "I found out that
green is 'sposed to promote healing and things like that so I made you a whole sketchbook full of
drawings in green! And lots of different shades of green so they don't get boring. Here! Look!"

Sai gleefully handed her one of his standard sketchbooks. It didn't look like anything out of the
ordinary, except for the 'FOR SAKURA TO GET BETTER BECAUSE SHE NEEDS TO
GO BACK TO BEING AWESOME NOT LIKE SHE ISN'T AWESOME NOW BUT I
THINK YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN' painted on with a dark green shade. She bit her lip to
keep from laughing and flipped through.

Each page had a different scene, ranging from waterfalls to forests to flower beds to mountain
tops, and even to Konoha's far too familiar streets.

"You're not allowed to go outside yet, right? So I made sure to draw all that I could so you can
look at the drawings and not miss it so much anymore!"

Sakura stroked the artworks with her finger. How long did it take him to make this for her? It
would've been hours upon hours out of each day that he had to devote to just making her feel
better. Was she really just worth it? All that painstaking time just to be used to make her happy?

"... Thank you, Sai," she murmured, eyes running down every line he had drawn for her.
"Everything you've made is beautiful."

His grin stuck true to his face.

"When you get out of the hospital, let's go on a walk by the lake!"

At noon, Shino came to visit. He had on his large overcoat and glasses like he normally did and
looked just as expressionless as he did on his normal days. His steps were quiet as he padded over
Sakura's side, and as he neared her, he pulled a small plastic bag out of one of his large pockets
and set it on the table.
"I... am very forgetful," he said. "But I remember that you like dried pineapples."

Easy. Simple. Not too much hassle.

But it really hit close that he recalled even the smallest details of the Killer Hornet Incident from so
long ago.

"Hey, Shino?"

He looked at her.

"Wanna keep me company for a while?"

He made no inclination of staying, but eventually moved to the other side of her and pulled up a
chair without saying much of anything else. And that silence was completely fine with her.

At least until Sasuke and Naruto would come in later on and break the door off its hinges like they
did the last time.

So on the fourth day of her waking up, Sakura received a guest she knew would come in sooner
or later. Yamanaka Inoichi strolled into the room expecting his patient to be knowingly waiting for
his arrival or sweet-talking the nurses into letting her leave the hospital earlier, but he was
surprised to find her not doing anything of the sort.

Strangely enough, her head was turned to look at the table covered in the gifts her friends had
given her the past few days.

"By the looks of it, a lot of your friends came to visit."

"Yeah, but..."

Inoichi raised an eyebrow.

"But? You didn't want them to?"

"No, I loved everything they did for me, it's just... I don't know, no one's ever done this for me
before," she mentioned quietly. He took a seat by the window as he pulled his assessment book
from his black overcoat.

"No one's ever done what?"

Her eyes shone with unshed tears.

"Shown me how much they wanted me to get better."

::

Going west to bear sheaves of rice for a weary mother

::

Sasori didn't look too happy today, Gaara noted curiously. The corners of the man's lips were
pulled down into a huge frown and his finger had been incessantly tapping his knee for the past
ten minutes. A scorpion had come saying something like 'she'll be dispatched in a few days, so
you don't have to keep worrying' or another thing along those lines.
"Did something happen, Sasori?"

"It's just..." he grumbled. Then, he sighed. "Remember when I told you about the girl I knew?
The one whose heart is sick?"

Gaara nodded.

"She was admitted to the hospital a couple of weeks ago after nearly sacrificing her life for the
people she loved. I'm not complaining that she cares so much about other people, but it wouldn't
hurt for her to care about herself every once in a while."

The boy leaned into his arm.

"She must really love those people she saved, huh?" he asked. Sasori threaded a hand through
Gaara's hair and looked up at the setting sun.

"They're her family, but she should learn how to not risk her life so much."

Gaara shifted so that his eyes were downcast. He didn't know why Sasori was so against such a
thing, if the sick girl was willingly to die for those she loved, wasn't that a good thing? It showed
how much those people meant to her and what she was willing to do to make sure they stayed
alive no matter the cost.

There was such pure intent behind the gesture.

"I would do the same thing for you," the boy murmured into the cloth of Sasori's cloak sleeve.
The man slumped forward, but pretended not to hear.

::

Going south to tell the dying man there is no cause for fear

::

The monk stood in the middle of the recently completed bridge that connected Wave Country to
the mainland. He passed by numerous dark spots that stained the concrete on his walk over, the
workers saying that it was merely a paint spill accident, but those who had been there a month ago
knowing very well that it was a loosely-crafted lie.

A little boy, he saw, hurried to two people standing along the railing of the bridge. The monk
recognized them as the team that accompanied the team that left on harrowing circumstances.

"Haku-san..." the boy said, clinging onto the teenager's sleeve. "Haku-san, do you know what
happened to Sakura-san yet? Is she still hurt?"

Haku bit his bottom lip.

"We received a letter saying she's recovering well. She's okay now, Inari-kun," he answered. He
tried to give up his best smile, but the monk knew it was anything but. Forced smiles were never
the easiest to see, but the way it fit so uncomfortably on the Kiri-nin's face made it more than
apparent. He kept it on until Inari reluctantly returned to his now-safe town before facing his
companion, the bandaged swordsman.

"We have to return to the village," the man said before his apprentice could utter a word. "They
said she was fine and Yagura-sama won't allow delay."
"I have to tell her I'm sorry!"

"Haku-"

The boy started to cry.

"I need to tell her that she didn't need to do that! I need to tell her, Zabuza-sensei! I need to tell her
that she shouldn't have thrown her life away!"

The monk turned forward.

He'd been one of the few not in the safe houses and watched the entirety of the fallout. He saw the
bandits, the explosions, the crane falling, and the anguished screams and malevolent chakra that
followed soon after that. Haruno Sakura, if he remembered correctly, had nearly died when he
watched her be carried away by her teacher.

Her sacrifice was... a surprise to witness.

"Shishou? Aren't we leaving?"

The monk adjusted the pack over his shoulder and turned towards his disciple.

"Hm, just thinking about some things. Come on. Wind Country's going to be our next destination.
It's a long way out, so we'll have to get a move on," he said. The boy bobbed his head and quickly
fell in step next to the monk, the latter sparing a glance at the engraved plaque that hung over all
those who journeyed to Wave.

The Cherry Blossom Bridge

::

Going north to tell those who fight to put aside their trifles

::

The one person Sakura never had a visit from was Kakashi-- the person she thought would be the
most worried out of the rest of them. He might wear that mask over the bottom half of his face, but
nothing could cover the fear and desperation in his expression. It took him all he could to travel
the length to Konoha and he probably collapsed from chakra exhaustion.

But from her time at the hospital to her taking it easy back at home, there wasn't the slightest trace
of him.

Until one of his dog summons gave her a note after her check up at the hospital.

Meet me at the Memorial Stone.

The message was short and revealed nothing, but perhaps it was there for the sake of significance?
But it was no matter for her. The travel there was certainly a change from being bedridden and
cooped up in her room at the house all day.

It started raining when she got there. Luckily enough, Genma's insistent nagging on her bringing
an umbrella actually came in handy (he'd been such a mother hen ever since she was released
from the hospital). Kakashi stood before the black marble with his hands in his pockets, not saying
a word and letting the droplets soak his clothes.
"You're looking better," he greeted quietly. Sakura gave him an odd look.

"Well, yeah. I got out of the hospital nearly a week ago, you know. Even the doctors were
surprised that my injuries are healing so fast," she said. She wiggled the arm still in a sling. "Most
of them, anyway."

"... You should have stayed there longer. To make sure nothing really went wrong."

"Nah, it's fine. What happened to me wasn't that bad. Don't you hear what the boys say about me?
I'm invincible!" she grinned, giving a small fist pump for emphasis. He twitched.

"Wasn't that bad?" Kakashi repeated. He rounded on her, his eyes ablaze with fury. "Wasn't that
bad? You had a collapsed lung, several fractured bones, sixteen separate contusions over six
centimeters long and five centimeters wide, tissue damage, a concussion, metal that pierced your
stomach and chest, and myocardial ischemia! You were dying in my arms and all you can say is
that it wasn't that bad?!"

Sakura's grip faltered on her umbrella as she blinked up at him. Being explicitly yelled at by
Kakashi was new.

"How is it that you can stand there and crack jokes with that happy look after you nearly lost your
life from shards of metal falling on you?!" he exclaimed. He ran a hand through his unruly hair
and exhaled harshly. "So it's true, then. What Naruto said."

"... What did he...?"

"That you'll willingly sacrifice anything for the sake of others because you don't care enough
about yourself."

"What? That's not-!"

She stopped at the murderous look on his face.

"Then how do you explain what happened with Haku? You knew him for barely two weeks and
you threw everything away just to push him out from under metal! No one's invincible, Sakura!
Not even you!""

She pressed her lips together and he sighed.

"I called you here for a reason. What you did in Wave was a direct violation against my orders
almost at the cost of your life and compromising the mission even further. I know you're only a
genin, but I've told you this before. There are consequences to your actions."

He drew in a deep breath.

"You're suspended from the team."

::

Shedding tears in time of drought

Wandering at a loss during the cold summer

Called useless by all

::
Kakashi tore his gaze away from the absolutely betrayed look in her eyes and the way her mouth
dropped in shock, a look that could only be dawned if any one of her boys ever stared straight at
her and told her that they hated her-- something that would never happen yet never be
surmounted, but the words coming out of the Jounin's mouth were damn near close to it.

"That means you can't train with us, participate in missions we're assigned to, or engage in any
other activity where Team Kakashi is listed on the roster."

Her breathing quickened.

"You... You can't just... do this..."

"I've already taken it up with Hokage-sama and it has been approved and finalized," he said, still
refusing to look her in the eyes. "From this point onward, you're not allowed back on the team for
at least three weeks. Even then, I'm not sure that covers the entirety of your punishment."

That betrayal took its time to finally sink in, and when it did, it turned into a rage to rival Naruto's
when he lost control on the bridge.

"I can't believe it! You're punishing me for saving someone's life!"

"There are rules that need to be followed, Sakura. You put everyone in jeopardy due to your
actions."

"He didn't deserve to die!" she shouted.

"But you do?!" he shot back. "Stop trying to play hero, Sakura! If you try to save everyone, you're
only going to get yourself killed!"

She shook her head and shut her eyes in utter disbelief.

"I thought... of all people, you would understand why I do things the way I do things. I saved
Haku because he was my friend and he, like everyone else, deserved a chance to live. I was
thinking that finally, I wouldn't let anyone down anymore," she whispered. Lightning crackled the
sky, creating a brief shadow over the ground they stood on. "You don't know the things I've been
through, Kakashi. What I had to live through my entire life. Maybe I wanted to die out there and
all you did was stop me from fulfilling my wishes!"

He was taken aback.

"...You don't mean that."

"Oh, what the hell do you know?! Of all this time being our 'sensei', you haven't done one
goddamn thing to try and get to know us better! We tried all that we could by cracking those jokes
you 'hate', making bets, sharing stories, making dinner, laughing with everyone- but no! All we
wanted was to be your friends and all you've done is push us away! So how the fuck are you
going to tell me what I mean and don't mean?! Are you the same man that passed us because we
were the ones that said we wouldn't leave our teammates behind?!"

"Sakura!"

The umbrella dropped from Sakura's hand with the sharp gestures in his direction, but she didn't
seem to notice.

"No! You can't keep treating me like I don't know what I'm doing! I will never regret the decision
I made that day, and if I ever get the chance to do it over I wouldn't take it. I would risk my life for
him every. Single. Damn. Time. Now tell me, Kakashi, why is it I shouldn't save people who are
more deserving than I'll ever be?!"

When he said nothing, she stepped forward until they were only a meter apart.

"Go ahead! Tell me! Since you know everything!"

Still nothing. She went closer until she grabbed the front of his shirt with her good arm and shook
him until angry tears began trickling down her cheeks.

"TELL ME!"

"BECAUSE YOU CAN'T JUST THROW YOUR LIFE AWAY FOR YOUR FRIENDS,
RIN!!"

The rain suddenly felt a little colder.

Sakura dropped the fabric and retreated some ways backwards. Kakashi had turned around so fast
that only his the red swirl on his flak jacket faced her now, leaving her to shake her head and push
some of her wet hair to the side.

"So that's what it was. You never saw me. All you saw was a mistake that shouldn't follow
through."

She chuckled hollowly.

"But who am I to talk? It's not like I'm any better."

She, uncaring of the rain that soaked her bandages and chilled her healing wounds, began her
walk down the path back towards the village. Her saffron yellow umbrella lay discarded at
Kakashi's heels-- the one thing he glanced at as the frigid air carried her parting words.

"But now... I guess it's safe to say it's better to be the scum that abandons their comrades than the
trash that breaks the rules, right? Good to know."

Kakashi stared at her retreating form slumped in hurt and defeat with the sound of water on stone
the only welcoming sound ringing in his ears.

::

Neither praised

Nor a bother

Such is the person

::

This was a predicament.

For as long as Ibiki could remember, one of his biggest problems with Sakura was trying to keep
track of her. Sometimes she'd be walking next to him, sometimes she was gone when he turned a
corner with only a sticky-note on his side telling him not to worry or he'd get more wrinkles.
Sometimes she'd be in his office bantering with him about this or that, and sometimes his window
was open and there would be a sticker in the place she was was just at.

He didn't really care, honestly. She could discern right from wrong and knew her way back home
from any part of the village.

But today was odd. When Ibiki left for work, Sakura was curled in her sheets with her face
smooshed in her pillow. Thinking that it was the fatigue of her injuries, he told her that her left
breakfast on the table. When he got back, the food he left sat untouched on the table and she was
in the same position from when he last saw her.

"Did you just stay in bed the whole day?" he asked. "We had to keep you on the bed when you
were in the hospital. How come only now you're doing what your told?"

She mumbled into her pillow, making him snort.

"I beg to differ. Bandages need changing? Uncomfortable?"

More wordless murmurs.

Ibiki lowered himself down on the foot of her bed.

"Yeah, I know you can take care of yourself but you haven't moved or eaten for the past twelve
hours. Cough it up, kid," he said. "Something's been eating at you for a couple of days now and
you haven't even gone to any of your team training sessions."

There was a short pause before she muttered lowly. His eyebrows creased as he looked at her.
That was a joke, right?

"What do you mean you got suspended? And all because Hatake got angry at you for putting your
life out like that?" he repeated. Of course Kakashi had always been even more of a stickler for
rules than he was, but he never expected that to happen. "Huh. Didn't think he had it in him to
turn on a teammate like that."

Something that sounded like a sigh escaped her muffled lips.

"Am I mad about what you did?"

She grunted and Ibiki turned his gaze to her ceiling. He wasn't as frantic as Genma was when he
learned about the condition she got herself into, but there was that small sliver of anxiety and
anger he felt when he saw her nearly lifeless in the ICU. After Idate he had no one and after her
parents, she was the same way.

Living together wasn't the happiest they'd ever been in their lives, but if they didn't have each
other, where would they be now?

"To be honest, I'm still a little pissed at your stunt," he answered truthfully. "But you did it
because you thought it was right. Can't blame you for that."

Sakura pulled her face out of her pillow and offered him a small smile. The bags under her eyes
were like angry shadows against the pallor of her skin as she looked a bit thinner from her
normally healthy build.

"Thanks," she whispered. Ibiki shrugged his shoulders and pushed himself back onto his feet.

"You needed to get back to your usual self soon anyways," he said. "Shiranui and I were talking,
and we came to the conclusion that you obviously don't know how an A-rank missions is
supposed to go. As your sensei, we have an obligation to show you how it's done correctly."

She rolled over.


"You booked me on an A-rank? With you and Genma?"

"You look like you need a pick-me-up."

"But... But I was unconscious for two weeks!"

He pointed at her bandages.

"I know you've been secretly healing yourself ever since you got back and you've been doing is
mope. Fix your injuries by the end of the week and we'll leave. We'll tell you what it's about on
the way there."

The glazed look in her eyes replaced itself with genuine happiness and hope as she flung herself to
wrap her arms around Ibiki's midsection. He made a displeased face and tried to throw her back
on the bed as nicely as possible.

"Scrooge learned how to love!"

"Don't make me ground you! And- dammit! Let go!"

::

Kakashi had stayed at the Memorial for hours on end. His clothes has been thoroughly soaked and
dried stiff in the while that he stayed there. Muddy sandals tracked his hallways when he finally
skunk home at night as his conscious remained foggy no matter how much he tried to sleep it off.
His team- could he still say it was his? - would meet in three days for their first training session
after the contingency, and he was sure his two remaining students- could he still be called a
teacher? - wouldn't be happy with what he'd done.

"Are you the same man that passed us because we were the ones that said we wouldn't leave our
teammates behind?!"

This was the right thing to do, no question about it. If Sakura risked her life like that one more
time it'd all be over. He couldn't allow her the chance to make the wrong choice.

She needed to cool down. Re-evaluate her options. Make decisions that benefited herself above all
else for once.

'Like you can talk, hypocrite.'

He was a hypocrite, wasn't he?

But all he wanted was to make sure his team didn't make the same mistakes he had and still
grieved over the thousands of days that passed him by. Kakashi wanted for his team to be stronger
than he ever was-- smarter, more capable, less weighed down by the wrongs they committed onto
themselves. He wanted them to be better than what everyone else thought of them.

To be somebody.

Somebody...

Kakashi let his head drop as he gazed out his window.

"I wish to be."

::
A/N: Well, this chapter came out on time. I'll be in New York for the next three weeks, so that
might really put a hold on updates. But we'll see.
Omake IV: Hero

"It makes so much sense..." Shizune muttered. She stared at the screen in sad understanding and
regretful acceptance. "There were times in later war years that Sakura up and disappeared for days
at a time, not telling anyone where she went or what she did. A daughter... I would've never
imagined..."

Sachiko wrung her hands together.

You're probably wondering why the pictures of me in this box is the first time you've ever seen me.
Ever since you were born and I saw your beautiful face, I knew that I wouldn't be able to see you
grow up.

I'm not... stable.

A lot of things have happened to me in the past and during the war, and when all those things pile
together you get just one big mess. It was a mess I decided not to pass down to you, because you
deserve more than my mistakes. But perhaps I can't just blame my absence in your life to those
variables.

I'm a coward as well.

I love you , dearly, but I'm sorry that you had the misfortune of having me as your mother.

The girl flinched as Shizune's gaze snapped towards her, but stood still as an observing quiet filled
the room. When the woman stood, the stared at the screen for a few moments-- or more
specifically, stared at the old picture of a sixteen year old Haruno Sakura.

"You do have your mother's eyes, Sachiko-san."

"I-I do?"

"Mm. Like brilliant cut emeralds," she sighed. "I'm not sure how much you know about her, but
she played a vital part in the last war. She saved a lot of lives in her day, a definite hero to both
civilian and shinobi alike."

Sachiko ducked her head. The gesture was easily made out to be one of her shyer tendencies, as
Kakashi quickly assumed, but they failed to see that it was more than that. That sickening feeling
of anger had crawled back up her throat and thrown her to see deathly red spikes in her vision.

Hero.

How many times was she going to hear that word?

"Are you going to tell Hokage-sama?"

"Tenzou and I agreed that this wasn't going to be the right time, so we're keeping that bit out. For
now, at least," Kakashi replied, patting Sachiko's head once. "Naruto just took position last year
and Boruto's turning nine. He has a lot on his plate at the moment."

I hope Naruto achieves his dream of becoming Hokage. He, out of everyone else I know, would
best lead the village into a greatness never before seen since the Shodai's time.

It's on the list of things I wanted to see if I didn't die, right under watching you grow up into
someone you yourself are proud of.

"For the time being, though, I'll be her temporary guardian until we smooth things out. Are you
alright with that?" he asked. Sachiko's head snapped up, noticing his kind single-eyed stare, and
nodded.

"That's fine, H-Hatake-san."

She let herself be steered out of the lab after a bidding Shizune a quick goodbye and cast one shy
look at the woman who returned to gazing blankly at the screen. As they re-entered the hospital,
Sachiko was left amazed at the grandeur of the hospital. It was filled with the latest technology
and had staff in all kinds of colorful scrubs.

"Your mother was one of the most talented medic-nin the world had ever known. She was well-
known physician here at the hospital, infamous for her temper and no nonsense attitude at
misbehaving patients. She would've been Hospital Director if she hadn't... So Senju Tsunade kept
the position to this day," Kakashi informed.

It was kind of amazing how she and her mother had such similar interests even if they were
completely different people never able to meet. Her dream always had been to help others. Not so
much the way her grandma was doing at the inn, but like the way nurses do. Maybe doctors, too.

Would her mother be proud of her if she took the same path she did? Or disappointed, because she
hated herself so much that she couldn't bear becoming even the slightest influence on her only
child's life?

Whatever you decide to become or whoever you decide to be, I'll always stand behind you. If you
have a dream, chase it. If you have a goal, succeed.

Don't let anyone tell you any different no matter who it is. Make your life the way you want it.

But there is only one thing I sorely ask you to be.

Sachiko could imagine the smile on her mother's lips.

Happy.

"Hatake Kakashi!" a woman snapped. The sound was especially strong and piercing and followed
by the clack of high heels. "I expected you back days ago and here I find you wandering around
my damn hospital! What do you have to say for yourself?!"

The girl was left in awe as the prettiest blonde-haired woman strode up to them with an irritated
scowl on her red painted lips. Her arms were crossed over her chest, glaring pointedly at the man
who shrunk away from her aura of rage.

"I was... busy?"

"Bullshit."

"Er, Sachiko-san! Why don't you introduce yourself to the lovely Tsunade-sama here?" he asked.
He had both his hands planted on her shoulders as he placed her between himself and the angry
ex-Hokage to whom she stared at with wide eyes.

"H-Hello, ma'am. I'm Sachiko a-and I'll be staying in Konoha from n-now on. It's a pleasure to
meet you, Tsunade-sama!" she greeted with a respectful bow. Tsunade peered down at her with a
raised brow, some of her rage washing away.
"No surname?"

Sachiko cast a questioning glance at Kakashi, and he nodded.

"It's, um, Haruno, ma'am."

The woman stiffened at the obvious implication towards the person she still had a hard time
uttering the name of. But the unease was soon masked with more subdued irritation.

"What a coincidence. I used to have an apprentice with the same name. Didn't think it was too
common around these parts," she said. Sachiko shuffled from foot to foot, her eyes looking at
every spot on the floor.

"My... My mother was your apprentice."

Tsunade narrowed her eyes.

"I've only had two. Kato Shizune and-"

"-Haruno Sakura," Sachiko interrupted quietly. "She was my mother."

Blazing hazel eyes stared her down for a few moments before they were raised to stare at the
jounin.

"I don't appreciate jokes like these, Kakashi," she seethed. He evenly met her gaze as his grip on
Sachiko's shoulders tightened ever so slightly.

"I'd never put her at the brunt of a joke, Tsunade-sama," he said. "See Shizune for confirmation if
you won't believe us, but this... is Sakura's daughter. She'll be my ward for the time being, but I
think it's fair you find you before we decide to tell Sasuke and Naruto."

It was suffice to say that she'd stop listening to Kakashi's tirade once she got a good long look at
the little girl who quivered at the uncomfortable attention. Her hair was cut the same way Sakura's
had been in her teenage years, and was dressed as any normal civilian was.

"...You can't..."

She raised her head.

"... I'm going to finish my rounds in the hospital," Tsunade said. She swept her eyes away from
the two and strode away from them. She didn't say another word as Sachiko ducked her head and
kept it down at the woman passed. Kakashi gave her shoulders a light squeeze.

"She'll come around eventually, so don't worry yourself over it," he assured softly. "Come on. I'll
show you to where you'll be staying."

She let herself be led out back into the village. There were plenty of people out on the streets this
time of day, pumping a tad more anxiety through her veins as she stuck close to Kakashi. Her
small town had never been full of so many people, and the constant noise that surrounded her
made her unconsciously scratch her neck.

"Not taking a liking to the crowds?"

"Y-Yeah."

"I think you'll get used to it with time, but I do live in the quieter parts of Konoha. There aren't as
many people and the ones there will rarely bother you."

Sachiko nodded and continued to look around. Despite the numerous bodies and chatter, the
village was beautiful. The buildings didn't look too old, seemingly built sometime in the last
twenty years, and there were towers that reached the sky behind the Hokage Monument. Seven
faces lined that mountain and the last struck a small chord with her.

Six whiskers and spiked hair.

"Hatake-san, is that Uzumaki Naruto?" she asked as she pointed upwards. Kakashi angled his
head for a moment before looking down at her.

"It is. What do you know of him?"

"I knew that kaa-san loved him," she said, thinking back to everything her mother wrote about the
boy who grew up to be the one Konoha loved the most. "Not really in a romantic k-kind of way,
but she believed in him."

Sachiko looked at her feet.

"Then he killed her."

Kakashi swallowed down his guilt and gently continued guiding her down the path. He pointed
out some of the popular places to eat, the library, grocery stores, clothing stores, and some of the
arcades that a lot of the kids liked going to when they weren't at school.

Sachiko had always prided herself on being one of those rare few gifted with eidetic, or
photographic, memory and had already internally mapped out the streets they walked on. Every
name uttered nestled in a crook of her brain and every detail was painted over her eyes.

She could not forget a thing even if she tried.

And that included her mother's words.

Before he could direct her to the apartment complex he lived in, she stopped and tugged the sleeve
of his navy blue shirt.

"Um... I want to look around for a little bit. To, uh, explore. Can I?" she questioned. Kakashi
observed her for a moment, his stare making her hold the straps of her bag tighter, before he
shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't see why not. It's only natural for you to want to be familiar with your surroundings. Do
you have a phone?"

She reached into her pocket and handed him a rather old modeled flip phone. Her town wasn't
very rich with not very many people, so there wasn't really a need for everyone to have a phone.
Her grandma had only given it to her for emergencies. He quickly punched in what she assumed
was his number, then handed it back.

"I'll pick you up at this spot at around seven. If I don't see you, I'll give you a call," he said with a
crinkle to his eye. She avoided looking at the friendly expression and watched as he disappeared
into thin air. One of those simple shinobi tricks, probably.

But no matter. She didn't ask for the time alone simply so that she could go 'explore' like she told
him. As he was showing her around the village, she saw the signs that pointed to graveyard and
the Fourth Shinobi World War Monument that had been finished nearly ten years ago. Konoha's
grandeur hardly had any weight against what she sought to do.

She was going to finally meet her mother.

Though first, she would go buy momen tofu from the store she passed a block behind her.

Sachiko made her way towards there, clutching her bag to herself and keeping to the edge of the
streets to avoid meeting anyone's eye. What she failed to see was the mother and daughter that
brushed passed her.

Both wore matching glasses, the little girl with black hair and the mother with red, and with
matching uchiwa fan symbols on their backs.

::

Naruto stretched his arms over his head as he made his way to the War Monument. It was part of
his routine to pay his respects at the end of every week, some more so than others, but he still
visited all the same. Sometimes Sasuke would tag along, but sometimes he'd be too caught up with
his family. Especially with his little girl.

'What would Sakura-chan say if she saw us now?'

He wilted at the thought. Sasuke had his family, he had Hinata, Himawari, and Boruto, Kakashi
had some sort of peace, but Sakura was the one who hadn't been able to see what she sorely
wished for. It wasn't fair.

When he stepped into the designated area of the War Monument, he paused and let a wave of guilt
wash over him. All the graves that rested here were the Konoha shinobi that died in the war, and
the great leaf statue that stood in the center, carved from bronze and engraved with every one of
their names, stood as a permanent reminder of all the deaths that could've been avoided if the war
never took place.

Over 2,000 casualties in Konoha alone.

Naruto shook his head and walked by Sai's grave, offering his old friend a smile as he bent down
to clean it. He stopped when he realized the grave was already cleaned and two candles stood
beside it, an offering of momen tofu poised right above his name.

Someone already did it?

But... But he was the only one that came to the site regularly enough.

He got back onto his feet and paced to the actual memorial and curiously looked around for
anyone that might be around. He soon found who he was looking for in the form of a young teen
he'd never seen before.

"Did you come here to visit someone?"

The girl jumped and quickly spun around. She took one look at his face before skittering
backwards and ducking her head so far down that he couldn't catch a glimpse of her face.

"N-Nanadaime-s-sama..." she whispered. Naruto scratched the back of his head. He'd never met
anyone that was even remotely afraid of him, and if he did, it would be some opponent or enemy
he'd faced in the past. He doubted this little girl was one of them.

"Yup, that's me, dattebayo!" he grinned, trying to placate her fear. "Sorry, didn't mean to scare
you. Say... were you the one who cleaned up Sai's grave and gave him his favorite food?"

She nodded reluctantly.

"So how'd you know him? You look kind of young and he passed about two years before the war
ended," he said. He frowned a bit when she curled in on herself even further and shuffled back
some more.

"I... I didn'..."

"Huh?"

"A... A favor... fo-for my... mo-mother..."

A shy thing, wasn't she?

"Oh. Then I guess your mom was part of the war then," he mused. Naruto strode closer to the
bronze leaf memorial and ran his hands down the names of all those lost. "You know, I always
wish that I could've saved more people. I know a lot of people were saved, but so many people
sacrificed themselves to bring peace."

He traced one name burned so far into his memory with a calloused finger.

"But... there was one person I have this hope that she'd one day come back to us. Like she'd never
gone in the first place-- Haruno Sakura-chan. The best damn battle medic, don't tell Baa-chan that,
and one of my closest friends."

Naruto didn't see the way the girl tensed up.

"I regret what happened that day," he told her quietly. "She threw herself in the middle of a fight
to stop it. She saved so many people over the years, I found out a little later. Shinobi, civilians,
everyone. I still don't know why she..."

He sighed.

"That was years ago. But still, Sakura-chan's always gonna be a hero. No matter what."

Naruto turned to ask the stranger a few more questions, but stopped when he felt the anger roll off
her like a punch to the gut. Her hands gripped her shirt almost to the point of tearing, and the quiet
voice she used with him turned into something as piercing as metal scraping bone.

"Why does everyone keep telling me that?" she growled. "Haruno Sakura: the hero. Haruno
Sakura: the savior. Haruno Sakura: the one she died because she loved everyone. I never met
her... How come I've never met her, but I know her better than any of you do?!"

Her head shot up.

"You and Sasuke were her teammates! She believed in you! She believed in both of you! You
became Konoha's Golden Boy and Sasuke was redeemed, but what about her?! What about
Sakura?! Do you still think she did what she did because she loved you?!"

Naruto didn't know what it was that caught him with ice in his stomach; the fact that someone he
never knew was breaking down and accusing him, or the fact that whoever this was had the exact
same eyes of the person he still had nightmares of losing.

"She wasn't a hero-- she needed one!" the girl cried. "She was scared and alone and thought she'd
never be good enough! Why don't you know that?! You thought she sacrificed herself for peace?
She didn't! No one saw she was tired! No one saw she gave up! Everyone thought she was okay
but she wasn't!"

Her cheeks were red with anger and glistening with the unending tears.

"If she was okay, she'd still be here! She'd talk to me! Tell me stories about her life! Tell me how
much she loved me! But now I only get to read those things in the suicide letter she left for me!"

The ice in his stomach crept up to his lungs.

"Why didn't you help her, Naruto?! Why didn't anyone?!" she sobbed. "Now it's because of you
and Sasuke and Kakashi and all those other people who knew her but didn't see what she'd
become!" she shouted. "It's because of you that I never knew my mother!"

She bolted out of the memorial, leaving the Hokage numb and blood pumping mercilessly in his
ears.

"Your... mother...?"

::

Tenten was cleaning the outside of her weapon's shop when she heard quiet sniffling. Curious,
she walked to the shadowed alleyway and saw the girl she met not too long ago sitting on the
ground with her legs to her chest and her head in her knees.

"Sachiko-san?" she asked, placing a hand on the girl's shoulder. "Are you alright?"

Sachiko raised her head a tad to rub her eyes with the cloth of her shirt. It took three seconds for
her to raise her eyes to meet the woman's kind brown ones. It took another three seconds for
Tenten to see that she looked both angry and miserable from whatever prompted her to run away
and take refuge in an alley.

And it took the next five whole seconds to realize Sachiko's eyes were no longer green.

::

To be continued in Omake V: Haruno


Those Who Knew No Better

Warning: Implied self-harm, implied suicide attempt, and implied rape.

Rated M to be safe.

::

The mission had an undefined length of time, but they expected to get back before the Chuunin
Exams began a little under two months away. Sakura wasn't complaining in the slightest and was
almost giddy as she, Ibiki, and Genma spent the first few days since their departure on a high-
speed run towards Wind Country's border. It felt so nice to not keep much of her skill at bay or
have to worry about her friends seeing what she was truly capable of.

She had to thank her lucky stars for having those two around to back her up when she needed
them most. It almost seemed to lessen the weight on her shoulders.

Almost.

They settled down at an inn a day away from Sunagakure where Ibiki and Genma immediately sat
Sakura down to lay out the rules of the mission.

"So for the first two weeks, Morino and I have to meet up with the client. We asked to bring you
along, they said no for security reasons and yadda yadda yadda, so you're stuck in this town for
that whole time," Genma began. He pointed at the cheeky grin that was slowly blooming on her
face. "Don't give me that look. We're laying out six rules that you're going to follow or else we're
kicking your ass all the way back to Konoha. Capiche?"

Sakura stuck her tongue out, causing Ibiki to roll his eyes as he explained the first rule.

"Rule One: No drugs. That means no sleeping pills, no chakra enhancers, no blood pills, no
soldier pills, or any stuff of that kind. If I have even the slightest suspicion that you used any when
we get back, I'm taking you to the nearest clinic to have you tested."

"Rule Two: No fights no matter how much the other side deserves it," Genma said. He cocked his
head after thinking for a few seconds. "Unless you really can't help it. But you better win or I'm
having Anko double your training when we get back."

"Rule Three: No dealings with strangers. No side missions, no suspicious items, and no plotting to
do something stupid. I think you've met your quota for that for the time being," Ibiki told her. She
raised an eyebrow and he returned it with the 'I'm watching you' gesture. The senbon-wielding
shinobi crossed his arms and went on with the next one.

"Rule Four: Don't break the law under any circumstances," he order. He then lowered his voice
and scooted a little closer to her. "If you don't get caught, it's not illegal."

Ibiki smacked him upside the head.

"Rule Five: No quarrels with other nations," he continued, uncaring of the pout Genma gave him.
"And I mean it. Konoha doesn't need another war."

Sakura looked positively offended.

"What am I, a criminal?"
"Close enough to one. Now shut up, we're not done with the list."

"And last but not least, Rule Six: Don't leave the town! Which we all know you're probably going
to do anyway, but at least be here when we get back and we won't ask any questions," Genma
finished. "Seriously though, stay safe. Successful missions technically require you to be alive."

She mock saluted them.

"Don't get in trouble, mind my own business, and don't die. I think I got it," she said. Her sensei
took their unpacked bags and opened the do